Thor


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.

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.

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


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.

Guardians of the Galaxy


Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) is an American superhero film released by Marvel as part of its Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). It’s directed by James Gunn and written by Gunn and Nicole PerlmanGuardians of the Galaxy takes place in a different galaxy altogether than the rest of the MCU films, introducing a more fantastical side of Marvel comic books and featuring an exciting and fresh new team of superheroes.

Guardians stars Chris Pratt as Peter Quill AKA Star-Lord, the rebellious bad-boy space pirate. He’s the only character in the film from Terra, who has a homey and charming quality we can all relate to — many times embodied by the 1970s and 80s music he listens to on his Walkman. It both reminds Quill of Earth and his roots as well as reminds the audience of Earth in a galaxy filled with unfamiliar worlds and peoples. Pratt has made quite the ascension to stardom. He consistently knocks it out of the park on NBC’s Parks and Recreation as the lovable but oftentimes clueless Andy Dwyer, yet he’s also been in a couple Oscar-nominated films like Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty and Spike Jonze’s Her. He’s an incredible actor, who has yet to be adequately recognized, in my opinion, for his flawless performance in Parks and Rec, but his charisma and finesse is finally getting acclaim in Guardians. He plays the rugged, rule-breaking smuggler that we can’t help but love. He mixes up a delightful cocktail of humor and badassery into his performance as he stumbles his way throughout the galaxy. He kicks ass and dances with proportionate ease. He’s stated that Han Solo and Marty McFly were inspirations for his portrayal, but there is a lot of Captain Malcolm Reynolds, played by Nathan Fillion in Firefly, in Peter Quill, too — evidenced by his affinity towards guns and brown coats.

Zoë Saldana plays Gamora, the lethal adopted daughter of super villain Thanos (an uncredited performance by James Brolin). Saldana is firmly established in the science-fiction film genre, with roles in James Cameron’s Avatar and the rebooted Star Trek films. She champions strong female roles in a genre that’s very male-centric. She is a raised and trained assassin, but she also has a strong sense of righteousness. Saldana’s performance weaves together the hard and cold nature of a killer with the shy receptivity for goodness, which blossoms along with her friendship with Quill.

The rest of the Guardians are an eclectic and dynamic mix: Drax (Dave Bautista) the insanely ripped and heavily tattooed prisoner who takes things absolutely literally; Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper and acting contributed by Gunn’s brother Sean Gunn) the genetically engineered and talking raccoon bounty hunter; and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) the nurturing yet lethal tree-like humanoid (AKA the Ent) who can only say “I am Groot”. There characters are absolutely amazing and bring such spirit to the film. The combination of all these characters make for an unusual fellowship, but out of it burgeons friendship and many, many laughs.

The universe of Guardians is colorful — both in its visuals as well as with its characterizations. It’s a marvel (no pun intended) to experience a world bursting with color — from nebulae-backdropped space battles to the Infinity Stone erupting in amethyst power, and from brightly tinted skin to effervescent worlds saturated in color. It’s beautiful to watch, comparable to the visually striking Pandora in Cameron’s Avatar. One of my favorite scenes is when Groot produces the fireflies to light up the darkness. The music and visuals intertwine so seamlessly to produce a tender moment in a mostly active and funny film.

Groot, while not “vocabulistically” gifted, is the heart of Guardians. While the rest of the team has baggage and motives, he’s mostly innocent and tags along with Rocket. He also contributes to a visual motif throughout the film. The Infinity Stone resides in the orb throughout the entire film. While ornately forged, the orb houses a tool of great power, a fossil of great creation but a threat of total destruction. The sphere shape in the film begins to signify that ominous doom, destruction in a pretty package. After Quill has seemingly killed Ronan (Lee Pace), the great monolith of a ship is tumbling out of the sky. Groot envelops the Guardians in a sphere of branches and leaves. He becomes an orb of warm natural beauty and heart, in an age of rigid technology and industry. While crudely made, his orb encircles friendship and righteousness, an inspiring icon in the face of death.

Guardians of the Galaxy provides an exciting and refreshing introduction to a new world of superheroes. Bringing together an incredibly talented cast, sharp and amusing writing, striking visuals, and engaging characters, Guardians is a completely entertaining experience. Can anyone really turn down an intergalactic ride with the lovable and hunky Chris Pratt?

 

The Avengers


The Avengers (2012) is an epic superhero film written and directed by Joss Whedon. It is an origins story, following the events of S.H.I.E.L.D to develop The Avengers Initiative, which leads to the coming together of The Avengers. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects and is the third-highest-grossing film, over $1 billion.

The expectations for the film were nothing shy of brilliant once Joss Whedon was announced as director for The Avengers. An avid comic book fan and an amazing writer, the coming together of multiple superheroes into one film was in very good hands. Whedon has commented on The Avengers as a group, saying: “These people shouldn’t be in the same room let alone on the same team—and that is the definition of family.” He delves deeply into that sentiment in the film, exploring the conflicts between strong personalities and haughty egos. Whedon is well-known for fleshing out characters, and that’s the most interesting part of this film. He makes the joining forces of these various superheroes feel real and believable. Most of the film is set up as scenes with pairs of characters, which gives the actors a chance to perform with different personalities as well as the audience the chance to see the characters interact with everyone. Examples of this include: 1) when Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) meeting with Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) in India to convince him to answer S.H.I.E.L.D’s call for help or 2) when Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) fight each other to (try to) show their dominance over the other. These scenes are incredible because they show a side to the characters that aren’t seen very often in these characters’ solo films. Tony Stark is always in charge in his films, but now he has to work together with others. Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) is the ultimate soldier but has to come to terms with the fact that everybody he’s ever known or cared for is dead and learn to interact with people “of the future”. The way Whedon creates these scenes is insightful, as it deconstructs the illusion that groups of superheroes, like The Avengers or the Justice League, would automatically come together in selflessness for the greater good. Egos must be thrown aside (in Stark’s case) and personal conflicts must be embraced (in Banner’s case) in order to work together. The basic goal for these scenes is for Whedon to show the journey for the characters to build trust, for trust will be the most important force linking their chain together.

Another classic Whedonism found in The Avengers is the witty banter and clever writing. The film’s popularity and high praise has a lot to do with the writing, elevating the “superhero genre” up to match various other genres in terms of quality and artistry.
On the topic of classic Whedonisms, Black Widow’s character must be discussed. Whedon has created a myriad of strong female characters, including Buffy Summers in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Sarah Michelle Gellar), Echo in Dollhouse (Eliza Dushku), and Zoe Washburn from Firefly (Gina Torres). He promotes and advocates for strong women in media, and he delivers yet again with Black Widow. Her introduction scene has her tied to a chair, being interrogated by Russian criminals. She appears to be in a weak and helpless position, as if she were captured and at their mercy. Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) calls the Russian criminals and asks to speak to Romanoff. She talks to him like he’s interrupting her interrogation, not that she’s helpless and in need of saving. He urges her to come in, saying it’s urgent, and she consents. Then, she shows the audience that she was always in control of the situation. She begins a fight, disables the Russian criminals, and walks out calmly, after picking up her heels. This is classic Joss Whedon, who sets up scenes with a particular female stereotype and destroys it right then and there. A classic example is the pilot episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. A high school boy is taking what appears to be a timid high school girl somewhere private after school hours. She’s hesitant and timid. Whedon sets up that scene as the high school blonde girl who gets herself in a powerless situation, but the high school girl turns out to be Darla (Julie Benz), a vampire who was in fact seducing the high school boy. Black Widow and Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) are incredibly strong women who are perfectly capable and in control of their situations. Hill does follow orders from Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), but she basically runs the organization and makes things happen. Romanoff, like Darla in Buffy, plays around with female stereotypes in an incredible scene with Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the film’s big bad and adopted brother to Thor. She’s speaking with Loki, and he begins to simmer in his masculine intimidation, picking apart her intentions as she buckles under the harshness of his words. In his hubris, he lets slip his next move. Immediately, Romanoff resumes her strong posture and stoic face and we realize that she was playing him the entire time. Whedon keeps destroying female stereotypes. With so many modern reboots in popular franchises, there are attempts to modernize female characters who were previously stuck in antiquated female stereotypes, like Uhura in Star Trek. In J.J. Abrams reboot in 2009, the entire cast got a jumpstart, including Lieutenant Uhura (Zoe Saldana), who at times was the catalyst for the plot continuing forward. Unfortunately, half way through the film, Uhura was tossed aside as merely a romantic interest for Spock (Zachary Quinto). While there are teases and hints at something between Romanoff and Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) in The Avengers, Romanoff’s character place in the group is never diminished or looked down upon. As Johansson has said about her role in The Avengers, she always felt like one of the guys, not the only woman in a group of guys.
Whedon’s vision for The Avengers is a masterful balance of character development and excitement. He blends together a modern realization of his characters with clever writing and a smooth and realistic filming style. He succeeded in bringing together a group of ultra-strong personalities, both in character and in person, while also elevating the “superhero genre” up to challenge other “respected” genres. The sequel, which is will be released in 2015, will no doubt be just as exciting and successful.