Captain America: The Winter Soldier

 

Signed, Shield, Delivered.
 

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Vaguely controversial opinion time. Captain America is my favourite Avenger. The first Captain America film is also my personal favourite of Marvel’s Phase One. It spent more time and energy building its characters than any of the others in the Marvel stable. It’s proper structured storytelling with an understanding of motivation, theming and all of that other nerdy jazz than I can’t seem to stop banging on about. It’s hardly perfect though. Unfortunately, it proceeds to shite itself inside out in the last third of the film, not quite knowing what to do after skinny Steve becomes Cap in action as well as physique. However, I’d rather have two thirds of solid experience than an entirety of generic one (cough)IronMan2(cough). That being said, I had my reservations about The Winter Soldier. It’s based on a great story, but written by the people responsible for the underwhelming Thor: The Dark World and directed by some TV directors who happen to have directed the chore of the film that was You, Me and Dupree. Thankfully, I needn’t have worried.

“Most of the intelligence community doesn’t believe he exists. The ones that do call him the Winter Soldier. He’s a ghost, you’ll never find him.

The Winter Soldier focuses on Steve Rogers aka Captain America (Chris Evans). He’s joined by Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and the pair, under the direction of the cycloptic Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), are protecting S.H.I.E.L.D.’s interests home and abroad. Rogers, however, finds little fulfilment in being used as Fury’s personal attack dog and is still trying to figure out the modern world and his place within it. He meets up with war veteran Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) who has undergone a similar state of mind, not quite knowing how to adapt when the orders stop coming. We’re also introduced to Fury’s boss, Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) who is right behind S.H.I.E.L.D.’s controversial plans to monitor the global population and take out potential threats. Concerned that something may be rotten at S.H.I.E.L.D. after an attempt on Fury’s life, Cap investigates with Fury’s warning not to trust anyone ringing in his ears. On top of all this, there’s a mysterious metal-armed super badass roaming about known only as The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) causing all kinds of death and destruction. Phew. Longest plot recap ever. The story’s solid, giving us a spy thriller mixed with the standard superheroics we’re all used to seeing by now. I think the Captain America series is probably Marvel’s most experimental franchise as the first one was unapologetically a sepia-toned period piece whereas this one feels like a gritty ’70s spy epic, with the casting of Robert Redford a major clue as to what they’re shooting for. Whereas The Dark World may have left people questioning whether the superhero bubble had burst and feeling comic book fatigue, The Winter Soldier proves that if you’re smart about it, you can take on any genre and run it through the superhero filter and it’ll work. There are nice character moments and the clash of Cap’s yesteryear idealism with Fury’s post Edward Snowden/Wikileaks attitude is interesting.

The whole cast are good. Evans has refined his Steve Rogers schtick. He’s not as wide-eyed and innocent as he once was, but at the core, he’s still the same old idealistic Steve. Scarlett Johansson gets to go deeper into exactly who Romanoff is and relishes the opportunity. I have to say that I felt she was a little flat not really selling the character’s quippy nature, but that could just be her decision to make Natasha a disconnected, jaded type. Anthony Mackie is all sorts of fun as Falcon, giving Cap a proper verbal sparring partner as well as a brother in arms. Robert Redford also allows the film a sense of gravitas that it would have missed otherwise. Samuel L. Jackson. That’s all I need to say about him. Sebastian Stan gives us a good brooding Winter Soldier, but I could have done with a little more time with the character.

OK, the good stuff. There’s a lot of it. It whips along at a decent pace and has just as much time for the smaller interactions as it does for the expensive set pieces. Instead of vague “save the world” stakes (although there is some of that in there), it feels like a personal Cap story. I still love these characters and the new additions are perfectly fine in my book. I certainly hope we get to see more of Falcon and Steve’s flirty relationship with his neighbour. The action scenes are a lot of fun too. There’s an elevator fight and a very Heat inspired daylight shootout that are definitely big highlights. The writing’s more on point that it was in The Dark World and there are some really fantastic concepts being played with coupled with quotable quips and gags. Steve has lost his faith in government and authority and is questioning his orders for the first time. You know something’s up when the walking posterboy for following the rules and eating your greens starts becoming disaffected. It actually has something to say about the modern world and takes more of a stance on the military secrets/ constant surveillance issue than the wishy-washy wank that was The Fifth Estate, a film purportedly solely about all of that stuff. Add all of this up and it’s exactly the sort of thing I want from a Captain America film. Plus, at no point do the wheels fall off and they forget to tell a story, like in the first one. Big bonus points there.

My only criticism is that I wanted to see more of The Winter Soldier. Although it’s not exactly the best-kept secret out there, I will invisotext this next bit as it concerns the Winter Soldier’s identity an’ shit. (Highlight to read) So, Ol’ Winty is Cap’s thought-dead best pal Bucky Barnes (the one that fell off a speeding train in the first one?), brainwashed, mechanised and working for the Russians. I felt that there was so much going on, it didn’t really give the whole Steve/Bucky drama enough room to breathe. It felt a bit rushed to me and despite the long running time, I would have welcomed a few more scenes dealing with the whole thing.

“S.H.I.E.L.D. takes the world as it is, not as we’d like to be!”

So, The Winter Soldier is a damn good film and I’m so pleased to be able to say that. It’s a solid film that I think will only improve on repeated viewings. Bear in mind that there are not one, but two, post-credits scenes to look out for, so bring a catheter and a pissbag if you’re planning on downing your usual vat of soda like I usually do.

Earth’s Mightiest Xeroxes: The Unfortunate Legacy of The Avengers

“We’re surrounded by shitty knock-offs!”

I’ve spoken before about studios learning the wrong lessons from box office megahits and trying to apply said lessons to whatever franchises they have, whether it suits or not. In the past few days, it’s been announced that Wonder Woman will appear in the still untitled Batman vs Superman film. The first trailer for The Amazing Spider-Man 2 also hit, giving us not one villain as previously thought, but multiple bastards to deal with as well as massive hints at an expanded universe to come. Plus, we have X-Men: Days of Future Past and as of yesterday, X-Men: Apocalypse in the pipeline, the former promising an all-star mash-up of the established cast of the original trilogy with the swingin’ ’60s versions of the characters from First Class. I should be dancing about my room, yelling about how we live in the golden age of comic book films, but I can’t shake the feeling we’re in danger of having some monumental clusterfucks on our hands.

I’ll take them on in order. Firstly, that whole Wonder Woman thing. I’m happy that she finally gets to make an overdue appearance, but I’m pissed off that she’ll be playing third fiddle to Bats and Supes. Obviously, I have no idea how much she’ll appear in the film, but I’m pretty sure she isn’t going to be taking too much attention away from the two beefy boys. I’ve said it before, but D.C.’s attempts at creating a cinematic universe to rival Marvel’s are a fucking mess. Wonder Woman deserves her own film, not just a glorified cameo. Yeah, they may do a solo outing later on, but my guess is that they’ll be steamrolling ahead with all this Justice League stuff for the foreseeable future and are only cramming Ms. Prince in because people expect some form of introduction to the character before the big team up film, thanks to the groundwork laid by The Avengers. Warner Bros. are grasping at straws and forming a film completely out of knee-jerk reactions. All it is is a shaky response to Marvel’s throwing down of the (Infinity) gauntlet.There’s nothing to go on so far apart from internet tittle-tattle and scant announcements, but I can already feel my caution starting to overtake my anticipation. As with all these entries, I want them to be good and would be delighted if they turned out that way, it’s just I feel that Man of Steel 2: Bruce and Diana Too is not being given the care and attention it needs. We’ll see.

Onto my pet subject: Spider-Man. I’m being honest here, I haven’t had high hopes for this one at all. The first one left me angry and it seems they have no interest in righting their wrongs. Some terrible CGI, rubbish dialogue and the baffling return of bullet time aside, there are more troubling things contained in the trailer below:

If you haven’t spent whole stretches of your life dedicated to the adventures of a smartass, spandex-wearing teen like I have, let me fill you in on what’s going on. Around the 1:14 mark, there are some recognisable villain hallmarks to be seen in the background, namely Vulture’s wings and Doc Ock’s tentacles. It seems like the trailer’s setting up the appearance of The Sinister Six, a supervillain group, pretty much the anti-Avengers, who team up to take down their common arachnid enemy. The roster has changed over the decades so it’s tough to say which line-up they’ll go with, but they could have given us the answer in this trailer and have Doc Ock, Electro, Lizard, Vulture, Rhino and the Green Goblin for their sickening sextet. If you’d have told the 10 year old me that not only would there be loads of Spider-Man films one day, but one featuring The Sinister Six, I think he would have flipped his lid. Thing is, adult me has been hurt before by Spider-Man 3 and more pertinently, The Amazing Spider-Man. Marc Webb et al have already showed they don’t “get” Spider-Man and it’s only going to get worse. I would have liked to have seen at least one more film where Spidey takes on a singular villain without the constraints of being shackled to a spider origin story before we barrel in to a big “event” picture. Having multiple villains can work, but only if a deft touch is used. They couldn’t even handle The Lizard on his own without ballsing it up, so I doubt that they’ll be able to handle three in this sequel and six in future films. They’re trying to run before the can walk. Christ, they can’t even wallcrawl properly yet. I will say this though- Dane DeHaan looks like he’s nailed Harry Osborn and I’m looking forward to see where he takes it.

The X-Men franchise is the one I’m least worried about. I believe in Bryan Singer. Whilst I would have liked another film focused on the First Class lot, I think Days of Future Past is going to be good. Singer cares about character and will hopefully be able to balance all the spinning plates. Besides the time-twisty adventures planned, there’s still a Wolverine sequel to come and spin-offs in the form of an X-Force feature, which could possibly set up a spin-off of its own in the form of a long-awaited standalone Deadpool film. There’s even talk of merging the X-Men and Fantastic Four universes, creating a Fox branded take on the Marvel universe. It’s pretty damn likely to happen too. As you may have noticed- everyone has to have their own version of The Avengers paradigm by law, apparently. If you’re still with me at this point and your brain hasn’t dribbled out of your nose, good on you.

I think the thing that annoys me is the reactionary nature of it all. Studios see the opportunity to sell 5 times as much merchandise and have jumped all over it, not taking time to figure out what made The Avengers good. It’s a fucking miracle that The Avengers worked at all and they need to respect that. In my opinion, they hired the right guy for the task. Joss Whedon had a history of making ensemble things work, from his stint as a writer on the X-Men comics to his TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly. He has a great knowledge of team dynamics and has a wonderful inclusionary way where you as the reader/viewer/whatever feel like part of the team and share in their triumphs and losses. The lesson to be learned isn’t “Team-ups are in right now. Let’s copy The Avengers and cram as many fucking characters in as the screen can hold and set up our next 70 films”. It says a lot that The Avengers doesn’t work nearly as well as a standalone film as it does as a sequel to all of Marvel’s “Phase One” films up to that point. I realise they’re all rushing these things into production and trying to strike whilst the iron’s hot. Here’s the thing- that particular iron cooled a while ago, it was struck at peak heat to the tune of a billion dollars, and if I may stretch this metaphor to near-breaking point, it might be a better idea to focus on creating their own iron doodads fit for heating purposes. Marvel Studios doesn’t and shouldn’t have the monopoly on superhero team-ups, but it went about it the best way, took its time building the foundations and has already started manufacturing a second iron thingamajig (sorry, I’m swear I’m completely done with that analogy now). I think that’s the lesson that studios should be taking away from the success of The Avengers. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to team up with several other crappy little movie blogs and together, we’ll write the biggest and bestest review you ever did see. Be sure to buy the tie-in video game where you get to play as me and struggle to get over a handful of daily views!

Thor: The Dark World

 
“Doth mother know you weareth her drapes?”
 

 Thor: The Dark World (2013)

It’s odd to think that a few years back Thor was one of Marvel’s riskier properties. Thankfully in 2011’s Thor, they got the tone and characters just right and sprinkled the film with some fun moments and genuinely funny fish-out-of-water gags. I suppose the one criticism of the original film is that when shaken down to its elements, Thor is basically the same film as 2008’s Iron Man in terms of narrative (cocky hero gets everything taken from him, has to undergo massive personal change to be worthy of the power he initially had.) Of the Marvel canon, Thor offers a lot more possibilities than most as it has a whole Nine Realms to explore. The Dark World ups the ante considerably and has a lot of fun doing it. It’s a blast.

“You must be truly desperate to come to me for help. What makes you think you can trust me?”

Taking place years after he first came to Earth and helped defend New York from alien invasion, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) returns to our humble planet after learning that love interest Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) is in danger, possessed by a previously dormant ancient evil known as Aether. Dark elf leader Malekith (Christopher Ecceleston) also finds out about the Aether’s reappearance and vows to use it to restore the universe to its original dark state and exact his vengeance against Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and the Asgard legacy. Out of desperation, Thor turns to his traitorous brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) to help fight this new threat to Asgard and the Nine Realms. The story expands on Thor’s world well and gives us a fun realm-hopping adventure, ranging from the rock monster inhabited Vanaheim to good ol’ 21st Century London. All the actors are on top form here. One of the things I love about Hemsworth’s Thor is that there’s no ego in his performance. He embraces the inherent silliness of the character and as a result is a joy to watch. Natalie Portman is somewhat sidelined, but manages to resist many of the damsel in distress trappings. She’s smart and capable and I could have done with seeing more of her. Christopher Eccleston doesn’t leave much of an impact as Malekith, but this is due to poorly sketched motivation rather than any fault on his part. Despite being the main villain of the piece, it feels like he’s barely in it.  Eccleston does a good job with the barely-there character and made me wish he was better written so he could have something significant to build on. Talking point is obviously fangirl favourite Loki, who is focused on more than the actual bad guy. Loki is a textured, complex villain and Hiddleston nailed it right out of the gate. He’s still hugely fun to watch and it’s great not knowing which side he’s on from one minute to the next.

The film moves at a fast and furious pace, chopping and changing locations and storylines. Director Alan Taylor brings his Game of Thrones skillz to the party and as such the impressive battle sequences and general world building have proper heft to them and are certainly an improvement on the occasionally stifled first film. Unfortunately, the film fails to capitalise on these gains and contains a generic villain with vague revenge plans and little to no palpable beef with our hero. Malekith is angry at Odin’s father Bor, meaning that Thor inherits the rivalry third hand, rather than having any new and solid motivation to kick his Elven teeth in. Of course, Malekith kidnaps Jane along the way, but that shit’s so played out by this point, you’ll be forgiven for glazing over and checking the elasticity of your socks. The original Thor kept things nice and tight and only threatened a small American town in the arse end of nowhere. The Dark World puts the entire Universe in danger and as such it’s hard to get a feel for the stakes. The film is pacy to a fault and has barely any time for quieter character moments. Whole subplots are dropped at a moment’s notice (the Thor/Sif relationship for one) and it can feel like its in a rush to get to the climax. All the best little moments belong to Loki, including some genuinely fun banter between the two and an awesome cameo I wouldn’t dare ruin.

I’ve just this minute realised I sound like I’m slating the film. I’m really not. It’s insanely entertaining and another fine addition to Marvel’s ever-growing cinematic universe. I constantly complain that blockbusters are way too serious these days and The Dark World is the antidote to all that shoe-gazing poncery. It’s funnier than the first film too, with some cracking one-liners and gags to keep you chuckling in your seat. The fights are enjoyable and the final battle between Malekith and Thor is inspired and almost certainly the product of someone on the crew playing too much Portal.

I might be alone in this, but I felt the film had the horrible, sweaty stench of fan service about it. Loki is again the focus, which is fine, but I think it’s to the detriment of the film. My guess is a lot of Malekith’s stuff was shoved to one side so that the moistest of “Loki’s Army” fanclub have more bits of Jotunheim’s favourite son to make insipid gifs out of. Same is true of blatant fangirl insert character Darcy (Kat Dennings) who has evolved from “young person mentioning things like Facebook and iPods” to “fucking annoying presence with way too much screentime”. Some fan service is a given in films like these, but I think they got a little carried away with it in this one and as a result it’s a weaker film. Having said that, Darcy does get a nice callback joke that made me laugh quite a lot in spite of myself. I could have done with seeing more of the Lady Sif and the Warriors Three as well my personal favourite character, Heimdall (Idris Elba). They all get a token moment each, but they really could have spent more time exploring some of the more interesting side characters. Here’s hoping there’s an extended cut when the DVD/Blu-ray rolls around.

“It’s not that I don’t love our little talks, it’s just… I don’t love them.”

The Dark World is damn good fun. That’s enough for most people and I can’t argue with that. Despite being funny and enjoyable, I think it comes up a little short when compared to its predecessor. The story’s a little baggy and meandering and we have a villain who should be a total badass, but fails to deliver any real threat. A lot of the good outweighs the bad considerably and I am aware very few people care about narrative structure and all the other nerdy shit that I’ve been spouting over the past year. You’re damn near guaranteed to walk out of it with a smile on your face, like I did. There are not one, but two post credits scenes here, so strap a catheter on and lose yourself in Thor’s world once again. Recommended.

The Wolverine

 
*Insert shit Japanese pun here*
 

The Wolverine (2013)

The X-Men franchise is one of the time-hoppyist series around. We’ve had prequels, even earlier prequels and a buttload of sequels. It’s all going to get more confusing with the forthcoming Days of Future Past which will mash the First Class lot together with the established cast of the first three films in a time-spanning Avengers style ensemble pic. I have to say though, they’ve done a good job keeping the timeline pretty coherent all things considered.

“I’ve been trying to find you for over a year. My employer’s dying, he wants to thank you for saving his life. It’s an honour to meet the Wolverine.”

The Wolverine unsurprisingly tells the story of Logan (Hugh Jackman). We catch up with him years after the events of The Last Stand. He’s exiled himself and is living rough in the mountains. He’s tracked down by Yukio (Rila Fukushima) who has been asked to bring him to Japan on behalf of the ailing magnate Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi) who had his life saved by Logan decades before. Wolvie travels with her and soon discovers a plot to kidnap Yashida’s granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto) to get in on some sweet ransom cash action. The Wolverine is loosely based on a popular and critically acclaimed ’80s miniseries dealing with Logan’s first solo adventure. For the most part, the story is solid, giving us a fish-out-of-water take on the now very familiar Wolverine. Hugh Jackman is always a pleasure to watch as Logan. He nailed the part long ago, but it never feels like he’s treading the same old ground or phoning it in. I get the feeling he likes playing the character as much as I enjoy seeing him in the role. The Wolverine is a more successful personal story than the widely hated X-Men Origins: Wolverine. As much as I liked Tao Okamoto, her only job seems to be standing around looking beautiful, so of course Logan falls for her instead of the kick-ass Rila Fukushima who manages to be both interesting and handy in fights. The only weak point was Famke Janssen reprising her role as Jean Grey. I don’t have a problem with Janssen at all, it’s just that the various dream sequences with her in are definitely movie low points. She just lies around in lingerie spouting all of Logan’s internal dialogue that they couldn’t be arsed to weave into the narrative. I never really bought the whole Jean/Logan relationship in the films anyway, but I soon learned to stop paying attention whenever Logan was sleeping as it meant another clunkily written chunk of fuck-all was going to happen.

Straight from the off, I felt the film was in good hands. It opens with a unnervingly quiet harbour view before showing some bombers coming in to fuck up Nagasaki nuclear style. It’s a well done sequence and the sheer spectacle of watching a nuclear blast totalling the lovely Japanese shoreside is both devastating and awesome at the same time. I like seeing Wolverine in wartime settings. More please. Whilst Wolvie’s Japanese trip seems to consist purely of things American audiences would expect from a film set in Asia, it’s not really a problem. There’s a genuinely funny and awkward moment where Logan and Mariko hide out at a love hotel which plays well. I feel the film could have done with more of these little moments as the only reason these characters fall in love is because he protects her all the time and they’re both attractive people. Mariko needed to be something pretty special for Logan to get over Jean and I just didn’t feel it. Yukio had more going on. Anyone have her number?

When I saw Hoborine living rough in the mountains, I had a thought hit me that sent an icy chill down to my stomach:  “Oh shit, I hope they haven’t gone all ‘gritty’ with this”. Thankfully, this turned out to not be the case. There’s dark stuff in it, but its not afraid to keep the tone out of the bleak doldrums other superhero films are finding themselves in. Plus, there’s a scene in a bar when Logan confronts some hunters that is classic Wolverine and made me smile broadly. In fact, all the action is well done. There’s a stunning sequence on top of a bullet train that’s the best train sequence I’ve seen since Spider-Man 2. Wolverine’s healing ability has been suppressed in this film, so most of the fight scenes have raised stakes as people can actually hurt and stop him. It’s the first time we’ve since Wolverine physically vulnerable to anyone other than Magneto and it works really well. My one qualm is that some of the fights felt pretty toothless, with people getting slashed and stabbed by Wolverine’s famous claws but there being very little resulting blood. I didn’t want it to turn into a gorefest or anything, but X2 managed to get away with quite a bit. A lot of it looked like blood and injury had been digitally removed. My guess is that when it comes down to releasing it on DVD/Blu-ray, they’ll pull a Hunger Games and include the slightly meatier cut.

My only other real problem was Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova) who ends up as a pretty weak villainess. She’s just not given that much to do and she reminded me quite a lot of Batman & Robin‘s Poison Ivy, with the penchant for sucking face with her victims and generally hamming it up. Anything that reminds me of that dungheap of a film is going to have points taken off. The impressive-looking Silver Samurai is also of little consequence, but you can’t win ’em all.

“I can do this all day, you twisted mutant bitch!”

The Wolverine is pretty decent. It’s not good enough to get excited about, but it’s an entertaining enough flick. Think of it like 2008’s Incredible Hulk, solid on its own, but mostly made to bring the story in line with forthcoming “event” pictures. Speaking of which, stay after the credits ya droolmonkeys.

You wouldn’t like me when I’m angsty: Why it’s time to stop copying from Batman’s notebook

Man of Feels

Like many thousands of other people, I went to see the new Superman flick Man of Steel the other day. Whilst I quite liked it, I had my problems with it. Chief of which was the fact it was the same type of joyless, po-faced, sullen comic book adap we’ve been seeing ever since Chris Nolan reinvigorated the Batman series. I know I can’t be the only one getting sick of how ridiculously seriously these films take themselves.

I’m not saying that I would prefer a Superman film that undermines the comic at every turn, pointing out how silly things are. Not at all. I love it when films have confidence in the comics and strive to make what worked on the page work on screen. Films used to take the attitude of  looking at comic series and seeing what they could salvage, but now they’re mostly interested in being faithful to the source material. I’m also not against dark and gritty adaptations. The Dark Knight trilogy is fantastic and I love stuff like Sin City, Road to Perdition and Dredd. Thing is, dark and gritty worked for Batman because Batman was all downbeat and moody to begin with. The washed-out palette and realistic approach worked because it suited the character and world that he inhabited.

Comic books are renowned for having a multitude of takes on their characters. Spider-Man alone has had so many different iterations ranging from a futuristic 2099 version to a cartoon pig known as “The Spectacular Spider-Ham” it’s hard to keep track of them all. Practically every time a new artist/writer is hired, the series is technically rebooted and some new blood gets a crack at taking on an established character. Whilst 1997’s  Batman & Robin can go drown in a bucket of piss, this is one of the reasons why I don’t mind Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever as much as most people do. As long as the core character traits are kept the same, you can remix the tone, characters and world as much as you want. It’s like Shakespeare- as long as the essence is kept the same, people don’t give a fuck what you do.

What I do have a problem with is when filmmakers artificially grit up a franchise to appeal to the emotionally stunted moody teen demographic out there. It happened with The Amazing Spider-Man and it’s happened again with Man of Steel. Both films were tasked with rebooting a franchise and making the hero relevant and cool again (the necessity of which is debatable). Both films took the “darker” route and I would argue they both sold out their characters to do it.

I’m not the biggest Superman fan ever, but I like the character a lot and have enjoyed my fair share of the comics,  films and TV shows. I even played the craptacular Superman 64 back in the day. When I bought my ticket for MoS, I expected a grittier take on the franchise, but for the basic character to remain the same altruistic saviour figure he always has been. What I got was a mopey, brooding bellend in a skintight suit. Superman’s sincerity and earnestness doesn’t have to be cheesy. They could have made it work. But no, they washed out the colours and sucked out the joy.  Where’s all the protecting and inspiring good in people? Abandoned in his own selfish quest to get to know just who he really is.

This grittification reminds me of comics in the ’80s when many heroes were like huge steroid-abusing bears, muscling their way around swearing, killing and being “mature”. Looking back on them now, it’s funny how juvenile they are. Comics have thankfully got through that awkward phase and are now more diverse and legitimately adult than ever. The film adaptations need to do this too. At this rate, the much-talked about Justice League film will be Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman et al sitting in a room chain smoking, cutting themselves and looking for “deep” pictures to put on their Tumblrs.

I think the reason that people are supposedly connecting with the Nolanised breed of films is an overall weakening of audiences’ imaginations. People just can’t suspend disbelief like they used to. Nowadays you have to explain the fuck out of everything and meet audiences three-quarters of the way. People like to think they’re too cynical and clever for the older, cheesier superhero flicks, but they really aren’t. They’re too fucking stupid to get caught up in the escapism of it all. The Nolan Bat-films worked because Batman isn’t superpowered. All his tech is plausible and only slightly science-fictiony. When you present a realistic take on Superman who, may I remind you, can fly and has laser vision, you’re forced to really think just how he can achieve flight, rather than just buy the concept. I want to believe a man can fly, not just be told it. Same problem with The Amazing Spider-Man. Using the film’s own logic, explain to me how a teenager with no income can afford to bulk-buy crates of a commercially available web-like fluid and isn’t tracked down by any competent law enforcement agency once they find out there’s an outlaw swinging around using the stuff. Over-explanation is a killer. Think of Toy Story. Did you need an explanation as to how the toys could talk and became self-aware to enjoy the film? Would it have been better if you were told that an accident at a toy factory had caused all the voice chips in the toys to work at 40,000% capacity, granting motor skills and AI? Fuck no. The toys talk when people aren’t around. Boom. Done. Let’s get on with the story.

Some people are grumbling about reaching a saturation point when it comes to superhero films. I tell you what, I’m nowhere near. However, I’m not sure if I can take another dour, shoe-gazing version of a favourite hero of mine. Films need to be confident enough in the unique charms of their chosen properties and not paint over everything with the angsty “mature” brush. Basically, they need to be adult enough to have a little fun and not do something because it worked for Batman.

Iron Man 3

It’s been a while since I’ve done an honest-to-goodness film review and what better way to break that lazy streak than to weigh in on Iron Man 3, arguably the start of 2013’s summer blockbuster season.

Iron Man 3 (2013)

Circa 2008, the first Iron Man film found itself in a similar position to this year’s Man of Steel, having the weight of not only a franchise, but an entire interconnecting universe on its shoulders. It’s not entirely the same though, as Iron Man was and still is nowhere near the cultural icon that Superman is. As you know, Iron Man did ridiculously well at the box office thanks in part to its snappy dialogue and being a fantastic showcase for Robert Downey Jr., all of which kicked off Marvel’s Phase One (which would eventually culminate in The Avengers four years later) with a bang. Iron Man 3 on the other hand, has Phase Two to launch- a move that will end in The Avengers 2. It’s all go at chez Marvel, I tell thee.

You’re nothing more than a maniac. I’m not afraid of you. No politics here: just good old fashioned revenge!”

After his traumatic experiences in New York, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) can’t sleep and has anxiety issues. Live-in girlfriend and Stark CEO Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) tries to help Tony with his mental health but is finding herself pushed away by Stark’s suit-building obsession and constant technological tinkerings. Same goes for pal Rhodey (Don Cheadle) who finds himself donning a more jingoistic, red, white and blue version of the War Machine armour dubbed the “Iron Patriot”. Soon, a couple of people from Stark’s past show up, including sleazy businessman Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) and brilliant scientist and one night fling Maya (Rebecca Hall). This is all capped off with the terrifying presence of the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), a terrorist leader who threatens the U.S. over video broadcasts and carries out seemingly unpredictable bombings with no trace of any device used. When one of these bombings puts long time bodyguard and friend Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) in the hospital, Stark takes it personally and issues a challenge to the Mandarin. The story is great. It takes Stark back to a state similar to where he was in the first film, alone and forced to rely on his own wits and ingenuity to survive. Tony is genuinely vulnerable in this film, rather than Iron Man 2‘s Stark who was a smug, wackier-than-thou dick who then had a woe-is-me poisoning thing going on which didn’t work. Everyone here puts in a killer performance, especially Downey Jr. who reminds us exactly why he’s an A-Lister. Of the new recruits, Guy Pearce is bloody brilliant. Rebecca Hall is underused in the interesting role of Maya, but she does a lot with what she’s given. It’ll be Ben Kingsley who will set most tongues wagging though. He absolutely walks away with the film tucked under one arm. It’s an interesting take on the Mandarin and I wonder what hardcore comic book fans will make of it.

I had two fears when it came to this film. One, Black wouldn’t be allowed to do his own thing and would be shackled to established canon and genre conventions and two, it was going to end in the same way the first two films did with an uninspired metal-on-metal thumpfest. Thankfully, Iron Man 3 allays those concerns. From the very beginning, the film sets out its stall. It’s clear that this is very much a Shane Black film. The film opens on a very Kiss Kiss Bang Bang note with some unreliable RDJ narration over slow footage of Iron Man suits being torched. Then, the film completely wrong-footed me by scoring the opening credits with one hit wonders Eiffel 65’s  one hit “Blue (Da Ba Dee)”, a song I haven’t thought about in around 15 years. The incredulous, confused reaction this got in the cinema was delicious. This is one of many rug-pulls the film contains and in a genre plagued by predictability and cliche, it’s very welcome. If you pop open the film’s hood you’ll find more evidence of the film’s Black-ness beyond these superficial elements. The dialogue is fast, sharp and packed full of one-liners. The whole film is like a spiritual sequel to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, with the film unspooling like a Johnny Gossamer-esque tale, complete with bombastic and kick-ass end credits (which you should know by now you have to stay to the end of, you douchetools.)

Iron Man 2 isn’t the worst film ever, but it serves as a handy comparison point. Practically everything that IM2 did wrong, IM3 gets right. Where the War Machine angle didn’t really convince in IM2, Iron Patriot works beautifully in IM3. Black and Drew Pearce have managed to finally do something with Rhodey and convinced me to join Team Cheadle after being unimpressed by his performance in Iron Man 2. The Patriot side story runs parallel with Tony’s and is completely compelling in its own right. When the two storylines finally cross, Iron Man 3 becomes the best buddy picture around, with shades of Riggs and Murtaugh coupled with Harry Lockhart and Gay Perry. I loved the third act of this film. It was slightly sloppily executed at times, as most of the suits were red and gold blurs rocketing around, but by gum, is it fun. It’s kinetic with being disorientating and epic without being nonsensical. Basically the exact opposite of a Transformers finale. Plus, most importantly, it’s not a yawnsome suit-on-suit scrap. In fact, a lot of the action is incredible inventive. My personal favourite fight is when Tony has to defeat a large number of hired goons using only one glove and one boot from the Iron Man suit. Also, the falling-out-of-a-plane, “barrel of monkeys” sequence glimpsed in the trailer is truly astounding.

Despite having spunked out all the glistening praise above, Iron Man 3, like so many things in life, is not perfect. I really liked this take on the Mandarin, but I can’t help but wonder what a slightly more faithful interpretation would have been like. Maybe I’m just a massive hypocritical meathead who likes seeing the same things over and over again, but I suppose this isn’t a big concern. I have a feeling both Pearce and Black don’t really rate comics much. The film is based on the fantastic Extremis run of comics (a storyline that both previous Iron Mans borrowed from) but deviates pretty heavily from them. The film does well with it as a framework and maybe it wouldn’t have worked on the screen, but I would have loved to have seen Extremis done justice. Also, I wanted to see more of the Hulkbuster suit.

“Nothing’s been the same since New York.”

Iron Man 3 rocks the shit. It’s the best one of the trilogy and puts part 2 to shame.  It’s funny, the actual act of writing really gets to the bottom of how I feel about a film. Say I saw an underwhelming film. I’ll start off with an idea of a few points I want to make and the final star rating and during the process start feeling incredibly annoyed and revise my writing accordingly like in my Burt Wonderstone review. Here, it’s the exact opposite. I enjoyed the film hugely but was happy seeing it just the once. However, all this talk of snappy dialogue, daring story decisions and cracking action has made me start planning a second visit to the cinema to see it again. If that isn’t a sound endorsement I don’t know what is. Much like nearly all of Shane Black’s back catalogue (especially Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) this is highly recommended.

The Amazing Spider-Man

God, my output has been patchy of late. I have been doing stuff elsewhere (which you can find here,) with the result that this blog has been overlooked somewhat. Still, I’ve got some bloody plans for this place, so hold on to your goddamn hats. Anyway, did somebody say Spider-Man?

The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

And yes, it is written as “Spider-Man”. Fucking sick of not seeing the hyphen in there when people talk about it. Am I being a pedantic wanker? There’s always a good chance, but say I was to write about BatMan or Super-Man. People would have a problem with it. As a Spider-fan, it greens my goblins. So, it’s 2012 and we have a reboot of a franchise barely a decade old webslinging its way in fuckmothering 3D to a screen near you. I’ve heard many people decrying the film for being a perfect example of the fact that Hollywood is officially out of ideas. Whilst that isn’t entirely false, you must understand that The Amazing Spider-Man is purely a business decision. Y’see, Sony own the rights to the Spider-Man franchise. They contractually have to do something with the license or the rights revert back to Marvel/Disney. Sony aren’t stupid. The Spidey franchise has made them billions of dollars and they’re not just going to roll over and let Marvel take their money-shitting machine home. Plus, after Spider-Man 3 thoroughly salted the earth with the tears of fanboys and moviegoers alike, it was time for a change.

“I am issuing an arrest warrant for the masked vigilante known as Spider-Man!”

The Amazing Spider-Man retells the famous origin story of everyone’s favourite nerd fantasy projection, Spider-Man. Abandoned by his parents and left to live with his aunt and uncle, Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is a typical nerdy high-schooler. He gets beaten up and has a hard time talking to girls, especially beautiful blonde Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone). However, when he decides to investigate his parents’ disappearance, starting with his father’s close friend and colleague, Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), Peter unwittingly signs himself up for a date with eight-legged destiny. All the marketing for this film has been focused on telling “the untold story” of Peter’s parents. Much like the best marketing, it’s what they don’t tell you that’s key. This is basically a retread of what we’ve seen before in a slightly different wrapper. My main problem is this: did we really have to see Peter get bitten by a spider again? As a webhead of many years I have seen the origin story played out a thousand times, with various versions present in the comics, the many different animated series, the video games and the Raimi film. Why the film didn’t take a leaf out of 2008’s The Incredible Hulk’s book, where the opening sequence alludes to the gamma accident and doesn’t take up half the goddamn film treading old ground, I’ll never know. At the end of it all, Peter’s still bitten and Uncle Ben’s still six feet under (more on that in a minute). It’s probably the most famous superhero origin story out there. We didn’t need this retelling/reimagining/re-whatever.

As for the actors, Andrew Garfield makes a fantastic Parker/Spider-Man. He’s just the right side of shy and dorky and has the acting chops to really sell those emotional scenes (something which I never really got from Tobey Maguire’s performance). Emma Stone is probably the stand-out as Gwen Stacy as she shares some fantastic chemistry with Garfield, completely charms and manages to turn what could have been a forgettable gal pal role into a memorable and likeable performance. Also great is Rhys Ifans, who was already fairly reptilian before all those expensive effects. He’s tasked with really selling the Jekyll side to his dual role and does well with it. I also loved Martin Sheen and Sally Field as Uncle Ben and Aunt May. They were so wise and caring. I want to stay at their house and eat May’s apparently terrible meatloaf (not a euphemism). The film really humanises its characters, rather than them being one note or two dimensional. It gives me great hope for future franchise entries as it looks like this take on Spidey is a lot more emotional than we’ve seen before. I really felt Peter’s pain after Uncle Ben’s death, especially when he snaps and slams Flash into a locker. It’s realistic and affecting.

The main success of the film is the central romance between Peter and Gwen. Director Marc Webb (no, really) knows his way around romance as seen in his previous work (500) Days of Summer. It’s believable and surprisingly sweet. I was pulling for the relationship to work. I actually cared. There are little character moments, like a bit where Peter gets shy and his voice cracks more than normal because he realises he’s in his girlfriend’s bedroom, that sell the relationship. It’s cute, but not in a retch-inducing way. The action and all-important webslinging are well handled too. The school fight with the Lizard is fantastic and also features the best Stan Lee cameo yet. I like the fact that Spidey invents comic accurate web-shooters as opposed to the organic ones Maguire-Man had. What I found confusing was the fact that the web is apparently a commercially available Oscorp product. I may have missed something, but he either bought or stole the “bio-cable” or whatever the hell is was called. Parker’s smart enough to have invented some shooters, it wouldn’t have been that much of a stretch to say he came up with the webbing as well.

What’s less of a success is the rest of it. I walked out feeling quite underwhelmed by the whole experience. There were just too many things that were off about it. Firstly, they tweak the Uncle Ben incident. which is fine, but it messes with Spidey’s motivations somewhat. Uncle Ben dies due to his own stupidity, rather than it being Peter’s fault. Having said that, I liked the manhunt Peter goes on to find his uncle’s killer. I wasn’t a huge fan of how the Lizard turned out. Whilst I thought Ifans did well with what he was given, the things that were interesting about the character was largely ignored. All Dr. Stumpy did was bang on about his missing arm. Yeah, I get that losing a limb sucks, but still, the guy needed more motivation than that. Plus, the Lizard’s design was rubbish, as were some of the effects used to bring him to life. Also, that lizard/mouse thing was RETARDED. As with most lazily written things, coincidence seems to be the driving force behind most happenings. At once point, Peter falls through a roof, into a wrestling ring, where he sees a poster for a luchador which gives him the idea for the iconic Spidey mask. A lot of things just struck me as a bit too convenient.

I was looking forward to this film correcting one of the greatest oversights in the Raimi films- the fact that Spider-Man is a witty, sarcastic kind of guy. This film makes attempts at this, but some of the “comedy” lines and sequences are about as funny as a mass puppy drowning. Dear Lord, it isn’t that hard to crack wise, but the film makes it seem like a Herculean effort. A lot of the humour is misjudged. That’s not to say it’s entirely unsuccessful, as the occasional one-liner or neat little gag made me chuckle, but I expected more. It shouldn’t be a thigh-slapping fest, but if you’re going to attempt humour, make sure your jokes work. Very few people were laughing in the packed screening I went to. C’mon Sony, Joss Whedon can’t be the only person who can illicit superhero-sized belly laughs. In fact, most of the dialogue is pretty god-awful.

Also (BIG SPOILERS AHEAD, highlight to read or skip to the final paragraph) is it me or were there plot holes a-go-go? I don’t normally pick a film up on this type of thing, but sometimes it’d feel like I missed a scene or two. Where did all the lizards in the sewer come from? What happened to the evil Dr. Ratha (Irrfan Khan)? He was on his way to test the serum on orphan kittens or something equally ridiculous, has his car chucked off the bridge by the Lizard and is then saved by Spidey. We don’t see him again. I expected a conclusion to his arc. Why was Flash all pally at the end? I know he showed understanding about Uncle Ben’s death, but still, it’s a big leap. Plus, I can’t tell you how much my heart sank at the beginning of the crane scene, which thankfully managed to be slightly more tolerable than the arse-puckering scene in Raimi’s original where Spidey gets protected by the New York public: “You mess with one of us, you mess with all of us!” Urgh. Nice to see a gratuitous shot of the American flag though. Not fucking sick of those in this franchise. Also, Peter struck me as a bit of a dick at the end. He doesn’t show up for Captain Stacy’s funeral, supposedly honouring his promise to stay away from Gwen. He then breaks up with her on the day she buries her father, then he fucking breaks the promise later anyway. What a douche!

“Thirty-eight of New York’s finest, versus one guy in a unitard!”

Reading it back, I realise I actually sound quite bitter and angry. I’m not. To tell you the truth, I was pretty disappointed with the whole thing. My real problem was the fact the film felt it didn’t have any real soul- it felt very mechanical at times, ticking off boxes until it was sufficiently different from the 2002 film . Maybe I’m just a nitpicky fanboy, but some of these issues are basic movie failings, rather than spider-inaccuracies. There are many elements they got right, it just didn’t come together as a whole for me. It’s got a great cast, some really decent effects work and a believable romance that has the potential for amazing sequel fodder. Here’s what I want from the sequel: a non-shit villain, a better director and writers and J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson. To me, it felt like a pilot for a TV show, lots of interesting ideas and potential coming out of its ears, but not a fully-formed piece of entertainment. Fret ye not, this isn’t a Spider-Man 3 type disaster. I just wish this new series had kicked off with a bit more oomph.