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Ranking the Marvel Cinematic Universe

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What is the best Marvel movie?

When Avengers: Endgame arrived, it marked the culmination of 11 years and 22 films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. 

Lucky for fans, Marvel isn’t slowing down, continuing to produce more and more movies to add to their cannon. And with the release of each new installment, we try and answer that perpetual question: which of the Marvel Studios movies is the best? Here are all the Marvel films ranked from favorite to least favorite, as judged by our wonderful staff. Enjoy!

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Iron Man 2

23. Iron Man 2 (2010)

With superhero movies, more often than not the second film tends to be the best of the series. The reason is simple: having dispensed with the obligatory origin tale, the filmmakers can now weave a more compelling narrative. One only needs to look at Spider-Man 2, The Dark Knight, and Captain America: Winter Solider as just a few examples to back this claim. Unfortunately, Iron Man 2 does not fit in that camp, and is in no way as good nor better than its predecessor.

That’s not to say the second installment of the Marvel comic-turned-movie-hero’s adventures isn’t worth seeing, because it is. As in the first Iron Man, the main attraction here isn’t the plot, but Robert Downey Jr., who once again owns the film with his innate charisma and ability to deliver cutting lines of dialogue with pitch-perfect timing. In fact, he’s so good that despite the appearance of both Mickey Rourke and Sam Rockwell (two fine actors in their own right), the best scenes are those that revolve around Downey and Gwyneth Paltrow (as Stark’s resistant assistant, Pepper Potts), or those that revolve around just Downey himself. That isn’t to say that the villains aren’t memorable, because they are; Rockwell’s Justin Hammer proves the ideal adversary, and Rourke’s Russian physicist Ivan Vanko does pump new blood into the franchise. But without Downey, Iron Man 2 would be just another run-of-the-mill summer blockbuster.

If anything, Iron Man 2 further proves what I’ve been saying for ten years: the casting of Robert Downey Jr. might just be the best casting choice in the history of Hollywood blockbusters, and without him the Marvel cinematic universe may not be as popular as it is today. (Ricky D)

Thor

22. Thor (2011)

When it comes to the Thor series, most people would agree that the third time’s the charm, but the original Thor still has a few things going for it. Kenneth Branagh brings a Shakespearean feel to the Asgaard portions, and Sir Anthony Hopkins as Odin is an example of perfect casting. Most importantly, Thor introduced the world to Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, Marvel’s only decent villain. Bad guys have always been the MCU’s Achilles heel, to the point where Civil War abandoned them altogether and just had the heroes fight each other. Loki has always been the one exception. More than just something for Thor to punch, Loki is a villain with pathos. Sure, he’s a jerk — but he’s a relatable jerk. Who among us hasn’t lashed out at a parent or a more popular sibling?

Now onto the bad: Thor is also our first on-screen introduction to Hawkeye, the most useless Avenger of all. Thor himself is also just not that interesting of a character — at least without the other Avengers to bounce off of (Hawkeye not included). Thor presents the mighty thunder god as an easy-to-manipulate, quick-to-anger, spoiled little prince who won’t hesitate to throw a temper tantrum when he doesn’t get his way. Chris Hemsworth’s initial portrayal of Thor is stiff and light years away from the easy-going joker he plays in Thor: Ragnarok. The fish-out-of-water parts of Thor that take place on earth are nowhere near as interesting as the royal intrigue going on in Asgard, and exist only to introduce Thor to SHIELD and potential love interest Jane Foster. Natalie Portman and Chris Hemsworth don’t have a ton of chemistry, and their budding romance feels shoehorned in. Thor would have benefited from a structure similar to Captain America: The First Avenger — set the whole story in Asgaard and save Thor’s arrival on Earth until the very end. Instead, we got a film that keeps switching from an engaging location to one that’s just… blah.

Thor is not a bad movie; it’s not even the worst Marvel movie (hey Iron Man 2, how’s it going?) but it’s not a good movie either, and it’s certainly not essential. If you’re trying to catch up on the MCU, you can skip right from Captain America to Avengers and not miss a beat. However, if you’re a completionist than by all means give Thor a watch. Just be prepared to focus most of your attention on his brother. (Zachary Zagranis)

Ranking the Marvel Movies

21. Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)

Sometimes good things do come in small packages.

While not the biggest MCU movie, Ant-Man and the Wasp improves on the first Ant-Man in nearly every way possible while also adding a timely new twist. Compared to Avengers: Infinity War, which came out a month earlier, Ant-Man and the Wasp doesn’t have the same emotional investment but regardless, it’s a refreshing comedic detour that gets by on the cast’s easygoing chemistry. Nobody dies in this movie and the stakes are not quite as high as other MCU films, but Ant-Man and the Wasp avoids the biggest problem with most MCU films by creating a standalone story that doesn’t rely on guest appearances by other superheroes. In other words, anyone can watch this film without having seen any of the other twenty two films in the MCU and still understand what’s going on and more importantly, enjoy it for what it is. Kudos to director, Peyton Reed (who also made the first Ant-Man) for wonderfully blending comedy, action and a ton of personality – and personality goes a long way in these Hollywood blockbusters that for the most part, more often than not, feel way too similar. (Ricky D)

Thor 2

20. Thor: The Dark World (2013)

Call me crazy, but Thor: The Dark World is a seriously underrated film. It may not be the finest movie to come from the Marvel brand, but The Dark World offers plenty of the humor, great world building, high-stakes action, and one of the better villains in the Marvel Cinematic Universe yet.

For my money, Thor: The Dark World is if anything, better than the original — a looser, sillier and more violent hybrid of science fiction and fantasy. Written by the fantasy vets Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, the second installment escapes the oppressive duty of franchise building and expands on both the titular character and his homeworld, Asgard. Replacing Kenneth Branagh in the director’s chair, TV-trained Alan Taylor (Game Of Thrones) adapts more gracefully to the Marvel house style; for once, the action is clean and coherently staged, and Taylor brings some of the gravity and grandeur to this universe.

That said, the movie’s most valuable asset may be Tom Hiddleston, reprising the role of Thor’s deliciously malevolent adoptive brother, Loki. He’s the only person onscreen with truly complicated motives, and Hiddleston reveals new depths to the character. Forget the fairy-tale romance between Jane and the God of Thunder — the real emotional center of the Thor series is, and always has been, the sibling rivalry. (Ricky D)

Incredible Hulk Movie

19. The Incredible Hulk (2008)

It feels like blasphemy to think that Marvel never knew what it was doing, but in its infancy in 2008, that was exactly the fear with the first post-Iron Man piece of the Avengers. The Incredible Hulk was the reboot, releasing five years after Ang Lee’s iteration was panned by comic book aficionados. Acting as something of a stealth sequel, director Louis Leterrier’s version compresses the origin to a single main title sequence before finding Bruce Banner on the run in South America. As played by Edward Norton, this Banner is part Bill Bixby TV version, and part every other milquetoast Norton character. He uses a heart rate monitor to prevent his adrenaline from spiking and unleashing the beast, a departure from years of Marvel lore (and an affectation quickly dropped in the ensuing sequels). Once back in the States, Banner must face the nefarious General Ross, continue his pining for Ross’s daughter, Betty, and go big-toe-to-big-toe with Emil Blonsky aka The Abomination.

What results is a mash of chase thriller, Frankenstein love story, and laughable CGI throwdown that neither thrills nor satisfies. In a way, Incredible Hulk is the green-headed stepchild of the MCU, torn between what the franchise would become and what it had been for years (think of all the Marvel movies that aren’t good Spider-Mans or X-Mens). Norton brings none of the wry humor of Mark Ruffalo or the convincing anguish of Eric Bana. In fact, every cast member seems like a downgrade from the previous Ang Lee version: Liv Tyler < Jennifer Connelly, William Hurt < Sam Elliot, Tim Roth < Nick Nolte. By the time we get to the smashing, it’s as safe and perfunctory as Hulk’s purple little shorts. Say what you will about the 2003 Hulk, but it swung for the pop art fences. The Incredible Hulk is a placeholder in a franchise that would soon value formula above all, but a winning formula nonetheless. (Shane Ramirez)

Ranking the Marvel Movies

18. Captain Marvel (2019)

It’s a shame that the first film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe led by a female superhero isn’t better. The truth is, Captain Marvel, coming only a year after the fantastic Black Panther, is a disappointment and a film that shares more in common with the generic comic book movies of yesteryear than its modern-day contemporaries.

The good news, however, is that Captain Marvel is still a good movie thanks to the charisma and presence of actress Brie Larson, who is by far the best reason to see the movie. Larson is perfectly cast in the lead role and strikes the perfect balance between humour, self-doubt, bravery, and arrogance – not to mention her no-nonsense military persona is a welcome contrast to the more flamboyant idiosyncrasies of Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man.

Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel deserved a better movie but at least the movie gets by because of its humor, strong central character and nostalgic Nineties vibe. It also helps that Captain Marvel features a great performance by Samuel L. Jackson, who hams it up gloriously as a digitally de-aged Nick Fury, and a remarkable super cat named Goose to further ram home the Top Gun nostalgia. Let’s just hope that the sequel will be far more interested in fleshing out its titular heroine than it is in filling in the blanks of the MCU. (Ricky D)

ant-man-marvel-movies-ranked-best-worst-gallery

17. Ant-Man (2015)

As far as Marvel Cinematic Universe success stories go, Ant-Man is at the top of the list. Marvel began work on the tiny-sized hero way back in 2006 with Edgar Wright attached to direct. After a falling out due to creative differences, Peyton Reed stepped in and gave life to Hank Pym and Scott Lang in San Francisco. Ant-Man as a story is a Phase 2 adventure that works on the outer rim of the MCU similar to Guardians of the Galaxy — it’s a film that introduces audiences to a character that’s relatively new to the comic book scene, and increases the genre diversity of Marvel. Ant-Man is a heist film that is closer to the ground in the MCU than ever before, with its own added visual flair to match.

Scott Lang is a likeable character that falls in line with some of the other Marvel Universes lovable idiots, and the film does a great job of showcasing that — from the debate to why he’s even there in the first place when our future Wasp, Hope Van Dyne, is clearly more prepared and equipped to stop Darren Cross to the hilarious learning curve when he eventually dons the Ant-Man suit. Ant-Man’s visuals and the world gets a lot better when Scott shrinks down to ant-size (and even smaller when in the Quantum Realm), and there’s something to be said about a film that gives the audience an emotional reaction to an ant dying. From the insane suitcase and Thomas, the Tank Engine fights to the connections to the larger Marvel Universe, Ant-Man is a film that stands comfortably as one of the more unique Marvel properties. The film set out as an action-comedy that’s about a superheroic heist, and it paid off in spades because at the heart it’s about a Dad trying to do right by his family. (Terrence Sage)

Avengers-age-of-ultron-thor-37941972-500-225

16. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

Avengers: Age of Ultron is tonally and visually very similar to the first Avengers film (no surprise there, with director Joss Whedon helming both), but after the giddy delight of watching the team eat shawarma together amidst New York rubble, the heads at Marvel had to work a little harder to maintain the magic of simply seeing our heroes on screen at the same time. It used to be enough to watch Captain America and Tony Stark size each other up and trade barbs, but Age of Ultron needed to go a step beyond its predecessor to add depth and tension to character relationships, and it doesn’t always meet the mark.

Released a year after genre-bending game changers like Guardians of the Galaxy and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Ultron plays it safe in most regards. The cast is only getting stronger with new additions like Elizabeth Olsen and a full-bodied Paul Bettany, but that means less screen time for each character as the stage continues to fill. It doesn’t help that they aren’t given much to work with in ways of unique material.

James Spader voices Ultron, the main villain who turns against Tony in an almost Frankenstein-esque manner. Spader is a wonderful voice actor and brings a lot of energy to the film, but his broad threats of another apocalyptic doom don’t exactly set him apart from most Marvel villains. Natasha and Bruce start to develop a tentative connection that humanizes both of them in new ways, but their relationship is left dangling before it can really begin. Strangely enough, Thor spends most of his time away from the main action, pursuing knowledge about the Infinity Stones, a shoehorned arc that acts as both an afterthought of Thor: The Dark World and a prologue to Thor: Ragnarok.

Age of Ultron is still fun and even delightful when it slows down and allows the cast to interact, both in battle and out of it. The best scene of the film takes place with the heroes as they drink and laugh, trying to lift Thor’s hammer. In this ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe, it is nice to just take a breath every once in a while. All that said, even with a reliable cast and tight cinematic action sequences, Age of Ultron is little more than a solid stepping stone between Phases Two and Three. (Meghan Cook)

ranking the Marvel movies

15. Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019)

Spider-Man: Far From Home, the 23rd installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is surprisingly uncomplicated, especially for a tale that wrestles with the aftermath of Thanos’ snap. The screenplay (credited to Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers) deals with the reality of Parker, a 16-year-old kid from Queens who is still navigating high school life post-“blip,” and what it means to be a superhero while trying to balance an ordinary teenage life. Compared to many of the other Marvel films, Far From Home keeps things relatively simple as Peter Parker (once again played wonderfully by Brit wunderkind Tom Holland) is still a high-school kid, and his summer plans involve a class trip that rips through Europe and a shot to romance his high school sweetheart MJ (Zendaya) — and maybe, just maybe, steal a kiss atop the Eiffel Tower.

There’s nothing surprising about the setup, nor the first big twist involving the high-profile addition of Jake Gyllenhaal as Mysterio, but Far From Home ends up being one of the more entertaining and satisfying installments in Marvel’s never-ending story cycle, thanks to a tautly constructed narrative and the talent of director Jon Watts, who keep things moving while always maintaining the light, amusing tone that made the first film such a success. (Ricky D)

guardians-of-the-galaxy-vol-2-teaser-rocket-raccoon-baby-groot-2a

14. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

Can a movie starring a CGI raccoon make a grown adult cry? If that movie is Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 the answer is an emphatic yes. One of the few MCU films to feel like it wasn’t birthed by a committee, Guardians 2 checks all the right boxes for a summer blockbuster while still being an earnest exploration of family dynamics — dysfunctional and otherwise.

Guardians Vol. 2 begins with a gonzo opening sequence that finds the team alternating between throwing down with a giant space-worm and taking time out to co-parent a reincarnated Groot. ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky” plays over the whole shebang, and though it’s not the first song that comes to mind when one thinks “big action set piece,” it’s the perfect tune for an anthropomorphic sapling to dance to. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is full of inspired song choices, proving once again that James Gunn is a master of soundtrack cultivation. The dude has a preternatural gift for picking the right song at the right moment. If you don’t shed a tear when Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son” plays over Yondu’s funeral, you might be a robot.

At the heart of the film is Peter Quill’s relationships with both his biological father, Ego, and his surrogate guardian, Yondu Udonta. The former wants Peter to carry on his legacy, and the latter just wants Peter to know that he really cares about him. When Yondu tells Peter “He may have been your father, boy, but he wasn’t your daddy. I’m sorry I didn’t do none of it right. I’m damn lucky you’re my boy,” it punches you right in the heart. It may be a cliche, but it’s a cliche that works. When you add in Gamora’s issues with her sister, Nebula, and Rocket’s issues with…well, everyone else, it becomes clear that James Gunn wanted GOTG Vol.2  to have a level of emotional depth and sincerity missing from most other Marvel movies.

Anyone who knows Gunn knows he wouldn’t make Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 all dour moments and deep revelations; there are jokes too. In fact, Guardians 2 ranks right up there with the original Guardians and Thor: Ragnarok as one of the funniest films in the entire Marvel canon. The scene where Yondu and Rocket try to get Groot to bring them Yondu’s fin only to wind up receiving a severed toe (among other random items) is full of absurdist hilarity. Rocket’s translation of Groot’s rant about how much he hates hats is priceless. Unlike Thor: Ragnarok however, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2  doesn’t undercut its dramatic scenes with non-stop gags. It’s not afraid to breathe during emotional moments.

Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 is the rare sequel that’s smaller and more intimate than the original, and the rare MCU flick that focuses more on character development than laying the groundwork for future Marvel films. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a $200 million dollar comic book movie full of real emotion and heart. Can a movie starring a CGI raccoon make a grown adult cry? You’re frickin’ right it can. (Zachary Zagranis)

Doctor Strange Movie

13. Doctor Strange (2016)

You could make an argument for why Doctor Strange does nothing new. It follows almost beat-for-beat the pre-established formula showcased by the countless Marvel films that came before it. Yet you could also make the argument that Doctor Strange is fantastic because it follows the successful and lovable structure that has helped the MCU succeed so extraordinarily.

There is so much that is familiar. Give us an eccentric and wealthy individual, brimming with confidence and lacking humility. After a life-changing event, this character is rocked to their core, unable to continue living in the manner they did before. They seek a new answer and begin training whatever ability they are destined to master. Eventually, they excel past all those around them, face a homicidal adversary, and get greenlit for a sequel. I could be talking about Iron Man, Captain America or Ant-Man, so you can see why unlike Civil War, Guardians of the Galaxy, or Iron Man 3, Doctor Strange is a generic MCU origin story. That doesn’t mean it isn’t good. We’ve come to expect these films, and religiously tune in knowing full well that a sequel or team-up movie is where this character will really shine.

Perhaps Strange will get the Ragnarok or Civil War treatment, but for now, he’ll have to settle with a familiar-but-incredibly-well-polished origin story. It isn’t a fantastic piece of cinema in isolation, but if you’re invested in Marvel’s expansive cinematic universe, it’s a necessary and enjoyable inclusion. (Chris Bowring)

Thanos

12. Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

The third Avengers movie and the 19th entry into the ongoing series set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) seems made specifically to tie all the loose knots, connect all the dots, and make lots and lots of money. It does all that and so much more!

Avengers: Infinity War knows what it wants to be, and goes about pursuing that goal with relentless energy. The filmmakers aren’t interested in a stand-alone story — instead, Avengers: Infinity War is an epic crossover with an unwavering devotion to spectacle and action. It’s overstuffed with an all-star cast, beloved characters, and moves with breakneck speed, yet despite the many ingredients to stir into this overflowing pot, the talented team at Marvel Studios have found a way to balance the many moving parts and deliver what is truly an entertaining movie from start to finish.

Infinity War won’t change the hearts of those who say they’re tired of the superhero genre, but it will satisfy the deep-rooted escapist desire most movie-goers expect. Of course, there’s a sense of incompleteness surrounding the ending that will leave some viewers wanting more, but that can soon be dealt with. (Ricky D)

Avengers Endgame

11. Avengers: Endgame (2019)

Eleven years after movie-goers were introduced to IronmanAvengers: Endgame, the 22nd entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the fourth movie to bear the Avengers moniker, has concluded the most ambitious cinematic accomplishment to date. Avengers: Endgame is a staggering achievement– a three-hour extravaganza that wraps up an epic story in which the survival of the known universe is at stake thanks to the simple snap of a finger.

It’s no secret that Infinity War was never intended as a stand-alone story, instead, it was meant to be viewed as part one of an epic adventure that would be concluded in Infinity War Part 2 (later re-titled as Endgame). Needless to say, Avengers: Endgame isn’t a movie in the traditional sense; it’s the final chapter in a two-part saga which itself is part of a bigger story, a story, a decade in the making.

Much like the episodic nature of television, Avengers: Endgame is thus better viewed (and reviewed) as an installment. It relies on audiences having consumed a whopping twenty two films with religious zeal and demands that they put in the time of watching and rewatching these movies in order to fully appreciate the meticulous planning by the corporate wigs and talented filmmakers behind the scenes. And much like a series finale of a television series, Avengers: Endgame is for all intents and purposes, a series of big events that puts various storylines to a close. As to whether or not that multi-part storytelling formula works, is a debate for another time – but as it stands, Avengers: Endgame brings Marvel’s unprecedented master plan full circle, and with it, the MCU will never be quite the same. (Ricky D)

PART TWO

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Film

‘Rambo: Last Blood’ Suffers From Action Anemia

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After 2008’s surprisingly intense and entertaining Rambo, it was hard not to be curious as to what sort of bloodbath would be cooked up for the reluctant warrior’s next outing. Alas, the familial revenge story portrayed in Rambo: Last Blood feels like it was written for another character entirely — a much luckier and stupider one — and not the cunning, lethal combatant we’ve come to know and love. Suddenly introducing a pseudo-family life and the ability to express emotions beyond morose murmuring (Rambo smiles!), the story gets too bogged down in its half-baked drama before finally remembering the reason everyone came to see a movie about a guy who used to fire two machine guns at the same time in the first place. And by then, it’s too rushed, too little, and too late.

For those looking to get to the pulpy meat of the matter, be warned that Rambo: Last Blood instead takes its sweet time telling the hackneyed story, with a few false starts just to keep action fans frustrated. So, having mowed down hundreds of people across the world (especially in Burma), John Rambo has unceremoniously returned to the good ol’ U.S. of A. in search of that peaceful life that always seems to elude him in war-torn countries. To that end, he has somehow acquired a large ranch, where he for some reason is good at training horses, and somewhat okay at being an “uncle” to the 17-year-old Gabrielle, who is ready to leave her life on the ranch with her grandmother and this grizzled veteran, and head off to college.

When Gabrielle makes the idiotic (but understandably teenage) decision to disobey the guy who actually knows what he’s talking about when he says that the world is full of black-hearted people, she winds up drugged, kidnapped, and held prisoner in Mexico by sadistic creepos who deal in the sex slave trade. Sure, Rambo: Last Blood takes a little too long to get here, but the hostage scenario is ripe for the kind of one-man assault upon a bunch of dudes who more than deserve a serrated knife to the chest that this franchise specializes in (for reference, see Rambo: First Blood Part II, Rambo III, and Rambo). As Rambo gets that familiar crazy look in his eye, it appears that’s exactly what’s going to happen, but writers Matt Cirulnick and Stallone have other ideas.

Audiences have grown accustomed to the stealthy, sneaky tactics of Sly’s special forces soldier, and so when Rambo — who has rarely made a misstep in his pursuits of killing folk — blunders like a naive fuddy-duddy into an obviously unwinnable situation, the result is both a jarring and disappointing setback from which the script is never able to recover. Had Rambo: Last Blood foreshadowed this critical brain fart by depicting an aging lethal weapon losing control over his mental faculties (popping some glossed-over medication doesn’t do the trick), perhaps this behavior might have flown. But the labyrinthine tunnels and later booby traps (oh yes, there will be plenty of booby traps) suggest that this guy has still got it. Except for that one time, apparently.

The majority of Rambo: Last Blood is wasted on trying to get audiences to care about Rambo’s thinly constructed relationships with people they’ve never met, as if that will somehow make the multitude of deaths to come more personal. But because of the shoddy build up — including an underused Paz Vega as an “independent journalist” also affected by this crime ring — it just doesn’t seem to matter why these thugs need to die. They’re cartoonishly evil; let’s get to it already.

Unfortunately, by the time the action arrives, Rambo: Last Blood operates as if it’s on the clock, already needing to wrap things up. Whereas now would be the time to revel in the catharsis of blood-spattered stabbings, steel poles through the head, and grisly dismemberment, impatient editing cycles through each killing as if quickly ticking off boxes. Cringe-worthy moments are cut short, never allowing the gruesomeness to sink in, to affect. Add to that a disorienting lack of proper staging that splits up the dumbest assailants ever and allows Rambo to appear out of thin air right behind nearly all of them as if he were everywhere at once, and the whole thing end’s up a confusing, unsatisfying mess.

Director Adrian Grunberg — whose much more interesting Get the Gringo knew how to use violence for shocked giggles — also hurts the effort with a bland visual style that is annoyingly claustrophobic. Seemingly unable to place his camera anywhere that might visually enhance a scene, Grunberg instead pushes in too far on the action, and winds up showing little that’s comprehensible. He carries this tendency into conversations as well, getting overly intimate with craggled faces and greasy beards, sacrificing blocking in the process. There’s not much to look at here outside the beautifully deserted, southwestern ranch setting, but do you think Rambo: Last Blood will use this intriguing, open prairie environment for a different take on jungle warfare? Even the horses don’t pay off.

This is all a shame, as Stallone still has that dour Rambo charisma when he’s not trying to be a father figure, and few characters can perform such gruesome deeds with an audience still behind them. But though the beleaguered battler at one point insists that he hasn’t changed, Rambo: Last Blood drains some of the edgy fun from the franchise. If it truly is the end, then it’s a dull finish for one of cinema’s keenest he-men.

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Anime

‘Promare’ Feels Like the Younger Brother of ‘Gurren Lagann’

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Gurren Lagann is a cult classic directed by Hiroyuki Imaishi, and written by Kazuki Nakashima. It has over-the-top action, constant bravado, quotable lines, and non-stop escalation into madness. Subtly is not a common word used in Imaishi and Nakashima’s vocabulary, and luckily, fans of their work will not be disappointed with their newest animated movie, Promare. Hot-headedness (literal and metaphorical) and grandiose speeches are rampant when Promare kicks logic to the curb and goes beyond the impossible in its own unique way. What it lacks in a cohesive story, it makes up for in elaborate visuals, eye-popping action, and charismatic characters.


No matter how many times Spider-Man or Superman saves someone from a burning building, the real heroes are the firefighters; they are the ones on the ground, first on the scene. In the world of Promare, firefighters are not just stopping regular old fires; they are tasked with extinguishing supernatural infernos caused by the Burnish — humans mutated to become pyrokinetics. Called the Burning Rescue, they heroically save any and every civilian threatened by these eternal flames, doing so with advanced gear, amped-up water cannons, and hand to hand combat. In addition, they have high-tech equipment that includes drones, an armory of ice and water-powered firearms, and numerous models of mech suits.

These heroes are tasked to stop the flaming terrorists and the havoc they wreak, and in the first act of Promare, a Burning Rescue team led by a young man named Galo take on one of the most feared Burnish terrorists. They use their pyrokinesis to give themselves black, spiky armour and motorcycles that would make Ghost Rider jealous, and after a rousing success with eleventh-hour powers, Galo floats in his victory. Soon, the more militaristic, anti-Burnish organization called Freeze Force barges in and detains the Burnish, taking some of the credit and diminishing Burning Rescue’s efforts. This testosterone-driven act kindles a small spark in the back of Galo’s head, later pushing him to discover a conspiracy that suggests not all is as it appears to be.

Galo is essentially a carbon copy of Kamina from Gurren Lagann. He’s a shirtless, blue-haired, brash young man who jumps in head first to save everyone, and makes sure he looks cool doing it every time. His peers and rivals mock his intelligence and audacity, but in a rare twist, Galo immediately proves that his not simply all bark; he is also a talented rescuer, and is able to stop multiple Burnish solo. Eventually, he develops a rival with Lio, a blonde-haired, light-eyed, somewhat effeminate villain with his own code of honour. He also runs across Kray Foresight, the governor, who is appreciative of Burning Rescue and all their work. However, though Burning Rescue is comprised of many equally talented members, they are mostly pushed to the background outside of being given a few moments to shine.  

Promare takes advantage of new animation styles, and combines both hand-drawn and computer-animated designs. The vapourwave art style is bombastic and chaotic, while the angular designs of the Burnish’s powers add a little edge to the action scenes, guaranteeing that there is no wasted space on screen. The movie runs from inferno-hot to sub-zero cold with no in-between; one would expect nothing less from Imaishi and Nakashima.

Walking into this film and expecting some kind of subtly, even when it comes to the most mundane of actions, is expecting far too much. In classic fashion, the filmmakers keep making every scene more grandiose and epic. Fight scenes aren’t simply adding an extra bad guy or giving the hero a handicap; everything grows to an exponential scale. The moment you expect that Promare has reached its limit, suddenly everything goes to the extreme. But this does has its disadvantages, as subtly and clear explanations of events go by the wayside. The plot moves fast and glosses over the details of the world, history, and lore. Instead of questioning “why is this weird thing happening,” it’s better to accept that it’s happening simply “just because” — far better to just watch the bonker visuals and series of events. This pacing also makes it difficult for character growth, where relationships are created and destroyed on a whim, yet could have benefited more with extra content. It’s like the difference between the Gurren Lagann series and the movies. Sure, the movies cover a lot of ground, but they are very much more loud, operatic spectacles rather than the growing confidence of a young shy boy into a full-fledged legend.

Promare is certainly a movie that stimulates the lizard-brain neurons. It’s flashy, over the top, and outright ridiculous. The heroes and villains are operatic, and there is no nuance stored anywhere in the character’s development. But that’s why the movie is wonderful; the creators are able to depict these extreme levels of silliness, then lampoon and expand on it. There are even moments where the characters themselves have to acknowledge that this level of weirdness is actually happening. But that’s why this movie is spectacular — it’s loud, it’s big, but it’s 100% unfiltered fun.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on August 4, 2019 as part of our Fantasia Film Festival coverage. 

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TIFF

TIFF 2019: Best of the Fest

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The Lighthouse

Have a conversation about movies with your family or coworkers late in the year and there’s a good chance someone will break out this old chestnut: “There just weren’t many good movies this year.” It’s a statement that says more about the speaker than the state of cinema; there are more great movies in any given year than anyone can manage to see. One of the great qualities of the Toronto International Film Festival is that the massive slate of films includes its own high-profile premieres, as well as screenings of festival favorites that bowed to acclaim earlier at places like Cannes and Venice. It’s a clearinghouse of sorts that gives one of the most well-rounded glimpses into the year’s best movies. Below are the ten best films we caught at the festival.

Anne at 13,000 ft

Anne at 13,000 ft

This world premiere, directed by Kazik Radwanski, initially presents the eponymous Anne (an astounding Deragh Campbell) as a daycare attendant having her first experiences with skydiving. Though Anne is alternately blissful and ecstatic when she’s jumping out of a plane, something is amiss at work, where she’s more interested in playing with the kids than supervising them. As she starts a new relationship with a man she met at a wedding (Matt Johnson), cracks in her façade start to appear. Radwanski keeps Anne’s breakdown front and center by putting her up close in the frame; she’s on screen almost every second of its brief 75-minute runtime. Featuring an astounding, aching lead performance, Anne at 13,000 ft sympathetically captures the moment the world starts to tilt for one woman. (Brian Marks)

Crazy World

Crazy World

With an extremely low budget and hearts of gold, the Wakaliwood movement in Uganda is a force of nature waiting to be fully unleashed on the world. Director IGG Nabwana’s Crazy World is the latest film to be translated for western audiences, having been originally produced in 2014. It showcases an international action scene that desperately needs to be seen by those who love films packed with ingenuity, comedy, and a genuine love for the medium that exudes from the screen. A fever dream of martial arts and absurdity, Crazy World is the kind of gonzo-action that can’t be denied its place in the pantheon of international action cinema. Placing this as the closing night film for the Midnight Madness program only ensures it gets a bigger audience than it otherwise would have. (Christopher Cross)

A Hidden Life

A Hidden Life

A Hidden Life is inspired by the true story of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian farmer who was executed after he refused to swear allegiance to Adolf Hitler. Jägerstätter is played by August Diehl, best known to American audiences as the lead Nazi in the bar shootout in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. Writer-director Terrence Malick makes a glorious return to fully scripted films after three adventurous, mostly improvised movies that divided critics. Though Jägerstätter was eventually beatified for his stand against the Nazis, Diehl and Malick don’t try to make him a saint — he’s just someone taking a stand when overcome by conscience. Malick’s searching camera makes the Austrian hillside look invitingly gorgeous and lush, turning it into a kind of paradise from which Jägerstätter is brutally snatched. His more improvised films are all essential works of cinema, but A Hidden Life is Malick’s best work since his career-defining masterpiece, The Tree of Life. (Brian Marks)

Jojo Rabbit

Jojo Rabbit

Receiving the TIFF Ebert Director Award this year, Taika Waititi came out with two awards, as his latest film, Jojo Rabbit,won the Grolsch People’s Choice Award, as well — and that for a film no other director would probably consider making: a comedy about Hitler. It’s a reductive elevator pitch, which is how many will approach the film when it is officially released, but Jojo Rabbit is hardly that. Instead, Waititi satirizes hate itself, as well as all the ridiculously extreme convictions people have that hold the world back from being peaceful. Easily the most audacious film in the director’s filmography, Jojo Rabbit successfully balances the quirky humor of Waititi’s previous efforts with a dark subject matter. The result is a movie that not only will make audiences laugh, but will have them valuing the importance of laughter and niceties in a hate-fueled time. (Christopher Cross)

The Lighthouse

The Lighthouse

Robert Eggers blew everyone away with his debut feature, The Witch, which ratcheted up the paranoia until there was nowhere to go but supernatural. While his sophomore feature doesn’t feature a Black Phillip-stand in, The Lighthouse trades witchcraft and Satan for mermaids and Lovecraft. The result is another film drenched in paranoia, as its two lead actors give some of the funniest, nuanced, and entertaining performances of their careers. The Lighthouse isn’t just Eggers proving he’s not a one-trick pony — it’s Eggers proving he’s one of the greatest horror filmmakers working today. (Christopher Cross)

Marriage Story

Marriage Story

Noah Baumbach’s newest film, Marriage Story, is partly inspired by his divorce earlier this decade from the actress Jennifer Jason Leigh. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson star as Charlie and Nicole; he’s a renowned theater director in New York, and she’s an actress best known for starring in a popular teen comedy, though in recent years she’s starred in her husband’s productions. The film opens with a touching set of dueling montages, as both characters recite their favorite aspects of their partners — only to reveal that they’re separating, and this is just an exercise cooked up by a mediator to keep their relations positive. Driver and Johansson are at the top of their game, and Baumbach has never been better. He keeps his camera work reserved so as not to distract from his airtight screenplay and the moving performances. No film can convey all the heartache and longing that comes with divorce, but Baumbach may have gotten closer than anyone else. (Brian Marks)

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire began attracting rapturous praise when it premiered at Cannes, and its presence at TIFF has only confirmed its stature. Set sometime in the late 18th Century, Portrait concerns two young women struggling against the stifling societal expectations that govern them. Noémie Merlant stars as Marianne, the daughter of a respected painter who has her own artistic talents. She has been called to Brittany to paint a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), which her family desires in order to send it to a Milanese suitor they hope to marry her off to. If he finds her beautiful enough, then the survival of their bloodline is guaranteed. But Héloïse has no intention of sitting for a portrait, forcing Marianne to get creative. Over time, she begins to question her role in Héloïse’s future, and the two develop an unshakeable bond. Herlant and Haenel give wonderfully tender performances, perfectly playing off each other for escalating dramatic tension. Sciamma is almost clinical in the way she films the two women, yet there’s a welcome touch of the fantastic that occasionally intrudes. A love story for the ages. (Brian Marks)

Saint Maud

Saint Maud

Rose Glass’s directorial debut, Saint Maud, is a film that wowed many audiences at TIFF, even if it didn’t necessarily win any awards. Picked up by A24 soon after the festival, the film highlights a nurse in private care that goes to extreme lengths to show her devotion to God and curing the world of sickness. A slow-burn that is masterfully handled through character work, this psychological thriller takes its time to get where its going, but is never a bore while getting there. Yet, once it does make its way to the intense final act, there is little room to breathe as Saint Maud moves and moves until its phenomenal conclusion. A strong debut with a fantastic lead performance by Morfydd Clark, this is the kind of film that will have you biting your nails as it sucks you into the mind of someone passionately devoted to God and trying to save her soul. (Christopher Cross)

The Twentieth Century

The Twentieth Century

With his debut feature, The Twentieth Century, Matthew Rankin reminds us of the seemingly limitless possibilities of cinema. The film documents the rise of former Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King in a truly bizarre style, featuring gorgeously saturated yet simultaneously faded colors that evoke the feel of early color films from the 1920s and ’30s. Dan Beirne plays a neurotic version of the future politician, who lives in perpetual adolescence and has a dark secret: he gets his rocks off with women’s heels. Rankin is clearly indebted to fellow Canadian Guy Maddin, and takes the same relish as he pulls from bits of film history while thoroughly deconstructing the traditional biopic. Rankin’s off-putting sense of humor and the movie’s otherworldly visuals will frighten off many viewers, but hopefully, it will delight even more. The Twentieth Century won the award for Best Canadian First Feature, and it’s sure to be a midnight movie classic. (Brian Marks)

Uncut Gems

Uncut Gems

The Safdie Brothers have followed up their grimy, abrasive Good Time with a film that never quite reaches those levels of tension, but is nevertheless cut from the same cloth. With Uncut Gems, the directing duo have crafted something so loud and chaotic — led by a perfectly-cast Adam Sandler — that there is no denying it’s a fun ride, even when it is not so fun to watch. Digging through the grit of loan sharks and a dog-eat-dog world, Uncut Gems is another bonafide hit by the Safdie brothers, but one that works when it piles on the misery — which it often does, rather than find a shred of happiness. (Christopher Cross)

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‘Villains’ Offers Strong Performances, But Not Much Else

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Through its first nine months, 2019 has been quite a year for movies in which characters are trapped in a house for most of the running time, and that continues with Villains, an unconventional but ultimately underwhelming entry in the horror-comedy subgenre in which four very good performances can’t save a talky, underwhelming script. 

Written and directed by the team of Dan Berk and Robert Olsen, Villains was on the “Black List” of unproduced screenplays a few years back, and it debuted at South by Southwest this past spring. Bill Skarsgård (Pennywise himself, in his normal handsome visage) and Millennial horror queen Maika Monroe play a dimwitted but loving couple who are also small-time robbers, in the tradition of bumbling wannabe criminals like in Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket. Fleeing a robbery they committed at a gas station and dreaming of a life in Florida, the pair stumble into the home of George and Gloria (Burn Notice‘s Jeffrey Donovan, and Kyra Sedgwick), where things take a bit of a creepy and violent turn as the petty crooks discover the thing (or things) that this other couple is hiding.

Overall, Villains feels at a piece with that Southern, used-car-salesman patter associated with the current prestige cable shows The Righteous Gemstones and On Becoming a God in Central Florida. Unfortunately, though it sports a good structure and all four leads perform well, Villains never quite finds that extra gear. Also, the film isn’t quite as good at managing the often-jarring tonal shifts between horror and comedy that such entries as Ready or Not and Satanic Panic were able to pull off. 

Villains has a lot of what we’ve seen in this type of movie before: long sections where one or both of the protagonists are held hostage, that slow realization that characters we previously thought were normal are far from it, and bloody violence that tends to come out of nowhere. It also has that annoying thing where movie characters who run out of gas never had any indication until that moment that they were running low. And here, unlike in most of those instances, the characters have just come from — literally — robbing a gas station. 

However, the cast isn’t a problem. Monroe, so memorable in such horror movies as It Follows and Greta, is the highlight, while Skarsgård shows himself as an interesting actor when not encumbered by the Pennywise clown makeup. Donovan, sporting a wispy mustache, plays his part over-the-top, while Sedgwick, who isn’t on screen nearly enough these days, is clearly having a great time playing a wildly unstable character. 

Villains begins with a strong, heavy metal-scored introduction, and there’s a nifty, animated closing credits sequence. A shame that both offer a much more impressive visual and filmmaking sense than the movie we just watched. 

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TIFF

TIFF 2019: ‘Crazy World’ Brings Wakaliwood to the Masses

‘Crazy World’ is the latest Wakaliwood film from Uganda to be translated and brought to the world, containing crazy action on a low budget.

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Crazy World

With an extremely low budget and hearts of gold, the Wakaliwood movement in Uganda is a force of nature waiting to be fully unleashed on the world. Director IGG Nabwana’s Crazy World is the latest film to be translated for western audiences, having been originally produced in 2014. It showcases an international action scene that desperately needs to be seen by those who love films packed with ingenuity, comedy, and a genuine love for the medium that exudes from the screen. A fever dream of martial arts and absurdity, Crazy World is the kind of gonzo-action that can’t be denied its place in the pantheon of international action cinema.

As children are being abducted by the Tiger Mafia — led by a pint-sized leader frequently mistaken as a child himself — parents begin formulating a plot to rescue the children and get revenge on the thugs who keep destroying their village. Unfortunately for the Mafia, they’ve made the mistake of kidnapping the Waka Stars — children with can outsmart and beat up anybody when they work together. Other characters include a parent who has gone insane six months after his child was abducted (and now lives within the village dump), and of course, characters named after Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan for good measure.

Crazy World

As silly as the premise sounds, Crazy World is even more absurd in employing a trademark of Ugandan tradition by incorporating narration from a VJ — or “video jockey” — who describes what’s happening, why it’s happening, why it’s bad that it’s happening, and who is about to get their heads kicked in. A side note about the midnight screening for TIFF: the narration was done live, and made the whole experience all the more delirious. But even without the live narration, what’s there is simply a staple of Wakaliwood films. The narration can have to do with the film itself, or even suggest the social and political anxieties that make the scenes all the more striking.

It’s also impossible to talk about Crazy World without mentioning the utter insanity of the action. For starters, every kick and every punch lands with the loudest thud imaginable. It sounds like a boxing match is happening, but it’s actually kids beating up grown men. The fights tend to be contained to a small set where green screen is quite obviously employed (to hilarious effect), and some of the worst special effects show buildings and vehicles being blown up. This isn’t a knock; in fact, these low-budget effects work exceptionally well because the film itself feels just as DIY and cobbled together. It’s infectious how fast Crazy World moves and how well it works, simply due to well-choreographed action.

Crazy World

Crazy World is my entry point to Wakaliwood, and there will be many who have never seen a film like this. However, those that do might find a new favourite style of action filmmaking — one that leverages its set pieces against the backdrop of regional concerns in Uganda. It’s a movie that transports you not because it’s put together well, but because it’s put together so lovingly. A hilarious romp, Crazy World is one-of-a-kind cinema that sets the bar for low-budget filmmaking.

The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 5 – September 15

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