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Captain Marvel (2019)

My knowledge of Marvel’s actual comic books extends to a bit just beyond the original Secret Wars, plus Grant Morrison’s 2004-ish run of New X-Men. The character of Carol Danvers has never occupied very much of my headspace within that. During one of those periods where – I think – her fans would tell you that her writers were just screwing with the character to be meaninglessly cruel, her powers got stolen by Rogue back when Rogue was a villain. This was when Rogue was drawn to be deliberately ugly instead of a supermodel. So Carol occasionally showed up in Uncanny X-Men when I was occasionally reading it, with a new power set and the name Binary.

About fourteenish years ago, I had a lot of extra cash and briefly entertained myself by buying most of Marvel’s line of Essentials reprints, and DC’s similar Showcase Presents. I bought the Ms. Marvel collection and I’m not sure why I kept it, except out of morbid curiosity over the unbelievably awful ending. Apparently the whole “Binary” business came about from X-Men writer Chris Claremont taking perfectly understandable objection to a previous writer being so clueless about what to do with a strong female lead character that he had her get brainwashed and pregnant while the Avengers stood by thinking how nice it was that Carol finally found someone to settle down and birth some babies with. A later writer decided that what Carol really needed was to become an alcoholic.

So in the last decade, some creative teams who want to actually portray the character as heroic and inspiring, led by writer Kelly Sue DeConnick, have apparently turned this mess of a character into something that a younger and more clued-in fanbase has loved. I haven’t read any of these comics, but they certainly sound a trillion times more interesting and more sympathetic to their audience than anything that was done with the character when I was a kid. And it’s this version of Captain Marvel – the one who flies jets for the Air Force and doesn’t wear a black bondage costume – who’s been incorporated into the Marvel movies, played by Brie Larson, and we all found it hugely entertaining.

The movie is set thirteen years before Iron Man, in the days of dial-up connections and Blockbuster Video, and it dots a bunch of Is and crosses a bunch of Ts you didn’t think needed noting. It gives us the early career of Ronan the Accuser and one of Clark Gregg’s first assignments as Agent Coulson. It answers all sorts of questions about Nick Fury and who he’s been willing to trust. They’ve got this digital de-aging business down to such an art that it looks like Samuel L. Jackson made this film immediately after he made Pulp Fiction in 1994.

Most importantly, though, this gives us a great character, one who has some confusion, but a great deal of confidence and incredible power. Like T’Challa and the cast from Wakanda, she’s here to inspire a wider and a more diverse audience than the narrowly-focused world of comics-based stuff typically does. I’m really looking forward to seeing her interact with the other heroes in next month’s Avengers film, and as for our favorite seven year-old critic, we saw the movie and had lunch and went by Payless to get some new shoes as the chain enters its dying days, and he picked himself out a pair of red sneakers with Carol’s logo on them.

Photo credit: LAist

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The Avengers (2012)

More evidence, as if any were needed, that a good movie is elevated when you watch it with an appreciative kid. I like The Avengers just fine – I keep telling our son that these are the other, lesser Avengers, but I don’t think he’s buying it – but I’m pretty sure he’s thinking this is the finest achievement in motion picture history. I thought he was going to explode when Thor and Iron Man have their fight.

Every joke that involves the Hulk in the final fight had our son roaring. Some others bombed with him because he didn’t understand them, which just means he’s going to appreciate the movie more and more as he gets older. On that note, he got a little impatient after the attack on the Helicarrier, and when Black Widow and Hawkeye have their heart-to-heart, he tuned out, as you’d expect a kid to. I really must remember to watch this again with him sometime and see whether he understands the character stuff better, particularly all the interesting manipulation going on as both Nick Fury and Loki place bets on how our heroes will react to various bits of challenging information.

That’s about all I have to say, but for posterity, The Avengers is the sixth Marvel Universe movie, it’s directed and co-written by Joss Whedon, and it features the debut of Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner and the Hulk. Everybody else is all present and correct, and my favorite bit is when Captain America shows up in Stuttgart to save that old man’s life and you just know that Loki’s about to get a knuckle sandwich. Our son was taken by just about everything else, and was dazed by that long final fight.

Finally, he was totally charmed by the second credit scene in the little deli and its quiet awkwardness. Of course, now that I have said that, I’m a little peckish. I wonder whether I can persuade my family to go to Ankar’s and get some shawarma for supper tonight. It may not be “best in New York City” good, though.

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Young Indiana Jones 1.11 – Princeton, 1916

In this blog, I’ve occasionally joked about the fun of watching television from parallel universes, and wondering about the shows that we could have watched if only our selfish TV companies had made them. With this in mind, I suggest to you that somebody in the multiverse got to enjoy at least a couple of seasons of actress Robyn Lively starring as Nancy Drew in adventures and mysteries set in the late 1910s after her no-good boyfriend abandoned her and went off to Europe. I bet that show was huge fun.

It’s perhaps a little unfair to start talking about the guest star instead of the new format for Young Indiana Jones, but it’s their own darn faults for making the earliest chronological appearance of the 17 year-old Indy a story where the guest star just steals the show from him. Sean Patrick Flanery takes over as Indiana Jones in this story, which was first shown on ABC in the spring of 1993, and Lloyd Owen is still here, briefly, as Indy’s father.

We’re in Princeton, where Indy is juggling his high school studies, time on the baseball team, an afterschool job as a soda jerk, and being boyfriend to Nancy Stratemeyer. Nancy is a fictional character, although her father, Edward Stratemeyer, was a real person. In 1916, he was renowned for his children’s books, principally the tales of the Bobbsey Twins and Tom Swift. Later on, he would devise the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, and the Nancy here is clearly meant to suggest that the fictional Nancy is based on his own daughter.

The episode was written by Matthew Jacobs and directed by Joe Johnston, and it’s a delightful tribute to all sorts of adventure fiction for kids. The mystery is all about some important plans that have been stolen from Thomas Edison’s nearby laboratories, and it’s got foreign agents and Naval intelligence and car chases and bad guys who conveniently talk about their secret schemes while our heroes are hiding right behind them. Of note among the actors, Clark Gregg, later to play SHIELD Agent Coulson, is here in a small part. Mark L. Taylor and James Handy, who had appeared together in the delightful Arachnophobia three years previously, are also among the cast. Director Johnston also cast Handy in small roles in his films The Rocketeer and Jumanji.

Our son enjoyed this much more than the previous ten episodes, though he was concerned about why they stopped making the “world tour” stories. This is the sort of development he’d better get used to. You can’t look back at classic television without looking at a lot of aggravating cancellations!

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Thor (2011)

There’s a general feeling that the Marvel movies just keep getting better and bigger, but I have a soft spot for the first Thor film, which has a sense of whimsy and fun and a deliberately smaller scale. Our son agrees that it’s the best of the first four movies. It’ll get surpassed, but Kenneth Branagh was such a good choice to direct this. He makes the human stuff and the epic stuff seem so vibrant and entertaining.

Well, I say it’s a smaller scale despite Loki’s plan to destroy the Frost Giants’ home realm of Jotunheim. We’ve not seen a planet really threatened with extinction in these movies yet. But it’s all focused on a small town in New Mexico which is so visually appealing that I wish it was a real place I could visit. Natalie Portman’s character and her scientist buddies have moved into what looks like an old car dealership or garage or something. I just love the look of the place.

The one unavoidable thing in these movies, since they try to look like the recognizable world, is that the government is represented by fun-killing agents in black suits who ruin everything. The town of Puente Antiguo is so colorful and bright, and then they swoop in and confiscate all the lovable scientists’ equipment and data. Clark Gregg can accomplish a lot with the twinkle in his eye and his smile, but mainly what he makes me want to do in that scene is punch him in the nose. SHIELD remains the one note in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that I dislike. They were never so awful in the comics when I was a reader.

Asgard is another beautiful location, a lovely triumph of gold and rainbows. I like Anthony Hopkins as Odin, and I really like Idris Elba as Heimdall. Our son couldn’t quite describe the look and feel of Asgard, and called it “a future city.” After the movie was over, he bugged his eyes out to demonstrate how “I went WOW when I saw Asgard!”

As for the leads, Chris Hemsworth probably won’t go down in the books as an actor with a lot of range, but what he does within them is consistently entertaining. I really like him as Thor, and I loved his character in Ghostbusters, because he does fish-out-of-water extremely well. He’s great with Portman, and with Stellan Skarsgård in a too-short scene in a bar, but this is the first of the Marvel movies to let the villain run away with the picture. I know a couple of women who melt over Tom Hiddleston, which is amusing because butter wouldn’t melt in Loki’s mouth. There was a rumor going around a couple of years ago that Hiddleston would take over from Daniel Craig as James Bond. I wouldn’t stop going to see them.

Actually, there was another rumor going around a couple of years ago that Idris Elba would be the next Bond. That could also be great.

Speaking of comics, the movies have never done right by the Warriors Three. The original Thor comics are some of my favorites from the Stan Lee and Jack Kirby days, and you should swing by a comic book store in your town and pick up the first four of those great big inexpensive Essentials reprints. Most of the issues were split between the main Thor feature and a backup called Tales of Asgard, where Fandral, Hogun, and Volstagg take center stage, and they’re probably the most downright fun comics that Marvel has ever published. The movie’s right to add the Lady Sif to their group, and Jaimie Alexander is very good in the limits of her role, but I figure the studio should plan a proper Sif and the Warriors Three feature as soon as possible, with some epic realm-hopping quest set in the glorious past of Asgard.

Well, I’m also not completely satisfied that Volstagg is played by anybody other than BRIAN BLESSED, who was born for the part, but Ray Stevenson acquitted himself just fine.

One little forgettable bit of this movie is that it’s Jeremy Renner’s first appearance as Hawkeye. It’s not quite a blink and you’ll miss it scene, but it’s very short and he’s just called “Agent Barton,” and so our son didn’t realize who the character was. Poor Hawkeye doesn’t have the same amount of merchandising as the other Marvel heroes, does he? Well, they can’t all be on the marquee, I suppose.

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Iron Man 2 (2010)

So the third Marvel Universe movie… it’s kind of underwhelming, isn’t it? I think I’d honestly have preferred a six episode TV series with Tony Stark wheeling and dealing and saving his own life without any superhero stuff in it. The superhero stuff here just isn’t all that interesting. Mickey Rourke is the villain this time, an odd gestalt of two comic book characters, Whiplash and the Crimson Dynamo. It’s a very odd performance, even for Rourke, who has a reputation for being a little eccentric. The screen certainly doesn’t come to life when he’s on it.

When Tony’s being rude to the Senate Committee, on the other hand, the movie’s absolutely full of life. When he and Pepper Potts keep talking at the same time, it’s almost magical. I absolutely love watching Robert Downey Jr. and Gwenyth Paltrow together. They have such great chemistry. And when Black Widow does her thing and takes out eight or nine guards while Happy works very hard to pummel one, that’s pretty wonderful, too. But Tony and James Rhodes, now played by Don Cheadle, have the big climax together against a small army of armored drone robots, and it’s one of the most dull conclusions to any of these movies. There’s no sense of awe this time out, just punctuations to the actors having a better movie in their civilian guises.

I admit that this post is pretty underwhelming, too. This just isn’t a very inspiring movie to me, really. All of the plot complications were completely over our son’s head, in part because he was too excited to pay attention. This is a big day for him. We got up a little early to watch this, and then take an hour for him to exercise and spend some energy while I hammer this out, and we’ll be on our way to see Black Panther in about thirty minutes. Two Marvel movies in one day? He’s died and gone to heaven or something. He just interrupted playing the Hulk smashing zombies to interrupt me with a hug.

So he’s received a quick recap of the apparently relevant events in Captain America: Civil War, but I’m not sure he’ll need it. He just wants to see costumed people ripping cars in half. The whys and wherefores aren’t all that important at age six.

Honestly, in this movie, I’m kind of happier watching the costumed people argue in doughnut shops.

There’s this completely strange subplot to the movie where Tony is dying because the radiation from his arc reactor eats through the palladium core. But Nick Fury gives him a hint that there may be other elements, which works out because Tony’s father built a giant clue about a new element into the… wait for it… grounds plan of the 1974 Stark Expo park. So he synthesizes this new element with a makeshift supercollider and then gets all better. I realize that superhero origin stories are often tortuous, but that’s pretty silly.

Now the Hulk has chainsaws and saws for ultimate power. He’s honestly coming up with something more interesting than what we just watched. I wonder whether Downey and Paltrow are available?

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Iron Man (2008)

Mainly we watch older movies here at Fire-Breathing Dimetrodon Time, but we’re going to cycle the Marvel Universe movies into a rotation so that he’ll have the chance to see some of them before next summer. Maybe we’ll see five or six of them before the next Avengers movie? Seven might be a good age to see these on the big screen. He’s pretty mature for his age and very well-behaved in theaters. And if this is any indication, he might just love that Avengers film. He told us at lunch that Iron Man is second only to his beloved Captain Underpants as his all-time favorite movie.

That’s not to say it didn’t baffle him in places. It’s interesting to look back in the series; I’ve seen two of the films twice, and the rest no more than once, in theaters. I’ve been picking these up when I find copies, usually used, at a sensible price. They never seem to be on sale, and Marvel Studios has not released any sensible collected-in-sequence editions to take up less space on fans’ shelves. So I bought some six-disk boxes and wish I had a copy of Photoshop and the talent to make new artwork for them!

It’s amazing how comparatively slow this movie is. It takes a long, long time for Tony Stark to appear in his first suit of armor. The more recent movies, particularly Doctor Strange, work in shorthand compared to this. Iron Man spends a lot of time, and I mean a lot of time, emphasizing how insufferable and arrogant Tony Stark is. It’s all hugely entertaining and I wouldn’t change a minute, I’m just interested in how the later origin films follow the early ones’ template, trusting the audience, once they’ve seen a few of these, to understand the main character from much shorter sketches.

There are lots of reasons I don’t see many modern movies. One of them is that I prefer the comfort of the character actors of the sixties and seventies; I just don’t see enough modern movies and television to really know the actors. Honestly, I’m not kidding, I’ve seen Scarlett Johansson in literally one film that isn’t a Marvel movie. I know her as a singer first, and Black Widow second! I’ve even missed most of Robert Downey Jr.’s career. According to IMDB, I’ve seen him in exactly four roles other than Tony Stark, and I was in high school for two of those. (He was in a movie version of The Singing Detective? There’s a movie version of The Singing Detective?)

Anyway, it’s become standard in blog posts about Marvel movies to praise the casting. These might be the movies’ real genius, because the plots aren’t anything that outrageous. The stories don’t thrill me and CGI special effects don’t make my jaw drop any more, so it’s all about the casting and the humor for me. Iron Man introduces us to Stark, to Gwenyth Paltrow’s long-suffering Pepper Potts, Jon Favreau’s loyal Happy Hogan, and Clark Gregg’s SHIELD agent Coulson. Samuel L. Jackson shows up right at the end as Nick Fury, setting an unhappy precedent of sitting around through a million credits for maybe sixty bonus seconds.

Terrence Howard played James Rhodes in this movie. I’m not sure why, but Don Cheadle took over the part after this one. Blink and you’ll miss Bill Smitrovich (Inspector Cramer in A Nero Wolfe Mystery) as a general. Leslie Bibb plays a reporter and Jeff Bridges – okay, him I’ve seen a fair bit – is the villain. They’re all excellent.

While Bridges is terrific as the villain Obadiah Stane, this story does suffer more than a little from the same malady that infects so many superhero movies: the odd need to have the hero’s and the villain’s stories intertwined. As such, Stane’s betrayal is never even remotely surprising. I was once told that I should have known that immediately, but I wasn’t reading Iron Man comics in the eighties, when it appears that the character was introduced, and never heard of the Iron Monger until they made a piece for him in Heroclix, a collectible combat game I once played.

The business about Stark Industries’ stock prices plummeting was over our son’s head, and he was probably tuned out for about six of this movie’s 120 minutes. But Jon Favreau, who directed the movie as well as playing Happy Hogan, knew how to keep things busy and moving for even the younger viewers. Some of the humor was over his head, but the slapstick of Tony learning to fly had him riveted and guffawing. I like how you just know one of those cars is going to get crushed; place your bets on which one. The action scenes had his eyes popping out of his head. I was just a little worried that Iron Man’s first appearance in the caves would frighten him, but it didn’t. This morning was all talk about Iron Man, and how he can’t wait for the next Marvel movie. Then we rented him the complete Hanna-Barbera cartoon Wacky Races and he might have forgotten about Tony and his friends. (Car # 6, the Army Surplus Special, is his favorite. I like the Gruesome Twosome most myself.)

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