Friday, 16 February 2018

Approaching Infinity Part Eight: Thor: The Dark World

Wow...

Okay, that was...

... yeah.

I guess, if nothing else, it speaks well of the MCU in general that it can withstand a pretty unqualified dud once in a while. Thor: The Dark World just flat-out doesn't do anything for me. It makes more or less the same mistake with Jane Foster as Iron Man 3 did with Pepper Potts, for one thing - only on a much grander scale. It also counts on a degree of investment from the audience in the Foster/Thor relationship that it, frankly, never even tries to earn. It's all pretty throwaway, and you could easily skip it without missing anything of ongoing value - if not for the weak Infinity Stone angle.

The Villain
Was there one? Really?

I mean, sure - Malekith and the dark elves - but their origins, aims and abilities are so fluid and ill-defined that there's really nothing to get a grip on here. They seem to be able to go toe-to-toe with mid-range Asgardians, but they really just shoot lasers a lot and fly their ships into things.

The Story
We're told Malekith is some ancient enemy of Asgard, sworn to harness the power of the Aether to... something-something Dark Side? I think it was about extinguishing all light in the universe or something, but it's never really explained why anyone would want this or how they would survive it or - oh, thank fuck: here come the sky-portals!

You can tell that the dark elves come from a time before the rest of the Marvel universe, because they're the only things in that universe that don't speak English amongst themselves. I mean, they can speak English - and do, frequently. However, we get some kind of subtitled alien drivel when they're alone. Even Thanos and his crew don't do that. Typical snooty bloody elves. Anyway, they have this thing they can do that turns some of their warriors into unstoppable rage-monsters - but they get stopped pretty easily anyway, so it really doesn't seem worth the bother.

The Universe
Okay, so we find out after the film ends that the Aether is an Infinity Stone. Again, though, it's pretty unclear what it does and why that matters. Jane Foster kinda absorbs it without any lasting harm, and when Malekith gets it he just grows a few ineffectual tentacles and gets run over by a spaceship. I'm actually having a hard time taking the Infinity Stones seriously at this point. Like, if I met one in an alley I'm pretty sure I could take its wallet.

Jane Foster gets a fair amount of cowering, sulking and affronted snapping to do, but it turns out that it's all wasted effort because this is apparently the last we ever see of her. I appreciate the care that was put into making her relevant, but Iron Man 3 already showed that granting characters one-shot god-level powers is a short-cut to nowhere worthwhile in Marvel-land. It doesn't make them interesting, and only highlights how under-used they are the rest of the time.

There's actually a much better film going on in the background of Thor: The Dark World, though, in Loki's troubled and self-undermining road to... if not exactly redemption, then at least development. Most of the best moments in the film are focused on the relationship between Loki and Thor. That's a genuinely interesting thing to watch Thor 2 explore, but unfortunately it's hard to let that angle breathe with the much less interesting Malekith plotline sitting on its head for 110 minutes.

The Stinger
People really need to stop giving Benicio Del Toro enough screen time to hang himself. The man's a bizarre collection of inexplicable mannerisms and vocal eccentricities that make him seem out of place in any environment. Anyway, he's The Collector, he's got an Infinity Stone now and I can only assume that matters, somehow...

Also, Thor and Jane Foster are a couple again. Don't get too comfortable with that, though.

The Take-Away
There isn't one. This went nowhere and took too long getting there.

Previously: Iron Man 3
Next: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Approaching Infinity Part Seven: Iron Man 3

Okay, then - Iron Man 3. If there's an over-rated entry in the reasonably sure-fire Marvel Cinematic Universe, then this is it for me. After the victory lap that was Avengers Assemble, the second phase of the MCU launches with two pretty timid efforts in this and Thor 2: The Dark World. The idea of Stark losing his shit after the Chitauri invasion and his brief adventure through the obligatory sky portal is a pretty good one. However, the meaty stink of Shane Black is all over this. That means a clumsily welded-on, utterly cosmetic Christmas setting and an insufferable kid who provides 20 minutes of empty screen time. On top of all that, we've got probably the biggest waste of a villain opportunity in the series so far. Speaking of which...

The Villain
So, the Mandarin probably ranks up with the top tier of Iron Man villains, but this film completely refuses to commit to its use of him. First he's a bog-standard terrorist guy with a Ten Rings connection, then he's a bog-standard Evil Shadow guy with flame breath and exploding henchmen, then (if you take the One-Shot short into consideration), he was never even there at all. To be fair, Killian's plan here seems pretty reasonable, by comparison to some of the others we've seen so far: control the War on Terror by providing both the ultimate evil and the means to fight it. The trouble for me is that they play Trevor Slattery's unmasking as this huge plot twist, when it actually changes nothing about the story. We already knew Killian was the bad guy, so revealing him as the boss instead of the second-in-command is a narratological wet fart. I've talked about this elsewhere on the blog, so won't rehash it all now. 

The Story
Tony's no longer dying from palladium poisoning, but his mind's fucked. He makes a rash threat and his house blows up as a result. A guy he insulted ages ago becomes beautiful and starts breathing fire because of super-botany. There's a super-smart super-botanist doing all this super-botany, who does an inexplicable double-heel/face turn and dies. Tony overcomes his mental health issues by killing a few guys with home-made gadgets and talking shit to a child. Along the way, Pepper Potts goes supernova in a nakedly obvious attempt to give her something interesting to do, but her contribution's quickly hand-waved away with some weird end narration. Also - and I can't believe I have to type this - the President of the United States of America is kidnapped, the Iron Patriot armour is stolen, exploding terrorists flood the streets, a founding Avenger is apparently murdered in his home - AND NO ONE EVEN THINKS ABOUT CALLING CAPTAIN AMERICA!

The Universe
For a film whose position in the chronology more or less requires that it anchor the MCU as it pushes on post-Avengers, Iron Man 3 does a great job of making itself irrelevant. AIM, an organisation with a long history in the comics and a lot of potential for use when Hydra isn't around, gets pissed down Marvel's leg. The Mandarin misfire may have closed the door on using the character well in future, as following up on the One-Shot tease would basically drive this film even deeper into redundancy. There's some super-interesting stuff done with Stark swapping suits on the fly toward the end, which really showed me something I'd never seen before. However, burying all that cool stuff in the middle of a fight scene that utterly depowers Stark's Iron Man seems like a... questionable choice.

I'll expand on that for a moment. The final fight scene includes about 40 empty Iron Man suits being flown remotely by the AI JARVIS. That's an army of Iron Men, and every one of them is orders of magnitude more effective than Stark. As he continues to demonstrate, the only thing he does by getting into the suit is hold back what it can do. In every way, it's better off without him.

The Stinger
Throw-away Ruffalo cameo in "goes nowhere" shocker.

The Take-Away
So, yeah. Not a big fan of this one. It's still very watchable, but I really feel that fawning over Shane Black for turning out a mid-range, very conventional film is setting the bar unnecessarily low. Iron Man 3 undermines itself in so many ways - and at the end of the day, you're selling a story that keeps Stark out of the suit for most of the time and goes to great lengths to show how totally superfluous he is when he's wearing it. It's a collection of weird choices for a one-hero showcase story. The end-credits montage from previous Iron Man films really makes it seem like they were closing the book on Robert Downey Jr's involvement in the MCU. Moreover, they're showing Stark systematically disentangling himself from it by blowing up his entire supply of suits, getting his heart damage fixed and basically passing the torch to Warmachine.

Of course, all of that character growth is immediately ditched in Avengers 2, and Stark is suddenly back with more suits and emotional damage than ever. In fact, literally nothing that happens in Iron Man 3 is carried forward in any meaningful way. Zero impact.

Previously: Avengers Assemble
Next: Thor 2: The Dark World

Thursday, 1 February 2018

Approaching Infinity Part Six: Avengers Assemble (2012)

So here we are at the big pay-off of Marvel's Phase One. Yes, I know it wasn't called Avengers Assemble out in the civilised world, but that's what we got here so that's what I'm going with. Avengers Assemble is exactly what it needed to be in structural terms: every action figure in the collection stuffed into a box and smashed around by an over-excited child. That same over-excited child, of course, has made a career out of turning teenager-level pen-and-paper roleplaying game sessions into screenplays and TV pitches, with somewhat mixed results. Everything Joss Whedon gets his hands on ends up feeling like an adaptation of a 90s RPG campaign, but it definitely works when the circumstances are right. In a superhero film, with an ensemble aesthetic that Marvel's been working on earning since 2008, those conditions are definitely met. In that light, all Whedon had to do to make Avengers work was avoid tripping over his feet while he danced in the end zone. He pulls it off, for sure - even if the film ends up feeling like it's showing what the characters do when they aren't off having their solo adventures, rather than reversing that emphasis.

The Villain
Well, we already know we're on pretty solid ground with Loki here - although he looks like someone's pissed in his proverbials throughout most of this film. Basically, Loki's being bullied by largely unseen forces, and he's putting up with it in hopes of bullying a planet of billions in return. I've talked a fair bit about trying to pin down the MCU villains' motivations in these posts. Loki's plan seems pretty standard stuff, as these things go: he wants to rule the world. Quite what an archetypal force of chaos could be hoping to achieve by imposing order on this scale never quite comes into focus, though. At least the Red Skull saw seizing power as the route toward eliminating the tribal concepts of nations and warfare forever by... wait, why was he the bad guy again? Oh, yeah - killing all the people.

The Story
We're doing Tesseract sky-portal stuff here, with a side-order of genocide. There's a Hollywood saying, which I'm about to butcher, to the effect that once you've spent $100 million, you pretty much have to be saving the world. Usually, that means sky-portals and legions of faceless cannon-fodder enemies. Meanwhile, there's some shouting, shooting and some Hulking out - but basically we're blowing up sky-portals to save the world.

The Universe
There are some ups and downs to the world-building in Avengers. Mark Ruffalo does an admirable job of sweeping Ed Norton under the carpet and stomping the lumps down. Hawkeye gets (ahem) shafted from the outset, but Black Widow gets a decent shake. I don't particularly like this version of the character, but she's given some interesting parts of the story to carry for now. She scores a point off Loki and survives a full-on Hulk attack, which is decent going for an unpowered human in a film with about 4 gods in it. Yes, I said 4, because I'm counting (SPOILERS) Thanos for one and Nick Fury for  another.

That's right: Nick Fury is a god.

He has to be, right? I mean, we established twice in Captain America (once in dialogue and once in action) that a mortal can't touch an Infinity Stone and live. Red Skull evaporates (or gets teleported away, or whatever) when he touches the Tesseract. In later films, we find out that only Celestials are powerful enough to survive contact with the Stones. Barely 10 minutes into Avengers, Fury grabs that same Tesseract with his hand and stuffs it into a briefcase - WITH NO ILL EFFECTS WHATSOEVER!

Also, as in Thor, aliens all speak English. I'll never stop complaining about that in films - and pointing out that Starlord has a translator implant ONLY RAISES FURTHER AND STUPIDER QUESTIONS!

The Stinger
Thanos! The 5% of the people watching who know who that is go wild. Everyone else goes to Wikipedia. Also, like, kebabs or something?

The Take-Away
There is some HORRIBLE scripting in this film, ranging from the clumsily banal ("I don't all the time get what I want") to the skin-shreddingly theatrical ("Humans - they are not the cowering wretches we were promised..."). Still, Avengers Assemble survives that and blasts the ball into the back of the net. Moreover, Marvel makes the unfilmable look effortless - laying a trap that DC can barely seem to stop falling into to this day.

Onward to Phase Two...

Previously: Captain America
Next: Iron Man 3

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Approaching Infinity Part Five: Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

If Thor was a risk in partially unshackling the MCU from mainstream, modern-day America, then Captain America was the double-down. On the face of it, the film's asking quite a lot of the audience. We've got an uncritically patriotic, absurdly stoic hero who believes in taking orders and punching every single one of the Nazis, a frankly ridiculous costume to explain away and we're basically abandoning the world we've been methodically building for the last 3 years in favour of World War II. It's a pretty impressive move, but it pays off well enough that it never feels like we're just marking time until Cap gets flash-frozen for easy delivery to The Avengers.

The Villain
Speaking of doubling down, Red Skull is the absolute perfection of the Evil Shadow routine we've been toying with on and off (mostly on) since Iron Man. He's Captain Hitler with a weird face, weirder accent and a power set that matches the hero's exactly. I actually really like Hugo Weaving's hilariously evil performance here. He's been set what is probably the least enviable task in all of cinema - be less likeable than the Nazis - and he tears into the role with phenomenal energy. By contrast, Tommy Lee Jones never really seems like he knows where he is or why. He looks like a disappointed, soggy teabag in a uniform, sadly mumbling his bewildered way through his part.

The Story
SPOILER ALERT: the Nazis lose World War II.

Actually, as it turns out, the Nazis are barely even involved in World War II. It's all about Hydra, apparently. The Hitler-boys barely get a look-in after the first half hour. It's wall-to-wall death rays and super-bombs. We get a decent amount of Agent Carter - who's essentially the MVP of the film AND the war. Obviously, they're painted into a corner as to continuing characters who can plausibly make the transition to the main roster. Even so, it always feels like they were setting Carter up for something more, which they then couldn't pay off in either the films or the seriously under-seen TV series.

The Universe
Considering the setting, Captain America does manage to put a fair amount of continuity balls in play. We get enough Bucky to build the Winter Soldier out of later, plus our second version of Howard Stark. Dominic Cooper does a good job, but he just seems really... tiny, compared to the older Stark we see in Iron Man 2. Of course, they switch actors yet again the next time Big Daddy Stark shows up, so... whatever. Arnim Zola looks like a promising addition, but it's not worth getting attached because they piss him right down their legs in his next appearance. It's slightly weird that the super-serum's creator is called Erskine here, when he's Reinstein in Incredible Hulk. There's a reason for that in the comics, of course, but they don't go into it in the films. Oh, look - there's that Tesseract again. I bet that's probably important...

The Stinger
The Avengers are coming. Here's a cut-down scene from that.

The Take-Away
Considering how much of the action Cap sits out, selling war bonds instead of punching Nazis, this is still a big-time action flick. Surprisingly gory in places, with Hydra soldiers getting minced in flying bomb propellers. Cap transitions quickly from "I don't want to kill anybody" to "I'M KILLING ALL THE THINGS!" with no explanation or comment but, other than that, no major problems. We get our first warning that touching an Infinity Stone is bad for you here - which sets up a key Guardians of the Galaxy plot point, but also a weirdly inconsistent moment in the next MCU film. We'll jump that shark when we come to it, though...

Previously: Thor
Next: Avengers Assemble

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Approaching Infinity Part Four: Thor (2011)

Okay - this is where the MCU kicks off with some authority, for me. They've danced around the wilder aspects of superheroics so far by offering either just-about-plausible technologies or familiar takes on tried-and-tested 70s TV shows. Thor is the MCU's first taste-test on a grander scale, and it very nearly pulls it off without a hitch. We get a pretty complex villain, a decent mix of comedy and drama and some solidly planted seeds for future exploration. The dialogue lets it down in places, notably in the Asgard bits, but all in all it could have been a whole lot worse if  Kenneth "Brick-Subtle" Brannagh been given enough creative rope to hang himself.

The Villain
Loki is pretty much the linchpin of MCU villainy, so it's almost weird that we're 4 films in before we meet him. He neatly dodges the Evil Shadow problem by having an established mythology behind him (however mangled Marvel's interpretation might be), and is just really well played by Tom Hiddleston. He's genuinely conflicted a lot of the time, but keeps falling victim to his own nature. By this point, the MCU is going about 50/50 in killing off the bad guys in their films, so it was a relief that Loki's ambiguous end in this film gets quickly clarified during the credits - even if that kinda steps on the dramatic climax of the film.

The Story
Thor throws everything at you in the first few minutes in an attempt to steamroller you into acceptance of the stuff they might otherwise seem ashamed of. In fact, they do such a good job of establishing the power of Thor and the world he inhabits that it feels distinctly weird when they abandon it all early on to talk about quirky astrophysicists and unlikely hospital escapes. It's all pretty goofy from the outset, of course, but they get a lot of mileage out of making everything seem convincing and consistent while we're in Asgard, then throwing it all into sharp comic relief when the gods start walking the Earth. De-powering Thor for half the running time feels cheap - and maybe even a little cowardly. The Destroyer still looks cool, though.

The Universe
We get a lot of new stuff hurled into the ever-expanding Marvel-verse with Thor - a whole mythology's worth, in fact. This is the point where the MCU really earns its U. There are a couple of weird choices - the 2 minutes of half-arsed Hawkeye we get, for example. There's some retrospective confusion about the Casket that gets kicked around here, too. Once the Tesseract is introduced at the end, it seems like they might as well have used that instead to avoid having 2 blue, glowing super-weapons cluttering up the place. Anyway, we get some more solid Coulson work, plus the first appearance of Sitwell. Jane Foster and her peripheral cast seem like a wasted opportunity now, given the amount of work put into establishing them here, but that's a purely post-Thor 2 hindsight issue and we're not there yet.

The Stinger
Okay, we're reaching the Phase 1 climax, so this credits sequence had to be something special. We get a little Nick Fury to sweeten the pot, an Infinity Stone and an instant, slightly odd resolution of Loki's apparent death. The stakes are ramped up respectably, and we're on our way to The Avengers...

The Take-Away
The Asgardian scripting and delivery is clunky in places, with those clumsy little mock-Shakespearean flourishes tripping everyone up. Thor himself does a decent rage-sulk and even Anthony Hopkins doesn't seem quite as bored as usual. Idris Elba, as always, deserves a lot more time and attention than he gets, though. As a radical expansion of the ground Marvel films can cover, Thor more than does the job it needed to. Even the CGI holds up surprisingly well. Thor was a creative risk, but more than earns the weirdness it introduces.

Previously: Iron Man 2
Next: Captain America: The First Avenger

Monday, 29 January 2018

Approaching Infinity Part Three: Iron Man 2 (2010)

SPOILER ALERT: I probably like this film more than you do.

Iron Man 2 gets slapped around on the internet quite a lot, for no good reason I can see. In comparison to previous MCU entries, we get a lot of bad guy per square inch, and more character development than the rest of the films combined. There's plenty of practical action to complement the CGI work, and all told it does the job well enough. The world-building is solid without getting in the way of the main story, and there are a few comic-based crowd-pleaser moments thrown in. I still can't bring myself to believe that an entire Iron Man suit fits in a briefcase that still weighs little enough for agitated stick-figure Gwyneth Paltrow to toss around, but generally the faults are minor enough to let slide.

The Villain
Iron Man 2 does some interesting work with the bad guys. Mickey Rourke's constantly moist Ivan Vanko probably has the most coherent backstory and motivation of any MCU villain so far. He's a physical and tactical threat both in and out of costume, ties into the Iron Man origin pretty neatly and follows a clear objective all the way through. For me, those features alone make up for the fact that he's a bit of an arbitrary mash-up of whip-themed villains and Evil Shadow clichés. By now, it's pretty clear that the main drive of Marvel villainy is firmly rooted in James Bond's "we are not so different, you and I" bullshit.

Underlining this to the point of scoring through the paper altogether is Sam Rockwell's Justin Hammer, who's effectively a Tony Stark cosplayer with some money behind him. That said, Rockwell does what he does every time you put him on a screen - steals it, eats it, then somehow steals it again. I genuinely lose all interest in Stark's suicide-adjacent storyline every time Rockwell appears.

The Story
Your dad was probably a more complicated person than you realised. Also, the guy from 9 1/2 weeks got huge and wants to kill you with laser-whips.

The plot's pretty serviceable, as these things go. Tony's inconsistently explained heart battery is killing him, but it's also the only thing keeping him alive. Pepper Potts is getting enough heavy lifting to do in the story to make her much more than the jittering irritant she was threatening to become. Everyone wants Stark's Iron Man suits, from the government to his business rivals. In the end, almost everyone gets what they wanted.  Even Vanko dies on his own terms, believing he's won by avenging his father. Only Hammer gets shafted outright, by my count. Happily Ever After...


The Universe
Iron Man 2 sneaks a lot of MCU into its relatively short running time. We get Hammer, Black Widow, War Machine, a blink-and-you'll-miss-it Ten Rings moment and an always-welcome touch of Coulson on the side. Hammer never gets another serious mention after this until the Luke Cage series, sadly, barring a possibly homophobic comedy moment in the Marvel One Shot, All Hail the King.


The Stinger
This is the first time an MCU stinger has more or less been lifted straight from the film it references. More Coulson is always better than less, of course, so no complaints there. To me, though, this stinger reads mostly as a test of how "on-board" we are as an audience. They're saying, "look - you stuck with us through all the science fiction stuff, and that's great. The thing is, we more or less HAVE to do Thor, okay? It's going to be a bit of a gear change from the stuff we've been doing, but we'd get eaten alive by the comics people if we left him out."


The Take-Away
I don't get the Mickey Rourke hate, or the generally ugly vibe I hear so often around Iron Man 2. What's more, we finally get a villain with a game plan and a reason for opposing the hero. All told, it's a reasonably strong film.

Previously: The Incredible Hulk
Next: Thor

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Approaching Infinity Part Two: The Incredible Hulk (2008)

Episode 2 of the Marvel soap opera series is barely recognised as part of the MCU at all, from the way people talk about it. If Iron Man was a weird opening gambit because no one really cared all that much about the character, Hulk should've been an easy shot at an open goal by comparison. The old TV series is still thought of disproportionately fondly, given how simplistic it looks to a modern eye. In fact, I'd probably argue that the key weaknesses of The Incredible Hulk grow out of the inspiration it draws from the Bill Bixby show. From the replication of the TV classic origin sequence to the light slicing across Ed Norton's green-lensed eyes in the first transformation sequence - not to mention the Ferrigno cameo part-way through - the first wall The Incredible Hulk smashes is the fourth wall.

All that said, I really like this film.

Norton plays his neurotic little heart out as Banner, William Hurt does a damn good job bringing a second dimension to a furiously one-note character and Liv Tyler makes the brave decision to act exclusively through motions of her upper lip. It basically hangs together pretty well, all things considered.

The Villain
For the sake of argument, I'm going to call Tim Roth's Emil Blonsky/The Abomination the villain of this film. There's definitely a case for Ross to be made, but I think it's pretty clear where the main threat's supposed to come from.

If Obadiah Stane's motivations were a little tough to pin down at times, they were clear as day compared to Blonsky's. He's a weathered career soldier given a physical boost by the military. He instantly becomes addicted to... well, either the power or the face-punching and goes about ramping up his treatments any way possible. By the end, he's totally batshit and just wants to fight the Hulk, Ross and anyone else with literally no end game in sight. Suppose everything had gone right for him and he killed both the Hulk and the army. What was his next move? He's huge, angry and - let's not dodge the subject - naked on the streets of a major US city. Does he think he's still getting paid for any of this? Is he planning on getting more mercenary work, or will he be changing career? Does he even know where his next protein shake's coming from?

Oh, yeah - chalk this one up alongside Iron Man in the Evil Shadow column as well.


The Story
This is a Louis Leterrier film, so the story is necessarily about people doing parkour. Like, virtually everyone. Banner does parkour, the army does parkour, Blonsky does major parkour - even the Hulk does parkour.

Somewhere in the middle of the parkour, basically the only story that's ever been told in live action about the Hulk gets told again. Banner's trying to hide from the army and cure himself. The army's trying to hunt him down and weaponise him and eventually Hulk has to save everyone from something worse than himself. It's serviceable.


The Universe
There are a lot of orphaned ideas in this one, so as a world-building exercise it's kind of a dud. Betty Ross vanishes after this moment. The Abomination never shows up again, despite the fact that he's definitely still alive and the authorities clearly have absolutely no way of restraining or containing him. The Leader's here, kinda - but again we'll probably never be picking that thread up again. I guess the major lasting legacy of the film is the revelation in the final moments that Banner can now transform more or less at will. Of course, it also muddies the waters a bit by linking the Hulk's emergence strictly to Banner's heart rate, rather than specific emotional states. Meh...


The Stinger
Not much to say about this, really. It's pretty much a repeat of the one from Iron Man, but with Tony Stark playing Nick Fury and General Ross playing Tony Stark. Good to keep the ball rolling, though.

The Take-Away
I think The Incredible Hulk's been neglected a bit, as pretty much the last MCU film before the MCU (and Marvel Studios itself) became a thing. There are apparently legal issues preventing further stand-alone Hulk films, and the switching in of the non-parkour, non-yoga-doing Ruffalo as Banner more or less draws a line under the while thing. Nevertheless, this is still a very watchable flick and a worthwhile brick in the MCU wall for me.

Previously: Iron Man
Next: Iron Man 2
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