2. The Incredible Hulk (2008)

This post is part of a series I am writing on the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe from Iron Man to Endgame. There will be spoilers for the entire series of films.

The Incredible Hulk (2008) Poster

The Incredible Hulk kind of has an unfair reputation as one of the “bad” Marvel movies. It’s certainly no masterpiece, but it’s… fine. I enjoyed it when I first saw it, and for a long time it was the only Marvel movie I owned on DVD.

I also don’t have a problem with Edward Norton as Bruce Banner. It seems unlikely that Norton would’ve been a good fit for the MCU in the long run (particularly with his need to have a hand on the script), and as it turns out he didn’t want to stick around, but I don’t think he did a bad job at all, and I suspect his rewrite was an overall improvement of this film. The problem I guess is that he just doesn’t really stand out in the role – his performance certainly isn’t as interesting or memorable as Mark Ruffalo wound up being.

And that might be the problem with the whole film. It isn’t bad, but it isn’t trying to do anything particularly interesting with the character. It lacks the humour of Iron Man, and the plot ends up being a pretty generic comic book story. There were some good decisions made: not rehashing the origin story, instead having it happen in a montage over the opening credits, let us get straight to business with the actual story. The first act is pretty decent, with Bruce in hiding in Brazil, controlling his anger and trying to find a cure, until he gets discovered and is forced into the open. Once he returns to the USA, however, the rest of the film is pretty by-the-numbers as he meets up with his love interest, gets caught out by the military for a (fairly good) action scene, escapes and manages to get the cure, only to have to bring the Hulk back to stop the film’s villain, Abomination.

Tim Roth feels miscast in his role as Emil Blonsky, who becomes Abomination in the finale. I like Roth but he doesn’t quite seem to fit. The character’s rivalry with Hulk is also entirely one-sided; while they do cross paths a few times, I really doubt Banner has any idea who he is when he finally goes in to fight Blonsky’s final, monstrous form.

It all just feels like a “comic book movie”, of the kind we used to get before Marvel Studios and their winning formula. It’d perhaps be less out of place beside Fantastic Four than Iron Man.

It’s also a really ugly film. Almost every scene is dark, and the teal and orange and green colour grading make the entire film look kind of sickly. The design of the Hulk, too, has this ugly texture and colouring; they were going for monstrous, and it’s well animated, but not at all visually appealing. I just don’t want to be looking at this guy for an entire film. The redesign of the Hulk from Avengers onwards is a huge improvement, both looking more like the comic character and conveying so much more of the actor beneath the effects.

I’ve seen a few different explanations of why the Hulk never got another standalone film. It was something brought up repeatedly but never followed through on, and eventually one of Hulk’s best stories was cannibalised for Thor Ragnarok instead. Sometimes we’d be told they thought they needed to hold back one of their characters so that people would have a reason to go see the ensemble movies; more likely than that is that Universal Pictures reportedly held on to the distribution rights for all future Hulk films. But it doesn’t seem to have been because they thought this film was a failure.

In terms of the larger Marvel universe, the film doesn’t really have much of an impact. Thor Ragnarok calls back to the scene where Bruce jumps out of a helicopter, and William Hurt has reprised his role as General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross several times, but that’s as far as it goes. Betty Ross might as well never have existed for Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner.

Ultimately, between the recasting of Banner and the lack of a sequel it tends to feel like this film has been forgotten, both by Marvel and the fans alike. I don’t blame anyone for forgetting about it, though. It’s a pretty forgettable film.

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1. Iron Man (2008)

This post is the first in a series I’m writing about every film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe from Iron Man to Endgame. They will contain spoilers for the entire series of films.

Iron Man (2008) Poster

I don’t think Marvel knew exactly what they’d be getting with Iron Man. At the beginning, the idea of the shared universe and the Avengers seems to have been an amorphous thing, an idea more than a plan, and there doesn’t seem to have been a strict roadmap of how the individual character films would get there. These days people tend to talk about Tony Stark as the centre of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but Iron Man was kind of a fluke.

Iron Man director Jon Favreau approached making the film with a very improvisational style, and star Robert Downey Jr shared that attitude to the script. The film was shot mostly in continuity, dialogue written and rewritten immediately before shooting a scene and altered further through on-set improvisation. They had a story, but the individual beats evolved and changed to fit what the creators brought to the work.

As Favreau said himself in a live commentary recorded with Downey in 2008, this approach to the script meant many of the major plot beats were given less significance than might have been expected, with the core of the film instead forming around the smaller character moments that came out of their improvised conversations. Shooting in continuity also meant that small things they came up with during production could be built upon and paid off as they worked through later scenes, from running jokes about a fire extinguisher robot, to major events like Tony using the spare arc reactor Pepper Potts got framed as a gift (an idea Favreau had for a nice character moment for Potts) to save his life in the third act. It also had long lasting implications for the entire shared universe: Downey’s famous improvised line, “I am Iron Man”, left us with a world of heroes who rarely keep secret identities.

And the thing is, it all works. The dialogue feels natural, the relationships feel real, every actor in the film is at the top of their game. They made a solid film, beginning to end, and if some of the action is a little rote, the stuff around the action makes up for it.

This is the film that went on to define the tone of the MCU, which is no surprise when follow-ups The Incredible Hulk and Thor didn’t quite live up to expectations. Modern Marvel films might not be so loose in their production, but they’ve largely kept the same level of fun and humour established in the first film. (And knowing how Iron Man was made, the decision to give the struggling Thor series to director Taika Waititi for Thor Ragnarok makes a lot of sense.)

And it was Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark that made Iron Man work, so no surprise again that Marvel Studios built their franchise around him. He was their best asset, and by the time they were ready to make Avengers they knew it. The last decade of blockbuster superhero films would be very different if it wasn’t for the pairing of Jon Favreau and Robert Downey Jr.

Tony Stark, billionaire playboy philanthropist superhero, has appeared in 10 of Marvel’s 22 films (one of those being a minor cameo), and his character has been remarkably consistent throughout. Having seen the impact of his weapons first hand, he seeks to stop their production, only to find none of the people around him – who, because of his area of business, are all in the military or arms manufacturing – are willing to help, so he has to take on the job himself of protecting the world from his own creations. This was the plot of his first film, and it’s been his story throughout, as he goes further and further to protect the world, constantly trying to make up for his own failures.

This is why Captain America is wrong, in Avengers, when he says Tony is not the type to make the sacrifice play. He may have been arrogant at times about what he can achieve with his technology, but he’s been putting his life on the line since he first built the Iron Man suit. He did it in Iron Man when he told Pepper to overload the arc reactor even with him hanging directly above it. He did it in Avengers with the missile, and in Infinity War going toe to toe with Thanos. So audiences weren’t really surprised when he was the one to make the ultimate sacrifice in Endgame.

But that’s all in the future here. In 2008 Iron Man was a surprise win for the brand new Marvel Studios. Now the creators were left with the question of where to go next with the character – what happens after the hero reveals his identity to the whole world?

But before I get to that, the studio already had different film in production…
the-incredible-hulk-poster

Starting soon: A Marvel Retrospective

I’ve decided to rewatch every Marvel movie. And to justify that to myself, I decided I should try to write a whole series of blog posts about them as I go, looking at the individual films in the context of the decade-long saga they became, how they built up the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and how Endgame brought that all together.

Jokes about “the most ambitious crossover in history” aside, this series of films really has been a major accomplishment: 22 films over 11 years all sharing a mostly consistent continuity and characters despite going through the hands of many different creators, and without having a single major flop (though a few of the films are not so good, the overall quality level is impressive).

I don’t know exactly what this is going to look like on here. I’ll be figuring it out as I go, starting with my post on Iron Man (2008). But I can at least lay out my expectations going into this.

First of all, I have seen most Marvel movies more than once already, except for these which I’ve only seen once when they came out in cinemas:

  • Iron Man 2/3
  • Thor: The Dark World
  • Ant-Man/Ant-Man & The Wasp
  • Dr Strange
  • Black Panther
  • Captain Marvel
  • Avengers: Endgame

So I already have a good idea in mind of what most of these films are like. The common wisdom seems to be that The Incredible Hulk, Thor: The Dark World, and Iron Man 2 are the “bad” films in the series, and I’m not sure I disagree, but I also feel like we don’t give the films a lot of credit for the baseline of quality we get from Marvel: a bad Marvel movie isn’t as bad as a bad DC movie, for example. It’ll be interesting to see how I feel about the ones I haven’t seen in a long time.

On the flip side of this is the idea of the MCU as one big interconnected decade-long saga, what is now being referred to as “The Infinity Saga”. There may be a lot of planning going into the big crossovers now, but that wasn’t always the case. A lot of the success of the early Marvel movies seems to have been a happy accident, and one of the things I’m looking forward to as I go through it is seeing how all these little decisions by individual creators have added up to the big mess of continuity we have now.

I am, of course, a big fan of this series of films. I wouldn’t consider doing something like this if I wasn’t. If I have any goal with this project it’s to enjoy myself and indulge my inner fanboy, but hopefully I can offer an interesting perspective as well*.

The first post should be up in the next day or two, then I hope to have a new one every few days until I’m done. This will take a while.

(*Let’s be real, it’s mostly the self-indulgence thing. Nobody reads this blog anyway.)

Colossal

colossal_28film29Colossal, written and directed by Nacho Vigalondo, is a strange film to have to describe to someone. When you say “it’s a dark black comedy about alcoholism and abusive relationships starring Anne Hathaway, who finds out she’s causing a giant monster to attack Seoul”, you get some puzzled looks, because yes, this is a weird mashup of genres. I wasn’t sure what to expect going in; what little I’d heard suggested it would either be a huge disaster, or that I would love it. And hey, it’s not a disaster.

Anne Hathaway’s character, Gloria, is an unemployed writer with an alcohol problem. After being kicked out by her boyfriend she moves back to her home town, where she runs into her childhood friend Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), who offers her a job at his bar. Gloria quickly settles into a pattern of drinking all night with Oscar and his buddies, often waking the next day with no memory of the night before.

And then the news starts reporting about a giant monster that has been materialising in Seoul, South Korea, causing terror and destruction. Gloria quickly comes to the realisation that she is in fact causing the monster to appear, and it is mimicking her actions.

It’s a pretty blatant metaphor: the monster destroying Seoul as a stand in for the damage Gloria causes to those around her with her self-destructive drunken behaviour. Where things get really interesting is after she shares her discovery with Oscar and his friends; Gloria’s relationship with Oscar begins to take a darker turn, and their influence over the events in Korea become part of an increasingly abusive cycle.

It’s so obvious what the film is doing with this premise that it seems like it shouldn’t work at all, but somehow it does. Despite some jarring swings in tone in the early parts – when the monster attacks are first reported I felt like this would fall apart after all – the film really manages to sell the idea that this is what is happening, and this is what real, flawed people would do with that power. The performance by Sudeikis in particular, with the gradual reveal of his abusive nature, is excellent.

This can be a very dark film, and it is tackling some serious subject matter, but it also manages to have incredibly funny moments, even when what’s happening perhaps isn’t something that should be laughed at.  The tone does clash at times, but for the most part it’s handled well, and I think the portrayal of domestic abuse is something the film does well and treats somewhat respectfully. If there’s one problem on that end it’s that the resolution of their conflict is maybe a little too easy and neat.

One final thing I feel is worth bringing up, and which adds a small caveat to my otherwise strong recommendation, is that this is a film about two white Americans in New England whose personal problems are acted out upon the lives of thousands of South Koreans; the very real death and destruction they cause is far removed from them, existing for the purposes of the film as part of an extended metaphor for the control abusers can hold over their victims. As a white westerner myself I don’t think there’s much I can say about that, but the use of Asian lives like this without providing them a real presence or agency in the film seems like something that deserves addressing.

That said, Colossal is unique, weird, and features some brilliant performances. It might not work for everyone, but I very much enjoyed it and would recommend checking it out. It’s in cinemas in the UK right now (though not in all of them; I had to travel a little out of my way to see it).

X-Men Apocalypse

X-Men Apocalypse would be a good film, if they hadn’t decided to skimp on character development in favour of filling the middle with pointless fanservice and padding.

(Spoilers ahead.)

I just got back from seeing the film, and I already tweeted a bunch of thoughts on it, but here I’ll go over them in a little more detail.

So you’re making a movie, and you have a group of teenage characters who are just getting to know each other. The foreign exchange student wants to see a bit of US culture, so what else is there to do but have them take a trip to the mall? (This is set in the 80s, after all.) They get to hang out together on their own terms for the first time; you can show how they interact as a group, start them bonding. Maybe the new kid gets into some trouble because he looks different, and his new friends stick up for him. When they come back to school and find out that plot has happened, they’ve already become a team to the audience’s eyes.

Or you can have all that happen off screen and show another Quicksilver slow-mo sequence instead. The fans liked that last time, right? They won’t want to get to know these new characters, what they want is the same thing as last time, but twice as long and with way more forced humour.

And that there is where X-Men Apocalypse falls down. While we do get to know Scott Summers, Jean Grey, and Kurt Wagner somewhat, their initial bonding as a group happens off screen. This is perhaps because the following segment of the film has the three of them working together to help rescue several other X-Men (and Moira McTaggart) from Colonel Stryker, but the problem with that is the entire sequence is irrelevant to the plot of the film.

At best, the section in Col. Stryker’s secret base exists only to have a fanservice scene of a newly-created Weapon X Wolverine slaughtering his way through a small army. It’s padding, pure and simple, and adds nothing to the Apocalypse story.

(Can I just jump in here to say how bullshit it is that it’s the three characters who get to work together here? There are four friends who go to the mall together, and thus avoid getting caught by Stryker. Jubilee, another fan favourite character, is one of their group. And yet I’m pretty sure the film never even named her, and she disappeared entirely after the destruction of the school.)

Speaking of the Apocalypse story, this too suffers from the unnecessary padding of the film. When he first ventures into the modern world and encounters Ororo (also never named, iirc) it seems like we’ll get to see how he brings her onto his side – but instead, he gives her power and that’s it, she’s on side with no explaining or convincing. Each of the first three of his Four Horsemen – Storm, Psylocke, and Angel – is turned completely at the first demonstration of his power. There’s no sense of why these characters would go along with his plan to destroy the world. Their recruitment scenes wind up perfunctory, and kind of repetitive. Only the fourth Horseman, Magneto, gets an extended scene convincing him to join – because of course he does, this latest trilogy of X-Men films always likes to make everything about Magneto when it can.

Considering the amount of padding in the film, they had so much room to develop all these characters. Show us how Apocalypse convinces Ororo, what it is about his message that gets to her, and it would become much more meaningful when she turns against him. If they’d spent less time shoehorning in Wolverine cameos and Quicksilver music videos, maybe we could’ve got to know why Angel is the way he is, and maybe we’d know a single damn thing about Psylocke.

This film had a villain whose entire plot was “recruit followers, then use their power to destroy the world”. When there’s little in the way of event in your plot, you make it up with character. Make us empathise, make us understand. Don’t just throw in additional empty action to keep us occupied until you reach the page on your screenplay marked “start climactic battle here”.

(The rest of the film was alright. Not amazing, but certainly not bad.)

My Hugo Award Nominations, 2016

Today is the last day for submitting Hugo Award nominations, and I’ve been working on finalising my ballot. Below, you’ll find all the works and people I’ve nominated, plus some other bits where there were close calls. I’m making this post mostly as a record for myself of the stuff from 2015 that I liked enough to nominate.

If you’re interested in checking out any of the works I’ve nominated, I believe everything in the Short Story and Novelette categories is freely available online, as is one of the novellas.

Best Novel
– The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu
– Ancillary Mercy, Ann Leckie
– Uprooted, Naomi Novik
– The Fifth Season, N K Jemisin
– Archivist Wasp, Nicole Kornher-Stace

This was tough to winnow down to 5 nominations. Also in the running were:
– Black Wolves, Kate Elliott
– Radiance, Catherynne M Valente

Best Novella
– Binti, Nnedi Okorafor
– Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, Kai Ashante Wilson
– The New Mother, Eugene Fischer

Technically, Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is above the length requirements for this category at 43k words, but the rules have some allowance for works that are close to the limits and fit the category better.

Best Novelette
– The Oiran’s Song, Isabel Yap
– Ballroom Blitz, Veronica Schanoes

This was a difficult category not because there were a lot of things to choose from, but because I looked at the list of short fiction I’d liked from 2015 and found only one novelette on that list. There’s a surprisingly small amount of fiction published at this length. I managed to catch up and read the Isabel Yap story today, which was recommended on a few other people’s lists, and it immediately went onto my ballot.

Best Short Story
– The Shape of My Name, Nino Cipri
– Madeleine, Amal El-Mohtar
– The Half-Dark Promise, Malon Edwards
– Three Cups of Grief, By Starlight, Aliette de Bodard
– Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers, Alyssa Wong

There are a bunch of other short stories I wanted to read, but I never made time to catch up on all the links I have saved. These five, however, are all deserving of their spot on the ballot, so I don’t feel bad about not seeing all the other options. Also under consideration were:
– Elephants and Corpses, Kameron Hurley
– The Language of Knives, Haralambi Markov
– Planet Lion, Catherynne M Valente

Best Related Work
SFF in Conversation: Foz Meadows – Thoughts on Fanfiction

I don’t keep up with a lot of stuff that fits this category, but I thought this essay by Foz Meadows on fanfiction was excellent, a very in depth exploration of the subject.

Best Graphic Story
– The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl vol 1
– The Wicked + The Divine vol 2
– Bitch Planet vol 1
– Saga vol 5
– Nimona

There are always lots of good comics. Some that didn’t make my ballot this time:
– Ms. Marvel vols 3-4
– Rat Queens vol 2
– ODY-C vol 1

Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form)
– Mad Max: Fury Road
– Star Wars: The Force Awakens
– Marvel’s Jessica Jones
– Sense8
– Ex Machina

Fury Road all the way. Please don’t lose this to Star Wars. (The others are also good, though I think I’m less excited about Ex Machina.)

Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form)
– “Cut Man”, Marvel’s Daredevil
– “AKA Sin Bin”, Marvel’s Jessica Jones
– “What Is Human?”, Sense8
– “4,722 Hours”, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

I’m not all that enthused on this list. They’re decent episodes, but a lot of the TV I’m watching these days works best as single long works.

Best Fan Writer
– Foz Meadows
– Abigail Nussbaum

I don’t keep up with a lot of fan writers, but these two I do are consistently good.

Campbell Award for Best New Writer
– Alyssa Wong
– Sunil Patel
– Isabel Yap

I’ve not read a whole lot of work by these three, but what I have has been strong.

The following categories were left blank, because I don’t really know what to do with them:
Best Editor (Long Form)
Best Editor (Short Form)
Best Semiprozine
Best Fanzine
Best Fancast
Best Fan Artist

The Thing That Bothers Me About Spider-Man

(or about the Spider-Man movies, at least,)

…is that they always have to give Peter Parker a love interest whose only purpose is to make him worry about her getting hurt. Whatever else is going on in the story, Peter Parker needs to angst about whether his being Spider-Man puts his girlfriend at risk.

We had five movies of this now. Five movies of Peter breaking up with his girlfriend because he doesn’t want her to get hurt. Five films of her breaking up with him because he can’t make up his mind one way or the other. Five films where villains realise he cares for her and target her specifically, so that Peter has to rescue her. Even when it’s as strong a character as Gwen Stacy in the newer films – who is smarter than Peter, accomplished, independent – she falls into the same role.

Occasionally – such as in the latest film, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 – the writing acknowledges Peter’s protectiveness as a problem. Gwen Stacy is intelligent, capable, and independent – and she has specific knowledge that will help with what Peter’s about to do – and when Peter tries to leave her behind to keep her safe, she calls him out on it. But even then, the narrative inevitably goes on to prove Peter right.

These characters, even when they aren’t actually fridged, exist to present the threat of fridging. Their place in the story is to be the potential woman-in-refrigerator, so that Peter Parker can agonise over the danger he is putting them in.

Now maybe it’s true that these issues are just inherited from the comic books, that the creators are adapting the stories that already exist. But by doing that, they must acknowledge that they are perpetuating this trope, the image of the love interest as a victim, or potential victim. After five movies of the same thing, it really starts to stand out. It’s time they tried to do something different.