Friday, July 1, 2011

Animated MARVEL movie Smackdown!

On a whim (or by the voice in the back of my head anticipating Joss Whedon's The Avengers in 2012 and needing a fix of Marvel studios storytelling), I decided to rent a Marvel animated movie.  This was something of a first for me, as while I have watched various Marvel animated TV shows (classic 90's X-Men, the cut-too-short Spectacular Spider-Man and some of the Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes), I wasn't sure about the animated films for some reason.  DC is another story, as they've built up a reputation with so many of their films being at least entertaining and at best approaching great pop-art.  But, hey, it's The Invincible Iron-Man, why not?

Well, after watching it, I got the craving for MORE MARVEL ANIMATED, so I finally checked out two other features (or sort of one two-part feature if you want to be snooty about it), Ultimate Avengers.  There's also a HULK VS WOLVERINE and HULK VS THOR double feature I rented, but each of those are actually sorta more like short films being 35 and 45 minutes a piece, so whether I review them right away I can't say.

But, here goes:

First of all, for The Invincible Iron-Man, it helps to try and put aside other origin stories of Tony Stark becoming by luck and by being a victim of circumstance the titular hero of the title.  This goes for both in the original comic by Stan Lee AND the Jon Favreau version.  It is similar but also diverges, in good ways and sorta-not-sure ways.  In this film, Stark (by way of, mostly, Rhodes, or "Rhodey" for short) is supervising a dig in China that keeps getting thwarted by Chinese terrorists, and it gets to the point where he's getting flack from the partners at the Stark Industrial company (and his father), plus a certain 'secret' project he has on the side.

So he goes to China - in large part as Rhodey gets captured by these evil Chinese folk (trying to be careful how I say that) - and then the main part of his origin is kept intact: he's seriously injured in an attack as he's riding through town, and is taken prisoner (this time with Rhodey there) and finds his heart is not what it used to be, literally, as it's been replaced.  But here there's little time worry about the replacement heart, though the person who helps with that is disposed of by the terrorists who demand Stark make a mega-gun for them to use.  But, naturally, Stark decides to hell with that and makes a metal suit with Rhodey's help, and quickly jets out of there after taking out a few baddies for good measure.

So far so good.  It's around here that the story diverges from what we all know.  Which is just fine; it's good to see the writers and directors (yes, multiple directors, for supervising, voice, etc), and this time they take it back to ancient China as the last descendant of the Mandarin takes it upon herself to get together the rings she needs to resurrect her fore-father (something that, Stark finds horrified later, is part of his doing in digging it up, some other plot complications arise to I won't get into here).  All through this Stark has a variety of metal suits - yes, we find out, he actually was working on metal suits before he was captured, which was the Top Secret project that miffed the superiors.

This makes some sense and is acceptable here, but it's irksome in the one aspect: it doesn't have the same impact if Stark could already make such a metal suit, and a large variety of them (indeed one suit can go underwater).  Again, it's fine to let this go.  The main task of the filmmakers is to show the transformation of Stark from rash and uncaring Playboy to a true hero in the noble style.

Turn paper over and it still says "Dewey defeats Truman"

They do the best they can with it, mostly thanks to the plot-line with the Mandarin's descendant and her conflict with, you know, being "the one" that has to bring back one of the great evils of the world into existence again.  The only problem with this is because of the relatively short length of the movie- 82 minutes including credits- there's only so limited time for Stark's arc to fully take shape.  There's also some unresolved daddy issues with Howard Stark that feel crammed in to add some extra conflict with the whole 'Who Runs Stark and Who Fucks Tony Over' sub-plot.

And yet, with the complaints that could (and can) be had with the movie, there's a lot that works with its story and its characters to make it and entertaining volume of Marvel-lore.  One thing that helps is the animation, sometimes using computers, looks gorgeous.  According to the interviews on the DVD one learns that Avi Arad, the exec producer of this and practically all the other Marvel movies, insisted on high stakes for Iron Man, specifically through the locations, and he goes through an endurance test in his first battles as the character through ice, fire (lava too), and in the primordial WTF of the Mandarin's lair.  That was the most surprising element, to find a lot of tough action scenes, especially the climax, done with grace and sophistication.  Whatever their budget was, they made the most of it.

Ladies, is your man an Iron Man? 

And yet again, it's hard by the end not to see that 2008 feature film edging its way back into the mind, and on that score this does pale in comparison on the fronts of complexity and a satisfying denouemont.  At the same time, on its own accord, one hopes to see more stories from Iron Man in this style of computer animation for the action scenes and in tackling villains with some depth by way of invented-for-the-movie characters.

Which brings me to...

Though two separate films not released at the same time, the Ultimate Avengers films are rollicking fun, intense drama, wild spectacle, and both cheaply and breathtakingly animated.  It's based on the popular revamp series by Mark Millar, which did such things as making Nick Fury Samuel L. Jackson to the point of him being cast by default in the live-action films, and reanimating Captain America from being frozen in a block of ice after a crash down into the ocean.  Some fans may not have dug some of the changes, but to my estimation (or just understanding, and having not read more than one issue of the series) what Millar did and what the filmmakers do here is present the main stable of characters as honestly as possible to what their conflicts and desires and hatreds are all about.  If you need a crash course in Avengers-ology, this is a great place to start.

As movies?  The first movie sets up the Steve Rogers saga very nicely, being one helluva war hero struck down by a nefarious Nazi (who really isn't, more on that in the second movie), and then is found in present day by Nick Fury and Natasha Romanov (or Black Widow) in the artctic.  He's revived, and becomes by being such an upstanding and good guy the lead guy in the Avengers squad.  How it becomes a full-on squad is due to, well, what do you expect to bring together the main stable on Marvel heroes outside of Spider-Man?  An alien invasion, naturally, specifically the kind that are really hard to kill and have that attitude (and, somewhat surprising in rip-off/homage, to the ships from Independence Day) to slay everything in sight.

Iron Man (pretty quickly revealed as Tony Stark), Ant-Man (Hank Pym) and his wife Janet, and after a little pondering Thor, all become recruited as the Avengers, with Dr. Bruce Banner still fighting the whole Hulk-deal, both by trying not to become it and subjecting himself as a 'Super-Soldier' candidate... the only one as it turns out, to try and curb the problem (oh, and if only he'd take his meds, ho-ho).  The Avengers work at first a little bumpily, however usually with success against the alien menace, but it's one of those plot contrivances that Fury have a problem with the Avengers doing a decent (if slightly sloppy at following orders to the note) job.  And then there's that Banner problem...

What works so well and snaps out at the viewer open to this universe is how well the characters interact with one another, and how every character feels true to where they're coming from not just by the comic's standards but just in this story.  There's adjusting to be in such a heavy-duty group (Iron Man and Thor turn Fury down flat at first request, while Pym is more than eager to join as Fury refuses), and there's a tiny bit of humor, but mostly it's handled seriously and not always in such a way that's "kid-friendly".  There's real emotional and psychological struggle here, and I liked that it took some twists and turns that made things not so simple.

Take the conflict with the Hulk as the main example, which also leads into the second film (thankfully making it less like a sequel and more like an adjoining twin); when he finally does turn into the big green SMASH machine, it comes at just the right time in a hectic battle that the other Avengers are having with the aliens.  The Hulk turns out to beat them all into submission... and then doesn't stop his rage at all the other Avengers, which ironically becomes the bigger fight than what came before it with the aliens (and, my tip of the hat to the animators, there's some real thrills and what-will-happen-next going on, not the predictable Saturday morning cartoon stuff).  How does a 'hero' like Banner function in a world such as this, where he may be one of the very most powerful of all, and can't control himself save for the moment Betty Ross comes into the picture.

This arc with Banner and his 'Hulk' makes this much more interesting than I would have expected, and it may even be more coherently handled (for the most part) in these two animated films than in the (at least first) live action film.  Only the pay-off in the second film leads to the let-down with this whole arc; by the time all of that waiting with Banner after his crimes of the first film leads to its logical conclusion it happens too fast and without enough time paid to what the character can do aside from a minor but significant revelation in terms of weaponry.  It's the big flaw of the second film that seemed to stick out like a sore thumb.

The second movie, by the way, 'Rise of the Panther', is a curious little-big effort.  In its story of the Black Panther, one of the lesser-known but most powerful of the Marvel-Avengers stable, and how his kingdom Wakanda in Africa is threatened by the return of Captain America's arch nemesis, the "Nazi" (nay ALIEN shapeshifter-hard-to-kill) Kleiser, we get to see another Aliens-Come-to-Destroy-Earth tale unfold.  This one ups the ante by the alien take-over happening much faster than before and with more imminent destruction worldwide (ironically Nick Fury is able to do more in terms of overall coverage than the Avengers can do, as they focus their attention on the source of the problem in Wakanda), and with Banner as the locked-up wild-card.

Oh, and there's other drama in the process, like with the Pym's and how stubborn Hank can be and what peril throws their relationship into.  And the whole Rogers-being-blinded-by-his-past anger (understandably) towards the Nazi-Alien.  Oh, and Stark has that heart problem that was so prominent and the emotional core/problem of Iron Man 2.  It might seem on the surface to be just a rehash of the first movie, but it's not totally fair to look at the two movies as being completely separate; as a whole two and a half hour movie it works much more like an epic tale of the Avengers fighting the same entity - Those Darn Alien Scum With Radiation-Weakness - the stakes get much higher and the chance for redemption grows.

Some things do stick out like sore thumbs here.  For one thing the Wakanda people are such one-dimensional beings (maybe cause they're natives, which does make some sense, but not always dramatically) who are so stubborn in their ways that they don't see what's coming at them (and keep acting like total dicks to the Black Panther - HELLO he can turn into a PANTHER and he's ROYALTY come on!)  And the whole aspect of the doctor/soldier/whatever keeping Banner held up in that cell watching the same Avengers-Destruction loop-reel from the first movie gets a little tiresome after a while, albeit leading to "the thing" that can stop the aliens.  In general, at least in the second half of this Ultimate Avengers series, the movie would do things to pull me away from it, or remind me that some of the animation was kinda cheap (i.e. destruction of London bits) or with some of the side characters like the Pyms...

However, then the movie would do things to win me back over, such as an open ending that still feels complete in some way as the end of a complete story (some characters also won't come back at all, a ballsy move on Millar and/or the filmamker's part).  It earns its PG-13 by not pandering to kids, being something that the whole family can enjoy while sometimes being just violent enough to probably make the wee little ones a little scared - all speculation by the way, maybe for some it won't be violent enough(!)

Overall the Ultimate Avengers series finds the heroes brought together through some extraordinary circumstances, each one with reservations - Thor especially, what's with that thunder God sometimes and his bitchy All-father - and yet they all find what they're really made of when pushed to such limits and put together as a team.  I loved seeing that camraderie and tension and spectacle take place, even if it's far from great art (though it too has its moments, like when Iron Man goes inside a certain unfamiliar place in the climax).

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