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.

Flashback: ‘Iron Man’

Ten years ago, a certain cinematic universe was born…

 

Iron Man 2008

In the beginning: Robert Downey Jr and Jeff Bridges head-up the cast of Marvel Studios’ ‘Iron Man’.

Starring:  Robert Downey Jr, Jeff Bridges, Terrence Howard, Gwyneth Paltrow, Shaun Toub, Faran Tahir, Clark Gregg

Directed by:  Jon Favreau / Written by:  Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum & Matt Holloway / 2008

What’s it about?

After escaping captivity and near-death in Afghanistan, weapons manufacturer Tony Stark builds a hi-tech armoured suit and embarks on a mission to thwart evil…

Retrospective

A surprise hit back in 2008, Iron Man was not only the first theatrical release for Marvel Studios but the Big Bang of the multi-billion dollar grossing Marvel Cinematic Universe.  A decade later, it’s hard to imagine that a feature film adaptation of one of Marvel’s lesser known (the rights to the likes of Spider-Man and X-Men held by Sony and 20th Century Fox, respectively) characters was considered a huge gamble and had the fate of a potential film franchise weighing heavily on its shoulders.

Produced by Marvel Studios and distributed by Paramount Pictures (Disney’s purchase of Marvel would take place in 2009), Iron Man would take the Howard Hughes inspired character created by Stan Lee and Larry Lieber together with artists Don Heck and Jack Kirby (first appearing in Tales of Suspense #39, published in 1963), place him in the 21st Century and meld the core elements of billionaire playboy industrialist Tony Stark with the performance of lead star Robert Downey Jr.

An inspired casting choice, the once troubled Downey Jr was able to channel his demons into the role of Tony Stark – a character who had plenty of personal struggles in the comics – and turn in a performance that balances wisecracking quips with some hearty introspection.  Downey Jr is certainly a strong point and although this interpretation of Tony Stark differs somewhat to the more broody version comic book readers would be used to up to that point (writers such as Matt Fraction and Brian Michael Bendis leaning him more towards the lighter, playful big screen version in subsequent runs), it’s a take that fits with what Marvel were seemingly going for with Iron Man – a colourful, fun action film with nuances of maturity, tucking in themes of redemption as the film’s protagonist seeks a more heroic and morally justifiable path.  When we first meet Stark, CEO of weapons manufacturer Stark Industries, he’s not the most likeable of people – a carefree and careless egotist who likes to drink, gamble and womanise in equal measure.  Yet, over the course of the film we grow to care for Stark as he reflects on errors of the past and embarks on his journey to becoming ‘Iron Man’.

 

Iron Man 2008 (2)

Robert Downey Jr: inspired casting for ‘Iron Man’.

The plot of Iron Man is fairly straightforward and functions well as an origin story and although it lacks the sophistication and artistry of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins it’s entertaining and gets the job done.  Updating the Vietnam-era setting of Iron Man’s comic book debut to that of post 9/11 Afghanistan, Tony Stark is gravely injured by one of his own weapons and captured by militants where his life is saved by fellow prisoner Yinsen (Shaun Toub) who fits an electromagnet to Stark’s chest, preventing deadly shards of shrapnel from piercing his heart.  Put to work on constructing a missile, Stark instead builds an armoured suit, powered by a refined version of the electromagnet and escapes.  Having witnessed the horrors of war and how his weapons could be used for untold evil, Stark returns home with a change of heart, announcing the end of munitions manufacturing at Stark Industries, to the reticence of Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges).  Frozen out by the rest of the board, Stark develops a new iteration of the armoured suit and sets out to destroy the cache of stolen weapons being utilised by the very terrorist group who held him captive.  Meanwhile, Stane has other plans for the future of Stark Industries and will stop at nothing to realise them.

Downey Jr is ably supported by Gwyneth Paltrow’s ‘Pepper’ Potts, Tony Stark’s trusted, often frustrated, assistant who non-the-less is always at her boss’s side.  Paltrow is solid in the part, gifted with some plucky lines and it’s only bolstered by the easy chemistry between herself and Robert Downey Jr.  Adding further to the star-power is Academy Award nominee Terence Howard, who makes his only appearance as Tony’s friend and military liaison to Stark Industries, Lt. Colonel James ‘Rhodey’ Rhodes.  Grumbles over pay negotiations for the sequel would lead to Howard being replaced by Don Cheadle, who continues in the role to today.

As the big bad, Jeff Bridges brings gravitas to the role of Obadiah Stane elevating it above something that could’ve easily come off as too pantomime in less capable hands, resulting in one of the more memorable Marvel film villains.  Stane’s increasing mania as he builds an exo-suit of his own is fun to watch, leading to an explosive finale as Stark dons the Iron Man armour to face off against Stane and his formidable ‘Iron Monger’ suit.

Iron Man 2008 (3)

Tony Stark takes flight in the Mark III Iron Man armour…

Director Jon Favreau (who also appears as Tony Stark’s driver, ‘Happy’ Hogan) keeps things energetic and exciting, delivering slick spectacle without sacrificing the smaller and more intimate character moments.  The film’s design is commendable, the highlight of which is the Iron Man armour itself.  Based on the designs of comic book artist Adi Granov and created using a mixture of CGI and practical elements – implemented by the legendary Stan Winston Studios – it’s a faithful translation of the red and gold future Avenger from the four colour pages to the silver screen.

Iron Man remains a highly enjoyable watch, whilst Tony Stark’s Avengers outings are generally stronger and the character, along with Robert Downey Jr’s continued success in the part, has grown and matured.  The film’s positive reception cemented the plans of Marvel Studios for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (the wider superhero world teased by the inclusion of Clark Gregg as S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Phil Coulson and a post-credits appearance by Samuel L. Jackson as the organisation’s director, Nick Fury) and instilled Marvel with the confidence to adapt other lower-tier comic book properties such as Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man and Doctor Strange all of which would be well received by audiences and critics alike.

Geek fact!  An Iron Man feature film had lingered in development since the 1990s, with superstar Tom Cruise at one point mooted as a possible candidate for the lead role.

All images contained herein belong: Marvel Studios and used for illustrative purposes only.

 

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: ‘Thor: Ragnarok’

Thor does Planet Hulk…

Spoiler-free review

 

Thor 3

For Asgard: Chris Hemsworth leads the quest to save his home in Marvel Studios release ‘Thor: Ragnarok’.

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Mark Ruffalo, Cate Blanchett, Jeff Goldblum, Karl Urban, Anthony Hopkins, Idris Elba, Tessa Thompson

Directed by: Taikia Waititi / Written by: Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle & Christopher L. Yost / 130 minutes

What’s it about?

As Asgard is attacked by Hela, the Goddess of Death, Thor finds himself stranded on a hostile alien planet where he is reunited with a familiar face and a hope to save his civilization from destruction…

In review

After sitting out last year’s team up in Captain America: Civil War, Marvel’s God of Thunder returns to the screen for a third solo outing where he is reunited with a “friend…from work” – the raging Incredible Hulk for an offbeat cosmic comic book adventure that’s a lot of fun, if overly daft and a little too self-indulgent.

Thor: Ragnarok largely eschews the more Shakespearean tone of Kenneth Branagh’s Thor and Alan Taylor’s Thor: The Dark World, director Taikia Waititi taking things in a somewhat goofier and lighter direction.  This is both a blessing and a curse, because at times Ragnarok feels like a James Gunn cover version, rarely straying too far from zany frivolity – often at the expense of drama and character.  A good dose of levity isn’t unwelcome, and there are genuinely funny moments, but what works so well for Guardians of the Galaxy doesn’t always hit the mark here and for a film that concerns the fall of Thor’s home – the mighty and magical realm of Asgard, the preference for those instances undermines some of the dramatic potential of Ragnarok.

Like those aforementioned directors, Waititi presents the viewer with a colourful, visually majestic film with grand scale and exciting blockbuster action.  If the film is occasionally let down by its slapstick tendencies and Guardians-esque imitations, there’s no faulting the craftsmanship and slick direction.

Chris Hemsworth makes an assured return as Thor and clearly relishes this particular take, confidently leading the rest of the cast.  What Ragnarok achieves more successfully than previous outings is giving us a Thor that truly feels like a God of Thunder and there are a few standout moments where director Waititi ensures that this strikes the viewer with awe.

Tom Hiddleston is once again on top form as he effortlessly hits the ground running as the devious Loki, further exploring his fractured brotherly dynamic with Hemsworth’s Thor.  There are also notable returns for Anthony Hopkins (Odin) and Idris Elba (Heimdall) as well as a guest role for the always excellent Karl Urban as Skurge (Asgard’s new keeper of the Rainbrow Bridge) and Westworld’s Tessa Thompson proves to be a highlight as former Asgardian warrior turned drunken bounty hunter, Valkyrie.

As for the bringer of Asgard’s doom, Cate Blanchett oozes and thrills as Hela (Marvel Studios’ first female villain) in a performance that deftly melds a dark, maniacal edge with sizzling sassiness.  Along with Hiddleston’s Loki she is one of the more memorable and better served antagonists of the MCU thus far.

Arguably though, the real star of the show is Mark Ruffalo – whether via performance capture as the Hulk (continuing advances in technology allowing every nuance to penetrate the computer generated exterior) or Bruce Banner, he infuses the role with a richness and charm that seizes the attention of the audience with a portrayal that’s equally heartfelt and funny.

Ragnarok is ostensibly a Thor film, however the ‘Ragnarok’ aspect of the narrative tends to take a back seat to its incorporation of fan-favourite Marvel Comics epic “Planet Hulk” – with much of the running time devoted to Thor’s exile on the planet Sakaar where he finds (and is at first pitted against in the gladiatorial arena by the Grandmaster, played wonderfully and exuberantly by the inimitable Jeff Goldblum) his ever angry green comrade.  Whilst this might devalue the central threat and the character arc possibilities for Hemsworth’s Thor, the inclusion of the Hulk is a welcome one – given the unlikelihood of a future solo outing of his own – and it’s pleasing to see some evolution for the character, this version more garrulous and playful than what has come before.

Whilst it would’ve been interesting to see a stronger and more focused exploration of Asgard’s fall and all that entails, there’s no arguing that Ragnarok is at its best whenever Thor and Hulk or Thor and Banner (and by extension, Valkyrie) are sharing the screen, all the more appealing given the sparky chemistry between Chris Hemsworth and Mark Ruffalo.

Despite some of its missteps, Thor: Ragnarok is a highly enjoyable romp – wearing it’s influences with glee, it’s kitsch infusion of 80’s metal, Flash Gordon, Masters of the Universe and cult sword and sorcery making it all the more pleasing on the whole.  It may not be the best Marvel Studios effort nor is it necessarily the strongest ‘Thor’ centric-story but it’s a good time non-the-less.

The bottom line:  A fun, if at times overly silly comic book adventure, Thor: Ragnarok is a reliably entertaining offering from Marvel Studios.

Thor: Ragnarok is in cinemas across the UK now and opens worldwide from 3rd November.

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

Marvel’s cosmic Avengers are back…

 Spoiler-free review

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

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

What’s it about?

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

In review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guardians 2

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

Film Review: ‘Doctor Strange’ (spoiler free)

Mighty Marvel casts its spell…

Starring:  Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Tilda Swinton, Mads Mikkelsen.

Directed by:  Scott Derrickson / Written by:  Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson & C. Robert Cargill / 115 minutes

What’s it about?

His hands mangled in a car crash, brilliant neurosurgeon Stephen Strange’s career is seemingly over.  Exhausting all surgical efforts to repair his injuries, Strange travels to a place called Kamar-Taj where an encounter with a mysterious figure sees him thrust into the world of the mystic arts…

In review

With the runaway successes of Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man, Marvel Studios have proved adept at bringing lesser and more obscure comic book properties to the big screen and in a manner that manages to please fans and regular audiences alike.  Doctor Strange would immediately seem a far trickier and more daring gamble than those previous hits but for the most part, Marvel Studios succeed once more.

Based on the Marvel comic books by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, the journey of neurosurgeon Doctor Stephen Strange from arrogance to fall from grace and eventual redemption may be a little clichéd but via the film’s exploration of magical abilities and mystic realms there lies another dimension to the storytelling that opens up the possibilities for future Marvel Studios productions.  It’s fair to say in that sense that this makes the “Sorcerer Supreme” an important character as the looming apex of Avengers: Infinity War approaches.

In the role of Stephen Strange, Benedict Cumberbatch makes for a strong lead and although for some it may take a little time to adjust to his American accent, the Sherlock and Star Trek Into Darkness star laps up the material handed to him in a performance that’s impassioned, witty and by the end of it all, noble.  Seemingly the requisite love interest, Rachel McAdams is somewhat underserved as Christine Palmer although she does share some vital scenes with Cumberbatch that helps the audience become more invested in the character and his arc throughout this origin story.

Tilda Swinton is wise and otherworldly as the enigmatic Ancient One and co-stars Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Wong fit nicely into the mix as fellow sorcerers Mordo and Wong respectively.  As the main antagonist, Mads Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius – a former pupil seeking to unlock the secrets of dark magic –  has some great moments, rising to the challenge of being pitted against the talents of Cumberbatch and Swinton but is ultimately less memorable than Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull (Captain America: The First Avenger) or James Spader’s Ultron (Avengers: Age of Ultron).

There’s a slight over reliance on humour at times, parts of it are welcome relief but some moments feel forced, included merely for the sake of it and arguably undermine several key scenes that would have benefitted from a more dramatic tone.  Where Doctor Strange really excels is via its jaw-dropping, kaleidoscopic visuals as director Scott Derrickson intertwines influences of Escher with the cinematic awe of Inception and the mesmerising psychedelia of 2001: A Space Odyssey that bring the trippy imaginings of Messrs. Lee and Ditko breathtakingly to life.  The extra expense of an IMAX 3D ticket is fully warranted for the fullest possible immersion in the mind-bending spectacle of folding cityscapes and unravelling astral planes.

Ultimately it’s the visual elements that gloss over the overall flaws in the tone and narrative of Doctor Strange but there’s no denying the charm of Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance and the potential of further adventures of Marvel’s Master of the Mystic Arts.

The bottom line:  Despite some formulaic elements and jarring moments of silliness, Doctor Strange is a reliably entertaining and visually stunning addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Doctor Strange is screening in UK cinemas now and opens in the US and worldwide from 4th November.

Benedict Cumberbatch confidently leads Marvel Studios' 'Doctor Strange'.

Benedict Cumberbatch confidently leads Marvel Studios’ ‘Doctor Strange’.

Quick Review: ‘The Tick’ – Amazon Pilot

Starring:  Peter Serafinowicz, Griffin Newman, Valorie Curry, Jackie Earle Haley

Series created by:  Ben Edlund

Written by:  Ben Edlund / Episode directed by:  Wally Pfister

What’s it about?

Accountant Arthur Everest learns that long-thought dead supervillain the Terror is back…if only there was a hero who would dare to oppose such an evildoer…

In review

Wicked Men!  Ben Edlund’s zany superhero parody returns in another new iteration for Amazon’s pilot season and while it’s a little different from what fans of The Tick will be familiar with from the 1990s cartoon and the short-lived live action series from 2001 it’s a smart reinterpretation for modern audiences.  From the outset, it’s clear that for this newest take on The Tick Edlund has taken a darker, more mature (and even, to an extent, grounded) approach that mixes the adult themes and character deconstructions of the Netflix Daredevil series with the cartoon violence and madcap antics of Kick-Ass.

Unusually for a show called The Tick, Amazon’s pilot, at least initially, focuses mainly on his (eventual) sidekick, accountant Arthur Everest who thanks to a childhood trauma, revealed neatly via a series of flashbacks, suffers from mental health issues.  When Arthur discovers that purportedly deceased supervillain ‘the Terror’ (Watchmen’s Jackie Earle Haley) may actually be alive he becomes obsessive about uncovering the truth which soon leads to him crossing paths with the titular blue hero…who may or may not be a figment of Arthur’s imagination.  As Arthur, Griffin Newman provides a likeably dark, neurotic, yet rather funny protagonist that has real problems the audience can identify – or at least get on board – with that’s in tune with the pseudo-realism Edlund is going for with hints of the ‘hero’ he is to become.

Family Guy‘s Patrick Warburton (who serves as producer on this pilot) was pretty much a note perfect lead in the 2001 series, so what of Guardians of the Galaxy’s Peter Serafinowicz?  Well, he does a commendable job of succeeding Warburton and whilst he doesn’t quite have that hulking physicality he certainly has the voice (he was Darth Maul after all) and together with the wackiness of Edlund’s script we get a Tick that’s as zany and insanely verbose as ever, although the more intricately designed suit does at first take a little getting used to.

Visually this is a lavish and beautifully shot production (that boasts a cameo from Whoopi Goldberg no less!) on a scale that far surpasses that of the more confined, sitcom like feel of the 2001 series with The Dark Knight trilogy’s cinematographer Wally Pfister bringing an epic, film like quality to the 30-minute pilot.  Overall Amazon’s The Tick is a fresh but faithful reinterpretation for modern times that deserves the chance of going to series.

The bottom line:  Ben Edlund brings The Tick to Amazon Studios and their pilot is a darkly comic riff on the well-worn superhero genre that shows promise for a potential series.

The Tick is available to stream now, exclusively via Amazon.

What did you think of the Amazon’s pilot for ‘The Tick’?  Share your thoughts below!

Peter Serafinowicz is ready to face those wicked men in Amazon's pilot of 'The Tick'.

Peter Serafinowicz is ready to face those wicked men in Amazon’s pilot of ‘The Tick’.

Film Review: ‘Jurassic World’ (spoiler free)

Everybody walk the dinosaur…

Starring:  Bryce Dallas Howard, Chris Pratt, Ty Simpkins, Nick Robinson, Irrfan Khan, Vincent D’Onofrio, BD Wong

Directed by:  Colin Trevorrow / Written by:  Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver and Colin Trevorrow and Derek Connolly / 124 minutes

What’s it about?

Over two decades after the disaster of Jurassic Park, Isla Nublar is now a fully functioning prehistoric attraction that’s host to thousands of visitors each year.  In order to ensure continuing interest in the park, the chief scientists of Jurassic World create a new dinosaur hybrid…which proves to be far more dangerous than they could have ever imagined…

In review

For audiences of a certain generation, the summer of 1993 stands as a defining moment in cinema, a time when they found themselves captivated and enthralled by Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park – a film that was marketed as “65 million years in the making”.  Now, 22 years after the release of Spielberg’s landmark production (and fourteen after the lacklustre Jurassic Park III) arrives Jurassic World, the sequel it almost feels as though we’ve been waiting 65 million years to see.

Skilfully handled by director Colin Trevorrow (Safety Not Guaranteed), Jurassic World captures the magic of summer 1993, encapsulating all of the thrills and excitement of Jurassic Park, whilst ensuring the demands of a modern blockbuster are carefully met.  Given the advancement in digital effects technology and larger production budgets commanded by today’s blockbusters, Jurassic World is presented on an appreciably larger scale in comparison to the original Jurassic Park – which in 1993 was as big as any film could ever hope to be.  This is a visually spectacular film, with digital elements combined with practical sets and real environments, all melding seamlessly together to bring the various areas of Isla Nublar and its prehistoric attractions to life.

With their being very little in the way of animatronic effects on display, Jurassic World relies heavily on digital effects to create it’s genetically engineered dinosaurs and luckily they appear far better than those initial trailers suggested, being of a quality comparable to any of today’s effects laden cinematic behemoths.  All the old favourites return from Velociraptors and Triceratops, to Pterodactyls and the mighty Tyrannosaurus rex, yet Jurassic World’s biggest and most impressive creation is the park’s newest ‘attraction’, the ominously named Indominous rex which the park’s scientists (lead by BD Wong, reprising his Jurassic Park role) have created from the genes of various other dinosaur breeds. The Indominous proves to be as cunning as it is lethal and an animal that doesn’t intend to be caged, unleashing edge-of-the-seat chaos as it escapes captivity to carve a path of death and destruction across Isla Nublar.

Leading the human cast of Jurassic World are Terminator Salvation’s Bryce Dallas Howard as Claire Dearing, the park’s chief of operations and Guardians of the Galaxy’s Chris Pratt (further proving he’s an ideal candidate for that inevitable Indiana Jones reboot) as Owen Grady, the park’s dino-wrangler and alpha male to a pack of Velociraptors he’s been charged with ‘training’.  Both are great in their respective roles and share great chemistry with Howard as the strong willed women of the corporate world and Pratt as the skilled swashbuckling hero – there have been criticisms of sexism levelled here but Howard’s role branches beyond merely establishing a romantic sub-plot and is afforded plenty of opportunity to demonstrate she’s just as capable as Pratt in the action stakes.

Ty Simpkins (previously seen teaming up with Robert Downey Jr in Iron Man 3) and Nick Robinson are also fairly well presented as Claire’s visiting nephews, chases frantically ensuing as they become lost deep within the park as the chaos unfolds, whilst Vincent D’Onofrio’s security chief seeks to manipulate events to his own benefit.

Amongst all of the blockbuster action and excitement (and a smattering of humour for good measure) there are ethical themes of man interfering with nature present in Jurassic World which, just like Jurassic Park, are handled intelligently (even Grady’s training of raptors, which could have easily been one of the more outlandish elements, seems fairly plausible), without placing too much burden on the audience.  There’s also some welcome self-deprecating cynicism with jibes at brand sponsorship and other corporate sensibilities in creating the next “thing” that’s bigger, better and “cooler”.  With numerous nods and winks to Jurassic Park laced throughout and John Williams’ themes incorporated into Michael Giacchino’s exciting score, Jurassic World comes with a healthy dose of nostalgia yet it feels as fresh and as relevant as Spielberg’s film did in 1993 and is sure to appeal to cinema goers of all ages.

The bottom line:  Jurassic World is a visually impressive and intelligently executed blockbuster that returns the Jurassic Park franchise to its former glory with a strong leading cast successfully balanced against blockbuster action and an impressive array of CGI creatures.

Jurassic World is in cinemas now.

Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard are the heroic leads in the long awaited 'Jurassic World'.

Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard are the heroic leads in the long awaited ‘Jurassic World’.

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’.