Talking Movies [HulkaMAYnia]: The Incredible Hulk

Since his explosive debut in May 1962, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s gamma-irradiated Jade Giant has been one of their most recognisable and successful characters thanks, in large part, to the Incredible Hulk television show (1977 to 1982) catapulting the Hulk into a mainstream, pop culture icon. Hulk has been no slouch in the comics either, being a founding member of the Avengers, joining teams like the Defenders, and has gone through numerous changes over the years that have added extra depth to the green-skinned behemoth and made him one of their most versatile and enduring characters.

Released: 13 June 2008
Director: Louis Leterrier
Universal Pictures
$137.5 to 150 million
Edward Norton, Liv Tyler, Tim Roth, and William Hurt

The Plot:
In a bid to recreate the super-soldier serum, Doctor Bruce Banner (Norton) exposed himself to gamma radiation and, whenever provoked or enraged, transforms into a green-skinned behemoth known as the “Hulk” (Lou Ferrigno). Desperate for a cure, and to avoid the attention of General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (Hurt), Banner reluctantly rekindles his relationship with former flame Doctor Betty Ross (Tyler) and finds himself hounded by Emil Blonsky (Roth), a relentless soldier who exposes himself to the same process to match the Hulk’s physical abilities.

The Background:
Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s green-skinned rage monster had a troublesome road to the big screen; although Hulk (Lee, 2003) featured its fair share of impressive visual effects shots and was relatively profitable, its poor critical performance quashed plans for a sequel. However, when Universal Pictures failed to produce a follow-up in time, the rights reverted to Marvel, who were currently riding high after the critical and commercial success of the first film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), Iron Man (Favreau, 2008). Opting to reboot the property, Marvel hired director Louis Leterrier and writer Zak Penn, who both drew significant inspiration from their love of The Incredible Hulk television show (1977 to 1982). Edward Norton was cast as Banner and also provided some work on the script, which caused some tension between him and Marvel when many of his additional scenes were cut and ultimately led to him leaving the role. Like Hulk, The Incredible Hulk brought the Hulk to life through visual effects specifically tweaked to portray him beyond the peak of human physical ability and the film even brought back Joe Harnell’s iconic and tragic “Lonely Man” theme from the TV show. The Incredible Hulk was not quite as profitable as Iron Man; it made a little more than its predecessor with a worldwide gross of nearly $265 million but was again met with mixed reviews. Although development of a solo sequel film stalled after disagreements with Universal Pictures, the character would be recast for subsequent appearances in the MCU, where he received something of a “mini arc” and many of the film’s loose ends were eventually addressed in later MCU productions.

The Review:
I came away from Hulk relatively satisfied; it was longer and far more cerebral than I was expecting but I always thought that it was a pretty impressive and enjoyable big-screen debut for the Jade Giant and I was disheartened to learn that we wouldn’t be getting a direct sequel. Still, hearing that the next film in the MCU would feature another crack at the Hulk was an encouraging sign that Marvel Studios were eager to both do the character justice and make him a prominent feature in their fledgling interconnected universe. Even better was the fact that The Incredible Hulk benefitted from a surge of fantastic casting in superhero films at the time; actors like Robert Downey Jr., Jeff Bridges, Michael Caine, and Morgan Freeman were really adding a lot of legitimacy and gravitas to the genre and I thought it was quite the coup to see Edward Norton cast in the lead role in The Incredible Hulk. Sadly, Marvel Studios seemed to lose faith in the project before the release day and spoiled Tony Stark’s (Downey Jr.) appearance the pre-credits scene in the last few trailers and, even now, The Incredible Hulk remains one of the lowest-grossing films in the MCU.

Banner is a desperate man on the run trying to cure his unique condition and avoid capture.

Like Hulk, The Incredible Hulk plays its opening titles over a montage that is both a clear homage to the 1970s TV show and a revised origin for the character as Banner exposes himself to gamma radiation in an attempt to recreate the super-soldier serum rather than as an experiment on the limits of the human body. As much as I enjoy Mark Ruffalo in the role, there’s no denying that Edward Norton is a different quality of actor; he makes for a great Banner, showcasing the same empathy, humanity, intelligence, and desperation that made Bill Bixby so great in the role, and is still probably the most accurate onscreen portrayal of the character in my mind. Actively hiding his identity and staying off the radar of both Ross and the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division (S.H.I.E.L.D.), Banner busies himself with a menial job while communicating with the mysterious “Mr. Blue” in an effort to synthesise a cure for his condition. Banner also wears a heart rate monitor to warn him when he’s getting too stressed and works with an Akido instructor (Rickson Gracie) to control his emotions and anger through breathing and meditation techniques. Having reached the limit of what he can accomplish with his mediocre resources, and after accidentally alerted Ross to his presence with a single drop of blood, Banner has no choice but to abandon his hard but largely peaceful life and return to the United States in an effort to find a cure.

Betty can’t help but be drawn to Bruce and helps him out of pure adoration and love.

This reunites him with Ross’s daughter and Banner’s former love, Betty, a renowned and capable scientist in her own right who, despite being in a relationship with psychiatrist Leonard Samson (Ty Burrell), has never forgotten her feelings for Bruce. Reunited after five years apart, she immediately insists on helping him in any way she can, which involves bringing him clothes after his Hulk-out, helping him gain access to Culver University, going with him on the run, and shielding him from her tyrannical father at every opportunity. Betty is, once again, an empathetic and supportive character who is both clearly besotted with Banner and exhibits a sympathetic protectiveness of his green-skinned counterpart; Tyler and Norton have a very real, tangible chemistry and it’s great seeing their characters interact as equals and attempting to act on their obvious attraction to each other. Crucially, Betty also holds key data that Mr. Blue (who turns out to be Doctor Samuel Sterns (Tim Blake Nelson)), needs to properly help synthesise a cure for his condition.

The Hulk is far more aggressive and wild than usual and more like a force of nature.

Though still largely a silent character, the Hulk continues to exhibit a great deal of personality to separate him from Banner. Far more aggressive and angrier than his 2003 counterpart, this is a Hulk who has had to deal with being constantly suppressed within Banner’s subconscious and finds himself relentlessly hounded by Ross, Blonsky, and the military. As he simply wants to be left alone but is quick to fly into a rage and even mumble a few words of protest when provoked, the Hulk appears to be much more feral than usual, though he does retains his child-like demeanour at times while also seeming much more akin to a wild animal. Crucially, the Hulk is fiercely protective of Betty, who’s the only person to show him any kindness, and notably shields her when Ross allows his selfish vendetta against him to threaten her safety, lending further credibility to Betty’s later belief that the Hulk has great potential as a force for good. Since the film doesn’t delve into Bruce’s childhood or emotional trauma, the Hulk is much more of a result of science gone wrong but there’s also the suggestion that he has the potential to be so much more; Banner, however, is more concerned with ridding himself of his ailment than learning to properly accept it as part of himself and his fear of the Hulk is almost as great as Ross’s hated of him.

Just as Ross is desperate to apprehend Banner, Blonsky is obsessed with fighting the Hulk.

Speaking of ol’ Thunderbolt, General Ross continues to be a stubborn and vindictive character; personally directing the missions to detain Banner, his motivations stem just as much from Banner’s first transformation landing Betty in the hospital as it does from his desire to contain the beast lest anyone discover the role Ross and the U.S. military played in his creation. Again a stern and uncompromising authority figure who prioritises his duty and career over his daughter, Ross begins the film estranged from Betty and their relationship is only further strained by the revelation that Ross is seeking to dissect the Hulk from Banner’s body in order to weaponise the creature. Ross’s ceaseless campaign against Banner sees him employ the services of Emil Blonsky, a former Royal Marines Commando who quickly develops an intense rivalry with the Hulk. Eschewing promotions that would take him away from the combat he craves so dearly, Blonsky obediently follows orders to the letter but, having witnessed the Hulk’s destructive power (and feeling the physical strain of a lifetime of combat), candidly requests more information on Banner and the Hulk and is only too eager to receive a version of the super-soldier serum in order to improve his own strength, speed, reflexes, and recuperative powers. However, when even this fails to make him a match for the Hulk, Blonsky seeks more extreme methods to battle the Green Goliath. Sterns is only too willing to further augment Blonsky’s body with mutated samples of Banner’s blood, which causes him to transform into a bestial form of his own to finally battle the Hulk on equal ground for the finale.

The Nitty-Gritty:
I touched on this earlier but, for a time, it wasn’t entirely impossible to view The Incredible Hulk as a follow-up to Hulk; the film opens in Brazil, very similar to where the 2003 film ended, and it’s easy enough to believe that Banner was granted permission to return to the U.S. to help with the super-soldier serum only to be further ostracised by Ross, and you could even explain away to recasting of Talbot from Josh Lucas to Adrian Pasdar and his revival can be explained away by the questionable canonicity of Marvel’s television shows. I always felt like there was just enough connective tissue to link the two without explicitly stating it but, ultimately, The Incredible Hulk also works extremely well as a reintroduction to the character. By evoking the familiar imagery of the TV show and leaning into the accepted tropes associated with the character, the film is much faster and more action-packed since it doesn’t waste time delving into the Hulk’s origin and instead kicks things off with Banner a desperate man on the run, something immediately familiar to fans of the early comics and the aforementioned TV show.

Banner comes to consider that the Hulk could be used as a force for good.

That’s not to say that The Incredible Hulk isn’t without its poignant moments; it may not be a methodical in-depth character study like the last film but there’s a great amount of time devoted to Bruce’s increasing desperation to rid himself of the Hulk. This has left him alone and exiled from his home and love, and constantly on edge and reluctant to trust anyone with too much of his blood or research lest he be discovered or his condition weaponised. Banner is outraged to discover that Sterns has synthetised large quantities of his blood for medicinal purposes and is disheartened to find that Sterns’ efforts have been unable to produce an actual cure. When he returns to the U.S., Banner is initially reluctant to reconnect with Betty but she insists upon offering her assistance out of a genuine affection for him; Betty is also the one who suggests that the Hulk is actually a force for good, something that kept him from dying from a gamma exposure, and plants the first seed in Banner’s head of trying to “aim” the beast and influence the Hulk’s actions rather than simply eradicate the Jade Giant. There’s also an interesting addition whereby Banner’s condition means he cannot allow himself to get sexually aroused since this risks provoking the Hulk’s emergence, replacing the allegory of the Hulk as an expression of his repressed childhood trauma with a metaphor for impotence.

The Hulk is a highly adaptable and aggressive fighter.

Like his 2003 counterpart, the Hulk is a purely digital creation; similar to the last film, the Hulk is initially obscured by darkness and very much painted as a mysterious and fearsome monster. This time, he’s got more of a grey/green hue, is noticeably much more ripped than his predecessor, and there’s loads of really intricate details in his model like bulging veins and muscles that make him a far more impressive digital creation. However, despite this, it can’t be denied that the special effects have aged somewhat. Although the Hulk’s digital model is visually far more impressive than his predecessor, the effects remain somewhat inconsistent in his quality; the Hulk appears very cartoonish when he emerges on the university campus but looks far more believable and fearsome when filmed at night and in the finale. Though he doesn’t continuously increase in mass as he gets madder and stronger, this Hulk is far more aggressive and much more diverse in his attack patterns. He performs his patented thunderclap manoeuvre and his ability to use his surroundings to his advantage, coupled with his ferocious rage, make him a terrifying force of nature. Indeed, the Hulk is smart enough to rip apart military vehicles and turn them into makeshift shields and weapons, very similar to The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction (Radical Entertainment, 2005), which he uses to trash Ross’s heavy ordinance and sonic weapons. Although he wishes to be left alone, the Hulk’s threat only increases the more he is provoked and Blonsky certainly drives him to his limits with his persistence and taunts, earning him a near-fatal blow from the Green Goliath, who appears to rack up quite the body count through his many rampages.

Despite being a dark mirror of the Hulk, the Abomination makes for a thrilling final foe.

Thankfully, there are no gamma dogs this time around and the Hulk surprisingly appears in a number of populated areas, adding to the film’s level of destruction over its predecessor. While Blonsky’s enhanced abilities provide a taste of what we would later see from Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), his obsession with besting the Hulk leads to him forcing Sterns into transforming him into a version of the Abomination. This bony, hulking monster is quite the upgrade compared to the finale of the last film but is a noticeable departure from his traditional comic book appearance and does admittedly add to the MCU’s tendency to rely on dark mirrors of their heroes. Still, the brawl between the Hulk and the Abomination makes for a far more visually impressive finale, not least because you can actually see what’s going on this time around. Potentially because of his conviction or having been exposed to a more potent version of the super-soldier serum, Blonsky retains his personality and intellect when transformed but, drunk with the power afforded to him, the Abomination goes on a rampage through Harlem, attacking civilians and Ross’s troops alike to draw the Hulk out and forcing Ross to risk sending Banner into the hot zone to take Blonsky down. I can totally understand the argument that ending the film with two similar-looking CGI characters bashing each other senseless takes away from the human element of the narrative but it’s a Hulk film so what do you expect? The scene is also framed in a way to make the Hulk appear both heroic and monstrous; though he attacks the Abomination, he causes a great deal of damage in the process but his rage is effectively directed in a more productive way. Despite boasting bony protrusions, the Abomination is ultimately bested by the Hulk’s unquenchable rage but is saved from being choked to death by Betty’s intervention. Humbled by having to turn to the Hulk for help, Ross is far from impressed when Stark comes seeking to recruit the Hulk and the film ends with the ambiguous suggestion that Banner has learned to control his transformations.

The Summary:
Honestly, it annoys me that people overlook The Incredible Hulk; it doesn’t help that legal issues between Marvel Studios and Universal Pictures kept the film somewhat suppressed for a great deal of time and meant that all of the dangling plot threads and sequel bait would sadly never be developed or take a long time to be addressed in the wider MCU. The film’s homages to 1970s show and films like An American Werewolf in London (Landis, 1981) are a nice touch and the cast is absolutely fantastic; Norton, Tyler, Hurt, and Roth all bring a real humanity and intensity to their roles in their own ways and the Hulk is realised perfectly onscreen. Despite being much brisker and more action-orientated compared to the 2003 film, The Incredible Hulk still perfectly captures the desperation of the character as seen in the source material and the popular TV show, and even an admittedly lacklustre finale doesn’t spoil what I find to be an extremely enjoyable and under-rated entry in the MCU.

My Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Pretty Good

Are you a fan of The Incredible Hulk? Would you agree that it’s an under-rated entry in the MCU? What did you think to the cast and would you have liked to see Edward Norton reprise the role in the MCU? Were you a fan of the Hulk’s appearance and characterisation this time around and how did you interpret the film’s final shot? Would you have liked to see all of its loose ends addressed in a dedicated Hulk sequel or were you happy with how the MCU incorporated these elements later on? What Hulk story from the comics would you liked to see adapted one day? Whatever your thoughts, feel free to leave a comment below.

Talking Movies [X-Men Month]: X-Men: Apocalypse

To commemorate, the culmination of their long-running and successful X-Men movies, 20th Century Fox declared May 13th as “X-Men Day”, a day to celebrate all things Mutant and X-Men and celebrate Marvel’s iconic collection of superpowered beings who fight to protect a world that hates and fears them. After exhausting all of their storylines with their original cast, save for Hugh Jackman, 20th Century Fox began producing a series of loose prequels centred on younger X-characters and, to commemorate X-Men Day this year, I’ve been spending the month looking back at the first three entries in this “Beginnings Trilogy” to see if they still hold up today.

Talking Movies

Released: May 2016
Director: Bryan Singer
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Budget: $178 million
Stars: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Oscar Isaac, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Rose Bryne, Evan Peters, Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner, Alexandra Shipp, and Kodi Smit-McPhee.

The Plot:
In 1983, the ancient Mutant En Sabah Nur, also known as “Apocalypse” (Isaac), awakens and begins recruiting his “Four Horseman” to bring about an area of Mutant supremacy, forcing Professor Charles Xavier (McAvoy) to lead a new team of untested X-Men into battle for the sake of the entire planet.

The Background:
Since debuting in 1963, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s X-Men have seen much success as a live-action franchise, spawning first a trilogy of movies, then two spin-offs focusing on breakout character Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), before Fox created a loose set of prequels that brought in a younger cast to portray the early days of the X-Men. Even before X-Men: Days of Future Past (Singer, 2014) proved a financial success, director Bryan Singer announced the production of a sequel; thanks to a post-credits sequence in that last movie, it was clear (and later confirmed) that the next film would not only focus on long-time X-Men villain Apocalypse but also bring in younger versions of beloved X-Men characters to help populate and expand upon this new, altered timeline for the X-Men franchise. Though it made considerably less at the box office than its predecessor, X-Men: Apocalypse still accumulated a total worldwide gross of over $540 million, more than double the cost of its production. However, unlike the last two movies, reviews were mixed, to say the least; once again falling into the same trap as other X-Men movies of focusing on style and a bloated cast over substance, X-Men: Apocalypse is generally regarded as one of the weaker entries in the franchise, perhaps only eclipsed by its follow-up a few years later.

The Review:
As is the traditional of pretty much all X-Men movies, X-Men: Apocalypse starts off strong enough but, as interesting as its opening sequence (set centauries ago in ancient Egypt) is, I can’t help but feel like it could, maybe, have been skipped and moved to later in the film. It’s one of those things where we get a detailed and visually interesting scene that gives us a glimpse at Apocalypse’s powers and motivations but, later in the film, Moira McTaggart (Byrne) literally sits down with Xavier and Alex Summers/Havoc (Lucas Till) and explains to them what we already know so this opening scene could have been inserted there as a flashback. Still, the film proper takes place ten years after the end of X-Men: Days of Future Past; it’s now 1983 and our main cast hasn’t aged a day. It kind of bugged me how Till didn’t look a day older for his brief cameo in the last film but, here, his character has to be approaching…what? Fifty? Late-forties?…and he still looks no older than twenty-five. The decision to set each of these films in a different decade really shattered any suspension of disbelief the viewer might have had as they could have easily taking place in a ten- or fifteen-year period and it would have been much more convincing.

Despite returning characters pushing forty or fifty, they’re still as young and sexy as the newcomers.

Yet, armed with the knowledge of the future brought to him by, and from the memories of, Logan, Xavier has officially reopened his school and has taken on a few familiar faces: Jean Grey (the delectable Sophie Turner) is now a student of his, Henry “Hank” McCoy/Beast (Hoult) is now a teacher at the school (and inexplicably back to suppressing his blue, furry form despite the last two movies constantly teaching him to embrace his true nature), and Alex brings his younger brother, Scott/Cyclops (Sheridan) to the school when his optic blasts begin to manifest. Although his characterisation has been pretty well defined over the course of the last two movies, Beast still gets a bit of a raw deal in this film; apparently, he’s the one who built all the X-Men’s tech and training facilities (how is never really elaborated on) but his character arc in this film is his disappointment that Xavier has benched the training of new X-Men to defend the world and his growth into a senior member of the new team. We don’t get to learn too much about Jean except that her powers are potentially limitless, to the point where other students fear her, and she is empathetic towards others; her arc culminates in an impressive, if illogical, display of power at the film’s climax that sets her in motion towards her fate in the next movie. Cyclops, though, finally gets a fair deal of focus and development; he starts off as a bit of a bad boy, almost a rebellious, Wolverine-type loner, but quickly warms to his new teammates in the face of the film’s threat.

Xavier has devoted himself to teaching rather than training new X-Men, so of course Mystique becomes their leader…

Xavier, finally wheelchair bound full-time, has also embraced his role as a mentor, teacher, and father-figure to his many young students. Unconcerned with training new soldiers, Xavier believes that the world has changed for the better but quickly learns that his views are blinkered somewhat as his focus is so completely on his own little perfect bubble. When his childhood friend, Raven Darkhölme/Mystique (Lawrence), returns into his life to ask him for help in reaching Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto (Fassbender), Xavier comes to realise that Mutants are still being persecuted and mistreated across the country, and the world, and that the X-Men will be needed to defend those who cannot help themselves. After publicly saving the lives of the President and other high-ranking government officials in the last film, Mystique has become a folk hero for the Mutant community; Ororo Munroe/Storm (Shipp), especially, looks up to her and wants to be just like her. Mystique, however, sees herself as more of a mercenary as she travels the world freeing oppressed Mutants and trying to keep them safe from those who would harm them. Although still closely aligned with Magneto’s cause, she has been forced to forge her own path, one of uncertainty that is filled with doubt about her identity for the first time since X-Men: First Class (Singer, 2011). In an unexpected twist, Mystique ends up coming full circle, learning once again to embrace her true self but also re-joining the X-Men and even ending up as the lead trainer for a new generation of the team. Again, I’m not a big fan of Jennifer Lawrence and the insistence on giving her, and her character, such a big role in the beginnings of the X-Men does irk me, especially as I wanted to see Xavier and Magneto working together in that role in these films.

Once again, Erik starts off having given up his crusade and only turns after suffering another tragedy.

Speaking of Magneto, Erik begins the film poised and ready to strike back against humanity, having assembled and recruited Mutants to his cause. What? Oh, no, that’s right; that’s not what happens. Instead, Erik is now inexplicably a doting husband and father, working as a factory worker in Poland, having retired from his violent life. However, when his powers are revealed to his co-workers, a bunch of townsfolk band together to out and confront him and, with tensions high, accidentally kill his wife and daughter. Angered, he once again reassumes the role of Magneto and quickly falls under Apocalypse’s sway as the ancient Mutant feeds his grief and rage just as he increases his powers tenfold. As I mentioned before, this is pretty much par for the course for Magneto, who begins each of these films in a place of innocence, turns morally grey throughout the film, briefly appears to be the Magneto we all know and love, only to wind up having walked away from his crusade in the next film. Honestly, I find it really contrived and a little insulting that the filmmakers decided to randomly throw in a wife and child for Erik; the guy has already lived through the Second World War, seen his family (and, specifically, his mother) and people slaughtered before his eyes, been tortured and abused, and seen the very worst of humanity so you’d think he had sufficient motivation already but apparently not and he needs to have suffered the loss of his wife, daughter, and idyllic, peaceful, normal life as well. I feel this was only added to the film to pad the runtime, allow new audiences to sympathise with his plight, and to add even more angst and anger to his already complex character. Ironically, Apocalypse later sparks Magneto’s fury further by taking him back to Auschwitz which, for me, would have been enough to get Magneto under Apocalypse’s sway.

Apocalypse certainly looks accurate enough but isn’t as imposing as he should be.

As for Apocalypse…well, there’s definitely a version of him in this film, that’s for sure. Oscar Isaac is a great actor and I always appreciate casting a great actor to elevate a role but I’m not sure if he was really right for this; for one thing, he’s way too short and the filmmakers don’t really make much effort to shoot him in a way that is physically imposing. I applaud them for making him visually interesting and comic accurate rather than just another guy in a suit and tie, and he is clearly the most powerful threat the world has ever seen, but that is also a bit of an issue. Apocalypse’s powers are quite vague; he’s able to transfer his consciousness into the bodies of other Mutants when near death, thus assuming and retaining a variety of abilities, can manipulate the elements, invade the minds of others (but only to a degree), and can vastly enhance the abilities of other Mutants but, while he has a superhuman healing factor, he’s also vulnerable and mortal despite his near-immortality. Thankfully, though, Isaac delivers Apocalypse’s many grandiose speeches with an alluring charisma and he’s definitely bringing a certain quality to the role but I do think an actor of larger build and stature would have been more appropriate and I question whether a character as visually “busy” as Apocalypse really works, but I applaud them for going all-in with his design even if he spends a lot of the film posturing, pandering, and just standing around like a doughnut.

The Nitty-Gritty:
Thanks to Days of Future Past setting the young cast on a divergent timeline, I can now forgive the many, many continuity discrepancies that are present in this film. However, it still bugs me that Logan’s actions in the last film caused Warren Worthington III/Angel (Ben Hardy) and Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler (Smit-McPhee) to be born earlier than they originally were. I assume this decision was made because of the role Angel/Archangel traditionally plays as one of Apocalypse’s Horsemen and the popularity of Nightcrawler (whose abilities and presence has haunted the series since the second film) but, while Nightcrawler gets a fair amount to do and is generally the same kind-hearted character we saw in X-Men 2 (Singer, 2003), Angel is dramatically different. Both characters are introduced as cage fighters, with Angel being a brutal, violent bad-boy; truthfully, he’s a poor substitute for Wolverine despite his similar introduction in the first film and he ends up having less and less of a role as the film goes on, degenerating into just another mindless henchman whose death is hardly even noticed.

What is Apocalypse without his Horsemen? Or an X-Men film without a massive cast?

Speaking of which, as is also tradition for the series, X-Men: Apocalypse features a far bigger cast than its predecessor; there’s something odd when a film about time travel and actors and characters from the original movies meeting those of these new ones juggles its plot and pacing better than a film that focuses only on one set of characters. However, when you do Apocalypse, you obviously have to include his Four Horsemen but, rather than follow their own lead by having him recruit existing characters like Magneto, who have already received a lot of character development, the filmmakers throw in Angel, as mentioned, and have Apocalypse recruit a young Storm and even Betsy Braddok/Psylocke (Olivia Munn). Similar to her appearances in other X-Men films, Storm is criminally under-used in X-Men: Apocalypse; she’s the first Mutant Apocalypse recruits so you’d think she would have a bigger role than just being an angry, lightning-spewing antagonist but she doesn’t really. Her thing is admiring Mystique, which is enough to turn her away from Apocalypse by the film’s end, but that’s still more of an arc than Psylocke who, despite looking fantastic and having some bad-ass moments, could be taken out of the film and you wouldn’t even notice. Unlike Storm, she doesn’t even end up on the new X-Men team by the end and she never appears in the series again, completely wasting an actress like Munn and a character a popular and visually interesting as Psylocke. Also returning is Peter Maximoff/Quicksilver (Peters) who, despite being in his thirties, still looks and acts like a hyperactive teenager. Now fully aware of his true parentage, he wishes to confront his father, Magneto, but rather than this being the anchor to bring Magneto out of Apocalypse’s control, it is, of course, Mystique who reaches Erik. As a result, Quicksilver is primarily here for another impressive super speed sequence, this time rescuing Xavier’s students when his mansion explodes.

While the visuals and cameos are fun, the film is littered with inconsistencies and wasted potential.

Later, we see just how game-breaking his abilities are as he effortlessly attacks Apocalypse and the writers actually bother to give a decent explanation for why he doesn’t just end the film by himself; Apocalypse breaks his leg, incapacitating him, and necessitating that the rest of the team (but mostly Jean) end Apocalypse’s threat. Jean’s final display of power, while impressive, seems to align with the original trilogy’s narrative that the Phoenix Force is more an extension and manifestation of Jean’s true potential, which means, of course, that the entire next movie completely contradicts what happens here as Jean doesn’t receive her Phoenix powers until the beginning of that film. Still, it’s an impressive moment, one that comes after Xavier finds himself no match for Apocalypse’s vast abilities and must call upon Jean for help. Her role could have been bigger and a bit more of her background explored, however, to help set up for this moment and I almost feel like Nightcrawler could have been dropped from the script to give more screen time to her, but she does get an entire movie dedicated to her in the sequel so I guess that makes up for it. Finally, of course, we see the return of recurring character Colonel William Stryker (Josh Helman); now suddenly shifted back to his original characterisation as a military scientist obsessed with the Mutant threat, Stryker literally drops in out of nowhere and derails the entire plot and pacing of the film for a completely pointless side quest for the new/young X-Men. However, this does also provide us with perhaps the greatest cameo by Wolverine ever; fully garbed in the Weapon X outfit and twisted into a mindless, animalistic killer, Wolverine slaughters Stryker’s men and is only calmed when Jean manages to remind him of a small piece of his past. Still, though, as awesome as this moment was, it really could have been cut or replaced by scenes more relevant to the actual plot.

The Summary:
X-Men: Apocalypse is a decent enough effort but there’s something about its execution that is lacking compared to the last two movies. X-Men: First Class suffered from a bloated cast, similar to its predecessors, but managed to get by through its unique premise and the potential of exploring the early years of these familiar characters but X-Men: Apocalypse is just unnecessarily staked and convoluted. It’s a shame because expectations were quite high after X-Men: Days of Future Past and from the inclusion of familiar X-Men characters and the potential of a villain like Apocalypse. Yet, while Apocalypse is impressive to behold in many ways, the film squanders him, and Oscar Isaac, and bogs down its plot with too many redundant plot lines (particularly those involving Magneto) and under-developed characters. Like X-Men: First Class, the film is far more concerned with rushing through its narrative to establish a more familiar team of X-Men and a future sequel and suffers as a result, descending into mindless, bombastic action that fails to live up to the standards of other X-Men films.

My Rating:

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Could Be Better

How did you find X-Men: Apocalypse? Do you agree that it was a step back for the franchise or did you enjoy the film for what it was? What did you think to Apocalypse’s characterisation and the inclusion of more familiar X-Men? Which Apocalypse-centred storyline from the comics or other media is your favourite? Would you like to see the character revisited in a different film? Whatever your thoughts on X-Men: Apocalypse, and X-Men in general, feel free to leave a comment below.

Talking Movies [X-Men Month]: X-Men: Days of Future Past: The Rogue Cut

To commemorate, the culmination of their long-running and successful X-Men movies, 20th Century Fox declared May 13th as “X-Men Day”, a day to celebrate all things Mutant and X-Men and celebrate Marvel’s iconic collection of superpowered beings who fight to protect a world that hates and fears them. After exhausting all of their storylines with their original cast, save for Hugh Jackman, 20th Century Fox began producing a series of loose prequels centred on younger X-characters and, to commemorate X-Men Day this year, I’m spending the next few weeks looking back at the first three entries in this “Beginnings Trilogy” to see if they still hold up today.

Talking Movies

Released: July 2015
Originally Released: May 2014
Director: Bryan Singer
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Budget: $200 to 220 million
Stars: Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Peter Dinklage, Nicholas Hoult, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, and Anna Paquin

The Plot:
By 2023, Mutants and their allies have been hunted to near extinction by the mechanical Sentinels. Desperate to avert this dystopian future, Professor Charles Xavier (Stewart) has joined forces with his long-time adversary, Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto (McKellen) and opt to use Kitty Pryde/Shadowcat’s (Ellen Page) time-bending abilities to send the consciousness of Logan/Wolverine (Jackman) back to 1973 to team up with their younger selves (McAvoy and Fassbender, respectively) and keep Raven Darkhölme/Mystique (Lawrence) from causing the eradication of Mutantkind.

The Background:
Having been an integral part of Marvel Comics since their 1963 debut, the X-Men went on to have success in numerous videogames, cartoons, and a financially successful franchise under the banner of 20th Century Fox. After three blockbuster movies and two successful spin-offs focusing on breakout star Hugh Jackman, Fox opted to bring in a younger cast and shine a spotlight on the early days of the X-Men. With X-Men: First Class (Vaughn, 2011) planned as the start of a new trilogy, development began on a sequel that same year; however, rather than develop Vaughn’s ideas for a more grounded and fitting sequel, series producer Lauren Donner and returning director Bryan Singer set writer Simon Kinberg to work penning an adaptation of the classic “Days of Future Past” (Claremont, et al, 1981) storyline that would see the older original X-Men actors sharing the spotlight with their younger selves thanks to its time travel plot. X-Men: Days of Future Past is, for me, one of the better X-Men sequels and I actually rank it quite high despite my dislike for the dodgy timeline these prequels created, a belief shared by many as the film was met with a generally positive critical response that was matched by its box office gross as the film made over $740 million worldwide, the highest of out any X-Men movie to date (apart from the Deadpool (Various, 2016 to present) spin-offs). A year or so after the film’s release, Fox released The Rogue Cut, an extended version of the film that includes an entire excised subplot concerning Marie D’Ancanto/Rogue (Paquin); as I consider this the definitive version of the film, this will be the cut I am reviewing here.

The Review:
In best Terminator (Cameron, 1984) fashion, Days of Future Past opens to show a dystopian future, a war-torn wasteland where Mutants, Mutant sympathiser, and those who may one day produce Mutants, are relentlessly hunted and killed by massive, fearsome Sentinels. Those that survive are either constantly hounded, unable to defeat this terrifying foe, or experimented on by the very worst of humanity. It’s a bleak and depressing future, one that is decidedly at odds with both Xavier’s dream for human/Mutant cohabitation and Magneto’s dream of Mutant superiority. It is into this hellscape that we are reintroduced to a whole new team of X-Men, many of whom are comprised of old and new faces alike. The purpose of many of these characters is simply to die in horrific ways as the Sentinels carve through stone and metal, incinerating them, ripping them to pieces, skewing them, and constantly adapting to their abilities.

Kitty uses her newfound abilities to help allies and former foes escape from the unstoppable Mutant hunters.

Luckily, though, Kitty has…somehow, it’s never actually explained exactly how in the film…developed her powers of intangibility to the point where she can project a person’s consciousness into their younger self. This power, alongside the heightened senses of James Proudstar/Warpath (Booboo Stewart) and the portal-hopping powers of Blink (Fan Bingbing), has allowed the X-Men to stay just barely one step ahead of the Sentinels. However, when they finally reunite with Xavier, Magneto, Logan, and Ororo Munroe/Storm (Halle Berry), they learn of the true origins of the Sentinels; they were created back in the seventies by a scientist named Boliver Trask (Dinklage) and put into mass production after Mystique executed him on public television. Believing that keeping Mystique from killing Trask would erase their future from history, Logan volunteers to make the trip back into his younger body (as only he can survive such an extended trip) and bring the younger Xavier and Magneto together to steer Mystique away from her dark fate. The concept of Days of Future Past is past meets future; however, fans of the newer, First Class cast should be happy to find that the returning cast members from the original X-Men films don’t overshadow their younger counterparts. The older actors bookend the film, and are peppered throughout, but the majority of the film’s runtime is devoted to the new, younger cast and Logan’s interactions with them to prevent a nightmarish future. As a result, most of the older cast exist solely to deliver exposition or to shock us with their gruesome death scenes; once again, Peter Rasputin/Colossus (Daniel Cudmore) is dealt a shitty hand compared to returning characters like Storm and Bobby Drake/Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), who at least have a few lines and play a semi-important role in defending the X-Men from the Sentinels. The new characters follow the same blueprint we’ve seen from nearly every X-Men movie in that they look cool and have cool powers but we no nothing about them and they exist simply to be slaughtered by the Sentinels.

Though Xavier and Magneto are finally united in the future, the young Xavier is a disillusioned addict.

The focus is thus placed on Xavier, who drives the desperate dive into the past, Magneto, who has completely set aside his grudge against Xavier and is now despondent at all the years they wasted pointlessly fighting each other, and Kitty, whose powers anchor Logan in the past. They really sell the desperation and futility of their situation and seeing them all right at the end of their tether is an affecting moment that really helps to motivate Logan in ways we haven’t seen before. Awakening in the past with his bone claws, Logan inexplicably finds himself in America rather than causing waves over in Vietnam; travelling to Xavier’s mansion, he finds the young professor walking but at his wits end. Having fallen into a deep depression after the events of First Class and the outbreak of the aforementioned war, Xavier has become addicted to Henry “Hank” McCoy/Beast’s (Hoult) magic serum, which suppresses his powers and allows him to walk and sleep but has transformed him into a broken shell of his former, and future, self. This positions Wolverine in what is, for him, an uncomfortable position; with the clock ticking against him and frantic to prevent the future he has seen, Logan is forced to guide Xavier back towards his true self. Generally, this take the form of Logan’s trademark tough love but, when he begins to see just how far Xavier has fallen, he allows the younger professor to connect to his mind and converse with his future self in a fantastically poignant scene. Jackman gels really well with the First Class cast, portraying Logan as a blunt, war-weary soldier who has also matured and grown into a role of responsibility and duty. The knowledge that he is the only one who will remember the bad future is haunting as he is fully aware that he will remember seeing all the death and destruction even if their mission succeeds, basically sacrificing his own inner peace for the sake of the world.

While Xavier’s forced to confront his demons, Magneto seems ready to accept his destiny…until the next film…

McAvoy continues to show new sides to Xavier; he ended First Class taking his first steps towards becoming the mentor and father-figure he is destined to be but begins this film as little ore than a disillusioned junkie. Logan’s mission forces him to overcome those demons and also to do something even more difficult: reach out to his childhood friend and true to pursued her to veer from her path and join forces with his former friend, Erik Lehnsherr. At this point, Xavier feels nothing but hatred and resentment for Erik for not only inadvertently crippling him and turning him into the man he has become but also for taking Raven away from him. This is, of course, completely irrational as Xavier told Mystique to go with Erik at the end of First Class but this is actually the point; Xavier’s emotions, anger, and despair have clouded his mind and motivations, blinding him to his own failings. Erik, however, is more than happy to remind Xavier of these failings; once again, Fassbender is a magnetic (no pun intended) presence, dominating every scene he’s in thanks to his cold, calculating countenance and his ominous charisma. In an emotional outburst, Erik chastises Xavier for hiding and cowering in his mansion when their brothers, sisters, and teammates were captured, tortured, and slaughtered by Trask’s experiments, which really sells the idea that Erik is all about protecting and defending all Mutantkind, even those who would oppose him. As I mentioned before, however, Magneto’s story arc is almost exactly as it was in First Class; he begins the film as an ally, turns on his friends, and ends the film as a fully-garbed Magneto ready to enact his will on the world…only for the very next film to find him a doting family man who has retired from his war. It’s a shame, really, and I feel like the script could have been tweaked so that Erik is the one who is destined to kill Trask that solidifies his position as an all-out villain; it’s not that I don’t like Erik’s moral ambiguity and the conflict Fassbender brings to the role, it’s just frustrating to see him end up looking so much like Magneto with such promise for the next movie only to have to go through it all over again.

The battle for Mystique’s soul is as much a part of the plot as Trask and his Sentinels.

After First Class, Jennifer Lawrence shot to superstardom and thus plays a pivotal role in this film; having been working alone to free Mutant prisoners and campaign for Mutant superiority, Mystique uncovers Trask’s experiments and plans for the Sentinels and believes the only logical course of action is to execute the man responsible for so many Mutant deaths (including those of her friends from First Class). Now much closer to her bad-ass, emotionally closed off future self, Mystique rejects both Xavier an Erik when they attempt to stop her and the crux of the movie really becomes a battle for her soul as much as the future as all parties try to keep her from taking her first life and dooming them all. I’m still not a fan of Lawrence, and quite how her power to assume the form of others leads to Sentinels that can adapt to any form of attack is beyond me (Armando Muñoz/Darwin’s (Edi Gathegi) powers would have been more fitting), but her story arc here is quite engaging and she sells the character’s conflicted nature really well. Fulfilling the resident, Mutant-hating human antagonist role is Bolivar Trask, a scientist who views Mutants as a threat to all humanity that can unite the warring nations in a way never seen before. Dinklage is great in this role, portraying Trask as a man of conviction who both admires and fears the potential of Mutants and their threat to humanity. Like every good villain, he is completely convinced that he is in the right and is motivated by a sense of duty and patriotism but there is a sadistic side to him as he has been relentlessly experimenting on and killing Mutants. He is juxtaposed by, who else, but Major William Stryker (Josh Helman); rather than being a military scientist who wants to round up and experiment on Mutants (or being played by Danny Huston as he should have been considering where the character was at this point), Stryker is more like Trask’s muscle. In many ways, it feels like Trask has usurped Stryker’s usual role, which makes Stryker’s inclusion pretty pointless save for causing Wolverine to freak out. Of course, the film’s big selling point is the inclusion of the Sentinels; these massive Mutant hunting machines were hinted at (as was this entire storyline) in X-Men: The Last Stand (Ratner, 2006) but it still blows my mind that we got to a point where an X-Men movie would not only use time travel and the “Days of Future Past” storyline but the Sentinels as well. They appear in two forms here, the sleek, super-adaptive, semi-mimetic poly-alloy, relentless killers of the future and the large, bulky, more comic-accurate machines of the past. Personally, I prefer the latter and feel like an army of those would have been just as pressing a threat and would have negated to need to focus so hard on Mystique’s unique X-Gene, but the threat of the Sentinels is a very palpable one as we see how unstoppable they become in the future. Of course, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense that the government would either not put them into mass production for some fifty years or that they would not reactivate the program when Magneto emerged as a real threat but the comic book nerd in me finds their presence very exciting nonetheless.

The Nitty-Gritty:
Well, while McAvoy, Fassbender, Lawrence, and Hoult all get a good innings and time to shine, other characters from First Class aren’t so lucky; with the exception of Alex Summers/Havok (Lucas Till), who returns in a brief cameo, all of the Mutants from the previous film have died between movies, victims of Trask’s experiments. This is quite a kick in the teeth as we could have seen these characters actually develop and progress but, instead, they are unceremoniously killed off to fuel Mystique’s lust for vengeance and Magneto’s desire for Mutant supremacy. On the other hand, though, it does mean that the film does a far better job of juggling its cast of characters, putting the focus on Xavier, Erik, and Mystique with Logan along for the ride to remind us of the stakes.

Quicksilver is a breath of fresh air for the franchise who needed a far bigger role.

Of course, it wouldn’t be an X-Men movie without the gratuitous introduction of a brand new Mutant and, in this case, we get one of the best and yet more disappointing inclusions yet: Peter Maximoff/Quicksilver (Evan Peters). A superfast kleptomaniac, Quicksilver is an energetic ball of fun in a film that is generally quite serious due to its stakes. His powers also allow for a fantastic scene in which he travels so fast that the rest of the room appears to be stationary, a sequence that, perhaps, rivals the opening of X-Men 2 (Singer, 2003). Unfortunately, though, so great are Quicksilver’s powers in this film that the movie would be over too quickly if he were to play a larger role so, after helping break Erik out of his special prison, the film promptly ditches Quicksilver with the weakest of explanations. Like, I get it but he’s such a cool, fun, and interesting character that I would have much preferred the writers find a way to incorporate him rather than just taking the easy, lazy route out.

Rogue takes over after Kitty is injured, reuniting with Logan in the process.

Still, at least Quicksilver made it into the film; Rogue was reduced to a mere cameo in the theatrical cut but, here in The Rogue Cut, plays a pivotal role when Logan’s violent thrashing critically wounds Kitty, forcing Iceman and Magneto to go off on a side mission to rescue Rogue and have her take Kitty’s place. It’s nice to see the footage cut back into the film and helps to remind us of the stakes in the bad future but I can kind of see why it was cut as it is kind of unnecessary. They could have simply replaced one of the new future X-Men, like Sunspot (Adan Canto) with Rogue and had the best of both worlds but at least it leads to a tender reunion between Rogue and Logan.

Logan awakens in a good future that is, sadly, destined to also end in ruin…

Probably the biggest missed opportunity of Days of Future Past, however, is that the filmmakers don’t use the time travel plot more to their advantage to explain the discrepancies in the time line. They try to but only in relation to the future events rather than those of established canon, and Logan’s journey to the past clearly creates at least two new timelines (one for the younger cast and one for the older cast that, despite appearing idyllic, eventually turns just as bleak and dour as the Sentinel-ruled future), but they could easily have used this as an excuse to correct the existing continuity as well. Instead, we find Logan not in the middle of fighting alongside Team X or Xavier and Erik not working together at the school; in fact, the film’s ending goes out of its way to basically erase X-Men: The Last Stand and The Wolverine (Mangold, 2013) from continuity, which is actually quite lazy as The Wolverine proved there was still a lot of mileage to be made in dealing with The Last Stand’s ending, and although it refers to X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Hood, 2009), it pretty much pretends like that film didn’t happen and right when it ends with the ominous implication that seventies-Logan ends up in Stryker’s custody it’s revealed it’s actually Mystique posing as Stryker…despite the fact that Wolverine does end up Stryker’s prisoner in the next film.

The Summary:
X-Men: Days of Future Past successfully brings the two X-Men casts together in one era-spanning action/adventure; the stakes have never been higher and the calibre of acting never more affecting as two generations of X-Men seek to prevent a nightmarish future. It doesn’t do much to correct the existing canon; in fact, it actually screws up way more than it fixes with the new timeline it creates and repeats quite a few of the things I disliked about X-Men: First Class as well as making a few new ones (such as killing characters off-screen and dramatically expanding on Mystique’s importance). Yet, like X-Men Origins: Wolverine, there’s just something about this film that I really enjoy. It’s bombastic and action-packed at times but there’s more a sense of ominous foreboding, that the future is an inevitable tide the characters cannot fight against, that lends a lot of weight and urgency to the plot. Jackman’s interactions with the younger X-cast are fantastic, placing his character in an uncomfortable position where he finds himself having to inspire his future mentor and fighting against an enemy that he can’t just slice to ribbons with his claws. Is it a perfect movie? No, of course not; it’s an X-Men film and those rarely manage to be perfect because of one reason or another. Do I think it was too early to do this storyline and mash these casts together? Absolutely. And yet, this is easily in my top five (maybe even top three) X-Men movies purely for the thrill of seeing the past and the future collide, the presence of the Sentinels, and the fact that it ties up one storyline while setting up an entirely new timeline of events.

My Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.


What did you think of the Rogue Cut of Days of Future Past? Do you think it is superior to the theatrical cut or do you, perhaps, not care for its additional plot points? What did you think of integrating the old and new X-Men casts together? Were you also a bit confused about Kitty’s sudden ability to time travel? What are your thoughts on the “Days of Future Past” storyline from the comics? Which X-Men storyline would you like to see adapted to film one day? Whatever your thoughts, feel free to leave a comment below, and pop back next week for one last X-Men review.

Talking Movies [X-Men Month]: X-Men: First Class

To commemorate, the culmination of their long-running and successful X-Men movies, 20th Century Fox declared May 13th as “X-Men Day”, a day to celebrate all things Mutant and X-Men and celebrate Marvel’s iconic collection of superpowered beings who fight to protect a world that hates and fears them. After exhausting all of their storylines with their original cast, save for Hugh Jackman, 20th Century Fox began producing a series of loose prequels centred on younger X-characters and, while X-Men Day coincided with Friday the 13th this year, I’m going to spend the next few weeks looking back at the first three entries in this “Beginnings Trilogy” and see if they still hold up today.

Talking Movies

Released: May 2011
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Budget: $140 to 160 million
Stars: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Rose Byrne, Nicholas Hoult, Lucas Till, Caleb Landry Jones, Zoë Kravitz, and Kevin Bacon

The Plot:
In 1962, right in the middle of the Cuban missile crisis, newly-graduated Professor Charles Xavier (McAvoy) meets Erik Lehnsherr (Fassbender) for the first time. United in their search for the Mutant terrorist Sebastian Shaw (Bacon), the two join forces with the United States government in forming the first team of Mutants and working to avert World War Three.

The Background:
The X-Men have been an integral part of Marvel Comics ever since they debuted back in 1963. Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the X-Men offered, through their Mutant heritage, an easy excuse to introduce multiple new superheroes with minimal effort. Since then, the X-Men, and all of Mutantkind, have existed as a metaphor for a variety of social issues and seen much success outside of the pages of Marvel Comics thanks to a number of action figures, cartoons, and videogames. After purchasing the film rights, 20th Century Fox profited greatly from the franchise; the first three X-Men movies (Various, 2000 to 2006) alone brought in over $600 million and they had seen similar financial success with a spin-off movie centered around the franchise’s breakout star, Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman).

After profiting from the X-Men, Fox aimed to explore the team’s early years.

It was during the production of X-Men 2 (Singer, 2003) that the idea of a prequel revolving around younger versions of the X-Men was first proposed; after X-Men: The Last Stand (Ratner, 2006) effectively ended the series, with most of the main cast either dead, depowered, or having exhausted their story arcs, Fox returned to the idea of producing prequels with plans for a spin-off focusing on a young Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto (Ian McKellen). Perhaps shaken by the mediocre critical reception of X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Hood, 2009), Fox abandoned any further ideas of individual spin-offs and ordered a rewrite of the script to focus on Erik and Charles’s early years and the formation of the original X-Men. Although Bryan Singer, who had helmed the first two X-Men movies and very much set the tone and standard for Fox’s franchise, was unable to direct, he returned as a producer and Fox hired Matthew Vaughn (who had previously dropped out of directing the third film) to direct and the idea for the prequel began to take real shape. X-Men: First Class released to strong reviews, a warm critical reception, and eventually made over $350 million in worldwide gross; for many who were disappointed with X-Men Origins: Wolverine, X-Men: First Class represented a step in the right direction for the franchise but, for me, it represented the first sign that Fox were playing it fast and loose with continuity.

The Review:
X-Men: First Class begins with a shot-for-shot recreation of the opening from the first X-Men movie: that is, a young Erik Lehnsherr (Bill Milner/Brett Morris) first discovering his ability to control metal in a Nazi death camp. The purpose of this scene is blatantly obvious and two-fold; the film wants you to remember Erik’s tragic and complex beginnings while also wanting to course-correct back on track to align with Singer’s original vision for the franchise. Oddly, as I’ll get into later, this desire to shift the franchise back towards that quasi-science-fiction, grounded approach is at odds with the direction First Class’s script wants to take its characters so, for me, opening with this scene was more of an insult than a welcome homage.

Lacking Erik’s troublesome childhood, Xavier works to raise awareness of Mutants.

The film could easily have just began with Erik in the office of Nazi scientist Doctor Klaus Schmidt (Bacon); this scene extends that of Singer’s original, impactful opening to show how Erik’s powers were a source of fascination for the Nazis and does just as much to setup his motivations for the remainder of the film. Schmidt, a Mutant himself, forces Erik to use his powers by first threatening and then executing his mother, which would be the driving force for Erik’s lust for revenge and hatred of humanity. At the same time, a young Charles Xavier (Laurence Belcher) meets and befriends Raven Darkhölme (Morgan Lily) and, honestly, this should have been the first clue that these new X-Men movies were not going to concern themselves with things like logic or continuity. While X-Men: First Class gives some much-needed backstory to Raven (who, when she goes up to be Jennifer Lawrence, eventually takes the name “Mystique”), it does so at the cost of  the continuity of the original trilogy as Xavier never once mentions that he had this brother/sister relationship with Mystique (Rebecca Romijn) nor does the older Mystique ever use this relationship to her advantage in those films.

Michael Fassbender steals the show from the proto-X-Men with his complex, seething menace.

Still, we continue, giving the film the benefit of the doubt, when these characters grow into James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, respectively. Rather than the wise, all-knowing father-figure of the original X-Men films, Xavier here is a young, post-grad student who downs alcohol and uses both his knowledge of Mutations and his mental powers to pick up chicks in bars. With his long, thick hair and sixties sensibilities, Xavier is a far more “hip and groovy” character but the moment he meets Moira McTaggert (Byrne) and learns of Schmidt’s (now calling himself Sebastian Shaw) plot to incite a third world war, he’s all about assembling his own team of Mutants and working alongside Moira and the CIA to build better relationships between humans and Mutants. It’s an interesting look at the character’s early years but it’s nothing compared to the far more interesting story involving the future Magneto; desperate to hunt down Shaw and make him pay, Erik has spent his entire life tracking down those responsible for his incarceration, torture, and the deaths of his family and people. Fassbender excels in the role, bringing a tortured, focused edge to the character and shines in every scene he’s in; his quiet, seething vengeance is tempered somewhat when he meets and befriends Xavier (another contradiction to the original films as Xavier is clearly not seventeen in this movie…) but their relationship is destined to fail based solely on Erik’s desire to kill Shaw, to say nothing of his own conflicting desire for Mutant prosperity. Still, once the two begin working together, they are introduced to Henry “Hank” McCoy/Beast (Hoult) and, thanks to his prototype Cerebro technology, begin recruiting a team of young Mutants to help oppose Shaw’s own club of misfits. In true X-Men fashion, this means a whole bunch of characters are suddenly thrown into the mix with little to make them stand out beyond them all being young and sexy and having cool-looking powers. Of them all, it is, thankfully, Hank who gets the most screen time and development thanks to his immediate attraction to Raven, his awkward, quirky characterisation, and his desire to develop a serum to suppress his more unattractive physical qualities. Though it seems he and Raven are united in the desire to appear “normal”, she ultimately comes to embrace her unique appearance and, when Hank’s serum actually accelerates his Mutation, he is forced to do the same.

Despite it literally being his Mutant power, Darwin is unable to adapt to survive Shaw’s attack.

The other members of this proto-X-team aren’t so lucky; Sean Cassidy/Banshee (Jones) does alright, being the amusing comic relief of the team, but Alex Summers/Havok (Till) is little more than the “moody bad boy” of the group who, with very little motivation, comes to accept the team as his friends and surrogate family. Angel Salvadore (Kravitz) randomly decides to defect to Shaw’s side when he offers them the chance, with no real explanation or reason beyond the deal apparently sounding better than being mocked by the CIA, but the real slap in the face is the ultimate fate of Armando Muñoz/Darwin (Edi Gathegi) who, despite literally being able to “adapt to survive”, is unable to keep himself from being blown to pieces by Shaw. I mean, we’ve seen that he is able to spontaneously grow gills and armour-plating but it’s apparently too much to find a way to resist Alex’s concussive blasts. Yet at least these proto-X-Men get a neat little training montage to show off snippets of their personalities and powers, however this loses quite a bit of its impact when it’s revealed that they trained and mastered their powers in one week, which honestly isn’t quite as bad as the fact that Xavier found it perfectly acceptable to use this time in this way even though the threat of war is literally hanging over their heads. It’s almost as if the film has too many characters and should have just focused on Xavier, Magneto, Beast, and Mystique as the primary protagonists but this is, of course, only exacerbated by the fact that Shaw has his own evil team of Mutants.

Shaw’s little club all look cool but are painfully under-developed as characters.

Similar to Magneto’s original Brotherhood, the sheer number of characters and the pace of the film demands that these antagonists simply look cool and not much else, with the exception of Emma Frost (January Jones), who also looks sexy and has a slightly bigger role as she is Shaw’s right-hand woman and a telepath. Azazel (Jason Flemyng) has a great look and is clearly meant to be evoking Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming) but we learn absolutely nothing about him; no seeds are planted for a relationship between him and Mystique that might lead to Nightcrawler’s birth and he gets only one line. Still, it’s one line more than Janos Quested/Riptide (Álex González), who says nothing the entire movie and simply whips up a few mini tornados (or twisters, whatever) and causes some minor inconveniences for the team. Again, it’s almost as if Shaw’s team should have been scaled down to four characters rather than five. Luckily, though, Shaw gets plenty of screen time and Bacon is clearly relishing the role, chewing the scenery and portraying Shaw as an unhinged sociopath who lays much of the groundwork for the villain Erik is destined to become. Able to absorb and redirect energy to maintain his youth, Shaw is a near-unstoppable antagonist, even more so when he acquires a special helmet from the Russians to protect himself from psychic attacks. His motivations are simple to grasp; like Erik, he’s seen the lengths of man’s inhumanity to man and wishes to use a full-scale nuclear war to cleanse the Earth and bring about an age of prosperity for Mutantkind and, as such, he’s a despicable character through and through with an undeniable amount of charisma, making for a fitting challenge for these proto-X-Men.

The Nitty-Gritty:
X-Men: First Class has an interesting premise and does a decent job, for the most part, of fleshing out the early years of Xavier and Magneto. However, despite its pacing being far better than that of X-Men (Singer, 2000) and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, it suffers from trying to cram everything into its runtime despite the fact that a sequel was clearly set up and going to be produced that would have allowed some of these storylines to play out at a much more comfortable pace.

Desperate to cram everything into its runtime, the film inexplicably ends with Xavier paralysed!

As a result, we get numerous timeline discrepancies in the film: Xavier grew up with Mystique and meets Erik when they’re much older than first stated; Hank builds Cerebro rather than Charles and Erik, Xavier’s first students are wildly different than those hinted at in the previous films and, most egregious of all, the film concludes with Xavier being paralysed by an errant bullet and Erik assuming the role and name of Magneto. No matter how you slice it, none of this aligns with the continuity of the time as we saw a young, bald, walking Xavier, still friends with Magneto, in the opening sequence of The Last Stand and a young, bald, walking Xavier at the conclusion of X-Men Origins, both of which were still canon at this point. The film seems to be in a rush to catch up to the beginning of the first X-Men movie and, honestly, should have ended with Xavier fully-functional and planning to open his house to more Mutants alongside Erik, who would be affected and changed by his final confrontation with Shaw.

Erik eventually becomes Magneto and look ready to strike back at the world…until the next film…

There is quite a big inconsistency in this film as well, though, wider canon notwithstanding. Obviously, I touched upon Darwin being offed so easily but, for me, the main issue is how vehemently Xavier opposes Erik’s desire to kill Shaw. Xavier believes that killing Shaw in cold blood will set Erik down a dark path he won’t be able to recover from and he’s right, of course, but the inconsistency is that we’ve seen (and, thanks to reading Erik’s mind, Xavier has seen) that Erik has plenty of blood on his hands already. He describes himself as a “weapon” and this appears to be true; he’s tortured and killed numerous people in his bid to track down and end Shaw so why should one more death darken his fate? It doesn’t help that Erik’s descent into villain as told in this film is repeated over and over again in the next three sequels, all of which repeat the same arc (Erik starts off good, becomes morally grey, and ends the film fully-garbed as Magneto and ready to strike back at humanity…only to start the next film good and the cycle repeats). It’s one of those things that seems to work on the surface but falls apart when you think about it and is, again, something that could have been improved upon had the script focused on just Xavier and Erik and a slightly altered greater conflict rather than throwing in a bunch of under-developed or superfluous characters.

This brief cameo did more for Logan’s character than his own spin-off movie!

Speaking of which, the also contains a bevy of cameos; Rebecca Romijn briefly appears in a fun cameo when Mystique is randomly seducing Erik (seriously, their sudden sexual relationship kind of comes out of nowhere and is purely motivated by Raven wanting to hurt Charles and feeling alienated from Hank) and veteran actors like James Remar, Ray Wise, and Michael Ironside all randomly show up in the film’s third act but the true icing on the cake was the brief cameo by Hugh Jackman as Logan. X-Men: First Class was the first real test to see if an X-Men movie could survive and be just as successful without Jackman in a leading role and, judging by its box office and reception, it clearly succeeded in this regard but it’s still fun to see Jackman randomly pop up and tell his future mentor and adversary to “Go fuck [themselves]”.

The Summary:
X-Men: First Class is a fun and engaging X-Men movie; it’s got a fantastic revenge subplot involving the future Magneto and is clearly inspired not only by Singer’s original X-Men movies but also 1960s spy thrillers, all of which give it a familiar, and yet unique, flavour within the franchise. McAvoy and Fassbender steal the show from start to finish but Bacon is a deliciously devilish villain and the acting and action sequences are pretty good, overall, with the film showing new and interesting takes on established characters and shedding more light on events only previously hinted at. And, yet, for me, Fox made a massive mistake by marketing and constructing this film as a prequel. It honestly should have just been a straight-up reboot, restarting the franchise with young actors and a whole new timeline of events rather than trying to awkwardly align with the established canon. For me, continuity is everything and you simply cannot watch X-Men: First Class as part of the wider X-Men canon because it just doesn’t fit; they should have done what the James Bond franchise did and kept Jackman but recast everyone else and started completely fresh because, when you need a convoluted timeline to explain what’s going and where things fit and it still doesn’t completely line up, you’ve kind of lost me as a viewer. The irony is that the very next movie had the perfect excuse to explain these inconsistencies and chose not to, meaning that my opinion of X-Men: First Class is decidedly frosty and conflicted, at best.

My Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Pretty Good

What are your thoughts on X-Men: First Class? Were you as annoyed by its disregard for the existing canon as I was or do you think the film is able to hold up despite this? What did you think of the cast and characters and the bigger role given to Mystique? Which heroes and villains, or storylines, do you think would have worked better for a proto-X-Men team? How did you celebrate X-Men Day this year? Whatever you think, feel free to leave your thoughts and opinions on X-Men below and be sure to come back next week for another X-Men review.

Talking Movies: Morbius

Talking Movies

Released: 28 January 2022
Director: Daniel Espinosa
Distributor: Sony Pictures Releasing
Budget: $75 million
Stars: Jared Leto, Matt Smith, Adria Arjona, Tyrese Gibson, Al Madrigal, and Jared Harris

The Plot:
Doctor Michael Morbius (Leto) is a Nobel Prize-nominated scientist desperate to find a cure for his crippling blood disease. After experimenting with vampire bats, he becomes imbued with the strengths and abilities of a vampire, but also cursed with a thirst for blood! However, his life becomes even more complicated when his friend and colleague, Milo (Smith), seeks to learn the secrets of Morbius’ newfound abilities…by any means necessary!

The Background:
Following the massive success of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy (2000 to 2007) and the sadly unspectacular reception of Marc Webb’s reboot times, Marvel Studios were finally able to achieve the impossible an fold the iconic web-slinger into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). The incredible success of Spider-Man: Homecoming (Watts, 2017) was enough to excite Sony into producing a number of spin-offs that would focus on some of Spidey’s supporting characters and anti-heroes; the success of Venom (Fleischer, 2018) meant that Roy Thomas and Gil Kane’sLiving Vampire” would finally get his time in the sun. Eccentric method actor Jared Leto was attached to the project from the early going, and helped bring in director Daniel Espinosa to officially begin the production in June 2018. Producers were reportedly excited about the project for its unique take on having a doctor undergo a gruesome metamorphosis, but audiences were left confused as to Morbius’s continuity after the trailers seemed to reference multiple competing timelines. After repeated delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Morbius finally released last Friday; as of this writing, the film has grossed just over $88 million at the box office and been met with overwhelmingly negative reviews. Reviews criticised the film’s poor characterisations and humourless narrative, the bloodless action scenes, and generally regarded it as a confused mess that barely qualifies as a coherent film. Although star Leto claimed that there have been talks for future films and appearances from the title character, this negative reaction puts the question of any potential crossovers in doubt, though Sony continue to push ahead with solo projects for other Spider-Man villains.

The Review:
I’ll never understand Sony; they were making big bank with the Spider-Man license after the success of the first two live-action films, but then they let Avi Arad stick his oar in and complicate Spider-Man 3 (Rami, 2007) with a multitude of villains and plot points. Then they rebooted the franchise, which is fair enough, but chose to retell the origin story in its entirety all over again and, rather than building up their audience with a measured approach, they threw all of Kevin Feige’s notes out of the window and crammed at least three movie’s worth of content into The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (Webb, 2014) in a long-running, misguided attempt to get a Sinister Six movie off the ground. Then they had the audacity to make a Venom solo film without Spider-Man in it…Spider-Man, y’know, the who caused Venom in the first place ,was omitted from the film and there was this weird, awkward question of whether Sony’s films were linked to the MCU or not. And yet, annoyingly, Sony persisted because their films continue to make money regardless of things like this and, in a desperate bid to make tangentially related Spider-Man properties without actually including Tom Holland (why they don’t just make live-action Miles Morales films is beyond me!), they’ve given Morbius, of all people, his own solo film I just…I just can’t. To me Morbius is a nobody; he doesn’t deserve his own solo film at all. Hell, I’d be hard pressed to be excited if he showed up as supporting character in Moon Knight (Various, 2022) or Blade (Tariq, 2023) but to give him, of all people his own film? And to cast Jared Leto, a guy who I really don’t get the hype for considering how bat-shit crazy he is, really had me doubted that this would be any good at all and I literally went to see it out of sheer, morbid curiosity.

Sickly Dr. Morbius is transformed into a monstrous vampire with a thirst for human blood.

Naturally, given he’s the title character, Morbius is the story of Dr. Michael Morbius, who begins the film as a frail, sickly, but brilliant scientist. Despite being crippled by an undisclosed and unspecified blood disease, has become the world’s foremost authority on blood-related illnesses. Morbius is so accomplished that his artificial blood has, somehow, “saved more lives then penicillin” (which a quick Google search will tell you is pretty much an impossible claim) but, for all his genius, Morbius is crippled not just physically but also by arrogance. He not only refuses to accept his Nobel Prize, but apparently insults his peers, the nation of Sweden, and the entire scientific community at the ceremony (though we don’t actually hear what he says and there are pretty much no repercussions from this accept some rolled eyes and, presumably, the loss of the substantial cash prize that comes with the award). Morbius has lived his whole life in agonising pain, requiring multiple blood transfusions a day just to stay alive, and also being the smartest person in the room; even as a child (Charlie Shotwell), his brilliance impressed, and he has dedicated his entire life to finding a cure not just for himself, but also for the only friend he has in the entire world, Lucien, whom he treats as a brother despite lumbering him with the nickname “Milo” since he was used to his dormitory buddies having a short life expectancy. Morbius’s search for a cure naturally leads him to studying the unique blood-eating properties of vampire bats, which allows him to develop a serum that promises to reverse his condition. Thanks to Milo’s wealth and resources (which the film makes no effort to explain the source of), Morbius and his absolutely stunning fellow doctor and co-worker, Martine Bancroft (Arjona), sail out into international waters to test the serum out on his rapidly deteriorating body and, to the surprise of them both, he undergoes a startling transformation. The serum fundamentally alters his DNA structure, transforming him into a bat-man hybrid (a “Living Vampire”, if you will) who craves human blood and is (…somehow…) bestowed a range of superhuman abilities: he’s transformed to the peak of human physical condition…and beyond, capable of manhandling armed foes, ripping through human flesh with his talon-like claws, leaping vast distances and scaling walls with ease, and apparently gaining high levels of durability. Furthermore, he acquires a form of echolocation, which leads to some of the films more visually interesting moments as his ears ripple, his eyes turn all goopy, and the world gains this distorted, smoky, rippley x-ray-like sheen whenever he focuses his hearing. Morbius also develops a kinship with vampire bats, which “welcome him like a bother” and obey his commands, learns how to travel along air currents to glide and fly (it’s not state din the film but I assume he has hollow bones as a result of his transformation…maybe..?), but all of these fantastic abilities come at the cost of his humanity.

Unlike Morbius, Milo has no qualms about indulging his bloodlust and revelling in his newfound powers.

The taste of human blood turns Morbius into a monstrous, fanged creature who attacks those around him in a rabid bloodlust; though he’s able to stave off his cravings using his artificial blood, it very quickly (and I mean within a matter of days) loses its effectiveness and, terrified of becoming a bloodsucking monster, Morbius tries to do everything he possibly can to reverse his transformation. He can’t simply go without blood either, as this causes his debilitating condition to return in full force and threatens to kill him from blood starvation, so he spends the remainder of the film trying to repress his inner monster while also searching for a solution to his problem. Morbius’s plight becomes all the more complicated when Milo discovers his condition and is slighted that his life-long friend denies him access to the life-saving condition. Wishing to spare his friend from the curse of vampirism, Morbius instead drives Milo to steal the serum and take it for himself by pushing his friend away and appearing to be a selfish prick who has no interest in sharing. Unlike Morbius, Milo has no compunction about embracing the physical benefits of the serum, and delights in indulging his bloodlust at every opportunity. This means, you guessed it, that not only does he become a dark mirror of the titular anti-hero (Morbius has his fair share of bloodshed in this film, and it’s barely touched upon how betraying his Hippocratic Oath affects him beyond inconveniencing his life) but he also dons a suit and a tie to stalk the streets as a bloodthirsty vampire. Although Milo shares many of the same powers as Morbius some are inexplicably denied him; he can’t fly like Morbius, and never demonstrates the ability to control bats, though both are able to leap and seemingly teleport vast distances accompanied by an unexplained ethereal smoke. It should also be noted that neither of these artificial vampires are vulnerable to sunlight, and other traditional tropes like Holy Water and a stake through the heart are openly mocked in the film, meaning that Morbius’s only hope of putting an end to Milo’s rampage is to synthesise a fatal anti-serum in his makeshift lab (which, of course, he’s able to do without any difficulty at all). The film wants you to see Morbius and Milo’s relationship as a tragedy of two brothers coming to blows because of a fundamental difference in ideology; Milo wants to embrace his new lease of life and is only too happy to suck the blood from anyone he can to stay healthy and strong, while Morbius sees himself as a monster who has brought an unspeakable atrocity into the world, and his efforts to create a cure and confront Milo are only compounded when Milo’s actions lead to him (as in Morbius) being arrested for murder.

Sadly, the supporting cast really doesn’t get much to do or time to shine and are pretty one-note.

Indeed, Morbius’s actions don’t go unnoticed, or unpunished, throughout the film. He slaughters the ship full of trigger-happy mercenaries in a pretty creepy scene and the bodies catch the attention of Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents Simon Stroud (Gibson) and Alberto “Al” Rodriguez (Madrigal), who quickly piece together that the ship was being used by Morbius for some bizarre experiment. These two, while a highlight, are severely underused and underdeveloped in the film; they have a bit of back and forth banter, which is amusing, and are readily accepting of the possibility that Morbius is an actual vampire, but they really don’t actually get to do all that much accept discover the crime scenes, interrogate Morbius, and arrive too late to really help with anything, and we learn next to nothing about them beyond the fact that they’re dedicated FBI agents who’ve worked together for a while. Sadly, the same can be said about all of the film’s supporting characters, particularly Martine and Morbius and Milo’s lifelong doctor and father figure, Doctor Emil Nicholas (Harris).Martine isn’t just some assistant to Morbius or the object of his affections; she’s a smart and capable doctor and, while he’s clearly attracted to her (how could he not be, after all?), his focus has always been on the research since he believes he has nothing to offer because of his crippling condition. After witnessing his starling transformation, Martine works to protect and help cure him, covering for him even when seeing the monster Milo has become, and the two (as in her and Morbius) develop a romantic attraction that has all the chemistry of a wet paper bag simply to emphasise that Morbius has more of a heart and a conscience than his bloodthirsty counterpart. Still, she has a bit more to do than Emil, who’s mainly there to support Morbius’s brilliance and take care of Milo, and to give one a kindly target to rip open and the other a mentor to avenge.

The Nitty-Gritty:
Morbius primarily focuses on many of the same cliché tropes as any other “man-made-monster” film you’ve seen before, or any movie that deals with the potential horrors of reckless scientific experimentation. Morbius is an arrogant and brilliant scientist, but one driven to desperation by his rapidly deteriorating condition and the promise he made to Milo to cure them both. When he turns, he’s horrified by his actions and struggles to keep his monstrous side at bay, while also relishing the power and freedom offered by his abilities. though he goes out of his way to target disreputable types, he can’t help but deliver some smarmy backtalk to Stroud and Rodriguez when they start asking questions, and even tells a horrified money forger “I am Venom!” when intimidating him and his friends into vacating their makeshift lab. As I expected upon seeing the many different trailers to this film, many of the more explicit references to Spider-Man and the MCU have been excised from Morbius; this “Venom” line and a throwaway comment by Rodriguez seem to suggest that it takes place in the same universe as the Venom films, but the “Murderer!” graffiti over a Spider-Man poster is missing and, while Adrian Toomes/The Vulture (Michael Keaton) does make a cameo, it’s in completely different scenes and contexts first suggested and only serve to muddy the waters when it comes to these standalone Sony films. Indeed, this cameo along makes absolutely no sense as Toomes somehow transports over to this world thanks to the events of Spider-Man: No Way Home (Watts, 2021), somehow cobbles together a new flight suit, and then suggests the two team up…which Morbius randomly agrees to for no reason. Why they couldn’t have just had Eddie Brock/Venom (Tom Hardy) make a cameo, or even Andrew Garfield’s Spider-Man, is beyond me; instead, Sony continue to just desperately try to get in with the MCU in the most ham-fisted way possible and I dread to think what sort of ridiculous Sinister Six they’ll eventually put together will look like.

Despite some cool visuals and horror elements, Morbius is a confusing mess of a film.

I went into Morbius with low expectations; I make no apologies over not being a fan of the character, the lead actor, to the concept of wasting millions of dollars on a standalone film for the character, but there were times when Morbius impressed me…just a little. While the film plays it as safe as the Venom movies when it comes to violence and gore, and it doesn’t even contain the one f-bomb its rating would allow, some of the scenes of Morbius’s feral attacks are framed quite well, with a good use of shadows, tension, and quick, brutal cuts to imply some ferocious action without necessarily dwelling on the gore. Morbius rips open people’s throats, mauls them, and drains their blood all, mostly, offscreen, making for a decidedly toothless vampire film but I was actually okay with this as at least something interesting was actually happening. Morbius looks pretty decent when he’s all vamped up as well; while his monstrous visage comes and goes and is realised pretty much entirely through CGI, it’s present a lot more than I expected (I was almost certain he wouldn’t go full on vampire until the very end) and a pretty decent adaptation of the source material. While it makes no sense that he’s able to teleport in a puff of smoke or slide like he does, Morbius generally looks pretty cool when he’s bouncing all over the place, swinging from poles, and going all feral, so it’s a shame that his scuffles with Milo descend into a confusing and blurry CGI slugfest full of gratuitous slow motion and frantic, poorly lit shots. I can understand when the Venom films generally become a CHI mess since those characters are brought to life exclusively through CGI, but Morbius offered the opportunity to craft a ore traditional, cheaper horror/action film that relied more on practical effects than bonkers CGI someone at Sony, however, clearly didn’t get that memo and what we’re left with is a confusing mess of a finale that pits the two Living Vampires against each other in a wild brawl of questionable CGI and nonsense editing.  

The Summary:
As I said, I had low expectations for Morbius; I don’t even like the character so I couldn’t even begin to hope that it’d be this sleeper hit or a surprisingly enjoyable action/horror romp as I would forever be questioning just why the hell anyone would ever invest millions of dollars in a standalone film about Michael friggin’ Morbius of all people! If you’re gonna do Morbius, you stick him in a Blade film or in an episode of one of Marvel’s many TV shows, you don’t give him his own movie, let alone one that doesn’t even have Spider-Man in it. Yet, Sony continues to be absolutely clueless regarding their license rights, and it boggles my mind how they were ever able to be successful with the Spider-Man property in the first place with decisions like this! Setting aside my bias, Morbius wasn’t as bad as I was expecting it to be; there are some decent moments, Jared Leto actually does a decent job in the title role, and I quite liked seeing Morbius go full-on vampire and bamf! all over the place, slashing at people and baring his fangs. Sadly, though, those moments are fleeting and tarnished by an abundance of cartoony, dodgy CGI; both Morbius and Milo’s vampiric forms look like something out of a videogame, and the film itself is a massive step back fort he superhero genre, almost back to the mid-2000s era of throwing messy CGI fights at the screen amidst a few quips, attractive actors, and middling action scenes and hoping it’ll stick. I can just about understand banking on Venom, even without Spider-Man, since Venom have always been popular but…Morbius is a nobody. Even if Spider-Man had been in this, or if it had been part of the MCU, this film would have been dead on arrival for me and the only way it could’ve even been remotely salvaged is if it had been part of the Venom franchise but Sony couldn’t even do that right! In the end, it was a poorly paced, messy piece of nonsense with a few decent visuals and action scenes but which squanders whatever potential it could’ve had with a middling narrative and crippling case of identity crisis.

My Rating:

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Could Be Better

Did you enjoy Morbius? If so…what’s the matter with you? What did you think to Jared Leto’s performance and Morbius’s relationship with Milo? Did you enjoy how the film portrayed Morbius and his powers? Which villain or context do you think would’ve worked better for the Living Vampire? Were you confused by the film’s identity and the odd post-credits scenes? Are you a fan of the character in general (and, if so, again…why?) and would you like to see Morbius return in some capacity? What Spider-Man villain would you like to see get a standalone movie? I’d love to know your opinion of Morbius, so sign up to leave them below or leave a comment on my social media and be sure to check in for more Spider-Man and Marvel content in the near future.

Talking Movies [Iron Man Month]: Iron Man 3

Anthony “Tony” Stark/Iron Man first lived, walked, and conquered in the pages of Tales of Suspense #39, published in March 1963 and brought to life by Marvel mastermind Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, and Don Heck. Since then, ol’ shellhead has gone through numerous different armours, served on Marvel’s premier super team, the Avengers, struggled with alcoholism, and shot into mainstream superstardom thanks to am iconic, career-defining portrayal by Robert Downey Jr. and, to celebrate Iron Man’s debut, I’m dedicating every Monday in March.

Released: 3 May 2013
Director: Shane Black
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
$200 million
Robert Downey Jr., Guy Pearce, Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Rebecca Hall, Ty Simpkins, and Ben Kingsley

The Plot:
Suffering anxiety attacks following his experiences in The Avengers/Avengers Assemble (Whedon, 2012), Tony Stark/Iron Man (Downey Jr.) has been busying himself creating a whole slew of new armours. While smooth-talking entrepreneur Aldrich Killian (Pearce) woos Stark’s love interest, Virginia “Pepper” Potts (Paltrow), with his “Extremis” technology, Stark is incensed when his friend Harold “Happy” Hogan (Jon Favreau) is left critically injured as a result of the mysterious and sadistic terrorist known only as the Mandarin (Kingsley). After declaring war on the Mandarin, Stark is left without his vaulted technology and with only his wits and genius intellect to uncover the terrorist’s connection to Extremis.

The Background:
Although both Iron Man (Favreau, 2008) and Iron Man 2 (ibid, 2010) were both incredibly profitable, the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) was secured after the unprecedented success of their first team-up movie. Moving into Phase Three, the MCU faced some corporate issues that led to Walt Disney Studios purchasing the distribution rights to the films from Paramount Pictures before production of a third Iron Man movie began. Although actor/director Jon Favreau remained attached as a producer and actor, he opted not to return to the director’s chair and star Robert Downey Jr. reached out to Shane Black to take the reigns. Drawing inspiration from Warren Ellis’ “Extremis” arc (2005 to 2006), Iron Man 3 (curiously titled “Iron Man Three” in the credits) sought to strip Stark of his resources and be more of a Tom Clancy-style thriller than a traditional superhero film. Although the film drew some controversy for dramatically altering Rebecca Hall’s role and prominence and including a very ill-advised (in my opinion) twist, Iron Man 3 was ridiculously successful and made over $1.200 billion at the box office. Critically, the film’s reviews vary; some praised the tonal shift towards comedy and more grounded action while others took issue with these same aspects.

The Review:
Unlike its predecessors, and the majority of films in the MCU, Iron Man 3 is bookended by Tony Stark narrating the seemingly-insignificant events from his past that led to his latest struggle in the film. While this makes for an amusing post-credits scene where it’s revealed that he’s been boring Doctor Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) to sleep with the events of the movie, his voice over is only really used at the start and the end of the film so it seems a bit pointless to me. Add to that the fact that this post-credits scene is telling us that Tony’s battle against the Mandarin is boring an uninteresting, and this kind of sets a precedent for what to expect from Iron Man 3.

Stark shuns Killian back in the nineties and creates one of his most dangerous foes in the process.

As part of the film’s aim to harken back to the themes and atmosphere of the first movie, Iron Man 3 begins at a New Year’s Eve Party in 1993. Here we are reminded of just how selfish, self-centred, and vindictive Stark can be as he’s too busy drinking, partying, and flirting with Maya Hansen (Hall) than giving the likes of Ho Yinsen (Shaun Toub) or the awkward and ungainly Aldrich Killian the time of day. In this flashback scene, Killian is depicted as a bespectacled, awkward cripple and a goof in an employment of one of the worst tropes of superhero movies. However, thankfully, we’re spared watching him undergo a physical and mental transformation and degradation over the course of the movie and his inelegant manner is limited purely to this brief sequence and a subsequent flashback later in the film. This trope is also primarily used to show that he overcame his limitations and Stark’s dismissal of his idea for a collaborative think-tank of the country’s top minds and to further emphasise that Stark’s ignorance and egotism leads to him effectively creating his own villains later in life for not being more considerate to others.

Suffering from PTSD and insomnia, Stark neglects Pepper and focuses on building more armours.

When we catch up with Stark in the then-present day, he’s fully committed to his relationship with Pepper and seemingly in a much more stable place in terms of his personality (though he retains his trademark snark and sardonic nature) but he’s haunted by his near-death experience in Avengers Assemble. Suffering from frequent nightmares and flashbacks to the wide, unknown dangers that lie beyond our world, Stark is stricken by harrowing panic attacks any time the subject of New York comes up and has spent more and more time finding comfort in his Iron Man armour and tinkering down in his workshop. Constantly distracted, highly strung, and fatigued, his relationship with Pepper suffers a bit as a result of the fact that, rather than open up to her, he prefers to make more and more Iron Man variants and work on perfecting his Mark XLII armour, which is capable of separating into self-propelling parts that respond to his commands via micro-repeater chips.

Rhodey features prominently as the government-sponsored superhero Iron Patriot.

Despite having gained new allies in his fellow Avengers, Stark feels more alone than ever; not wanting to worry Pepper, he keeps her at arm’s length and works around the clock to ensure her safety. Happy is busy with his new position as head of security at Stark Enterprises (a job he takes very seriously) and, though Colonel James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Cheadle) unsuccessfully tries to ask about Stark’s mental health, his loyalty to the military necessitates keeping independent costumed heroes like Iron Man out of the loop. Indeed, in an extension of Rhodes’ sub-plot in Iron Man 2, President Ellis (William Sadler) has officially commissioned Rhodes to ditch the War Machine moniker and don the garishly patriotic red, white, and blue armour of the “Iron Patriot” and act as governmentally-sanctioned superhero to help allay fears following the Chitauri invasion.

Pepper’s fears about Extremis prove correct when Happy is injured by its destructive instability.

Since Stark is preoccupied with his mounting anxiety issues, Pepper is left feeling unappreciated and shunned. Though she stays loyal to Stark, despite his eccentricities, she is more than a little impressed when Killian shows up at Stark Enterprises having transformed into a physically gorgeous, confidant businessman. After Stark’s dismissal of him back in the nineties, Killian resolved to make Advanced Idea Mechanics (A.I.M.) incredibly successful and profitable and, through A.I.M..s research, was able to not only cure his own degenerative physical condition but potentially offer a cure for those suffering from all kinds of mental and physical ailments in the development of Extremis. However, while Killian’s presentation and charisma are impressive, Pepper ultimately turns down a proposed business venture between Stark Enterprises and A.I..M. out of fears about the potential weaponisation of the Extremis technology. Pepper is right to turn down this proposal as, very quickly, it is shown that a number of ex-soldiers have been exposed to Extremis and become living weapons as a result. The virus, cultivated from Maya’s research, promises to spontaneously heal wounds and even regrow limbs as well as curing mental and physical deficiencies and granted a degree of superhuman strength and dexterity to its subjects.

When Stark antagonises the Mandarin, he’s left without his tech and reliant upon a child.

However, Extremis is, as the name implies, extremely volatile and many of those exposed to it burn out and explode as veritable suicide bombers. When Happy is critically injured in one of these attacks, Stark is incensed and openly challenges the one responsible for these, and many other devastating terrorist attacks, the terrorist known as the Mandarin. The Mandarin, who flashes up the symbol of the Ten Rings and frequently issues ominous threats by hijacking the airwaves, directly threatens President Ellis and proudly takes credit for the deaths of innocents in his unrelenting attacks against the United States. However, despite Rhodey cutting Stark out of the Mandarin investigation, Stark publicly (and recklessly) calls out the Mandarin after Happy is put in the hospital; the result is an all-out attack that devastates his home, burying his armours and technology, and leaves Stark stranded in Tennessee cut off from Just A Rather Very Intelligent System (J.A.R.V.I.S.; Paul Bettany) and with his Mark XLII armour powerless. Stripped of his resources and technology, Stark is forced to team up with young Harley Keener (Simpkins), who helps Stark link the Extremist terrorist attacks, and the Mandarin, back to Killian.

The Nitty-Gritty:
Given that it’s written and directed by Shane Black, Iron Man 3 takes place around the Christmas season; while Christmas doesn’t really factor into the overall plot in any tangible way beyond a few trees, decorations, and Tennessee being covered in a frigid snow, it does help the film to stand out against other MCU movies, and superhero films in general, as there aren’t very many that take place in the festive season. Thankfully, despite some of the flaws in the direction of the film and the decisions the filmmakers make regarding certain characters, the change in directors doesn’t diminish the perfect blend of snark and humour at work in Iron Man 3. Indeed, Stark’s interactions with the likes of Rhodey, Happy, and Harley are one of the film’s highlights and it’s great to see that he’s still a droll prick when he needs to be despite being a “piping hot mess”.

While it’s great for his character growth, Stark spends a lot of the film without his armour.

Indeed, the film adds further layers to Stark’s complex personality by adding post-traumatic stress to his laundry list of character defects; traumatised to the point where he suffers from insomnia and a deep-seated urge to build and create armours for every conceivable scenario, the last thing Stark needs is to be left without his tools and technology and yet that’s exactly where he finds himself. Stark’s efforts in Tennessee effectively return him to the cave where he must rely on his innovative genius to survive; when he tracks the Mandarin to Miami, he infiltrates the terrorist’s base with little more than some cobbled-together armaments that ape his usual Arc Reactor-powered arsenal. Teamed with a similarly suit-less Rhodey (whose henchman, Eric Savin (James Badge Dale), appropriates the Iron Patriot suit to kidnap President Ellis), Stark becomes much more of a resourceful spy than a colourful superhero and he spends a great deal of the film (arguably too much, in my opinion) outside of the armour rather than in it.

The Mandarin stupidly turns out to be a drunken buffoon merely acting the part.

When he confronts the Mandarin, Stark is confused and enraged to find that he’s little more than a drunken, substance-dependent eccentric English actor named Trevor Slattery. Trevor willing reveals that he was contracted by Killian to pose as a credible terrorist threat in order to kill the President and replace him with Vice President Rodriguez (Miguel Ferrer), a puppet leader who will do exactly as Killian dictates. This twist on the traditional Fu Manchu sorcerer figure who I grew up seeing as Iron Man’s archenemy is undeniably amusing but, in retrospect, was a pretty awful idea; you had Ben Kingsley, Ben Kingsley, who absolutely crushed it when portraying the Mandarin and you turned him into an alcoholic buffoon. Indeed, the MCU producers backtracked on this depiction of the Mandarin pretty quickly and eventually brought the true Mandarin into the fold but even then the character was significantly altered from the source material. Sadly, though, this came out long after Stark’s emotional death so we were robbed of seeing him go toe-to-toe with his most iconic nemesis, which remains a bitter pill for me to swallow.

Killian is positioned as the main villain and claims to be the true Mandarin…

As has been publicly explored, Maya’s involvement in the plot as a tertiary antagonist is similarly swept under the rug; rather than be a significant threat to Stark, she merely ends up being a pawn of Killian’s who is gunned down the moment she has a crisis of conscience. Consequently, it’s Killian himself who acts as the film’s primary villain; a malicious, ruthless, and cunning adversary, Killian is yet another dark mirror of Stark (at least in terms of his business acumen) who subjects numerous desperate souls to his Extremis process despite knowing full well that it could kill them. He even forcibly infects Pepper with the virus, though this ultimately proves to be his downfall when she conveniently proves to be far more stable than most of his usual subjects. Killian ultimately takes on the Mandarin moniker for himself, showcasing superhuman strength, unparalleled regenerative abilities, and even the ability to breathe fire (making him like a composite of the comic’s Killian, Mandarin, and Fing Fang Foom).

The army of armours shows up way too late and are almost immediately destroyed, which is a shame.

While there is a noticeable lack of Iron Man action in Iron Man 3, the film does make up for it with a particularly exciting sequence where Stark has to rescue a bunch of the President’s personnel when Air Force One is destroyed, which is quite the innovative and unique rescue scene. Still, one of the primary selling points of any Iron Man movie, especially for me, are the various different armours Stark constructs for himself and Iron Man 3 culminates in a veritable smorgasbord of suits for our viewing pleasure. Sadly, though, while many of these were a significant aspect of the film’s marketing, they only appear onscreen for the briefest of moments in the finale, where Stark has J.A.R.V.I.S. remote pilot every single one of his suits to assist in the battle against Killian. Even his apparently revolutionary Mark XLII armour is pretty underwhelming as it constantly breaks, shatters, and loses power, making it probably the most ineffectual of all of his armours. Once Pepper kills Killian off, Stark immediately orders every single one of his suits to self-destruct and then just fixes not only Pepper’s condition but also his own, removing the shrapnel from his chest and apparently retiring from the superhero life. This, however, would simply be the start of another sub-plot and character arc for Stark throughout the remainder of the MCU which specifically dealt with his inability to walk away from Iron Man, the Avengers, and the thrill of being a superhero.

The Summary:
It’s not that Iron Man Three (I still don’t get why it’s credited like that…) is a bad film. For much of its runtime, it’s actually pretty entertaining and dark thanks to the intense and menacing nature of Kingsley’s portrayal of the Mandarin. Even seeing Stark genuinely affected by his experience in Avengers Assemble was intriguing to watch and showed that the character was clearly growing and learning and influenced by the ever-escalating nature of the MCU, to say nothing of further solidifying Rhodey’s growth as his own legitimate armoured superhero. I didn’t even mind, conceptually speaking, the idea of Stark being robbed of his resources and having to improvise as it went a long way to showing just how adaptable, intelligent, and increasingly neurotic the character is becoming about safeguarding his friends, family, and the greater good. However, the execution is flawed in a lot of ways; the film “feels” just as big and exciting as the previous Iron Man movies but any and all of its positives are immediately soured by that God-awful Mandarin twist. Imagine if a Batman movie gave us the most perfect casting and interpretation of the Joker and then threw a curveball by revealing that he was a simple janitor playing dress-up; people would go crazy and, while I understand that the Mandarin comes with many cultural issues, the fact that the MCU eventually managed to translate a more faithful version of him to film years down the line makes me wish that they had stuck with the casting and the magic they had in Kingsley’s casting and given us (and by “us” I mean “me”) the long-awaited showdown between Iron Man and his greatest foe. Instead, we’re left with a decent enough film but one that gambles, and loses, its credibility on a nonsensical decision and one of the weaker films in the MCU line-up, in my opinion.

My Rating:

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Could Be Better

What did you think to Iron Man 3? Can you explain to me why the credits spell the number three out because I honestly don’t get it? What did you think to the aspect of Stark suffering from anxiety attacks? Did you like that he was forced to innovate and work without his armour or were you annoyed at how little Iron Man action there was in the film? What did you think to the twist regarding the Mandarin? Did you enjoy it or, like me, were you annoyed by it? Which of Stark’s new armours was your favourite and would have liked to see more of and what did you think to the introduction of the Iron Patriot suit? What are some of your favourite Iron Man characters or stories? Where does Iron Man rank in your hierarchy of comic book characters? Are you doing anything to commemorate Iron Man’s debut appearance and, if so, what is it? Feel free to drop a comment down below and thanks for being a part of Iron Man Month!

Talking Movies [Iron Man Month]: Iron Man 2

Anthony “Tony” Stark/Iron Man first lived, walked, and conquered in the pages of Tales of Suspense #39, published in March 1963 and brought to life by Marvel mastermind Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, and Don Heck. Since then, ol’ shellhead has gone through numerous different armours, served on Marvel’s premier super team, the Avengers, struggled with alcoholism, and shot into mainstream superstardom thanks to am iconic, career-defining portrayal by Robert Downey Jr. and, to celebrate Iron Man’s debut, I’m dedicating every Monday in March.

Released: 7 May 2010
Director: Jon Favreau
Paramount Pictures
$170 to 200 million
Robert Downey Jr., Mickey Rourke, Sam Rockwell, Don Cheadle, Gwyneth Paltrow, Scarlett Johansson, and Samuel L. Jackson

The Plot:
After publicly outing himself as Iron Man, Tony Stark (Downey Jr.) arrogantly refuses to hand his technology over to the United States government. Suffering from palladium poisoning, Stark is also targeted by Ivan Vanko (Rourke) who, bankrolled by Stark’s rival Justin Hammer (Rockwell), builds his own Arc Reactor to pursue a vendetta against Stark’s family.

The Background:
Although the production of Iron Man (Favreau, 2008) and the casting of troubled actor Robert Downey Jr. was a huge risk for fledgling studio Marvel Studios, it ultimately paid off dividends. Development of sequel began immediately after the first film’s release; actor/director Jon Favreau always envisioned the film as the first in a trilogy and chose to skip over some of the source material’s more fantastical elements and draw inspiration from the iconic “Demon in a Bottle” arc (Michelinie, et al, 1979). A big focus of Iron Man 2 was on setting up the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), which caused some friction between Favreau and the film’s producers; compounding matters was the recasting of Terrence Howard with Don Cheadle and the cutting of many of Rourke’s scenes. This came to be reflected in the film’s critical response but, despite this, Iron Man 2 was still incredibly successful and made over $620 million at the box office.

The Review:
Iron Man 2 sees Tony Stark more renowned than ever; his admission to being the superhero Iron Man has made him even more of a beloved celebrity and he relishes in the unparalleled freedom his technology has provided to him. Stark uses his increased celebrity status to help bring more eyes to his Stark Expo, which was originally dreamed up by his father, Howard (John Slattery), as a place for the world’s greatest scientific minds too pool their resources.

Tony’s characteristic bravado masks his debilitating sickness.

Stark, however, faces pressure from the United States government, particularly Senator Stern (Garry Shandling), to hand over his Iron Man technology so that it can be taken out of Stark’s irresponsible hands. Though Stark easily shoots down Stern’s demands and retains the same egotistical arrogance that was such a big part of his public life in Iron Man, it’s immediately clear that this is all an elaborate façade. Not only is Stark still struggling with unresolved issues with his father and living up to Howard’s vast legacy, he’s also being slowly poisoned by the Arc Reactor imbedded in his chest, which is flooding his bloodstream with palladium. Burning through his Arc Reactors faster and faster every day, and running out of options, Stark grows more and more impulsive and reckless; while this starts off rather innocently, with him promoting Virginia “Pepper” Potts (Paltrow) to CEO of Star Industries, he soon makes a very public display of himself when he gets drunk while wearing his armour.

Ivan is adept at Arc Reactor tech and has a personal vendetta against the Stark family.

Stark’s primary physical threat in the film is Ivan Vanko, a variation of the comic book Anton Vanko (who was known as both Whiplash and Crimson Dynamo), a hardened Russian technician whose father, Anton (Yevgeni Lazarev), worked with Stark’s father on the Arc Reactor that powers Stark’s heart and armour. Having watched his father die penniless and forgotten, Ivan vows revenge against Stark for stealing all of the credit to the technology and, in scenes that directly parallel Stark’s forging of his Mark I armour, builds his own Arc Reactor and a limited exoskeleton. While Stark primarily fights using projectiles and Repulsor Rays, Ivan favours Repulsor-charged whips that can cut through steel and concrete. Though shown to be just as ingenious and versatile as Stark when it comes to building armours and weapons, Ivan is so focused on humbling Stark in front of the world and driven to near madness by his vendetta that, initially, he forgoes protecting himself (especially his head) and, while he strikes a very public and aggressive first blow against Stark, his campaign is quickly cut short by Stark’s superior technology.

Hammer is so determined to out-do Stark that he forms an alliance with Ivan.

Ivan finds an ally, however, in Stark’s business rival, Justin Hammer. Hammer, who is constantly one step behind Stark in every way, is another mirror of Stark; he’s just as condescending and self-righteous as Stark and enjoys the limelight as much as his rival but is perfectly willing to take any advantage and underhanded tactic he can to get a leg up on Stark. To this end, he liberates Ivan from imprisonment and puts him to work constructing an army of mechanical drones, with which he hopes to make Iron Man obsolete. However, Ivan has little interest in Hammer’s ambitions or money; as long as he has his beloved cockatoo and the resources to destroy Stark, Ivan is prepared to cause as much death and destruction as he possible can to enact his revenge.

Rhodey has a new face, a shiny suit of armour of his own, and a far bigger role this time around.

As before, Stark isn’t alone in his fights against these enemies; however, James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Cheadle), now promoted to a Lieutenant Colonel, identifies that there is a potential threat in third parties attempting to replicate Stark’s technology and, though he stands by Stark and wishes to officially involve Iron Man in the existing military structure, he is forced to oppose his friend when Stark begins to succumb to both his palladium poisoning and one-too-many cocktails. Personally, the switch to Cheadle was nothing but a benefit from my point of view; he’s far better suited to the role and much more believable as a straight-laced military man while still sharing a fun brotherly chemistry with Stark and he has come to own the role in a way that Terrance Howard could only dream of. While it is a bit odd that Rhodey would deem himself more worthy to wear the armour than Stark, and how adept he is at wearing it despite the fact that it seems like he’s never worn it before, he emerges the victor from their scuffle and commandeers the Mark II armour for himself. Bringing it under the jurisdiction of the American government, and being outfitted with Hammer’s technology, Rhodey takes on the identity of War Machine and is fully prepared to lead Ivan’s automated drones into battle for the good ol’ U. S. of A only to find that he has been outfitted with useless weapons and susceptible to Ivan’s control.

Allies old and new assist Stark as S.H.I.E.L.D. continues to monitor his activities.

Though driven to exasperation by Stark’s continued antics and eccentricities, Pepper takes her role as CEO very seriously and begins to make real headway in turning Stark Industries around. Facing the cold reality that he could die, the budding romance between her and Stark blossoms over the course of the film despite Stark’s eye being caught by Natalie Rushman (Johansson). Initially appearing to be little more than a notary and Pepper’s very capable assistant, Rushman turns out to be Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow, sent by Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division (S.H.I.E.L.D.) director Nick Fury (Jackson) to assess Stark’s for the Avenger Initiative. This leads to some kick-ass fight scenes where Romanoff’s acrobatic versatility is on full display and serves as an alluring introduction to this mysterious character and also ties into the greater MCU by having Fury be so invested in Stark’s suitability.

The Nitty-Gritty:
Like any good sequel worth its time, Iron Man 2 is bigger (and, in many ways, better) than the first film. Without having to spend copious amounts of its runtime establishing Stark’s character and journey towards becoming Iron Man, the film can jump right into the action and picks up about a year after the end of the last movie. While many lamented how much world-building and sequel/spin-off bait was put into the film, I loved it and didn’t feel like the inclusion of Black Widow and Fury or Agent Coulson’s (Clark Gregg) allusions to other superheroic events got in the way of the story at all. If anything, they helped build my anticipation for seeing more from the MCU and the then-upcoming Avengers crossover and I’ve always considered Iron Man 2 to be a far stronger sequel than the third film in the series.

Stark finds the key to his condition by examining his estranged, late-father’s research and blueprints.

As in the last film, Tony’s journey and growth as a character is a central aspect of the film; clearly still haunted by his experiences in the cave and desperate to hide how critical his condition has become, Stark is, seemingly, more reckless and egocentric than ever. However, this is all merely a front to hide his fear at his impending demise and to cover up the insecurities instilled in him by his father’s harsh upbringing. In the end, though, thanks to Fury, Star sees that Howard did have his best interests at heart in his own way. Indeed, thanks to Howard’s designs for the Stark Expo, Stark discovers the key to his survival and is able (quite ridiculously, I’ll admit) to cure himself by creating a “new element”, which ends the threat of palladium poisoning.

Iron Man 2 features some of my favourite armours, with the Silver Centurion being a personal highlight.

In service of outdoing its predecessor as much as possible, Iron Man 2 features a new array of armours and toys for Stark to use; my favourite of these is the Silver Centurion armour, which Stark dons via a suitcase just like in the 1990s cartoon I used to enjoy on a regular basis. While the red and gold armour is very similar to the one from the first film, there are subtle changes and improvements and the special effects are just as good at rendering Iron Man’s actions as before. Add to that an absolutely fantastic adaptation of War Machine, one of my all-time favourite armours from the comics, and Iron Man 2 does a fantastic job of stepping things up a few notches and laying the foundation for the big MCU crossovers that would follow.

Ivan’s conviction, rage, and genius make him a formidable opponent and dark mirror of Stark.

In comparison, Ivan Vanko’s armour is, initially, much more improvised and yet he’s no less capable than his rival. Ivan’s exoskeleton is more than capable of withstanding a head-on car crash and Iron Man’s blasts and his electrified whips are surprisingly effective at damaging Stark’s armour and draining his power. Thanks to Hammer’s resources, Ivan is able to construct a far more menacing and formidable suit of armour for himself for the finale; while this does, admittedly, greatly resemble the finale of the first film, which pitted Stark against a hulking grey counterpart, Ivan stands out just enough thanks to being backed up by Hammer’s drones and still incorporating those same whipping tentacles into the design. Mickey Rourke is an actor who has always been a bit before my time but this film was released right around the time of his big comeback and I have to say he regularly smashed every role he had around this time. His performance here is muted and subdued but threatening; he can say more with a glare and a grunt than many actors can with pages of dialogue and he makes an immediate visual impression with all his tattoos and imposing physique.

Iron Man 2 features a lot more world-building hints and references for the larger MCU.

Hammer, by comparison, is Stark’s business and intellectual opposite and, while Rockwell is no Jeff Bridges and Hammer is visually nothing like his comic book counterpart, Rockwell plays the role of a seedy mirror of Stark to perfection (which is only fitting given that he was considered for the role of Stark in Iron Man). However, Hammer’s ambition to crush and overtake Stark in business and his enthusiasm for Ivan’s genius quickly lead him to getting in over his head and he ends up watching helplessly as his drones are hijacked by Ivan and I am greatly anticipating the character’s eventual return to the wider MCU since he ends the film in jail rather than dead. Speaking of endings, Iron Man 2 concludes with Tony in a much better place, physically and mentally, thanks to having solved his palladium poisoning and officially hooking up with Pepper, but is deemed unfit to be a part of the Avengers due to his many personality defects. Instead, Fury positions Stark as a liaison to help build the team, which is looking in good stead when Coulson leaves to investigate a mysterious hammer in New Mexico.

The Summary:
I often see a lot of people online, especially on my social medias, bad-mouthing Iron Man 2 and, even now, I really don’t understand why; the first film was fantastic, almost lightning in a bottle, but the sequel is a pretty damn decent follow-up. Sure, you can argue that it’s awfully convenient that Fury just dropped the key to Stark’s survival into his lap but I just saw this as world-building and setting the stage for a greater purpose. None of it takes away from Stark’s growth as a character, or his character arc in this film which, we now know, was all part of a much bigger and longer arc of redemption. Facing a different but no less challenging odds and delivering a taste of the extent to Stark’s imagination when it comes to his armours, Iron Man 2 is an intense story of Stark facing the ghosts of his past and setting himself on the path to a greater future while also effectively sowing the seeds for the rest of MCU’s first phase of movies in an entertaining and action-packed spectacle that I feel deserves more credit than it gets.

My Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Great Stuff

What are your thoughts on Iron Man 2? Do you think it deserves the hate it gets or, like me, were you a fan of how it built upon the themes and action of the first film? What did you think to the sub-plot of Tony being slowly poisoned and the solution to that problem? Did you enjoy the introduction of Black Widow and the hints towards the larger MCU? What did you think to the film’s villains, specifically Rourke and Rockwell’s performances, and Rhodey’s promotion to War Machine? Which of the film’s armours was your favourite and why? What are some of your favourite Iron Man characters or stories? Where does Iron Man rank in your hierarchy of comic book characters? Are you doing anything to commemorate Iron Man’s debut appearance and, if so, what is it? Feel free to drop a comment down below and be sure to check back in next week for the final part of Iron Man Month!

Talking Movies [Iron Man Month]: Iron Man

Anthony “Tony” Stark/Iron Man first lived, walked, and conquered in the pages of Tales of Suspense #39, published in March 1963 and brought to life by Marvel mastermind Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, and Don Heck. Since then, ol’ shellhead has gone through numerous different armours, served on Marvel’s premier super team, the Avengers, struggled with alcoholism, and shot into mainstream superstardom thanks to am iconic, career-defining portrayal by Robert Downey Jr. and, to celebrate Iron Man’s debut, I’m dedicating every Monday in March.

Released: 2 May 2008
Director: Jon Favreau
Paramount Pictures
$140 million
Robert Downey Jr., Jeff Bridges, Terrence Howard, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Shaun Toub

The Plot:
Billionaire industrialist and arms manufacturer Anthony “Tony” Stark (Downey Jr.) finds himself humbled after his own weaponry leaves him near death. Captured and forced to make weapons for the terrorist group the Ten Rings, Stark instead constructs a suit of armour and, upon escaping, resolves to put his genius intellect and resources to good use as Iron Man.

The Background:
The development of a live-action Iron Man movie can be traced back to 1990, with stars Nicholas Cage and Tom Cruise both once attached to the titular superhero, but the various scripts and film rights languished in development hell for nearly fifteen years with nothing to show for it. Once the film rights reverted to Marvel, the publisher created Marvel Studios and, encouraged by their success at licensing their more popular characters, began developing movies based on their remaining properties. The first of these was Iron Man; the film’s armours were created by legendary special effects maestro Stan Winston and actor/director Jon Favreau was drafted to direct the film and immediately saw the story as being one of redemption and reinvention. Nowhere was this emphasised more than in the casting of Robert Downey Jr. in the title role; Downey, whose career and life had been in a downward spiral, shot to superstardom after being cast and almost immediately became the linchpin of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) that Iron Man kicked off. Against all expectations, Iron Man was an unprecedented success; it made nearly $590 million at the box office and received rave reviews. Its success led not only to a two sequels but also a slew of other MCU movies and easily the most successful series of superhero movies in modern times as the MCU dominated cinemas over the next ten years and beyond.

The Review:
Iron Man opens in the war-torn deserts of Afghanistan to the tunes of “Back in Black” by AC/DC; here, we find billionaire industrialist, investor, and consummate playboy Tony Stark sharing some bants with some American soldiers. Stark’s jovial, boastful mood is rudely interrupted when the convey is suddenly attacked, all of his detail killed, and he is caught in the blast from one of his own Stark Industries missiles while trying to message for help. Tony finds himself injured and held hostage by Raza (Faran Tahir), the leader of the terrorist organisation known as the “Ten Rings”, and, from here, we flash back in time some thirty-six hours for a quick recap on Tony’s life. Heralded as a genius, philanthropist, and American patriot, Stark was orphaned as a teenager and, at age twenty-one, took the reigns of his father’s company.

Stark is a lauded genius but his aloof and irresponsible ways make him a flawed character,

Stark is touted as an acclaimed keeper of the peace though his advanced and innovative weapons technology but, for all his genius, he is aloof and bored with such trivialities as receiving awards or really stopping to think about the moral implications of his actions and would much rather be playing craps at Caesar’s Palace and picking up random woman, even reporters who brand him the “Merchant of Death”. Tony is an impulsive and easily distracted individual who simply does rather than thinking since he is so smart that he is often a few steps ahead of everyone else and prefers to be tinkering with his vast collection of cars and in his personal workshop in his grandiose house rather than remembering things like birthdays and keeping his appointments, all while putting himself, his father, and his company on a pedestal for the world-changing technologies his weapons manufacturing has produced and funded.

Stark’s nearest and dearest react to his impulsive attitude in different ways.

Tony’s lackadaisical, self-centred attitude may win over the general public and be a hit with the women but it grates against his closest friends, such as his chauffeur, Howard “Happy” Hogan (Favreau), Obadiah Stane (Bridges), and Colonel James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Howard), who are left to make excuses in his stead. None are left with more trash to clean up, however, than Stark’s personal assistant, Virginia “Pepper” Potts (Paltrow), who constantly finds herself having to chase after him for decisions, signatures, and directions relating to Stark Industries. Each of these characters deals with Tony’s childish ways differently; Happy is happy to indulge Stark’s whims and play along on the sly, Rhodey chews Stark out for disrespecting himself (and Rhodey) with his attitude, Pepper is exasperated by his ways but endures them out of loyalty and a mutual attraction between the two, and Stane is seemingly perfectly happy for Tony to do as he wishes since his brilliant mind helps keep him, and the company, extremely profitable.

Injured by one of his own weapons, Stark resolves to fight back against his captors.

The attack in Afghanistan forces Stark to witness first-hand the consequences of his actions; trapped in a dingy cave and kept alive by a car battery and some cables, Stark is about as far from his faithful artificial intelligence, Just A Rather Very Intelligent System (J.A.R.V.I.S; Paul Bettany), as he can possibly get. His cellmate, Ho Yinsen (Toub), brings him up to speed with his predicament; shrapnel from the missile is lodged dangerously close to Stark’s heart and only the electromagnet imbedded in his chest is keeping him alive. The Ten Rings demand that Stark construct for them an arsenal of his famed “Jericho Missile” and he is subjected to constant torture when he refuses. Horrified to see the terrorists are wielding his weaponry, Stark resolves instead to build a miniature version of his famed “Arc Reactor”, a clean energy device that will more effectively stave off death and plot their escape.

With limited resources, Stark builds his first suit of armour to fight his way to freedom.

What follows is an incredible sequence where, torn away from his luxuries and faced with the cold reality that he has been causing death and destruction across the world, Stark sets to work constructing a powerful exoskeletal suit of armour to fight his way out of the terrorist camp. This is a fantastic scene that shows Stark’s adaptability and ingenuity and that he is a formidable foe even without the benefits of modern technology; with a few scraps, his unmatched intellect, and some old-fashioned welding techniques, Stark is able to fool his captors long enough to complete the suit, a clunky, grey monstrosity with just enough power to fight past the guards and blast away to safety. Sadly, Yinsen sacrifices himself to cover Stark when the suit is powering up; with his dying breath, he begs Stark not to waste his life and, humbled by his experiences and Yisnen’s sacrifice, Stark takes his revenge on his captors and resolves to end all weapons manufacturing once he is recovered by Rhodey.

Focused on his new mission, Stark works to perfect his armour and right his wrongs.

Haunted by his experiences in Afghanistan, Stark is angered at his weapons and technology being misused by terrorists and, after a few trials and working out some kinks, finally perfects his armour design into a sleek red-and-gold suit that rockets through the sky, fires missiles and Repulsor Rays, and is fully connected to all available networks and communication devices thanks to J.A.R.V.I.S. Stark wastes no time in attacking Ten Rings sites, freeing those subjugated to their terrorism with extreme prejudice and, in the process, attracts the attention not just from the U.S. military but also Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) of the mysterious Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division (S.H.I.E.L.D.), who wishes very much to “debrief” Stark on the particulars of his escape and extra-curricular activities.

Stane turns on Stark in order to steal his Arc Reactor and armour technology for himself.

Although having shifted his focus onto a more honourable goal Stark remains as arrogant and obnoxious as ever after becoming the “Iron Man”; both Pepper and Rhodey despair at him when they discover what he’s been up to and believe that he is self-destructing but the truth is that his experiences have finally given him something worth living and working for. His actions, however, have far-reaching consequences; Stark is devastated to discover that Stane ordered the hit on him as the two were depicted as being firm friends up until that point. When Stane then steals Stark’s Iron Man technology and garbs himself in a bigger, more menacing exosuit as the Iron Monger, the stage is set for an epic showdown full of personal animosity between the two armoured men.

The Nitty-Gritty:
Even now, Iron Man remains almost timeless in its presentation; thanks to a fantastically old-school method of blending live-action suits with high-quality CGI, the film holds up incredibly well and is just as good now as it was the first time I saw it in cinemas. A rocking soundtrack full of classic heavy metal tracks and a rousing, industrial theme only serve to punctuate the special effects and the whole film seems to have been made with the actors given free reign to ad-lib their dialogue as interactions and banter are all incredibly natural and amusing. Indeed, Stark’s sudden declaration of “I am Iron Man” was an ad-lib and, with that one line, largely dictated the course for the MCU, which generally treats it superheroes like celebrities rather than falling back on the “secret identity” cliché. While I am perfectly happy to see secret identities in superhero films, it was massively refreshing to see a comic book movie buck that trend and made Iron Man even more memorable in the long run.

I was shocked to see Bridges as part of the cast and he steals every scene he’s in!

One thing that makes Iron Man stand out is the quality of the actors; both Iron Man and Batman Begins (Nolan, 2005) changed the game, as far as I am concerned, by featuring high-quality actors like Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine. I remember being incredibly surprised that Jeff Bridges was a part of this film; almost unrecognisable as Obadiah Stane, Bridges is a charismatic, bombastic father-figure who both nurtures and tries to temper Stark’s genius and impulsive nature. His delivery and magnetism steal every scene he’s in and, yes, it’s probably a littler derivative that Stark’s first adversary was basically a dark mirror of himself but Bridges is such a gem that it’s effortlessly entertaining even if it is at the expense of Iron Man’s more famous foes. Stane constantly exudes an odd sense of menace even before he’s incapacitating people with his little ear gadget; when one of his technicians is unable to miniaturise the Arc Reactor technology, Stane simply disables Stark and rips it right from his chest in order to power his own massive suit. Upon donning the Iron Monger armour, Stane immediately becomes obsessed with its power and as drunk on the feeling of freedom and empowerment as Stark is on his own self-adulation (and alcohol, half the time), which ultimately becomes his downfall as he becomes irrationally fixated on taking his frustrations out on a weakened Iron Man. Seeing Stane suited up in the massive Iron Monger armour was pretty fantastic and it serves a stub-plot of the film, and the entire MCU, of Stark confronting his past and overcoming it and his unresolved issues with his father.

Thanks to a combination of practical and special effects, the armours look incredible.

All of this leads me to the biggest draw of the film: the suits themselves. Even now, it is absolutely bad-ass to see the original Mark I clunker of a suit in action which is made all the more visually impressive by just how much of it was actually a practical suit of armour. Stark follows this up with the all-silver Mark II suit, which he wears to test out the limits and capabilities of his Arc Reactor technology (and, in the process, discovers the suit’s tendency to ice up when breaching the upper atmosphere). The final red-and-gold suit is as close to a live-action Iron Man armour you could ask for and looks like one of Adi Granov’s illustrations has literally sprung to life. Iron Man even solves the problem faced by a lot of masked superheroes by switched to a view from inside of the Iron Man helmet so that we can still see Stark’s face and stay emotionally connected to the character even when he’s in full armour and Iron Man is made all the more interesting since we see Stark building, testing, and perfecting the armour and because he constantly remains adaptable and flawed throughout the film.

Iron Man truly was the first tentative step into a much larger world…

Finally, there are the hints towards a much larger world. I remember watching Iron Man for the first time and never twigging that Coulson worked for S.H.I.E.L.D. since the acronym isn’t used until right at the end of the film and feeling like an idiot when they finally dropped the organisation’s name. Look closely in the background of one scene and you’ll see that Stark has Captain America’s shield in his workshop, Rhodey very nearly jumps into the Mark II suit for himself at one point, and the film ends not just with Stark’s impulsive declaration that he is Iron Man but also a visit from Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), director of S.H.I.E.L.D. Again, I remember hearing rumours of this cameo back in the day and specifically waiting for the credits to finish to see if it was true and being absolutely blown away by the implications of the “Avenger Initiative” but I could never imagine what Iron Man would set in motion for superhero cinema (and cinema in general).

The Summary:
My experiences of Iron Man were extremely limited when the film first came out; I enjoyed watching his cartoons and saw him pop up in a few comics from time to time but, for me, he was definitely a low-tier Marvel superhero and I think it’s fair to say that’s true for a lot of people and the general audience at the time. Iron Man, however, changed all of that; more than that, it changed the superhero genre forever and brought some big names, big money, and big audiences to see these films in a way that no one could have predicted and which certainly hasn’t been replicated since. Even without the larger MCU to help bolster it, Iron Man is a hugely enjoyable science-fiction/superhero romp full of charismatic actors, impressive performances, amusing banter and dialogue, and top-notch special effects. Iron Man may have been a massive gamble for Marvel Studios, and may have been eclipsed by other, bigger films in the MCU, but it’s not to be underestimated. Even at the time, I remember sensing that I was witnessing something very special, something very different from other superhero films, and I’m happy to say that neither time nor repeated viewing has diminished Iron Man’s appeal in any way.

My Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.


What do you think about Iron Man? How did you find it as a story and as an origin for ol’ shellhead? Do you think it still holds up to this day? What did you think to the cast and the performances in the film? Were you a fan of the film’s special effects and soundtrack? What did you think to the use of Obadiah Stane as the film’s villain? What was your reaction when Nick Fury walked out of the shadows and when Stark admitted to his dual identity? What are some of your favourite Iron Man characters or stories? Where does Iron Man rank in your hierarchy of comic book characters? Are you doing anything to commemorate Iron Man’s debut appearance and, if so, what is it? Either way, I’d love to hear your thoughts on Iron Man so leave a comment below.

Talking Movies: What If…? Thanos and the Masters of Evil

Talking Movies

In Avengers: Infinity War (Russo and Russo, 2018) the Mad Titan, Thanos (Josh Brolin), finally made a significant appearance in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). When the idea of a two-film saga based on the Infinity Gauntlet comic book (Starlin, et al, 1991) was first announced, I, like many others, had many theories about what was going to happen, who was going to live and die, and how everything was )going to go down. For example, before Thor: Ragnarok (Waititi, 2017), I was certain that Thanos’ big entrance was going to immediately establish his threat by hanging him storm into Asgard kill Odin Allfather (Anthony Hopkins), and claim the Tesseract (and, obviously, the Space Stone it help). After all, how better to establish this big bad villain than by having him kill a God?

Thanos’ Black Order made their MCU debut in Avengers: Infinity War.

Instead, of course, Thanos wrecked Thor Odinson’s (Chris Hemsworth) ship and slaughtered half of the Asgardians onboard. Still an impressive feat, to be sure, but one that focused more on Thanos’ grandeur and pretentious philosophy rather than his actual physical strength thanks to the bulk of the work being undertaken by his underlings, the “Children of Thanos”. Headed by Ebony Maw (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), Cull Obsidian (Terry Notary), Proxima Midnight (Carrie Coon/Monique Ganderton), and Corvus Glaive (Michael James Shaw), the Children of Thanos didn’t actually appear in The Infinity Gauntlet and are, instead, relatively recent additions to Thanos’ ranks who first appeared (as the “Black Order”) in Infinity (Hickman, et al, 2013). In the film, we don’t really learn much about these guys at all except that they enforce Thanos’ will with unquestioning loyalty and that he trusts them to help him gather the remaining Infinity Stones and, while they certainly look visually interesting, they’re mostly disposable bad guys for the Avengers to fight in place of Thanos.

While Abomination is a good choice, I definitely think Ronan could’ve taken Cull’s place.

Now, I’ve never read Infinity; I have no emotional attachment to the Black Order or any of the characters and, as a result, they were merely nothing more than henchman to me and I only really recall one of them being referred to be name (“I take it the Maw is dead?”) While I enjoyed their inclusion in the film, I can’t help but feel like they could have been dropped and supplanted with some other, more recognisable MCU villains had some other films and events happened just a little differently. For example, take Cull Obsidian; he’s Thanos’ muscle who basically does nothing and is largely inconsequential. What if, instead of killing Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) in Guardians of the Galaxy (Gunn, 2014), Ronan had been soundly defeated and humbled and, having seen the extent of Thanos’ power (he did destroy Xandar (offscreen), which was what Ronan wanted, after all, and would be enough to bring Ronan to heel, I would wager), he pledged himself fully to Thanos’ cause to get revenge against the Guardians of the Galaxy? I’m not massively familiar with Ronan but it seems to me like it was a bit of a miss-step to kill him off when he could have fulfilled a role in Thanos’ little gang at the very least, if not remain as a recurring antagonist for the Guardians. Another potential replacement for Corvus would be Emil Blonsky/Abomination (Tim Roth) who, at the time, had been conspicuous by his absence from the MCU. However, arguably, it wouldn’t make as much sense for Thanos to recruit the Abomination as he’s not exactly floating around in the depths of space for him to encounter.

What if Loki or the Red Skull had aligned themselves with Thanos in place of Ebony Maw…?

Intrigue was equally high in the build-up to The Avengers/Avengers Assemble (Whedon, 2012); I was hoping to see a version of the Masters of Evil, with Loki Laufeyson (Tom Hiddleston) joining forces with Johann Schmidt/The Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) – who was clearly transported away from Earth by the Bifrost at the end of Captain America: The First Avengers (Johnston, 2011 – and either the Abomination or Doctor Samuel Sterns/The Leader (Tim Blake Nelson) once they got to Earth. While I was happy with the first Avengers team-up we got, I do feel this was another missed opportunity that we never saw this anti-Avengers team-up. Consequently, I feel like we could have swapped out Ebony Maw for either of these characters; in The Infinity Gauntly, Thanos was advised by Mephisto, a role many expected Loki to play in Infinity War given his mischievous and devious nature. Naturally, of course, you could argue that this wouldn’t really fit with Loki’s character arc by that point but remember how he feigned loyalty to Thanos and then tried to stab him in the neck? Well, imagine that but throughout a large portion of the movie. Loki pledges fealty, willingly hand shim the Tesseract, and spends the remainder of the film waiting for the perfect moment to strike and then he’s killed for his efforts. Obviously, the Red Skull finally showed up in Avengers: Endgame (Russo and Russo, 2019) in a slightly different role as the Stonekeeper (Ross Marquand), but again…what if the Red Skull had replaced Ebony Maw? How much more interesting and impactful would it have been to see the Red Skull empowered by Thanos and making a triumphant return as Thanos’ chief torturer? Sure, if his death was the same then you could argue that he would’ve been “wasted” or been killed off too easily but I still feel like this would have been a better use of the character than as the keeper of the Soul Stone (a role that could’ve been filled by character’s envisioning the Stonekeeper as someone close to them, perhaps?)

With some tweaks, nebula could have taken Corvus’ role as Thanos’ chief assassin.

Corvus Glaive is a trickier one to “replace” in this hypothetical alternate world, however I have one  suggestion: Nebula (Karen Gillan). Now, similar to Loki joining Thanos, this would require quite a few changes to Nebula’s character arc; in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (Gunn, 2017), she finally buried the hatchet with her “sister”, Gamora (Zoey Saldana) and it was great seeing her grow as a character, put aside her hatred, and learn how to work alongside the Guardians and the Avengers. In The Infinity Gauntlet, Nebula spends most of her time as a mindless zombie thanks to Thanos’ wrath but plays a vital role in his downfall by stealing the Gauntlet for herself (and promptly being driven mad by its power). By tweaking her character arc, or having it so that Thanos either intimidates or reprograms her into subservice, you could replace Corvus with a more prominent and recognisable character and still find ways to weave her existing arc into the story. Like, what if, after Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, Nebula is forced into Thanos to serve him (maybe he threatens to kill Gamora/the Guardians or promises to “repair” her once he’s assemble the Gauntlet) in Corvus’ place; she could still have been ripped apart and tortured to force Gamora into revealing the Soul Stone’s location and would have even more motivation to turn against her “father” since he would have lied to and manipulated her once again.

If Hela wasn’t going to take Death’s place, she could’ve replaced Proxima Midnight.

Another character who I, like many, expected to play a prominent role in Infinity War was Hela Odindottir (Cate Blanchett), a character who a lot of people expected would take the role of Lady Death as the object of Thanos’ affections. Of course, this didn’t turn out to be true as Hela was killed in Thor: Ragnarok and Thanos’ motivations were changed from worshipping Death to wanting to bring a sense of balance to the galaxy. Still, how awesome would it have been if Hela had taken Proxima Midnight’s place in the Dark Order? If killing the Allfather didn’t show you that Thanos was a bad-ass, bringing the Goddess of Death to heel totally would have and could have made for a much more memorable female villain for the finale in Wakanda. Again, there’s the question of her being killed off but what better way to help showcase Wanda Maximoff’s (Elizabeth Olsen) sheer power than by having her shred a Goddess to pieces? Or you could rewrite her death to maybe come at the hands of her brother, Thor, and his new weapon, Stormbreaker, to sell the awesomeness of the weapon.

As cool as the Black Order were, would a version of the Masters of Evil have been better…?

Ultimately, I was more than happy with Avengers: Infinity War, Endgame, and the MCU’s portrayal of Thanos overall. His underlings were find cannon fodder for the film and helped to serve as extensions of the Mad Titan’s will but I do feel it would have been even more awesome to see these more recognisable villains swayed to Thanos’ cause so that we could see them interact with their rivals, and other heroes, in new and interesting ways. Sure, many have cropped up again since then and the potential of a Masters of Evil in the MCU is still there, I just think that maybe these huge movies could have been made even bigger if things had been slightly changed to accommodate these more familiar characters. Do you agree or disagree? Maybe you’re a big fan of the Black Order from the comics? Perhaps you’d have like to see a different route taken? Do you even want to see the Masters of Evil in the MCU? Either way, feel free to sound off in the comments below.

Talking Movies [Sci-Fi Sunday]: Ant-Man

January sees the celebration of two notable dates in science-fiction history, with January 2 christened “National Science Fiction Day” to coincide with the birth date of the world renowned sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov, and HAL 9000, the sophisticated artificial intelligence of Arthur C. Clarke’s seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), being created on 12 January. Accordingly, I’m spending every Sunday of January celebrating sci-fi in all its forms.

Talking Movies

Released: 17 July 2015
Director: Peyton Reed
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Budget: $130 to 169.3 million
Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll, Abby Ryder Fortson, and Michael Douglas

The Plot:
Petty thief Scott Lang (Rudd) struggles to adapt to the straight and narrow after being released from prison. Determined to prove himself to his young daughter, Cassie (Fortson), he turns to stealing once more and unwittingly finds himself in possession of Doctor Hank Pym’s (Douglas) incredible Ant-Man suit. Gifted with a real opportunity to turn his life around, Scott trains with Pym and his stern daughter, Hope van Dyne (Lilly), to master the suit’s ability to shrink and control ants in order to keep the conniving Doctor Darren Cross (Stoll) from perverting Pym’s life’s work into a weapon.

The Background:
When comic book readers were first introduced to Hank Pym/Ant-Man, he wasn’t quite the garishly-costumed Avenger would later help form the Avengers; instead, he was merely a scientist featured in the pages of Tales to Astonish #27. The creation of the legendary duo Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the character was re-envisioned as a superhero eight issues later and would go on to be a consistent, if unstable, character in the pages of Marvel Comics. Crucially, however, Pym wasn’t the only character to take up the mantle of Ant-Man; one of Pym’s most notable successors was Scott Lang, a reformed criminal created by David Michelinie, Bob Layton, and John Byrne, who took over the role in 1979. Both Hank Pym and Scott Lang had featured in Marvel cartoons and videogames since their debut, but development of a live-action film can be traced back to the 1980s, when development was scuppered by a similar concept, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (Johnston, 1989). The project finally started gaining traction in the early-2000s when Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish wrote a film treatment focusing on the Scott Lang version of the character for Artisan Entertainment, who held the film rights at the time.

Ant-Man is a mantle worn by many characters and the film took over ten years to develop.

Over the next ten years, the film was continually showcased and teased; the character was bumped from the first phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and eventually slotted in to debut in Phase Three. Sadly, Wright eventually left the project in 2014, right after both casting and the script had been finalised, due to “creative differences” between himself and Marvel Studios. Peyton Reed soon succeeded Wright as the director and worked closely with star Paul Rudd (who underwent a physical transformation for the role) and writer Adam McKay to rework and expand upon Wright’s script. Double Negative and Industrial Light & Magic handled the film’s shrinking effects, with star Corey Stoll sporting a motion capture suit to bring the villainous Yellowjacket to life. Finally, after being in development for over ten years, Ant-Man released to a massive $519.3 million worldwide gross; the reviews were equally impressive, with critics praising the film’s family dynamic, performances, and the unique blend of humour and action that set it apart from other MCU films. The film performed so well that a sequel was produced in 2018, and a third instalment is due for release later this year, and only served to further bolster Rudd’s undeniable charm and charisma.

The Review:
Ant-Man is one of those Marvel superheroes that I’ve never really had strong feelings about one way or another. Like many, I mostly know the character as being an emotionally and psychologically unstable individual who occasionally abuses his wife and has inferiority complexes, though I primarily associate the character with one of the Avengers’ greatest villains, Ultron. Consequently, while Ant-Man and the Wasp were instrumental in the formation of the Avengers in the comics, I can’t say that I was too disappointed to see the character miss out on the big screen debut of Marvel’s premier superhero team. However, by the time Ant-Man was produced, the MCU was really ramping up its scope; the Avengers had formed, we’d seen Gods and bleeding-edge technology and even space adventures and, while Ant-Man probably would have fit in nicely during the MCU’s first phase (although it probably would have been deemed too derivative), it was actually a surprising breath of fresh air to come back down to “ground level”, so to speak, before really getting balls deep into the Infinity Saga.

Years after Hank quit S.H.I.E.L.D., ex-con Scott tries his best to set a good example and rebuild his life.

Ant-Man opens up in 1989 and by showcasing just how far de-aging technology has come as Hank Pym (digitally restored to match the time period) angrily confronts Howard Stark (John Slattery), Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell made up to look noticeably older), and Mitchell Carson (Martin Donovan) after discovering the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division’s (S.H.I.E.L.D.) attempts to replicate his Hank Particle technology. While Peggy is shocked at the revelation, Howard tries to impress upon Hank that his research could be put to far better, greater use than simply fuelling his efforts as Ant-Man. Already annoyed at being reduced to a glorified errand boy, Hank is pushed to the edge when Carson mocks his anger and brings up his late-wife, Janet, leading to Hank lashing out, breaking Carson’s nose, and quitting S.H.I.E.L.D. Although Howard pleads with Hank to reconsider, Hank storms out, making an enemy of Carson in the process and establishing a few key plot points for the movie: Hank doesn’t trust S.H.I.E.L.D., seems a little unstable, and is highly protective of his research. The film then jumps ahead to then-present day to introduce us to Scott Lang right as he’s being released from prison; a former VistaCorp systems engineer, Scott is a veritable genius, holding a Master’s degree in Electrical Engineering but is reduced to working a menial job at Baskins-Robbins in his desperate attempt to stay on the straight and narrow and set a good example for his young daughter, Cassie (Fortson). It’s crucial to note that that Scott wasn’t arrested for anything violent or threatening (indeed, he states that he hates violence); instead, he hacked into VistaCorp’s security system and redistributed misbegotten funds to their victims before exposing their misdeeds online, painting him as a sympathetic, almost Robin Hood-like figure right from the outset as he strives to do good deeds and has a clear moral compass but isn’t exactly the best at making responsible decisions. Although Scott has a strained relationship with his ex-wife, Maggie (Judy Greer), and her new fiancé, cop Jim Paxton (Bobby Cannavale), he is extremely close to Hope, who is always excited to see him. He’s desperate to make up for lost time but faces nothing but an uphill battle to show that he’s changed and can be a responsible adult.

Luis’s enthusiasm is offset by Hanks’ cantankerous nature and Darren’s lust for power.

After his release, Scott is taken in by his former cellmate and best friend, Luis (Michael Peña), an enthusiastic, supportive, and incredibly friendly and optimistic former con who initially tries to coax Scott back into his former life. Luis is one of many highlights in Ant-Man; in many ways a predecessor to the colourful characters and banter we’d see in Thor: Ragnarok (Waititi, 2017), Luis just exudes likeability and friendliness. Peña’s delivery and fast-talking cadence also provide one of the film’s most hilarious moments where Luis rapidly breaks down the particulars of a big-time score, which is fantastically realised with Peña’s voice playing over a number of other ancillary characters as he enthusiastically tells Scott how he came by this information. Luis sets Scott up at an apartment and introduces him to Dave (Tip “T.I.” Harris) and Kurt (David Dastmalchian), both of whom are only too eager to assist with Scott’s heist into a rich old man’s house and make that big score. Scott doesn’t return to his cat burglar ways lightly, but believes he has no choice if he ever hopes to set himself up with an apartment, pay his child maintenance fees, and see his daughter again. In the interim years after the opening, Hank Pym has done pretty well for himself; he set up his own company, Hank Technologies, and is clearly quite wealthy from the research and technology developed there. However, he has slowly become more and more of a recluse and been pushed further away from his company; his protégé, Darren Cross, is in the final stages of assuming full control of Hank Technologies, renaming it Cross Technologies, and fully replicating the Hank Particle technology. Fascinated by Hank’s past as the shrunken secret agent superhero Ant-Man, Darren has developed a suit, the “Yellowjacket”, to reproduce the technology and sell it as a peacekeeping weapon for geo-political and military applications. Hank is frustrated by all of this, especially Darren’s insistence on reproducing the Ant-Man technology, but handicapped by his ability to do anything about it; prolonged exposure to the Hank Particles has left Hank physically unable to suit up again because of the risk of further (and permanent) damage to his mind and body but he is equally adamant that his estranged daughter, Hope, not take up the mantle because of the risk not only to her but also his lingering guilt and fear after losing his wife to that same technology.   

Darren is not just on the cusp of having everything he lusts for, but also completely going off the rails.

Although Darren is frustrated at his inability to shrink organic material, both Hank and Hope know that it’s only a matter of time before he cracks the secret and begins manufacturing weaponised Ant-Man technology. Although Hank is reluctant to risk losing Hope, he’s more than happy to recruit Scott to his cause, having identified him as the perfect expendable candidate for their operation thanks to his intellect and skills as a cat burglar. I always found Hank’s reasoning here very interesting, and somewhat hypocritical; he won’t risk losing Hope so he brings in Scott, positioning him to a point where the former thief has little choice but to agree to become Ant-Man, but Scott has quite a lot to lose as well so it just goes to show that Hank, for all his morals and ethics, doesn’t necessarily have the most clean-cut of motivations. Anyway, Scott is initially disheartened to learn that all his efforts have resulted in only an old motorcycle suit and a funky helmet but, upon slipping into the outfit out of sheer curiosity, he is both excited and horrified to discover that it enables him to shrink down to near-microscopic proportions at the push of a button! Scott is naturally freaked out and attempts to return the suit, only to be arrested in the process and perfectly placed for Hank to exposit a truncated version of his life story and his troubles with Darren Cross. For a stereotypical, suit-wearing antagonist, Darren actually has a few things going for him that help him to break free of the corporate bad-guy trope I loathe so much. Of course he’s a smooth-talking, slick weasel and a sharp businessman, but he’s also a manipulative and sadistic asshole; he took full advantage of Hank’s trust and faith to gain a majority interest in Hank Technologies, leeched every bit of information and brilliance from his mentor he possibly could to advance his own career and self-interests, and has no qualms about killing those who get in his way using perverted Hank Particles to reduce them to a gooey residue. He’s a highly intelligent, and highly unstable, antagonist who oozes charm but also menace; you’re never really sure what he’s thinking and you can almost see the urge to lash out and go full crazy bubbling beneath the surface. In many ways, he’s a dark opposite for both Scott and Hank since he’s kind of like what Scott could have become if he’d gone down that path while also being on the verge of a full-on meltdown like Hank seems to be half the time. Both Darren and Scott also have eyes on Hope, but Darren’s lack of mortality and lust for power are what separate him from his rival.

Hope resents her father keeping things from her and stopping her from suiting up.

Hope and Hank have a strained relationship, to say the least; she resents her father for keeping the truth about what happened to her mother from her, and for picking Scott over her, however they come together when they realise how dangerously close Darren is to perfecting and weaponising the Ant-Man technology. Still, Hope is very abrasive to both Scott and her father, referring to him as “Hank” or “Dr. Pym” for much of the film and constantly annoyed at Scott’s ignorance. Familiar with both Darren’s research and personality, as well as the particulars of Hank’s technology, to say nothing of the company’s security measures and systems, Hope is also Scott’s physical superior in every way; she sees Scott as a bungling, naïve fool who’s in over his head and is greatly frustrated at her father’s apparent lack of trust in her. To be fair, Hank distrusts almost everyone; he resents both S.H.I.E.L.D. and the flamboyant nature of the Avengers, and sees this job as being more about subterfuge then barging in all guns blazing. Hank is also tortured at the loss of his wife, who joined him for his pint-sized adventures as the Wasp and was lost to him after she was forced to reduce herself down beyond the limits of the suit and got lost in the “Quantum Realm” as a result. Scott’s influence on the two is palpable; by sharing with Hope that Hank clearly loves her and doesn’t want to risk losing her, he not only learns the trick to communicating with Hank’s ants but also helps mend the rift between father and daughter, finally revealing the truth about her mother’s death and her father’s inability to cope with the grief of his greatest failure. Consequently, all three are forced to set aside their differences, and self-doubts, in order to redeem each other and keep Darren from potentially threatening the world for the next generation.

The Nitty-Gritty:
One thing that sets Ant-Man apart from other films in the MCU, particularly at the time it was made, was its strong emphasis towards humour; humour has always been a big part of the MCU, but Ant-Man is basically part-comedy and shines all the brighter for it. Paul Rudd impresses in the title role with his incredible screen charisma, likeability, and comedic timing and the film features not just the traditional snark and biting wit of the MCU but also some truly amusing gags relating to Baskin-Robbins (they always find out) and Titanic (Cameron, 1997), but also excellent use of sight gags and editing (the film consistently cuts away from the drama of Scott’s shrunken adventures to see him barely having an impact on the real world). Ant-Man also separates itself from other MCU movies by being as much a heist movie as it is a superhero affair; Scott and his crew undergo a great deal of preparation and planning before breaking into Hank’s house, which involves acquiring uniforms, cutting power lines, and communicating from a nondescript van. Once Scott is inside the house, we get to see just how capable and adaptable he is; he’s slick and agile, easily able to slip inside with barely a whisper, and cobbles together unique solutions to break into Hank’s antique vault using only household items. Whilst being trained in combat by Hope and the particulars to the suit by Hank, Scott lends his skills to planning the assault on Pym Technologies, which involves studying the layouts and the security systems and the defences surrounding the Yellowjacket suit. This requires a highly co-ordinated attack on all fronts, using every resource at their disposal, including not just Scott’s crew (much to Hank’s chagrin) and also an infiltrating into the Avengers compound. This leads to a brief scuffle between Ant-Man and Sam Wilson/The Falcon (Anthony Mackie) that is the first true test of Scott’s newfound abilities, and additional opportunities for Luis and Scott’s amusing cohorts to shine with their hilarious shenanigans.

The suits look fantastic thanks to both excellent practical and digital effects.

Ant-Man absolutely excels in its visuals and presentation. The Ant-Man suit itself is a thing a beauty; fittingly drawing its influences from Scott Lang’s comic book adventures and more modern interpretations of the character, it’s not a mechanised suit of armour or made up of fancy nanotech and wis, instead, a very tangible and almost rudimentary costume that resembles a motorcycle outfit. It looks advanced, but not so advanced that it’s impossible to believe a genius like Hank Pym could have made it at home and with limited resources, and I love how it seems so functional and practical. The helmet is especially impressive, especially in this first outing for the character; rather then peeling back like nanotech, it flips up and is a largely practical prop, all of which works wonders for bringing this frankly ridiculous character to life. Darren’s Yellowjacket outfit is functionally similar, but noticeably different; for starters, it was brought to life using digital effects but I sure as hell couldn’t really tell that when watching the film. Yellowjacket has always been a bit of an absurd character, costume, and concept for me but the film presents the character as very menacing and technologically superior to Ant-Man in everyway. While it’s admittedly very “safe” for the film to wheel out the dark doppelgänger trope again, Yellowjacket can not only shrink and grow himself and other objects but he can also fly and sports stinger-like blasters on his back; this, coupled with the characters’ distinctive red and yellow colour schemes, really makes it much easier to distinguish the two in their climatic fight scene.

Ant-Man’s unique ability to shrink makes for some fun and innovative action sequences and visuals.

Naturally, Ant-Man’s most unique selling point is the character’s ability to shrink down to a near-microscopic level; this effect is rendered using digital technology and directly attributed to the suit and the Pym Particles, meaning that Scott must stay in the suit and the helmet at all times to stay alive when shrunken. Although minuscule in size, Scott retains his full-size strength and weight, effectively making him superhuman when he’s shrunk. However, the dangers surrounding him are many and varied; normal, everyday things such as a person entering a room, rats, and water are life-threatening hazards and the effect is, quite naturally, very disorientating for Scott for much of the first half of the film. Thanks to a lengthy (and amusing) montage sequence, Scott slowly learns to master the suit, which enables him to shrunk and grow in a fraction of a second to pass through the smallest openings, strike with near-superhuman speed, strength, and swiftness, and enlarge or reduce everyday objects to be used as weapons in combat. As versatile as the suit is, perhaps the greatest benefit of the suit is the ability to control ants using electromagnetic waves. Hank is obviously the absolute master of this; he controls flying ants to spirit Scott across the city, commands “Bullet Ants” to keep him subdued, and even directs drones to communicate and pass sugar cubes. While Hank is very clinical about this ability, preferring to number the ants rather than name them and grow attached to them, Scott is much more appreciative of their help and bonds with them like one would a pet. He names his flying ant “Anthony” and is devastated when it is killed near the finale, but also learns through his training of the particular differences and practical applications of each of the different types of ants at his disposal: “Crazy Ants” can conduct electricity to fry electronics, Bullet Ants deliver an excruciating sting, “Carpenter Ants” allow him to fly about at high speeds, and “Fire Ants” not only bite but also form bridges and pathways. By the finale, Scott has fully mastered the suit and the ants, and is able to shrink and grow in the blink of an eye to dodge bullets and take down entire groups of highly trained, armed men, leading to some of the MCU’s most unique action sequences as everyday locations are rendered exciting and action-packed thanks to Scott’s diminutive stature.

Yellowjacket is defeated, Ant-Man returns from the Quantum Realm, and Hope finally earns her wings.

A particularly frosty confrontation between Hank and Darren sets Cross off and sees him beefing up security, leading to an escalation in Hank’s plans. Although he despairs of Scott’s friends, Hank begrudgingly accepts their help in causing distractions and infiltrating Pym Technology. While Ant-Man and his ants fry the servers and cause chaos to the security systems, Hank puts himself in considerable danger as Darren negotiates the selling of the Yellowjacket technology to Carson and his Hydra associates, and the two finally reveal their true faces as hated enemies. Although Hank is wounded in the fracas, the timely intervention of Hope allows Scott to escape when he’s captured; Hope’s pleas to Darren fall on deaf ears and, pushed to the edge by the destruction of his company, he dons the Yellowjacket suit for himself and fully embraces his hatred and lust for power. This leads to some fun and incredibly unique fight scenes as Ant-Man and Yellowjacket battle not just on a damaged helicopter but also in a suitcase, bouncing about between packets of sweets, keys, and a mobile phone, and Ant-Man bats Yellowjacket into a fly zapper with a table tennis pad. Darren’s knowledge of Scott’s identity leads to him targeting Cassie, escalating their conflict significantly and leading to my favourite fight sequence of the film where Ant-Man and Yellowjacket duke it out on a toy train set and across Cassie’s bedroom, leading not just to an enlarged ant being set loose upon the city but a gigantic Thomas the Tank Engine crashing out into the street! Yellowjacket’s titanium armour proves too tough for Ant-Man and, with his daughter at risk, Scott has no choice but to risk going sub-atomic in order to disrupt Darren’s suit and reduce him down into a twisted nothingness. Adrift in the Quantum Realm, Scott is disorientated and bombarded with bizarre visuals but holds on to his memories and love for Cassie and uses those emotions to force himself back to consciousness, repairing his regulator and returning to the real world. His heroic actions and self-sacrifice earn him not just his daughter’s adulation but Paxton’s respect, finally allowing him to be a part of Cassie’s life once more or for them to build a family unit. His return also gives Hank the hope that he might be able to retrieve his wife one day, and finally sees Scott and Hope act on their mutual attraction for each other. The film concludes with Luis (eventually) relating that the Falcon is actively seeking out Ant-Man for help with a much bigger problem that affects not just the superhero community, but the entire world, and Hank finally gifting Hope with her own Wasp suit for the next go-around.

The Summary:
I wasn’t expecting much when I went into Ant-Man; the MCU was growing and starting to veer away towards the cosmic and outlandish and it seemed like their days of doing more grounded, more human heroes were all but done but Ant-Man definitely set a precedent for diverse storytelling that the MCU continues to stick to. It’s amazing to me that even after expanding their scope towards Gods and the depths of space and hinting towards larger cosmic threats the MCU is still masterfully able to snap back to ground level with a character like Ant-Man, and Scott Lang was such a breath of fresh air for the franchise. Paul Rudd is so immediately likeable, and he brought a real comical, heartfelt performance to Scott Lang, and it’s largely thanks to him that I found myself actually caring about Ant-Man for the first time in…I think forever. The comedy and gags on offer were absolutely top notch, with Luis being an obvious highlight, but I also really enjoyed Michael Douglas’s performance; he played a world weary, cranky, slightly unstable former superhero-come-mentor perfectly and brought so much presence to every scene he was in. He, like all of the actors in this, also seemed to be having a great time with the film, which doesn’t take itself too seriously and perfectly incorporates elements of a heist movie to give it a unique flavour. While we see incredible cosmic visuals and escalating threats quite often in the MCU, Ant-Man’s shrinking sequences are still really impressive; I love how our senses are changed alongside Scott’s when he’s smaller and how everyday things we take for granted suddenly become a life-threatening obstacle for Ant-Man. It’s fun seeing Scott learn about the suit and what he can do, and seeing him bond with the different ants and work alongside his crew, and while I think Ant-Man probably would have been better placed in the MCU’s first phase, it was a much-needed palette-cleanser at the time and remains one of the most entertaining and unique entries in the MCU.

My Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Great Stuff

Did you enjoy Ant-Man? How did you think it compared to other films in the MCU? What did you think to the emphasis on comedy and heist elements and on Scott’s status as a struggling ex-con and father? Did you enjoy the film’s unique action sequences and shrinking effects? Were you disappointed that Yellowjacket ended up just being a dark mirror of Ant-Man or did you think Darren’s character stood out enough to justify it? Were you a fan of Ant-Man prior to this film and, if so, which iteration of the character was your favourite? Whatever you think about Ant-Man, sign up to drop a comment below or leave a comment on my social media, check back in next week as Sci-Fi Sunday continues.