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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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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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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?)