Captain America: The First Avenger

Almost done with Phase 1! I could do this all day.

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Captain America: The First Avenger
Director: Joe Johnston
Writers: Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely
Starring: Chris Evans, Hugo Weaving
Music By: Alan Silvestri
Released: July 2011

This movie starts with a team of  SHIELD scientists discovering a futuristic-looking aircraft in the Arctic, and finding a different kind of shield inside it–just to get rid of any suspense as to how the movie was going to end. About 70 years in the past, Steve Rogers is a scrawny little man with a medical condition for every letter of the alphabet who desperately wants to fight in World War II. He finally gets his chance when he’s selected to be the guinea pig for a super-soldier serum the U.S. military wants to use on its soldiers. About 200 pounds of muscle later, he finds himself on the front lines…of a propaganda campaign to sell war bonds. Despite taking a star-spangled detour, Captain America eventually finds himself on a real battlefield, where he has to fight an insane Nazi officer who got super-soldiered the same way he did, but with worse side effects.

When I first heard this movie was coming out, I remember thinking that it sounded like a terrible idea. Everything I knew about Captain America came from that classic World War Ii-era comic book cover where he’s punching Hitler in the face while decked out in red, white, and blue. Even in my youth, when I still had an ounce or two of patriotism in my blood, that seemed a little on the nose. But fortunately, this movie is very self-aware when it comes to its main character’s origin as World War II propaganda. One of the best scenes (not only in this movie, but in all of Marvel’s Phase 1) is the montage showing Steve’s career onstage, accompanied by a hugely cheesy, over-the-top patriotic musical number. It basks in the silliness…but it also shows little kids cheering when Cap punches fake Hitler in the face, and soldiers overseas reading Captain America comics, just to drive home how effective that kind of propaganda can actually be.

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“So who’s ready to help me sock ol’ Adolf on the jaw?”

The rest of the movie is a classic underdog superhero origin. Steve is a weak, skinny guy who constantly gets beat up by bullies, until he’s suddenly granted the power to protect other people from bullies. It’s very effective, mainly because the movie spends the first half hour or so letting us get to know pre-steroid Steve: a physical weakling who doesn’t know how to be afraid of bullies no matter how many times they beat him up, but is desperately afraid of not living up to his own ideals of heroism. He’s so obviously a hero even before he gets turned into a super-soldier, which just makes his transformation that much more exciting. As Dr. Erskine says before giving him the serum, “A weak man knows the value of strength.”

This is what makes the first half of this movie so good: lots of great character moments, a very sympathetic hero, and a strong supporting cast. Tommy Lee Jones is great as the Colonel, Stanley Tucci creates a wonderful mentor figure in Dr. Erskine, and Peggy Carter is the first female character in the MCU who is allowed to act like an actual human being. And even though the script doesn’t give him much to work with in the way of character motivations, Hugo Weaving still manages to make the evil Red Skull entertaining. Steve’s friendship with Bucky, his burgeoning crush on Peggy, and his desire to become the all-American hero he plays on stage make for a little more than an hour of compelling drama.

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…Is it good or bad that I find both these two equally intimidating?

Unfortunately, the movie kind of falls apart in the second half. It tries to introduce a load of new side characters–the Howling Commandos–and turn Steve’s story into a quest to defeat Red Skull and his Hydra army. But there isn’t enough time to get to know the Howling Commandos, and most of their quest is covered in a montage. A pretty lame montage, at that. Captain America never even comes off as a particularly good fighter, post-steroids. If I were judging by this movie alone, I’d think he wasn’t that much stronger than the average non-super soldier. To top it off, the manner in which Steve gets put on ice feels contrived. I think he (and his supporting cast, many of whom never appear in the MCU again) deserved a little better.

I firmly believe that character development is more important than action, even in a superhero movie, but you can’t really have a superhero movie with no good action scenes. And that’s pretty much what we get here. The character stuff is all great, when enough time is allotted to it, but the action is silly at best and boring at worst. Overall, it makes for a somewhat underwhelming experience.

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Which is a shame, because shooting Nazis is among the finest of superhero traditions.

My other problem with this movie didn’t actually bother me the first time I saw it, but I think it’s had a negative effect on other parts of the Marvel universe. The problem is this: we never actually find out what Hydra’s beliefs are, or what they hope to accomplish after taking over the world. We know they started out as Nazis (thus the evil bit), but they obviously don’t buy into the whole “Aryan perfection” piece of Nazism, and they don’t seem particularly nationalistic. Later movies and TV shows try to turn Hydra into a more complex and modern threat, complete with fanatical “true believers” and cynical folks who just use Hydra beliefs as a means to power, but since the film that introduced them never gave us a clear picture of what those beliefs were, all those attempts were doomed to fall a little flat.

Despite its faults, though, I have to say that I really enjoy this movie. Since it was a first introduction to Captain America for me and most of the average movie-going population, I’m ultimately glad it erred on the side of too much character development rather than too much action. For such an old-fashioned hero to work in the modern world, he needed a solid foundation of principles and human motivations to start out with. And that’s what we got in The First Avenger. Every internal and external conflict Steve Rogers faces in the MCU can be traced back to where he started in this movie: a skinny kid from Brooklyn who wanted to fight bullies. This is where we first see his devotion to American ideals like freedom, individuality, and Nazi punching; his sometimes-problematic stubbornness; his fear of losing a teammate on his watch; and a host of other character traits that will end up driving the plots of later movies.

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“Not a perfect soldier, but a good man.”

As flawed as The First Avenger is, it’s possibly the most essential Phase 1 movie to watch if you want to understand the rest of the MCU–with the exception of Iron Man, of course. Captain America will remain one of the most important characters for the rest of the franchise, and this is the movie that made me like him. He’s brave, tough, determined, and he cares about the little guy. In other words, he’s just the kind of old-fashioned hero I like.

It was tough for me to choose between this movie and Thor, but on the strength of its first half alone, I think Captain America’s first outing is just a tiny bit more worthy.

  1. Captain America: The First Avenger
  2. Thor
  3. Iron Man
  4. Iron Man 2
  5. The Incredible Hulk

 

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Thor

Time for some Shakespeare in the park!

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Thor
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Writers: Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz and Don Payne
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston
Music By: Patrick Doyle
Released: 2011

Thor, god of thunder, is a prince in the mystical realm of Asgard, where the world is flat and the bridges are rainbow. He’s all set to become king of this land, but after his coronation is ruined by some thieving Frost Giants from the realm of Jotunheim, he defies his father Odin’s orders and attacks them, starting a war. For his arrogance, Odin takes away Thor’s power, along with his magic hammer, Mjolnir, and banishes him to New Mexico, where he bumps into a team of scientists studying wormholes. With the help of a conveniently hot astrophysicist, he must learn how to be a good king in time to stop his brother Loki from taking over and becoming a spectacularly bad one.

Apart from The Avengers, this is probably the Phase 1 Marvel movie I’ve rewatched the most. Mostly because of its gorgeous depiction of Asgard. I’ll never forget the first shot in which this flat, disc-like planet with its huge towers and rainbow bridge is revealed. t’s a lovely mix of futuristic cityscape and medieval palace. IThen we get introduced to the Frost Giants, the all-seeing Heimdall, Thor’s lightning powers, Loki’s duplication tricks, etc., and for a fantasy-loving person like me, it doesn’t get much better than that. There’s a real sense of awe and wonder in this film that I hadn’t seen before in a superhero movie. It helps that it’s also the first Marvel movie with a really memorable soundtrack. The Asgardian theme is still one of the better pieces of music in the MCU, in my opinion.

I wish I could credit my love of Norse mythology to J.R.R. Tolkien’s influence, but I think this movie really had more to do with it.

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Mind you, I detected a whiff of Tolkien influence in this movie…

Another thing I really love about Thor is the dysfunctional family dynamic going on between Thor, Loki, and Odin. Like most gods in ancient mythologies, they’re all very flawed people with a ton of power and some legitimate reasons to dislike each other. Thor’s too proud, Loki’s too bitter, and Odin is just a terrible dad who expects too much of both of them. I like that the movie’s plot is primarily driven by their personal conflict rather than a villain wanting to destroy the world. Not that Loki doesn’t try to destroy the world (a world, anyway), but at least he’s motivated by family issues rather than doing it just because he’s “evil.”

Which leads me to the other thing that really works in this movie. Loki is a good villain for a number of reasons, starting with Tom Hiddleston’s performance. He really gave his all to this role, so much so that he rather outshone Chris Hemsworth in his own movie. He’s so good at playing a cunning manipulator that he almost has the audience believing his lies–even when we should know better. When I first saw this movie, knowing nothing about Thor beforehand, it took me until about halfway through before I even realised Loki was the villain. Even after we find out what a jerk he is, he’s still sympathetic enough that this movie works as a foundation for the more complicated character arc he gets in later films.

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You have to respect a man who wears a hat like that with no shame.

But even a great actor can’t save a badly-written character, so it helps that Loki is written better than most superhero villains. He’s got an understandable, human motive, and he’s extremely clever in pursuing his goals–at least when he doesn’t let emotion get in the way.  Loki’s portrayal varies quite a bit from movie to movie, but with the way he expertly manipulates everyone around him to get what he wants, I think his first appearance is still his most intelligent.

The hero’s journey is also pretty effective here. It’s another twist on the frequent Marvel narrative of an arrogant jerk getting taken down a peg, but it seems to gain potency when it’s a god being forced to learn humility by living among mortals. And unlike Tony Stark, there can be no question that Thor took his lesson in this movie to heart. He may not be the smartest hero ever, but he’s never gone back to being as rash and arrogant as he was at the beginning of his origin story. It’s very satisfying to watch Thor grow from arrogant thug to humble, wise(er) leader, even if his journey isn’t quite as believable as Tony Stark’s.

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It involves a heck of a lot more mud wrestling, though!

How he gets there, on the other hand, involves the one thing in this movie that doesn’t work so well. Don’t get me wrong, Thor’s antics in New Mexico are pretty darn amusing…it’s just that they’re so much less interesting than what goes on in Asgard and Jotunheim. And his romance with Jane Foster, while more convincing than some relationships in the MCU (*cough*Bruce and Betty*cough*), is still pretty weak considering it’s supposed to be the main catalyst for his character development. I can believe that a god would learn humility after losing his powers and having to live like a mortal for a while. I’m less inclined to believe that an immortal being would decide that a mortal woman was the love of his life after knowing her for three days, max. If he didn’t look like Chris Hemsworth, I’d be hard pressed to believe Jane would even start caring about him in that short a time.

(Sidenote: I didn’t realise just how bad Phase 1 was at creating good female characters until I caught myself thinking, at this point in the rewatch, that Jane Foster was the most interesting woman in it thus far. I mean…she may be the most generic superhero love interest you could imagine, but at least she isn’t screaming all the time. *Sigh.*)

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Ever notice that none of the Marvel characters who have multiple Ph.D’s look old enough to have even one Ph.D?

Kenneth Branagh is mostly known for directing Shakespeare, so it makes sense that the best parts of his superhero movie are the parts that would fit best in a Shakespeare play: Thor and Loki’s brotherly rivalry, epic sword battles, etc. The stuff that takes place on Earth, while ultimately important in setting up SHIELD and some supporting cast members for the next couple Thor movies, drags a little bit in comparison. A part of me wishes this entire movie had been a straight-up fantasy taking place in Asgard and Jotunheim.

But at least now I know we eventually would get a Thor story like that. It just took about six more years.

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“This film, I like it. Another!”

Overall, I think this movie holds up quite well. Sure, it’s got a couple cheesy slow-mo scenes, the romance is kinda lame, and the Earth stuff isn’t as interesting as it could be, but the characters are fun, the fantasy stuff is super cool, and it introduces a whole new dimension of magic and mayhem to the Marvel universe.

My score for this movie is: Best one so far.

  1. Thor
  2. Iron Man
  3. Iron Man 2
  4. The Incredible Hulk

Iron Man 2

Aaaannndd another movie I skipped up until now. What I’m learning from this movie marathon is that Marvel movies didn’t feel nearly as much like “must-sees” back during Phase 1.

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Iron Man 2
Director: Jon Favreau
Writer: Justin Theroux
Starring: Robert Downey, Jr.
Music By: John Debney
Released: 2010

It’s six months after the events of the first movie. Iron Man has, somehow, single-handedly brought about world peace, and Tony Stark has gotten even richer and more famous as a result. In the process, he’s returned to his old self-centred, showboating, Pepper-ignoring ways. But this time, it’s because…*gasp* he’s dying! The arc reactor keeping him alive is also poisoning his blood, and if he doesn’t figure out how to make a replacement, his days are numbered. Tony deals with this problem by throwing elaborate parties, goofing off in his suit, race car driving, and both literally and figuratively flipping off the U.S. government when it tries to regulate his tech. Meanwhile, a rival weapons company is out to market its own version of that tech, and Russian scientist with a grudge against Tony is only too happy to help.

First of all, I have to give props to this movie for a few things. It’s always weird when a character switches actors between movies, but the transition from Terrence Howard to Don Cheadle is as smooth as could be expected. Possibly because I just prefer Don Cheadle as Rhodes. Maybe it’s just because I’m more used to him now, but even in this movie he seems to have better chemistry with Robert Downey, Jr. than his predecessor. And I can tell Marvel’s ability to do special effects had already improved greatly from the first movie. RDJ continues to be entertaining (the courtroom scene near the beginning of the movie was a highlight), and I was both surprised and delighted to see Sam Rockwell playing one of the villains. That guy is always a treat.

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“God bless Iron Man. God bless America.”

But man, there are a lot of things in this movie that bugged me.

The first one that struck me is the dialogue. I mentioned in my Iron Man review that one of my favourite things about that movie was the rapid-fire banter between Tony Stark and…well, everyone. Apparently someone at Marvel felt the same way, because that is how every. single. conversation. in this movie plays out. Dialogue between Tony and Pepper, especially, always feels like a contest to see who can talk over the other more. And it’s way too much of a good thing. Rapid-fire wit can be fun (provided it’s witty enough), but once in a while I need characters to slow down and speak a complete sentence or two. Otherwise it just gets annoying.

A bigger problem with Iron Man 2 is that it just feels…unnecessary. Both as a sequel to Iron Man and as a universe-building movie. Sure, Black Widow is introduced here, but she doesn’t do anything other than look pretty and beat up a few random henchmen. Her introduction in The Avengers left a bigger impression with much less screentime. Nick Fury spends a lot of time in this movie testing Tony to see if he’s ready for the Avengers Initiative…only for his decision to be rendered pretty much moot by The Avengers. This movie lets us know that SHIELD is investigating Thor’s hammer…but it doesn’t tell us anything about it that isn’t covered in Thor itself a year later. Ideally, I feel every movie in a cinematic universe should be an important piece of a bigger puzzle, so that they can be more fully appreciated together than separately. Despite how much of its runtime is spent on setting up other parts of the Marvel universe, you could easily leave this movie out of the larger MCU puzzle, as I did up until now, without losing much of importance.

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I’m not sure which is more impractical for fighting bad guys…the hair or the pose.

But I wouldn’t mind that very much if this movie included any interesting changes for Tony Stark. It doesn’t. Even after all his character development in the first movie, Tony continues to allow his pride and self-centredness to screw up his life, and he doesn’t seem to learn as much from it this time. Sure, he learns to appreciate his friends a little more by the end, but he doesn’t face any consequences for acting like a jerk toward them up until that point. In fact, his jerkiness ultimately works to his benefit, because Rhodey probably wouldn’t have become War Machine without it. (Sidenote: I didn’t know War Machine’s origin before seeing this movie, so I was disappointed to no end when I found out he originally put on the suit just to break up a rowdy party. Lamest. Origin story. Ever.) And even that little bit of character development was done already–and better–in the first movie. Iron Man moved Tony’s character forward at the speed of his suit’s thrusters. Iron Man 2 seems content to let him run in place.

Also, I’m going to try not to whine too much about Marvel having lame villains in every review, because it’s just one of those things you had to accept about these movies up until recently, but I was really struck in this one by how much potential was wasted in the main villain. Vanko was set up as a smart antagonist with a legitimate reason to be mad at Tony. He even had a father whose legacy he was trying to carry on, to mirror Tony’s issues with his own father’s legacy. That could have led to some interesting conflict, maybe even some soul-searching on Tony’s part. But nope, they have a grand total of one conversation in this movie, and it’s not all that interesting. The rest of their conflict consists of punching and electro-whipping.

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Also, he looks ridiculous.

All that being said, I do appreciate how this movie delved a bit deeper into Tony’s relationship with his father. The portrayal of Howard Stark as a brilliant, but distant, genius who cared more about work than family explains a lot about who Tony Stark is and why he does what he does. And the scene where he learns that his father actually did care about him…well, as cheesy as it is, the emotions that moment set up are still paying off in Marvel movies to this day.

Overall, I’d put this movie solidly in the “okay” range. It didn’t blow me away, and I didn’t hate it; it was just harmless entertainment, easily forgotten after two hours.

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At least we got this adorable little moment.

My score: Worse than its predecessor, but better than The Incredible Hulk. At least the CGI in this movie looked somewhat believable.

  1. Iron Man
  2. Iron Man 2
  3. The Incredible Hulk

The Incredible Hulk

This is one of the few Marvel movies that I actually hadn’t seen before this year. Turns out, it’s not that incredible.

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The Incredible Hulk
Director: Louis Leterrier
Writer: Zak Penn
Starring: Edward Norton, Liv Tyler
Music By: Craig Armstrong
Released 2008

Bruce Banner is a scientist who gained the ability to turn into a giant green rage monster during a super soldier experiment gone wrong. He’s on the run from General Ross, the guy in charge of that experiment, who wants to weaponise the giant green rage monster. Bruce just wants to find a cure for his…er…condition, but it turns out his only hope for finding one will take him closer to danger. Fortunately for him, it also takes him closer to his one true love, General Ross’s daughter. Unfortunately for him, the general has hired an adrenaline junkie warrior who’s obsessed with beating the Hulk to help bring him in. Hulk smashing ensues.

This was a bit of a weird one for me. In some ways, it doesn’t really feel like part of the Marvel universe. Not only is the Hulk played by a different actor than in his later appearances, but his story doesn’t even come close to the usual Marvel origin story formula, the tone is much more serious than usual for Marvel, and the end credits stinger comes before the end credits! (Which means I watched all those credits for nothing. Thanks a lot, movie.) Then there are all the little loose ends this movie just leaves hanging out there. What ever happened with the doctor guy who seemed to be set up as a possible future villain? For that matter, what happened to this movie’s actual villain? Why is Betty Ross never mentioned again ever? (Besides the obvious reason, which I’ll get into.) And why does it take so long for General Ross to appear again in the franchise if he was aware of superheroes like the Hulk right from the get-go?

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A little-known side effect of gamma ray poisoning is that it eventually turns you into Mark Ruffalo.

Of course, all those things can probably be chalked up to this being an early entry in the MCU, before the studio really nailed down what it was all going to look like. If I’d seen this in theatres in 2008, I certainly wouldn’t have cared about any of that. So let’s get into the stuff I would have cared about.

I was actually surprised by how much I liked parts of this movie. Part of the reason I hadn’t seen it before was because nobody ever seems to talk about it much, so I just sort of assumed it was terrible. But there is some creative storytelling here. I like how the Hulk’s origin story is told during the opening credits, with no dialogue. It’s quick and effective, and it saves the movie from having to spend a lot of time on something the audience has probably seen before. The soundtrack is quite lovely at times, too.

Most surprising of all, my favourite part of this movie ended up being General Ross. He has a nice, Captain Ahab-esque character arc following his obsession with the Hulk, and I ended up relating to him more than any of the other characters. The moment when he realises he’s gone too far was the only emotional beat in the movie that really connected with me.  I’d even say he was the MCU’s first decent villain–if he counts as a villain, which is debatable. A lot of this is thanks to William Hurt, who really sells the role, especially in the scenes with minimal dialogue. But with one glaring exception (see below), the acting is pretty solid all around in this movie, so I think some credit has to also go to the way his scenes are written and directed.

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Pictured: the exact moment the idea for the Sokovia Accords was born.

But there are two big problems that, for me, really weigh this movie down. One is that its special effects have not aged well at all. Hulk and especially the villainous Abomination look like cartoons. Bad, ugly cartoons with awkward movements. And that’s a big problem for an action movie whose fight scenes are almost entirely reliant on these CGI creatures. As a result, the only really effective action scene in this movie is the one near the beginning, where the Hulk is hidden in the shadows most of the time. That was properly tense and scary, and it showed me a glimpse of what it might be like if Marvel ever tried to make the Hulk a monstrous being instead of just big, dumb muscle. But as soon as he showed his face, the effect was ruined. And the final fight was just plain silly. There’s a reason the “Hulk Clap” move never caught on, I think.

The other problem with this movie–and this is the one that really angered me–is Liv Tyler. I’m saying this as a huge Lord of the Rings fan who has proudly worn Arwen dresses in the past: Liv Tyler is not a good actress. And when half her lines are just the word “Bruce” in a super breathy voice, it makes her look like an even worse actress. Again, this movie relies on the relationship between Bruce and Betty for 90 percent of its emotional heart…and I just didn’t feel it. Betty barely has a personality beyond loving Bruce and disliking her terrible dad, and her role in the story is mostly to stand there and look pretty so the Hulk has someone to save. I hate to say this, but their “romance” almost makes the one with Black Widow look good. Almost.

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You can tell she’s a well-rounded character by how many wet t-shirt scenes she has in the movie. 

Also, I have a rule of thumb: if your superhero story needs to bring up “hero can’t have sex” as a source of angst, it’s probably not a great superhero story. It might not make sense in-universe, but I’m quite happy this relationship was never spoken of again.

While The Incredible Hulk does have its good moments, ultimately they’re not good enough to make up for its glaring weaknesses. Edward Norton is fine in the main role, but it’s hard not to compare him to Mark Ruffalo, who has really made it his own over the past few years. And while the story has potential, it’s ultimately wasted on a lackluster love story and a goofy CGI slug-fest.

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I like to think of this movie as the Hulk’s emo phase. 

Still, I’m glad I finally saw it, if only to understand why Bruce didn’t want to go to New York in The Avengers.

My score for this movie: definitely worse than Iron Man.

  1. Iron Man
  2. The Incredible Hulk

Iron Man

So I’ve got a little project I’m working on over the next few months. With The Avengers: Infinity War coming out soon, I’ve decided to go back and review all the movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (apart from the ones I’ve already reviewed, of course), and finish by putting them all in a definitive ranking. Some of the movies I haven’t seen in ages, and some I’ve managed to skip altogether, so this will be a way for me to get caught up in time for the big sorta-finale.

Let’s get started!

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Iron Man
Director: Jon Favreau
Writers: Marc Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum and Matt Holloway (wow, this really didn’t feel like a four-writer movie)
Starring: Robert Downey, Jr.
Music By: Ramin Djawadi
Released: 2008

This is the one that started it all: not just the MCU, but the very idea of a cinematic universe as we know it today. It changed the way we think about superhero movies and the way we watch the end credits. And it arguably completed the process that began in the early 2000s of changing superhero movies in the public consciousness from cheesy, campy flicks for kids to serious blockbuster material for all ages.

In case you’ve gone as long as I had without watching it, here’s a refresher on the plot: Tony Stark is a billionaire, genius, playboy, philanthropist…but he’s also a massive jerk, until he gets a piece of shrapnel in his heart just before getting kidnapped by terrorists in Afghanistan. There he finds out that many of the hugely destructive weapons he’s been creating for the U.S. military have been ending up in the hands of their enemies. In order to escape his captors, he builds a mini mech suit with flamethrowers and jetpacks, with the help of this movie’s model of the guy-who-exists-to-die-inspirationally. Once Tony gets home, to atone for his past sins and honour that guy’s death,  he decides to use his new Iron Man suit for good–after giving it a cooler paint job, of course.

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“Throw a little hot-rod red on there.”

I remember loving this movie when it first came out. 2008 was one of the crappier years of my life, and a movie like Iron Man provided just the escapism I needed, even if some of its jokes went over my head (for example, my sheltered teenage self had never heard Black Sabbath, so the little musical gag at the end was lost on me). It was cool, exciting, and funny, and it was just grounded enough not to feel like a kids’ movie (a very important consideration for teenage me).

Revisiting it now, I’m a lot more aware of its flaws, especially since a lot of them became recurring problems within the MCU. The villain is enjoyably hammy, but he’s still pretty generic, and he doesn’t have a strong motive. Product placement has to rear its ugly head a few times, although it’s nowhere near as blatant as it sometimes got in later Marvel films. Also, as much fun as the Iron Man action is, it doesn’t build to a very interesting climax–just a brief punch-out, with a couple screaming civilians in the way. Really, for a superhero movie, Iron Man doesn’t have a ton of great action. It’s always fun when Iron Man gets to just fly around in his suit or blow stuff up, but he doesn’t have any good fights with other people–mainly because he always outguns them all so easily. It would take later, higher-tech movies to really give him a challenge.

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I mean, the tanks sure weren’t doing it.

But even after noticing all this on the re-watch, I still thoroughly enjoyed Iron Man. And I think I have to give most of the credit for that to one man: Robert Downey, Jr. He carries the whole movie on his back and doesn’t seem to notice the weight. His rapid-fire witticisms in the “fun-vee” are what pull me into the movie, and his performance keeps me there until the last deadpan look at the camera. He makes Tony Stark’s two-hour journey from unrepentant jerk, to repentant jerk, to full-blown hero, completely believable without ever letting up on the jokes.

And that’s a really, really good thing, because when you come right down to it, Iron Man is a lot more about Tony’s character development than anything else. The plot is fairly thin, the action isn’t amazing, but the heart of the story is about a bad man finding a way to redeem himself, and that part works just fine.

I’ve read that when Stan Lee created Iron Man back in the ’60s, he was trying to invent the exact kind of character his young, hip, comic-book-reading audience would automatically hate–and make them love him anyway. So he wrote Tony Stark as a selfish billionaire who profits off war in other countries. When it came time to make a movie about this guy almost 50 years later, his personality didn’t change much, because that’s still the kind of person a lot of young nerds love to hate.

And why wouldn’t we? Tony Stark is the living embodiment of everything wrong with Western culture. He’s materialistic. He’s a hedonist. He’s arrogant. He reaps the benefits of violence and suffering that he never has to see up close, and he’s actually proud of that. But the great thing about this movie is that it makes me believe someone like that can change. Tony genuinely sees the error of his ways, and he uses that remorse to do something better with his life. After being humbled and losing some of his illusions about the world, he manages to use his talents to make that world a better place–to protect the innocents his technology once harmed.

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And he did it in a CAVE! With a BOX OF SCRAPS!

And if a man like Tony Stark can change, then maybe I and my whole screwed-up culture can change, too. That’s where this movie’s true escapism comes in: it gives me a bit of hope for my stupid society.

The story of an arrogant jerk being humbled would eventually become a Marvel origin story staple, but I still think this movie did it best. And with the benefit of hindsight, knowing all the great stories this guy would eventually make possible…it just gets even better.

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“For your consideration…the Marvel Universe.”

Instead of grades for these movies, I’m just going to list my ranking for them so far. Since Iron Man is the first, it’s obviously number one…for now.

  1. Iron Man

Black Panther

Eighteen movies into its cinematic universe, Marvel Studios has finally released its first film about a non-white superhero, and the internet hype is through the roof. Weeks before this movie came out, critics were already calling it the best and most important entry in the MCU. Lots of people (African-Americans especially) have been treating it like a major cultural milestone since the first trailer. Now that it actually is out, it’s one of the best-reviewed superhero movies ever on sites like Rotten Tomatoes.

It would be tough for almost any movie to live up to that level of hype. But this one comes…pretty close.

(Spoilers for Captain America: Civil War follow.)

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Black Panther
Director: Ryan Coogler
Writers: Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole
Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, etc.
Music By: Ludwig Goransson
Rated PG-13

After the death of his father in Civil War, T’Challa, aka Black Panther, returns home to be crowned king of Wakanda, an African nation as technologically advanced as it is hidden from the outside world. Wakanda’s wealth and power is built on vibranium, an incredibly powerful metal popular with superheroes throughout the Marvel universe, and T’Challa knows the rest of the world would do just about anything to get it. While he’s struggling to decide whether to follow his ancestors’ policy of isolation or share his country’s wealth, he learns that an infamous weapons dealer named Ulysses Klaue is trying to reveal Wakanda’s secret. But not only does the new king have to track Klaue down, he also has to deal with a challenger to the throne: an American-born soldier of Wakandan descent, known as Killmonger. True to his name, he’s got some rather more violent ideas about how to use the power of vibranium.

Let’s get this out of the way right now: if you go into this movie expecting it to be a revolutionary masterpiece that will change the superhero genre forever, there’s a good chance you’ll be disappointed. But if you go in expecting another great Marvel movie, you’ll get exactly what you paid for. I think most of the negative reactions this movie is getting (and there are some for sure) are due to the overhyped advertising more than any actual flaws.

Personally, I loved almost everything about it, starting with the setting. Wakanda is gorgeous. The costumes, the landscapes, the technology…it’s all a brilliant, colourful blend of traditional African and sci-fi designs. The Marvel movies have given us plenty of cool gadgets before, but this movie has magnetically-propelled trains, vibranium suits that store kinetic energy, and beads that can create holograms and heal wounds.

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Fighting evil has never looked so stylish.

Oh, and battle rhinos. ‘Cause what advanced warrior nation doesn’t need battle rhinos?

And it’s an imaginary country that almost feels as if it could really exist somewhere. We learn enough about Wakandan mythology, culture, and tradition in this movie to make me feel like it has a real history. (In a way, I guess it does, since Black Panther has existed in comics for more than 50 years.) In many ways, Wakanda is a utopia. It’s an African nation that has never been affected by colonialism, slavery, or any of the other crap the rest of the continent and the world has had to deal with. It’s got sustainable energy and gadgets that can heal crippling wounds overnight. Women are on 100 percent equal footing with men, and they don’t have to hide their femininity in order to achieve that. Plus, everyone gets stylish outfits, and have I mentioned the rhinos? Who wouldn’t want to live in Wakanda?

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It’s got hovercars AND waterfalls. 

But as this movie eventually shows, the nation isn’t perfect. Its rulers have hoarded their technology for centuries, leaving less fortunate people around the world to be oppressed and exploited. Even some of the tribes within Wakanda get left out when it comes to tech. T’Challa’s main internal conflict centres on whether—and how—his country should help the people outside its borders.

That’s where his opposition comes in. I think it’s safe to say, at this point, that Marvel has overcome its villain problem. Killmonger is the latest in a rather long stretch of good-to-great MCU villains, and he just might be the best of them all. He’s one of the few whose motives are not just understandable, but downright sympathetic. Raised in America, he’s experienced racism and internalised the history of slavery his whole life, while being told stories about the fairyland of Wakanda. He wants justice for some genuinely wrong things that were done to his family, and he wants more kids like him to have a chance to live in a place like Wakanda.  They’re not inherently bad goals, nor are they all that different from what T’Challa wants for his people. The only problem is, Killmonger’s methods involve a lot of, well, killing. But Michael B. Jordan’s magnetic performance, combined with some very well-written dialogue, make it easy to understand where he’s coming from without making him less evil.

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“Burn it all!”

Utiimately, though, T’Challa has to find his own way to help the outside world without becoming a conqueror. And his supporting cast ends up being a pretty big part of that. They each bring their own perspective on what it means to be a good ruler and a good person, and they are all awesome. General Okoye, leader of all-female bodyguard troop the Dora Milaje, could give Wonder Woman a run for her money in the fierce female warrior department. Nakia, Black Panther’s spy girlfriend, provides a voice of reason and compassion throughout the movie. His little sister Shuri is equal parts genius inventor and annoying teenager—a girl after Tony Stark’s own heart. Tribal leader M’Baku provides great comic relief, and Martin Freeman does what he does best (i.e., plays a normal guy caught up in an adventure who eventually reveals his true heroic colours). The only problem I have with this movie’s supporting cast is that they’re so good they sometimes overshadow T’Challa in his own movie.

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Seriously, though. This movie has the highest concentration of good female characters in any MCU movie so far.

But I’m not going to pretend the movie is completely without flaws. One that really upset me was the tragic under-use of Andy Serkis as Klaue. He’s crazy, over-the-top, and a ton of fun in every scene, so much so that he even stands out next to a great villain like Killmonger. And yet he doesn’t ultimately get to do much in this movie. I think that’s a shame. Then again, I think just about every movie could use a bit more Andy Serkis.

Black Panther’s other problems are mainly just flaws by comparison. With the exception of one truly cool fight in South Korea towards the beginning, most of the action is pretty underwhelming compared to other entries in the MCU. Same goes for some of the CGI. The plot is also pretty predictable, at least for anyone familiar with superheroes (or maybe The Lion King).

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“Simbaaa…”

But for me, those problems aren’t enough to distract from Black Panther‘s great characters and heartfelt message. This is the rare superhero story that can confront real-world issues without ever feeling preachy or in poor taste. I can definitely see why it resonates with so many black people, but I think it also has something to say to people in general, especially Americans. Beyond all the political debates about isolationism and empire-building, it shows its heroes moving on from tragedy, sticking to their principles, refusing to repeat the mistakes of previous generations, and ultimately choosing to “build bridges” to other communities, rather than shutting them out. I think those are ideals we can all aspire to reach.

Wakanda Forever!

Grade: A

My Favourite Movies of 2017

Dang, it’s 2018 already. And I was just getting used to 2017…

The past year was an excellent one for movies, whatever it may have been like in other areas. I think I spent more time at the movie theatre in 2017 than in any other single year of my life, so narrowing down my favourite movies of the year to just five was a bit difficult. Here are the winners. (Spoiler alert: there are a lot of superheroes.)

5. War for the Planet of the Apes

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I’m still not entirely sure what made this movie stand out to me so much. Maybe it was the stark simplicity of its story, or the epic soundtrack, or the endearing characters, or even the cute little girl. But I think most of the credit, in the end, has to go to Andy Serkis’s magnetic performance as Caesar. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. He made a movie about an ape seeking revenge against a human seem like so much more than the sum of its parts. What an emotional and thought-provoking end to a great trilogy.

4. Logan

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Speaking of magnetic performances, some of the year’s best acting made it into this final Wolverine movie. (Although I’m sure Disney will find a way to make it  less final.) Exploring the limits of what a superhero movie can do seemed to be a theme for this year’s crop of comic book movies, and Logan started things off right with a bloody, Western-style tale of growing old and passing on a legacy. It’s one of the darkest superhero movies in recent memory, but it’s also one of the most hopeful, and I felt that perspective was needed this year.

3. Wonder Woman

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Okay. Objectively speaking, I’m fully aware that Wonder Woman is not one of the year’s best movies. It overuses slow motion to an annoying degree, it has a lame villain, and its dialogue is extremely cheesy, especially towards the climax. I’m aware of those flaws, but personally, I also don’t care tuppence about them. Seeing this movie for the first time in the theatre was one of the most uplifting cinematic experiences of my life. Finally, after years of being a superhero fan, I got to watch a fun, inspiring, courageous hero on the big screen who had the same number of X chromosomes as I do. It’s been kind of a tough year for me, and I needed that little boost of encouragement even more than I realised at the time. Also, it was nice to have at least one DCEU movie that doesn’t suck.

2. Thor: Ragnarok

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The more I think about this movie, the more I become convinced that it’s actually brilliant. Director Taika Waititi took a bleak, dismal story about the end of an era for one of Marvel’s signature heroes, and turned it into one of the year’s funniest and most colourful action movies. And the truly amazing thing is that he did it without making said “end of an era” seem any less important or awe-inspiring. Horrible things happen in this movie, yes, but the hero still chooses to look on the bright side, so why shouldn’t the audience? When it comes right down to it, I’d rather laugh at the end of the world than face it with a frown.

1. Blade Runner 2049

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I didn’t give this film my highest grade when it first came out because there were things in it that bothered me. And I’m still not a huge fan of Jared Leto’s performance, and I still think the nudity hurts the movie’s cause in many ways. But this movie made me think–hard–about why those aspects bothered me so much, while I found other aspects so powerful. It challenged my expectations and assumptions about sci-fi movies in general. Blade Runner 2049 stayed with me long after I left the theatre, and it kept drawing me back. It’s easily one of the most gorgeous films I’ve ever seen, but more importantly, it has some of the most imaginative and original (yes, even though it’s a sequel) storytelling I’ve ever seen. And the main theme of its story is so risky, so counter-cultural, that I don’t expect to see it in a mainstream blockbuster again in my lifetime. Blade Runner 2049 dares to tell its audience of middle-class, advertisement-saturated Westerners: “You’re not special. And that’s okay.” That’s just one layer, of course–there are enough complex themes in this movie to fill an entire film studies course–but it’s what I needed to hear at this point in my mid-20s life, and I don’t think I’m alone in that. Everything about this work, from the visuals to the music to the message, feels surprising and fresh to me, and I think it’s the 2017 movie that will stay with me the longest. “Beautiful, isn’t it?”

There are plenty of runners-up, of course: Dunkirk, The LEGO Batman Movie, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, etc., but these five movies were the ones that made me feel the most…hopeful. To me, that’s one of the best things a movie can do.

Of course, because of my limited budget and current living situation in Nowheresville, USA, I was only able to see this year’s biggest blockbusters in the theatre. During the next few months, I’m hoping to discover some of the more obscure, indie flicks that I missed in 2017. I’m also hoping to try a few new things with this blog. Hopefully some of them will be worth reading.

Here’s to another great year of wizarding and watching the clicks!