Friday, April 17, 2015

Countdown to Avengers: Age of Ultron—Hulk/Thor

The latest "Avengers" movie comes out on May first.  For this month of Fridays before the premiere, we'll be re-running reviews of the movies that formed the stepping stones for this latest one, this time two outliers: the first, the subject of the fourth Marvel comic character adapted for the big screen (after a popular TV series in the 1980's) which failed to light up the box office, but whose appearance in the first "Avengers" film was considered the most successful version of the character; and another of Marvel's "major" characters, who had previously not captured the imagination of the movie-going public, but who really only hit his potential (and comic possibilities) in that same "Avengers" movie.  

What links these two characters is they are probably better as supporting characters than they are as the focus of a complete two hour narrative.  Certainly, they were never better than they were in the first "Avengers" movie.


Hulk (2003) A director of many different genres, this is The Ang Lee superhero movie. Lee, fresh off Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (his tribute to wuxia martial arts films) went full Hollywood with Hulk, with an interesting cast (with less-than-interesting results, but I'm sure they all wanted to work with Lee) of Eric Bana (who can be terrific—but, alas, he's just not here), Jennifer Connelly (just not here), Josh Lucas (ditto), Sam Elliott (never less than interesting, even here) and Nick Nolte (so over-the-top crazy, that he's a bit of a relief). The problem here is tone: Bana described the set as being "ridiculously serious and morbid"—Lee wanted to avoid any sort of light-heartedness and went for superhero tragedy, with ten screenwriters (a lot of good ones, too) tackling the movie in various stages adapting the Hulk origin-revision "Monster" (Incredible Hulk #312, Oct. 1985) showing that the young Bruce Banner was a victim of child abuse from a brutal alcoholic father, setting the psychological stage for his latent reluctance to express emotion and his hidden rage. 
That might have been good if Bana found a sympathetic way to portray it and gain some audience sympathy. The only time the movie takes off is when The Hulk appears (Ang Lee himself did the motion-capture work), and that's a bit too-little-too-late to keep the movie from seeming like the downer it is intended to be. Best thing about the movie: Lee's elaborate work with split-screen to simulate a comic book's fractured story-telling techniques.* The movie could have used more of that inventiveness, as well. The next Hulk movie would have a different cast and a different "take."

* It's a noble experiment, but frankly works at cross-purposes from the intent.  The problem is split-screen does something other than what comic-book panels do: the graphics in comics separate action into different progressing time-frames; split-screen shows simultaneous action occurring in different spaces.  One involves and transcends time; the other involves and transcends space.

The "Maybe-Not-So-Much-Incredible-But-Certainly-An-Improvement-Over-The-Last-Time" Hulk

Don't get me wrong. I admired what Ang Lee tried to bring to the, by now, here-to-stay "Superhero" sub-species (meta-species?) of action-adventure films. Taking his cue from Bryan Singer's "no, it's really about something" furrowed-brow approach to the "X-men," Lee (no relation to Smilin' Stan) made an examination of the rigors of the scientific mind, battling inner demons brought on by a repressed memory of child abuse, and made manifest in the form of a big green berserker id, The Hulk, equal parts Mr. Hyde and the Frankenstein monster.

Good thoughts. But we're talking
The Incredible Hulk here. These films should take their cues from the "Superhero" epithets espoused by the characters, like Superman's affirmative "Up, Up and Away" or Batman's introspective "criminals are a superstitious, cowardly lot" (these days he just says "Hrn."). "The Hulk" (in one of his incarnations) never got beyond "Hulk SMASH!" He's not the most sophisticated of heroes,* he's as pure a power-fantasy for nerds as can be—a three-year old with super-strength. So to pile on the daddy-complex psychology, when what people basically went to see was the Big Guy punch holes in things, was putting a lace doily on a trash-compactor. Lee had fun bringing back split-screen to simulate comic panels (which was nifty), but Hulk was depressing...and not in a good way, like the "Batman" films. If you want angst, best take it only as far as The Seven Samurai.

So, three years later, with "
Marvel Studios" in control of (most of) their characters, and an eye towards creating an "Avengers" film in the future, comes a re-vamped "Hulk," with Ed Norton replacing Eric Bana, Liv Tyler for Jennifer Connelly, and William Hurt (made ruddy and silver-maned) for Sam Elliott. As good as those previous performers can be, the substitutions are all improvements. And this "Hulk," has no other agenda than to be a chase-and-fight film, and succeeds quite well in its humble goals.

Hulk's a little trimmer and hunkier than Hulkier.
Some Hulking thoughts:

The credit sequence re-writes the Hulk's origin-story (always a drag on these films, and is patterned after the TV-series), and gets going with Banner on the run. He's hiding in Brazil, working at a bottling plant in the densely populated box-city of "Rocinia Favela," in computer contact with a research scientist, and working on breathing disciplines to make sure he "don't go changin.'" It makes Banner a less helpless character than the last film, and gives him a goal.

This is not Eric Bana; this is Edward Norton
Norton's re-write of the script (by Zak Penn--who wrote the last two "X-men" films and Elektra and gets full script credit on the film), is clever, detailed, and plays to the actor's calculating strengths. Plus, his Bruce Banner is a sickly-thin, not buff, scientist—in good shape, but not super-hero material. Nice contrast with the uber-defined Hulk.

The cameos all work terrifically, are integrated well, and show obvious affection for their subjects:
Stan Lee (though not a drooling fan of his, one has to admit this is his best cameo, and he's terrific in it), Lou Ferigno (he looks great!), and, in an "Aw!" moment, the late Bill Bixby. Plus, Robert Downey, Jr. makes an appearance as Tony Stark (Iron Man).

Tyler and Norton do wonders with the stormy (heh) Betty Ross-Bruce Banner romance. Connelly and Bana never seemed to connect in the first film, and seemed quite diffident to each other. Not here.

These are not Jennifer Connelly and Sam Elliott
(They are Liv Tyler and William Hurt, and that's different)
Hulk does more than roar and punch. Here he is quite capable of using collateral damage as a defense and weaponry (and kudos to the sound design team for the police car sequence). There is one scene of Hulk being attacked by "sonic-blast" weaponry that is as enjoyably "comic-booky" as in any of these films. Tim Roth makes a very effective villain, green with envy for The Hulk's power, and the simple monster against monster plot is stream-lined and moves along while not feeling very draggy (as the battle sections of Iron Man did).

Director Louis Leterrier keeps the pace going, as one would expect of a director of the "Transporter" films, and there are extended chases through that Brazilian slum-town that recall the run-downs of the "Bourne" series and the parkour scenes of Casino Royale.
Leterrier also treats the Hulk like the shark in Jaws (or "Batman" in Batman Begins); we only get glimpses of him in the dark, as big pieces of machinery go hurtling through the air, placing the audience in the same disoriented mode as the "wet" squad sent to capture him.

Bruce Banner has a Blue Heeler like I do. How cool is that?

It made me happy, right? I enjoyed myself, right? So, why not as high a rating as, say,
Indiana Jones? Because, as fun as it is, the effects scenes tend to look a bit shoddy on the big-screen. The Hulk, himself, looks a bit too much like one of those plasticene statues of "the Hulk" you see at comic-shops, and things like helicopter inserts have a video-game quality to them. Everything about it is fine, but I don't think the film will suffer on the small screen. You don't need to spend full-bore on The Incredible Hulk to get the most out of it. The decision is economical, rather than artistic, and for that, The Incredible Hulk goes down a notch.


* Face it, "The Incredible Hulk" is "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" (in the comic book and the first film, the transformation is accidental, while in the TV series and this film, Banner does it to himself). And it's always creeped me out a bit that you could make a "hero" out of "Hyde." But combined with the "poor, poor monster" aspects of Frankenstein (Kirby's early flat-topped Hulk looked an awful lot like Karloff), and the TV series' driving it further, by using "The Fugitive's" running victim conceit, you could tame the brute.

"Thor Thubject  (It's Hammerin' Time!)"
"Natalie Portman's Post-Oscar Slump, Part 2"

Never having been a fan of the comic, I could therefore approach the introduction of Thor to the movies without bias—I couldn't argue about the graphics on the hammer, or whether they followed the comics-mythology well, whether the casting was appropriate (they do well with what they got for material, and star Chris Hemsworth does a fine bellow just this side of Brian Blessed in his early, primal days).

But, as a movie, there's nothing too fresh about Thor, in fact, it reminded me a lot of Superman II, but with better architecture (designed by the amazing Bo Welch) with its super-beings walking through a hick-burgh doing derring deeds (in this case, battling a Gort-like robot with a furnace grate for a face-plate—it's one of the genuinely cool things about this one), some dicey flying sequences that look a little flat and the big plot-holes in story-logic (if he could do that THEN, why couldn't he do it before?), and a little too much Unexplainium in how things happen and why.
By now, the Marvel films have become formulaic, let me count the ways: 1) love interest—which feels a bit tacked onto Thor (shouldn't there be an Asgardian demi-goddess he should be attached to?); 2) Stan Lee cameo (mercifully short); 3) cross-characterizations and Marvel Universe details (S.H.I.E.L.D. is back with Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) and a post-credits sneak with Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury (which doesn't amount to much, as there aren't any other super-heroes in it, and seems bottled up as it involves Stellan SkarsgΓ₯rd's research scientist and Loki, played by Tom Hiddleston), Stark Industries is mentioned a couple times and there's an intriguing sneak peak of another Avenger in the film, (played by an Oscar nominee) and three action set-pieces that involve a lot of hammering, lots of ice-giants who all seem instantly shatterable and not much of a threat, despite some gratuitous growling (Colm Feore is pretty much unrecognizable as the King of the giants), and a lotta leaping with single bounds.
Kenneth Branagh directs with an emphasis on swoops over spires for 3-D effects, ornate throne rooms full of pixelated somethings or other, and a curious propensity for dutch angles (I don't believe there's such a thing as Norse angles).  When Thor is at his most boastful, there is a tinge of Branagh's own Shakespearean projection, and Thor's brother Loki serves as an Iago-like presence throughout
But, it ain't Shakespeare. The script wheels between the flat-nothing desert of New Mexico that seems to attract a lot of things falling from the Heavens (make that "The Seven Realms"—one of which is called "Anaheim") and the castles built on nothingness of the Asgardians, ruled over by Odin Allfather (played by Anthony Hopkins in his "elderly King" mode, although he has flashes of interestingness here and there). Natalie Portman tries her best with the romantic sub-plot, but it's a "nothing-girl-friend" role and her sections have a slight "blah-ness" to them, though they do try to punch it up with some wacky banter from a wacky intern (Kat Dennings). Thor feels like a second-rate Marvel movie, like the "Hulk" movies or the "Fantastic Four" films (but several steps above Howard the Duck*). Try as they might to make it relatable, the scale just fails to register as something that humans have any business being a part of...or even caring about. I found myself uninvolved and not caring. Thor might be a hit this weekend, but it's more of a myth.
* Ya know, I'm amazed that George Lucas hasn't done a CG overhaul of HTD.  Yeah, it wouldn't make it any better, but at least it wouldn't look so clunky. 

Update to the above: George Lucas isn't doing one, but evidently Marvel Studios is thinking about it —Howard showed up in Guardians of the Galaxy.

"I Really Don't Understand What All the Fuss is About"
"Is There a Point to All This, Because There Needs to be a Point!"

Marvel's Thor was a necessary part of The Avengers puzzle—the Norse God is a little minor-ish when compared to A-listers like "Spider-man" or "Captain America" (in the comic world, anyway, where the same "minor-league" status could be said for Iron Man) and is usually relegated to second row in group shots. That first movie was a bit "iffy" despite a Shakesperean director (Kenneth Branagh) and a rather breath-taking conceptualization of Vanaheim. It took Joss Whedon, though, to throw a couple of good lines into Thor's mouth (without him turning into a jokey punster) and making a grand villain out of Tom Hiddleston's Loki—so grand, in fact, that they brought him back for the second Thor movie, Thor: the Dark World.

This film is part of the "Marvel: Phase Two," which I translate to "We take advantage of The Avengers success by trying to make hay on individual characters until The Avengers 2 comes along." Good strategy, that. But there's the danger of watering down any anticipation of that next film if they don't show some promise in the second installments, which already showed signs of rust in Iron Man 3. Even if you're Thor, lightning doesn't always strike twice in the same franchise.
Thor 2 (if we can call it that) is quite a bit lighter in tone than the first film, the first one being rather stuffy, as if  any humor would possibly blow the Norse mythology segments away in a puff of whimsy. No, it was taking its playbook from Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy where the heroes are rustic and the villains are really vile looking and the violence is over-the-top, but not so over the top as to risk an "R" rating.

In lieu of a program, clip and save this
 handy diagram of the Thor Universe
It also compares to TLOTR by sharing the propensity for using the first six minutes or so of the film to shoe-horn as much detailed exposition intoned with doomed gravitas as can be wedged in before the title card. "Long before the birth of Light," Anthony Hopkins' Odin informs us, "there was darkness. From the darkness, came the dark elves." That's quite a jump, but then, we have to find out about the Aether (everything in the Marvel Universe seems to be a common term spelled wrong), the Kursed on Svartalfheim, and the 5,000 year configuration of the nine Realms, at which point evil with a capital "E" can take out all nine of them without having to make it a bank-shot. Malekith (because everybody needs to have a name that sounds like a lisp) and who is played by an unrecognizable Christopher Ecclestonis the leader of the Dark Elves and wants the Aether all for himself, so that he can destroy the nine Realms because...well, I don't know why, it seems like a really dumb thing to do, akin to crapping where you eat.

And at that point, I didn't care. I just wanted something familiar so that I could stand any chance of following the movie. Now, the last time I saw the Thor character, he was in The Avengers movie, and some mention is made here of "New York," especially by gal-pal Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), who uses it 1) as part of a "why didn't you write me for two years?" hectoring of Thor (Chris Hemsworth, not so stodgy this time) and 2) a chance to lash out at Loki (Hiddleston) as if he personally took out her favorite pizza cart on Fifth (and he gets a chance to do his version of the line from The Dark Knight: "[She's got some fight in her]. I like that."). Plus, Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgaard) has been acting strangely—making international news by stripping naked with some sort of stick-devices at Stonehenge that are supposed to do some sort of astral plane alignment or some sort of something, or maybe nothing as he's a bit of a raving lunatic at this point (His excuse: "I've had a God in my head. I don't recommend it" Geez, Doc have you watched TBN lately?).

Meantime, the already-mentioned Loki is imprisoned in As-Gitmo, where, when he isn't using his quick-change ability, he's sulking and throwing illusory daggers at people, babbling contradictory dialogue ("You know, I've always loved our little talks because...actually I haven't"). That's some trickster. As with Hensworth's Thor, Hiddleston's Loki actually had become an interesting character in The Avengers movie, and although he's still a little devil, you begin to think that his motivations, if not his brains, are a little scrambled. He does provide a couple of little quick-changes in a walk-and-talk out of Asgard, one of which might be considered a cameo appearance. He also provides the big "question mark" of the film, that is one of those things that the film-makers will either resolve, or, if they have bigger flounder to fry, will just dismiss with a line somewhere down the road.
Speaking of which, there could be considered three "stingers"—the convention of mid and post-credit "tags" in the Marvel super-hero films—in Thor: the Dark World, that have decreasing importance, but increasing complexity (how many of these things are they going to have, not that Brian Tyler's score isn't rather fun to listen to, but sometimes I have better things to do than watch all the credits). There is the "stinger" that ends the film, and confuses the issue of what was going on; there is the second "stinger," after Blur Studio's main credits, that serves as a preview for another Marvel production**—in this case, Guardians of the Galaxy with a look at Benicio del Toro's "Collector" (and we'll just say two words: "tonal shift"); finally, a third stinger at the very end of the movie that's purely for "shippers" and has an "after-thought" joke, much like the "shawarma" scene from The Avengers. There's nothing essential to wait for, if you have a ride waiting or a train to catch.
Throw in some ramps and Asgard could look like one of Carmine Infantino's futuristic cities.
So, summing up, Thor: the Dark World is generally more entertaining than the last one, but not entertaining, realm-changing, or artistic enough to make it rise above the Rental category. Characters are born, characters die, and the Universe is returned to the same point it was at in the beginning of the movie, not unlike episodic TV. Nothing major is going to happen until somebody's contract runs out. In the meantime, it looks good, fulfills the action quotient, without going over the line (Hello, Man of Steel) to the point where you think it might be better not to have superheroes "saving the day" when they're destroying the infrastructure. It does suffers from the Marvel "I-don't-know-but-it-sure-is-big" syndrome, where there are no rules, and merely randomness in phenomena that just show up, make a big noise and then *poof* go away, leaving us to mull over our shawarma or bowl of "Shreddies." There is no order to the Marvel Universe (as much as the tick-tock clockwork of the art direction says there is), and it's easier to take a page from "The X-Files" and just leave it unexplained. Or come up with a convenient new super-power like "amnesia kiss" to take care of it. Sometimes, rather than thinking through a problem, it's just better to hit it with a hammer to make you think it's getting better.
"I've won an Oscar; why am I in this Moooo-viiiiie?"

The comics Malekith
* Actually, I recognized him as Eclipso, a character from the DC Universe.  And you'd never recognize him as the Ninth Doctor. "Doctor who?" you ask.  "Exactly," I say.

** Although that's completely arbitrary, nothing is set in celluloid stone, and the solar wind is more stable than the tides of movie marketing—the cosmic villain Thanos appeared in The Avengers, may appear in Guardians of the Galaxy (he did) and definitely won't be in Avengers 2.
Now that that's done, one is worried about how to write about super-hero movies in the future. There is a sameness to them that creeps from film to film—the mythos, the "givens" of selfless good and illogical (and often impractical) evil, the unquestioning quest for revenge, the brooding sky-scapes, the heavy air of portent, and the elaborate CGI. One feels like they're in the process of grading different brands of chocolate. They may be bitter or sweet, but they're all chocolate.

So, in the future, as the tent-poles of the franchise circus increase in number, we're going to do reviews of super-hero movies with a basic form—a Comic-Book Movie Matrix, that should distill what the movie's about, where it fits in its own little universe, and how successful it is—as a movie-movie, and maybe as a representative of that character.

Take a look at the list, and if you have any suggestions for what might be a critical consideration, drop a comment.

1) Is the movie version of the character recognizable from the graphic/comics version?

2) Is the plot something that someone who doesn't know the comic can come in and still understand?

3) If not, how complicated is the back-story that is provided in the movie?

4) What's wrong this time, plot-wise?

5) Is the story important enough to deserve its own movie, or is this one just "marking time?"

6) In relation to 5): Major villain or minor villain?

7) Is the back-story and motivation the same as in the graphic/comics version?

8) How radically different is the setting of the movie version to the graphic/comics version?

9) What compromises have been made to the comics version to make it "play" on-screen?

10) Is there a "Noooooooo!" moment? Yes? No?

11) Any easter-eggs for the true fans?

12) Is there a stinger? Is it worth waiting for?  Where does it occur?

Really, this is just to increase my Internet "hits"
Jaimie Alexander as Sif in Thor: The Dark World

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