Friday, April 27, 2012


We're in the home stretch now. The last major character left to introduce is also the oldest. Captain America is a character from a different age and thus requires a slightly different kind of film. As a result Captain America: The First Avenger is a nice change of pace from the other Marvel films.

A prequel of sorts, Captain America takes place during WWII, or rather the Marvel Universe's version of it. It's the story of Steve Rodgers (Chris Evans), a sickly, skinny young man who want's nothing more than to serve his country. He tries again and again to enlist, even going so far as to falsify his enlistment form to get a better chance (a serious crime), each time he is stamped 4F. Eventually he's caught, but instead of jail he's given a chance. A government scientist named Erskine (Stanley Tucci) selects him for a secret program to make him America's first super-soldier. Why skinny ol' Steve Rogers? Because Dr. Erskine feels that a man without power will have a greater respect for it. Of course, history is full of people who are suddenly given power and abuse it, but Dr. Erskine never said he was a history buff, now did he?

Steve is injected with super-serum instantly giving him 100 pounds of pure, American beef muscle. A steroid soaked Audie Murphy, and before long he's waging a one man war on super-nazi  Red Skull (Hugo Weaving). Red Skull is an evil man, so evil that Hitler exiles him from the nazi party for being too evil! He's a fun villain, perhaps not as interesting as Hanz Landa from Inglorious Basterds, but when your head looks like a giant red Skull, you don't have to be. As if being Too Evil For Hitler weren't enough, he also has access to a mysterious artifact, the Cosmic Cube, powerful enough to power all sorts of fearsome retro-futuristic weapons he can use to - wait for it- take over the world!!!

Call it a hunch, but this guy might be evil
Director Joe Johnson (Rocketeer, Jurassic Park III) knows his way around a set piece better than most of these directors but having a real villain helps. The best being the Captain's one-man raid on one of Red Skull's weapon's factories. That sequence actually feels like a real act of selfless heroism (something that Marvel's superhero movies are strangely short on).

The biggest problem with the film is the pacing. I would not be surprised to learn that a great deal of footage was left on the cutting room floor. For instance, no one ever sits down and tells Rogers about the super-serum or what it will do to him, making him look like a bit of a dolt. Large parts of Cap's campaign against Red Skull are told in extended montage, giving the second half of the film a frustratingly undefined feeling. For instance, we know that Skull plans on attacking Hitler as well as the rest of the world, but we don't know if he actually did that or if he's fighting the Allies as well as his former masters. Does that mean that the Allies are fighting the Nazi's, the Japanese AND Red Skull? Shut up brain! Captain America is punching people in slow motion!

Another issue the film doesn't satisfactorily answer is that of race. During his campaign Captain America assembles a surprisingly diverse fighting force. Which is all well and good, except that the U.S. Army was very much segregated during the 40's. Does racism just not exist in the Marvel Universe? As cool as that would be, there is a fine line between escapism and white-washing history. I'm not sure if the film crosses that line, but it's close enough to be having the conversation. There's nothing malicious in Marvel's attempt to be politically correct, but some may feel that it diminishes the struggles of the real heroes who fought to desegregate the armed services.

Regardless, the film a mostly fun piece of escapism. It does a good job of replicating all the element's that made the golden age of comics fun. Evil as sin villains, ray-guns, Flying wings and brave, one-dimensional heroes who fight selflessly for their country. No one laughs maniacally, but that's all that's missing. There are times when Captain America feels almost like an Indiana Jones or Hellboy film without ever being as good as those.

Surprisingly Captain America does not shine brightly with the magic of corporate synergy. Apart from a framing device that brings the film into the present day, there are relatively few shout-outs to the greater Marvel universe. We get Tony Stark's father Howard, and the government agency that makes Rogers into Captain America is the forerunner of S.H.I.E.L.D.. These details feel more like easter eggs for fans, than anything that interferes, even peripherally, with the plot. Unlike Thor and Iron Man 2, Captain America actually feels like its own film that gets to stand or fall on it's own merit. The only true shout-out to Avengers is the Cosmic Cube (briefly glimpsed in Thor) which will play a significant role in the big team-up movie.

Dedicated readers will recall that I reviewed Captain America once before upon it's theatrical release. Back then I gave it a B-, but after viewing it in context with the series let's bump it up to a regular ol' B and be done with it. It's better than most of the other entries, but still not as good as Iron Man.

Grade: B

Previous installments in this series:
Iron Man
The Hulk and The Incredible Hulk
Iron Man 2

Future installments:

Monday, April 23, 2012


Lockout, the new thriller form that prolific purveyor of pulp Luc Besson, is cinematic junk food. The kinda thing our mothers told us would rot our brains. I would normally embark on an elaborate breakdown of the plot, however this film can easily be broken down into three sentences:

President's daughter. Space prison. One Man!

If you can't make up your mind based on those sentences, I don't know if I can help you. If you're asking what the president's daughter (Maggie Grace) is doing visiting a super-maximum security space prison, you are already asking too many questions. The One Man who can save her is known only as Snow and is played by Guy Pearce (Memento). The fact that Snow is a CIA agent who's been set-up and now has one last chance to redeem himself by saving the president's daughter goes without saying. I only wrote it down to fill space.

Okay, so Lockout doesn't get a lot of points for originality. The fact that the film so closely resembles Escape From New York and 1,000 other B-movies isn't as much a detriment as it should be. It helps that Lockout is directed with a measure of personality by James Mather and Stephen St. Leger. The action scenes are well done but occasionally have a touch too much shaky-cam. Some of them are actually kinda memorable, and even the ones that aren't have a goofy charm to them.

Adding to that goofy charm are the one-liners. It's not so much that Snow always has something funny to say, it's that he always has 10 funny things to say. My favorites being "Everyone loves me, just ask your wife." and "Don't talk to strangers, shoot them." I always wonder if action heroes come up with all these comments off the cuff or if some of them are written down in advance. Anyway Pearce is a blast and makes Snow into the kind of politically incorrect jerk/bad-ass that every 10 year old want's to be. Maggie Grace is also quite charismatic and it's to the filmmakers credit that they resisted the temptation to sexualize her character.. Both these actors are great stars, but the world hasn't realized it yet.

Lockout is a silly, silly film. It's got every cliché in the book but it hardly matters. Sometimes you don't have to be original. Sometimes you don't even have to try hard to distinguish yourself. Sometimes just being a lot of fun is enough.

Grade: B

Friday, April 20, 2012


We're almost there now. The next film in Marvel's Cinematic Universe is Kenneth Branagh's Thor. Now Thor is a problem. He plays an important part in the Marvel cannon but despite this, and his mythological associations, he's one of Marvels more obscure heroes. But then again that's what these movies are for, to introduce us to these characters so we're not watching Avengers and thinking "Who's that weirdo with the hammer?"

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is the prince of Asgard, a magical kingdom in space. It looks like an underpopulated, golden version of Oz. Thor is an arrogant hothead, resented by his bother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and soon finds himself stripped of his powers and banished to New Mexico by his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins). Why New Mexico? I guess it's cheaper to shoot there.

Down in New Mexico we meet Jane (Natalie Portman) and her research partners played by Stellen Skarsgård and Kat Dennings. They're all out in the desert scienceing things as hard as they can when Thor drops from the sky. Meanwhile, not far away Thors mighty hammer also lands and gets stuck in a rock King Arthur style. Odin has sent the hammer down in case Thor ever becomes worthy of his powers again (spoiler alert: he will). Soon S.H.I.E.L.D., everyone's favorite shadowy government agency, shows up to secure the hammer and steal poor Jane's research.

The movie cuts back and forth between Earth and Asgard where Loki is trying to take over the throne. The back and forth cutting is good because, despite some dazzling special effects, Asgard is one of the duller fantasy universes I've seen in some time. Most sci-fi and fantasy movies try and give their villains impressive names to fit their fearsome visages. Names like Voldemort, Balrog and Stormageddon: Dark Lord Of All. Thor is content with simple descriptive names like Destroyer and Frost Giants. Sorry, but "Frost Giant" doesn't exactly fill me with dread. The whole world of Asgard feels like that — generic and undefined. We never really learn the rules, things just kinda happen.

The best parts of the film are the Earth segments. A series of decent jokes are made of Thor's fish-out-of-water situation such as Thor going into a pet shop and demanding a horse or smashing mugs of beer and demanding more "sustenance." Hemsworth is quite charming in the lead. But as good as he is, one can't shake the feeling that he's just not that interesting as a character. Tom Hiddleston is pretty good as the conniving Loki and Hopkins leaves no piece of scenery unchewed. Portman is fine but she's too qualified for the role. Idres Elba is fun as a gatekeeper who wins the Action Figure I Want The Most award.

Branagh is the closest thing these movies have gotten to a true A-list director. It's easy to see why he was chosen, having previously mounted big-budget productions of Hamlet and Henry V give him experience with the sudo-Shakespearean language they speak in Asgard. His mostly forgotten Frankenstein means that he has experience with pulpy material. But his treatment of this material is mediocre all the way. His love of canted angles borders on self-parody (though, more self-parody would have been welcome). Action scenes are good enough I suppose but lack urgency. The best one involves Thor attacking S.H.I.E.L.D. agents in a vain attempt to recover his hammer (he was not yet worthy).  The worst involves a giant knight called Destroyer who likes to... well, I don't want to spoil it. It's all kinda dull and predictable. Is Thor the god of thunder? Perhaps. Is his movie interesting to watch? Not really.

Through the magic of corporate synergy Thor has more references to Avengers lore than any of the other films. Tony Stark is name dropped, Hulk is alluded to and Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) after sitting on the sidelines of the first two Iron Man movies, finally gets a beefed up role as the head of the S.H.I.E.L.D. task force investigating Thor's hammer. Thor's brother Loki is also set up as the big bad in Avengers and super archer/Avengers teammate Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner)gets an introduction here. We also get Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) in the post-credit stinger. Also in the stinger is the Cosmic Cube which will be important in the next Marvel film Captain America and possibly in the Avengers as well.

All and all Thor isn't really a film as much as it's a link in a chain. Like the other films in the series it exists to set up Avengers just as much as it exists to tell it's own story. It does this better than Iron Man 2, but the mythology it's short changing just isn't as interesting as Iron Man's.

Grade: C+

Previous installments in this series:
Iron Man
The Hulk and The Incredible Hulk
Iron Man 2

Future installments:

Friday, April 13, 2012


The inherent danger of Marvel's plan to link up its cinematic adventures is that the set-ups for the other films would overshadow the film being shown. The first Iron Man film had little to do in this regard and handled it's synergistic duties deftly. The Incredible Hulk, despite its crushing mediocrity, also managed to keep playing up the links between the films while keeping focused on the story at hand. But it is in this regard that Iron Man 2 falters and becomes somewhat of a mess.

There's about 40 minutes of a good Iron Man movie in Iron Man 2. That 40 minutes set's up the one man war Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) wants to wage on Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) all on account of his father's honor. Tony is concerned about his legacy too, he's in the middle of running a giant tech convention as a sort of tribute to his father. He might also be dying because of the Iron Man suit that had been protected him up till now. If that weren't enough he has to defend his suit technology from the government and rival tech guru Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell).

This is more than enough for a movie. Threre's a great central mystery around Vanko, and Rourke clearly came to set ready to play (never a guarantee). There's lots of great stakes, tension and even some interesting ideas to play around with. Returning director John Favreau's action scenes still lack pizazz but that didn't hurt the last entry too badly. But sadly these element's aren't allowed to cook and build and everything the film sets up in the first 40 minutes is swept under the rug. Instead the film becomes an extended trailer for The Avengers. We get a lot more of Sam Jackson's Nick Fury (who was introduced in the first films post credit stinger), the shadowy head of S.H.I.E.L.D. and are introduced to his covert agent Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson). They exist to set Tony on track and determine if he is stable enough to join the Avengers team.

But it's just too many balls in the air at once and as a result everything feels truncated. All the ambition that the film wants to have is undercut by the films obligation to the franchise. A lot of potentially great plot elements get short changed. The screwball humor that made the first Iron Man feel so fresh now feels canned. But the greatest waste is Mickey Rourke, who has nothing to do for most of the film, he has a great introduction and his first confrontation with Tony is fun despite making no sense, but the film forgets about him. For nearly an hour he has nothing to do but slowly prepare for his next fight. Rourke does what he can, but a villain can only be so bad if your not willing to put him in a room with the hero.

Let's look at this from a screenwriting perspective by looking at one of the great villains of all time. In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, you never see Khan thinking about getting revenge or getting ready to get revenge. Every time you see that character he is actively working to get revenge on Captain Kirk. A more pertinent example would be The Dark Knight where The Joker's presence is always felt even in scenes he's not in. In Iron Man 2 Stark thinks that Vanko is dead for most of the movie, and Vanko has nothing to do but build drones for use in the film's climax. I know I'm harping on this a lot, but a film is only as good as its antagonist and that goes triple for action movies. This could have been a great popcorn sequel, but at the end of the day Iron Man 2 is too busy spouting exposition for another film to tell it's own story right.

Grade: B-

Previous installments in this series:
Iron Man
The Hulk and The Incredible Hulk

Future installments:

Saturday, April 7, 2012


After the success of Iron Man, Marvel Studios went forward with the next film in their Avengers prequel project - The Incredible Hulk. The Hulk is, arguably, the most well known of the Avengers team, due to being the subject of a popular and still beloved 70's TV show. But the angry, green giant had some baggage too in the form of the 2003 film Hulk directed by acclaimed filmmaker Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). Even though Lee's film in no way ties into The Avengers, I thought it might be valuable to look at it before moving on the the main review. Those uninterested in Ang Lee's Hulk can feel free to scroll down to the second picture of the Hulk.

In Lee's Hulk, Bruce Banner (Eric Banna) is a micro-biologist trying to get along with his coworker/recent ex-girlfriend Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly). One day there is a lab accident and Banner is exposed to an ultra lethal dose of Gamma radiation. He really should have been killed, but he's fine, except for the fact that he now turns into a giant, green monster whenever he gets angry. Eventually we learn that the reason that Bruce survived is that, as a child, his father David (Nick Nolte) had experimented on him giving him regenerative, absorption powers that allowed him to be transformed by the radiation rather than killed. So it's not a question of the radiation turning Bruce into something new as that it brought out something that was there all along. Late in the film David refers to the Hulk as his real son. This issue of parentage, while a wild diversion from the comics, is at the core of Lee's film. Betty also finds herself dealing with daddy issues of a different kind. Her father Thaddeus "Thunderbolt" Ross (Sam Elliot), is an over-bearing, emotionally distant army general who want's Hulk "neutralized." There is a point in the film where we realize that no matter how much they struggle, Bruce and Betty will always be living with the consequences of the choices their fathers made for them, that some shadows are too big to step out from.

Nick Nolte once quoted Ang Lee as saying about Hulk: "I don't know how to make a comic book, but I do know how to make a Greek tragedy." For better or worse, the film bares this out. Hulk is one of the most emotionally involving films of it's genre. Performances are top notch across the board. The central Bruce/Betty relationship feels real in every way (having them broken up at the start is a nice touch). Lee's use and execution of theme is impressive. Before we ever see Hulk in the flesh, we see him in Bruce's dream, not as an alter-ego, but a manifestation of repressed memory.

However, it's that very willingness to be experimental and abstract that nearly destroys the film. Lee didn't want to make a comic book film, he wanted to make a film that physically resembled a comic book. This concept takes the form of a extensive split-screens, picture-in-picture effects, and strange wipes and dissolves. At times the style is mesmerizing, at times it is disorienting, and at times you wish that Ang Lee would just pick a camera angle and stick with it! It's nice to see experimentation in a big-budget tentpole, but sometimes Lee's love of digital editing just gets ridiculous.

An actual, unaltered still from Hulk— no, really! 
It's a shame because apart from a little-loved fight with mutant dogs and some less-than-stelar (even by 2003 standards) CGI, the film's style is its biggest flaw.

But that said, Hulk has a quality to it. A tactile emotional reality that is deeper than any other superhero movie I've ever seen. I complained about Iron Man using character development as window-dressing, well Hulk does it right. Even Batman Begins doesn't get into it's protagonist's inner life as deeply as Hulk does. If Lee hadn't edited the film is such a severe style, or at least shown some more restraint, we might be talking about Hulk as one of the classics of the genre instead of as an ambitious failure.

Lee's attempt to re-invent film grammar was met with luke-warm box office receipts and extreme disappointment from fans (apparently fans really hate it when movies radically change the things they love). Afterwords, Marvel has been wary of letting big-name directors near their films. It seems that Marvel CEO/Film Producer Avi Arad would rather lock out a Christopher Nolan type than risk another Ang Lee.

To this end, Louis Leterrier (Transporter 1&2, Unleashed) was hired to direct the 2008 Avengers themed reboot: The Incredible Hulk. The new film had an all new cast and a new origin story (shown in the opening credits) more in line with the TV show/comic books. In this new version Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) is still a micro-biologist, but this time he was experimenting on himself and the Gamma blast was completely intentional, less planed was the transformation into the Hulk. 

The film finds Banner hiding out in Rio. He's still on the run from General Ross (William Hurt) who want's to use Hulk as a weapon. Ross has the help of a British marine named Blonsky (Tim Roth). Eventually they find Bruce and he has to hit the road again. Bruce has been getting help from a mysterious scientist who might be able to cure him, but not without biometric data that can only be found at the university where Bruce's accident tool place. It's there that he runs into his old flame Betty Ross (now played by Liv Tyler).

As expected, there's not a really any connective tissue between Lee's film and Leterrier's film, not in story theme or ambition. Leterrier's film has nothing on it's mind other than being exactly what it is: a solid action construct with a few good laughs that periodically drops references to other Marvel properties to build anticipation for Avengers. The film is slick, well shot, well edited, it's in focus and everything. There are some nice touches: Banner wears a pulse monitor so he knows if he's close to Hulking-out. The film keeps track of time by counting "days without incident." The performances are all good enough.  Roth is especially compelling and has the only character who really shows a dramatic arc in the film.

The action scenes themselves are numerous and explosion heavy but with the exception of one, where Hulk is attacked by sound-cannons, they're all pretty dull. The real problem with The Incredible Hulk is that it's lacking soul. There's nothing here that doesn't feel off the shelf. It's not bad, but it's not blindingly good either. It's the reverse of Iron Man's problem — too much action, not enough personality.

Through the magic of corporate synergy The Incredible Hulk features several moments designed to set-up The Avengers: Nick Fury and Stark Industries are mentioned in the opening credits. The Super Soldier Serum that created Captain America plays a key part (though why it worked on Captain America and mutated Blonsky is something I'd like a comic-book fan to answer). S.H.I.E.L.D. is mentioned and Tony Stark (Iron Man himself!) shows up at the end to brief General Ross on The Avengers Initiative.

Before sitting down to re-watch the two Hulk films, I tried to see what I could remember about both films. From Ang Lee's version I remembered the crazy split screens (of course) but I also remembered the drama, the feeling of being moved by the sweep of an epic tragedy. From Louis Leterriers version I remembered the sound cannons. 

Hulk: B+
The Incredible Hulk: C+

Iron Man
Hulk/The Incredible Hulk
Iron Man 2
Captain America

Wednesday, April 4, 2012


Summer movie season is nearly upon us and, just like every summer, there will be a fare share of sequels. I thought it might be fun to look back on some of the previous installments in several of the major franchises and examine how these films have grown and changed over the years.

Marvel's Avengers films are a very unique case as it's not a traditional movie franchise, it's almost a Frankenstein franchise. We have a series of films from different companies (Paramount, Universal, Disney), with a uniform continuity designed to lead up to the upcoming Avengers film, which will team up all of these superheroes to fight some unknown threat. It's made all the more complicated as most of these lead-up films are franchises onto themselves. It's not that dissimmilar to how Marvel's continuity works in the comics. Superheroes can appear in each others comics and team up, however, there's a difference between writing/drawing it and doing it in a film. The difference is $150-220 million per film.

This is a risky plan. If any one film where to flop, it could endanger the whole project, and, with the exception of The Hulk, all of these characters lack the pervasive non-geek awareness that Batman, Spider-Man, or the X-Men enjoy. The unenviable job of launching this grand experiment in corporate and artistic synergy ultimately fell on the shoulders of director John Favreau (Elf, Zathura) and his 2008 film Iron Man. A fun, functional film that follows formula a little stiffly at times, but has strong characterization and humor on it's side.

For the five people who haven't seen Iron Man, the film tells the story of brilliant scientist/CEO playboy Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) as he changes from a selfish, womanizing jerk into a slightly less selfish, womanizing jerk. His father was Howard Stark who was the Howard Hughes of the Marvel Universe and helped create the atomic bomb. It's a bit of a shadow for anyone, but Tony is a genius in his own right. The film starts off strong with Tony joking around with some soldiers in a Humvee somewhere in the mountains of Afghanistan before being taken captive by terrorists. This in media res opening does a great job dolling out character information. After awakening, he learns that the terrorist group, known as The Ten Rings, are using weapons made by Stark's company to commit atrocities. Stark manages to escape by building a makeshift battle-suit. His escape is the best action beat in the film, possibly because it has the most immediate stakes, but we'll talk more about the action scenes in a minute. After Tony returns, he vows that his company will no longer make weapons. A move that angers his vice-president Obidaih Stane (Jeff Bridges) and his companies military liaison Col. Rhodes (Terrence Howard). And that's about 80% of the plot. Most of what follows is about how Stark want's to reshape his company and redeem his family legacy.

Most origin story films treat the actual "origin" as something of a burden to be gotten through as quickly as possible, but Iron Man turns it into a bit of an asset. Watching Tony building his Iron Man suits is a lot of fun, there's a Michael Crichton-esque fascination to it. It doesn't have the well-researched "realism" of a Crichton novel (I don't believe for a second that he can really fit into his later suits without carving out large parts of  his calves, and back mussels and he'd burn off his feet too), but there is a boyish fascination in the testing and construction of the suits.

The real fascination is Downey Jr. as Tony Stark. He's funny and quippy where a lot of superhero's are brooding and, frankly, a little dull. Tony Stark would be right at home in a screwball comedy. This is especially evident in his relationship with his "girl friday" Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). Their back and forth quip battle is easily the most enjoyable element in the film. What does it say when the best part of an action movie isn't the action?

In fact the actions scenes feel slightly sidetracked, as if Favreau and his screenwriters forgot that Iron Man is supposed to be a action film. But the chemistry of the ensemble is so strong that I'd actually be just fine if the film never had an action scene after Tony's escape form The Ten Rings. The greatest strength of the action sequences is that they are well conceived and well integrated into the plot. This is not a case of a film where beats are dropped in every 10 minutes to the detriment of the story. But the scenes themselves never rise above competent. Favreau's action style is a bit old fashioned in the best possible way - easy to follow and devoid of shaky-cam or Chaos Cinema editing. There are some nice monster movie touches in the climactic showdown, but none of it deserves iconic status.

As far as Iron Man planting seeds for the Avengers movie, Favreau keeps it light. After Tony returns from his captivity, he is pestered by Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) of S.H.I.E.L.D. for a debriefing. S.H.I.E.L.D. being the government agency that will ultimately create the Avengers team. Coulson also shows up at the end a bit. There is also a post-credit stinger introducing us to S.H.I.E.L.D. commander Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). The set-ups are there but Favreau never lets his synergistic obligations get in the way of the movie and finds a way to make it all fun.

Iron Man is a wildly entertaining movie but lacks the ambition to really enter into the top tier of superhero movies. There are some nice ideas about a son reshaping his father's legacy and corporate responsibility, but these ideas feel more like window dressing then something the film is interested in exploring. It does have a lot of charm though, and that goes a long way.

Grade: B+

Iron Man
Hulk/The Incredible Hulk
Iron Man 2
Captain America