>The Marvel films of 2011<

Three films based on Marvel Comics properties were released over the summer of 2011, all with hopes higher than usual for this kind of film: 20th Century Fox wanted to repair the image of the X-Men brand, damaged by two prior sub-par installments. Marvel Studios (along with Paramount) desperately needed two hits in addition to the Iron Man series in order for there to be any chance of success for The Avengers (2012), their risky experiment in bringing the comics’ shared universe to the big screen. More or less by coincidence, I watched all three of these films this summer (in the order of release, no less).

Of the three, I was most predisposed to like Thor. While I hadn’t read the primary source material, the Marvel comic books (I came to comics late and appreciate it as an art form, but don’t normally read superhero comics built on decades of continuity), I have always been fascinated by mythology and works based on these ancient tales. I don’t have a fundamental objection to someone repurposing these larger-than-life gods as larger-than-life advanced aliens. And I did like the film quite a bit, just not as much as I thought I would.

Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston are well-cast in the roles of Thor and his brother Loki, respectively, Asgard’s design is appealing in a retro sci-fi sort of way, and Kenneth Branagh’s direction is confident even in action scenes. It’s the script where the movie falls somewhat short, spending too much time showing not particularly interesting goings-on on Earth, which Thor eventually gets banished to as punishment for his arrogance. What follows is a predictable character arc in which the depowered god has to learn humility (which happens too quickly and in too facile a manner) and adjust to 21st century life (which is amusingly presented, granted, but of which there is too little and much less than internet memes had made me anticipate). None of this is bad, per se, but it also never grows beyond decent. Any spark the film has is thanks to Loki, who gets a more fleshed-out and interesting characterisation than anyone else.

On the whole, the film is nice to look at and quite enjoyable while you’re watching it, even if its plot is not particularly memorable and somewhat by-the-numbers. It does a good job of introducing the Marvel versions of Thor and Loki to mainstream audiences, which I suppose was the main goal all along. It succeeds at that.

You could say similar things about the other two films. I was never as entranced with the first two X-Men films as everybody else seemed to be (#3 was rightfully thrashed, though, and I never bothered with the Wolverine spin-off); they were okay. However, that franchise’s core relationship between Charles Xavier (Professor X) and Magnus Lensherr (Magneto) has always been fascinating to me: two friends who kind of want the same thing but have completely opposing methods for how to get there. X-Men: First Class shows how that particular relationship came into being, and it’s by far the most accomplished and satisfying film of the franchise. It’s not perfect by any means – most of the other characters, though mostly well-acted, don’t get much of a chance to become fleshed out, for example -, but the interaction between Xavier and Magneto and the explication of their points of view hold the movie together. The storyline crafted around these two characters is a sometimes clever, sometimes awfully convenient “secret history” that puts the mutants into the centre of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Its functional in its goal of setting the two main characters on the path they have to be on for later films without really attempting anything more.

Captain America: The First Avenger is a bit more ambitious, and has to be. The X-Men are an established property and the Freudian alien angle (and colourblind casting) gave the originally Norse Thor international appeal, but Captain America is more difficult to make palatable for audiences outside of the United States. A character embodying American patriotism is not the easiest sell in an age where movies make more than half of their money overseas (and an age where American military power is often not seen in a favourable light).

The film doesn’t really sidestep the issue: Steve Rogers is an American soldier during World War II, after all, one who carries the colours of the American flag everywhere he goes. But it deemphasises his nationality by focusing on the fact that Rogers is a good person first and foremost, someone who doesn’t want to fight Nazis because they attacked the free world, but because they’re bullies and because it seems unfair that other young men are going to war while he is allowed to stay home. The source of the uniform and the heroic moniker is, rather cleverly, revealed to be a fictional show Rogers performs to hawk war bonds when the army refuses to use him in the battlefield, while the old, hyperpatriotic comic books are retconned as in-universe propaganda.

An effort is initially made to portray Rogers as a man of infinite courage who stands up for what he believes in while attempting to use the minimum amount of force. That kind of dissipates once Captain America is actually let loose on the battlefield, though; if he was supposed to go out of his way using his weapons and shield non-lethally, that doesn’t come across at all. That’s probably supposed to be mitigated by the fact that, for the most part, he doesn’t fight regular soldiers, and not even regular Nazis, but a particularly devoted sub-sect under the leadership of an obvious monster. Moral grey areas aren’t something the film is very interesting in, which I guess fits the protagonist well. Rogers’ personality stays more or less the same from beginning to end, which is the point: his physicality may change (quite convincingly, I might add), but his moral fibre doesn’t.

In the end, I was satisfied with the film. The characters aren’t grating and the plot rushes along without any great stumbles. Structurally, Captain America is the most cohesive of the three features, with scenes from the beginning and middle of the film mirrored in the finale. Alan Silvestri’s music is comparable to the work by Patrick Doyle (Thor) and Henry Jackman (First Class): serviceable, but all three composers somehow fail to produce a truly memorable superhero theme that goes beyond adequate or “merely nice to listen to”.

Judging from the worldwide box-office take, Fox’s and Paramount’s gambles paid off, with each movie making over 350 million dollars, and 2012’s The Avengers taking in over 1.5 billion. Quality-wise, too, all three films are quite successful even if there’s not a true masterpiece among them: they’re entertaining action/adventure films with characters I wouldn’t mind seeing again (and will, in in the inevitable sequels).

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