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Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021)

First reactions to Marvel Movie 'Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings':  Is it

DIRECTOR: Destin Daniel Cretton

CAST: Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Tony Leung, Meng’er Zhang, Michelle Yeoh, Ben Kingsley, Florian Munteanu, Benedict Wong

REVIEW:

WARNING: THIS REVIEW MAY CONTAIN “SPOILERS”

With the Infinity War phase ended, the Marvel Cinematic Universe must now turn its focus toward the next era of its superheroes, including replacing some of its long-running mainstays who’ve left us (Iron Man, Captain America, Black Widow) with the next generation. To that end, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is an engaging origin story that manages touches of an epic feel and does things different from what we expect from the Marvel formula and whose first half feels like an old-school martial arts action flick and whose second half feels like a mythological fantasy epic with shades of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Mulan.

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The Suicide Squad (2021)

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DIRECTOR: James Gunn

CAST: Margot Robbie, Idris Elba, John Cena, Joel Kinnaman, Viola Davis, Daniela Melchior, David Dastmalchian, Peter Capaldi, Alice Braga, Sylvester Stallone (voice)

REVIEW:

With The Suicide Squad (with a “The” tacked on to differentiate it from David Ayer’s sporadically entertaining but scattershot 2016 hot mess), James Gunn has become the second high-profile Marvel director to moonlight in the DCEU, and fortunately his DC detour is more successful than Joss Whedon’s misbegotten Justice League. In fact, while not entirely escaping some of the flaws of its predecessor, Gunn’s rendition of the titular squad of supervillains is enough of an improvement over Ayer’s that it’s possible to disregard the previous film’s existence (this one exists in a vague unspecified territory between a loose sequel and a quasi-reboot, and features a few returning characters and actors, but no previous events are directly referenced, so familiarity with the “first” movie isn’t necessary to enjoying this one). Gunn delivers the same quirky, breezy tone that helped make his Guardians of the Galaxy so popular, but combined with his warped, blackly comical, and often gory tendencies now being given free rein by an R rating that Disney/Marvel would never have allowed. This isn’t a movie for the kids, but for adults who aren’t squeamish, it’s flawed but a blast of wild irreverent fun.

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Black Widow (2021)

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DIRECTOR: Cate Shortland

CAST: Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour, Rachel Weisz, O-T Fagbenle, Ray Winstone, Olga Kurylenko, William Hurt

REVIEW:

Black Widow, the movie to finally give the long-running MCU character her own posthumous solo movie, arrives at an awkward time, skipping back to sandwich itself into the time period between Captain America: Civil War and The Avengers: Infinity War and attempt to give more depth and backstory to a character who’s already dead. If timing is everything, Black Widow has missed the boat and feels like it should have come out several years ago, but setting the awkwardness of its release date aside, it’s an enjoyable enough stand-alone adventure, although it’s more successful in giving an often underdeveloped supporting Avenger a deeper backstory than it is in its generic narrative that feels like it borrows a page—or several pages—from other movies in the spy thriller genre.

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Wonder Woman 1984 (2020)

Wonder Woman 1984 Review: Sequel Floats On One Wing - The Returning Gal  Gadot - 2.5 Stars (Out Of 5)

DIRECTOR: Patty Jenkins

CAST: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Pedro Pascal, Kristen Wiig

REVIEW:

Unpopular opinion time: while I acknowledged 2017’s Wonder Woman as the most solid movie to come out of the troubled DC Expanded Universe at the time (which was no great accomplishment when held up against the hot messes of Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad), I wasn’t onboard the bandwagon showering it with rapturous praise, and felt it was a fairly standard-issue comic book superhero origin story. With Wonder Woman 1984, Patty Jenkins (returning to the director’s chair) has crafted a sequel that is bigger, brighter, and flashier than its predecessor, serving up flashy eighties glitz (as indicated by its title) and cheerfully campy superhero action wedded to a sometimes surprisingly heartfelt and thematically rich plotline that recaptures the earnestness and heroics first ingrained in pop culture by Richard Donner’s Superman (from which it borrows a page or two). Its tonal differences from its predecessor might gain it a mixed reception from the first film’s ardent fans, but it’s a welcome blast of fresh air and unabashedly old-fashioned comic book superhero heroics.

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Birds of Prey (and the fantabulous emancipation of one Harley Quinn) (2020)

DIRECTOR: Cathy Yan

CAST: Margot Robbie, Rosie Perez, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Ella Jay Basco, Ewan McGregor, Chris Messina

REVIEW:

Like last year’s Shazam!, the wordily-titled Birds of Prey (and the fantabulous emancipation of one Harley Quinn) demonstrates that the most enjoyable entries to emerge from the troubled DCEU are those that throw the dark and dreary approach brought into vogue by Zack Snyder to the wind and go into outright comedy mode (or, barring that, are simply unconnected stand-alones like Todd Phillips’ critically-acclaimed Joker or Matt Reeves’ upcoming Batman movie). DC’s answer to Marvel’s Deadpool, Birds of Prey employs a similarly madcap comedic approach, stylized action, a whiz-bang pace, and an unreliable (and thoroughly whacked-out) narrator/protagonist (Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, who stole the show in the Suicide Squad ensemble and has been rewarded with her own movie). While Birds of Prey is not as well-constructed as the first Deadpool, it’s in similar enough vein that it might appeal to some of the same audience. It’s a glibly vapid and chaotic hyperkinetic mess that never completely comes together, but it’s at least never boring.

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Joker (2019)

DIRECTOR: Todd Phillips

CAST: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Frances Conroy, Zazie Beetz, Brett Cullen, Bill Camp, Shea Whigham

REVIEW:

With the simply-titled Joker, an independent stand-alone existing on its own unconnected to any other film in any Batman franchise, director Todd Phillips and star Joaquin Phoenix have gone even further afield of the stereotypical tropes and restrictions of a “comic book movie” than the likes of The Dark Knight, Deadpool, or Logan (rarely for a comic book movie, it shares with the last two examples a well-deserved R rating; this is an adult movie which is thoroughly intended for adults and inappropriate for younger viewers). This is a “comic book movie” in a loose definition of the word, owing more to Scorsese—Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy in particular—than the pages of the Batman comics. Taken on its own merits, Joker is a slow burn but darkly engrossing ride following in gritty, down-to-earth fashion one man’s descent into madness. It’s the kind of movie it’s arguable to say is conventionally “entertaining”, but it’s powerful and disturbing, and not easily shaken off afterwards.

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X-Men: Dark Phoenix (2019)

DIRECTOR: Simon Kinberg

CAST: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Sophie Turner, Nicholas Hoult, Tye Sheridan, Jennifer Lawrence, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Evan Peters, Alexandra Shipp, Jessica Chastain

REVIEW:

For his directorial debut, screenwriter Simon Kinberg has fulfilled a long-harbored wish to take a second stab at the Dark Phoenix storyline he previously tackled as co-writer of 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand, dissatisfied with the final product (which was directed by Brett Ratner). For fans of the X-Men comics, the Dark Phoenix storyline, written by Chris Claremont, John Byrne, and Dave Cockrum and running from the late 1970s into 1980, is regarded as one of the comics’ great narrative arcs (in addition to The Last Stand, it has also previously been adapted twice for animated television series). I’m not prepared to say a two hour movie has entirely done justice to a comic storyline which ran for years (reportedly Kinberg initially wanted to tell the storyline across two movies, but the studio declined), but comic book and film are different mediums. In its own right, Dark Phoenix has breathed a little more life into the loose reboot young X-Men series (began with 2011’s First Class and spun off into an alternate timeline by 2014’s Days of Future Past), more compelling than its immediate predecessor, the laborious Apocalypse and overall a better, if rushed and abridged, adaptation of the source material and the Dark Phoenix storyline than The Last Stand.

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The Avengers: Endgame (2019)

DIRECTOR: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo

CAST: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Paul Rudd, Brie Larson, Josh Brolin, Karen Gillan, Don Cheadle, Bradley Cooper (voice)

REVIEW:

This is it. After eleven years and twenty-two movies, the long-awaited “endgame” that came to a head in last year’s The Avengers: Infinity War comes to a conclusion, and with it so too does at least the first phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe which began with 2008’s Iron Man and has since blown up into an interconnected universe more sprawling and ambitious than has ever been mounted before. It’s also no secret—and has not been for quite some time—that the appropriately-titled Endgame is the swan song for at least some of the MCU’s crowded cast of characters, including some of its biggest mainstays, a fact its fans have made their peace with long before setting foot in the theater. The MCU will go on, to be sure (this isn’t even the last MCU installment of the year), but it will not go on for everyone. Like the sign-off of the original cast of Star Trek, it’s the end of an era. Endgame fulfills its mission. The two-part climax of this first phase of the MCU is brought to a (mostly) satisfactory conclusion, but the movie’s real strength is serving as a well-crafted love letter both to the entire MCU up to this point and to the fans who’ve come along on every step of the journey.

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Shazam! (2019)

DIRECTOR: David F. Sandberg

CAST: Zachary Levi, Asher Angel, Mark Strong, Jack Dylan Grazer, Grace Fulton, Marta Milans, Cooper Andrews, Faithe Herman, Ian Chen, Jovan Armand, Djimon Hounsou

REVIEW:

With Shazam, the DC Expanded Universe plays about as far as possible from the dour dreariness of Batman v Superman. Shazam has its share of more conventional superhero action, but it’s not a straight entry; it’s far more family-friendly than the likes of Deadpool but exists in a somewhat similarly self-parodying vein (though even Shazam is not as openly satirical). The result is an effective mix of superheroics and spoofing thereof, and Shazam‘s status as a minor league player among the comic book superheroes who’ve been brought to the screen (no one expects it to compete against The Avengers: Endgame, but it’s not trying to) doesn’t stop it from being one of the fresher and more entertaining entries to crop up lately, especially from within the troubled DCEU. Were this MCU, it’d be a middle-of-the-road offering, but it’s the most unreservedly enjoyable entry to emerge from the DCEU thus far, and while it’s not a 100% straight comedy, it offers more laughs than some that ostensibly are.

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Captain Marvel (2019)

DIRECTOR: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck

CAST: Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Jude Law, Ben Mendelsohn, Clark Gregg, Lashana Lynch, Gemma Chan, Annette Bening, Lee Pace, Djimon Hounsou

REVIEW:

Captain Marvel, the first but far from last Marvel installment of 2019, doesn’t ascend to MCU top-tier, but it escapes the purely perfunctory mediocrity that some may have expected from a superhero origin story that’s primarily being squeezed in before she serves as the deus ex machina she’s clearly being set up as for next month’s The Avengers: Endgame. A 1990s setting and sci-fi angle (shades of Guardians of the Galaxy, including a familiar character or two) lends a fresher feel that’s sorely needed in such an over-saturated comic book movie landscape.

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