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Avengers: Endgame

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Avengers: Endgame is epic, grand, enthralling entertainment. It is a film painted on the grandest of canvasses, yet one that maintains a fine eye for detail. It combines planetary scale spectacle with intimate moments, mixes tragedy with comedy and provides a fitting climax to a staggering saga. Along the way, directors Joe and Anthony Russo perform the remarkable feat of paying fan service that also serves the story. Fan service is a much-maligned practice: seen as kowtowing to audiences, it smacks of not respecting the story and compromising the artistic vision. But is the purpose of the story and artistic vision, at least in the case of popular entertainment, not to serve the audience? The difficulty of paying fan service is that it is a shot in the dark, since it is hard to know what audiences actually want and attempting to predict this can end in an incoherent product. Arguably, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been performing this balancing act over the past eleven years and twenty-two films, nodding to comic book and movie fans along the way. For the most part, it has been successful, with a steady feed that develops the franchise into greater complexity, yet without becoming too clever and convoluted for its own good.

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With Endgame, the Russos marshal these potentially disparate elements, including a mass of familiar characters, a multitude of storylines that intersect, loop back, replay and turn in surprising directions, and a variety of tones. The managing of tone is especially impressive, as Endgame follows on from the tragic finale of Infinity War, one of the boldest ever conclusions of a blockbuster. The opening portion of the film depicts our surviving heroes – including Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) – living with the trauma of their devastating losses, each of them dealing with their particular trauma in a different way. From this melancholic position, a quest emerges possible redemption, the film echoing mythic quest narratives like The Lord of the Rings, before moving into multiple parallel narrative strands, and creative and at times overwhelming set pieces.

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No emotion is left untapped in this supreme super-powered saga. Laughs, tears, thrills, spills, affection, boo hiss villainy, punch the air moments of sheer joy – all are here in abundance. It is especially impressive that there are narrative elements that become more problematic the more you think about them, but during the film they are of little consequence because of the viewer’s emotional engagement. Those who have invested in the Marvel Cinematic Universe will find themselves amply rewarded, and those with a passing interest are still likely to find much to enthrall them. While there is more of the MCU to come, Endgame serves as a fitting finale to the previous eleven years, and one of the finest examples of its genre to date.

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Avengers: Age of Ultron

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Joss Whedon’s second Avengers movie may be the most ambitious thus far committed to film. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it succeeds in some aspects of its ambition while others are left undernourished. On the negative side, the sheer number of characters both familiar –Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johannson), Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), et al – and new – Pietro and Wanda Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olson), Ultron (James Spader) among others – results in a jumble of motivations, back stories, hallucinations, flashbacks and abilities, and few characters get time or space for development. It also lacks the strong sense of humour of The Avengers, as the bickering between our heroes is much reduced now that they are friends. It may not reach the super seriousness of DC’s superhero antics, but Age of Ultron is the most po-faced entry thus far in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The film is explicitly not self-contained, with multiple references to other parts of the MCU past, present and future, and this sometimes makes the film unfocused. Whedon has publicly spoken of his creative struggles with Marvel, which perhaps explains why the film is sometimes uneven and discordant.

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When Avengers: Age of Ultron does succeed, however, it does so with verve and aplomb, Whedon demonstrating that he has the nous to manage a behemoth of this scale. There are effective character moments such as touching interactions between Romanoff and Banner as well as the Maximoffs, and the film’s biggest surprise is domestic rather than spectacular. The range of superpowers allows for varied set pieces, especially the opening action sequence when he delivers one of his trademark long takes showcasing the various abilities of the Avengers. As the ranks swell yet more powers join the mix, but Whedon, along with DOP Ben Davis and editors Jeffrey Ford and Lisa Lassek, keeps the action coherent, drawing the viewer into the mayhem where we experience both the Avengers’ exhilaration and their fear. Fear is key to this film, as it explores the dichotomy between fear and faith. Both of which fuel the intimate and the epic in this superpowered slobberknocker. The inevitable question is where can the MCU go from here, but the franchise has consistently risen to the challenge of outdoing previous spectacles, and this reviewer at least is confident that future films will continue this trend.

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Continued Assembly Expected

There is some lamentation over the dying art of film projection, as digital projection becomes the norm.  Recently I saw a perfectly projected old print of Thief (Michael Mann, 1981), which did highlight for me the pleasures of viewing something physical, complete with scratches and flickers.  I also recently saw Avengers Assemble (Joss Whedon, 2012) twice, and each time beheld a (seemingly) pristine digital copy that was fresh, bright and clear.  There are advantages both ways, but Avengers Assemble lends itself extremely well to digital projection.  Over the past thirty odd years, superhero movies have gone from bright (Superman) to dark (Batman) to bright (Batman & Robin) to dark (Daredevil) to bright and dark (Iron Man, The Dark Knight), depending on the franchise.  While Christopher Nolan and Warner Bros. take Batman to ever darker depths of derangement and depravity, Marvel has gone the other way and kept its heroic exploits light-hearted, while not skimping on the action and avoiding the dreaded pitfalls of campness that can so easily be fallen into when your arc reactor fails.

Digital projection aided the brightness of Avengers Assemble, rendering a clear, crisp image that would not benefit from a third dimension that dims the image (both of my viewings were in 2D).  Within all this brightness, there was ample visual room to admire the production design and smooth cinematography, including director Whedon’s fondness for long complex takes.  For earlier instances of this directorial signature, see the introduction of the characters in Serenity and various sequences in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel (especially “The Body”).  In Avengers Assemble, a superb long take during the climactic battle features all of our heroes laying their own signature smacks down upon the invading alien army.  From Captain America’s (Chris Evans) spinning shield to Hawkeye’s (Jeremy Renner) tech-arrows, Black Widow’s (Scarlett Johansson) fists and feet to Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) lightning bolts, Iron Man’s (Robert Downey, Jnr.) repulsor rays and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) being, well, smashing, all are contained within a single dizzying take that dives and swerves through New York in a perfect demonstration of the visceral thrill of cinema.  Orson Welles would be proud.

Aside from the energetic style, other Whedon trademarks abound, including the intertwining of humour with the action and the plot.  Indeed the single most memorable aspect of the film may be its humour, from Tony Stark’s quips to Nick Fury’s (Samuel L. Jackson) sardonic comments, Bruce Banner’s slightly bumbling jokes and Steve Rogers being at a loss in the modern world.  Best of all is Loki’s (Tom Hiddleston) determination to not only conquer the world, but to do it in style and have the last laugh (reminiscent of Whedon’s earlier villains such as Spike, Angelus, Mayor Wilkins and Glory).  Grand clashes between heroes and villains can seem perfunctory or even little more than generic fulfilment (such as the anti-climactic battle in Iron Man), but Loki’s plan to lead an alien army to take over Earth, motivated by his own bitterness at being cast out of Asgard and jealousy of his brother, not to mention a divine superiority complex, provide a suitably meaty character trajectory, not to mention a cruel wit that sparks superbly with Tony Stark’s wryness and the Hulk’s bluntness.

Whedon also utilises his strength as a writer and director of ensembles, demonstrating how wise a choice he was for this potentially most unwieldy of blockbusters.  As well as the five super-powered stars, we have super-skilled spies Black Widow and Hawkeye, Nick Fury, S.H.I.E.L.D. agents Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) and Phil Coulson (Gregg Clark), and there’s even time for Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard).  Despite varying screentime and limited space for character development, it never feels that anyone is just there as dressing or collateral damage – each character, sequence and plot point fits neatly into the film’s rich and engaging tapestry.  If the previous Avengers instalments were sometimes underpowered, spending too much time on the origin and/or too little on the plot, they served to build a strong foundation upon which this builds.  The scale of S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters is impressive yet functional – not only is it a grand display of diegetic and non-diegetic technology, it forms an impressive location for much of the drama.  One of the best scenes is an argument between the principal characters that steadily escalates, Whedon and his editors Jeffrey Ford and Lisa Lassek cutting precisely between the participants to escalate the tension, yet keeping a key event hidden until the reveal; meanwhile, events outside increase the stakes for the viewer as well.  Similarly, the final sequence strikes just the right balance between superheroics, pyrotechnics, humorous comments and character interaction, from the bemused to the deeply emotional.

Despite the potential problems of amassing these different elements, Avengers Assemble never fails to engage and entertain.  It is, in many ways, a magnificent achievement to have struck the right balance and maintained pace and tone throughout.  It may lack the troubling and thought-provoking elements of The Dark Knight, or the intensity of the inter-personal battles in Spider-Man 2, but it marshals its characters, plot, style and execution into a marvellously entertaining whole.

Perhaps more interesting than the film itself, though, is its place within Hollywood production.  Avengers Assemble is the climax of four years’ preparation and development, from Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk in 2008, through Iron Man 2 in 2010, to Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger in 2011.  The continued presence of the main players is in some ways quite remarkable.  Ever since Superman: The Movie (Richard Donner, 1978) featured the unknown Christopher Reeve, it has been evident that with a superhero as the star, the wattage of the actor playing them need not be blinding.  Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, George Clooney, Tobey Maguire and Christian Bale were certainly not unknowns when they were cast as various men in spandex, but they were hardly at the level of Tom Cruise, Will Smith or Harrison Ford (it is worth noting that superhero movie Hancock was marketed very much as a Will Smith picture, as the character of Hancock has none of the fame or cultural capital of Marvel and DC’s characters).  Robert Downey, Jnr., Mark Ruffalo and Chris Evans were also well known, but rarely were they leading men in blockbusters, as demonstrated by Evans’ previous superhero role of Marvel’s Human Torch in Fantastic Four, again as part of an ensemble.  Tom Hiddleston and Chris Hemsworth were virtually unknown prior to Thor (interestingly, an earlier Hemsworth/Whedon collaboration, The Cabin in the Woods, though produced in 2009, was not released until this year, most likely capitalising on Hemsworth’s exposure in both Avengers Assemble and Snow White and the Huntsman).  Yet all these stars lend their combined radiance to Avengers Assemble, accompanied by others of equal if not greater fame.  Samuel L. Jackson has had brief appearances in all but one of the previous instalments, and potential A-lister Scarlett Johansson fits easily into the ensemble, as does twice Oscar-nominated Jeremy Renner (set to be a leading man later this year in The Bourne Legacy).  Most surprising perhaps is (Oscar winner) Gwyneth Paltrow, appearing in a paltry three scenes (only one of which is substantial) despite being able to headline a movie in her own right.  Even more striking is that this trend seems unlikely to stop, as Jackson has signed a nine-picture deal with Marvel (Variety).  Ruffalo has also signed a deal to appear in six further Marvel pictures (The Guardian), so we will hopefully see more of the Hulk in the future, while reports of Iron Man 3 appear on a seemingly weekly basis (Total Film) and Thor 2 and Captain America 2 have been greenlit (IMDb.com).

While stars have stayed, directors have come and gone.  Jon Favreau lasted two Iron Man films before being replaced with Shane Black for the third instalment, and Alan Taylor has succeeded Kenneth Branagh for helm(sworth)ing duties on Thor 2.  No reports yet on a director for Captain America 2.  Despite these different authorial presences, the Avengers films have been remarkably consistent, maintaining the bright tone mentioned earlier and the balance between the far-fetched superheroics and the relatable people who perform them (a poignant moment in Avengers Assemble features Stark and Banner discussing their respective “terrible gift[s]”).  S.H.I.E.L.D. has more advanced technology than actually exists (we assume), making the possible world of the Avengers one that is more heightened than “realistic” superhero films such as the current incarnation of Batman.  The consistency of the films despite the disparate writers and directors raises the question of authorship over the films, individually and collectively.  Avengers Assemble is regarded by some as a Joss Whedon film, which has angered comic book fans who insist it is a Marvel product (In Media Res).  While each film has had distinctive elements from its writer and director, such as Whedon’s trademarks as mentioned above, if there is a franchise auteur the most likely candidate is producer Kevin Feige.  Feige has a producer credit on Marvel movies since 2000’s X-Men (Bryan Singer), and Marvel’s “prexy of production” since 2006, so has overall supervisory responsibilities.  If it is unrealistic to assign singular responsibility for an individual film, perhaps it is easier to consider an overall steering influence on a franchise, viewing Feige as the series auteur, akin to a TV executive producer who oversees each episode to ensure consistency and continuity.

The combination of different influences and considerations (not to mention egos!) involved in the Avengers make it perhaps the ultimate franchise.  As has been written elsewhere (In Media Res), the Avengers movie franchise is not unlike comic book publication, where different titles run in parallel but with crossover.  The scale and success of the Avengers’ ambition can be traced to earlier multi-chaptered franchises such as The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter.  Instalments can be consumed separately or cumulatively, with the potential to expand, consolidate and maintain the market.  Viewers who missed Iron Man may see Thor, and then Avengers Assemble, and subsequently come back for Iron Man 3.  Fans of comic books, superheroes, science fiction, action films and blockbusters may watch each instalment at the cinema and then acquire every film upon its DVD/Blu-ray release (I do).  Already Avengers Assemble (or The Avengers as it is known everywhere that isn’t Britain) has collected over $1 billion at the global box office, so Marvel’s business model seems to be working.  In Hollywood, if an idea succeeds then it is worth copying, so perhaps we will see more integrated franchises in the future, parallel storylines as well as sequels that simply continue the same story.  Long-form narratives work well on television, as 24, The Wire and Mad Men (to name but a few) demonstrate.  Films have long been about contained, encapsulated narratives, but Marvel’s The Avengers has demonstrated that there is room for more experimentation.  The development of future franchises will be very interesting to observe.  Digitally projected, of course.

“You know what scares me the most? I like it.” Why Ang Lee’s “Hulk” is a “better” film than Louis Leterrier’s “The Incredible Hulk”

One of the difficulties with auteur appreciation is that we assume a “better” director automatically means a “better” film, and if an auteur delivers a film that is weaker than their general output, we hold them to a higher standard and the film to a correspondingly lower one.  Louis Leterrier is a victim of “Who?” Syndrome, whereas Ang Lee is a victim of his own success.  Therefore, although both directors’ takes on Marvel’s not-so-jolly green giant received criticism, that levelled against Lee was harsher since he is expected to deliver “quality” work.  But Lee’s Hulk actually contains more interesting and thought-provoking material than Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk, despite or perhaps because it does not fit with the normal superhero mould.

The processes by which people become superheroes tend to be glossed over in the movies.  While Superman: The Movie, Batman Begins and Spider-Man, as well as the Hulk movies, provide origin stories, they tend to be fairly simple – Clark Kent/Kal-El’s Kryptonian physiology reacts to Earth’s yellow sun giving him super abilities; the bite of a radioactive/genetically-modified spider fuses human and spider DNA; childhood trauma leads to intense training regime and a quest for vigilante justice.  But rather than simply a dose of gamma radiation, Hulk uses a sequence of accidents to create its hero.  The film may appear to be loaded with unnecessary techno-babble, but the regenerative biology that David Banner injects himself with to be subsequently passed onto his son Bruce serves to create a base upon which the subsequent accidents build.  The nanomeds which are designed to rebuild cells are stimulated by gamma radiation, and Hulk is a product of two generations of rebuilding biotechnology.

Consider this generational interest in regeneration against the generational clashes that fuel the drama of Hulk.  Bruce  (Eric Bana) and David Banner (Nick Nolte) both pursue the same dream of regeneration, and both succeed to an extent. Yet the inflections of their goals are quite different – David appears quite mad, obsessed with immortality and the creation of an ubermensch; Bruce has a more modest goal of healing injuries.  Their contrasting ideologies manifest physically in the battles between David’s mutant dogs and Hulk as well as the final climactic showdown.  These clashes of scientific philosophy provide depth beyond the simple battle between the Hulk and the Abomination in The Incredible Hulk.

This philosophical dimension is a key theme throughout Hulk – what are the appropriate uses of science?  David is one alternative to Bruce’s egalitarian approach, another is Glen Talbot (Josh Lucas) who represents the military industrial complex.  While both films feature the military who wish to use the Hulk as a weapon, Hulk also highlights the commercial exploitation of science.  William Hurt’s General Ross wishes to harness the Hulk’s power for a super soldier, whereas Sam Elliot’s Ross is concerned with destroying Hulk, but Talbot illustrates the danger of military contractors, since his primary interest is commercial.  It is interesting to note that the alternatives to the military industrial complex are academia, as both Betty Ross and Bruce work at a research university, and voluntary medicine, as we see Bruce in South America at the very end.  It is always problematic for a Hollywood movie to criticise commercialism, being a commercial product itself (Fight Club, The Insider and Avatar are other potential offenders), but the ideological contrast in Hulk is nonetheless more complex and thought-provoking than the purely functional fugitive narrative of The Incredible Hulk.

The creation of the monstrous Hulk has always had a tragic dimension – all Bruce wants is to heal others, yet he becomes a menace.  But not entirely, and Lee’s film features a further depth that Leterrier’s film lacks.  While Hulk is destructive, he also demonstrates heroism, particularly when a pilot is about to crash into the Golden Gate Bridge but is saved by Hulk jumping onto his plane.  This is a more interesting moment than when Hulk saves Betty as he does in both films, because that is simply an act of protective love.  The pilot was attacking Hulk, so why save him?  In the mutated form, Bruce Banner is ironically able to be what he is truly capable of being – heroic.  In The Incredible Hulk, the Hulk is a paradoxical problem for Bruce, both the cause of his fugitive status and his means of escape.  By the end of the film, he seems to have acquired a measure of control, and this will allow the narrative to be fitted into the overarching franchise of The Avengers.  But while it provides extensive and effective action and a nice line in humour, Leterrier’s film chooses not to explore the deeper issues that ultimately make Lee’s film more interesting.

Lee’s visceral style conveys the raw emotion and power of Hulk, while Leterrier’s style simply depicts the events without getting under the Hulk’s skin.  Edward Norton is a very fine actor, but Eric Bana shines in a role that has more background and depth.  Other performances in both films are strong but largely inter-changeable, although Tim Roth’s feral energy is a high point in The Incredible Hulk.  If there is a striking omission in Lee’s film, it is the absence of a villain like the Abomination, or other evil doppelgangers such as the Green Goblin, the Joker and Doctor Doom (and would the detractors of Hulk say that it’s worse than Fantastic Four, X-Men Origins: Wolverine or Batman & Robin?).  Glen Talbot and David Banner do not make for such memorable villains, but that is because, to borrow the tagline of another (unfairly) maligned superhero film, the greatest conflict lies within.

The serious engagement of this internal conflict is what truly sets Hulk apart not only from The Incredible Hulk but also all superhero movies, as Lee performs a probing investigation into the tension between nature and humanity.  The heroic tendency is something innate in Bruce, but it takes Hulk to bring it out.  The ugliest things in the film are the military machines, the knife that kills Bruce’s mother and the nuclear detonation.  The beautiful lingering shots of moss, lichen and bark, as well as animal and plant cells, even rock and sand particles, express a yearning for a communion with nature.  After Hulk escapes from the army base, he leaps tremendous distances, and a close-up of his face as he soars through the air shows remarkable tranquillity for a creature fuelled by rage.  There is a highly poignant moment as Hulk communes with nature in a desert oasis, again seemingly at peace before the helicopters turn up and ruin it.  David Banner shows his lust for power as he seeks to dominate nature by absorbing energy to become a shape-shifting (identity-subsuming?) would-be deity.  But Hulk is the manifestation of the liminal space between nature and humanity, as he embraces his animalistic, natural impulses as well as his human compassion and Bruce’s desire to protect and aid.  In doing so, Ang Lee’s Hulk constitutes a unique contribution to the superhero genre, one that engages critically with the concept of heroism and explores the tension between nature and humanity.

Oh, and Eric Bana would have done just as well as Mark Ruffalo will doubtless perform come The Avengers.