Ant-Man (2015)

Ant-ManDespite having resigned first from SHIELD and then been ousted from his own company for trying to protect his Ant-Man tech, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) hasn’t quite been able to keep others from replicating his Pym Particle. Former protégé Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) has come the closest, with his Yellowjacket suit showing a lot of promise, but Pym is unable to use the original suit to stop him, and unwilling to endanger his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly), who is already acting as his eyes and ears on Cross’ staff. Instead he reaches out to Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), a recently released ex-con who is struggling to go straight and still meet the custody payments required to see his own daughter (Abby Ryder Fortson).

Considering that this should be Marvel’s most accessible picture since Iron Man, predating the Marvel Cinematic Universe and having originally been developed by Edgar Wright as a standalone feature, Peyton Reed’s finished film is surprisingly difficult to follow, at least at first. It opens completely out of context, with a flash back to Pym’s last encounter with SHIELD, and expends almost no time or energy establishing characters or story: we are simply supposed to know that that’s Howard Stark (John Slattery) from Iron Man 2 and that’s Agent Carter (Haley Atwell) from Captain America: The First Avenger, and they’re sitting next to Mitchell Clarkson (Martin Donovan) who…nope, I’m still pulling a blank. It’s a strange and stilted scene, and it makes you fear the worst for a film that already had expectations set to low.

Thankfully, however, this confusion is relatively short-lived. Ant-Man is a decidedly simple story, and like the first Iron Man it deals with men in suits battling it out over stolen technology. There are numerous other attempts to tie the narrative into the wider franchise — Lang at one point suggests calling the Avengers, only to later end up doing battle with one of their members — but these cross-overs and convergences feel a lot less incongruous. For the most part its a story of two fathers trying to reconnect with their estranged offspring, and the parallels between these two relationships is what ultimately gives the film its heart. One is told to be the hero his daughter already thinks he is, while the other must decide whether he is ready for his daughter to be the heroine she is both ready and willing to be. Father issues are nothing new to cinema, and particularly not the superhero genre, but Evangeline Lilly and little Abby Ryder Fortson aren’t defined by them.

It helps that the tone is kept relatively light throughout, with Rudd rising to the challenge set by Chris Pratt in last year’s Guardians of the Galaxy, if not quite surpassing him. He’s an incredibly likeable lead, and is able to sell even the most preposterous situation with a wry, disarming smile. Reed ensures that this levity isn’t lost as soon as Rudd puts the Ant-Man helmet on, and most of the set-pieces are as witty and amusing as the exchanges conducted out of costume. It’s nice to see Douglas having such a nice time opposite him, too, in a role even lighter than Liberace in Behind the Candelabra. The real comedy gold, however, is served by Michael Peña, who plays Lang’s former cellmate and current roommate Luis. Ant-Man‘s equivalent of Thor‘s Darcy Lewis, he is as far removed from the usual superheroics as it is possible to get, instead getting sidetracked with superfluous details or spending time saving people he has just incapacitated. His tips, in which he recounts the stories behind each piece of information, have as much energy as many of the fight sequences.

Ant-Man’s biggest success, however, comes in the way that it revitalises the MCU, introducing a new cast of characters and leaving the audience to imagine how they might interact with the established ensemble. It’s a small film, just as Ant-Man is a small hero, but it just might be enough to save Phase Two.

3.5-Stars

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Big Hero 6 (2015)

Big Hero 6In downtown San Fransokyo, 14-year-old Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter) is making quite the name for himself — and a fair amount of pocket money — as an illicit robot fighter. Worried for his younger brother’s future, university student Tadashi (Daniel Henney) takes him along to the campus’ robotics laboratory to try and inspire him to put his talents to better use and perhaps even enroll himself. Before Hiro can register, however, a fire breaks out at an annual exhibition killing Tadashi. Hiro’s pain activates Baymax (Scott Adsit), a personal healthcare robot Tadashi was developing when he died, and the two bond over an investigation into the fire’s origins that Baymax believes will aid the healing process. Together with his brother’s old classmates — GoGo Tomago (Jamie Chung), Wasabi (Damon Wayans Jr), Honey Lemon (Génesis Rodríguez) and Fred (T J Miller) — Hiro and Baymax confront the man they believe to be responsible for Tadashi’s death.

The 54th film in the Disney Classics series, following 2013’s indomitable Frozen, Don Hall and Chris Williams’ Big Hero 6 is the first to draw from Marvel Comics’ extensive back catalogue, which the studio acquired in 2009. It is a loose adaptation of a relatively obscure title created by Steven T Seagle and Duncan Rouleau, with the film’s screenwriters severing ties with the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe (as well as Sony’s Spider-man and Fox’s X-Men) in order to focus on the relationship between a young boy and his late brother’s legacy. Disney and Marvel, however, make for awkward bedfellows; the first act is an overcomplicated mess of technobabble and schmaltz as the film tries to meet the demands of two very different audiences, one expecting traditional fairytale values while the other anticipates pixilated superhero spectacle. However, while Pixar can condense and concentrate a life-time of love and loss into a ten minute montage or serve up space-faring set pieces at a moment’s notice their parent company can’t help but make a meal of it.

Fortunately, once the introductions, motivations and machinations are out of the way the characters and relationships begin to speak for themselves. This change roughly coincides with the arrival of Baymax, at which point the pace, the tone and the energy of the piece all pick up considerably. In the space of a single scene Hiro has found a renewed purpose, the film has reconciled its competing codas and audiences have a new favourite robot. From the moment he squeaks onto screen, squeezing past Tadashi’s bed and knocking over all of his books, an icon is born. A cross between an airbag and an iPod, Baymax — who bears little resemblance to the Battle Dragon from the source material– is completely irresistible, proving a consistently amusing presence in his own right while simultaneously bringing out the best in everyone around him. Hiro’s exchanges with Baymax are hilarious, honest and heartfelt; the complete opposite of his trite altercations with Tadashi. Indeed, their best scenes together — in Hiro’s bedroom diagnosing puberty; reporting a preposterous crime to a skeptical police officer; returning home apparently drunk and disorderly — go some way towards compensating for their worst scenes apart.

And then, two acts too late, Big Hero 6 suddenly remembers that it’s supposed to be a superhero movie. Having already upgraded Baymax with Iron Man-esque technology, Hiro turns his attention to what had previously been little more than the supporting cast. GoGo Tomago, Wasabi, Honey Lemon and Fred are all eye-catching and unique characters (though apparently from the Power Rangers school of colourisation), but given that they each constitute one sixth of the eponymous super-team they feel more like canon fodder than core members. That said, they’re undoubtedly impressive in action, helping to ensure that each set piece is imbued with as much spirit as it is spectacle — Jamie Chung and T J Miller in particularly making the most of every line of dialogue. Ultimately, however, this is Hiro’s story and Baymax’s movie, and inevitably it all comes back to them. The film has some surprisingly complex things to say about grief and maturity, and a number of twists and turns keep things interesting though the third act, but the appeal of their relationship is as much to do with flying really fast around the diverse and beautifully designed streets of San Fransokyo as it is about their capacity for foregrounding mental health and mortality.

A story of three halves, Disney’s latest struggles to define itself as either a family drama, a buddy comedy or a superhero origin story. By the time Baymax enters the fray and Hiro finally founds Big Hero 6 the film is already beset by structural issues that prevent it from ever really hitting its stride. It has its moments, undoubtedly, but in the end it’s neither an official Marvel film or a true Disney Classic.

3-Stars

Why Thor: The Dark World Is Marvel’s Best Phase Two Film

Marvel Phase TwoThe following contains spoilers for The AvengersIron Man 3, Thor: The Dark WorldCaptain America: The Winter Solider and Agents of S.H.I. E.L.D., as well as light discussion of Guardians of the Galaxy.

It’s been six years since Marvel unleashed their cinematic universe on cinemagoers, and in that time they have released a total of ten films, structured into a series of multi-film phases of which there are currently two, though plans exist for many more.

Phase One began in 2008 with the release of Iron Man, and continued through The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger until these four sub-franchises were finally brought together for The Avengers (renamed Marvel’s Avengers Assemble for UK audiences).

Nothing like it had ever existed in Hollywood before. There had of course been sequels, prequels, spin-offs and franchises before, but never separate long-standing sagas running parallel with interlocking stories that shared characters and a common goal. It was a real game-changer, and its influence is still being felt in cinemas today.

Right from the off it was clear that Marvel had a uniquely ambitious plan: Iron Man introduced playboy billionaire philanthropist Tony Stark and his self-sustaining arc-reactor, as well as referencing both S.H.I.E.L.D and The Avengers; The Incredible Hulk featured Bruce Banner and a cameo from Stark; Iron Man 2 fleshed out Agents Phil Coulson and Nick Fury, and introduced Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow; Thor established Asgard, Loki and Hawkeye; and Captain America: The First Avenger teased Steve Rogers, Hydra and the power of Tesseract.

By the time Joss Whedon’s The Avengers rolled around, every one of its members (excluding Black Widow and Hawkeye) had at least one stand-alone movie to their name. The film brought them all together in a way that felt perfectly organic, and in the process marked the beginning of a new age of blockbuster filmmaking: the mega-franchise. Not only was The Avengers a great film in its own right, with its own clearly defined beginning, middle and end, but it concluded a number of storylines from the previous films, continued others and set up more still. It was the end of Phase One, but the beginning of Phase Two.

The second phase of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe began with Iron Man 3, and the problems were apparent from the get-go. After the ever-increasing forward momentum of Phase One, in which every plot beat or character introduction somehow fed into the larger narrative, Iron Man 3 seemed strangely rudderless, self-contained and inert. Like most of the films which proceeded it, the film started with a flashback, retroactively introducing a villain that felt at once extraneous and expendable. Having parted ways with Jon Favroux, Marvel instead hired Shane Black, an auteur who put his own creative fulfillment before the good of the franchise. Rather than revere the canon, the thing that makes the MCU so special and valuable, Black took liberties with it.

These are problems that recur throughout Phase Two: tangential stories, weak villains and indulgent directors. When Marvel should first and foremost have been exploring their shared universe, exploiting their biggest asset, they instead fell back on traditional, stand-alone storytelling while rival studios were catching up and putting the concept to better use. Captain America: The Winter Solider was conceived as a political thriller by directors Joe and Anthony Russo, and concerned Steve Roger’s reanimated friend’s manipulation at the hands of Hydra. There’s no denying it had a huge impact on the series (spelling the end of S.H.I.E.L.D., for one) but it all but ignored the destruction of New York, Miami and London, instead opting to level Washington DC as well. It also felt too self contained.

The MCU had enormous potential to change the way that stories are told on the big screen. By establishing a shared universe Marvel and CEO Kevin Feige had the opportunity to revolutionise the traditional three act structure and pursue long-running narrative arcs not possible in other less secure and less focused franchises. Instead, it reverted to formula, introducing a fresh conflict for every movie and ending on a big effects-laden battle for the future of mankind. When it was first announced, a tie-in television series focusing on the day-to-day operations of S.H.I.E.L.D seemed like a no brainer; it would allow Marvel to explore their cinematic universe from a new angle, to expand the mythology and continue to push the envelope of multi-media entertainment. Where the films largely ignored the wider universe, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D unfortunately became slave to it, reacting to Coulson’s death, Extremis and Hydra when it should have been branching out into new territory.

Whereas streamlined Phase One built momentum by converging on a single point, Phase Two has spread itself far too thin over dead end characters and pointless plot developments. Subplots such as The Mandarin, Extremis, Hydra and Centipede ultimately went nowhere, and with less than a year to go until Avengers: Age of Ultron we are no closer to understanding why our heroes would ever need to join forces once more — leaving Whedon with a hell of a lot of explaining to do before he can get on with his own story. All we really know about the film so far is that it will feature Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver and Ultron, but rather than setting up superheroes or killer robots Marvel have convoluted matters by introducing random fire people (seriously, WTF?) and a completely separate homicidal AI (which was since destroyed) instead. The post-credit teasers, handled so well during Phase One, have all but fallen by the wayside, ceasing to foreshadow future instalments and instead ending things on a hollow joke.

The final film before Age of Ultron is perhaps the most removed of the lot. Guardians of the Galaxy, however entertaining it might be in its own right, is little more than a footnote in the grand scheme of the MCU. Again opening with a flashback (this time to the 80s), the film sees human Peter Quill zapped to the other side of the galaxy. This isn’t the universe as seen in Thor, however, a vast array of realms connected by the world tree and accessible only by Bifrost, but a completely new section of space policed by the Nova Corp. Right at the point where it should all be coming together (at this point in Phase One Captain America was forming S.H.I.E.L.D, losing the Tesseract and offering his services as an Avenger), audiences are instead watching a talking raccoon and a walking tree attempt to save a distant planet. With hindsight, this may well be essential foreshadowing, but at the moment it all seems a little bit redundant.

The only film to truly recognise and embrace its place as a small piece in a much larger puzzle is Thor: The Dark World. It may not be the best film in the world, but at least it does its job. At once picking up from Kenneth Branagh’s origin story (Asgard is almost as we left it in 2011, while Jane Foster, Darcy Lewis and Erik Selvig have relocated to London to continue their research), spinning off from The Avengers (Thor and Loki return home to face the repercussions of their actions on Earth), telling a story of its own (involving Malakeith and his search for the Aether, like the Tesseract another Infinity Stone) and planting seeds for future instalments (the film ends with Loki on the throne of Asgard). Director Alan Taylor brings his own sensibilities to the tone of the piece (it’s more George R. R. Martin than William Shakespeare), but his direction never dominates the piece. Style and ambition are all well and good, but when you’re dealing with something as sprawling and ultimately quite delicate as the MCU caution and respect for the established canon is key. Marvel don’t need risk-takers, they need utilitarians.

Although it suffers many of the same failings as the other films in Phase Two (namely an unremarkable antagonist and a big, effects laden finale) it makes up for in stakes, drama and character-driven humour. At times it feels like a direct sequel to The Avengers, and the fact that together with the first Thor it plays out as one cohesive trilogy makes the character deaths, betrayals and cameos all the more resonant. Thor, Loki and even Selvig have all been through a lot together, and the relationships have a far greater resonance as a result. Stark may have had bad dreams after New York, Captain America may still be reeling from the loss of Peggy Carter, but it’s Thor and Loki who have the most pressing (and interesting) issues. The finale may be big and brash but thanks to the involvement of Foster, Lewis and Selvig it has much more personality than automated robots fighting one another in Iron Man 3 or automated helicarriers fighting one another at the end of The Winter Soldier. At the end of the film Thor is back on Earth ready to be called upon once more, whereas Phase Two leaves Tony Stark without a suit and Steve Rogers chasing ghosts.

Again, there is every chance that I may have spoken too soon, and that next year Age of Ultron will show each movie to have been key in its own, unpredictable way. If Whedon pulls it off, Avengers 2 will likely trump The Dark World as the highlight of Phase Two. Even if that’s the case, however, there are still lessons for Marvel to learn if it wants to make Phase Three a more satisfying and all-round successful experience. A balance between style and substance is essential, as is a balance between the intimate and the epic, and the current model — hiring singular directors to branch out in new directions before overriding them for a far more generic last act — isn’t working. There are other ways to be bold and boundary-pushing, like following through with their promise of a shared universe and entering not just a new phase of stories but the next phase of superhero storytelling.

 

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Guardians of the GalaxyAbducted from Earth in the year 1988, mere minutes after the death of his mother, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) has grown up in the company of space pirates. While trying to retrieve a mysterious orb from an abandoned planet, Quill is interrupted by a group of Kree hunters under identical orders from Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace). He escapes — just — only to run into a couple of bounty hunters and an assassin who want him for a variety of reasons. As Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel) attempt to capture Quill in order to claim a reward and Gamora (Zoe Saldana) chases the orb they are all arrested by Nova Prime, an intergalactic police force lead by Nova Prime (Glenn Close). They manage to escape — just — before Ronan and Nebula (Karen Gillan) can arrive for the orb, having recruited a fifth member in Drax (Dave Bautista), who seeks revenge on The Accuser for murdering his family. Having struck an uneasy alliance, the Guardians of the Galaxy set out to do something good, something bad, or a bit of both.

The tenth instalment of Marvel’s long-running cinematic universe, James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy is the first origin story of Phase Two. Although not quite stand-alone (a Dark Elf is glimpsed in The Collector’s gallery and Thanos makes his first appearance since The Avengers), it still marks something of a departure for the studio. A space opera featuring a talking animal, a walking tree and an arrow guided by whistles (not to mention an exclusively 80s soundtrack), Guardians of the Galaxy is out there even by Marvel’s standards. An inherent weirdness isn’t all it shares with Gunn’s previous films, as Michael Rooker, irreverent humour and moments of real, occasionally certificate-pushing gore add to the film’s oddball personality.

Things get off to a strong start, as Quill is bequeathed a final present by his dying mother only to be moments later plucked from the fog outside the hospital by a visiting alien. Having nodded to Spielbergian sci-fi, Gunn then homages Indiana Jones with a bit of high-stakes tomb raiding. When the title card finally appears, our hero is dancing around an ancient alien ruin to Redbone’s Come And Get Your Love, carelessly kicking womp rats as he goes. Gunn treads the line between nostalgia and iconoclasm beautifully, referencing a number of classic movies and pop culture phenomenon without ever doing so in a way you might anticipate. The film even has its own R2D2 and C3PO, only the former has been reimagined as a bad-mouthed, gun-totting raccoon (just don’t call him vermin) and the latter as a walking tree with a spectacularly limited vocabulary (“I am Groot”).

It’s an astonishingly tough call, but Rocket and Groot arguably steal the show. Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel, despite only being cast in the last seven or eight months, give two of the best vocal performances of the year, breathing real depth into special effects that are just as impressive in their own right. Andy Serkis might — deservedly — be getting all the praise for his work on Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, but what Rocket and Groot lack in nuance and photo-realism they make up for in personality and presence. Rocket — whether he’s fixing a gun or, erm, himself — is a sardonic, short-tempered delight, while Groot gets one of the funniest scenes in the film — though to say any more would be to spoil the surprise. Pratt, Saldana and Bautista are great too, the latter (actually a WWE wrestler by trade) making a huge impression as Drax the Destroyer, a badass who takes everything at face value. Even John C. Reilly has his moments.

Like the rest of Phase Two, however, Guardians of the Galaxy is not without its problems. Having so expertly established their shared universe in Phase One, it’s disheartening to see Marvel so clearly struggling to maintain it. The joy of Iron Man, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger was the sense of cohesion and momentum which increased with every new, cross-pollinating instalment. When The Avengers rolled around its story followed directly on from each, furthering various character arcs while introducing new relationships. With Avengers: Age Of Ultron due for release next year, there is little urgency or sense of purpose for what should be the big event of 2015. That’s not necessarily a problem with Guardians of the Galaxy itself, but the tangential nature of it can’t help but slow things down even further. Even the re-appearance of Thanos does little to further the over-arching story, with the character limited to a mere cameo in favour of Ronan and Nebula, two of Marvel’s least engaging villains to date.

Guardians of the Galaxy‘s sheer disregard for logic and reason is often joyous (and even a running joke among the characters themselves), but it’s also at times incredibly frustrating. The first half an hour sees the audience bombarded with gobbledegook, as comic book mythology is introduced but never explained. Nouns like Xandar, Knowhere, Nova Corps, Ravagers and Kree are likely to go right over your head, and unless you’re completely au fait with Marvel’s comic book universe you are unlikely to pick up on a number of references — not just Easter eggs, but plot points too. You can no longer delineate characters solely on the basis of skin or costume colour; there are a number of blue characters in Guardians of the Galaxy, and it’s almost impossible to determine the relationship between them. There is precious little sense to the wider universe, at least beyond Asguard and Midguard, and it becomes particularly problematic during the closing battle when you’re supposed to be fearing for the lives of supporting characters you barely recognise let alone care about: random pink girl, for instance, or that alien with the eyebrows.

Guardians of the Galaxy is nevertheless a very entertaining space romp. It’s funny, exciting, beautiful and — given the preponderance of profanity, the dubiousness of the ethics and the occasional grisliness of the special effects — suitably edgy. Add to that the quality of the cast, the quotability of the script and general awesomeness of the soundtrack, and you have a film that it is destined for greatness. Sadly, however, your enjoyment will likely be marred somewhat by an incomprehensible plot, weak villains and moments which stretch your goodwill a little too far. The whistle-guided arrow, for example.

3.5-Stars

Heroes And Hypocrisy: Batman Begins vs. Iron Man 3

Batman Begins Iron Man 3The following article contains spoilers for Batman Begins and Iron Man 3.

Ever since 2005, when Christopher Nolan opened The Dark Knight Trilogy with Batman Begins, comic book fans and general moviegoers have been unanimous in their praise of his singular vision. In particular, they’ve commended the way in which he overlooked or nigh-on reinvented established characters to better fit his own take on the source material.

The more unlikely villains in Batman’s rogue gallery were ostracised for fear that they detract from the film’s more realistic feel, while others like Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman were toned down and never referred to by name; Robin was all but left out as Nolan sought a more serious tone, one that had little room for a Boy Wonder; and finally, unable to settle on a love-interest from the character’s seventy-odd-year history, he fabricated one of his own: Rachel Dawes.

One year on from the trilogy’s completion, following the release of The Dark Knight Rises last summer, Nolan’s trilogy is widely regarded one of the best — if not quintessential — series in the genre. After all, it saved DC’s Batman franchise from an early grave dug by Joel Schumachar, and simultaneously appealed to more casual cinemagoers previously put off by the character’s sillier elements. It even won a couple of Oscars for its efforts.

From this example you’d expect faithfulness to rank pretty lowly on audiences’ individual checklists. Put a great director in charge of a comic book adaptation (preferably one coming off the back of a lesser instalment) and let them make the best movie they can, just so long as they pick and choose enough elements from the source material so that it is still recogniseable, if only in name. Not so, it seems.

Having united each of its constituent franchises (and, it seems, every audience member alive today) in 2012’s The Avengers, rival studio Marvel finally moved into phase two of its plans for a cinematic universe. Hiring another filmmaker straight out of left-field, Marvel put Iron Man 3 in the hands of Shane Black, then best known as the writer of Lethal Weapon and the director of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

Like Christopher Nolan, Shane Black was an auteur, and one who was only too happy to bend the source material to meet his own directorial style. But where Nolan was commended for his changes, Black was criticised; suddenly it was disrespectful to drop characters, an insult to mess with established canon and irreverent to make your own movie, rather than that desired by the audience at large.

The main point of contention here is The Mandarin. Whereas Nolan could reinvent Ra’s al Ghul — for fear that pitting Christian Bale against a 600-year-old martial artist who digs magic holes might stretch credibility — Black, it appears, couldn’t. In the comics, The Mandarin is a racist stereotype with ten mystic rings capable of doing everything from rearranging matter to disintegrating foes. This time it seems that is what must be delivered, and nothing else.

But Black didn’t. Like Nolan’s insistance that Batman is a symbol and not just a man, Black pursued an alternative approach: as with Ra’s al Ghul, The Mandarin is presented as a decoy, a man playing a part while the real villain operates in the shadows. Ben Kingsley threatened to steal the film as out-of-work actor Trevor Slattery, the mouthpiece for Guy Pearce’s true villain. Unlike the case of Ra’s al Ghul, the fans weren’t having it.

The only difference between the two approaches that I can see is that while Nolan delivered a trilogy packed with pretense and cod-philosophy, delivering a psuedo-intellectual film that could be held up as proof that comic book movies aren’t just for children, Black treated Iron Man 3 as one big, universal joke. But rather than enjoy the wit and humour of Black’s misdirection, the fans have taken offence at it, viewing such flippancy as an attack on the characters and culture that they hold so dear.

But it’s the same situation: auteurs imposing their own style on a beloved character, often at the expense of convention and canon. Both are solid, worthy movies, it’s just that Black decided to make his fun to boot. Really fun.

Avengers Assemble (2012)


Saved from oblivion by a race of aliens craving dominion, Loki (Tom Hiddleston) arrives on Earth in search of The Tesseract: an item of unlimited power that currently lies with S.H.I.E.L.D. When it is stolen and the world endangered, Director Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) revive the Avengers Initiative in the hope of uniting Earth’s mightiest heroes. As they reach out to Captain America (Chris Evans), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and The Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), however, it quickly becomes clear that a vengeful former Asgardian and an army of extraterrestrial warriors might be the least of their worries.

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The Incredible Hulk (2008)

Dr. Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) is on the run from the U.S. Army, bottling soft drinks for money in Rio de Janeiro where he has established an e-mail correspondence with a scientist claiming to be able to help him control, and maybe even permanently subdue, his alter ego, Hulk. When an innocent mistake leads a special forces team headed by British Royal Marine Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth) to his door, Banner loses control and unleashes the beast on his pursuers. Escaping back to Culver University in Virginia, he reunites with Betty Ross (Liv Tyler) and tries to track down his original findings with which to furnish his accomplice. Desperate not to fail again in capturing the beast, General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (William Hurt) sanctions further experimentation on Blonsky which leads to the creation of Abomination, Hulk’s most dangerous adversary to date.

Having suffered an overdue backlash from superhero-fatigued audiences following their previous attempt to bring the character to the big screen, in Ang Lee’s criminally underrated Hulk, Marvel tried again in 2008 with a marginally grittier reboot redubbed The Incredible Hulk. Directed by Louis Leterrier, this new film saw the roles recast and Banner’s initial transformation explained away in a pre-titles sequence so that more screen time could be devoted to setting up the film’s villain, an element which had proved an apparent weakness of the original movie, as Lee had chosen to ignore the title’s more esteemed villains in favour of a trio of mutant dogs and Banner’s unhinged biological father, the terrifyingly ridiculous Absorbing Man.

So, with Lee’s comic book stylings and psychological focus a thing of the past, The Incredible Hulk reaffirmed the brand’s decidedly more mainstream roots in an attempt to avoid the box office disaster that met its predecessor’s release. Cue a bigger budget, a greater reliance on set pieces and an antagonist with something approaching name recognition. With a cast of respected actors in place, Leterrier left his cast to act in the margins while he concerned himself with the creation of a Hulk that might finally hold up under scrutiny. Aiming to introduce a version of the character that could conceivably fit into the same narrative universe as Iron Man (in accordance with the first phase of the studio’s Avengers Initiative) Marvel ultimately succeeded both in terms of increasing box office gross and – in a now-familiar cameo sequence – uniting its franchises for the first time onscreen.

But the character of Bruce Banner deserves to be more than a mere place-holder designed to placate audiences until the studio can arrange for the scientist to crop up as part of an ensemble four years down the line. Edward Norton fails to convince either as a genius scientist or as a man on the run, his Banner an uninspiring and unremarkable protagonist, not only in response to Eric Bana’s brooding performance but also in comparison to Robert Downey Jr.’s sarcastic Tony Stark – not to mention the rest of the Avengers soon to follow. Tyler, on the other hand, bores as the permanently wet-faced love interest, while Tim Roth hams it up to preposterous levels as the Russian-born (but accent-free) Emil Blonsky – at least until he is finally overrun by pixels in time for the film’s computer generated finale.

Whichever incarnation you happen to prefer, it’s nevertheless difficult to argue that the decision to reboot the franchise is entirely justified. In hindsight, the special effects are just as dated as those of Lee’s film, while the finished product is only nominally less cartoonish. With the effects now distracting rather than delighting, the only real difference between incarnations is just how less interesting Leterrier’s proves on its own merits. As The Avengers prepares to reboot the character once more, it’s clear that they too had their own reservations about this particular abomination. And rightly so.

FILM NEWS: “I Still Believe In Heroes”

For those of you who, like me, struggle to tell one sport from another, this weekend marks America’s Super Bowl. Other than being a massive basketball baseball football event in its own right, the Super Bowl is notable for the time and expense put into the programmed ad breaks.

Along with such other upcoming cinematic heavy-hitters as The Hunger Games, Battleship and John Carter, 2012’s ceremony also featured our most detailed looks yet at Marvel’s hugely anticipated The Avengers, a film which unites four major film franchises in what promises to be the superhero movie to end all superhero movies.

The footage didn’t disappoint. Culminating in a group shot which could pimple Goose-man, the TV spot really is quite something. And it can be viewed below.

Directed by Joss Whedon, The Avengers will see Captain America (Chris Evans), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jnr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) assemble under the watchful eye of S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). Joined by Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), the Avengers must put their many differences aside and work together if they are to stop Thor’s vengeful brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston).

Now though, back to the court field stadium for some more running…