Superhero Review Part Two | Build-Up To The Avengers Team-Up

t’s hard to imagine a time when Iron Man wasn’t such an iconic figure for Marvel Studios, but I didn’t really know much about Iron Man before this film. This is the film that surprised everyone, and got them invested in the character.

IronManTitle

The arc reactor is explained as an old piece of technology that can power up devices and such. But Stark is able to take something old, innovate it, and make it relevant. It lies in the heart of his Iron Man suit, and it represents exactly what this movie is. It takes something old, innovates it, and makes it relevant.

The origin story of superheros share a lot in common with the tales of classic Greek mythology. Stories of beings with superhuman abilities. The hero’s quest consists of growing up without the guidance of one or both parents and having to overcome adversity in order to demonstrate self-worth.

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Throughout the film, there is much talk about legacy and the impact Tony Stark will leave behind. Comforted by numerous awards and accolades, Stark finally gets his eyes peeled open when he is held captive by an Afghan rebel group called the Ten Rings. It is here when Stark makes the technological innovation necessary to keep the shrapnel shell shards from entering his heart while supplying the power necessary for his first prototype Iron Man suit.

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In terms of storytelling, the traditional elements of an origin story are handled with great ease and proficiency. Yinsen, a character who helps Stark overcome the intellectual challenge of building a robot suit, has the presence of Uncle Ben from the Spider-Man movies, as he drives Tony Stark to become more responsible with his gifts and talents in lieu of his death.

There is an ensemble of characters who help Tony through his transformation process, not unlike Bruce Wayne from Batman Begins, all played sufficiently by Gwyneth Paltrow as assistant Pepper Potts and Terrence Howard as army colonel James Rhodes. The stand-out actor here though has to be Robert Downey Jr. who has firmly entrenched himself as the definitive Tony Stark.

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What this movie offers that no other superhero movie offers, however, is its innovative take on the hero himself. Tony Stark is an alcoholic. He gambles. He’s notorious with woman, consistently shows up late, doesn’t remember birthdays, and isn’t particularly noble. But that just makes him all the more fascinating as a character. In his own words, “I’m just not the hero type, clearly, with this laundry list of character defects and all the mistakes I’ve made.” And of course, the very next thing he does is reveal that he is Iron Man. That is how the movie ends folks!

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While there isn’t many action sequences for this movie to rely on, the visual effects are stunning and could have easily carried the movie by itself. Director Jon Favreau, however, gives us something to chew on with an unpredictable hero to both hate and love. In tandem with Favreau’s snappy, quick-witted script, it makes for a superhero experience unlike any other. There are weaknesses to be found in the villain and in the third act of the film, but the origin story is so fresh and simultaneously done so well that it makes it easy to forgive. This one deservingly put both Iron Man and Marvel Studios on the map.

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Ha! This piece of crap got a 67% on Rotten Tomatoes?

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Say what you will about Ang Lee’s attempt at the Hulk in 2003. At least there was some originality in that. The Incredible Hulk is far from incredible. It’s stupid. It’s noisy. It’s trash film-making.

I will give this reboot some credit though for not hashing out the origin story again. It’s fairly simple, and told quite concisely during the opening credits. Afterwards, we meet Bruce Banner who finds himself in Brazil in his run away from the American government and the absolutely thick-skulled, nonsensical general ‘Thunderbolt’ Ross. Why in the world does he keep trying to tranquilize Bruce? How’d that work for you when you had him trapped at Culver University?

Hulk

Hey general. Do you realize that Bruce is only a problem for you when he turns into the Hulk? Why don’t you stop gassing him and shooting sharp needles at him and try throwing a net at him or something. Or get your men to handcuff him. Anything, just anything that won’t set off the Hulk!

The definition of “angry” also gets really skewed in this movie. It is somehow tied to his heart-rate, which makes no sense to me. Wouldn’t running for his life away from the government set off the Hulk then? It also doesn’t allow him to partake in sexual activities with love interest Betty Ross, which really has nothing to do with anger.

BruceBetty

At this point, I’m just nitpicking. The real problems of the film comes down to the characters, visual effects, and story. Every single character in the film is unlikeable except Bruce, and even then, the other side of him is fairly uncontrollable. Betty flat-out abandons her boyfriend, which questions why he was even written into the script. She’s a weak and uninteresting character, having little of her own motivations and left tending to Bruce’s every needs diligently. Mr. Blue, or the scientist who tries to help Bruce, is naive, careless, and ditsy to the point of distracting caricature.

Mr.Blue

The action doesn’t even hold up well under its 150 million dollar budget. Much work went into sculpting the Hulk’s every CGI muscle, but he often resembles a video game figurine more than a movie-quality engineered model. There are ridiculous, made-up weapons that shoots SOUND at the Hulk, followed up with ridiculous occurrences, like the Hulk smashing the ground and causing the Abomination to slip.

Worst of all, the action has no place in the story, simply because there is no story. It’s obvious that the action took precedence, as the Hulk simply LEAVES after he defeats the Abomination monster the screenwriters just shoved in there for the final fight.

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Hey. Hulk. What about all the blood Mr. Blue synthesized? Aren’t you worried about that falling into the hands of the government? What about Mr. Blue? He was left back there with your blood dripping on his head. What about the Abomination you left behind? What’s gonna happen to him? What about… oh forget it. This movie SUCKS.

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What a boring movie.

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I mean, I feel a little weird saying that, because I think there is more of the action I was saying was missing from the original Iron Man. But man, is the story just so un-involving.

The premise is that Tony Stark is dying of palladium poisoning from the very device that is keeping him alive. Admittedly poetic, but it’s resolved by just creating a new element. No personal growth is there to be had. No interesting dilemmas arise. Little to no drama ensues. It’s tied a bit to Stark’s relationship with his father, but in a way that is half-baked and not substantial enough to make us care.

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There’s other stuff that happens, but nothing that seems worth bringing up since the presence of a cohesive story is achingly absent. What was the point of Tony creating a new element? What was the point of Tony fighting a new villain? I want to know. Why did we watch all this?

Without being able to answer these questions, Iron Man 2 primarily survives off of its humor. The dialogue is still sharp in this one, staying true to Tony’s eccentric tendencies while further establishing the unique love-hate relationship between him and CEO-appointed Pepper Potts. It feels like the chemistry between Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow has had time to sizzle since their previous outing in 2008.

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Mickey Rourke is intimating as the intellectually-matching adversary in Ivan Vanko, but his revenge story simply doesn’t get enough screenplay to matter. Other bad-guy Justin Hammer, as played by Sam Rockwell, fails to serve the movie in any meaningful way, as his stupidity is often just a pivot point for more jokes.

There is a plethora of other new arrivals, including Lt. Col. James Rhodes’ replacement actor in Don Cheadle, but the presence of SHIELD characters has to be seen as annoying. I came here to see an Iron Man movie, not an Avengers set-up film.

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Even though there was more of the action I was looking for in the form of a robo fight between Tony and Rhodey, the final tag-team battle of Iron Man and War Machine against Ivan has to be described as disappointing. I like the pay-off of the events that happened when Tony and Rhodey fought, but the Iron Man series seems unable to nail the last robot fight at this point. Most of the ending battle is with the drones Ivan builds, which are too disposable in my opinion. I wish they put up more of a fight, and fought alongside Ivan.

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All in all, there is entertainment value to be found in Iron Man 2. The witty banter from the first film has been amplified in this one, with varying degrees of success. The action has also been up-ed a notch, but with worsened quality and less overall impact in the context of the story. What is unforgiving, however, is the jam-inducing number of unrelated plot events which deteriorate any chance for a real story. This is what separates the first Iron Man from its sequel. It’s a fairly harmless bad film.

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Holy cow Natalie Portman is stupid attractive.

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Oh, right. The movie. Can we bring up the Thor title screen please?

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Thor is a misguided film, but not without its share of charms and quirks. It’s a fairly predictable watch, demanding very little of your attention or intellect. Thor is a brat when he’s a kid, and needs to learn a lesson before he ascends to the throne of Asgard, so his father, Odin, sends him down to Earth without his Zeus-like powers. I guess he figured humans could teach Thor the value of humanity?

By splitting the screenplay into two halves, a romance between Thor and Jane on Earth and Loki’s villainous turn in Asgard, the film is unfortunately belittled, not so unlike Marvel’s previous outing with Iron Man 2. There is simply too much stuff going on at all the same time.

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This seems to be a reoccurring problem that keeps popping up as I continue to review superhero movies, epitomized by movies like Sony’s Spider-Man 3. And I have suspicion this is not by coincidence. The problem with the superhero genre, in general, is that it focuses too much on entertainment and not enough on story. It fears to fully dive into its relationships, especially between the two love interests, and settles for generic action scenes that will inevitably satisfy its predominately teenage male audience.

Okay, I admit, this was a pretty cool shot.

Okay, I admit, this was a pretty cool shot.

I’m split as to which half should have gotten more attention. The time spent in Asgard is actually neat to see. A typical mix of the future and the old, but it makes for some amazing visuals. I liked most of the characters we meet there, except for maybe the over-characterized Thor and his bland father Odin. The story is probably the weakest aspect of the Asgard half of the movie, as it really is a story about sibling rivalry… without the other sibling even being present! Interesting idea in concept, but lacked the impact the directors were probably looking for. Loki should have been less obviously evil in order to make me care more about his plight.

The other half of the movie that takes places on Earth is far more crucial to the storyline, but is also less interesting. The romance between Chris Hemsworth and Natalie Portman is forced, as I found the actors to share little chemistry with one another. Comic relief comes in the form of Darcy Lewis as played by Kat Dennings, but her jokes fail to mesh with the overall tone of the movie, which relied more on visual humor than anything else. Scenes like the one between Thor and Professor Erik Selvig at the bar are the real comedic highlights.

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I could have gone for either more world-building in Asgard or more of the visual humor that made Thor’s time in Earth so hilarious, but neither would solve the problem of its simplistic message about nobility and its awkward plot construction. Still, neither problems aren’t so bad, especially since there are aspects of Thor that do work, namely the visuals of Asgard and its humor on Earth.

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When I watch movies, I usually have a good idea of where it stands on my grading scale. I thought Captain America: The First Avenger was no different, but upon my second watch for this review, I actually found myself liking the film a bit more.

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Don’t get me wrong, this is still a bad film. I am very unsympathetic towards movies that tediously follow some formula, especially from a movie genre whose success seems predicated on predictability–we as movie goers must stop rewarding superhero films for being cookie cutter films!!! Sigh…

Come on, now!

Come on, now!

What I found liking more my second time round was the antique feel of Captain America’s throwback to World War II and the romance between Steve Rodgers and Peggy Carter, played by Chris Evans and Hayley Atwell respectively. I never quite understood why Steve took so much interest in Peggy, but I’ve come to accept that since Peggy was the only girl who paid any attention to Steve before turning… well, super buff, that their romance is indeed believable, even if they don’t share an incredible amount of chemistry on the screen.

Hot damn.

Hot damn.

Still, the problems that I first noticed are inescapable to me on a second viewing. The high tech weaponry of the Nazi-resembling Hydra organization ruins much of the charm the World War II setting provides. Seeing the equivalent of armored men equipped with ray guns against soldiers bearing helmets and rifles–and silliest of all, actually being overwhelmed by these soldiers–just takes me out of the world Captain America tries so hard to maintain. Coupled with unbelievable events, such as Captain America punching through a submarine BUILT TO BRACE IMMENSE WATER PRESSURE and fighting nemesis Red Skull in an EXPLODING BUILDING, much of its entertainment value is diminished from an action stand-point.

The origin story itself is alright, almost recognizing its mundaneness and going through the motions quickly. As is the case for most jittery superhero films eager to satisfy its target audience, the chance for romance and character building an origin story allows is compromised for action and effects. This isn’t to say Captain America doesn’t offer a few crinkles to the formula, as I do like how he gets his suit from the acting gig he picks up in the second act of the film, and then aspires for greatness when he learns his best friend is held captive by Hydra. I should also point out that the integration of Howard Stark within the film is the only integration of other Avengers characters that is not intrusive as a form of self-marketing thus far.

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The story, as written for the movie, actually presents some opportunities for emotional weight, but fails to reap much from the death of Bucky and the sacrifice of Captain America towards the end. Had the friendship been more prominent in the first act of the film and the origin story been paced properly, allowing the romance between Steve and Peggy to blossom, then I think I would be more forgiving of its faults. As it stands, Captain America: The First Avenger is just another underwhelming entry in Marvel’s Phase One Universe.

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Let’s review what I thought about Marvel’s Phase One movies thus far.

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So, basically, not very good. Except Iron Man. Now that was a darn good superhero movie. But everything else? Meh, at best.

To say that I was unenthusiastic about The Avengers when it came out in theaters might be an understatement. In fact, I only saw it because my ultimate Frisbee team in high school went to see it. I’m glad I joined in.

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The Avengers is a stupid popcorn blockbuster at its finest. Not a work of art by any means but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a good time. This movie was just made for the big screen. At the theater I saw this at everyone was laughing at almost every joke and clapping after action sequences, including me. The Avengers has some of the best action the superhero genre has to offer making it the perfect comic book adaptation with superheros fighting with and alongside each other, spewing witty one liners harmoniously. There is even a death in the form of Agent Coulson who actually got developed throughout the Phase One movies and therefore making his death more impactful and meaningful. The Avengers could have been an masterpiece if it wasn’t, well, stupid.

We start the movie off with the introduction of the villain and the all important tesseract. The accompanying set-piece is pretty underwhelming as the only Avenger superhero who is involved is Hawkeye, and he didn’t even have his own movie in Marvel’s Phase One.

Hawkeye

Things get better quickly as we watch the other superheros get involved into the story. Iron Man, Captain America, and Black Widow all fight off Loki in Germany, and shortly thereafter, we have our first superhero fight between Iron Man and Thor! Never before have superheros battled each other on the big screen like this and it was the little details that made the duels so entertaining. From the dent Thor imprints on Iron Man’s helmet via headbutt from his lightning strike which actually powers up Iron Man’s suit, it really feels like the producers thought long and hard about the fight scenes and how each superpower would interact with one another.

The next fight scene occurs on the Avengers helicarrier, and the real highlight has to be the fight scene between Thor and Hulk. It’s probably the only battle scene that has a decisive winner, as Thor seems relieved when he gets back-up in the form of a jet-attached machine gun. I always found it funny that Iron Man was stuck repairing one of the wings of the helicarrier but Joss Whedon manages to make it engaging and fun. Captain America probably had the most boring task of assisting Iron Man, but hey, nothing new there. Plot-wise, the Black Widow is able to knock Hawkeye back into his normal hero self.

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Now that the Avengers team has Hawkeye back, and through the death of Coulson and inspirational speeches from Samuel L. Jackson Nick Fury, the Avengers put their differences aside and unite to give us a glorious 20-minute long special effects battle against Loki’s alien army in New York City. The end.

Story-wise, this film is about superheros who need to get along in order to team up for the betterment of mankind. Or, should I say, to save all of humanity from these aliens. In this sense, this movie is truly Iron Man’s movie because he is the only character who learns the virtue of teamwork through sacrifice, and the person who primarily facilitates his growth is Captain America. As he says…

I’ve seen the footage. The only thing you really fight for is yourself. You’re not the guy to make the sacrifice play, to lay down on a wire and let the other guy crawl over you.

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Tony: I’d just cut the wire.

One could argue this is at a determent to the movie–I would partially agree–since the ensemble of characters are not being used to their full potentials in the story. However, would a movie with as many big names as The Avengers be able to carry such a cohesive narrative? Imagine if all characters were to make character arcs. It would be a mess! So no, I don’t think this is a critique of the film more than it is an observation why certain characters feel like side characters and others feel more essential. Perhaps this is really the only way to do a movie like The Avengers well, which is a shame since I wanted to like Hawkeye and Black Widow more.

The real crux of The Avengers lies deeper than this, as obvious as it is in my opinion: The Avengers does very little to further the internal conflict of its story. If you think about it, The Avengers is just a bunch of action sequences chained together. What guides the plot are external conflicts. Get the tesseract, close the portal, stop the nuclear bomb, etc. It is just coincidental that the story allows for Tony to make his sacrifice at the end, though it is hard to get emotionally attached to an action that seems so detached from the plot. What caused Tony to become selfless? Or was this a story about Captain America needing to learn that Tony was selfless all the time? Whatever your opinion may be, The Avengers does little to give their characters any consistent progression. Tony becomes selfless because a) he spent a lot of time around Captain America or because b) the plot required him to. These are largely static characters who fight the bad guys–and even each other–from start to finish.

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However, this doesn’t really bother me because I don’t think people are calling this movie “smart” or “thoughtful.” No, what really bewilders me is people’s praise on Loki who I think is just a mediocre villain at best. He’s not particularly cunning, though he acts like he is and comes off as almost comic rather than menacing. I’m not saying every villain has to be menacing, but Loki’s character–at least in this screenplay–seems uncertain and inconsistent at times.

It may seem like I’m bashing the movie a lot but these really do sum up my big complaints of this film. With how much love and admiration this movie has received, I just wanted to point out some reasons why this film doesn’t personally rank up higher than it does on my list, despite having enormous entertainment value and being a very enjoyable experience. I have re-watched this film, at my own will, and I plan on revisiting every time I want to see Hulk smash things.

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And is it just me, or is Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow not that attractive?

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