Thursday, May 4, 2017

A Celebration of the Marvel Cinematic Universe

I have three teenaged boys.  We've gone to all those Marvel superhero films.  I love the Marvel superhero films.  I think the level of quality is astonishing.  When I was a kid, there was only one Raiders of the Lost Ark.  That was a one-of-a-kind experience, and my kids get to have Raiders of the Lost Ark twice a year, because that's how often the Marvel films come out, and it's always at that level, which is so great.
--Joe Hill, Cemetery Dance #74/75, 2016
  

I encountered that quote from Joe Hill recently while reading an interview conducted by Bev Vincent.  My knee-jerk reaction was, "Hey, Joe, calm down: there's still only one Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Which in a literal sense is entirely true, but let's not kid ourselves: as great as that movie is -- and it is GREAT -- it is not an island unto itself.  There are other movies which offer a similar level of action/adventure at a roughly equal level of entertainment value.  
  
I leave it to you to determine what goes on the list and what doesn't, but if we were stepping back to just a few years prior to Raiders and strolling right up to the present day, my list would include things like the Star Wars trilogy, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, a handful of James Bond films, at least one other Indiana Jones film (Temple of Doom), the first Pirates of the Caribbean, and so forth.
  
I say this not to devalue Raiders of the Lost Ark or take pedantic umbrage with Hill's assertion, but to make a point: great popcorn movies are always worth celebrating.  And I think we sometimes forget to do so.  Hill's thoughts on the Marvel movies caught my eye, and while my knee-jerk reaction was to puff up and think about how nothing equals Raiders, the reaction that followed a split-second behind that one was, "Damn, he's right, and I'm glad somebody with his reputation is saying that!"
  
This tied in with a recent series of posts at my favorite blog on the subject of the "Favorite Films of My Lifetime" craze that's been sweeping the Internet.  Those posts (which cover exactly the same years I myself have been alive) can be read here: Part 1 (1974-1979), Part 2 (1980-1989), Part Three (1990-1999), and Part 4 (2000-2016).  I left some comments listing my own favorites: three per year, in my case.  When I got to the new millennium, I found that I'd named something like seven of the Marvel movies for my top-three-of-that-year picks, which sort of surprised me.  But it shouldn't, because Marvel is making movies that fall squarely within the reasons why I love movies to begin with.  I remembered this when I read Hill's comments and thought, yep, he's onto something here.
  
I had no intention of blogging about the Marvel movies here, since there's no King connection. Then, I saw Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, which, with some of these thoughts fresh in mind, struck me as being pure magic.  I was buzzing about it, and about the Marvel Cinematic Universe in general, for hours afterward, and the bottom line is that I just feel like writing a few words about it.
  
You might be surprised that I'd devote time to this topic when I arguably could have instead written about the recently-released trailer for The Dark Tower, but I'm not necessarily a current-events type of guy.  I did see the trailer, of course -- numerous times -- and will say that I think it looks great.

And the guy playing Roland is a co-star of a few of the movies on this list, isn't he?  So there's THAT for a connection.
  
Anyways, back to Marvel: it's easy to find people online carping about various aspects of the films; none of them diminishes the sum total of what Marvel has achieved.  It's also easy to find people online praising them for it, and I doubt I'll say anything that somebody else hasn't already said more eloquently.
  
That's not what this is about, though.  This is about me giving a little bit of thanks for the fact that Marvel has been giving me a terrific jolt of entertainment on a regular basis for nearly ten years now.  To some extent, I've been taking that for granted, and would like to balance those scales a bit.
  
  
  
  
So follow along with me, and let's take a stroll through those first nine years, one gem at a time.
  

  
Iron Man
May 2, 2008
  
  
  
  
I suspect that with each passing year, it becomes more obscure and less understood how unsure a thing Iron Man was.
  
Marvel had made movies before, via working with studios like Fox and Sony on properties that those studios owned, such as the X-Men and Spider-Man films.  Some big hits had resulted, but the company decided that its best interests lay in making films based on characters for which Marvel themselves owned the film rights.  (The story of how Marvel lost full control over their own stable of characters is long and convoluted, as has been the process of their reacquisition of the bulk of those characters.  We're not here for that.  Just know that Marvel Studios was created by Marvel with the sole purpose of establishing the company as being capable of making its own movies.)
  
Iron Man was the first out of the gates, and was therefore crucial to their future.
  
With that in mind, consider the fact that to star as the titular hero, they hired Robert Downey Jr.  Downey was a critically-admired actor who had been in a goodish number of prominent movies, none of which had been anything more than modest hits (at least as far as blockbusters are measured).  In fact, he was more famous for his drug and alcohol struggles than for his commercial prowess.
  
In other words, putting him in a role that was going to determine the fate of a fledgling studio was not merely risky: it was a high-wire act.
  
Consider further that the director they'd hired for the project was Jon Favreau, an actor turned director who had only made three films from behind the camera, only one of which -- the Will Ferrell Christmas comedy Elf -- had been a hit.  His follow-up, Zathura, was well-reviewed, but was a commercial disappointment.  Favreau's hiring was not as risky as Downey's, but neither was it a slam-dunk on paper.  Iron Man felt like a failure waiting to happen.  Many movie fans felt that if the best they could do was hire people like Downey and Favreau, Marvel was dead in the water. 
  
Then the first trailer came out, and it looked great.
  
When the movie itself came out, it literally shocked people, who had no notion that they were going to enjoy it as much as they did.  Sure, the trailers had looked fun, but, as a whole, we had no clue that we were about to see a for-the-ages performance by Downey.  Who would have even considered such a thing possible?  Add to that a charismatic performance by Gwyneth Paltrow, terrific visual effects, well-constructed action scenes, and strong backup roles for Terence Howard and Jeff Bridges, and you had a potent package.
  
And then, you had the cherry on top: a post-credits scene that set into motion the Marvel Studios plan to construct a series of films culminating in a team-up movie, The Avengers.  The fact that they were planning to do that was not exactly a secret: a Hulk movie was coming out soon, and movies with other characters were the planning stages.  The average moviegoer knew nothing of this plan, however.
  
So when S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Nick Fury showed up after the credits to tell Tony Stark that he wanted to get him involved in something called the "Avengers Initiative," it was news to a great many people ... a lot of whom were not entirely sure what any of that meant.
  
This is where the movie's third stroke of genius -- the hiring of star and director being the first two -- came into play: the casting of Samuel L. Jackson in the role of Nick Fury.  Here's the thing: you didn't need to know what an Avenger was, or who Nick Fury was, in order to get excited about the idea that Samuel L. Jackson wanted to hire Robert Downey Jr. to be a cop or something for Iron Man 2.  That idea is exciting enough on its own.  So you got excited about it, and when your nerdier friend (or son, or nephew, or co-worker, etc.) then explained to you that what that meant was that Samuel L. Jackson was going to be putting together a team of superheroes who would all get their own movies AND then star in a movie all together, your excitement was enhanced.
  
Considerably.
  
In terms of the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe that developed post-Iron Man, I don't think anyone yet has given proper credit to the casting of Jackson in that crucial role of a few minutes' duration.  How many other stars could you have put in that role who would have delivered a similar impact?  
  
I'll be honest: I can't think of many.  Jackson is as charismatic and identifiable an actor as any to ever be a movie star; I've been saying for years that he is one of the great movie stars to ever star in movies, and with Iron Man (and especially the response generated by that post-credits stinger), he proved it once and for all.  Get somebody who doesn't have Jackson's magnetism and power and high profile, and the punch you are throwing with that stinger scene fails to land.  Maybe it works as well with Harrison Ford or Denzel Washington or Tom Cruise ... but maybe not.
  
The bottom line is that it worked.  It put exactly the right exclamation mark on the wonderful sentence that was Iron Man, and paved the way for everything that came after.
  
  
The Incredible Hulk
June 13, 2008
  
  
Inexplicably, it's hard to find a decent-size version of this in English.
  
The Incredible Hulk is probably considered to be not only the worst of the MCU films, but one which (thanks to the role later being recast for The Avengers) almost stands outside the series.

Not hard to see why.  This is not to say it's a bad movie; it's a solid film in its own right.  But Edward Norton seems somewhat ill at ease in the role, and has only minimal chemistry with Liv Tyler.  The villain -- Abomination, played by Tim Roth -- doesn't quite work, either.

None of that keeps it from being a good movie, though.  You cannot, and should not, expect every movie to have the same level of inspiration that marked Iron Man.

And take it from a guy who was there: in the summer of 2008, nobody was all that worried about the less-successful aspects of The Incredible Hulk.  Instead, Marvel fans -- still reeling from the perceived disaster of 2003's non-MCU Ang Lee-directed The Hulk -- were happy simply to get a competently-made movie featuring the big green guy.  I'd argue that The Incredible Hulk is several steps better than merely competent: it's not perfect, nor is it inspired, but it's good, and offered another piece of evidence that the Avengers concept might actually work.
 
The movie was directed by Louis Leterrier, who last year was announced as the director for an in-development adaptation of Joe Hill's The Fireman.  I'd happily watch that.

The Incredible Hulk wasn't even half as big a hit as Iron Man had been, but it did well enough that everyone involved breathed a sigh of relief and knew that they'd undone the damage wrought by the Ang Lee film.  (A movie I actually like, by the way, though I'm in a small minority on that one.)  A post-credits stinger featuring Tony Stark helped generate a bit of excitement, and made people curious for what would come next.


Iron Man 2
May 7, 2010




People now think of Iron Man 2 as being a downgrade from the first film.  It routinely hovers near the bottom of rankings of the MCU films, and I guess I can see why, but the fact (for me) remains that it's a good movie in its own right.  If the first movie was a four-star classic, then this is a three-star follow-up at worst.

The fact is, it's got a lot going for it.  It gave Jackson more screen time as Nick Fury; it introduced Don Cheadle as War Machine; and, most importantly, it introduced Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow.  I like both villains relatively well, and the second movie feels entirely of a piece with the first in terms of its wit and underlying pathos.  It's not operating at quite the same level, but it's still operating quite nicely.
 
A word on Don Cheadle seems in order.  I will never complain about Don Cheadle being in a movie.  He could get cast as Helen Keller and I'd be into it.  But I'd be a liar-by-omission if I failed to mention the fact that I loved Terence Howard as Rhodey in the first Iron Man.  He had great chemistry with Downey, and I wanted to see more of it.  To be fair, Cheadle also has great chemistry with Downey, so it's not like the sequel suffered.  Howard was strong in the first film, though, and I'd like to have seen him continue in the role.

A post-credit stinger featured Agent Phil Coulson -- a small character from the first film, memorably played by Clark Gregg -- reporting to Nick Fury that he'd found an object in the desert.  That object: a big-ass hammer that nobody seemed to be able to move.


Thor
May 6, 2011




Does anybody remember back in the day -- "the day" being circa 2010, a date I can still only think of in Clarkeian-futurism terms -- when Thor was considered to be a big risk for Marvel?  The consensus was that the inherently fantasy-based style of the character -- plus his literally godlike set of powers -- would make it hugely difficult to integrate Thor into the same mode of filmmaking that contained something like Iron Man.

The general consensus was correct, by the way.  It IS difficult.  All moviemaking is difficult.  It is, from what I can gather as a fan who has never made one, a bit like holding Jello in your hands: the more you try to do, the more difficult it becomes.

Marvel knew something, though: their own comics had been pointing the way on how to integrate these disparate styles for decades.  The trick is to start by being faithful to the character in question (Thor, in this case).  What makes him or her tick?  What is their story about?  Who are they?  Make a movie that reflects that.  Then, when you begin trying to integrate that character with some character from some other movie, you just have to let the characters be themselves.  If you've made strong characters to begin with, then it will be fairly obvious what they would do if they were in a room together.

Character comes first, and from character develops story.  It's just that simple.  And, apparently, so, so difficult.

In any case, as it turns out, nobody need have been all that worried about Thor.  In part, this is due to expert casting, not only in finding a star in the relatively unknown Chris Hemsworth, but also in putting Tom Hiddleston on the payroll as Loki. An air of legitimacy was added by putting Ted Brautigan himself, Anthony Hopkins, in the role of Odin; and director Kenneth Branagh brought a sense of relateability to the heightened drama.

Some of the Earth-bound elements were arguably less successful.  Natalie Portman never quite gelled as Jane Foster, Thor's mortal love interest.  On the other hand, her sidekicks were amusing, and some of the S.H.I.E.L.D. stuff with Agent Phil Coulson was effective.  And we got to see our first glimpse of Hawkeye, as played by Jeremy Renner.

The bottom line, again, was that the movie worked.  Not at a high level, perhaps, but well enough to get everyone to the next thing.


Captain America: The First Avenger
July 22, 2011




The final piece of the Avengers puzzle fell into place with the late-summer 2011 release of the first Captain America film.  I'm not a fan of that clunky subtitle.

But I love everything else about this movie, which immediately vaulted over Iron Man to become my favorite Marvel Studios film to (that) date.  I'd never known all that much about Captain America.  He always seemed kind of lame to me.  The key to changing my mind lay in the opening act of this movie, where we find a small, weak young man with the biggest, strongest spirit you've ever seen.  This guy literally throws himself on what he thinks is a live grenade so that some of his fellow soldiers will be spared the brunt of the impact; he does it with no hesitation.

This is before he has superpowers.

All that stuff hooked me, and I've been fully in support of Steve Rogers ever since.  (And speaking of hooking me, I still find the visual effects that turned Chris Evans into a 90-pound weakling to be incredibly effective.  I've used the word "magic" to describe these movies, and those specific effects are especially good magical acts.)

Speaking as we were earlier of Indiana Jones, The First Avenger is the Marvel movie that comes closest to it in content.  A lot of this comes down to the WWII setting, complete with Nazi villains and everything.  Tommy Lee Jones is great in a supporting role, and Hayley Atwell damn near steals the show as Peggy Carter, a secret agent who kicks her fair share of fascist ass.
  
The film was directed by Joe Johnston, who won an Oscar for his visual effects work on Raiders of the Lost Ark.  He was a great choice to make this particular movie.

The Marvel movies have frequently been criticized for not having great villains.  I don't entirely agree with this assessment, but I get close enough that I can sort of see it as a valid point.  The Captain America films have been exempt from this alleged problem, however, and I particularly love Hugo Weaving as Red Skull.  Surely they'll bring him back at some point, right?

In fact, part of me wishes that Marvel had left Cap in the forties for a while; I would have been happy to see an entire series of WWII-set movies in which Cap and Bucky and Agent Carter and the Howling Commandos fought the Red Skull and his minions.  I get why they didn't go that route, though, because the end of The First Avenger -- with Steve being resurrected in modern-day America, a man suddenly out of his element -- sets up the next movie in the MCU about as well as could have been done.


The Avengers
May 4, 2012




By the time The Avengers was released, everyone knew it was probably going to work.  Everyone loved Iron Man; most people also loved Thor and Captain America, and while their movies were not hits on the scale of the one with the guy in the armored flying suit, they were successful enough.

Nobody knew just how big The Avengers was going to be, though.  It annihilated opening-weekend records, and was a massive hit worldwide.  All that's fine and good, but the best part...?  It was a great movie, on top of all that success.

What writer/director Joss Whedon managed to do was take three characters/actors who'd been the stars of their own movies, and fully integrate them into a single film so that none of them seemed to be more prominent than the others.  On top of that, he added in a soft-reboot version of the Hulk (Edward Norton was out, Mark Ruffalo was in) and then found numerous reasons for him to steal the show; if the Hulk had not been fully rehabbed by his previous solo movie, hthe process was completed 100% here. 
  
Plus, both Nick Fury and Black Widow got plenty to do, sufficiently suggesting that they were the stars of their own films, equal to any of the others; we just weren't actually getting to see them.  A shame, that.

Phil Coulson even got to make a huge impression!  And, perhaps best of all, Tom Hiddleston returned to prove that Loki is the best villain in the MCU.

Less impressive by far: Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye.  He's fine, but Whedon didn't give him all that much to do, and if we're all being honest, I have to admit that Hawkeye and Thor kind of don't work in the same movie.  Not in this one, at least.

 Five years later, it remains a real kick to see these characters all playing in the same sandbox.  I think it appeals to a very real sense of play that any movie-loving child has had.  What kid who had Star Wars action figures didn't have them go on adventures and/or fight action figures from other stories?  No kid I know; probably no kid you know, either.  What Marvel Studios clearly understood way in advance of the rest of us was that not only did we all want to see stuff like that, but that they already had a perfect roadmap to make it happen with their own characters.

In a real sense, The Avengers represented the first satisfactory fulfillment of a long-held wish of children and former children the world round: to really see what happens when some of the toys get to play in the same sandbox.  It's a concept sufficiently rooted in childhood fantasy to work on that level; and, because the movie doesn't have to sacrifice a logical approach to storytelling and world-building to make it happen, it could simultaneously work on an adult level via its wit, technical virtuosity, and performance quality.

Every studio in town these days wants its own __________ Cinematic Universe.  Universal is trying it with monster movies; Warner Bros. is trying it with their own superheroes; Sony is trying it with Spider-Man and related characters; and, yes, you even hear rumblings that somebody could/should try it with Stephen King properties.

Maybe some of those will end up working, but Marvel is forever going to be known as the company that got there first.

And, perhaps, best.


Iron Man 3
May 3, 2013
  



With Iron Man 3, Marvel Studios entered "Phase 2" of its cinematic universe, and the result was a movie that was an even bigger hit than the first two Iron Man films had been.

Not everyone is a fan, though.  I've got a couple of good friends who loathe Iron Man 3.  They've told me why, but I've forgotten what they told me, because I'm bad at not loving this movie.  Something to do with the Mandarin (who is admittedly a complete betrayal of the source material), in part.  But when a complete betrayal of the source material is as funny as this, I have a hard time being bothered by that.

For my money, this one is very nearly the equal of the first film.  Downey is in top form, as is Paltrow; their chemistry has never been stronger.  Don Cheadle continues to make for an excellent War Machine, and pretty much everyone else on hand is awfully strong, too.  The movie does become a bit loud and busy in the climactic scenes, but not to an extent that it brings the overall endeavor down.

Writing and directing duties this time around were handled by Shane Black, who had been an instrumental -- though indirect -- part of the fist film's success.  He'd directed Downey to wonderful effect in the critical darling Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and it was this role that put Downey in contention to play Tony Stark.  As expected, Black's sensibilities meshed well with what was going on in the MCU, and he took Downey's inherent wit and charm and prickliness and took them to yet another level.


Thor: The Dark World
November 8, 2013




Here's one that routinely gets named as Worst MCU Film.  It's possible it earns that designation; not from me, but it's likely in my bottom two.

But guys, I'm here to tell you: if this is the worst movie in a series, that's a hell of a series.

Natalie Portman gets to go to Asgard in this one, and that's a nice enough inversion of the first Thor's formula.  Loki gets to be a quasi-good-guy for much of the runtime, which is a great deal of fun.  There are a few excellent action scenes, and some satisfying emotional beats.  The big problem is that the villains don't work very well at all.  Pretty much any time they are onscreen, the film drags to a halt, despite the best efforts of the actors playing them.

Still, there's a lot to enjoy here.  The film was directed by Alan Taylor, who was primarily a television director.  He's got a lot of big shows on his resume, including Game of Thrones.  The guy is no slouch, and he does capable enough work here.  (His big-picture directing career may have flamed out with his follow-up, the not-awful-but-not-great Terminator: Genisys.)

By the time The Dark World was in the works, Marvel Studios had decided to try open one of their films outside the summer season.  It worked; The Dark World made more money both domestically and worldwide (partially due to the fabled "Avengers bump" resultant from the colossal box-office receipts for the team-up flick) than the first Thor had earned.  It was beginning to look as if the Marvel Studios films could open at just about any time and find success.  The studio would test that hypothesis even further the next year, not once, but twice.


Captain America: The Winter Soldier
April 4, 2014




Blockbusters don't open in early April.  They just don't.  By that point, spring break is ove; kids and older students alike are still in school, and their focus is likely more than ever on finishing up their studies so as to better enjoy the summer ahead of them.

It's a sign of the MCU's incredible appeal, then, that in early April of 2014, the second Captain America movie came out and doubled the amount the first one had made.  And the first one had been a hit!  The Winter Soldier received the biggest post-Avengers bump of any of the Marvel characters, Iron Man included.  Not only that, it earned across-the-board great reviews.

No wonder: it's a great movie, top to bottom.  Chris Evans continues to mine unexpected levels of pathos and patriotic spirit in the role of Cap.  The Winter Soldier is a great villain; both Nick Fury and Black Widow have great roles; Anthony Mackie makes a strong impression as the Falcon (who is not quite the Sam Wilson from the comics but will do); Robert fucking Redford shows up; the action scenes are dynamic; the political themes are compelling.  There's nothing not to like here.  I personally still prefer the first film, but this is just a nosehair beneath it for me.

The film was directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, two brothers whose previous directing gigs had mostly been for television sitcoms.  Now, in what universe does that make any sense?

The Marvel Cinematic one, of course.


Guardians of the Galaxy
August 1, 2014




A sci-fi flick set in outer space, with a walking/talking/fighting tree and a walking/talking/fighting raccoon as characters, with a sitcom co-star as the lead and a pro wrestler as one of the other protagonists, with the writer of Troma movies and Scooby Doo as the director.  AND it comes out in August, which has traditionally been a trash-heap for box-office duds to be tossed into?!?

No way that spells anything other than disaster, right?

It really does.  Except the movie was awesome and everyone on Planet Earth loved it and it made a boatload of cash.

This is the point at which it truly began to seem as if Marvel Studios could do no wrong.  Had producer/executive Kevin Feige sold his soul to Satan to make this happen?  Were the rest of Hollywood a bunch of bumbling idiots who simply didn't know how to do things?  Was the public starved for superheroes after decades of failed or compromised movie versions of their exploits?

Might be a bit of all of that, but as long as I'm the beneficiary, who cares?

A big part of what made the MCU tick was the surprise factor.  Everyone was surprised that Iron Man was as good as it was; everyone was surprised by Robert Downey Jr. could carry a blockbuster; everyone was surprised that Nick Fury showed up at the end; everyone was surprised that a Hulk movie didn't have to suck; everyone was surprised that they went out and actually found Thor to star in a Thor movie; everyone was surprised that Chris Evans could play a second superhero (after being the Human Torch in the first two Fantastic Four atrocities) and get away with it; everyone was surprised that people in other countries would pay money to see a Captain America movie.  Everyone was surprised you could make a movie like The Avengers.

Surprise, surprise; everywhere you look, surprise.  Why?  Because Marvel was constantly raising the bar for themselves.  Any other studio would look at a property like the Guardians of the Galaxy and say they'd be nuts to try and make a movie out of that.  And they're right: they WOULD be nuts to try it.  Marvel, on the other hand, knew how to make it work.  It's a crazy concept, so turn it over to somebody (director James Gunn) with a crazy sense of humor and an untapped visual sense, and then count the money as it came pouring in, which it assuredly did.

It's a movie that was wackadoodle enough to have Howard the Duck show up in a post-credits stinger.  It's a movie that was bonkers enough for the soundtrack to mostly consist of '70s pop hits.  It's a movie that was unhinged enough for the main character to challenge the homicidal villain to a dance-off during the film's climax.  One major character is a blue-skinned space redneck.

But somehow, it was not only crazy, but hilarious and exciting and oddly affecting.  For all the craziness, it was as keenly human a movie as any Marvel had done, and audiences were SURPRISED AS FUCK by this.  Everyone loved the talking raccoon, and the talking tree, and the former pro wrestler.  It turned the sitcom guy into a massive star, too, and made the third big hit sci-fi film for Zoe Saldana.  The soundtrack sold like hotcakes, proving that even '70s pop hits can still find new audiences.

All you could do is applaud the audacity, and sit back and wait to see what came next.


Avengers: Age of Ultron
May 1, 2015




What came next was the backlash against Marvel Studios and their films, which had already been present but here finally began in earnest.

I walked out of Age of Ultron feeling that it was near-effortlessly great entertainment, possibly even moreso than the first Avengers had been.  I saw it again the next night and felt the same way, and I still feel that way two years later.

But a great many people felt differently, and were none too shy in expressing their thoughts on it.  And yeah, sure, it's not a perfect movie.  But I thought Ultron made for a damn fine baddie, and if Quicksilver kind of sucks, well, The Vision is so damn cool that he more than makes up for that.

We'll discuss this one -- all of these, really -- in the comments if you so desire.  Maybe you can turn me negative on it!  But don't bet money on it.

Among the things here I dig:

  • every moment involving Iron Man or Captain America 
  • everything Hulk does, and everything Black Widow does to chill him out
  • Andy Serkis as Ulysses Klaue
  • the extent to which Joss Whedon rehabs Hawkeye as a character
  • all the sittin'-around-talkin' scenes
  • Vision wielding Thor's hammer (I think I literally gasped when he picked it up)
  • James Spader as Ultron -- and this coming from a guy who has traditionally disliked James Spader

And so forth.
 
Nope, sorry, guys: this is a great movie.


Ant-Man
July 17, 2015


I love this poster


Ant-Man had been in development by Marvel Studios for years, with writer/director Edgar Wright in the driver's seat.  So imagine the Internet's distress when Wright was dumped by Marvel, and the director of Bring It On (Peyton Reed) was brought in to take his place.  People lost their damn minds over this, and everyone was dead certain that it meant the movie was headed for disaster.

Sure enough, it flamed out at the box office, making a mere $500 million worldwide.  And on top of that, it managed only excellent reviews from a majority of critics, so...

...wait.  Oh, those are actually good things, aren't they?  Shit, didn't fit my narrative at all.

It's true that Ant-Man wasn't AS big a hit as the MCU had been generating since 2011.  When a $500 million worldwide earner looks comparatively paltry, you know you're comparing it to some big hits.

Things that worked in this movie: Paul Rudd as the title character; Evangeline Lilly as his mentor's unimpressed daughter; Michael Douglas as that mentor; the effects, which did a great job of taking a Honey, I Shrunk the Kids aesthetic and modernizing it for superheroic use; and Michael Pena as a sidekick.

It's not by any means a perfect movie.  The villain (Yellowjacket, played capably by Corey Stoll) fizzles out a bit, and while Peyton Reed is a talented guy, there are some scenes where the rushed production actually feels rushed.  Marvel has signed him back up for the sequel, though, and that's perfectly fine by me.




Captain America: Civil War
May 6, 2016




An Avengers movie in all but title, this is also, amazingly, a Captain America movie through and through, AND an Iron Man movie through and through.  How the Russo Brothers juggled everything that's going on here is nothing short of inspirational.  Not only do they service Cap and Tony well enough that both feel like the lead characters, but they also introduce Black Panther to moviegoers, bring Spider-Man into the MCU, plausibly turn the Winter Soldier back toward the side of the light, rehab the reputations of both Vision and Scarlet Witch from the not-optimally-received Age of Ultron, allow Ant-Man to damn near steal the movie, and so forth.
 
The film even tied The Incredible Hulk back into active continuity by bringing back William Hurt and General Ross!

Virtually nothing here fails to work.  I should probably have to more to say about it, but I'll settle for saying that Captain America's movies remain perhaps my favorites of the series, and I really don't know how I'd rank them on any given day.  All three are terrific.
 
The movie was a big hit, perhaps indicating that "superhero fatigue" -- a hypothetical condition that exists among filmgoers -- does not fully extend to Marvel's output.  


Doctor Strange
November 4, 2016




People were skeptical about Doctor Strange fitting into the MCU.  Did they not remember Thor and Guardians of the Galaxy?  They probably did, but they figured that surely making a movie about a magician would be different.  Gods and talking trees are one thing, but magic?!?

But, of course, it worked.  Take House, put him in Inception, and then layer a bit of both Harry Potter and The Matrix over the top, and voila, you've got Doctor Strange, yet another success.

The film (directed by Scott Derrickson, who recently signed to direct Hulu's series based on Joe Hill's Locke & Key) is genuinely a visual triumph, especially if you were lucky enough to see it in IMAX 3D.  But it's also got a couple of great performances from Benedict Cumberbatch and Tilda Swinton, and an above-average villain, played by Mads Mikkelsen.  It has very little for Rachel McAdams to do, sadly, which brings us to something I've been meaning to bring up: female heroes in the MCU.

The quote I used at the top of this post from Joe Hill is actually part of an answer he gave as to whether The Fireman is a feminist novel.  He talks about how he and his boys love the Marvel movies, but admits that the movies haven't done right by the other gender.  None of their movies have starred a woman in the main role yet, and Black Widow has (he says) had to serve as a love interest for multiple Avengers.  I'm not entirely persuaded by that argument, but there's certainly no denying that no woman has starred in her own MCU film yet.  In what universe does it make sense for there not to have been a Black Widow movie by now?

The Marvel Cinematic one, sadly.  A Captain Marvel film is on the way (starring Brie Larson) in 2019, though, so there's that.  Plus, the Ant-Man sequel (coming 2018) is titled Ant-Man and the Wasp, promising plenty for Evangeline Lilly to do in a co-lead capacity.

Still, it's a perceived problem, and Doctor Strange, in failing to find anything for Rachel McAdams to do, helped not one whit.  Tilda Swinton did get to be the Ancient One, but that step forward was negated by the chorus of disapproval on the subject of that character being whitewashed (a problem that also beset Ben Kingsley in Iron Man 3).
 

Doctor Strange survived those issues, though, and was a hit that introduced yet another valuable player into the MCU mix.  It carved out new story potential with the magical elements, and was the series' most visually complex film to date.

I do wish they'd just let Stephen Strange be British, though.  Cumberbatch makes for a fine American, but he makes for a dandy Brit.


Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
May 5, 2017




It might be the best MCU film to date.  I dunno.  The three Captain Americas, at least the first Avengers (and the second for my tastes), and the first Guardians are awfully good, too.  And you could make the argument that Vol. 2 is trying a bit too hard in a few too many places.

But that criticism aside, this movie is sheer magic.  It is arguably as visually rich as Doctor Strange; it is arguably as emotionally fulfilling as The Winter Soldier; it is arguably as witty as Iron Man 3; it is arguably as exciting as Civil War; it arguably bests even the first Guardians in weirdness.

The cast is terrific, top to bottom.  If anybody suffers, it's Zoe Saldana, whose character is a bit of a stick in the mud.  But god dang, guys, even she is pretty great: Gamora looks terrific, is a complete badass, and has a satisfying story arc of her own.  Maybe even two of them.  So if she's the one whose role suffers, what's that tell you about everyone else?

  • Chris Pratt continues to be a born movie star.
  • Dave Bautista is fucking hilarious as Drax.  He was the first movie's secret weapon, in my opinion, and here, he's less of a secret, but no less of a weapon.  The moments when the movie tries too hard often involve him, but when a guy is this funny, why wouldn't you give him more and more comedy to play?  He's fantastic.
  • Rocket and Groot continue to be wonderful.  Baby Groot is maybe the cutest thing to ever appear in a movie.
  • Ol' Alan Pangborn himself, Michael Rooker, arguably steals the movie from everyone else playing Yondu.  I'd read that in a review, and kind of didn't believe it, but doggone if he mightn't have done precisely that.
  • Karen Gillan as Nebula is a crucial part of Gamora's story, but she is also doing her own thing, to some extent.  Gillan is very good.  If there were more scenes of her walking confidently, I'd be okay with that.
  • Kurt Russell plays Chris Pratt's dad.  Perfect.  The first scene of the movie shows him as young Kurt Russell, and the effects are jaw-dropping.  Marvel had done this before with both Michael Douglas and Robert Downey Jr., and their skill is improving exponentially every time out.  Beyond that, Kurt Russell is absolutely great in this movie.
  • Elizabeth Debicki is a villain, and she's painted in gold Oddjob-style, and boy is she something to look at.  Excellent performance, too; I like her a lot.
  • Pom Klementieff -- who has a stupendous name -- plays Mantis, and she is adorable.  Great chemistry with Dave Bautista.

There are probably people who won't like this movie, and some of them will be people who loved the first one.  There isn't as much of a surprise factor here, so it's entirely possible that there will be an Age of Ultron style backlash.  They'll say it's too jokey, and that there are too many songs, and that there are too many post-credits stingers, and that [REDACTED] and [REDACTED].

I suppose that, for them, they'll be right.  For me, they'll be as wrong as it gets.  In my opinion, this is one for the ages.

But that's true of several of the movies in the MCU series, and of the series as a whole.

Which, by the way, is by no means over.  Spider-Man: Homecoming comes out later this summer; Thor: Ragnarok this fall; Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War next year, along with Ant-Man and the Wasp; Captain Marvel, another Avengers, and another Spider-Man in 2019.  Plans for another Guardians of the Galaxy are already afoot, and the odds of a Doctor Strange sequel seem very likely.

I suppose I should also mention that the MCU has a television component:
  • Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has been running since 2014, and while its quality has been variable, it got quite good during the time it intersected with The Winter Soldier.  Subsequent seasons have introduced the idea of Inhumans into the MCU, re-introduced Ghost Rider, brought characters like the Patriot and Madam Hydra into the story, and, of course, resurrected Phil Coulson.  Unfortunately, none of this has ever spilled over into the MCU; you arguably need the MCU for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to work, but the equation does not work if you flip it.
  • Agent Carter ran for two fun seasons, picking up the story of poor, brokenhearted Peggy Carter, who soldiered on in the wake of Steve's "death" and had some adventures with the original Jarvis.  If the world was fair, the series would still be running, but nobody watched it, so it got canceled.  Anyone depriving me of more Hayley Atwell is my enemy.
  • Daredevil debuted on Netflix in 2015 and made a big splash.  I don't know that I need to see Daredevil become an Avenger, but I do need to see Wilson Fisk be a villain in one of the MCU movies.  However, the Netflix shows pay only cursory lip-service to the MCU, and the MCU pays no attention to the Neflix series' existence, which is a damn shame, where I'm sitting.  the second season brought Elektra into the fold, and also introduced the MCU version of The Punisher.  Jon Bernthal plays him to near-perfection.  Elodie Yung is Elektra, and she's pretty dang good, too.
  • Jessica Jones came second for Netflix, and it's my favorite of the shows thus far.  Part of this is because David Tennant made for an outstanding villain as the Purple Man himself, Kilgrave.  He's good enough that he could be the villain for an Avengers movie.  No kidding; he's that good.  This series also introduced Mike Colter as Luke Cage...
  • ...who then got his own show, Luke Cage.  It's pretty great.  A bit much in places, but pretty great.  Colter is terrific, and his power set is sufficient that he could easily stand right alongside the Avengers.  And hey, who knows?  Maybe someday somebody will make that happen.
  • The fourth Netflix/Marvel series was Iron Fist, which the Internet hated, but which I enjoyed.  It is demonstrably a step down from the first three shows, but the fact is that I looked forward to every new episode.
  • Next up: The Defenders, in which Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist (along with various of their subordinate characters) get together and fight Sigourney Weaver in which Marvel and Netflix are hoping is an Avengers-style triumph.  I'm skeptical.  But will I be tuning in?  You bet.  The preview for it was released the same day as the trailer for the Dark Tower, and it looks like a lot of fun.  
  • There's also a Cloak & Dagger -- CLOAK AND FUCKING DAGGER!!!!! -- series on the way from Freeform, as well as a half-hour comedy that will feature Squirrel Girl, among others.  The Punisher is getting his own Netflix series.  Hulu is making a series based on Runaways.
  • Most intriguing of all, at least for me, is a series based on The Inhumans.  It will air on ABC, but the first episodes will debut in IMAX theatres.  This is a lunatic idea, but they've got Anson Mount playing Black Bolt, and apparently Lockjaw will be in the series, so shit, bring it on.

The television side of things is fine by me, but it lacks the spark of inspiration that has characterized the best of the movies.  I say that not to diss the television shows -- which are part of the same company but are planned and produced by an entirely different set of people -- but to emphasize again just how wonderful the movies are, both individually and as a group.  Many a person has remarked upon how incredible it is to have read comics as a kid in the '70s and '80s and wished for there to be good movie versions featuring those characters.  It was enough to get an occasional Superman or Batman once per decade; we considered ourselves lucky for that.

Now, look at us: we're getting several per year, and that's just from Marvel!  DC has had some good ones, too, and if you're a Marvel fan like me, then you hope they'll figure their process out so that they can do even better.  (Perhaps Wonder Woman can begin that process in earnest; we'll see.)

Make no mistake: as far as superhero movies go, we are living in a bona fide Golden Age right now.  We can't count on much from this messed-up world, but we can count on Marvel Studios to deliver for us two or three times per year.

And that, True Believers, ain't nothing.  It's very definitely something.

I, for one, thank 'em for it.

17 comments:

  1. (1) In retrospect, the Ultimates crew (at least Millar and Hitch or whomever came up with it) deserves a share of the royalties for "casting" Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury in the original Ultimates. I agree, though, this was among the first of many fortuitous and pivotal moves in the burgeoning MCU.

    (2) re: the perceived disaster of Ang Lee's "HulK," I'm glad to hear you like it. I remember defending it a little at the time and then kind of picking it apart along with everyone else in retrospect, or agreeing with some savagings of it that appeared later. It seemed to me, tho, to really be channelling a lot of specifically 70s Hulk, whether successfully or unsuccessfuly I don't know, but that appealed to me. But, I've never revisited it to test this out. (I really should have during the Hulk in the 70s Posts.) The Ed Norton one either. I've heard he was an unwilling participant in it, or was trying to direct / rewrite it / was otherwise difficult. Anyway, Tim Roth was an awful Abomination, but so many Hulk villains are lame, I sympathize with both actor and everyone else. At least it wasn't the damn Leader.

    (3) Speaking of odd villains, I think Jeff Bridges and Mickey Rourke both did really interesting work with Obadiah Stane and with Blacklash/Whiplash, but I'd never have recognized either from their onscreen incarnations had they not been repeatedly identified as them onscreen. This is not to say I dislike their MCU incarnations; I like them just fine. It speaks more to my only knowing the Bronze/Copper Age Iron Man and not much else. (i.e. I was like "Who the hell is War Machine?" By the way, I liked Howard too - I guess he has another "difficult" reputation but who knows. I like Cheadle too. Sall good, bruh. Rhodey's stint in the Iron man armor coincided exactly with my subscription to Iron Man, back in the day.)

    (4) I'm in the extreme MCU minority for not liking the "Thor" movie at all. I have to watch the sequel(s) again, but I revisted "Thor" to see how I felt about it a year or so ago and liked it even less. The friends I talk to who really love it speak to just how cool it is to see Thor's powers realized onscreen, and I agree, it's awesome to see Thor flying around and his hammer spinning and I have zero problems with Hemsworth's portrayal. It's just for me I only get to access that in "The Avengers;" in this Thor movie I just don't like the look or feel of anything. Hopkins as Odin feels perfunctory, but okay, it's Hopkins, no problem. Everyone else is just kinda there. Not Loki, sure - good casting/ performance, there. But the usual MCU-villain problems, there, like you point out in the next entry. But while the Asgardians never gel for me, it's the earthbound casting, tho, and "drama" that sinks this one for me. Also: as with Iron Man, my time in the Thor trenches is limited to very specific periods, and the one I want to see in the MCU is Simonson's. Like with the FF, I await for a messiah who will likely never come.

    (5) With you on the subtitle. I hate the whole "make titles as vague and broad and determined-by-international-audience-factors as possible." Or whatever's responsible for these things. I love the first Cap movie, though. It and The Avengers are probably my faves. Of the ones I've seen. I've gone back to this first Cap one a few times and I can see some things that drag here and there, but it's just such a home run for getting the Steve Rogers I knew and loved growing up on screen. I wish Kirby had been alive to se eit, and I'm glad Joe Simon was. And yeah, if Weaving doesn't return as the Red Skull that'd be a shame.

    (6) "Marvel is forever going to be known as the company that got there first. And, perhaps, best." In more ways than one!

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    1. (1) Very good point, and I'd forgotten about that!

      (2) I revisited the Ang Lee movie once, and felt like it more or less held up. Some aspects of it, not so much. But Nick Nolte is good, and some of the comic-on-film playfulness in the editing works, and Elfman's score is solid. I think there are way worse movies out there than this one. (I'm also kind of an apologist for the Ben Affleck "Daredevil" movie, too, though, so take all this for what it's worth.) And yeah, I definitely remember the talk about Norton being a pill on that movie. I wonder if he looks back on it now and thinks, "Shit, man, I could be fighting Thor in that new movie," and gets bummed?

      (3) I remember other people saying the same thing about Obadiah Stane. This is where it's probably beneficial to be me: a guy who is enthusiastic about Marvel comics while being almost entirely free of actual knowledge about most of them. Because then, changes to the characters tend to roll right off me.

      (4) I don't know that that is an extreme minority, per se. I remember a lot of people being put off the by stuff on Earth, and I think maybe it was the casting of the Asgardians that saved the movie from actually being the failure some feared it might be. So if the bulk of the Asgardian stuff doesn't even work for you, no wonder you are down on it!

      (5) I'm way overdue for a rewatch of this one. I've still only seen it once!

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  2. (7) Agreed on the surprise factor of the MCU and "Guardians" in general. There's another one that baffled my only-up-1990-or-so Marvel familiarity. i.e. I knew the Guardians but I was like why the hell are Groot and Rocket Raccoon in them? Where's Vance Astro? Why is Michael Rooker's mohawk not long and luxurious? But: I loved it. I really hope someone goes a proper HOWARD THE DUCK movie, while we're here; I love the original series.

    (8) We part ways on AGE OF ULTRON. I enjoyed the first half hour but I think it gets punishingly repetitive after that. Surprisingly I don't like almost any of the points you single out, or they are things I point to that I specifically don't enjoy, I should say. Well, except James Spader as Ultron, which I do like very much.

    (9) Still need to see ANT-MAN, IRON MAN 3, THE DARK WORLD, CIVIL WAR, DR. STRANGE, GUARDIANS 2. Still need to catch up with all the MCU on TV, although I've liked all I've seen or heard.

    Excelsior!

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    1. (7) If the MCU is at some point able to actually make a hit with a new "Howard the Duck" movie, then you will know we have reached the point where the makers of the MCU need to be hailed collectively as the great outfit of film artists to ever work in the medium. And the thing is, I can't rule it all the way out!

      (8) I'll be curious to see if my opinion of it holds up whenever I get to a series rewatch. I rarely take it for granted either way!

      (9) My guesses are that you will like "Ant-Man," "The Dark World," "Civil War," and "Guardians Vol. 2" and be either cool or angrily hot toward the others.

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    2. (9) Not "Doctor Strange?"

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    3. Some weird gut impulse tells me you might be put off by the humor. Maybe not, though. I'm talkin' out my butt.

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    4. We saw "Guardians 2" tonight thanks to some AMC tickets a friend kindly sent out way and enjoyed it very much. It shows the fun you can have with the MCU formula by just rolling with it. Good stuff all around. Everything you wrote seems pretty accurate to me.

      Great performances, too - Michael freaking Rooker. Who knew? Boat Chips knew. ("Slow Cooker," 2004.)

      I love the ongoing Watcher / Howard the Duck-ness of these two. Genuinely excited for the next installment.

      Karen Gillan's angrily confident walking could and should indeed become a thing.

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    5. Boat Chips has a song about Michael Rooker? I need to hear this.

      Glad you enjoyed the movie! I think I've decided it's my current favorite Marvel movie.

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    6. Well, kind of: https://soundcloud.com/boatchips/slow-cooker

      It just rhymed with "Slow Cooker" appealingly.

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    7. It sure did.

      This song is cracking me the fuck up, FYI.

      I like how aggressively the lines "I cook two and a half to your one! I get the job done!" are delivered. This slow cooker is fucking SERIOUS, y'all.

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    8. We aim to please! One of my personal faves from the BC canon.

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  3. It's a credit to your writing that I keep coming here to read your takes on King, hoping for an updated Best Books list and willing to settle for your take on the IT trailer. When I get here, I'm instead greeted by a long feature about a series of movies that I have no interest in, but by the end of reading it, I now want to see each and every one of them.

    You're a damn good writer.

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    1. I really appreciate you saying that! I will make a pledge to you here and now -- right here and now! (as Wolf would say) -- to update that list once I've finished reading "Gwendy's Button Box."

      I tend to not write the trailer-reaction pieces. They take more effort than they are worth for what amounts to speculation -- I always feel like I could put that time to better use. I kind of WOULD like to do one that combines It, The Mist, and The Dark Tower, though, now that I think about it...

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  4. Glad I checked in on you today. You've got me in the mood to go watch some Marvel movies, and perhaps introduce my 10-year-old to some of 'em. I have mostly stayed away the last 3-ish years, not because I didn't enjoy them, but because there was getting to be so damn many of them. I did love the first Guardians of the Galaxy, and made an exception to see Ant-Man a couple of years ago, which I loved. But now it's time to catch up with the Avengers-related ones. (And I know they're all part of the same universe, but I've missed the last several spotlighting the original core group).

    I think we have similar tastes. I thought the twist with Mandarin in Iron Man 3 was absolutely hilarious, even more so because Ben Kingsley is such a staple of prestige films that frequently don't have much of a sense of humor. I never read a lot of Iron Man and don't know the original Mandarin character, but as far as I'm concerned, even fanboys should have been able to give it up for that. And I'm with you on the 2003 Hulk. It wasn't a masterpiece, but it was skillfully done. I think the problem was that it was way too cerebral and dark and humorless for the summer crowd. It's been a long time, but I remember thinking it was unfairly maligned. There was one sequence that I thought Ang Lee should be embarrassed by, when the Josh Lucas character snuffs it and they do the blended comic panel-live action mix. But not nearly as bad as its reputation.

    Glad to hear you liked The Dark Tower trailer. I've been wondering what you thought since it came out. Apparently I know even less about the story than I thought I did, because I was thinking fans were going to be pissed, and the whole way through, my impression was that the story (and the Earth kid?) were pretty far from the source material. Anyway, thanks, and happy weekend to ya.

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    1. Ten years old seems like a good age to be during this era of superhero movies, provided the kid is into that sort of thing.

      Staying away because there are too many of them is an interesting thought. Makes sense, because sometimes, the time/energy/money to go may just not be there. I am rapidly reaching that point with the television shows. Up to now, I've been able to keep up with an acceptable investment of those three cornerstones of consideration; but that's a finite thing, and a tipping point is coming soon.

      You make a good point about Kingsley, and why the joke worked. I was absolutely deLIGHTed when they delivered the punchline on that one. I just saw there for a moment and marveled (sorry for the pun) at how much investment they'd put into making that work.

      Regarding the Dark Tower trailer, I can't quite get a gauge on how well the movie represents the source material. In spirit only, perhaps. And if so, I might be able to be okay with that. Time will tell!

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  5. Not to be the party pooper, but superhero fatigue is definitely something that exists, at least for me. I'm in the minority though. For the majority, it looks like you've got decades of enjoyment to come!

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    1. We can hope!

      I'm curious to see whether the format will begin to change into something new. I guess it kind of already has; "Guardians of the Galaxy" doesn't have much in common with traditional superhero stories. On television, "Legion" -- what I've seen of it so far -- doesn't have much in common with ANY kind of stories I've seen.

      Innovation like that will be key if they want to keep the whole thing going.

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