Daredevil (2003)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #22

Take the dare

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 103 minutes | 133 minutes (director’s cut)
BBFC: 15
MPAA: PG-13 (theatrical cut) | R (director’s cut)

Original Release: 14th February 2003 (USA, UK & others)
First Seen: cinema, February 2003

Ben Affleck (Pearl Harbor, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice)
Jennifer Garner (13 Going on 30, The Invention of Lying)
Michael Clarke Duncan (The Green Mile, Sin City)
Colin Farrell (Minority Report, Alexander)

Mark Steven Johnson (Ghost Rider, When in Rome)

Mark Steven Johnson (Grumpy Old Men, Ghost Rider)

Based on
Daredevil, a Marvel Comics superhero created by Stan Lee and Bill Everett.

The Story
Blind New York lawyer Matt Murdock defends the innocent by day, and by night uses his special abilities to bring the guilty to justice as costumed vigilante Daredevil. When crime boss Wilson Fisk, aka Kingpin, hires Bullseye to take out a business associate, the assassin frames Daredevil for the crime, which brings him into conflict with the businessman’s combat-trained daughter, Elektra.

Our Hero
Blinded as a child, Matt Murdock found his other senses heightened. Following the murder of his father, he trained in the law. Now by day he’s a defender of the innocent, and by night hunts the guilty as superhero Daredevil. Even though the film mixes in his origin story, it doesn’t take a “Year One” approach to his crimefighting, which makes a change of pace even now. (In recent years a lot of the blame for the film’s failure has been laid at Ben Affleck’s door, because it’s popular to bash ’00s-era Affleck. Rotten Tomatoes’ short summary of contemporary reviews tells a different story, stating “Ben Affleck fits the role” as one of the film’s key qualities.)

Our Villains
Coming off the back of The Green Mile, Michael Clarke Duncan was the obvious chap to step into the giant shoes of Hell’s Kitchen’s crime lord, Wilson Fisk, aka Kingpin. The real fun comes courtesy of Colin Farrell’s crazy, campy killer, Bullseye, who enlivens the film any time he’s on screen.

Best Supporting Character
Jennifer Garner is terribly miscast as Elektra, really, but she makes a fair fist of it nonetheless, and the film doesn’t shy away from the outcome of that storyline.

Memorable Quote
“Hey, that light, at the end of the tunnel? Guess what? That’s not heaven… that’s the C train.” — Daredevil

Memorable Scene
Matt and Elektra spar in a children’s playground. It’s a scene some people despise, probably because of what it thinks passes for dialogue, but you can’t say it doesn’t stick in the mind.

Memorable Music
If you were of the right age and disposition back in the early ’00s, the Daredevil soundtrack was more influential than the film itself. It was partly responsible for launching gothy rock group Evanescence, who you may remember for Bring Me to Life, which was on the film’s soundtrack and was their biggest hit (it was #1 here for four weeks). I think they’re still going, despite numerous changes of line-up, though they release albums once in a blue moon.

Letting the Side Down
“All of it!” Oh, hush, you.

Making of
Originally greenlit as a relatively low-budget film, at roughly $50 million, during shooting Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man was released and became a huge hit (it was the first film to gross over $100 million in one weekend). Consequently, Fox upped Daredevil’s budget to $80 million, specifically to “enhance the film’s visuals”. I guess that’s where all the Spider-Man-esque CGI tumbling came from, then.

Previously on…
Although this is the first full-blown adaptation of Daredevil to actually make it to the screen, he’s turned up in other characters’ series down the years, including both live-acton (1989 TV movie The Trial of the Incredible Hulk, which starred John Rhys-Davies as Kingpin) and animation (episodes of the ’90s Spider-Man and Fantastic Four series).

Next time…
Although no sequel was forthcoming, Jennifer Garner starred in spin-off Elektra. Whatever you think of the 2003 Daredevil, Elektra is much, much worse. Numerous attempts at a reboot movie faltered, until the rights reverted to Marvel Studios, who used the property to kick off the Netflix arm of the MCU. As much as I like the movie, the TV series is much better. Season two is released this Friday, so if you’ve not seen any then you’ll soon have 26 episodes to catch up on, you lucky thing you.

1 Razzie (Worst Actor (Ben Affleck, also for Gigli and Paycheck))
1 Razzie nomination (Worst Actor of the Decade (Ben Affleck, also for everything else he did in the ’00s))
1 Kids’ Choice Award nomination (Best Female Butt Kicker)
2 MTV Movie Awards Mexico nominations (including Best Colin Farrell in a Movie (it lost to S.W.A.T.))

What the Critics Said
“This is the Unforgiven of superhero films. Conventions are turned on their head, twisted, questioned. […] In almost every superhero film, there’s another conventional scene where the villain has the hero cornered and helpless. Yet the villain never unmasks the hero. That scene drove me nuts in Spider-Man. […] In Daredevil, no one ever hesitates to unmask DD. That’s what I mean by this being a film grounded in reality. People act real, do real things. Even if they are wearing silly costumes.” — “Dr. Michael Hfuhruhurr”, Ain’t It Cool News

Score: 44%

What the Public Say
“Colin Farrell is deliciously hammy and steals every scene he’s in, showing he’s having a total blast (and to be honest, the hamminess suits Bullseye). Michael Clarke Duncan is PERFECT casting for Kingpin, for his size, stature, overall menacing feel. And honestly, I like Ben Affleck in this, too. He makes me believe he’s blind. He makes me believe that he’s a broken, tortured character who tries to put on a brave face in front of his friends.” — Nick Piers


The runt of the litter when it comes to the (first) modern explosion of superhero movies, Daredevil has, believe it or not, always had its fans. The darker tone than contemporary X-Men or Spider-Man films works in its favour in that respect, though I know not everyone feels that way. Ben Affleck actually does a solid job as the titular hero, while Michael Clarke Duncan was perfectly cast as hulking villain Kingpin. Most enjoyable, though, is Colin Farrell’s finely-judged camp craziness as henchman Bullseye. Okay, the Netflix series has now easily surpassed it, but the Daredevil movie is still a moderately underrated film for its era. (The Director’s Cut is apparently much better, too, though I’ve still not made the time for it.)

Season two of Marvel’s Daredevil is available on Netflix from Friday.

#20 will be next… with character actors planning genocide.


Blade (1998)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #12

The power of an immortal.
The soul of a human.
The heart of a hero.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 120 minutes
BBFC: 18

Original Release: 21st August 1998 (USA)
UK Release: 13th November 1998
First Seen: TV, c.2001

Wesley Snipes (White Men Can’t Jump, Demolition Man)
Stephen Dorff (Backbeat, Immortals)
Kris Kristofferson (Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, Heaven’s Gate)
N’Bushe Wright (Zebrahead, Dead Presidents)

Stephen Norrington (Death Machine, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen)

David S. Goyer (Dark City, Batman Begins)

Based on
Blade, a Marvel comic book character created by Marv Wolfman & Gene Colan.

The Story
When hospital haematologist Dr. Karen Jenson is bitten by a living corpse — actually a vampire — she encounters Blade, leather-clad badass vampire hunter. He mercifully takes her to his lair, where she hopes to create a cure for her impending vampirism. Meanwhile, mid-ranking vampire Deacon Frost aims to take over the world, for which he needs Blade’s unique blood…

Our Hero
The Daywalker — half-human half-vampire Blade, who can go out in sunlight (hence the nickname) and controls his bloodlust with injections. Passes his time helpfully killing vampires.

Our Villain
Being born human, turned vampire, and consequently looked down on by the purebred elders, probably gave Deacon Frost a chip on his shoulder, which may be why he believes vampires should enslave humanity. Which, despite his betters’ disapproval, he sets about doing.

Best Supporting Character
Blade’s mentor and Q-like gadgetmaster, Whistler. According to Wikipedia he was created for the film, but made his debut two years earlier in the Spider-Man animated series (voiced by Malcolm McDowell, no less). 20 years hence, apparently he still hasn’t appeared in any comics, which is very unlike Marvel.

Memorable Quote
Blade: “There are worse things out tonight than vampires.”
Karen: “Like what?”
Blade: “Like me.”

Memorable Scene
The opening action sequence sets the tone: a vampire nightclub, where the music pounds and blood pours from sprinklers, as the Daywalker slaughters everyone inside in a display of gleeful ultra-violence. Hard R indeed.

Letting the Side Down
Computer-generated liquid is still hard to do, so in 1998 it must’ve been a nightmare. Some CGI blood plays a key role in the climax — it looked terrible then, and I bet it looks worse now.

Next time…
Two direct sequels, the first directed by Guillermo del Toro, the second designed to launch a spin-off (it failed). A semi-related live-action TV series lasted one season in 2006, and an unconnected animated series was part of the Marvel Anime project in 2011. The rights have since reverted to Marvel, so there’s talk (largely from fans) of Blade joining their Cinematic Universe, with or without Snipes and possibly on the Netflix side of things.

2 Saturn nominations (Horror Film, Make-Up)
1 MTV Movie Award (Best Villain, tied with… There’s Something About Mary.)
1 MTV Movie Awards nomination (Best Fight, for “the fight against vampires”. Oh, that one!)

What the Critics Said
“Sure, the story is pretty standard, and the dialogue is laughable or worse. But creative cinematography and non-stop, decently choreographed gratuitous violence make watching this comic-book movie — Blade is a minor, almost-forgotten Marvel comic — entertaining. In fact, it’s arguably the best comic-book movie of the year” — John Krewson, A.V. Club

Score: 54%

What the Public Say
“Stephen Norrington’s direction is superb here, and he handles most of the action scenes very well, mixing some beautiful establishing shot with tighter, jumpier shots during the film’s immersive fight scenes. Fight scenes are well-choreographed and never feel like they are going on for too long, and thanks to the superb stunt work, feel thoroughly brutal.” — thatfilmbloguk


Before comic book movies were the all-conquering box office behemoth they are today, Blade was a Marvel Comics adaptation in technicality only. A violent, dark, appropriately bloody (’cause, y’know, vampires) horror-tinged late-’90s actioner, Blade isn’t big or clever, but it has style and a glorious commitment to its extremeness. Some say the Guillermo del Toro-directed sequel is even better, but for me that came a little too far into the era of CGI dominance and comic book movie popularity — the original has a kind of analogue purity that can’t be beat.

#13 will have… moments lost in time, like tears in rain.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

2015 #130
Joss Whedon | 141 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Avengers: Age of UltronIt feels kind of pointless reviewing Avengers: Age of Ultron, the written-and-directed-by Joss Whedon (and, infamously, reshaped-in-the-edit-by committee) follow-up to 2012’s “third most successful film of all time” mega-hit The Avengers Marvel’s The Avengers Avengers Assemble Marvel Avengers Assemble. In terms of consumer advice, you’re not going to watch this sequel without having seen the first, and therefore “more of the same (more or less)” will suffice for a review. In terms of a more analytical mindset… well, what is there to analyse, really? I’m not sure this movie has anything to say. “Of course it doesn’t, it’s a blockbuster,” you might counter, which I think is unfair to blockbusters. Not to this one, though. Nonetheless, I have a few thoughts I shall share regardless.

Firstly: Marvel’s initially-stated goal of keeping each of their film series separate enough that you don’t need to watch them all has clearly gone out the window by this point. Okay, you really needed a fair bit of knowledge from The First Avenger and Thor to fully understand Avengers Assemble (indeed, as I noted at the time, that first team-up movie is practically Thor 2), but I reckon you could get by without. In between, things have got worse: jumping from any of the pre-Avengers films to their post-Avengers sequel without viewing the team-up movie renders them semi-nonsensical, and now swathes of Age of Ultron make little sense without at least having seen Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which fundamentally shifted the status quo of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

That’s not all, though, because Age of Ultron is also concerned with setting up the future. Far from being self-contained, there’s heavy-handed set-up for Avengers 2.5: Civil War Captain America: Civil War, Thor: Ragnarok, and the two-part Avengers: Infinity War. Titular threatEven though the first half of that is still three years away, we’re still very much on the road to it. Heck, we have been practically since the MCU began, thanks to those frickin’ stones (if you don’t know already, don’t expect me to explain it to you), but now it’s overt as well as laid in fan-friendly easter eggs. The titular threat may rise and be put down within the confines of Age of Ultron’s near-two-and-a-half-hour running time, but no such kindness is afforded to the myriad subplots.

Said threat is Ultron, a sentient robot born of Tony Stark’s work, who seeks to make the world a better place by obliterating humanity. As played by James Spader, it seems like Whedon has created a villain in his own image. Oh sure, every character speaks a little bit Whedon-y, but Ultron’s speech pattern, syntax, tone, and sense of humour is often reminiscent of how Whedon himself sounds in interviews; and if you told me Spader was doing a Joss Whedon impression for the voice, I’d believe you. Considering the well-publicised behind-the-scenes wrangles the film went through, especially in post-production, it does make you wonder how conscious it was — Whedon casting himself as a villain with good intentions who’d like to destroy the Avengers. Something like that, anyway.

A behind-the-scenes story Marvel Studios are more keen to emphasise is how they did a lot of real-world-related stunts for real, like in the Seoul bike/truck/Quinjet chase, for instance (you know, the one where Black Widow is on the bike in the film but controversially not in the toy because of the “no girl toys!” rule). Behind-the-scenes features on the film’s Blu-ray detail the extent they want to in closing down real locations, performing dangerous or hard-to-achieve stunts, and so on and so forth. You have to wonder why they bothered, because there’s so much CGI all over the placeNo one wants to play with Scarlett Johansson (not just obvious stuff like the Hulk, but digital set extensions, fake location work, even modifying Stark’s normal Audi on a normal road because it was a future model that wasn’t physically built when filming) that stuff they genuinely did for real looks computer generated too. All that time, all that effort, all that epic logistical nightmare stuff like shutting down a capital city’s major roads for several days… and everyone’s going to assume some tech guys did it in an office, because that’s what it looks like. If you’re going to go to so much trouble to do it for real, make sure it still looks real by the time you get to the final cut. I’ll give you one specific example: Black Widow weaving through traffic on a motorbike in Seoul. I thought it was one of the film’s less-polished effects shots. Nope — done for real, and at great difficulty because it’s tough to pull off a fast-moving bike speeding through fast-moving cars. What a waste of effort!

Effort invested elsewhere has been better spent, however. For instance, this is a Joss Whedon movie, so we all know somebody has to die. Credit to Whedon, then, for investing in a thorough attempt at misdirection. He goes all-out to imply that (spoiler!) the bucket shall be kicked by Hawkeye: the archer has suddenly got a bigger role; we get to meet his family; every time there’s a montage and someone starts discussing sacrifice or the inevitability that they won’t all survive, it’s Barton who’s on screen; he’s the most sacrificeable Avenger anyway, the only one with neither his own movie nor fan demand for one; and Jeremy Renner’s dissatisfaction with the role he got in Avengers 1 has been well documented. If anything he goes too far in that direction — it’s so obvious Hawkeye’s for the chop that it’s not wholly surprising when there’s a ‘twist’ and (bigger spoiler!) the even-more-dispensable Pietro Maximoff (he apparently has just seven lines in the entire film) is the one who make The Ultimate Sacrifice. Which is… neither here nor there, really.

Double troubleThe really daft thing is, Whedon specifically added Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver… wait, are Marvel allowed to call them that? I forget. Anyway, Whedon added the Maximoff twins because, as he said himself, “their powers are very visually interesting. One of the problems I had on the first one was everybody basically had punchy powers.” I know Hawkeye’s power is more shoot-y than punchy, and we all know X-Men used the silver speedster even better, but still… Well, I guess it’s not his problem anymore. Nor is the fact the film ends with a radically new status quo, including most of the big-name heroes having sodded off to leave a 66%-replaced Avengers line-up… which will be completely shattered almost instantly in next year’s Captain America: Basically The Avengers 3. But hey, nothing lasts forever, right? Or even a whole movie, it would seem.

Other people’s opinions, and the expectations they foster, have a lot to answer for when you first watch these films months after release. I found the first Avengers to be massively overrated — only sporadically fun; not that funny; in places, really quite awkward, or even dull. I couldn’t really enjoy it; it just was. This sequel, on the other hand… isn’t underrated, but comes with so much negative, niggly baggage that, with lowered expectations, I was able to just enjoy it on a first viewing. I found it funnier than the first; I thought the characters and their relationships were smoother. It’s still flawed (the Thor arc is clearly bungled; the climax is too much; stuff they did for real, at great expense and difficulty, looks like CGI; and so on), but no more than the first one. I think people’s over-hyped memories make them think it’s worse than it is by comparison. Then again, there’s no accounting for taste — there are definitely things people have criticised about the movie (the level and style of humour; the focus given to Hawkeye) that were actually among my favourite parts.

Some assembly requiredAt the end of the day, what does it matter? Age of Ultron isn’t so remarkably good — nor did it go down so remarkably poorly — that it deserves a reevaluation someday. It just is what it is: an overstuffed superhero epic, which has too much to do to be able to compete with its comparatively-simple contributing films on quality grounds, but is entertaining enough as fast-food cinema. Blockbusterdom certainly has worse experiences to offer.

4 out of 5

Avengers: Age of Ultron is on Sky Movies Premiere from Boxing Day.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Ant-Man (2015)

2015 #181
Peyton Reed | 117 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

The final film in ‘Phase Two’ of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is perhaps the most fun Marvel movie since Iron Man kicked off the whole shebang seven years ago.

It’s the story of a burglar, Scott Lang (Paul “he’ll always be Mike from Friends to me” Rudd), who is enlisted by ageing genius Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) to pilfer something from Pym’s old company, now controlled by his former protégé and villain-in-waiting Darren Cross (Corey Stoll). Pym discovered/created something called the Pym Particle, which changes the distance between atoms and allows objects and people to shrink or increase in size. He hid his dangerous technology from the world, but now Cross has developed his own version and is seeking to sell a weaponised version to the highest bidder — which naturally includes some very nefarious characters.

Marvel are currently fond of mixing “superhero” with “another genre” to produce their movies — which makes sense, given the standard two-or-three superhero narratives were already becoming played out by the time Iron Man came along, never mind in the raft of movies Marvel Studios have released since. Here, “superhero” is mixed with “heist movie”; more specifically, “heist comedy”. It’s superheroes by way of Ocean’s Eleven, basically. In the key position, you’ve got Lang in the Ant-Man suit, able to shrink, infiltrate places, and control ants to help him; but then he’s got a whole support team: Pym planning and overseeing; Pym’s daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly), the inside woman; and a gaggle of Lang’s criminal friends (Michael Peña, David Dastmalchian, Tip ‘T.I.’ Harris), brought in to help them hack security ‘n’ that.

Nonetheless, some have criticised the film for not being especially original. I mean, originality’s good ‘n’ all, but c’mon, what do you expect when you sit down to a superhero movie from the primary purveyor of superhero movies? Ant-Man may blend elements from a few other genres into the superhero mix, but, yeah, it’s a superhero movie that, at times, plays like a superhero movie — just like everything else Marvel Studios has produced (with the possible exception of Guardians of the Galaxy). If that’s not your thing, fine, but there’s nothing so spectacularly rote or generic about Ant-Man when compared to the rest of Marvel’s output that it deserves to be singled out. In fact, if anything, it has a higher dose of originality than its peers. And it doesn’t climax with a giant flying thing crashing to Earth, the first Marvel movie you can say that about for years.

Where the film really succeeds, however, is in being — as noted — fun. Sometimes the structure is a little wonky, sometimes the dialogue is a little off, sometimes it’s a little heavy on the exposition, sometimes this and sometimes that, but it never stops moving at a decent clip, is never too far away from a good laugh, and offers some strong action sequences too. The very nature of the titular heroes’ powers offers us something new. Okay, there have been plenty of shrinking movies before, but not like his. Macro photography and CGI have been used to great effect to bring us into his world, and the fact he can shrink and grow at will adds a real kick to fight scenes.

It remains tough to talk about Ant-Man without referencing The Edgar Wright Situation. I mean, you could ignore it, but then it becomes the elephant in the room. If you somehow missed it: writer-director Edgar Wright pitched Ant-Man to Marvel as a movie before Marvel Studios even existed, back in 2003, and had been developing it on and off ever since. The ideas he brought to the table — an action-adventure-comedy style, being a special effects extravaganza but with a lighthearted tone — influenced how the studio approached Iron Man and, consequently, the whole MCU. Nonetheless, Ant-Man wound up positioned as the 12th film in the studio’s slate, finally going into production after a decade of prep. Wright had a script almost finalised, he’d cast the film, a release date was set… and then he left due to “creative differences”. And the internet was on his side because Edgar Wright has made Spaced and Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz and Marvel are a studio and studios are always wrong.

The full extent of what these creative differences were hasn’t emerged yet, because it wasn’t that long ago (inevitably, they will one day), but it must’ve been pretty major to walk away from a project you’d been working on for so long and were so close to finally realising. Some reports say Wright wanted the film to be completely standalone, with absolutely no ties to the wider Marvel universe. I kind of hope there’s more to it than that, because while the final version of Ant-Man isn’t completely standalone, it’s one of Marvel’s less connected efforts. Okay, it references S.H.I.E.L.D., Hydra, and the Avengers, and there are cameo appearances by characters from other parts of the universe (including Lang having to fight an Avenger), but its story doesn’t feed directly from a previous MCU film, nor does it make setting up another one an inherent part of the plot. In short, it’s nicely connected — it’s definitely part of the universe — but you don’t need to know a great deal to enjoy it on its own.

After Wright left, the screenplay was rewritten by a host of scribes (far more than the two extra writers ultimately credited). Other things they’re responsible for include bulking up the supporting characters, especially Hope, which works pretty well, and Lang’s friend Luis (Michael Peña), which we should all be thankful for: Peña’s Luis is one of the best things in the movie, an enthusiastic motormouth who’s consistently entertaining whenever he’s on screen. He’s the standout from an ensemble that is generally strong, with Rudd proving a likeable lead and Douglas committing to the material in a way you wouldn’t necessarily expect an older actor to with ‘just a comic book movie’.

Would Edgar Wright’s Ant-Man have been better than Peyton Reed’s? We’ll never know. Well, one day we’ll have a good guess, because one day what changed will all come out. Wright still has a story and co-writer credit, so obviously a lot of his material survived. Nonetheless, the movie we’ve ended up with doesn’t feel like a compromised, homogenised, studio-controlled disaster. Chances are Wright could’ve brought greater visual and storytelling flair to proceedings, but Reed doesn’t do a bad job, especially when it comes to sequences in miniature. The final fight takes place on a children’s playset, doesn’t involve giant things falling epically out of the sky (is it the only Phase Two film to avoid that trope?), and is one of the best climaxes in the entire Marvel canon. Sometimes less really is more. Especially when “less” includes Thomas the Tank Engine. Whoever thought you’d see Thomas the Tank Engine in a Marvel movie?

I hope Ant-Man will be an important touchstone in what Marvel Studios do going forward. It proves smaller-scale adventures can work — not in the sense that it’s about a hero who shrinks to a few centimetres tall, but in that it’s a story focused on a couple of characters trying to steal something from a building and defeat one guy, not about saving an entire city or an entire planet. That doesn’t mean it’s a story that doesn’t have stakes, they’re just different stakes. It’s a refreshing change of pace at this point. It’s also pretty much standalone, with nice nods to the shared universe but without being dependent on other films (either before or to come) for its story. Guardians of the Galaxy did that too, but how many other recent Marvel movies is it true of? Even the highly-praised Winter Soldier is a long, long way from being immune to that fault.

Still, I doubt many people are going to call Ant-Man their favourite Marvel movie, although I think it might be the most pure fun I’ve had watching an MCU film since… well, ever. And I like fun.

4 out of 5

Ant-Man is available on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK now, and in the US from next week.

It placed 20th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Avengers Confidential: Black Widow & Punisher (2014)

2015 #59
Kenichi Shimizu | 83 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA & Japan / English | 12 / PG-13

Avengers ConfidentialAnime take on Marvel properties. S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Black Widow teams up with vigilante Frank Castle, aka the Punisher, to investigate a threat to global security.

A clichéd, heavy-handed screenplay and stilted line delivery tell a rote story through talky exposition scenes and uninspired action sequences, with little joy to be found in the design or animation either. Some bigger-name Avengers turn up for the climax, but they’re a motley crew of random choices (Captain Marvel?), most of whom don’t even get any dialogue.

Marvel may own the live-action superhero arena right now, but DC remain the clear frontrunner in animation.

2 out of 5

Avengers Confidential featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2015, which can be read in full here.

Next Avengers: Heroes of Tomorrow (2008)

2014 #50
Jay Oliva | 75 mins | DVD | 1.78:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Next Avengers: Heroes of TomorrowNo, not the ’70s spy-fi series The New Avengers (is there no way for Marvel’s superheroes to avoid sounding like that franchise?), nor the sequel to the third highest grossing film of all time (but you knew that), this direct-to-DVD animated movie follows in the footsteps of the two Ultimate Avengers animated movies (though not in the same continuity… I don’t think…), and concerns… the children of the Avengers! How kids’ TV can you get, eh?

So, there’s the son of Captain America and Black Widow; the daughter of Thor and Sif; the son of Hank Pym and Wasp; the son of Hawkeye and Mockingbird; and the son of Black Panther. (Aside: in the live-action movie universe, 100% of those men have or will soon appear; only 50% of the women, though.) These kids must work with the still-living members of the original Avengers to fight… Ultron, the villain of this summer’s Live-Action Avengers 2! (Do you ever feel like the Marvel universe goes round in circles? I suppose that’s not fair — DC does it too.)

I’m being snarky but, actually, this oh-so-childish-seeming cartoon is surprisingly good. Sure, the animation and voice acting is all very ’00s Saturday morning kids’ cartoon, but there’s a moderately solid story in there, and some great new characters. Well, some good interpretations of old characters, and one great new character: Thor’s daughter, Torunn. Her character arc is a good’un, and teen voice actress Brenna O’Brien does good work with her too.

Torunn, James, AzariThe rest of the new characters are largely fine, and while they’re clearly grounded in their parents’ personalities, they’re not just carbon copies — Cap’s son James is less worthy than his father, for instance; Black Panther’s son Azari is less elbows-out; and so on. Though Hawkeye Jr. is a little skeevy… Writer Christopher Yost has done a fair job of crafting realistic-enough kids, and in an era when superheroes seem to spend more time fighting amongst themselves than they do against villains, it’s nice that this team largely get on — though not in an overly-rosy “it’s all happy families” way, thankfully.

As for Ultron, they’ve modified his creation story: he was now built by Tony Stark. That’s where they’re going with it in Avengers 2, funnily enough. It gets hardcore fanboys in a tizzy, but clearly it makes far more sense that the inventor of Iron Man would also create a sentient robot (that does look a little bit like Iron Man, kinda) than that the inventor of a miniaturisation suit would.

It’s quite nice to see a new set of characters and a new ‘world’ within a familiar universe — it feels less re-hash-y than the comics and the longer-running movie franchises can. Rage of UltronCoupled with a good plot, which keeps moving and developing rather than setting up one threat and meandering along until a big fight, as well as a few cameos and maybe even surprises along the way, Next Avengers is the kind of movie you expect to be pretty awful kids-only dross, but turns out to actually be pretty darn good.

4 out of 5

Avengers: Age of Ultron is out in the UK tomorrow.

Punisher: War Zone (2008)

2014 #40
Lexi Alexander | 93 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA, Canada & Germany / English | 18 / R

Punisher: War ZoneThe 2004 film of Marvel’s foremost vigilante killer was the Punisher as mainstream Hollywood PG-13 blockbuster*, but this follow-up takes a different route. It’s more the grimy, low-budget, direct-to-DVD, B-movie version of the character; all action, gore, and a conscious lack of class. For some that will make the entire endeavour distasteful, but I can’t help but feel it’s a more faithful depiction of the character.

This is a reboot and sequel in one, Incredible Hulk style: Frank Castle’s backstory has been tweaked, and we learn that in montages and the like, while our re-cast hero gets on with the plot of the film — namely, taking down some drugs importers before they can bring something far worse into the country.

As the hero, Brit-playing-American Ray Stevenson is a suitably straight-faced action hero. His secret-underground-lair-style base of operations has a more classic feel than the block-of-flats origin-story place of the last movie, the kind of simple-but-effective decision that defines the movie’s entire approach. As the villain, Brit-playing-American Dominic West is suitably unhinged. He’s a top-quality actor when he wants to be, making this seem an unusual choice; but he chews the scenery with pleasant abandon. Both Brits fare better than their genuinely-American counterparts from the 2003 version. The quality of the rest of the ensemble varies, but all within the confines of the aforementioned B-movie style. There’s a consistency there that works.

PunishingYour enjoyment of the film will hinge on your tolerance for this level of filmmaking. War Zone isn’t a Marvel-derived adaptation to sit alongside their big-budget in-house productions, but one to rival other hard-R violence-focused flicks. It may be kind of nasty in places, but no more so than other movies of its ilk; and really, if you look at it from outside the confines of sometimes-simplistic comic book morality, the Punisher is quite a nasty character.

As with the sequel to that other semi-successful Marvel movie of a dark-character-turned-blockbuster, Ghost Rider, this sequel takes a grungier tack. For Spirit of Vengeance it didn’t quite come off; for War Zone, while it won’t sit at the forefront of the comic book movie pack, it is something of a guilty pleasure.

3 out of 5

* Technically it was an R. Didn’t feel like it. ^

Big Hero 6 (2014)

2015 #28
Don Hall & Chris Williams | 102 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Big Hero 6 UK posterThis year’s Best Animated Film Oscar winner is not this year’s best animated film. Not by a long stroke. What it is is one great character, one great emotional plot/subplot, and a lot of stuff that feels like every other big-budget action-orientated CGI animation of the past few years. Most succinctly, this is little more than (as a reviewer on Letterboxd dubbed it) “How to Train Your Baymax”.

Set in a world where teenage kids seem to be constantly inventing groundbreaking robotic tech that multinationals spending billions on R&D haven’t come up with, the plot sees 14-year-old genius Hiro (Ryan Potter) bonding with his brother’s invention, a medical diagnosis/treatment robot called Baymax (Scott Adsit), while they investigate the theft and abuse of Hiro’s own invention. After stumbling across a mysterious masked supervillain, they team up with a gaggle of equally-skilled college friends to transform themselves into a superhero team.

Adapted from a Marvel comic book — albeit so loosely that Marvel didn’t even feel they could justify issuing a tie-in edition of the original — this is “Disney does superheroes”. Unfortunately, that’s not what Disney does best. The real meat and fun of the film comes in earlier sections, where Hiro and Baymax bond, where the emotional storyline is explored. I’m working hard not to spoil the latter plot — other reviews merrily do, because it’s kicked off in act one, but I went into the film blind and think it worked better for that. Based on interviews, some of the filmmakers seem to be under the impression that part of the film is up there with the infamous “Bambi’s mother” narrative. I don’t think it’s that striking, nor that universal, but it’s a bolder move than you normally see in kid-focused US animations.

Cuddly robotThe element that is an unequivocal success is Baymax. A soft robot — made of inflated vinyl so as to be genuinely huggable — he’s sweet, funny, and always entertaining. Memorable moments abound, in particular a sequence where his batteries run low, and his interpretation of a fist-bump (a recording booth improvisation by Adsit that was worked into the film). The movie truly comes alive whenever he’s on screen, but conversely loses some magic whenever he’s pushed into the background.

Otherwise, there’s some nice animation and design. It’s set in the city of San Fransokyo, which is imagined as what San Francisco would be if Japanese immigrants had rebuilt it following the 1906 earthquake. The design work is top-notch and the amount of world they built incredible, but it then goes underused, only glimpsed as background detail during one flying sequence. Worse, much of the movie’s story is sadly derivative, especially towards the end. It’s a bit hole-y too, and uncomfortably pushes at the boundaries of plausibility — I know it sounds silly to say that about a future-set superhero movie for kids, but c’mon, the way our young heroes can just merrily invent all kinds of super-advanced stuff just doesn’t make sense.

Implausibly clever kidsBig Hero 6 is by no means a bad film. It will certainly entertain its target age group, especially if they haven’t seen the other CG spectacles it nabs from. That aside, the entire thing is worth a look purely for Baymax and a few stand out moments — all of them involving the aforementioned vinyl robot, of course. Otherwise, it’s pretty by-the-book. The five-star-level praise it’s attracted in some quarters is completely unwarranted.

3 out of 5

Big Hero 6 is released on US DVD and Blu-ray this week, and is still in UK cinemas.

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

2014 #118
James Gunn | 121 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & UK / English | 12 / PG-13

Guardians of the GalaxyMarvel Studios takes its boldest step yet, moving away from the present-day superhero milieu of its previous movies to a galaxy far, far away for a space opera epic. Its success, both critically and commercially, has cemented the Marvel Cinematic Universe as an infallible force in the current movie world. But, really, how good is it?

The film, as I’m sure you know, sees a gang of misfits — Han Solo/Indiana Jones hybrid Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana, adding “green-skinned alien” to her repertoire), literal-thinking muscleman Drax (Dave Bautista), racoon-like bounty hunter Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and his pet tree/bodyguard Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) — come together around a mysterious item of immense power, that’s desired by villain Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) so he can do something nasty and destructive. Co-written and directed by James Gunn, of Super fame, Guardians of the Galaxy combines space-blockbuster thrills with irreverent comedy (the supporting cast includes the likes of John C. Reilly and Peter Serafinowicz) and an ironically-cool ’80s pop soundtrack.

Guardians is a massively entertaining movie — when it works. That happens when it’s character-driven, with characters talking and interacting and following the story (what there is of it). There should be nothing wrong with that, but as this is a modern blockbuster, there’s an unwritten rule about how many CGI-driven action sequences there must be. The point of such things is to provide excitement and drive, but they actually kill the film’s momentum rather than buoying it up. Gunn and co have plenty of originality and fun to dole out the rest of the time, but the majority of the action sequences are seen-it-all-before whizzy CGI.

Indiana Solo?The worst offender is the pod chase through Knowhere, a several-minutes-long sequence that registers as little more than a blur. There’s a shocking lack of clarity to its images, even by today’s standards. Maybe it’s better in 3D, when I guess the backgrounds would sink into the distance and important elements would be foregrounded; but in 2D, you can’t see what’s meant to be going on for all the fast-moving colour and split-second cuts. Almost as bad, though for different reasons, is the climax. It takes up an overlong chunk of the movie and at times feels repetitive of too many other Marvel climaxes — oh look, a giant spaceship crashing into a city! If anything, the film gets ‘worse’ as it goes on. Perhaps not in a very literal sense, but as the blustering action climax takes over, it moves further away from the stuff that makes it unique and interesting.

Sadly, those feature don’t include the lacklustre villains. Marvel have been rather lacking in this department lately: Ronan the Accuser and his faceless minions are as bad as Christopher Eccleston’s lot from Thor 2, who were already rather like Avengers Assemble’s alien army… Henchwoman Nebula (Karen Gillan) has some potential, but she’s barely used. They make a point of her escaping, though, so maybe next time.

Even if the villains are underworked, the film is so busy establishing its large roster of characters (five heroes, three or more villains, plus an extensive supporting cast) that it doesn’t have time to fully paint the universe, either. We don’t really care when Nova City is being destroyed, because we only saw it briefly earlier on and had no reason to suspect we’d be going back there. Whizzy whizzy CGIIt isn’t even called Nova City, but I don’t have the foggiest what it is called because the film didn’t make me feel I should be learning it. Some more effort making sure we knew why that place mattered, even if it was just a clearer depiction of all the planning for its defence, might have sold the entire climax better.

Most people talk about Guardians in the context of its place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it would probably be more interesting to compare and contrast it with other space opera films — that’s where its heart and style truly lies. These aren’t superheroes, they’re space rogues; to pick on two films from one of Marvel Studios’ top creatives, it’s more Serenity than Avengers. The main connection to the other Marvel films comes in the form of Thanos and his beloved Infinity Gems. It’s questionable if this is a little shoehorned in, and also a little bit Fantasy rather than Sci-Fi. Does forcing that in undermine the film? Or is it only because we know it ties into the Avengers side of the universe that it stands out? If we’re arguing that “it’s more fantasy-y than science-y”, perhaps we should pause to look at the most archetypal cinematic space opera, Star Wars: what’s the Force if not some mystical thingamajig?

Whatever the genre, Guardians leaves you with an instant feeling of having seen a top-quality blockbuster, thanks to its likeable heroes, abundant humour, frequent irreverence, uncommonly colourful visual style, retro-cool soundtrack, and so forth. Unfortunately, once you dig underneath that there’s a little too much that’s rote ‘modern blockbuster’, with the explosive action sequences being the main culprit. Many regarded it as the best movie of last summer; on the evidence I’ve seen, it would certainly seem to be the most fun. The character stuff will likely hold up well to repeat viewings, but the noise and bluster surely gets tiring, Big Damn Heroesespecially the overlong climax. Joss Whedon commented of his own Avengers film (as I quoted in my review) that it wasn’t a great movie but it was a great time, and I think that’s just as true here: when Guardians is firing on all cylinders, it’s difficult to imagine a more entertaining blockbuster space opera; but there’s too many merely-adequate bits that hold it back from joyous perfection.

4 out of 5

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.

For my thoughts on re-watching Guardians of the Galaxy in 3D, look here.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

2014 #109
Anthony & Joe Russo | 136 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Captain America: The Winter SoldierAfter the dullest, messiest movie of their first phase, and his goody-two-shoes depiction in The Avengers, Marvel finally nailed Captain America earlier this year with his second solo outing. Sadly, it’s still undermined by its share of niggles.

The Winter Soldier picks up two years after the Avengers assembled, with man-out-of-time Steve Rogers, aka Captain America (Chris Evans), a fully-fledged member of Team America: World Police S.H.I.E.L.D., working alongside Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) to run all kinds of black ops missions. But when the life of director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is threatened by a mysterious assassin known only as the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), Cap begins to uncover a massive conspiracy of nefarious nastiness…

To say much more would be spoilerific, though chances are you’ve heard what happens even if you haven’t seen the film, because it’s had major implications for much of the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Still, I’ll assume you don’t know, just in case.

That said, the problem with Marvel’s massive shared universe (where the events of one film impact not only on future films but tie-in TV series, etc) is that, watching Cap 2 just seven months after its release, the film already feels like very old news. It was dissected into the ground by bloggers and commentators while it was still in cinemas; it had a huge effect on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which by now has rolled past it into new territory; and it feels like Friendly argumenteverybody moved on to being more excited about Marvel’s end-of-summer new-franchise-launcher, Guardians of the Galaxy. Cap 2 still has things to offer as a standalone film, but watching it now feels like watching a press conference after you’ve read a summary of the key points: there’s probably something to be gained from experiencing the whole thing, but it’s also like a slow-paced unveiling of surprises you already know.

It’s probably best to put aside the parts of Winter Soldier that have an impact beyond the film itself and just focus on it being a story in its own right, then. They promised us a ’70s-style conspiracy thriller, and there’s some of that DNA in there, although it’s been cleverly reworked to fit the slick CGI-filled world of the modern epic action blockbuster. So the conspiracy plot is actually not too complex, but there’s enough of it to give the film a different flavour. Many bonus points are earnt for trying to do more things with superhero narratives. It’s been widely noted that there are only about three or four superhero plotlines (and that’s if we’re being generous), so it’s good for Marvel — who are currently churning out two superheroic movies a year, and before long will be upping that to three — to be bringing something new to the table.

The style of story also becomes the springboard for a different tone to the action sequences: grounded, almost gritty, with practical effects and stuntwork — it could almost be a Bourne movie rather than a superhero one. They even manage to take a minor and silly Marvel villain, Batroc the Leaper, and turn him into a cool and worthwhile adversary. Until the climax, anyway, which is your usual CGI blow-out — an increasingly familiar pattern for Marvel films (and one we’ll come to again soon in Guardians of the Galaxy).

Fully-formed FalconAlso introduced is sidekick hero the Falcon (Anthony Mackie), who I have little to say about directly. He’s a sidekick who’s introduced fully-formed — he’s been using his ‘superpower’ for years as just part of the military; it’s not new or exciting to him, which lessens some of its power for the viewer too. “Origin story” may be the most over-used of all the superhero stock stories, but there’s a reason for that. If you skip it then you cut to the chase, that’s true, but does it also lessen the impact of characters to not see how they started? Maybe storytellers just need to come up with fresh ways of giving origins, rather than skipping them altogether.

Despite his presence in the title, the Winter Soldier also has a fairly small part to play in the final mix. He’s a henchman, not the main villain — but he’s an important character in the comics, so naming the film after him is really a signal to fans. Unfortunately, the Big Reveal of who he is has been a little bungled: comic book fans already know, so it doesn’t matter to them; and the element it ties back to in The First Avenger was so throwaway that casual viewers aren’t going to remember it. The Winter Soldier does its best to retrospectively big up the necessary elements, with callbacks to the first film and new flashbacks to bolster relationships. Whether it’s too little too late is perhaps a matter of personal preference.

Talking of that shared universe again — well, it’s hard to avoid, because Winter Soldier is every inch grounded in what has come before and what will come after. Mackie described the film as “Avengers 1.5”, and that’s pretty true. It picks up on events and characters from both The First Avenger and The Avengers, some of which have very significant roles to play in the film’s own storyline; Who is the Winter Soldier?and then it refuses to wrap everything up, putting certain things in place ready for Age of Ultron and leaving still other doors open for Cap 3 — including the bloody Winter Soldier, despite his name being in the title! Goodness knows when or how they’re going to deal with that, considering the next Cap film is based on another highly significant comic book story arc, Civil War.

For me, however, the way it ties in to and impacts on the wider Marvel universe is when the film is at its weakest. There’s a benefit in utilising our relationships to these characters for emotional or dramatic effect, and at times it does that well, but when it’s raising more questions than answers, and when it can’t even complete the storyline that’s in its own title, is that a good thing? This isn’t part of a TV series, it’s a movie — is it so much to ask for a complete experience, one that builds on previous movies and has teases for the future (if it must), rather than just the latest segment of an apparently-never-ending story? Marvel’s shared universe is turning out to not be a group of films which happen to feature the same characters crossing over, but ones where the status quo between a film and its own sequel can be completely changed by events in a ‘separate’ series. Is that OK? It seems to work for them, and many people are getting a great amount of enjoyment from spotting the links and piecing together the arcing stories, so I guess it is.

The audacity of certain twists, plus the unusualness (for a superhero movie) and quality of the action sequences, is likely responsible for the massively positive reception that greeted The Winter Soldier on its cinematic release. With the surprise value of the former removed, and arguably exposed as just another round of questions to be answered in future instalments, Captain America re-Bournewhat’s left? There is strong action, albeit undermined by muddled character investment; and there is an interesting thriller/conspiracy story, albeit undermined by a feeling of “once you know it, you know it” — it’s not all that complicated or all that surprising, including the revelation that the one character significant enough to be behind it all is behind it all (gasp!)

Believe it or not, I did quite like The Winter Soldier while I was watching it; but the more I write, the more it frustrates me. There’s undoubtedly some quality filmmaking here (as far as superhero blockbusters go — it’s never going to please a sniffy cineaste), so perhaps I need to stop getting so hung up on its connections to other films. Or perhaps Marvel need to stop tying all their movies so tightly together. There’s surely a reason this doesn’t have a number in the title — it’s meant to be Captain America vs. the Winter Soldier, not Marvel’s Avengers Universe: Episode 9. But, however many borderline-unique elements it’s at pains to include, the latter is what it is.

4 out of 5

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is on Sky Movies from Boxing Day.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.