Doctor Strange (2016, Scott Derrickson)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

After neurosurgeon Dr Stephen Strange is badly injured in a car crash, he loses the full use of his hands. Feeling that Western medicine has failed him, he seeks guidance from the Ancient One, an expert in mystic arts….

The lead character of this film is an arrogant, rich genius with a goatie beard who’s played by Sherlock Holmes. His demeanour is marked by lots of sarcasm and showing off, but he then suffers a trauma that makes him question his place in the world. After a period of training and experimentation, he decides to dress up and fight evil… While Doctor Strange is not exactly a remake of 2008’s Iron Man, the similarities are remarkable. One huge difference, however, is that this movie turns its back on the plausible science of Tony Stark’s world. In its place comes full-on weirdness. At the start of the story, Dr Stephen Strange (a reliable Benedict Cumberbatch) is working in a New York hospital. He’s good at his job, swaps banter with his colleagues, and flirts with ex-girlfriend Christine Palmer (an underused Rachel McAdams, who was coincidentally in Robert Downey Jr’s Sherlock movies). It’s a thoroughly modern feel, full of ER procedures, pop-culture references and even a long walk-and-talk shot in a corridor. But Strange’s life turns upside down when his hands, so vital to his work, are badly damaged in an accident. (Eagle-eyed viewers – and people looking for things to mention in blog posts – will spot a ‘hand’ motif in this film. There are many close-ups of hands, lots of actors use hand gestures, and at one point Stephen even hallucinates about hands growing out of hands growing out of hands.) Desolate and depressed, scientific Stephen surprises himself by seeking help from mystics in Katmandu. At their mountain retreat, he meets the explains-everything-earnestly Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the never-cracks-a-smile Wong (Benedict Wong) and their boss, the not-Asian-like-in-the-comics Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). Strange begins to learn about astral planes and mirror dimensions and shaping reality and sacred texts and time loops and sling rings and sorcerers of antiquities and Eyes of Agamotto and planet-defending ‘Sanctums’ in New York, London and Hong Kong. It’s a daunting assault of mumbo-jumbo, for both Stephen and the viewer. At one point during his training, Strange is passed a piece of paper with the word ‘shamballa’ on it. He reasonably asks if it’s a mantra, but Mordo replies that it’s the wi-fi password. A good gag, sure, but a bit sniffy considering how much mysticism Stephen has recently been exposed to. In fact, Mordo is generally a bit annoying: his only role in the story is to have a grave enough expression on his face that we’ll accept what he’s saying as important. Librarian Wong is more fun, and there’s a likable run of gags between him and Strange. Meanwhile, the Ancient One is a very powerful Celtic mystic/wizard/priest type who can harness energy, cast spells and control time and space. Swinton is good value, but her casting drew accusations of Hollywood whitewashing. (Arguing that sticking to the comic book’s vision of a male Asian teacher would be too close to a Fu Manchu cliché, director Scott Derrickson conceded that casting a white actress still wasn’t ideal. “What I did was the lesser of two evils,” he said, “but it is still an evil.”) Strange learns from her quickly and soon uses a magical portal to travel to New York, where he defeats Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a former pupil of the Ancient One who wants to summon an interdimensional entity called Dormammu. (Are you keeping up with all this? I had to take notes.) Our hero gets help from a self-aware cloak that floats around of its own volition like it’s Orko from the He-Man cartoon. Quite why this cloth-with-personality does this is not entirely clear – unless you’ve read the comics, one suspects – but then again not a lot is entirely clear with this film. It’s a world far removed from logic and reason and science. This may be a deliberate contrast with the medical jargon and Manhattan lofts of Stephen’s earlier life, but you get the sense that the script is using it as an excuse not to justify things properly. Compare with Star Wars, in which Ben Kenobi has one line about the Force – “It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together” – and we all get it instantly. Doctor Strange, however, bombards us with made-up rituals and silly names. It’s difficult to understand (or care) about what’s happening. After the Ancient One is killed, for example, Strange and Mordo chase Kaecilius to Hong Kong. He’s destroying its Sanctum because he wants… um, Dormammu to take over? Is that right? Admittedly, this action climax has a fun twist on the usual superhero formula. We still get Marvel’s obsession with urban carnage, but Stephen and Mordo actually turn up too late. The area has *already* been levelled by Kaecilius. So Stephen rewinds time to put everything back the way it was: a fun, visually interesting idea. Conversely, while the film’s earlier action/fight scenes play in real time, they do plenty of peculiar things with space: city streets bend beneath characters’ feet, architecture melds and changes before their eyes. It’s all very impressive (unless you’ve seen the Christopher Nolan film Inception), as are the psychedelic sequences when Stephen uses his new powers. But overall this is a simplistic movie that’s been made superficially complicated by lots of empty razzmatazz.

Six men on a bus out of 10

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Captain America: Civil War (2016, Anthony and Joe Russo)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The Avengers are torn apart when their two leaders disagree over whether the group should sign a document that would limit their authority…

Not so much a movie as a balloon debate, Captain America: Civil War features a plethora of characters wanting our attention. Unlike The First Avenger (2011) and The Winter Soldier (2014), this third ‘solo’ outing for Steve Rogers is basically an Avengers film in disguise and has a bloated cast to match…
* A short prologue set in 1991 shows us Bucky Barnes aka the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) during his time as a brainwashed Soviet assassin. (We know it’s 1991 because of a big, fat, Futura-font caption. This device occurs throughout the film, usually telling us which city we’re in.) Cut to the modern day, and Bucky is going about his life, wearing a baseball cap and buying fruit in an eastern European market, when a creepy guy called Helmut Zemo (Daniel Bruhl from Inglourious Basterds) frames him as a terrorist. Zemo’s doing this in order to draw the Avengers to the secret base in Russia from where the Winter Soldier programme was run. He wants revenge on them, you see, for what happened a couple of movies ago.
* The psychic Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) is now part of the Avengers team after temporarily siding with the bad guy in Age of Ultron (2015). And she kicks this film’s plot off when she accidentally kills some civilians while the gang are chasing a villain in Nigeria. Why this bothers Wanda and her friends more than previous times they’ve caused carnage is not clear. But then comes outside pressure: US Secretary of State General Ross (William Hurt, returning to the series for the first time since 2008) insists on UN checks-and-balances for the Avengers; the press start to question their legal authority; and team leader Tony is guilt-tripped by the mother of a friendly-fire victim. These films have often shown a ridiculous disregard for collateral damage. Characters seem to blithely accept innocent deaths and massive destruction of property, so this feels like the producers trying to right that wrong. Significantly, the same year’s Batman/Superman crossover contained similar ideas: time had clearly come for the superhero genre to address the elephant in the room. But despite feeling horrendous guilt for what she’s done, Wanda still objects to Tony being overprotective. Brat.
* Meanwhile, Steve Rogers aka Captain America (Chris Evans) ain’t playing ball. He doesn’t like the idea of politicians being in charge of the Avengers and thinks they should remain self-governed. It’s a brave bit of storytelling, which basically casts the film’s nominal lead character as a villain. But it’s also a real head-scratcher. Steve is a man who voluntarily signed up to fight fascism despite being a weakling weighing 98 pounds. Now he wants to live without the law? Hmm…
* Fellow Avenger Natasha Romanoff (Scarlet Johansson) is another surprise. She’s previously shown a healthy disrespect for authority and even once walked out of a Senate hearing. But now she’s all for adhering to government oversight. There’s some unconvincing dialogue to explain her change-of-tune.
* In the resulting argument about what to do, Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) sides with old pal Steve for no reason other than Steve is his pal. (Bear in mind that Sam was a test pilot in the US Air Force. And now he thinks a chain of command is a bad idea. Does that sound plausible?)
* Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) is the leading voice advocating that the team sign the Sokovia Accord, a document that would limit their powers and give the UN jurisdiction. Um, that’d be Tony Stark the independent, dictatorial, billionaire businessman, then? (Incidentally, his argument doesn’t stop him later illegally smuggling a teenager out of New York City and into Germany…) So here is the film’s central conflict. The civil war of the title is the two opposing factors led by Steve and Tony. It makes you wonder why the movie’s not called Captain America vs Iron Man…
* Also in the mix is Vision (Paul Bettany), the powerful entity created in Avengers: Age of Ultron who now dresses like a Kennedy brother having a day off. He’s on Tony’s side of the divide, presumably because his personality is based on Tony’s old AI computer.
* James ‘Rhodey’ Rhodes (Don Cheadle) sides with old pal Tony. Being a colonel in the Air Force, this one actually makes sense.
* A new character being introduced in this film is T’Challa aka Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman). When we first meet him, he’s the son of the king of fictional country Wakanda. After his dad is killed in an explosion, T’Challa seeks revenge on the man he thinks is responsible: Bucky. To do this, he dresses up like a panther. He presumably just happened to have the all-black cat-suit lying around in case he needed it. In recent years we’ve all grown tired of superhero origin stories, but this character goes too far in the other direction – he’s introduced with such little effort it’s difficult to care about him. Because the now-brainwash-free Bucky is a member of Steve’s gang, this automatically puts T’Challa in Tony’s camp during the conflict.
* When Steve and his colleagues refuse to sign the Accord and go rogue, Secretary Ross gives Tony 36 hours to bring them into line. So what does Tony do? Does he use the vast resources of his multinational corporation? Ask for help from the UN or the US military? No, he spends at least half of his allotted time travelling to America so he can recruit an untested teenager from Queens who’s been beating up muggers. The introduction of Peter Parker aka Spider-Man (Tom Holland) is one of the film’s sillier elements, which highlights the fact that preparing the ground for sequels now seems more important than telling a good story. It must be said that Holland is decent in the role and it’s also nice to skip the character’s origin story (which has been filmed twice in recent years). But the only reason the character is in this film is to promote an upcoming solo movie. His involvement in this plot makes little sense. Peter has a hotter-than-usual Aunt May (Marisa Tomei).
* Clint Barton aka Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) doesn’t appear until the 80-minute mark, then joins Steve’s team. For some reason.
* The movie gets a good boost of comic energy when Scott Lang aka Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) shows up. He’s just pleased to be involved and is star-struck by Steve and Wanda (“I know you too, you’re great.”). During the massive, 12-character showdown between the two camps at an airport, Scott tries out a new trick: rather than shrinking down to a few millimetres high, he massively increases in size. Ant-Man becomes Giant-Man.
* Also involved in the story is Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp), Steve’s friend from the last Cap film, while Martin Freeman shows up with a phoney American accent as a dodgy civil servant. But there’s no sign of Thor, Bruce Banner, Pepper Potts or Nick Fury.
As indicated, how the superheroes fall into the two camps feels anything but character-driven. A cynic might suggest that the sides have been artificially balanced – each team has a famous Avenger (Steve/Tony), a famous Avenger’s best friend from the US Air Force who’s played by a black actor (Sam/Rhodey), a character of dubious motives (Bucky/T’Challa), a woman from eastern Europe dressed in an outfit that accentuates her breasts (Wanda/Natasha), a newbie who feels like a real person rather than superhero (Scott/Peter) and an ancillary character who’s easy to forget about (Clint/Vision). It’s almost like a committee have cast the parts depending on how cool the line-ups will look while fighting each other. It’s certainly far from engaging storytelling. This is a shame, as there are things to enjoy here. The cast is entertaining, while the fights and chases are often energetic and weighty. But this is barely a film. It feels more like a season of television that’s been compiled into a highlights reel. We get the big story beats and lots of action scenes. The whole thing rattles along with some fun and style. But we’ve lost the ebb and flow of a well-structured movie.

Six FedEx delivery guys out of 10

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Ant-Man (2015, Peyton Reed)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Ex-con Scott Lang is recruited by a wealthy scientist to steal some dangerous technology….

There’s a parallel universe out there where film fans got Ant-Man as originally conceived. Nine years before the movie’s eventual release – no, seriously, that’s how long this project was in development – writer/director Edgar Wright was hired. Given his track record – Shaun of the Dead (2004), Hot Fuzz (2007), Scott Pilgrim vs the World (2010), The World’s End (2013), all excellent – it promised to be something special. But he then quit just a few months before filming, citing creative differences, and was replaced by Peyton Reed. The result is enjoyable, but you can’t shake off the feeling that it’s not as good as it could have been… We start with a short prologue set in 1989. In a meeting with MCU semi-regulars Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell in a grey wig) and Howard Stark (Trevor Slattery), scientist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) resigns from SHIELD. He’s developed technology that can shrink a person down to just a few millimetres tall, but objects to other people using it. Cut to the present day and Scott Lang (Paul Rudd, a classy, charming presence) is released from prison after serving time for burglary. While he tries to go straight and raise the cash he needs to support his daughter, he hooks up with ex-cellmate Luis (Michael Peña, very funny). However, after Scott is fired from the one job he managed to get, he’s tempted by a criminal gig Luis has heard about… The opening third or so of the movie is comedic, quick and slick – a style typified by a breezy montage showing some information being relayed from person to person. This freewheeling sequence is the most Edgar Wright-y that Ant-Man ever feels, though the idea was actually cooked up after he left the project. (Incidentally, the scene is scored by a terrific music cue written by Roy Ayers for the 1973 film Coffy then reused by Quentin Tarantino in 1997’s Jackie Brown.) Meanwhile, Hank (“Yes, I’m still alive…”) starts to take an interest in his tech company again. It’s now run by his former assistant Darren Cross (Corey Stoll, who may as well have ‘I’m the villain’ tattooed across his forehead). He’s developed miniaturisation technology of his own, which he hopes to sell to the military, so Hank and grown-up daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly, totally rocking a black bob cut) set out to steal it and wipe all the data files. How do they plan to do this? By using Hank’s miniaturisation technology from the 1980s. (Hypocrites.) However, Hank reckons he’s too old to wear the shrinking suit and doesn’t want to risk his daughter’s life. They need someone else, so recruit Scott via a sting operation… So far, so good enough. It’s enjoyable stuff. But now the film gets a bit messy. Once Hank and Hope have enlisted Scott, the story moves into a leisurely middle act. There are Mr Mayagi-like scenes of Scott being taught how to use the miniaturisation suit, a bit of backstory is revealed, some plotting is set up for the climax, series regular Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) has a cameo, and we get the rather silly notion that Hank can control and coerce ants to his will. But all the threat disappears from the story – as does Darren Cross, and Luis and his gang, and the cop who’s been on Scott’s trail. All these characters seem to conveniently freeze for – what? – at least a few days while Scott gears up. But if the storytelling is loose, at least we get plenty of comedy. There are self-referential gags – “I think our first move,” says Scott when presented with a big problem, “should be calling the Avengers” – as well as Ocean’s 11-style, planning-the-heist scenes, which are always enjoyable. If anything, it’s a shame the film doesn’t push harder on that pedal and try to be a more full-on caper movie. The heist itself – with Luis and some friends now part of the team – is great fun and the film picks up pace again. It also helps that director Peyton Reed throws in some bonkers imagery: a shootout with a tiny Scott running across a scale model of a factory, an enormous Thomas the Tank Engine bursting out of a house, and a very trippy sequence of Scott shrinking beyond infinitesimally small. These visual effects are very impressive, as they are throughout the film, while the fights and chases are inventive and the film never loses sight of humour. During Scott’s climactic battle with Cross, for example, Cross has miniaturised himself… so Scott picks up a table-tennis bat and swats him into an electric fly zapper. Oh, how the film should’ve ended on that gag! But for all its fun and vibrancy, Ant-Man lacks ambition. It feels a bit stunted, a bit limited, a bit scared to go all-in. Too small, you might say.

Seven bartenders out of 10

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Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015, Joss Whedon)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When an artificial-intelligence programme called Ultron is let loose, he wants to destroy the world – only the Avengers stand in his way…

This second Avengers film is big, flashy and at times a lot of fun. But because it tries to squeeze so much into a paper-thin plot, none of the elements gets enough attention and the film also feels too long. It’s 136 minutes and sags in the middle under the weight of too many characters and too many action sequences… In the first scene, as the Avengers launch an attack on a scientific base, there’s a continuous, 59-second shot that reintroduces the six core members of the team. (Well, it’s not actually continuous – you can spot how various elements have been stitched together in post-production – but it’s still impressive.) We meet Clint Barton aka Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Steve Rogers aka Captain America (Chris Evans) and Bruce Banner aka the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). They’re a well-drilled team, complementing each other’s abilities and trading quips while they fight. But some big things have changed since the first Avengers mash-up movie. The SHIELD agency that recruited the gang has been disbanded and our heroes are now a self-governed collective (who even have their own logo). Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), Rhodey (Don Cheadle) and Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), three secondrary characters from previous films, are still giving them occasional support – but there’s dialogue to explain why conspicuous absentees Pepper Potts and Jane Foster can’t be arsed to turn up to a party. This post-SHIELD set-up feels like a storytelling backwards step after the political machinations of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It’s more simplistic and less interesting. For example, the film doesn’t make much effort in placing its story in any context – we see lots of civilian extras looking scared, and a few local cops who defer to these vigilantes at a moment’s notice, but there’s little sense of the wider world the characters are trying to save. The Avengers exist in a bubble, so their storyline feels very inward-looking… Having stumbled across some research into artificial intelligence, Tony Stark wants to use it to run a global defence system. But when the AI system, Ultron, is prematurely activated it goes rogue and – for some reason – decides to wipe out humanity. Tony has other problems too: most of the team didn’t know what he was up to and are angry with his arrogance. Then, after a big action sequence that includes an Iron Man/Hulk face-off and yet more MCU urban carnage, the group is struck by paranoia thanks to one of Ultron’s sidekicks. Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Pietro Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) are twins who want revenge on Tony for building the weapons that killed their parents, so initially team up with Ultron. Pietro is super-fast, while Wanda is psychic and plants hallucinations in our heroes’ heads. Tony sees a grim future where his friends are dead; Thor thinks he’s home on Asgard; Natasha flashes back to her cruel childhood; and Steve fantasises he’s at a party with old flame Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell showing up for a one-line cameo). So, riddled with doubt and fear, the team are in a bad way. The film is too. As the Avengers hide at a safe house, the pace seriously flags. There’s plenty going on – Thor buggers off on a nonsensical subplot; Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) crops up; Natasha angers internet fans by referring to herself as a ‘monster’ because she can’t have children; there’s a sweet romance between Natasha and Bruce – but the script short-changes the 573 subplots and character stories. A new one even gets added into the mix late on, when Tony creates a new being called Vision (Paul Bettany) by combing the personality of his computer Jarvis with an organic body. It’s all very scrappy. At least the big, third-act sequence has a twist. This series of films has coined a new action-movie cliché: big things falling onto a city. Now, it’s the city itself that’s about to fall because Ultron has floated it up into the sky with the intention of crashing it back to earth. (It’s a big job and means our villain is busy off-screen for curiously long stretches.) The team fight an endless supply of robots, helpless people need rescuing, Avengers make gags. But it all feels very mechanical and verges on boring.

Six WW2 vets out of 10

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Guardians of the Galaxy (2014, James Gunn)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When Peter Quill – aka Star Lord – takes possession of a mystical orb of enormous power, various factions from across the galaxy come looking for him…

For all its far-out, sci-fi trappings, Guardians of the Galaxy actually begins on Earth in 1988. The tone is the same retro 80s-ness used in the JJ Abrams film Super 8 (2011) and TV show Stranger Things – a lower-middle-class America seen through the eyes of pop-culture-aware kids. And even after we cut to alien worlds in deep space, the film never loses sight of this sense of wonder and fun. A big reason is the use of music. The first character we see is a young boy called Peter Quill, who’s listening to 10cc’s I’m Not In Love on his Sony Walkman. His terminally ill mother has given him a cassette called Awesome Mix Vol 1 that compiles tracks she loved in her youth, and the tape recurs throughout the film. It’s both Peter’s emotional link to his old life and – let’s face it – an excuse for some cool sounds. The events of Guardians of the Galaxy are therefore scored by David Bowie, Norman Greenbaum, The Runaways, the Jackson 5 and others. It gives the film character and distinctiveness – and a huge sense of joy. But while his tunes are top, young Peter’s not having the best day: soon after his mother passes away, he’s abducted by aliens. Jump to 26 years later and the grown-up Peter, now self-styled as Star Lord, is a scavenger working in deep space. The adult Peter is played by Chris Pratt, a former sitcom actor giving a star-making performance. There’s undeniably a Harrison Ford-like quality about him, and his Peter is reminiscent of both Han Solo and Indiana Jones – a man equally at home with action-adventure and droll comedy. After escaping some violent bad guys who want an artefact he’s stolen, for example, Peter is surprised to find a cute woman waiting for him in his space ship. “Look, I’m going to be totally honest with you,” he tells her. “I forgot you were here.” Meanwhile, a green-skinned mercenary called Gamora (Zoe Saldana) has been sent by the bombastic warlord Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) to steal Peter’s artefact, which is an orb of enormous power. Sadly for Gamora, who has her own agenda, she chooses to do this at the very moment that Peter is being stalked by two bounty hunters: comedy double act Rocket and Groot. Rocket (a CGI creature voiced by Bradley Cooper) looks like a large rodent and is a smartarse full of sarcasm and some inner sadness; Groot (a CGI creature voiced by Vin Diesel) is a walking tree whose only dialogue is the phrase “I am Groot” said with different intonations. After a complex chase sequence, Peter, Gamora, Rocket and Groot are arrested and thrown into the same prison block. In there, they join forces with another inmate – the hulking Drax the Destroyer (Dave Batista), a man who doesn’t understand metaphors – and it’s a very fun, inventive sequence when this newly formed team escape. Outside of the Guardians gang, however, the characters aren’t quite so enjoyable. The story’s villains – Ronan, his sidekicks Korath (Djimon Hounsou) and Nebula (Karen Gillan), and big boss Thanos (Josh Brolin) – are all so po-faced and dull. Maybe it’s deliberate – a way of making the heroes seem brighter in comparison, or a satire of drab superhero-film foes. Maybe. Thankfully, there’s slightly more life elsewhere. Glenn Close gamely hams it up as the main planet’s president, with John C Reilly and a deadpan Peter Serafinowicz as her lackeys. Michael Rooker is also good value as Yondu Udonta, the pirate who kidnapped Peter as a child. (Although, Christ only knows what Benicio del Toro’s doing as the Collector, a man who acquires rare specimens for his private museum. His irritating, bird-like performance teeters on the edge of risible.) The plot is not what you’d call complex (the good guys have an object and the bad guys want it) but everything is so deftly directed by James Gunn that it doesn’t really matter. He perfectly balances the jokes and pop-culture references (“A great hero named Kevin Bacon…”) with wacky alien shit (planets called Morag and Knowhere). There’s plenty of heart – Peter and Gamora’s sorta romance is very touching, for example – while the cast are entertaining, the dialogue is very funny and the film looks great: colourful but not garish, with space craft and costumes influenced by the 1930s aviation boom. If anything slightly disappoints it’s the obligatory action climax, which is yet another ‘big thing falling from the sky’ sequence (cf. Avengers Assemble, Captain America: The Winter Soldier). The stunt coordinators and visual-effects designers take over and, while there still are occasional gags, the film becomes more conventional for a while. But for the most part, fun is the order of the day. Tonally, Guardians of the Galaxy has much more in common with 80s classics such as Ghostbusters (1984), The Goonies (1985) and Back to the Future (1985) than it does with modern superhero franchise movies. There’s freedom and playfulness. It’s able to tell jokes without undercutting the story; able to use action without losing sight of the characters. There’s undeniably the swashbuckling spirit of Star Wars too. A terrific film.

Nine class-A preverts out of 10

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014, Anthony and Joe Russo)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Captain America must battle an old friend who’s now fighting for the other side, and root out traitors within his own camp…

Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) can’t escape his past and his past can’t escape him. Nostalgia, for good or bad, runs throughout this film. For example, there’s a lovely scene where Steve visits a museum exhibition about his own Captain America persona. It’s a character beat, showing us how he misses his old life, as well as a neat opportunity to remind the audience about his backstory. Steve also visits old flame Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), who’s now in her 90s, while the film’s eponymous villain is his old friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), who’s now a zombie-like assassin. But the movie looks forward as much as it looks back. After the 1940s boys’ own adventure of the first Captain America movie, we’re now in the modern day. Having fought the Nazis during the Second World War, Steve has woken up from a seven-decade freezing to find fascism alive and well in 21st-century Washington, DC. You see, the counter-terrorism agency he works for, SHIELD, is not quite the all-American, squeaky-clean organisation we first thought. It’s actually riddled with insurgents from a far-right cult called Hydra. (It’s also far more famous than in previous movies. Remember when Tony Stark and Pepper Potts had never heard of it? Well, now SHIELD has a humungous headquarters on the shore of the Potomac River and a budget that would dwarf Premier League football.) When the bad guys seemingly kill father figure Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson), Steve goes on the run. A secret agent isolated from his support network is hardly a new idea – James Bond’s done it a few times, it’s Jason Bourne’s permanent state of being – but the film still sells it as an exciting development. And Steve’s not all alone. Refreshingly, there’s no clichéd will-they-won’t-they in his partnership with fellow agent-on-the-lam Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson, enjoying the increased screen time). She’s not a love interest, and neither is she tiresomely perfect. In genre films, as a well-intentioned reaction to soppy Bond girls who scream a lot, female characters are sometimes presented as unflappable and flawless – in other words, they’re quite boring. Batman v Superman’s Diana Prince and Die Another Day’s Jinx are good examples of this; Jillian Holtzmann from the 2016 Ghostbusters is another, albeit in a comedy film. Thankfully, Natasha has more depth: she gets upset when she thinks Fury is dead, and generally has a droll line in irony. (Come on, misogynistic Marvel. Give her a solo film.) Actually, as superhero movies go, this one’s pretty good for female characters. As well as Natasha and Peggy, there’s Cobie Smulders’s Maria Hill and Emily VanCamp’s Sharon, two strong SHIELD agents who get nice roles in the story. Steve’s best male friend, meanwhile, is new character Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie). He’s a dude Steve meets while out jogging. He’s also a war vet and they bond over their civvy-street problems. The film is so good that you forgive it the ever-so-convenient plotting of Steve’s random new pal being in possession of some top-secret military equipment that comes in very handy during the action climax. That climax obviously features the Winter Soldier himself, who we eventually learn is Steve’s childhood friend Bucky. We thought he’d died in the first film, but it turns out Hydra saved him, rebuilt him and now periodically use him as an assassin. He certainly looks cool – metal arm, post-apocalyptic facemask, lank hair – but in truth he’s a bit of a red herring. The story’s Big Bad is actually SHIELD executive Alexander Pearce. He’s played well by Robert Redford, whose presence provides a cute link to classic thrillers Three Days of the Condor (1975) and All The President’s Men (1976), films with an similar edgy, paranoid tone. It’s maybe not the biggest surprise in the history of cinema when Pearce is revealed as the bad guy – why else cast a heavyweight like Robert Redford? – but what is a surprise is the return of Dr Zola (Toby Jones) from the previous Captain America film. He appears on a brilliantly retro computer screen when Steve and Natasha find Hydra’s secret lair, which is full of 1970s-vintage equipment. Natasha even makes a joke about the old-school terminal, quoting 1983 cyber-thriller WarGames (“Would you like to play a game?”). In fact, generally, The Winter Soldier is a movie that’s aware of pop culture, which is rare in the superhero genre. As well as nods to WarGames and Redford’s CV, we get a cheeky reference to Pulp Fiction, while Steve keeps a to-do list that includes seeing I Love Lucy, Star Wars and Rocky, and listening to Nirvana and Marvin Gaye. All this keeps the film fresh. It’s a big-budget action movie and yet characters are clever, make jokes, trade banter, and feel like people with lives – so everything’s more involving and engaging. Credit must go to directors Anthony and Joe Russo. They make sure each element of the film is as sharp as it can be: it’s often funny, it’s often exciting, the story has a bit of substance, tension is built effectively, and the incidental music is terrific. Most commendably, some of the action scenes are sensational: the percussive, visceral attack on Nick Fury’s car; Natasha’s slick, acrobatic fights; Steve’s battering-ram chase of Bucky; the brawl in the lift… What a film. There’s intrigue, espionage and mistrust. There’s wit, pathos and drama. There’s action, fun and Christopher Nolan-style theatricality. A great sequel. A great superhero film. A great film.

Nine Smithsonian security guards out of 10

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Thor: The Dark World (2013, Alan Taylor)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Thor must defeat a foe who wants to plunge the universe into eternal darkness. His quest leads him back to Earth and old flame Jane Foster, and also means an uneasy alliance with brother Loki…

Ask a fanboy to name some all-time great bad guys in superhero films and he wouldn’t need to stop playing with himself: one hand is enough to count off Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor, Terence Stamp’s General Zod, Jack Nicholson’s Joker, Heath Ledger’s Joker and Ian McKellan’s Magneto. But ask him to list mediocre examples and he’d need dozens of tweets’ worth of space. For example, the antagonist in Thor: The Dark World is the spectacularly forgettable Malekith, a Dark Elf who wants revenge for a long-ago defeat and plans to take his anger out on the whole universe. He’s played by Christopher Eccleston, though from under so much prosthetic make-up and with such non-descript alien dialogue that they could have cast anyone. And he’s such a drab, lifeless villain that you wonder why Thor bothers leaving the gym to give him the time of day. As the story gets underway, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is preparing to take over as king of the magical realm of Asgard, but is still pining after Jane Foster, the human woman he met in his first solo film. The current king is still Thor’s dad, Odin (Anthony Hopkins); the queen is still Frigga (Rene Russo, given much more to do this time round); and the all-seeing Helmdall (Idris Elba) is still standing guard at that fancy teleport-booth place. Meanwhile, Jane (Natalie Portman, bright and likeable) is in London. She’s on an awkward date with Roy from The IT Crowd – but when her colleague Darcy (Kat Dennings, the comic relief) interrupts, Jane has to leave to investigate a weird time/space portal in a warehouse. Before you know it, she’s been transported to an alien world and infected with a strange space gas called the Aether (ie, yet another meaningless Marvel plot device). It’s bad news for her health, but it does attract Thor’s attention. So he journeys to Earth to see how she is. She responds by slapping him and saying, “Where were you? I was right here where you left me. I was waiting and then I was crying and then I went out looking for you. You said you were coming back.” He replies that the Bifrost bridge was destroyed, the Nine Realms erupted into chaos, wars were raging, marauders were pillaging, and he had to put an end to the slaughter. “As excuses go,” she concedes, “it’s not terrible.” They then travel to Asgard, leaving Darcy and her intern Ian (Jonathan Howard) to break old friend Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) out of a psychiatric facility. Traumatised by the events of Avengers Assemble, you see, he was committed after running around Stonehenge in his birthday suit… As with the first Thor film, there’s a clash of tones going on here: ever-so-earnest scenes on an Asgard full of ceremony and glean and people in capes… versus comedic scenes in the London of the Shard and the Jubilee Line and high-viz-jacketed Metropolitan Police officers. The contradiction is heightened by Thor himself, who switches his attitude depending on which world he’s in. He’s clearly aware of irony on Earth, yet at home talks like he’s in an am-dram Shakespeare. The film’s not a disaster, by any means, and is very watchable at times. But sadly the cross-cutting between worlds doesn’t flow at all, the pace sags in the middle, and because the plot needs so much explaining – it’s something to do with the convergence of planets, which only happens once every five thousand years – everything feels very stodgy. Some action scenes have little meaning because we’re not experiencing them through a character’s point of view, while drama scenes are shot like television, with flat coverage and some epileptic editing. (Darcy’s first appearance, for example, lasts for 66 seconds and contains *35* separate shots. It’s just a scene of three people talking and not moving.) Thank the Nordic gods for Loki, the bad guy from both Thor’s first movie and Avengers Assemble. We see him briefly at the beginning of the story, then the film comes alive at the hour mark when he takes centre stage. Tom Hiddleston’s performance fizzes and pops as trickster Loki has to team up with his brother. In fact, thinking about it, we’re going to need that extra hand – let’s call Loki the sixth great bad guy in a superhero film. It’s just a shame that he’s not *this film’s* bad guy. It could do with him being more than just a subplot.

Six men who’d like their shoes back out of 10

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A self-indulgent appendix: The big action climax of Thor: The Dark World is both set and filmed in Greenwich, south-east London, which is about three miles from where I live. For the Dark Elves’ battle with Thor and his pals, the production team used the beautiful site of the Old Royal Naval College. It was designed by Sir Christopher Wren and built between 1696 and 1712; originally a hospital for seaman, from 1873 it became a Royal Navy training college. The Navy left in 1998, since when the buildings have been both a tourist attraction and a university campus. Over the years, many films and TV shows have shot there: once you clock its architecture and layout, you never stop spotting it. For example, I first visited the site in 2010 specifically to see a filming location from the Harrison Ford movie Patriot Games (1992). The scene of Jack Ryan foiling an IRA assassination attempt was filmed at the ORNC, which was standing in for central London. Having been there in person, I then noticed the buildings being used in dozens of other films: Octopussy (1983), Four Weddings and Funeral (1994), The Madness of King George (1994), The Avengers (1998), Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001), Starter for 10 (2006), The Queen (2006), The Golden Compass (2007), The Duchess (2008), Sherlock Holmes (2009), The Wolf Man (2010), Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011), Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011), Skyfall (2012), The Dark Knight Rises (2012), Les Miserables (2012), The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015), even a spoof Doctor Who episode in 1993. I mention all of this because over the last seven years I’ve been back to the ORNC hundreds of times. I go most weeks for one reason or another: to attend a free music concert in its Chapel, to see a new art exhibition in the visitors’ centre, to show it off to friends, to see the Painted Hall (perhaps the most beautiful room in Britain), for a walk round its grounds, for a pint in its pub. It’s become a very special place to me, as has Greenwich in general. So, when it came to blogging about Thor: The Dark World, I took my laptop there to write the review.

Iron Man 3 (2013, Shane Black)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

While suffering from anxiety attacks, Tony Stark must defeat a terrorist who’s severely injured an old friend…

One of the most interesting things about the Marvel Cinematic Universe series has been its choice of directors. Jon Favreau, Kenneth Branagh, Joe Johnston, king of the geeks Joss Whedon – these are people with form, hired to make flashy, popcorn-cinema superhero movies. There’s maybe been a change of emphasis in recent years, with Marvel now preferring directors who have either less clout or more experience of working in producer-led television. (A cynical blogger might assume the switch came after visionary director Edgar Wright quit 2015’s Ant-Man at the 11th hour due to  creative differences.) But for Iron Man 3, the series put all its chips on Shane Black, a writer/director with both a real authorial voice and a proven record of success. Since bursting onto the Hollywood scene as the writer of Lethal Weapon (1987), his career has been notable for both his smart scripts and huge salaries: $1.75 million for The Last Boy Scout (1991), $1 million for rewriting Last Action Hero (1993), $4 million for The Long Kiss Goodnight (1994). He then started directing his own scripts with 2005 caper movie Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which starred Iron Man himself, Robert Downey Jr. Black’s style is idiosyncratic, postmodern and full of dark humour. His films are crime stories with vivid characters, deliberately surprising plot developments, sharply comedic dialogue, self-aware voiceovers, and sequences that build up to an archly cool moment…. only for that moment to then be undercut. He also has an obsession with setting stories at Christmas. Well, all those traits appear in Iron Man 3 (which, as well as directing, Black co-wrote with Drew Pearce). After the events of Avengers Assemble, Tony Stark (Downey Jr) is in a mess. He’s dogged by panic attacks, sleep-deprived, and suffering from flashback nightmares. He’s got PTSD, basically. It’s an instantly interesting place for a movie to position its hero. It gives an extra shading to everything that goes on and, of course, means his journey is all the more textured. Meanwhile, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) is still by Tony’s side and even gets to put on the Iron Man suit in an action scene. She then becomes a damsel-in-distress and you think she’s been killed off. But Shane Black revels in subverting clichés: just as you’re wondering why the character’s been treated so shabbily, Pepper shows up alive, kicks some serious ass in a sports bra, and actually *kills the bad guy*. Go, girl power. That bad guy is businessman Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce, good), though it’s a while into the film before we’re certain he’s behind it all. Initially, the big threat seems to be the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), an Osama bin Laden-type terrorist with an indeterminate accent, a psycho stare and a penchant for broadcasting violent propaganda videos. When one of his attacks puts Tony’s former bodyguard Happy (Jon Favreau, who directed the first two Iron Man films and is now having a ball with his comic-relief sidekick character) in hospital (where he recuperates while watching episodes of Downton Abbey), Tony vows revenge… As mentioned, when you’re watching a Shane Black film and a cliché is being set up, it’s so the film can then subvert it. This keeps things surprising, refreshing and unpredictable, and lifts his movies above the crowd. Black knows the rules of filmmaking, of movie logic, of genre conventions – and he knows how and when to break them. Iron Man 3 is full of examples of this kind of switcheroo storytelling, from a henchman who immediately surrenders when challenged to the Iron Man suit being destroyed at the worst possible time. The biggest, and best, is the *audacious* plot twist we get at the 72-minute mark. To reveal that the Mandarin is a stooge created by Killian as a decoy and is actually a meek, drug-addled English actor called Trevor Slattery is a bravo moment of the highest order. The gag works so well because we’re used to the theatricality of self-important superhero-movie villains. (And, let’s be honest, because of Ben Kingsley’s reputation as an actor who takes himself too seriously.) It’s pure Shane Black: introducing something you think you’ve seen before and then pulling the rug from underneath you. If there’s one element of the movie that doesn’t fit that format it’s Rebecca Hall’s character, Maya Hansen, a scientist who gets lost in the mix and feels very functional. The actress has said that the part ended up being very different from what she’d signed on to play, which is a shame as in the finished film she makes very little impression. But overall, this is a superb piece of work. Like all great sequels, it’s more of the same… but different. It’s routinely funny; there’s an engaging story; and the action, such as the free-falling ‘barrel monkey’ sequence, is often spectacular. We also get precisely the right amount of character depth for one of these big superhero tentpoles. As was the case in Iron Man 2, the middle act here sees Tony at rock bottom. But rather than that earlier film’s maudlin tone, Iron Man 3 has richer and more dynamic storytelling. Some critics and fans have complained about this segment of the movie, saying it’s Iron Man minus Iron Man because it sees Tony with no working suit, no fancy workshop and no huge mansion. But it’s very interesting character development. The world thinks Tony’s been killed, and on a metaphorical level he has been. He’s lost his swagger, he’s lost his support network, and he even refers to the lifeless Iron Man suit as ‘him’, as if detached from his old life. It takes a friendship with a young boy he meets to get him back on track – but again this subplot takes a surprising turn. Tony doesn’t talk down to Harley (Ty Simpkins). He treats him like an equal, which involves being rude and arrogant towards him, and Harley gives as good as he gets. Their friendship is therefore likeable and fun and interesting and entertaining and unpredictable. Just like the film as a whole. The old Tony is back.

Nine beauty-pageant judges out of 10

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Avengers Assemble (2012, Joss Whedon)

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Note: In most of the world, the film is called The Avengers (or, to be pedantic, Marvel’s The Avengers). In the UK and Ireland, however, it was renamed Avengers Assemble to avoid confusion with John Steed, Emma Peel and the rest.

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When Asgardian god Loki comes to Earth and prepares for an alien invasion, a group of superheroes is assembled to fight him…

There’d been character-crossover events like this before, but they tended to be monster mash-ups: 1943’s Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man, 2003’s Freddy vs Jason, 2004’s Alien vs Predator and so on. Here, however, it’s multiple superheroes in the same story. It feels huge and it’s very often a lot of fun. We’re firstly reintroduced to the agents from covert organisation SHIELD – series regulars Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson), Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) and Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) plus newbie Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) – who are dealing with an incident at their headquarters. Living god Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has arrived on earth to steal the Tesseract, a cube of almost unlimited energy. He also hypnotises Barton into being his lackey, which is a shame. The character has barely had any screen time in the series yet so it’s difficult to care about his plight. Then we cut to Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), who’s recalled from a mission so she can go and recruit Bruce Banner to SHIELD’s cause. Since we last checked in with Banner (in 2008’s The Incredible Hulk) he’s learnt how to control his urge to turn into a giant, green monster… and he’s also changed his face. Edward Norton’s contract negotiations hit a rut so he’s been replaced in the role by Mark Ruffalo, who’s a very interesting and soulful presence in the film. Then Steve Rogers aka Captain America (Chris Evans), Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) and eventually Thor aka Thor (Chris Hemsworth) sign up to the squad. There are also a few other subsidiary characters in the mix: Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Jarvis (Paul Bettany) from the Iron Man films, and Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) from Thor’s solo movie (2011). So that’s our cast. The size of it doesn’t seem that large now, given the enormous roster of characters in later Avengers films, but it’s still a lot of people to keep busy and alive. The script does an impressive job of spinning all the plates, though at times it can feel like you’re watching an extended trailer rather than a fully dramatised story. Whedon uses a lot of short scenes and terse, comic-book-style dialogue. This can often be witty and clever – check out how the last line of one scene often foreshadows the next – but it can also feel very ‘written’. The pithy replies (Rogers: “We need a plan of attack.”/Stark: “I have a plan: attack.”) are fun and always tell us about character, but can mean everything feels a little superficial. When scenes of intimate drama do play out – such as Natasha conning Loki into blabbing some information, or the subplots concerning tensions within the team – it’s engaging stuff. There just aren’t that many examples. This film is more interested in scope and scale and size and spectacle. It’s 136 minutes for a start, the longest MCU film yet. It begins in deep space with a Skeletor-type alien pontificating about invading the earth. There are huge sets, vast locations, massive action scenes, and many special-effects shots. Avengers Assemble is also clearly set in an even-more-comic-book-y world than its predecessors. Previous films in this series had impressively found real-world justifications for the superhero whimsy. For example, Captain America’s outlandish outfit was explained away as a theatrical costume. However, here we have an enormous aircraft carrier that (somehow) hovers in the sky, a shadowy cabal who run a global security agency (seemingly with no recourse to any governments), and a secret agent who uses a bow and arrow…. just because. If the film weren’t so pacey and fun, this silliness might be more of a problem. But it *is* funny, as you’d expect from the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly. Among the standout gags are Coulson phoning Natasha while she’s tied up by some bad guys; Coulson having a man-crush on Captain America; Tony Stark calling Thor ‘Point Break’; and the Hulk thrashing Loki around like a doll. (Note the mentions of Agent Phil Coulson. He was such a success in this series that he was spun-off into a TV show. The up-and-down Agents of SHIELD is, at time of writing, on its fourth season.) The humour’s important, because the climax of the film is the most tiresome of modern superhero-movie clichés: the mass destruction of a city. Watch as thousands of people are killed and billions of dollars’ worth of damage is dished out! But try to avoid noticing how our heroes don’t seem that bothered! It’s by no means the only recent superhero film to suffer from this problem. Modern visual-effects designers have shot their loads over collapsing skyscrapers and urban carnage in numerous X-Men, Dark Knight, DC and Marvel films. Of course, an action climax needs *action*. But Avengers Assemble’s final half-hour is MacGuffin-driven nonsense and the big threat is a sensationally dull CG-army plot device. It’s a shame.

Seven men playing chess out of 10

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Captain America: The First Avenger (2011, Joe Johnston)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Steve Rogers wants to sign up for the army during the Second World War, but repeatedly fails the medical. Then a scientist encourages him to take part in an experiment that will transform him into a super-soldier…

The director of this fifth movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe series has very good genre credentials. In his early career, Joe Johnston worked on the special effects for Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark, and was the art director of Return of the Jedi and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. That’s some CV. It’s not surprising, then, that the work of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg strongly influences this film. In many ways, Captain America: The First Avenger is pleasingly, reassuringly and unashamedly old-fashioned. The central storyline of good guys fighting Nazis who are obsessed with supernatural powers echoes the Indiana Jones series, of course, while a motorcycle chase through a forest recalls both Return of the Jedi and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The lighting schemes, framings and camera moves are often reminiscent of 1980s cinema, and the terrific score by Alan Silvestri (Back to the Future, Predator, The Abyss) is stirring and exciting in the John Williams tradition; it even has deep, dark motifs for the bad guys. The story, characters and settings also pulse with an arch, movie-serial 1940s-ness: sepia cinematography, dieselpunk stylings, retro sci-fi, dashing derring-do and swashbuckling adventure. It’s therefore jarring when it sometimes steps outside that tone and does something, you know, modern. An early scene at a New York Expo is one of the most green-screen-iest bits of cinema you’ll ever see, with actors floating against CG backgrounds. Much more successful, thankfully, is the special effects used to make six-foot-tall and muscle-bound actor Chris Evans seem short, skinny and wiry. It’s very impressive stuff, which is vital set-up for when Steve Rogers is artificially strengthened by science. (Anecdotally, I know of people who were fooled and thought Evans had done a Robert De Niro and lost weight for the early scenes.) Steve is an all-American character, a man who’s brave and “doesn’t like bullies”. He’s the heart of the film, and this is a film with a lot of heart. But after he’s been turned into a super-soldier, rather than go off to fight Nazis he’s forced to tour US theatres selling war bonds. It’s embarrassing and frustrating for him, and he has to wear a cheesy costume as he takes on the comical role of ‘Captain America’. Of course, on a storytelling level, this segment is the trough from which our hero has to climb out. It’s dramatised via a fun musical montage as we cut from show to show: the longer it goes on, the more Steve grows in confidence and the more the dance routines grow in complexity. His persona becomes popular, and even appears in comic books. (There are also cute foreshadows of scenes we’ll see later in the film.) The theatre shows also reflect what the movie’s doing generally. It’s showbiz, it’s entertainment. It’s age-old storytelling and genre conventions. This is a film where the villains have an enormous lair in the Alps (full of Stormtroopers marching up and down corridors, and the longest runway ever constructed), while the good guys’ HQ is an underground base with a secret entrance in a Brooklyn book store. (The red-brick Brooklyn was actually shot in Manchester, by the way.) The supporting characters, meanwhile, are a great mix. Hayley Atwell plays Peggy Carter, a British officer who works on the project that transforms Steve’s body. She looks like a posh-totty pin-up, but is probably the smartest and most able person in the whole film. She has Princess Leia levels of confidence and charisma, and is an unapologetically brilliant female character. (Her appearance here was so successful that she returned for cameos in later films and even got her own spin-off TV show: Agent Carter, which lasted for 18 excellent and stylish episodes before being axed.) Howard Stark – Iron Man’s dad, of course – is played by Dominic Cooper and is a Howard Hughes-style showman and industrial genius. He’s the film’s equivalent of Q from the Bond movies. The villain, meanwhile, is played by a fun Hugo Weaving. Schmidt is the Nazis’ head of advanced weaponry and also the leader of the militant Hydra group, terrorists who will recur throughout this series and its spin-offs. We also get a succession of interesting actors in secondary roles: Stanley Tucci as the scientist who invents the super-soldier process, Toby Jones as Schmidt’s toady, Tommy Lee Jones as a typically gruff, grouchy army colonel, Richard Armitage as a spy, Natalie Dormer as a flirty private, and even Jenna Coleman as a blink-and-you’ll-miss-her girlfriend. Then series regular Samuel L Jackson shows up in a coda scene after Steve wakes up in 2011, having been frozen in ice for nearly 70 years. He ends up trapped in that ice because he sacrifices his life to save New York City from a deadly attack. His final conversation with Peggy over a two-way radio reminds you of similar scene in 1946 classic A Matter of Life and Death, and while maybe not as instantly tear-jerking as David Niven and Kim Hunter, it comes pretty close. A triumph of popcorn cinema.

Nine army generals who thought he’d be taller out of 10

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