Retrospective: Marvel Studios

In the lead up to the premiere of Marvel Studios The Avengers, a film that the studio has been leading up to with five films over five years, I thought it would be opportune to take a look back at those films before the big team up happens tomorrow.

Iron Man – Jon Favreau

The first of Marvel Studios’ output continues to prove to be its best thus far. Whether that has to do with how high it set the bar or whether everything else fails to measure up in comparison, the fact remains that Iron Man is a great comic book film no matter how you slice it. Above all things, however, is Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark. Much has already been written and said about his magnetic and seemingly effortless performance, but the fact that he absolutely nails the character is not an easy thing. Stark has always been my favorite of superhero characters, and it is precisely for his complexity: though he is suave and often witty, he is also arrogant and bullheaded at times, and Downey Jr. provides that full dimensionality that makes Tony so human. The other key to the success of this film is Jon Favreau, whose direction maintains the seriousness of the film without sacrificing any of the fun. Additionally, the plot of Iron Man has a remarkably fresh take on modern American foreign policy but never addresses that theme in a heavy handed fashion. Despite its underwhelming climax, Iron Man continues to dazzle with its strong ensemble, relevant plot and plenty of doses of whiz bang excitement.

The Incredible Hulk – Louis Leterrier

After an impressive showing with Iron Man in May of 2008, Marvel Studios followed up quickly in June of the same year with a reboot of their most mammoth character: The Incredible Hulk. Doing away with much of the origin story and psychological drama that weighed down Ang Lee’s effort in 2003, Louis Leterrier jumped right into the plot, focusing on Bruce Banner’s fugitive status and the military’s goal to capture and manipulate him. As a man on the run tale, the film functions pretty well, crisscrossing from South America back to the States and freeing up Bruce more to transform into his green alter ego. Edward Norton proves to fit Banner quite nicely, showing his complexity and desire to control his emotions, but fully justifying his actions when the eyes glow emerald. Also memorable is Tim Roth as the military’s top warrior, who volunteers himself to go toe to toe against the Hulk, with life altering consequences. Thematically, the film doesn’t have much on its mind and essentially plays itself as a straight action adventure film, with occasionally thrilling (if less memorably executed) action sequences. Nevertheless, The Incredible Hulk remains a respectable and generally well done entry in the Marvel filmography.

Iron Man 2 – Jon Favreau

With a surprise smash on its hands in 2008, Marvel put all of its chips on the table in 2010, and the released Iron Man 2. While it does have some memorable moments, the fact is that Iron Man 2 suffers from a bad case of sequelitis, a common ailment in 21st century Hollywood. Symptoms include an unfocused narrative, useless subplots, and excessive characters. However, the biggest problem with Iron Man 2 is that it feels less like a narrative unto itself, and ultimately, a two hour trailer for The Avengers, especially when one of the subplots involves Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury trying to convince Tony Stark to partner with S.H.I.E.L.D. Robert Downey Jr. still excels as Tony Stark, but in this film he feels unfocused and frazzled. Granted, those are narrative prescriptions for the character, but Downey Jr.’s performance does not feel nearly as fresh as it did the first time around. Additionally, Mickey Rourke is criminally underused as Whiplash, Iron Man’s primary adversary, even if his Russian is mediocre. The only thing that Iron Man 2 improves on is the action sequences which are pretty engaging, but otherwise, the film isn’t quite as appetizing. It has some good moments in it, sure, but on the whole, it stands as Marvel Studios weakest film to date.

Thor – Kenneth Branagh

The biggest surprise in Marvel’s oeuvre thus far came in 2011 with Thor, perhaps their most challenging film to date with regards to plausibility. A tale about a god from another realm being outcast to Earth was not likely to sell as well as some of Marvel’s other franchises, but with the right sense of humor, director Kenneth Branagh struck the right note between the epic and the silly. Like Iron ManThor largely succeeds due to its lead actor: Chris Hemsworth. As a god from Asgard whose ascension to the throne is imminent, Hemsworth finds the right beats motivating Thor’s ambition and reckless actions. Even though his powers are mighty, his soul is certainly human, and these thematic interests are clearly at the forefront of Branagh’s mind. The dynamic played early in the film between Thor, his father Odin, and his brother Loki, unsurprisingly contains Shakespearean undertones, which elevates the material beyond its comic book origins. Thor does suffer from serious pacing problems, and there is much in film pertaining to the Avenger Initiative which could be diminished, but for its incredible balancing act between legendary tales and humorous deconstructions of those stories, it unquestionably brings the hammer down.

Captain America: The First Avenger – Joe Johnston

Finally we arrive at Joe Johnston’s old school effort at synthesizing patriotism with Captain America: The First Avenger. Executed with a flair that feels straight out of Raiders of the Lost Ask and dozens of other films emulating the 1940’s, the film shows no hesitation for nostalgia. Chris Evans plays Steve Rodgers in an amiable and sincere tone, opting against his usual wisecracking nature. Rodgers’ humble nature comes from his initially minuscule stature, and the CGI work to make Evans look smaller is truly marvelous. However, Rodgers stays exactly the same throughout the entire film, with no perceptible character arc of any kind. One of the film’s best thematic and plot related moments actually involves Rodgers’ manipulation following his transformation. Forced to travel the country in order to sell war bonds instead of fighting on the front lines, Rodgers’ dilemma speaks to the propaganda machine at work in America during WWII, and shows a flaw in the armor of the red, white, and blue. As with all of the other Marvel films, the ensemble is quite solid surrounding Evans, especially the villainous Red Skull as portrayed by the deliciously malevolent Hugo Weaving. Though its action sequences at times feel like retreads over old ground, and Captain America essentially remains a two dimensional character at best, Captain America: The First Avenger once again shows that Marvel can do justice to its source material to create well made blockbuster cinema.

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~ by romancinema on May 3, 2012.

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