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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.

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!)