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Soldier and Spy

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) by Anthony and Joe Russo

I feel like it’s so much harder to write about a movie you liked than about one you disliked. Ranting is so much easier than saying why you liked something, why you’re excited about it. Or maybe it’s just me.

Well, I’m excited about this movie because I think it’s the best solo movie in the MCU so far. One of the things that makes it easy to love for me? I don’t have to think or feel self-conscious about the female characters in this because they’re not being put on display. They’re not treated as bodies but as characters. No, The Winter Soldier isn’t the first movie in the MCU to do this, but it’s the first time Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) is treated as a fully realized character and not just eye-candy and I’ve been waiting years for this to happen.

What else happens in Captain America: The Winter Soldier:

Pirates have taken over a ship that belongs to S.H.I.E.L.D.. Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow, and the S.H.I.E.L.D. critical response team under Brock Rumlow (Frank Grillo) infiltrate the ship and free the hostages. But in the middle of all this hassle, Black Widow downloads some critical data for Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) – the beginning of the end of S.H.I.E.L.D. as we’ve come to know it.

Suddenly, someone’s trying to kill Fury and he barely escapes to Steve’s apartment where he’s being shot at again – by someone Black Widow later refers to as a Russian myth: the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). Fury dies, Steve is accused of treason and hunted by S.H.I.E.L.D., and there are still more secrets to uncover where it all began.

Marvel movies are at its best when they leave their own conventions behind and become more than stories about superheroes. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is an excellent spy movie, first and foremost. We learn more about the agency Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) helped found after Steve disappeared and about its operatives, the counsel overseeing it, and Project Insight, a secret project allowing S.H.I.E.L.D. to spy on the world without it knowing.

And we learn why it all had to fail because Captain America is all about freedom and spying on its own people just isn’t the American way – well, not for Cap anyway.

As I said, Natasha is much more of a character here than she’s been before. We learn a little more about where she comes from and where her loyalties lie. And for once, she’s not pressed into a latex catsuit for the whole length of the movie – a relief, really. As the only female avenger so far, we needed to see her as more than her body parts and The Winter Soldier delivers here as in many other aspects. Again, it took Marvel too fucking long – female representation remains one of Marvel’s absolute weak points – but they present us with a great character. The source material for all those female heroes is already in place if the MCU would only choose to use it. Here they do, and it turns out great. More of that, please.

An important introduction in this movie is Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie), of course. He’s the one who’s going to pick up the shield and become Captain America after Avengers: Endgame. Something to be excited about and Sam is certainly a hero. Falcon quickly became a favorite for me but with him (and Rhodey) as with female heroes, there’s the question of why it takes Marvel so long to represent HoC (Heroes of Color)? We’re in the 2000s and it’s still serve white, straight dudes first – this shit just has to stop. I hope this will start to change in Phase IV.

I’m putting all these negatives here because there’s really not much to say about the movie. It’s as perfect a solo hero movie as Marvel ever made. Captain America becomes a little bit edgier, less of a mindless soldier type who just follows orders. His relationship to the Winter Soldier will cause problems around the corner. There are a lot of things that will stay with the character, Steve Rogers, that make him more relatable. His new friendships, one with Natasha, the other with Sam, will become even more important in Captain America: Civil War.

Yes, context is important for this movie. The character of Rumlow, for example, will be back with a vengeance and it’s good to remember him from this movie or else the beginning of Civil War becomes a little bit of a question mark. Then there is the first glimpse of the twins: Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Pietro Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) in the mid-credit scene. And also the annihilation of S.H.I.E.L.D. which isn’t just important for the tv show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. but for the whole MCU.

The Winter Soldier changed a lot, it brought some of the best characters into the MCU or made great characters of heretofore cardboard characters (and, yes, that includes Bucky Barnes). I would always recommend you watch it whenever you want to watch an MCU movie for fun because it’s just a really good movie. It brought the Russo brothers into the fold, too, so…

Next: Guardians of the Galaxy (I could really do without Star-Lord, how about you?)

 

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The God and the Darkness

Thor: The Dark World (2013) by Alan Taylor

Story time with Odin (Anthony Hopkins) – Before there was anything, there was darkness and into this darkness the dark elves were born. They ruled until light brought other creatures crawling and at one point, Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) thought to bring back darkness using a weapon called the Ether. However, Odin’s father, Bor (Tony Curran), defeated him and the Ether, which couldn’t be destroyed, was buried. Malekith escaped but was never heard from again.

Once again, we’re entering an epic tale. How can you tell? You’re being treated to a prologue narrated by Anthony Hopkins. I never really thought about this before but I actually like this bombastic kind of storytelling, the Thor movies have some pathos to them that the other hero movies lack. Strangely, I remembered Thor: The Dark World as boring. I was wrong, though.

The nine realms are aligning. What Heimdall (Idris Elba) views as something fascinating, on Earth, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) is riddled with scientific curiosity – and maybe the slight hope that she may see Thor (Chris Hemsworth) again. As she goes to explore, she falls through an anomalie onto the dark elves’s homeworld and rediscovers the Ether. It engulfs her body, forming a symbiosis.

Since Thor has been with Heimdall as this happens, his friend informs him that he can’t see Jane anymore and Thor is quick to get back to Earth to find her. He does as Jane is now back, but she’s changed, she’s sick. Odin informs them that the Ether is feeding on Jane’s lifeforce. That’s not the only problem, though, as Malekith has awakened with the reemergence of the Ether – and he wants his weapon back.

Everything seems so much bigger in the Thor movies, not just the hero but the level of destruction (it’s probably no wonder that Hulk fits into this world so well). I guess when Gods are involved everything is more dramatic. However, as Odin informs us, Asgardians aren’t really Gods, they just live longer than, say, humans. But they’re not immortal as is proven in this movie by the death of Frigga (Rene Russo), Thor and Loki’s (Tom Hiddleston) mother, Odin’s wife.

She’s killed and hence serves – as so many female characters before her – as sacrifice to the heroic tale of a male hero. Yeah, it’s a lame trope that’s still being beaten like the proverbial dead horse. Apparently, in male storytelling there is no greater sacrifice a woman can make than to offer herself as raison d’etre for a vengeful saga of male heroism. Luckily for Thor, he’s blessed with more female characters that surround him than most, so…

Am I honestly supposed to care about this anymore? It’s not like men are self-aware enough to change lame tropes like this. Did I like Frigga? Hell, yeah, she was a badass but we’ve only got to see that side of her for five minutes before she died. I love Rene Russo having played her. And I would be seriously mad about this turn of events if I wasn’t so fucking used to it.

But as I said, there are more female characters to care about. I think if I was pressed to name one thing that the first two Thor movies had that Ragnarok didn’t, something that would’ve made it better: more female protagonists. Basically, Ragnarok has two – Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and Hella (Cate Blanchett). Jane, Darcy (Kat Dennings), Lady Sif (Jaimie Alexander), nowhere to be seen. And if I remember correctly, it also makes Ragnarok the only Thor solo movie that doesn’t pass the Bechdel test, think about that.

Well, Thor: The Dark World does because Jane and Darcy are still sciencing. Nothing much has changed really from the first movie. It’s a sequel and as such no better and no worse than Thor. Maybe you think that Malekith wasn’t a really good villain (here we go with the villain-problem again), but who do you compare him to at this point? The solo movie villains (except for Loki) have mostly been lame so far. I would say, Malekith ranges somewhere between Obidiah Stane and Ivan Vanko, he’s certainly no worse than Aldrich Killian, but then, who is?

On the whole, I recognize now that I do understand much better what these movies are about. When I watched Thor: The Dark World in the theater there was a lot that I didn’t get. I wasn’t just bored, I was simply drowning in deep water. There’s a lot to this story that justifies a rewatch, after all, the Infinity Stones are first referenced here – in the mid-credit scene. We get to see Loki die once again, only to have him inhabit the Asgardian throne at the end. Yes, Frigga’s death is sad and annoying, but on the whole, Thor: The Dark World is a solid entrance in the MCU. Its biggest fault is that it’s not something we haven’t seen before.

Next: Captain America: The Winter Soldier (arguably the best solo movie within the MCU)

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A Hero’s Demons

Iron Man 3 (2013) by Shane Black

Iron Man is back with a new director. The hero’s third solo movie is a mess – you may think it’s a solid movie but it’s really not. It’s the one I’ll be hating on unasked until the end of my days. Why? I’m not quite sure, there are enough reasons. Let’s have a look at them.

But first, as always, here’s what happens:

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) has PTSD. The things that happened in New York left him paralyzed with fear, he can’t sleep, and he’s got panic attacks. On top of that, there’s a new threat that America faces: the Mandarin. He’s attacking the free world with bombings that don’t seem to use bombs.

Meanwhile, Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) isn’t very happy with Tony as he takes little time for her but rather tinkers in his workshop. Tony tries to tell her about his fears but then his Iron Man suit attacks Pepper when she tries to help him and things get positively rocky when an ex-girlfriend appears at his door.

What a mess! Really, I hate this movie. On some level, I know that it’s watchable but there are a lot of things I don’t like and they just culminate into what is probably the worst MCU entry to date. You don’t believe me? You actually like it better than Iron Man 2? That’s your prerogative but let’s have a closer look at Iron Man 3:

I think the first problem is the narration, having Tony Stark tell this story in voiceover takes away some imminent threat. Think about the scene where he almost drowns. Of course, we kinda sorta know that he’ll be all right but the voiceover makes sure that we do know. There’s no real threat, we know Tony will be all right and that also extends to Pepper because if she weren’t Tony wouldn’t be telling this story. He would probably have disappeared in a hole somewhere.

In the beginning, Tony tells us about demons he’s raised and it all started at a conference in Bern in 1999 where Tony meets three people that will make their mark on him. First, there is Jinsen (Shaun Toub), the man who in a cave somewhere in the middle east will save his life. Tony brushes him off. Then there’s Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall), a beautiful woman who also happens to be a genius working on DNA that can spontaneously repair itself. While Tony tries to help her with the kinks she still has to work out, he seems more interested in sleeping with her – which he does before he leaves her the next morning. The third one is Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), the founder of A.I.M., a think tank. He’s what you may call the worst stereotype of a nerd, but also rather obnoxious. Tony tells him they’ll talk on the roof and never shows.

So his demons consist of a woman he slept with and never called and a guy he left waiting on the roof on New Year’s Eve? Considering the kind of asshole we’re to believe he was that’s a short and rather tame list. It seems that Tony’s ego once again gets the best of him and wants him to believe that he”s responsible for what happened. Neither Hansen or Killian seem that traumatized, to be honest, and Killian’s focus seems to lie more on Pepper than Tony. He calls her his trophy after capturing her and injecting her with that still unstable serum Hansen has concocted. The one thing we really don’t need in the MCU is a villain who uses the love interest to hurt the hero. As if they weren’t treating their female characters worse enough already!

They are and case in point is this movie because, in the first drafts of the screenplay, Maya Hansen was the villain, not Aldrich Killian. But Marvel was concerned about (get this!) toy sales. They didn’t think anyone would buy a female villain toy and that’s why Hall’s role was cut down and changed to what it became, a one-night-stand with a grudge.

I don’t really have words about how fucked up this is. Ultimately, Aldrich Killian is the worst villain the MCU probably has. One that makes no sense at all. I mean, Hansen really had to resort to working with THAT guy? She invented something genius, she probably could’ve been funded by universities or the government with what she was doing but instead, she chose THAT guy. That’s mind-boggling.

And it’s the worst part about this movie – the villain(s). Compared to the reveal which wasn’t really surprising by the way the movie has been set up (with Tony’s narration), the fake Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) is rather amusing. It’s a commentary on how we perceive terrorists, our prejudices. This commentary is, however, overshadowed by the white-washing of another Asian character because it turns out that Killian is the Mandarin.

Basically, the whole villain storyline is stupid and sexist and racist. The worst. And that’s frustrating because there are parts of this movie that are way better than most of Iron Man 2. Like when Tony bonds with that kid, Harley (Ty Simpkins), in Tennessee. How he deals with his PTSD (except for the end-credit scene, that was just Marvel making a joke of everything), how he tries to let Pepper in and not repeat his mistakes from the second movie. He’s become a better man and there’s growth in the character. But all the rest of the movie is so messed up you hardly notice it.

And that’s why I hate this movie.

Next: Thor: The Dark World (I just noticed that the German title is Thor: The Dark Kingdom, what’s that all about?)

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A Hero Faulters

Iron Man 2 (2010) by Jon Favreau

I think I could watch this movie every day and still not see why people hate it so much. I’ve actually already written a review of it after I first watched it and while I wasn’t super-enthusiastic, I still deemed it a good movie. That hasn’t changed. (What has, is my harsh opinion on plastic surgery, feel free to ignore that paragraph.)

The plot goes as follows:

Tony Stark is dying. The palladium core in the arc reactor in his chest is poisoning him and he can’t find an element to exchange it. So while he’s opening the Stark Convention (a year-long exhibition showcasing innovative technological ideas, a throwback to what his father [John Slattery] used to do), he’s rather on edge, taking unnecessary risks.

Meanwhile, in Russia, a man named Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) is building his own version of Tony’s arc reactor from an old schematic bearing his father’s and Howard Stark’s names. When they finally meet (on a racetrack in Monaco), the world gets a glimpse of an Iron Man that could be beaten by his own invention. While Tony is determined not to let that happen again, even his allies start to turn against him.

The Tony Stark we meet in the beginning is not the larger-than-life, devil-may-care egomaniac we cared for in the first movie. The new Tony has an edge to him because he already knows he’s dying. And his Iron Man suit, the thing he feels makes him a better version of himself, is advancing his demise. Against JARVIS’ (the voice of Paul Bettany) advice, he doesn’t even tell Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) about his condition, instead, he aims to push her away.

Is this what people dislike about the movie? A more vulnerable Tony Stark who, on top of that, also has a boatload of daddy issues in this movie? If that’s so: well, every female character ever written by a man has to deal with these things as well, so get over yourself. I’m not saying I like this version of Tony better but it’s a believable one if you care to look beyond his passive-aggressive dick-behavior. And Downey Jr. plays it like the brilliant actor he is.

One thing, I just remembered, that I didn’t like about Iron Man 2 (something less apparent in Iron Man unless you remember that one scene on Tony’s jet): women as eye-candy. Women as mere distractions. While Iron Man 2 (magically) passes the Bechdel test, Iron Man doesn’t even try (it’s all about Tony, all the time, with the ladies). The poor choice of treating everyone but Pepper Potts as eye-candy sadly includes Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson). Yes, she’s formidable, she can stand her own against multiple opponents but for most of the movie, she’s just someone Tony pants after. Building a hero in this way takes away a lot of her industry and I think it’s one of the reasons so many fanboys don’t value her as a hero on her own. From her standpoint, she did her job, she did it well but for her character development, this whole situation can be deemed demeaning. (And what’s with Kate Mara being used in that 10-second stint? Burning great actresses much?)

There’s always talk about Iron Man’s enemies, how they’re not the best villains they could’ve saddled Tony with. Agreed, but since the series started something much bigger, shouldn’t we admit that they couldn’t have started with the likes of Thanos? I mean, they were building a world for the long-haul. Having Jeff Bridges as Iron Monger and Mickey Rourke as Whiplash doesn’t feel like a letdown to me, just two guys who, for different reasons, wanted Tony to suffer and die. And they’re not overwhelming Tony’s own story which is still developing. Where the third movie is concerned, yeah, I agree, BAD villain, but I’ll come to that after I rewatched that disaster.

Pardon me if I seem to lecture, I just like this movie. I think it’s at least as entertaining as the first one, while I got a little more love for a good origin story. The characters act believably. Maybe Justin Hammer is a little bit too much of a caricature but he seems to be what happens if a man with a small… penis happens upon Tony Stark. He can’t compete and he knows it and Sam Rockwell is just the man to play this to the max (have you noticed his hands? Hilarious!).

So maybe give this a rewatch, tell me what you think. I think as far as a developing superhero story goes, Iron Man 2 is a worthy successor of Iron Man. Why everybody felt like trashing it in hindsight, I cannot say. On my list of favorites (which I will probably have to revise at the end), this movie is #15 (with Iron Man at #7).

Next: Thor (by Kenneth Branagh?)

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The Thing About Batman…

The Dark Knight Rises (2012) by Christopher Nolan

So, I watched The Dark Knight Rises on Saturday. It’s actually a little weird to say that because after the last Batman-movie I promised myself to never watch another one of those. Why?

The thing about Batman is… that I really don’t like him. As a character. Bruce Wayne is altogether too serious and too snobby to be really likable. I like to compare him with Tony Stark because they are both insanely rich and orphans but Stark is sarcastic, has a wicked sense of humour, while Batman takes everything to heart, is obsessed with saving people. It seems he has to ultimately fail because he will never be able to save his parents. Of course, this comes from someone who is no expert on comic books at all.

Let’s talk a little about the movie then. It was long, and it was also good. What I take from the franchise under Christopher Nolan’s supervision is that everybody is just a person. Nobody has superpowers, some are freakishly disfigured but by some miracle still alive – and are incredibly angry. People are hurting. Our hero is hurting, too, but he still finds it in him to want to make the life of others better.

Gotham seems to be a pit really… this city seems way beyond saving.  And maybe this is another thing about the whole Batman-franchise that I do not like: the dreariness, the bleakness, the darkness. Gotham City is depressing, like some 1930s film noir New York or Chicago, it has too many shadows and in every single one of them lurks an even darker shadow that sometimes wants your money, sometimes your life.

But then there are also things I like about Batman: Everybody is wonderfully three-dimensional. The character development within the franchise is great. The villains are evil because they actually do evil – not like some wannabes who never get their act on (right, Loki?). And then there are some who are not even evil but merely… criminals. Like Catwoman/Selina Kyle in this new installment. And let me tell you – she is glorious. But then she always was. Think Eartha Kitt, think Michelle Pfeiffer, okay, don’t think Halle Berry… Anne Hathaway owns the catsuit and she looks mighty fine in it. She was the reason I watched the movie and I am not even a little disappointed – she can act and she does and she looks good doing it. The one regret I have about her – she and Bruce/Christian Bale had zero chemistry… it happens and maybe it shouldn’t be forced…

Marion Cotillard’s role as Miranda certainly was surprising but it was also very well acted. At first I thought she was wasted as love interest but I had another thing coming and it was gooooood. I guess it is not really surprising that I found the women of the movie more compelling than the males. Though I must say: Blake (or Robin)… Joseph Gordon-Levitt has becomes such a capable actor. And why not continue with only him and have a Robin-movie. This is actually something I would like to watch – despite my misgivings about Gotham City. And I guess I don’t have to mention the awesomeness that were both Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman, right? I mean with those two it’s a given.

So, yeah, it was a good movie. It sure had its lengths but I liked the various topics within the movie about whether the Dent-Act is still valuable even if Dent was not the hero they made him into. And also the socialist component, the question if people like Wayne (rich people) have any purpose…

And then there was this and it made a good movie into a great one:

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Iron Man 2 – yeah, well…

Iron Man 2 (2010) by Jon Favreau

It’s been a while since I have seen it but I still wanted to write something short about it. It was good – and that’s all one can say about it, I guess. It was as good as the first one but not that much different if I remember correctly.

The thing is: I really like Iron Man / Tony Stark. He does not have super-powers, per se, he is a snob, he is a little like Batman. But (and it is one of those huge BUTs that deem capital letters necessary), so, BUT I never liked Batman. Strange, I only found out that I don’t like him when Christian Bale played him the first time. Don’t get me wrong, I have liked Christian Bale since I first saw him in Henry V but I don’t like Batman… he is too serious, takes himself to serious. Tony Stark on the other hand is a snob and he is constantly mocking himself and everybody around him. He’s snarky and cynical. And of course, Robert Downey jr. is a brilliant actor (so brilliant, in fact, that one has to wonder why he is playing a superhero and not Shakespeare).

The cast is great, too. We have Downey and Paltrow (I am not necessarily a fan of Paltrow’s but there are movies where I can stand her and this is one of them), and Scarlett Johansson (always stunning and a good actress) and Samuel L. Jackson – and to see those two together again after The Spirit is really great, they are an unlikely pairing but a good one (and yes, I am aware that The Spirit is quite a silly movie but who says silly is bad – I loved it… and Eva Mendes!), Mickey Rourke, Don Cheadle and Sam Rockwell.

What put me off  a little were the faces of both Mickey Rourke and Garry Shandling. Ouch. Plastic surgery is really a sad admission to one’s vanity and it looks painful. I don’t think that it’s worse with men – or women – I think it is always ill advised. I mean, if you have two noses in your face or are so disfigured you cannot live with yourself, or it is actually affecting your health (women can get serious problems with their back if their boobs are to big and I sympathize) then it is okay but getting older is not something to fret about. We are all getting older – go deal!  And let’s face it there are few women more sexy than Meryl Streep…

Okay, good movie…