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Marvel Movie Mayhem

The Avengers

I suppose the hype has finally gotten to me.  All week I’ve been devouring the cinematic lead up to this weekend’s The Avengers, a culmination of Marvel Studios long journey in creating a cohesive comic book universe in the movies.  That’s right, a week straight of Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger.  One would think this has made me a raving mad loon in anticipation of this weekend’s mammoth blockbuster.  That, unfortunately, was not the case.  While for the most part fun and care-free, the general emptiness and sloppiness of most of these movies pretty much brought me down to earth and has stemmed my overwhelming anticipation of Joss Whedon’s turn at the superhero table.  Not to say I’m not still looking forward to it but I am more realistic about how things are going to go down this weekend.

Iron Man

First up is the one that set the tone.  Jon Favreau’s contribution to this Marvel movieverse can not be understated with 2008’s Iron Man.  The fact that he made Tony Stark a household name is a pretty big deal, especially in the minds of comic fans as he was always a, if not minor character, certainly not the biggest gun in Marvel’s chest.  And thanks to Favreau’s loose, improvisational direction and probably the most fun, exciting superhero performance ever from Robert Downey Jr., Iron Man succeeds in being a breezy, fun comic book romp without ever resorting to camp or cheesiness (well, not excessive cheesiness).

Iron Man hasn’t aged all too well but still has its charms.  Downey is still as smugly charismatic and fun as ever and whenever the film just allows the audience to hang with the character in his workshop or bouncing off of Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts, the film comes alive in a way that Favreau’s action scenes just can’t.  The film lacks any real sense of structure, and thus any forward momentum or suspense.  Of course, eventually Tony is going to fight the villain (Jeff Bridges in a fairly fun and hammy performance) and come out ahead in some splashy CG action climax but the action in itself feel like marked points on the superhero board rather than organic pieces of a story.  But the cast seems to be having so much fun, it becomes infectious and saves the film from a seemingly half finished script.

The Incredible Hulk

The next step towards the Avengers is The Incredible Hulk, starring a now re-cast Edward Norton as Bruce Banner, in hiding in Brazil at a bottling plant until William Hurt’s ‘Thunderbolt’ Ross tracks him down and the modern-day Dr. Jekyll must go on the run again.  I don’t really have much to say about Louis Letterier’s at bat with the Hulk character after Ang Lee’s philosophical and muddled crack at the character.  It’s a serviceable movie that is fairly easy to forget.  The action scenes do have an energy that is lacking from Iron Man but Norton feels like a non-entity as Banner.  Hurt does some great growly, scenery-chewing work as the Captain Ahab of this story chasing his green whale.  Liv Tyler continues to prove that she exists to be pouty but not quite talented.  And Tim Roth feels strangely out-of-place.

One thing that is worth noting is that the effects and design of the Hulk here are a marked improvement over the rubbery Ang Lee Hulk.  The character comes alive and feels organic with the environment around the creature.  In effect, the action scenes are given more punch and of the five Marvel movies, I would say, action-wise, this film has the most exciting, pulse-pounding climax.  Everything in-between is, otherwise, quite forgettable and would almost make it the worst movie Marvel’s made yet if not for the next film up.

Iron Man 2

After the great success of Iron Man that led to the grand career resuscitation of Robert Downey Jr., Iron Man 2 was inevitable for the lead up to The Avengers.   But, whereas the first Iron Man had the benefit of being the first one out of the gate and having the surprise factor in being so entertaining, this flaccid follow-up feels like nothing more but after-birth.  Nothing of real consequence or import is contained in the film and where the cast and crew were able to fly by the seat of their pants with the first film’s lack of a real functional script, Iron Man 2 suffers even more greatly for the hubris of thinking the same method of half-formed plot ideas would work just as well.

Iron Man 2 takes place six months and follows the vendetta of Mickey Rourke’s Whiplash, a Russian scientist who feels his father was betrayed by Tony’s father.  That plot point bookends the film and the saggy middle is dedicated to finding a cure for Tony Stark who is now, apparently, dying.  That does seem like a major obstacle for our hero, but the stakes are never really present in the scenario.  A brief drunken fight between War Machine (Don Cheadle replacing Terrence Howard from the first film, making that “Next time” comment very ironic in retrospect) and Iron Man is the best the film can do in giving us some peril during this saggy middle portion.  A good deal of SHIELD nonsense is also involved, including the addition of Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow.  It’s all set up for the eventual Avengers movie and thus, never feels integral to the movie itself.  Much of the film’s story beats is sacrificed in the name of world building and the movie suffers for it.  Downey is still fun and still has great chemistry with Paltrow and Sam Rockwell as a rival businessman is always a joy to watch but this is the first complete whiff of the bat for the Marvel Studios.

Thor

Kenneth Branagh’s take on the Asgardian hero Thor fared a bit better but not by much.  The one thing I will give these Marvel movies, from the top down, is that they are extremely well cast.  There is not an unconvincing or outright bad performance in the main superhero roles of these movies and if The Avengers works at all, it will be due to the casting in these movies and getting those great actors to gel as well as they do.  Or don’t do, in whatever the case may be.   Chris Hemsworth makes a great Thor, full of cocky bravado and regal manner.  Tom Hiddleston as Loki is also a delightful find and provides just the right amount of menace and pathos to the character.

Action feels like a deficit in these Marvel movies and much of that may be due to a tightening of the purse strings by the studio.   Thor is a perfect example of this as it should be one of the more epic films in the slate.  Giant battles involving Asgardian Gods and the best the filmmakers could come up with is a battle in a small New Mexico town.  Despite its lofty subject matter, the film feels far too small and contained due to its setting.  The film takes us to these magical realms of Asgard and we are given iffy CGI renderings and then a big battle in a small desert town.  There is also far too much set up for The Avengers, feeling jostled into the action rather than any organic sense of story.  Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye even stops by for a cameo that feels so tacked on as to lose any meaning if lost completely.  Thor isn’t terrible but its certainly not very good either.  Like The Incredible Hulk, there’s enough here to admire and like it but there’s more than enough to grant it disdain.  Branagh’s overuse of the Dutch angle disorients and camps up the movie in ways that just isn’t played in the rest of the material.

Captain America: The First Avenger

The final film in the build up to the latest massive blockbuster turns out to the best one of the bunch.  Joe Johnston’s Captain America: The First Avenger is a fun, pulpy adventure with fun, knowing performances and an adventurous tone.  And probably best of all, it feels like a movie all on its own.  There is no constant winking or set up for future franchises.  It’s just a well shot action adventure film with a fun sense of adventure.  Chris Evans performance as Steve Rogers is cheery and perfectly in line with the tone that Johnston sets out for the film without leering over into campiness or rigidity.

The period setting of the film, the entirety of it taking place during World War II, helps in delineating it from the rest of the films and gives the movie its own character and sense of inner life.  The action beats are fun and on point without a lazy over-reliance on CG spectacle, although there is plenty of that.  The movie feels more like an adventure serial out of the 1940s with modern-day effects rather than a giant blockbuster and none of the Marvel penny-pinching that resulted in the smallness of Thor is present here.  This is a movie that covers the span of World War II.  The film drags on for a beat too long but is otherwise perfectly paced and is easily, not just the best Marvel film to date, but one of the best comic book-based films yet.

The Avengers is now out around the world and I am as excited as everyone else.  I’m a patient soul and have never been a fan of the midnight rush so I’ll be seeing the movie sometime this weekend with the rest of the masses.  Hopefully, the momentum of Captain America will carry over into this film and none of the smug laziness that resulted in the slap-dash Iron Man 2 and miniature Thor will be present.  A great, energetic cast will certainly keep the film entertaining and Joss Whedon knows how to write fun ensembles, so here’s hoping….

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