With the release of Marvel’s The Avengers later this month, I decided to get up to date and rented all the tie-in movies that I’d meant to go see in the cinema. My relationship with the comic book superhero sub-genre has always been confined solely to the movies and animated TV shows in the 90′s, albeit the latter of which I hardly remember, so I feel that I’m able to enjoy the films as cinema rather than scoff at it’s interpretations of the concepts originated in the comics.
Despite this, I never really encountered The Avengers. I vaguely recall the existence of Iron Man and Hulk cartoons, but was more into the X-Men and Spiderman animated series. My only recollection of Captain America was a cameo in the Spiderman cartoon (American exceptionalism evidently doesn’t play too well in the UK) but I don’t remember him in any other capacity, and I didn’t even know of the Marvel Thor’s existence until a few years ago. So I’m coming at this almost entirely blind.
Since my Star Trek Movies mass-review never saw the light of day and I’m too lazy to review each individual film, here’s a brief run-down of my thoughts on each of the films. I stress once again that I am not familiar with the comics, so if I credit or disdain anything done in the films that was taken from the source material, then the credit/criticism is simply for adapting it.
I’ll admit that I have a hard time liking Robert Downey, Jr. simply because he’s a one-character actor, and that character is Robert Downey, Jr. If Charlie Sheen hadn’t done it first, he’d be off playing a wise-cracking, cocky womaniser in a sitcom; instead he plays himself, exactly the same in every movie, under the guise of portraying different roles. That said, though I know little about Tony’s comic characterisation, the actor does fit the role of Stark very believably. The character we see at the start is beautifully set up to be affected as strongly as he is when the veil is dropped on what his company’s work actually leads to, but the hubris still exists to facilitate development in later films.
The story is well arranged, forgoing the usual structure of the hero gaining his powers, having a series of successes, culminating in an intense battle with a newly emerged antagonist. Instead, we see the eventual rise of Iron Monger mirror the development of Stark’s Iron Man. Stane’s motivations are clear and, once again, made believable by the way Stark is portrayed. Probably the most competently done film of the series.
The Incredible Hulk
It’s contentious status as an indirect sequel to 2003′s ‘Hulk’ and/or a prequel to The Avengers notwithstanding, it was nice to see a superhero film that didn’t have to spend half it’s running time explaining the origins. Nice, but at times confusing and there really should’ve been a clearer method of exposition than unintelligible flashbacks and a slurry of newspaper headlines passing by so rapidly that Usain Bolt couldn’t keep up. It was very hard to work out who knew about Bruce, who didn’t and what their opinion was; thus their motivations were hard to gauge. Regardless, it was very well paced with the opening scenes only taking up as much time as was needed with no awkward padding before the plot really kicked off. The ‘duality of man’ theme, present in all depictions of the Hulk, is subtly explored: weaved into the narrative rather than having clichéd oratories; and it’s resolution is neatly developed.
My biggest problem with the film is the inconsistency with which the chararacters were written. This extends both to continuity, at one point the Hulk is shown to withstand bullets but later his skin is penetrated by a tranquiliser dart with absolute impunity, and to characters. For example, General Ross, who spends almost the entire movie seeking to capture the Hulk, actively orders his men to assist the short-shorted green giant once a more pertinent threat looms. Granted, Abomination was danger enough for them to change target, but for Ross to order helping the Hulk, rather than trying to blow them both to phosphorescent chunks, was too big a turnaround to be believable.
Iron Man 2
The only chance they’ve had so far to give a character a full movie of development and it went almost entirely to waste. The notion that his arc reactor was for some reason suddenly killing him seemed more like a vehicle for slapstick sequences than any actual tension. In the previous movie, his creation of the Iron Man tech was a statement that he was prepared to shed his egotism and fight for the greater good. Now, the fact that Vanko is coming after him directly is the only thing driving the story and we get no continuation of the earlier themes. I know it’s a bit rich, since I’m not a filmmaker, to suggest better storylines, but here’s how I would’ve done it.
Amid ignored demands by the US army to hand over the Iron Man tech, the first encounter between Whiplash and an over-confident Iron Man does more harm than good (though Vanko is caught and his part in the film is largely unchanged), and Stark is left to ponder if he’s really any better than the military that he knows would abuse the Iron Man suit’s power. Much of the first act is devoted then to Stark’s exploration of this issue, employing several different tactics in his work as Iron Man with varying results, whilst maintaining the cocky front that is the only emotion Robert Downey, Jr. knows how to portray. The revelation that Tony’s father, Howard, was responsible for Vanko’s vendetta should’ve come later in the film, as it serves as a much more logical lead-in to the “sins of the father” themes that was briefly shoehorned into the movie, and gives Tony a renewed sense of responsibility to confront Vanko leading into the third act. Since Howard Stark played a largely sympathetic role in Captain America, he can be partially redeemed by the hidden message to Tony of the new element formula that, rather than saving Tony’s life, gives extra power to the Iron Man suit enough to defeat Whiplash and his drones. This also makes for more interesting references to Tony and Howard’s relationship, and how that affects the younger Stark now, than what we got.
Legendary Shakespearean actor Kenneth Branagh directing a superhero film seems like an unlikely choice, but both visually and in dialogue this is quite a nice fit. However, since this is a character from a world completely different and unrecognisable to the viewer, the writers have the unenviable task of explaining all these bizarre concepts and rules in what’s meant to be an action flick. As a result, someone unacquainted with the comics (like me) is left asking a lot of questions. For example, it’s an important plot point that the if the Bifröst Bridge remains open too long it’ll destroy the realm it’s connected to. Why’s that? Is that for a reason or a really big design flaw? What will happen to the realm it originated from? The nerdy jabs go on…
But at the same time, explaining all these concepts would’ve made the dialogue clunky, and simplifying it would’ve pissed off the core-audience: fanboys. Since the film’s plot can be followed even if they don’t explain everything, I’m partial to think that Branagh made the best of a tricky situation with the source material he had to go on. It’s a nicely done film, though the second act consists almost entirely of excruciatingly unfunny ‘stranger in a foreign land’ comic relief sequences, as Thor adjusts to mortal life, that even Sacha Baron-Cohen would find forced.
Captain America: The First Avenger
Very good first half, but felt rushed towards the end. However, I can forgive it the lackluster third act by how well it handled the origin story of Captain America. I’m not particularly clued-up on Cap’s comic villains, but given how little screen time or dialogue the Red Skull gets, despite being the best-known antagonist for the good Captain, it probably would’ve done the character more justice to be introduced in the sequel. Whilst in comic book movies there’s always room to bring back the brilliant Hugo Weaving in the role, despite getting a red face-full of plot convenience to end the film and lead into The Avengers, his character will always be tarnished by his weak introduction. In fact, having established the protagonist thoroughly, I’m interested to see how Captain America will develop in later stories, particularly having been taken out of his native Guns-Guts-Glory era and shoved into the self-absorbed world of modernity. Seemingly to that same end, the trailer for The Avengers clearly establishes a clash between Stark and Rogers, which seems apt (though is probably lifted straight out of the comics) but I really hope this doesn’t become some weak-sauce attempt to create quippy trailer-dialogue and actually gets used as a plot device.
Having a cinematic universe of this nature is a double-edged sword. Whilst having confirmed sequels and crossovers frees up time to develop characters in later films and give the origin stories a fair enough shake to satiate the fanboys, it does let the plot down for first-generation films. The potential for later character development becomes highly anticipated, but the fact that these are intended as action films means that any opportunities for this are often vetoed by the studio in lieu of more explosions, fighting and stuff they can put in the trailer. This is probably what disappointed me so much about Iron Man 2. The Avengers crossover, being a union of many characters, will undoubtedly be too crowded a stage for each individual character to show much development; but as long as it sets up for each of the characters to grow in their individual sequels, I can live with that.