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Posts Tagged ‘Marvel’

Wood floats, death gets you in the end, the total entropy of a closed system can never decrease, and if a movie makes nearly $800 million off a $60 million budget, it’s a rock-solid certainty that there’s going to be a sequel to it. So it proves, with the arrival of Deadpool 2, directed by David Leitch this time around. Why would you sack Tim Miller, the director of the first one (which, as I believe I mentioned, turned a tidy profit)? Well, creative differences, not to put too fine a point on it: especially when those differences were with Ryan Reynolds, who in addition to playing the title role, on this occasion also co-produces and co-writes the movie. Now, Reynolds is another one of those amiable screen presences whom I seldom have a problem with, but it is possible to turn a movie into too much of a star vehicle, and the question is whether that’s happened with this film. (There’s also the question of whether we need yet another Marvel-originated superhero extravaganza featuring a stony-faced Josh Brolin on the rampage, given it’s only about three weeks since the last one demolished all sorts of records, but first things first.)

Various things happen at the start of Deadpool 2 which would probably constitute spoilers if I went into details about them, but let’s just say they leave disfigured mercenary and general super-powered pain in the neck Deadpool (Reynolds) in a bad place, wondering what his role in the world is. Needless to say his old pal Colossus, a nine-foot-tall Russian made of organic steel, has an idea about this: Deadpool should join the X-Men and do his bit to put his powers to responsible use.

Of course, because Deadpool is a violent sociopath who won’t shut up, this plan does not really work out, and Wilson finds himself packed off to mutant prison with a troubled young man who has flamey-zapping powers (I still maintain the single stroke of genius at the heart of the X-Men franchise – or is it just a convenient plot device? – is the fact that ‘mutant genes’ mean you can give just about anyone any conceivable ability without having to justify or rationalise it in any way) and looks up to Deadpool in a way he finds difficult to deal with. There’s also the problem that with his regenerative powers suppressed by the technology of the prison, he’s quite rapidly going to die of terminal cancer. Bummer!

However, things get even worse with the appearance on the scene of Cable (Brolin), a time-travelling cyborg warrior (the comics version of this character is a mutant, but that’s not really made clear here). Cable is here to avert dark events which will afflict the future world from which he hails, which puts Deadpool’s young associate squarely in his sights. Can Deadpool find it in him to become a heroic protector, even if only for a little while?

Well, much like the first one, this is essentially another entry in the X-Men franchise, taking place off in its own peculiar little corner of that universe, with a fairly standard superhero movie storyline made distinctive by a strong element of self-aware comedy. Or, to put it another way, while some parts of this film are genuinely accomplished effects-driven action sequences – there’s a clash between two classic characters that would not be out of place in one of the main sequence X-movies – much of the film is crass, puerile, potentially offensive, and absurd.

This is not necessarily a problem, of course, but the problem is that it is very much like the first one. Encountering a movie doing this kind of knowing and irreverent joke was a genuine novelty when the first Deadpool came out, but the essence of comedy is surprise and the unexpected, and doing the same kind of thing all over again is inevitably going to be a little problematic. Some of the best jokes were even in the trailer – they’re funny the first time you see them, but in the actual movie you’re not surprised by them, you’re waiting for them, so they inevitably have less impact. And you can also really predict the kind of jokes they’re going to do – going in, I was thinking ‘Hmmm, they’re bound to do something at the expense of Logan,’ and so it proves, in practically the very first moments of the film. Elsewhere they do repeat gags from the first film, to notably less effect, and at times the movie does seem to be scrabbling around for ideas – if this is supposed to be a semi-spoof of superheroes, why is the credits sequence a Bond parody?

That’s not to say Deadpool 2 is bereft of laughs – it isn’t, with some of the more comedy-sketch-like scenes proving very funny indeed. Quite wisely, several of the best jokes are held back for the credits sequence. I have to say, though, that for anyone connected with Marvel to be doing jokes at the expense of DC’s frankly wobbly film series just feels like bullying at the moment, even if the jokes are often pretty good ones.

Of course, Deadpool 2 has the same problem as the first one, which is that once you start to get all knowing and self-referential and ironic, it kind of sets the tone for your whole movie – and so it proves here. There are various elements of Deadpool 2‘s plot which deal with grief, and loss, and other ostensibly serious emotions, but they really, really struggle to give these things any real heft or traction, simply because Ryan Reynolds is always winking at the camera and undercutting the whole thing by making jokes about how the budget is so much bigger this time around. Guys, if you’re not going to take this movie seriously – and not taking it seriously is kind of the point of the Deadpool character –  then you can’t really expect the audience to, either.

The film’s big innovation is bringing in Brolin as Cable, another very popular comics character with a quite bafflingly complex back-story. Here he is basically just a slightly more sympathetic version of the Terminator, which doesn’t give Brolin a great deal to work with (the actor has said he found the experience less satisfying than playing Thanos in Infinity War, which doesn’t surprise me). As is the way of things these days, Brolin is under contract to reprise the part in forthcoming movies in this franchise, and it will be interesting to see if he gets more to do then (quite how all this will mesh with Marvel’s masterplan to consolidate their assets and fold the X-Men characters into the Marvel Studios films remains to be seen: a Thanos Vs Cable movie would really give Brolin a chance to shine).

I don’t know, I quite like the X-Men movies even though the formula is starting to show its age a bit. The Deadpool films are a really odd mix of material with wildly different tones and styles, some of which works much, much better than others. This second one already seems to flailing about in search of ways of staying original and funny – it succeeds, but by no means consistently. Much like its protagonist, Deadpool 2 is fun and engaging on a certain level, but it’s also a kind of a scrappy mess. But as long as these films keep making money…

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Is there really any doubt remaining? In ten years, Marvel Studios have risen from nowhere to become the world’s dominant makers of blockbuster entertainment. Once-mighty rival franchises have stuttered, wobbled, and stalled: the Marvel project forges on implacably. Most film series have to operate at full stretch if they produce a movie every year – Marvel are now at the point where they seem comfortably able to release three: having already come up with the year’s most successful film so far (Black Panther, still showing in some cinemas), they now look set to surpass themselves once more, in the form of the Russo brothers’ Avengers: Infinity War.

Marvel have opted to release this movie under their Avengers marque, but it is really quite a different kind of film from most they have done before. Josh Brolin (an actor due to spend a hefty chunk of the year kicking super-powered butt, one suspects) plays Thanos, a benevolent cosmic titan who is not afraid to take those difficult decisions and make himself unpopular in the service of the greater good. His current idea is to solve most of the universe’s problems by the simple expedient of removing fifty percent of its population, entirely fairly and completely at random.

To do so he needs to lay his mighty purple hands on the six Infinity Stones, the embodiment of fundamental cosmic forces, and as the film opens he has acquired one from the planet Xandar and is in the process of retrieving another from the refugees late of the destroyed world Asgard, administering an admonitory smack or four to the Asgardian king Thor (Chris Hemsworth) in the process.

From here it’s off to Earth, a unique world in that it currently hosts two of the Stones, one being in the amulet of master sorcerer Dr Strange (Cumbersome Bandersnatch) and the other lodged in the head of android superhero Vision (Paul Bettany). The silly little super-people of Earth are currently in disarray, following the falling-out between Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) and Captain America (Chris Evans) a couple of years ago, but the appearance of Thanos and his followers serves to focus their minds rather wonderfully, and there are various skirmishes in New York and Edinburgh.

While this is going on, Thor has hitched a ride with space-going ne’er-do-wells the Guardians of the Galaxy and is intent on exacting vengeance on our hero. Meanwhile, the defenders of the Earth are gathering to make their final stand in the enigmatic African nation of Wakanda, where Captain America’s old friend Bucky has had his old codename of Winter Soldier retired (which makes sense, as there’s no winter in Africa) and taken the new one White Wolf (which doesn’t make sense, as there are no wolves in Africa, either. At least not white ones). Can Thanos get the rest of the stones and save the universe, or will these insect-like pests conspire to drag him down?

(Well, it’s kind of true. One of the startling things about Infinity War is that you can view the film in this way and it still makes a lot of sense; it does seem to be a deliberate choice.)

As I say, this is billed as an Avengers movie but really works as a summation of everything they have been doing for the last ten years and in the previous eighteen movies (well, almost: there are a couple of characters, one of them fairly prominent, who they simply couldn’t squeeze in, even to a movie as big as this). So, as you may have surmised, there are lengthy sequences based around characters from the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, while Iron Man spends most of the movie engaged in a snark-off with Dr Strange and Spider-Man (Tom Holland). Even by Marvel’s standards, this is a blockbuster on an immense scale, bringing together dozens of characters and half a dozen separate storylines.

So the question is, how can they possibly make it work? At least one of the previous really big Marvel films, Age of Ultron, felt like it was in danger of buckling under its own momentousness. Well, I’m not quite sure how they’ve pulled the trick, but Infinity War really does work – provided you’ve been following along, at least. I can think of no surer way of creating total bafflement than to stick someone uninitiated in front of this film. For the true believer, however, this is a kind of pop opera, spectacular entertainment on an unprecedented scale.

One of the smarter moves of the script is to establish right from the start, in the most emphatic manner imaginable, not just the power of Thanos, but also the movie’s willingness to take a scythe to the ranks of the established characters from these films. It really does seem like no-one is completely safe, no-one has script immunity, and Thanos is a potentially deadly menace to virtually everyone else. (The Avengers and their allies spend most of the movie frantically trying to come up with a way to foil Thanos without having to confront him directly.) This results in a genuinely tense experience: there were various gasps, wails, and cries of ‘Oh no!’ in the screening I attended when one character took a sword to the gut near the end. It’s a scene that makes it clear this movie starts with its intensity and scale already cranked up to 10, and it stays there for most of the following two-and-a-half hours.

The danger, of course, is that audiences will not find themselves swept along by a thrilling adventure, but battered into submission by sheer bombast instead. They manage to avoid this by making a film which is surprisingly light-footed as it shifts between its various plotlines; it also does an exceedingly fine job of capturing that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby alchemy – almost without fail, an absurdly grandiose moment of cosmic spectacle will be neatly followed by a knowing one-liner, somehow offsetting it without undermining it.

Still, you may be thinking, with so many continuing characters, surely someone has to lose out in terms of simple screen time? Well, yes, up to a point this is true – but no-one feels especially ill-served (except for the people who don’t appear at all, anyway), and everyone gets at least one moment to shine. That said, the only character to get much in the way of genuine development is Thanos himself, most of this coming by way of his relationship with his adopted daughter Gamora (Zoe Saldana). One of the themes of the film is the question of what sacrifices people are prepared to make for the greater good, and Thanos is not exempt from this.

Is this the best movie that Marvel Studios has made to date? Much as I enjoyed Infinity War, I think not: it’s a tremendous ride, not quite like anything I’ve seen before, but the sheer scale of the thing robs it of some of the humanity and emotion that characterise the best films in this series. Perhaps it’s trying to go just a bit too big – there’s at least one unexpected cameo from a returning character which just feels odd rather than a pleasant surprise. The knowledge that there’s another Avengers film out in twelve months will inevitably colour people’s response to the climax of this one, too, well-handled though it is.

It’s difficult to see quite where Marvel can go from here, but the fact that they will be recovering the rights to many other of their most popular characters in the not-too-distant future suggests they will not be short of possibilities. It seems unlikely they can top Infinity War, but then ten years ago even the idea of a film like this one would most likely have been dismissed as absurd. And yet here it is, and it is supremely entertaining stuff. When it comes to this studio, all bets have been off for some time now.

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Recently discovered in the electronic equivalent of down the back of the sofa. I have no memory of writing this back in 2008. Anyway, how times change…

No-one, I think, would be terribly surprised to learn that someone has made another movie based on a Marvel Comics superhero, for this sort of thing has been going on for some years now and many of the movies have been rather impressive – the X-Men trilogy was consistently pretty good, the Blade trilogy had its moments, and while last year’s Spider-Man 3 met with a rather lukewarm reception, the first two films were also rather accomplished. No, if there’s anything unusual about Jon Favreau’s new movie Iron Man, it’s that this is a Marvel Comics movie actually made by Marvel themselves – the venerable company have put their money when their mouth is and launched their own film studio, presumably on the grounds that they know how to handle these characters better than anyone else.

I say ‘these characters’, but if there’s one factor that might lead one to doubt the wisdom of the Marvel Studios project, it’s that all the most marketable and popular characters have already been licensed out to other studios – thus, Sony have the rights to make films about Spider-Man and Ghost Rider, Fox own the X-Men and the Fantastic Four, and Universal have Sub-Mariner and the Hulk (though I understand some kind of deal has been struck allowing the production of the Louis Leterrier Hulk movie which is due in a couple of months time). This could be interpreted as meaning that Marvel’s new movie wing is stuck with a load of second-string, uninspiring characters. Iron Man is possibly their best bet to launch this new enterprise.

Playing Iron Man in the movie, or more specifically his human alter ego, is Robert Downey Jr. He is Tony Stark, who as the film opens is a swaggering, self-absorbed hedonist, having become an immensely wealthy man off the back of his genius for designing technology (usually weapons). His sheer irresponsibility is a pain in the collective neck of his PA (Gwyneth Paltrow), military buddy (Terrence Howard), and business partner (Jeff Bridges), but he remains an annoyingly charming rogue, despite his dissolute ways.

All this changes, however, when Stark is captured by terrorists while on a business trip to Afghanistan, getting badly riddled with shrapnel in the process. A friendly fellow-prisoner installs an electromagnet in his chest to keep him alive, while the boss terrorist decrees that henceforth Stark will put his genius for destruction to work in their service, locking him in a cave with a load of power tools and instructing him to get on with it.

Many superhero stories have a magic ‘if’ involved, a moment where you have to really suspend your belief, and Iron Man‘s comes at this point – for Stark is able to make himself an armoured exoskeleton powered by a pioneering new mini-reactor and battle his way to freedom, without any of the terrorists wondering exactly what he’s building until it’s too late. But it’s a cool sequence anyway.

Back in the USA, Stark is a changed man, suddenly terribly aware of the carnage he is responsible for around the world, and determined to make amends for this. His announcement that his corporation will cease manufacturing weapons is met with shock from the media and hostility from his business partners, and news eventually reaches him that unauthorised shipments of ordnance are still being made. So it seems he has no choice but to go back into action, using a rather more sophisticated new suit of armour…

Well, yes, this is yet another superhero origin movie, and while I suppose there is a very real possibility that we will one day grow sick of them, that seems unlikely to happen when they are as smartly put together as Iron Man. The world being what it is, Stan Lee’s original version of this story has been quite neatly updated by the simple expedient of replacing Vietnam with Afghanistan. Iron Man dates from Lee’s imperial phase as a creator of new superheroes, and indeed the veteran scribe (who makes another of his cameos here) announced that with Iron Man his intention was to create a hero who had nothing in common with his young, not especially affluent, somewhat counter-culturally inclined core audience, just to see if he could make it work.

If the film has a significant achievement to its name, it’s that this is a rare example of a comic-book movie which is dominated by the title character’s performance, rather than the villain or (even worse) just the special effects. A few years ago, Tom Cruise was apparently in talks to play Stark, and he would have been a more predictable and conventional choice in many ways. But now, post-Johnny Depp in the Pirates movies, slightly more idiosyncratic performers can get a shot at this kind of film, which is presumably why Downey Jr stars here. He’s always been a brilliant actor, but his problem has been not so much that he couldn’t get arrested in Hollywood, but that this was happening just a bit too frequently. Here, though, he puts his undeniable talent to good use – the initial, roguish Stark is still charming and likeable, while his transformation into a genuinely heroic, dedicated righter of wrongs is convincing, while still maintaining the character’s appeal.

Of course, the focus on Stark, while welcome, does mean that the actual villain of the movie, whose identity I suppose I’d better not spoil, is a little flat in comparison – a fairly unusual flaw for a superhero film, I’m sure you’ll agree. On the other hand, Downey Jr is very well-supported by the rest of the cast, not to mention a sharp and snappy script with some very zippy dialogue. No doubt future movies will feature more spectacular opposition – a not-exactly-subtle hint that Howard will be putting on a set of armour in a potential sequel certainly suggests Marvel are thinking along those lines. If you get that joke, you’ll probably also appreciate an appearance by Clark Gregg in a small role as a member of a government spy agency well-known to Marvel readers.

Iron Man is a very competent, engaging and entertaining movie, and surely bodes well for the future of the Marvel Studios project. That said, it really does have a sense of ultra-cautiousness about it, the company not wanting to take too many risks. As a result it doesn’t feel like it has the scale or scope of, say, Christopher Nolan’s Batman movie, or Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2. But maybe that will come in time; the very least one can say about Iron Man is that it is a solid debut for this new studio, and certainly a movie that suggests Marvel’s in-house film operation could produce some very interesting work over the next few years.

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Slightly further down this very page I will be sharing my opinion of Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther. You may agree with me about this film, partly or fully. You may well not. Now, I would normally say that there was nothing very exceptional about this fact: people have different opinions all the time, after all, it’s a fact of life.

But it isn’t, apparently: advance publicity on Black Panther went off on a bit of a tangent last week, with the exposure of an organised campaign to trash this film’s ratings on the review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes, courtesy of a bunch of people who hadn’t even seen it yet (some of them associated with extremist right-wing groups). The reason for this rather eccentric behaviour? They claim to be sick of movies based on DC Comics getting lousy reviews from professional critics, while ones from Marvel Studios are generally much better received. They make accusations of systematic bias and corruption amongst the critics.

Putting entirely to one side the issue of Wonder Woman, a DC movie which received some of the most glowing notices of last year, one wonders if it has occurred to these people that the reason DC’s movie output generally gets lukewarm reviews is because DC movies, of late, have usually been somewhat lousy. Apparently not: the concept of an honest difference of opinion does not seem to have occurred to them. The only reason someone could not share their point of view must be because they are part of a conspiracy to hide the truth – whether that’s because they’re in the pockets of Marvel, or because they’re pushing a particular politically-correct agenda. Levelling this particular accusation in the vicinity of Black Panther is especially provocative, given the film is largely distinguished by the fact it is very much a non-Caucasian take on the superhero genre of which Marvel are currently the masters.

It seems to me to be particularly symptomatic of our current times, anyway: recent months seem to have witnessed a terminal breakdown in the very concept of consensus, the idea that there are things that everyone can broadly agree on. Either the news media is a principled establishment telling the truth about a troubled and chaotic administration, or it’s a fake instrument of a liberal conspiracy trying to topple an elected leader – there’s not much in the way of middle ground here, and the UK has its own gaping divisions about the main political issues of the day.

Just to be clear, I am not in the pockets of Marvel (though if Kevin Feige is reading this, I would be willing to open negotiations) – or, if I am, it is only because of the consistently high standard of their film-making. Feel free to disagree with me about this or anything else.

Normally I would say it was slightly absurd to be making such a fuss about what is, after all, a comic-book superhero movie, but, you know, Unique Cultural Moment, and the supposedly radical nature of Black Panther has been front and centre in its publicity. Some mildly silly things have already been said of this movie – apparently it is the first ever superhero movie with a black lead character (no it’s not, there was Meteor Man (1993), not mention Spawn and Steel (both 1997), and Marvel’s own Blade (1998), to name only a few), while the BBC claimed it has an ‘all-black cast’, which probably came as a surprise to Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis, both of whom feature prominently in it. Can the movie itself possibly stand up to all this hype?

Well, this is the seemingly-unstoppable Marvel mega-franchise project, so you never can tell. Following on fairly closely from the events of Civil War, the movie opens with Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returning to his remote African homeland of Wakanda so he can be crowned the new king, and take up the mantle of Wakanda’s protector, the Black Panther. The wider world thinks Wakanda is a quiet little third-world country full of trees and shepherds, but this is an elaborate ruse to conceal the fact that it really possesses the most advanced technology on the planet, courtesy of being struck by a meteorite full of magic alien metal in ancient times.

The new king’s first duty is keep this secret, but he also feels bound to avenge an old wrong – namely, a raid on Wakanda many years earlier by the South African criminal Ulysses Klaue (Serkis, reprising the role from Age of Ultron). Given the CIA also has an interest in Klaue’s activities, can he do so without exposing Wakanda to the world? There is also the problem that one of Klaue’s associates is a mercenary known as Killmonger (Michael B Jordan), an embittered and angry scion of the Wakandan royal house, who is intent on seizing the throne…

It will come as no real surprise to anyone who’s been keeping up with developments in cinema over the last few years that Marvel show no sign of dropping the ball with their latest project: Black Panther is a finely-machined piece of entertainment, lavishly mounted, with a solid script and a carefully-judged tone. There are fantastically thrilling action sequences, very good jokes, charismatic performances, and plenty of little references to reward people who’ve been following along with the ongoing meta-plot for the last ten years or so. Boseman radiates nobility and cool as the Black Panther, Jordan matches him as Killmonger, and Andy Serkis is having a whale of a time as the absurdly evil Klaue (who’s not in the movie nearly enough).

Anticipation is high for every new Marvel movie, but especially so in this case: even before the current Unique Moment came about, there had been murmurings about the perceived lack of diversity and Euro-centricity of the Marvel films, and Black Panther has deliberately been pitched as restitution for this: it’s not quite an all-black movie, but the majority of the roles are filled by non-white performers.

There’s a sense in which Black Panther is essentially a piece of diversity wish-fulfilment, for at the heart of the film is its depiction of an Afrofuturistic utopia where, unravaged by the attentions of colonial European powers, African culture has developed technology decades ahead of the rest of the world. It’s probably best not to think about this too much, to be perfectly honest, nor about the way that this supposedly progressive new presentation of African characters still concludes with people riding around on rhinos waving spears. This is at heart still a piece of entertainment, after all.

Having said that, the film also contains some very interesting and genuinely subversive ideas about culture and colonialism. Coogler draws a very clear distinction between T’Challa, his purely African hero, and Killmonger, a villain who has been corrupted – it is implied – by growing up African-American, with all the injustice and prejudice one associates with this. There is a restrained but palpable sense of anger about this film at times, and one can’t help but recall that in the comics T’Challa briefly operated under the codename Black Leopard in order to distance the character from the Black Panther Party, a radical socialist group.

However, just as the first Captain America film couldn’t show a superhero ending the Second World War in 1942, so Black Panther can’t depict the magical solution of all the racial problems in the world today. It’s when the film butts up against real-world issues that it seems most in danger of losing its way – it has to walk a tricky tonal tightrope, for instance, when confronting the fact that Wakanda’s fierce isolationism makes it to some extent complicit in the woes inflicted on Africa by Europeans and Americans.

Is this to take a Marvel superhero film too seriously? Normally I would agree, but this movie is sincerely being hailed as a watershed moment in the way African culture is portrayed in Hollywood movies, and a great leap forward for blockbusters with predominantly non-white casts. Well, maybe: this is a Marvel movie, after all, and if we’ve learned anything, it’s that different rules seem to apply here. Black Panther‘s place in cultural history will become apparent with the passing of time; what we can be sure of now is that this another superbly entertaining fantasy from the studio.

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Chris Hemsworth is in the odd position of being one of those people who can command a huge salary, get his name in big letters on a movie poster, and sit on top of a massive opening box-office weekend, and yet he’s not really what you’d call a proper movie star: people don’t go and see a Chris Hemsworth movie, they go and see Thor movies, and it’s just Hemsworth’s good fortune that he’s the guy who gets to play Thor at the moment. Once he steps away from the magic circle of the Marvel Studios franchise – well, it’s not as if he doesn’t make any other movies, and it’s not as if they don’t make money (although he has notched up a couple of significant bombs), nor is it the case that he is routinely bad in them, but they tend not to make the same kind of impression, no matter their quality. For the time being I’m sure this isn’t a major issue for the big lad, but he surely can’t carry on playing Thor forever, and what is he going to do then? (To be fair, this isn’t problem isn’t limited to Hemsworth, as a number of Marvel’s other big names also seem to struggle to find success in other roles.)

Anyway, Hemsworth is back giving us his God of Thunder once again, in Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok, umpteenth entry in the all-conquering Marvel Studios megafranchise. This is their third release of 2017, but – as you might expect by this point – they make it all look very easy indeed.

Things get under way with a rather busy and somewhat convoluted opening section, but this is surely forgivable given that it allows for a brief appearance by Cumbersome Bandersnatch as Dr Strange, and an uncredited cameo from an extremely game Major Movie Star, all played very much for laughs. (To be honest, the vast majority of the movie is essentially played for laughs on some level or other, so we can take that as read from this point on.)

Well, basically, the machinations of Thor’s devious adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) bring about the return of the banished Asgardian Goddess of Death, Hela (Cate Blanchett), who is intent on seizing the throne for herself and reinventing Asgard as an aggressively imperial force in the universe. Thor and Loki take exception to this plan, but in the course of their tussle with Hela and her eye-catching headwear, find themselves dumped far from home on the junkheap planet Sakaar.

While Hela tightens her grip on Asgard with the help of Skurge (Karl Urban), an unscrupulous warrior, the brothers have to survive on this new alien world, which is ruled by the alien Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), who is part despotic emperor, part superstar DJ. Thor is nabbed by the slightly boozy Asgardian renegade Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and consigned to the gladiatorial pits where he must battle to survive. Bereft of his magic hammer and his flowing locks, can Thor still summon up enough of his mojo to escape and save the universe…?

I think it is fair to say that not many people would rate the first two Thor movies amongst the top flight of the Marvel series – it’s not that they’re actually bad, but they are slightly ponderous in a way that most of the studio’s other films are not. Clearly the people at the top of Marvel feel the same way, for there has obviously been a rethink and a bit of a retooling of Thor and his particular corner of the universe, perhaps somewhat influenced by Chris Hemsworth’s very effective comic turn in the All-Female Ghostbusters Reboot. Everything is much more laid back and comedic than it was in the first two films; Thor is positively chatty much of the time, and there are sight gags and pratfalls aplenty.

Marvel savants will already be aware that, in an attempt to add something new to the formula this time round, the writers of Ragnarok have borrowed a few elements from the Planet Hulk storyline (which ran in the comics over ten years ago). Presumably this is one reason why the Hulk himself has a major role in the story (he is played by Mark Ruffalo, as usual) – although in terms of the actual plot, Thor is in the Hulk role, while the Hulk is in the position originally occupied by the Silver Surfer (who, needless to say, isn’t in the film). As I say, it’s only a superficial take on Planet Hulk, but putting Thor and the Hulk in outer space together does open up some new possibilities.

If nothing else, it does allow the movie to move away from some of the more limiting elements of the previous movies – Anthony Hopkins has a much-reduced role, as do several other established characters. Natalie Portman isn’t in it at all, and for a while it also looks like Idris Elba’s voluble complaints about working for Marvel (‘This is torture, I don’t want to do this’) have earned him the sack – but he’s dragged back in front of the green screen before too much time has elapsed. In their place, Cate Blanchett is clearly having a whale of a time as an extremely camp villainess, closely followed by Goldblum. One of the film’s most quietly impressive features is Karl Urban’s performance as Skurge the Executioner – Urban takes a third-string Marvel villain and manages to turn him into someone who actually has a bit of a character arc in the course of the story.

It’s one of the few elements of the film which takes itself (mostly) seriously, for the sense I get from Ragnarok is that Marvel’s main directive to Waititi was ‘Make it more Guardians of the Galaxy-y’. The playlist this time is more prog rock and disco, but the quotient of spaceships, ray guns, monsters, and cosmic nonsense is certainly much closer to a James Gunn movie than one by Kenneth Branagh. And, you know, it’s all good fun, crowd-pleasing stuff, unless you happen to think that films about wisecracking alien gods and big green gamma monsters are actually the stuff of heavy drama and should be taken terribly, terribly seriously.

On the other hand, I have generally been impressed by the way Marvel have negotiated the ‘too silly-too serious’ tightrope in the past, but all three of the films they’ve released this year have arguably been primarily comedic in tone. It’s certainly worked for them, but I’m not sure it’s sustainable – on the other hand, the next film off the conveyor belt, Black Panther, looks like it will be more down to earth in most respects. Normally at this point one would say ‘this could be a challenging change of tone, it’ll be interesting to see if Marvel manage it’, but seventeen films into the series it certainly seems like Marvel’s main challenge will be to keep finding new challenges for themselves. Thor: Ragnarok is not the greatest Marvel movie ever, but certainly not the worst: it moves the story along in interesting and unexpected ways, and you’re never more than a few minutes away from a genuinely good gag or some well-executed crash-bang-wallop, or both. A very safe bet for a good time.

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Seeing as we were discussing the change in fortunes of Marvel movies over the years just the other day, we might usefully consider the question of what, exactly, it will take for them to actually produce another proper turkey (yes, yes, I know a lot of people didn’t like Iron Man 3 – didn’t stop it becoming one of the biggest hits in history). Well, I would say that on paper, the omens for Thor: Ragnarok are a little worrying, simply because when Marvel head Down Under to make their films (Ragnarok was filmed in Australia), the results are frequently not pretty.

Exhibit A is the 1989 version of The Punisher, transplanting Frank Castle from New York to Sydney and turning him into Dolph Lundgren, and I would argue that Exhibit B is Brett Leonard’s 2005 take on Man-Thing. On this occasion the movie at least purported to be set in the swamps of the southern USA, but it was actually made, once again, in the Sydney area.

Rather surprisingly for a Marvel movie, the story gets underway with a reprise of the opening of Jaws, as a young couple sneak off into the bayou for a little illicit whoa-ho-ho. Things are going nicely, until the male participant is gorily impaled through the chest and dragged off into the undergrowth, leaving his partner a screaming wreck. (The character who gets killed is named Steve Gerber, who was a writer on the Man-Thing comic back in the 1970s – several other writers and artists get characters named after them, too. I suspect all of these people would have felt more honoured if the scriptwriters had tried harder to make a better movie.)

Next we meet the new sheriff in the area, Kyle Williams (Matthew Le Nevez), whose incipient male pattern baldness cannot disguise the fact that he is improbably young for such a big job (Le Nevez was only in his mid-20s when the film was made). Top of his in-tray, apart from the mysterious disappearance of his predecessor, are the various problems besetting the local oil company, which has been putting up various rigs in the swamp and annoying environmentalists and local Native Americans. Williams decides to open communications with the protestors by getting to know the blondest and comeliest protestor he can lay his hands on (Rachael Taylor, who has since gone on to a more successful Marvel connection, playing Hellcat in the Netflix series).

It turns out lots of people are vanishing into the swamp and then turning up dead, and Sheriff Kyle’s somewhat rudimentary investigations turn up two possible suspects – local ne’er-do-well Laroque, and the legendary guardian spirit of the swamp, which supposedly hosts the mystical Nexus of All Realities. Hang on a minute – does that mean Man-Thing is actually the bad guy in his own movie?!

Reader, I’m afraid it does. Now, we are of course dealing with a third-string Marvel character here, basically an ambulatory pile of muck with a philosophical temperament and a tendency to set fire to people (‘Whatever knows fear burns at the Man-Thing’s touch!’). There’s also the issue that Man-Thing, who lives in a swamp, is very prone to being confused with DC’s Swamp Thing, who used to be a man (well, kinda: it’s complicated) – Alan Moore basically said both characters were ‘Hamlet covered in snot’.

The movie version of Man-Thing is a very different proposition, resembling a grumpy Ent covered in CGI vines and creepers, much given to murdering innocent passers-by in a surprisingly graphic style. This is much more of a horror movie than anything else that has been produced under the Marvel marque, and contains a lot of other non-family-friendly material – F-bombs, nudity, and fairly graphic sex, too (perhaps the writers heard the comic was briefly titled Giant-Size Man-Thing and got the wrong end of the stick).

If only the film was as interesting as that makes it sound. The problem is that it isn’t; it’s just dull. This is a Man-Thing movie in which Man-Thing himself doesn’t appear in the flesh – sorry, muck – until near the end, and the script doesn’t seem to have much idea what to fill the monster-shaped hole at its centre. What it eventually plumps for is the kind of scenario that would sustain a filler episode of The X-Files, with a lumberingly unsubtle environmentalist message and cartoonishly evil oil-men bad guys, driven along by occasional monster attacks. It might just have been enjoyably silly and camp over a period of 45 minutes. Stretched out to feature-film length – it really does feel stretched – it’s just dull, lacking in tension or new ideas, brought to the screen by actors who are for the most part not especially charismatic.

One criticism that occasionally gets slung at the Marvel Studio films these days is that they are all a bit samey, written to a formula, and overly micro-managed by the producers – hence the departure of Edgar Wright from Ant-Man, for instance. Marvel’s response to this is basically to point at a movie like Man-Thing and say ‘this is what happens when we don’t keep tight control on our projects’, and it’s hard to argue with them.

You can’t really talk about ‘the current boom in superhero and comic-book movies’, as it’s arguably been underway since the late 1990s (a very long boom), and you could even argue that there was a brief period in the mid-2000s when the bad old days made something of a come-back – as well as Man-Thing, there was the Tom Jane version of The Punisher, Ben Affleck’s Daredevil, Nic Cage’s Ghost Rider, and Halle Berry’s take on Catwoman. I suppose it just shows that doing this kind of film well is never as easy as you might think it is – also that getting the tone right is hugely important, and really understanding the character that you’re bringing to the screen. Man-Thing certainly constitutes a dropped ball, and that’s mainly because it doesn’t feel like a Man-Thing movie, and whatever kind of film it does want to be, it’s a poorly scripted and ineptly made one.

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If you look at a typical episode of a Marvel Comics TV show nowadays, it will likely concern some sort of ninja death cult, or high-tech arms dealing, or demonically-inspired parallel world capers about evil androids. But it was not ever thus, and the most successful of Marvel’s shows from years gone by was usually a little more quotidian in its emphasis – sometimes jarringly so, from a modern perspective.

A Child in Need (written by Frank Dandridge) is an episode transmitted as part of the second season of The Incredible Hulk, late in 1978, although it was apparently intended for the first season (held back for behind the scenes reasons). The past is another country, of course, but given the subject matter of this particular episode, it seems particularly ironic that at its start perennial drifter and serial utiliser of transparent pseudonyms David Banner (Bill Bixby, of course) has managed to land a job as groundskeeper at an ordinary school in Everytown USA. Personally I would have said that dealing with dozens of children every day was not a good idea for someone with his particular anger management issues, but this is what the plot requires.

Anyway, Banner befriends Mark (Dennis Dimster), a lonely 10-year-old boy, and notices his arms are badly bruised. The school nurse (Rebecca York) casually mentions that Mark falls over and bruises himself quite a lot, which of course sets Banner with his brilliant medical brain to thinking there may be something unpleasant going on in Mark’s domestic situation – he tracks down Mark’s mother to ask her about this, only to find she shows signs of having been beaten up as well.

It is, needless to say, Mark’s dad Jack (Sandy McPeak) who is responsible (although the episode is painstaking in making it clear that responsibility is a relative thing in this situation). He comes from a rough background himself, likes a drink a bit too much, and so on. Needless to say, he does not take kindly to Banner inserting himself into his family’s business, and various confrontations ensue, some of which turn violent and conclude with Banner being pushed over fences and into closets, and generally finding himself in obscure locations from which the Hulk can emerge a few moments later, intent on doing his somewhat simple-minded bit for child welfare.

You might think the episode itself sounds rather simple-minded, but I would rather describe it as heart-felt and it is, as usual, driven along by an exemplary performance from Bixby. You do question quite why Banner finds himself so driven to help Mark with his problems – it’s not just a case of Banner’s usual incorruptible decency, he almost seems to be taking it quite personally. Anyone savvy with the later years of the comic may recall that the book’s Banner was the victim of an abusive, alcoholic father (it was suggested this was to some extent the root cause of his odd condition) and it would be tempting to speculate that Banner sees something of himself in Mark – however, a later episode focusing on Banner’s own family background would suggest otherwise.

As I say, Banner does seem to let his concerns get the better of him, rather – I’m guessing this is not the episode they show to ancillary school staff as part of their induction training. Banner admittedly has his own very good reasons for wanting to stay off the authorities’ radar, but even so, for him to be doing such a Lone Ranger act, spending so much one-on-one time with a vulnerable minor, and even taking him back to his apartment – I normally tune most of the way out during welfare training where I work, but even I know these are exceptionably unwise things to be doing.

But hey, it was the 1970s, and the episode also makes the conspiracy of silence Banner has to contend with quite clear: the school nurse doesn’t want to get involved, fearing she’ll lose her job, and nobody else in the neighbourhood wants to bring down the wrath of Jack on themselves, either. If nothing else, I suppose episodes like this did a valuable service in opening up serious issues like child abuse to general discussion.

This is a solidly written and well-played episode, with moments of directorial ambition, too (director James Parriott has a damn good go at a trick shot where the Hulk changes back into Banner actually on camera, but can’t quite make it seamless). And the Hulk-out sequences are exceptionally effective, not because they’re especially lavish or inventive, but because they work extremely well on a thematic level.

Kenneth Johnson, creator and overseer of The Incredible Hulk, always said that one of the ideas of the show was that many people have to deal with their own metaphorical Hulk – some weakness or problem that sometimes makes them lose control, with destructive results. And that’s never clearer than here – the first Hulk-out occurs when Banner realises Jack is about to start beating up his son (his alarm and frustration about this is what ultimately causes the change) and it’s just as Jack is about to turn violent with Mark that the Hulk smashes through the wall into their living room. The metaphor could not be much clearer. The same is true of the climactic Hulk-out, in which Jack eventually attacks the Hulk, and it’s clear that from his point of view the monster represents his own abusive father. Catharsis ensues; Jack gets the help he needs, McGee (who turns up for one scene, but doesn’t contribute much to the drama) doesn’t get his story, Banner walks off into the sunset with the piano tinkling mournfully.

As I say, perhaps not the kind of kick-ass thrills you get on Netflix nowadays, but (a few dubious moments excepted) it is an extremely well-made episode which sets out to cover a serious issue in a serious way. In some ways its very earnestness is what makes it so effective as a piece of drama.

The next episode, Another Path, doesn’t quite feature a ninja death cult, but it’s still likely to feel much more familiar to modern viewers. Nicholas Corea’s script gets underway with Banner finding himself locked in the back of a refrigerated truck with an elderly Asian man who is deep in a meditation trance. This is a fairly improbable situation for someone to find himself in, and Corea doesn’t bother trying to be clever about it – indeed there’s something almost admirable about the no-nonsense way he bulls through the set-up.

Well, in a bit of a deviation from the Hulk formula, being trapped in a refrigerated truck is enough to bring on one of Banner’s episodes very early in the episode, and he and the old man bust out. His companion proves to be Li Sung, a blind Chinese philosopher, teacher, and martial arts expert, who has spent the last couple of years exploring the USA. Striking up a friendship, Banner and Li Sung realise that a few meditation techniques might help no end when it comes to keeping the Hulk under control. (The elderly Chinese character is played by Mako, a Japanese actor who was only about 45 when the episode was made. But it was the 1970s, and Mako was one of those guys who seemed to spend most of his career playing much older than his actual age.)

The two men eventually end up in San Francisco, because Li Sung founded a school here some time earlier, and he wants to see how it has been getting on in his absence. However (and here the plot kicks in), Li Sung’s old pupil, Silva (Tom Lee Holland), has fallen to the dark side and the school is now a front for a protection racket. When they realise this, Banner (quite sensibly) urges Li Sung to go to the police – but this has become a matter of honour for the old man, to be settled face to face…

The slight oddness of this episode becomes apparent very early on, with one of the Hulk-outs done and dusted inside the first ten minutes or so. You almost never get more than two Hulk-outs an episode on this show (they’re the single most expensive part of the programme), so this means it’s a very long time between appearances by Lou Ferrigno. This just adds to the sense that the episode is at least as much about Li Sung as it is about Banner. Nothing necessarily wrong with that, of course – it’s a tack The Incredible Hulk goes for more than once. But it is a bit of a change of pace and tone. (A sequel to this episode was actually intended as a backdoor pilot for a martial-arts themed action-adventure show, and you wonder whether they were thinking along those lines even at this point.)

And, very unusually, the climax of the episode concludes with Li Sung himself taking on Silva and his followers, kung-fu style, with the Hulk himself in a very subordinate role. Still, the martial arts stuff is reasonably good – I’d say it works as well as the fight choreography in Iron Fist, not that this is necessarily saying much – and it’s really just a case of expectations not being met. This is a show called The Incredible Hulk, after all, not The Deadly Hands of Li Sung. In the end it’s all good knockabout fun, with no particular depth or insight to it, and a winning performance from Mako. Not quite a Hulk episode of the first rank, though.

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