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The Avengers

The AvengersAll members of Marvel fandom had their wildest dreams fulfilled with the release of The Avengers, the ultimate payoff after 5 lead up films and four years of movie going. Bolstered by the strength of Joss Whedon’s directorial vision and witty dialogue, The Avengers makes a decent superhero film. The movie is very entertaining, and although the film gets a lot of things right, it didn’t grip me the way previous Marvel ventures, such as Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk had. I found most of the action scenes lacked creativity and failed to get my adrenaline pumping, and the part that hit me the hardest, was the films lack of a gripping villain.

The film’s storyline has a lot to do with previous films, so if you missed Thor or Captain America, you may be a little out of the loop. In a nutshell, Thor’s power hungry brother, Loki, is beamed to earth where he infiltrates a S.H.I.E.L.D.  base, enslaves some agents, including Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and promptly steals the Tesseract, a powerful blue cube of unimaginable power. This event, and the fears of the horrors Loki may unleash prompts S.H.I.E.L.D. leader, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) to enact the ‘Avenger Initiative’, and bring together his team of misfit superheroes to stop Loki and his undoubtedly sinister plans.

The story focuses mainly on the Avengers learning to overcome their differences and work as a team. This is where the film really shines. Previous Marvel films have given us a taste of what each of these heroes can do on their own, and we have seen, with the exception of Captain America (Chris Evans), that each prefers to wage battle on their own terms. Although the individual ego clashes and ensuing battles eventually became tiresome, Whedon hits his stride in the quieter scenes involving characters building relationships and working out conflicts. He actually gave Steve Rogers aka Captain America, a realistic persona, something I thought was missing in the disappointing Captain America: The First Avenger. He ditched the over patriotic tones and turned down his hyper selfless nature to focus on Captain America’s ability as a leader and tactician. Although I would have loved to see Edward Norton back as The Hulk, I thought Mark Ruffalo was excellent in the role, and his chemistry with Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark when they are geeking out over each other’s tech know-how is a treat to watch. Strangely enough, I found Tony Stark to be the most irritating character in the film. Although this was most likely planned as a way to remind audiences of the size of his ego, with two films about him he had the benefit of being the most fleshed out character upon entering the film, so this extra push wasn’t really necessary. Whedon seems to have gone overboard and the constant snarky quips and one liners he saddled Downey Jr. with moved from funny to annoying very quickly.

Moving back to the positives, I knew I could count on Whedon to offer some engaging female representation that would prevent the film from being a complete sausage fest. Cobie Smulders did a decent job of portraying Maria Hill, Nick Fury’s second in command. I also loved Whedon’s development of Black Widow (Scarlet Johanson), who is portrayed as more than just a pretty face and gets a hefty amount of screen time. Black Widow shows great loyalty to her teammate Hawkeye, is a formidable fighter and has a sharp mind, which is shown off in a lovely scene between her and Loki.

The movie is shot on a grand scale, and the threat to humanity is supposed to be dire, yet it never felt desperate. I failed to connect to the stakes because I just didn’t find them to be believable in the context of the film. The root of this problem was Loki, and the inability of the character to come across as a force to be reckoned with. Although Loki was the first enemy the Avengers face off against in the comic, he’s just not that impressive in this film. Sure, Loki is clever, quick, and has a badass staff, but he can hardly hold the position of the film’s main villain, especially when it is so painfully obvious that he is a pawn. I actually love Tom Hiddleston’s performance of Loki and his portrayal worked in Thor when the focus was on his status as an outsider and his treachery and feelings of betrayal upon learning his true birthright. However, he is just not very interesting in The Avengers, and for a character that is known for his wit, outside of 2-3 memorable scenes, he really doesn’t say very much. Overall, the film just doesn’t make him a believable enemy; I never got the impression that our heroes fear Loki and even after he blindsides them, and then later unleashes his giant army of alien-mechs, I still wasn’t fully engaged. Part of this may stem from the fact that there is really no urgency in any of the battle scenes. When we finally get past the Avengers fighting each other, we get to see them take on an alien army. The aliens look fantastic, and there are some interesting moments, my favourite being when Hulk has a memorable meet and greet with Loki. However, this felt like countless other combat scenes, except with a greater focus on our heroes striking picturesque poses.

Joss Whedon gives us a strong film, and despite the its weaker elements I will be interested to see what happens with this story in the sequel, particularly when one considers the big reveal during the credits. I’m sure Loki’s actions in the first film will carry over into the second, leading to a bigger payoff overall. 

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X-Men: First Class

After several rewrites, late reshoots and a change of directors X-Men: First Class has finally hit the big screen. I was initially skeptical of this film. X-Men has long been my favourite comic book franchise but I felt burned with the last 2 releases (the ridiculous X-Men: The Last Stand and Wolverine: Origins) which squandered interesting story lines in the pursuit of ‘mutant power mania’, creating self indulgent CGI spectacles. So needless to say my expectations for X-Men: First Class were fairly low. However, director Matthew Vaughn was able to defy the odds and pull off a very entertaining and cohesive film. X-Men: First Class is very cleverly set during the The Cuban Missle Crisis of the 1960’s. The story follows the origins of Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) aka Magneto, and Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) , aka Professor X. Opening scenes focus on the childhood of both men; Erik was a prisoner in Hitler’s concentration camps while Charles led a privileged, though neglected life in New York. Fast forward a few years and Charles has finished his doctorate in genetics, while Erik is busy hunting ex-Nazi’s, looking for Dr. Schmidt (Kevin Bacon), the man responsible for killing his mother. In a twist of fate, both him and Charles team up with the CIA to look for Schmidt, now known as Sebastian Shaw, in the hopes of stopping his sinister plans with the Russian and US Army to start a new world war. The driving force of the film relies on the push and pull of Erik and Charles’ basic moral values. Erik is all about survival and has no confidence in man’s ability to accept and live in peaceful cohabitation with mutants. Charles, on the other hand, is an idealist and dreams of a time when mutants and man can mutually respect each other. This key characterization and the other moral questions presented play off quite well, especially since the ‘superhuman’ aspect of the film is muted. While there is of course the obligatory training montage of super powers and a few awesome action sequences, they are hardly the focus of the film and are not used as a crutch for an underdeveloped story (a common problem in many superhero films). X-Men: First Class’ also boasts an excellent lead cast. Michael Fassbender in particular stands out above the rest, fusing Erik with appropriate amounts of brutal morality and passionate conviction as he seeks revenge and ultimately strives to stop history from repeating itself in the form of a mutant holocaust. The story moves quickly, making it’s 2 hour and 12 minute run time fly by. I have only a few qualms with the film. One glaring issue is the quality of January Jones’ acting. While beautiful, she spends most of the film walking about in her underwear looking vacuous and unfortunately for Ms. Jones, her talent is not nearly as developed as her breasts. While her character, Emma Frost, is meant to be calculated and cold (pun intended), Jones’ complete lack of passion leaves the majority of her lines falling flat and lacking any conviction. Finally, there is the matter of continuity with the rest of the X-Men series. It is hard to tell if this is a reboot or a prequel. The entertaining cameos from former X-men actors, as well as the film’s advertisements, point towards it being a prequel. This could just be my raging nerd sensibilities talking but there are some points that don’t quite match up. Such as the use of Emma Frost, shown to be a young teenager in Wolverine: Origins which takes place roughly 10 years after this film or the differing roles of Moira MacTaggert (played in First Class by Rose Byrne) in X-Men: Last Stand and X-Men: First Class. However, continuity issues and January Jones aside, I tip my hat to Matthew Vaughn who rescued this fertile franchise from almost certain destruction.

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Thor

Shakespeare meets a hammer wielding Norse God. Sounds like an interesting combination, and it is for the most part. Kenneth Branagh takes the helm of Thor which leads this summer’s pack of comic releases (soon to be followed by X-Men: First Class and Captain America) and deviates from the regular fare of superhuman characters to something more divine. Branagh focuses the film on his characters inner struggles against self and identity and thus shies away from the obvious choice of making Thor an explosive action flick. It’s an interesting gamble, and it succeeds to a certain degree. Unfortunately, Branagh is contending with a script that does not have the writing or character development to allow for a very interesting story. Furthermore, while there are a few action scenes to raise the audience’s collective heart rate, they feel uninspired and fail to give Thor a much needed spark. Thus Thor is an odd chimera, sitting in a no man’s land, wedged between an action film and a Shakespearean-esque character drama. The film’s main plot revolves around Thor’s redemption after he breaks a long standing truce between the Asgardian’s (his people) and the Frost Giants. After this little indiscretion his father, Odin, banishes Thor from Asgard faster than you can mispronounce ‘Mjolnir’, in the hopes of teaching him humility. He lands on Earth, befriends a ragtag group of humans led by scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and from here hilarity ensues as Thor is thrust into everyday earthly activities armed only with his Asgardian know-how. Typically, I think redemption storylines work quite well in comic adaptations (i.e. Iron Man), however it feels as though the writers didn’t take much time developing the plot or characters, focusing more on the jokes then the overall story arch. Thor’s path to redemption does not feel like a journey of personal growth for as soon as he hits earth, he quickly sheds most of his arrogance and becomes the perfect gentleman. Furthermore, the subplot regarding Thor’s treacherous brother Loki feels even less loved as it is both dull and predictable, culminating in a very anticlimactic ending.
The films strongest points are definitely in the performances of Anthony Hopkins and Chris Hemsworth. Hopkins brings a restrained power to his character and makes good of his limited screen time as the ruler of Asgard and Thor’s father, Odin. Hemsworth is a lot of fun to watch as Thor, infusing the character with the perfect amount of passion, aggression and good humour. Co-stars Natalie Portman, Stellen Skarsgard, and Kat Dennings prove capable in their roles though like the story their characters feel a little undercooked. Although Portman is an intelligent woman, she is not scripted as a believable scientist, for while she can pronounce complicated theorem she spends most of her screen time giggling in a tizzy over Thor.
Thor is a fun summer film but its weak storyline and unsteady character development amounts to only a slightly above average turnout for Marvel Studios, landing it firmly between Iron Man 2 and The Incredible Hulk on my Marvel meter.

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