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

Friday, 12 January 2018

Approaching Infinity Part One: Iron Man (2008)

So here we are, a certain number of weeks away from the release of Avengers: Infinity war with a roughly equivalent number of Marvel Cinematic Universe films to watch. I've got a bad-ass projector, a pretty decent Blu-ray player and literally nothing else on my mind before we hit the 27th of April UK launch date. Fuck it - we're doing this!

Iron Man, for better or worse, changed the game for a decade of Hollywood history and counting. It took a low-risk, B-list character and a high-risk, B-list actor and did something that shouldn't have been possible with both: it made them relevant. It's not easy to pin down what made Iron Man hit the nerve it did, but a lot of it is probably down to the perfect match of cast to character. Downey was born to play this version of Stark. Watching the film a decade after its release, the performances still feel fresh even if some of the choices are perplexing. Gwyneth Paltrow jitters her way through the script in fast-forward while Jeff Bridges sounds like his clockworks need winding, casually chewing every line as if he's got literally nowhere else to be for the rest of his life. When the two of them share screen-space it feels like they're pulling in completely different directions. In a weird way, I guess that's a major part of why they work so well together. "Weirdly, it works" would probably have made a decent pull-quote for the posters.

Anyway, before this turns into a review for a ten-year-old film, here are the things that struck me this time around.

The Villain:
I've loved Jeff Bridges since Tron, and he does some great work here. It's pretty much an Evil Shadow part, though - which is something that crops up a lot in later MCU films. This time, it's Iron Man vs. Bad Iron Man.

The Story:
Iron Man is a self-contained origin story, of course, for both the hero and the villain. That said, I'm not exactly sure I understand what Stane's ultimate plan was toward the end. He's been found out, he's got shadowy government agents tracking him down and he's just left Stark to die with all evidence pointing to him and no credible alibi - not to mention without taking the trouble to be sure Tony croaks. Does he still think this situation is salvageable somehow? Is his plan of selling Iron Man tech to the highest bidder still viable once he's the most wanted man in the world? Will killing Pepper somehow fix things in a way that, say, skipping the country in a flying robot suit wouldn't?

Also, those final monologue lines about the irony of Tony trying to rid the world of weapons (which he really isn't) but instead giving it the best weapon ever (which he really hasn't) - and then being killed by it (which, of course, he wasn't) have me grinding my teeth to splinters.

The Universe:
Lots of set-up here, albeit retrospectively. I don't think anyone expected to see Coulson again after this, for instance. The Ten Rings, by contrast, looked like they were going to be a thing - or even THE thing. As it turned out, not so much.

The Stinger:
Heh - Sam Jackson playing a role whose likeness was based on Sam Jackson and who expresses at least once in the comics a specific desire to be played by Sam Jackson. I see what you did there, movie - in the sense that you punched it directly into my eyes and brain to be absolutely sure I couldn't MISS what you did there.

The Take-Away:
I'd still sit through this a dozen more times before I'd watch Batman V Superman again.

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