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Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Captain America-The Winter Soldier #1

by Steve Habrat

Last summer, Marvel Studios kicked off Phase 2 of their cinematic universe with Iron Man 3, a film that featured a marketing campaign that hinted that this new set of superhero films would embrace a darker tone. Unfortunately, many were left disappointed, as Iron Man 3 quickly succumbed to the creeping sarcasm and carefree antics that Tony Stark had become known for. The hope for some darker action carried over to November’s Thor: The Dark World, which suggested that things might be getting grittier for the Norse god, but once again the audience got more of Marvel’s winking escapism. To make things worse, Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World implied that Marvel might be producing these films a little too quickly, as they were far from the superhero factory’s best efforts. Somebody should tell Stan Lee that even superheroes need some time off. Now, right on the cusp of the summer movie season, audiences are given the chance to catch up with super soldier Steve Rogers in Captain America: The Winter Solider, which easily ranks as the best solo-Avengers outing yet. Under the direction of Joe and Anthony Russo, Captain America: The Winter Soldier finds Marvel getting in touch with their dark side, and opting for a much more plot-driven approach that caters more to adults than to the pint-sized viewer. The result is a heart-pounding political thriller that gives Joss Whedon’s The Avengers a run for its money as the best superhero film from Marvel Studios.

Two years after the battle for New York City, Steve Rogers aka Captain America (played by Chris Evans) has been living in Washington D.C., where he has been attempting to adjust to modern day life and taking on various missions for intelligence agency S.H.I.E.L.D. One day, Rogers is approached by S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (played by Samuel L. Jackson) about leading a rescue mission to help save a S.H.I.E.L.D. ship from a band of vicious Algerian pirates. The rescue mission seems to go as planned, but Rogers is enraged to learn that fellow S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Natasha Romanoff aka The Black Widow (played by Scarlett Johansson) nearly compromised the rescue attempt by stopping to collect classified data from the ship’s computer for Fury. Upon returning to Washington D.C., Fury briefs Rogers on Project Insight, which involves three massive gunships that are able to neutralize dangerous threats before they even happen. Rogers is less the pleased to learn about S.H.I.E.L.D.’s new defensive program, but things get worse after Fury is attacked and nearly killed by a mysterious assassin known only as The Winter Soldier (played by Sebastian Stan). With orders from Fury to not trust anyone at S.H.I.E.L.D., including their senior leader, Alexander Pierce (played by Robert Redford), Rogers enlists the help of Romanoff and newly befriended war hero Sam Wilson aka Falcon (played by Anthony Mackie) to help him uncover S.H.I.E.L.D.’s dirty secrets—secrets that could threaten the lives of millions of innocent American citizens.

Unlike usual Marvel fare, Captain America: The Winter Soldier doesn’t focus all of its energy on the CGI battles, explosions, fistfights, showdowns, and whatever else gets the audience’s adrenaline pumping. Sure, there is no shortage of action to be found in The Winter Solider—that I can assure you—but what we have here is something that gets more mileage out of the complex plot and meaty character development. Credit this welcome shift to Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who provide a screenplay that reaches back to Cap’s pulpy WWII origins while never forgetting to develop the modern characters that, up until now, have gotten by on name recognition alone from diehard Marvel Universe fanboys. Sure, we knew a bit about Johansson’s The Black Widow thanks to Whendon’s work in The Avengers, but she still acted as more of a pretty face and a fit body filling out a skin-tight jumpsuit than a properly developed member of the eccentric fighting force. She was simply riding a wave of voluptuous sex appeal before this entry came along. And then there is Jackson’s Nick Fury, another member that has acted as the one-dimensional link between Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, and Captain America. Here, we finally get a bit of backstory on the trench coat-clad S.H.I.E.L.D. director, and we are even given a chance to peak behind the famous eye patch.

Captain America-The Winter Solider 2

As far as the character of Steve Rogers aka Captain America goes, he’s still a good deal of fun as he tries to bring himself up to our modern times. In between working his way through his list of music to listen to, movies to see, and various other fun facts to brush up on, he wrestles with the post-9/11 world in which we now live. No longer do our enemies wear uniforms or clearly identify themselves. Instead, they lurk in plain sight, acting as an ally before dealing a cataclysmic and calculated blow. Even more perplexing to the Cap is the way S.H.I.E.L.D. now plans on dealing with these emerging threats—neutralizing them before they even occur. “I thought the punishment came after the crime?,” he asks. If only things were that easy! It’s a mature thrill to watch Cap pull back the layers of filth and corruption around him, and it’s an even bigger thrill to hear him remind us that sometimes you need a bit of old fashioned to combat these new threats. And then there is Mackie’s Wilson aka Falcon, a courageous war hero who is willing to stand proudly next to the Cap, no matter how dangerous the situation may be. He may not have the abilities that Rogers has, but when he straps on that wicked jet pack and flies into battle with barely any armor to protect him from the bullets and bombs exploding around him, you want to stand up and cheer.

The most surprising presence in Captain America: The Winter Soldier is none other than Robert Redford as Alexander Pierce, the tough-talking head of S.H.I.E.L.D. It’s best not to reveal too terribly much about his character, but his inclusion here makes the ‘70’s political thriller echoes ring just a little bit louder than they already do. It’s a welcome surprise to see Redford jumping into the realm of escapism, and he seems to be thoroughly enjoying every single second of his role. Probably the most hit-or-miss character here is none other than The Winter Solider, the mysterious bad guy with a buzzing metal arm and dark hair hanging in his face. For those who are only familiar with Captain America through his rollicking cinematic adventures, I won’t ruin the big reveal about his character, but what I will tell you is that his character’s full potential is never fully reached. He’s certainly a formidable villain as he jumps, kicks, and shoots at the Cap and his sidekicks, but we just don’t get enough of the powerful assassin. His relegation to a secondary foe is a bit of a letdown, but rest assured that there is plenty of emotional weight behind his fiery final showdown with Rogers.

With all of these juicy characters and the riveting plot taking center stage in The Winter Soldier, we almost forget to stop and admire all the gritty action that explodes with hair-raising strength. This time around, we get a nifty, Captain Phillips-esque hostage situation that lashes out with brutal fury as the Cap and his team execute strategic moves to diffuse the situation. There is also my personal favorite, the highway gun battle centerpiece, a sequence that roars with danger and destruction as cars explode, Gatling guns spin to life, and the Cap has his first up-close-and-personal encounter with The Winter Soldier. And then there is the colossal aerial finale that boasts tumbling gunships, even more gunfights, breathtaking fistfights, and a heaping pile of destruction. Trust me, folks, it’s an absolute doozy that leaves you gasping for air. Overall, Captain America: The Winter Soldier marks a new high for Marvel Studios. It’s a brainy superhero adventure that doesn’t even dream of skimping on expert storytelling, captivating character development, or high-stakes action. It’s downright impossible to walk away without wanting more of Captain America.

Grade: A

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Thor: The Dark World (2013)

Thor-the-Dark-World #1

by Steve Habrat

Just six short months after dominating the summer with Iron Man 3 and three short months after announcing details for their Avengers follow-up, Marvel is back with a sequel to Kenneth Branagh’s intergalactic epic Thor. Branagh’s iridescent 2011 effort really took me by surprise, mostly because I was convinced that the Norse god wouldn’t translate well to film. It didn’t help that the trailer failed to really sell the swords and hammer mayhem. Despite my apprehension, Thor turned out to be one hell of a thrill ride even though it was distractingly acting as a partial tease for The Avengers. With the first Avengers film out of their system, Marvel can now focus on giving their Avengers cast movies that are free of that crossover blockbuster’s chains. Here we have Thor: The Dark World, a sequel that doesn’t feel like it’s rushing to develop this character just so we know who the heck the beefcake with the hammer is in The Avengers: Age of Ultron. With Thor: The Dark World, we are given more time on Thor’s home planet, Asgard, and we are treated to more strange creatures looking to rip the universe to shreds. While the second half is undeniably entertaining with its billowing high-stakes showdowns, the opening stretch seems like a lazy reworking of what we saw in the previous Thor film. To make things worse, star Natalie Portman seems like she was forced at gunpoint to reprise her role as Jane Foster. Is this the same woman who won on Oscar for Black Swan?

Thor: The Dark World begins by explaining that many years ago, Thor’s grandfather had a battle with the Dark Elf leader Malekith (played by Christopher Eccleston), who was planning on using a matter called Aether to destroy the Nine Realms. The Asgardians won the battle and managed to secure the Aether from Malekith, but the Asgardians were unable to destroy the weapon, so they buried where no one would find it. Angry over his defeat, Malekity fled into space with a group of followers to regroup. In present day, Thor (played by Chris Hemsworth) and his Asgardian followers attempt to bring order to worn torn planets across the universe while Loki (played by Tom Hiddleston) faces his sentencing for what he did to New York City. On Earth, astrophysicist Jane Foster (played by Natalie Portman) has been waiting two years for Thor to return to her. Just as she is attempting to move on with her life, intern Darcy Lewis (played by Kat Dennings) tracks her down to show her an abandoned building that appears to have multiple portals into other worlds. After Jane stumbles through one of these portals, she discovers the hidden Aether, which latches itself onto her and begins flowing through her veins. The disrupting of the Aether awakens Malekith, who has been drifting in space with his soldiers waiting for the smallest sign of the Aether’s whereabouts. Fearing for Jane’s life, Thor returns to Earth to take her back to Asgard where he can protect her, but Malekith is isn’t far behind and he is hellbent on bringing darkness to the galaxy.

Director Alan Taylor opens Thor: The Dark World with a pair of rousing space battles that allow the viewer a glimpse into the expansive Marvel universe beyond the stars. There are all sorts of grotesque creatures that will make your eyes pop, but it’s the story foundation that is built under this action that seems all too familiar. In place of the glowing blue Tesseract is the Aether, a flowing red matter that swims through the air and resembles Kool-Aid. Rather than an unlimited energy source, the Aether plunges everything into darkness and it is naturally sought after by the baddies so that they can destroy the whole universe. Then there is Darcy, Jane, and Stellan Skarsgard’s Dr. Erik Selvig, who all dart around with flickering devices that detect portals and other alien anomalies while everyone else thinks they’ve got screws loose. The only thing missing are the SHEILD agents prowling around! This middling commencement is spruced up with some geeky humor and a cutesy cameo from Bridesmaids star Chris O’Dowd. Thankfully, when war comes to Asgard, the battle gets a bit more personal for Thor and Loki, both who loose someone very close to them. This is precisely where the glimmers of familiarity start to get buried beneath some sprawling clashes that are capable of bringing down the theater walls. They’re also fairly impressive in 3D, a format that Marvel has been shockingly lazy about considering all the money they are dumping into each one of these films.

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As far as the action scenes are concerned, they single handedly make up for the film’s shortcomings. It never gets old watching Thor leap into the air with his hammer raised, bringing it down on the ground to knock about ten bad guys charging him off their feet. There is a hilarious confrontation between Thor and a snarling rock monster that gets tamed with one swing of Thor’s mighty mallet. The opening battle between masked Dark Elves and Viking-like Asgardians is a buzzy cocktail of Star Wars-esque laser battles and Lord of the Rings swordplay. The standout action set piece is easily the battle on Asgard, in which Malekith’s forces rocket at the gold city in sleek jets that cut right into the gold heart of the towering palace that Thor and his family call home. It helps that these scenes have dropped Branagh’s spit-polished approach, allowing them to feel rough around the edges and, dare I say, legitimately dangerous. Then there is the big finish, which features Thor and Malekith duking it out as they tumble through multiple portals that send them careening through the universe. The constantly shifting backdrops are a blast and Taylor weaves the action through them seamlessly, but what grows frustrating is the fact that Jane and her buddies can dart through all the destruction unscathed. They are several of Malekith’s soldiers hot on their heels, but they just never seem to be able to catch up or hit them with a laser blast. Oh, come on!

Then we have our performers, who for the most part slip comfortably back into the skins of their characters—well, expect for Portman. Hemsworth is still lovable as the gruff God of Thunder, who relishes a good fight but sulks over Jane during the post-battle celebration. I especially enjoyed his increasingly complex relationship with Hiddleston’s Loki, who is as devious as ever. When the lightheartedness is dropped and the two confront each other over the events in New York, the drama cuts like a knife and leaves a sting that is difficult to shake. Eccleston’s Malekith booms with plenty of promises of death and destruction, and it helps that the look of his character just screams evil. Malekith has been downplayed in the trailers, which is nice because it shrouds his character in malevolent mystery. Then we have Portman, who acts as through the material here is beneath her. She fluffs off guys who wish to pursue a relationship with her and she pouts over Thor’s absence like a spoiled child. There is none of the starry-eyed swooning going on here, only huffy obligation and line delivery that seems like she is reading from a script buried in her lap. Anthony Hopkins returns as Odin, Thor’s one-eyed papa who promises to defeat Malekith and his advancing forces. Rene Russo proves to be one tough mama as Frigga, Thor’s mother who gets a chance to engage Malekith in a sword fight. There is also the always-welcome Idris Elba as Heimdall, the gatekeeper of the Bifrost who brings down one of Malekith’s ships with his bare hands. Talk about a major badass!

One of the biggest disappointments of Thor: The Dark World is the fact that the film never adopts the darker tone that was hinted at in the trailer. There are some heavier moments and a few death scenes that will hush the children pacing the aisles with excitement, but it almost always seems obligated to deliver a joke. Mind you, the humor works, but I think it would be nice to see Marvel allow these films to venture into some bleaker territory. This exact problem plagued Iron Man 3, which initially hinted that Phase 2 of the cinematic Marvel universe was going to opt for the shadowy path where our heroes were going to be dealt personal blows from the villians. On the flip side, it is understandable considering that Disney now has a presence and they are desperate to draw in young kids who may be turned off by the darker material. Overall, while the first act is a bit clunky, Thor: The Dark World is bursting with rollicking cosmic thrills in the second and third acts. It may not be Marvel’s finest achievement, but it makes for some solid entertainment that ends with a cliffhanger guaranteed to leave you wanting more. More importantly, it feels like a bonafide standalone story in the series, something that was plaguing the pre-Avengers efforts. As always, make sure to stick around through the credits for some more surprises.

Grade: B

Daredevil (2003)

by Steve Habrat

Since its release in 2003, Marvel’s big screen adaptation of the lesser-known Daredevil has gained the reputation of being a downright stinker of a movie with a cringe-inducing Ben Affleck as the blind crime fighter. Daredevil isn’t nearly as bad as it has been made out to be. It is merely a decent movie that does have its fair share of flaws. Reeking of Matrix-esque fight sequences with a hints of Spider-Man and Batman thrown in, Daredevil is a clunky film set to awful wannabe grunge rock that was all the rage in 2003, but there are still a number of aspects to admire. Affleck molds the blind lawyer Matt Murdock into a captivating character who is more interesting during the day when he is fighting crime in the courtroom than when he is prowling the streets as the teeth-gnashing vigilante dressed up in red leather. Capitalizing on the popularity of 2002’s Spider-Man, director Mark Steven Johnson works hard to make something that is faithful to the comic lore (many shots are taken directly from the comics) but he trims his origin story down to a brief hour and forty minutes, too in a rush to get to the action and leaving several major characters and a romance underdeveloped.

Daredevil begins by flashing back to the troubled childhood of Matt Murdock (Played by Scott Terra), a nerdy kid from New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen. Much like Spider-Man, Murdock is the target of neighborhood bullies who like to toss him around like a ragdoll. At home, his father is a washed-up boxer named Jack “The Devil” Murdock (Played by David Keith), who relives his glory days by guzzling countless bottles of beer and drunkenly rambling to Matt about fights he won and why it is important to get an education. Matt suspects his dad is working as an enforcer for a local mobster and his suspicions are confirmed when he bumps into his dad roughing up a local hood in an alley. Fleeing in horror, Matt stumbles into a construction yard and proceeds to be blinded by toxic waste in a freak accident. Matt’s father blames himself for the accident and the two make a silent promise to each other to never give up and better themselves. Shortly after the accident, Matt begins to discover that his other four senses are operating at superhuman strength and give him a radar-like sight, which he uses to stand up to neighborhood bullies. Matt’s father begins boxing again but he finds that he is unable to walk cleanly away from the mob. After Jack refuses to throw a fight, he is beaten to death in an alley by a towering enforcer who likes to leave roses on the bodies of his victims. The devastated Matt silently vows to find the people responsible for the death of his father and he assumes the identity of Daredevil, the man without fear.

Part Spider-Man and part Batman, Daredevil doesn’t really have any superpowers to speak of. He uses sound waves to create a radar sight to help him locate and knock out bad guys throwing punches his way. He leaps around the rooftops dressed in a goofy red getup that does have a slight DIY feel to it despite its silliness. Matt doesn’t stop fighting crime when the sun comes up. By day, he paces a courtroom as a lousy attorney who shouts, “Justice is blind!” When Affleck doesn’t have a mask pulled over his face, he is fascinating to watch as a blind man. We watch him perform daily rituals that help him get around the bustling New York City streets. He folds his money in different ways to help him figure out if he is reaching for a ten or a five and crams prescription painkillers into his mouth to help ease the pain of injuries that he suffers at night. You will genuinely like him as Matt Murdock and you will relish the moments he shares with Franklin “Foggy” Nelson (Played by Jon Favreau), his chatty partner who likes to get drunk with Matt and describe beautiful women they encounter on the street. Together they are the saviors of Daredevil with their chuckle-worthy conversations and pranks they pull on each other.

Naturally, Daredevil has a love interest by the name of Elektra Natchios (Played by Jennifer Garner), a stunning Greek beauty that can hold her own in a schoolyard brawl. Daredevil does hint at a substantial romance between Murdock and Elektra but it doesn’t hold together once Elektra’s father is slain by the Irish hitman Bullseye (Played by Colin Farrell). Bullseye is hired by the hulking mobster William Fisk/The Kingpin (Played by Michael Clarke Duncan), a ruthless gangster who oversees organized crime in New York City and may be responsible for Jack Murdock’s death. In a rage, Elektra almost instantly morphs into a superhero herself and then disappears from the film like she was never there to begin with. Bullseye is easily the coolest character in the film, a resourceful bad boy who likes Guinness, has a nasty brand on his forehead, and can turn anything he touches into a deadly weapon. Farrell’s enthusiasm for the role is contagious as he slinks around hissing at our horned hero. The Kingpin is supposed to be the main villain of Daredevil but we hear about him more than we actually see him. He is probably on the screen a total of twenty minutes, making him more of a gigantic disappointment.

At its core, Daredevil is a gritty tale that is loaded with untapped potential. The opening flashback of the film is thrown off by lame acting from the child actors, removing us from the moment entirely. I am also bothered by the wiry action sequences, where the actors go spinning effortlessly through the air with no explanation at all. It is painfully obvious they are dangling from wires and it is sloppily executed. Daredevil could have also used more of The Kingpin, a mildly frightening villain who could have been even more menacing had we gotten to know him a little bit better. We have to take into consideration that Daredevil was made in a time where the superhero genre was experiencing some growing pains, many filmmakers viewing them as mere escapist thrill rides that were heavy with wild action scenes and perfect CGI. To be fair, Daredevil attempts to put more emphasis into the characters when they don’t have their masks on and I will give it credit for that but we still have to like the costumed hero and I can honestly say Affleck lost it for me when he was wearing the horns. Overall, it was a step in the dark direction for superhero films and it does feature some fine performances, but the skimpy runtime prevents Daredevil from having the depth it is so convinced it has.

Grade: C

The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

by Steve Habrat

For a film that has been selling itself on the promise of telling us the untold story about Spider-Man’s origins, The Amazing Spider-Man feels suspiciously familiar. Replace the original actors with some fresh faces, toss out Mary Jane as the love interest, bring in new director Marc Webb, and scrub away pervious director Sam Raimi’s fresh-off-the-pulp-page style and you have Marvel’s good but not really amazing reboot of their ultimate cash cow. The debate still rages on about whether it was a smart move on Marvel’s part to reboot the Spider-Man franchise just five short years after Sam Raimi left a bitter taste in our mouths with the overly crowded Spider-Man 3. In my opinion, I believe that it was a bit early, especially since Webb’s reboot didn’t really take on much of a life of its own and Raimi’s series is still pretty fresh in my mind. Even though this is familiar territory, Marvel still understands what worked in the previous Spider-Man series and it refuses to let go of that formula. I guess it means a big payday so I can’t really say I blame them.

The Amazing Spider-Man re-introduces us to gangly but brilliant teenager Peter Parker (Played by Andrew Garfield), who is under the care of his warm hearted Uncle Ben (Played by Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Played by Sally Field). Peter has been under their watchful eye since he was a young boy, his parents mysteriously dropping him off at Uncle Ben and Aunt May’s one night and then disappearing without another word. Peter attends Midtown Science High School, where he snaps photos for the school year book, is the target of bullies, and crushes on the equally brilliant Gwen Stacy (Played by Emma Stone). One day, Peter stumbles upon his father’s old brief case and in it, documents that link his father to the pharmaceutical company Oscorp. Peter goes on to discover that his father worked closely with a man named Dr. Curt Connors (Played by Rhys Ifans), who severed contact with the young Peter after his parents disappeared. After sneaking into Oscorp to meet Dr Connors, Peter stumbles upon a laboratory that is crawling with those iconic genetically modified spiders. One naturally finds its way into Peter’s clothing and gives him a painful bite on the neck. He quickly begins to notice some strange by powerful side effects taking effect. Meanwhile, Dr Connors is researching cross-species genetics, which would allow Dr. Connors to re-grow a missing limb. After being rushed into human testing, Dr. Connors tests a serum on himself, with devastating consequences.

Director Marc Webb (yes, that is his real name) and his team of screenwriters understand that what appealed to us in the original Spider-Man movies was indeed the boy behind the bug-eyed mask. Webb allows his camera to linger on Peter for quite some time before throwing him behind that famous mask and letting him loose on the rooftops of New York City. There was a lot to like in that story about the bullied nerd who seemed helpless in defending himself suddenly becoming more powerful than he could have ever imagined. The Amazing Spider-Man really lets us see Peter’s anguish, from the suppressed anger over his parent’s sudden disappearance to the cold-blooded murder of his Uncle Ben. Peter gets an up close and personal look at the ugly side of life and what that ugly side can dish out. While all of this isn’t really new, Webb still manages to wring out some easy emotion from it by shrouding it in shadows and tearstains. Garfield’s Peter isn’t afraid to let the tears of pain fall down his face and paired with the swelling score from James Horner, you’ll find yourself getting easily sucked in to that pain and really feeling it. Webb knows that we can’t resist weepy and he really has a blast hitting the sob button multiple times throughout The Amazing Spider-Man.

The best part of The Amazing Spider-Man is the casting choices, mostly Garfield as Peter Parker/Spider-Man and Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy. Garfield and Stone, who struck up an off screen romance while shooting the film, allow that real life spark to translate and boy, does it pay off. They capture and quickly bottle the giggly self-consciousness of first love and allow it to mature into a confident romance. The little moments between Parker and Stacy easily outshine any of the nail-biting action scenes. You will also find yourself falling for Sheen’s Uncle Ben and Field’s Aunt May, both who are game to play loving guardians to the awkward teen shut away in his bedroom upstairs. Sheen’s Uncle Ben is given endless amounts of fatherly wisdom to pour onto Peter but he does it with quite a bit of spirit. Field’s Aunt May is stuck with grieving throughout much of the film but she is in full command when in front of the camera. Then we have Ifans as Dr Curt Connors/The Lizard, who is a revelation as Peter’s mentor but unsure of himself as the deformed monster. In many respects, he is similar to Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin from the 2002 original, minus the hover board and firepower. For the dark and serious approach, he is at times a bit too fantastical and his destructive plot is unintentionally funny.

What would a Spider-Man film be without the swinging action sequences that are hell-bent on giving us vertigo? There are plenty of showdowns between The Lizard and Spidey to keep the adrenaline flowing but Webb never dares to construct an action scene that we haven’t seen before. He converts it all into 3D and then just sends webs flying our way along with various other debris, rubble, and dust. I found myself getting sucked out of some of the action sequences because Spidey is just too mordant. He does muster up a few good one-liners, especially one about his weakness being “small knives” and a critique of a car thief’s wardrobe (both which you have seen in the trailer).  There is a gun-snapping brawl with a SWAT team that pits Spidey against skeptical police Captain Stacy (Played by the underused Dennis Leary), who has vowed to get the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man off the streets. I won’t say much about the edge-of-your-seat finale except that Spider-Man is bruised, battered, and has his back against the wall, on the lookout for all the help he can get. It is all done up in a CGI confrontation that takes Spider-Man to the very top of the New York City skyscrapers.

If Marvel would have held off for a few more years before deciding to revisit the Spider-Man universe, I think they could have come up with something inventive and invigorating. Instead, they rushed into something that obviously could have used a bit more thought and it is apparent in more than a few scenes of The Amazing Spider-Man. Spot on casting wasn’t enough to blind us to the fact they didn’t really elaborate on the beloved superhero. Still, The Amazing Spider-Man does offer up plenty of escapist summer thrills to warrant a trip to the theater to check it out. There is tons of immersive 3D and tweaked special effects, the best scenes being the ones where Spidey is swinging in between buildings. Since Marvel has insisted upon Spider-Man swinging across the movie screen once again, I am curious to see where they take the Webhead in future installments and I can’t wait to see how Garfield develops the character. I guess that is all any good but not amazing origin story can do.

Grade: B+

Thor & Captain America: The First Avenger Reviews/Live Avengers Midnight Showing Coverage!

Hey readers,

In case you haven’t checked out my reviews of last summer’s Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger, you can check them out before you head out to see The Avengers by clicking the links below! Also, throughout the evening I will be posting some updates from the midnight showing. I may post some pictures, comments, and just general coverage of one of the biggest films of the year from one of the places it was shot: Cleveland, Ohio. The updates will be attached to this post, so just scroll down under the two attached reviews! Who knows what I may get and keep your eyes on the Anti-Film School Twitter (Follow us if you haven’t already!) for updates as well. So, let’s kick this summer off with a bang!

-(Theater Management) Steve

Click here to read the Anti-Film School review of THOR

Click here to read the Anti-Film School review of CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER

Iron Man 2 (2010)

by Steve Habrat

With 2008’s Iron Man, director Jon Favreau set the bar extremely high for the Iron Man franchise. While it left us all starving for more of the cocky hero, there was the feeling that if there is a sequel, it will most likely be unable to live up to the stellar first installment in the series. My fears were slightly confirmed in summer 2010 when I rushed out on my birthday to see Iron Man 2, which ended up being one notch below the original Iron Man. Sadly, Iron Man 2 was an even more expensive trailer for the upcoming Avengers film and not even really bothering to act as it’s own film. This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy Iron Man 2. It was clear that Favreau and Marvel Studios rushed the sequel into production and they simply drew up a loose story just so audiences wouldn’t have to wait until 2012 to see Iron Man rocket across the screen again. It was also apparent that nobody wanted to tinker with a good thing. Iron Man 2 tries desperately to capture the same clinking and clanging action, the sweet romance, and the clever laughs that made the original such a must-see, but there is too much interference from Marvel which takes some of the flesh and blood out of all the studio steel.

Iron Man 2 picks up with the world at peace in the wake of the Tony Stark (Played by Robert Downey, Jr.) revealing the Iron Man armor to the world. The U.S. government is harassing Stark to hand over his Iron Man armor over to authorities but Stark maintains that it is his own property and all the other foreign competitors are miles away from emulating his powerful weapon. Stark is also finds himself harassed by rival defense contractor Justin Hammer (Played by Sam Rockwell) who desperately wants to create his own line of armor of his own. While racing in the Circuit de Monaco, Stark is attacked by a mysterious man named Ivan Vanko (Played by Mickey Rourke), who has designed a powerful suit of armor of his own with lethal whip-like contraptions hanging from his arms. It turns out that Vanko’s father was an old partner of Stark’s father Howard, who was deported after he tried to profit from technology that he worked on with Howard Stark. Hammer takes notice of what Vanko has done and he recruits him to create a line of deadly drones that he can unleash on Stark. Stark, meanwhile, finds himself slowly being poisoned by the palladium core in the arc reactor that keeps him alive.

Iron Man 2 introduces us to two new characters including S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Played by Samuel L. Jackson, who showed up in a brief cameo in Iron Man) and secret agent Natalie Rushman/Natasha Romanoff (Played by Scarlett Johansson), who acts as Stark’s new personal assistant. Both Fury and Romanoff are present in Iron Man 2 to simply allow the film to set up Iron Man’s place in the Avengers film rather than actually enrich the whole experience. While it is a neat Easter egg for diehard Marvel Comics fans, at times Romanoff seems a bit irrelevant in all the action, as she posseses the bigger role in the film over Fury. This is the exact problem with Iron Man 2, it reeks of studio involvement and control. It is very clear that Marvel demanded Favreau work these characters in at any cost and it takes a minor amount of the enjoyment out of this film. I wish things had felt more natural, much like they did in the original Iron Man. The one character that is allowed to grow is Lieutenant Colonel James Rhodes (Played this time by Don Cheadle), who gets his wish to don the Mark II suit with some pretty hefty modifications and transforms into the scene stealing War Machine. Cheadle outshines all the forced characters that have been worked into Iron Man 2 and I loved it when Favreau would explore the destructive friendship between him and Stark.

Robert Downey, Jr. also gets the chance to build upon his raucous playboy Tony Stark, taking him down the darker routes that the first film slyly avoided. In Iron Man 2, Stark realizes that he is near death from the palladium core in his chest. He desperately searches for a new design but he also has accepted his death and he is determined to live out his last days in boozy style. In the comic books, Stark was a big drinker and it was nice to see Favreau and screenwriter Justin Theroux work that aspect into the film. I know many fans were upset that this aspect of Tony Stark was glossed over in the original film. At times, Stark’s one-liners seem a bit forced and frankly not as sharp as they were in the original film. Further troubling, Downey, Jr. seems like he is pushing the funnies out rather than allowing them to flow naturally. Nonetheless, he is still having a great time as Stark and his enjoyment is incredibly infectious.

Iron Man 2 ends up getting a handful of juiced up bad guys to terrorize Tony Stark. Mickey Rourke shines as the vengeful Ivan Vanko/Whiplash, a frankly much neater villain than Iron Monger (I did enjoy Bridges!). The electrifying showdown between him and Stark at Circuit de Monaco steals the entire movie and had me on the edge of my seat when I first saw it. Equally cool is the snide Justin Hammer, who desperately wants to upstage Stark and humiliate him. Rockwell is basically filling the businessman villain role that was left open from the first film and he does it with just as much enthusiasm as Bridges did. Paltrow also returns in a stronger role than she had in Iron Man, finding herself promoted to CEO as Stark Industries and courted by the stumbling Stark. Favreau and Theroux still can’t help themselves and once again find it necessary to toss her in harm’s way, making her character flirt with the typical superhero girlfriend in distress.

Iron Man 2 attempts to be bigger than the original film, with bigger showdowns, more armored brawlers, extended action, and spiced up special effects. I wish that Iron Man 2 would have taken on a personality of its own and Marvel would have backed off the project. I feel that if Favreau wouldn’t have had Marvel breathing down his back, there may have been a different outcome. Yet there is still fun to be found in Iron Man 2, especially the final battle with Iron Man and War Machine battling a group of deadly drones created Hammer and Whiplash. Thankfully, Iron Man 2 did not feel the need to convert itself into 3D, which I think was a wise decision since 3D was all the rage (and still is) at the time. Overall, there is a bit of magic missing in Iron Man 2 and that is mostly because the film goes through the same song and dance that the first film did, just building slightly on its character which I suppose is a positive. It’s no Spider-Man 2 or The Dark Knight but Iron Man 2 is still a spirited follow-up to its predecessor.

Grade: B+

Iron Man 2 is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Iron Man (2008)

by Steve Habrat

There is no question that Jon Favreau’s 2008 Iron Man is one of the best Marvel Studios films out there. It’s a rollicking good time with an incredibly poised and charismatic hero carrying the whole project to dizzying heights that I never thought possible. Iron Man, which clocks in at a speedy hour and fifty-five minutes, remains light and breezy for much of its runtime, never wandering into any overly dark territory or dealing with subject matter that will whiz over the heads of younger viewers, which is who this is all clearly aimed at. Yet Favreau and his army of screenwriters ground Iron Man in the modern world where terrorism is very much alive and deadly, giving the film a level of relevance that makes things interesting for the older viewers. What makes Iron Man such a great film is that is manages to strike a perfect balance of hearty belly laughs, steamy love story, and heavy metal action that will please every man, woman, or child out there. To make things even better, Favreau populates his film with a remarkably strong supporting cast, all who make sure that Iron Man never has a monotonous moment. Iron Man also happens to be the comeback vehicle for Robert Downey, Jr., who cheerfully embraces clanking around in a red and yellow iron suit, zipping around destroying weapons of mass destruction and trading punches with the dreaded Obadiah Stane.

Iron Man introduces us to wealthy playboy and genius Tony Stark (Played by Robert Downey, Jr.), head of Stark Industries, a weapons defense company that he inherited from his father. Stark loves a strong drink, a beautiful woman on his arm, and to vocalize how great he really is. Stark travels to Afghanistan to show off his menacing new weapon called the “Jericho” missile and while there, Stark and his military bodyguards are ambushed. Party boy Stark is kidnapped by a terrorist organization called the Ten Rings, who demand that Stark build them their own “Jericho” missile and in return that will free him. Instead, Stark builds a heavily armed iron suit that allows him to barely escape with his life. Upon returning the United States, Stark attempts to regain control of his company from Obadiah Stane (Played by Jeff Bridges), his father’s old business partner and company manager. Stark declares that Stark Industries will no longer produce weapons, which upsets Stane and sends the media into a frenzy. Stark also reunites with his pretty and uptight secretary assistant Pepper Pots (Played by Gwyneth Paltrow) and his close friend and military liaison Lieutenant Colonel James Rhodes (Played by Terrence Howard). After Stark learns that weapons made by Stark Industries were provided to the Ten Rings, Stark begins building a modified suit of armor to set out and destroy the weapons that were provided to the terrorists. Soon, Stark realizes that there may be a traitor close to him who is upset with Stark’s decision to change the course of the company and is working on a deadly suit of armor of his own.

Iron Man never shies away from what it truly is, a sleek summer blockbuster meant to slap a big smile across your face. It succeeds in doing just that, even on repeat viewings. You’ll still chuckle during the first disastrous tests of the Iron Man suit or when Stark throws a witty one liner your way. My personal favorite is when Stark would interact with his robot helpers, who are all fond of blasting him with fire extinguishers. The action sequences are finely tuned with wondrous CGI and rock ‘em-sock ‘em force, leaving you clamoring to see the next action packed situation Iron Man finds himself in. Iron Man isn’t all razzle-dazzle, as the film does offer up a true original in the character of Tony Stark, who has to go form uncaring playboy to embracing what he was destined to become. The fact that Downey, Jr. makes Stark come alive is what makes Iron Man the titan that it is. You begin to feel like you actually know this guy, which makes it even easier to root for him. His transformation is rocky at first, but that is part of what makes Tony so human and win our hearts. He has trouble adjusting from nonstop party boy to a man heavy with responsibility.

While this is Downey Jr.’s show, the background players make sure that you walk away from Iron Man remembering their presence too. Paltrow is smoking as Stark’s assistant Pepper Potts, who at times I feel isn’t really given that much to do by Favreau and his screenwriters (Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum, and Matt Holloway). She is basically asked to just chase Stark around and shake her head at his childish actions but she does it well. I enjoyed her awkward love story with Stark, another aspect that adds a little flesh and blood to Iron Man. Terrence Howard is his usually top notch self as Rhodes, who tries to be the voice of reason and authority to the free-spirited Stark. The die hard fans will also get a money moment when Rhodes checks out one of the prototype Iron Man suits and makes a comment that hints that War Machine may show up in latter installments. The most surprising turn here is Jeff Bridges as the baddie Obadiah Stane, who whips up an iron suit of his own and becomes Iron Monger. It was great to see Bridges, who shaved his head and grew a beard for the role, get to play antagonist for a change. At times his role seems a bit familiar (a sinister business man), but Bridges seems to be having a grand time in all the superhero chaos and he does such a memorable job, you’ll forgive if some aspects of his character slightly derivative.

Director Favreau smartly gives Iron Man a human heart, which helps to win ours over. While it is obviously a set up for the future Avengers movie, this installment of Iron Man does seem to have a life of its own outside of being an overly expensive trailer for what is to come. Iron Man does come with a few scuffs in the armor, mostly the final battle between Iron Man and Iron Monger, which seems suspiciously short for all of the build up. I have to suspect that Marvel may have held back a bit and viewed Iron Man as sort of a test run to see how audiences would react. It turned out that they had a new Spider-Man on their hands and that they had something that we didn’t know we wanted to see. The main reason to see Iron Man is for Downey Jr.’s comeback. This is the role that placed him back on the A-list and put him in high demand for countless other projects. A superhero classic and one of the best that you will see, Iron Man is a feisty and playful escape that you won’t mind returning to time and time again.

Grade: A-

Iron Man is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

The Incredible Hulk (2008)

by Steve Habrat

After Ang Lee’s weighty Hulk, Marvel Studios wanted to cut out some of lengthy character development and restart the Hulk franchise to fit with their upcoming superhero mash-up The Avengers. The result was 2008’s The Incredible Hulk, a faster paced and action packed thrill ride that covers the Hulk’s origin in the opening credits and then jumps right into earth shaking battle sequences that aim to give both Hulk fans and average audience members exactly what they are looking for in a summer blockbuster. The Incredible Hulk is a major improvement over Lee’s slower character study in the action department, climaxing in a car-lobbing final showdown in the streets of New York City, but the film is hollow, never asking us to really use our brains in any way. With Lee’s Hulk, Marvel gave us too much of the big green guy and with director Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk, it feels like not enough. What gives Leterrier’s film the upper hand is the strong presence of a much more effective and present villain to torment the Hulk.

The Incredible Hulk begins with a green tinted opening credit sequence where we see Bruce Banner (Played by Edward Norton) get exposed to the dreaded gamma radiation that causes him to turn into the Hulk. Banner ends up injuring the love of his life Betty Ross (Played by Liv Tyler), who is present during the accident. Banner flees the lab after the accident and Betty’s father General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (Played by William Hurt) sets out to arrest Banner for what he has done to Betty. The film then jets to Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro, where Banner hides out while he searches for a way to cure himself. Banner also works on ways to control his anger through breathing techniques that keep him without incident. Banner keeps in contact with a mysterious scientist that he calls Mr. Blue and communicates with him via the Internet. Mr. Blue claims to have a way to cure Banner but he needs information that would require Banner to return to the United States and risk being taken into custody by General Ross. After an accident in the bottling factory where Banner works, General Ross discovers Banner’s location and sends the deadly British Royal Marine Emil Blonsky (Played by Tim Roth) after Banner, who quickly flees and finds himself on a journey back home to meet the mysterious Mr. Blue. Blonsky, on the other hand, finds himself fascinated by Banner and his condition. General Ross agrees to “level the playing field” and inject Blonsky with a serum that can allow him to battle the Hulk but there are horrific side effects.

The Incredible Hulk tosses out Lee’s comic book panel aesthetic for a typical polished summer blockbuster look. We also don’t have to wait until about forty minutes in to catch a glimpse of the big green guy in action. Leterrier is just dying to unleash his new and improved Hulk on us and I must say he is impressive. Gone is the purple compression shorts wearing Hulk and present is a Hulk in tattered jeans with leathery looking skin. The action is also a bit grittier and in your face, just about everything in the Hulk’s way getting tossed, kicked, punched, or used as shields or, (awesomely) boxing gloves. The downside of all the teeth rattling action is that Leterrier focuses a little too much on it and not enough on developing a meaty story. I’ve heard talk that screenwriters Zak Penn and Edward Norton had a longer version with a bit more character development but Marvel rejected it in favor of a faster pace. It’s a shame because I would have liked to get to know a little bit more about Norton’s Banner.

In addition to beefed up action, The Incredible Hulk features a slightly stronger cast than Hulk did. Edward Norton doesn’t spend a good majority of the film moping over daddy issues from his past. Norton possesses a natural gangly and bird-like look to him than Bana’s Banner, which makes his transformation into the Hulk all the more shocking. Bana sort of looked like he could have held his own in a scuffle without transforming into a giant green muscle. Much like Jennifer Connelly, Liv Tyler isn’t given much to do as Betty Ross aside from run around from location to location with Banner. Tyler also happens to speak in a breathier tone than Connelly did. William Hurt as General Ross adds a bit more attitude than Sam Elliot did and when he unleashes his temper, you will want to run for cover. The real star here is Roth, who has a blast flashing a sinister grin as Blonsky, the deadly super soldier who becomes addicted to a serum that turns him into the slimy Abomination. Roth is clearly on top of the world in the role, his excitement level growing as he evolves into a truly formidable villain for the Hulk. With Abomination, Leterrier single handedly lays waste to Lee’s Hulk, just the mere presence of a clear-cut villain a huge bonus.

The Incredible Hulk is a shameless thrill ride that is more enamored with eye-popping CGI monsters and fiery destruction rather than the psychological study that its predecessor was so stuck on. It’s so obviously sugary summer fun but it does its job and you can’t fault it for it. If it boiled down to it, I would probably choose The Incredible Hulk for a Friday night movie if I ever had to make the decision. Norton is clearly the better choice for Bruce Banner and Roth is a devilish delight as the Abomination. You’ll thrill when they begin trading blows in the final stretch of the film. In a way, I wish that The Incredible Hulk had tacked on another fifteen minutes to develop this new Hulk universe and to allow me to warm up to these new interpretations of the characters that Lee introduced us to.  The Incredible Hulk also gets a surprise visit from a certain Armored Avenger, which teases us for the epic upcoming mash-up and will drive Marvel fanatics wild. Even if moments of it are lopsided and a bulk of the story gets lost in all the rumble, The Incredible Hulk still manages to get your to be mindless, smashing fun for everyone.

Grade: B+

The Incredible Hulk is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Hulk (2003)

by Steve Habrat

One of the most polarizing films in the Marvel Studios line of films is Ang Lee’s 2003 splashy origin tale Hulk, which shows us the unfortunate accident that turns mild mannered Bruce Banner into the smashing and thrashing Hulk. The film has seemed to divide audiences and critics over the years—some standing by Lee’s psychological evaluation of the pain the Bruce bottles up inside and some practically retching at the mere mention of the film. I stand firm in the above average crowd. Personally, I’m a fan of the aesthetic that Lee applies to the jolly green giant’s first cinematic outing and I do enjoy some of the camp that he lays on oh so thick. Hulk does come with several flaws that do hold the film back, mostly the poorly executed action sequences and some of the brooding character development that takes place during the sagging middle of the film. Much of the grim stuff could have been left on the cutting room floor.  Yet when Hulk is firing on all cylinders, it is really, really good and it is hugely innovative.

Hulk tells the tale of genetics researcher Bruce Banner (Played by Eric Bana), who nurses a tragic past. Banner is working with nanomeds and gamma radiation to discover a cure for cancer and multiple other diseases. He works close to his main squeeze, the pretty Betty Ross (Played by Jennifer Connelly), who is the daughter of scheming General Ross (Played by Sam Elliot). When Bruce was young, General Ross and Bruce’s father David (Played by Nick Nolte) had a feud that caused David to be put in prison for many years. After an unfortunate accident, Bruce is exposed to gamma radiation but he miraculously survives. At first, Bruce feels better than ever but he quickly discovers that when he gets angry, he transforms into a destructive monster that lays waste to anything in its path. Fearing for the life of his daughter, General Ross demands that Bruce be taken into custody by the army before he can hurt anyone. To make matters worse, Bruce’s father returns to continue the work that he was torn away from all those years ago and undergoes a dangerous transformation of his own.

The best part of Lee’s Hulk is without question the comic book panel aesthetic that he uses to sculpt the film. It makes Hulk a constant visual treat—like we have cracked open the pages of a long lost Hulk comic book and the pages suddenly sprang to life.  Lee’s film could be considered one of the first superhero films that tried to mimic the pages of it’s source, opening the door for films like Sin City, 300, etc. Hulk is one big cartoon, drenched in vibrant colors and action that would seem more at home on the pages of a comic than on a movie screen. Yet it is this very action that causes Hulk to hit a wall. When Lee throws an action sequence at us, he can’t quite keep Hulk contained and on track. These scenes, which are mostly the Hulk versus Hulk-dogs showdown and the final confrontation between Hulk and David Banner swirls into incoherency that completely removes us from the fun.

While Hulk is a visual treat, the subject matter veers into heavy territory that the comic book genre wasn’t particularly used to at the time. Lee doesn’t hesitate to give us multiple glimpses into Banner’s heavy heart and he marries the bottle up demons within Banner with his transformation into the Hulk. His pain and anguish is literally explosive. Lee drags Hulk out to two hours and twenty minutes with breathlessly explaining every psychological aspect of Banner’s inner turmoil. Lee uses Betty as the Banner’s psychologist, someone who stands back and baits Banner into decoding hazy memories from his past. This would be all okay except that Lee begins to repeat himself and he never really attempts to break the film up. He does finally lighten the mood with an extended battle between the Hulk and endless waves off army tanks, helicopters, and waves of soldiers.

Hulk does feature some first-rate performances from its colorful cast, mainly from Nolte as the mysterious David Banner. Nolte, looking as scruffy as ever, is a tortured soul much like Bruce, one who buries secrets within and then explodes into a force of nature. It’s a shame that Lee forgets about his character half way through the film and then suddenly remembers that he has to work him in and give him something to do with his sinister new powers. Connelly is given the routine superhero’s girlfriend job of putting herself in harm’s way but her interactions with Bruce are at times touching. She does everything she can to rise above her clichéd role and often does. Bana does a bang up job of playing the brooding nerd and I have to say I really enjoyed him. He does really send a chill when his face begins to bubble and he sputters out with, “You’re making me angry!” Sam Elliot as General Ross is an egotistical man who torments Banner every chance he gets. He’s the true villain here even if he is planted behind computer screens and shouts orders to never-ending troops of soldiers.

With fairly memorable performances and lots of visual bells and whistles, Hulk musters up several nifty moments throughout its lengthy runtime to really make it a winner. I personally enjoy the cartoonish special effects here and I think they have held up quite well over the years. I enjoy the hell out of the Hulk’s showdown with the army near the end of the film and I personally think it is the highlight moment. Just wait until the Hulk bites the tip of a missile off and spits it at a helicopter. Yet I don’t think a character like the Hulk truly needs such an emotionally complex origin tale for a hero who is basically a green wrecking ball. Furthermore, I really don’t think that Lee needed to drag it out as long as he does, as more than once I checked the time while I was re-watching it. What I want out of a Hulk movie is lots of smashing, destruction, and mayhem with a tiny bit of romance thrown in. I commend Lee and Hulk for trying to add some depth to the superhero genre and for that, I say Hulk is pretty darn good. It’s a risky experiment of imagination and Lee, God bless him, almost pulls it off.

Grade: B

Hulk is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

The Punisher (2004)

by Steve Habrat

Marvel Comics, which is usually known for their family friendly heroes, finds a dark side in Frank Castle or The Punisher, a machine gun toting vigilante who gruesomely murders evildoers after the mob slays his entire family right before his eyes. Since 1989, Marvel has been puzzling over how to get The Punisher up on the big screen properly, with a dark film to match his even darker actions. Unfortunately, 2004’s The Punisher just isn’t a fit for this killing machine, as director Jonathan Hensleigh makes an artless and lukewarm telling of The Punisher’s bloody origin and then drives the film into the ground with unimpressive action sequences, zero character development, and poorly timed jokes which are unnecessary due to the subject matter of the film. While I was never an avid reader of The Punisher, I can tell you that I would have liked to see more growth in Castle and some confliction about his decision to become The Punisher. Hensleigh, who also penned the script along with Michael France, seems to want to make a film that is all brawn and bullets, with zero psychological exploration of our antihero.

The Punisher begins with an arms deal between Bobby Saint (Played by James Carpinello), the son of powerful money launderer Howard Saint (Played by John Travolta) and the mysterious “Otto Krieg”. The FBI suddenly breaks up the deal and FBI agents end up killing Bobby Saint in all the action. It turns out that “Krieg” is in fact undercover FBI agent and former U.S. Army Delta Force operator Frank Castle (Played by Thomas Jane). Castle retires from the FBI and returns home to his wife and son, who then jet off to a family reunion in Puerto Rico. After Howard Saint discovers that the arms deal was just a set up and his men uncover that Krieg was Castle undercover, he orders his men to track down Castle’s family and lay waste to all of them including Frank. Frank survives the horrific attack, heals, and then begins collecting a large assortment of weapons that will help him bring down Saint and those around him.

The Punisher does nothing in the way to explore Frank’s trauma or his psychological state. Director Heinsleigh thinks he can convey Frank’s misery by showing him sipping from a bottle of Wild Turkey and closing himself off in his dingy apartment. His transformation is even more head scratching, the film implying that once we suffer a traumatic event like Frank does, we automatically become a one man killing machine (Riiiight…). Like many action films from the 1980’s, The Punisher really cringes if it begins flirting with some depth in the character of Frank. It’s more comfortable when it is showing us Frank stomping around in all black and killing a seemingly unending army of henchmen while alternative rock blares over the soundtrack. Its even more confounding because the film runs just slightly over two hours and after it ends, you’ll be wondering how on earth the filmmakers managed to avoid putting anything remotely substantial at all into it.

If the lack of development in Frank is a problem, wait until you get a load of Travolta’s Howard Saint. Travolta just isn’t the proper fit for a villainous role, as he is never menacing or a true threat to Castle. The filmmakers think that if they make his slicked back hair fall into his face, spray him with a bit of water to make him look sweaty, and he trembles a little bit, he is automatically scary when he actually looks like a gangster knockoff. Thomas Jane as Frank Castle/The Punisher does a passable job but not much is really required of him. He speaks in a monotone voice to his concerned neighbor Joan (Played by Rebecca Rominjn-Stamos), who appears to have feelings for the closed off Frank, but the film quickly severs the love connection between them. Jane does have some hints of fun, but it is mostly found in chuckle worthy one-liners which most of the time are wildly out of place. His best comes after a brutal fight with a towering Russian hitman. After the fight, he looks up at his horrified neighbors and chokes out, “I’m okay” and then proceeds to fall over.

The Punisher’s major problem is that the film itself has absolutely no personality to speak of. It’s a lot like Jane’s Frank Castle, it’s mostly apathetic, extremely empty, and, inexplicably desensitized. There is no adrenaline pumping action to be found and when the film does finally muster a good fist fight, it ruins it by weaving unneeded jokes throughout the sequence. The film is also poorly paced, dragging its feet in some spots and then blasting through the final confrontation that we have been eagerly waiting for. Even worse, moments of the film make absolutely no sense whatsoever. In one scene, Saint complains that they are having a difficult time finding Castle’s whereabouts and then orders two hitmen to go find him. These two hitmen find Castle effortlessly and one even conveniently knows where he lives (Riiiight…).  The film tries to keep things edgy by remembering its R-rating and throwing in a little blood here, a topless woman there, and a couple F-bombs to assure you that the film is hardcore. Had The Punisher not been so terrified of its own pain and emotions and been willing to confront them, this may have been a much more fulfilling film for both fanboys and nonfans alike. Unfortunately, the title of this film says it all–it truly is a real punisher of a movie.

Grade: D+

The Punisher is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.