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The Road to The Avengers: Captain America

Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter in Captain America

I don’t want to kill anybody. I don’t like bullies; I don’t care where they’re from.

I had [actually that should read as ‘have’] reservations about Captain America: The First Avenger.  The reservations? You can read about them over here but they stem from a character and story perspective. Putting those problems aside I come to appreciate the pulpy spectacle a little bit more than I did before.

The First Avenger‘s story finds Steve Rogers deemed unfit for service in World War II but volunteers for a special project that gives a man super-human gifts. Finally getting his chance to serve his country he travels to Europe to stop Johann Schmidt a.ka. Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), a Hydra scientist who intends to win the war with his new weapon of destruction, the Tesseract.

The First Avenger is a much better action/adventure film than it is one about its own characters. Chris Evans‘ Steve Rogers is a standout, but that’s expected since he’s the star of the show. The other actors do well in their roles, the, ahem, buxom Hayley Atwell foreshadows the kind of tough, heroic woman that Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow would come to be; Tommy Lee Jones grizzled, avuncular performance works extremely well here and Stanley Tucci‘s Abraham Erskine is another standout in the film’s first half-hour or so.

It’s in the other characters that film shows its limitations. Hugo Weaving‘s Johann Schimdt makes for a standard foe, your typical ‘he’s like the hero but one step removed’ sort of villain. He’s obviously evil and villanous and perhaps that’s all he needs to be. It doesn’t make for a memorable antagonist despite the fact that his skin has been burnt off. Most of the other characters get the short-shrift and bow out too early to have an impact, leaving the film’s action to pick up the slack. It’s a good thing that the action is pretty great.

There’s a physicality to Captain America that clearly differentiates itself from other superheroes particularly in the Marvel canon. Most of the heroes have some kind of miscellaneous item to fight with (Thor has his hammer: Black Widow her, um, guns, Hawkeye his bow and Iron Man his suit/repulsor tech blah, blah, blah). Captain America has his shield but he’s the closest character to the Hulk that uses his fists than any other kind of weird technology. He’s not about to bring out a rapier mid-battle or have gauntlets to stab you with in the mould of Assassin’s Creed. He brawls, keeping in line with serial heroes like Flash Gordon and Indiana Jones, and that added level of physicality is a bit more enjoyable than someone getting blasted or hit flush in the face with a gigantic hammer.

In the end The First Avenger most problematic issue is in its pacing. Characters don’t get enough time to establish themselves and their relationships and in turn tend to be rather shallow. The film runs rather than jogs, to get where it needs to be. It wouldn’t necessarily be a problem for me, if only there was only something to be invested in other than the action. From an action perspective Captain America: The First Avenger is enjoyable piece of genre filmmaking…but there’s always that feeling that it could have been better.


[Does anyone care what happened to Sebastian ‘Bucky’ Barnes because I don’t and that’s a massive problem with this film. Things happened and you can’t quite muster the interest/attachment to characters’ fate since the film isn’t interested in bookending its stories than bridging Rogers into The Avengers. – a thing I do like about the film is that, like Thor, it introduces a more fantastical bent with the Tesseract making the action way over the top]


The Road to the Avengers: The Incredible Hulk

Edward Norton about to transform into the Hulk

As far as I’m concerned, that man’s whole body is property of the U.S. army.

I happen to like Ang Lee’s Hulk. While it’s not what many expected (philosophical musings, a CGI monster-poodle!), it was a fascinating entry into the super-hero genre. There was hardly anything like it before and there has been very little like it since. That Marvel hit the reset button (shouting ‘HULK SMASH’ I presume) is more than a little unfortunate. It closed to the door to seeing some risks being taken and some really interesting films being made.

Instead we received French director Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk:  a remake, requel or something. A new cast, a different Hulk and a new direction: the safe waters of convention.

None of this is necessarily bad.

In a way The Incredible Hulk is an apology-of-sorts, a ‘sorry we were too ambitious and bit of more than we could chew’ type grovel. Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) is still on the run with a prologue establishing a different origin that more or less gets the character in the place where he needs to be: isolated and afraid to return to society. Off the grid for a number of years, he’s forced to confront his fears when he’s located by General ‘Thunderbolt’ Ross (William Hurt) who wants his genetic code to create a new breed of super-soldier (in an odd way, this film acts as a pseudo-sequel to Captain America: The First Avenger). However Banner’s work on the genetics for the military leads to a new threat: The Abomination. Banner will have to sacrifice his personal safety to defeat this new, potentially stronger foe.

The Incredible Hulk is a far simpler film than its predecessor, eschewing philosophy and introspective characters and favouring loud action beats and wearing its emotion on its sleeves. It’s not particularly subtle, but then again, a giant green monster full of rage wouldn’t be. Beginning in the slums of Sao Paulo before beating Harlem into submission in the last act, this is a film that’s less about the slow, avant-garde musings on father versus son/daughter relationships and more about levelling buildings/cities with the vibe of the old monster movies Universal Studios used to make. It’s hard to avoid comparison with other versions of Hulk (especially the Bill Bixby TV version this adventure draws inspiration from) which may make this adaptation the most watered down version of the character. However, at least until Marvel’s Avenger’s Assemble, it actually felt like the purest distillation of a character that’s hard to depict on screen without coming across as incredibly fake.

Norton’s Banner made a lot of sense at the time, giving the character the juxtaposition of a small, timid, unassuming man who gives way to voracious green giant. He centres the film with an intelligence and anxiety that makes Banner an interesting character, a man who suffered the greatest form of scientific hubris and is now afraid of his own shadow, lest he get angry and destroy anything close to him. Punishment by being cast off from humanity.

Tim Roth as Emil Blonksy is good; an old, determined soldier hankering for his glory days and revealing one of the film’s themes (addiction/temptation whether it’s for power, knowledge etc). Liv Tyler’s Betty comes across as little delicate (probably down to Tyler’s breathy voice) and her reunion with Banner feels very melodramatic at times, as if someone watched too many Mexican telenovelas.  Hurt’s Ross is okay but suffers from the problem that afflicts much of the supporting cast: they feel a little undercooked; as if there’s more to them that is not shown in the film.

So what makes the film good? Quite probably its lack of pretension. While Lee’s Hulk was more interesting, this Hulk is more fun whether it’s showcasing Leterrier’s action skills, making Banner angry or the Hulk turning a police car into boxing gloves. There’s inventiveness to the action in places that just about offsets the fakery on show, and the overall story of Banner as fugitive keeps the narrative flowing, always worried about if he’ll be found, moving from city to city while searching for a cure. It’s not hugely ambitious; then again Hulk’s at its best when he focuses on one thing: smashing stuff.


[The less said about the end credits scene the better, a moment that Iron Man 2 unravels but Avenger’s Assembles tries to rectify. Also, when are we going to see Tim Blake Nelson’s The Leader in a Marvel film?]

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