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).

Have You Read… ‘Iron Man: Extremis’?

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

Iron Man Extremis

Art by Adi Granov (image credit: Marvel Comics).

Written by:  Warren Ellis / art by:  Adi Granov

What’s it about?

Tony Stark faces a new and deadly threat as he dons his Iron Man armour to stop a biologically enhanced terrorist from destroying the U.S. government…

In review

Originally published as the first six-issue storyline for Marvel Comics’ 2005 relaunch of The Invincible Iron Man (recently re-issued in a new hardcover edition as part of the comic book publisher’s ‘Marvel Select’ line), Iron Man: Extremis is a benchmark in modern Iron Man comics.  Extremis can be read as a self-contained, standalone story without the need for any familiarity with the decades-long history of Iron Man.  With a sharp and exciting script, British comic book writer Warren Ellis (The Authority) crafts an intelligent science fiction bio-tech thriller with an intriguing, thought provoking concept at its core complemented by solid characterisation, a touch of horror and blockbuster action – brought to life by artist Adi Granov’s unique visuals.

Extremis is a story that’s conscious of the war on terror and the technological explosion of the early 21st Century.  It sees an experimental biological enhancile known as ‘Extremis’ fall into the hands of domestic terrorists who test it on one of their number – a dangerous and radical low-life named Mallen.  Utilising deadly superhuman powers bestowed upon him by Extremis, including enhanced healing and strength together with the ability to unleash searing blasts of flames, Mallen wreaks havok as he sets about his anti-U.S. government agenda.  Maya Hansen, an old acquaintance of Tony Stark and one of the creators of Extremis enlists the help of the Stark Industries CEO in stopping the terror but a brutal confrontation with Mallen ends with the Iron Man armour being severely damaged and Tony Stark critically injured.  The only hope of Stark making a quick recovery and being able to match Mallen leads to him risking the use of Extremis on himself.

The Extremis process itself, the ability to essentially unlock and manipulate the human body’s (essentially hack its ‘operating system’) repair centre is a fascinating idea and Ellis explores it in a philosophical and also ethical manner as its military applications, and the risks thereof, are debated.  It also presents an evolution for Tony Stark/Iron Man as the marriage between the two is deepened to the biological level, increasing the powers and abilities of the Iron Man armour and its user – providing a new and exciting modern status-quo for the enduring Marvel character.

This is pre-MCU Iron Man and those only familiar with Robert Downey Jr’s more light-hearted and quippy portrayal of Tony Stark (which is enjoyable in itself) may be surprised to find that this version of the character is quite different.  In keeping with previous interpretations in the comics, the Tony Stark in Extremis is a billionaire philanthropist (the ‘playboy’ aspect isn’t really on display here), a genius almost constantly thinking of the next innovation who is somewhat insular and broody yet well-intentioned – driven to ensure that his company moves away from its past identity as a weapons manufacturer – despite grappling with personal demons, finding a true sense of purpose and self-worth when he dons his revolutionary Iron Man armour – the world at large unaware that Stark himself is the Iron Avenger.  Despite some of the more troubled elements of the main character, Warren Ellis injects a smattering of humour where it’s appropriate and Stark isn’t without some charm but it’s generally a darker and more mature realisation in-line with earlier iterations of Iron Man whilst being resonant in a post 9/11 world.

Warren Ellis deftly weaves an updated but faithful recounting of the Stark/Iron Man origin story into the narrative via a media interview and flashbacks – modernising it by transposing the setting from during the Vietnam War to the conflict against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan (much like we saw on film in 2008’s Iron Man), where Stark, gravely injured by one of his own weapons is captured by Afghan terrorists and with the help of fellow captive, Doctor Ho Yinsen builds his first Iron Man suit as a means to both keep him alive and fight his way to an escape.

The digital art by the Bosnian-American illustrator Adi Granov is excellent, some may find it unusual or an acquired taste with its computer-generated look, but it produces clean and realistic visuals that are somewhat filmic with its muted colouring.  There are several striking single page spreads, boldly presenting the Iron Man suit in all its glory and the action is equally impressive – especially in the origin story flashbacks.  Granov also proves himself adept at the flourishes of horror in Ellis’s script with the startling and gross Extremis transformations.

The “Extremis” storyline would later form part of the plot for Marvel Studios’ 2013 big screen smash Iron Man Three but the comic book source by Messrs. Ellis and Granov is more like a Christopher Nolan film or a HBO production of Iron Man and is all the more attractive for it, making for a highly recommended read.

Geek fact!

Adi Granov helped to design the Iron Man and Iron Monger armours for Marvel Studios’ Iron Man as well as providing key-frame illustrations for the film.

Iron Man: Extremis 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.

Flashback: ‘Iron Man 2’

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

Iron Man 2 - IM & WM

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

Year:  2010

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

Directed by:  Jon Favreau / Written by:  Justin Theroux

What’s it about?

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

Retrospective/review

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

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

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

Iron Man 2 - Vanko

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

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

Iron Man 2 - Black Widow

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

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

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

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

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

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

R.I.P. Stan Lee

The Marvel Comics legend has died…

RIP Stan Lee

The incomparable legend, Stan Lee (image used for illustrative purposes only and remains the property of the copyright owner).

The Pop Culture world has been shattered by the sad news of the death of Stan “the Man” Lee at the age of 95.  The founding father of Marvel Comics, Stan worked with legendary artists such as Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and Don Heck to co-create a plethora of superhero characters that continue to be loved by millions of fans all over the globe. It all began with The Fantastic Four in 1961 when a bored Stan, on the verge of quitting comics which at that time were dominated by the crime fiction and Western genres, conceived the idea of the titular superhero team when his wife Joan (who passed away last year, also at the age of 95) urged her husband to create the kind of characters and tell the types of stories that he wanted to.  The rest is of course history and a new age of comics was born when Timely Publications evolved into the mighty Marvel where Stan served as President and despite leaving the company in 1972 he continued to be credited as ‘Chairman Emeritus’.

With the genesis of Marvel many more creations followed, including (but not limited to) the X-Men, Daredevil, Thor, the Hulk, Black Panther, Iron Man and perhaps the greatest of all the Marvel heroes: Spider-Man.  Co-created with artist Steve Ditko (who also died earlier this year), Spider-Man is the finest example of what Stan Lee strove for when writing comic books and the colourful characters within their pages – finding the human in superhuman.  By infusing these characters with the same day-to-day trials and tribulations everyone faces, Stan presented stories that were relatable and more relevant to the reader whilst providing hope as the extraordinary people he wrote about surmounted their problems.

Whilst Lee and Ditko parted ways acrimoniously, with Ditko feeling Lee had downplayed his contributions in the creation of Spider-Man, Stan Lee always spoke fondly and respectfully of the artists he worked with and his love for, and work in, the comic book medium together with his boundless and passionate devotion to the fans helped shape the Pop Culture landscape as we know it today.

With Marvel superheroes being more popular than ever, in no small part thanks to the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (in which Stan would regularly make cameos in the various Marvel films, his many appearances commencing with 20th Century Fox’s pre-MCU X-Men feature film in 2000), Stan Lee’s legacy will live on for decades to come and most likely, beyond.

Stan Lee died 12th November 2018 aged 95.

Comic Review: ‘The Invincible Iron Man’ #600

It’s a farewell from Brian Michael Bendis as he caps off his run on The Invincible Iron Man…

 

Inv Iron Man #600

Cover art for Marvel’s The Invincible Iron Man #600 by Chris Sprouse (image belongs: Marvel Comics, used for illustrative purposes only).

 

Warning! Contains Spoilers.

Written by:  Brian Michael Bendis / Art by:  Stefano Caselli, Alex Maleev, David Marquez, Daniel Acuna, Leinil Francis Yu & Gerry Alanguilan, Jim Cheung, Mike Deodato Jr, Mark Bagely, Andrew Hennessy & Scott Hanna, Andrea Sorrentino / Colours by:  Marte Garcia, Alex Maleev, Daniel Acuna, Guru-eFX, Romulo Fajardo, Marcelo Maiold & Rachelle Rosenberg

What’s it about?

“The Search for Tony Stark” Finale : Tony Stark emerges from the shadows as Iron Man returns to face the threat of the Hood and a face from the past…

In review

The 600th issue of The Invincible Iron Man is a milestone for more than one reason, the book’s numeric value aside it’s not only the conclusion to Brian Michael Bendis’ run on the title (which commenced in 2015) but also the prolific writer’s final comic for Marvel (for the foreseeable future at least) as he departs for DC after working at the ‘House of Ideas’ for almost twenty years.

The Invincible Iron Man #600 serves as a fitting, albeit slightly muddled and not overly spectacular final chapter in “The Search for Tony Stark”.  It’s not the greatest comic Bendis has ever written, nor is it an out-and-out classic issue of The Invincible Iron Man but it does the job adequately.  Following the events of issue #599, Tony Stark is back and ready for action as he faces a hostile takeover of Stark Industries, a threat from Hydra and demons from the past as Riri Williams must decide where her future lies now Iron Man has returned and Victor Von Doom seeks retribution.

Where The Invincible Iron Man #600 does succeed is in its revelations, chiefly the resurrection of Rhodey (who had fallen at the hands of Thanos in Civil War II) – this could be a huge spoiler for some (hence the warning at the head of the review) but surely most readers will have been expecting it, given that very few characters ever die and then remain so in comics…notwithstanding that the issue’s cover can be seen as a giveaway.  Anyway, it’s handled brilliantly being both emotionally satisfying and funny and no doubt we’ll be seeing more of Rhodey/War Machine in Dan Slott’s forthcoming run.

There’s a tragic and heart-wrenching climax to Victor Von Doom’s tenure as the ‘Infamous’ Iron Man and one that may precipitate his return to a more villainous path – another area for Dan Slott to explore with the impending Fantastic Four relaunch.  The return of Stark’s biological father (see the International Iron Man limited series), Jude also adds to the drama whilst helping to bring things full circle.

The Invincible Iron Man #600 does become a little jumbled though.  Despite its increased page count there is so much going on and barely enough space, although the pacing never feels rushed.  It can also be a bit of a trying read at times, much of the book is narrated by the A.I. version of Tony Stark and it’s quite dense as Brian Michael Bendis packs in a lot of exposition that serves to both recap events of his entire Iron Man saga and set the stage for the future.

There’s still room reserved for some action, the highlight of which is Stark’s attack on the Hood and his gang as he fights to prevent Stark Industries from falling into enemy hands, Jim Cheung’s beautiful double-page splash featuring numerous past Iron Man armours – evoking memories of Iron Man #300’s Iron Legion.

The expanded roster of artists is a little tricky, granted some of Marvel’s strongest talent has been engaged here and it’s a particular pleasure to see David Marquez contribute but it’s a shame that the whole book couldn’t have simply been divided up between Stefano Caselli and Alex Maleev in the same manner as previous issues, but it’s perhaps partly necessitated by the jump to 42 pages.  Still, it’s fairly consistent overall but the random jump between artists can be a little jarring.

In the end, it feels like Brian Michael Bendis may have had more up his sleeve for Marvel’s Iron Avenger but with his time at Marvel now up we can only see what’s in store with Dan Slott’s Tony Stark:  Iron Man.  The Invincible Iron Man #600 isn’t perfect but Bendis has produced a memorable run on the character (and given us Riri Williams in the process) and although it’s not as fulfilling as it could have been, there are certainly some good moments within.

The bottom line:  “The Search for Tony Stark” comes to an end in Brian Michael Bendis’ flawed but enjoyable final issue of The Invincible Iron Man.

The Invincible Iron Man #600 is published by Marvel Comics and is available in print and digital formats now.

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.

Comic Review: ‘The Invincible Iron Man’ #598

Brian Michael Bendis nears the end of his final Iron Man story…

Inv Iron Man #598

Alex Maleev’s cover for Marvel’s ‘The Invincible Iron Man’ #598 (image belongs: Marvel Comics, used for illustrative purposes only).

Written by:  Brian Michael Bendis / art by:  Stefano Caselli and Alex Maleev / colours by:  Marte Garcia and Alex Maleev

What’s it about?

“The Search for Tony Stark” Part Six : as the Avengers try to locate Tony Stark and Victor Von Doom finds himself in a tight corner, Riri Williams heads to M.I.T. to continue her own search for the former Iron Man…

 In review

Brian Michael Bendis delivers touches of intrigue, drama and action in the latest instalment of his final Iron Man story before departing for rival publisher DC.  Commencing his tenure during Marvel’s ‘All-New, All-Different’ relaunch back in 2015, Brian Michael Bendis has given readers a decent run on The Invincible Iron Man (as well as enjoyable limited-run spin-offs International Iron Man and Infamous Iron Man).  It’s fair to say that the title has been slow at times but never short of an entertaining read, whether it has concerned the adventures of Tony Stark or his post-Civil War II successor, Riri Williams – a.k.a. ‘Ironheart’.

“The Search for Tony Stark” steps towards its impending conclusion (in issue #600) and whilst there’s isn’t a great deal of progression in actual plot and the ‘search’ itself not quite as engrossing as one would hope (the story will likely read better once collected), Bendis takes time to focus on his main players, Riri Williams/Ironheart and Victor Von Doom/’Infamous’ Iron Man with a couple of brief appearances from the likes of Captain America (literally for one page) and Blade.  It’s good to see Blade pop up and his instant rapport with Riri helps restore her drive after having the Ironheart armour confiscated.  It remains to be seen if Bendis has more use for Blade but as is, it’s a neat little cameo that has some narrative importance.

Meanwhile, Victor Von Doom continues to have a rough time of it – now faced with the Hood and his rag tag crew of villians, out to strip the former ruler of Latveria of all that’s left of his worth.  It’s hard to imagine that Marvel will want to maintain Von Doom’s hero/anti-hero status for much longer but Brian Michael Bendis has added numerous layers to the character and in the process made Victor Von Doom all the more interesting which, in turn, will make him all the more compelling as a villain should Marvel choose to take that path.

Whilst it’s a hefty dose of gloom for Victor, Riri is back to her bright and optimistic self as she is reunited with her armour and along with fellow Iron compatriots Arno Stark, Tony Ho and Madison Jeffries press forward in the quest to locate Stark…and run into some familiar foes along the way (with a twist).  It’s fun and enjoyable stuff that’s a perfect contrast with the bleaker proceedings that Von Doom faces.

Art is once again divided between Stefano Caselli, handling Riri Williams’ sections of the story and Alex Maleev presenting the Von Doom portions.  As with previous issues it works extremely well, Caselli bringing an energetic, slightly cartoonish style to Riri’s world (punched up with the help of Marte Garcia’s colours) and Alex Maleev delivering moody and gritty visuals that befit the darker tone of the ‘Iron Doom’ segments.

The bottom line:  “The Search for Tony Stark” continues slowly but Brian Michael Bendis still delivers strong character work and together with the beautiful art, The Invincible Iron Man remains a solid read.

The Invincible Iron Man #598 is published by Marvel Comics and is available in print and digital formats now.