Review: Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

After a slight stumble with Thor: The Dark World, Marvel’s ambitious cinematic universe project gets back on track with this robustly entertaining follow-up to Captain America: The First Avenger. By upping both the political and action stakes, and giving plenty of time to each of the various supporting characters, directors Anthony and Joe Russo have delivered a slick and exciting espionage thriller that engages the brain as much as the adrenaline. It may not be perfect – the action is a bit choppy, and veers into overkill towards the end – but this is still a strong entry in what is unquestionably a golden age of comic book adaptations.

Full review: Captain America: The Winter Soldier | Film @ The Digital Fix

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Iron Man 3 (and the Marvel Effect)

Iron Man 3 posterIron Man 3 opened last week in UK cinemas to the collective sounds of ringing tills, rustling popcorn buckets and whoops of delight. It’s one of those rare occasions where multiplex audience approval meshes with universal critical praise. Boasting bags of wit and energy, together with a sympathetic storyline, it’s certainly as good as the first film and possibly the best of the entire Marvel universe to date (though The Avengers remains this writer’s personal favourite). It also wraps up a satisfying trilogy in rousing style (dig those funky closing credits!), leaving the door open to future instalments but providing some degree of closure too.

Looking back, it’s difficult to remember now that the Iron Man franchise was never a sure thing; the character had nothing like the public recognition factor of, say, Spider-Man or the Incredible Hulk. Yet today it is notable for serving as the launchpad for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, an ambitious attempt to replicate the world of comic-books on the big screen by having various characters star in their own film series, while also allowing them to crossover into other titles/films as part of a larger shared story. Facing bankruptcy in the 1990s, Marvel sold the film rights to their characters left, right and centre, making the idea of a shared universe all but impossible; Hollywood studios being famously protective of their properties. As the rights slowly reverted back to them, the idea of a cinematic universe gradually turned from pipe dream to realistic possibility, though questions remained as to whether it was financially feasible, let alone practicable. Would audiences be willing to stay (and pay) for the long haul? What if one of them tanked at the box office?

It was an audacious gamble, but Marvel Studios – the movie producing arm of Marvel Comics, itself now a subsidiary of Disney – pulled it off with a degree of success nobody expected. With Iron Man, Captain America and Thor tentpole franchises all up and running (part of what is now called Phase One), further Hulk and Avengers adventures planned (Phase Two), plus new characters waiting in the wings with their own movies (including Edgar Wright’s take on Ant-Man), Marvel’s competitors over at DC must be drooling with envy. Batman has always brought home the box-office bacon, but success elsewhere hasn’t been forthcoming, though this year’s Superman reboot Man of Steel looks to be a significant first step in building up a serious response.

How have they achieved this success? True, there is an insatiable thirst for superheroes at the movies these days, but it’s not only that (just ask DC). It comes down to three things: wooing the existing fanbase with the use of popular storylines, faithful portrayals of key personnel and a smattering of ‘easter eggs’ for long-time readers; updating their origins and surroundings to make it easy for non-fans to climb aboard; and attracting filmmakers with pedigree and appropriate skill sets to make it work. Marvel have emphatically proven that it’s possible to make their films work for just about anyone, whether young or old, nerds or newbies.

Case in point: Iron Man.

Beyond its blockbuster ambitions, one of the most remarkable achievements of the Iron Man franchise has been its ability to blend real world politics and dangers with the soaring adventure and escapism of comic books. They might not have the inflated heavyweight drama of Christopher Nolan’s lauded Dark Knight trilogy, which similarly layered political elements into its narrative, but then they had no need to. Marvel and DC have always been very different kettles of fish, treating their superhero subjects in their own distinctive ways. Where the Batman films bent over backwards to make its characters and storylines as credible as possible within its shadowy world of corruption and personal sacrifice, Iron Man has been refreshingly carefree in its approach, happy to let the fun rise to the top with a quip and a smirk, though not at the expense of emotion or its contemporary context.

Iron Man 3 poster

That real-world milieu drives themes that run through much of the trilogy’s storylines; among them terrorism, the global arms trade, global stock markets, backdoor political dealings, and of course super hi-tech advanced technology (which, in the age of Google Glasses, seems less futuristic with each passing day). The third film goes one step further, using bioengineered suicide bombers as the chief weapon in The Mandarin’s arsenal – extrapolating and exploring a real world problem through the medium of a superhero adventure. It’s a neat trick to pull off without making it seem cheap and tasteless.

But the main thrust of the plot in IM3 sees the past return to bite Tony on the ass once again. The arrogance of his former life and his ability to create weapons of enormous power combine to put his life, as well as that of his precious Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and his countrymen too, in danger. It’s a recipe that’s been used in all three films to various extents, and many other comic-book adaptations besides, but hey – if it works, it works. After travelling his road to Damascus, life’s been far from easy for him – so he’s earned our sympathy.

What’s more surprising is that, in these financially austere times, so many people have taken a self-declared “genius billionaire playboy philanthropist” to heart. He’s almost an updated version of one of those dapper, debonair, gentleman heroes from the 1930s, like The Saint or The Falcon: handsome, resourceful, unflappable, ready with a wisecrack no matter how desperate the situation, and all too aware of how swoony he is. You need just the right sort of actor for that sort of role, which brings us neatly to Robert Downey Jr; the undisputed heart and soul of the franchise, and the man born to play Stark. Audiences adore him, especially those normally averse to superhero silliness. His electric performances have not only raised the profile of a character previously considered to be in Marvel’s second tier, but have also infused a spirit of wit and spontaneity into a massive Hollywood money-making machine – no mean feat.

The actor has spoken in the past about how dialogue was often improvised on the set of the original film as a way of circumventing a problematic script, and that impulsive, almost impudent tone has seemingly carried on through the sequels. Has there ever been a franchise based on a previously existing character so conspicuously steered by and built around its star? For now Downey Jr IS Tony Stark – it’s nigh on impossible to imagine anyone else playing the character. That’s not to say the role won’t be recast at some point – of course it will – but whoever fills those shoes better have damn big feet. Marvel would be wise to keep him onboard for as long as they possibly can.

With Downey Jr currently out of contract, Iron Man may no longer be the supporting pillar of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it’s done its job. As Phase Two begins, can this venture continue to grow without him? That remains to be seen; if there are wobbles along the way, don’t be too surprised if Tony drops by to check up on things. Let’s hope so – we’ll miss him if he’s gone for too long. Swoon.

[xrr rating=4/5]

Review: The Avengers (2012)

Avengers Assemble posterBefore we start, let’s get the title out of the way: in the UK, it’s supposed to be called Marvel Avengers Assemble, which is such a hideous mouthful I’m going to ignore it completely (from now on at least).

The story: Earth’s mightiest heroes are brought together by S.H.I.E.L.D., an agency dedicated to protecting Earth from the threat of invasion. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) must battle with Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who leads an invading force of aliens with the intention of taking control of the planet.

Marketing pedantry aside, The Avengers is the film we’ve all been waiting for since 2008’s Iron Man first hinted at such a team-up. It’s been the holy grail for comic-book fans for decades: a film universe equivalent to that of the comics, where superheroes not only co-exist but join together to take on a superior foe, or alternatively beat seven bells out of each other. Or preferably both.

There have been hints at such a prospect before. Joel Schumacher’s Batman films (*shudder*) made mention of  Superman and Metropolis, though fans prefer not to remember this (or indeed his films). Then in the early 2000s Warner Bros attempted to jump-start both their DC superhero big guns with Batman vs. Superman, an epic to be directed by Wolfgang Petersen from a script by Andrew Kevin Walker. This was scrapped when separate reboots were chosen instead; and, needless to say, don’t expect Clark Kent to turn up in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight series any time soon.

The main obstacles to a gigantic Marvel superhero mash-up have always been legal ones. The company had in the past made deals with different studios to adapt specific characters. Thus, Spider-Man lies with Sony and X-Men and Fantastic Four are locked in at 20th Century Fox – and studios are notoriously protective of their properties. But this changed when Marvel set up their own independent financing. As rights began to revert back to the company, several of their characters came back under the same roof and a team-up project became a legal, if rather unlikely, possibility.

But pipe dreams finally began to turn in to reality when in 2008 Iron Man featured a post-credits tease with Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, who in the comics is in charge of S.H.I.E.L.D. This obviously sent fans in to something of a tizzy, and sent a clear signal to Marvel that an Avengers movie was worth pursuing.

The Avengers are of course a team of Earth’s greatest superheroes. Except they’re not; they largely consist of Marvel’s second (or even third) tier of characters, the ones you find after you get past the aforementioned crown jewels like Spider-Man, X-Men, or Fantastic Four. Only the Hulk could be considered a true A-lister; Iron Man has been popularised by two blockbuster films but was largely unknown to the masses before then, while Thor and Captain America only have a single film to their names, both of which – though financially successful – mainly served to set up the story seen onscreen here. The remaining two characters, Russian spy Black Widow and ace archer Hawkeye, only had minor roles in previous Marvel films and were certainly unknown outside of comic geek circles, mainly because they don’t really have any noteworthy superpowers.

So it’s greatly to Marvel’s credit, as well as that of writer-director Joss Whedon, that this project is the success it deserves to be. After all, trying to fold several characters with such varied backgrounds – a billionaire in a hi-tech flying suit of armour, a man who transforms in to a giant green bodybuilder, a defrosted WWII super-soldier and a Norse demigod wielding a magic hammer – in to a single universe is no easy task.

But by laying the groundwork so far in advance, with Samuel L. Jackson popping up across most of the films (he’s only absent from 2008’s The Incredible Hulk) dropping hints about bigger things to come, audiences had plenty of time to get used to the fact that they were watching characters that shared a larger onscreen world. The softly-softly approach has clearly paid off, with huge public demand for this epic culmination. Just take a look at the early box-office returns for proof – £15m+ in the UK alone.

The film itself is a fast-paced, action-packed delight: from start to finish it’s a blockbuster that treats its characters and its audience with respect. The action is suitably grand and thrilling but never deafeningly so (Michael Bay could learn a lesson or two here). This being a Joss Whedon film, there’s wit and humour to spare which makes it palatable to Marvel newcomers without alienating longtime fans. Unlike Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, which try to sit within the real world as far as possible, The Avengers is a comic-book film and proud of it, and as such it’s perfect summer entertainment. That’s not to say there isn’t drama and suspense – certainly plenty of that – but Whedon finds exactly the right balance, letting the humour naturally permeate the breathless action sequences. All the main characters get their moments in the spotlight (though Captain America and Thor are pushed to the background a bit towards the end). Hell, even the 3D isn’t bad.

If one was to nitpick, the humour did occasionally undercut the threat that Loki was supposed to present, and the film might have benefited from easing up its pace a fraction every now and again. But when you’re having this much fun, why quibble? I can’t wait to see it again – surely the ultimate seal of approval.

[xrr rating=4/5]