There's a moment at the beginning of Iron Man 3, Marvel Studio's latest attempt at world domination, where Robert Downey Jr's Tony Stark is suffering from some major PTSD akin to an Iraqi war veteran or a child who survived corporal punishment in Catholic school. What is causing him sleepless nights and panic attacks? We're given some vague answers about "what happened in New York" and a "wormhole," but never, once, does anyone utter what really happened to the character since the last time we've seen him: The Avengers.
In that movie – which combined the comic-book-company-come-movie-studio's Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, and The Incredible Hulk, into one superteam – Tony Stark et al were faced with a bunch of aliens that flew in through a wormhole and attacked New York City. So even if viewers had seen the first two Iron Man movies, but not The Avengers, they would have no idea what the heck Tony Stark was whining about. Houston, we may have a problem here.
When it launched its "Avengers Initiative," Marvel took a revolutionary approach to movie making. The company wasn't creating a franchise that was a litany of unrelated blockbusters (think the never-ending James Bond films). It consciously made the choice to make interrelated movies that would build up to a bigger whole. The result was last summer's geek holiday The Avengers, the third highest-grossing movie of all time and the fastest to make it past the $1 billion mark at the box office.
This strategy makes sense for a comic book studio because the business model totally apes the way that Comic-Con denizens have interacted with these characters for decades. Nearly every one of the Avengers has his own comic book (sadly, there aren't many "hers") and they all get together in several different titles about the team as a whole. The roster is constantly changing and evolving as the mythology and the characters get more and more complex. So far, taking this approach to Hollywood seems to be working in Marvel's favor. At least for now.
"I think one of the most interesting things about Marvel's foray into making their own films is there is this shared universe that fans are excited about and there is nothing like that in movies before," says Sean Howe the author of Marvel Comics: The Untold Story. "I think it's really exciting to watch non-comic readers see what this huge fictional tapestry is." But what happens when viewers come late to that tapestry? They don't see a work of art, they see a bunch of jumbled pictures that don't seem to quite fit together or make sense on their own.
Non-comic readers aren't used to consuming their content in the same way as fans. The more complicated the interconnections between these movies get, the more difficult it is for new viewers to hop in and check out any old movie. "I'd be less likely to see a sequel if I knew that seeing the previous movies would drastically affect my enjoyment of the future movies," says Corey O'Connell, a 25-year-old, who lives in New York and hasn't seen any of Marvel's previous movies. "To me, a great adaptation appeals to both 'knowing' and 'unknowing' audiences who are both familiar and unfamiliar with the source material, and I'm turned off by the idea that I need to see previous films to enjoy a current one."
Most of the dozen Avengers virgins I talked to said that they would be unlikely to see any of the future movies (Iron Man 3 is just the kick off to Marvel's phase 2 which includes Thor and Captain America sequels as well as new movies for Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man, which culminates in Avengers 2 in 2015). Those who didn't care whether or not they had seen the previous movies were the ones who didn't seem to care about or connect to comic book fare in general.
"I don't think there's anything that could make me actually want to see a Marvel movie, honestly," says Amanda Dye, a 27-year-old grad student in New York. "If I for some reason did decide to go to see one, I probably wouldn't care too much about not having seen the previous movies."
But as the universe gets more and more complicated, the road to alienation could be pretty quick. "If I felt I had to see the previous movies – I don't know that I would see the current one simply due to time investment. If they could stand alone then I would be more interested," says Laura James, a 44-year-old corporate trainer from L.A.
Many uninitiated Marvelites had faith that the producers and directors of the studio's fare wouldn't create a movie that would be too complicated for anyone to just jump on in like watching one episode of Law & Order: SVU during a day-long marathon. "I imagine the directors/producers would make a movie anyone can just jump into," says Parker McGuire, a 25-year-old musician in Nashville (the city, not the ABC show). "[If they didn't], it'd be a major letdown. I would basically be my mom watching any TV show/movie having to ask a million questions to whoever I saw it with. Also, I feel like it'd be 'giving them what they want' if I paid money to rent or order the first movie after seeing the sequel, therefore I wouldn't."
Even Marvel expert Howe admits that, in the '90s, Marvel's comics got so convoluted that they became inaccessible to outsiders. "That's the trade off with such a rich narrative that just keeps going on and on, the trade off is that there is no simple way of summarizing that for new audiences," Howe says. If that were to happen to the movies, which have budgets as big as the Hulk's underwear, there's potential for the audience erosion, putting Marvel on a slow path to bankruptcy with no way to goose its numbers.
Is that the destiny of the movies, to get overly complicated? Some think it has already happened. Alex Erikson, a 25-year-old writer in New York admits to having fallen asleep during The Avengers. "I actually had seen all of the Iron Man movies at that point, and ended up seeing Captain America (which I enjoyed much more than The Avengers) after the fact. I hadn't seen the others, but was with some pretty devout nerds who had brought me up to speed as to the basic details I needed, or so I thought," he says, adding that the confusing nature of the plot was like taking an Ambien. "There was so much going on that wasn't explained, or you had to be super-familiar with the back stories to understand the nuance of, that I succumbed [and fell asleep]."
By doubling down on continuing this interconnected universe, Marvel doesn't seem to care that much about attracting new fans (but with such a huge hit on their hands, they hardly need more people to be interested in their offerings). Howe, for one, is excited to see where all this leads because he thinks that getting audiences familiar with characters will breed better storylines and more audience involvement in the outcome. These days studios will reboot a franchise faster than Lindsay Lohan will change rehab facilities, so seeing a property continue on for the better part of a decade is new and fertile ground. But even that has its pitfalls; RDJ is almost too long in the tooth to play Iron Man and even Chris Hemsworth might need to be recast for Thor 6 in 2027.
Howe also makes a very good point that audiences these days are more accustomed to catching up on pop culture to stay with the times. "There are a lot of people who watch Game of Thrones every week. For 10 years people have gotten really accostumed to going all in for TV shows and to ask people to watch five other movies to find out what's going on wouldn't be too demanding," he says.
Those who said that having to know all the movies would deter them from seeing Avengers 2 also said that there are other factors that might still lure them to the cineplex. In most instances they credited the writers and directors – like Joss Whedon and Kenneth Branagh, which Marvel already employs – as the big draw. "I make superhero exceptions for Batman because I grew up with the Tim Burton ones and I like Chris Nolan. So if Matthew Weiner [who created Mad Men] wanted to do a Superman with Jon Hamm I might check it out," says Abby Davis, a 28-year-old Manhattanite who works in high education.
Taking all these things into consideration, no matter how big the Marvel Universe gets on screen, there will still be plenty of fans who are dying to spend even more time with there favorite characters in a dark theater. And if having to know the backstory of 27 different super powered aliens keeps hordes away from the theater, there is one sure-fire way to get the uninitiated to buy a ticket. Everyone I polled said they'd go see a movie if their significant other asked. Guess there is one thing more powerful than Thor — or knowing what is going on in a damn action movie.
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It was the trickle of pee heard around the world. Cannes attendees were aghast and/or amused an infamous scene from The Paperboy that shows Nicole Kidman urinating on Zac Efron; this is apparently a great salve for jellyfish burns which were covering our Ken Doll-like protagonist. (In fact the term protagonist should be used very loosely for Efron's character Jack who is mostly acted upon than active throughout.)
Lurid! Sexy! Perverse! Trashy! Whether or not it's actually effective is overshadowed by all the hubbub that's attached itself to the movie for better or worse. In fact the movie is all of these things — but that's actually not a compliment. What could have become somethingmemorable is jaw-droppingly bad (when it's not hilarious). Director Lee Daniels uses a few different visual styles throughout from a stark black and white palette for a crime scene recreation at the beginning to a '70s porno aesthetic that oscillates between psychedelic and straight-up sweaty with an emphasis on Efron's tighty-whiteys. This only enhances the sloppiness of the script which uses lines like narrator/housekeeper/nanny Anita's (Macy Gray) "You ain't tired enough to be retired " to conjure up the down-home wisdom of the South. Despite Gray's musical talents she is not a good choice for a narrator or an actor for that matter. In a way — insofar as they're perhaps the only female characters given a chunk of screen time — her foil is Charlotte Bless Nicole Kidman's character. Anita is the mother figure who wears as we see in an early scene control-top pantyhose whereas Charlotte is all clam diggers and Barbie doll make-up. Or as Anita puts it "an oversexed Barbie doll."
The slapdash plot is that Jack's older brother Ward (Matthew McConaughey) comes back to town with his colleague Yardley (David Oyelowo) to investigate the case of a death row criminal named Hillary Van Wetter. Yardley is black and British which seems to confuse many of the people he meets in this backwoods town. Hillary (John Cusack) hidden under a mop of greasy black hair) is a slack-jawed yokel who could care less if he's going to be killed for a crime he might or might not have committed. He is way more interested in his bride-to-be Charlotte who has fallen in love with him through letters — this is her thing apparently writing letters and falling in love with inmates — and has rushed to help Ward and Yardley free her man. In the meantime we're subjected to at least one simulated sex scene that will haunt your dreams forever. Besides Hillary's shortcomings as a character that could rustle up any sort of empathy the case itself is so boring it begs the question why a respected journalist would be interested enough to pursue it.
The rest of the movie is filled with longing an attempt to place any the story in some sort of social context via class and race even more Zac Efron's underwear sexual violence alligator innards swamp people in comically ramshackle homes and a glimpse of one glistening McConaughey 'tock. Harmony Korine called and he wants his Gummo back.
It's probably tantalizing for this cast to take on "serious" "edgy" work by an Oscar-nominated director. Cusack ditched his boombox blasting "In Your Eyes" long ago and Efron's been trying to shed his squeaky clean image for so long that he finally dropped a condom on the red carpet for The Lorax so we'd know he's not smooth like a Ken doll despite how he was filmed by Daniels. On the other hand Nicole Kidman has been making interesting and varied career choices for years so it's confounding why she'd be interested in a one-dimensional character like Charlotte. McConaughey's on a roll and like the rest of the cast he's got plenty of interesting projects worth watching so this probably won't slow him down. Even Daniels is already shooting a new film The Butler as we can see from Oprah's dazzling Instagram feed. It's as if they all want to put The Paperboy behind them as soon as possible. It's hard to blame them.
In a post-Harry Potter Avatar and Lord of the Rings world the descriptors "sci-fi" and "fantasy" conjure up particular imagery and ideas. The Hunger Games abolishes those expectations rooting its alternate universe in a familiar reality filled with human characters tangible environments and terrifying consequences. Computer graphics are a rarity in writer/director Gary Ross' slow-burn thriller wisely setting aside effects and big action to focus on star Jennifer Lawrence's character's emotional struggle as she embarks on the unthinkable: a 24-person death match on display for the entire nation's viewing pleasure. The final product is a gut-wrenching mature young adult fiction adaptation diffused by occasional meandering but with enough unexpected choices to keep audiences on their toes.
Panem a reconfigured post-apocalyptic America is sectioned off into 12 unique districts and ruled under an iron thumb by the oppressive leaders of The Capitol. To keep the districts producing their specific resources and prevent them from rebelling The Capitol created The Hunger Games an annual competition pitting two 18-or-under "tributes" from each district in a battle to the death. During the ritual tribute "Reaping " teenage Katniss (Lawrence) watches as her 12-year-old sister Primrose is chosen for battle—and quickly jumps to her aid becoming the first District 12 citizen to volunteer for the games. Joined by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) a meek baker's son and the second tribute Effie the resident designer and Haymitch a former Hunger Games winner-turned-alcoholic-turned-mentor Katniss rides off to The Capitol to train and compete in the 74th Annual Hunger Games.
The greatest triumph of The Hunger Games is Ross' rich realization of the book's many worlds: District 12 is painted as a reminiscent Southern mining town haunting and vibrant; The Capitol is a utopian metropolis obsessed with design and flair; and The Hunger Games battleground is a sprawling forest peppered with Truman Show-esque additions that remind you it's all being controlled by overseers. The small-scale production value adds to the character-first approach and even when the story segues to larger arenas like a tickertape parade in The Capitol's grand Avenue of Tributes hall it's all about Katniss.
For fans the script hits every beat a nearly note-for-note interpretation of author Suzanne Collins' original novel—but those unfamiliar shouldn't worry about missing anything. Ross knows his way around a sharp screenplay (he's the writer of Big Pleasantville and Seabiscuit) and he's comfortable dropping us right into the action. His characters are equally as colorful as Panem Harrelson sticking out as the former tribute enlivened by the chance to coach winners. He's funny he's discreet he's shaded—a quality all the cast members share. As a director Ross employs a distinct often-grating perspective. His shaky cam style emphasizes the reality of the story but in fight scenarios—and even simple establishing shots of District 12's goings-on—the details are lost in motion blur.
But the dread of the scenario is enough to make Hunger Games an engrossing blockbuster. The lead-up to the actual competition is an uncomfortable and biting satire of reality television sports and everything that commands an audience in modern society. Katniss' brooding friend Gale tells her before she departs "What if nobody watched?" speculating that carnage might end if people could turn away. Unfortunately they can't—forcing Katniss and Peeta to become "stars" of the Hunger Games. The duo are pushed to gussy themselves up put on a show and play up their romance for better ratings. Lawrence channels her reserved Academy Award-nominated Winter's Bone character to inhabit Katniss' frustration with the system. She's great at hunting but she doesn't want to kill. She's compassionate and considerate but has no interest in bowing down to the system. She's a leader but she knows full well she's playing The Capitol's game. Even with 23 other contestants vying for the top spot—like American Idol with machetes complete with Ryan Seacrest stand-in Caesar Flickerman (the dazzling Stanley Tucci)—Katniss' greatest hurdle is internal. A brave move for a movie aimed at a young audience.
By the time the actual Games roll around (the movie clocks in at two and a half hours) there's a need to amp up the pace that never comes and The Hunger Games loses footing. Katniss' goal is to avoid the action hiding in trees and caves waiting patiently for the other tributes to off themselves—but the tactic isn't all that thrilling for those watching. Luckily Lawrence Hutcherson and the ensemble of young actors still deliver when they cross paths and particular beats pack all the punch an all-out deathwatch should. PG-13 be damned the film doesn't skimp on the bloodshed even when it comes to killing off children. The Hunger Games bites off a lot for the first film of a franchise and does so bravely and boldly. It may not make it to the end alive but it doesn't go down without a fight.
The first and most important thing you should know about Paramount Pictures’ Thor is that it’s not a laughably corny comic book adaptation. Though you might find it hokey to hear a bunch of muscled heroes talk like British royalty while walking around the American Southwest in LARP garb director Kenneth Branagh has condensed vast Marvel mythology to make an accessible straightforward fantasy epic. Like most films of its ilk I’ve got some issues with its internal logic aesthetic and dialogue but the flaws didn’t keep me from having fun with this extra dimensional adventure.
Taking notes from fellow Avenger Iron Man the story begins with an enthralling event that takes place in a remote desert but quickly jumps back in time to tell the prologue which introduces the audience to the shining kingdom of Asgard and its various champions. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) son of Odin is heir to the throne but is an arrogant overeager and ill-tempered rogue whose aggressive antics threaten a shaky truce between his people and the frost giants of Jotunheim one of the universe’s many realms. Odin (played with aristocratic boldness by Anthony Hopkins) enraged by his son’s blatant disregard of his orders to forgo an assault on their enemies after they attempt to reclaim a powerful artifact banishes the boy to a life among the mortals of Earth leaving Asgard defenseless against the treachery of Loki his mischievous “other son” who’s always felt inferior to Thor. Powerless and confused the disgraced Prince finds unlikely allies in a trio of scientists (Natalie Portman Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings) who help him reclaim his former glory and defend our world from total destruction.
Individually the make-up visual effects CGI production design and art direction are all wondrous to behold but when fused together to create larger-than-life set pieces and action sequences the collaborative result is often unharmonious. I’m not knocking the 3D presentation; unlike 2010’s genre counterpart Clash of the Titans the filmmakers had plenty of time to perfect the third dimension and there are only a few moments that make the decision to convert look like it was a bad one. It’s the unavoidable overload of visual trickery that’s to blame for the frost giants’ icy weaponized constructs and other hybrids of the production looking noticeably artificial. Though there’s some imagery to nitpick the same can’t be said of Thor’s thunderous sound design which is amped with enough wattage to power The Avengers’ headquarters for a century.
Chock full of nods to the comics the screenplay is both a strength and weakness for the film. The story is well sequenced giving the audience enough time between action scenes to grasp the characters motivations and the plot but there are tangential narrative threads that disrupt the focus of the film. Chief amongst them is the frost giants’ fore mentioned relic which is given lots of attention in the first act but has little effect on the outcome. In addition I felt that S.H.I.E.L.D. was nearly irrelevant this time around; other than introducing Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye the secret security faction just gets in the way of the movie’s momentum.
While most of the comedy crashes and burns there are a few laughs to be found in the film. Most come from star Hemsworth’s charismatic portrayal of the God of Thunder. He plays up the stranger-in-a-strange-land aspect of the story with his cavalier but charming attitude and by breaking all rules of diner etiquette in a particularly funny scene with the scientists whose respective roles as love interest (Portman) friendly father figure (Skarsgaard) and POV character (Dennings) are ripped right out of a screenwriters handbook.
Though he handles the humorous moments without a problem Hemsworth struggles with some of the more dramatic scenes in the movie; the result of over-acting and too much time spent on the Australian soap opera Home and Away. Luckily he’s surrounded by a stellar supporting cast that fills the void. Most impressive is Tom Hiddleston who gives a truly humanistic performance as the jealous Loki. His arc steeped in Shakespearean tragedy (like Thor’s) drums up genuine sympathy that one rarely has for a comic book movie villain.
My grievances with the technical aspects of the production aside Branagh has succeeded in further exploring the Marvel Universe with a film that works both as a standalone superhero flick and as the next chapter in the story of The Avengers. Thor is very much a comic book film and doesn’t hide from the reputation that its predecessors have given the sub-genre or the tropes that define it. Balanced pretty evenly between “serious” and “silly ” its scope is large enough to please fans well versed in the source material but its tone is light enough to make it a mainstream hit.