FlixChatter Review: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021)

Phase Four of the MCU started off with Black Widow, which ends up being of my favorites of the entire MCU. While that one is a long-overdue female representation, Shang-Chi is even more so in terms of Asian representation, both in front and behind the camera, so naturally there’s a lot riding on this film. I had been on vacation when the movie came out, so as soon as I came back, my hubby and I immediately booked tickets to see it at a local cinema. We managed to find a theater with an UltraScreen DLX and I’m so glad we did, the visuals is as stunning as one would expect from Marvel.

Director Destin Daniel Cretton didn’t waste much time to immerse us into the world of Shang-Chi, and having the legendary Hong Kong star Tony Leung as Wenwu didn’t hurt as he absolutely commands your attention as soon as you see him on screen. I’m glad the film skipped the opening credits and went straight into the origin story… chronicling Wenwu’s journey after he obtained the magical ten rings and his unquenchable thirst for power. We’re treated to some stunning fight choreography right from the start, and Mr. Leung is no stranger to martial art movies so it’s so great to see him perform those moves and the 59 year old actor is still as sprightly as ever.

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I’m especially glad that they didn’t strip him off his romantic charm as well. Having just seen In The Mood For Love recently, Mr. Leung is just as charismatic in dramas as he is in action flicks, and here we get to see him fall in love with a beautiful woman named Li (a luminous Fala Chen). A voice over narration explains that Wenwu’s conquered pretty much the entire earthly universe, but it was not enough for him he tried to conquer those outside earth and that’s when he met Li who guards the ethereal world of Ta-Lo. The fight sequences amidst a bamboo forest evokes scenes from Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers.

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For a while, it seemed love conquered all as Wenwu didn’t use the ten rings and seemingly content living a peaceful life as a family life with his wife and two kids. But all hell break loose when Li dies and Wenwu is now consumed with vengeance, which leads to Shang-Chi running away and starting a new life in San Francisco. Simu Liu has that instant likability about him that works for the role… Shaun (as he now calls himself) works as a valet attendant with his bestie Katy (Awkwafina). They make for quite a dynamic duo who constantly poke fun at each other, their rapport feels natural and effortless.

I love the small touches of Asian-American life when Shaun picks up Katy at her apartment home and her multi-generational family are having breakfast together. It’s common for Asian parents to constantly berate their kids for not applying themselves fully, and the fact that Katy has a degree from a good school and now working as a valet doesn’t exactly spell success for her parents. 

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There’s a fun mix of humor and action, starting with the first big fight scene inside a moving bus where we see Shaun’s extraordinary ability. Katy’s stunned expression as he witness his best friend tackle a bunch of bad guys is all of us… as it’s the first time we get to see Simu Liu emerges as a formidable action hero. The fight sequences are phenomenal, especially the one between Simu and Razor Fist, the leader of the Ten Rings organization started by Wenwu back in the Middle Ages. Fist is played by Florian Munteanu (who was in Creed II opposite Michael B. Jordan), an enormous guy with a fiery sword for an arm. Some of the bus driving scenes reminds me of Speed, which could be intentional given Keanu Reeves is the most famous actor of mixed Chinese descent. 

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Though he survives the fight, Shang-Chi realizes his jade pendant got stolen in the process. Realizing his father is going after the other pendant his mom had given to his sister, he decides to track her down in Macau. Another impressive action scene ensues at an underground fight club where we get to see Wong fight Abomination in the ring. It’s always fun to see Benedict Wong on screen, in and out of the MCU.

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Shang-Chi’s opponent turns out to be her own sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) who had also ran away from home and had become a force to be reckoned with, not just physically but in terms of business as well as she actually owns the club. I really appreciate the female representation in addition to the racial one as the movie is filled with strong, powerful women who forge their own path to success. “If my father won’t let me into his empire, I will build my own” You go girl! I now count Zhang as one of my favorite MCU heroines and that post-credit scene promises something more with her character. It would be so great to see a MCU spin-off with Xialing. 

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The night action scenes that follow is quite breathtaking as well .The building fight scene with lit by neon billboards reminds me a bit of the one in Skyfall, but this movie made it their own with some thrilling Kung Fu moves. This long action scene shows not just Shang-Chi’s incredible abilities but Xialing’s as well who is definitely a force to be reckoned with.

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Speaking of powerful women, you can’t go wrong with casting another Asian veteran actor Michelle Yeoh as Ying Nan, Shang-Chi’s aunt. After Shang-Chi, Katy and Xialing were captured by the Ten Rings army, they learn that Wenwu is planning to go back to Ta-Lo to destroy it. Somehow he’s haunted by a voice he thought were of his wife asking him to rescue him.

The journey as they escape the Ten Rings compound is actually pretty hilarious, thanks to SPOILER ALERT [highlight to read] the appearance of Trevor Slattery aka The Mandarin, the washed-up actor played by Sir Ben Kingsley. He is so funny in this movie, along with his sidekick pet Morris, a furry dog with sparkly wings, one of the mythical creatures from Ta-Lo. With Trevor/Morris’ help, they were able to reach Ta-Lo without being eaten by the bamboo forest. Once there, they’re trained by Ying Nan as they prepare to fight Wenwu.

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I have to say the third act is a bit too bombastic for my taste, which is my quibble with a lot of superhero movies out there. The final battle is a loud, CGI-fest scenario which I suppose is unavoidable when it involves a large dragon and other flying mythical creatures. Thankfully it doesn’t descend to the absurd level of Man of Steel where the last 15-20 minute or so is absolutely aggravating instead of thrilling.

It’s wise that writers Dave Callaham, Andrew Lanham and Destin Daniel Cretton pepper the big action spectacle with smaller, more character-driven scenes such as giving Katy a chance to make her mark amongst those with extraordinary abilities. I love the final scenes between Shang-Chi and Wenwu, displaying a complex, emotional father-son dynamic that humanizes the fantastical narrative. I also commend Cretton that he incorporates the flashback scenes in such a way that move the story forward instead of making it feel tedious or repetitive.

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There are a lot to love and appreciate in this movie, and I really can’t say enough about the fantastic casting of Tony Leung. Can’t believe this is his first ever role in an American film and his first English-speaking role, but he brings such dignity and humanity to the role, his emotional performance made Wenwu so much more than just a one-dimensional villain. In fact, he’s more of a tragic character than an all-out evil person hellbent on destroying the world. He and Michelle Yeoh automatically add immense gravitas just by being present in this film.

I’m happy to say I’m impressed with Simu Liu as an action hero and I think he shines in the more dramatic moments as well. I was slightly worried Awkwafina might be too much in the best-friend role but she’s actually delightful to watch here. She works well together with Simu instead of outshining him with her larger-than-life personality. 

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Overall, I’m so glad I get to see Shang-Chi on the big screen in its opening weekend. It’s massively entertaining with dazzling action sequences + fight choreography, shot beautifully by Bill Pope. The fact that Stan Lee modeled Shang-Chi character after Bruce Lee, of course we expect stunning fight scenes and this movie delivered! There are plenty of outstanding scenes that will stand as one of the most memorable of the MCU, the bus fight is definitely one of them. For me, as a critic of Southeast Asian descent, it’s obviously thrilling to see the success of a movie with mostly Asian cast and an Asian director at the helm. I’m happy to say Shang-Chi is top tier MCU and glad to read the box office numbers looks good, which is a huge win for Asian representation in Hollywood. Hopefully it has longer legs the fact that it’s playing exclusively in theaters. One thing for sure, this one deserves to be seen in as big a screen as possible.

4/5 stars


Have you seen SHANG-CHI? I’d love to hear what you think!

FlixChatter Review: Raya and the Last Dragon (2021)

Ok so even though I grew up watching a ton of Disney animated movies (especially the ones w/ princesses because that’s what many little girls do), I don’t immediately get excited for every new Disney animated movies that come along. In fact, you’d be surprised that I haven’t watched The Princess and The Frog, Coco, or even Moana [gasp!] – I know, that seems unthinkable since I’m a reviewer from Indonesia, right? In any case, when I first saw the trailer for this I thought it looked cool and yes, I’m always glad to see a movie with a largely Southeast Asian actors.

Raya and the Last Dragon is set in a fantasy world called Kumandra where humans and dragons lived together in harmony. I can’t help but think of How To Train Your Dragon after Toothless became friends with Hiccup. But then some ominous monster that looks like purple/black smoke known as the Druun basically destroyed that harmony, which led to the dragons sacrificing themselves to save humanity by putting their magic into a Dragon Gem. It’s now 500 years later and Kumandra is now split up to five regions/provinces: Heart, Fang, Spine, Tail and Talon. The opening scene shows young Raya (voiced wonderfully by Kelly Marie Tran) with her wise father Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim), the leader of Heart Land discussing the upcoming visit from the other four regions. It’s clear from such a young age, Raya has always been a vivacious and quite fearless young woman and she’s been training to become the guardian of the Dragon Gem. It’s during this visit that Raya was betrayed by another young girl from Fang called Namaari (Gemma Chan, sporting a rather odd American-accent) that not only creates more division between the provinces, but also brings back the nefarious Druun that turns anyone in their path into stone.

I have to say that it took me a bit to get into the story as I was distracted by low-resolution of the screener I got. I’ve talked about it a big here, for some reason the picture quality just doesn’t look sharp which is a bummer given how dazzling the visuals and colors are. Even besides that, that’s quite a complex backstory that makes me think that smaller kids might not be the target audience here. Plus, some of the scenes of peril when Druun wreaks havoc over Heart land can be quite scary for some toddlers.

The movie then propels us to years later when Raya is now a young woman whose BFF (who doubles as a transportation mode) is a cute Armadillo-type creature named Tuk Tuk. She’s on a mission to collect the shattered gemstones from the other four provinces and in that epic journey she ends up awakening the last dragon Sisu (Awkwafina) from its slumber. The tone of the movie immediately shifts from drama to comedy as soon as Sisu wakes up. Awkwafina’s comedic style and Sisu’s constant state of bewilderment is quite amusing. Now, the last dragon might sound so magnanimous and dignified, but Sisu turns out to be such a bubbly, perhaps even nerdy type creature that looks like a fluffy, elongated pony with cotton candy colors. The interactions between Raya and Sisu, who unsurprisingly becomes besties right away, is a lot of fun, especially when the shape-shifter dragon takes form of a human (complete with cotton-candy colored mane). I have to say though, the constant tone-shifting feels a bit off at times.

In her epic journey, Raya also encounters various characters, some more interesting than others. 10-year old boat captain Boun (Izaac Wang) and warrior giant with a big heart Tong (Benedict Wong) add some emotional layers to the story, as they deal with familial loss and loneliness. But the con-baby Little Noi with her monkey friends, not so much. In fact her scenes are perhaps my least favorite and is not the least bit funny. The comedic bits don’t always work well here, but by the third act, the movie has already shifts back to drama mode with some thrilling martial-art action thrown in. The third act also attempts to balance the backstory of Sisu’s family and the final confrontation between Raya and her main foe Namaari, and for the most part it succeeds.

Directed by Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada, and written by Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim (the latter also wrote the rom-com hit Crazy Rich Asians), I appreciate the filmmakers’ (well the big mouse studio’s) effort to have diversity and inclusivity – creating a strong heroine in Raya and crafting a story that honors the many South East Asian origins. I read an article that says the production team visited Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam for their research, so you see an amalgamation of those regions represented in various forms in the film, whether it’s in the culture, martial arts, food, architecture, etc. Speaking of the food, the movie made me hungry looking at those scrumptious SE Asian cuisines and snacks the characters are eating!

I feel like I should address some of the criticism I read online about how it’s lacking specificity and that the voice casting are not all from SE Asia. As someone born and bred in one of the countries used as inspiration in the film, I actually think it’s a bit unfair to expect a studio like Disney to create a perfect film that pleases every SE Asian person who watches it. I’m also mindful that discussion about representation doesn’t actually end up being more divisive among the Asian community by focussing on our differences instead of what we have in common. I realize the plot is rather generic, which is to be expected as studios always try to appeal to as huge an international audience as possible. Perhaps it’s too generic that one critic (of Caucasian descent) said the story is a Chinese mythology [face palm] … obviously out of ignorance. But despite its imperfections, I do think cultural representation is always a good thing and it’s a trend in the right direction. I believe [hope] that this is NOT the last Disney film with a protagonist of SE Asian descent.

Now, in regards to that plot which is far from revolutionary, there are some good things to appreciate. For one, I’m glad they didn’t force a love interest plot on Raya (as they did in a weirdly vague way in Mulan). The story is already strong as it is with its focus on family, friendship, trust and forgiveness. The rather dismal view of humanity is a bit odd though, as one character describes Druun as “a plague born from human discord,” suggesting that it’s the humans themselves as the bringer or our own misery. Perhaps that’s a bit dark for a kids or even teens movie, but hey, at least there’s still the positive and always-timely message about the importance of family and unity to balance it all. There’s also a teachable moments about Raya learning to trust again, though I wish it were delivered in a less clichéd and derivative way.

Visually, the film is a marvel. And I say this despite the low-res quality of my screener. The rich, vibrant colors; lush, stunning vistas with pain-staking attention to detail; and the well-choreographed action scenes are fantastic to look at. The score sounds wonderful as well thanks to James Newton Howard, incorporating some Southeast Asian instruments and themes. I especially love the action scenes between Raya and Namaari towards the end, and the fighting style and weaponry mixes various martial arts from SE countries, i.e. Indonesian’s Pencak silat, Muay Thai kickboxing, Filipino Arnis, etc.

But I think the real ‘weapon’ of the film is the heroine and Tran truly brought Raya to life wonderfully as a multi-layered character. Her voice alone is lovely to listen to, but she’s able to convey SO much emotion with her voice, especially in her desperation. There is something universal about Raya and her purposeful journey that should appeal to anyone of all ages, regardless of our ethnicity and background. A hopeful, feel-good story is something we all need today, and this is one that a whole family could enjoy for years to come as well.

Have you seen Raya and The Last Dragon? Well, what did you think?

FlixChatter Review: The Personal History of David Copperfield (2020)


I had been wanting to see this since this film came out last Fall in the UK. Its US release was supposed to be in May this year, but of course it was delayed due to Covid-19. Well, it was well worth the wait! Confession: I’m actually not that familiar with this Charles Dickens’ classic (the only two I’m familiar with are A Christmas Carol and Great Expectations), and I really wish I were. Dicken’s eighth novel is apparently considered to be his masterpiece… in his own words, he described it as “a very complicated weaving of truth and invention” and some elements of the novel follow events in Dickens’s own life.

One thing you notice right away, even from its marketing, is the color-blind casting, which I will get to that later. It takes a certain skill to create a fresh take on a classic, especially one that’s been adapted many times. Director Armando Iannucci certainly has it. The Scottish-born of Italian descent filmmaker is creator of In The Loop and Veep series, and his previous feature was the rather bizarre The Death of Stalin. Most of his work are political satire, but this time he tackled a literary classic with his longtime collaborator Simon Blackwell who penned the script.

Set in the 1840s, it began with young David (Jairaj Varsani) growing up with his mother (Morfydd Clark). Life was relatively happy with his mom and kind housekeeper miss Peggotty (Daisy May Cooper), until she remarried an abusive man and young David ends up being sent to a boarding school and later put to work with other poor kids at a wine factory in London that partly owned by his stepfather. I have to admit I find it a bit amusing at first seeing Varjani, then later Dev Patel as David Copperfield, but after a while I truly see Patel embody the character with his certain playfulness and charisma.

Following his mother’s passing, David ran away from the factory and upon the advise of his debt-ridden landlord Mr. Micawber (Peter Capaldi), went to Dover to find his only remaining relative, great aunt Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton), who lives with her equally eccentric relative, Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie). His circumstances seem to be improving as aunt Betsey treats him well, despite insisting on calling him “Trotwood Copperfield” or “Trot”, and Mr. Dick is grateful to him for helping him of being consumed by Charles I, the British monarch who lost his head (literally) in mid 1600. The scene of them playing a kite to help clear Mr. Dick’s head is quite a jolly affair.

His aunt sent David to another school and during that time, and his next adventure puts him in contact with a set of new people in his life. It’s rather hard at times to keep everyone straight since I’m not familiar with the story. There is James Steerforth (Aneurin Barnard), an older schoolboy who befriends David, Mr Wickfield (Benedict Wong), a lawyer who loves to drink, and his daughter Agnes (Rosalind Eleazar), and Wickfield’s clerk Uriah Heep (Ben Whishaw).

Just like in real life, certain people that comes in David’s life don’t always have the best intentions, and David finds out the hard way. Steerforth is an antagonist of sort–someone David regarded as noble, despite his snobbish, condescending nature. But Heep is definitely the villain of the story, all creepy and even downright spooky at times when he practically forces David to join him for tea. As I haven’t seen other adaptations of David Copperfield, I don’t have anything to compare this too, but the pacing is quite dynamic which makes up for the sometimes chaotic, discombobulating ups and downs of the characters.

Patel is definitely the star of the show and he’s the perfect actor to portray the equal comedic and dramatic side of David. There’s such a gleeful adventurous spirit in this film, which I imagine is what is intended by Dickens in his novel. I love how David’s gift as a storyteller and writer is illustrated wonderfully here, full of colorful adventure as well as heartbreaking poignancy. But it doesn’t mean the film makes light of the calamity that David encounters, when his heart breaks upon hearing about his mother’s death and he goes on wreaking havoc at the wine factory, I could feel the pain in his eyes.

Now, in regards to the color casting I mentioned above, I think it paid off wonderfully. Iannucci is quoted on The Independent as saying “It wasn’t a conscious reaction to Brexit, but the conversation has gone very insular in terms of what Britain is and what it doesn’t want to be. I wanted to celebrate what Britain actually is, and it’s much more of a carefree, enjoyable, humorous kind of zesty, energetic place.” In the same article Patel said this about the film’s diverse casting “I totally missed this literary classic growing up. It didn’t appeal to me. And what Armando has done with the casting and the world, he has given it a buoyancy and an accessibility to kids like myself. It really is representative of a modern Britain – the one that I grew up in.” 

Honestly, I don’t know if I’d be as enthused about this film if it weren’t for the color blind casting. Now, I’m not saying now all I want to see is every literary classic being portrayed with the same color blind casting, but it certainly adds a certain level of interest. Now, simply having ethnic actors play traditionally-white characters doesn’t automatically make a film great. It takes a certain directorial vision and also a set of vibrant actors to make it work.

In the end, I forget that ethnic actors are portraying Victorian-era characters written as Caucasians. The vibrant direction, dynamic performances, gorgeous cinematography, costumes, production design and general atmosphere of the film creates an immersive quality.  It all helped me get invested in the characters’ journey throughout. Patel’s charm and versatility (and his gorgeous tousled hair a la the one he’s sporting in LION) is in full display, I’m glad he got the chance to play this role and I hope more filmmakers are inspired by this bold casting decision. I can’t wait to see him tackle yet another classic character that’s typically played by a Caucasian actor… The Green Knight.

Aside from Patel, the rest of the supporting cast are also a joy to watch. Tilda Swinton is always wonderful to watch and her Doctor Strange‘ co-star Benedict Wong is quite hilarious as the alcoholic lawyer. Morfydd Clark has the good fortune of playing two characters, David’s mother and love interest, the utterly silly Dora Spenlow with her fluffy puppy. But it’s the tentative but soulful kinship between David and Agnes is what I find most emotionally resonant, perhaps also because we see David has grown wiser and more mature by this point.

David Copperfield is a complex novel with so much going on, filled with a plethora of themes such as class structure, societal expectations and inequality, etc. but yet feels personal as it’s written from one man’s point of view as he treads on one life adventure to the next. I’m glad I finally get to experience this classic story and definitely garner new appreciation and interest for Dicken’s work.


Have you seen The Personal History of David Copperfield? If so, what did you think?

FlixChatter Review: Doctor Strange (2016)

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I have to admit I wasn’t really anticipating this movie at all. I wasn’t familiar with this character at all and honestly, I have grown a bit tired of seeing Benedict Cumberbatch, though I did like him before he was super famous from playing Sherlock. Now it’s no fault of his but I tend to lose interest fast when an actor becomes overexposed.

In any case, I still went into the screening expecting to be entertained. To a degree, Doctor Strange was a pretty fun movie with some humorous moments. Yet I feel that it treads such familiar grounds. It’s basically similar to Iron Man‘s origin story, but with magic thrown in. We also got a hero who started out as a rich, arrogant genius who suffered a major accident. They also extend their hand just so to exert their power. Perhaps because Iron Man was still a bit of a novelty when it came out 8 years ago in 2008, it made a lot more impact to me and Robert Downey Jr’s performance was quite indelible.

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Stephen Strange’s journey all the way to the Himalayas also reminds me of Batman Begins. But instead of an East-Asian character as The Ancient One, Strange’s spiritual mentor is now a bald woman of Celtic origin with posh British accent (Tilda Swinton). To be honest, all the quantum physics and mysticism concept are lost on me. It was some gobbledygook that never became involving enough to me, though I did get a kick out of the rather comedic Cloak of Levitation. I think my favorite part in the entire movie is when the cloak attaches itself to Strange as he walks on, it was a moment he sort of becomes a superhero.

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Just like the lead, the supporting cast are full of massively accomplished actors. Fellow Oscar-nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor and British actor Benedict Wong are both in the camp of the Ancient One who became Strange’s allies. It’s rare to see an actor named Benedict to begin with, let alone having TWO of them in the same movie! I love the interactions between the two Benedicts, though the Beyonce/Adele joke seems rather out of place in this universe. There’s also the talented Mads Mikkelsen, once again sporting weird eye makeup as a villain, but he’s nowhere near as menacing nor effective as he did in Casino Royale. There is very little character development in this movie and none of the relationships elicit any kind of emotion, especially the one between him and fellow surgeon Christine (a wasted Rachel McAdams). That said, Cumberbatch himself acquits himself well in the role. He certainly has that ‘cocky genius’ thing down pat, though I wouldn’t call Doctor Strange my fave Marvel superhero by a long stretch.

As for the visual effects. I think it’s to be expected that a $165 mil movie would deliver something great to look at. The space visuals is reminiscent of Guardians of the Galaxy, whilst the whole folding architecture thing is slightly more robust than what we’ve seen in Inception. The movie has a a Groundhog day-style finale with a character encountering death over and over again, going against an entirely CG character, a nemesis called Dormammu that’s apparently also voiced by Cumberbatch. It was kind of a ho-hum ending to me, it was neither intriguing nor emotional in the slightest. The plot seems predictable and seems rather ‘convenient,’ and not once do I feel that the hero was in any great danger.

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I generally like Marvel movies, even those I was initially skeptical about like Thor. But overall I was underwhelmed by Doctor Strange. I think it could’ve been a much better film, or at least just a tad more thought-provoking instead of just mildly entertaining. The script (partly written by director Scott Derrickson) just wasn’t provocative, thought provoking nor memorable. I’m feeling generous in rating this one because I do like the cast, though the movie probably more of a 2.5/5 for me. I think it’s one of the weakest MCU movies so far, and I’m honestly flabbergasted by the high Rotten Tomatoes rating! (But then again I think their algorithm is botched. I mean the same exact rating from two reviewers can be fresh or rotten, huh??) In any case, there’s a post-credit scene but by then I have lost interest in this inevitable franchise entirely.

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So, what are your thoughts on ‘Doctor Strange’?