9. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

This post is part of a series I am writing on the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe from Iron Man to Spider-Man: Far From Home. There will be spoilers for the entire series of films.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) Poster

I’m not saying anything new when I say that Captain America: The Winter Soldier is one of the best movies in the Marvel universe. Most fans of the films will say the same thing. Having heard it said for years since my last viewing of the film, I’d kind of internalised it as “oh yeah, that’s one of the good ones”. But I was honestly kind of surprised at just how much better it is than the films I’ve watched so far in this series.

Taking inspiration from 1970s political conspiracy thrillers, the writers – Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely, who also wrote Captain America: The First Avenger and Thor: The Dark World – and directors Joe and Anthony Russo set out to explore what it’s like for the good soldier Steve Rogers, fresh from the black-and-white conflict of WWII Europe, to now have to deal with the murkier territory of modern politics. Now working as an asset for S.H.I.E.L.D., Cap is struggling with the idea that the people he works with may not tell him everything he needs to know, and he may not always know who he is fighting or why.

Add into that the revelation that S.H.I.E.L.D. is working on a program to police the world with giant helicarriers that can identify and eliminate targets anywhere on the planet, and then an attack on Nick Fury from whom he receives the message “S.H.I.E.L.D. compromised”, and Steve Rogers is left with no one to trust. Cue Captain America on the run, having to rely on Natasha’s espionage skills to figure out what’s really going on in S.H.I.E.L.D.

The Winter Soldier is not just the best Captain America film, it’s also the film that makes the best use of Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow and Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury. Natasha Romanov finally has a personality beyond “I need to make up for all the bad things I’ve done” – she’s funny, smart, and she deeply cares about the people she’s close to. For Fury’s part, after being the guy in the shadows who brings in heroes to deal with problems, he finally gets involved in the action as we see him endure a brutal attack and car chase leading to his apparent death.

Speaking of that car chase, the action in this movie is superb. Cap’s attack on the ship in the opening & his faceoff with Batroc, the attempt on Nick Fury’s life, the elevator fight, the highway fight with the Winter Soldier – if nothing else you can watch this for the fights and be satisfied. It’s ridiculous to call a film where a man called Falcon straps a pair of jet-powered wings to his back and flies around “realistic”, but there’s a level of groundedness to the hand-to-hand combat, an attempt to keep the feel of humans at the peak of their ability rather than unstoppable demigods.

The revelation in this film that S.H.I.E.L.D. has been infiltrated from its founding by Hydra agents is a big shakeup of the Marvel Universe, but one which only really played out in the often-ignored TV show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. It led to the Avengers working as an independent organisation funded directly by Tony Stark, but that’s not something that’s ever explored in the movies. Hydra is apparently dealt with once and for all in the opening of Avengers: Age of Ultron, and we don’t really hear of them again. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. stopped crossing over with the movies a few seasons in, and by season 6 seems to be ignoring movie continuity entirely. It’s a shame, because a resurgent Hydra would have made an interesting ongoing enemy for the heroes. Maybe the new Falcon and the Winter Soldier TV show will give us some of that.

Obviously Marcus, McFeely, and the Russos went on to make bigger and bigger films in the Marvel Universe after the success of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but they never quite hit the same highs they did here. I suspect it’s a problem of throwing such a large number of characters into the stories – this film was an ensemble, but it was nowhere near on the level of Civil War or the Avengers films, and it’s hard to deal with such a large cast of characters in a satisfying way. Avengers: Endgame is probably where they came closest, and that’s because it was a direct sequel, and one where the cast was cut down significantly for most of the film. These big crossover events are not the easiest thing to work with, and they honestly did an impressive job pulling everything together, but at this point I’m much more interested to see what these creators do outside of the MCU when they can maybe keep things a bit tighter.

I also hope the MCU can give us more films like The Winter Soldier in the future. They’ve made some good films since,and in particular the Spider-Man films have been reaching similar levels of quality, but I’d like a bit more of that action thriller stuff. Here’s hoping Black Widow delivers.

8. Thor: The Dark World (2013)

This post is part of a series I am writing on the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe from Iron Man to Spider-Man: Far From Home. There will be spoilers for the entire series of films.

Thor The Dark World (2013) Poster

A lot of people would tell you that Thor: The Dark World is the worst Marvel movie, but it isn’t. (The worst Marvel movie is either Iron Man 2 or Thor.) It sits pretty firmly in the tier of competent-but-forgettable films like Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ant-Man or Doctor Strange. I think it just became a bit of a meme to put down this film, since it came out in the middle of a run of more successful releases, from Captain America: The First Avenger through to Guardians of the Galaxy.

The film had potential to be really good, but in my opinion it was sunk by some of the creative decisions surrounding the film’s antagonist, the dark elf Malekith. The dark elves come from the realm of Svartalfheim, and Malekith is a powerful, and evil, sorcerer who has faced off against Thor many times in Marvel’s comics. But the Marvel cinematic universe tends to move toward sci fi in its reinterpretation of comic material, and it does so here: The dark elves are essentially aliens with advanced technology, Malekith simply the leader and most ruthless of them. Rather than deep, lush forests full of magic, Svartalfheim is a blasted wasteland covered in darkness. The costume design on the elves, with stiff masks intended to look kind of creepy and unnerving, results in something that looks like a Doctor Who alien of the week.

Malekith from War of the Realms
Malekith the Accursed
Malekith from Thor: The Dark World
Also Malekith the Accursed

They’re generic alien soldiers, uniformly grey and dull, and utterly unmemorable. The worst part of it is that Malekith, usually a fun character in the vein of Loki – although more sadistic – is reduced to the same level of blandness. He has no personality in the film, and his iconic appearance – his face half blue, half black, with flowing white hair – is absent except for a small homage when he becomes scarred by Thor’s lightning – on the wrong side of his face.

The generic nature of the antagonists even extends to them having the exact same backstory as the frost giants of Thor – they tried to conquer the realms, Asgard fought them and stole the device that gave them their power – the Crucible in Thor, the Aether in The Dark World – and their world was left dark and lifeless until they try to infiltrate Asgard and steal it back.

I truly believe if they had gone in a different direction with the design of the elves, made them colourful, gave them personality, had them using magic instead of technology, this film could have been great fun to watch. Hela and Loki are a joy to watch because the writers and directors give the actors the opportunity to really go larger than life and have fun with the role – Malekith could have easily been the same.

The other place the film has problems is with the handling of Jane Foster – it does well enough with her in the beginning and the climax, but for a film that was intended to focus more heavily on the love story between Jane and Thor, she spends a significant amount of time as little more than a macguffin to be transported from place to place. During the parts of the film where Thor’s primary motivation is keeping Jane safe, the film lets her disappear into the background in favour of centering Thor and Loki’s relationship. This is not to say the Thor and Loki parts didn’t work – they’re a highlight of the film – but it’s a real disservice to Natalie Portman to have her character treated this way.

I know I’ve gone on a lot about the problems with this film after starting by saying “it’s not as bad as people say”, but it does bother me so much that Marvel would take an interesting character and reduce it to the most generic version possible. It’s also notable that they did this at the same time they released a Marvel One-Shot that retconned Iron Man 3’s villain – suggesting that Aldrich Killian was not in fact the Mandarin, but had used the name and imagery of a real terrorist to create his fake one. It shows that someone in Marvel felt like such major changes to iconic villains were not the right direction, and wanted to dial it back. Meanwhile, The Dark World does this to Malekith.

The result of the changes is that, while it’s not a bad film, it is very much a skippable one.

As far as the larger Marvel series, I’ve already touched in my Phase One post on how this was the first film to introduce the Infinity Stones, and name the Aether and Tesseract; the Aether is of course entirely unlike the Reality Stone we see used by Thanos, so I think some creative liberties have occurred as they put the Infinity Saga together. This film also became more significant with its inclusion in the time travel segments of Avengers: Engdame, with Thor returning to speak to his mother shortly before her death. The failure to include Natalie Portman in those scenes – beyond what seems to be some unused footage from The Dark World and perhaps some body double work – is a little disappointing; Portman’s departure from the role since this film has left a noticeable hole in Thor’s character development as the writers continue to dance around the subject, with lines like “sorry Jane dumped you” shrugged off by the hero in Thor Ragnarok.

If you’re a fan of the Marvel formula, Thor: The Dark World is fine. There’s enough in this one to enjoy. If you’re only looking to watch the best that the superhero genre has to offer, give it a miss.

7. Iron Man 3 (2013)

This post is part of a series I am writing on the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe from Iron Man to Endgame. There will be spoilers for the entire series of films.

Iron Man 3 (2013) Poster

Marvel’s Phase Two started off with something that was less a “phase two film” and more just a continuation of a remarkably successful franchise. With Jon Favreau choosing not to return as director, Shane Black was brought in to take over, having worked with Robert Downey Jr in the past. Because it’s a Shane Black film, it’s set at Christmas, although that has no real relevance to the plot.

Iron Man 3 does two interesting things with Tony Stark: It shows him vulnerable – suffering from panic attacks after he almost died in space in The Avengers – and it shows him suffering consequences for being an asshole to people. The film’s villain, Aldrich Killian, becomes who he is because Tony treated him like dirt back before Iron Man was a thing. When your hero is an arrogant prick who gets away with being an asshole because he’s rich and charismatic, it’s nice to sometimes bring him down a peg with things like that.

One of the more controversial elements of this film was the handling of the Mandarin. The Mandarin had been hinted at as a major villain for Iron Man since the first film, and although many more overt references didn’t make it into the final films, people were expecting a lot – and the film subverted it, presenting a fairly stereotypical middle-eastern terrorist only to reveal him as an actor, Trevor Slattery, hired by Aldrich Killian to distract people from the real source of the bombings. It’s a fun reveal, and Sir Ben Kingsley plays Trevor brilliantly, but apparently some fans didn’t like that the Mandarin turned out to not be what they expected. I didn’t have a problem with it myself. The presentation of the fake Mandarin feels a little dated these days, belonging to the 2000s and fears of Osama bin Laden, but it works for the film.

What’s not clear is what Killian’s plan was meant to be. I can understand him allowing people to think explosions caused by the Extremis formula were the act of terrorists as a cover up, but I’m not sure why he was carrying out such a coordinated terrorist campaign or even doing things publicly at all. The closest thing to an explanation I can see is that it was meant to draw out War Machine – rebranded Iron Patriot – so they could then use it to get the President, all in aid of installing the Vice President in the White House, who would support A.I.M.’s research… which seems kind of over-elaborate. They already had the VP on side, they had money and technology, they could probably have been pretty well positioned regardless. Why kill random people?

Of course it’s those random explosions blamed on terrorists that leads Tony to Killian. Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) follows a suspicious-looking employee of Killian (Eric Savin, played by James Badge Dale) and ends up caught in one of the explosions, which leads Tony to try to track down the Mandarin and ultimately discover the connection with A.I.M.

Shane Black and co-writer Drew Pearce treat this more as an action thriller than a superhero blockbuster, and one result is that Tony spends most of his time out of the suit. It’s an opportunity to show the character as more than his high tech armour, as the inventor who could build an Iron Man suit in a cave with a pile of scrap. It also lets Black make full use of Robert Downey Jr without the CGI getting in the way, which is a positive. The focus on Tony without the armour is backed up by the final line of the film, a repeat of Downey’s final line in Iron Man: “I am Iron Man.” The same words, but this time after Tony has destroyed all of the suits he built when he was dealing with his paranoia and trauma. It leaves the impression that this is a new Tony, that he can be Iron Man without needing to wear the Iron Man suit.

Unfortunately that doesn’t seem to be what Marvel wants for the character, because the next time we see Tony, in Avengers: Age of Ultron, he’s back in the suit, back to being obsessed with protecting the world and building endless iterations of his Iron Man technology to do so. Iron Man 3 functions well as a cap on a 3-film sequence, moving past Tony’s dilemma from the first film – how can he protect the people he loves from the same weapons he helped create? – and leaving us with a satisfying conclusion, but because of the endless nature of the shared cinematic universe, the very next film they hit the reset button. They can’t do that forever in the films, of course – they’ve just gone and done the opposite in Endgame, killing Tony Stark and retiring Steve Rogers – but so long as a character is recurring there will always be this tendency to revert to default, especially when multiple creators are involved. It’s already a little surprising that the change in writer/director for Iron Man 3 resulted in a film that keeps so much to the spirit of Jon Favreau’s work on the first two.

The Iron Man trilogy came early in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, at a time when the films didn’t have to feel so clearly a part of a bigger world. That world is there, but the story is Tony Stark’s, and we get three films that are only about Tony Stark. You could begin and end your Marvel watching with just these three and feel like you got a complete story.

*

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a couple of weeks, so I’ve probably forgotten something I meant to say.

Oh, right. The voiceover at the beginning and end was out of place and unnecessary.

Marvel’s Phase One

This post is part of a series I am writing on the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe from Iron Man to Endgame. There will be spoilers for the entire series of films.

With their first six films, Marvel had a simple goal: introduce a number of characters who could carry their own film franchises while also creating a framework for crossover events, much like the annual events that take place in the comics. The first solo films stand on their own, with minor references and the occasional cameo tying them together, and then The Avengers was the one point where it all came together into a single universe.

I can’t help but think some of that initial simplicity has been lost as the Marvel Cinematic Universe has grown. We still get the stand-alone films, but largely for characters who are less important for the crossovers, and the major heroes spend more time in events rather than solo features – Captain America and Thor are the only ones to receive a solo film after Phase Two, and Captain America: Civil War was more of an Avengers film than a Captain America film.

Along with a shift toward solo films as filler and the event films as the main focus, there’s been a tendency to try and tie the various films into part of the overall narrative – what’s now been titled the Infinity Saga. Thanos, of course, first appears in the MCU in the end credits of The Avengers, so his being positioned as the final challenge of the first era of the MCU does make sense on that level, but Phase One itself doesn’t seem like it was made with that in mind. The first mention of the Infinity Stones comes in the end credits of Phase Two’s Thor: The Dark World, in which both the Aether and the Tesseract are established as Infinity Stones. I wouldn’t be surprised if the idea of the Tesseract and Loki’s staff – both of which were important in The Avengers – containing Stones didn’t actually come about until after the film was made, when the people in charge were deciding on a direction for Phase Two. It looks like they wanted to use the Infinity Stones because they were using Thanos, and they didn’t want to have to introduce all the Stones separately, so decided to point at some things that had already been used and say “that’s an Infinity Stone”.

The Tesseract is the one that bothers me. The Cosmic Cube of the comics is an entirely different object with its own power, not connected to the Infinity Gems, and could have served as a macguffin for other narratives not connected to Thanos, but once it was turned into an Infinity Stone, that was it. Maybe the Stones will come back at some point, but it will always be an Infinity Stone and not a Cosmic Cube. Decisions like these can limit the stories they tell in future, and they continue to make them in later films with their tendency to use up and kill off characters who could have been interesting long-running villains.

Speaking of villains, at least one interesting thing from Phase One is that it did leave some villains out there, with the potential to come back. Abomination was alive and in captivity at the end of The Incredible Hulk, while the Red Skull’s fate in Captain America: The First Avenger was ambiguous but looked a lot like he had been transported somewhere in outer space by the Tesseract. It would have been nice to see these get some followup beyond the cursory Red Skull cameo we eventually received in Infinity War and Endgame.

Phase One was not a grand narrative – it was set up, a series of introductions that created the ground on which the future films could build. There was no guarantee it would work, so there wasn’t much reason to spend significant time on setting up future films that might not happen. In that way the success of the MCU has perhaps been a mixed blessing for fans who enjoy stand-alone character driven features. While Phase Two films would continue to mostly stand-alone, the amount of setup they included would increase, to the point that the second Avengers movie suffered heavily for it.

But perhaps that’s not as much of a flaw as it seems. The MCU started with a mixed bag of movies that ranged from good (Iron ManCaptain America) to just okay (The Incredible Hulk, Thor), but they were entertaining enough, and the idea of the shared world, the continuity, may be what kept people coming back for more. It’s certainly what allowed them to branch out into weirder areas like Guardians of the Galaxy in Phase Two. So while I could complain that the need to take decisions one creator makes in a film and shoehorn them into part of a bigger narrative has held individual films back, it could also be argued that it’s better for Marvel to focus on its crossovers and shared narrative, because the big stories and shared universe are what keeps people interested. It hasn’t stopped me being a fan, after all.

I guess I’m getting ahead of myself somewhat; at this point I’m only six films in to the rewatch and have a lot more to go.

One of the interesting things about Phase One is the timeline: the films don’t entirely take place in chronological order, and they happen within a much shorter timeframe than you might expect. While The Incredible Hulk was released only a few months after Iron Man, it actually takes place concurrently with the end of Iron Man 2, which was released two years later. Thor begins immediately after Iron Man 2, meaning three of these six films happen within a single week. Where later films seem to skip ahead months or years at a time, roughly matching their release schedule, the Phase One timeline is very compressed.

After The Avengers, having established their universe, it was time for Marvel Studios to build on that. Phase Two needed to deliver sequels to the Phase One films while also expanding the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and keep audiences from losing interest as things grew beyond the scale of all previous superhero franchises. It’d be pretty easy to screw that up.

6. The Avengers (2012)

This post is part of a series I am writing on the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe from Iron Man to Endgame. There will be spoilers for the entire series of films.

The Avengers (2012) Poster

After five films setting up the universe and introducing the characters, it was time for the team-up film. This was the experiment, the test to see if the cinematic universe would work and fans invested in the previous films would turn up for the crossover. Spoiler: It worked.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon wrote and directed the film, a sensible choice given his reputation for being good with ensemble casts on TV, and having a similar tone in his work to what Marvel had begun to establish. At the film’s release his hiring was pretty widely praised, though it’s since been tarnished both by his lacklustre follow-up film and revelations about his personal conduct with actresses on his shows. Regardless, he turned in a solid movie that still sits among the top tier of Marvel Studios’ work.

But a top tier Marvel movie tends to be more of a B+ than an A, and it’s not without its faults. The first half of the movie is a mixed bag. The opening scenes feel more like a TV show than a blockbuster movie, and Tom Hiddleston’s Loki at the beginning is lacking that dramatic flair that made him so popular. There’s some good dialogue and jokes for Tony Stark, Nick Fury, Bruce Banner (now played by Mark Ruffalo) and Steve Rogers, but when Thor arrives his stilted cod-medieval speech has been dialled up far beyond what it was in his first film, and Hemsworth struggles to deliver it convincingly.

Black Widow’s characterisation is pretty one-note. One of the biggest sources of backlash against Whedon following Age of Ultron was the way he wrote Natasha, having her compare herself to the Hulk as a monster, and specifically linking that to the fact she had been sterilised as part of her spy training. That take on her is already evident in Whedon’s work in this film, where she’s fairly detached from other people, and her biggest driving motive is making up for the “red in her ledger”, from the people she hurt before Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) spared her and brought her in to S.H.I.E.L.D. She has a close relationship with Clint that seems more built out of guilt and blood debt than affection. Whedon also puts Natasha up against Bruce Banner and Hulk multiple times in the movie, first sending her to recruit Banner in India, then being the one trapped with him on the helicarrier when he loses control. It’s clear in hindsight that this was another play on the idea she sees herself as even more of a monster than Hulk, having had full control of herself when she did whatever it was that makes her feel so guilty – and also gives him plenty of opportunities to make her scared and vulnerable, something that none of the other characters have to go through. You could do something interesting if you dive into that kind of characterisation deeply, but here it’s not really explored, just present.

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The characters that are meant to form our big super-team spend a lot of this film bickering pointlessly. Thor’s arrival to claim Loki turns into an excuse to have him, Iron Man and Captain America punch each other, and then on the helicarrier they all get into arguments for little more reason than that the screenplay wanted them to not come together until after they’d lost someone (specifically, Agent Coulson, returning from the Iron Man films and Thor). Captain America’s famous rant against Tony Stark, that he isn’t the type to “make the sacrifice play”, doesn’t hold up given Cap – having been briefed on all the members of the team – knows Tony regularly puts himself into danger wearing his suit with no superpowers of his own (we don’t see Tony start to use drones and remotely-powered suits until Iron Man 3). Of course he then goes on to sacrifice himself by flying a missile through a portal into deep space, not the first or last time he’d risk everything to protect people. Having the characters mistrust Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. makes sense, but these personal rivalries are only there to force a second-act low point that could have worked just as well without them.

Hawkeye gets the shaft (ha) in this one. He’s mind-controlled by Loki and doesn’t get the chance to have a personality until well past the halfway mark where there isn’t time to really do anything with him. It’s not something any of the later films remedied, as we continually find out things about him – he spared Natasha’s life when he was meant to kill her; he’s secretly a family man; when his family died he became a merciless assassin – but we don’t actually get to know him at all. I still believe that Jeremy Renner is capable of playing a decent Barton as a down-to-earth, more comedic character if given the right material, and I can only hope the upcoming Hawkeye TV series takes inspiration from the excellent Matt Fraction and David Aja comics and gives us that side of the character, though having a family doesn’t really fit that version of him.

But on the more positive side, the film gets more fun as it goes on. Loki gets to be his flamboyant egomaniac self from Stuttgart onward, although his “mewling quim” line to Black Widow remains a terrible decision that seems to have come from the idea of “villain = sexist”, ignoring that Loki was raised by Frigga and grew up with Lady Sif and has no reason to think of women as weak or incapable.

The action scenes from the helicarrier to the final battle are well executed. The Battle of New York makes a good set piece; it has a strong sense of location, we get a lot of perspectives of the people on the ground – something notably lacking in later films – and showcases all our characters. Every one of the main heroes gets to take a shot at Loki (literally, in Hawkeye’s case) and demonstrate why they’re here. And Hiddleston is great at being a character you love to see get punched, particularly when it’s by the Hulk.

Ruffalo is an excellent Bruce Banner, bringing an interesting nervous energy to the role, that of someone who seems laid back but is constantly holding himself in check, which fits in well with his iconic moment from the final battle.

Hulk transforms
“I’m always angry”

It’s a shame that Hulk gets sidelined so much in the MCU, only appearing in team films and Thor Ragnarok (which takes enough pieces from Planet Hulk, one of his best comic storylines, that it’s unlikely we’ll ever see a real adaptation of it in the current MCU), apparently all because Universal still has some sort of hold on Hulk’s distribution rights.

The Chitauri invaders are a pretty boring enemy for the most part – a bunch of identical mindless drones; literally so, judging by how they all collapse when their mothership is destroyed – but keeping things centred on Loki and the Avengers instead of developing these aliens is clearly the right choice here.

An odder choice is the decision to obscure who was responsible for this invasion. The film opens with Loki being told by a strange alien – called only The Other – that he will be provided an army to conquer Earth if he retrieves the Tesseract, and we see The Other again later in the film, when he chastises Loki for not making enough progress. We only find out who this person is working for in the end credits, where it’s revealed – to those who recognise his face from the comics, at least – that he works for Thanos. I’m not sure what including this throwaway character really added to the film, other than allowing them to make Thanos into the mid-credits stinger. They could have easily had Thanos be the one giving Loki his instructions, and I don’t think it would have made any difference to the film at all – it would be essentially the same role he fills in Guardians of the Galaxy. Of course if they’d used Thanos as a character in The Avengers they might not have cast Josh Brolin for the part, and who knows how the MCU would have turned out in that case.

The film ends with the Avengers all going their separate ways – Thor to an entirely different planet – with Nick Fury assuring us that when the world needs them they’ll get together again. He doesn’t seem to have any real evidence to support this assertion, but that’s par for the course for the MCU’s Nick Fury, who seems to run on faith more than information, an odd trait for the head of a spy organisation. Still, he has to be right or Marvel wouldn’t have an opportunity to make all the money in the world, and isn’t that the goal of every corporation?

The Avengers brought to a close Phase 1 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There had been some mixed successes in these first six films, but they’d proven that they could introduce a bunch of characters in individual films then have them come together for a big crossover event, and now it was just to be seen where they would take things next and what new elements they could introduce. In terms of what came after, The Avengers now looks like a pretty small film, but you kind of have to start small(ish) and build from there, and that’s what Marvel – particularly Kevin Feige, who has been the driving force behind Marvel Studios over the last dozen years or so – was doing.

4. Thor (2011)

This post is part of a series I am writing on the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe from Iron Man to Endgame. There will be spoilers for the entire series of films.

Thor (2011) Poster
Kenneth Branagh’s Thor is a bit of an odd film. After the first time I saw it, I described it to someone as a “bad film, well made”, but I don’t think that quite gets it right.

On the one hand, the visual effects in this film are excellent. The studios involved did a great job bringing to life Asgard, the rainbow bridge, the bifrost. On the other hand, what the hell is with all the Dutch angles? Okay, I do actually know what’s up with them: Branagh has said he wanted to recreate the feel of comic book panels, which I can kind of understand, but he has seriously overdone it. It doesn’t quite ruin the film, but it does leave you baffled by the cinematography through pretty much the whole thing.

On the good side, Chris Hemsworth is a good pick for Thor, and we’ve seen that through all the films he’s done since, particularly when he’s allowed to go more toward the comedic side. Tom Hiddleston has also done well as Loki, although I think he’s better when he’s allowed to have more fun with the role in later films. But it’s the latter who gets the real meat of the story in Thor; the Odinson himself has a pretty minor arc: he starts out arrogant and hot-headed, spends some time in exile thinking he’s lost everything, then he learns a tiny bit of humility and wisdom and gets all that he lost back. Loki has an entire origin story.

It’s a bit of a shame that in his own introductory film Thor basically meanders about through some fish-out-of-water gags, a bit of moping, and not really doing much. His brother, meanwhile, having started out a little petty and jealous of Thor but ultimately having the best interests of Asgard in mind, goes on to discover the secret of his own identity, take over the kingdom when Odin (Anthony Hopkins) falls ill, and start doing increasingly shady things in order to try to prove his worthiness to his father, ultimately crossing lines that turn him into a villain. Both characters have the same goal – prove to their father they are worthy of the throne of Asgard – but Loki goes through it with more agency, and stands as an underdog with real grievances to address. He’s the most fleshed-out character in the film and has much more of a story in it than Thor does. It’s no wonder really that he became so popular.

Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) and S.H.I.E.L.D. are once again a significant presence in the film, but this time in the role of a minor antagonist: the shady government agency who swoops in and tries to control and cover up what is happening. By this point Coulson and Nick Fury are really becoming the thread that holds the cinematic universe together, something that’d hold true right through The Avengers, where Coulson’s connection to the disparate heroes would be leveraged to bring them all together. The film also introduces Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), in an entirely pointless cameo that was clearly filmed separately from the rest of the film and cast.

Four films in and Marvel isn’t quite hitting their stride; the Iron Man films had set a good example of what would work for them, but they were still experimenting with different creators and tones much more readily than they would by phase 3.

While The Incredible Hulk was generic but competently made, Thor is a mixed bag, having interesting and compelling aspects in the story and worldbuilding but also parts that are rather dull and predictable, and combining some stellar visuals with baffling camera work. I think it does at least succeed in introducing us to the more out-there aspects of the Marvel universe, giving us some of the most ridiculous concepts so far but making them real through the connection to these characters.

Marvel was by this point gearing up for the anticipated team-up film, and the final post-credits stinger in Thor is a direct setup for 2012’s The Avengers. They still had one more character to introduce before they got there, though.

3. Iron Man 2 (2010)

This post is part of a series I am writing on the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe from Iron Man to Endgame. There will be spoilers for the entire series of films.

Iron Man 2 (2010) Poster
How do they follow up on “I am Iron Man”? By making Tony Stark a rock star.

Iron Man 2 picks up 6 months after the first film, and sees Tony at the height of his flashy, attention-grabbing antics, flying in as Iron Man to a stage filled with Iron Man-themed dancers to deliver the opening speech for the Stark Expo, the MCU’s answer to the World’s Fair. We learn that not only has Iron Man made him more of a celebrity than ever, it’s also been responsible for a period of relative peace – where the first film compared Tony’s weapons tech to the atomic bomb, now the existence of the suit is spoken of as a deterrent. Other countries have tried to replicate the technology, but no one has come close.

The US government tries to force Stark to hand over the technology, but he isn’t giving in. The scene where Tony attends a Senate committee hearing is one of the highlights of the film, and also introduces us to some of the characters who’ll be playing a major role. Most significant is Don Cheadle as James Rhodes, a recasting of the character played by Terence Howard in Iron Man. Cheadle brings a different energy to Rhodey, and though I have nothing against Terence Howard, I find myself more convinced by Cheadle’s portrayal of the old friend who eventually gets frustrated and pissed off when Tony’s behaviour gets in the way of what he believes is the responsible thing to do, as a member of the US military. Rhodes has gotten short shrift in the crossover films over the years, being something of a second stringer alongside the main cast, but Cheadle’s been consistently good in the role. Avengers Endgame gave us no hints where the character might go next, if he continues to appear at all. Let’s hope they make some use of him.

The other major character we meet at the Senate hearing is Justin Hammer, played by Sam Rockwell. Hammer is a knock-off Tony Stark; he’s who Tony was before Iron Man, but without the charisma – constantly in second place, trying his hardest to do everything and be everything Tony Stark is. Rockwell is a brilliant actor, and it’s the subtleties of his performance that make this character work. He can deliver a speech with all the braggadocio you’d expect from a Stark-type billionaire entrepreneur, and yet leave you with the sense that something’s missing, like he lacks the confidence to back up his words. Where Tony can get away with being an asshole because of his charm, Hammer just comes across as a creep.

There are two main threads to the plot in Iron Man 2; one in which the Russian Ivan Vanko, aka Whiplash, attempts to knock Tony Stark off his pedestal by demonstrating he is not invulnerable as Iron Man, and a second in which Tony is dying because of the arc reactor in his chest, and must find a replacement element before it kills him. The film tries to tie these together through a connection to Tony’s father – Ivan Vanko is the son of Anton Vanko, a soviet defector who helped Howard Stark design the original arc reactor, but was deported once Stark discovered he was selling secrets; and the solution to save Tony’s life eventually comes from looking back at something his father built. The two threads rarely cross, however.

Vanko is aware that Tony is dying, but Tony has no idea Vanko is still alive and working with Justin Hammer after his first attack and arrest in Monaco. The solution to Tony’s problem comes not because of anything Vanko does, but because Tony’s self-destruction in the face of his mortality is halted by a falling out with Rhodey and the intervention of Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D.

Fury informs Stark that his father was one of the founders of S.H.I.E.L.D. and that the arc reactor was “only a stepping stone” that Howard always expected Tony to follow up on. He gives Tony a box of Howard’s old stuff that just happens to contain a recording of the pep talk Tony needs to shake him out of his selfishness, and indirectly leads to Tony finding a secret map in a diorama showing the composition of a new element that would be perfect for his arc reactor. The element would be “impossible to synthesise” according to the AI J.A.R.V.I.S., but Tony manages to do it by… uh… building a particle accelerator in his basement which he… uses to fire a laser… at a bit of metal… turning it into the new element?

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This sequence is one of the dumbest things I have seen in a major blockbuster movie.

I could almost forgive them for not really caring about realistic science, except that this is the culmination of the entire second act. Apart from the fight between Tony and Rhodes in the Iron Man suits, the second act is all plot, no action, and it’s all building up to this ridiculous nonsense science. This one thing is the reason I had never rewatched the movie until this week.

From here, the film proceeds in a pretty straightforward manner through the third act: Tony finds out Vanko is alive and at the expo, he goes there, Vanko hijacks the Hammer drone suits to attack Tony, there’s a big robot fight, and finally Vanko himself shows up in a giant Iron Man suit of his own. This last part is where it kind of falls flat. Iron Man already fought another bigger copy of himself in his first movie, so this was something of a retread in that aspect, and from Ivan Vanko’s perspective he shouldn’t have any reason to go after Tony Stark again. He’d already made his point by showing Stark was vulnerable, and although he’d been humiliated by Hammer for not delivering the designs he wanted, he hadn’t learned anything to suggest he needed to hit Tony Stark again – he doesn’t know Tony has cured the poisoning that was killing him.

All in all it’s a very small, traditional action film, compared to the first. Some of the improvisational humour is still around, but it’s altogether more conventional. Tony has had a pretty straightforward arc at this point: in Iron Man he learned he had to take matters into his own hands if he wanted to protect people; in Iron Man 2 he learns to accept help from the people around him and not isolate himself so much.

The film is probably most significant in the work it does to establish the wider Marvel universe. This was the third movie in the franchise, and came two years after the previous films; it had to do most of the heavy lifting on its own. Hence the use of S.H.I.E.L.D. much more heavily this time round, although I think it did come at the cost of a potentially stronger middle act.

This was the first film in which Samuel L. Jackson played a significant role as Nick Fury following the brief cameo at the end of Iron Man, and it’s interesting to see him and S.H.I.E.L.D. used mainly as a plot device to force Tony to get over himself and get to work, instead of having his falling out with Rhodey and Pepper Potts cause any kind of self-reflection. Even then, the house arrest they place him under ends up meaning nothing as he freely pops out to visit Pepper at the Stark headquarters and returns with the aforementioned diorama, with S.H.I.E.L.D. barely acknowledging he went anywhere.

This is also where Scarlett Johanssen first appears as Natasha Romanov, the Black Widow, here undercover as Stark employee Natalie Rushman. While she does have a decent fight sequence near the end of the movie – in which Johanssen performs most of her own stunts, having trained pretty heavily for the role – her character has no personality whatsoever here. With Natasha being one of the characters who only gets to show up in ensemble movies, we never really get to know her as a character, and this is probably the least amount of work any of the films has done to establish her, despite her being present for a significant portion of the film. The lack of time given to characters like Black Widow and Hawkeye is part of the reason their storyline in Endgame ends up falling flat, as the series hasn’t done the work to earn the emotional payoff they strive for there. Natasha in Iron Man 2 is cool, sexy and badass, but it’s all about how she looks on screen; there’s nothing to care about as a character.

Tony Stark is the core of the Marvel universe because for most of its early years he’s all they had. The other films didn’t work out so well, and the characters they introduced in secondary roles – like Black Widow and Hawkeye – weren’t fleshed out. It helps that the Iron Man films were also a lot better than the others they were making, of course.

I realise this post has gotten long and pretty unstructured, but there was one final thing I wanted to add here that I’d forgotten to mention when talking about Iron Man: the music. Looking back on it from our current perspective, the first movie doesn’t sound like a Marvel movie. It has a guitar-heavy soundtrack that often doesn’t sit quite right with the feel of the film – it draws attention to itself a little too much. In Iron Man 2 we find the guitars are still there – the soundtrack even includes two AC/DC tracks where the original used one – but it’s within an overall more traditional score, and it’s one aspect where it feels like Marvel was beginning to find its footing in this film.

The final teaser in Iron Man 2 was, of course, for the next film they had lined up: Kenneth Branagh’s Thor, which was due for release in 2011. Iron Man 2 was the last time Marvel would have more than a one year gap between releases.