Flashback: ‘Captain America: The First Avenger’

Before The Avengers would assemble, audiences were introduced to perhaps the team’s most crucial member…

Chris Evans leads as Steve Rogers/Captain America in director Joe Johnston’s ‘Captain America: The First Avenger’ (image credit: Disney/Marvel Studios).

Year:  2011

Starring:  Chris Evans, Hugo Weaving, Hayley Atwell, Sebastian Stan, Tommy Lee Jones, Dominic Cooper, Stanley Tucci, Toby Jones, Samuel L. Jackson

Directed by:  Joe Johnston / written by:  Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (Captain America created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby)

What’s it about?

Rejected from enlisting in the U.S. Army, Steve Rogers, a physically weak but strong spirited young man from Brooklyn is recruited for a secret programme that will see him transformed into the ‘Super Soldier’ Captain America, to lead the fight against the forces of Hydra…

Retrospective/review

In July of 2011, Marvel Studios edged closer to the culmination of ‘Phase One’ of its plans for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as it approached The Avengers, with the release of Captain America: The First Avenger introducing audiences to Steve Rogers/Captain America, the classic Marvel hero who will be the keystone of the eponymous comic book superhero team.

Directed by Joe Johnston (The Rocketeer, Jurassic Park III), and starring Chris Evans, Captain America: The First Avenger is predominantly a period piece bookended by scenes taking place in modern day.  The bulk of the narrative unfolds at the height of World War II, where Steve Rogers (Evans), a physically diminutive but noble spirited young man from Brooklyn, repeatedly refused enlistment in the U.S. Army, is selected for a top-secret programme where an experimental serum transforms him into the tall, muscular and agile Super Soldier ‘Captain America’ who will lead the fight against Nazi lieutenant Johann Schmidt – aka ‘The Red Skull’ (The Matrix trilogy’s Hugo Weaving) – and the forces of Hydra as they seek to unlock the powers of a mysterious and powerful artefact known as the Tesseract.

The casting of Chris Evans in the lead role may not have seemed an obvious one (even though he was a highlight of 20th Century Fox’s not-so-great Fantastic Four films, where he played The Human Torch) but any fears where quickly allayed with an instantly likeable and grounded performance as Steve Rogers, prior and post-transformation and it’s now difficult to imagine anyone else playing the role.  It helps that writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely provide Rogers with a strong character arc, from the frustrated underdog and determined recruit to subsequent propaganda performer (the stage shows and movie serials with accompanying costume providing nostalgic homages to the history of Marvel’s ‘Star-Spangled Man’) and his eventual first real mission as Captain America, it affords Evans with rich material to invest in.  Kudos also must be given to costume designer Anna B. Sheppard as Cap’s World War II battlefield uniform is a standout example of creating something that is both faithful and unique and looks great onscreen.  The use of doubles and digital effects trickery also proves convincing in presenting viewers with the smaller and more slight pre-serum Rogers.

Hugo Weaving as Johann Schmidt/The Red Skull, one of the MCU’s more memorable villains (image credit: Disney/Marvel Studios).

Evans is ably supported by Sebastian Stan, making his first appearance as Steve Rogers’ best friend James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes (later to become the Hydra-conditioned assassin known as The Winter Soldier) but it’s undoubtedly the superb Hayley Atwell who proves his equal as the no-nonsense and dutiful British Agent Peggy Carter.  Evans and Atwell have wonderful chemistry and Carter is a great addition to the MCU, so it’s little wonder that Atwell would reprise here role in subsequent films and earn her own short-lived tv series (the sorely overlooked Agent Carter).  As the main antagonist, Hugo Weaving (who had previously worked with Joe Johnston on Universal Monster remake The Wolf Man) effortlessly delivers one of the MCU’s more memorable villains as the iconic Red Skull.

The cast is rounded out impressively with the participation of Oscar Winner Tommy Lee Jones (earning the prestigious award for Best Supporting Actor in The Fugitive) as Colonel Phillips, Stanley Tucci as the Super Soldier serum’s creator Dr. Abraham Erskine (who also has a great rapport with Chris Evans, with some great character-building scenes between the two), Dominic Cooper as Howard Stark (father of future Iron Man, Tony Stark), Neal McDonough as “Dum Dum” Dugan (one of the infamous “Howling Commandos”) and Toby Jones as Hydra scientist Dr. Arnim Zola.  Lest us also not forget that there’s another enjoyable cameo from late Marvel Comics legend, Stan Lee as well as an appearance from Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury.

Much like he demonstrated on The Rocketeer, Joe Johnston balances story, character and action brilliantly, weaving touches of Raiders of the Lost Ark into the nostalgic and adventurous fantasy period piece.  Of the film’s action set-pieces, they are numerous (and enhanced by Predator and The Abyss composer Alan Silvestri’s music score) and expertly staged, whether it’s Rogers’ rescue of imprisoned soldiers from the clutches of Hydra or the tense and gripping flying-wing finale.  Said finale of course sees Captain Rogers attempting the ultimate sacrifice to save the free world from annihilation.  Luckily, he is frozen deep in ice, to be discovered and revived in present day, leading to a poignant dénouement that paves the way for Marvel’s expanding film and television universe.

Captain America: The First Avenger is an underrated early effort from Marvel Studios that firmly establishes Marvel’s Golden Age hero and puts the final pieces in place before unleashing their ambitious and highly anticipated team-up, The Avengers.

Geek fact!

Actress Laura Haddock, later to play Peter ‘Star Lord’ Quill’s mother in Guardians of the Galaxy makes a brief appearance in The First Avenger as an autograph seeking admirer of Captain America.  Subsequent Doctor Who companion Jenna Coleman can also be seen in a small role as Bucky’s date at the Stark Expo.

All images herein remain the property of the copyright owners and are used for illustrative purposes only.

TV Review: ‘The Falcon and The Winter Soldier’

Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan reprise their superhero roles for the latest Marvel/Disney+ series…

Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan return to the Marvel Cinematic Universe for Disney+ series ‘The Falcon and The Winter Soldier’ (image credit: Disney/Marvel Studios).

Warning! Contains SPOILERS

Starring:  Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Wyatt Russell, Daniel Bruhl, Emily VanCamp, Erin Kellyman, Adepero Oduye

Series created by:  Malcolm Spellman (based on the Marvel comics)

What’s it about?

As the U.S. government unveils a new Captain America, Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes unite to take on the threat of an emerging radical group…

In review

Following the conclusion of the first Marvel Cinematic Universe streaming series for the Disney+ platform – the excellent WandaVision – Marvel Studios’ six-episode superhero action drama The Falcon and The Winter Soldier has now also wrapped up and it’s another hit for entertainment goliaths Marvel and Disney.  The series sees lead stars Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan reprise their roles as Marvel heroes Sam Wilson/The Falcon and “Bucky” Barnes/The Winter Soldier, respectively (both last seen in 2019 blockbuster Avengers: Endgame), as they take on the threat of a revolutionary group calling themselves the ‘Flag Smashers’ whilst also facing their own personal post-Blip concerns and the rise of the U.S. government’s newly appointed Captain America, decorated Afghan War veteran John Walker (Wyatt Russell – son of Kurt Russell).

The Falcon and The Winter Soldier is an engrossing Tom Clancy-esque action-espionage thriller in the spirit of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War (the “flavour” further enriched by bringing back composer Henry Jackman to score the show).  Series creator Malcolm Spellman and his writing staff tap into present day concerns, commenting on themes such as racial prejudice and division, the political state and social unrest whilst mirroring the buddy-cop character dynamics of the Lethal Weapon films, making the pairing of Sam and Bucky even more enjoyable.  Blessed with a handsome budget, The Falcon and The Winter Soldier boasts top-notch action scenes – Sam’s aerial battle in episode one and a truck-top fight involving Sam, Bucky and Walker as they take on the Flag Smashers in episode two are early examples – but is not driven by them, taking the time to delve into its characters and plot more deeply than a two-hour film possibly can.  This obviously results in a slower and more measured pace than an MCU film which some viewers might struggle with, but a generally consistent rhythm is quickly established, injecting the action where it’s called for and not just for the gratuity of it.  The Falcon and The Winter Soldier is far more motivated by character drama and the rich, thought provoking thematic elements it presents and as a result, anyone expecting straightforward superhero entertainment may be disappointed.

The series’ premiere episode does a good job of reintroducing the lead characters and their status quo following their return from non-existence in the ‘Blip’ (as per the events of Endgame) as Sam and Bucky attempt to get a grip on their lives.  Doubtful about taking up the role bequeathed to him by Steve Rogers, Sam Wilson relinquishes Cap’s shield to the U.S. government, before finding out that his status as an Avenger won’t help him secure a bank loan to help his sister Sarah (played by Adepero Oduye) and save the Wilson family’s fishing business.  Things are no better for Bucky Barnes, now gifted a Presidential pardon for his previous actions as The Winter Soldier, he begrudgingly submits to therapy for post-traumatic stress and plagued by guilt befriends an elderly Japanese man (Ken Takemoto), whose son he had murdered during one of his past operations as a Hydra assassin.  It creates an interesting set-up for both characters giving both Mackie and Stan plenty of depth to explore and they have never been better in their roles as they are elevated above their place as supporting players in the MCU films.

With Sam and Bucky taking on government contracts to make ends meet and Bucky questioning Sam’s decision to give up Cap’s shield and all that comes with it, tensions rise as the two begin to clash with a headstrong and determined John Walker.  Discovering that the Flag Smashers have super soldier serum-induced abilities, matters are further complicated when Sam and Bucky decide to team up with Zemo (Daniel Bruhl), incarcerated at the end of Civil War.  Travelling to Madripoor (a location Wolverine fans will know, weaving an X-Men related element into the MCU) with Zemo, who we learn actually is a Baron, aligning the character more closely with his Marvel Comics counterpart (even donning the iconic purple mask at one point), allows the investigation of the Flag Smashers to progress as well as facilitating a reunion with exiled former S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp, also last seen in Civil War) who helps the mismatched trio search for the shadowy string-puller of events: the enigmatic Power Broker.  The dingy criminal underworld vibe and accompanying action is comfortable territory for John Wick screenwriter Derek Kolstad and he gleefully infuses those elements here into The Falcon and The Winter Soldier.

Daniel Bruhl is assuredly excellent, bringing a snarling arrogance and scheming duplicitousness to the wholly untrustworthy yet surprisingly helpful Zemo.  Releasing the Baron naturally has its consequences, drawing the attention of Wakanda (again, recalling the events of Civil War, where Zemo was responsible for the death of King T’Chaka) heating things up further as the eminent African nation dispatches it’s formidable royal guard, the Dora Milaje.  Lead by Ayo (Black Panther’s Florence Kasumba), there’s a gripping hotel room fight that’s a swift reminder of how down-right awesome and unstoppably efficient Wakanda’s warrior woman are.  Flashbacks to Bucky’s recovery in Wakanda burdens him with a sense of betrayal as the scenes demonstrate how Ayo helped to break his Hydra induced programming.  It’s another small but significant aspect that enriches Stan’s character whilst providing organic connectivity with the wider MCU.

Wyatt Russell as the new Captain America, John Walker in ‘The Falcon and The Winter Soldier’ (image credit: Disney/Marvel Studios),

As John Walker, Wyatt Russell is a great addition and enjoys a strong character arc, the new Captain America a harder-edged combatant who becomes more intense and increasingly frustrated at the perceived interference from Sam and Bucky, their methods seen as too tame in order to get results.  Walker is very much a man of action and prepared to do what is necessary so it’s fitting that angered by the slaying of his partner Lemur Hoskins – a.ka. Battlestar (Cle Bennett) -, the new-Cap gets himself serum-boosted.  Consequentially, no punches are pulled in the shocking scenes (in the closing moments of the aptly titled “The Whole World is Watching”) of an enraged John Walker, giving chase and bludgeoning a Flag Smasher with Captain America’s shield as crowds capture the brutal event on their smartphones.  It presents some unsettling and potent symbolism that once again presses upon the issues of today and makes the need for a more noble-spirited and just Captain America in the mould of Steve Rogers even more desperate.  Walker is not “bad” in simple black and white terms, but a product of a different time and forged by a different kind of conflict, this notwithstanding it remains a reminder of Captain America: The First Avenger in that it’s not just an enhancing super solider formula that makes a Captain America but that there also needs to be a good and balanced soul at the end of the needle.

What really works well with The Falcon and The Winter Soldier is that beyond its characters and action set pieces, it paints an interesting picture of the post-Blip world and how many who have returned after a five-year absence are displaced and that not everyone is fortunate to receive the help and understanding they need.  Whilst the Flag Smashers are labelled as terrorists and commit deplorable acts, the series provides its villains with believable motivation and even an angle of sympathy through the group’s leader, Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman) and the scripts bring some prescient arguments to the table.  This is exemplified in a philosophical exchange between Sam and Morgenthau as the heroic Flacon recognises her cause but questions the execution of her agenda.  It’s well-written and wonderfully performed by both Anthony Mackie and Erin Kellyman and makes for good drama.  There’s also an addition to Marvel mythology as Sam and Bucky’s initial investigations lead them to the doorstep of Isaiah Bradley (first introduced to the Marvel Comics universe in 2003’s Truth: Red, White and Black #1 and played here by the superb Carl Lumbly), an African America super soldier who fought in the Korean War and was subsequently imprisoned and experimented on.  This abuse makes a powerful and evocative statement that highlights important issues and does so in a thought-provoking manner.

Given John Walker’s turn, the penultimate episode opens with a necessary confrontation between the rogue Captain America and Sam and Bucky, before unexpectedly changing gear to a contemplative character-driven piece that’s actually a highlight of the series as Sam, through the counsel of Bucky, realises that he is the man for the job.  Whilst also introducing Veep’s Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Marvel Comics character Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine, it lays the groundwork for a pacey and poignant finale (“One World, One People” – another appropriately titled episode) in which Sam finally takes up the role of the true Captain America.  It’s a triumphant moment and the battle to stop the Flag Smashers once and for all allows the former Falcon to display all the daring-do and heroics incumbent of any Captain America.  It culminates in a potent and evocative media-facing speech from Sam Wilson that, although could be seen as a little too ‘on the nose’ is, once again, an address of important issues of race and equality.

Of course, it was never in doubt that we would see Sam Wilson’s inevitable transition from Falcon to Captain America and a natural and fitting evolution for the character as has been seen in the comics.  It’s similarly unsurprising that Sharon Carter is revealed as the Power Broker (speculation is already rife that she is actually a Skrull agent, given that the Secret Invasion series is nearing production…but who knows?) and likewise that John Walker would be redeemed, in a manner, as he assumes his new identity:  U.S.Agent (again, mirroring the Marvel comic books), ready to take on the under-the-radar assignments Captain America morally cannot and under the orders of the Contessa.

As we’ve seen with WandaVision and now The Falcon and The Winter Soldier, there is a lot of creative potential for the various other upcoming Disney+ Marvel series (Loki being the next to arrive this June) and provide fans with some substantial long-form storytelling and entertainment between the popcorn blockbuster offerings of the MCU films.

The bottom line:  The Falcon and The Winter Soldier presents viewers with a superior form of dramatic superhero entertainment that’s laced with prescient and thought-provoking themes.

All six episodes of The Falcon and The Winter Solider are now available to stream via Disney+.

Image(s) 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: ‘Captain America: Civil War’ (spoiler-free)

Time to choose sides…

Starring:  Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr, Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Rudd, Chadwick Boseman, Tom Holland, Daniel Bruhl.

Directed by: Anthony Russo & Joe Russo / Written by: Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely / 147 minutes

What’s it about?

When their latest mission goes awry, the Avengers are faced with United Nations regulation leading to opposing allegiances as a rift forms between Captain America and Iron Man…

In review

After eight years and a dozen film releases, Marvel Studios deliver yet another satisfying and crowd pleasing punch of entertainment in the form of Captain America: Civil War (based loosely on the game changing comic book series by Mark Millar and Steve McNiven), the third solo outing for Chris Evans’s Captain Steve Rogers.

Via its blend of sophisticated storytelling and popcorn blockbuster action, 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier presented a superior breed of a comic book superhero film and Civil War manages to repeat that successfully, placing these beloved Marvel characters bang in the centre of a Bourne-esque action thriller that reflects real world political and social concerns and explores the moral ramifications to the actions of this altruistic, yet unregulated group of special individuals.  In the wake of the events of The Winter Soldier and Avengers: Age of Ultron, Steve Rogers – aka Captain America – and his fellow Avengers find their latest mission having devastating consequences, resulting in the United Nations imposing regulatory control on ‘Earth’s Mightiest Heroes’, the opposing viewpoints of Rogers and Tony Stark/Iron Man causing the rest of the group to divide their allegiances.

Fears that Civil War would merely be ‘Avengers 2.5’ are quickly allayed for despite the inclusion of a plethora of characters, including Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark/Iron Man, this is most definitely a Captain America film with an emotional core that is firmly centred on Steve Rogers, who finds his values and friendships threatened as he once again fights for the freedoms he has always sought to protect.  With the narrative of Civil War focusing largely on Rogers and the fallout from The Winter Soldier as he strives to help redeem and clear the name of best pal ‘Bucky’ Barnes and his straining relationship with Stark (with Evans and Downey Jr once again delivering reliably strong performances), there might be some trepidation as to how the film’s expanded roster of superhero characters is handled.  Thankfully, Civil War manages this with relative ease allowing each supporting character enough time and significance in proportion to their roles in the story with the likes of Black Widow, Scarlet Witch, Falcon, Vision, War Machine, Ant-Man and Hawkeye all given their moments to shine.  Yet it’s the introduction of Marvel characters Black Panther and – triumphantly – Spider-Man that will have fans most excited for Civil War and the good news is that they’re both great.  As T’Challa, Chadwick Boseman exudes the qualities of leadership in a restrained yet impassioned manner whilst evoking the requisite strength and physicality that the role of the heroic Black Panther demands.  Whilst T’Challa/Black Panther is more significant to the plot of Civil War, the sheer delight of seeing Spider-Man amidst the action with his fellow Marvel heroes makes his inclusion worth the while as Tom Holland infuses Peter Parker with all the awkwardness and fun that comes with the character.

Returning to directing duties are Anthony and Joe Russo, who helmed The Winter Soldier and will be tackling the behemoth Avengers: Infinity War two-parter.  The Russo brothers deliver here as much as they delivered on The Winter Soldier and Civil War feels similarly well-balanced between character, story and visuals.  There are some great set pieces (the highlight of which is an airfield showdown between ‘Team Cap’ and ‘Team Iron Man’ which stands amongst the best moments of any Marvel blockbuster) that the Russo’s inject with the same level of energy and heft they employed in The Winter Soldier, with the incredible choreography going hand in hand with superlative stunts and CGI spectacle.

Whilst it may not be as intricately plotted as The Winter Soldier, returning screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely still provide a smart and layered script with depth of character amongst its social and political debates, together with some credible motivations for Daniel Bruhl’s main antagonist.

Overall, Civil War is a deftly balanced film with a tone that offsets generally serious and thought provoking elements against well placed moments of humour and the fun and excitement audiences have come to expect from a Marvel Studios production that will once again satisfy the masses.

The bottom line:  Standing proudly alongside the very best of Marvel’s blockbusters, Captain America: Civil War is sure to excite and thrill audiences as it confidently hits all the right notes.

Captain America: Civil War is in cinemas across the UK now and opens in U.S. theatres on 6th May.

Whose side are you on? Former allies Captain America (Chris Evans) and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) face off in Marvel Studios' 'Captain America: Civil War'.

Whose side are you on? Former allies Captain America (Chris Evans) and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) face off in Marvel Studios’ ‘Captain America: Civil War’.

TV Review: Marvel’s ‘Agent Carter’ S2 EP1 “The Lady in the Lake” – SEASON PREMIERE

Starring:  Hayley Atwell, James D’Arcy, Enver Gjovak, Chad Michael Murray, Bridget Regan, Wynn Everett

Series created by:  Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely

Written by:  Brant Englestein / Episode directed by:  Lawrence Tilling / aired in the UK  : 28/01/2016

What’s this episode about?

SSR Agent Peggy Carter is transferred to Los Angeles where she’s reunited with old friends and faces a new mystery…

Episode review

With Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on its State-side mid-season break, Marvel’s second network television series returns to fill the gap.  Since Agent Peggy Carter’s introduction in Marvel Studios’ Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), actress Hayley Atwell has been able to forge a likeable and important screen presence with numerous subsequent appearances in episodes of Marvel’s first small screen spin-off, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (courtesy of flashback sequences) as well as big screen hits Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) and Ant-Man (2015) helping to develop connective strands woven through the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Given the overwhelmingly positive reception of the Agent Carter ‘Marvel One Shot’ short included in the Iron Man Three blu-ray release it was no surprise that Atwell would subsequently land her own series.  Over its eight episodes the first season of Marvel’s Agent Carter proved to be a successful mix that was thrilling, fun and funny.  The season 2 premiere (which aired together with episode 2 in the U.S.) sees Peggy transferred to the newly established L.A. division of the SSR by disgruntled Chief Jack Thompson (Murray), not wanting to be outshone by Carter whose struggles to prove her worth as a skilled and competent agent in a male dominated environment were explored last season.  The breaking point for Thompson comes when Carter aides in the capture and interrogation of Black Widow assassin Dottie Underwood (seemingly tying up lose threads from last season?  That may not be the case?).  These chain of events allow for an action packed opening and for Atwell to stretch her acting chops in some well-played scenes between Carter, Underwood (a returning Bridget Regan once again providing the right level of cool and unhinged femme fatale villainy) and Thompson.

Gladly, Carter arrives in L.A. to be reunited with Howard Stark’s faithful (albeit suffering) butler Edwin Jarvis, bringing back together the exceptional team of Hayley Atwell and James D’Arcy that was a one of season 1’s most successful elements.  D’Arcy is pitch perfect in the role of Jarvis and deftly infuses the character with doses of British stiff upper lip as he bemoans of the glitz and glam of the Hollywood lifestyle and the obsessions and demands of his master.  Dominic Cooper’s Howard Stark may himself be absent from this episode but his presence is certainly felt as Jarvis grapples with the latest addition to Stark’s menagerie…a pink flamingo that refuses to co-operate!

There’s some unease when Carter confronts her new chief, Daniel Sousa (Dollhouse’s Enver Gjovak) given hints of a blossoming romance at the end of last season but both soon re-establish their camaraderie as the SSR investigates the corpse of a mysterious women, frozen in a lake (during an L.A. heatwave no-less) and how it may tie to actress Whitney Frost (Wynn Everett), the LAPD and a radioactive isotope being manufactured by shady corporation Isodyne Energy.

The move to L.A. provides the series with a fresh start that’s welcoming to new viewers and once again the recreation of post-War 1940s is well-presented via costume and production design (aided by the peppering of some period stock footage).  Brant Englestein’s script serves well as a reintroduction to the main characters and a taster for this season’s storyline along with some neat twists (and a surprising connection to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) and the odd easter egg for die hard Marvel Comics fans.

The bottom line:  Peggy Carter is back in a fun and tantalising opening for Agent Carter’s second season.

Marvel’s Agent Carter airs in the UK Thursday evenings on Fox.  U.S. viewers can catch it on ABC.

What did you think of the ‘Agent Carter’ season premiere?  Share your thoughts below!

Hayley Atwell returns as Peggy Carter in Marvel's 'Agent Carter'.

Hayley Atwell returns as Peggy Carter in Marvel’s ‘Agent Carter’.

Film Review: ‘Ant-Man’ (spoiler free)

Marvel recruits its tiniest Avenger…

Starring:  Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll, Michael Pena

Directed by:  Peyton Reed / Written by:  Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish & Adam McKay & Paul Rudd / 117 minutes

What’s it about?

Fresh from prison, ex-con Scott Lang is sought out by scientist and inventor Hank Pym to prevent his work from being developed into a dangerous weapon.  To do so, Lang must don Pym’s greatest creation, a super-suit that will allow him to shrink to the size of an insect whilst increasing in strength…he must become the ‘Ant-Man’…

In review

Is there anything Marvel Studios cannot achieve?  With Ant-Man the answer, at least for now, is an assured and confident “no”.  Surprising and delighting audiences last summer with Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel sought to repeat that success once again with another obscure, lesser known property…yet this time facing the unenviable task of following a highly anticipated Avengers sequel.

Despite the exit of original director (and co-screenwriter) Edgar Wright, Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man successfully rises above those early production troubles, delivering an accessible, visually inventive and fun super-hero caper.  Not unlike Chris Pratt in Guardians of the Galaxy, leading star Paul Rudd brings a healthy dose of comedic talent and likeability to Ant-Man as central hero Scott Lang, a character whose struggles as an ex-con and absent father provide the narrative’s emotional backbone.

It helps that Rudd is surrounded by a great cast with a range of talents.  Leading the charge is A-lister Michael Douglas whose largely straight-faced performance as Hank Pym (father of the shrinking ‘Pym Particle’ and the original Ant-Man) provides a neat counter balance against the hilarity of Lang’s heist buddy Luis (Michael Pena), the maniacal pantomime evil of villain Darren Cross (House of Cards’ Corey Stoll) who seeks to ‘weaponise’ Pym’s work and the strength and determination of Pym’s daughter Hope (The Hobbit’s Evangeline Lilly).

It’s probably unsurprising that there’s a great deal of humour in Ant-Man and it feels appropriate given the premise of a shrinking super-hero able to command an army of ants.  The incredulity and bewilderment conveyed by Rudd’s performance (melded with some precise comic timing) aides in retaining audience investment and fosters a willingness to accept the outlandish and simply enjoy the ride.

Amongst the humour and occasional moments of drama (primarily played out via Lang’s afore-mentioned troubles and an emotional rift between Hank Pym and his daughter), Ant-Man delivers some wonderfully inventive action sequences, where the ability to shrink and enlarge at will is utilised to great advantage.  Coupled with the lavish visual effects that are part and parcel of today’s blockbusters Ant-Man really is visually striking at times and although it can evoke memories of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids it’s well realised, adeptly executed by director Peyton Reed and worth the extra premium of an IMAX 3D ticket.

Although it functions as a standalone film and origin tale, Ant-Man does provide connections to the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe which as always are pleasing from a fan perspective yet not as numerous as Avengers: Age of Ultron and don’t feel too extraneous.  If anything, what few connections there are would seem entirely necessary given that Rudd’s Ant-Man will be returning in next year’s Captain America: Civil War.

With Ant-Man, Marvel have taken a potentially hokey super-hero concept and via the creative talent employed made it believable, enjoyable and fun with a good measure of heart.  Whilst it may not be as solid or complex as Captain America: The Winter Soldier or as huge as the Avengers films it’s a worthy addition to the ever expanding Marvel cinematic pantheon.

The bottom line:  Ant-Man is a fun and action packed blockbuster ride with a great cast and bolstered by impressive visuals.

Ant-Man is in cinemas now.

Ready to go small...star Paul Rudd suits up in Marvel's 'Ant-Man'.

Ready to go small…star Paul Rudd suits up in Marvel’s ‘Ant-Man’.

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’.

TV Review: ‘Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ S2 EP1 “Shadows” – SEASON PREMIERE

Enter S.H.I.E.L.D. 2.0…

Starring: Clark Gregg as Agent Phil Coulson, Ming Na-Wen as Melinda May, Brett Dalton as Grant Ward, Chloe Bennet as Skye, Iain De Caestecker as Leo Fitz, Elizabeth Henstridge as Jemma Simmons

Series created by: Joss Whedon, Jed Whedon & Maurissa Tancharoen

Episode directed by: Vincent Misiano / Written by: Jed Whedon & Maurissa Tancheroen / aired in the UK: 24/10/2014

What’s this episode about?

Coulson and his team must prevent a superhuman criminal from stealing a powerful artefact stolen from Hydra during World War II…

Episode review

Having endured mixed reactions from fans and critics for much of its first season, it was great to see Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. begin to find its creative footing as it moved from the format of an episodic family-friendly procedural to something edgier and more arc driven as Marvel’s fledgling show linked into the events of big screen hit Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

AoS makes a confident and sure return – kicking as much back-side as Ming Na-Wen – as “Shadows” picks up were season one left off, with ‘Director’ Coulson leading the remnants of S.H.I.E.L.D. in the fight against Hydra and other extraordinary threats to the general populace. As the episode title infers, Coulson and his team are now working from the shadows as they continue to thwart the plans of their enemies whilst evading capture by the U.S. Government.

Much as the show’s direction has undergone some change, so has Coulson and his team. Whilst Skye has become an adept and loyal agent, Ward must deal with the consequences of his betrayal (allowing some rather creepy Silence of the Lambs-esque moments between Ward and Skye) just as Fitz’s mental state is fast deteriorating – offering more depth and dramatic potential for actors Brett Dalton, Chloe Bennet and Ian DeCaestecker.

The team are also joined by some new faces including former Cylon and Warrior Princess Lucy Lawless as Isabelle ‘Izzy’ Hartley – a beer swilling tough cookie that could very nearly give Agent May a run for her money. Although Clark Gregg feels absent from much of the episode, his inclusion is no less significant and his narrative sparring with Adrian Pasdair’s General Talbot are amongst the episode’s many highlights.

The episode’s plot surrounding a stolen Hydra artefact is serviceable, yet intriguing, and offers links to the larger live action Marvel Universe as well as hints at this season’s story arcs. Despite a sizeable threat from superhuman heavy Carl Creel (aka the Marvel Comics villain ‘The Absorbing Man’), facilitating the episode’s requisite action, it’s arguably the show’s characters and their plight that are now in the driving seat.

The season premiere’s real treat though comes right in it’s opening scenes as we flashback to 1945 as Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter and the SSR (the proto-S.H.I.E.L.D. organisation established in Captain America: The First Avenger) lead the charge against Hydra as Nazi Germany faces defeat by the allies. More than just a spot of viewer-baiting it provides a welcome tease for the upcoming mid-season Agent Carter series.

All in all, AoS may have had an uneasy ride during its first season but is sure to deservedly find itself atop of the watch list of many a discerning comic book fan.

The bottom line: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is back with gusto and based on this season’s premiere, shows great potential for the show’s future.

Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. airs in the UK on Fridays at 8pm on Channel 4. US viewers can catch it Tuesday nights on ABC.

'Director' Coulson (Clark Gregg) leads the fight against Hydra from the shadows in the exciting season 2 premiere of Marvel's 'Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'

‘Director’ Coulson (Clark Gregg) leads the fight against Hydra from the shadows in the exciting season 2 premiere of Marvel’s ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’

What did you think of the season premiere of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. ? Share your thoughts below!

TV Review: ‘Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ S1 EP18 “Providence”

Starring:  Clark Gregg as Agent Phil Coulson, Ming Na-Wen as Melinda May, Brett Dalton as Grant Ward, Chloe Bennet as Skye, Iain De Caestecker as Leo Fitz, Elizabeth Henstridge as Jemma Simmons

Series created by:  Joss Whedon, Jed Whedon & Maurissa Tancharoen

Episode directed by:  Milan Cheylov / Written by:  Joss Whedon, Jed Whedon & Maurissa Tancheroen/ aired in the UK:  2/5/2014

What’s this episode about?

On the run from the U.S. government, Agent Coulson and his team seek refuge at a secluded S.H.I.E.L.D. installation…

Episode review

As Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. begins hurtling towards its first season finale (and renewal for a second looking likely), it continues to maintain the upswing in quality which has steadily been gathering momentum since the show’s return from hiatus.

The aftershocks of recent big screen smash Captain America: The Winter Soldier (read the GBUK review here) are well and truly felt and AoS finally begins to hit the ground running and start fulfilling its potential.

“Providence” opens with Coulson and his team still reeling from Hydra’s decimation of S.H.I.E.L.D. facilitating a much needed sense of purpose the series has sorely been lacking and presents scenarios that continues to define its main characters and their relationships.  Notably – and much like the show itself – Skye has a new sense of direction with her commitment to the cause of S.H.I.E.L.D. (even as the organisation crumbles around her and the rest of the team) and the recent revelations of May’s deceptions causes a rift within the team, allowing some wonderfully played and tense scenes between her and Coulson who pulls no punches on his feelings about her ‘betrayal’.

Brett Dalton is given more meat to chew on as (much like Skye) viewer’s perceptions of Agent Ward are shook up as we learn that it is he who is the traitor amongst the team.  This considered he still remains one of the show’s weaker characters but maybe this will be a chance to redefine him?  On the whole, the characters have grown and raising the stakes has added a sense of urgency which is providing the series with an edge via nifty plot twists, dramatic tensions and scintillating action.

In terms of guest stars this episode, Heroes star Adrian Pasdair makes a brief but significant entrance as Colonel Glenn Talbot whilst the legendary Bill Paxton makes a more than welcome return as the (now) devious John Garrett and Patton Oswalt provides an enjoyable turn as Eric Koenig, the very Whedon-esque quirky caretaker of the ‘hush hush’ S.H.I.E.L.D. installation the episode’s title is derived from.  The weakest link has to be B.J. Britt whose Antoine Triplett who is proving rather flat and one-dimensional, despite attempts to build a love interest for Simmons.

Once again, though, Clark Gregg is rightfully the focal point and main draw of the series which simply couldn’t endure (or arguably, exist) without him – let’s hope we see a return of Coulson’s appearances on the big screen in future offerings from Marvel Studios.

I’m glad AoS is still on the air but the real question now is can the show’s creative powers continue to fulfil their ambitions and deliver consistently exciting live-action comic book entertainment?  I wouldn’t ever expect it to be ground breaking in the same vein as 24 or Battlestar Galactica, but if it satisfies the hunger for more Marvel excitement between big screen releases then I’m all for it.

The bottom line:  Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is beginning to shape-up and points to a potentially exciting future for Marvel’s presence on the small screen.

Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. airs in the UK on Fridays at 8pm on Channel 4.  US viewers can catch it Tuesday nights on ABC.

What did you think of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. “Providence”?  Share your thoughts below!

'Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.' continues to show signs of improvement in "Providence".

‘Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ continues to show signs of improvement in “Providence”.