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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 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: The Incredible Hulk

Movie poster for The Incredible Hulk (2008).

The second Marvel Studios project is The Incredible Hulk (2008), starring Edward Norton as Bruce Banner, Liv Tyler as Betty Ross, William Hurt as General Thunderbolt Ross, and Tim Roth as Blonsky, a soldier who eventually turns into something even more … abominable than the Hulk. This film has no connection to Ang Lee’s father-focused Hulk from 2003, which we have already discussed. Marvel reacquired the film rights to the character around 2006 because Universal failed to start production on a sequel to Hulk on time.

So The Incredible Hulk is a reboot of sorts, though not quite: it seems to work on the assumption that the audience already knows the main characters and therefore doesn’t spend time introducing them. It also mostly skips over the Hulk’s origin in a science experiment gone wrong, showing it quickly in the opening credits.

That said, the origin story does have serious plot implications, and it’s rather different this time around: in Hulk, Bruce Banner is working on independent research on regeneration of cells for medical purposes; in The Incredible Hulk, the military was attempting to use Banner’s experiments to re-create the super soldier serum that produced Captain America, although Banner himself was not aware of the true purpose of the project. This idea of the dangers of military application, or perhaps appropriation, of superhero-related research ties in to what we’ve just seen in Iron Man via Tony Stark’s ideological conflict with Obadiah Stane.

Mostly, though, The Incredible Hulk is a monster movie which recalls classics of sci-fi like Frankenstein (Mr. Blue refers to his scientific research as “Promethean fire,” an image which goes back to Mary Shelley), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (incidentally, the last movie I saw before I watched this was the 1931 version of Jekyll and Hyde starring Fredric March — appropriate), and Godzilla. At least, I for one thought of Godzilla as I watched Abomination rampaging down a New York street. (The other thing I thought as I watched that scene is, hey, was that Omar?

It IS Omar!

Yep, that random bystander in the brightly-coloured shirt is in fact Michael Kenneth Williams. Huh. “Abomination! Abomination is coming, yo!”)

The Incredible Hulk is a decent enough movie — better than Hulk, which, granted, doesn’t say much — but nothing earthshattering. I thought Edward Norton was a good choice to play Bruce Banner, but I was actually a little disappointed with his performance and I suppose with the direction of the film. It would have been interesting to see Banner as a man constantly on the edge of snapping — a type of performance I think Norton would have done great things with; instead, this Banner is a scared weakling, and I don’t know that we ever feel his rage.

To me, this movie’s place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe canon became a bit questionable when Edward Norton was booted from The Avengers and replaced with Mark Ruffalo. Now it’s sort of the awkward movie that’s still part of the continuity, but somehow doesn’t really count. If they do another Hulk movie, presumably they’ll recast Betty and General Ross again, too.

Whether they’re going to do another Hulk movie at all is still up for debate: Mark Ruffalo tweeted about it a few times last week, noting that while there are currently no plans to feature the Hulk in anything other than Avengers 2, there are no concrete plans not to do another solo Hulk movie either. Ruffalo apparently signed a six movie deal with Marvel. That seems to suggest something will happen … at some point. Joss Whedon seems to have big things in mind for the Hulk in Avengers 2, but has also noted he feels the character is “the most difficult Marvel property” to build a movie around.

The big green guy can be pretty awesome as a supporting character, though, as we shall see in a few movies’ time.

Marvel Movies Project: Ghost Rider (and Half-Way Roundup!)

Movie poster for Ghost Rider (2007).

Ghost Rider (2007) is the story of stunt motorcycle rider and monkey documentary devotee Johnny Blaze, who sells his soul to the devil, here named Mephistopheles, in order to cure his father’s cancer. To work off his debt, Johnny is forced to become the “Ghost Rider,” which involves being the devil’s bounty hunter. Then there is some deal about a contract so evil that another Ghost Rider hid it, and now Mephistopheles’ son, whose name is Blackheart, wants to used it to show his father up … or something. Meanwhile, Johnny reunites with Roxanne, the love of his teen years. Eventually, Blackheart threatens Roxanne and Johnny has to save her.

Nicolas Cage is a fun actor and he seems to enjoy being Johnny Blaze, who is an offbeat character with some absurd quirks. The whole movie, really, is odd and cannot be taken seriously, with its paper thin plot and the cheesetastic delivery of lines like “I am speaking to the fire element within me” and “My name is leeeeeeeeegion. For we are maaaaaaaaaaany.” Most of the cast give silly performances to match the movie’s tone. Peter Fonda hams it up as Mephistopheles. Sam Elliott, making his second Marvel movie appearance after playing General Ross in Hulk, is in full mysterious stranger mode as a former Ghost Rider named Carter Slade.

Eva Mendes plays Roxanne. It’s not much of a role; she wears tight, low-cut clothes and looks pretty — as if to drive home the point, Roxy even desperately asks a waiter at one point if he think she’s pretty — and gets rescued after making ineffectual attempts to help Johnny. Ghost Rider is probably the worst movie so far in terms of female representation.

Ghost Rider also marks the half-way point of this Marvel Movies Project, being the 14th of 27 films! To celebrate this milestone, here’s a quick look back on some of what we’ve seen so far.

Origin Stories

Blade, Spider-Man, Daredevil, Hulk, The Punisher, Fantastic Four, and Ghost Rider all show us how the heroes got their powers. All of these except Blade and Daredevil, which pick up the action with the protagonist already in evil-fighting mode, also show the characters’ transitions from normal person to something more.

In every case but Fantastic Four, the hero’s story involves the death of a parent or loved one — several loved ones in poor Frank Castle’s case. Castle, Matt Murdock, Peter Parker, and Johnny Blaze have all lost their fathers, while Bruce Banner is haunted by the sudden reappearance of his. Castle, Blade, and Banner’s stories are different enough that you almost don’t notice the similarity, but I think Daredevil and Ghost Rider probably suffer from being too similar to Spider-Man, which is the original and still the best dead father figure story in the Marvel Universe.

It’s also worth noting that Daredevil acts as an origin story for Elektra in some ways, and it’s the death of her father that prompts her to put all her martial arts training to use.

Sequels & Spinoffs

Blade, the X-Men, and Spider-Man all feature in more than one film. I’ve watched three sequels and two threequels so far. The X-Men films rely strongly on continuity, with developments that take place in the earlier films affecting the later ones. The Blade movies are less continuity-based: there are very few references to the earlier films in the sequels; it would be pretty easy to follow Blade: Trinity without having seen Blade. Spider-Man 2 most definitely builds on a foundation established in Spider-Man, and in my opinion the two movies work best when seen in relation to each other. The core characters are all the same and many scenes in Spider-Man 2 call back directly to scenes from the first movie.

Elektra is the lone spinoff so far. The link to Daredevil exists but the filmmakers obviously intended Elektra to be a standalone movie.

Villains

Magneto and his Brotherhood of Evil Mutants and the Green Goblin (sort of) are the only villains who appear in sequels. Every other villain appears in one movie only. Most of the main villains have personal connections to their adversaries: either they’ve known each other for a long time, or the villain was involved in the murder of someone close to the hero. The exceptions are the Blade sequels, where the villains want to kill Blade mostly because he’s a pain in the butt.

My picks for standout villains are probably Magneto and Mystique from the X-Men series, as well as Doctor Octopus from Spider-Man 2. Doctor Doom was unfortunately disappointing; I was all ready for him to be awesome after I saw the first photos of his costume, but then he pretty much just relived Norman Osborn’s arc from Spider-Man.

Romance & Love Interests

Doomed pairings (Bruce and Betty, Daredevil and Elektra), token love interests (Eva Mendes in Ghost Rider, Goran Visnjic in Elektra), some extremely disinterested heroes (The Punisher, Blade — no woman in the Blade trilogy even makes it into more than one film), and one love triangle which turns into a doomed pairing (Wolverine-Jean-Cyclops) add up to not much in the way of heartwarming romance in the Marvel movies. There are a few bright spots, though. In the X-Men trilogy, Bobby and Rogue’s young love is very sweet. In Fantastic Four, Ben Grimm meets the kind-hearted Alicia after being dumped by his horrible wife. Reed’s hilariously inept attempts to woo Sue are also enjoyable, and their story ends well.

The one epic love story to be found is Peter and Mary Jane’s. Their courtship plays out over the course of the first two films and Peter’s love for Mary Jane drives a lot of the action. They’re both fully-developed characters who know each other well and support each other, even though their actual relationship has its fair share of bumps. By the end of Spider-Man 2, Mary Jane is aware of Peter’s secret identity and has made the choice to be with him anyway. The final shot of the movie is a closeup of her worried face, setting up their relationship to continue as a major source of drama in Spider-Man 3.

Best & Worst

Spider-Man 2 is possibly my favourite movie of all-time, so obviously I’m sticking with that as my choice for the best film so far. X2, Spider-Man, and X-Men are also a cut above the rest. Blade and Fantastic Four stand out as very enjoyable, too.

I’d probably place Blade: Trinity, The Punisher, Ghost Rider, Hulk, and Daredevil in the bottom five.

One thing I’ve noticed is that I haven’t found some of the movies I thought were awful the first time around as painful this time. Even Daredevil and Hulk, though I still don’t think they’re good, don’t seem quite as bad now that my expectations are lower. Elektra is probably the movie that benefited most from this “adjusted expectations” effect: I remembered it being terrible, but this time it seemed ok. On the other hand, I remembered thinking Ghost Rider was ok at the time, and when I watched it again I was disappointed.

My opinion of Blade: Trinity hasn’t changed. It sucked then and it still sucks now.