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.

80s Pop Improved by Fight Scene from Thor: Ragnarok

Incredibly, a fight scene from Thor: Ragnarok kind of goes with an 80s pop track:

Thor Ragnarok – I NEED A HERO!!! FUNNY via Locus on YouTube

The song in the background is “Holding out for a Hero” by Bonnie Tyler. Impressive job matching some of the punches on screen to the music.

Then I made the mistake of looking up the original music video. Oh, boy…!

WTF Is This Cat

Found via N. K. Jemisin on Tumblr.

Image: Confused cat via Meme Binge on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

This post has been edited to correct a typo.

Some things are just too silly not to share!

Some Random Thoughts on Thor: Ragnarok

In no particular order. Spoiler warnings in effect.

  • This is so much better than either of the previous Thor movies. Apparently goofy comedy smashfest is a better mode for space-Viking superhero movies than Shakespearean family drama is.
  • Chris Hemsworth’s performance in this movie is about halfway between his previous Thor performances and his performance in Ghostbusters. It works.
  • This wacky colorful space opera works for me so much better than the Guardians of the Galaxy movies. I seem to be in a minority position, but I hated Guardians of the Galaxy, both times, though not for the wacky colorful space opera parts. What I hated was the arrogant, incompetent male “heroes” and the misogyny-as-comedy. Without those things, I’m totally down for the wacky colorful space opera.
  • Cate Blanchett and Tessa Thompson both give brilliant performances. Maybe someday—hopefully someday soon—we can get a superhero movie with more than two leading roles for women.
  • Korg was amusing, and I can tell Taika Waititi had a blast playing him, but he really felt unnecessary most of the time. The same can be said for Doctor Strange (although, to be fair, the whole Doctor Strange movie franchise feels a bit unnecessary to me).
  • After the last few Marvel movies, we now have Captain America without his shield, Iron Man without a reactor in his chest, and Thor without his hammer. It’s going to be interesting to see how these characters develop without some of their iconic accouterments.
  • A fun romp with good jokes, exciting fights, and beautiful visuals is pretty much exactly what I needed right now, so thank you, Marvel!

 

Additional thoughts by Eppu

  • As a rule of thumb, I don’t care a whit whether the Marvel Cinematic Universe Thor matches the comic books Thor canon, or even Nordic mythology. There was fairly good consistency, story-wise. However, I’m not sure what to think of the decision to crank up the humor to eleven. I enjoyed the movie a lot, yes, but if memory serves, stylistically it deviates quite a bit from the two previous ones, and that seems to be deviating from the MCU convention. I’m still mulling it over.
  • The design for the trash planet Sakaar was refreshingly different. Colors!
  • Two plotholes stood out (or I missed the explanation because there were no subtitles): 1) Thor and Hulk inexplicably left their arena fight in the middle of action, and were all buddy-buddy afterwards. 2) The gladiators were railroaded to Asgard on their stolen spaceship. Um, I thought they started a revolution…? (If it’s a revolution, you stay; if not, it’s an escape.)
  • It was great to see so many women in the background, and two big speaking roles for women, but I want more. And not just girlfriends, or wives, or hookers, or fridged corpses. More women as people in their own right! More women speaking! More women! MORE WOMEN!

 

Recommended reading

Dan Taipua at The Spinoff reveals the Maori / New Zealander mentality hidden in T:R.

Emily Asher-Perrin’s writeup at Tor.com on all the three Thor movies is really good.

Taika Waititi: Paying It Forward on Thor: Ragnarok (found via Good Stuff Happened Today on Tumblr)

Image: Still from Thor: Ragnarok via IMDb

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