The fourth film in the first phase of the MCU is Thor (2011), directed by Kenneth Branagh. At first glance, it seems strange to see a great Shakespeare actor and director attached to a superhero film, but Branagh has been a enthusiastic Thor fan since childhood. His zeal certainly shows in the character development in the film. Branagh also saw a lot of Shakespeare’s “Henry V” in Thor, which he was able to utilize to fully develop and elevate the characters and world of Asgard.

How do you even approach a film about comic book superhero-gods based on Norse mythology and make it successful? Branagh certainly had a lot to do with it. He infused the film with full-fledged characters. Chris Hemsworth also had a lot to do with it. He creates a character that has all of the regality, strength, and assurance of a god while also blending in charisma and humor. He’s completely believable as a force for good, passionate in keeping the realm safe, who rallies his warrior friends behind him to do what must be done. He’s also incredibly endearing when he’s ousted from Asgard and lives on Earth as a mortal, interacting with human folk and learning their ways and customs. Branagh and Hemsworth brought life and empathy to the character, whose unexpected behavior still keeps audiences laughing in all his future films.

The rest of the cast is fantastic. A great protagonist flourishes against an equally great villain, and Thor’s “brother” Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is one of the best MCU villains out there — so good that he comes back as the villain for The Avengers. What makes Loki’s villainy so interesting is that he is learning about and dealing with the truth of his childhood. He feels betrayed by his family yet close to them. He feels spurned to embrace the malicious instincts he feels, yet he can be good. He is very much a conflicted villain, which sometimes is even more interesting than a conflicted hero. He isn’t a purely wicked character; he spends the film fighting it, exploring it, coping with it. Hiddleston’s performance is absolutely finessed and breathtaking. He can interact with Thor as a brother and, just as naturally, challenge him as an enemy. Odin (Anthony Hopkins), their father, is an equally strong force, overseeing both of their shenanigans and teaching them important lessons. Both Hopkins and Hiddleston put on performances that steal the show, with their emotional depth and on-screen presence.

Jane (Natalie Portman) is a scientist, incredibly smart and gutsy, but a little tangential to the scientific community. She pursues science that fascinates her, but her peers do not appear to support her ideas. She is probably the opposite kind of personality that Thor would ever meet in a woman in Asgard. She’s strong, smart, and wild, which really piques his interest. S.H.I.E.L.D makes another appearance to push forward to The Avengers. Here, they mostly are just trying to understand the bridge between Earth and Asgard so that they can establish a communication with the gods. Clark Gregg makes another appearance as Agent Phil Coulson who mostly irritates Jane.

Overall, Thor is a fantastic edition to the MCU, even more brilliant after the lackluster chapter of Iron Man 2. Characterizations were polished, performances were excellent, and direction was masterful. Patrick Doyle lends a majestic score with themes that represent the rugged power of Mjölnir and the wonder of Asgard. Thor flourishes because Branagh sought out to create characters not shells. What sets Thor apart from the previous MCU films and many that came after is the decision to humanize the villain. Villains that the audience can commiserate with are scarier, because it forces everyone to recognize the villainy inside us all.

Iron Man 2

It seems a little strange to have a sequel in the first phase of the MCU before other heroes’ first film. Jon Favreau and Robert Downey Jr. return in Iron Man 2 to bring back that snarky Stark personality that won over the country in Iron Man. The first film was definitely a hit, but the sequel is not so solid.

The good thing about Iron Man 2 is the integration and development of S.H.I.E.L.D’s presence in the MCU. Clark Gregg reprises his role as the charismatic Agent Phil Coulson, this time joined by Director of SHIELD Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and undercover agent Natasha Romanoff, alias Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson). SHIELD’s almost ever-present involvement is crucial for pacing the multi-movie arc leading to the assembly of the Avengers; otherwise, they’re just a bunch of superhero films. What tickles me most about Iron Man 2 is that while Stark always feels that he’s in control, SHIELD has been infiltrating his life without his knowledge. Granted, he has been preoccupied with saving his life, but it’s still amusing.

Another good thing about the film is the struggle Stark has with making his father proud of him. He genuinely believes that his father was, at best, apathetic or, at worst, ashamed of him. While going through many of his father’s personal items, he sees a video where his father tells Stark that everything he has built has been for him, that he loved him. It’s a touching moment; though, it’s overshadowed by much of the action in the film. A scene like this is a rare glimpse into the man behind the persona.

Other than that, Iron Man 2 does not dazzle like its predecessor. Stark’s increasingly pressing mission to save his life from the contaminating arc reactors is compelling, but his spiral to immaturity and neglect is off-putting. It does not come across as a man who is more and more aware of his mortality; rather, it feels like his all too familiar Stark antics. It’s hard to feel sympathetic  for Stark. It’s written more for show and laughs than it is for a real exploration of Stark’s character. Add in an uninteresting villain, and you’ve got a pretty generic superhero film. Iron Man 2 provides a little dip halfway through Phase 1 of the MCU, which thankfully climbs back up with the subsequent films.


Westender (2003) is the directorial debut for Brock MorseWestender tells the story of a revered knight who has fallen from grace and his transformation to his former self. The film stars Blake Stadel and the film’s composer Rob Simonsen.

There is a lot of passion for this project. Filmed in Morse’s home state of Oregon, the scenery in the film is one of Westender‘s best qualities. The landscapes — be it forest, mountain, or desert — are beautiful to look at, even if the action on screen isn’t that engaging. It takes a lot of guts to make a fantasy epic as a first film with a meager budget. The outcome is heartfelt but unpolished. The script is severely lacking. I like the mystery of the protagonist Asbrey of Westender, that he has somehow lost his way from knighthood and that he has lost love in his past, but the narrative leaves many more questions unanswered than resolved. For instance, the opening text of the film addresses some lore of good and evil, but the film never sets up or explains the film’s established world. What is the political and governmental set-up? Is this historical fiction or pure fantasy emulating the Middle Ages? As for Asbrey of Westender — what is the significance of Westender? To title the film after something that isn’t explained is careless. The script meanders and lingers far too much. I get the sense that Morse wanted to let things breath and have that gravitas of a fantasy epic, but the elements that loiter in the film drastically curtail the momentum. One example is when Asbrey and Grim find the procession of knights. They just watch the march shuffle by for a languidly long time before doing anything. Another example is when Asbrey wanders around the desert for an excruciatingly long time. The audience gets the idea of the lost hero finding himself in a desolate place — we do not need to go through our own walkabout while watching the film.

Independent films have the freedom to play outside the convention of bigger film companies. Storylines can explore innovative delivery and don’t always have to be tied in a neat bow at the end. However, Westender leaves too many things unresolved. The whole premise of the film is Asbrey’s search for his ring. He never gets it. The film’s one shining comedic relief, Grim — played by composer Rob Simonsen — is a delight, but he’s written out of the script and completely disappears. In the film’s “climax”, some folks unfortunately cross paths with Asbrey and the thief who stole his ring. They speak a different language;  the young man in their group threatens Asbrey at one point but saves his life, but their whole existence is never explained. Who are these people? Other than some crying children who can attempt to create an emotionally heavy moment.

There are some shining moments in the film. Along with the scenery, Simonsen’s score is the best part of Westender. His music is highly fantastical and sweepingly grand. The score gives the film a grandeur and depth that frankly would never have been achieved otherwise. Though, at times, the script’s extremely slow pacing interferes with the natural phrasing of the music, causing it to be elongated or stifled to fill up the empty space. The lead actor, Stadel, is committed. It might be over the top at times, but this film needed devoted acting to keep the audience engaged with Asbrey’s story. Simonsen’s acting is also charming, with the right comedic timing.

All in all, the film falls a little flat. Its production value is low, evident in the big battle scenes and obviously choreographed action sequences. The spirit and heart of a grand fantasy epic are there — heard in Simonsen’s beautiful score — but the narrative fails in its responsibilities in storytelling. The script needed more refining before filming. It sets some interesting ideas in motion but lets them fizzle out or wander around aimlessly. The potential was there without the ample execution.

The Incredible Hulk

The Incredible Hulk (2008) is the second installment of the MCU and acts as both a reboot of the Hulk cinematic presence as well as a loose sequel to Ang Lee’s Hulk (2003). It stars Edward Norton as Dr. Bruce Banner, a role that was recast with Mark Ruffalo for all consequent MCU films.

As I make my way through the entire MCU, I braced myself for The Incredible Hulk, aware of the stigma attached to it. I got the feeling that after Ruffalo’s successful portrayal of Banner/the Hulk in Joss Whedon’s The Avengers, Norton’s version of the Hulk was swept under the rug. I expected this to be the worst of the MCU, but I was pleasantly surprised. I was impressed with the first half of the film. The opening credits multi-task by summarizing Banner’s origins with the Hulk and his need to flee the United States. Once the film begins, no time is wasted on yet another origin story. The film starts with Banner in Brazil, trying to keep a low profile while also learning techniques to repress his anger. During the first act, Banner does not speak very much; the narrative is told mostly through visuals, which I found refreshing. I like to be engaged by the film without relying on dialogue to make up for creative deficiencies. As Banner makes his way back to the United States, he desperately wants to reunite with Betty Ross (Liv Tyler), but he finds her with another man, Leonard Samson (Ty Burrell). I find Banner’s and Ross’ relationship very organic in this film. He looks at her with such longing, and the second she sees him again after who knows how long, her face radiates the same longing. It’s during scenes between Banner and Ross where Craig Armstrong’s score truly shines. His music adds a depth to their relationship that I feel may shine brighter than pairings in the other MCU films. The first half of the film felt like a character study on Banner, whose portrayal by Norton was nuanced and sensitive. I enjoyed that the narrative was exploring his character through his time on the run, his relationship with Betty, and his incredible sense of self-control.

That being said, what follows cheapens the solid foundation set up in the beginning. Tim Roth plays a strange character, Emil Blonsky, who is hired to help contain Banner. After seeing the Hulk in action, he starts to lust for his power and ends up convincing General Ross (William Hurt) to expose him to some of the same radiation that was exposed to Banner. This doesn’t make much sense. General Ross is hellbent on containing Banner, to take his blood and make him a weapon and to keep him from unleashing terrible destruction — but he somehow thinks Blonsky may be able to control himself? Well, Blonsky ends up getting the full gamma treatment and becomes Abomination, making the last act basically a monster showdown. It’s a superhero film cliché becoming more prevalent, notably in Man of Steel. It’s so disappointing watching a sensitive and thoughtful set up unravel into a pit of convention and mediocrity.

Along those lines, it’s also disappointing to explore Norton’s Banner only to leave him forever. I didn’t see The Incredible Hulk before the Avengers films, so I feel connected to Ruffalo’s Banner — but I enjoyed seeing what Norton did. Despite all his professionalism problems, his work is marvelous and he brought a subtlety to a Marvel character that perhaps hasn’t been seen since. The next time I see The Avengers, I’ll wonder if Banner thinks about Betty.


It’s amazing how Trainwreck (2015) and When Harry Met Sally manage to do the same thing through very different approaches.

Trainwreck is a romantic comedy written by and starring Amy Schumer and directed by Judd Apatow. We are entering a new age of Schumer, who will undoubtedly write more films in the future. The film follows the life of Amy, who grew up believing her father’s words that “monogamy isn’t realistic” and flails through dating with that mentality.

For me, personally, I judge a rom-com off two main principles: 1) How well I can step into the female character’s shoes and relate to her, and 2) How much I like the male lead and imagine myself with him. In regards to the second point, Trainwreck is a home-run for me. Bill Hader co-stars as Dr. Aaron Connors,  sports doctor about whom Amy writes an article. He is a fantastic romantic leading man. He’s got it all: looks, charisma, humor, and a realness about him that really draws you in. He’s sweet and caring, always there for Amy. He’s skyrocketed to one of my favorite romantic comedy leading man, because he’s such a sweet guy who genuinely cares for his partner — who also likes spooning.

There’s a little friction with the first point. In case you missed it, Amy is the titular train wreck. She’s got some issues, explained right off the bat from her father explaining his divorce to his daughters. Somehow her sister Kim (Brie Larson) escaped childhood without any long-term social damage, but Amy is a different story. I can absolutely relate to how an experience growing up can have repercussions in adulthood and with dating/relationships. I also admire her confidence and humor. I’m, thankfully, just not a train wreck like her, so it’s hard to put myself in her shoes in the rom-com, especially when Aaron is being so good to her. But the whole point is that Amy is flailing through life, while having fun and starting a career, and now that she’s met someone worthwhile to her, she can finally address all those issues she’s let be to finally feel grounded. I know it’s a strange thing to say from a raunchy romantic-comedy, but I absolutely feel inspired to address my own issues — but then I might miss my chance to dance with the Knicks cheerleaders for a man.

Schumer writes a hilarious, semi-autobiographical film, filled with laughs and gasps. In many ways, I see this as a ramped up version of How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, as the heroine of the story pushes away the guy she loves, and manages to win him back partly through leaving a trashy magazine and applying her talents to a more prestigious publication. Schumer’s writing and performance are stellar. Her humor is not for everyone, but her story is multi-dimensional. The speech she wrote for her father’s funeral is gritty and unexpected, a transformation of what it means to be brutally honest. Then in the ending of the film, which, for a rom-com, is the sentimental and tear-inducing part of the film, she alternates layers of huge laughs and tears one right after the other, to delay that inevitable ending. Haider and Larson both give flawless performances, along with the true shapeshifter of our time, Tilda Swinton, playing Amy’s boss Dianna. (We need to talk about this second collaboration between Swinton and Ezra Miller since We Need to Talk About Kevin). The two movie theaters in Chicago that I’ve gone to this weekend have both had sold-out screenings of Trainwreck, so it appears to be doing very well. It’s a raunchy and hilarious take on the romantic comedy, and a first step in the limelight of many by comedy goddess Amy Schumer.

Iron Man

Iron Man (2008) is the first film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) — and extensive network of films introducing various Marvel superheroes and characters that leads to the exciting joining of forces with the Avengers. Robert Downey Jr. quintessentially stars as genius billionaire Tony Stark, who runs Stark Industries, primarily a weapons manufacturing business.

Starting the MCU with Iron Man was a great choice. Up to that point, most superheroes that have graced the silver screen were overly known, immensely popular names, like Superman and Batman — and on the Marvel side, Spiderman. Kicking off a giant movie franchise with a more unknown character made Marvel seem fresh and energetic, a quality that they have kept going with films like Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man. With fun writing and impeccable casting, Marvel has introduced various characters into the pop cultural lexicon, like Tony Stark.

RDJ plays Stark with a finesse that has only improved over the years. He absolutely embodies Tony Stark, who is a careful balance of “endearing asshole”. RDJ delivers lines with command but also exudes an incredible amount of charm. That, mixed with Stark’s character change from profiteer to humanitarian, wins over the audience’s hearts. Iron Man‘s success and popularity would undoubtedly be less without Robert Downey Jr.

Director Jon Favreau also brought in fresh ideas for Iron Man. He modernized Iron Man’s origin story to resonate more with audiences. His collaboration with composer Ramin Djawadi brought a head-banging’ score filled with hip rock guitar. He set the film on the West Coast, reasoning that he was tired of superhero movies set mostly in New York. Favreau’s vision was singular in creating the right energy and momentum to start off the MCU. Iron Man even originated Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), whose part was initially much smaller but was further incorporated due to his great chemistry with the rest of the cast — a decision that would lead to the emotional crux to The Avengers and ABC’s spin-off series Agents of SHIELD.

Iron Man is a fresh and energetic superhero action film that introduced Tony Stark and Iron Man to the world. RDJ gives a flawless and youthful performance, perfectly donning the Stark persona. Iron Man is a wonderful start to the MCU that will grow into a vastly entertaining superhero franchise.


Ant-Man (2015) is the final film of Phase Two in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It introduces Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), the original Ant-Man, and his passing the torch to Scott Lang (Paul Rudd).

What a fun movie! Paul Rudd is absolutely endearing and such a funny guy. His superhero persona channels Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord over the more serious Avengers superheroes in the MCU, but, jokes aside, he does have a serious motivation: his daughter. He’s a hero in her eyes, and he wants to prove to her and every one else that he isn’t a lost cause. Pym isn’t as messed up as he is in the comics, but there is a huge rift between him and his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly). She is a strong and focused woman, an expert in everything her father mastered — everything from fighting skills to communicating with ants. Lilly, as always, puts on a superb performance, transcending the script more than was perhaps imagined. Similarly, Judy Greer’s few scenes as Lang’s ex-wife are scene-stealers. Every thing she does looks perfectly natural and effortless. (Someone write a leading role for Judy Greer, please.)

I still have trouble grasping the idea of Ant-Man. It’s hard for me to accept a shrunken superhero who fights with normal-sized superheroes. I concede that I have seen giants fighting with normal-sized superheroes, like Juggernaut in X-Men and I suppose the Hulk, but going the other way is strange. Half the time I was laughing at how funny it is to watch tiny superheroes fighting, like on the train set. As fun as it is to watch, and as fun as it makes a movie night out, it’s hard for me to take seriously, which I get isn’t the point — but at some point Ant-Man (and Wasp!) will join up with the Avengers and I can’t even imagine how that will work out. But that’s my own issue. I look forward to Phase Three of the MCU, which starts with Captain America: Civil War where Ant-Man will make his next appearance. It’s also weird watching ants doing strategic missions. It’s both absurd and frightening — I might have ant army nightmares.

Ant-Man is a lot of fun, what with Rudd’s funny and sometimes awkward jokes and Michael Peña’s excellent storytelling; however, it is a pretty generic superhero film: origin, training, execution. Luckily, there are all the fun elements to make it not so pedantic, largely coming from the solid cast. When Iron Man came out, his was a character that was not very familiar outside of the comic books world, but now he is a household name. I like that Marvel is including less known characters, like Ant-Man and The Guardians of the Galaxy. Enjoy a summer night with Ant-Man, and make sure that you stay until the very end of the end credits hint hint nudge nudge.