We’re merely weeks out from the release of Avengers: Infinity War (2018), the culmination of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and a decade of world-building and redefining the Hollywood Blockbuster System. After the success of Phase One, Marvel lets Phase Two expand the MCU with mostly sequels and a few standalone gems that help gear up for Marvel’s third act/lead-up to Infinity War.
I’ve seen Iron Man 3 (2013) three times now, and each time I have surprisingly found more to like. The movie starts out as strong as it can with a shellshocked Tony Stark after the events of The Avengers (2012). He can’t sleep; he’s despondent until he admits to Pepper what’s happening. Kudos for doing that immediately and not trying to have some third act breakthrough after Tony treats Pepper like crap for an hour and a half. Not even twenty minutes in and Tony shows a vulnerability to him we’ve never seen – it’s a step in the right direction. When Tony loses his suits and his home, he is left to his own wit and will to save the day, and it lets Robert Downey Jr. flesh out the character like he never has before. While Tony’s arc stands out in Iron Man 3, everyone else’s characterization is seemingly left on the cutting room floor. Pepper is cast to the side for the majority of the movie and the incredible performance Ben Kingsley gives as the Mandarin is completely undermined by the third act reveal that he’s a paid actor. Guy Pearce, the real main antagonist, has motivations that are nonsensical: Tony ditches him on New Years Eve in 1999 so Guy decides to become a terrorist… that’s about it. The action is as great as any blockbuster, especially the destruction of Tony’s Malibu home and The Iron Patriot suit sacking Air Force One. The monkeys-in-a-barrel free fall rescue is corny even for a superhero movie. Iron Man 3 does everything with Tony Stark right, and Shane Black gives the movie a tone of its own to separate it from other Iron Man/MCU installments; but he forgets that Tony isn’t the only other character in this movie and he isn’t the only one who viewers have been following since the beginning of the MCU.
Favorite Quote: “I seem to do quite well for a stretch, and then at the end of the sentence I say the wrong cranberry.” -Jarvis
Thor’s first sequel does an impressive job of expanding the Marvel Cinematic Universe without building on Thor’s characterization at all. Christopher Eccleston‘s Malekith falls into the void of forgettable comic book movie villains whose motivations make little-to-no sense. He basically wants to take the Aether, AKA the Reality Stone, to plunge the universe into total darkness; why? Because he’s a Dark Elf, and that’s their life goal. Pretty boring compared to the complexity of Loki (who is the standout of this movie by an embarrassing landslide) or the absolution of the Red Skull. Once again, Anthony Hopkins is underutilized (probably by his choice), but as a consolation, we get Rene Russo as Frigga – Thor’s mother. Only she has about ten minutes of solid screen time before she is killed off and we can barely find it in us to care because we’ve barely spent any time with her. What intrigued me the most about this rewatch is how little sense the Aether’s abilities make. It turns matter into dark matter… and also can be used as a weapon that fires concussive energy like any bad-guy-MacGuffin. The action is solid, especially the sacking of Asgard where Heimdall (Idris Elba) gets his moment to shine. However, the climax is overall anticlimactic; another beam-in-the-sky-trope with the “convergence” of the nine realms (this plot is all over the place) and stopping Malekith from using the Aether to annihilate the universe (I mean REALLY all over the place). Even by the end, Thor is still in the same place he was as the beginning of the movie, and only at the end do we get a solid twist with Loki impersonating Odin – something we don’t see the payoff of until 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok. I would say after this rewatch, Thor: The Dark World (2013) lowered on my ranking of MCU films to probably my second-least-favorite behind The Incredible Hulk (2008). It’s also worth noting that the Reality Stone’s emergence furthers the overarching plot of the MCU and Benicio Del Toro’s cameo as The Collector paves the way for Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), which makes The Dark World an effective-enough expanding of the MCU cosmos, but only by a razor thin margin.
Favorite Quote: “It’s not that I don’t love our little talks, it’s just… I don’t love them.” -Loki
Wow, was this movie a breath of fresh air after Thor: The Dark World. Captain America gets a solo outing in modern times and Joe & Anthony Russo make their MCU directing debut. One of the most compelling attributes of Steve Rogers is that he is a man out of time – literally. His interactions with real world politics/tech with the mindset of a kid from 1940s Brooklyn makes for an interesting base to the cake that is Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014). Nerd-bros on the internet immediately make the jump to call The Winter Soldier a “political thriller” and while there are certainly elements to that, it is still at the end of the day a superhero movie. There’s nothing wrong with that, though. There is espionage and deceit as well as the biggest push in expanding the earth-bound plot of the MCU, with Hydra secretly running SHIELD from behind the curtain. Yet at the movie’s core is a super-powered do-gooder with a big shield who calls himself Captain America. Where this movie really shines is the action sequences – they’re flawless. From the first mission with a hostage situation to Nick Fury’s car chase, to the highway chase with Cap, Black Widow, and the titular Winter Soldier, it’s everything you could ask for in a superhero sequel. SHIELD’s betrayal raises the stakes for the world’s security and it not only fits in with the MCU’s direction but it also provides payoff for some of the plot points in both The First Avenger (2011) and The Avengers (2012). Thor: The Dark World and Captain America: The Winter Soldier are direct sequels to the events of The Avengers; but the difference is plain and simple: the characters in The Winter Soldier are far more fleshed out than in The Dark World. Nick Fury and Black Widow are given a chance to show some actual characterization instead of playing supporting characters, and Anthony Mackie‘s debut as Falcon gives Cap a Robin to his Batman. While the Winter Soldier isn’t necessarily the MAIN villain of the movie, there’s no denying he’s badass syndrome done right. The scene where he is just taking gun after gun from his henchmen and firing away at Cap is bone chilling. I’m also happy that the reveal that he is Bucky Barnes wasn’t something played up in some big way. If you read the comics or just simply look at the guy’s face, despite the mask, it’s pretty clear who it is. In terms of solid storytelling, expanding the MCU in a way Thor: The Dark World doesn’t, and laying the groundwork for what’s to come in not only the Avengers sequel but also Phase Three, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a near-perfect movie. As of now, it is the strongest of the MCU films that precede it… only the next one truly gives it a run for its money.
Favorite Quote: “Before we get started, does anyone want to get out?” – Steve Rogers
This is hands-down still my favorite MCU movie. Marvel took a property with heroes that were essentially nobodies in pop culture and turned them into household names as if they’ve been around since the 30s. Nowadays you can’t walk into any Target or Wal-Mart without seeing a poster with Peter Quill and his team splashed over a canvas of colors. James Gunn is one of the only filmmakers in the MCU to give a movie a unique tone and Gunn went for broke writing and directing an action/sci-fi blockbuster as saturated as the MCU cosmos themselves. Each character has an introduction that sets them apart from the rest of the world while establishing histories with certain parties that stretch back millennia. If the events of The Winter Soldier advance the earthbound MCU narrative, then Guardians of the Galaxy blows the lid wide open on the cosmic possibilities of the universe. I’m not sure why people give Ronan the Accuser a bad rep as a villain. I personally think the guy is hardcore. Lee Pace makes Ronan feel like an absolution unlike anything in the universe and while his actions are lawless and brutal, in the age of the Trump presidency it feels appropriate to have a purist-villain willing to condemn an entire group of people for their own fanatical beliefs. Story-wise, it follows all the beats of an action-adventure team-up movie. What makes it work, however, is the likability of all the characters. Even if you don’t agree with them, their actions are justified by their pasts and their intentions. Guardians was, still is, and will probably remain my favorite MCU movie because it not only fits into the MCU canon seamlessly, it provides a fun time for two hours with great (GREAT) music and heart at its core.
Favorite Quote: “I am going to die surrounded by the biggest idiots in the galaxy.” -Gamora
Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) plays like a Fast & Furious movie, as in it’s all in from the very beginning and promises audiences a non-stop ride for two and a half hours. The match-cut from Stark grabbing Loki’s staff to the title is one of my favorite edits in any movie. The stakes feel all the more serious in this movie with James Spader‘s mesmerizing turn as Ultron. Age of Ultron has the tough job of implying some sort of end to a second act for the MCU while remaining an Avengers sequel at its core. Joss Whedon once again proves his mastery of directing character dialogue, but its painfully clear that he was in a creative battle with Marvel Studios during production. The tone is inconsistent and the second act drags. The farm scene I particularly liked because by this midway point in the movie, you’re literally exhausted from all of the action and quirky one-liners that have been spewed out non-stop. The final act with Sokovia being suspended in the air to come crashing down and cause cataclysmic doom to the Earth is absurd but then again so are comic books. The ‘new’ Avengers lineup at the end is charming in that it gives the secondary heroes a chance to shine, but I’m hard pressed to be as invested in them as I am in Hulk’s disappearance after the Battle of Sokovia and Thor starting his side quest that isn’t picked back up until Thor: Ragnarok. Age of Ultron is far from any sort of forwardness in the comic book genre, but there’s no denying how damn fun this movie is.
Favorite Quote: “The city is flying and we’re fighting an army of robots. And I have a bow and arrow. Nothing makes sense.” -Hawkeye
What works with Ant-Man (2015) is that it’s fully aware it can’t top the sheer scale of the events of Age of Ultron. How can you? So instead, Ant-Man lets audiences know that this is going to be a personal side-story in the MCU that allows the world to take a breather before things really start to pop off in Phase Three. Edgar Wright was slated to direct Ant-Man all the way back in 2006. After positive test footage that Wright shot and premiered at 2012’s San Diego Comic Con, it seemed inevitable that Wright was going to give a unique spin on the relatively unknown hero… that is, until May 2014 when Wright left the project over creative differences and was replaced by Peyton Reed (great last name). While part of me will always wonder what could have been with Wright’s contribution to the superhero genre, I can’t lie and say Ant-Man isn’t a warmhearted heist movie with someone as unimpeachable as Paul Rudd in the starring role of Scott Lang: a cat burglar with a heart of gold only trying to right his wrongs and be with his daughter. It’s a classic training/heist/redemption movie that finally introduces Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) into the MCU as well as Evangeline Lilly as Hope van Dyne – easily the best character in the movie. I sat around at the outset wondering why Hank and Hope even need Scott when Hope is clearly overqualified. What makes this tolerable is the fact that Hope is addressing this in every scene until Hank finally admits it is for her protection so he doesn’t lose her the way he lost Hope’s mother. It’s a pretty cookie-cutter plot point but it’s better than the alternative which is just Hank and Scott thinking this is a MAN’S job. While the villain is forgettable and some of the action can be cheesy (I mean we’re dealing with ants, here), the sound design and camerawork is really where Ant-Man shines. You get a true feeling of tininess when you see the world from Scott’s point of view in the Ant-Man suit. Flying ants sound like helicopters and Thomas the Tank Engine sounds like a screaming locomotive. This is probably where Edgar Wright would’ve truly shined and seeing his test footage from back in 2012 recreated in this movie is a great nod to the director. Ant-Man isn’t as much of an adrenaline ride as The Winter Soldier or Age of Ultron; and it may not be as colorful as Guardians of the Galaxy; but at its core it’s a personal story that focuses on the little guy (pun completely intended) and adds at least three more pivotal characters to the MCU. Not to mention Michael Peña is hilarious in this.
Favorite Quote: “Wait I didn’t steal anything! I was returning something I stole!” -Scott Lang
That’s it from Phase Two! Be on the lookout of the final roundup of Marvel Cinematic Universe films with Phase Three coming soon!