Joss Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron (C) assembles all of the superheroes from the original hit but little of the wit for a flimsy follow-up. Lumbering, uninspired and overlong, the film now carries the burden of having to extend the franchise that’s now in spinoffs, on TV and cross-platform. It all seems like a perfunctory business exercise; attempts to elevate the excitement and the scale of the fight sequences just become lugubrious. Without a clear protagonist and with a metal villain whose intentions beyond destruction are unclear, the film limps to its inevitable box office triumph. One sequence with the heroes all trying to hoist Thor’s hammer captures the potential charm of this many greats in one comic movie; the rest is forced.
Don Hall and Chris Williams’ animated adventure Big Hero 6 (B-) is a triumph of style over substance, with an amazing hybrid metropolis imagined as a cross between San Francisco and Tokyo and a Marvel comic inspired origin story about a sextet of superheroes. There’s an Iron Giant-style central relationship between boy and gentle robot that provides much of the film’s comic and emotional heft, and there’s a sinister scientific subplot that propels the rise of a super villain. The characters are out of central casting, and there’s no breakout voice talent, prompting the most joyous parts to be the chase sequences through the cool cityscapes. The story is rather routine, down to the training montages and climactic showdown. Really, this is all about the action and the visual spectacle, and those elements are grandiose. It’s startlingly original for a Disney film but not that trailblazing otherwise.
Beaming onto a screen near you is a vaudeville starship troupe milking about five jokes for all they’re worth in James Gunn’s aimless but often joyful space opera comic book adaptation, Guardians of the Galaxy (B). A smuggler out of the Han Solo playbook, Chris Pratt continues his awesome year with crowd-pleasing snark on a mission to keep a mysterious orb out of the clutches of baddies. His companions including an endearing tree-man and a wise-cracking raccoon (voiced by Vin Diesel and Bradley Cooper) who each get some great laughs in mischief-making derring-do. The intergalactic plot? Kinda lost in space. The film deserves kudos in the Marvel canon as a lively lark even if it uses up its clever action conceits in the first hour. The planetary effects are as triumphant as the tone ribald. Motown tracks and monster ballads also add some lift. It’s much more style than substance but filled with the tart nihilism of a cherry bomb that detonates when you least expect it. Side note: On the schawarma scale of consequence, the very brief epilogue will ruffle some feathers.
Anthony and Joe Russo’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier (B+) wisely eschews CGI-heavy creature effects for French Connection-style shoot-em-up combat and cat-and-mouse brinksmanship. The formerly frozen super soldier played by Chris Evans owns his shield-wielding role this time around as a morally grounded hero amidst specters of villainy, greed and terrorism. Scarlett Johannson is a game sidekick with the film’s rare comic relief lines as Black Widow, and Anthony Mackie is a welcome addition as a friend from the VA hospital who joins the team’s mission and becomes the first African-American Marvel superhero, The Falcon. Robert Redford and Samuel L. Jackson also get some commanding moments as S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters execs. Despite some overlong fight sequences, this sequel is uniformly solid and earns its distinctive badge of honor. After diminishing artistic returns with the latest Iron Man and Thor movies, this Captain continues the top-flight spectacle achieved with The Avengers.
The discipline of director Kenneth Branagh is missed this time around as all the king’s horses and all the king’s men can’t put this kingdom back together for the sequel again. Director Alan Taylor’s Thor: The Dark World (D+) reunites Chris Hemsworth as Thor Tom Hiddleston as Loki for more interplanetary highjinks, although this time none of it makes sense. Worse, Natalie Portman, who was charming in the first film, is a hot mess in the sequel. Except for a clever effect in the final reel involving a wormhole between worlds that keeps dumping characters into the middle of awkward battle sequences, this film misses most marks. It can’t even get the film stock or color choices consistent from scene to scene. It’s unfocused, poorly written, drably filmed and a bit of a missed opportunity. What’s the opposite of a Marvel?
Shane Black’s Iron Man 3 (B-) is a bit daffier than its predecessors but entertaining nonetheless. Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Patrow are back, joined by Ben Kingsley as a vexing villain. After the other Iron Man films and The Avengers, the plot just doesn’t pack as much punch, but it’s still a lot of fun. Close encounters with treacle such as partnering Iron Man with a kid are thankfully less cheesy than they could have been. Robert Downey Jr. has to do just a bit more heavy lifting holding this third film up!
Director Kenneth Branagh is a bit of an inspired choice to helm the sword and corcery on a faraway planet comic book epic Thor (B), which pits Chris Hemsworth as the titular hero against bad boy brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) for keys to the kingdom ruled by Anthony Hopkins’ King Odin. As Thor’s earthbound love interest, Natalie Portman gets some nice sequences; but this is all about action and fantasy and virtual chess moves. The best bits are by Hiddleston as the delicious villain and Kat Dennings as comic relief. Branagh does a good job keeping viewers interested in the affairs on two planets and with some complicated subplots, and it’s largely a blissful bolt of action and fun.
Joe Johnston’s Captain America: The First Avenger (B-) is an old-fashioned comic book adventure with Chris Evans as a weakling who volunteers for an experiment that turns him into a super-soldier in WWII and ultimately a superhero. Evans is appealing as the noble hero, and sequences with his buddy played by Sebastian Stan set the stage for some of the most emotional elements of this series. The plot with a villain called Red Skull comes off as a bit cheesy. Overall, it’s a colorful entry into the Marvel canon and a soaring showcase to the original agent with shield.
Director Jon Favreau expands his mileu and enhances his aesthetic with an Iron Man 2 (B+) that builds on the giddy spirit of the first and allows Robert Downey Jr. to continue to hold court over gab and gadgetry. It’s a rip-roaring actioner with an even more personal story, higher stakes and an all-star supporting cast including Mickey Rourke as a villain and Scarlett Johannson and Samuel L. Jackson in Avenger roles. Gwyneth Paltrow returns, and Don Cheadle takes over the role originated by Terrence Howard. All in all, it’s a sensational sequel success.
Jon Favreau’s Iron Man (B+) is a giddy, inventive adventure that gives talented actor Robert Downey Jr. the role of a lifetime. As genius Tony Stark who refashions himself as a magnificent flying machine, Downey carries the high-flying comic book adventures on his shoulders. Quick with a quip and fast with the action, he grounds a new franchise with supporting help from Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeff Bridges and Terrence Howard.