The Age of the Superhero

The cast of ‘The Avengers’ assemble at last year’s Comic Con (Google Images).

I was rather lukewarm about the idea of an Avengers movie when it just seemed like a cynical ploy to make more money by producing movies about other lesser-known Marvel heroes in the wake of the successful Iron Man franchise. But my interest has been piqued after seeing the delightfully old-fashioned Captain America film last week and the wonderfully galactic Thor several months ago.

Until now I have only dabbled in my love for comic books. The deepest I have been into the multiple universes available for immersion was an obsession with the Weapon X series of X-Men in high school. I meticulously traced frames from the beautifully illustrated stories onto overhead paper with my friend Hannah, who was similarly enamoured. I also had a brief infatuation with anything Spiderman when the first movie was released in 2002, and for a year I proudly covered my mobile with a shiny plastic webbed red cover and used miniature rubber Spidey pencil toppers.

But the portrayal of characters I was only vaguely aware of (Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America) in visually appealing, mostly well-written adaptations over the past few years has in my mind refreshed a genre that was becoming too bogged down by the desire to show the gritty, realistic side of being a superhero. Not to mention the raft of films  from Mystery Men to Kick-Ass that attempted to subvert audience expectations of these figures (with mixed results). It appears the superhero film has come full circle, as the first few entries in the series of films leading up to the release of The Avengers next year aren’t afraid to display an unapologetic sense of grandeur and fun.

Captain America: The First Avenger allows the audience to actually experience a comic book come to life on the big screen.  It presents an appealingly stylised and cartoonishly bold version of the world in the middle of World War II, which is easy to get absorbed in even with its corny lines and historical inaccuracies (the recent X-Men: First Class is even more chock full of them). But these are pointless quibbles for a film which doesn’t aspire to be anything other than a fantasy romp through a cartoon version of history.

Fanmade poster for ‘Captain America’ (Tumblr).

Chris Evans is perfect in the lead role, portraying the physically vulnerable but strong-hearted Brooklynite Steve Rogers, who has a hankering to defend his country from the bullies of World War II. When Evans makes the transition into a life-size Ken doll on steroids, the sensitivity of his earlier portrayal thankfully stays intact. The romance between himself and Agent Carter, played by Hayley Atwell (displaying a suitably archetypal forties blow wave and red lips, and a sassy attitude to boot) is sweet and I became genuinely invested in their relationship. The abrupt end to their connection as well as the chance for Rogers to go on more adventures with the rest of the supporting cast (especially the appealing Sebastian Stan) was made all the more melancholy when we were yanked back to present day New York at the film’s end.

Chris Evans and Sebastian Stan in ‘Captain America: The First Avenger’ (Avenger Site).

The brief glimpse of outer space during the climactic fight scene on Schmidt’s ship at the end of Captain America made me remember why I loved Thor so much. The advancement of film-making technology now allows for the rendering of outer space in dazzling form. Not since JJ Abrams’ recent Star Trek reboot have I been so spellbound by the special effects in a film as I was during the heady inter-dimensional sequences in Thor.

Unlike Tron: Legacy, where the fully digitally realised world was not particularly fun to occupy, the world of Asgard in Thor certainly was. The special effects that bring the world to life, with its myriad bridges, golden buildings, waterfalls and royal halls, are breathtaking to behold. The ‘rainbow bridge’ that provides the link between Asgard and other realms pulses with multicoloured lights and is so aesthetically pleasing that the battle between the brothers on it at the end of the film is particularly satisfying; making use of its sparkling power from all angles.

The rainbow bridge in ‘Thor’ (Google Images).

Chris Hemsworth makes an affable god of thunder, while Stellan Sarsgaard and Anthony Hopkins give reliably solid performances. Kat Dennings provides her unique brand of comic relief as the sardonic sidekick to Natalie Portman, who brings her usual sassy cuteness to the role of romantic interest for Thor. Kenneth Branagh gives a deft touch to the dramatic dialogue, giving the emotional speeches between the family members real gravitas. It would be easy for scenes like this to fall back onto cringeworthy, empty platitudes, but you feel like there is something real at stake. Loki is played with a wonderfully subtle menace by Tom Hiddleston, who makes the god of mischief more of a complex tortured character than simply a one-note villain with dastardly plans. You empathise with his frustration about being stuck in his place, in a world in which he has never quite belonged. Thankfully Hiddleston will be transferring his appealing brand of menace to star as one of the villains in The Avengers.

Chris Hemsworth, Anthony Hopkins and Tom Hiddleston as the dysfunctional family in ‘Thor’ (Google Images).

I am fascinated to see if The Avengers succeeds in uniting these singularly interesting characters from within the Marvel universe, who are being introduced within compelling screen worlds in their own right, into a cohesive and entertaining film come May next year.

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