TV Review: ‘Iron Fist’ – Season 2 Premiere

It’s time for round 2 with the new season of Marvel’s ‘Iron Fist’…

Iron Fist 2-01

Finn Jones returns for season 2 of Marvel’s ‘Iron Fist’ (image credit: Marvel/Netflix, used for illustrative purposes only).

Spoiler-free review

Starring:  Finn Jones, Jessica Henwick, Jessica Stroup, Tom Pelphry, Sacha Dhawan, Alice Eve

Series created by:  Scott Buck (Iron Fist created by Roy Thomas and Gil Kane)

Written by:  M. Raven Metzner / episode directed by:  David Dobkin

What’s it about?

As criminal gangs disrupt the peace in New York, Danny Rand is faced with an old acquaintance and a possible threat to his standing as the Immortal Iron Fist…

Episode review

After a first season that was met with a fairly lukewarm reception, Marvel’s Iron Fist returns for a second go.  Following the events of The Defenders and season 2 of Luke Cage, “The Fury of Iron Fist” finds Danny Rand choosing to live a simpler life, leaving the day-to-day business of Rand Enterprises to those who are more interested in corporate affairs.  More at ease with his role as the Immortal Iron Fist, Danny continues to use his abilities to defend the innocent and uphold Matt Murdock’s plea to keep New York safe.  Colleen too, chooses to lead a more moral and purposeful existence as she helps out at a local community centre.  However, with the rise of gang warfare and the return of Davos, any peace that Danny and Colleen have established could be about to be unravelled.

Season 1 of Iron Fist was not anywhere near as bad as most would lead you to believe, whilst the story may have felt a little stretched and the focus on corporate drama a little generic and unsatisfying it still had its moments with an intriguing if familiar origin story.  With The Defenders, there was some positive growth in the character of Danny Rand with better writing and a more confident and assured performance from Finn Jones (and Jones’ cameo in season 2 of Luke Cage was a highlight).  This continues here as the series gains a new showrunner and a desire to make a fresh start.

“The Fury of Iron Fist” is very much an opening chapter with a fairly slow beginning that’s mostly set-up and puts the pieces in place whilst familiarising viewers with the world and characters of Iron Fist.  There’s some action sprinkled in, with slick and well-choreographed fight scenes that pack a more brutal punch than what we’ve seen previously in this series.  Finn Jones and Jessica Henwick are both solid and there’s great chemistry between them and are assuredly the heart and soul of the series.

The return of Davos adds a thick layer of tension as he feels Danny is avoiding his truer responsibilities as the champion protector of K’un Lun.  There’s still a bit of generic soap drama with Ward and Joy but it may turn out more interesting this time around – especially in regards to Joy, seen as she’s in cohorts with Davos.

The most intriguing aspect though is the introduction of Alice Eve as Mary, a character who seems sweet but has something strange and unsettling going on behind closed doors.  If you’re a Marvel Comics reader then you’ll pretty much know what is going in and it’ll be interesting to see how things unfold.

With the main players established, the story foundations in place and a tighter run of ten episodes that may be of benefit, season 2 of Iron Fist has potential.

The bottom line:  the new season of Iron Fist gets off to a slow but promising start that may placate criticisms of the first season.

All 10 episodes of Iron Fist season 2 are available to stream now via Netflix.

Comic Review: ‘The Invincible Iron Man’ #600

It’s a farewell from Brian Michael Bendis as he caps off his run on The Invincible Iron Man…

 

Inv Iron Man #600

Cover art for Marvel’s The Invincible Iron Man #600 by Chris Sprouse (image belongs: Marvel Comics, used for illustrative purposes only).

 

Warning! Contains Spoilers.

Written by:  Brian Michael Bendis / Art by:  Stefano Caselli, Alex Maleev, David Marquez, Daniel Acuna, Leinil Francis Yu & Gerry Alanguilan, Jim Cheung, Mike Deodato Jr, Mark Bagely, Andrew Hennessy & Scott Hanna, Andrea Sorrentino / Colours by:  Marte Garcia, Alex Maleev, Daniel Acuna, Guru-eFX, Romulo Fajardo, Marcelo Maiold & Rachelle Rosenberg

What’s it about?

“The Search for Tony Stark” Finale : Tony Stark emerges from the shadows as Iron Man returns to face the threat of the Hood and a face from the past…

In review

The 600th issue of The Invincible Iron Man is a milestone for more than one reason, the book’s numeric value aside it’s not only the conclusion to Brian Michael Bendis’ run on the title (which commenced in 2015) but also the prolific writer’s final comic for Marvel (for the foreseeable future at least) as he departs for DC after working at the ‘House of Ideas’ for almost twenty years.

The Invincible Iron Man #600 serves as a fitting, albeit slightly muddled and not overly spectacular final chapter in “The Search for Tony Stark”.  It’s not the greatest comic Bendis has ever written, nor is it an out-and-out classic issue of The Invincible Iron Man but it does the job adequately.  Following the events of issue #599, Tony Stark is back and ready for action as he faces a hostile takeover of Stark Industries, a threat from Hydra and demons from the past as Riri Williams must decide where her future lies now Iron Man has returned and Victor Von Doom seeks retribution.

Where The Invincible Iron Man #600 does succeed is in its revelations, chiefly the resurrection of Rhodey (who had fallen at the hands of Thanos in Civil War II) – this could be a huge spoiler for some (hence the warning at the head of the review) but surely most readers will have been expecting it, given that very few characters ever die and then remain so in comics…notwithstanding that the issue’s cover can be seen as a giveaway.  Anyway, it’s handled brilliantly being both emotionally satisfying and funny and no doubt we’ll be seeing more of Rhodey/War Machine in Dan Slott’s forthcoming run.

There’s a tragic and heart-wrenching climax to Victor Von Doom’s tenure as the ‘Infamous’ Iron Man and one that may precipitate his return to a more villainous path – another area for Dan Slott to explore with the impending Fantastic Four relaunch.  The return of Stark’s biological father (see the International Iron Man limited series), Jude also adds to the drama whilst helping to bring things full circle.

The Invincible Iron Man #600 does become a little jumbled though.  Despite its increased page count there is so much going on and barely enough space, although the pacing never feels rushed.  It can also be a bit of a trying read at times, much of the book is narrated by the A.I. version of Tony Stark and it’s quite dense as Brian Michael Bendis packs in a lot of exposition that serves to both recap events of his entire Iron Man saga and set the stage for the future.

There’s still room reserved for some action, the highlight of which is Stark’s attack on the Hood and his gang as he fights to prevent Stark Industries from falling into enemy hands, Jim Cheung’s beautiful double-page splash featuring numerous past Iron Man armours – evoking memories of Iron Man #300’s Iron Legion.

The expanded roster of artists is a little tricky, granted some of Marvel’s strongest talent has been engaged here and it’s a particular pleasure to see David Marquez contribute but it’s a shame that the whole book couldn’t have simply been divided up between Stefano Caselli and Alex Maleev in the same manner as previous issues, but it’s perhaps partly necessitated by the jump to 42 pages.  Still, it’s fairly consistent overall but the random jump between artists can be a little jarring.

In the end, it feels like Brian Michael Bendis may have had more up his sleeve for Marvel’s Iron Avenger but with his time at Marvel now up we can only see what’s in store with Dan Slott’s Tony Stark:  Iron Man.  The Invincible Iron Man #600 isn’t perfect but Bendis has produced a memorable run on the character (and given us Riri Williams in the process) and although it’s not as fulfilling as it could have been, there are certainly some good moments within.

The bottom line:  “The Search for Tony Stark” comes to an end in Brian Michael Bendis’ flawed but enjoyable final issue of The Invincible Iron Man.

The Invincible Iron Man #600 is published by Marvel Comics and is available in print and digital formats 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: ‘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.

Comic Review: ‘The Invincible Iron Man’ #598

Brian Michael Bendis nears the end of his final Iron Man story…

Inv Iron Man #598

Alex Maleev’s cover for Marvel’s ‘The Invincible Iron Man’ #598 (image belongs: Marvel Comics, used for illustrative purposes only).

Written by:  Brian Michael Bendis / art by:  Stefano Caselli and Alex Maleev / colours by:  Marte Garcia and Alex Maleev

What’s it about?

“The Search for Tony Stark” Part Six : as the Avengers try to locate Tony Stark and Victor Von Doom finds himself in a tight corner, Riri Williams heads to M.I.T. to continue her own search for the former Iron Man…

 In review

Brian Michael Bendis delivers touches of intrigue, drama and action in the latest instalment of his final Iron Man story before departing for rival publisher DC.  Commencing his tenure during Marvel’s ‘All-New, All-Different’ relaunch back in 2015, Brian Michael Bendis has given readers a decent run on The Invincible Iron Man (as well as enjoyable limited-run spin-offs International Iron Man and Infamous Iron Man).  It’s fair to say that the title has been slow at times but never short of an entertaining read, whether it has concerned the adventures of Tony Stark or his post-Civil War II successor, Riri Williams – a.k.a. ‘Ironheart’.

“The Search for Tony Stark” steps towards its impending conclusion (in issue #600) and whilst there’s isn’t a great deal of progression in actual plot and the ‘search’ itself not quite as engrossing as one would hope (the story will likely read better once collected), Bendis takes time to focus on his main players, Riri Williams/Ironheart and Victor Von Doom/’Infamous’ Iron Man with a couple of brief appearances from the likes of Captain America (literally for one page) and Blade.  It’s good to see Blade pop up and his instant rapport with Riri helps restore her drive after having the Ironheart armour confiscated.  It remains to be seen if Bendis has more use for Blade but as is, it’s a neat little cameo that has some narrative importance.

Meanwhile, Victor Von Doom continues to have a rough time of it – now faced with the Hood and his rag tag crew of villians, out to strip the former ruler of Latveria of all that’s left of his worth.  It’s hard to imagine that Marvel will want to maintain Von Doom’s hero/anti-hero status for much longer but Brian Michael Bendis has added numerous layers to the character and in the process made Victor Von Doom all the more interesting which, in turn, will make him all the more compelling as a villain should Marvel choose to take that path.

Whilst it’s a hefty dose of gloom for Victor, Riri is back to her bright and optimistic self as she is reunited with her armour and along with fellow Iron compatriots Arno Stark, Tony Ho and Madison Jeffries press forward in the quest to locate Stark…and run into some familiar foes along the way (with a twist).  It’s fun and enjoyable stuff that’s a perfect contrast with the bleaker proceedings that Von Doom faces.

Art is once again divided between Stefano Caselli, handling Riri Williams’ sections of the story and Alex Maleev presenting the Von Doom portions.  As with previous issues it works extremely well, Caselli bringing an energetic, slightly cartoonish style to Riri’s world (punched up with the help of Marte Garcia’s colours) and Alex Maleev delivering moody and gritty visuals that befit the darker tone of the ‘Iron Doom’ segments.

The bottom line:  “The Search for Tony Stark” continues slowly but Brian Michael Bendis still delivers strong character work and together with the beautiful art, The Invincible Iron Man remains a solid read.

The Invincible Iron Man #598 is published by Marvel Comics and is available in print and digital formats now.

Comic Review: ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ #797

Dan Slott brings back the Green Goblin, will Peter Parker go down fighting?

ASM #797

Another striking cover from Alex Ross for Marvel’s ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ #797 (image belongs: Marvel Comics, used for illustrative purposes only).

Written by:  Dan Slott / pencils by:  Stuart Immonen / inks by:  Wade von Grawbadger / colours by:  Marte Garcia

What’s it about?

“Go Down Swinging” Part One : an increasingly unhinged Norman Osborn is ready to return as the Green Goblin and make Peter Parker’s life a living hell…

In review

Sounding almost like a mission statement, the latest issue of The Amazing Spider-Man sees long-serving writer Dan Slott kick off his final storyline with the opening chapter of “Go Down Swinging” and it’s a delightfully dark and ominous beginning that holds promise for what will surely be a grand finale.

Picking up on the events of the previous “Threat Level: Red” arc (and the recent, disappointing Venom Inc crossover which saw Flash Thompson return as the Anti-Venom), Dan Slott and Stuart Immonen present us with a deranged, psychotic and down-right scary Norman Orsbon, now bonded with the Carnage symbiote, as he prepares to make a return as the Green Goblin and eliminate Spidey once and for all.  This is perhaps the most chilling interpretation of the iconic villain that’s ever graced the pages of a Spider-Man book and it makes The Amazing Spider-Man #797 all the more an unnerving read – there are some pretty shocking moments within.

Slott makes this issue of The Amazing Spider-Man even more of a page-turner with a continuous tease as Osborn unloads his madness and obsession with taking down the Webbed Wonder on an unknown victim, bound, gagged and shrouded in the shadows of a dilapidated, cobweb littered apartment.  Whilst much of the issue’s page count is devoted to Osborn’s mania, there’s still some space reserved for Peter Parker as Slott takes time to weave key elements of Spider-Man history into the narrative, the highlight of which is the romantic interlude between Peter and Mary Jane whose union was controversially erased by J. Michael Straczynski’s “One More Day” storyline back in 2007 (which also restored Peter’s secret identity).  It’s a wonderfully heartfelt moment that’s bittersweet and a touch nostalgic for older Spider-Man fans, rendered beautifully by Stuart Immonen.

Speaking of Stuart Immonen his return this issue is a welcome one, producing layouts that are stronger and more detailed than ever, the definition of the moody and exciting visuals enhanced by the skilled embellishments of inker Wade von Grawbadger and colourist Marte Garcia.  Immonen’s departure from the title to make way for Marvel’s latest impending relaunch is going to be a significant loss for the title.

Gently cranking the tension up throughout, Dan Slott closes out The Amazing Spider-Man #797 with some tantalising final revelations, setting up rather high stakes as Spider-Man’s most formidable foe is ready to strike.

The bottom line:  Dan Slott and Stuart Immonen deliver a tense and shocking opening for their latest Spider-Man arc as “Go Down Swinging” gets underway.

The Amazing Spider-Man #797 is published by Marvel Comics and is available in print and digital formats 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: ‘Thor: Ragnarok’

Thor does Planet Hulk…

Spoiler-free review

 

Thor 3

For Asgard: Chris Hemsworth leads the quest to save his home in Marvel Studios release ‘Thor: Ragnarok’.

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Mark Ruffalo, Cate Blanchett, Jeff Goldblum, Karl Urban, Anthony Hopkins, Idris Elba, Tessa Thompson

Directed by: Taikia Waititi / Written by: Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle & Christopher L. Yost / 130 minutes

What’s it about?

As Asgard is attacked by Hela, the Goddess of Death, Thor finds himself stranded on a hostile alien planet where he is reunited with a familiar face and a hope to save his civilization from destruction…

In review

After sitting out last year’s team up in Captain America: Civil War, Marvel’s God of Thunder returns to the screen for a third solo outing where he is reunited with a “friend…from work” – the raging Incredible Hulk for an offbeat cosmic comic book adventure that’s a lot of fun, if overly daft and a little too self-indulgent.

Thor: Ragnarok largely eschews the more Shakespearean tone of Kenneth Branagh’s Thor and Alan Taylor’s Thor: The Dark World, director Taikia Waititi taking things in a somewhat goofier and lighter direction.  This is both a blessing and a curse, because at times Ragnarok feels like a James Gunn cover version, rarely straying too far from zany frivolity – often at the expense of drama and character.  A good dose of levity isn’t unwelcome, and there are genuinely funny moments, but what works so well for Guardians of the Galaxy doesn’t always hit the mark here and for a film that concerns the fall of Thor’s home – the mighty and magical realm of Asgard, the preference for those instances undermines some of the dramatic potential of Ragnarok.

Like those aforementioned directors, Waititi presents the viewer with a colourful, visually majestic film with grand scale and exciting blockbuster action.  If the film is occasionally let down by its slapstick tendencies and Guardians-esque imitations, there’s no faulting the craftsmanship and slick direction.

Chris Hemsworth makes an assured return as Thor and clearly relishes this particular take, confidently leading the rest of the cast.  What Ragnarok achieves more successfully than previous outings is giving us a Thor that truly feels like a God of Thunder and there are a few standout moments where director Waititi ensures that this strikes the viewer with awe.

Tom Hiddleston is once again on top form as he effortlessly hits the ground running as the devious Loki, further exploring his fractured brotherly dynamic with Hemsworth’s Thor.  There are also notable returns for Anthony Hopkins (Odin) and Idris Elba (Heimdall) as well as a guest role for the always excellent Karl Urban as Skurge (Asgard’s new keeper of the Rainbrow Bridge) and Westworld’s Tessa Thompson proves to be a highlight as former Asgardian warrior turned drunken bounty hunter, Valkyrie.

As for the bringer of Asgard’s doom, Cate Blanchett oozes and thrills as Hela (Marvel Studios’ first female villain) in a performance that deftly melds a dark, maniacal edge with sizzling sassiness.  Along with Hiddleston’s Loki she is one of the more memorable and better served antagonists of the MCU thus far.

Arguably though, the real star of the show is Mark Ruffalo – whether via performance capture as the Hulk (continuing advances in technology allowing every nuance to penetrate the computer generated exterior) or Bruce Banner, he infuses the role with a richness and charm that seizes the attention of the audience with a portrayal that’s equally heartfelt and funny.

Ragnarok is ostensibly a Thor film, however the ‘Ragnarok’ aspect of the narrative tends to take a back seat to its incorporation of fan-favourite Marvel Comics epic “Planet Hulk” – with much of the running time devoted to Thor’s exile on the planet Sakaar where he finds (and is at first pitted against in the gladiatorial arena by the Grandmaster, played wonderfully and exuberantly by the inimitable Jeff Goldblum) his ever angry green comrade.  Whilst this might devalue the central threat and the character arc possibilities for Hemsworth’s Thor, the inclusion of the Hulk is a welcome one – given the unlikelihood of a future solo outing of his own – and it’s pleasing to see some evolution for the character, this version more garrulous and playful than what has come before.

Whilst it would’ve been interesting to see a stronger and more focused exploration of Asgard’s fall and all that entails, there’s no arguing that Ragnarok is at its best whenever Thor and Hulk or Thor and Banner (and by extension, Valkyrie) are sharing the screen, all the more appealing given the sparky chemistry between Chris Hemsworth and Mark Ruffalo.

Despite some of its missteps, Thor: Ragnarok is a highly enjoyable romp – wearing it’s influences with glee, it’s kitsch infusion of 80’s metal, Flash Gordon, Masters of the Universe and cult sword and sorcery making it all the more pleasing on the whole.  It may not be the best Marvel Studios effort nor is it necessarily the strongest ‘Thor’ centric-story but it’s a good time non-the-less.

The bottom line:  A fun, if at times overly silly comic book adventure, Thor: Ragnarok is a reliably entertaining offering from Marvel Studios.

Thor: Ragnarok is in cinemas across the UK now and opens worldwide from 3rd November.

TV Review: ‘The Defenders’ Season 1

At long last, Netflix assembles Marvel’s street-level heroes…

 A note on spoilers : whilst this review doesn’t delve into major plot points there may be some light spoilers.

Starring:  Charlie Cox, Krysten Ritter, Mike Colter, Finn Jones, Elodie Yung, Jessica Henwick, Rosario Dawson, Scott Glenn, Simone Missick, Sigourney Weaver

Series created by:  Douglas Petrie and Marco Ramirez

What’s it about?

Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist unite to protect New York from the threat of the ancient order of The Hand…

Season review

Having established their core street-level heroes in their own individual series, Marvel and Netflix reach the culmination of their plans with the much anticipated team-up of Matt Murdock/Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Danny Rand/Iron Fist in The Defenders, a highly enjoyable – albeit not completely flawless – eight episode arc.

Like some of the other Marvel/Netflix shows, The Defenders gets off to a relatively slow start that’s somewhat burdened by its reintroduction of the principal characters in a manner that serves to both reacquaint established viewers with our heroes whilst striving to be accessible to those coming in fresh.  In terms of the latter it’s not entirely successful given that so much has happened to the individual characters in their respective series (particularly in the case of Daredevil who has two whole seasons worth of story) which supplies The Defenders with a pretty solid foundation for viewers who have already followed Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist.  It also presents a few initial narrative problems, the most cumbersome and disappointing being Luke Cage’s all-too quick and all-too convenient release from prison, which on the plus side does facilitate the introduction of Elden Henson’s Foggy Nelson into the story.

The series opener does most of the work of re-establishing the main players and their current status quo – Matt has locked away his billy club in favour of carrying out pro-bono legal work, Jessica is still hitting the bottle but has a weakness for those in need of help, Luke is dead-set on protecting the innocent and Danny, together with Colleen, continue to track and fight The Hand, the central threat of the Marvel/Netflix universe as seen in Daredevil and Iron Fist.  We’re also introduced to the current leader of that organisation – the mysterious ‘Alexandra’, played by screen icon (and Academy Award Nominee) Sigourney Weaver.  The artificially produced earthquake at the climax of “The H Word” provides suitably high stakes and a cause for our heroes to eventually unite against and Weaver is excellent in a role that’s atypical for an actor largely known for her more heroic turn as Lt. Ellen Ripley in the Alien films.  The writers provide Alexandra with a good measure of complexity yet there are moments when the character feels a little weak and never seems to fully develop into as powerful and formidable a foe as initially promised.

Where The Defenders doesn’t disappoint is when it comes to gathering the team itself, which happens organically without being forced or rushed and the dynamics of the group are explored wonderfully in the confines of a Chinese restaurant in “Royal Dragon”.  By having the main protagonists simply sit down at a table together we get to see some great chemistry on display, they’re a dysfunctional group for sure and there’s plenty of conflict in viewpoints but it all feels natural and there’s a sense that they all want to get on the same page and put aside any differences in order to battle against The Hand for the greater good.  “Royal Dragon” really sets things in motion, with the team galvanising as the series progresses and there’s a good dose of wry humour (Krysten Ritter on top form as she delivers Jessica’s sarcastic jibes) and plenty of light hearted put-downs, affording Mike Colter and Finn Jones the opportunity to build the budding friendship between Luke and Danny.

Overall, the focus on each of the principal cast is well-balanced (although Charlie Cox is arguably the standout) and Finn Jones certainly gets a chance to expand his character and placate those critical of Danny Rand’s characterisation in his own series with a definite sense of growth and a stronger positioning of him as the ‘Immortal Iron Fist’ as he finds himself being targeted as part of the enemy’s unfolding plans.

Supporting characters are served fittingly in accordance with the story.  Rosario Dawson’s role as Claire Temple is generally more prominent, which is understandable given here connective appearances in the other shows but there’s still a welcome presence (among some other familiar faces) from Simone Missick as Misty Knight and the superb Scott Glenn as Stick.  Of course, with The Hand presenting the threat in The Defenders and given the events of Daredevil season two we get to see Elektra’s rebirth as ultimate ‘weapon’ the Black Sky and Elodie Yung tackles this rather well, offsetting the brutality of a lethal assassin with emotional nuance as she grapples with her true identity.

The series features, like previous efforts, some slick and decently choreographed martial arts action (including another corridor fight sequence that can’t match those seen in Daredevil but is still a highlight non-the-less).  It does become a bit overly frantic at times and even difficult to follow in some of the darker scenes but for the most part, it delivers.

Structurally, there was always the fear that eight episodes would end up being too short a run.  Despite some occasional pacing issues, it actually works out just about right – in fact it’s also evidence that Marvel’s other Netflix series could benefit from slightly shorter episode counts, which really would have benefitted Luke Cage and Iron Fist.  Things slow down a little in the penultimate episode but The Defenders reaches an increasingly tense and satisfying climax in its finale (aptly titled “The Defenders”), with an epilogue that helps tie up loose ends whilst setting up the future course of Marvel’s Netflix universe.

The bottom line:  The Defenders is a reasonably enjoyable team-up event that successfully unites the street-level heroes of Marvel’s Netflix shows.

All 8 episodes of The Defenders season 1 are available to stream now via Netflix.

Defenders S1

Taking it to The Hand: Marvel’s street-level heroes assemble to save New York in ‘The Defenders’.

Film Review: ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’

Tom Holland swings back into action to grapple with great power

and great responsibility… 

Spoiler-free review 

Starring:  Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Robert Downey Jr, Marisa Tomei, Jon Favreau, Jacob Batalan, Laura Harrier

Directed by:  Jon Watts / Written by:  Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley, Jon Watts, Christopher Ford, Chris McKenna & Erik Sommers / 133 minutes

What’s it about?

Having fought alongside the Avengers as Spider-Man, Peter Parker yearns to be the indispensable hero but finds he has much to learn when the appearance of the villainous Vulture threatens to destroy all that he loves…

In review

After making an impressive debut in Captain: America Civil War, Tom Holland returns to the Marvel Cinematic Universe as high school student Peter Parker – aka Marvel’s much-loved wall-crawling web-head, Spider-Man.  The sixth solo big screen outing for the character, Spider-Man: Homecoming benefits greatly from the co-production deal between Sony Pictures and Marvel Studios with its connections to the wider Marvel screen universe more of an embellishment than a hindrance.

Whilst it fails to match the heights of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2, Homecoming is a fun, witty and heartfelt comic book adventure, wearing its high school teen comedy and coming of age story elements with pride and exuberance.  In this respect, Spider-Man: Homecoming is a more youthful affair in the vein of John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, focusing on its characters first and foremost, offset by the (generally) more street-level heroics of Peter Parker’s friendly neighbourhood alter-ego rather than being a slave to it.

Tom Holland once again tackles the role of Peter Parker/Spider-Man with enthusiasm and glee, with the wit, intelligence and vulnerability that reminds us of the appeals and relatability of the character – the well-intentioned, nerdy underdog with everyday problems that everyone loves to root for.  In an age where to be a geek is somewhat cooler than in the 1960s, Homecoming treats Parker as less of an outsider and has a more balanced approach to its laudably diverse, multicultural cast of characters with some contemporary twists on familiar faces.  As the object of Peter’s affections, Liz (Laura Harrier) is more of a peer than the totally out-of-reach popular ‘cool’ girl but there’s still a good dose of angst as Peter tries to balance his school life and the callings of a superhero.

This being a Spider-Man film, there’s a natural wealth of humour (largely facilitated by Peter’s best friend, Ned – played wonderfully by Jacob Batalan) that, like Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man fits neatly into the world of Peter Parker and never feels out of place or forced in at the wrong moment (Doctor Strange, ahem).  There are also numerous references and connections to the MCU (including the return of Tony Stark’s cantankerous driver, ‘Happy’ Hogan – with Iron Man/Iron Man 2 director Jon Favreau reprising his role) but are all slotted in tidily without burdening the story – this is still very much Spider-Man’s film.

As the central villain, Michael Keaton brings experience and gravitas to the role of Adrian Toomes/Vulture and despite having less screen time than it would initially seem he is well-served by some decent writing which paints a more interesting antagonist with identifiable motivations.  Far less a mere marketing gimmick, Robert Downey Jr’s part as Tony Stark/Iron Man feels integral to the narrative as he plays an important role as a father/mentor figure, there to guide Peter’s course and help him correct the errors of his ways – Stan Lee’s classic moral principal concerning great power and great responsibility a driving theme throughout.  It’s the support from Stark and Peter’s Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) that help keep our struggling hero centred and inspired to do better and be greater.

Although Spider-Man: Homecoming is mostly concerned with its characters, and the high school focused portions do tend to drag out the pace at times, there’s still plenty of popcorn action and spectacle to be had.  Despite the bulk of the action being bound to the streets of New York, there are a few larger set-pieces with ferry rescue and endangered aircraft sequences amongst the highlights.  It’s all staged competently by director Jon Watts and though lacking a little of the overall heft and excitement of the previous efforts by Sam Raimi and Marc Webb, it delivers enough to keep the audience engaged and thrilled.

Whilst the coming of age story and teenage relationship scenarios might be more appealing to a younger demographic, more seasoned Spider-Man fans will appreciate that this is where Peter Parker’s story begins, the formative experiences of his earlier years an important part of the character’s makeup and just like in the comics we can only look forward to seeing the character learn and grow into adulthood…the amazing and spectacular Spider-Man is here to stay and it’ll be exciting to share his cinematic journey in the years to come.

The bottom line:  A highly enjoyable romp, Spider-Man: Homecoming sets the iconic web-slinger on course for greater adventures to come as part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Spider-Man: Homecoming is in cinemas now.

Spidey Homecoming

Does whatever a spider can: Tom Holland stars in ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’ from Sony Pictures and Marvel Studios.