May 6 2012

The Avengers

Friday was opening day for Marvel Studios’ latest installment, The Avengers (2012). There’s been a great deal of talk and build-up for this movie, including five or more leading titles (e.g., Iron Man (2008), The Incredible Hulk (2008), Iron Man 2 (2010), Thor (2011), and Captain America (2011)). As far as Hollywood was concerned, this movie was a huge gamble. Marvel took a handful of successful franchises and lumped all of them together in one movie hoping that the whole was greater (or at least equal) to the sum of its parts. If the movie tanked, it could do harm to a long list of sequels that are waiting in the queue: Iron Man 3 (2013), Thor 2 (2013), Captain America 2 (2014), Doctor Strange (TBD), and Avengers 2 (TBD), among others. Mark Ruffalo, the third actor to play the Hulk inside 10 years, already signed-up for 6 additional movies before The Avengers even premiered (internationally). To add to the gamble, hit-or-miss writer/director Joss Whedon (who had no blockbuster movies under his belt before Friday) was brought in to direct and work on the screenplay.  To his credit, Whedon did scribe a short run of Astonishing X-Men comic books a few years back (2004), but that’s hardly the same. We can only assume that Marvel was banking on Whedon’s geek credentials (i.e., Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog (2008)) and his ability to craft story-lines and enjoyable banter with lots and lots of characters. I’m not a huge fan of Whedon, but I must say that Marvel made the right choice.

The first Avengers (team) comic book was published almost 50 years ago, in 1963.  At the time, the team included Iron Man (check), Hulk (check), Thor (check), Ant-Man (missing), and the Wasp (also missing). Dr. Henry Pym (e.g., Ant-Man, Giant-Man, Goliath, Yellowjacket) had a quasi-cameo mention in Thor; he was mentioned as being a colleague of Dr. Selvig but his name was omitted. Janet van Dyne (i.e., Wasp) appeared in Thor, but her diminutive CGI form didn’t even earn her a mention in the credits. So why were these Avengers left out of the movie? Who knows? Perhaps there was too much back-story, and not enough time to explore it? Hawkeye (who first appeared as Goliath in Avengers #63)  and Black Widow (who didn’t join the team until Avengers #111) had already been featured (somewhat) in the leading movies. But it might be as simple as: What straight male director would pass-up the opportunity to squeeze Scarlett Johannson into a leather body suit, and not ask for multiple takes, retakes, call-backs, and a private stash of IMAX quality outtakes? To Marvel’s credit, at least the villain is the same as Avengers #1, Loki. That’s where the similarities begin and end. In the movie, the Avengers are summoned together as part of a SHIELD initiative, in the comic they were inadvertently drawn together by Loki himself, who was trying to avoid the attention of the Fantastic Four. Although it’s not canon, I think Whedon (and Marvel Studios) took the better path.

So what about the movie? Well, due to my desire to see it on opening night (and a last minute scramble to coordinate plans) the only reasonably timed tickets available were for the 3D showing. I’m not a fan of 3D movies, in fact I’m surprised that the gimmick has endured as long as it has. Compound that with the fact that the theater was PACKED when we got there (20 minutes early) and we ended up seated in the obstructed view nosebleeds *sigh*, I’m surprised I enjoyed the movie as much as I did. Did it live up expectations built atop four years of leading movies? Yes and no.

Let’s start with “no”. On the one hand, I think they did about as good as they could have done with the material. On the other hand, the movie lacked much of the charm and storytelling that made the individual movies so entertaining. I felt like I’d seen the action sequences a hundred times before. Large sections of these could been been cut and spliced into movies like Cloverfield, Transformers, War of the Worlds, Godzilla, et al. without anyone noticing  the swap. I felt that Loki’s army was lacking. If you’re going to take over a world, you might want to attack more than one city?! Okay, I guess there’s limits in all things, including the Cosmic Cube (sorry, the Tesseract). I also felt the invading army (i.e., Chitauri) were poorly defined. In the Ulimate Marvel Universe (a re-imagining of the Marvel universe, launched in 2000 by Brian Michael Bendis), Chitauri = Skrull. These were Skrull? The Skrull are shapeshifters! I don’t think there was one person in that theater that realized the Avengers were fighting an army of shapeshifters! Also, lets take a moment to address the SHIELD Helicarrier. At what point do the people at SHIELD get the hint that a flying aircraft carrier kept aloft by four giant turbines is not a great idea. Let’s see… Anything else to bitch about? With the exception of Asgard, Marvel Studios’ other worlds look like sytrofoam rock landscapes. Black Widow and Captain America seemed next to useless fighting their little street-battles while the heavy hitters (e.g., Iron Man, Thor, Hulk) were tearing into the aliens above (this may be unavoidable). I could go on… Ask me sometime and I will!

Let’s end with “yes”. This was a team-building movie. It was never meant to delve deeply into character development, back story, exposing personal demons, &c. It was meant to tell the tale of how the most powerful people on the planet could come together to take on a force that no one of them (except maybe Thor) could have taken on alone. In the end, the conflicts and relationships between the characters became more enjoyable than the overarching plot of Loki’s Army. My favorite moments were slapstick: Thor and Hulk, Hulk and Loki. I was still laughing about those while doing yard work. My favorite character going into the movie, Iron Man, didn’t shine nearly as bright as I’d hoped. Hulk on the other hand, was much more enjoyable than I expected (a surprise given his lackluster appearances of late). Thor was Thor, no better or worse (which in his case, wasn’t a bad thing). Black Widow, the same. Hawkeye left me unimpressed (learn to hold a goddamned arrow!). Captain America seemed to get lost in the shuffle.

Looking back through this, I’m surprised that this review sounds so negative. Avengers was a good movie. I was excited to see all the superheroes on the same screen at last. The more I think about it; however, the more I wonder whether squeezing all of this into one movie was a wise idea. Should it have been a two-parter? Some of the movie seemed rushed. The first time we “meet” the Hulk he goes on a rampage, but the next time he’s in control and has a sense humor? We were never really introduced to the Chitauri/Skrull, one of the most important alien races in the Marvel Universe, which were instead relegated to shooting gallery targets. At no point did the alien invasion look like it was going to be succeed. Not that there was ever a question how things would eventually turn out, it would have been nice if there had been SOME suspense. I was also looking for more Easter Eggs, which Kevin Feige (president of Marvel Studios) said were “distracting” so they left them out.

I must apologize for the rambling structure of this review. Not only am I out of practice, but there are far too many elements to this movie, many of which I haven’t scratched the surface of. I guess I should summarize before this becomes a book. Whedon did a fine job. The movie was enjoyable. Character interactions were handled well. I’m looking forward to the next movies. There was little or no suspense in the final battle. The last (there’s two) post-credit scene is great.

“He’s adopted.” – Thor

4 out of 5

Jul 28 2011

Captain America

Detail of Captain America Comics 1

This past weekend we went to see Joe Johnston’s comic book adaptation, “Captain America: The First Avenger” (2011). Leading up to Friday’s release, I eagerly watched the reviews trickle into Rotten Tomatoes. The first reviews were disheartening, at one point dropping to 33%. As more reviews posted, the numbers clawed slowly upward, reaching a mediocre 77% at the time of this review (days later).

The character first appeared in Timely Comics’ “Captain America Comics” #1 in 1940. The cover depicted the patriotic hero punching Adolf Hitler in the jaw (see insert). Nearly a million copies sold. Compare that to Captain America #618, which sold 44,748 copies in May 2011. There’s no comparing Golden Age and Modern sales numbers. Where was I? Oh yeah, 1940… This was one year (to the month) before the attack on Pearl Harbor and the United States’ entry into World War II. According to Wikipedia, sales of the comic book soon out-sold news magazines like “Time”. After the war, sales ebbed and the title was eventually cancelled in 1950. Despite efforts to revive Captain America, he did not return for good until 1964 in Marvel Comics’ “Avengers” #4 (nope, not an original member) when (retcon alert) he was rescued from the north Atlantic, having been entombed in ice since a plane crash during the war. *deep breath* All that being said, making Captain America appeal to the movie-going audience was not an easy task. The director had to take a 70 year old superhero with an unwavering moral compass, dress him up in red, white, and blue, put little wings on his head, and weave a story and background that would establish him as a legendary fighter and protector of the American Way in one movie… both to reintroduce him to the public, and set the stage for Marvel Studios’ next big release, “The Avengers” (2012). Not only that, but they needed an actor that could fill the Cap’s shiny red Three Musketeer boots and make it all work.

Yes, I’ve been waiting for this movie for years, but also dreading it. Marvel’s plan to tie their franchises together, also means that any serious misstep could bring down the whole project. If Captain America turned out to be a joke, then the Avengers were screwed. The first glimmer of hope was signing on Joe Johnston, director of “The Rocketeer” (1991). If anyone could make a superhero period piece, it would be him. The next announcement (as I recall) was the casting of Chris Evans, of “Fantastic Four” (2005) infamy. *ugh!* In all fairness, he was enjoyable in “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” (2010) as Evil Boyfriend #2; I just couldn’t see him as Steve Rogers (aka Cap). So after all of this preamble, I entered the theater with low expectations (the second best way to see any movie, ranked close after “primed with margaritas”), found a seat, fidgeted my way into the most comfortable slouch I could manage, and watched the movie unfold.

Nobody expects a superhero movie to be the next “Citizen Kane” (1941).  Science fiction (especially comic fiction) requires a temporary suspension of critical thinking. The ideas and characters presented in comics were originally designed to entertain children, so if you have some capacity to recapture that sense of wonder and awe, they become much easier to appreciate. If you can’t suspend your disbelief (sometimes it’s just not possible), perhaps you can use it as a window to remember how you used to see the world. Or, just enjoy the action; there’s plenty of it. After skipping through the impossible (or unlikely):

  • A super-soldier serum that can’t be reproduced
  • Vibranium, a metal that absorbs vibration
  • A round shield that returns like a boomerang (how does an object that absorbs kinetic energy ricochet?)
  • A 1940s invention that simulates anti-gravity (still bitter that it’s 2011, and there’s no flying cars)
  • A man that lives without skin on his head (insert skinhead joke here)
  • A man that can survive after being frozen for 60+ years (spoiler?)
  • A relic with limitless energy (you saw “Thor” didn’t you?)

You’re left with a movie about a little guy who is given powers and uses them to do the right thing, repeatedly. Sound boring? Yeah, it does. Which is another reason why Johnston and his scriptwriters deserve a lot of credit. Despite being bound to the source material, they managed to make an enjoyable story. Unlike numerous other movies that I can think of, where you just couldn’t give a shit about the main character, Chris Evans manages to make Steve Rogers a likeable guy. Even when he’s kicking Nazi ass left-and-right, you still get the sense that he’s the little guy, given an opportunity to make a difference. At their core, that’s what all traditional comics were about, reversing the balance of power (“Adventures of Captain Marvel” (1941), anyone?). It’s an enduring theme that will always have appeal. Johnston and company retold the story again in this movie, and they did a good job.

So why only 4 out of 5? The movie jumped around, a lot. It spanned all of World War II and then jumped to the present. While this was necessary because of the impending Avengers movie, it still seemed rushed. That, and I didn’t care for the make-up job on Red Skull. While Hugo Weaving was adequate, I think his head needed to be more craggy. I don’t know, it just bugged me! Also, as others have pointed out, the motorcycle chase might as well have taken place on Endor. Despite everything, I loved the movie’s ending; the Captain’s last words brought home just how down-to-earth this hero is, and left me with a lump in my throat. Anyway… a good movie, worth seeing, especially if you intend to see the Avengers next Summer.

“Whatever happens, stay who you are. Not just a soldier, but a good man. ” – Dr. Abraham Erskine, prior to the super-soldier experiment

4 out of 5

May 11 2010

Iron Man 2

On Saturday, we went to see the latest Marvel Comics superhero movie. “Iron Man 2“, directed by Jon Favreau and starring the usual cast of characters (sans Terrence Howard as Rhodey, for whatever reason), should have been as good as the original but sadly (and not unexpectedly) it wasn’t. While there was plenty of armored combat, repulsor beams, explosions (there MUST ALWAYS be explosions!), humorous dialogue, pseudo-science gizmos, Marvel universe cross-referencing, and Scarlett Johansson (who looks like a dwarf next to Gwyneth Paltrow)… the movie became bogged down by shortcomings more than it was buoyed by its flash, action, and volume (I can’t remember a movie being this loud since hearing thundering bass of “Earthquake” (1974) in the next cinema over from where I was watching some drowned-out kid’s movie… which escape me). Anyway, the movie was enjoyable but not great. Why wasn’t it great? Well, read on… but be warned, the details are SPOILER HEAVY.

Now, before I go too much further, I should point out that Iron Man has always been one of my favorite (if not THE favorite of my) comic books. I write about a lot of things on this blog that I’m not an expert on (not even close!) but I’m very familiar with the Iron Man canon (post-Tales of Suspense, pre-Bendis retcon). I have an Iron Man #1 (1968) which I cherish above all my other comics (which is to say: it is rarely touched by photons); I also have read nearly every Iron Man issue from 1968 through 2009 (even though many were reprints). That being said, there was no chance in Hell that I was going to miss seeing the movie on opening weekend, especially after the great job they did with the first one. We found seats toward the back of the theater (the place was packed) and waited for the lights to go down. After some forgettable trailers, the movie started, and my excitement died soon after.

Where to begin? The Iron Man Dancers (you probably saw them in the movie trailer) were ridiculous. I understand they were meant to be evidence of Tony’s inflated ego, but they looked more like the cheerleaders from “BASEketball” (1998). Why would Tony build a suit (the War Machine prototype stolen by Rhodes) with a self-contained power-source when just a few scenes before he was claiming that the armor was more of a prosthesis (powered by his arc reactor heart)? The use of a prototype of Captain America’s shield to align a particle accelerator? *sigh* The creation of a new element: Unobtanium was lame, why go that route again (too soon!)? It would have been so much more believable if the City of Tomorrow infrastructure showed Tony a way to properly shield his body from the palladium (Pd) (that was poisoning him), rather than give him a blueprint for a new element (that could be synthesized in his basement). And finally (though there were more) his deus ex machina laser lance that ended the movie’s penultimate battle in a decidedly un-Iron Man way (pre-Secret Wars); I guess the uni-beam isn’t flashy enough anymore? Also appearing was Mickey Rourke (enjoying a Hollywood resurgence in a series of brutish roles) as a Russian version of the villain Whiplash (not canon, but no problems there). Scarlett also put in a commendable performance as super-spy assassin Black Widow. I’m sure much of her acrobatics were computer generated but it was still nice seeing her wrap her thighs around the heads of half a dozen men (even if she did proceed to snap their necks). Sometimes you just need to thankful for what you get get!

All told, “Iron Man 2” is an action packed movie and plenty of fun. Lower your expectations a bit before you find a seat and make sure to stay through the credits for a tiny preview of what’s coming next…

“If you could make God bleed, people will cease to believe in Him. There will be blood in the water, and the sharks will come.” – Ivan Vanko

3.5 out of 5