Sunday, April 29, 2012

"Marvel's The Avengers" is a wildly fun celebration of Marvel Superheroes

It's been a few days since I've seen "The Avengers"/"Avengers Assemble" on the big screen. I wanted to give myself a bit of a cooldown period, to make sure my thoughts on the film were honest and fully developed, rather than just augmented exaggerations from a very super-charged viewing experience.

I can honestly say that I'm still on a high after this movie. I spoke last week about how the Marvel Studios movies predominantly emphasise FUN over heavy-handed parables or allegories and this movie exemplifies and perfects that idea in every way. It's absolutely the most fun superhero movie ever made. From start to finish, it's a rollercoaster ride with moments of sheer awesomeness smacking you in the face every two minutes at 100 kph.

Without getting too spoilery, the plot is as straightforward as it is in the trailer for the film. Loki's trying to take over Earth and he's using an alien army to help him. Simple as that. There are a few nooks and crannies that flesh his plot out a bit more, but at its heart, it's the kind of thing you'd see on a Saturday Morning while chomping down on your Cheerios in one hand, valiantly clutching your action figures in the other.

From an acting perspective, Samuel L. Jackson obviously gets quite a bit more to do in this film than in any of the other Marvel Studios movies so far, as does Clark Gregg's wonderful Agent Phil Coulson. Although you almost find yourself wishing he'd descend into his oft-mimicked "Say 'What' again!!" action-badass Jackson, he more or less stays true to the actual character of Nick Fury, as a haggard colonel trying to control all of the wild characters under his command. As for the other actors, they all get an admirably equal time to shine (the film could easily have been an 'Iron Man & Friends' film, but it gives equal opportunity to every character) with Chris Evans credibly leading the team as their star-spangled leader, Scarjo and Jeremy Renner proving that they can be a lot more than just action-figure wallpaper (Renner's performance in particular really surprised me and I genuinely cared about his character by the end of the film) and Robert Downey Jr. just pounding away into new layers of awesome, reminding us all of why he works so well as the one and only Tony Stark. If there's one character who just barely doesn't get enough to do in the acting department, it's Chris Hemsworth as Thor who is lacking a meaty scene or two that would have completed the circle. The scenes he has work just fine, it just feels like maybe he deserved a bit more to do, especially given how central his character is to the plot. Nevertheless, it's a minor disappointment.

The Avenger who steals the show and clobbers it to a bruised and bloody pulp is Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/The Incredible Hulk. Ruffalo and his astonishingly realistic motion-captured alter-ego is far and away the best thing about the movie. His performance as Banner channels that of Bill Bixby, with a warmth and confidence that exceeds what Edward Norton experimented with. He's certainly channeling Bill Bixby in a lot of scenes (and the film brilliantly ties in to the classic show by showing Banner working as a local doctor in Guatemala), but better still he reminds us of the source material, echoing shades of the nerdy wreck that Banner is in the comics. He even looks like the Bryan Hitch version of Banner. Towards the end of the film, Ruffalo gets the greatest line of dialogue in the history of the Hulk. I'm trying desperately not to spoil it, but it beautifully wraps up the character's development in a way that makes me think that there almost shouldn't be a solo-Hulk movie starring Mark Ruffalo, as it would undermine the supreme character development epilogue in this film.

As I exited the cinema, in absolute awe at the triumph I'd seen onscreen, almost immediately comparisons to films like "The Dark Knight" popped their ugly head. Certainly, "The Avengers" is not the thorough magnum opus of comic-book films that TDK was. It had no Oscar-worthy acting and its plot was simplistic comic book fare, rather than the complex tangled-web of ethics and chaos that Nolan presented in his Batman epic. But there's nothing wrong with that. "The Avengers" was an exercise in simple, carefree escape and enjoyment. It's one of the core reasons for the existence of cinema in the first place; to entertain. It's disheartening that people immediately feel like they have to stack it up against films that are vaguely similar.

Put it this way: "Raging Bull" and "Rocky" are both films about boxing. One is a tense, deconstructionist thriller and the other is a feel-good rags-to-riches crowdpleaser. "Raging Bull" is certainly a better film than "Rocky". It doesn't mean "Rocky" isn't one of my favourite films, or that it's not one of the greatest movies ever made. Such is how fans should approach "The Avengers", "The Dark Knight" and superhero movies in general. As the genre develops, movie-fans should learn that as a genre, it is layered and dimensional, rather than the stupid tower they're trying to build by stacking 'The Best' at the top and 'The Worst' at the bottom, often based solely on their vague memories of seeing the movies once or twice in cinemas.

All of the Marvel Studios films have had moments of thrilling coolness, and "The Avengers" ramps that up to an absolutely unforeseen spectacle. Every couple of minutes, one of the characters does something cool, unlike anything I'd ever seen before. The acting is great and we care about every one of the characters onscreen at any given time, with Mark Ruffalo triumphantly delivering one of the most effective comic-book performances in years. While this is definitely a film for fans, I really don't think the non-initiated would have much trouble enjoying it, as it's one of the most instantly watchable action epics I've ever seen. "The Avengers" or "Avengers Assemble" has set the bar impossibly high for superhero epics. Here's to many more like it.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Prevengers: A Critical Roundup of all the Marvel Studios movies

Here in Ireland (and in the UK), we're only a day away from the release of "Marvel's The Avengers" (or "Avengers Assemble" as they're calling it over here, so that we don't get confused with something that had James Bond, Poison Ivy and Voldemort in it and still managed to be bad). We're fortunate enough to be receiving the film a whole week and one day earlier than North America (which believe me, doesn't usually happen with these kinds of films).

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. 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.

Thor (2011)

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.

Friday, April 20, 2012

B-Movie Marvels: "The Amazing Spider-Man" (1977) is absolutely terrible and I've got nothing witty to say about it

In the 1970s, there was a sort of superhero renaissance in other media, where finally superheroes were being adapted into media that recognised that their audience was potentially more expansive than 5 year olds. The most obvious example is Richard Donner's "Superman: The Movie" which made $300 million at the box-office a year after "Star Wars" took over the world. Most other live-action superheroes of the '70s existed on TV. Some, like "The Incredible Hulk" and "Wonder Woman" were so successful and iconic that they remain the most iconic versions of the characters, even today. Others like "The Amazing Spider-Man" are almost universally forgotten, with good reason.

I've already had a dalliance with a 1970s interpretation of the Webbed Wonder. Suffice to say, this is not that same giant-robot-wielding version. No, this is quite simply the most drab superhero TV show ever. I can't believe they made a Spider-Man series that was less entertaining than the "Knight Rider" remake, but they did. I cannot express how much of a piece of dogshit this series is. But don't worry, I'll back up my claims.

Obviously this show has really dated special effects. Spidey's wall-crawling looks ridiculous and he is almost never seen swinging on a web-line as we see him do at least ten times in any Spider-Man comic book story. Similarly, it shouldn't come as much to a shock that there was never going to be any proper supervillains in this show. Like "The Incredible Hulk", this was going to have to be a show revolving around simple plots involving mobsters and crooked businessmen. That's no excuse for how bad this series is, though.

Principle among the reasons why this show doesn't work, is because the producers didn't understand why Spider-Man is a superhero (and I'm not talking about the radioactive spider - luckily that's still in there). Neither (you might say) did the crazy Japanese version, but nevertheless, Aunt May, the Daily Bugle, J. Jonah Jameson and Spidey's familiar set of powers are all part of the show! So why then does the show just not get it? Simple. Uncle Ben isn't in it. Peter Parker just decides it might be a good idea to become a superhero, for no particular reason based on great power or great responsibility. To quote a character from the (much better) 1990s cartoon "This is pitiful, Spider-Man!". Sure, there's an episode where he talks about how being Spider-Man is less a blessing and more of a curse, but without Uncle Ben, that just becomes a whiny, self-righteous statement. We don't believe that this is a Spidey who won't quit. He's a phoney in every sense.

(Oh yeah, his spider-sense in this is all wrong for reasons I won't get into)

Beyond the serious problems of depth though, there's also the problem that the show is just dull. The camerawork and the atmosphere is just cheap and lifeless-looking. Very little vibrance or colour. The series actually makes New York City look like a really drab place in which to live. Low-key action, no depth in the characters, and lifeless environments. Sound like Spider-Man to you?

And that brings to the episode "Night of the Clones", which I foolishly decided to watch for the sake of this review. I chose this particular episode because it at least had the kind of plot that might appear in a Spider-Man comic. And truth be told, in concept this sounds exactly like something out of the pages of a comic, or at least a generic science fiction adventure: Peter Parker is attending a showcase of scientific geniuses one of whom is researching the practice of cloning. Unfortunately, the doctor has cloned himself and the clone has become a dark, evil reflection of the fairly innocent scientist. The evil clone goes on a rampage, attempting to kill off everyone who has crossed his original counterpart.

Of course, when Spider-Man intervenes the evil clone manages to get a sample of the Wallcrawler's blood and create an Evil Spider-Man clone. Somehow, this show even manages to make the concept of an Evil Spider-Man Clone boring. There is one astonishingly fake fight between the Spider-Men at the end of the episode where the evil clone clumsily crashes into a fusebox, killing himself instantly. The Evil Doctor-Clone then dies because of "Age-Acceleration" as a result of the cloning (a.k.a., the reason clones always die in everything).

I know this episode is at a disadvantage compared to the other full-movies I've reviewed. It's not presented as being grand and unforgettable, because it's not supposed to be. It's just the adventure-of-the-week in a series of self-contained episodes. In a sense, I probably should have reviewed the pilot of this show rather than just a random episode, but again, it was too much of a struggle to watch the pilot before that I never wanted to do it again. There's different kinds of 'bad' in entertainment: there's the kind of 'bad' that suffers because of dated goofiness (The Incredible Hulk Returns) but is endearing and entertaining anyway; there's the kind of 'bad' that suffers from budgetary restrictions or bad acting (Captain America) and executive tampering (The Punisher). All of these types of inferiority are interesting and entertaining.

With "Amazing Spider-Man" we have something that was always going to be underwhelming, but just never tries to rise above its restrictions. There's no reason under the Sun that this series couldn't have been just as full of tragedy and triumph (on a smaller scale) as the original comics. The basic level of craftsmanship is certainly there in terms of acting (Nicholas Hammond is fine as Peter/Spider-Man if a bit effeminate). Instead, it is one of the most lazy, mundane pieces of forgettable nothingness I have ever seen involving a superhero. In no way is it 'so-bad-it's-good'. There's nothing endearingly silly or lovable about it. It just falls in that awful Phantom Zone of mediocrity - it's as close to unwatchable as anything I've seen so far.

But we have a-ways to go yet...

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Just-Barely-Retro Game Review: "The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction" lives up to its name

With the upcoming release of Marvel's "The Avengers" (or "Avengers Assemble" if you live over here and you're confused with that other, awful film), my friends and I have been rewatching the Marvel Studios' films that lead up to the mighty crossover experiment-film, including one that features the man you see below. This inspired me to revisit the Green Goliath's greatest gamma-charged gaming glory, "The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction".

When it comes to free-roaming games, the phrase "go anywhere and do anything" is bandied around a lot. What people love so much about the Grand Theft Auto games is that this is pretty much true. The world is your playground, to run around and do as you wish, shooting, stealing and roaming free to your dark heart's content. When this formula is applied to the super-hero genre, there's always the problem of the forced limitations the game is going to have, to prevent Spider-Man suffocating an innocent civilian with his webbing or Superman burning someone to death with his heat-vision.

However, when you come to a character like the Incredible Hulk, who lives for chaos and destruction, you can pretty much do whatever you like with a videogame. And that's what "The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction" does.

This is one of those gaming anomalies that owes its very existence to a bizarre stroke of luck. For whatever reason, the tie-in game based on Ang Lee's 2003 "HULK" movie went Platinum on multiple platforms (while the movie just barely broke even). The phenomenal success of the tie-in game led to a sequel, despite there being no movie to base it on (a similar occurrence happened with ol' Webhead, resulting in the enjoyable "Ultimate Spider-Man" game). The original "Hulk" game however was a simplistic level-based brawler, which, while fun, was nowhere near 'Incredible'. This vastly improved, free-roaming sequel (which, by the way has nothing to do story-wise with the original game or its weird film) ups the ante by (literal) leaps and bounds.

In "Ultimate Destruction", you play as the Hulk in two different free-roaming locations: an undisclosed city and a desert badland. The plot is the usual search-for-a-cure type scenario and they explain away Hulk's mission objectives with some kind of "subconscious neural input device" that implants the objectives into the green goliath's child-like mind. Anyway, the main point is that in order to complete your objectives, you have to smash, crash, punch, crunch and in every way obliterate your way through this locations in order to collect valuable parts of machinery and stop the people that are standing in your way, such as the military and other creepy gamma creatures.

What makes "Ultimate Destruction" so special is that it finally delivers a completely destructible, interactive environment in a superhero game. Every single thing you see in the environment can be used as a weapon or smashed to smithereens. People, cars, lamposts, air-vents, bill-boards and giant paraphernalia. If something in the environment looks peculiar or out-of-the-ordinary (like a giant hamburger on top of a fast-food restaurant), it's yours to weaponise or destroy as you see fit. And while the game obviously doesn't allow you to destroy the entire city, there are actually a handful of buildings that you can smash to bits. In one memorable boss-battle on a remote location that isn't available in the main free-roam locations, you actually destroy every one of the buildings in the level.

The game isn't just about picking up things and throwing them, though. "Ultimate Destruction" features a truly vast collection of different attacks and combinations. The upgrade system is extensive and requires long hours of play in order to really tap the game's potential, but as your array of attacks expands, it all becomes worthwhile. You can rip cars apart and turn them into steel boxing gloves. You can crush a bus so that it becomes a skateboard. You can catch a missile and throw it back at your enemies. You can grab a tank by its turret and spin it around like tossing a hammer. You can break missile-launchers off vehicles and use them yourself. You can throw, punch or pile-drive your enemies into other enemies for efficiency. You can create critical sonic-claps, earth-shattering critical body-slams and all kinds of different game-changing finishers. The list goes on and on in a combat-system that is arguably the best ever featured in a superhero game prior to the legendary Arkham games. The power you wield in this game really is Incredible.

The other great thing about this game over other superhero-battlers is the unstoppable movement of the Incredible Hulk. Just like his comic-book counterpart, Hulk can perform superhuman leaps across the city that would rival any Metropolitan Kryptonian's. As well as his super-leaps, by holding down R1, Hulk can run at breakneck speed. The game indulges in a bit of playful flirtation with the limits of the laws of physics here, by allowing dear old Dr Banner to actually run up the sides of buildings (supposedly because of his thunderous momentum). When you upgrade enough, you can also use 'Air-Dashes' to give you an extra boost in a specific direction while you're leaping through the air. Again, a total disregard for physics, but who cares? Air-dashes (and the similar Air-Recovery move) are invaluable in fights when you find yourself knocked back in mid-air from the world-stopping blows of your enemies. This totally alleviates the all-too-common frustration found in brawler games where your character is knocked off his feet and you have to wait for the tedium of the character falling and getting back up again to fight. In the Hulk, you can recover in mid-air and keep on punchin'.

The range of enemies in this game is also really impressive. At the start of the game, when running and jumping around the city, you face simple armed soldiers and even policemen, who are ordered to shoot the Hulk on sight. At this point in the game, they're even a little bit of a threat, as your health-bar hasn't upgraded too much, yet. Before long you'll be facing tanks and helicopters (which are difficult to beat in the beginning of the game as Hulk's ability to leap doesn't have too much finesse yet, and he can't take them out in one punch). After that, you start facing Hulkbuster mechs which become more and more advanced (and more and more MASSIVE) as the game progresses. Plenty of superhero games use robots as enemy grunts (and bosses) and plenty of superhero games have been monotonous as a result ("Superman Returns", "Wolverine's Revenge", the list goes on), but Hulk does it really well as the mechs provide suitable adversaries that are just beatable enough in a way that is very challenging, but requires skill and a knowledge of different attacks, rather than just hammering down the square-button. The best part about the enemies is that, like the cops in Grand Theft Auto, if the Hulk is roaming around the city outside of the regular missions, if he causes enough destruction, a Strike Team will mobilise and attack him. Over the course of the game, the Strike Teams get more and more advanced, to the point where by the end of the game, you're battling gigantic super-mechs that will tear down entire buildings in their pursuit of the Hulk. Unlike GTA however, individual Strike Teams can be neutralised if the Hulk is skilled enough in his attacks.

Graphically, the game is average. The Hulk himself looks great, but practically everything else in the game is of a very choppy, below-par quality. The human characters sometimes look as awkwardly rendered as really high-quality PSOne games. And even though the destruction and explosive impact of this game is ambitiously epic in a way that's rare on PS2 titles, the physics are only okay. The game's buildings don't really fall and implode the way real buildings actually would, they merely sink into a growing hill of pixelated dust. It's an acceptable enough compromise given the limitations of that era of gaming, but it's noteworthy as a shortcoming, nonetheless.

The greatest problem the game has is its lacklustre missions. While the game is never boring, sometimes you wish the Hulk was given a task greater than having to retrieve a substation generator or a particle isolator or tacheon pulse-emittor gigatron matrix (okay, I made that one up). Far too often, you are simply sent on a "destroy this, pick up this and protect that" type filler-mission. And it's a real shame that no other characters from the Marvel Universe make an appearance (a la The Punisher), as this would certainly have livened up the occasional feeling of repetition that very occasionally creeps up throughout the game (the lack of a boss battle with Iron Man or Thor seems like a real missed opportunity). Luckily enough the military's relentless pursuit of the Hulk and the destructive madness of the game's atmosphere make up for the lack of imagination in the missions. And besides, the boss battles are amazing.

I have just a few other minor irritations; mainly a weird little creative decision the developers made that annoy me about how the game works. There are some great unlockable cheats and alternate skins (including the hilarious 'Savage Banner' which sees you playing as proportionally tiny Bruce Banner, with all of the Hulk's strength) available within the game, but in order to unlock them you have to find 'comic covers' scattered across the map. Nothing new there, it's a staple of many superhero games. What's weird is that when you find the covers, they provide you with a cheat code. Why couldn't they just unlock the feature automatically? Why bother going through the trouble of providing you with a code? And in case you try to look up the codes online, they only work after you've retrieved the corresponding comic cover, which makes the code even more pointless. This kind of thing always annoyed me. I was never one for unlockables; when I've finished the story-mode, I want to play through the story mode again with alternate skins and cheats. I'm not into this tedious nonsense of going around random areas of the map finding pickup-tokens. I just want to play as the damn Grey Hulk right away. This is one of the few advantages of the contemporary trend of downloadable content that you have to pay for: there's no dicking around. If you want the extra feature, you just pay for it and you get it straight away to use as you please.


"The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction" stands proudly as one of the greatest Marvel games ever made. It was the first answer to "Spider-Man 2"'s legendary use of a free-roaming city and it arguably makes even better use of the concept (even if it's certainly less heroic). I honestly can't think how anyone could make a better Hulk game than this. Marvel agrees with me, as they very clearly based their tie-in game to their 2008 "The Incredible Hulk" movie on this game; even the controls are very similar (in fact, the plot of the actual film is notably similar to this game). Like all of the Retro Marvel games, it has its array of flaws and graphical shortcomings, but it's still contemporary enough that you'll love it. In this game, you'll definitely like Bruce Banner when he's angry.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

B-Movie Marvels: "The Incredible Hulk Returns" and fights PokéBall Thor

I know I hinted that I was going to review Roger Corman's roaring shite-fest "Fantastic Four" for the next installment of 'B-Movie Marvels', but I didn't want to clear out all of the really terrible Marvel movies in one swoop. Instead, I decided to review a movie that I actually kind of like (or rather, one I've seen a lot and isn't as gut-wrenchingly awful as shit like "Captain America"). Don't worry, though. "Fantastic Four" is coming.

"The Incredible Hulk Returns" is one of the three made-for-TV movies that followed the iconic television series starring Bill Bixby as Dr. David Banner (they changed his name from 'Bruce' to 'David' because reasons) who after being exposed to intense levels of gamma radiation would transform into a raging, muscular, green-skinned behemoth known as the 'Hulk' (played by bodybuilder Lou Ferrigno). The TV show, while formulaic and a bit repetitive (every episode saw David Banner on the run, drifting into different cities, taking on various odd-jobs to support himself, getting into adventures that invariably resulted in him transforming into the Hulk, rinse, repeat) is really great, because it jettisoned out all of the junk that made the comic so hokey (multiple Hulks, multiple modes of transformation, crap villains and varying levels of intelligence for the Hulk) and streamlined it down to what made the core of the character so great: a man trying to control his inner demons, channeling them into more positive outlets.

Without going into too much detail about why I like the series, I think the best thing about it was the casting. Bill Bixby is magical as David Banner. Instead of playing him as the whiney milksop of the early comics, his Banner is a wise, father-like, ironically calm figure who guides the guest-characters to safety by using reason and rationale to fight the villains. While Banner is clearly haunted by his situation, unlike the comics character, he never feels sorry for himself; always resolving to keep moving to find a cure. I was reminded of this approach in Edward Norton's performance in "The Incredible Hulk" movie in 2008.

Like a lot of great superhero shows, The Hulk himself only appears when it's time for action rather than words. Lou Ferrigno was similarly awesome as the Hulk, even if his wig and prosthetic nose looks a bit silly today. Ferrigno's Hulk was a raging beast, certainly, but he played him with child-like sensitivity and curiousity, and a warmth towards animals, women and children (which was no easy feat, as unlike in the comics, the Hulk had no dialogue).

Anyway, one of the most noteworthy things about the show was how the plots were mostly toned-down affairs, different from the high-concept shenanigans of the comics. In keeping with this lower-key atmosphere, there were practically no appearances by characters from the greater Marvel Universe in the TV series. However, in the 1987 telefilm "The Incredible Hulk Returns" this all changed, when the Hulk met Thor.

Unfortunately for fans, Thor is irritatingly different in this telefilm, compared to his comic-book counterpart. Instead of actually being the frikkin' Norse God of Thunder, Thor is just a simple Viking who was denied access to Valhalla, by the Highfather Odin. In order to be granted access, he must complete a number of noble deeds on Earth. The most prominent difference in this movie though, is that Thor must be 'summoned' by Dr. Donald Blake, who magics him into existence using Mjolnir, Thor's hammer (sort of like how Ash summons his PokéMon with PokéBalls). In the comics, Donald Blake himself transformed into Thor, but in this movie, they exist separately of one another, allowing for a 'comedy' rapport between them.

At this point, it becomes obvious that "The Incredible Hulk Returns" is a back-door pilot for a possible Thor show. Frankly, as enjoyably cheesy as this version of Thor is, I'm glad they didn't make a TV show. It's clear that they felt they really had to dial back the comic-book trappings of the character even more than they had to for the Hulk, and the show would have just been sad to watch.

Newcomer Eric Kramer played Thor himself in the movie and admittedly, he's really good at playing Thor as a valiant warrior, as well as a big, confused goof; a man out-of-time. His dialogue is mostly cheesy, but it seems to be intentional and it works. Less effective is Steve Levitt as Donald Blake. Throughout the film he over-acts and comes across as annoying. The highlight of the film where Thor and Blake are concerned, comes when the two go to a biker bar so that Thor can blow off some steam, drink some beers and have some arm-wrestles. Of course, Thor can plough through entire pitchers of beers with little or no difficulty while Blake can't hack the sesh and is drunk after just one. Curiously enough, there's a scene vaguely similar to this in the actual "Thor" movie from last year (which is another instance where Thor and Donald Blake are distinct individuals; although Blake is only mentioned in that film).

The plot involves Banner living under an assumed name, happy and free with a beautiful girlfriend while he works in a research lab. He is tantalisingly close to exorcising the Hulk from his body with the help of a plot device he has created called "The Gamma Transponder". Unfortunately, for reasons that are never made clear, Don Blake has figured out where Banner is and just has to show him his new Viking friend, before Banner can use the transponder on himself. This is the most problematic part of the film. Blake shows up hoping Banner will know how to separate the link between Blake and Thor (this is only loosely mentioned once in the exchange)...but why? Why would a medical researcher know what to do with a supernatural Mjolnir? And couldn't Blake just keep Thor in the hammer and not release him? Is he subconsciously tempted to release him, like Stanley Ipkiss is tempted to put on Loki's Mask in "The Mask"?

To make a long story short, the plot involves Bad Guys (featuring classic henchman-actor Charles Napier) kidnapping Banner's girlfriend in exchange for the Gamma Transponder. Blake and Banner have to retrieve the girl and defeat the bad guys. Spoiler Warning: The Hulk and Thor do most of the defeating. Although Blake does shoot a couple of bad guys (surprising for a family TV movie).

All in all, while this TV movie really dumbs-down the Marvel Comics version of Thor (it's as if they didn't think Americans would know what 'Norse Gods' were), Eric Kramer is a delight as Thor nonetheless, and it's always a joy seeing Bixby/Ferrigno as Banner and the Hulk. This telefilm is a refreshing change from most of the really crap Marvel movies I've subjected myself to.

Next week, I'm going to take a look at one of the most reviled chapters in the history of one Peter Parker.