The Avengers (2012)
★★★★ / ★★★★
The Tesseract, a cube with the potential energy to destroy the planet, was obtained by the egomaniacal Loki (Tom Hiddleston) from S.H.I.E.L.D., Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistic Division, led by one-eyed Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). Overpowered by Loki’s strength and otherworldly powers, Fury sought help from Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), with Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) eventually joining the party. Based on the screenplay by Joss Whedon, comprehensive character development in “The Avengers” was simply out of the question because each superhero contained an interesting personality filled with quirks and unique sense of humor. The main question was how to keep the story interesting apart from massively entertaining explosions and jaw-dropping action sequences. I found that the film was similar to a great swimmer. Because of Whedon’s direction, the film knew how to pace itself so it didn’t drown in its own ambitions. When the movie kept its head underwater by delivering the intense and often breathtaking battle scenes, they were allowed to play out to our satisfaction without overstaying their welcome. For example, the duel between Iron Man and Thor was simply wonderful to watch. Out of the six, not only did the two of them have the biggest egos, they were my least favorite characters compared to the rest. (Personally, listening to Thor speak is as boring as reading about the history of differential equations hybridized with Shakespearean lingo.) Yet it didn’t matter because I was so involved in what was happening. Their brawl, and of those to come, was within the story’s context. Thor, prior to joining the group, wanted to convince his adopted brother against enslaving Earth while Iron Man worked for a cause and had to deliver Loki to the proper authorities. When the movie gasped for air, they were quick and memorable. The sense of humor stood out because the script played upon the elementary personalities of each hero or heroine. For instance, the material had fun with what the audience expect of Black Widow and her sex. The script was balanced in subverting the typicalities of women’s roles in superhero movies, given that they’re usually the romantic interest or object of desire, and remaining loyal to her character as a woman on a global and personal mission. Since she, along with Hawkeye, did not have a stand-alone movie, having not read the comics, I appreciated that her character was given a little bit more depth than her counterparts. While there were still unanswered questions about her history and the intricacies of what she hoped to gain by joining S.H.I.E.L.D., by the end, I felt like I knew her as well as the other guys. I felt like she had her own stamp in the dynamics of the group, that they wouldn’t be complete without her. Naturally, the film’s climax involved a lot of extirpation of expensive skyscrapers. But the main difference between the destruction seen here as opposed to, say, Michael Bay’s “Transformers,” was the action didn’t feel incomprehensible. Things blew up but the quick cuts weren’t injected with multiple shots of epinephrine. Each jump of perspective had something enjoyable to offer instead of relying on a false sense of excitement. In other words, the destruction was actively made interesting instead of allowing it on autopilot. “The Avengers” could have used more Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow), less speeches between Loki and Thor, and an explanation on how The Hulk became more manageable toward the end. Nevertheless, such negatives are so small compared to the cyclopean roller coaster ride that the filmmakers had given us. When I was a kid, I played with a lot of action figures. Some even revolved around crazy narratives I made up, one of which involved a live caterpillar and beetle destroying Legos that stood for Gotham City. I must say, the sight of The Hulk tossing Loki around like a piece of spaghetti made me feel like a kid again.
Green Lantern (2011)
★ / ★★★★
When Hal was young, he witnessed the death of his father due to an aviation accident. Almost twenty years later, we came to discover that Hal (Ryan Reynolds) followed his father’s footsteps and became a successful test pilot. Meanwhile, two entities had been in war for a millennia: a group of warriors known as Green Lantern Corps, powered by will, and Parallax, powered by fear. The latter was quickly gaining the upper hand by literally eating the souls of its enemies. When one of the leaders of the corps, Abin Sur (Temuera Morrison), made an emergency landing on Earth after being attacked by the evil Parallax, he managed to pass his powers onto unsuspecting Hal. “Green Lantern,” directed by Martin Campbell, was sloppily put together. A myriad strands were introduced but not one achieved an above average level of thought nor a minutiae of common sense, so the film ultimately felt flat. Let’s take the romance between Hal and Carol (Blake Lively) as an example. Supposedly, the two of them had known each other for more than half their lives. I found that very hard to believe. While the two obviously cared for each other, perhaps even on a romantic level, I found it frustrating that they didn’t know how to communicate as adults and as close friends. If you’ve been friends with someone for a very long time, that certain connection, which often defies explanation, should be palpable to a third party. But I never felt that special connection when Hal and Carol were on screen. In fact, the whole thing felt forced. There were a lot of puppy dog eyes and polite smiles, like I was watching some teenage soap opera where characters pretend to be dumb yet they have the nerve to complain about the fact that no one is getting what they want. The screenplay, by Greg Berlanti, Michael Green, Marc Guggenheim and Michael Goldenberg, came off as rather desperate in injecting a human element into the story. I actually would have enjoyed the movie more if Hal and Carol were given the time to sit and talk about their feelings for up to three key scenes and defined their relationship once and for all. Then focus on the action, without the hammy and frivolous will-he-or-won’t-she interruptions, because 1) I wanted to see the war between good and evil and 2) watch things blow up in the city. The decision to put petty romances between action sequences made the project disjointed. As a result, the momentum failed to build and I ended up not caring. Another one of Hal and Carol’s childhood friend was Hector (Peter Sarsgaard), a formerly corpulent boy who preferred to stay indoors and read books rather than to play outside. Eventually, Hector became an agent of evil after being infected by an alien life form. But why was his transformation necessary? Since the writers offered no answer to that question, it was pretty much implied that brainiacs were less than so they deserved to be punished. That wouldn’t have been the case if we had a chance to observe Hector being black-hearted as a child in the first place. “Green Lantern” need not have been too serious nor abound with grand special effects to qualify as a decent superhero movie. It just needed to tell its story with clarity.
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
America was at war with the Nazis and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) wanted to enlist in the army. There were multiple problems. He had been rejected from joining for the fifth time because of his short stature, frail demeanor, and various health problems. When Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci), a German-American scientist, overheard Steve telling his best friend, Bucky (Sebastian Stan), about why he wanted to serve his country, he was convinced that Steve was the right man for his experiment: creating a super soldier. Based on the comic books by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, “Captain America: The First Avenger,” directed by Joe Johnston, suffered from a lack of focus in terms of characterization and motivation. For instance, Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), also known as Red Skull, worked for Adolf Hitler by searching for artifacts which could help the Nazis win the war. Naturally, Red Skull eventually wanted all the power for himself but his methods confounded me. In order to take over the world, he wanted to destroy it by attacking most of the world’s major cities. But why? It was confusing to me because I didn’t have a picture of what kind of world he wanted. If he wished to lead a world lacking in technology, making the cities go boom would somewhat make sense. But it didn’t seem like that was the kind of world he wanted, especially in the way he depended on technology to gain more power. He was megalomaniacal but the reasons behind his actions should not have been confusing. If I was a super villain, it’d be simple: I would assert my power by making sure that everyone paid attention to the one city I intended on destroying. The film was action-packed, gorgeously shot, especially the slow-motion montages where Captain America and the American troops demolished Nazi camps like an unwavering tornado. It was almost like watching a well-done commercial aimed to convince young people to sign up for the military. However, character development done right was critical for this movie because it had an underlying message about the costs of war. That is, in terrible times of war, the umbilical cord of friendships could be cut in the blink of an eye. All it takes is a bullet, wild or perfectly aimed, puncturing the body’s critical spot and the person drops dead. Since the screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely was not efficient in terms of developing supporting characters with subtlety, they were either only good or only bad, the scenes when an important character was about to die felt rather flat, almost unconvincing. To make room for those necessary details, the romance between Steve and Peggy (Hayley Atwell), a woman in the military, could have been either watered down or taken out completely. The scenes in which one of them would get jealous of the other when one interacted with the opposite sex a certain way were not fun and completely predictable. “Captain America: The First Avenger” had several great moments, namely the action sequences, but it needed to work on the story of the man behind Captain America’s mask, through those who cared for him, in the latter half. If those two are equally strong, then the material becomes more than a movie which happens to have a superhero in it.
★★ / ★★★★
Future supervillain Megamind (voiced by Will Ferrell) and future superhero Metro Man (Brad Pitt) were sent to Earth by their parents right before their home planet was engulfed by a black hole. The former grew up in a prison and the inmates taught him right from wrong–rather, wrong from right. His only friend was an adorable fish, equipped with wit and razor-sharp teeth, named Minion (David Cross). Grade school was horrible for him. He was often picked last for gym and his many attempts to impress his classmates always ended up horribly wrong. Over the years, he became bitter and developed a penchant for kidnapping Roxanne Ritchie (Tina Fey), a reporter, who had a crush on the superhero. But when Megamind, with a bit of blind luck, finally defeated Metro Man, he found his villainous role obsolete. Megamind’s big brain came up with a brilliant plan: He would construct a superhero (Jonah Hill). Would this little experiment backfire like all the others? Absolutely. “Megamind,” written by Alan J. Schoolcraft and Brent Simons, was a kaleidoscope of colors aimed for the younger kids and double entendres for the adults. Its manic energy successfully tickled every sense as it referenced other superhero films and comic books. However, it would have been far stronger if it didn’t try so hard to be funny like the characters breaking into a dance for no reason. If might have sounded cute on paper but painfully awkward to watch and sit through. What I enjoyed most about “Megamind” was although it spoofed other superhero franchises, it had an identity on its own. The scenes were not simply driven by references. There was a defined story, interesting and amusing characters, and a specific perspective in which it remained loyal throughout so the allusions were secondary. It aslo had real moments of creativity. For instance, after Metro Man’s death, Megamind began to rely on his invention which had the ability to make him transform into any being. Due to certain circumstances, he chose to be Bernard (Ben Stiller), a geeky guy who worked in the newfangled Metro Man Museum. As Bernard, Megamind started to fall in love with Roxanne Ritchie. His identity crisis from a lack of a superhero to fight on a daily basis also worked on another level. He started to have a literal identity crisis as he switched from Megamind to Bernard which generated some of the best scenes when both had to appear in front of the girl. Our protagonist rationalized that the villain never end up with the girl so he had to be something else, preferably not blue. There was sadness in his situation and we rooted for him to find happiness. Directed by Tom McGrath, “Megamind” was a good animated film for the majority of the time. If it managed to dial down the cheese and pumped up the edge, it could have been special.
★★★ / ★★★★
David Dunn (Bruce Willis) was on a train from New York to Philadelphia that suddenly derailed. Everyone on the train passed away except for him; in fact, he walked away from the wreckage without a scratch. This strange phenomenon caught the eye of Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), a man born with osteogenesis imperfecta–since his body lacked an essential protein, his bones were very low in density and therefore easy broken. Elijah had a passion for comic books and he was convinced that David was a superhero in the making. Was Elijah a madman who became embittered from his experiences as a child or was he a friend that could help David realize his true potential? M. Night Shyamalan did a fantastic job blurring the line between science fiction and realism by establishing a heavy but malleable solemn mood. I thought it was great in building the tension as we were given information that could lead to the conclusion that David might be special. The film could simply have been about a man coming to terms with his “gift” (if he did indeed has one) but it took the more introspective path and it became a story about a family trying to stay together. David and his wife (Robin Wright) were on the verge of divorce due to reasons undisclosed and his son (Spencer Treat Clark) became fixated with the idea that his dad was special in order to deal with the fear of his father being plucked away from his life. Shyamalan’s talent in telling a compelling story was always at the forefront. Even though I did not know the truth about David’s identity, I cared about him because I was as confused as he was. “Unbreakable” was highly successful in building an inordinary experience from ordinary elements. I loved the way the director gave us information that was open to interpretation but not so abstract that it became frustrating or even insular. I also enjoyed the awkward camera angles because it challenged our perspectives visually and intellectually. And in a way, the film was also about perspectives: do we believe that David is a superhero or just a man trying to get by? It was strangely moving and I thought it ended at just about the perfect moment. Most people have lost faith in Shyamalan’s talent in creating stories that are involving, honest, and creative but at the same time defying our greatest expectations. I’m not one of them because when I rewatch his films like “The Sixth Sense,” “Unbreakable” and “Signs,” (or even “The Village” to some degree) I cannot help but notice the level of detail he puts into his work. What I think he needs is to step back, look at what made the aforementioned pictures work and tell a story he would love instead of what he thinks the public would love.
Iron Man 2 (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Robert Downey Jr. reprises his role as Tony Stark/Iron Man who is as narcissistic and self-centered as ever. This time around, he had to face-off with a Russian physicist (Mickey Rourke) who was out for revenge for the wrongs done to his father and an American weapons expert (Sam Rockwell) who craved power in politics. Tony also has to deal with his health, Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) being the new CEO of the company, a new sexy assistant (Scarlett Johansson), and Rhodey’s (Don Cheadle) need to deliver the Iron Man suit to his superiors. There was no doubt that “Iron Man 2” was bigger and grander than the original. However, I don’t believe it was one of those sequels that disappointed. What I loved about the first one was the fact that it was an origins story. The first hour bathed us in curiosity and the rest tried to explore the lead character’s depth (although we came to realize he didn’t have much depth at all–which I loved). In “Iron Man 2,” it was more about having fun with the main character and his big ego. I thought it was funny, exciting and I liked that it didn’t try to be darker or deeper than the original. In some ways, I had more fun with the sequel than its predecessor. I was also very into what was happening on screen because of the many hints of The Avengers slowly forming (make sure to stay until after the credits). The tone was different than other superhero films because it made me feel like the superhero that we were watching was not the only one in his universe. I also enjoyed Rourke as Whiplash. He wasn’t given much screen time but every time he was, he generated maximum impact. I thought he was menacing but at the same time I felt somewhat sorry for him. When I looked in his eyes, I saw pain and vulnerability trying to wrestle (pun intended) with anger and thirst for blood. One of this film’s drawbacks was it didn’t spend more time putting Rourke’s character on screen to add some sort of enigma and rivalry between him and Tony Stark. I absolutely loved the race track scene and when Stark visited Whiplash in jail. There was a certain crackle and pop between the two characters when they spoke to each other because Downey Jr. and Rourke knew how to play with certain subtleties in terms of intonations and body languages. Those scenes left me at awe and it’s unfortunate because small moments like the jail scene would probably be ignored since most scenes were loud and bright and glamorous. Bigger and louder isn’t necessarily a bad quality but as the “The Dark Knight” has proven, a nice balance between quiet moments and adrenaline rush makes a superior and ultimately unforgettable superhero film–not just a superhero film but a movie that has the power to stand alone in its own right. Directed by the very funny Jon Favreau, it was apparent that “Iron Man 2” had actors that had fun in their roles so I had fun with it as well. I loved that Favreau put himself in his own movie for kicks. I think most professional critics are wrong about this one because they claimed it was inferior to the first. But I’m saying see it and pretend as if it’s not a sequel. I have no doubt that you will recognize a really good movie in it.
★★ / ★★★★
Aaron Johnson stars as Dave Lizewski, a typical geek who goes to a typical high school with typical hormonal friends (Clark Duke, Evan Peters). But what’s not typical is his dream to be a superhero, serving people at a time of need and rescuing them from bullies or dangerous criminals. I liked the first and last forty minutes of this film. The first forty minutes was amusing because the lead character was still trying to figure out how it was really like being a superhero; that one does not win every battle and sometimes a trip to the hospital is necessary. In a way, it worked as a spoof of those extremely serious adapted-from-comic-books superhero movies. The last thirty minutes was pure action. Comparisons of Chloe Moretz as Hit Girl to Uma Thurman’s The Bride was pretty accurate because both can deliver the eye-popping violence and snarky sense of humor. However, I didn’t like the fact that Moretz’ character overshadowed the lead character. After all, the movie was supposed to be about the blossoming of a nobody to a possible somebody who everyone adored on YouTube. As for the middle portion of the film, I thought it was weak and lazy. The bit about Christopher Mintz-Plasse as a rich boy wanting to be a superhero was very formulaic. I constantly felt that he was trying to be funny but falling flat every single time. I like Mintz-Plasse, especially in “Superbad,” but I thought he was miscast here. A pompous, know-it-all, conniving kid would have been a much more interesting a character instead of a wimpy wannabe. Other fatal shortcomings involved Nicolas Cage as the father of Hit Girl (and also a superhero). There was a history about his character that I wanted the film to get into. Whenever the camera was focused on Cage, “Kick-Ass” had an added gravity that it desperately needed in order to be something other than a spoof of superhero films. Instead, the movie unwisely spent much of its time showing us scenes involving the main character being mistaken for a gay guy by a girl he liked who happened to want a gay BFF. As cheeky as it was, it was also unnecessary; it got old pretty quickly and I wished I had a fast-forward button. Overall, however, I did enjoy “Kick-Ass,” directed by Matthew Vaughn, despite its shortcomings in terms of pacing and not focusing on the more interesting characters that could potentially provide an extra dimension to the project. The film did hint on a possible sequel which I think is a great idea because there were a number of questions that remained in my head by the time the credits started rolling. People compare this film to “Kill Bill” in terms of violence but I think “Kick-Ass” doesn’t hold a candle to Quentin Tarantino’s bloodbath. I think it’s more accurate to say that this is a teenage version of “Watchmen” that is less focused, less ambitious but more amusing with a modern twist.
★★★★ / ★★★★
We all know the fact that people complain whenever a film doesn’t stick closely to its source material. Well, “Watchmen” remains very loyal to its graphic novel–with a few tweaks here and there so the audiences will be able to relate more with the politics it tries to tackle. I never thought I would ever read a review (like the one from Entertainment Weekly) that complains about a picture sticking too closely to its source. It seems like some critics just find a way to complain about something (no matter how ridiculous it sounds) to sound insightful so it’s hard for me to take that specific review seriously.
“Watchmen” may be about two hours and forty minutes long but Zack Snyder (who directed the 2004 version of the cult classic “Dawn of the Dead” and the highly overrated “300”) directs the movie so astutely, it doesn’t feel like it’s that long. I was particularly impressed with the way the film started: it goes over the Minutemen of the 1940’s in about ten minutes during the opening credits and then it takes us to its current setting which tells the audiences how different their successors have become. The death of The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) in the hands of an unknown murderer sets up a series of events that results upon the reunion of five other superheroes: Rorschach (played brilliantly and hilariously by Jackie Earle Haley), Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson), Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), and Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman). Unlike most superhero movies, the six of them are atypical in such a way that they are nihilistic, not afraid to hurt or kill, and each of them can be placed in various areas of the moral spectrum. They do not necessarily have a common goal initially but their beliefs and methods of acquiring information are often at odds with each other. A typical villain is not necessary because their own selves are ultimately their worst enemies. Though some can argue that there is a “big bad” in the film, to me, nuclear weapons and politicians’ hunger for power are the driving forces that force the characters to choose the morally gray path.
Each superhero is featured in one way or another so the audiences get an idea on what makes the characters tick (pun intended). In a way, we eventually learn to see them as regular human beings with real problems instead of gods that can jump in at any time and save the world. In fact, I can only remember one or two scenes when the characters decided to do a good dead just because they are superheroes. Although at times, the dialogue may sound a bit cheesy, especially the romantic scenes between Wilson and Akerman, the film provides a great balance between seriousness and humor. I also liked the fact that the sex scenes look realistic (as opposed to other superhero flicks) and the filmmakers weren’t afraid to show certain body parts from both genders. Usually, films like this tend to objectify women’s bodies but I didn’t get that feeling here. In my opinion, this is lightyears better than “300” because of its rich moral ambiguity and ability to genuinely entertain. Those who expect a typical superhero film may be disappointed but those who want to see something different should be impressed. “Watchmen” is a breath of fresh air from the likes of “Iron Man,” “The Incredible Hulk” and “Spider-man.” Along with “Coraline” and “The International,” this is one of those few movies of early 2009 that is worth watching in the cinema; it also should be remembered as the year progresses.