Road to Infinity War – The Avengers, or, Keep it Simple Stupid

Oh I did it fam. In preparation for my viewing of Avengers: Infinity War on April 26th at 7PM, I went back and rewatched the previous 18 films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, from Iron Man to Black Panther. Every day leading up to Infinity War I’ll be posting a short piece on each film and my most recent hot takes on nearly a decade of the MCU. I’ll also be linking back to whatever old nonsense I wrote about the movies at the time, if applicable. And if that isn’t enough, check out my ranked listed of the MCU to date on my Letterboxd account here.

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Oh boy, what a neat poster that they didn’t use for the cover of the Blu-Ray + DVD combo pack. It’s fine. Whatever.

“You’ve become part of a bigger universe. You just don’t know it yet.”

Such was the promise lobbed at audiences in 2008 at the end of the end of Iron Man (remember when we used to be able to leave the theater when the movie ended?). Nick Fury’s words proved all the wiser in retrospect. So much of Marvel’s formative first phase was concerned with individuals stepping into circumstances far beyond anything they previously could have imagined. There’s an ignorance to those first steps, be they arrogant or altruistic, which is shared amongst the likes of Tony Stark, Bruce Banner and Steve Rogers. Their reach exceeds their grasp and there are consequences that come with that disparity. In Thor, we learned the same was true of SHIELD and the shadowy government and military institutions prominent throughout these first five films. They entered into an arena they were woefully unequipped for. Shoot, by the time The Avengers wraps up, we learn the same was true even of Loki, who strikes a bargain with severe cost and consequence that, even if only momentarily, he has to second guess.

In The Avengers, what separates the heroes from the villains from the bureaucrats is how each individual dealt with the consequences of that excessive reach. Loki doubled down on his actions. The World Security Council wished them away with a nuke. The Avengers, though? The Avengers took responsibility. The team only finally came into their own when they shirked authority altogether and took matters into their own hands. And without a soul to tell them “with great power must also come great responsibility” even!

Thematically, The Avengers is a fantastic climax to the first phase of the MCU. Cinematically, six years on it’s still a landmark in blockbuster history. I really don’t feel like I can gush enough about how far Joss Whedon’s script knocks it out of the park. He took what could have been a stunt, a gimmick, a train wreck, and made a film of extreme competence and proficiency.

Perhaps the smartest move Whedon made was keeping things simple. The force of antagonism is clear, unburdened by philosophical or emotional justifications, and the rationale for every Avenger’s presence in the film is sound and straightforward. This is a script that requires no narrative gymnastics on the part of the viewer. It’s all there in the script. Rather than weave a convoluted, interconnected web of motivations to bring the team together, or plumb the depths of villainy in the search of the next Joker, Whedon dealt out hands quick and efficiently, giving him ample time instead to bounce these characters off one another to compelling effect.

Save the comic books from whence these characters came, there was no precedent for what Whedon pulled off with The Avengers. I’ve got my issues here and there with the film, but nothing that can take away from how deftly Whedon executed a cinematic first. He needed to bring these characters together and to make their fellowship worth the wait and he went about doing it elegantly, emphasizing quality over intricacy.

Four years later, Joss Whedon who delivered on Nick Fury’s ominous promise in spectacular fashion.

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Road to Infinity War – Thor, or, You’re Not My Dad!

Oh I did it fam. In preparation for my viewing of Avengers: Infinity War on April 26th at 7PM, I went back and rewatched the previous 18 films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, from Iron Man to Black Panther. Every day leading up to Infinity War I’ll be posting a short piece on each film and my most recent hot takes on nearly a decade of the MCU. I’ll also be linking back to whatever old nonsense I wrote about the movies at the time, if applicable. And if that isn’t enough, check out my ranked listed of the MCU to date on my Letterboxd account here.

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You will believe an angle can be Dutch!

Director Kenneth Branagh’s Thor is one of the smaller films in the MCU despite the vast scope of time and space it introduced to the franchise. Before Thor, the MCU was basically just scientists pushing the limits of technology, but with Marvel’s fourth film we got millennia-old gods living in a gold pipe organ in space, traveling around the cosmos via rainbow laser beam.

And yet, if you had to stage a community theater production of a Marvel film, Thor would be the one to go for.

The action here is nothing to thumb your nose at, and it is particularly big in the first act, but where Thor really excels is in its depiction of interfamilial conflict. Tom Hiddleston’s Loki is a star from “go” and any time any combination of him, Chris Hemsworth’s Thor or Anthony Hopkins’ Odin share the screen there’s an undeniable sense of craft and gravitas.

Unfortunately we don’t get much of that during Thor’s humbling sojourn to New Mexico, but we do get a dope mud fight. Which you could totally do on a stage.

Natalie Portman isn’t exactly fully utilized as Jane Foster here, but her character feels like more than just checking a box next to “love interest.” Foster is the Stark or Banner of this film. She is the scientist pushing the limits of what is possible and Thor embodies just how much further there is to push.

Over the course of the first three Marvel films Stark and Banner are dogged by ever-present, antagonistic, militaristic authorities. By the time Iron Man 2 wraps up it’s pretty clear that even the shadiest government agency isn’t going to undo the likes of Iron Man or Hulk, but this film displays just how woefully inept and unequipped those antagonists, and by extension our protagonists, really are in the cosmic scheme of things. It sets up a new threshold of conflict that requires more than a robot suit and a green monster to quash.

Thor is the start of a true ramp-up to Avengers, expanding the possibilities of the franchise. It treads carefully. Perhaps too carefully. But when it takes us to Asgard and shows us the petty squabbles of gods in their giant space castle the intimate and the sprawling collide in compelling fashion.

Road to Infinity War – The Incredible Hulk, or, Wait! That’s Not Mark Ruffalo!

Oh I did it fam. In preparation for my viewing of Avengers: Infinity War on April 26th at 7PM, I went back and rewatched the previous 18 films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, from Iron Man to Black Panther. Every day leading up to Infinity War I’ll be posting a short piece on each film and my most recent hot takes on nearly a decade of the MCU. I’ll also be linking back to whatever old nonsense I wrote about the movies at the time, if applicable. And if that isn’t enough, check out my ranked listed of the MCU to date on my Letterboxd account here.

theincrediblehulk

Wait a minute… you weren’t in Spotlight!

Look, I get it, it’s a bummer Mark Ruffalo isn’t in this movie and I know Ed Norton and Liv Tyler’s super-quiet acting isn’t the most endearing follow up to the ol’ RDJ charm, but The Incredible Hulk is a solid action flick with some of the best action the MCU had to offer pre-Russo Brothers. It’s also a truly worthwhile piece of worldbuilding and storytelling for anyone looking to steep themselves in the MCU.

Incredible Hulk has a streamlined, straightforward sense of purpose. It’s got momentum, propulsion, a sense of movement and motion that never slows down enough to get bogged down. This is a fugitive flick at heart that pits Norton’s pursued Bruce Banner against Tim Roth’s pursuer, Emil Blonsky. For the duration that Blonksy remains embodied by Roth he proves to be a pretty compelling antagonist. He and Banner’s trilogy of encounters highlight a thematic backbone that echoes through the MCU even today: what do you do when bestowed a reach that exceeds your grasp?

Blonsky, embodying the aggressive military authority that so often pestered Marvel’s heroes during the franchise’s first phase, and Banner have very different ideas about what the Hulk is and that ideological divide is highlighted in their series of escalating encounters; first there’s the amazing favela chase that takes a turn into monster movie territory, then a great fight between the Hulk and a roided-out Blonsky that has a stronger more agile Roth taking on a monster single-handedly, and finally a massive monster mash. Of course by the time there are two monsters duking it out on screen the ethos of Roth’s performance is lost behind a CGI behemoth that is so big and strong it loses its butt and wiener, but the fight still provides worthy, old-fashioned spectacle – no big, blue beam in the sky here!

Each time the two go at it Banner takes up that Marvel party line of personal responsibility, desperately trying to contain and control himself in the face of Blonsky’s relentless antagonism and continued insistence that Banner is a weapon demanding to be wielded. This is the film in which we get the clearest picture of Banner’s burden, of what the day to day life of a pacifist who is also an unwilling WMD is like.

The Incredible Hulk also begins to lay the groundwork for an interconnected MCU in subtle, effective ways without shoving audiences’ faces in Easter eggs. We learn that the Hulk’s existence is a result of the vacuum left by the presumed-death of Captain America. Pre-thaw we see that Cap’s secret legacy is a scientific arms race to recreate the WWII superhero, which provides an interesting connection for Banner and Rogers.  There’s references to SHIELD and Stark Industries as well, but never anything as excessive as some later entries in the MCU would come to boast.

Though it is doomed to sit in the bottom chunk of almost any rankings list of the MCU, Incredible Hulk is not without its merits. It offers some background that the MCU is richer for having and its story is succinct, swift and self-contained, something that becomes harder and harder to get a decade into Marvel’s cinematic reign.

The Defenders, or, The Avengers: Appendices

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Mike Colter: statue of human perfect. And three other jabronies.

Like the first Avengers film before it, season one of Netflix’s The Defenders is tasked with bringing together the worlds and aesthetics of various intellectual properties (in this case the Netflix series Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist) into a single cohesive unit. However, The Avengers was and is the vanguard of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the banner behind which everything from Thor to Inhumans to Foggy Nelson must fall in line. Where The Avengers had the opportunity, and burden, of defining a universe, The Defenders has to define itself within an already established world.

Essentially, The Defenders has to do what The Avengers did, in the shadow of what The Avengers did.

Fans will be happy to find that over the course of its eight episode first season the series is able to stake a claim to its own identity both in relation to its own tributary shows and in the context of the MCU at large.

Daredevil (Charlie Cox), Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter), Luke Cage (Mike Colter) and even Iron Fist (Finn Jones) react to and interact with one another believably and enjoyably, never betraying the world of each individual character built within their own shows. Some of them, Cox in particular, deliver their best performances yet. Watching these four disparate elements find their way to tracks set on a collision course for one another is exciting and propels the early episodes of the season forward at a brisk pace. But once the titular cabal come together things get particularly interesting for the MCU.

Since the first season of Daredevil Netflix’s Marvel series have used the destruction of New York City in the first Avengers film as a jumping off point, but The Defenders solidifies the first phase of these series as a Tolkien-esque appendix to The Avengers, the kind of tucked away supplemental material that elevates the text from which it is derived.

The Defenders and its four preceding shows weave a tale of trickle down responsibility. The Avengers descended upon an unsuspecting New York City with thunder and monsters and fury, saved the day and irrevocably altered the status quo of the planet in one fell swoop, then left. Though likely unknowingly, The Avengers abandoned their responsibility for the new world order they established, one that took hold in the streets of New York. In their place ninjas and blind lawyers and nefarious business tycoons and bullet proof men fill in the cracks in the city like militias in an abandoned colony.

If The Avengers were equated to Return of the King (spoilers for Return of the King) The Defenders would be the burning of the Shire, a reminder that even heroism can have unintended consequences and that even hardships brought on by demigods and superhumans can be overcome by folks on the street.

The Defenders weren’t in Civil War and they may not show up in Infinity War (though they totally should) but the Marvel Cinematic Universe is better and more nuance for their presence in it.