“If a superhero can’t save his family, he’s not much of a hero after all.” Shazam! (2019)

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The entirety of the superhero film genre deals with issues of identity and family and belonging. The best entries – Superman, Dick Tracy, Iron Man, The Dark Knight, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Wonder Woman, Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Versetransport us to escapist realms while metaphorically helping reconcile the harsh reality of our daily lives vs. our wish fulfillment fantasy to champion all underdogs and right all wrongs. This disconnect between the inner child who still feels all things are possible and the jaded adult who fears the best of life has passed one by keeps us spinning the wheel at the superhero box office in the hopes of finding our ultimate champion on the silver screen.

And Shazam! comes pretty damn close.

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Based on the classic Fawcett Comics character Captain Marvel, Shazam was  acquired by DC Comics in a copyright dispute in the 1950s over the character’s (overstated) similarities to Superman. DC, ironically in turn, lost the rights to use the name (but not the character) “Captain Marvel” to Marvel Comics in the 1970s, and Marvel’s version of “Captain Marvel” had her cinematic debut one month ago. Consequently, DC’s “Captain Marvel” now goes by “Shazam,” which in actuality is the magic word young Billy Batson exclaims to become “The Big Red Cheese” Captain Marvel (but we can’t actually call him “Captain Marvel” any more). Clear as mud? Thanks a lot, intellectual property laws. (It’s all explained much better and in much more detail here.)

None of this matters one whit to your ultimate enjoyment of David F. Sandberg’s film treatment of Shazam (which was also a corny Saturday morning Filmation live action series in the 1970s and a Republic serial in the 1940s). For the casual film-goer, the more relevant comparison is to Tom Hanks’ classic comedy Big as a wish fulfillment fantasy of a little boy lost who assumes adulthood (and superpowers) will solve all his real-life problems (spoiler alert: they don’t). Shazam even offers an onscreen nod to Big’s FAO Schwartz super-sized floor piano keyboard duet.

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Asher Angel (think young Zac Efron, but a bit less precious) plays foster kid Billy Batson, ever on the hunt for the birth mother he lost years ago at a winter carnival and who mysteriously never reclaimed her son. Batson bounces from group home to group home until he lands at the beautifully blended foster home of Rosa and Victor Vasquez (warm and earthy Marta Milans and Cooper Andrews). Overeager and lonely foster brother Freddy Freeman (It‘s Jack Dylan Grazer in a dynamite and heartbreaking turn) introduces Billy to the nerdy joys of super hero trivia, and, before we know it, flash-bam-boom!, Billy finds himself one subway stop away from the magical “Rock of Eternity,” imbued with magical abilities by an ancient wizard (an almost unrecognizable Djimon Hounsou).

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When Billy shouts “Shazam!” (acronym of Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury and the respective abilities of each), the young boy transforms into 6’3″ Zachary Levi (Chuck, Tangled, She Loves Me) whose sitcom/musical comedy ethos paired with a physique that now seems to have muscles-on-top-of-muscles makes him the perfect choice for this whimsical hero.

The film is saddled, as are most comic book adaptations alas, with a “take over the world” megalomaniac antagonist. This time, Mark Strong plays Dr. Sivana, and, in his typical glowering skinny/tall-British-Stanley-Tucci-with-dodgy-dental-work-way, Strong meanders about the film, saying vaguely apocalyptic things and shooting energy bolts from his hands. He’s completely unnecessary.

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Thematically, Strong’s primary contribution seems to be to further the film’s exploration of family lost and family gained. Sivana’s father is a Lex Luthor-esque SOB, played by the go-to actor for Lex-Luthor-esque SOBs John Glover (Gremlins 2, Smallville … where, in fact, he played Lex Luthor’s dad) whose brutal parenting style predictably turns his little lad into a grade-A psychopath.

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Shazam! works best when the film turns its gaze toward the adorable band of misfits in Billy’s foster home. The child actors are loving, lovable, believable, and kind. The challenges Billy endures embracing his new home and relinquishing his dream of reuniting with his birth mother are poignant and accessible and juxtapose nicely with the comic farce of him learning to be a proper super hero. Levi is an utter delight playing a 14-year-old boy in an (overgrown) man’s body, attempting superheroics when all he really wants to do is gobble junk food and play video games. At one point, Batson in his superhero persona observes, “If a superhero can’t save his family, he’s not much of a hero after all.” Amen to that. Amen to that.

 

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Thanks to my boss Susan and coworker Megan for this! #wishfulfillment

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“I have nothing to prove to you.” Captain Marvel

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Marvel Studios’ latest offering Captain Marvel is a welcome addition to the cinematic superhero pantheon. The film is more quietly groundbreaking than, say, Wonder Woman or Black Panther because Oscar winner Brie Larson’s Carol Danvers simply belongs at the table, without apology or explanation. Perhaps we’ve turned a corner … at least where these movies are concerned. Now, if only the rest of the world would follow suit.

And if only Captain Marvel had been a bit more interesting.

As a film, Captain Marvel is entertaining and pleasant and altogether unremarkable. It feels like an extended episode of ABC’s Agents of SHIELD, replete with a de-aged Samuel L. Jackson as Agent Nick Fury and a similarly CGI’d Clark Gregg as Fury’s sidekick Phil Coulson. The film takes place waaaay back in 1995 (when did that year become retro? it still feels like yesterday), hence the Industrial Light and Magic cinematic plastic surgery on Jackson and Gregg. The effect isn’t as creepy as it once was (see: Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in X-Men: The Last Stand …. ayiiiii!), although both of Jackson’s and Gregg’s faces do look a bit like shiny ice rinks, and Gregg resembles a dour Gene Kelly now more than ever.

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Directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck cram in a handful of too-cute-by-half visual references to icons of the era, like Blockbuster Video stores, pay phones, and NIN (Nine Inch Nails) tee-shirts. There’s Goose, an adorable cat who is actually an alien in disguise and who easily could have been a running joke in Men In Black. And the soundtrack is loaded with hits from the flannel and grunge era – Garbage! Hole! Elastica! Des’ree! TLC! Ya gotta be … chasin’ waterfaaaaallls.

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Unlike Bumblebee, which invoked a bygone era to add color and context, Captain Marvel‘s filmmakers treat the setting as both novelty and afterthought. The 90s environs just feel kinda “meh.” Taking viewers back nearly 25 years seems designed chiefly as a means of allowing Marvel to retcon their universe and to correct one of their rare tone-deaf choices: that is, not featuring a strong woman lead until 21 (!) films into their Marvel Studios’ storied run.

All of that said, Captain Marvel does succeed in introducing a smart and interesting hero into the Marvel Universe. On this International Women’s Day weekend, it’s also canny marketing. As Larson’s Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel states plainly to her honey-colored alpha male mentor / anti-hero Yon-Rogg (an effectively smarmy/charming Jude Law), “I have nothing to prove to you” (right before blasting him into the side of a mountain in their climactic battle).

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The supporting cast is populated with a galaxy of solid character players from Annette Bening as Danvers’ former (and current) boss (it makes sense when you see the flick) to Ben Mendelsohn as a disarmingly funny frog-like alien (with an inexplicable Australian accent) to  Lashana Lynch as Carol’s long-suffering bestie.

Captain Marvel is fun and forgettable, and it’s greatest legacy may be that it delivers its ass-kicking star with a shrug … like, why is this a big deal in 2019 to have a blockbuster comic book movie with a woman in the leading role?

“No need to whine, boy./Like a wind up toy, you stutter at my feet.” – Elastica, “Stutter.”

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Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital).

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“I’m a blunt instrument, and I’m damn good at it.” Mary Poppins Returns, Bumblebee, and Aquaman

For the past few years now, Disney and Lucasfilm have had a lock on the holiday blockbuster season with a little, revived franchise named Star Wars. Alas, the wheels fell of that wagon when the underrated, under-performing origin story Solo debuted in theatres this May with a thud, and there was no end-of-year galactic adventure to follow.

Into this December’s “let’s thumb our noses at Oscar bait” box office breach rushed Warner Brothers’/DC’s Aquaman, Paramount’s Transformers prequel Bumblebee, and Disney’s own Mary Poppins Returns. By some strange twist of fate, the fish king roundly beat the giant robot and the buttoned-up British nanny in ticket sales in their collective first weekend of release.

I am certain that all of these popcorn epics will clean up, though, in the gray and dreary vacation days following Christmas, as they each bring a great deal of heart, just enough ingenuity, and a comforting if lightly derivative familiarity.

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“Still. Today or never. That’s my motto.” – Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) in Mary Poppins Returns

Mary Poppins Returns is, yes, practically perfect. Predictable and formulaic? Mayhaps. But it doesn’t matter. You’ll laugh and cry, occasionally scratch your head … at times all three simultaneously. You’ll love it nonetheless … in great part due to Emily Blunt’s bonkers, measured, heartfelt commitment to the title role.

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Not dissimilar to Disney’s decades-later reboot Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Mary Poppins Returns feels like a subtle remix on the original film’s greatest hits.

The screenplay by David Magee dutifully follows the same story beats as Julie Andrews’ flick – for example:

  • a crabby dad (little Michael Banks, portrayed poignantly by Ben Whishaw, all grown-up and repeating the sins of his father, but in a mopey/angsty widower way);

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  • a politically woke sister (Emily Mortimer’s Jane Banks, the sunniest class warrior you’ll ever see, taking the place of Glynis Johns’ suffragette Mrs. Banks);
  • some lost soul children who need to rediscover the joys of imagination;
  • a no-good banker (Colin Firth, all sleazy charm as nothing says holiday kids movie like the threat of foreclosure!);

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  • a winking-wise lamplighter instead of a chimney sweep (Lin-Manuel Miranda being slightly less insufferable and overeager than usual … and, yes, he raps, sort of … once);
  • and a finale that swaps out balloons for kites, and throws in Angela Lansbury for good measure … in case you’d forgotten about Mary Poppins‘ knock-off Bedknobs and Broomsticks.

The score by Marc Shaiman (Hairspray) is perfectly fine, but follows a similar path as the script, presenting new numbers that evoke the overly familiar tunes of yore and serving similar narrative purposes. “Spoonful of Sugar” becomes “Can You Imagine That?” to get the ornery kids to embrace bathtime. “A Cover is Not the Book” (the best number in the new film) is an animated fantasia a la “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” is an ode to the unappreciated lamplighters (who even do some BMX- style bicycle tricks?!?), not unlike “Step in Time.” And so on.

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Rob Marshall’s direction (Into the WoodsNineChicago) is effective, if workmanlike, evoking the past film through iconography, color palette, choreography, and overall composition. Mary Poppins Returns doesn’t wow as much as it sedates the viewer, and the film never quite escapes the physical confines of the sound-stages upon which it was obviously filmed.

In the end, though, this is Blunt’s show, and she is an absolute pip. I could watch her read the phone book as Mary Poppins, with a knowing glance here, an arched eyebrow there, and a master plan to make all of us decent again. And that is why we all need a movie (and a damn nanny) like Mary Poppins Returns.

“The darkest nights produce the brightest stars.” – Memo (Jorge Lendeborg, Jr.) in Bumblebee

If you’d told me the tone-deaf, garish, migraine-inducing, jingoistic Transformers film franchise would eventually yield one of the sweetest, warmest, funniest, family-friendliest “girl-and-her-[robot]-dog” coming-of-age yarns since, say, the Paddington movies, I’d have sold you my vintage Hasbro figures for $1. But here we are. Bumblebee, the sixth (!) installment in this series, jettisons director Michael Bay (praise be!), adds nuanced and charming leading lady Hailee Steinfeld, and delivers a lovely cinematic homage to simpler sci-fi allegories of the Spielbergian 80s.

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Travis Knight, Oscar-nominated director of Kubo and the Two Strings, picks up the reins from Bay, working from an almost pastoral (!) script by Christina Hodson that wisely puts human/robot emotion and familial interaction before special effects and mind-numbing battle sequences (although there are still about two or three too many of those).

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Borrowing liberally from producer Steven Spielberg’s own E.T. (and at this point, that’s just fine), the plot relates Autobot warrior Bumblebee’s arrival on earth, circa 1987. Within moments, the big, yellow, bug-eyed ‘bot finds himself used and abused by the American military (sparkling John Cena, wryly channeling every “shoot first, ask later” cinematic armed forces cliche). Bumblebee is eventually, inadvertently rescued from a junkyard by a plucky, sweet teenage girl Charlie Watson (Steinfeld) looking to rediscover the love of her deceased father at the bottom of a bin of used auto parts. Unsung Pamela Adlon is harried brilliance as Charlie’s befuddled and exasperated mother Sally.

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Steinfeld is still coasting a bit on her stellar Edge of Seventeen performance as a misunderstood adolescent with a dazzling heart of gold buried under a sullen, surly, glowering pout. I guess this is her niche, for now, and it works to great effect in Bumblebee as well.

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Two broken souls – in this case pubescent and robotic – heal one another by giving voice to the underdog and by waving a Breakfast Club fist in the face of institutional repression. I dug it. And the exquisitely curated soundtrack of late FM 80s hits adds an unexpected and refreshing layer of musical-comedy-esque commentary to a movie about giant robots taking over our planet.

“I’m a blunt instrument and I’m damn good at it.” Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) in Aquaman

I enjoyed Aquaman a lot, but could have used about 30 minutes less of blurry aquatic battles and about ten minutes more of authentic wit. Nonetheless, this is a visually stunning film that never takes itself too seriously and with the wisdom to assemble a world-class cast. Throw The Once and Future King, Black Panther, Tron, Flash Gordon, Jewel of the Nile, Krull, Thor, Big Trouble in Little China, Hamlet, and Lord of the Rings into a Mad Libs blender and you yield this wonderfully loony pic.

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Momoa is nothing but utterly charming in interviews. A great actor? Meh. But a star? Absolutely. That said, he looks great, but I couldn’t help feeling like some of his best lines likely landed on the cutting room floor to make way for more CGI soldiers riding giant seahorses. That’s a shame. The best parts of this film are the human parts. Nicole Kidman deserves a medal for making the Splash-meets-Terminator opening sequence of her Atlantean queen meeting cute with a Maine lighthouse keeper (Temuera Morrison), playing house, and popping out a half-breed sea-prince baby not only palatable, but poignant and downright thrilling.

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Taken at a superficial level, the plot is almost identical to Black Panther‘s. Two beefy men square off to rule a hidden, technologically advanced kingdom with the “bad guy” claiming his rule will right the wrongs of the outside world (in Black Panther, it was racial divide, and, in Aquaman it is pollution and global warming). Black Panther has more nuance in its conflict and thereby the stakes are higher.

Aquaman telegraphs its punches, so it is quite obvious from the minute Aquaman’s/Arthur Curry’s half-brother Orm (a dolphin-sleek Patrick Wilson) enters the screen that he is basically a nogoodnik, regardless his sweet speeches about keeping the seven seas free of man-made detritus. He’d like to buy the world a Coke, as long as you keep the plastic six-rings, than you very much. But, with Aquaman, the fun is in the journey, not necessarily the destination. And Wilson is terrific, by the way.

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Director James Wan (Furious 7, Insidious) takes his sweet time getting us to Arthur’s inevitable victory over and acceptance by both land and sea. The visuals are sumptuous, even if the running time is gluttonous. There are moments of true wonder – any time Momoa communes with the creatures of the deep, for instance – and, on the balance, the film is a joy for those who have hoped DC could really start having fun with their characters.

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The pitch perfect Wonder Woman seems less like an anomaly now and more like the beginning of a new, humane, inclusive direction for DC’s movies. I’ll consider my 2.5 hours watching Aquaman an investment in that future.

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So, in 2018, we traded one time-worn, bloated Star Wars entry for three heartfelt, loving, and, at times, inspiring homages to other past fantasy hits. I think that’s a decent, if safely unimaginative, return.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital).

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“It’s like a pirate had a baby with an angel.” Avengers: Infinity War

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Marvel. I love you. Disney. I love you. I’ve got nerd cred. I’ve been reading comic books for nearly 40 years. I have piles of them squirreled away all over our house. I have a small army of action figures that, if I had any sense about me, I’d put in boxes and not display everywhere like I’m a character from Big Bang Theory.

So, please, my fellow fan-kids, don’t lose your collective minds when I say Avengers: Infinity War is kind of a big ol’ meh.

I’ve got people already on my Facebook page arguing a) we’ve waited 10 years for THIS so it MUST be AMAZING; b) if Lord of the Rings is long and boring but was made for the geeks, then this can be just as episodic and ponderous too; c) Roy, you just don’t GET it … Empire Strikes Back was dark and sad so this is a logical step in the Marvel narrative.

Folks, my critique of this film is not with the source material, and if I – a 45-year-old man who carries a well-worn velcro wallet which I bought at Hot Topic (!)  and which is festooned with ALL the Marvel characters – feel letdown by the film, it is NOT a personal slight to you.

I don’t envy Infinity War directors The Russo Brothers who had to follow the zippy bottle rocket that was Black Panther, a film which successfully balanced the hyper-detailed mythology which those of us far too immersed in comic book lore desire with a sharp, cinematic storytelling that enveloped general audiences in an inspiring and evocative new world.

On the whole, the Russos do a great job in Infinity War of balancing far too many personalities. I can only imagine the war room they set up to figure out which spandex-clad beings would show up where and at what time and how many lines they did or didn’t receive (let alone then wrangling the egos of actors portraying said superheroes). This is no Batman & Robin debacle, nor is it a Watchmen-level slog or a Batman v. Superman cluster.

About 80% of Infinity War is transfixing and, well, fun. It is episodic to a fault, but the characters are drawn consistently from their respective franchises without any jarring beats, and there is a kicky joy to seeing Tom Holland’s delightfully irreverent Spider-Man lost in space or watching Chris Hemsworth’s Thor team up with Bradley Cooper-voiced Rocket Raccoon. Hemsworth’s God of Thunder is by far the brightest spot in the film; Dave Bautista’s Drax has one of the flick’s funnier lines when he opines that Thor “looks like a pirate had a baby with an angel.”

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Pretty much everyone from the Black Panther cast fares well also, bringing some much needed buoyancy and energy to the film’s saggy late-middle section. All the returning Avengers play to their strengths as best they can in an overcrowded film. Robert Downey, Jr. (Iron Man) is still so Robert Downey, Jr. Chris Evans is stoic and warm and rather square as Captain America. Mark Ruffalo is pleasantly fussy as Bruce Banner (The Hulk). Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow) and Elizabeth Olsen (Scarlet Witch) are pros so they make the most from underwritten roles that mostly require them to look worried and wave their arms around periodically. And so on.

At the heart of the film is a very interesting and thoughtful dynamic between “big bad” Thanos (a surprisingly nuanced motion capture performance from Josh Brolin) and his adopted daughters Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan). Thanos’ villainous motivation (not dissimilar from Killmonger’s in Black Panther) is that society is incapable of caring for itself and that, with resources as finite as they are, the best solution is simply to slaughter half the population of the universe. Okey dokey. His daughters – who tend to hang out with the heroic Guardians of the Galaxy – aren’t down with that, and their familial tension, in a nod toward King Lear, gives the film a much-needed narrative grounding.

However, ultimately, the Russos have far too many moving parts to address, let alone future franchises to set up, so the dysfunctional Thanos family reunion gets overshadowed quickly. I won’t spoil any surprises (to be honest, there aren’t as many surprises as pre-release marketing would have you believe), but there is a substantial and gutting moment between Thanos and Gamora around the mid-way mark. The scene works so well, in an almost Dickensian fashion (think the sadder, creepier parts of A Christmas Carol), due to Brolin’s and Saldana’s performances. Saldana particularly breaks your heart. As an audience member, I was invested.

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Yet, a final act then follows that piles up the body count (not a spoiler – I’m not saying who) and just as quickly establishes a mechanism where all that mayhem could be undone (not a spoiler – I’m not saying how). I, personally, felt emotionally cheated. The film ends with a fairly dispassionate and obtuse note, and we are left wondering “what next?” Unlike, say Empire Strikes Back which concludes with a Saturday matinee cliffhanger as somber as can be (“will we see Han again? where is Luke’s hand? who’s his daddy really?”), we already basically know the outcomes in Infinity War will be reversed. It feels like a bait and switch. I didn’t like it when Superman “died” in Batman v. Superman, and I don’t much care for it here, even though Infinity War is The Godfather compared to anything DC has released.

(By the way, I’m tired of everyone now saying a bleak middle chapter with a non-ending in a genre film series has a raison d’etre just because of the role The Empire Strikes Back plays in the original Star Wars trilogy. So there.)

I apologize for my rant. I apologize for my indulgences with this “review.” Infinity War is not a bad film. In fact, it’s an interesting exercise in corporate synergy that is far more artistic than it might have been in other hands in another era. I enjoyed so many moments in the film, but, ultimately it doesn’t hang together in the compelling, capstone tapestry I’d hoped it would. Like Drax’s description of Thor, this movie is a bit like a “pirate has had a baby with an angel” – trying to accomplish too much (crowd-pleaser, merchandise machine, epic denouement to a decade of pretty damn great movies) with a whole lot of heart but just not quite enough substance. This movie left me exhausted.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital).

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language

“In times of crisis, the wise build bridges, while the foolish build walls.” Marvel’s Black Panther

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Wow. I think we are truly in a Golden Age of superhero cinema, wherein technology and talent and investment have converged to create engaging spectacles that not only sell a sh*t-ton of action figures but, y’know, have something to say.

Wonder Woman. Logan. Captain America: Winter Soldier. Spider-Man: Homecoming. Thor: Ragnarok. Deadpool.

And, now, arguably the best of them all: Marvel’s/Disney’s Black Panther.

Classic comic book creators like Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore long ago tapped into the allegorical power of superheroes as a lens to assess our present reality and to give us hope … or a dose of hard medicine.

It took Tinseltown decades – with a number of promising starts and soul-crushing stops – to wake up to the fact that, while, yes, these movies cost a lot of money, they will make a lot more if they aren’t dumbed down and focus-grouped past all recognition. Give us relatable figures in a heightened environment, thereby offering commentary and guidance on surviving this tumultuous human condition.

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Think Shakespeare … with capes … and slightly easier to follow. Or Aesop’s Fables … in Spandex. The messages in these films are essential and timely and healing, but, even more importantly (and perhaps sadly so), these messages are making money, which is, alas, the only language that sometimes brings actual change in this country. Nonetheless, I’ll take it.

Black Panther is a superhero fable our stormy times need. If Wonder Woman helped soothe hearts broken over Hillary Clinton’s defeat – anticipating the #MeToo and #TimesUp movement – in an escapist adventure celebrating the strength and power of women, Black Panther offers a fist-raising rallying cry for those in pain over the institutional racism and politicized xenophobia which always existed but has come roaring to the fore since November 2016.

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Imagine an African nation, with limitless natural resources, that developed, unmolested by Western colonization, to its truest societal, cultural, intellectual, industrial, and technological potential. This is Wakanda, the fictional setting of the latest offering from Marvel Studios.

Directed with verve and sensitivity by Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed) from his own screenplay, Black Panther takes a smidge of Hamlet, a bit of Richard III, maybe some Henry IV, a lot of Alex Haley, some Suzan-Lori Parks and James Baldwin, with a sprinkling of Disney’s own The Lion King and throws it all in a blender, yielding magic.

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Prince T’Challa (a haunted and haunting Chadwick Boseman with enough leonine presence to command the screen and enough emotional uncertainty to allow us all to project our own anxieties and dreams onto him) returns to a kingdom in turmoil after the assassination of his father.

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His mother Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett who really just has to be Angela Bassett here … her and her cheekbones … and that’s just fine) is preparing for her son’s coronation. T’Challa’s sister and Wakanda’s tech wizard Shuri (a gleefully scene-stealing Letitia Wright) impishly ensures her brother’s swaggering male ego doesn’t run off the rails. T’Challa is challenged for the throne, first by competing tribal leader M’Baku (an imposing yet delightfully comic turn by Winston Duke) and later by interloping American Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (a beautifully nuanced Michael B. Jordan).

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I won’t spoil some fairly significant “palace intrigue” twists, but suffice it say Jordan delivers one of Marvel’s strongest villains to date (watch out Cate Blanchett’s “Hela” and Ian McKellen’s/Michael Fassbender’s “Magneto“). This isn’t your standard-issue “I’m going to take over the WORLD” baddie.

Nope, Killmonger is a disruptive demogogue whose power-to-the-people shtick is motivated by anger and frustration that Wakandan isolationism has deprived generations of displaced African descendants the resources and aid that would have transformed their lives and leveled the playing field. Who’s the villain, and who’s the hero here? Pretty heady stuff for a superhero fantasy, and  Jordan doesn’t miss a beat.

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Coogler wisely frames the film with sequences set in Oakland, California, depicting the hardscrabble conditions facing too many African-Americans today.  (People vs. OJ Simpson’s Sterling K. Brown puts in a brief but effective, narratively significant appearance here.) The juxtaposition of our reality with the “Emerald City”-escapist beauty of Wakanda is sobering and revelatory.

Reflecting on a hard lesson learned through soul-crushing circumstances, Boseman’s T’Challa observes in the film’s final scene (before the United Nations, no less): “In times of crisis, the wise build bridges, while the foolish build walls.” (Yeah, tell me that isn’t some overt shade-throwing to our present administration. Swoon!)

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We also have damn fine character turns by Danai Gurira as Okoye, the chrome-domed head of Wakanda’s all-female army Dora Milaje, and by Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia, first and foremost Wakanda’s chief foreign intelligence agent and only secondarily T’Challa’s on-again-off-again love interest. The women are anything but damsels-in-distress in this flick; they are a**-kicking-take-names-later warriors who more than hold their own onscreen with our titular hero.

Martin Freeman is a twitchy, breezy delight as government handler Everett K. Ross, and Andy Serkis is great, scenery-chewing fun as sonically-super-powered smuggler Ulysses Klaue. Even Forest Whitaker as Wakandan elder Zuri with the same old tired, hammy, pontificating performance which he always delivers can’t bring this intoxicating wild ride to a screeching halt.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

It’s a Marvel movie, so, yes, there are spaceships and car chases and explosions aplenty, nail-biting races-against-the-clock, and more references to fictitious ore “Vibranium” than you could shake a graphic novel at. The design-work in this film is beyond extraordinary, importing Jack Kirby’s original comic book concepts but infusing them with an African authenticity and a breath-taking, jewel-toned aesthetic. But Coogler knows that none of that matters a damn if we aren’t invested in character, plot, and message. This is a remarkable film.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

It’s time for change. For women. For people of color. For the LGBTQ community. For those of us growing older. For the differently-abled. For humanity. Between seeing this film this weekend, and watching those beautiful and brave teenagers from Parkland, Florida, publicly calling out the complacency, corruption, and culpability in our national leaders, I – for the first time in a while – have (a glimmer of) hope.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital).

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Thank you to sweet friend Victoria Nampiima, an upcoming Ugandan fashion designer, for sending these beautiful threads this week!

“I can do this all day!” Captain America: Civil War

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Marvel’s latest offering Captain America: Civil War made me a bit cranky. The film is perfectly fine – good-to-great, in fact. So, why do I feel bowed and broken by the 2.5 hour superhero slugfest?

Returning to this fan-favorite character – after their exceptional work raising the genre to dizzying, political potboiling heights with Captain America: The Winter Soldier director brothers Anthony and Joe Russo now take on the unenviable task of adapting a year-long Marvel Comics event (2006’s Civil War) that encompassed hundreds of characters and decades of lore and centered on a contentious feud between Captain America and Iron Man over the very civil liberties that are sliding off the rails in the present-day 2016 presidential election.

Importing this plot, that benefited extensively from comic readers’ knowledge of Marvel Comics’ 50+ years of canon, into a popcorn blockbuster cinematic universe still in its infancy is no mean feat.

More or less, the Russos succeed brilliantly. The directors deftly juggle a baker’s dozen of colorfully clad Avengers, throwing some new ones into the mix (Marvel has to set up Phase 27 of this merchandising empire, naturally!), yet somehow still retaining focus on the character (Chris Evans’ Captain America) around whom the film ostensibly revolves.

Thank heavens for THREE factors which prevent the enterprise from becoming the kind of overpopulated, unholy, confusing movie slog we tend to associate with Marvel’s Distinguished Competition: 1) the Russos balance their reverence for the comics source material with a surgical ability to excise the nerd-centric minutiae, capturing the essence of this allegorical battle for the soul of America; 2) the filmmakers smartly realize Captain America works well onscreen as a sweet-natured, noble everyman whose motivation will always be, first and foremost, that of a 98-pound weakling out-of-touch with the ways of the modern world yet not giving one damn if his desire to put down bullies of every stripe sets him at odds with current mores; and 3) Chris Evans.

Yes, Robert Downey, Jr.’s motormouth Tony Stark (Iron Man), whose oily hustle as a Tin Woodman on steroids is all sparkle and no soul, slapped the verve into the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the first place. (He is dynamite, and, while his rust is starting to show, it plays well through that character’s arc as the cynical pragmatist of The Avengers.) However, my money for the heart and soul of these films is and always will be on Evans’ Captain America.

The best bits of the extended Marvel television universe (Agent Carter, later seasons of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) took root in the Captain America films, and the strongest humor and the most heart-tugging pathos have always centered around the character. Captain America: The First Avenger is as kind, humane, and inspiring a film as Marvel has produced, and Winter Soldier was a crackling spin on America’s obsession with a stalwart greatness we’ve never actually possessed.

So why am I a bit crabby this afternoon after viewing Civil War? Maybe it’s just because the pollen count is woefully high here in Michigan. Or the fact that summer is suddenly barreling down upon us, with the idea of five months of yard work less-than-thrilling.

It’s certainly not because there are any issues with Civil War‘s cast, a collection of champs as fine as they come: Scarlett Johansson (bringing Black Widow new levels of compelling internal conflict), Sebastian Stan (a haunted, hulking Winter Soldier), Anthony Mackie (his gleaming loyalty cut with a sly anxiety as Falcon), Jeremy Renner (a world-weary Hawkeye), Don Cheadle (a world-wearier War Machine), Paul Bettany (with a nice touch of metallic angst as The Vision), Paul Rudd (welcome comic relief as Ant-Man), Elizabeth Olsen (dodgy Slavic accent notwithstanding as the tortured Scarlet Witch), newcomers Chadwick Boseman and Tom Holland (a glowering, intense Black Panther and a cagey yet-wheeling Spider-Man respectively) and a whole busload of “non-supers” caught in (or causing) the cross-fire (William Hurt, Emily VanCamp, Martin Freeman, Daniel Bruhl, John Slattery, Alfre Woodward, Marisa Tomei, Hope Davis).

There is not one false note among them – which is remarkable given that many of these pros receive mere minutes (if not seconds) of screen time. They all make the most of every moment, neither chewing the scenery nor fading into the background amidst all the pyrotechnics. That is a testament as much to the Russos’ direction as it is to the respective actors’ abilities.

I guess I’m a bit sour because the Marvel Cinematic Universe has started to feel like all work, no play. (And we know what effect that had on Jack Nicholson in The Shining. Not good.) The early films were rife with a joy of discovery and a whimsy that is starting to dissipate around the edges. The evolution of this vast Marvel machinery – all the cogs and spokes and wheels and widgets from the movies to the ABC shows to the NetFlix series to the tie-in books and cartoons and merchandise – is a wonder to behold but can also seem stiflingly corporate. It’s become terribly self-serious, all gravity, no air – each Marvel film trailer now peppered with phrases like “nothing will ever be the same,” “forget everything you know,” “this is the moment everything changes.”

The unrelenting bigness seems antithetical to the “little guy taking on the world” joie de vivre that makes Captain America such a special and uniquely American creation. As Evans’ Cap often declares in these films, to comic effect under the most dire of circumstances, “I can do this all day!” Unfortunately, where the Marvel empire is concerned, that sounds like more of a menacing declaration of war than a scrappy assertion of hope.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.  My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.