As a lead-up to Captain America: Civil War, the 13th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, hitting theatres this Friday, Matthew Bowers is taking a trip back through the MCU’s twelve previous films, seeing what holds up, what doesn’t, and what he might not have given a fair shake to the first time. Tuesday was part one of that retrospective, covering 2008’s Iron Man through 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger. Wednesday covered 2012’s The Avengers through 2014’s The Winter Soldier, and the final installment today will finish things off with Guardians of the Galaxy, Age of Ultron, and Ant-Man.
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY
I enjoyed the heck out of this movie when I saw it in the theatre, but since then the actual film had receded somewhat in my mind. In its place was the memory of the brief (but sharp) moments of intense sexism, as well as director James Gunn’s attempts to throw co-writer Nicole Perlman under the bus. Watching it again, I was worried the film itself would be marred by these problematic elements and I wouldn’t be able to enjoy myself.
Luckily, the film itself is strong enough (or I’m just that good at compartmentalizing) to withstand these issues. The sexist moments which essentially bookend the film (Quill forgetting he has a woman on board his ship, and Drax calling Gamora a whore for no reason) do stand out, but that’s partially because the rest of the film is so incredibly fun and good-natured. Chris Pratt is, of course, charming as hell as Peter Quill, a space-going Indiana Jones obsessed with ‘80s pop culture, and Zoe Saldana as the assassin Gamora is every bit his equal. Bradley Cooper manages a surprisingly nuanced performance as the voice of Rocket, Dave Bautista’s deadpan is perfect for Drax, and Vin Diesel manages to convey a surprising amount of emotional range and depth as Groot. Lee Pace is a little too buried under makeup to be that intimidating, but Karen Gillan as Nebula is compelling and terrifying. Benicio Del Toro is wasted as the Collector, honestly, serving only as an exposition delivery mechanism for the Infinity Stones, and it’s really too soon to see if Josh Brolin’s Thanos will be the villain to end all villains these films are trying so hard to make us believe he is.
Despite Thanos and the Infinity Stones and the Kree, Guardians is surprisingly and satisfyingly self-contained, something we haven’t seen much of this far into the MCU. One could watch this film with no knowledge whatsoever of the other Marvel films and not be lost or confused in the slightest. The script is tight, up there with Winter Soldier and the first Iron Man. Like so many Marvel heroes, though, Quill has virtually no character arc to speak of. Rocket and Drax get mini-arcs, but Quill and everyone else is largely the same at the end of the film as they were at the beginning, vague attempts to make us think otherwise notwithstanding. The action is engaging and well-staged, and it’s kind of amazing how far the MCU has come since its inception; from Iron Man carefully doling out the action to save money, to this, a fully-realized galactic society that looks and feels lived-in, realistic, and believable.
I enjoyed the heck out of this movie when I saw it in the theatre, and, problems aside, I enjoyed the heck out of it rewatching it at home, too. Can’t wait for the sequel.
AGE OF ULTRON
Oh boy. Oh gosh. Oh man. This movie.
Here’s the thing about Age of Ultron. As many things as The Avengers needed to pull off, Age of Ultron needs to do almost twice that. It has to serve as a sequel to The Avengers while also folding in the events of the previous “Phase Two” movies while also serving as a pivot point towards “Phase Three” and the more cosmic concerns that will dominate Infinity War. It needs to acknowledge what’s been happening in the standalone films while not derailing their narratives too much (easier with Iron Man and Thor, trickier with Cap), not to mention making some attempt at folding in the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. TV show. It needs to continue to focus on Banner, who doesn’t get his own stand-alone films, while still being about the team. It needs to humble Tony Stark to the point that he’d believably take the government’s side in Civil War, but not to the point that it would fundamentally change who the character is. It needs to do all this and tell a self-contained story of its own, and it needs to do so under the weight of perhaps unreasonably high expectations, given everyone’s delight with the first Avengers film.
In short, it needs to do about eight hundred things, and I’d say it does about six hundred of them pretty well. This is more generous an evaluation than I gave the film when it first came out; weighed down with those unreasonably high expectations I mentioned, I thought the film was a collossal failure. It’s something of a mess, don’t get me wrong — Ultron’s character arc is all over the place, his “Final Solution” is needlessly complex and comes out of nowhere, a lot of the climax doesn’t make much logical sense at all, and the Infinity Stone tablesetting seems just as awkward and out-of-place as S.H.I.E.L.D. did in Thor. The absence of Gweynth Paltrow and Natalie Portman is glaring as well; Maria Hill’s lampshading the issue doesn’t help, nor does Thor going to Eric Selvig, and not Jane, for assistance. I’m not sure if Portman was too expensive or too busy for what would have essentially been a cameo, or if she’s just sick of the character and the MCU (and, given how poorly her character’s been handled in the past, who can blame her), but especially given now that we’re hearing she won’t be in Thor: Ragnarok at all, I feel like Marvel might do well to recast Jane Foster — and to start writing her a little stronger, too.
But I digress (much as the movie did, with Thor wandering off to that cave, heyooo). The movie does feel rushed; patchwork, almost, like it wasn’t completely finished. The business with Thor, Falcon going from “I don’t want to be an Avenger” to “yaaaaay I’m an Avenger!” without a scene between the two, Tony “retiring” without an explanation as to why (we can guess at a reason, sure, but it’d be nice to see these issues discussed on-screen, particularly how important Tony’s character motivation is going to be going into Civil War) — this movie has some pretty ragged edges. But the dialogue has that Whedon sparkle and charm, and the plot has a nice international scope the first film was lacking. The action is well-conceived, staged, and executed, and the acting is mostly on-point (though for as long as these people have been playing these roles, how could it not be, but even newcomers like Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson are strong). The Hulk CGI and mocap is improved 100% from the previous film. Perhaps most importantly, this movie is fun to watch. It might be messy, but it’s never boring, and at almost two and a half hours, that’s saying something.
I’ll be honest: Ant-Man didn’t leave much of an impression on me the first time I saw it. The fact that it’s the most recent MCU film, and yet also the one I remembered least, didn’t say much for the film. At the time I remember a vague appreciation for it, but I was still smarting from the fact that Edgar Wright had been edged out, and spent most of the movie thinking how much better it could be.
And yeah, Edgar Wright (given creative control) probably could have made a better film. But Peyton Reed did just fine, crafting a film that works within the context of the MCU, but manages to be lighter and sillier than anything that’s come before. Paul Rudd was an excellent choice to play Scott Lang, the good-hearted crook-turned-superhero, and Michael Douglas could not be more perfect as Hank Pym. Evangeline Lily is good as Hope Pym, though the gymnastics the script goes through to make her a supporting character, and even make Scott even necessary to the plot at all, feels like a microcosm (no pun intended) of Marvel’s steadfast refusal to make a movie starring a woman. Corey Stoll as the villainous Darren Cross does a good job with what he’s given, but the MCU seems bound and determined to make its villains as bland and forgettable as possible — although I will say, the Yellowjacket suit is a step up, design-wise, from the likes of Maleketh, Ronan, and even Whiplash. The MCU worldbuilding stuff doesn’t feel too intrusive; the prelude at the Triskellion with Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter is a nice touch, and Scott’s fight with Falcon is fun (and even justified by the script in a way that doesn’t feel too gratuitous). It’s a little disappointing that they felt the need to end what was ostensibly a heist film with another superhero fight, but overall, this is a fun entry in the MCU.
FINAL THOUGHTS ON THE MCU THUS FAR
Looking back at the MCU as a whole, I’m struck by two things. One, that a lot of the individual films (Iron Man 2, Thor: The Dark World, and Age of Ultron in particular) are much more watchable and entertaining than I remember them being. The second thing, though, is an element of sameness throughout the entire franchise. These movies all look and feel very much alike. I get the impulse — you want your MCU films to feel like parts of a whole — but I just recently wrote a bunch of words about how shifting tones and themes and visual styles within a franchise can be a good thing. The lack of strong character arcs and interesting villians are issues that need to be addressed going forward, but if Marvel really wants its films to continue to thrive, and entertain, and compel, then they really need to start shaking things up with regards to the look and the feel of their movies. Let directors bring something of their own visual style. Let a heist movie be a heist movie and not end with two guys in ridiculous suits punching each other. Let some more weirdness and grittiness in around the edges (gritty is a loaded word these days, but I did just say “some,” and not “Zack Snyder levels”). If Marvel starts bringing more variety and surprises to their films — not to mention more women and people of color — then they’ll be able to keep going for another twelve, another twenty films. If they don’t, however — if they insist on clinging to a stale visual style, a checklist of superhero “must haves”, and an army of white men to write, direct, and star in these films — well, the novelty of a shared cinematic universe has worn off, and people aren’t going to keep coming back to the same film forever.
That’s not to say there’s not a lot to enjoy and admire in these films. The best of them are some of the best in blockbuster filmmaking in the last ten years. And the superbly crafted Winter Soldier has me extremely optimistic for Civil War (in theatres by the time you’re reading these words, you lucky devils) and the Infinity War duology. I like the Marvel films a lot, please don’t think that I don’t. But they’ve done the one thing. It’s time to evolve and do something new.