Avengers: Endgame Movie Review

**There’s really no way to write a review of Avengers: Endgame without some minor spoilers. You may wish to read this post viewing…

The word “epic” can be overused by those who review movies like me, but it unquestionably applies to Avengers: Endgame. It’s epic in its running time (none of the other 21 MCU pics run three hours) and epic in the number of well-known thespians reprising their superhero and villain characters. It doesn’t seem feasible that so many characters could manage to coexist in this vast universe without seeming like a gimmick. If you happen to think predecessor Infinity War was overcrowded, you’ll get whiplash here. Truth be told, there are moments when this borders on playing like a greatest hits reel based on what’s preceded it during the last eleven years.

Yet Endgame figures out a rewarding way to stick the landing and honor the dozens of faces that we’ve spent billions of dollars visiting since 2008. At the conclusion of Infinity War, bad guy Thanos (Josh Brolin) had collected his precious Infinity Stones and decimated half the intergalactic population into dramatic looking dust particles. What’s left is mostly the core of the OG Avengers – Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). There’s others as Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper) is the sole surviving Guardian of the Galaxy. And we have the two notable characters that were MIA last summer – Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Ant-Man (Paul Rudd).

One might think this whole saga might be about the original band and some newer friends taking on Thanos. You would be wrong. Endgame has plenty of time bending tricks up its endless story arch sleeves. The first is an unexpected resolution that comes very early. However, that climax is just a set-up to further complications.

This is indeed a time travel movie in which the screenwriters almost sheepishly concede the contrived nature of such a device. The survivors set upon a course of multiple back in time ways to retrieve the Stones and bring back their loved ones. It doesn’t happen overnight and the lengthy nature of the plan coming together provides funny and poignant moments. Tony is off the grid with his beloved Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) and a new addition. Bruce is in full Hulk mode, but kindler and gentler. Thor is rounder and drunkenly grappling with his losses. Hawkeye is a full-blown vigilante. When the gang revs up their figurative DeLoreans, it gives us a chance to revisit lots of MCU personnel. And it’s a LOT of former players. Some are genuinely surprising. During this lengthy stretch, the film walks a fine line of not devolving into nostalgic sugar shock amidst the action sequences. By the final act, it rises above it.

We know the battle scenes will be well choreographed and well-directed (with the Russo Brothers handling duties once again). The final one is rather jaw dropping with the mixing of so many known quantities. Thanos is one of the stronger villains in MCU history and he remains so here, though there’s nothing fresh to add about his character. His daughter Nebula (Karen Gillan), on the other hand, continues her evolution as a fine addition to the roster.

The comic relief comes more from Thor as opposed to Ant-Man or Rocket and Hemsworth is up to the task. Captain America and Black Widow are given their emotional moments that we’re invested in from their backstories. To this writer, it’s Tony who’s always been the damaged beating heart of this franchise. The Marvel Cinematic Universe simply wouldn’t exist as it is without Downey Jr.’s brilliant work. That’s never changed. The quality of the movies he’s appeared in has. His performance has always been fantastic. If we’re ranking, I would put Endgame as an overall experience just under the first Avengers in 2012 and Infinity War. I can’t promise that thinking about all the shifting time plot points might raise as many questions as answers. I won’t deny that its emotional payoff is real and we have Downey and an amazing group of technicians bringing these comics to life to thank for it.

***1/2 (out of four)

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

 

The Fate of the Furious Movie Review

The Fate of the Furious is our eighth – yes, eighth – installment of a franchise that it would have been ridiculous to imagine there being that many entries. We’re a long way from the original 16 years ago that was sort of a drag racing rip-off of Point Break, or Point Brake as I deemed it in my review. That said, a common thread among the series is its willingness to be knowingly ridiculous while weaving in endless monologues about the importance of family.

The formula took on a different tone in predecessor Furious 7, which admirably managed to deal with the death of franchise stalwart Paul Walker in its conclusion. In that sense, Fate ushers in a new chapter. New characters are introduced, old ones are rehashed, and the level of silliness is brought to a level not quite seen before. Yes, cars go fast here. However, part 8 owes more to James Bond flicks when they were less grim (think Roger Moore era with a quarter billion dollar budget).

As I’ve written in previous Furious critiques, plot is secondary but here’s what you need to know: Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) has turned on his team. Sort of. He’s being forced to team up with criminal mastermind Cipher (Charlize Theron), who evades authorities in the air on an invisible plane. See what I mean? Isn’t that the kind of villain 007 might battle in the late seventies? Now on the wrong side of justice, Dominic and Cipher must go against Dom’s “family”, including wife Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) and the familiar players played by Dwayne Johnson (whose goofy character is still good for some funny and bizarre moments), Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris, Kurt Russell, and more. Part 7’s main villain Jason Statham is more of a team player this time around and even Oscar winner Helen Mirren turns up as his mum. Statham is granted a fight scene towards the end where he has to be delicate with some cargo he’s carrying (you’ll see what I mean). The scene is genuinely humorous and quite well choreographed.

The plot is all an excuse for the massive action spectacles and globe trotting we’ve become accustomed to and we have it here in Cuba, New York City, and Russia. The climactic sequence set on Russian frozen tundra employs the usual expensive vehicles, but we also are treated to tanks and submarines. Remember the ice action in Pierce Brosnan’s Bond flick Die Another Day? Think that, but it’s not embarrassingly awful.

Our Furious sagas rise and fall on the ability for us to check our brains at the Universal logo. By the third act, I’d succumbed once again to its cheesy charms. Maybe one day this series will truly stall like it briefly did in 2006’s Tokyo Drift. Not yet though and that’s some kind of testament to its durability.

*** (out of four)

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 Movie Review

It’s all about family in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, the follow-up to the wildly successful 2014 entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Three years ago, Star-Lord, Gamora and company brought a humor and irreverence to the comic book picture previously unseen at that level. Of course, we saw flashes of it with Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man and others, but Guardians felt fresh with its Top 40 oldies soundtrack and constantly winking screenplay.

James Gun is back as writer and director and the elements that made the predecessor successful are here again. Our second helping manages to provide enough material to admire, even if it can’t match what made the first one so special. We have a lot of subplots competing for screen time as the MCU continues to expand. The bulk of the characters here and elsewhere in Avengers world will eventually congregate and it’ll be a real test of script allocation for attention.

The attention here primarily focuses on Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) and his backstory. As we recall from the original, he’s got some Daddy issues and after three decades plus, he mets him in the form of Ego (Kurt Russell). Dad is a part human and part Godlike being who quickly seduces his offspring with his nifty own planet that’s a marvel itself in production design.

The other Guardians are here with Gamora (Zoe Saldana) still dealing with her super jealous sister Nebula (Karen Gillian) and unspoken chemistry with Star-Lord. Drax (Dave Bautista) reminds us that he can charmingly insult people with the best of them and a lot of that is saved for Ego’s right-hand woman Mantis (Pom Klementieff). And Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper) and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel’s vocal stylings) return to provide comic relief. The nefarious Rocket and seriously adorable Groot are certainly allotted their share of smile inducing moments. Our family drama also means the return of Yondu (Michael Rooker doing fine work under all that makeup), who raised Star-Lord.

Pratt reminds us why Guardians rocketed him into silver screen stardom and Russell, with swagger to match, is an inspired casting choice. The action sequences are of the highest caliber and I’ll give the opening battle sequence credit for incorporating recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees Electric Light Orchestra.

So while Vol. 2 is totally acceptable popcorn entertainment, it didn’t leave me grinning from ear to ear like during the first one’s conclusion. Perhaps the attitude that made 2014’s pic so effective feels more familiar now (Deadpool in its own more R rated way continued that trend). Perhaps there are too many plot lines competing against themselves. And perhaps the revelations in the aforementioned familial situations are a bit predictable. That said, Vol. 2 keeps the MCU assembly line pleasantly humming along.

*** (out of four)

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 Box Office Prediction

The summer of 2017 kicks off as it has numerous times before in recent seasons – with a major Disney/Marvel production expected to post gargantuan box office numbers. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 follows up the blockbuster that turned out to be the biggest hit of summer 2014.

James Gunn returns to direct, as does the superhero cast of Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, and the vocal work of Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel (as Baby Groot this time around). Also back are Glenn Close and Michael Rooker. Joining the mix in the sequel are Tango (Sylvester Stallone) and Cash (Kurt Russell)!

There is little doubt that Vol. 2 will post impressive results and quite easily outdo what its predecessor opened at three summers ago. Flashback to 2014 and Guardians was actually considered a risk. Strong reviews and word-of-mouth propelled it to a $94 million premiere and $333 million overall domestic haul. Expectations for the opening here are much higher. $150 million seems to be the low bar. Critical reaction to the sequel has been mostly encouraging and it stands at 85% on Rotten Tomatoes, with most reviewers saying it doesn’t quite match the freshness of the original.

A better comparison to its potential could be last summer’s Captain America: Civil War, opened the 2016 season with $179 million or Iron Man 3, which started off summer 2013 with $174 million. I’m predicting Guardians won’t quite reach those numbers, but come close.

My Vol. 2 projection puts it at the 9th largest domestic opening of all time, in between Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. My estimate gives it the 5th highest debut in both the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the month of May and second biggest 2017 bow after March’s Beauty and the Beast. 

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 opening weekend prediction: $166.4 million