BETTER LATE THAN NEVER?
The thing about having a wife and then a kid is that it eats mightily into your "hobby" time. Like everything else in life, it's a tradeoff. Time is limited. Choices must be made. No regrets.
So I'm here to admit that I haven't seen a lot of movies in the last three years. Aside from "Iron Man 2" and "The Dark Knight," I haven't seen any superhero type movies in years. This, needless to say, was a bad position to be in with the destined-to-be billion dollar "Marvel's The Avengers" movie opening up last week.
I did some catching up. I ran out of time to watch "The Incredible Hulk," but I did sneak in "Thor" and "Captain America" on (2D) Blu-ray late last week before taking in a Saturday matinee of the team-up movie.
This week, I'll talk about all three.
By way of being transparent, I should also mention that I've not yet seen "Wolverine," "Elektra," "Catwoman," "Spider-Man 3", "Green Lantern" or the last two "Punisher" movies. Was there really a dance sequence in that Spider-Man movie? Weird.
Some of this column might be old news to all of you, but I suspect many of you recently rewatched these movies and are ready to talk about them all over again, too. It'll all balance out, I suspect. And, of course, there's "The Avengers," a movie which makes Joss Whedon look like Orsen Welles for the superhero set. But more on that further down the page.
Quick note: There will be spoilers for the two previous movies. My "Avengers" review will be spoiler-free. Or, at least, it won't give anything away you didn't already see in the trailers.
It's "Lord of the Rings" done by Thomas Kinkade with Shakespearian direction. Asgard might as well be populated by futuristic Hobbits, with the exception of the giant church organ at the center where Kings are crowned and weapons are held.
It's hard for a movie like this to feel "real." With a Batman or Spider-Man movie, you can get lost in the world that looks like your own (just slightly more stylized, perhaps) in which bad things happen to good people before a final fight wins the day for the good guys. With "Thor," there's a bit of a wall going up. You have to buy into the premise to enjoy the movie. If a Rainbow Bridge or three multicultural friends playing second banana in colorful costumes while neat lines of soldiers in strong garb don't do it for you, you have no chance. You have to get past the green screened backgrounds and the mix of magic and science, which is a semi-theme they come close to focusing on but wind up merely playing lip-service to.
If anything, that's the real weak point of the movie -- they have big ideas and themes to work with, but those get the short shrift to keep moving the plot along. "Thor" is the story of star-crossed brothers, and that part works out fairly well. Everything else is thrown in to fill out the two hours. It works, so long as you don't think about it too much.
Take the inevitable romance between Thor and Jane Foster. You know it's going to happen because you've read the comics. Your non-comics reading friend knows it's going to happen because he's the lead guy and she's the lead girl. And so it happens. They shortcut right to it. There's no dramatic tension there. Natalie Portman's character nearly instantly turns into a giggly mess for the ripped blond dude. And if you buy that and not think about it too much, it works. Of course, you're buying it because you know that's how it is in the comics. If you read "The Mighty Thor" last year, you have a story in your mind where it worked beautifully. You insert that in and the movie flows. Someone analyzing this movie any deeper might cry foul and "shortcut!"
It's something I thought about a lot after the movie: How much of this movie -- or any superhero movie -- do I enjoy because I already know the story bits the movie is going to synopsize? And how much of it do I enjoy as a story on its own? I tend to think there's more enjoyment coming from the retread nostalgia than the standalone story merits. And I'm not saying that's a bad thing at all. It might sicken cinematic purists, but I'm just a guy looking for an entertaining couple of hours. On that level, it works. Mission accomplished. Give me some popcorn and let's call it a night.
I've never been a big "Thor" fan. The only time I ever enjoyed his series for any length of time was the Dan Jurgens/John Romita Jr. run in the late 90s, and even that only lasted for a couple of years. So the movie was a nice summary of the "Thor" mythos, even when it goes off into its own direction. That Loki origin story isn't Marvel continuity, is it? Did I miss a story somewhere? It works in the context of the movie, but seemed far afield from the comic.
The Warriors Three were a lot of fun, and Silf was a knockout. I'd take a movie of just those four running around and having adventures. I'm sure there are other nits to pick, but the movie worked for me on the level of a comic book devotee with only a passing knowledge of the series.
And was Heimdell's race really an issue for some people? So silly.
Natalie Portman has an assistant in the movie whose purpose is to, uhm, say one or two funny things, maybe? Point out the obvious? I guess her purpose is to give Portman and Skarsgard an excuse to say things they already know to inform the viewer, but even that only works in a scene, or maybe two.
The more you think about the movie, the more it falls apart. But you know what? I don't care. It's a fun popcorn movie that I enjoyed. I don't know that I'll ever watch it again, but I'm glad I saw it.
"Thor" is also an Easter Egg movie. I'm sure I missed half of the winks and nods to the world of comics, but I chuckled at J. Michael Straczynski's appearance and cheered Walter Simonson's laughter. I giggled at the "Journey Into Mystery" billboard in town, and nodded to Stan Lee's ten seconds of wonderment. It isn't a Marvel film without him.
Kenneth Branagh brings his overhead panning shots, wide angle lenses, and Dutch angles to the director's chair. What "Star Trek" was to lens flare, so "Thor" is to the Dutch angle. Branagh uses it a lot in the movie, though it never gets so cartoonish as to be an homage to the 1960s Batman television series. He doesn't use it with those kinds of rules in place.
"Thor" winds up being a pleasant enough movie. If you can go in knowing what to expect, it has enough charm to win you over. It's not the second coming of superhero cinema and it was never going to win any Oscars but, again, it's a fun popcorn movie.
This one did less for me, which surprised me since I like the comic book so much more and the director came with such a great pedigree. ("From the director of The Rocketeer" is all I needed to hear.)
I almost don't want to bother writing much more than that. It got the job done. I want to like it more, but it felt cheap and corny. No, it's nowhere near as bad as the previous Captain America movie with the rubber ears and all, but it bought too much into the idea of being a "comic book movie." Everything looked like a set to me. Everything looked CGIed onto the screen. For a movie set mostly in the real world in the early 1940s, there's no need to make everything feel so artificial. You can go hyper-stylized and win the day. You can go gritty and realistic and make it work. But "Captain America" seems to hang out in the middle somewhere, but I'm not sure it knows exactly where.
They threw lots of comics crowd-pleasing things in there, including Arnim Zola, an Agent Carter, Captain America comic books, and Hydra, but that's not enough. The novelty of seeing an old favorite character on the big screen isn't enough to get an audience excited about a movie anymore.
It was neat to see the continuity of the Marvel Studios movies start to come together in ways above and beyond just Samuel L. Jackson showing up at the end. Howard Stark was a nice inclusion, including all of his Tomorrow Land-type inventions and show.
I think what threw me off the most about the movie, though, was self-imposed. I knew what the plot of the movie should be. I expected they'd find a new or different want to make the plot points happen, other than just putting Bucky or Cap on a rocket. They did that, and they did that well. The problem is, I wasn't sure when that would happen in the movie. Would they really end the movie with the ice? Or would that do that earlier and include Cap's revival in modern times become the third act of the movie?
I should know enough about screenwriting by now to know that the latter is a stupid idea, throwing a movie off its throughline and confusing the viewer. But I couldn't get that nagging feeling out of my head, and they had a couple of moments in the film where it would have been possible for Cap to "die" and, with a couple bits of plot mechanics, have him wind up frozen under the sea for 70 years.
So maybe the failure of the movie was self-imposed? I'm not sure. It would take another viewing to figure that out, and I just don't have the time nor inclination for that. Sadly, it fell too flat for me. Even with a few minor 'moments,' there's not much in there that I'm going to remember or quote to a friend in a week. That's something that all great movies have in common.
"Marvel's The Avengers" has it in spades.
I fear I can't talk about this movie without pulling out all the superlatives. So let's just get this said before we get into more spoiler-free details:
Best superhero film ever.
DC fans or purists or old schoolers might argue for "Superman," but I'm sticking to my guns with "Marvel's The Avengers."
We have a tendency to over-exaggerate our enjoyment of the latest thing. It's natural. Without the separation of time, we can't properly isolate a thing from its environment and test its true worth. We also, as comic fans, have a tendency to judge things in absolutes. Check out any message board and see how often the words "best" and "worst" get tossed around.
But I'm not hesitating to call it now: "Marvel's The Avengers" is my favorite superhero movie of all time. I'd even argue for it being the best of them. Let's run down some of the reasons:
Not an adaptation: While it lifts bits and pieces from previous "Avengers" stories, this movie is not a straight-up adaptation the way so many other superhero comics are. It's an origin story that doesn't feel like an origin story. It's a full-tilt action story that just happens to function as the origin story. It's a continuation of the on-going adventures of Marvel superheroes as presented in movie form, not just an adaptation. That gives its writers (Joss Whedon and Zak Penn) room to breathe.
There's not a presumption of where everything in the story is going. You're not tracking the story in the movie with a favorite trade paperback at home. I'm sure this movie incorporates elements of all sorts of Avengers comics I've never read, but it's also not a straight-up adaptation of "The Skrull-Kree War," for example.
This movie, put simply, exists as its own thing, apart from the comics that inspired it. It's not weighed down by those expectations.
The Humor: I tweeted this weekend that this is the most Joss Whedon of Joss Whedon films. At one point, I could have sworn that Hawkeye looked a little like Nathan Fillion. If you enjoy that sense of humor, you'll love what this movie gives you: character-based moments that defy expectations and punch you when you're not looking or expecting it. There's surprise in this film, and that often lends itself to moments of great humor.
I can't go into detail without dropping into spoiler mode, but I did laugh so hard at one point that I wasn't sure I was going to be able to catch my breath again, or just cry. And the movie goes for moments like that about every five minutes. It doesn't let up. It does pause for character moments and to keep the story somewhat logical, but it never stops dead to drop the exposition.
I don't know for sure how much of this movie is left over from Zak Penn's original screenplay, but it certainly feels like Whedon has the majority of the final project coming out of his copy of Final Draft. Thank goodness. Whedon is a fan favorite and an actual comic fan who got to do a comic book movie. He's not just one of those Hollywood people who turned "geek" the second it became cool. He's the real deal.
And now he has the keys to the kingdom and can do anything he damn well pleases. I wish Marvel would sign him up now to an exclusive and let him go to town with whatever characters he wishes, though I know it's not how Hollywood works. (I also love Alan Sepinwall's suggestion for a "Marvel Team-Up" movie series.)
Money Well Spent: The last figure I heard pegged the budget for the movie at well over $200 million. It's all up there on the screen. "Captain America" looked cheap in spots, like it was filmed on a set with lighting effects added in post to try to make it look stylized enough to hide that. "Thor" took place in the desert or a CGI construct of Asgard. "The Avengers" destroys New York City in graphic detail with a half dozen superpowered characters and a sea of aliens, all of whom look like they belong. There's no cheesy over-the-shoulder angles or superpowered effects happening off screen to hide the special effects that were too expensive to render. It's all there.
And all the stars of the previous movies returned for this one, including a few extras that you wouldn't have thought necessary, but were. Stellan Skarsgard's character wasn't necessary for this movie. Surely, it would have been cheaper to get a no name actor to play a random scientist. But he's here, and his presence adds to the story. Gwyneth Paltrow even returns for a couple of scenes. (OK, so Natalie Portman is quickly explained away, but at least it was believable.) Heck, they even added in Maria Hill. She doesn't have a story arc, per se, but she's awfully cool and I was happy to see her get a moment or two. If there's ever a S.H.I.E.L.D. movie, she'll be a great cast member of that. And, of course, Fan Favorite Agent Coulson just keeps popping up in all these movies, and is quickly put to work from the start.
As a bonus, the movie didn't open in a desolate landscape with a lone person and a vehicle standing along in the middle. "Thor" and "Captain America" both did that. "The Avengers" starts out in the desert, but at a very futuristic and busy S.H.I.E.L.D. complex.
It's a Fanboy Dream Come True:: As a Marvel fan of a mere 23 years or so, a movie like this is the kind of thing I might have dreamt would be cool, but never imagined would actually happen. The budget would be too big, the rights would be too messed up, the effects wouldn't keep up or the actors would be second string. None of that happened.
There was a moment about a half hour into the movie where I felt myself just sitting back in awe and wonder that they had made this film. How cool is that? Thankfully, they did it well, so it was very cool, indeed. And it only cost Marvel the film rights to X-Men and Spider-Man to get here. . .
Ultimately, that's what pushes it over the edge. This movie is the perfect blend of fanboy delight and action movie adventure. It's not just impressive special effects, though there's plenty of that, too.
I could nitpick a couple of things, but it hardly seems worth the effort. Sometimes, it's enough to enjoy something. Now sell me the Blu-ray, Marvel!
I could go on for another thousand words about the movie. Maybe I will next week. We still haven't discussed the 3D quality, the road of superhero movies necessary to get here, Joss Whedon's favorite camera angle, my cynical thoughts on how Hollywood will explain this away to give no credit to what made it work, when special effects so weird start looking normal, the awesome trailers in front of the movie, and more.
Or maybe we'll talk comics.
In the meantime, check out one of the links below. The photography blog has been particularly active in the last week, with more DisneyWorld photos and lots of Space Shuttle Enterprise pics from its recent flyover in New York City.