You’re Never Not On My Mind

Turning Red is Pixar at their most awkward and relatable. Chinese Canadian animator Domee Shi became the first woman to helm a Pixar short. The Academy Award winning Bao won everyone over with its unique premise where a mother learns to let go of her son. Though Brenda Chapman co-directed Brave, Shi also became the first woman to helm a feature length Pixar movie. When Pete Docter became the new chief creative officer of Pixar animation, the studio embraced more passion projects like Luca. Turning Red is another personal story based on the director’s adolescence as a Chinese immigrant growing up in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Though it’s another Asian influenced Disney movie, Turning Red stands out for one big reason.

Turning Red asks the question, what if a hormonal teenager transformed into a literal beast? A girl turning into a giant red panda is certainly different, but there’s more than enough Pixar magic in the movie. Turning Red is practically a spiritual successor to Inside Out that takes place in the early 2000’s. I was won over the moment I heard The Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC in the trailers. At this point I wasn’t surprised when Turning Red went from theatrical release to streaming exclusively on Disney+. It’s another shame since it would’ve been an interesting theater experience. Turning Red had an all female production team that focused on a lot of taboo feminine experiences. Though I can’t always relate, Turning Red is one of the better Pixar movies I’ve seen in a long time…

50. Turning Red

Mei is the life of the party

Turning Red never came with a short, since it’s the third Pixar movie in a row to be streaming exclusive. Though they blamed it on the Pandemic, I’m pretty sure Disney didn’t have enough faith in the movie to keep it in theaters. Soul, Luca, and Turning Red are all original projects that Disney underestimated the impact of. After Brave, Turning Red is the second Pixar movie about a complicated mother-daughter relationship. The main difference is a Chinese perspective. Bare in mind Everything Everywhere All at Once was released the same month, but both movies couldn’t be more different. Turning Red begins with 13 year old Chinese Canadian middle schooler Meilin Lee as she talks about honoring her parents and potentially forgetting to honor herself. Then the serious tone shifts the second Mei breaks the fourth wall. Newcomer Rosalie Chiang was born to voice Mei-Mei. The 12 year old aspiring actress was originally a temporary placeholder voice, but Pixar soon realized she was perfect for the role. Chiang captures Mei’s overachieving personality, inner conflict, and quirky sense of humor. It’s refreshing to see a Pixar movie that actually tries to be funny up front. Lately there’s been way more emphasis on emotion than comedy.

Turning Red is one of the funniest Pixar movies in recent memory. Backgrounds and clothing are very colorful since the movie is from a tweens point of view. The warm and inviting computer animation is distinctly Pixar, but Turning Red is a lot more unique and stylized. Similar to Bao, Domee Shi was influenced by Anime like Sailor Moon and video games like Pokémon. The flashy imagery and big bright anime eyes are unmistakable. Though Mei’s Chinese ancestry is a big part of the movie, there’s just as much attention given to Canada. Despite the modern sensibilities and usual emphasis on diversity, Turning Red is set in the year 2002. Since I grew up in the early 2000’s, nostalgia was another reason I enjoyed the movie. Mei has a Tamagotchi and is totally obsessed with the fictional boy band 4*Town. So now Coco, Soul, and Turning Red have all centered around era appropriate music. 4*Town looks and sounds so much like every boy band from the late 90’s and early 2000’s. They’re ethnically diverse with matching outfits and boyish good looks. Robaire is the front man who speaks French, Jesse is the artistic one, Tae Young loves animals, and Aaron T. & Aaron Z. also exist. Despite being less than 1 year old at the time, Billie Eilish and her brother Finneas O’Connell flawlessly capture the sound of a 2002 boy band.

Though they have other hits like “1 True Love” or “U Know What’s Up,” “Nobody Like U” is their catchiest signature song. It’s the song that Mei often sings when she’s goofing off with her friends. Turning Red is very unique for featuring a sisterhood of close female friends. Mei’s circle of equally quirky friends includes Miriam, Priya, and Abby. Miriam is a Caucasian tomboy with braces voiced by singer Ava Morse. She’s arguably Mei’s best friend, since Miriam sticks up for her the most and keeps everyone else in check. Priya is Indian with a deadpan personality voiced by Never Have I Ever star Maitreyi Ramakrishnan. Abby is Korean with a short fuse and a lot energy voiced by storyboard artist Hyein Park. Mei’s friends are the right combination of weird and hilarious. Though they aren’t exactly unpopular, Mei does deal with her obnoxious biracial bully Tyler voiced by Tristan Allerick Chen. Most of the respectable cast is unknown, but there are well known Asian stars like Sandra Oh. This is Oh’s third computer animated mother role in 3 years after Over the Moon and Raya and the Last Dragon.

Ming is Mei’s overprotective mother who sets a lot of rules and wants her daughter to be the best. She doesn’t approve of 4*Town or Mei’s friendship with Miriam for unexplained reasons. Oh manages to make Ming funny in an embarrassing parent kind of way. Though people might call her a “tiger mom,” Mei has a very close relationship with her mom. They spend time cleaning up and giving tours in their family’s ancient temple. Although Mulan included praying to ancestors, Turning Red has more overt references to Buddhism and a mystical connection to red pandas. I’m not crazy about those story beats, but at least the food looks delicious. There’s plenty of Bao, along with a Miyazaki-esque cooking scene filled with other Chinese dishes. Orion Lee is Mei’s soft-spoken father who does most of the cooking, but tends to stay in the background. Though the story could’ve gone in all sorts of directions in this day in age, Mei and her friends are all boy crazy fangirls who make 4*Town their rite of passage into womanhood. Turning Red more than earns its PG rating with a lot of surprisingly risque jokes and edgy topics for Pixar (or Disney).

It all starts with Mei saying “crap” after a failed spontaneous cartwheel. Mei’s friends spend time gawking at boys like the 17 year old Daisy Mart clerk Devon. Mei’s hormones flare up when she impulsively draws several “sexy” pictures of her and Devon. Teen lust is not something I ever expected to see in a Pixar movie, but I imagine this is what Inside Out 2 would be about. It’s another hilarious sequence, but Mei’s mom finding out and showing Devon is next level embarrassment. Ming accuses Devon of doing drugs and causes Mei to question what she did. Overnight, Mei undergoes a startling transformation into a giant red panda. Transformations are another anime staple, but Turning Red is one of several Pixar movies influenced by Hayao Miyazaki. Like Totoro before her, Mei is a large huggable monster with soft fur. Red pandas aren’t as well known as actual pandas, but the adorable animals did receive attention in the Kung Fu Panda trilogy. The title Turning Red has several meanings. It can refer to embarrassment, Mei’s literal transformation, or the film’s most taboo subject. Mei becoming a red panda is a metaphor for puberty, but Ming mistakes it for her first period.

Growing up as a boy who never had sisters, I didn’t learn about menstruation until I was older. It was just something no one ever talked about. Especially not in a movie meant for children. The only other kids cartoon to explore menstruation was Braceface in 2001. Ironically, Braceface and Turning Red are both set in Canada and deal with the messy side of growing up. Though the word “period” is never said, it’s obvious when Ming brings out an assortment of pads and herbal tea for cramps. Mei has several mood swings and attempts to hide her panda from her parents. Only when Mei calms down does the panda go away. Though her black hair is red from now on. Mei covers her hair with a hat and tries not to show any emotion at school. Except when Tyler picks on her and she sees another boy that she likes. The panda finally comes out when Ming shows up at school with more pads. A big pink cloud hides Mei’s identity, but her mom and a girl with diabetes manage to see her. Panda Mei runs across the city until she gets home. Turns out her parents know all about the red panda curse.

Mei learns about her ancient ancestor Sun Yee who prayed to become a red panda in order to protect her village. Since then every female descendant has had to deal with becoming a red panda once they reach a certain age. The only way to contain the curse is by locking it in a talisman during a red moon ritual. Turning Red is very unique for Pixar, but it is similar to The Incredible Hulk since strong emotion brings out a beast. It’s also similar to Teen Wolf since it takes a casual approach to a hereditary teen monster going through changes. Believe it or not, even I once had an idea for an adolescent superhero who transforms into a red animal during puberty long before the movie came out. At first, Mei keeps her power locked in her room just like Elsa in Frozen. Until she accidentally exposes herself to her friends who are excited for 4*Town coming to Toronto. Priya, but especially Abby are enamoured with Mei’s adorable red panda appearance. Miriam manages to cheer Mei up with an impromptu “boots & cats” beatbox of “Nobody Like U.” Their friendship is enough to neutralize the panda, but her parents still test her emotions in a variety of humorous ways. When Mei passes she takes the opportunity to ask to go to the concert. Mei shows signs of rebellion when her mother says no and it’s revealed that Ming had a similar relationship with her mother. Encanto had more than enough generational trauma in it, but at least Turning Red doesn’t dwell on it.

After her recurring role as Madame Gao in the Marvel Netflix shows, Wai Ching Ho voices Mei’s grandmother Wu. Her facial scar is later revealed to be the result of Ming’s red panda. Wu arrives for the red moon ritual and is joined by Mei’s four interchangeable aunts. When Ming continues to helicopter parent, Mei grows even more rebellious. Like Teen Wolf, Mei grows increasingly popular when she exposes her panda to the rest of the school. Together with her friends, Mei uses the red panda to sell enough merchandise to afford going to the concert. Ming assumes Mei joined a math club, and everything goes well until Tyler promises to pay $200 to have the red panda at his birthday party. When she accepts, Mei’s grandmother tells her the more she transforms the harder it will be to control. Mei goes to the party anyway, and her friends convince her to transform. The red panda is the hit of an early 2000’s party that includes era appropriate songs like “Cha Cha Slide” and “Bootylicious.” Problems arise when it turns out the night of the red moon is the same night as the concert. Mei loses control when she attacks Tyler with her red panda. Then it gets worse when Mei sides with her mother who accuses her friends of making her use the panda.

Miriam, Priya, and Abby go to the concert alone while Mei prepares for the ritual. Mei’s father finally speaks up when he tells her about Ming’s panda and encourages her friendships. Of course Turning Red wouldn’t be complete without James Hong as local shaman Mr. Gao. He leads the red moon ritual in a chalk circle where Mei’s relatives must sing from the heart. Mei enters an astral plane where she must cross a veil in order to lock away her panda. SPOILER ALERT! In a surprising twist, Mei chooses to embrace her panda and disobey her mother to go to the concert. Ming is so distraught that her talisman breaks and she becomes a red panda too. I expected more than one red panda, but Ming is the size of a ten story kaiju! Mei rides her transformation cloud all the way to the concert where she makes amends with her friends. They also discover Tyler is a 4*Townie and embrace him as one of their own. The concert kicks off without a hitch, but it all comes crashing down when the building size Panda Ming embarrasses Mei once again. This time Mei is ready to confront her mother. Turning Red has what may be the weirdest climax in Pixar history. Panda Mei finally confesses to lying, liking boys, and she shakes her butt in defiance.

It gets to a point where Mei knocks out her mother in the middle of the SkyDome. Mei’s remorse mirrors the regret Ming had for hurting her own mother. With time running out, the only hope to get rid of the pandas are by recreating the ritual in the middle of the concert. Grandma Wu, Aunt Chen, Aunt Ping, Aunt Helen, and Aunt Lily all transform back into red pandas in order to help pull Panda Ming into the chalk circle while continuing the ritual chant. Would you believe they somehow found a way to have a pop song be the thing that saves the day? That’s exactly what happens when Mei’s friends convince 4*Town to sing “Nobody Like U” to complete the ritual. In a tear worthy moment, Mei is taken to the astral plane where she reconciles with a past version of her mother. Ming reconciles with her mother and the aunts who are ready to walk through the veil. Never thought I’d see so many Asian women with red hair in one scene. Ming makes one last attempt to reason with Mei, but she ultimately agrees to let her grow up. In the end, Mei finds a way to balance her family life and personal life without letting go of the red panda within her. Turning Red isn’t always comfortable viewing, but that’s all a part of growing up.

51. Turning Red

Mei goofs off with her friends

We Don’t Talk About Bruno

Encanto is Disney’s biggest cultural phenomenon since Frozen. Walt Disney Animation continued to make successful films, but nothing came close to the 2013 hit. Since musicals like Moana and Frozen II tend to make a stronger impression, Lin-Manuel Miranda followed up the former with his own Latin inspired musical. Miranda had a ridiculously busy 2021 that included In the Heights, Vivo, and Tick, Tick… Boom! Though he still hasn’t won an Oscar, Encanto managed to win Best Animated Feature and top several Billboard charts with its soundtrack. I’m glad the sixtieth Disney animated movie made such an impact, but it was far from the traditional Disney magic.

Unlike Tangled, Encanto was another original project centered around the next marketable culture. This time Disney was influenced by Colombian culture and a Colombian Cultural Trust was formed similar to Raya and the Last Dragon. The non-Hispanic directors Jared Bush and Byron Howard made Encanto their next project after Zootopia. The story changed many times, but family was a constant theme. Though it later gained new life on Disney+, Encanto wasn’t a success at the box-office. Most people blame the Pandemic, but I’m pretty sure there was a lack of interest. Although I didn’t take part in the obsession, I do understand Encanto eventually connecting with a new generation of Disney fans…

95. Encanto

Mirabel shows off the Casita

Encanto looks and sounds different than most Disney animated movies, but it is similar to Coco. Both are about large Hispanic families righting wrongs across several generations. I have no problem with Pixar experimenting, but I just haven’t been a fan of the new direction Disney has been taking. Diversity is expected, but I’d like something with animals or a fairy tale every once in awhile. There’s so much emphasis on family and complex emotional drama. My brother and I saw Encanto in a packed theater, but the audience of children wasn’t very lively. The traditionally animated raccoon short Far from the Tree didn’t get much of a response either. Encanto was hailed for its use of transgenerational trauma, but is that really what kids want to see? Luckily the colors are vibrant and the songs are enough to keep kids distracted. There’s a considerable amount of complex backstory, but it is easier to follow than Raya and the Last Dragon. I’m neither Hispanic nor Colombian, but Disney went the extra mile to ensure the setting and community was accurate. Unlike In the Heights, Hispanic characters have different skin tones that I never expected to see in an animated movie. There’s brown skin, light skin, and darker Afro-Latino skin.

Encanto was inspired by Colombian folklore and history with a twist of magical realism. The Madrigal family flee their home in order to escape the Thousand Days’ War. Tragedy gives the family a miracle candle that shields their community in a magical Encanto protected by mountains. The Madrigal family lives in a magical Casita come to life. Between Encanto and Moana, Disney really likes living inanimate objects lately. Similar to the water in Moana, the Casita shifts its architecture and helps the protagonist on her journey. Most members of the Madrigal family are given a gift that they use to help their community. Encanto is like a superhero movie without the action or villain. Lack of romance and Disney villains continue to frustrate me. Now it’s just familial love and characters who end up looking bad for the sake of tension. Encanto feels more aimless than usual with one location and an ensemble cast of 11 family members. Disney found it particularly difficult fitting so many multilayered characters into a 90 minute kid’s film.

Encanto has a mostly Colombian cast that Spanish audiences may recognize more. Brooklyn Nine-Nine actress Stephanie Beatriz voices the quirky Mirabel Madrigal. Mirabel is an awkward 15 year old teenager and the first person born to her family that doesn’t have a gift. As a Disney heroine, Mirabel is unique for her large glasses and mostly plain appearance. The movie was originally about Mirabel desperately wanting a gift, but it was appropriately changed to Mirabel feeling left out and seeking purpose in her family. The Madrigal family is made up of three generations. María Cecilia Botero voices the stern, but well-meaning family matriarch Abuela. Abuela has been holding onto the magical candle ever since her husband Pedro was killed. She was left with fraternal triplets that all received gifts from the Casita once they reached a certain age. Angie Cepeda voices Mirabel’s caring mamá Julieta who can heal injuries with her cooking. I expected Colombian cuisine and staples like coffee, but there’s not too much focus on food.

Julieta gives her daughter motherly advice along with her equally supportive husband. Fez himself Wilmer Valderrama voices Mirabel’s accident prone papá Agustin who benefits from his wife’s cooking. Mirabel’s older sisters are Isabela and Luisa. Diane Guerrero is mostly known for her TV roles, but she makes the perfect Isabela. Isabela represents the beautiful primadona golden child who has the power to make flowers bloom. Jessica Darrow has the right kind of deep voice for the buff Luisa. Luisa has super strength and does most of the heavy lifting. A big muscular woman was wierd for Disney, but she ended up being a standout character. Julieta’s sister is Mirabel’s lighter skinned Tía Pepa. Carolina Gaitán voices the high strung Pepa who has the ability to change the weather with her mood. She’s the polar opposite of her shorter Afro-Caribbean husband and Mirabel’s Tío Félix, but they’re a nice interracial couple. Lesser known singer Mauro Castillo voices the fun loving Félix who doesn’t have a gift just like his brother-in-law Agustin. Mirabel technically has people in her family she can relate to, but it’s different for people married into the family.

Mirabel’s cousins are Dolores, Camilo, and Antonio. Latin singer Adassa voices the soft spoken Dolores who has the gift of super-hearing. Dolores is my personal favorite character since her power is useful and I like the humming sound she makes. Runaways actor Rhenzy Feliz voices the mischievous Camilo who can shapeshift. Since his gift is used mostly for comic relief, Camilo isn’t given much of an arc. Child actor Ravi Cabot-Conyers voices the youngest Madrigal Antonio who receives his gift at the beginning of the movie. Dolores and Camilo are definitely mixed, but Antonio is the spitting image of his dark skinned papá. Antonio is a little sweetheart who has a close relationship with his cousin Mirabel. He worries about not getting a gift, but he’s also sad that Mirabel doesn’t have one. The gift giving ceremony is a major event involving the entire community. Antonio chooses to walk with Mirabel and Abuela officiates the ceremony by reciting the responsibilities of his gift. All members of the Madrigal family (except Mirabel) receive a magical door leading to their much bigger bedroom that represents their gift. It’s a cool Dr. Who concept, but I do wish we saw everyone’s room.

Since Antonio loves animals, he’s given the ability to talk to animals. His bedroom is a jungle treehouse filled with Colombian animals like jaguars, capybaras, and toucans. You’d think Disney’s focus on diversity would make it difficult to include Alan Tudyk, but he once again voices an animal companion. Even though Pico the toucan isn’t much of a character. Mirabel continues to feel isolated, but she finds purpose when cracks start to form in the Casita and the magic starts to go out. So Mirabel sets out on an adventure to save the miracle. The trailers are kind of false advertising since she technically never leaves home. Mirabel tries to get answers from Dolores since her hearing should be enough to solve most problems in the movie. She points Mirabel in the direction of Louisa who felt weak at the time the magic started to wear off. Louisa opens up about the pressure she feels doing all the heavy lifting and it makes her even more relatable. She points Mirabel in the direction of their Tío Bruno. Who I haven’t mentioned since we don’t talk about Bruno. Disney sure does like that name after its other explicit use in Luca.

Bruno is the mystery relative who was ostracized by the family and community for his gift of seeing the future. Mirabel journeys into his perilous sand covered tower where she finds a broken vision that shows her at the center of everything going wrong. Despite warnings from Pepa, Félix, and the rest of her family, Mirabel’s papá ends up seeing the vision and Dolores overhears everything. In terms of humor, I didn’t think Encanto was very funny, but the dinner scene is comedy gold. Dolores passes the information to everyone as they start to freak out. Colombian singer Maluma voices Isabela’s lovesick suitor Mariano who remains clueless to the family losing control of their powers. As they storm off, Mirabel follows a mischief of rats to a space between the walls. SPOILER ALERT! She chases a mystery figure who ends up being Bruno. John Leguizamo is easily the most well known actor in the movie. I knew he was Spanish, but I never realized he was Colombian. Leguizamo has the right kind of skittish voice for the reclusive Bruno. Though his “acting” and mannerisms are odd, Bruno never left since he still loves his family. Mirabel tries to convince Bruno to reinterpret his vision.

Antonio discovers them using his rat companions and gives them the space he needs to see a new vision. I’ll admit Isabela showing up in the vision came out of nowhere, but she has been not so secretly resenting her younger sister throughout the movie. Mirabel is led to Isabela’s floral bedroom where she has to reconcile with her oldest sister. Isabela also opens up by admitting she doesn’t want to marry Mariano and she doesn’t want to be perfect either. There was originally supposed to be another imperfect guy in Isabela’s life, but it would’ve been too much. Instead Isabela embraces an imperfect cactus and Mirabel for encouraging her to let loose. Encanto may not have a villain, but Abuela comes across very antagonistic when she repremends Mirabel for her actions and openly admits disappointment in her for not receiving a gift. Mirabel accuses Abuela of hurting the family and being the reason the magic is dying. It’s enough to completely destroy the Casita and extinguish the candle for good. Mirabel runs away, but she’s soon joined by Abuela who explains her entire tragic backstory and reason for holding on as much as she did. Despite the complex nature of family trauma, everything is resolved in only 15 minutes.

Abuela embraces Bruno, Bruno is embraced by his sisters, the community comes to rebuild their Casita, Dolores admits her feelings for Mariano, and Mirabel helps everyone work together without their gifts. It would’ve been a fine moral to end on, but the magic returns anyway. The only difference is Mirabel being the glue that holds her family together. Encanto was the most ambitious computer animated movie Disney made at the time. Despite the Pandemic, animators still managed to make research trips in order to get Colombian architecture and clothing right. There’s so much detail packed in every dress and pancho. Each member of the Madrigal family has an outfit that reflects their gift. Except for Mirabel who has pictures from everyone else’s gift. Character design is a bit stylized, but still recognizable to the Disney brand. Colors stand out the most with Mirabel’s side of the family dressed in cool tones like blue, indigo, and purple. Meanwhile, her cousins are dressed in warm tones like red, orange, and yellow. Bruno stands apart with his trademark green pancho.

As pleasant looking as the movie is, Encanto will mostly be remembered for its Lin-Manuel Miranda soundtrack. Like Hamilton, every song serves a purpose in moving the story along. I just wish they weren’t filled with so much slang. Despite taking place sometime in the early 1900’s, I expected Disney to once again incorporate modern slang into the movie. However, Miranda does respect Latin tradition by writing songs in English as well as Spanish. The spirited “Colombia, Mi Encanto” is the primary theme that was used in promotions of the movie. “The Family Madrigal” was deliberately written to introduce every member of the family. Though it’s an entertaining bit of exposition, it does become very rambling near the end. Similar to the final song “All of You” that incorporates every family member with several styles mashed together and characters practically talk singing the entire thing. They couldn’t resist a reference to “Let it Go,” but there are several attempts at an Oscar bait song. “Waiting on a Miracle” is Mirabel’s “I Want” song where she freezes her family to express her desire to belong. It’s very similar to Jasmine’s new solo in the live-action Aladdin.

Isabela’s song “What Else Can I Do?” is probably the most underrated. It’s a good way to show Isabela’s transition from perfect appearances to messy colors and mismatched flowers. Though it’s Louisa’s song “Surface Pressure” that ended up making a stronger impression. Louisa carrying her family is represented by action scenes that include Hercules, the Titanic, and dancing donkeys. The beat is infectious, but the “tick, tick” lyrics are suspiciously similar to Tick, Tick… Boom! The only song that truly deserved Oscar attention was “Dos Oruguitas.” A Spanish folk song that beautifully depicts Abuela escaping the war and losing the man she loves. An English version can be heard during the credits, but it’s better in Spanish. Yet every song pales in comparison to the impact of “We Don’t Talk About Bruno.” Bruno isn’t an antagonist, but the ominous lyrics and sinister imagery is as good as classic Disney villain songs.

Pepa and Félix talk about their hurricane wedding, Dolores mentions hearing Bruno in the walls, Camilo gives him an unflattering description, Isabela brings up her perfect life, and Mirabel pieces together the prophecy all before dinner. The song gets more catchy everytime I hear it, but I still don’t think it’s a perfect song. It’s another song that mashes together several styles and not every portion is easy to remember. There’s a difference between a popular song and songs that deserve a Best Original Song nomination. The Oscars made the mistake of performing the song anyway and disappointing countless viewers with a lame remix. “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” did receive unprecedented attention on the US Billboard Hot 100. “Surface Pressure” reached No. 8, but “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” managed to top the charts at No. 1. Encanto is like the Madrigal family, not perfect, but it means well.

96. Encanto

Mirabel and her family

Silenzio Bruno!

Luca is the most easy going Pixar movie I’ve ever seen. Italian Pixar animation director Enrico Casarosa made a splash in 2011 with the short film La Luna that premiered alongside Brave. The short was a charming Italian fantasy between three generations tasked with cleaning up stars on the moon. 10 years later, Casarosa was finally able to direct his passion project. Luca is a deeply personal story based on the director’s childhood summers in the Italian Riviera. After Ratatouille, Coca, and Soul, I wasn’t surprised to learn there would be another Disney & Pixar film centered around a specific culture. Italy is my favorite foreign country, but Luca didn’t feel like a Pixar movie until sea monsters were added.

Luca asks the question, what if sea monsters became human on dry land? Imagine The Little Mermaid if the heart of the story was male friendship. Of course modern audiences immediately assumed Luca was a kid friendly Call Me By Your Name, but sea monsters are just a metaphor for being an outsider. Innocent summer friendships are something most people can relate to. I was annoyed when Soul was released straight to Disney+, but it didn’t surprise me when Luca was given the same treatment. Fortunately, Luca was still nominated for Best Animated Feature since a short and simple Italian vacation was the most perfetto movie for people during the Pandemic…

48. Luca

Luca and Alberto as sea monsters

Luca is another Pixar movie without a short attached. Though intended for theaters, I’m not sure they ever had a short in mind. Luca begins under the sea with the titular sea monster Luca Paguro. Like Ariel, Luca is a kind hearted dreamer who becomes fascinated by everyday objects that sink down to the ocean. In this world, sea monsters are feared by humans who hunt them on the surface. They were inspired by sea monsters from Italian folklore and given a colorful design consisting of tails, fins, and scales. Similar to La Luna, Luca is a lot more stylized with round simplistic character designs reminiscent of Aardman claymation. Pixar continues to outdo itself with breathtaking computer animated water that’s as crisp and inviting as it is during the summer. After their success with Finding Nemo and Finding Dory, you’d think the underwater world would be the most immersive, but it’s actually the most boring. Since Luca is a shepherd boy who herds goatfish.

The beginning of Onward wasn’t very funny either, but at least it got funny when the adventure got going. It only takes 12 minutes for Luca to start getting very funny. Alberto Scorfano is the troublemaking sea monster who took objects from humans in the cold opening. Although the original concept made it seem like Luca was a human who befriended a sea monster, it makes more sense for both boys to be sea monsters. They’re still an unlikely Pixar duo since Luca is shy and sheltered, while Alberto is outgoing and adventurous. Alberto teaching Luca to walk like a human is especially funny. Of course Luca and Alberto’s friendship would be nothing without two of the best child actors working in Hollywood. Luca voice actor Jacob Tremblay has a lot of experience being excited about the outside world. Alberto voice actor Jack Dylan Grazer has a lot of experience with secretly vulnerable characters who overcompensate by acting like a know-it-all. Alberto is still a good friend who teaches Luca to loosen up by telling his inner voice to “Silenzio Bruno!”

Most of the respectable cast isn’t Italian and I’m glad no one made a big deal about it. Maya Rudolph is Luca’s overprotective mama Daniela who wants to keep her son away from the dangerous surface. Jim Gaffigan is his papa Lorenzo who goes along with whatever his wife says. Sandy Martin is Luca’s grandma who understands his curiosity. Luca sneaks off with Alberto to experience the mostly incorrect joys of being human. The sea monster world is fine, but it’s obvious that the human world is meant to be the real dream location. Vespa’s are suddenly the coolest thing ever after Alberto and Luca become obsessed with the Italian scooter. They build a makeshift Vespa at Alberto’s lighthouse home and dream about riding one around the world. Luca’s parents threaten to send him away when they learn about his secret trips to the surface. Sacha Baron Cohen is a hilarious scene stealer as Luca’s creepy anglerfish Uncle Ugo who promises to take him to the deep dark trench.

So Luca and Alberto run away to the Italian fishing town Portorosso. Pixar animators went the extra mile by studying the Italian Riviera on a research trip. Luca is reminiscent of a Federico Fellini movie, but the mythical sea monsters are more akin to Hayao Miyazaki. Seeing all the ways Luca and Alberto narrowly avoid getting wet is a particularly funny running gag. Luca’s parents do exactly that when they search for their son on the surface. You’re guaranteed to get hungry when Luca and Alberto enjoy gelato and delizioso pesto pasta for the first time. Luca is a carefree experience that benefits from a straightforward Pixar villain. Ercole Visconti is just a pathetic grown up bully who fawns over his Vespa and treats his cronies like dirt. He picks on Luca and Alberto for being outsiders, but the young Giulia Marcovaldo steps in to help. Luca isn’t entirely driven by male friendship since Giulia comes between them. Emma Berman is enthusiastic as an underdog who wants to take down Ercole in the Portorosso Cup.

The three part relay race includes a swimming portion, an eating portion, and a biking portion. Since it’s their best shot at winning a Vespa, Luca and Alberto join Giulia in the race. Luca trains for the biking portion, Alberto trains for the eating portion, and Giulia handles the swimming since neither of them can do it without transforming. Mrs. Marsigliese sponsors the race that requires an entry fee. Luca and Alberto earn extra money working with Giulia’s intimidating papa Massimo. He has the thick eyebrows and mustache of several cartoon fathers, but Massimo stands out with his one arm and big heart. Giulia’s mustachioed cat Machiavelli is a lot more suspicious of them being sea monsters. Another funny running gag before their situation gets serious. Despite being a sea monster, Luca wants to go to school with Giulia. As they grow closer, Alberto tries to hold onto their dream of owning a Vespa. SPOILER ALERT! I was shocked when Luca decided to turn on his best friend after Alberto outs himself as a sea monster to Giulia. Ercole drives him away and Luca is left to face the consequences.

I’m glad it didn’t take long for Giulia to discover Luca was a sea monster as well. She stands by her friends, but Alberto isn’t so forgiving. Turns out Alberto was abandoned by his papa and Luca tries to fix their friendship by winning the Vespa. Luca competes in the race by himself, but rain slows him down. A forgiving Alberto saves Luca by outing himself to the entire village, but Luca returns the favor by revealing himself as well. Giulia manages to save both of them from Ercole and Massimo makes the first step by accepting the sea monsters. Luca’s parents reunite with him and more sea monsters are revealed in the town. Although they won the race, the tear worthy moment comes when Alberto sells the Vespa to help Luca go to school with Giulia. Luca bids an emotional farewell to Alberto, but you can always see more in the Disney+ short Ciao Alberto. Luca ends with one of several Italian songs throughout the movie. In a time where Pixar movies prioritize emotional complexity and deep themes, sometimes it’s nice just to relax and spend time in Italy with sea monsters. Though I wasn’t expecting much, Luca ended up being the closest thing to a classic Pixar movie I’ve seen in a long time. Ciao!

49. Luca

Luca and Alberto as humans

Be Brave, Be Strong, Never Waver

Raya and the Last Dragon is the last thing I expected to see from Disney. Since the last two Walt Disney Animation Studios films were Ralph Breaks the Internet and Frozen II, I informally referred to it as the sequel era. Raya and the Last Dragon is the first original Disney movie since Moana in 2016. Now the only thing that distinguishes this era are the primarily female production teams led by newly appointed chief creative officer Jennifer Lee. Like Moana, Raya and the Last Dragon focuses on another culture that was yet to receive the Disney treatment. As the fifty-ninth Disney animated movie, Raya and the Last Dragon is one of three recent Asian influenced Disney projects including the live-action Mulan and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.

I can’t say I’m surprised, because the 2020’s continue to push diversity regardless of quality. Unlike Mulan, Raya and Last Dragon is entirely original with influence from Southeast Asian culture. Specifically the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Brunei, and Timor-Leste. Disney went so far as to establish a Southeast Asia Story Trust made up of consultants from each country. The writers are Asian, but co-directors Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada are not. Despite centering around a fictional country, people still complained about the cast not being Southeast Asian enough. You just can’t seem to please anyone these days. Raya and the Last Dragon was nominated for Best Animated Feature, but its cultural impact is debatable…

93. Raya and the Last Dragon

Raya encounters Sisu

Raya and the Last Dragon is basically Disney’s attempt at Avatar: The Last Airbender. You’d think I’d be won over by the martial arts influence, but I’m kind of tired of Disney heading in this direction. I’d rather have an original take on a classic fairy tale than something entirely original. I had no immediate interest in Raya and the Last Dragon, but I was glad they didn’t dump it on Disney+ like Pixar. Of course the Pandemic affected production and the movie was moved from November 2020 to March 2021. Unlike Mulan (2020), Raya and the Last Dragon was the first Disney movie to be released simultaneously in theaters and with Disney+ Premier Access. My brother and I saw it in theaters alongside the animated short Us Again. I think I prefer the romantic dance short over the movie I saw. Since its original, Raya and the Last Dragon has a tendency to over explain with a complicated plot that may go over kids heads. Making the same mistake that Frozen II made.

All Southeast Asian countries are merged into the fictional land of Kumandra. Divine magical dragons based on Nāga bring water to Kumandra, but everything changed when the ancient Druun attacked. The titular last dragon uses a gem that stops the Druun, but leaves Kumandra unprotected. Since a boring black & purple cloud is the antagonist, Raya and the Last Dragon is yet another Disney movie where human discord is the real enemy. It’s another heavy handed message, but I’m not surprised at this point. Kumandra is literally divided between parts of a dragon called Heart, Tail, Talon, Spine, and Fang. I honestly don’t think Disney expects the audience to remember each land, since they’re all so standard and lacking a unique personality. Making a circle with their hands is kind of memorable though. Heart is the peaceful home of the dragon gem and the titular Princess Raya. It’s easy to forget Raya and the Last Dragon is technically a Disney Princess film. It’s not a musical and there’s so much focus on action. It’s more like something from the Post-Renaissance with James Newton Howard composing for the first time since Dinosaur, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, and Treasure Planet.

The different direction turns Raya into “strong Disney heroine #21.” I’m fine with female empowerment, but Mulan did it just fine 23 years ago. Raya is the second Asian Disney Princess, but her look is distinctly Southeast Asian. She’s a warrior with long hair, attractive features, a red cloak, and her signature salakot hat. Raya was originally voiced by the half Filipina Cassie Steele, but she was replaced by the Vietnamese Kelly Marie Tran instead. They claim it was done because Raya was originally too stoic, but I think Disney just wanted to give Tran a second chance after the backlash of The Last Jedi. Raya is still mostly stoic and kind of nondescript in my opinion. As a child, Raya has a traditional topknot and lives with her loving ba Chief Benja voiced by Daniel Dae Kim. Benja teaches his daughter to be a warrior using a variety of martial arts techniques. The fighting is well put together, but I can’t say it’s anything I haven’t seen before. There’s also heavy emphasis on Southeast Asian cuisine that’s also been done so many times by now. The signature dish is the Tom Yum soup made up of ingredients from each tribe that Benji uses as an olive branch.

Raya’s only quirk is being a “dragon nerd” which she shares with Fang girl Namaari that she befriends. Since Raya is yet another Disney Princess without a Prince, people once again interpret their relationship as romantic. I’ll admit it’s harder to argue considering Namaari’s haircut, but she does betray Raya at the first chance of getting the gem for her kingdom. Further division causes the gem to split apart with each tribe taking a piece for themselves. The conflict unleashes the Druun and Raya’s ba is turned to stone. 6 years later, Raya is an adult seeking help from the last dragon Sisu. Raya’s animal companion is her rideable giant pill bug armadillo Tuk Tuk. It was the only character that Alan Tudyk could voice since he’s not Asian, but now has to be in every Disney animated movie. Creatures range from giant Serlot cats to beetles with the immature name Toot & Boom. Raya’s first stop is the desert Tail where she revives Sisu using the gem and water. Like most Disney movies, the comic relief doesn’t show up right away. Sisu is a Southeast Asian dragon crossed with a fuzzy aqua blue My Little Pony character. Between Raya and the Last Dragon and Pete’s Dragon, Disney doesn’t seem to think a scaly dragon can be friendly.

I was willing to accept Sisu at first, but casting Awkwafina made it very difficult. I know I complain about her a lot, but her obnoxious voice gets very grating when she’s the primary comic relief. People comparing her favorably to Robin Williams as the Genie was the only thing that made me laugh. Raya and the Last Dragon didn’t really make me laugh at all. Sisu’s jokes are way too modern with cringy slang like “besties” and “booty.” At least the Genie had an excuse to reference the modern world. “Binturi” is the only slang term exclusive to the movie. Namaari is a Binturi who hunts down Raya on her quest to stop the Druun. Gemma Chan voices the adult Namaari who isn’t exactly a villain. She’s mostly influenced by her ma voiced by Sandra Oh who wants to bring respect to their fortified kingdom of Fang. Sisu isn’t what Raya was expecting since she isn’t as powerful as the legends say. She’s just a good swimmer who inherits the magic of her brothers and sisters who turned to stone.

I know she’s a comedian, but I think Awkwafina is better at Sisu’s dramatic moments. She’s a compassionate dragon who pushes the film’s message to trust everyone you meet. It doesn’t always hold up when Raya and Sisu are constantly being double crossed by people like the Lucille Soong voiced Talon chieftess. As they collect each piece of the gem, Sisu gains the power to glow, create mist, bring rain, and shapeshift into a human. Her human appearance is an odd mix of dragon features. She needs to stay in disguise when Raya and Sisu meet several forgettable traveling companions. Before leaving Tail, they find Boun. Izaac Wang voices the confident young boy who runs a shrimp boat restaurant and lost his entire family to the Druun. Talon is a waterfront marketplace where they find Little Noi and her monkey-like ongis companions. Thalia Tran voices the toddler con artist who lost her ma to the Druun. A baby that does martial arts isn’t as entertaining as it should be.

The final traveling companion is from the icy bamboo forest Spine. It’s pretty on the nose for Benedict Wong to voice Tong, a burly warrior who lost his family and entire village to the Druun. Boun, Little Noi, and Tong left so little impression that I forgot all of their names as soon as I left the theater. I know they’re only in the movie to represent the five lands of Kumandra. Sisu reveals herself as a dragon to the group and Namaari who’s in awe every time she sees her. Since the last gem piece is heavily guarded in Fang, Sisu recommends a peaceful exchange that Raya reluctantly accepts. SPOILER ALERT! Namaari betrays Raya once again and the latter ends up looking bad when her distrust causes the former to accidentally kill Sisu. Her death causes all the water to dry up and the Druun to nearly take over the world.

Raya and Namaari fight to the death, but Raya ultimately chooses to trust Namaari the same way Sisu’s siblings trusted her. I know everyone turning to stone is supposed to be a powerful moment, but it didn’t really affect me. Similar to how I felt when Sisu is revived and Kumandra is finally brought together with families reuniting. I completely forgot the song “Lead the Way” that plays during the credits. Though I didn’t care much for the story, the computer animation is breathtaking. Water is especially realistic and every Southeast Asian inspired location or article of clothing is packed with detail. Southeast Asian patterns and 2D animation are also utilized for specific scenes. Character animation is fairly basic compared to the far more cartoony dragons. The animation is especially impressive when you realize it was all done remotely during the Pandemic. I’m glad I could see Raya and the Last Dragon on the big screen, but it’s just not for me.

94. Raya and the Last Dragon

Raya faces Namaari

What Day is Today?

Scrooge: A Christmas Carol is more “Bah, Humbug” than it should’ve been. Merry Christmas everyone! The most recent adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic novella is sadly the second worst one I’ve seen. It’s a computer animated Netflix movie that looks more like one of those annual Christmas commercials. Scrooge: A Christmas Carol seemed unremarkable until I learned it was a reimagining of the 1970 musical with the same screenwriter. Except that those familiar songs are nothing compared to how they were in the original and a lot of them are replaced by less memorable songs. The biggest problem is just how off script the movie is. So many iconic lines are left out or butchered for no good reason. Though it takes place in the 1800’s, the cast is diverse and characters talk like it’s modern day.

Ebenezer Scrooge is far too soft and they once again make the 1997 mistake of giving the old miser a kindhearted dog named Prudence to care for. Fred is renamed Harry like the 1970 version, but he’s much more jovial. Scrooge rebuffs him, denies idiosyncratic charity collects, and keeps Tom Jenkins in debt. Yet Scrooge feels too remorseful of his actions. Luke Evans uses an elderly voice, but he sounds too youthful while singing. Jonathan Pryce is a more goulsih Jacob Marley with coins over his eyes. I didn’t like how cosmic and otherworldly the Ghost of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come were depicted. Olivia Colman is too mocking and annoying as a literal living wax candle. Past actually rips off the line from The Lion King about how the past can hurt. Scrooge’s past is more like the 2004 musical where his father is in prison for debt. Fan is renamed Jen for some reason and Isabel is made the daughter of old Fezziwig voiced by Jessie Buckley.

Another change is making Scrooge responsible for Bob Cratchit’s poverty when he was a child. Present is traditional, but he rips off Aladdin by saying his slumber has been disturbed. He’s also accompanied by fairy type creatures. Harry’s party and the Cratchit family dinner play out like the 70’s movie. Except that Tiny Tim’s sister is less eager to sing with him. At least “God bless us, everyone” is unaffected. Present transforms into Yet to Come in a blaze of fire that turns the fairies into demons. The future is almost exactly like the 70’s musical, but Scrooge’s dog undermines the impact of his death. Christmas morning is also too different with Scrooge talking to an older man from his window and getting street urchins to set up a party in his house. Rather than go to the people, the people come to Scrooge. Scrooge: A Christmas Carol is not the best way for children to be introduced to the classic story.

Scrooge A Christmas Carol

Ebenezer Scrooge watches the clock

Do a Little Good

Spirited is an overstuffed Christmas extravaganza. Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol has been modernized before in Scrooged and other lesser known adaptations, but nothing like this. Spirited is a modern day musical comedy that treats haunting like a business. The Ghost of Jacob Marley, Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come are all part of an annual Christmas operation where they haunt anyone in need of redemption. I wasn’t sure I’d accept something so different, but I found myself laughing early on. Spirited has the combined comedy of Will Ferrell and Ryan Reynolds.

It’s Ferrell’s best Christmas performance since Elf as the unfulfilled Ghost of Christmas Present. Most of the time he’s dressed in a green suit, but he does go full Dickens later on. Sunita Mani is a horny Ghost of Christmas Past who swoons over their next perp. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is a standard silent reaper with the unexpected voice of Tracy Morgan when he’s off duty. Since Patrick Page is Marley, I knew Ebenezer Scrooge had to play a part in a not too surprising way. Present is determined to redeem the unredeemable Clint Briggs. As much as I like Reynolds, he is easy to dislike as a media consultant who uses cancel culture to get ahead.

Spirited is a little too modern, but a reimaged Tiny Tim being the victim of cyberbullying does make sense. Present spends a lot of his time with Clint who refuses to change no matter what. Clint’s past relationship with his late sister touches him, but he’s also trying to change Present at the same time. They become bros and Present ends up falling for his Bob Cratchit type assistant Kimberly played by Octavia Spencer. The ending was the only natural way the story could turn out. In terms of songs, it’s a little annoying that everyone knows they’re in a musical, but “Good Afternoon,” “Do a Little Good,” and “Ripple” stood out. Spirited is a fresh take with more good than “Bah, Humbug.”

Spirited

The Ghost of Christmas Present haunts Clint Briggs

Imperius Rex!

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is a very difficult sequel to get right. As the thirtieth installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever was faced with continuing the legacy of the Black Panther without T’Challa. Although I continue to have complicated feelings about the success of Black Panther, there’s no denying the impact that it left on superhero movies and black cinema. Of course Marvel Studios wanted a sequel as soon as possible. After a record breaking box-office gross, the highest Rotten Tomatoes score for an MCU film, and their first Best Picture nomination, I wasn’t sure Black Panther II could measure up to the original. Everything changed with the tragic passing of Chadwick Boseman in 2020. I was stunned when I first heard the news.

Like so many Black Panther fans, I wondered about the character’s future. There’s no right answer to such an unfortunate circumstance, but I’m still very much on the side of #RecastTChalla. T’Challa is Black Panther and I believe producer Kevin Feige’s decision not to recast was a mistake. Director Ryan Coogler was put in a very difficult position to rework a nearly completed screenplay. Although I had every reason to be nervous, the title Wakanda Forever seemed promising. I was even more won over by what may be one of the greatest teaser trailers I’ve ever seen. The teaser makes perfect use of a somber “No Woman, No Cry” cover by Tems that becomes progressively epic and hopeful. I knew Wakanda Forever would be an emotional tribute, but I was more excited to see the long-awaited MCU debut of Namor the Sub-Mariner…

63. Black Panther Wakanda Forever

The new Black Panther arrives

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is officially the final movie in Phase Four of the MCU, but I’m not sure that was always the case. The Pandemic made the release schedule very messy and several projects had to be rearranged or pushed back. Without an Avengers movie, Wakanda Forever became the epic conclusion instead. And I do mean epic; with a staggering 2 hour & 41 minute runtime. One of my biggest complaints about Phase Four is the inconsistent length of each movie. Black Widow and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings were longer than they had to be, but Eternals was the biggest offender. Spider-Man: No Way Home was also long, but I enjoyed every minute of it. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and Thor: Love and Thunder overcompensated by making their movies way too short. Although I was never bored like I was with Eternals, Wakanda Forever is still too long and a bit aimless at times. Lack of a definitive main character put too much emphasis on a supporting cast that was still grieving the loss of their star Chadwick Boseman. Letitia Wright is given top-billing since Shuri is arguably the lead character.

MAJOR SPOILER ALERT! from here on out. Despite being the plucky comic relief in Black Panther, the scientifically proficient Shuri desperately prays to Bast in an effort to save her big brother T’Challa. It’s a disorienting sequence where Shuri attempts to replicate the heart-shaped herb that Killmonger destroyed. As Queen Romanda enters her daughter’s laboratory, she announces the terrible news that her son has joined the ancestors. T’Challa’s off-screen death is caused by an unknown illness that mirrors Boseman’s private battle with colon cancer. Boseman managed to make 7 films at the time of his illness: Marshall, Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, Avengers: Endgame, 21 Bridges, Da 5 Bloods, and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. He was a real life superhero, but using his death as a plot device feels disrespectful to such a beloved character. Though not as disrespectful as rearranging the Academy Awards with the possibility of Boseman winning a posthumous Oscar. There are so many talented black actors who could’ve carried on the legacy that Boseman forged, but it’s too late to recast.

Death seemed to follow T’Challa in every movie he appeared in. When King T’Chaka was assassinated, T’Challa said death was not the end for his people. In Black Panther, Killmonger presumably killed his cousin, only for T’Challa to triumphantly declare himself not to be dead. T’Challa was eventually snapped out of existence in the war against Thanos, but he was the first to return through a portal. Even Boseman’s final voice role in What If…? spoke about death. Wakanda Forever was meant to follow King T’Challa trying to readjust after being gone for 5 years, but it was never meant to be. T’Challa is given a tearful and celebratory Wakandan funeral with all of its attendants dressed in white African garments. A moment of silence is given to the Marvel Studios logo that pays tribute to Chadwick Boseman the same way Disney+ retroactively did for the first movie. It was so quiet that I could hear everyone in the theater start to tear up. Wakanda Forever is very somber and emotional throughout, but I didn’t cry like most people watching it. Of course it was heart wrenching, but I already mourned the loss of Boseman 2 years ago.

Though there are much needed moments of levity, the heavy tone is a far cry from the rest of the MCU. From the silly Thor: Love and Thunder to the laughable She-Hulk: Attorney at Law. The horror themed Marvel Special Werewolf by Night is the only thing that can be taken seriously beforehand. Wakanda Forever is a step down from its predecessor, but it does retain a lot of the cast and crew that made Black Panther so groundbreaking. Ryan Coogler moved the plot in the best possible direction. Angela Basest delivers an Oscar worthy performance as the reinstated Queen of Wakanda. 1 year later, Queen Romanda speaks at a United Nations summit. Despite promising to share resources with the rest of the world, Wakanda chooses not to share Vibranium with invading countries. The Dora Milaje make a grand entrance in order to stop French mercenaries from stealing it. Without a Black Panther, General Okoye ends up doing most of the action, but Danai Gurira is more than up to the task. Okoye is given her own arc and emphasis is also placed on new Dora Milaje member Aneka played by Michaela Coel.

Aneka is in a lesbian relationship with Ayo just like the comics, but it’s another blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scene that can be easily edited out. Florence Kasumba has been Ayo ever since Captain America: Civil War. She’s been making appearances ever since, but The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was her biggest role. Romanda returns to Wakanda the same way her son did in the first movie. Oscar winning composer Ludwig Göransson returns with more African beats and other appropriate themes. The Queen Mother visits her daughter on the anniversary of T’Challa’s passing. Shuri has matured to the point of focusing on scientific study and advancement of her country. Her appearance is also more mature with a more androgynous hairstyle compared to the ones she had before. I never realized Trevor Noah was the voice of the Wakandan A.I. from the first movie, but he returns in a more prominent role as Griot. Though Shuri has developed a few interesting pieces of technology, nothing stands out the way it did in the first movie. Mother and daughter share a quiet moment in the African savannah where Romanda burns her ceremonial funeral robes in order to grieve. Though Shuri is less eager to accept what she can’t change. As next in line to the throne, Wright steps up her performance physically and dramatically.

Though it isn’t the same without T’Challa, the Vibranium race is enough to bring out a new threat. After 83 years, Namor the Sub-Mariner finally made his live-action debut. First appearing as far back as the 1939 Motion Picture Funnies Weekly #1 before officially debuting in Marvel Comics #1. Bill Everett created the water based Namor in response to the fire based Human Torch. Although Aquaman is considered to be the quintessential superpowered King of Atlantis, the Sub-Mariner predates the DC hero by 2 years. Namor is the first Marvel superhero and the first comic book antihero at the same time. During the Golden Age, Namor was often presented as a villain to the surface world, but his nobility kept him on the side of good. Namor fought in World War II alongside Captain America and the Human Torch. They were Marvel’s first trinity, but Namor’s role continued to change overtime. During the Silver Age, Namor was still around thanks to his immortality. Although Stan Lee had no role in creating the Sub-Mariner, he did enjoy writing Namor with more Shakespearean dialect that included his famous catchphrase “Imperius Rex!” In his long history, Namor has played a role in every Marvel superheroes journey.

Namor has gone against the Fantastic Four and been infatuated with Sue Storm. Since Namor is half human-half Atlantean, that technically makes him Marvel’s first mutant before the introduction of the X-Men. Namor has been part of the Avengers, the Defenders, the Invaders, the Illuminati, and just about every other team you can think of. So it’s kind of shocking that it took so long to bring Namor to the big screen. A live-action Sub-Mariner TV series was planned in the 50’s starring Richard Egan, but nothing ever came of it. Another live-action series was intended for the 70’s, but it was scrapped thanks to a similar series called Man from Atlantis. Namor only had animated appearances including a starring role in The Marvel Super Heroes segment “The Sub-Mariner.” Though his theme song is the least memorable. Namor continued to make major guest appearances before suddenly disappearing from Marvel media in 2006. Namor: Sub-Mariner or The Sub-Mariner is a movie Marvel intended to make as far back as 1997. When Marvel foolishly sold their rights to Universal, they held up the character for over 2 decades. Making bad adaptations is one thing, but it’s a new low for a studio to deliberately hold onto a character without ever making a movie. I had a feeling Marvel Studios regained the rights, but it was never outright confirmed until Wakanda Forever.

A S.H.I.E.L.D. map in Iron Man 2 made it seem like Atlantis was on their radar. Then fans thought Namor might appear in Captain America: The First Avenger, but that was just a rumor. The closest thing to a reference was Okoye mentioning an underground deep sea earthquake in Endgame. They considered using Namor in Multiverse of Madness, but that wouldn’t have been the best introduction. Atlantis finally makes its presence known, but it’s now called Talokan. Although I welcomed Namor into the MCU, I had mixed feelings about certain deviations from the source material. Mexican actor Tenoch Huerta plays Namor. Though he’s been acting since 2006, Huerta is generally unknown to American audiences. He was an unconventional choice, but I expected Marvel to once again capitalize on diversity. Since there are barely any prominent Hispanic superheroes in Marvel comics, Namor and the underwater civilization of Talokan was inspired by Mayan culture. Though I don’t think the name change was necessary, it actually makes a lot of sense for Talokan to be an ancient Mesoamerican kingdom. The title Sub-Mariner is never used, but his people do refer to him as the feathered serpent god Kukulkan. In the comics, Namor is white, but he’s always had exotic features. Most people assumed an Asian actor would play him, but Shang-Chi made that less likely.

Coogler was smart to embrace the unique aspects of the Sub-Mariner. Namor is known for his pointy ears and sharp eyebrows that predate Spock by several decades. His most defining feature is a set of ankle wings that give him the ability to fly. The physics never make sense, but I’m so happy to finally see it play out on screen. Since Wakanda and Atlantis have always had a complicated history, it made sense to make Namor the main villain of the movie. Wakanda is blamed for an attack on CIA agents hoping to find Vibranium deep beneath the Ocean. Like the comics, Homo mermanus have blue skin and can only breath underwater. Advanced technology is used to help them breath on dry land. Talokanil people are also denser and more formidable with weapons like water bombs and mind controlling capabilities. The attack scene is excessively dark, but it’s great seeing Namor in the shadows. He takes out several helicopters including one that contains Black Widow voice actress Lake Bell as a CIA scientist. Namor makes his presence known to Shuri and Romanda as he rises from the Wakandan ocean using his wing feet. Though I was skeptical, Tenoch Huerta is more than worthy of being Namor. He very much captures the Sub-Mariner’s conflicting ideologies as an antihero who protects his kingdom, but kills when he has to.

Huerta is charismatic and his thick accent is easy to understand. Although since Namor is a walking shirtless scene, he could’ve worked out a little harder. I also wish he didn’t have facial hair. Oscar winning costume designer Ruth E. Carter returns to create more colorful African garments along with several Mesoamerican outfits. Namor retains his trademark green fish scale speedo, golden belt, and wristbands. He’s also given leg gauntlets, beaded necklaces, jade earrings, and a nose ring. The face jewelry is too much for me, but it’s not as distracting as I thought it would be. Namor gives Wakanda an ultimatum to turn over the scientist responsible for a Vibranium tracking machine or face eternal war. Queen Romanda and members of each tribe are brought together in the throne room to discuss their next move. Merchant Tribe Elder Dorothy Steel sadly passed away before the movie’s release. Winston Duke successfully lightens the mood as the Jabari Tribe enter the room with M’Baku chomping on a carrot and calling Okoye a “bald headed demon.” Okoye is the one who recommends taking Shuri to America in search of the scientist and Romanda reluctantly accepts. Their search is enough to bring back Martin Freeman as CIA agent Everett K. Ross. He never sets foot in Wakanda, but he does help Shuri and Okoye with confidential information.

The American scientist is revealed to be Riri Williams. As much as I loved seeing the oldest Marvel superhero get much needed attention, I also had to deal with seeing the newest Marvel superhero. Ironheart was created by Brian Michael Bendis for the 2016 Invincible Iron Man Vol. 3 #7 & #9. Regardless of race, I can’t stress enough how little I care about a 6 year old Marvel superhero. Riri Williams is a young black scientific prodigy from Chicago who attends MIT in Boston and modeled her suit of armor after her eventual mentor Tony Stark. Her origin is kept intact, but Stark is downplayed for obvious reasons. Dominique Thorne adds Wakanda Forever to her impressive list of black movies that include If Beale Street Could Talk and Judas and the Black Messiah. Thorne was meant to be a source of comic relief similar to Spider-Man, but her sense of humor is very hit or miss. Riri’s introduction is almost a direct ripoff of Peter Parker’s introduction in Civil War. We see her backpack from behind and she’s confronted by another scientific genius/potential mentor. Not to mention her Ironheart YouTube videos and homework excuse that are also exactly the same. Although introducing Ironheart in Wakanda Forever kind of defeats the purpose of her being young, gifted, and black, it does make sense for her to meet Princess Shuri. Both are black female scientists, but Shuri has an African point of view and Riri has an African American point of view. Similar to the relationship between T’Challa and Killmonger, but a lot less sinister.

Riri only retaliates when Okoye attempts to take her by force. She takes them to her garage where she keeps all of her research, blueprints, and the car that belonged to her late father. Although Riri is responsible for the CIA’s Vibranium detecting machine, her presence in the movie feels unnecessary and very similar to Multiverse of Madness. Like America Chavez, Riri is protected by the heroes and sought after by the villain. Unlike Scarlet Witch, Namor’s desire to protect his underwater civilization from detection is enough to excuse some of his villainous actions. Similar to Iron Man, Riri powers up with a clunky Mark I Ironheart suit that she uses against the FBI. She even gets disoriented flying into the atmosphere just like Tony did in his first movie. Her armor is a mostly exposed suit with goggles, a booster pack, repulsor weapon, and heart shaped arc reactor. The car chase is similar to Black Panther with Shuri on a motorcycle and Okoye driving a car while using her spear as a weapon. The FBI is overshadowed by returning Talokanil foot soldiers. They plan to kill Riri, but Okoye puts up a strong fight against Namora and Attuma. In the comics, Namora is the cousin of Namor and Attuma is his long-standing archenemy. Namora and Attuma are portrayed by unknown Hispanic actors Mabel Cadena and Alex Livinalli respectively. Neither of them have much personality, but I suspect big things for them in the future.

Okoye is overpowered and Shuri willingly goes to see Namor with Riri by her side. Though they speak a Talokanil language, Shuri uses a universal translator to communicate. The loss of her daughter and entire family culminates in a powerful speech by Romanda. Resulting in a remorseful Okoye being stripped of her title as Dora Milaje. An unexpected moment where Okoye’s treacherous husband W’Kabi is mentioned. Since Daniel Kaluuya was busy with Nope, W’Kabi is currently in prison for siding with Killmonger. Ross discovers Shuri’s kimoyo beads on a bridge where he’s confronted by the new director of the CIA. Julia Louis-Dreyfus makes a surprise appearance as Contessa Valentina Allegra de la Fontaine. After recruiting antiheroes in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and Black Widow, Val is given a slightly more prominent role. Though she feels especially out of place and shoehorned into a nearly 3 hour movie. Val randomly mentions being married to Ross and she eventually arrests her ex-husband for conspiring with the Wakandans. Romanda tries to track Shuri using the kimoyo beads that Ross found and she enlists the help of War Dog spy Nakia. Despite being the second billed actress in the movie, Lupita Nyong’o doesn’t appear for awhile.

Turns out Nakia has been living in Haiti ever since the Blip and death of her beloved T’Challa. Nakia now has long dreadlocks and a specially designed minisub that she uses to track down Shuri and Riri. A more diplomatic Namor recounts his origin to Shuri on dry land. Including the entire backstory of Namor is another reason for the movie’s length, but it was a necessary addition. In the comics, Namor McKenzie is the son of a human sea captain and an Atlantean noblewoman. In the movie, Namor’s pregnant mother Fen and Talokanil people ingest a similar Vibranium infused plant that turns their skin blue and takes away their ability to breath air. Though they appear normal underwater, Namor is a confirmed mutant that brings us one step closer to X-Men in the MCU. He was born with normal skin, pointed ears, and wings on his feet. His mutation also gave him an unnatural life-span from the year 1571 to present. Namor’s lack of presence in the MCU makes a lot more sense than the Eternals. His hatred for surface-dwellers stems from the Spanish conquistadors that gave his people disease. They gave him the name Namor which apparently means “the boy without love.” Shuri begins to understand Namor before diving into his underwater kingdom. After Aquaman, it was hard to compete with their depiction of Atlantis.

I didn’t think it was possible, but Talokan is too dark and generic looking with Talokanil residents awkwardly swimming around. I’m just glad they can talk underwater without any unnecessary changes. Oscar winning production designer Hannah Beachler returns, but sometimes it’s difficult to see her work. Namor does have a cool throne made from a jawbone and an over-the-top feathered headdress complete with comic accurate red cape and spear. Although it feels unnecessarily derivative, Talokan has many similarities to Wakanda. Their nation is also rich with Vibranium that they use in their clothing and weaponry. Rather than cross their arms, Talokanil people make a ball that looks suspiciously similar to “Baby Shark.” Namor attempts to convince the emotionally vulnerable Shuri to side with him in his war with the surface world. He even threatens the Queen on a beach if they refuse or attempt rescue. Nakia rescues Shuri and Riri and ignites a war between Wakanda and Talokan by killing one of their own. The attack on Wakanda is ripped straight out of the comics with Namor drowning the country. In battle, Namor is stronger than a whale, he can swim anywhere, he can breathe underwater, and go flying through the air. M’Baku discovers firsthand that Namor is potentially as strong as the Hulk. I’ll admit I did root for Namor at times, but he does cause a lot of chaos. Though she’s now a citizen, Okoye helps Nakia in rescuing Wakandan people and giving them shelter in Jabari Land.

Namor flies directly to the Wakandan throne and goes one step too far by drowning the room with Romanda and Riri in it. Romanda makes the ultimate sacrifice to save Riri, but she’s unable to save herself. Leaving Shuri to mourn the loss of another family member. Though her death was a bit telegraphed, Shuri has now dealt with as much loss as Thor. Giving her the push she needs to successfully recreate a synthetic heart-shaped herb. Although Wakanda Forever continued to tease a new Black Panther, I’m glad they didn’t throw in an unnecessary twist. Shuri obviously takes up the mantle of Black Panther. Similar to the comics, except Shuri doesn’t assume the role because T’Challa is in a coma. Comic book Shuri was jealous of her brother, but movie Shuri is only fueled by vengeance. When she enters the Ancestral Plane, we expect to see her mother, but she’s actually greeted by her cousin Killmonger. Michael B. Jordan’s shocking cameo gives the villain more screen time and allows Coogler to continue working with his favorite actor. Since Shuri is on a dark path, Killmonger fuels her hatred of Namor. When Shuri gains the power of the Black Panther, she unveils a new feminine Panther Habit made especially for her. Though Wright is a lot skinnier, she does manage to feel intimidating. Shuri’s costume is black with more gold accents and markings similar to the ones she had in Black Panther. Her traditional claws are paired with the same sonic cannons she also had in the first movie.

Shuri drops into Jabari Land just like her brother once did. As the Black Panther, newly appointed Queen Shuri initiates a counter-attack on Talokan. Though they’ve had their differences in the past, M’Baku advises Shuri to seek a peaceful solution. Shuri deliberately hides the fact that she saw Killmonger from Nakia, but she still agrees to fight in her war. The conflict is enough to inspire Riri to build an upgraded Mark II Ironheart suit made from Wakandan resources. Since the comic armor is far from iconic, her movie armor is hot-rod red with large booster rockets similar to Samus Aran. I can’t stress enough how derivative this character is. Though she voices her opposition throughout the movie, Okoye agrees to don Shuri’s upgraded Midnight Angels suit. In the comics, Ayo and Aneka are the Midnight Angels, but Okoye replaces the former since she’s given more prominence. Ayo is the new general of the Dora Milaje who leads them in battle. The climax takes place on the Atlantic Ocean with Wakandan forces using a ship called the Sea Leopard. A sonic weapon prevents Talokan from using mind control and a battle takes place on the side of the ship. CGI is dodgy just like the first movie, especially when Black Panther joins the fight.

Shuri figures out a way to incapacitate Namor by taking him away from water. She manages to dry him out using heaters on a Wakandan aircraft. Namor uses his spear to crash the aircraft and their personal fight continues on a desert island. Although I’d much rather see T’Challa and Namor’s rivalry play out on screen, I’ll settle for Shuri ripping off Namor’s wing in order to keep him grounded. Their fight gets so heated that Namor stabs Shuri through the chest, but we’ve had enough death for one movie. Namor finally utters his iconic catchphrase “Imperius Rex!” as Shuri declares “Wakanda Forever!” When a fiery explosion still isn’t enough to take out Namor, Shuri nearly impales him once and for all. The battle only stops when Shuri realizes how similar their nations are from one another. She echos her big brother’s decision to stop letting vengeance consume her. Namor agrees to make peace and move on with Wakanda as an ally. Wakanda Forever takes forever to end with several wrap up scenes in place of an after-credits scene. Though Namora is against peace with Wakanda, Namor assures her an alliance is beneficial for their future. I sincerely hope a solo Namor the Sub-Mariner movie is on the horizon. Hispanic people could use their very own Black Panther or Shang-Chi

Though Riri is unable to take her Ironheart armor out of Wakanda, Shuri does gift her with her newly repaired father’s car. I’m not looking forward to seeing more of Riri Williams, but I’ll still get my answers in her solo series Ironheart. Okoye uses her Midnight Angels suit to break Ross out of confinement, but I’m not sure where that leaves Val. Apart from her upcoming role in Thunderbolts. Shuri chooses not to challenge for the throne, so M’Baku comes full circle by presumably becoming king. Instead Shuri visits Nakia in Haiti where she tearfully burns her ceremonial funeral robes and accepts the death of her big brother. We see a final heartfelt tribute to all the moments T’Challa spent with Shuri. As the fire continues to burn, “Lift Me Up” by Rihanna plays during the closing credits. Wakanda Forever was enough to bring Rihanna back after a 6 year hiatus from releasing a solo. The mid-credits scene continues on the beach where Shuri is joined by Nakia and her surprise son Toussaint.

Chadwick Boseman will always be Black Panther, but I suspected a compromise when Toussaint revealed his Wakandan name to be T’Challa. As long as they age him up, I’ll accept him as the new Black Panther and King of Wakanda. Although a Doctor Doom teaser would’ve been cool, this was a better note to end the movie on. With Shuri as a temporary Black Panther, Wakanda Forever is technically the first major superhero movie with a black female lead. Though it feels like a funeral at times, the movie does manage to celebrate black woman. There are a few PC moments, but nothing that’s likely to rile up fans. Since most people agree that Wakanda Forever could’ve been better, it’s easier to point out flaws without being chastised. I sincerely hope it’s not nominated for Best Picture, but  I’ll welcome other Oscar nominations. For a sequel plagued by tragedy, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever successfully moves the franchise forward.

64. Black Panther Wakanda Forever

Namor prepares for battle

Preceded by: Black Panther

Sweet Child O’ Mine

Thor: Love and Thunder is hard to take seriously. As the twenty-ninth installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Thor: Love and Thunder is a journey of self discovery for the God of Thunder. Up to this point, Marvel Studios only made trilogies for standalone superheroes. Since Iron Man and Captain America never got a proper 4th installment, their storylines were continued in other projects until they retired in Avengers: Endgame. Thor didn’t retire, since Thor: Ragnarok was such a surprise success that revitalized Chris Hemsworth’s love for the God of Thunder. Academy Award winning director Taika Waititi was a big reason for breathing new life into the character. Marvel Studios made an exception to the three movie rule by letting Waititi direct Thor 4.

Despite directing Jojo Rabbit in the meantime, producer Kevin Feige put way too much faith in Waititi to do whatever he wanted. Even the title Love and Thunder sounded like a joke the moment I heard it. Ragnarok was very comedic, but I always felt like something held Waititi back from being too silly. Like Wonder Woman 1984, Love and Thunder is what happens when you give a proven director too much creative freedom. It’s kind of a mess that ended up beating The Dark World as the second worst reviewed MCU film. Love and Thunder is barely fresh with a 64% on Rotten Tomatoes and a $700 million box office gross. I was neither satisfied, nor disappointed with the final product. Love and Thunder is just another Thor adventure that barely serves a purpose…

61. Thor Love and Thunder

Thor and company in Omnipotence City

Thor: Love and Thunder is so inconsequential that it received a meager 1 hour & 59 minute runtime. With the exception of the 2 hour & 10 minute Ragnarok, Thor movies have always been surprisingly short. After the equally short Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, it seemed like shorter MCU movies were becoming the norm. The problem is how much they ended up cutting as a result. Love and Thunder was rewritten multiple times with several characters and storylines being cut out. Phase Four feels especially directionless at this point. Like America Chavez in Multiverse of Madness, I was unenthusiastic when I found out more modern characters from the last decade would be adapted. I had no more interest in Ms. Marvel on Disney+ than I did for Mighty Thor or Gorr the God Butcher. In his trilogy, Thor faced classic villains like his adopted Frost Giant brother Loki, Dark Elf Malekith the Accursed, and Goddess of Death sister Hela. Gorr the God Butcher was created for the 2013 Thor: God of Thunder #2. Hela’s ability to conjure weapons was actually taken from Gorr. I recognized the villain, but I knew nothing about his backstory or title.

Love and Thunder opens with a mostly faithful version of Gorr’s origin. Gorr and his daughter struggle to survive on a barren desert planet. Though they suffer, Gorr puts all of his trust in the god Rapu to grant them an eternal reward. When his daughter dies, Gorr finds a tropical oasis where he comes face to face with Rapu. The sight of a 7 ft. tall god with golden blood is almost as ridiculous as Gods of Egypt. Waititi collaborator Jonathan Brugh plays the ridiculously spiteful Rapu who tells Gorr his life is meaningless. Gorr becomes worthy of the Necrosword and slays the false god with it. In the comics, Kull created the Necrosword and symbiotes. The sword has a similar power to corrupt the one who wields it. Academy Award winner Christian Bale plays Gorr since you either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain. Bale is committed, but the movie’s direction held him back. Only in the opening does Gorr feel like a sympathetic character. Any attempt to make Gorr funny falls flat with Bale hamming it up.

In terms of look, Gorr is supposed to have a black hood with pale white skin, no nose, and alien tentacles for ears. Though similar to Lord Voldemort, they could’ve made the design work on screen. Instead Bale has generic white makeup, white robes, and markings that he scratched out in an R rated deleted scene. Despite gaining the title God Butcher, all of Gorr’s butchering is done entirely off-screen. The Marvel Studios logo plays with a more melodic tune. Love and Thunder officially begins with Korg recapping the life of space viking Thor Odinson set to “Only Time” by Enya. The Thor movies have always had an identity crisis. Thor was a very Shakespearean way to introduce the superhero, The Dark World took itself too seriously, and Ragnarok was a lighthearted space romp. Love and Thunder is almost exactly like Ragnarok in terms of humor, soundtrack, and color palette, but they do find a way to tie every movie together. We see Thor as a baby carrying a wooden hammer with his mother Frigga on the battlefield. A running montage shows Thor as a child, a teenager sporting a classic Stan Lee & Jack Kirby costume, and an adult wearing the costume from the first movie.

Korg talks about all of Thor’s deceased loved ones like Frigga, Odin, Heimdall and Loki three times. The Warriors Three are disrespected even more than they were before. Losing his hammer, the destruction of Asgard, and failing to defeat Thanos were bigger losses that would’ve led any other character down a dark path. After 11 years of playing Thor, Chris Hemsworth managed to keep evolving the God of Thunder. Fat Thor was controversial, but he thankfully doesn’t stay that way forever. Hemsworth is in the best shape of his life with an absolutely jacked god bod. I’m personally happy that Thor managed to keep the long blonde hair that he’s known for. Love and Thunder is also a family affair since the entire Hemsworth family is involved. Thor once loved an alien pirate and a Wolf Woman played by his own wife Elsa Pataky. His twin sons Sasha and Tristan play Thor as a child and older daughter India plays Gorr’s deceased daughter. Since Waititi initially drew comedic inspiration from Guardians of the Galaxy, it only made sense for Thor to join the team at the end of Endgame.

When Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 was delayed thanks to James Gunn, I knew Star-Lord, Drax, Nebula, Mantis, Kraglin, Groot, and Rocket had to appear in Love and Thunder. I didn’t think it was possible, but the Guardians of the Galaxy leave zero impression in the movie. Chris Pratt, Dave Batista, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Sean Gunn, Bradley Cooper, and Vin Diesel are practically glorified cameos given a “special appearance” credit. Pratt looks a little disheveled after making several blockbusters in a row. Thor and Peter Quill don’t have the rivialy or struggle for leadership that they had before. Drax and Mantis don’t do anything worth remembering. Nebula only stands out with angry outbursts. Kraglin’s presence on the team continues to annoy me with a very unfunny joke about him marrying an alien local. Rocket notably yells at a still teenage Groot on a battlefield. Though not as dramatic as the teaser trailer, Thor’s mid-life crisis leads to him only fighting when he’s needed. So Thor plucks Stormbreaker from the ground and rides it like a witches broom. This is the first Thor film to feature Stormbreaker after it was forged in Infinity War.

Thor’s Guardians ensemble pays homage to the classic yellow boots and blue pants that he originally had in the comics. Though his red vest is more reminiscent of Thunderstrike. His white alien tank top was likely lent to him by Quill. The battle of planet Indigarr is a lot like the first fight in Ragnarok. Thor goes full God of Thunder with a one sided battle set to a classic rock song. Although “Thunderstruck” by AC/DC would’ve made more sense then “Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns N’ Roses. It’s a fun fight scene with plenty of lightning and feats of strength like Thor doing a split mid-air. Yet it somehow feels hollow when the threat is a band of alien birds. Thor does something especially reckless when he destroys the sacred temple of King Yakan played by Stephen Curry. Though it doesn’t stop him from giving them a gift that nobody asked for. In Norse mythology, Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr are goats that pull Thor’s chariot. Toothgnasher and Toothgrinder were adapted for Marvel comics, but Love and Thunder turns the fearsome creatures into constant screaming goat memes. When I say constant, I mean the joke lasts for the entire movie! It’s funny the first time, but they just keep going.

The Guardians quickly split up with Thor and Korg when they receive distress signals in the wake of Gorr’s god butchering. Before they leave, Thor drags out a hilarious handshake and Quill mentions Gamora while giving him important advice about love. Thor’s love life has taken a backseat ever since Jane Foster dumped him off-screen. Natalie Portman left the franchise after The Dark World and I lost hope that she’d ever return. Her Endgame cameo was a big surprise that signaled her triumphant return. The Thor quadrilogy is a lot like the Toy Story quadrilogy. Jane was absent in Ragnarok before returning as a badass in Love and Thunder. Much like Bo Peep between Toy Story 3 and Toy Story 4. Waititi intended to make a romantic comedy, but Jane’s return was also an opportunity to adapt the Mighty Thor storyline that began with Thor #1 in 2014. Like some fans, I wasn’t on board with a female Thor replacing Thor Odinson in the comics. Unlike the movie, Jane’s identity was kept a secret for most of her run. When Thor became unworthy to lift Mjolnir, a mysterious woman came along to claim the title. Nurse turned Dr. Jane Foster was revealed to be battling cancer and the hammer gave her strength.

Since Disney was too afraid to tackle Tony Stark’s alcoholism, I wasn’t sure they’d tackle something as serious as cancer. Scientist Dr. Jane Foster is in fact battling 4th stage cancer in the MCU. They take the subject seriously, but it’s still jarring to have a colorful space battle followed by an MRI machine. Jane explains her work to someone who happens to be reading her book and it feels like she never left. Especially when Darcy Lewis decides to visit her. Darcy is another character I never expected to see again, but Kat Dennings made a welcomed return to the MCU in WandaVision. Where she went from quirky intern to accomplished young scientist. Despite being the comic relief of 2 Thor films, there’s nothing funny about Darcy talking sense into her terminally ill best friend. Jane seeks scientific means to cure herself and it’s enough to warrant a phoned in cameo from Stellan Skarsgård. Erik Selvig was once very important in the early MCU, but he hasn’t made a physical appearance since Age of Ultron.

Love and Thunder features the return of multiple MIA Thor characters. Including Lady Sif who most recently made a surprise appearance in Loki. Tom Hiddleston doesn’t appear since Loki is dead in this sacred timeline. Sif was built up as a love interest for Thor and possible competition for Jane. She made 2 seperate unofficial appearances in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. before being left out of Ragnarok. Jaimie Alexander was too busy making Blindspot at the time. Sif sends Thor a distress message on a snowy planet where a comic accurate Falligar the Behemoth was slain. Thor’s first outfit change is probably his best in the movie. He rocks a mostly black viking inspired outfit with a red cape and fur collar. Sif finally wears a comic accurate red outfit with a winged tiara, but her 9 year absence is given zero explanation. Despite Alexander receiving top billing, all Sif does is lose an arm off-screen and get taken out of commision for the entire movie. It’s kind of insulting, but the movie already has an abundance of strong female characters. New Asgard is the new home for Asgardians where Valkyrie is King. The fact that she isn’t Queen is just one minor annoyance, but I’ll get to that later.

Since most of Thor’s cast has been killed off at this point, Valkyrie, Korg, and an apparently female Meik return after becoming fan favorites in Ragnarok. Jeff Goldblum and Peter Dinklage nearly returned as the Grandmaster and Eitri, but what logical purpose could they have served apart from fan service? Lena Headey was also cut, but we’re still not sure who she might’ve played. Like Waititi himself, Korg became too much of a good thing. I wouldn’t call him annoying, but you do get sick of him after a while. In addition to being narrator, Korg serves no role in the movie apart from tagging along. His dude bro relationship with Thor could’ve been filled by literally anyone else. Still no Balder the Brave after nearly appearing in Multiverse of Madness. I’ll even accept Beta Ray Bill at this point. Valkyrie is tired of the bureaucracy that comes with being a ruler. It doesn’t really go anywhere since Tessa Thompson has a weird lazy energy that makes it unclear what Val really wants. She’s not shown to be a very good ruler and being a warrior doesn’t work out for her either. I think her drinking is supposed to be in response to losing her fellow Valkyrie, but even that isn’t fully addressed.

Thompson was way too desperate to make Valkyrie the first LGBT MCU character. She kept baiting fans with the promise of a “Queen,” but the movie has no time for that. All Valkyrie does is kiss a fair maiden’s hand and have a pointless conversation with Korg about a past girlfriend. It’s not as forced as Korg claiming to have two dads that conceived him despite making it clear he had a mom in Ragnarok. It leads to Korg meeting another male Kronan with a mustache in the end. New Asgard has become a tourist destination set to “Paradise City” by Guns N’ Roses. Asgardians give tours, flying boat rides, and Valkyrie does Old Spice commercials. They also open an Infinity Conez ice cream parlor that feels like the MCU equivalent of opening a Hitler themed restaurant. Another reused joke is having a second Asgardian theater performance depicting the events of Ragnarok. It was funny the first time, but now Waititi is just making fun of his own movie. Luke Hemsworth, Matt Damon, and Sam Neill return as the Thor, Loki, and Odin actors respectively. They perform Odin’s death followed by the arrival of Hela. I’ll admit I didn’t expect Melissa McCarthy, but this is a comedy after all. Even her husband Ben Falcone is there as a stage manager.

Although they aren’t canon, even Daley Pearson shows up as Thor’s flatmate Daryl from the Team Thor shorts. He’s a tour guide who shows people the remains of Mjolnir in a special exhibit. When science fails her, Jane seeks viking space magic for a cure. Thor returns home for the first time since joining the Guardians. Gorr uses shadow monsters to attack the people of New Asgad. Valkyrie brings her renamed pegasus Warsong to the fight wearing her pajamas. It’s a brief reunion, but Thor becomes distracted when he sees his hammer in action. Thor enthusiastically reaches for Mjolnir, but it ends up in the hands of Mighty Thor. Jane has the comic accurate red cape, blonde hair, and helmet that covers her face, but her breastplate isn’t exactly the same. Despite being 5′ 3″, Portman managed to put on an impressive amount of muscle for the part. Jane made jokes before, but now she really tries to be funnier. Most of it amounts to Mighty Thor trying to find a catchphrase. Thor is so confused that he changes his look to a ridiculously primary red, blue, and gold outfit based on his battle armor from the comics. I’m just glad he takes off his goofy helmet mask after discovering Jane is the new Thor.

Korg recounts the events between Thor choosing to live on Earth with Jane and their inevitable breakup that we never got to see. Now it’s definitely a rom-com complete with a cheesy romantic montage set to “Our Last Summer” by ABBA. I’m not sure rollerblading with Mjolnir or Thor dressing up like a hot dog are what they had in mind after the end of The Dark World. Thor and Jane learn from each other, but things get complicated when Thor becomes busy as an Avenger and Jane becomes busy as a scientist. Jane broke up by letter, but they finally reunite 8 years later on the battlefield. Jane’s Mighty Thor origin is adjusted for the continuity of the MCU. Since Thor never became unworthy, a protective enchantment caused Mjolnir to reforge in order to keep Jane safe. Giving the hammer a cool new ability to break apart and come back together again. Thor doesn’t have time to process it when Gorr attacks the God of Thunder. There’s not much of a rivalry between them, but their battles are intense. Gorr only succeeds in kidnapping the children of New Asgard. Thor vows to return the children, but he runs into a few complications.

Though shocked by Jane’s transformation, he’s more jealous of Mjolnir being with someone else. The movie adds a bizarre, but funny love triangle between Thor, Mjolnir, and Stormbreaker. Despite never showing sentiance in the past, Stormbreaker is clearly jealous of Thor’s love for his old weapon. Which effects Stormbreaker’s ability to open the Bifröst. It’s a convoluted way to have Thor and company ride a boat pulled by Toothgnasher and Toothgrinder to their next destination. More convenient is having Heimdall’s kidnapped son magically appear as a floating head to give them directions. The CGI isn’t too bad when it comes to creatures and landscapes, but effects like this are just embarrassing. Astrid Heimdallson has never been mentioned before, but naming himself Axl after the Guns N’ Roses frontrunner makes you take their situation a lot less seriously. I feel like the child element was just an excuse to have Bale, Portman, and Waititi’s children be part of the movie too. Thor visits the children using Axl’s all-seeing eyes and discovers they’re being taken to the Shadow Realm.

Just like the Revengers, Thor puts together a team consisting of Valkyrie, Korg, and Jane. Jane isn’t doing so well, but she has a fleeting female bonding moment with Val. Together they embark on a quest to Omnipotence City. Despite making four Thor movies, Alfheim (home of the Light Elves) remains the only unseen location in the Nine Realms. Even Infinity War depicted Nidavellir when it was necessary. Accepting Norse gods in the MCU was tricky enough, but Love and Thunder introduces gods from almost every mythology. It’s in the comics, but I never expected Marvel Studios to go this far. Omnipotence City is home to the most powerful gods in the universe. Including Olympian god Dionysus, Panther goddess Bast, Japanese god Jademurai, Roman goddess Minerva, Kronan god Ninny of the Nonny, a couple of Celestials, and Zeus himself. Egyptian god Ra is mentioned, but no Moon Knight characters appear for some reason. As a Christian, I am a little turned off by the idea of every religion’s god being real in the MCU. At least most of them are depicted as petty or buffoonish. I knew it was all a joke when a cartoon Bao god showed up.

Sadly, Zeus is the biggest joke that Academy Award winner Russell Crowe can’t even save. His decision to use an authentic Greek accent is very hard to take seriously. Thor looks up to Zeus since they’re both thunder & lightning gods, but he’s nothing like his father Odin. Zeus is technically in character when he talks about human sacrifice and mentions an orgy. Thor is chained up and stripped of his clothing since these shirtless scenes are becoming more gratuitous. Despite the PG-13 rating, Chris Hemsworth shows his butt for the first time since Rush. Thor’s back tattoos reveal a tribute to Loki and a list of other deceased loved ones. Including his father, mother, Heimdall, Tony Stark, and Natasha Romanoff. Zeus dismisses Thor’s plea to fight Gorr and it doesn’t lead to mass carnage in Omnipotence City. Instead Zeus shows off his Thunderbolt skills and forces him to stay. It leads to a battle with Thor, Mighty Thor, Valkyrie, and Korg fighting gold blooded Olympian guards. Zeus throwing his Thunderbolt at Korg would’ve been great if they didn’t once again treat everything like a joke. Korg’s face survives long enough to keep pestering the audience.

Thor surprisingly kills Zeus with his own Thunderbolt despite realizing his friend is alive. The treatment of Zeus is even more baffling when you see a deleted scene of the Olympian god giving Thor fatherly advice and assistance with Thunderbolt. Instead Valkyrie steals the weapon and they escape Omnipotence City. Thor only discovers Jane has cancer after clumsily professing his love for her. They decide to live in the moment and share a passionate kiss. All color fades when they enter the Shadow Realm. Giving the movie a visually unique excuse for a black & white sequence. It’s only at Omnipotence City that Thor discovers Gorr’s plan to wish for the mass extinction of gods using Eternity. I can honestly say I never expected to see the cosmic entity on the big screen, but Eternity’s solar system silhouette is very comic accurate. Mighty Thor realizes it’s a trap when Stormbreaker is revealed to by the key by opening the Rainbow Bridge. Gorr taunts his enemies and threatens Thor’s loved ones until he summons his axe. The fight in the Shadow Realm is an epic battle of the gods where color only returns when weapons are used.

Valkyrie is injured and taken out of commision just like Sif. Gorr manages to snatch Stormbreaker and Jane becomes too weak from using Mjolnir. Thor tries to convince Jane to stay behind and accept treatment, but she joins him anyway in a crazy climax. Thor first arrives through the use of Thunderbolt and saves the children. He gives the kids a pep talk and now possesses the ability to lend the power of Thor to his child army. The sight of children using stuffed animals and other weapons infused with lightning set to “November Rain” by Guns N’ Roses may be the silliest part of an already silly movie. Mighty Thor’s arrival on Warsong is grand, but her dismissal of the name Lady Thor is too on the nose. The two Thors defeat Gorr using teamwork to break his Necrosword. SPOILER ALERT! Everyone thought Jane would take the spotlight from the original Thor, but her death is a comic accurate progression of her character.

A dying Gorr manages to reach Eternity, but he decides to choose Love when he sees Thor and Jane together. Though I once called their relationship a schoolyard crush, I finally began to understand their love for each other. Thor credits his worthiness to Jane and that opens his heart to love again. Turns out Gorr’s daughter is literally named Love. While the rest of New Asgard train the next generation, Thor becomes a dad by raising his enemies daughter. I’m sure it’s an excuse to have Chris Hemsworth work directly with his real life daughter. She’s not the best actress and her heat vision is just weird, but I’m glad Thor finally hit the reset button. Only at the end does Thor decide to wield Mjolnir and give Stormbreaker to Love. The title only makes sense when you realize Love and Thunder is referring to the two of them. It’s followed by a colorful rock inspired credits sequence set to the movie’s primary theme “Sweet Child O’ Mine” by (you guessed it) Guns N’ Roses.

The mid-credits scene is something I’ve been wanting to see for a long time. Zeus survives and we can finally take him seriously when he voices his disdain for superheroes and desire to be feared once again. I knew that had to mean Hercules making his MCU debut. I’m not familiar with Brett Goldstein’s work in Ted Lasso, but it’s awesome to see him in a comic accurate orange and green gladiator outfit. The rivalry between Thor and Hercules holds a lot of weight in Marvel comics, but I’m not sure when it will ever be addressed. The after-credits scene is simply Jane being accepted into Valhalla. The only place Idris Elba can make a last minute appearance as Heimdall. Though they show the text “Thor will return” at the end, I sincerely hope Waititi isn’t involved. He did well with Ragnarok, but Love and Thunder goes too far with comedy and it’s treatment of beloved characters. Thor: Love and Thunder is an entertaining mess.

62. Thor Love and Thunder

Gorr the God Butcher

Preceded by: Thor: Ragnarok

The Book of Vishanti

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is the closest thing to a horror movie in the MCU. As the twenty-eighth installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness explored the multiverse even further. Doctor Strange eased audiences into the magical realm of the Sorcerer Supreme. Which is why Multiverse of Madness is a no holds barred display of witchcraft and wizardry. Unlike most MCU superheroes, Benedict Cumberbatch made 4 separate appearances before finally getting a direct sequel 5 years later. Doctor Strange helped Thor and Loki find Odin in Thor: Ragnarok, helped Iron Man, Spider-Man, and the Guardians of the Galaxy fight Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War, helped the Avengers save the universe in Avengers: Endgame, and recently helped Spider-Man with his secret identity in Spider-Man: No Way Home.

Strange has a history of helping his fellow heroes in Marvel comics, but we rarely remember his own adventures. Original director Scott Derrickson wanted to make the first scary MCU film. Producer Kevin Feige supported the idea as long as it was still PG-13. Even the title Multiverse of Madness feels like Lovecraftian horror. Alas, Derrickson became yet another MCU director to leave sighting creative differences. He left to make the more conventional horror movie The Black Phone. Without a director, Multiverse of Madness marked the surprise return of original Spider-Man trilogy director Sam Raimi. Though he kept himself busy producing independent horror movies, Raimi hasn’t directed a film since Oz the Great and Powerful in 2013. His horror roots and experience with Marvel superheroes made him the perfect choice to direct Multiverse of Madness. Making the Doctor Strange reference in Spider-Man 2 even more ironic…

59. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

Doctor Strange, Wong, and America Chavez hideout in Kamar-Taj

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is a better Doctor Strange sequel than a multiverse movie. After the immense billion dollar success of No Way Home, Marvel fans were desperate for more of the multiverse. What we got in the meantime was the underwhelming Moon Knight on Disney+. It’s possible fan expectations were too high. After bringing so many past Spider-Man characters into the MCU, we all assumed Doctor Strange would travel through every single Marvel movie from the early 2000’s. The idea became a lot less realistic as soon as we found out the runtime was a mere 2 hours & 6 minutes. After the excessive length of Eternals, I’m glad a shorter MCU movie is the one where I desperately needed to use the bathroom. No Way Home was long, but it used its time wisely. I can’t help but feel a little disappointed with the rushed pace of Multiverse of Madness. After a Marvel Studios logo that mostly consists of Doctor Strange clips, we’re thrown directly into the action. Since Doctor Strange’s comic accurate design is already perfect, Benedict Cumberbatch gets a chance to play several unique variants.

Defender Strange is based on his appearance in The Defenders 2011 comic book run. This variant has a cool dark blue & red tunic with no cloak, light blue Mandalas, and a ponytail. He can also speak Spanish since this Sorcerer Supreme is protecting America Chavez. As I’ve said before, I have little to no love for the Marvel characters who were created in the last decade. America made her debut in the 2011 Vengeance #1. I never liked her because she felt so much like a forced PC character. Chavez is a Hispanic, lesbian, woman of color who happens to be named America. As stated in my No Way Home review, America’s MCU debut was delayed until Multiverse of Madness. I expected the worst, but the 14 year old Xochitl Gomez is actually tolerable in the part. Her sexuality isn’t depicted since there’s no reason for it. America has a comic accurate blue denim jacket with stars and stripes, but no short shorts. Her power to open star shaped portals into other dimensions is actually pretty interesting.

Defender Strange tries to protect America’s power, but a monstrous demon chases them through a space between spaces. The Gap Junction is an imaginative location with a purple hue and mosaic patterns. Though it does feel like something you’d encounter in a video game. The visual effects match the psychedelic nature of Doctor Strange, but the glossy CGI monsters are passable at best. The demon manages to give Defender Strange a nasty leg wound. Multiverse of Madness is surprisingly violent, but it never quite reaches R rated territory. Sam Raimi actually hasn’t directed an R rated film since the year 2000. Even Drag Me to Hell somehow got away with a PG-13 rating. You can immediately tell you’re watching a Raimi film based on his disorienting camera techniques and artistic visual style. In order to stop the beast, Strange takes America’s power using the same justification about the grand calculus of the multiverse he used for Peter Parker in the current universe. Exploring the multiverse doesn’t feel quite as special after everything that was accomplished in No Way Home. Probably because Multiverse of Madness was meant to come out first.

The original Phase Four slate was suppose to be Black Widow, Eternals, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, and Spider-Man: No Way Home. Unfortunately, the Pandemic screwed everything up. So Multiverse of Madness went from May 2021 all the way to May 2022. A few rewrites were needed in order to change Strange’s experience with the multiverse. Spider-Man is mentioned in a humorous way, but they don’t dwell on the movie’s repercussions. As an emotionally distressed America gets sucked into her own portal, MCU Stephen Strange wakes from a nightmare. Though he’s far from the arrogant neurosurgeon he once was, the sequel finally addresses the past Strange left behind to become a Master of the Mystic Arts. Of course he still uses magic even to tie a tie for a wedding. Michael Stuhlbarg returns as rival colleague Dr. Nicodemus West who criticizes Strange for his role in the Blip. Rachel McAdams gets a lot more attention as former love interest Dr. Christine Palmer. She’s the one getting married since Stephen never made the relationship work.

Though Christine claims her husband is a big fan of Doctor Strange, he doesn’t play much of a role in their doomed love story. Christine talks to Stephen after he conjures up a glass of wine for her. Strange already learned the lesson to put others before himself, and although he re-learns the lesson, Christine makes him question whether or not he’s happy. That’s about all the character development we get, since Doctor Strange immediately springs into action the moment duty calls. Pulling the Cloak of Levitation out of thin air while spinning around and jumping off a building is honestly one of the most badass suiting up sequences in the MCU. Frequent Raimi collaborator Danny Elfman performs a heroic theme along with several other creepy orchestrations. Doctor Strange encounters an invisible threat pursuing the girl of his dreams. He lifts the veil only to find a massive one eyed tentacle creature that resembles Shuma-Gorath from the comics. Its name was changed to Gargantos since Marvel apparently didn’t have the rights to the name.

Strange uses several new spells like disassembling a bus and conjuring up a giant saw blade. Though his Cloak does a lot of the work when Strange gets knocked out. He’s joined in battle by the Sorcerer Supreme. No Way Home was also the first place we discovered Wong was now the Sorcerer Supreme. I’m still conflicted by the decision, because Doctor Strange should be the Sorcerer Supreme in his own movie. At least Benedict Wong is still likable in all of his appearances. Wong fights back using a magical throwing dagger. When Strange wakes up, they discuss the custom of bowing to the Sorcerer Supreme. Gargantos is only defeated when Strange uses enlarged magic hands to pluck out its eye with a light post. It’s a gruesome image that I didn’t expect to see in a Marvel movie. Strange and Wong have a word with America who tells them about the comic accurate Book of Vishanti that her and Defender Strange were looking for. The spellbook is capable of giving a sorcerer whatever power they require to vanquish a threat. She also shows them the corpse of Defender Strange who made it to their universe.

Though the multiverse has been discussed several times, it turns out dreams are simply other universes that a person sees in their sleep. It’s a bizarre detail that makes it seem like Nightmare was supposed to be the villain of the movie. Doctor Strange doesn’t have too many familiar antagonists, but that feels like a missed opportunity. Instead the movie’s villain is a very familiar witch. Wanda Maximoff returns 1 year after forcing an entire town to live out her sitcom fantasy. WandaVision is the first Disney+ series to directly tie into an MCU film. Despite the chaos that Wanda brought to Westview, Doctor Strange didn’t show up for some ridiculous reason. Instead he finds Wanda in a orchard where he shrugs off the events of WandaVision. Strange mentions Hawkeye and several bug themes crimefighters as alternatives to seeking Wanda’s help with America. When Wanda was revealed to be part of Multiverse of Madness, I assumed Strange would be a mentor teaching her to control her magic. Instead the Scarlet Witch drops the act by revealing her orchard to be a decaying hellscape where she’s been corrupted by the Darkhold.

The Book of the Damned has made several unofficial appearances in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Runaways before officially belonging to Agatha Harkness in WandaVision. When Wanda finally became the Scarlet Witch, she received a more comic accurate red costume with a pointy tiara. The only minor change was giving her sleeves and blackened fingertips. Wanda uses the Darkhold to find her boys Billy and Tommy in another universe using America’s power. Julian Hilliard and Jett Klyne return as the future Wiccan and Speed respectively. WandaVision made Billy and Tommy feel like real children, but their movie portrayal is very one dimensional. They live with a variant of Wanda and do things like sing cringy songs about ice cream and watch Disney approved movies like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Vision is nowhere to be seen since Wanda is more concerned with being a mother. It’s kind of ironic that the abbreviation of Multiverse of Madness is MoM. Though it’s jarring to see Scarlet Witch in another much more villainous role, Elizabeth Olsen manages to find her humanity. Tom Hiddleston was rumored to return as Loki, but all of his multiverse breaking shenanigans will have to be answered in his own show.

Strange accidentally tells Wanda that America is being protected in Kamar-Taj. They’re joined by a battle ready Wong and sorcerers from the Hong Kong and London Sanctums. I love that a talking green minotaur sorcerer is given zero explanation. Rintrah is in the comics, but even the most hardcore Marvel fans probably didn’t know that. Ancient One decoy Master Hamir returns along with new sorcerers like Sheila Atim as Master Sara. Sorcerers have their Mandalas and heavy magic cannons to defend Kamar-Taj. Scarlet Witch arrives in a cloud of smoke to have words with Doctor Strange. She calls him a hypocrite for regularly breaking the rules. The attack on Kamar-Taj shows Wanda once again use her power of persuasion to lower a protective shield. Scarlet Witch kills many sorcerers, but Strange holds her off with the Mirror Dimension. Unlike previous appearances, Multiverse of Madness is a lot less reliant on the visually impressive kaleidoscopic realm. Wanda manages to escape using reflections that contort her body like some kind of monster. America is unable to control her powers, but Wanda manages to unlock them.

In order to protect her, Strange and America end up traveling through the multiverse. In the process, the Cloak of Levitation is damaged. In about 30 seconds we’re teased with a countless number of universes. We see Living Tribunal heads, crystals, giant bees, an underwater world, futuristic technology, skeletons, dinosaurs, an animated world, a cubic world, and even a paint world. That’s about the extent of multiversal madness, since Strange and America stick with one universe for most of the movie. Despite visiting well over 70 universes, America is somehow unable to get them back. Doctor Strange is stuck helping a young superhero for the second time in a row. They explore a universe that’s more like the distant future with red stop lights and a New York city teaming with plant life. America manages to find tasty looking pizza balls at a Pizza Poppa stand. The perfect opportunity for an over-the-top Bruce Campbell cameo. Just like Evil Dead II, Strange casts a particularly harsh spell that makes Pizza Poppa continually punch himself. The after-credits scene is just Campbell telling the audience the movie is over after his possessed hand wares off.

Though it’s ridiculously convenient, Strange and America watch their own important flashbacks on a futuristic device called Memory Lane. Strange sees his younger beardless self on a date with Christine where she gave him the now broken watch. America sees her own mostly comic accurate origin story. The only LGBT reference in the movie is the fact that America has two mommies. America Chavez is from the Utopian Parallel where she was raised by her moms. In the movie, being scared by a bee manages to send her moms somewhere in the multiverse never to be seen again. Strange and America manage to find this universe’s Sanctum Sanctorum with a monument to a fallen Doctor Strange credited with defeating Thanos. Without Strange, the Sanctum is guarded by Baron Karl Mordo. Although Doctor Strange turned Mordo into an ally, an after-credits scene made him more villainous like the comics. Chiwetel Ejiofor certainly has a better look with a more comic accurate green tunic, bread, and dreadlocks. He just isn’t the Mordo we knew from the first movie. That version doesn’t appear at all, so we’ll have to wait even longer to know what evil scheme he’s up to.

This Mordo considers Strange to be a brother and invites him into the Sanctum. They discuss Wanda’s plan over a cup of tea. Back in Kamar-Taj, Scarlet Witch uses the Darkhold to establish a “dreamwalk” that will allow her to possess the body of her alternate universe self. Now it really feels like a horror movie with Wanda being haunted by disturbing visions before ultimately being taken over. The dreamwalk is broken when Master Sara burns the book. Wong is forced to reveal the location of the original Darkhold text on Mount Wundagore. The forbidden ruins are located in the snowy mountains and guarded by demons that serve the Scarlet Witch. Mordo is not so good after all when he drugs Strange and America. They wake up in a containment cell with power dapping cuffs. Strange is greeted by a scientist who turns out to be a variant of Christine. Although Mysterio made up the name Earth-616, Christine also happens to give the MCU the comic accurate moniker. The universe they’re on now is called Earth-838. 838 Christine was a lover of the deceased Strange, but they too were unable to make their relationship work.

SPOILER ALERT! I gasped with joy the moment Christine mentioned the Baxter Foundation, but the surprises just keep coming. Mordo is joined by Ultron Sentries who take him to see the Illuminati. Marvel’s Illuminati are a secret society of superheroes who were first established in the 2005 New Avengers #7. The team is mostly composed of leaders from important teams in the Marvel Universe. Iron Man represents the Avengers, Black Panther represents Wakanda, Namor represents Atlantis, Professor X represents the X-Men, Mister Fantastic represents the Fantastic Four, Black Bolt represents the Inhumans, and Doctor Strange is the Sorcerer Supreme. In the movie, Baron Mordo is the Sorcerer Supreme who replaced Doctor Strange. I didn’t expect to see a live action Captain Carter so soon after her debut in What If…? Hayley Atwell reprises the role in person with an exact recreation of her costume and Union Jack shield. I was pleasantly surprised to see a faithful adaptation of Black Bolt on the big screen. More surprising is the fact that Anson Mount gets to redeem himself after the awful Inhumans ABC series. Though it’s somehow more disappointing to know what might have been.

Blackagar Boltagon has a far better comic accurate black costume with a cowl, tuning fork, and wingsuit. Like the comics, Black Bolt’s voice is so powerful that he only communicates through sign language. After her confirmed death in WandaVision, I thought I’d never see Maria Rambeau again, but Lashana Lynch plays a version of Captain Marvel with the same cosmic powers and a silver costume. I didn’t know how far Marvel Studios was willing to go, but I cheered the moment Reed Richards transported on screen played by fan favorite actor John Krasinski. Ioan Gruffudd (not Miles Teller!) would’ve been a good choice too, but the casting of Krasinski gave me hope for the long overdue MCU reboot of Fantastic Four. His performance is a little awkward, but I think I just need to see him in his own ensemble movie. Mister Fantastic has the grey temples and beard of later incarnations along with an MCU inspired black & blue costume complete with prominent “4” symbol. The final member is dramatically revealed with the iconic X-Men: The Animated Series theme.

Despite trailers ruining the surprise, I was overjoyed to see Patrick Stewart return as the most comic accurate Professor Charles Xavier he’s ever played. It only took 7 X-Men and/or Wolverine movies since the year 2000. Xavier has the comic accurate telepathic hand gestures and a mostly cartoon inspired green suit and bright yellow hover chair. Multiverse of Madness is the first Marvel movie to mention Spider-Man, the X-Men, and the Fantastic Four. I’m sure Stan Lee would be proud of finally being able to reach that point. Though I’m proud of Marvel Studios for staying true to the Illuminati, I am disappointed that they felt the need to include Captain Carter and Captain Marvel. Fans were disappointed to know a Superior Iron Man wasn’t on the team. Tom Cruise playing the part would’ve been a clever nod to him almost playing Tony Stark in the MCU. Namor was also considered (more on him later). Apparently the continually absent Balder the Brave was even on the team played by Daniel Craig, but he was replaced at the last minute. Black Bolt and Mister Fantastic were so last minute that their costumes had to be done with CGI and not everyone was on set at the same time.

The Illuminati judge 616 Doctor Strange based on the actions of his 838 counterpart. Reed talks about an “incursion” that causes the destruction of an entire universe. 838 Strange recklessly used the Darkhold in order to defeat Thanos. The image of an impaled Thanos on Titan is not something I expected to see after Endgame. 838 Strange has no beard and a classic blue Cloak of Levitation that Reed holds. The Illuminati sentence Strange to death using one whisper from Black Bolt. Wanda reestablishes her dreamwalk in order to find America and stop anyone who gets in her way. Although most of the Illuminati have their doubts about Strange, Professor X encourages him using the same exact words he told his younger self in X-Men: Days of Future Past. I’m starting to sense a pattern with these callback lines. Scarlet Witch destroys several Ultron Sentries before coming face to face with a flying Captain Marvel, Captain Carter using a jetpack, Black Bolt using his wingsuit, and Mister Fantastic stretching into action. Reed tries to reason with Wanda by bringing up his own children Franklin and Valeria Richards. Their mother Sue Storm is mentioned as someone left to raise them.

Despite being dubbed “the smartest man alive,” Reed makes the dumbest decision by telling Wanda Black Bolt can destroy her with one whisper from his mouth. The line “What mouth?” is not as shocking as seeing a mouthless Black Bolt blow his own brains out with his voice. I was even more stunned to see Wanda turn Mister Fantastic into spaghetti before making a proper MCU debut. Wanda not immediately killing Captain Carter or Captain Marvel is a nonsensical excuse for an all-girl fight scene. Captain Carter shouldn’t be a threat, but she does get to say “I could do this all day.” Her death is especially brutal with Wanda using her shield to cut her in half. Captain Marvel lasts the longest, but she’s ultimately killed when a column lands on her. Xavier temporarily subdues Wanda by entering her mind in a very comic accurate mindscape sequence. He finds 838 Wanda trapped under rubble, but the Scarlet Witch appears in a cloud of red smoke to break Xavier’s neck. This will be the third time Charles Xavier died after being disintegrated in X-Men: The Last Stand and stabbed in Logan.

After less than 20 minutes of screen time, the entire Illuminati is slaughtered by the Scarlet Witch. I’d be mortified if they weren’t variants of characters who will likely appear again in the future. Mordo isn’t killed, but Strange goads him into a one on one confrontation. The fight is a bit underwhelming since it gets to a point where neither sorcerer can use their magic. Christine gives the Cloak a blue patch and decides to trust Strange and America. Before he died, Xavier told them to find the Book of Vishanti. Strange floods a hallway in order to stall Wanda. Christine’s watch becomes important when Strange uses it as a key to enter the mind bending Gap Junction. They find the glowing Book of Vishanti, but Wanda catches up to them and destroys it. America is kidnapped and her power is used to banish Strange and Christine to a universe destroyed by an incursion. Wanda mostly wants America’s universe traveling power to ensure her children are always with her. Strange and Christine have time to talk about their failed relationship on the way to another Sanctum Sanctorum. This Sanctum is more like a haunted house guarded by a Doctor Strange who was corrupted by the Darkhold.

Though he acts like Strange Supreme from What If…?, this evil Strange isn’t the same. 616 Strange reasons with him using a story about his deceased sister Donna Strange that is faithful to the comics. The sinister Strange will only hand over the Darkhold in exchange for Christine. His actions reveal a third eye that I never thought I’d see in live action. The Strange vs. Strange fight is one of the most creative fights in the MCU. When 616 Strange enchants a musical note, it turns into a literal musical battle with both Stranges building to an explosive crucindo. Danny Elfman really outdid himself with his “Lethal Symphonies.” The sinister Strange being impaled on a gate doesn’t shock me at this point. With America and Wong in trouble in the other universe, Strange makes the controversial decision to dreamwalk using the Darkhold in a candlelit ceremony. The only body he can dreamwalk in happens to be the corpse of Defender Strange. Possessing a dead body is enough to bring out the Souls of the Damned who nearly envelop Strange. Christine saves him using the Brazier of Bom’Galiath that Strange didn’t know how to use in the first movie. Turns out a candle turns it into a flamethrower.

Strange regains control and uses the demons to his advantage. Zombie Strange using Souls of the Damned as a cloak is something only Sam Raimi could pull off. Wong is unfazed by the revelation as they both attempt to stop Wanda. America accepts losing her powers, but zombie Strange gives her a last minute lesson about believing in herself. America nearly knocks Wanda into several hellish universes before giving her what she wants. Billy and Tommy break her heart by seeing her as a monster. 838 Wanda comforts her, but the damage is done. I’m sure we’ll see Wanda again, but for now the Scarlet Witch is defeated when she allows Mount Wundagore to be destroyed. Before America comes to find them, Stephen proclaims his love to Christine and tells her fear is the reason they never worked out. Strange accepts Wong as Sorcerer Supreme back in Kamar-Taj where America is an apprentice. I’m not sure where they’re going with that since that’s the role she would’ve had in No Way Home. Strange lets go of Christine by finally repairing his broken watch. All seems well, but like the Evil Dead franchise, a shocking twist reveals Strange to have grown a third eye.

It only takes a quick rorschach inspired credits sequence to show Strange perfectly fine in a mid-credits scene. As a dedicated Marvel fan who knows just enough about Doctor Strange, I was happy to see his longtime love interest Clea finally make an MCU appearance. Charlize Theron is an unexpected, but welcomed addition to the MCU. She has the wonderfully ridiculous purple costume and white hair from the comics. In the comics, Clea is the niece of Dormammu who once ruled the Dark Dimension. She talks about an incursion caused by Strange that he has to fix. Doctor Strange accepting his third eye and embarking on an adventure with Clea feels like the sequel we were suppose to be getting, but I’m not sure when we’ll see them again. That’s what happens when a sequel is used to continue the arc of a prominent character like Scarlet Witch and the multiverse overshadows everything else. Multiverse of Madness was a success, but it only managed to make $900 million. Everything Everywhere All at Once became the bigger critical success since the movie arguably took more advantage of the multiverse concept. I know I expected more, but Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness casts a good enough spell for me.

60. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

The Scarlet Witch prepares to Dreamwalk

Preceded by: Doctor Strange

Hero or Menace?

Spider-Man: No Way Home is the culmination of everything amazing and spectacular about Spider-Man. As the twenty-seventh installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Spider-Man: No Way Home dealt with the aftermath of Peter Parker losing his secret identity. Far From Home ended on such a big cliffhanger that any Marvel fan would be desperate to see the outcome. Disney came dangerously close to losing Spider-Man when the ever present Sony decided to cut ties with producer Kevin Feige and Marvel Studios. Barely a month went by after Far From Home was released that the terrible news was announced. I hated the thought of a third Spider-Man movie made by Sony and I wasn’t alone. Thankfully Tom Holland convinced both studios to come to their spidey-senses.

No Way Home is the best experience I had in a movie theater since Avengers: Endgame. It’s everything a Spider-Man fan could possibly ask for. I know there are people who will say Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is the best, but No Way Home balances nostalgia and fan services with a thoroughly entertaining story. Which is why No Way Home became the first movie since the Pandemic to gross well over a billion dollars at the box-office. Proof that fans and general moviegoers know what they want to see in theaters. Black Widow and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings were great standalone movies, but they aren’t exactly required viewing just yet. Unlike No Way Home, Eternals failed because no one cared who or what an Eternal was. Spider-Man is my favorite superhero and No Way Home is the movie I’ve been waiting 19 years for…

57. Spider-Man No Way Home

Spider-Men stand together

Spider-Man: No Way Home is the fourth Phase Four movie released in 2021. It was delayed twice from July to November, and finally December. Making No Way Home the first live action Spider-Man movie released during Christmas season instead of the summer. Into the Spider-Verse was also a December movie, but it grossed little more than $300 million. The difference is No Way Home was live action, a sequel, an MCU movie, and had major fan expectations that all payed off. Jon Watts became the first MCU director to direct all three movies in his trilogy. The reason they didn’t wait until 2022 is because every installment in the MCU Spider-Man trilogy was released 2 years after the next. Since the cast wouldn’t stay young forever, they couldn’t wait like other MCU sequels. Spider-Man: No Way Home picks up immediately after the mid-credits scene in Far From Home. Mysterio’s revenge recording can be heard during the opening logos for Sony, Columbia Pictures, and Marvel Studios. Spider-Man movies are once again the only place to see the webhead in the Marvel logo.

When Peter Parker’s identity is revealed, his “What the f-” exclamation is suddenly cut off by a horn. As expected, The Daily Bugle paints Spider-Man as a menace and public enemy #1. Some New Yorkers continue to love Spidey, but others believe he was responsible for Mysterio’s drone attack. It’s a fast-paced and fun sequence where Peter frantically swings MJ all around New York city. Rogers: The Musical can be seen in the background. Ned can only react with “Dude!” and Flash’s world is turned upside down when he discovers the classmate he hates is also the hero he loves. When they return to Peter’s apartment, Aunt May and Happy are in the middle of a breakup. Only to be interrupted by Peter and MJ in a very awkward position. The MCU Spider-Man movies have always had surprisingly funny sex jokes. In only one take, Aunt May and Happy discover the apartment is being watched by people who know Peter Parker is Spider-Man. After their brief appearance in Homecoming, the Department of Damage Control return to investigate Spider-Man’s superhero activity and the Stark technology that he used.

Peter, MJ, Ned, and Aunt May are all interrogated by head DODC Agent Cleary played by Arian Moayed. You can see more from him in Ms. Marvel. Peter discovers Nick Fury was off world the entire time, but you’ll have to get your answers in Secret Invasion. Tom Holland’s popularity only increased since playing the friendly neighborhood wallcrawler. Despite taking on more mature roles, Holland is still the most lovable lighthearted Peter Parker/Spider-Man. Though he’s dealt with loss before, No Way Home pushes Peter to his absolute limit. I was never crazy about Michelle Jones essentially replacing Mary Jane, but MJ is given the comic accurate last name Watson. She just doesn’t go by the name for some reason. MJ working in a coffee shop is also a clever nod to previous Mary Jane portrayals. Zendaya has grown more confident in the role without losing her cynical sense of humor. Euphoria is of course her biggest role since joining the MCU.

Jacob Batalon lost a lot of weight to reprise his role as Ned Leeds. Fans assumed it was done so he could become the Hobgoblin like the comics, but there’s no specific reason for it. Marisa Tomei has her biggest role yet as Peter’s supportive Aunt May. Though Cleary calls her out for child endangerment, May makes the biggest impact on Peter’s life. Since Peter is facing serious legal trouble, there was only one Man without Fear who could clear him of all charges only 8 minutes into the movie. I got my entire theater to cheer the moment Matt Murdock put down his walking stick. Every Marvel fan knew the blind lawyer from Hell’s Kitchen was the only lawyer who could represent a fellow superhero. Charlie Cox reprising his role from the critically acclaimed Netflix Daredevil was the best decision Marvel Studios could possibly make. The timing was perfect since Vincent D’Onofrio reprised his role as Kingpin the same week on Hawkeye. Though it would’ve been awesome to see Daredevil fighting side-by-side with Spider-Man, I’ll settle for Matt using his radar sense to catch a brick before Peter has a chance to.

The scene is equally ironic considering Jon Favreau actually started his Marvel journey playing fellow attorney Foggy Nelson in Daredevil (2003). Happy is the only borrowed Iron Man character who consistently appears in all three Spider-Man movies. Peter’s teenage antics annoyed him at first, but he grew to really care for him and his aunt. Happy lets them stay at his condo complete with Stark robots and a mysterious crate. Before school starts, Peter and MJ have a loving conversation over the phone about people knowing he’s Spider-Man. Since Tom Holland and Zendaya are dating in real life, their chemistry is off the charts. I’ll admit I enjoy watching them flirt in interviews, but Jacob Batalon always feels like a third wheel. Peter, MJ, and Ned finally feel like a trio after they all discovered his identity at different times. The rest of Spider-Man’s supporting cast is severely scaled back compared to their prominent role in Far From Home. Angourie Rice only has one scene in the theatrical cut where Betty Brant calls Peter “Tiger” in a reference to Mary Jane’s nickname for him in the comics.

Betty has a much bigger role in The More Fun Stuff Version where she does reporting throughout the movie. There were also TikTok videos with Betty as a Daily Bugle intern. Speaking of thedailybugle.net, J. K. Simmons reprises his iconic role as J. Jonah Jameson from the Sam Raimi trilogy. His unexpected cameo was a welcomed surprise in Far From Home, but sadly this version of Jameson isn’t as fun as the original. Aside from keeping his bald head, this J. Jonah Jameson is a fake news host working out of his home before being promoted to a TV studio. He’s also more ruthless in his attempt to expose Spider-Man as a menace. Flash Thompson is the only classmate with more than one scene in the theatrical cut. Though he was never right for the part, Tony Revolori at least goes a step further by dying his hair blonde like the Flash in the comics. Flash somehow managed to write and publish his own book declaring himself Spider-Man’s best friend. Flashpoint is an ironic title considering DC’s Flash uses the same title.

Midtown School of Science and Technology teachers are given exactly one scene to shine. Scene stealing duo Martin Starr and J. B. Smoove as Mr. Harrington and Mr. Dell respectively consider Parker to be a hero. Hannibal Buress returns as Coach Wilson from Homecoming and believes Mysterio was right. It’s a funny scene, but the rest of the school gives Peter even more unwanted attention. So Peter and MJ hideout on the roof of Midtown where their romantic moment is interrupted by Ned. Since it’s now Senior Year, Peter, MJ, and Ned consider college applications. Although Peter attends Empire State University in the comics, they all have their sights set on MIT. Unfortunately, Ned and MJ’s association with Spider-Man causes them all to get rejected. A Halloween decoration gives Peter the idea to seek help from the Master of the Mystic Arts. My only minor criticism of the Home trilogy is Sony’s reliance on pre-existing MCU characters that they prominently feature in their marketing. Homecoming had Iron Man & Captain America, Far From Home had Nick Fury & Maria Hill, and No Way Home has Doctor Strange & Wong.

In order to avoid spoilers, the teaser trailer leaned heavily into Peter’s exposed identity and Doctor Strange being a driving force of the movie. I won’t complain since I’m always happy to see Strange giving magical assistance to his fellow Marvel superheroes. The combination of Spider-Man and Doctor Strange is enough to make Stan Lee & Steve Ditko proud. Peter enters a Sanctum Sanctorum covered in snow due to a blizzard that blew in through a portal. Wong and Doctor Strange show up wearing winter coats and revealing that the latter is no longer Sorcerer Supreme. Wong becoming Sorcerer Supreme after Strange blipped feels wrong to me, but I’ll have to accept it for now. Benedict Wong makes the most of his brief appearance after his extended role in Shang-Chi. Benedict Cumberbatch has a much more hands on role after finishing his obligation to Sherlock. Strange insists Peter call him Stephen after everything they’ve been through in Infinity War and Endgame.

No Way Home is a surprise adaptation of one of the most hated storylines in Spider-Man history. “One more Day” is a 4 part 2007 storyline where Peter makes a deal with the devil (Mephisto) in order to save Aunt May’s life. The only cost is his marriage to Mary Jane. Peter is totally out of character in the comic, but the movie doesn’t go that far. Mephisto is replaced by Doctor Strange when Peter requests using time travel to prevent Mysterio from revealing his identity. Without the Time Stone, Strange recommends a mind altering spell instead. It feels out of character for the strait-laced Doctor Strange, but the movie makes him appear less reckless than the trailer. Wong simply stays out of the spell while Strange helps Peter in the Runes of Kaf-Kol. An underground magical lair that an episode of The Equalizer was apparently filmed in. Strange intends to cast a spell where the entire world will forget Peter Parker is Spider-Man. Though it’s an odd way to set up the conflict of the movie, Peter tampering with the spell by letting some people keep their memory is what causes a rift in the multiverse.

The multiverse is the new hot topic in the MCU. Doctor Strange used the term for the first time and explored a few alternate dimensions. Endgame went a step further by having the Avengers travel through time using the Quantum Realm that opened up new realities. Mysterio claimed to be from Earth-833, but any self respecting Marvel fan knew he was lying. Loki did a deep dive of the multiverse that opened up a variety of vague alternate realities. What If…? was exclusively about scenarios where reality could’ve been different based on choice. Although Multiverse of Madness was nearly released first, No Way Home became the first MCU movie to explore the multiverse in a substantial way. Strange contains his multiverse crossing spell and scolds Peter for his immaturity. I’ll admit I never knew you could reason with a university when they don’t accept you. Peter does exactly that after asking help from Flash who wants to be swung to school. Paula Newsome plays the Assistant Vice Chancellor of MIT that Peter finds on a bridge.

Peter wears his Iron Spider suit since his red & black costume was ruined when some jerk threw green paint on it. The full deleted scene contains a cameo from Holland’s real life brother Harry. When Peter’s spider-sense goes off, he’s greeted by the first of five sinister supervillains from the Sam Raimi trilogy and Marc Webb films. Although I would’ve been fine with a third installment where Kraven the Hunter hunts a fugitive Spider-Man, I can’t pass up the chance to see several actors play characters I thought I’d never see again. No Way Home continues the “Home” tradition that fans were trying to figure out for months. The title refers to all the villains who have no way of returning home to their own universe. Promoting the movie was a hassle since not knowing about the returning villains would’ve been an awesome reveal. The poster and trailers confirmed several surprise appearances. The audience cheered the moment four mechanical tentacles belonging to Doctor Octopus made their presence known. Doc Ock saying “Hello, Peter” was the perfect way to end the teaser trailer.

Alfred Molina returns 17 years after his role in Spider-Man 2. Doc Ock was easily one of the best villains in one of the best superhero movies. The 67 year old Molina is just as angry and dramatic in the part. Doc Ock’s green trench coat and shades remain intact, but his tentacles are now entirely CGI. Molina was digitally de-aged since Dr. Otto Octavius is ripped straight from the end of Spider-Man 2. Doc Ock’s motivations are the same since he mentions his machine that harnesses “The power of the sun.” Peter is understandably confused, but he fights back when his girlfriend is threatened. The Spider-Man vs. Doc Ock bridge fight is instantly one of the better fights in the MCU trilogy. It’s on par with all of Doc Ock’s fights in Spider-Man 2. Of course they couldn’t pass up the chance to have the four Iron Spider legs go against Doc Ock’s four tentacles. Spider-Man saves civilians and manages to rescue the Vice Chancellor. When Doc Ock gains the upper hand, he integrates the nanotechnology from the Iron Spider suit onto his tentacles.

Octavius is equally confused when Peter reveals himself to be Tom Holland. Doc Ock is only defeated when Peter manages to control the tentacles with his suit. It’s a humorous, but effective moment that ends with Peter and his friends being accepted into MIT. Celebration will have to wait when Peter quickly encounters his next visiting villain. Everyone cheered the moment a pumpkin bomb entered the screen. When the Green Goblin arrived on his glider, I couldn’t resist imitating his iconic evil laugh. The only downside to bringing back old villains is having to deal with their original designs or costumes. The armored Green Goblin suit and facial restricting mask were never a good decision, but I couldn’t deny the nostalgia I felt. They even do another talking mask sequence before Norman Osborn smashes it to pieces. Willem Dafoe returns 19 years after his role in Spider-Man. Dafoe was so perfect for Green Goblin that I’m glad he was given a second chance to show what he was capable of. His digital de-aging is a lot better than it was in Aquaman.

Unfortunately, Peter is transported back to the Sanctum before he has a chance to fight the flying green elf. Doctor Strange locks Doctor Octopus in his wizard’s dungeon along with the Lizard that he managed to track down in the sewers off-screen. Rhys Ifans sort of returns 9 years after his role in The Amazing Spider-Man. Dr. Curt Connors is only seen in Lizard form since Ifans was apparently unavailable. We’re kind of stuck with a snoutless Lizard that’s only a passable CGI recreation of his first appearance. Strange instrucks Peter to track down the rest of the villains while he figures out a way to reverse the spell. Although it’s a cringy line (censored for the trailer), Peter, MJ, and Ned use their Scooby Doo skills inside the Undercroft of the Sanctum Sanctorum. They track the next two villains on a power grid in the forest. Spider-Man’s stealth black & gold suit is just his original costume turned inside out to hide the paint. The spider suit is equipped with an enchanted gauntlet that Peter uses to teleport the villains into captivity.

Despite appearing in the worst reviewed Spider-Man movie, I got chills the moment Electro apparated on screen. Jamie Foxx returns 7 years after his role in The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Max Dillon’s past as an awkward nerd who wanted to be seen isn’t ignored, but his blue Ultimate appearance was the most in need of a makeover. Foxx was too big a name not to show his face. Spider-Man has trouble getting hold of Electro until he’s helped by Sandman. Thomas Haden Church sort of returns 14 years after his role in Spider-Man 3. Like Ifans, Church was similarly unavailable in person. It makes sense to have Connors in Lizard form the entire time, but I’m not sure why Flint Marko is sand the entire time. Despite the divisive nature of Spider-Man 3, the sudden appearance of Sandman was also a welcomed sight. His willingness to help Peter lines up with his sympathetic portrayal, but even Marko breaks bad when Dillon is transported to the dungeon wearing a yellow fireman uniform. Peter only finds Norman at the F.E.A.S.T. outreach shelter wearing a purple hoodie and green jacket. Norman makes mention of Oscorp Industries, his son Harry, and the darker half that he managed to keep in check…

58. Spider-Man No Way Home

Doctor Strange removes Peter’s astral form

Bringing the five best villains from five different Spider-Man movies together is the closest we may ever come to a live action Sinister Six. Since Spider-Man villains are often better than villains in the MCU, it’s a real treat seeing them act off eachother. Of course there’s no room for Topher Grace’s’ Venom, James Franco’s New Goblin, Dane Dehaan’s Green Goblin, or Paul Giamatti’s Rhino. Vulture, Shocker, or Mysterio couldn’t complete the Sinister Six since they’re all part of the current universe. Since they have shared history at Oscorp, we get to see Osborn and Octavius interact for the first time. Dillon has a similar shared history with Connors at their version of Oscorp. Since the villains are all science based, they each have varying reactions to magic being real. Octavius points out the fact that Osborn died and Marko fills in the blanks of Octavius dying as well. Dillon figures out he was about to die and Connors questions whether or not he dies.

No Way Home is a perfect viewing experience, but it does have a few plot holes for the sake of bringing everyone together. The villains only came to the MCU since they know Peter Parker is Spider-Man. Although Green Goblin, Doc Ock, Sandman, and the Lizard all found out Spider-Man’s secret identity, Electro never found out who Peter was. Osborn, Octavius, and Dillon all died fighting Spider-Man, but Marko and Connors both survived their movies. It doesn’t always line up, but you learn to accept those inconsistencies. Strange returns with an ancient relic called the Macchina di Kadavus that will allow him to reverse the spell. When Peter begins to rethink May’s advice to rehabilitate the villains rather than send them home to die, he chooses to web up the magic box and imprison Strange. It begins a hero vs. hero fight where Doctor Strange removes Peter’s astral form. Somehow his spider-sense keeps Strange from grabbing the box. Strange uses his sling ring, Cloak of Levitation, and the Mirror Dimension in an attempt to subdue the wallcrawler. Liz Allan can be seen on a magazine calling Peter a liar.

The Mirror Dimension sequence is on par with its impressive use in Doctor Strange. It was enough to earn No Way Home an Oscar nomination for Best Visual Effects. Even though it deserved so much more. New York is folded in even more mind-bending shapes that include a train and the Grand Canyon. Being a Spider-Man movie, I never expected Doctor Strange to win, but he hasn’t felt truly powerful since Infinity War. Peter actually uses math to trap Strange in a web that keeps him locked in the Mirror Dimension for the remainder of the movie. He uses the time to figure out cures for the villains who willingly volunteer for the experiment. Norman calls back to the line “I’m something of a scientist myself” since it became a funny meme. MJ and Ned agree to take the box while Peter and May treat the villains at Happy’s condo. Since technology is so much more advanced in the MCU, Peter uses a Stark fabricator to construct cures with Norman’s help. May gets her funny moment when she refers to Octavius as an octopus by offering him salt water. Connors stays behind for unknown reasons, but it would be kind of difficult to sneak a giant lizard into an apartment building.

Dillon starts to like the person he’s become, but Marko wants to go home to his daughter. They both bond over their similar origins of falling into things. Jameson only becomes relevant again when he tries to get more dirt on Spider-Man. Octavius is cured when they fix his inhibitor chip and Molina’s performance sells his gratitude. Returning the Iron Spider’s nanotechnology is what creates the integrated spider suit that blends the giant gold spider symbol with his red & black costume. Peter focuses his attention on Dillon by giving him a device that will drain his electricity. Peter’s spider-sense going off in a room full of villains is a tense moment that could have a number of outcomes. Dafoe seamlessly goes from sympathetic Norman to psychotic Green Goblin in a matter of minutes. He gives an all time best villain performance since we actually get to see his face. Dafoe continuing to smile and laugh maniacally after being punched repeatedly is truly terrifying. Green Goblin’s motivation is similar to the one he had in Spider-Man. He tells the villains to embrace their power and exploits Peter’s virtue for weakness.

Electro removes his power draining device and zaps the newly cured Octavius out the window. Sandman disappears and Lizard attacks Peter after escaping their truck. The fight between Spider-Man and the Green Goblin is brutal and it only ends when they crash through every floor of the building. Green Goblin finally starts to look a little closer to his comic book counterpart with a tattered purple hood and his battle damaged green armor. May using the failed serum on Osborn would’ve been a good way to give him green skin. SPOILER ALERT! Green Goblin proves exactly why he’s Spider-Man’s archenemy when he blames May for Peter’s crusade. He clips her with his glider and throws a pumpkin bomb that Peter barely deflects. May somehow survives the attack long enough to finally tell Peter “With great power there must also come great responsibility.” I gasped with excitement since cheering felt inappropriate. I’m just glad the iconic line was saved for a more impactful moment. In a sad twist of fate, Aunt May is the one who dies instead of Uncle Ben. Peter and Happy are devastated, but they aren’t given time to grieve when Damage Control ambushes them.

Jameson spins the story in a way that makes Spider-Man look like the one who caused the attack. It’s an extremely dramatic scene in the rain that shows how far Holland is willing to go. Back at Ned’s house, MJ considers activating the box. My heart started racing the moment Ned somehow manages to open a portal with the sling ring that he kept. The portal opening role was meant for America Chavez, but there’s more than enough characters already. So Ned was given vague magical history instead. My entire theater erupted with applause the moment a different Spider-Man jumped through a portal revealing himself to be Andrew Garfield. Then we cheered even louder the moment Tobey Maguire walked through the next portal. Every single Marvel fan was convinced all three Spider-Men were in the movie. Speculation got so out of hand that Holland, Garfield, Maguire and the rest of the cast had to outright deny the fact. I’m so glad they managed to pull it off, because every Spider-Man actor has something good to offer the webslinger.

Andrew Garfield returns 7 years after his tenure ended in The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Garfield was always given the short end of the stick, even though his portrayal captured the angst and sense of humor that Spider-Man is known for. Garfield always seemed a little bitter about moving on from the role, but he made a name for himself in Oscar caliber film roles. His return performance almost completely steals the show. Ned and MJ are confused to see another Peter Parker, so they make him stick to the ceiling and crawl around. It’s a hilarious scene with MJ throwing bread and an unexpected role for Ned’s Tagalog speaking Lola. Garfield is already wearing the improved costume he wore in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, but Maguire shows up in civilian clothing. Tobey Maguire returns 14 years after his tenure ended in Spider-Man 3. The original will always be the version I love most from my childhood. Maguire captured the intelligence, humanity, and heroism that made me love Spider-Man so much. Maguire’s return was the biggest question mark since he hasn’t had a physical acting role since 2014. Most of his time was spent producing, narrating The Boss Baby, and staying out of the limelight. Spider-Man memes were the only thing that kept him relevant until his inevitable return. It’s great to see Maguire again, but he is a lot older and his acting can be a little rusty.

Spider-Man coming face to face with another Spider-Man is an awesome moment where they flip around and shoot webs at each other. Both Peter’s agree that MCU Peter needs their help and they discuss similar places that they go to get away. Maguire has the Chrysler Building, Garfield has the Empire State Building, and Holland has Midtown High. Ned and MJ hug the grieving Peter and he comes face to face with the silhouette of fellow Spider-Men. Some people assumed Maguire and Garfield would be last minute cameos, but they are very much major characters given top-billing. Both Peter’s have experienced loss that motivated them as superheroes. Maguire talks about Uncle Ben’s death and the carjacker that he let fall to his death. Garfield talks about Gwen Stacy’s death and the rage he felt fighting crime as Spider-Man. No Way Home is the closest thing to a Spider-Man 4 and The Amazing Spider-Man 3 for the characters, but this is still Tom Holland’s movie. The more world weary Spider-Men encourage the broken down Peter when he says “With great power comes great responsibility.” Although Garfield never heard those specific words, they both agree Aunt May didn’t die for nothing.

Together all three Peter’s use their scientific expertise to finish the cures he was working on. It’s a cool scene where we get to catch up with the Peter’s we haven’t seen in years. Maguire tells Ned about his best friend Harry who became a villain before he died. It’s a fun reference to Ned possibly becoming Hobgoblin. In terms of their love life, Peter never found love after Gwen, but there’s always hope. Despite all their drama, Peter and Mary Jane eventually managed to make their relationship work. Neither Kirsten Dunst nor Emma Stone appear since there’s no room for them. I was just happy to see the iconic Spider-Man pointing meme recreated when Ned calls out to Peter. As they prepare to “cure some ass,” Garfield and Holland load up their web cartridges. Aside from being the only American Spider-Man actor, Maguire is also the only webslinger with organic webbing. Revealing his iconic original costume underneath is something I never thought I’d see on the big screen again. Much like X-Men (2000), the climax takes place at night on the newly reconstructed Statue of Liberty holding Captain America’s shield. MCU Peter reaches out to the remaining villains using a Daily Bugle livestream.

While they wait, the movie takes full advantage of having all three Spider-Men in one scene. Maguire calls back to his chronic back problems and Garfield humorously cracks it for him. They have a brother-like dynamic where Tobey is the wise older brother, Andrew is the caring middle brother, and Tom is the impressionable younger brother. Together they discuss webbing, existential crisis, the bad guys they fought, and Maguire encourages Garfield by calling him amazing. The official Marvel website refers to the previous wallcrawlers as The Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man and The Amazing Spider-Man to avoid confusion. They’re all confronted by Electro, Sandman, and the Lizard. Electro’s motivation is staying in the MCU where he’s far more powerful and better looking. They manage to fix his appearance with an arc reactor, yellow electricity, and an energy mask that pays homage to his classic Steve Ditko look. Though he mentions his original plan to turn New York into lizard people, Lizard’s motivation is vague aversion to being fixed. Sandman’s motivation is the most confusing, because he’s probably the least villainous of the five. I can only assume he’s just trying to survive at this point.

Their fight is unorganized since they usually don’t work in a team. Holland mentions his experience in the Avengers which the previous Spider-Men have never heard of. They finally give each other nicknames in order to help tell them apart. Since he’s the star, Holland is “Peter-One,” Maguire is “Peter-Two,” and Garfield humorously accepts “Peter-Three.” The moment is made better when Peter-Three tells his teammates how much he loves them. Knowing Garfield improvised the line makes him an even more underrated Spider-Man. Hands down my favorite moment in the movie is all three Spider-Men enthusiastically swinging together and landing in an iconic pose. The edited scene in the trailer was the biggest indication of the missing actors. Spider-Man movies usually have a problem when there are too many villains, but it helps to have everyone already established. Sandman becomes an enormous sand monster who buries Peter-Two before being cured by a reverse collider. Since Thomas Haden Church only shows his face through archive footage, Maguire is unable to have a genuine heart to heart.

Peter-Three has a brief chat with the transformed Dr. Connors before the LIzard focuses his attention on the exposed Ned and MJ. Attacking them in a classroom is a nice call back to the fight in The Amazing Spider-Man. Peter-One uses the same green mist cure that Peter-Three already made before. Rhys Ifans also shows his face through archive footage, but Holland doesn’t have much to say to him. Doctor Strange witnesses the transition when he returns from dangling over the Grand Canyon for 12 hours. Electro is pleased to see Peter-Three again, but it takes all three Spider-Men and a returning Doc Ock to take him down. Octavius heroically cures Dillon with a faster electricity draining device. Peter-Three has a genuine heart to heart with Max who continues to call himself a nobody. Apparently he always assumed Spider-Man was black since this is the first time he sees Peter’s face. Since Jamie Foxx was a race changed Electro, it was a good opportunity to reference Miles Morales. I’m just glad they didn’t try to fit him in the already crowded movie. The grown up Peter-Two has a heart to heart with the rehabilitated Otto by referencing the Spider-Man 2 line that he’s “trying to do better.”

The rest of the Spider-Men meet Strange who’s prepared to activate the box. Peter-Two’s spider-sense goes off when the Green Goblin returns on his glider once again asking if Spider-Man can come out to play. I gasped the moment a pumpkin bomb managed to blow up the spell and MJ was thrown from the scaffolding. Peter-One tries to save his true love, but he’s stopped by a passing Green Goblin. The scene was another perfect opportunity to have Peter-Three successfully rescue a falling damsel after failing to save Gwen. Garfield’s tearful reaction is another indication of his acting talent. Since the Green Goblin made things personal, Peter-One doesn’t hold back in trying to kill him. Their final battle is even more brutal than the last. As Peter-One prepares to use his glider against him, Peter-Two heroically keeps him from taking a dark path. Green Goblin stabbing the original Spider-Man is a shocking moment, but they’re just messing with the audience. Though he continues to taunt Peter-One, Peter-Three gives him the reverse serum cure he needs to save Norman. Peter-Two never speaks to Norman, but the latter does feel remorseful about his actions.

With all the villains cured, Strange attempts to repair the crumbling multiverse. A silhouette of villains can be seen in the sky including Kraven, Scorpion, Black Cat, and a more comic accurate Rhino. Sadly, the only way to stop it is to have Strange erase Peter Parker from everyone’s memory as if he never existed. Continuing the trend of third installment MCU heroes losing a part of themselves. The Spider-hug shared between all three Spider-Men is something I never knew I needed. Peter shakes his best friends hand one last time and exchanges heartfelt “I love yous” with MJ. The spell works and J. Jonah Jameson has no clue who Spider-Man really is. Like the Blip, the spell opens up many questions that don’t need to be answered at this time. Closer to Christmas, Peter intends to reintroduce himself to Ned and MJ. However, he makes the ultimate sacrifice to let his loved ones go in order to keep them safe. No Way Home is the 5th Spider-Man movie to end at a cemetery. Peter visits Aunt May’s grave and encounters Happy who doesn’t remember him. Which may be the last we ever see of Stark’s beloved bodyguard. Peter gets a crappy apartment where he has to pay rent. He fills it with Ned’s LEGO Emperor from Homecoming and the cup of coffee MJ gave him.

Spider-Man finally feels like his comic book counterpart when he listens to a police scanner and has one final swing in the snow wearing a bright red & blue costume. Doctor Strange’s involvement and the three Spider-Men made “The Magic Number” by De La Soul the perfect song for the scientific end credits. For the first time since Captain America: The First Avenger, the after-credits scene is a literal teaser for Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (more on that later). Like everyone else,  I wondered what happened to Venom after his arrival in the MCU was teased at the end of Let There Be Carnage. Although he has no clue who Peter Parker is, Venom could’ve easily completed the Sinister Six. Instead Tom Hardy’s cameo as Eddie Brock is treated like a joke. The mid-credits scene shows Eddie drunk in a bar trying to figure out the MCU. He learns about Iron Man and Hulk with humorous commentary from Venom. Despite intending to go after Spider-Man, Eddie & Venom are whisked away before they have a chance to do anything. Leaving behind a piece of the symbiote that gives me hope for the future. Sony may continue to make stupid decisions like Morbius, Kraven the Hunter, and Madame Webb, but the ending doesn’t totally erase Spidey from the MCU. Into the Spider-Verse was good, but Spider-Man: No Way Home is fan service done right.

59. Spider-Man No Way Home

Spider-Man finds Electro in the forest

Preceded by: Spider-Man: Far From Home