Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a surprisingly heartfelt and character-driven sci-fi adventure that pushes the boundaries of visual effects

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It still seems difficult to believe that a space adventure film where 90% of the main characters consist of weird aliens is one of the most successful and wildly entertaining franchises to come out in the last few years. Undoubtedly emboldened by the audience’s acceptance of the previous film, writer and director James Gunn takes these strange alien characters into an even more fantastical adventure that pushes the limits and potential of the world that it takes place in.

It’s easy to heap praise on the incredible visuals that the film provides. From the detailed production design, elaborate make-up and costumes, colorful cinematography, and awe-inspiring visual effects, the bigger and bolder sequel to Guardians of the Galaxy looks like an exhilarating exercise in creativity and imagination. Director James Gunn and his creative team fully embrace the strangeness of the film’s universe to provide us a world that is suitably alien and spectacular. It feels like every shot has been designed for maximum visual impact with its bold use of bright colors and otherworldly design.

But even more impressive than the film’s seemingly endless number of technical achievements is how it further develops its numerous characters. Sequels tend to have more freedom in terms of creating elaborate storylines because it’s no longer burdened by introducing and establishing its characters. Since most of the legwork and development has already been done in the previous film, a sequel can take off almost immediately since audiences should already be familiar with the major players. But in this case, James Gunn does almost the exact opposite by focusing even more on its characters and developing them further instead of telling a more intricate plot.

It does this so well that you begin to have doubts with regards to the quality of the film’s plot, but the complex character development serves another purpose: to distract us with what’s been happening in the background. Amidst Peter Quill’s reunion with his father, Gamora and Nebula’s conflict coming to a head, Rocket Raccoon’s persistence in alienating himself with the group, and Yondu’s thief-with-a-heart-of-gold routine, the film’s plot has actually been slowly but surely building up to the inevitable climax while we’re too busy focusing on the characters’ respective evolutions.

While it should come as no surprise that Peter Quill’s father is actually a villain with ulterior motives, the film manages to lull us into a false sense of comfort right before his ultimate plan is revealed. Again, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Ego is the film’s bad guy, but it takes us off guard anyway because we’re seeing him through Peter’s starstruck eyes. At no point do we see Ego by himself in the first half of the film, cackling in a hidden corner to himself as his evil plan comes to fruition while our heroes stand by unawares. On the contrary, Peter is with him every time we see Ego onscreen (save for the first scene), so we’re left wondering all throughout as to what his plans and motivations are, which is revealed to the characters and the audience at the same time. This has the exciting effect of kick-starting the film’s grand climax, which manages to surprise with its far-reaching scope.

Understanding that the success of the franchise is rooted in the characters is what makes this corner of the Marvel universe feel so special. The wonderful dynamic of these wildly different characters being united by a sense purpose when they’re among each other is executed so well that they manage to feel relatable despite their strange appearances. Most important is that they provide meaning to all the spectacle that the film has to offer. All the wonders of CGI aren’t as important if the characters and story fall flat.

Breathtaking action scenes and fully realized characters combine for one of the most entertaining and memorable blockbusters in recent memory. Although it doesn’t quite reach the same refreshing highs that the first film offered, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is nonetheless a worthy sequel to one of the biggest surprises to come out in the comic book and sci-fi adventure genre. What was once considered to be a risky inclusion in the Marvel cinematic universe continues to cement itself as one of the best in an oversaturated genre. When the end credits once again proudly and confidently state that the Guardians of the Galaxy will return, it’s a promise that manages to bring joy and excitement with what future installments will offer.

8/10

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Luke Cage: Step in the Arena

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Season 1, Episode 4 – Step in the Arena

If you thought that finally seeing how Luke Cage got his powers would be an exciting, interesting event, then “Step in the Arena” is here to prove you wrong in every way. After getting hit by a missile that traps Luke Cage and his landlady in a pile of rubble in the last episode, the series takes this moment to show in flashbacks the exact circumstances that led to Luke Cage acquiring his super strength and invincibility. It’s an important event of course, one that probably justified dedicating an entire episode to telling it. But by the time the episode is over, you’ll probably end up wishing that it was explained in a clumsy, minute-long exposition scene instead of almost a full hour of flashbacks.

This episode reveals several things. The first is that Luke Cage used to be a police officer. The second is that he was in prison when he met Reva and got his powers. The third is that, after escaping from prison, he changed his name from Carl Lucas to Luke Cage. It’s quite an informative episode, but the way these significant insights into Luke Cage’s past are presented make them feel worthless. The flashbacks are slow, meandering, and silly. The show once again struggles to balance its serious crime drama leanings and its comic book origins, because after spending a significant amount of time dealing with murder, violence, and the psychological effects that prison has on our lead character, it all ends with Luke Cage stuck in a giant tanning bed aquarium that explodes. Nothing says “serious crime drama” more than complicated sci-fi contraptions I guess.

No doubt Luke Cage’s criminal past is going to become relevant down the line, especially after his face and maybe even his powers are revealed to the public at the end of this episode, but right now it’s difficult to be positive about how the writers will use this information to further the season’s plot. Everything is still moving at a snail’s pace, and we’ve just been treated to what ultimately feels like a pit stop in a storyline that has just started to gain some traction in the last episode. Instead of the flashbacks complementing the current events of the story, it grinds everything to a screeching halt that feels like it’s filling time despite the abundance of pivotal information being presented.

But the worst part is that these flashbacks feel perfunctory as well, like they’re just mechanically filling out the details in an incomplete puzzle. The pieces fit, but they still don’t complete the picture in any satisfying way. Yes, we got to see how Luke Cage got his powers, but so what? It feels superfluous to dedicate an entire episode to it. Even worse is how Luke Cage met Reva while he was in prison. They were obviously killing two birds with one stone by showing two important events in Luke Cage’s life at the same time, but it doesn’t work.  It’s difficult to see why Reva would take even the slightest interest in a convicted felon like Luke Cage, regardless of how “righteous” his reasons were for landing in prison. Seeing how their romantic relationship began and blossomed is unconvincing at best. There is both too much time dedicated to these flashbacks and not enough, resulting in half-baked insights to Luke Cage that don’t really add much at the end of the day.

This is also the first episode that solely focuses on Luke Cage and no one else. Neither Cottonmouth nor Mariah make an appearance, and their presence is sorely missed. Mike Colter simply can’t carry his own show despite being the lead, which is disheartening because a show should be more than capable on standing on its own when it only features the main lead. This show is in dire need of more interesting characters because there’s no dynamic to speak of whatsoever. There are no character interactions or interrelationships that can sustain this show’s lengthy running time, which makes me wonder what the point of this show really is? It’s neither entertaining nor compelling, and although there are still nine episodes left in the first season, I’m at a complete loss as to whether or not giving Luke Cage his own series was even necessary.

3/10

 

Luke Cage: Who’s Gonna Take the Weight?

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Season 1, Episode 3 – Who’s Gonna Take the Weight?

It’s been three episodes now and Luke Cage is still moving at a glacial pace. While “Who’s Gonna Take the Weight” provided more plot progression than its previous two episodes, it’s still moving at such a slow pace that leaves me both confused and frustrated. Confused because there’s very little reason as to why this series is taking its sweet time moving the paper-thin plot. Frustrated because there are still ten more episodes to go before the season is finished, and if the rest of them are as slow paced as what’s been presented so far, then finishing the season doesn’t seem worth it.

It’s not exactly a show that’s full of depth and complexity, which makes its meandering pacing even more frustrating. Whereas something like The Wire packed each of its hour-long episodes with so many characters, plot threads, and social commentary, Luke Cage does almost nothing. It tries very hard to be deeper than it is, but it ultimately falls short. Cottonmouth and Mariah have done nothing but get their money stolen, our detectives are still playing catch-up, and Luke Cage gets shot multiple times without a problem. That’s basically it. Only three episodes in and things are already getting repetitive and less interesting. There are only four main characters in the show right now, which is barely enough to sustain a 21-minute sitcom, much less an hour-long crime drama.

Not even the action scenes in this episode are enough to make its long running time feel shorter than it is. After finding out that Pop’s barbershop needs $80,000.00 to keep it open, Luke Cage devises a plan to cripple Cottonmouth’s illegal business deals by storming his numerous stash houses, forcing Cottonmouth to keep all his cash in a “central bank” that Luke Cage can then target. I was initially excited about this development because it’s the first time that Luke Cage does something proactive in the series. Unfortunately the result is more of the same; just in bigger quantities. We are treated to numerous scenes of Luke Cage punching thugs and getting shot without a problem. When your superpowered hero is so powerful that he can just storm in a building full of people with guns without much difficulty, then the action scenes become devoid of any tension or excitement.

The action scenes of Luke Cage also serve to highlight a big problem. Adding in the element of a bulletproof superhero feels off in a serious crime drama. It’s not like Daredevil where a blind, acrobatic superhero in a red outfit looks right among the grim, dark streets of New York. Despite his super abilities, Daredevil is very much human and can get killed by getting shot or stabbed. Luke Cage, however, feels unnatural among the show’s overall tone because his abilities belong in a more fantastical setting instead of a grounded reality.

This clashing of tones also becomes a problem when the show inevitably embraces its comic book roots. At the end of the episode, Cottonmouth shoots a missile at a restaurant where Luke Cage is eating, destroying everything around him in a fiery explosion. The scene is more hilarious than shocking because it feels so out of place. Luke Cage tries so hard to be this gritty drama, but when the silliness comes it feels like we’re watching a completely different series. It’s so easy to forget that Luke Cage is actually a superhero comic book show, because the filmmakers have rejected this whole aspect of it by making everything in the show feel like you’re watching the latest episode of The Shield.

It’s a delicate balancing act when you want to have the more unbelievable aspects of a comic book show while still grounding it in reality. Daredevil and Jessica Jones succeeded because the characters feel like they belong in the dark and grimy streets of New York. Watching them do heroic things is exciting because they’re not invincible heroes. Luke Cage, however, is almost cartoonish with how strong he is. Fighting street thugs is not a problem for him at all. There’s a scene early in the episode where Luke Cage plainly states that he can’t touch the king, but he can touch his knights. This, of course, is complete nonsense. It seems to me like the main conflict of the show can easily be solved by him, and the only reason Luke Cage doesn’t storm into Cottonmouth’s club and take care of the source of the problem is because the scriptwriters don’t want him to.

3/10

Doctor Strange is a visually stunning film that gets bogged down by a conventional narrative

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I think the superhero origin story needs to be resigned for good. We’ve seen it countless times before, and each iteration gets even less interesting than the next. We all know the formula: Before getting their superpowers and/or donning the costume, the hero usually experiences a tragedy that motivates them to start fighting crime and become a superhero. Said tragedy frequently involves the death of a loved one. If the hero doesn’t experience a tragedy, it will consist of them getting their powers at a tremendous cost, such as being unable to continue living their normal lives (Deadpool and The Hulk are prime examples of this). This doesn’t happen to all superheroes of course, but the story trope has become so derivative that when the basic formula is followed, you can begin predicting every beat that the film will reach until the end.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this trope. Characters in any genre are given tragic backstories all the time, but doing it in the superhero genre tends to limit the rest of the story, which is glaringly apparent in the film Doctor Strange. The movie introduces Doctor Strange living out his normal life as an acclaimed neurosurgeon, which abruptly changes after he experiences a horrific accident. We then see him reach his lowest point, which urges him to search far and wide for a possible cure for his damaged hands. He finds his last hope in Nepal, where he’s accepted by a mysterious figure called the Ancient One who agrees to teach him her ways. We then follow Doctor Strange as he learns to access the powers of the astral plane and other dimensions. By the time he’s competent enough to get actively involved in the plot, the movie is already at its halfway point.

This isn’t necessarily a bad way to structure the film, but I kept wanting it to move at an even faster rate during the first half because I was more interested in the plot and world of the film rather than its lead character. Watching Doctor Strange’s struggle to access the abilities of the Ancient One isn’t as interesting as seeing the characters use these powers to advance the plot.

It’s clear that the film was using Doctor Strange as the audience’s guide into its far-reaching cosmic world, but I truly feel that the fish-out-of-water character was unnecessary in this case. The audience didn’t need a guide to hold their hand and react with them to all the weird and wonderful things that happen in the film. I feel that genre films with remarkable and otherworldy concepts and characters like Doctor Strange have become so prevalent in the mainstream that audiences now find it incredibly easy to accept the bizzare as long as it’s executed properly by the filmmakers.

A great example is Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s easy to take for granted now, but that film was Marvel’s biggest risk at the time. The characters were mostly unfamiliar even to some avid comic book readers, and it’s about as outlandish and weird as sci-fi fantasy films can get. A majority of its main characters are all aliens, one of which is a talking raccoon and the other a talking tree. But the film is structured in a way that doesn’t beat you with long-winded exposition trying to explain all the whacky things that you’re seeing onscreen. After a brief introductory backstory for its main character, the film simply begins its plot and introduces the characters along the way as they travel across galaxies to serve their own interests until they ultimately team up for the greater good. It was a huge critical and commercial success, and I think it’s easily one of the best comic book films of all-time.

Contrast that with Doctor Strange, which had to go through all the familiar beats of an origin story before the plot can truly kick in. I would’ve greatly preferred it if the film focused more on the Ancient One, at least for the first half, and her conflict with Kaecilius’ plans. Had the film explored more of the strained master-apprentice relationship between the Ancient One and Kaecilius, the film wouldn’t have needed to resort to characters delivering long monologues about their motivations and clumsily explaining important plot points to the audience. Whenever I imagine a film where Doctor Strange is introduced as already having his powers from the very beginning, I can’t help but greatly prefer that version to what we got instead.

Still, the film has so many strengths, particularly in its visuals, that it’s almost enough to overcome many of its narrative weaknesses. Doctor Strange is truly unlike any superhero film we’ve ever seen before, and director Scott Derrickson and his team of visual effects artists managed to portray the reality-bending powers of the characters in truly awe-inspiring ways. It’s easy to get jaded nowadays regarding visual effects since filmmaking technology is sophisticated enough that we are treated with numerous effects-heavy blockbuster films every year, but Doctor Strange is breathtaking in its imagination and execution. The film is rife with so much impressive CGI, but at no point does it get overwhelming or exhausting. In fact, the film leaves you wanting so much more despite being treated to such a visually impactful and impressive experience.

And just when you think you’ve seen all that the film can offer, it saves the best for last during its climax set in Hong Kong. It’s hard to imagine the film managing to top its New York action scene, but it does so in such a spectacular fashion that left me absolutely stunned. At the hands of a lesser director, these scenes could’ve easily been too difficult to follow and confusing instead of thrilling, but Derrickson and his team skillfully executes them in a way that ensures clarity while maintaining maximum impact.

Whatever problems and nitpicks I have with the film’s narrative structure is overshadowed by what an incredible moviegoing experience Doctor Strange provides. This doesn’t excuse its weaknesses of course, but Doctor Strange is one of the few instances where its visual strengths are so good that it helps to elevate the film rather than serve as a nice consolation prize for its middling storytelling. Still, the film ultimately fails to achieve its full potential at the end of the day. I sincerely enjoyed it but even within the supehero genre, Doctor Strange doesn’t stand out too much among the rest in spite of its incredible visuals. It’s still a worthy entry into the Marvel franchise, but I suppose we’ll have to wait and see the character reach his full potential in future films instead.

6/10

 

Luke Cage: Code of the Streets

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Season 1, Episode 2 – Code of the Streets

The plot of “Code of the Streets” could’ve been told in under ten minutes, but for whatever reason, it was told in a full hour instead (57 minutes, to be exact). Apart from its very basic plot progression, the episode dedicates most of its time in developing its characters. Particularly Pop, whom we get to know quite a bit in this slogfest of an episode. We find out about his history with Cottonmouth and his motivations, all of which was done for the sole purpose of making the audience care about the fact that he dies by the end of the episode.

Killing off characters who are important to the protagonists to give them cheap motivation isn’t a new concept. It especially isn’t new in the world of comic books. Indeed, that’s where the very trope originated, from a storyline in a Green Lantern comic book where the corpse of the protagonist’s girlfriend is found literally stuffed in a fridge. Thus the term “Stuffed into the Fridge” was born, wherein characters who are important to the protagonists are killed off (girlfriends, sidekicks, or family members), causing intense anguish and driving the lead character to pursue the villain.

While this trope has become repetitive in the past decade, it can still be used effectively. After all, nothing makes a villain more villainous than directly hitting our heroes where it matters most. Having a character seek revenge for a loved one’s death might not be a wildly original or daring concept, but when done effectively it can still create a very involving narrative that will have audiences on the edge of their seat.

Luke Cage, unfortunately, does it poorly because Pop’s death feels cheap and lazy. I mentioned in my review of the first episode that I couldn’t understand what motivates Luke Cage to get involved with the show’s conflict. Now that Pop, an important father-figure not only to Luke but for the community as well, is killed off, I can understand why Luke Cage gets involved, but it cheapens everything from here on out. Practically everything that Luke Cage does at this point is because of Pop’s death. Bad enough that it’s already a derivative plot progression, but it becomes harder to get involved with Luke Cage’s arc. He’s simply reacting to this event. We don’t discover anything about Luke Cage other than that he’s angry and he wants to uncover Cottonmouth’s illegal activities. That’s it. That’s what kick starts this whole thing and it’s already trapped in some generic action movie plot line that everybody forgets about a week after it’s released in cinemas.

To make things worse, Pop’s death was an unnecessary accident. Cottonmouth was more than willing to accept Pop’s terms and meet at the barbershop to parley regarding the stolen money, but Cottonmouth’s overly enthusiastic guard decides to come in guns blazing so as to make an impression. I suppose it gives Cottonmouth some much-needed depth to see him grieving the unnecessary death of an old friend, but the entire plotline ends up feeling forced and manufactured because the turning point for Luke Cage hinges on the brash actions of someone who doesn’t even matter to the story line at all.

The execution is just as much to blame for this episode’s poor writing. I already mentioned earlier that this episode is a full 57 minutes long, and it makes you feel every minute of it. The pace is meandering and sluggish because the plot and even character development barely fills up twenty minutes. All of the important details could’ve been told in a more concise way that would’ve made everything more interesting, but the episode stretches out into a full hour instead.

There’s also a scene that unintentionally points out a glaring mistake: Luke Cage finds Chico, the last surviving robber who has the remaining cash, in just under four hours. He then warns Chico that if Luke Cage can find him by just asking around, then Cottonmouth (who the most motivation to find him) can do it even faster with his hired goons and street sources. And yet Cottonmouth doesn’t even seem remotely interested in finding Chico throughout the episode. He seems more than happy to sit back and wait for some random source to give him the info, which is exactly what happens when Chico shows up at the barbershop.

Just two episodes in and I’m already pessimistic as to where things can go from here. Everything still feels so disjointed. Luke Cage has barely done anything despite being the lead character, the plotlines are paper-thin and doesn’t justify each episode’s absurdly long length, and once again, I found myself paying more attention when the antagonists are on screen. Probably the best part of this episode is that we no longer have to endure long talks in that barbershop, because for all of Pop’s immaculate qualities, being interesting definitely wasn’t one of them.

3/10

Luke Cage: A crime drama masquerading as a superhero show

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Season 1, Episode 1 – Moment of Truth

Marvel television has been very, very different from its feature film counterparts for some years now. Excluding the network-friendly Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the short-lived Agent Carter series, Marvel’s superheroes on the small screen have been given more freedom than any of its big budget blockbusters despite being in the same brand. Daredevil is a dark, moody action crime series and Jessica Jones tackles heavy topics in its plot lines like rape and drug addiction. All of these, of course, are topped by an almost excessive amount of violence and gore that can rival the ones seen on HBO.

Luke Cage is no different and continues the trend of being strictly for adults when it comes to superheroes on Netflix. More than that, Luke Cage continues the trend of not really being a superhero show at all. At least, not in the sense that most people are familiar with. As the superhero genre gets more saturated each year, standing out becomes increasingly important. One way that studios have been doing this is by putting super-powered characters in a plotline that doesn’t follow the usual superhero tropes.

The Captain America sequels are a good example. Free from focusing on the title character’s origin story, both The Winter Soldier and Civil War are more like political action thrillers that happen to have superheroes in it. Guardians of the Galaxy is more of a sci-fi action/adventure film than a superhero film. Jessica Jones is an investigative crime/mystery drama that has more similarities with Law & Order than Supergirl.

But where Daredevil and Jessica Jones managed to balance their superhero roots with gripping drama and unexpected storylines, Luke Cage seems to be actively rejecting the “superhero” part of its identity. This is, of course, plainly stated by Luke Cage himself, where he seems to be doing just fine keeping his head down and focusing on his everyday job of cleaning up at a barbershop than fighting the bad guys. It isn’t until the end of the episode where we see him finally take action and make a difference (and only after a clumsily-written scene where he remembers some inspiring words from his deceased wife).

The problem with this approach is that it looks like Luke Cage sees helping out as a burden instead of what ultimately drives him. Whereas Daredevil makes it his life’s mission (often to the detriment of himself and those around him) to fix crime in Hell’s Kitchen and Jessica Jones strives to stop Kilgrave from victimizing others in the same way that she was victimized, watching Luke Cage finally take down the bad guys is like watching someone do their chores.

I’m not asking that every heroic lead character should be eager to help others. There is great conflict and drama that comes with lead characters who are hesitant in helping others for whatever reason. We root for Jessica Jones not because she’s an idealistic heroine who wants to see evil get vanquished. We root for her because she’s a reluctant heroine who faces Kilgrave despite her own trauma. With Luke Cage, there is a huge disconnect between the show’s main conflict and its lead character. He has next to no personal motivation to get involved and at this point, it’s hard to understand why he even decides to commit himself with the conflict other than because the script told him to (dead wife memories notwithstanding).

It also serves to highlight just how much more interesting the show’s antagonists are. It’s easy to understand why Mike Colter would have trouble rising above the material that his character is given, but it’s incredible just how much more charming and involving both Mahershala Ali and Alfre Woodard are in their respective villainous roles after just spending a few scenes with them. Luke Cage seems like an afterthought at this point because I would much rather follow an entire show centered around the two antagonists than watch Luke Cage get punched or shot in vain by some thugs.

6/10