Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Avengers (2012)

In the interests of full disclosure I have to confess here that The Avengers is one of my favourite movies of all time, and I find it hard to be totally objective about it, so fan boy gushing is quite likely to follow.

I think it’s fair to say that before Disney bought and decided to resurrect the Star Wars ennealogy, The Avengers was one of the most highly anticipated and hyped upcoming movies. Could it possibly live up to the hype?

From my point of view the answer is yes. Let’s look at how they went about making it all work. It was a delicate balancing act. Films with large all star ensemble casts like the one they collected for The Avengers often don’t work, partly because of the diverse personalities and characters at play. These personalities and characters are often on and off screen, so it takes good writing and excellent directions to pull it all together in a spectacle that both pleases and entertains the paying audience.

This time I’m going to start with the director. I don’t think the MCU creative people could have gotten it any more right by sourcing Joss Whedon as director. I was already a Whedon fan. I loved Buffy, Angel and Firefly. Dollhouse not so much, but everyone is allowed to put a foot wrong. I liked the idea of Dollhouse, just felt some of the execution was off, and it did give the world the talents of Dichen Lachman.

Not only can Whedon direct, he can write and his dialog is excellent. Touches of Joss can be seen all through The Avengers, especially in Tony Stark’s dialog. I’d be surprised if his nick name of Point Break for Thor wasn’t a Whedon contribution.

Casting wasn’t hard, because the majority of actors returned to the roles that they had already successfully played. Robert Downey Junior was Tony Stark, Chris Hemsworth Thor, Chris Evans Captain America, Scarlett Johansson the Black Widow, Jeremy Renner Hawkeye (or as Erik Selvigg refers to him ‘The Hawk’). Samuel Jackson was Nick Fury, who had a significantly expanded role for this film (he’s kind of an honorary Avenger). The one exception was Ed Norton’s Bruce Banner, he was replaced by Mark Ruffalo.

Smaller roles were also reprised, Clark Gregg played Agent Phil Coulson for the 4th and most significant time, his fan boying performance around Captain America is a joy to watch. Gwyneth Paltrow played Pepper again, even though this wasn’t an Iron Man film. Stellan Skarsgaard came back as Erik Selvigg. Maximilian Hernandez came back very briefly as Sitwell. Stan Lee appeared as an incredulous chess player in one of the post credit sequences. Paul Bettany voiced Jarvis again.

Tom Hiddleston returned to play Loki as the villain of this piece and my God he did a good job. It was such a layered and on note performance. He seemed to connect in one way or another and develop chemistry with every character he worked with. His ‘mewling quim’ line to Natasha Romanov is one of the most remembered from the film, largely because of the modern day translation, but that entire scene is fascinating and a credit to the two actors on screen. Hiddleston’s an underrated talent.

A number of other actors appeared in smaller roles. This was the first time we saw Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill. Her ass kicking role surprised me, because before I’d only seen her as Robin from the sitcom Before I Met Your Mother, and they are two very different characters in looks and behaviour. I like Maria a whole lot more.

Powers Boothe and Jenny Agutter are members of the powerful and mysterious council that Fury seems to take his orders from. There are other members on screen, but those are the only two who speak.

There’s a character credited as Waitress (her name is actually Beth), played by Ashley Johnson. She’s seen in a few scenes during the New York City Battle, generally being rescued by Captain America. She’s as kind of the everyman face of the whole thing, although I was kind of hoping they’d set up a relationship between her and Steve (I have to admit I find the Steve Agent 13 connection that first appears in Winter Soldier and continues in Civil War kind of forced, no disrespect to Emily Van Camp who plays Sharon Carter). It was not be, though. Sigh. Joss Whedon favourite Enver Gjokaj (Dollhouse) also appears in some of those scenes as a New York City cop. My inner fan says that he’s a descendant of Agent Daniel Sousa (also played by Enver Gjokaj) from Agent Carter.

The film is action from start to finish, but they don’t sacrifice story or character development for action. The action sequences make sense and are placed correctly. Almost the final hour of the film is devoted to the battle scene of the Avengers fighting the invading Chitauri hordes. All the heroes are given plenty of screen time, individual and as a team. They’re shown using their particular skill set to protect their world. When Iron Man takes the nuke into the portal and looks like he may die, I can remember seeing that scene in the cinema and hearing an upset child say to their parent ‘He’s not dead, is he? Iron Man can’t be dead.’ It’s an affecting moment.

A lot of the plot revolves around the Tesseract, underlining just how important it is to the films and the universe and it's a partial pay off on something that started 2 films ago.

We get to see both the best of Tony Stark and the worst in this film. Both are evident in his complicated relationship with Steve. The two men share a mutual disrespect of each other. Steve sees Tony as a spoilt, self obsessed brat and Tony sees Steve as an old fashioned, uptight relic of the past. It’s driven by things in the past. Steve is jealous that Howard (Tony’s father) got to spend more time with Peggy than he did and sees echoes of Howard’s worst elements in his son. Tony is jealous because Steve knew his father better than he did and of how much Howard respected Steve.
The one thing that I don’t think really worked in this and future films is the relationship between Banner/Hulk and Natasha. They do try to play it up, but there’s more of a connection between her and Clint and by the time Natasha does realise the depths of her feelings for Bruce in Avengers 2, she’s already developed a real connection with Steve in Winter Soldier.

The Captain America films, especially Winter Soldier, and now Thor: Ragnarok, have come close to equalling The Avengers, but no cigar yet and nothing has gone past it in excellence for me. It’s the gold standard for superhero team movies.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Captain America - The First Avenger (2011)

Captain America: The First Avenger, was released in 2011, the same year as Thor, and the title left everyone in no doubt as to what the film would be about and what it’s focus was. Interestingly it was titled The First Avenger, when Captain America was the last Avenger to be introduced to audiences. The reason for the seemingly incorrect title became apparent in the second sequence of the film, even before the character of Steve Rogers was introduced. It’s set in 1943.

I was a little concerned when I first heard that Captain America would be set in the ‘40’s. I know that’s when the character was first created, and the 2nd World War forms a large part of his back story, but Iron Man, the Hulk and Thor were all created in the ‘60’s, and yet they were updated to the 
current day.

Having been owned by Disney since 2009 and having made 4 genuine hits gave Marvel the chance to play around and do expensive things. One of the most expensive types of movies to make are period pieces, and Captain America was not only a period piece, it was a period piece with modern day effects and technology behind it. I’m sure that they probably got a few things wrong, but if they did I couldn’t spot them and the film was to me, easily the most impressive thing the franchise had done to date.

Casting was again solid, with some really well known names and faces in it, along with the occasional surprised.

Chris Evans was a good choice as Captain America, he had the All American clean cut looks that the role required. He was also not a newcomer to Marvel films having played Johnny Storm, the Human Torch in the 2005 version of The Fantastic Four as well as it’s 2007 sequel. That made him the first actor to have played 2 major Marvel heroes. He played the role with the earnestness that it required. From his early appearances as the 90 pound weakling (thanks to some excellent CGI) to his post experimentation phase as the muscly, archetypal super hero. In Steve Rogers, Marvel and Evans delivered us their first genuinely good guy as a hero. Tony Stark is a self centred, obnoxious brat who no one ever said no to. Bruce Banner is a driven scientist whose hubris causes him to turn himself into a monster and while Thor grew and changed throughout the course of his movie, he began it as a spoilt, arrogant and entitled character. Steve is just a decent bloke who believes in standing up for himself and others and is prepared to sacrifice himself for the greater good if that’s what it takes.

British actress Hayley Atwell landed the role of the feisty British intelligence agent Peggy Carter. She would also became Steve’s love interest. This was the first time I felt the affair between the two leads made sense. I’ve discussed why I don’t think Pepper and Tony work, I got the same from Banner and Betsy Ross (of course that one is doomed from the start because of what Banner does to himself), and while Thor and Jane worked on one level, it seemed on screen that it was only put in there because it was required. Atwell worked out so well in the role of Peggy and was so popular with audiences that Marvel even gave her a spin off TV show called Agent Carter. It unfortunately only lasted two seasons, before ABC cancelled it due to ratings. Again, I feel that ratings were only part of it, it was by necessity a period piece and they are horrendously expensive. I may, time and personal desire permitting, do a rewatch of the TV show after I’ve finished the films.

Keeping up the Australian connection from Thor, Hugo Weaving was cast as the villain; Baron Johann Schmidt (aka The Red Skull, although I don’t think he’s ever referred to that way in the film). Weaving is one of Australia’s most decorated and in demand actors, and he’s managed to rack up credits in 3 hugely popular franchises, adding the MCU role to his parts in Lord of the Rings and the Matrix films. The Schmidt role required him to sneer and threaten a lot and he does that very well, managing to play the vicious megalomaniac very successfully.

Schmidt’s offsider Dr. Armin Zola was played by British actor Toby Jones. Jones’ lack of height makes him stand out and he’s very good at playing mad scientist types like Zola.

The veteran actor Tommy Lee Jones, with his gravelly voice and deadpan delivery is perfectly cast as the no nonsense army man Colonel Chester Phillips and he gets some of the best lines in the film, especially during Steve’s basic training phase. When he throws himself on what he believes to be a live grenade, thus ensuring that he’ll be the choice for the super soldier program and rendering Phillips’ own choice redundant, he growls, ‘He’s still skinny!’

The ever reliable Stanley Tucci played the creator of the super soldier serum that created both villain and hero, Dr. Abraham Erskine. He’s an interesting contrast to Zola, as well. Tucci’s also done his share of popular franchises, later adding Transformers and The Hunger Games to his MCU credit.

Relative newcomer Sebastian Stan landed the prize role of Steve’s best friend James Buchanan ‘Bucky’ Barnes. Barnes role was one that was significantly altered from the original one in the comics where he’s Captain America’s teenage sidekick.

Dominic Cooper was the younger version of Howard Stark in this one. It’s not a large role, but it is an important one. Stark develops an interest in Peggy, which makes Steve briefly jealous and he’s also the person who invents the iconic shield. A few words on the shield. It is introduced as a bit of a gag, meaning Steve has to test its effectiveness when an annoyed Peggy unloads a full clip of bullets into it at point blank range, stalking off, and leaving a stunned Steve and Howard in her wake with the words, ‘It works!’ However, when Howard first shows the shield to Steve he tells him that it’s a prototype he doesn’t expect will be accepted, even though it’s composed of the rare metal vibranium and he used their entire stock on it. That seemed a little odd, although it does highlight Howard’s penchant for excess.

Neil McDonough cameoed as the bowler hatted Howling Commando Timothy ‘Dum Dum’ Dugan, playing a good guy for once, Kenneth Choi, a well known face (especially for watchers of Sons of Anarchy) played Asian American soldier Jim Morita. Jenna Coleman (who would later become Dr. Who’s companion Clara Oswald) was one of Bucky’s dates in the early part of the film. Natalie Dormer, fairly fresh from playing Anne Boleyn in The Tudors, was an unnamed femme fatale who tried to lure Steve into her clutches (she would later earn fame as Margaery Tyrell in Game of Thrones). Richard Armitage (Thorin Oakenshield) played a Schmidt sent assassin. Stan Lee found himself impersonating a high ranking military official. Samuel L. Jackson reprised his role as Nick Fury. Clark Gregg’s Coulson did not appear in this one.

Veteran director Joe Johnson was chosen to direct and he did a top notch job, dotting all the i’s and crossing all the t’s. He delivered a great product and got some excellent performances.

Captain America continued the story of the Tesseract, having it fall into the clutches of Schmidt, although how it wound up for centuries in a church in Norway I don’t know. Before Loki tried to use it, it was in Asgard and that seemed to be modern day, but we did see how Fury got his hands on it later in this film.

Steve Rogers was the final piece of the Avengers puzzle, and being the man out of time suits him perfectly.

The love story between Peggy and Steve works, from their awkward beginnings at basic training and him pointing out all the places in Brooklyn that he was beaten up, to their making a tentative date and their tearful farewell as Steve tells her that his only option is to put Schmidt’s plane down in freezing arctic waters and they’ll be unlikely to mount a rescue operation in time to save him.

There’s Bucky’s tragic end while on a dangerous mission, with Steve unable to save his best friend.
Captain America is an epic in every sense of the word and even if we didn’t have The Avengers to come this still would have stood on it’s own as an excellent example of a super hero film.

This film was also the introduction of Hydra, an organisation that would cast a big shadow over the MCU in general, but especially Steve Rogers and anyone associated with him, especially Fury and S.H.I.E.LD.

Joss Whedon at the head of The Avengers had a hard act to follow, could he do it?

Friday, December 29, 2017

The MCU Rewatch - Thor (2011)

With 3 bona fide box office hits behind them the MCU really decided to spread its wings a bit with Thor in 2011.

Marvel had never before attempted to film Thor, and it made sense. Until recently, no one could have made a fist of putting the Norse gods on film and making it look decent.

While I was a keen comic collector during my teens and into my twenties, I never really got into the Avengers or their individual books, so what I knew about Thor came from the dreadful 70’s cartoon shows that Marvel did. In that particular version of Thor, the thunder god had an Earth bound alter ego. He was a frail doctor, who discovered Mjolnir in a cave while on holiday in Norway. When he tapped his walking cane on the ground, it changed into Mjolnir and he became Thor. It was rather reminiscent of DC hero Captain Marvel, who by speaking the word Shazam turned from spindly teenage reporter Billy Batson to the powerfully built super hero Captain Marvel. In more recent versions of Thor he’s the thunder god all the time, and that’s also what the film version went with.

Casting was interesting. The company could now afford genuine A list talent, but for the title role they went with Australian actor Chris Hemsworth. At the time the role Hemsworth was best known for was a small part at the start of the recent Star Trek reboot where he played Kirk’s father. He was known to Aussie audiences for his role on long running soap opera Home & Away. Hemsworth had the looks, he was tall, well built, blonde and very good looking, but did he have the acting chops to carry the role off? He was surrounded by a fairly stellar cast. One thing that didn’t become apparent to audiences until later on, although it is present in this film, was his excellent comic timing.

The female lead of astronomer Jane Foster went to veteran actor, and Oscar winner Natalie Portman. Portman was no stranger to big fan roles, having played Princess Amidala in all 3 of the Star Wars prequels. She played Jane fairly straight, but she did have chemistry with Hemsworth, which helped.

Another veteran actor Stellan Skarsgaard (patriarch of the Skarsgaard acting family) was Jane’s mentor Erik Selvigg. I liked his portrayal, it was nicely understated, his character also bonded with Thor, he was the first one to work out that he was actually telling the truth, or at least he believed he was.

Jane’s team was rounded out by Kat Dennings, best known for her role on Two Broke Girls. Her character of slacker intern Darcy was largely used for comic relief.

The Asgardians had all sorts. Shakespearean actor Tom Hiddleston was Loki and put in a highly believable, nicely nuanced performance as the complex trickster god.

Sir Anthony Hopkins played Odin. This was a great get. Hopkins is arguably the greatest actor of his generation and can play anything.

Rene Russo was Odin’s wife and Thor’s mother Frigga. She was largely wasted, being required to look attractive and motherly and not much else.

The role of the loud and large warrior god Volstagg went to British actor Ray Stevenson, who had a name for playing big, tough guys.

The warrior goddess of Sif, who was a sort of love interest of Thor was Jaimie Alexander.

Heimdall was the highly respected fan favourite Idris Elba. He brought an impressive physical presence and a great voice to the role of Asgard’s blind gatekeeper.

Clark Gregg reprised his role as Phil Coulson for the 3rd time. Samuel L. Jackson cameoed again as Nick Fury. Stan Lee’s cameo was this time as the owner of a truck, who ruined the vehicle by trying to drag Mjolnir out of a crater in the New Mexico desert. Another small role that probably went unnoticed at the time was Maximilian Hernandez as Agent Sitwell, he would become important later on.

Jeremy Renner also made his MCU debut as a bow wielding S.H.I.E.L.D agent called Barton. He would later become Avengers’ member Hawkeye.

Shakespearean actor Kenneth Branagh directed, and he did a very competent job. I suspect the rather correct speech of the Asgardians may have owed a bit to Branagh's direction and background. Thor himself loosens up a lot vocally after exposure to Tony Stark in The Avengers.

The story is just too complicated, constantly moving between Earth and Asgard for me to do a proper precis of it, so I’ll try and do it justice in a different way.

Thor was a game changer for the MCU. While the two Iron Man movies were fairly self contained, as was The Incredible Hulk, Thor hinted at a much wider ranging story.

A lot of the plot seemed to revolve around a large glowing blue cube that was supposed to be the heart of the Frost Giant’s world, but would soon become known to audiences as the Tesseract and was in fact one of the Infinity Stones, a story that is still being played out in the MCU.

The film took the story out of Earth and into another dimension.

With the introduction of Thor and Clint Barton the line up of the Avengers only needed one more member.

Chris Hemsworth took Thor on an interesting journey, turning from a selfish, arrogant, glory hunting brat into a brave man who thought about people other than himself and realised that he still had a lot of growing up to do.

The post credits sequence with the Tesseract, Selvigg and Loki lurking in the background set up The Avengers nicely and left audiences eager to fill in the missing piece of the puzzle that was Captain America.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

The MCU Rewatch - Iron Man 2 (2010)

After Iron Man proved that if done right movies about Marvel super heroes could work at the box office, the company made The Incredible Hulk (not covered during this rewatch for the reasons in the first post), thus continuing something called The Avengers Initiative, which was cryptically mentioned by Nick Fury to Tony Stark during the post credit sequence of Iron Man.
Curiously they then made a sequel to Iron Man, rather than introducing audiences to other members of the Avengers like Thor or Captain America, the character of Natasha Romanov (aka Black Widow) was introduced in Iron Man 2 (it is an absolute shame that the character has never been given a film of her own).

By this stage Marvel movies were big budget extravaganzas that had no trouble attracting A list talent.

Robert Downey Junior, Gwyneth Paltrow, Clark Gregg, Paul Bettany and Samuel L. Jackson all reprised their roles from the first film. Jon Favreau directed again and played Happy, the role was far more beefed up, he got his arse kicked by Natasha and he also duked it out with one of the villain’s security guards. 

The character of Rhodey also appeared again, but Terrence Howard was replaced by Don Cheadle, which as I said in the review of Iron Man I think was a mistake. Apparently, Howard was difficult to work with. I don’t dislike Cheadle as an actor I just think he’s wrong for this role. 

Stan Lee also performed his obligatory cameo, continuing the mistaken identity gag from the first film, this time he was greeted as broadcaster Larry King. Curiously two other high profile journalists also appeared playing themselves in newscasts, they were Christiane Amanpour and Bill O’Reilly. Billionaire businessman Elon Musk also appeared in a cameo as himself, it was a nice little nod to the fact that Tony and Musk are not dissimilar.

John Slattery also makes his first appearance as Tony’s father Howard Stark. I know Howard Stark is probably modelled on Howard Hughes, but when they show him in his office, introducing tech to people I’m always reminded of Walt Disney’s introductions to various episodes on The Wonderful World of Disney. It doesn’t hurt that Slattery’s Howard Stark does look a little like the famous animator.

Another newcomer to the franchise was Scarlett Johansson. She played Natalie Rushman, although she later reveals to Tony in the movie that her name is Natasha Romanov and she works for S.H.I.E.L.D. Right from the start Johansson is excellent in the role and totally believable. I would paid for a ticket just to watch her kick butt for two hours.

The main villain was played by Mickey Rourke. He played a vengeance seeking Russian physicist by the name of Ivan Vanko (his character in the comics is known as Whiplash, but he’s never called that in the film). I felt Rourke kind of slept walk through the role. He grunted and put on an atrocious accent, but never really got out of second gear in the acting department. He wasn’t a greatly satisfying villain and his idea of using his own version of Iron Man against Tony was very reminiscent of what happened in the first film.

Sam Rockwell was cast as Jason Hammer. Hammer is a wannabee Tony Stark. He’s in the same business and he tries to upstage Tony on a number of occasions. He always fails. He’s not as smart as Tony, he’s not as good looking, he doesn’t have the same charisma and as a result he isn’t as successful. He winds up becoming Vanko’s pawn. Rockwell did his best, but the role was too close to Jeff Bridge’s Obadiah Stane for me.

Garry Shandling played the sleazy and corrupt Senator Stern, it would not be the last time Stern would raise his head and cause trouble for the MCU.

The pre credit sequence of Iron Man 2 introduces the audience to Ivan Vanko, it takes place at about the same time as the end of Iron Man, showing Tony outing himself to the world, and establishes that for some reason Vanko has an axe to grind with Tony and it seems to involve the senior, recently deceased Vanko.

Tony appears to have some sort of death wish, his behaviour has escalated since the end of the first film, and he’s appointed himself as the protector of the world, even going as far to proclaim that Iron Man has brought peace to the world. It’s about that time that he’s brought into senate in order to force him to give the government his suits. Predictably he refuses and at the same time makes a fool of Hammer. This is also where his friendship with Rhodey becomes problematic.

Part of the reason for Tony’s erratic behaviour is because the arc reactor that keeps him alive is rapidly infecting his bloodstream. Using the suit actually makes it worse and speeds up the process. Tony seems incapable of not being Iron Man, and begins to prepare for his eventual demise by initially handing over control of this company to Pepper.

While this is in process Tony goes to Monaco with Pepper and in a very Tony move decides to drive the Stark sponsored car in the Formula One race. The race is interrupted by a suited up Vanko, complete with some sort of super powered whips that are capable of cutting a car in half.
Happy and Pepper take Tony’s Rolls onto the track to deliver his portable Iron Man suit (it’s in a briefcase) to him so that he can attempt to stop Vanko. He does do so, although it is a near run thing.

Hammer breaks Vanko out of jail and uses him to assist with modifying his own weapon suits, so that he can take the military contract and do it at Tony’s own expo. What he doesn’t understand is that Vanko is simply using the resources provided by Hammer to pursue his own vendetta against Tony, and his is lethal, not ego driven. He also doesn’t give a damn about collateral damage,

After Tony turns up to his birthday party wearing the Iron Man suit and getting drunk, thus endangering himself and everyone else in attendance, Rhodey takes the action of appropriating one of Tony’s suits and taking on his friend. He and Tony cancel each other out, then Rhodey takes the suit to an airbase and turns it over, but is the guy to use it. Why no lawyer from Stark Industries actually charges Rhodes and possibly the US Airforce with theft is beyond me.

What Tony doesn’t know is that the lawyer Natalie Rushman is actually a S.H.I.E.L.D agent placed there by Fury to keep an eye on Tony. He probably also doesn’t think that because he’s already got Phil Coulson there, although Coulson does leave prior to the end of the film to go on another mission for Fury to New Mexico.

Fury finds Tony, outs Natalie as his agent, and then tells Tony that he didn’t know as much about his father as he thought. He didn’t know Howard was one of the founders of S.H.I.E.L.D and he didn’t understand that his father had a lot more faith in him than he ever realised.

After the pep talk, and after his relationship with Pepper hits the rocks (again), he unlocks the secret to the arc reactor and the cure to his own problem with infected blood. While he’s rigging things up is when Captain America’s shield makes its first appearance (the continuity with the MCU films is impressive), Coulson, who possibly recognises it, hands it to him. Tony uses it to prop something up.

Vanko makes his move and the new improved Iron Man is forced to act against Hammer’s super robot soldiers at the Stark Expo. He’s also fighting Rhodey, because the stolen suit was given to Hammer and he allowed Vanko to exploit it and control it. This is yet another example of why Rhodes shouldn’t have control of a suit. He simply doesn’t know enough about them or have the agility of thought to use them properly or get out of situations. It’s Tony who avoids disaster here and also inadvertently saves Hammer’s life.

Vanko leaves one last explosive surprise for Tony and of course Pepper gets caught in the crossfire. Tony does rescue her, but she wants to quit (I sure would). He stops her and they take their relationship to another level.

Both Tony and Rhodey are decorated in D.C, by the very same senator who was trying to force Tony into handing over his suits earlier.

The post credit sequence features Phil Coulson arriving in New Mexico and observing the commotion around a crater containing a large war hammer at the centre of it. This set everything up perfectly for Thor.

I found Iron Man 2 enjoyable, but less satisfying than the first film. Part of this was around the fairly lack lustre performance of Mickey Rourke, as well as the relative ineffectiveness of Sam Rockwell’s Hammer. I still have problems understanding what Pepper sees in Tony and issues with Rhodes’ unwavering allegiance to the US Airforce, which clearly doesn’t have everyone’s best interests at heart and its only using him to hurt his friend.

I also didn’t quite understand the need for another Iron Man film before we got a film introducing a new member of the Avengers. However Iron Man 2 does score major points for introducing the Black Widow and showing her taking names and kicking arse.

There's also another nice continuity point about Tony not liking being handed things, he mentions it a number of times in this film and it crops up again later.

I also loved the continuing establishment that Tony is an AC/DC fan. Their music is used to announce Iron Man's arrival in this and other films with the character.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The MCU Rewatch - Iron Man (2008)

Before speaking about the film, I need to explain what this and how it’s organised. It’s a chronological rewatch of the MCU films, with one exception. That exception is The Incredible Hulk. There’s a few reasons for it, one is that I don’t particularly care for it as a film (I’m not big on Hulk films in general, I find the character quite limited, although Thor: Ragnorak shows signs of making him far more interesting), secondly, while it does feature a cameo from Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury and Robert Downey Junior’s Tony Stark to recruit Bruce Banner/The Hulk into The Avengers, it doesn’t really fit into the rest of the universe comfortably, and a different actor played the character in the origin film and in The Avengers (Edward Norton was replaced by Mark Ruffalo, which is a change for the better I think), thirdly, and possibly most importantly, I can’t source a copy of the film.

Because this is a rewatch of the MCU films it won’t feature either of the Spiderman reboots, the Ghost Rider films or any of the X films, including Deadpool and Logan (although Logan is an excellent film). On with the rewatch.

When I first heard that Marvel were making an Iron Man film, I was kind of puzzled. I like most superhero films, so that didn’t bother me. I just found the choice of character kind of odd. Iron Man’s been around a long time, he was a founding member of The Avengers, and his solo book has always sold well enough to remain on the shelves. The idea of a millionaire industrialist moonlighting as a superhero, using the anonymity of a costume, although the costume is what makes him a superhero and is his weapon, isn’t new and it kind of made Tony Stark into Marvel’s version of Bruce Wayne. 

Iron Man is a good character, but he’s not someone anybody immediately thought when they heard Marvel comics movie. Another thing that made it an interesting choice was the amount of technology and CGI required to pull this off successfully. If it didn’t look good, it would just be crap. Back in 2008, Marvel Films hadn’t become popular and they weren’t owned by Disney so didn’t have access to the entertainment behemoth’s bottomless pit of money.

I do think they got everything right with casting, although people may not have thought it at the time. Robert Downey Junior was to my mind a good choice, but he came with some off-screen issues. Iron Man was a bit of a last chance saloon for RDJ. If he behaved himself and the film did well at the box office then his career would be rejuvenated, if not then he was probably on the Hollywood scrap heap. He seemed to base Tony on his own off-screen persona, too. Total and utterly self obessed brat, who expected everyone he came in contact with to ignore his appalling behaviour because of his undeniable talent.

The casting of Gwyneth Paltrow as Tony’s protective PA Pepper Potts was a smart move. She had an Oscar, a profile and the acting ability to make people invest in the character and forget the stupid name and her rather problematic relationship with Tony. Honestly, he’s such a knob that I don’t know why a smart lady like Pepper would continue to support him and want to be involved with him romantically. Pepper’s role had to be made more than a cameo, too, because without her the film is rather heavy on the testosterone.

Jeff Bridges also gave the film some cred. Another highly respected and decorated actor, and he had the looks and the talent to compel audiences to pay attention to his portrayal of the duplicitous and avaricious Obadiah Slane. He had a wonderful time chewing his way through the scenery, especially late in the film when he turns into a genuine super villain.

I’m possibly one of the few people who prefer Terence Howard’s James ‘Rhodey’ Rhodes to Don Cheadle’s. Howard to me is more believable as an experienced and highly decorated pilot. I keep expecting Don Cheadle to crack a joke at an inappropriate moment. I also preferred the way Rhodey was written in the first film, since then he seems to have become quite literally a ‘weapon’ for the US military. If they want something to just blindly follow orders they can replace Rhodes with a robot.

Then there was the largely unknown Clark Gregg to play the shadowy, ultra-competent, super cool, but somehow scary Agent Phil Coulson (although at this stage I think his first name really was Agent)

Samuel L. Jackson’s involvement was known about, but it was only mooted that he would play Nick Fury.

Everyone knew Stan Lee would put in a cameo. He’d already done this in nearly every other movie that featured the characters he helped to create. This was a really tiny one, he was mistaken for Hugh Hefner at a gala awards night Tony turns up to.

The final bit of casting was to bring in the talents of British actor Paul Bettany to voice Tony’s very English AI butler Jarvis. Jarvis also helps Tony run and use the suit.

The director was a bit left field. Jon Favreau had done a few films, and knew what he was doing, but he hadn’t helmed an action flick before, and he was also better known as an actor at the time. I knew him as Monica’s eccentric, billionaire boyfriend in Friends. He did also get on screen in Iron Man as Tony’s chauffeur/bodyguard Harold ‘Happy’ Hogan. He wasn’t required to do a lot this time around, other than look and sound vaguely competent. He got larger roles in the subsequent films, and weirdly enough in Spiderman: Homecoming.

The story definitely brought things into the now quite successfully. The brash billionaire tech genius Tony Stark goes to Afghanistan to demo his new ‘shock and awe’ weapon to the US military on the ground there. His convoy is attacked, most of the soldiers are killed and he himself is fatally wounded.

The very same people who wounded him, instruct a brilliant captive to keep him alive, which he does by hooking Tony’s heart up to a car battery to keep it beating. They want to use him, not as a hostage, but to make them a version of the weapon he was trying to sell to the US. He ‘agrees’, but instead uses the time and equipment to fashion himself an arc reactor to replace the car battery that keeps him alive in implants it in his chest. He then makes a suit of armour, which he uses to help him escape. I did appreciate that Tony’s first fairly crude Iron Man suit resembled the one that he first wore in the ‘60’s when the comic and the character originally appeared, before being superceded by the slicker, more colourful, iconic red and gold Iron Man suit.

After freeing himself and being rescued, Tony goes back to the US and promptly announces that Stark Technology are out of the weapons business. This immediately puts him offside with Stane, who only exists to make money. Even without knowing what would happen, the astute viewer could work out that Stane had something to do with Tony’s original abduction.

Tony works secretly in his basement on the Iron Man suit and after some teething problems, takes it out for a test run, nearly killing himself in the process by taking it too high and freezing it, cutting out all the electrics. Of course this had to happen so that the audience realise what he’s doing to Stane’s suit later on. For someone so smart, though, Tony does make some incredibly stupid moves.

When he goes to Afghanistan to use the suit to save a village and take some measure of revenge on the people that kidnapped and imprisoned him, he gets himself on the air force’s radar, which is how Rhodey finds out that his long time friend is actually a superhero, and also when he first harbours thoughts of donning a super suit himself. Between them Pepper, Rhodes and Coulson work out that Tony is in danger from within and take steps to circumvent it.

It all comes down to a major league battle between Tony Stark’s Iron Man and Obadiah Stane in a bigger, more powerful, possibly better designed suit. I think what really wins the battle in the end is that Tony built his suit himself so knows how to work it better than Stane does, his was designed by company experts.

When the dust clears Tony predictably ignores everything Agent Coulson tells him to say and breaks one the major superhero rules, he outs himself as Iron Man.

There’s one of the now expected post credits sequence when Tony arrives at his Malibu mansion to find Nick Fury waiting for him and audiences first hear the words ‘Avengers Initiative’.

It was a good, strong start and audiences worldwide loved it. Thus was born the MCU.