Rating: Marvel Cinematic Universe, Phase 2

We’re moving on with rewatching and rating the movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Here’s our take on the next crop:

  1. Iron Man 3 – 5
  2. Thor: The Dark World – 4.5
  3. Captain America: The Winter Soldier – 8
  4. Guardians of the Galaxy – 3
  5. Avengers: Age of Ultron – 5.5
  6. Ant-Man – 7

The average rating for this phase is 5.5, which is solidly mediocre, and that pretty much sums of the movies of this period: solid, but mediocre.

After an experimental start in phase 1, Marvel had clearly worked out its superhero movie formula by phase 2, which is both the strength and the weakness of these movies. The hero is an ordinary guy (still almost entirely guys) who gets or discovers some awesome power, struggles to balance his responsibilities as a hero with his own desire for a simpler, more comfortable life, and ends up fighting the equal and opposite guy (still entirely guys), who wants to use his power for wealth and/or self-aggrandizement. Marvel’s formula is by no means a bad one. It consistently delivers watchable summer popcorn flicks, but in phase 2 we begin to see the limits of the formula. Movies that stick to the formula chug around in the middle of the range, while those that stretch their bounds sometimes excel and sometimes flop.

Iron Man 3 rates a 5, the lowest of the Iron Man movies, largely because Tony Stark’s character just doesn’t have any room to grow. Number 3 provides some good action and Tony-tinkering, but its emotional rhythms just feel like a retread of 1 and 2.

Thor: The Dark World gets a 4.5, a slight step up from the first Thor, which isn’t saying much. Christopher Eccleston’s wooden performance as the villain Malekith, who gets almost no interaction with any other characters to enliven his scenes, doesn’t help the murky plot. The lack of chemistry between Chris Hemsworth’s Thor and Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster drags the movie down, although the perpetual spark between Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston’s Loki brings it back up a bit.

The best movie of the phase is Captain America: The Winter Soldier, at 8. While we don’t like everything about this movie (I, for one, have never felt emotionally invested in the Steve-Bucky relationship), its pacing is crisp, the action is sharp-edged, and the emergence of the new Hydra represents a daring narrative choice for the MCU, which could have chosen to stay on safer ground.

The Winter Soldier is followed up by the worst movie of the lot, Guardians of the Galaxy, at 3. We know that our opinion of Guardians is not shared by many Marvel fans, but we find the movie tedious and most of its characters annoying. We’re not fond of stories in which a lone competent woman with a strong motivation has her narrative taken over by a self-centered man-child. We’re also not on board with a story whose emotional climax comes with that woman getting called a whore by another character out of the blue. Besides, all the crap we didn’t like when we were kids in the 80s is still crap we don’t like now.

Avengers: Age of Ultron muddles through with a 5.5. It is a movie filled with character moments that almost work, dialogue that almost means something, and narrative choices that almost make sense. A few excellent performances, like James Spader’s Ultron and Paul Bettany’s Vision help lift the rating, but they’re pulling against a lot of dead weight.

Ant-Man takes us out on a high note, at 7, with a zany tiny-sized heist that, like sucking on a good piece of candy, doesn’t really satisfy your hunger, but sure feels good while you’re doing it. The small scope of this movie (literally and narratively) is an asset, allowing the jokes to land and the characters to develop without too much worrying about the end of the world to get in the way.

Have a different favorite (or un-favorite)? Let us know!

Image: Screenshot from Captain America: The Winter Soldier via IMDb

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

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Representation Chart: Marvel Cinematic Universe, Phase 1

We all know that the representation of people of different genders and races is imbalanced in popular media, but sometimes putting it into visual form can help make the imbalance clear. Here’s a chart of the Phase 1 movies of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe (Iron Man; The Incredible Hulk; Iron Man 2; Thor; Captain America: The First Avenger; Avengers).

Characters included

  • Iron Man: Tony Stark / Iron Man, Obedaiah Stane, Agent Coulson, Happy Hogan, Abu Bakaar, Pepper Potts, Christine Everhart, Colonel Rhodes, Nick Fury, Yinsen, Raza
  • The Incredible Hulk: Bruce Banner / Hulk, General Ross, Emil Blonsky, Leonard, Stanley, Samuel Sterns, Betty Ross, Major Sparr,
  • Iron Man 2 (new characters): Ivan Vanko, Senator Stern, Justin Hammer, Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow
  • Thor (new characters): Thor, Loki, Odin, Erik Selvig, Volstag, Fandral, Agent Sitwell, Clint Barton / Haweye, Jane Foster, Darcy Lewis, Sif, Frigga, Heimdall, Hogun
  • Captain America: The First Avenger: Steve Rogers / Captain America, Bucky Barnes, Colonel Philips, Johann Schmidt / Red Skull, Howard Stark, Dr. Erskine, Dr. Zola, Dum Dum Dugan, James Falsworth, Jacques Dernier, Gilmore Hodge, Senator Brandt, Peggy Carter, Gabe Jones, Jim Morita
  • Avengers (new characters): American World Security Councilor, Russian World Security Councilor, Agent Hill, British World Security Councilor, Chinese World Security Councilor

Rules

In the interests of clarity, here’s the rules I’m following for who to include and where to place them:

  • I only count characters portrayed by an actor who appears in person on screen in more or less recognizable form (i.e. performances that are entirely CG, prosthetic, puppet, or voice do not count).
  • The judgment of which characters are significant enough to include is unavoidably subjective, but I generally include characters who have on-screen dialogue, who appear in more than one scene, and who are named on-screen (including nicknames, code names, etc.)
  • For human characters that can be reasonably clearly identified, I use the race and gender of the character.
  • For non-human characters or characters whose identity cannot be clearly determined, I use the race and gender of the actor.
  • I use four simplified categories for race and two for gender. Because human variety is much more complicated and diverse than this, there will inevitably be examples that don’t fit. I put such cases where they seem least inappropriate, or, if no existing option is adequate, give them their own separate categories.
  • “White” and “Black” are as conventionally defined in modern Western society. “Asian” means East, Central, or South Asian. “Indigenous” encompasses Native Americans, Polynesians, Indigenous Australians, and other indigenous peoples from around the world.
  • There are many ethnic and gender categories that are relevant to questions of representation that are not covered here. There are also other kinds of diversity, including sexuality, language, disability, etc. that are equally important for representation that are not covered here. A schematic view like this can never be perfect, but it is a place to start.

Corrections and suggestions welcome.

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

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.

Captain America: Civil War and Red Herring Overload

170105civilwarWhen I saw Captain America: Civil War in the theatre, something bothered me about the story. It’s not that I didn’t like it. I find Civil War one of the best, most polished films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In my headcanon, Civil War is the actual Avengers 2 while Age of Ultron is Iron Man 4 at best. But still, something about the story just bugs me and the first couple times I saw the movie I couldn’t put my finger on it. (To be fair, that movie gave us plenty to talk about.) Now that it’s out on DVD and I’ve gotten to see it a few more times, I think I can name the problem: red herring overload.

Here’s what I mean. Going into the movie, having seen the trailers, you think it’s going to be about Steve Rogers / Captain America and Tony Stark / Iron Man having a falling out. But it isn’t.

Then the movie starts and you think it’s going to be about Bucky Barnes / the Winter Soldier. But it isn’t.

Then you think it’s going to be about the blue goo in Howard Stark’s trunk. But it isn’t.

Then you think it’s going to be about a stolen vial of disease. But it isn’t.

Then you think it’s going to be about the Sokovia Accords. But it isn’t.

Then you think it’s going to be about Steve’s relationship with Bucky. But it isn’t.

Then you think it’s going to be about T’Challa’s quest for revenge and his rise as a hero. But it isn’t.

Then you think it’s going to be about Zemo and his all-new all-different gang of Winter Soldiers. But it isn’t.

Then you think it’s going to be about the Avengers splitting up over different ideas of what it means to be a hero. But it isn’t.

Finally, finally, at the end of the movie, we discover what it’s actually been about all along: Tony Stark’s unresolved emotional issues.

I still think that Civil War is an excellent movie and one of the highlights of Marvel’s cinematic work, but this is a serious weakness in its writing. Not only did we not really need another movie about Tony’s unresolved issues (we’ve got four already), but it deflates the narrative power of the story to have so much of the plot either fizzle out or just be left hanging at the end. By the end of the movie, the mantelpiece is littered with unfired guns and instead we get to watch two exhausted, angry men slug each other.

Maybe, if this had been a different movie, that would have been a satisfying ending. But it wasn’t.

Image: Captain America: Civil War still via IMDb

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

Who’s That Guy?

In the course of my life, I’ve become aware that I experience mild face blindness. It’s nothing I’ve ever been diagnosed with and it isn’t severe enough for me to seek any kind treatment for, I just know that, compared with other people, I have trouble recognizing faces that I haven’t seen a lot of. I mostly identify people by their hair, their clothing and movements, and, especially, their voices. In day-to-day life it’s not much of a problem. (Learning a hundred new students every semester is a challenge, but I have the advantage of getting to take attendance at the start of every class.) When it bothers me the most is in entertainment.

When there are multiple characters with similar appearances, I tend to get them mixed up. (Especially middle-aged white men, since they’re all over the place.) I also have trouble recognizing people we’ve seen before in different settings.

160505buckyFor example, there’s a moment in Captain America: The Winter Soldier when the Winter Soldier’s mask comes off revealing that it’s the Captain’s best friend and fellow soldier Bucky Barnes. It’s a powerful moment and a shocking reveal, but the first time I saw the movie, I had no idea who that guy was. Even having seen the first Captain America movie, and having Bucky reintroduced via the museum exhibit/infodump earlier in Winter Soldier, I didn’t know who I was looking at on screen. As the movie went on, it became clear to me that the Winter Soldier was someone Captain Rogers knew from his past, an old friend, but I still couldn’t connect the character with Bucky. (Cap said his name, but it went by too fast for me to catch.) It wasn’t until I rewatched the movie on DVD that I finally realized who the Winter Soldier was. Even today, looking at the two characters on screen, I can’t visually tell that they’re the same person.

It’s an odd way to watch movies and television, knowing that there is information up there on the screen that I can’t interpret. I’m lucky to have a co-geek to turn to and ask: “Who is that guy?” One of the many pleasures of being married to someone who loves nerdy stuff as much as I do!

We’re off to see Captain America: Civil War on opening night tonight. It looks like there’s going to be a lot of familiar faces in this movie. I might even recognize some of them.

Images: Bucky Barnes via tvtropes; Winter Soldier via playbuzz

In Character is an occasional feature looking at some of our favorite characters from written works and media to see what drives them, what makes them work, and what makes us love them so much.

Five Captain America: Civil War Clips

Marvel UK’s YouTube selection includes these five Captain America: Civil War clips that I hadn’t seen before. The first includes snippets from interviews with the movie’s main actresses (Scarlett Johansson, Emily VanCamp, and Elizabeth Olsen).

Captain America: Civil War – In Good Company by Marvel UK

Yay, Sharon Carter / Agent 13!

The second has interview snippets with Chris Evans, Robert Downey, Jr., and the Russo Brothers.

Captain America: Civil War – Brothers In Arms | HD by Marvel UK

Captain America: Civil War – Right To Choose | HD by Marvel UK

Captain America: Civil War – New Recruit | HD by Marvel UK

Captain America: Civil War – The Team Vs Bucky clip | HD UK by Marvel UK

We’ve been in blackout mode, avoiding anything spoilery like the plague. Alasdair Stuart’s Civil War review for Tor.com doesn’t include spoilers, so I did read that one. After tonight, I don’t have to hold back anymore. 🙂

Hey, look! We found a thing on the internet! We thought it was cool, and wanted to share it with you.

Captain America: Civil War Trailer #2

The second trailer big TV spot for Captain America: Civil War dropped during Superbowl this past weekend:

Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War – Big Game Spot by Marvel Entertainment

(Of course, as anyone who can read is be able to tell, this isn’t the second trailer, but a preview. It was aired during Superbowl; hence, “big game spot.” D’oh. Aaanyhow.)

Not much to go on there – it’s only 30 seconds – but we do at least have a clear idea now who’s against who (Captain, Bucky, Falcon, Hawkeye, Scarlet Witch, and Ant-Man versus Iron Man, War Machine, Black Widow, Vision, and Black Panther).

Aaaaand the actual second trailer is below:

Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War – Trailer 2 by Marvel Entertainment

This post has been edited.

Hey, look! We found a thing on the internet! We thought it was cool, and wanted to share it with you.

Captain America: Civil War Trailer Published

The first trailer for Captain America: Civil War is here:

Captain America: Civil War – Trailer World Premiere via Jimmy Kimmel Live

Looks cool and MCU-Captain-y! I’m looking forward to seeing more of my favorites – Cap, Falcon, Black Widow, Sharon Carter / Agent 13. I liked Paul Rudd as Ant-Man, too, and T’Challa / Black Panther looks cool.

Six months to May 2016 sounds very long! Fortunately there’s lots to tide us over.

Hey, look! We found a thing on the internet! We thought it was cool, and wanted to share it with you.

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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