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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: 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: Iron Man

For this project so far, I’ve watched 16 movies, all of which were produced by other studios which had purchased the movie rights to Marvel characters. These 16 movies combined for a total worldwide box office gross of almost $5.5 billion, but only a tiny portion of their profits went to Marvel: for example, according to Sean Howe’s book Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, Marvel earned about $75 million from Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2, which made $1.6 billion at the box office. This article from Fortune has more details on how little money Marvel actually saw from these films.

So. You’re Marvel. You see everyone else making a crapton of money off your stuff. Not to mention, it would be nice to have more creative control because, let’s face it: nobody knows these characters better than you. What do you do? Well …

Marvel Studios Logo

You make your own darn movie studio of course! It’s actually a pretty interesting setup they’ve got. As I understand it, in 2004, Marvel essentially received a loan of $525 million to make, over a period of 8 years, 10 movies based on characters to which it still owned the film rights. These movies would be distributed by Paramount. If the movies failed and Marvel was unable to pay back its loans, the film rights for 10 Marvel characters — specifically: Ant-Man, The Avengers, Black Panther, Captain America, Cloak & Dagger, Nick Fury, Hawkeye, Power Pack, Shang-Chi, and Dr. Strange — would go to the insurance company which agreed to cover the debt. (There are more details on the arrangement here.)

Quite a bet to make. Although you can argue that maybe characters like Cloak & Dagger and Power Pack aren’t among Marvel’s most valuable intellectual property, losing Captain America and The Avengers would certainly have been a blow. Marvel has quite a lot riding on the success of this venture.

In May 2008, the first Marvel Studios project was released:

Movie poster for Iron Man (2008).

Iron Man tells the story of Tony Stark, genius billionaire playboy philanthropist arms manufacturer who gets a taste of what his company has wrought on the world when he’s attacked during a visit to Afghanistan by terrorists using Stark weapons. The attack leaves Stark badly wounded, with pieces of shrapnel in his blood and only a magnetic chest plate keeping him alive, and imprisoned by the terrorists, who demand that he build them their own version of his latest high-tech missile. With the help of his fellow prisoner, Yinsen, Stark instead builds a suit of body armour which allows him to escape his captors. His experience leads him to turn over a new leaf: he halts production on his company’s weapons, and instead dedicates himself and the company to working on clean energy sources as well as a better version of the body armour he built in Afghanistan. He faces problems from inside the company, however, as his partner Obadiah Stane is not on board with Tony’s new vision.

In the current context of debates about the US’s use of unmanned drones, Iron Man feels rather topical: at one point Tony hears his friend Rhodey discussing whether the future of air combat is with manned or unmanned planes. Rhodey doesn’t believe a drone — a plane without a pilot — could ever match a pilot’s instincts; in response, Tony muses “Why not a pilot without the plane?” Indeed, that’s pretty much what he builds with the Iron Man armour, which places the wearer in the centre of combat, unlike drone controllers, who may be thousands of miles away controlling things via satellite. As demonstrated when Tony returns to Afghanistan to fight the terrorists who abducted him, the suit allows its pilot to have an incredible level of control over its targeting systems. No collateral damage here.

Thought-provoking commentary aside, Iron Man is, at its arc reactor powered heart, basically a movie about a guy building a cool metal suit. And it’s awesome. All the scenes of Tony Stark planning and testing and building and rebuilding work really well. This is largely thanks to Robert Downey Jr., whose energy and personality make the whole thing seem like an incredible amount of fun.

Downey was the perfect choice to play Tony Stark (I’ve always thought he’d be a decent Dr. Strange, too, but this is better) and he gives one of the great comic book movie performances here. Tony is arrogant and childish, but RDJ makes him seem like a charming rogue whose change of heart is totally believable. He has great chemistry with Gwyneth Paltrow — whom I don’t normally like, but she’s quite good as Pepper — and he’s very funny. Marvel owes the guy a huge debt of gratitude: if Iron Man had failed, it could have been disastrous for the whole Marvel Studios venture. But it did not ($585 million worldwide box office), and it owes much of its success to Robert Downey Jr.’s excellence.

Tony Stark in Iron Man (2008).

Iron Man also boasts a killer ending: rather than going with the prepared story that Iron Man is a bodyguard, Tony goes off-script during a press conference and reveals “I am Iron Man.” The end. It’s a good thing they ended the movie there because I’m not sure I could have taken anymore awesomeness.

Except: “I’m here to talk to you about the Avenger Initiative.” Wait, WHAT!? Does that mean … are they really … ????

Oh … holy … CRAP!!