In four days, dozens of characters come together for the culmination of ten years of cinematic universe-building in the biggest blockbuster event in recent memory. It was a long road but we’re here, and it was an especially longer road as I’ve watched 18 movies to hype you, myself, and anyone else up for this event. Enjoy my rundown of Phase Three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and be on the lookout for my review of Avengers: Infinity War (2018) in the coming week.
When you think about the direction Marvel Studios was heading when they were shaping Phase Three, it’s clear they wanted the Avengers to be caught with their pants down by the time Thanos shows up in Infinity War. Cue Captain America: Civil War (2016) – the movie designed to split the team apart while simultaneously spearheading the beginning of Marvel’s third act. The Russos return to the directors’ chairs to deliver a direct sequel to Age of Ultron (2015) and the fallout from the Battle of Sokovia. Adapting a storyline as pivotal in Marvel Comics as Civil War is a huge undertaking, especially when Marvel Studios doesn’t have the rights to half of the characters involved, and yet they make it work. We are even introduced to Chadwick Boseman‘s T’Challa and Tom Holland‘s Peter Parker. Both are given poignant character introductions; T’Challa and his father King T’Chaka (John Kani) establish a father/son relationship worth rooting for in a matter of thirty seconds before T’Chaka is killed in an explosion caused (allegedly) by Bucky. It’s heartbreaking and gives you everything you need to understand T’Challa’s motivations. As for Peter, he IS Queens; a dumpster-diver who stumbles into his powers and wants nothing but to help people who can’t fight for themselves. They even manage to get the ‘great power/great responsibility’ spiel in the movie without saying the words. People are right to call this Avengers 2.5 seeing as everyone in Age of Ultron comes back, as well as supporting characters like War Machine, Falcon and Agent 13 (Emily VanCamp), who get more of a spotlight this time around. Anthony Mackie really comes into his own as Falcon in this movie. More often than not he’s calling the shots in the field, and while Cap may have more of a kinship with Bucky Barnes, his and Falcon’s loyalty to each other holds its weight in gold when the world turns its back on Cap with the Sokovia Accords. While it’s certainly an extension of Age of Ultron, Civil War still works as a Captain America movie by keeping Steve Rogers at the forefront, doing what he believes is right even when his closest friends think he’s wrong. I honestly lean a little more on Stark’s side of the disagreement – whether or not superheroes/vigilantes should be monitored by the government for the people’s protection – but Chris Evan’s performance drives Cap’s point home and helps clearly establish him as the main protagonist of the story. Civil War is as exciting an open to Phase Three as you can ask for, and it breaks up a once-unbreakable team at a time when they need all the firepower they can get for what’s coming. I will say, however, the action is obviously outstanding. Seeing your heroes fight each other hefts heavier stakes than heroes fighting a forgettable villain (Daniel Brühl is interesting as Zemo, but not as interesting as the Avengers’ discourse). From an editing standpoint, however, these fight scenes lack an organic flow that The Russos perfectly capture in The Winter Soldier (2014). There are far too many cuts and edits that are honestly nauseating at some points in Civil War, especially compared to the smooth camerawork and choreography in The Winter Soldier. But you can’t sit there and tell me the airport fight isn’t electric.
Favorite Quote: “It always ends in a fight.” -Bucky Barnes
Phase Three feels like it really kicks off with Doctor Stephen Strange’s long-awaited origin story. It follows the beats of just about every modern origin film about a white superstar with a good life suddenly plunged into traumatic circumstance. It has all the tropes: training sequences with a foreign/lethal faction of mystic people, a bad guy with base-level aspirations, the wise mentor who dies to teach the hero a lesson. In terms of plot and storytelling, Doctor Strange (2016) is very unoriginal. It makes sense, though, that Marvel would try to mimic Stark’s origins with Strange’s because Robert Downey Jr‘s days in the MCU are (contractually) numbered. Marvel needs a new face to lead their franchise when RDJ’s time comes, and Benedict Cumberbatch can fill that void easily. One quality of Strange that his counterparts like Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne don’t share is his reluctance to become any sort of hero. Strange just wants to learn the mystic arts to be able to do his actual job (which coincidentally involves saving lives, but he’s clearly too much of an egomaniac for that to be the main reason he cares about being a brilliant neurosurgeon). Strange is actually forced into his role of Sorcerer Supreme when Mads Mikkelsen shows up to usher in darkness, doom, and all that good villain stuff. Mikkelsen is forgettable as a character, but I just love Mikkelsen as an actor so much that I can’t help but enjoy him when he’s on screen. Where Doctor Strange really finds its footing is with the visual effects. My God, this movie is a trip and a half. It’s psychedelic as New York City turns in on itself to become a massive obstacle course. It’s no wonder Marvel didn’t care about a story, all their effort went into the visuals. The thing is, it DOES look great! Doctor Strange doesn’t break any new ground for comic book films as a genre, but it is a great symbolic passing of the baton from RDJ to Cumberbatch in preparation for Stark’s departure from the MCU.
ALSO: Now that we’re at the portion of MCU films that were released after GBT started, you get the treat of a link to my original review of Doctor Strange, should you want to explore my opinion on this movie more!
Favorite Quote: “Wong. Just Wong? Like Adele? Or Aristotle. Drake. Bono… Eminem.” -Doctor Stephen Strange
The first time I saw Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017), I thought it was a bit of a letdown. I thought there were a lot of sequel tropes, like doing the same thing but bigger, and too much of an emphasis on Baby Groot’s cuteness to sell toys. Marvel is in full-blown franchise mode at this point, which means “merchandising (pronounced ‘moichandising’) – where the real money in the movie is made!” This is only the second time I’ve watched Vol. 2 and I have to admit I had a much more positive response to it. While there are subplots that carry over from the first installment, Vol. 2 manages to feel like a sequel while also removing itself from the events of the MCU (shocking since characters like Gamora, Nebula, and Drax have the closest connections to Thanos in the MCU). Vol. 2 also lets the supporting characters of the first movie take a more center-stage role by fleshing out Yondu and Nebula – two incredibly tragic characters. For me, the heart of the film lies with Kurt Russell, who plays Quill’s father Ego, the living planet. Russell electrifies every movie he is in, and he turns in a great performance as a god, and a father that Quill has been seeking his whole life. I can confidently say Kurt Russell is in my top three favorite actors ever. Even Sylvester Stallone manages to make a cameo in this film, and while he’s only in the movie for two scenes, he knocks it out of the park. Vol. 2 is at its best when the Guardians are separated a la Empire Strikes Back (1980). Director James Gunn pairs up unlikely (and somehow likely at the same time) couples for the majority of the second act before they all find their way back to each other for the finale – which can admittedly get a bit convoluted – and Yondu’s sacrifice at the end gives Vol. 2 an emotional punch that no Marvel movie has been able to match since the first Guardians of the Galaxy. I’m very interested to see how the ramifications of Vol. 2 affect where we find the Guardians in Infinity War, given how removed Gunn manages to keep the movie this late in the game. I will also go on record and say that I enjoy Quill’s Awesome Mixtape Vol. 2 more than Vol. 1 from the previous film.
Favorite Quote: “We’re really gonna be able to jack up our prices if we’re two-time galaxy savers.” -Rocket
Throughout my life of loving comic books and superheroes, there has been one undying constant: Spider-Man is my favorite superhero of all time. Besides Wolverine, there is no other hero that has sacrificed what Peter Parker has sacrificed. Love, family, happiness: Spider-Man has always put these desires second to the city of New York and the little guy. As someone who grew up reading Ultimate Spider-Man, I related to Peter Parker’s struggle as well as his demeanor as not only a wise-cracker, but at his core as a FRIENDLY neighborhood Spider-Man. Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) does an exceptional job of showing a Peter Parker in high school, but unlike in the Marc Webb-directed Amazing Spider-Man movies, there’s a palpable connection between balancing the life of a crime fighter and the social standards of just being in high school. Homecoming takes the time to give much-needed updates to supporting characters in Spider-Man’s life, such as making Flash Thompson, still a bully, a snobby nerd on Midtown High’s math team. I’m not too fond of the “Aunt May is hot” thing, but I can’t deny that I love watching Marisa Tomei in just about anything and she gives May a vulnerability without even providing that much exposition into why she cares about Peter’s safety so much. The movie lets viewers know that with great power comes great responsibility, but Spider-Man’s origin is as recycled as Batman’s these days so it’s good we don’t have to chew up 40 minutes of runtime with that song and dance. Where the movie really shines is its villain: The Vulture. Michael Keaton completely owns this character and injects some long overdue life into the villain roster for the MCU. Keaton is terrifying and charismatic, but he’s also a complex and fleshed-out character in these movies with priorities and intentions despite his life of crime. The twist when Peter arrives at his house is objectively the most surprising yet believable twist in the entire MCU. The action is pretty par-for-the-course, and the best sequence in the movie is certainly Spider-Man’s montage of helping people and making it up as he goes. What made me nervous from the trailers was the abundance of Tony Stark. The trailers actually did a decent job of fooling me as Tony is only in the movie for about three scenes and even in those scenes it’s still Peter who commands the frame and the focus is entirely on his struggle. It’s a great father/son dynamic whose roots were planted in Civil War, and it shows Tony still taking the steps to right the wrongs of his and his father’s pasts. Spider-Man, to me, will always be a kid hero who hates that people only seemed to recognize the ‘kid’ in him. He’s a teenager who wants to hang out with the adults because he firmly believes it’s where he belongs. As the youngest sibling in my family, this is something I relate to far too much and it is the crux of Spider-Man’s pathos. He’s a nerdy kid who can do incredible things but constantly feels undermined for something as trivial as his age. I love Spider-Man with all my heart. I think Homecoming paints a portrait for Spider-Man lovers, old and new, that they can relate to on many levels. Michael Keaton elevates it to something more than a run of the mill MCU movie, and while the nostalgia-freak in me will always have a place for Tobey Maguire’s two Spider-Man movies (there are only two), I confidently endorse Tom Holland’s take.
Favorite Quote: “I don’t really wanna celebrate something that was built by slaves.” -Michelle
Everything in Thor: Ragnarok (2017) works except for the title character. Thor is reduced to a Star-Lord knock-off who cracks jokes and acts like a total bro for the two-hour duration of the movie. It’s frustrating because the premise of Ragnarok could have worked on such a dramatic level. Cate Blanchett‘s Hela brings a lot to the table as Marvel’s first female villain. Her performance is great and she sheds a lot of light on the sins of Odin’s past (Anthony Hopkins gives his last mediocre performance as the lackluster God. Seriously, if this rewatch taught me anything it’s that Odin is not only a mediocre king, but a mediocre father as well). But as the Goddess of Death, all Hela brings to the table is the ability to form knives out of thin air. Hela and Thor’s characterizations aside, the movie’s true demise is the humor. It’s not that the movie isn’t funny; quite the opposite. The movie is too funny. Thor finds himself banished to Sakaar where he is enslaved and has to fight in gladiatorial competitions to win his freedom, and it’s here we finally see Bruce Banner for the first time since Age of Ultron (2015). Mark Ruffalo hasn’t lost a step as Banner, but I want more from him and the fact that he has been missing for two years. They touch on it briefly, but if Banner’s internal struggle with ‘the other guy’ was fleshed out more than Thor’s sudden acquisition of sarcasm, it could have built on Hulk’s character far more than the MCU has done since he was repurposed as a supporting character after the forgettable Edward Norton Incredible Hulk (2008). Ragnarok could have been a Spartacus-level-mass-exodus-epic but instead Marvel decides to take a safe route and stick with their humor due to the overwhelming success of heroes like the Guardians of the Galaxy, Iron Man, and Spider-Man. The movie does, however, offer a glimpse into the beginning of Infinity War with Thanos arriving in the mid-credits tease after Loki steals the Tesseract from Odin’s throne room. It’s great to see Loki again, especially since we have not seen him since Thor: The Dark World (2013). It’s nice to revisit a character after four years of absence as opposed to seeing Robert Downey Jr. every year since 2015. Tom Hiddleston hasn’t lost his charm as Loki, but the man desperately needs a haircut and a shower (I don’t know, the copy of this movie I watched was super HD and made Hiddleston’s hair look a little too shiny [read: greasy] for me). I’m still unsure what Loki’s fate will be in Infinity War. I mean he’s obviously deader than disco, but will he give up the Tesseract to save Thor or will he do what the God of Mischief does and try to betray Thor one last time only to find his title to be his hubris in the end?
Favorite Quote: “I don’t hang with the Avengers anymore. It all got too corporate.” -Thor
As of right now, Black Panther (2018) is the third highest-grossing film (domestically) of all time, trailing only Avatar (2009) and The Force Awakens (2015). What’s even crazier is that I went to see this movie for the second time ever last night and the theater was still mobbed with people. Maybe they’re rewatching all of the MCU films like I am, maybe they’re just hyped for Infinity War; or maybe they just simply haven’t seen it yet. Either way, it’s been over two months since Black Panther‘s release and it’s selling out like it opened last weekend. This is not only a testament to Black Panther‘s cultural success, but also a bar that has been set that Infinity War is all but lined up to demolish with predictions of a $200 million+ opening weekend. From the music to the action to the performances from the best ensemble cast Marvel has built, Black Panther is awesome. Chadwick Boseman reprises his role from Civil War as T’Challa, a week after the events of CW as he prepares to inherit the throne of Wakanda and the Black Panther mantle. While the main focus of the movie is on T’Challa finding the balance between being a good man and a good king, the supporting cast are all fleshed-out with past relationships, intentions for the future, and most importantly a lust for life. Every character in Black Panther exudes a sense of enthusiasm with every scene. Jokes are cracked in Marvel fashion, but it feels more organic with Black Panther. This is the first Marvel movie to put a focus on Wakanda, yet the characters feel lived-in as if they’ve been in the MCU for the whole run (because technically they have). Michael B. Jordan‘s Killmonger is a top-tier MCU villain, and while he falls victim to the trope of wearing the same costume as the good guy for the climax, it actually makes more sense in this movie than it has in past MCU-joints. The climax feels cluttered at times, but by establishing the different tribes of Wakanda in the introductory animation, the movie does add more weight to the final battle as opposed to the number of disposable armies that have come in previous MCU movies. Despite that, my favorite sequence in the movie is the casino fight in South Korea. There is one shot in particular where director Ryan Coogler really flexes his filmmaking skills, similar to his take on Creed (2015). T’Challa is the protagonist, no doubt, but he’s nothing without the aid of Okoye (Danai Gurira) and his sister Shuri (Letitia Wright). Both are standout and I hope they aren’t cast aside in Infinity War to make way for the “real heroes” because these two are as much heroes as T’Challa. Black Panther also manages to stay relatively removed from the MCU (despite Vibranium being the MacGuffin of the film and a MacGuffin of the MCU, and Martin Freeman‘s CIA character from Civil War having a substantial role). Everyone thought the Soul Stone, the last Infinity Stone that hasn’t appeared yet, would finally arrive in this movie. While I’m still convinced it’s hiding somewhere in Wakanda, its absence in Black Panther is probably for the best. Black Panther follows the beats of any superhero movie, but there’s no denying its impact over the past few months on box offices, the superhero genre, and just society as a whole. Now we just need Black Panther 2 to be the same thing but with Kendrick Lamar challenging T’Challa for the throne.
Favorite Quote: “If you say one more word, I’ll feed you to my children… I’m kidding. We’re vegetarians.” -M’Baku
Up next: TO INFINITY.