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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: 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: 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!!