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.

Have You Read… ‘Hulk: Gray’?

The comics and graphic novels you may not have read that are worth checking out… 

Hulk Gray (a)

Cover art for the original hardcover collected edition of Hulk: Gray by Tim Sale (image credit: Marvel Comics).

 

Written by:  Jeph Loeb / art by:  Tim Sale (The Incredible Hulk created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby)

What’s it about?

Seeking out an old friend, Dr. Bruce Banner recounts the first hours following his exposure to Gamma radiation – the very event which unleashed his raging alter-ego, aka the Incredible Hulk…

In review

Following their collaborations on Daredevil: Yellow and Spider-Man: Blue, writer Jeph Loeb and artist Tim Sale (the creative team who produced fan favourites Batman: The Long Halloween and Superman: For All Seasons for DC) reunited for another Marvel Comics limited series – Hulk: Gray, originally published in 2003/2004 as six single issues under the more mature and less creatively restricted Marvel Knights banner.

Hulk: Gray is a standalone story recounting a previously untold tale in the history of the Incredible Hulk, within the first 24 hours of Dr. Bruce Banner’s fateful exposure to Gamma radiation and his transformation into the raging gray – or “grey” – giant.  That’s right…as aficionados will likely be aware, the Hulk was originally coloured grey for his debut in 1963’s The Incredible Hulk #1 and was subsequently recoloured green due to issues with printing reproduction (although a grey version of the Hulk would later feature in Peter David’s popular run on the title).  But aside from honouring this aspect of the character’s origin, the title Gray has more of a thematic meaning as it ponders the shadier middle moral ground between black and white.  It also explores the Frankenstein parallels that have often been linked to the character – something that was there from that very first classic issue by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.  The story is presented in a straightforward manner, weaving its ideas neatly into the narrative.

Hulk: Gray opens as a forever on-the-run Bruce Banner, mourning the death of his late beloved wife, Betty (nee Ross), on the night of their wedding anniversary, takes a brief pause to seek the counsel of an old friend, psychotherapist Dr. Leonard Samson.  Tired of being pursued and eternally haunted by his beastly alter-ego, Banner bares his soul to Samson as he recalls his earliest moments as the Hulk and how the only true salvation in his life was Betty.  Yet, as we learn, Betty’s initial encounter with the Hulk is not exactly a sympathetic one and adds to Banner’s heartbreak in the face of an inevitably irreversible change in his life.

As well as Banner’s relationship with Betty, Hulk: Gray also looks at the conflict the Hulk’s appearance incites with the U.S. Military as Betty’s father, General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross begins his relentless campaign to hunt down the creature.  What’s interesting is that Gray really conveys the sense that Ross, with his traditional air of “might makes right” (again in-line with how he was originally conceived by Lee and Kirby), is equally as raging and destructive as the Hulk, the difference being that his actions are deemed lawful and sanctioned by the U.S. government.  He may be more in control and less unpredictable than the almost mindless (or more child-like) Hulk, but the maniacal, near-psychotic Ross faithfully depicted here is proven to be just as dangerous with the resources – the “might” – at his command.

There’s still an element of hope in the story as the Hulk is not totally alone and has one person he can call “friend” (notwithstanding an unfortunately brief meeting with a desert-roaming bunny rabbit) – teenager Rick Jones, whom Banner had saved from the fallout of the Gamma Bomb test.  Gray highlights the ever-important friendship between Banner/Hulk and Rick and touches upon the burden of guilt that Rick carries as he blames himself for Banner being caught in the blast that leads to his ‘condition’.  Despite his troubles, Banner doesn’t hold his new young friend responsible and both as man and beast finds, at this point, his only trusted ally.  It underpins Banner’s inherent sense of morality and benevolence that prevents the Hulk from becoming a force of evil without removing the element of danger that accompanies an unrestrained and primal creature.

Throughout its six chapters, Gray serves up a pleasing dose of Hulk-Smash! entertainment and facilitates a secret, undocumented pre-Avengers confrontation between the formidable grey behemoth and Tony Stark’s Iron Man (with his classic early 60s bulky, golden tin-man appearance).  The desert-bound battle between the two future allies is a standout moment with Stark quickly realising that he’s bitten off more than he can chew as he’s beaten and tossed around by the Hulk.  Despite the technology at his disposal, Stark is unable to counter the threat that he and the U.S. Military have, perhaps unwittingly, provoked.

With the opening and closing of Gray taking place in the present, most of the story is told via Banner and Banner/Samson’s conversation, threaded throughout and serving as a narration.  Jeph Loeb’s entertaining script grapples onto the thematic concepts to present a poignant and thought-provoking tale of a man and a simple-minded and powerful but misunderstood monster, examining the dichotomy between the two personas and Banner’s startling revelation of why he really believes Betty loved him and stood by him for so long.

Tim Sale’s art is great and makes for a suitable accompaniment to Loeb’s script, with a classic, cartoon style that is reverential to – but exaggerates – Jack Kirby’s original visual design and which was also influenced by celebrated Hulk artist Marie Severin and her parody take on the character, ‘The Inedible Bulk’ (appearing in Marvel’s superhero spoof comic Not Brand Echh).  The use of colouring and shading is simple and effective (the black and white bookending sequences between Banner and Samson adds a touch of noir that also accentuates the central ‘grey area’ concept), creating a strong sense of atmosphere and the use of grey ink wash for the Hulk himself provides a subtle highlight that helps the iconic character standout on the page.  Whilst Sale’s style wouldn’t necessarily work as successfully in regular issues of The Incredible Hulk, the art he produces for Hulk: Gray is befitting of the pulpier approach taken by a story rooted in atomic age sci-fi.

Lovingly executed by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale, Hulk: Gray is a salute and homage to those early tales of the Incredible Hulk crafted by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, simply told whilst broadening the depth of a decades-old Marvel Comics icon and reiterating the core elements that make the character most appealing.

Geek fact!

Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale would team up once again in 2008 for a further ‘colour’ Marvel hero limited series – Captain America: White in which Steve Rogers recounts a special mission during World War II.

Hulk: Gray is published by Marvel Comics and is available in print and digital formats now.

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

Film Review: ‘Avengers: Endgame’

Marvel Studios’ ‘Infinty Saga’ reaches its conclusion…

Spoiler-free review

Avengers Endgame

Preparing to avenge the fallen: the heroes of Marvel’s ‘Avengers: Endgame’.

Starring: Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Paul Rudd, Brie Larson, Karen Gillan, Bradley Cooper, Josh Brolin

Directed by: Anthony Russo and Joe Russo / written by: Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely / 181 minutes

What’s it about?

In the wake of the devastation wrought by Thanos, Captain America and his allies set out to avenge the fallen…

In review

So, here it is, the cinematic event of the year or perhaps the last couple of years…but does Avengers: Endgame satisfy? Absolutely it does – not only is Endgame an epic and visually exciting ride but it’s an emotionally effective (and genuinely affective) journey that successfully ties together over a decade of a cinematic universe, bringing numerous story arcs to their conclusion and providing closure whilst gently laying the groundwork for the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

It’s almost impossible to discuss Endgame in any great depth without verging on spoilers but suffice to say the film picks up in the wake of last year’s incredibly successful Avengers: Infinity War in which galactic overlord Thanos (Josh Brolin), wielding the power of the infinity stones, extinguished half of all life in the universe. With Tony Stark stranded in space and the remnants of the superhero community back on Earth trying to come to terms with all they have lost, the outlook seems bleak and uncertain until events provide Captain America and his comrades with an opportunity to avenge the fallen. Beyond that lies an adventure that’s simply a landmark achievement in comic book blockbusters. There are moments where the plot of Endgame becomes a bit muddled and difficult to grasp, but in all likelihood this will diminish with repeat viewings and in the end it doesn’t matter too much given the pay-offs viewers ultimately receive as well as all the call backs to previous MCU outings, some of which can now be seen in a new light.

As with Infinity War, Endgame comprises an expansive roster of characters and each have a pivotal role to play, yet, wisely, the focus largely remains centred on the primary Avengers – mainly the trio of Iron Man, Captain America and Thor but with significant support from the likes of the Hulk, Black Widow, Hawkeye and Ant-Man. The cast performances are great, especially in respect of Robert Downey Jr and Chris Evans – arguably the pillars of the MCU who are afforded rich arcs for their characters and likewise, Mark Ruffalo gets to explore the continued evolution of the Hulk which began in Thor: Ragnarok. As for the Odinson himself, Chris Hemsworth gets to flex his humour muscles again with a dishevelled and drunken Thor providing a number of laughs – it’s perhaps a little too dialled up in places but along with Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man it provides a necessary measure of levity and doesn’t devalue the dramatic aspects of Endgame. Of course, it’s no secret given her own recent solo outing (and following Infinity War’s post-credits tease), that Brie Larson’s Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel joins the fight and although her role is somewhat smaller than expected it’s still of importance to the overall proceedings.

Despite its lengthy running time, Endgame doesn’t overstay it’s welcome. Sure, It unfolds at a steady pace and it may feel a tad leisurely for some but there’s a sense of building momentum throughout as the film progresses towards its rousing and spectacular final act – an exciting, gigantic, effects-laden showdown on a scale that even exceeds what we saw in Infinity War but without sacrificing the deep and personal elements of Endgame as it integrates a lot of small but wonderful character moments into the chaos. At this stage, directors Anthony and Joe Russo are masters at what they do and deliver on all fronts – that the duo have managed to guide Endgame to completion with such skill, care and unwavering enthusiasm is no small feat and helps make the final product all the more exquisite. Coupled with a screenplay (from returning writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely) that provides plenty of pathos, humour, heart and action and superb cast performances, Avengers: Endgame is a total triumph.

The bottom line: Avengers: Endgame is an impressive and fitting finale to an era of the Marvel Cinematic Universe with rich characterisation and powerful visuals.

Avengers: Endgame is in cinemas now.

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.

Comic Review: ‘Secret Empire’ #1

Hail Hydra-Cap?

Written by:  Nick Spencer / pencilled by:  Steve McNiven

What’s it about?

Hydra has taken control with Steve Rogers as its leader…can the remnants of the superhero community prevail and restore hope before all is lost?

In review

Building on the prelude chapters in Secret Empire #0 and the Free Comic Book Day issue (and spilling out of the pages of Nick Spencer’s Captain America: Steve Rogers series), Secret Empire #1 thrusts readers into the midst of Marvel’s latest comics event.  You’d be forgiven for finding the word “event” wearying, especially with the disappointment of Civil War II still lingering in the thoughts of many, but with this opening salvo and the shocking revelations of issue #0 it seems that writer Nick Spencer is stirring up a rich brew that will truly shake up the Marvel Universe.

As even the most casual comics reader will by now be aware, Secret Empire is the culmination of Hydra’s plans to seize control of the United States – and the free world beyond – with Steve Rogers’ Captain America as their leader.  The reveal of Rogers’ Hydra allegiance (thanks to some reality altering meddling via a sentient cosmic cube named Kobik – see the Avengers: Standoff crossover) way back in the premiere issue of Captain America: Steve Rogers caused significant controversy, with heavy ripples of discontent still reverberating throughout fan circles.  To see Marvel’s greatest patriot become a symbol of evil is understandably distressing and although Spencer has not been restrained in this regard, he has managed to construct a compelling arc that any true fan of comics should approach with an open mind.

With Secret Empire #1, Spencer keeps the controversy flowing as we skip ahead some months after issue #0 with citizens of the U.S. under the rule of Hydra and kept in check by Steve Rogers and his forces.  With the bulk of the superhero community either stranded in space battling endless hordes of Chituari or trapped beneath a Darkhold ‘bubble’ over Manhattan, it’s left to an underground resistance lead by Black Widow and Hawkeye to plot Hydra’s downfall.  Whilst new readers will likely be lost (luckily Marvel have just published catch-up collection The Road to Secret Empire), having the story told mainly via the perspective of a young schoolboy named Rayshaun helps to ease us in without an overload of exposition as images of schoolchildren raising a ‘Hail Hydra’ immediately establish that there is an ominous shift in the Marvel U’s status quo.

What Spencer does with Steve Rogers is not to make him purely evil in a one dimensional sense, whilst he may not be the hero we’re familiar with there are layers to the characterisation as he paints a man who feels he is simply doing what is right in the circumstances of his altered history.  Despite the revelations of issue #0 as to the nature of these ‘alterations’ it’s unlikely that Marvel will facilitate a complete and permanent perversion of such a beloved and treasured character.

Secret Empire also has some definite parallels to the current political climate and tenuous international situations we see playing out in the news every day.  To Spencer’s credit it doesn’t feel totally overt or unnecessarily forced in the face of the reader but it’s there as much or as little as any individual might wish to read into it.

It might be dark and pessimistic stuff but there’s still a layer of hope and even fun as the younger, brighter Marvel heroes of the resistance, including Miles Morales’ Spider-Man, Amadeus Cho’s ‘Totally Awesome’ Hulk and Riri Williams’ Ironheart take the share of the action and together with the ever-loving blue-eyed Thing provide some much needed beats of humour and optimism.

Visually, Secret Empire #1 is solid albeit the usual sharpness and detail of Steve McNiven’s pencils are a little muddied by the dark, washed-out colours by Matthew Wilson.  It’s by no means as stunning as McNiven’s work on the original Civil War or Old Man Logan but decent enough and a good fit for the overall tone of the book.  It’ll be interesting to see how much consistency can be maintained with the rotation of numerous different artists on the nine issue series.

Controversies aside, Secret Empire is making for enjoyable reading and will surely pave the way for the hope and heroism promised by Marvel’s forthcoming Legacy initiative.

The bottom line:  A strong ‘start’ to yet another Marvel Comics event but one that builds on an already solid foundation as Nick Spencer presses forward with Hydra’s domination of the Marvel Universe.

Secret Empire #1 is published by Marvel Comics and is available in print and digital formats now.

Secret Empire #1

A new has risen as Marvel Comics event ‘Secret Empire’ commences (cover art by Mark Brooks).

Comic Review: ‘Civil War II’ #8

Written by:  Brian Michael Bendis / pencilled by:  David Marquez

What’s it about?

As the visions of Ulysses become more intense, Tony Stark and Carol Danvers face off with the future of the entire superhero community at stake…

In review

After numerous delays, Marvel’s blockbuster event draws to a close with the extra-sized final issue of Civil War II.  Showing great promise in its first couple of issues, Civil War II quickly slid comfortably into a by-the-numbers comic event rhythm.  That being said, the event did produce some standout moments (the vision of Miles Morales’ Spider-Man killing Steve Rogers’ Captain America on the steps of Capitol Hill being particularly vivid and unnerving) and David Marquez’s art has elevated each instalment above mediocrity, but on the whole it failed to be anywhere near as ground-breaking as Mark Millar and Steve McNiven’s original Civil War.

In favour of this final issue, Brian Michael Bendis and David Marquez deliver some exciting edge-of-the-seat action with Bendis maintaining the tension and drama and Marquez presenting his amazingly detailed, blockbuster visuals as the conflict between Tony Stark/Iron Man and Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel reaches its climax.  As with previous issues the moral debate is touched upon but never fully explored (a shame considering the strength of some of Bendis’ other work) and ultimately taking a backseat to those aforementioned blockbuster elements.

Given that the delays Civil War II has faced meant its finale following the release of several relaunched ‘Marvel Now!’ titles, the conclusion – specifically the fate of Tony Stark – is unsurprising given what we’ve seen in Infamous Iron Man and Invincible Iron Man but it non-the-less still carries some dramatic weight as the path is paved for the future of the Marvel Universe.  Perhaps that’s where the problem lies, with the need to establish the status quo of Marvel’s latest line-wide shake-up it’s left less room from Brian Bendis to really delve into the commentary of Civil War II.

In the end, taken as a whole Civil War II was an enjoyable albeit undemanding blockbuster event that is unlikely to be heralded as a classic in years to come but may still be worthy of a revisit when the dust has settled.  It’s not the greatest story Marvel has delivered in recent years but it’s also far from the weakest.

The bottom line:  Whilst Civil War II ultimately failed to live up to the potential of its premise, this final issue succeeds in delivering some great moments of action and drama with a fitting conclusion that establishes the future of the Marvel U.

Civil War II #8 is published by Marvel Comics and is available in print and digital formats now.

Marvel's grand event comes to a close in the final issue of Civil War II (cover art by David Marquez).

Marvel’s grand event comes to a close in the final issue of Civil War II (cover art by David Marquez).

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: ‘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’!