Review: Lots of energy and some strong performances elevate familiar 'X-Men: Apocalypse'
Credit: 20th Century Fox
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Review: Lots of energy and some strong performances elevate familiar 'X-Men: Apocalypse'

Is it okay if this franchise is all turning into one big blur?

Bryan Singer’s getting downright playful these days.

Continuity is a very weird thing in the X-Men universe. Since the year 2000, when Singer’s first X-Men was released, we’ve seen them flash forward and backward in time, recasting key roles, while also keeping some of the same cast intact, leading to a series that led my eight-year-old to tell me as we were walking across the 20th Century Fox lot on Friday night, “Daddy, the X-Men movies make my brain go crazy.” You could describe X-Men: First Class, X-Men: Days Of Future Past, and X-Men: Apocalypse as a trilogy, but I don’t think these film really work like that. At this point, each movie exists as its own thing, free to either embrace or discard everything that’s come before it depending on the story they’re telling. Each of the films feels like it’s resetting the entire series, which is business-smart and narratively frustrating, and with this latest entry, it feels to me like Singer has finally settled into his role as the orchestrator of all of this chaos and he’s having fun with it now.

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Captain America is the best movie superhero, and here's why
Credit: Marvel Studios

Captain America is the best movie superhero, and here's why

Seriously, there's no room to argue on this one

Typically, I’m in favor of articles that emphasize the world “favorite” over the word “best.” If you want to have a conversation about who your favorite superhero in any modern superhero movie is, there are dozens of candidates, and I’m sure every single character is someone’s favorite.

However, I’m here today to make a case for one character as standing above every other superhero in modern movies as the best, the ideal, the person who is simply better than anyone else. After all, he’s got his third movie opening this Friday, the fifth he’s appeared in overall, and it’s time we all acknowledge what is abundantly clear by now: Captain America is the best.

All three of the Captain America films are credited to the same screenwriters. Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus managed to do something that no one else has done so far at Marvel, crafting a trilogy of films that tell a complete story of someone’s evolution from normal human into genuine legend. Watching all three of the films in the Captain America trilogy again, I am struck by just how beautifully each of the films plays into the bigger picture, while all having totally different identities as films. Joe Johnston has never done a more complete job as a filmmaker than he did with Captain America: The First Avenger, and Joe and Anthony Russo made a splendid debut in the Marvel Cinematic Universe with The Winter Soldier before moving on to Civil War. Somehow, though, the films manage to perfectly balance the dual needs of serving as sequels while standing alone, and in each one, Steve Rogers takes a few more steps towards becoming the icon that I feel he has truly become now, and looking at his journey should make it clear why I feel he is the best-realized hero out of any of the comic book heroes currently roadblocking our movie theaters.

First, let’s define some terms here so we’re all on the same page. For the purposes of this article, we’re going to be talking about the film versions of these characters. After all, when you’re talking about the comic book characters, you’re talking about something that has been through dozens of interpretations from different writers and artists, with complicated continuities that have changed often over the years. When I wrote about The New Mutants this week, I mentioned how excited I am to see that Josh Boone is taking his cues from the early run of the series, which happens to be my favorite version of the series. It’s clear from responses all over the Internet that not everyone shares that opinion, and many fans are already upset because they’re not going to see the version they want to see. What we’re going to discuss today is simply the film incarnations of these characters, and when judging them based solely on the films, I don’t think there’s even room to debate.

Captain America is the best superhero in modern movies. Bar none.

That surprises me. Before the first film was released, I was skeptical that they’d be able to even make a movie that would get released internationally, much less be a worldwide blockbuster that would make the character beloved. I wouldn’t have called it, and I would have been wrong for many different reasons. I thought Captain America’s time had passed, that he was too blatantly jingoistic, and that any film about him would end up feeling corny or even ridiculous. And when they hired Joe Johnston, who I think is a solid but uninspired filmmaker for the most part, I wasn’t filled with hope that he would break the mold.

However, I’ve gone through a complete reversal on my feelings about the character, and it’s entirely because of the films. The first act of Captain America: The First Avenger does such a terrific job of turning Steve Rogers into a compelling lead that they manage to actually make you stop paying attention to the truly creepy and weird special effect that was used to make graft the head of Chris Evans onto a little skinny body. Instead, I find when I watch that first act that they make it very clear that this is a guy who is outraged by injustice, and who genuinely wants to help people. He is innately good, which is what Professor Erskine (Stanley Tucci) responds to when he first sees Steve in action. The simple decency and the passion to succeed despite his own limitations are what make Steve heroic, not the science experiment they conduct on him. One of the craziest things about that first film is how long they keep the skinny Steve in play. By the time they actually put him in the chamber and run the experiment, we’re more than used to the skinny Steve. That makes it all the more delightful when they open the chamber and we get our first look at the pumped-up reality of Chris Evans, who bulked up massively from earlier film appearances. He is absurd in comparison with the character we’ve just gotten to know over that previous forty minutes or so, and there’s something great about the way they accomplish the transformation by turning the visual effect off. It makes him all that much more real.

With both Iron Man and Thor, Marvel created reluctant heroes, men who needed to be humbled to some degree to become heroic, and looking at both of those first films, they follow similar arcs. Tony Stark and Thor both think themselves infallible, amazing, and they don’t recognize their own lack of humility as a problem. Steve Rogers, on the other hand, remains humble even once they turn him into a super soldier, and that defining part of his nature makes him enormously appealing. As my buddy Scott pointed out as we were talking yesterday, not since Christopher Reeve played Superman and Clark Kent in 1978’s Superman: The Movie have we seen a movie hero as effortlessly noble as this, and it really drives home that Cap is a man out of time. Steve Rogers doesn’t just accept the mantle of Captain America; he actively chases it, desperate to be able to make a difference. The moment that defines him comes during the boot camp sequence of the film, before he’s been transformed. When Col. Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) throws a fake grenade out onto the course with the recruits, everyone ducks for cover except for Steve, who throws himself onto the grenade without hesitation. No matter what else he does in the film, that’s the moment I come back to, because it’s utterly selfless. Not only does he do it without thinking, but in doing so, since he believes he'll be blown up, he guarantees that he won’t be the candidate for the super-soldier program, which is everything he’s been chasing.

One of the reasons I was never a huge fan of the Captain America comics is because I’ve always found his rogue’s gallery sort of silly. In The First Avenger, the Red Skull is a no-joke comic book villain, complete with a weird head and a plan to rule the world. In The Winter Soldier, we’re still dealing with an unstoppable assassin with a metal arm and a shadowy AI living inside an abandoned Nazi mainframe, but we’re also dealing with a more human face of evil in the film, thanks to the work by Robert Redford. In this film, while there are plenty of great big comic book images, they’ve taken Helmut Zemo and transformed him into a grieving former soldier whose family was killed in Sokovia. He does what he does to punish the Avengers for the collateral damage they caused, which is as small-scale and human a motivation as possible. That’s a long way from being a hooded Nazi who was injured in a tragic adhesive accident, and the movie’s infinitely better for it. In addition to gradually moving things away from big silly comic book bad guys, the changes to canon have helped underline the way Steve Rogers is motivated by his own personal compass of right and wrong. He is no mere tool of America, no matter what his name is.

Going back to watch both The First Avenger and The Winter Soldier and then seeing Civil War a second time makes it clear that this is the best overall trilogy of the modern superhero age because it works as a whole, and because each of the films manages to add another layer to who Steve Rogers is as a hero. By the end of this latest film, when Steve manages to climb to his feet, beaten and bloodied, just barely able to say, “I can do this all day,” it is clear that he has always been a superhero, from the moment he was born as a skinny little sick kid in Brooklyn. His superpower is his decency and his unwillingness to back down from what he believes is right. When I talk about these films with my kids, one of the things I like to do is talk through why the people are fighting and how those conflicts define heroism. Nine times out of ten, I find that you have to also discuss the idea of compromise and moral relativism if you’re going to try to call these characters heroic.

But with Captain America? It’s easy. And when we’re done with this era of filmmaking, I suspect we will look back and recognize that Steve Rogers is the one character who remains uncompromised, untarnished, and unfailingly good.

Captain America: Civil War is in theaters today.
You can read my review here.
And you can watch a spoiler-filled review of the film embedded at the top of this story.

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Alden Ehrenreich is officially young Han Solo, so Hollywood can finally relax
Credit: Universal Pictures

Alden Ehrenreich is officially young Han Solo, so Hollywood can finally relax

Now brace yourself for two full years of fans complaining just for the heck of it

Looks like I need to learn how to spell “Ehrenreich” without looking.

One of the highlights of Hail, Caesar! this spring was the performance of Alden Ehrenreich. When I spoke to the Coen Brothers about the film, they could not say enough good things about the actor, and whether he’s starring in the movie-within-the-movie about a singing cowboy or he’s struggling with the basics of speaking English opposite the great Ralph Fiennes, he’s constantly game for whatever weirdness is currently unfolding.

Now the actor has won the most high-profile role being cast this year, and I wish him well with it. Whatever the title to the film ends up being, the Miller/Lord Han Solo: A Star Wars Story is going to be one of the most scrutinized films of the year when it is released on May 25, 2018. How could it not be? After all, Han Solo is one of the most beloved and best known characters in all of pop culture, and Harrison Ford’s portrayal of him is as iconic as movie performances get.

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Shane Black gives us a sneak peak at how he plans to adapt 'Doc Savage'
Credit: Bantam Books

Shane Black gives us a sneak peak at how he plans to adapt 'Doc Savage'

There are few films I am more eager to see someone actually make

Yesterday was a pretty good day all the way around. First up, I saw the new Shane Black movie The Nice Guys. Then I headed over to HitFix, where Black joined me for a long-form conversation about his new film, his past work, the state of the industry today, and some of his upcoming projects. It was a great way to spend forty minutes, and Black seems to be in a good mood about his new film, as he should be.

One of the subjects that we discussed before, during, and after the actual taping is how Black plans to tackle Doc Savage, a film that has my full attention. I grew up loving the original pulp stories, and when they started the latest series of reprints of the original Kenneth Robeson/Street & Smith material, I picked up as many as I could lay hands on. The Bantam paperbacks in the ‘60s and ‘70s were the ones I initially read, and I dearly love the iconography of those covers that James Bama created. Even so, I don’t think the character has ever been pinned down to just one visual interpretation, which gives Shane Black a fair amount of room to figure out what he’s going to do when he makes his movie.

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Josh Boone's dropping some big 'New Mutants' hints on Instagram today
Credit: Marvel Comics

Josh Boone's dropping some big 'New Mutants' hints on Instagram today

This one's shaping up to be exactly our cup of tea

When I ran a recent report about some exciting cast attachments for Josh Boone’s upcoming The New Mutants, I also reported on which mutants you could expect to see in the film. Now it appears that Boone, who recently turned in his latest draft of the proposed new addition to the bigscreen X-Men universe, is dropping some big hints today on Instagram that confirm the characters I previously mentioned.

What’s even more exciting are the additional characters he’s suggesting may show up in the movie. For me, the idea that Warlock is going to be built into the franchise from the beginning is terrific news. I wasn’t sure until now that he was part of the line-up, and I think it’s fair to say that is the best news I’ve heard about the film so far. As originally introduced in New Mutants #18, he was one of my favorite overall Marvel characters. He’s a shape-shifting alien made entirely of technological matter. As rendered by Bill Sienkiewicz, I found him visually to be one of the coolest designs in any of the comics I was collecting at that point. I hope they let him look like that original Sienkiewicz design for at least one movie, because he would be a tremendous challenge for a CGI team, and utterly unlike any other superhero character. The closest equivalent I can think of would be Groot in Guardians Of The Galaxy, but they’re capable of such different things, especially if Boone’s taking story material from the comics.

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The Russos confirm a title change for 'Avengers: Infinity Wars' double-feature
Credit: Marvel Studios

The Russos confirm a title change for 'Avengers: Infinity Wars' double-feature

Marvel's biggest movies are in good hands

The Infinity Stones have served to give the Marvel Cinematic Universe an overall shape that will presumably come into focus with the two-part Avengers sequel that Joe and Anthony Russo are set to direct as their next outing for the studio.

In an interview with Uproxx (now part of the same publishing family as HitFix), The Russos revealed that they are now planning to retitle what had originally been called Avengers: Infinity War Part 1 and Avengers: Infinity War Part 2, and that there’s a reason they will no longer be sharing the title.

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'Space Jam 2' is really happening and it's all your fault
Credit: Warner Bros

'Space Jam 2' is really happening and it's all your fault

Ah, nostalgia goggles, look what you've done now

You see what you’ve done with your ironic hipster love of terrible movies?

I was 26 when Space Jam was released to theaters in 1996. I’m a big fan of the classic Warner Bros. animation. I’ve purchased Looney Tunes collections on laserdisc, DVD, and now Blu-ray, and I love revisiting the work of Tex Avery, Bob Clampett, Maurice Noble, Friz Freleng, Chuck Jones, Frank Tashlin, and Robert McKimson, among others. If you to ask me what televised sport is my favorite, I’ve always preferred basketball to anything else because of the pace and because of the simplicity of the game itself. It’s very pure, and even the worst NBA game is entertaining. And when it comes to Bill Murray… well, he’s on that very short list of my favorite things. Not just favorite people, and not just favorite movie stars, but overall favorite things. That’s a list that includes things like my kids, the Internet, space travel, and the advent of fire. So if anyone should have been an easy target for Space Jam, it’s me, and yet I’d be the first to tell you that Space Jam is a terrible, terrible movie that somehow made all three of those key ingredients almost wholly impossible to like.

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Film Nerd 2.0: When kids ask hard questions about history, does Hollywood help or hurt?
Credit: Orion Pictures/Universal Pictures

Film Nerd 2.0: When kids ask hard questions about history, does Hollywood help or hurt?

'Schindler's List' and 'Dances With Wolves' led to very interesting weekends

“I want to be in the Army.”

That statement prompted a frantic phone call from my ex-wife, and an entire series of conversations. It also inspired a very particular screening of a very particular film, one in a series of recent screenings that have spoken to Toshi’s developing interests in both history and Hollywood.

While movies are very important to Toshi, they are less important than Allen, and I suspect there will come a time where I lose Allen to other interests. That’s fine with me. Whatever he’s interested in and excited by, I’ll encourage him. Right now, his interests are more in games and puzzles and building things. Minecraft is pretty much the perfect intersection of all of Allen’s energies. As a result, when I am picking things that we’re all going to watch together, I find myself going mainstream and populist and easy. Allen will watch a superhero film with us happily. He’s as excited for each new episode of The Flash as Toshi is. If there’s something that has anything to do with Star Wars, Allen is onboard. But when it comes to being challenged by a movie, Allen isn’t really interested.

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'Battle Angel Alita' narrows things down to three actors for James Cameron remake
Credit: Viz Media

'Battle Angel Alita' narrows things down to three actors for James Cameron remake

Who will Robert Rodriguez direct in this big-budget SF action film?

There was a point where it wasn’t clear what James Cameron’s next film would be, and there was parallel development being done on both Avatar and Battle Angel Alita. At one point, it looked like Alita was the project that was in the lead, and the entire art department floor of Lightstorm at their Santa Monica offices was transformed so that the cubicles and the file cabinets and everything else had been transformed into the city of Scrapyard, a massive metropolitan trash heap that was made of all the debris poured off of Tiphares, a floating city people entirely by the rich. The ceiling of that entire floor was transformed into the underside of Tiphares, so the people designing the world could look up and feel like they were living in that world.

It looks like Lightstorm is finally producing a Battle Angel Alita movie with Robert Rodriguez directing, and it’s going to be interesting to see what happens when Robert works this way, taking his time, directing something on this giant scale. Robert has always worked fast and cheap, doing as much as he can himself, frequently hiring people for jobs and then overlapping his work with theirs. He’s been working like that for so long that I think it’s exciting to see him do something like this. Any time you can challenge a filmmaker to bend his own technique to a very different version of the process, you’re asking them to step outside of their comfort zone, and that can be a moment where they do remarkable things.

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Stephen King's 'Cell' finally gets a trailer, so is it better late than never?
Credit: Lionsgate/Saban

Stephen King's 'Cell' finally gets a trailer, so is it better late than never?

It's taken over a decade for this one to reach the screen

This one’s been a long time coming.

Stephen King is a genre unto himself at this point. A “Stephen King movie” can be anything from Stand By Me to Maximum Overdrive, and the only thing they all have in common is him as the original source of the material. It seems like a given at this point that if King publishes something, it will eventually be turned into a film. Some books just take longer than others to make the jump.

For example, Hulu just wrapped up 11.22.63, the eight-part adaptation of King’s time-travel story about trying to stop the murder of JFK from taking place. Co-produced by Bad Robot and starring James Franco, that was not the first attempt at cracking that adaptation. Jonathan Demme was the first director to try to take a crack at that one, and he was going to do it as a feature film. It’s not uncommon for a King property to change hands repeatedly during development. With Cell, for example, Eli Roth was the one first attached ten years ago. He was going to do it for Dimension FIlms at the time. Three years later, King talked about working on his own version of the script and working to take the conclusion of the book, one of his least popular endings, and rewrite it according to the feedback he’d gotten from readers over the years.

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