Through the last year or two I’ve heard a lot about the latest films that feature popular characters of the Marvel world. I think fans of Marvel Comics call it the Marvel Universe. Curious, I’ve intended to visit the worlds and characters because I like superhero films, for the most part. So, I started this Marvel-lous journey severely deficient in Marvel lore and corrected that (somewhat).
Some business first – My all-time favorite superhero is Superman but he’s from DC Comics so in my viewing of Superman films and comic shorts through the years, he never ran into the Marvel heroes. Or at least that I saw – I may well be oblivious to mergings of all these heroes. I am also a fan of Batman although I am not very familiar with the darker stories of The Dark Knight that came to fruition through the comics through the years with the exception of the popular The Dark Knight film trilogy, which I love. In addition, through the film releases I’ve become a fan of the X-Men.
Anyway – with the enthusiasm that surrounded the release of Joss Whedon’s, The Avengers earlier this year, I made a pledge to watch the film but only after I watched other releases of films featuring the Avengers characters, which are tied into the ultimate convergence in Whedon’s film. I did it and below are my thoughts of each step in my journey. Before you continue, though, a bit of a warning…
What you are about to read are thoughts and commentaries of someone pretty oblivious to the Marvel Universe, its characters and machinations. If your intention is to get even a small sense about that Universe because you are a novice you may want to stop reading now. Not only are there spoilers ahead, but my confusion and lack of knowledge of the backstories and lore of these characters and stories may well confuse you before you even begin.
Also worth noting is that it seems I took the scenic route in this journey, viewing the films out of the order as far as the story and release dates are concerned. My twitter friend, @LastFilmSeen made a list of the Marvel Cinematic Universe on IMDB, which is very helpful for anyone interested in viewing these films in order to get the most out of the experience. And, I have to thank a few other of my Marvel-loving friends who also helped steer me in the right direction – @IrishJayHawk66, @Mercurie80 and @JonPaulWenzel.
An important mention for newbies – there are many references to S.H.I.E.L.D. in all of these films and in this post. Since I was completely clueless about what it stood for I thought it a noble gesture to make a notation of it upfront – Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division and it is the espionage and law-enforcement agency in the Marvel Comics Universe, which all of these characters become a part of – eventually. Two key, recurring characters who have important roles in S.H.I.E.L.D. are super spy, Nick Fury and Agent Phil Coulson.
So here we go on my journey to The Avengers…
Iron Man, 2008 – Jon Favreau, Director
Tony Stark, genius, innovator, playboy, party animal becomes CEO of Stark Enterprises, following in his father’s footsteps, a man who manufactures, sells and demonstrates weapons of mass destruction and toasts “TO PEACE.” To save his own life, he is forced to build an armored suit, a technology he then uses to save the world against the forces of evil. Outside the suit, Tony Stark is played entertainingly by Robert Downey, Jr. Inside the suit he is IRON MAN.
This is a fun movie. There are lots of laughs as only Downey, Jr. can deliver and lots of action. As the ultimate villain in this story, Obadiah Stane, is an actor who’s always a plus to any story, Jeff Bridges. How much do I love thee! Wonderful actor, looking very Lex Luther-ish in this film. I also like Gwyneth Paltrow here. Paltrow plays Pepper Potts, Stark’s assistant and the one with whom he enjoys some sexual tension – in this story, at least, they go no further. There are really fun exchanges between them.
Tony Stark: “If I were Iron Man, I’d have this girlfriend who knew my true identity. She’d be a wreck. She’d always be worrying I was going to die, yet so proud of the man I’ve become. She’d be wildly conflicted, which would only make her more crazy about me…”
Pepper does know his true identity as does everyone at the very end. The two superheroes I know best, Superman and Batman are a lot more secretive than Marvel characters so far, it seems. It’s funny how trained I am to be shocked at these revelations. And I always am.
The only negative in Iron Man as far as I’m concerned is the final battle. I love the ending of the ultimate ending of the film but the final battle is predictable – I guess there is a formula that must be followed – and it bothers to see these over and over again. I won’t describe it any further so as not to spoil it.
Thor, 2011 – Kenneth Branagh, Director
I knew absolutely nothing about Thor, the god of thunder and his story before watching this film. I think the images of Thor I’d seen through the years were few and far between and I’d heard the name but thought him more a character of mythology, not comic books. Turns out he’s both – sort of (I think) – a legend of Norse mythology and of the Marvel Universe. I had no idea Thor is a Marvel character or even a superhero, in the traditional sense I’d been used to. But, he is and surprisingly, I enjoyed this film very much.
First of all, kudos to the film’s director, Kenneth Branagh for telling a story with a huge scope, which in essence spans two worlds in a simple, traditional way. This is right up my alley. What could have easily been made an over the top extravagance of sets, in particular the Asgard sets (one of the nine worlds/realms where the Norse gods live), are kept limited in scope, manageable so that they do not distract from the story or characters yet, are visually rich and lavish. This is a huge story about god-like characters but with a personal feeling, which is quite an accomplishment. Perfectly told for the novice to this story and satisfying to all who are film fans. I’d imagine to those life-long fans of Thor as well. I must mention, adding to the richness of the story, a great contrast to that outer world where Thor comes from is the small-town world he is banished to on Earth, a very small Western town. Traditional American storytelling elements. The expansive dessert. Very nice contrast and great for the story. I don’t know whether this is all the intention of the story as originated in the comics but it comes across quite nicely on the big screen.
The Cast in Thor is impressive. The main character is played by Chris Hemsworth, his father, King Odin is played by Anthony Hopkins and his brother, Loki is played by Tom Hiddleston (his performance is outstanding). The supporting players are quite good too so take a look at the complete cast here, if interested.
My synopsis of the story depicted in Thor would have been all over the place so I am posting the simple version as noted on IMDB: ”The powerful but arrogant warrior Thor is cast out of the fantastic realm of Asgard and sent to live amongst humans on Earth, where he soon becomes one of their finest defenders.”
Captain America: The First Avenger, 2011 – Joe Johnston, Director
Given part of his title is “The First Avenger” I’m not sure why I didn’t watch Captain America first but so be it. Here again, is a very enjoyable movie. In this case I enjoyed the first half or so much better than the second half, which is in many ways a story we’ve seen many, many times. But then it occurs to me the villain bent on world domination just never loses its “appeal” and was a central theme in the majority of superhero comic books. I am glad to see this story stayed true to the origins of the story in the original comic book. I am a traditionalist, after all. That’s also the reason why I enjoyed the first half of the film so much – the parts of the story that emphasize the time depicted, the WWII era I am so enamored of with regards to mass media. It’s a really nice period film in many ways. Watching Captain America’s rise to fame as a media sweetheart that simply stood as a symbol of America as a way to further the war effort is right up my alley! I love all those scenes.
I also liked the fact the first half of this story is dedicated to building the character of Steve Rogers with emphasis on what makes him the puny, superhero by way of his character traits and not his physical strength he later posseses. “A bully will never be a hero.” Although his later ass-kicking of Nazis and villains is fun. Also to my liking is the way Rogers’ transformation from 98-lb weakling into muscled hottie, superhero is downplayed to some extent, making the character’s before and after what the story is about. Kudos to the filmmakers for making that choice, which makes this a more viable, believable story, in a way. At least for me. By the way, playing Steve Rogers and later, Captain America, the First Avenger is Chris Evans who does a fine job in the role and is quite a joy to look at, post skinniness.
The cast is great in its entirety in Captain America. It’s always a joy to see great actors like Tommy Lee Jones and Stanley Tucci in anything. Jones plays Col. Chester Phillips and Tucci, Dr. Abraham Erskine, whose serum is responsible for creating Captain America, the superhero. Haley Atwell as Peggy Carter is quite good too as is Hugo Weaving as the ultimate evil in the film, the mighty Red Skull (who, by the way, I referred to as “Skeletor” to a friend who almost took my head off for the blunder. Skeletor is from another series of characters not associated with any of this.) I must give props to the make-up and costuming in , in particular, I really liked the fact the powers that be decided to keep Red Skull to a minimalist evil look, in a sense, which I love. He’s very scary looking but not overdone or over the top, which is what many filmmakers seem to choose these days. Well done!
was quite excited, despite the fact I know nothing about this stuff, to see Samuel L. Jackson appear at the very end of this movie. I don’t quite know his role in the whole Avengers story at this point but is there anyone cooler than Samuel L. Jackson? OK, I’m getting very Avengers excited right about now.
Geek alert: Even after watching the two films noted above, I was surprised to find extra features on the two bluray releases that refer to the other films and characters in the Marvel film universe. The Thor bluray has a video out of Comic-Con that briefly introduces all the characters in The Avengers and the film’s director. The Captain America bluray has a one-shot Marvel short, which is great, by the way, “A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to Thor’s Hammer,” starring Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg). I’m telling you I still don’t quite get the cross-pollination of this troupe of fantastics! Wait – isn’t “fantastics” another superhero team thing?
Iron Man 2, 2010 - Jon Favreau, Director
This film starts with a video of the announcement that ended its predecessor, “I Am Iron Man.” For those of us with bad memories and who may be prone to confusion this is a key – so my first accolades go to the filmmakers and writers for recognizing there are millions out there like me.
It seems I’m going to think this with all of these films but again, the cast in Iron Man 2 is wonderful. You have Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow back as Tony Stark/Iron Man and Pepper Potts and this time they end in a stable-ish relationship. Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), a main thread throughout all these films is also back. Two actors I’m a big fan of, Don Cheadle and Sam Rockwell are in this, both very nice surprises for me. Cheadle plays Lt. Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes and Rockwell plays Justin Hammer, one of the villains in this film, although the least “crazy” of the two main villains. The other, truly off-the-wall villain with whom the last battle is fought is Ivan Vanko, played by Mickey Rourke, who’s very scary in his own right, sans costuming or make-up. Finally, Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury and Scarlett Johansson as Natalie Rushman/Natasha Romanoff, round off the main cast. Both of these are also very good in their roles. I must say that Ms. Johansson has a really fun fight scene as she goes after Ivan Vanko in the end. Who knew she could kick ass so effectively? Also, it’s fun to see John Slattery, now of Mad Men fame, playing even a small part in this. Seen only in video within the movie, Slattery plays Howard Stark, Tony’s deceased father who, it comes to light, was a founding member of S.H.I.E.L.D.
I have to interject here with a confession and something I’ll address at the end of this post. Iron Man 2 starts with a Senate hearing, which revolves around a specific conflict – Is Iron Man a super hero/person or is it a weapon? As I watched both Iron Man films this kept creeping into my head. Since I’m used to a different idea of the superhero, the ones that have powers or “gifts” independent of “toys” I wasn’t sure if, for this non-comic book fan, he qualifies as a true superhero. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy the character and his ultra cool suit because I do. But, the conflict/doubt exists. More on that later.
Iron Man 2 is another fun movie, although there is a bit of a lag/slow period in the middle. The technology as seen in the film, used by Tony Stark is great. And best of all is Robert Downey, Jr. and his comedic prowess. He’s hilarious as this character.
After the credits run in Iron Man 2, we see Agent Coulson arrive in New Mexico, at the scene of a crash from outer space, it seems. A hammer is seen imbedded in a rock. Thunder rolls in the distance. Fade to black.
And they unite to save the world – Captain America (Chris Evans), Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Wow! Is that fun!
Loki (Tom Hiddleston) of Asgard arrives on Earth after being banished from his planet/realm at the end of Thor bent on dominating the weak humans. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) of S.H.I.E.L.D. has no choice but to assemble a team of super heroes referred to as The Avengers to save the world from Loki and his really ugly army from another planet/realm. For a while it seems Loki manages to divide and conquer as members of the super human band of players spend more time arguing than they do fighting the forces of evil. But they’re just too good and the reason for their existence takes over them in a unified front against the formidable evil powers.
Nick Fury: “There was an idea to bring together a group of remarkable people, so when we needed them, they could fight the battles that we never could…”
It’s a blast seeing all the characters converge in this action-packed film. It’s a fine script that stays true to each character. I must add at this point that although I didn’t list The Hulk films as part of my journey to The Avengers, I’ve seen both feature films starring this character, Ang Lee’s 2003, Hulk and Louis Leterrier’s 2008, The Incredible Hulk, the latter starring Edward Norton the superior outing. Also, I was a fan of The Incredible Hulk television show that aired on CBS from 1978 to 1982. The series starred Bill Bixby as Bruce Banner and Lou Ferrigno as his angry alter ego. So, The Hulk is by far the Marvel character I knew most about before I started this journey so it was thrilling to see him play a part alongside the other Avengers. And what a part he plays! The kick-assiest of them all! Some of my favorite scenes in The Avengers are the ones with the Hulk. A tried and true great character whose “human” form depicted by Mark Ruffalo is a very enjoyable portrayal of the troubled man/monster.
My Iron Man decision – So, I mentioned above in the brief discussion of Iron Man 2 about my conflict. Is Iron Man a superhero or a weapon? I waited until now, until after the journey is over to make my final determination. But before I get there, it was fun to see exchanges between Iron Man and Captain America about this exact idea. Iron Man accusing Captain America (and vice versa) doubting who is a true superhero…
Steve Rogers: Big man in a suit of armour. Take that off, what are you?
Tony Stark: Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist.
Steve Rogers: I know guys with none of that worth ten of you. I’ve seen the footage. The only thing you really fight for is yourself. You’re not the guy to make the sacrifice play, to lay down on a wire and let the other guy crawl over you.
Tony Stark: I think I would just cut the wire.
Steve Rogers: Always a way out… You know, you may not be a threat, but you better stop pretending to be a hero.
Tony Stark: A hero? Like you?… You’re a lab rat, Rogers. Everything special about you came out of a bottle!
Steve Rogers: Put on the suit. Let’s go a few rounds.
Anyway – simply, Iron Man is not only a superhero but one of the best. Yes, he has no physical powers outside his suit, except for an exceptional brain and outstanding sense of humor (again, kudos to Robert Downey, Jr. who plays him to a hilt)
Tony Stark: Dr. Banner, your work is unparalleled. And I’m a huge fan of the way you lose control and turn into an enormous green rage monster.
Bruce Banner: Thanks.
…but it is HE, the Iron Man, who saves the world leaving the other superheroes in awe. So, how can I not be?
And there ends my journey…for now.
If you are not familiar with all these great Marvel characters, I strongly suggest you get to know them if for no other reason than they’re a hell of a lot of fun. They are all part of our popular culture and worthy of these new incarnations for new audiences and old faithfuls. Needless to say, I enjoyed this journey immensely. I expect (and hope) to have comments on all I may have gotten wrong or am missing with regard to these long and much beloved stories and legacies.
Bottom line – the final product, as individual films or as a series, is quite good across the board. On a coolness scale, I have to give this a solid “frosty.”
A congratulations and thank you to Paramount Pictures on its centennial for 100 years of fabulous entertainment we simply could not have done without.