REVIEW: “Iron Man 3”

IRON MAN 3 poster

Marvel Studies’ wildly successful 2012 film “The Avengers” confirmed several things. First, the amazing interconnected universe experiment that started all the way back in the first Iron Man film worked brilliantly. Another thing it did was establish Robert Downey Jr. and his Tony Stark character as the biggest draw of the group. Well now Downey Jr. returns for his third individual Iron Man flick in what’s sure to be another mammoth blockbuster hit. And while hordes of moviegoers and fanboys are sure to flock to it, can “Iron Man 3” continue to build on its already successful formula?

Let me say I loved “Iron Man” from 2008. And while its sequel “Iron Man 2” had its shortcomings, it was still a fun and entertaining entry into Marvel’s cinematic universe and a cool link into the Avengers project. I was really hoping that “Iron Man 3” would more closely resemble the franchise’s first film – a movie that I still think is one of the best superhero films period. But for me it more closely resembled the second picture, perhaps better but only slightly.

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Gwyneth Paltrow in “Iron Man 3”

This is the first Marvel Studios film since “The Avengers” and we do get a few cool references to what took place in New York City. But by and large this is a separate story focused on Tony Stark more so than his metal man persona. The movie starts with a flashback to 1999 where Tony (Downey Jr.) and his best friend Happy (Jon Favreau) are partying it up at a science conference in Switzerland on New Years Eve. Tony, ever the womanizer back in the day, hooks up with a brilliant botanist named Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall). At the party Tony pompously brushes off the wormy Aldrich Killian (Guy Pierce) who approaches Stark with an invitation to join his think tank Advanced Idea Mechanics (comic fans will most certainly recognize A.I.M.). This brief prologue introduces the beautiful Maya and the scorned Killian into the movie’s landscape.

From there the film moves to present day where Tony has found himself a nervous wreck since the alien invasion of New York City (ala “The Avengers”). Battling panic attacks and insomnia, he finds refuge in building Iron Man suits. Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow), the cure to Tony’s past life of excess and carousing, begins to feel the effects of Tony’s emotional state. Aside from his personal troubles a Bin Laden-esque terrorist named The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) has claimed responsibility for a series of deadly bombings. When Happy is seriously injured in one of those attacks an infuriated Tony calls The Mandarin out publicly. What follows leaves Tony alone, armorless, and presumed dead with only his brains, wits, and deductive skills to find The Mandarin and stop him.

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Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark

Shane Black directs and co-writes the story that tosses a lot at the audience. Killian pops back into picture in a much better physical condition than when we first see him. We also see Maya again and even though its a pretty small role she holds some rather important bits of information. Don Cheadle gets plenty of screen time as “Rhodey” who dons the more politically sensitive Iron Patriot armor. But everything comes back to Tony Stark and the movie really focuses on the man outside of the Iron Man suit. To some degree I enjoyed that and many have responded to the movie because it tries to look more at the man than the superhero. He’s forced to resort more to his inventive ingenuity much like in the early scenes of the first film.

But if I’m honest I have to say that I don’t know if that’s what I want from an Iron Man superhero movie. Don’t misunderstand me, I love the idea of giving the character some depth. The first film did that well. But considering how much time is spent with Tony outside of the armor, I didn’t feel his character was expanded that much. Downey Jr. certainly gives us another solid performance and I love him in this role. And while the more desperate tone did lessen the number of quick quips and smart-alecky jests, he still pulls in some good laughs especially when partnering with a precocious young boy (Ty Simpkins) who otherwise serves no other purpose than to play his cliched temporary sidekick.

The film does have strong moments and it delivers some pretty hefty payoffs. The tension surrounding The Mandarin really works for most of the movie and there are some big time action sequences that visually blew my socks off. I also loved the work of Guy Pearce in a performance that he himself viewed as “experimental” in a sense. Rebecca Hall was also very good and she had me craving more screen time for her. In fact, the entire cast gives us some really good performances and even when the dialogue occasionally trips over itself they still impress.

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Ben Kingsley as The Mandarin

But I keep coming back to one thing, something stemming from a conscious choice of Shane Black. I wanted to see more of Iron Man in his armor and while the buddy cop elements with Rhodey and the super sleuth angle in small town Tennessee didn’t equal bad cinema, it did leave me anxious for a superhero film that I’m not sure ever came. I don’t want to leave the impression that we never see the armor, but even then many of those moments aren’t Tony Stark at all (I’ll leave it at that). Even with the number of wild explosions and hair-raising action scenes which I thoroughly enjoyed, the movie still didn’t feel quite like the second phase of Marvel’s movie universe.

And I can’t help myself, I have to mention another thing. This film takes Tony Stark and his Iron Man story far away from its comic book source material, farther than either of the other films. For many this is a non-issue, but for a fanboy who sees the original material as better, well let’s just say it’s a shame. And it’s not just the Tony Stark character who is altered. There’s a huge reveal in the second half of the film that obliterates a major part of Iron Man’s history. It’s pushed by some pretty lame attempts at comedy and it drains the film of one of its strongest story angles. Frankly, it didn’t work for me. Black and co-writer Drew Pearce’s choice for a twist combined with several plot holes and the typical maniacal world domination story was a surprising letdown.

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Yes, that’s Pepper Potts

I’m still conflicted about “Iron Man 3” and it’s a film I think I need to rewatch before I can truly cement my overall rating. But I don’t want my gripes to overshadow the fact that I had a lot of fun with the movie. The performances are wonderful and I’m surprised to say that they are what kept me enthralled more so than the action or drama. But the action sequences are for the most part outstanding. There are a few cheesy effects but there are also some of the most jaw-dropping visual sequences yet to come out of Marvel Studios.

So is this just a case of enormous expectations or was I expecting a different movie altogether? Well, a little of both I think. In the end “Iron Man 3” does deliver but it’s certainly not the ‘blow you away’ flick both the fanboy and superhero fan in me was hoping for. Black had a decent vision for this film and he certainly had a wonderful cast. But his overall story direction is lacking and his shredding of key source material took away from what he did right. I’m afraid that’s what is keeping me from fully embracing this movie. It’s certainly a fun time, but in a way it was a little disappointing.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

THE SHOWDOWN : “The Avengers” vs “The Dark Knight Rises”

Without a doubt the two biggest movies of the year in terms of box office results and expectations has been Disney/Marvel’s “The Avengers” and Warner Bros./DC Comics’ “The Dark Knight Rises”. Both films were two of the most highly anticipated and heavily promoted pictures leading up to their releases. Now both have hit the theaters, made millions of dollars, and have been talked about by critics, geeks, and movie fans from around the globe. But which is the better movie? I thought it would be fun to put the two side-by-side and see who comes out on top. They’ll face off in several categories and we will see who’s standing in the end.

SPECIAL EFFECTS

When judging the special effects, it’s hard to come up with a fair and conclusive winner. Both movies approach their action sequences in significantly different ways. “The Avengers” uses a lot more CGI and much of director Joss Whedon’s vision is dependant on it. What’s truly amazing is that the movie really pulls it off. The massive CGI set pieces are sights to behold and this is easily the best looking Hulk yet to hit the big screen. Director Christopher Nolan chose a more traditional approach to special effects and they are perfect for the movie he was making. While he did use CGI, he relied much more on intense stunt sequences and traditional set designs. Explosions, flipping cars, and large-scale battles make up the thrust of the action. So judging the two by the same standard is impossible. Therefore I’ll just go by the impressive scope of the vision that’s brought to life on-screen through the effects. WINNER – “The Avengers”

SCORE

Both films have booming, energetic scores but take two very different approaches. I’m a huge fan of Alan Silvestri and he certainly delivers a solid score in “The Avengers”. It works nicely alongside of the action sequences and it’s never overdone or out-of-place. But perhaps the one negative is that I don’t remember one detail about it. Scores that have really resonated with me have also stuck with me. Hans Zimmer’s powerful score in “The Dark Knight Rises” stuck with me on several occasions. His score is ever-present and some have had problems with that. But I found it gives a cinematic pop to so many of the action sequences and in other instances really builds the intensity. His use of familiar tunes from the earlier films are perfectly used and at times had me wanting to pump my fist. Nolan may overuse the score some, but for me it really made an impression. WINNER – “The Dark Knight Rises”

ACTING

One thing both movies were blessed with were remarkable casts. The fantastic collection of actors and actresses give both movies huge dramatic lifts and when combined provide one impressive list of talent. “The Avengers” is led by Robert Downey, Jr.’s razor-sharp, wise-cracking performance that only he could deliver. The movie also introduces Mark Ruffalo who undeniably gives us the best Bruce Banner yet and Jeremy Renner who is wonderful but underused. And then throw in Tom Hiddleston and his Oscar worthy performance as Loki. But while “The Avengers” has a great cast, “The Dark Knight Rises” is a much heavier and more dramatic picture which gives it’s equally phenomenal cast a broader range of material to work with. Christian Bale gives his best performance of the entire series. Gary Oldman is simply perfect as Gordon. Anne Hathaway makes her series debut and really surprises. Tom Hardy is wonderfully brutal. And of course there’s Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Marion Cotillard, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. They’re given much more to do and they each shine. WINNER – “The Dark Knight Rises”

VILLAIN

Both movies have fantastic villains but also very different villains. “The Avengers” finds the heroes up against the mischievious meddler Loki. While he’s not that intimidating in stature, Loki manages all sorts of chaos through manipulation and trickery. But what really makes Loki so impressive is Tom Hiddleston. Without a doubt he is having a blast with the character and he carries over his great work in “Thor”. He makes Loki a viable threat and an incredibly fun villain to watch.

In “The Dark Knight Rises”, Bane is an entirely different creation. Tom Hardy stars as the intelligent but psychotic brute who intimidates more through violence and force than mischief. Bane is a vicious presence and he’s stands out in every scene he’s in. Hardy’s physicality helps give the fight scenes a gritty realism and his swagger shows his fearlessness. From the first scene he’s in, you know that Bane is a villain not to be messed with. So both movies feature villains that are very different yet equally menacing and ultimately engaging. WINNER – DRAW

STORY/WRITING

Both movies feature some outstanding writing. “The Avengers” is faced with the task of taking a handful of earlier films and bringing them and their characters together in a good, cohesive way. It’s a daunting task and Joss Whedon makes it work. He makes “The Avengers” a climax movie that all of the individual superhero pictures were building up to. He also manages his large cast wonderfully. Another strong point with Whedon is the fantastic injection of humor throughout the picture. There are some truly laugh-out-loud moments and Whedon is respectful of the material but never takes it too seriously. It’s really well done.

On the other hand, Christopher Nolan is an incredible storyteller with his own unique visual presentation. His movies are generally more complex and layered and often times he challenges his audience. “The Dark Knight Rises” is no different. The story twists and turns and Nolan injects it with just the right amount of action and intensity. He also does a fine job of connecting it with the previous film as well as wrapping up his trilogy with a near perfect ending. Nolan doesn’t dumb things down and gives us a glorious and rousing ending to what is arguably one of the greatest trilogies in film history. WINNER – “The Dark Knight Rises”

AMBITION

With “The Dark Knight Rises”, Christopher Nolan finishes his spectacular vision of Batman and his universe. It’s most certainly an ambitious film. Nolan introduces new characters, connects us to the previous film, gives us an evil and brutal new villain, tells another deep and satisfying story, and wraps the entire series up, all in one film. It’s quite a vision. For Joss Whedon the task was quite possibly tougher and more ambitious. As mentioned above, Marvel had created several individual superhero franchises and each pointed to the Avengers project. “The Avengers” movie was a culmination of all of those movies and characters and Whedon had to bring it all together – a tricky job. A movie that ambitious had so many things that could have gone wrong but instead we were given one of the best times at the theaters this year. WINNER – “The Avengers”

DIRECTION

Both Joss Whedon and Christopher Nolan had the advantage of directing material that they were instrumental in creating. As writers, they had strong and distinct visions for their movies which carried over into their direction. Whedon wonderfully visualizes his wild superhero world, creates some astonishing action sequences, and nicely utilizes his great cast. Whedon draws everything together with an almost seamless result. Nolan is also a visual storyteller and his style is evident from the opening scene. Again, he is directing much weightier and more layered material and his ability to translate it on-screen so vividly is a testament to his rock solid direction. While “The Avengers” is sharply directed and a huge accomplishment, “The Dark Knight Rises” does go down more challenging roads, features a more hands-on approach to its action, and requires a more complex use of its characters. Nolan’s direction is spot-on. WINNER – “The Dark Knight Rises”

CONCLUSION

Both movies are exceptional examples of why the superhero genre is a legitimate form of cinematic entertainment. These are movies that aren’t just seeking box office numbers and millions of dollars. These are two strong movies with great storytelling, amazing special effects, phenomenal casts, and writers/directors that not only care for their projects, but put a great deal into making them the best movies they can be. But out of the two, “The Dark Knight Rises”…well…rises to the top. The deeper more layered story, the extremely high stakes, the more realistic grounding, and the wonderful way it wraps up Christopher Nolan’s Batman vision give it the edge over Joss Whedon’s fine film. Both films met some really high expectations, but for me “The Dark Knight Rises” was a better film that I will still be talking about for a long time.

THE OVERALL WINNER

REVIEW: “The Amazing Spider-Man”

It was 2007 when we last saw Spider-Man on the big screen in the underwhelming and over-blown “Spider-Man 3”. While nowhere near as good as the first two films, “Spider-Man 3” still earned close to $900 million at the box office. In light of that, plans for “Spider-Man 4” immediately took off. But the movie had several problems including creative differences between director Sam Raimi and Sony Pictures which resulted in his departure from the project. The decision was made to scrap “Spider-Man 4” and instead opt for a complete reboot of the popular Marvel Comics franchise. That meant good-bye to Tobey Maguire and hello to Andrew Garfield.

So that brings us to “The Amazing Spider-Man”. Marc Webb takes over the directing duties with James Vanderbilt handling the writing. Vanderbilt goes heavy into the origin of Spider-Man, this time with some new twists but also with the same basic premise. The film starts with Peter Parker’s (Garfield) parents being spooked after their home study is ransacked. In the study, Peter’s father retrieves some secret documents from their hiding place – obviously what the intruders were searching for – then along with Peter’s mother drops Peter off with his Aunt May (Sally Field) and Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) before hurriedly leaving.

We then skip ahead several years. Peter is the quiet, nerdy teen interested in science, photography, and a beautiful fellow student named Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone). Peter finds out that his father had ties to Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), an accomplished scientist working for Oscorp. Connors lost his right arm some time ago and thinks he’s found a solution to his handicap through his cross-species regeneration experiments. After slipping into Connors’ Oscorp lab, Peter begins snooping around and comes across an experiment involving – what else – genetically altered spiders. You know the story – he’s bit which leads to new powers and new responsibilities. Meanwhile events unfold that cause Connors to prematurely try out his regeneration formula on himself and, as I’m sure you guessed, it goes terribly wrong. It transforms him into a super strong, destructive, reptilian creature and Peter, now known as Spider-Man, is the only one who can stop him.

As I mentioned above, the movie spends a lot of time retelling the origin of Spider-Man. It’s certainly not a carbon copy of Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man picture, in fact it seems to go to great lengths to distant itself from the original three movies. Several key parts of the origin differ greatly not only from the previous films but from the comic book source material as well. But originality isn’t a bad thing as long as the source material is respected and it certainly is here. But the film’s biggest problem is also tied into the decision to go heavy into the origin. While it is well written and stands strong on its own, I never could get over the feeling that it was just too soon for a reboot. Even with the fresh approach it still felt too familiar and at about the 1 hour 15 minute mark I was really ready for the story to move on.

But there are some things that “The Amazing Spider-Man” does better than the previous films. On thing is the relationship between Peter and Gwen. I really responded to their complicated romance and it felt more genuine and real than the Peter/Mary Jane relationship in the first movies ever did. Here it felt authentic and I bought into their emotions and affections. I also think more attention was given to fleshing it out whereas Peter and M.J. from the first films were built around a very simple blueprint and they stuck closely to it.

I also think Andrew Garfield was fantastic and his performance was head and shoulders above Tobey Maguire’s. He played the nerdy, reserved introvert very well and even after he gains his powers, Garfield never overplays his character. He throws out just enough witty banter with the criminals he’s putting away and I never doubted the genuineness of his scenes that required more raw emotion. A lot of that is due to Garfield but a lot is also due to how well Vanderbilt handles the character in his writing. I was also a big fan of Emma Stone’s performance. She’s grounded and believable and she sells her character very well. Sally Field and Martin Sheen are serviceable as Aunt May and Uncle Ben and Denis Leary makes for a pretty decent Captain Stacy, Gwen’s father. But the real stars are Garfield and Stone.

The special effects are quite good particularly during the huge, action-packed finale. The spider-influenced fight choreography is a lot of fun and there are several cool tricks used to give Spider-Man’s New York City swinging a different look than in the previous movies. As far as the Lizard goes, he’s a little of a mixed bag. There are times, especially during the fight sequences, when he looks very good. I also remember a specific scene where the Lizard looks awesome as he was walking around in a ripped Connors lab coat. But there are also a few scenes where the CGI was very noticeable and regardless of the attempts at motion capture, it still looked a little unrealistic. But as a whole the visuals are very good. They’re not overused and for the most part they capture exactly what you would want from a Spider-Man picture.

“The Amazing Spider-Man” can’t quite escape the fact that it just feels too soon to be offering up a rebooted Spider-Man series. In light of that, the first half of the film can drag and it seems a little wasted. The movie definitely creates its own unique beginning but the thrust of the origin is nothing all that new. That aside, Garfield is a big improvement as Spider-Man and his character is one I can really invest in. Now with the origin out of the way, I’m anxious to see where the series goes next. If they’re able to keep their components in place and avoid the trappings of “Spider-Man 3”, we could be in for a real treat.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

Review: “The Avengers”

Marvel Studio’s “The Avengers” is the culmination of what may be the most ambitious project in film history. For those movie fans who have been living in a cave for the past several years, Marvel has been releasing several individual superhero movies that have all set the table for this huge event film. Two “Iron Man” pictures, “Captain America”, “Thor”, and “The Incredible Hulk” have all been linked together through brief reoccuring cameos and hidden after-credits scenes that refer to something called “The Avengers Initiative”. As any comic book geek could tell you, that’s a reference to the Marvel superhero team that first debuted in comics in 1963. On the surface, the idea for an Avengers film that’s directly tied into other individual superhero movies sounds great. On the flip side, even though the other films have been good, there are still plenty of areas where “The Avengers” could go off track. Well as a movie and comic book fan, I’m happy to say that “The Avengers” not only meets the challenges of it’s vision, but it’s an action packed adrenaline rush that offers some of the most fun I’ve had at the theater this year.

To handle this rather large undertaking, Marvel placed the project in the hands of Joss Whedon. Whedon was a good choice mainly due to his variety of experience. He’s found success in television, film, and comic books and he uses his knowledge of each combined with Disney’s deep pockets to create a movie that would appeal to the fanboy and the casual moviegoer alike. One thing that helps Whedon is that the film doesn’t require your traditional origin story. While we do see the generation of the team, we know all of the characters from the previous Marvel movies so Whedon is able to dive right into the story. That being said, don’t mistake this for a deep, engaging story that will challenge the audience. But I’ll also say that anyone going into “The Avengers” for that has already missed the point.

Throughout the other Marvel films, particularly “Captain America”, we learned about a cosmic energy source known as the cosmic cube. In “The Avengers”, S.H.E.I.L.D. head honcho Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) has a team of scientists led by physicist Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) trying to harness the power of the cube, now known as the Tesseract. But suddenly the cube activates and opens a portal allowing the evil Loki (Tom Hiddleston) to entire the facility and steal it. Knowing the immense threat associated with the Tesseract being in the wrong hands, Fury activates the Avengers Initiative. But getting such a diverse group of superheroes to cooperate and coexist proves to be a lot harder than expected.

Fury starts by contacting Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). He sends her to India to find Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) while sending Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) to Stark Tower to speak to Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.). While the two are gone, he approaches Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and sends him on a mission to retrieve the Tesseract. Upon hearing of Loki’s involvement, the thunder god Thor (Chris Hemsworth) also entires the mix as does the marksman and assassin known as Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). Each of the heroes have their own baggage and their own personalities which often times clash to the point of dysfunction. But their disagreements give us some of the movie’s cooler and often times funnier moments. As you would expect the situation worsens and it’s up to the team to pull together or the world will be taken over starting with New York City.

It’s a pretty cut-and-dry story but it really works because Whedon understand his characters and he knows what kind of movie he’s trying to make. His familiarity with the Marvel comic book universe is clearly seen throughout the picture but nowhere more than in his treatment of the characters. As a comic book fan, I was really impressed with how they all felt right and it’s clear that the source material played a big role in shaping the on-screen versions. But Whedon never falls into the trap of taking things too seriously. The movie is filled with laugh out loud funny moments that are cleverly used and they never feel cheap or forced. They mix perfectly with the razor-sharp dialogue and the jaw-dropping action sequences. But the fantastic action and special effects shouldn’t surprise anyone. Afterall, “The Avengers” is a superhero action picture and Whedon knows it. The action comes at a furious pace and I can see where some may view it as relentless. Personally, I was completely wrapped up in it. The movie sells the superhero action through some of the most spectacular visuals and editing that you’ll see. I was blown away.

I can’t write a review of “The Avengers” without mentioning the incredible cast. One of the reasons the Marvel films and particularly “The Avengers” works so well is because of the amazing casting. Everyone is invested in their character and not one single performer phones it in. Downey, Jr. continues to be the perfect Tony Stark mainly due to his natural ability to use sarcasm and fire off funny quips without hesitation. Chris Evans, known more for his goofier roles,  is also quite good as the serious and straight-laced Captain America. I also really liked Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner. He’s the third actor to take on the role and he nails it. Much like Downey, Jr., Hemsworth is the perfect Thor and he shares some of the film’s best scenes with Hulk. Renner and Johannson also handle their roles very well. But I have to give special time to the wonderful Tom Hiddleston. He’s a remarkably diverse actor and he shows it here. His Loki is mysterious, mischievous, and evil and Hiddleston slithers through his scenes stealing many of them. There are also nice smaller performances from Gregg, Gwyneth Paltrow and Cobie Smulders that are just icing on the cake.

I can see where some people may not respond as positively as I did to “The Avengers”. The action is pretty much start-to-finish and if you’re not interested in the characters you’ll have a hard time embracing the story. There are also a few shortcuts taken with the story for the sake of convenience that could have been done a little better. For me, I have a connection to these characters through all my years of comic book reading and this film exceeded my expectations. But being a comic reader isn’t a prerequisite for enjoying this movie. If you’ve liked what Marvel has put out leading to it, you’re going to love “The Avengers”. Sure, it’s a loud, energetic summer popcorn flick, but it’s also a really good one. It’s honest and it never tries to be something it’s not. Featuring one of the better ensemble casts and some top-notch directing from Joss Whedon, “The Avengers” is a big budget blockbuster that actually deserves all the money it’s going to rake it. When’s the next showing? I’m ready to see it again.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

COMIC BOOKS 101 – WHO ARE THE AVENGERS? PART 2

“The Avengers” movie event is upon us and we’ve been celebrating it all week on Keith & the Movies. Yesterday we looked at the comic book backgrounds of Captain America, Iron Man, and Hulk. Our intent was to give moviegoers who may not be familiar with the source material a look at the comic book histories that make these kinds of movies great. Let’s take a look at three more heroes you can expect to see on the big screen this Friday.

THOR

Thor, also known as the god of thunder, is the son of King Odin the All-Father. Thor was raised by Odin and his wife Frigga in the mystical city of Asgard. Thor would later learn that his true birth mother was an Earth goddess named Jord. Thor grew up alongside Loki, Odin’s adopted son. Loki, the god of mischief, was always jealous of Thor and his close relationship to Odin. Loki always desired his father’s throne and viewed Thor as a threat. He also was jealous that Odin had created the enchanted hammer Mjolnir to be used only by Thor. His jealousy eventually grew into hate which caused a great deal of animosity between the two that continues to this day.

Over time Thor become the mightiest warrior in all of Asgard. He defended the city and battled all sorts of threats including the Frost Giants. He also developed a close relationship and romance with a goddess named Sif. Their relationship had it’s share of ups and downs and they were an on-again off-again item. All of the accolades eventually went to Thor’s head. He became arrogant and prideful and Odin believed he heeded a harsh lesson in humility. Odin stripped him of Mjolnir and banished him to earth. He forced him to take the form of a handicapped doctor named Donald Blake. Blake had no memory of his Asgardian alter-ego. But after a long period of time, Odin soon put things in motion that would cause the memory of his identity as the thunder god to reemerge. Thor’s time as Donald Blake was instrumental in developing his love for the planet Earth. He also fell in love with a nurse named Jane Foster. Odin was infuriated that Thor would care so much for a mere mortal. Much like his romances with Sif at Asgard, Thor’s relationship with Jane met many complications often times due to Odin’s meddling.

Thor’s story is one of the more complex ones in the Marvel Universe. His troubles on Earth as well as Asgard often times overlapped. He found himself both ruler of and exiled from both Earth and Asgard. At one point he sought to merge Earth with Asgard and cause humanity to worship the Asgardians as their gods. Asgard was brought to Earth eventually settling near a small rural town in Oklahoma. His actions eventually led to tension between him and the rest of the Avengers. After a series of conflicts Thor soon found himself back in the good graces of Earth and was fighting alongside his Avengers friends against threats from Dr. Doom, Loki, and more. Perhaps the biggest threat was from Norman Osbourne’s Dark Avengers. Osbourne ordered Sentry, who was possessed by the evil Void, to level Asgard. During the siege on Asgard, Sentry was accomplishing his mission until Loki sacrificed himself by magically empowering the heroes to repel the Void. The Void killed Loki after seeing that he was responsible for the heroes heightened powers. An enraged Thor struck the Void with a massive lightning blast killing him and also the helpless Sentry.

Loki has since been reborn, Asgard has been rebuilt, and Odin has been brought back to life. Such are the storylines you can expect from Thor. More father and son trouble followed in the recent “Fear Itself” storyline and currently Thor is back with The Avengers to face off against the X-Men in the current series “Avengers vs X-Men”. Thor’s history is almost impossible to cover in such a small space. He’ll continue to have father issues with Odin and trust issues with Loki. He has a great assortment of side characters such as Sif, Balder, Heimdall, Volstagg, and more. He also is a very complex individual which guarantees that his story will see it’s fair share of bumps in the road.

HAWKEYE

Clint Barton was orphaned after his parents were killed in a car accident. He spent several years in a children’s home but eventually ran away and joined a traveling circus. He worked around the circus but also developed incredible skills in archery thanks to some intense training from Swordsman. After leaving the circus his life still didn’t have much direction. After witnessing Iron Man fighting crime, he decided he would use his archery skills to become a costumed hero. But his first night out didn’t end well and he was mistaken for a thief. While on the run he encounters a beautiful Soviet spy known as Black Widow. Barton blindly follows her and helps in several criminal acts which puts them at odds with Iron Man.

Hawkeye decides that criminal life isn’t for him and he goes to the Avengers wanting to prove himself to be a force for good. He was accepted as a member of the team and was an Avenger for many years. Hawkeye wasn’t always the easiest to get along with. He could at times be a hot head and he’s very outspoken. His attraction to fellow Avenger Scarlett Witch caused problems with her brother Quicksilver. He also found himself at odds with Captain America by constantly questioning his decisions and leadership. But the two were an amazing force in the field and over time they developed a close, close friendship. But Hawkeye soon found himself in trouble again due to his affections for Scarlett Witch. It led to some serious issues with Vision and soon he left the team.

Hawkeye would come back to the Avengers several times. But he also spent a lot of time away trying to develop a solo career. It was during one of these leaves that he met and eventually married Mockingbird. After returning to the Avengers yet again, he was assigned the job of creating a second Avengers team based in Los Angeles. He and Mockingbird established the West Coast Avengers and fought evil for several years. But it was also there where his relationship with Mockingbird deteriorated. They eventually divorced but soon reconciled until she was killed saving Clint from Mephisto. He also spends time leading the Thunderbolts, a group of sketchy ex-criminals. Clint was sympathetic to the group mainly due to his own checkered past. He trains them and establishes them as a legitimate crime fighting team. After joining the Avengers yet again Clint is killed during Scarlett Witch’s reality altering breakdown (The House of M storyline).

Once reality is put back in place, Clint is reborn. He is asked to join The New Avengers and he assumes the identity of Ronin. He played a big role in the war against Norman Osbourne and his Dark Avengers. He also was reunited with Mockingbird who was alive and had been held captive by Skrulls for years. He eventually goes back to his Hawkeye identity and was a member of several different incarnations of Avengers. He played a key part during the siege in Asgard, teamed up with Black Widow again, and almost lost his sight. He continues to be an Avenger today and also serves as a teacher at The Avengers Academy. Hawkeye is a great character. He’s a fireball who doesn’t mind sharing his mind and even though he’s considered a lower level hero, I’ve always loved him.

“BLACK WIDOW”

Natasha Rominoff’s parents were killed in a fire when she was just a little girl. She was rescued and raised by a man named Ivan Petrovitch. Revisions to her history add that she also in the “Black Widow Ops” program as a child. Throughout her childhood she received training in espionage, martial arts, and weaponry. She was groomed to be a top-notch spy. She was also given scientific enhancements which explain her long life and amazing agility. Her first mission to the United States put her at odds with Tony Stark. The two face-off several times as she tries to ruin Stark Industries. She runs into a young Hawkeye and manipulates him to help her fight Iron Man. Iron Man prevails and she soon heads back to the Soviet Union.

After some failed attempts, Natasha finally defects from Russia to the United States and spends a brief time working with the Avengers. During this time she forms a close bond with Nick Fury from S.H.E.I.L.D. and does several independent missions for him. Her involvement with S.H.E.I.L.D. forced her to decline membership to the Avengers once it was offered. She also had a fling with Daredevil and spends time fighting crime with him. Black Widow fought against and was captured by HYDRA only to be rescued by Spider-Man and she was poisoned to the point of near death by The Hand. Her relationship with Daredevil fell apart and she decided she was better fit to work alone.

She carried out several freelance missions for several years before she was asked to join Iron Man’s task force during the Civil War. As the Civil War ended, she fell in love with Bucky Barnes who was serving as Captain America after the murder of Steve Rogers. She helped him through his personal struggles with his past sins as The Winter Soldier and helped him cope with the death of his life long friend. She also continued to do undercover work for Nick Fury including infiltrating Norman Osbourne’s  Thunderbolts. As the Avengers splintered off into several groups, Black Widow was asked to join Captain America’s black-ops Secret Avengers team. She was an intricate part in several key undercover missions.

Black Widow has always had a mysterious side to her. He early spy work made it hard for the other superheroes and the United States government to trust her. But over time she became an important player on many missions against many villains. She has never been a top-tier Marvel Comics character but she’s always been intriguing. Over the past several years she has obtained a more prominent role in the Marvel Universe and the movies are taking advantage of it.

There you have it, a crash course on the Avengers and their comic book history. As I mentioned, this only scratches the surfaces of what is a long history for each of these characters. Hopefully the upcoming movie will take these great characters and present us with one amazing film.

“THOR” – 4 1/2 STARS

The summer of 2011 was all about superheroes. The summer movie season started with “Thor”, the first of four superhero film’s that were released between May and July of 2011. The idea of a Thor movie changed hands multiple times but Marvel Studios would finally green-light the project after the strong success of the Iron Man film. “Thor” was another movie that led to this week’s much-anticipated Avengers movie.

Of the four big superhero releases that year, I always felt “Thor” had the biggest chance fir failure. While I understood how a great picture could be made considering the wealth of quality source material available, I couldn’t help but question how it would look on-screen. I was thrilled to see that it’s a cleverly crafted film and Marvel Studios did a nice job placing it in the hands of director Kenneth Branagh. Now Branagh wasn’t the first name that I thought of when it comes to directing superhero movies. He’s better known for his Shakespeare movie adaptations but don’t let that scare you away. He does a great job here with some tricky material.

Australian actor Chris Hemsworth plays Thor, the tough but brash god of thunder and heir to the throne of Asgard who is banished to earth after bringing war to his home and losing favor with his father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins). Thor’s banishment opens the door for his brother Loki (wonderfully played by Tom Hiddleston), also known as the god of mischief, to rise to power. Upon crashing down to earth, Thor is found by a group of scientists led by Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) who can’t determine whether Thor is from another “realm” or truly insane. To make things worse, Thor finds himself to be without  Mjolnir, his mystical hammer and ultimate power source, making his ability to return to Asgard virtually impossible.

Perhaps the greatest thing about Thor is that it’s just so much fun. For me personally, it was a fantastic movie theater experience. The cast is having fun and easily passes it on to us. Of course it’s filled with spectacular action sequences and special effects but also the perfect amount of humor that never goes too far. The movie never takes itself too seriously and that’s a key to it’s success. “Thor” sticks close enough to the comic book source material to satisfy any fanboy like me but also has a strong mass appeal that anyone could easily appreciate. I also loved the portrayals of Thor’s great assortment of side characters such as Heimdall, Volstagg, and Sif. Almost everything works well. There are moments that had me wanting to clap and others that had me laughing out loud. It’s that well done.

Hemsworth really brings it with his performance. He proves to be a great casting choice and his bulked up, Norse warrior look combined with a genuinely funny, self-deprecating humor does Thor justice. Portman, fresh off of her Academy Award win, is also very good as Jane Foster. She has a nice, believable chemistry with Hemsworth that’s pretty easy to buy into. Hiddleston’s Loki was one of the trickiest roles (no pun intended) but he pulls it off masterfully and Hopkins is as strong as always. I also enjoyed Jaimie Alexander’s Sif. Unfortunately she isn’t given much to do and I would have loved to have seen more of her in the picture.

There isn’t a lot to say negatively about the film but I do have to mention the 3-D. There are very few scenes that really stand out and at the end of the day the 3-D seems tacked on and pointless. As is the case with many conversions, it adds a darker look to the screen and I could have done without it completely. I also wasn’t really taken Kat Dennings’ Darcy Lewis character. She’s mainly in there for comic relief and honestly some of her lines are pretty funny. But I could think of a few better ways to use that screen time. But these things do nothing to ruin what’s a really good film.

“Thor” was a great start to the summer season and a true accomplishment for fans of the comic book movie genre. It’s strong cast is complimented by a well written story and sharp direction. As I mentioned, it never takes itself too seriously but does have enough drama to draw you in. It trips up in a few small places but as a whole “Thor” was a joy. As a comic book fan it met nearly every expectation I had. It’s an obvious attempt to start yet another Marvel movie franchise and ties in nicely to the upcoming Avengers film. It moves at a perfect pace and maintains a great balance between it’s parallel stories. It a fun, exciting, and often hilarious popcorn picture that I’m ready to see again.