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The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

July 12, 2012 2 comments

The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) is something of a conundrum. Almost at the end, the teacher in a high school English class comes up with the assertion that although her professor had believed there were as many as ten different plots for a book or film, there’s only one. Not surprisingly, it’s “who are you?” This is not a little ironic because Sam Raimi, a director of reasonable talent, made an origin film about Spider-Man in 2002. Usually a studio waits more than ten years before remaking a film. I’ve read that Marvel Comics would have benefitted from a reversion of the rights unless a new film was added to the franchise. No matter what we might think of the character, the trilogy has been a major money-spinner. So Columbia Pictures probably decided that losing the rights was not an option. But Sam Raimi declared he’d had enough after three. Worse, the original cast of Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst announced they were no longer available. Facing insuperable difficulties in continuing the trilogy’s plot-line, the creative-powers-that-be decided to start again with a new director and cast. Since they already had a script for the origin of the superhero, all they needed to do was add a new villain and they could continue gathering in the dollars from the fan boy community.

Andrew Garfield trying to fit in with his skate board

 

This brings us to Andrew Garfield as the reincarnation of Peter Parker, Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy, Martin Sheen as Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson died and a CGI recreation was presumably thought an inappropriate use of S/FX funds when an equally good actor was available), Sally Field as Aunt May (I suppose Rosemary Harris was too old), and Marc Webb (note the magically appropriate name) to direct. If you’re going back to the “beginning” and reruning the same story as the English teacher suggests, this means the key members of the cast should fit an age profile for “High School”. Not being American, I’m never quite sure what age bracket this most usually covers in the real world. Watching films and television series tends to suggest it’s late teens and early twenties (finding reliable young actors who can work the tough schedules to produce these series is always a challenge). But in any sane education system, people should be moving on to university no later than nineteen or twenty. So casting Andrew Garfield at twenty-eight and Emma Stone at twenty-three gives a distinctly odd feel to these school scenes.

 

The plus side to this incongruous look is that both can act. No matter how iconic Tobey Maguire may have become in this role, he’s never been the most flexible of actors. Perhaps more importantly, once the actor gets into the suit, it doesn’t matter who it is. So the choice of Garfield turns out something of a triumph. His performance actually gives the film considerable emotional depth. Similarly, although we grew used to seeing Kirsten Dunst as Mary Jane, Emma Stone also turns in a good performance. The fact she’s at high school and not a PhD-toting Oscorp employee of sufficient years experience to manufacture the antidote to the genetic plague in ten minutes, is not important. The pair of actors work well as a couple. It’s merely unfortunate they (and the director) have been given a script that, at times, makes absolutely no sense. For all its many faults, this is actually a very good film with a stand-out role for Stan Lee. Yes, instead of the poor old boy just briefly glimpsed sitting in a train or bus, he’s the butt of a good joke as two of “his” creations battle it out on screen.

Emma Stone is allowed to have a brain despite only being the girlfriend

 

Right so we need to look at the script attributed to James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent and Steve Kloves. The question is whether the depiction of life as an ordinary “boy” needs to make any sense given that his transformation into a superhero is inherently incredible. So apart from seeing him prepared to take on and lose a fight with a bully, we see nothing suggesting amazing intelligence or a deep interest in science. He’s just shown as one of these insecure kids of apparently average ability who tries to hide in the classroom and get out of the place before he gets into trouble. Yet when he’s suddenly able not only to make fun of the bully on the basketball court but also make a leap no human could match, no-one reacts differently to him. He should have entered the mythology of the school, yet breaking the glass screen above and behind the ring with his foot (or was it his hand?) is not considered noteworthy.

Martin Sheen and Sally Field typecast as grandparents looking after a difficult teen

 

Unenhanced, he’s suddenly able to say scientifically intelligent things to Dr Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) and, without training as a super-spy, crack the top-level security on a secret lab without pausing for breath. I suppose the spider’s bite then raises his intelligence so he can immediately understand all his father’s notes and write down the key formula from memory when talking with the “good” doctor. He knows about the portable dispersal machine and instinctively understands what colour the antidote must be — that’s the powerful blue to overcome the evil green gas. I don’t mind this level of absurdity when our character has been given a background as a scientific prodigy in disguise, but the only way in which this boy is shown as excelling is wearing a hoodie. Then there’s the completely unresolved issue of whether Rajit Ratha (Irrfan Khan) finally crosses the bridge and injects the serum into veteran volunteers. The manoeuvring of the cranes in the final chase is ludicrous. . . I could go on but this would detract from my final verdict.

Rhys Ifans — is this an arm I see before me?

 

Yes, the plot is incredibly stupid and the final battle between The Lizard and the wounded Spider-Man (not really slowing down with a bullet in him — did he just heal quickly or did Aunt May do field surgery on him when he got home with the eggs?) is like every other CGI battle between a superhero and the latest villain. But there’s a real emotional heart beating in this film. He may look too old, but Andrew Garfield is immensely likeable, there’s good chemistry with both Emma Stone and Martin Sheen, and surprising depth from Denis Leary as Captain Stacy in a short role. More importantly, like Alfred Molina as Dr. Otto Octavius, Rhys Ifans is wonderfully credible as the one-armed scientist. Without such a strong performance, the film would drift. So I ended up caring for Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy as people. This may not be the best Spider-Man film. That honour is still held by Spider-Man 2 (2004) featuring Dr. Ock. But The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) runs it a close second and is highly watchable.

 

The Avengers (2012)

As those of you who read these reviews will know, I often pick a theme by way of introduction. This time, it’s the tried and tested idiom, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Some like to attribute this insight to Aristotle, others to some more recent philosophers. No matter. It represent a nice idea to chew on when you have a moment to ruminate. Essentially, you can take it at a metaphorical level and say that a watch is only a physical device but it has a higher purpose in telling you what time it is. Or you can use it to refer to a team. Individually, they may not be strong but, when you put them together in the right way, you get synergy. Well, starting off with the watch metaphor, this film is like someone strapping Big Ben to your wrist and then enthusing about how it not only tells the time but also has these great chimes. Having just sat through 142 minutes, the first word that comes to mind is ponderous. If you think this is a reference to the massive, if not lumbering, quality of the Hulk, you’d be mistaken. Almost everything about this film is laborious.

Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow

 

This is not to deny that parts of the film are actually very good. It’s just that, when it’s all put together and you have to sit through all the rubbish to get to the good bits, it all feels a bit tiresome. So let’s do a quick recap. Back in the land owned by Marvel Comics, Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) and Captain America are renegades from WWII. While the Captain is snoozing under the ice, Nick is setting up SHIELD, the ultimate Get Out of Jail Free card to be played when superhuman threats are about to overwhelm our defences. Jackson is actually credible even though asked to do obviously silly things. He brings an unexpected gravitas to the role even when responding to Loki emerging into one of SHIELD’s secret underground installations, capturing the McGuffin and kidnapping two key people who will guard and use the McGuffin to open a portal and let in the alien army. To give his newly acquired minions time to achieve their allotted tasks, Earth’s enemy allows himself to be captured and then sets about trying to undermine the morale of the Avengers. None of them like to work as part of a team so, at one time or another, they all have to fight each other. Instead of disagreeing and holding a debate, they tend to settle arguments with whatever weapons are to hand. Except for Dr Banner, of course. It’s better not to make him angry.

Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye

 

So after a few impressive opening scenes, the first hour or so is all rather tedious except for one or two pleasing moments. I confess to being completely taken by Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow and, despite the fact the supply of arrows seems inexhaustible, Jeremy Renner makes an interesting Hawkeye. It’s a shame we’re not allowed to see much of him. I find the idea of mere humans outperforming all-comers intriguing and, just as Batman uses intelligence with technology in support, it’s the spirit that prevails. This would apply to Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark except he’s Tony Stark and an arrogant SOB. Chris Evans is very one-dimensional as Steve Rogers and, in the second half, that becomes the right dimension so he comes good by staying who he is. Chris Hemsworth is completely pigheaded as Thor and the most annoying of the heroes. Which leaves us with Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner. This is a big improvement on previous attempts at creating the Hulk on screen. As a walking-talking example of humility, he actually tones down Tony Stark in the scenes they share. Incidentally, the cameo argument with Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Pott is better than anything in the earlier Iron Man films. This almost makes the relationship credible. Which leaves us with Tom Hiddleston as a surprisingly pleasing Loki. He’s a good trickster but should not be seen dead in that horned hat.

Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner

 

The special effects are, for once, special. SHIELD’s helicarrier actually looks as though it might work although the invisibility shield is the usual silly project-a-picture-of-the-sky on to the hull variety. It’s far better than the equivalent in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. The jet fighters and transports are also beautifully rendered with VTOL and manoeuvring beating anything the Harrier jump jet has been able to achieve. The final battle is very well structured and beautifully paced. It could have become very repetitive, but manages to keep everything fresh as each hero is allowed a few moments to hold a position, fight a corner or try to disable the McGuffin. I was particularly impressed by the animatronic alien landing craft. They manage to look simultaneously impractical but, from the point of view of a mere human observer, completely intimidating. The Hulk’s leaping ability and smash-through-anything approach is hilariously over-the-top and through-the-bottom as well. The Iron Man suit yet again demonstrates a level of invincibility above and beyond the call of duty. Quite how Stark is supposed to emerge in one piece is beyond understanding. That made it good to get back to basics with the Black Widow beating those pesky aliens in hand-to-hand combat. As one woman said as she was about to be incinerated by aliens, Captain America can rescue me anytime he wants. He’s just dogged and, even though no-one asks him to take on the role, he makes a natural leader. Thor pitches in but, for someone supposed to have godlike powers, he’s rather cut down to size by the weight of numbers coming through the portal. Indeed, the heroes might have lost had Earth’s governments, in their wisdom, not decided to send a different kind of help.

Chris Hemsworth and Chris Evans looking for more to fight

 

So The Avengers has good patches that increase in frequency as the film develops leading to a superior fight at the end. This means you should pack sandwiches and a flask of hot tea to see you through the opening section. You can break out the popcorn and coke nearer the end and so finish on a high. I suppose this film will make several tons of money. The marketing hype has generated the interest and, if the intended market is anything like the people who surrounded me when I saw the film, teen boys will flock to this like bees to a honey pot. It has their demographic most skillfully written all over it by director Joss Whedon who has probably done as well with the plot as anyone could. Once you have to have this crowd of principals assemble and then give each a fair amount of screen time, it’s going to get ponderous until they are forced to drop their differences and start fighting the real enemies. So if there’s an inner teen lurking inside you or, like me, you enjoy science fiction and fantasy, you should probably see this. Otherwise wait for it to come on television and enjoy the battle at the end.

 

For my reviews of allied films, see:
Captain America
Iron Man 2
Iron Man 3 (2013)
Thor

 

This film was short-listed for the 2012 Nebula Award and for the 2013 Hugo Awards for Best Dramatic Presentation.

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

August 2, 2011 1 comment

The question on the lips of every major studio executive with decision-making power over the projects that may be slated for release as a “summer blockbuster” is: what makes a good summer blockbuster? I guess, if you could put the magic formula in a bottle, those executives would batter down your door with wads of money to buy the bottle. It’s one of the great unexplained mysteries of modern society. Some films fit the bill, drawing crowds like bees to a honeypot. Others lie like rotting corpses and even the flies stay away. At one level, you could view the phenomenon as simple bean counting. The films that race to a billion dollars are the blockbusters regardless of their genre. They may be as exciting as toys coming to life or schoolboy wizards fighting to the death. This is a not unfair measure because, if the film really does a massive gross take, it must have mass market appeal. Yet there have been films launched as the next blockbuster only to be major commercial flops. They may have appeared to have all the right fast-paced action to qualify, but lack the magic ingredient to give them the appeal across the widest possible market. What makes this all the more fascinating is that, more often than not, the US market now delivers significantly less to the gross than the rest of the world. Take Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides as an example. At the time of writing, this has earned $1,032.8 million worldwide, but only 23.1% was box office in the US. That’s right: 76.9% of the revenue came from us folk living overseas! This has profound implications for the nature of a blockbuster. The script, casting and anything intended to catch the market must now reflect world taste (including the product placements). Hollywood on its own can no longer cut the mustard.

Chris Evans showing off his enhanced pectorals

 

This has been a year of alleged plenty with major studios lining up films, drumming out the loud message that each one was going to be the next “big one”. For me, this list has included some reasonably enjoyable efforts, but until Captain America: The First Avenger came along, I’d not felt I’d seen a blockbuster. Yes, I was thinking as I walked into the cinema, yet another Marvel Comics superhero brought to the screen. All this effort just so we can get to the first of what the studio intends to be the next big franchise: The Avengers — a group of superheroes hunting as a pack. And this is another grey-haired effort with our patriotic hero kicking off into action way back in 1941. What on Earth can a modern film make of a superhero fighting the Nazis in WWII?

Hugo Weaving before being forced behind yet another mask

 

Well, unlike Inglorious Basterds which went sideways into an alternative history so that Brad Pitt could win the war for the Allies, Captain America: The First Avenger makes it clear we are fighting Hydra which, for these purposes, is an organisation born out of the Nazi obsession with occultism, even prepared to bomb Berlin if it becomes necessary to achieve world domination. The leader of this Norse-inspired cult is the Red Skull or Johann Schmidt (poor Hugo Weaving, continuing his performances through layers of prosthetic make-up, from behind a mask or as a transforming truck) who was enhanced in an early experiment by Dr Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci). This all leaves us with a series of actions fought alongside the conventional war against the Nazis. So we telescope geography to move us effortless around Europe and have major scientific advances courtesy of Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) on our side and Dr Arnim Zola (Toby Jones) for the other team.

Hayley Atwell actually allowed to shoot a gun

 

At this point, I could say the entire project collapsed under its own weight as ponderous backstory and over-the-top CGI hit the screen. Except it doesn’t. It’s saved by three major elements. The script, the performances and the humour. For once, this avoids feeling like an artificial origin story. It has the same, more naturalistic feel that the first Nolan Batman had. It grows reasonably organically. Now we come to the script from Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. This could have been “Captain America” as the worst of US chauvinism, yet the writers have elected to show him as a diffident man, rather gentle and certainly not in the rather triumphal spirit of US imperialism that would have killed its box-office appeal abroad. Indeed, as if to prove the point, the US government first elects to use him to pimp War Bonds. There’s no greater indignity to heap upon a superhero than to dress him in tights, have him prance in front of dancing girls, and shill for money. Even when he does start fighting for real, he remains a rather modest gentleman, content to take on a school bully and do no more harm than is strictly necessary to set the world to rights.

Tommy Lee Jones forced to sit through his own film

 

Secondly, the cast. Chris Evans as the titular Captain Steve Rogers is wonderfully reduced in size. Indeed, at one point sitting in the back seat of a car beside Hayley Atwell as the perky Brit agent Peggy Carter, I think the special effects team rather overdid the shrinking man bit. At other times, he really did look as if he would benefit from eating your last sandwich to bulk him out a little. Once enhanced, he’s taller. Fortunately Evans is able to put the awfulness of Johnny Storm behind him and deliver a performance of real sincerity. Tommy Lee Jones is intentionally hilarious as Colonel Chester Phillips which leads me to the third point. The entire cast looked as if they were enjoying themselves on the set. The chemistry between Chris Evans, Stanley Tucci and Tommy Lee Jones sets the trend of laugh-out-loud moments throughout. It significantly enhanced the packed cinema’s enjoyment of the film, avoiding the problems afflicting Thor which took itself far too seriously. All credit to Joe Johnston who directs with a sure, light touch emphasising the absurd with a series of knowing winks. The quality of the cast is also in its depth with seasoned pros turning up in the supporting roles — like Neal McDonough hiding behind an enormous moustache as Dum Dum Dougan. To complete your enjoyment, all you have to do is ignore the incompetence of the Hydra minions who couldn’t fight their way out of a soggy paper bag. Their inept reliance on superweaponry gets a little monotonous towards the end.

 

That said, Captain America: The First Avenger is quite simply the best of the summer blockbusters so far. For those who want uncomplicated fun while watching a story told well, you can’t improve on this.

 

This film has been shortlisted for the Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation 2011 and for the 2012 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation — Long.

 

For my reviews of allied films, see:
The Avengers
Iron Man 2
Iron Man 3 (2013)
Thor

 

Thor (2011)

I suppose if you’re going to do an origin story for Thor, you have to start on Asgard just as Batman has to watch his father and mother get shot, and Spiderman has to get bitten by a spider. The problem with this in Thor‘s case is the switching between pure fantasy and the contemporary context for fantastic action. When you have everything in the same continuum, it’s easier to manage continuity of pace, style and tone. Whereas what we actually see are a bunch of actors being almost gods, Norse style, and generally acting like they’re on the greatest CGI set ever developed, followed by some local yokels.

 

At this point we need a few words of clarification. As to the CGI, I think some of the tracking shots on Asgard look faintly comic. That’s not as drawn in a Marvel Comic, you understand, but the main assembly hall/palace — possibly Valhalla — looks like it’s made out of the tubular bits that come as vacuum cleaner spares. Apart from this aberration, the interior scenes work well and create the right atmosphere. Jotunheim is dark, crumbling and forbidding, and the fighting is impressive. As to the acting in the Asgard scenes, it’s hammed up with Anthony Hopkins pretending to the twice the size of his own ego as Odin, while Chris Hemsworth works hard at being arrogant, i.e. he swaggers around and laughs like he’s just eaten several boars and downed ten casks of good Norse ale as a quick snack before lunch. The odd one out in all this acting godlike spree is Tom Hiddleston who plays Loki as if it’s pronounced low key. Although I get that he’s the trickster God who manipulates everyone, he’s remarkably self-effacing in all the early stages, and not much more of a presence when he’s revealed as the evil genius (which is not his fault because, as his private backstory tells us, he’s actually an Ice Giant who never grew to his full potential, being held hostage for Jotunheim’s good behaviour).

Anthony Hopkins showing good teeth but a dodgy eye patch

 

Anyway, forgetting the brief prologue to establish Natalie Portman as an astrophysicist dedicated to chasing phenomena around the desert like she’s just seen a tornado and wants to join in, we start off on Asgard in its full pomp and glory. Odin is about to hand over the throne to Thor. To spoil the day, Loki lets in a Ninja squad of Ice Giants to retake their energy source. When they are caught and killed, Thor, three of his trusty friends, and Loki go on a punishment raid to Jotunheim, prepared to kill all-comers until these Ice Dudes learn not to mess with Asgard (again). There’s a big fight and we get to see just how impressive a weapon Mjolnir is. I kept wanting to say, “That’s some bad hammer, Harry” but found the joke didn’t really work, being relieved from the embarrassing lack of humour when Odin arrived to rescue them all. In fact, Odin’s a bit miffed with Thor for provoking Jotunheim, so strips him of his powers and banishes him to Earth.

Chris Hemsworth and Natalie Portman say tender farewells

 

At this point, the film shudders to a halt.

 

We’re with the mortals now and, boy, do they seen flat by comparison to those strutting Norse gods. Our function is to be second rate, but able to beat the bejesus out of Thor. Poor guy. All those rippling muscles and great pecs, and all someone has to do is use a taser or stab him in the butt with a tranquiliser, and he’s out like a light. It’s humiliating. Ah, so now comes the deep psychology. All the humans think he’s nuts, albeit sometimes in a hot, hunkish kinda way. Mjolnir rejects him and Loki puts on a business suit to fit into the Earth environment and brings the glad tidings that Odin has died and gone to wherever Norse gods go when they die. It’s apparently enough to wear down the spirits of anyone who’s spent a lifetime of privilege wielding a power hammer (or, this is too perfunctory to take seriously). When Loki sends a yellow lantern in a metal suit to kill Thor and his three friends, Thor offers his own life in return for keeping Earth safe. After this, there’s more fighting on Earth and Asgard, Thor volunteers to join SHIELD, and Odin is pleased his boy finally grew up and started taking his responsibilities as heir seriously.

Tom Hiddleston with the lighting to make him look villainous as Loki

 

Here on Earth we use the expression, to shoot your bolt, and this applies beautifully to the first section of the film. As directed by Kenneth Branagh, Thor creates interest and excitement until Odin banishes his son. Thereafter, Thor’s a mortal fish out of water. Natalie Portman manages to look at him adoringly, but has the thankless role of standing by as our monster ego hero stops smiling and learns to talk with a slight frown. The fight in the town is quite good but unimaginative. The suit can beat anything on Earth except the hammer. Once Thor has it, there’s no competition. Frankly, the last fight back on Asgard is also a bit feeble, although it’s good to see Loki actually deploying some trickery against Thor. Nothing matched the escalating first battle on Jotunheim. So the pacing of the narrative is all wrong. It’s a problem inherent in this origin story. Once you commit yourself to explaining why Thor was banished, you have to show something fairly spectacular. After that, the film never recovers its momentum.

 

I wouldn’t go quite as far as saying there are boring bits, but there are certainly passages where the pace drops alarmingly. While I accept this is about Thor’s rite of passage from arrogant child to responsible adult, so not every minute can be hammer time, there were narrative decisions that could have been improved on. In the end, I think it has the same problems as Ang Lee’s origin story for the Hulk, i.e. it’s a bit too cerebral and lacks heart. This is not to say that long-term fans of the Thor we know from Marvel Comics will not enjoy this. But I suspect the market for this film will be more limited than for some of the other superhero films.

 

For my reviews of allied films, see:
The Avengers
Captain America
Iron Man 2
Iron Man 3 (2013)

 

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