Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Posted on December 13, 2018 at 5:10 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for frenetic sequences of animated action violence, thematic elements, and mild language
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some references
Violence/ Scariness: Comic book/action peril and violence, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: December 14, 2018

Copyright 2018 Sony Animation
The best surprise I got at a movie theater this year was “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse,” the all-around terrific new animated film that perhaps more than any superhero movie I’ve seen translates the jubilant experience of comic books to the screen. It has excitement, it has heart, it has humor, and it has a deep understanding of comics, comic culture, and Spidey himself. I was not excited about seeing yet another radioactive spider bite story, but this wildly imaginative film completely won me over and I can’t wait to see it again.

Just a bit of context: One fascinating element of comic books is that unlike any other story-telling in human history, they portray characters over decades, nearly a century in some cases, with different writers and artists telling their stories and alternative takes like “imaginary stories” with no canonic or precedential import. So, for example, Superman (and Clark Kent) began during the Depression, lived through WWII, the Cold War, the tumult of the 60’s, the yuppie years of the 80’s, went from being a newspaperman to a TV reporter to a blogger, has died and been brought back, has died and been replaced by an alternate version, and has been the subject of several television shows, movies, and even a Broadway musical from the people who brought another comic character to life in “Annie.”

Spider-Man has had one of the most successful superhero movie translations with three starring Tobey Maguire (the terrible third one is tweaked in this film), two with Andrew Garfield, and now another one plus the Avengers movies with Tom Holland. Throughout all of them, he has been the “friendly neighborhood Spider-Man,” the teenager from Queens who lives with his elderly Aunt May, has a crush on Mary Jane, gets bitten by a radioactive spider, and learns that with great power comes great responsibility. Spidey is at the heart of Marvel’s re-imagining of the superhero as young, irreverent, still learning, living in a real place rather than an imagined Gotham or Metropolis, and dealing with real-life problems as well as super-villains. Memorably, he once got paid by check but could not cash it because he had no Spider-Man ID. There are a bunch of alternate versions of Spider-Man, and we get to see many of them work together in this film.

We don’t need to go into the mumbo-jumbo here, do we? Let’s just agree that multiple universes exist and that it is possible that every action or incident splinters off another alternate timeline so that if we could just find a way to hop from one to another, we could find the one where, say, Hitler never assumed power in Germany or where the government regulated sub-prime derivatives and prevented the financial meltdown of 2008. A mob boss in New York known as Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) wants to find the parallel universe, not, for once a super-villain who wants total world domination but because he wants to find the world where his wife was not killed. But his efforts open up portals to other Spider-Men (and a Spider-pig and Spider-girls) who get catapulted into this universe just as our Spidey (Chris Pine) dies (!!!), telling the newest radioactive spider-bite victim, Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) that he has to carry on.

Miles can’t even manage carrying on his regular life. He’s the son of a black cop (Brian Tyree Henry) who considers Spider-Man a lawless disruption and a Puerto Rican nurse mother (Luna Lauren Velez). Miles is under a lot of pressure because has just started at a new magnet school for gifted kids and because he knows his parents would not approve of the time he spends with his uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali) tagging walls with graffiti.

The style of contemporary animation is usually hyper-reality, with every hair on every head moving and shining just as it does in real life. The style of this film is exuberantly stylized, comic-book style, and it is thrilling to see it translated to screen so skillfully. The interactions with the variations of Spidey are clever and exciting and the movie is serious about its world and its story and characters, but never about itself, which is very comic book-y, too. “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is the happiest surprise of this season, a gift that will tingle Spidey-senses in the audience.

Parents should know that this film includes extended peril and action/comic-book style violence, with characters injured and killed (it would be a PG-13 if live action), and some brief schoolyard language.

Family discussion: Which version of Spider-Man do you like best and why? What do you imagine would be your parallel in an alternate universe?

If you like this, try: the live action Spider-Man movies and the comic books

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Teen Titans Go! to the Movies

Posted on July 26, 2018 at 5:15 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for action and rude humor
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Action/comic book-style peril and violence
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: July 27, 2018
Date Released to DVD: October 29, 2018
Copyright 2018 Warner Bros. Pictures

Not another superhero movie, you say? And how far down the list of comic book characters do we have to go? The Teen Titans are way ahead of you. Silly, surreal, super-snarky, self-aware to a fault and smashing the fourth wall into smithereens, the “Teen Titans Go! to the Movies” movie is a superhero movie about a third-tier superhero who only wants to fight the bad guy because that’s how he’ll get to be in a superhero movie. Got it?

It’s got plenty of inside humor for the fanboys who will know why it’s especially apt to have Nicolas Cage providing the voice for Superman, why it’s funny to have a Stan Lee cameo in a DC movie, who the Challengers of the Unknown are, and why the arch-villain Slade (producer Will Arnett) keeps being mistaken for Deadpool. And it has action, heartwarming friendships, and plenty of potty jokes for those who have no idea who the Teen Titans are, and, believe me, will not know much more about them when the movie is over.

The Teen Titans as they are currently portrayed are Robin (Batman’s sidekick, voiced by Scott Menville), Beast Boy (Greg Cipes), who can turn himself into any animal, alien princess Starfire (Hynden Walch), who signifies her other-worldliness by inserting “the” randomly in front of other words, the gothy Ravan (Tyra Strong), who can create portals from anywhere to anywhere, and Cyborg (Khary Payton), who can adapt his metal shell to create any machine. Insulted that they are not even invited to the premiere of the new Batman movie, Robin is even more horrified to see that upcoming sequels include movies about Batman’s butler, Alfred, and even one about his utility belt, but nothing about Robin. He appeals to the director, Jade Wilson (Kristen Bell), but she says she cannot make a movie about him unless he has an arch-nemesis.

Enter Slade, “an archenemy whose name is fun to say in a dramatic way.”

There are songs. There are action scenes. There are many, many jokes about the world of comics, from the ultra-obscure (stay all the way to the end) to the widely accessible (yes, there are a lot of superhero movies and Green Lantern is still embarrassed about his). It makes fun of itself and then it makes fun of itself for making fun of itself, and then it makes fun of us for watching so many superhero movies. It is unpretentious, the look harking back to low-budget Saturday morning cartoon shows. And that makes it refreshing and delightful.

NOTE: The movie is preceded by a very cute DC superhero girls short called “The Late Batsby,” with Batgirl racing to catch up with her super-friends to fight Mr. Freeze.

Parents should know that this film includes extended cartoon-style action/superhero peril and violence, explosions, chases, fire, some characters briefly injured, potty humor, and schoolyard language.

Family discussion: If you made a movie about one of your friends, what would you include? Why did Robin want a movie so badly?

If you like this, try: the Teen Titans television series, “Incredibles 2″ and “The LEGO Movie” and “LEGO Batman”

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Ant-Man and the Wasp

Posted on July 3, 2018 at 4:15 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some sci-fi action violence
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic-book/action peril and violence, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: July 6, 2018
Date Released to DVD: October 15, 2018
Copyright 2018 Marvel

I like Ant-Man. He’s literally down to earth — after the intergalactic super-villain Thanos plotting the wiping out of half the universe, it’s nice to see our hero up against an ordinary, non-super thug of a bad guy. And it’s also nice to see, 20 movies in, a female superhero in the title of the film. I like the slightly retro, slightly bookish look of the Ant-Man films (outstanding work from production designer Shepherd Frankel). And I like the fun they have with scale. Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) can do more than shrink himself to the size of an ant and call on his ant friends to help him out. He can make himself and objects around him get bigger or smaller almost instantly. And the Wasp (Evangeline Lilly) can do all of that AND fly and use her wrist blasters.

Scott has three more days to go under house arrest, wearing an ankle bracelet, with frequent check-ins by the local authorities, led by Jimmy Woo (Randall Park), who can’t seem to decide whether he wants to lock Scott up or become his BFF. He’s going a little stir-crazy, though he enjoys the elaborate games he creates for his daughter, Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson). The terms of his parole forbid him from having contact with Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) or his daughter Hope (Lilly), but that has not been a problem. They are not speaking to him after they think he betrayed them by making their technology public in “Captain America: Civil War.”

But something else that happened in “Civil War” is the reason they have to find him again. Pym’s wife and Hope’s mother, the brilliant scientist Janet Pym (Michelle Pfeiffer), became too small and they thought she was lost forever in the “quantum entanglement.” Scott was able to return from the quantum entanglement, though, and they want to find out how and send him back there to see if Janet can be rescued. This is a job for two superheroes, and so it’s time for Hope to suit up.

An all-around crime boss named Sonny Burch (Walt Goggins) wants to stop them from getting the material they need to make that work. A character whose backstory I won’t spoil but who can vibrate through matter also wants it. And the cops are trying to capture the Pyms as well. So, lots of chases, lots of hand-offs and near misses. Director Peyton Reed and his writers (including Rudd) have a lot of fun with scale, sizing the vehicles up and down in an instant and Scott himself getting as big as the Statue of Liberty (which is exhausting for him) and as tiny as an atom. His suit does not always work correctly, though, and his judgment does not always work correctly, either.

The distinctive humor of the first film continues in this one, with Michael Pena returning as Scott’s loquacious fellow ex-con and business partner. His circuitous story-telling was funny in the first film, and it gets funnier here when he is questioned under the effects of what could be a truth serum (whether it is or not is a point of contention). Random topics that also come up for discussion include close-up magic, the Slavic folklore character Baba Yaga, loading the dishwasher, and playing the drums. There are some great action sequences, especially one in a kitchen and the chase scenes, and crisp pacing to balance the more laid-back comedy. Its biggest failing is the dumb nicknames for the daughters of the characters. Really, Peanut? Jellybean? Those girls deserve something as witty and distinctive as the rest of the film.

NOTE: Stay through the credits for a brief update on the “Infinity War” cliffhanger, and then all the way to the end for an even briefer and very silly little second extra that has an important clue.

Parents should know that this film includes extended comic book/action peril and violence, characters injured and killed, some scary images, mild language, and some parent-child issues.

Family discussion: What changes do you think the quantum experience has on people who travel there? How is Ant-Man different from the other Avengers?

If you like this, try: the first “Ant-Man” and the Avengers movies

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Deadpool 2

Posted on May 15, 2018 at 9:04 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong violence and language throughout, sexual references and brief drug material
Profanity: Very strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Extended and very graphic peril and violence, many characters injured and killed, disturbing images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: May 18, 2018
Date Released to DVD: August 20, 2018
Copyright 20th Century Fox 2018

Wait. Don’t read any further. If you liked the first Deadpool, then go see Deadpool 2 before you read or hear any spoilers and come back here afterward to hear what I thought and share your own reactions. Oh, no, one thing before you go. No popcorn, no Twizzlers, no giant sodas for this one. Between laughing so hard you gasp for air and just gasping at some of the crazy stunts, if you try to eat or drink something as you watch, you just might choke or spill it.

Remember the first “Deadpool?” That crazy sloooow-motion opening action scene to the tune of “Angel in the Morning” with Ryan Reynolds’ deadpan Deadpool voiceover introducing us to the fourth-wall-breaking, meta-meta, winking-at-us-and-itself while-delivering on the action and a tender romance as well Marvel movie about the special forces guy turned gun for hire turned cancer patient turned science experiment turned super(anti)hero? Well, he’s back, (temporarily) blown to bits, out for revenge, and out for something a bit unexpected as well. Yes, believe Wade/Deadpool when he tells you that this is a story about family. Also butterfly-effect-free time travel, a prison break, ironic use of a classic pop song, some snark on DC (and Wolverine, of course), one of the funniest scenes ever filmed about a bad guy trying to get information from the good guy’s buddy, a bad guy played by the same actor who played Thanos but this time less CGI, a new ballad from Celine Dion, a blink and you’ll miss it cameo by one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, the guy from “Catastrophe,” the guy from “IT,” and some very persuasive evidence that the best superpower could just be….luck. And that last one would be Domino, perhaps the only superhero character whose name is not as cool as the name of the actor — Zazie Beetz, who needs her own movie, now.

Just in case you’re still with me and have not seen it yet, I’m doing my best to keep this as spoiler-free as possible, though I would love nothing more than telling you some of my favorite funny moments. Bad stuff happens and Wade/Deadpool seeks revenge. Then a sort of cyborg from the future with seemingly infinite very powerful weapons named Cable (Josh Brolin) shows up, Terminator-style, in search of a kid who has been abused in a “conversion” facility for mutants with special powers (Julian Dennison of “Hunt for the Wilderpeople”). Deadpool puts together a team he dubs the gender-neutral X-Force. (Speaking of dubbing, there’s a whole thing in the movie about dubstep, too.

The quips and pop culture references come at you “Airplane!”-style, faster than the bullets, meta on meta, times meta, meta about meta, breaking the fourth wall and probably the fifth, sixth, and seventh as well. “No more speaking lines for you,” DP tells one character. Instead of the director’s name in the opening credits, it just says “Killed John Wick’s dog.” (That’s David Leitch, and he did.) And yes, there is some sweetness, too, every bit as important in making this work as the wisecracking dialog and bone-cracking stunts. It does not take itself seriously, but it does take delivering a smart, funny, entertaining, and satisfying movie very seriously. With so many superhero franchises out there, it is great to see them developing sub-genres, and “Deadpool” has found the sweet spot in one of the most purely entertaining.

Parents should know that this film includes very strong, explicit, and crude language, sexual references and situations, graphic comic nudity, drinking, drugs, and extended action/superhero violence with many characters injured and killed and some disturbing images.

Family discussion: How do Wade and Cable respond differently to tragedy? What would you say to Russell? What’s the best joke in the movie?

If you like this, try: “Deadpool” and “Guardians of the Galaxy”

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The Russo Brothers Talk: Thanos, Infinity Powers, and Their Favorite Special Effect in “Avengers: Infinity War”

Posted on May 12, 2018 at 8:03 am

Everyone knew that “Avengers: Infinity War” was going to be big. But were our expectations impossibly high? Even the extraordinarily talented brothers and co-directors Anthony and Joseph Russo, who made two of the most critically acclaimed of the 18 Marvel superheroes in the past decade, had to feel daunted by the challenge of taking on so many characters and such a complicated story. In an interview, they talked about choosing which characters would be most interesting together, who the supervillain Thanos is, which special effect they particularly enjoyed, and which superpowers they most wish they had.

People love the movie but are very shook up by some of the developments. Do you feel like the two most hated people in the whole world right now?

JR: It’s interesting that people are having this kind of emotional response. But this is a really unique experiment in filmmaking in the Marvel Universe. Ten years of storytelling spread out over very diverse franchises, diverse tonally, diverse from a story standpoint, with unique and different characters. This film represents the ending of that story and “Avengers 4” as well. So the audience is invested in the incredible amount of emotion and time and energy and passion in these characters. And the response we’re seeing to the movie is that it’s a representation of that emotion and passion that they feel for this unique experiment in cinema.

As I have told you before, I am a huge fan especially of your work on “Captain America: Winter Soldier” and “Civil War,” which integrated with the rest of the MCU but had a very distinctive tone inspired in part by the 1970’s cinema of paranoia films. The two most recent Marvel superhero movies were also great, “Black Panther” and “Thor: Ragnarok,” but they had very different tones from very different directors. How do you take those characters and more and make them seem as though they’re in the same movie while maintaining their distinctive personas, worlds, and storylines?

JR: We look at that as one of the great creative upsides of trying something like this. We’ve always thought of ourselves, specifically our creative processes, as sort of akin to being mad scientists. We like to take disparate elements and smash them together and see what that gives us on a tonal level. We’ve done that in a lot of our work, and this movie is the perfect setup for that process.

Like you said, we have all these different tones and styles to draw on. But primarily we look at it as our responsibility to give people our version of these characters. That’s what we love about these characters — they can morph from movie to movie. Our version of Captain America was very different than Joss Whedon’s version. Taika Waititi’s version of Thor has been very different than the previous versions.

I think audiences like that. They like the fact that each individual movie is a conceptual and tonal and narrative presentation that while it is tethered on a story level to what’s come before; its own expression on a tonal level and a style level is unique. And so we try to be very specific to what the needs of our story were in this movie and how we want it balanced, because we’re big fans of balanced storytelling. We like movies that make you laugh, make you cry, make you think, etc.

This movie was challenging to balance because it is so dark in many respects, and intense. So we use that variety of tones that all these characters bring us to give what we think is like a very complete fulfilling cinema experience, the kind of experience that we aspire to see.

In the past, the series has addressed some classic fanboy questions about power like whether Thor’s hammer is stronger than Captain America’s shield. I thought it was interesting that in this film it was more about the way the personalities work together. And it was particularly choice to put the two strongest egos up against each other, Doctor Strange and Tony Stark. So tell me how you looked at all the characters lined in front of you and thought about who would set off the most sparks against who?

AR: Tony Stark and Stephen Strange — one thing that drew us to it is exactly what you’re saying, their egos, and their narcissism. We knew that it would be hard for those two characters to exist within the same space. But I think also what we loved about that was the contrast between the two with Tony being such a man of science and Strange being a man of magic and the incongruity of those two things, their approaches and their respective powers. So that was particularly fun for us.

We spent a long time with the writers, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely exploring every possible combination before we started to lock into a story. But that was so elemental in terms of what the fun and thrill and creative upside of this film would be for us. So the Star Lord/Thor combination with the Guardians was certainly one of our most exciting ones. I have to say the Gamora/Thanos combination was one thing that we were particularly interested in. We always love it when there’s a relationship between a villain and a hero that has a personal dimension to it. That was really what excited us most about “Winter Soldier” right from when we started with Marvel. And so to be able to play with that father/daughter relationship and that villain/hero relationship in a way that had so many personal layers and so much personal complexity to it; that’s something for us as storytellers that’s very exciting creatively.

I loved the interplay between Thor, Groot, and Rocket.

JR: Thor is in a very vulnerable and emotional place of himself. He’s hiding it under a veneer disconcern. He’s trying to act like you know the his mission is to to stop Thanos, which it is, but he’s devastated with all the loss that he suffered in this film and in Ragnarok. Rocket is the most caustic and seemingly unemotional character and Groot, too, is in a very caustic and emotional phase as a teenager. Putting them together, was interesting and it is the most emotional that we have seen Rocket, the most sensitive that you’ve ever seen Rocket portrayed in that scene on the pod. That is because it’s hard not to empathize with Thor because of the level of loss that he has endured. It’s played for somewhat absurdist humor at first. But then slowly it seeps into Rocket’s heart and he makes a gesture by handing Thor that eye.

But we also do get a lot of humor out of that crew.

AR: I think that that grouping is interesting in that you know if you go back to our very early work with like “Welcome to Collinwood” or “Arrested Development,” Joe and I have a strong penchant for for absurdity and absurdist comedy. There’s a strong spirit of absurdism moving through that story line.

Well tell me a little bit about the monumental challenge of keeping so many different not just characters but different locations going at the same time? How do you even begin to remind everybody who is where and what is happening?

JR: Great question. It takes a lot of work and a lot of story discipline. We spent a long time in the writers room with Markus and McFeely going through various iterations of the structure of the script to try and unlock one that tracks the best. Once we committed to the script we then in editorial did the same thing over again. Because rarely does the script offer the same sort of information that a cut film will. Once you cut the film together you can sit there and assess transitions and assess which characters have been missing for too long. And so we really played with that for about five or six months with different iterations of structure until I think we lighted the one that we felt tracked the cleanest and the best. So it really just requires an intensive amount of work.

We’ve been building up to the confrontation with Thanos for a very long time. What makes him the villain you wanted to have as the ultimate threat?

AR: Right from the very beginning Thanos started to loom large in our mind because we knew the goal for this film and the following Avengers film was to provide a climax and a culmination for the entire road that we’ve been travelling for ten years. And a narrative that would somehow inolve the MCU at least to some degree in its entirety. Thanos was in a very unique position for us to find a central figure that could actually bring every corner of the MCU together in a single narrative in his quest for the stones and the fact that the stones have been so well placed throughout the various films. All of a sudden he just started to become this sort of sense central concept here.

And the other thing in thinking about Thanos was that like he had been so lightly teased up to this point in the MCU; we knew very little about him on-screen. We understood that very little about him. So for us and for Markus and McFeely, it was an opportunity to go into a very deep dive into the question of who was this guy and how is he going to end up crashing into these other characters and ideas that we’ve been playing with in this world. And as we started to sink deeper into that and realize that he was sort of like the central figure in a way, we began to fill him out as if he was a lead character and build a narrative around him in a way that you typically build a narrative around a lead character.

That was one of the most exciting parts of the creative process for us, the fact that we got to think about a villain in those terms, to put a villain in that position in the narrative. And I think ultimately that’s really what a lot of people are responding to in this film. It is a very fresh perspective to approach a movie like this from. A lot of the surprises and a lot of the shock of the experience comes from the fact that the movie was designed that way.

We couldn’t have asked for a better actor of course than Josh Brolin to play that role. I can’t think of any other actor that can embody the physical presence that that character has or the level of violence that character has within him, at the same time giving him a soul and a depth and a complexity, and an emotional landscape that you can actually read and relate to on screen. It was quite remarkable and we have to give a big thanks to our visual effects team for being able to innovate and use new technologies to translate Brolin’s performance onto a CG character in a way that I don’t think anyone’s ever seen before on screen.

I won’t ask who your favorite Avenger is, but can you tell me which of the Avenger powers you would most like to have?

JR: I always say and it’s easy because it was my favorite character growing up and I collected most of his books was Spiderman. So I think it was because I always secretly desired to go in to climb walls and swing on webs.

The special effect in the scene with the hair on his arms was absolutely fantastic.

JR: Yeah, it’s a favorite of ours, just the opportunity to physically represent the Spidey sense.

AR: It’s pretty much informed by our experience and having to make two of the largest movies ever made back-to-back; I would love to have the Time infinity stone. We could use that.

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