As Marvel’s “The Avengers” continues its domination over the worldwide box office(I’m slated to see it tonight…review soon to follow), I treated myself to a couple of re-watchings of the two most recent set-up films(there have been 5 total, the others being “The Incredible Hulk”, “Iron Man” and “Iron Man 2”). 2011’s unofficial summer movie season kicked off with “Thor” in early May of last year and “Captain America: The First Avenger” soon followed in late July. They were both international smashes(the Norse god raked in 449 million at the box office, while the Captain ranked well with a 368 million overall haul). But are they both worth seeing? Sure…to varying degrees. In fact, one got strong consideration as I compiled my 2011 “Best of the Year” list(truth be told, as an “honorable mention”). Also, they are both much better than either 2008’s “The Incredible Hulk” or 2010’s “Iron Man 2”. Of course, the very fine original “Iron Man” film set this whole ball in motion in May of 2008. Do either of the 2011 entries in the canon hold up?
When it was first announced, I was skeptical that a big screen adaptation of “Thor” could work at all. A flying, blonde dude that wears a viking hat and carries a big hammer? Pretty goofy, right? I was even more cynical when Shakespearean titan Kenneth Branagh was tabbed to direct the movie. Branagh?! “Hamlet”/”Henry V”/”Much Ado About Nothing”-directing Branagh? Considering that “Thor” grossed more cash than all ten of Kenneth’s previous directorial efforts combined…I guess you could say it was a smart move. If only the film were a little smarter. It’s part self-serious, amateur mythology and part fish-out-of-water comedy. The opening scenes of “Thor” in his kingdom of Asgard is almost nauseatingly heavy with CGI. The darn thing looks like a video game. Read that as fake and ostentatious. But when all of the “rival brothers for the throne of the Father stuff” gets cooking—you realize that the hiring of Branagh may have actually been a savvy choice. And then there’s the “Frost Giants”. They are pretty damn spooky and pretty damn cool. When Thor gets banished from the kingdom(after engaging those monsters in a battle that brings instability to Asgard), he ends up landing in the desert of New Mexico. This is where the garish, pulpy look of the film gives way to “stranger-in-a-new-land” obviousness. The one saving grace of all this silliness is the performance of Chris Hemsworth as the title character. He quite convincingly barrels, boasts and carouses through his run-ins in the contemporary, mortal world—and it’s a gas observing him. There is a real actor under that powerful physique(worth noting that Chris earlier proved this to me with diverse roles in 2009’s “Star Trek” reboot and David Twohy’s underrated “A Perfect Getaway”). But, wait a second…isn’t recent Academy Award winner Natalie Portman supposed to be the thespian in this production? Well, the gorgeous Ms. Portman doesn’t embarrass herself here, but she’s certainly not bringing her A-game to the proceedings either. There’s also able support from Stellan Skarsgard, and annoying “comic relief” side-kick stuff from Kat Dennings. “Thor” is a decidedly mixed-bag—but the stuff that works is pretty cool. There’s even a nifty bit where mere humans attempt to yank Thor’s hammer out of the ground that contains the requisite Marvel creator Stan Lee cameo. Plus, you get a seconds-long peek at Jeremy Renner’s “Hawkeye” character. Also, a few decent battle scenes keep “Thor” from being a washout.
“Captain America: The First Avenger”, on the other hand, is a definite keeper. In fact—it’s the very best of the 5 lead-up movies. Directed in heartfelt, gee-whiz, Americana period-style by Joe Johnston(which may make you want to take another peek at Joe’s underestimated “The Rocketeer”—I did…it’s worth it), “Captain America” wears its nostalgia on its sleeve and has real comic-book mojo. Incredible special effects in the early going truly convince you that actor Chris Evans is a scrawny, little guy. His Steve Rogers, after multiple attempts to enlist, finally gets into the army during WWII via the sympathies of Dr. Abraham Erskine(Stanley Tucci). Seems the doc has tapped the diminutive Private Rogers to be an experimental soldier. And after being popped into a metal casket-like gizmo and pumped full of some sci-fi serum stuff, Rogers soon emerges as “The First Avenger”. But after one exciting action sequence featuring a barefoot run through the streets of 1940’s Brooklyn, Rogers military service takes an unusual turn. The new “super-soldier” is tapped to perform for the troops to promote war bonds during USO shows. Those scenes work beautifully, btw, and instills “Captain America” with the extra punch it needed to bump this into the better-than-good category. And even though the second half of the film goes a bit too big with its action set-pieces(like the boarding of a speeding train), its contemporary final shot displays true brilliance in the uttering of a single line…it’s a haunting coda that raises the level of the entire enterprise. Throw in Tommy Lee Jones as a wise-cracking Colonel, Hugo Weaving as villain(the Red Skull), and an alluring Hayley Atwell as love interest Peggy Carter—and you’ve got the latest and the greatest of the Avengers “prequels”.
Now, the only thing left for me to see is whether “The Avengers” can top the standard set by “Captain America” AND the first “Iron Man” film. And I expect to have the review of that up by the weekend, so you will know before long. I hope the movie lives up to just part of my excitement level. This is the kind of stuff that revives the 12-year-old in me.
Thor Grade: C Captain America: The First Avenger Grade: B+