Ten days into the new year, it’s past time to knock out GitM’s best-of-2011 list. To be honest, last year’s movie crop was somewhat underwhelming, and as always, there are a few more gaps I’d love to have plugged first — Cedar Rapids, Margin Call, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Take Shelter, Warrior — but, for what I saw last year, here’s the best of ‘em…
Most Disappointing: Had I more faith in Zack Snyder beforehand, this would go to his thoroughly terrible Sucker Punch, and, alas, the unfortunately botched Green Lantern came close to taking this spot as well. In the end, though, this goes to Jon Favreau’s misfire Cowboys and Aliens. Cowboys! Aliens! Daniel Craig! Harrison Ford! And yet, this one came out duller than dirt.
Worth Netflixing: The Adjustment Bureau, Beginners, The Conspirator, A Dangerous Method, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Pt. 2, Hugo, The Ides of March, J. Edgar, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, The Tree of Life, The Trip, Win Win
Best Actor: Gary Oldman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; George Clooney, The Descendants; Michael Fassbender, Shame
Best Actress: Rooney Mara, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Charlize Theron, Young Adult; Mia Wasikowska, Jane Eyre
Best Supporting Actor: Uggie, The Artist; Christopher Plummer, Beginners, Eric Bana, Hanna; Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hardy, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Best Supporting Actress: Shailene Woodley, The Descendants; Jessica Chastain, The Tree of Life, Melissa McCarthy, Bridesmaids, Cate Blanchett, Hanna
Unseen: 30 Minutes or Less, Albert Nobbs, Anonymous, Another Earth, Apollo 18, Arthur, Arthur Christmas, Atlas Shrugged, A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas, Bad Teacher, Barney’s Version, Beastly, The Beaver, Bellflower, Biutiful, Carnage, Cars 2, Cedar Rapids, The Change-Up, Colombiana, Conan the Barbarian, Coriolanus, The Darkest Hour, The Debt, The Devil’s Double, The Dilemma, Dolphin Tale, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, Dream House, Drive Angry, Dylan Dog: Dead of Night, Everything Must Go, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Fast Five, Footloose, Fright Night, The Guard, The Hangover Pt 2, Happy Feet 2,The Help, Hesher, Horrible Bosses, I Am Number Four, Immortals, Incendies, In the Land of Blood and Honey, In Time, The Iron Lady, I Saw the Devil, Jack and Jill, Killer Elite, Kung Fu Panda 2, Larry Crowne, The Last Circus, Like Crazy, The Lincoln Lawyer, Margaret, Margin Call, Martha Marcy May Marlene, The Mechanic, Melancholia, Moneyball, Mr. Popper’s Penguins, My Week with Marilyn, New Year’s Eve, Our Idiot Brother, Paranormal Activity 3, Pariah, Paul, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Priest, Puss in Boots, Rango, Real Steel, Red State, Rio, The Rum Diary, Sanctum, Scream 4, Sleeping Beauty, The Smurfs, Something Borrowed, Straw Dogs, Take Me Home Tonight, Take Shelter, The Thing, The Three Musketeers, Tower Heist, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Twilight: Breaking Dawn, The Way Back, Warrior, We Bought a Zoo, We Need to Talk about Kevin, Winnie the Pooh, Your Highness, Zookeeper
If anything, The First Avenger is more faithful to its titular character, since Johnston, unlike Branagh in Thor, plays this period piece straight, without the likes of Kat Dennings and Clark Gregg providing a security blanket of 21st century irony. Speaking of which, Chris Evans has already shown he exudes star presence in movies like Sunshine and Scott Pilgrim, and he was easily the best thing about otherwise bland comic-book flicks like Fantastic Four and The Losers. But, in the past, he’s always skated by on his snark, and I was worried Steve Rogers might be turned into a self-aware, wisecracking Spiderman sort to accommodate that. But, no, Captain America here is noble, earnest, and maybe a tiny bit dull — exactly as he should be.
In this incarnation as in the original comic, Steve Rogers is a puny kid from Brooklyn whose spirit is willing and flesh is weak: Even as his best friend James “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stans), and seemingly every other able-bodied American male in the borough, head off to fight Hitler and Japan in the Big W-W-I-I, Rogers is rejected from one recruiting office after another for being a tiny, wimpy asthmatic. That is, until a German emigre named Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) overhears Rogers again trying to serve his country for the umpteenth time. Perhaps, Erskine decides, this brave little man might be the perfect candidate for America’s top-secret Super Soldier program, conveniently headquartered in New York City. (Not to be confused with the Manhattan Project.)
It had better work, since Nazi Germany already has a Super Soldier of its own. That would be Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), a.k.a. The Red Skull, head of Hitler’s deep-science division HYDRA. And, while Hitler wastes time “digging around in the desert” (heh), Schmidt has located the all-powerful Cosmic Cube in Eastern Europe, where it had been under guard by Mr Filch/Walder Frey. Now, with his right-hand man Arnim Zola (Toby Jones), Schmidt threatens to use this powerful device to (wait for it, wait for it) take over the entire world. Can anyone stop his dastardly plan? Anyone, anyone? Rogers?
So, ya, pretty standard set-up, of course. Along the hero’s journey, Captain America suffers through boot camp (led by Tommy Lee Jones, who’s phoning it in but who at least isn’t doing his Two-Face schtick.) He gains a costume, a shield, a squad (the Howling Commandoes), and the attentions of a plucky and beautiful British agent, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell of Cassandra’s Dream.) And he learns, more than once, that war isn’t a USO show, and that with great power comes great sacrifice…but let’s save those spoilers for The Avengers.
Speaking of that forthcoming super-team, there’s plenty of chum in the water in The First Avenger for Marvel fans, from Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper here, not Roger Sterling) to the aforementioned Cosmic Cube to a great first shot of Jones’ Zola, which pays homage to his four-color incarnation. When it comes to real, not comic-book, history, however, The First Avenger is obviously a bit fast and loose with the era. Several years before Truman desegregates, the Howling Commandoes are a multiracial brigade, and in fact the entire US Army seems integrated. And while Peggy has to put up with some macho bravado, she still seems unencumbered by the sexism of the period.
Still, given that this is a movie about a guy wrapped in Old Glory who continually punches Hitler in the face, the rose-tinted ahistoricism didn’t bother me all that much. Captain America is a propaganda vehicle by design — arguably the best section in the movie has him being taken on a Flags of our Fathers-style USO tour. And like Superman’s commitment to truth, justice, and the American Way, Cappy has always been more about who we as a nation should be than who we actually are, so I found myself more willing than usual to forgive the film some well-intentioned anachronisms. If anything, I’m glad The First Avenger didn’t choose to make Cap an overly militaristic hero. Instead, he’s a unassuming kid from Brooklyn, given great power, whose patriotism mainly consists of just trying to do the right thing.
That may seem like I’m damning this first of four comic book tentpoles this summer — along with X-Men: First Class, Green Lantern, and Captain America: The First Avenger — with faint praise. But, hey, sometimes ok is a good thing. There’s not much reaching for depth here: Branagh’s Thor is smart and self-referential enough to know that, once you get past all the family strife, Norse brooding, hubris of Gods, and whatnot, this is just a breezy, early-May popcorn film, and it keeps a light touch accordingly. The Dark Knight, this isn’t.
As such, and perhaps not surprisingly, Thor — the story of a fallen deity’s misadventures in the American Southwest, and the brother who betrayed him back home — feels more in keeping with the Make-Mine-Marvel larkiness of Iron Man. (And although IM was a much better film, Thor is more successful and self-contained a story than the rush job that was Iron Man 2.)
Like Iron Man, Thor is a comic that — Walt Simonson’s epic run in the 80′s notwithstanding — I’ve remained mostly agnostic about over the years. With all due respect to the Nordic pantheon from whence he came, Thor has just never been all-that-interesting a comic book character to me. He’s…a guy…with a hammer. Nor, for that matter, are his powers very well-defined. So, ok, he’s strong and can kinda sorta control the weather. But there’re a lot of generic strongmen running around the Marvel universe — Hulk, Hercules, Colossus, Juggernaut. What makes Thor different?
With that in mind, Branagh and his team of screenwriters make the smart move of dropping the “trapped as mere mortal Dr. Donald Blake” part of Thor’s origin and taking what’s distinctive about the character — mainly, his Asgardian roots and his noble, if a bit dense, nature — to fashion a fish-out-of-water story instead. Most of the humor that keeps the movie humming along — say, Thor going to the pet store to find a Lockjaw-type large steed on which to ride through the desert — ensues from this wise decision to skip canon and tell a rollicking Thor story (Thory?) instead.
The film also benefits from a bevy of actors, including but by no means limited to Chris “Papa Kirk” Hemsworth as the titular thunder god, who can managed the dual feat of conveying comic book gravitas when it is required and delivering moments of pure cheese with a wink and a nod. Anthony Hopkins, of course, is an old hand at this sort of thing by now, but his Odin is matched well by Tom Hiddleston’s impressive turn as Loki, the God of Mischief. (Let’s face it, Loki was always a more interesting character than Thor anyway, almost by design, and perhaps the most visceral geek thrill I got out of Thor was seeing Hiddleston — in the iconic horned helmet — lounging on Asgard’s throne like something out of Milton.) And a number of other actors here match the same wry and knowing tone perfectly, from Idris Elba’s Heimdall to Clark Gregg’s ubiquitous Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D to Stellan Skargard, here in the often-thankless role of skeptical science guy/mentor to the love interest.
Speaking of the love interest, Natalie Portman continues her post-Black Swan year-of-many-films here as super-physicist Jane Foster, and she’s decent enough at it. At the very least she doesn’t exhibit the deer-in-a-headlights stare that accompanied her last venture into FX-heavy fandom, the prequels. If there’s a weak link here, it’s probably — and sadly — Rome‘s Ray Stevenson (who already did time in the Marvelverse as the Punisher, in the one with McNutty) as Volstagg of the Warriors Three, a.k.a. Falstaff in the comics, Gimli in this film. I like Stevenson, but he’s mostly just miscast here. A more rotund individual (Oliver Platt? Mark Addy?) probably could’ve sold the character better.
Still, the very fact that the Warriors Three are traipsing around the margins of a big summer movie just goes to show what an embarrassment of riches comic book fans are enjoying at the multiplex these days. Even if I’m not much of a fan of Thor per se, I have to admit I definitely enjoy watching the world-building Marvel is engaged in as a studio right now. (Here, various Marvel denizens are name-dropped, and another Avenger shows up briefly mid-movie — You’ll know him when you see him.)
Like the comics they’re based on, these pre-Avengers films have permeable borders. It’s like nothing we’ve seen before at the cinema, and the ambition is thrilling. Of course, there will be a backlash eventually — one of these comic book films is going to bomb, and bomb big. But, surprisingly to me at least, Thor doesn’t signify the end is near. To the contrary, it shows that if you get a good director, good writers, and good actors who take their source seriously — but not too seriously — the comic book experience is actually pretty translatable to the big screen. The ball’s in your court now, Hal Jordan.
In case you were wondering, that’s skinny Steve Rogers (Chris Evans + CGI) above, and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) apparently enjoying some downtime below.
Also not to be forgotten, we have another official pic of Marc Webb’s Amazing Spiderman. Looks good in a dark room, at least.
Update: Just as I finished posting this, a promo image leaks from Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men First Class. From left to right: “Michael Fassbinder as Magneto, Rose Byrne as Moira MacTaggert, January Jones as Emma Frost, Jason Flemyng as Azazel, Nicholas Hoult as Beast, Lucas Till as Havoc, Zoe Kravitz as Angel Salvadore, Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique, and James MacAvoy as Charles Xavier.” Looks…crowded.
Meanwhile, a more promising upcoming comic creation announces its main villain — one who’s also potentially featured in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises — in this impressive trailer for Batman: Arkham City, due out next fall. Looks great, and Arkham Asylum is both very fun and a totally immersive Batman experience. But, while I get that they’re riffing on Call of Duty: Black Ops here (and take that, Sam Fisher), I’m already way over the recent trend towards interrogation scenes in my gaming.
A publicity still from Kenneth Branagh’s Thor featuring Odin, Thor, and Loki, a.k.a. Anthony Hopkins, Chris Hemsworth, and Tom Hiddleston respectively, materializes on the tubes. Well, I’ll defer my full assessment until I’ve seen the characters move around under cinema lighting, but, to my mind, these outfits don’t look so hot. I guess they were going for Kirbyesque, but they look too plastic-y and space-age to me. (Also, Loki needs horns badly, but they’re too iconic not to show up in the final movie, I’d think.)
Elsewhere in comic-to-film-news, EW gets a look at Ryan Reynolds as Green Lantern (again, too early to tell, but this CGI-approach could work), and, in lieu of Eric Bana and Edward Norton, Mark Ruffalo may well be Hulking out for Joss Whedon’s Avengers. (Eh, fine.)
Update: Forgot to mention the recent goings-on with Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class. Joining McAvoy, Fassbender, and Eve as Xavier, Magneto, and Emma Frost are Kevin Bacon and Jennifer Lawrence (of Winter’s Bone) as the Big Bad (Mr. Sinister?) and Mystique respectively. Also along for the ride: A Single Man‘s Nicholas Hoult as Beast, Friday Night Lights‘ Caleb Landry Jones as Banshee, Hannah Montana‘s Lucas Till as Havok, and purportedly Kick-Ass‘s Aaron Johnson as Cyclops, altho’ that last one is still up in the air.
“‘No’, says Nolan emphatically and unhesitatingly. He resists elaborating simply because, quite understandably, he says, ‘I just don’t feel comfortable talking about it.’” Christopher Nolan nips talk of recasting the Joker for Batman 3. (There was much fanboy speculation that the Ledger-esque Joseph Gordon-Levitt, now on Team Nolan as of Inception, might take up the war paint for some kind of Silence of the Lambs-y type nod to the character from the depths of Arkham Asylum. No can do, apparently.)
Elsewhere in the comic movie department, Jeremy Renner of The Hurt Locker, 28 Weeks Later, and The Asssassination of Jesse James looks set to join Joss Whedon’s The Avengers as Hawkeye. Which makes you wonder — how deep into Avengers canon are we going here? Ant-Man and Wasp seem likely…what of Vision and Scarlet Witch?
To be clear, the movie isn’t an embarrassment — On acting alone, it’s miles above recent big-budget studio dren like Alice in Wonderland or Clash of the Titans. But, if the first Iron Man soared, this one dutifully plods along, earthbound. Usually, comic book franchises, freed of their origin story, gain momentum in their second chapter — Superman II, Spiderman 2, X2, The Dark Knight. But here, unfortunately, we’re closer to Quantum of Solace territory — after a promising opening round, both films relapse into the lazy writing and unseemly summer-blockbuster habits whose surprising absence had defined their first go-round.
The thing that makes Iron Man 2 so maddening, and even kinda sad in the end, is that the powers-that-be clearly tried to capture the same lightning in a bottle that propelled the first one. As such, this movie feels like it was made by a committee, who sat down with Iron Man, a DVD player, and some notepads and tried to figure out exactly what made the first one tick. Then they took the various strands they came up with, made each one bigger-faster-stronger, and tried to recombinate them for Iron Man 2. Blammo, we have a sequel!…Only, it doesn’t quite work like that. That sort of reverse-engineering may work in advanced weapons manufacturing — but for movies, not so much. And, as a result, Iron Man 2 doesn’t cohere nearly as well as the original. It feels disparate and shapeless and, well, rusty.
So, let’s see here, we have Robert Downey, Jr. being charmingly egotistical, tossing off off-kilter line readings, wooing Gwyneth Paltrow, mouthing off to authority figures (this time, Senator Garry Shandling), and trading in on his troubled past to bring pathos to alcoholic billionaire Tony Stark. Check. We have a few exceedingly likable actors known for talent rather than bankability — Mickey Rourke, Sam Rockwell — in the villain roles. Check. We have lots of future-think computer displays in Tony’s office, maybe a funny robot or two. Check. We have plenty of state-of-the-art military-grade hardware for the boys-and-their-toys crowd, and a bunch of random “Avengers! Coming-soon-to-a-theater-near-you” comic nods to keep the rest of the fanboys happy. Check. Oh, yes, ‘splosions too, and don’t forget the extra Bigger Robots Iron Man has to fight at some point. Check and check.
All the right boxes are checked off, and they even add a few more. (Hey, everybody digs Mad Men. Roger Sterling? Check!) And yet Iron Man 2 still ends up feeling more like an attempt to sell happy meals at Burger King and cups at 7-11 than an actual, full-fledged movie experience. Why? Well, I’m guessing it’s because the film is undercooked. Simply put, the whole thing just feels like it was rushed out of the gate to make this 2010 release date, most notably in the writing department. Screenwriter Justin Theroux is a decent actor (Mulholland Drive, Six Feet Under), and he obviously scored a hit as one of three writers on Tropic Thunder (with Ben Stiller and Etan Cohen.) But, to say this plot has holes would suggest it’s somehow more form than void in the end. As told, this film barely makes any sense whatsoever. You may have heard that Mickey Rourke recently admitted he doesn’t know what the movie was about. Well, I sat through the durned thing, and I’m not sure myself.
There’s no point in nitpicking every little thing that doesn’t make sense in Iron Man 2 — it’s a fool’s errand. But even by the lax standards one must accord a film about a guy in a flying metal tuxedo, it just doesn’t hang together. You could wrestle over the basic plot points: What is Whiplash’s plan here, exactly — just to hope he picks up a benefactor? How does he know Tony will be racing at Monaco, and how does he — or Pepper or Happy — get on the track? Why does Justin Hammer want shoes? For what crime do the cops go after him in the end? Or you can go bigger with it: Why is Pepper Potts the head of Stark now? Why is Rhodey so trusting of the Big Bads? You’re kidding me with this new element stuff, yes? Why can the Black Widow turn off some suits and not others? For that matter, why is she even in this film? But the answer seems to be: Sorry, because that’s all we could think of to keep the story moving along. Sheesh, get over yourself, will ya? Sit back, eat some popcorn, don’t think so much.
Well, maybe they’re right, but the beauty of the first Iron Man is that it was slick, smart, and reasonably self-contained — It hung together quite well, and you didn’t have to turn your brain off to enjoy it. But this one’s lumbering and bric-a-brac and all over the place in that summer-action-movie way, partly because I guess they wanted to top the first film, and partly because it’s overburdened with all the random Avengers-prequel nonsense. See: Samuel L. Jackson as (nu-school) Nick Cage and Scarlett Johansson as the Widow. (I don’t want to hate on Johansson too much, although I still think somebody like Olga Kurylenko was a much better fit to play a sleek Russian super-spy. Suffice to say, they didn’t even give her an accent for some reason, and, when it comes to her big Trinity-ish action setpiece…well, I found Hit-Girl more plausible.)
So, is there a silver lining here? Well, Mickey Rourke isn’t given near enough to say or do, but he’s fun while he lasts. And, while Sam Rockwell may be slumming in a well-worn groove as “the guy who’s not quite as cool as he wants to be” (Galaxy Quest, Zaphod), he just about steals the movie away every time he shows up. (Consider the scene where he’s arming War Machine, and that business with the little nuke — a joke lifted from MIB‘s “noisy cricket,” by the way.) So, there’s hope for the franchise yet, if they keep up the quality casting and just spend a little more time putting it all together next time. The first weekend alone already suggests Iron Man 3 will be a go. Here’s hoping Favreau, Downey, et al get the pieces in order first before embarking on part III. Gotta break that rusty cage, y’all.
Update: It looks like the character of Howard Stark — Tony’s dad — is also involved, although he probably won’t be as Roger Sterling-ish.
Update 2: The Cap’n's rogues gallery expands as Toby Jones signs to play Arnim Zola, “a Nazi scientist who used his horrific experiments to allow himself to unnaturally extend his life, ultimately leading to his consciousness being permanently stuck in a robotic body. Type-casting!”
Speakin’ in tongues is worth a broken lip for Michael Cera, as is the love of Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, creepily dead-on), in the new trailer for Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, with Chris “Captain America” Evans (I like that choice, btw), Jason Schwartzman, Kieran Culkin, Allison Pill, Brandon Routh, and Anna Kendrick. Between this and Kick-Ass, we’re getting pretty meta with our fanboy films now…but it looks like fun.
Five movies this past weekend and I didn’t catch this one (although I did see the fun Tron: Legacy teaser): With Sam Rockwell’s Justin Hammer making an appearance, here’s the second trailer for Jon Favreau’s Iron Man 2. This is only two months away? Wow, that was fast.
“A decade ago we set out on this journey with Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire and together we made three ‘Spider-Man’ films that set a new bar for the genre. When we began, no one ever imagined that we would make history at the box-office and now we have a rare opportunity to make history once again with this franchise.“
Um, ok. Apparently as a result of continuing tensions between Sam Raimi (still gunshy after being forced to include Venom in Spiderman 3) and the studio suits (who wanted him to move ahead anyway), Sony puts the kibosh on Spiderman 4 and sends Raimi, Maguire, et al on their way. Next up is a reboot, scripted by Zodiac‘s James Vanderbilt and slated for 2012. (Here’s a tip — Don’t give the Green Goblin a cruddy mask this time.)
Also, in much less interesting Marvel firing news, Stuart Townsend is out as Fandral in Kenneth Branagh’s Thor, and has been replaced by Joshua Dallas of the forthcoming Red Tails and The Descent 2. Hmm…Perhaps he was still bitter about the whole Aragorn thing.
And another late arrival in today’s trailer bin, which will also presumably be featured before Avatar tomorrow night: The Stark family past catches up to Tony (Robert Downey Jr.) in the teaser for Jon Favreau’s eagerly-anticipated Iron Man 2, also with Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle (replacing Terrence Howard as Rhodey), Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell (blink and you’ll miss him), Samuel L. Jackson, Garry Shandling, and Mickey Rourke. Yes, they made a sequel to the movie about the trailer…From a fanboy perspective, I’m still thinking Johannson is badly miscast as the Black Widow. Otherwise, this looks like more of the same — Count me in.
Casting for Kenneth Branagh’s take on Thor fills out, with Jaimie Alexander and Colm Feore joining the cast. Alexander plays Sif, while “Feore’s character is shrouded in mystery, though it is known to be a villain.” (That spells trouble to me — Be it stage or screen, Feore can be super-hammy.)
Meanwhile, the strange Aaron Sorkin-penned, David Fincher-directed Facebook movie, The Social Network, gets a cast in Jesse Eisenberg, Justin Timberlake, and Doctor Who alum Andrew Garfield (also soon to appear in Gilliam’s Imaginarium.) “Eisenberg will play Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg; Timberlake will play Sean Parker, the Napster co-founder who became Facebook’s founding president; and Andrew Garfield will play Eduardo Saverin, the Facebook co-founder who fell out with Zuckerberg over money.“
In fanboy casting news, Tr2n (now just Tron) gets a lead in Garrett Hedlund, formerly of Troy and Friday Night Lights. “Hedlund will play the lead, a man who finds himself pulled into the world of a computer and retracing the steps of a character from the original movie named Kevin Flynn.” (That would be Jeff Bridges.) And also coming along for the ride, Tron himself, Bruce Boxleitner.
Meanwhile, Jon Favreau’s Iron Man 2, which is currently still being written by actor Justin Theroux, may have locked down its villains in Sam Rockwell and Mickey Rourke. Rockwell seems to be up for Stark’s industrialist rival Justin Hammer, while Rourke will reportedly suit up as the Crymson Dynamo.
With Matthew Vaughn now off the project, will Mjnolir fall into the hands of a Shakespearean? Apparently, Marvel is in discussions with Kenneth Branagh to direct Thor. That is…strange.
After a spiffy quick-edit reintroduction to the Hulk’s origin (albeit without Rick Jones or a gamma-nuke), Leterrier’s Incredible Hulk begins its first hour with a man on the run. It’s been 157 days since Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) last went all Tyler Durden on us, and he’s now hiding out in the sprawling slums of Rio de Janeiro, trying to stay off the grid, and otherwise working to keep a lockdown on his anger issues. But the US military — represented by one take-no-guff, mustachioed general, Thunderbolt Ross (William Hurt) and his deadly, if aging, new Special Ops assassin, Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth) — wants its potential Gamma-weapon back, and they will follow Banner to all ends of the earth to reacquire it, including the City of God. The first attempt at capture results in an “incident,” prompting Banner to head back to the States to look for a cure (with the help of his old flame, Betty Ross (Liv Tyler)) and the government to consider growing its own enhanced supersoldier (with the aid of the WWII-era superserum that helped bring forth Captain America.) Alas, Specialist Blonsky just can’t get enough, and before long he’s toyed with the forces of nature enough to make of himself an Abomination. This is what the military experts refer to as “blowback”…
And commence the smashing. But fear not, faithful readers! From the aforementioned super-serum to the Tony Stark sighting (now featured in the commercials), we have enough nods to the expanded Marvel universe amidst the carnage to make even Comic-Book-Guy blush. We’ve got S.H.I.E.L.D., we’ve got Doc Samson, we’ve got The Leader. (Fans of the TV show, take note also of the Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno sightings.) On one hand, for a old-school comic reader like me (albeit not a huge fan of The Hulk), the fact that Marvel was taking their properties to the next level and introducing interfilm continuity was the most exciting thing about this project. On the other, all the fanboy nods throughout made this film feel somewhat inchoate and unformed on its own. (What’s more, making it seem like the entire Marvel universe is in play carries its own pitfalls. When Banner is first seen discussing a cure online with a mysterious “Mr. Blue” out of New York City, I couldn’t believe they’d managed to shoehorn Reed Richards into the film. When it turned out to be someone else, I found myself let down.)
Finally, I know that I was among those asking for more mayhem and destruction from Ang Lee’s film, and that, as a character, the Hulk doesn’t really have any other setting other than “destroy things.” Still, by the time the Hulk and the Abomination engage in a climactic CGI-slugfest in my old ‘hood, I was well on the way to checking out. Part of the problem, I think, is that the fight here plays almost exactly like the final Iron Monger sequence of Iron Man. Our hero must face a bigger, more powerful eeeevil version of himself, and occasionally ensure that his significant other isn’t in the line of fire. If we’re running that show again, to be honest, I’d rather watch it with Downey and the Dude than with these two pixellated monstrosities. All that being said, Leterrier, Norton & co. have done a passable job with this Hulk do-over, and — as with Iron Man — if they’re getting the gang back together for another run, you could probably count me in for a matinee. Just maybe bulk the story up a little more next go, fellas. Too much smashing make Hulk brain tired.
All of this is a long way of saying that, given I have no real reservoir of nostalgia for its titular hero, Jon Favreau’s crisp, surprisingly fun Iron Man seems that much more of an achievement. (Yes, I’d say the movie of the trailer holds up.) Sure, it suffers from having to tell yet another variation of the increasingly worn origin story, and thus slips below the top tier of recent comics films freed from that obligation (X2, Spiderman 2, The Incredibles.) And it’s possible that Iron Man‘s sheer, unapologetic summer-blockbusterness may rankle a few viewers out there. (Note the not-very-subtle Burger King and Audi product placements.) But, as far as origin stories go, I’d say Iron Man can hold its helmet proudly alongside Batman Begins and the Donner Superman, thanks mainly to its superb cast (and inspired casting). And, as the kickoff to what’s by all accounts an absurdly-stocked fanboy summer, Iron Man sets an auspiciously high bar for the many features to come.
In this updated incarnation, Iron Man begins as a sequel of sorts to Charlie Wilson’s War: A troop convoy containing genius weapons manufacturer Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), nursing a scotch, is upended and undone on a dusty road in Afghanistan, and the ne’er-do-wells responsible are somehow armed with Stark Industries’ finest. Cut to the title card, then to 36 hours earlier, when we meet Stark in his natural locale, Vegas. The son of a famous “ironmonger” and member of the Manhattan Project, Tony is basically a cross between Bill Gates and Howard Hughes, an acerbic, alcoholic, womanizing billionaire who always knows he’s both the smartest and the richest guy in the room.
But after being near-fatally wounded by shrapnel of his own making and captured by an Afghan warlord in the aforementioned raid (Stark was in-country, with his Air Force pal Rhodey (Terrence Howard), to pitch his newest lethal invention to the Brass), the playboy industrialist undergoes a not-unanticipated moral awakening, thanks in part to the saintly doctor (Shaun Toub) who saves his life with an electromagnet and a car battery. After building a suit of armor to break out of his Tora Bora captivity, Stark eventually returns stateside a changed man. He’s got an arc reactor (don’t ask) for a heart, he’s getting out of the Merchant of Death trade for good, and he’s thinking about taking that whole suit-of-iron idea to the next level. This (literal) change of heart, however, doesn’t sit altogether well with Stark Industries’ chairman-in-regency, Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), who — despite his long relationship with Stark and his father — may have his own ideas on how to proceed. Y’see, the weapons trade really tied the company together, so Stark’s new digression will not stand, man.
The Dude’s turn toward unctuous corporate villainy is one of the most potent secret weapons in Iron Man‘s arsenal. (Speaking of which, look for the explicit Lebowski name-drop.) A bald, bearded, leering, and obviously untrustworthy achiever, Bridges is great fun here as the eventual Big Bad — he takes the film up a notch in every scene he’s in. (There’s long been rumors of a Tron 2.0 script involving Bridges’ character having gone all Col. Kurtz somewhere up the datastream. I was thinking of that quite a bit during Iron Man.)
But Bridges is not alone — He’s matched here every step of the way by Robert Downey, Jr., who’s both a brilliantly unconventional superhero and a note-perfect Tony Stark (indeed, so much so that my brother tells me the recent Ultimate reboot has basically ret-conned Stark into Downey, Jr.) It’s really hard to imagine any other actor in the role, or anyone else working as well. In fact, as with Batman Begins (give or take Katie Holmes), Iron Man is basically overstocked with talent at every position, from Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts (Stark’s Moneypenny) to director Favreau as Happy Hogan (Stark’s Foggy Nelson) to Clark Gregg (In Good Company) as an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. (although not that one — he comes later.) I mean, when you’ve got Paul Bettany playing the voice of the computer (also a nod to Jarvis, Stark’s Alfred), you know you’re working with an embarrassment of riches.
If Iron Man has a problem, it’s that, despite the prodigious talent on display, the movie is still somewhat hampered by the now-rote conventions of the origin-movie genre. I mean, I’m definitely of the fanboy temperament, but even I grew ever-so-slightly bored as Iron Man moved us through the usual paces (the awakening moment, the learning to use the new powers, the big reveal of the new suit, the final mano a mano, etc.)
Still, Favreau and Downey leaven these moments as best they can, and — as you might’ve guessed from Lebowski, above — there’re plenty of knowing winks throughout to keep the base happy. (Like I said, I’m pretty unfamiliar with Iron Man canon, but even I could figure out the nods to War Machine and the Mandarin.) In short, if you allow for the constraints of the genre, Iron Man is basically everything you’d want in a summer-y superhero blockbuster. And if they bring Downey et al back for the sequel, I’d definitely look forward to seeing Iron Man live again.
In Marvel comic-to-film news, William Hurt joins Louis Letterier’s increasingly-stacked The Incredible Hulk as Gen. Thad “Thunderbolt” Ross. (The movie, it may be remembered, already stars Edward Norton, Liv Tyler, and Tim Roth.) And, also rumored to be in the works: a Silver Surfer film written by J. Michael Straczynski of Babylon 5 (Will the character have any life in him after FF2 this weekend? I somehow doubt it) and a Thor film directed by Matthew Vaughan of Layer Cake and Stardust. (Ooh…can we get Beta Ray Bill?)
Method casting? Robert Downey Jr. signs up as troubled alcoholic billionaire Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man, for director Jon Favreau.
Two Fresno climbers discover a frozen WWII pilot on a Sierra Nevada glacier. As a friend of mine pointed out, this could be terrible news for the Red Skull…
Ok, I know I was hating on a possible Ant-Man film only yesterday, but that’s before word got out that Shaun of the Dead writer-director and self-professed Ant-Man fan Edgar Wright was rumored to be helming the project. I take it all back (well, at least on the Ant-Man front.)
Marvel Comics signs a deal with Paramount on film rights to ten characters or groups. Ok, Captain America and the Avengers seem like gimmes, but is there anyone out there waiting in line for the Power Pack, Ant-Man, Hawkeye, or Cloak & Dagger movie? Why not throw in Star Brand or Dazzler while you’re at it? This reminds me of the old e-trade ad where the two dot.com guys sign a huge venture cap deal just because they have a website.
Spanish scientists deduce that the Kevin Bacon of Marvel Comics — i.e. the center of the superheroes’ social network — is none other than Captain America. (Via LinkMachineGo.) Well, take that Red Skull…I wonder if Rick Jones has anything to do with this.
“It seems a pretty sunny and conservative and confident moment, despite a hangover of vulnerability from 9/11 and the recently stalled economy…That’s precisely the time when antiheroes are needed and comprehensible.” How the Dubya era paved the way for Marvel’s movie ascendance. A bit goofy, but ok.
Caught a number of films in the theater and on DVD over the past week, so as per usual, here’s the skinny:
L’Auberge Espagnole: I went into this movie more blind than usual – The only review I had read was George‘s, and for some reason I thought the film was about a mid-life crisis. So I was quite happily surprised by this sweet comedy about assorted European Erasmus students enjoying a Barcelona summer. Like Y Tu Mama Tambien (which I thought was a little overrated but good nonetheless), this movie illustrates yet again just how tame and lame our domestic youth comedies have become. L’Auberge was funnier, sexier, and more intelligent than any of the assorted American Pies or their ilk, and, whatsmore, all of the characters acted and seemed like “real” people. This movie seems to understand that it’s possible to capture the joys of youth and friendship without resorting to a constant stream of lame, mostly unfunny gross-out jokes. Even when L’Auberge founders in cliche (Here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson) or somewhat hamhandedly offers us a life-lesson in the last ten minutes or so, its moralizing still didn’t come off as egregiously as in Old School or Anger Management, to take two recent examples of bad American comedy. In sum, L’Auberge Espagnole is a fluffy film but a fun one nonetheless, and special marks go to Kevin Bishop as the visiting brother/terminal wanker – He more than makes up for the Audrey Tautou factor.
The Hulk: Ok, we may suck at comedies, but there are some things that American film does well, and very few of them are evident in The Hulk. “I’m trying to make a delicacy out of American fast food,” said Ang Lee about this project, and I had high hopes he might make something special out of the green machine. Well, I usually like Ang Lee, and I like the Hulk comics (never cared all that much for the TV show), but sadly, the two together didn’t work at all. Hulk begins with a great credit sequence and then falters for the next hour and a half…in fact, the Hulk himself doesn’t show up until an hour or so into the movie – Instead, we’re forced to sit through long, bad monologues about memory repression and daddy issues that never really amount to all that much. Even when it seems the movie is starting to find its sea legs, when [Significant Spoilers to follow] Hulk escapes into the desert and Nick Nolte (chewing the scenery like Al Pacino gone rabid) surprisingly becomes the Absorbing Man, it turns out to be just an illusion. Instead, we get more improbable conversations about daddy, and the Absorbing Man – one of the Hulk’s classic villains – instead becomes Cthulu the Jellyfish God or something. All in all, Hulk turned out to be long and boring. It’s sad, really, ’cause this film could have been really good. The Hulk looks right, even if his jumping is a bit off (He should come down with the force of a minor earthquake each time, not bounce around like Q-Bert), and I liked the comic book wipes and fades employed throughout the picture. But, in the end, to quote Amadeus, the Hulk suffers from too many notes. They could’ve played up the Frankenstein angle or the Jekyll and Hyde angle, but they don’t have time to do both and layer on all the Freudian repression stuff. Make all the delicacies you want, but in the end Hulk should be big, green, angry, and destroying stuff (He also should be talking, but oh well.) Somewhere along the way, Ang Lee lost focus and became more concerned with making an arthouse “comic-book movie” than with making the Hulk. Particularly given how pitch-perfect X2 turned out, this is a considerable disappointment.
Human Nature: Charlie Kaufmann’s other movie (besides Being John Malkovich, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and Adaptation, the last of which seems at least tangentially related to the material of this film) was a holdover from my Blockbuster night earlier in the week. And while there are a number of funny scenes throughout the movie, they sadly don’t add up to being a very funny film. The performances are generally good, particularly Tim Robbins as a repressed, manners-obsessed scientist (who tells his tale from beyond the grave, which was a bit strange since I watched Jacob’s Ladder again only last weekend), Rhys Ifans as “Puff,” the ape man subject of Robbins’ experiments (One of the funnier scenes in the movie involves Ifans trying frantically to hump a slide show screen, despite being continuously shocked by Robbins), and Miranda Otto (a million miles away from Rohan) as Robbins’ coquettish, quasi-French assistant. Sadly, though, there’s a lot of downtime between the jokes, and I lost interest in the movie in the last half hour or so. I’m on the fence on this one, but in the end I guess I wouldn’t recommend it.
The Grey Zone: This film is obviously a 180 degree turn in tone and content from Human Nature, so I’m glad I ended up watching them on different nights. The Grey Zone is a very bleak tale of the 12th Sonderkommando, the group of Jewish prisoners assigned to tend the murdering gas and fires of Auschwitz in 1944. Hard to watch at times, it might even be more unflinching than The Pianist, since it just throws you immediately into the horror without the slow buildup of the Szpilmans. Most of the action of the movie, which began as and still feels like a play, evolves around the plans for a coming uprising, and how they’re thrown into disarray by an unusual event in the gas chamber. If you can stomach it – and can get over the anachronistic accents and Mamet-y dialogue, the Grey Zone is well worth viewing, not the least to experience the surprise of a film in which David Arquette gives a more nuanced and absorbing performance than Harvey Keitel, who reminded me of Kurt Fuller’s impression of Col. Klink in Auto Focus.
In case it doesn’t feel like summer yet, Dark Horizons points the way to yet another Hulk trailer (Mr. Trailer is annoying, but the green guy’s look keeps growing on me) and another spoiler-heavy Matrix: Reloaded ad (although not as egregious as last time.)
Entertainment Weekly posts a number of new stills from the upcoming summer cinema crop, including new looks at Reloaded, The Hulk, and a host of others.
AICN points the way to the new Hulk trailer, and all the computer crunch time since the last one has significantly improved the look of the big green guy in question. He still looks a bit off, sure, but nowhere near as cartoony as before. I suspect X2 and The Matrix movies will make a bigger splash this summer, but Ang Lee hasn’t lost my trust yet.