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Soldier and Spy

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) by Anthony and Joe Russo

I feel like it’s so much harder to write about a movie you liked than about one you disliked. Ranting is so much easier than saying why you liked something, why you’re excited about it. Or maybe it’s just me.

Well, I’m excited about this movie because I think it’s the best solo movie in the MCU so far. One of the things that makes it easy to love for me? I don’t have to think or feel self-conscious about the female characters in this because they’re not being put on display. They’re not treated as bodies but as characters. No, The Winter Soldier isn’t the first movie in the MCU to do this, but it’s the first time Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) is treated as a fully realized character and not just eye-candy and I’ve been waiting years for this to happen.

What else happens in Captain America: The Winter Soldier:

Pirates have taken over a ship that belongs to S.H.I.E.L.D.. Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow, and the S.H.I.E.L.D. critical response team under Brock Rumlow (Frank Grillo) infiltrate the ship and free the hostages. But in the middle of all this hassle, Black Widow downloads some critical data for Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) – the beginning of the end of S.H.I.E.L.D. as we’ve come to know it.

Suddenly, someone’s trying to kill Fury and he barely escapes to Steve’s apartment where he’s being shot at again – by someone Black Widow later refers to as a Russian myth: the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). Fury dies, Steve is accused of treason and hunted by S.H.I.E.L.D., and there are still more secrets to uncover where it all began.

Marvel movies are at its best when they leave their own conventions behind and become more than stories about superheroes. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is an excellent spy movie, first and foremost. We learn more about the agency Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) helped found after Steve disappeared and about its operatives, the counsel overseeing it, and Project Insight, a secret project allowing S.H.I.E.L.D. to spy on the world without it knowing.

And we learn why it all had to fail because Captain America is all about freedom and spying on its own people just isn’t the American way – well, not for Cap anyway.

As I said, Natasha is much more of a character here than she’s been before. We learn a little more about where she comes from and where her loyalties lie. And for once, she’s not pressed into a latex catsuit for the whole length of the movie – a relief, really. As the only female avenger so far, we needed to see her as more than her body parts and The Winter Soldier delivers here as in many other aspects. Again, it took Marvel too fucking long – female representation remains one of Marvel’s absolute weak points – but they present us with a great character. The source material for all those female heroes is already in place if the MCU would only choose to use it. Here they do, and it turns out great. More of that, please.

An important introduction in this movie is Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie), of course. He’s the one who’s going to pick up the shield and become Captain America after Avengers: Endgame. Something to be excited about and Sam is certainly a hero. Falcon quickly became a favorite for me but with him (and Rhodey) as with female heroes, there’s the question of why it takes Marvel so long to represent HoC (Heroes of Color)? We’re in the 2000s and it’s still serve white, straight dudes first – this shit just has to stop. I hope this will start to change in Phase IV.

I’m putting all these negatives here because there’s really not much to say about the movie. It’s as perfect a solo hero movie as Marvel ever made. Captain America becomes a little bit edgier, less of a mindless soldier type who just follows orders. His relationship to the Winter Soldier will cause problems around the corner. There are a lot of things that will stay with the character, Steve Rogers, that make him more relatable. His new friendships, one with Natasha, the other with Sam, will become even more important in Captain America: Civil War.

Yes, context is important for this movie. The character of Rumlow, for example, will be back with a vengeance and it’s good to remember him from this movie or else the beginning of Civil War becomes a little bit of a question mark. Then there is the first glimpse of the twins: Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Pietro Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) in the mid-credit scene. And also the annihilation of S.H.I.E.L.D. which isn’t just important for the tv show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. but for the whole MCU.

The Winter Soldier changed a lot, it brought some of the best characters into the MCU or made great characters of heretofore cardboard characters (and, yes, that includes Bucky Barnes). I would always recommend you watch it whenever you want to watch an MCU movie for fun because it’s just a really good movie. It brought the Russo brothers into the fold, too, so…

Next: Guardians of the Galaxy (I could really do without Star-Lord, how about you?)

 

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The God and the Darkness

Thor: The Dark World (2013) by Alan Taylor

Story time with Odin (Anthony Hopkins) – Before there was anything, there was darkness and into this darkness the dark elves were born. They ruled until light brought other creatures crawling and at one point, Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) thought to bring back darkness using a weapon called the Ether. However, Odin’s father, Bor (Tony Curran), defeated him and the Ether, which couldn’t be destroyed, was buried. Malekith escaped but was never heard from again.

Once again, we’re entering an epic tale. How can you tell? You’re being treated to a prologue narrated by Anthony Hopkins. I never really thought about this before but I actually like this bombastic kind of storytelling, the Thor movies have some pathos to them that the other hero movies lack. Strangely, I remembered Thor: The Dark World as boring. I was wrong, though.

The nine realms are aligning. What Heimdall (Idris Elba) views as something fascinating, on Earth, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) is riddled with scientific curiosity – and maybe the slight hope that she may see Thor (Chris Hemsworth) again. As she goes to explore, she falls through an anomalie onto the dark elves’s homeworld and rediscovers the Ether. It engulfs her body, forming a symbiosis.

Since Thor has been with Heimdall as this happens, his friend informs him that he can’t see Jane anymore and Thor is quick to get back to Earth to find her. He does as Jane is now back, but she’s changed, she’s sick. Odin informs them that the Ether is feeding on Jane’s lifeforce. That’s not the only problem, though, as Malekith has awakened with the reemergence of the Ether – and he wants his weapon back.

Everything seems so much bigger in the Thor movies, not just the hero but the level of destruction (it’s probably no wonder that Hulk fits into this world so well). I guess when Gods are involved everything is more dramatic. However, as Odin informs us, Asgardians aren’t really Gods, they just live longer than, say, humans. But they’re not immortal as is proven in this movie by the death of Frigga (Rene Russo), Thor and Loki’s (Tom Hiddleston) mother, Odin’s wife.

She’s killed and hence serves – as so many female characters before her – as sacrifice to the heroic tale of a male hero. Yeah, it’s a lame trope that’s still being beaten like the proverbial dead horse. Apparently, in male storytelling there is no greater sacrifice a woman can make than to offer herself as raison d’etre for a vengeful saga of male heroism. Luckily for Thor, he’s blessed with more female characters that surround him than most, so…

Am I honestly supposed to care about this anymore? It’s not like men are self-aware enough to change lame tropes like this. Did I like Frigga? Hell, yeah, she was a badass but we’ve only got to see that side of her for five minutes before she died. I love Rene Russo having played her. And I would be seriously mad about this turn of events if I wasn’t so fucking used to it.

But as I said, there are more female characters to care about. I think if I was pressed to name one thing that the first two Thor movies had that Ragnarok didn’t, something that would’ve made it better: more female protagonists. Basically, Ragnarok has two – Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and Hella (Cate Blanchett). Jane, Darcy (Kat Dennings), Lady Sif (Jaimie Alexander), nowhere to be seen. And if I remember correctly, it also makes Ragnarok the only Thor solo movie that doesn’t pass the Bechdel test, think about that.

Well, Thor: The Dark World does because Jane and Darcy are still sciencing. Nothing much has changed really from the first movie. It’s a sequel and as such no better and no worse than Thor. Maybe you think that Malekith wasn’t a really good villain (here we go with the villain-problem again), but who do you compare him to at this point? The solo movie villains (except for Loki) have mostly been lame so far. I would say, Malekith ranges somewhere between Obidiah Stane and Ivan Vanko, he’s certainly no worse than Aldrich Killian, but then, who is?

On the whole, I recognize now that I do understand much better what these movies are about. When I watched Thor: The Dark World in the theater there was a lot that I didn’t get. I wasn’t just bored, I was simply drowning in deep water. There’s a lot to this story that justifies a rewatch, after all, the Infinity Stones are first referenced here – in the mid-credit scene. We get to see Loki die once again, only to have him inhabit the Asgardian throne at the end. Yes, Frigga’s death is sad and annoying, but on the whole, Thor: The Dark World is a solid entrance in the MCU. Its biggest fault is that it’s not something we haven’t seen before.

Next: Captain America: The Winter Soldier (arguably the best solo movie within the MCU)

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A Hero’s Demons

Iron Man 3 (2013) by Shane Black

Iron Man is back with a new director. The hero’s third solo movie is a mess – you may think it’s a solid movie but it’s really not. It’s the one I’ll be hating on unasked until the end of my days. Why? I’m not quite sure, there are enough reasons. Let’s have a look at them.

But first, as always, here’s what happens:

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) has PTSD. The things that happened in New York left him paralyzed with fear, he can’t sleep, and he’s got panic attacks. On top of that, there’s a new threat that America faces: the Mandarin. He’s attacking the free world with bombings that don’t seem to use bombs.

Meanwhile, Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) isn’t very happy with Tony as he takes little time for her but rather tinkers in his workshop. Tony tries to tell her about his fears but then his Iron Man suit attacks Pepper when she tries to help him and things get positively rocky when an ex-girlfriend appears at his door.

What a mess! Really, I hate this movie. On some level, I know that it’s watchable but there are a lot of things I don’t like and they just culminate into what is probably the worst MCU entry to date. You don’t believe me? You actually like it better than Iron Man 2? That’s your prerogative but let’s have a closer look at Iron Man 3:

I think the first problem is the narration, having Tony Stark tell this story in voiceover takes away some imminent threat. Think about the scene where he almost drowns. Of course, we kinda sorta know that he’ll be all right but the voiceover makes sure that we do know. There’s no real threat, we know Tony will be all right and that also extends to Pepper because if she weren’t Tony wouldn’t be telling this story. He would probably have disappeared in a hole somewhere.

In the beginning, Tony tells us about demons he’s raised and it all started at a conference in Bern in 1999 where Tony meets three people that will make their mark on him. First, there is Jinsen (Shaun Toub), the man who in a cave somewhere in the middle east will save his life. Tony brushes him off. Then there’s Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall), a beautiful woman who also happens to be a genius working on DNA that can spontaneously repair itself. While Tony tries to help her with the kinks she still has to work out, he seems more interested in sleeping with her – which he does before he leaves her the next morning. The third one is Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), the founder of A.I.M., a think tank. He’s what you may call the worst stereotype of a nerd, but also rather obnoxious. Tony tells him they’ll talk on the roof and never shows.

So his demons consist of a woman he slept with and never called and a guy he left waiting on the roof on New Year’s Eve? Considering the kind of asshole we’re to believe he was that’s a short and rather tame list. It seems that Tony’s ego once again gets the best of him and wants him to believe that he”s responsible for what happened. Neither Hansen or Killian seem that traumatized, to be honest, and Killian’s focus seems to lie more on Pepper than Tony. He calls her his trophy after capturing her and injecting her with that still unstable serum Hansen has concocted. The one thing we really don’t need in the MCU is a villain who uses the love interest to hurt the hero. As if they weren’t treating their female characters worse enough already!

They are and case in point is this movie because, in the first drafts of the screenplay, Maya Hansen was the villain, not Aldrich Killian. But Marvel was concerned about (get this!) toy sales. They didn’t think anyone would buy a female villain toy and that’s why Hall’s role was cut down and changed to what it became, a one-night-stand with a grudge.

I don’t really have words about how fucked up this is. Ultimately, Aldrich Killian is the worst villain the MCU probably has. One that makes no sense at all. I mean, Hansen really had to resort to working with THAT guy? She invented something genius, she probably could’ve been funded by universities or the government with what she was doing but instead, she chose THAT guy. That’s mind-boggling.

And it’s the worst part about this movie – the villain(s). Compared to the reveal which wasn’t really surprising by the way the movie has been set up (with Tony’s narration), the fake Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) is rather amusing. It’s a commentary on how we perceive terrorists, our prejudices. This commentary is, however, overshadowed by the white-washing of another Asian character because it turns out that Killian is the Mandarin.

Basically, the whole villain storyline is stupid and sexist and racist. The worst. And that’s frustrating because there are parts of this movie that are way better than most of Iron Man 2. Like when Tony bonds with that kid, Harley (Ty Simpkins), in Tennessee. How he deals with his PTSD (except for the end-credit scene, that was just Marvel making a joke of everything), how he tries to let Pepper in and not repeat his mistakes from the second movie. He’s become a better man and there’s growth in the character. But all the rest of the movie is so messed up you hardly notice it.

And that’s why I hate this movie.

Next: Thor: The Dark World (I just noticed that the German title is Thor: The Dark Kingdom, what’s that all about?)

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Are We a Team Yet?

The Avengers (2012) by Joss Whedon

In Captain America: The First Avenger, the main villain Johann Schmidt/Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) retrieves an ancient artifact from a guarded crypt in Norway. The powers of this artifact, from now on known as the Tesseract, are not revealed but it seems to be an unlimited power source. Schmidt uses it to power his weapons, he also dies at the end of the movie from touching it. We see it fall into the ocean and being later retrieved by a search party looking for Captain America.

Present day: the Tesseract resides in a S.H.I.E.L.D. facility that is in the process of being evacuated because this ancient power source has somehow been turned on.

This is the beginning of Marvel’s The Avengers.

Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is back from the dead and collaborates with others to take over Earth. He’s given a mythical scepter together with instructions to take the Tesseract. So he does, he also takes Dr. Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) and Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) as his mind-controlled slaves. Despite the fact that the Avengers Initiative has been scrapped, Fury (Samuel L.Jackson) still brings Banner (now Mark Ruffalo), Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), and Rogers (Chris Evans) together to get the Tesseract back.

However, when they capture Loki, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) appears and wants to bring his brother home. A fight between the heroes ensues but is solved when Thor agrees to join the group and have Loki imprisoned on a S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier. Only, it seems that that was Loki’s plan all along…

This is the movie in which Marvel first assembles its first Avengers team and it is a truly magnificent movie. Of course, younger me undermines me once again in this post. Nothing of what I formerly said about The Avengers holds true (except that I still very much respect and love Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man), especially not what I said about Whedon. Eight years is a long time and I’ve come to love the franchise, or maybe I just came to understand it.

The Avengers is also the end of Phase I in the MCU, it combines all the solo movies, all the singular heroes, puts them together in a group that is bigger than its components (yes, bigger even than Tony Stark’s ego). And I think the size of it is what you take away from it. The plot, the fights, everything gets a wider scope. We’re introduced to the big bad guy (Thanos) without being told who he is (comic book fans know, of course, the rest of us is like: is that guy pink?).

This is the first time, Loki is resurrected. He hasn’t been the most remarkable bad guy in Thor, I would even suggest that Thor doesn’t have what you’d call a bad guy. Loki is family, and at the level he operates in Thor it seems more like a family squabble than having an opponent to defeat. Thor’s origin is a lot more about himself than about setting up Loki as a bad guy. Maybe that’s why he operates on a far more familiar level than anyone else could in The Avengers. He’s become a worthy opponent, even if we already know that there are bigger villains behind him. In my other review, I wrote that he’s bad at being bad and I stand with that. He always tries to be the tough guy but then he’s beaten senseless by the Hulk. He lacks the authority of a truly evil villain, he’s mischievous (God of Mischief, after all) and his story from here on out confirms that.

The Avengers, on the other hand, are true good guys but at this point, they’re still individuals, not a team. They struggle with each other, with not being the biggest hero in the room anymore. With having a God in their midst, a guy that was on trading cards in the 1940s, one that could obliterate them all if he lost his temper, and one that just wants to be the one calling the shots. And then there’s Black Widow, the wild card, one that we don’t know much about (and after this outing it seem ridiculous that we don’t have a Black Widow movie but the makers at Marvel are still resisting at this point). I’m reluctant to calling Hawkeye a team member here, probably because he’s Loki’s puppet for most of the movie which makes him kind of the weakest link. But he holds his own in the final battle and that makes him part of the Avengers.

It doesn’t help that Loki’s scepter is throwing a wedge into any kind of amiable conversation at this point, but the team comes together slowly and only when they’re challenged to. The group forms for the big fight in New York, Banner takes a big step by not running away again after he loses his temper on the helicarrier. But the Avengers isn’t a fully formed group, nothing too tight. And maybe they never really will be. The fact that they fight well together, that they’re friendly in the future never really seems to signify that they’re friends. Considering that Civil War is right around the corner, the Avengers team-up seems very fragile at this point. It doesn’t help that the man (Nick Fury) who brings them together and the organization (S.H.I.E.L.D.) behind him have their own agenda.

The counsel behind S.H.I.E.L.D. seems really deviant at this point, outlines of people on screens that only Fury is allowed to talk to, people who scrapped the Avengers Initiative and instead set their money on having Tesseract-powered weapons – just like Hydra did in the 40s. And ultimately deciding to nuke New York. It doesn’t bode well and is possibly the set-up for the big Hydra-reveal in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

And this is just one more point to prove that The Avengers brings all the strings together and puts new ones out into the second phase of the MCU. The Avengers makes us hungry for more, just like the heroes are hungry in the end credit scene. It says: this is only the beginning – and what a beginning it was!

Next: Iron Man 3 (the movie I truly hate)

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A Challenge

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) by Joe Johnston

It was just after this movie came out that I think I realized the scope of the MCU for the first time. That there would always be more movies and more stories. And I was reluctant to enter into something that asked for a commitment. So this is one of the movies I skipped at the movies and it wasn’t really a hard choice. I mean, with Iron Man I was curious what Robert Downey Jr. still had in him; The Incredible Hulk I also did not see at the movies because I really didn’t care and didn’t know the movies would be connected. With Thor, there was my interest in mythic stories (I’m more of a Greek myth person, really, but I don’t mind the Norse Gods at all) and it was directed by Kenneth Branagh.

When I finally did watch Captain America, I did like it and also him but my initial reluctance may actually be linked to a bigger problem the first avenger faces worldwide.

What happens in the movie?

Skinny little Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) wants to fight in World War II but being skinny and little are only two problems that have recruitment bureaus rejecting him. Seeing his buddy Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) in his uniform doesn’t exactly boost Steve’s confidence but then a chance encounter with Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) lands Steve one of the top spots in a very special recruitment competition – one to make a supersoldier.

Suffice it to say, Steve wins that competition – not by being the best or strongest but by being compassionate and smart. He becomes a supersoldier but he remains the first and only one because Erskine is assassinated right after making Steve big and strong. The army loses interest in an experiment that can’t be continued and Steve is forced to help the war effort by selling war bonds. Until the day he learns that his friend Bucky has been captured and possibly killed by the enemy.

It’s strange looking at the concept of this film and realizing how many boxes it ticks with me. I don’t necessarily come from a superhero-loving background but the 1940s have a special place in my heart – movie-wise. I’m also interested in history, especially WWII. And who doesn’t love an underdog story?

Captain America, though? The hero’s title doesn’t really invite international audiences, does it? You don’t need to be anti-American to be little enthused about a hero that seems to embody America’s special brand of patriotism. The German distributor of Marvel films actually chose to drop the Captain America-part for the second and third movies, calling them The Return of the First Avenger and The First Avenger: Civil War respectively. This first outing of Captain America made around 370 million Dollars worldwide, only The Incredible Hulk made less. Successful? Yes, but not an instant hit.

Many of us probably only started liking Steve Rogers when he became part of the avengers. It’s a pity, though, because Captain America: The First Avenger is a great movie. Steve is instantly likable, even as he struggles with multiple illnesses that keep him on the short side. He wants to fight, he thinks he has no right to stay home when others lay down their lives. He’s a good guy and that’s what makes him the perfect candidate for the supersoldier program.

The likability of the character is an important factor, especially considering international audiences. But it also makes Steve a little bit bland. He operates in a politically divisive climate and the filmmakers were very aware to make Steve inoffensive. This is not about killing Nazis, really, it’s about modern audiences viewing a time in which it was not just okay but necessary to kill Nazis. Having a good guy kill people (and Captain America probably killed more people than any of the other Avengers) is problematic. And so Steve is a nice guy, a guy we trust in to do the right thing. To further us being okay with him killing Nazis, they made Hydra a faceless mass (yes, they went a step further by making the main antagonist literally faceless), they’re just people in black combat uniform with masks over their faces.

I guess all this explains why the first avenger is also the last to arrive on the scene, just before The Avengers is released. So much was build on how successful Iron Man was but it was also crucial that the other avengers did well. Making Steve inoffensive, making Hydra faceless, at the same time making The Howling Commandoes more diverse (with an Asian-American, a French, and a British soldier in their mix) than they were in the comics, and going as far as giving Steve a Britsh love interest in Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), everything was designed to appeal to a wide audience. Only, in Captain America, it shows more than in the other movies.

It’s still a great movie, underrated I think. I really like Steve Rogers but I LOVE Peggy Carter. Maybe it’s because, thanks to the tv show Agent Carter, I’ve spent more time with her than with Steve or any of the other avengers. It’s really a pity that she’s stuck in her time period and thus less accessible to the wider MCU stories. They put her in as often as they could and I’m glad for it. Agent Carter should’ve had a longer run, Peggy’s one of my faves.

A little sidenote: I’m glad, Captain America: The First Avenger didn’t have American actors attempt to speak German. It’s really difficult to understand them in most cases because their speech rhythm is usually off. Instead, they opted for the ‘German’ characters to have German accents in their English. Hugo Weaving does an especially good job at this. They probably did it for English-speaking audiences but as a German viewer, I’m ever so grateful.

Well, if you can make time and give this a rewatch I’m sure you won’t regret it. In light of what happened in Endgame, I think it’s nice to see how Steve and Peggy’s romance started (I like them together, of course, if I had a say in it I would’ve liked for Steve to be with Bucky and Peggy to be with Angie but as long as it has to be heteronormative…).

Next: The Avengers (where everything comes together)

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God Among Mortals

Thor (2011) by Kenneth Branagh

Upon first reading that Kenneth Branagh had directed a comic book movie, I was a bit confused. Mind you, that was before he did Cinderella but after he did most of my favorite Shakespeare adaptations. The fault wasn’t really with him, I guess, but with me, because I considered comic book movies mere action movies (considering I’d watched Iron Man and Iron Man 2 up to this point, who could fault me?). I guess you could say that I wouldn’t have bothered if Branagh hadn’t been the director. You can read my early thoughts on Thor here, though my scope was admittedly a bit narrow back then.

So, let’s try again:

Odin (Anthony Hopkins) tells his sons, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston), about the time he beat the frost giants on Earth and took the source of their power from them. Years later, on the day that was supposed to make Thor king of Asgard, a small group of frost giants tries to steal that power source back – and fails. But the event spurs Thor to forget his father’s warning and go to fight the frost giants once more – and almost loses but for the fact that his father intervenes.

Odin takes Mjolnir (the source of his power) from Thor and casts him out – he falls onto earth where he’s hit by a car. Three scientists, among them Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), try and support Thor on his quest to reclaim Mjolnir while in Asgard, Loki makes a grab for Odin’s crown.

In my other review, I said Thor was entertaining yet forgettable. I hadn’t yet grasped the connection between this one and the movies I had already watched (as I said, I was a babe in the woods), and the friend who tried to educate me had only done a superfluous job (or wasn’t aware of all the implications yet). Anyway, of the first outings of all our favorite superheroes, this one is far from forgettable. It’s actually quite epic.

And here comes my astonishment over the director at play because while Kenneth Branagh might have been an odd choice of director for a comic book movie, he certainly isn’t an odd choice for a director of an epic (almost Shakespearean) tale. Thor is a story about Gods, about power, about scientific exploration, and Thor learning humility. It has several well-told layers to its narrative, going way back to the time of the Vikings here on Earth and combining it with our time where Thor falls to Earth just to be hit by a car.

Where you have Branagh, you have visual splendor and you also have a great cast: Anthony Hopkins, Rene Russo, Natalie Portman, Stellan Skarsgard, and Colm Feore are recognizable veteran actors who star alongside newcomers (at the time) Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Kat Dennings, and Idris Elba. The list goes on.

I can think of few directors who could’ve introduced us to Asgard in the same way Branagh did, and yes, I’m kind of a Branagh fan. He’s got a rather vintage style, very elaborate, a little bit show-offy, and I like it – mostly. There’s a certain amount of ego that usually makes it onto the screen with him and I think it’s no coincidence that Thor’s beard is more reddish than blond in this one – Branagh probably would’ve liked to play the God of Thunder himself.

Of course, Chris Hemsworth is more impressive, physically. His good looks and physique go a long way in representing what Thor is about. But he also makes him likable, charming. Hemsworth may not have the acting chops some of the other heroes in the MCU have but he makes one fantastic Thor and by next year he’ll be the only one with four solo movies.

I’m focusing a lot on the actors here. I guess with this kind of franchise, where there are already fans of the original text, it’s especially important to have the right actor play the part. Can you imagine Tom Cruise playing Iron Man? Do you want to? No, I don’t think so. The actors make these roles, or as in Edward Norton’s case, they don’t. Norton was a great Banner but he gave the role up and fans seem to like Mark Ruffalo way better in the part. People were probably critical of a no-name playing Thor but Hemsworth won everyone over.

Thor is a very impressive film. You have lots of protagonists and changes of places. I’m sure I didn’t follow the whole plot when I first watched it and was very impressed last night by the sheer magnitude of the film. It’s huge, not just from the visual point of view (it’s magnificent to look at), but the narrative is complex and we have multiple sets of players in multiple scenes. Branagh directed it well and it’s a pity that he withdrew from Thor: The Dark World.

If you haven’t watched Thor in a while, give it another go. It’s really worth watching again. It’s a great origin story for the God of Thunder and we may not see him in this way again.

Next: Captain America: The First Avenger (which I didn’t see at the movies)

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What’s Missing Here

Black Widow (2010) by Absolutely Nobody

Before I go on to talk about Thor, I wanna take this space to talk about a missed opportunity. Because between Iron Man and Thor, there should have been Black Widow. Ideally, an origin story but I think many of us would’ve even gone for whatever happened in Budapest with Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) and Barton (Jeremy Renner) – now we’ll never know.

And it still makes me mad, to be honest. The one thing, the DCEU did right (and better than MCU) was not to sideline their female hero. They were positive that Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) would sell and sell she did – in a movie that most people (me included) would consider their best so far.

I already talked about how little I liked Black Widow’s introduction in Iron Man 2 but the problem got bigger from there because Marvel chose to ignore it. I came to the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a babe, I knew nothing about the characters and only by chance did I become a fan. What always irked me, however, was the treatment of the female heroes, how they were seemingly forgotten. I’m aware this doesn’t just apply to female heroes, it applies to anyone who’s not white and straight, but for me it was most striking with Black Widow because I didn’t recognize her as a hero.

This doesn’t often happen to me. I usually very clearly identify people’s rightful place within a narrative but when Romanoff came out of nowhere in the donut shop (in a black latex catsuit, no less) I was at a total loss what Tony’s (Robert Downey Jr.) assistant was doing there. I mean, I was kinda aware that Natalie Rushman was something else, maybe a corporate spy or something… but a hero…

All right, you may say that she’s not technically a hero with her background of being a double and triple spy. Or maybe you simply don’t think of her as a hero because ‘well, she works for S.H.I.E.L.D. and also they didn’t give her her own movie’ (I hope you read that in annoying internet troll fanboy voice). But that’s exactly the point. Marvel chose not to give her a movie, didn’t even think she needed one. And that was their mistake, not Black Widow’s.

She’s a hero and Marvel did her dirty. They’re trying now to remedy that fact with a kind of cinematical homage but too long they have ignored us telling them we wanted a Black Widow movie. In about two months, there will be a Black Widow movie and I’m going to watch it, too. But I do feel that at this point it’s bound to disappoint. Because almost ten years have passed from when they had the perfect opportunity to introduce us to Natasha Romanoff, ten years!

We saw her in Iron Man 2 and after taking out Hammer’s complete security team we were like: ‘WHO THAT?! WE WANT!’ But they did not give, instead they made her out to be some sort of personal bodyguard/spy to Nick Fury and eye-candy within the film. They basically assassinated her character before they even told us that she was an assassin.

This is one example of a bigger problem, though. Marvel has pushed female characters into a margin early on. We have the Pepper Potts-characters – love interests to the hero and in a way certainly reward to the hero. And then we have the Christina Everharts – secondary female characters who’re little more than eye-candy, can also be the comical relief or even the villain, I guess. And that’s basically it. They didn’t make space for a female hero. Maybe they thought along the line, maybe, there would be a Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), or a Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), but can you honestly tell me that they even planned to give any of them their own movie? Had DC not made Wonder Woman would there even be a Captain Marvel movie?

I think not, and that’s a problem. Yes, now they’re trying to remedy that fact. With a Black Widow movie, with an Eternals movie (where some of the male characters have been made female), with putting Wasp on the same level as Ant-Man. But it’s so late. Equal representation is not something you sit and wait on, and that goes for all types of humans. If you plan to open a universe, don’t sit on more than 50% of your characters… and I can’t believe I still have to spell that out in 2020!

Can you imagine the kind of stories we could’ve already had, had they put out an early Black Widow movie? And origin story for Black Widow – and have you read about her origin, holy shit! Or an extra-cool spy thriller! Or maybe both? She could’ve killed so many world leaders already! (That last one is my special brand of humor, deal with it!) The Maximofs could’ve had their own movie, Hope Van Dyne could’ve been the Wasp all along… missed opportunities.

If you think that all this is redundant, you’re welcome to your own opinion. But I think as long as this doesn’t change, and one female superhero movie doesn’t mean change – it’s more of a bandaid, really – it must be said. As much as I love Marvel movies, I hate that they dropped the ball on this.

So, Marvel, dear Marvel, give me more female heroes. Make so many movies about female heroes (and black heroes and brown heroes and queer heroes) that their numbers equal those of straight white heroes. Because everybody goes to the movies and everybody likes to see themselves represented (and might actually watch a movie with their special representation more than once).

Next: Thor (for real, this time)

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A Hero Faulters

Iron Man 2 (2010) by Jon Favreau

I think I could watch this movie every day and still not see why people hate it so much. I’ve actually already written a review of it after I first watched it and while I wasn’t super-enthusiastic, I still deemed it a good movie. That hasn’t changed. (What has, is my harsh opinion on plastic surgery, feel free to ignore that paragraph.)

The plot goes as follows:

Tony Stark is dying. The palladium core in the arc reactor in his chest is poisoning him and he can’t find an element to exchange it. So while he’s opening the Stark Convention (a year-long exhibition showcasing innovative technological ideas, a throwback to what his father [John Slattery] used to do), he’s rather on edge, taking unnecessary risks.

Meanwhile, in Russia, a man named Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) is building his own version of Tony’s arc reactor from an old schematic bearing his father’s and Howard Stark’s names. When they finally meet (on a racetrack in Monaco), the world gets a glimpse of an Iron Man that could be beaten by his own invention. While Tony is determined not to let that happen again, even his allies start to turn against him.

The Tony Stark we meet in the beginning is not the larger-than-life, devil-may-care egomaniac we cared for in the first movie. The new Tony has an edge to him because he already knows he’s dying. And his Iron Man suit, the thing he feels makes him a better version of himself, is advancing his demise. Against JARVIS’ (the voice of Paul Bettany) advice, he doesn’t even tell Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) about his condition, instead, he aims to push her away.

Is this what people dislike about the movie? A more vulnerable Tony Stark who, on top of that, also has a boatload of daddy issues in this movie? If that’s so: well, every female character ever written by a man has to deal with these things as well, so get over yourself. I’m not saying I like this version of Tony better but it’s a believable one if you care to look beyond his passive-aggressive dick-behavior. And Downey Jr. plays it like the brilliant actor he is.

One thing, I just remembered, that I didn’t like about Iron Man 2 (something less apparent in Iron Man unless you remember that one scene on Tony’s jet): women as eye-candy. Women as mere distractions. While Iron Man 2 (magically) passes the Bechdel test, Iron Man doesn’t even try (it’s all about Tony, all the time, with the ladies). The poor choice of treating everyone but Pepper Potts as eye-candy sadly includes Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson). Yes, she’s formidable, she can stand her own against multiple opponents but for most of the movie, she’s just someone Tony pants after. Building a hero in this way takes away a lot of her industry and I think it’s one of the reasons so many fanboys don’t value her as a hero on her own. From her standpoint, she did her job, she did it well but for her character development, this whole situation can be deemed demeaning. (And what’s with Kate Mara being used in that 10-second stint? Burning great actresses much?)

There’s always talk about Iron Man’s enemies, how they’re not the best villains they could’ve saddled Tony with. Agreed, but since the series started something much bigger, shouldn’t we admit that they couldn’t have started with the likes of Thanos? I mean, they were building a world for the long-haul. Having Jeff Bridges as Iron Monger and Mickey Rourke as Whiplash doesn’t feel like a letdown to me, just two guys who, for different reasons, wanted Tony to suffer and die. And they’re not overwhelming Tony’s own story which is still developing. Where the third movie is concerned, yeah, I agree, BAD villain, but I’ll come to that after I rewatched that disaster.

Pardon me if I seem to lecture, I just like this movie. I think it’s at least as entertaining as the first one, while I got a little more love for a good origin story. The characters act believably. Maybe Justin Hammer is a little bit too much of a caricature but he seems to be what happens if a man with a small… penis happens upon Tony Stark. He can’t compete and he knows it and Sam Rockwell is just the man to play this to the max (have you noticed his hands? Hilarious!).

So maybe give this a rewatch, tell me what you think. I think as far as a developing superhero story goes, Iron Man 2 is a worthy successor of Iron Man. Why everybody felt like trashing it in hindsight, I cannot say. On my list of favorites (which I will probably have to revise at the end), this movie is #15 (with Iron Man at #7).

Next: Thor (by Kenneth Branagh?)

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The Outcast

The Incredible Hulk (2008) by Louis Leterrier

On a list I made last year of my favorite to least favorite Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, this one ranked last. I actually claimed that I liked the Ang Lee movie, Hulk (2003), better. I’m not sure where I am on that statement but I freely admit that The Incredible Hulk is better than I remembered.

This is basically why I do this whole rewatch and reassess because watching all these movies in relation to every other MCU movie is important. I didn’t understand when I first watched this movie how big its world is. And yet, of course, The Incredible Hulk is the one movie that could be said to have been left behind by the MCU.

Let’s look at the plot:

Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) is living in hiding in Brazil, working a menial job at a soda bottle plant. He’s learning to breathe through his anger, is taking self-defense classes, and looks at a picture of his ex Betty Ross (Liv Tyler) a lot. But he’s still a hunted man because General Ross (William Hurt) wants to extract the secret of Banner’s angry alter ego to make supersoldiers.

The hunt starts after a soda contaminated with Banner’s blood has been consumed (by none other than Stan Lee) and the man leading this hunt is Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth), a very vicious and ambitious man. He will stop at nothing to capture Banner and defeat the Hulk, while he transforms into something even worse than what he’s hunting.

There’s a lot to unpack here, especially since the film feels a lot longer than Iron Man. It’s not as action-packed, it’s also not an origin story. Marvel must have felt that after the 2003 movie (made by Universal who had the rights to The Hulk and still owns distribution rights for the hero [there are rumors about a change in this but nothing seems definite at this point]) and the well-known 1960s tv show, they didn’t need to delve into the origin story again. Instead, they used the intro to the movie to mark Banner’s becoming Hulk and Ross’ obsession with catching him.

This is very well done. Yes, you have to pay a little more attention to the intro than you normally would (at least, if you don’t know Hulk’s origin) but the story can move on from here and focus on Banner’s struggle to keep control. And this is, after all, the interesting part of Banner – the Dr. Jekyell and Mr. Hyde conundrum, the fight against one’s own inner beast. Once the beast is unleashed, The Incredible Hulk becomes more of a creature feature than a superhero movie.

This is probably at the core of Marvel’s struggle with this character, why The Incredible Hulk isn’t as successful as its other movies. And why they abandoned the hero as a standalone after just one movie: when the Hulk is teaming up with other heroes, we get his best – the smashing, him fighting against the biggest and strongest opponents. But when we have just Hulk then we need another ‘monster’ as an adversary and the result is something more akin to Kong vs. Godzilla than Iron Man fighting Iron Monger or Whiplash.

According to actor Tim Blake Nelson, he was asked to play Dr. Samuel Sterns for three movies total but the additional two movies (probably Hulk stand-alones) never materialized. The Incredible Hulk hints at his change into the Leader but the character is never heard from again in the whole MCU. The same goes for Betty Ross, for Blonsky/Abomination. The only character beside Banner/Hulk who reappears in other movies is General Ross – a less insufferable version of him anyway. Whole storylines seem to have vanished into thin air. Why? Because The Incredible Hulk wasn’t as successful as Marvel hoped? Because of distribution conflicts between Universal and Disney after Disney took over Marvel? Or maybe because Edward Norton abandoned the character after one outing?

Whatever the reason, Marvel pretty much forgot about its second installment of the Cinematic Universe. Which is a shame because it’s not a bad movie at all. It may not have Iron Man’s pizzazz or Captain America’s level-headed wholesomeness, but Banner never was the kind of hero Stark or Rogers were. His hero-persona is basically outside himself, is his own worst enemy at the beginning. Learning to work with his green alter ego is Banner’s story and it’s well-executed here.

You don’t believe me? Go back, watch it again with all you now know about Banner’s and Hulk’s roles in the MCU. It may surprise you.

I think what you can see in The Incredible Hulk more than in any other of the MCU’s movies is how it was still trying to get its footing. It may be its darkest entry and it may actually be worth watching just because it doesn’t rely on catchy one-liners and quips. It has a unique feel, one that differs a lot from all the other entries in the MCU. Maybe it would’ve been more successful if it had been done later, maybe not. Judge for yourself, but I may go back over my favorites list after I rewatched all the movies and change The Incredible Hulk‘s place on it.

Next: Iron Man 2 (the one everyone hates but me)

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A Hero Emerges

Iron Man (2008) by Jon Favreau

It’s been almost twelve years since Iron Man graced the big screens with his inflated ego, his quips, and a new cool-nerd presence. You may wonder why I chose to write about him now that his story seems officially over within the Marvel Cinematic Universe that he launched.

Well, I’m in the process of going back, you see. To the beginning. When I didn’t feel compelled to watch all MCU movies at the theater, to when I didn’t even know about most of Marvel’s heroes and wasn’t really interested either way.

ironman-poster

You see, Iron Man and Marvel have changed my perception and understanding of superheroes in much the same way that Kenneth Branagh and Much Ado About Nothing changed my understanding of Shakespeare – in that they made it possible. Up until Iron Man, the most I’d seen of superheroes were Batman (who I don’t like as a character) and Superman (whose 80s movies are awfully dated and whose 90s show I can’t watch anymore because Dean Cain voted for Trump), so I’m not what you call target audience for any kind of superhero franchise. There’s the added difficulty that while I loved 90s superhero shows, they all had female protagonists (what a time to be alive to watch Xena: Warrior Princess, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Star Trek: Voyager within the same week, that’s the most representation of female heroship I remember from when I was growing up!) and let’s face it: Marvel, as well as DC, still have to up their game on that front.

ironman2

And yet! And that’s why I’m here because Iron Man and his cohorts lured me in despite myself. I watched all the movies, plus Agent Carter, plus a lot of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., bloopers, WHIH Newsfront, what have you. I wouldn’t call myself a die-hard fan, just someone who enjoys – a lot. And before any questions come in as to my background: I’ve never read a single Marvel comic (I only own two DC comic books, both Wonder Woman), I only recently watched a Marvel animated series (The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes) on Netflix (and didn’t have time to finish it before they pulled it), and I enjoyed the Marvel superhero game on Facebook which is also long gone but gave me a view of the vast line-up of heroes and their superpowers. So, if you now think my opinion is not worth your time, so long, but if you’ll like to know what I’ve got to add to the subject, great to have you.

Back to Iron Man:

I had the perfect intro here that I had to revise because upon checking my collection of movie tickets (dating back to the earliest from 1993, I was serious about the nut part in movie nut), I found out that I did watch Iron Man at the theater. So the year is 2008, I’m studying North American Studies in Berlin (the one in Germany, yes) and I must have been shocked seeing Robert Downey Jr. in a trailer. So much so, that I went and watched Iron Man.

For those who don’t know what it’s about:

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is making good money selling weapons to the U.S. Military. However, as he finds out while being kidnapped in the Middle East, the military is not his only buyer. A group calling themselves the Ten Rings wants him to build his newest weapon, the Jericho, in a cave from parts of his other weapons. Instead, Tony Stark builds his first Iron Man suit and leaves captivity.

ironman3

Back home, he finds himself conflicted by what he’s seen and wants to shut down the weapons manufacturing part of his business. But that doesn’t go over well with his closest friend/adviser Obidiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) who’s been the one behind Tony’s kidnapping and wants to take over Stark Industries. Iron Man emerges, having to fight (not for the last time) his own creation.

Iron Man is a great origin story. It may not be entirely new (the rewatch invoked thoughts of Hamlet in me) but it’s still a fantastic watch and a great start into a new universe – multiverse even. Robert Downey Jr. carries this iconic character almost effortlessly, transforming into the character but also making him his own – it’s a perfect symbiosis that way. And he isn’t the only recognizable actor by a long shot: Jeff Bridges, Terrence Howard, Gwyneth Paltrow, and even director Jon Favreau round out an ensemble that would make any movie proud – Paltrow and Favreau in recurring roles. The movie is perfectly paced, mixes storytelling with action with fun.

And this is really what drew me in – imagine knowing only Batman (and only loving him in that wacky 60s show) and then coming across Iron Man. Yes, they do have similar backstories, yes, they’re both super-rich and don’t have superhuman abilities. But similarities end there. Tony is nothing like Bruce and that is his strength because you don’t have to sit through another bleak version of Gotham City and see its strongest hero flagellate himself (metaphorically) over the deaths of his parents over and over again. Tony has a sense of humor where Bruce has only depression. I know that there are voices out there who think Marvel is overdoing its trademark quips at the disadvantage of earnest storytelling. But if DC movies are the alternative then, please Marvel, keep making inappropriate jokes.

ironman1

It’s astounding to read that Iron Man was never the biggest draw among Marvel’s comics because he’s become the biggest draw in the MCU and we’ll have to see how Marvel manages without him (if they will, who knows what’s gonna happen?).

There has been talk about how superhero movies are not great cinema or whatever another old white director-dude has shouted at a cloud lately (no, not a Scorsese fan here) – this is, of course, bull. For one, if you look at Iron Man alone, it’s positively Shakespearean (with the uncle-figure trying to kill the heir-apparent of the throne and such), for another: how dare you? Superheroes have been around almost as long as mobsters and have actually done the world some good, so there!

Iron Man is a very entertaining movie, you won’t even notice that two hours have gone by since sitting down (and don’t forget to watch the post-credits scene like I did last night). The MCU couldn’t have chosen a better character or actor to introduce us to their (lesser-known) stories. It didn’t necessarily get better from here (not right away) but it has done what few movies have done before – it launched a movie series where even the worst are still watchable.

Next: The Incredible Hulk (speaking of the worst…)