Review: Thor: The Dark World (2013)

The lustre of Asgardian high adventure diminishes a little in this follow-up to 2011’s Thor (and last year’s Avengers Assemble too). Alan Taylor’s serviceable sequel delivers the epic action required from the latest entry in Marvel’s ambitious cinematic masterplan, but the story is awash with far too much pseudo-scientific blather and a vague sense of that-will-do plot laziness, which leaves little to savour beyond the visual spectacle. What worked in the first film still works now, which makes for an entertaining two hours for Marvel fans, but it’s a step down from Iron Man 3, never mind Joss Whedon’s breathtaking superhero team-up.

Full review: Thor: The Dark World | 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]

At the Cinema: May 2010

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2010)

Quirky, exciting, darkly comedic thriller about a New Orleans cop who gets deeper and deeper in to trouble with the police, rival criminal gangs, his girlfriend and his family in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Great performance by Cage. 4/5

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010)

Rather flat adaptation of the long-running computer game franchise. Stop-start nature of the plot, slightly wimpy hero and gibberish storyline overcome the potential fun of the premise. 2/5

Robin Hood (2010)

Rather dry and dull re-telling of the origins of the Robin Hood legend. Uneven pacing and uninteresting characters make this a disappointing adaptation. 2/5

Four Lions (2010)

Dark comedy (or light tragi-comedy if you prefer) about a group of Muslim men in northern England who are desparate to join the ranks Al-Qaeda and the like, and so plot to launch a suicide bomb attack. Trouble is, they are not the most competent of terrorists, and their efforts to strike at the evil West are foiled by their own idiocy. Director Chris Morris (The Day Today) has crafted a film that is as funny as it is thought-provoking, as well as occasionally very moving. Performances are all pitched perfectly, while the film itself neatly avoids offending either Muslims or victims of terrorism. It simply shows the would-be attackers for what they are: real people, misguided and flawed, but people all the same. 4/5

Iron Man 2 (2010)

Slightly messy but still enjoyable sequel to 2008’s Iron Man, with Robert Downey Jr. returning to the role of Tony Stark, billionaire and not-so-secret superhero. This time, Stark faces two separate villains, Mickey Rourke as a Russian technical genius with a personal grudge against him, and Sam Rockwell’s businessman who is in competition for lucrative U.S. military contracts. Add to this the problem of Stark’s suit slowly poisoning him, problems with his business, and interest in his technology from covert governement agencies, and you have a very busy plate. The film does sag a bit in the middle, and feels a bit overly busy, but it remains fun all the way through. This is mostly down to Downey Jr, who fits the role of Stark perfectly, and whose energy and charisma keeps the story buzzing. Director Jon Favreau handles the action well, but crucially keeps the stuff inbetween engaging too. 3/5

The new 1982

Blade Runner, E.T., The Thing, Poltergeist, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Creepshow, Conan the Barbarian, Tron… all great films and all released in 1982, a year commonly picked as a golden one for genre cinema (just ask the Ghost). Men of a certain age may remember visiting their local cinema to catch these classics-in-the-making; sadly I was too young at the time to see most of them.

The one that I did get to watch was E.T., which my dad took me to see in a long-since closed one screen fleapit. Cinema trips were pretty rare for us back then, so it was a special treat to be taken (once a year was about it). The hype for E.T. had been steadily growing – the poster image of the iconic logo’s two letters, together with the moon and silhouetted bike rider, seemed to be everywhere. I remember the backs of a few breakfast cereal boxes at the time having background scenes from the movie painted on, and you could stick some free stickers of characters anywhere you liked in the scene. The story captured my imagination immediately, long before even seeing the movie. I don’t remember much at all about the actual day I went to see it, but I think it’s a safe bet I was entranced throughout. It’s a movie I still love today; more than any other film it instantly takes me back to my childhood, and its status as a children’s classic is indisputable.

Since then of course I have caught up with the other treasures of ’82, and it is a source of some regret that I could not catch them first time around (mind you, the same goes for many other movies). The fact that one year in particular is singled out by a generation as better than most suggests an unusual convergance of quality, something out of the ordinary – when ideas and scripts and directors and studio greenlights happily coincided, resulting in a number of special films being released over the same few months.

So the obvious question begged is: could it happen again? Or perhaps it has already happened? Are there more recent years that saw great genre films released which could also stand the test of time? I offer below three possible candidate years which could emerge in the future as a new 1982:

1. 1999

This is an obvious one, a year made especially memorable by the release of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. The hype from years of expectation, the great teaser trailers, the posters – culminating in a film that simultaneously caused rejoicing and bitter disappointment for many. I enjoyed it the first time around, and there are still some aspects which are good fun, especially the duels with Darth Maul and the pod race.

Beyond Star Wars, 1999 also saw some other strong genre films released, especially of the horror variety. The big success story was The Sixth Sense, the film that refused to stop raking in money because everyone had to see it twice, thanks to its infamous twist. It’s still an effective ghost story, but to my mind not quite as good as Stir of Echoes, released the same year but which died a quick box-office death because of its perceived similarities with the Bruce Willis effort. Starring Kevin Bacon and based on a story by Richard Matheson, it’s well worth seeking out.

The other big horror film of the year was The Blair Witch Project, another money spinner but for quite different reasons. The first film that really used the internet to build awareness, it was very much a Marmite movie: you either love it or hate it. I was one of the ones that loved it, and it still gives me the creeps every time I see it.

For SF fans 1999 gave us The Matrix, which came out of nowhere to quickly become a new yardstick in mind-blowing sci-fi. Though it borrowed elements from earlier science fiction classics like The Terminator, it undeniably fashioned them in to a brilliant new whole, using the then-hot topic of hackers and the internet as a jumping off point in to a world of machine domination, human enslavement and rebellion.

Another children’s classic was born with The Iron Giant, a wonderfully intelligent and touching animation that in some ways was reminiscent of E.T. – following a young boy’s friendship with an alien outsider. Brad Bird’s film managed to be both a decent adaptation of a much-loved story, as well as a film that could be enjoyed by anyone. Its swift demise at the box office was attributed to a poor marketing campaign by Warner Bros.

There were other memorable films too: David Fincher’s brilliant dark satire Fight Club became an instant cult classic; The Mummy was a very likeable piece of Indiana Jones-style fantasy adventure escapism; and Austin Powers follow-up The Spy Who Shagged Me nicely lightened the mood with its extremely silly spy spoofery. There were other films technically released in 1999 like Sleepy Hollow, The Green Mile and Galaxy Quest, but they didn’t get released in the UK until 2000, so I’ve left them off.

2. 2002

2002’s crop of films also had several highlights amongst them. I could start with E.T.’s 20th anniversary re-release, but that seems a tad unfair so I’ll skip it. If 1999 was the year of Star Wars, then in 2002 it was all about Spider-Man. Long in the works, this eagerly anticipated superhero movie became a box-office phenomenon – not surprising considering that comic-book adaptations were all the rage, yet fellow iconic comic-book characters Batman and Superman were still in the wilderness, awaiting rebirth. Though not as good as the first Batman and Superman films, it was still fine entertainment, and it paved the way for its superior sequel two years later.

Marvel also found success with sequel Blade II, directed by Guillermo del Toro. A strong sequel to the 1998 original, it boasted plenty of action, del Toro’s trademark fantasy-horror atmosphere and a decent villain in Luke Goss. Some preferred the original, but I would say both are as good as each other, just in different ways.

My personal favourite of the prequels, Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones tried to fix the problems evident in Episode I. Jar Jar Binks was relegated to a cameo, Natalie Portman was sexed up a bit, the action quotient was significantly increased and Ewan McGregor’s Obi-Wan started to become the great Jedi knight spoken of in the original films. It also had a lighter tone than its much darker successor, and is the most purely enjoyable prequel as far as I’m concerned.

Jason Bourne began his quest to regain his memory in The Bourne Identity, quite the best spy thriller for some years. Many reviewers preferred the Paul Greengrass-directed sequels, but Doug Liman’s original is just as good in my book, maybe even superior. Liman seems to have done his homework and studied the classic thrillers of the 70s – his film feels like an updating of those in many ways, with its concentration on plot rather than action. The action is still good of course: the car chase here was the best since 1998’s Ronin, and far more effective than those of its sequels.

Speilberg’s Minority Report was an impressive if flawed sci-fi thriller based on Philip K. Dick’s story; intelligent and exciting, it was highly anticipated given the potential of the material matched with the calibre of director. It wasn’t quite the classic it might have been; if Blade Runner proved anything, it was that Dick’s stories work best with a truly visionary director able to project a sense of darkness and paranoia, like Ridley Scott. Speilberg, for all his talents and strengths, doesn’t do ‘dark’ very well, but nevertheless it’s a fine SF film.

It was a good year for low-budget British horror, especially werewolves and the undead. 28 Days Later was Danny Boyle’s stab at reviving the zombie sub-genre, and, though derivative (harkening back to the likes of The Day of the Triffids), it was extremely effective. Shot on digital video, the film had an authentic ‘survivalist’ feel to it, and the bleak tone was a refreshing jolt. Neil Marshall’s Dog Soldiers on the other hand plundered from the likes of Aliens and The Evil Dead to concoct a highly enjoyable tongue-in-cheek horror thriller set in the wilds of Scotland – it was cheap and cheerful in the very best sense.

M. Night Shyamalan returned with Signs, a film about a global alien invasion but told from the perspective of a preacher and his family living out in the sticks. If you can look past the odd narrative weakness, it’s actually a pretty good yarn, but admittedly it does depend on your opinion of M. Night.

Other films worthy of note were Reign of Fire, an underrated apocalyptic tale of dragons taking over the British Isles; Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams, easily the best of the Spy Kids films and certainly a very likeable family film; and Eight Legged Freaks, that year’s Snakes on a Plane – a film that drew huge attention just from its great B-movie-esque title, and wound up being reasonable fun.

Finally, there was the double whammy of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Harry Potter was fun, but The Two Towers was in a totally different league. Following on from The Fellowship of the Ring, director Peter Jackson superbly juggled the three main narrative threads (Frodo and Sam, Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli, and Merry and Pippin) whilst delivering an atmospheric and epic adventure. Though Fellowship may just edge ahead as the best of the trilogy, Two Towers is a very close second.

3. 2008

What, last year? Well yes, actually. There were some pretty damn good genre films in 2008, and top of the heap would probably have to be The Dark Knight, director Christopher Nolan’s follow-up to his 2005 caped crusader reboot, Batman Begins. Opening to staggeringly good reviews, TDK quickly became a fan favourite, and it’s not hard to see why. Continuing Bruce Wayne’s quest to rid Gotham City of crime, he finds himself up against The Joker, an insane(?) criminal who becomes Batman’s nemesis. A large part of the film’s success comes down to the late Heath Ledger, whose brilliant interpretation of the famous villain eclipses every previous portrayal. It has a few minor flaws certainly, but TDK as a Hollywood blockbuster is still a wonder to behold.

Most anticipated film of the year (for people of a certain age anyway) was surely Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the long, long awaited return of cinema’s greatest archaeologist. Not seen on the big screen since 1989, Indy, like Episode I, had to shoulder the weight of enormous expectations, and unsurprisingly it failed to meet them for many people. I myself enjoyed it a lot, thanks mainly to the sure hands of Harrison Ford and Speilberg, though it probably ranks as the least of the four films so far. Sensibly updating the “teacher” (part-time) to the 1950s, it’s a great last hurrah for the venerable hero.

Iron Man surprised many by becoming one of the big successes of the year. Taking one of Marvel’s second tier superheroes and catapulting him in to the major league, Iron Man was quality entertainment, with Robert Downey Jr. giving a barnstorming performance in the lead role.

Marvel also found success with their Incredible Hulk sequel/reboot. Not as successful (critically or commercially) as Iron Man, it still by and large pleased the fan community, supplying the popcorn thrills missing from Ang Lee’s original. I liked it a lot, though no more than Lee’s effort – both are very different takes on the character, but both have qualities I enjoy. Surely the perfect Hulk film must lie somewhere between the two?

More comic-book shenanigans came in the form of Hellboy II: The Golden Army, del Toro’s sequel to his 2004 original. Upping the fantasy elements considerably from Hellboy part one, this was a rich, majestic-looking work that many felt was an improvement on the original. Again, I felt the sequel complemented rather than significantly surpassed the first film. But great entertainment once again.

The summer’s best family film came courtesy of Pixar: Wall-E was hailed as an instant classic, and it’s difficult to argue against that view. The bravura opening 20 minutes or so as the audience is introduced to the charming titular waste collecting machine are utterly beguiling, and though the film feels a little long (a common nitpick of mine with most of Pixar’s films), it’s difficult to point out unnecessary scenes. A fantastic piece of work from start to finish.

Bookending the year was Cloverfield, the ‘Godzilla-meets-The Blair Witch Project handheld video monster movie’ that proved to be much better than it sounds, and Quantum of Solace, Daniel Craig’s highly anticipated return to the role of James Bond following the superb Casino Royale.

So, are any of these candidates worthy of comparison to 1982? Or is there another year I’ve overlooked?