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.

Foxcatcher


I remember how excited I was when all the film blogs started talking about Foxcatcher, because there was tangible excitement over Steve Carell‘s performance. Oscar buzz was already in the air when Foxcatcher made its debut, and now it’s landed Carell an Academy Award nomination. Director Bennett Miller has been nominated for Best Director, but the film itself has not been nominated for Best Film.

That could be that the film has very slow pacing. The film does test one’s patience, but Foxcatcher absolutely needed its measured pacing. Instead of overdramatizing the events of the story, Miller stayed true with the events of the narrative, which led to a slowly developed story. I admire that decision; instead of adding extra material or entering into a dishonest ambience, the film is very close to what actually occurred. Along those lines, the film’s is a character story. The whole point of Foxcatcher is to attempt to understand the two main characters: Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) and John E. du Pont (Carell). The screenplay is deliberate in exploring the unstable personas of these two individuals. It takes time and patience for that kind of character exploration, but I think it was well-executed and worth it.

Carell is a comedic genius. He is a charismatic and hilarious actor and person, so it was such a surprise to see him in a role like this one. Bennett commented saying that he wanted to cast someone who nobody would imagine ever committing murder. A common thread among many who knew du Pont was that they never expected him to do what he did. I think I can speak for most people when I say: I have never imagined or thought of Carell in such a violent way — so good job on the casting, Miller! But if you think about it, the du Pont persona isn’t too foreign to Carell. In many ways, the boss you loved to hate, Michael Scott, from The Office, had a lot of similarities. They both craved validation and love. They wanted to be admired and praised. They wanted families and to be father figures. By no means was Carell a stranger to this characterization. Though, instead of acting out in goofy and politically incorrect ways, he’s expressing himself in extremely creepy ways. The potential nominees for Best Actor this year were vast; there are so many great performances by men in leading roles this year. Many have complained about who was and who was not nominated, but I think Carell absolutely is deserving of the nomination. He took command on screen, more strikingly by his silences. His fractured speech left many gaping holes, and each lull was full of palpable suspense. He created a persona that was creepy and unlikeable, which in itself is such a feat for a man of his nature.

During all the discussion of Foxcatcher and its acting strength, Tatum has received minimal attention — and he should be getting a lot more praise than he has. Up to this point, Tatum, like Carell, is also generally associated with comedy, and what he did in this film is absolutely incredible. Not only was it a physical role, where Tatum successfully depicted wrestling practices and matches, it was also, and predominantly more of, a psychological role. Mark Schultz had some issues to deal with, just like du Pont. He was a lonely individual, living in the shadow of his older brother’s success. He wanted admiration and success separate from his brother. Tatum fittingly performs reservedly, as an individual with a lot more going on inside than he lets on. He’s a man of few words, but there would be those times when he has to let out his frustration somehow and he bursts. He’d punch himself in the face, or bang his head against the wall, which would be vivid deviations from his character. Speaking of which, Tatum went beyond the screenplay to make a poignant scene in the film. In the scene where he’s in a hotel room and begins to bang his head against a mirror, he was so in the moment that he broke the mirror. The script did not go so far, but Tatum went there, and the cut he has afterwards is all real. Tatum’s was a brave and daring performance, that should have received more recognition — but, unfortunately, the category for Lead Actor was saturated this year…

…and the category for Supporting Actor was pretty empty this year. Mark Ruffalo plays David Schultz, Mark’s older brother. I don’t mean to imply that Ruffalo performed badly, but his role is quite plain. What he did, he did well, but it was not extraordinary in any way. Though, it was nice to find out that the glasses Ruffalo wears in Foxcatcher belonged to the late David Schultz.

Foxcatcher is a slow-paced character-driven film about a lonely man. Carell and Tatum perform beautifully and Miller paces the film so well that it builds up to a moving climax. Patience is required, but your patience pays off. It doesn’t have the bravado that many of the other 2014 films have, but this isn’t a story for bravado. I hope this film allows Tatum to explore many different roles in the future. And I wonder if you’ll think of Michael Scott any differently the next time you see an episode of The Office.

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.