Thoughts on ‘Thor: The Dark World’

screen-shot-2019-03-21-at-5.07.24-pm.png

Past entries:
Iron Man
The Incredible Hulk
Iron Man 2
Thor
Captain America: The First Avenger

The Avengers
Iron Man 3

Well, almost anything short of The Last Jedi would have been an improvement after the last entry (the key word there being almost, but we’ll get to that), and Thor: The Dark World is certainly a step in the right direction, judged against its immediate predecessor. By the standards of the first film, however, it’s a definite step down.

As before we open with Odin narrating the history a great battle the Asgardians fought to save the innocent, this time we learn that Odin’s father Bor battled the Dark Elves led by the fearsome Maleketh. The Dark Elves meant to use the Aether – a red-black liquid with immense power – to destroy the universe, since they hailed from the before time, when there was no light and long to return. They were defeated and the Aether captured and hidden.

Back in the present day, Loki is sentenced to life imprisonment for his crimes in The Avengers (because his mother Frigga plead his case down from the death penalty), while Thor travels throughout the Nine Realms quelling the unrest that has arisen since the Bifrost’s destruction in the first film. Back on Earth, Jane Foster is finally starting to date again after being stood up by Thor for two years (her date is hilarious, by the way; the guy is refreshingly nice, but…well, no Thor). But her date is interrupted when Darcy barges in to let her know of some strange readings, which leads them to a warehouse experience gravitational anomalies and mysterious portals being caused by the ‘convergence;’ a cosmic event where the Nine Realms align once every several thousand years. Jane ends ups sucked through one of these to find herself at the Aether’s hiding spot (well, if that isn’t just plain unlucky! Better get used to that sort of thing; it happens quite a bit in this film). She accidentally absorbs it into her body and collapses.

Thor, alerted by Heimdall that she has disappeared, rushes to Earth and takes Jane to Asgard to try to discover what the curious power is and how to remove it from her before it kills her. But at the same time, the reappearance of the Aether awakens Maleketh and the Dark Elves, who plot to recover the Aether and destroy the current, light-filled universe at the ‘convergence,’ when all the Nine Realms align.

The Dark World starts strong with an efficient demonstration of how Thor has grown since the first film. He drops into a battle in Vanaheim (the film helpfully provides titles for each world), knocks around a few goons, then faces off with the enemy’s champion: a massive rock monster. Thor walks up to him and offers to accept his surrender. The monster laughs, so Thor takes him out with one-shot, ending the battle. Thor now approaches fights with an eye to minimizing casualties and keeping his friends safe, rather than for his own glory.

Unfortunately, we quickly run into problems. The most obvious of them is that Maleketh is simply not a very interesting villain. In fact, he’s pretty much completely forgettable. He has no relatable motives (he wants to destroy the universe because he comes from the dark and hates the light. Okay), no real personality beyond being menacing, nor any kind of memorable powers. He’s just…there. A bog-standard bad-guy to show up, be evil, and be defeated. The Lovecraftian tendrils of Aether coming off him at the climax are a memorable sight, but that’s pretty much it.

This might not have been a huge problem if the rest of the film were stronger, but the story is also very shaky. It’s a bit of luck that Jane happened to be the one to find the Aether by randomly being sucked through a portal, though to be fair since she is a scientist she might be expected to run into something like that if anyone would. Still, it transporting her there of all places is…a bit of luck. Likewise, when Jane and Thor are stranded with no way out, they just happened to walk into the cave where there’s a portal back to Earth. It’s supported by the earlier convenience of Jane being pulled in to find the Aether (and why was she pulled in?), but it’s still a pretty massive and convenient coincidence. Then, in the climax, the collapsing ship just happens to teleport away moments before crushing them; not unacceptable, since things have been teleporting about all day, but still, very convenient. The conveniences aren’t unacceptable, but they do start to pile up and it begins to feel like lazy writing, as though any time the writers were stuck they just used the weird effects of the convergence to get them out of it.

Speaking of the convergence, there is a lot of repetition in this film. The convergence is explained at least three or four times by different characters. There’s a bit early on where we see news footage of Dr. Selvig being arrested for going nuts and running naked around Stonehenge. Then later we see the exact same news report so that the characters can learn where he’s been taken, moving the plot along (another convenience); why have both rather than just the one? Also, the film seems to imply that Selvig’s been in the mental home for some time, so why does the news report play just then?

Another problem is that Asgard, and especially Odin himself, are very ill-served by this film. Part way through, the Dark Elves mount a full-scale assault and pretty much decimate the Asgardians without much effort. We’ve been led to believe that Asgard is the most powerful of all the Nine Realms, able to keep the others in check by its sheer might. It is the home of the gods, inhabited by some of the most powerful beings alive. Yet a fragment of a force that they had already defeated is able to make mincemeat of their defenses and get away more or less free and clear while inflicting heavy casualties, including the Queen. This sinks Asgard horribly in the sight of the audience and makes them appear less a mighty, all-powerful noble empire and more a tottering paper tiger ready to fold at the first sign of resistance and held in place only by Thor’s might.

Obviously drama must be maintained, but what they should have done was to have the Dark Elves stage a covert infiltration, slipping past their defenses and taking what they wanted before the main force of Asgard was even aware of their presence. This would have fit with the ‘Dark Elf’ concept and (ironically) have made them seem all the more dangerous; that for all its power, even Asgard can’t fight a foe that it can’t find. We could have gotten much the same sequence of events, but without making the Asgardians look like chumps (which, alas, will only get worse in future films).

Not only that, but it would have made the confrontation between Frigga and Maleketh stronger and her plan to hide Jane more reasonable. As it is, it’s simply a delaying tactic, since they’d find her the moment they searched the room. But if Maleketh were on a strict time limit and needed to be gone before the guards were alerted, then the whole scenario would have made much more sense.

Meanwhile, Odin’s primary role has become to simply be wrong, unreasonable, and hotheaded in order to make Thor look better. This is a terrible decision on many, many levels. It makes Thor’s heartfelt line from the first film, “I will never be a wiser king than you” sound retroactively hollow. It contradicts Odin’s portrayal in the first film as the voice of reason and restraint. Like with Asgard itself, it makes Odin appear much weaker and more pathetic than he has any right to be (he is the king of the gods! He ought to be, as was said an unfortunately deleted scene in the first film, “the most powerful being in the Nine Realms”). When Jane appears with the Aether inside her, Odin doesn’t even wait to learn why she’s been brought to Asgard before ordering her to be gone (his line to Thor should have been something like, “I trust you have an excellent explanation for this?”). Throughout the film Odin is wrong about everything, and then at the end we learn that he’s been subdued and replaced off-screen by Loki. What a sad waste of a classic character.

What all this amounts to is a strong impression of rushed or lazy writing, as if the writers just wanted to get the script out and done with and threw it together without paying much attention. It’s extremely unfortunate and means that many of the opportunities presented by the story go to waste and the whole thing is remarkably average.

But, along with these key weaknesses, we have a number of real strengths. Loki is still a fascinating character, and even after two films we still are never quite sure what he’s going to do or what his motives are. If Avengers showed him at his most malicious, this one sees him apparently trying to maintain his malice with less success. He still interprets everything as a conspiracy against himself, still lies, cheats, and schemes for power, but he can’t deny his real feelings when things come to the point. The scene where he learns of his mother’s death (done in silence) is great, as are his various conversations with Thor. Not to mention he gets some ambiguous moments, as when he shoves Jane out of the path of a black-hole grenade, thereby nearly being sucked in and killed himself. It isn’t clear, even at the end, just how much of his behavior is malice and deceit and how much is based on sincere good-will.

Sif and at least two of the Warriors Three (Hogun sits out most of the film) get a bit more to do this time, such as joining Thor in a daring escape plan, though they remain very underdeveloped. Sif herself gets a few more scenes hinting at her attraction to Thor, but it unfortunately never gets to go anywhere.

On the other hand, Darcy gets a bigger role this time, which I was glad for since I really like Darcy. Her interactions with her own intern, Ian, are hilariously cruel and completely in-character (used to being at the bottom of the totem pole, she takes every chance to lord it over someone lower than her), but have a delightful payoff when he ends up saving her life. I also like that, though she’s still comic relief, she actually does take initiative and try to get things done in Jane and Selvig’s absence as best she can.

Meanwhile, a good chunk of the film is dedicated to Thor and Jane’s relationship, though unfortunately we don’t get much more insight into it than we got in the first film. The film assures us that there is a great, true love between them, but again we’re not really sure why. The relationship is sweet, and there are some very nice moments between them (as well as some very funny ones), but for a match between a god and a mortal, there really ought to be more weight to it. Jane in particular needs more than just good looks and a pleasant personality (both of which she admittedly has in abundance) to sell the idea of a mortal woman who haunts the heart of a god.

That said, they do certainly sell how out of place and, well, fragile Jane feels in Asgard, amid these god-like beings. Whether from staging or acting or both, you feel her vulnerability and comparative weakness, which makes those scenes all the more effective (and I love her flustered reactions to meeting Odin and Frigga). This gives Thor quite a few chances to be heroic and chivalrous to her, though the film doesn’t make as much use of this aspect as it might have. Thor himself remains the thoroughly likable fantasy hero he was before, and retains every bit of the character development he received in Thor and The Avengers, though, alas, he doesn’t really get to add to it much here; his journey mostly amounts to deciding to move to Earth to be with Jane. I suppose he takes initiative, but then, when has he not? This isn’t a huge problem; Thor’s a perfectly good hero by this point, but it does make the film feel a bit like filler.

The action is one area where the film steps up its predecessor, which didn’t give Thor very much time to be swinging his hammer around being Thor. Though I don’t like it from a story perspective, the assault on Asgard is undeniably interesting to watch, as is Thor and Loki’s subsequent escape. The film also continues the tradition of finding creative consequences for Thor’s connection with his hammer, culminating in a very amusing sequence where Thor and Malketh are being ported all across the universe and Mjolnir whips back and forth trying to get back to Thor like a lost puppy. The film also makes several startling and unexpected uses of Loki’s illusion powers. And the portals themselves are used to very creative effect during the climax.

On the other hand, the finale, with Jane and Selvig using their anomaly detecting equipment to somehow create portals raises a lot of questions, like “how the heck does that work?” and, more importantly, “how is it this Aether cloud is ripping stone structures apart, but Thor is able to carry this delicate scientific equipment through it without at all affecting its functionality?”

Dark World further continues its predecessor’s strong visual style, and though it’s not as striking (the Dark Elves’ home world is pretty bland), it does manage some great images, especially at the convergence when the realms appear as ‘pools’ in mid-air. I also love the scene where Jane is caught up in the Bifrost for the first time, and we get a gorgeous impression of what it feels like for a mortal to be whipped across the galaxy in a rainbow bridge. I also like the imagery of a flock of birds disappearing into midair, only to erupt from the ground.

It also continues its predecessor’s strong dialogue. There’s usually a lot of snappy dialogue in the Marvel films, but the ‘Thor’ movies tend to be particularly strong in this regard; “I am not getting stabbed in the name of science!” “Evidently, there will be a line.” “Is there a point to this, because there really needs to be a point to this.” “Oh, dear; is she dead?” “There’s nothing more reassuring than realizing the world’s crazier than you are.” “Thank you for the commentary; it’s not at all distracting.” “Perhaps next time we should start with the big one.” That’s in addition to the juicy, elevated, almost poetic lines: “Merriment can sometimes be a heavier burden than battle.” The Nine Realms are not eternal. They had a dawn as they will have a dusk.” “Always so perceptive about everyone but yourself.” “I wish I could trust you,” “Trust my rage.” “If I were proud of the man my son had become, even that I could not say.”

Ultimately, The Dark World is not bad, exactly; it’s entertaining enough, and it continues many of its predecessor’s strengths. But it’s weighed down by a very lazy script, several bad storytelling decisions, and one of the most forgettable villains in any superhero movie. The result is probably the most thoroughly ‘average’ of the Marvel films; relatively solid entertainment crafted onto a heavily flawed story.

 

Thoughts on ‘Iron Man 3’

Past entries:
Iron Man
The Incredible Hulk
Iron Man 2
Thor
Captain America: The First Avenger

The Avengers

So, it should be clear by now that I really like the MCU. Even the films that aren’t so good, I still retain a fondness for. I recognize they’re bad (e.g. Iron Man 2), but I don’t really dislike them, except in a ‘why couldn’t you have been better’ kind of way.

Iron Man 3 is different. I hate Iron Man 3.

Following the events in The Avengers, Tony Stark’s post-traumatic stress disorder has become even more severe. He hasn’t slept in weeks, has nightmares whenever he tries, and occupies himself by endlessly tinkering on his Iron Man suits (he has forty-five by now, stored in a massive hanger under his mansion). When he’s awake, he begins periodically having panic attacks.

The timing is bad, since a Bin Laden-esque terrorist mastermind known as the Mandarin has surfaced and begun bombing targets in America and abroad while broadcasting anti-American propaganda videos in which he threatens to assassinate the President. In response, the government redesigns Rhodey’s War Machine suit and renames him the Iron Patriot, utilizing the services of AIM, a tech company run by Aldrich Killian, who is a former co-worker of Pepper’s an who once tried to interest Tony in his work, only for Tony to blow him off to spend the night with hot biologist. Said biologist had been working on a treatment utilizing the unused “bioelectric center” of the brain to regenerate lost limbs and develop super strength, among other things.

Then, after the Mandarin’s latest attack puts Tony’s friend Happy Hogan into the hospital, Tony issues a public challenge to the Mandarin, which results in his mansion being assaulted with gunships and him being stranded in Tennessee with a malfunctioning suit.

Okay, there are a few major issues already.

First and most obviously, how the heck is it that Tony’s mansion has no security whatsoever against this kind of attack? He is a publicly known Superhero who makes a point of challenging terrorists and dictators on a regular basis, who has survived three direct assassination attempts and only recently helped to fight off an alien invasion, yet he doesn’t even have any system in place to alert him of incoming missiles (his only warning is noticing it on a news broadcast that happens to be filming his house). The attempt to cover this is that JARVIS is overwhelmed because Tony “gave the world press his home address.” Are they seriously implying that up until now no one knew how to find Tony Stark’s cliff-side mansion? The film implies that giving out his address was a reckless move that allowed the Mandarin to strike him, but his house is probably marked off on tourist maps. Why would he have such terrible security, especially given his history, and given the fact that, in the opening voice over, he says he’s been obsessed with trying to protect himself and Pepper?

Then, after the assault, JARVIS automatically takes him to Tennessee, because he had earlier ‘mapped out a flight path’ in that direction to follow a potential lead. So, when JARVIS goes into emergency mode, he defaults to a potential flight plan he mapped out for a completely different scenario? Granted he says that he’s “malfunctioning,” but that’s pretty big malfunction for such an advanced computer; he’s able to improvise a creative way to save Tony when he’s trapped underwater by the rubble of his house, but then defaults to shooting him halfway across the country?

And going back a bit, assuming the government wanted to turn Rhodey into ‘Iron Patriot,’ why on Earth would they contract AIM instead of Stark Industries; the company that actually built the armor? That’s even buying that they’d do this (the excuse given in the film was the “War Machine” was deemed too aggressive, which…okay I’ll give them that one), or would even need to do more than just throw on a new coat of paint. The real reason this is here is so that, later in the film, Tony can use Rhodey’s account to access AIM’s top secret files. Because, since they worked on his suit, there’s a back door into documentation of their highly illegal human experiments in his account. They don’t have that highly incriminating evidence locked away on a separate, secure hard-drive or anything; apparently anyone they ever did any work for can get at it if only they know how to hack a major computer system from hundreds of miles away with about five keystrokes (contrast this with Rampage, where the evil biotech company kept all records of their criminal activity safely stored on a separate, undocumented hard-drive so that when the FBI came calling they could give over all their computer access without fear).

Speaking of which, let’s talk about the ‘Extremis’ project. It gives the person extreme strength and healing abilities, including the power to regain lost limbs, but at the cost of creating extreme heat and potentially overloading and causing the person to explode in a massive fireball. It also, apparently, allows you to shut down electronics, since that’s how Rhodey is captured…except not all the time, because they never do that same trick again. And it allows you to breathe fire at one point. As you can tell, it’s incredibly inconsistent, from what exactly it allows you to do to how much damage you can take before you explode (e.g. some guys go down with a repulsor blast or two, but Killian tanks several explosions).

Moreover, this doesn’t feel very fitting for Iron Man, who has previously dealt with other armored or mechanical-based adversaries. This weird biotech is thematically off point for him, though that’s admittedly a more minor issue.

What isn’t a minor issue is the big ‘twist’ that comes about two-thirds of the way through the film, when Tony tracks down ‘the Mandarin’ and discovers he’s nothing but a drug-addled actor that Killian set up as a false target to cover his own prosaic plot to manipulate the military-industrial complex.

There are so many reasons why this is a terrible, terrible choice. First of all, it doesn’t fit with what we saw earlier. There’s a scene prior to the reveal of the Mandarin striding confidently into the set and ordering the filming to begin in his commanding voice; what, was the actor told to stay in character the whole time, except for when it would be ‘funny’ for him not to? Also, the scientist working with Killian comments that she didn’t know “you and the Master” were going to blow Tony’s house up; so, she doesn’t know it’s all an act then? How would she not know that if she’s that deep into the scheme? Also, the Mandarin shoots a man on live television: was that faked? If so, weren’t they running a huge risk that the guy would give the game away by reacting to not really being shot? Or if he was an actor too, then wouldn’t somebody realize that the purported ‘victim’ wasn’t actually dead once SHIELD, the CIA, and everyone else got hold of the footage? Actually, on that subject, are we really expected to believe that during the (conservatively speaking) weeks that the Mandarin has been active and the whole government has been hunting him, no one involved was able to recognize a green screen effect?

Not to mention that after the reveal, the actor first claims he didn’t know anything that was going on and thought it was all fake, then a couple scenes later starts telling all he knows about the plan. This character has no consistency whatsoever; he simply is whatever the script needs him to be for the sake of either pushing the plot along or telling a crude joke.

On that subject, really think of this whole stupid plan: Killian said he set the Mandarin up as a target, since “subtlety’s had its day” ever since superheroes started showing up (showing what appears to be a level of contempt for the genre). Basically, his whole plan depends on everyone looking at the Mandarin and not at him or the Vice President. So, he picks a drunken, drug-addled idiot to play the role; a guy who seems incapable of focusing even with a gun in his face and who instantly tries to spill the beans when things start to go wrong. What would have happened if the guy had passed out or lost focus or suffered cravings in the middle of a broadcast? What if the authorities had happened to show up? What if the guy had a crisis of conscience (not that anyone has a conscience in a Shane Black film)? Why would he stake such a high-risk plan on such a patently unreliable foundation? If you’re going to get an actor in a situation like this, wouldn’t you want one who was wide-awake, on point, and thoroughly committed to the scheme, rather than one who might forget his own name at any moment?

Then there’s simply the fact that they’re setting up a striking, all-competent mastermind as the villain, only to suddenly whip the rug out from under us and reveal ‘ha ha! It’s actually yet another evil businessman looking to get rich selling weapons.’ The twist is that we have the exact same type of villain we’ve had in the other two films. Not that I thought the film’s depiction of the Mandarin, with his pseudo-southern voice Middle Eastern imagery was particularly impressive, but it’s a heck of a lot better than just Guy Pearce in a suit making bad jokes. Also, remember that the Ten Rings organization is a real terrorist organization in this universe; they’re the ones who captured Tony back in the first film, meaning that this film seems like it’s setting up for Tony to face the demons of his past, taking on the organization that changed his life and finally confronting its mastermind. That would have fit perfectly with his struggles with PTSD. Instead, the set up from the first film is simply dropped in favor of a cheap joke and a more generic villain.

(I’ve heard the argument that the Mandarin is a ‘racist’ character. I’m not really sure what ‘racist’ stereotype would be perpetuated by an Asian criminal mastermind at the head of a world-spanning terrorist organization and who can run strategic rings around the entire US military. Either way, there were better ways to deal with the issue than…this)

Adding to all that is just the sheer bad taste of the storyline. Its premise of faked terrorist attacks in the service of political and corporate interests, complete with a fake terrorist leader overtly made up to resemble Osama Bin Laden, is quite frankly a grotesque and insulting take on real-life tragedies. The first Iron Man played on real-life imagery as well, but for cathartic purposes; the terrorists might not be like any real-world terrorists, but they were ruthless and terrible people whom Iron Man fought to protect the innocent. Iron Man 3 brings up similar imagery – and much more on the nose – in order to suggest that there’s no such thing and the real villains are all homegrown politicians and businessmen (and veterans, judging by how the film depicts the Extremis patients as either helpless junkies or gleefully willing to kill innocent people). This is compounded by ‘humorous’ scenes of Rhodey being sent on wild-goose chases and bursting in on innocent Pakistani workhouses and the like.

This an extremely ignorant and childish take on real-world events (all the more so as the film came out mere weeks after the Boston Marathon bombing), and more to the point, none of it belongs in a Marvel movie.

A similar level of bad taste runs throughout the film, and it is this much more than the plot holes that make me hate it so much. As another example, there’s a bit where Tony ends up hold up in a garage overseen by a precocious young boy. The kid tells him that his father disappeared years ago, to which Tony gives the delightful line: “Dads leave; no need to be a pussy about it.”

Quite apart from being a truly horrible thing to say to a child, that line is completely at odds with Tony’s own complicated relationship with his father, who died so abruptly without ever telling him he loved him. Why not just have Tony look away uncomfortably? Or have him say something like, “sounds like he’s not worth bothering about.” But no; Shane Black has to go for the cheap, vulgar joke every single time.

Tony then gruffly puts up with the kid for the next few scenes before leaving him to guard his charging suit (why does his suit need to be charged? It’s powered by the arc reactor in his chest, plus one in its own chest piece. Tony’s later seen with jumper cables running from his suit to a car battery; did no one tell the writer the rules of their own series?), which the kid does despite the fact that Tony’s been pretty much nothing but a jerk to him. Oh, except that he gave him a ‘non-lethal’ weapon to use on the bully he intuits the kid is having trouble with, apparently knowing that every precocious child in a movie has bully problems. I know Tony has trouble understanding people, but does he really think giving the kid a weapon to bring to school is going to end well?

The kid also badgers him about the events in The Avengers, bringing on his panic attacks. This is almost played for laughs, as was the earlier scene where he undergoes an attack, then rushes out of the restaurant to where he…has his suit parked, just standing upright on the sidewalk? Then Rhodey ‘comically’ taps him on the head to get his attention. Tony’s PTSD, which has been with us one way or another since the original film, and which has up until now been handled with a degree of subtlety, is now front and center and mostly used for cheap jokes until it’s just…forgotten. I’m not kidding, the film never gives a conclusion to that storyline. From the moment the kid suggests he deal with it by ‘building something’ (which is what he’s been doing this whole time), his post-traumatic stress never becomes an issue again until the post-credit scene, where it’s revealed he’s roped Bruce Banner into being his therapist for some reason.

This film takes every serious, meaningful potential in its storyline and just turns them into jokes, or else forgets about them entirely. Then, to top it all off, it throws a whole new theme at us in the epilogue. Not joking; at the last second they tack on the idea that Tony needs to give up being Iron Man for…some reason. Being Iron Man was pretty much the only thing that saved the day throughout the film, to the point where the only way the writers could think to generate drama was to blow up his mansion and make his suits malfunction. But in the final five minutes of screen time, after the villain is defeated, Tony suddenly decides it’s the end of the Iron Man saga, trashes his suits (which all have a self-destruct feature: I guess Dr. Doofenshmirtz consulted on the design, and thank goodness that one never malfunctioned) and gets the shrapnel and electromagnet removed from his chest. Yes, that symbolically potent ‘change of heart’ that the whole first film was about, which has been used so effectively since then? This film effectively just says “…and I got rid of that” in its final two minutes.

This on top of Tony simply saying “and I fixed Pepper.” You see, Pepper’s injected with the Extremis over the course of the film (apparently just because Killian wanted to torture her, and I guess the guy with heat powers couldn’t think of a better way to do it than…giving her superpowers. The powers that sometimes backfire and create a massive explosion. While she is in his base of operations at the crucial moment for his evil scheme). This allows her to suddenly bust out some superpowered action moves at the last second to finally defeat the villain and take out a rogue Iron Man suit.

Now, one of the great strengths of this series has been Gwyneth Paltrow’s down-to-earth performance as Pepper Potts; the one great stabilizing influence on Tony’s life. Part of the struggle is that he’s drawn to the normal life that she represents, but feels compelled to use his genius to protect the world, even if it means risking his relationship with her. Now this great connection to ordinary life is turned into a super-strong heroine doing flips and three-point landings, tearing Iron Man suits apart with her bare hands and making them into improvised weaponry to save the day. What a cheap, stupid, thoughtless way to tear the heart out of the story!

And then, after that, we’re left with Pepper imbued with these highly-volatile superpowers that could easily kill her, and then we just get a voice over of Tony saying essentially “and I cured her.” Nothing so far in the film has suggested a cure was possible; they never even alluded to it. They suggested that Tony knew how to correct the formula, though he’d forgotten (and was drunk at the time), but never that it could be reversed, until in the epilogue he just says he did it. Just like he just declares he had the shrapnel removed. The film ends with two major developments in the characters’ lives, which we were never told were possibilities, simply stated to have happened. It would be as if The Avengers ended with Nick Fury saying “and we were also able to cure Banner of the Hulk.”

Speaking of the ending, the final battle brings in yet another plot hole; when Tony and Rhodey arrive to save the President, Tony simply summons all his previous suits from their hanger. Why the heck didn’t he do that at any point earlier in the film? He basically has a small army of JARVIS-controlled Iron Man suits that he can summon at will, but he doesn’t do so until the last possible moment? He’s fighting for his life, and with the lives of many, many other people on the line, but he just…what, forgot that he could do that? He didn’t even let Rhodey know this was an option until he simply does it.

Then also, he spends a lot of the fight trying and failing to get into a suit, and in the final showdown seems to be out of them at last…until he hits his self-destruct sequence and about ten of them go up in fireworks. So where the heck were they when he needed them? When he’s trying to reach Pepper to stop her from falling, why can’t he order JARVIS to catch her?

The one positive about this is that it sets up Ultron, though that’s a story for another time. I will also say that I appreciate that the President is played as being a thoroughly decent man, and Rhodey’s respectful attitude toward him is an isolated moment of sincerity. Rhodey is given a good amount to do this time around, and he and Tony play off each other as well as ever. A few of the jokes do land, like one AIM henchman who, seeing Tony is armed, quickly surrenders saying he never liked working for them anyway. Likewise, a stunt sequence of Tony having to rescue thirteen people falling from an airplane is staged and executed with some cleverness. There’s also some creativity in how Tony is able to fight without his suit or with only parts of it.

Though this brings up yet another issue; Tony’s new trick this time around is summoning parts of his armor to himself and equipping and re-equipping on the fly. Again, the writer apparently forgot the rules of the Iron Man suit; that it’s powered by his arc reactor. So, when the bits start flying toward him on their own mini jets, what, exactly, is powering them? Worse still, the film posits he’s able to summon them from effectively any distance, so that at one point they fly from Tennessee to Florida. I’m sorry; that’s just stupid. We can swallow a lot of unbelievable tech and crazy powers, but this is a step too far. Tony operates by technology; that’s his whole theme. But technology has to have a logic to it, even if it’s one that wouldn’t actually work. This breaks the established rules of his powers, while also being way, way overboard in terms of scope. It’s one thing to suggest that the Iron Man suit can fly from California to Afghanistan: it’s another to suggest a Wi-Fi signal can reach from Miami to Tennessee.

Another point: we learn that the Mandarin’s bombings were all caused by the side-effect of the Extremis; people blowing up. At one point we see there are dozens of explosions in the US alone, not to mention more abroad. AIM has been able to work on that many people without anything slipping? We see that they seem to mostly recruit soldiers who have lost limbs; how, exactly, did these soldiers explain to their families and friends how they came to grow back body parts? Didn’t anyone notice this in any of the many, many people involved? How has this possibly been kept under the radar for this long, especially with so many people looking into it? Again, we know that SHIELD, the FBI, the CIA, and basically everyone else is trying to hunt down the Mandarin; none of them have uncovered stories of soldiers who miraculously re-grew their limbs before apparently blowing themselves up? Tony talks to the people of the small town where one of the soldiers detonated, including the man’s mother, but none of them mention that he had lost a limb or been severely injured only to show up fine one day. Again, how is it possible they missed that?

Speaking of people investigating the Mandarin, there’s another glaring point you might have noticed. We have a terrorist mastermind who is threatening to murder the president and has been bombing targets for some considerable amount of time. We know SHIELD is involved in the investigation from the fact that JARVIS is able to access their database to create a digital copy of a crime-scene (because he can do that, I guess). So, where is Captain America? Where’s Black Widow or Hawkeye? Heck, we know from the final scene that Banner is hanging out with Stark, so where’s he during all of this? Why on earth would Rhodey be the only one hunting the Mandarin? And come to think of it, why bother re-branding him as ‘Iron Patriot’ when you already have Captain America on your payroll?

On top of all of that, there are a lot of sloppy little things: Tony Stark doesn’t know about different ammo types, despite being a weapons manufacturer (something he himself points out while ‘comically’ not getting it). At one point, Tony accidentally summons an Iron Man suit in his sleep, causing it grab Pepper in a ‘shock’ moment. Why, if he summoned it, did it grab her, and what does that have to do with anything? Before that, why did Tony try to avoid dealing with Pepper by remote-controlling one of the suits to cover for him, except to show that he can control them remotely now? In the opening flashback, Tony asks to meet Killian on the roof to discuss his plans for AIM, only to blow him off, setting up Killian’s resentment: why would he do that in the first place, given that Killian appears disheveled and completely lacking in credibility, and Tony could easily have just told him to make an appointment? Part of Killian’s plan involves infiltrating Air Force One in the Iron Patriot armor, meaning he can operate it simply by putting it on. Later, he uses it to carry the President around in, so…apparently it can’t be operated from the inside by just anyone? Also, why, when he tries to kill the President, does he put him inside the armor? It’s not deactivated, because Rhodey puts it on a few minutes later to fly the President to safety. So…what the heck is going on there?

As you can see, this film is a gigantic mess, and unlike Iron Man 2, the individual parts can’t even stand on their own as far as they go. It’s like the director simply walked in, took a solid premise, and decided to make it all into a giant practical joke for his personal amusement without caring a whit about the characters, the story, or the franchise. It effectively ignores its place in the larger context of the series, the humor mostly falls flat or is in bad taste, the plot holes swallow the entire film, and the whole thing is so mean-spirited and stupid that it’s hard to watch at times. This coupled with some startlingly bad writing choices – such as relegating some of the most important moments to the epilogue – makes for a really, really terrible experience. Easily the worst film of the MCU to date, and that’s not going to change for a while at least.

Thoughts on ‘The Avengers’

Past entries:
Iron Man
The Incredible Hulk
Iron Man 2
Thor
Captain America: The First Avenger

This is the film no one ever thought we were going to get; the one that comic fans dreamed of, but never expected. We’d had lots of superhero films, but they were all self-contained, apart from a few jokes (e.g. Bruce Wayne referencing Metropolis in Batman Forever, or an allusion to Doctor Strange in Spider-Man 2). The idea of a film series imitating the world of the comics was something that seemed unworkable; films are just so complex and difficult to make, involving so many different people, that the level of coordination that would be required to approximate a single, interconnected world just seemed out of the question.

Then, of course, we had Iron Man, with its ending allusion to “The Avenger initiative.” It was cool, but not many people seriously thought they’d do it. Then Tony Stark showed up at the end of The Incredible Hulk and Agent Coulson went from Stark’s mansion to finding Thor’s hammer, and it was firmly established they were trying to link all these different films together. But the real test was the big team-up: could you stick four different superhero protagonists in a single story and make it work? Would one or two overshadow all the others? Would you be able to maintain a credible threat level with that many incredibly powerful people running around? Would the plot make sense and maintain continuity with the earlier films?

The film opens with an ominous voice describing the plot of an unseen alien overlord to recover the Tesseract from its location on Earth, offering rule of the planet to their ‘ally’ in exchange for his services. “And the humans, what can they do but burn?”

We then cut to a SHIELD base where Dr. Eric Selvig is studying the Tesseract under the watchful eye of Nick Fury, Agent Coulson, and Agent Barton AKA Hawkeye. So, right there we have a supporting character from Thor studying the McGuffin from Captain America under the authority of supporting characters from the Iron Man films, while giving us a clearer introduction to the hero who, thus far, has only had a cameo.

The Tesseract suddenly surges and opens a portal, out of which steps Loki, armed with a magic scepter with which he slaughters the SHIELD guards and takes control of Barton and Selvig before stealing the cube and fleeing just before the portal collapses, swallowing the entire base and what appears to be several square miles of landscape, thus dramatically letting us know just how powerful this thing is. This sequence includes an underground car chase and a helicopter crash that probably could have served as the climax for another film, but are merely the introduction here.

This crisis leads Fury to start the ‘Avengers Initiative:’ a response team of superhuman individuals. Agent Coulson is sent to fetch Tony Stark (interrupting his date night with Pepper to celebrate the completion of Stark Tower, a new skyscraper in New York powered by its own arc reactor), while Agent Romanov, AKA Black Widow is sent to recruit Bruce Banner (currently hiding and giving free medical care to the poor in Cambodia), ostensibly to help them find the Tesseract due to its faint gamma radiation. Fury himself goes to ask the recently-thawed Steve Rogers, currently trying to process the knowledge that he’d been asleep for seventy years, to join the team.

The film does a very good job of pacing itself here, avoiding the potential issue of throwing too much at the audience at once. The characters are introduced one at a time, shown briefly in their own element before they encounter each other: Tony Stark is perfecting his latest invention and bantering with Pepper; Bruce Banner is hiding out while trying to help people; Natasha Romanov is conducting a dangerous spy mission; Steve Rogers is taking out his frustrations on a punching bag. Then when they start to meet, it’s in sequence, one or two at a time. Bruce Banner meets Natasha Romanov when she comes to collect him, then Steve Rogers is flown out to the carrier where he meets Banner, before being sent on a mission where he encounters Tony Stark. This allows them to feel each other out, develop their own relationships and impressions of one another before they’re thrown together as a team, and helps us to re-connect to them all in turn as we meet them.

From there, the film is mostly a matter of watching these disparate, alpha personalities jostling, fighting, feeling each other out, and finally coming together as a team. And you know that? That’s really all it needs to be. It’s a pure spectacle anchored by great characters expertly portrayed by the both the writers and actors; it doesn’t need a complex story full of twists and convolutions. You really could just have the six Avengers locked in a room for an hour and talking and it would be worth watching; they’re that interesting. And parts of the film are just the characters in a room talking, comparing notes, or challenging each other. There’s a bit where Tony Stark and Bruce Banner discuss their respective experiences, where Tony tries to get Banner to see that he’s lucky to be alive (fitting nicely with his own experiences in both the first and second films), or one where Black Widow and a newly-restored Hawkeye support each other after their respective traumatic experiences with Loki, or when Cap and Tony talk over Coulson’s death, each reacting in their own ways (Tony is torn up and blames Coulson for putting himself in that position; Cap argues he did what he thought was right and accepts it as another lost soldier).

On that note, I really like the dynamic between Steve and Tony; how they can go from snarling at each other to working smoothly together as soon as the need arises (I was reminded of a similar dynamic among the three leads in Jaws). Cap, of course, finds Tony frivolous and arrogant, especially compared to the real heroes he went to war with, while Tony had to grow up hearing his father talk non-stop about how great Cap was and is clearly getting his resentment out. The way these two grow to respect each and become friends is nicely conceived without ever being too on-the-nose; they never, for instance, apologize or explain themselves to each other, they simply adjust their attitudes. Tony goes from blowing off Steve’s attempt to restrain him to deferring to his leadership, while Steve goes from dismissing Stark’s heroics to addressing him as a fellow soldier and following his suggestion for dealing with the incoming missile.

I’m also impressed by how well they maintained the established character traits of the team from their original films, like Tony’s rapid-fire banter and the way he has difficulty processing hard realities, or the way Cap calls Black Widow ‘ma’am’ upon first meeting her and instinctively shields her from an explosion during the final battle. The writers and actors really put in the effort to match how the characters were played in the original films for their crossover, no doubt realizing that half the fun is simply seeing how these characters would interact with each other.

Cap and Tony are, as much as can be, the stars of the show and the heart of the film, but everyone gets a chance to shine and even to grow as characters. Thor finally gets to have the conversation with Loki that they were too busy to have in his own film about why he’s doing all this, accompanied by a bit where he tells Loki that he “misses the truth of ruling”, neatly recalling the lesson he himself learned in the previous film (while also serving as a nice bit of comedy as Loki answers the question “You think yourself above them?” with, “Well, yes,” as if he’s confused that Thor even has to ask). He’s further shown coming to terms with the fact that, even though he’s grown past his glory-hogging attitude, the consequences of his actions are still affecting the people he cares about. I also like how, even up to the end battle, Thor is still trying to reason with Loki, to convince him to give up his mad dreams (I also like how Loki claims that Thor “threw him into an abyss,” when, of course, he actually let go while Thor was screaming for him not to, reminding us of how self-serving and unreliable his mind is) .

As for Banner, Edward Norton has been gracefully replaced by Mark Ruffalo, who makes a much stronger impression in the role (but who can still be accepted as the same character). Banner, since we saw him last, has apparently given up all hope of being rid of the Hulk, but also appears much more confident in his ability to control it. Indeed, he’s become rather alarmingly unconcerned about any possible danger, calmly warning off any potential threats without showing the slightest fear, and even pretending to lose his temper just to test what the other person will do. He’s a man who knows that he holds the trump card in any confrontation, that he’s never in any serious danger, and who only asks to be left alone. Nevertheless under his affable, calm exterior, he is full of resentment for the way he’s been hunted down like an animal…and doubt of whether that’s not what he now is. As he tells Cap in one of the film’s best moments, “I’m always angry.”

This new version of Banner takes the character to a new level, while also tacitly explaining the odd final shot of The Incredible Hulk. He also establishes a new rule: when Banner loses control, the Hulk is a menace and a monster. When Banner transforms willingly, the Hulk is a hero and ally. His interactions with Romanov also continue the ‘beauty and the beast’ imagery associated with the character, though in a rather different direction for the moment.

Perhaps the most impressive bit of character development in the film, however, is Black Widow’s. After her cool, but rather shallow portrayal in Iron Man 2, The Avengers reveals just how interesting this character can be. She’s introduced tied to a chair, being interrogated by a Russian arms dealer…only, as we discover, she is actually the one interrogating him, using her own apparent weakness to encourage him to get cocky and say too much. Later she does the same thing with Loki, though at the cost of him dredging up the horrible things she’s done in her past, which, as she admits to Hawkeye later, genuinely unsettles her. Romanov is deceitful (casually lying to Banner’s face when she goes to pick him up), dangerous, and apparently has done some truly monstrous things in the past, but she feels her past deeds very strongly and cares a great deal for Hawkeye (whom, we learn, was the one to bring her over to the right side). She also, as shown when she goes up against an out-of-control Hulk, is perfectly capable of being frightened into near catatonia, but even then is willing to get back up and do her job when she has to. We never quite know where we stand with her at this point; she’s a strange mixture of skill, vulnerability, deceit, and honor.

What is more, she’s able to bring a unique set of skills to the Avengers team; she’s a fighter, yes, though only human and nowhere near the league of, say, Cap or Iron Man. But her real talent lies in her ability to gather information and slip into places others can’t, to do the jobs that don’t require strength, all of which are well utilized throughout the film all the way up to the climax.

The only member of the team who remains underdeveloped is Hawkeye, mostly because he spends much of the film being mind-controlled into working for Loki (this control is left purposefully ambiguous, by the way; the characters seem to retain much of their personality, only directed in service to Loki. It’s a convenience, and an argument could be made too much of one, but the film moves too fast for it to really matter much). Though this device does allow us to see that he is indeed a very dangerous opponent, for all that his only power is preternatural skill with a bow-and-arrow, and the film makes a lot of creative use of his trick-arrows, ranging from explosives to shrapnel to a rappelling line and even a hacking tool. Once he snaps out of it, Hawkeye serves as the team sniper, and his character is mostly developed in relation to his friendship with Black Widow, but he gets plenty of opportunity to showcase the deadpan, sarcastic personality hinted at back in Thor (“You and I remember Budapest very differently”). He’s cool, but we’ll have to wait to really get a fully rounded character out of him.

Speaking of which, that is another thing the film does well; every character is given their own role to play utilizing their own unique abilities. No one feels like a dead-weight on the team, or like they could have been left out. When Cap hands out his orders near the end, they all make sense and make the best use of everyone’s skills, and he adjusts the plan as the battle progresses and new opportunities arise. That, of course, is the crucial point of any team movie, and this one is among the few that handles it perfectly.

Then, of course, there’s the villain: Loki may not get as much chance to show his complexity this time, but he’s still a worthy adversary for the team, able to physically match Cap and Thor, while proving an intellectual challenge for Black Widow and Stark, and equipped with a weapon that alternatingly lets him blast helicopters out of the sky and turn others to his will. Perhaps alone he wouldn’t be much of a match for the team as a whole, but he also comes at the head of an invading alien force, giving them plenty to occupy themselves with. Loki is thus enough of a physical threat that they can’t just take him out, and more importantly a strategic and intellectual enemy who can potentially out-think and out-plan them.

The film also keeps the threat level (and hence the tension) high despite the incredible power of the protagonists by first knocking each of them about a little in the early and middle stages (e.g. Cap is overmatched by Loki, Iron Man is slammed around in a turbine, Thor narrowly escapes a death trap, and so on), thus letting us know that they can be killed, and second by the fact that in the final battle, along with the triumphant scenes of them trashing the invading army, we also see them growing tired, taking hits, getting swarmed, and so on, signaling that even the Avengers can’t fight forever, and it’s really a race against the clock to close the portal before they’re inevitably overwhelmed. This was, again, a very canny move; the writers obviously knew that one of the chief dangers in having a team of superheroes was that any threat they might face could seem puny by comparison, and so they made sure to keep reinforcing the idea that the heroes could lose in this scenario.

Most of the film is, as noted, pure spectacle, which it does extremely well. There are a lot of great comic-book-style images, like Thor landing on the roof of a jet, framed by lightning, or the helicarrier lifting off from the ocean, or the Hulk pursuing Black Widow down a corridor, or, of course, the great moment where all six stand back to back, facing off against the invading army. This is followed by some truly jaw-dropping action, most notably a long, continuous take flying around the city from Avenger to Avenger, showcasing each of them in action.

As part of this are the unabashed fan-service style match ups: Thor versus Iron Man, Thor versus the Hulk, Black Widow versus Hawkeye, and so on. Or things like Thor bringing his hammer crashing down on Cap’s shield, with dramatic results. Likewise, every one of the team gets to face-off against Loki one-on-one, whether physically or in conversation (the latter of which is often more interesting than a fight would have been), all of which turn out differently.

Yet even amidst all the flashy comic-book-style action, the film never loses sight of the human element. I don’t just mean how the Avengers, and particularly Cap, take time during the final battle to try to rescue civilians (though that certainly helps, as do the briefly-seen shots of people mourning the dead during the epilogue), but also things like Thor being assured of Jane Foster’s safety, or Banner admitting that he once attempted suicide, or Tony trying to call Pepper one last time as he’s about to fly into the portal on what could be a one-way trip, or the old man in Germany standing up to Loki, telling him that he won’t kneel to “men like you.”

This brings us to the film’s main theme, which is simply heroism. Cap begins the movie wondering whether his brand of heroics – represented by the Stars and Stripes – isn’t a little “old fashioned.” Coulson tells him that, the way the world is going, they could use a little old fashioned. The heroes then have their resolve continually shaken, whether by Loki deconstructing them one by one (e.g. sneering at Banner as a “wild beast makes play he’s still a man” or laughing at Thor’s claim to be protecting the earth when the humans still kill each other in wars) or by revelations of SHIELD and Nick Fury’s dishonesty. It is, in part, Black Widow’s deceitfulness that leads to Banner’s first transformation (or at least means that she can’t talk him down once it starts), while both Cap and Tony deny that the other is really a hero.

Indeed, Loki’s whole plan was to defuse the Avengers as a force by working on their weaknesses and imperfections, breaking their spirits, and turning them on each other. Only, he naturally misjudged them, being a cynic trying to avoid facing the truth of his own actions. He didn’t count on the idea that they could work past their differences, resentments, and individual flaws to focus their energies on their real enemy, which is him.

Meanwhile, heroics abound, not only from the Avengers, but even from the extras and supporting cast. The old man in Germany who stands up to Loki; the janitor who kindheartedly gives Bruce new clothes when he falls through the roof; the police and other emergency workers we see doing their best to participate in the battle and save civilians; and, of course, Agent Coulson taking on Loki single-handedly, and defying him practically with his dying breath.

If the film has a thesis, it’s that it doesn’t matter whether you can deconstruct them, or show them to be flawed, or even if you can show that the people they work with and for are as guilty as the bad guys, heroes are still real and still admirable, and the world still needs them.

This is neatly summed up in an interview with one of the survivors shown at the end of the film; a waitress dismisses the idea that the Avengers should be blamed for the carnage, pointing out that she’s there because Captain America saved her life. You can talk about causations and big pictures and so on all you like, but at the end of the day, there are people who put their lives on the line for the sake of others, and there is no denying the value of that.

In a word, The Avengers works across the board, when it so easily could have been a disaster (one only needs to consider the Justice League film for an example of how badly it could have gone wrong). More than that, it is a landmark in cinema history. Very few films ever even attempted anything like this before (the closest parallels are Universal’s ‘monster mash up’ films back in the 1940s); a movie that brings four previously established franchises and six characters together into a single, coherent story, that not only brings them together but serves as a legitimate continuation of all their stories, and which works spectacularly well as a film in its own right. Yes there are flaws, moments where you question how exactly this part works or whether that plot point really follows, but the film is too satisfying and the characters too strong for that really to make much difference. The Avengers is almost unparalleled as pure entertainment, yet with a solid story structure and anchored by some great characters. Whatever else happens in this series, the fact that they pulled this off is a testimony to the talent, care, and work from everyone involved.

Thoughts on ‘Captain America: The First Avenger’

Past entries:
Iron Man
The Incredible Hulk
Iron Man 2
Thor

Concluding the first round of solo films is Captain America: The First Avenger, which, like Thor, takes another sharp detour in style from its predecessors. In the first place, it’s a period piece, with the main action taking place during World War II, while in terms of tone it more takes its cue from the adventure serials of that era.

We open in the Arctic, where a drilling company has discovered a massive flying wing frozen in the ice (in a scene reminiscent of the sci-fi classic ‘The Thing From Another World’). We then flashback to 1942, where the soulless Johan Schmidt, head of the Nazi ‘deep-science’ organization Hydra is raiding a Norwegian village in search of the Tesseract: a glowing cube that he describes as “the jewel of Odin’s treasure room.”

From there we meet an asthmatic, 90-pound kid from Brooklyn named Steve Rogers as he tries and fails for the fifth time to enlist in the Army. A short time later, at a movie theater, he tells off a loud-mouthed jerk for talking over a newsreel of the men fighting overseas. He takes a beating for that, but refuses to back down until his best friend, Bucky Barnes, steps in and sends the bully packing. Bucky, for his part, is about to ship out, and at the World Expo that evening Steve decides to try his luck at enlisting again. During that he catches the eye of Dr. Erskine; a German ex-patriot looking for candidates for the super-soldier program he is developing. He thinks Steve is the ideal choice because of his good heart, and because, “a weak man knows the value of strength.”

The experiment, overseen by the gruff Col. Phillips, mechanical genius Howard Stark (future father of Tony), and British intelligence agent Peggy Carter, is a success and Steve is transformed from a 90-pound shrimp to a strapping, six-foot-plus specimen of a man with superhuman strength, speed, and agility. But Erskine is killed and the lab wrecked by a Hydra agent. With the super-soldier program now dead, Steve is shifted to the USO where he’s christened ‘Captain America’ and used to sell war-bonds, until, while on tour in Italy, he learns that Bucky and many other troops were captured by Hydra (now split off into its own separate faction) and embarks on a daring, one-man rescue operation. Having impressed Phillips and discovered something of Hydra’s plans, Captain America is equipped with an indestructible shield of ‘vibranium’ and sent to hunt down and destroy the Hydra bases with the help of Bucky and the Howling Commandoes, while Schmidt, AKA the Red Skull, plots to use the Tesseract to conquer the world.

So, even from that brief summary you can see that the film covers a huge amount of ground, all the way from Steve trying to enlist through training, being turned into a super-soldier, in the USO, the rescue mission, and on raids with the commandoes, and that’s not even considering the villain plot. It’s not just that it’s a lot of ground to cover, but it’s a lot of different ground; he’s trying to get into the army, trying to keep up in training, trying to catch the Hydra agent, in the USO, trying to save his friend, all before he’s directly involved in the main plot of trying to stop Hydra.

This isn’t a major issue the way it was in Iron Man 2, because there is a constant through-line of Steve trying to serve his country and we don’t have a half-dozen subplots running around at the same time, but it means that, as the film goes on, characters and settings and sub-plots are replaced one after another in a sequence. Erskine is a major character for the first act, and only the first act, and the Howling Commandoes are important characters for the final act and only the final act. This also means that, by the time Captain America is in his uniform with his iconic circular shield, the film has to relegate most of his military career to a montage. There is enough material here for at least two or three whole films.

The result, I find, is that the film is a little draining and feels much longer than it is, and that is it’s chief flaw.

But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad story by any means. In contrast to Thor and Iron Man, which were about protagonists who need to correct a flaw in their character, Captain America is about a good, heroic man stepping forth to meet a great threat. This makes it a fairly rare kind of film these days; a movie about a purely aspirational hero, someone whose story arc doesn’t revolve around him changing so much as simply overcoming the obstacles before him.

It works because Steve Rogers is an honestly inspiring hero: a thoroughly decent, honorable, courageous man, but not at all bland or irritating for it. The key factor in this is the early sequence with him before he receives the super-soldier serum, where we see him doggedly trying to do the right thing and fulfill his duty despite have no power to actually enact it. It doesn’t matter if he’s going to get beaten up for it, he’ll still tell off the loud-mouth for disrespecting the men serving overseas. It doesn’t matter how weak he is, he’s going to keep working at his training. Steve is the kind of person who stands by his principles regardless of what the likely outcome is going to be, and (as shown both in the training sequences and his fight with the loudmouth) he never gives up while he can still stand. Asked about his motives, he simply says, “I don’t like bullies; I don’t care where they’re from,” and “If you start running, they’ll never let you stop.”

Most importantly, when Phillips tosses a dummy grenade during the training, Steve instinctively jumps on top of it while everyone else ducks for cover. His first impulse is always to put himself on the line for the sake of others; to take the hit so that others don’t have to.

In other words, this is one film where the point isn’t that the protagonist changes, but that he doesn’t: Steve was already a hero at heart, but only lacked the strength to put his heroic instincts into action.

This ties into a theme of power; both Captain America and Red Skull desire power, but for different reasons. Red Skull lusts after power for its own sake: desiring to be a god among men. Steve Rogers, in the early stages, wants power in order to do his duty, to serve his country and protect people. The thesis, then, is that, as Erskine says of his serum, power only magnifies what is in a person’s heart, so that “good becomes great, bad becomes worse.” This, of course, fits pretty well with the World War II setting, when great nations fell into the hands of monsters like Hitler and Stalin, whose hatred and cruelty were consequently magnified by the power they wielded.

All this helps to make Steve a genuinely inspiring and likable character, especially when coupled with his easy-going, polite, chivalrous personality. He makes jokes in the face of danger and pain (as when, half-way through the procedure, he responds to an inquiry about how he’s holding up with “probably too late to go to the bathroom, right?”). He says ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’ instinctively and hastily apologizes when he breaks things during the chase through the New York streets. When some jaded soldiers heckle his USO show, he doesn’t get angry with them, he just tries to find a way to connect.

He’s also charmingly chivalrous around women. When Bucky tries to show him the bright side his 4F status by pointing out that he’s about to become the last eligible bachelor in a city of three million women, Steve ruefully comments that he’d “settle for just one.” Later when Peggy asks why he’s never done any dancing, he tells her he’s been waiting for the right partner, while awkwardly trying to walk back referring to her as “a beautiful dame.”

Not to mention that the film goes out of its way to let us know that he’s not just a starry-eyed, idealistic hero; he’s very intelligent as well. This is neatly shown during the boot camp sequence where the DI offers to let anyone who brings him the flag at the top of a slippery pole. After everyone else tries and fails to climb it, Steve simply unhooks the pole from its base, showcasing his strategic mind (his intelligence plays a vital role in the epilogue, where he immediately guesses that something is wrong when he recognizes the baseball game on the radio).

But that doesn’t mean he’s boringly perfect either; he slips up from time to time, as when a blonde secretary maneuvers him into a kiss and he responds to Peggy’s jealousy by making a crack about her relationship with Stark (resulting in her giving his new Vibranium shield an impromptu test). He gets disheartened and down at times, he makes mistakes, and at one point even tries to get drunk only to find that his super physique makes that impossible.

There’s a great moment when he’s about to make a death-defying leap over a fiery gap and just before he jumps he gives a little shake of his head, like he can’t believe he’s about to try this. Little bits like that help to let us know that for all Steve’s inspiring courage and virtue, he’s still human, which only makes him all the more heroic (contrast this with, for instance Rey in The Last Jedi, who, in a crucial moment makes a weary joke before effortlessly lifting a huge pile of boulders with the most bored, disinterested look on her face, as though there was never a moment in which she even considered the idea that it might be a challenge for her).

So the film is very strong in its hero. How are the other characters?

Well, the villain is very straightforward; Red Skull is pretty much simply a monstrous egomaniac who wants to rule the world. Personally, I’m completely fine with that; he makes for an imposing adversary and a striking image, with his scarlet, grotesque face emerging from his jet-black uniform. His thorough ruthlessness is established right from the start, when he threatens to massacre the Norwegian village if the old man won’t give up the Tesseract, and then once he has it, he orders the massacre anyway. At the same time, he’s given a few moments of levity so that the film doesn’t become too dour every time he’s on screen, as when he hands Dr. Zola the keys to his gloriously exaggerated car with the command, “not a scratch, doctor; not a scratch.”

I do, however, wish that he’d been allowed a bit more room to show his cunning and strategic prowess; to be more the fiendish intellect to Steve’s plucky soldier. Again, though, this mostly comes down to how much the film tries to cram into its runtime. They easily could have gotten another film, or even an entire trilogy out of this set up, and it might have been better for all involved. But Red Skull is still a perfectly functional villain, acting as an excellent counterpoint to Captain America, and their final showdown is a spectacular duel of good and evil; one of the most satisfying duels of the series thus far (Loki is still the best villain by a considerable margin, but I think the final battle between Cap and Red Skull is the best showdown so far).

However, this brings us to what I find to be one of the more questionable decisions of the story; part way through the film, Red Skull breaks with the Nazis, killing several of his superiors and sets up Hydra as an independent force. What was the point of that? Why not simply have Red Skull ostensibly working for Hitler the whole time, with implications that he means to usurp him once his plans are ripe? Wouldn’t that better integrate the conflict of the story into the war as a whole, reinforcing the subtext that Captain America represents all the soldiers who fought and gave their lives to stop Hitler? I suppose it gives Hydra more room to maneuver, but apart from the one scene where Schmidt kills his overseers, it really doesn’t factor in at all, except to raise the question of how he’s able to operate so many different facilities in Nazi-held territory without Hitler shutting them down and taking the tech for himself (yes, they’re guarded by Hydra tech, but as we see from the film that doesn’t make them invincible even to conventional weapons). It feels to me like an unnecessary story complication that impedes the emotional impact by both raising more questions and damaging the connection we have to the real-life events.

As for the supporting cast, they’re unfortunately mostly under used. The Howling Commandoes have even less development and screen time than the Warriors Three in Thor, to the point where I don’t think we even learn their names, much less get a sense of their individual gimmicks or personalities. One or two of them get a few good moments (like Gabe Jones explaining why he speaks French and German), but that’s about it.

Arnim Zola, as the secondary villain, is rather amusing in his soulless, yet completely out-of-his depth personality. He’s evil, but he’s also a portly scientist in the middle of a warzone, and half the time he’s clearly just shy of terrified, leading to an especially good scene where Phillips interrogates him. Phillips himself is one of the better supporting cast members, mostly due to Tommy Lee Jones’ effortless masculine charisma and deadpan lines (“If you have something to say, now is a perfect time to keep it to yourself”). Erskine is a likable personality as well, with his friendly, fatherly manner. There is a great scene where he and Steve discuss why Steve was chosen over a glass of schnapps (which he abruptly remembers that Steve can’t have since he’s on a fluid fast to prepare for the procedure, and proceeds to drink most of it himself since “I don’t have procedure tomorrow”). And Howard Stark channels some of Tony’s charm, though in a more integrated and mature style, as when he easily shrugs off a failed hover-car demonstration.

The two most important supporting characters are Peggy Carter and Bucky. Peggy is…okay. She’s tough, feminine, and competent, and though the film tries a little too hard to make her a ‘strong female character’ (I’m sorry, but her laying out a hulking soldier who makes a crude pass at her is the most unrealistic thing in the film). She mostly alternates between gun-toting heroics and giving Steve pep talks. Personally, I think it would have been preferable if they’d downplayed her action-fighting credentials and emphasized the intelligence gathering side of her, giving her more of her own set of abilities and purpose rather than one more person who can pick up a gun and shoot. That I think would have felt more appropriate to the time period – more in the style of a real ‘40s heroine – and just more interesting in general. Perhaps we could have her running spy missions parallel to Steve’s commando raids, gathering the intel that points him in the right direction. Then she could be captured by Red Skull and rescued by Captain America, adding more urgency to the climax.

As it is, her romance with Steve is fine; neither as weighty as Tony and Pepper, nor as sweet as Thor and Jane, but it has its moments, with her serving as a worldly-wise inspiration for his heroics, rather like a typical Frank Capra heroine, come to think of it. She props him up when he’s down, advises him, and generally acts as a strong support and helper, though the script doesn’t really give him much chance to return the favor, making their relationship feel a less balanced than the other two (e.g. with Thor and Jane, he makes a point of getting her notebook back after she took a risk driving him out to the SHIELD base, so that they each do something for the other. Cap never really gets to do anything for Peggy except tackle her out of the way of a speeding car, which she yells at him for because she was trying to shoot the driver). It’s very obvious why she’s attracted to him, and vice versa, but there could have been more give-and-take between them. The best part of the romance is their final exchange as he’s piloting the Hydra plane into the ocean; both know this is the last time they’ll be speaking to each other, but they determinedly act as if it weren’t.

As for Bucky, he’s probably the single strongest character in the film after Steve. Their friendship feels very real, with an easy back and forth, shared jokes, and real, though unspoken affection and brotherly love. When they say good-bye before Bucky is shipped out, they’re joking and insulting each other even as they hug for possibly the last time. It is the possibility saving Bucky that motivates Steve to finally break ranks and risk everything on his rescue mission, and it’s Bucky who leads the cheer for “Captain America” after it’s over. The friendship is a key component of the film, and Bucky’s death is very affecting.

The film deliberately tries to invoke the style of the adventure film serials of the 1940s (which included one for Captain America, though oddly enough not involving the war at all): the villain with a world-threatening artifact; the stalwart, all-American hero out to recover said artifact; the tough, plucky heroine; the loyal best friend; the imaginative super-tech. It even has an episodic plot and a few points that could serve as end-of-chapter cliffhangers (“Will Captain America make the jump over certain death?”), and Red Skull’s appearance is somewhat reminiscent of the titular villain of The Crimson Ghost. This I credit to director Joe Johnston, who also directed The Rocketeer, another stylish serial-inspired period film. As a fan of classic serials, I love this style, and actually wish they’d gone even further with it by, again, letting Cap rescue Peggy at some point, or putting our heroes in a fiendish death trap (though I suppose the exploding Hydra base serves much the same purpose).

Meanwhile, the film also serves as a kind of tour of the MCU up to this point, with the plot blending Howard Stark’s technical knowhow and futurism, Norse mythology (which ties nicely in with the fact that the Nazis truly did try to use it) with references to Odin and Yggdrasil, and of course the super-soldier serum itself, with the efforts to recreate it already beginning which will one day lead to the Hulk. Since this is the final film before the big team-up in The Avengers, this was a very smart move, especially as it all feels pretty seamless, showing that these elements can indeed work together.

            On the other hand, I never liked the film’s origin for the ‘Captain America’ moniker, with him being shuffled into the USO as a mascot. That, to me, feels a bit too much like they were making fun of him, not to mention that the sequence disrupts the flow of the narrative by abruptly taking him out of the Army after all his work to get into it. Besides which, I don’t buy the idea that Phillips can’t think of anything to do with a single super soldier, even if its just putting him back in uniform and having him fight on the frontlines. While I appreciate them getting in the classic comic cover of Cap punching out Hitler (and recreating it on stage), I’d much rather they found a more dignified and structurally smooth way to give him the shield and costume.

For instance, the Army could give him a nominal command, with a version of the costume and shield as a publicity stunt, only to try to keep him out of any real combat until he forced the issue. That would give us much the same progression without the disruption or questionable taste, while paralleling the real-life experience of several celebrities when they tried to enlist (Jimmy Stewart comes to mind).

I also wish that Cap had been allowed to express more patriotic sentiment, perhaps getting a scene where he describes what America means to him (possibly a version of Mark Twain’s “No, you move” quote). He’s not un-patriotic by any means, but the film doesn’t give him the chance to talk specifically about his love for his country at any point. That said, there is an almost-perfect exchange during the final battle, where Red Skull declares that there “are no flags” in the future, to which Cap answers, “Not my future!”

Finally, given how vital it is that Cap sacrifices himself in the end, I can’t help wondering whether they could have set it up better. I couldn’t help wondering why he couldn’t just jam the controls forward and bale. A brief line or bit of direction could have fixed that.

However, all that being said, I do appreciate that, for all the ground the film has to cover, they still take the time for quiet, thoughtful scenes, like when Erskine describes how Hitler came to take over Germany (“people forget that the first country the Nazis invaded was their own”), or when Steve tries to drown his sorrows in a bombed-out pub following Bucky’s death. And I like that, despite the long, episodic story, they still remember to link the end to the beginning, such as when Steve gives Red Skull the same defiant taunt that he gave the loudmouth in the theater (“I could do this all day”).

All in all, Captain America: The First Avenger is an uneven, but fairly strong entry in the burgeoning MCU. It struggles with too much story to cover and several major missteps, but is carried on the strength of a genuine inspirational hero and an (almost) unabashed adventure style.

Now that all the pieces are in place, for better or worse, the real question is whether they can all come together in a satisfying whole.

 

Thoughts on ‘Thor’

Past entries:
Iron Man
The Incredible Hulk
Iron Man 2

After three relatively grounded science fiction stories, Thor takes the MCU in a starkly new direction with world-hopping high-fantasy tale of gods and kings.

It’s really kind of amazing that it works as well as it does.

We open with a trio of scientists – well, a senior scientist, junior scientist, and political science major who wanted six easy credits – in the New Mexico desert to observe atmospheric phenomena. They get a little more than they expected when a cyclone of energy reaches down from the sky and deposits a muscular, seemingly dazed man directly in front of their car.

From there we flashback to Medieval Norway, where Odin, king of the gods, narrates how the Frost Giants of Jotunheim invaded the Earth, but the mighty Asgardians came to save humanity, eventually conquering the giants and stealing the Casket of Ancient Winters, which was the source of their power.

This leads to our introduction to Thor, a boisterous, arrogant warrior prince prepared to ascend the throne (there’s some very good use of expressions in this scene). An incursion by the Frost Giants interrupts the ceremony, and a subsequent argument with Odin causes the king to postpone Thor’s coronation. A little prompting by his silver-tongued brother Loki leads Thor and his friends to make an ill-judged expedition to Jotunheim itself, nearly sparking a war between the two kingdoms. For his actions, Odin turns Thor mortal and sends him to Earth, along with his hammer, Mjolnir, enchanted so that only the worthy might hold it and so “possess the power of the Thor.”

On Earth, Thor sets about trying to regain his hammer, under the impression that it will restore his power and allow him to return home. Meanwhile on Asgard, Loki discovers that he is in fact an adopted Frost Giant, and begins setting a plan in motion to take the throne.

The first thing that stands out about this film is that it looks fantastic. It’s easily one of the most creative and visually spectacular superhero films ever made up to that point, and still a strong contender. Half of the frames of this film look like they could be used for the cover of a fantasy novel. Asgard is a visual feast; a vast floating continent set upon clouds and surrounded by a sea pouring endlessly off into space. Past that it’s a dreamland of lush mountains, golden palaces, and enormous statues powered by an ambiguous blend of super-science and magic and inhabited by god-like beings, each seemingly with their own particular area of command, and armed with elaborate pseudo-medieval weaponry. Then there’s Jotunheim, with its ice-bound, crumbling ruins and weird geometries and its red-eyed, blue-skinned, glowering inhabitants. And during the end credits we get a stunning flyby of Yggdrasil, the World Tree, here imagined as a giant tree-shaped nebula connecting the worlds.

As this indicates, the film doesn’t shy away from its mythological and fantasy roots, either visually or in terms of its story. The plot – or at least half of it – is gloriously Shakespearean in style, all about wars and kingdoms, fathers and brothers and sons, and who will or ought to inherit the throne. What is more, it was clearly written by someone who understood these matters. Things like the line of succession, peace treaties, loyalty, and the limitations of kingly rule are taken completely seriously and portrayed lightly, but with care. When Loki refuses to lift Thor’s banishment upon ascending the throne, for instance, he actually gives a perfectly legitimate reason: that his first act as king can’t be to undo his father’s last. Likewise when Odin issues the oath of kingship to Thor, it includes the promise to “cast aside all selfish ambition and pledge only to serve the good of the realm.” This, as it turns out, is the main thrust of the film.

Like Iron Man, Thor is about an arrogant man being transformed into a true hero. Only, while Iron Man was a redemption story, Thor is more a morality play (a subtle distinction, I’ll grant you). That is, Iron Man was about Tony Stark having a change of heart and turning his life in a new direction. Thor is about its hero learning a lesson in humility and self-sacrifice.

When we open, Thor is already a hero of sorts; he’s a warrior who has been in countless battles alongside his brother and his friends, Lady Sif and the Warriors Three. He’ll gladly risk his life for his kingdom – though with his power it’s hardly a risk – and he of course has his friends’ backs. However, as we see in their fight in Jotunheim, Thor is also a glory-hound who can be so focused on his own pride and his own lust for battle that he doesn’t stop to think how it will affect the people he cares about. Surrounded by giants and given a chance to walk away with their lives, Thor throws it away when one of them taunts him, risking all their lives on a point of pride. Not only that, but he grins as he does so, not even considering the consequences. During this fight, he devastates the enemy, but his friends have a much harder time, with one of them being badly wounded.

Then, after they’re rescued by Odin, Thor still refuses to admit he was wrong, calling his father “an old man and a fool!” Basically, Thor is too proud, stubborn, and self-centered to see where he could be mistaken, or to take correction. He means to be a hero, but he acts without thinking and is more concerned with his own ambition than the good of others.

The point of his exile, then, is to teach him a lesson, and Odin enchants Mjolnir so that he’ll only get it back once he learns it. Much of the film, then, is Thor learning humility, but the interesting thing is that part of that requires him to be initially mistaken in his goal. Since the problem is that he’s so sure of himself that he doesn’t stop to think things through or consider alternatives, his progress requires that he come to a point where he doesn’t know what to do or how to direct his energies. It’s at that point that he has to let go of his pride and admit he doesn’t have all the answers.

As that suggests, Thor’s progression is actually much better thought through than you might expect. The writers gave careful consideration to what his specific flaw was and what the contrary virtue would be. He’s not a jerk or a cad like Tony Stark, but he’s very proud and stubborn. It’s a flaw that makes perfect sense given who and what he is. It’s also a flaw that allows Thor to still be a very appealing character in his own way; he’s extremely confident and self-assured, but also warm and courteous, if a little haughty. He’s friendly and supportive of his friends, including good-humoredly rolling with it when Sif gives a little push-back to his boasting. On Earth, he is initially abrupt and commanding, but adjusts well as he figures out the rules of his new environment and develops affection for his new friends.

I also appreciate that, though Thor’s in an unfamiliar environment, the film doesn’t simply turn him into an idiot when he lands on Earth. He doesn’t freak out at technology or attack cars or anything; for the most part he simply ignores whatever he doesn’t understand and stays focused on his goal. The famous scene in the diner where Thor asks for a refill by smashing his coffee cup shows this well; when Jane tells him off, he doesn’t lose his temper or demand an explanation, he simply says that he meant no disrespect and accepts that manners here are different.

This is smart writing; Thor may be arrogant and haughty, but he’s still a prince, with all the training and experience that implies. He’s not going to simply be discourteous for the sake of it. Besides that, he’s a warrior who has travelled to many different realms; he’d be used to finding and adjusting to different customs.

On the same note, Jane and her friends react to Thor in a pretty believable manner; they know something is strange about him, since he just appeared out of nowhere in the middle of the desert, but aren’t quite sure what. Jane wants to question him to uncover his mystery (not to mention being charmed by his old-fashioned manners and evident attractiveness) but Selvig is unnerved by his apparent insanity and wants her to keep her distance from him, which she in fact does at his request. She only agrees to drive Thor out to the SHIELD base erected around his hammer after Agent Coulson appropriates all her research, making her feel she has no other choice. This is further helped by the fact that Thor, though he appears delusional, is warm and courteous rather than being aggressive and unstable. She doesn’t know what to think, but at least he doesn’t act like he’s crazy (even when she directly questions his sanity, he doesn’t get angry but only laughs).

The romance between them is sweet, if not perfect. It’s a lot of fun to see Jane being flustered by Thor’s strong-yet-gentle, old-fashioned personality. There’s a great scene where he kisses her hand and she’s almost speechless, and another where he shows up at her trailer and she frantically tries to clean up without realizing what she’s doing. She’s a pretty likable personality all in all; eager and dedicated to her field to the point of being unfocused in other areas of her life, while also being a warm and cheerful young woman. There’s a really good scene where Jane and Thor sit up on the roof of an abandoned diner, just looking at the stars and talking. Who would expect such a simple, human scene in a film about a mythological demigod and his magic hammer?

However, though Jane’s attachment to Thor is understandable, it’s less clear why she exerts such a fascination for him. He expresses admiration of her intelligence, and she’s obviously kind and helpful to him (and she’s, you know, played by Natalie Portman), but Thor is a god, a warrior, and a prince; we know he’s used to dealing with strong, intelligent, beautiful women, so what is the draw to Jane in particular? It doesn’t kill the romance, but it does make it feel a little flat. With Thor being so well realized as a classically chivalrous fantasy hero, it’s a shame that Jane couldn’t have been better developed as a worthy object of his devotion.

On the other hand, one of the best parts of the film, if not the best, is the villain. This version of Loki of course has since been widely considered one of the best superhero antagonists of all time, and for good reason. He’s such a curious blend of affection, sincerity, deceit, and malice that we in the audience are left constantly guessing just what he’s up to and why in each scene he’s in. On the one hand he maliciously ruins Thor’s coronation and goads him into the disastrous expedition to Jotunheim, but on the other he’s sincerely hurt and angry upon discovering his true origins as a Frost Giant, yet seems honestly concerned for his father when he falls into his ‘Odinsleep’ (a kind of magical coma to recover his energies, which the film could have explained a little better, though the pieces are there). Not to mention the way his plan initially seems to be simply a bid for power, but turns out to be an effort to prove to Odin (and perhaps himself) that he is as good a son as Thor. This involves committing genocide against the Frost Giants, who are, again, his own people, suggesting that Loki is trying to remove his ‘tainted’ nature. And all this is because of his envy and resentment against a brother who honestly loves him.

There is a lot to unpack with Loki, motives inside of motives, and it’s legitimately ambiguous when he is and isn’t lying. I love the scene with him and his mother watching over his sleeping father, and Loki comments that he “never gets used to seeing him like this.” He then asks her why they never told him the truth, and she answers that it’s because they never wanted him to feel different, since he’s their son.

Add to that the fact that Tom Hiddleston is just so darn entertaining in the role of the silver-tongued serpent with a tortured psyche. In a world of warriors, he fights with words and tricks, blending mean-spirited cunning with an ingratiating personality, going about like a PhD student in a boxing gym; confident that he’s the smartest person in the room and intent on showing up the swaggering jocks around him.

I also like that, when it appears Loki’s been killed in the end, the whole family mourns for him, including Thor. Though he was a monster, he was still his brother and Thor cared for him (this relationship will be a source of endless interest throughout the series). With so many films about best friends and family members who turn on each other, it’s remarkably rare to see one where the hero actually takes time to grieve for their defeated enemy and to honor their relationship (this is more the kind of thing I would have wanted from Betty and General Ross in The Incredible Hulk).

So, while the previous few films were, at best, underwhelming with their villains, this one knocks it out of the park with this psychological rubik’s cube of a deceitful snake.

Loki also fits perfectly into the theme of selfish ambition against humility and self-sacrifice, for though he points out (rightly) that Thor, in the beginning, is too hot-headed and reckless to be king, he himself risks the safety of his kingdom and family for the sake of satisfying his own envy, turning to crueler and more brutal methods to try to keep himself in power and Thor out of the picture as the film goes on (he also can’t resist giving Mjolnir a tug during his own brief visit to Earth).

Again, the whole film is about the question of “what makes a man worthy to be king?” Thor thinks merely the courage and strength to fight his way in and seize his hammer will be enough. Loki thinks that his ‘unworthiness’ is due to his being adopted and overshadowed by his brother and so seeks to ‘prove’ himself. What it in fact turns out to be is humility and the willingness to put others first. Thor becomes worthy when he swallows his pride, apologizes to Loki, and offers his own life for his friends. He then completes the transformation by willingly sacrificing his own desires – his promise to return to Jane – not for the sake of saving his friends, but of saving his enemies, contrasting with his earlier eagerness to humiliate and kill them just to prove himself.

Meanwhile, our friend Agent Coulson gets a larger part here than in the previous films, acting as the antagonist for the Earth-bound sections. This allows for some good moments for him as he takes unorthodox steps to figure out what’s really going on, such as pretending to swallow Selvig’s patently ridiculous cover-story for Thor in order to follow and observe him. This follows on him holding back and allowing Thor to try to lift the hammer (helping to mitigate the dubious likelihood of Thor, in his mortal form, being able to infiltrate a secure facility like that). It’s a good addition to his character: Coulson is supposed to be the guy in charge of investigating unexplained phenomena, which requires that he be able to both think outside the box and take gambles in order to learn more. At the same time it makes intimidatingly competent, meaning that when he opposes Thor and Team Foster, we know that he poses a legitimate threat, reinforced by Selvig making an oblique reference to Bruce Banner, whom he apparently was a colleague of (though we also know that Coulson’s telling the truth we he assures Jane that “we’re the good guys”).

The earth-bound scenes are, it must be said, much less interesting than the Asgard ones, though that’s perhaps for the best. There ought to be a stark contrast between the two in order for the story to make sense. If Thor were dumped in, say, New York or London, there would be too many people and the setting would be too grand in its own right for us to feel his sense of isolation and abandonment, or to convey the same message of humility. A small New Mexico town fits the bill much better, as well as avoiding the potential trap of trying to repeat the Iron Man or Hulk films. Thor very much has its own pace and style, and though that makes for a rather slow middle, it is ultimately all to the good.

Then there is the supporting cast, which is as colorful as you can imagine, but unfortunately underdeveloped (particularly the Warriors Three, who are entertaining, but don’t have much chance to show their particular personalities). Idris Elba’s Heimdall of course is a standout as the stoic badass watchman who is ultra-loyal to his duty, but no fool either. Laufey, king of the Frost Giants doesn’t get to do much beyond being coldly menacing, though I like his line to Thor that “You know not what your actions will unleash. I do.” Anthony Hopkins as Odin is of course Anthony Hopkins, though he also indulges in some glorious overacting at times, and really what else could you do when playing Odin?

Back on earth, Dr. Selvig acts as the voice of reason and a father figure to Jane, down to warning Thor off from her (though they forget about it by the next scene). And then there’s Jane’s intern Darcey, who frankly I think is hilarious; this completely disinterested college student trying to fill out her requirements with a set of easy credits and who ends up involved in inter-planetary politics.

There is also a briefly glimpsed “Col. Barton,” who seizes a bow and arrow during Thor’s raid on the compound and who makes a greater impression with two or three lines of dialogue than some characters can in a whole film (looking at you, Cyborg from Justice League).

So, as you can probably tell, I really like Thor. In fact, I was surprised to find how much I liked it. It’s got its fair share of flaws, but on the whole it’s a very solid blend of superhero and high-fantasy, told by people who clearly respect the material, full of spectacular visuals and centered around a pair of very strong characters. After two comparatively mediocre entries, it signals a strong turn for the budding MCU.

Thoughts on ‘Iron Man 2’

Past entries:
Iron Man
The Incredible Hulk

So far, the first Iron Man was an all-around excellent superhero film. The Incredible Hulk had a lot of issues, but was still a fairly strong entry. And Iron Man 2? It’s a huge flaming mess.

The film picks up about a year after the first Iron Man (cleverly filling in the details of what’s happened in the meantime through the villain’s wall of magazine covers detailing Iron Man’s career). The world is enjoying a period of protracted peace, since Iron Man has been able to act as a deterrent and stabilizing force against rogue nations. Tony Stark, meanwhile, has maintained his more altruistic life direction, but not without relapsing a bit into self-aggrandizement. This is nicely shown in his opening speech to the ‘Stark Expo’ in Flushing Meadows, New York (basically a world’s fair); he loudly boasts about his accomplishments, but then sincerely turns the subject to “legacy. It’s about what we choose to leave behind for future generations.” This followed by a first-person POV of him moving through a crowd of his fans, giving out autographs, including to a kid wearing a plastic Iron Man helmet, contrasting with his casually dismissive attitude in the first film. In short, Tony is improved, but he’s not a completely different person either.

This is followed by a Senate hearing where the slimy Senator Stern tries to get Tony to turn the Iron Man suit over to the US Government on the grounds that he is a danger without oversight and that it’s important for the military to get hold of the tech before any rogue nations recreate it. Throwing in on the government’s side are Tony’s obnoxious business rival, Justin Hammer, and, unexpectedly, his best friend Rhodey (Terrance Howard is gracefully replaced by Don Cheadle, who is a much better fit for the part and who introduces himself with the deliciously self-aware line, “It’s me, I’m here, deal with it”), though Rhodey qualifies his position as more of a compromise. Tony expertly works the crowd and outtalks the Senator, while throwing up footage to show that no one is close to replicating his suit. Or at least, so he thinks.

Meanwhile, it turns out that the arc-reactor in Tony’s chest is slowly poisoning him, meaning that unless he can find a suitable alternative soon, he’ll die. This leads him to act even more erratically than usual, from donating his modern art collection to the Boy Scouts to appointing Pepper as CEO of Stark Industries to commandeering and driving his sponsored race car in the Monte Carlo Grand Prix.

Tony’s reaction to dying is very believable for someone like him; he of course doesn’t confide to anyone but Jarvis and alternates between quietly trying to set things in order and engaging in reckless, self-destructive behavior. I also like how, when he appoints Pepper CEO, he acts as if it’s a spur of the moment decision, but then when she realizes he’s serious he admits that he’s actually been thinking it over for some time and checking legality of it, suggesting that his continued irresponsibility is at least partially a mask.

Then at the racetrack a hulking, taciturn Russian named Ivan Vanko takes a shot at Tony with his own arc-reactor-powered tech; in this case electrified whips. Iron Man defeats him, but Vanko shrieks, “You lose!” as he’s carried away and subsequently tells Tony that he’s exposed his vulnerability to the world and proven that the great Iron Man is not unique. Justin Hammer sees this and thinks Vanko might be useful to him.

(By the way, one of the things Vanko says is, “If you could make God bleed, then people would stop believing in Him.” Apparently, Vanko forgot the existence of Christianity. That’s not a criticism, just something I thought was amusing).

So, just from that summary you might get a sense of part of the problem: the film is all over the map, covering about four or five different plot threads with no clear through-line. Is the film about Tony facing mortality? Well, what does that have to do with Vanko or the government putting pressure on him or coming to peace with his father or the enigmatic ‘Natalie Rushman’ whose job seems to change from scene to scene? (I’m serious about that, one minute she’s supposed to be a notary, the next Tony hires her as his replacement assistant, then she seems to be working for Pepper as her assistant. And it’s not like a gag where she changes jobs every time we see her; it’s more like the script awkwardly shuffling her around so she can be in as many scenes as possible). Is it about the skeletons in the Stark Legacy? That perhaps they are a family of “thieves and butchers” as Vanko says? Well, no, because Vanko’s the only element related to that, and even then it turns out that he and his father were in fact criminals regardless of what the Starks did. Is it about Tony’s relationship with his late father? No, that only occupies about two or three scenes. Is it about Tony’s legacy? Perhaps, but there’s no payoff for that.

There is material here for about two or three different storylines, but they all jumble together in strange mishmash, so that not enough time is given to any one of them for it to be satisfying.

For instance, there’s the scene where Rhodey arrives at Tony’s house to find him drunk and screwing around in the Iron Man suit. He’s furious because he had just been sticking his neck out for Tony, and seeing things are getting out of hand he puts on one of the older suits, leading to a fight. Now, why is Tony so ready to knock Rhodey around, to the point where he gleefully asks for a soundtrack? It’s as if there were a few earlier scenes of their friendship fraying before this, but no; Tony just decides he wants to knock his best friend around and smash up his own house doing it. Even if he’s drunk, it’s a strange thing for him to do, especially as he doesn’t seem to be really angry with him.

Or there’s the Vanko-Hammer subplot: the first third of the film we see glimpses of Vanko building his tech, traveling to Monte Carlo, and then there’s a fight on the raceway, then the next hour or so of the film Vanko basically just preps for round two while Hammer gets more and more impatient. This leads to an admittedly cool climax with Vanko’s new drones, but then when Vanko himself shows up to the battle in his own new suit, the fight lasts about a minute. I’d say the main villain of this film is basically a sideshow, but I don’t think I could tell you what the main event was supposed to be.

Vanko’s an okay character; Mickey Rourke is intimidating as heck with his massive, tattooed muscles and inscrutable gaze, and he has a few humanizing touches like his love for his “burd,” though the efforts to give him a sympathetic backstory kind of fall flat when we learn that his father was a spy looking to get rich and that Vanko himself sold plutonium to Pakistan (I don’t mind that as a development, by the way, only that it doesn’t make him any more interesting of a character). And about the time he starts indiscriminately murdering people.

As for the other villain, Justin Hammer is amusing, especially when he’s trying to smooth talk Vanko like a bow-tie-bedecked salesman trying to get a commission off of the leader of a biker gang. But the trouble is that he’s much too much of a lightweight to be in any way a convincing threat, not to mention that he’s so grossly incompetent that it’s hard to see how he ever made it to his position in the first place, or why the government buys anything off of him.

Which, I suppose, brings us to the plot holes, and boy there are quite a few. I can buy Vanko knowing Tony would be at the Monte Carlo Grand Prix, since he sponsors a car in the race, but how would he be able to predict that he’d be in the race, since it was an impulse decision on Tony’s part? Wouldn’t Vanko be more likely to be targeting the high-rollers lounge? When Vanko is arrested after publicly showing off Iron Man-like tech, why is he taken to an ordinary jail cell? Shouldn’t the US or French governments be tripping over themselves to make a deal with him to give them his tech? Everyone focuses on how this discredits Tony, but no one seems to consider the question of where Vanko got the technology, except for Tony, and even he only gives the question a cursory nod. How come there are almost no repercussions, except for personal ones, to Tony losing it in the Iron Man suit? They discuss the possibility, but nothing happens (I’m going to guess that Nick Fury kept them off him for that one, but it’s weird nonetheless given how much the film emphasized that he was on thin ice up until now).

Later in the film, Fury puts Tony under guard so that he can go through his father’s notes and figure out the new element he needs to fix his arc reactor and cure himself. Our old friend Agent Coulson returns to watch him, assuring him that he won’t be allowed to leave. So a scene or two later, Tony is driving down the street in his open-top sport’s car to visit Pepper, then drives back with several table-sized pieces of his father’s scale model of the expo sticking out of the passenger seat, and Coulson doesn’t confront him about leaving until a few scenes after that! How the heck did he get in and out of the house? Then Coulson just leaves to deal with a problem in New Mexico (“Land of Enchantment,” Tony comments). Meaning that Coulson literally served no purpose in this film: the one role he has in the story is ignored the moment he is off-screen.

Also, why did Jarvis say synthesizing the new element was impossible, when Tony simply does it the next scene; no question of “it might be possible if this,” or “the odds are against that;” Tony just sets up a prism tube and makes the thing in his garage in the space of about two or three minutes after Jarvis said it was impossible.

Not to mention there are jarring tonal shifts, with jokey humor clashing hard with serious drama. Like when Tony’s blow-up at his birthday party, involving a drunken brawl with his best friend cuts to him chowing down on donuts while sitting inside the giant donut sign. Some of it can be excused as reflective of Tony’s own mood swings, but a lot of it just feels like the film was edited in a hurry.

So, I think you can see why I say this film is a mess. Is there anything else to be said?

As noted, I do like some of Tony’s reactions to his terminal illness; things like struggling to find a way to tell Pepper, or the way he swings from quietly desperate to reckless and overblown. This all does seem to fit with his personality. His attempts to advance his relationship with Pepper are well-done as well; again, he wants to tell her how he feels, but his psychological baggage keeps getting in the way, as does his irresponsibility, not only because of his bad behavior, but simply because he forgets things like the CEO of a major corporation can’t just drop everything and go on a vacation during a crisis.

There’s a good scene where he goes to her office to apologize for the fiasco at his party and brings her strawberries. Turns out, those are the one thing she’s allergic to.

“This is progress,” he says. “I knew there was a correlation there.”

It’s funny, but it’s also heartfelt as he tries to make his case, but is able to get the words out, while she is simply fuming at him for landing her in this mess (a nice touch is that when he walks in she’s trying to get the suit that Rhodey took back from the government, showing that, angry as she is with him, she’s still on his side).

The subplot involving his father was rushed, but the scenes it does comprise are very sweet, mostly centering around a promotional video that Howard Stark shot in the 1970s for the last Stark Expo, the outtakes of which turn out to contain a message for his son. The videos are openly reminiscent of Walt Disney’s films promoting EPCOT, with a similar sense of optimistic futurism. Howard’s final message to Tony, saying what he never said in life, is touching and lends a new layer to their complicated relationship, though it would have been better with more buildup.

There are a number of good character moments, like when Rhodey takes out the arc reactor of his suit before letting Hammer fiddle with it (still not willing to let Tony’s enemy study his greatest invention, even though they’ve had a falling out). Or when Tony and Rhodey make up and Rhodey clarifies, “It’s your fault, I just wanted to say I’m sorry” (as this indicates, the rapid-fire banter of the first film is back, if not quite of the same caliber).

Then of course there’s “Natalie Rushman,” AKA Natasha Romanov. Her introduction in this film is, unfortunately, only a shadow the great character she would become, with most of her dimensions yet locked away, but she is nevertheless a striking figure (and not just for the obvious reasons) as she coolly inserts herself into Tony’s circle, efficiently doing her ostensible job without turning a hair, only to let loose her formidable fighting skills when need calls for it. Her fight against a hoard of Hammer’s guards is probably the best action scene in the film, with some very smart choreography that has her using her agility and precision to take down her larger opponents with strikes to joints and soft targets rather than simply slugging it out (Stark’s driver, Happy Hogan, joins her and spends the entire sequence trying to take down a single guard, which is funny, but I also found it sweet how he refused to let her go in alone, even though she clearly knows what she’s doing).

Meanwhile, the film tacitly establishes why she was assigned to watch Tony with an early scene where he gets served with a subpoena because he was too distracted by the beautiful woman doing the serving. Women are Tony’s weakness; he doesn’t think clearly around them, so SHIELD naturally assigned Romanov, including working up a cover ID of an ex-model, knowing that Tony wouldn’t be able to resist adding her to his staff. It’s a smart bit of writing, following from a well-established part of Tony’s character.

I also like that when Tony shows up at Hammer’s demonstration at the end in his new Iron Man suit, Rhodey (part of the show as the newly built War Machine) accepts Tony’s story very quickly with only a little suspicious posturing; bad blood though there may be between them, they’re still old friends and he can tell when Tony’s being serious.

The final battle, involving a chase with Vanko’s drones and a back-to-back fight with Iron Man and War Machine taking them on, is very cool, even if it’s rushed, and the banter between the two of them flows very well, very much like old friends and equals (which is another advantage Don Cheadle brings to the table: Terrance Howard always seemed a little overwhelmed by Tony, but Cheadle is able to give and take on an equal footing with him, making their friendship more interesting).

I also like the film’s take on revisionist history, with Vanko sneering at Tony for trying to forget “the lives the Stark family has destroyed.” Only, as it turns out, Vanko and his father were in fact guilty and brought their own destruction upon themselves, meaning that the ‘official’ history was actually more correct than the alternate perspective. Not sure if the film meant for that, but it’s appreciated in any case. Likewise I appreciate the subplot of Tony trying to keep his own property in his own hands and resisting efforts to force him to nationalize it.

In summary, the best I can say of Iron Man 2 is that it’s mostly entertaining. It drags quite a bit in the middle, and seeing Tony be a drunken lout isn’t very fun, but the heart is there, especially in his scenes with Pepper, and when it does get going, it is fun to watch. But it is an extremely shaky entry, a good example of what happens when a plot is completely unfocused and a film tries to tackle too many things at once. A real disappointment considering how strong its predecessor was.