Pan Nalin’s Last Film Show opens with a thank you to people the director has likely never met: the Lumière brothers, Eadweard Muybridge, David Lean, Stanley Kubrick, and Andrei Tarkovsky. Some of these names are familiar to the public at large, some less so, but all giants in the world of cinema, and Nalin’s thanks to them as the film opens sets the tone of love and reverence on display throughout Last Film Show, a beautifully shot ode to filmmaking and storytelling, told with care that practically bleeds through the screen (the irony that I watched this on my computer screen and not in a theater with a projector is not lost on me, don’t worry).
It’s hard, even knowing little about Nalin himself, not to view this film as an autobiography of sorts, but then again it could be an autobiography of sorts for anyone who has ever stared transfixed at a movie and wondered at what they were seeing. Last Film Show follows nine-year-old Samay (Bhavin Rabari), who, like so many of us before him, falls in love with the movies. Even if we can’t relate to his specific circumstances, we relate to the feeling, to the transcendence Samay feels as he holds his hand up to the projector light and watches the beams dance through his fingers. Samay’s father (Dipen Raval) disapproves, but Samay begins to sneak away from school and spend his afternoons with the Galaxy Cinema’s projectionist, Fazal (Bhavesh Shrimali), giving Fazal food in exchange for knowledge and free movies. (The love for food is also quite evident in the film; movies tell stories one way, and food another.)
Samay becomes fascinated by the inner workings of the projector: the lights, the reels, the reflections. He finds broken bottles with colored glass and holds them up to his eyes, the world now filtered through blue, or red, or green. He uses a mirror to create light, watching it refract and bounce. “I want to become movies,” he says. Eventually, Samay ropes his friends into helping him build his own projector, using the knowledge that Fazal taught him to bring movie magic to his friends. Cinematographer Swapnil S. Sonawane makes all these scenes as beautiful as possible, and fills them with homages to other movies, most notably 2001: A Space Odyssey. The monolith in Kubrick’s film awakens our ancestors’ consciousness; here, a movie does the same to Samay.
But Samay’s world comes tumbling down with the rise of digital photography, replacing his beloved film reels. There is a real melancholy here, the colors becoming stark and cold as the projector in Galaxy Cinema gets hauled away, replaced by a computer and a room with bleak white walls. The closeness that Samay felt holding the film in his hands, cutting it, winding it through the projector—it all fades. Last Film Show is all about transitions: Galaxy Cinema goes digital and Fazal loses his job, the train that runs through Samay’s town becomes electric and the town loses its train stop and thus Samay’s father loses his job, Samay goes from child to if not adult, then at least a child with his eyes opened to the uglier side of the world.
The gentle awe with which this film is imbued wanes somewhat in the third act, becoming replaced with slightly overwrought melodrama, and the pace quickens too rapidly from the steadiness of before. Yet Nalin crafts Last Film Show with such care and gentleness that even then you can’t help but feel like a kid again, watching a movie for the first time, or perhaps even those first theatergoers who believed the Lumière brothers’ train was going to come out of the screen and into their seats. It’s nostalgic, but not stuck in the past, as the ending voiceover reminds us: the film that Samay watched burn gets turned into bangles, and so the stories of Spielberg, of Ozu, of Eisenstein all live on, even as their medium changes.
Maxim Gorky, upon seeing his first film—that famous train from the Lumières—cried that cinema was “the Kingdom of Shadows,” forever resting on the edge between real and unreal; Fazal in Last Film Show explains that “movies were invented to con people.” Yet even if the films themselves are lies, what we feel from them are undoubtedly, achingly true, and Nalin lets Last Film Show reminds us of that.
In these retrospectives, Anna will be looking back on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, providing context around the films, criticizing them, pointing out their groundwork for the future, and telling everyone her favorite scene, because her opinion is always correct and therefore her favorite scene should be everyone’s favorite scene. Avengers, assem— wait, not yet, that comes later.
Take a moment, if you will, to go back to summer of 2012. I was 13 years old, about to enter eighth grade and be at the top of the middle school food chain, when my sister dragged me to see The Avengers against my will. I was an intellectual, I protested, who didn’t want to see some dumb superhero movie. I had taste.
Well, all those complaints died pretty quickly, and here I am almost a decade later, still invested (perhaps overly so) in these dumb superhero movies.
The Avengers was a cultural phenomenon. It was ubiquitous, it was unavoidable; references dripped from everyone’s lips, memes were spawned, records were broken. For a period, it was the third-highest grossing movie of all time, and still stands at a very comfortable eighth place. It transformed the burgeoning Marvel Cinematic Universe into a fully-fledged monstrosity, cementing Marvel’s theatrical and cultural dominance; for many, this would become their Star Wars. It was Big in a way that no one could have predicted. The Avengers proved that the previous films weren’t simply flashes in a pan, and that Marvel was here to stay—like it or not.
In hindsight, it seems obvious that it would work, now that we have three other Avengers movies under our belt, but at the time, it was risky: there was every chance that these characters, when thrown in a room together, would refuse to gel. This wasn’t the self-contained Spider-Man trilogy, nor was it the X-Men movies, which came with a pre-formed team. This was something new, a grand cinematic gamble that had every chance of crashing and burning. A Russian assassin, a World War II veteran, a wealthy playboy, a man with anger issues, a guy with a bow and arrow, and a Norse god all walk onto a helicarrier—it sounds like the setup to a bad punchline. On top of that, at the time of production, both Thor and Captain America hadn’t come out in theaters yet. No one knew how audiences would receive these characters or the more outlandish aspects of these movies, but The Avengers hinged upon them; if their respective movies did poorly, there was nothing Marvel could do.
But somehow, impossibly, it all worked. How?
It certainly helps that we had five solo movies to establish each character beforehand by the time of The Avengers’ release. Audiences knew Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson). If you watched the previous MCU films, you were automatically invested in the stakes of this one—even more so, now that you were watching your favorite characters interact.
Still, even if you walked in with no prior knowledge (as I did), the movie carefully takes its time to reestablish its characters in the opening third. We are reacquainted with S.H.I.E.L.D. boss Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), who have been working with scientist Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) to uncover the secrets of the Tesseract, last seen falling into the ocean at the end of Captain America: The First Avenger. When Loki (Tom Hiddleston) arrives through a portal in space powered by the Tesseract and begins wreaking havoc, putting S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner, first glimpsed in Thor but given a tiny bit more to do here), aka Hawkeye, under mind control, Fury decides it’s time to finally activate the Avengers Initiative, first mentioned in the end credits scene of Iron Man.
So, Fury goes to collect the de-iced Captain America, who has been working out his feelings of loss on sandbags at the gym. (I have a very distinct memory of rewatching The Avengers for my 14th birthday party with all of my friends and having a lightbulb go off in my brain during this scene. There were several pause requests, for no particular reason.) Coulson gets sent to collect Tony in his new Stark Tower, and Natasha is dispatched to India to find Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo).
Ruffalo is at a disadvantage here: all the other key players have already been introduced in prior movies, and while Bruce Banner had his own movie, Ruffalo did not, and taking over for another actor midstream is never easy. However, even despite this, Ruffalo immediately puts his own stamp on Hulk; his Banner is simultaneously kinder, sadder, and more frightening than Norton’s, making him quite a bit more interesting. When he later says the now-oft-memed line, “That’s my secret, Cap. I’m always angry,” you buy it.
Everyone boards the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier to apprehend Loki, who has been setting himself up as humanity’s savior. “The bright lure of freedom diminishes your life’s joy in a mad scramble for power, for identity,” he informs the crowd. Where Loki in Thor was a rather tortured figure, here he becomes a full-fledged villain, trying to become Earth’s fascistic ruler in order to assuage his own insecurities and ego. It’s enormous fun, and Hiddleston is solid as always. The Avengers stop his plan and bring Loki aboard the helicarrier, meeting Thor in the process (so much for being stranded on Asgard with a broken Rainbow Bridge), and then we are well and truly off to the races now that everyone is in the same room.
Much of the credit for Avengers’ success has to go to director and writer Joss Whedon; even with all the gross allegations against him that have come to light, it is still thanks to him that The Avengers works as well as it does. While these accusations should be treated with the utmost seriousness (and are made even worse by the fact that Whedon built his initial career by positioning himself as a feminist icon with works like Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Whedon was the director who truly solidified the MCU, and he did it well—though depending on your view of the MCU at large, his work in making it a cultural juggernaut may just be another strike against him. His fast-paced dialogue keeps things from getting too bogged down, and his obvious love for these characters shines through with enthusiasm; it’s a comic book movie made by a comic book nerd, but one still accessible to everyone.
Marvel has come under criticism for having too many quips and jokes thrown around, robbing certain scenes of any emotional impact; while the amount of jokes per film actually vary wildly (think of Captain America: The Winter Soldier versus Thor: Ragnarok), it seems that tendency largely originated from Whedon in The Avengers. Sure, Tony has a snide comment for everything in his solo outings, but here the quips come a mile a minute. While Whedon would overplay this in Avengers: Age of Ultron, here the gags work, by and large; they help establish a repartee between characters who previously had no interaction with each other, and the awkwardness of some of these interjections (“I do! I understood that reference”) only serves to highlight the awkwardness of the characters as they are thrust into this unfamiliar situation. Plus, they can be pretty damn funny: “[Loki] is of Asgard and he is my brother.” “He killed 80 people in two days.” “He’s adopted.” Worthy of a chuckle, at least.
The best thing about Avengers isn’t the big fight scenes (though those certainly can be a blast), it’s watching all of these actors and characters bounce off each other. Tony tries his hardest to push Bruce’s buttons, Thor watches everything with a certain level of amusing bemusement, Natasha rolls her eyes at all this posturing. The rapid-fire Whedon dialogue works like gangbusters, and he manages to give each character in his ensemble cast individual moments even in the team scenes.
The only thing that mars the more character-driven beats is Steve: he functions too much like a polished Boy Scout here, with none of the recklessness and smartassery that was present in Captain America: The First Avenger. Steve spends most of The First Avenger lying to his superiors and breaking rules, but here he berates Tony for investigating S.H.I.E.L.D.’s shady business? I’m not buying it. Whedon opts for the oversimplified, caricatured Steve Rogers, an easier version of a character that should be far more complex than what this script gives him. It stands out even more upon rewatch when there are more movies to compare against, movies where Steve Rogers continually flouts the chain of command to follow his own largely unerring moral compass. Steve is unmoored and set adrift in time, but there are better ways to play that up than an overreliance on his apparent old fashionedness.
Still, even with that misfire, the banter in The Avengers is just fun. You feel like a kid in a candy store, but like all your favorite candies had combined into one great delicious candy. (I’m not great at metaphors.) The film is at its best when foregrounding character over spectacle; the emphasis on the people behind the masks, the shields, the hammers, is what has given Marvel its staying power in the cultural consciousness and what made The Avengers a phenomenon in the first place. Mindless blockbusters are a dime a dozen, but rarer are the ones where you genuinely worry about a character’s safety, or where their deaths can make theaters full of grown men and women cry (see: Endgame). That’s what sets The Avengers apart. When all these characters come together for the first time, you remember it in a way you don’t remember Transformers. The Avengers may be a dumb superhero movie, but it’s one anchored by a beating heart.
But, of course, we can’t stay in character land forever: this is a superhero movie, after all, and so we need some big fights.
Several things happen all at once: the gang discovers that S.H.I.E.L.D. has secretly been building weapons of mass destruction (a government organization up to no good in a Marvel film? Say it ain’t so!), a verbal fight erupts in the science lab between everyone, and the brainwashed Hawkeye attacks the helicarrier. This spurs our heroes into action, but by then, Coulson has died (apparently), Thor and Bruce have been grounded (but separately), and Loki has escaped. Finally, this disparate group of people realizes that they need to work together.
What follows is just an excuse to have your favorite comic book heroes go and punch things. The Battle of New York (as it’s known in-universe) could certainly stand to be shaved down several minutes, and the alien Chitauri suffer from bland-generic-evil-henchmen-in-Marvel-movies syndrome. The Avengers’ final act is its weakest: no matter how cool it might be to see Hulk smash some bad guys, the fight against these nameless alien hordes goes on for too long.
But damn if that circle shot of the assembled team with Alan Silvestri’s now-iconic theme swelling in the background doesn’t inspire a quiet little fist pump. We’ve had the setup in the previous five movies; here is the payoff. And it works.
The Avengers is the first real Marvel movie: not just an action movie, or a superhero movie, but first and foremost a Marvel movie. It establishes the fun, zippy tone that by and large dominates the MCU. It—and I don’t think I’m exaggerating here, given just how enormous Marvel has become—starts an empire. Without the rousing success of The Avengers, the MCU might have fizzled and waned; with its triumph (your mileage may vary on how pretentious you think the use of that word is here), Marvel put its stamp on the collective cultural consciousness in a way not seen for a long time. Within the span of four years, Marvel transformed from a struggling studio forced to sell its best assets just to keep afloat to a pop culture juggernaut—so what’s next?
Groundwork: Marvel has no big master plan; rather, they plant seeds wherever they can in the hopes that some of them might one day germinate. None of these were planned from day one, lest the whole ship sink, but the seeds germinated nonetheless:
What’s up, Thanos?
Loki’s scepter contains the Mind Stone, and will next be seen in the hands of Hydra as they use it to grant powers to Wanda and Pietro Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson).
That whole scene between Loki and Natasha provides a lot of groundwork for Black Widow. “Dreykov’s daughter” becomes not just a throwaway line but a significant plot point, and Natasha will repeat tactics she used on Loki with Ray Winstone’s Dreykov, including her iconic “thank you for your cooperation” line. It doesn’t work as well the second time around, though, and feels a bit lazy. Oh, well.
“This is just like Budapest all over again” also gets addressed in Black Widow. (Before the ill-fated Black Widow/Hulk romance and Hawkeye’s farm family in Age of Ultron, a thousand pieces of fanfiction spawned from that single line.)
The clock on Grand Central Station gets destroyed in this film and in subsequent outings gets replaced by a monument to first responders to the Chitauri invasion.
Coulson’s death will begin a whole #CoulsonLives movement online, eventually resulting in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., where Clark Gregg reprised his role for seven seasons. (Though he wasn’t playing Coulson all those seasons, and in fact plays a Life Model Decoy—first mentioned in The Avengers by Tony—in season seven. It gets complicated.) The cellist that he mentions to Tony here will also show up in season one, played by Whedon alum Amy Acker.
The World Security Council that repeatedly frustrates Nick Fury in this via the Marvel version of Zoom will pop up in person in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
Gideon Malick (Powers Boothe), a member of the World Security Council, will appear in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (including a younger version played by Cameron Palatas) and be unmasked as a Hydra agent. In fact, there are lots of Malick family members working for Hydra. This probably isn’t canon anymore, but as Kevin Feige has not come out and directly said that S.H.I.E.L.D. isn’t canon, I will cling to it.
Enver Gjokaj, another frequent Whedon collaborator, plays an NYPD officer here; he’ll go on to play Daniel Sousa in Agent Carter and, later, S.H.I.E.L.D., leading to a lot of different theories about this officer, but he turned out to be just a random cop and not related to Sousa at all.
Anna’s Favorite Scene: Tony wheedles Bruce in the lab about the whole Hulk situation, producing what the internet will dub the “Science Bros” and revealing quite a lot about both characters involved. Or the Loki and Natasha interrogation, because Hiddleston is so great and the twist is fantastic (the first time around, at least).
Yang Hua (Huang Xuan) has not been having a very good day, or week, or year in Zhao Ziyang’s Wu Hai. Hua has debtors tailing him at every corner after a failed investment into a dinosaur theme park, and his investment into his friend Luo Yu’s (Wang Shaohua) desert resort has so far coughed up nothing except empty promises. His wife, Miao Wei (Yang Zishan), has reached the end of her rope, and a surprise pregnancy doesn’t help things. In Wu Hai, money is truly the root of all evil; the characters may have flaws to begin with, but the debts they incur mercilessly bring out these flaws until the characters inflict misery both on themselves and everyone around them.
Thankfully, all this misery business does not make Wu Hai too dour to watch, due in large part to Huang Xuan’s performance. Given such a bleak script, it would have been easy for Huang to slip into melodrama, but instead he opts for a subtler approach; Hua fights to keep his encroaching sense of anguish clamped down, and so when he lets it out it becomes all the more powerful for the restraint shown before. The other actors turn in fine performances as well, but their characters largely stay on the sidelines, existing only to give Hua more grief and heartache.
Grief and heartache, however, are not enough to capture an audience, and Wu Hai often lags in spots and, despite Hua’s impending downfall, seems to lack much momentum. There are flurries of activity scattered throughout the film, such as a powerfully acted argument between Hua and his wife, but the lulls in between threaten to derail the film. More interesting parts of the film are left largely undercooked: the class insecurity that contributes to Hua’s crumbling mental state, obsession with status, the treatment and exploitation of women in order to climb the rungs of society. For a deliberately slow film that tries to be thoughtful in its handling of plot, these deeper aspects getting left behind is doubly frustrating.
Luckily, cinematographer Matthias Delvaux keeps the film looking good even as viewers’ interest in the plot might wane. Delvaux’s use of long takes builds tension in the film; instead of cutting rapidly to replicate a feeling of anxiety, he lets us linger as it slowly builds. This also allows the actors to play off each other without interruption, and we can watch Hua’s face run through the gamut of emotions all within a single take. One particularly evocative shot involves Hua climbing into the mouth of a T. rex statue, swallowed whole by capitalism, in the belly of the beast.
Wu Hai has enough engaging elements to elevate itself—namely, Huang’s performance and Delvaux’s cinematography—but those can only do so much. Had the script taken time to examine its components more in depth, Wu Hai could have been a searing commentary on China’s current economic system; as is, Wu Hai stands on the cusp of greatness but can never go over the edge. (In that, it might be a little like its protagonist.)
In these retrospectives, Anna will be looking back on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, providing context around the films, criticizing them, pointing out their groundwork for the future, and telling everyone her favorite scene, because her opinion is always correct and therefore her favorite scene should be everyone’s favorite scene. Time to punch some Nazis!
Captain America has recently come underfire for a new comic from Ta-Nehisi Coates featuring the star-spangled man with a plan that criticizes the American Dream, with superhero actors Dean Cain and Kevin Sorbo accusing Marvel of politicizing Captain America. (This also comes after the villainous Red Skull was depicted with similarities to Jordan Peterson.) Yet, no matter where you stand on the controversies that have followed the Cap comics, from his conception Captain America has been a political construct: Joe Simon and Jack Kirby created Cap and had him punching Nazis in the face even before America had entered World War II. Pointedly, Cap has always tried to stand for what America should be, not what it is or has been (except for that arc where a Cap imposter was a Nazi, which caused no drama whatsoever).
In the MCU, the movies have had to refrain from anything other than sweeping statements like, “Nazis bad,” or “government surveillance bad,” as they cater to a larger audience than the comics, but the spirit of Steve Rogers’ comic origins are still visible enough throughout his cinematic tenure, starting with the pleasantly old-fashioned Captain America: The First Avenger. (It’s also a lot easier to avoid issues of overly aggressive American exceptionalism when your bad guys are literal Nazis.)
Part of its winsome charm comes from the 1940s setting, making The First Avenger Marvel’s first period piece—though don’t conflate it with the high-falutin dramas that usually populate the genre; it’s still first and foremost a superhero movie. Director Joe Johnston had already balanced these genres in The Rocketeer, so he seemed a natural fit for this MCU entry, and proves himself more than up to the job of balancing the time period with superheroics. It’s all very Indiana Jones. (While Johnston would only direct this film, screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely would become mainstays of the MCU.)
America has entered World War II, and Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers is raring to go fight the good fight but is hampered by his small frame (Leander Deeny acted as Evans’ body double for the first part of the movie, and the head grafting usually looks decent) and litany of health issues. His childhood friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) has already been drafted, and Steve’s frustration has grown to where he has begun to lie on his enlistment forms in an effort to somehow join up. His determination to help in any way he can attracts the attention of Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci), a German scientist helping the Allies’ war effort by providing them with a serum to create a super soldier.
Steve gets whisked away to Camp Lehigh in New Jersey, where he meets the prickly colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) and the no-nonsense Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell). Marvel often casts unknowns in leading roles, or, if not unknowns, at least someone unexpected; in this case, Chris Evans was mostly known for romcoms and non-MCU Marvel’s Fantastic Four duds. To compensate for their lesser-known leads, the MCU will populate the roles around their heroes with big names: Jeff Bridges in Iron Man, Anthony Hopkins and Rene Russo in Thor, and, in The First Avenger, Tommy Lee Jones and Stanely Tucci.
These casting choices generally pay off, giving the audience someone new to fawn over while the veterans keep the performance quality high. Here, Tucci and Jones give some of the most memorable one-off Marvel performances; Erskine in particular, while only appearing in the first third of the movie, has stayed fresh in the minds of audiences: he is, after all, the one who lays down the ethos of Captain America: “Not a perfect soldier, but a good man.”
This isn’t to say that The First Avenger’s leading man falls short—not by any means. Chris Evans, in addition to being ridiculously good looking, is ridiculously charming; it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role, though he initially turned down the role. Evans’ Steve is someone we all want to root for, representing that ideal American gumption and gusto without any of the country’s baggage. Yet while it could be easy to paint Steve Rogers as a goody two-shoes, as someone with a stick up his ass who probably goes to church each Sunday and buttons up his shirt all the way, the character we are presented in the MCU, and the one we are shown by Evans, is much more interesting than that (though Joss Whedon will fall slightly into caricature in The Avengers, unfortunately): the first thing Steve does in The First Avenger is lie. He lies on an enlistment form to boost his chances of helping the war effort, so the lie isn’t a nefarious one, but Steve still consistently bends or outright breaks the rules to follow his own largely unfailing moral compass; he has never been one to simply follow orders and do things by the book. He’s smart, too, and not just some tail-wagging Golden Retriever. If not quite as complex as Tony Stark or Loki, Steve still—to quote a certain green ogre—has plenty of layers. Good is not dumb, nor is it boring.
While Steve fails to impress physically, he proves himself worthy of the super soldier serum when he jumps on a grenade (unaware that it’s a dummy) to absorb its explosion while everyone else runs away, convincing even Colonel Phillips that he can handle the responsibility of Erskine’s super soldier serum. Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) arrives to assist, a mirror image of his son: smart, suave, self-important, though with less of the guilt and self-loathing.
Steve Rogers then gets really, absurdly ripped. If Peggy has already been attracted to his innate goodness, this surely helps that attraction along.
Unfortunately (though maybe fortunately, so America wouldn’t have a race of blonde-haired, blue-eyed super soldiers…), any chance of recreating this effect is dashed when an agent of Hydra (Richard Armitage, who definitely should get brought back for a bigger MCU role), an offshoot of the Nazis, kills Erskine. Steve, instead of getting to sock Nazis in the jaw on the front lines, is then used as a tool of the government to get more war bonds; his tenure as the government’s dancing monkey gives us a great musical number and a chance to lampoon the government: they stifle the real spirit of America, instead packaging some propagandic patriotic prattle in song and dance and costumes. (Again, this “real spirit of America” is much easier to portray during World War II, with clear-cut bad guys. Later on, it gets a little bit more complicated.)
Only with Peggy’s encouragement does he break out and begin to actually do something with his power. Arnim Zola (Toby Jones) and Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), aka the Red Skull, have been up to no good, capturing Allied forces—including Bucky Barnes—as part of their nefarious work for Hydra, so Steve ditches his role as senator attaché and goes to save his comrades.
Where Marvel typically tries to tone down some of its comic book origins in order to make the movies more palatable, Red Skull’s design is ripped straight from the comic pages in all its campy, pulpy glory. The preceding MCU movies have all tried to ground themselves even as their subject matter gets more and more outlandish, resulting in something like Thor, which fails to commit fully to its otherworldly premise. The First Avenger marks the first time that Marvel fully embraces its source material: it’s good vs. evil, superhuman vs. superhuman, good old American boy vs. Nazi with a red skull. It throws any pretension away and basks in its absurd comic book glory, a much better movie for it.
To even out the absurdity, we have the very real relationships between the characters. Steve’s close connections with Bucky and the Howling Commandos (Neal McDonough as Dum Dum Dugan, Derek Luke as Gabe Jones, Kenneth Choi as Jim Morita, Bruno Ricci as Jacques Dernier, and JJ Feild as James Falsworth aka the superhero Union Jack, though only a normal guy in the films) give him an anchor; his relationship with Bucky in particular will remain important in the MCU and spark the imaginations of thousands of Tumblr and Twitter users, though it’s not given quite enough heft here.
The real heart of the movie, however, is Steve’s relationship with Peggy. Despite only being developed for one film, this relationship has proved to be one of the strongest in the MCU (perhaps too strong, but more on that with Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Avengers: Endgame), and due to Hayley Atwell’s vibrant portrayal, Peggy received her own spinoff show, Agent Carter, and appears in Winter Soldier, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ant-Man, Avengers: Endgame, and two episodes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Peggy and Steve serve as the film’s beating heart, giving the ending a gut punch and real emotional heft that the MCU films have largely lacked so far. It’s a testament to the depth of these characters that they can carry such weight in a movie where the main villain looks like this.
Upon revisiting The First Avenger, it’s remarkable how well the film has aged; while Iron Man deserves props (or boos, depending on your view of the MCU as an entity) for kickstarting the MCU, it feels largely rote when compared against the slew of other films that come after. The First Avenger, on the other hand, has a unique setting, and while it still lays the foundation for future entries, the film is still largely self-contained.Reverberations from its events can be found all over the MCU, but it’s less concerned with setup for the future and more so with payoff for the now, making it a satisfying entry on its own. It can get a little too silly at times, but it’s always fun and upbeat, a reminder of what Captain America can look like without the 21st century cynicism he becomes riddled with in later entries. Looking back after ten years, this may hold up better than Iron Man—this is a spicy and hot take, I know—and certainly helped reset the trajectory of the MCU after some more lackluster entries, setting them on firm ground before they take a big risk with The Avengers.
Groundwork: Marvel has no big master plan; rather, they plant seeds wherever they can in the hopes that some of them might one day germinate. None of these were planned from day one, lest the whole ship sink, but the seeds germinated nonetheless:
Hey, it’s the Tesseract with an Infinity Stone inside. Wonder if that will be important later.
Hey, the Red Skull used aforementioned Infinity Stone and got sucked up into space. Wonder if he will show up later. (He will, but not as Hugo Weaving, who has been open about the pay disputes with Marvel that led to Ross Marquand appearing as Red Skull in Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame.)
Hey, no more super soldier serum exists. Wonder if anyone will make knockoffs and that will be important later.
Before the Hydra base is blown up, Zola rescues some blueprints for what looks like a robot, a nod to his comic look; in Winter Soldier, they will adapt this so that Zola lives through a computer program as a head on a screen.
Boy, sure hope hiring Zola and other Hydra members to help the United States doesn’t bite anyone in the ass.
There’s a common saying that “the only people who stay dead in comics are Bucky, Jason Todd, and Uncle Ben.” That has now been whittled down to only Uncle Ben, as Bucky gets revived as the Winter Soldier by Ed Brubaker, a fate that will befall our filmic Bucky as well (and Jason Todd is also alive now, coming back as the Red Hood in DC comics). No one knew at the time if The First Avenger would get a sequel or if it would even adapt the Winter Soldier arc, so they filmed two versions of Bucky’s fall: one where Sebastian Stan had a green screen sleeve on his arm, and one without. Though they ended up using the latter, Bucky will still appear sans an arm in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
Howard and the Howling Commandos show up in Agent Carter, and some Howling Commandos show up in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. with Peggy. Will I be able to bring up S.H.I.E.L.D. in every retrospective? Stay tuned!
Kenneth Choi, who played Howling Commando Jim Morita, shows up in Spider-Man: Homecoming as Mortia’s grandson.
Anna’s Favorite Scene: Dr. Erskine and Steve have a chat before the procedure, producing that classic MCU line: “Not a perfect soldier, but a good man.”
Natalie Metzger is an award-winning director, writer, and producer based in Los Angeles and known for films such as Werewolves Within and The Beta Test, both of which had their premieres at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival. Additionally, she has produced The Wolf of Snow Hollow and Thunder Road, which won the Grand Jury Award at SXSW.
Over a year since it was first slated to come out, Black Widow has finally arrived on our screens, marking the first Marvel Cinematic Universe property to grace theaters since Spider-Man: Far From Home in July of 2019. Its titular character has been through quite the wringer with Marvel: introduced as little more than kickass eye candy in Iron Man 2, shoved into an inorganic romance with the Hulk in Avengers: Age of Ultron, and then killed—albeit in a poignant and affecting fashion—in Avengers: Endgame, Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff finally has her own movie, replete with posed superhero landings galore. Even if it’s not quite worth the wait, Black Widow provides more than enough fun to warrant its existence, helped by a handful of exhilarating fight scenes and a stellar supporting cast.
Black Widow opens in atypical Marvel fashion: a cookie-cutter family in suburban Ohio sitting down to eat, the mother preparing dinner and kissing her daughters’ scrapes and bruises, the father coming home from a long day of work to greet his family. Then, slowly and then all at once, things go awry.
As S.H.I.E.L.D. comes for them, the family rushes to get to their hidden plan and off the ground; in the ensuing fight, the mother is shot in the side but they all manage to escape and make their way to Cuba. There, things start to get even thornier: these aren’t Americans at all, and they aren’t a family, either. A group of Russians take away the “mother,” Melina (Rachel Weisz), on a stretcher; when they come for the youngest daughter, Yelena (Violet McGraw as a child, Florence Pugh as an adult), the elder Natasha (played by Ever Anderson as a child) refuses to let them take her until “father” Alexei (David Harbour) calms her down, only for the two children immediately to be whisked away. What follows is an opening credit sequence clearly taking cues from the James Bond films and other spy capers, names layered over a montage of young Natasha receiving spy training and overlaid with a cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” that classic anthem of apathetic American youth juxtaposed with the horrors of what Natasha undergoes.
The opening act of the film is arguably its strongest, setting us up for a Marvel film of a different breed, one rooted more in espionage and familial relationships than quips and big fight scenes. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t quite live up to the promise set by its opening. 21 years later, Black Widow—set between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War so they have a living protagonist and not a corpse left on Vormir—finds Natasha on the run, hunted by Secretary of State Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (William Hurt, reprising his role from prior movies) after she refused to sign the Sokovia Accords.
Her “sister,” Yelena, finds a way to contact Natasha, letting her know of a chemical compound that was planted in some other graduates of the Red Room program that Natasha and Yelena went through. This compound allows the nefarious Red Room director, Dreykov (Ray Winstone), to control his various female spies around the globe with what amounts to mind control. Yelena has discovered a way to stop it, and so the gang gets back together again: Natasha, Yelena, Alexei, and Melina.
The plot itself is fairly standard and more than a little bit ludicrous (and Natasha survives countless injuries that should have left her dead, superhero or not); in other words, it’s standard action fare. The movie does best when director Cate Shortland allows it to breathe, such as in a standout dinner table scene between the fractured family, and when she lets her stellar actors bounce off of each other. Florence Pugh in particular stands out, giving a performance that is by turns hilarious and heartbreaking, and David Harbour excels as his former superhero gone to seed, providing the best moments of humor in the film.
Unfortunately, the others do so well that despite this being Natasha’s film, and despite Johansson turning in a strong performance, she gets outshone by her supporting cast, due more so to the writing than any flaw in Johansson. Part of this comes from the fact that Natasha is dead in the present day MCU, having sacrificed herself to retrieve the Soul Stone in Endgame, so there are no stakes for her; furthermore, her character arc has already been completed, and while this can fill in some gaps, Natasha’s arc doesn’t satisfy as it should.
What could have been an intriguing commentary on agency, the lack of control women often have over their own bodies, how they are used and discarded by men in power, et cetera, is reduced to a joke about Fallopian tubes and a few throwaway lines about making choices. Had the film marinated a bit more in some of its weightier themes and allowed Natasha to truly grapple with her past outside a handful of scenes, it could have been an MCU caper on the level of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. As it is, it’s a fun movie to get back to theaters with and serves as a decent swan song, but Natasha deserves something just a little bit better.
In these retrospectives, Anna will be looking back on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, providing context around the films, criticizing them, pointing out their groundwork for the future, and telling everyone her favorite scene, because her opinion is always correct and therefore her favorite scene should be everyone’s favorite scene. Time for space shenanigans.
So far, the burgeoning MCU has remained grounded—relatively speaking, of course, as they feature a man flying around in a gold-titanium alloy suit and another man who turns into a big green rage monster if he gets angry. However, Thor marks the first time that Marvel ventures off-world, and even if the movie tries to explain away the magical elements by quoting Arthur C. Clarke (“Magic is just science we don’t understand”), the film still represents a marked departure from the three previous entries, serving as a litmus test for the MCU’s burgeoning audience. However, the departure that occurred with Thor wasn’t entirely clean: to ensure that the film didn’t get too otherworldly and alienate its audience, a large chunk of the movie is spent on Earth, which ironically ends up as the weakest portion of the movie. The result is a decent first outing for our God of Thunder, but one hampered by its tethering to reality.
It is helped, though, by excellent casting in Chris Hemsworth as Thor and Tom Hiddleston as Loki. Hiddleston had worked with director Kenneth Branagh before, and, as is well-known by now, initially auditioned for Thor before getting the role of Loki, and the titular hero went to Hemsworth. Both of these actors have become mainstays of the MCU, and for good reason; even before Hemsworth could flex his considerable comedy chops in Thor: Ragnarok (and before his eyebrows were unbleached), he was exuding charisma, and Hiddleston is, for my money, one of the best actors in the entire franchise.
It’s a good thing these two are so talented, because both characters could have easily been annoying had they been in the wrong hands. Thor, as presented initially in this movie, is overconfident, cocky, and unwise, but even so Hemsworth manages to make him charming (it helps that he is just ridiculously, superhumanly attractive). When Thor’s coronation day on Asgard is interrupted by Frost Giants from Jotunheim, Asgard’s greatest enemy, Thor immediately rushes off to fight Laufey, king of the Frost Giants, and get revenge. He is accompanied by Loki and Lady Sif (Jaimie Alexander) and the Warriors Three: Volstagg (Ray Stevenson), Hogun (Tadanobu Asano), and Fandral (Josh Dallas). Together, this merry group threatens to destroy the fragile peace between Asgard and Jotunheim, as well as get untold numbers injured or killed, until Odin shows up and prevents further catastrophe.
Apoplectic with rage, Odin casts Thor out, banishing him to Earth. “You are unworthy of these realms, you’re unworthy of your title, you’re unworthy of the loved ones you have betrayed!” he roars before stripping Thor of his powers and sending him away from Asgard. Finally, right before he throws Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir, after its owner, Odin murmurs, “Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor.” A challenge, then, for Thor to rise towards: become worthy of Mjolnir, of his father, of Asgard.
Now stuck in New Mexico, Thor has to adjust; luckily, he conveniently runs into Dr. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), a scientist studying atmospheric anomalies, unaware she is chasing the Bifrost, the Rainbow Bridge that allows Asgardians to travel between worlds. Jane is joined by Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) and intern Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings), and the trio take in a very dazed and confused Thor. Branagh mines this fish-out-of-water scenario for some good moments (Thor smashing a coffee cup on the ground and crying, “Another!”, Thor going into a pet shop and asking for a horse, Thor repeatedly getting hit or almost hit by cars because he has no idea what they are), but New Mexico drags compared to Asgard and all its cool costumes, production design, and royal intrigue. On top of that, the romance that brews between Jane and Thor is far too rushed to be believable (remember how I praised Marvel for going somewhat slowly with Pepper and Tony? Yeah, this is the opposite of that) and stunts Jane as a character by immediately saddling her with Thor. She certainly has potential (and is certainly more of a real character than, say, Betty Ross was), and Natalie Portman is good as ever, but stick her in the most boring aspect of the movie and immediately force her into the “love interest” box and you are heading towards failure.
Thank goodness for Asgard and Loki, then. Production designer Bo Welch had his work cut out for him, as he is tasked with the unenviable task of translating Asgard from page to screen, making it seem advanced enough to belong to gods but familiar enough not to alienate the audience, but he succeeds, making Asgard one of the most recognizable locations in the MCU and deftly straddling the line between the fantastic and the plausible. Frequent Marvel costumer and Oscar winner Alexandra Byrne manages a similarly impossible feat, clothing the Asgardians in regal fashion and crafting iconic looks that will last throughout the movies. This isn’t just a trip to the 1940s, as will happen in the next Marvel film, but a trek to an entirely new, alien world, and thus a lot hinges on its aesthetics; at this somewhat tenuous point in Marvel’s trajectory, a failure on the design fronts could have been catastrophic.
Back in Asgard, Loki finds out that he is adopted. What’s more, he is actually a Frost Giant; on top of that, he is Frost Giant King Laufey’s son. Understandably perturbed, he confronts Odin, who… falls asleep? Odin falls into the “Odinsleep,” a vague concept never truly explained, but essentially Odin gets very tired from all his troubles and must rest in a coma-like state to regain power. While the concept of Odinsleep is a) ridiculous and b) very convenient, the confrontation scene in the throne room stands out as one of the most affecting scenes in the whole film.
Marvel brought on Branagh partially due to his experience with Shakespeare, as the studio wanted to emphasize the family drama of Thor in order to make it more relatable, and no one does family drama better than Shakespeare, and no one does Shakespeare better than Kenneth Branagh. This scene shows why Marvel chose Branagh, and why Branagh sought classically trained actors like Hiddleston for this film. Hiddleston puts in the work here, cycling between rage, betrayal, jealousy, hurt, rolling a hundred different emotions into one performance. It’s good stuff.
As Odin has been knocked out of commission, the throne falls to Loki; with the added baggage of his backstory, Loki treks to Jotunheim, reveals that it was he who sabotaged Thor’s coronation, and agrees to let Laufey and his fellows into Asgard to kill Odin. Sif and the Warriors Three go to retrieve Thor from Earth to stop Loki, but Loki sends some faceless robot thing to kill Thor before he can come back. The faceless robot thing, called the Destroyer, nearly succeeds, but because Thor was ready to sacrifice himself to save innocents, he becomes worthy of Mjolnir, destroys the Destroyer, and heads back to Asgard to confront Loki.
Well, it turns out that Loki only invited the Frost Giants to Asgard so he could kill them in front of Odin to make himself look heroic, and then Loki tries to destroy all of Jotunheim by using the Bifrost’s power. Thor, now against genocide (good job), prevents Loki from doing so, in the process destroying the Bifrost and preventing him from traveling back to Jane (the Bifrost is fixed with zero problems in the sequel). Thor is now worthy to be king, and Loki has fallen into the abyss of space.
The story beats in Thor trace a familiar arc dating back centuries: the unsuitable heir must go on a quest to prove himself worthy. The younger brother schemes to get the throne. So on and so forth. Even with Hemsworth’s winning performance (and Patrick Doyle providing one of the more memorable Marvel scores), were it not for Hiddleston, Thor would have easily been forgotten.
Loki goes through far and away the most interesting arc in the film, an arc that has continued to this day with his titular Disney+ show, and one that very quickly captured the hearts and minds of Marvel’s audience. Marvel’s greatest strength lies with its characters; there are many instances where a weaker entry has been elevated by character work (see: Iron Man 2), and Loki is certainly a very strong contender for the title of “Most Psychologically Complex Marvel Character” even from his very first outing, boosting every film he appears in. The discarded son, never meant to rule but always feeling as if he is worthy of it—and in a family where “worthiness” is everything, of course that would twist him up inside. Then to discover that you belong to a different race entirely, a race hated by your home, your family, by everyone around you, and what’s more to learn that the only reason your so-called father adopted you was to use you as a pawn to broker a peace treaty? That would drive anyone to madness. (“Is it madness?” Loki asks, tears swimming in his eyes. “Is it? Is it?”) But instead of going after the father that lied to him his whole life, Loki only doubles down to prove himself a worthy son. (There’s that pesky “worthy” word again—it’s everywhere in this movie, haunting both Thor and Loki like shadows, always just out of reach. You have to be worthy of your hammer, of your throne, of your father. You have to prove yourself worthy of respect, even of love, even to your apparent family.)
Of course, he tries to do this by committing genocide, which is admittedly not great—genocide against his own people, no less. You could easily dub Loki narcissistic, and in many ways he is, but at the root of all his posturing and peacocking runs a very deep thread of self-hatred, strong enough so that Loki is willing to kill his own race. Then, to cap it all off, the infamous exchange: “I could have done it, Father! I could have done it! For you, for all of us!”
What a terrible thing to say to your son as he dangles off the edge of a bridge, the void of space yawning behind him. No wonder Loki lets go. Odin, in a cinematic universe full of bad fathers (Ego, Vulture, Howard Stark), might well take the cake, a sting made all the worse by the fact that Marvel has tried to paint him in if not an ultra-flattering light, at least a decent one.
In the hands of a studio willing to get darker than Marvel, there is a hell of a lot to work with for Loki; even with the staunchly family-friendly MCU, it’s substantial. Thor only works as a character here because he has Loki to bounce off, and Thor only works as a movie because Hiddleston works overtime to make up for the boredom of New Mexico and the excessive Dutch angle shots that Branagh uses. Is this an exaggeration? Frankly, no. The movie might be called Thor, but it’s Loki’s show—and it’s a good thing, too, coming off the dull affairs that were The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man 2.
Groundwork: Marvel has no big master plan; rather, they plant seeds wherever they can in the hopes that some of them might one day germinate. None of these were planned from day one, lest the whole ship sink, but the seeds germinated nonetheless:
Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) is here, I guess. Cool.
And there’s an after credits scene with the Tesseract, which contains the Space Stone, and will make its first chronological appearance in Captain America: The First Avenger, the next MCU movie. (In that film, the Tesseract appears in Tønsberg, Norway, the site of a Frost Giant attack in Thor and New Asgard in Avengers: Endgame.)
Speaking of Infinity Stones, there’s a (fake) Infinity Gauntlet in Odin’s vault. Hela knocks it over later in Ragnarok and makes a joke about it.
This marks the first appearance of S.H.I.E.L.D. agent/Hydra spy Jasper Sitwell (Maximiliano Hernández), who pops up in The Avengers, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and Avengers: Endgame (and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.!).
Dr. Selvig makes unnamed references to both Bruce Banner and, more importantly, Hank Pym; the latter doesn’t show up in the MCU until Ant-Man 2015.
Not groundwork, but the nametag on Thor’s borrowed shirt belongs to Donald Blake, Thor’s human alter ego in (some) comics. Cool!
Anna’s Favorite Scene: The confrontation between Loki and Odin in the throne room, purely because it cemented Loki as one of the best and most interesting characters in the MCU and because it cemented Tom Hiddleston as one of best performers in the MCU.
“Y’all wanna hear a story about how me and this bitch fell out???????? It’s kind of long but full of suspense.”
So begins the viral Twitter thread from 2015, and so begins the movie it inspired: Janicza Bravo’s Zola. The original thread from A’Ziah “Zola” King, consisting of 148 tweets, became an internet sensation, garnering thousands of likes and retweets over the course of its posting not just due to the story of the tweets but the voice with which Zola told them, the humor and no-bullshit attitude she displayed even when facing increasingly absurd (and frightening) scenarios.
Bravo and co-writer Jeremy O. Harris (Tony nominee and likely future winner for Slave Play) manage to recapture the captivating storytelling of the original Zola and bring to life the first Twitter adaptation with thoughtfulness and style to spare (it was shot on 16mm, giving it a hazy, almost dreamlike quality). Little has changed from the Twitter thread, except some names: we start with our titular heroine, Zola (as played by Taylour Paige), working at a sports bar (as opposed to the original Hooters) and stripping on the side. One day as she’s waitressing, she meets Stefani (Riley Keough), and the two—while not recognizing each other—immediately pin each other as kindred spirits with a shared enjoyment for dancing, and so Stefani convinces Zola to join her for a weekend in Florida hitting the strip clubs to make some extra cash. Zola agrees, so after convincing her boyfriend, Sean (Ari’el Stachel, Tony winner for The Band’s Visit), to let her leave through the power of sex, Zola joins Stefani, Stefani’s boyfriend, Derrek (Nicholas Braun, aka Succession’s Cousin Greg), and a mysterious, unnamed man called “X” played by Colman Domingo, and they go down to Florida.
If you’ve read the tweets, you know what happens next. X turns out to be Stefani’s pimp, and a far more threatening figure than you might first believe, Derrek is in completely over his head and one moment away from a nervous breakdown, and Stefani has dragged her purported friend into all this without thinking of the consequences. Luckily, Zola has a good head on her shoulders; Paige plays the straight man to the wild antics of her cohorts but does it with such magnetism that it’s hard to take your eyes off of her, even when she’s not talking (and she does often stay quiet, revealing her thoughts to the audience via the occasional voiceover, complete with the sound cue for a sent tweet to cap it all off).
Keough’s Stefani is the flashier role, with an overexaggerated and culturally appropriated accent—you feel as if a slur is on the tip of her tongue at all times—but her over-the-top approach works well. Braun’s performance might seem like a Cousin Greg ripoff at first, bumbling and making bad choices, but as the movie progresses, he imbues enough layers into Derrek to set him apart, and Domingo is alternatingly charming and frightening, X’s Nigerian accent slipping out when he goes into a rage but just as quickly covered over by an American one and a wide smile.
What sets Zola apart, more so than the performances, or the way it looks, or the excellent score by Mica Levi, is the way it interacts with its source material. The internet gives us access to all sorts of crazy things, but it in and of itself is apathetic, presenting these things and letting us marinate on them alone with our screens; Zola shows us Confederate flags and tower-like crosses on the drive to Florida interspersed with clips of its characters gleefully singing Migos’ “Hannah Montana”; Derrek drives alone with a scene of police brutality in the background. Bravo doesn’t comment on these occurrences, instead letting us scroll past them (so to speak) silently, conversely conveying much more than any exposition-heavy dialogue could. Tweet and text chimes abound, and at one point during a montage of penises (please do not take your child to this movie, as the couple sitting in the row behind me did), an Instagram heart flashes over the largest one. It’s all a performance, it’s all for the ’Gram. “Who you gonna be tonight, Zola?” she asks herself as she prepares to go onstage. “Who you gonna be?” Derrek watches Vines of people getting injured by various mishaps, chortling to himself at their misfortune (if 2015 feels recent, it only takes the appearance of a dead app like Vine to immediately date Zola). At one point, in what amounts to a hostage situation, Zola disassociates and our vision is replaced by a Mac screensaver—writhing tentacles of light changing color as they move. You know the one. Zola doesn’t just talk about our modern technological landscape, it merges with it.
Like the internet, Bravo never lingers too long on one particular topic, but crafts a better film for it: there are no monologues on the treatment of women, or the intersection of race and gender, or the way Zola slowly starts to lose control over her own body, because monologues like that don’t happen. We don’t wax and wane about these problems, we just have to deal with them in our own way, as Zola does, and they go on existing. By refusing to adhere to binaries, Bravo makes her film richer and more thoughtful. The ending is a bit too abrupt, but then again, it echoes reality—sometimes things end, just like that—so maybe that’s a small quibble. It’s hard to mind in the face of all the positives.
Zola is currently playing in wide theatrical release.
In these retrospectives, Anna will be looking back on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, providing context around the films, criticizing them, pointing out their groundwork for the future, and telling everyone her favorite scene, because her opinion is always correct and therefore her favorite scene should be everyone’s favorite scene. Next up is Iron Man 2, which made the first Iron Man seem like a one-time stroke of good fortune.
If the MCU started with a bang with the first Iron Man, its two immediate follow-ups more closely resembled whimpers, making this burgeoning cinematic universe look like a flash in the pan rather than something that could stand on its own two feet. While Iron Man 2 is less laborious than The Incredible Hulk and possesses some of the wit that made the first Iron Man soar, its overstuffed plot and boring action set-pieces make it land with a bit of a thud, moving the MCU to rocky ground.
Where Iron Man’s opening act—Tony Stark in a cave with a box of scraps—is careful and meticulous, stripping our hero of everything but his wits and thereby giving him humanity, Iron Man 2 opts for a more haphazard approach even as it consciously tries to echo those opening moments from its predecessor. Instead of Tony in a cave, we have Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) in a derelict building in Russia, but he too has a box of scraps—and a thirst for vengeance upon Tony Stark for some unknown wrong done to Ivan’s dead father, Anton (Yevgeni Nikolayevich Lazarev). All of this is truncated into the span of about five minutes, so where Tony’s grief at Yinsen’s death in Iron Man lands, Ivan’s overexaggerated howl at his father’s passing comes off as satire even as the movie tries to play it straight.
But, thankfully, we still have Robert Downey Jr. as our anchor, and Tony Stark continues to be endlessly frustrating and endlessly charming. As we reacquaint ourselves with our hero, we learn that the palladium core in Tony’s arc reactor that keeps him alive is also killing him, something that has sent Tony into a depressive spiral.
Since the beginning, Tony has had a rather self-destructive streak; he can never let himself rest, and instead keeps pushing and pushing. He gets obsessive. He talks about using the Iron Man suit to protect the world, but often it’s really to protect himself from the guilt he feels over his parents’ deaths, the guilt he feels from Stark Industries’ murky legacy, always the guilt over something. His impending doom in Iron Man 2 accelerates this, his suicidal tendencies making him even more reckless than normal and sending him back to his old, pre-Iron Man self: he drinks, he parties, he ogles new assistant Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson), and generally acts like a prat, though we know him enough to know that he’s faking it and putting on a front—at least to some extent. However, his actions result in Rhodey (Don Cheadle, replacing Terrence Howard) confiscating one of Tony’s suits after a mano-a-mano beatdown. To cap off his string of bad decisions, Tony decides to compete in the Monaco Historic Grand Prix, where Ivan is lying in wait for him. Aside from a great suit-up (and Pepper and Tony’s back-and-forth while director Jon Favreau’s Happy Hogan tries to run Ivan over), the fight is largely dull.
Tony learns that Ivan is seeking revenge on behalf of his father Anton, whom we learn worked on the original arc reactor project with Tony’s father, Howard, before Howard had him deported after Anton leaked secrets. This sets up the central idea of the movie: legacy. The legacy of Anton, the legacy of Howard, the legacy of Tony’s suits and Tony himself. (“If you could make God bleed,” Ivan says, “people would cease to believe in him. There will be blood in the water, the sharks will come. All I have to do is sit back and watch as the world consumes you.”)
Again, the movie tries to play up the parallels between Tony and Ivan: they both create suits with the technology their fathers built, they both wrestle with their fathers’ deaths—the movie almost suggests that the only difference between the two is money. Tony has it, Ivan does not. Unfortunately, Mickey Rourke cannot give Ivan the same nuance as Tony, due both to the script and to Rourke’s own acting, so this concept—one that could have been potent in the right hands—largely fizzles.
However, to Rourke’s credit, not all of this failure rests on his shoulders; in fact, according to Rourke himself, studio interference resulted in much of his performance getting left on the cutting room floor, stripping Ivan of any complex interior life in favor of a run-of-the-mill baddie made to sell cool toys (more on selling toys when we get to Iron Man 3). The production of Iron Man 2 was rushed and frantic even outside of Rourke’s complaints, with Marvel trying to capitalize too quickly on its initial success and rushing production in order to churn out another film, and it shows. Coming off an Oscar nomination for The Wrestler, it’s not as though Rourke had suddenly lost any acting abilities, and comments similar to Rourke’s would be made down the line by other directors and actors who worked with Marvel, though largely before 2015, when the so-called “Creative Committee” was disbanded and Marvel allowed directors a looser rein (more on studio meddling when we get to Age of Ultron).
Where Rourke—or, rather, the studio—fails, though, Sam Rockwell swoops in to save the day. As Tony’s rival Justin Hammer, Rockwell (who was originally in the running to play Tony himself) hams it up, clearly having a blast as he struts around and breaks Ivan out of prison. Hammer wants to use Ivan to make his own version of the Iron Man suits to sell to the US military, failing to consider the consequences or the fact that other people like Ivan have their own wants too. (Here’s another underexplored parallel that never goes beyond surface level: Hammer is the greedy corporate man who throws morality out the window in favor of profits, a path that Tony was going down until the events of his first movie. But the movie opts instead for a shallow comparison, portraying Hammer merely as a peacocking Tony-wannabe rather than a slightly warped mirror image.)
Luckily for Tony, S.H.I.E.L.D., in the form of Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury and Clark Gregg’s Phil Coulson, shows up again to save him from himself. Turns out that Tony’s new sexpot assistant, Natalie, is also S.H.I.E.L.D., and her real name (most of the time) is Natasha Romanoff. Scarlett Johansson has spoken out against the sexualized nature of Natasha’s first MCU outing, and these missteps are glaringly obvious upon rewatch: multiple shots of her derriere, a completely unnecessary scene where she changes in the car while Happy tries to sneak a peek, et cetera. It feels like a very 2000s approach to gender equality: she’s sexy and the movie very overtly draws attention to this, but she can beat up people and is smart, and therefore it’s really a win for feminism. (It’s not.) As the MCU has gone on, Natasha has become one of the more interesting characters—and not because she has a nice ass—however, her introduction has aged poorly.
S.H.I.E.L.D.’s arrival not only reveals the truth about Natalie, but also about Howard Stark—turns out he was its co-founder. S.H.I.E.L.D. is part of his legacy, but again, Iron Man 2 drops the ball by barely addressing how blindsided Tony is by this revelation, leaving it up to Robert Downey Jr. to do the heavy lifting here. He’s more than able, but he should have a script that backs him up as well.
With the help of his dad from beyond the grave, Tony fixes his arc reactor, which is good news because Ivan has double-crossed Hammer (color me surprised) and rigged his Iron Man drones to run amok and destroy Tony and his legacy. What follows is a mind-numbingly boring and tediously long affair where various featureless iron suits shoot lasers at each other. It’s the Iron Monger fight from Iron Man,but longer and without any personal stakes because the movie never took the time to build up any sort of relationship between Ivan and Tony (unlike Tony and Obadiah), even though the seeds of something more interesting were right there.
The seeds of something more interesting seem to be always just out of reach for this MCU entry. Much of the film concerns itself with who gets to make and have the Iron Man suits, which raises many thorny moral questions: should technology be in the hands of only a select few? Should the American military have access to this, and if so, what does that mean for the rest of the world? Tony proclaims, “I have successfully privatized world peace.” What dangers could arise from this? Is this really something to aspire to?
But Marvel skates over these questions, giving them less than even a cursory nod. Tony is our hero, and therefore he as an individual should have the suit because he is the main character and thus deserves it. Rhodey can get a suit because he’s also a good guy, and he can use it for the American military because freedom, hell yeah! Comics have always been slightly better at handling weightier themes because they are less beholden to investors and have a smaller audience (for example, the “Demon in a Bottle” comic arc featuring Iron Man delves much deeper into Tony’s alcohol issues than Iron Man 2 does), but to have all this discussion on the military-industrial complex via Stark and Hammer Industries, to set up this proto-Cold War between Tony and Ivan, and then to ignore the complications that arise from these ideas feels disingenuous.
Iron Man 2’s saving graces are found within its smaller moments, in the relationships it builds upon from the first movie and in the easy rapport of its cast—at least, other than Rourke. Cheadle smoothly slides in to replace Terrence Howard, his Rhodey a little less down to party than the prior version but a better character for it. (To help the audience get over this speed bump, Cheadle’s first line as Rhodey is, “Look, it’s me, I’m here, deal with it. Let’s move on.” Guess the movie didn’t listen to Ike Perlmutter’s claim that no one would notice the replacement because all Black people “look the same.”) Gwyneth Paltrow and Robert Downey Jr. continue their chemistry from the first movie, making Pepper and Tony’s first kiss at the end feel earned, especially in comparison to some of the rushed Marvel romances that would come after; Clark Gregg and Samuel L. Jackson’s inclusion, however brief, points to the bigger universe that Marvel is building to. Sam Rockwell, as stated before, owns. For a movie with such boring action sequences and an overly convoluted plot, Iron Man 2 manages to have (mostly) good performances and strong character work.
Yet Iron Man 2’s failures mean that Marvel is, so far, only one for three. Not exactly a great ratio. They are balanced on a precipice, liable to tip either way depending on the success of the next several movies, and while we now know how they land, Iron Man 2 did not do much to help at the time.
Groundwork: Marvel has no big master plan; rather, they plant seeds wherever they can in the hopes that some of them might one day germinate. None of these were planned from day one, lest the whole ship sink, but the seeds germinated nonetheless:
If there is any justice in the world, Justin Hammer will show up in the new Disney+ show Armor Wars. (It’s only a rumor right now.)
Senator Stern (Garry Shandling) appears again in Captain America: The Winter Soldier as a Hydra agent.
The movie all but states this outright, but the issue in New Mexico that Fury and Coulson deal with ends up being Thor. Here’s something fun.
Howard Stark is dead here (obviously). Later, it’s revealed that Bucky Barnes as the Winter Soldier killed him, though Marvel didn’t know that yet. A young Howard will show up in a couple movies, looking nothing like John Slattery.
There really isn’t much groundwork laid in this movie, honestly—or, rather, no groundwork that just isn’t part of the plot already (like introducing Black Widow).
Anna’s Favorite Scene: “If you try to escape or play any sort of games with me, I will taze you and watch Supernanny while you drool into the carpet,” Coulson tells Tony. Not really a scene, more of just a single line. (Scene-wise, it’s probably when Tony apologizes to Pepper by bringing her strawberries—which she is allergic to.) Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is great and everyone needs to stop sleeping on it. I don’t care it’s not really canon anymore, the Framework arc is damn good television.
Back before Hamilton, when Lin-Manuel Miranda was still a sophomore in college at Wesleyan, he wrote the first draft of what would become In the Heights, which would eventually premiere on Broadway nearly ten years later in 2008. While Heights would later get overshadowed by Hamilton (practically everything gets overshadowed by Hamilton, to be fair), at the time it was a fantastic success, running for almost three years on Broadway. John M. Chu’s adaptation of In the Heights serves as an ebullient reminder of why Lin-Manuel Miranda entered the cultural consciousness in the first place, proof that he was headed towards something great from the very first.
Set in the largely Dominican neighborhood of Washington Heights, In the Heights follows Usnavi (Anthony Ramos, aka John Laurens and Philip Hamilton in Hamilton, taking over from Miranda, who originated the role on Broadway), a bodega owner who dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic one day. He gives us a rundown of his neighborhood in the energetic opening number, including Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz, reprising her role from Broadway), who raised Usnavi after his parents died; Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits), who owns a taxi company; Benny (Corey Hawkins), a standup employee of Kevin’s; Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), Usnavi’s younger cousin; and Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), whose confidence and good looks often make Usnavi put his foot in his mouth around her. Add to this group Nina (Leslie Grace), Kevin’s daughter who is returning home from Stanford for the summer, and you have the big players in the cast—it’s a big group, but Chu manages to (mostly) give each their due.
Set largely over the course of several days in the neighborhood with oppressive heat reminiscent of Do the Right Thing, but with Brooklyn swapped out for Washington Heights, In the Heights juggles all its residents dreams: Usnavi wants to go home, Vanessa wants to go downtown, Kevin wants to ensure his daughter remains the one who “made it out.” There are rising romantic tensions between Usnavi and Vanessa, and flames have reignited between exes Benny and Nina. There’s a blackout, fireworks, and a winning lottery ticket, but it’s really about the beating heart of Washington Heights: its people. The film may be culturally specific, but the joy resonates with everyone.
Lin-Manuel Miranda has become subject of some lightly mockery as of late, mostly from Gen Z, apparently no for no other reason than his honest sincerity (and maybe a certain unfortunate selfie pose)—because he still exhibits the type of hope that, for one reason or anything, seems to have gradually whittled over the years since the original In the Heights—and, later, Hamilton—came out. But something like In the Heights reminds us that no matter how easy it has become to slide into cynicism, there is still something to be said for buoyant optimism and unbridled joy.
Which is not to say the film doesn’t have its flaws: it does buckle at various points under the weight of all its characters, even having cut out certain plots and songs (sometimes to its detriment: cutting Nina and Benny’s duet “Sunrise” and bypassing certain beats for those two makes their romance less effective than it is on stage—if they are dynamite on Broadway, here they are only some powerful sparklers), and there is a rather ham-fisted plot about DACA that has been clumsily shoehorned in—not that we should keep politics and movies separate (that has always been both silly and impossible), but I do wish these moments had been added with a little more grace.
But after more than a year of being stuck at home and isolated even within our communities, In the Heights is a breath of fresh air: its cast, in particular Anthony Ramos, is so charming that it’s impossible not to smile; the songs are catchy, the dancing electric, the colors beautiful. And after all the anger and uncertainty we’ve experienced, it feels damn good to go back into a movie theater and laugh, and cry, simply enjoy something with other people.
In the Heights Trailer
In the Heights is currently available to stream on HBO Max and view in theaters.