Tuesday, 12 June 2012

A Marvel Movie retrospective: why were the other films important?

You know what was awesome? The Avengers:

You've probably seen the film by now. It is, after all, the third highest grossing film of all time. But many people probably didn't see the other Marvel films, so lets take a quick retrospective of the series, to see how the other films set up the characters and stories for what, I believe, is the most fun film of the year.

Iron Man (2008)

This was the first film produced by Marvel Studios itself. During the previous decades, they had sold the films rights for their characters to various studios, who produced features of variable quality (Spiderman and X-Men being the better examples, with Elektra and Ghost Rider being the worst offenders). Iron Man proved to be a huge success and showed that Marvel Studios was confident enough to take risks: for instance, casting Robert Downey Jr. (who at this point was only known for his substance abuse and roles in small semi-independent movies) as a leading man in a summer blockbuster and letting director Jon Favreau create a film that at many points feels like an improvised art-house comedy about Ayn Rand’s Objectivism. While it only had a few action scenes, it was packed with fun and excitement.
Iron Man showed that Marvel Studios understood how to make a good superhero movie: get the right cast, place emphasis on the characters and write a good story that pays respect to the original comics, with plenty of nods towards continuity and future stories, and you’ll reap the benefits.

The Incredible Hulk (2008)

This was the least successful of the Marvel movies, only just managing to gross more than its budget. Hulk suffered for two reasons: first, because people had not enjoyed Ang Lee’s 2005 Hulk movie, audiences were not keen to take another risk on the green goliath, and second, it came out the same year as Iron Man. 
While this film had good action scenes, it was a little too melodramatic, and not as fun or as exciting as Iron Man. Comparing Mark Ruffalo to Ed Norton, you can see that Ed just didn't bring much charisma and likeabilty to the role of Bruce Banner, especially when Mark Ruffalo brought so much sensitivity and humour to his depiction. On the other hand, Tim Roth is fantastic in this movie as Emil Blomsky, and I still love watching this movie.
On the other hand, it seeded some of the ideas for Captain America and introduced a possible plot for The Avengers. Overall, by making references to SHIELD and having a cameo with Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, it showed that an average movie could be made far more interesting by being part of a larger universe. Marvel’s experiment in continuity driven cinema was working.

Iron Man 2 (2010)
Marvel’s most financially successful movie (until the Avengers), with a gross of over $600 million, is also its least well-told movie. While it had more exciting set-pieces and a better villain than the first movie, its plot is pretty incoherent: there’s a lot of telling and not enough showing, and it is severely hampered by the need to set up characters and story elements for not one but three movies (Thor, The Avengers and the next Iron Man). It was such a difficult experience that Jon Favreau refused to direct Iron Man 3, due to the difficulties of working with Marvel’s producers.
In addition, the story just isn't that great. Tony Stark spends a great deal of time moping around and being depressed (which is fair enough considering he was dying) but it's also not very heroic.
But the key thing about the film was towards the end, when Iron Man and War Machine team up to fight the bad guys. On the one hand it sets up that Tony, while great in a fight, isn't quite an expert on battle strategy, hence turning to Rhodey and asking for his advice: this sets up why, in the Avengers, Iron Man lets Captain America lead the team and listens to his battle strategy, rather than trying to take control.
And more importantly, this was testing how to film multiple heroes fighting together on screen, and it worked. It. Was. Awesome.

Captain America and Thor (2011)

The last two movies to set up the Avengers prove to be the most divisive. Both were pretty successful (both grossing more than $300 million), but those who liked one tended to dislike the other. I like them in different ways. Thor had the bigger challenge of introducing aliens, magic and fantasy to what had so far been a sci-fi based franchise. It’s the most “kid-friendly” of the bunch, and has some great Shakespearean moments crafted by director Kenneth Branagh, while also introducing the brilliant Tom Hiddleston as villain Loki. On the other hand, Captain America is the better-made movie, with a tight plot (that shows more than it tells) and fantastic action, with some of the best hand-to-hand fighting I’ve seen in any movie that doesn’t star Jason Statham or was made in Asia. Captain America attempts to invoke the spirit of 1940s serials, just like Indiana Jones, and is all the better for it.

This series of movies introduced all the characters and plot points needed for the Avengers, allowing it to focus on crafting the funniest, most action-packed and, in my opinion, best comic book movie ever made.

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