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.

Thoughts on ‘Zack Snyder’s Justice League’

A league united…and redeemed?

DC core heroes are brought together to face cosmic evil in Zack Snyder’s ‘Justice League’ (image credit: Warner Bros. Pictures).

After much anticipation and feverish expectations, Zack Snyder’s Justice League – affectionately known in fan circles as the ‘Snyder Cut’ – arrived this Thursday courtesy of a long fought, passionate fan campaign and a costly endeavour by Warner Bros. Pictures and the burgeoning streaming platform HBO Max (the film available to U.K. viewers via Sky Cinema/Now TV as part of its international roll-out).  $70 million dollars and some hard but dedicated work later, Zack Snyder’s original vision for Justice League has been ceremoniously brought forth into the light and the differences are significant and often astonishing.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a spectacular effort that provides an almost completely different viewing experience from that of the more compromised theatrical version which saw Marvel Studios veteran Joss Whedon (director of The Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron) brought in to replace a grieving Zack Snyder, following the tragic suicide of his daughter Autumn (to whom this version of Justice League is lovingly dedicated), to oversee post production and studio mandated rewrites/reshoots.  It can be argued (though few would) that there is still entertainment value in the flawed but fun theatrical version of Justice League (read the review from 2017 here), as it’s perhaps more easily digestible and no doubt more palatable to the general viewer unaware or less troubled by the commercially-driven ills that befell the final product.  For those more inclined to commit to a four-hour running time then there is much to offer in Zack Snyder’s film.

Less of an extended cut (in the vein of Snyder’s superior ‘Ultimate Edition’ of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) of Justice League and more of a total reworking of it, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a longer, deeper and in many ways more satisfying, often more mighty effort.  It’s not for the timid or for audiences attuned, or accustomed to, and with a preference for the brighter, tirelessly upbeat popcorn blockbuster fare of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (as phenomenal as they often are, of course) as this is unmistakably a Zack Snyder film.  Visually grand, operatic, mythological and of serious mind and intention, it’s an unconventional superhero epic that demands more from the viewer with a tone that’s more adult (beyond an uptick in bloody violence and peppering of bad language) and delves more deeply into it’s characters, providing expanded back stories and greater depth for the likes of newcomers Cyborg (Ray Fisher, whose role is greatly enhanced), The Flash (Ezra Miller) and Aquaman (Jason Mamoa) joining the already established Batman (Ben Affleck), Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) and the resurrected Superman (Henry Cavill – thanks to digital tooling, here dons a version of the iconic black rebirth suit from the 1990s Death/Return of Superman comics).  The film takes an existing villain, Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciarin Hinds) and adds more dimension – as well as tweaking his physical appearance with stronger CGI – as well as reinstating the overlord of proceedings, the formidable power-hungry cosmic conqueror Darkseid (Ray Porter), who was excised from the theatrical cut.  There are a few small character moments from the theatrical version that are sorely missed, such as Batman’s encouragement and reassurance to an overwhelmed and inexperienced Flash during the tunnel battle, but on the whole there is a lot more to chew on (and less goofiness) in Snyder’s cut.  Another major change of note is the music score with Tom Holkenborg’s (who, as Junkie XL, collaborated with Hans Zimmer on Snyder’s Batman v Superman) music replacing Danny Elfman’s score and proves stylistically more suited to Snyder’s film.

Admittedly, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is only likely to appeal to hardcore fans of not only the director and his vision for these core DC characters but also is more of benefit to readers invested in the rich mythology of DC comics history, well-versed in classics such as Jack Kirby’s Fourth World and Mark Waid and Alex Ross’s Kingdom Come (to cite a couple of celebrated works). The film treats the titanic DC heroes seriously, recognising the fundamental differences between the DC and Marvel universes.  Marvel succeeds greatly by putting the human in superhuman and whilst there is some element of that within the DC pantheon, the DC Universe is largely concerned with mythological fantasy.  Is this all to say that Zack Snyder’s Justice League is perfect?  No, it’s a little slow in it’s set-up and perhaps a tighter three-hour cut would be more refined, leading more quickly into the pacier urgency of the second half.  Is it the greatest superhero film of all time?  Again, no, but in many ways it is ground-breaking in delivering something different from the maligned rough-edged romp of the theatrical version.  Sadly, Zack Snyder’s Justice League leaves us hanging with the narrative doors wide-open for the envisioned sequels that are no longer on the table with the theatrical edition remaining part of the official DC Films canon, but ignoring it’s epilogue the story is fairly complete, if only to now occupy its own abandoned corner of the multiverse.  Whilst Zack Snyder’s Justice League is left as a sort of DC Elseworlds one-shot live-action graphic novel and a promising glimmer of what might or could have been, just as the icons of DC Comics endure, the DC Extended Universe goes on.

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

Have You Read… ‘Hulk: Gray’?

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

Hulk Gray (a)

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

 

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

What’s it about?

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

In review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Geek fact!

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

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

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

Film Review: ‘Avengers: Endgame’

Marvel Studios’ ‘Infinty Saga’ reaches its conclusion…

Spoiler-free review

Avengers Endgame

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

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

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

What’s it about?

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

In review

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

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

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

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

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

Avengers: Endgame is in cinemas now.

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’ #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.

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.

Comic Review: ‘Civil War II’ #1

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

What’s it about?

With the emergence of a new Inhuman with the ability to see future events, Captain Marvel believes that this gift should be used to counter danger before it arises…

In review

The battle lines are drawn once again in the Marvel Comics universe as the opening chapter of the highly anticipated Civil War II event lands with a bang.  Following the prologues of the Free Comic Book Day special and issue #0, the extra sized Civil War II #1 is a promising start for Marvel’s latest event that hopes to repeat the success of Mark Millar and Steve McNiven’s original Civil War of ten years ago.  Whilst the saga is only just beginning, so far any initial concerns that Civil War II would merely retread what has gone before can be safely put to one side.  Just as Civil War II features a slightly varied and expanded set of players and their respective affiliations (encompassing groups such as the Avengers, New Avengers, the Ultimates and the Inhumans) it also offers a different set of ethical debates and character viewpoints in comparison to the original Civil War.

The central debate in Civil War II concerns new Inhuman Ulysses who is plagued with visions of the future and whether that knowledge should be utilised to prevent catastrophe and safeguard the innocent or that it could in fact alter events in such a way as to create even more danger.  As leader of the Ultimates, Carol Danvers’ Captain Marvel firmly believes that future threats should be tackled before they can arise, a case which is supported by the opening battle against a Celestial invasion force which leaves the Marvel heroes victorious.  Somewhat surprisingly, it’s Tony Stark who takes the opposing stance, ever the futurist who now finds those values in question when considering the consequences foreknowledge of a possible future could hold.  Stark’s side of the argument is upheld when the superhero community is hit by a tragedy none of them could see coming and sets the stage for the rest of Civil War II.

With a script packed with drama, emotion and punchy dialogue, Brian Michael Bendis provokes those aforementioned ethical debates without being overly preachy, presenting identifiable viewpoints from both sides, which may make it much harder to choose sides this time around.  Visually, this is a stunning book with Bendis enlisting the talents of former Invincible Iron Man penciller David Marquez and colourist Justin Ponsor.  Marquez provides lavishly detailed layouts with energetic and epic action scenes – accentuated beautifully by Ponsor’s vivid colours – together with dynamic character work that evokes the right level of ‘feeling’ to those moments of emotion and drama.  Marvel’s latest blockbuster comic event is in safe hands.

The bottom line:  As first issues go, Civil War II shows great potential for Marvel’s latest event with excitement and drama delivered by a trusted creative team.

Civil War II #1 is published by Marvel Comics and is available in print and digital formats now.

Marvel's latest event kicks off in 'Civil War II' #1 (cover art by Marko Djurdjevic).

Marvel’s latest event kicks off in ‘Civil War II’ #1 (cover art by Marko Djurdjevic).

Film Review: ‘Captain America: Civil War’ (spoiler-free)

Time to choose sides…

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

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

What’s it about?

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

In review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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