29 April 2012

The Avengers Initiative

The time has come. After much prolonged build-up The Avengers is finally upon us, and fanboys and film geeks have been practically frothing at the mouth in feverish anticipation for this event. I’ve been looking forward to it a lot but also with a certain degree of caution, as I’ve realised it’s best to manage your own expectations and not get too carried away. Nonetheless I have prepared by recently rewatching the prior Marvel films that have gotten us to this point – Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger. Since rewatching each it's occurred to me that although I don't yet know what form my review of The Avengers will take (I haven't even seen the film yet), it will be difficult to write it without getting bogged down in backstory and detailed thoughts on each of the characters and their previous films. So, as both a prelude and an attempt at clarifying my thoughts on the background, here's where I stand on each of these films:

Iron Man
(Dir: Jon Favreau, 2008)

Iron Man presented the challenge of bringing a lesser known superhero to the screen, but even more so, a superhero that like Batman is only able to do what he does due to being a billionaire. Likeability is key in this scenario and the first thing that Marvel successfully nailed here was the leftfield casting of Robert Downey Jr. There were many doubters when it was announced, but Downey Jr totally becomes the character of Tony Stark, bringing the arrogance and narcissism that's required, but with a wild, fun streak that makes you both want to live his life and enjoy watching it. He’s basically a loveable asshole. It’s a great marriage between the writing and the acting, and this is one of those characters where there’s no way you could imagine anyone else ever playing the role.

The Iron Man suit itself is a pretty awesome plaything, looking sleek, high-tech and a lot of fun. It’s robust enough that you believe Stark can win in a fight, and there’s a lot of fun to be had whilst he is wearing it. What the film lacks, and this is it’s one problem, is a decent villain. Jeff Bridges as Obadiah Stane is an interesting foil for Stark, he’s powerful and slightly menacing, but that's in the "real world" only and when he becomes Iron Monger the film falls flat. The final fight sequence is just too mechanical and only seems to be there because that's what usually happens in films like this. It lacks all the elements that make the rest of the film so good. Maybe Favreau was still finding his feet as an action director, but the film might’ve been more interesting if it could’ve taken a slightly different route at the end.

Iron Man manages to add another interesting dimension by having something of an anti-war message and highlighting the futile profiteering of selling weapons to your enemies. This at least delivers a bit of food for thought. Shifting the early focus of the film into the caves of some foreign country where Stark is held hostage by terrorists offers a clever character arc, as well the excitement of a knocked together prototype Iron Man suit. And it’s a very “bright” film, with most scenes set around the day time with lots of sunshine, making the most of the Malibu and foreign desert locations. This positively affects it’s look and mood.

Upon many repeated watches Iron Man continues to impress me as a great piece of high quality big budget entertainment, with one of the best superhero alter ego's ever.

The Incredible Hulk
(Dir: Louis Leterrier, 2008)

Let me say this from the outset – I’ve never been a fan of the Hulk character. I find the concept all a bit too one dimensional and as his only emotion ever really seems to be rage, it’s difficult to care about him. I did quite like Ang Lee’s very comic book like attempt at the story back in 2003’s Hulk, and until I rewatched The Incredible Hulk again I was convinced the former was the better of the two. Now I'm not so sure, as Leterrier’s version has a bit more to offer than I initially thought.

Edward Norton makes for a very good Bruce Banner, convincing as an intelligent man who is always living on the edge, desperately seeking for a way to control his demon. The first half hour set in the Brazilian favelas is the best part of the film, as Banner fights to remain anonymous and control himself. Back on US soil the film stays pretty interesting until it reaches the last twenty minutes or so, where it just descends into bad predictable anarchy. Tim Roth's Blonsky, the ageing special forces agent hunting Banner, wants the powers Banner has (just like in Iron Man) so ends up becoming The Abomination, thus we end up with 2 CGI characters battling it out through the streets of New York. It may be inevitable, but it is so thoroughly uninteresting that it really lets the film down.

Banner is really the only interesting character in the film. Blonsky is just the determined pitbull freed of his tether, whilst Liv Tyler's Betty, the love interest, is just vaguely annoying. Her father, General Ross (William Hurt), is the catalyst for all this, but he's too myopically focused on a single goal to be a character of much interest. And this is where I’d forgotten how the balance of the film really lies – it’s mostly Banner that we’re watching and not the Hulk. So three quarters of the film balanced in this way helps a lot, as inevitably CGI humans don’t look good, even when they are green and exceptionally large.

The Incredible Hulk is actually a pretty good and interesting film when Norton/Banner are on screen. When a green CGI man is on screen, it’s not so good. It's a shame that both this and Iron Man have major final act issues, but at least it was pleasing to find that I enjoyed the film a lot more on a second watch.

Iron Man 2
(Dir: Jon Favreau, 2010)

Iron Man 2 is the first of these Marvel films to tackle the sequel issue, ie how well do they cope when it's not an origins story. Fortunately there's no re-establishing the core elements - we know who Stark is, how the suit works, and what his primary relationships with his assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Don Cheadle here, Terence Howard in the first) are all about. The sequel's primary aim is to amp up the action quotient, which Favreau doesn’t shy away from here. The introduction of two interesting villains carries on Marvel’s knack for great casting – Sam Rockwell plays Justin Hammer, a rival arms manufacturer who is as slick as a snake oil salesman, despises Stark, and wants his own equivalent Iron Man suit; Mickey Rourke is the slightly demented but deeply intelligent Ivan Vanko (aka Whiplash), who has a very strong personal vendetta against Stark. Inevitably they all collide. 

This definitely feels a lot more like an action film. The introduction to Whiplash is pretty spectacular, taking place at the Monaco grand prix with all sorts of carnage ensuing, and the wide complaint that the final scene in the first film was so lacklustre appears to have been duly noted, with a fully overblown excursion into destruction. It almost feels a bit much but it is entertaining to watch. Fortunately the main attributes which made the first film so good haven't been ignored – there’s a lot of focus on character still, it’s funny and all round pretty thrilling.

We also get some more background into Stark’s character, with his enigmatic father making an appearance. Howard Stark (John Slattery) appears in old reels of film that Tony watches, which all seems to play into the bigger overarching Avengers story. This gets a lot more attention here. Clark Gregg’s Agent Coulson was in the first film but seemingly for comic relief, but here has more to do. We also get properly introduced to Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and another S.H.I.E.L.D operative, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), who gets probably the best action scene in the film. In the cinema all this introducing the Avengers stuff seemed a convoluted distraction, but having seen the subsequent films it's now an interesting aspect as it makes a little more sense and there’s more to try to piece together, if you’re so inclined.

Ultimately Iron Man 2 lacks some of the wonder of the first film and probably goes a little too overboard with the action, but it’s still a very satisfactory sequel. As we’re already on Stark’s side there's a bit more focus on the other characters such as the intriguing antagonists, which just helps make it an interesting film. 

(Dir: Kenneth Branagh, 2011)

Thor was always going to be the Marvel film of this run with the greatest chance of failure. Taking one of the much lesser known Marvel characters, it had to contend with this character being a Norse god (a very long way away from the usual superhero mutations/billionaires), as well as making a story work that takes place both on and off Earth, and not forgetting a director whom you’d never think to mutter in the same breath as the words “big budget Hollywood film”. So how comes Thor turned out to be the best of all these films?

Firstly that director choice – Branagh is a self confessed fan of the Thor comic since he was a boy, so had an excellent understanding of the source material, but as importantly as that he is an actor too, so knows how to get good performances out of his cast and to direct the film in a way which focuses on character. And he has some fantastic characters to work with. There is the petulant, arrogant Thor (Chris Hemsworth) who is banished to Earth leading to some excellent fish-out-of-water comedy. His brother Loki (Tom Hiddlestone) gets the meat of the "acting", superbly playing a multi-layered Shakespeareanesque character, and it's good to see Anthony Hopkins as Odin. Back on Earth, Natalie Portman’s Jane and Stellan Skarsgård's Erik are scientists who despite not being especially fascinating, are likeable and offer some human balance to make an ethereal concept so relatable.

The shift between Asgard, Jötunheimr and Earth works well, and whilst there's subterfuge going on in Asgard, the humans on Earth are fighting their own battles with S.H.I.E.L.D who are are determined to stop their research. This means we get more Agent Coulson and a very brief introduction to Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), both of which are good things. So much of this film lies on Hemsworth’s ample shoulders and he delivers, wielding the mighty Mjölnir with gusto, and displaying a decent range of emotions. The film doesn't get too bogged down by unnecessary action scenes, except when needed to establish and conclude the story, so there is a lot more on offer.

Thor is thoroughly entertaining, much in the same way that Iron Man is, but it offers something very different, with a touch more weight that is greatly appreciated. Having now seen it four times I’m not even slightly bored of it and I can safely say it was one of my favourite films of 2011.

Captain America: The First Avenger
(Dir: Joe Johnson, 2011)

You know what we don’t get enough of these days? Old fashioned adventure films. Well that’s exactly what Captain America: The First Avenger is. Going back to the roots of the character and setting the film in the 1940’s during World War 2 is one of the essential ingredients that makes it work. There’s a certain charm with how this is portrayed and it would all feel slightly cynical if it was done so in modern day. There’s also something refreshing about someone who is essentially super human but is stuck in a time that's not as technologically advanced as today. Except in this world it is slightly so, as Nazi Johann Schmidt, aka the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), has come across a new energy source which gives his weapons and technology a modern sheen, allowing him to set up his Hydra organisation with which he plans to take over the world.

Chris Evans is highly enjoyable as the stoic and unwavering Steve Rogers (aka Captain America), in both his small weedy frame, and bulked up new and enhanced form. I liked the rest of the casting too, particularly Stanley Tucci as Dr. Erskine and Hayley Atwell as Peggy, Cap's potential love interest – there's something kind of believable between them. The film wants to make it clear that the little man shouldn’t get trampled on, an admirable message, and as such it isn’t too bullish but has fun with the whole concept. This means it borders on cheesy at times and also suffers from too many of the effects looking fake and green screened, but I could live with both those things as they’re part of the film’s charm.

The other aspect that worked was the introduction of Howard Stark (played here by Dominic Cooper), who’s an integral secondary character in the film. Being set in a different era, this is cleverly the only way to make a clear connection to the rest of the universe that the other films have alluded too. The bookending of the film in present day felt too jarring, but no matter, the biggest disappointment is that the ending made it clear that we shouldn’t expect a Captain America sequel to be set in a similar time period. A big shame.

Captain America: The First Avenger is a lot of fun and introduces the character in a great manner, and it's particularly refreshing to see something made in this day and age that reflected a more classic age of storytelling. Take note Hollywood - more of the same please!

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