Black Panther: Wakanda Forever

Posted on November 8, 2022 at 12:20 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of strong violence, action, and some language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Fantasy potion
Violence/ Scariness: Extended and intense comic-book/fantasy peril and violence, very sad deaths, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: November 11, 2022
Date Released to DVD: February 6, 2023
Copyright 2022 Disney

The sequel to “Black Panther,” like the original, begins with the death of the king. We may think we were prepared for this. We have had two years to mourn Chadwick Boseman, whose instantly iconic portrayal of the title character was powerfully dignified, courageous, dedicated to his people, and yet endearingly vulnerable. Remember how overcome he was by Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o). But in the first moments of “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” we see Queen Ramonda (a fiercely fiery Angela Bassett) and her scientist/engineer daughter Suri (Letitia Wright) shocked and devastated by the death of their son and brother, King T’Challa, of some unstated illness. Suri had frantically tried to create a synthetic version of the vibranium-infused “heart-shaped herb” that might have been able to heal him. And so, their grief is deepened by a sense of failure. His loss is the end of the Black Panther line because only the herb could grant the superpower strength and agility.

It is clear, though, that it is not just the characters who are in mourning but the actors and the filmmakers, who give Boseman a most loving tribute. Like the people of Wakanda, we have lost a rare and treasured member of our community who had so much more to give us. This is a comic book movie with a lot of tears on screen and I predict a lot in the audience as well.

A year after T’Challa’s death, the queen has taken over as the leader of Wakanda. She appears before a UN panel who accuse her of not living up to her country’s promise to share the extraordinary properties of vibranium, which is found only in their country and is the basis for their extraordinary technology. She tells them that they have shown they will abuse the mineral by adapting it for offensive weapons. She is withholding it, “not for the dangerous nature of vibranium, but for the dangerous nature of you.”

Predictably, the world powers were not going to wait for Queen Ramonda to decide to share vibranium. The US has a vibranium detecting machine — just one — that has located some on the ocean floor. The leader of the previously unknown vibranium-based underwater country is Namor (Tenoch Huerta). He appears before Queen Ramunda with a threat — if she does not Find and kill the inventor of the machine that can find vibranium, he will attack Wakanda.

It is a shock to the exceptionalism of Wakanda’s identity to disco ver that vibranium not only exists in other place; it has also been the basis for an advanced civilization. And they are more protective, even aggressive, in keeping out intruders. Like the first film, which popularized the term “colonizer” as an insult, this film is grounded in the trauma of centuries of plunder and abuse. It lends the series a gravity that makes even the most fanciful elements more meaningful.

Suri and the General of the Wakanda army, Okoye (Danai Gurira) find the inventor, an MIT undergraduate Marvel comic fans will recognize as Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne). She is, like Suri, an engineering genius. And she has a gift for skunkworks machines made from a combination of junkyard finds and uniquely crafted designs. Namor and the Wakandans are not the only people who want the creator of the machine. This leads to a wild chase scene through the streets of Boston, and to both girls being taken to Namor’s Talokan. Suri is curious to learn as much as possible about Talokan. And she is determined to protect Riri.

The movie’s visuals are stunning, wildly imaginative but within the realm of possibility and always gorgeous. Production designer Hannah Beachler, who has worked with writer/director Ryan Coogler since “Fruitvale Station,” and Ruth E. Carter, who was awarded a well-deserved Oscar for “Black Panther’s” costumes, have outdone themselves with one jaw-drooping image after another, always in service of the story. Queen Ramona’s jewelry and costumes match Bassett’s powerful dignity and resolve. The people of Talokan reflect the indigenous designs of South America. Every single time they appear out of the ocean, it is goosebump-inducing. The titles informing us of the locations begin with the native lettering, and then are translated into English, underscoring the respect for the cultures being portrayed, refusing to “other” them.

As I have observed many times before, superhero movies depend, more than the powers of their heroes, on the motives and personality of their villains. Eric Killmonger, played by Michael B. Jordan in the first film, is, in my opinion, the best Marvel villain of all time. Huerta’s Namor is also a top-level villain, willing to do whatever it takes to protect his people, still furious over what happened to them when they still lived on the land. His conflicts parallel Suri’s, making the dynamic between them more meaningful. Where does justice end and vengeance begin? Is it possible to have one without the other?

This is a movie about the Wakandan women. Winston Duke’s M’Baku and CIA Wakanda expert Ross (Martin Freeman) play important supporting roles, but it is Queen Ramunda, Suri, Okoye, Nokia, and Riri who are at the center of this story. Their interaction, with good will and often good humor (the comments about the dress presented to Shuri by the Talokans is a hoot) is the vibranium that is this film’s superpawer.

Of course there is also that wow of a chase scene and terrific comic-book action. There are some flaws — too much backstory, and the whole idea that killing the inventor would prevent any further efforts to locate more of the world’s most precious substance — but this is a movie that would make T’Challa proud, and it is a worthy tribute to Boseman and to the Marvel writers and artists who first envisioned Wakanda and made us all want it to go on forever.

Parents should know that this movie has intense comic-book peril and violence with characters injured and killed and some painful deaths of family members. Characters use brief fstrong language and there is a non-explicit scene of childbirth.

Family discussion: How are Namor and Suri alike? How are they different? What should Wakanda do about sharing vibranium?

If you like this, try; “Black Panther” and the comic books

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Black Adam

Posted on October 20, 2022 at 5:04 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of strong violence, intense action and some language
Profanity: A few strong words
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic book/supehero peril and violence, many characters injured and killed including family members and a child held and gunpoint and another one murdered,
Date Released to Theaters: October 21, 2022
Date Released to DVD: January 3, 2023

Copyright 2022 Warner Brothers
In the mid-credit scene in “The League of Super-Pets,” Dwayne Johnson (as Black Adam) explains to Krypto the super-dog (also Johnson) what it means to be an anti-hero. “It’s basically the same thing as being a hero but way cooler. You make your own rules and then you break them. Also you can ignore most moral and ethical conventions because no one can stop you.”

That was a cheeky nod to Johnson’s next role, the anti-hero of “Black Adam,” a DC Comics superhero/anti-hero, which has a lot of old-school superhero requirements — origin story, walking away from a huge fire without looking back, heroes in slo-mo, and someone looking up into the sky and moan/yelling “Noooooo!” Make that two “Noooooos!” It also has a bit of meta-humor about catchphrases and more recent addition to the expected elements: some Gen-Z superheroes, one for comic relief, and, much more welcome, a lot more diversity.

That mid-credit sequence in an animated movie for kids had a better understanding of what it means to be an anti-hero than this movie does. More seriously, it also had a much better idea of how to make the best of one of Hollywood’s most appealing actors. “Black Adam” (known as Teth Adam for most of the film) does not have a clear idea of where its title character should fall on the spectrum from anti-hero to hero. And he is tamped down emotionally for most of it, which means we get only glimpses of Johnson’s limitless charm.

We do get plenty of what we go to superhero movies for, though, big superhero fights with an assortment of well-crafted characters using their different powers. There’s a solid theme about an (imaginary but believable) resource-rich place that has been occupied by oppressive invaders for millennia.

It begins thousands of years ago, before the great civilizations of Egypt and Rome, in the Middle Eastern area known as Kahndaq. After many years of peace and plenty, a ruler arises who wants absolute power. He enslaves the population and makes them mine the country’s version of Wakanda’s vibranium and Pandora’s unnobtanium, oh and also the rings of power. This is called etermium, and a crown made out of it will give the wearer all the superpowers necessary to control pretty much everything. Just as a note, these folks are not the greatest with names. The thugs who are running Kohndaq have the most boring name possible for a bunch of menacing tough guys. They are called Intergang. Seriously. That’s like one of those incomplete programming jokes from “Free Guy.”

A young boy tries to inspire the enslaved people to challenge the king. Wizards pick someone to be a hero and bestow magical powers on him.

We will not find out the whole story of the hero’s defeat of that ruler until later in the film, but after the opening sequence, we are in present day, and Adriana (Sarah Shahi) is trying to retrieve the crown from the cave where it has been hidden for thousands of years, because she knows people are trying to steal it. Things don’t go well and the ancient hero is brought back to life as Teth Adam, who can not just fly but levitate and shoot lightning from his body. Even mercenaries with etermium-powered technology are no match for that.

Teth Adam’s literal scorched-earth approach attracts the attention of the Justice Society, and there is one of those tense but understated calls between Hackman (Aldis Hodge) and Amanda Waller (Viola Davis). I hope Hawkman gets his own movie, by the way. Hodge is wonderfully magnetic and his character’s wings are very well designed. He brings in his old friend (old in both senses of the word), Dr. Fate (Pierce Brosnan, all silky elegance and world-weariness), who has all kinds of tricks, including the ability to see the future. They are accompanied by two newcomers, Maxine (Quintessa Swindell), described as “a tornado with a 167 IQ), and the affable if a bit clueless Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo), who has just inherited the super-suit from his uncle (Henry Winkler!) and hasn’t got all the kinks out.

Teth Adam is presented as opposite to Hawkman because he does not worry about whether it is fair to kill the bad guys when not in a specific situation of peril. But the more interesting question that is raised is from Adriana, who points out that Teth Adam is from their community, while the so-called Justice Society are just another set of interlopers, Justics-splaining to people who cannot help wondering why justice did not seem so important during their centuries of occupation and abuse.

Of course, that’s just a very small part of the film. The rest is comic-book action, and all of that is well staged except for the key element that we are not given enough information about the powers and especially the vulnerabilities of all of the many superheroes. That makes even the most energetic and expertly staged conflicts less exciting than they could be. And Teth Adam does not meet the description of Johnson’s meta-description in the animated film. He’s not someone who has deliberately chosen to violate ethical principles. He’s more like the Terminator in the first film, just a shark-like machine who pursues goals regardless of collateral damage. His interaction with a skater boi teenager (Bodhi Sabongui as Amon) recalls “Terminator 2,” even to the kid’s insistence on providing Teth Adam with a catchphrase.

As Teth becomes more human by reckoning with the losses of his past, we begin to see a little more life in the character. But by then of course we are in the middle of yet another superhero battle, this time more emotionally charged because we have begun to care about the characters. The pilot light is still too low but it’s getting warmer.

NOTE: Stay for a mid-credit scene indicating which legendary character will be joining the cast in the sequel.

Parents should know that this movie has extended superhero/comic book peril and violence with many minor characters and a few major characters injured and killed, including a child held at gunpoint and another who is killed. There are some disturbing and graphic images including a character sliced in half, several burned to death, and a couple impaled. Characters use brief strong language.

Family discussion: What is the biggest difference of opinion between Hawkman and Teth Adam? What would you like to have as your catchphrase?

If you like this, try: “Man of Steel,” “Shazam,” and “Justice League”

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Thor: Love and Thunder

Posted on July 7, 2022 at 8:10 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense sci-fi violence, action, language, partial nudity and some suggestive material
Profanity: S-words, mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic book/action-style peril and violence, characters injured, sad death
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: July 8, 2022
Date Released to DVD: September 26, 2022

Copyright 2022 Disney
Taika Watiti’s sly, understated. offbeat humor is a great match for Thor, a superhero who is literally a god with a post British accent. Thor could come across as stiff and stuffy if not for the combination of Watiti and Chris Hemsworth, who has the rare ability to be effortlessly hilarious while still being a completely believable superhero god. I’ve often said that superhero movies are made or lost based on the villains, not the heroes. On that basis, “Thor: Love and Thunder” is less successful. But it is so much fun along the way, and often genially goofy, two words that don’t usually apply to superhero movies, that it is satisfyingly entertaining.

The last time we saw Thor he was looking more like The Big Lebowski than a god of Asgard and his planet had been destroyed. He pulled himself together for “Avengers: Endgame” and New Asgard is now up and running under the rule of King Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson). Thor spends his days in quiet contemplation until he is called upon to save the world again, which he does with brio and then returns to his solitude. Asgard is a quaint little town by the water and has become a favorite tourist destination. One popular attraction is the re-enactment of some of the highlights of Asgardian history, with performers played by Matt Damon and Luke Hemsworth plus two I won’t spoil).

Meanwhile, Thor’s ex, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), has Stage 4 cancer. And somehow she is called to or by the legendary Mjolnir, the once-shattered hammer that has re-assembled itself like the silvery guy in “Terminator 2.” This makes her into Thor, apparently in addition to, not instead of the Thor who was named by his father, Odin. One of the most endearingly goofy elements of the film is the way original Thor’s new weapon, the axe called Stormbreaker, is sensitive and a bit worried about its predecessor returning. Original Thor is better at sharing his feelings with his weapons than he is with human beings. I predict that Brene Brown will be using clips from this movie to illustrate future lectures about the importance of vulnerability.

And then, the bad guy. Christian Bale plays Gorr, who we first see as a devoted acolyte in a destroyed world. He has lost everything, including his daughter, but believes in the salvation and afterlife his religion has promised. When he learns that his god cares nothing for humans and there is no eternal life he grabs the Necrosword and the combination of grief, anger, betrayal, and the sword’s magic turns him into something of a Terminator of his own (though looking more like zombie Voldemort), with just one imperative — killing all the gods.

The action scenes are great fun and there are a lot of delightful small details you might miss the first time through, but is it the humor, the characters, and the warmth of their connection that stand out. Watiti returns as Thor’s sidekick Korg, his quiet, tentative voice an amusing counterpart to his enormous rock body. In the vast assemblage of gods, Russell Crowe appears as a lightning bolt-throwing Zeus. Thompson and Portman have great chemistry and Hemsworth is as good at comedy as he is at looking like a Norse god, which is as good as it gets. Korg tells us that coming out of his depression, Thor went from dad bod to god bod. It is good to see him here going from sad guy to, well, you’ll see.

NOTE: Stay through the end of the credits to see two extra scenes.

Parents should know that this movie has many s-words and extended peril and comic-book style action violence with many characters injured, cancer treatment, and a sad death. There is also a brief flash of rear nudity.

Family questions: What would you choose for your catch phrase? How do you make sure you don’t wall off your feelings after being hurt?

If you like this, try: the other “Thor” movies and Watiti’s “What We Do in the Shadows” film and television series

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Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

Posted on May 3, 2022 at 11:27 am

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for frightening images, action, intense sequences of violence, and some language
Profanity: Some strong language, s-word
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drugged drinks
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic-book/fantasy peril and violence, scary monsters, zombie, disturbing and grisly images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: May 6, 2022
Date Released to DVD: July 25, 2022

Copyright Disney 2022
The year of the multi-verses continues with the latest Marvel entry, “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” directed by master of horror Sam Raimi (and with a special cameo by Raimi’s favorite actor, Bruce Campbell). As the MCU continues to evolve and expand, this movie builds not just on all of the Marvel movies that have come before. There are references to Thanos turning half the population to dust and to the most recent Spider-Man movie (where Strange played a key role). It also helps a lot to have seen the television series “Wandavision,” with Elizabeth Olsen as the Scarlet Witch, a sometime Avenger with, even by Avenger standards, extraordinary powers. She can create almost anything and in that series, her response to the tragic loss of her love, Vision, was to create an entire world, in part inspired by the videos of American television series she saw as a child in fictional Communist Bloc country Sokovia, where she and Vision lived in sit-com suburbia.

It begins in medias res, a battle with a very big monster who seems to be made of electrified spaghetti. There is a teenage girl and a choice, something that would destroy her but save the world, at least until the next monster. Doctor Strange, the famously hyper-rational, often arrogant surgeon-turned sorcerer with the greying temples and magical cloak, has to decide. What will he do? What should he do?

He makes a choice and then he wakes up. It was a dream. Or maybe it was not. He will learn that it was a peak into the multiverse, the parallel versions of our world we got a glimpse of in “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” when two other Spider-Mans (Spider-Men?) and a handful of their villains joined together in our world. There is a way to physically enter the other verses and there is a way to “dream-walk,” to inhabit another verse’s version of you and substitute your thoughts and emotions. And that teenager, America Chavez (a terrifically natural Xochitl Gomez of “The Babysitter’s Club”) shows up with the key to some of that verse-hopping.

Strange seeks out Wanda to ask for her help. They walk through her peaceful grove of apple blossoms and he tells her they smell “real.” She assures him they are, that she is done with world-building. The meaning of “real” is a theme of the film as the different versions of the characters in the multi-verses present different ideas of reality, including free food and a verse where everyone is paint, plus some surprising switches in roles, personalities, hair color and style (Strange with a ponytail?), and destinies. And there are monsters, including a very cool one that looks like a gigantic corrugated octopus with a head that’s one enormous eyeball, like a spider-y band member from The Residents.

That’s as spoiler-y as I want to get. So I will stick to some general comments. Cumberbatch makes Strange vivid, layered, even a little bit vulnerable, and the interactions with the woman he loves, Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) and America have a nice symmetry that helps us see Strange work through his options, both for fighting the villain and for moving forward in his own life. The visual design is wonderfully imaginative, each verse filled with enthralling details. The action scenes are well staged, Raimi brings a tingly horror twinge to the mood, and Danny Elfman’s music is everything you want a superhero soundtrack to be. It feels good to be back in the IMAX MCU.

What keeps it under the level of the best of these films, though, is what has been an increasing issue in superhero movies. The powers are not clearly defined, so the stakes are not clearly defined. It is not enough to say it’s about the fate of the world or even the fate of America (the person, though of course the country, too). It feels like too many times that we’ve been told that someone has ultimate power, and then someone comes along with more ultimate power. (I did think it was very funny when we saw the Infinity Stones carelessly tossed into a low-level bureaucrat’s desk drawer in the “Loki” series.) I’m not saying every superhero has to be Superman, with his abilities and vulnerability clearly defined. But this film’s search for two artifacts as the keys to resolving the conflict are a distraction from the level of mythic existential conflict this movie tries for. It is a particularly weak moment when Strange, whose power comes from intensive training, resorts to the old “just figure out how to use your power in the next nano-second.” The special effects are state-of-the-art but there’s only so much they can do with characters who just shoot electricity at each other.

NOTE: Stay all the way to the end of the credits for two extra scenes.

Parents should know that this is at the upper edge of a PG-13 with some strong language (s-words) and extensive comic book/fantasy peril and violence with some disturbing and graphic images, including a disintegrating zombie. Characters are drugged.

Family discussion: Is it ever right to sacrifice one person to save many? (Look up “The Trolly Problem.”) What does it mean to always want to be the one holding the knife?

If you like this, try: “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” and “Another Earth”

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Morbius

Posted on March 31, 2022 at 11:57 am

C-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some frightening images, intense sequences of violence, and brief Strong language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Mind and body-altering medication
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic-book/fantasy peril and violence, vampires, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: March 31, 2022
Date Released to DVD: June 13, 2022
Copyright 2022 Sony

More like “Bore”-bius, amirite?

Sorry, couldn’t help it. I don’t know if it was the absence of Marvel MCU mastermind Kevin Feige (this movie comes from Sony, which has the rights to Spider-Man and the characters from his comics) or if they’re just digging down so deep into the MCU to find new IP, I mean new characters to develop and have run out of all the good ones, or both. But whatever the reason, “Morbius,” with Jared Leto is something no superhero movie should ever be — dull. The action scenes are poorly staged and the special effects are awful. Plus, it spends much too much time on the origin story somehow without ever making us connect to the title character.

Leto plays Michael Morbius, an only-in-comics character who is severely disabled and a genius. And, of course, something of a renegade. He is so dazzlingly brilliant that he is the youngest scientist ever to win a Nobel Prize, but such a rapscallion that he waits until he is wearing white tie at the ceremony to tell the King of Sweden he is turning it down. He is in a furious race against time to find a cure for his debilitating genetic disorder. The funding for his rogue lab comes from the childhood friend played as an adult by Matt Smith (“Dr. Who,” “The Crown”). They met in a residential treatment facility run by kind-hearted doctor Emil Nikols (Jared Harris). When they first meet, young Michael dubs the new arrival Milo, though his name is Lucien, to indicate that he is just another in an endless line of young patients who die so quickly it is not worth learning their names. Nevertheless, they become friends and he continues to be known as Milo.

Their shared problem is some blood-related thing, so Morbius comes up with the idea that one way to cure it could be to combine his DNA with the DNA of the only animal that lives solely on blood, the vampire bat. What could go wrong?

This experiment is unethical, illegal, and extremely expensive. So, with Milo footing the bill, Morbius and his beautiful colleague Dr. Martine Bancroft (Adria Arjona) try the DNA mixture out on a cargo ship in international waters. Think of it as his version of a radioactive spider bite except that (1) he does it on purpose and (2) vampire bats have qualities that are generally considered to be problematic, starting with an unquenchable thirst for blood.

So Morbius is an anti-hero, which means we have to have an all-out bad guy so he will be not so bad by comparison. The film expects us, like the FBI agents played by woefully underused Tyrese Gibson and Al Madrigal that the first few murders did not matter because the people killed were not good guys, and it is only when a nice single mom gets all of the blood sucked out of her that we should care about who did it. Michael feels bad about what he did and is a scientist and wants to stop even worse things from happening, so we’re supposed to be on his side. The scientific discovery he should be focusing on is how much crime a white guy in a hoodie can get away with.

Even those who come to superhero movies just for the fights and special effects will be disappointed. The CGI is primarily used to make the faces of the two vampires go back and forth from skeletal to normal, plus some meaningless dust trails that their superpowers somehow manifest. Many scenes have drab lighting that for want of a less vampiric word, sucks the life out of the story. Matt Smith is a brief bright spot but Leto spends most of his time trying to look soulful. He says that despite the poor reviews, he’s committed to a sequel. Please, no MORE-bious.

NOTE: Stay through the credits for extra scenes.

Parents should know that this film has extended comic-book style peril and violence, including vampires, with some graphic and disturbing images. Characters use mind- and body-altering medication and strong language.

Family discussion: Why did Milo/Lucien and Michael respond to the treatment differently? Why did Michael reject the Nobel?

If you like this, try: The Spider-Man movies

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