The Avengers' Other Movies
If You Liked That, Then You'll Love This Superheroic Back Catalogue
Given the staggering box-office returns of 'The Avengers' franchise, it's easy to forget that the performers at the very heart of it aren't just simply Tony Stark, Bruce Banner, Natasha Romanoff, and the rest of the gang.
Although it took battling Thanos to make those actresses and actors superstars, none - with the exception of Tom Holland - were unknowns. When Marvel cast the net looking for The Avengers, they didn't go down the route George Lucas took decades before when searching for his Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Princess Leia, and cast 'nobodies.' They went for performers who, by and large, already had a prodigious body of work behind them.
What's interesting is that much of that body of work is distinctly NOT that of people who would later go on and save the world in a comic book franchise. If you delve into the resumes of the actors who make up Nick Fury's team, you see films that couldn't be any further from the popcorn pyrotechnics of the Marvel universe.
There's darkness, edginess, murder, adultery, and some incredibly brave choices. The black and white simplicity of superheroes seem a million miles away.
So, if you loved The Avengers, and are interested to see what those actors can do when they don't have a shield, a hammer, or bio-metrically engineered, metallic suit, here's a list of them in action. Albeit, a very different kind of action. Here's my Alternative Avenger's Filmography.
And let's start with the nominal leader of the group...
Robert Downey JR - Iron Man
Off-screen battles aside, Downey has always been an interesting actor.
Admittedly, given the sheer time demands of playing Tony Stark across an entire franchise, he hasn't had a huge amount of time, outside of his Iron Man suit, to play that many other parts.
And, it's not a surprise that, whilst being the focal point of the Marvel universe, the few roles he's taken have been in 'larger' films: The bigger the production, the easier the logistics. Especially when it comes to himself - it may sound counter-intuitive, but big studios, producers, and directors can work around his schedule. That's less likely on smaller, independent films.
So, in and around Tony Stark, we've had his version of Sherlock Holmes (he's good value, as is Jude Law, even if the films themselves flatter to deceive). Meanwhile his Doolittle is 'meh.' None of it is irredeemably awful; there's just an annoying hint of vanilla about it all. Which is a shame, because, given the material, he can be astonishingly good.
The movie I've selected to showcase him at his best is Richard Attenborough's 'Chaplin' (1992) where Downey JR plays the titular actor and director; The Tramp himself, Charles Chaplin.
The film itself is solid, if unspectacular. Sumptuous, and epic, if a touch safe.
It has sizable flaws; like most bio-pics, it tries to do too much. We are literally shown ALL of Chaplin's life, and - as a result - we actually learn little. You can't do justice to a life that rich in two and a half hours - it all gets too diluted. And, although it touches upon the less savory chapters of the actor / director's life, they're glossed over. We don't need to see all of the man's flaws, but a little deeper exploration would tell us a bit more about what transformed a small-time vaudeville performer into a world-conquering, cinematic genius.
It's a good film. However, it threatens to become a great one due to the actor at the heart of it: Downey JR himself.
As a Brit, Downey JR's accent doesn't always convince. But, physically, he's amazing. A confession: I love Chaplin. I also love Harold Lloyd, and Buster Keaton; their physical dexterity bordered on the superhuman at times. Downey JR has the same prowess. The best scenes are those that recreate Chaplin's films, and Downey JR excels in them. If you've never seen the appeal of silent comedy, 'Chaplin' might be the film that convinces you.
However, he's just as brilliant in the smaller, less Oscar-friendly, sections. The following still ranks as one of my favorite movie moments of all time. Chaplin is watching footage of Adolf Hitler whilst getting ready to make 'The Great Dictator', his own pastiche of Nazism. Chaplin is studying the Fuhrer's pattern of speech, and mannerisms, intently absorbing everything. Finally, he stops, staring at Hitler on the screen: "I know you... you bastard."
Downey has made better films ('Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang' is far more fun, while 'Good Night, and Good Luck' is a far superior piece of film-making), but he's probably never been better than in 'Chaplin.'
Chris Evans - Captain America
Evans is sooo good as the upright, morally-rigid, pursuer of truth, justice, and the American way, that it's almost a surprise to see him play the obnoxious, duplicitous Ransom Drysdale sooo well in 2019's comedy / thriller 'Knives Out.' It's a perfect example of subverting audience's expectations, in a film that takes great pleasure in doing this on a regular basis ('let's also stick James Bond in it, and have him suck at anything physical').
Superficially, it may be a straight forward murder mystery, but I doubt if I've ever seen a more damning exploration of toxic family dynamics. It says more about the people we're related to than a dozen more 'worthy', more earnest, Oscar-lauded dramas ever did.
Evan's Ransom is a great performance, in a great film. He's, at turns, charming, and funny, then venal, and cruel. Gloriously, Ransom is everything Steve Rogers isn't. 'Knives Out' is full of great performances, but - given that cast - you be disappointed if it wasn't. However, Evans is the best thing in it.
And I'm excited to see what he does next.
Mark Ruffalo - The Hulk
In my eyes, Ruffalo is the only actor to 'nail' the Hulk, and his alter ego, Bruce Banner. Eric Bana, and Edward Norton are both superlative actors, but neither 'got' the part. (It also didn't help that both starred in films that were lukewarm at best.)
However, not only is Ruffalo the best Hulk, he also has one of the interesting filmographies of all The Avengers. 'Foxcatcher' is superb; 'Spotlight' is just as good; while 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind' is all manner of wonderful craziness.
But, my favorite film of Ruffalo's is David Fincher's 2007 'Zodiac' (co-incidentally also starring Robert Downey JR).
Ruffalo plays Detective David Toschi, the lead investigator trying to bring to justice the Zodiac Killer, who - in real-life - terrorized Northern California in the late 1960's and early 1970's. Given that it's Fincher behind the camera, there's no simple resolution to the case. In fact, the film probably isn't really about the murders at all, but the 3 men who - in one way of another - become consumed by them: Jake Gyllenhaal's obsessed cartoonist, Downey JR's alcoholic journalist, and Toschi.
Whilst the first two actors do all the grandstanding, Ruffalo is the glue that holds it all together. His Toschi is a decent man, trying to do an inhuman job, accepting of the fact that not every bad guy gets caught. It's a subtle, very human, low-key performance, in a dark, dark film.
'Zodiac' may have little of the theatrics of Fincher's earlier 'Seven', but it's a better film; a slow-burning, uncomfortable masterpiece. It's a bravura piece of film-making, and Ruffalo is the standout.
Scarlett Johansson - Black Widow
'JoJo Rabbit' was my favorite film of last year. And Johansson's performance anchored the film, preventing it from sailing off into the seas of utter whimsy. However, I haven't gone for that. Nor have I chosen 'Lost in Translation', nor 'The Prestige', nor 'Ghost World.'
I've selected Jonathan Glazer's 2014 'Under the Skin.' The synopsis? Disguising itself as a human female, an extraterrestrial drives around Scotland, luring men into her van. Once they're inside, she seduces them, and then...
Best if you just watch it.
You might not like the film (half of its viewers think it's a classic; the other half believe it's the biggest pile of nonsense ever filmed). However, you won't forget it.
Chris Hemsworth - Thor
In the character's first two films, Thor was... well, a bit dull. However, from 'Thor: Ragnarok', the writers realized his overly-earnest, knuckle-headed simplicity could be mined for comedy. Thor didn't become mere comic relief, but he certainly became the funniest thing in the franchise. And, Hemsworth proved himself as adept at the comedy, as with his hammer.
He's a natural leading man - (obviously) handsome, good at kicking butt, and charming. However, like Evans in 'Knives Out', in 2018's 'Bad Times at the El Royale', Hemsworth is still charming, but - this time - that charisma is used to villainous effect.
It may have an blatant attempt to do something very un-Thor-like, but his Billy Lee, a Charles Manson-type leader of a murderous cult, still works. It may only be a small part, but he livens up the final third no end.
The film itself is never quite sure what it's trying to be; it's an uneven hybrid, half James Ellroy, half Quentin Tarantino. It's not as funny, edgy, or as clever as it thinks it is.
But it's ambitious, entertaining, unique, and worth watching, even if its individual parts are far greater than their total. And Hemsworth clearly shows that he's going to be more than okay existing outside of the Marvel universe.
Jeremy Renner - Hawkeye
Three words: 'The Hurt Locker.'
Kathryn Bigelow's 2008 Iraq War-based drama shouldn't be as good as it is. After all, it's cliche central: A maverick bomb disposal expert causes trouble when his way of doing things puts his squad in danger.
Two of the reasons it does work is because of Bigelow's raw, visceral direction, and Renner. Not for the first time in his career, Renner takes a character who should be a one-note cliche, and - just as he did in 'The Town' - gives us something infinitely richer. We might like Sergeant First Class William James, but we don't trust him: There's a flicker of danger, of instability, under the surface, something we also got with Hawkeye.
It's a fantastic film - and Ralph Fiennes' cameo is an unexpected treat.
Paul Rudd - Antman
Brick Tamland; Champ Kind; Brian Fantana: Ron Burgundy's News Team.
'Anchorman.' 2004. No more needs to be said. (Except, Sex Panther Aftershave - it works every time.)
Don Cheadle - War Machine
I'm not a huge of jazz, nor Miles Davies. I can appreciate his genius, but the music doesn't move me.
However, Cheadle's 2015 directorial debut (in which he also played the musician) did.
'Miles Ahead' is not always an easy watch. Like jazz itself, the film's narrative is free-form, and skips around; it's dizzying at times, but - although at times confusing - it also seems wonderfully appropriate. Then there's the mercurial, drug-reliant Davies himself; putting it mildly, he's no saint. He's the polar opposite of the decent, upstanding Colonel James Rhodes. It takes someone with Cheadle's skill to even make him likable.
And we do. We not only admire Davies for facing his demons, but also for finding the courage to fight them. There's always lots to dislike him for as well. But, we see the man behind the legend, the damage behind the destruction.
Cheadle is superb, as is Ewan McGregor. Given the expansion of the Marvel universe, we'll definitely see Cheadle as War Machine again. But I'd much rather see him behind the camera once more.
Right, I'm going to stop there. Given the size of the cast in 'Endgame', this article could run for days.
So, with apologies to Benedict Cumberbatch, Chris Pratt, Bradley Cooper, Micheal Rooker, Chadwick Boseman (RIP), Brie Larson, Tom Holland, Karen Gillan, Zoe Saldana, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Douglas, Evangeline Lilly, Benedict Wong, Sebastian Stan, Elizabeth Olsen, Anthony Mackie, Tessa Thompson, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Jon Favreau, Paul Bettany, and Samuel L Jackson, I'm going to have to come back to you all; you'll get your turn next time.
And there's lots of gems to be found in all of their work too. 'Gangster Number One'; 'Pitch Black'; 'Henry: Portrait of Serial Killer'; 'Black Snake Moan'... I could go on and on.
For, The Avengers didn't just save the world. Collectively, and individually, they've given us more films than we could ever possibly watch.
Some of which are cast-iron, copper-bottomed classics.
And if you enjoyed watching Iron Man, and co. vanquish Thanos, then you're going to absolutely adore luxuriating in the majority of them.
Avengers. Assemble (a damn fine filmography).
If you've liked what you've read, please check out the rest of my work on Vocal, including my piece on what happened when Martin Scorsese took on Marvel:
You can also find me on Elephant Journal and The Mighty.
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It's easy to forget that'Zodiac'
'The Imitation Game'
'Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer'
'In the Flesh'