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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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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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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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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…)