Flashback: ‘Iron Man 2’

Marvel’s path to ‘The Avengers’ continued in the 2010 sequel to ‘Iron Man’…

Iron Man 2 - IM & WM

Iron Man and War Machine unite in ‘Iron Man 2’ (c. Marvel Studios).

Year:  2010

Starring:  Robert Downey Jr, Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Mickey Rourke, Sam Rockwell, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Clark Gregg

Directed by:  Jon Favreau / Written by:  Justin Theroux

What’s it about?

After revealing to the world that he is Iron Man, Tony Stark faces the scrutiny of the U.S. Government and the wrath of Ivan Vanko, the son of one of Howard Stark’s former colleagues…

Retrospective/review

When 2008’s Iron Man proved to be an immediate success, Marvel Studios moved quickly to greenlight a sequel for release two years later.  With Jon Favreau once again in the director’s chair (and also appearing in front of the camera as Happy Hogan), Iron Man 2 would allow Marvel Studios to push forward with the first ‘phase’ of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which would culminate in 2012’s The Avengers (Avengers Assemble as it was released in the U.K.).

Whilst not as effective as the first Iron Man, Iron Man 2 is still reasonably entertaining and delivers much of what audiences loved about its predecessor.  Picking up six months after Iron Man and Tony Stark’s revelation to the public that he is in fact Iron Man, the sequel sees an overly cocky and self-assured Stark falling foul of the U.S. Government – who have classified the Iron Man armour as a weapon – and drawing the ire of Ivan Vanko, whose father passes away without his work with Howard Stark on the design of the revolutionary arc reactor being acknowledged.  Meanwhile, Tony has learned that the substance powering the arc reactor fitted to his chest is poisoning him and that he’ll face an early death if he doesn’t find an alternative.

Robert Downey Jr’s return as Tony Stark is a confident one and Justin Theroux’s script serves the leading star with some decent material that deftly combines humour and heart.  Although the wisecracks can feel a little too dialled-up, it doesn’t necessarily feel forced like some of the later MCU films and helps fuel the motivations of the embittered Ivan Vanko who seeks to knock Stark down a peg or two.  Beyond the lighter elements, Downey Jr gets further opportunity to delve deeper into the humanity of Tony Stark, frails and all, as he grapples with issues of his own mortality which drive him to excess (Stark’s drinking binge touching briefly on classic comic book storyline “Demon in a Bottle”) and the fraught relationship with his late father, Howard (John Slattery).

Iron Man 2 - Vanko

Mickey Rourke as Ivan Vanko (c. Marvel Studios).

Gwyneth Paltrow is equally assured in her reprisal of Virginia “Pepper” Potts whose chemistry with Robert Downey Jr continues to be a highlight and Paltrow’s character is given room to grow as she takes up the role of CEO at Stark Industries.  Don Cheadle makes a pleasing debut as Rhodey, taking over from Terrence Howard and proves a superior fit for the role, even more so when he suits up as War Machine.  As Ivan Vanko, Mickey Rourke does well with what he has to work with providing a serviceable antagonist (a sort of mixture of iconic Iron Man comic villains Whiplash and Crimson Dynamo) that does the job but doesn’t quite have the same weight as Jeff Bridges’ Obidiah Stane from the original Iron Man.  The threat to Tony Stark is bolstered somewhat by Sam Rockwell’s Justin Hammer (a recurring vilain in the comics), the boisterous rival industrialist seeking retribution when his government weapons contract is revoked thanks to Stark’s ramblings during the senate hearing.  Rockwell effortlessly shifts between being funny and formidable adding both tension and wit to proceedings.  The cast’s other most notable addition is Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow whose introduction, in terms of performance, feels a bit flat compared to her later MCU appearances.

Iron Man 2 - Black Widow

Scarlett Johansson makes her MCU debut as Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (c. Marvel Studios).

One common criticism of Iron Man 2 is that there are times when the story takes a back seat in favour of building its ties to the wider Marvel universe and the set-up for the impending assemblage of the Avengers.  In fairness that’s a bit of an overstatement – the inclusion of Nick Fury and his agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. isn’t too overbearing and has some significance to the plot as Fury helps Tony unveil his father’s unfinished work and search for a new power source for the arc reactor.  It also builds on that post credits scene from the first film, providing a gentle push toward The Avengers.

Iron Man 2 has its flaws.  It’s perhaps a little too sure of itself at times and there’s some loss of the irreverence that made the first Iron Man feel so unique and fresh.  As mentioned earlier, Rourke’s villain doesn’t pack as big a punch as one would hope and it doesn’t help that, although the attack on the Stark Expo leads to an exciting finale, the final showdown between Vanko and Stark is rather anticlimactic with no real emotional payoff.

Ultimately, Iron Man 2 isn’t a sequel in the same vein as The Dark Knight or Aliens or Terminator 2, nor does it rank as one of the best MCU entries but as a comic book blockbuster, viewed with realistic expectations it’s a fun ride.

Geek fact!  Iron Man 2 is dedicated to DJ Adam Goldstein who appears in a cameo filmed prior to his tragic death at the age of 36.

Images used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).

Film Review: ‘Avengers: Infinity War’

Marvel Studios unleash an entire universe on audiences in the highly anticipated Avengers: Infinity War…

Spoiler-free review

 

Infinity War

The Avengers unite with the Guardians of the Galaxy to take on Thanos in Marvel Studios release ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ (image belongs: Disney/Marvel Studios, used for illustrative purposes only).

Starring:  Robert Downey Jr, Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Holland, Chadwick Boseman, Tom Hiddleston, Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper, Dave Bautista, Josh Brolin

Directed by:  Anthony Russo and Joe Russo / Written by:  Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely / 149 minutes

What’s it about?

Earth’s mightiest heroes – with the aid of some new cosmic friends – unite to prevent the galactic titan, Thanos from harnessing the devastating abilities of the all-powerful Infinity Stones…

In review

Perhaps the most anticipated cinematic event since the return of Star Wars, Avengers: Infinity War begins the culmination of ten years of the highly successful, box office conquering Marvel Cinematic Universe.  The biggest, most ambitious Marvel film to date (until next year’s as yet untitled Avengers 4 that is), Avengers: Infinity War is a rousing rollercoaster ride packed with emotion, action and laughs in a dazzling, heartfelt and often spectacular comic book blockbuster.

Having already helmed two of the strongest MCU entries, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War, directors Anthony and Joe Russo once again prove, with ease, that they are adept at balancing epic scale and a large cast of characters ensuring that high stakes are maintained without sacrificing focus on the people.  The narrative is relatively simple and splitting it into three ‘sections’ (with separate strands of the story taking place around the world and in space) prevents the expansive set of players from becoming muddled into one gigantic crowd which would only disservice the individual heroes audiences the world over have grown to love.  It’s a bit of a genius stroke that helps to break the film down neatly and isolate smaller groups of characters – the only downside being the inevitable disappointment that certain Marvel heroes don’t get to team up this time.  There is also a sense that, whilst everyone is given their moment to shine, some are perhaps not given as much prominence as might be expected.  To say this film is big (both in terms of its visuals and its cast) is an understatement and it’s commendable that, in the grand scheme of things the Russo brothers have managed to hold together all the disparate elements of Infinity War as well as they have.

Tonally, Infinity War follows a slightly darker path which is to be expected given the stakes that naturally come with the end of all things but like Avengers: Age of Ultron and Captain America: Civil War there’s still a good dose of levity where it’s needed and a lot of fun to be had, whether it be the verbal sparring between Iron Man and Doctor Strange, Spider-Man’s over-eagerness or Thor’s interactions with the Guardians of the Galaxy, together with numerous instances of fist pumping heroics – whilst it may seem all hope is lot at times, there’s often an undercurrent of hope running beneath the surface.

Whilst this is an Avengers film and we get to see all our old – and new – favourites with key moments for Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Black Widow, Doctor Strange, Spider-Man and Black Panther (and many more, including the Guardians of the Galaxy – Star Lord, Gamora, Drax, Rocket Raccoon and a stroppy teenage Groot), Infinity War is very much the story of its central villain, Thanos.  First teased in the post-credits sting for Avengers Assemble, Thanos, thanks to the efforts of screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely and the motion capture performance of Josh Brolin (realised with some good CGI) is a powerful antagonist for sure and one with a lot of depth – there’s strong emphasis on character and a real sense of what his motivations are.  They say the best villains never see themselves as being truly evil and although Thanos is responsible for atrocious acts, Infinity War takes the opportunity to explore what makes the mad titan tick.

Infinity War isn’t total perfection though, at this point in the MCU there’s a certain – perhaps unavoidable – element of predictability that springs from a tried and tested formula and the pacing of its earlier acts can feel a little erratic and inconsistent.  Also, whilst much of the humour is well placed (and actually funny) there’s still the odd moment of forced slapstick that doesn’t quite hit the mark but it’s much more effective than some of Marvel’s other releases and never lapses into the outright absurdity of Thor: Ragnarok.  Some of the action can also be a little too frantic in its execution, although the Russo’s seem to have dialled back a little on some of the more overzealous ‘shaky-cam’ usage seen in their Captain America outings.

So, is Infinty War the best comic book film ever?  No, it’s certainly not The Dark Knight but nor does it try to be anything other than what it is.  Is it the best Marvel film?  Time will tell, but for now there’s no hesitation in declaring it as one of the greatest.

The bottom line:  Avengers: Infinity War was always a seemingly impossible task but directors Anthony and Joe Russo have pulled together an epic, exciting and at times moving comic book adventure that’s sure to be yet another hit for Marvel Studios.

Avengers: Infinity War is in cinemas now.

Film Review: ‘Justice League’

It’s all in or bust as DC’s league of heroes unite in Warner Bros’ Pictures latest comic book blockbuster… 

Spoiler-free review

Justice League

DC’s premier super team unite in the Warner Bros’ Pictures release ‘Justice League’.

Starring:  Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Gal Gadot, Ezra Miller, Jason Mamoa, Ray Fisher, Ciarin Hinds, Amy Adams, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, J.K. Simmons

Directed by: Zack Snyder / Written by: Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon / 121 minutes

What’s it about?

In the wake of Superman’s death, Bruce Wayne enlists the help of Wonder Woman to assemble a team of powered individuals in order to protect the Earth from a looming cosmic threat…

In review

It’s no secret that Warner Bros’ DC Comics film universe has had it tough so far.  2013’s Man of Steel was fairly well reviewed but divided audiences, its sequel 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was even more divisive and Suicide Squad…again, more so.  The tide seemed to turn with the critical and financial smash of Wonder Woman this summer, meaning the pressure was well and truly on for Warner Bros/DC with team-up event Justice League, a popcorn superhero action flick that is enjoyable and entertaining even if it doesn’t quite hit the mark.  Directed by Zack Snyder, who helmed Man of Steel and Batman v Superman, Justice League is held together by its central heroes, with likeable performances from their respective actors and great chemistry that makes it worth a look.

There are flaws to Justice League that prevent it from being as great as it could’ve been.  Firstly, the film’s narrative is a little messy and disjointed (a criticism that Batman v Superman was able to remedy with its superior extended cut), becoming more problematic as it rushes through various plot points that could have warranted more focus – it seems clear that the studios’ insistence on a relatively slim running time has resulted in a good chunk of material being excised.  Another weak link is Steppenwolf, an adequate but generic CGI villain (voiced and performance-captured by Ciaran Hinds) who, albeit, provides a reasonable enough threat, pales in comparison to some of the stronger comic book film villains.  He’s by no means terrible, just not all that interesting or memorable.  There’s also some disappointingly shoddy VFX work that can on occasion be distracting, especially in the film’s busy and action packed final act.

However, it’s with its main characters that Justice League is elevated.  Ben Affleck and Gal Gadot make strong returns as Bruce Wayne/Batman and Diana Prince/Wonder Woman respectively, both providing solid leadership to the rest of the team.  After fleeting glimpses in BvS, we’re fully introduced to Ezra Miller’s Barry Allen/the Flash, Jason Mamoa’s Arthur Curry/Aquaman and Ray Fisher’s Victor Stone/Cyborg.  All three are great, with Miller’s nerdy, excitable and hilarious take on the Flash a particular highlight.  Mamoa is a pleasing surprise with a fun, swashbuckling twist to the iconic heir to the throne of Atlantis and Fisher brings fitting strokes of tortured humanity to the brooding Cyborg.  As for the return of the Man of Steel himself it’s a triumphant one, the rebirth of Clark Kent/Superman forming an integral part of the story and Henry Cavill slips back into the cape and boots with ease, his selfless, heroic sacrifice in BvS and a second chance at life leading to a Superman with a renewed purpose and a more hopeful perspective.

The tone of Justice League is certainly lighter and more accessible than Batman v Superman, with a fair amount of humour sprinkled throughout and it’s generally well-placed and doesn’t undermine the film’s more dramatic moments.  It’s well known that due to personal tragedy, Zack Snyder handed over post-production duties to Avengers Assemble and Avengers: Age of Ultron writer/director Joss Whedon, with Whedon (who shares screenwriting credits with Chris Terrio) scripting some additional material and handling reshoots.  This could’ve easily been to the film’s detriment but gladly, the end result actually feels quite consistent.  Visually, Justice League is most definitely a Zack Snyder film, it’s themes of heroism enhanced by Joss Whedon’s knack for snappy character dialogue.  The screenplay may lack the deeper, more introspective themes and idiosyncratic touches of BvS but it gets the job done.

Although Justice League isn’t perfect its positive aspects make it enjoyable and fun in all the right places, particularly for fans of these iconic characters.  It isn’t on the same level as Marvel’s Avengers but it sets the DC film universe on the right path for the many further cinematic adventures ahead.

The bottom line:  Flawed but ultimately enjoyable, Justice League assembles some of DC’s finest heroes and establishes the road ahead for future outings.

Justice League is in cinemas now.

Film Review: ‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’

Marvel’s cosmic Avengers are back…

 Spoiler-free review

Starring:  Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Kurt Russell

Directed and Written by: James Gunn (based on the Marvel Comics by Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning) / 116 minutes

What’s it about?

Falling foul of an alien society they were supposed to be working for, the Guardians of the Galaxy find themselves in deep trouble and thrust into an adventure where Peter Quill finally meets his father…

In review

Marvel’s rag-tag bunch of cosmic heroes return in the fun-filled and heartfelt sequel to 2014’s runaway hit, Guardians of the Galaxy.  Picking up a few months after their inaugural adventure, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 finds the group, comprising Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax, Rocket and ‘Baby’ Groot being pursued by a squad of Ravagers, hired by a race called the Sovereign to take out the Guardians when a mission goes awry.  It’s during this cross-galaxy chase that Star-Lord comes face to face with his long lost father, ‘Ego’ – played by screen icon Kurt Russell.

If the first Guardians of the Galaxy was more concerned about introducing the various characters and the coming together of a team a la Avengers Assemble, then Vol. 2 goes a little deeper and more personal whilst still delivering the charm, laughs (in this instance a Marvel film where the humour is actually a welcome and natural component) and excitement audiences will expect.

As Peter Quill/Star-lord, Chris Pratt is once again the charismatic and heroic lead whose father issues and yearnings for Zoe Saldana’s Gamora form the backbone of the film’s emotional crux.  The casting of Kurt Russell (whose Tango & Cash co-star, Sylvester Stallone also appears) as Quill’s father is a real coup with a reliably great performance from the star of numerous hits from 80s cult classics Escape from New York and The Thing to more recent turns in Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight and goliath blockbuster The Fate of the Furious.  It’s a role made all the more enjoyable by a solid rapport with Pratt and the script’s satisfying character arcs.

Vin Diesel earns another easy payday as the cute youngling version of Groot (see the events of the last film) who together with the gun-toting mania of wisecracking space Raccoon, Rocket (a well-cast Bradley Cooper) and the hilarious and inappropriate perspectives of Dave Bautista’s Drax, especially in his interactions with Ego’s companion, Mantis (Pom Klementieff), facilitate the biggest laughs.

Complicating matters for the Guardians is the return of Michael Rooker’s Yondu who, having fallen out of favour with his fellow Ravagers, soon finds himself having to ally with Rocket and Groot in desperate circumstances.  Also back is Karen Gillan as Nebula – the ‘other’ daughter of galactic overlord (and mega villain of the forthcoming Avengers: Infinity War) Thanos – whose adversarial relationship with Gamora is explored in greater detail, adding some nice dramatic weight that’s to the benefit of both Gillan and Saldana and their respective characters.

Writer and Director James Gunn infuses Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 with the same enthusiasm and quirks for this second helping of fun space adventure that melds soulful and funky 70s tunes and influences of Star Wars and Flash Gordon with a good story brought to life via lavish, colourful visuals, equally colourful characters and rollicking action that still manages to excite despite culminating in the usual disaster-laden cataclysm of CGI doom.  The only real shortcomings arise from the early separation of the team that the script calls for and like the first Guardians there’s some sluggish pacing here and there and it perhaps feels a little overindulgent at times – but it’s mostly forgivable when the overall results are as entertaining as this.

The bottom line:  A fun, exciting and at times emotional blockbuster ride, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is bound to be another crowd-pleasing hit for Disney and Marvel Studios.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is in cinemas across the UK now and opens worldwide from 5th May.

Guardians 2

They’re back! Marvel’s cosmic crusaders return in ‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’ from Marvel Studios/Disney.

Film Review: ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’ (spoiler free)

Avengers re-assemble…

Starring:  Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, James Spader

Directed by:  Joss Whedon / Written by:  Joss Whedon

What’s it about?

The Avengers are pressed into action when Tony Stark’s experimentations with artificial intelligence unleashes Ultron – a malevolent programme intended for peace keeping that decides to become the master of its own fate…and humanity’s. 

In review

With the weight of near impossible odds stacked against him, writer/director Joss Whedon’s follow up to 2012’s mega hit (equally of critical and commercial proportions) – and dare us forget, third highest grossing film of all time – Avengers Assemble is finally unleashed upon entertainment and thrill hungry film goers.

Avengers: Age of Ultron opens by lunging the audience into a Bond-esque pre-titles mission as the Avengers, lead by Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man and Chris Evans’s Captain America, raid a secret Hydra base to recover Loki’s sceptre (see Avengers Assemble).  It’s a gloriously explosive and energetic opening that facilitates our reintroduction to ‘Earth’s Mightiest Heroes’, an introduction to new characters (following their brief appearance in the post-credits sequence of Captain America: The Winter Soldier) meta-humans Pietro and Wanda Maximoff and the set-up for the world-shattering events to follow.

Whilst the speedster of the Maximoff twins, Pietro (Taylor-Johnson) becomes largely a secondary character it is Wanda (Olsen) who figures more substantially in the narrative as her psych abilities are used to reach into the darkest corners of the minds of our beloved Avengers.  Right from the outset it’s clear that this is a much darker affair and the startling imaginations of Tony Stark’s fears set the tone for a more dramatically and thematically daring narrative than the previous Avengers outing.

Marvel Studios proved with Captain America: The Winter Soldier that such a creative direction is the way to go (whilst still indulging audiences in a spot of lighter entertainment in the form of the enjoyably fun Guardians of the Galaxy) and ensures that although Age of Ultron delivers much of what we all loved about Avengers Assemble – great characters, exhilarating action, of which there are numerous exciting set-pieces including a city smashing face-off between Iron Man and the Hulk that’s sure to delight fans and of course, humour – there is a seriousness and maturity that elevates the film above the realm of mere blockbuster fodder.

With an exciting, dramatic, intelligent and witty script Whedon crafts a glossy, quality comic book adventure that amongst all of the grand spectacle has a great deal of character depth.  Tony Stark continues to battle his demons as does Bruce Banner, increasingly ill at ease with his angry and destructive alter-ego who’s only saving grace is a blossoming tenderness with Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow, Steve Rogers is still very much a man out of time and Thor…well, is Thor.  Jeremy Renner’s Clint Barton (a.k.a. Hawkeye) is also better served this time around as we glimpse into a personal life beyond world saving escapades with the Avengers.

Downey Jr and Evans are once again on top form, returning with the assured confidence afforded them by star popularity and billions of dollars in box office takings.  They receive a more than worthy protagonist with James Spader triumphing in the role of the delightfully maniacal, egotistic and surprisingly funny Ultron, thanks to a combination of operatic dialogue and intricate motion capture performance.  Whilst it’s hard not to miss Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, Spader provides a gravitic presence of black hole proportions.  It also has to be said that Mark Ruffalo is once again a highlight as the troubled Bruce Banner and given the lack of any solo Hulk films in the near future is quite rightly given significant focus in Age of Ultron.

Central players aside, Age of Ultron features a glut of fan pleasing cameos from familiar faces including Don Cheadle as James Rhodes/War Machine, Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson/Falcon, Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill and Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury (not forgetting of course the customary appearance from the ever legendary Stan Lee).  Paul Bettany adds himself to the Avengers roster as he ‘evolves’ from Stark’s trusty electronic assistant JARVIS to the living, breathing bio-mechanical super powered entity known as ‘Vision’, superbly realised using a mixture of physical and computer generated elements .  With so many characters vying for attention it’s surprising that Age of Ultron doesn’t collapse under its own weight yet it holds together rather well and everyone generally gets their moment to shine – however large or small that turns out to be.

If there’s any criticism to be cited then it’s that there’s a great deal of set-up for forthcoming Marvel projects, with moments taken to lay the ground work for Captain America: Civil War, Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther and Infinity War Part I and II.  Sure, it’s all pleasing and to an extent necessary, yet it does threaten to verge on advertisement, although it’s probably an element that will be more welcome on subsequent viewings – perhaps enriched when those future Marvel outings are released.  The film’s music score is also a little underwhelming and lacking, a shame since composers Brian Tyler and Danny Elfman have both previously delivered some wonderful and strong comic book film scores.

On the whole, Whedon delivers a creatively successful film that stands at least on equal footing with Avengers Assemble and sets the Marvel Cinematic Universe firmly on course for its next phase.

The bottom line:  Avengers: Age of Ultron is a hell of a good time that focuses tightly on its rich set of characters whilst still providing audiences with colossal action and all around blockbuster entertainment.

Avengers: Age of Ultron is in cinemas across the UK now and opens in U.S. theatres on 1st May.

Captain America (Chris Evans) and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) return to lead the Avengers against new threat 'Ultron' (James Spader) in Marvel's 'Avengers: Age of Ultron'.

Captain America (Chris Evans) and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) return to lead the Avengers against new threat ‘Ultron’ (James Spader) in Marvel’s ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’.

Film Review: ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ (spoiler-free)

Starring:  Chris Evans, Scarlett Johannson, Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Robert Redford and Samuel L. Jackson

Directed by:  Anthony and Joe Russo / Written by: Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely / 136 minutes

What’s it about?

Steve Rogers, aka Captain America, must go off-grid to thwart a deadly conspiracy at the heart of S.H.I.E.L.D. but must first come face to face with the mysterious assassin known as the Winter Soldier…

In review

Marvel Studios continues to deliver the post-Avengers goods as Captain America: The Winter Soldier proves to be another confident hit that stands on equal footing with their afore-mentioned 2012 cinematic juggernaut.

It works equally well as a sequel to Joe Johnston’s Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) and as a follow-up to Avengers Assemble and as with Iron Man Three and Thor: The Dark World (also forming part of ‘Phase Two’ of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe) more than capably stands on it’s on legs and assuredly so.  The Winter Soldier is more than just a standard superhero flick with some surprising depth in terms of character and story that meshes neatly with the anticipated (nay, expected) spectacle of a comic book action blockbuster.

The story itself (wisely drawing on the fan favourite comic book run by writer/artist team Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting) is enhanced by a strong script, delivering equal measures of action, excitement, drama and even the odd dash of wit that feels more humble than the at time near-slapstick tendencies of Iron Man and Thor.  As many reviewers have cited, TWS is both a political conspiracy/espionage thriller, with its numerous twists and turns, and rollercoaster blockbuster serving up a series of well-staged and often visceral adrenalin-fuelled action sequences from the opening assault on a hijacked freighter, increasing the stakes and intensity right through to an epic and visually stunning and searing showdown with the film’s main antagonist.

Chris Evans (not, not me unfortunately) once again provides another likeable and even relatable performance as Rogers/Cap, a man out of time who refuses to waver in his beliefs and convictions – he may be Captain America but, much like Superman, his moral values are universal.  Evans is capably matched by Johannson, delivering her best turn thus far as Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow who gets plenty of dramatic meat to chew on in between femme-fatale sassiness and a** kicker-y and Samuel L. Jackson makes a welcome return as S.H.I.E.L.D. Director, Nick Fury.  Joining the ‘team’ is Anthony Mackie as Cap’s new pal, Sam Wilson (aka Falcon) who shares good chemistry with his co-stars and adeptly handles both the action and drama (with some well integrated commentary on PTSD) and Marvel bag another impressive A-list veteran with Robert Redford as S.H.I.E.L.D. founder Alexander Pierce.

As to the Winter Soldier himself, he is a force to be reckoned with and a chilling opponent for our heroic Super Soldier…but I’ll leave that for you to discover for yourself!

Succeeding Joe Johnston are the Russo Brothers (Welcome to Collinwood) who prove the perfect choice for a film that brings Cap smack bang (literally, both with his fists and shield) into the present and keep the action tight, frantic and tense balancing the large scale pieces neatly against the slower-paced dramatic sections.  Even at over two hours it never feels like a drag, thanks to the intrigue and strong character focus.

Completing the package are the usual fan-pleasing easter eggs with surprise cameos and references to the wider Marvel Universe sprinkled throughout together with the traditional post-credits scenes providing tantalising hints of what’s to come as Marvel plough ahead towards next year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron.

The bottom line:  Marvel Studios keep hitting the mark and with Captain America: The Winter Soldier have confidently delivered their best film since Avengers Assemble.  It’s exciting, thrilling and fun without sacrificing character and story and will leave you hungry for more Marvel-ous entertainment!

Captain America: The Winter Solider is in cinemas across the UK now and is released in theatres in the U.S. on 4th April.

What did you think of Captain America: The Winter Soldier?  Share your spoiler-free thoughts below!

Marvel Studios hits the mark yet again with 'Captain America: The Winter Soldier'!

Marvel Studios hits the mark yet again with ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’!

Film Review: ‘Thor: The Dark World’ (spoiler-free)

Starring:  Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Christopher Eccleston, Jaimie Alexander, Kat Dennings, Stellan Skarsgard

Directed by:  Alan Taylor / Written by:  Christopher L. Yost, Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely (story by Don Payne and Robert Rodat) / 120 minutes

What’s it about?

Thor must risk all to prevent Asgard’s deadliest enemy from unleashing a powerful force that will destroy life across the realms…

In review

With Kenneth Branagh’s Thor (2011), Marvel Studios once again served up a surprise hit that in a similar vein to Iron Man established a firm and popular screen presence for another of the lesser known characters from the Marvel pantheon.  Admittedly I’m not a fan of fantasy or ‘sword and sandal’ epics, I’ve never fully understood why but perhaps much like Tony Stark I prefer hardware and flawed human characters that I find more relatable.  I’d never read a Thor comic until I decided to give J. Michael Straczynski’s acclaimed run a go (around 2007/8 if I recall correctly) and found that I thoroughly enjoyed it thanks to decent characterisation and the blending of rich mythology with ‘real world’ elements.

I generally still can’t take to the fantasy/sword and sandal genre but with The Mighty Thor and his ties to the wider Marvel Universe, I gladly make an exception.  With the stage set by Mr. Branagh, director Alan Taylor (Game of Thrones) takes over the throne to helm Thor: The Dark World, the God of Thunder’s first post-Avengers Assemble outing.  It’s certainly a much grander production than the previous Thor (which was quite a grand venture itself), clearly benefitting from an increased budget in the wake of Avengers success – much as was the case with Iron Man Three.  This is a visually epic film with the rich detail and sweeping vistas of Asgard balanced against the more recognisable but no less breathtaking landscapes of the London set Earth-bound scenes.

The film’s narrative enriches the visual aspects, providing high stakes and action-packed thrills with a smattering of romance, charm and humour that complement the dramatic elements without undermining them.

Chris Hemsworth makes a confident return as the iconic Marvel hero and presents a wiser, slightly more seasoned Thor fighting to bring order to the Nine Realms, supported by companions Lady Sif (Alexander) and the ‘Warriors Three’ Volstagg (Ray Stevenson), Hogun (Tadanobu Asano) and replacing Josh Dallas is a post-Chuck Zacahry Levi as Fandral – who sadly is given little to do here.

Natalie Portman again deftly balances the sensitive and intellectual attributes of Jane Foster (who’s not afraid to slap a god in the face) and figures significantly in the grand scheme of things.

Kat Dennings enjoys (and certainly makes the most of) an enlarged role as the zany Darcy, facilitating a number of the film’s fun comical moments some of which also involve a rambling (and nude) Stellan Skarsgard as the previously brainwashed (see Avengers Assemble) Dr. Erik Selvig.

I initially had trepidations about Christopher Eccleston as the vengeful Dark Elf, Malekith (a role that was originally set to be played by Mads Mikkelsen) but I was pleased to find that he executed the part rather well and his performance is bolstered by some good make-up/prosthetic work.

But, once again, the true star of the show is Tom Hiddleston who gives another wicked yet complex turn as Loki, chastised and imprisoned by Odin (Sir Anthony Hopkins).  Hiddleston carries with him a Shakespearean air and could easily carry a film of his own – ‘nuff said.

So, ultimately, is The Dark World better than the first Thor?  Quite possibly is all I can say for now, as I’ve said it’s certainly bigger in scope and the threat is a sizeable and substantial one but I do have a weakness for heroic origin stories and feel that there is perhaps more emotional resonance within Branagh’s film.  All in all though it’s another reliable hit from Marvel Studios and whilst I may favour other Marvel characters, I’ll always be open to the odd trip to Asgard.

The bottom line:  Thor: The Dark World is an epic, exciting and fun piece of comic book entertainment and serves up healthy doses of all you would expect from a Marvel film.  Ensure you stay for both the mid-credits and post-credits scenes!

Thor: The Dark World is in cinemas across the UK now and is released in the States on 8th November.

What did you think of Thor: The Dark World?  Share your spoiler-free thoughts below!

Marvel's mighty thunder god returns confidently in Marvel Studios' 'Thor: The Dark World'.

Marvel’s mighty thunder god returns confidently in Marvel Studios’ ‘Thor: The Dark World’.

Blu-ray review: ‘Iron Man Three’

This review contains SPOILERS 

 please don’t read on if you haven’t yet seen Iron Man Three

 

Time for some iron heroics…

 

Starring:  Robert Downey Jr, Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, Ben Kingsley, Rebecca Hall

Directed by:  Shane Black / Written by:  Drew Pearce & Shane Black / 130 minutes

What’s Iron Man Three about?

Struggling to reconcile the events of New York, Tony Stark must grapple with his demons to face the threat of a lethal terrorist and the reprisals of a past acquaintance…

Film review

Hindsight can be sometimes be rewarding.  Given my previous thoughts on Iron Man Three (which I won’t hide away – you can read my rant here) it was with both surprise and delight that second time around I thoroughly enjoyed it!  I’ve been wrong before (Predators) and always happy to admit that I’ve let geek passions blind my enjoyment of an actually solid piece of entertainment.

Admittedly there still are “issues” with Iron Man Three (which I’ll come back to later) that threaten to grate but which I’ve now become more accepting of.  Anyway, on with the review…

Needless to say the success of Marvel Studios was well and truly secured by the positive reception of Avengers Assemble (as it was titled here in the UK) and it’s with respected confidence that whereas other studios would have opted for more of the same, Marvel’s next film would follow its own path.  Perhaps that’s part of what caught me off guard initially as Iron Man Three really is its own beast and (the occasional reference to Avengers and the wider Marvel universe aside) stands on its own feet.

Taking over the reins from Iron Man and Iron Man 2 director Jon Favreau is Lethal Weapon screenwriter Shane Black (he also played Hawkins in Predator) who previously teamed up with Robert Downey Jr. for the well-crafted 2005 action crime comedy Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.  Black proves to be the perfect successor to Favreau (who returns in front of the camera as Happy Hogan), balancing all the elements with aplomb, from the dialogue driven character moments to the adrenalin inducing action scenes.

Robert Downey Jr. returns to arguably the biggest and most iconic role of his career and infuses Tony Stark with the charm, wit and flawed humanity audiences have come to expect.  Whilst still not quite the Tony Stark of the comic books, much like Sean Connery did with James Bond, he has made the part his own without dismissing the key elements of the character Stan Lee envisioned.  Whilst there’s more of those sharp witticisms they thankfully don’t become as over indulgent as Iron Man 2.

RDJ continues to share good chemistry with Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts (who is more significant to the story this time out), Don Cheadle is much more settled as Stark’s best buddy Colonel James ‘Rhodey’ Rhodes aka ‘Iron Patriot’ (the rebranded War Machine) and Rebecca Hall is Maya Hansen – a flame from Stark’s past with questionable allegiances – who (much like Alice Eve’s role in Star Trek Into Darkness) serves the plot and not much more.  This brings us to the villains of the piece, led by the ever excellent Guy Pearce as Aldrich Killian, seeking reprisal after once being spurned by Stark, with The Pacific’s James Badge Dale appearing as his super-powered right hand man, Savin and the always reliable Ben Kingsley as ‘the Mandarin’.

Overall, the screenplay (co-written by Black) holds up but there are moments where it tries to be more like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang with some of the witty dialogue feeling at odds with Stark’s struggle against his post-Avengers anxiety.  RDJ’s ‘team up’ with school kid Harley Keener (Ty Simpkins) is heartfelt and fun but threatens to draw out the pace, although it’s also interesting to see a deeper exploration of the man inside the iron suit.  The adaptation of the Extremis storyline (which served as a modern reboot of the Iron Man comics) works – ahem – extremely well and I was fascinated by the ideas posed about unleashing new abilities by tapping into the brain’s ‘operating system’ which goes hand in hand with the technological aspects of the Iron Man universe.  There are also – naturally – a plethora of nods to the comics (the AIM organisation and a suited up Pepper Potts to offer a couple of examples) and the customary cameo from Mr. Marvel himself, Stan Lee.

However, Iron Man Three is not perfect and there is one major element that prevents it from becoming the ultimate Iron Man film – I am indeed referring to that divisive Mandarin twist.  Given the threat built up at the outset I still feel that it was a big mistake not to maintain the Mandarin’s identity as a Bin Laden-esque terrorist.  It would have provided a neat reinvention of the character and much higher stakes for Stark that would have elevated Iron Man Three to a whole other level.  Ben Kingsley serves the part well but the reversal into slapstick comedy upon the revelation that he’s just a washed out actor playing a role is a little jarring – perhaps over time I’ll be more accepting of it but for now it’s a significant flaw that lets the film down.

Iron Man Three boasts some beautiful and sumptuous visuals from Cinematographer John Toll.  It’s certainly the best looking Iron Man film which has a very “wide” feel even in the tighter more static character scenes.  It’s also bolstered by an increased Avengers sized budget that allows for some exhilarating and pulse-pounding action scenes (complemented perfectly by Bryan Tyler’s score) including the decimation of Stark’s mansion, an attack on Air Force One and the effects laden finale where Stark rounds up all of his Iron Man armours for a climactic show down with Killian.

All in all my opinion of Iron Man Three has been elevated from okay to VERY good and although the first Iron Man remains the best of the trilogy (I’m always a sucker for origin stories) it comes highly recommend.

Standout moment

Commandeering the Iron Patriot suit, Savin proceeds with Killian’s plan to attack Air Force One unaware that Stark is not far behind…

The Blu-ray

Slightly more generous than Paramount’s recent release of Star Trek Into Darkness, extras include a trio of short featurettes, a collection of deleted/extended scenes and outtakes, a gag reel and a commentary track with Shane Black and Drew Pearce.

Completing the package is perhaps the best ‘Marvel One Shot’ so far – Agent Carter, which sees Hayley Atwell (as gorgeous as ever) put in a strong yet sensitive performance as she reprises her role from Captain America.

The bottom line:  it required a reassessment but Iron Man Three has turned out to be a much better film than I initially thought.  It’s a consistently entertaining blockbuster with a measure of gusto and heart.

Iron Man Three is out now on Blu-ray (2D and 3D editions) from Paramount Home Entertainment (also available on DVD and digital download).

Another likeable performance form Robert Downey Jr. in Marvel Studios' 'Iron Man Three'.

Another likeable performance form Robert Downey Jr. in Marvel Studios’ ‘Iron Man Three’.