Rating: Marvel Cinematic Universe, Phase 1

We’ve taken a bit of a swerve in our rewatching and rating project. In between tv series, we’ve decided to take a run at the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Here’s our take on Phase 1:

  1. Iron Man – 7
  2. The Incredible Hulk – 2
  3. Iron Man 2 – 6
  4. Thor – 4
  5. Captain America: The First Avenger – 8
  6. The Avengers – 10

It’s a bit of a mixed bag. The overall average is 6.2, which is perfectly respectable, but the range is all over the place, from pretty bad to meh to awesome.

You can tell that Marvel was still figuring out how to make not only a new kind of superhero movie but a new kind of movie franchise. The early installations are stand-alone, fairly slow-paced, and self-contained. We can still remember how exciting it felt to have a minor character like Agent Coulson pop up in multiple movies that weren’t sequels. Nowadays we don’t even get out of bed for a Marvel movie that doesn’t have at least three tie-in characters and a place in the ongoing arc of the Phase.

The Incredible Hulk, the largely forgotten Marvel movie, is on the bottom of the heap at 2. Formulaic and uninspired, the story drags itself from one obligatory action scene to another. Having seen Mark Ruffalo’s take on Bruce Banner, Edward Norton feels flat and unsympathetic. So much backstory is assumed that this movie feels like a sequel to something we’ve never seen (it takes care not to step on Ang Lee’s previous Hulk movie without actually picking up on its story in any meaningful way). Although there are some bright spots in this movie, like the visually thrilling foot chase through a Brazilian favela, you can see why we haven’t gotten another stand-alone Hulk movie.

We’re lucky that Marvel hedged its bets on launching the MCU with two movies instead of just one. Iron Man delivers much of what The Incredible Hulk lacks. While the story is still relatively straightforward and follows a predictable Hollywood three-act structure, it is more competently handled and more subtly embellished than Hulk. We get to see Tony Stark tinker and iterate not only on his suit designs but on his ethics and sense of self, which is makes his character much more interesting to watch than Banner, who has no real character development in his own movie. Robert Downey Jr. sells the character of Tony Stark as a flawed genius grappling with the consequences of his own choices.

Iron Man 2 carries on the good work of the original without adding much to it and begins the unfortunate trend of Marvel movies whose plot is driven by Tony Stark’s emotional issues. Thor has some beautiful art design and fun character moments, but mostly ends up feeling like the product of too many compromises.

Captain America: The First Avenger delivers a solid origin story not only for its eponymous hero but for the whole Marvel universe as well. With an alternate-version World War II dominated by Hydra’s experiments with cosmic technology and an American super soldier, the ground is prepared for a modern world of superpeople. Chris Evans’s performance takes a character who could be flat and sanctimonious and makes him charming.

But it is The Avengers, at a full 10, that crowns Phase 1. Joss Whedon’s last great work before his descent into self-satisfied mediocrity, The Avengers is a superhero movie that takes not only the idea of superheroes but the idea of a superhero movie seriously. The characters have both emotional depth and clear motivations. Their conflicts arise not from plot contrivance but from conflicting world-views and emotional needs. And they smash alien monsters together real good.

Got a different take on Marvel’s first hexalogy? Let us know in the comments!

Image: Still from The Avengers via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

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Some Random Thoughts on Avengers: Infinity War

In no particular order. Spoiler warnings in effect.

Eppu’s random thoughts:

I went in knowing nothing for sure and having read only non-spoilery impression pieces and bits of barely-even news. A heads-up: half-baked musings to follow, plus at least one f-bomb.

  • You must know the previous Marvel Cinematic Universe movies to follow the Avengers: Infinity War story—none of the characters or their histories are introduced. Which makes sense: the previous movies are all in their way leading to AIW, and there’s no way you could introduce everyone and still have enough time left for a new story. Good for fans, not so good for regular moviegoers.
  • Superhero stories aren’t fully my cup of tea, not like for instance Jane Austen is, but my inner nerd is very pleased to have such an unprecedented series of high-quality movies like this.
  • I knew AIW was going to be stuffed to the gills with details, dialog, and derring-do, and indeed it was. Yet, strangely, it felt like we were in a holding pattern throughout the movie. You can tell it’s just the first act of a two-parter.
  • I missed so many lines among the sound effects. How about some subtitling in the theaters, USA? They’re helpful for all sorts of people, not just the deaf and hard of hearing.
  • The death toll started climbing earlier and got higher than I thought, even before the ashing at the end.
  • The writers started pushing Vision and Wanda Maximoff together already in Civil War (which they also co-wrote) but I never could buy their relationship. It felt forced then, and it still feels forced in AIW.
  • My favorite scene is when Black Widow, Captain America, and Falcon turn up to help Scarlet Witch and Vision in Edinburgh. Such seamless teamwork—so awesome!
  • Another awesome thing: Spidey got a nano suit.
  • I know it’s not what the movie actually did, but there was so much of it that the fighting felt almost unending. On the other hand, they did a fairly good job balancing the multiple storylines / locations for such an overstuffed movie.
  • There’s still way too much Stark. Like Civil War, AIW‘s not supposed to be yet another Tony show but of course that’s what they’ve made it into. On the other hand, Iron Man and Doctor Strange worked pretty well together despite—or maybe due to?—both being rich entitled jerks. In a way, they almost canceled each other out.
  • Also, the annoying git otherwise known as Peter Quill was pleasantly diluted by the presence of so many other characters. That man-child needs to fucking grow up. (Unpopular opinion: the Guardians of the Galaxy movies barely made it to “Meh” and certainly didn’t rise beyond.)
  • AIW did some unusual character pairings that worked really well: Stark and Strange plus Thor and Rocket come immediately to mind. Rhodey and Sam had a few promising moments while handling air defence during the Wakandan fight, but it didn’t amount to much.
  • Sadly, pretty much all of the Black Panther characters felt tacked-on and not properly integrated. However, it was marvellous to be back in Wakanda. We barely saw Shuri, though, and that’s just plain wrong. (Imagine her and Peter Parker geeking about tech together!)
  • OMG, Nat and Okoye and Wanda teaming up! Give me a buddy movie for those three any day! And throw in Maria Hill, too, please!
  • Another great thing was the deliberate refusal to overuse the Hulk. Instead, they gave Banner a suit version of Veronica the Hulk-buster.
  • Others have noted this, too, but some of the special effects looked clunky and unfinished (especially next to the finished ones). Many of Proxima Midnight’s scenes were affected, for example. (Speaking of her—was anyone else reminded of demon hunters from WoW?)
  • Considering how much Doctor Strange did in his eponymous movie, he contributed seemingly little to the world’s defense. I suspect we’ll see a lot more of his magic in part 2; what shape that takes remains to be seen. Especially since so many popular characters were turned to ash (like Spider-Man who we know will return in a sequel of his own next year), we cannot but see a lot of un-ashing.
  • What ultimately turned me off reading super comics is what I call the escalation-squish cycle: the tendency to time and again up the stakes ridiculously high, kill or shelve multiple characters, destroy cities or planets or whatnot, and then undo everything with a gimmick of the month. There’s only so much of it that I can take. Unfortunately it seems MCU may be headed in that direction. I hope not.
  • Major grumble here: Whose stupid-ass idea was it at the this-really-is-the-end fight to have our heroes go at Thanos one at a time, in a stupid-ass single-file? They’re not that dumb. Stupid-ass, lazy railroading. *grumble!*
  • I knew beforehand that AIW would end with a cliffhanger. I guess I was expecting the ending to be a bit more explosive and not as quiet as it was.

In the end, AIW just wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be. Here’s hoping part 2 will pick up the slack.

 

Erik’s random thoughts:

To a certain extent, it feels unfair to be critiquing Infinity War at this point, since we’ve only seen half the story. Still, my overall reaction is disappointment. There are some particular reasons for this feeling, which I’ll try to lay out here.

  • Most of the movie is spent watching characters flail around, trying to respond to a desperate situation and not accomplishing much. Even when it looks like one character or group of characters has taken a small step towards posing a meaningful challenge to Thanos, their gains are quickly nullified. While it’s true that some amount of failure is necessary for drama and there’s nothing interesting about watching heroes who only ever succeed, there’s nothing interesting about watching heroes who only ever fail, either.
  • A lot of the heroes’ failures feel unearned. Again, while it’s more common to complain about unearned successes, dramatically interesting failures need to be warranted by character and plot. Too much of the failure in Infinity War feels like it is driven by the writers’ desire to build up Thanos as a villain. It feels cheap.
  • Put these observations together with the fact that for there to be any MCU at all after part 2, much of what happened in part 1 will have to be undone, and a lot of the movie ends up feeling pointless. Why did we sit through all of this if none of it matters in the end?
  • Thanos is interesting as a villain. His motivating emotion is not anger or greed but sorrow and the desire to spare other people the anguish he and his planet went through. Still, we spent too much time listening to him monologue. In a movie already packed to overflowing with other characters, he took up too much air.
  • I never liked the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, but the way the team was written in this movie, I could see their appeal. Except for Peter Quill. He is still just as much of an impulsive, self-centered man-child as ever and I cannot stand one second of him. (To be fair, world events in recent years have severely depleted my patience with impulsive, self-centered man-children.)
  • For a movie that had such serious problems with its overall story, many of the individual scenes were beautifully written and perfectly acted. At the small scale, this movie works like a charm; it’s at the large scale that it falls flat.

Image: Avengers: Infinity War screenshot via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

The Black Widow Movie We Have

I know I’m not alone in wanting a Black Widow movie, but it seems pretty clear that we’re not getting one. Marvel films have been announced out to 2019 and there’s nothing in sight with our favorite red-headed assassin in the lead. So, since we’re not getting the Black widow movie we want, we will have to make do with the Black Widow movie we have. Here’s what we’ve got:

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