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.

theavengers

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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The Defenders, or, The Avengers: Appendices

thedefenders

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.

Patriotism vs. Heroism, or, I Read Way Too Much Into Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Back in 2011, in the pages of Action Comics #900, Superman renounced his American citizenship. It was a bold move on DC Comics’ part, but also an increasingly relevant one, indicative of modern globalization in a time in which patriotism and heroism are no longer as synonymous as they were when Action Comics #1 was released in 1938.

As Superman himself put it, “Truth, justice and the American way – it’s not enough anymore.”

Easy enough for an alien from another planet, but how do you question your country’s motivations within the global theater and what it means to be a patriot when your country’s name and your own are one and the same?

'Merica

‘Merica

The ninth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Captain American: The Winter Soldier, revolves around that question. It’s a timely piece that effectively sticks to the Marvel format of presenting as much humor and action per frame of film as possible while simultaneously brimming beneath the surface with questions and ruminations deeper than any its Marvel predecessors had to offer.

Also, there’s this cool part on a boat. No sharks though.

Winter Soldier finds Steve Rogers kicking ass across the globe for S.H.I.E.L.D. while playing a game of cultural catch-up to compensate for the more than half a century he spent on ice.

America in the waning days of the War on Terror is a very different place than America in the waning days of World War II, and as Captain America, Steve Rogers finds himself caught in the chasm of that harsh juxtaposition. Is his embodying America an embodiment of nationalism? Is it the embodiment of a geographical construct? A political one? Religious? Social? Economic? Is it some combination of those characteristics? Are some of those characteristics more important than others?

Also, how’d he get those cool muscles, am I right?

The worst part of Winter Soldier is without a doubt the disc golf subplot.

The worst part of Winter Soldier is without a doubt the disc golf subplot.

Captain America is defined by, you guessed it, America. But in Winter Soldier what defines America has gotten murkier and murkier by the decade. The film largely deals with Steve Rogers trying to clear up the waters.

Of course Winter Soldier never goes too far down the rabbit hole of the existential crisis of patriotism. It’s a Marvel movie. Its primary concern is being fun as hell and at that Cap 2 most certainly succeeds. But the subtext is there. Unlike The Dark World of Iron Man 3, both of which I enjoyed, The Winder Soldier kept me thinking long after I saw it.

The film’s examination of patriotism isn’t flawless. When Steve Rogers has a conversation with a black former soldier in which he compares the good old days to the now the polio vaccine and the internet both come up as cultural triumphs, but desegregation is entirely ignored. Indeed Winter Soldier can at times lean a little sharply into the ideal of The Greatest Generation, painting rebellion against authoritarian entities more as a response to a national fall from grace, rather than a constant force for social and political improvement.

Brought to you by Under Armor

Brought to you by Under Armor

Also, there’s this one part where he throws his shield around and it bounces off of all kinds of stuff and guys and knocks them all out… and then he catches it! And he does that craziness at least, like, three times.

By the end of Winter Soldier I think it’s safe to say that the Captain’s America is defined by that rebellion against tyranny, no matter the source. Sure, that’s an extremely malleable ideal, as what is and isn’t tyranny changes based on whose dumb signs you’re reading on a highway overpass, but it’s an enviable one nonetheless.

Sure, sure, The Winter Soldier is mostly performances and set pieces and direction and thrilling plot and biff, bam, pow, but it asks questions too. And while The Winter Soldier might fumble in its pursuit of the answers and doesn’t necessarily even end up retrieving answers at all, it asks questions worth considering for yourself.

 

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS:

1. Is the rebellion against authoritarianism a sign of the times, or a cultural constant?

2. Is it wrong that Marvel called a movie “The Winter Soldier” but released it in April?

3. Captain America uses a shield, but then those guys from that thing are also called S.H.I.E.L.D. Am I the only one picking up on this?

 

For more Marvel check out:

Thor 2? More like DORK WORLD

The Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Premiere

Iron Man 3

More Like “The DORK World,” or, Just Kidding I Really Liked Thor 2

I wasn’t a giant fan of Iron Man 3. At first. For whatever reason (haters hate here) it didn’t resonate with me when I watched it in theaters. But when I gave it a second viewing I thoroughly enjoyed it.

This was not the case with Thor: The Dark World.

LOOK AT ALL THE STUFF

LOOK AT ALL THE STUFF

I loved Thor: The Dark World immediately.

If someone were to describe a movie to me as a violently mashed together concoction of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Star Wars prequel trilogy I would think that the movie in question sounded dumb and that the someone describing it to me was a descriptive genius – you know, like you’re thinking right now.

The Dark World is an expansion of the action aesthetic found in the first act of the 2011 Thor film, full of realms and helms and all sorts of other fantastical nonsense. The Dark World doesn’t worry about being grounded any more than it worries about realism or grit. Of the eight movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe thus far it is the one deepest ingrained in comic book sensibilities, to the point that as they were unfolding I could imagine some scenes laid out on a page in panels and bubbles.

Part of that comic book sensibility stems from the impressive visuals throughout the movie. Much as one of my favorite parts of Captain America was the Norman Rockwell meets Jules Verne visuals, Dark World’s science-fantasy worlds, characters, weapons and gadgets are absolutely a highlight.

PEW PEW

PEW PEW

The Dark Elves look like ghoulish neo-Storm Troopers as they cram into their razor sharp star fighters and the tavern Thor and his bros and his platonic lady friend hang out at could just as easily be in the Shire, and yet it all jives. The original Thor movie made the mistake of taking an otherworldly demigod of a protagonist that stemmed from the pages of a book called Journey into Mystery and tying him to the exotic Middle of Nowhere, New Mexico. Hilarious as the juxtaposition may be, it was kind of a huge mistake, one that the Dark World doesn’t repeat.

But, as much as I wish I had something more academic than “it looks awesome” to say about Dark World, I kind of don’t. The story isn’t bad, the sequel certainly fares better than Iron Man 2, and Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston are the perfect Thor and Loki, but The Dark World probably won’t surprise you or leave you awake at night. Though, at this point, if you’re going to Marvel’s eighth installment in the Avengers’ mythos expecting high literature, you need to tilt your neck up and look a little higher.

BROS.

BROS.

For better or worse Marvel’s movies have never been, and probably never will be, sweeping dramatic opuses. There will never be a Marvel equivalent of The Dark Knight. And that’s fine by me. Marvel’s movies are adventure stories about good guys and bad guys throwing action at each other. And I think Marvel gets that.

Like it or not, Marvel’s movies have a very distinct tone. It’s a tone that lets them put out movies with styles as disparate as the pseudo-buddy-cop-Christmas-comedy Iron Man 3 and the otherworldly science-fantasy Dark World while still maintaining a sense of connection and continuity.

DC’s Nolan-verse is a contemplative dinner in a lavish café. It’s gorgeous and thought-provoking but it can get a little stuffy and you only go there once every two to four years. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is more akin to the closest place you can find to buy a burger after midnight.

And Dark World is one hell of a burger.

 

 

 

Get it?

Iron Man 3, or, Robert Downey Jr. and Some Other Things are in a Movie

Good or bad, this is essentially Iron Man 3 in a nutshell and/or a really funny parody of those "WAZUP" commercials from back in the day. AMIRIGHT!?

Good or bad, this is essentially Iron Man 3 in a nutshell and/or a really funny parody of those “WAZUP” commercials from back in the day. AMIRIGHT!?

Heads up – sort of spoilers for Iron Man 3 ahead I guess.

So turns out The Avengers actually happened and it turns out The Avengers actually didn’t suck. Go figure. Marvel pulled out all the stops (a.k.a. Joss Whedon) and successfully pulled together four different franchises stemming from five different movies and arguably made a movie far better than any of its predecessors while simultaneously making so, so, so much money you guys. Like, more money than you will ever see in your entire life. Like, Tag Romney money. Like Avengers money.

But as daunting a task as pulling together four different franchises into one massively successful film juggernaut that doesn’t suck is, making the follow up to that massively successful film juggernaut is no small undertaking either.

Basically – “Iron Man 3 is the first Marvel movie to come out since The Avengers, so, be interested or something.”

The third (and/or fourth) entry in the Iron Man franchise is essentially what you’d expect from a third entry in a movie franchise; it’s something of a bigger, badder Iron Man movie that is vaguely conclusive and comes with its very own Cousin Oliver kid because when you’re out of ideas audiences always love kids. Right?

After watching the entire credits reel and standard Marvel post-credits scene I had a feeling similar, if not identical, to what I felt at the end of Iron Man 2: “That movie wasn’t that good.”

Robert Downey Jr. is as always a fantastic Tony Stark, arguably turning in his best performance as the billionaire Bob the Builder yet. Stark’s arc sees him dealing with PTSD after his brief pre-shawarma foray into space madness. It’s something of a midlife crisis and while it isn’t quite as fun as the prospect of watching him struggle with the Demon in a Bottle it does give Downey the opportunity to stretch his character a little further than in previous performances. Unfortunately a franchise can only survive on the shoulders of one superbly entertaining performance for so long.

The film’s two romantic leads, for instance, both fall flat in their own flatly flat ways. Gwyneth Paltrow continues to rake in a no doubt ungodly amount of money filling the shoes of the “every super hero needs some lady to get kidnapped and get saved by him and kiss him and get angry at him and then get kidnapped again and get saved again and kiss him again and maybe roll her eyes along the way” archetype. Does she do a terrible job of filling that archetype? No. But it’s a bland archetype that evokes not only a similarly bland performance but a predictable turn of events in the film’s finale.

Paltrow is, however, leaps and bounds more tolerable then her costar Rebecca Hall, who plays a magic botanist that Tony Stark wienered one time when Limp Bizkit was still in their prime because before Y2K we all did it all for the nookie. Rebecca Hall turns in a familiar performance as the same sort of pouty, pathetic, insufferably helpless female lead we see her portray in the likes of The Town or The Prestige. I couldn’t help holding my breath for the moment her character would sad herself to death.

Don Cheadle has an entertaining turn as James Rhodes, a.k.a. War Machine, a.k.a. Iron Patriot, but The Cheads doesn’t get nearly enough screen time and War Machine gets almost none to the point where his only real action sequence is essentially comic relief. Say what you will about Iron Man 2, but the final shoot out in the atrium was a sight to behold and one that isn’t repeated, or even attempted, in Iron Man 3.

The villains in Iron Man 3 prove to be something of a mixed bag in that on one hand they are not carbon copies of Iron Man like the preceding entries in the Iron Man franchise but on the other hand none of them are Sam Rockwell. And on a third hand by the time the inevitable villainous end game was finally revealed I literally stood up in the middle of a crowded theater, hurled my empty popcorn bucket, empty zip lock bag, cutting board and credit card at the screen and screamed “no shit” at the top of my lungs while blood pumped out of my nose in rivers of fury-fueled ferocity.

But as I had time out of the theater to come down, blow my nose and think about what I’d seen, much like Iron Man 2, I found Iron Man 3 began to grow on me.

LOL@TERRORISM

LOL@TERRORISM

Is the villain’s end game ground breaking? No. But the motivations of the antagonist do serve as something of a counterpoint to Tony Stark’s own personal journey throughout the films thus far and while the inevitable big bad brilliant plan was pretty standard fare I can forgive the film that considering its adaptation of the villain The Mandarin.

Traditionally, the Mandarin is a stupid wizard with seven stupid power rings and I guess he’s supposed to be the stupid magical counterpart to Tony Stark’s scientifically granted powers or something. But at the end of the day he is at best the bad guy in a breakfast cereal commercial. What the writers of Iron Man 3 have done with Iron Man’s arch nemesis, however, fits perfectly into the world that has been crafted in the earlier Iron Man films and is arguably the most interesting aspect of the movie.

Additionally credit has to be given where credit is due – the directors Jon Favreau and Shane Black. Yeah, yeah, Jon Favreau, the director of the first two entries in the franchise isn’t helming the film this time around, but he’s still in for round three as Tony’s driver/bro-for-life Happy, and he provides solid comic relief.

Shane Black, the actual director, should also be credited for taking an interest in the hero Tony Stark is in his Converses and hoodie rather than in his Iron Man suit, which is clear to see when the finale approaches and neither Stark or Rhodes are in their armor. Had the rest of the movie gone for a more “Tony and Rhodie – Buddy Cops” vibe I can’t help but suspect it would have been the greatest movie ever made with the name “Iron Man 3.”

When all is said and done I’m definitely going to see Iron Man 3 again. It’s the kind of movie that’s destined to become a cable television staple on weekend afternoons because while it misses a lot of opportunities, at the end of the day, much like Downey and The Cheads, Iron Man 3 is charming. Not fantastic, mind you, but charming. Like when an ugly boy dresses up nice and asks a pretty girl out on a date.

I really thought by the time I finished writing my way through this Man of Steel would be out.