ATOMIC BLONDE (2017) – Routine Actioner Falls Short

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It’s 1989, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the Cold War is about to get turned on its head.  Spies are running this way and that, and secrets are more closely guarded, as no one knows what will happen after the wall falls.

It’s in this world, the frenetic days leading up to the tearing down of the wall, in both East and West Berlin, that ATOMIC BLONDE (2017) takes place.

MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is sent to East Berlin to help  fellow agent David Percival (James McAvoy) extract a man with the code name Spyglass (Eddie Marsan) who has in his possession a list of spies which if it falls into the wrong hands would compromise the intelligence agencies of the west, namely Great Britain, the United States, and France.

As such, the CIA is involved, as their man Emmett Kurzfeld (John Goodman) is working closely with MI6 operative and Lorraine’s superior, Eric Gray (Toby Jones).  Likewise, the French also have an agent on the ground in East Berlin, Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella), and they’re all working together— or are they?— to successfully get Spyglass out of East Berlin before his secrets fall into the hands of the heavy-handed KGB agents.

Further complicating matters is the knowledge that Spyglass has lost the list, but he also has committed it to memory, so the mission becomes twofold- get Spyglass out of East Berlin alive, and also find the missing list.  And oh yeah.  Someone in the operation is a double agent.  It’s a messy job in a messy city in an even messier time.

ATOMIC BLONDE is an okay movie but falls short of expectations and never really captures the insanity of the waning days of East Berlin before the wall came down, nor does it possess enough style to overcome its story limitations.

Kurt Johnstad wrote the screenplay based on the graphic novel series “The Coldest City” by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart.  One of the bigger problems I had with ATOMIC BLONDE is for a movie based on a graphic novel, it doesn’t boast the best visuals.  First-time director David Leitch starts off fine with some colorful and energetic opening credits, but after that there isn’t a whole lot visually that captures the graphic novel feel. It seems as if Leitch couldn’t make up his mind whether he was making a colorful adaptation of a graphic novel or a hard-hitting cold war spy thriller.

The film also did not grab me right away and took a while to get going.  The second half is definitely stronger than the first, and there is a brutal and well-executed fight sequence between Lorraine and several KGB thugs towards the end that is by far the best action scene in the movie.  But for the most part the action in ATOMIC BLONDE is standard and by the numbers.

Kurt Johnstad’s screenplay is also nothing to be excited about.  The dialogue is all rather flat, and the story is nothing we haven’t seen before.

ATOMIC BLONDE does boast a strong cast but even the presence of solid veteran actors doesn’t help all that much.

Charlize Theron is a wonderful actress, yet I think she was miscast here as MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton, as I didn’t find her all that believable in the role.  When she’s kicking the stuffing out of the KGB thugs, these scenes just didn’t ring true for me. Granted, she’s as beautiful as ever, but as the unstoppable indefatigable Lorraine Broughton, I wasn’t buying it.

I enjoyed Theron much more in MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015).  Her performance in that movie was rugged and convincing.  Her performance in ATOMIC BLONDE is more like a Tom Cruise performance than a Tom Hardy performance.  The toughness and grit Theron showed in MAD MAX: FURY ROAD isn’t really on display here.

James McAvoy delivers a decent performance as David Percival, but in all honesty, it’s nothing I haven’t seen him do before. Plus, he looks like he walked off the set of SPLIT (2016) and simply put on a coat to blend in on the streets of East Berlin.

Sofia Boutella is okay as French agent Delphine Lasalle, and I enjoyed her more here than in her recent turn as Ahmanet the Mummy in the dreadful THE MUMMY (2017). But she was most memorable as the alien Jaylah in STAR TREK BEYOND (2016).

Veteran actors Toby Jones and John Goodman are on hand as the older agents in the proceedings, Jones representing MI6, and Goodman the CIA.  They are both solid in supporting roles.

In the key role of Spyglass, Eddie Marsen does a decent job.  I actually enjoyed him more in THEIR FINEST (2017), where he played a different kind of agent, one that represents actors, in that superior period piece comedy drama about making a propaganda film about Dunkirk.

Bill Skarsgard, the son of actor Stellan Skarsgard, is memorable as Merkel, one of Lorraine’s contacts in East Berlin. It’s a small role, but I thought he gave one of the better performances in the movie.  Skarsgard will be playing Pennywise in the upcoming remake of Stephen King’s IT (2017).

ATOMIC BLONDE is an okay actioner, but it never really gets into high gear, nor does it possess the pizzazz to sustain its two hour running time.  The script is meh, the dialogue standard, and the story is routine, and while the actors are all solid in their roles, none of them put this film on their backs and carry it to the finish line.  Also, director David Leitch does little to make this one visually exciting or cinematic, save for one extremely well-executed fight scene.

At the end of the day, I expected more from ATOMIC BLONDE.  As it stands, it’s not bad, and it does remain fairly entertaining, but it’s not the in-your-face graphic novel interpretation it should have been.

It’s more sub-atomic than atomic.

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Superhero Movies 2016 – Worst to First

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Here’s a look at the superhero movies from 2016, ranked from worst to first:

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7. BATMAN V SUPERMAN:  DAWN OF JUSTICE – By far, the worst superhero movie of 2016. The script by Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer doesn’t work. In spite of the fact that Batman and Superman do not trust or like each other, a big part of the plot revolves around Lex Luthor’s plans to pit them against each other.  Why?  They’re enemies already!  Also, the big moment where Batman and Superman change their tunes about each other is both unbelievable and anticlimactic.

Both Ben Affleck as Batman and Henry Cavill as Superman are fine, but the story they are in is not.  Also unimpressed with the action scenes by director Zach Snyder.  Best Part:  Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman.  Worst Part:  Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor.

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6. THE LEGEND OF TARZAN- Tecnically, not really a superhero movie, but growing up I always considered Tarzan a superhero of the jungle.

THE LEGEND OF TARZAN is a serious good-looking production by director David Yates that suffers from one fundamental problem:  it’s boring.

Alexander Skarsgard is terribly uncharismatic as Tarzan, Margot Robbie somehow doesn’t wow as Jane, and Christoph Waltz thinks he’s still playing Bond baddie Blofeld, hamming it up as villain Leon Rom.  The liveliest lines go to Samuel L. Jackson as Tarzan ally George Washington Williams.  The movie would have been better served had it given this oomph to Tarzan.

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5.SUICIDE SQUAD –  The DC superhero movies continue to struggle, but that being said, I liked SUICIDE SQUAD.  Somewhat.

Whereas she didn’t wow in THE LEGEND OF TARZAN, Margot Robbie more than makes up for it here as Harley Quinn.  Robbie’s electrifying, sexy performance as the bad-girl-turned-good-maybe easily steals this movie.  It’s easy to understand from Robbie’s performance how Quinn is the Joker’s girlfriend.

While I’m not a Will Smith fan, he’s really good here as Deadshot, and his and Robbie’s performances were the main reasons I enjoyed this movie.  The rest of the cast is simply average.  The plot less so.  The screenplay by director David Ayer has all this build up to this squad of misfits only to see them square off against one of their own, a supernatural witch, no less.  This one simply lacks vision.

Also, Jared Leto’s Joker is ultimately a disappointment, partly because of his performance, but mostly because the role is under written.

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4. DOCTOR STRANGE – The first of the superhero movies on this list that I consider excellent.  It’s no surprise that all four of the top superhero movies from 2016 come out of the Marvel Universe, the studio that continues to churn out one superhero hit after another.

Certainly the most imaginative superhero movie of the year.  Not only does it tell a captivating story, but it’s also a visual treat. Benedict Cumberbatch is excellent as Doctor Strange, the obnoxious neurosurgeon turned superhero after a devastating injury ruins his career and sends him in search of healing through the Far East mystic arts.  What he finds is new life as a superhero.

As usual with the Marvel movies, it struggles with its villain, as Mads Mikkelsen really doesn’t get to do a whole lot as bad guy Kaecilius.

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3. X-MEN:  APOCALYPSE –  My sleeper pick on the list.  Critically panned and not really loved by fans, X-MEN: APOCALYPSE nonetheless entertained me from start to finish.

The main reason I enjoyed this one?  The performances by James McAvoy as Professor Xavier, and Michael Fassbender as Magneto. Since taking over these roles when the series rebooted with X-MEN:  FIRST CLASS (2011), McAvoy and Fassbender have made them their own.  It’s difficult to dislike a movie when these two talented actors are helming it.

Of course, Jennifer Lawrence is here, too, as Raven/Mystique, but in all honesty I’ve enjoyed Lawrence in most of her other movies more than here in the X-MEN series.

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2. DEADPOOL (CKF) – For many, DEADPOOL was the best superhero movie of 2016.  For me, it was second best.  That being said, it was certainly the most unusual superhero movie of the year.

Foul-mouthed Deadpool— played by Ryan Reynolds in a role he was born to play— lets loose with an abundance of raunchy language not even George Carlin, Richard Pryor, or Eddie Murphy combined could match.  As such, this R rated superhero movie is not for everyone, but if you don’t mind raunchy language, you are in for quite a treat.

The liveliest superhero movie of the year, as well as the funniest.

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1. CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR – My pick for the best superhero movie of 2016 is easily Marvel’s CAPTAIN AMERICA:  CIVIL WAR.  This one plays more like THE AVENGERS 2.5. Its story about a rift between Captain America and Iron Man is much more believable and emotionally satisfying than the rift between Batman and Superman in BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE.

This one is so good, that even though it’s the third Captain America movie, it belongs in the conversation as one of the best superhero movies ever made.Brothers Anthony and Joe Russo direct this one with high energy and lots of style, and the screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely is a genuine crowd pleaser.

Also features a phenomenal cast which has no business being in a superhero movie. You’ve got Chris Evans as Captain America, Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man, Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, Anthony Mackie as the Falcon, Don Cheadle as War Machine, Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye, Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther, Paul Bettany as Vision, Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, Paul Rudd as Ant-Man, and Sebastian Stan as the Winter Soldier.  And with all these folks doing their things and doing them well, the movie is almost stolen by young Tom Holland in his debut as Spider-Man.

An awesome movie.  Marvel has been churning out one quality superhero movie after another going back to IRON MAN (2008), and they show no signs of slowing down.  I’m looking forward to their upcoming releases in 2017, starting with LOGAN on March 3.

And there you have it, my list of the superhero movies from 2016.

Until next time, thanks for reading!

—Michael

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.  Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

SPLIT (2017) – Entertaining Thriller Not Frightening Enough

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SPLIT (2017), the new thriller by writer/director M. Night Shyamalan, about a man with multiple personalities who abducts and imprisons three teenage girls, is an attempt to expand on the PSYCHO format.  Rather than a psychopath ruled by two personalities, let’s give audiences one who’s ruled by 24 of them.  Does it all work?  Up to a point.

Yup, I’m— split— on SPLIT. (heh heh.)

This one gets down to business right away.  The film opens with the three girls, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) about to be driven home from a party by Claire’s dad, but they don’t get that far.  That’s because a man (James McAvoy) overpowers the dad and enters the car where he proceeds to knock out the girls with some sort of gas.

When the girls awake, they find themselves in what appears to be an underground bunker. They are being held prisoner by a man who refers to himself as Dennis.  Later, they hear a woman’s voice outside the door, and the girls call to her for help.  When the woman enters, the girls are shocked to see that it is Dennis dressed in woman’s clothing, although he’s no longer Dennis but Patricia.

The girls quickly realize that they are dealing with someone with multiple personalities.

We learn more about Dennis—whose real name is Kevin— and his other personalities as he visits his therapist Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley).  Meanwhile, the girls try to find a way to escape, and they see as their best chance to take advantage of Hedwig, the 9 year-old personality inside Kevin’s body.  But they need to escape quickly, because Hedwig constantly speaks of “the Beast” who he says is on his way and will do terrible things to the girls.

M. Night Shyamalan, the man who brought us THE SIXTH SENSE (1999), UNBREAKABLE (2000), and SIGNS (2002), but then went on a prolonged slump which lasted more than a decade, bounced back last year with the very good thriller THE VISIT (2015).  SPLIT, while not bad, is a step back from THE VISIT.

While I liked the story in SPLIT, I didn’t find it all that suspenseful.  And rather than growing more tense as it went along it became tedious.

Part of the problem is the film’s trailer gave away way too much about this movie’s plot.  There were a lot of things that happened in this movie— Patricia’s first appearance, for instance— that I would have felt different about had I not known about them already.  This is also a case where the trailer is actually better than the movie.

But the lack of suspense isn’t just the fault of the trailer.  Shyamalan deserves some of the blame.  While the premise is certainly interesting, and McAvoy’s performance as all those multiple personalities is exceptional, not a lot happens in this movie.  I didn’t feel the suspense at all, and neither did the audience.  I saw it in a pretty packed theater, and I don’t think there was one gasp or scream to be heard.

The other thing about SPLIT that impeded the suspense is Dennis and friends keep talking about “the Beast” who is coming to harm the girls, and really, there isn’t a whole lot of build-up to this beast.  This should have been terribly frightening, but it’s not.  Worse, not only isn’t there build-up, but once the Beast does show up he’s about as scary as some of McAvoy’s X-MEN mutant friends.

That being said, the acting here is very good.  Hands down my favorite part of SPLIT is James McAvoy’s performance.  He is amazing here, although once again unfortunately we see nearly every personality he plays given away in the film’s trailer, which hurts more than helps.

I also enjoyed Anya Taylor-Joy as Casey, although she gave a stronger performance in last year’s  THE WITCH (2016).  Of course, her role in THE WITCH was a more challenging one, but she’s still very good here in SPLIT.

And while I did like Taylor-Joy as Casey, I wanted to know more about the character.  I think the film would have been stronger had more time been spent on Casey.  We learn about her past in the flashbacks to when she was a little girl, but I wanted to know more about her in the here and now.  She’s a very interesting character, and she and Kevin both share a troubled childhood, a bond which could have been played up more.

Haley Lu Richardson is very good as Claire as well, although she gave an even better performance in THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN (2016).  I actually thought that Claire made the most sense of the three girls.  When they talked about what they needed to do to survive, it was Claire who talked about fighting back and hitting Kevin hard to escape, while Casey said that didn’t make sense and that they needed to hang back and think their way out of this.  I thought Claire had the right idea, although in this story it’s Casey who has more success.

Betty Buckley is also very good as Dr. Karen Fletcher.

Shyamalan’s screenplay was okay.  I liked the premise, but ts execution not so much. It had plenty of opportunities to become a suspenseful movie, but it didn’t.  The film also seemed to lack a sense of urgency.  It just sort of meanders along telling its story.

Actually, the most frightening part of the story are the flashbacks showing Casey’s past, and the most disturbing scene is the revelation at the end of the movie about Casey’s present life.  I found that far more disturbing than any of the traditional horror stuff involving  Kevin and his multiple personalities.

My favorite part of the screenplay is summed up in a line which the Beast utters to Casey near the end, when he sees the scars on her body and says something to the effect that it’s the broken who are blessed, which brings tears to her eyes.  It’s a theme that runs through the movie, often voiced by Betty Buckley’s Dr. Fletcher that what we see as weaknesses or disabilities in people like Kevin, may actually be strengths and things that make them superior.

I liked this part of the screenplay.  I liked McAvoy’s performance.  But I never felt frightened by the main premise of this movie:  the three girls being held prisoner by a madman.  Those scenes I just didn’t find that intense, and so in spite of the things I liked about this one, it didn’t possess enough of an edge for me to really love it.

There is a surprise cameo at the end by a major star, but seriously, this “twist” did little for me.

Long story short, I liked SPLIT, but I thought I would like it more.  Not once during this movie did I feel like I was on the edge of my seat, and this is in spite of a fairly interesting story and an amazing performance by James McAvoy.

SPLIT is a decent movie, but it’s simply not edgy enough to succeed as a hard-hitting thriller.

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X-MEN: APOCALYPSE (2016) Provides End-of-the-World Excitement

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Movie Review:  X-MEN:  APOCALYPSE (2016)

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Michael Arruda

I’m not hearing great things about X-MEN:  APOCALYPSE (2016), the latest film in the Marvel X-MEN series, which is too bad, because all things considered, it’s a purdy darn good movie, one well worth the price of a movie ticket.

Let’s turn back the clock a little bit, to 2011, when the X-MEN series was rebooted featuring younger actors in an X-Men origin story, X-MEN:  FIRST CLASS (2011).  I absolutely loved this movie, and it ranks in my Top 5 List of the best Marvel superhero movies ever made.  A big reason for this was the performances by James McAvoy as Professor Charles Xavier and Michael Fassbender as Magneto.

The second film in the rebooted series, X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST (2014) played with time travel and combined cast members from the original series with the cast from X-MEN:  FIRST CLASS.  A creative idea to be sure, but the film stumbled with its execution, and I was not nuts about this movie.

Now comes X-MEN:  APOCALYPSE, the third film in the rebooted series.  This time around, we learn that mutants have been in existence since the beginning of time, and one such all-powerfult mutant, Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) sets his sights on taking over the world  but is betrayed and buried in a pyramid in ancient Egypt.

Jump to the 1980s, twenty years after the events of X-MEN: FIRST CLASS, and ten years after the events of X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST, and Apocalypse escapes from his Egyptian grave and once more sets his sights on taking over the world.  His strength is that he can enhance the abilities of others, and so he always assembles four mutants, four horsemen, to be his minions, and he uses them by making their special ablities even stronger.  He gathers four mutants, including a young Storm (Alexandra Shipp) and the grand prize, Magneto (Michael Fassbender).

Magneto has been doing his best to blend in with society.  He has a wife and a young daughter, and he has given up his powers so he can live in the real world.  But things go sour when he is discovered, and his wife and daughter are killed.  This leaves Magneto feeling very bitter indeed, and so he is more than willing to join forces with Apocalypse.

Meanwhile, Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) is running his school for gifted mutants, when there is a great disturbance in the force— oops, wrong series.  But there is a great disturbance, an energy surge, coming from Apocalypse.  When Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) shows up and informs Professor X that Magneto has joined the bad guys again, it’s up to Professor X and his students to save the day.

Except that Apocalypse wants Professor X’s mental abilities for his own, and so he abducts the professor in order to force him to work for him.  And so now it’s up to Mystique and the latest and youngest X-Men recruits to save the world by going up against the most powerful mutant in existence, Apocalypse.

This is no small task, which is why the last third of the movie is so exciting.

There are many things to like about X-MEN:  APOCALYPSE.

However, when talking about the Marvel superhero series, you have to start with the acting, and that’s because these films have assembled an A-list cast on a regular basis, meaning that when you watch a Marvel superhero movie, you’re pretty much guaranteed A-list caliber acting.  The acting in these films is far better than what you would expect in a superhero movie, and the acting in X-MEN: APOCALYPSE is no exception.

Both James McAvoy as Professor X and Michael Fassbender as Magneto are excellent in this movie.  They also work extremely well together, and so whenever we are fortunate enough to see them in the same scene, the film is that much better.

In addition to McAvoy and Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence completes the star triumvarate as Mystique.  Now, as much as I like Jennifer Lawrence, I’m not nuts about her as Mystique.  She has shown so much range in other roles, in films like SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012) and JOY (2015), it’s difficult to accept her in a role where she’s covered in blue make-up.  She also plays Mystique like a mutant cousin of Katniss, her character in THE HUNGER GAMES movies.  It’s just not my favorite mix.

The rest of the young cast is first-rate.

Nicholas Hoult is very good as Beast, Sophie Turner is mesmerizing as Jean Grey, and Kodi Smit-McPhee who was so memorable as the young boy in the vampire movie LET ME IN (2010) and also in DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2014) is charmingly electric as Nightcrawler.

And as he did in the previous X-MEN movie, Evan Peters provides scene-stealing fun as Quicksilver.  Reprising her role from X-MEN:  FIRST CLASS Rose Byrne is effective in her return as CIA Agent Moira Mactaggert.

Oscar Isaac makes Apocalypse a formidable villain.  A frequent stumbling block in the otherwise pristine Marvel superhero films is their inablity to craft a worthy villain for their heroes.  It hasn’t hurt the movies since the Marvel superheroes generally are such an entertaining lot on their own, as they are full of flaws and can’t seem to stop arguing and fighting amongst themselves.  Still, a decent villain would only help, and here in X-MEN: APOCALYPSE, Apocalypse is a decent villain, and then some.  And you can’t fault his agenda:  he just wants to destroy the world, that’s all.  Technically, he wants to wipe out everyone on Earth who possesses great power so he can then rule it with ease.  Greedy bastard.

Apocalypse is all-powerful, so much so he fathoms himself a god, and his powers are indeed god-like.  What this means is that even the combined strength of all the X-Men mutants, even with Professor X and Magneto working together, they can’t stop this guy, which makes for some dramatic cinema.  And how they finally do gain the upper hand against this superpowerful villain makes sense and works.

I enjoyed both the direction by Bryan Singer and the screenplay by Simon Kinberg.

Singer is no stranger to the X-MEN universe, having directed the first two films in the series, X-MEN (2000) and X-MEN 2 (2003), and the most recent film in the series, X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST (2014).  He crafts some powerfully emotional scenes in this one, including the scene where Magneto’s family meets a tragic end.  The conclusive battle is also very exciting.

Kinberg’s script strikes a nice balance between witty snappy dialogue and poignant moments, like when Professor X tells Magneto that he is not alone, that he hasn’t lost everybody.

That theme, being alone, is prominent throughout the film, and is what Professor X ultimately uses to set him and his X-Men apart from Apocalypse- the villain is alone, while they are not.

As there are in most of these Marvel superhero movies, there is an additional scene after the end credits, but it’s hardly worth the wait, and so if you’re not in the mood to sit through the credits, don’t bother.  You won’t be missing much.

I liked X-MEN: APOCALYPSE a lot.  While I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as this year’s DEADPOOL (2016) or CAPTAIN AMERICA:  CIVIL WAR (2016), it’s still a very good movie, a worthy entry in the Marvel superhero universe.

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