Starting with 2008’s Iron Man, Marvel Studios spent the last four years crafting an interconnected cinematic world, leading up to the assemblage of all their superheroes in a 2012 team-up film called The Avengers. Maybe you’ve heard of it.
It’s probably an understatement to say that this was undoubtedly a mammoth task…but, somehow, they did it. Marvel Studios has created a series of superhero movies that not only stand on their own, but also serve as an effective build up to The Avengers when viewed as a whole. As a result, they have unequivocally raised the bar for the entire comic book genre. No biggie.
The main reason Marvel pulled it off is because they truly get their characters; thus, they made us truly care about these super-powered beings. With The Avengers storming into theaters very soon, I thought it’d be a good time to look back and briefly examine each piece of Marvel’s ground-breaking puzzle.
Iron Man – 4 out of 5
Marvel Studios was finally able to exert full creative control over one of their properties with this film, and they definitely started things off with a bang. Director Jon Favreau and his team skillfully established the glossy look, real-world special effects integration, great casting choices, and creative action set-pieces that would aesthetically define the subsequent pre-Avengers films. However, Robert Downey Jr. is the main reason this movie works, perfectly embodying one of the most entertaining superheroes to date and elevating a formulaic script (especially in its third act) by sheer charisma alone. Downey swaggered onto the screen and not only re-launched his career, but kick-started an entire franchise. Put simply, we would not be getting an Avengers film if Iron Man had failed…thankfully, it succeeded beyond all expectations.
The Incredible Hulk – 3.5 out of 5
Even though this reboot is widely perceived to be “better” than 2003’s Hulk (I enjoy both versions), it nonetheless made about the same amount of money. I believe that’s because it is just plain hard for people to connect with a main character that turns into a large green cartoon character – since we know computers take over during the “Hulk Smash” scenes, a subconscious disconnect sets in and divorces us from the proceedings. At any rate, this is a fun movie, with a likeable protagonist and a propulsive “man-on-the-run” vibe reminiscent of the 1970s TV show. There are a few clunky jokes and story turns, a couple of questionable performance choices, and an over-reliance on MTV-style camerawork at times, but this is definitely an accessible, adventurous tale that gets to the strengths (both literal and thematic) of the Hulk character.
Iron Man 2 – 2.5 out of 5
This is the first “part 2” of a superhero franchise that hasn’t surpassed its predecessor in a while, and it’s sad that IM2 broke that particular trend. There are just too many laid-back talking scenes where nothing happens plot-wise, and while I’m for character development, you can’t do it at the expense of story or action…especially in an action movie. I like the improvisational nature of the character interactions, but said scenes make the movie feel too relaxed. There is no tension here. The stakes are not big enough…in fact, the story is just plain not big enough.
It has a lot to do with the bad guy scheme, which is essentially a rehash of the first film’s plot. Furthermore, the two villains are played by actors with real screen presence, but neither is memorable or formidable enough as written. Tony Stark goes through the prerequisite “crisis of faith” that most second chapters put their heroes through, but we just don’t feel the weight because the script doesn’t give him compelling challenges. In a superhero sequel, I want to be excited in a way that differs from what came before, I want the world to be opened up, I want imagination and thematic poignancy, but the movie botches those aspects from a screenplay perspective. Iron Man 2 was rushed into production, and unfortunately, it shows. [Full review here.]
Thor – 3.5 out of 5
With this film, Marvel Studios effectively broadened the canvas of superhero cinema by injecting some other-worldly fantasy into the mix. Flaws fist: Thor’s arc seemed a tad rushed, as did the love story (Chris Hemsworth and Natalie Portman mostly made it work, though). Certain aspects of the production design came across as a bit garish, like something you would see in an ‘80s fantasy movie, albeit much more spruced up. There was already enough humor in the movie without the superfluous Kat Dennings character – her and her annoying one-liners could’ve been cut. Thankfully, those are the only noticeable negatives in a film that is actually very entertaining. Director Kenneth Branagh is the MVP here, successfully pulling off the various tonal shifts and gravitas. The cast shines, Thor was a charismatic hero, Loki was a menacing bad guy, the action was well done – overall, just a solid piece of myth-building. [Full review here.]
Captain America: The First Avenger – 4 out of 5
Right off the bat, I can tell you that the strongest aspect of this film is definitely its scope. Aside from some patches here and there that seemed a tad rushed, the story thankfully takes its time to trace Captain America’s journey and endear him to us. Director Joe Johnston taps into his Rocketeer roots and imbues the film with a potent mix of humor, adventure, romance, and poignancy. The action scenes are top-notch; in fact, I would go so far as to say that these might be the best action sequences I’ve ever seen in a superhero film. Actor Chris Evans puts his natural charisma to good use and admirably brings the quintessential Steve Rogers to life. Playing the role in a grounded manner, with no smarm or winks to the camera and with just the right amount of light humor, Evans truly gives us a star-making performance. Captain America: The First Avenger was the final building block in what is essentially the most ambitious undertaking in superhero cinema history, and thankfully, Marvel Studios saved the best for last. [Full review here.]
In the quiet before the storm that will be The Avengers, it is comforting to look back and see that Marvel Studios laid its foundation down in such a satisfying way. The only real misstep on the road to this epic experiment was Iron Man 2, whose wasted potential has only grown the more I reflect on it. Regardless, I am 100% sold on the characters Marvel Studios has given us – Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, Captain America, and the ancillary heroes Hawkeye and Black Widow – as well as the world that has been built up around them. It will be truly amazing to see all those charismatic actors once again inhabit their roles and interact onscreen in but a few days’ time, guided by writer/director Joss Whedon, who is the king of witty banter and team dynamics.
Finally, after a four-year build up, The Avengers are saving the world on May 4th, 2012. Wow, I can’t believe it’s actually happening…