Over the past month, my friends and I have been holding what we called "The Marvel-ous Countdown" wherein we watched all of the Marvel Studios movies that lead up to "The Avengers". Just in case you're not aware, not all of the movies relating to Marvel Comics characters are specifically tied-in with this film. Unlike DC characters (who are all entirely owned by Warner Bros.), the cinematic rights to some Marvel characters still belong to other studios (Spider-Man belongs to Sony, X-Men belongs to Fox), primarily because these characters have made those studios a lot of money and they're not quite prepared to give them up yet. This creates the confusion of people expecting Nick Fury in a movie where he's just not going to turn up. Anyway...to make a long story short, the movies that relate to "The Avengers" are as follows, in order of release:
Iron Man (2008)
Iron Man still holds up really well. In many ways, it's probably the best of the Marvel Studios films, as the first 3/4 of the film are lathered in a sleek new style previously unseen in superhero movies, particular the Marvel movies. While the film boasts an awful lot of heart (no pun intended) and excellent characterisation, it's particularly good as a masculine-fantasy-action movie. Sure, Bruce Wayne has always fit the bill of "Rich Superhero", but the truth of the matter is that we never really see him enjoy his wealth. This is not true of Tony Stark who happily roams around the Marvel Universe's California in souped-up cars, wearing priceless business-suits and handling state-of-the-art lifestyle-enhancing technology as if it's as a routine as everyday as making toast in a toaster. Honestly, you could make a movie that was just about Tony Stark walking around being genius billionaire playboy and it would be entertaining.
The movie builds up the origin of Iron Man exceptionally well. We truly believe that Tony would be able to MacGyver his way to freedom from the cell of his terrorist captors (who rather conspicuously don't appear to be based on any particular real-world terrorist groups), not to mention we accept the later abandonment of his company's weapons programme. It even sets up Obadiah Stane quite well as a villain. The movie fails in its final act, as Stane descends into far-fetched cartoon villainy as soon as he steps into the 'Iron Monger' armour. It just isn't very plausible and it's kind of a let-down that such an original superhero film has such a clichéd ending. Nevertheless, the film is a wealth of thrilling entertainment that's always stylish and almost never silly. An easy 4/5
The Incredible Hulk (2008)
This film came out only a few months after "Iron Man" and was just as experimental. When last we saw Robert Bruce Banner and his angry alter-ego, it was in Ang Lee's pretentious, nigh-unwatchable, excessively psychological 2003 film "Hulk". This film does away with the bizarre trappings of that film and rewrites the Hulk's origin with Bruce Banner unwittingly attempting to rediscover the Super Soldier Serum responsible for the creation of Captain America. In doing so, the film ties in nicely to the iconic 1970s TV show where David Bruce Banner (they changed the name to David because reasons) was doing something similar (as opposed to the comic, which had a goofier origin involving a 'Gamma Bomb').
I'm still a bit unsure about this film. I desperately wanted to love it when I originally saw it, as I love how much it embraced the TV show version of the Hulk (the film is lathered with subtle and not-so-subtle references to the show; Bill Bixby is in one of the opening shots of the movie) but in so many ways it just doesn't try to be anything more than an action movie with the Hulk. While the excessive examinations of Bruce Banner's fractured psyche was certainly the reason the Ang Lee "Hulk" movie failed, this movie's the opposite: there's barely any emotion or psychology at all, to the point where we barely even feel sorry for Banner, except for the fact that he can't have sex with Liv Tyler or he'll turn into the Hulk. (Seriously, that's in the film).
My problems with the film are best realised at the close of the film. Bruce Banner is sitting in an unknown house, fully-clothed and meditating. He begins to convulse and suddenly his eyes are green again and he's about to Hulk-out. His smile indicates that he's done this on purpose. WHY?! What advantage is it to him that he can turn into the Hulk at will, when he can just allow his adrenaline to do it for him? And even beyond all of that, why in the name of all that is Gamma Irradiated would he destroy a perfectly good set of clothes and a HOUSE for no good reason? It's the biggest facepalm-inducing moment in all of the movies so far. The movie went for a pointlessly 'badass' ending instead of going with what would have been the most essential Marvel-movie ending of all time: Bruce Banner walking away from a crying Betty Ross, in search of the cure he'll never find, while "The Lonely Man" (from the TV show) plays. "The Lonely Man" does actually appear in the film, but it's hamfistedly thrown-in halfway through one tiny scene, instead of placed at the end of the film where it belongs.
Rewatching this movie, I found myself enjoying it a lot more than I originally did. Edward Norton was great as Banner and it's a pity that he's the one actor who didn't make it to the team-up movie (for whatever Hollywood-politics related reason, he's not going to be in "The Avengers"). And while I do complain about a lack of emotion from Banner, there are plenty of moments throughout the film where we care for and root for the Hulk himself (the scene in the storm is great).
In "The Avengers", The Hulk/Dr. Banner is played by yet another actor (although it should be presumed that the events of this film do still apply). Mark Ruffalo is Bruce and unlike the disappointing CGI of the 2008 film, the Hulk is jawdroppingly realistic-looking (not to mention, he bears more than a passing resemblance to Jack Kirby's original design for the character). I really hope this fresh new take gives Hulk the excellent movie-presence he deserves.
"The Incredible Hulk" despite its flaws, gets a 3/5
Iron Man 2 (2010)
Ah, Iron Man 2. For many, its quality is a toss-up. There's really nothing wrong with it per se, it's just that there's something off about it. You can't put your finger on why it's not as enjoyable as its predecessor, or the other Marvel movies. Perhaps a sequel to Iron Man was too soon; it seems as though the only reason the film exists was to fill the two-year gap between the first two films and "Thor"/"Captain America: The First Avenger", as if to remind people that the Marvel Universe was still there, and "The Avengers" was still in the pipeline.
I suppose the best way I can define what's wrong with IM2 is that it feels more like a season of a TV show than an actual movie. Multiple lower-key plots and characters are introduced and played out, with the ultimate intention of fleshing out Tony's role as a public-identity superhero in the evolving Marvel Universe. By the end of the film, Tony's the exact same Devilish rogue he was at the beginning of the film (and the end of the last film), minus a pesky Russian whip-wielding villain and a nasty blood-virus. Once again, Robert Downey Jr. is the best thing about the film for most of the same reasons he was so effective in the first film. He injects genuine heart into flashy dialogue and he exhibits a wonderful Howard Hughes-esque eccentricity even moreso than he did in the previous film. Sam Rockwell (who is sort of an intentional poor-man's version of Stark who just can't seem to summon the same swagger as his rival) and Mickey Rourke are probably better, more fleshed-out villains than Stane was in the first film, but the plot is still basically solved with a big robot-suit-fight (that doesn't last very long) in the third act. Again, there's just something missing. What? I'm not sure, but I suspect that maybe (MAYBE) the character just doesn't have as much storytelling-potential as a solo-character compared to the likes of Batman or Spider-Man. In any event, "Iron Man 3" is already in the pre-production stages, so let's hope the third film proves me wrong. I'd certainly have no problem with Tony sticking around for a few more films.
"Iron Man 2" gets a 3/5, although I consider "The Incredible Hulk" to be superior in a few respects.
By now I was beginning to think that the Marvel Studios movies were becoming stale. The first Iron Man had bags of heart and originality, but "The Incredible Hulk" and "Iron Man 2" just lacked a certain x-factor that other superhero franchises (Batman, Spider-Man and heh, X-Men) had in spades. At this point, I was unconvinced by the overall 'style' Marvel were going for. All my criticisms were erased when I set eyes upon "Thor".
I'll be the first to admit: I don't follow the Thor of the comics at all. Prior to this movie's release, every single story I'd read that had Thor in it was either an Avengers/Ultimates story or a story where he found himself teaming up with another character (such as Spider-Man or the Hulk). I had no interest in the character whatsoever and I probably wouldn't have seen this film only that I was intrigued by its relation to the rest of the cinematic Marvel Universe.
"Thor" is a triumph. It takes all of the cocksure humour and masculine bravado of "Iron Man" and transplants it into a world that is so unrecognisable as to be literally otherworldly. This is certainly the most ambitious Marvel movie of them all, to the point where its alien palaces and God-like characters wouldn't be out of place in a DC movie (if they were ever this good). The scope and the sense of wonderment is astoundingly grander than before. Even the musical score is worthy of a God.
The film has a wonderful cast, but chief among the reasons why this movie works so well is Chris Hemsworth, once a fairly-unknown Australian actor who (like Heath Ledger) got his break acting in Aussie soap "Home and Away". I already suspected he'd do a good job as the lead, having seen his short (but memorable) scene in J.J. Abrams' "Star Trek" retconequelboot (everybody's happy!), but I never imagined he'd inject such credibility and three-dimensional heart into a well-worn archetype that is usually played entirely for laughs (King Neptune on Spongebob, Aquaman on "Batman: The Brave and the Bold" and Thor himself in "The Incredible Hulk Returns"). Chris Hemsworth honestly reaches Christopher Reeve-levels of movie magic and cinema presence and I sincerely hope that his career amounts to more than just the standard "Cabin in the Woods" fare he's breezing through at the moment.
There's also the small fact that I am homosexually in love with Chris Hemsworth, his commanding voice and his Asgardian pectorals in this film, but we'll leave that for another gay. Day. Another day. I'm straight.
"Thor" gets a mighty 4/5
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Here is another fine departure from the almost too-sleek style of the Iron Man films. For the first time on film (ahem), Cap's origin is wonderfully realised. The strength of the film is in the early scenes where we see scrawny Steve Rogers as he stands up to bullies and desperately tries to enlist in the army, despite dozens of crippling ailments standing in his way. What makes "Captain America" magic is in the way it reminds us of how clean-cut, wholesome heroes can be just as awe-inspiring and cool as the badasses like Tony Stark. My favourite line in a Marvel movie since Uncle Ben spoke about great responsibility comes from Steve Rogers in this film, when asked if he'd like to 'kill some nazis':
"I don't want to kill anyone. I just don't like bullies."
Once he utters that line, the film has already succeeded. But the cleverness hasn't ended yet, as we see a newly-pumped Steve suffer through the embarassment of being a piece of star-spangled propaganda instead of being a super-soldier, and finally we see him earn his stripes (heh) as a hero worthy of the Avengers. There's plenty of old-school heroism and cheering in this film that would have come across as gushy in a lesser effort, but is flawless here. And star Chris Evans nails it. He's so good in the role that you can't even recognise him as the guy who played Johnny Storm in the "Fantastic Four" movies. It helps that he's also the only guy who even tries to speak like someone might have spoken in the middle of the 1940s.
Unlike Thor, however, "Captain America: The First Avenger" is not quite perfect. In a bizarre move, the movie jettisons the Nazis almost entirely, favouring the villainous (and more fantasy-oriented) H.Y.D.R.A., commanded by the Red Skull. The movie inventively ties together elements from "Thor" and "Iron Man" that allow for some retro-futurism (even though the movie's set in the 40s) that pave the way for much of the technology showcased by Stark Industries in the 'later' films. Unfortunately, some of this retro-futurism makes the film seem too much like a videogame at times. The faceless H.Y.D.R.A. agents carry various different repulsor weapons in the same manner as bog-standard grunts in an over-the-shoulder shooter like "Mass Effect" would. It's off-putting, and it places too much emphasis on contemporary sleek, detracting from an otherwise old-school adventure. Maybe the film was specifically trying not to look like Indiana Jones, but I can't help feeling Nazis would have been a better fit as the bad guys.
Ultimately though, Cap is a great movie that perfectly ties together the other films in the series, seamlessly bridging into "The Avengers". Also, Hugo Weaving is awesome as the Red Skull (and he's actually German, this time). And predictably, Cap gets the best ending of the bunch.
Cap gets 4/5
One last thing...
The final scene of "Iron Man" where Tony reveals his identity to the world (come on guys, the movie came out four years ago) set the precedent and the overall style of this new series of films: these movies weren't going to be about the typical superhero plots that dominate comic-book movies. None of these characters were going to go through the motions of secret-identity antics and romantic woes. While Tony Stark and his peers certainly have their fair share of personal problems, human anxieties and romantic interludes like all contemporary superheroes must; for the most part, it's all-action all the time. There's plenty of time for a good cry later on.
Similarly, the well-worn "I vow never to kill my enemies" trope from many's a superhero story (particularly the Nolan Batman movies) is casually done away with. Certainly, Iron Man, Captain America and the Hulk are all seen killing people in these films, but it's done in a sort of forgivable, swashbuckler kind of a way, where bad guys are killed not as a result of dark vengeance, but simply because that's what happens when there's people firing repulsor rays and Hulkbuster missiles all over the place.
The last notable abandonment of stereotypical superhero tropes is the series' efforts not to step on any toes in The Real World. Unlike "The Dark Knight" there's no allegories that reflect increasingly questionable methods in the War on Terror; unlike X-Men there's no heavy-handed comments regarding intolerance in modern society; unlike Spider-Man there's no...emo-dancing (I'm sorry).
I could draw unfavourable comparisons to Abrams' "Star Trek", which while being a movie that I dearly loved, abandoned much of the extra depth that made "Star Trek" great. Marvel has always been known for tackling social issues in its comics as well as good old superhero smashin', but these films are fairly face-valuey (for lack of a better term). Throughout "Iron Man", the movie flirts with the idea that American Weapons are destroying the world instead of saving it (although it's a flirtation that lasts about as long as Tony's relationship with the Vanity Fair writer played by Leslie Bibb), just as "The Incredible Hulk" makes vague assumptions about the ethical right and wrongs of athletic enhancement through science. By the time we get to "Iron Man 2" these already low-level aspects of the film series have been eradicated in favour of sheer fun. Nobody really expected much social allegory in "Thor", but some might argue that making a film about a guy who wears the American flag on his chest and not raising any questions about how appropriate that it is, is possibly a bit risky.
I say no. I firmly believe that there needs to be light-hearted superhero franchises devoid of the misery and angst that run rampant in the Spider-Man and Batman movies, if only to prove that that's not all superheroes are about. What works well for those well-worn, A-list characters that are known and loved the world over, doesn't necessarily translate as well in films based on B and C-list characters (one of whom is best known in Ireland as the mascot of a steakhouse). While I missed the endearing emotional grip in "The Incredible Hulk" that has made the character my favourite Marvel character (besides the Webbed Wonder), it is perhaps the wisest decision that Marvel decided to give Ol' Greenskin' a rollickin' action movie extravaganza instead of the whinge-fest I wanted to see.
Where am I going with this? Well, it's fair to say that the success of these Marvel Studios movies is based in their fast-paced, action-adventure style that places less emphasis on the traditional superhero tropes prominent in other franchises. This provides a foundation of freshness for this experimental team-up movie, which is already bound to make millions and millions of dollars. So far, every major character in this Avengers team (with the arguable exception of the Hulk) has been fleshed out better than we ever imagined they would be on the big screen, giving this movie the edge it needs to be the ultimate Marvel experience the fans so badly want it to be. Also, the action has been out of this world in all five films so far and the nods and winks to the fanboys have been sublime. Marvel Studios has proven to be adept at doing the unimaginable: bringing its lesser-known characters to life and making them as awesomely popular as Batman and Spider-Man. Let's see if they can work another miracle, bringing together five very different, established heroes and bringing the ultimate superhero team to the big screen.
So until Captain America asks Nick Fury to pull over the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier because he's going to get sick, Make Mine a Marvel Movie.