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Marvel Movies Project: Closing Thoughts

Yesterday, I posted my thoughts on the Marvel movies themselves, in the form of a list of bests and worsts. For today’s final Marvel Movies Project post, I’ve put together a few ideas on comic book adaptations in general.

For me, this rewatch prompted some thoughts on superheroes and intellectual property, and on the nature of the comic book universe developed over several decades by the many different creators who’ve passed through the Merry Marvel Bullpen. It’s a massive story world which is now being translated to a new medium, with varying degrees of success. The complex interweaving of all these characters’ stories in the comic books makes for some challenges in adaptation.

At first, with the Marvel Universe having been sold off piecemeal to various different studios, the approach was to focus in on one small part of that universe and pretend the rest doesn’t exist; for example, in Fox’s Daredevil movie, Ben Urich’s employer is the New York Post because the rights to the Daily Bugle name went with Spider-Man to Sony. This is a small detail, but it serves to illustrate how the scope of the films had to be limited.

Now, with Marvel Studios in business, we’re seeing Marvel itself attempt things on a much bigger scale, building a film universe that could conceivably grow to mirror the comic book universe. Phase One has been remarkably successful in every sense — the movies are all good, they tie together extremely well, and they’ve made huge piles of money — but it remains to be seen whether Phase Two, consisting of six movies (Iron Man 3Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, The Avengers 2, and Ant-Man) to be released between now and 2015, can continue to grow the universe in a sustainable way.

Right now, a casual viewer can watch The Avengers without having seen Iron Man 2 or Thor and probably not be too confused (although really, I think seeing Thor probably helps … plus, Thor is awesome and everyone should see it). Will this continue as more movies are produced, introducing more characters and presumably more and more backstory? There may be a reason the world of comic book movie adaptations has so far focused so much on origin stories, to the point that Spider-Man has already been remade only 10 years after its release.

It is interesting to note that four of the Phase Two films are sequels, which means more building on already established characters and stories. Having fewer new characters to keep track of might make the MCU simpler and easier to follow. But I’m inclined to think things will rather become more complex as Thor and Captain America and Iron Man’s backstories become more and more detailed. (Of course, it’s possible any of these characters could be killed off. That’s one way of wiping the slate clean.)

The studio then has to walk a fine line between making the continuity overly complicated and keeping it meaningful. Before The Avengers, it made sense to use Agent Coulson, Nick Fury, and SHIELD as roving elements to tie the various movies together. Now, though, The Avengers have all met and worked together, and I’m not sure things can be quite so separate anymore: if the events of The Avengers have no impact whatsoever on Iron Man 3, it cheapens the whole Marvel Cinematic Universe idea. The tie-ins have to matter. They just can’t matter too much.

With 20th Century Fox looking to create its own version of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Warner Bros. possibly stepping into the fray on behalf of DC Comics, it looks as though Marvel Studios may have started a trend. It will be interesting to see what happens — whether it continues to work and we get more and more linked film series, or whether the trend burns out and the studios do what Marvel and DC have been doing for years: start over at issue #1.

Marvel Movies Project: Best & Worst

After five months and 27 films, I am finally finished this Marvel Movies Project. It was a fun experience; even if a few of the movies are not of the highest quality, it was still interesting to go back and watch them all in order, seeing the evolution (and ups and downs) of Marvel on film. To wrap up, here are some of my picks for the best and worst of Marvel Movies.

Best Movies

  1. Spider-Man 2
  2. The Avengers
  3. Spider-Man
  4. Thor
  5. Iron Man
  6. X2
  7. Captain America: The First Avenger

I tried to pick a top five, but I couldn’t get it below seven. Then I tried to do a top 10, but I also couldn’t justify a number higher than seven (although X-Men came close to making the list). Basically, I think these seven are pretty easily the cream of the Marvel crop. They all feature solid casts, directors, writing, and effects, and all tell really good stories with a good mix of humour, action, and drama. All are also fun to watch — an important quality in a comic book movie.

Worst Movies

  1. Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance
  2. Punisher: War Zone

Again, I tried to make a top five but although there are definitely some other bad Marvel movies, I feel these two stand out in terms of total suckitude. Something like Daredevil is bad, yes, but it at least doesn’t feel like it was intended to go straight to video. Both these films are also significantly worse and more painful to watch than their predecessors.

Worst Threequels

  1. Blade: Trinity
  2. X-Men: The Last Stand
  3. Spider-Man 3

Only three Marvel franchises have made it to three instalments, and in all three cases the third instalment has been a huge step down in quality for the franchise. The first two Spider-Man movies: amazing. The first two X-Men movies: astonishing. The first two Blade movies: well, they were pretty good horror/action films. Unfortunately, Blade: Trinity features an insulting script aimed directly at the lowest common denominator, X-Men: The Last Stand sees almost all prior character development tossed out the window along with the characters’ principles, and Spider-Man 3 turns its lead character into an unsympathetic jerk to make a point about … something. The terrible threequel: a worrying trend for Marvel.

So yeah, who’s looking forward to Iron Man 3!? Don’t worry; it’s the first Marvel Studios threequel so I’m sure none of this applies to it and I will in no way regret using a vacation day to go see it on May 3.

The Noble Failure Award

I cannot in good conscience call Hulk a good movie, but I can at least see that the filmmakers were trying to do something interesting with it. Although it is a bloated, boring mess, it gets credit for its ambition.

Most Improved by Time and Lowered Expectations

Elektra, which actually seemed pretty decent this time around. It’s not a masterpiece, but in terms of comic book movies about women — a very small and not very illustrious group — it might be the best. Which also goes to show that we need more comic book movies about women.

Most Unnecessary

I’ve been told over and over by my friends from the local comic book store that the Raimi Spider-Man films have not aged well, and The Amazing Spider-Man is a big improvement. I guess this proves that even cool people can be wrong, because nothing will convince me that The Amazing Spider-Man is anything more than a tired rehash of something that was done much, much better just a decade ago. Even if it was a good movie, which it isn’t, but hypothetically — the point is, you’ve still already seen it. Recently.

Key Actors

There are two actors whose performances I think have essentially built the Marvel movie world: Hugh Jackman and Robert Downey Jr. Wolverine is of course one of Marvel’s most well-loved characters, and Jackman’s excellence ensured that his popularity carried over to the big screen. Plus, the guy has appeared in five films, with two more on the way. It’s impressive. Downey, meanwhile, deserves a huge amount of credit for the success of Phase One of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. If Iron Man had tanked, things might have gone very differently for Marvel Studios. That it didn’t is in large part thanks to his charismatic presence.

Other than those two, I think Wesley Snipes has to get some credit; after all, it was Blade‘s surprising success that ushered in the modern Marvel movie era. Chris Evans is the standout actor to have played more than one Marvel character. Steve Rogers and Johnny Storm are both major figures in the Marvel universe, and Evans is great as both.

Best Female Performances

The X-Men movies give us the most to choose from here: Famke Janssen (Jean), Anna Paquin (Rogue), and Rebecca Romijn (Mystique) stand out for me, and I also think their characters are the three most interesting female mutants in the movies. In terms of love interest type roles, I like Kirsten Dunst as Mary Jane a lot. Hayley Atwell and Natalie Portman are also very strong in Captain America and Thor. Speaking of Thor, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Kat Dennings’ hilarious performance. Rosemary Harris is wonderfully warm and grandmotherly as Aunt May in the Raimi Spidey films.

But most of all, there is Scarlett Johansson, who is doing spectacularly as the Black Widow and giving Marvel its first legitimate shot at making a really good female-centred movie, if they would just freaking take her up on it.

Best Villainous Performances

  1. Tom Hiddleston as Loki in The Avengers
  2. Ian McKellen as Magneto in the X-Men trilogy
  3. Michael Fassbender as Magneto in X-Men: First Class

Magneto just has a certain … animal magnetism. Unfortunately for him, he got Loki’d.

Best Comedic Performances

  1. Chris Hemsworth and Kat Dennings in Thor
  2. Mark Ruffalo/CGI Hulk in The Avengers
  3. Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man, Iron Man 2, and The Avengers
  4. Chris Evans and Michael Chiklis in Fantastic Four
  5. Tobey Maguire in the Spider-Man trilogy

It’s true that, strictly speaking, these aren’t all 100% comedic performances, but they all have very funny aspects and I would say the movies listed are the funniest Marvel movies. I would also give an honourable mention to Sam Rockwell as Justin Hammer in Iron Man 2, because he’s so absurd and Tony’s hatred of him is so hilarious.

Tobey Maguire has a lot of haters for some reason I do not understand, but just think back to the sequence in Spider-Man 2 where Peter, having given up being Spider-Man, dons his glasses and happily goes about his everyday nerdy life. It’s very funny stuff. How much of the “comedy” in Spider-Man 3 is intentionally funny, or funny at all, is very debatable, but I think credit goes to Maguire for trying to go along with whatever Sam Raimi was trying to do.

Best Action Sequences

  1. The Avengers: Helicarrier Attack
  2. Spider-Man 2: Train (the Bank/Saving May sequence is also superb)
  3. X2: Wolverine Is the World’s Most Badass Babysitter
  4. Iron Man: Building the Suit/First Flight (this is a bit of a cheat because it could include most of the movie, but hey)
  5. Spider-Man: Wall-Crawling & First Webs

It’s tough to pick just a few scenes from 27 such action-packed movies. In the end, though, there’s a handful that stand out.

Best Cast

The Avengers wins this automatically, but other than that: Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy has a truly marvellous cast. Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Rosemary Harris, Cliff Robertson, Willem Dafoe, Alfred Molina, J.K. Simmons (who is like the old Spidey cartoon come to life), Elizabeth Banks, Bill Nunn, and Ted Raimi are all fantastic. They also have great chemistry as a group.

The cast of Thor would be my other choice. The Asgardians: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Idris Elba, Rene Russo, Jaimie Alexander, Josh Dallas, Ray Stevenson, and Tadanobu Asano, plus Colm Feore as Laufey. The Earthlings: Natalie Portman, Stellan Skarsgard, Kat Dennings, and Clark Gregg, with a cameo from Jeremy Renner. All of these people are good actors, and incredibly, almost all of them make a memorable impact on the movie.

Best Stan Lee Cameo

As much as I hate The Amazing Spider-Man‘s existence, I do love Stan Lee’s appearance as an oblivious school librarian. However, his cameos in the Iron Man movies as “Hugh Hefner” and “Larry King” would probably top the list if not for the fact that he plays the FF’s lovable mailman, Willie Lumpkin, in Fantastic Four.

Some Favourite Dialogue

“That’s my secret, Captain. I’m always angry.” – Bruce Banner, The Avengers

“I need a horse!”
“We don’t have horses, just dogs, cats, birds …”
“Then give me one of those large enough to ride.”exchange between Thor and a pet shop employee, Thor

“This is really … heavy …” – Peter Parker, Spider-Man 2

Those are my impressions of the movies themselves. I’ll be back tomorrow with a few final thoughts on comic book movie adaptations in general, and that will be my very last Marvel Movies Project post (as far as I know). My goal was to finish before Iron Man 3 — I made it!

Marvel Movies Project: The Amazing Spider-Man

Movie poster for The Amazing Spider-Man (2012).

The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) is generally referred to as a “reboot” of the Spider-Man franchise. Personally, I’m inclined to call it a remake, though, since there is almost nothing about it that is new. The actors are different. The director is different. Many of the characters are even different. And yet, if you’ve seen Spider-Man, which I may start referring to as The Superior Spider-Man, you’ve seen this before. The only new twist is the backstory involving Peter’s parents.

Obviously, the origin story — the spider bite, Peter’s discovery of his powers, Uncle Ben’s death — is the same. That’s expected and it’s fine (except that the similarity makes the “why did they bother?” question even more inevitable). The scenes in which Peter explores and develops his powers are so similar, and yet so inferior, to the first movie it’s almost painful. The addition of a skateboard can’t disguise how much of a cheap ripoff it is. Later, Spidey rescues someone in a vehicle hanging off a bridge … just like he did in Spider-Man. You would think they could at least change up the action setpieces so the audience isn’t thinking about the first movie the whole time, but apparently not.

I hate the fact that this movie exists. I hate this movie. It may actually be a good movie. I can’t tell because I’m too busy being annoyed by it.

From what I could see through the haze of irritation clouding up my mind, though, I don’t think it’s a good movie. The Lizard is visually a very lame villain; one time, I started thinking about this film and couldn’t for the life of me remember who was the villain. That’s a bad sign. Special effects have not improved enough in the last five years for things to look any better here than they did in Spider-Man 3. (But five years seems so long ago, I know.)

I’m not crazy about some of the casting. I can accept Denis Leary as Captain Stacy, I guess. He doesn’t match my vision of the character but he’s quite good in the role as it’s written. Still, I can’t help feeling he’d be better as a villain … maybe it’s his vague resemblance to Willem Dafoe. I do not like Sally Field as Aunt May at all, which makes two Sally Field performance I hated last year, the other being Lincoln. The worst, though, is Andrew Garfield. His twitchy performance is very offputing.

Even Emma Stone, whom I normally like, annoys me in this movie. Peter and Gwen are just too cutesy-awkward. Also, why on earth is he telling her his secret identity on their first date? This makes no sense, especially given her father’s job.

But my main problem with this movie is really just the fact that it exists. Part of this stems from my love of the original Spidey movies (well, the first two). Why go back when there’s no way you’re going to top what’s already been done? Oh right: cash. Most likely, if Sony had not produced another movie they would eventually have lost the rights to Spider-Man. Not only that, re-starting with a new cast keeps their costs down. In the end, The Amazing Spider-Man is nothing more than a cash grab. I understand that Hollywood exists to make money and there’s an element of the cash grab about almost every movie ever made. It’s usually a little less obvious, is all.

And okay, fine, the biggest reason I hate this movie is my love of the Raimi films. There might actually be people in the world who saw The Amazing Spider-Man but never saw Spider-Man. Young, impressionable people! It’s just so wrong.

It’s unfortunate that this project, which has overall been very enjoyable, has to end on such a negative note, but oh well. I made it! This is the last of the Marvel movies — to date. My goal was to finish this (re)watch before the release of Iron Man 3, so, mission: accomplished. I will be back to sum it all up in a wrap-up post in a few days.

Marvel Movies Project: The Avengers

Movie poster for The Avengers (2012).

There was so much buildup to The Avengers (2012), it was hard to imagine it wouldn’t in some way be disappointing. Five movies — Iron ManThe Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America — with shared continuity. Even more impressively, five hit movies — average worldwide box office: $458 million … ! — that were all pretty good — average score on Rotten Tomatoes: 78% fresh.

Certainly, if you look at a combination of critical and commercial success, all the Phase One Marvel Cinematic Universe movies were more successful and better regarded than almost every Marvel movie product released since Spider-Man 2 came out in 2004. There had been massive financial success with Spider-Man 3 and X-Men: The Last Stand, but both those movies were kind of sucky and owed all their success to the outstanding movies that preceded them. Of the 17 Marvel movies released between Spider-Man 2 and The Avengers, only X-Men: First Class matched the MCU movies in being both good and financially successful.

The continuity in these movies was also handled brilliantly, with the storylines of the major players established in their own movies, new characters like Black Widow and Hawkeye gradually phased in as bit players, the use of SHIELD personnel to tie everything together, and of course the tantalizing bits of information revealed in the post-credits scenes which helped to establish the fact that all five films were set in the same world. Marvel really did manage to create a true “cinematic universe,” and they did it very well. It’s an impressive achievement.

An extended buildup full of geek-friendly references. A tradition (albeit a brief one) of high quality. Lots and lots of hype. Add to this the fact that none other than Joss Whedon, king of the geeks, was hired to write and direct The Avengers and you’ve got a recipe for nerd nirvana, or possibly total nerd meltdown if the movie sucks. Can you imagine? If, after all that, they’d delivered another Spider-Man 3, or worse … it would have been a Hulk-sized (or Hulk-sized) disappointment.

I have to admit I was at least a bit concerned about this possibility because, as much as I love Joss, and I do love him — Buffy the Vampire Slayer is my favourite TV show of all time, Angel is also in my top five, Firefly isn’t far behind and Serenity is probably one of my 10 favourite movies — I hadn’t been terribly impressed with anything he’d done post-Serenity. Dollhouse was just ok. I was one of the few not wowed by Dr. Horrible and The Cabin in the Woods. I really don’t care for his more recent comics; the Buffy and Angel comics in particular are awful (to be fair, he didn’t write all those, but the fact that he was involved at all is bad enough).

Luckily for me, it seems Joss had been saving up all his creative superpowers from the last seven years specifically for this project, and The Avengers turned out to be one of the most awesome movies ever made. “Awesome” is the only word for it, too, or maybe “epic” would suit it as well; it’s a superhero movie on a massive scale, as befits the combined powers of its cast of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.

And it’s most definitely a Joss Whedon movie. The Avengers is full of his trademark snappy dialogue, pop culture references (only one of which Captain America understands), and Whedony turns of phrase. Agent Coulson, Hawkeye, and Nick Fury have a bit of a Firefly-esque lilt to some of their lines, but Tony Stark, who wouldn’t sound out of place on Buffy, is probably the most typically Whedonesque-sounding character. That said, one of Joss’ greatest strengths as a writer is his ability to change things up when necessary and give different characters individual voices — an essential skill for someone writing a movie featuring characters with styles as different as Thor, Captain America, and Iron Man — and he does an excellent job of that here. No sarcasm from Captain America, no slang from Thor.

The dialogue in The Avengers takes a back seat to the action, though. This movie redefines the term “action-packed.” It is overflowing with action: just when I thought there couldn’t possibly be another big fight scene, there was. Everyone in the film, from Thor to Maria Hill, is an extreme badass, and they all get ample opportunities to show their stuff. It’s a ridiculous amount of action, really, almost too much, but it never gets boring or repetitive. Just as each character has a different voice, each one also brings something very different to the mix in terms of action: Black Widow’s incredible athleticism, Thor’s godlike powers, Iron Man’s high tech weaponry, the Hulk’s brute strength, Hawkeye’s perfect aim, Captain America’s strength, leadership, and quiet heroism.

I can’t help comparing The Avengers to the other Joss Whedon movie I saw last year: his adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. On the surface I suppose they don’t seem very similar, though they do have a few cast members in common (most notably Clark Gregg). When you look deeper … they’re still not that similar. But the point is this: both movies are action-based. When I heard Joss was doing a Shakespeare adaptation, I wondered how it could really be a Joss Whedon project without Joss Whedon’s dialogue. When I saw the movie, though, I found it to be very much in his style: all the “Jossiness” of the thing came through in the way the actors delivered their lines, and in some really outstanding physical comedy. The actors’ gestures and body language act as dialogue.

This same phenomenon happens with the action in The Avengers. The characters reveal their natures through their fighting styles, and Joss’ style comes through this way as well. There are some unexpected, creative, and hilarious moments mixed in with all that ass-kicking; for example, the Hulk attacking a fighter jet (“Target angry! TARGET ANGRY!!”), the Hulk randomly punching Thor in a quiet moment, and of course the Hulk doing this:

The Hulk smashes Loki. Puny god.

Which is one of the best things ever presented on screen. (Image credit: ~unitedcba @ deviantART.) The Hulk is one of the highlights of this movie, no question, and the best example of the “character revealed through action” idea. This version of the Hulk, rather than being nothing more than an inarticulate cartoon rage monster who really likes Betty Ross, has a personality, and it turns out he’s kind of an asshole.

All “deeper” considerations aside, the action is also really cool in a sort of comic book fan wish fulfillment kind of way. Who didn’t want to see Thor fight the Hulk, am I right??

Right. I’m at over 1,000 words in this post and I haven’t even mentioned Loki. Tom Hiddleston gives one of the all-time great comic book movie villain performances and almost manages to steal the movie … from six heroes. I would never have guessed this was possible.

I also haven’t mentioned the great chemistry between the team members and the relationships they develop. The history between Clint and Natasha is intriguing and I’d like to see more of it. (Hey, Marvel! Give Black Widow her damn spinoff!) I also enjoyed the “science brothers” vibe between Tony and Bruce, and Coulson’s fanboying of Captain America. But my favourite relationship is probably the one between Steve and Tony, who grow to respect each other as Tony makes the very same sacrifice play Steve made at the end of Captain America.

I feel like I could probably write 10 million words about how awesome this movie is and how much I love it, but that’s more than enough for now. The first time I saw it, I remember realizing I had a huge smile on my face about halfway through when it occurred to me that The Avengers was actually, improbably living up to my expectations. If I have one complaint about the movie, it’s that I think the Steve Rogers deleted scene should have been left in because the whole thing with the diner waitress, which is actually really lovely when you see the deleted scene, makes no sense without it. What I am saying is that this movie could have been even more awesome. I know that sounds ridiculous, but it’s true.

Well done, Marvel. Well done, Joss. Can’t wait to see what you’ll do with Phase Two.

Joss Whedon: a hero to geeks everywhere.

Marvel Movies Project: Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance

Movie poster for Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2012).

Nicolas Cage returns as Johnny Blaze in 2012’s Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, the sequel to Ghost Rider, which came out in 2007. Five years between movies … I don’t know; maybe this indicates that a Ghost Rider sequel was not all that necessary? Cage is the only cast member from the first movie to return, which, again, might suggest that perhaps they could have skipped this one. Peter Fonda said back in 2007 that he’d be willing to play the Devil in a sequel, but maybe he changed his mind. Or it’s possible he was joking, seeing as this is what he said: “I hope so! It would be a huge payday.”

Yes … well. The generally admirable Ciarán Hinds steps into Fonda’s role. The equally excellent Idris Elba also co-stars for some reason along with some randoms. Anthony Stewart Head — Giles from Buffy! — briefly appears, making me sad that he doesn’t have a better movie career.

The story involves the antichrist. It climaxes with the apparent death of the devil and then, poof, the movie’s over, just like that. No extended denouement here. The whole thing is directed with a fair bit of shakycam and stylized camera angles that seem bizarre until you realize it was shot for 3D, which is fitting since 3D is as pointless a technology as this is a film.

This movie and Punisher: War Zone were both released under the “Marvel Knights” line, which focuses on the darker, more mature Marvel stories. So far I’m not impressed. Maybe now that Marvel has the rights to Daredevil back we’ll see them try out a Marvel Knights version of the character. That could be interesting. The rights to Ghost Rider, meanwhile, remain with Sony/Columbia; however, Nicolas Cage said last month that he believes he is done with the series. That’s a shame.

The most notable thing about this movie for me is Idris Elba joining the relatively short list of actors who’ve played more than one character in the Marvel movieverse. Here’s a visual survey of that illustrious company:

Collage of actors who've played more than one Marvel character in the movies.

Chris Evans as Johnny Storm in Fantastic Four and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer and Captain America in Captain America: The First Avenger and The Avengers; Ryan Reynolds as Hannibal King in Blade: Trinity and Deadpool in X-Men Origins: Wolverine; Rebecca Romijn as Mystique in X-Men, X2, X-Men: The Last Stand, and briefly in X-Men: First Class, and Joan in The Punisher; Ray Stevenson as Frank Castle in Punisher: War Zone and Volstagg in Thor; Idris Elba as Heimdall in Thor and Moreau in Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance; Jon Favreau as Foggy Nelson in Daredevil and Happy Hogan in Iron Man and Iron Man 2, both of which he also directed; Ben Foster as Spacker Dave in The Punisher and Angel in X-Men: The Last Stand; and Sam Elliott as General Thunderbolt Ross in Hulk and Carter Slade in Ghost Rider.

Did I miss anyone (other than Stan Lee)?

The awards for most impressive physical transformation have to go to Rebecca Romijn (obviously) and Ray Stevenson. The man is Volstagg and The Punisher — an impressive feat.