The Avengers (2012) – Movie Review

avengers

A colossal wave of fevered anticipation preceded the arrival of ‘Marvel’s The Avengers’, the culmination of five incredibly successful standalone films. Not only has helmer Joss Whedon weathered the immense scrutiny, he has amazingly managed to surpass the loftiest expectations with a movie that towers over the rest that have come before it, combining jaw-dropping action, tongue-in-cheek humour and poignant drama into a dazzling piece of summer blockbuster entertainment.

Proving that the whole can be so much more than the sum of its parts, Wheedon has distilled the best elements of each of the preceding movies into this assembly of Marvel superheroes- Iron Man is wiry and snarky as ever; Thor is just as Godly in his might but human in his compassion; and Captain America is still appealingly old-school. The Hulk, or Bruce Banner in his human form, is quite something else altogether though (being the only character to have a change of actor from the previous films) and all the better for it.

It shouldn’t come as any surprise that the one movie which ‘Avengers’ is most intimately associated with is ‘Thor’, given that both share the same villain- Thor’s adopted brother and fellow Asgardian Loki (Tom Hiddleston)- and that Wheedon did shoot the post-credits scene with Loki and S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). Opening with a recurring character from that movie, Dr Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) is now assisting with experiments on the Tessaract which has quite unexpectedly displayed a life of its own.

Turns out that the fallen Loki has been drafted by an alien race to lead its invasion of Earth, using the same Tessaract as a portal to cross over from their universe to ours- and his arrival not only leads to the decimation of the S.H.I.E.L.D. base, but also the takeover of Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Dr Selvig to do his bidding. With the fate of the world in the balance, Fury activates his ‘Avengers’ initiative to gather this group of heroes, including two S.H.I.E.L.D. operatives – the Black Widow and Hawkeye.

From the outset it’s clear that there is relative poetry in Wheedon’s storytelling as he expertly weaves together the recruiting exercise by Fury and his trusted agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg). The best he saves for last, so even though Thor only first appears half an hour into the movie, his is a spectacular entrance befitting a God, crossing paths with Iron Man for a thunderous one-on-one clash in the middle of the woods.

True to the spirit of the books, the assembly of these superheroes begins on a fractious note- chiefly due to Stark’s distrust of Fury and disdain for the star-and-stripes outfitted Captain America. Instead, Stark teams up with the only person he deigns as his intellectual equal- Bruce Banner- to locate the Tessaract and uncover what dirty secrets Fury has been keeping from the rest of them. The answer to the latter isn’t all too unexpected, but kudos to Wheedon for tying this little detail nicely with the events in ‘Thor’.

It will take a colossal event to bring these disparate heroes together, resulting in the first of two action set pieces in the movie that will undoubtedly qualify amongst some of the most spectacularly thrilling stuff you’ll ever see on the big screen. And just when you think it couldn’t get any better, Wheedon tops it with an even grander and absolutely breathtaking climax set in the heart of New York City.

The reason why the finale works so brilliantly is that Wheedon loves and respects each and every superhero character just as much. Wheedon gets the action pitch-perfect through reinforcing the individual powers of each one of the superheroes before uniting their strengths to form an even mightier coalition. It is nothing less than pure ecstasy when they join forces as a team, and you’ll find it difficult to resist getting up from your seat and cheering for them at various points throughout the remarkable finish.

This review however won’t be complete without a special shout-out for the Hulk, many fans of whom have been disappointed by both the Lee Ang and the later Louis Leterrier iteration of it. Here, Wheedon has finally gotten it right, blending both the character’s brains and brawn to crowd pleasing effect- even more so through some clever plotting that ensures Banner’s eventual transformation from man to beast is as rewarding as it should be.

Calling it the perfect summer blockbuster is probably not enough to do justice to just how brilliant it is, and it certainly ranks as one of the most- if not the most- entertaining and exhilarating experiences you’ll have at the movies.

 

9 out of 10 stars

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Iron Man 3 (2013) – Movie Review

Tony Stark might be at his best with his gadgets, but ironically his movies are best when he is without them. ‘Iron Man 3’ is a perfect demonstration of that – for the first 40 mins, Stark is the same arrogant, cocksure person he was in the self-important ‘Iron Man 2’; and then after crashing and burning in his damaged suit in the middle of a wintry expanse, Stark is forced to start over, and that rebirth brings back what made the first ‘Iron Man’ so infectiously entertaining in the first place.

Indeed, you’ve been warned – don’t expect ‘Iron Man 3’ to be firing from all cylinders right from the get-go as ‘The Avengers’ did; rather, the road to that payoff is slow and bumpy. This is a ‘post-Avengers’ Stark, traumatised by his near-death experience closing the Chitauri wormhole back in New York. At the expense of sleep and his relationship with the ever-lovely Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), Stark throws himself into work – which to him means further refining his ‘Iron Man’ armour. In the meantime, he leaves the heavy lifting to Colonel Rhodes (Don Cheadle), commissioned by the President to fight terror in the War Machine suit (basically the ‘Iron Man’ fighting machine but in the patriotic colours of red, white and blue).

Col Rhodes’ latest target is a terrorist going by the monicker of ‘The Mandarin’, who has brought his war to home soil after targeting US installations abroad. Only when his former driver cum good friend, Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), is fatally injured does Stark sit up and pay attention, and in an ill-advised and egotistical move, reveal his home address in an outright challenge to The Mandarin. That, as you would already know from the trailer, leaves his oceanside home decimated and Stark in a barely functioning suit in the snow-covered wilds of Tennessee.

Up to this point, a lot of what is meant to pass as wisecracks is exchanged as dialogue among Stark, Potts and Hogan, but the smart- talking isn’t particularly amusing or engaging and gets increasingly tiresome after a while. But as we said at the start, it is precisely when Stark is forced to start over that the movie starts getting into the groove. Abandoning the slick and sleek mechanical tricks and gimmicks, the middle act settles into a surprisingly old-school act in a small-town-USA where Stark had meant to visit to investigate a recent incident which he suspects is linked to The Mandarin.

There, some of the sparkiest repartee unfolds between Stark and a young kid he meets, Harley (Ty Simpson), who will not only enable him to overcome his PTSD but also become an unlikely pre-pubescent sidekick. The rapport between Stark and Harley significantly enlivens the film, with the ‘connection’ (there is a special meaning to the quotation here) between them perhaps the most poignant relationship developed here. Thankfully, the delightfully warm and witty midsection only makes the film better from here onwards.

Surpassing expectations of a straightforward good-versus-bad showdown, veteran action movie screenwriter Shane Black and his first-time feature film writer Drew Pearce engineer a couple of elegant twists, including an ingenious revelation on the true identity of The Mandarin. Not to worry, we’re not in spoiler mode here, but suffice to say that it is probably the very reason why Academy Award-winning actor Ben Kingsley was enticed to the role. And with that surprise comes the action that you’ve been waiting for from this summer blockbuster.

Black, who is making his sophomore feature film, offers up two eye- popping set pieces. The first sees a daring attack on Air Force One in mid-air, leaving 13 people in free-fall and a truly exhilarating sequence where Iron Man gets to play ‘barrel of monkeys’ with all of them and guide them to safety. The second is the elaborate and game- changing climax – not only for the fact that it is the first and only time in the whole movie that we see the Iron Legion in action, but also because it comes to a startling conclusion that re-establishes the dynamic between Stark and Potts. Both are even more astounding considering Black’s last and first movie was a crime caper called ‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’ that never would have primed you into thinking he was capable of such spectacle.

But one supposes that Robert Downey Jr must have seen that potential in Black to recommend him as the candidate to take over Favreau, the familiarity between actor and director paying off in how the former trusts the latter to take the character in a different direction. While he was vulnerable before, Stark did not have the same attachment as he does here with Potts or the same sense of introspection that is evident in his voice-over. In turn, Downey Jr. gives his best performance as Tony Stark/ Iron Man yet, with a newfound sense of frailty that develops convincingly into humility to match his heroics.

Disagree if you must, but we always loved Stark more when he was less full of himself, and a refreshingly new aspect here is the buddy element that sees Stark pairing first with Harley and then with Col Rhodes. In particular, the finale sees a rousing partnership with the latter – both Downey Jr and Cheadle clearly enjoying trading quips and barbs at each other while saving the day. And given how the ‘Iron Man’ movies have been at their most rousing when Stark rebuilds himself, the last shot of Stark beginning a new phase in his life bodes well for the future of the franchise, especially if it is to continue its life outside of ‘The Avengers’.

 

8 out of 10 stars

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Iron Man 2 (2010) – Movie Review

The sequel to Marvel studio’s surprise hit of 2008 is here, bigger than ever. But is it better? After the surprise success of Iron Man, expectations for the sequel, from both movie viewers and long time comic books fans, were no doubt high.

Picking off where the first film ended, billionaire genius Tony Stark has just revealed to the world his identity as the armor clad superhero, Iron Man. Now he reaps the whirlwind consequences of his actions as both the military and unscrupulous competitor Justin Hammer vie to obtain the secrets of Stark’s Iron Man technology for their own gain. Too add to the flames, Stark soon discovers that the very technology that is keeping his heart alive is also poisoning him. As he tries to salvage a life that is slowly falling to pieces and his growing feelings for his long time assistant Pepper Potts(Gwyneth Paltrow), Starks has to contend to with a foreign weapons genius named Ivan Vanko who seems to bear a deep seated grudge against the ailing billionaire; a grudge that stemmed from the legacy of Tony’s father, Howard Stark.

Whatever was good in the first movie is carried on in true sequel fashion. The acting and chemistry among the cast is definitely the highlight of the whole film. Robert Downey Jr IS Tony Stark, though less of a playboy following his “change of heart”(figuratively and literally) in the first movie, but still the same wisecracking, smirky eccentric. Everyone is just so natural in their roles including the villains, especially The character of Justin Hammer, played by Sam Rockwell. Hammer had all the makings of a silly one dimensional villainous caricature, but manages to be a well rounded scumbag of a corporate competitor, providing some excellent comic relief while still presenting a credible threat to the hero.

That being said, the script is just littered with witty banter, intelligent jokes and a good number of “Easter eggs” for the long time comic book fans. Writer Justin Theroux had a good number of interesting themes going for this movie, most notable of which is the theme of “legacy”, of what people leave behind when they are gone; their impressions on their successors and how the effects of their past actions would echo down the years long after one has passed. Stark himself, faced with his inevitable demise, does not want to leave a legacy of death as a weapons designer. Aside from that, we see how the legacies of both Stark’s and Ivan Vanko’s fathers have affected their present lives.

Now, Vanko’s (played by Sin City’s Mickey Rourke) is a truly tragic tale. It is easy to pass him off as a “darth maul” type character with no other purpose than to provide the hero with a powerful opponent for the mandatory climax. But to the more attentive viewers, one can see how Vanko is basically the dark opposite reflection of Tony Stark. Both are geniuses, both are where they are because of their respective fathers yet different circumstances in life brought them down entirely different paths. The parallels between his origin story of creating the “whiplash” powered armor from scrap, getting captured(in a similarly explosive manner) in order to develop weapons for one man to bring down his competitor all the way to his cunning escape plan and his mistaken impression about his dearly departed father are all uncannily similar to Tony Stark’s experiences in the first movie that led up to his debut as the hero Iron Man and his mistaken impression about his own father.

The one thing viewers might not appreciate is that this sequel seems to lack that sense of “fun” that the first film had, taking on a more serious tone at times to dish out the more complex themes and even a romantic sub-plot. It really is too bad that the more complex themes are there but not really expanded upon. This leaves a lot of “could have been more” moments hanging by the time the show ends. At least the action is satisfying high octane eye candy as Jon Favreau’s steady directing hand brings out the intensity of every battle scene. Special effects are top notch as usual except for a couple of cartoony looking moments that do require some suspension of disbelief, for example the briefcase that transforms into an iron man armor with armor parts seemingly appearing from out of nowhere.

By the time the all too familiar final battle is over and the credits start rolling, one gets the impression that Iron Man 2 could have been a lot more than the sum of its parts. A little longer running time would have fixed most of the story kinks but perhaps Marvel is merely using this movie as a money generator and spring board to something greater.(Blatant teasers are thrown into the narrative itself almost like a running catalog of future Marvel film projects).

Topping the first film is no easy feat and of course Iron Man 2 would disappoint a few here and there. But it is nonetheless one of the most entertaining comic book movies that mixes action, wit, drama and cast chemistry so well. If widespread appeal is its purpose, then Iron Man 2 has fulfilled that function magnificently in that even a newcomer to the franchise can kick back and enjoy the show. Marvel studios has started a new legacy beyond great comics. Here is a legacy of comic book movies, true to the spirit of its source material yet tailored nicely to the tastes of the modern movie audience.

 

8 out of 10 stars

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Iron Man (2008) – Movie Review

By 2008, there were already a bunch of Marvel movies on the market, all presented as a big mixed cluster of varying quality and quantity. After pulling itself together as its own studio, Marvel kicked off Phase 1 of its new movie-making universe with Iron Man.

From start to finish, this is one cool film. It is very sharply-made, with a very slick and high-quality look and feel. It’s evenly-paced, with equal parts color, comedy, and action. And when the action hits, it is really cool stuff, without going too far overboard. Among Iron Man’s heroics, my favorite scene shows him rocketing to the other side of the world, to use his high-tech suit to beat up violent extremists to protect the innocent (blowing up a tank in the process, before being pursued by American jets in a great high-speed air chase scene). The film’s climax features an all-out fight between two high-powered suits, during which there’s plenty of mass destruction. Even when there aren’t guns and rockets going off, the film is still a blast with its colorful inter-character exchanges, funny suit-testing scenes, tense inter-corporate conspiracies.

The story this film tells is a great one. The origins of Iron Man is inherently compelling, as it takes a greedy, narcissistic arms dealer and flips him on his head to turn him into a hero. The film does so by plunging the character into the heart of the very problems he’s created (in a war-town part of the world nonetheless). Once Tony Stark dedicates himself to being Iron Man, the conflict shifts to him confronting everybody else around him. Through all the struggles he endures, the film lays out rich characterization and interesting thematic material worth exploring.

This film looks splendid, with quality photography and editing. Acting is quite spot-on: Robert Downey Jr. is perfectly cast as the title character, and he remains iconic through every other Marvel project he’s in from here on out. Gweneth Paltrow, Jeff Bridges, Terrence Howard, Shaun Toub, and everybody else is great to watch as well. Writing is pretty good and sharp. This production uses spectacular-looking sets, props, and costumes. Most special effects hold up well, and are awesome to behold. Ramin Djawadi’s music score is pretty cool too.

The first Iron Man film has everything you can ask for in a superhero film: thrilling action, amusing humor, a decent story, and characters we can care about. Even after having numerous other Marvel films come out since, this is still the biggest must-see of the lot.

 

9 out of 10 stars

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