Saturday, May 03, 2014

Marvel: the story so far

I started writing this as a few introductory paragraphs to a review of ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ but in typical Fulwood stylee it got all verbose and out of hand and became an article in and of itself. So you can either completely ignore it and check back in the next day or two for the ‘Cap’ review proper, or wade through my complete opinionated thoughts on the Marvel Cinematic Universe (a phrase that made me a little bit sick in my mouth when I typed it) and fill up the comments thread with all manner of outrage and correctiveness. Up to you.

Over the last six years, my interest in the MCU, if plotted on graph paper, would look like a polygraph test taken by an intermittent liar. Jon Favreau’s ‘Iron Man’ was first out of the traps and set the bar high: gripping origin story, iconic action set-pieces and a back-from-the-dead (or at least from rehab) turn by Robert Downey Jnr. Its rip-roaring success meant Marvel Studios got to play with the big boys right from the off.

Louis Leterrier’s ‘Hulk’ avoided the bouncy graphics and navel-gazing of Ang Lee’s take on the character, and was a bloody good chase movie up until the last twenty minutes when two screensavers basically twatted each other for what seemed longer than your average Bela Tarr flick. It wobbled at the box office, taking $263million against its £150million budget whereas ‘Iron Man’ netted £585million from a similar budget. It was two years until the next Marvel outing and the studio decided to play it safe with ‘Iron Man 2’ and Favreau back in the director’s chair.

This was where my interest started to dip: even the presence of Mickey Rourke and Sam Rockwell couldn’t disguise a meandering screenplay; it also made the cardinal mistake of giving us a vulnerable and insecure Tony Stark when all we really want to see is Tony Stark partying with dancing girls, driving a fuck-off cool Audi and throwing out smart-arse comments left, right and centre. Still, it rang the box office tills and it introduced Scarlett Johansson at Natasha “Black Widow” Romanoff.

Then came ‘Thor’ and, here at chez Agitation, the jury’s still out on the ‘Thor’ movies. While Shakespeare wallah Kenneth Branagh was a good choice for helmer in respect of the mythological aspects of the story, he’s no-one’s idea of an action movie or summer tentpole director. On the plus side, Chris Hemsworth made something out of what could have been a very silly characterisation, and was ably served by a stellar supporting cast: who else could have played Thor Snr but Anthony Hopkins? who can deliver sarcastic line readings anywhere near as cuttingly as Kat Dennings? Best of all, though, it gave us Tom Hiddleston as Loki and Tom Hiddleston is the single best thing in the whole of the MC-motherloving-U.

‘Captain America: The First Avenger’ was the one I went into with the most trepidation. Let’s face it, “Cap” is the easiest character to screw up. He doesn’t have the girls, gadgets and glib one-liners of Tony Stark, the destructive creature-from-the-id unpredictability of Bruce Banner, or the commanding intensity and fucking big hammer of Thor. What Steve Rogers has is true-blue patriotism and a rigorous sense of right and wrong. He could easily have been boring. His origin story – a period piece, with him battling Third Reich splinter group Hydra against the backdrop of World War II – doesn’t key into the contemporary America that even Thor traverses.

My doubts, however, were groundless: with Joe Johnston calling the shots and bringing his ‘Rocketeer’ playbook to the table; with Chris Evans striking just the right note in his characterisation; with Hayley Atwell giving even Johansson a run for her money as a kick-ass, sexy and appealing heroine; with Hugo Weaving channelling Werner Herzog to create the best Marvel baddie this side of Loki; with a cluster of terrific action scenes that were coherently shot and edited; and with characterisation and period recreation at the heart of the entire production, it fired me up for Marvel all over again. It romped into first place as my absolute favourite of the Mike Charlie Uniform.

So, with all the origin stories told, and with what Marvel have rather self-importantly referred to as “phase one” drawing to its conclusion, all that remained was to unite them. Responsibility for ‘The Avengers’ (or ‘Avengers Assemble’ as it was retitled for the UK market, to avoid comparison with a certain Ralph Fiennes/Uma Thurman turkey) was handed to Joss Whedon and fair dues to the man, he stepped up to bat. Consider for a moment the poisoned chalice that an ‘Avengers’ movie was at that time: a script that had to give enough time to four very different characters and very different actors; a threat that had to be significant enough to require all four protagonists; a new actor to embed (Mark Ruffalo, taking over from Ed Norton in the role of Bruce Banner). The potential for fuck-up-ery was off the scale. Whedon negotiated the pitfalls with aplomb. And while ‘The Avengers’ isn’t quite in the first rank (a saggy mid-section; the already clichéd uber-villain-allows-himself-to-be-captured-in-order-to-facilitate-next-stage-of-cunning-plan plot device) it’s still arguably the best that could have been done given the material and the movie-going public’s expectations.

Shane Black’s ‘Iron Man 3’ repeated the ‘Iron Man 2’ cock-up: it chipped away at everything that makes Tony Stark the risible yet loveable arrogant twat he is. To the point at which it seems more like a surreal sequel to the earlier Black/Downey Jnr outing ‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’ than an actual Marvel film. I can only speculate that Black threw in a dockyard shoot-out in which Stark doesn’t don the suit but a dozen other (empty) Iron Man suits going flying around and blowing things up in order to placate the Marvel Studios suits and ensure he wasn’t given his little pink slip while a PR type dug around for Jon Favreau’s phone number.

I still don’t know what to say about Alan Taylor’s ‘Thor: The Dark World’ or – as I’m convinced that original draft of the script was titled – ‘Carry On Up Your Asgard’ except that Tom Hiddleston was in it and Kat Dennings still does sarcasm better than anyone. Yes, it was entertaining in a five-pints-and-a-kebab kind of way; yes, Rene Russo had one hell of an exit scene; yes, it prompted a couple of hollow laughs. But seriously, what the fuck was that big fight scene all about? Antagonists dropping through time and space, occasionally smacking each other a few times before disappearing into another dimension … it was like ‘Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’ as if Paul Verhoeven had directed following a week-long drug binge fuelled by back-to-back episodes of ‘Red Dwarf’. Only not as funny.

Somewhere around ‘Thor: The Dark World’ swinging its hammer at box office tills the world over, Whedon took Marvel to the small screen with ‘Agents of SHIELD’. Although Whedon has done some fine work for TV, very little of it has demonstrated the longevity of ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’. Moreover, Whedon’s internal quality control is iffy at best, and for everything that’s as downright well-written as ‘Firefly’ there’s plenty of material that’s messy, self-indulgent and riddled with pop-culture references. I’ll just say that I gave up on ‘Agents of SHIELD’ after two episodes and leave it at that.

Now we’re at ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’, the middle instalment in Marvel’s “phase two”, after which an entirely new slew of characters will be introduced in ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ – including, apparently, a racoon with a predilection for heavy-duty weaponry – before The Avengers reassemble for ‘Age of Ultron’ with Whedon back at the helm. Moving forward to “phase three”, two films are in pre-production: ‘Ant-Man’ and ‘Captain America 3’. The former piques my curiosity for no other reason than Edgar Wright’s involvement; and the latter, featuring the same creative team as ‘Winter Soldier’, is something I’m really hoping makes it three for three.

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