Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Looking Over The Avengers Movies

Caveat: This entire post is a full-blown, five-alarm dork-out. If you've no interest in comic book superhero movies, you'll likely want to skip this one. The rest of you...

With the current release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, I've been re-watching some and rethinking all of the entire Avengers movie catalog. The Winter Soldier is the ninth in the series, with at least several more coming within the next few years, as well as the TV series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. currently in its first season.

Being a formerly serious comic book superhero geek, I still have a great affinity for well-done superhero tales. The wave of film adaptations done in the last 15 years or so has been impressive, with the Sam Raimi Spider-Man series, Bryan Singer X-Men series, and Christopher Nolan Batman series being the exemplars. and the entire "Marvel Cinematic Universe" is an amazingly ambitious project. It's a venture that does have its problems, but has overall produced a solid, in not completely consistent, set of movies that allows for constant evolution.

Here's my own personal ranking of all nine films, from weakest to strongest, with a few brief thoughts on each:

#9: Iron Man 2 (2010)

Easily the weakest in the entire series. Though Downey Jr. carries much of the film with his phenomenal acting and delivery skills and natural fit for the Tony Stark character, there's far too much nonsense. The Ivan Vanko character was slightly intriguing, but too much of a contradictory enigma to really breed much interest. Justin Hammer was made out to be too dumb to run a Waffle House, much less a multi-billion dollar arms company. The grand finale of the movie was massive smash-up of armored suits, which amounted to a dull fireworks show in my eyes. Between all of these things were a lot of half-baked ideas and action set-ups.

In short, it lacked the intelligence and solid writing of its predecessor, making it a movie only worth watching if you're an Avengers completist or a very serious fan of the Iron Man movies.

#8: The Incredible Hulk (2008)

The attempt to reboot this classic Marvel character fell flat,
yet again. It wouldn't be until Joss Whedon got his hands
on him that the Hulk would reach his full awesomeness. 
Ed Norton could have been a perfect Bruce Banner to carry this into a solid film franchise. As it was, the movie was pretty mediocre. Liv Tyler's breathy, doe-eyed etherealism seemed far out of place in this movie. The basic story was decent enough, but it tried to do a little too much by having two classic nemeses in General "Thunderbolt" Ross AND Emil Blonsky, a.k.a The Abomination, neither of whom was given enough time to develop into an interesting adversary. The writing was a bit lazy, too, with a lot of pseudo-science, and my biggest pet-peeve: far too many wink-wink, nudge-nudge "homages" to the classic TV series. One would have been enough, but this movie had at least three, only one of which was mildly clever. The final fight with the Abomination wasn't terribly impressive, either.

This one was a missed opportunity that, in some ways, was outdone by the also-flawed Ang Lee Hulk movie that preceded it by five years.

#7: Iron Man 3 (2013)

Definitely better that Iron Man 2, but not nearly as tight as the first installment. Brings back some of the smarts of the first, though not completely. Some missed opportunities in how they deal with Tony Stark's PTSD after the events of The Avengers. A slightly longer review is here.

#6: Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

The first on my list to be a "good" movie that I would continue to rewatch every year or two. It actually has more genuine heart than any of the other Avengers movies, and it nails exactly what makes the Steve Rogers character primarily a "super man" rather than just being a "superman." It has a good blend of humor and action, balanced fairly well throughout. There are a few odd jumps in pacing, and one thing that I truly missed: his training. It's one thing to be turned into a physical specimen and be given a badass shield. It's another to learn how to fight and command troops. We never got to see just how Steve Rogers learned how to do those things, which could have been tremendous fun to see.

#5 Thor (2011)

The Avengers character with by far the
richest history in actual human myth
has been given solid treatment.

Really fun movie. It did drag in a few places, and I have trouble buying Natalie Portman as a brilliant astro-physicist, but it's overall a good action/adventure movie. Chris Hemsworth was a perfect choice for the Norse god of thunder, as he exudes the physical presence, majesty, and joy of warfare that the mythical character demands. From the initial team attack into the Frost Giants' world, to Loki's exile, to the final battle against the Destroyer, there was plenty to like about the movie. There were a few slower, duller moments, but they didn't overly muck up the movie.

#4: Thor: The Dark World (2013)

Some may find me odd for liking the sequel over the original, but I do. Not by much, but I do. See my full-length review here.

#3: Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

I finished watching this not two days before I write this. Longer review forthcoming. After consultation with a fellow comic geek, my main issue concerning what seemed to be a serious plot hole is mostly smoothed over. With that mostly rectified, I place this one very high on the list, as it has so much of what has made the absolute best Avengers movies so much fun.

#2: Iron Man (2008)

The first "Avengers" movie and still the best single-character film of the entire series. It blended the intelligence of the Nolan Batman trilogy with the fun of Singer's X-Men films, and allowed Robert Downey Jr. to take it all home. While the final battle between Stark and Obadiah Stane isn't all that interesting, everything else leading up to it is a blast.

Watching Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark reinvent himself and construct
 the Iron Man armor and character is still the most entertaining 
of all of the Avengers solo flicks.
#1: The Avengers (2012)

I knew Joss Whedon had a way with comic book/fantasy/science-fiction on film, but I had no idea that I could still have that much fun at the movies, even at a somewhat cynical (then) 36-years old. I could gripe about a thing or two here or there, but I just rewatched this movie (for the fifth time) about a week ago and am not even close to getting tired of it. Slightly longer review here.

Random Avengers-Related Stuff:

Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. television series (2013 - current)

I've seen most of the episodes of this show, of which there are about 15 right now. It's been fairly average, so far, though it seems to be heading in an interesting direction. The core characters are interesting enough and played fairly well, though I feel as if Ming-Na Wen is trying way too hard to act tough all the time, with her permanent scowl long past old for me.

So far, the individual episodes have been teasing a larger and much more intriguing plot at an agonizingly slow pace, but this is the curse of the 22-episode network television series model. My hope is that, during these final 5 or 6 episodes, a solid payoff is coming. As of now, it's no better than the more mediocre Avengers films.

Avengers: Phase 2:

So Guardians of the Galaxy looks like it might be a fun ride. I'm not exactly sure how it's going to tie into the rest of the cinematic universe, but the trailer seems to convey a playful tone that could make for a very entertaining science fiction flick that may hearken back to the days of sillier, more light-hearted space travel adventure movies.

Avengers: The Age of Ultron has my hopes set extremely high. So high, in fact, that I'm bound to be disappointed. I have a lot of faith in Joss Whedon, but I do have a fear that the film might bite off even more than his fertile and agile mind can chew.

Avengers: Phase 3:

The lineup for the next wave of Avengers movies has been put out. After the Age of Ultron, the next series of films in the cinematic universe will include (in no particular order) Ant-Man, Thor 3, Captain America 3, and Doctor Strange. Notably absent are Iron Man and the Hulk, the latter of whom created a ton of interest due to how well he was handled in The Avengers. Thor and Captain America are virtual no-brainers, as the characters are strong enough to carry more stand-alone stories. The choices of Ant-Man and Dr. Strange, though seemingly odd ones, do emphasize just how flexible the Marvel Cinematic Universe can be. As actors grow older or weary of playing a character, others characters can be written in to keep the team concept going for as long as it remains profitable for the movie studios. And, judging from the mountains of cash the movies have made so far, that doesn't seem to be ending any time soon.

One potential problem that the entire concept of the "shared film universe" has is that it may continue to grow more and more difficult to maintain the individual characters' integrity as having their own stories. Case in point: in Iron Man 3, which takes place after The Avengers, one has to wonder why, at some point when all hell is breaking loose and Tony Stark's entire mansion is being blown to bits and he and his lady friend Pepper Potts are in perilous danger, he doesn't just call his bff Bruce Banner (who works in his R & D Department at Stark Industries) to Hulk up and help a brother out. Or how about a phone call to Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D.? Or Captain America? Anyone? As Marvel keeps adding more and more interesting super-powered characters to the roll call, this kind of question is just going to multiply, unless the stories are very carefully plotted in ways that would preclude the interference of the other super-powered characters. And if it's one thing you don't want to do, it's start annoying overly analytic fanboys and girls by mucking up the logic and continuity of their imaginary universes. Bad things follow.

The Avengers series hasn't been a streak of brilliant cinematic gems, but it certainly has been consistent enough and epic enough to keep me very entertained and interested. I'll be right there with them for at least the next few films, and hopefully beyond. It's pure escapism, which we all need from time to time.