Welcome to another installment of “Monday at the Movies.” It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these, and there have been a good number of summer blockbusters since. So, let’s do this one more time.
Shazam! (2019) – DC has had a rocky road to a shared universe, never quite managing to find its crowdpleasing niche until solo outings for, of all people, Wonder Woman and Aquaman. With Shazam! DC is starting to recognize that its characters fare best when handled in standalone adventures that play to the characters’ strengths. Here, it’s Billy Batson (Asher Angel) with a chip on his shoulder, learning that family is where you find it, while his magical-heroic alter ego (Zachary Levi) plays out a superpowered take on Big and fending off attacks from the Seven Deadly Sins. It’s quite fun and a fine double-feature with, ahem, the other Captain Marvel this spring, and director David F. Sandberg does a keen job straddling the line between the boisterous antics of Shazam and the genuinely scary menace of Mark Strong’s Dr. Sivana, striking a notable balance between competing tones in a demi-franchise that has drawn audience derision for seldom transcending the dire. (As for this filmgoer, why can’t we have both?) You know that I think Batman v Superman remains the gold standard for DC’s latest efforts, but Shazam! is roughly the third winner in a row for DC (because the less said about Frankenstein’s Justice League, the better). And for those who haven’t seen it yet, it’s truly remarkable that a third-act development wasn’t spoiled in the marketing – even though the comics-initiated among us anticipated it coming in a sequel or two, it was great fun to see the film play with its family dynamic in a bold and inventive way.
Avengers: Endgame (2019) – How do you review a masterpiece in 250 words? (You’d need, perhaps, 3,000 to do it justice.) Make no mistake, true believers – Endgame is an impossible film that shouldn’t work at all but manages to work perhaps the best of any Marvel movie at what it sets out to do. Here’s a three-hour film with no baggy weight that manages to tie together 21 preceding films while doing something new; its greatest-hits nostalgia tour is baked seamlessly into the narrative, but it advances the Marvel Cinematic Universe by leaps and bounds while setting a daunting precedent for whatever comes next. The movie is chock-full of things that, even if I spoiled them, you wouldn’t believe me, as when the film hard-180s within its first fifteen minutes by breaking a cardinal rule of superhero epics and then manages to deal with that game-changing plot point with enviable aplomb, both having its cake and eating it too. Recency bias is still pretty strong with this one, so I’m not quite ready to say if it’s the best of the 22 MCU movies just yet (Winter Soldier remains a perfect movie). But I think it’s handily the best of the four Avengers movies for its audacious scope, unreasonable challenge, and entirely confident triumph. How a three-hour film leaves you wanting more is beyond me, so hats off to Anthony and Joe Russo for turning in what very well might be Marvel’s finest hour(s). You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and if you’re anything like the two audiences with whom I saw this one, you’ll be outright sobbing in equal parts sorrow and jubilation. “Part of the journey is the end,” indeed, though I’ll expect you haven’t heard the last from me on Endgame.
Dark Phoenix (2019) – I said it with Venom, and I’ll say it with Dark Phoenix – this movie is fine. It’s a perfectly serviceable X-Men film, and since it’s ostensibly the last one for a while, some of its more compulsory plot beats can be forgiven. In the title role, Sophie Turner slays it as Jean Grey, and Hans Zimmer turns in a great score that sounds like Dark Knight had a baby with Interstellar. It’s probably not as epic as the source material (which, nerd confession time, I’m only just getting around to reading), and the villains led by Jessica Chastain are the very definition of undercooked. More noticeable, Magneto is really only there because it’s the last X-movie from Fox (though his best line, from the trailer, is sadly omitted – “You didn’t come here looking for answers. You came here looking for permission”). But there’s something to be said about the way this movie shows the X-Men at their peak, emphasizing their family dynamics. The film’s action, too, is pretty cool, especially that climactic train sequence. Most importantly, it’s light-years better than The Last Stand. So maybe the X-Men didn’t go out on their highest note (which is, I believe, still X2: X-Men United?), but it’s a perfectly fine capper to twenty years of X-movies, and it seals off this iteration just in time for the MCU to adopt the mutants into their new home. In short, it does just about what you’d expect an X-Men movie to do, and it does it better than some of its predecessors without feeling too much like a retread of familiar ground.
Men in Black: International (2019) – Mark Kermode took the word right out of my mouth when he said that the latest Men in Black film is “perfunctory.” The premise of an MiB reboot with Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson (late of Thor: Ragnarok), with Emma Thompson and Liam Neeson on either side of the pond, practically sells itself, and indeed it seems the film was sold primarily on the chemistry between its two leads. What the movie is lacking, however, is precisely character because its protagonists are sadly underwritten, its villains are maddeningly vague, and its structure is bizarrely shambolic as it careens from setpiece to setpiece. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t need a Men in Black film to be Shakespearean in its plotting, but I do prefer that it make a modicum of sense without leaning on attitude as a special effect. (Though if it does, the ever-watchable Tessa Thompson is ILM-levels of sassy.) It feels as though the studio is rolling the franchise out on a lunch tray, as if to say, “Want some more of this?” And in that respect the possibility is about as tantalizing as mystery meat casserole – perfectly edible, but hardly anyone’s first choice. Several times throughout the film, I found myself wishing I were watching the original Will Smith/Tommy Lee Jones vehicle. International gestures at an intriguing sideways take on the central conceit, but man oh Manischewitz did the script need another pass to make it anything but generic and forgettable.
Toy Story 4 (2019) – “Did we need a fourth one of these?” I asked myself when Toy Story 4 was announced. Hadn’t Toy Story 3 been a perfect capper to a perfect trilogy? (This has to be the last one, though, right?) And yet, as they usually do, Pixar found a way to surprise me, with 4 tying up 3’s loose end with the absence of Bo Peep (Annie Potts). Bo ends up being only one of the core ideas in 4, including also Woody (Tom Hanks) and his struggle to fit in with new kid Bonnie, while the playroom crowd grapples with the creation of Forky (Tony Hale), Bonnie’s new toy molded from garbage. I think your mileage on this film will depend very much on how much you indulge the movie’s central premise that there’s another story to be wrung from this universe; I myself was sold fairly quickly, particularly with the way Forky – omnipresent in marketing and toy aisles – allows the film to do something quite unique while giving us a fascinating angle into Woody’s psyche. And yes, 4 is well and truly Woody’s show, even more than Toy Story 2 was. It’s a bit of a shame, because we love all the other toys so very much, but it’s very challenging to imagine, for example, what more Rex or Mister Pricklepants could have done in the movie. It’s a thoughtful and engaging romp through the standard Toy Story plot – toys get separated and find their way back together after meeting shady toys and new friends like Duke Caboom (Keanu “Yes He Canada” Reeves) – but it’s as emotional and essential as the preceding installments.
That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” This was fun; we should do this again some time...