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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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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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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Thor (2011, Kenneth Branagh)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Banished from the heavenly realm of Asgard, god prince Thor ends up on Earth. But back home his brother has usurped the king…

This film has muscles, in more ways than one. Most noticeable are the beefed-up biceps of its lead actor but there’s also plenty of strength in the talent involved. A comic-book movie directed by Kenneth Branagh and co-starring Anthony Hopkins will have some heft behind it, not matter what else is going on. Sadly, though, the way Thor’s storyline bounces around between some very different worlds means we get a jarring clash of tones: the fish-out-of-water comedy and Dune-style space opera never quite seem to marry up. We start with a group of scientists in modern-day New Mexico, presumably to reassure casual viewers that the film won’t be too far-out, then we cut to Tønsberg, Norway, in 965 AD. Monsters called Frost Giants are doing battle with humanoid gods on a barren, cold landscape. After three films featuring American scientists dabbling in gamma-ray experiments and ergonomic, biomechanical suits, it’s clear the Marvel Cinematic Universe is doing something different this time. It’s a risk, and it shakes the series up. But as the main storyline gets underway on the heavenly world of Asgard – all golden halls, Shakespearean pomp and CGI set extensions – it’s difficult to take things seriously. Hopkins is king, an underused Rene Russo is his queen, and their two sons are engaged in a bit of sibling rivalry. Chris Hemsworth plays Thor, who is the heir apparent but recklessly goes to war with his father’s enemies. Meanwhile, Tom Hiddleston plays Loki, who aptly does start quite low-key. He slowly sneaks up on the film as its main villain, thanks to a controlled, effective performance. In this section we also meet Thor’s four friends: Volstagg (Ray Stevenson), Hogun (Tadanobu Asano), Fandral (Josh Dallas) and Sif (Jaimie Alexander), though considering how lightweight they are they may as well be called Asterix, Obelix, Dogmatix and The Token Fit Girl. Idris Elba also pops up as Helmdall, a humourless man who seemingly spends his entire life standing guard at a teleport booth. (Casting a black actor as a Nordic god led to calls for a boycott from a right-wing American pressure group. The things some people choose to care about…) There’s talk of Mjolnir, a mighty hammer that was forged in a star blah blah blah, and a cube-shaped MacGuffin that contains some kind of nebulous power. It’s all rather po-faced and staid. Things aren’t helped by the way the scenes are staged. Although shot conventionally, the film was always going to be converted to 3D for its cinema release – so we get some strange and distracting camera moves and lots of off-kilter angles. It comes as something of a relief, therefore, after half an hour when Thor is banished from his world and we finally return to the scientists from the first scene. The whole timbre of the movie switches now, and the light comedy begins. For example, having arrived on Earth, Thor is tasered while giving a self-important speech, then the same gag is repeated a few minutes later (he’s injected with a sedative this time). The lead scientist – and Thor’s love interest – is Jane Foster, played by a likeable Natalie Portman. She has two sidekicks: the worrisome Erik Selvig (played by the ever-dependable Stellan Skarsgård) and the sarcastic Darcy Lewis (played by the ever-adorable Kat Dennings). Various SHIELD agents turn up too – this is an MCU film, after all. One of them, an archer called Barton, is basically a glorified extra with a few lines: you’d never guess from this perfunctory cameo that one of the franchise’s major characters has just being introduced. But by now the film is generally very entertaining. Hemsworth and Portman are good fun, and there’s a great sequence of Thor and Erik getting drunk together. The big problem is that as we cut between New Mexico and Asgard, the momentum is stunted and the tone disrupted. If this were a 1980s film with a lower budget and no recourse to CGI, we’d be with Jane and co throughout. Thor would be a visiting outsider like the aliens in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Starman (1984), Howard the Duck (1986) and My Stepmother is an Alien (1988). We’d learn about his culture and background through the human characters’ eyes. But in its eagerness to show us everything the film loses something. Less would be so much more.

Seven pick-up trucks out of 10

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Iron Man 2 (2010, Jon Favreau)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) has outed himself as the famous Iron Man – but the US military want his secret technology, while an embittered rival wants revenge…

For most of its running time, Iron Man 2 is just as enjoyable – just as zippy and slick and witty – as the first movie. There are plenty of good gags, the storytelling is often slipping information in while we’re being entertained, and director Jon Favreau is having fun with some cinéma-vérité sequences. There’s an impressive balance of plot, character and comedy, and everything is crisply edited. It’s shame that it doesn’t stack up to a better movie. When the story starts, it’s six months since the events of the first film. Iron Man is now a superstar and we first see him skydiving into a showbiz event surrounded by fireworks and dancing girls. The whole sequence sings with razzmatazz and confidence. But you can also see the hubris: Tony is heading for a fall… We’re soon introduced to characters old and new. Gwyneth Paltrow is back as Pepper Potts and her scenes with Tony Stark are joyful; Paltrow and Downey Jr have terrific chemistry and a total command of overlapping dialogue. Tony’s pal Rhodey returns too (actor Terrence Howard has been replaced by Don Cheadle due to a contract dispute), as do Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) and Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg). The latter two have bigger roles than in the first Iron Man adventure, because it’s now that the series story arc is powering up. And they’re not the only SHIELD agents we meet. Initially thought to be a PA called Natalie Rushman, Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff is actually a spy under orders from Fury. She later puts on a skin-tight outfit and beats up bad guys. Wowzers. The film’s main antagonists, meanwhile, are Justin Hammer and Ivan Vanko. The former is a Tony Stark wannabe, a flashy and cocky businessman who challenges Tony at a Senate hearing, and he’s played with energy and humour by Sam Rockwell. The latter – played by Mickey Rourke with lank hair, a toothpick in his mouth, lots of tats and a broken Russian drawl – is a former Soviet prisoner who has a grudge to settle. He first encounters Tony at a motor race. (It’s the Grand Prix de Monaco Historique – ABSOLUTELY NOT FORMULA 1, no, siree. Because they couldn’t get the rights.) After Stark and Vanko’s fight, the film takes a darker turn. The frivolity is replaced by Tony’s maudlin mood, brought on by Vanko’s challenge and Rhodey betraying him. And here, sadly, is where the problems begin. The film has a great eye for the absurd and surreal – check out the scene of Tony driving a convertible loaded down with the scale model of the Stark Expo, or the running gag about him not liking people handing him things, or the perpetual-motion gizmo on Pepper’s desk – but is less discretionary when it comes to plain silliness. It’s a lovely moment when Tony watches some old film footage of his late father (Tony Slattery from Mad Men). But the information Howard Stark is recording for his son to watch when grown up just beggars belief. It’s something to do with an unknown chemical element, which Tony is coincidentally looking for in the present, and Howard has built the clue to its discovery into the architecture of the venue for a 1974 trade exhibition. (Couldn’t he just have written it down?) This kind of convoluted plotting affects the shadowy character of Vanko too. He wants revenge on Tony for something Howard did to Vanko Snr, so spends a lot of time and energy building his own mechanical suit in order to go toe-to-toe with Iron Man. You wonder whether just shooting the often-at-public-events Tony Stark might not be easier. His plan also means the spine of this story is the same as the first film (rival builds his own suit to fight Iron Man). To be fair to Vanko, he does at first attempt to simply attack Tony. Tony manages to fight him off, thanks to an Iron Man suit he carries around in a suitcase, but this action sequence is oddly just one of two times the characters interact. After it, Tony thinks Vanko is dead until 88 minutes into the film, then their climactic battle is over in under two minutes. And that sums up the whole film: it promises a lot early on, but vaguely disappoints.

Seven Larry Kings out of 10

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Iron Man (2008, Jon Favreau)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

After being held hostage by terrorists in Afghanistan, billionaire businessman Tony Stark builds an armoured mechanical suit and fights back…

This feels like a mission statement right from the word go. At face value it’s a one-off action-adventure movie, but we now know it’s actually the ‘pilot episode’ for an enormously successful film franchise. Therefore, as well as telling its own story, Iron Man is setting the tone for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And the feel of Iron Man is noticeably different from many previous comic-book films. It’s not as matinee as Superman: The Movie, not as Gothic as Tim Burton’s Batman, not as metaphor-driven as X-Men, not as serious as Batman Begins, not as immature as Fantastic Four… Instead, this film is its lead character writ large. Both Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) and the movie itself are clever, witty and hugely confident. There’s a pre-crash, noughties swagger on show, while the music is a mix of AC/DC and a rock-heavy score. However, the in-your-face attitude is matched by oodles of comedy: having fun is the order of the day. Throughout the film, dryly funny dialogue and well-timed visual gags keep things entertainingly breezy, even if the story is actually about terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. This is a film where the lead character asks journalists to sit on the floor with him during a press conference; where his assistant, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow, decent), has to play a real-life game of Operation and reach into his part-mechanised chest; and where his AI computer (Paul Bettany) has the voice of a droll, English butler. Note that all those examples centre on Tony. He dominates the film and Downey Jr – a former loose cannon who’s had issues with drugs, rehab and prison – is supremely smart casting. The actor gives Tony lots of off-putting attributes. He’s an arrogant, selfish womaniser who belittles his closest allies and, you know, gets disgustingly rich from producing and selling things specifically designed to kill and maim people. But he’s also charismatic, self-deprecating, and very likeable. In fact, if anything, Iron Man is too much the Tony Stark show. It’s having so much fun with him that other characters don’t get much of a look-in. Terrence Howard’s James ‘Rhodey’ Rhodes, an Air Force lieutenant colonel who’s both Tony’s best friend and a conduit to the military, has some nice moments and Pepper Potts gets stuff to play. But other than some bland, generic Afghans, the story has no real antagonist until its second half. At least they’ve cast the bad-guy role well: Tony’s business associate Obadiah Stane is played by the reliable Jeff Bridges, and the dude does a lot with a predictable, underling-wants-to-muscle-in-on-the-boss character. It’s actually not a huge problem that it takes 70 minutes to set up Obadiah as the villain. The film has been speeding along very entertainingly, thanks to a script that tells its origin story with no fuss and some crisp, not-getting-in-the-way direction from Jon Favreau (who also plays the minor role of Tony’s bodyguard). There was a lot resting on this movie when it was first released. It’s nearly a decade old already – Tony makes a joke about Myspace – and has been followed by 13 movies set in the same fictional universe with many more on the way. You can see the seeds of that series being sown in Iron Man with the appearances of Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) and the deliciously deadpan Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), two characters who’ll crop up again in future films. But those dozen-plus films wouldn’t have happened if Iron Man had got it wrong. It got it right and an empire of superhero movies has been built on its success.

Eight Hugh Hefners out of 10

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