It can be downright fascinating to watch the ebb and flow of certain movie trends. These days, we can’t go a summer without two or three superhero films smashing into theaters; some franchises thriving while other properties seek to gain footing.
But for a long time, superheroes were largely absent from theater screens. A few piss poor made-for-TV film versions of some of the more recognizable Marvel characters were produced in the '70s, as well as Batman, Wonder Woman, and The Hulk getting their own TV series, but it wasn’t until Christopher Reeve starred as Superman in 1978 that the idea of the big budget studio superhero movie came into prominence; Batman having his day in the multiplex a decade later. But then, shortly after the abysmal Batman & Robin, the studio superhero movie faded into the night. It wasn’t until Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man that the trend was rejuvenated…with a vengeance.
With this latest surge of cinematic superhero appeal, droves of audiences are being awakened to the specifics — or sometimes even the existence — of characters that have existed in other media for decades. With the studio machine having gotten a firm grasp on the economic advantages of epic live-action superhero films, it’s as if we’ve reached a point where comic book heroes only exist to the general public if they’ve been embodied by movie stars in garish live-action blockbusters. We are but a little less than a week away from the release of Joss Whedon’s The Avengers, which I believe is the apex of this swing of the pendulum. The movie crams several larger-than-life heroes, most of whom have enjoyed their own major celluloid success story/stories, into one gargantuan live-action cinegasm.
Yet years before Marvel put us all on the road to The Avengers, with the release of Iron Man, they were exploring the iconic superhero unit in an animated feature called Ultimate Avengers: The Movie. This 2006 flick centers on Captain America, a super soldier who, while thwarting a Nazi/extraterrestrial plot in 1945, is frozen in an icy tomb for sixty or so years. When he is thawed out, he is tasked with leading a team of heroes, assembled by General Nick Fury of S.H.I.E.L.D, against that same, resurrected, alien threat. This film not only served as a prelude for what we are slated to see in Whedon’s carbon-based Avengers film, but provides evidence that superhero movies don’t have to feature in-the-flesh actors to pack a punch.
What makes this film so worth your time? For starters, you can put to rest any illusion that the movie (available currently on Netflix Watch Instantly) is for kids just because it happens to be animated. The intricate storytelling employed by Ultimate Avengers rivals that of most studio live-action hero epics. This is of course thanks to the fact that much of the film’s plot is based on the comic book series The Ultimates, which was also not necessarily written for really young children. I also like how they explore Dr. Banner’s ongoing tortured, Jekyll and Hyde relationship with his alter ego The Hulk, delving into his painful duality far better than Ang Lee’s Hulk. Ultimate Avengers also strikes a nice balance within its roster, giving each character equal screen time and spreading around the dramatic story points.
The action sequences in Ultimate Avengers are quite impressive. The opening sequence, in which Captain America leads the charge on a Nazi stronghold, is particularly thrilling, and surprisingly violent. One could make the argument that, though American soldiers are being shot and blow to smithereens by grenades, the lack of blood neuters the impact of this sequence. However, few theatrical live-action superhero flicks show blood and, as is often the case in those films, this scene is effective despite the absent gore. I also love the battle between the Hulk and the aliens, so kinetic and yet focused and visceral. These action sequences are aided in no small way by the film’s stellar animation, which is clean, starkly (no pun intended) detailed, and altogether masterful.
There are elements of Ultimate Avengers: The Movie that, based on the marketing we’ve seen so far, will be echoed in the upcoming live-action film. The conceit of Captain America being the original Avenger, a super solider frozen in time, has already been explored by Joe Johnston’s Captain America: The First Avenger and carries through to Whedon’s movie. The animated film also features an alien threat, which seems to be at least part of Loki’s assault on our dimension in The Avengers based on the trailers. Also, several screen-grabs and set pics from The Avengers suggest a couple of side plots dealing with in-fighting between the members of the team; something also explored in Ultimate Avengers.
One thing that Ultimate Avengers boasts that the new movie doesn’t appear to be able to match is the inclusion of Avenger members Wasp and Giant Man, so you may want to give the animated movie a spin if for no other reason than to acquaint yourself with characters who may turn up in future blockbuster Avengers films. Interesting sidenote: in the comics, Nick Fury was originally Caucasian, but was changed to an African-American man in the Ultimate comic run. The new Fury was specifically designed to resemble Samuel L. Jackson years before he showed up in that Iron Man post-credit sequence.
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Did Hollywood have anything to do with the emergence of the Occupy Wall Street movement? The whole thing seems a little bit convenient. Last month saw the behind-the-meltdown docudrama Margin Call and the sci-fi metaphor In Time. Now we have Tower Heist a comedy that pits the blue collar staff of the Trump Tower against a thieving Bernie Madoff-esque tenant. The movie's an Ocean's 11 for the 99% with a sense of timeliness that makes the simple plotting and wisecracking that much more effective.
Ben Stiller stars as Josh Kovacs overseer of all the goings-on at the Tower. He wakes up before dawn and heads home after sunset spending his day catering to the occupants of the ritzy apartment complex and managing his eclectic crew—including former Burger King cook Enrique (Michael Peña) Jamaican maid Odessa (Gabourey Sidibe) and his slacker brother-in-law Charlie (Casey Affleck). The crew's greatest concern is multi-billionaire Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda) the penthouse resident Tower board member and thanks to attention paid trusted friend of Josh.
Trusted...until the FBI busts Shaw for stealing millions including the Tower employees' pensions.
Like all good tower heists Josh's titular harebrained scheme is prompted by a drunken night out with lead investigator Claire (Téa Leoni) who tips the irked manager off to Shaw's hidden stash: a possible eight-figure sum hidden somewhere in his apartment. In pursuing the American dream of revenge Josh recruits his slighted co-workers along with distraught former-millionaire Fitzhugh (Matthew Broderick) and Josh's childhood friend-turned-thief Slide (Eddie Murphy). Together the motley crew concocts a plan to retrieve what's rightfully theirs—all while sinking Shaw in the process.
Tower Heist isn't as slick or intricate as the Ocean movies but its straightforward take on the crime genre is strengthened by Stiller Murphy and the rest of the cast's ability to inject ridiculous humor into sympathetic characters. When Josh realizes his decade spent commanding the operations of the Tower were for naught he wigs out marching up to the top floor to beat the crap out of Shaw's priceless convertible (it was owned by Steve McQueen in case you were wondering why anyone would keep an antique car on the top floor of a building). Not entirely realistic but relatable which sums up every over-the-top satisfying scenario these characters find themselves throughout the film.
Most importantly Tower Heist delivers on the funny. Playing the straight man is an art and Stiller's one of the masters (although you'd never know it from his Night at the Museum shtick or wackier roles like Zoolander) riffing off his co-stars while giving them ample time to be complete weirdos. The movie is being touted as a comeback for Murphy but he wisely steps into a supporting role delivering on his character's manic charm while never trying to steal the spotlight. The one who really steals the show is Broderick whose clueless neurotic Fitzhugh can't help relapsing mid-heist into memories of luxurious trips to Greece.
Credit goes to director Brett Ratner who cranked out three Rush Hour movies and an X-Men threequel while never really nailing down what it takes to make a group dynamic work. Here he pulls it off finding the right beats to make Tower Heist funny and thrilling. There are moments during the actual heist scene set during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade that cause quite a stir—a rarity in today's run-of-the-mill thrill rides.
Tower Heist is the definition of a cinematic softball avoiding risky choices and utilizing each actor to their previously known (and successful) traits without feeling lazy. As the holidays roll in and families look for something they all can enjoy Tower Heist delivers a little something for everyone. Except maybe Bernie Madoff.