Marvel Movies

“Dormammu! I’ve come to bargain!”

Back in my Ant-Man review I had some pretty harsh things to say about Ant-Man as a superhero concept. But you shouldn’t take that to mean that I don’t like the character. To tell the truth, I’ve always found Hank Pym to be oddly compelling. There’s something about the guy who is good but will never be the best and the gnawing insecurity that brings that I think a lot of writers can empathise with.

Conversely, for this review I re-read some classic Doctor Strange stories and have had to come to terms with something deeply troubling about myself.

I, straight up, do not like Doctor Strange.

I love silver age Marvel comics. I love the aesthetic, the corny jokes, the ridiculous villain names, the artwork, the snarky editorial captions from Stan Lee, all of it. It be my jam. But my God, reading Doctor Strange is a slog.

And I think my issue with him is this; Doctor Strange is a character who rewards bad writing. Characters should challenge their writers. Superman and Captain America challenge their writers to portray them as morally pure and incorruptible while still being human and relateable. Spider-man is a challenge because he requires funny dialogue. Wolverine is a challenge because he requires almost no dialogue.

But Doctor Strange’s whole schtick requires him to recite turgid, purple prose at every problem he comes across and it is just such a grind. Even a phrase of such magnificent silliness as “By the Hoary Hosts of Hoggoth!” starts to lose its appeal after the twentieth time reading it. But ultimately, it comes down to this: Wizards should not be main characters.

Glad you brought him up, we shall return to him presently.

When you have a main character who is a wizard it is almost impossible to generate real drama. So many Doctor Strange stories boil down to this:

EVIL WIZARD: I will do this bad magic thing!

DR STRANGE: I will cast a spell that stops you from doing this bad magic thing!

EVIL WIZARD: Aha! I have cast a spell that means your spell doesn’t work!

DR STRANGE: But I use my magic forcefield to block your spell!

EVIL WIZARD: But my spell is too powerful for your forcefield!

DR STRANGE: Nuh uh! My forcefield has infinity power!

And then the bell sounds and they have to go back to class. It’s basically the same problem as technobabble in bad episodes of Star Trek; artificial problems solved by an artificial solution. It’s never concretely stated what Strange’s magic can and cannot do, so there’s no reason to think that he won’t just pull a random spell out of his ass to deal with whatever the problem is. It’s why wizards are usually relegated to supporting roles. We follow Arthur and Frodo, not Merlin and Gandalf. Harry Potter gets around this problem by clearly establishing the rules of how magic works in its universe. Yes, Harry can use magic, but he never uses a spell that we don’t see him learn in class. So the audience is never in doubt as to his abilities and what the real odds are in any given confrontation.

Strange can be great when used as a supporting character, a kind of consultant brought in to help other characters when they run afoul of the supernatural. But as a lead character he just does not work for me. Can the second live-action Doctor Strange movie change my mind? Oh yes. I said “second”.

You have questions.
1) Yes, it’s a real movie.
2) No, it’s not a porno.
3) Yes, that’s the legendary Jessica Walter, star of Arrested Development and Archer.
4) No, it’s really not a porno.
5) It’s terrible, but also wonderful.

Let’s take a look.

(more…)

“No. You move.”

Far back in the mists of time I named Marvel’s 2006 series Civil War as one of my all time favourite comics which was proof enough for many of you that I was a fool and a scoundrel whose opinion on comics wasn’t worth a soiled back issue of Youngblood. It’s a controversial story, no doubt, and while I probably wouldn’t keep it on my Top Ten list if I was to do another, I stand by what I said about it before. It was a new kind of comic event, one where right and wrong wasn’t clear cut and black and white and which had a real, lasting effect on the status quo. Comics are a very conservative medium. Sooner or later, everything goes back to how it was before. No one stays dead, the bad guys always lose, the good guys aways win. In a word, they’re safe. Mark Millar, who wrote Civil War, has been accused of many things over the course of his career…

…but being safe has never been one of them.

The story kicks off with a young superhero team called the New Warriors trying to catch a group of supervillains as part of their reality TV show (hey 2o06, how ya been?). Turns out one of the supervillains is a dude called Nitro whose power is that he explodes. Which he does, killing most of the Warriors as well as a nearby school. “The Stamford Massacre” causes a massive sea change in American public opinion and swift legislative action from the federal government in exactly the same way that real life school massacres don’t. The superhero community is given an ultimatum: Either give up their secret identities, submit to training and register and work as a paid employee of the US government or give up being a superhero. This splits the superhero community right down the middle. Iron Man supports registration, seeing as any alternative would likely be much more draconian. But Captain America sees it as massive government overreach, like if the only way you could intervene in a mugging was if you were a cop. So right there we have a conflict that’s really fascinating and multi-faceted. Both sides have perfectly valid concerns and points of view. Personal liberty versus the greater good. The desire for security versus the rights of the individual. Heady stuff. Aaaand then Mark Millar kinda turned Tony Stark into a Nazi because it was a Marvel event and SOMEBODY has to turn into a Nazi in these things.

It’s Squirrel Girl’s turn next.

I love Civil War…

Let me clarify that, I love Civil War the comic, but it’s got big problems, the most glaring being that it undermines its own unique premise by having the pro-reg side resort to increasingly extreme and amoral methods and making Iron Man and Mr Fantastic into outright villains. But there’s more good than bad and I think its reputation has risen quite a but in the years since it was published, not least because virtually all the events Marvel has done since form an elegant, unbroken chain of perfectly formed turds.

This was the WORST Civil War, and yes, I’m including all the ones that happened in real life.

In the MCU, the Captain America series was the natural home for a movie version of the Civil War story, especially since Winter Soldier had already touched on its themes of government overreach and the War on Terror’s intrusion on personal privacy and liberty. Winter Soldier was a high-watermark for Marvel critically, and with the Russo brothers back directing, the writing team of Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (both previous Cap movies and Agent Carter) and Chris Evans returning to sling the shield you’d think that Cap 3 would be about a safe a bet as a movie could be. But it nearly all went terribly, terribly wrong thanks to Marvel’s other civil war which was just now coming to a head. The head of Marvel studios, Kevin Feige, had been butting heads since the start of the MCU with the CEO of Marvel comics, Ike Perlmutter.

File photo.

Perlmutter is, by all accounts, about as pleasant to deal with as a scorpion in your anal cavity. Miserly to a Scroogian degree and a rather nasty racist (if you ever wondered why Don Cheadle was chosen to replace Terrence Howard it’s because Perlmutter thought they looked exactly the same. Yeah.) He’s also an alleged war criminal and I say “alleged” because I don’t want him to sue me. And for no other reason. Things came to a head when Perlmutter told Feige that this Robert Downey Jnr kid was costing too much money and that they should fire him.

Feige went directly to Disney who re-organised Marvel studios so that Perlmutter was completely cut out of all decisions involving Marvel’s films. And so Perlmutter was defeated and left with nothing but his incredibly lucrative job, his billions of dollars and the immense power that comes with being part of Donald Trump’s inner circle (come one, you knew this guy was friends with Trump as soon as I described him). It’s probably just a coincidence that Marvel’s notoriously racist CEO was kicked off the film lot right before Marvel released “the blackest Marvel movie ever” but it’s pretty sweet nonetheless. But is the movie? Let’s take a look.

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“I ruined the moment, didn’t I?”

Ant-Man just does not work.

That’s not me giving away my opinion on the movie in the first line of the review (what kind of slut do you take me for?) I mean that fundamentally, as a superhero concept, Ant-Man is broken. The best superheroes are power fantasies, that’s their essential appeal. We all want to fly, that’s why we love Superman. We all want to be righteous, that’s why we love Captain America. We all want to be the richest, handsomest, smartest, coolest person on earth with an awesome car, that’s why we love Idris Elba.

And also Batman. I guess.

Now, of course, that’s not enough on its own. But that has to be your starting point. Even the superheroes whose lives are legitimately, genuinely awful have to have some kind of vicarious appeal. Sure, logically it would suck to be the Hulk, but who, stuck in early morning traffic, hasn’t wished they couldn’t just pick up that bus that’s holding everyone up and fling it into the sun?

But waking up and discovering that you’ve shrunk to the size of an insect isn’t anyone’s idea of a power fantasy. That’s the start of a horror story. Which, of course, is what the story of Hank Pym originally was. The character was created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby in a one-off story for Tales to Astonish in 1962. Scientist Hank Pym accidentally shrinks himself (sixties comic book scientists: buncha ditzes) gets trapped in an ants’ nest (where else?) before escaping and returning to normal size and vowing never to use the technology again.

The story was popular enough that Stan decided to bring Pym back as a superhero named Ant-Man, whose powers were getting small and talking to ants. It is, at the risk of angering die-hard Ant-Man fans of which I’m sure there are…some, not a strong concept for a superhero. Aside from the essential “meh-ness” of his power set, Hank Pym just wasn’t that interesting. He was in many ways a relic of fifties Marvel, when the comics were full of square, white-bread scientists battling monsters and aliens. Hank Pym was essentially Reed Richards with less interesting powers and without the fantastic villains and colourful supporting characters. And so, Hank Pym’s history in comics has been one long attempt to fix the character. To start with, Marvel tried to make Hank likeable the same way Scientology tried to make Tom Cruise likeable; by getting him a girlfriend.

Tales to Astonish #44 debuted Janet Van Dyne, who also gained size-changing powers and joined Hank’s crimefighting as The Wasp. Janet and Hank joined The Avengers at its founding, and since then there have only been rare gaps where one or both of them has not been on the team. But whereas Jan’s distinct personality (and, let’s face it, the fact that she was the only female member for two whole years) helped her stand out from the pack, Hank didn’t really bring anything to the team that wasn’t already brought by Tony Stark or Bruce Banner.

And so began a seemingly endless series of attempts to remake the character into something halfway cool. He got the power to become bigger and changed his name to Giant-Man. Then to Goliath. Then to Yellowjacket. In comics, like in life, you only really get one chance to make a first impression. If you think of the sublime purity of: “Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider and became Spider-Man” then Hank Pym’s wild shuffling of powers and identities is the opposite of that.

And then there was…the incident.

In the eighties, Hank started suffering from mental instability and was booted from the Avengers as a result. Driven by feelings of inadequacy and suffering a complete nervous breakdown, Hank concocted a plan to programme a robot to attack the Avengers which he could then save them from and be welcomed back on the team. Janet was all “Oooookay, let’s put that idea in the maybe pile.” And then Hank hit her.

And that one panel is probably the single most famous panel featuring Hank Pym. Now, for context, the character was suffering from schizophrenia, had never laid a hand on Jan before or since  and his guilt over this has been one of the character’s few consistent traits over the years. But this panel is the reason why, if anyone outside of comics fandom knew anything about Hank Pym prior to the movie, it was that he was a serial wife beater. And, because I haven’t gone skating on thin ice in a while, I would say that that’s not entirely fair when you consider how many better known superheroes like Reed Richards and even Peter Parker, have hit their wives or children and it never gets brought up.

Seriously, Reed Richards is like the Sean Penn of superheroes in terms of the horrible shit he’s done that nobody remembers.

Not helping matters, when Mark Millar did his revamped version of the Avengers in 2002, the hugely popular Ultimates, which is set in an alternate continuity, he made Hank a full on psychopath who almost kills Jan by siccing his ants on her.

Sooooo, in case this hasn’t already become apparent, this character has some baggage.

Marvel’s original plan for their cinematic universe was to do movies of all the founding Avengers, Ant-Man included (there is even dialogue in Thor meant to subtly set up Ant-Man’s movie). But Ant-Man had by far the most troubled production of any of the MCU films, and after losing its director and undergoing multiple re-shoots and re-writes, it finally debuted in 2015, years later than intended and to possibly the most hostile pre-release of any Marvel movie to date.

You see, by 2015 the clamour for a female or minority led Marvel movie was becoming deafening and instead of that Marvel was giving us another origin story headlined by a handsome white dude (not a blonde named Chris though, so progress?). And of course, it wasn’t just any white dude superhero, but the white dude superhero was who was most famous for…

Yeah…tough sell.

But, against all odds, Ant-Man not only opened at number 1 but also earned a very respectable 86% on Rotten Tomatoes. Interestingly, it also attracted a larger female audience than any previous Marvel movie, indicating that female movie-goers either didn’t care about the character’s reputation or didn’t know about it to begin with. You might say that’s because girl’s don’t read comics, but I’d counter that it’s more that girls don’t read Ant-Man, because nobody does. Because, as I’ve already spent over a thousand words explaining; Ant-Man doesn’t work. But does Ant-Man?

Let’s take a look.

(more…)

“You want to protect the world. But you don’t want it to change.”

The Marvel comics universe is overflowing with some of the greatest villains created in any medium, from the regal majesty of Doctor Doom to the saturnine, brooding splendour of Galactus to the cackling, twitching megalomania of Annihilus. And amongst these villains, one of the greatest is, without question…not Ultron.

Just my opinion, mind.

The character was first created in 1968 and introduced in the pages of The Avengers as the creation of Hank Pym, whose long storied history of fucking up we will touch upon at a later point in these chronicles. But make no mistake, Hank Pym fucks up in the same way that Michaelangelo painted. He fucks up like it’s what God put him on this earth to do. Created by Pym as an artificial intelligence based on his own brainwaves, Ultron decided pretty quickly that it hated Hank Pym like the Sharks hate the Jets and tried to kill him. Which, considering that Pym based it on his own mind, should tell you everything you need to know about the state of Pym’s self-esteem (dude needs a hug).  Ultron later expanded his to do list to wiping out all human life and returned to bedevil the Avengers and threaten the world again, and again, and again. My problem with Ultron is that there’s just not much “there” there. He’s an angry shouty robot who wants to kill everyone. Have there been good stories with the character? Sure. Have there been writers who found interesting things to do with him? No doubt. But Ultron’s basic default setting has just never grabbed me as particularly compelling. Nevertheless, Ultron is generally regarded as the Avengers’ ultimate arch-enemy, the Moriarty to their Holmes if Sherlock Holmes was a conglomeration of brightly coloured WW2 era adventurers, Norse gods, billionaire tech-messiahs and former circus performers (and who wouldn’t read that?). But even that’s kinda by default. Loki is a Thor villain who sometimes fights the Avengers. Red Skull is a Captain America villain who sometimes fights the Avengers. Ultron would technically be a Hank Pym villain, but since Hank has never been popular enough to headline an ongoing series of his own Ultron just kinda became an arch-enemy for the whole team, like how the rest of the family adopts your little brother’s hamster once it becomes clear he can’t look after it himself. So when it came time for Marvel to follow up The Avengers with a sequel, choosing Ultron to be the villain was about as obvious as having the Joker be the bad guy of The Dark Knight. Who else was it going to be?

Shaddup.

Now, let’s get this out of the way. For all you people who ask why I don’t, for example, review Moana the very second it comes out? This is why. To do a review justice takes time, preparation, fasting and prayerful contemplation. The review/tongue bath I gave Age of Ultron the day after it came out back in 2015 was written while I was still basking in the afterglow of explosions and Whedonisms falling on my ears like confetti and I did not see the plotholes and padding and questionable charecterisations and clear signs of executives sticking their grubby oars in. Honestly if I had it all to do again, I imagine I’d be a lot more critical. Oh hey, look at that. I have it all to do again.

(more…)

“What a bunch of A-Holes.”

Guardians of the Galaxy first debuted on comic book shelves in 1969. It starred a team of superheroes defending the solar system from alien invasion in a far off future. It was based in an alternate continuity, and outside of the name had virtually nothing in common with today’s movie so let’s just forget I even mentioned it.

Why it’s all your favourite characters! Square-man! Blue Land Shark! And Princess Sparkly Hands (later re-named Groot).

Why, it’s all your favourite characters! Square-man! Cosmic Bunny! Blue Land Shark! And Princess Sparkly Hands! (later re-named Groot).

Let’s talk instead about Cosmic Marvel. The modern Marvel era began with Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four #1. This kicked off an explosion of creativity in the Marvel offices with most of the really iconic Marvel characters being created in the span of a few short years. And the Fantastic Four was always the engine room of this new burgeoning universe, acting as a central hub from which all the other characters spun out from. I mentioned in the Fantastic Four review just how much of the early building blocks of the Marvel universe were crafted in that one book. Now, as superheroes, the Fantastic Four were less about beating up muggers and more about exploration, charting new planets, galaxies and whole other dimensions. Pretty soon, the Fantastic Four had established a massive supporting cast of “cosmic beings”; Gods, living planets, alien warlords of incredible power and menace who stood astride all eternity in Wagnerian splendour. Combined with these heady concepts was the surreal, mind-expanding art of artists like Jack Kirby. This was a big reason why Marvel comics became such a sensation on American college campuses in the sixties. These things were trippy, man.

Plus, after you’ve read it, the thin paper is great for rolling.

Plus, after you’ve read it, the thin paper is great for rolling.

Even after the sixties, with Stan Lee largely pulling back from writing duties and Jack Kirby’s acrimonious departure from Marvel, new writers like Jim Starlin helped keep the Marvel universe cosmic and weird. But then…the eighties.

The huge success of Frank Millar’s Daredevil and The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s Watchmen led to a sea change of audience expectations as to what comics should be. Both Marvel and DC shifted emphasis to gritty, street level stories featuring characters with few (if any) superpowers. At DC, this meant giving a major push to Batman and his supporting cast, at Marvel it meant an increased emphasis on Daredevil, Wolverine and the Punisher. And it also meant that the cosmic characters were pretty much benched. Oh, they made appearances now and then, but chances were if you were a character with a name like Lyja the Lazer Fist who wanted to get in a comic after 1986 you were shit out of luck. Then came the nineties which…let’s…just…no…and this sidelining of the Cosmic characters continued, as they were obviously too silly for the super realistic Dark Age of Comics.

We needed gritty, realistic heroes. Like Shadowhawk. He had AIDS.

We needed gritty, realistic heroes. Like Shadowhawk.                      He had AIDS.

But finally, in 2006, Marvel released Annihilation, a massive event that took their previously ignored cosmic characters and threw them into a massive war to save the universe from the dread forces of ANNIHILUS, RULER OF THE NEGATIVE ZONE!

IT.

WAS.

AWESOME.

If you just want pure, epic, batshit-insane space opera then Annihilation is your drug. It also re-introduced many of the characters who feature in this movie, like Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax and Ronan to the modern comic-reading audience. But it wasn’t until the sequel (2007’s equally awesome Annihilation Conquest) that we first saw something even resembling, sort of, if you squint, the movie version of the Guardians of the Galaxy in as much as you had Star Lord leading a team of alien criminals and misfits that included Rocket Racoon and Groot. Even so, these are very, very different from the characters you know and hopefully love. This, for example, is Groot circa 2007-08.

"Futility is beneath Groot." is a much better catchphrase, honestly.

“Futility is beneath Groot.” is a much better catchphrase, honestly.

The reason I bring this up is that, compared to the previous movies in the series, GotG  is playing fairly fast and loose with the source material. This, I think, represents a more confident, assertive MCU that’s saying “okay, we’ve figured out what works. We’re going to do that, and if we have to ding the material a bit to get it in the right shape, so be it.” How did that work out? Well, it’s the third most critically acclaimed Marvel Studios movie of all time and grossed almost 800 million dollars despite featuring some of the most obscure comic book characters this side of Egg-Fu so probably fairly okay. But is the acclaim earned? Is GotG actually any GooD? Is futility beneath Groot? All these questions, and more!, shall be answered.

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“You shaped the century. And I need you to do it one more time…”

Okay.

You know what? This year has been pretty fucking awful and we all need, nay deserve, a break. The world is a lot scarier and more uncertain than it was before (and it was already pretty damn scary and uncertain) and there  wasn’t much I could do about it then and there certainly isn’t much I can do about it now. But I can write something that hopefully you’ll find funny and interesting and maybe brighten your day a little  and I categorically refuse to believe that that’s nothing. So how about this? No more talking about politics and America and we just enjoy a review of The Winter Soldier, a political thriller starring Captain America OH GODDAMNIT!!!

Anyone want to skip ahead to Guardians? Anyone?

Anyone want to skip ahead to Guardians? Anyone?

Sigh. Okay. Let’s review the movie where the living exemplar of all that is best in America defeats the forces of tyranny and hatred.

Y’know. Escapism.

***

I remember when it was announced over a decade ago that Marvel were bringing Bucky Barnes back to life and I was opposed to the whole thing. Damn opposed!

Bucky Barnes is one of Marvel’s oldest characters, debuting all the way back in 1941. Bucky and Captain America were introduced as a twofer in the very first issue of Captain America Comics because, ever since Robin had been introduced in Batman the previous year, superheroes had to have kid sidekicks.  It was non-negotiable. In his origin story, Bucky is a kid who likes hanging around a military base and one day sees Steve Rogers changing into his Captain America costume. Bucky tells Steve that the only way to protect his secret identity is to let him be his crime fighting partner and Cap of course has the kid sent to a military lock up as a threat to national security agrees.  This, incidentally, is how Steve Rogers deals with anyone who walks in on him changing, which is how you got such storied superheroes as Clothing Store Assistant Girl and the Incredible Mom. So anyway, Bucky was a pretty blatant Robin rip-off and not even a particularly interesting one and the character was eventually replaced by the female sidekick Golden Girl, before then being brought back for the fifties “commie smasher” version of Captain America in the fifties. When that comic failed, both Cap and Bucky were retired by Marvel.

Then came the sixties, and with superheroes popular again, Stan Lee decided to bring back Marvel’s most popular character from the war era, Captain America, to take his place alongside the Fantastic Four, Avengers, Spider-Man and all the other classic characters that Stan Lee and his collaborators had been minting at a rate of around three a second.

But Stan did. Not. Want. Bucky.

At all.

Why? Well, sidekicks from Robin onwards had been conceived as surrogates for their young, mostly male audience. But Stan found the whole idea of kid sidekicks to be condescending, and so instead had created teen superheroes like Spider-Man and the new Human Torch who were teenagers but also the stars of their own stories rather than playing second fiddle. Then there was the issue of the comics industry’s brush with death in the early fifties thanks to the publication of Seduction of the Innocent  by Doctor Frederic Wertham which made the case that comics were a dangerous influence on the minds of America’s youth. Now the bulk of Wertham’s argument was against horror and crime comics but he also took aim at superheroes, claiming that Batman and Robin were clearly in a sexual relationship. Which, of course, if he had actually bothered to read the comics he would have realised that he was absolutely, totally, 100% percent correct.

batman

So yeah, Stan rather wisely decided that the last thing the newly revived superhero genre needed was little boys in tight shorts running around so when Cap was revived in Avengers #4 he revealed that Bucky had died at the end of the war trying to stop a bomb from destroying London and that they were totally just friends, you guys.

winter-soldier-bucky-barnes-death

This change gave the fairly one-dimensional character of Steve Rogers some much needed emotional shading. Steve was no longer a smiling, lantern jawed, shield-slinger but a grieving, troubled hero out of time and wholly unsure of his role and place in the world. In fact, it worked so well that Bucky was one of a Holy Trinity of dead comic book characters who it was implicitly understood would never, ever be brought back to life; Spiderman’s Uncle Ben, Jason Todd and Bucky Barnes. So when Marvel actually did the unthinkable and brought Backy buck…um, brought Bucky back as a grim and gritty assassin with a robot arm called “The Winter Soldier”, I just rolled my eyes and decried it as another lazy stunt that would be undone in a few months at most. But, credit where credit is due, Cap writer Ed Brubaker made the damn thing work and it’s already considered one of the best and most seminal Captain America stories. In fact, it was chosen as the plot for the second Captain America movie despite being so recent, thereby skipping decades of older, classic Captain America storylines.

What I'm trying to say is; WHERE THE FUCK IS MY WEREWOLF CAPTAIN AMERICA MOVIE, MARVEL?

What I’m trying to say is; WHERE THE FUCK IS MY WEREWOLF CAPTAIN AMERICA MOVIE, MARVEL?

What I find weird about the Captain America trilogy is that, while you often get movie series where instalments are vastly different from each other, it’s pretty damn rare to find a series of movies that hops between genres. This time around, Marvel followed Joe Johnston’s glorious, retro, Indiana Jones homage with a gritty political thriller that would have been perfectly at home in the seventies. How did that work out? Let’s take a look

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“It’s not that I don’t love our little talks, it’s just… I don’t love them.”

By now we are thirteen films into the MCU and the question of which movie is the “worst” feels more and more moot. Sure, we all love ranking things from best to worst because this is the future and the internet has turned us all mildly autistic but really, what’s the point? There have been so many of these things, that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has become less like a series of stand alone movies and more like a single, ongoing epic to the point that calling one movie “the worst” is almost like singling out a single chapter of Lord of the Rings for scorn and derision. Why bother?

Although, I think we can all agree that with Chapter VII, In The House of Tom Bombadil, Tolkien utterly shat the bed.

Although, I think we can all agree that with Chapter VII, In The House of Tom Bombadil, Tolkien utterly shat the bed.

I bring this up not because I think Thor 2: The Dark World is the worst MCU movie but because it sure does pop up a lot in that particular conversation. Part of that, of course, is just blatant Thor-prejudice. Lotta people just can’t grok with the character. But there’s no denying that this is a flawed movie, and while it certainly wasn’t the most troubled Marvel production (Ant Man sits on that throne and will not be vacating for a good long time) it was, by all accounts a rather unfun experience for all involved. After the original director, Patty Jenkins (who’s now helming Wonder Woman) was axed over “creative differences” Natalie Portman almost walked out in solidarity. Jamie Alexander was injured on set and was out of commission for a month. Replacement director Alan Taylor hated the final product. Screenwriter Don Payne died of bone cancer during production. Idris Elba described the shoot as “torture”. And plagues of locusts and boils befell the production and the catering table ran with blood. Probably. In fact, it seems that only one of the principals involved actually had a good time.

He brings the party with him.

He brings the party with him.

But just because almost everyone spent every waking minute wishing for the sweet release of death, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the movie sucks. Apocalypse Now had a hellish shoot after all. Then again, so did The Island of Doctor Moreau. Which example does Thor 2 follow? Let’s take a look.

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“Nothing’s been the same since New York.”

Before we get into the Iron Man 3 review, I should probably address the elephant in the room.
Dammit Francine, if I mean you I’ll use your name. Sit down.

Dammit Francine, if I mean you I’ll use your name. Sit down.

You may have noticed that the ads that were here for a few weeks have now vanished. The reason for that is that I was kindly informed by one of my American readers that the Trump Campaign had been advertising on my blog.
*CLICK*

*CLICK*

And good thing I acted quickly right? I mean, what more fertile pro-Trump ground than Unshaved Mouse? That’s the kind of savvy ad buy that gets you a 10% chance of winning the presidency. Unfortunately this loss of revenue has meant that I’ve had to turn to alternative sources of funding.
“Whoah. Wait a minute, you make MONEY of this?!”

“Whoah. Wait a minute, you make MONEY off this?!”

“No hablo Ingles.”

“No hablo Ingles.”

Thankfully, I’ve been able to secure investment from a less morally compromised source. Which is why I am proud to announce Unshaved Mouse’s new partner, the People’s Republic of China! Please give it up for new recurring character Fan Bing Bing!
“Hello decadent Westerners!”

“Hello decadent Westerners!”

It’s a rapidly emerging market, guys. We gotta move with the times. Anyway, review of movie.

 ***
Here’s a fun game to play with the MCU. Take each movie and imagine what would have happened if the villain had won.
  • Thor: Loki becomes King of Asgard and commits genocide against the Frost Giants.
  • Captain America:  Red Skull wipes out every major city on Earth and most likely ushers in an era of global HYDRA rule.
  • The Avengers: Aliens take over the world.
  • Guardians of the Galaxy: Whole alien planet gets wiped out and that’s just for starters.
  • Thor 2: Ummmmmm…something bad? With…elves? It’s bad, though.

Play the game with the Iron Man movies though and you always get the same result: “Evil rich guy becomes slightly richer.” These movies are actually kinda low-stakes when compared to other entries in the canon. That’s not a criticism. The Iron Man trilogy has always been less interested in “Can Iron Man save the day?” than “Can Tony Stark save his life from being immolated by the army of obsessions, personal demons and character flaws he has jumping around in the moshpit that is his brain?” That’s fine. Refreshing even. I just think it might help explain why this movie is had possibly the least impact on the larger Marvel universe than any other instalment. I’ve been wracking my brain to think of any elements that were introduced in this movie that got carried over into the larger MCU. Extremis? Aldridge Killian? AIM? Never so much as mentioned again in any of the movies (I am waaaay behind on Agents of SHIELD so apologies if I missed anything that showed up there). The Mandarin? Mentioned in a one-shot to keep the fanboys happy. Iron Patriot? Back as War Machine by Age of Ultron. Tony Stark destroying all his suits and giving up being Iron Man? Did not exactly take. This movie is practically in quarantine, and it’s kind of weird that it’s such a dead end at the front because it is deeply wedded to what’s gone on before, to the point that it’s kinda historic in a way I don’t think people necesarrily realise.

See, this is the fourth movie to feature Robert Downey Junior’s Tony Stark, and that’s pretty exceptional. Christopher Reeves played Superman across four movies of course, but by the third installment that series was running on negative continuity. There is no character arc for Superman from Superman I to Quest for Peace, they are just four movies with Christopher Reeves playing Superman. Again, with the Burton/Schumacher Batman movies you get a little bit of character continuity (tiny references to events in previous movies mostly), but by the time you have George Clooney resplendent in Bat-nipples it’s clear that Batman has drifted considerably from Tim Burton’s original vision. This is different. We have now had four movies featuring Tony Stark where the creators are clearly intent on holding to a consistent vision for the character. Iron Man 3 is one of the most polarising movies in the canon for reasons I will get into, but personally it’s my favourite of the trilogy because it asks a question that had never really been asked in a superhero movie before now. What happens to the superhero after he saves the world?

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“We’re sort of like a team. “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes” type thing.”

Superhero teams have been around for almost as long as there have been superhero comics, with the first, the Justice Society of America, debuting in 1940. Since then they’ve been a staple of the genre and for good reason. They give editors a place to test out new characters that can be spun off into their own books if readers take a liking to them and there’s simply more stories you can tell with a large group than you can when you’re focused on a single hero. One character’s not working out? Simply kill him off and replace him and the book carries on unaffected, much like the earth will keep turning inexorably after your inevitable death (wow, where did that come from, Mouse?). In fact, it’s pretty much a cast-iron rule that where you have superheroes, you will have superhero teams. My point is, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby did many ground-breaking, ingenious and innovative things with the comic book medium during their partnership in the sixties, but inventing the Avengers was not one of them. Once they had created a certain number of superheroes, putting them all in the one book was about as inevitable as the tides. And to be honest…that kinda shows. When you read those old comics you can tell when Stan and Jack were really invested and bringing their A-game to a book (Fantastic Four, Thor, Silver Surfer) and when they were kinda phoning it in (Daredevil, X-Men and the Avengers). Even the name is half-assed. The first issue literally ends with the heroes standing around and saying “What should we call ourselves?” “The…avengers?” “Sure, let’s go with that.” Like, they literally just went with the generic place-holder superhero team name.

If the creation of the Avengers comic book was unremarkable and by-the -numbers, though, the movie was anything but. In fact, I’m pretty sure future movie historians will be looking back at this as the start of something entirely new. Whether that’s a good thing or not remains to be seen but regardless, this movie is a big effing deal. For the first time, audiences were expected to go to a movie that shared continuity, characters and plot with four separate pre-existing series of movies. This was something on a scale that the film industry had simply never seen before.

And, be honest, you kinda thought it would suck. Didn’t you?

Didn’t you?

C’mon. Be honest. You thought it was going to suck. You can say it.

"Yeah..."

“Yeah…”

"SEIZE HER!"

“SEIZE HER!”

Seriously though, the reaction to this movie was damn near euphoric but part of that just had to have been due to the fact that Marvel had even pulled it off. The fact that it was simply something you could point to and say “Yup, that’s a movie.” was in and of itself something to Marvel at (I ain’t ashamed). Four years later, though, when every studio and their mother is trying to ape Marvel’s shared universe concept, does it still hold up as anything other than a well-executed gimmick? Is it even a good movie in its own right? Does it have what noted film-maker Jackie Treehorn called the “little extras”?

 

"Story? Productions value? Feelings?"

“Story? Production values? Feelings?”

Let’s take a look.

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“I don’t want to kill anyone. I just don’t like bullies.”

True story. A few years ago now when I was getting ready to move out of my parents’ house, I was clearing out my stuff from my bedroom, the bulk of which was pretty much every issue of SFX magazine published between 1997 and 2004. And I found myself with two copies in my hand, one from August 2001 and the other from October 2001. I idly flicked through the August issue and found myself reading the comic reviews, one of which was a little quarter-page panning of Captain America # Fifty Bajillion drawn by Who Knows and written by Who Cares. The review was scathing; the art’s terrible, the writing’s appalling and worst of all, the main character’s just not interesting or relevant anymore. The review finished by noting that Marvel had been dropping hints that one of their oldest characters was going to be killed off and it didn’t take a genius to figure out that Cap was not long for this world. I then flicked through the October 2001 issue and again turned to the comics section. And there was a full page review of the new Captain America #1, with a top tier art and script team and a story about Steve Rogers defending Muslim New Yorkers from racist attackers while trying to track down an Al Qaeda cell.

Cometh the hour. Cometh the man.

For a character whose entire schtick is being a man out of time, when he was originally created Captain America was actually ahead of his time. In America in 1940 public opinion was firmly against become involved in another European war. In New York however, many of the men working in the comic book industry were  the children of Jewish immigrants who often still had family back in Europe and felt a personal connection to the horrors being committed by the Nazis. One of those men was Joe Simon who conceived of a patriotic, Nazi-battling character named “Super American”. Deciding that the name was a little too similar to a certain other superhero, he changed it to “Captain America”, a name so instantly iconic that nowadays you just have to put the word “captain” in front of any random noun and it sounds like a superhero name. Simon pitched the idea to his editor Martin Goodman who liked it so much that he ordered him to create a solo Captain America series, a big gamble to take on an untested character. Simon’s usual partner was artist Jack Kirby but Simon wanted to bring in two additional artists to deal with the workload of creating an entire book’s worth of stories based on one character. But Kirby was so invested in the character of Captain America that he insisted on drawing the entire book himself, which he did, and on time.

The first issue sold as well as any comic that features Hitler getting punched in the face should. The character was an immediate hit, becoming the first genuine superstar character of Timely comics (which would later become Marvel). Not all the attention was positive, however. American Nazis began sending threatening letters and one time even called the offices of Timely challenging Jack Kirby to come down and fight them in the foyer. Kirby ran down only to find they’d run off because it was Jack Frickin’ Kirby and they may have been Nazis but they weren’t crazy. Regardless, for a while the city of New York actually had to provide police protection to the building. After Pearl Harbour, Captain America became even more popular, with his comics distributed to American service men to boost morale. Many of the Timely artists and writers were drafted during this period. Stan Lee, for example, who got his break in Timely writing Captain America prose stories (he was the one who came up with the whole “throwing the shield as a weapon” thing) was put to work making propaganda. One day he was found breaking into the army post office, trying to mail a script off to Timely. He was told he’d be court-martialed, only to be released the next day when the editor of Timely rang his commanding officer to point out that jailing the writer of Captain Frickin’ America might be bad for the army’s morale.

Jack Kirby also joined the army but opted to serve on the front lines, becoming one of the few American soldiers who had experience fighting Nazis as a hobby before going pro.

Unfortunately, America won the war…I mean obviously not “unfortunately” in the grand scheme of things but unfortunate for Captain America. You see, Captain America was very much a reaction to the Nazi menace, which is what made the character so timely (pun!) and important. But of course, once that menace was defeated, Captain America didn’t really have a purpose anymore. In fact, the same could be said for the vast majority of superheroes who had followed in his wake. The superhero boom pretty much died with Hitler, with only a few characters like Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman surviving the decade. Timely tried repurposing Cap as a commie fighter, but it just wasn’t the same. Timely changed its name to Atlas, dropped the superhero genre entirely and started focusing on sci-fi and monster tales.

It wasn’t until the sixties that Cpatain America got his second origin story. The third issue of The Avengers had the newly formed team finding Captain America floating in the Arctic Sea in a block of ice having gone missing near the end of WW2 (all the stuff about him fighting communists was retconned as actually having…you know what, fuck it, no time). Captain America then joined the team as a man out of time, a morally pure Rip Van Winkle trying to adapt to a confusing and complex modern world, and that’s pretty much been his niche ever since.

Since then, Captain America has had his share of classic runs and great stories, but there’s no denying that he’s a tricky character to do right. Like Superman and Wonder Woman, it takes a writer with skill to make him work (though it’s a truly wonderful thing when he does). For a long stretches of the twentieth century it often seemed like Marvel didn’t know what to do with Captain America, often giving him to creators who really had no business writing the character, which is how we got Rob Liefeld’s godawful Heroes Reborn Captain America.

I'd say "We do not speak of the Sentinel of Libertitty" but let's be real. We never stopped.

I’d say “We do not speak of the Sentinel of Libertitty” but let’s be real. We never stopped.

 Since the beginning of the 21st century however, Cap has once again become one Marvel’s top tier characters, attracting industry leading talent and the kind of popularity he hasn’t really known since the time of his creation. Part of that is, well, yeah, obviously…

"9/11 changed EVERYTHING Brian!"

“9/11 changed EVERYTHING Brian!”

But as well as the natural impulse to rally around such a patriotic symbol in troubling times, Captain America is simply a character whose time has come again. In the forties, Cap was popular but he was by no means unique. The stands were overflowing with patriotic, square jawed do-gooders. Hell, Captain America wasn’t even the first superhero to wear the American flag and carry a shield. But the superhero genre has changed so utterly since those days that what once made Captain America almost generic now makes him almost unique. Nowadays, a superhero who’s just a genuinely decent person is refreshing and almost edgy. He may be old fashioned, but these day? Like the man said, people need a little old fashioned.

2011’s Captain America, the first movie featuring the character that fans will actually acknowledge exists, works and works so damn well, because it gets that.

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