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Black Panther's Wait was Worth It by Ryan Hill

 
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It’s taken entirely too long for something like Black Panther, a superhero movie starring an African American, to see the light of day. In the period leading to that film’s release, Marvel has given us movies about a guy who communicates with ants (Ant-Man), two movies featuring a talking raccoon (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1 and 2), Doctor Strange and three Thor films. Granted, those are all enjoyable – save Thor: The Dark World – but it shouldn’t have taken so long for Black Panther to become a reality.

The saving grace for the delay is that Marvel, and especially writer/director Ryan Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole, did Black Panther right. It wasn’t rushed, like, oh, Justice League. The property was handled with care and precision, resulting in a film steeped in African culture, with fantastic, three-dimensional characters, gorgeous costumes and a wonderful theme. Even the villain, typically Marvel’s weak spot, has layers. It’s a film everyone should get behind.

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Taking place soon after the events in Captain America: Civil War (probably on the same point on the Marvel timeline with Spider-Man: Homecoming), Black Panther finds the newly crowned King of Wakanda, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), mourning the death of his father and the responsibility of becoming a new king in a changing world. Wakanda, home to the metal that created Captain America’s shield, is technologically far ahead of the rest of the world, but they’ve remained largely hidden, afraid of influence and corruption from outsiders. That fear leads one outsider, the twisted Erik Killmonger (Coogler mainstay Michael B. Jordan), to try and use Wakanda’s technology to make it a superpower.

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In a short period, Ryan Coogler has become one of the best directors out there. At 31, he’s already directed the devastating Fruitvale Station, his Rocky update Creed was a crowd-pleaser, even netting Sylvester Stallone an Oscar nomination, and with Black Panther he’s proven adept at handling blockbuster entertainment without letting special effects swallow up the important things, like character and story. Arguably the film’s only real weak spot, the plot hews a little too close to the average Marvel fare, but the focus on the characters more makes up for it. Black Panther is more than a big budget action spectacle. It’s a personal film that deals with real emotions and themes, which makes Black Panther resonate more than any other Marvel entry.

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Marvel’s Phase Three of its cinematic universe was always going to be interesting. Having already made three Iron Man movies, three Captain Americas and three Thors, the studio has not only exhausted some of their biggest properties, but their level of quality is established such that movies like Black Panther can be made. If Panther is any indication, the Marvel films may be moving in a direction more exciting and diverse than ever before.

Thor Brings on Ragnarok with a Wink and a Nudge by Ryan Hill

 
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Let’s be honest. Thor may do cool things with his magic hammer, but he’s one of the least interesting characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He’s not particularly funny, he’s difficult to connect with, and he’s, well … kind of boring. The first Thor was decent enough, but after the mess that was The Dark World, things needed a drastic makeover if Thor: Ragnarok would be worth anyone’s time.

Enter writer-director Taika Waititi, another art house director getting their big break on a comic book film. Waititi doesn’t have a high profile here in the U.S., with his highest grossing film, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, making a little more than $5 million. Waititi sounds like a major gamble, but look closer. Wilderpeople was a delight from beginning to end, and the director’s vampire mockumentary What We Do In The Shadows is a comedy classic.

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Maybe to assuage fears that Waititi wasn’t up to the task of Thor: Ragnarok, Marvel released a sort of preview of what to expect with Team Thor, a short detailing what the God of Thunder was up to during the events of Captain America: Civil War. Some of the jokes from Team Thor even made it into Ragnarok.

Ragnarok finds Thor learning that he has an older sister, Hela (a delicious Cate Blanchett), the Goddess of Death. The only thing that’s kept her from destroying Asgard all these years has been their father Odin, who imprisoned her. The problem is Odin at death’s door, and once he dies – which he does early on – Hela is freed, and quickly returns to wreak havoc. Things get tricky when Thor is captured by Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and becomes a slave/prisoner who works for free under the control of the Grand Master (Jeff Goldblum). Thor is forced to fight to the death in a sci-fi gladiator arena, and runs into his old pal Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), who’s been missing since the end of Avengers: Age of Ultron.

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Ragnarok isn’t the best Marvel film, but it is one of the best, and is definitely the funniest. None of the other Marvel films come close. Not even the Guardians of the Galaxy movies.

Chris Hemsworth has always been funny, but he takes it to another level under Waititi’s direction. His dry, silly brand of humor works perfectly with Hemsworth. Waititi injects a lot of the humor himself, playing Korg, a character made up entirely of rock. There’s also fun cameos galore, and the supporting cast, especially Jeff Goldblum, is clearly having a blast. Ragnarok is the first time Hulk has been featured as someone who does more than just smash things, teaming with Thor to make an intergalactic odd couple. Blanchett’s Hela, despite being a typical “big bad,” has some fun moments, and even Tom Hiddleston’s Loki is more enjoyable than usual. It should be noted that while I’ve enjoyed Loki, I’ve always found him a bit overrated. He’s never as fun as he could be.

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Anyone familiar with Waititi’s previous films will delight in Ragnarok. This isn’t a case of an art house director cashing in on a studio film or getting overwhelmed with the jump from working with a $2 million budget to $180 million. Marvel wisely let Waititi do his own thing, and the result is Thor: Ragnarok is exactly the entertaining and joyful ride one would expect from a $180 million budgeted Taika Waititi film.

Spider-Man’s “Homecoming” is Pretty Amazing by Ryan Hill

 

There was a minute there when nobody cared about a Spider-Man movie anymore. After the disappointment of “Spider-Man 3” in 2007, the series was rebooted in 2012 to mixed results, and that reboot was scuttled after only two films. It seemed Spider-Man could no longer do whatever a spider could. The character was so downtrodden, Spidey’s parent studio worked out a deal with Marvel to use the character in their cinematic universe.

Now, after all these years, Spider-Man is finally home with “Spider-Man: Homecoming.”

But does the world need a second reboot of Spider-Man, the sixth film featuring the web-slinger since 2001? In the hands of Marvel, the answer is hell yes.

“Captain America: Civil War” gave the world a glimpse at what Marvel could do with their most popular character. In short, they nailed Spider-Man. In the web-slinger’s limited screen time, Tom Holland portrayed the character with a perfect mix of wonder, amazement and snark. The Tobey Maguire trilogy was good but mopey, the Andrew Garfield films were, eh, whatever, but “Homecoming” is everything that makes Spider-Man so great.

“Homecoming” ignores Spider-Man’s origin story, but still focuses on Peter Parker/Spider-Man’s life in high school. He’s tormented by the bully Flash, crushing hard on his debate team colleague Liz, and wishing more than anything Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) would make him a full-time Avenger.

But the fifteen-year-old Parker has bigger fish to fry outside of the classroom, like stopping Vulture (Michael Keaton) from stealing weaponry left behind in the wake of battles fought by the Avengers.

Director Jon Watts, who made the Kevin Bacon indie “Cop Car,” also knows just how New York-centric Spider-Man is. Without the skyscrapers of that metropolis to swing from, Spidey is left to hitch rides on trains or run around, resulting in a great “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” homage. It’s one of many nods to the great John Hughes, which “Homecoming” takes most of its cues from. The film is very much in the vein of a Hughes film, just with … you know … a guy running around in red tights shooting webs from his wrists.

“Homecoming” is one of the most fun blockbusters – comic book or otherwise – out there. It rivals “Guardians of the Galaxy” for sheer joy and is as good as, if not better than, “Spider-Man 2,” which is considered one of the best superhero films ever made. It even has a solid villain in Vulture, something the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been missing outside of Loki, who even then hasn’t been fully utilized.

The key word for “Homecoming” is fun. By keeping the stakes lower – Spider-Man doesn’t have to save the world – the film avoids the underlying sadness of Ben Parker’s death, which anchored the original trilogy, and veer away from pretty much everything in the “Amazing Spider-Man” films. Marvel is free to embrace the Spider-Man character, relishing in Peter’s high school years, but without that pesky origin story.

It’s also one of the best Marvel films, and arguably the best Spider-Man film ever.