Friday, May 4, 2012

The Road to The Avengers

No, this isn’t a long lost Hope and Crosby movie. I know The Avengers opened today in North America, but I thought I’d look at the movies that brought Marvel Films to this point. I’ve always found this plan, to seed a team-up movie by launching solo adventure films and hoping that each and everyone of them will be successful enough to create a 200 million dollar film that houses all of those characters, to be truly fascinating. I mean, what a gamble! Thor, Cap and Iron Man were never cultural mainstream icons with their own series everyone knew (like Hulk or Wonder Woman). But Marvel took great pains to launch films starring these characters and made them true summer blockbusters, grossing hundreds of millions of dollars. And the Avengers?? More laymen on the street knew what the Justice League of America was than what the Avengers were seven years ago. And yet here we are, with a movie titled The Avengers, starring Iron Man, Captain America, the Hulk and Thor about to make oodles of money at the box office and mark an indelible impression on everyone under the age of 12 for decades to come.

Iron Man (2008)

Marvel had spread a lot of their characters around to other studios, so when it came time for them to make their own movies under their own studio, they had the rights to adapt just their core Avengers characters. So, why not start with the most visually spectacular one? Iron Man is a terrific origin film (but concentrates all of its time on the origin). Stark is appropriately douchy with a secret heart of gold (played very well by Robert Downey Jr., who got a second wind in his career as a superstar from this movie). All of the armour works as fan service with their accuracy to the comics and excellent movie spectacle with their spectacular visuals. Inserting Iron Man into the wars of our time, like Afghanistan, was done seamlessly. And Stark's rivalry with industrialist Stane that culminates in a rousing battle between Iron Man and War Monger (a villain from the comics) was very entertaining to watch. Not having an actual Iron Man adventure and just concentating on the origin knocked this movie down half a point with me.


At the time this film came out, post credit scenes were fairly common. However, Iron Man was starting something ambitious: seeding a movie that seemed way too big to be produced and very far off time-wise, if it were to ever be made at all – The Avengers. To be honest, to most fans like myself, we all believed this would be a pipe dream. But there was the scene: Tony Stark arrives home to find Nick Fury of American government agency S.H.E.I.L.D. (now and forever appearing as his Ultimates version from the comics played by Samuel L. Jackson) telling Stark about something called “the Avengers initiative”).

Incredible Hulk (2008)

Coming out a mere month after Iron Man, this film was intended as a “reboot” of the Hulk character after the lackluster box office performance of the Ang Lee Hulk movie in 2003 (which I much preferred over this one). Banner (played by Edward Norton) is on the rub from “Thunderbolt” Ross, tried to find a cure for his Hulk alter ego, Emil Blonsky steals the secret of how Banner became Hulk and tries to duplicate it, becoming a giant ghastly monster (Abomination, a villain from the comics) and Banner must turn into the Hulk to stop him. Abomination looked like crap and wasn’t even recognizable to his comic character. The dude who helps Banner to try and cure his “Hulkness” is supposed to eventually turn into The Leader, a villain from the comics (which is hinted at in the movie and may happen some day – we’re still waiting). Some of the stuff with Hulk (when he actually appears on the screen) is kind of cool with comic-booky sci-fi weapons used against the Hulk, and Hulk’s child-like wonder at the world around him in the wilderness scenes with Liv Tyler, and Hulk’s casting as a hero at the end of the movie while battling Abomination. But ultimately the film has no story and is generally a jumbled mess. I remember walking away from this film with a sense that it represented the Marvel Universe very well, with Mavel references here and there like the fact that Stark Industries built the weapons that Ross uses against Hulk. But the film left me unsatisfied as a Hulk movie. It could have used a better story and more Hulk (he appeared in Ang Lee’s version a lot more than this version).


In the end credits of this movie, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) tells Ross in a bar that the government is putting “a team together”. Stark appearing in a Hulk movie and mentioning Avengers which was first mentioned in Iron Man cemented that Marvel was serious about committing to this idea. Fans wondered, could it be?

Iron Man 2 (2010)

Iron Man is back! Stark becomes a overnight celebrity after revealing that he is Iron Man at the end of the last movie. He’s called on the carpet by the U.S. Congress for not sharing his Iron Man armour with the nation’s military. Meanwhile, Stark is suffering from metal poisoning from his artificial heart that he rigged up in the last movie. So, he sets out making a new element and revising his artificial heart. Also a problem: Justin Hammer (played beautifully by Sam Rockwell), a rival of Stark’s, hires vengeful Russian genius Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke, another amazing performance in this movie), to build him an armour that can rival Stark’s so that Hammer can sell it to the military. Vanko has only revenge on Stark in mind because he believes that Stark’s father stole technology from Vanko’s father, so Vanko inexplicably builds fetish whips that emit electricity and becomes the villain Whiplash from the comics. He appears twice in a movie that’s over two hours long and is inevitably defeated. Oh, and Rhodes, Stark’s military pal (played in the last movie by Terrence Howard and now played by Don Cheedle – the first major clash Marvel Studios had over money that actually affected casting), dons the War Machine armour from the comic books to team up with Stark to battle Whiplashe's final armour at the end of teh film.

This film was an overly long mess. There were a lot of ideas here about redemption, revenge, etc., but it all seems painfully formulaic. I can’t help but feel that there is an amazing movie here, but nothing really clicks. The wonder from the first movie is gone, and the villain barely attacks (Whiplash has two scenes). Amazing actors and performances by Sam Rockwell and Mickey Rourke are utterly wasted. And the shoehorning in of elements that are supposed to lead to The Avengers movie derail the movie Iron Man 2 movie you’re currently watching. Agent Coulson goes on about having to go to the desert which is supposed to lead to the Thor movie but at this point we don't care. Natasha Romanoff (the Black Widow from Marvel comics) is introduced sloppily. She’s a double-spy who blows her cover way too quickly, she’s given a bunch of fat, doughnut-eating security guards to beat up to supposedly show her fighting prowess, and then she dons a comm system to tell Iron Man and War Machine the painfully obvious (she tells them that they’ve killed all of the bad guy robots when they’re clearly strewn around their feet, and then tells them that something large is heading their way when they can both clearly see and hear Whiplash flying toward them). I don’t care how hot Scarlett Johansson is – so are a lot of women in movies. Black Widow is just plain useless in this film. Thinking back on Iron Man 2, it doesn’t seem that bad, but when actually watching it the painful boredom suddenly begins to creep in.


In the end credits of Iron Man 2, Thor’s hammer is discovered in the desert by American government agency S.H.E.I.L.D.

Thor (2011)

Thor, son of Odin and brother of Loki, lives in Asgard with all of the other Norse gods. Thor is manipulated by his brother jealous, less athletic brother Loki to provoke the neighboring frost giants into war with Odin’s kingdom. As a result of this and Thor’s incredible arrogance, Thor is banished to Midguard (Asgard's name for Earth) without his powers. He can gain them, and become worthy enough to pick up his hammer Mjorln again when he receives humility. Meanwhile, Loki sets about taking control of Asgard.

This was a great entry into the Marvel pre-Avengers movies. Chris Hemsworth breathes life and charm into the character of Thor, and the humans he befriends do a terrific job (Natalie Portman as the woman Thor falls for, Jane Foster, and Stellan Skarsgard as fatherly Erik Selvig). The Heroes Three, Thors childhood friends and charactes from the comics, are all noble and entertaining. Tom Hiddleston is terrific as Loki, and his plans actually are clever and make sense. Asgard is beautifully rendered here and the frost giants look spectacular. Probably the worst thing about this movie is Kat Dennings, most likely brought in to appeal to the jaded, cynical crowd, but she’s not in the movie enough to care. All-in-all, a great introduction to the Thor character. Just one thing though – he wears his trademark helmet once and it’s never seen again. Unfortunate. An overly long section of the film where Thor is on Earth with no powers knocks this movie down a half-point for me.


In the credits, Erik Selvig has been hired by S.H.I.E.L.D. to work on the cosmic cube found in the captain America movie (at this point that film had not been released). Nick Fury meets with Erik and asks to see the cube. Loki appears in a mirror reflection and influences Erik to agree with Fury, showing that Loki can indeed manipulate people from wherever he is and will shape the events of the forthcoming Avengers movie. Also, at the end of the credits the producers but up a James Bond style message saying “Thor will return in The Avengers”.

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

Released a month after Thor, this is the origin of Captain America as Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), a scrawny patriot during WWII, signs up for a super-soldier serum which gives him superhuman abilities. He becomes war propaganda tool Captain America, touring USO shows, but longs to fight in WWII. He eventually proves himself against Hydra, an offshoot of the Nazis lead by the Red Skull, and Captain America goes on to defeat Red Skull, capture the source of his power which is the cosmic cube, an artifact from Asgard, and saves the U.S. by plunging a death machine into the arctic with him inside. With his unusual metabolism and strength, Rogers is frozen until waking up in the present time.

I loved this entry of the pre-Avengers movies. Steve Rogers is excellently portrayed as an American patriot who is true of heart. Red Skull looks amazing. Bucky is here, not as a kid, but as a young soldier who, of course as he always has in the comics, dies in duty. Nick Fury’s Howling Mad Commandos are here, all really cool, without Nick Fury himself of course since that character is now re-imagined as a modern day Sam Jackson character. Dominic Cooper as Howard Stark, Tony Stark’s father, portrays the character terrifically here as Steve Rogers’ friend and working partner – sort of a fatherly figure at times. Captain America might be the most satisfying Marvel movie, if you don’t count the actual Avengers movie.

There is a statement at the end of the credits “Captain America will return in The Avengers”.


So there you have it. Not since Universal’s monster movies of the 30’s and 40’s has there been cross-promoting among movies and a universe of characters set up along multiple franchises like Marvel Films’ movies. It’s been a massive undertaking, one that could have collapsed at any time with some failed box office, or egos running out of control, or stars wanting more money. But it has all worked out. Very impressive. I look forward to what Marvel has in store for audiences in the future.


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