Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn, 2014)


Guardians of the Galaxy
I finally caught up with this, a little late, but I did want to watch it at the cinema as some of the reviews referred to it having a kind of Star Wars vibe, an event picture best watched on a big screen and in company. Perhaps it was that the cinema was nearly empty, only a few of us stragglers still not having seen it, but I have to say I was a little underwhelmed.

The movie was fun, with plenty of laughs and entertaining throughout but, at the end, I couldn’t really see what all the fuss was about and I struggle to remember any real stand-out moments from it. Perhaps it was just a case of reacting against the hype – ‘expectation inflation’.

As the film starts in 1988, we see a young boy at the hospital where his mother is dying of cancer. As she dies, she reaches out her hand but the boy hesitates too long and she is dead before he can say his goodbye. Unattended by the other grieving relatives, and with his father having left, he runs out into the misty night – and is abducted by a UFO. Cut to modern day and the same boy, now a man, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), is on an deserted alien planet (we know he is the same boy as he’s playing the same cassette tape on the same Walkman) scavenging an ancient artefact, a mysterious orb. This is obviously a much-sought after thing, as he has to fight others to retrieve it, and a bounty is paid, both for him and the artefact he is trying to sell. A green-skinned assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldan) is sent to kill him and retrieve the item for her boss Ronan who, in turn has been promised the destruction of his enemies of the planet Nova by his boss Thanos; and a genetically-modified raccoon, Rocket (Bradley Cooper), and his tree-like partner Groot (Vin Diesel) try to kidnap him for the bounty. A three-way scrap on the planet Nova, after Quill unsuccessfully tries to sell the orb only results in all four participants being arrested and sent to a space station prison to rot, or die. There, they encounter another maverick outlaw, Drax (Dave Bautista) and they soon find that only they stand between Ronan and the destruction of entire worlds.

This is a Marvel movie, part of the ever-expanding Marvel universe, but much has been made of it not calling on the other movies, the way the various Avengers movies did. This is largely true (I only noticed the villain Thanos and ‘The Collector’ having made any prior appearances) but is also largely irrelevant. It’s still a Marvel film, and it still calls on the same mythos, and the tone, while more consistently playing for laughs than other films, still has much the same mix of silliness, heroics and suspense as those other films. The biggest difference is that where Avengers went for wit, this one went for fun. That’s probably why so many people liked it so much, and why I didn’t, so much.

There was the usual end-credits scene but I think I was the only person in that cinema who got the joke!

X-Men: Days of Future Past (Bryan Singer, 2014)


xmen dofp
Ok, so X-Men and X2 were great, First Class and The Wolverine were pretty good and X3: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine were execrable. So, a mixed bag to date. When I heard that Bryan Singer was returning to take charge, my hopes were raised but then people started pointing out, quite reasonably, that Singer’s record of late hasn’t been quite so stellar – and Superman Returns was, while not so bad as the X-Men stinkers, pretty turgid.

I’m glad to report that this film is among the best – not quite topping the list but a happy addition to the canon.

It has enough action and tension to entertain at the more visceral level and enough brains to justify the thrills. We start the action in a near-future where the last remaining mutants are fighting a losing battle against the Sentinals, giant super-powered robots designed to destroy mutants but now destroying anyone with the capacity to pass on mutant genes – basically, most of humanity. The mutants’ last trick is to launch attacks and keep sending one of their number, Bishop, far enough back in time to warn his colleagues when a Sentinal attack is imminent. Most people can’t go very far back without suffering brain damage. A high risk plan is hatched, to send Wolverine, who has preternatural healing powers, all the way back to 1973, when Magneto (Ian McKellen/Michael Fassbender) and Professor X (Patrick Stewart/James McAvoy) were deadly enemies but will both be required (in their younger incarnations) to prevent Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from killing the inventor of the Sentinals, an act which has been identified as the point at which the machines were both deemed necessary and provided with their unstoppable powers. In the meantime of the future time, the last remaining mutants prepare to defend the sleeping Wolverine from the Sentinals’ onslaught, who must be kept alive until his mission in the past is complete.

If the above reads as confused or confusing, it’s because there is a ridiculous amount of back-story and exposition I’m dropping, and an enormous cast of characters of whom we see only glimpses, who will mean an awful lot to fans of the previous films and/or comics but will just look like “decorative background colour” to anyone else. For the most part, I suspect the film is told well enough that a casual viewer could follow the plot, though specific scenes might appear cryptic or baffling. It is a shame that so few of the main characters got significant screen time; like X2, most only appear fleetingly (though I gave a “whoop” for the appearance of one of my favourites at the end). In tying both past and future franchises together, there was even more competition for attention than previously. I hope that, having reinvigorated the series, it will be possible to have films that concentrate on different casts, on perhaps a slightly smaller scale, as The Wolverine did.

The Amazing Spiderman 2 (Marc Webb, 2014)


amazing spiderman 2
The first of these films was enjoyable enough, even if it felt a little unnecessary, given the previous three films of the same superhero. Having the ‘origins’ story already set up and out of the way, the stage was set for this version to really get going. Oh dear, how sad, never mind…

Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone do a fine job and really shine as Peter Parker and Gwen Stacey – that part of the film really works and their relationship (as might be expected, given their real-life relationship) convinces as real and is charming.

What fails is the threat and the overall story. The creation of Elektro from a geeky fan-boy is meant to be a commentary on outsider status and its alienating effect but the transistion from comedic to tragic to scary is too broad and shallow to really work – and the Spiderman character himself is surely the original commentary on this theme, anyway? Then we get the Green Goblin story, a more interesting story anyway, shoehorned in halfway through and dealt with rather cursorily. This was worthy of a film in its own right but looks like an afterthought. And then we get more villains added in the background, ready for the next film – a case of Sony picking up on Marvel’s Avengers template of sacrificing the film we’re watching to set up the next?

I was intrigued with the Gwen story; would the filmmakers have the guts to see it out, as per the iconic comic story? And, if so, how would it sit tonally with what was generally quite a lightweight ‘popcorn’ movie, aimed young? I have to say that they did better with this than I expected but it wasn’t enough to save the film.

A more honest title would have been The Adequate Spiderman 2. A shame.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Anthony & Joe Russo, 2014)


Captain America 2
The previous Captain America movie, The First Avenger, was quite enjoyable until the very end, which left the whole experience ultimately underwhelming, so would Marvel’s growing experience of expanding their ‘universe’ give them more confidence and daring in this follow-up?

This starts with Captain America, the genetically enhanced World War II ‘Super Soldier’ Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), first seen fighting the uber-Nazi organisation, Hydra, on a plane, about to embark on a mission. Revived after 65 years of accidental cryogenic storage (at the end of the first film), he is now established as a regular agent for Shield, with some seniority from his experience in The Avengers. Shield is the world-wide agency set up to defend the world from existential threats, whether originating in criminal conspiracies, super-powered individuals, or alien visitation. Shield has been instrumental in organising reaction to threats in several Marvel films to date, and in the TV series, Agents of Shield. Nonetheless, Rogers still has serious reservations about the organisation for whom he works; growing up in a simpler age when he knew who his enemies were and for what he was fighting, he regards the modern surveillance society with huge suspicion.

His mission being to rescue hostages from a ship that has been boarded by pirates, Rogers is furious to learn that the mission, which he ostensably commanded, was actually only a small part of a larger mission, in which Black Widow / Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) was directed to retrieve information on the “Insight” programme, an intensive intelligence/monitoring system about to come on line. When the director of Shield, Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) is shot, Captain America and Black Widow set out to uncover a conspiracy that has links to Rogers’ past, but with the whole apparatus of Shield devoted to stopping them, directed by Fury’s friend and World Council bureaucrat Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford).

There are quite a few things to like in this film. For a start, the issues that so disappointed me about the first one – the lack of any investigation by Rogers of his past, or reflection on what he had lost (surely the strongest dramatic element of the entire story) is addressed at last, on one occasion heartbreakingly. For another, there is a serious philosophical/political discussion about the modern obsession about security, the post-Snowden issues of privacy, and what this may mean for freedom. In a ‘popcorn movie’, that’s quite an important statement. Even if the solution is a little simplistic, the fact that the question is asked at all matters. The ambition of a studio willing to mess up the world they’ve created is pretty impressive too.

What stops the film from being really satisfying, then? This probably sounds silly, given that I’m considering a costumed superhero movie, but it’s that the scope of the threat is unbelievable. Even in a fantastical setting, the world created has to be coherent and believable, and I simply baulked at the scale of the villainy, which was so huge that I found myself shaking my head and saying to myself “no chance”. It also suffers a little from Marvel’s perennial obsession – the sacrifice of dramatic integrity of the film being made in order to set up or tease another film to come. Many people left the cinema as soon as the credits began to roll, and most left after the mid-credits teaser but, of course, there was another teaser at the end – and it was only the second that added anything to the film we’d just watched. Given the title of the film we’d seen, this last teaser-trailer seemed almost insulting, as “The Winter Soldier” barely featured in the this film but seems more important for some future offering.

Like the first, then, it is flawed. Unlike the first, however, it doesn’t save up all its flaws until the very last scene, so I didn’t come out of the cinema angry at the letdown but, instead, felt that I’d been pretty well entertained but that an opportunity to make a film as solid as The Avengers had been sadly thrown away.

Thor: The Dark World (Alan Taylor, 2013)


Thor Dark World
I learned to read through Marvel comics. On my seventh birthday in hospital, the interminable boredom was relieved by a sheaf of comics brought in by my family, including The Incredible Hulk, Fantastic Four, Spiderman, Thor and, I think, the X-Men although that might have been a little later. Throughout the ’70s, I read my way through most of the Marvel stable.

I have good feelings towards the current fad of superhero movies, especially the Marvel ones (I never really go into the DC stable). I am indulgent to them, the real stinkers like X-Men: The Last Stand, and Wolverine aside, and I look out for them and go to the cinema to see them whenever I can and I’m not going to join in the criticism of the number of superhero blockbusters being made. Even so, the first Thor film was a nice surprise, a fairly low-key affair that balanced humour, melodrama, romance and superpower shenanigans pretty deftly.

Following the Thor character’s appearance in the Avengers movie, I was intrigued to see what they would do with the sequel, and was reassured that Portman, Skarsgård, Hiddleston and others would be reprising their roles from the first film, promising to continue the good work from the first film, albeit almost certainly on a larger scale. I’m sorry to say I was badly disappointed.

The plot is based around an ancient evil being resurrected and Norse ‘god’ (actually a superpowered alien) Thor (Chris Hemsworth) having to enrol his evil brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) into helping him stop it before all of existance is plunged into eternal darkness, while at the same time reigniting his romance with human scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman).

This sequel isn’t terrible. Individual bits of it are very good, now and again, but it all seems very disjointed, lurching around and not finding any consistent tone. Taylor is unable to match Branagh’s directorial trick of negotiating the changeovers from light to dark, from comedy to romance to thriller to action. The comedy is too broad (poor Skarsgård looks like Father Jack Hackett at one point), the threat too portentous, the romance unengaging. Only the action seems confidently managed but, without my engagement in the rest of the drama, I’m left just watching a display of special effects. That ‘suspension of disbelief’ that allows me to care what happens to the characters is missing.

The acting is fine, given the material. Portman is good, one of the few to convince in her role. Hemsworth bravely delivers some fairly poor lines better than they really deserve. Anthony Hopkins looks utterly disinterested in his role. Hiddleston is, unsurprisingly, terrific. He is a superb actor and, given the best role as the scheming, sardonic villain on the side of good, can’t really go wrong. The person most misused is Christopher Eccleston. A very good actor, he is given almost nothing to do, except deliver some subtitled threats in a fake language while looking a bit weird, and this latter is achieved by make-up and special effects anyway.

I think the bare bones of a good film were here. It might have benefited from some re-writes to improve the dialogue and make the transitions flow better (or perhaps it had already been rewritten too much?) but the failure, for me, of this film has to be chiefly laid at the door of the director who seems not to have settled on what he wanted the overall film to feel like and ended up, as a result, with a mishmash.

And I’m still waiting for Thor’s human alter-ego, Dr Donald Blake, to make an appearance in the film universe.

The Avengers (Joss Whedon, 2012)


Avengers
Or “Marvel Avengers Assemble”, as it’s rather clumsily called in the UK.

So this is it; after all the hype, all the tinkering with previous movies, adding little teasers (Incredible Hulk), extra characters who muddy up the plot to no discernable purpose (Black Widow in Iron Man 2) and completely fucking up the film totally (Captain America), we get to see if the payoff was worth it.

The basics:Loki (Tom Hiddleston), evil brother of Thor and a member of an alien race that previously appeared to humans as one of the Norse gods, who disappeared at the end of that film has teamed up with another alien race who intend using a device called the Tesseract, recovered at the end of Captain America, to open up a galactic gate to Earth in order to invade. So far, so hokum. This is a superhero film – it doesn’t really need to appeal to our sense of what is likely. To continue…

Loki arrives at the headquarters of SHIELD, a shadowy organisation that has been formed to protect the planet from any extraordinary threats just as its director Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson), who has appeared in the Incredible Hulk, Thor, Captain America and Iron Man 2, is discussing the Tessaract with SHIELD scientist Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård, reprising this role from Thor). Causing absolute mayhem, invulnerable to anything Fury’s soldiers can throw at him, Loki absconds with the Tesseract along with Selvig and agent Clint Barton, aka Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) who he has hypnotised in some manner. Fury, in desperation activates the “Avengers Initiative”, a project to recruit all those “special” people featured in the previous films, as a kind of super-commando unit, and the superheroes are forced to learn to work together, to combine their powers and curb their egos, in order to defeat Loki and his alien army.

Ok, so that’s the set-up; why is everyone raving about it? Because it’s been done with wit and verve and rattles along at a good pace, entertaining throughout. It made me (and most of the rest of the audience) laugh out loud far more frequently than most comedies manage, and I had a silly grin on my face for much of the rest of the time. Each of the characters had both screen time and opportunity to shine and the interplay between them, in alternating combinations of characters, was superb. Many of the characters (Loki, Iron Man/Tony Stark and Bruce Banner, particularly) have a good mixture of witty banter and good characterisation. Scarlet Johannsen, so utterly pointless in Iron Man 2, brings some variation here and she, Captain America and Hawkeye, despite being utterly underpowered compared to Thor, Hulk and Iron Man, have an important role to play, both within the context of the story and in the film itself.

Hulk is the biggest surprise. I’m not sure that Mark Ruffalo played Banner any better than did Eric Bana or Ed Norton, but the character was better written, with a dry humour that sat him slightly apart from the others most of the time; Hulk himself was used intelligently, the most powerful of the superheroes but also, in some respects, the most limited and this was played to good comic effect – most of the big laughs involved Hulk, either in something he did or in the way others reacted to him.

One very slight reservation I have is that, having seen Whedon’s Cabin in the Woods a couple of weeks ago, in which he recycled many of the themes from his previous TV work, I noticed the same phenomenon at play here; the idea of teamwork is hardly novel but the way Whedon’s film addresses it is very reminiscent of the latter part of Season 4 of Buffy, with Loki acting the role of Spike. If Whedon is going to continue to make outstanding work, he is going to need to take some new directions.

A second reservation is less about this film and more about the lead-up to it; was it really necessary to put all those teasers at the end of the previous Marvel films? Does the damage done to those films justify the extra they added to this one? I don’t think so, in either case. While they added an extra little ‘in joke’, the film didn’t need them and was not markedly improved by them, while at least two of the films were seriously undermined, to the point of being infuriating.

So this is not a ‘world changing’ movie. It is, after all, still a ‘popcorn movie’, albeit a hugely entertaining one. But it has set down a marker that loud, flashy event movies don’t need to be stupid to get an audience – anything but – and for that it deserves much of the praise it’s had.

Hulk & The Incredible Hulk (Ang Lee, 2003; Louis Leterrier, 2008)


Hulk

Incredible Hulk
Two films, both watched prior to going to see the Avengers so that I’ll have seen all the teasers in each of the Marvel films leading up to that extravaganza, and it’s an exercise in “compare and contrast”. Ang Lee’s Hulk is a fairly cerebral affair, taking the idea of Hulk as a resentful child and locating it with real “daddy issues”. Here, Eric Bana’s Bruce Banner has inherited his genetic oddness from father David (Nick Nolte), an amoral scientist who was experimenting on himself. In this version, a departure from the comic, Bruce has been adopted and doesn’t remember his early life but is now working with Betty (Jennifer Connelly), the daughter of his father’s boss, General Ross (Sam Elliott), until an accident in the lab with gamma radiation activates his mutated genes, bringing out the Hulk for the first time.

The drama is all in the various relationships and Bruce’s urgent need to cure, or at least control, the beast inside.

Leterrier’s Incredible Hulk is a much more conventional affair. Ditching the first film entirely and going instead for a reboot, the “origins” story is dealt with in the credits and we are pitched into the action as Bruce (this time Ed Norton) is in hiding in South America until Ross (William Hurt) sends in a team of commandos to try to recover him. The official line is that Banner is a murderer but it transpires that Ross has been using Banner to try to reinvent the Supersoldier programme from world war II (as seen in Captain America), whereas Banner thought he was working on medical research. In the accident that brought out the Hulk, Ross’s daughter Betty (Liv Tyler) was injured and is now estranged from him.

After Ross’s commandos led by Blonsky (Tim Roth), a UK commando on special assignment, fail to take Banner, Bruce makes his way back to the US to attempt to contact a mysterious helper “Mr Blue” in an attempt to find a cure. Ross, though, is aware of Bruce’s return and brings Blonsky, now being treated with the unreliable supersoldier programme himself, and an army to capture Hulk.

That the second film completely ignores the first seemed initially to be incomprehensible. Though they rejigged the “origins” to make it more obviously military (presumably with the Avengers tie in, and specifically the character of Captain America, in mind) and also to distance it from the critical and commercial failure of the first film, the recasting of all the lead roles would have been sufficient to achieve this. Regarding the casting, both Bana and Norton are fine as Bruce, Connelly is far superior to the nice-to-look-at-but-technically-limited Tyler, and neither Elliott nor Hurt do themselves justice as Ross. Roth is terrific as Blonsky, but is only sporadically given anything to do.

Both films have a little fun with adding nods to the TV series (which disappoints me a little, since that was so different to the comics), giving cameos to Lou Ferrigno and using the name “David” as Bruce’s father, and the “don’t make me angry” line. They are more successful incorporating more of the TV series’ genetic experimentation as part of the origin, rather than the comic’s simplistic “exposed to gamma rays”, which always was rather poor, even for Marvel.

As far as the look of Hulk himself, Lee’s version is very cartoonish but what can you expect from a giant green man who can leap miles at a time? Leterrier’s is better but you still have to make an effort to suspend disbelief. Lee’s main problem is his brave attempt to bring the aesthetic of the comic book to the screen by use of the multiply split-screen effects that have the unfortunate effect of looking fussy and distracting. Otherwise, it’s a perfectly acceptable if unremarkable superhero film, not as good as X-Men 1 & 2, Spiderman 1 & 2 or Iron Man, but probably on a par with Thor, and better than Captain America and Iron Man 2, and far superior to X-Men 3, Wolverine or Spiderman 3. Leterrier’s is reputed to be an improvement on Lee’s but I’m not sure it really is. To me, its lack of ambition counts against it.

So, neither film is great, neither (despite the reputation for Lee’s attempt) is terrible. Hulk is ambitious but deeply flawed, Incredible Hulk more mainstream but pedestrian. Now let’s see what Whedon’s version will look like…

Captain America: The First Avenger (Joe Johnston, 2011)


Captain America
When I was a kid, I was an avid reader of Marvel Comics but Captain America never really interested me since, unlike The Hulk, Spiderman, the X-Men, or even Thor, he never seemed to have much of an internal life. He did, however, have one of the best origin stories, with pathos and grandeur combined. Given that Marvel movies, like the comics of the main superheros themselves, always seem to kick off with the origin stories, I was pretty keen to see what they did with this, though I was unable to see it when it came out at the cinemas.

So, US soldiers in the Arctic find what looks like a spaceship half-buried in the ice. Investigating, they find, frozen in the ice an iconic shield and the discoverer refers to how long “this one” has been waiting. Cut back to 1942, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is a weedy, unfit and unhealthy young man but with an indomitable spirit who wants to do his duty and fight for his country in WWII, but is repeatedly rejected. Spotted by a German refugee scientist Dr Erskine (Stanley Tucci) at one of the many attempts to con his way into the army, his courage and simple goodness convince Erskine that Rogers is exactly the kind of character he needs for his ‘Super Soldier’ programme and Rogers is enrolled and put through basic army training under the tutelage of a sceptical Colonel Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) and Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell). While unsurprisingly failing all the physical tests, Rogers excells at all the intellectual and moral ones, earning the respect of Peggy Carter and, once Phillips is reluctantly persuaded by Erskine, gets the ‘Super Soldier’ treatment ahead of the more obvious soldierly types.

Following the treatment, the Super Soldier programme is tragically cut short and Rogers is left with little to do, not allowed to fight, as he is the only remaining link to the serum that might be able to restart the programme, and he finds himself in the role of a costumed ‘performing monkey’, cheesily named “Captain America” and leading a chorus line in a travelling musical show helping to raise war bonds, until he is faced with actual soldiers in his audience, under the command of Phillips, and who are the survivors of an encounter with the recipient of a previous attempt at the Super Soldier serum, Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving) who, supported in his researches by scientist Dr Zola (Toby Jones), leads a fanatical and lunatic Nazi weapons-development sect called Hydra, and for whom the Nazis are simply a vehicle for his own plans of world domination. When Rogers learns that his childhood pal, ‘Bucky’ Barnes (Sebastian Stan) is a prisoner of Schmidt, Rogers enlists the help of Carter, with whom he has the beginnings of a romantic relationship, and of Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) to fly into the war zone so that Captain America can take on Hydra.

All of this is well done, though I thought Toby Jones and Stanley Tucci could perhaps have been better in each other’s roles as Jones looked a little incongruously comical and Tucci can do sinister better, and Hydra was rather blander and less obviously terrible than it should be -if you’re going to have an enemy that is supposed to be worse than the Nazis, you really need that enemy to be pretty terrifying. Nonethess, I was entertained and engaged throughout, as the film effectively set up the two big emotional moments that the comic-book story set up, as Captain America is brought from his World War 2 origins to modern day America (in the comics, a time lapse of twenty-something years, now about seventy).

And it blew it. Big style. Marvel has been compromising its big superhero films recently with clunky set-ups for the big “Avengers” film – Iron Man 2 was particularly poor, with Scarlett Johansson’s utterly superfluous appearance as Black Widow – but none was so devastatingly destructive as the way all the dramatic power of this film was sacrificed to make the end of it a trailer for the next film. After setting up the two big losses that Rogers had to suffer, the second being rather “A Matter of Life and Death” -ish, what should have been developed as a moving ‘man out of time’ realisation, as Captain America comes to terms with what has passed, was dismissed in an absurdly trite one-liner that pissed all over all the characterisation that we’d previously seen.

This is an object lesson in how to ruin a movie. The Avengers had better be fucking good.