‘Thor’ Arrives with Thunderous Abandon

Thor movie poster

Thor” makes its presence known with thunderous abandon. Now like many comic books, this one is yet another I haven’t read, so I can’t say how true it stays to its origins. However, judging from the great Kenneth Branagh’s handling of the material, I imagine it’s very respectful to the character.

Heeding closely to classic Norse mythology, Thor is the god of thunder and heir to the throne of Asgard. But on the day of his ascension, the Frost Giants invade the planet’s deeper regions to retrieve the Casket of Ancient Winters, the source of their power. They are easily defeated, but their violation of the truce put together between them and Asgard seriously pisses Thor off. Against his father’s wishes, he and his fellow warriors journey to the Frost Giants home planet of Jotunheim to keep some frosty ass. Odin, however, intervenes and, infuriated with his son’s arrogance, strips him of his powers and banishes him to Earth. For a warrior like Thor, being banished to Earth does feel like a nasty insult.

First off, I really liked the way Branagh handled this material. In the wrong hands, this could have easily become high camp which would have been enjoyable for all the wrong reasons. But Branagh takes the characters and places they inhabit seriously, and he infuses them all with a strong humanity which comes to define them more than does their place in the universe. Even the villains are remarkably complex as their corruption results not so much from a need for power, but instead for a father’s love and approval. Of course, with Branagh directing, you can count on many Shakespearean references throughout, be it Iago from “Othello” or “King Lear,” and they prove to be a perfect fit for this movie.

I was also impressed with how well Branagh handled the visual elements of “Thor.” The last time he made a movie heavy with special effects was “Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein,” and he seemed a bit out of his league with that one. Perhaps we should not be impressed as this movie has a budget of at least $100 million, not counting advertisement costs, but the key thing here is the effects succeed in being an extension of the characters instead of just dwarfing them completely. Then again, that giant creature the Frost Giants unleash on Thor immediately had Liam Neeson screaming in my head, “RELEASE THE KRAKEN!!!”

As Thor, Chris Hemsworth, who played Captain Kirk’s father in J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek,” owns the role right from the first moment he walks onscreen. Hemsworth clearly revels in portraying the great power Thor possesses, and he is a gentleman when the situation calls for it. Seeing him as a fish out of water on Earth also makes for some splendid moments which are slyly comic. I’m also glad to see Thor is not just another character who doesn’t want to be “the one,” conflicted about the things he is destined to do. With Hemsworth, you know from the get go he is fully aware he’s “the one” and owns this knowledge to where you feel his impatience in wanting to prove it to the universe. Instead of a whiny Anakin Skywalker, Hemsworth gives us a powerful warrior worth cheering for, and one who eventually learns from his mistakes.

As scientist Jane Foster, Natalie Portman’s casting in the role seems like a no brainer. We know from her off screen life that she is a remarkably intelligent human being, so she doesn’t have to prove to us how believable she can be as a scientist. She sparks instant chemistry with Hemsworth (damn those six pack abs!!!), and that shy smile of hers kills me every single time.

Then there’s the great Sir Anthony Hopkins whose portrayal of Asgard’s king and father to Thor, Odin, is nothing short of gallant. This is especially the case with the opening narration which he recites with such depth to where he makes all other actors who’ve done it before him sound like they were sleepwalking their way through it. While many may think this is one of those roles Hopkins did for an easy paycheck, it’s really one of the best performances he’s given in a while.

Tom Hiddleston plays Loki, Thor’s brother and the movie’s main villain. What I liked about Hiddleston is how he does so much more than give us the usual one-dimensional bad guy. Just like Joaquin Phoenix’s character from “Gladiator,” Loki feels slighted by his father as he prefers another man over him, and he becomes desperately eager to prove himself in any way he can. But of course, he ends up doing it in the worst way possible. Hiddleston makes Loki into a character who is more spiteful than hateful, and this makes his eventual fate seem all the more tragic in retrospect.

There are other strong performances throughout this blockbuster affair to enjoy as well. Rene Russo, where have you been? Idris Elba makes a memorable Heimdall, and it never seems like a small part with him playing it. Kat Dennings steals a few scenes as Darcy Lewis, Jane’s co-worker whose science is more political than astronomical. And Stellan Skarsgård remains a dependable actor as always playing scientist Erik Selvig, a character who ends up playing an important role in “The Avengers.”

Having said all this, “Thor” did feel like it could have been a little more exciting. It doesn’t quite have the same invigorating sweep as some of Branagh’s Shakespeare adaptations like “Hamlet” or “Henry V,” and it takes longer to get to the action than it should. It’s not quite as entertaining as “Iron Man,” but I would definitely rank it above “The Incredible Hulk.”

Regardless, there is still much to like about “Thor,” and Branagh has done the best job anyone could have in bringing this particular comic book hero to the big screen in such a respectful fashion. It also benefits from excellent casting, especially Hemsworth who looks like he came out of the womb looking like a warrior with a mighty hammer in his hand. This is one of the few times where “getting hammered” will sound more like a threat than an embarrassing state of drunkenness.

* * * out of * * * *

‘Captain America: The First Avenger’ Introduces Us to a Real American Hero

Captain America The First Avenger poster

Captain America: The First Avenger” succeeds where “The Green Lantern” utterly failed. It gives us a superhero, one from the Marvel Comics universe, who is distinct from those of his ilk, and he is one we quickly come to care about and root for. Steve Rogers isn’t just some cocky kid from Brooklyn with an overinflated ego. He’s a sickly young man who desperately wants to fight for his country, but who has been rejected by the military countless times. But what he lacks in health and strength he makes up for in spirit. Steve wants to fight for his country not because Uncle Sam wants him to, but because, and he said it himself, he never backs down from a fight.

I liked how this movie didn’t shy from its American roots the way “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” did. While that movie tried to make you forget the slogan “a real American hero,” “Captain America: The First Avenger” doesn’t do the same. At the same time, it doesn’t beat you over the head with blind American patriotism. It has its share of American pride, but it’s really about the spirit of this unlikely soldier which keeps him sane after he is transformed into a super soldier. The outside may be different, but the inside of this man remains the same to where he sounds like a relation to Robocop.

Playing Steve Rogers/Captain America is Chris Evans who you may remember him from those dopey “Fantastic Four” movies. As for myself, I remember him best for doing a skateboard grind down an icy railing which led to his ultimate demise in “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.” Evans is perfectly cast and does great work in keeping his character from becoming just another clichéd war hero. His heart shines throughout the entire movie, and he never allows Rogers to become laughable or indulge in behavior which would seem cringe inducing.

Once Steve is turned into Captain America, you root for him to go into battle and defeat the Nazis. But seeing him become a pawn for the United States Government in hawking War Bonds is depressing even when his irrepressible spirit and love for country shines through. We understand his desire to prove himself, and our spirits rise along with his.

Of course, with every superhero movie we get a vicious villain. In this case, this would be Johann Schmidt, Adolf Hitler’s right hand man who is later revealed to be Red Skull. This particular Skull has his own plans for world domination through his organization of HYDRA, and he gets his followers to raise both hands instead of just the one for Hitler. With a stolen tesseract, HYDRA can eliminate their foes faster than those phasers that vaporized all the red shirts on “Star Trek.”

Hugo Weaving portrays Johann Schmidt/Red Skull, and he gives “Captain America” the formidable villain it needs. Still, after being in all “The Matrix” and the “Lord of the Rings” movies, I kept waiting for him to say, “Welcome to Rivendell Mr. Anderson!”

“Captain America: The First Avenger” also has the other requisite characters like the Army drill sergeant and the beautiful woman who dares the most macho men to treat her as just a woman instead of the tough as nails soldier she is. It’s not hard to guess who gets their ass kicked here when other men foolishly hit on her. Still, director Joe Johnston succeeds in getting the best actors available to inhabit these roles and give them life beyond the mere superhero movie stereotypes they could have been.

Tommy Lee Jones is highly entertaining as Col. Chester Phillips, a gruff, no nonsense military leader who expects nothing but the best from his soldiers. Jones, however, gives Phillips a wry sense of humor much like the one Sam Gerard had in “The Fugitive.” Watching him being subtly dismissive of others and later coming around to see Steve Rogers is the man is a hoot, and he never ends up screaming all over the place like R. Lee Emery did in “Full Metal Jacket.”

Then there’s Hayley Atwell who plays Peggy Carter, the female officer who eventually becomes Steve Rogers’ love interest. I really liked how Peggy was drawn out to where she doesn’t just exist for the sake of the movie’s superhero. Atwell sells us completely on her tough demeanor to where it cannot and should not be mistaken as an act, and she travels across the screen with an assured confidence which no one should ever doubt. If they do doubt her, it will say much more about her.

Johnston got the job of directing “Captain America: The First Avenger” based on the period movies he made such as “The Rocketeer” and “October Sky.” There’s a lot of attention paid to detail here (the story takes place 1942 to be exact), but it isn’t held prisoner by it. Heck, many of the tools HYDRA ends up using seem far removed from the 40’s, and they look like they came out of a sci-fi movie made in the 1970’s or 80’s. While Johnston hasn’t made a great movie here, he still has given us an undeniably entertaining one, and it didn’t even need another terrific film score by Alan Silvestri to prove this.

When it comes to the 2011 summer movie season, “Captain America: The First Avenger” isn’t better than “Thor” which for me had far more interesting characters, but it easily outdoes “The Green Lantern” which is one of that year’s biggest disappointments. Thanks to Evans’ performance, Captain America finally gets the cinematic respect this character has long since been denied.

* * * out of * * * *

X-Men: Days of Future Past

X Men Days of Future Past poster

Okay, let me get it out of the way now; “X-Men: Days of Future Past” is not only the best “X-Men” movie since “X2,” but it is also the most entertaining and emotionally powerful film of the franchise to date. For a while, it seemed like the series peaked as the succeeding sequels and prequels were critically maligned to where you wondered if this particular superhero franchise had finally overstayed its welcome. But with Bryan Singer, having been led away by Superman and a giant slayer among others things, back behind the camera again, everything feels fresh and invigorating again, and it’s hard to think of another “X-Men” movie which can top this one.

“X-Men: Days of Future Past” starts off in a very bleak future where sentient robots known as Sentinels have exterminated most of the mutants as well as those humans who have helped them. Not much is left which leads me to believe that in the process of protecting humanity, humans ended up destroying themselves by creating the Sentinels. Time is running out for the remaining X-Men which include Charles Xavier/Professor X (Patrick Stewart), Erik Lehnsherr / Magneto (Ian McKellen), Ororo Munroe / Storm (Halle Berry), Kitty Pryde / Shadowcat (Ellen Page), Bobby Drake / Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) and of course Logan / Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), and they hide away in a Chinese monastery and prepare to use the only method they can to save all of humanity: time travel.

Charles explains to Logan of how they need to prevent the assassination of Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), the military scientist who created the Sentinels, by Raven Darkhölme / Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence). While it is completely understandable for any mutant to hate Bolivar with a passion, his assassination ends up making him a martyr and Raven gets captured and experimented on to where the analysis of her mutant powers help to make the Sentinels all the more effective. So Logan, with the help of Shadowcat, ends up traveling back to the year 1973 to stop Raven from killing Bolivar as he is the only one of the group who can withstand the rigors of time travel. But just when you think this is going to turn into the usual time-travel flick, it becomes anything but.

What I love about the “X-Men” movies are how they focus on character as much as they do on visual effects. The mutants are treated as the outcasts of society, and we feel their pain at being excluded for who they are. Singer understands this pain, and it makes his return to the franchise all the more welcome. Also, there’s something bigger at stake than changing the course of events in time, and that’s preserving hope. While Morgan Freeman said in “The Shawshank Redemption” of how hope is a dangerous thing as it can drive a man insane, the mutants (the good ones anyway) thrive on it because they know no one can live any other way. Even in the darkest of times, they strive to make the world a better place for all of humanity. You feel the weight of the choices they are about to make, and it produced moments which truly left me on the edge of my seat.

After playing Wolverine for so many years, I figured Hugh Jackman would be sick of the character as he remained a moody son of a bitch in. But the great thing about Wolverine this time around is how he and Charles Xavier essentially trade places. In the previous films, Charles was always trying to get Wolverine to look past his anger and bitterness to embrace a better path in life, and now Wolverine has to do the same for Charles. When we catch up with the younger Professor X (this time played by James McAvoy) in 1973, he is a broken man who has regained the ability to walk (don’t worry, there is an explanation) and has become more comfortable being a functioning alcoholic instead of being a teacher. His school is now empty since the Vietnam War took away many of his students, and he spends his days hanging out with Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hout) who tends to his needs.

In some ways, Jackman looks really invigorated this time around as Wolverine proves to be the source of hope the other characters desperately need. He still remains the Wolverine we all know and love, and it’s a lot of fun watching him interact with the cast members of “X-Men: First Class.” Both McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, who plays the younger Magneto, once again make these iconic roles their own without the shadows of Stewart and McKellen hovering over them. It’s also great to see Hout and Jennifer Lawrence back as well as both actors make Beast and Mystique more than just a couple of mere supporting characters.

It’s also great to see a lot of veteran “X-Men” actors here as I was afraid we would never see them together again in the same movie. Stewart, McKellen, Berry, Page and Ashmore make their welcome returns count for every second of their screen time. And yes, Anna Paquin does make an appearance as Marie/Rogue. She’s only in the movie for a little bit, but at least she didn’t get cut out of it completely.

The screenwriter of “X-Men: Days of Future Past” is Simon Kinberg, and it is based on the famous comic book by Chris Claremont and John Byrne. For a time, I thought this was going to be your typical time travel movie where everything hinges on a pivotal moment in human history, but Kinberg has a few surprises in store for us as the story doesn’t stop at the moment we expect it to. The characters are acutely aware of the ripple effects they can cause in the history of things, and there’s no time wasted on showing how out of place they are in the 70’s as they always seem to be out of place in everyone’s eyes regardless of the decade.

There are also a bunch of new mutants joining the party this time around, and the one which stands out the most is Pietro Maximoff /Quicksilver who is played by Evan Peters. Peters is a gas to watch as his character moves at supersonic speeds around everyone, and he injects a good dose of humor into the proceedings. Singer also features Quicksilver in one of the movie’s most ingenious sequences which is scored to the most unlikely of songs. Seriously, I don’t want to spoil it for you, but it has to be seen to be believed.

Another standout performance in “X-Men: Days of Future Past” is Peter Dinklage’s as Bolivar Trask. Like any good actor, Dinklage keeps Bolivar from becoming another one-dimensional villain as he infuses the character with an arrogance and blind ambition which makes him all the more dangerous. Bolivar believes deeply in what he is doing as he feels it is right, and you come out of the movie pitying him. This is a character who has struggled all his life to get the respect he feels he deserves, and he never gives much thought to the consequences of his actions.

I also got to give kudos to Richard Camacho who plays President Richard Nixon. After watching Frank Langella portray this American President in “Frost/Nixon,” I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to see another actor play Nixon again as anyone else would have simply played him as a caricature. But I was surprised to see how good Camacho was because he didn’t give us the usual Nixon as this movie would have suffered as a result.

But in many ways, the biggest star of this “X-Men” movie is Singer himself. Regardless of his current legal predicament (I’m not even going into that here), he makes a comeback of sorts with this entry as his last few efforts have seen him lose his touch as a filmmaker. No, I haven’t seen “Jack the Giant Slayer,” but I have yet to hear my friends say anything good about it. But just as he did with the first “X-Men” movies, he does a terrific job of balancing out the visual effects with character development, and what results is the most emotionally satisfying comic book blockbuster I’ve ever seen. “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” which was really good, set the bar high, but Singer surpasses it by a wide margin with this installment.

After watching “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” you will agree that “X-Men: Apocalypse” can’t come soon enough. Seriously, “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” only dreamed of being this good.

* * * * out of * * * *

Captain America: Civil War

Captain America Civil War poster

It’s tempting to call this latest Marvel movie “31 short films about The Avengers” as “Captain America: Civil War” manages to cram in so many characters and various storylines into its nearly two and a half hour running in a way which has one wondering why it didn’t burst at the seams. But despite that, it still works as directors Anthony and Joe Russo (who also helmed the superb “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”) manage to balance everything out as they combine tremendous superhero action scenes with thought provoking storylines. Whereas “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” didn’t leave much of an aftertaste, “Civil War” proves to be one of Marvel Studios best offerings to date.

Actually, this really should be called “The Avengers Part 2.5” as many of the Avengers are reunited here with the exception of the Hulk, Thor and Nick Fury. “Civil War” starts off a year after “Age of Ultron” as Captain America and company take on the bad guys but, as usual, cause a lot of collateral damage in the process. As a result, U.S. Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) informs them the United Nations are working to establish a panel which will oversee and control The Avengers from here on out. Because of these superheroes’ activities, it’s a good guess many insurance companies went bankrupt while cleaning up what’s left of their mess.

What’s interesting about this is the dynamic it sets up between each superhero character. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) is quick to accept this accord as he is still smarting from his creation of Ultron and the destruction caused in Sokovia. However, Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) refuses to sign on as he feels any government interference will hinder what he sees as the right thing to do. This sets up an interesting conundrum as the need to control the Avengers is understandable, but with limits set on what they can and cannot do, this could severely affect their ability to save the world, and we know they will need to save it again sooner rather than later.

In the midst of all this, the United Nations building is bombed and the chief suspect is revealed to be Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). But Steve remembers the last time he saw Bucky up close and isn’t sure he’s the evil man everyone else sees him as, and he becomes determined to bring in Bucky himself. But as the movie’s trailers have shown, this will soon erupt into a major conflict for the Avengers as they are forced to take sides to where alliances may be torn apart forever.

We have been submerged in the Marvel Cinematic Universe since 2008 when “Iron Man” was released, and the filmmakers have smartly allowed the characters to evolve from one movie to the next. As much as this is Captain America’s movie, it is also Iron Man’s as we watch his alter ego Tony Stark change his ways, to a certain extent anyway, as he believes the Avengers have done a lot of bad things in the process of saving the world. While he still thinks all too highly of himself, Tony believes the team does need some supervision in order to keep it in line, and this is something he never would have suggested in the previous “Iron Man” movies.

When “Captain America: The First Avenger” first came out in 2011, many expected that the character would be the dullest Avenger as the comics showed him to be a straight arrow and overly patriotic. But with “The Winter Soldier” and “Civil War,” Captain America has become the most interesting character in this cinematic universe as his morality remains strong and unbreakable. A lot of that is thanks to Evans who invests the character with an unshakable pride and thoughtfulness which makes Steve Rogers more authentically heroic than other superheroes currently occupying your local multiplex.

In addition to Iron Man, the other Avengers who turn up include Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie), James Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle), Vision (Paul Bettany), Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd). The Russo brothers are smart not to waste time introducing these characters as we have long since gotten to know them and need no explanation as to who they are. It’s great to see them here, and the actors portraying them continue to do excellent work.

As for the new superheroes in “Civil War,” each makes a memorable impression. Chadwick Boseman comes onboard as T’Challa, prince of the African nation of Wakanda who is later revealed to be Black Panther. Boseman imbues his character with a wounded pride which threatens to get the best of him, and he ends up in the middle of the Avengers’ conflict to where he might lose himself in anger and bitterness. The wonderful Elisabeth Olsen also shows up as Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch whose powers include harnessing magic and engaging in hypnosis and telekinesis. Olsen shows us a superhero slowly coming into her own as she is conflicted on how to use the abilities she has been gifted, or perhaps cursed, with, and she makes the character both flawed and sympathetic.

But make no mistake, the big addition in “Civil War” is Peter Parker and his beloved alter-ego of Spider-Man. After the abominable cinematic mess that was “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” the character has been rebooted yet again, but this time it may prove to be a good thing. Tom Holland now takes on the role of this web slinger and, like Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield before him, succeeds in making it his own as he creates a character who is wonderfully cheeky and super enthusiastic. Spider-Man isn’t onscreen a whole lot, but Holland is a big delight as he leaps all over the place with great abandon. Suffice to say, this bodes very well for this character’s future.

“Captain America: Civil War” is what “Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice” promised but failed to be: a riveting motion picture featuring two superheroes who are prepared to fight to the death. It is also an improvement over “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” which, while not bad, failed to live up to expectations. The Russo brothers revel in showing these superheroes doing battle with one another, and they also provide them with a dramatic scenario which will forever test their relationships. I can’t wait to see how the events here will affect the next Marvel movie as the cinematic universe now enters a new phase which looks to be more interesting than what came before. Captain America and Iron Man don’t have mothers named Martha, so it may take a lot for them to get back on the same page.

* * * ½ out of * * * *