The Incredible Hulk (2008)
Edward Norton, Liv Tyler, William Hurt, Tim Roth, Tim Blake Nelson. Written by Zak Penn; directed by Louis Leterrier.
I didn’t think I’d care much for Edward Norton as Bruce Banner, now that I’ve gotten used to Mark Ruffalo, but it only took a few minutes for me to see the appeal of this casting. He reminds me so much of Bill Bixby in the television version that I felt comfortable and nostalgic with Norton in the role. I love the brainy quiet Norton brings, and he communicates the always-looking-over-his-shoulder vibe well.
There’s a little bit of playing around with Hulk’s origins, if I remember things correctly, but they’re minor enough that I don’t really care. I don’t remember Hulk having any love interests, so I went in with a blank canvas for Liv Tyler as Betty Ross, whose smart, loyal, kind of girlish silliness I took very quickly to. There is a scene, when Ross and Banner connect after a long time apart that pretty much sold me on the rest of the film just because it felt so great. I found myself wistful and nostalgic for reunions I never had, happy that these two characters were going to go through the next terrible hour together.
It’s this relationship that makes the tension in The Incredible Hulk bearable. Banner’s situation is so unspeakably terrible that it’s hard to imagine him finding any peace at all, ever again. Yet Ross’s unflinching loyalty makes it seem possible, even knowing the love story is likely doomed to failure.
While I’m neither a fan of extended superhero fight sequences nor urban chase scenes, both are interesting enough in this movie to keep me engaged, especially a rooftop-and-alley run through the slums of a Brazilian city that’s beautiful to look at. There’s a lot of running in Hulk movies.
The villain is a creature named Abomination, the alter-ego of a character played by Tim Roth. I didn’t find either incarnation especially intriguing, even though I generally love Roth. His enabler, a general played by William Hurt, is so two-dimensional he’s practically a line segment on the screen. If not for Banner’s own personal conflicts, this movie would have been dreadful. Thankfully, Norton and Tyler make it pretty dang good.
Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Claudia Kim, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Elizabeth Olsen, Cobie Smulders, Hayley Atwell, Idris Elba. Written and directed by Joss Whedon.
The first Avengers movie was a big, noisy mess with too many characters to manage and not enough humanity to plumb. Just about everything I enjoy about the Marvel films was either missing or in short supply, which is probably why I was in no hurry to catch its sequel, Avengers: Age of Ultron. Then I got myself caught up on Captain America, and I was introduced to Scarlet Witch, and this second Avengers movie felt like a gap I wanted to fill.
Really, what is it about these Avengers films? Do the titles mean that since nobody gets a titular role, the movies can’t spend time developing singular characters? The recent Captain America: Civil War is effectively an Avengers movie (I’m not a comic book reader, so if what I just wrote is a sin against fandom, don’t shoot me), yet there’s pretty good character development of Steve Rogers, Tony Stark, Black Widow, Hawkeye, and Scarlet Witch, so I reject this as necessarily a rule. Except for a pretty great tension with Bruce Banner and Natasha Romanoff in the stay-away-I’m-dangerous vein, and Scarlet Witch’s conflicted side-choosing, writer Joss Whedon seems to have decided his audience doesn’t care about humanizing these heroes. It’s a bad choice.
The plot’s main conceit, the emergence of an artificial intelligence powered by Loki’s scepter (from the first Avengers movie), is pretty cool, although I could have done without the comic-booky appearance of the villain and his various incarnations. Most of the action is unremarkable, except as it serves to develop characters, but it’s too long to be excused even by that.
This is not to say I didn’t enjoy the movie. I did, in a kind of let-everything-go-and-just-enjoy-the-ride way, which is pretty much what I said about the first Avengers movie. If I hadn’t first seen Captain America: Civil War and come into this one with an interest in Wanda Maximoff’s origins, it wouldn’t have been quite so enjoyable, so I’m giving it a two-point Elizabeth Olsen bump and a surprise one-point Claudia Kim bump.
I’m still struggling to keep up with the paid writing. I know I sound like I’m on endless repeat about this, but I do think I’m getting slowly better at it. It’s just not showing up in my productivity. I have two hard dealines, and I have been pretty much ahead of them (Monday and Thursday mornings), but those are my longest-continuing assignments, going on three years, so they’re sorta built into my consciousness. I’m kind of always thinking about them, the way I always thought about lesson plans while I was a teacher. They’re just always there at the edges of my mind, and they move in for attention when a good opportunity presents itself. If I don’t have at least a mental outline of my content within a day of the deadline, I have to sit down and sketch something out, but that almost never happens now. By the time I sit down to write, I almost always know what I’m going to write.
The second gig is different. I tried reading fifty articles’ worth of content so I could sit down and bang out the fifty artciles, but that was far too big a bite. I found myself having to re-read everything before I wrote, which adds to my time and lowers my per-hour take. My current pace puts my hourly pay at like $3.50 an hour. I knew I was going to be underpaid when I took the gig because I needed the work. I was hoping to make it iron out to seven bucks an hours, which is still doable. I’m just not there yet.
The quality of the work is at least something I’m fairly proud of. I’m wondering if I need to sacrifice some of that quality for the sake of speed. My primary gig says no. We want it to be as good as it can be. My secondary gig says maybe. I feel horrible for not being faster with this work. I am going to decide by the end of this week if I want to spend $200 for a month of time at a co-working space. I do so much better when I have a place to go, and if I don’t have to worry about spending (additional) money, it will be a stress-lessener. I can bring a lunch, my water flask, and a snack, and not worry about taking up a table at the cafe without putting enough in its registers. It might be worth a trial run.
In my downtime, which I have already admitted is generally tainted with the awareness of my stealing it from time I should be getting caught up with the work, I’ve squeezed in a few movies, including (finally) Mean Girls, which I know has been a must-see for a person of my tastes. It was about as good as I expected (review soon), and in many ways not as good as it could have been. One of my biggest takeaways was how easy it has been to forget what a talented, magnetic screen presence Lindsay Lohan was before she became more known for her antics. I’m going to include that in my review. I probably won’t include my also being impressed by how Amanda Seyfried manages to be the most beautiful thing in a movie loaded with beautiful women.
I mentioned some time ago that I’ve had to rebuild my iTunes library (the songs are still in the folders, but they don’t show up in my library until I re-add them). I took a break from it and then went back where I left off (somewhere in the Es), and then went back to the very beginning, to hit every album from every artist to make sure the years, genres, song titles, and album artwork were exactly right. One of the worst things about the internet has been how easy it is for bad info to become canonical. With digital music, it seems that whoever gets to the database first gets to decide things like captial letters, genres, and other stuff in the ID3 tags, and most of it’s just wrong. I can have this kind of sloppiness in lots of areas of my life, but I can’t have it in my music.
So it’s been a long, slow process, especially since I’m determined not only to get the metainfo correct, but also to make sure everything’s been listened to once since its re-addition to the library. I’ll take a few detours as my craving dictates (as with the Pink Floyd list I made this week), so I’m not a slave to the process. As of this morning, I’m on Blink-182. Got through my Blind Guardian collection yesterday; taking a detour right now with Devin Townsend’s <i>Epicloud</i> stuff (including the bonus <i>Epiclouder</i> material), and then it’ll be the Royal Hunt album I crowdfunded a year ago but for some reason never claimed the download of until yesterday.
Enough procrastinating. Back to the grind.
Captain America: Civil War (2016)
Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Elizabeth Olsen, and a cast of thousands. Directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo.
Saving the world sometimes comes with collateral damage, and when the Avengers are involved, turn that “sometimes” into “always.” In Captain America: Civil War, there is huge international backlash when Scarlet Witch unintentionally blows up a building, killing several humanitarian workers, and now the United Nations wants to assume oversight and control over the Avengers. The Avengers are split over the issue: Tony Stark leads one side, while Steve Rogers takes the other.
Further description of the plot would only be confusing, but it mostly comes down to The UN wanting to find the Winter Soldier for the assassination of a king, while Rogers tries to get to him first in order to protect him.
(slight spoilers in this paragraph only)
I knew the barest minimum about the plot before going in, and I assumed it was Tony Stark who wanted independence while Steve Rogers accepted governmental oversight. It was a nice surprise to see that it was the other way around, and it’s easy to see what would make each man go against his seeming inclinations. Stark has been his own man for a long time; success in business almost always assumes collateral damage, but when someone humanizes the casualties, he accepts the need for someone else to be in charge. Rogers has been a government weapon, always willing to do his duty, but in this role he has lost his best friend, every one of his contemporaries, and the woman who might have been the love of his life. As a lifelong questioner of authority, there was never a doubt which side I was hoping the Avengers would take, and it’s actually kind of surprising to see how each of them lines up.
The film is loaded with superheroes, and although there are moments where their number is overwhelming, it’s mostly handled well, especially in the big fight scene. There are a few surprise appearances, and they mostly work. There’s a lot of quick humor, too; I laughed aloud multiple times, and I appreciated that even when the Avengers are in the middle of combat against each other, there is mutual respect and affection. There’s a lot of good relationship stuff, too, the stuff that adds nice layers between all the action sequence stuff.
And now I have to say something about Scarlet Witch, played by Elizabeth Olsen. Holy moly. She’s mysterious, dark, tortured, fearsome, and beautiful. My favorite female superhero in films has been Anna Paquin’s Rogue, beginning with the first X-Men film, but here is someone to rival her. I love that she is alternatingly gorgeous and kind of hideous (witchlike, even), with a haunted goth look I can’t take my eyes away from.
I still have a few more of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films to catch up on, but this one is likely right up there with <i>Iron Man</i>, and Captain America is becoming my favorite of the comic book movie superheroes.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Emily VanCamp, Cobie Smulders, Robert Redford, Samuel L. Jackson, Anthony Mackie. Directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo.
Steve Rogers is still getting acclimated to his new home, carrying around a notepad in which he writes the names of musicians, movies, politicians, and cultural references as they come up in conversation. It’s a quick reminder of the underlying stress in Rogers’s life. The Rip Van Winkle motif is certainly not new, but it does give Rogers an interesting dimension, and I always appreciate layers in my superhero movies.
In one early scene, after Rogers adds “Troubleman (soundtrack)” to his list, Natasha Romanoff (played by Scarlett Johansson) drives up in a sleek sports car to give him a ride. It’s another layer, this one falling into the plus column, because if Rogers is still dealing with the abrupt ending to his blossoming romance with agent Carter (and he seems to be), a little bit of Black Widow can ease the transition, even if the relationship seems to be platonic.
S.H.I.E.L.D. is being attacked by the titular Winter Soldier, a Russian super-tough guy Romanoff is familiar with by reputation, but weird stuff is going on that cannot be explained by this villain. A S.H.I.E.L.D. program similar to the Strategic Defense Initiative of the 1980s (only a lot more badass) is about to launch, but director Nick Fury asks for a delay until he can figure out what’s going on. He warns Rogers to “trust nobody,” which of course puts Rogers in the difficult position of seeing everyone as a potential enemy.
Action sequences are about as good as in the first Captain America film while the overarching plot of S.H.I.E.L.D. vs. Hydra isn’t very interesting, but again, the driving force is really Steve Rogers’s virtuousness, and it’s not just his patriotism, sense of duty, politeness, and desire to serve. He has a way of connecting with people wherever they are, a disarming sense of compassion and comprehension that tells people he’s on their side. This interpersonal talent makes him a quick, accurate judge of character that’s as valuable an asset as his super strength and speed. It makes me eager to see more.
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Chris Evans, Tommy Lee Jones, Hugo Weaving, Hayley Atwell, Stanley Tucci. Directed by Joe Johnston
You know how, in those side-scrolling video games of your youth, you were so familiar with the early levels that you could guide your character quickly to the boss monster, running, leaping, punching, slashing, and firing your way past a hundred no-longer-challenging minions and pitfalls? There are sequences in Captain America: The First Avenger like that, and if you don’t overthink them, they’re pretty fun to watch.
Chris Evans is Steve Rogers, a scrawny young man trying and failing to enlist in the Army to serve his country in World War II. He’s beset with a shopping list of physical ailments that keep him out, but so sincere and pure are his motives that he’s an ideal candidate for a scientific military experiment that turns him into a super soldier.
I’m kind of a superhero newbie, and it seems that superpowers are the
result of military ambition, science experiments gone haywire, or alien birth. Of these, I suppose the military angle is most believable, but it comes with an underlying cynicism that works against my sensibilities. I once scoffed at the rich guys with expensive toys because they don’t actually have superpowers, but their stories are dark enough for my tastes while not originating with physical and mental abuse by the government.
Despite these ignoble beginnings, Steve Rogers adds enough brains and
earnestness to rise above the intentions of his creators and become an admirable hero without cheap sentiment. My only experience (at all, in any medium) with Captain America before now had been the first Avengers film, in which he was mysteriously bland and poorly defined. I’d missed Captain America in theaters, and after The Avengers, I was in no hurry to get caught up. But then one Captain America film became three, and for some reason, I recently decided I wanted to be completely fluent in the lore of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, and I was pleased to discover such a likeable, vulnerable hero. Apparently, one needn’t be the Dark Knight to be a tortured soul with a reason to kick butt.
Supporting characters in this film are interesting if cartoonish, but I guess you can’t really complain about comic book characters being cartoonish, so I won’t. I won’t even complain about the main villain’s ridiculous visage. There’s a canon that needs to be served, and I’m a visitor in this world, so I’ll accept the Red Skull on its terms.
Captain America: The First Avenger is a fun, engaging movie with a reasonable explanation for the dorky name and costume, and the kind of main character I want to see more of.