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Marvel Triumphs Again with Captain America: Civil War!

Marvel Studios is on a winning streak the likes of which I am hard-pressed to recall (the last decade of Pixar movies is the only thing I can think of that comes close) and Captain America: Civil War is even better than I had dared hope, an extraordinarily HUGE movie with astounding action and powerful emotional beats that pay off story-lines that have been building through the twelve (count ’em, TWELVE) previous Marvel Studios movies ever since 2008’s Iron Man started this whole crazy adventure.  I am a huge fan of the under-appreciated Avengers: Age of Ultron (click here for my review), but a strong case can be made that Civil War is what The Avengers 2 should gave been, a film that embraces the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe, putting the characters through a wrenching emotional trial and eventually shattering the team that had come together in 2012’s The Avengers.

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Following the events of Age of Ultron, Cap has been training and leading a team of Avengers consisting of himself, the Falcon, the Black Widow, the Scarlet Witch, and the Vision.  As Captain America: Civil War opens, we find that Avengers team hot on the trail of Crossbones (the mangled ex-S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Brock Rumlow from Captain America: The Winter Soldier).  As the try to stop Crossbones from obtaining a deadly biological weapon, a fight breaks out in the crowded streets of Nigeria.  Though the Avengers successfully stop Crossbones and his mercenaries, a tragic accident leaves a dozen civilians dead.  This proves to be the last straw for a world that has suffered from a series of increasingly-escalating super-hero/super-villain battles (as seen in the previous twelve Marvel movies).  Over a hundred nations band together to create the Sokovia Accords (named after the nation destroyed by Ultron in the climactic fight of Age of Ultron), declaring that the Avengers will no longer be an autonomous entity but now one governed by a UN-appointed supervising panel.  Tony Stark, desperate to find some way to prevent future civilian deaths and ensure that the Avengers remain a force for good across the world, supports the accords.  Captain America, worried that the international politics at play might prevent him and other super-heroes from acting whenever they feel it is necessary in order to save lives, opposes them.  This philosophical debate becomes more urgent when Cap’s former partner and best friend Bucky Barnes, now the brainwashed hit-man code-named the Winter Soldier (as seen in Captain America: The Winter Soldier) resurfaces and is apparently responsible for the murder of hundreds at the signing of the Sokovia Accords.  Tony begs Cap to let the world’s governments handle the subsequent manhunt but Cap refuses to … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Agent Carter: Season Two

I really enjoyed Hayley Atwell’s character, Peggy Carter, in 2011’s Captain America, The First Avenger, and I was thrilled when her character spun off as the lead of a TV miniseries last year, Agent Carter.  That first season was solid though not spectacular.  Ms. Atwell was terrific, a superb leading lady, and the show was entertaining if not hugely compelling.  (Click here for my full review of Agent Carter season one.)

(Quick summary of my thoughts on Marvel’s TV shows: I adored both Daredevil season one and Jessica Jones season one, two dark, adult shows with rich characters and a thrilling intensity. In contrast, I have been very disappointed by CBS’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., a show that I feel has been very flat since its beginning. That show has a decent cast but it’s failed to make any of its characters interesting or compelling, and the story-lines have been dull and simplistic. I finally gave up on the show this year.)

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Agent Carter season two picks up a few months after season one, and the location has shifted from New York City to Los Angeles.  Peggy Carter quickly finds herself in the middle of a situation with a crazy woman infected by a powerful substance from another dimension (“Dark Matter”), and a secret cabal of men working to take control of the United States.

For the most part, I feel that Agent Carter season two is very consistent with season one.  That’s good and bad, as the show is certainly enjoyable but it doesn’t elevate into something really great.  Compared to the brilliant Marvel Netflix shows, this network effort feels very simplistic.  Still, Ms. Atwell is phenomenal, effortlessly shouldering the burden of her leading role. The show is fun, with a fairly light, banter-filled tone. The “pulpy” story-lines keep the audience interested, and once again the show mines great fun from the period setting.  (At first I was disappointed when I realized this season would be set in LA rather than New York, but in the end I loved the switch as 1950’s LA proved a fertile ground for the show, and its bright sunny scenery was a good match for the show’s light tone.)

The biggest problem with Agent Carter is that Agent Carter is by far the most interesting character in the show.  I wish Ms Atwell was in a better show, surrounded by more interesting characters and more compelling story-lines.  While the show didn’t lose my interest at any point, neither was anything that happens in this season all that exciting or gripping.  Last season, the show squandered the potential of Leviathan, which was billed as a vast criminal organization that was instead, … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Ant Man!

Marvel’s Ant Man seems to have had the most tumultuous development process of any of the Marvel Studios films so far.  Or, at least, its behind-the-scenes dirty laundry has been the most public.  Edgar Wright spent years developing the film for Marvel, but then when the project was finally, officially put on Marvel’s Phase Two slate, he walked away from the film.  Many wondered if the film was still worth making without Edgar Wright at the helm.

Well, I am pleased to report that director Peyton Reed, working from a screenplay credited to Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish (who were involved with Ant Man’s first iteration) as well as Paul Rudd and Adam McKay (who got involved once Mr. Wright left and Mr. Reed took over), has succeeded in crafting a wonderful addition to the Marvel cinematic universe.  It’s a far smaller-scale film than any of the other Phase Two films, but it works.  There’s some lovely character work and a nice dollop of humor, some cool concepts and fun visual effects, and a lot of clever nods to the wider Marvel cinematic universe.  This is a film that feels very much of a piece with the solo films that kicked off Marvel’s Phase One, films like Captain America: The First Avenger and Thor.  Just like with those films, I was originally dubious that those very comic-booky characters could succeed as movies, but once again Marvel Studios has proven me wrong.

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The greatest strength of the Marvel movies so far, and the secret to their success, has been the films’ impeccable casting, and Ant Man continues that trend.  I love the concept that this film features two characters who have been in costume as the hero Ant Man from the comics — Hank Pym and Scott Lang — with the hook here that Hank Pym was Ant Man many years ago, but has long-since retired.  Michael Douglas is perfect as the now-elderly Hank Pym, a man far past his physical prime but someone whose mind is still sharp.  He brings wonderful gravitas to the character, and to the film as a whole.  His sincerity gives the sometimes-wacky shenanigans of the film an important grounding in reality.  Mr. Douglas is tasked with carrying a lot of the film’s exposition, but Mr. Douglas makes those verbose speeches sing the way few others could.  And he absolutely nails one of the most important scenes in the film, the flashback that he narrates in which he finally reveals the secret of what happened to Janet van Dyne (an important character from the comics who is missing/presumed dead in the film).

Paul Rudd, meanwhile, is also terrific as the new young hero of … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Avengers: Age of Ultron!

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Marvel Studios is on a winning streak the likes of which I have rarely seen.  (The only recent comparison I can draw is Pixar’s incredible run from Ratatouille in 2007 through Toy Story 3 in 2010.)  Right before seeing The Avengers: Age of Ultron, one of my friends sent me a ranking of all of Marvel’s movies.  In response I created my own ranking (which I might publish on this site one of these days).  The bottom two films on my list were Iron Man 2 and The Incredible Hulk.  What’s astonishing is that each of the rest of the eight Marvel films on the list were all pretty great films that I loved a lot — and even those bottom two films were pretty enjoyable!  There really isn’t a true failure in the mix!  Over the past eight years, since 2008’s Iron Man, Marvel has done what had not only never been done before, but really never even conceived of before: they’ve created a vast cinematic universe of interlocking films, with characters and story-lines flowing from film to film in an epic continuing saga.  What’s even more incredible is that, at this point, they make the whole thing look so damn easy!  It’s astounding.  I know Marvel is going to stumble one of these days, but for now I am sitting back and loving every minute of this ride.

The Avengers: Age of Ultron is an amazing film.  I loved it.  Watching this film I had a huge grin on my face for the entire run time.  There are so many reasons this film could have been bad.  Sequels are hard and usually disappoint.  In addition to all of the main Avengers characters, this film introduced a number of new characters and we’ve all seen superhero films (particularly sequels — I’m looking at you, Spider-Man 3) collapse under the weight of too many characters.  Whereas The Avengers was the culmination of the first run of Marvel films, Age of Ultron needs to set up the next several years of story-lines, and that could easily have made the film feel unwieldy and unsatisfying (the fate that befell Iron Man 2).

But thanks to the incredible skill and talent of writer-director Joss Whedon and his astounding team of collaborators (overseen by Marvel Studios mastermind Kevin Feige, the guiding force behind all of these Marvel movies), Age of Ultron soars.  It’s a long-movie but it never drags, it is hugely enjoyable from start to finish.  It’s got enormous, staggeringly gigantic action sequences that astound, but it’s also deeply routed in character with some wonderful moments for every one of the film’s sprawling cast.  It’s serious and tense but it also … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Agent Carter: Season One

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I had high hopes for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. when it launched last year.  The idea of a Marvel TV show was of course of interest to me, but what really excited me was that, as opposed to the various DC Comics superhero shows over the years, this new Marvel TV show would be set in continuity with the Marvel movie universe.  It seems like a total no-brainer of an idea, and yet, nothing like this had ever been done before.  I was super-excited.

And yet, right from the pilot, I was underwhelmed.  Despite the involvement of some great talent both in front of and behind the camera (particularly the show-runner husband-and-wife team of Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen, of whom I have been a far for years), the show seemed surprisingly lifeless.  The characters were dull, the writing was flat, and the episodic structure did not engage me.  Things picked up a little towards the end of the season, when the series’ story-lines took a major turn in connection with the revelations about S.H.I.E.L.D. and Hydra from Captain America: The Winter Soldier.  The first half of this second season has seen the show continue to improve, and I’ve enjoyed the way the show has utilized elements of the mythology of the Inhumans, a classic group of Marvel Comics characters.  But I still think the show is surprisingly mediocre, lacking either the fun or the edge-of-your-seat intensity I was hoping for.

I was excited to hear that Marvel would be launching a second TV series (a mini-series of sorts to fill the time-slot during Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s mid-season hiatus) that would allow Hayley Atwell to reprise her role as Peggy Carter from Captain America: The First Avenger.  I loved everything about that idea.  Ms. Atwell was marvelous as Peggy — she was one of the best things about that first Cap film.  I felt there was still a lot of life left in that character, and I loved the notion of seeing what happened to her in the years following the loss of Cap.  I also loved the idea of a period-piece show; that seemed like a lot of fun, and something unusual for a superhero TV show.  And considering the revelations in Captain America: The Winter Soldier about the nature of S.H.I.E.L.D., suddenly a show about the origins of S.H.I.E.L.D. seemed ripe with potential.  We’d seen that this premise had juice in the wonderful Peggy Carter one-shot short film attached to the DVD of Iron Man Three.  Frankly, the only thing that had me worried was the mediocre quality of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. — would Agent Carter be of just as middling a level of quality?

Well, … [continued]

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Josh Steps Into the Black Mirror

So a few weeks ago, within a few days of one another, I suddenly heard from several friends who each told me that I must, underline must, watch this new show called Black Mirror.  I was struck by this confluence of recommendations, so I felt it was my duty to track down the show’s six episodes that are now streaming on Netflix.  (A seventh installment, a Christmas Special, is as of now only available on Direct TV.)  Holy cow.  My jaw is still on the floor.

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Black Mirror is a British anthology show in the vein of The Twilight Zone.  The first series of three episodes were broadcast in the U.K. back in 2011, and the second series of three episodes appeared in 2013.  The show began streaming here in the States on Netflix last month.

Each episode of Black Mirror stands alone.  There is no continuity between episodes, and each episode features an entirely different setting and cast.  Each episode presents a scary picture of a world that has been changed in some way by technology.  Not for the better.  The Black Mirror of the show’s title makes me think of stepping through the looking glass into a world not like our own but terrifyingly possible.  Series creator Charlie Brooker has also described the Black Mirror as that on all the screens that increasingly surround our lives: our computers, our ipads, our phones, etc.

Each episode of the show is a unique, gorgeous, terrifying mini-movie.  Of the six episodes, I truly don’t think there is a weak link.  Each episode is a parable for the dangerous ways in which technology that might at first seem beneficial can have the power to have a significant negative effect on our lives and our society.  Some episodes take place in a world that is almost identical to our own.  (The very first episode, “The National Anthem,” feels like the closest to our own.  There is no notable technological difference to this society — it’s our world, we just see someone use the technology that we have in a horrifying new way.)   Some episodes take place in a world similar to our own but where a certain technological advance has changed society, which is then explored in that episode.  One episode, “Fifteen Million Merits,” takes place in a more futuristic setting.  Each episode presents a fully-realized world, one in which a very specific idea is being explored in the story.

That first episode, “The National Anthem,” absolutely blew my mind.  It was quite horrifying to watch.  Not because we saw anything gruesome on screen, but because of the screw-tightening intensity of the story.  As the episode unfolds, you witness an insane but … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Captain America: The First Avenger!

And so we come to it at last, the final piece in the puzzle before next summer’s unprecedented super-hero cross-over movie, The Avengers.  There was Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, and Thor, and now we have Captain America: The First Avenger.  Captain America is overly simplistic and a little corny at times, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t a rollicking good time in a movie theatre.

As with all of the Marvel Studios films so far, the film sets itself up for success with its impeccable casting.  Chris Evans was the best thing about the terrible Fantastic Four movies, and he’s found an even better role here in that of Steve Rogers/Captain America.  He absolutely looks the part, and more importantly than that he’s able to sell Steve Rogers’ aw-shucks good-hearted nature without coming off as silly.  He’s an un-ironic heroic lead, and I found his honest, open-faced portrayal to be quite compelling.  This performance is assisted by some wonderful CGI effects that create the 90-pound weakling version of Steve Rogers that we see in the first act.  This isn’t The Curious Case of Benjamin Button style photo-realism, not by any stretch.  But the effects are convincing, and after a few moments I really did stop thinking about the visual effects and just accepted skinny-Steve as a fully-realized character.  It’s a terrific achievement in effects.

Hugo Weaving (The Matrix, The Lord of the Rings) creates yet another iconic villain in the role of Johann Schmidt, The Red Skull.  Putting on what sounded to me like his best impersonation of Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds, Mr. Weaving chews a lot of scenery but never tips over the edge into camp.  The Red Skull is a big, bad, totally EVIL comic-book villain, and I thought he was just terrific.  (Possibly the best bad-guy in a Marvel Studios film so far.)  I loved the look of his make-up effects, and I was pleased that once his fleshy mask comes off, it stays off for the rest of the film.

I was surprised at how large a role Tommy Lee Jones has in the film.  I thought this would just be a cameo, but his Colonel Phillips becomes a key character throughout the film, and Jones just kills.  He gets many of the film’s best lines, and his gruff, warm presence is a delight.  Most of the rest of the film’s best lines go to Stanley Tucci as Dr. Abraham Erskine, the inventor of the super-soldier serum that transforms Steve Rogers into Captain America.  This was another surprise for me, and I appreciated that we really got to know Dr. Erskine in the film’s first … [continued]