2014’s Blockbuster Season: Conquerers & Wimps
Another year, another summer blockbuster season come and gone. This year’s blockbuster crop was fuelled by the basic thrills needed to draw people back to the cinema. Though superheroes reigned supreme yet again, this year’s troupe pushed certain boundaries and reaped the rewards promised to them. The X-Men leaped from the bottom of the barrel to the top of the class thanks to time-travelling behemoth X-Men: Days of Future Past. In addition, Captain America took down his own corruption-stained organisation in Captain America: The Winter Solider. Meanwhile, above all else, this summer brought the best out of its lead characters. Designed specifically for us normal folk to be enthralled by, these heroes and villains pulled us into futuristic worlds and worn-torn environments. Looking back on this season’s heavy-hitters, I picked out a few swagger-driven goodies and ultra-destructive baddies whom stood out from the pack.
Bravest hero: Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) – Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Last year, Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel took a distinctive, all-American superhero and turned him into a destructive nobody with some serious existential issues. Thanks to its divisive nature, many comic-book aficionados were concerned that the same thing would happen to Steve Rogers/Captain America. As the first Cap. film set after the world-changing events of The Avengers, Captain America: The Winter Soldier steps it up by delivering an all-powerful wonder boy with a taste for justice.
Keeping a consistently vigorous tone, this action-thriller utilises the literal and figurative strengths of its lead superhero. Unlike the new Superman, this hero looks to others for guidance to, above all else, excel under significant pressure and save the world. Beyond this, Chris Evans – known for multiple Marvel roles – puts his acting strengths and immense physicality to the test. Fully enveloping this polarising role, Evans’ charisma turns a near-forgettable character into the leader he was born to be.
As the narrative takes significant turns, alluding to Cap’s past and present, Rogers becomes a momentous, Jason Bourne-like badass with a desire for the truth. Taking down corruption, old friends, and seemingly unstoppable enemies, this hero matures beyond even his rather significant age. As the Avengers’ first superhero, This version of Cap. clings onto everything that makes him a man and a machine. Here, this symbol takes down everything and everyone placing him on a pedestal.
Red, white, and blue shields.
Dumbest hero: Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) – Transformers: Age of Extinction
Obviously, nowadays, anything developed by mega-director Michael Bay is a cause for concern. As the ego-driven creator of the Transformers film series, this man shows no sign of slowing down to match anything resembling human behaviour. This is reflected in Transformers: Age of Extinction‘s lead character Cade Yeager. Despite being played by Mark Wahlberg, it becomes painfully clear that Bay would’ve done anything to step into that role’s shoes.
In fact, I don’t see why he didn’t simply do that to collect an much bigger paycheque! His lead, a poor roboticist and even poorer father, is the ultimate man-child. Sadly, his irritating attitude is one of the movie’s most lacklustre traits. Failing to communicate with his daughter or business partner, he resorts to yelling everything he says and threatening local citizens with the weapons at his disposal. Most importantly, his quest means little to the movie’s already convoluted and wafer-thin narrative. Who cares about the men who threatened Yeager and his family? Clearly, not the script-writer!
Instead of mourning his murdered friend, he gives a mildly-concerned look, forgets about the whole thing, and continues on with his impulse-driven mission. On top of all this, his character has no reason to throw himself into every dangerous situation the movie throws at us. Clearly, Yeager seems like to kind of guy prone to avoid responsibilities and give Wahlberg a bad name. Bay’s irritating sense of humour and lack of care further hinder this character’s ethically questionable arc. Despite what’s written on the page, Wahlberg’s acting ticks turn against him here. Presenting himself as a frat-boyish moron, his distinctive accent and parody-ridden facial expressions only accelerate the movie’s desecration into critical oblivion.
Screaming A-list actors who should be doing better work.
Dynamic duo: Major William Cage & Rita ‘Full Metal Bitch’ Vrataski (Tom Cruise & Emily Blunt) – Edge of Tomorrow
Nowadays, it’s difficult to not come across a big-budget actioner that copies wholeheartedly from other movies. With everything being influenced by something else, this conscious trait sinks some films and elevates others. All in all, it depends on the quality of the final product. With Edge of Tomorrow, influential movies including Groundhog Day, RoboCop, and Saving Private Ryan come together with the grace of a perfect friendship.
Speaking of which, Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt, along the way, develop a hearty rapport as two people on the verge of losing all hope. Cruise, known to cast a gigantic shadow over his projects, drops his immense ego to play a weakling. Avoiding his groan-inducing ticks, Cruise’s natural charisma boosts the comedic moments and dramatic shades whenever possible. Co-written by regular Cruise collaborator Christopher McQuarrie (Jack Reacher), the screenplay elevates Cruise’s aura by taking several intriguing twists and turns.
With Cruise playing the rookie – Major William Cage – and Blunt – Rita Vrataski – stepping into some heavy-set combat boots, their relationship revolves around learning vital, life-changing details from one another. Prone to shooting Cruise’s character in the head at opportune moments, Blunt’s character lives up to the nickname ‘Full Metal bitch’. With clashing personalities meeting bombastic action sequences, the character dynamics elevate Edge of Tomorrow‘s confronting aura. With several comedic moments and emotional rifts hitting home, this sci-fi actioner runs on the inherent strengths of its lead characters and the A-Listers portraying them.
Mech-suited A-listers in trouble.
Ultimate femme fatale: Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) – Lucy
Here’s a fun question, readers – what do James Cameron, Ridley Scott, and Luc Besson have in Common? Answer: they all love pushing women to the front of the queue. With his penchant for female action heroes in full bloom – backed up by La Femme Nikita, Leon: The Professional, and The Fifth Element immense staying power – Besson is egomaniacally obsessed with giving modern cinema’s most alluring actresses their time to shine. Handling Scarlett Johansson guns and grenades for sci-fi think-piece Lucy, Besson’s intricate direction and broad writing throws caution to the wind at opportune moments.
In Lucy, ScarJo’s character – compared, at one point, to the first neanderthal – goes through a lot of scrutiny in Besson’s most ambitious action flick to date. Firing guns whilst accelerating her cerebral development, Lucy turns into a masochistic badass to seek the love and attention of the universe. Handing her two silencer pistols and a will to live, Besson’s style throws lead female characters into obscure and danger-fuelled worlds. Going against the norm, his ‘chick flicks’ reach commendable heights for women in Hollywood.
In the first-two thirds, she takes on her powers with the confidence of ScarJo’s Black Widow character. Backing up 2014 after Her and Under the Skin, Johansson has now positioned herself as being Hollywood’s most commendable and ambitious actress. Injecting emotional resonance into this ultra-silly thrill-ride, Lucy understands the moral, social, and economical impact her actions will have one the rest of humanity. With her brain power soon to reach 100%, her actions define everything about the power of mankind on the world as we know it. With man’s discoveries and experiments developing increasingly dangerous consequences, this explosive thrill-ride and its lead character, at the very least, make an effort to comment on it.
Most compelling villain: Koba (Toby Kebbell) – Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
The main advantage of motion capture technology, aided by character actor Andy Serkis for over a decade now, is that the directors can jump in and tell their actors exactly what to do and how to do it. With CGI overpowering practical effects nowadays, the newer and shinier Planet of the Apes features showcase the power of SFX storytelling. With Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, we witness a world untouched by human endeavours.
Here, thanks to a deadly simian flu, lead ape Caesar (Serkis) and his ape companions have grasped at the opportunity to set up a civilisation within the confines of San Francisco’s Muir Woods. However, not everyone is getting along as planned. Koba’s journey, boosted by young British actor Toby Kebbell, is a master case of precise and in-depth character development. Matching Serkis’ scintillating performance point for point, Kebbell’s performance delivers several shades of grey underneath a scarred and morose exterior. Standing against the human race, Koba is a true force to be reckoned with. Carrying scars all over his body, Koba is convinced that humans cannot be trusted – not now, not ever.
One scene, in which he tricks then brutally murders two human security personnel, is a chilling and impactful turn. Using his motivations to prove a point, Koba’s stance against Caesar and the human characters leads to a revolt of military coup proportions. Fuelled by his bellowing cries and remorseless personality, Koba is a fascinating creation unafraid to take charge and kickstart an arms race. Credit also goes to Kebbell – known for silly action-adventures including Wrath of the Titans and Prince of Persia – applies his manic energy and overt charisma to round out this complex role. With a monumental character to work with, this established yet underrated actor gives himself the career boost he was looking for.
Crazily villainous chimpanzees.
Hokiest villains: Max Dillon/Electro (Jamie Foxx), Harry Osborn/Green Goblin (Dane DeHaan), Aleksei Sytsevich/Rhino (Paul Giamatti) –Amazing Spider-man 2
I will say this about forgettable superhero extravaganza Amazing Spider-Man 2 – it gets its protagonists absolutely right. Here, Peter Parker/Spider-Man is an interesting and sweet character willing to do right by the world. However, a movie is only as good as its villain/s. If that’s the case, then this superhero flick rests at the bottom of the oversized blockbuster barrel. Known for dramedy (500) Days of Summer, Marc Webb obviously has no idea how to handle fantastical stories and superhuman characters. Lacking subtlety of any kind, his aimless direction delivers simplistic villains used to throw off the movie’s tone.
Here, we have three villains willing to lay down their lives to destroy the titular hero. Sadly, the movie’s living-and-breathing obstacles highlight its glaring tonal and structural flaws. With nothing at stake, our villains come off as Joel Schumacher-esque distractions. First things first, we have Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx) – a nerdy loner obsessed with recognition. After an industrial accident dismantles his existence, he lights up and becomes a dangerous psychopath. In addition, we have Parker’s former buddy Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan) who, after discovering OsCorp’s shady wheelings and dealings, seeks to ruin Parker’s personal life. However, as is the case with Paul Giamatti’s Rhino character especially, these characters are picked up and dropped without warning.
Sporting kooky costumes and bizarre powers, our antagonists are nothing more than vacuous cretins. Fuelling the movie’s industrial espionage angle, our villains team up. However, our personality-free villains fail to form any sense of a threat. With dub step and Dr. Manhattan powers making up Electro’s character development, he becomes a trainee villain compared to the original trilogy’s Doc Ock and Green Goblin. Despite the strength of these actors, their talents are wasted in underused and stale roles. Obviously, these actors were bewitched by their overwhelming paycheques.
Villain in need of believable motivations.
Coolest supporting characters: Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Peter/Quicksilver (Peter Evans) etc. – X-Men: Days of Future Past
The X-Men franchise, despite its willingness to succeed, has had its fair share of hits and misses. Despite being lost in the sea of superhero blockbusters, these movies succeed whenever the filmmakers strive for big ideas. 2011’s X-Men: First Class, for example, longed for individuality by choosing sparkly period piece settings over bland, cumbersome action sequences. This year, with X-Men: Days of Future Past soaring above and beyond the preceding X- Men flicks, we saw small ideas come together to develop an ambitious X-Men-driven narrative.
Here, it’s the small ingredients that deliver stand out moments and a well-developed universe. With Mystique playing a vital part in this time-travel story, Jennifer Lawrence gets a chance to show off her action chops. Sporting an alluring physique, the Oscar winner’s stranglehold over the character makes for some of the movie’s more memorable moments. In addition, her connection to the movie’s main characters develops the most rounded parts of this expansive jigsaw. Despite this, the bulk of the credit belongs to Peter Evans as kleptomaniac/super-powered badass Quicksilver. In just a few short scenes, this young actor shows up several X-Men greats including Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, and Michael Fassbender.
His cocky wit and manic energy develops a friendly reprieve from the straight-laced story at hand. His kitchen-set action sequence, without a doubt, proves that the cinematic X-Men universe still has a place alongside the Spider-Man and Avengers cinematic endeavours. In love his X-Men universe, director Brian Singer delivers seminal characters in charge of rounding out this complex narrative. With charismatic actors in tow, this eclectic filmmaker has a deep connection to the X-Men universe unlike any other big-budget filmmaker.
Most alluring ensemble: The Guardians (Guardians of the Galaxy)
This year, Marvel Studios made a point of overthrowing our rash preconceptions about superhero cinema. Our complacent “I’m so SICK of these movies!” comments were flipped and switched for our viewing pleasure (0f course, the executives are now the ones reaping the REAL profits). With Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy eclipsing expectations, Marvel showed us that taking risks and trusting out-there filmmakers pays off in spades.
Here, writer/director James Gunn injected his oddball style into several parts of Marvel’s 2014 space opera. More so than anything else, the characters sport the disturbingly unique traits of Gunn’s oeuvre. Like with Slither and Super‘s characters, the leads here convey kooky traits you can’t take your eyes off. With interesting actors at his disposal, Gunn’s superlative charm and ambitiousness help cover up certain cliches. Our vicious ensemble – thief Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), tattooed toughie Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), Racoon-like badass (Bradley Cooper), and sentient tree Groot (Vin Diesel) – reaps the rewards they so vigorously sew.
Like with the Fast & Furious and Mission: Impossible ensembles, the joy comes from watching each member bounce off of one another. In fact, it’s in the quieter moments that Guardians succeeds over its competition. With egos and motivations clashing throughout, Gunn and co. do a fabulous job of outlining the lead characters and everything they stand for. Credit also belongs to the actors for putting their careers on the line. Pratt and Saldana, bringing shades of humanity to this sci-fi extravaganza, develop a positive rapport unwilling to be broken by even the universe’s biggest baddies. In addition, Drax, Rocket, and Groot, thanks to sheer gutsiness and guffaw, become the movie’s most memorable space-dwelling badasses.
Wise-cracking alien bounty hunters.
Last year, several tentpole productions delivered whiz-bang thrills without reaching into their characters or story-lines. The complaints, of course, pointed to the studios being unsure as to what the average moviegoer wanted from their big-budget features. This year, however, attention to detail and character development have stood out far more so than that of previous years. Despite the occasional mega-flop this year (inevitable, if nothing else), some blockbusters including Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, Edge of Tomorrow, and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes took it upon themselves to reach new heights. In so doing, they stuck to a light-enough tone and hired directors determined to create memorable efforts. In particular, the lead characters were worth following from points A to Z. At last, we have more heroes and villains to treasure than ever before!
What do you think? Leave a comment.