Thor: Love and Thunder Brings Both in Equal Measure

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Before Taika Waititi and Chris Hemsworth collaborated on the wonderful Thor: Ragnarok (2017), no one would have foreseen the Marvel character entering its 11th year of films, with the possibility of many more, but here we are. The God of Thunder returns to the Marvel franchise with possibly the best comedy of the year in Thor: Love and Thunder (2022), the 4th instalment in a character that Waititi and Chris Hemsworth are able to bring the best out of consistently.

This time around, Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster returns to breathe new life into the franchise in a wonderfully charming performance. Her return feels like a notable response to the criticisms of the previous film, Thor: Ragnarok, which lacked a true emotional throughline. Adding to the emotional weight of the film is the inclusion of Christian Bale as Gorr the God Butcher, who is able to toe the line of outrageous superhero villain with real pathos that made Josh Brolin’s Thanos such a hit with audiences.

There are a suite of comedic bits throughout the film that place you firmly within the returning vibe of Waititi’s previous Marvel film, feeling closer in parts to his earliest work with Flight of the Conchords and What We Do in the Shadows (2014) —the distant girlfriend-as-weapon bit feels taken straight from the show— a distinctly comedic tone that feels oftentimes removed from the Marvel house style. The film revolves more around its comedy set-pieces than its action ones, a refreshing shift for the franchise that has often had lacking action moments. Love and Thunder is a comedy-focused superhero film, with Waititi clearly given carte blanche to make the silliest and most enjoyable film possible. 

The more recent Marvel films, especially Sam Raimi’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022), have such a burden of being more than just a film about their hero that it drags down the emotional and narrative weight of the individual films. A key reason Love and Thunder works is due to its breezy and fresh narrative that flows in the absence of these burdens, allowing it to thrive in a similar way the first phase of Marvel properties do. Unfortunately, this appears to be a rarity in this newest phase of Marvel.

Chris Hemsworth as Thor in Marvel Studios’ THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER. Photo by Jasin Boland. ©Marvel Studios 2022. All Rights Reserved.

What really allows Love and Thunder to excel is the level of filmmaking craft top to bottom throughout. Chief Mandolorian cinematographer Barry Idoine joins the franchise, which is a major step up for him after working many years as a camera operator for the upper echelon of filmmakers in the industry including Paul Thomas Anderson and Steven Soderbergh. Love and Thunder is constantly seeking to expand the visual dynamism of the Marvel style that has become well-trodden and allows it to feel weightless in comparison to other recent Marvel entries. 

Idoine and Waititi use the tone of the Thor scenes and the audience’s expectations for the film as a compelling counterpoint to the scenes with Bale’s Gorr, shot in borderline german expressionist shadows, mostly without a score or soundtrack, with one striking sequence taking place in a world with no colour. Being able to display a superhero story through tone and colour is an impressive feat the film is able to achieve and is the sort of craft audiences should seek out, even in franchise blockbuster entertainment.

Christian Bale as Gorr in Marvel Studios’ THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2022. All Rights Reserved.

Sadly for audiences, the film is also potentially Taika’s final involvement with Marvel, moving onto a yet unnamed Star Wars film, as well as being in production on a live-action adaptation to the iconic 80’s anime film Akira (1988). Waititi is so comfortably able to imprint his writing and filmmaking style onto these super-budgeted films that are so beyond other filmmakers in the medium of the franchise blockbuster. It was great to see him branch out into a film like Jojo Rabbit (2019), but what makes him a truly singular talent is his ability to scale up without ever diminishing the product or undercutting the story in any way.

Surprisingly, after winning his Oscar for Jojo Rabbit, Waititi has operated mainly in the television space, writing, acting, and producing in fantastic series’ What We Do in the Shadows, Reservation Dogs (one of the best new shows of last year), and Our Flag Means Death. He is one of the brightest lights in the industry with one of the most fascinating careers to follow, becoming one of the most must-see filmmakers working.

Love and Thunder is a real throwback to older Marvel sequels like Iron Man 3 (2013), (a film I will defend as possibly the franchise’s best), where a writer-director auteur is allowed to throw their weight around inside a mega-franchise structure without breaking any load-bearing walls. The film thrives in its eccentricities and the ensemble’s commitment to Waititi’s tone, making it a great watch that feels more of an established, stand-alone piece, rather than a stepping stone to something larger.

Thor: Love and Thunder is is currently screening in cinemas nationwide.

No Way Home Hits All The Right Nostalgic Notes

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Ambitious crossovers have become the forte of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, to the point where grand encounters between its heroes are nowadays a given. The latest MCU venture is one that fulfils those expectations, and immediately surpasses them, drawing inspiration from some rather unlikely sources to produce a truly amazing, spectacular blockbuster that enriches the legacy of its namesake.

Following his defeat of an Avengers-level threat in Europe, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) has been publicly identified as the alter-ego of Spider-Man, and is now being persecuted for his vigilantism. He’s not the only person facing judgement, since friends Ned (Jacob Batalon) and M.J. (Zendaya) and even his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) are being hounded by the authorities and the populace for merely being associated with the web-slinger.

Hoping to rectify the situations of those he holds most dear, Peter ventures across New York City and approaches fellow superhero Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) who is versed in the mystic arts. Doctor Strange offers his help by conjuring a spell that will ensure the entire world forgets Spider-Man’s secret identity; but after being botched by Peter’s constant interruptions, Strange’s magic instead unleashes a peril far greater than either hero could ever imagine.

The full ramifications of this wayward conjuration deserve not to be spoiled, suffice to say that it brings to the fore a concept that has long been gestating within Kevin Feige’s MCU: the Multiverse. The notion that every reality is connected to a series of parallel dimensions was initially floated by Scott Derrickson’s Doctor Strange (2016), teased in Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019) and eventually confirmed as canon in the Disney+ series Loki (2021), before being effectively applied to the animated series What If…? (2021).

Peter Parker (Tom Holland) with Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) in Spider-Man: No Way Home

There are, of course, other Marvel-branded projects that have utilised a multiverse-spanning narrative, most notably the feature-length animation Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018). With said film being a critical and commercial success, there would be every temptation for this live-action production to emulate its greatest strengths, and in some instances it does – there’s certainly an influence in the self-referential humour. But the latest Spider-Man flick is certainly no facsimile of its animated counterpart, since it owes more to its live-action forebears.

In truth, the films that best inform Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021) are those of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy (2002-2007), and not just for… the obvious. Raimi’s movies – yes, even the maligned third chapter – triumphed by instilling heart into the conflict, humanising the antagonists with their personal struggles and adding tender, delicate moments that kept the narrative grounded. Similar, if not identical, attributes are present in No Way Home, which keeps an eye on the finer details and constantly looks for the good in others, no matter what their failings are.

This heartfelt tone is not the only quality present in the screenplay, for there are plenty more smarts contained within. Most impressive is how coherent and easy to follow the narrative is, succinctly establishing the conflict and deftly balancing a multitude of characters who each have their own arcs, all of which is done without No Way Home spiralling into an incongruent, slapdash mess. Additionally, the script has a fair amount of emotional heft, with one or two scenes being among the most poignant this franchise has ever produced.

Part of the reason why these moments hit so hard is because of the performances, with just about every actor providing a phenomenal turn. Undoubtedly, the thespians who leave the greatest impression are those who play the villains from alternate universes, their portrayals being an adroit balance between cheesy and sinister, while not forgetting to convey the tenderness in their characters. What’s more, everybody in the cast has fantastic chemistry with one-another, despite most having not shared the screen previously.

The Iron Spider suit, as seen in Spider-Man: No Way Home

All of these traits pleasingly help to distinguish No Way Home from the many other Marvel blockbusters; but even so, this is still a picture tied firmly to the MCU, sharing various components with the two prior Spider-Man films to ensure that the look, tone and sound of this chapter is in keeping with what audiences are accustomed to, whilst also paying homage to its earlier precursors – for instance, the orchestral score of returnee Michael Giacchino incorporates elements of Danny Elfman’s work in the Raimi trilogy, as well as James Horner’s compositions for The Amazing Spider-Man (2012).

Although No Way Home is unquestionably a very pleasing affair, it’s not a faultless one. The most pressing of these faults is the film’s pacing – during the first two acts, the story flows briskly yet smoothly, before slowing right down as it heads into the third act and loosing steam altogether by the epilogue. Of further annoyance is the lengthy conversations had between characters in this final act which not only contribute to the slowness, but also ensure that it feels needlessly bloated.

There are other quibbles to be had with No Way Home, including the humour, which is funnier than Far From Home yet never reaches the comedic heights of Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) or Into the Spider-Verse. And while the plot can be followed without having to revisit every previous Spider-Man film, its numerous revelations and throwbacks aren’t going to be as satisfying nor as rewarding for uninitiated viewers. But these are only minor problems when compared to the issues of pace, and even they aren’t enough to spoil enjoyment of the picture.

Spider-Man: No Way Home is a euphoric celebration of Marvel’s web-slinging superhero, one that cheekily yet adoringly pays homage to the films that came before it. With a humanist screenplay that deftly balances multiple characters, and an all-star cast at the peak of their talents, this blockbuster represents another fantastic entry in the MCU, and an utter treat for Spider-Man fans of any generation.

Spider-Man: No Way Home is currently screening in cinemas nationwide.

The Bow is Strung in Marvel’s Hawkeye, Now’s the Time to Shoot

We’re a couple of years down the track in Marvel’s latest Avengers spin-off series, Hawkeye — set in the bustling and Christmassy New York City in the years post-snap. It’s a fitting setting given the opening sequence of episode one takes audiences back to the alien infested, war-torn New York City of 2012’s Avengers in order to establish the character of Kate Bishop (Hailee Steinfeld).

That opening sequence quickly introduces audiences to Kate in her adolescent years as she experiences the fateful events of the Avengers battle with evil, from the ravaged apartment she and her family reside in. In the distance on the roof of another building, the shows eponymous hero, Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) tusks it out with the aliens before eventually saving and inspiring Kate through a swift shot from his bow — changing the course of her life forever.   

We eventually fast forward to present day (which is a few years ahead of 2021) where Kate is now 22, living in her own apartment, and her mother Eleanor Bishop (Vera Farmiga) has become acquainted with Jack Duquesne (Tony Dalton) following the death of her husband all those years ago. On the flip side we have Clint Barton who is living a more steady life with his family as he seemingly still struggles internally to come to terms with the aftermath of Thanos’ wrath. It isn’t until a gala auction event goes sideways, that the story begins to pick up. A Russian street gang known as the Tracksuit Mafia infiltrate the auction where among many items, a Ronin suit from one of the Avengers is present. Kate nabs the suit and legs it, unaware that her actions will bring her face-to-face with Barton, the Tracksuit Mafia, and further trouble.

These first two episodes are much more measured and simplified than Marvels other shows from earlier this year like Loki and WandaVision. Director Rhys Thomas takes a much more playful approach to the storytelling here, never really subjecting viewers to a myriad of complex information (timekeepers and worlds-within-worlds) and instead opting to focus on the banter and push-pull dynamic between Steinfeld and Renner.

To much surprise, that approach works in the shows favour as Thomas lays all his cards on the table from the outset and builds on Steinfeld’s energy and Renner’s reluctance to help her beyond the amount he requires. It makes for some amusing back-and-forths and on-the-nose one liners.

Hailee Steinfeld in Hawkeye

The plotting feels a bit inadequate in comparison to the actors chemistry as it’s almost built on a ‘as you go’ basis rather than as something worth stimulating an audience members curiosity. Essentially, not much happens that couldn’t be predicted by casual audiences and not much is left to an audience members imagination. For those that have read the comic, perhaps that approach works, but hopefully the episodes that follow will provide a little more intrigue, albeit not to the extent that Loki did (especially with the sublime Florence Pugh scheduled to make an appearance).

It has to be said that Renner is side-lined by Steinfeld who channels her teen charisma from Bumblebee (2018) & The Edge of Seventeen (2016). She injects the show with a Tom Holland-esque charm seen in the Spider-Man films, as she brings a likeable on-screen presence that is hard not to buy into. Renner plays that more reserved, subduedness that he carried with him in the Avengers films and it makes me realise how my desires for him to take the forefront in this show wouldn’t have worked to the shows advantage judging by these two episodes.

Both episodes keep you engaged through Steinfeld’s performance and the consistent humorous tone that has become a staple of Marvel, but rarely hits home. The fact that Thomas leans into that tone from the get-go while building our engagement with this peaceful, yet disrupted New York setting through the leads, means that the occasional comical comment from a Mafia henchmen for instance, doesn’t feel out of place. Too often a Marvel production will fluctuate tonally from episode to episode which can work given that no two directors are the same if multiple directors are directing, but Thomas has set a sound, but somewhat tilted foundation to build on from these two episodes.  

Marvel has always looked to the future with its work and for ways to pass the torch onto its new recruits, and Hawkeye will be no different in that regard. With Steinfeld playing the protagonist in a show about Hawkeye, it’ll be interesting to see whether that sentiment will carry true to its entirety or whether Hawkeye himself begins to play a more active role as the events of the show unravel. Either way, there’s plenty to look forward to in Hawkeye over the coming weeks.

Hawkeye is now streaming on Disney+

Eternals is a Rare Misfire for Marvel Studios

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Despite what its very vocal critics say, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has never been afraid to deviate from the norm, frequently toying with its formula to deliver creative and outlandish pictures. More often than not, these risks have paid off handsomely; here though, is a rare example where the deviations don’t work to the material’s advantage.

Several millennia ago, the Celestials – omnipotent forces responsible for the creation of all life within the universe – placed on Earth a group of immortal, superpowered beings known as Eternals, and tasked them with defending humanity from outside forces that impeded their evolution. Said beings are presently living peaceful lives and have not needed to intervene in human affairs for centuries; but after a worldwide tremor, and the re-emergence of an old enemy, they feel compelled to embrace their former roles and defend the planet once more.

Directed by Oscar-winner Chloé Zhao, Eternals (2021) is so distinct from its Marvel stablemates that it barely qualifies as a superhero movie, being closer in spirit to a meditation on living purposefully. Throughout the narrative, the protagonists constantly reiterate their vow to not interfere with the evolution of humanity, philosophising whether this stance has resulted in further woes, if they should have done more to ease the world’s suffering, and the consequences of contributing too greatly to the human race’s development.

Other discussions in the film lean more towards the existential, as the ageless characters ponder whether a meaningful existence among mortals is even possible. It’s a struggle best exemplified by Sprite (Lia McHugh), an Eternal who resembles a teenage girl, and as such cannot enjoy all the pleasures that her adult-looking counterparts can; meanwhile, the “older” Eternals struggle to maintain relationships and livelihoods, such as Sersi (Gemma Chan) who cannot commit to her human boyfriend, Dane (Kit Harrington) despite their obvious love for each other.

To place so many philosophical musings in a Marvel flick is a peculiar direction to take, but Eternals is by no means the first in this Universe to do so – that honour belongs to Scott Derrickson’s Doctor Strange (2016) which drew interest by, among other things, pondering the futility of existence. That’s pretty much where the similarities end though, because where the Sorcerer Supreme’s film balances its existentialism with hypnotic imagery, inventive action sequences and shades of humour, Eternals offers nothing of the sort, resulting in a less exciting, less riveting blockbuster.

From left: Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), Sprite (Lia McHugh), Sersi (Gemma Chan), Ikarus (Richard Madden), Thena (Angelina Jolie) and Gilgamesh (Don Lee) in Eternals

Zhao’s picture isn’t just weak when compared to Doctor Strange; it’s the weakest instalment in the MCU to date, lacking any of the spectacular elements associated with its forebears. There are no large-scale battles like those in the Avengers movies, nor the tense, close-quarters combat witnessed in the likes of Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) or, more recently, Black Widow (2021); it does not possess a jaunty pop-rock soundtrack á la Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), and certainly doesn’t share the rich comedic stylings of Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) or Thor: Ragnarok (also 2017).

This insipidness is reinforced by the elongated, gratuitous run-time of two-and-a-half hours – courtesy of the slow pacing – that solidifies Eternals as the second-longest picture in the franchise, behind only Avengers: Endgame (2019). Because of the film’s leisurely flow, there’s no sense of urgency to keep the viewer invested; nor is there a feeling of peril, even when situations are at their most dire. And on top of that, the narrative lacks any rousing, uplifting or showstopping moments, resulting in a tone that is way too sombre for a Marvel-stamped property.

In any other MCU entry, these problems would be alleviated by the efforts of the performers; yet here, not even a cast brimming with Hollywood’s most talented, charismatic actors can improve proceedings. This includes players such as Richard Madden, Barry Keoghan, Salma Hayek, Angelina Jolie, the funny Kumail Nanjiani and the eminently loveable Brian Tyree Henry, all of whom lack the magnetism they usually instil into their roles, and are never given the opportunity to demonstrate just how capable they are. In other words, they’ve all been wasted.  

Mercifully, the experience is not all bad, having been made somewhat bearable by the reasonably stunning visuals, at least by Marvel’s standards. Zhao made a point of prioritising on-location shoots for Eternals, rather than the usual sets and green-screens, and her decision has proven a good one, for the sun-bathed locales – superbly photographed by frequent Marvel contributor Ben Davis – provide a level of beauty hitherto unwitnessed in a superhero movie. Given the large budgets and healthy returns of Marvel’s output, one has to wonder why more of their releases can’t utilise similar techniques too.

Yet despite this splendour, and the nuanced discussions it also possesses, nothing can escape the fact that Eternals is the most tedious, least inspiring entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to date. The action is underwhelming, the cast under-utilised, and the narrative unsatisfying, drawbacks that are certain to test the most devoted of Marvel fans.

Eternals is currently screening in cinemas nationwide.

East Meets West in Marvel’s Dazzling Shang-Chi

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Before the advent of the motion-picture, the martial arts were Asia’s greatest cultural export, imitated and appropriated by Western societies for decades. The latest film to continue this tradition comes from, of all places, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, albeit with a lot more care and consideration than is normal for a Hollywood production.

Since fleeing his homeland of China as a teenager, Shaun (Simu Liu) has led a modest life in San Francisco, keen to shun the criminal lifestyle practised by his father, Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung). The only connection he keeps to his past is a jade pendant – gifted to him by his deceased mother, Ying Li (Fala Chen) – which is worn around his neck for safekeeping; but the value of the pendant is more than sentimental, since armed mercenaries are willing to fight Shaun for it on public transport.

Though said mercenaries don’t reveal their motivations, nor their affiliations, Shaun is convinced that they are tied to Wenwu’s shady dealings, and will remain a threat to himself and others – principally his American friend, Katy (Awkwafina) with whom he shares a close bond; and his estranged sister, Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) who is thought to be living in Macau. Whatever the case, one thing is for certain: Shaun will need to confront his murky past if he wants to ensure his future.

On most fronts, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021) is rather innovative for a Marvel Studios feature, heavily drawing inspiration from the wuxia films that have long dominated Asian cinema. Kung fu is frequently incorporated into the action sequences, making for a refreshing chance from the usual superhero fisticuffs; there’s an Eastern influence in the soundtrack of Joel P. West too, with woodwind instruments and thumping drum beats heard throughout; and, more noticeably, the majority of the film’s narrative takes place in China.

The influence of Eastern movies even extends to the majority Asian cast, with Shang-Chi boasting two iconic stars of Hong Kong cinema – the aforementioned Leung, and Michelle Yeoh. While both actors provide delightful turns, it’s the lead performers who leave the greater impact, with Simu Liu looking confident and relaxed as the titular hero in his first-ever headline role; and Awkwafina constantly elevating key moments with her charisma alone. And there’s further delight still to be garnered from the supporting actors, such as comedian Ronny Chieng, and regular MCU bit-player Benedict Wong.

Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung) and Ying Li (Fala Chen) in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Although Shang-Chi does a great deal to singularise itself from its Marvel brethren, the film is somewhat lacking in originality, particularly in the screenplay department. The story here shares a few too many similarities with that of another MCU instalment released less than four months ago, Black Widow (2021) – both pictures follow a protagonist reuniting with an estranged sibling and returning to their country of birth to defeat a paternal figure. Whether intentional or not, these parallels will serve only to validate the notion that Marvel Studios’ output is becoming rather formulaic.

Other weaknesses are present in Shang-Chi, minor yet nonetheless irritating. One is the fight sequences, which have great choreography but could be more thrilling, for they lack the kind of death-defying stunts that Jackie Chan is renowned for executing. Also in need of refinement is the comedy, being decent and well-timed without ever reaching the level of hilarity found in other Marvel films. If Kevin Feige’s superhero factory is to continue beyond a fourth phase, both elements sorely need to be improved in any future releases.

There are some areas where this picture does improve over its predecessors, one being the depiction of its villain – blessedly, Shang-Chi has one of the better antagonists of the MCU in Wenwu, who is sinister, restrained and cool all at once, while possessing far more complexity and humanity than the average Marvel foe. The music too is above Marvel’s usual standards, with West being the closest a composer has come to matching the opulence of Alan Silvestri’s work in the Avengers movies – he deserves to be called upon for more of Feige’s projects in the years ahead.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings does for the world’s Asian communities what Black Panther (2018) did for the African diaspora, utilising the familiar Marvel tropes to craft a visual and aural celebration of Eastern culture. It’s not perfect, owing to the muted humour and unoriginal script, but more than ably satisfies with its beguiling action scenes, glorious soundtrack and exceptional cast.

Shang-Chi is currently screening in theatres, and will be available to stream on Disney+ from November 12th.