5. Captain America: The First Avenger (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.

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) Poster
Now we’ve come to my favourite film of Marvel’s phase one. Which was also the second worst-performing at the box office; I guess people weren’t as interested in a WWII period film about a cheesy super patriot.

It’s a shame, that, because Captain America really is the best Marvel had done up to that point. The casting of former Human Torch Chris Evans in the lead role turned out to be a brilliant decision, which I guess is something of a theme in this series: Downey, Hemsworth, Evans – all the leads that would continue on in the Marvel Cinematic Universe have proven to be very well suited to their roles. Evans plays Steve Rogers perfectly – the ordinary, decent guy who hates bullies and refuses to give in even when outmatched. Even when Rogers is turned into a super soldier through a government experiment, he doesn’t lose that core part of his character, and that’s what makes him Captain America.

Steve Rogers goes from the little guy who is repeatedly turned down when volunteering for military service, to a science experiment no one has much use for except as a publicity stunt to sell war bonds (in the first of the film’s excellent montage sequences). He’s eager for any opportunity to contribute to the war, but also frustrated at not being able to do more, seeing himself as little more than a dancing monkey. Finally, while visiting soldiers in the field he hears that his closest friend, James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan), is missing behind enemy lines – and the army has no intention of trying to rescue him or any of his squadron. As we’d see repeatedly in the Captain America films, Bucky is the one person Steve will do pretty much anything for, so of course he has to single-handedly infiltrate the Hydra base and rescue everyone.

Steve’s friendship with Bucky is the most important relationship in his life. Steve and Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) may have feelings for each other, but they never get a chance to become close; Bucky on the other hand is at Cap’s side from the rescue, through all of Cap’s missions in Europe, right up until his apparent death when he falls from the train carrying Hydra scientist Dr. Armin Zola (Toby Jones).

It’s a shame they never really got to flesh out Captain America’s exploits during WWII; the montage we get is great, and shows us that Cap and Bucky save each other’s lives more than once in the years they’re fighting with the other Invaders (which is what the movie calls the Howling Commandos from Marvel comics), but it would have been interesting to get something like a spinoff TV series set during the war. As it is, the Invaders come out a little underdeveloped. It’s easy to compare The First Avenger to DC’s Wonder Woman, an origin story set during WWI with a similar multi-ethnic group of companions who accompany the hero through the fight, but in the later film we take a lot of time to get to know the individuals in the group. This film doesn’t have the time for it. I could only tell you the name of one of them, and that might just be because I’ve heard of Dum Dum Dugan from the comics.

One character we do get the time to know is Johann Schmidt, the Red Skull, leader of Hydra – the Nazi Party’s secretive weapons research wing, now gone rogue – and portrayed by Hugo Weaving. He’s a classic black-and-white villain, a charismatic leader who thinks Adolf Hitler isn’t ambitious enough and wants to wipe out every major city in the world to demonstrate his power. I wish we’d gotten more of the Red Skull in the MCU; he’s not the most complex character but he’s been a staple of Captain America stories since the character’s inception. Also, Hugo Weaving is pretty compelling in the role, and it’d be fun to see more of him. (Weaving did not return for the Red Skull’s cameos in Infinity War or Endgame.) It’s possible they’ll find some way to bring him back in the future – nobody is dead forever in comics, not even Gwen Stacy these days – but right now the MCU doesn’t even have Steve Rogers for him to face off against.

Red Skull is the classic Marvel villain trope: a product of the same experiment that created the hero, he possesses the same enhanced strength as Rogers, and usually this kind of setup leads to a big CGI fight where characters with identical powers punch each other (see: Iron Man, Iron Man 2, The Incredible Hulk, Ant-Man, and Black Panther), but while the two do come to blows in the finale, the way it’s done fits with the low-key, war film style of the rest of the film and doesn’t become overlong or gratuitous. There may be superweapons that can vaporise a man instantly, and a bulletproof shield Cap can throw and have bounce back to his hand, but beyond this the combat in the film is handled in a pretty grounded way. The idea of Captain America is not of someone who can do things that are impossible, but of one who is at the peak of what the human body can achieve.

The thing is, the most interesting part of Captain America’s character doesn’t come into play until the film’s ending: he is frozen in ice for seventy years, rediscovered and revived in 2011, becoming a man out of time, a relic of the past who has to continue on despite everyone he knew having lived entire lives, grown old and died while he was missing. The First Avenger doesn’t get to explore this, and it would be left to later films to delve into this part of him – unfortunately they never really got that deep into it, mostly just deriving humour from his lack of knowledge of pop culture references and eventually hitting the reset button on his character in Endgame when he chooses to go back to where he started, picking up a relationship with Peggy that hadn’t even begun before he was frozen. I’ll probably talk about that more when I get to that film.

I feel like this has been a fairly shallow post, and that I’ve not really had a lot to say about the film, which bothers me since I took so long to write it. It’s a solid film; it’s fun, the action is exciting, the performances are good. The plot may be straightforward, but he’s a pretty straightforward character, and it ends with a sacrifice that turns into a tragic twist.

It’s one of Marvel’s best films, and its writers – Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely – would go on to write two more Captain America films and two Avengers films. I’ve talked about Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark setting the tone for the Marvel universe, but these two writers have had a strong hand in the direction of the MCU in its later phases, particularly in collaboration with directors Joe and Anthony Russo from Captain America: The Winter Soldier onward. Captain America: The First Avenger may have been a mild disappointment financially, but it was a success creatively, and the work of this film’s writers and director Joe Johnston (in his only work for Marvel to date) gave us a strong start for a character who’s since gone from success to success.

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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.

2. The Incredible Hulk (2008)

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 Incredible Hulk (2008) Poster

The Incredible Hulk kind of has an unfair reputation as one of the “bad” Marvel movies. It’s certainly no masterpiece, but it’s… fine. I enjoyed it when I first saw it, and for a long time it was the only Marvel movie I owned on DVD.

I also don’t have a problem with Edward Norton as Bruce Banner. It seems unlikely that Norton would’ve been a good fit for the MCU in the long run (particularly with his need to have a hand on the script), and as it turns out he didn’t want to stick around, but I don’t think he did a bad job at all, and I suspect his rewrite was an overall improvement of this film. The problem I guess is that he just doesn’t really stand out in the role – his performance certainly isn’t as interesting or memorable as Mark Ruffalo wound up being.

And that might be the problem with the whole film. It isn’t bad, but it isn’t trying to do anything particularly interesting with the character. It lacks the humour of Iron Man, and the plot ends up being a pretty generic comic book story. There were some good decisions made: not rehashing the origin story, instead having it happen in a montage over the opening credits, let us get straight to business with the actual story. The first act is pretty decent, with Bruce in hiding in Brazil, controlling his anger and trying to find a cure, until he gets discovered and is forced into the open. Once he returns to the USA, however, the rest of the film is pretty by-the-numbers as he meets up with his love interest, gets caught out by the military for a (fairly good) action scene, escapes and manages to get the cure, only to have to bring the Hulk back to stop the film’s villain, Abomination.

Tim Roth feels miscast in his role as Emil Blonsky, who becomes Abomination in the finale. I like Roth but he doesn’t quite seem to fit. The character’s rivalry with Hulk is also entirely one-sided; while they do cross paths a few times, I really doubt Banner has any idea who he is when he finally goes in to fight Blonsky’s final, monstrous form.

It all just feels like a “comic book movie”, of the kind we used to get before Marvel Studios and their winning formula. It’d perhaps be less out of place beside Fantastic Four than Iron Man.

It’s also a really ugly film. Almost every scene is dark, and the teal and orange and green colour grading make the entire film look kind of sickly. The design of the Hulk, too, has this ugly texture and colouring; they were going for monstrous, and it’s well animated, but not at all visually appealing. I just don’t want to be looking at this guy for an entire film. The redesign of the Hulk from Avengers onwards is a huge improvement, both looking more like the comic character and conveying so much more of the actor beneath the effects.

I’ve seen a few different explanations of why the Hulk never got another standalone film. It was something brought up repeatedly but never followed through on, and eventually one of Hulk’s best stories was cannibalised for Thor Ragnarok instead. Sometimes we’d be told they thought they needed to hold back one of their characters so that people would have a reason to go see the ensemble movies; more likely than that is that Universal Pictures reportedly held on to the distribution rights for all future Hulk films. But it doesn’t seem to have been because they thought this film was a failure.

In terms of the larger Marvel universe, the film doesn’t really have much of an impact. Thor Ragnarok calls back to the scene where Bruce jumps out of a helicopter, and William Hurt has reprised his role as General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross several times, but that’s as far as it goes. Betty Ross might as well never have existed for Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner.

Ultimately, between the recasting of Banner and the lack of a sequel it tends to feel like this film has been forgotten, both by Marvel and the fans alike. I don’t blame anyone for forgetting about it, though. It’s a pretty forgettable film.

1. Iron Man (2008)

This post is the first in a series I’m writing about every film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe from Iron Man to Endgame. They will contain spoilers for the entire series of films.

Iron Man (2008) Poster

I don’t think Marvel knew exactly what they’d be getting with Iron Man. At the beginning, the idea of the shared universe and the Avengers seems to have been an amorphous thing, an idea more than a plan, and there doesn’t seem to have been a strict roadmap of how the individual character films would get there. These days people tend to talk about Tony Stark as the centre of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but Iron Man was kind of a fluke.

Iron Man director Jon Favreau approached making the film with a very improvisational style, and star Robert Downey Jr shared that attitude to the script. The film was shot mostly in continuity, dialogue written and rewritten immediately before shooting a scene and altered further through on-set improvisation. They had a story, but the individual beats evolved and changed to fit what the creators brought to the work.

As Favreau said himself in a live commentary recorded with Downey in 2008, this approach to the script meant many of the major plot beats were given less significance than might have been expected, with the core of the film instead forming around the smaller character moments that came out of their improvised conversations. Shooting in continuity also meant that small things they came up with during production could be built upon and paid off as they worked through later scenes, from running jokes about a fire extinguisher robot, to major events like Tony using the spare arc reactor Pepper Potts got framed as a gift (an idea Favreau had for a nice character moment for Potts) to save his life in the third act. It also had long lasting implications for the entire shared universe: Downey’s famous improvised line, “I am Iron Man”, left us with a world of heroes who rarely keep secret identities.

And the thing is, it all works. The dialogue feels natural, the relationships feel real, every actor in the film is at the top of their game. They made a solid film, beginning to end, and if some of the action is a little rote, the stuff around the action makes up for it.

This is the film that went on to define the tone of the MCU, which is no surprise when follow-ups The Incredible Hulk and Thor didn’t quite live up to expectations. Modern Marvel films might not be so loose in their production, but they’ve largely kept the same level of fun and humour established in the first film. (And knowing how Iron Man was made, the decision to give the struggling Thor series to director Taika Waititi for Thor Ragnarok makes a lot of sense.)

And it was Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark that made Iron Man work, so no surprise again that Marvel Studios built their franchise around him. He was their best asset, and by the time they were ready to make Avengers they knew it. The last decade of blockbuster superhero films would be very different if it wasn’t for the pairing of Jon Favreau and Robert Downey Jr.

Tony Stark, billionaire playboy philanthropist superhero, has appeared in 10 of Marvel’s 22 films (one of those being a minor cameo), and his character has been remarkably consistent throughout. Having seen the impact of his weapons first hand, he seeks to stop their production, only to find none of the people around him – who, because of his area of business, are all in the military or arms manufacturing – are willing to help, so he has to take on the job himself of protecting the world from his own creations. This was the plot of his first film, and it’s been his story throughout, as he goes further and further to protect the world, constantly trying to make up for his own failures.

This is why Captain America is wrong, in Avengers, when he says Tony is not the type to make the sacrifice play. He may have been arrogant at times about what he can achieve with his technology, but he’s been putting his life on the line since he first built the Iron Man suit. He did it in Iron Man when he told Pepper to overload the arc reactor even with him hanging directly above it. He did it in Avengers with the missile, and in Infinity War going toe to toe with Thanos. So audiences weren’t really surprised when he was the one to make the ultimate sacrifice in Endgame.

But that’s all in the future here. In 2008 Iron Man was a surprise win for the brand new Marvel Studios. Now the creators were left with the question of where to go next with the character – what happens after the hero reveals his identity to the whole world?

But before I get to that, the studio already had different film in production…
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