Film Review: ‘Avengers: Endgame’

Marvel Studios’ ‘Infinty Saga’ reaches its conclusion…

Spoiler-free review

Avengers Endgame

Preparing to avenge the fallen: the heroes of Marvel’s ‘Avengers: Endgame’.

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

Directed by: Anthony Russo and Joe Russo / written by: Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely / 181 minutes

What’s it about?

In the wake of the devastation wrought by Thanos, Captain America and his allies set out to avenge the fallen…

In review

So, here it is, the cinematic event of the year or perhaps the last couple of years…but does Avengers: Endgame satisfy? Absolutely it does – not only is Endgame an epic and visually exciting ride but it’s an emotionally effective (and genuinely affective) journey that successfully ties together over a decade of a cinematic universe, bringing numerous story arcs to their conclusion and providing closure whilst gently laying the groundwork for the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

It’s almost impossible to discuss Endgame in any great depth without verging on spoilers but suffice to say the film picks up in the wake of last year’s incredibly successful Avengers: Infinity War in which galactic overlord Thanos (Josh Brolin), wielding the power of the infinity stones, extinguished half of all life in the universe. With Tony Stark stranded in space and the remnants of the superhero community back on Earth trying to come to terms with all they have lost, the outlook seems bleak and uncertain until events provide Captain America and his comrades with an opportunity to avenge the fallen. Beyond that lies an adventure that’s simply a landmark achievement in comic book blockbusters. There are moments where the plot of Endgame becomes a bit muddled and difficult to grasp, but in all likelihood this will diminish with repeat viewings and in the end it doesn’t matter too much given the pay-offs viewers ultimately receive as well as all the call backs to previous MCU outings, some of which can now be seen in a new light.

As with Infinity War, Endgame comprises an expansive roster of characters and each have a pivotal role to play, yet, wisely, the focus largely remains centred on the primary Avengers – mainly the trio of Iron Man, Captain America and Thor but with significant support from the likes of the Hulk, Black Widow, Hawkeye and Ant-Man. The cast performances are great, especially in respect of Robert Downey Jr and Chris Evans – arguably the pillars of the MCU who are afforded rich arcs for their characters and likewise, Mark Ruffalo gets to explore the continued evolution of the Hulk which began in Thor: Ragnarok. As for the Odinson himself, Chris Hemsworth gets to flex his humour muscles again with a dishevelled and drunken Thor providing a number of laughs – it’s perhaps a little too dialled up in places but along with Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man it provides a necessary measure of levity and doesn’t devalue the dramatic aspects of Endgame. Of course, it’s no secret given her own recent solo outing (and following Infinity War’s post-credits tease), that Brie Larson’s Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel joins the fight and although her role is somewhat smaller than expected it’s still of importance to the overall proceedings.

Despite its lengthy running time, Endgame doesn’t overstay it’s welcome. Sure, It unfolds at a steady pace and it may feel a tad leisurely for some but there’s a sense of building momentum throughout as the film progresses towards its rousing and spectacular final act – an exciting, gigantic, effects-laden showdown on a scale that even exceeds what we saw in Infinity War but without sacrificing the deep and personal elements of Endgame as it integrates a lot of small but wonderful character moments into the chaos. At this stage, directors Anthony and Joe Russo are masters at what they do and deliver on all fronts – that the duo have managed to guide Endgame to completion with such skill, care and unwavering enthusiasm is no small feat and helps make the final product all the more exquisite. Coupled with a screenplay (from returning writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely) that provides plenty of pathos, humour, heart and action and superb cast performances, Avengers: Endgame is a total triumph.

The bottom line: Avengers: Endgame is an impressive and fitting finale to an era of the Marvel Cinematic Universe with rich characterisation and powerful visuals.

Avengers: Endgame is in cinemas now.

Film Review: ‘Ant-Man and the Wasp’

Paul Rudd is once again amongst the ants as he suits up for Marvel’s ‘Ant-Man’ sequel… 

Ant-Man & Wasp

Paul Rudd and Evangeline Lilly return in Marvel Studios’ ‘Ant-Man and the Wasp’ (image credit: Marvel Studios/Disney, used for illustrative purposes only).

 Spoiler free review

Starring:  Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Douglas, Michael Pena, Hannah John-Kamen, Laurence Fishburne, Michelle Pfeiffer

Directed by:  Peyton Reed / Written by: Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Paul Rudd, Andrew Barrer & Gabriel Farrari / 118 minutes

What’s it about?

Under house arrest after joining Captain America’s fight against Tony Stark’s Iron Man, Scott Lang finds he must become Ant-Man again and team-up with Hope Van Dyne – now the Wasp – when Hank Pym discovers a way to rescue his wife from the Quantum Realm…

In review

Following its U.S. release in July, Marvel’s Ant-Man and the Wasp has finally arrived in U.K. cinemas.  The sequel to 2015’s Ant-Man, Ant-Man and the Wasp provides essentially more of the same but is no less enjoyable for it.  Picking up two years after the events of Captain America: Civil War (and taking place prior to Avengers: Infinity War), we’re reintroduced to ex-con turned superhero Scott Lang, who has been sentenced to house arrest after siding with Captain America against Iron Man and the rest of the pro-Sokovia Accord heroes.  Days away from the end of his sentence, Lang focuses on being the best father he can be to his daughter Cassie and staying out of trouble.  But as Lang starts to experience strange ‘dreams’ about the Quantum Realm he finds himself reaching out to Hank Pym and Hope Van Dyne – currently fugitives from the law – who believe they’ve found a way to rescue Pym’s wife, Janet from the sub-molecular dimension.

Ant-Man director Peyton Reed returns to helm this second instalment and together with the terrific cast delivers a fun popcorn adventure that has the same mix of action, humour and heart that entertained audiences the first time around.  It’s scale is more confined than the epic, galaxy-spanning Infinity War but a refreshing change of pace in the wake of that cinematic behemoth.  That’s not to say that Ant-Man and the Wasp doesn’t have some great set-pieces and Reed is once again skilful in staging inventive action scenes that make the most out of repeatedly shrinking/enlarging people – and objects – without it ever becoming tiresome or gimmicky.  Yet, at its core Ant-Man and the Wasp is a story about family and the lengths people will go to for those they care about which is something everyone can relate to and become invested in.

Paul Rudd confidently reprises the role of Scott Lang/Ant-Man, his playful approach to the part enhanced by the charm of his relationship with Cassie and the rapport he has with Abby Rider Forston.  Let’s not forget that this is called Ant-Man and the Wasp though and following through on the promise of Ant-Man’s post-credits scene, Evangeline Lilly is offered equal opportunity to get in on the action as Hope Van Dyne suits up as the Wasp and there are many great scenes for her, including a nifty kitchen-based fight sequence.  Lilly and Rudd share good chemistry as well and the pair really do feel like a team, their talents better utilised together than apart.  Michael Douglas also makes a welcome return as Hank Pym adding a cantankerous yet fatherly dynamic to the team.

Michael Pena’s Luis was Ant-Man’s secret weapon with numerous memorable comic moments and that’s more or less the same here although this time around it feels a little overplayed, particularly evident in the repetition of the hilarious ‘monologuing’ scene that, whilst amusing, isn’t quite as effective as it was originally.

Game of Thrones and Ready Palyer One actress Hannah John-Kamen plays the main antagonist, a meta-human known as ‘Ghost’ who is an interesting character with an intriguing backstory that promises depth but ultimately isn’t as fully explored as one would hope.  Adding to the threat is Walton Goggins (Predators) as underworld dealer Sonny Burch, similarly underdeveloped but provides an extra element of villainy non-the-less.

Laurence Fishburne brings further star value in a small albeit key role as Pym’s former colleague, Dr. Bill Foster facilitating some wonderfully tense rivalry between the two.  Unfortunately, Michelle Pfeiffer is surprisingly underserved as Janet Van Dyne – what moments she has are significant but the film’s screenplay doesn’t provide enough room for development.

Whilst the use of humour in some of Marvel’s other efforts can be overutilised and not always hit the mark, it’s pretty much perfectly executed here and in a similar vein to Guardians of the Galaxy it feels integral to the world of Ant-Man.  Making light of absurd concepts and situations is part of what makes this iteration of the character (coupled with Rudd’s performance and comic timing) work successfully and only adds to the appeal.

Ant-Man and the Wasp doesn’t do anything daring or different but it’s as enjoyable as the first film and the right sort of tonal shift for those still reeling from the emotional shocks of Infinity War whilst preparing viewers for what’s to come.

The bottom line:  Ant-Man and the Wasp provides more of the same in a comic book romp that amongst its inventive action is funny, exciting and heartfelt.

Ant-Man and the Wasp is in cinemas now.

Flashback: ‘Iron Man’

Ten years ago, a certain cinematic universe was born…

 

Iron Man 2008

In the beginning: Robert Downey Jr and Jeff Bridges head-up the cast of Marvel Studios’ ‘Iron Man’.

Starring:  Robert Downey Jr, Jeff Bridges, Terrence Howard, Gwyneth Paltrow, Shaun Toub, Faran Tahir, Clark Gregg

Directed by:  Jon Favreau / Written by:  Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum & Matt Holloway / 2008

What’s it about?

After escaping captivity and near-death in Afghanistan, weapons manufacturer Tony Stark builds a hi-tech armoured suit and embarks on a mission to thwart evil…

Retrospective

A surprise hit back in 2008, Iron Man was not only the first theatrical release for Marvel Studios but the Big Bang of the multi-billion dollar grossing Marvel Cinematic Universe.  A decade later, it’s hard to imagine that a feature film adaptation of one of Marvel’s lesser known (the rights to the likes of Spider-Man and X-Men held by Sony and 20th Century Fox, respectively) characters was considered a huge gamble and had the fate of a potential film franchise weighing heavily on its shoulders.

Produced by Marvel Studios and distributed by Paramount Pictures (Disney’s purchase of Marvel would take place in 2009), Iron Man would take the Howard Hughes inspired character created by Stan Lee and Larry Lieber together with artists Don Heck and Jack Kirby (first appearing in Tales of Suspense #39, published in 1963), place him in the 21st Century and meld the core elements of billionaire playboy industrialist Tony Stark with the performance of lead star Robert Downey Jr.

An inspired casting choice, the once troubled Downey Jr was able to channel his demons into the role of Tony Stark – a character who had plenty of personal struggles in the comics – and turn in a performance that balances wisecracking quips with some hearty introspection.  Downey Jr is certainly a strong point and although this interpretation of Tony Stark differs somewhat to the more broody version comic book readers would be used to up to that point (writers such as Matt Fraction and Brian Michael Bendis leaning him more towards the lighter, playful big screen version in subsequent runs), it’s a take that fits with what Marvel were seemingly going for with Iron Man – a colourful, fun action film with nuances of maturity, tucking in themes of redemption as the film’s protagonist seeks a more heroic and morally justifiable path.  When we first meet Stark, CEO of weapons manufacturer Stark Industries, he’s not the most likeable of people – a carefree and careless egotist who likes to drink, gamble and womanise in equal measure.  Yet, over the course of the film we grow to care for Stark as he reflects on errors of the past and embarks on his journey to becoming ‘Iron Man’.

 

Iron Man 2008 (2)

Robert Downey Jr: inspired casting for ‘Iron Man’.

The plot of Iron Man is fairly straightforward and functions well as an origin story and although it lacks the sophistication and artistry of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins it’s entertaining and gets the job done.  Updating the Vietnam-era setting of Iron Man’s comic book debut to that of post 9/11 Afghanistan, Tony Stark is gravely injured by one of his own weapons and captured by militants where his life is saved by fellow prisoner Yinsen (Shaun Toub) who fits an electromagnet to Stark’s chest, preventing deadly shards of shrapnel from piercing his heart.  Put to work on constructing a missile, Stark instead builds an armoured suit, powered by a refined version of the electromagnet and escapes.  Having witnessed the horrors of war and how his weapons could be used for untold evil, Stark returns home with a change of heart, announcing the end of munitions manufacturing at Stark Industries, to the reticence of Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges).  Frozen out by the rest of the board, Stark develops a new iteration of the armoured suit and sets out to destroy the cache of stolen weapons being utilised by the very terrorist group who held him captive.  Meanwhile, Stane has other plans for the future of Stark Industries and will stop at nothing to realise them.

Downey Jr is ably supported by Gwyneth Paltrow’s ‘Pepper’ Potts, Tony Stark’s trusted, often frustrated, assistant who non-the-less is always at her boss’s side.  Paltrow is solid in the part, gifted with some plucky lines and it’s only bolstered by the easy chemistry between herself and Robert Downey Jr.  Adding further to the star-power is Academy Award nominee Terence Howard, who makes his only appearance as Tony’s friend and military liaison to Stark Industries, Lt. Colonel James ‘Rhodey’ Rhodes.  Grumbles over pay negotiations for the sequel would lead to Howard being replaced by Don Cheadle, who continues in the role to today.

As the big bad, Jeff Bridges brings gravitas to the role of Obadiah Stane elevating it above something that could’ve easily come off as too pantomime in less capable hands, resulting in one of the more memorable Marvel film villains.  Stane’s increasing mania as he builds an exo-suit of his own is fun to watch, leading to an explosive finale as Stark dons the Iron Man armour to face off against Stane and his formidable ‘Iron Monger’ suit.

Iron Man 2008 (3)

Tony Stark takes flight in the Mark III Iron Man armour…

Director Jon Favreau (who also appears as Tony Stark’s driver, ‘Happy’ Hogan) keeps things energetic and exciting, delivering slick spectacle without sacrificing the smaller and more intimate character moments.  The film’s design is commendable, the highlight of which is the Iron Man armour itself.  Based on the designs of comic book artist Adi Granov and created using a mixture of CGI and practical elements – implemented by the legendary Stan Winston Studios – it’s a faithful translation of the red and gold future Avenger from the four colour pages to the silver screen.

Iron Man remains a highly enjoyable watch, whilst Tony Stark’s Avengers outings are generally stronger and the character, along with Robert Downey Jr’s continued success in the part, has grown and matured.  The film’s positive reception cemented the plans of Marvel Studios for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (the wider superhero world teased by the inclusion of Clark Gregg as S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Phil Coulson and a post-credits appearance by Samuel L. Jackson as the organisation’s director, Nick Fury) and instilled Marvel with the confidence to adapt other lower-tier comic book properties such as Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man and Doctor Strange all of which would be well received by audiences and critics alike.

Geek fact!  An Iron Man feature film had lingered in development since the 1990s, with superstar Tom Cruise at one point mooted as a possible candidate for the lead role.

All images contained herein belong: Marvel Studios and used for illustrative purposes only.

 

Film Review: ‘Doctor Strange’ (spoiler free)

Mighty Marvel casts its spell…

Starring:  Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Tilda Swinton, Mads Mikkelsen.

Directed by:  Scott Derrickson / Written by:  Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson & C. Robert Cargill / 115 minutes

What’s it about?

His hands mangled in a car crash, brilliant neurosurgeon Stephen Strange’s career is seemingly over.  Exhausting all surgical efforts to repair his injuries, Strange travels to a place called Kamar-Taj where an encounter with a mysterious figure sees him thrust into the world of the mystic arts…

In review

With the runaway successes of Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man, Marvel Studios have proved adept at bringing lesser and more obscure comic book properties to the big screen and in a manner that manages to please fans and regular audiences alike.  Doctor Strange would immediately seem a far trickier and more daring gamble than those previous hits but for the most part, Marvel Studios succeed once more.

Based on the Marvel comic books by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, the journey of neurosurgeon Doctor Stephen Strange from arrogance to fall from grace and eventual redemption may be a little clichéd but via the film’s exploration of magical abilities and mystic realms there lies another dimension to the storytelling that opens up the possibilities for future Marvel Studios productions.  It’s fair to say in that sense that this makes the “Sorcerer Supreme” an important character as the looming apex of Avengers: Infinity War approaches.

In the role of Stephen Strange, Benedict Cumberbatch makes for a strong lead and although for some it may take a little time to adjust to his American accent, the Sherlock and Star Trek Into Darkness star laps up the material handed to him in a performance that’s impassioned, witty and by the end of it all, noble.  Seemingly the requisite love interest, Rachel McAdams is somewhat underserved as Christine Palmer although she does share some vital scenes with Cumberbatch that helps the audience become more invested in the character and his arc throughout this origin story.

Tilda Swinton is wise and otherworldly as the enigmatic Ancient One and co-stars Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Wong fit nicely into the mix as fellow sorcerers Mordo and Wong respectively.  As the main antagonist, Mads Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius – a former pupil seeking to unlock the secrets of dark magic –  has some great moments, rising to the challenge of being pitted against the talents of Cumberbatch and Swinton but is ultimately less memorable than Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull (Captain America: The First Avenger) or James Spader’s Ultron (Avengers: Age of Ultron).

There’s a slight over reliance on humour at times, parts of it are welcome relief but some moments feel forced, included merely for the sake of it and arguably undermine several key scenes that would have benefitted from a more dramatic tone.  Where Doctor Strange really excels is via its jaw-dropping, kaleidoscopic visuals as director Scott Derrickson intertwines influences of Escher with the cinematic awe of Inception and the mesmerising psychedelia of 2001: A Space Odyssey that bring the trippy imaginings of Messrs. Lee and Ditko breathtakingly to life.  The extra expense of an IMAX 3D ticket is fully warranted for the fullest possible immersion in the mind-bending spectacle of folding cityscapes and unravelling astral planes.

Ultimately it’s the visual elements that gloss over the overall flaws in the tone and narrative of Doctor Strange but there’s no denying the charm of Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance and the potential of further adventures of Marvel’s Master of the Mystic Arts.

The bottom line:  Despite some formulaic elements and jarring moments of silliness, Doctor Strange is a reliably entertaining and visually stunning addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Doctor Strange is screening in UK cinemas now and opens in the US and worldwide from 4th November.

Benedict Cumberbatch confidently leads Marvel Studios' 'Doctor Strange'.

Benedict Cumberbatch confidently leads Marvel Studios’ ‘Doctor Strange’.

Film Review: ‘Captain America: Civil War’ (spoiler-free)

Time to choose sides…

Starring:  Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr, Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Rudd, Chadwick Boseman, Tom Holland, Daniel Bruhl.

Directed by: Anthony Russo & Joe Russo / Written by: Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely / 147 minutes

What’s it about?

When their latest mission goes awry, the Avengers are faced with United Nations regulation leading to opposing allegiances as a rift forms between Captain America and Iron Man…

In review

After eight years and a dozen film releases, Marvel Studios deliver yet another satisfying and crowd pleasing punch of entertainment in the form of Captain America: Civil War (based loosely on the game changing comic book series by Mark Millar and Steve McNiven), the third solo outing for Chris Evans’s Captain Steve Rogers.

Via its blend of sophisticated storytelling and popcorn blockbuster action, 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier presented a superior breed of a comic book superhero film and Civil War manages to repeat that successfully, placing these beloved Marvel characters bang in the centre of a Bourne-esque action thriller that reflects real world political and social concerns and explores the moral ramifications to the actions of this altruistic, yet unregulated group of special individuals.  In the wake of the events of The Winter Soldier and Avengers: Age of Ultron, Steve Rogers – aka Captain America – and his fellow Avengers find their latest mission having devastating consequences, resulting in the United Nations imposing regulatory control on ‘Earth’s Mightiest Heroes’, the opposing viewpoints of Rogers and Tony Stark/Iron Man causing the rest of the group to divide their allegiances.

Fears that Civil War would merely be ‘Avengers 2.5’ are quickly allayed for despite the inclusion of a plethora of characters, including Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark/Iron Man, this is most definitely a Captain America film with an emotional core that is firmly centred on Steve Rogers, who finds his values and friendships threatened as he once again fights for the freedoms he has always sought to protect.  With the narrative of Civil War focusing largely on Rogers and the fallout from The Winter Soldier as he strives to help redeem and clear the name of best pal ‘Bucky’ Barnes and his straining relationship with Stark (with Evans and Downey Jr once again delivering reliably strong performances), there might be some trepidation as to how the film’s expanded roster of superhero characters is handled.  Thankfully, Civil War manages this with relative ease allowing each supporting character enough time and significance in proportion to their roles in the story with the likes of Black Widow, Scarlet Witch, Falcon, Vision, War Machine, Ant-Man and Hawkeye all given their moments to shine.  Yet it’s the introduction of Marvel characters Black Panther and – triumphantly – Spider-Man that will have fans most excited for Civil War and the good news is that they’re both great.  As T’Challa, Chadwick Boseman exudes the qualities of leadership in a restrained yet impassioned manner whilst evoking the requisite strength and physicality that the role of the heroic Black Panther demands.  Whilst T’Challa/Black Panther is more significant to the plot of Civil War, the sheer delight of seeing Spider-Man amidst the action with his fellow Marvel heroes makes his inclusion worth the while as Tom Holland infuses Peter Parker with all the awkwardness and fun that comes with the character.

Returning to directing duties are Anthony and Joe Russo, who helmed The Winter Soldier and will be tackling the behemoth Avengers: Infinity War two-parter.  The Russo brothers deliver here as much as they delivered on The Winter Soldier and Civil War feels similarly well-balanced between character, story and visuals.  There are some great set pieces (the highlight of which is an airfield showdown between ‘Team Cap’ and ‘Team Iron Man’ which stands amongst the best moments of any Marvel blockbuster) that the Russo’s inject with the same level of energy and heft they employed in The Winter Soldier, with the incredible choreography going hand in hand with superlative stunts and CGI spectacle.

Whilst it may not be as intricately plotted as The Winter Soldier, returning screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely still provide a smart and layered script with depth of character amongst its social and political debates, together with some credible motivations for Daniel Bruhl’s main antagonist.

Overall, Civil War is a deftly balanced film with a tone that offsets generally serious and thought provoking elements against well placed moments of humour and the fun and excitement audiences have come to expect from a Marvel Studios production that will once again satisfy the masses.

The bottom line:  Standing proudly alongside the very best of Marvel’s blockbusters, Captain America: Civil War is sure to excite and thrill audiences as it confidently hits all the right notes.

Captain America: Civil War is in cinemas across the UK now and opens in U.S. theatres on 6th May.

Whose side are you on? Former allies Captain America (Chris Evans) and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) face off in Marvel Studios' 'Captain America: Civil War'.

Whose side are you on? Former allies Captain America (Chris Evans) and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) face off in Marvel Studios’ ‘Captain America: Civil War’.

TV Review: Marvel’s ‘Agent Carter’ S2 EP1 “The Lady in the Lake” – SEASON PREMIERE

Starring:  Hayley Atwell, James D’Arcy, Enver Gjovak, Chad Michael Murray, Bridget Regan, Wynn Everett

Series created by:  Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely

Written by:  Brant Englestein / Episode directed by:  Lawrence Tilling / aired in the UK  : 28/01/2016

What’s this episode about?

SSR Agent Peggy Carter is transferred to Los Angeles where she’s reunited with old friends and faces a new mystery…

Episode review

With Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on its State-side mid-season break, Marvel’s second network television series returns to fill the gap.  Since Agent Peggy Carter’s introduction in Marvel Studios’ Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), actress Hayley Atwell has been able to forge a likeable and important screen presence with numerous subsequent appearances in episodes of Marvel’s first small screen spin-off, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (courtesy of flashback sequences) as well as big screen hits Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) and Ant-Man (2015) helping to develop connective strands woven through the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Given the overwhelmingly positive reception of the Agent Carter ‘Marvel One Shot’ short included in the Iron Man Three blu-ray release it was no surprise that Atwell would subsequently land her own series.  Over its eight episodes the first season of Marvel’s Agent Carter proved to be a successful mix that was thrilling, fun and funny.  The season 2 premiere (which aired together with episode 2 in the U.S.) sees Peggy transferred to the newly established L.A. division of the SSR by disgruntled Chief Jack Thompson (Murray), not wanting to be outshone by Carter whose struggles to prove her worth as a skilled and competent agent in a male dominated environment were explored last season.  The breaking point for Thompson comes when Carter aides in the capture and interrogation of Black Widow assassin Dottie Underwood (seemingly tying up lose threads from last season?  That may not be the case?).  These chain of events allow for an action packed opening and for Atwell to stretch her acting chops in some well-played scenes between Carter, Underwood (a returning Bridget Regan once again providing the right level of cool and unhinged femme fatale villainy) and Thompson.

Gladly, Carter arrives in L.A. to be reunited with Howard Stark’s faithful (albeit suffering) butler Edwin Jarvis, bringing back together the exceptional team of Hayley Atwell and James D’Arcy that was a one of season 1’s most successful elements.  D’Arcy is pitch perfect in the role of Jarvis and deftly infuses the character with doses of British stiff upper lip as he bemoans of the glitz and glam of the Hollywood lifestyle and the obsessions and demands of his master.  Dominic Cooper’s Howard Stark may himself be absent from this episode but his presence is certainly felt as Jarvis grapples with the latest addition to Stark’s menagerie…a pink flamingo that refuses to co-operate!

There’s some unease when Carter confronts her new chief, Daniel Sousa (Dollhouse’s Enver Gjovak) given hints of a blossoming romance at the end of last season but both soon re-establish their camaraderie as the SSR investigates the corpse of a mysterious women, frozen in a lake (during an L.A. heatwave no-less) and how it may tie to actress Whitney Frost (Wynn Everett), the LAPD and a radioactive isotope being manufactured by shady corporation Isodyne Energy.

The move to L.A. provides the series with a fresh start that’s welcoming to new viewers and once again the recreation of post-War 1940s is well-presented via costume and production design (aided by the peppering of some period stock footage).  Brant Englestein’s script serves well as a reintroduction to the main characters and a taster for this season’s storyline along with some neat twists (and a surprising connection to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) and the odd easter egg for die hard Marvel Comics fans.

The bottom line:  Peggy Carter is back in a fun and tantalising opening for Agent Carter’s second season.

Marvel’s Agent Carter airs in the UK Thursday evenings on Fox.  U.S. viewers can catch it on ABC.

What did you think of the ‘Agent Carter’ season premiere?  Share your thoughts below!

Hayley Atwell returns as Peggy Carter in Marvel's 'Agent Carter'.

Hayley Atwell returns as Peggy Carter in Marvel’s ‘Agent Carter’.

Film Review: ‘Ant-Man’ (spoiler free)

Marvel recruits its tiniest Avenger…

Starring:  Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll, Michael Pena

Directed by:  Peyton Reed / Written by:  Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish & Adam McKay & Paul Rudd / 117 minutes

What’s it about?

Fresh from prison, ex-con Scott Lang is sought out by scientist and inventor Hank Pym to prevent his work from being developed into a dangerous weapon.  To do so, Lang must don Pym’s greatest creation, a super-suit that will allow him to shrink to the size of an insect whilst increasing in strength…he must become the ‘Ant-Man’…

In review

Is there anything Marvel Studios cannot achieve?  With Ant-Man the answer, at least for now, is an assured and confident “no”.  Surprising and delighting audiences last summer with Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel sought to repeat that success once again with another obscure, lesser known property…yet this time facing the unenviable task of following a highly anticipated Avengers sequel.

Despite the exit of original director (and co-screenwriter) Edgar Wright, Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man successfully rises above those early production troubles, delivering an accessible, visually inventive and fun super-hero caper.  Not unlike Chris Pratt in Guardians of the Galaxy, leading star Paul Rudd brings a healthy dose of comedic talent and likeability to Ant-Man as central hero Scott Lang, a character whose struggles as an ex-con and absent father provide the narrative’s emotional backbone.

It helps that Rudd is surrounded by a great cast with a range of talents.  Leading the charge is A-lister Michael Douglas whose largely straight-faced performance as Hank Pym (father of the shrinking ‘Pym Particle’ and the original Ant-Man) provides a neat counter balance against the hilarity of Lang’s heist buddy Luis (Michael Pena), the maniacal pantomime evil of villain Darren Cross (House of Cards’ Corey Stoll) who seeks to ‘weaponise’ Pym’s work and the strength and determination of Pym’s daughter Hope (The Hobbit’s Evangeline Lilly).

It’s probably unsurprising that there’s a great deal of humour in Ant-Man and it feels appropriate given the premise of a shrinking super-hero able to command an army of ants.  The incredulity and bewilderment conveyed by Rudd’s performance (melded with some precise comic timing) aides in retaining audience investment and fosters a willingness to accept the outlandish and simply enjoy the ride.

Amongst the humour and occasional moments of drama (primarily played out via Lang’s afore-mentioned troubles and an emotional rift between Hank Pym and his daughter), Ant-Man delivers some wonderfully inventive action sequences, where the ability to shrink and enlarge at will is utilised to great advantage.  Coupled with the lavish visual effects that are part and parcel of today’s blockbusters Ant-Man really is visually striking at times and although it can evoke memories of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids it’s well realised, adeptly executed by director Peyton Reed and worth the extra premium of an IMAX 3D ticket.

Although it functions as a standalone film and origin tale, Ant-Man does provide connections to the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe which as always are pleasing from a fan perspective yet not as numerous as Avengers: Age of Ultron and don’t feel too extraneous.  If anything, what few connections there are would seem entirely necessary given that Rudd’s Ant-Man will be returning in next year’s Captain America: Civil War.

With Ant-Man, Marvel have taken a potentially hokey super-hero concept and via the creative talent employed made it believable, enjoyable and fun with a good measure of heart.  Whilst it may not be as solid or complex as Captain America: The Winter Soldier or as huge as the Avengers films it’s a worthy addition to the ever expanding Marvel cinematic pantheon.

The bottom line:  Ant-Man is a fun and action packed blockbuster ride with a great cast and bolstered by impressive visuals.

Ant-Man is in cinemas now.

Ready to go small...star Paul Rudd suits up in Marvel's 'Ant-Man'.

Ready to go small…star Paul Rudd suits up in Marvel’s ‘Ant-Man’.