In Part 2 of this preview, FILMINK explores another handful of highly anticipated blockbusters due out this year.
Before Captain American - the final Marvel film distributed by Paramount before Disney takes over for The Avengers in 2012 - Marvel will bank on another unlikely hero for the 21st Century, the Scandinavian God, Thor.
Like many of Marvel\'s creations, there were many attempts to bring Thor to the screen in the mid-\'90s post Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher\'s Batman series (The Mask\'s Chuck Russell and Spiderman\'s Sam Raimi both expressed interest in brining the Scandinavian God to film). Yet, if Joe Johnston is the obvious choice for Captain America, the hiring of Kenneth Branagh as helmer represents perhaps the most radical choice for a superhero film since Ang Lee tackled the Hulk in 2003.
The Irish actor-director offers many potential pitfalls for Marvel. Notably, he is a bold and extremely experimentally visual filmmaker who - like Baz Luhrmann or Ken Russell - merges a variety of artistic constructs (epic, post-modern, impressionism) and stylistic influences (Akira Kurosawa, David Lean, Wim Wenders) into his work. He is certainly not short on creative ambition. However, when unrestrained, he has the tendency to over-scale his projects (he\'s almost the anti-Martin Campbell - director of this year\'s Green Lantern - in that respect), leading to such failed ventures like Mary Shelley\'s Frankenstein, which incorporated constructs like pre-Victorian Gothic and early 20th Century horror to limited effect.
But Branagh is also extremely accomplished and a respected performer who brings a certain level of esteem to the project, collecting a prestige cast who would not necessarily be interested in top-lining a comic book franchise (Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopkins) with the promise of a character-orientated approach and actor-to-actor collaboration. Branagh - who helped bring Shakespeare into the mainstream again in 1989 - has a thoughtful, considered understanding of language that will likely also help him bring a modernity to the Victorian dialogue and produce a naturalistic feel to the film\'s dramatic exchanges.
Moreover, in his Shakespearian productions, he has shown an understanding and appreciation of melodrama, meaning that he can possibly maintain a clear psychological profile for his characters in the heightened world of melodrama. His Henry V and Hamlet are near-masterful works of adaptation in the way he is able to tap into poignant emotion whilst maintaining both high and low forms of comedy, ensuring that the films never lose themselves in emotive theatrics (given that many comic-book adaptations favour an extremely dark, \'important\' tone, this is a definite plus, as well, and will mean that the \'high-drama\' between Thor and his family will be tempered by the low comedy of the \'Warriors Three,\' perhaps).
Thor was originally going to be filmed by Matthew Vaughn, but he left the project, citing budgetary and casting issues (Vaughn envisioned Rome and Trainspotting\'s Kevin McKidd as the mythical figure). In the years since the collapse of that project, Vaughn finally moved out of the shadow of his former collaborator Guy Ritchie with Kick-Ass, a film that achieved extraordinary popularity within Internet forums, but failed to capitalise on that fan success on a broader level. Since that film\'s failure, Vaughn accepted the offer from Fox to helm the prequel/reboot to their X-Men franchise, X-Men: First Class.
Unlike Thor, Captain America and Green Lantern, the X-Men has a strong level of recognition with a wider film-going audience. Unfortunately, that recognition is not entirely positive and encouraging given the past two entries - X-Men: The Last Stand and X-men Origins: Wolverine - disregarded the good will of audiences with their decreasing quality, favouring multiple villains and side-characters over any coherency to the storytelling (X-Men Origins: Wolverine was a particularly obvious offender, instilling a conventional origin story with unnecessary convolution and clutter with other potential spin-off characters like Deadpool and Gambit).
Perhaps the new X-Men film\'s biggest asset is the choice of Vaughn as director. Unlike, say, Wolverine\'s director Gavin Hood, Vaughn seems to have an affinity towards genre-storytelling, beginning his career as producer of a series of mockney crime films with writer-director Guy Ritchie. Moreover, his technique has improved with each of his films since his directing debut, Layer Cake. Kick-Ass, in particular, proved that Vaughn is a filmmaker willing to take risks with his handling of the film\'s darker elements (Hit Girl, for example, whose presence in the screenplay persuaded all the major studios to reject the project) and the action sequences, differentiating each sequence with a new visual approach.
X-Men: First Class also has one of the best young casts of any 2011 blockbuster. All of the major studios have acknowledged the importance of getting proper \'actors\' with the casting of Oscar-winning performers like Hopkins, Robbins and Tommy Lee Jones (in Captain America) into their productions. Yet the incorporation of two of the finest and most exciting actors in meaty lead roles seems particularly exciting in X-Men, which teams James McAvoy (the Scottish star of Atonement and The Last King of Scotland) and Michael Fassbender (the Irish star from Hunger, Fish Tank and Inglourious Basterds). Supporting McAvoy (Charles Xavier) and Fassbender (Magneto) is Jennifer Lawrence - soon to be Oscar nominee for her raw performance in Winter\'s Bone - as Mystique\'s earlier incarnation.
Like previous incarnations of the franchise, Fox will likely be hoping that this cast (which also includes A Single Man\'s Nicholas Hoult as Hank \'Beast\' McCoy) will \'grow\' into their roles, lending this fledging franchise with increasing weight and credence as more familiar characters are incorporated into the screen mythology once more.
Whilst the American studio system will be going back to the well, so to speak, in 2012, they will be banking on some celebrated properties in 2011 that may or may not lead to a new series of film franchises.