Skyscraper

‘This is stupid,’ says Dwayne Johnson’s soot-strewn action man at one point in Skyscraper. That’s about as close as we come to self-awareness in a film overburdened with clumsy dialogue, senseless plotting and hackneyed character developments. It should have been the perfect Johnson vehicle: an undemanding yet insane thrill ride, filled with preposterous, physics-defying set-pieces (the trailer-heralded crane jump is just the tip of the ludicrous iceberg) that coasts on the considerable charms of one of the hardest working action heroes around (this is Johnson’s fifth outing of the past 12 months). But rather than a towering triumph, it’s little more than an infuriating disappointment.

Reuniting with his Central Intelligence director Rawson Marshall Thurber, Johnson plays retired FBI agent and war veteran Will Sawyer. Looking to kickstart his security business, he takes a job assessing the world’s tallest skyscraper in Hong Kong. The state-of-the-art structure is apparently so safe, it’s known as the ‘mile-high Fort Knox’… so naturally it’s soon engulfed in flames and overrun with terrorists, leaving Sawyer’s family trapped inside as he desperately searches for a way to save them.

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Though Skyscraper is pleasingly unique in having a disabled hero (Sawyer loses his leg in an early character-building trauma), for the most part it’s a shameless regurgitation of other films that leaves little in the way of surprise. It doesn’t help that every twist and turn in Thurber’s script is clunkily foreshadowed in the first act: a kid’s asthma, a high-tech tourist attraction at the top of the building, Neve Campbell’s character’s uselessness with technology… all of these elements come back into play later on, in exactly the ways you’d imagine.

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The lack of attention paid to Sawyer’s disability is the biggest missed opportunity. Early on the film works hard to paint its hero as emotionally and physically vulnerable. He’s nervous, untrusting of his body and unsure in his decision making. But all of this is quickly discarded as soon as Johnson is required to perform the super-human stunt work that people came to see. Even the (literal) handicap of having one leg barely troubles Sawyer, being used mostly as a convenient get-out for tricky scenarios rather than an obstacle to be overcome.

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That’s hardly ruinous for a film that’s intended to be pure wild escapism – and to Thurber’s credit, he delivers a number of vertigo-inducing sequences. Yet everything is played with such a po-faced manner that it sucks the joy out of proceedings. There’s a lack of clever zingers to let us know the filmmakers are in on the joke, and we’re burdened with a bland, all-muscle-no-flair villain and an absurdly convoluted plot that essentially boils down to a spat over a memory stick.

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Johnson is such a likeable (not to mention bankable) star, there’s no risk that we’ll tire of his alpha male antics and you’ll almost certainly find yourself hooked on the action as the film races towards it’s fiery climax. But there’s no ignoring the fact that Skyscraper does not play to his strengths. It lacks the bonkers ferocity of Rampage, the clever comedy of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and the suped-up muscle of the Fast and Furious franchise. In other words: it’s just stupid.

Runtime: 102 mins (approx.)

Director: Rawson Marshall Thurber

Screenwriter: Rawson Marshall Thurber

Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Neve Campbell, Chin Han, Roland Møller

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Sicario 2: Soldado – Film Review

There are no heroes in this world. That was the message so brilliantly and bitterly delivered by 2015’s Sicario, which brutally crushed Hollywood perceptions of good guys and bad guys by lifting the lid on US undercover operations tackling the drug war and revealing the vicious and violent characters working on both sides. That Sicario 2: Soldado manages to be an even darker, badder, bloodier beast than its predecessor is an impressive achievement, then. Which only makes it all the more frustrating when the film lurches unconvincingly off its dark, dusty road in search of cheap, sequel-baiting path toward the light.

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We re-join the action an indeterminate time after Sicario to find the drug war escalating further out of control. After a horrific terrorist attack on US soil is linked to cartel-backed Mexican people smugglers, Josh Brolin’s coldly pragmatic covert ops specialist is tasked with inciting a war between rival gangs. For that he needs an agent of chaos and immediately turns to Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), a ruthlessly efficient hitman who has no qualms about gunning down cartel lawyers in broad daylight to send a message. Introduced in the first film as a relentless vengeance-bent killing machine, Soldado adds deeper layers to Alejandro’s character, bringing del Toro’s tragically soulful performance to the fore as he comes into contact with the kidnapped daughter of a druglord and finds himself at odds with his employers.

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While he might not possess original director Dennis Villeneuve’s mastery of pulsating rhythm or hypnotic pacing, Stefan Sollima (Suburra) shows he has an eye for slick, gritty set-pieces. A bone-shattering suicide bombing is the standout sequence, viscerally exposing the harrowing mundanity of modern terrorism. That scene neatly segues into a Zero Dark Thirty-style raid in Somalia, as Sollima launches into a series of taut, confident set-pieces that’ll make your jaw ache.

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Intersecting with the tale of Miguel, a seemingly unrelated young man being inducted into cartel life by his cousin, the plot is dense and rather heavy-going, meaning the story takes a while to click into gear in the early stages. But once the central premise has been explained and the bodies start to pile up, things hurtle towards an inevitably bleak and bloody conclusion as returning screenwriter Taylor Sheridan reaffirms his reputation for delivering smart, surprising character studies of violent men.

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Having built such a tense, absorbingly complex story, it’s hard to understand why Sollima and Sheridan pull their fingers off the trigger at the final moment. The first film was defined by its remorseless approach to tackling the drug war in unflinching detail. It took Emily Blunt’s virtuous FBI agent and dismantled her sense of right and wrong so ruthlessly, there was nothing left of her character to return for this follow-up. Soldado is the antithesis of that approach. Having steered their characters into desperately grim situations of their own making, Sollima and Sheridan work hard to find implausible ways to get them out of harm’s way so that they can safely return when a third film inevitably arrives, which a clunky final scene all but confirms. There’s undoubtedly more stories to be told in this rich, complex world Sheridan has crafted, but if future instalments are going to match the success of Sicario they need to stay true to the fundamental tenet of this dark, violent world. This is no place for heroes.

Runtime: 122 mins (approx.)
Director: Stefan Sollima
Screenwriter: Taylor Sheridan
Stars: Josh Brolin, Benicio del Toro, Isabela Moner, Elijah Rodriguez

Ocean’s 8 – Film Review

‘I’ll tell you, we’ve got some feisty women that’ll fight right back,’ Sandra Bullock warned potential online trolls ahead of her all-female reboot of the Ocean’s franchise. That neither she nor any her co-stars had to raise a fist in defence of their casting feels like an unexpected, pleasingly progressive step forward after the online vitriol that dogged that other gender-swapping reboot, 2016’s Ghostbusters. While reaction to its casting breaks new ground, the film itself feels trapped in the past. Stalking too closely to the tricks and tropes of heist move lore, Ocean’s 8 is a weightless, undemanding caper that just about coasts by on the wit and chemistry of its star-studded cast.

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Leading the charge this time around is Bullock’s Debbie Ocean, the sister of a now deceased Danny, who’s just blagged her way out on parole after a lengthy prison stretch. Rather than reflecting on her life choices, Debbie wisely used her time inside to hatch a plan to pull-off the biggest jewel heist in history: nabbing a $150 million diamond necklace right off the neck of one of the world’s most famous celebs, Daphne Kluger (a gloriously bratty Anne Hathaway), at the Met gala. Bullock is excellent as the charismatic career criminal – the sheer ballsiness of the way she approaches her scheme is enough to make you root for her.

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Of course, even someone with hustling in their blood can’t pull-off such an audacious crime alone, and naturally Debbie recruits a ragtag band of different skill sets to help. Cate Blanchett’s vodka-diluting bar owner is her right-hand woman. Helena Bonham Carter’s debt-riddled designer is positioned as Daphne’s dress-maker. Sarah Paulson’s frustrated soccer mom (whose garage looks like an Amazon warehouse) is on hand to move the stolen goods. Awkwafina is a slick-talking fast-fingered pick-pocket. Rihanna plays a pot-smoking hacker. And Mindy Kaling rounds out the troupe as a jewellery maker who just wants to escape the clutches of her overbearing mother.

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Having assembled such an engaging, entertaining mix of characters, it’s a shame director Gary Ross traps them into such a spiritless, uninvolving movie. Ross tries to replicate some of Steven Soderbergh’s finger-snapping verve with plenty of split screens and funky transitions, but that fails to mask the unexciting story unfolding before our eyes. Potential pitfalls in plotting the heist are all-too easily navigated, the twists and turns are overly telegraphed (especially the ‘surprise’ reveal of Debbie’s eight recruit) and the biggest threat to Debbie’s plan going off without a hitch is a pot-smoking bus boy. Even the arrival of James Corden‘s gratingly English insurance investigator fails to turn up the heat on our hustlers.

With so little jeopardy, Ocean’s 8’s biggest thrill is finally seeing a film devoted to the exploits of a group of cool female criminals who get by on their guts, guile and smarts alone. No wonder the internet trolls stayed away: these women are a formidable bunch. It’s just a shame they weren’t given more of a chance to show it.

Runtime: 110 mins (approx.)
Director: Gary Ross
Screenwriters: Gary Ross, Olivia Milch
Stars: Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Mindy Kaling, Anne Hathaway

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom – Film Review

If Jurassic World really were a theme park, it’s grand opening couldn’t have gone any better. A visually dazzling, exhilaratingly dangerous thrill ride, the de-extincted franchise rocked and rumbled audiences off their seats – only for them to dust themselves off and line-up for another go around to the tune of more than $1.5 billion worldwide. But with unprecedented success comes T-Rex-sized expectations for Fallen Kingdom to not only match its predecessor’s savvy, ridiculous fun, but throw a whole new set of dizzying, terrifically enjoyable attractions into the mix. And that’s a challenge far easier said than done – just as the filmmakers behind The Lost World and III.

At the very least, Fallen Kingdom succeeds where those maligned sequels faltered, with screenwriters Colin Trevorrow and Derek Connolly delivering a compelling motivation for their heroes to return to the land of marauding dinosaurs. Isla Neblar’s no-longer-dormant volcano is a ticking time bomb, forcing the park’s former operations managed-turned-dino activist Claire (Howard) and beefcake trainer Owen on a mission to rescue a handful of species, including Owen’s beloved Blue, before the lava starts to flow.

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While the crunched, twisted ruins of Isla Neblar remain a breathtaking sight, the Island-set sequences stomp a little too close to the dinos-chasing-people tropes of the rest of the franchise. The Impossible’s A. J. Bayona (who replaces Trevorrow in the director’s chair) unleashes a series of thunderously intense set-pieces – the highlight being a clawingly claustrophobic underwater scene; but we’ve seen unsuspecting visitors fleeing a thunderous stampede, braving uncomfortably close encounters with toothy reptiles, or getting trapped in a gyrosphere in previous movies. The plot hardly attempts to subvert expectations, either, with a clunky script that telegraphs its twists far too heavily for impact – it’ll surprise no-one to learn that the ruthless mercenaries hired to assist the evac have less than noble intentions.

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Even when the movie switches the action to the sprawling, spooky Lockwood Estate, it still feels like it’s going through the same motions. Bayona does more fine work, returning to the haunted house-stylings of his debut The Orphanage to orchestrate plenty of beautifully crafted scares as InGen’s latest gene-spliced plaything, the Indoraptor, breaks loose and starts prowling the mansion for prey. But again, the sight of humans cowering in the dark as a set of flared, scaly nostrils and a spiky grin hove into view is hardly unfamiliar. It feels like Bayona has merely renamed the ride and slapped on a fresh coat of paint, while the carriage still travels along the same old predictable track.

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Such a lack of invention might hardly be noticeable, were we invested in the fates of any of the characters. While Claire and Owen are more rounded and have far more chemistry this time out, Justice Smith’s nervy tech nerd and Daniella Pineda’s feminist paleoveterinarian barely register, and one character’s mysterious identity is too heavily foreshadowed to truly surprise. Meanwhile, Rafe Spall’s sneaky assistant, Ted Levine’s snarling trophy collector, and Toby Jones’ Trump-esque auctioneer are so cartoonishly hissable, it’s difficult to take seriously the film’s darker themes about animal testing and mankind’s responsibility to other life on this planet.

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Ultimately, then, Fallen Kingdom is little more than a well-crafted collection of fun, shiny set-pieces, but with little emotional tissue to bind them into a satisfying experience. With the story left tantalising poised on the cusp of a brave new Jurassic world, further instalments are seemingly inevitable; but on the basis of this so-so adventure, the question is: will anyone be back for another ride?

Runtime: 128 minutes (approx.)

Director: A. J. Bayona

Screenwriters: Colin Trevorrow, Derek Donnolly

Stars: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Rafe Spall, Ted Levine

Solo: A Star Wars Story – Film Review

It’s fair to say this was not the Star Wars spinoff most fans were looking for. Rogue One may have proved that George Lucas’ universe could more than hold its own outside of the main Skywalker saga, but that was a movie about a band of plucky heroes forgotten to a few lines in A New Hope’s opening crawl.

Solo is a very different game of Sabacc. Not only tasked with telling the origin story of one of cinema’s most iconic heroes, it must do so without the laconic charms of a too-old Harrison Ford and in a way that hits all the fan-pleasing beats in new, exciting ways. And that’s before we even mention original directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s ‘creative differences’ with Lucasfilm.

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With so many potential pitfalls in its path, it’s remarkable how breezy and unencumbered the resultant film feels. Solo is a fast and loose action adventure romp that acts as a spirited alternative to the main saga, albeit one that lacks the confident vision, inventive verve and unexpected thrills of its galactic peers.

The action kicks off at a frantic pace, whipping through the dank industrial slums of Corellia, the fire and bloodshed of a World War One-esque battlefield, and a tensely-mounted over-and-under train heist on a remote mountain planet as a baby-faced Han struggles to find his place in the galaxy.

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While Alden Ehrenreich is by no means a perfect replacement for Ford (who could be?), he grows into the role, exhibiting enough rogueish charisma and dry one-liners to be convincing and adding new layers to the character. Untouched by life’s rigours, Young Han is an eternal optimist, believing he can take on the world, win big and punch it into the sunset with the love of his life, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke). Solo sets about dismantling that rose-tinted world view in brutal fashion as Han’s smash and grab for a load of valuable hyperfuel throws him into a dangerous alliance with Paul Bettany’s icy crimelord Dryden Vos. By the time the credits roll, you’ll be entirely convinced of how a swift-footed dreamer could become the cynical smuggler we know and love.

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While Han’s frenetic tactics throw him in and out of some tight spots, replacement director Ron Howard’s handling of the film is far too safe and by the book. The anticipated beats – meeting Chewie, winning the Millennium Flacon, the Kessel Run – fail to live up to expectations. The plot’s twists and turns are effortlessly predictable. And a wealth of intriguing characters drift in and out of scenes with little impact. Glover’s pitch-perfectly smooth rendition of Lando, his cheeky activist droid L3-37 (played by a whip-smart Phoebe Waller-Bridge), Wood Harrelson’s hard-bitten career criminal Beckett, and Clarke’s ambiguous Qi’ra all have promising backstories that are never given enough time to flourish.

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One relationship Howard and screenwriters Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan get absolutely right, though, is the comradeship between Han and his big furry friend. From their initial meet-cute scrapping in a mud pit, Han and Chewie’s burgeoning friendship is a joy to watch, the brotherly back and forth flowing effortlessly as they bond and join forces to rise against their tormentors.

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With an ever-expanding family of Star Wars movies dropping out of hyperspace, Solo offers a fun, fast-paced, if patchy, palette-cleanser to the main saga’s fate-of-the-galaxy dealings. The only question is whether a young Han Solo has a distinctive voice strong enough to stand alone in such a crowded galaxy.

Runtime: 135 mins (approx.)
Director: Ron Howard
Screenwriters: Lawrence & Jonathan Kasdan
Stars: Alden Ehrenreich, Emilia Clarke, Woody Harrelson, Paul Bettany

 

Deadpool 2 – Film Review

Deadpool does things differently. Fast-talking, gleefully profane and with a fondness for fourth-wall-breaking, the first ‘proper’ outing for the Merc with a Mouth had an outrageous spirit that pulled the pants down on its fellow oh-so-serious comic book movies. And did it with a wink and a smirk.

So it follows that Deadpool 2 was never going to bow to convention and follow its record-breaking predecessor by going bigger, badder and darker. Instead, it takes a katana to the rule book and just keeps doing what Deadpool does best. Namely, delivering a ferociously filthy and wildly entertaining antidote to the usual fate-of-the-world superhero formula.

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With John Wick’s David Leitch at the helm (replacing Tim Miller), Deadpool 2 has a slick, confident swagger. The restless stream of gore, dick jokes and meta put-downs are ballsier, cleverly and cruelly taking down rival superhero universes, Deadpool’s own messy cinematic history and featuring what’s quite possibly the most disturbing Basic Instinct gag ever committed to film. The giddy kinetic action sequences, meanwhile, have an inventive verve, including a comically catastrophic road heist that’s so ruthlessly violent, even Thanos would be watching from between his big meaty purple paws.

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That’s mightily impressive given Deadpool spends most of the movie in a massive funk. Having reunited with fiancée Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) and found a living using his unique brand of crime fighting, Wade is ready to start a family. But when that chance is ripped away from him by tragedy, he sinks into a deep depression. Ryan Reynolds struggles to sell these bleaker moments, which jar with the movie’s otherwise haywire energy. Watching Wade mourn, you’ll find yourself waiting for a punchline that never comes to undercut the mood. That’s because the character development doesn’t ring true, the transition from ultimate loner to doting father-to-be coming without explanation, and Wade’s pain lacks impact as a result.

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Fortunately, Wade quickly finds a new family when a grizzled super solider with a “Winter Soldier arm” travels from the future to kill a super-powered child, and Deadpool forms the X-Force to help take him down. Once Deadpool has a fresh batch of super buddies to riff off of, the movie really finds its stride. Zazie Beetz is enjoyably invincible as ‘lucky’ Domino; Rob Delaney makes an adorable cameo as the sweetly non-super-powered Peter; and with Cable, Josh Brolin continues to show he has a knack for imbuing unstoppable Marvel baddies with wit, charm and uncommon vulnerability.

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The cynical view might be to say that this simply serves to set-up a future universe of inter-connected franchises (an X-Force movie is already in development). Yet this is still Reynolds’ movie and a role that fits him like a tailor-made spandex suit, providing the perfect vehicle for his juvenile charm and hyperwit. So whether its slicing up scoundrels while wearing stilettos or tea-bagging a time-travelling robot hitman, whatever Deadpool does next, it’s sure to be something different.

Runtime: 119 mins (approx.)
Director: David Leitch
Screenwriters: Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick, Ryan Reynolds
Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Josh Brolin, Zazie Beetz, Morena Baccarin

Avengers: Infinity War – Film Review

“The fate of the universe is at stake,” warns Doctor Strange, early on in Avengers: Infinity War. That’s no overstatement. The first of a two-part story – an untitled Avengers 4 is due next year – that’s widely pitched as the endgame for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this latest superhero mashup promises to bring 10 years and 18 movies of unprecedented world-building to a close with planet-shattering consequences. That’s one hell of a mission statement. Yet Infinity War not only matches its gargantuan ambitions; it smashes through them, delivering Marvel’s most shocking, dramatically hefty movie so far.

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That Avengers prefix is a tad misleading, though. Infinity War might involve pretty much every major character in the MCU, but they’re all overshadowed by the giant, purple-skinned titan who’s finally decided to get off his space toilet and join the fight. A darkly operatic opening sequence immediately dispels any lingering doubts about Thanos’ (Josh Brolin) effectiveness as a villain, with a ruthless demonstration of power grimly kick starting a rampage across the cosmos as he makes a smash-and-grab for the remaining Infinity Stones.

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That he is such a frighteningly formidable foe owes a great deal to the emotional weight Brolin brings to Thanos’ pixelated heft. His plan to exterminate half the universe is completely mad, but it’s powered by traumatic experience and his victories come at great personal cost. He suffers for his cause and the unimaginable lengths he’s prepared to go to succeed in his mission make him a far more compelling villain than we’re used to seeing in the MCU.

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It’s this unflinching determination that sets Thanos apart from the splintered band of heroes who try to stop him. “We don’t trade lives,” Steve Rodger’s (Chris Evans) nobly claims at one point in the movie – Thanos spends most of the near-150 minute runtime testing that conviction. Time and again the Avengers are forced to chose between saving a life and doing what’s necessary to win, a constant turmoil that drags them into dark, challenging places as they confront their deepest demons. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) comes face to face with the monster who has tormented him since the Chitauri invasion of New York. Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) has to consider how far he’s prepared to go to keep his promises. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) doubts how much more he can bear to lose. Is the price of being a hero one any of them are willing to pay?

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For all the bleak, existential quandaries, this is still a Marvel movie – so there’s plenty of levity shining through the darkness. The fractured, disparate nature of the heroes leads to several delightfully unusual combinations. The meeting of egos between Stark and Strange certainly doesn’t disappoint. Thor’s unexpected arrival aboard the Guardian’s ship is another hilarious highlight, as is his amusingly accurate retelling of his family history. And Tom Holland continues to prove he’s the best on-screen Spider-Man yet with his naive exuberance landing some of the film’s best lines.

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Naturally, not every thing works perfectly. With such a massive cast, it’s unsurprising that several characters struggle to make an impact – the Children of Thanos fail to register as anything more than surprisingly handy henchman – and it feels like directors Anthony and Joe Russo are pulling their punches with some of the bigger plot twists. These minor quibbles feel just that, though, when the rest of the film is such a bold, exciting spectacle. That’s especially true as the movie enters its thrilling endgame, culminating in perhaps the most strikingly inviting of cliffhangers since Han Solo was dipped in carbon. Think Infinity War is the end of the Marvel Universe? On this basis, it’s just getting started.

Runtime: 149 minutes (approx.)
Directors: Anthony and Joe Russo
Screenwriters: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely
Stars: Josh Brolin, Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth