Nothing But Memory
Post in Category Comics

Marvel Movies Project: Captain America: The First Avenger

Movie poster for Captain America (2011).

Despite having the word “first” in its subtitle, Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) is actually the last of the pre-Avengers setup movies. Captain America is the first Avenger chronologically speaking — although really, having been worshipped by the Vikings, Thor predates pretty much everyone — but he’s the last member of this Avengers team we’ll meet on screen.

Most of the events of this movie take place in the 1940s just after the United States’ entry into World War II. We meet the weakling Steve Rogers, who wanted nothing more than to serve his country but couldn’t because his small body betrayed him. (The puny Chris Evans special effects are amazing! How’d they do that? Here’s how.) Rogers’ determination to join the service catches the attention of Dr. Erskine, a scientist who’s working on a top secret super soldier serum project. Steve becomes the pilot subject for Erskine’s experiment and emerges from it with superhuman powers, which he immediately puts to good use chasing down an assassin who’s been sent in by the Germans to take out Dr. Erskine. This is one of the most entertaining discovery-of-powers sequences in the Marvel movieverse, almost up there with the first Spider-Man movie.

Denied the chance to go into active battle after Dr. Erskine’s death, Steve, in his new identity as Captain America, becomes a sort of mascot for the military. He travels around selling bonds and performing in a live stage show in which he punches out an actor playing Hitler — a reference to the cover of the very first Captain America comic book from 1941. Captain America Comics #1 came out about a year before Pearl Harbor, when many Americans were still opposed to the idea of entering the war. Joe Simon has said he and Jack Kirby conceived of Cap partly as a political statement regarding their feelings on the subject. (Michael Chabon draws on this story for inspiration in his novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, which is worth reading whether or not you’re a comic book fan — it’s a brilliant book.)

I really like that they decided to go the WWII flashback route and show Cap’s origins. This is a compelling story and it’s used to full effect in the film to show us everything that makes Steve such a special guy. Thor started out powerful and had to learn humility before he could become truly heroic; Steve Rogers earns his power by being noble almost to a fault. As Dr. Erskine tells Steve in the movie, he’s “not a perfect soldier, but a good man.”

The “goodness” which is Captain America’s most outstanding quality makes him one of Marvel’s most appealing characters, in my opinion, but also one of the most difficult to portray. It’s just a fact that in fiction, the evil/morally grey characters are often more interesting than the pillars of virtue. Look no further than X-Men: First Class for an example: Magneto blows everyone else out of the water. You can get around this “good = boring” problem by giving your shining hero a good enough problem to deal with. In Cap’s case, sometimes his solid character and strong principles become his problem; for example, Marvel’s Civil War storyline saw his belief in civil liberties lead him to take such a strong stand against the Superhuman Registration Act that he ended up in jail (and also dead, sort of). This is all fitting when you consider the character’s origin as Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s statement against American hesitance to get involved in Europe’s problems. In the case of Captain America: The First Avenger, Cap’s problem is his desire to prove himself in an actual combat situation and to eliminate Dr. Erskine’s big mistake, the Red Skull. (By the end of the movie, his problem will be overcoming the effects of his 70-year nap … but that’s a topic for another film.)

Chris Evans, back in the Marvel Universe post-Fantastic Four, is excellent as Steve Rogers. I’m not sure how he manages to be so good as both the egotistical playboy Johnny Storm and the unfailingly polite and noble Captain America. Maybe he’s just likable. Whatever it is, I’m glad they found him for this role; I had a lot of trouble imagining who on earth could convincingly play Cap.

The rest of the cast is also great: Colonel Phillips is an ideal Tommy Lee Jones role, and the Red Skull is an ideal Hugo Weaving role. I like Hayley Atwell and I think she’s very good as Peggy Carter. It makes me a little sad that there’s only one female character in this whole movie, but I can forgive it due to the World War II setting. Plus, Peggy is quite a solid character: she’s very competent at her job and her relationship with Steve is appealing.

The other thing I like a lot about this movie is the visual style, particularly the muted colours. It reminds me a little of the Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting run on the Captain America comics, which I really enjoyed. Brubaker and Epting get a special thanks in the movie’s credits, so perhaps the filmmakers did indeed have their work in mind. Probably: the sequel to this film is called Captain America: The Winter Soldier; that title comes from a storyline in the Brubaker-Epting comics in which Bucky, thought dead in the comics and in this movie, returns as an assassin called the Winter Soldier, having been brainwashed by the Soviets. So that’s something to look forward to.

Another thing to look forward to: Cap becoming a Capsicle and then being brought back to life by SHIELD is the final piece of the Avengers puzzle. The other major piece revealed in this film is the Cosmic Cube, aka the Tesseract, which becomes the central MacGuffin in The Avengers. The post-credits scene for this film is actually a shortened scene from The Avengers, and it’s followed by a sort of mini-trailer for the movie all this has been leading up to.

But before we get to that, there’s still Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance to get through.

Marvel Movies Project: X-Men: First Class

Movie poster for X-Men: First Class (2011).

We’re coming to the end of this project now: 22 movies down, five to go! The fifth last film in our series is X-Men: First Class (2011), which goes back in time to the 1960s to tell the story of how Professor X and Magneto met and became friends, then enemies. It also exposes for the first time the Professor’s childhood friendship with .. Mystique?

There are things I really like about this movie, most notably Michael Fassbender’s excellent performance as Magneto. 2011 was the Year of Fassbender and based on the presence he shows here it’s not hard to see why. His menacing, powerful Magneto dominates the movie. The other standout is Nicholas Hoult, who beautifully plays Hank McCoy as a shy, vulnerable nerd. X-Men: First Class also has some good action setpieces along with standout scenes like the fun training sequence at Xavier’s mansion, Wolverine’s cameo, and basically any scene where Magneto is the main focus.

The film makes interesting use of Mystique, or more specifically the way the male characters react to her — Charles is uncomfortable with her true form and wants her to hide, Hank flat out tells her she’s ugly, and Erik finds her beautiful. This of course reflects their attitudes to mutation — Charles wants to fit in with society at large, Hank doesn’t like feeling like a freak, and Erik thinks mutants are superior. I have become a real Mystique fan through this rewatch, and I think the shocking nature of her appearance is in large part what makes her so fascinating. Rebecca Romijn played her in the first three X-Men movies with a very confrontational attitude: you can see in Romijn’s performance that Mystique’s “nudity” is one of her weapons. She loves it when people stare, especially if they seem disgusted by what they see. Jennifer Lawrence is playing a version of Mystique who’s much less sure of herself and still trying to work out how she feels about her body. I think Lawrence plays this well, but her version of Mystique is by nature less dynamic than Romijn’s.

A few things I’m not crazy about with this movie: well, January Jones is pretty terrible as Emma Frost. She’s very lucky to have been cast as Betty on Mad Men; it’s a role that apparently falls right into her sweet spot as an actress. It seems clear she doesn’t have much range. However, this random fact from the IMDb trivia page almost makes up for her performance:

This is the second time that January Jones has been cast in 1962 opposite an actor with a pork based name. The first was in Mad Men opposite Jon Hamm and then this alongside Kevin Bacon.

Almost.

Talking about Emma Frost leads me to the next thing I’m not crazy about, which is the fact that this movie is really sexist. It especially stands out as such when you watch it right after Thor, as I did this week. All four major female characters appear undressed at least once. Emma Frost’s bra might as well be credited as a supporting character (pun intended). Angel is a stripper, plus she’s the first good mutant to turn evil.

I will also take this opportunity to mention the film’s treatment of non-white characters: they’re all evil except Darwin, who’s dead. And speaking of Darwin, how about that moment where Shaw offers the mutants a choice: they can either be enslaved [SHOT OF BLACK GUY TO EMPHASIZE REFERENCE TO SLAVERY] or rise up to rule. Really?

Director Matthew Vaughn has said the sexism is intentional (he doesn’t mention the racism): they were trying to re-create the feel of a 1960s Bond movie, which they do successfully through the movie’s visual style, and yes, the depiction of women is accurate for that type of movie. However, the X-Men franchise is supposed to be progressive. This is supposed to be a story about diversity, equality, and acceptance. The heroes are the outcasts: the ones oppressed by society and treated as inhuman for being different. Surely the film has some kind of responsibility to reflect those ideals in its portrayals of real life oppressed groups.

First Class was the second lowest grossing X-Men movie so far, ahead only of X-Men, but it was still quite successful for Fox and they’ve planned a sequel for 2014. I’ve already mentioned this briefly in my post about X-Men: The Last Stand, but it bears repeating that Bryan Singer will be back in the director’s chair for this one and he intends to use the opportunity to correct some of the mistakes from The Last Stand.

The really intriguing thing about Days of Future Past is the cast, which will combine actors from the original X-Men trilogy with those from First Class. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender are in it, but so are Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen. Hugh Jackman will be back for what will be his world record seventh go round as Wolverine (The Wolverine is out July 26th). Halle Berry, Anna Paquin, Shawn Ashmore, Ellen Page, and Daniel Cudmore (Colossus) will also be back, as will Jennifer Lawrence (fresh off her Oscar win) and Nicholas Hoult. It’ll be very interesting to see how that all plays out.

Also interesting: apparently, X-Men: First Class and X-Men: Days of Future Past will share continuity not only with the original X-Men movies, but also with Fox’s Fantastic Four reboot. Fox is creating its own Marvel Cinematic Universe, with Mark Millar presiding over the whole thing. I feel a bit like they’re stepping on Marvel Studios’ toes here. On the other hand, this might be really cool. I guess we’ll see.

Marvel Movies Project: Thor

Movie poster for Thor (2011).

With the exception of the two Fantastic Four movies (and I suppose Spider-Man 3), all the Marvel movies so far have been Earth-based. Thor (2011) reaches further into the “universe” part of the Marvel Universe than any other film, taking us to Asgard, the realm of the gods of Norse myth, to introduce us to our next future Avenger: Thor, the Norse god of thunder.

The plot of the movie in a nutshell: stripped of his powers and banished to Earth by his father Odin, Thor must learn humility in order to be worthy once again of possessing his immense strength and the mystical hammer Mjolnir. While on Earth, he meets and falls in love with astrophysicist Jane Foster and befriends her two associates, Dr. Selvig and Darcy. He also faces challenges in the forms of his mischievous brother Loki, who wants to rule Asgard himself, and agents of SHIELD, who want to know who he is and where he came from.

I like this movie a lot. For one thing, it’s hilarious. Thor’s fish-out-of-water adventures on Earth are comedy gold, from the early slapstick stuff — Darcy tasing him, the hospital sedating him, Jane running over him with the car … twice — to his first encounters with Earth culture: the diner, Facebook, the pet store. “Know this, Son of Coul” may be one of my favourite movie lines, and this is certainly one of my favourite shots from any Marvel movie:

Lady Sif and the Warriors Three arrive in New Mexico.

Thor is a charming lead character. He’s totally sure of himself: on Asgard, this leads to some problems with overconfidence, but on Earth it means just doing whatever weird thing comes to mind without embarrassment. When Jane corrects his behaviour, he re-adjusts without taking her comments personally. He’s brave and chivalrous, he cares deeply and unreservedly about his family and friends — even Loki, who’s given him every reason to be quite pissed off — and by the end of the movie, he’s learned to be a noble and self-sacrificing leader. It must be said that Chris Hemsworth is also easy on the eyes … well, it’s no great mystery why the ladies love Thor.

Thor winks.

But Thor is lady-friendly in other ways too, and I don’t mean Tom Hiddleston and Idris Elba (although …): it features not one, not two, but four fairly prominent and impressive female characters: Natalie Portman as Jane the astrophysicist, Jaimie Alexander as warrior Sif, Rene Russo as Asgard’s queen Frigga, and Kat Dennings as Darcy, Jane’s research assistant. Okay, so research assistant may not sound as exciting as warrior or astrophysicist, but Darcy is notable for another reason: as this post from Social Justice League on Thor as a feminist movie points out, the wisecracking sidekick in a movie like this would most often be a man. Kudos to Thor for including Darcy, and to Kat Dennings for making her very entertaining.

Also notable in Thor: a lot more Avengers setup. Aside from the introduction of Thor himself, this movie brings a few other important pieces for the puzzle: Agent Coulson is back in his most prominent role yet, Hawkeye makes a brief appearance, and Dr. Selvig, as teased in the post-credits scene with Nick Fury, will also show up in The Avengers. Finally, Loki’s fall from grace (and Asgard, haaaaaa) ends up being the incident that gets the whole Avengers ball rolling.

I will finish this post with a comics recommendation. J. Michael Straczynski gets a story credit on this film. Best known to me as the creator of Babylon 5 and probably my favourite Amazing Spider-Man writer, Straczynski also wrote some very good Thor comics from 2007-2009. This movie isn’t based on those comics — in the comics, Asgard is in Oklahoma and Loki has taken over Sif’s body — but I think it has a similar tone. If you liked the movie, there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy the comics. His run has been collected in three volumes, which you should probably check out.

(PS: I don’t know who made that winking Thor GIF, but thanks!)

Marvel Movies Project: Iron Man 2

Movie poster for Iron Man 2 (2010).

Iron Man was for the most part a movie about a guy building a fancy metal suit. Much of the movie consists of Tony Stark alone or nearly so, locked in a room (or cave) somewhere working on the Iron Man armour. By contrast, Iron Man 2 (2010) goes big: a crazed Russian villain, a rival arms manufacturer, US Senate hearings and a military plot to steal Tony Stark’s tech, car racing, Nick Fury (well before the end credits this time), drunken antics, Rhodey in armour, flashbacks of Howard Stark, an army of drones, Tony with a life-threatening case of blood contamination, and a mysterious new assistant for Pepper, who has taken over as CEO of Stark Industries.

It’s a lot. It’s almost too much, bringing the movie close to the level of clutter in other not-so-successful sequels like X-Men: The Last Stand and Spider-Man 3. However, while I don’t think this film is nearly as good as Iron Man, Iron Man 2 does manage to avoid disaster because all these elements actually work together towards the same goal: an exploration of Tony Stark’s pyschology.

Ivan Vanko’s rage at Howard Stark brings up the spectre of Tony’s difficult relationship with his father, who always seemed aloof and vaguely disappointed in his son. This feeling that he would never live up to his father led Tony to create his playboy persona, which he has raised to new heights of irresponsibility and arrogance because of his fear of an early death due to the blood contamination he’s suffering from overuse of the Iron Man suit. The resolutions for both these sources of inner drama are one and the same, as Howard speaks from beyond the grave to provide both paternal pride and the solution for his son’s illness.

The choice of John Slattery to play Howard Stark is a piece of genius: wouldn’t Roger Sterling (Slattery’s Mad Men character) get along famously with both Howard and Tony? The rest of the casting in Iron Man 2 is equally good. I don’t think anyone but Mickey Rourke could have played Vanko. The always excellent Sam Rockwell is hilariously smarmy as Justin Hammer. (I normally prefer Sam Rockwell to be more sexy and less gross, but oh well.) Don Cheadle replaces Terrence Howard as Rhodey, and, being Don Cheadle, he’s very good.

Am I forgetting someone? … oh right, there’s also Scarlett Johansson as Natalie Rushman, an employee at Stark Industries. Natalie turns out to be none other than Natasha Romanov, code name Black Widow, a SHIELD agent sent by Nick Fury to watch Tony Stark. Johansson’s role in this film isn’t huge, but she has a couple of memorable butt kicking scenes. She and Pepper also develop a good working relationship, which I appreciate: it was nice to see them not do the traditional “hot young woman becomes rival to threatened older woman; bitchiness ensues” plotline they seemed to be leading up to.

The introduction of Black Widow, a larger role for Nick Fury, and the reappearance of Agent Coulson — who casually mentions that he’s been called away to New Mexico on SHIELD business part-way through the movie

Thor's hammer appears in the post-credits scene for Iron Man 2.

— all serve as more buildup for The Avengers. When Iron Man 2 was released, the future existence of an Avengers movie had been confirmed and we knew Robert Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johansson would be in it. Thor was already being filmed, Chris Evans had just signed on to play Captain America, and Joss Whedon was rumoured to be in talks to direct The Avengers. The Marvel Cinematic Universe, first hinted at in Iron Man‘s awesome post-credits scene, was in full swing at this point. It was a good time to be a Marvel fan.

Marvel Movies Project: X-Men Origins: Wolverine

Movie poster for X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009).

Hugh Jackman is back for a fourth go-round as Wolverine in X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009). As the title suggests, this film focuses on Wolverine’s origins, which were previously hinted at in X2. Here, we see younger versions of several familiar characters as Wolverine becomes “Weapon X” and gets his skeleton upgraded from bone to adamantium.

Our story begins in northern Canada in 1845 because it turns out Wolverine is really that old, as is Sabretooth, apparently. In a surprise twist, Sabretooth, here going by his real name, Victor Creed, turns out to be Wolverine’s brother: in this version of events, it is revealed that Victor’s father is also Wolverine’s real father, even though Wolverine’s fake father is played by an actor who bears an uncanny resemblance to Hugh Jackman. Alright then.

After fathers real and fake both end up dead during a household dispute, Wolverine and Victor go on the run together. They become brothers in arms as well as in blood, and fight together in several wars: the US Civil War (despite being Canadian), World War I, World War II (they probably knew Captain America!), and finally Vietnam (again despite being Canadian). In Vietnam they meet Stryker — familiar to the audience from X2 — who invites them to be a part of an elite team of assassins, all of whom have “special skills,” which is to say they’re mutants. Wolverine becomes increasingly uncomfortable with the group’s activities and ultimately quits.

One of the countless pieces of useful life knowledge I’ve picked up from TV and the movies is that you should never join an elite team of assassins because chances are good that someday someone is going to decide it’s too risky to keep you alive. Indeed, this is what happens: Victor starts killing off the members of his old crew one by one. Wolverine has established a new life for himself back in his old Canadian stomping grounds: he’s a lumberjack, and he’s ok. But when Victor shows up and kills his lady love, Wolverine agrees to a deal with Stryker that will turn him into a stronger soldier and allow him to get revenge on Victor. And the rest is history.

The cast of X-Men Origins: Wolverine is large and includes some fairly big names, both real and fictional. A few well-known mutants — notably, Scott Summers, Emma Frost, and (surprise!) Professor X — appear briefly. In terms of celebrities from the real world, there’s multi-platinum recording artist will.i.am as John Wraith and Ryan Reynolds, here making his second attempt at a comic book movie, as Wade “Deadpool” Wilson. Poor Ryan Reynolds. Of all his superhero-related efforts, this is probably the best if only because Blade: Trinity and Green Lantern are both so wretchedly awful. Personally, I hate Deadpool in any form so I did not enjoy his performance here.

Also in the cast are a couple of actors known and beloved by certain audiences for their roles in iconic series: Dominic Monaghan — Merry in the Lord of the Rings movies and also Charlie on Lost — and Taylor Kitsch, who will always be Friday Night Lights‘ Tim Riggins to me. At the time Wolverine was released, I was really excited about the prospect of Riggins in an important role in this movie. It was disappointing, then, to find out how little screentime he actually has.

Most of the cast’s roles, in fact, are little more than cameos. But given the calibre of the people involved, it feels like this film was cast as an ensemble piece. Perhaps because of its association with the team-oriented X-Men movies, it was also marketed that way to an extent, with some of the posters featuring multiple characters. In reality, it’s almost a one-man show, with only Liev Schreiber (Victor) and Danny Huston (Stryker) coming anywhere close to matching Hugh Jackman’s screentime (oddly enough, Huston didn’t feature on any posters). To be fair, a one man show is what the title suggests.

But the result of having all these characters floating around not doing much is that the film suffers from a bit of overcrowding. It’s not as bad as X-Men: The Last Stand because all the minor characters are presented as, well, minor characters. Wolverine‘s problem is more comparable to the introduction of Gwen and Captain Stacy in Spider-Man 3: why hype the known names if you’re not going to use them?

Still, the movie is entertaining enough in a mindless sort of way. More notable from my perspective than the movie itself is the fact that I saw it being filmed. I was a student at the University of British Columbia when Wolverine was filming in Vancouver. The part about 10 minutes into the movie where Stryker’s team attacks a compound in Nigeria to find out where the adamantium comes from was filmed on campus, right outside the building where I had all my classes.

Image from X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009).

They built a shantytown set like you see in that image (although in reality it wasn’t as big) outside the building. My friend and I wandered around trying to find out what was going on and she discovered it was for Wolverine. Then one night I was coming home from pub trivia and I saw a big crowd gathered around the area, which was all lit up. I went over to watch and I saw them do a few takes of some soldiers shooting at an unknown something represented by a green screen. Sadly, no stars were present. I did not get to see Hugh Jackman. It was pretty cool to see a Marvel movie in the flesh, though.