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Friday, May 4, 2012

Lead-Up To The Avengers

Hey there Chaos fans! Old man Chaos is back. I'll be seeing The Avengers this weekend (along with half of America, I should think). The past few weeks, my wife and I decided to do a re-watch of all the Marvel movies, from the original Iron Man all the way through to Captain America. I figured I'd write briefly about each one, and see how they stack against each other. I must say that one of the things that struck me is how the movies go together in big and subtle ways. Indeed, this really IS like reading the comics, as each is tied together month to month, issue to issue, in a big crossover. That is really cool, I think... But anyways, lets look at them, starting with Iron Man...

Iron Man- this is the one that "started" the current Marvel age of movies. No one expected it to be the hit that it would become, the cultural phenom that would return Robert Downey Jr. back to stardom AND kick off a new wave of Marvel movies. It also has the reputation of being the best comic based movie ever. Is it?

Re-watching it again, I came away with the same opinion I had in 2008- its a great movie, but NOT the best. No doubt, the casting of RDJr is a masterstroke. Indeed, he truly IS Tony Stark- he captures the blend of genius, artist, spoiled rich guy, patriot... all in one package. However, I think that is an issue- his performance blinds viewers to the problems of Iron Man the movie (which become glaringly apparent on multiple viewings)- he's so good that the flaws get overlooked.

The movie starts off great- how they update Stark's origin for the War on Terror is nothing short of amazing. The terrorist who demands that the kidnapped Stark build him a new weapon, Stark's improvised suit, and his escape is breathtaking... Then the movie slows considerably, as Stark tinkers with his armor, realizing the good he can do. But then, there's no action for a LARGE stretch, and it is only held up by RDJrs humor and goodwill. Then, when it is suddenly (and poorly) revealed that his partner Obediah Stane is behind all the trouble, the movie accelerates so quickly, and Stane is reduced to a one-note and easily disposed of villain, that the end of the movie seems rather weightless and unearned. Don't get me wrong, the movie IS good, but it isn't the best comic movie, nor even the best Marvel movie.

What SHOULD have happened, is this: Iron Man goes back to fight the terrorists, and the main baddie has copied the suit that Tony used to escape (with some mods, naturally). Plenty of action, and Stark learns that Iron Man can do good on a global scale. But, only at the end does the audience see that Stane is the string puller of the terrorists, leaving Tony to deal with that in the next issue, er, movie... Instead, the end cleared the board, and only made matters worse for the planning of...

Iron Man 2: Now, when I first saw this one in theaters, I did not like it at all- I thought it was a wasted opportunity, far weaker than the original. Most critics complained that it was too busy setting up future Marvel movies- I disagree totally. There actually ISN'T much in here for the Avengers. Sure, there's a bit of it with Fury and such, but that is not the problem. The issue is the far too messy plot and weak villains.

Basically, AS written, neither Whiplash nor Justin Hammer are  developed very well. While I like Sam Rockwell, he is not made villainous enough here. As for Roarke, he's great, but the script gives him so little to do. Meanwhile, Stark is facing illness from his "heart", which causes him to fall into depression. Further, the government wants the specs for the Iron Man suit, and Stark refuses.

The problem is- there's great ideas here. If Tony is the rich kid who has it all, Whiplash is the opposite- brilliant but abused and downtrodden. If they planned it better, he would have been a great foil. If they planned it better, it would have been Stane trying to take the company from within, not Hammer being Stark's competition. Finally, they could have done more with the government being hostile to Stark, thus ratcheting up tension between him and Rhodes (well played by Don Cheadle).

Upon this recent viewing, I liked the movie more than the first time, but I still see it as a missed opportunity- with more careful plotting, this could have been a strong movie. Instead, it's just a mediocre comic book sequel.

The Incredible Hulk: This one is often forgotten, as it came out sandwiched between Iron Man and The Dark Knight in 2008 (ouch!). That's too bad, because the movie is quite solid. It follows up Ang Lee's poor "The Hulk" without explicitly acknowledging it; and while improving on that failure in every way.

Edward Norton does a fine job as Banner. He dreads his powers, and seeks to suppress it entirely, even if that means cutting himself off from his true love, Betty, and his life as a scientist. However, THEY just won't leave him alone. The government wants him- General Ross wants to bring the monster in so that they can study him and make a new line of super soldiers. Norton plays the "man on the run" very well, and his weariness is palpable, as is his happiness that he might get a second chance with Betty. Of course, it goes wrong when the General tries to make soldier Emil Blonsky into a super solider to beat the Hulk- with Blonsky becoming the out of control Abomination.

The movie is fun and action packed. The Hulk looks great, and the movie is well shot- the scenes in South America are nicely framed. However, it doesn't quite gel together, and it does go off on some tangents before getting back on track. The final battle with the Abomination was well done, but it was a bit overstuffed and way too CGI-ish, as was the sudden dropping in of the Leader in a rather ham-fisted way... Overall, its not Marvel's best, though it is stronger than people give it credit for.

Thor: This was the biggest surprise. Who amongst us would have thought- a) Marvel will make a big-budget Thor movie and b) that it would be any good? Ha- not too many, but it happened. Director Kenneth Brannagh used his Shakespeare to forge the relationship between the Norse brothers into a classical conflict.

The casting really helps here- Chris Hemmsworth is great as Thor- he exudes the strength, heroism, and recklessness in equal measure- and he certainly looks the part. Anthony Hopkins is exalted as Odin- wise, powerful, sentimental at heart but he hides that behind a tough exterior. Tom Hiddleston generates the right mix of pain and deceit as Loki- a polar opposite of Thor, and yet connected in deep ways. And while I don't buy that Natalie Portman is an astrophysicist, she does just fine otherwise. The cast is rounded out by Stellan Skarsgard as a professor, Colm Feore as the King of the Frost Giants, and Idris Elba as Heimdall, guardian of the Bifrost. The cast is very strong, and each does their part without overwhelming the proceedings.

The movie does a great job blending fantasy and science with a comic book sensibility. The action scenes are great, particularly when Thor confronts the Frost Giants, and later when Loki unleashes the power of the Destroyer against a helpless Thor. The themes of the movie (learning to be humble, and learning to accept yourself) is strong, as is the fractured relationship between Thor and his brother Loki. However, the movie tries to shoe-horn an unnecessary love interest (could he learn about humanity without falling in love with Portman? Geez.), and the final battle ends rather abruptly (it seems like a Marvel movie problem, at this point). Otherwise, Thor is surprisingly good, better than it has any right to be.

Captain America: I reviewed Captain America right here in the Chaos Corner blog when it came out last year. It certainly holds up to repeat viewings, and my assessment of it still stands. It is the best of the Marvel movies. It has an epic scope, while retaining an eye on the character of Steve Rogers (played with grace by Chris Evans). His nemesis Red Skull is played equally well by Hugo Weaving, who between this and Agent Smith makes him THE go-to bad guy. The movie is fun, action-packed, and true to the spirit of Captain America, the Marvel universe, World War II adventures, and comic book movies as a whole. It too ends the final battle between the Red Skull and Cap too abruptly- though, based on the execution, I would bet that we'll see Red Skull again. And the conclusion sets us up nicely for The Avengers...

So, here is my rating for each of the movies (using my scientifically proven Marks of Chaos rating method ;-):

Iron Man: 3 our of 4

Iron Man 2: 2 out of 4

Incredible Hulk: 2 1/2 out of 4

Thor: 3 out of 4

Captain America: 3 1/2 out of 4

I'll be back with a review of The Avengers as soon as I've seen it. Until next time...

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