Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse Movie Review

In the 21st century cinematic universe, the famed web slinger has been reinvented on a number of occasions – from Tobey Maguire to Andrew Garfield to Tom Holland. SpiderMan: Into the SpiderVerse is the first one that feels truly inventive. Anyone thinking this animated experience would be a sub par spin-off or money grab will find themselves sorely mistaken. This iteration of the iconic hero has a lot of heart, plenty of action, and a warped sense of humor that elicits genuine laughs. Directors Bob Perischetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman (who co-wrote the screenplay along with Phil Lord) have drawn up what is probably the most satisfying Spidey pic on its own terms.

The picture posits the theory that our title character does his Spidey thing in multiple dimensions and in different forms than just Peter Parker. These characters are familiar to fans of the Marvel Comics and even includes Spider-Ham, representing the hero in pig form. He’s here and he’s fabulous. Our primary Spidey here is Miles (voiced by Shameik Moore), a Brooklyn teen with a police officer father and a potentially shady uncle that he admires. Miles attends a prep school and feels lost in his adolescence just like Peter Parker did. He’s a fan of Spider-Man, who is currently fighting Big Apple crime in the manner we’re accustomed to. That’s until bad guy Kingpin (Liev Schrieber) knocks him off, but not before Miles get a radioactive bite that gives him the well-known powers.

What follows is a visually splendid adventure where it’s clear that the makers really adore the character. At the same time, they take him in unforeseen directions that perhaps only the animated format could allow. Miles’s Spidey teams with an aging and out of shape Peter Parker (Jake Johnson) from a different “verse”, along with Spider-Woman (Hailee Steinfeld) and the aforementioned Ham version. There’s others, but part of the fun is watching them appear without me spoiling it.

Plenty of superhero movies take themselves quite seriously and many have succeeded with that tone. Guardians of the Galaxy and Deadpool introduced a different dynamic that is evident here. Yet SpiderVerse is not derivative. It manages to take one of the most repeated story arcs in the genre and cleverly turn it on its head. I enjoyed it immensely. The possibilities are many for this particular universe to continue and I’m up for it.

***1/2 (out of four)

Oscar Watch: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Over the past 16 years, we’ve witnessed numerous iterations of the famed web slinging superhero Spider-Man. From Tobey Maguire to Andrew Garfield to Tom Holland and two franchise reboots, the character has been omnipresent in our multiplexes. So the idea of an animated version might have seemed like overkill when Sony announced SpiderMan: Into the SpiderVerse, which creates a world in which multiple people can be the iconic character.

Critical reaction out today suggests otherwise. SpiderVerse stands at 100% on Rotten Tomatoes with over 30 reviews in. Some write-ups claim it’s the best Spidey feature since 2004’s SpiderMan 2. Select others claim it’s the best of the whole bunch (this will be seventh stand-alone entry).

Will Oscar notice? It seems highly likely. That would mean a nod in Best Animated Feature. It marks a fourth near “sure thing “ in that race, including current box office champ Ralph Breaks the Internet and Isle of Dogs. The raves bestowed upon this suggests it could even stand a better chance at winning than those pictures. Yet it could be a tall order to overcome the Pixar juggernaut involving other superheroes – Incredibles 2.

Bottom line: SpiderVerse is into the Animated Feature mix in a major way. It’s out stateside on December 14. My Oscar Watch posts will continue…

Avengers: Infinity War Movie Review

A decade into its multi-billion dollar cinematic universe, Avengers: Infinity War invites viewers to marvel at its gathering of superhero titans to fight another – a villain from planet Titan who reverses  one frequent MCU debit (a weak villain). It’s an experience that yields many positive results packed with the action and humor we’ve come to anticipate from the best of this franchise. This movie is massive and it feels that way. The 19th entry in the MCU that started with 2008’s Iron Man, here we have nearly all the significant characters from its catalog banding together. If you ever wondered how Thor (Chris Hemsworth) would get along with the Guardians of the Galaxy, the answer is humorously provided. How do the egos of Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) meld? You’re about to find out. What happens when the original Avengers and others pick up their weapons alongside Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) in Wakanda? Giddyup!

All of this runs the risk of Infinity War coming off as gimmicky, but it mostly doesn’t. That’s because directors Anthony and Joe Russo and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely do a remarkable job sticking these giants into the blender and creating something that goes down smooth. This is not necessarily a sequel to 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron or 2016’s Captain America: Civil War (essentially the third Avengers flick). Rather it’s a follow-up to almost every MCU title. It’s important to know what happened in the actual Avengers pics and Civil War, but I’d suggest having knowledge of the Guardians, Panther, and so on. Lucky for Disney and Marvel Studios, you probably do. The gathering of these comic book and box office behemoths leads Infinity War to often feel like the continuation of a long running TV serial – albeit one with huge stars and an unlimited budget.

What brings all the characters together is Thanos (Josh Brolin). He has the proportions of the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and a similar sized ambitions of world destruction. Thanos is hell-bent on collecting the Infinity Stones, six potent gems that would render him all-powerful and capable of wiping out populations of many galaxies. After the breakup of the Avengers in Civil War two years ago, it’s Thanos that causes Mr. Stark and Captain America (Chris Evans) to put their differences aside. Thus begins the jigsaw puzzle of matching up Guardians and Asgardian gods with Wakanda kings and mystical doctors and your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man (Tom Holland).

As you may recall, Thanos has history with one particular character – Gamora (Zoe Saldana). She’s his adopted daughter after he decimated her home planet when she was a little girl. For those who might have assumed the Guardians of the Galaxy would have a glorified cameo in this universe, that is certainly not the case. It’s Gamora’s backstory with Thanos that puts meat on his character’s bones and assists in making him one of the franchise’s best villains. Brolin, for his part, gives the performance his menacing all in crafting him.

Delving too far into what happens in Infinity War would feel like cheating in any review. Part of the fun here is discovering just how these dozens of heroes and villains coexist. Some general observations: Thor alongside Groot and Rocket is a joy, as is witnessing Groot as a bratty teen with its attention rooted to a video game device. The return to Wakanda and its whip smart inhabitants feels welcome just weeks after Panther’s stand-alone effort. And after 10 years of Tony Stark onscreen in numerous MCU titles, Downey Jr.’s portrayal of him is still as strong as ever. There’s never been a moment in the decade where it felt like Downey was slumming it. He’s the heart of this franchise.

The conclusion of Infinity War leaves a lot open for the sequel that will arrive next year. When the credits roll before the inevitable post-credits sequence, we witness something both powerful and perhaps not as powerful as it seems after careful thought (saying more would be a spoiler). There’s no doubt, however, that this comic book all-star game is a winner.

***1/2 (out of four)

Oscar Watch – Avengers: Infinity War

This weekend is all about Avengers: Infinity War at the box office as it barrels toward a potentially record-setting debut. The film looks, at the least, poised to set the all-time opening weekend record for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This is the 19th picture in the MCU as the multi-billion dollar franchise is about to hit its ten-year anniversary. 

Infinity will certainly make its mark financially, but could Academy voters take notice? In short – probably not. The pic stands at 85% currently on Rotten Tomatoes. That’s a bit below the original Avengers from 2012 (92%) and a bit above 2015 sequel Age of Ultron (75%). No MCU title or any comic book adaptation has managed a Best Picture nomination and I see no reason to think this will.

Having said that, the Marvel folks stand their best opportunity yet to score a nod in the biggest category of them all. And that would be Black Panther, which was released in February. It stands a real shot. Looking through the Oscar history with this franchise, The Avengers scored a Best Visual Effects nomination in 2012 and lost to Life of Pi. No nominations were given to Ultron.

Bottom line: Infinity War could find itself in the mix for Visual Effects and possibly even the Sound categories. Yet any real MCU love from voters will go to King T’Challa.

Avengers: Infinity War Box Office Prediction

It may feel like winter in many parts of the country even though it’s spring, but next weekend is essentially the start of the summer box office in 2018 when Avengers: Infinity War invades theaters. This is the 19th picture in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that began a decade ago with 2008’s Iron Man and the third installment of the Avengers franchise that kicked off in 2012 (an untitled fourth installment is out next summer).

After 10 years of these superheroes populating our screens in one form or another, Infinity War is the picture that brings them all together. That means we have the Avengers we’re used to seeing together: Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). They’ve got a whole lot of company this time around, including Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Spider-Man (Tom Holland), Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), War Machine (Don Cheadle), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Bucky (Sebastian Stan), and the whole Guardians of the Galaxy gang (Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, and the vocal work of Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel). Josh Brolin is main villain Thanos. Other actors from the MCU returning include Gwyneth Paltrow, Idris Elba, Paul Bettany, Letitia Wright, Danai Gurira, Benicio del Toro, Cobie Smulders, Angela Bassett, Tessa Thompson, and Jon Favreau. Brothers Anthony and Joe Russo (who directed 2016’s Captain America: Civil War) are behind the camera. Whew…

The gathering of the entire MCU is one impressive selling point and there’s been developments that have even increased the anticipation for Infinity‘s release. Last summer’s Spider-Man: Homecoming was well-received, as were Guardians and Thor sequels. Yet perhaps more than anything else, this February’s Black Panther turned into a phenomenon – becoming the third highest grossing domestic earner of all time.

Projections have steadily increased in the past few weeks. It is not outside the realm of possibility that Infinity War could have the largest stateside opening of all time. In order to do so, it would need to surpass the $247 million achieved by 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens. To accomplish the 2nd biggest debut, it would need to exceed the $220 million of last year’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi. It will almost certainly achieve the record for an MCU premiere, which is currently held by the original Avengers at $207 million.

I believe this will pass Jedi and rather easily. Getting to the Awakens number is doable, but I’ll project it falls a bit under that milestone.

Avengers: Infinity War opening weekend prediction: $240.2 million

 

Oscar Watch: The Current War

On paper, The Current War certainly looks like a potential Oscar contender. It comes from the Weinstein Company, a studio that knows how to get their pictures nominated. It’s a period piece drama featuring previous nominees Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Shannon, as well as other recognizable faces like Nicholas Hoult, Tom Holland, and Katherine Waterston. It’s director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s follow-up to his acclaimed 2015 indie dramedy Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. 

War casts Cumberbatch as Thomas Edison and Shannon as George Westinghouse in their rivalry to determine whose electricity would power the world. Yet the buzz from the Toronto Film Festival over the weekend has dimmed its chances at Academy attention. There’s a small number of reviews available, but most of them have been negative and it’s at just 20% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Unless the Weinstein group figures out a way to make some nominating magic happen, it’s unlikely Current will factor into the race at all. Mr. Shannon, on the bright side, could get Supporting Actor attention for the far more well-received The Shape of Water. 

My Oscar Watch posts will continue…

 

Spider-Man: Homecoming Movie Review

Spider-Man: Homecoming is the third reiteration of the web slinger franchise that began a decade and a half ago. It arrives three years after the first reboot with Andrew Garfield sputtered in its second entry. That franchise faded away being plagued by the same issues that Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire’s trilogy suffered at its end – too many villains and generally trying to cram too much superfluous material. It’s a pleasure to report that Homecoming doesn’t suffer the same problems.

In fact, our third Spidey helping soars the most when Peter Parker stays grounded. Tom Holland is the title character, getting his stand-alone pic after a brief appearance in last summer’s Captain America: Civil War. Yes, Spidey/Peter is now part of the vast Marvel Cinematic Universe and he’s a pupil of none other than Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.). Well, sort of. After assisting in one epic battle in Civil War, Peter wrongly assumes he’s part of The Avengers. Yet Stark isn’t exactly quick to enlist him, tasking his trusty bodyguard Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) to keep tabs on him but not involve him in their day-to-day world saving activities.

That leaves Peter doing his Spidey thing on a much smaller scale, busting carjackers and ATM thieves in New York City while hiding his identity from Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) and his high school buddies. That consists mostly of just one classmate Ned (Jacob Batalon), a fellow nerd. Peter also has a serious crush on Liz (Laura Harrier), the lovely captain of the academic decathlon team. There’s another female student, played by Zendaya, that you suspect will become more important as the franchise continues. Homecoming does something that other Spidey flicks never really bothered to do. It makes Peter Parker a credible high school student. Part of the problem in the first two series was that you never bought Maguire or Garfield as underclassmen. With Holland, his youthful exuberance and awkwardness sell it. Of the trio we’ve seen thus far, he is probably the best Spider-Man. He’s definitely the best Peter Parker.

One of Spidey’s busts while waiting for Tony Stark to call with bigger projects leads him to Toomes (Michael Keaton), whose backstory is explained in the opening sequence. He’s a former small business owner gone disgruntled after more powerful interests (Mr. Stark and his empire) took his livelihood away. Toomes retaliates by using some stolen materials to develop weapons. Just as Peter is an everyday guy who becomes a superhero, Toomes is a once normal Joe who becomes a super villain. With Keaton playing him, it’s a pleasure to watch. One often deserved knock on the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that a solid villain is about as common as a Marvel Cinematic Unicorn. As with Loki, this offers an exception and Keaton is the reason why.

The scenes in the high school are handled with a often light, humorous and believable touch. Our grand action set pieces are expertly handled, but not much different than anything else we see multiple times a year (one at the Washington Monument is pretty nifty though). Homecoming does a commendable job at remembering that our hero is a neighborhood Spider-Man. Even though we know a much larger universe awaits him, it’s a treat to watch him working in relatively more grounded reality.

*** (out of four)