Ant-Man (2015)

In a world where we can (probably) download images of what Chris Evans ate for lunch during Captain America: Winter Soldier, it probably comes as no surprise that the pre-production problems of Ant-Man are well known. Kinetic director Edgar Wright (The World’s End) had been working on fleshing out the diminutive superhero since closing up shop on Spaced. Cut to 2011 and it’s announced that Wright will be working with Marvel to get Scott Lang out to the public. And then 2014 rocked by and the much-rumoured ‘creative differences’ between wright and Marvel comes to a head when Wright allegedly walks weeks before shooting, unhappy with certain changes. And just as suddenly, Peyton Reed was locked in to take the helm.

Taking into account the history, it wouldn’t have been surprising if the film turned out to be an omni-shambles of design by committee. Instead, Ant-Man manages to do something fresh with what is essentially the tired origin trope. Paul Rudd is Scott Lang, an electrical engineer and common thief. He roommates with three fellow ex-cons and has restricted access to his daughter. Scott wants to be straight, but is convinced to take one last job. Leading him to be taken under the wing of Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), who convinces Scott to work for him and steal a top-secret project from Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), Pym’s protégé who is wandering dangerously close to the dark side. To help Scott with his mission, Pym trains him to be Ant-Man; a diminutive superhero with all the force of a bullet.

Ant-Man is not your usual superhero movie, as the above shows. It’s more akin to a heist movie with Pym and Scott working together to develop and hone his skills as Ant-Man. Along the way, Pym struggles in his relationship with his daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly). Hope, infinitely more skilled than Scott, wants to don the Ant-Man suit herself and most of the conflict comes from her trying to understand why her father is so adamant not to allow her. These scenes are surprisingly effective, with the success coming from both actors treating the material truthfully and honestly whilst Rudd bounces around in the background providing the comic relief.

Rumours persist that Wright was unhappy with the rewrite of his and Joe Cornish’s script, wanting to keep his film at arm’s length from the juggernaut that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. How much of that is true is unknown. However, there are numerous cameos storylines that carry on from Marvel’s properties, including a cameo from Iron Man 2. Unless you’re an avid Marvel fan, none of these will particularly affect your understanding of the narrative and all will have a good time.

Ant-Man’s real issues come from racial profiling that sees all minorities either wise-crackers or safecrackers. It’s not overly offensive, but it is a little problematic. In addition, Judy Greer is entirely wasted as Scott’s ex-wife. Even when her daughter is in danger during a climatic moment of the film, its both her ex and her new husband that do the protecting. If you’re going to use an actor from Arrested Development and Archer, we want more from her than scolding Scott and being scared.

That aside, with excellent effects, witty wordplay and charismatic screen presence by all those involved, Ant-Man manages to punch above it’s own weight. It’s not quite Guardians of the Galaxy, but it’s nowhere near as pedestrian as Thor 2. It’s another win for Marvel.

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Let’s pretend we’re in the Marvel universe. New York has been attacked by aliens, London has been a substitute wrestling ring for Gods, a World War Two veteran is looking pretty good for his age and out there in deep space, a group of ne’er do wells have bandied together to chase a McGuffin to make a hell of a lot money and potentially save their galaxy. Whichever comes first. Though hopefully the former.

Guardians of the Galaxy is not just a great Marvel film. It’s a great film period. A bulging sack of fine storytelling and rich imagination. And talking raccoons, never forget the talking raccoons. Directed by James Gunn (Super and Tromeo and Juliet) with a script co-written by Nicole Perlman and himself, Guardians has so much going for it, it’s amazing to think the less than mainstream comic hadn’t been picked up before.

What makes the film so enjoyable – aside from the soundtrack, the acting, the characters, the set pieces, the humour, the pace, the smile the whole thing staple guns to your face – is how well it stands up on its own. As great as the last few Marvel films have been, they’re in danger of alienating the casual viewer with their throwbacks and references (Did anyone really watch Agents of SHIELD?). Guardians feels liberated and fresh. Hell, the film isn’t even bogged down by pop culture references since Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill, the human of our band of miscreants, left earth as a child in the 80s. A nod to the Ninja Turtles is about all you’re going to get.

The eclectic cast is superb, with Bradley Cooper’s Rocket and Vin Diesel’s Groot clearly, and probably deliberately, stealing the show. Though special attention must be given to emerald-tinged assassin Gamora played by Zoe Saldana, who manages to have a life of her own not dependent on Quill. In fact, another of the film’s strengths is how tangible everybody is without having to go down the usual route of comic book movies of 45 minutes of exposition before the cape or mask is donned.

If it isn’t coming across clearly enough, Guardians of the Galaxy is ball-bouncingly brilliant. It’s a triumphant return to the days of the 80s blockbuster before everything became homogenized. Again, something even the latest Marvel movies veer towards. Hopefully, Guardians will spark a renaissance not just at its parent company but across the board. Let’s pretend we’re in a universe where summer blockbusters start taking more risks. Let’s pretend.

The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

Whilst this summer sees one trilogy close with The Dark Knight Rises, another opens in the form of The Amazing Spider-Man. In summary: Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield). Spider. Bite. ‘Ooh, I can climb walls, I can!’. Swinging. Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone). Improbable bad guys (Rhys Ifans). New York. Soft rock music.

The last time we had a Spider-Man movie was in 2007 with the underwhelming Spider-Man 3, which saw Sam Raimi bowing to pressure from Marvel to make it even more fan-friendly. This resulted in a poorly sketched attempt to bring Venom into Raimi’s universe, which didn’t fit in with the wide-eyed joy that was Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2.

So, what does Mark Webb give us with The Amazing Spider-Man? Well, everything has been rewound and Marvel is asking us to witness the birth of Spider-Man again, with what has been promised as being ‘more like James Bond’ and even compared to the likes of Hamlet.

Up front, it’s just simply not amazing. But what is there is enjoyable enough.

Garfield is brilliant as Peter Parker/Spider-Man. The starched shirts and v-neck jumpers of the Parker Past have been replaced with a Parker not too dissimilar to Marvel’s Ultimate Spider-Man. He’s geek-chic, cool designed by committee, rides a skateboard and isn’t afraid to be disrespectful to his peers. And yet, despite all that, Garfield makes Parker likeable. Even though he is only a couple of years younger than this reviewer, he manages to radiate awkward teen better than others who have tackled the complexeties of puberty. Cough, Tobey Maguire, cough.

When the mask is on, Garfield is completely believable as the arachnid hero. There was a danger, suggested from the trailers, that this time round, we were going to get a Dark Knight spider; all mopey ‘tude and gritty realism. However, Garfield is as much of a friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man as you would expect. Though, we don’t think, in our life time, that we will ever see a reasonable explanation as to how a 17 year old makes a convincing superhero costume.

Read any interview with Rhys Ifans and you’ll see he attacked the role of tortured Dr Curt Conners with a large amount of lovey gusto. As well as comparing the film to Hamlet (see above), he was also quite open about wanting Conner not to be seen as a villain, but a man cheated by God. We’ll be honest and say we didn’t see the theological layers he added to the part, but what we did see was excellent enough. Ifans never really taking Conners to the level of father figure the script suggests he should have been doing, but still showing a man in turmoil.

Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy, whilst confident and, whisper it, pretty funny, does suffer from having absolutely sod all to do in the film, except pretend to be caught in a triangle with Garfiled and her screen father, Dennis Leary. This total lack of background means Stacy becomes many things to many people throughout the film (we counted no less than three separate vocations for Ms. Stacy); leaving the impression that she’s just being used as something to move the plot along and provide exposition when needed.

The surprising part of Spider-Man is Martin Sheen. We never thought we’d ever write this sentence, but Sheen is adorable as Uncle Ben. Whilst Parker is doe-eyed for Conners; Sheen’s Uncle Ben waits paitiently at the sidelines for Parker to find his way back home. And you’d have to be living under a rock for 60 years to not know how that works out. However, we won’t lie. SPOILERS! The loss of Uncle Ben’s infamous pep-talk is sorely missed; the scriptwriters – unfortunately following that old linguistic joke of never using big words when diminutive ones will suffice – giving us something that felt like a 3am decision. END SPOILERS!

Mark Webb’s decision to stay away from CGI as much as much as possible is certainly welcome and goes that long way to making a man swinging through New York City absolutely believable. For us, the fight scenes were some of the best parts of the film. It’s a shame that the Spidey POV that was pushed into our eyeballs on a regular basis in the lead up to the release, is used so sparingly in the final result. Anyone who enjoyed the two minute run across the rooftops from the trailers will be dissapotined to hear that it’s been chopped up and moved around. But that’ s a minor quibble when you sit through the punch up that sees spider versus lizard in high school. For those wondering, yes, that is exactly how a fight in EBFS is resolved – whoever punches the other through a wall first wins.

With regards to the plot, with it already having been decided that Spider-Man is going to be a trilogy/quadrilogy/dodecahedrilogy, plot lines are picked up and dropped in a way that suggests that Columbia – and let’s be honest, this commercial part of the film has nothing to do with anyone but the suits – really expect us to think ‘wow! I can’t wait for the sequel’. Rather than enticing us, it just left us annoyed. Elements of Uncle Ben’s death are left unnecessarily unresolved for what appears to be, for no other reason, than to stretch it out across the subsequent chapters. And to be blunt the missing parents storyline was, in this film at least, a laboured way to get Parker to meet Conners. This is a shame because for us it was these plot elements that overshadowed the genuinely excellent and thrilling parts of the film.

In summary, EBFS still believe that this could easily have been a Spider-Man 4 or a even a stand alone film not reliant on sequels. We look forward to seeing what the team do with the sequel and new material. It’s just a solid superhero movie rather than a shining example of what could have been done with Spidey’s origins.

The Avengers (2012)

The first three chapters out of the Marvel Studios stable were, it’s fair to say, a mixed bag. Jon Favreau’s Iron Man was a solid affair that tried to ground Tony Stark firmly in reality, only for it all to blow up in his face with the ill-judged, ill-paced, ill-Mickey Rourke sequel that was nothing more than a PowerPoint about daddy issues. The Incredible Hulk tried to put the comic back into comic book movie after Ang Lee’s previous effort, Hulk. Instead, powered by Edward Norton’s self-importance, it lost its way in the second half and became as involving as a film of two CGI characters beating the shit out of each could be.

If Marvel Studios took stock of all this is up for debate, but what can be agreed on is their next two efforts, Captain America: The First Avenger and Thor, brought a lot more to table. Tighter pacing, more experimentation (Go on, who had money on Kenneth Branagh directing Thor?) and more importantly a genuine sense of fun that was lost in The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man 2. They stopped being about simply pleasing the whims of the fanboy and more about being ensuring that everyone had a good time. Which brings us bang up to date with The Avengers, written and directed by Joss Whedon and starring pretty much everyone from the last five Marvel movies with the Ted Norton sized hole being filled in by Mark Ruffalo.

So, to summarise; Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) half brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), has returned from his exile and he’s bringing an army of aliens intent on taking over the planet Earth. Only the Avengers can stop them. Except the Avengers don’t exist yet. Yep, despite the seemingly never-ending appearances in other people’s films, Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) hasn’t actually got round to gathering everyone up due to his funding being pulled. So he spends part of the first act trying to re-convince people to join his gang with a little help from ex-soviet spy, Black Widow (Scarlett Johanssen) and uber-archer, Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). And when I say ‘part of’, I mean it. Joss Whedon has made it very clear that the backbone of his film is the clash of characters that comes from Marvel’s rosta, so it’s no surprise we speed through getting the band back together.

When everyone is present and correct, Whedon’s script ensures that the one-liners fly as fast and as hard as the fists. Like Whedon’s previous work, it’s the dialogue that shines through. From the culture clash between Captain America (Chris Evans) vs Iron Man (Robert Downey Jnr) right down through the almost Shakespearean verbal sparring between Loki and Thor to the grunting match between Thor and Hulk, it all just works. However, it’s not all about the words is it? You came to see a rock show, not some Poet Laureate, I know. And be assured that Whedon delivers on that front too. From the annihilation of Manhattan Island to the downing of a village sized airship, Whedon’s direction is confident with a healthy dash of experimentation. On top this, we have a number of superhero fights that are sure to plague the forums for years to come. With this and 2005’s Serenity, it’ll be interesting to see how he deals with the more visually sober Much Ado About Nothing later this year.

With so many characters on-screen, there is always the danger that some of Earth’s mightiest are going to be MIA. And unfortunately this does happen. Jeremy Renner seems to spend most of his time appearing in a completely different film. There’s probably a few reasons why there hasn’t been a Hawkeye movie and this movie highlights them. Whilst even Scarlet Johanssen gets to do a hell of a lot more than she did in Iron Man 2 (she comes across something resembling a human being as opposed to a Tony Stark sex doll), Renner just stomps around smoldering. I would almost argue that he’s surplus to requirements if it wasn’t for Maria Hill played by Cobie Smulders, who has inherited the lion’s share of exposition dialogue; ‘What happens now Fury?’, ‘Where’s Captain America?’ etc.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Mark Ruffalo as the world’s worst sponsor for anger management, Dr Bruce Banner/Hulk. Ruffalo is a delight every time he’s on-screen. Compared to Eric Bana and Edward Norton’s portrayal of Banner, Ruffalo plays him less tortured soul and more man just trying really hard to be left alone. Even when he does dip his toe into melodrama and confesses all about his alter-ego, it works for him rather than against him (‘I swallowed a bullet, he spat it back out’). When he finally does lose his rag, The Hulk (voiced by 70s original Lou Ferrigno) is impossible to watch without a big, cheesy grin on your face.

In summary, The Avengers is fantastic addition to the Marvel Studio canon. Like Thor and Captain America, it reminds you that, yes, films like this can never be more than fun and explosions, but that doesn’t mean they have to be instantly forgettable (Hello Spiderman 3). If they can keep this kind of quality control, which really does mean trusting your talent to call the shots rather than forcing them into bad decisions (hello again Spiderman 3) then the thought of the forthcoming Thor 2, Captain America 2, Iron Man 3 and The Avengers 2 seems less depressing then it originally did.

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

To be honest, Captain America is one of those comic book characters I never cared for (A bit like the Green Lantern, and look how that turned out). He’s always struck me as a someone reeking of jingoism. He even pre-dates Team America by a good 60-odd years, but back then he had a purpose. He took on the old National Socialists and helped kids feel safer about what was going on around them and helped them love propaganda that little bit more. I’m sure my view point is not that controversial. Even Marvel/Paramount realised the character’s somewhat niche marketability and released this latest movie adaptation of old red, white and blue to the foreign markets with two titles; Captain America and The First Avenger. The latter adopted by Russia and South Korea.

So, yeah. I’m not a fan. Which is why it was all the more surprising to find myself really enjoying this two hours of WW2 comic book gumph. Captain America tells the story of how Chris Evans’s freaky CGI body becomes super-buff so he can take on Hugo Weaving’s freaky CGI head. Or something to that effect.

A lot has been made of the great efforts used to make Chris Evans look skinny. I had originally thought that they were going to blu-tac his head on to some skinny bugger in the same way they did for Fred Claus. Obviously they didn’t and the effects used are extremely well done. Unlike Fred Claus, which needs to curl up and die somewhere or be gone long enough for us to forgive Paul Giamatti. Whichever comes first.

The tone of movie works well. It was a brave move to set the entire story within World War 2. They could have gone the way of 1990’s Captain America and have him fighting Red Skull in 1993, which may have been the easier option. Don’t get me wrong. There’s about as much depth to this as there is in the eco-fable that was its predecessor. However, you’re being taken on such a ride, it doesn’t really matter.

Hugo Weaving – word class scenery chewer. That is all that needs to be said.

Oh, it has some horrible moments in it. Tony Stark’s father makes an extended cameo for no other reason than for people to go ‘ooooh, look it’s Tony Stark’s father! He has a mustache’. The underwritten romance between Evans and Hayley Atwells does grate with it’s needless will-they-won’t-they bollocks, but not enough to ruin the film as a whole. What does piss me off the return of Marvel’s favourite fucking bookend, Samuel L Jackson. It is this reviewer’s humble opinion that the sooner they do a Nick Fury movie, the sooner it will bomb harder than David Hassehoff’s effort and we can all get on with our lives, enjoying films that don’t have him in them. And if anyone dares mention it’s worthwhile because it’s linking everything together for The Avengers movie, may I offer that you go play in the traffic.

So, in summary Captain Amer-I-CA — FUCK YEAH!

It’s not that good, but I couldn’t resist that last line.