Phase One Complete: The Avengers

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“The board is set, the pieces are moving. We come to it at last, the great battle of our time.”

– Gandalf the White, Return of the King

Each generation has a defining moment, that crystallizes itself in the collective consciousness, so that no one in the world is left unaware of the event, or unmarked by its passing.
I remember where I was during the Battle of New York, and chances are you do to. Everyone does. Chances are equally good that you were sitting in a movie theater, enjoying a bit of shallow escapism when the sky suddenly opened up, raining aliens and hellfire on the city below.

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Man, New York just cannot catch a break.
But as so often happens, our darkest hour gives rise to heroes, the titular Avengers in this case.
Perhaps you’ve heard of them.

So, on the off-chance that anyone at Sony or Warner Bros., or Fox or whatever is reading this review and hasn’t worked out the obvious for themselves: this is how you build a shared universe. This is the playbook, and it’s so baffling to watch studios try to replicate this formula by cutting corners, jump-starting their universes with a single film. No. No, no, no. Linking together a series of references and Easter eggs and trailer bait does not a movie make.
Say what you will about the Phase One films, but even the bad movies were still movies. The worst of them -Incredible Hulk, natch- still gave us set-up so that a line like this could pay off:

‘Last time I was in New York I sort of broke… Harlem’

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So where do I even begin with the Avengers? It’s a near perfect film. It’s the Citizen Kane of super hero movies. It’s the promise made that was actually kept. And for someone that remembers the Star Wars prequels, the Matrix sequels, X3, Spider-man 3, Superman Returns, Fantastic Four and it’s sequel, the interminable dumpster fire that the Pirates franchise became… the Avengers was a palette cleanser for all those early adulthood disappointments. It was more than a movie. I almost didn’t know how to process the awesome at the time, and even now it’s like witnessing a miracle. How did this happen? How did we come to live in such times? These are philosophical questions we’ll be wrestling with for generations to come, and fall well outside the purview of this article. It’s enough to know that it did happen, I just saw it again, and it remains a highwater mark of the genre. There are so many moving parts that come together – and that needed to come together – that even if the movie was simply good, if it was reasonably coherent, that would be an accomplishment all it’s own.

Instead we have a super-hero ensemble film that – even though it builds off five previous movies – stands on it’s own. I’m serious. Now, obviously I’ll never have the experience of someone who randomly walked into a movie theater in the first week of May 2012, saw their options

and was like, yeah I guess I’ll see the Avengers, since John Cusack as Edgar Allen Poe sounds like the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard:

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Even to those poor souls, the Avengers would have been a good bet. I’m pretty sure it would have made sense and been perfectly enjoyable, even if seeing the five movies preceding it deepens that enjoyment.

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In part, this is because the movie is structured so well. After a scene that introduces us to conflict, the movie spends the next while bringing the Avengers in one at a time, giving them their due and establishing their characters. Seven superheroes (I’m counting Nick Fury here, who gets a bump from walk-on cameo to full on co-star)  almost seems quaint now, as we move into the third Captain America movie which stars, I think, everyone. But it’s worth pointing out how horribly awry this could have gone. Instead, only Hawkeye gets short shrift here, but since no one cares about Hawkeye this oversight isn’t so much a bug as a feature.

The Avengers also perfects the three battles/three acts structure that I noticed in an earlier review (that pattern held for Thor but was abandoned in Captain America, presumably because of it’s own structural issues). Act one ends with the forest battle between Iron Man, Thor and Captain America; Act two with the Helicarrier fight and Loki’s escape. And inbetween and amongst these flashy set pieces we get a lot of snappy dialogue and character moment which – witty banter aside –  serve to build the friendships that are the warm, beating heart of the movie.

Not that everyone starts out as friends – that would be boring – but seeing these relationships change and grow over the course of a two-hour action film, well – it’s something to see. It’s incredibly rewarding and I think that it makes for a very human story that nearly everyone can relate to. And nearly everyone did.

The Avengers made so much money.

I don’t think that’s necessarily any yardstick or guarantee of quality (looking at you, Avatar), but what it did guarantee was that the MCU wasn’t going away any time soon, and that we would soon be awash in imitators. It changed the zeitgeist.

So rather than breakdown the myriad of things that work in this movie (which was everything, pretty well) I want to call attention to something that really, really worked and something that really didn’t.

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The Hulk was perfect. It’s taken a million years of human evolution, but we can finally, realistically portray a green-skinned giant monster-man in a movie and that’s not something you could have claimed back when the Incredible Yawn was released.

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And before that, things were even worse:

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But the wonders of advancing CGI aside, the Powers that Be have finally zoned in on the perfect Bruce Banner. Don’t get me wrong: as an Edward Norton fan I was pretty pleased with his take on the character, and legitimately upset when he was recast for someone I’d barely heard of. But that was all before I’d seen Mark Ruffalo do his thing, which mainly involves dry-washing his hands.

I don’t know why, but that one mannerism, that one nervous tic just kills. Looking at him you can just see his struggle, and his burden, in a way I haven’t seen any other actor effectively portray. He slouches. He stutters a little. There’s a haunted quality in the eyes.

It doesn’t hurt that this is the first time we see Bruce Banner in a group of his peers. Previous outing have always focused on him on the run, or being hunted, the man alone or what-have-you. Here we get him sciencing and trading witticisms with the likes of Robert Downey Jr and it adds a whole new dimension to the character, which in turn adds a lot of depth when we finally see the monster.

Having raved about the Hulk, and how awesome he was, we should talk about the flip side of that awesome; the blandest, dullest, least super of all heroes: Hawkeye.

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Seriously, why is this guy in the Avengers? His dad must be someone on the World Council or something. Someone pulled strings, is what I’m saying. Like, I get that he’s got great eyesight, and like, hand/eye coordination and all that. And I guess he’s a big deal in the comics? Or something? But let us not forget for one moment that – in a movie set in the 21st century – this guy’s gimmick is to use a weapon older than recorded history. And yes, I acknowledge that even in this film he’s got some lovely arrowheads: exploding ones, and even a usb/hacking arrow, but it’s not like he’s Tony Stark inventing his own tech. No, someone in a S.H.I.E.L.D. lab somewhere is pumping these out. So which came first, the arrowheads or the archer? Were they just stockpiling arrowheads while scanning like, Olympic teams and hunting clubs in a desperate bid to find their Chosen One? Or was Clint Barton such a hot shot with a gun that he was able to pull in some favors with R&D? The more I think about it the more it hurts my head. It doesn’t help that Jeremy Renner (who I’m sure is a nice guy or whatever) has approximately zero charisma. His performance in the Bourne Legacy was enough, for example, to send them running for Matt Damon again. I know he was in the last couple Mission Impossible movies but I cannot remotely recall a single noteworthy or interesting thing he did in those films. Dude is fucking boring, yo. At least in this movie he was relevant as the mind-controlled heel-turn, but this is going to get ridiculous when we get to Age of Ultron.

Anyhoo. I’m nitpicking here, and I know it. In truth, at least Hawkeye makes Black Widow a little less conspicuous as being the only unpowered hero on the team. And his being compromised by Loki gives ScarJo some nice character moments. I’ll take it.

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At the end of the day, the Avengers is as near-perfect a superhero ensemble film as has yet been crafted by the hands of man. The story is simple enough to allow the focus to be on the characters, and that was a smart call on the studio’s part. I’m gonna give this one 9 Loki’s scepters out of 10. It was audacious. It was visionary. It was amazing.

Captain America: The First Avenger (the Great MCU re-watch, part 5)

Screen Shot 2016-04-25 at 10.54.56 PM.pngI’m not gonna lie: the only thing standing between me and the unremitting glory that is the Avengers, is this review. So if this is a little less comprehensive than usual (because I’m always just so comprehensive), then just picture me on the couch, shoving chips in my mouth as I watch the single greatest superhero team-up of our time, and take comfort. Because if nothing else, this re-watch has gotten me good and pumped to watch some Avengers. That’s the genius of the cinematic universe, I guess.

But first, let’s take a trip to yesteryear –  1942 to be exact. That was when the Americans finally stopped dragging their feet and entered World War 2; which, thanks guys, better late than never, I suppose. Now, if you’re not a history buff like myself, then some of the information presented in this movie might surprise you; did you know, for example, that the Nazi science division was called Hydra, and that their leader Johann Schmidt ruled over them like a cult? And that they had blue lasers?

No, you didn’t know that, because the state of public schooling is a disgrace these days. Fortunately, Captain America is here to set all that to rights, and to replace that bit of fluff between your ears with knowledge. True. History. Facts.

This movie starts a little oddly because there’s two prelude scenes before we get to our Star-spangled Man. The first, set in the present day, shows a team of anonymous actors finding the frozen Captain America in the arctic. The second, introduces not only our villain of the piece, but the maguffin that will dominate the next film – omg, the fucking Avengers is the next movie, guys, guys, I can’t even.

Anyway, eventually we get to our hero, the man we paid admission price to see, and oh, wait. What? Who’s this guy?

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Little boy, they’re trying to make a movie here, and you’re standing in front of Captain America.

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But as it turns out, that is our hero, and the star of the flawed, oddly-paced, over-stuffed, but ultimately good-hearted and entertaining film we’re about to see.

The First Avenger is directed by Joe Johnston, and if you’ve ever seen the Rocketeer then you know exactly why he was the perfect choice for this film. This is part of what I love about the Marvel Movie Machine, is their near-perfect choices when it comes to directors. If you want a buddy-cop comedy you hire Shane Black, if you want irresistible nerdbait you hire Joss Whedon. And if you want a World War 2 period piece with just a splash of steam punk, then of course you hire the guy who made the Rocketeer.

That was an inspired choice and it certainly served them here; any awkwardness comes from trying to cram together two separate movies into one (whilst still letting people know they have a fucking Avengers movie to go see next summer). The first film – which I will call ‘Captain America’ – is a fairly standard comic book origin story, in which an everyman is granted extraordinary powers and must use them to fight a diabolical villain who is our hero’s equal and opposite. Shoved into the middle of this is a Band of Brothers/Saving Private Ryan/Inglorious Bastards-type film, wherein a crack squad of crack soldiers is brought together to, you know, fight World War 2 and stuff; I call this movie ‘The First Avenger’. In an embarrassing attempt at both characterization and representation we have a Black guy, an Asian guy, an English guy, a French guy and a mustache guy.

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In a quote that is downright adorable, actor Kenneth Choi said of his preparation:

“[I] did a lot of WWII research especially in regards to the ‘Nisei’ soldiers, or Japanese-American soldiers. I wanted to get as much true, real-life information for a guy like Jim Morita fighting in WWII. I felt that if I had built a factual basis for him, I could then let go and permit the character to exist in the Marvel Universe, which allows for a lot of imaginative circumstances.”

This is about a thousand times more thought than anyone else put into it, and all for a moment where he can dangle his dogtags and say sarcastically, “I’m from Fresno, Ace.” But really, all the filmmakers cared about was that you the audience knew, without the chance of misunderstanding, that Captain America is not a racist.

So this leads to a bit of odd pacing in the middle, where we have to stop and introduce (if you can call it that) Captain America’s team and then watch a montage of them taking down Hydra bases. The thing is, I don’t really see how you get around this issue without either excising it completely, or having a completely separate film (which, as awesome as that would be, is unfeasible when we have an Avengers movie to get to). And to it’s credit, this issue doesn’t sink the film, even if it holds it back a bit from greatness.

For greatness then, we will simply have to look to the films cast, which, as always, is superb. Much like with their choice in directors, someone upstairs at Marvel was thinking ‘who can we get to play a crusty, sarcastic but lovable, war-weary general’, and when the answer naturally came back Tommy Lee Jones, well they just picked up the phone and hired him.

But let’s not bury the lead.

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I was mad when I first heard they were casting Chris Evans as Cap. I don’t think it put me off food or anything, but I was legitimately upset. As upset as any racist when they discover that Idris Elba has been cast to play a Nordic (read: lily white) god. ‘Chris Evans is Johnny Storm!‘ I raged, ‘He can’t be two things!

But, it turns out, he can. I guess that’s why they call it acting? And make no mistake, Chris Evans can fucking act. I know this because his Johnny Storm – selfish, feckless, vain, arrogant, cocky Johnny Storm – was the best thing about those largely forgettable films. The character he creates for Captain America is pretty well the exact opposite in every respect. He totally sells the absolutely necessary component of Captain America: that he was a hero before he underwent the procedure that gave him his abilities. I will doubtlessly have more to say about Chris Evans’ magnificent turn as Steve Rogers in future films, so I’ll turn my attention now to one who has no future films (not counting a couple cameos, etc): Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter.

Now it’s a bit of an awkward holdover of the times in which these characters were created, and who they were created for, that every superhero automatically gets the Superhero Girlfriend™. It’s part of the male wish-fulfillment fantasy: what’s the point of getting abilities that set you above your peers if you can’t get laid as well? So, presumably, to distract us from our own sad, sexless lives, pretty well every superhero gets a hot girl: Tony Stark has his Pepper Potts, Bruce Banner has Betty Ross, Thor gets Jane Foster, and now we have Peggy.

So how does she hold up in the great pantheon of Superhero Girlfriends™? Simply put, Peggy Carter rules. She’s the best. I don’t think anyone’s going to top the easy chemistry of Robert Downey Jr and Gwyneth Paltrow any time soon, but Peggy and Steve are downright adorable in their own right, and it’s no coincidence that she keeps being brought back for cameos, not to mention her own network television show. Unlike our other leading ladies, Peggy has shit to do outside of her relationship to a man (and yes, I know that Jane Foster is like, an astrophysicist or somesuch, but no one’s greenlit a Jane Foster tv show as yet, nor a Pepper Potts: CEO show, etc).

Also, this:

And it would be a sin if I didn’t mention Stanley Tucci as, shall we say, the Ben Kenobi character. In this case it’s Dr. Abraham Erskine, but it’s a pretty similar character as Yinsen in Iron Man; older patriarch saves the life of protagonist, inspires him and then dies. I don’t want to devalue either of these characters or the actors who play them; Yinsen especially is critical in making Tony Stark consider and then reconsider who he is and who he’ll be. Steve Rogers is much more grounded with his moral compass and not liking bullies and so forth, but the scenes he shares with his mentor are genuinely heartwarming and inform the character throughout multiple films. Also worth noting is Tucci’s German accent, which could teach Hugo Weaving’s accent a thing or two. Hugo Weaving, incidentally, plays the Red Skull, and that’s pretty well all you can say about that.

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On the whole, I give Captain America: The First Avenger 3 exploding Hydra tanks out of 4. What works in this movie works so well as to (mostly) elevate above that bloated, messy middle bit. It’s fun, it feels fresh, and the final scene – wherein Cap awakens in the present day – is not only gorgeous to look at, it perfectly sets up the Avengers. Which I finally get to watch now.

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The Great MCU re-watch part 4: Thor

Have you ever seen Adventures in Babysitting? I did, like 10 million years ago, and what I remember of that when I remember nothing else, was this guy:

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And this kid. Isn’t she cute?

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Anyway, that was pretty well all I knew about Thor going into this movie for the first time. I was a blank slate upon which the film could project itself. And I recall my first impressions being largely positive. With most Marvel movies this has been the case though, even the Incredible Drag. It isn’t until I’m out of the theater, scrutinizing these things on the laptop from the comfort of home that I see the problems. And man, does Thor have problems.

First though, let’s get this out of the way, right away: Chris Hemsworth is super hot. HAWT. With those sparkling blue eyes, dazzling white teeth… and the less said about that chiseled physique, the better. Instead, let’s just gaze longingly at this picture so we can move on:

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Good? Okay. So, the first thing you to know is that Thor is a big, loud, and dumb comic book movie. If you think about it too hard – and I strongly encourage that you do not – then it starts to fall apart pretty quickly. Not the actual plot, that’s a pretty well straight-up fish-out-of-water story with a touch of Cain and Abel thrown in for good measure. But we are led to believe that humans once worshiped the Asgardians as gods, which means that Thor has to be like 800 years old.

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Which he neither looks nor acts like. But wait!, you say. Perhaps because this is space and shit, there’s like a time discrepancy, except that there’s not because action on Earth and Asgard take place concurrently throughout the film. So no, Thor is 800 years old and shut up and watch the movie.

Now, when I first heard that they got acclaimed Shakespearean actor/director Gilderoy Lockhart behind the camera for this film, I was pumped. Someone with his background would surely be able to lend this – essentially silly – premise some much needed gravitas. Then, when I heard SIR FUCKING ANTHONY HOPKINS had been cast as Odin the Allfather, I was double-plus pumped. Gravitas, it seemed, would not be lacking.

And… I guess it wasn’t? Like, I think? But I sure hope you like dutch angles, because Kenneth Branagh is about to shove a million of them right down your unwilling eye-holes.

In reference to the unwatchable film ‘Battlefield Earth’, Roger Ebert had this to say:

“…the director has learned from better films that directors sometimes tilt their cameras, but he has not learned why.”

Now, this was not something I noticed on first viewing, probably because I was too busy learning about new and base urges my body had in regards to the films titular hero. This guy? Just look at that pretty, pretty mouth:

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But once you do notice, it becomes impossible to unsee, and if you can’t unsee it, then your enjoyment of this movie is going to plummet. Mine sure did. Because every time you see a shot like this:

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Or this:

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Or this:

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Or this:

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Well, then so much for your immersive cinematic experience, yeah? Instead, you’ll just be wondering what the hell was going through the director’s head. It’s like he just discovered the technique and fell instantly and irredeemably in love with it. Except this is Kenneth Branagh we’re talking about, not some kid in his first year of film school.

The only thing I can think of that possibly makes sense is that dude is trolling us; that Mister Shakespeare isn’t taking this comic book movie seriously. And that’s too bad, because pretty well every one else is.

Chris Hemsworth is more than just a pretty face attached to smoking body wrapped in glorious muscle – that kid can act. The picture of him above? The one with the puppy dog eyes? That’s Thor learning about the death of his father, and he sells the shit out of it.

Tom Hiddleston takes his first crack as Loki here and it’s wonderful; the aforementioned Anthony Hopkins mostly just phones it in, but you can’t really tell – he’s just that good. I only found out from interviews after the fact just how unmoved he was by the source material.

Even Natalie Portman is downright decent in this movie. Now this was surprising to me, because I even went so far as to compare her blandness to the zest brought by Gwyneth Paltrow in Iron Man. But I guess I was thinking of the next Thor movie, because here she’s awkward and funny and a pretty decent audience surrogate – she falls in love with Thor just the same as we all do. I never needed to have that romance explained because it was pretty obvious from her angle why she was into him (hint: he’s hot). As for Thor, I just assumed (and still sort of do, though the films haven’t borne it out – yet) that like any good sailor he has a girl in every port.

I feel like there was a decent movie in here before the director pissed all over it with his dutch angles. But that aside, we’re never really given a compelling reason for Thor’s growth from petulant, arrogant princeling, to the hero willing to sacrifice his life in the end. I mean, there was some good set-up for it: the death of his father, and you can see Chris Hemsworth playing that angle. But instead of honing in on this, instead of teasing out the themes of fathers and sons, the film instead settles for the lazy excuse that Thor changed because he met Natalie Portman. Seriously, in his final fight with Loki, the trickster god says this:

“I don’t know what happened on Earth to make you so soft! Don’t tell me it was that woman?… Oh, it was. Well maybe, when we’re done here, I’ll pay her a visit myself!”

And yeah, the last bit of that is pretty cringe-worthy, acting as it does as the impetus to get Thor to fight his brother, but the first bit is just awful, and not supported by the events we’ve just seen. It makes the movie worse, when simply honing in on Thor’s visible grief over his father’s death as the catalyst for his growth would have improved things immeasurably.

I mean, just look how sad he is!

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That is one sad, sad, stricken little puppy.

Also worth noting is the casting of Idris Elba – a visibly black man – as Heimdall, a Nordic god. Now, I’d never heard of Mister Elba previous to this role, but I was past my latent racism by this point, so I gave zero fucks going in. Coming out, I was impressed by his performance, and rightfully so: Idris Elba is fucking awesome.

But naturally a certain percentage of sub-human bottom-feeders got their privilege all up in a twist and there was blowback. How much and by how many people isn’t even the point at this point: this shit is embarrassing. But since we will be reviewing neither the Amazing Spider-man 2 nor Fant4stic 4, we don’t have to talk about how fucking awful white people can be sometimes.

Instead, enjoy Thor! A big, dumb, loud comic book movie. I award it 3 Mjolnir’s out of a possible 5. I didn’t hate it, is what I’m saying. That is, until I noticed all those fucking dutch angles.

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This one’s the worst one:

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Also, Phil Coulson was in this movie! I guess we should appreciate that while it lasts.

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Iron Man, too (MCU re-watch, part 3)

Funny story: iTunes does not allow you to take screencaps of legally purchased movies, so even if you spend an absurd $25 on the HD version (it gives me the dvd extras, who cares if I watch this shit on a laptop?), if you try to take a screencap for, say, a review, you will be rewarded for your efforts, your money, and your adherence to the law, with this:

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That, my friends, is a picture of Tony Stark, looking super-smug right before he delivers this delightful nod to the audience:

“It’s good to be back!”

And indeed, it’s good to have you back, Tony. The presence of Tony Stark just gives this the automatic feel of a Marvel movie; so much so that I can see why they keep delivering him dumptrucks full of money to keep showing up for these things. He legitimizes this shit more than any other actor in their repertoire (runner up to Chris Evans and Chris Pratt), and you only need to see it done badly to appreciate just how good Robert Downey Jr is at making this universe believable and -more importantly- fun.

I think that may be my main takeaway from The Incredible Hulk; with precious few exceptions, that movie is no fun. Iron Man 2 meanwhile, which focuses on the total collapse of Tony’s health and also his entire world, is a blast in comparison.

The set-up is pretty simple, and they even have Jarvis deliver it with the succinct quote,

“Unfortunately, the device which is keeping you alive is also killing you.”

What’s this? A ticking clock? Tony Stark being slowly poisoned by the palladium core which powers his Iron Man suit? Ruh-roh! Immediate stakes. Add to this we have the U.S. government trying to gain possession of the Iron Man technology, and a villain in the form of Ivan Venko who has duplicated the technology himself using blueprints stolen by his father who used to work with Tony’s father, blah, blah, blah. Not important. Well, it is important, and it plays into the sub-theme of legacy that underlies this movie, and Tony Stark’s character arc as a whole. (Fear of his legacy, after all, is what will drive him to create Ultron, and the creation of Ultron is what leads him to side against Captain America in fighting for the same oversight that he flatly scorns in this movie. Fascinating stuff, which we will get to in due course in the re-watch.)

Iron Man 2 is where they really kick the whole shared universe thing into high gear, and it’s received a fair amount of flak for that. Whereas the previous two movies had only a couple cameos and easter eggs, they go full-on Avengers set-up here, and that’s a gas pedal they will not let up on right up to the present day. It also works, I swear it does, because it’s hung on the scaffolding of this quality film. It’s also not over the top: we get the introduction of Black Widow, who has legitimate things to do, Special Agent Fan Favorite (pictured below) drops mention of ‘something in New Mexico’ and Nick Fury and Tony briefly discuss The Avengers Initiative.

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There’s a few other things details that they use retroactively to build the universe; Senator Sterns being revealed as Hydra in Winter Soldier, for example, but for the most part this is a movie that cares about telling the story it came to tell, and not much else. So relax, internet, and stop treating this film like the Amazing Spider-man 2, or Batman V Superman: Dawn of Whatever. Or whatever.

So, I’ve started to notice a pattern here (and it will be interesting to see how long this pattern continues), with each of the three movies so far featuring three main fight sequences each; Iron Man has the Cave Escape sequence, the Gulmira fight and finally the throw down at the end; Incredible Hulk has the first Brazil Hulk appearance, the Culver University fiasco and the final throw-down at the end; and finally in Iron Man 2 we have the Grand Prix fight with the suitcase suit,

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the battle against Rhodey in the middle,

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and the final throwdown at the end.

So far it’s worked, even in the Incredible Hulk, but it’s something I noticed on the re-watch that I hadn’t before.

What also works, and probably shouldn’t, is the incredible series of coincidences that leads to the first fight between Ivan Venko (Whiplash) and Tony Stark.

The set-up is simple: Venko has built his own arc reactor and appears to have a hate-on for Tony Stark. We see him get a fake passport and a ticket to the Grand Prix in Monaco. Huh, that’s weird. But then two scenes later, there we are in Monaco with Tony and Pepper, which, yeah, his company sponsors a car in the race, but Stark Industries doubtlessly sponsors a million things in a million events and he can’t show up to all of them. But to this he does and it’s a good thing too, because otherwise Ivan Venko just wasted a lot of money for nothing. Then, things go even more his way when Tony decides to drive his own car in the race, which I doubt is even legal, but it sure is a stroke of luck  without which we do not have an action set piece to close out the first act.

The thing is, I think this movie gets away with it, again on the strength of it’s characters and the charisma of the actors playing them. Unlike, say, the Incredible Hulk. Man, did I ever dislike that movie; I’m still not over it.

On the whole, I give the second Iron Man a total 0f 5 Palladium cores out of a possible 7. It doesn’t feel as tight as the first film, but as a bridge to the Avengers it does well-enough, and it holds up on it’s own based on the continued strength of it’s central cast (now with Don Cheadle as a much-improved Rhodey). There’s a nice contrast in the villains as well, with Justin Hammer’s privilege and corporate evil juxtaposed against Venko’s predilection for murderous revenge. And speaking of villains, next up we get Loki!

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The Great MCU re-watch, Part 1: Iron Man

“I am Iron Man.”

It’s actually a little hard to recollect the time before Marvel Movies came to dominate the theatrical landscape, but it’s only been eight years, less than a decade since dinosaurs roamed the earth.

We take it for granted now that this was always going to work, but it’s worth remembering what a huge gamble a ‘cinematic universe’ was at the time. Marvel had pawned off their best assets -Spider-man, X-men and Fantastic 4- and were left with a galaxy of backbenchers. I mean, Iron Man? Are you kidding me? Thor? Nobody cares about Thor.

But it worked. With Captain America: Civil War coming in out in a few weeks(!), the MCU is 13 movies in and going strong. No, it’s a fucking beast is what is. So it’s worth looking back at the evolution of this apex predator that has so come to dominate the movie food chain. (For proof, look no further than the imitation Universes trying to ape Marvel’s success: DC, Fox, Universal, Sony.)

And I don’t think it’s overstating the case to say that without Robert Downey Jr., you don’t have an MCU. If Marvel and it’s clones bring about the end of cinema as we know, it’s safe to say we can lay the blame at RDJ’s feet, because the man is electricity. Lightning in a bottle, from the first scene he’s in to that bombshell of a last line. Much like Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow, Tony Stark brings this movie to life, elevating otherwise mediocre material to something near greatness.

Because for all of it’s many faults, Iron Man is a great movie and it achieves this largely on the strength of it’s cast: I’ve gushed over RDJ already, but it’s worth pointing out that his chemistry with Gwyneth Paltrow feels amazingly lived-in and completely believable. She doesn’t have a lot to do in this movie, but she does more with it than Natalie Portman will a few movies hence – and without the benefit of a quirky sidekick. Jeff Bridges is glorious as he chews the scenery and Shaun Toub brings a strong moral center as Yinsen, the doctor who saves Tony’s life, and inspires him to be a hero. He’s also 50% responsible for this exchange, which I love:

Tony: … they’re gonna kill me and even if they don’t, I’ll be dead in a week.

Yinsen: Then this is a very important week for you, isn’t it?

Terrance Howard as Rhodie is a bit of a sour note, though it’s hard to tell how much of that is simply because he’s recast in subsequent films. Certainly he plays the character as much more of a buffoon than Don Cheadle will, and the contrast is a bit jarring.

I hesitate to point out the other contrast which I found -initially- jarring, if only because it paints me as a shitty, privileged white person. But when Nick Fury showed up in the post-credits scene all like this:

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When I was expecting this:

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I had to challenge myself, and my assumptions. And I did. And it pleases me to say that my google image search for Nick Fury was all Samuel L. Jackson, as far as the eye can see. I had to modify the search parameters to find the above picture.

Racism is over guys, we did it. And Nick Fury is now a bald and beautiful Black man.

As for the actual movie itself, it’s really good. A tad generic in the way that Marvel Origin Stories can be, but not tedious yet (looking at you, Ant-Man; your time will come). I’m going to give Marvel’s Iron Man 8 Jarvis’s, out of a possible 10 Jarvis’s. I loved it the first time I saw it, and that love endures to this day. And it changed the world, crazy and stupid as that sounds. And it does sound stupid and crazy.

The Incredible Sulk (MCU re-watch, part 2)

Well, that was a mess.

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Don’t get me wrong: I’m as big a fan of the Hulk using a cop car for boxing gloves as the next nerd, but something about the second installment of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe just falls a little flat for me. Several somethings; namely the first act of this movie, most of the characters I’m supposed to care about, and the also the second act.

At the same time, The Incredible Hulk isn’t a bad film per say, and as mediocre and play-it-safe as it ultimately is, it was still better than the Ang Lee movie which preceded it, and in this sense it moved the Marvel brand further. There’s not much here to love; nothing even remotely in realm of Robert Downey Jr’s charisma, but seen in the wake of Iron Man, you could be forgiven as a Marvel fan if you were optimistic about where this was all going.

The film runs into trouble fairly quickly; Bruce Banner is in South America, and a point is made to show him learning Portuguese. This means that he has no meaningful interactions with another human being for the first half hour of the film. Instead you get a lot of this:

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And this:

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And it’s boring. Keep in mind that by this time, Iron Man had shown us Tony Stark at his best and worst, painting a vivid character within the span of a few scenes. The Incredible Hulk paints us a character that is isolated and lonely and painfully dull. It’s a relief on multiple levels when the monster finally shows up and starts smashing stuff. After all, no one ever attributed the word incredible to Bruce Banner.

This leads us into the second act which is tedious where the first is boring. Searching for the cure to his Hulkness, Bruce reunites with Liv Tyler, the ex-girlfriend he beat up in the opening credits. Now, as romantic leads, Edward Norton and Liv Tyler are fairly unconvincing – which is to say that I had no problem believing they were actors pretending to care about what was happening and being well-paid for their efforts. None of the spark of Pepper Potts and Tony Stark to be seen here; these guys just read the lines and cash the cheques. At one point, they have a tear-felt reunion on a bridge in the rain:

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It’s just lazy, lazy film-making, and I won’t lie, I spent most of this movie wishing it were over so I could watch Iron Man 2. People hate Iron Man 2, but point an Incredible Hulk Bridge Reunion at their head and I bet they’d change their minds in a hurry. Liv Tyler even wears a white shirt in this scene because of course she fucking does.

Some of this shit is just embarrassing. But what is not embarrassing, what is in fact, awesome, is Tim Roth.

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Unlike Bruce Banner, Tim Roth’s Emil Blonsky has an arc. Sort of an ‘ultimate warrior/soldier of fortune’ type, Blonksy becomes obsessed with the Hulk and it’s fascinating to see him destroy his humanity in his quest to be the equal of his nemesis. Compelling, even. Unfortunately, it also amounts to roughly two minutes of screen time, so never mind. Sequel-hungry Marvel was careful to sign Tim Roth for multiple films, but it seems unlikely we’ll ever see him again – although I would have said the same for General Ross and hey, whaddaya know, he’s in the next movie, so who knows? But Marvel, who has struggled to create compelling villains, had a gem with this one.

Unfortunately, when he turns into the Abomination for the films climax, the character loses a lot of his charm. On the bright side, him and the Hulk are now having the contractually obligated computer-generated fight that we demand as fans, so it’s a wash.

The final battle means that the movie’s almost over and I think everyone was happy to have it over and done with.

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Especially this guy.

So on the whole, I’m giving the Incredible Hulk a total of 3 out of a possible 7 Smashes. It happened, and people saw it happen, so we might as well learn to live with it.

Live with it, learn from it, and move on.