Thursday, 8 March 2012

Splendor Cinema Podcast #89: 'The Avengers' Retrospective

As mentioned last week, I am pant-wettingly excited about the upcoming 'Avengers' movie. Now called 'Avengers Assemble' in the UK, it's out here on the 27th of April and is the climax of an ambitious (and, yes, potentially highly lucrative) project which will see comic book style continuity coming to the big screen adaptations; uniting the heroes of 'Iron Man', 'Thor', 'Captain America' and 'The Incredible Hulk' under the banner of a super-powered dream team headed by Samuel L. Jackson AKA Nick Fury: Agent of Shield.

In fact, for those looking to get equally psyched about the whole thing, I've recorded a podcast about these movies, which you can download in iTunes here or stream here. I've talked/written about all them at length previously, so I'll just briefly sum up my feelings on each of them here and then say a little bit about what I'm hoping for from 'The Avengers' next month.

'Iron Man' (2008): Exciting, with an incredibly charismatic lead performance (from Robert Downey Jr), Jon Favreau's movie established the tone for the Marvel Cinematic Universe to date and its success made the whole 'Avengers' thing (first teased in a post-credits sequence on the original movie) possible. It's inherently right-wing, with its privitised vigilante using his lucrative weapons contractor business to sock Afghan terrorists in the jaw, but it was a thrilling movie - albeit with a weak finale. What a waste of Jeff Bridges, though wasting talented actors as thinly developed villains is a trend that would continue over the next two Marvel movies.

'The Incredible Hulk' (2008): Far less successful (commercially and artistically) was Louis Leterrier's Ed Norton starring attempt to re-boot the Hulk following Ang Lee's much derided earlier version. It's brash, ugly and a little incoherent, with Norton adding little of the acting heft to Bruce Banner that we might have hoped for - particularly as he helped write the script. Tim Roth is likewise wasted as the baddie, whose evil equivalent of the Hulk (Abomination) contributes to the boring (yet oft-repeated) spectacle of two CGI monsters punching each other a lot. On a side note, the film does at least feature a Downey Jr cameo, as Tony Stark comes to discuss the "Avenger Initiative" with William Hurt's General Ross. Which is nice.

'Iron Man 2' (2010): Favreau's sequel is, to put it kindly, a mixed bag. On one hand, Mickey Rourke is underused as the villain (Whiplash), and there is too much fluff in there building up the Avengers movie which does nothing to advance the main plot (the coffee shop scene with Jackson's Fury and the introduction of Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow). Yet on the other, it's nice to see Lt. Col. Rhodes (Don Cheadle replacing Terrence Howard) getting the chance to don his own suit and become War Machine. Sam Rockwell is also good comedic value as Stark's business rival Justin Hammer. A government committee into Stark's private use of his advanced weaponry is also interesting, even if the film's thesis is that the technology is better off in the hands of a private individual than Big Government (as represented by Garry Shandling). There's also the first real look at Tony Stark's legendary descent into alcoholism (which, in the comics, represented the first time a mainstream super hero suffered such a real world problem) A bit of a mess of a movie but there's plenty to enjoy.

'Thor' (2011): Kenneth Branagh did a lovely job with Thor, successfully turning one of the most outlandish characters - a Viking deity from outer space, with a magic hammer and a suit of armour - into someone who could reasonably fit in with Iron Man and company. As a stand alone movie it's probably the strongest of Marvel's efforts to date, boasting powerhouse performances from Anthony Hopkins, Tom Hiddleston and Natalie Portman, as well as a star-making turn from Chris Hemsworth as the titular hero. It looks gorgeous, it's pretty funny, the human drama actually has gravitas, and the project overall seems imbued with immense love and respect for the source material. The only slight gripe is a clunky scene in which Jeremy Renner's Haweye is established in a few otherwise needless shots. But that's a very small gripe.

'Captain America: The First Avenger' (2011): I fell in love with Joe Johnston's WWII-set film the first time I saw it and have seen it several times since. Not in the least bit annoyingly patriotic or militaristic, the film set up Steve Rogers (Chris Evans, who previously played Marvel's Flaming Torch in the ill-received Fantastic Four movies) as a really nice, sweet-natured guy who doesn't want to kill Nazis: he just doesn't like bullies. Despite a few commonly acknowledged flaws (an ending, and montage-reliant second act, geared more towards setting up 'The Avengers' than serving this one movie) the film actually makes me a little emotional, with its kindness and cynicism-free attitude. As a result it was one of my very favourite films of last year.

On 'Avengers Assemble': My hopes are set very high for this summer's tentpole movie, but here are a few things it has to do to avoid being a disappointment:
  • Black Widow and Hawkeye, who haven't had the benefit of their own movies, need to be developed - potentially as a duo (seeing as how the are frequently paired up in the comics).
  • This should add the human drama/character growth element that ought to be missing regarding the remaining heroes: we've already had entire movies introducing these guys so - beyond the issues that might be thrown up from their interactions together - I don't want to be told again who any of them are. With the possible exception of Bruce Banner, who has a new actor (Mark Ruffalo) and so perhaps needs to be re-established.
  • However each character does have their own ready-made sub-plot waiting to bear fruit: Iron Man needs to learn to sacrifice his ego for the good of the team; Captain America will doubtless be dealing with the whole "everyone I ever knew and cared about is dead" thing; Bruce Banner needs to get control of his powers; whilst Thor has to deal with the fact that the film's super villain is his brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston) - which might lead to some resentment from his teammates, as well as calling his loyalty into question.
  • I hope writer/director Joss Whedon doesn't make the characters speak like teenagers. He needs to retain the characters' already established voices, whilst resisting the no doubt strong temptation to make Cap more cynical. sarcastic and snarky this time around. If he has him quipping one-liners, that'll pretty much ruin the whole movie for me. A lot rests on the continuation of Steve Rogers as an unshakable pillar of integrity and niceness.
  • There needs to be more to the movie than the trailers have so far suggested. Is Loki the only baddie? He's pretty awesome, but I hope not. The Avengers are called together when the odds are stacked too far against any one individual, but we've already seen Thor defeat Loki - so what else is there to this story? Who is behind the gigantic robots and spaceships seen in the trailers? They don't seen very "Asgardian".
  • I'd also like to see some mention or screentime for supporting characters from each individual hero's film. Will Thor be dealing with his unresolved love for Natalie Portman's Earth-based scientist, or are they saving that for his sequel? Will the Warriors Three aid him on this quest in any form and, if not, why not? Or his father, Odin? What of Iron Man's newly equipped buddy War Machine? Surely he should be helping these guys out? I'm sure many of these characters won't feature, but there needs to be some statement of why.
  • Likewise, and at the risk of being a little too cute and contrived, it'd be nice to see some acknowledgment of the fact that the peril New York is facing in this film is not attracting any aid from any of Marvel's other premiere super heroes. The X-Men, Fantastic Four, Spider-Man and Daredevil (to name a few) all live and operate in New York City. So, aside from the fact that Marvel don't own any of their rights as far as movies go, why aren't they lending a hand? It only takes a line.
Anyway, that's the last I'll go on about anything 'Avengers' related until release late next month.

Oh, and here's the German-language trailer which, for massive geeks, contains a few shots previously unseen in English-language versions (I know how sad that sounds... I'm sorry):

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