When Captain America: The First Avenger is released July 22, 2012, it will mark the last movie to be released ramping up to the May 4, 2012 arrival of the first superhero team movie, The Avengers. At this point, everyone is aware of the team that has been assembled: Iron Man, Captain America, The Incredible Hulk, Thor will lead a cast of heroes that will also include Hawkeye, Black Widow, Gabriel Jones and, of course, Nick Fury.
What follows is a listing and review of the movies featuring these characters up to now. I will not be including the daring but ultimately failing Ang Lee enterprise Hulk, as it was created outside of the scope of The Avengers. The enterprise has been a daunting one. None of these characters, outside of The Hulk, had ever been covered on film before. Excellent special effects, wonderful scripts and crucial integration helped to distinguish the series from the innumerable other superhero noise (mostly from Marvel, ironically enough) in Hollywood.
Directed by Jon Favreau
Starring Robert Downey, Jr., Gweneth Paltrow, Jeff Bridges, Don Cheadle, Paul Bettany, Clark Gregg
Written by Mark Fergus, Hawk Otsby, Art Marcum, Matt Holloway and John August
Review – Once Robert Downey, Jr. was tapped to play the lead, Tony Stark, the movie was looking good from the outside. Jon Favreau’s real coup, however, was procuring Jeff Bridges as Obadiah Stane. His presence looms large as a nemesis willing to kill, not just express megalomaniacal intent. The result is a special effects extravaganza with great acting from Paltrow, Howard and all supporting cast. The best thing about the effects is that they are downplayed, making them seem more real.
Best Sequence – The creation, testing and first flights are great, but nothing is as cool as when he takes on those terrorists all at once. Wouldn’t everyone love to keep the peace with weapons that can sight in on multiple targets at once.
Worst Sequence – Poor, bald Ralphie from A Christmas Story being yelled at by Jeff Bridges…a little bit too comic bookie.
Cameos – Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, Captain America’s Shield
Rating – (****1/2)
Release Date – June 13, 2008
Directed by – Louis Leterrier
Starring – Edward Norton, Liv Tyler, William Hurt, Tim Roth, Ty Burrell, Tim Blake Nelson
Written by Zak Penn, Edward Norton
Review – I thought the hiring of Norton would make a real difference, and, for the most part, it did. The movie had several things going against it, however. First and foremost, the reboot factor. While it worked for the Batman franchise, that one was about a decade away from the last good movie, and it had Christopher Nolan going for it. The Incredible Hulk had…Louis Leterrier. A history with Luc Besson and directing the first 2 Transporter movies was not enough to make the movie a classic, but it does have its moments. The aerial shots over Rio de Janeiro are remarkable. The decision to film scenes in a college town was similarly inspired. The last battle leaves more than a little to be desired, however. It all looks like a really accurate Pixar effect. There are some great casting choices (Norton, Roth and Nelson in particular) are offset by some questionable ones (Hurt and Tyler). Overall, it was an improvement over the other Hulk, but that ain’t saying much.
Best Sequence – The chase scene through Rio is mostly done without special effects, yet still it is compelling.
Worst Sequence – Every scene with William Hurt as General Ross reminded me of Major
Monogram from Phineas and Ferb.
Cameos – Downey Jr.’s Stark visits Major Mono- …er General Ross, and in an alternate opening you can see Captain America frozen in an iceberg…or so I hear.
Rating – (***1/2)
Release Date May 7, 2010
Directed by John Favreau
Starring Robert Downey, Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Samuel L. Jackson, Sam Rockwell, Mickey Rourke, Scarlett Johanssen, Clark Gregg, Paul Bettany
Written by Justin Theroux, Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Don Heck, Jack Kirby
Best Sequence: The Monaco Race scene is the best superhero movie scene ever, and it helps to elevate that which is an overall weaker film to being equal with the first Iron Man film.
Worst Sequence: The end of the movie firefight between Ivan Vanko, Iron Man and War Machine was very short and anti-climactic, especially when compared to earlier clashes.
Cameos: Jackson’s Fury and Johansenn’s Romanov / Black Widow feature prominently in the film, so we cannot consider them cameo performances. Captain America’s Shield makes another hilarious appearance, and then the scene towards the end of the movie, featuring several monitors. One monitor features the destroyed campus from The Incredible Hulk, the crater from Thor, and a world map featuring these points and more, like the home of The Black Panther. The coda of the film literally shows Thor’s hammer in the crater, as viewed by Agent Colson (Gregg), who was also in the first Iron Man, prominently.
Release Date – May 6, 2011
Directed by Kenneth Branagh
Starring Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopkins, Tom Hiddleston, Idris Elba, Colm Feore, Stellan Skarsgård, Ray Stevenson, Jaimie Alexander, Kat Dennings, Rene Russo, Clark Gregg
Written by J. Michael Straczynski and Mark Protosevich
Review: This movie could easily have been the joke of the franchise. To the studio’s credit, they won by embracing the hokey aspects and turning them into positives, without becoming self-parody. Thor is supposed to be full of honor, stoicism and, frankly, quite stiff. The God of Thunder usually laughs last, but that is only because he doesn’t ever understand the joke. By employing Branagh as director, the producer’s played into the strengths of the plot (kingdom, betrayal, falling from grace, redemption) while eliminating a long, awkward stay on “Midgard.” Hemsworth, so brilliant as Kirk’s heroic father in Star Trek, was the find of the Marvel Franchise. He has gravitas, attention to detail and aloofness at all the right times, making Thor as detached from the realm as he needs to be, but still a good enough God to help out, when it is right to do so. As Hemsworth is to the Marvel heroes, Hiddleston is to the nemeses. A lot of credit could go to Branagh again for this, but Hiddleston’s Loki was marvelously portrayed in Shakespearean tones. With Hopkins’ Odin as the wizened king with secrets, Loki is enraged with their revelation, but not before showing his willingness to play things to his advantage. Really, it is the best thing about the movie. Other than Gregg’s Coulson, the earthlings are mostly forgettable, especially Portman.
Best Sequence: Loki is revealed, at the same moments he exposes his father’s failings. Truly as wrought of Shakespeare.
Worst Sequence: The bridge stuff at the end just comes off as a bunch of stuff that happened. No matter what happens, nothing prevents what you know is coming.
Cameos: Jeremy Renner cameos as a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Clint Barton / Hawkeye, pointing his bow and arrow at Thor during a fight. Nick Fury (Jackson) makes an appearance in the coda.
Release Date – July 22, 2011
Director – Joe Johnston
Starring – Chris Evans, Tommy Lee Jones, Hugo Weaving, Dominic Cooper, Neal McDonough, Derek Luke, Stanley Tucci, Hayley Atwell, Sebastian Stan
Written by – Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely
Review: Cap is the absolute king of dorks; even bigger than Thor. To make him relevant, the only thing the creators of Captain America: The First Avenger could do was move the story to a dorkier time. That time: World War II. One of the great oxymorons of the last century was how Americans were involved in two such horrible wars, yet still had the inability to express unbridled emotions to someone of the opposite gender. This movie is filled with many Leave It To Beaver level interactions between characters who moments ago were fighting Nazi’s to the death. Thank goodness Howard Stark (a lively Dominic Cooper) is there to explain to Mr. Rogers what fondue is, exactly.
The First Avenger does an admirable job presenting a character that time has made almost completely irrelevant. There is truly no place for someone whose patriotism is surpassed only by his inability to comprehend anything but stoicism. When he is not kicking ass for the American cause, he stumbles for what to say, while those around him wait for Steve to catch up to the drift. In making him a 98-pound weakling, he is afforded the metaphor of underdog that Americans have so long loved to espouse. German Jewish professor Erskine makes clear to young Steve Rogers (Chris Evans, surrendering his Human Torch persona for the red, white and blue) that it is his willingness to jump on a grenade, along with his understanding of what it is to be weak that makes him the perfect candidate for the Super Soldier program. He is the first, and, it turns out, the last candidate, and he makes the most of it.
Red Skull (a rather subdued Hugo Weaving), the first one to use an earlier version of the serum, has demonstrated its ability to magnify the characteristics that the host already possess. Skull, known as Johann Schmidt, is a Nazi, and we all know what they look like when magnified: not exactly huggable. Cap, looking for some revenge, starts a troop of rescued soldiers to go around and make Schmidt’s Hydra organization pay for…well, we will see.
Johnston’s direction is appropriately simple to emphasize the simplicity of the message. There are explosions, and there are special effects, but they are not so overwhelming as to make it seem bigger than life. His previous efforts have, for the most part, been tempered with believable effects (except the horrid Jumanji). He, along with the other makers of the film, understand that we need to feel a kinship to the core character of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This only happens if we feel that we can come along, which is a feeling that a director like Michael Bay has never been able to express. Films like Bay’s are more of an assault on the senses, and we need to feel what Captain America feels. To a greater extent, this goal is accomplished.
The co-stars are all humorous, but palatable. Tommy Lee Jones is a milder version of himself, and Toby Jones gives one of those performances where a great actor hides most of his talent for the purposes of story (i.e. – Skarsgård in Thor). Atwell and Cooper light the screen whenever they are on, as both seem to be given characters with a charge. Evans seems muted, compared to his typical brash performances. This is a good move, because Evan’s likability heretofore has been scarce. It’s not that he is lovable, but his motivations are nice and telegraphed, the way we expect our bland hero to be.
That the movie is written by Markus and McFeely is not a surprise. This movie feels a little bit safe and dated, like their Chronicles of Narnia series. It’s all solid, yeoman’s work, with no cheap touchy-feely moments. A particular favorite happens when Cap takes a second to look in on the welfare of an innocent kid during a chase. He, takes the obligatory route that characters like his would take, only to be rebuffed in a gentle, but self-aware way. This scene, indicative of the movie, shows that they did not take the brand for granted. They did the boring guy right.
Best Sequence: The motor cycle chase as a prelude to the rescue of his prisoner of war comrades shows that you don’t have to rely on massive explosions, but one or two won’t hurt.
Worst Sequence: The Captain touring America scene worked for about 15 seconds, but then it went on for another 4 minutes.
Cameos: Jackson again as Fury. Natalie Dormer as Private Lorraine. Clark Gregg as Colson at the beginning.