With the imminent arrival of Avengers: Age of Ultron on May 1, I thought it was a good time to revisit the current collection of Marvel Studios movies. You can check out my thoughts on the first six, otherwise known as Phase One, here.
Iron Man 3 (2013)
Directed by Shane Black, written by Black and Drew Pearce
When I first saw this movie, I remarked that the darker tone in the script was well balanced by the typical Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) quips.
Seeing Iron Man 3 for a second time, I found it to be more of a bitter pill. It deals in heavy themes of PTSD, violence and terrorism, which is OK, even in a light Marvel superhero yarn—I’ll allow room for this style of realism, though it brings in a lot of heaviness we haven’t seen in these kinds of movies to date.
But the Extremis procedure, which turns people into human bombs, is grim beyond what I think works for these kinds of movies. There is a sour edge here that left a bad taste in my mouth.
This also is the first time they put Tony’s girlfriend, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), in real danger, where she becomes someone who needs saving, which I was not happy to see at all. The tired trope of the hero’s lover kidnapped by the bad guy? Until now Marvel hasn’t needed to resort to much of that, and it’s one of the reasons I’ve largely enjoyed what they’ve done to date.
That’s not to say Iron Man 3 is a lost cause. Far from it: I liked how it resolves some of Tony Stark’s big issues. Suffering from anxiety attacks following the events of The Avengers, Stark buries himself in his work, building all kinds of new armours sporting new tricks, including the prehensile Mark 47. The armour-building is a distraction from his having to deal with his issues—but it also serves as an interesting narrative way-station to where he’s headed: We know he is the one who creates Ultron, the rogue AI in the form of a killer robot. Though Tony seems a healthier, more evolved guy by the movie’s conclusion, we know his troubles are really just beginning.
And the movie isn’t all explosions and terrorist plots, thankfully. We have Ben Kingsley chewing scenery in his own unique way, there are a few hilarious conversations between Tony and henchmen in the employ of Guy Pearce’s villain. And we get to enjoy one particularly impressive set-piece, where Iron Man must figure out a way to save a dozen presidential staffers after the mid-air destruction of Air Force One.
MVP: RDJ, the heart and soul of the entire Marvel movie experiment. He’s irreplaceable.
Jump/Fall From A High Place: All those folks who fell out of the president’s plane.
After Credit Scene: Tony gets some therapy from his buddy, Bruce.
Thor: The Dark World
So, just to tally the eight Marvel movies so far: On second (or third or fourth) viewings I liked Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Captain America: The First Avenger, and Thor, pretty much as much as I did (or, in the case of Hulk, didn’t) the first time around. The Avengers and, surprise, Iron Man 2 improved with multiple viewings, while Iron Man 3 was a bit of a disappointment.
I quite liked Thor: The Dark World when I saw it in theatres. Great to spend more time with these characters, especially Loki, who has turned out to be the most entertaining villain in the Marvel stable, with much credit to Joss Whedon’s use of him in The Avengers.
Returning to Asgard in this film was a pleasure, especially getting to know Heimdall (Idris Elba) a little better.
But I’d say the opening act feels just a little undercooked. They have this great opportunity taking Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) to Asgard, doing a reverse of what they did with Thor on earth in the first film—a fish out of water story. I hoped at least we’d get some kind of welcome feast with character moments aplenty. But no, Foster is infected with this Aether stuff (part of the Infinity Gems collection, the Marvel MacGuffins), and the Dark Elves, led by generic baddie Malekith (usually Christopher Eccleston is more charismatic than this).
The biggest problem that revealed itself in this viewing was in the production design. I noticed a heavy debt to The Lord of the Rings in my initial review, but it goes further than that, also borrowing from George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels, specifically the look of the planet Naboo. That association is more pronounced given Natalie Portman’s presence, but it’s mostly in the derivative CGI cityscapes, and the look (and definitely sound) of the Dark Elves and the Asgardian flying machines.
I like these characters, but from the moment Thor brings Jane to Asgard, the Elves attack, and Thor has to break his brother out of prison and get out of town, the world they’re in all feels a little generic, and the drama isn’t quite intense enough to make much of an impact.
Fortunately, the payoff remains solid. Loki’s “sacrifice” on Svartalfheim is well played, as is the way Thor and Foster manage to get back to earth. I also really enjoy the goofy humour Kat Dennings brings to these movies, and the final encounter with Malekith and the Aether in Greenwich was a great balance of quality dimension-jumping FX and superhero, building-smashing battle sequences.
So, I suppose my feelings on this one are a little mixed, but then they were the first time, too. Just about different things.
MVP: Tom Hiddleston, for making us feel things.
Jump/Fall From A High Place: Thor falls off the Gherkin in London, sliding down the glass as he goes.
After Credit Scene: Three! We meet The Collector (Benicio Del Toro), who takes possession of the Aether, Thor returns to Jane in London, and a Frost Hound goes chasing some birds.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo, Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely
What a pleasure it is to see this movie again. Next to The Avengers, it’s the best thing out of the Marvel stable so far, edging that first Iron Man movie by virtue of its sheer scale and complexity, as well as some genuine A-plus action sequences.
As I observed in my initial review, this is very much a spy thriller underlying the superheroics, but at it’s heart is the titular character, a man out of time who is doing is best to live up to values that seem out of step with the kind of world we live in today. I love the conversations between characters—Cap (Chris Evans) disagreeing with Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) about his hawkish attitude to arming the skies (very Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars plan), and Alexander Pierce (the legendary Robert Redford) justifying his murderous plot to Fury in the cause of totalitarian order.
But what really lifts the material above the average are the little character moments: Cap meeting Sam Wilson at his PTSD group therapy, Fury telling Cap about his grandfather who liked people but didn’t trust them, Cap flashing back to the 1940s with Bucky, training at the New Jersey military base, the Widow and Cap in an Apple store followed up by the mismatched couple discussing Steve’s social life, or lack thereof. (There’s a terrific blog conversation going on right now on the Marvel movies paralleling this one, where the suggestion has been made that Rogers is a virgin. Go here for more on that.)
The opening sequence with Cap, the Widow, and a squad of SHIELD commandos taking control of a freighter in the Indian Ocean is an action set-piece that may be the best in the entire series, and it slips into the narrative a long standing Captain America villain, Batroc the Leaper, who here is a tough-as-nails mercenary rather than a moustache-twirling French stereotype. It helps that they cast UFC Champion Georges St-Pierre in the role, though his and a number of his henchmen are hilariously much more Quebecois French than Algerian French. Probably not something most American audiences would pick up on, but many of us Canucks will get a chuckle.
MVP: The Russo brothers, for directing the hell out of this thing. A tie in the runners-up position, Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson, doing great work together.
Jump/Fall From A High Place: Cap jumps out of a plane early on, and later the helicarriers fall out of the sky, along with Cap and the Winter Soldier.
After Credit Scene: A look ahead to Avengers: Age of Ultron with a scene in Baron Wolfgang von Strucker’s lab, revealing a pair of
mutant powered twins. And Bucky steps into the Smithsonian to reacquaint himself with his own past.
The Guardians of the Galaxy
Directed by James Gunn, Written by Gunn and Nicole Perlman
My reaction to this film the first time was reasonably positive. It’s a fun, Saturday-morning-matinee-style science fiction adventure, heavily indebted to everything from Flash Gordon to Star Wars to Raiders of the Lost Ark, in both blatant and subtle ways. While the distinct lack of originality for large portions of the running time mean there’s no chance of this picture ever being a classic, the wit and a nice mix of characters make for a solid entertainment, and a clever interstellar addition to the Marvel on-screen mythos.
Promoting Chris Pratt from shlubby sitcom actor to action hunk was a clever idea. People like him. Since Guardians was such a hit he’s going to be in this summer’s Jurassic World and potentially, unfortunately, a new Indiana Jones franchise. I understand his appeal, but he’s no Indiana Jones, that’s for damn sure. He hasn’t any of the edge Harrison Ford brought to the world’s favourite archaeologist adventurer, so let’s not even go there.
Quill/Star Lord is a fun creation—heroic but self-involved, a not-so-bright man-boy who has the capacity to do great things if he applies himself. He’s definitely not Han Solo but he’s also a lot less whiny than Luke Skywalker.
I really liked the utopian world of Xandar and its military, the Nova Corps—I enjoyed its multiethnic population, people with bright pink or blue skin all living happily together. Yondu, Quill’s adoptive father/abductor, is also a terrific character: there’s room in my universe for redneck aliens. I wished we got more details on the reasons behind Quill’s abduction from Earth, but seeing it a second time I caught onto the comment from Yondu’s subordinate about having been paid by Quill’s “angelic” father to retrieve him. Something for the sequel, no doubt. Still, the plot holes do yawn in this film, at times a little too wide for me, while there are a lot of conveniences, too.
Best not to look too closely or pull on loose threads and just enjoy the ride. The CGI space battles are fairly rote, but the CGI characters—Groot and Rocket—are pretty much flawless. And they get the biggest laughs—next to Gamora’s remark about Kevin Bacon.
MVP: Bradley Cooper, for bringing a crabby raccoon freebooter to life. A close second: Michael Rooker as Yondu.
Jump/Fall From A High Place: Ronan’s ship The Dark Aster plummeting out of the sky to Xandar, along with the Guardians themselves.
After Credit Scene: Adorbs Baby Groot dancing, and the reintroduction of Steve Gerber’s famous duck.
MORE MARVEL: One-Shots, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Agent Carter, and Daredevil
It feels like I’m not being completist if I ignore the shorts and TV series set in this new Cinematic Marvel Universe, so let me say a few things about them:
Marvel have released a series of short films, called One-Shots, which can be found on the Blu-Ray releases of the features. Some can even be found online. They’re great fun, and offer extra little interstitial moments, almost like an extended post-credit scene, to the cinematic universe. I wouldn’t call them essential, but I would call them fun. Here’s a list of them to date.
First off, the Agents of SHIELD. It surprises me how the show doesn’t get much love from the nerderatti, especially those people for whom it’s so definitely aimed, those who grew up with the comics its based on.
This show has the capability of being more like the comics than any of the movies. It’s in the rapid serial format; every week a group of highly trained operatives (the international spy agency, the acronym clumsily stands for Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division) keep tabs on the expanding community of super-powered humans, some in their own ranks. Plenty of room for denizens of the Marvel universe to appear, and many have—characters who might not ever show up in the movies or get much of a chance to shine: The Lady Sif, for example. Lorelei. The Absorbing Man. John Garrett. Deathlok.
I won’t deny the show got off to a rocky start. Given Joss Whedon’s creative input into its origin—and the series was co-created and is run by Joss’ brother Jed and Maurissa Tancharoen—expectations were high, but instead we got kind of an 80s action show, not a far cry from The A-Team. I’ve got a soft spot for that kind of material, but it’s a long way from Whedon’s televised high points of Buffy The Vampire Slayer or Firefly. Certainly any relation to The Avengers seemed distant and tangential. I liked that it was largely about Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) and how he survived being run through by Loki’s alien pig-sticker, but it wasn’t hugely compelling.
Things improved mightily when the show crossed over with events in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The destruction of SHIELD by Hydra allowed for huge character changes, and all of a sudden the characters in Agents of SHIELD felt totally vital, essential to follow for anyone interested in this universe. For someone looking to dip your toe in, I recommend the pilot, then Episode 8 (which crosses over to Thor: The Dark World) and Episodes 14-22.
The second season has been more consistent, focussing on Skye (Chloe Bennett) and her Kree-given abilities, which have made her an Inhuman—half-alien half-human hybrids with powers. Divisions in SHIELD, and divergent ideas of what the organization is becoming, continue. I’m still enjoying it as a part of the whole story, and recommend it.
Agent Carter was an eight-episode fill-in series that came on in January and February while AoS was on hiatus. It tells the story of Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), Captain America’s sweetheart from the first of his movies, a tough-as-the-guys British broad who can go toe-to-toe with any of her more whiskered military colleagues. Here we catch up with her post-war as she’s working for SSR (Strategic Scientific Reserve) in New York, putting up with chauvinist agents who figure she’s gotten the job because of her connection to the presumed dead Captain America. Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), Tony’s inventor father, plays a big role in this one as someone frames him for selling his tech to foreign nations. We also get to see the Howling Commandos again, and learn more about the program that created The Black Widow in the Soviet Union.
Atwell is terrific, and it’s fun to see all the costumes and sets of late 40s New York, even though the budget constraints of TV mean most of the exteriors have that California backlot look about them. Still, it’s well worth watching.
The Netflix series Daredevil is the newest edition to the Marvel pantheon and, in its own way, is as much a deviation from the current stable as Guardians of the Galaxy. This is bloody, intense, noirish stuff, sharing little of the more playful tone of any of the other Marvel properties. But there’s no doubting this exists in the same world—the Chitauri invasion of New York is referenced here as “The Incident”.
Blind lawyer Matt Murdock (Brit Charlie Cox, who I recognized from his lead in the movie Stardust from a few years ago) and partner in law Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson) are just getting started in the rougher part of Manhattan known as Hell’s Kitchen—actually an upscale gentrified condo neighbourhood these days, but let’s not worry about those details.
Murdock is a guy with a lot of rage, so while he spends his days looking for justice in the courts, he spends his nights on the rooftops, fighting gangsters and bad guys—fewer of them in costumes—thanks to enhanced senses and special training. And he’s not averse to beating these gangsters to a pulp. The violence on display is definitely more in line with Marvel’s Max adult reader line.
This is a real opportunity, to mix a lawyer drama with a superhero show. But mostly what we’re getting is a lot of the moody, grim elements of the comic—those things Frank Miller first introduced to Daredevil back in the 1980s. And I am totally OK with that. The lapsed Catholic, the daddy issues, the problems he has with women, all of that is a big part of what makes Daredevil different from other superhero characters, and it all works here. Nice casting too—especially True Blood veteran Deborah Ann Woll as Karen Page and Vincent D’Onofrio as the Kingpin.
I’m only a few episodes in, but I’m very much on board.