Avengers Assemble (2012)

This year’s Spider-Man reboot may have cornered the market when it comes to superfluous adjectives, but that hasn’t stopped Joss Whedon delivering what is surely 2012’s loudest, funniest and warmest superhero movie.

That’s a pretty (yes) amazing feat when you consider Avengers Assemble is essentially a sequel to the towering likes of Iron Man, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger. It’s been in the offing pretty much since Robert Downey Jr first strapped on a metallic super-suit and branded himself Iron Man. Four years and as many Avengers-assembling Marvel movies later, it’s up to Whedon to unite various plots, subplots and cameoing characters in the Avengers’ first movie outing. You almost feel sorry for him.

Except after years championing stellar ‘ensemble’ projects like Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Firefly, Whedon makes rallying The Avengers look like a stroll in the park. Even being slapped with a whopping budget ($220m) doesn’t seem to bother him. Whedon, see, is a character man, and handing him a collection of superheroes to play with is like locking Dr Frasier Crane in a room with a sex maniac who has mummy issues.

And what characters they are. With Iron Man (Downey Jr), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Captain America (Chris Evans) all clashing egos and – at times – fists, the characters are what we’re here for. Whedon gleefully shows us the world’s shiniest superheroes scrapping (Iron Man vs Thor!), bonding (Black Widow and Hawkeye!) and sniping (Tony Vs Everybody!), and Whedon’s a generous leader, granting all of our colourful combatants numerous funnies. Better still, Black Widow finally has something to do, transforming into a well-rounded heroine under Whedon’s mindful gaze, and Ruffalo’s is easily the best movie Hulk yet.

In a movie with eight leads, though, it’s no surprise there’s not much to go on in terms of plot. The film doesn’t even have its own villain, instead plucking Loki (Tom Hiddleston) out of 2011’s Thor and giving him some beefed-up domination designs. The absence of a particularly exhilarating plot, though, is more than made up for in the spectacle of having so many superheroes crammed into a room together. The resultant snippy banter is as thrilling as the film’s two main set-pieces.

Character is key, then, but thanks to that Hulk-sized budget, Avengers is big with a capital BIG. The film’s final 30 minutes are a maelstrom of apocalyptic action as an entire city is brought to its knees by Loki and his minions. Meanwhile, a second act aircraft siege is just as exhilarating, with each of our heroes forced to show what they’re made of. This is no soulless Michael Bay action-fest, though, because throughout the set-pieces we’re glued to the characters, each of whom has more wit and humanity in their little finger than any of the leads in Transformers.

Avengers Assemble is a staggering achievement. Though it sacrifices complex plotting and a memorable villain for more time with the titular fighters, that’s a sacrifice we’re willing to accept. A nimble, massively entertaining blockbuster that has everybody involved bringing their A game, Avengers is big and beautiful. Spider-Man has a lot to live up to. 4/5

Suits you

I can’t be the only one who’s noticed that Thor seems to have taken fashion advice from She-Ra. Yeah, yeah, so the Thor movie costume design is based on John Kirby’s original ’60s comic blueprint for the character. But there’s no denying the uncanny likeness in Chris Hemsworth’s version of the winged helmet. Hell, he’s even got the golden mane to match.

Speaking of, why has there never been a live-action She-Ra movie? Sure the cartoon always painted her as second fiddle to He-Man, but she’s sexy, has one of the coolest ever super-chick costumes (thigh-grazing!), not to mention her own frickin’ unicorn! Clearly Hollywood execs are still feeling nervous after the failures of Elektra and Halle Berry’s Catwoman. Maybe Anne Hathaway’s new Catwoman in The Dark Knight Returns can set things right? Claws crossed…

Green Lanterns away

Briefly: there’s a new poster out for Green Lantern. And much like all the other promotional material for the film, it’s not exactly set my world aflame with nail-chomping anticipation. With news arriving this week that the film’s received a budget boost of $9m to fix its special effects (that’ll teach them for robbing Ryan Reynolds of a real super-suit), it looks like the debate over just how bad Lantern could be is going to rage on right up to its 17 June release date.

Admittedly, I have the same concerns for Lantern as I did for Thor (which, actually, I ended up really liking). Namely that all the crazy CGI and space-y stuff will feel too hokey when set down next to a modern-day Earth setting. That said, it does have some pluses going for it – Blake Lively impressed with The Town (tonally a million miles away from Lantern, true), Ryan Reynolds can be charismatic if he checks the goofy gurning at the door (see Buried), and director Martin Campbell is definitely no hack (he gave us Casino Royale and GoldenEye, but he also gave us the woeful Edge Of Darkness).

In short: jury’s still out concerning whether or not Warner Bros can turn Lantern into a massive money-maker while delivering something of franchise-birthing quality. But based on promo work like this, which is just too Photoshop-heavy for my taste, we’re still in for a very rough ride.

Thor (2011)

Watch out DC, Marvel just upped their game. After teething problems with the likes of Fantastic Four, Hulk and The Punisher, Marvel Studios have a definite game plan, and they’ve set it well and truly in motion with Thor.

Whereas DC’s Green Lantern adap has been mucking around with silly CGI suits gone wrong and truly apathetic responses to early footage, Thor knuckles down and gets on with it. That’s not to say it doesn’t have ambition – it does, in spades – but the brains behind Thor know what’s important; story, character and, yes, visual spectacle.

Marvel’s real genius here was hiring Kenneth Branagh as director. Though he’s new to the big budget CGI scene (save for that ‘90s Frankenstein adap he directed), it’s clear that Branagh’s strength resides in his ability to craft compelling family drama – something he’s honed through the course of his numerous Shakespearean adaps.

So where lesser superhero movies might paint their domestic drama in the laziest of broad brush strokes, Branagh tackles it with the courage of a true Bardian, infusing family fractures with the kind of Earth-quivering gravity that the story of warring gods deserves. When characters argue, they BELLOW. When they’re angry, they SEETHE. When they’re downtrodden, they’re BROKEN.

Barrelling out of the starting gate, Thor plummets us headfirst into the godly world of Asgard, where the Norse rulers of legend all live. In a breathless 30 minute segment entirely set amongst the stars, we’re introduced to their world, their leaders (Anthony Hopkins’ Odin, his two sons Thor and Loki), their enemies (the Frost Giants), their protectors (Idris Elba’s brilliant Gatekeeper) and everything in between.

It’s a boggling, pulse-raising opening that, though action-packed and overloaded with theatrics, makes sense in the greater context of the film. Once Thor’s been banished to Earth, stripped of his godly powers, the film settles into a more talky mid-section that’s handled with Iron Man-like wit.

Tone was always a concern. How do you reconcile the high camp setting of Asgard with the gritty real-life Earth segments without tipping the scale too far either way? To Branagh’s credit, he manages it with few niggles. Though Asgard is at times more ‘CGI epic’ than truly breathtaking, there’s no faulting the stunning production design. A glimmering green and gold paradise, there’s no doubt this is a place built for heavenly beings. Meanwhile, Branagh cleverly infuses even the Earth scenes with a comic-book kilter, keeping his lense half-crooked even in the most serious of moments.

Crucially, Thor has time for its characters. Though it’s busy, stirring in everything from references to The Sword In The Stone, a cameo from Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye and even a Terminator 2 nod, we rarely feel short-changed. The trio of scientists comprised of a spirited Natalie Portman, Kat Dennings and Stellan Skarsgård are a delight, championing keen chemistry and a fun sense of dry humour.

As for Hemsworth, he is Thor; built like a Viking, massive in every sense of the word. His Thor is a sort of amalgamation of other superheroes, bundled into a He-Man, Superman, God-like mass of flesh and charm. His fish out of water moments are truly hilarious, and when he gets his “fuck yeah!” moment, you’re punching the air alongside him.

Most enticingly, we know we’ve only got to wait another year to see Thor back in action. With Joss Whedon’s The Avengers currently shooting, Thor acts as a compelling prologue to that epic adventure. Unlike Iron Man 2, though, Thor also stands completely as its own entity. A thunderous, magnetic, often warmly tongue-in-cheek thrillride, it has the power to awaken the fanboy in us all. 4/5

The Making Of Thor

When you’re drawing up a list of potential directors for a big, nay, massive sci-fi action adventure film, Kenneth Branagh – better known for his period romps – is probably not the first person on your list. He’s probably not even in the top 50.

But then, that’s what makes Marvel Studios so unique. Having taken the producing reins on the movie adaptations of their prized stable of comic book heroes, they’ve consistently paired odd-choice directors with their properties to thrilling effect.

Jon Favreau and Iron Man. Louis Leterrier and The Incredible Hulk. Both courageous couplings reaped surprising, entertaining results. And now Marvel wanted to do the same with one of their most high profile characters – Norse god Thor. So who did they call? Well, Kenneth Branagh, of course…

Natalie Portman – "Wow, they’re not just trying to hot me up!"

“Real, grounded, a down to earth kind of woman.” Add the words brainy, svelte and enchanting to Natalie Portman’s description of Jane Foster, comic adap Thor’s bright spark, and you’ve got yourself a pretty accurate portrait the 28-year-old performer herself.

Meeting Total Film during the San Diego cyclone that is Comic-Con 2010, where she’s promoting said hammer-hoofer, Portman is ever-so-slightly timid and, yes, breath-catchingly beautiful. Not that you’d know from Thor. “It was a rare opportunity to be the girl in one of these movies who’s a woman and who has a career,” articulates the elfin one. “I remember after the hair and make-up test, before we started shooting, they said, ‘No, no, no it’s too much make-up, tone it down.’ And I was like, ‘Wow, they’re not just trying to hot me up!’”

Though, really, it doesn’t take much. Attired today in a perfect marriage of smart and casual, pairing (very short) flesh-coloured shorts with a breezy pale-pink blouse, she’s effortlessly dazzling. Small wonder that the gossip rags report Portman had both Demi Moore and Angelina Jolie flustered when their respective partners co-starred with her in up-and-comers Friends With Benefits and Artifacts. (Brad Pitt declaring Portman “cute as a button” can’t have helped.)

Perhaps they suspect what we already know: intellect is incredibly sexy. And Portman has grey matter in spades. A Harvard psych grad with her own Erdős–Bacon number (think six degrees of Kevin Bacon for nerds), the Jerusalem-born actress is the spiritual love child of Albert Einstein and Audrey Hepburn. Black Swan co-star Mila Kunis surmises: “Nat is like every guy’s dream. She’s a nerd’s idea of heaven.”

Clearly Portman’s in demand, with countless projects clamouring for her attention. A spot of spring-cleaning, then… The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo remake? “Nope. I really like the books, but I’ve not been approached at all. Any of that is pure rumour.” Directing? “I directed two shorts a couple years ago, and I hope to be doing more. It was a really great experience.” How about raunchy clinches in racy ballet flick Black Swan? “It’s not raunchy – it’s extreme!”

Whew, we’ll get back to the latter in a bit. But yes, near everybody loves Natalie Portman, and it’s not hard to see why. Briefly contemplating every question we put to her, she springs back with considered, expressive responses (sample dialogue: “Jane is a well-loved character, but also one who is really open to finding new colours”). And the multi-lingual lovely has established herself as more than just a brain with boobs. She’s one of the few actresses whose appeal is unrestricted by genre, engaging equally with fanboys (V For Vendetta), ladies (Brothers), and bog standard movie-lovers (Garden State).

Which brings us to the genre-baffling Thor, a theatrical mash of comic book flamboyance and Shakespearean melodrama. Her second foray into the Technicolor whirlpool of comic movie adaptations, Portman credits her involvement entirely to one man: Kenneth Branagh.

“It was sort of actually not something I was dying to do,” she explains, “not Thor in particular, but a big movie. When I heard Ken was doing it, I said, ‘Wow that is a daring and interesting idea.’ Then I met Ken and he was someone I was extremely interested to get to spend three months with. It was probably the first, or one of the first times, that my expectations were actually exceeded.”

Anybody with a doctorate in subtext might read the name ‘George Lucas’ into that, though Portman is far too polite to elaborate. But it’s telling that, despite her Star Wars run-ins with the dreaded blue screen, it was Brit director Branagh’s pull that had Portman itching for a second pop.

“Working with blue screen and that whole universe is something that is a skill and something that you really need to learn and practice,” the actress muses. “If acting schools were created today, that would be a technique that you would learn. And getting to experience that with Ken’s guidance – who’s the master of attacking text and character from every angle – was a new way to approach blue screen acting. It was an exciting challenge to go at again.”

That challenge also extended to her character, a scientist exploring the theory of inter-dimensional space. Portman seems genuinely elated that the role, which could easily have suffered the saucy love interest kiss of death, didn’t involve “you know, the sort of sexy cleavage, glasses kind of thing”. In fact, she’d be happy to return should Thor merit sequels – just don’t expect to see her pitch up in hero mash-up The Avengers: “I’m not in The Avengers, but I am in the future Thor films if and when they happen.”

Before Thor, Portman’s pirouetting in Black Swan is guaranteed to spin heads. Opening this month at the Venice Film Festival, it’s directed by Darren Aronofksy and has been steaming away on the backburner since 2000. “The fact that I had spent so much time with the idea allowed it to marinate a little before we shot,” the actress says. “[My character] Nina is someone who’s trying to find her own artistic voice, and she has to lose everything to gain that vision and that sense of self. It’s very hard to describe.”

Not only has the thriller – about two competing ballet dancers performing in Swan Lake – bred buzz thanks to Portman’s lesbian love scene with co-snog Kunis, it’s also the first time she’ll be appearing in the buff. No biggy, though. “Previously I was figuring out my own sexual identity, likes and dislikes and all that stuff,” she says, shrugging off her former reservations, “and it’s weird to be doing stuff on film as you’re figuring it out. Also, being a sexual object when you’re a kid is really uncomfortable.”

Flesh of another sort will be flashed in the actress’ next project, Pride And Prejudice And Zombies (“we just got a new script from David O. Russell; we’re hoping to make it this coming year, which is really exciting”), while Portman will also be mixing things up with a little medieval comedy (Your Highness) and a producing credit on Spencer Susser’s indie hit Hesher.

With that irresistible combination of glam and geeky, Portman is out to conquer the globe. But she’ll always have a place in her heart for comics. “I think they have such classic epic themes,” she says. “V For Vendetta was an amazing experience. Like Thor, I think you could make a small independent film with the same themes and it would be really interesting. This is just on a larger scale. It’s a total thrill.”

Via Total Film

The Avengers

How many superheroes does it take to change a light bulb? Umm, never been tested. How many does it take to change the face of comic book movies forever? Roughly six (plus a few friends), if The Avengers has anything to do with it.

“Marvel Studios are going to take all their top superheroes and put them all together in The Avengers?!” guffawed Robert Downey Jr. at this year’s Comic-Con. “That’s the most ambitious movie [concept] I’ve ever seen!” You don’t say. Uniting the iconic figureheads of Marvel’s best-loved stories was always going to be a tough task – damn near heroic in itself. Which perhaps accounts for its tentative slouch toward inception.

With Avenger stalwarts Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and Hulk all being introduced in their own individual movies (with helpers Nick Fury, Black Widow and Agent Coulson in the mix), Marvel’s plan was to ultimately smash them together in a tag-team big-screen blockbuster. But like the jazzy plotlines that said heroes spring from, the creation of the super-flick was never going to be straightforward.

Even Downey Jr. was dubious. “If we don’t get it right, it’s really going to suck,” he vexed in ’08. “It has to be the crowning blow of Marvel’s best and brightest, because it’s the hardest thing to get right. It’s tough to spin all the plates for one of these characters.”

Like DC’s long-winded hunt for an individual to reboot Superman (and they arguably didn’t get the movie they expected from Bryan Singer), Marvel struggled to land somebody who could boil so many clashing egos – not to mention hammers, metal suits and anger management problems – into a satisfactory two-hour film. But this July’s Comic-Con finally brought with it the announcement that Buffy man Joss Whedon had taken the throne.

“The thing that made me excited to do it was just how completely counterintuitive it is,” Whedon revealed. “It makes no sense. These people should not even be in the same room, let alone on the same team. And that, to me, is the very definition of family.”

Not only will Whedon be directing, he’ll also be polishing Zak Penn’s script. Meanwhile, the geek guru revealed his feelings on the sticky issue of 3D. “Honestly, I’m totally into it. I love it,” he enthused. “I think the technology is really good. It kind of puts you in the space. The thing is, if you are making an action movie, 3D lends itself to that anyway.”

Not content to simply divulge he was directing the film, Whedon also united his entire Avengers cast on stage for the first time at the Con. Alongside the expected regulars, he also wheeled out Jeremy Hurt Locker Renner as Hawkeye, while Mark Ruffalo confirmed that he is to tag the role of Bruce Banner from the departing Ed Norton. “I have had a dream all my life,” frothed Whedon. “And it was not this good!”

Which just leaves the villains. Is there even room for any? Onliners are currently debating whether The Skrulls (mean E.Ts) or Loki (Thor’s bad bro) will be stirring up trouble for the Avengers. Meanwhile, Whedon seems wholeheartedly up for the challenge. “When I write Tony Stark, or Steve Rogers, or any of these people, they sound like them, particularly because I already know who’s playing them.” So, Iron Man, Black Widow, Hulk, Captain America, Thor, Hawkeye… How many superheroes does it take to change the face of comic book movies forever? Six. Definitely six.

Via Total Film