TV Review: ‘The Falcon and The Winter Soldier’

Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan reprise their superhero roles for the latest Marvel/Disney+ series…

Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan return to the Marvel Cinematic Universe for Disney+ series ‘The Falcon and The Winter Soldier’ (image credit: Disney/Marvel Studios).

Warning! Contains SPOILERS

Starring:  Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Wyatt Russell, Daniel Bruhl, Emily VanCamp, Erin Kellyman, Adepero Oduye

Series created by:  Malcolm Spellman (based on the Marvel comics)

What’s it about?

As the U.S. government unveils a new Captain America, Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes unite to take on the threat of an emerging radical group…

In review

Following the conclusion of the first Marvel Cinematic Universe streaming series for the Disney+ platform – the excellent WandaVision – Marvel Studios’ six-episode superhero action drama The Falcon and The Winter Soldier has now also wrapped up and it’s another hit for entertainment goliaths Marvel and Disney.  The series sees lead stars Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan reprise their roles as Marvel heroes Sam Wilson/The Falcon and “Bucky” Barnes/The Winter Soldier, respectively (both last seen in 2019 blockbuster Avengers: Endgame), as they take on the threat of a revolutionary group calling themselves the ‘Flag Smashers’ whilst also facing their own personal post-Blip concerns and the rise of the U.S. government’s newly appointed Captain America, decorated Afghan War veteran John Walker (Wyatt Russell – son of Kurt Russell).

The Falcon and The Winter Soldier is an engrossing Tom Clancy-esque action-espionage thriller in the spirit of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War (the “flavour” further enriched by bringing back composer Henry Jackman to score the show).  Series creator Malcolm Spellman and his writing staff tap into present day concerns, commenting on themes such as racial prejudice and division, the political state and social unrest whilst mirroring the buddy-cop character dynamics of the Lethal Weapon films, making the pairing of Sam and Bucky even more enjoyable.  Blessed with a handsome budget, The Falcon and The Winter Soldier boasts top-notch action scenes – Sam’s aerial battle in episode one and a truck-top fight involving Sam, Bucky and Walker as they take on the Flag Smashers in episode two are early examples – but is not driven by them, taking the time to delve into its characters and plot more deeply than a two-hour film possibly can.  This obviously results in a slower and more measured pace than an MCU film which some viewers might struggle with, but a generally consistent rhythm is quickly established, injecting the action where it’s called for and not just for the gratuity of it.  The Falcon and The Winter Soldier is far more motivated by character drama and the rich, thought provoking thematic elements it presents and as a result, anyone expecting straightforward superhero entertainment may be disappointed.

The series’ premiere episode does a good job of reintroducing the lead characters and their status quo following their return from non-existence in the ‘Blip’ (as per the events of Endgame) as Sam and Bucky attempt to get a grip on their lives.  Doubtful about taking up the role bequeathed to him by Steve Rogers, Sam Wilson relinquishes Cap’s shield to the U.S. government, before finding out that his status as an Avenger won’t help him secure a bank loan to help his sister Sarah (played by Adepero Oduye) and save the Wilson family’s fishing business.  Things are no better for Bucky Barnes, now gifted a Presidential pardon for his previous actions as The Winter Soldier, he begrudgingly submits to therapy for post-traumatic stress and plagued by guilt befriends an elderly Japanese man (Ken Takemoto), whose son he had murdered during one of his past operations as a Hydra assassin.  It creates an interesting set-up for both characters giving both Mackie and Stan plenty of depth to explore and they have never been better in their roles as they are elevated above their place as supporting players in the MCU films.

With Sam and Bucky taking on government contracts to make ends meet and Bucky questioning Sam’s decision to give up Cap’s shield and all that comes with it, tensions rise as the two begin to clash with a headstrong and determined John Walker.  Discovering that the Flag Smashers have super soldier serum-induced abilities, matters are further complicated when Sam and Bucky decide to team up with Zemo (Daniel Bruhl), incarcerated at the end of Civil War.  Travelling to Madripoor (a location Wolverine fans will know, weaving an X-Men related element into the MCU) with Zemo, who we learn actually is a Baron, aligning the character more closely with his Marvel Comics counterpart (even donning the iconic purple mask at one point), allows the investigation of the Flag Smashers to progress as well as facilitating a reunion with exiled former S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp, also last seen in Civil War) who helps the mismatched trio search for the shadowy string-puller of events: the enigmatic Power Broker.  The dingy criminal underworld vibe and accompanying action is comfortable territory for John Wick screenwriter Derek Kolstad and he gleefully infuses those elements here into The Falcon and The Winter Soldier.

Daniel Bruhl is assuredly excellent, bringing a snarling arrogance and scheming duplicitousness to the wholly untrustworthy yet surprisingly helpful Zemo.  Releasing the Baron naturally has its consequences, drawing the attention of Wakanda (again, recalling the events of Civil War, where Zemo was responsible for the death of King T’Chaka) heating things up further as the eminent African nation dispatches it’s formidable royal guard, the Dora Milaje.  Lead by Ayo (Black Panther’s Florence Kasumba), there’s a gripping hotel room fight that’s a swift reminder of how down-right awesome and unstoppably efficient Wakanda’s warrior woman are.  Flashbacks to Bucky’s recovery in Wakanda burdens him with a sense of betrayal as the scenes demonstrate how Ayo helped to break his Hydra induced programming.  It’s another small but significant aspect that enriches Stan’s character whilst providing organic connectivity with the wider MCU.

Wyatt Russell as the new Captain America, John Walker in ‘The Falcon and The Winter Soldier’ (image credit: Disney/Marvel Studios),

As John Walker, Wyatt Russell is a great addition and enjoys a strong character arc, the new Captain America a harder-edged combatant who becomes more intense and increasingly frustrated at the perceived interference from Sam and Bucky, their methods seen as too tame in order to get results.  Walker is very much a man of action and prepared to do what is necessary so it’s fitting that angered by the slaying of his partner Lemur Hoskins – a.ka. Battlestar (Cle Bennett) -, the new-Cap gets himself serum-boosted.  Consequentially, no punches are pulled in the shocking scenes (in the closing moments of the aptly titled “The Whole World is Watching”) of an enraged John Walker, giving chase and bludgeoning a Flag Smasher with Captain America’s shield as crowds capture the brutal event on their smartphones.  It presents some unsettling and potent symbolism that once again presses upon the issues of today and makes the need for a more noble-spirited and just Captain America in the mould of Steve Rogers even more desperate.  Walker is not “bad” in simple black and white terms, but a product of a different time and forged by a different kind of conflict, this notwithstanding it remains a reminder of Captain America: The First Avenger in that it’s not just an enhancing super solider formula that makes a Captain America but that there also needs to be a good and balanced soul at the end of the needle.

What really works well with The Falcon and The Winter Soldier is that beyond its characters and action set pieces, it paints an interesting picture of the post-Blip world and how many who have returned after a five-year absence are displaced and that not everyone is fortunate to receive the help and understanding they need.  Whilst the Flag Smashers are labelled as terrorists and commit deplorable acts, the series provides its villains with believable motivation and even an angle of sympathy through the group’s leader, Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman) and the scripts bring some prescient arguments to the table.  This is exemplified in a philosophical exchange between Sam and Morgenthau as the heroic Flacon recognises her cause but questions the execution of her agenda.  It’s well-written and wonderfully performed by both Anthony Mackie and Erin Kellyman and makes for good drama.  There’s also an addition to Marvel mythology as Sam and Bucky’s initial investigations lead them to the doorstep of Isaiah Bradley (first introduced to the Marvel Comics universe in 2003’s Truth: Red, White and Black #1 and played here by the superb Carl Lumbly), an African America super soldier who fought in the Korean War and was subsequently imprisoned and experimented on.  This abuse makes a powerful and evocative statement that highlights important issues and does so in a thought-provoking manner.

Given John Walker’s turn, the penultimate episode opens with a necessary confrontation between the rogue Captain America and Sam and Bucky, before unexpectedly changing gear to a contemplative character-driven piece that’s actually a highlight of the series as Sam, through the counsel of Bucky, realises that he is the man for the job.  Whilst also introducing Veep’s Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Marvel Comics character Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine, it lays the groundwork for a pacey and poignant finale (“One World, One People” – another appropriately titled episode) in which Sam finally takes up the role of the true Captain America.  It’s a triumphant moment and the battle to stop the Flag Smashers once and for all allows the former Falcon to display all the daring-do and heroics incumbent of any Captain America.  It culminates in a potent and evocative media-facing speech from Sam Wilson that, although could be seen as a little too ‘on the nose’ is, once again, an address of important issues of race and equality.

Of course, it was never in doubt that we would see Sam Wilson’s inevitable transition from Falcon to Captain America and a natural and fitting evolution for the character as has been seen in the comics.  It’s similarly unsurprising that Sharon Carter is revealed as the Power Broker (speculation is already rife that she is actually a Skrull agent, given that the Secret Invasion series is nearing production…but who knows?) and likewise that John Walker would be redeemed, in a manner, as he assumes his new identity:  U.S.Agent (again, mirroring the Marvel comic books), ready to take on the under-the-radar assignments Captain America morally cannot and under the orders of the Contessa.

As we’ve seen with WandaVision and now The Falcon and The Winter Soldier, there is a lot of creative potential for the various other upcoming Disney+ Marvel series (Loki being the next to arrive this June) and provide fans with some substantial long-form storytelling and entertainment between the popcorn blockbuster offerings of the MCU films.

The bottom line:  The Falcon and The Winter Soldier presents viewers with a superior form of dramatic superhero entertainment that’s laced with prescient and thought-provoking themes.

All six episodes of The Falcon and The Winter Solider are now available to stream via Disney+.

Image(s) used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).

Film Review: ‘Captain Marvel’

The MCU’s newest hero takes flight…

Captain Marvel

Brie Larson heads up the cast of Marvel’s latest blockbuster, ‘Captain Marvel’ (c. Marvel Studios).

Spoiler-free review

Starring: Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, Jude Law, Annette Bening, Lashana Lynch, Clark Gregg

Directed by: Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck / written by: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck & Geneva Robertson-Dworet (story by Nicole Perlman, Meg LeFauve, Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck & Geneva Robertson-Dworet / 124 minutes

What’s it about?

Granted incredible powers but left amnesiac when a test-flight of an experimental aircraft goes awry, Airforce pilot Carol Danvers is taken to the homeworld of the alien Kree where she joins them in their war against the Skrulls, which ultimately endangers Earth…

In review

With anticipation for Avengers: Endgame building and after all the marketing fanfare, Marvel Studios’ Captain Marvel arrives – but does it fly ‘higher, further, faster’? Alas, although Captain Marvel is mostly an entertaining ride it isn’t extraordinary, lacking the cultural impact of DC’s superior Wonder Woman and Marvel’s very own awards darling, Black Panther and despite a robust and appropriately heroic turn from lead star Brie Larson (Kong: Skull Island), it doesn’t do quite enough to stand out from the crowd or add anything fresh to the genre.

In Captain Marvel we’re introduced to Carol Danvers, a human gifted with powerful abilities, living as a disciplined, emotionally bereft soldier of the Kree in their war against the shapeshifting Skrulls. With no memory of her former life on Earth or the incident in which she gained her powers – ‘Vers’ is committed to the cause of the Kree but when a mission to rescue an undercover operative goes wrong, events lead Danvers back to her home where she seeks to uncover the mysteries of her past and save humanity from a Skrull invasion.

Taking into account that Captain Marvel doesn’t quite soar as much as it could (and maybe should) have, there’s still a fair amount to enjoy – as mentioned, Brie Larson is pretty much perfect casting, tackling the role of Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel (albeit not actually referred to as the latter onscreen) with a solid and assured portrayal of the Marvel Comics hero that deftly weaves in subtle strokes of comedy and an otherworldliness that adds a dash of the alien to the otherwise human Danvers. Larson plays it in more of an understated than charismatic manner, but that’s the beauty of it.

Samuel L. Jackson’s return as Nicholas Joseph Fury (or just plain “Fury”) is reliable, as we’ve come to expect, and the digital de-ageing effects employed for himself and Clark Gregg (also returning as S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Phil Coulson) are astonishing. There’s good chemistry between Larson and Jackson making the Danvers/Fury ‘team-up’ all-the-more enjoyable, adding a slight Lethal Weapon-esque buddy component to the narrative. The always brilliant Jude Law provides a presence as Kree warrior (and Danvers’ mentor) Yon-Rogg and Rogue One’s Ben Mendelsohn brings the right mix of playful villainy to the game as Skrull general Talos, an antagonist with realistic motivations. Star-credentials are broadened further by the inclusion of Annette Bening in a pivotal role and the film’s emotional core is strengthened as Larson’s Danvers reunites with her old friend, Maria Rambeau (played by Lashana Lynch).

There’s a certain sense of empowerment that’s laudable and important but doesn’t feel as potent as it did in Wonder Woman, perhaps it’s down to the fact that DC were first out of the gate with their female lead superhero hit, or it may just be something else but it’s still a positive element of Captain Marvel.

Competently directed by Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck with a screenplay by a muddle of writers that hits all the requisite beats – action, humour (that’s not forced and actually genuinely funny in the right places), heart – Captain Marvel gets the job done, with some pleasing visuals (particularly when it comes to the Skrull shapeshifting transformations) and set-pieces, bolstered by those key cast performances together with its nifty and nostalgic mid-1990s setting, accentuated by the sight of the VHS-stacked shelves of Blockbuster Video and iconic tunes from the likes of Nirvana, Elastica and No Doubt. It also has to be noted that how Captain Marvel pays tribute to Stan Lee is touching and simply wonderful.

In the end Captain Marvel is just another superhero blockbuster, a decent if unspectacular one that’s a little formulaic but it establishes a new hero in the MCU who has great potential as we approach the end of one era and prepare for the dawn of the next.

The bottom line: an entertaining superhero blockbuster, Captain Marvel isn’t a revelation but thanks to its stars has a certain heroic appeal.

Captain Marvel is in cinemas now.

Images used herein remain the property of the copyright owner(s) and are used for illustrative purposes only.

R.I.P. Stan Lee

The Marvel Comics legend has died…

RIP Stan Lee

The incomparable legend, Stan Lee (image used for illustrative purposes only and remains the property of the copyright owner).

The Pop Culture world has been shattered by the sad news of the death of Stan “the Man” Lee at the age of 95.  The founding father of Marvel Comics, Stan worked with legendary artists such as Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and Don Heck to co-create a plethora of superhero characters that continue to be loved by millions of fans all over the globe. It all began with The Fantastic Four in 1961 when a bored Stan, on the verge of quitting comics which at that time were dominated by the crime fiction and Western genres, conceived the idea of the titular superhero team when his wife Joan (who passed away last year, also at the age of 95) urged her husband to create the kind of characters and tell the types of stories that he wanted to.  The rest is of course history and a new age of comics was born when Timely Publications evolved into the mighty Marvel where Stan served as President and despite leaving the company in 1972 he continued to be credited as ‘Chairman Emeritus’.

With the genesis of Marvel many more creations followed, including (but not limited to) the X-Men, Daredevil, Thor, the Hulk, Black Panther, Iron Man and perhaps the greatest of all the Marvel heroes: Spider-Man.  Co-created with artist Steve Ditko (who also died earlier this year), Spider-Man is the finest example of what Stan Lee strove for when writing comic books and the colourful characters within their pages – finding the human in superhuman.  By infusing these characters with the same day-to-day trials and tribulations everyone faces, Stan presented stories that were relatable and more relevant to the reader whilst providing hope as the extraordinary people he wrote about surmounted their problems.

Whilst Lee and Ditko parted ways acrimoniously, with Ditko feeling Lee had downplayed his contributions in the creation of Spider-Man, Stan Lee always spoke fondly and respectfully of the artists he worked with and his love for, and work in, the comic book medium together with his boundless and passionate devotion to the fans helped shape the Pop Culture landscape as we know it today.

With Marvel superheroes being more popular than ever, in no small part thanks to the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (in which Stan would regularly make cameos in the various Marvel films, his many appearances commencing with 20th Century Fox’s pre-MCU X-Men feature film in 2000), Stan Lee’s legacy will live on for decades to come and most likely, beyond.

Stan Lee died 12th November 2018 aged 95.

Film Review: ‘Avengers: Infinity War’

Marvel Studios unleash an entire universe on audiences in the highly anticipated Avengers: Infinity War…

Spoiler-free review

 

Infinity War

The Avengers unite with the Guardians of the Galaxy to take on Thanos in Marvel Studios release ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ (image belongs: Disney/Marvel Studios, used for illustrative purposes only).

Starring:  Robert Downey Jr, Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Holland, Chadwick Boseman, Tom Hiddleston, Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper, Dave Bautista, Josh Brolin

Directed by:  Anthony Russo and Joe Russo / Written by:  Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely / 149 minutes

What’s it about?

Earth’s mightiest heroes – with the aid of some new cosmic friends – unite to prevent the galactic titan, Thanos from harnessing the devastating abilities of the all-powerful Infinity Stones…

In review

Perhaps the most anticipated cinematic event since the return of Star Wars, Avengers: Infinity War begins the culmination of ten years of the highly successful, box office conquering Marvel Cinematic Universe.  The biggest, most ambitious Marvel film to date (until next year’s as yet untitled Avengers 4 that is), Avengers: Infinity War is a rousing rollercoaster ride packed with emotion, action and laughs in a dazzling, heartfelt and often spectacular comic book blockbuster.

Having already helmed two of the strongest MCU entries, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War, directors Anthony and Joe Russo once again prove, with ease, that they are adept at balancing epic scale and a large cast of characters ensuring that high stakes are maintained without sacrificing focus on the people.  The narrative is relatively simple and splitting it into three ‘sections’ (with separate strands of the story taking place around the world and in space) prevents the expansive set of players from becoming muddled into one gigantic crowd which would only disservice the individual heroes audiences the world over have grown to love.  It’s a bit of a genius stroke that helps to break the film down neatly and isolate smaller groups of characters – the only downside being the inevitable disappointment that certain Marvel heroes don’t get to team up this time.  There is also a sense that, whilst everyone is given their moment to shine, some are perhaps not given as much prominence as might be expected.  To say this film is big (both in terms of its visuals and its cast) is an understatement and it’s commendable that, in the grand scheme of things the Russo brothers have managed to hold together all the disparate elements of Infinity War as well as they have.

Tonally, Infinity War follows a slightly darker path which is to be expected given the stakes that naturally come with the end of all things but like Avengers: Age of Ultron and Captain America: Civil War there’s still a good dose of levity where it’s needed and a lot of fun to be had, whether it be the verbal sparring between Iron Man and Doctor Strange, Spider-Man’s over-eagerness or Thor’s interactions with the Guardians of the Galaxy, together with numerous instances of fist pumping heroics – whilst it may seem all hope is lot at times, there’s often an undercurrent of hope running beneath the surface.

Whilst this is an Avengers film and we get to see all our old – and new – favourites with key moments for Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Black Widow, Doctor Strange, Spider-Man and Black Panther (and many more, including the Guardians of the Galaxy – Star Lord, Gamora, Drax, Rocket Raccoon and a stroppy teenage Groot), Infinity War is very much the story of its central villain, Thanos.  First teased in the post-credits sting for Avengers Assemble, Thanos, thanks to the efforts of screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely and the motion capture performance of Josh Brolin (realised with some good CGI) is a powerful antagonist for sure and one with a lot of depth – there’s strong emphasis on character and a real sense of what his motivations are.  They say the best villains never see themselves as being truly evil and although Thanos is responsible for atrocious acts, Infinity War takes the opportunity to explore what makes the mad titan tick.

Infinity War isn’t total perfection though, at this point in the MCU there’s a certain – perhaps unavoidable – element of predictability that springs from a tried and tested formula and the pacing of its earlier acts can feel a little erratic and inconsistent.  Also, whilst much of the humour is well placed (and actually funny) there’s still the odd moment of forced slapstick that doesn’t quite hit the mark but it’s much more effective than some of Marvel’s other releases and never lapses into the outright absurdity of Thor: Ragnarok.  Some of the action can also be a little too frantic in its execution, although the Russo’s seem to have dialled back a little on some of the more overzealous ‘shaky-cam’ usage seen in their Captain America outings.

So, is Infinty War the best comic book film ever?  No, it’s certainly not The Dark Knight but nor does it try to be anything other than what it is.  Is it the best Marvel film?  Time will tell, but for now there’s no hesitation in declaring it as one of the greatest.

The bottom line:  Avengers: Infinity War was always a seemingly impossible task but directors Anthony and Joe Russo have pulled together an epic, exciting and at times moving comic book adventure that’s sure to be yet another hit for Marvel Studios.

Avengers: Infinity War is in cinemas now.

Film Review: ‘Black Panther’

Director Ryan Coogler transports audiences to the world of Wakanda in the most culturally important Marvel Studios release… 

Spoiler-free review

 

Black Panther

A king rises: Chadwick Boseman dons the identity of Wakanda’s protector in Marvel Studios release ‘Black Panther’.

Starring:  Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright, Martin Freeman, Andy Serkis

Directed by:  Ryan Coogler / Written by:  Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole / 134 minutes

What’s it about?

Following the death of his father, T’Challa returns to Wakanda to be crowned king and continue to serve as the secretive nation’s legendary protector – the Black Panther, but soon faces a threat to his beloved society that could have dire consequences for the rest of the world…

In review

A triumph for representation and cultural celebration, Black Panther is the highly anticipated Marvel Studios release focusing on the titular Marvel Comics character who debuted in the pages of Fantastic Four #52 published back in 1966.

After a memorable introduction in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, Chadwick Boseman reprises the role of T’Challa – heir to the throne of the fictional African nation of Wakanda, a place of true marvel and beauty that thrives on its proud traditions, spirituality and incredible technological advancements derived from their source of ‘vibranium’ – the strongest metal ever known to mankind, its potential for exploitation by the wrong people forcing the society to remain largely hidden and isolated from the rest of the world.  Boseman tackles his role with a quiet strength, deftly conveying key qualities of nobility and leadership with dignity and grace, embodying the spirit of the character created Stan Lee and Jack Kirby over fifty years ago.  What’s appealing about T’Challa and the Black Panther comics in general is the fact that he’s not just a “superhero” but also a leader and a diplomat and thankfully this film grabs firmly on to those elements, melding them with a story that mixes Bond-esque espionage and intrigue with a deeper focus on all too relevant social issues (and doesn’t shy away from them without being overly preachy) together with the action and spectacle that’s part and parcel of any comic book blockbuster.

Creed director Ryan Coogler (who also co-writes) presents a visually captivating film, whether it be the gleaming, computer generated towers of the Wakandan city or the magnificent, sumptuous African vistas that, with the command of an appreciably sized budget delivers it all on an epic scale.  Black Panther does at times find itself falling victim to the more rigid and predictable elements of the well-worn formula of a Marvel Studios production and its slightly overblown CGI soaked finale, though exciting enough, feels a little at odds with the deeper, more cerebral aspects of the film.  Luckily Black Panther takes itself more seriously than other recent Marvel efforts, that’s not to say it doesn’t take time to have fun with itself but at least the humour here is largely more restrained and natural than, bar one or two moments, forced and unnecessary.  It’s arguable that Black Panther would’ve benefitted from some tighter and more consistent pacing but it remains entertaining on the whole.

For certain, the main strengths of Black Panther lay in its superb casting (coupled with well-drawn characters) and Ryan Coogler has assembled an impressive set of players.  Boseman is of course the commendable lead but is equally matched by those surrounding him, Letitia Wright is wonderfully energetic as T’Challa’s genius, playful sister Shuri, Danai Gurira is powerful and assured as General Okoye, leader of the Wakandan Royal Guard and Star Wars actress Lupita Nyong’o brings warmth and humanity to the role of Nakia.  There are smaller roles for Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett that may have warranted more attention but their parts are still relatively significant.  Also returning from Civil War is Martin Freeman, continuing in the role of CIA Agent Everett Ross and being the only real tie to the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Standing out overall though is Coogler’s leading man from Creed, Michael B. Jordan as central antagonist – in cahoots with arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (the always excellent Andy Serkis, last seen in Avengers: Age of Ultron) – Erik “Killmonger” Stevens, an exiled terror-maker who proves to be one of the stronger, more dimensional Marvel villains thanks to some decent writing and a weighty, venomous performance from Jordan he’s a character we don’t want to side with but there are credible reasons we could sympathise with him.

So, despite some formulaic elements, through its casting, direction and overall design, Black Panther still has its own flavour and some unique qualities, opening up another corner of the MCU and setting the stage for its future as we move towards the release of Avengers: Infinity War.

The bottom line:  Aside from the occasional stumble, Black Panther is a beautifully designed, well-cast and enjoyable blockbuster with some depth and is another worthy addition to Marvel’s big screen pantheon.

Black Panther is in cinemas now.

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’.

Film Review: ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’ (spoiler free)

Avengers re-assemble…

Starring:  Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, James Spader

Directed by:  Joss Whedon / Written by:  Joss Whedon

What’s it about?

The Avengers are pressed into action when Tony Stark’s experimentations with artificial intelligence unleashes Ultron – a malevolent programme intended for peace keeping that decides to become the master of its own fate…and humanity’s. 

In review

With the weight of near impossible odds stacked against him, writer/director Joss Whedon’s follow up to 2012’s mega hit (equally of critical and commercial proportions) – and dare us forget, third highest grossing film of all time – Avengers Assemble is finally unleashed upon entertainment and thrill hungry film goers.

Avengers: Age of Ultron opens by lunging the audience into a Bond-esque pre-titles mission as the Avengers, lead by Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man and Chris Evans’s Captain America, raid a secret Hydra base to recover Loki’s sceptre (see Avengers Assemble).  It’s a gloriously explosive and energetic opening that facilitates our reintroduction to ‘Earth’s Mightiest Heroes’, an introduction to new characters (following their brief appearance in the post-credits sequence of Captain America: The Winter Soldier) meta-humans Pietro and Wanda Maximoff and the set-up for the world-shattering events to follow.

Whilst the speedster of the Maximoff twins, Pietro (Taylor-Johnson) becomes largely a secondary character it is Wanda (Olsen) who figures more substantially in the narrative as her psych abilities are used to reach into the darkest corners of the minds of our beloved Avengers.  Right from the outset it’s clear that this is a much darker affair and the startling imaginations of Tony Stark’s fears set the tone for a more dramatically and thematically daring narrative than the previous Avengers outing.

Marvel Studios proved with Captain America: The Winter Soldier that such a creative direction is the way to go (whilst still indulging audiences in a spot of lighter entertainment in the form of the enjoyably fun Guardians of the Galaxy) and ensures that although Age of Ultron delivers much of what we all loved about Avengers Assemble – great characters, exhilarating action, of which there are numerous exciting set-pieces including a city smashing face-off between Iron Man and the Hulk that’s sure to delight fans and of course, humour – there is a seriousness and maturity that elevates the film above the realm of mere blockbuster fodder.

With an exciting, dramatic, intelligent and witty script Whedon crafts a glossy, quality comic book adventure that amongst all of the grand spectacle has a great deal of character depth.  Tony Stark continues to battle his demons as does Bruce Banner, increasingly ill at ease with his angry and destructive alter-ego who’s only saving grace is a blossoming tenderness with Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow, Steve Rogers is still very much a man out of time and Thor…well, is Thor.  Jeremy Renner’s Clint Barton (a.k.a. Hawkeye) is also better served this time around as we glimpse into a personal life beyond world saving escapades with the Avengers.

Downey Jr and Evans are once again on top form, returning with the assured confidence afforded them by star popularity and billions of dollars in box office takings.  They receive a more than worthy protagonist with James Spader triumphing in the role of the delightfully maniacal, egotistic and surprisingly funny Ultron, thanks to a combination of operatic dialogue and intricate motion capture performance.  Whilst it’s hard not to miss Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, Spader provides a gravitic presence of black hole proportions.  It also has to be said that Mark Ruffalo is once again a highlight as the troubled Bruce Banner and given the lack of any solo Hulk films in the near future is quite rightly given significant focus in Age of Ultron.

Central players aside, Age of Ultron features a glut of fan pleasing cameos from familiar faces including Don Cheadle as James Rhodes/War Machine, Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson/Falcon, Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill and Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury (not forgetting of course the customary appearance from the ever legendary Stan Lee).  Paul Bettany adds himself to the Avengers roster as he ‘evolves’ from Stark’s trusty electronic assistant JARVIS to the living, breathing bio-mechanical super powered entity known as ‘Vision’, superbly realised using a mixture of physical and computer generated elements .  With so many characters vying for attention it’s surprising that Age of Ultron doesn’t collapse under its own weight yet it holds together rather well and everyone generally gets their moment to shine – however large or small that turns out to be.

If there’s any criticism to be cited then it’s that there’s a great deal of set-up for forthcoming Marvel projects, with moments taken to lay the ground work for Captain America: Civil War, Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther and Infinity War Part I and II.  Sure, it’s all pleasing and to an extent necessary, yet it does threaten to verge on advertisement, although it’s probably an element that will be more welcome on subsequent viewings – perhaps enriched when those future Marvel outings are released.  The film’s music score is also a little underwhelming and lacking, a shame since composers Brian Tyler and Danny Elfman have both previously delivered some wonderful and strong comic book film scores.

On the whole, Whedon delivers a creatively successful film that stands at least on equal footing with Avengers Assemble and sets the Marvel Cinematic Universe firmly on course for its next phase.

The bottom line:  Avengers: Age of Ultron is a hell of a good time that focuses tightly on its rich set of characters whilst still providing audiences with colossal action and all around blockbuster entertainment.

Avengers: Age of Ultron is in cinemas across the UK now and opens in U.S. theatres on 1st May.

Captain America (Chris Evans) and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) return to lead the Avengers against new threat 'Ultron' (James Spader) in Marvel's 'Avengers: Age of Ultron'.

Captain America (Chris Evans) and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) return to lead the Avengers against new threat ‘Ultron’ (James Spader) in Marvel’s ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’.