Sort of like bashing Benedict Cumberbatch, accusing the Marvel films of all being the same has become something that all the cool kids are doing on twitter recently. I can see some merit in aspects of that argument. But in a year when the studio has released the spy-thriller Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) and sci-fi Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), it is a pretty hard argument to maintain. A lot of this griping came about when the trailer for Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) came out a few weeks ago. The more rcent, extended trailer is below. What do you guys think of it? I don’t love The Avengers (2012) as much as some people and it’s not my absolute favourite Marvel film. But I am still super excited by this trailer. And I think that is the thing. If you are in to the Marvel Cinematic Universe like me, this trailer will get you really excited. If you don’t care for the films, then there is probably nothing here to change your mind.
Recently I had become concerned that Marvel seemed to be homogenising their approach to new films in the MCU. One of the great strengths of this, really quite remarkable, series of films has been that it is unafraid to make each film wildly different in genre and tone than the film that came before. The removal of Edgar Wright from the forthcoming Ant Man (2015), a film he had been driving for so long and the most recent Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) trailer looking like a generic male hero driven action film, had crystallised these concerns.
Thankfully though Guardians of the Galaxy shows that Marvel definitely have not lost their creative nerve, at least not yet. My fears were quelled right from the start actually as the film opens with a dark moment, but one totally grounded in human, earthbound concerns. This is interesting, because where this film takes the viewer is farther afield from ‘realistic’ human concerns than any other film in the series, including The Avengers (2012) and both Thor films. The film does struggle a little with pacing, which is always a challenge for any origin type story. Right at the start, what seem like huge plot points for how a young boy becomes a space-travelling thief (sort of) called Star Lord are just sort of plonked there. I would have liked a little more insight into that journey. But given the film has to essentially handle five origin stories, not just one, overall the film does a pretty great job of it all. Another thing the film does well is actually reside in the sci-fi genre. Sure it is not hard sci-fi by any stretch of the imagination, but it is also not simply a stock standard hero story dressed up in spaceships and green skinned beings. Especially towards the beginning, there is a willingness to set up relatively dense sci-fi mythology and political machinations. No other Marvel film has the level of worldbuilding that this one does and it is a major difference maker which greatly enhances the enjoyment of the film.
I think Guardians of the Galaxy manages to have the best ensemble of any Marvel film, which is saying something because I think both The Avengers and Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) do a pretty good job in that regard. All of the characters have decent motivations for what they are doing. Sure they are generally pretty simplistic – money or vengeance – but they make sense within the film and they also manifest themselves in the action of the film. The casting goes a major way to ensure that the ensemble does so well in telling the tale of the film. Just as it stays the absolute same on some fronts (the important ones mainly – female participation, racial and LGBT presentation), Hollywood seems increasingly willing to diversify its approach on some fronts. Indie directors like Gareth Edwards and Rian Johnson now get jobs spearheading franchises like Godzilla and Star Wars. And here we have Chris Pratt, the incredible Andy Dwyer from Parks and Recreation, as the star of a Marvel film. Pratt crushes it too, bringing a little of his earlier comedic charm with a whole lot of genuine leading man charisma and effectiveness as an action presence. Another left of centre casting choice that works far better than I would have imagined is the choice of wrestler Dave Bautista as Drax the Destroyer. Batista is not actually that charismatic as far as wrestlers go, so it was a genuine surprise that he really holds his own with his acting skills in this film. He brought a lot to his character. Zoe Saldana as Gamora is a little more of a straightforward choice. Her character as well mixes the unfortunately expected, with the refreshing. Gamora holds a really important part in the future direction of the MCU, as a result of a combination of who her old man is (sigh) coupled with the choices she makes throughout the film (yay). Similarly her character is a mixture of weapon like destructive fighting ability with the occasional need to be saved by far less skilled male counterparts.
The two characters which had the potential to derail so much of what works in this film were Rocket Racoon, CGI voiced by Bradley Cooper, and Groot, huge tree sorta played by Vin Diesel. If they had of gone too comedic with them it could have wrecked the tone of the film and removed any real stakes from the narrative. But these characters end up being two of the biggest assets of the film. Rocket Raccoon will become an iconic character I feel, down in part to the exceptional one liners that the script gives him. The script also goes to the trouble of taking Rocket from what could have so easily been a CGI animal comedic relief sidekick into a fully formed and heartfelt presence. Part of that comes from the great relationship that he has with his best buddy, the hulking tree-like Groot. I’m not sure that Guardians of the Galaxy is my favourite Marvel film. But there is no doubt that I love the visuals of this one comfortably more than any other film in the series. It is in many ways a classical sci-fi aesthetic, Star Wars and Trek came to mind for me. However it is all rendered in a pretty bright and colourful kind of way, which is really refreshing given the tendency for gloom and grime that has reigned recently in any kind of superhero or blockbuster film. In addition to the visuals, I think this is also the best script we have seen in a Marvel film yet. It is definitely the hardest one they have had to nail and they do a great job, balancing the tone and the action very well.
Guardians of the Galaxy is pretty much unmissable if you have any interest in blockbuster filmmaking. To my mind it is the best blockbuster film of the year so far. It sees Marvel expand out, incorporating visually arresting sci-fi elements and plot points, whilst still having the film feel theoretically as though it could sit alongside the other films in the MCU. It also has a hell of a fun ensemble cast too, which makes the ride even more enjoyable.
Verdict: Pint of Kilkenny
Captain America (2011) is one of my favourite of the Marvel films so far. As such I was pretty keen to check out Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), although there was a nagging doubt that I could not quite shake – how would the film hold up without the period setting of the first film?
After seeing Marvel’s latest effort, I think it was a fair concern to have. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is by no means a bad film (it is very, very rare that Marvel put their stamp on one of those), but it is also rather standard, never reaching the heights of the best films from the comic book behemoth. Much of that is due to the shift in time frame for Cap which was a necessity in order for him to be part of The Avengers (2012). The character of Captain America is a bit of an absurd one in reality. But his over the top, arch-patriotism works best when situated, like the first film, somewhere like Germany in World War II. In 2014 America, a place where the mainstream political and military mindset has been battered in the opinion of the public by Iraq, Afghanistan, the NSA and so on, Cap is more likely to be a little on the nose. It is a credit to the filmmakers that they are willing to explore this uneasy state of affairs and the uneasy place that this character has in it, but even so, there is no doubting that the major thing that the first film had going for it is gone. The early attempts to transfer the military stylings and focus of the first film into this one does not really work at all and contributes to what is a spluttering first half hour.
Of course simply to say that it is impossible for a present day set Captain America film to be fantastic is silly. With the right story and action beats and there is no doubting the character could helm a cracking film, especially given Chris Evans feels so spot on in the role. But the major issue with this film is that whilst there are some great aspects to it, including some of the action beats, the overarching plot is initially oblique and then to be honest really weak and lacking in the narrative richness required. There was always going to be some need to attempt to connect the plot of the film to that of the first film, and it does not work. I am aware that the story is based on a really highly regarded comic book arc, but I can only assume that does a much better job of telling the story than this film does. It is such a shame that the main story does not stick, because Robert Redford is very good as it is and if the story was a little stronger, his character could have been a really impactful one. The film is also not really about The Winter Solider that much at all. If you are going to build the marketing and even naming of a film around a character, don’t just make him a henchman for a vast majority of the film. The last 20 minutes or so does manage to get the viewer excited for what could perhaps come in the future between the two characters. But you are left with the distinct sense that the potential of the character was neglected in this flick a little to set things up for future entries.
One thing that this film does better then perhaps any other Marvel flick is that it gives the minor goodies a chance to shine. The increased screen time for Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow is perhaps the best thing about the entire film. I know that Marvel has an ever expanding slate of both rumoured and confirmed phase 3 films, but they should seriously pull the trigger on a standalone Johansson Widow film. The character has so much great back-story, both from the comics and hinted at this film that could be mined for a really effective origin style story. Basing it around some of the current comics that Nathan Edmondson is writing for the character would be a real winner in my view. And having the character attempting to atone for her chequered KGB past could also make a very different kind of Marvel film. The other main highlight in the supporting cast is Anthony Mackie’s Falcon, a character that initially grates but by the third act is one of the best things about it. Again, the filmmakers actually give the character some great moments out of the shadow of Cap which is something the Marvel films have not always managed to do very well. For me though, Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury continues to be a total bore whilst the much more interesting S.H.I.E.L.D operative Maria Hill played by Cobie Smulders unfortunately does not feature nearly enough.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is certainly a really solid, enjoyable big budget blockbuster that will be better than 80% of films in that category this year. For me personally, despite my enjoyment, it is a slight disappointment. But that is more a credit to how much Marvel have been killing it of late, rather than any real slight against the film itself.
Verdict: Stubby of Reschs
I quite liked Kenneth Branagh’s take on Thor. Sure not everything worked, but it was a pretty distinct comic book vision at the very least. I’m not sure why, but I hadn’t really given much thought to the looming sequel Thor: The Dark World. Marvel fatigue perhaps? But the last couple of films I have caught at the cinema have played this second trailer for the film beforehand and I have to say I think it looks like a whole lot of fun. I especially like the look of the interactions between Thor and Loki. I didn’t feel he was a big enough deal to be the main Avengers villain, but it looks like the relationship between him and his broseph could be a nice focus for this film.