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The Road to The Avengers: Thor

Chris Hemsworth as Thor facing off against The Destroyer

“I have no plans to die today”

Up till Thor’s release Marvel Studios had eschewed the more fantastical elements of its characters/worlds for a realistic vibe. They were plausible…well Iron Man  sort of was; but they each felt part of a recognisable world. The Incredible Hulk was a monster movie but the character was familiar enough for audiences not to question it. Thor was a different proposition: how do you fit a god and space bridges into the Marvel canon and keep it grounded?

The characters and setting of Asgard are outlandish, absolutely separate from the real world aesthetics that Iron Man and, to a lesser extent, The Incredible Hulk created. Perhaps, like the previous Marvel films, the reason it works because of an emphasis on character rather than action.

That doesn’t mean it skimps on the action but it isn’t the film’s major concern. If the film’s faults lie in scale of the action (smaller than the setting implies); the way the action sequences are directed (functional) and a story that may not feel as grand as it should be, then those concerns are valid. For me it’s the conflict between Chris Hemsworth’s Thor and Tom Hiddleston’s Loki that’s the film’s most interesting aspect and what draws me back into the film than any preconceived notions of what it should/could have been.

Having written at length about what I liked about the film already (so, so long ago), I won’t bother repeating myself in any great detail. In short Thor’s an very likable film that doesn’t suffer from the Iron Man films’ weak third acts, and, emotionally, has a stronger sense of purpose than any of previous Marvel Studios films. Most of it is down to the trifecta of Hemsworth, Hiddleston and Anthony Hopkin’s Odin, a family thrown into tumult when Thor commits an act of stupidity and threatens to re-ignite the war between the Asgardians’ foe the Frost Giants.

Banished from Asgard (by way of a quite literal dressing down) Thor is sent to learn about humility and sacrifice as a lesson for his brash arrogance. Along the way he meets Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) and Darcy (comic relief Kat Dennings) and finds a place along humanity.

It’s another redemption story in the vein of Iron Man but it doesn’t lose its energy in the final third because of the relationships established in the film’s opening half-hour. S.H.I.E.L.D is still a bit of a dick but they don’t come across as annoying or as incongruous as they once did in Iron Man 2 (which wasn’t bad itself, just came across as trying to fit too many pieces into the puzzle). In Loki Marvel had its best villain so far, one that did not offer a physical threat to Thor’s strength but functioned as a trickster who schemes and manoeuvres pieces into place, an aspect of his character that worked well in The Avengers.

For my two cents (pennies?) Thor was the most entertaining of the films leading up to The Avengers. It’s funny, likable and felt like the most rounded of the films to date: it had some scope (though not as much as some wanted), a very good score by Patrick Doyle and visually, despite some glaring imperfections, was vibrant and imaginative. It set the benchmark for future films in the Marvel Studios universe.

8/10

[Despite all the kerfuffle pre-release about the colour of the character, Idris Elba’s Heimdall almost steals the film from Hemsworth and Hiddleston. It also puts down a marker for future characters to not be bound by race. Hurrah!]

The Road to The Avengers: Iron Man 2

Don Cheadle as War Machine and Robert Downey Jr as Iron Man in Iron Man 2

This lone gunslinger act is unnecessary… you don’t have to do this alone!

After the success of Iron Man (and The Incredible Hulk, at least in invigorating interest in the character), Marvel decided to skip a year and release their next film in 2010. The Avenger’s Initiative was very much on the horizon (not a tiny speck any more), the question now was how would Iron Man 2 fit into the equation? The answer would be ‘not very well’.

If the first film was about Downey Jr’s Tony Stark turning his back on his and his company’s legacy, then Iron Man 2 rejoins him as he takes the first tentative steps to creating a new one. Complications arise in the form of the triple whammy with the U.S government wanting to take hold of the iron man suit (after revealing his identity at the end of the first film); with Stark slowly dying from palladium poisoning caused by the very thing that’s keeping him alive, and that he’s not the only person with access to high-tech, weapons grade tech courtesy of Russian rogue scientist Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke).

All this is further complicated by the intrusion of S.H.I.E.L.D – introduced through Clark Gregg’s Agent Coulson in the first film – keeping tabs on Stark as he struggles to keep a grip on life. Iron Man 2 is a busy sequel that juggles too many characters and storylines to do any one of them justice. From a different perspective, Iron Man 2 is an ambitious sequel, but it’s execution is flawed. The adage of bigger being better is nullified by the sense of confusion that surrounds the script’s intent – just where is the film’s focus on? Stark dying? His legacy? His father? All of them?

As a result there are threads that get lost in the jumble. Rourke’s Vanko is a little ineffective due to the script (and some say on-set problems) removing him from the back end of the film for long stretches. In his place S.H.I.E.L.D’s involvement in the narrative is increased but this brings another element that the film struggles to fit in. I haven’t even began to mention Don Cheadle‘s Rhodey and his conflict with Stark or Stark’s daddy issues (Howard Stark played by Mad Men‘s Jon Slattery). It’s exhausting.

Perhaps the least likable aspect of the film is Downey Jr’s Tony Stark, still radiating charisma by the bucketload, but the script turns Stark into a man who has a death wish. It isn’t the Demon in a Bottle storyline, it’s more of a reflection of it as he spirals into the abyss by neglecting the people close to him. Understandable considering the storyline but it comes across as more than a little forced and irritating in its execution.

All of this casts a pall over the first forty minutes of the film which much like the first film contains some of its best moments. Its funny, with the interaction between Stark and competing weapons manufactuer/doppleganger/wannabe Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) and it slowly builds up to the first encounter between Vanko and Stark at the Monaco Grand Prix. The film never matches up to that confrontation despite the pyrotechnics, acrobatics (porvided by Scarlett Johansson‘s Natalie Rushman/Black Widow) and CG antics that dominate the last twenty minutes of the film.

Nonetheless its still entertaining even if it feels like it was rushed into productions with a few too many moving parts. A squandered opportunity to make a film that improved on the original.

6/10

[The action in Iron Man was a little stale, the action in Iron Man 2 is much better and some of that may be down to the production hiring Samurai Jack/Clone Wars/Powerpuff Girls animation director Genndy Tartakovsky to create some previsualisation storyboards and Ben Snow’s work for ILM, which you read about in brief here]

Top ten disappointing films of 2010

This list comprises of the films that were a bit of a letdown, they still entertained to some degree but didn’t live up to the hype, expectations or generally just didn’t fulfil the promise that the premise put forward. Before that though here a few films that are a worth a watch but have their own problems.

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