Ant-Man (2015)

★★★★

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Ant-Man PosterDirector: Peyton Reed

Release Date: July 17th, 2015 (UK)

Genre: Action; Science fiction

Starring: Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Douglas, Corey Stoll

Superhero movies are more popular than ever. They are financial juggernauts, crowd pleasers, cinema monopolisers. Since 2008, when Marvel gave unabashed life to the genre via Iron Man, venues have been awash with new crusaders donning new suits and old crusaders challenging old enemies. The average annual production rate is at least four outings per year — if we’re only counting those bearing Marvel or DC comic heritage — with only a handful of monetary flops to date.

In some quarters, inevitable suggestions of superhero fatigue are beginning to sound out (not over here, admittedly). Good thing, then, that Phase Two of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is closing with a refreshing injection of sardonicism and locality. Despite the size-adjusting suit and Avengers references, Ant-Man sidesteps many of its predecessors’ elements. A good guy with peculiar powers does set out to stop a bad guy who lives for greed, but everything occurs within a grounded framework. If Ant-Man is a superhero film, it’s not quintessential Marvel.

When Dr. Hank Pym’s (Michael Douglas) game-changing technology is replicated by his former protégé Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), the former S.H.I.E.L.D. employee recruits moral ex-con Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) in an attempt to scupper any mischief. It’s the classic origin plot and, as such, characters engage in quite a lot of backstory explanation. Hank and his daughter Hope, played by Evangeline Lilly, go through the verbal wringer in record time; from a seemingly amiable introduction, the pair quickly develop a fractious relationship which is apologetically resolved before the half-way mark.

As opposed to being the product of many pens — Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish, Adam McKay, and Paul Rudd all have screenplay credits — you get the sense that this overeagerness to explain histories and cement rapports is an origin movie problem. It leaves relationship arcs a little fragile, particularly when the barrage of audible exposition could have been conveyed less abrasively through ocular interactions.

Lilly and Michael Douglas slip into their respective roles with confidence. The former should have more do to, especially in the final act when the action amps up a notch, but her version of Hope van Dyne is smart, tough, composed and fiery. There’s undoubtedly more fleshing out to come. With seventy years under his belt and a frazzled exterior, Douglas is well cast as the ousted scientist with a chip on his shoulder. His early intentions are concrete (“As long as I’m alive, nobody will ever have the formula”) but Pym’s tragic past increasingly urges him to put his daughter ahead of the end goal.

For this is, more than anything, a film about familial care and compassion. Scott Lang’s previous criminal rightdoings — like a modern day Robin Hood, he illegally redistributed a lot of money to a lot of customers — get in the way of him seeing his daughter. There is desperation in Paul Rudd’s eyes, though nothing too melodramatic. He excels, relaying a brazen charm that is only bolstered by his principled thievery. His character could have been a psychopath and it wouldn’t have mattered; we were always going to root for Rudd anyway. The actor rewards that loyalty with one of the most likeable MCU performances so far: awkward and evasive, yet wholly endearing.

The humour is consistent throughout. It is a mellower first half, where Rudd’s pre-costume antics resemble his downbeat comedy roles (such as Role Models or This Is 40). Scott gets fired from his job for being an ex-con but his oddball boss allows him to nab a free Mango Fruit Blast before he leaves. Director Peyton Reed borrows some of Marvel’s wit and meshes that with Apatow-esque flippancy. As the film progresses occasional chuckles make way for frequent guffaws. A naive Michael Peña is tremendously amusing, similarly getting increasingly funnier: “Baaaack it up, back it up slowly,” is one of many comedic highpoints.

But Ant-Man opts for more than just plain wisecracks, poking fun at its genre — and, by definition, Marvel — too with loving cynicism. Edgar Wright, who vacated the directorial seat citing creative differences shortly before the start of filming, is still around in spirit. Any playful sarcasm is almost certainly his, low-key and delightfully devious, and the frequently zany score sounds like something out of his wheelhouse. Two Peña explanation montages have the same swooshy momentum as Simon Pegg’s zombie dodging plans in Shaun of the Dead (apparently those sequences are spawns of Reed and McKay). At one point Ant-Man sprints across a small-scale model city as pursuing bullets send cardboard splinters all over — a mini, tongue-in-cheek jab at the likes of Avengers Assemble and Man of Steel. We’re at a point now where the grandiose madness, the ridiculousness of superhero movies, can be the butt of the joke without consequence.

Far from a genre that lacks superior visual quality, it is still worth noting the brilliant technical work on display during Ant-Man. Our first insect adventure is exceedingly slick and inventive, shot in a way that somehow provokes genuine exhilaration from a tiny man getting stuck in a hoover and scampering away from a rat. The shrinking too provides a new avenue for action-drama; rather than lambasting us with shoot-outs, fun heists from the Mission: Impossible school of versatility prevail. Russell Carpenter’s colourful cinematography is also aided by Dan Lebental and Colby Parker, Jr.’s momentum-driving editing: our hero’s anti-Herculean training montage is funny, believable and moves the plot forward.

Only when someone mentions the Avengers — whose non-appearance is put down to Pym’s wariness of Tony Stark’s techno-autocrat sensibilities, and given Stark’s arc in Avengers: Age of Ultron we are inclined to side with Pym on this one — does it strike you that Ant-Man is part of their universe. The world doesn’t need saving here. Although there are Armageddon implications, the film’s disciplined approach localises any reverberations. Neither format is right or wrong, but the second is less worn out and that’s hugely beneficial. The silliness gets over more because characters are not surrounded by Norse Gods with flying hammers or angry green mutant beings — a scene showing ants juggling sugar cubes would probably get lost in those fantasies, but here it is odd and amusing.

This quasi-minimalist structure also adds weight to the villainous Darren Cross’ suggestion that his Ant-Man copycat suit will solve geopolitical tensions outwith plain sight. The idea reflects notions of surveillance and higher powers undermining their citizens’ privacy. Wright and company flirt with the Snowden effect but the movie probably isn’t as incisive as it wants to be, otherwise it might have made a compelling thematic companion piece to the more confident Captain America: The Winter Solider.

Ant-Man is a genre rebel though, a sneaky outcast doing its own sly thing. The very fact that it is less integral to the overarching MCU saga than any other film up until now is what makes the flick so attractive. Forget its bite-sized impact, this one has left a Hulking impression.

Ant-Man - Cast

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

★★★★

Avengers Age of Ultron PosterDirector: Joss Whedon

Release Date: April 23rd, 2015 (UK); May 1st, 2015 (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Science-fiction

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Mark Ruffalo

When Marvel rolls into town, you can absolutely expect two things: sarcastic humour and blistering action. The first phase of Kevin Feige’s super-cinema initiative had both of these in abundance. Iron Man brought the wit, Thor the hoopla and while Hulk mainly sulked, Captain America struck a balance between fun and funny. Phase Two, especially since The Winter Soldier, has provided something even more. Sure, those characteristics are still plentiful but now that the franchise’s myriad of characters have had time to flex their muscles — or branches — storytelling has the stage.

In a way, Avengers: Age of Ultron is the perfect amalgamation of everything MCU-related up until now. It is formulaic in the sense that you know the narrative structure before the lights go down: early energetic sequences designed to engross, a meatier, more reserved middle section, and finally a ball-busting finale. That’s not just superhero cinema, that’s action cinema. The antithesis of formulaic, however, is how director Joss Whedon almost manages to divulge equal spotlight to the most star-studded cast on the silver screen.

We re-rendezvous with the Spandexed Six during a battle in the frosty forests of Eastern Europe, where ardent anti-swearer Steve Rodgers (Chris Evans) is calling the shots. The raid is a success, thankfully, with the Avengers managing to obtain Loki’s sceptre. It’s an opening scene worthy of closing many a superhero jaunt, packed with effervescent camera work and some fist-pumping teamwork: Cap and Thor’s shield-hammer double team manoeuvre is a particular highlight. The Asgardian receives the least amount of screen time, certainly it feels that way, which is a shame as Chris Hemsworth’s gallant personification has become a wholesome source of entertainment.

As it turns out, Loki’s magic stick is the final piece Tony Stark needs to initiate his Ultron program, a system designed to defend the world from extraterrestrial threat. Stark’s unfiltered approach, driven by his insistence on protecting others and living up to expectations, ends in disaster when the artificially intelligent Ultron (James Spader) embarks on a violent purge of humankind.

The film fragments its characters when they’re not in the process of resisting their machine-bodied, prescient enemy. Hawkeye finally gets his chance to shine as a result, and Jeremy Renner hits the mark when it comes to emotional beats and wry comedy. A scene towards the end is one of the funniest of the entire franchise, this down as much to the actor as the writing. It pits Hawkeye, bow in hand, directing murmured threats towards a companion (“Nobody would know”). Nobody would.

The bowman has largely been ignored up until this point because he is just that, a supremely skilled man with bow. By inconspicuously embracing this notion, Whedon and company essentially break the third wall. Under the guidance of many others, playing the ‘normal guy challenging adversity’ card might have come across as cheesy and cheap, but Renner’s earnestness encourages us to believe in the character.

Draped in American patriotism and outdated chivalry, Captain America once could have flailed in the same situation — embodying an unrealistic symbol of humanity. Fortunately, since his initiation back in 2011 Chris Evans has injected palpable authenticity into Cap, and here we watch Evans evolve into a true leader with stature and assuredness. Even the egotistic Stark quips, “Actually, he’s the boss”. The piece is littered with Civil War previews built upon the duo’s clashing ideologies, paving the way for another Captain America instalment currently brimming with potential.

Age of Ultron, despite the customary destructiveness, is actually at its most compelling when it hones in on the people involved. It’s basically a quarter of a billion dollar psych evaluation, with relationships tightened or, as above, hollowed. Mark Ruffalo maintains his best-Hulk-yet aura, often sharing solid romantic screen time with Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow. Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson are the latest lover-to-sibling converts, following on from Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort. The Godzilla co-stars play Wanda and Pietro Maximoff respectively, both welcome additions despite some shaky accent work.

As the main villain, James Spader has stumbled into an almost impossible task. Tom Hiddleston’s Loki managed to eclipse convention by being devious and charismatic in equal measure. Computer generated Ultron is a bad entity, plain and simple, and Spader’s croaky voice is packed full of calm menace, which works really well. But comparison, perhaps unfairly so, is inevitable and the character isn’t as enticing on screen as Loki.

The main problem abound throughout Age of Ultron is a familiar one: in handling so many characters, Whedon must oversee the lighting of touchpaper for multiple story arcs. You can feel the film seeping at the seams on occasion, with so much being rammed into such a short window (though, ironically, two and a half hours is normally an overindulgent runtime). Resultantly, some of the goings-on are left underfed. Hot off heels of Alex Garland’s probing science-fiction parable Ex Machina, the AI story told between Ultron and the Vision here isn’t quite as fascinating as recent evidence suggests it could have been.

Not consigned to resting on its opening sequence laurels, the piece ups the ante even more during a blistering, if somewhat disorienting, conclusion. You do get the sense that the stakes are shuffling their way up a notch the longer the clash between our Avengers and Ultron’s robot army goes on. By the time Brian Tyler and Danny Elfman’s booming score coalesces with Ben Davis’ now signature circular shot, goosebumps are flourishing. We’ve seen it before, and yet it carries no less weight this time around.

This is a Marvel film first and foremost, and a properly pulsating one at that. We live in a cynical world when it comes to big budget blockbuster movies, and at $300 million this is a very big budget blockbuster movie. But it’s one that doesn’t discriminate against proper storytelling and intelligent character development in favour of the extra exploding vehicle. Prompted by a build-up where hype levels usurped dollar bills, Age of Ultron matches expectations — at least, for my money.

Avengers Age of Ultron - Cast

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Walt Disney Studios

Birdman (2015)

★★★★★

Birdman PosterDirector: Alejandro González Iñárritu

Release Date: November 14th, 2014 (US); January 1st, 2015 (UK)

Genre: Comedy; Drama

Starring: Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Edward Norton

What, exactly, has happened to our actors? Michael Keaton obsesses over this moral quandary for the entirety of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman, challenging each viewer’s own perception in the process. The best films are often those grounded in a sense of intellect, those which hold their audience in high enough regard to pose questions carrying significant weight. Here, it is performance art or, more specifically, the film industry that is placed under a 21st-century-swathed microscope. As the camera stalks an internally raving Keaton, we’re asked to consider the state of the movie business in 2015. Where did it all go wrong? Who is to blame? Don’t worry about causing offence. Iñárritu sure doesn’t.

Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, an ageing actor in pursuit of artistic redemption, a quest that currently finds him at the helm of a Broadway play. Thomson formerly played Birdman, a Batman-esque superhero whose feathered escapades brought the actor more cash than critical admiration. Though the film is set in a theatre, it becomes obvious that Iñárritu’s focus is the changing landscape of cinema. His script is smart, strategically splicing moments of rich humour in amongst an overarching spiel about the industry that’ll tickle those with a keen interest — like us movie dabblers.

Accordingly, Birdman ventures down two separate reels. When it is not exploring the limitations set by corporate culture, the film considers the power relations contained within visual art as it pits artist against critic; though both themes are intrinsically linked. The most prominent issue — uncultured suits designing and enforcing limits — is what bothers Riggan most, for the actor cannot escape his old Birdman character. At various points, Emmanuel Lubezki’s stunning cinematography shows off a Birdman film poster peering over Riggan’s shoulder, a constant reminder of past success. This spectre even manifests audibly as a Christian Bale-toned voice in Riggan’s head, and later physically too, signalled by a deliciously pulpy beat.

For the wannabe theatre star, superheroes are too easy and the superhero genre is a sell-out, both literally and figuratively. Michael Fassbender in X-Men? Jeremy Renner in another Avengers flick? Riggan’s dismay is palpable. As real world Hollywood prepares for a five-year comic book brawl at the cinema, the superhero debate has never been more relevant and is therefore a totally engaging hook. Riggan’s fear that he will never amass to anything more than a spandex-laden pigeon could be the same fear echoing through the minds of those actors currently trapped in the seemingly endless Marvel and DC cinematic universes.

As an audience swept up in the numerous products spawned by these behemoth film companies, the challenge for us becomes one of understanding Riggan’s watery mindset. Creating a critically laudable play is imperative in order for the actor to move on. “It’s important to me… it’s my career,” he says. His daughter, played brilliantly by Emma Stone, sets him straight: “It’s not important, okay?! You’re not important! Get used to it.” As a recovering drug addict Sam is not so hot herself, which makes her the most relatable person on screen. Her words cut deep too, suggesting a very real sense of melancholy for those plagued by the monopolised movie landscape.

That is probably why Riggan hires Mike (Edward Norton) as a last minute cast replacement, despite some reservations. Norton is terrific as the button-pusher who we sort of hate due to his deviousness, yet whose talent is admirable. In one of many excellent quips — the film is dialogue heavy, but Iñárritu and his co-writers never seem to lose textual steam — Mike sums up the dilemma stabbing away at Riggan’s mental stability: “Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige.” Keaton’s purveyance of instability is often electrifying and, even if Riggan never reclaims his former limelight, Keaton already has. At various points, both he and Norton must act as actors playing theatrical thespians on stage, which sounds incredibly difficult yet both excel.

Not satisfied with exposing those directly involved, Birdman soon sinks its claws into industry critics. We periodically encounter the power struggle between filmmaker and reviewer, and it becomes clear that as well as sell-out actors, sell-out journalists are in demand too — the Perez Hilton types, asking about the value of facial surgery and pig semen rather than proper actory stuff. The film’s best scene sees one such power-play in action: Riggan and a highly regarded theatre critic (Lindsay Duncan) spit truthful obscenities across the bar, before coming to the conclusion that they both need each other to thrive. It resembles a politically charged Game of Thrones interaction set in King’s Landing, and is as good as one too.

Having written and directed a film that essentially bashes the modern film industry (admittedly, with rationale), Iñárritu’s masterstroke is his use of comedy to diffuse, and somewhat dilute, his overtly critical narrative. In lesser hands, both aforementioned themes could pave way for dourness, for an overbearing attitude fuelled by sanctimony, but the director uses comedy to get around this problem and instead makes it part of the in-joke. Birdman may well be a true reflection of the industry today, but it is still damn funny. Perhaps we are laughing out of disbelief (that’s THREE-ZERO superhero movies on the way), but I’d like to think it is because Birdman is witty, true, bearing meaty roles, and successful. And not a superhero film.

It is worth again mentioning the exceptional work of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. The entire film presents itself as a one-take product and, rather than becoming gimmicky, Lubezki ensures that the method energises the piece without overruling it. Shots are framed with precision and give us the chance to connect thematic dots, such as the journey of the aforementioned Birdman poster — its position on the wall coincides with Riggan’s spiralling thoughts. There is zip and tenacity, and a genuine sense of theatre/film set chaos.

What has happened to our actors, then? Apparently they used to play a superheroes, but then fell out of favour. Now one is back and, alongside his prodding director, Michael Keaton is on top form again. I love superhero films, but this is bloody good too — and I think that is the point.

Birdman - Keaton and Norton

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Fox Searchlight Pictures

Man of Steel (2013)

★★

Man of Steel PosterDirector: Zack Snyder

Release Date: June 14th, 2013 (UK & US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Fantasy

Starring: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon

Batman fans, close your ears. It’s time to come clean: Zack Snyder has a very iffy track record. For every ingenious graphic novel re-imagining there’s a hollow sucker punch. Presently, we can only cross our limbs loyal to Nolan and hope for a Snyder hit in 2016, but if his upcoming superhero face-off is anything like Man of Steel, it’d be best to quell those dreams. This Superman reboot isn’t anything to scream about, not unless those screams are riddled with unsavoury expletives. There are one or two great moments that only serve to thicken Snyder’s woes, acting as snippets of what could have been. Rather, what we see is disjointed, all-too-familiar and far too reliant on CGI. Never has a superhero gallivant felt like nothing more than just an opening act. And a pretty measly one, at that.

Having been sent to Earth by his parents during the destruction of planet Krypton, Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) has grown up as an outsider surrounded by humanity. Displaying otherworldly powers, Clark eventually discovers the truth behind his own origin but is encouraged to retain secrecy. That is, until General Zod (Michael Shannon) threatens to harvest Earth and terraform the planet for the benefit of his and Clark’s Kryptonian race. Buoyed on by a robust moral code and assurances from journalist Lois Lane (Amy Adams), the newly christened Superman must live up to his moniker.

In its primitive stages, Man of Steel is caressed by a solid narrative basis. We watch Clark’s early journey through life, sometimes in the form of flashbacks that are invariably effective. His struggles to adapt are pitted against an authentic prerogative to help others. As a child he rescues a bus-full of school compatriots yet instantly reverts back into an attitude funded by reclusion. It’s not instantly clear why, but we soon realise. (“People are afraid of what they don’t understand.”) The superhero genre is fully literate when it comes to principle-juggling and any subsequent strands of righteousness, therefore these elements ought to be employed with a twist. Sadly this one’s on the straight and narrow.

Despite being touted as one of 2013’s biggest extravaganzas prior to release, the outing carries an inertness that compromises any ingenuity. David S. Goyer’s screenplay is bombarded by exposition from the get-go, so much so that what we’re watching feels like an hour long prelude to proceedings when in fact, said time frame is the opening to the main event. There’s a lot of talk about genetic codices. Other than his commonly applied Superman title, our lead has two further names bestowed upon him: Clark and Kal-El. He also seemingly vacuums his way through an inordinate amount of jobs, from fisherman to military aider. All of this time spent building up the central character is unnecessary. As opposed to presenting Superman/Clark/Kal-El within a context of effective simplicity, Goyer’s script tends to opt for overcomplicating matters.

By the time we meet love interest Lois Lane the film has gone through a descriptive rigour. From what appears to be an unduly long opening act, events meander into a CGI-stuffed conclusion, equally unnecessary in length. A whole central act is missing, one that should cement our character’s mindsets and throw up internal hostilities. Lois goes from an investigative reporter interested in Clark’s uncanny abilities to his romantic concern after only a single scene — if not for Amy Adams’ charm infusion, her character would’ve been as pithy as they come. This is a two hour film that flies by, but not in a fun-induced fully-engrossing manner. Instead, lost narrative chunks highlight a lack of meaty content. Forget drama, the filmmakers’ seem satisfied with generic set-up and action.

And there is a lot of action. On occasion, the film sends out pleas for resuscitation through energetic sequences and flamboyant visual turns. Apart from all the bombastic alien light shows and exotic explosions (did somebody invite Michael Bay over?) Man of Steel purveys a gritty realism that actually works in its favour. Snyder utilises shaky cam and a monochromatic colour pallet as a means to present Superman within realistic boundaries, an attempt to show the apparently indestructible being as quite possibly human after all. It’s a shame that CGI-gorging eventually prevails in a display of all-encompassing consumption. One fight scene towards the end is particularly unforgivable in its obvious computerisation. Realism is substituted for video game-esque exaggerations, removing rather than endearing us to goings-on. Perhaps Snyder is indulging himself here — he certainly loves his ‘low, rapidly approaching blast of wind’ camera shots.

Michael Shannon is a left-field choice to play the main villain General Zod, but a choice that transpires to be the best thing about Man of Steel. His arrival on Earth is greeted with discomforting eeriness, the “You are not alone” telecast proving to be one of the film’s most successful moments in terms of emotional circulation. Sporting a peculiar white goatee, Shannon is domineering as Zod, facial expressions stoic and purposeful, overcoming the infrequent dialogue faux-pas. (“Release the world engine” might be the least intimidating line a villain has ever uttered when in the process of launching a deadly attack.) Dawning the red cape, Henry Cavill also does well. It’s a huge role and he isn’t afforded much to sink his teeth into, but the Brit relays just enough of a charismatic glimpse to signal a productive future. Russell Crowe manifests every now and then as Superman’s biological father, his efforts wholesome but not entirely effective. Frostiness battles affection, and the former usually wins.

Zack Snyder’s Superman revival is weighed down by a tendency to streamline towards convention. The film is essentially a carbon copy of Kenneth Branagh’s Thor, only it severely lacks the Norse God’s raucous charm and humour. Here, superficial reigns supreme. Wearing more than few chinks in the armour, Man of Steel is a bit of a dud.

Man of Steel - Henry Cavill

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Warner Bros.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

★★★★

Captain America: The Winter Solider PosterDirectors: Anthony and Joe Russo

Release Date: March 26th, 2014 (UK); April 4th, 2014 (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Science fiction

Starring: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Anthony Mackie

Anthony Mackie’s aerial hero Sam Wilson clarifies his role in combat: “I’m more of a soldier than a spy.” It’s a statement that undoubtedly applies to the all guns blazing Falcon, but not one that echoes alongside Captain America: The Winter Soldier. In a bolder move than perhaps initially perceived, brothers Anthony and Joe Russo decide to direct this latest Marvel instalment down a noticeably unrecognisable runway, one without the usual witty pizazz or golden godly attire. Instead, we find ourselves immersed in a more familiar world where threats come from secretive suits and moral ambiguity challenges heat of the moment decision-making. An ever-increasing commonality on the annual cinematic calendar, superhero jaunts must beware genericism. Captain America: The Winter Soldier heeds this notion by placing storytelling on a pedestal, and the result is the genre’s best outing since The Avengers.

Having traded barbershop quartets for iPhones, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is struggling to comprehend modern society. Shield in hand and other hand in the enemy’s face, as Captain America, Rogers is unwavering — if there’s a mission to be done, it’s his job to carry out the orders without fail. However, when the star-spangled armour is removed and his protection against life and its cynicisms subsequently foiled, Rogers finds himself at odds with not only those close to him, but also at his own inherent ideals too. With the walls of surveillance closing in and S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury’s (Samuel L. Jackson) warning to trust nobody a prominent klaxon bellowing around his mind, the bastion of righteousness must suddenly contend with another menace: the aptly named Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan).

Unlike most other Marvel epics, The Winter Soldier adheres to a distinctly retro vibe; in execution, in tone and in narrative. Of course the same could be said of The First Avenger but, unlike the film set amidst World War II, Captain America’s second sole venture onto the big screen sees him fiddle around in a 2014 that is rife with wisps of the past. Phrases such as “nuclear war” are tossed around and it’s not long before the technical beat of Bourne sounds off. Rather than bombastic CGI gorging, the film shuttles forth through subtle tension. It has the basis of a spy thriller, an espionage tale pitting foes against each other in a semiotic battle where the meaning behind a threat holds as much reverence as its actual implementation.

The filmmakers astutely conjure up an air of uncertainty that sees hostile clouds slowly gather as a plethora of characters interact with each other. We know only to trust Cap, who is suffering the same principle-related dichotomy that any of us would succumb to if thrown in a similar situation. At heart he’s still the same scrawny chap from 1942, and is entirely relatable in that sense (his normality rather than his age). This amalgamation of Cold-War-esque strain is emphasised at no better moment than during a lift scene where, as more gun-wielding combatants enter and the number of suspects grows, one single trickle of sweat represents a hazy downpour from those aforementioned clouds of hostility. The overriding tonal shift works because it is different from what we normally see at the reels of Marvel (and normally enjoy too). In actual fact, The Winter Soldier is of similar mould to Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, as gritty realism effectively grounds and familiarises proceedings.

In an interesting twist, though the Cold War vibe presents an encapsulating avenue into the film for viewers, said time period absolutely remains a modern one for Captain America. The unethical derivative of modernity combined with fears over infiltration acts as an almost tumultuous double whammy for Steve Rogers, who is experiencing the worst of two eras. A lot of emphasis is placed on character development which means the audience is able to develop a sincere connection towards Rogers who, in the previous film, was a bit of a one-trick pony. This time around, Captain America is the perfect foil for the narrative in question, one hoisted aloft by defection and deception. He’s the symbol of freedom and justice, but how can one be fair in a morally jarring modern society? Rogers walks through a museum, showing signs of still living in the past much like his seemingly outdated moral attitude (“It’s just not the same”). One recognisable element though, is conflict, and The Winter Soldier himself reflects the soulless nature of contemporary life. As a villain he’s solid, if not a tad uninspired, though Sebastian Stan does occasionally stimulate an aura of peril.

The mind-strewn superhero himself, Chris Evans emits an authentic sense of noble disenfranchisement, but refrains from thrusting his character too far in the wrong direction. Unlike S.H.I.E.L.D., his stance is never compromised. Evans is a very watchable presence, much akin to Scarlett Johansson whose skilled spy Black Widow is a peculiarly compliant foil to Captain America. Johansson’s poise suits her ruthless agent, and here she is given a wider emotional spectrum to hit. Though originally introduced as part of the Iron Man thread, Black Widow is better suited to Captain America. Robert Redford shows up as S.H.I.E.L.D. seniority, a tangible throwback to those 1970s political war outings from which the film finds inspiration. His role not quite as physically tormenting as in All Is Lost, Redford appears to be enjoying the healthier hands-in-pockets approach here. Other noteworthy faces include Anthony Mackie, who injects humour and energy as Falcon, and Samuel L. Jackson whose Nick Fury sees more action than ever before.

One or two issues do arise as the film trundles on, notably a moment of universal conformity against a particular someone displayed throughout the ranks of S.H.I.E.L.D., an instant acceptance that feels slightly inharmonious when considered in context with the cohesive events of previous Marvel films. Though The Winter Soldier upholds a down-to-earth narrative for most of its overly long runtime, the last 30 minutes do usher in a quintessentially grandiose superhero battle. Perhaps a more nuanced final act might have rocketed the film within touching distance of The Dark Knight territory in terms of quality, but the concluding action is exciting and does not overstay its welcome regardless. The anxiety-driven tone contributes to the film’s wholly apparent lack of humour, which is a slightly disappointing but likely unavoidable cost.

“I thought the punishment was supposed to come after the crime,” rebuffs Captain America upon hearing about S.H.I.E.L.D.’s new anti-criminality methods. Buoyed by connotations of yesteryear, Captain America: The Winter Soldier presents a pertinent rhetoric on modern society by placing its titular hero in a moral joust of ethics that are tainted at best. Admirable, different, and admirably different.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier - Chris Evans

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)

★★★

Director: Marc Webb

Release Date: April 16th, 2014 (UK); May 2nd, 2014 (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Fantasy

Starring: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Dane DeHaan, Jamie Foxx

As Spider-Man majestically manoeuvres around an invisible pathway above New York City, camera in tow as if magnetised to his every flip, swing and twirl, we hear him articulate one witty quip after another. An air of intertwined energy and humour instantly sweeps across the screen, exponentially infectious; we are watching a superhero flick after all. Fun is the order of the day, only it arrives at a cost and in 2014 a structured sense of direction can too be quite pricey. It should come as no surprise then that, as Spidey encounters one enemy after another, proceedings take a slightly messy turn. Almost two hours and 30 minutes pass fairly quickly, but as time ticks and Spidey’s checklist grows you get the sense that ongoing events would benefit from separation into two shorter films.

Buoyed by his latest victory over Dr. Connors, Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) has become an ever-present on the streets of NYC, fighting off crime with aplomb and tactile guile whilst wearing the red of blue of his arachnid alter-ego. Beneath the surface, Parker has an awful lot on his plate: graduation, a relationship, mysterious parentage and an increasingly widening plethora of bad guys to deal with. Haunted by visions of his girlfriend’s dead father, Parker is at a moral crossroads as to whether he should continue dating Gwen (Emma Stone) and there still exists a shroud of uncertainty surrounding the motives of his father and mother. That’s not even to mention the blue-skinned Electro (Jamie Foxx) running rampant around the city, and he’s not the only one. Phew.

It’s almost a given nowadays that the combination of a gargantuan cinema screen and the latest summer blockbuster will yield exhilarating action and visual spectacle. On current evidence said expectation is justified. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 opens vibrantly and brims with commotion thereafter. Bolstered by some impressive digital creation and Daniel Mindel’s cinematography, each lively sequence retains an outstanding quality that keeps us engaged regardless of any plot misgivings. Notably, splurges of slow motion webbing are enticing and a transformation sequence towards the conclusion shepherds connotations of the magnificent scene in An American Werewolf in London.

One of the saga’s best branches stems from a trunk of genuine chemistry shared between its leading duo, Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone. The pair are a couple in that thing we tend to call ‘real life’ every so often and their inherent connection flourishes on screen, even more so than in the first film. Garfield continues to cement himself as a better Spider-Man than Tobey Maguire, who was hardly a damp squib in the role. The Englishman can hardly contain his wit at times, a trait wholly welcome in the superhero genre. Stone’s Gwen Stacy is ushered further into the limelight here and her performance alongside Garfield merits the busier workload. They jointly visit the entire emotional spectrum, a standout stop being an especially dramatic scene towards the end. It’s apparent that director Marc Webb and his cohorts are invested in these two characters and this is a positive sheen that rubs off on us viewers.

Beyond Stone and her beau, performances are generally excellent. Dane DeHaan is particularly impressive as Parker’s best friend and Oscorp inheritor Harry Osborn, his facial expressions often insinuating mischief. He resembles a young Leonardo DiCaprio here more than ever — the voice, the hair, the mannerisms — and certainly has the talent to attain DiCaprio’s enviable portfolio. Jamie Foxx stars as the primary villain Electro, though is unrecognisable post-mutation. The character’s mindset drastically alters from one of blunder to one of forcefulness and Foxx handles the switch solidly despite the villain’s lack of conviction. Another unrecognisable face lost amongst the unnecessarily long list of antagonists is Paul Giamatti, who hams it up to the Nth degree as Aleksei Sytsevich.

Giamatti’s comedic purveyance is hit-and-miss, but by and large splashings of humour strike the correct spots. Comedy has become an essential element in the superhero formula, and getting it right undoubtedly provides a sturdy springboard for any subsequent action. Quality over quantity is key; brisk spells of funny are on the menu here and these bursts resultantly set the desired tone, ensuring wisecracking comedy doesn’t overpower the drama but simultaneously exists as more than simply a relief mechanism. Whether he’s arguing against the “laundry sheriff” or awkwardly atoning for making Gwen late (“I’m sorry to bother you my fair lady”) Andrew Garfield is often the source of amusement. Heck, he even generates a laugh out of the ill Spider-Man gag.

This is a far more entertaining watch than The Amazing Spider-Man, but it does adhere to the modern Marvel formula. The studio has been churning out at least two films annually over the past few years with more projects pencilled in until 2028, perhaps an indication that we are getting too much, too soon, too often. As time develops and these films come and go, it is become increasingly difficult to reinvent the superhero wheel and there are faint smatterings of this problem to be found in The Amazing Spider-Man 2. The film is on a similar level to Thor: The Dark World in terms of pure enjoyment, but unlike the Norse tale (which channels simplicity for the most part) Spidey part two gorges excessively.

This overabundance is a problem. Far too many things are going on. By the end of the film, there are at least five villains (admittedly, of varying importance) and a few characters so far out on the periphery of proceedings that their presence is called into question. Felicity Jones is criminally underused as Harry’s assistant Felicia and one can only hope that she has a greater role in part three. A random doctor plucked straight from 1960s Soviet Russia shows up at one point and his exaggerated demeanour is one step too far. A hefty percentage of the dialogue also gets caught up in discussions over physics. Modern day blockbusters should carry an intelligent weight, absolutely, but that notion doesn’t extend to rehashing school science lessons.

Reciting implausibilities within the context of a superhero film may not be the wisest of moves, but there is a difference between principal abnormality — that is, our main heroes displaying unimaginable powers — and plain absurdity. An early fight scene that takes place on an aircraft embodies preposterousness, as both a human being and his laptop withstand a free-falling, ripped apart plane. How on earth does the device manage to retain an internet connection?

Though The Amazing Spider-Man 2 becomes entangled in a complicated web of narrative strands, a healthy dose of thrilling action and toxic humour funds endless amounts of enjoyment. Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone seal their place among the best couples going in the genre, and as the latter’s Gwen Stacy recites her valedictorian speech (“Make your [life] count for something”) we are appreciatively reminded of those familiar superhero themes: empowerment, belief, and laundry jokes.

CBF’s Genre Toppers: Superhero

Superhero films, much like any other genre, have been around for decades — dating back to around the Second World War and even further according to some accounts. However it has only really been since the turn of the 21st century that superhero films have found their place in the cinema, where they are now some of the most successful films ever made, both critically and commercially.

The following are five of my favourite superhero films, all of which, unsurprisingly, were produced in the last decade.

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

“So where’s the nearest Subway?” “Dude, it’s 1942.”

Released in 2011 as part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and one of the prequels to The Avengers, Captain America: The First Avenger stars Chris Evans as Steve Rodgers, a small man who is transformed into a super-soldier known as Captain America in order to aid the war effort (the film is set during the Second World War — which now has two mentions already in this post!). With the assistance of Hayley Atwell and Tommy Lee Jones, Captain America must prevent Hitler’s Head of Arms — played by Hugo Weaving — from acquiring unlimited energy to fuel masses of highly volatile weaponry.

Although not the most entertaining Avenger — we’ll see him later — Captain America, at least in my eyes, is the most interesting. Unlike the other films under the Marvel umbrella, Captain America: The First Avenger is set in the past which clearly gives it a distinction the other films do not have. Director Joe Johnston administers a much-needed injection of colour and vibrancy to the Captain America franchise, utilising the war setting magnificently, attaching emotion to the film and endowing depth to each individual character. As opposed to other superhero films, for example Thor, the plot is not cut-and-dry and the nostalgic setting combined with very worthy performances from the cast amounts to an entertaining film.

Captain America: The First Avenger is underrated in my opinion — there is enough action, depth and freshness for it to be placed up there among the best superhero films of recent years.

The Avengers (2012)

What is a best-of list without the biggest superhero film of all time? Having been brooding around and popping up throughout each of its predecessors, The Avengers finally hit screens in the summer of 2012 and blew every other superhero film out of the water financially. Directed by sci-fi mastermind Joss Whedon and stuffed full of all the usual Marvel superheroes (Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Hulk and so on), The Avengers follows, well… the Avengers on their quest to stop the evil Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and his army of monsters from forcing the Earth under his control.

When I went to see this film, I experienced it in 3D and with moving chairs and all sorts. While the 3D was disappointing, the whole moving chairs phenomenon really added to what is a film full of massive set-pieces (New York, for one) and action sequences. Whereas Captain America beforehand was a little tentative in regards to action and more focused on the story of one man, The Avengers is all about running, jumping, flying, exploding, crashing, banging and comedy. Whedon prevails through the daunting task of getting all of the characters enough screen time to warrant their appearance in the film, as everyone from Iron Man to Phil Coulson to Black Widow plays an essential role. Collectively, the performances from the cast are humorous and serious when need-be (mainly humorous though), but the stand out actor in this film is Mark Ruffalo, who is outstanding and by far the best Hulk yet.

Overall, The Avengers amounts to just about everything you expect when you go to see a superhero film at the cinema. It is extremely fun.

Watchmen (2009)

“I’m telling you, i am the Batman.”

After the publication of the comic and years of development issues, Watchmen finally graced cinema screens in 2009 under the guidance of Zack Snyder. Starring an ensemble cast consisting of the likes of Patrick Wilson, Jackie Earle Haley and Malin Akerman, the plot is set in an alternative Cold War timeline in 1985, where a group of retired vigilantes are the targets of a conspiracy in the United States, forcing them to band together one more time to uncover and expose the shifty goings-on.

Not long removed from his bloody, visual epic 300, Zack Snyder carries some familiar elements with him in the creation of Watchmen: it is one of the most violent films the superhero genre has seen (in that sense, it stays truer to the comic) and is also one of the most visually intriguing, feeling like you are genuinely watching a graphic novel play out on-screen. When it was released the film divided opinion among audiences, with some critics proclaiming that it is too close to the source material and thus the plot is too contrived and thus unable to breathe. Others appreciated the true nature of the film and that it did not shy away from the violence depicted in the graphic novel, which many superhero films tend to do in order to reach a wider audience (in terms of cinema, an 18 certificate alienates a large percentage of the potential audience a film may acquire had that film received a 15 rating). For me, having never read the Watchmen graphic novel, the film is a success and the characters — although blotchy in places — are encapsulating, particularly Rorschach who is portrayed sublimely by Jackie Earle Haley.

Visceral and ambitious, Watchmen successfully offers a different perspective on the superhero genre in the 21st century.

Iron Man (2008)

“I need to pee again.”

The first instalment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Iron Man, hit cinemas in 2008 to widespread critical acclaim. Directed by Jon Favreau and starring Robert Downey Jr as extravagant billionaire Tony Stark, the film follows Stark’s unavoidable creation and eventual utilisation of the Iron Man suit, along with his new-found philosophy to use the suit against evil.

Iron Man is as close to a perfect superhero film as you can get, without actually being perfect: a charismatic lead, a simple-yet-effective plot, a smart and witty script and entertaining action. Unfortunately its only downfall is a significant one — the villain. Jeff Bridges does a fine job as the sleazy, egotistical partner-turned-adversary to Iron Man, but the character itself is not very interesting and is flawed in places. Regardless, the focus of the film is on Robert Downey Jr and his portrayal of the title character. Downey delivers a cocky, effortless and witty performance, yet still provides enough humanity and emotion to make the audience sympathise with an otherwise pretty obnoxious billionaire. Supporting characters like Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Lt. Colonel James Rhodes (Terrence Howard) offer the extra support Stark requires in order to achieve the correct balance between overly brash, and sentimental. The two Iron Man sequels are not quite as good as their predecessor, but it would be a mean feat to achieve such status again.

The first offering from Marvel and by far the best, Iron Man almost has the correct concoction of elements to create the perfect superhero film.

The Dark Knight (2008)

“This isn’t awkward at all.”

Although I have The Dark Knight stated above as my favourite superhero film of all time, the trilogy as a whole should be at the summit. The only reason they are not is because this post would probably become a bit repetitive and boring. It would be like watching Saw 4 and then realising Saw 5 is on its way. So while much of the focus here will be on The Dark Knight, I am really including Batman Begins and The Dark Knights Rises as my top superhero films of all time too.

Directed by the majestic Christopher Nolan and released in 2008, The Dark Knight stars Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne/Batman and follows on from the events in Batman Begins. Wayne (as Batman), teaming with police lieutenant James Gordon (Gary Oldman) and district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), take down an unrivalled number of criminals and bring them to justice. This causes The Joker (Heath Ledger) to devise a plot aiming to bring Gotham to its knees and reduce its heroes to nothing more than the level of The Joker himself.

I mentioned just a moment ago that Iron Man comes so close to being the perfect superhero film. For me, The Dark Knight fills that spot. Everything about this film hits the bullseye. From the dark, unnerving atmosphere to the themes embroidered into the plot to the incomparable performance from the late Heath Ledger as The Joker (a performance that earned him an Academy Award in 2009). Ledger’s Joker is unpredictable, viscous and intelligent, and is arguably the greatest villain of all time in a superhero film (you will get no argument from me though). Although Ledger steals the show, Christian Bale more than holds his own as Batman — cool and stylish on the outside, but unsure and under pressure on the inside. The two bounce off of each other with immaculate chemistry. The sheer volume of characters in the film has been questioned by viewers (such as the need for Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent), but for me every character plays an essential part to the story — incidentally, Maggie Gyllenhaal is far more suited to playing Rachel Dawes than Katie Holmes was in Batman Begins. Hans Zimmer once again provides the haunting soundtrack, which adds more substance to the already eerie atmosphere.

A film about values and hope, The Dark Knight is not just a great superhero film, it is an outstanding piece of cinema. The Dark Knight is the superhero film we needed, but probably not the superhero film we deserved. Sorry, I just could not help myself.

 

Okay, so now for a few honourable mentions. These films are great too:

Batman (1966) — A feature-length film inspired by the Batman television series, Batman: The Movie takes more of a comedy angle than a violent one, with Adam West and Burt Ward reprising their roles as Batman and Robin respectively. Comical, over-the-top fun.

The Incredibles (2004) — The only animated film on the list, The Incredibles achieved universal acclaim from critics and audiences alike after its release. An entertainment-fest about a family of superheroes out to save the world.

Kick-Ass (2010) — Right from the opening scene (poor kid) all the way to the closing dialogue, Kick-Ass is a hilarious superhero comedy for an older audience. Nicholas Cage is actually good in this film. Just about.

Thor (2011) — A few eyebrows may have been raised when the director of Hamlet and Henry V was announced as the man at the helm of the superhero film, Thor, but Kenneth Branagh answered any questions by providing a flashy, amusing and solid re-introduction to the Thor character.

X-Men: First Class (2011) — This was pretty close to getting into my top five. Not only is the film encapsulating, energetic and youthful, it is also extraordinarily performed — particularly James McAvoy as Professor X and Michael Fassbender as Magneto.