SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 13 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sci-Fi Action Violence, some Language and brief Suggestive Comments

Directed by: Jon Watts

Written by: Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley, Jon Watts, Christopher Ford, Chris McKenna & Erik Sommers

(based on the SPIDER-MAN comics by Stan Lee & Steve Ditko)

Starring: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Jon Favreau, Zendaya, Donald Glover, Tyne Daly, Marisa Tomei, Robert Downey Jr., Jacob Batalon, Laura Harrier & Tony Revolori

After years of battling for the rights and fans craving Spider-Man’s inclusion in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Sony and Marvel finally teamed up to deliver (at least) two SPIDER-MAN movies set within the MCU. The web-slinging superhero’s introduction was a highlight in last year’s CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR and I was hoping that Marvel might deliver a (second) SPIDER-MAN reboot that could actually work. While SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING is a fun, light-hearted piece of superhero fluff and wisely doesn’t retread origin material that’s been done twice over, this sixteenth movie in the MCU isn’t quite up to the level of its competition.

After aiding Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) in fighting Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland) is anxiously awaiting his next official mission with the Avengers. However, school comes first and Parker finds himself dealing with the angst that plagues most teenagers. Eager to prove himself to Iron Man, Spider-Man jumps at the chance to take down new high-tech supervillain Vulture. Things get complicated though as this adolescent Avenger seems to be out of his league against Vulture and is running on thin ice with Tony Stark…and there’s also the upcoming Homecoming dance. What’s a teenage superhero to do?

In its second phase and during its third phase, Marvel Studios seems more willing to take risks and mix different genres with the typical superhero formula. For example, WINTER SOLDIER was a fantastic conspiracy thriller with a superhero, both GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY films were space operas with superheroes, DOCTOR STRANGE was a mind-bending fantasy with a superhero, and ANT-MAN was a heist-comedy with a superhero. SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING is very much a coming-of-age tale…with a superhero. Sometimes, this works, but other times it feels overly familiar and doesn’t nearly seem as exciting or fun as it should be.

This might be fatigue from seeing two other incarnations of SPIDER-MAN within the span of 10 years, but I blame most of this film’s problems on overused tropes (from both the superhero and coming-of-age genres). None of the fault falls on the shoulders of Tom Holland, who’s playing the youngest version of Peter Parker that we’ve seen yet and convincingly brings the ambitious do-gooder, smart-ass side of Spidey to the screen. Though I still hold a soft spot in my heart for Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man and I thought that Andrew Garfield drastically improved his performance in his second outing as the crime-fighting wall-crawler, Holland just might give Maguire a run for his money in future films (as the character grows up and the stories evolve).

On the supporting side of things, Jacob Batalon earns a lot of laughs as Peter’s geeky best friend Ned. Zendaya is half-heartedly thrown aside as Peter’s bland love interest. Even worse than the unbelievably forced romantic angle is Tony Revolori being miscast as Flash. Instead of a jock bully who wants to beat Peter’s brains in, Flash has been made over into a pompous, rich kid, “king of the nerds” type of tormentor and it simply doesn’t work. Hannibal Buress and Martin Starr make appearances as Peter’s naïve teachers, while Marisa Tomei is fun as Aunt May. Also, it’s impossible not to enjoy watching Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, even though he only gets about fifteen minutes of screen time.

HOMECOMING’s best quality comes in Michael Keaton’s Vulture. Instead of being your typical supervillain, Vulture’s motivation is sympathetic and his progression of evil has a moral compass. These character traits make Keaton’s baddie into one of the most interesting Marvel villains we’ve received thus far, even if his first action scene with Spider-Man is ruined by incoherent quick editing and shaky cam. The rest of the encounters are fun to watch, especially a conversation between the two of them in a car. Also, a mid-credits scene reveals yet another moment that make Keaton’s Vulture into a more complex villain…who deserved more than this by-the-numbers script. The same can be said of Shocker (played by Logan Marshall-Green and Bokeem Woodbine) who mostly stands around and only gets one solid fight scene that’s over far too quickly.

Every major problem with SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING comes from predictable writing and overused clichés. Coming-of-age stories have been done to death nearly as much as superhero movies, so combining those two genres doesn’t exactly give the filmmaker or (six!) writers a lot of originality to work with. This feels like a safe made-by-committee superhero movie, which could have been the direct result of Sony and Marvel working together. Still, there’s enough entertainment, good acting, and laughs to make SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING worth a tepid recommendation. HOMECOMING is your average fun superhero movie and your average fun teenage coming-of-age tale…and it’s the fourth best SPIDER-MAN film thus far (behind SPIDER-MAN 2, SPIDER-MAN, and THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2).

Grade: B-

SAUSAGE PARTY (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 29 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Crude Sexual Content, Pervasive Language, and Drug Use

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Directed by: Greg Tiernan & Conrad Vernon

Written by: Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, Kyle Hunter & Ariel Shaffir

Voices of: Seth Rogen, Kristen Wiig, Jonah Hill, Bill Hader, Michael Cera, James Franco, Danny McBride, Craig Robinson, Paul Rudd, Nick Kroll, David Krumholtz, Edward Norton, Salma Hayek, Conrad Vernon & Scott Underwood

At the tail-end of an underwhelming summer movie season and in a year that’s been filled with depressing events, SAUSAGE PART comes as a hilarious breath of fresh air. Besides being the first R-rated computer-animated feature, SAUSAGE PARTY is probably the filthiest comedy I’ve ever seen. While driving home from the movie theater, I was trying to think of a movie or TV show that reached the same level of this film’s raunchy extremes…and I honestly didn’t have a single title come to mind. SOUTH PARK, TEAM AMERICA and DRAWN TOGETHER all seem slightly tame by comparison. This animated comedy for adults is surprisingly smart, while also serving as a pitch-perfect spoof of Pixar, Disney and DreamWorks.

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Shopwell’s is a supermarket populated by all brands of foods, who worship shoppers as “gods” and eagerly await to be chosen for “the great beyond.” Frank (Seth Rogen) is a sausage who desperately wants to be with his hot dog bun girlfriend Brenda (Kristen Wiig). Luckily, they’ve been thrown into the same shopping cart and their dreams are finally coming true. When an unexpected spill occurs, Frank and Brenda are left stranded in the store…outside of their packages. Along with a Muslim lavash (David Krumholtz), a Jewish bagel (Edward Norton), and a lesbian taco shell (Salma Hayek), Frank and Brenda make the perilous journey back to their aisle…as a villainous Douche stalks them. To complicate matters, Frank discovers the horrible truth about the humans.

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I walked into SAUSAGE PARTY expecting an absurd amount of profanity (it’s definitely there, but never to a distracting degree), food carnage (there’s plenty of that) and stoner jokes (which only filled two major scenes). This comedy goes to the extreme and delivers on different types of humor, all while giving a huge middle finger to easily offended viewers. Like some of the best comedic material out there (ala SOUTH PARK), nothing is off limits. Religion, race, sexual orientation, graphic violence, tons of swearing and (to a much more innocent degree) plenty of puns are utilized throughout the running time. Expect to be shocked and grossed out, but also prepare to laugh a lot!

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SAUSAGE PARTY’s script goes into unexpectedly clever, very dark places. What was especially shocking is the film’s mostly well-executed message about community. Though the not-so-subtle social commentary isn’t quite up to the level of the intelligence in something like SOUTH PARK, it’s refreshing to see a filthy R-rated comedy use its filth to aid the plot as opposed to mere shock value. Be assured though, there’s plenty of hilariously perverse material packed into the short running time. Food carnage only makes up a mere portion of the smorgasbord of laughs that can’t be unseen.

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Besides delivering in its story and jokes, SAUSAGE PARTY is also very well-made. The animation is colorful and vibrant, which makes every swear word, sexual innuendo, disgusting sex act and bit of graphic violence that much funnier to watch. SAUSAGE PARTY nailed the look of an innocent children’s film and then took a hard turn into adult-only territory. A talented cast of big names enliven the anthropomorphic food and hungry humans. Even smaller characters manage to make memorable impressions on the viewer.

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Seth Rogen’s Frank is a headstrong hero looking for the truth behind his existence. Kristen Wiig’s Brenda is a bun trying to hold on to her optimistic beliefs and serves as an enjoyable enough love-interest, though a couple of her jokes fall flat. Michael Cera’s deformed sausage Barry serves as a side character in his own highly entertaining subplot. Salma Hayek, Edward Norton, David Krumholtz, Craig Robinson, and Bill Hader all make the most out of purposely laughable stereotypes. Nick Kroll is a big highlight as Douche with a typical douchey attitude (excessively saying “bro”). Paul Rudd, Jonah Hill, Danny McBride and plenty of other notable comedic performers also lend their voices to the film in smaller parts.

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SAUSAGE PARTY feels like someone watched a bunch of Pixar movies, watched Wienerschnitzel’s old Delicious One commercials, smoked a ton of pot and then decided to make a children’s film geared towards adults. It’s a hilarious time that serves as one of the biggest highlights in a rather lackluster summer movie season and a fantastically entertaining distraction from depressing real-life events. The writing is also far smarter than you might expect, especially for a movie that revolves around a sausage running away from hungry humans. This is easily Seth Rogen’s funniest movie since KNOCKED UP and probably the filthiest comedy I’ve ever seen. If this sounds like something you’d like, I highly recommend SAUSAGE PARTY…just leave the kids at home.

Grade: A

CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 26 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for extended sequences of Violence, Action and Mayhem.

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Directed by: Anthony Russo & Joe Russo

Written by: Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely

(based on the CAPTAIN AMERICA comics by Joe Simon & Jack Kirby)

Starring: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Tom Holland, Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, Jeremy Renner, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Rudd, Emily VanCamp, Frank Grillo, William Hurt, Daniel Bruhl, Martin Freeman & Marisa Tomei

CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR is the thirteenth entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which has hit varying degrees of quality throughout the years. While a couple of MCU installments have been disappointing, none of them have been downright bad and Captain America currently has the best entry with THE WINTER SOLDIER. CIVIL WAR is very much a CAPTAIN AMERICA film and never loses sight of that, but also happens to feature most of the Avengers and even introduces a few new faces into the mix. With all of these characters, lots of action, and a fast-paced narrative, CIVIL WAR is a hugely entertaining ride for superhero fans!

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Set a year after AGE OF ULTRON, we open with a handful of the Avengers botching a mission to wrestle a biological weapon away from havoc-wreaking terrorist Crossbones (Frank Grillo). In the chaos, some innocent civilians are accidentally killed. This disaster results in 117 countries coming together to establish the Sokovia Accords, which would give the United Nations control over the Avengers. While Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and other Avengers (Scarlett Johansson, Don Cheadle, Paul Bettany) see this as a bittersweet necessity, Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) and the remaining Avengers (Anthony Mackie, Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen) find themselves at odds over the potentially unethical side to this political deal. When Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) re-emerges, the Avengers literally fight amongst themselves and Captain America discovers that other dangerous forces are also at work.

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Seeing as this cast of characters contains a whopping twelve superheroes and ten of those are returning faces, I’m only going to mention my personal points of interest so we’re not here all day. It was nice to see Vision (Paul Bettany) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) receive better treatment here than they got in ULTRON, while Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) delivers a stand-out moment that generated thunderous applause from the audience in my theater. The already established rivalry between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers becomes even more heated and fists are thrown. CIVIL WAR does a fantastic job of forcing the viewer to understand the two differing points of views and sympathizing with both of them. There were multiple moments where I was emotionally confused as to who I was rooting for, because I loved these characters so much and didn’t want to see either of them get hurt (let alone by each other). You’ll probably have your loyalties tested and I was certainly switching sides during a couple of key scenes.

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CIVIL WAR also introduces two hotly anticipated superheroes into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, these being: Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland). I didn’t know much about Black Panther walking into this movie, but enjoyed seeing this clawed hero in action during a handful of stand-out moments, including one very tense chase. As the third big-screen incarnation of Spider-Man, Tom Holland is far and away the best Peter Parker we’ve seen yet. Besides a great-looking suit and trademark webbing, Holland’s version of Spidey is armed with the perfect amount of quips and a smart-aleck sense of humor. Though he has a short amount of screen time (three scenes), Holland definitely stands out as one of CIVIL WAR’s biggest highlights and I’m very excited to see him  take center stage in SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING.

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CIVIL WAR falters when it comes to the antagonists, because all three of them are undeveloped. William Hurt reprises his role as a bland government official who sees the Avengers as a potential threat and wants to exert some form of control over them. Frank Grillo shows up for a glorified cameo as Crossbones, which was a disappointment when you consider the character development he received in WINTER SOLDIER. I won’t say much about Daniel Bruhl’s character for fear of spoilers, but I will say that the film dishes out little details about him until one big exposition dump. While I liked his character’s motivation and plan, these were both revealed in a heavy-handed manner that opened up a few minor plot holes.

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One of CIVIL WAR’s most impressive qualities is that it never comes close to overstaying its welcome. This is the longest movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and never feels like it. Packing twelve heroes into one script might signal a potential overcrowding problem, but that is far from the case here. Even brief side characters receive their time to shine. CIVIL WAR gives me faith that the Russo brothers will pull off INFINITY WAR with more skill than Joss Whedon utilized in the overlong and overcrowded ULTRON. My only other complaint with this third CAPTAIN AMERICA outing is evident in earlier scenes, which rely on quick editing and annoying shaky-cam that slightly obscure the action. These problems are quickly remedied during the second half, when the camera becomes steadier.

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CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR is my third favorite film of the thirteen established Marvel Cinematic Universe entries thus far (falling behind WINTER SOLDIER and GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY). Early action scenes and underdeveloped antagonists keep the film from reaching perfection, but the sheer amount of hero on hero conflict and strong writing cement CIVIL WAR as another winner for both Marvel and Captain America. You probably already know if you’ll be seeing this film and it’s bound to be one of 2016’s biggest money-makers (if not the biggest). It’s great to see a summer blockbuster that relies on more than special effects and fan service. CIVIL WAR contains both of those, but they happen to be executed with smart storytelling and emotional weight behind them. In the end, that makes a world of difference.

Grade: A-

YEAR ONE (2009)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 37 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Crude and Sexual Content throughout, brief Strong Language and Comic Violence

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Directed by: Harold Ramis

Written by: Harold Ramis, Gene Stupnitsky & Lee Eisenberg

Starring: Jack Black, Michael Cera, Oliver Platt, David Cross, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Vinnie Jones, Hank Azaria, Juno Temple, Olivia Wilde & June Diane Raphael

Harold Ramis proved himself to be a strong force in cinematic comedy with CADDYSHACK, VACATION and GROUNDHOG DAY. His final stint as a writer and director came in 2009’s YEAR ONE. The film was being promoted as a potential big summer blockbuster, but fell short of studio box office estimates and audience’s/critics’ expectations alike. YEAR ONE is far from Ramis’s best work, but there is entertainment to be found here. This film suffers from a jumbled narrative, cheap gross-out gags, and dusty jokes, but does contain solid moments and some clever writing.

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Zed is an overconfident hunter. Oh is a shy gatherer. Both are outcasts in their tribe, but Zed aims to change this by eating the forbidden fruit of knowledge. This scheme backfires as Zed and Oh are banished from their small community and take off on history’s first road trip. Along their way, they run into a variety of colorful Biblical figures (Cain and Abel, Abraham and Isaac, the city of Sodom). They quickly discover that they might have a further purpose to serve when the cavemen and cavewomen of their community are captured as slaves. Along the way, Zed tries to find himself as a hero and Oh has an internal debate about the existence of God.

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YEAR ONE isn’t up to the same level as Ramis’s other comedies. This is evident by an overreliance on gross-out gags. The film’s tone becomes entirely too juvenile in scenes of Jack Black eating poop, Michael Cera sleeping with a flatulent roommate, and an upside-down Cera urinating on himself. These cheap moments of crude humor stick out further when you consider how smartly written other parts of the screenplay are. Even though their dialogue quickly devolves into penis humor, the introduction of Abraham (a scenery-chewing Hank Azaria) and Isaac (Christopher Mintz-Plasse playing McLovin in Biblical times) is entertaining and borderline blasphemous. My personal favorite moments involve the wicked, guilt-ridden Cain (David Cross delivering the best performance in the film). Vinnie Jones also receives a few good scenes as the hulking Sargon, who mainly serves as an intimidating straight-man to the absurdity surrounding him.

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YEAR ONE’s biggest pitfall comes in Jack Black’s Zed and Michael Cera’s Oh being the least interesting characters in the entire movie. Every performer surrounding them manages to be far more entertaining than these two boring protagonists. Black is doing his typical loud idiot shtick and Cera is playing his usual awkward persona, the would-be hook is that they’re doing these routines in various Biblical costumes. On a positive note, Oliver Platt steals every scene he’s in as the overly flamboyant High Priest. Platt, David Cross, Vinnie Jones, and borderline sacrilegious humor are the film’s highlights. It’s a pity that the rest of the writing and performances aren’t nearly on the same level of hilarity.

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YEAR ONE’s flaws don’t simply stay with its overreliance on potty humor and bland protagonists, but also extends to a rather jumbled narrative. The film is essentially a Monty Python wannabe as it goes from skit-like segment to skit-like segment, but some of these (especially during the first third) don’t have any punch line to be found. When Oh is being attacked by a snake in the forbidden garden, we never see how it turns out. Less than ten minutes later, the same exact situation occurs again with a cougar and there’s still no punch line. A couple of haphazard lines of dialogue could have patched these plot gaps up, but the three screenwriters didn’t even bother to put that much effort into the script.

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While YEAR ONE has its moments (sacrifices being watched as sports-like entertainment, an intense” chase between two slow-moving carts, Cain being a constant asshole), it also relies far too much on poop, fart, and sex gags. It’s not that crude humor can’t be funny, but there doesn’t seem to be much effort being put into these jokes (save for a Eunuch character). YEAR ONE isn’t technically “good” due to a messy script, lame-brained jokes that fall flat, and two boring leads, but I enjoy it on a “guilty pleasure” level. If you’re looking for something that is light-hearted, dumb as a rock, and will kill 97 minutes of your life, then I’d recommend YEAR ONE on those merits. Otherwise, the film is a missed opportunity.

Grade: C+

ANT-MAN (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 57 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sci-Fi Action Violence

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Directed by: Peyton Reed

Written by: Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish, Adam McKay & Paul Rudd

(based on the ANT-MAN comics by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber & Jack Kirby)

Starring: Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll, Bobby Cannavale, Michael Pena, Judy Greer & Michael Douglas

I’m not going to lie. I really though ANT-MAN was going to suck. I wasn’t rooting for the film to be bad, but it looked like this could have been the first big misfire in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. After all, there were production difficulties (Edgar Wright was replaced as the director) and this was yet another superhero origin story (something should have been over after the first AVENGERS made a splash). Plus, there’s the irrefutable evidence that Ant-Man isn’t exactly the coolest superhero around. So this latest Marvel movie is on a significantly smaller scale (no pun intended) with only a few locations and a handful of characters, but it comes off as less of a superhero movie and more of Marvel’s version of a heist thriller. What results is a surprisingly solid entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Color me surprised. ANT-MAN is really, really good!

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Scott Lang is an ex-con trying to get his life back on track. When no jobs pan out and prospects for seeing his daughter look grim, he immediately returns to a life of burglary…only to wind up in something far greater than he ever imagined. Scott has been recruited by scientific genius Hank Pym to become Ant-Man (a tiny hero with super strength) in order to retrieve a deadly weapon from the evil Darren Cross (Pym’s former protégé). With the clock ticking before the weapon’s completion, Scott (aided by Pym and Hope, Pym’s daughter) must prepare for a high-stakes heist unlike anything ever attempted before…

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ANT-MAN feels like OCEAN’S ELEVEN by way of THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN. It’s far sillier and more comedic than any of Marvel’s past efforts (yes, more than GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY). Even though the story takes place on a much smaller scale than pretty much every other film in Marvel’s cannon, it also feels refreshing because we’ve never seen the studio attempt this sort of film before. So far they’ve only had superhero movies and a space opera and that’s about it. Now, we can add sci-fi heist thriller to their filmography. Though it does have a couple of clichés in that this is technically an origin story for a future Avenger, ANT-MAN doesn’t feel like a superhero movie and tonally separates itself from the pack of other AVENGERS movies as a result. That doesn’t mean there aren’t tie-ins to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, because one well-placed cameo as well as one piece of dialogue that directly references AGE OF ULTRON got huge laughs from the audience I saw this with…and I was chuckling right along with them. I hope that Phase III of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has more of these unconventional superhero movies (with BLACK PANTHER and INHUMANS down the road).

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Paul Rudd is well-cast as Ant-Man. I was hesitant when I saw him in the role, because I mainly know him from comedies. However, he slips so well into Scott’s friendly ex-con trying to do the right thing demeanor that you can’t help but love the character. Michael Douglas shows up as the quirky genius scientist and though he’s enjoyable to watch, the character feels like so many others in past superhero movies (including some in the Marvel Cinematic Universe). Evangeline Lilly is enjoyable as Pym’s daughter, but her character also feels too familiar. Michael Pena is fantastic as the comic relief and somehow manages to steal the movie right out from under Rudd’s feet. Meanwhile, Corey Stoll (an actor that I’ve recently taken a liking to) is enjoyable as Darren (a.k.a. Yellowjacket). His character is cut and dried evil, but Stoll is smarmy enough in the role to make us both laugh at the villain and be intimidated by him.

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Color me shocked. Back in January, I never thought it would be possible for ANT-MAN to walk away with a better grade than AGE OF ULTRON…yet here it is doing exactly that. ANT-MAN is a movie that never should have worked and the promotional material suggested that this was going to be a major step backwards for Marvel. However, the movie has wound up as one of the biggest surprises of 2015 thus far. It’s far from perfect (suffering from a few origin story clichés and familiar character types), but the film is all around entertaining and fun! This is Marvel’s take on a heist movie and winds up on the higher end of their Cinematic Universe. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but ANT-MAN comes highly recommended!

Grade: B+

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