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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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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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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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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The Incredible Hulk (2008, Louis Leterrier)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) is on the run after an experiment gone wrong: if he gets too angry or excited he’ll turn into a giant, green, rampaging monster. Meanwhile, the military are on his trail…

In retrospect, this has become the forgotten film of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The lead character has never been given a solo sequel and was recast for later appearances in the series; it took eight years for one of the secondary characters to crop up again, while love interest Betty (Liv Tyler) hasn’t even been mentioned. And it wasn’t the first Incredible Hulk movie to be ignored. There had been one just five years earlier, simply called Hulk, which hadn’t been very successful. (People didn’t like Bruce Banner when he was directed by Ang Lee.)

If you squint and ignore the fact all the actors are different, you could pretend that the backstory being told in The Incredible Hulk’s opening credit sequence – Bruce undergoes experiments, gets zapped, turns into monster – is a recap of that earlier film. But this is technically a reboot and it’s quite refreshing that it isn’t yet another origin story. The story begins with Bruce in hiding, his Hulk tendencies plaguing him (he’s on a run of 159 days without ‘incident’). Sadly, the big problem with the concept then rears its head. You only really have one plot with this character: Bruce doesn’t want to get angry, Bruce doesn’t want to get angry, Bruce doesn’t want to get angry, Bruce doesn’t want to get angry, Bruce gets angry.

Edward Norton – who also worked on the script – is not awful in the role, but does seem to be an actor on autopilot. Coming just a month after Robert Downey Jr’s attention-grabbing performance in Iron Man, it’s just not good enough. Elsewhere, the small cast also fail to excite. Liv Tyler sleepwalks through an underwritten role, William Hurt goes for comic-book-villain thinness as gruff General Ross, and Tim Roth is miscast as Emil Blonsky, a Royal Marine from Russia who talks like an American with a Cockney accent and shoots a dog so we know he’s evil.

The film works best when adding lightness to all the shade – Bruce has a good gag when trying out Portuguese: “You wouldn’t like me when I’m hungry!” – but the film is routinely sombre and lifeless. Everything seems like it’s going through the motions. There are flashes of invention, such as a joke about why Bruce shouldn’t use the subway or Tim Blake Nelson as a scientist who feels like he’s visiting from a better movie, but the story is always told in the most straightforward and unsurprising way possible. There are also some ridiculously dull action sequences that are repetitive variations on monster-versus-military. (The climactic battle is CGI monster versus CGI monster and seems to never end.)

At least the film sometimes looks pretty. The early scenes of Bruce hiding in Brazil are quirky and colourful and contrast well with the Michael Bay sheen used for the military characters. The movie then feels like a Jason Bourne spy chase when the two worlds collide. But the movie suffers from a fatal lack of distinction and is often quite boring. The most interesting thing about it is its place in a growing shared universe. There are blink-and-miss sightings of the Stark Industries logo and Nick Fury’s name, then Tony Stark shows up for a fun cameo. It seems like the film itself is already more excited about the rest of the series.

Five bottles of Guarana soda 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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