THOR: RAGNAROK (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 10 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Sci-Fi Violence and Action, and brief Suggestive Material

Directed by: Taika Waititi

Written by: Franco Escamilla, Craig Kyle & Christopher Yost

(based on the THOR comics by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber & Jack Kirby)

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Idris Elba, Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson, Karl Urban, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Hopkins & Benedict Cumberbatch

THOR: RAGNAROK is the third THOR film and the seventeenth entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. With the exception of 2008’s THE INCREDIBLE HULK, THOR was easily the weakest origin story in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. THOR: THE DARK WORLD served as an entertaining sequel, but couldn’t reach the heights of the rest of MCU’s second phase of films. THOR: RAGNAROK is easily the best THOR yet (not exactly high praise) and is a highly entertaining mythological superhero romp. While I don’t think this third THOR is nearly as awesome as some folks have been making it out to be, there’s loads of fun to be had and it’s a big step up in quality from the rest of 2017’s MCU offerings (including the vastly overrated SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING and the slightly underwhelming GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: VOL. 2).

Two years after the events in THE DARK WORLD, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has discovered that his mischievous adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has taken over the home world Asgard and his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) has been banished. While on the journey to bring his dear old daddy home, Thor discovers that an ancient prophecy is coming to light and it might spell doom for all Asgardians. Unfortunately, god of death Hela (Cate Blanchett) has returned and seems hellbent on conquering Asgard. All the while, Thor has wound up stranded on a junk planet in the clutches of the cruelly kooky Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). In order to save his people from destruction, Thor must fight his way through gladiator battles, unite with old friends and new faces, and find a way to stop the seemingly undefeatable Hela.

RAGNAROK follows the usual superhero formula and is fairly by-the-numbers in terms of its plot. There’s an evil bad gal who’s bent on world domination, an ancient prophecy that might be fulfilled, and a story arc that must be experienced by our main hero that causes him to grow even more powerful. However, THOR: RAGNAROK does something extremely well that the other THOR films only did occasionally well. It’s funny, really funny. Not just in scenes that feature Tom Hiddleston’s Loki (who still remains a charming fan favorite) either, but also in nearly every moment. RAGNAROK contains more laughs than pretty much any other MCU entry, with the sole exception being the first GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY.

Viewers who watch RAGNAROK in search of other Marvel goodies will receive those in spades too because this plot also serves as the best HULK movie never made. To elaborate further, Thor’s entrapment on the junk planet is blended with the much celebrated PLANET HULK storyline. Hulk’s inclusion gives Thor another hero to relate to and shows that Hulk can star in a great movie that doesn’t need to involve all of the other Avengers. Also, the end credits scene promises serious stakes for the upcoming INFINITY WAR (which hits next May) and Benedict Cumberbatch squeezes in five minutes of (very funny) screen time as Doctor Strange. Tessa Thompson adds a fresh new heroine to MCU’s mix as the hard-drinking, harder-hitting Valkyrie, while Idris Elba doesn’t get receive much to do as Heimdall.

RAGNAROK mainly falters in its big antagonist. Cate Blanchett’s Hela looks cool as all hell. Her intimidating costume design and weaponized black spikes that fly from her body are pure eye candy. Sadly, that doesn’t translate into her as a character though, because she’s just another bland baddie who wants to take over the world. I found her slightly reluctant lackey Skurge (played by Karl Roden) to be a much more interesting character and his story arc (though familiar) was far more satisfying. Hell, I even felt that Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster was a far superior villain to Hela. Grandmaster had an odd kookiness to him and still came off as threatening, though simultaneously hilarious. I guess I’m saying that I wish Hela had been more interesting and that Grandmaster had even more screen time.

If you are a Marvel Cinematic Universe fan (and you should know if you are by the seventeenth film in the long-running franchise), then you’ll find a lot to enjoy in THOR: RAGNAROK. The by-the-numbers plot may be familiar, but the hilarious, colorful and spectacle-loaded execution kept me smiling from ear to ear as the entire movie played out. The film’s main problems arrive in Hela looking cool, but being rather bland. However, Goldblum’s Grandmaster is worth the price of admission alone. RAGNAROK also injects a few much-needed risks into the MCU that will likely pay off in big ways during INFINITY WAR. THOR: RAGNAROK comes highly recommended!

Grade: B+

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-

DOCTOR STRANGE (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 55 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sci-Fi Violence and Action throughout, and an Intense Crash Sequence

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Directed by: Scott Derrickson

Written by: Scott Derrickson & C. Robert Cargill

(based on the DOCTOR STRANGE comics by Steve Ditko)

Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Michael Stuhlbarg, Scott Adkins, Mads Mikkelsen & Tilda Swinton

Fourteen films and eight years later, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is still going strong. DOCTOR STRANGE is a rather unique addition to this long-running cinematic franchise though, because it injects mystical powers and wizards into the MCU. I thought that GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY and ANT-MAN were tough films to sell, but DOCTOR STRANGE seems downright challenging. Fortunately, director/writer Scott Derrickson is more than up to the task. Aided by fantastic performances, astounding special effects, and a smart script, DOCTOR STRANGE is easily the best Marvel Cinematic Universe movie thus far!

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Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a brilliant surgeon with a huge ego. After saving lives and carving out an acclaimed career, Strange suffers severe nerve damage in his hands from a horrible car accident. When Western medicine fails him, the down-on-his-luck doctor turns to Eastern mythology. His skepticism turns to amazement upon meeting centuries-old sorceress The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). Strange soon finds himself immersed in a world of infinite possibilities, many universes, magical talents, mythical weapons, and dark threats. When evil zealot sorcerer Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) attempts to bring use The Ancient One’s magic books for evil, it’s up to emerging hero Doctor Strange to save the world.

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Benedict Cumberbatch is a welcome addition to the bevy of A-listers who populate the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As Steven Strange, he starts off as completely unlikable and slowly begins to humble himself through magical teachings. Strange’s arrogance rivals Tony Stark’s cocky attitude, which makes me excited for the possibilities that might erupt when the two eventually meet face-to-face. After being an utter ass for the first third of the film, Strange’s changing attitude and emerging heroism ultimately wins the viewer onto his side. Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as Karl Mordo, a good-natured wizard who finds himself constantly at odds with Strange’s view of the world.

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Though a lot of hubbub erupted for her part in this film, Tilda Swinton vanishes into the charming role of The Ancient One. Meanwhile, Rachel McAdams plays Strange’s former lover and best friend…providing great comic relief and believable emotion. Finally, Mads Mikkelsen plays Kaecilius, Marvel’s equivalent of Saruman and introduction for bigger threats in the future, as an intimidating presence with insane powers that make for great fight scenes…particularly when one of Strange’s plans backfires spectacularly.

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One has to admire how brilliantly written DOCTOR STRANGE’s script is. Yes, it’s a superhero origin story…but it’s the most compelling origin story to come out of the Marvel Universe thus far. This film stands entirely on its own and doesn’t fully seem connected to the MCU (a good quality), save for a few brief Avengers references and a mid-credits scene that promises more of Strange in future Marvel projects. Strange’s training takes time and introduces lots of complicated concepts that come into play throughout the story (astral projection, relics, other dimensions, spells, etc.). The ways in which we are given this complex information feel entirely natural and provide laughs…as well as sheer awe-inspiring moments.

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In terms of special effects and action scenes, this movie is awesome! I know that word has become commonplace, but it definitely applies to DOCTOR STRANGE’s jaw-dropping sequences of psychedelic head-trips, vibrant colors that look like a rave went to outer space, and an amazing INCEPTION/MATRIX-like battle through New York City that currently stands as one of my favorite action scenes of the decade. This movie is phenomenally trippy and cool the whole way through. Even visuals that might seem cheesy when taken out of context (a giant floating head, spirits leaving their bodies, etc.) all work perfectly within the film’s storyline and with the added weight of the characters inhabiting them. The film’s climax has also reinvigorated my love for superhero movies as a whole. I was slightly fatigued by the massive number of comic book movies hitting the multiplex in the past few years, but DOCTOR STRANGE has ignited the childlike spark inside of me and makes me crave the upcoming Marvel films now more than ever!

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DOCTOR STRANGE is easily my favorite movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It incorporates tons of complicated elements through a smartly written script and mind-blowing spectacle. The characters are all great, even if not all of them receive a ton of screen time. The humor works fantastically and never overshadows the film’s more serious moments. The action is exciting and adrenaline-pumping. The magical aspect delivers some of the most creative, head-trippy imagery to hit theaters in all of 2016! This is big entertainment done right in every conceivable way!

Grade: A+

YOGA HOSERS (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 28 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Crude Humor, Sexual References, Comic Violence, and brief Drug Material

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Directed by: Kevin Smith

Written by: Kevin Smith

Starring: Lily-Rose Depp, Harley Quinn Smith, Johnny Depp, Vanessa Paradis, Austin Butler, Tyler Posey, Justin Long, Haley Joel Osment, Genesis Rodriguez, Tony Hale, Natasha Lyonne & Kevin Smith

Kevin Smith’s filmography has recently gone through many odd shifts. Though he gained a loyal fanbase from low-budget comedies like CLERKS and MALLRATS, Smith has entered a horror phase…and this has been a hugely miscalculated move. The best of Smith’s horror efforts is easily RED STATE, a surprisingly strong merging of the Waco siege and the Westboro Baptist Church. 2014’s TUSK was disappointing due to its confused tonal shifts and a plot that seemed to making itself up as it went along. That film featured cameos from Kevin Smith’s daughter and Johnny Depp’s kid as Canadian convenience store clerks. YOGA HOSERS is a semi-sequel to TUSK and serves as a spin-off for that pair of minor characters.

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Colleen Collette (Lily-Rose Depp) and Colleen McKenzie (Harley Quinn Smith) are best friends, bandmates and co-workers at the Eh-2-Zed convenience store. They bury their faces in their cellphones during school and periodically skip out on their shifts to hold band practice in the backroom. After being invited to a senior party held by preppy Hunter Calloway (Austin Butler), the Colleens’ lives begin to look up…until Colleen C’s father (Tony Hale) forces the two BFF’s to take an unexpected work shift. Missing Hunter’s party won’t be the end of the Colleens’ problems though, because Bratzis (Kevin Smith in bratwurst make-up) have risen from the ground. You may be asking: “What’s a Bratzi?” It’s a little Nazi made of bratwurst and the Colleens have to contend with an army of them. Lucky for them, legendary man-hunter Guy Lapointe (Johnny Depp) is on the case.

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YOGA HOSERS’ plot is kind of difficult to summarize, because there isn’t exactly a straightforward storyline. The film is supposedly about two teenage clerks fighting bratwurst creatures that kill people by going up their butts, yet only a third of the film seems interested in that. The rest is dedicated to the Colleens going about their teenage lives and Johnny Depp mugging for the camera. Kevin Smith unapologetically admitted that this film was a vanity project, but it might have been fun (albeit ridiculously stupid) if there was any semblance of a story. Flashy headache-inducing title cards, two cringe-worthy musical numbers, and lame cut-away jokes constantly interrupt the movie’s already wavering momentum.

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Even though it clocks in at a mercifully short 88 minutes, YOGA HOSERS frequently lags in its pacing and feels much longer as a result. There are a few chuckles that keep the film from becoming a total failure, but these are few and far between. One visual joke seems directly lifted from Mel Brooks’ ROBIN HOOD: MEN IN TIGHTS (moles changing around on Johnny Depp’s face), which in turn was actually recycled from the ever-changing hump in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN. The biggest laugh comes from Haley Joel Osment as Canadian Hitler. The punchline to his single scene is very funny, but that energy vanishes the minute he’s gone. Don’t worry though, because YOGA HOSERS tries to get more wacky laughs by giving us a Nazi villain monologuing through voice impressions of Hollywood actors (ala Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Pacino, etc.). That’s the level we’re at here, folks.

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I can’t judge too harshly on Lily-Rose Depp and Harley Quinn Smith’s performances, because they come off as annoying teenage kids. This was definitely the intention, but it doesn’t automatically turn them into likable ass-kicking heroines. Austin Butler, who resembles Justin Bieber, shows potential in a neat plot twist that showed promise…and is quickly written out by a lazy butt joke. Johnny Depp’s Guy Lapointe was one of the worst things in TUSK, but seems to fit in with the wacky stupidity of YOGA HOSERS. His presence is much more colorful than either of the Colleens anyway. The less said about Kevin Smith in bratwurst make-up, the better. Justin Long is serviceable enough as a pretentious strip mall yoga instructor. However, Smith thinks that cameos are the same thing as comedy…which makes for two incredibly out-of-place moments.

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Truthfully, I think that Kevin Smith knows YOGA HOSERS isn’t a good movie. In the Q&A shown before the Fathom Event screening, Smith stated that the film is a midnight movie made for viewers who aren’t allowed to stay up until midnight. He seems to be writing off this film’s bad quality as it being made for kids. I don’t think that’s quite the case. There may be no F-bombs or nudity in this film, but there’s definitely enough sexual innuendos to earn the PG-13 rating (which isn’t exactly perfect for a “kid’s movie”). Even if YOGA HOSERS was actually intended for little girls, quality kid’s films usually entertain older viewers too. How terrible is YOGA HOSERS? Well, let’s just say that a theater filled with hardcore Kevin Smith fans was dead silent for 90% of the running time and I’ll pretty much be ignoring the rest of Kevin Smith’s new movies until he inevitably makes CLERKS III.

Grade: D-

X-MEN: THE LAST STAND (2006)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 44 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Action Violence, some Sexual Content and Language

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Directed by: Brett Ratner

Written by: Simon Kinberg & Zak Penn

(based on the X-MEN comics by Jack Kirby & Stan Lee)

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry, Ian McKellen, Famke Janssen, Anna Paquin, Kelsey Grammer, James Marsden, Rebecca Romijn, Shawn Ashmore, Aaron Stanford, Vinnie Jones, Patrick Stewart, Ellen Page, Ben Foster, Dania Ramirez & Eric Dane

After directing X-MEN and X2, Bryan Singer decided to put his filmmaking talents towards another superhero franchise in SUPERMAN RETURNS. X2’s final shot teased the Dark Phoenix storyline in the next installment and Bryan Singer seemed eager to return to the franchise after his Superman film, but 20th Century Fox eventually grew tired of waiting and wound up giving the third X-MEN film to Brett Ratner. Fox’s impatience and Ratner’s incompetence (this was his first huge-scale blockbuster) both sunk the X-MEN series for a number of years before an eventual prequel/reboot repaired the damage. It’s not as if THE LAST STAND is all-out horrible, but blandness and mediocrity make it all the more disappointing.

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Shortly after the events of X2, mutants have become slightly more accepted in society. There’s even a blue-furred Cabinet member in Washington, but some politicians still aim for mutants to assimilate to “normal” human culture. Scientists have discovered a cure for mutations, which has caused a controversial rupture in the mutant community. Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and the other X-Men seem split on scientific breakthrough, with Storm (Halle Berry) becoming furious and Rogue (Anna Paquin) showing genuine interest towards curing her deadly touch. Other dangerous mutants see the cure as an attempt to drive them extinct, resulting in metal-bending Magneto (Ian McKellen) forming the terrorist group known as the Brotherhood of Mutants. The Brotherhood aims to wipe out the source of the cure: Leech (Cameron Bright). Meanwhile, Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) has returned from the dead…and has brought an uncontrollable force back with her.

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X-MEN: THE LAST STAND is a superhero story that’s more driven by its script’s needs, rather than a natural progression of events. This opens up lots of plot holes and leaves many moments feeling like they came right out of nowhere for no apparent reason. To give specific examples without diving deeply into spoilers, the movie needs a character to return so they just sort of bring her back with no explanation. The story also requires a few important characters to die along the way, so Ratner just throws in a couple of death scenes that feel forced instead of devastating. Wolverine needs to stumble upon the Brotherhood of Mutants, but the movie doesn’t feel the need to give us a reason for that…so here’s a quick psychic vision.

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LAST STAND’s disjointed narrative can be summed up in one scene that features a conversation about whether or not Xavier’s School should be shut down and this complex issue is resolved with a couple of half-assed sentences. A complex problem that could have filled the latter half of this film (and given the protagonists more to fight for) is simply thrown away with a shrug. Of course, this movie still need a final battle though, so here’s Magneto using the Golden Gate Bridge to raid Alcatraz…which is admittedly pretty cool. If only the rest of the movie could put some weight behind the special effects heavy final showdown.

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LAST STAND has the odd problem of feeling too full and too empty at the same time. This third X-MEN installment was (supposedly) intended to be the finale of the superhero trilogy and therefore, lots of new characters were thrown into the mix. So many new mutants were included that this movie feels overcrowded and makes its Brotherhood antagonists look like throwaway thugs. The old mutants are back with Professor X, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), Storm, Cyclops (James Marsden), Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), Rogue and a few others. However, most of these performers seem to know that this follow-up isn’t anywhere near the level of the first two installments and seem to be returning out of contractual obligations and big paychecks (reasons that are more than understandable, but still remain depressing).

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Ratner’s X-MEN introduces three new protagonists into the series. Shadowcat (who was a brief background character in the first two films) is played well by Ellen Page. Out of trio of new X-Men, she seems to get the most development as there’s a blooming romance/friendship between her and Iceman (which makes for some annoying drama from Rogue). Ben Foster’s Angel is given four brief scenes and culminates in an obvious cliché between him and his father. On a side note, Angel’s thin story arc seems far more developed when compared to the two-scene-long conflict between Iceman and Pyro (Aaron Stanford). Finally, Kelsey Grammer is perfectly cast as Beast and receives a few good moments, even if his character mostly exists for exposition.

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Shadowcat, Angel and Beast are miles better than any of the antagonists. Mystique has a couple of brief scenes, but her part is overshadowed by the far lamer Pyro as Magneto’s newly chosen second-in-command. Most of the Brotherhood consists of bastardized mutants from the comic books with rather cheesy powers. There’s Spike, who uses his own bones as weapons and takes on Wolverine in one tiny scene. There’s a nameless guy who can regenerate limbs and only exists for a “kick in the balls” joke, also delivered by Wolverine. Multiple Man isn’t given much to do, while three stupid emo mutants (one of which is a human porcupine) are annoying beyond all reason. The only standout antagonist (aside from Magneto) is Vinnie Jones as Juggernaut. The character’s only purpose is muscle, but Jones is clearly having a blast.

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X-MEN: THE LAST STAND is a bland, disappointing sequel that tries way too hard without ever realizing why the previous two installments worked so well. It’s clear that a fumbling director and studio interferences were the main reasons why this third X-MEN film fell apart, as demonstrated by a bored returning cast and a sloppy narrative. Still, there are a few redeeming things in THE LAST STAND. Though they aren’t exactly great characters, Shadowcat, Angel, Juggernaut and Beast are fun to watch. The action has some good spectacle (the Golden Gate bridge scene remains very cool). When compared to the rest of the series though, THE LAST STAND lies alongside ORIGINS: WOLVERINE at the bottom of the X-MEN totem pole.

Grade: C-

X2: X-MEN UNITED (2003)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 14 minutes

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

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Directed by: Bryan Singer

Written by: Michael Dougherty, Dan Harris & David Hayter

(based on the X-MEN comics by Jack Kirby & Stan Lee)

Starring: Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman, Ian McKellen, Halle Berry, Famke Janssen, James Marsden, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Brian Cox, Alan Cumming, Bruce Davison, Anna Paquin, Shawn Ashmore, Aaron Stanford & Kelly Hu

Sequels rarely manage to rise above their predecessors, but X2: X-MEN UNITED is on the short list of titles that have accomplished that cinematic feat. 2000’s X-MEN laid a lot of ground work for future installments and introduced us to the world of mutants, so X2 is granted much more narrative freedom right off the bat. Though this sequel runs over two hours in length, not a single minute of screen time is wasted. Partially based on the graphic novel GOD LOVES, MAN KILLS with incorporated bits of the WEAPON X storyline, X2 is among the best superhero films of all time.

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Picking up a short while after the events of the first film, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) has returned to the X-Men base/Xavier’s school with no new information about his past. Wolverine’s dilemma seems small though, because mutant Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming) has attempted to assassinate the President of the United States. With prejudice, hatred and fear towards mutants growing across the nation, the President has green-lit a questionable operation led by Colonel William Stryker (Brian Cox). When he raids Xavier’s school and kidnaps Professor X (Patrick Stewart), it becomes evident that Stryker has something very dangerous in mind. Good and evil mutants must unite if they wish to save the mutant race from genocide-happy Stryker, who is also linked to Wolverine’s forgotten past.

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X2 features a lot of returning cast members and all of them slip right back into their roles with ease, even improving on the previous performances. Patrick Stewart as Professor X and Ian McKellen as Magneto are equally perfect. Wolverine is a major player in this sequel’s script, but only receives one plotline of the complicated story. This allows plenty of room for the rest of the mutants to be further developed. More time is given to Cyclops and Jean Grey, while Storm is allowed to bond with newcomer Nightcrawler. Even Anna Paquin (one of the first film’s biggest problems) redeems her character of Rogue with less unconvincing over-the-top accent and more believable emotion put into her line delivery. Rebecca Romijn is also given a bigger part of as the sexy, deadly Mystique.

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There are many new, interesting characters brought into this sequel too, including a couple of big-name mutants making a grand entrance into the film series. Iceman (Shawn Ashmore, who was a background character in the first film) is given a real relationship with Rogue and has one hell of a heart-breaking story arc. Aaron Stanford (who didn’t go on to do much after the X-MEN series) is solid as violent Pyro. Alan Cumming is perfectly cast as blue-skinned, hook-tailed Nightcrawler and receives a fantastic storyline about redemption. I wish that Cumming had appeared in other X-MEN installments as well, but alas, this was to be his only stint as the unforgettable fan favorite mutant.

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Two fearsome antagonists come in the forms of a hate-filled human and his deadly mutant sidekick. William Stryker is played fantastically by Brian Cox. As a complex villain motivated by personal baggage and the belief that he’s doing the right thing for the human race, Stryker might be the best performance of Brian Cox’s career. Clawed sidekick Lady Deathstrike is played by Kelly Hu. Though her appearance and origins are considerably changed from the comic book lore (which I’m sure pissed some fans off), Lady Deathstrike serves as a scary villainess and a threatening equal to Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine. The eventual confrontation between them is one of my all-time favorite movie fight scenes. The stakes are upped by both characters’ metal claws and rapid healing abilities, and also makes the vicious action insanely fun to watch.

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While the first X-MEN used themes of prejudice to craft a simple superhero tale of good vs. evil, X2 opts for a smarter route. We are given windows into each of these characters and the idea that the world is stacked against them. X2 weaves a positive perspective of understanding and forgiveness from Charles Xavier’s point of view, while Magneto’s hatred and fear-mongering also reveal a lot about his character. The world of mutants and humans is greatly expanded upon as this story’s scope is much larger than the first film. There’s also a final shot that ranks among the best cliffhangers of all-time, even though THE LAST STAND was a disappointment and didn’t deliver on X2’s promises.

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As a whole, X2: X-MEN UNITED is where the X-MEN franchise separated itself from clichéd superhero fare. There are tons of enjoyable and great superhero movies in existence, but it takes a lot to rise above any overpopulated film genre. The X-MEN series is something special and this is fully demonstrated by how phenomenal this second installment is! Though I’d rank DAYS OF FUTURE PAST and FIRST CLASS slightly higher than X2, this second installment is one of the best superhero films ever made and a perfect entry in one of the smartest superhero franchises of all-time!

Grade: A+

X-MEN (2000)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 44 minutes

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

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Directed by: Bryan Singer

Written by: Tom DeSanto & Bryan Singer

(based on the X-MEN comics by Jack Kirby & Stan Lee)

Starring: Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman, Ian McKellen, Halle Berry, Famke Janssen, James Marsden, Bruce Davison, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Ray Park, Tyler Mane, Anna Paquin & Shawn Ashmore

An X-MEN movie had been trying to get off the ground for nearly two decades. Many different scripts passed through lots of hands before this movie was finally released in the summer of 2000. Though X-MEN might seem slightly dated by the standards of our modern spoiled superhero sensibilities, it was a game-changer at the time of its release. Most notably, it resurrected interest in a genre that had been dying a horrible box office death a few years prior (e.g. BATMAN & ROBIN). Though most of its sequels are superior and this first film basically exists as an introduction to the franchise, 2000’s X-MEN is big fun entertainment that’s loaded with spectacle and special effects.

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In the “near future,” the public has become afraid of mutants, individuals born with superhuman powers. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is one of these mutants, gifted with extraordinary healing abilities, elevated senses, and indestructible metal claws. Alongside him is teenage runaway Rogue (Anna Paquin), who sucks away the life from everything she touches. Wolverine and Rogue stumble upon Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. Run by psychic Professor X (Patrick Stewart), this “school” is a safe haven for mutants as well as a front for the X-Men, a top-secret group of mutants.

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Not all mutants are good though, and menacing metal-bender Magneto (Ian McKellen) has plans to level the playing field between mutants and humans. Accompanied by shape-shifting Mystique (Rebecca Romijn), slimy Toad (Ray Park), and feral Sabretooth (Tyler Mane), Magneto begins to enact a carefully calculated terrorist plot that involves an important mutant at Xavier’s School. It’s up to Wolverine and the rest of the X-Men: Cyclops (James Marsden), Storm (Halle Berry), and Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), to stop Magneto’s evil plan.

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X-MEN both is and isn’t your typical superhero film. The former comes from following a by-the-numbers plot about good vs. evil. There are clear-cut heroes, diabolical villains, a plan to take over the world, and an exposition-filled origin story that paves the way for future installments (five of which have followed in the last 16 years and that number jumps to seven with the WOLVERINE films included). The driving force of X-MEN’s narrative comes from prejudice on both sides of the mutant fence. Plot developments are driven forward by a bill that would force mutants to publicly reveal themselves. Magneto’s motivation is driven by his hatred for mankind, which in turn was spawned from mankind’s hatred towards him. Wolverine and Rogue are drawn together due to a world that seemingly hates them for simply being who they are. Themes of prejudice and civil rights are evident in this film, even though it sticks to a clichéd superhero plot.

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Wolverine, Rogue, Professor X, and Magneto are the main players here and every other mutant is swept to the sidelines. Hugh Jackman was a fresh-faced newcomer at the time of X-MEN and really broke onto the big screen in the role of Wolverine. It’s damn near impossible to imagine anybody else playing the clawed mutant, especially since Jackman has done so for eight films. He’s a likable protagonist with a mysterious past. Patrick Stewart is perfectly cast as the kindly, peaceful Professor X. He’s an old man with a good heart and does his best to fill those around him with hope for the future. The oppositional force comes in Ian McKellen’s Magneto, who garners sympathy due to his tragic backstory (shown in a prologue sequence) and warped ideals.

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The only bad apple in the cast comes in the form of Anna Paquin’s Rogue. Paquin isn’t exactly known for being the world’s best actress (watch any episode of TRUE BLOOD and you’ll immediately know what I’m talking about) and her Mississippi accent is distractingly over-the-top. Paquin’s line delivery is utterly devoid of believable emotion and this makes Rogue into a hollow character, despite of her tragic backstory. The supporting cast somewhat makes up for Rogue’s boring character, because Halle Berry is enjoyable as Storm, James Marsden gets a few good laughs as egocentric Cyclops, and Famke Janssen is an interesting ally as Jean Grey.

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Magneto’s henchmen (and henchwoman) are interesting as well, even though they only function as muscle for him. The second most interesting villain, behind Magneto, comes in the ever-changing form of Mystique. As much as I love Jennifer Lawrence’s take on the character in recent installments, Rebecca Romijn is far more threatening as the blue-skinned baddie. Tyler Mane is basically a growling hairy guy as Sabretooth, though he receive get a very cool one-on-one fight with Wolverine. Ray Park, who also played Darth Maul in 1999, is a blast as the long-tongued, agile Toad. As far as humans go, Bruce Davison is great as a hate-filled politician with a significant role to play in the story.

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The first X-MEN is a fun superhero flick. It follows the familiar beats of many other superhero stories, but repeats the clichés in interesting ways. The film is loaded with cool sequences and an exciting good vs. evil showdown in the finale. X-MEN is good, but very much feels like an introduction for better sequels. Seeing that X2, FIRST CLASS, DAYS OF FUTURE PAST, and THE WOLVERINE are all heads and shoulders above this first installment, this can definitely be seen as the case.

Grade: B

X-MEN: APOCALYPSE (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 24 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sequences of Violence, Action and Destruction, brief Strong Language and some Suggestive Images

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Directed by: Bryan Singer

Written by: Simon Kinberg

(based on the X-MEN comics by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby)

Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar Isaac, Nicholas Hoult, Rose Byrne, Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner, Olivia Munn, Lucas Till, Evan Peters, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Alexandra Shipp, Josh Helman, Ben Hardy & Lana Condor

After seeing the stinger at the end of DAYS OF FUTURE PAST, X-MEN fans were greatly anticipating the big screen appearance of the X-Men’s greatest foe: Apocalypse! With Bryan Singer returning to direct, it seemed like nothing would potentially go wrong with this ninth(!) installment in the X-MEN franchise. While APOCALYPSE definitely has its moments and glimmers of great potential, I couldn’t help but be reminded of X-MEN: THE LAST STAND during multiple points. APOCALYPSE isn’t quite as bad as that film, because it still manages to maintain a big dumb fun sense of entertainment. Still, prepare to be underwhelmed.

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The year is 1983 and the events of DAYS OF FUTURE PAST have changed the world. Mutants and humans find themselves in danger when En Sabah Nur (a.k.a. Apocalypse, played by an unrecognizable Oscar Isaac) awakens from a centuries-long slumber in his Egyptian tomb. This intimidating villain was history’s first mutant and has acquired a vast variety of powers throughout the years, making him pretty much invincible. Apocalypse is looking to break down our world and build a better one on top of it, recruiting four horseman along the way: Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Angel (Ben Hardy), Psylocke (Olivia Munn), and a newly enraged Magneto (Michael Fassbender). Pitted against Apocalypse and his four horsemen are Professor X (James McAvoy), Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Havok (Lucas Till) and Quicksilver (Evan Peters), alongside newcomers Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Phoenix (Sophie Turner), and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee). It’s mutants vs. god-like mutants in a showdown that will determine the fate of the world as we know it.

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The X-MEN films often stick out in the crowded superhero genre, because they usually tackle subplots of self-discovery, prejudice, and civil rights as addressed through mutants. While APOCALYPSE has some of these elements, they are mostly overshadowed by a sloppy script covering familiar ground that’s already been seen many times before. This is basically a clichéd, by-the-numbers “good vs. evil” tale that happens to feature the X-MEN. To make matters worse, the screenplay is downright messy and unfocused. It seems like attention was being paid to the wrong details and important scenes were missing (opening up plot holes along the way). This ultimately leads to pacing issues that immediately spring up with four (count ’em, four!) prologue sequences before the main plot can even begin.

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Though he’s a clichéd and one-dimensional baddie, Apocalypse remains cool nonetheless. Played by an unrecognizable Oscar Isaac under layers of make-up and a forty-pound costume, this evil mutant has various abilities that make him seemingly unstoppable. There were multiple points in this story where I wondered how the X-Men could possibly hope to defeat him. Though his preachy monologues can get repetitive, Apocalypse is genuinely scary in his ability to manipulate matter (making for lots of cool kills), teleport, being super strong and having psychic powers to boot. Though he may look a bit ridiculous, this cinematic version of Apocalypse more than resembles his comic book counterpart.

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Other fresh faces come from a new class of young mutants and three of Apocalypse’s “horsemen.” It occasionally feels like APOCALYPSE is trying to cram too many mutants into one film and spends a lot time reintroducing each of them, which slows down the movie’s already mixed momentum. While I love the character of Psylocke and Olivia Munn is positively breathtaking in the role, she really isn’t given a whole lot to do other than fight. Storm and Angel both receives a strong introductions and then don’t do much afterwards. The horsemen (save for Magneto) mainly stand around, make Apocalypse look cool, and then engage in a quick fight or two.

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I was really excited to see Tye Sheridan as Cyclops and Sophie Turner as Phoenix…but they both seem to be hit or miss in their roles. It’s almost as if they want to emulate James Marsden and Famke Janssen’s versions of the characters, but are also trying to do their own thing. This results in two uneven characters from performers who seem slightly uncomfortable in their roles. Kodi Smit-McPhee more than makes up for their shortcomings as Nightcrawler. McPhee has been hit-or-miss in his past roles, but Nightcrawler is easily one of his best performances. He nails the awkwardness of this teleporting, blue-tailed mutant. It doesn’t really bear mentioning how Jennifer Lawrence, James McAvoy, Rose Byrne, Nicholas Hoult, Evan Peters, and Michael Fassbender are in their roles, because they all have their parts down and have done so for two movies.

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APOCALYPSE’s script suffers from a by-the-numbers plot, missing beats, and lots of filler (included for fan service and setting up future installments). The villainous William Stryker (Josh Helman) appears yet again and pads the film by an extra twenty minutes, but the pay-off to this comes in purposely erasing the worst X-MEN movie (no, I’m not talking about THE LAST STAND). The Blob and Jubilee make blink-and-you-missed-it appearances, which seemed like a waste of time for fans altogether. If you’re going to include these characters, show them doing something other than being dragged unconscious out of a fighting ring or walking down a hallway. Also, the Quicksilver scene from DAYS OF FUTURE PAST is replicated here to an eye-rollingly excessive degree.

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On the positive side of things, APOCALYPSE excels in Magneto’s storyline. This tragic metal-bending villain is easily one of X-MEN’s most complex characters and a few powerful scenes expand upon his tragic past. The film looks good and is packed with convincing special effects. Though it becomes too over-the-top in places, X-MEN: APOCALYPSE remains entertaining enough. I am happy that I watched it, but probably won’t subject myself to it again, unless I’m doing an X-MEN marathon. APOCALYPSE is the third-worst X-MEN film (better than THE LAST STAND and ORIGINS: WOLVERINE) and is far from terrible, especially given the high quality from the rest of the series. If you’re an X-MEN fan, you’ll probably find things to like in this mixed bag installment. Still, prepare to walk away underwhelmed.

Grade: C+

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-

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