From the Archives: Summer 2011 Blockbuster Recap

Originally published August 23rd, 2011. Layouts & titles by Nathan Carter.

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Ryan’s Most Anticipated of 2014

So excited was I for 2014’s potential slate of films that I’d actually had a draft of this list written up back in July. Several release date changes, new additions, and comprehensive rewrites later, and here we are at my final list of eagerly-awaiteds. And I haven’t settled for just ten.

15. Exodus

exodus-christian-baleAs an atheist, formerly a COFC (Child of Forced Christianity), biblical films have often rubbed me the wrong way. In part, it’s people’s cultish fanaticism, the outdated lies the church feeds to gullible geriatrics, and the sick way it lends its “seal of approval” to certain films dealing in its scripture. It’s also why I’ll likely be skipping Darren Aronofsky’s Noah – the director spoon-fed me enough Christian tripe in The Fountain to last a lifetime.

Yes, I am an atheist. Happily, so is Ridley Scott.

So it seems Exodus is aiming for something a bit deeper than propaganda. The smartest religion-based films all have a sense of spirituality about them, not in a pandering sense, but to appeal to the similarities we share as a species. Our fears, our hopes, our desires, these emotions transcend organized religion and speak to each of us on a personal level. Scott, who handled even the most heavy-handed Christian themes in last year’s Prometheus admirably, should be able to strike that cord with a more universal tone. On top of that, Christian Bale will almost certainly prove a fantastic casting choice as Moses.

14. Maps to the Stars

file_177163_1_map-of-the-stars1I prefer director David Cronenberg when he’s making hard-edged mystery movies like A History of Violence over winking, meta works like eXistenZ, but the director’s latest film dealing with, according to star Julianne Moore, “the pursuit of fame at any cost,” has me intrigued. And already the signs of Cronenberg’s trademark meta-ness are there – this is the first film the 70-year old Canadian filmmaker has ever shot in Los Angeles, a film being produced by the very people he’ll be criticizing.

Maps to the Stars began as a screenplay by Bruce Wagner, who turned it into the novel “Dead Stars” after the project fell through, then re-adapted it into a screenplay when it was picked up again. The New York Times described Wagner’s novel as, “Stomach-turning, sick-making, rancid, repugnant, repellent, squalid, odious, fetid, disgusting.” Sounds right up Cronenberg’s alley.

13. 22 Jump Street

16-22-jump-streetI’d forgotten just how much I loved last year’s 21 Jump Street until I bought and re-watched the film on a whim during Black Friday. It is a truly hilarious movie, one of the funniest I’ve seen in a while, with its self-aware sending-up of the action genre. The film also did some really clever stuff portraying the generational gap between this and last decade’s high schoolers, which spoke to my funny bone more than even the passing years ever could.

Its sequel presents a similar premise, with Schmidt and Jenko (Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill) heading to college to find and bust up a new drug ring. I love the fact that the film unabashedly revels in the absurdity of its new title, being named as such simply because the cops now occupy the church across the street. My only concern is that the original screenwriters aren’t present, but luckily its directors are, so hopefully 22 Jump Street won’t fall victim to the typical comedy sequel pitfall of, you know, completely tarnishing the original film (ahem, Hangover).

12. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Andy-Serkis-as-Caesar-in-Dawn-of-the-Planet-of-the-Apes2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes was easily the best Apes film since the 1968 original, effectively relaunching the dormant franchise by going back and telling the backstory behind the simians’ takeover of Earth. It was smart about paying homage to the series’ legacy, while doing enough of its own thing to justify its own existence. One of the best surprises of the year was hearing the familiar, “Get your stinking paws off me you damned dirty ape!” followed by Caesar’s bellow of, “NO!” All I remember thinking was, “oh shit!”

Now it’s four years later, and the hyper-intelligent apes have been training and populating the forest where James Franco left them. The humans are now contemplating war against the apes to take back their land. How will the apes continue developing their speech? Will they start using obscenities? Have they perfected their British accents yet? Either way, with some likely incredible effects work from WETA and a motion-captured Andy Cerkis, let’s hope newbie Apes director Matt Reeves can keep this fire stoked.

11. The Expendables 3

expendables-2-logoTo call the Expendables films a guilty pleasure would imply some sort of guilt. I am completely, totally, unabashedly in support of Stallone’s biennial teaming of the best and boldest action stars for one big, fun ass-kicking session. And this time around the roster additions are even more impressive: Wesley Snipes, Jackie Chan, Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson, and Antonio Banderas round out an already outstanding ensemble of action veterans.

Behind the camera is Red Hill director Patrick Hughes, an interesting choice, one which matches Stallone’s desire to inflict the series with new blood. Let’s just hope the casting of several pretty-boy nobodies won’t take the focus off the more established actors who better deserve the pat on the back. Let’s also hope this isn’t the last we see of Stallone’s franchise; with stars like Nicolas Cage (sought out for this installment, eventually replaced by Kelsey Grammar due to scheduling issues), Kurt Russell, and several other action greats who’ve still yet to enter the fray, it’d be a damn shame for Stallone to retire the team without giving them their time to shine.

10. A Million Ways to Die in the West

amwtditw2Last year’s Ted proved Seth McFarlane wasn’t just a capable showrunner, but a capable film director as well, seamlessly translating his self-referential, gross-out, 80s-referencing, gut-bustingly funny brand of humor to the silver screen. I can’t wait to see what he does with his latest, a parody of the western genre featuring a mess of celebrities in either major roles or cameos (Liam Neeson!). It’ll be a true test of McFarlane’s abilities, seeing if he can’t handle the bigger budget and star-studded cast. But with the way he gracefully took it on the chin during his  unfairly reviled Oscar hosting gig, I have no doubt McFarlane can pull it off. And hey, it can’t be any worse than the current state of his familiar animated cartoon show, which has long outstayed its welcome.

9. Maleficent

maleficent-watch-first-trailer-movie-angelina-jolieWith Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland pushed back to 2015, I’ve turned to another film for my classic Disney fix – this retelling of Sleeping Beauty from the perspective of its antagonist, starring Angelina Jolie in a role she is absolutely perfect for.

The film should prove an intriguing re-invention of the timeless Disney mythology. The spindle, the thicket forest, it’s all there thanks to production designer-turned-director Robert Stromberg, who also worked on Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, a film which certainly can’t be faulted for its design. There’s also Beauty and the Beast scribe Linda Woolverton and DC Animated writer Paul Dini on scripting duties, both of whom are sure to bring something special to the film.

On top of that, the character herself was the stuff of my childhood nightmares. There’s just something  innately terrifying about her appearance on a very primal level, and the film’s trailer already showcases a doozy of an exchange between her and Aurora:

“Don’t be afraid!”

“I am not afraid.”

“Then come out!”

“Then you will be afraid.”

*shivers*

8. Gone Girl

gone-girlLately I feel as though I’d been unfair to the subject of my first full blog-based review, David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I should’ve better appreciated the film’s atmosphere, its slick mystery plot and unique character portrayal. I very much hope to be better singing Fincher’s praises on his next novel adaptation.

Fincher, whose talents are probably better suited here than on Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea remake, will direct the story of a man searching for his lost bride from a script by the novel’s original author Gillian Flynn. I haven’t read the novel, but the promise of neo-noir-like themes of deception and paranoia between the couple intrigues me. It’ll prove interesting to see how Flynn chooses to adapt her novel’s way of revealing plot points entirely from the perspective of its leads (Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike). And on a side note, Affleck himself has been making some very smart career choices lately (Runner Runner excluded), so I have to give him credit for really growing up in a big way. This is definitely a film I’m watching out for.

7. X-Men: Days of Future Past

xmdofpIt wasn’t until very recently that I began to truly appreciate what director Bryan Singer had done on X-Men. Yes, I’d reasoned, the 2000 film rejuvenated the comic book movie. Yes, it spurred studios to begin taking pulp properties seriously. Yes, it balanced an effective ensemble. It also spawned a series that still hasn’t quite mined the heart of its source material, a series filled with blaringly obvious metaphors and thinly-drawn characters (read: walking sets of powers) in its earliest installments.

Now, I see and appreciate what Singer was doing. His films aren’t about the script or the characters. They’re about the staging, the gravity he lends to the proceedings, the real-world application he brings to the pulp, and the spot-on casting of these actors. With that in mind, I’m even more excited for Days of Future Past, which will not only unite the cast of Singer’s films with their younger, equally brilliant counterparts from First Class, but also boast a script that’s been toiled over by First Class’ Matthew Vaughn and Simon Kinberg. It all feels like one big culmination of everything the series has been building up to.

A dystopian future spurs Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) to travel back in time to fix the past and save the present; I like this idea that out of ultimate despair, out of complete hopelessness, comes hope for the future. I also like the idea of Professor X meeting himself at a very different time in his life (as in the above image), comparing and contrasting the two Xs. Days of Future Past’s trailer provides a dark gravity the series hasn’t seen since X2, and could easily wind up being the best of the series.

6. A Walk Among the Tombstones

liam-neeson-filming-a-walk-among-the-tombstones-3Two Liam Neeson-starrers will grace the silver screen in 2014. The first is February’s airplane heist thriller Non-Stop from Unknown director Jaume Collet-Serra, which looks to be along the same silly, fun lines as the first Taken. The other is this, the long-gestating adaptation of Lawrence Block’s 10th Matthew Scudder detective novel about a retired cop investigating the rape and murder of a drug dealer’s wife. And while Taken sold me on the prospect of more action-centric Neeson vehicles (which even he doesn’t take seriously), it’s great to see such a talented dramatic actor bringing his considerable gravitas to something a bit more…well, serious.

The adaptation, to be helmed by writer/director Scott Frank (The Lookout) has been heavily praised by Block himself, who wrote, “I couldn’t be happier about either the star or the writer/director, both of them genuine artists and brilliant professionals. My book’s in good hands.” You rarely hear such a ringing endorsement from the author of an adapted novel these days, so I fully expect to enjoy my walk this Fall.

5. Captain America: The Winter Soldier

capwsThe second Captain America faces an uphill battle. It must make up for time lost after the all-too-humble characterization seen in The First Avenger, better expanding on Cap’s authoritative voice as written in The Avengers. It must balance the blockbuster thrills of team-based conflict involving newcomers Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Falcon (Anthony Mackie), while still depicting the more intimate inner turmoil of Rogers (Chris Evans), a man out of time who has lost both a lover and a best friend, forced to face a world he no longer recognizes. It must take audiences through the tragic arc of Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), another sorely underdeveloped character in First Avenger. Most importantly, it must convince audiences that good-guy Rogers is as interesting a character as Batman or Iron Man. Indeed he is, in the comics anyway, which is why I’m happy to see the excellent Ed Brubaker-written Winter Soldier arc being translated to the silver screen. With “Community” directors Anthony and Joe Russo taking over for the safe, mechanical direction of Joe Johnston, Winter Soldier looks to be the smarter, edgier political/spy thriller to better tap into the heart of what Cap is all about. And finally, a suit that looks great and lets Cap’s ears breathe.

4. Interstellar

interstellar_lead-449006It’s a former Spielberg project back on track thanks to the Nolan brothers, and it’s just as shrouded in mystery as when it was last buzzing about. A 2008 draft of the script by Jonah Nolan suggests ties to black holes and alternate planes of existence, a fascinating prospect which should prove to be smart sci-fi material for director Christopher’s first venture into the genre.

I like Nolan as a filmmaker, but despite what Batman fanboys hailing him as god’s gift to cinema will tell you, he really isn’t at his best directing action. It’s the suspense, the intrigue, the sheer storytelling ability showcased in Memento and The Prestige that make Nolan special. Those abilities seem to have suffered a bit after the overwritten Inception and the underwritten Dark Knight Rises, both of which experienced overblown hype that may very well have gone to the director’s head. Still, with admitted influences in sci-fi greats Ridley Scott and Stanley Kubrick, Nolan’s own space odyssey has potential to be something truly special.

3. The Hobbit: There and Back Again

the-hobbit-there-and-back-again-postponed-until-december-2014-129368-a-1362124090-470-75There’s not much praise I haven’t already heaped on Peter Jackson and his team for their outstanding work bringing J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit to life. The third and final installment of the trilogy will be their last-ever outing to Middle-Earth, making for all the more reason to be excited for the epic, bittersweet conclusion to Bilbo and the Dwarves’ saga.

As such, the storied Battle of Five Armies of the novel is sure to be the most epic of Jackson’s entire Middle-Earth saga. It’s a lofty expectation, given that these Hobbit films haven’t quite taken the world by storm in the same way the Lord of the Rings trilogy did. But they are a nice throwback to those films, showcasing a great mythology worthy of praise for WETA’s brilliant design work alone. Something tells me Jackson’s Tintin sequel and whatever other New Zealand-based projects the director has planned after ending his tenure with Tolkien just won’t compare.

2. Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

josh-brolin-sin-city-a-dame-to-kill-forDéjà vu…Robert Rodriguez’s highly-anticipated follow-up to 2005’s Sin City teased us with an official 2013 release date before the director revealed it was all a ruse to hold that date for Machete Kills. The film, which will take another year for its effects to be completed, will now see release in August, yet the delay has done little to dampen my enthusiasm for the sequel to one of my all-time favorite films. Everything I said in last year’s Most Anticipated post still applies, so there’s little I have to add to what will hopefully jump-start Sin City into a full-blown franchise. And I can’t be the only one who’s praying for Clive Owen to make a surprise reprisal of post-face-operation Dwight for the climax of the film’s title segment.

1. Knight of Cups

knight-of-cups-stillIt’s rare these days for any one film to completely blow me away, but what Terrence Malick achieved in To the Wonder was nothing short of spellbinding. I’m expecting equally big things from his next, a story of Hollywood excess starring two of my favorite working actors, Christian Bale and Natalie Portman, among a cast of equally impressive players.

As is sadly the standard with Malick’s work, the question of whether or not these actors will actually make the final cut is another matter entirely. Malick is notorious for shooting hundreds of hours of footage and constantly changing the focus of the final cut during his films’ lengthy post-production period.

Malick shot Cups simultaneously with his next, an as-yet untitled film about the music industry which starred, among others, Michael Fassbender, who recently expressed doubt he would make it into the final cut. Yet to read Fassbender talk of what a privilege it was to work with Malick regardless is telling enough. Truly, Malick’s meticulousness is the work of a master director, one who has spawned some of the most profound, intensely detailed, meticulously crafted films of the past half-century. As far as I’m concerned, he can take all the time he needs.

Happy New Year all! Expect my 2013 Top Ten list very soon.

Review: The Avengers

avengers-movie-poster-1Back in 2008, a small post-credits scene at the end of Iron Man saw Tony Stark walking into a darkened room of his penthouse, only to be greeted by SHIELD director Nick Fury. The superspy cryptically asks, “You think you’re the only superhero in the world?” and adds, “I’m here to talk to you about the Avenger initiative.” After four long years of rampant speculation and skyrocketing hype, that brief, lone scene has finally been paid off.

In an unprecedented move, Marvel Studios has united several of its comic book heroes for The Avengers, the highly-anticipated summer opener that’s generated a tremendous amount of excitement in fan communities and based on the eponymous team-up comic created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Marvel has long been plugging the film as their magnum opus, the one film that will bring their carefully laid plans full circle and dictate where they go next. If the film itself is any indication, that can only mean great things for Marvel fans.

At a secret SHIELD base, testing on the mysterious cubical power source known as the Tesseract is underway. Suddenly, the cube summons Thor’s evil half-brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who quickly disarms the room and takes control of several agents, among them Hawkeye the archer (Jeremy Renner), and steals away the cube. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) are forced to begin recruiting a superhero team called the Avengers, including the World War II-serving, recently unfrozen Captain America (Chris Evans), gamma ray expert and part-time Hulk Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), the wise-cracking, technology-mastering Iron Man himself, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and the god of thunder and heir to the Asgardian throne, Thor (Chris Hemsworth). Soon, however, Loki conjures an alien army of Chitauri to fight the newly formed, frequently quarreling team. The Avengers must learn to work together before the planet suffers under Loki’s villainous reign.

I’m pleased to say that The Avengers does indeed live up to the hype. Cult writer/director Joss Whedon (Firefly, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) has written and doctored many scripts over his career, but The Avengers is truly his first time in the limelight. It’s about time – Whedon has had a long history with failed comic book adaptations, and now he’s finally gotten a chance to prove his skill at constructing a fun, heartfelt, and entertaining superhero movie.

Writing and directing The Avengers, Whedon manages a tough balancing act in getting these characters together and giving them all equitable time to shine, on top of paying off the five previous Marvel Studios films and still ensuring this film’s ability to stand alone. Approaching the film with an eye for its source material, Whedon crafts a very comic book-y experience, making for far more pulp-quality than one might expect. Dialogue sounds as if it’s been read right off the page, and visually, Whedon fills the frame like he’s visually recreating the panels of a comic book.

While that approach can be appealing at times, the director’s skillset is largely a double-edged sword – having written several comics himself, Whedon doesn’t quite grasp cinematic convention over that of the funny books. And as someone who’s worked more in comics and TV than behind the camera of a major Hollywood film, Whedon’s inexperience lends the film less visual dimension than others who’ve tacked this subgenre. Whedon lacks the strong directorial presence of, say, Thor director Kenneth Branagh, which keeps The Avengers from being as intimate and gratifying as the latter director’s work.

For example, the entire first act of The Avengers is overly loud and chaotic. With very little exposition to start, we’re thrown right into the action without being allowed to get properly invested, or even formally introduced to the characters. This kind of thing is typical in comics, but crafting film requires a bit more thoughtfulness than your average Tales of Suspense.

While these flaws aren’t nearly enough to derail the film, there’s obviously room for improvement-through-experience in Whedon the director. Whedon the writer, on the other hand, fares much better. The film’s sense of humor is very effective, the action sequences are original and thrilling…this is the work of a solid screenwriter really flexing his creative muscles, and it’s hard not to admire Whedon’s no doubt herculean efforts at getting it all to work. Complemented by a great Alan Silvestri score, which sounds even more iconic than the composer’s work on last summer’s First Avenger, The Avengers is a film Whedon has every reason to be proud of.

The real meat-and-potatoes of the film is, again, in its characters. Whedon is careful to treat them all reverently, carving memorable icons of them through dialogue and imagery. He sets the stage by taking each Avenger and recreating his/her respective ordinary world, then slowly weaving it all together into one satisfying, cohesive universe for them to occupy. From then on, it’s all about the iconography, the thrill of seeing these heroes fighting side-by-side.

And still, Whedon never loses sight of just how deep each and every one of these characters is. Every bit of dialogue, every moment of character interaction, every bit of humor or conflict, all perfectly reflects these characters’ contrasting personalities and backgrounds. While the film is still clearly more concerned with epic, expensive battle sequences than the internal growth of its characters, Whedon nonetheless builds strong relationships between the heroes – Steve Rogers sympathizes with Bruce Banner after witnessing his transformations, resulting from his attempts to replicate the Super Soldier Serum that made Rogers Captain America, Black Widow and Hawkeye share subtle romantic tension, Thor sees Loki as both an enemy and a lost brother in need, etc.

You get a sense that these actors have literally disappeared into their characters. Among the standouts are Mark Ruffalo’s controlled, self-aware Bruce Banner, and Chris Evans’ lost, yet leader-like Steve Rogers (and yes, the character is finally done justice this time around, proving my suspicious that Whedon wasn’t heavily involved in First Avenger). Refreshingly, Whedon writes and presents these two far better than the people behind their respective solo outings, and I very much hope he’s able to leave his mark on their next solo films.

Fans of Whedon’s past works will know that the writer pays particular attention to female characters, and Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow is no exception. Regulated the the sidelines in Iron Man 2, here she receives significantly more screentime. Whedon hints at an unseen backstory of brainwashing and assassin work, giving her intriguing prospects for a spin-off flick of her own.

Tom Hiddleston’s Loki is positively devilish, an unsettling oversized grin spread across his face in his first appearance. There’s an overall sense of black humor about him; a man earnest in his motives, yet twisted in his actions. It’s a much stronger, more refined character and performance than Thor’s more sympathetic portrayal. Whedon writes Loki as a shadowy reflection of each of the Avengers – Tony Stark sees a similar level of vanity and showmanship in himself when plotting Loki’s next move, Cap faces off with the demigod in Germany in a scene paralleling the soldier’s fight against Hitler’s regime, etc. Loki is able to pinpoint their weaknesses and keep them all under his influence, which, without revealing anything, makes for some very interesting conflict.

The surprising weak link among the cast is actually Samuel L. Jackson, showing little passion for a role he was obviously tailor-made for. He really phones it in with the occasional poor line delivery and general “been there, done this” attitude, seemingly more concerned with his paycheck than making this one of his more career-defining roles, which could’ve easily been the case.

I’m rambling on, but I can’t neglect to mention Whedon’s use of SHIELD agent Hawkeye. Ever faithful to the character’s origins as a reformed criminal, Whedon writes a similarly morally ambiguous hero, possessed by Loki and manipulated into fighting his own team. After being freed, the agent expresses deep remorse and atones for his betrayal by again fighting for justice. It’s yet another example proving that Whedon’s done his homework, and the movie is all the better for it.

I could talk for hours about these characters, but suffice to say, The Avengers is one of the most satisfying character experiences Marvel has ever put out, and they’d do well to hire similar writers and directors to follow Whedon’s example in the future.

Talk of an Iron Man-centric agenda from the studio is overblown, but not entirely unfounded. The character is just a few inches closer to center stage than the rest of the cast, and unfairly so, considering Captain America has always been the team’s leader in the comics and has much greater an arc here to attend to. Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark is a great character, but he’s only given that attention because his solo films have been the most popular and profitable of all Marvel Studios’ films. Even the alien technology and overall tech-based design of SHIELD looks far too grounded in the reality of Stark’s technology-driven universe to inspire the same level of awe as, say, Thor’s more fantastical imagery.

Flaws aside, The Avengers is a thrilling, well-made blockbuster and a strong-character driven experience. This is a living, breathing, true-blue Marvel movie if there ever was one, and stands as one of the best films from the studio to date. Its box office success is well deserved, and I look forward to seeing where the company takes its characters next. Here’s to four more years of rampant speculation for the sequel.

7/10

The Last Stand of Steve Rogers

Captain America: The First Avenger pissed me off.

I have nothing against the character or the comics, both of which are some of my favorites. Hell, the Silver Age retelling of the character’s origins by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby was one of the first comics I ever read, and I’ve been a big fan of the character ever since. First Avenger excited me for a number of reasons, not the least of which being the promise of a proper Cap movie, a classic adventure film in the vein of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The film should’ve been the best Marvel Studios movie to date.

Except it wasn’t, and rarely have I felt so cheated out of a great movie as I did with First Avenger. This was of course in no small part due to the half-assed script from Chronicles of Narnia screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, as well as the equally sub-par direction from Rocketeer director Joe Johnston. So the recent report of a new shortlist of directors being courted to direct the inevitable First Avenger sequel, none of them Johnston, comes as something of a pleasant surprise.

I’ll get into the problems I had with the first film, but let’s be honest…Johnston is a technician, he’s never been cut out for big-league direction. Even his best films like Honey, I Shrunk the Kids are entirely based on special effects. It’s his calling, it’s why his work shines so brightly when he’s only a part of films like Star Wars and the aforementioned Raiders. On his own, he simply tries to ape the work of people like Steven Spielberg whom he’s worked under, but without investing nearly a fraction of the heart and soul the latter director does in his films.

At this point it’s unclear why Johnston wasn’t sought out for the sequel, as interviews at the time of First Avenger’s release suggested he’d be open to it. Perhaps Marvel plans to save his reported two-picture deal for a future Winter Soldier film featuring Cap’s sidekick Bucky Barnes. More likely, I think, is that First Avenger did not live up to the expectations of certain higher-up Marvel executives and, though the film may have adequately set the character up for Joss Whedon’s upcoming Avengers, Johnston’s by-the-numbers direction didn’t impress. Indeed, First Avenger’s IMDB rating has been slowly tumbling to it’s current 6.8/10 standing since its release, a telling sign that people aren’t quite throwing their full support behind generic, edgeless superheroics as much as they may have used to.

In my eyes, Marvel Studios has yet to make a compelling case for why Steve Rogers is such a great character in the first place on the silver screen.

Failure to Launch

First Avenger, for me, squandered a great deal of its potential. A period-piece Cap movie could’ve easily been one of the best of its subgenre, and while First Avenger isn’t an altogether incompetent film, it’s not nearly the film it could be either. A complete, outright failure would’ve been far easier for me to swallow, which is why I’m not writing long-winded posts lamenting the missed opportunities of, say, Green Lantern.

Let me start from the beginning. I look at a lot of things when I look at narrative films, and chief among those things are story and character. Both serve as the heart of the film – the story is what holds the film together, and the characters make it all interesting, give it weight, and make the experience meaningful. In films like First Avenger that closely adhere to the Hero’s Journey (in this case to a fault), I fully expect to see some of myself in the character in order to be properly invested. That just didn’t happen with First Avenger.

Again, it’s not really a bad movie. I did like some of the scenes featuring Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull, and the makeup on Weaving looks fantastic, very animate and well-designed. Alan Silvestri’s score is also quite good, sounding appropriately iconic and old-school. I liked the design of the costumes and some of the WWII set pieces. I liked Tommy Lee Jones being Tommy Lee Jones. I liked the idea of treating the Cosmic Cube like a lost artifact straight out of an Indiana Jones movie, and how it was tied into the mythology of Marvel’s Thor. I even warmed up to the half-baked CGI behind skinny Steve Rogers pre-super soldier serum. These elements could’ve easily been part of a Cap movie on par with Thor or Iron Man.

But I hated the darkened, dulled color tone that made the experience so colorless and drab. I hated the unengaging, by-the-numbers character arcs. I hated the rushed pacing and inattention to vitally important characters like Bucky. I hated how all the advanced technology – flying cars, laser guns and all – yanked me right out of the WWII setting. I hated the lazy writing, laden with blatant clichés and often painful dialogue. I hated the overall lack of emotional weight, the bland, disposable nature of the whole affair that negated everything the film could’ve hoped to accomplish.

Most of all, though, I hated how the film severely butchered Steve Rogers’ character. The Cap of First Avenger is a hollow, uninteresting character and a far cry from his personality in the comics. Oh sure, the movie literally never stops hammering in reasons why Steve Rogers is a good man, a hero, and just an all-around swell guy, but it never bothers to actually show us why. We see him doing heroic things sometimes, but mostly we’re just assaulted with endless dialogue about how great he is just for doing the right thing. Lesson one of screenwriting: Show, don’t tell. And on top of all that, why? What’s driving Steve to do the right thing? What led him to want to take on this awesome responsibility? The film just shrugs and says, “Er…he just wants to do the right thing” without bothering to really explore those questions.

Which brings me to my next point – the Rogers of First Avenger is no leader. If the character even has a personality amidst the poor writing and muddled motivations, it’s that of a meek, naïve boy, an emasculated wimp and an awkward chump. This Steve Rogers frowns a lot, mopes around about not being able to attract women, and in one of the film’s more painful running jokes, believes “fondue” to be slang for “fuck”. Where, I wondered as I watched, were Steve’s balls?

The character’s bland, lazily-written dialogue doesn’t help, lending Rogers even less dimension. Cap spouts clichés and other generally lifeless lines like, “I don’t like bullies.” “Then how come you’re running?!” he awkwardly calls out to Red Skull as the villain makes his escape from a burning factory. And in the category of worst one-liners ever, the Skull takes a moment to yell to Steve in their final battle, “You never give up, do you?”, to which Steve replies, “NOPE!”

I don’t blame Chris Evans for all this. I’ve seen enough of his work to know that he’s a highly capable actor and could’ve easily made the role his own with more time and some better rewrites. He just had nothing to work with for First Avenger; no character definition from the script, and certainly no help from director Johnston, who was probably too busy dicking around with the effects. Squandering Evans’ skillset entirely, one wonders why the creative team didn’t cast Channing Tatum in the role, as the change to the less talented actor wouldn’t have had much difference in the final film.

Evans was cast rather late in the game as well, following a lengthy search for the right candidate (Tatum was also considered) and after the actor declined the role three times. It’s likely the rushed production schedule didn’t give Evans sufficient time to really add much of his own touch to the character. It shows – the actor looks rather lost most of the time, longing for purpose in a film that had been largely built around him, not with him.

Regardless of who’s responsible, the comics portray Cap as a born leader, an accomplished, bold, unwavering personality with a passionate sense of justice, not a weakling kid. Like Superman, Cap conveys heroism and maturity well beyond his years, acting as an absolute force for good. He’s an icon of unfaltering idealism and determination; sure, he can doubt himself and be moody when the situation calls for it, but not to the point where he completely loses his pride, his fighting spirit. The film misses this entirely in a misguided attempt to give Steve more flaws. And despite what First Avenger constantly spoon-feeds us, Steve was a strong man before taking the super soldier serum, not a weak man with similarly weak demeanor.

I could go all day, but the point is that there is so much more to this character’s strength than his muscles, and First Avenger simply glossed over it entirely in settling for “good enough”.

Joss Whedon and The Avengers

With all that in mind, I’ve been turning my sights towards Joss Whedon’s The Avengers for a better-written, better-directed Cap experience. While some may contest that Whedon had a hand in the script for First Avenger, Whedon’s rewrites, by his own admission, weren’t all that extensive; little more than a “dialogue polish.” Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely chalk it up to even less – “a read through and continuity pass.”

Thus, I’d like to think Whedon was too knee-deep in Avengers scripting that he didn’t have the time to really delve into First Avenger’s script too extensively, and that he’s saving his own character-defining Cap experience for Avengers. Anything less would mean Cap will be just as poorly written in Avengers as he was in First Avenger, which is admittedly reason for concern. There’s no way Steve Rogers as he is in First Avenger would be able to believably stand toe-to-toe with the pitch-perfect, well-written characters/performances of say, Tony Stark and Thor. What’s even more worrisome is the fact that Whedon once called Cap the centerpiece of the film. As such, one could surmise that The Avengers will live and die solely based on how well-defined Cap is as a character.

Above: Will Joss Whedon’s The Avengers give us a glimpse at well-written WWII Cap?

But again, I see no reason to worry for the time being. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest Avengers won’t be a rush-job like First Avenger, including comments from Evans himself. The actor has openly admitted in interviews to having a much better experience on The Avengers than on First Avenger. He also seemed apprehensive of the latter film’s reception beforehand, something he doesn’t appear too concerned about on Avengers. Possibly the greatest bit of evidence comes from this interview with Moviefone, where he talks at length about not enjoying filming First Avenger, finding the writing of the character to be lacking sufficient obstacles, and even groaning at the idea of Cap 2 villain details. It’s very telling, and again asserts the idea that he really didn’t have much to do on First Avenger besides show up and put on the suit. His positive remarks towards Avengers are thus all the more promising of a considerable improvement in quality this time around.

The Future

Following The Avengers, the as-yet untitled Captain America 2 will likely be starting up production by the end of the year, with a set release date of April 4, 2014. The writers of First Avenger have already long been drafting the sequel, and Chris Evans will of course be returning as per his six-film contractual obligation. Marvel’s aforementioned shortlist for the director’s chair has been narrowed down to three choices – Anthony and Joseph Russo (TV’s “Community”), George Nolfi (The Adjustment Bureau), and F. Gary Gray (The Italian Jobremake).

Naturally, the directors of Community being considered has inspired some skepticism. While I’d prefer a more established, big-name director as fitting as Sam Raimi and Kenneth Branagh were to their respective Spider-Man and Thor films (Oliver Stone, perhaps?), I’m honestly open to anyone over Joe Johnston. All I would ask for the eventual choice to have the talent required for such a production, to make sure he/she knows what he/she is doing, and to have reverence and respect for the character/mythology and all its subtleties. As it stands, I haven’t actually seen any of these directors’ previous works, so for the time being, I have no reason not to trust Marvel’s judgment.

One more thing: the director needs to get someone else to rewrite the current draft of the script. A better screenwriter is absolutely essential to rewrite whatever lifeless garbage the Narnia writers turned in and deliver a better script for shooting. I just can’t see myself taking part otherwise.

Cap is undoubtedly one of the greatest Marvel superheroes of all time, but I cannot and will not get behind lazy adaptations that fail to do him justice. Chris Evans is a talented young actor with plenty of potential to do something great with the role, he just needs better writing and direction to show him the way. I have high hopes he’ll find it in Joss Whedon and the eventual Cap 2 director. I couldn’t stand to see Cap get the same treatment as he did in First Avenger yet again, and if that’s going to be the case, go ahead and count me out of any and all future onscreen adaptations of the character. It’s Steve Rogers’ last stand, Marvel. Make it count.

Oh, and call the movie “Captain America: (Insert Subtitle Here)”. Slapping a 2 on the movie and acknowledging First Avenger’s existence will just piss me off.

Review: March Comics (Part 1)

I’ve broken the comic reviews for this month up into two posts, with the rest of my reviews arriving at the end of the month. Enjoy!

Green Arrow #7

As Green Arrow stands over the rooftops of Star City pondering his dual life aloud, a trio of sisters called the Skylarks approach him and tempt with with the prospect of partnership…personal and professional. Changing back into his civilian identity, billionaire Oliver Queen is hounded by executives and admits he is growing bored of his responsibilities as head of Q-Core. He resolves to take a week-long leave to fly out to the home of the Skylarks, but as he continues to associate with the sisters, he quickly discovers that they aren’t what they seem. Back at Q-Core, the threat of new management at the company grows ever nearer in Queen’s absence.

Still suffering from the misguided direction brought on by DC’s New 52, the new Green Arrow series has all but axed Oliver Queen’s trademark personality, the heart of soul of the character, in favor of what is essentially a Tony Stark clone. J.T. Krul’s Issue #1 from last September introduced us to the generic, bland direction the series would be taking, forgettable supporting cast and all. Now Issue #7 comes along and makes that issue look like a masterpiece in comparison.

This issue is new series writer Ann Nocenti’s first comic in fifteen years, and it shows. Her dialogue is dry, lacking a compelling edge and character drama. While, in contrast to Krul’s portrayal, there is at least a hint of deeper characterization at the beginning, when Queen is written as something of a regal loner-type, the resulting action is too poorly executed for it to even matter. Even in his businessman persona, Nocenti writes Queen as a spoiled, unlikable brat.

Even worse is the new artwork from Harvey Tolibao, which lends a sickeningly scratchy, ugly grittiness. I saw one internet commentator compare Queen’s appearance in certain panels to that of a monkey. It’s a huge step down from the preceding glossy, natural textures of Dan Jurgens’ pencils and George Perez’s finishes.

After skipping issues 2-6 of the new series, I thought I’d give this issue a shot when I saw there would be a new writer and potentially new direction on the book. I was sadly mistaken; Issue #7 is neither a bold new direction, nor particularly worth reading at all, and I look forward to the day when Green Arrow is given the treatment he deserves.

Not recommended.

 

Captain America #9

In the penultimate issue of the “Powerless” arc that began with Cap #6, Steve Rogers has found himself reverting to his scrawny, pre-super-soldier-serum-self in the midst of battle with a group of Hydra assassins. As Tony Stark tries to cure Steve’s new condition, Sharon Carter fights with Saxon, a villain that can control technology, to get information on how to cure Steve.

If you’ve read the first eight issues of the new Captain America volume, you’ll have a good idea of what to expect for Issue #9. Boasting solid writing and artwork all around, the character is in good hands for the foreseeable future with longtime series writer Ed Brubaker at the helm. The concept of Steve reverting back to his old form has, I believe, been explored in comics before, but Brubaker gives it a fresh spin that makes for an altogether solid read.

I can’t help but nitpick, however, as to the direction of the new volume. Brubaker’s opening Winter Soldier arc back in 2005 was bold and grounded. The past few issues have been more metaphysical and otherworldly which, while not entirely unfitting for a comic book, sort of makes me long for the days of Brubaker’s earlier, more fresh work.

Still, Issue #9 is yet another example that Brubaker really gets this character and I very much hope he continues writing Cap for years to come.

Recommended.

 

In two weeks, I’ll post reviews of the latest issues for Superman, All-Star Western, and The Flash, as well as the new Curse of Shazam backup story in Justice League #7, debuting next week. Until then, cheers!