Super Heroes Occupy the Summer Box Office

"Okay guys. Drop your weapons. The Avengers isn't until May."

I didn’t see enough films in 2011 to do a proper Top 10, but I did see four out of the five superhero flicks released last year (sorry, Green Lantern,  but as soon as I saw that first terrible trailer, I knew I wasn’t coming anywhere near a theater where you were playing and The Green Hornet starred Seth Rogan. ‘Nuff said.).    Though Super is to superhero flicks what a McNugget is to a piece of fried chicken.

This is what I thought of the 2011 crop of super hero fantasy flicks and each and every one of them will be completely forgotten once The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises open.   Unless they’re bad in which case a billion fanboys will kill themselves but only after running riot and burning down the theater.

"This armor is great. Except when I need to scratch."

THOR starring Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopkins, Idris Elba, Tom Hiddleston.  Directed by Kenneth Branagh

Budget:  $150 million  Gross:  $181,030,624

Verdict:  Three hammers out of five

The first super hero of the summer was potentially the most problematic.  Thor is a big shot in the Marvel Universe, but hardly anyone who has never read the comic book has any idea who he is.  To a layman, Thor is the guy they studied one day when they covered Norse mythology and even then he was some burly redhead, not a blonde surfer hunk.   Thor seemed like a tough sell to me and if director Kenneth Branagh couldn’t pull off the scenes where Thor throws his hammer the possibility of failure seemed imminent.

I shouldn’t have worried.   When the hammer strikes, Thor is pretty bad ass.  Unfortunately, it soars in the scenes in Asgard and snores when Odin (Anthony Hopkins) kicks Thor (Chris Hemsworth) down to earth so he can take off his shirt and make Dr. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) all hot and bothered.

Thor is two movies.  A balls-out action story and a clunky love story with some pretty lame stabs at comedy.   I remember everything about the battle between Thor and the Frost Giants and have forgotten nearly everything  when he’s earthbound.   There’s an okay battle with The Destoryer after Loki (Tom Hiddleston) sends him  to finish off the powerless God of Thunder and a gratuitous cameo by Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye and a lot of scenes of Hemsworth and Portman sniffing each other’s butts like two dogs in heat.

Okay, not really, but it would be more interesting if they had than all the yakking they do about nothing.  Branagh  made his bones directing Shakespeare stories and I wish he would have cut back some of the dialogue and exposition and pumped up more scenes of Thor hitting things with his hammer.

I liked Thor, but I didn’t love Thor.  Tom Hiddleston made Loki both interesting and surprisingly sympathetic.  I kind of was on his side for a while because Hemsworth played Thor as an arrogant, swaggering prick for most of the movie and was a bit more believable than his “these mortals are worth fighting for” change of heart of the last 30 minutes.    As the battling siblings Hemsworth and Hiddleston are perfectly cast  and Hopkins makes a sufficiently omnipotent Odin.  I didn’t even mind Idris Elba as Heimdall, but if all the clunky scenes on Earth with Thor and Portman were taken out, nothing would be lost by the omission..  Since Marvel had to give Thor a reason to come back to earth to appear in The Avengers, the prospect or a future booty call as motivation.

 

“Hey Peggy. My shirt come back from the cleaners yet?”

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER   Starring Chris Evans, Hugo Weaving, Tommy Lee Jones, Hayley (sigh) Atwell, Stanley Tucci, Samuel L. Jackson.  Directed by Joe Johnston

Budget: $140 million Gross:  $176,654,505

Verdict:  Four shields out of five.

You have to give director Joe Johnston and the screenwriters credit.  They took perhaps the corniest superhero in the world –a dude wrapped in the flag—and told his entire origin in a way that was completely involving.    There’s a lot of set-up with Steve Rogers before you ever get a chance to see Captain America throw his might shield , but I was never bored by the decision to take the time to establish why there was a need for a super solider and how Captain America had to grow into the role.

Chris Evans as the Human Torch was supposedly the best thing about the two Fantastic Four movies I have successfully avoided watching and if this third bite of the apple had tanked his next stop might be in some terrible police procedural  on CBS.  He nails both Rogers and Captain America and like Christopher Reeves as Superman and Clark Kent, it’s very important to get both the super hero and the secret identity right.

Tommy Lee Jones and Stanley Tucci add veteran gravitas to the essentially silly concept and Hugo Weaving as the Red Skull is the best he’s been since Agent Smith (and much better than he was hiding behind a Guy Fawkes mask in V For Vendetta).    The introduction of The Howling Commandos (minus Nick Fury as Sgt. Fury) didn’t do much for me and Bucky getting greased so fast was a blink and you’ll miss it moment, but I bet he’ll return for the inevitable sequel.

"^Yoo hoo, Captain. I found your shirt."

The revelation was Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter, Cap’s soon-to-be-long-lost-love interest.   I’d never seen Atwell in anything prior to Captain America, but every time she’s on the screen is a homina homina homina moment.    She’s the kind of woman that makes me happy to be a straight man.  If DC ever wants to get a Wonder Woman movie made, cast Atwell and I’m there on opening night and I don’t even like Wonder Woman.   Yeah, her British accent is veddy thick, but Warner Brothers should lock her up in a contract and then lock her away in a room to watch a marathon of House until she can conceal her accent as well as Hugh Laurie.

"Did you just see the Golden Gate Bridge go lfying by?"

X-MEN:  1st Class  starring James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender,  Jennifer Lawrence, Kevin Bacon, Rose Byrne.  Directed by Matthew Vaughn

Budget: $160 million Gross:  $146,408,305

Verdict: Three and ½ “X’s” out of five

This is the Marvel super hero movie that falls outside of the control of the Mighty Marvel Studios, but harkens back to than the preceding X-Men movies and Kick-Ass too (but not Wolverine ‘cause that movie never happened).

Bryan Singer directed the first two X-Men films, abandoned X-Men: The Last Stand to direct Superman Returns, which may be why both underwhelmed me so, but returned to produce 1st Class.  Matthew Vaughn directed it and fresh off of the dark, but hilarious send-up of super heroes, Kick-Ass, turned in a movie with a lot of serious intentions going on.

When the idea was floated for a solo Magneto movie, nobody could conceive how 72-year-old Ian McKellen could carry a movie about a mutant super villain.   After watching Michael Fassbender  do Magneto as a relentless Nazi-hunter, I could totally buy it for two hours in the dark.

James McAvoy is just okay as Charles Xavier.  Nothing more and nothing less.  I can find a dozen more charismatic actors that could have stuck the landing better.   McKellen and Patrick Stewart inhabit the yin-yang of Magneto and Xavier so thoroughly, but McAvoy is pretty drab compared to Fassbender who takes Magneto and turns him into a screen test for the replacement of Daniel Craig when he gets too craggy to play James Bond (any minute now).

Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique is pretty, sexy and more interesting in her scenes with Fassbender than McAvoy (whom the more I think about his performance the more I dislike it).  The rest of the first class of X-Men are mix-and-match, though the guy who plays The Beast is light years ahead of Kelsey Grammer’s  version in The Last Stand.

Hunger games? I can think of some games I'm hungry to play.

The movie is good, but it’s not a lot of fun even with the Hugh Jackman cameo.   It takes itself very seriously in a way a parody like Kick-Ass doesn’t try to be.   I give Vaughn credit for taking things in a completely different direction from his previous movie.   First Class was popular with the critics pulling down a 87percent “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes compared to 79 percent for Captain America and Thor’s 77 percent, but domestically it didn’t recoup its budget, though it did bring in over $355 million worldwide.   I guess  after the American non-comic book audience realized there was no Wolverine and an all-new cast of X-Men, they weren’t feeling the love.

"Come see my movie or I'll beat you to death."

SUPER  starring Rainn Wilson, Ellen Page, Liv Tyler, Kevin Bacon: directed by James Gunn

Budget:  $2.5 million Gross:  $324,138

Verdict:  Two and a half pipe wrenches out of five

Super qualifies as a super hero movie in the same way Kick-Ass qualifies as one:  Just barely   Iit’s just as violent and even more graphic as anything in Kick-Ass.  But unlike Matthew Vaughn,  James Gunn doesn’t want anyone to laugh at the sad sack Crimson Bolt because  Rainn Wilson plays him as a disturbed psychopath who is no better than the criminals he’s beating up.

I’m no fan of Wilson.  Never watched The Office, but if he’s as big a creep there as he is here that was the right call.  Wilson plays Frank, a schlub fry cook whose wife (Liv Tyler) is seduced and strung out on heroin by the nefarious Jacques (Kevin Bacon).  Unable to free her by conventional means since the police are always useless in these kind of films, he gets divine inspiration to become a costumed vigilante.

No super powers?  No problem.  As the Crimson Bolt, Frank hunkers down by a dumpster and waits to brain drug dealers and cretins who jump the line at movies with a big honkin’ pipe wrench while screaming his motto, “SHUT UP CRIME!”  It’s not exactly going for realism.

Along the way he picks up an unwanted sidekick, Libby, a comic book geek girl, (Ellen Page) who turns out even more of a hard core crazy than Frank is as she creates her own costume and anoints herself “Boltie.”  Soon she’s sitting next to Frank behind dumpsters waiting to commit acts of ultra-violence and extremely  discomforting sexuality.

How extreme?  Let’s just say if you ever wondered what it would look like if a horny Robin raped Batman, you won’t have to wonder again.  This is quite a rape-y movie.  Wilson’s inspiration to try super-heroing comes via tentacle rape.  Bacon rapes Tyler.  Page rapes Wilson.  Rape. Murder. More rape.  James Gunn likes rape.

This was a hard movie to figure out.  Is it supposed to be a tongue-in-cheek send-up of superheroes, a graphic violent and profane put down of the genre, a gross-out black comedy or none of those things?  It’s hard to tell.  Wilson has limited range as an leading man and Gunn’s script is too muddled to make his point.  Even at 96 minutes, Super feels long . Boltie/Libby is twisted as a pretzel and Page has a lot of fun with the role.  It’s as far as she can get from Inception or Juno which is what probably appealed to her.  That, and the chance to moan, “It’s all gooshy.”

I only wish I could have had as much fun with Super.   It’s got a nasty streak mixed in with the humorous aspects, but even though I like strange cinema as much as the next freak, I can’t totally recommend this one.  It’s worth watching once to judge for yourself, but it’s numerous flaws and scattered story ultimately don’t engage.

Happy New Year.  2012 is going to be a huge year for super heroes if you like that sort of thing.  If you don’t there’s always the second part of Twilight: Breaking Dawn.

Crazy things come in small packages.

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