Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Thoughts on Revisiting the MCU - Film By Film

My daughter is 8, and obsessed with superheroes. We had shown her some of the MCU films – the lighter ones, some of the more recent ones – but not the Avengers films, or some other ones. Still on lockdown, we decided to go through the 23 films in the MCU with her. Below are my thoughts, film by film, and at the end a re-ranking. (by the way, Scorsese is still mostly right – not that they aren’t cinema, which is what people got mad about, but certainly because of the massive space they take up in our cinema culture. The films are fun, but I wouldn’t have watched them again without an 8-year-old wanting to do so – there is something deeply wrong when the most popular movies for children are also the most popular movie for adults).
Iron Man (Jon Favreau, 2008) – It’s a little strange to revisit the film that started it all – a time when Robert Downey Jr.’s performance as Tony Stark was fresh and original – and really did look like it may get an Oscar nomination in the vein of Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean (which seems even more insane now). The film just works though – yes, it’s an origin story, and like almost all origin stories it spends so much time on the origins and the discovery of powers, there isn’t much narrative that isn’t rushed. Still, this remains one of the best superhero origin movies ever made – and still genuinely works as entertainment on this scale – which seemed big at the time, but seems almost intimate in retrospect.
The Incredible Hulk (Louis Leterrier, 2008) – In retrospect, this is the red-headed stepchild of the MCU – the only film that they basically would like you, and everyone else, to ignore (it’s one of the only ones for instance I couldn’t watch on Disney+). It’s also one of the only films that sets some things up, and the series never follows through on. The reputation of this films stinks – and it certainly is one of the weakest in the MCU – but it’s still entertaining for the most part. I think Marvel felt they needed to do the Hulk early – he is the hero with the most name brand recognition of any of these characters – but they didn’t want to repeat some of the issues of Ang Lee’s Hulk, so they ended up not really doing much of anything – they tried so hard not to mess up, that they didn’t really do anything. In retrospect, this is the MCU film that most brings to mind the DCU – a massive company, making a massive film, without much of plan.
Iron Man 2 (Jon Favreau, 2010) – I think Iron Man 2 ended up being another learning experience for the MCU – after The Incredible Hulk, which seemed confused by what it wanted to be, we waited two years for Iron Man 2 – and the movies spends far too much time setting up future films, and wasn’t much a film unto itself. It also leaned into Tony Stark as charming asshole, but more asshole than charming – even though the film certainly thinks he is charming. Mickey Rourke doesn’t do much as the villain here – and Sam Rockwell probably does a little too much. And the film really does become CGI soup in the last act. It’s fun for the most part – or fun enough to make you forget the not great stuff – but in retrospect, it’s kind of amazing that the MCU went onto become what it did, given the time between the second and third installments – and they both ended up being disappointing.
Thor (Kenneth Branagh, 2011) – In retrospect, it is clear that Marvel hired Kenneth Branagh to direct this film to lean into the Shakespearian themes inherent in Thor, with all that palace intrigue that would bring to mind King Lear. It’s also clear that they may have been better off leaning into the inherent fish-out-of-water comedy aspects of it, considering how funny Hemsworth can be (they wouldn’t tap that for quite some time). Still, it’s at least something a little different an origin story than we’ve seen so far – or would see again, and while it undeniably exists to help set up the following years Avengers, it doesn’t feel as much like brand extension as Iron Man 2. A solid origin story – although it is surprising it took them so long tap into the comedy aspects of this character.
Captain America: The First Avenger (Joe Johnston, 2011) – This remains one of the best origin stories in the entire MCU – and one of the few films that feels at least somewhat different, if for no other reason than because Joe Johnston gets to use a slightly different, slightly more muted color palette. It also feels different because for the most part, it can just tell its story, and not worry about the larger MCU – really, only Cap himself is going to survive the 70 years between this and the rest of the series, so it is almost a standalone. And Chris Evans is excellent, of course, and Tommy Lee Jones is a deadpan delight, and the romance with Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter is actually emotionally satisfying. Oh, and Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull is one of the best villains we’ve seen in the MCU. Overall, one of the most satisfying, entertaining and best of the early MCU movies.
The Avengers (Joss Whedon, 2012) – I remember at the time thinking that you wouldn’t want to go bigger than The Avengers when making superhero movies – and apparently I was really, really wrong. Revisiting it, it seems almost small next to the rest of the Avengers movies that were to come (and Captain America: Civil War). It still works really well – bringing together the superheroes we’ve seen before with a new Hulk – and Loki, by far the best villain we had seen to this point, worked as the bad guy here. There is a surprising amount of talk here – of the get to know you variety – and it almost all works. The extended Battle of New York is still one of the best of its kind in the MCU. Overall, just a very fun film – and it seems quaint now to think this was the biggest this series would get (or maybe, just wishful thinking).
Iron Man 3 (Shane Black, 2013) – The last stand-alone Iron Man film is certainly an improvement over the second installment, mainly because it allows Robert Downey Jr. more of a chance to act in what passes for a serious role in a Marvel film. He spends more time out of the suit than in it, and while I am a little disappointed that director Shane Black basically decides to make up for that by having the biggest CGI ending imaginable, it still work better than most of the climaxes of its kind. And Ben Kingsley as the Mandarin may not be one of the best Marvel villains in this series – but he’s certainly memorable. Black gets a little chance to inject himself in the film – mostly in dialogue – but I kind of wish they let him off the hook completely, and let him go wild. Still, this is one of the best films in Phase II.
Thor: The Dark World (Alan Taylor, 2013) – I have to say, I’m at a loss here. After using Hemsworth well in Thor, and better in The Avengers, it should have been clear to makers of the MCU that you need to let Hemsworth be funny and charming to be effective – and here, they basically sap him of all of that. This is a dark film – visually – and it tries to be so emotionally as well, but it doesn’t really work. As with even the worst MCU films – and this ranks among those – it is still an entertaining time waster overall, but it also feels like a missed opportunity.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Anthony & Joe Russo, 2014) – To me, perhaps the most daring thing in the entire MCU was making Captain America, a very literal symbol of American patriotism, not fit in modern day America’s view of patriotism. Anthony and Joe Russo’s first, and smallest, of their films in the MCU they want to make a 1970s-style paranoid thriller, and succeed as much as possible in a series of this size (the various fight sequences, and the large scale CGI fest climax wouldn’t work in say The Parallax View or The Conversation, but works here). This is a movie that actually has some tension in the views points of the good guys – Evan’s Captain America, and Jackson’s Nick Fury – that doesn’t resolve itself in CGI battles. Everything in the film works – it pulls the whole MCU in an interesting direction, and I’m a little disappointed that the series didn’t really follow it. It remains one of the best, and perhaps most singular, of all the MCU films.
Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn, 2014) – At the time that Guardians of the Galaxy came out, it felt fresher than most of the MCU films – basically because it was the only one that was allowed to have a slightly different look and feel to it – and while it certainly ties into the rest of the MCU, it wasn’t that tied in that you would confused if you watched it as a standalone. That is still true – and it’s still true that the Guardians themselves are perfectly cast, and have a wonderful chemistry together, which is hard considering two are CGI characters. And Michael Rooker is great as well. But it’s also a lot of CGI, too much really, with too many similar action sequences stacked upon each other, and the villain is more than a little generic. Still, this is a lot of fun – but I think it’s a notch below top tier MCU.
Avengers: Age of Ultron (Joss Whedon, 2015) – MCU fans seems to be (slightly) more mature than DCU fans, and know that sometimes things just don’t quite come out the way they are planned, so we haven’t had a massive movement to try and get a director’s cut of Age of Ultron – although there is little doubt that there is some story material missing here. This feels a little too jumpy, with things cut out, which hurts the overall film. Some of it works though – James Spader is a good voice for Ultron, and for the most part, when all the Avengers get together, there is still some greatness that can happen – particularly Iron Man and Captain America. Overall, the film is fine – it’s fun for the most part, and introduces some good characters, but it all feels so rushed.
Ant-Man (Payton Reed, 2015) – This is probably the perfect follow-up to Avengers: Age of Ultron, as it really does shrink (sorry) the stakes and scope a little, for a more modest entry in the MCU. The movie really is all about Paul Rudd, who is utterly charming and funny as Scott Lang, making him the perfect centerpiece for this type of film. It’s another origin story – but it’s different enough from the others, and there’s been enough distance between them, to make it still worthwhile. When you are making the films bigger and bigger and bigger, you sometimes need to reset, and bring things down to a smaller scale. And Ant-Man does that. Yes, it will always be the great “what if” movie of the MCU, as Edgar Wright was fired, but as it stands, it’s fine.
Captain American: Civil War (Anthony & Joe Russo, 2016) – They basically could have called this one Avengers: Civil War, or Cap vs. Iron Man – because it is a bigger movie than any other “individual” movie in the MCU. Still, it’s a fascinating movie that continues Cap’s move away from the rest of the Avengers, and perhaps even American idealism in total. The highlight of the movie is, of course, the airport battle – between Cap’s team (himself, Hawkeye, Scarlet Witch, ye, Scarlet Witch, The Falcon, Ant-Man) vs. Iron Man’s team (himself, War Machine, Vision, Spider-Man, Black Widow, Black Panther) – and it really is quite spectacular, the type of scene you would love to debate about heroes fighting each other. The rest of the movie – with Captain America trying to rescue Bucky, and follow a conspiracy to where there could be more Winter Soldiers. Daniel Bruhl is the main bad guy here – and I remember not liking him much the first time, but he actually is quite good. This is a movie that continues Age of Ultron’s exploration of the costs of having the Avengers around. I always liked this movie – but I think I liked it even more this time around.
Doctor Strange (Scott Derrickson, 2016) – Doctor Strange is one of the only films in the MCU that really does have a completely different look and feel to it. Yes, it’s once again an origin story – but a different one, as Steven Strange isn’t gifted his powers, but earns them through hard work and study. It’s an interesting contrast that Strange starts as the most analytical and scientific person, and yet ends up with these metaphysical powers. Cumberbatch is great at playing an asshole – and he does that well here – and the visual effects really are some of the best in the entire MCU. I also love Tilda Swinton, while still understanding the objections to her casting, and Mads Mikkelsen is a very good villain (in terms of the MCU anyway) – and it sets up Chiwtel Ejifor as an even better one. One of the more underrated films in the MCU.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (James Gunn, 2017) – This one grew a little bit for me in this rewatch. For one thing, the opening credit sequence – with Baby Groot dancing, with the fight in the background, is one of my favorite sequences in the MCU. For another, Kurt Russell really does stand out as one of the very best villains in the MCU, even if I don’t quite get as emotional as many seem to about the father’s/sons themes that run through the movie. Still, the movie moves like gangbusters, and is entertaining as hell throughout. Somehow, I wasn’t as bothered by the CGI soup of an action climax as I often am in Marvel films – perhaps because there will real stakes this time. Really quite a good film.
Spider-Man: Homecoming (Jon Watts, 2017) – We really didn’t need yet another Spider-Man – the third actor, and 6th movie in fifteen years – and yet Spider-Man’s solo debut in the MCU is a good one. Thankfully, they decided we didn’t need an Uncle Ben storyline, and they decided to have a villain that neither previous version had used yet. It also furthered the connection between Spider-Man and Iron Man, which started in Captain America: Civil War. And Tom Holland is terrific as Peter Parker, and I think Michael Keaton’s villain is strong, human scaled one, and Jacob Batalan and Zendaya are a delight as his friend, and eventual love interest respectively. Overall, it’s a solid first movie that established everything needed and a lot of fun in and of itself.
Thor: Ragnarok (Taika Waititi, 2017) – It is kind of amazing that it took them six years, and multiple films, to figure out that Chris Hemsworth is at his best as Thor when they fully embrace his comedic side, and let him go wild. The hiring of Taikia Waititi was inspired – and they certainly let him play around with the humor of the film. Hemsworth has never been better as Thor, and the film, which mainly takes place on a strange, over-the-top planet, fully embraces the craziness. It also has one of the better one-off villains in the MCU – although, I think that may have to do with Cate Blanchett then the writing. As a purely rewatchable experience, this one is tough to beat in the MCU – just an out-and-out fun experience.
Black Panther (Ryan Coogler, 2018) – Black Panther is the best origin story in the MCU – and that’s basically because it’s not just an origin story of the character – although it is – but also because it really introduces Wakanda, and the entire culture that produced the character. Like Thor: Ragnarok, it’s one of the first films in the MCU to allow the directors a little bit of room on the edges to make it their own – no, Black Panther isn’t full on Coogler like Fruitvale Station or even Creed, but there’s enough here to tell the same man made it. It also has undeniably the best one-off villain in Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger (who may be the best villain in the entire MCU). It isn’t quite the masterpiece some make it out to be, but it is as singular as the MCU allows a film to be.
Avengers: Infinity War (Anthony & Joe Russo, 2018) – I liked this more this time than I did in theaters – where I basically thought it was a big, long, loud cheat – because while the end of the film was certainly emotional, we also knew it wouldn’t actually last, making it cheap emotion. Watching it at home, it still kind of is – this is a loud film, fully of CGI soup throughout, that dashes around from one plot to the other, etc. And yet, it does manage to mostly bring it all together without feeling like too much of a cheat. The ending is still a cheap ploy – but knowing its coming helps, and allows you to concentrate on the individual moments. This is a massive film – and yet it still works, when it really should fly off the rails.
Ant-Man and the Wasp (Payton Reed, 2018) – At the time, I remember quite liking Ant-Man and the Wasp – and it’s still a very fun movie, as anything with Paul Rudd usually is. Again, when it came out, it felt good to take everything back down to a smaller scale than Infinity War – a kind of refresher in the action, light and frothy after all the darkness. It still is. And yet now, it also feels more than a little frivolous – like you just want to get to Endgame without this stop-off. As a standalone, it’s fun. As part of the bigger whole – you can probably skip it on an epic binge.
Captain Marvel (Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck, 2019) – It is ridiculous that it took Marvel 21 movies to make a movie about a female superhero, and to hire a female director. For the most part though, Captain Marvel ended up delivering what it set out to do – the first origin story in a while in the MCU, with a different setting (the 1990s) and making what is essentially a buddy movie between Brie Larson and Samuel L. Jackson. It’s a lot of fun and well-made, even if it’s a little too paint-by-numbers at times. I perhaps like this more than many because by daughter absolutely adores this – and it’s so much fun to watch it through her eyes.
Avengers: Endgame (Anthony & Joe Russo, 2019) – You have it to hand it to Endgame – but as the climax of a 22 movie, 11-year journey, Endgame delivers pretty much everything it could. It’s a fun tribute to the movies of the past – with references to so many movies that came before it, and delivered the emotional climax fitting to the two main figures of the MCU so far. The film is too big, perhaps too long and by its very nature has to pack too much into one film. It would make absolutely no sense as a standalone film, but as the climax of everything that has come before it, it really does deliver.
Spider-Man: Far From Home (Jon Watts, 2019) – Coming fairly close on the heels of Endgame, the second stand-alone Spider-Man film had a difficult job – be a fun, entertaining, stand-alone Spider-Man film, be a tribute to Tony Stark and Iron Man, and establish the rules of life post snap (now known as The Blip). Shocking, it really does work quite well. A lot of credit got to Tom Holland – who is utterly charming as Spider-Man, and a fine villain in Jake Gyllenhaal’s Mysterio. It really does wrap up the series to this point nicely – and point in a new direction where it’s going.

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