MCU Retrospective: Avengers: Endgame

Written by Anna Harrison

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. If you heard me crying in the theater every time I watched this, no you didn’t.

80/100

Seeing Avengers: Endgame in theaters was akin to a religious experience (or at least I would imagine, having never had a religious experience myself), but with crowds much rowdier than most congregations: there were cheers, there were gasps, there was a hefty dose crying, there was a palpable sense of excitement and tension that pervaded movie theaters across the globe. Every emotional beat landed, every fan service moment hit just the right notes, every music swell struck the right chords. If The Avengers and Avengers: Infinity War were big, they were nothing—nothing—compared to this. 

Upon retrospection, some—but certainly not all—of that midnight opening magic has waned, as we look back now upon what was ultimately a very large speed bump for the MCU, which took only a slight breather before barreling forwards again. But, like Infinity War before it, like The Avengers before that and Iron Man before that, the fact that Endgame succeeds at all is astonishing. How do you properly conclude a 22-movie arc? How do you end a franchise that has reshaped the very fabric of pop culture?

Well, the real answer is, you don’t—you just keep making movies. But even though the MCU has continued on, Endgame still serves as a monumental, well, endgame, wrapping up loose threads, bidding emotional farewells, and finally letting all those years of buildup pay off.

Structurally speaking, Endgame is much neater than Infinity War, helped, of course, by the fact that nearly every character except the original Avengers and a handful of others got turned to dust by Thanos (Josh Brolin). The latter cut between disparate storylines, and even by the end not all of them had collided; Endgame, on the other hand, clearly divides itself into three acts, each with a proper beginning, middle, and end, and despite its lengthy runtime, this tactic helps the movie go by swiftly.

Act one neatly continues the tone from the end of Infinity War. In other words, it’s bleak. Though its opening should ostensibly be cheery, there is a sense of unease as Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), on house arrest from the events of Captain America: Civil War, teaches his daughter (Ava Russo, daughter of director Joe and niece of other director Anthony) how to shoot a bow and arrow while his wife, Laura (Linda Cardellini), prepares hot dogs and his other sons play catch. It’s a scene of domestic bliss, but as grizzled survivors of Infinity War, we the audience know better than to trust a scene of happiness, and so the tension continues to mount until the inevitable happens: Clint’s entire family gets dusted. That this is predictable makes it no less harrowing, and so that pit in the stomach, so familiar from Infinity War, settles back in for the ride.

Meanwhile, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Nebula (Karen Gillan), the lone survivors from the battle on the planet Titan, become stranded in space, and we get the first inkling of how important Nebula will become to the film. After all, not everyone is important enough to play paper football in space with Iron Man himself, and even within this brief scene we begin to see Nebula thaw as the two try to cope with their losses by flicking wads of paper at each other. (Nebula’s reaction to being told that she won is perfect: shock and disbelief, then pride, as she’s never won a thing in her life, especially not when compared to her recently-deceased sister, Zoe Saldana’s Gamora.) Yet soon the oxygen runs out, and things look even darker as Tony and Nebula stare down imminent death. Even Tony barely has any snark left in him.

Luckily, Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) shows up to save them and take them to Earth, where they reunite with the remnants: Natasha (Scarlett Johansson), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Bruce (Mark Ruffalo), Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow), Rhodey (Don Cheadle), Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper), and Steve (Chris Evans), who has shaved his glorious beard in a blow to straight women with taste everywhere. The opening two scenes had little dialogue, instead letting mood take precedence; here, when Steve and Tony come face-to-face for the first time since they nearly killed each other in Captain America: Civil War, that silence swiftly breaks. While at first it seems like the events of the past few days may have rectified the yawning gap between the two, soon Tony, looking absolutely terrible and horribly malnourished, lays into Cap: “What we needed was a suit of armor around the world. Remember that? Whether it impacted our precious freedoms or not, that’s what we needed… I said we’d lose. You said, ‘We’ll do that together too.’ Guess what, Cap? We lost, and you weren’t there. But that’s what we do, right? Our best work after the fact? We’re the Avengers, not the Pre-vengers, right?” Though the Avengers are finally back together, Infinity War has only widened the chinks in their armor. While Steve puts on a brave face, this is the most desperate we’ve ever seen Tony, and it’s most certainly the weakest he’s ever looked; Downey Jr. gives a fine performance of a man well past the end of his rope.

But even with the gulf between the Avengers, they manage to band together to track down Thanos and the Stones in an attempt to reverse the Snap. Yet Thanos, as established in Infinity War, isn’t just psychopathic for the sake of being psychopathic: he truly believes in his mission, and he knows the Infinity Stones could cause temptation for beings lesser than him, so he has destroyed the Stones, thus destroying the Avengers’ chance at bringing everyone back. 

When asked by Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) in Infinity War what he will do once he accomplishes his goal, Thanos says, “I finally rest, and watch the sun rise on a grateful universe.” That’s how Infinity War ends, and that’s how we find our villain in Endgame. Driven to a rage fueled by the decimation of his homeworld, the death of his brother, and the culling of his people, Thor goes for the head this time, and with a splatter of blood and a quiet thunk as his head hits the floor, Thanos dies before the title ever flashes on screen. Yet it’s a hollow victory, because our heroes have well and truly lost. If the end of Infinity War was bleak, the beginning of Endgame is worse. 

Cut to five years later, and the Avengers have scattered. Only two remain at the Avengers Compound: Steve leads a therapy group (featuring cameos from Joe Russo and Jim Starlin, the creator of Thanos) and Natasha gathers intelligence from their allies scattered across the universe, including Rocket, Carol, Rhodey, and Okoye (Danai Gurira). Even if things might bear a slight resemblance to normalcy, it’s clear that grief has a stranglehold on everyone. So when Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) shows up when he was presumed snapped, suddenly there is a glimmer of hope. 

Scott, it turns out, wasn’t snapped (as you know if you watched the post-credits scene in Ant-Man and the Wasp), just trapped in the Quantum Realm until a fortuitous rat crawled over the right buttons in his van. Yet while five years passed in the outside world, only five minutes passed in the Quantum Realm, and through the power of some Quantum technobabble, Scott theorizes that time travel could be possible, meaning they could gather the Stones and undo the Snap. The trio brings this theory to Tony, who has retired to a cabin in the woods with Pepper and their new daughter, Morgan (Lexi Rabe), who is quite possibly the cutest, most precocious child to have ever existed. However, Tony has no interest in what they’re selling: he’s failed at saving the universe already, so best to focus on protecting what’s right in front of him. “I got my second chance right here, Cap,” he says.

So instead the team seeks out the next best scientist they know: Bruce Banner, who has come to terms with his Hulk half, becoming what is known as “Professor Hulk” (or “Smart Hulk,” take your pick), which merges Banner’s brain with Hulk’s body. There’s no real explanation for this (though there was a deleted scene about it), though it’s an innocuous enough development that seems to finally end the Banner vs. Hulk war that has been raging since 2008… at least, until Bruce shows up in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings looking one hundred percent human. But in Endgame, at least, there’s no drama surrounding Hulk’s destructive tendencies or the agony Bruce feels about his alter ego, so instead we watch Mark Ruffalo go around in an advanced Shrek cosplay, and luckily Bruce acting like a bit of a stoner and dabbing (no pun intended) with some fans (played by more Russo relations) is a fun enough time.

Unfortunately, Bruce can’t quite crack time travel, resulting in some very fun shenanigans with Scott turning into a teen, an old man, and then a baby. Back in his cabin, though, Tony figures it out, and finds himself torn between the idyllic life he leads and throwing himself back into the fray. “Something tells me that I should put it in a locked box and drop it at the bottom of the lake and go to bed,” he tells Pepper. But Pepper knows him; she knows the weight of that guilt would hang over his head forever, and she knows that he’s really only bringing it up so she can tell him that it’s okay. “But would you be able to rest?” she replies. It’s a brief moment of dialogue, but it perfectly encapsulates why Pepper and Tony work together in a way that precious few MCU couples do: they know each other inside and out, they have from even the first Iron Man, and weren’t simply thrown together because the MCU overlords dictated that the two main hot people of the opposite sex must bone. And so Tony returns to the Avengers Compound and gets to work.

Rhodey, Nebula, and Rocket also arrive to help out, and soon Bruce and Rocket go off to find Thor, who has not been doing so hot; in fact, he’s become a fat, depressed alcoholic who has locked himself in his cabin on New Asgard (aka Tønsberg, a town seen in Captain America: The First Avenger, Thor, and Thor: Ragnarok), the place where the few remaining Asgardians have resettled, to play Fortnite and yell at a teenaged player styling himself “NoobMaster69.” 

In a film series full of some very attractive people, Chris Hemsworth has always stood out—or, at least, he’s had the most shirtless scenes, including this entirely unnecessary, frankly bizarre scene from Thor: The Dark World that exists only to show off Hemsworth’s glistening pectorals. To see him in a fat suit with tangled, unkempt hair and a tangled, unkempt beard is thoroughly shocking. “Fat Thor” tries to strike a balance it cannot always achieve: Thor’s slovenly ways are clearly positioned as funny (and often are), but underneath is a very raw anguish he is attempting to hide through booze and online gaming. Hemsworth, as in Infinity War, proves his dramatic chops here as he lets Thor’s self-hatred at his failings seep through: “Now I know that… guy might scare you,” Bruce begins, talking about Thanos. “Why would I be…? Why would I be scared of that guy? I’m the one who killed that guy, remember?” Thor scoffs, but he’s on the verge of tears as he says it. He dismisses Bruce’s request for help, saying, “Why don’t you ask the Asgardians down there how much my help is worth? The ones that are left, anyway.” Yet this powerful commentary on grief and the strength of Hemsworth’s performance occasionally gets lost underneath the surface-level jokes about Thor’s weight and unhealthy drinking habits (though Tony calling him “Lebowski” is pretty damn funny, to be fair); Thor is at his best in Endgame when we’re allowed to see glimpses of the simmering anger lurking underneath that he’s been trying to drown in beer, but that’s not always the case—he’s played just a little too often for laughs for his depression to be as effective as it could be. Case in point: Thor only agrees to return to the Avengers Compound when Rocket tells him there will be beer there.

Natasha, meanwhile, has gone off to find Clint Barton, who has gone on a killing spree against any sort of ne’er-do-well that survived the Snap, including the Yakuza, in an effort to bring (what he sees as) justice to a world without it. He re-enters the movie through a single take fight scene along the streets of Tokyo, culminating in a standoff against legendary actor Hiroyuki Sanada, who gets nearly nothing to do before Clint slices his throat. It’s a far cry from the family man we got in the first scene: he’s shaved part of his hair, he’s wearing a hood, he’s got a tattoo sleeve now, he’s edgy as all hell. Though no one ever calls him this, Clint’s new style has clearly taken inspiration from his Ronin persona from the comics, and while it’s brutal and a bit weird, it is an interesting path to take an otherwise largely unnoteworthy character from the MCU (at least when compared with his peers). Grief changes people, man.

So now we have now gathered all of our Avengers. Thus act two starts, and here the movie begins to get a little messy, as time travel flicks often do. 

The plan: go back in time and grab each of the Infinity Stones, regroup, and re-Snap. (During the planning sequence, there is an excellent bit of meta humor: when Thor explains the plot of The Dark World and the Reality Stone’s involvement in it, most people start to nod off or look utterly confused. Scott, meanwhile, has no idea what’s happening and is just happy to be involved, bless him.)

The team is split into four: Steve, Scott, Tony, and Bruce go to 2012 New York to nab the Mind Stone (from Loki’s (Tom Hiddleston) scepter), the Space Stone (from the Tesseract in S.H.I.E.LD.’s possession), and and the Time Stone (from the Sorcerer Supreme on Bleecker Street). Rhodey and Nebula go to the planet Morag in 2014 to get the Power Stone and Natasha and Clint go to Vormir to get the Soul Stone, not knowing the sacrifice they will have to make. Thor and Rocket, meanwhile, go to Asgard in 2013 to get the Reality Stone, aka the Aether.

For such a gargantuan movie, Endgame is quiet: the first act saw almost no action, and what action was there did not elicit any fist pumps, the way Marvel action sequences are so often designed to do; act two also sees very little fight scenes, instead bouncing characters off each other in their small groups, focusing less on action and more on problem-solving. While there is good character work here, act two also serves as an excuse to make Marvel’s “Greatest Hits” album and poke good-natured fun at their lesser efforts; it’s almost entirely fanservice, but fanservice that feels well-earned after 11 years of movies, even if it is a little self-congratulatory. To those who have been there since the beginning, your indulgent overlords are here to reward you with easter eggs filled with tasty morsels.

Track number one: The Avengers. As Steve, Scott, Tony, and Bruce arrive in 2012 New York, we get glimpses of Loki, secret Hydra agent Rumlow (Frank Grillo), and Secretary of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Hydra head Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford). Steve, after being objectified by both Tony and Scott, even gets to fight his own 2012, stick-up-the-ass, mischaracterized self so he can grab the Mind Stone, successfully distracting 2012-Steve by telling him that Bucky (Sebastian Stan) lives. (“That is America’s ass,” he proclaims knocking his doppelgänger out.) Bruce goes to find the Time Stone, but instead of running into Stephen Strange, he finds Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One, back for a cameo which forces us once again to question if Swinton is completely human (meant as a compliment). While Bruce gets the Time Stone, a Hulk-sized kerfuffle occurs that ends with Loki escaping with the Tesseract so his mischievous adventures can continue in his own TV show. 

To remedy this, Tony and Steve travel back to Camp Lehigh (where Steve trained as Captain America and where he returned in Captain America: The Winter Soldier) in the 1970s, at a previous point in time where the Tesseract could be easily reached. Tony runs into his father, Howard (John Slattery), and finally comes to terms with his daddy issues, though their interaction leaves Howard a bit confused; we also glimpse a de-aged Michael Douglas as Hank Pym, with peeks at an old-school Ant-Man helmet. Steve stares at Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) through a window, but more on that later. They get the Tesseract easy peasy, and their interactions within this block with the people they’ve lost are poignant and affecting; it’s not all time travel jargon and discussion of Infinity Stones.

Track number two: Thor: The Dark World. On Asgard, Thor runs into his mother, Frigga (Rene Russo), and nearly falls apart when talking to her because he knows that she will die on this day. Yet her advice on failure is sage, and it sets Thor on a better path; when he summons 2013-Mjolnir and rejoices, “I’m still worthy!,” it’s a lovely, genuine moment for a character who is too often used as the butt of the joke in Endgame. Rocket, while Thor has this heart-to-heart, steals the Aether from Jane Foster (Natalie Portman); Portman, having disliked the production experience for The Dark World, appears through a deleted scene from The Dark World grafted onto Endgame, with a CGI raccoon added in the background. Voilà. Space Stone, Time Stone, Reality Stone procured.

So on to track number three: Guardians of the Galaxy. Rhodey and Nebula on Morag give us a chance to relive Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) “Come and Get Your Love” dance from Guardians of the Galaxy to excellent results. Good, silly fun. (“So he’s an idiot?” Rhodey asks.) While her sister Gamora was the stealth MVP of Infinity War, here the title passes to Karen Gillan’s Nebula. As Gamora’s role in Infinity War was much bigger than expected, and perhaps even bigger than her role had previously been in the Guardians franchise, so too does sister Nebula play a crucial role in Endgame, and Gillan gives far and away her best performance yet. Nebula and Rhodey prove to be an unusual but strong pairing, both bonding over their physical disabilities: “I wasn’t always like this,” Nebula murmurs as she looks at her robotic hand. “Me either,” Rhodey says, reminding us that the only reason he can walk is some fancy Stark Industries tech. “But we work with what we got, right?” It’s a brief scene but no less affecting because of it, proving that Endgame’s strengths lie in its character beats rather than fight sequences, of which we have had nearly none so far, and its plot, which is about to get a lot more confusing with the introduction of 2014-Gamora, 2014-Nebula, and 2014-Thanos as prominent characters.

Because, of course, Rhodey and Nebula aren’t the only ones hunting the Infinity Stones. Time travel in the MCU is not, as Bruce and Tony inform us, like Back to the Future. Each time you travel back in time, you create a branched timeline: when Steve, Tony, and company travel to 2012, for instance, they make an alternate universe where 2012-Loki escapes with the Tesseract and 2012-Steve knows that Bucky is alive. In the 1970s, there is now a branching timeline where Howard ran into a stranger who encouraged him to be a bit more present with his soon-to-be son, resulting in an alternate Tony who might not be saddled with severe daddy issues. Thor creates an alternate timeline where 2013-Thor doesn’t have Mjolnir (since his other self took it) and 2013-Jane gets the Aether sucked out of her more quickly, and so on.

Through some technological wormholes, 2014-Thanos finds out that our main timeline 2023-Nebula is hunting Infinity Stones and that 2019-Thanos bit it. Determined to win, he captures 2023-Nebula and hatches a plan.

Meanwhile, on Vormir (god, there are so many spinning plates in this movie and it’s not even as many as Infinity War), Clint and Natasha realize that the Soul Stone requires a sacrifice—“A soul for a soul.” As neither of them want the other to die, given their long and storied history, they have a brief scuffle over who gets to be the one to hurl themselves off the edge of a cliff. In the end, it’s Natasha.

Like Gamora before her, she dies to procure an Infinity Stone; unlike Gamora, she does so willingly. This, naturally, made some people very angry. However, here’s the thing: Natasha sacrificing herself for the Avengers, for the family that welcomed her even with her bloody past, is a perfect end to her arc. Of course it’s bad optics that the sole female Avenger kicks the bucket (in the same location one of two female Guardians died to boot), and yes, she did sometimes get the short stick in the MCU (especially in Avengers: Age of Ultron, ugh), but neither of those things negate that this was always how Natasha was going to go. Of course she would hurl herself off a cliff for those she loved—she has always been the kindest, most empathetic Avenger underneath her cool front, and to claim that Endgame fridged” her ignores the fact that her ending stays completely in character, and it ignores the fact that she actively chose to do this and that it wasn’t done to further a man’s tragic story but to save the entire universe. 

Yes, of course Marvel should do better by their female characters, and their oft-talked about “girl power” scene later in the movie feels even stranger than it would otherwise given the fact that they killed their most prominent woman just a half an hour earlier. But those are bigger, systemic problems to be addressed; Natasha’s farewell in Endgame isn’t a sign of the MCU’s mistreatment of women (though that certainly exists), it’s a sign that the writers understood her character, and that is far better than keeping her alive for mere tokenism.

And so, at great personal cost, the Stones are procured, and everyone—except Natasha—comes back intact. Well, except for the fact that 2023-Nebula is still on board 2014-Thanos’ ship, and 2014-Nebula has taken her place in 2023 Earth (like I said, it’s messy). So as the Avengers debate who gets to snap their DIY Infinity Gauntlet, 2014-Nebula helps to prepare for her father’s arrival.

Though Thor lays out a strong, sad case—“Let me. Let me do it. Let me do something good, something right,” he pleads—it’s ultimately Bruce who snaps, because not only is he the strongest Avenger, but because the Gauntlet’s radiation is “mostly gamma. It’s like I was made for this.” Sure? I guess? So he snaps, and the birds come back, and Clint gets a call from his wife: for a moment, all is well.

But then, act three: the battle and its aftermath.

2014-Nebula opens up the Quantum Tunnel and 2014-Thanos’ ship bursts out of it, which then promptly obliterates the Avengers Compound. 

It seems all is lost, especially when 2014-Nebula corners Clint, who is clutching the Gauntlet, and levels her gun at him. Luckily, 2023-Nebula convinced 2014-Gamora to join forces, and 2023-Nebula shoots her alternate timeline past self, a sign not only of her loyalty to the Avengers but also her deep self-loathing. But even if the Gauntlet is safe for now, when Tony, Steve, and Thor go out to face 2014-Thanos, he easily bests them. Knowing that they killed his alternate self in the future, the battle has become charged: “In all my years of conquest, violence, slaughter, it was never personal,” he tells our trio. “But I’ll tell you now, what I’m about to do to your stubborn, annoying little planet… I’m gonna enjoy it. Very, very much.”

But, as Thanos begins to well and truly wreck our heroes, suddenly Mjolnir begins to crackle with electricity and zooms not to Thor’s hands, but to Steve’s—the God of Thunder isn’t the only worthy one here. “I knew it!” Thor exclaims as Steve begins to wield the hammer against 2014-Thanos (it’s sick as hell). But yet again he is bested, and when 2014-Thanos reveals the army waiting in the ships above, any hope we gained quickly deflates. But Steve Rogers does not give up so easily. This shot of Cap standing against Thanos and his army is a beautiful, wordless way to convey this comic panel, but it is a hopeless image.

Then, suddenly, a familiar voice in Steve’s ear says, “On your left,” and, impossibly, things begin to look up. Slowly, and then all at once, everyone Thanos snapped away comes streaming in from sorcerer-conjured portals, and then excitement rushes in like a freight train. It builds, and builds, and builds along with Alan Silvestri’s now-iconic theme from The Avengers, and when Cap, Mjolnir and shield in hand, finally, finally, finally says, “Avengers… assemble!,” it is about the coolest fucking thing you have ever seen in a movie theater (just watch any number of the reaction videos on YouTube). It is pure fanservice, it is pure comic boy joy, it is—whether you like it or not—one of the most emotionally resonant moments for cinema audiences ever, and even years later, it still soars. Nothing either within the MCU or without will ever be able to match the utterly insane hype level for those entrances and that line.

Unfortunately, the battle that follows, like that of Infinity War, isn’t that interesting visually except for a few moments where the characters get to show off their powers in tandem with one another, but even those moments are disappointingly dull to look at. The success of screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely and directors the Russo brothers doesn’t lie in their visuals, but rather in their abilities to balance an assortment of different characters and coax out new sides of the MCU by thrusting said characters into new situations. Another battle hardly treads new ground, but it’s requisite for the MCU, and so here we are.

But it’s still got those requisite cool Marvel fight moments: Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) is an especially fascinating combatant, almost obliterating Thanos before he orders his ship to “rain fire,” and the game of hot potato played with the Infinity Gauntlet certainly keeps viewers engaged. 2014-Gamora, having no knowledge of Peter Quill, knees Chris Pratt twice in the crotch. Captain Marvel also arrives and withstands a headbutt from Thanos, which is cool, but it’s still no visual spectacle.

Of course, at long last, our heroes get the upper hand. Thanos gets the Gauntlet and goes to snap, proclaiming self-righteously, “I am inevitable,” but it doesn’t work, and a split-second later we realize why: Tony managed to steal the Infinity Stones from off the Gauntlet, and as we watch his Iron Man nanotech snake up his arm to form an iron glove, we realize with sudden, terrible comprehension what is about to occur (or at least it was terrible for me). With one last “I am Iron Man,” Tony snaps his fingers, and so the guy who started off as an unsavory, narcissistic arms dealer dies sacrificing himself for the rest of the world. 

And so in an inverse of Infinity War, it’s now Thanos and his lackeys that turn to ash which scatters over the smoking battlefield, yet the moment is not entirely triumphant as the cost of the snap quickly catches up to Tony.

“You can rest now,” Pepper tells him. That one line sums up Tony near perfectly: restless, reckless, prone to bouts of self-destruction under the guise of narcissism, ultimately driven by an obsessive desire to protect the ones he cares about. And now he’s protected the entire universe. He can rest now. It’s a powerful scene made all the better because there are no real last words, no drawn-out death whilst cradled in someone’s arms, no sugarcoating: he is broken and bloodied, he can barely even speak, he just waits long enough to see Pepper and then dies. 

Multiple someones were certainly going to die in Endgame—that was clear from the first. That it’s Tony who makes the sacrifice play lines up perfectly with his arc, and of course it’s our very first hero who does the impossible and stops Thanos, even if he loses his life in the process. This scene and the funeral that follows, where Pepper puts that first arc reactor—the one engraved with “Proof that Tony Stark has a heart”—in the water, and Tony has one final pre-recorded message for his daughter, is a fitting and bittersweet sendoff for the hero who kicked off the Marvel Cinematic Universe all those years ago. Love him or hate him, without Tony Stark, the MCU would not have come to be, and so this funeral is not only a farewell for Tony, but a tribute to the character (and actor) who started it all. All our heroes gather around for one last goodbye, and as the camera pans over the crowd, we see the legacy of not only Iron Man the character, but Iron Man the movie, and the enormous universe it spawned. 

Captain America’s sendoff, however, is a bit like an inverted Sour Patch Kid: it starts off sweet, but the more you suck on it and turn it over in your mind, the more it sours.

Tasked with going back in time to return the Infinity Stones to their rightful place on the timeline, Steve Rogers decides to take the long way ’round and stay a while with old flame Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell); when he comes back, he’s now an old man. Age and time, it seems, finally caught up with Steve, who hands his shield off to Sam to become the next Captain America

Both Sam and Bucky have taken that mantle in the comics, and both would have been good choices here to grapple with the legacy of that shield, each bringing their own unique baggage to the table—Sam as a black man in a world that repeatedly tries to deny him humanity, and Bucky for all the murder and whatnot—but ultimately Sam wins out. It’s a good choice (even if, from a more cynical viewpoint, Marvel only did it to garner brownie points and check off their diversity list), one which will hopefully pay off in the untitled fourth Captain America movie more than it did in Disney+’s The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.

Yet even though Steve and Peggy’s ending tugs at the heartstrings as they finally get their dance, the whole thing sits uneasily. Post-Captain America: The First Avenger, much of Steve’s arc has been devoted to adjusting to the 21st century and all the moral ambiguity he now has to wade through; he mourned and grieved for the loss of his friends and loved ones, but he changed and adapted with the times. Now, suddenly, after we’ve spent so much time watching Steve figure out the modern world, he just ups and leaves?

It would be one thing if the films had shown Steve constantly pining after what he lost when he went into the ice. Of course they do, but only to an extent, and while the pangs of losing everyone he ever knew still hurt occasionally, Steve has moved on. The relationships he has built here, in this timeline, have been given far more weight than the ones he had back in The First Avenger, and to have him completely backtrack on his forward-moving arc to go back in time feels disingenuous and lazy. Christopher Markus himself once said, “He’s the most adaptive man on the planet,” but apparently failed to listen to his own words when writing Endgame.

Three things in particular make Steve’s ending leave a bitter taste in the mouth, with the first being the rules of time travel as established in this movie. As Endgame (and subsequent Marvel properties dealing with time travel) makes clear, travelling back in time creates a branched reality. Once you return to the moment you left in the main timeline, that alternate reality ceases to exist. (By these rules, Steve appearing at the lakeside randomly make any sense: as this is a different timeline from the one he grew old in, he couldn’t have just waited until this precise moment and moseyed on over to the Avengers Compound—he would have had to use the Quantum Tunnel doodad. But I guess it’s too much to ask for consistency, seeing as the writers and directors disagree on that whole alternate timeline thing.) This means that Steve went back in time, reunited with Peggy, presumably had a family, and then promptly erases everyone in that timeline from existence the minute he travels back to the future to give the shield to Sam. That is an incredibly selfish thing to do for someone whose actions, up to this point, have mostly been quite altruistic; even within the branched timeline that Steve creates, questions arise: Does Steve try to avert events like JFK’s assassination, or 9/11? Does he help advance civil rights? Does he rescue Bucky in this timeline before he becomes completely brainwashed? Or does he just sit on the sidelines, content with his own happiness?

Thing number two: Bucky. Whether you’re into “Stucky” or not, you cannot deny that Bucky has been a driving force all throughout Steve’s story. In The First Avenger, it’s the thought of Bucky being tortured in a Hydra prison camp that spurs Steve to truly become Captain America; in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Steve’s world gets turned upside down by the knowledge that Bucky still lives, and he nearly dies trying to save Bucky from himself; in Captain America: Civil War, Steve goes on the run from the United States government (…again) to keep Bucky safe, and then he breaks the Avengers apart for the same reason. You’re telling me that this guy, this guy who has laid it all on the line multiple times out of love for his best and oldest friend, would leave said friend—who is, by the way, still massively traumatized from losing an arm, being brainwashed, and then turned into an assassin for essentially Nazis—for a woman that he knew back in the 1940s for, at best, a year or two? Even earlier in the film, the only thing that broke 2012-Steve’s concentration was the mention that Bucky lived. The two exchange an astonishingly brief goodbye which echoes their one from The First Avenger: “Don’t do anything stupid until I get back,” but now Steve says that to Bucky instead of the other way around. “How can I? You’re taking all the stupid with you,” Bucky replies, but nostalgia can only get so far. They have a quick hug, and that’s it. For a relationship that was previously given so much thematic weight to be tossed aside with such little care is astonishing.

The third thing is the much-maligned Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp), who does not appear in this movie, and no, she is not related to Steve, because in the original timeline she is from, Steve never married Peggy. Everyone needs to stop saying that she’s his niece. She’s not. Pay attention. 

Problems with Sharon, unfortunately, have been building since her introduction in Winter Soldier. Though her comic counterpart has a long and storied history both with and without longtime love interest Steve, Sharon in the MCU movies has been shamefully underused. Initially positioned as a love interest yet given little screentime or character, VanCamp and Chris Evans had precious little time to build chemistry; thus, when Steve and Sharon share a kiss in Civil War, it feels hastily tacked on, as if the only reason the two characters are together is because of their history in the comics, so of course movie fans didn’t take kindly to this development, especially fervent “shippers” of the Stucky and Steggy kind. 

Hayley Atwell herself has done little to help matters, saying, “Well, first of all [Peggy would] be turning over in her grave” at the thought of Steve and Sharon getting together. “She’d be like, ‘no.’ And she’d inject herself with the blue serum and become a super villain. She’d break out of her coffin and ground [Sharon]. She’d ground her. Then she’d kick Steve’s ass as well.” Yes, how feminist to pit two women against each other for the attention of a man! Thank you! Fans across Twitter and Tumblr were atrocious and misogynistic towards both Sharon and VanCamp, and it would have been hard for Markus and McFeely et al. not to notice. 

What follows is, admittedly, pure speculation, but it does not take much to imagine that this backlash—one that the MCU brought upon itself for not giving Sharon her proper due and rushing to throw her together with Steve despite having no buildup—caused Markus, McFeely, and the rest to backtrack and quickly reframe Peggy as the ultimate love of Steve’s life in Endgame, having him pull out his picture of her and make goo goo eyes at her through some blinds while no one mentions Sharon. It’s as if she never existed. It’s only Peggy and Steve, it’s always been Peggy and Steve, no one else has ever been as important in his life as she has (never you mind the fact that Steve—and I am repeating myself—broke the Avengers apart for the sake of Bucky!). Faced with a negative fan reaction, instead of fixing what wasn’t landing, Marvel retreated to something they knew worked, and so Steve goes back in time without ever saying goodbye to Sharon. Even if the writers and directors wanted to move on, it feels wildly out of character for consummate good guy Steve Rogers to just kiss and ditch. 

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier will at least attempt to address some of this, but because Marvel wants us to like Steve Rogers and frames his reunion with Peggy as a morally unambiguous win, it’s never allowed enough leeway to truly tackle the abandonment issues that Steve’s actions would have saddled Sharon and most especially traumatized, formerly brainwashed, currently PTSD-ridden Bucky with because Marvel doesn’t want us to get mad at Captain America. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier at least tries to make Sharon a real character, though it feels like a slap in the face more than anything. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

If anything, Steve should have died and Tony should have retired. Logistically and logically this would have been difficult, as it would have been hard to explain why Tony didn’t show up to whatever world-ending events happen next, and if he did show up, there is the small matter of Robert Downey Jr.’s exorbitant payday. However, as cappers to their characters, it works (at least in my esteemed opinion) better for Tony, always so self-destructive and suicidal, to finally find peace rather than make the sacrifice play (besides, we already did that arc in The Avengers), and for Steve, the forever-soldier, displaced out of time, to lay down his life for the cause in heroic, tragic fashion. Even both of them dying would have been better than this logically flimsy, out of character ending which falls to pieces the minute you examine it more closely; besides, having only two Avengers die in Endgame feels a bit weak. No, more main character death does not make a story better, but thematically appropriate endings do, and Steve’s death would have been exactly that. 

This isn’t to say that Steve and Peggy’s reunion isn’t emotional—there’s a reason they stuck in the minds of fans, and there was nary a dry eye (mine were certainly very, very damp) in theaters upon watching them dance. It’s just a shame that none of it holds up to scrutiny. 

Well. Anyway. To round out the “Big Three,” Thor decides to hand the throne to Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and go off with the Guardians of the Galaxy. This is fine enough taken alone, and promises plenty of merry mayhem in Thor: Love and Thunder, but when taken in sum with the rest of his films, feels a bit like whiplash. In Thor, he abandons his reckless ways and rises to the task of kingship; in Thor: The Dark World, he abandons said kingship to be with his lady love; in Thor: Ragnarok, he once again takes up the mantle of king and assumes full responsibility for Asgard; in Endgame, he gives it all up again and passes the mantle of monarch to Valkyrie, who, while cool, has not exactly shown how or why she is the right pick to govern an entire race, even one whose population has been decimated. Thor, like Hulk, ping pongs around at the whims of the directors, and him reneging on his kingship feels like a rejection of his entire Ragnarok arc—there is no consistency to his choices, and this lack of consistency doesn’t feel like a purposeful character choice but rather Marvel just shuffling him around wherever they need him to go instead of letting his own arc be the guide. So we beat on, boats against the current… ah, never mind.

And so Endgame concludes: Tony dead, Natasha dead, Steve written off, the other Avengers still continuing to fight the bad guys. Any other film franchise would have called it quits after this: half the original Avengers roster gone, the threat building up for nearly a decade averted, almost all loose ends tied up. That the MCU has continued on afterwards can be viewed as a shallow cash grab that continues to drive out mid-budget films from the theaters, a genuine curiosity to explore as of yet underutilized characters and adapt some more of the rich history of Marvel Comics, or a bit of both. 

One common criticism of the MCU is that there are no proper endings. To some extent, that’s true: each entry acts more as an episode of TV than anything, with its own introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution, but then a little stinger at the end to ensure we tune in next week, and Endgame is no different. It wraps up the stories for many of its characters even as it tantalizes us with what’s to come—ooh, Thor is going with the Guardians, what a fun team that will be; Sam gets to be Captain America, how intriguing; Loki escapes with the Tesseract, what mischief could he get up to next! Everything is designed to keep people buying tickets, and with the cultural dominance of the MCU firmly solidified by now, in order to understand why everyone keeps saying, “I love you 3,000,” you’re going to have to fork over your money to the Mouse. 

Yet for all the griping I have done about this film, nothing can match the magic of that opening night. Endgame, for all its flaws, largely succeeds—and succeeds well—at what it sets out to achieve, and it has that excellent mix of ensemble humor and individual pathos that the Russo brothers balanced so well in their other MCU films and which other Marvel directors often struggle with. Its place in the cultural pantheon is deserved; even if you despise Marvel for ruining cinema, there’s no denying the influence Endgame has had, and that influence only is as big as it is because Endgame is, ultimately, a pretty solid flick which only drops a few balls out of the several hundred that it juggle

It’s hard to quantify, exactly, what impact Endgame made in pop culture. You could count Twitter hashtags or ticket sales (nearly $3 billion made worldwide), but that wouldn’t capture the conversations between acquaintances, the texts sent, the calls made to buzz about some moment from Endgame. For a brief moment, it seemed as if almost everyone in the world spoke the same language. The Red Wedding was a hill, Endgame Mount Everest. So even if Marvel and Disney are helping to strangle independent cinema, for a brief, shining moment, it felt like they had united the world.

Which, I suppose, is actually quite a frightening thought. But I digress.

There was quite a big hullabaloo several months after Endgame came out when Martin Scorsese equated Marvel movies to theme parks, and a bunch of fragile fans began insulting Scorsese’s body of work while trumpeting the MCU as a paragon of art. The thing is, Scorsese is right: Marvel is notoriously risk-averse and it almost always quashes a director’s individual voice—even when half the world was snapped away in Infinity War, you could rest assured that they would all come back in Endgame (lo and behold, they did), and even singular directors like Taika Waititi and Chloé Zhao can only fight so much against the formula. That popular cinema has increasingly become reboots and sequels, and originals are tossed onto streaming services with severely limited theatrical runs, is not entirely Marvel and Disney’s fault, yet they seem to be doing little to mitigate this, instead barreling on with their tried-and-tested formula; it’s always about expanding the universe, it’s always about branding the franchise, it’s all about making that capital, baby, even if they couch this in different terms.

But the reason Endgame was able to have such a strong hold on the collective consciousness wasn’t merely because consumers have all become slaves to the brand. Scorsese is right, but he makes one misstep: when talking about the films he loved as a child, he writes, “It was about characters—the complexity of people and their contradictory and sometimes paradoxical natures, the way they can hurt one another and love one another and suddenly come face to face with themselves,” as if to say that the MCU lacks characters other than stock ones, when in fact the biggest reason for the MCU’s success isn’t its action sequences or aliens, it’s the people at the heart of everything.

No, obviously the MCU is not filled with character-driven dramas, and even its attempts to do that, like WandaVision, have all ultimately devolved into typical Marvel fisticuffs. Yet if you want to see big action setpieces, there are plenty of places to slake your thirst—but no one is talking much about Transformers: The Last Knight years after its release, whereas Endgame remains an easy cultural touchstone. Yes, it helps that Marvel has continued to churn out films, but even after The Avengers in 2012, with only five prior films under its belt, it was clear that these popcorn flicks stayed in the mind a bit longer than the others at the multiplex, and that is all due to the careful character work laid down in the films. When Tony dies, after 11 years on our screens, after 11 years of watching him alternatingly preen and self-destruct, watching him contradict himself and mess up and triumph, it carries weight because we know him, we love him (or hate him, take your pick; I think it’s pretty clear where I fall). If Marvel had not spent so much time making these characters feel like people, albeit hot and superpowered people, the whole endeavor would have failed. People don’t shell out money to see these just because they want to watch people shoot bad guys, but because they care about the characters populating this universe. So, yes, Scorsese is right, but he misses the key point as to why people keep circling back to the MCU time and time again. I guess he’s still pretty alright.

It’s a bit odd to say that Marvel lacks ambition when its very basis was built on risk. Iron Man was a risk. The Avengers was a bigger risk. Only now, with Marvel firmly seated as top dog, can we begin to pick apart the endeavor, poke holes at the formula, and make fun of those with blind brand loyalty. That it’s morphed into what it is today is entirely unprecedented: a connected cinematic universe spanning galaxies, filled with dozens of main characters, stuffed with overlapping and overarching plots that pay off years down the road. Other franchises have tried to emulate Marvel’s success in creating a shared universe (the DCEU, the failed Dark Universe, even now Star Wars), yet none have succeeded in quite the same way because none took the time—and the associated risk—to build from the ground up. So while some claim Marvel has grown complacent, they only have the luxury to do so because they had such sheer guts in the beginning. 

So here we are. Endgame may not be the best MCU entry, but as a cultural and cinematic event, it remains unparalleled; that it doesn’t buckle under the weight of its plot (and runtime), that it gives each character strong emotional beats, that it succeeds in concluding a story that started with a movie about a nobody superhero directed by that guy from Swingers and starring an ex-convict, is nothing short of a miracle.

Well, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration. But it’s still one hell of an achievement.

Captain America vs Thanos Army [3840 x 1608] : r/marvelstudios

Groundwork and stray observations: 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:

  • That iconic “I am Iron Man” line in Endgame came from reshoots.
  • Two more Community alums pop up: Ken Jeong and Yvette Nicole Brown.
  • Okoye mentions an earthquake under the ocean. You know who’s rumored to be the villain of Black Panther 2? Namor the Sub-Mariner of Atlantis.
  • Howard Stark appears as he’s looking for Arnim Zola (Toby Jones), the scientist from The First Avenger who became a Hydra plant within S.H.I.E.L.D.
  • Peter Parker (Tom Holland) not wanting to activate instant kill mode with his suit was a running gag in Spider-Man: Homecoming, but here he actually does activate instant kill mode.
  • James D’Arcy reprising his role as Edwin Jarvis, the Stark family butler (for whom J.A.R.V.I.S. the artificial intelligence was named), from Agent Carter was a completely unexpected cameo that absolutely floored me. Considering that Jeph Loeb’s Marvel Television has been largely ignored by the MCU (though that may change come Hawkeye and Spider-Man: No Way Home…), to have a supporting character from one of the more minor shows cameo, if only for a brief second, felt wonderful. Jarvis rocks.
  • You know, not a whole lot of groundwork for this one, since it’s wrapping up so many things. Well, that’s a lie, it’s just that most of that groundwork hasn’t paid off yet: the Guardians will appear in Thor: Love and Thunder, which will presumably also deal with Valkyrie’s queenship; Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 will deal with the search for 2014 Gamora; there’s going to be Captain America 4 with Sam (Anthony Mackie), etc. etc. We just haven’t seen all that happen.
  • Well, that’s a bit of a fib: Loki stealing the Tesseract did net him his own TV show.
  • The song that Steve and Peggy dance to (“It’s Been a Long, Long Time”) was playing in Steve’s apartment in Winter Soldier when Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) paid him a visit.
  • The Amazon series The Boys did a very excellent parody (or two) of the “he’s got help”/A-Force team-up scene from Endgame, but, honestly, it’s not that bad. I, for one, felt pretty pumped about it in the theater, even if it is a bit ham-fisted. Far, far more egregious things have happened then a bunch of women superheroes teaming up together for lip service. It was clumsy, but there are worse things—like, if you want to take a political issue with Marvel, talk about its weird relationship with the military-industrial complex, or American exceptionalism, or the damage it’s doing to cinema as a whole. This one scene is not the biggest issue at stake here. (Also, is it any worse than Marvel trumpeting the fact that Endgame has the MCU’s first gay character and for that to turn out to be Joe Russo making a cameo?)
  • It was very nice that the MCU remembered Harley Keener (Ty Simpkins) from Iron Man 3. Would be cool to see him again; after all, he’s “connected.” Ironheart or Armor Wars, maybe? The inevitable Young Avengers movie or show? Could be fun.
  • Not to diss Kathryn Newton again (…and again), but Emma Fuhrmann, who has two brief scenes in Endgame as an older Cassie Lang, Scott’s daughter, absolutely kills what little time she has. It’s very unfair she was passed over for someone with more star power.
  • In case anyone was peeved (as I was) at this Daniel Sousa (Enver Gjokaj) from Agent Carter the TV show erasure, never fear: he gets his own happy ending with Daisy Johnson (Chloe Bennet) in the future, in space, presumably working for S.W.O.R.D., except Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. probably wasn’t legally allowed to say that. But, regardless, at least the ABC show universe doesn’t forget about their loose ends (well, most of the time).

Anna’s Favorite Scene: I mean. Come on. It’s the portal scene. It’s “Avengers, assemble.” Come. On. I have never felt that exhilarated watching a movie in my life. (“It’s a baby.” “It’s Scott!” “As a baby.” “He’ll grow!” never fails to tickle me, however.)

MCU Ranking: 1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, 2. Avengers: Infinity War, 3. Captain America: Civil War, 4. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, 5. Thor: Ragnarok, 6. Avengers: Endgame, 7. Guardians of the Galaxy, 8. The Avengers, 9. Spider-Man: Homecoming, 10. Captain America: The First Avenger, 11. Iron Man 3, 12. Iron Man, 13. Black Panther, 14. Ant-Man and the Wasp, 15. Doctor Strange, 16. Ant-Man, 17. Thor, 18. Avengers: Age of Ultron, 19. Captain Marvel, 20. Thor: The Dark World, 21. Iron Man 2, 22. The Incredible Hulk

Avengers: Endgame Trailer

Avengers: Endgame is currently available to rent and purchase on most digital storefronts, and is streaming on Disney+.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

MCU Retrospective: Captain Marvel

Written by Anna Harrison

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. I’m sure this won’t be controversial at all.

60/100

Before it ever came out, Captain Marvel had become a contentious topic, to put it lightly, getting review bombed on Rotten Tomatoes so badly that the website had to revamp their design (though it would eventually settle at a respectable 79% approval for critics, it still lies at 49% for fans). Yet despite the vocal number of internet denizens committed to trashing this movie before it graced their screens, there seemed to be little true controversy regarding the film. Joss Whedon had almost included Captain Marvel in Avengers: Age of Ultron before that was scratched, the film was bumped around a bit on the Marvel schedule, and the search for a director was fairly lengthy until Kevin Feige et al. decided on Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck of Mississippi Grind fame, but things seemed to run pretty smoothly. Marvel’s first female-led solo film was a go.

No, the major problem, according to some on the internet, was that star Brie Larson had deigned to say that film criticism should be more diverse. 

Larson originally said that she would rather read what a person of color thought about A Wrinkle in Time, directed by once-hopeful Marvel director Ava DuVernay and starring a diverse cast, than a middle-aged white man; when the Twittersphere blew up, she acknowledged that she might have put her foot in her mouth and elaborated by saying, “What I’m looking for is to bring more seats up to the table.” This seemed to be taken as a personal attack by a certain segment of the population, and suddenly YouTube videos were popping up where so-called “body language experts” tried to convince you through a series of random clips that Brie Larson was, at best, a bitch whose co-stars hated her, and at worst… Well, it doesn’t bear repeating, but suffice to say that the majority of these attacks seem to have been driven by a deep and repulsive misogyny. Larson was too much of an “SJW,” she was wooden in her performances (despite winning an Oscar for Room), Captain Marvel was furthering the SJW agenda by focusing on a woman. She should smile more! (Larson responded to that particular suggestion with some great Instagram posts of her own.)

Larson’s fellow MCU actors such as Chris Evans and Mark Ruffalo have also been vocal about advocating for diversity and regularly sound off on Twitter about their political beliefs, yet no one has made clickbait YouTube videos with millions of views on how they are secretly reviled by their peers, making it hard to believe that the criticisms leveled at Larson, most of which are ridiculous to begin with, are made in good faith. Some people were even predicting that Captain Marvel would be the first Marvel movie to well and truly flop, going so far as to claim its box office numbers and ticket sales were manipulated.

Happily, the gross, misogynistic backlash against Larson and the film did not affect its box office numbers, as it grossed over one billion dollars worldwide. Unhappily, the film itself, despite the turmoil surrounding its star and the excitement over the MCU finally getting a superheroine with her own franchise, is not as exciting.

Much of that comes from the very premise of the film: Carol Danvers can’t remember who she is. She lives on the planet Hala and believes that she’s a Kree, an alien race last seen in Guardians of the Galaxy, where Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) served as an antagonist to the titular Guardians. She, however, is not blue, and she’s not Carol, either: she goes by Vers, and has recurring nightmares regarding a mysterious woman played by Annette Bening, which she tries to combat by sparring with her commander, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law). Vers has special powers in the form of strong and glowing fists that punch stuff real hard, but both Yon-Rogg and the Supreme Intelligence (in the form of Annette Bening), the artificial intelligence that rules the Kree, encourage her to keep her to control her powers by keeping her emotions in check. We’re told that Vers struggles with doing so, but we aren’t really shown: Yon-Rogg bests her at single combat until she blasts him with her powers, and for some reason this is looked down on, though we never really know why—Yon-Rogg just berates her and tells her, essentially, to be less emotional, a comment that has been thrown at many women over the years, but since there’s no real purpose behind it, any impact is lessened, and after this initial sparring sequence, the concept is largely dropped until the finale.

While the audience knows Vers is not really a Kree, and that something must be rotten in the state of Hala, the planet and the race that occupies it are so underdeveloped that none of it has any meaning. Why do the Kree have an A.I. leading them? What are the Kree like? Truly, do any of them have any defining traits outside of “battle-hungry”? Lee Pace is back as a younger Ronan, and Djimon Hounsou returns as Korath the Pursuer, and while that’s fun, it shows no hidden depths to their characters—though the opening act of Captain Marvel largely takes place on Hala, the lack of worldbuilding severely hinders any interest or impact.

The Kree apparently have a long history of conflict with the shape-shifting alien race known as the Skrulls, though why this conflict began or continues are mere afterthoughts. The Kree and Skrulls have a long history in the comics, but it’s given only cursory attention here; thus, when Vers gets captured by said Skrulls, the stakes are virtually nonexistent. The Skrulls, led by Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), start rooting around in her memories for something, finding remnants of time on Earth, but Vers escapes, crash-landing into a Blockbuster.

Read More of Anna’s Ongoing Marvel Retrospective Series Here

Thus begins her adventures on Earth. Even while the first act suffers mightily from lack of world-building, once the story begins in earnest, Carol’s lack of memories prevents the audience from connecting with her. Ostensibly this was done as a way to eschew the normal, rote superhero origin story—a commendable thing—but it also robs Carol of any memorable characteristics. As she roams Earth in 1995, her memories begin to bubble to the surface, sending her into an identity crisis—the problem is, she doesn’t have an identity to lose in the first place. We know nothing about Carol: she talks back, she’s impulsive, a bit cocky, and that’s about it. What does she like? What does she dislike? Who does she love? We don’t know, and as such it’s hard to form any particular attachment to her or investment in the plot as she sets about uncovering the secrets of the Kree.

This is Marvel, though, and as such, it has to connect to what came before; while we may not know or care much about Carol, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) are reliable mainstays, and the de-aging technology employed to make them look as they did in 1995 is mostly seamless (except when Jackson runs). It’s a treat to watch them on screen, and once Fury and Carol team up to uncover the secrets of Project Pegasus, a joint venture between S.H.I.E.L.D., NASA, and the Air Force, and how it relates to Carol and her lost memories, the film gets a boost from the buddy-cop chemistry between Larson and Jackson. Carol’s flatness doesn’t come from Larson, who is an able performer, but rather because she is set adrift in the middle of a story inadvertently designed to make the character fall flat. When Larson gets paired with Jackson, and Carol gets to interact with a real character other than the flat Yon-Rogg or Supreme Intelligence (as with Larson, the actors who portray them are immensely talented and wasted in thankless roles), then the titular character finally starts to have some sparks of life.

These sparks become much stronger—though they never quite catch flame—upon the introduction of Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch), Carol’s best friend from her life on Earth and an Air Force veteran. Lynch is an absolute standout in this film; even though Maria could have easily been just a stock best friend character, Lynch sells Maria’s grit and her friendship with Carol so strongly that it makes you wish the movie had been about her instead.

It’s Lynch and, in a surprising turn of events, Mendelsohn as Talos that provide the film’s emotional core, rather than Larson. Though Mendelsohn has a knack for playing nefarious characters, here his Talos turns out not to be the villain, but rather a displaced refugee looking for a home for his family while the Kree do their best to exterminate his species and encourage hatred through military propaganda. It’s a twist that will shock even comic book fans, as the Skrulls have typically been villainous beings, most notably with Secret Invasion (which is being turned into a Disney+ show), and it’s a fun reversal of expectations. Mendelsohn manages to do a superb job even under pounds of green makeup, but it’s just too bad her supporting cast outshines Carol herself. 

With the help of both Maria and Talos, Carol is able to recover some of her memories. It turns out that Annette Benning was a Skrull named Mar-Vell who infiltrated Project Pegasus in order to gain access to the Tesseract, that pesky Infinity Stone container which keeps popping up throughout the timeline. (It’s probably best not to try and keep track of the Tesseract’s whereabouts since it jumps around at the whims of the latest Marvel plot.) However, Mar-Vell, upon learning of the Skrulls’ plight, turns coat and begins to help them instead; while testing out a Tesseract-powered engine with Carol, who was an Air Force pilot, Yon-Rogg kills Mar-Vell, but Carol destroys the engine before Yon-Rogg can lay his hands on it and get that technology to the Kree. Doing so, however, infuses Carol with the energy of the Tesseract, thus giving her her powers, and the Kree decided to wipe her memory and keep her close.

There is also a level of irony regarding the movie’s message about distrusting military propaganda when much of it reads as an ad for the Air Force. Marvel, as with many other film studios, has received funding from the Department of Defense, which is not unusual in Hollywood; for Captain Marvel, they also partnered with the Air Force, with Larson visiting various bases and a recruitment ad being shown before screenings of the film. The Kree might have issues with their military state, but clearly Earth’s military was different, never mind the fact that now-former Senator Martha McSally had testified just before the film’s release on the pervasive sexual harassment and assault many women experience in the Air Force. But, you know, girl power, am I right?

But, finally, we have answers. Except, maybe not. We know the Skrulls aren’t actually bad guys, but we still don’t know anything about the history of the Kree/Skull conflict, and both races remain frustratingly undercooked. “This is war,” Talos says to Carol. “My hands are filthy from it too.” That is a very interesting line, one with a lot of depth to be combed, yet it’s just one line amidst a sea of others, and any darker implications remain murky. How exactly are their hands dirty? It remains a mystery left up to our imagination (which is given very little to go off of). 

And once Carol gets her memories back, nothing really changes. She still talks back, she’s still impulsive, and still a bit cocky. There’s no arc because there’s nowhere for Carol to go, and what is framed as a triumphant moment rings hollow. What could be an empowering story of wresting back agency in a world that has tried to deny her that instead becomes a carefully calculated series of events designed to win applause from Twitter, culminating in a fight set to No Doubt’s “Just a Girl.”

It’s fun watching Carol plow through Kree warships and demonstrating a level of pure strength and bullheadedness that only male heroes have shown up to this point. It would be a lot more fun if we had seen her struggle with her powers in any meaningful or impactful way prior to the finale. Everything is framed as a #girlboss moment, but none of it lands. Carol is told to smile, she’s told by male pilots that she’ll never be good enough, she’s told by the men around her to stop being so emotional, but none of it gives her character any new depth, and these are just lazy touchstone moments that seemingly exist only to tick off empowerment checkboxes. While Captain Marvel’s existence is undoubtedly a good (and long overdue) thing, the titular hero does little to distinguish herself as a character and any commentary thus becomes, well, neutered, for lack of a better term. (Wonder Woman is a lazy comparison, but it’s also apt, and Diana Prince’s wordless march across No Man’s Land does far more in the way of empowerment than this entire movie.) It’s all hollow, it’s all an empty shell designed to let Marvel go around praising itself for doing the bare minimum regarding representation.

Despite all the fanfare surrounding the film and all the talk of female empowerment, Captain Marvel is one of Marvel’s most unexciting films. It’s not terrible, and has some good moments; to dedicated MCU fans, it’s likely passable at worst (as it is to me, Marvel’s biggest shill), but it simply has nothing special going for it—a fact made all the more frustrating because it could and should have been a standout. Instead, like Carol herself, it’s full of hot air.

Captain Marvel director on Carol Danvers' sexuality

Groundwork and stray observations: 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:

  • Nick Fury gets his eye scratched out from Goose (named as one of many Top Gun references), an alien Flerken who usually looks like a harmless cat. This is very lame and makes the Captain America: The Winter Soldier reveal about his eye look stupid. The movie tricks viewers multiple times into thinking Fury will lose his eye, and then only has the cat scratch it when the coast seems clear. And yeah, it makes sense that Fury would create a sense of mystery around his eye (“Last time I trusted someone, I lost an eye,” as he says in Winter Soldier), but this is lazy. Better to not explain it at all.
  • The film barely plays with the shape-shifting aspect of the Skrulls, which is a huge missed opportunity. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s L.M.D. arc in season four handles the whole “could-everyone-I-know-be-an-imposter-made-to-look-like-my-friends” thing so, so, so much better than this movie. It’s tense, it’s dark, it’s really, really good, and “Self-Control” (4×15) is the best episode of television that Marvel has ever done, and I imagine I’ll stand by that for quite some time.
  • Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. also gives the Kree more culture and backstory than Captain Marvel. Honestly, it’s just superior.
  • Gemma Chan, who plays the forgettable Minn-Erva in this film, will rejoin the MCU as Sersi in Eternals, this time sans blue makeup.
  • The mohawk that appears when Carol uses her helmet is a reference to her comic look, which she’ll fully embrace come Avengers: Endgame. It won’t look that good, though.
  • There was a deeply stupid theory going around after this movie that Nick Fury was a Skrull. That in and of itself is not stupid (and gets proved in Spider-Man: Far From Home), but the reasoning behind this was that Fury says he has an aversion to diagonally-cut toast in this movie, and in Age of Ultron, he cuts and eats toast diagonally. Guys, listen. It’s fun to notice foreshadowing, but there is no way in hell anyone staged that scene in Age of Ultron thinking, “Oh, boy, in four years all the fans are gonna go crazy because we already showed them that Fury is a Skrull because he cut his toast diagonally in the background of a scene and we’ve already planned that he doesn’t like to eat diagonal toast, a fact he will reveal in a movie we haven’t even written yet and won’t come out for four years!” It’s absurd.
  • Pretty funny that they make such a big deal of Fury drafting the Avenger Initiative, which then takes 17 years to actually be implemented. I love democracy bureaucracy.
  • Monica (Akira Akbar), the daughter of Maria, mentions wanting to fly into space with Carol, foreshadowing her eventual transformation into Photon or whatever name they’re gonna give her, as seen in WandaVision, where she is played by Teyonah Parris.
  • Really not sure how they’re going to do Secret Invasion considering the Skrulls are good guys now.

Anna’s Favorite Scene: When Maria tells Carol, “You’re Carol Danvers…” and does that whole little monologue, because the lighting is nice, it doesn’t look green screened, and Lashana Lynch once again proves she’s the best part of the movie. Or the bit where Talos sips soda from a straw.

MCU Ranking: 1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, 2. Avengers: Infinity War, 3. Captain America: Civil War, 4. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, 5. Thor: Ragnarok, 6. Guardians of the Galaxy, 7. The Avengers, 8. Spider-Man: Homecoming, 9. Captain America: The First Avenger, 10. Iron Man 3, 11. Iron Man, 12. Black Panther, 13. Ant-Man and the Wasp, 14. Doctor Strange, 15. Ant-Man, 16. Thor, 17. Avengers: Age of Ultron, 18. Captain Marvel, 19. Thor: The Dark World, 20. Iron Man 2, 21. The Incredible Hulk

Captain Marvel Trailer

Captain Marvel is currently available to rent and purchase on most digital storefronts, and is streaming on Disney+.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

MCU Retrospective: Ant-Man and the Wasp

Written by Anna Harrison

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. Anyone in need of a palate cleanser after the previous movie?

70/100

Avengers: Infinity War was a sprawling, sweeping epic that jumped between characters and planets so swiftly that the audience never got a chance to catch their breath, and it ended with the bleakest moment in the history of the MCU. Ant-Man and the Wasp, however, is as light and zippy as the insects it takes its name from, proving to be a much-needed break in between the gloom and doom of Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame; it’s nothing particularly special, but it doesn’t need to be, since it easily coasts by on the chemistry of its actors and its lighthearted humor. This time, there was no messy firing, and Ant-Man director Peyton Reed came back with no drama; the biggest hubbub during the production of the film surrounded its name, as Ant-Man and the Wasp marked the first time a woman shared titular status in the MCU. (To quote the end credits scene from Ant-Man, “It’s about damn time.”)

The last time we saw Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), he was in a prison cell on the Raft, put there for aiding Captain America (Chris Evans) in Captain America: Civil War. The last time we heard about Scott Lang, we were being told by Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) that he and Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) were on house arrest after taking a plea deal, thus explaining why they didn’t appear in Infinity War. So what has Scott been up to, post-Germany but pre-Thanos (Josh Brolin)?

Well, as we have all learned over Covid quarantine, being stuck in your house for an extended period of time results in some odd hobbies. For Scott, this includes makeshift bowling, reading The Fault in Our Stars, learning the drums, and organizing treasure hunts for his daughter, Cassie (Abby Ryder Forston). Even after the events of Captain America: Civil War, he’s still just a guy, a guy trying to make the most out of a bad situation. 

In addition to taking overlong baths, Scott now also helps his friends Luis (Michael Peña), Kurt (David Dastmalchian), and Dave (T.I.) run a security outfit called—fittingly, given their criminal backgrounds—X-Con Security. Contact with Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly), has dwindled since they are on the run, trying to keep their technology from being taken by the government after Scott revealed himself in Civil War, but Scott—aside from bawling his eyes out over John Green—seems to be doing okay. He’s got his business, he has a good relationship with ex-wife Maggie (Judy Greer) and her husband, Paxton (Bobby Cannavale), and he has only three days until he’s free, though FBI agent and parole officer Jimmy Woo (Randall Park) keeps a watchful eye. In short, things are looking up, and the supporting performers are as charming and funny as ever, with Peña once again providing some top-tier comedy with his long-winded monologues.

However, when Scott has a vision of Hank’s presumed-dead wife, Janet (Michelle Pfieffer), in the Quantum Realm (the place you go when you shrink super small and keep shrinking, or something—it’s one of those Marvel scientific inventions where you nod during the explanation and try not to think too hard about it), he inevitably crosses paths yet again with Hope and her father. Hank thinks that, during Scott’s trip to the Quantum Realm during Ant-Man, he became entangled with Janet. “Hank, I would never do that. I respect you too much,” Scott says solemnly. 

“Quantum entanglement, Scott,” Hank replies, leaving us to ponder whatever the hell that means. 

Hope, while thrilled at the prospect of reuniting with her mother, was also understandably stung (ha) about Scott’s escapade to Germany during the events of Civil War, and not just because doing so put a target on all her and her father’s backs. Her iciness lies largely in the fact that Scott didn’t even ask her to come with him, despite having trained with him (and “other stuffing” with him): “If I had asked, would you have come?” Scott asks, to which Hope replies, “I guess we’ll never know. But I do know one thing… If I had, you’d never have been caught.”

Though never stated outright, Hope’s resentment feels very rooted in her womanhood. Her father passed her over in Ant-Man, and then her ostensible partner did the same thing in Civil War, and while neither say anything outright about Hope’s gender, and Hope doesn’t either, it’s clear that she feels they overlooked her, unintentionally or not, because she’s a woman. It’s a narrative that has clear resonance outside of the movie, and it’s handled with a subtlety and grace that Marvel often lacks when it comes to acknowledging social issues, so Hope comes off as sympathetic and understandable in her anger rather than simply an ice queen. She is an excellent addition to the male-dominated superhero roster: competent, flawed, and, unlike many (most) of her female counterparts, never sexualized. She’s allowed to have moments of intense vulnerability with her mother, but can be angry and cold in equal measure, giving her depth that was missing in Ant-Man where she exists primarily to be the token woman. Here, Lilly gets a chance to really shine in the role; while good in Ant-Man, when given a meatier role on equal footing with her male co-star, she eats it up, and it makes you wonder (as Hope herself does) why she was left out in the first place. (And, frankly, there’s no good answer to that.)

So, though off to a rocky start, everyone is soon off to build some quantum tunnel (whatever the hell that means) or some such, requiring a testy trade with shady tech mogul Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins, having a great bit of fun), but unfortunately the parts and Hank’s lab (which has been shrunk to the size of a suitcase) gets stolen by an unknown assailant. To get it back, the gang has to go to Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne), a bitter former coworker of Hank’s known as Goliath in the comics. He helps them track down the lab through some more quantum stuff (“Do you guys just put the word ‘quantum’ in front of everything?” Scott wonders, echoing the audience’s thoughts), but when Scott, Hope, and Hank arrive to take the lab, they find themselves taken out again by that same unknown assailant, who reveals herself to be Ava Starr (Hannah John-Kamen), aka Ghost, and it turns out that Bill Foster is working with her too. Like Ant-Man, this sequel is all about parent-child relationships, even if only related in spirit: Scott and Cassie, Hank and Hope, Janet and Hope, Bill and Ava. Some are good, some are less so, most are messy, but it’s something that connects all of our main players.

Read More of Anna’s Ongoing Marvel Retrospective Series Here

Ava is, like most Marvel villains, a bit undercooked, but she has immense potential, due largely to John-Kamen’s immense charisma. Ava is a casualty of both Hank and S.H.I.E.L.D.: when Hank, the consummate asshole, fired Ava’s father, he continued to experiment on his own; one went awry and killed both him and his wife, leaving Ava alive but with molecular instability (again, whatever the hell that means). As a result, she inadvertently phases in and out of solid objects, so S.H.I.E.L.D. got a hold of her and used that for their own advantage on covert missions, making her their own version of the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), but with a bit less brainwashing. Ava’s condition causes her constant pain and has begun to slowly kill her from the inside, and so father figure Bill wants to help her survive. 

Doing so apparently means getting the lab and using Janet’s quantum energy (…whatever the hell that means) to heal Ava, which may or may not kill Janet. Somehow. It doesn’t exactly make sense, but John-Kamen nonetheless proves compelling; unlike Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) and Vulture (Michael Keaton) from previous MCU movies, here Ant-Man and the Wasp doesn’t try too hard to paint Ava as a villain. In fact, she purposely chooses not to use Scott’s daughter, ​​Cassie, as bait, though the option is brought up; most other MCU movies would have had the villain go down that route to establish that we shouldn’t sympathize too much with them. Here, we’re encouraged to. She’s only an antagonist because her goal of survival clashes with Hope, Hank, and Scott’s goal of freeing Janet, not because she is inherently evil or is going around beating up kids and killing her significant others. It’s an interesting take, and one with a lot of potential should Marvel ever pick up this thread down the road.

The remaining plot mostly involves four different groups trying to get to the lab: Ava, in an attempt to find a cure for her chronic pain; the bug trio, to try and get back the original Wasp; Burch, determined to sell it for a bunch of money; and the FBI, led by a Jimmy Woo determined to catch Scott breaking his house arrest. It’s not particularly complicated, nor is it particularly compelling in and of itself, but it allows for some killer comedy and sweet character beats amidst the chaos. In this case, less is more: Ant-Man and the Wasp is a better MCU entry because it doesn’t try too hard to connect to the greater universe, nor does it deal with world-ending apocalypses; instead, like its protagonists, it goes small.

It’s also very clever about its heroes’ use of their powers. It’s not only Scott who can shrink and grow, it’s now Hope, and it’s also a scientific lab, some Hot Wheels-looking cars, PEZ dispensers, and more. This makes all the car chase and fight scenes far more visually interesting than they would be otherwise, and provides no small amount of laughs. One great moment in particular involves Scott needing to make a run to his daughter’s school while his suit malfunctions, resulting in some incredible physical comedy when Scott gets stuck at around three feet tall. When you have a concept as absurd and delightful as a man who can shrink to the size of ants and grow to the size of whales, why not have as much fun as possible with it? Ant-Man and the Wasp certainly goes further with its main conceit than its predecessor did, and so even if there’s less plot to go around, it has a much firmer grasp on how best to deploy its characters and their powers. And, this time, we have double the shrinking shenanigans now that the Wasp has finally joined the team.

There is, frankly, not a lot to Ant-Man and the Wasp. But that’s okay—again, there doesn’t need to be. We just had an MCU-shattering event in Infinity War, so let’s take a little break, go back in time a bit, and enjoy watching some excellent actors bounce off each other. There’s some meat in here too, though: S.H.I.E.L.D.’s corruption continues to get exposed, once again showing that even our heroes can find themselves morally compromised; Hank and Janet reunite, and Douglas and Pfieffer, despite limited screentime together, sell the hell out of their relationship; Scott and Hope finally acknowledge each other as true partners and it isn’t some melodramatic, drawn-out saga like so many other MCU relationships are, but rather quiet and respectful. And, seriously, Michael Peña is an absolute gem in this franchise. It’s the perfect palate cleanser after Infinity War, and while it may not be the most memorable Marvel movie, but in terms of sheer enjoyment, it’s up there with the best of the best.

But, lest we get too comfortable, the end credits scenes are here to remind us that Ant-Man and the Wasp is part of a larger universe as Hope, Janet, and Hank all turn to dust from Thanos’ snap in Wakanda while Scott remains trapped in the Quantum Realm. The stinger at the very end, of a giant ant playing drums alone in Scott’s house, is equally absurd and eerie, as the camera pans over the static TV and the deserted streets of San Francisco. And so, even if you just tuned in to this movie for Paul Rudd, you’re gonna have to watch the next movie (technically the one after next) to figure out what happened to him—the Marvel machine keeps running, as always. But it was a nice break while it lasted.

Groundwork and stray observations: 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:

  • Ghost in the comics is a member of the antihero team the Thunderbolts, and with recent events from The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and Black Widow, a Thunderbolts team seems inevitable; hopefully Ghost is a part of that team. (I want a Thunderbolts movie or show so badly, my god.) We already have Yelena (Florence Pugh), Zemo (Daniel Brühl), US Agent (Wyatt Russell), Abomination (Tim Roth), Winter Soldier, and many more, and it seems like Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ role as Val is to serve as the Thunderbolts’ version of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). “There was an idea…,” except it’s a group of slightly less remarkable people.
  • Cassie makes multiple comments about being Scott’s superhero partner, alluding to her future superhero status (though she will be played as a superhero by Kathryn Newton, whom I greatly dislike, which is very, very unfortunate).
  • Jimmy Woo, who expresses amazement at Scott’s card tricks in the movie, reappears in WandaVision performing the exact same trick he sees in Ant-Man and the Wasp.
  • Kurt appears in What If…? and continues to fear Baba Yaga, eventually getting killed by a zombified Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen normally, here a gurgling, animated zombie), but not before getting out one last, “Baba Yagaaaa!”
  • “Berkeley” was filmed at Emory University, specifically in White Hall, which is the ugliest building on campus. White Hall sucks. There was always gum under the chairs and hair tangled in the cushions.
  • On a similar note, Atlanta can passably stand in for many cities. It can’t really stand in for San Francisco, but they tried.

Anna’s Favorite Scene: Scott runs around an elementary school appearing like an oversized toddler. High-brow art. Or, honestly, the post-credits stinger, because it is so unsettling and such a weird vibe after a fun movie like this.

MCU Ranking: 1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, 2. Avengers: Infinity War, 3. Captain America: Civil War, 4. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, 5. Thor: Ragnarok, 6. Guardians of the Galaxy, 7. The Avengers, 8. Spider-Man: Homecoming, 9. Captain America: The First Avenger, 10. Iron Man 3, 11. Iron Man, 12. Black Panther, 13. Ant-Man and the Wasp, 14. Doctor Strange, 15. Ant-Man, 16. Thor, 17. Avengers: Age of Ultron, 18. Thor: The Dark World, 19. Iron Man 2, 20. The Incredible Hulk

Ant-Man and the Wasp Trailer

Ant-Man and the Wasp is currently available to rent and purchase on most digital storefronts, and is streaming on Disney+.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

MCU Retrospective: Avengers: Infinity War

Written by Anna Harrison

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. Now, the beginning of an end of an era. But not really an end. Like, half an end.

85/100

“Dread it. Run from it. Destiny arrives all the same. And now, it’s here. Or should I say… I am.”

The unbearable anticipation for Avengers: Infinity War made the hype around Joss Whedon’s The Avengers look like child’s play. Ten years after the arrival of Iron Man, the MCU had built its own complicated mythology, weaving in characters and storylines in a way that no other movie franchise had attempted; its characters had become instantly recognizable, the actors who portrayed them became megastars, and its cultural dominance was absolute. Even if you didn’t watch every Marvel film, there was no way to avoid them: the memes, the inside jokes, the lines, the gestures were everywhere. Suddenly your arms crossed in an “X” over your chest meant something greater, and if you said something as innocuous as, “I understood that reference,” you would—intentionally or not—open the door for endless Marvel, well, references. 

Since The Avengers premiered in 2012, the looming threat of Thanos on the horizon had grown ever larger alongside Marvel’s own growing importance. Damion Poitier appeared as the Mad Titan in The Avengers’ post-credits scene as merely a tease, but two years later, in Guardians of the Galaxy, he was in the body of the movie, this time played by Josh Brolin. In Avengers: Age of Ultron, Thanos would again cameo in a post-credits scene, and so by the time he shows up in Infinity War, the audience has been prepared.

With Thanos come the Infinity Stones. First the Space Stone (within the Tesseract) in Captain America: The First Avenger, the Mind Stone (within Loki’s scepter) and the Space Stone again in The Avengers, the Reality Stone (aka the Aether) in Thor: The Dark World, the Power Stone in Guardians of the Galaxy, the Mind Stone again in Avengers: Age of Ultron, and the Time Stone in Doctor Strange. Always there, always waiting for their big payoff. 

And so, at last, Avengers: Infinity War, originally titled Avengers: Infinity War Part 1 but renamed to avoid misconceptions (and presumably to give Avengers: Endgame a more final-sounding name than simply Infinity War Part 2). Joe and Anthony Russo, directors of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War, reunited with writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely to craft the first part of the end of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (or, at least, the MCU as we knew it to that point). Theories were flying on who was going to die, and how, and when, with people hanging onto Kevin Feige’s every word regarding this movie and breaking down the trailers frame-by-frame. Clips shown at San Diego Comic-Con caused the enormous Hall H crowd to lose its collective mind, and the trailer now has well over 100 million views. It was all your favorite characters—even the disparate ones, like the Guardians of the Galaxy—coming together, it was the beginning of the culmination of 18 previous movies, it was all so unbelievably big

But when Infinity War begins, with no fanfare, no music, no images, just the crackling voice of Sir Kenneth Branagh (director of the first Thor movie) pleading for anyone to come help the Asgardian refugee ship last seen in Thor: Ragnarok, all the anticipation of the past ten years becomes swiftly replaced with foreboding. The opening of Avengers: Infinity War hits you like a bus, a train, an expletive, take your pick (I prefer the lattermost, starting with an “m” and ending in an “er”), and the ending only hits harder. 

That refugee vessel slowly comes into view as it floats listlessly in space, dead in the water; soon, the camera begins to survey the wreckage in one long, harrowing take, lingering on the dead civilians that litter the floor of the ship. Then Thanos (Josh Brolin) appears, dragging a beaten and bloodied Thor (Chris Hemsworth) across the wreckage like he weighs nothing. The fight has already happened, and Thor has lost—the triumph and jubilation from Thor: Ragnarok vanishes in an instant as we see how easily Thanos tosses Thor aside, and the dread only rises when even the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), one of the most powerful beings in the MCU, gets bested by Thanos with little more than a flick of the wrist. It rises, and rises, and rises: Heimdall (Idris Elba) sends Hulk to Earth and gets killed for his efforts, Thanos adds the Space Stone to his collection, and finally it all culminates in the Thanos lazily snapping the neck of fan-favorite Loki (Tom Hiddleston). 

It’s a one-two-three-four gut punch: what remains of Asgard decimated, Hulk defeated, Heimdall killed, Loki killed, bam, bam, bam, bam. Loki’s death in particular sends a shock to the system: the formidable villain of the first Avengers movie tossed to the ground like a broken ragdoll, the antihero from the Thor franchise who stole so many scenes he brought that same Hall H to its feet all those years ago merely by shushing them, making one last heroic stand that gets thwarted with astonishing ease. Loki has perhaps the most gruesome, drawn-out death in the MCU, thrashing and writhing wildly about like an animal, blood trickling out of his eyes and ears from the force of Thanos’ meaty hand around his neck before the God of Mischief gets his corpse bodily dumped in front of his defeated, crying brother. It is an utterly bleak opening and unlike any other Marvel movie that came before—there are no quips, there is only defeat and despair as we finally behold the true power of the Mad Titan Thanos.

In short, it’s one hell of an opening, and Infinity War hardly lets up on the gas pedal for the rest of its hefty runtime.

The Hulk conveniently lands in the Sanctum Santorum, the abode of Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and fellow Master of the Mystic Arts Wong (Benedict Wong), and he turns back into Bruce Banner upon landing. (Despite Bruce’s proclamation in Ragnarok that if he turned into the Hulk again he would never turn back, here he is; depending on what the directors need him to be, the relationship between Bruce and the Hulk tends to change at the drop of a hat. Taika Waititi needed Bruce to be Hulked out, but the Russos need Hulk to be beaten down to establish Thanos’ strength and simultaneously leave a powerful player off the battlefield, because otherwise the Avengers might win too easily. Back and forth we go.)

Bruce’s proclamation that “Thanos is coming” spurs Dr. Strange to get the Avenging band back together again. Strange interrupts Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Pepper Potts’ (Gwyneth Paltrow) walk through the park and family planning discussion, and Tony almost swallows his pride and calls Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), but they get interrupted by the arrival of Thanos’ lackeys, the Black Order. (A reminder, in case you forgot: the last time Tony and Steve saw each other, Tony was attempting to kill Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), Steve’s childhood friend, for killing his mom, and Steve was doing his best to give Tony a very severe concussion or twenty.)

Trent Opaloch, the cinematographer for the Russo brothers’ MCU films, has crafted a handful of cool shots for Marvel, but by and large his camera has been workmanlike, favoring function over style. Yet here, like in the opening scene, he employs another long take that works beautifully to ramp up the tension: Tony walks out onto the streets of New York, the wind from the Black Order’s ship sending debris flying, and the chaos that unfolds around him gets no time to breathe or ease up via a cut, it only keeps growing. Someone runs into Tony and falls to the ground, a car hits a lamppost right in front of him, signs are precariously buffeted by the wind, and our trepidation only grows as he picks his way through the chaos to find the threat.

The threat turns out to be Cull Obsidian (Terry Notary) and Ebony Maw (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), the former of whom is forgettable but the latter of whom proves to be very coldly frightening. Seeing the impending threat from aboard his school bus, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) joins the fight, which ends with Dr. Strange, Tony, and Peter all aboard Ebony Maw’s ship, headed to a rendezvous with Thanos on his home planet of Titan.

Read More of Anna’s Ongoing Marvel Retrospective Series Here

And then, with a needle drop of The Spinners’ “The Rubberband Man,” the Guardians of the Galaxy enter Infinity War. (It’s not all gloom and doom, guys!) Zooming through space to answer a distress signal, they soon realize that they’ve arrived too late: the source of the call, the Asgardian ship from the opening, has splintered apart, and its occupants float eerily through the cosmos, all dead save the one-eyed bodybuilder who lands on their windshield. So, finally, our space misfits get to interact with the Avengers, or at least one. The Guardians bring Thor onto their ship, where Drax (Dave Bautista), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), and Rocket (Sean Gunn for the motion capture, Bradley Cooper for the voice) ooh and aah over Thor’s significant muscles at the expense of Peter Quill (Chris Pratt). “He is not a dude,” Drax says. “You’re a dude. This… this is a man. A handsome, muscular man.” 

The subsequent interaction between Thor and the Guardians is a moment of immense fun amidst a very heavy movie (at least, heavy for Marvel), and seeing the Guardians finally interact with an MCU character outside of their own franchise sparks great joy. So much of the MCU’s success relies on how well it plays around in its own sandbox: it has established characters you know and love on their own, which is well and good, but when you put them together, it’s double the fun and double the novelty. Plus, the Guardians are such a bizarre bunch that putting them with any character even slightly less weird will pay dividends, and as these characters interact with their hitherto unknown fellows, it can coax out new sides of everyone involved, so not only is it simply fun to watch these worlds collide, it’s good character development, too.

In fact, the combination of Thor and Rocket produces one of the best scenes in Infinity War. The two, along with Groot (Vin Diesel), split off from the Guardians so that Thor can find a weapon strong enough to defeat Thanos, leaving the Guardians to go to the planet Knowhere to speak to the Collector (Benicio del Toro), seen in Thor: The Dark World’s post-credits scene and in Guardians of the Galaxy, who possesses the Reality Stone. Rocket, in a moment of remarkable maturity and empathy for the racoon (Yondu (Michael Rooker) really helped him with his issues in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2), notices Thor is feeling a bit blue, to put it lightly. Where Thor: Ragnarok dealt with its own repercussions a little too glibly, here Markus and McFeely strike a perfect balance between the newfound humor in Thor and the immense trauma he just experienced: there are jokes, but they are laced through with a current of sorrow.

“You know,” Thor tells Rocket, “I’m fifteen-hundred years old. I’ve killed twice as many enemies as that, and every one of them would have rather killed me than not succeeded. I’m only alive because fate wants me alive. Thanos is just the latest in a long line of bastards, and he’ll be the latest to feel my vengeance. Fate wills it so.”

“Mhm. And what if you’re wrong?”

“Well, if I’m wrong, then…” Thor replies, “what more could I lose?”

It’s a standout scene in a standout movie, one elevated by Chris Hemsworth’s standout performance. Thor: Ragnarok leaned overly hard into the comedy, often forgetting Thor’s age and largely ignoring the bigger emotional repercussions from things like his dad dying, his sister getting released from Hel, attempting to kill him, slashing his eye out, and then dying, and his home world getting destroyed; here, you feel the weight of it finally come crashing down.

Elsewhere, yet another thread of the movie gets introduced as we are reacquainted with Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and the Vision (Paul Bettany), now officially an item. Vision also looks like Paul Bettany for a few minutes, sparing the makeup team several hours of their time and letting everyone know he can change his appearance at will (and probably make it an easier pill to swallow for the audience that Wanda is dating a synthezoid thing). The two had shared moments in Age of Ultron and Civil War hinting at their future as a couple, but they were more snatches of time than anything, so Bettany, Olsen, and the movie have to work overtime to make their relationship believable. Luckily, it largely succeeds; even if Wanda and Vision will not get the limelight they deserve until their titular TV show, Bettany and Olsen’s charm and chemistry help sell their relationship very quickly.

Vision, unfortunately, becomes the target of the other two members of the Black Order, Proxima Midnight (Carrie Coon in a very thankless role, and I would please like Sarah Finn to cast her again as someone bigger, thank you) and Corvus Glaive (Michael Shaw). Vision gets wounded early on, conveniently nerfing (as the kids say) his formidable powers so he and the Mind Stone can’t run around and defeat the Black Order without dropping a sweat (not that Vision would sweat anyway). Luckily for our favorite sitcom couple, Bruce had called Steve, who shows up with Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) in appropriately dramatic fashion. They decide to take Vision to Wakanda, where T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and Shuri (Letitia Wright) might be able to patch him up. (Steve, having been on the run since the events of Civil War, also sprouts a beard, a thrilling development everywhere for the female gaze.)

And so we finally have all of our plot threads: Tony, Strange, and Peter heading to Titan, having dispatched Ebony Maw; Thor and Rocket heading to the dwarf home world of Nidavellir to get a weapon; the Guardians off to Knowhere; the earthbound Avengers (now with Don Cheadle’s Rhodey in tow) off to Wakanda, where they also pick up recently de-brainwashed Bucky Barnes

Well, almost all. There’s still Thanos to deal with. Before the Guardians get to Knowhere, Gamora takes Peter aside and makes him swear to kill her if Thanos tries to take her; when the Guardians get to Knowhere, they find the planet burning and Thanos waiting for them, Reality Stone in tow. When Thanos takes Gamora, Peter follows through on his promise and shoots her, but the shot turns to harmless bubbles as Thanos harnesses the power of the Reality Stone. It’s a shocking moment—not the bubbles, but the fact that Peter actually tries to kill Gamora. Nearly every time something similar happens in a movie, the shooter can’t follow through. It’s become trite at this point, but Peter bucks tradition and pulls the trigger, which (conversely) speaks to the strength of his relationship with Gamora and the trust they have built between Vol. 2 and now. Like Olsen and Bettany, Pratt and Saldana have to work hard to sell their characters’ relationship, which was last seen as defined as “some unspoken thing” in Vol. 2, but it works. Saldana in particular turns out her best performance as Gamora yet as she confronts the adoptive father who slaughtered half of her planet, proving to be the unexpected MVP of Infinity War.

So now we finally have all of our plot threads: Tony and company on Titan, the Guardians on Knowhere, Thor and Rocket on Nidavellir, Steve and company in Wakanda, and Thanos on a quest to find the Soul Stone.

It is quite a lot of plates to keep in the air. Frankly, it is a marvel (ha) that Infinity War is even slightly coherent, considering that so many of its pieces stay separated throughout the entire movie. It operates, of course, on the assumption that you have seen at least a handful of the previous eighteen movies: it doesn’t have any pretensions about being able to stand on its own two legs without the foundations laid by its predecessors. It’s a movie that trusts its audiences, that trusts that we know the characters, that we know their relationships to each other, that we’ve been paying attention and understand what Thanos and the Infinity Stones mean to the universe. Taken in a vacuum, this would make Infinity War hugely messy, but it was never meant to be taken in a vacuum. You could count that as a valid flaw, and symptomatic of how the MCU is changing our movie landscape into a monolith, but you could also sit back and joyously watch ten years’ worth of solid character work pay off.

Infinity War marks perhaps the most obvious point in the MCU where it becomes nigh impossible to gauge a Marvel movie on its own: the MCU has built such a twisting mythos for itself that to judge Infinity War without judging what came before simply can’t work. The MCU has taken on a life of its own, and if you want to know what’s going on in pop culture, what’s making the rounds on Twitter, you’re going to have to sink quite a lot of money and time into the MCU just to catch up. There is a very cynical way to look at this, to view this money-making, independent-film-driving-away-ing, Disney-domination-cementing machine as nothing more than a hollow and artless cash grab, but the genuine glee that arises from pushing all these characters together in new ways and writing them into impossible corners is apparent from the care and love with which everyone is handled.

None of our main heroes get much development in Infinity War, per se, with a few exceptions here and there: Tony gets to yet again undergo extraterrestrial trauma, Thor processes his grief through vengeance, Gamora (and, later, Karen Gillan as Nebula) come face-to-face with the sins of their father. But most other characters, including even Steve Rogers, rely on their previous characterization to power them through this movie—luckily, a decade’s worth of content gives quite a lot to go off.

It’s not only the dense plot that forces these characters to the side, nor is it the sheer number of cast members to juggle (there were 23 character posters, which is insane), though those certainly played their part. It’s also the fact that Thanos is the true main character of Infinity War. In order for these stakes to be felt, and for this six-year buildup starting with The Avengers to pay off, Thanos has to be front and center. While all the rest of our characters get split up, he doggedly powers through with one goal in mind, going through his own hero’s journey. He makes pivotal decisions, he makes personal sacrifices, he is the one thread connecting everything—all the others are merely accessories.

Thanos’ goal comes from seeing his own planet, Titan, wither and die from a lack of resources; he had proposed an “at random, dispassionate, fair to rich and poor alike” culling of half of Titan’s population in order to stave off this destruction. Titan refused, and so it crumbled. Convinced he was right, Thanos then set out to eliminate half of the universe’s population to preserve the other half. “This universe is finite, its resources finite,” he tells Gamora. “If life is left unchecked, life will cease to exist. It needs correction.” This argument was so convincing that it spawned a lot of “Thanos did nothing wrong” memes, though they were mostly ironic; still, Brolin makes us feel something almost approaching sympathy for the big purple grape. Thanos is calm and logical, but he isn’t dispassionate, and he sees himself as a maligned hero honorably sacrificing everything for the rest of the world. Brolin does an absolutely tremendous job with the motion-capture and vocal performance, and he imbues Thanos with a tremendous amount of gravitas that has extended well outside the MCU and into pop culture; it’s thanks in large part to him that Infinity War works as well as it does and hits its emotional beats.

It turns out that the reason Thanos took Gamora was not entirely out of fatherly love; rather, it was because she knows where the Soul Stone is, and she reveals its location on Vormir after Thanos begins torturing her adopted sister Nebula (a nice parallel to the opening where Loki gives up the Tesseract and the accompanying Space Stone after witnessing Thor’s torture at the hands of Thanos). After Thanos and Gamora go to Vormir, Nebula escapes and alerts the Guardians to join her on Titan, and our threads slowly begin to coalesce. 

Unfortunately, not all of these threads are equally engaging. While Thor and Rocket have some of the best interactions in the movie, their plotline seems like a minor sidequest, one that ignores that whole moment in Thor: Ragnarok that establishes how Thor doesn’t need a weapon to go around and wreck shit. Ragnarok has him grappling with and overcoming the loss of his hammer, Mjolnir, before realizing that he is the God of Thunder, not the God of Hammers, but Infinity War has him turn right back around and decide that he needs a weapon. (It also gives him a replacement eyeball, which is easier for both Hemsworth and the VFX team, but negates another Ragnarok development.) The Nidavellir plotline seems to exist only to take Thor away from the action until the most opportune time while still giving him something to do, and the introduction of the giant dwarf Eitri (Peter Dinklage) feels like an unnecessary addition in an already-crowded movie. Sure, Thor gets a cool axe, and it’s Peter Dinklage, but… why? Is it really necessary? Not really.

Luckily, though, the Guardians are here to save the day. They arrive on Titan and immediately cross paths with the Avengers, resulting in some very funny misunderstandings and a lot of very tired, very exasperated looks from Tony as he deals with their insanity. Placing all these characters in new situations and letting their personalities clash organically results gives rise to some excellent humor. The Russo brothers’ previous forays into the Marvel world, Winter Soldier and Civil War, are among the most serious MCU titles (Winter Soldier especially), and Infinity War continues that trend while also, for my money, having some of the funniest scenes in the entire MCU, yet it’s not as quip-laden as many other Marvel movies. Markus and McFeely excel at naturally coaxing the humor out of character interactions, something they also did in Civil War; rather than tacking on a joke at the end of a beat, the funny moments are (by and large) seamlessly baked into the dialogue, advancing the plot, giving character depth, and keeping the audience entertained all in one fell swoop. Plus, it’s just so damn satisfying to watch all your favorites finally interact with each other—provided, of course, that you’re already invested in them, but again, the entirety of Infinity War is predicated on the fact that its audience already cares. If you don’t, then why are you watching? (Highlights: “Why is Gamora?,” “Kick ass, take names,” which is coincidentally my Instagram bio, “That’s on Earth, dipshit,” “What master do I serve? What do you want me to say, Jesus?,” and “Please don’t put your eggs in me!”) 

Elsewhere in space, Thanos and Gamora arrive on Vormir, where they are greeted by a familiar face: the Red Skull (formerly Hugo Weaving, now voiced by Ross Marquand in an uncanny imitation), last seen in Captain America: The First Avenger getting sucked into space by the Space Stone and now guardian of the Soul Stone. It’s a bit random, but a neat way to tie together a loose thread and a fun reappearance from an old villain. Vormir is a desolately beautiful place, a properly somber setting for what’s about to occur: to get the Soul Stone, you must sacrifice something you love. The resultant scene serves to heighten Thanos’ villainy, of course, but also his humanity: the horror at what he’s doing and the sheer willpower it takes to sacrifice Gamora plays out in vivid detail across Thanos’ face, turning the scene into a veritable Greek tragedy. The work that Infinity War puts in to build up Gamora and Thanos’ relationship pays off here, though it has no right to: Gamora has been a main character in the Guardians series, but not one who necessarily evokes much pathos, so to successfully build her up in this movie while balancing so many other characters and make her death truly mean something is no small feat. Saldana continues to grow more comfortable with Gamora, and here she turns in an incredibly impressive performance; combined with Brolin’s anguish, the pair expertly sell their twisted relationship, even though they get saddled with some clunky expositional dialogue in the middle, making it the unlikeliest heart of Infinity War. (Or maybe I’m just predisposed to care too much about these Marvel people, who knows.)

And so, now with four Infinity Stones, Thanos sets out to retrieve the Time Stone from Strange on Titan, and the remaining Black Order members go to Wakanda to get the Mind Stone from Visions forehead. The pieces inch ever closer.

The reason for how separate all these pieces are can be found in Civil War. When Steve and Tony broke up, they split the Avengers, and so when a threat like Thanos appears, they can’t band together and stop him. Thanos could divide and conquer because the dividing part was already done for him by the Avengers themselves; without a united front, the chinks in their armor become that much more obvious. See, guys, here are some events in the MCU that actually have ramifications down the line! 

As the climax approaches, we now only have three things (only three, imagine that!) to cut between: Thanos duking it out with the crew on Titan, Thor taking the full force of a star to make his axe, and the Black Order hunting Vision in Wakanda. The fight on Titan is the most interesting of the three plots as it allows Dr. Strange to go ham with his powers and Thanos to utilize the full force of four Infinity Stones, leading to some interesting visuals and downright cool moments; the fight on Wakanda doesn’t have nearly as much going for it, and the enjoyment from that scene comes from simply watching all the different characters’ fighting styles as they face down the Black Order and their unimaginative dog-looking alien things. (Why don’t the Avengers just destroy the Mind Stone and possibly Vision along with it, you ask? “We don’t trade lives,” Steve says, before asking a bunch of Wakandans to trade their lives to defend a synthezoid they have never even met. It’s a good sentiment, Steve, but… you might want to work on your logic a bit there, buddy.) When things seem to be looking dire, Thor arrives in the most triumphant fashion possible and does some very, very cool shit. It is very, very awesome, and the payoff almost makes up for the strange nature of his subplot in this movie. Plus, we get this eloquent exchange between Groot and Steve: “I am Groot,” Groot says as he skewers a bunch of bad guys. “I am Steve Rogers,” Steve says, very politely

Elsewhere on Titan, things seem to be almost looking up, and everyone is working together to restrain Thanos and get the Infinity Gauntlet off, but when Peter Quill learns of Gamora’s death, he discards the plan in favor of trying his best to cave Thanos’ skull in. A lot has been said about this moment and a lot of fingers have been pointed towards Peter as the reason the Avengers lost, and yes, it was a bad move on his part. But it was also completely, 100% in character: Peter is still emotionally stunted from his mother’s death and always incredibly reactive, thinking with his heart instead of his head, so of course he’s going to throw the plan out the window when he hears of the death of the woman he loves. The understandable impulses driving Peter’s actions make it that much more tragic when they allow Thanos to regain control of the Infinity Stones; Peter is, after all, only human (or at least 50% human). Reunited with the Infinity Gauntlet, Thanos handily defeats his foes and stabs Tony with a bit of his own nanotech in a very sudden move that provoked many a gasp in the opening night audience, prompting Dr. Strange to give up the Time Stone. (Tony patches up himself right away, but that scene is the closest I have ever come to having an honest-to-god heart attack.)

From there, Thanos arrives in Wakanda, and with five Infinity Stones in tow, proceeds to completely decimate the remaining Avengers. It’s harrowing to watch when we have become so accustomed to success after success for our heroes (barring Civil War, which had no winners); against Thanos, they’re nothing. Annoying gnats buzzing in his ear. The only one who can put up any fight is Wanda.

Faced with annihilation or the death of one man (robot, android, synthezoid, whatever), the Avengers finally choose the one—or, rather, Vision chooses to sacrifice himself. Alas, the only person able to hurt him is his lady love, and so Wanda gets saddled with the task of killing her boyfriend. Fun! As with Gamora’s (unwilling) sacrifice, this shouldn’t really work, given the limited screentime Wanda and Vision have had, but Olsen and Bettany act the hell out of the scene, a feat made even more impressive when you realize that some of it was improvised. It seems as though, through Wanda and Vision’s sacrifice, crisis was averted.

And then Thanos simply turns back time and takes the Mind Stone out of Vision’s head by force.

But wait! Thor is here to save the day, driving his axe into Thanos’ chest as revenge for everything he has suffered. Our heroes have finally won.

And then Thanos says, “You should have gone for the head,” snaps his fingers, and half the world turns to dust. Thanos vanishes, the music stops, the world stops as we slowly watch some of our favorite characters vanish from sight, disappearing in a puff of ash. If you’ve made it this far in the MCU, if you care in the least about any of these people, this moment should floor you. Indeed, it floored pop culture for quite some time, and you couldn’t move five feet on the internet without bumping into a reference about Thanos’ snap. (There was even a whole subreddit that banned half its community in an attempt to emulate Thanos, attracting the attention of Josh Brolin and Anthony Russo.) 

Peter Parker’s cries of “I don’t wanna go” (also improvised) in particular are gut-wrenching, because for all the ass-kicking he’s been doing over the course of the movie, he’s a 16-year-old kid clinging to his father figure in a desperate attempt to stave off the inevitable. It is incredibly heavy fare for Marvel. “It was the only way,” Dr. Strange tells Tony, but it certainly seems like the end times. Even Steve Rogers can’t think of a rallying cry, as he simply collapses next to Vision’s body and says, “Oh, god.” And Thanos, like he promised earlier, gets to “finally rest and watch the sun rise on a grateful universe.” And so the movie ends with the triumph of the villain.

Of course there’s going to be a sequel, and of course everyone who was snapped away will return, but that knowledge does little to lessen the distress evoked from seeing the utter decimation of the Avengers. Infinity War has some of Marvel’s highest highs (the Guardians meeting everyone else, Thor arriving in Wakanda to much fanfare), but its ending packs a wallop that no other MCU movie has even attempted to. It no doubt has its flaws, but at the end of the day, Infinity War is one of the gutsiest tricks Marvel has ever pulled—there is no reason a movie this crowded, this plot- and MacGuffin-heavy should have worked, and yet it did. It still does, even knowing what comes after. 

Avengers: Infinity War is one very agonizing descent into hell for our favorite characters, an inevitable fall made all the more excruciating because possible wins are presented at every corner before slipping through our heroes’ fingertips. They almost get the Gauntlet off on Titan, and then Quill lets his emotions get the best of him; Vision’s sacrifice seems to make Thanos’ goal impossible before Thanos winds back the clock; Thor’s axe strikes true but his desire to make Thanos suffer before death backfires. And so here we are, and the credits start to roll, and there’s no music playing, and you’re left to rot in the despair left behind in Thanos’ destructive wake. Put simply, there was nothing like Avengers: Infinity War: not because it’s the best movie ever made, or because it’s even the best Marvel movie (though it comes damn close), but because it turns the entire MCU on its head. I don’t think there will be anything like it for quite some time. 

Groundwork and stray observations: 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:

  • The post-credits scene shows Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) paging Captain Marvel so we can all get excited about Marvel’s next movie and give them even more money!
  • Loki’s death sets the tone for the movie quite well, but some fans were upset that the consummate trickster’s big plan to best Thanos was… stab him with a knife. It was so straightforward a plan that people thought Loki would still be alive, and there were theories that he simply cast an illusion and hid himself among the wreckage and went off elsewhere; while this didn’t come to pass, and Thanos even says, “No resurrections this time” to preempt any “Loki lives” discussions, Richard E. Grant’s Classic Loki in the Disney+ show Loki did exactly what was theorized, probably as a nod to how flimsy OG Loki’s “plan” was.
  • There’s a far subtler “girl power” moment here than in Endgame with Wanda, Natasha, and Okoye (Danai Gurira) taking down Proxima Midnight. #girlboss
  • On the different side of the #girlboss spectrum, though, is Shuri making a dig at Bruce for not thinking of some science-y technobabble stuff, which isn’t unfunny but shows a lack of imagination: you shouldn’t have to knock others’ intelligence just to make Shuri look smart, she should simply be doing that on her own. (Game of Thrones fell into that trap all. the. time.)
  • I find it very funny that while T’Challa and Steve show off their superhuman strength and speed by sprinting out in front of everyone during the Wakandan battle, Bucky, who has that same strength and speed (as evidenced in Civil War’s car chase scene), is perfectly content to lag behind with the normies. He’s too old for this shit.
  • The Bruce/Natasha eye contact and Sam muttering, “This is awkward” is the perfect way to move past their misfire of a “relationship.”
  • The Russo brothers love to sneak in references to their past work on Community and Arrested Development in their Marvel movies: Community alums cast throughout, the Bluth staircase car in Civil War, and here, a blue man looking suspiciously like the never-nude Tobias Fünke slumped over in one of the Collector’s cases.
  • Ebony Maw burning his hand on Dr. Strange’s medallion is a nod to Raiders of the Lost Ark, which I learned because I, like all cool people do, watched the entire movie with commentary one afternoon.
  • If Eitri has no use of his hands, how does he pee? How does he do anything, as a matter of fact? How is he still alive? I need answers, Kevin!

Anna’s Favorite Scene: Woof. I have to say, the opening is pretty fantastic, even if it causes me great emotional distress, and Peter’s “I don’t wanna go” kills me every time, but I have to give it to Thor: both his “what more could I lose” scene with Rocket and when he arrives in Wakanda with Stormbreaker are very great scenes for very different reasons.

MCU Ranking: 1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, 2. Avengers: Infinity War, 3. Captain America: Civil War, 4. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, 5. Thor: Ragnarok, 6. Guardians of the Galaxy, 7. The Avengers, 8. Spider-Man: Homecoming, 9. Captain America: The First Avenger, 10. Iron Man 3, 11. Iron Man, 12. Black Panther, 13. Doctor Strange, 14. Ant-Man, 15. Thor, 16. Avengers: Age of Ultron, 17. Thor: The Dark World, 18. Iron Man 2, 19. The Incredible Hulk

Avengers: Infinity War Trailer

Avengers: Infinity War is currently available to rent and purchase on most digital storefronts, and is streaming on Disney+.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

MCU Retrospective: Thor: Ragnarok

Written by Anna Harrison

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. And now, for something completely different (again).

80/100

The Thor movies, historically, have been weaker entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: the first, while very near and dear to my heart, was uneven and showed the MCU’s growing pains, though it certainly had standout moments and performances; the second is widely regarded as one of the worst movies in the MCU. (For what it’s worth, director Alan Taylor doesn’t like it either, saying, “The Marvel experience was particularly wrenching because I was sort of given absolute freedom while we were shooting, and then in post it turned into a different movie,” which seems to be a common refrain among Creative Committee-era Marvel.) Even Chris Hemsworth was feeling burnt out, worried that his character was becoming static and uninteresting. Things were looking, if not dire—by this point, it would take a hell of a lot for any MCU movie to be in truly dire straits—then at least unexciting.

The solution, as it turned out, was to hire a New Zealand director best known for his wacky vampire mockumentary (yes, that’s correct) What We Do in the Shadows, which had a budget of about $1.6 million. Taika Waititi came in with a sizzle reel featuring Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” and suddenly found himself at the helm of a $180 million movie, where he gave the Thor franchise a much-needed makeover and suddenly found himself a bonafide celebrity in the process. Thor: Ragnarok serves as a soft reboot of the franchise, poking fun at its over-dramatic past exploits, introducing new characters for future stories, and injecting an enormous of humor and color into one of the more dour MCU series—to say that Waititi revived Thor both as a character and as a series sounds dramatic but would be entirely correct.

The tone shift becomes apparent from the first moment Thor opens his mouth. Trapped in a cage above a floor of lava, he says, “Now, I know what you’re thinking. Oh no! Thor’s in a cage. How did this happen?” This is a far cry from the exposition-heavy openings of Thor and Thor: The Dark World, which utilized ponderous flashbacks to explain their MacGuffins; instead, we are greeted with Thor talking to a skeleton and offhandedly mumbling about “Infinity Stone things.” No more flowery language, no more self-serious talk of duty and kingship: Waititi wisely lets Hemsworth play to his considerable comedic strengths, and the result is a movie that never lets up on the gas pedal of humor while leaning heavily into Waititi’s off-kilter Kiwi sensibilities. 

And so after Thor gets out of that cage and defeats fire giant Surtur (Clancy Brown), and after he receives ominous warnings about the impending doom of his home from Ragnarok, the apocalypse in Norse mythology, Thor arrives back on Asgard to chat with his father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), whose mannerisms—and the fact that he’s staging a rather melodramatic play singing Loki’s (Tom Hiddleston) praises—tip off Thor to the fact that this isn’t his father but is, in fact, his adopted brother, who faked his death in The Dark World.

How fitting that Loki, who all his life longed for affection and acceptance he never got, would spend his time as king of Asgard running a PR campaign to make himself look like a hero, all so he can bask in adulation from the masses. As Tony Stark says in The Avengers, “And Loki, he’s a full-tilt diva, right? He wants flowers, he wants parades. He wants a monument built to the skies with his name.” Or, as Mobius puts more succinctly in Loki, “What an incredible seismic narcissist!”

If Thor’s confrontation with Surtur already toed the line of absurdity, we’ve now merrily leaped to the other side: Loki-as-Odin merrily eating grapes as he watches his own death, cameos from Luke Hemsworth, Sam Neill, and Matt Damon as actors in the play, and, as Matt Damon-as-Loki dies, a solemn choir singing Brian Tyler’s score that played as in Thor: The Dark World as the real Loki “died.” It’s fantastically different from anything that came before in Ragnarok’s predecessors: this is not your average Thor movie, and it’s much better for it.

Thor reveals Loki’s trickery, and the two go off to track down Odin with a little help from a certain Sorcerer Supreme (Benedict Cumberbatch in a fun and quick cameo). Odin has been laying low in Norway, his age catching up to him. Atop a stark cliffside, Odin blindsides his sons by revealing that they have a sister, Hela (Cate Blanchett), whom he locked away when she got too bloodthirsty, and then after this revelation, Odin promptly perishes.

It’s a small, intimate scene with beautiful visuals and strong performances, and it’s a good sendoff for Odin as he reminds us that he can have moments of kindness with his sons while also being the shittiest father in the MCU. He includes Loki when he says, “My sons,” which is nice considering that the last time he saw Loki he said, “Your birthright was to die,” but in the same breath divulges that he imprisoned his firstborn and never told his other children. Where the other Thor movies typically tried to pretend that Odin was a good father and a good king, Waititi mostly strips the veneer off him, laying his flaws on thick (though still never quite interrogating them enough).

So Odin dies, but his legacy does not: Hela immediately arrives in all her glory—and there’s a lot of it. Blanchett looks absolutely fabulous, and she chews on scenery with relish; there’s little complexity driving Hela, who simply wants to rule through bloodshed, but Blanchett has such a blast in the role (and, seriously, she looks amazing) that she vaults Hela up into the upper echelon of Marvel villains. If you squint, you can see a commentary on colonization—Waititi himself is half Maōri as well as the MCU’s first non-white director—in Odin and Hela’s conquest of the realms and the subsequent burial of Odin’s sins, and the way Odin and Asgard let the problems rot and fester so they are unprepared when they rears their ugly heads, but as has happened before, audience members are left with only breadcrumbs to form commentary from, though these breadcrumbs are pretty tasty. 

Hela handily destroys Mjolnir, Thor’s hammer, which sends both Loki and Thor into a tailspin; Loki, panicking, calls for the Bifrost to take them back, but Hela grabs ahold and tosses both Loki and Thor out of the Bifrost while she gets taken to Asgard. From there, the story becomes bifurcated: we cut between Loki and Thor navigating the colorful world of Sakaar and Hela beginning her reign of terror on Asgard. 

Read More of Anna’s Ongoing Marvel Retrospective Series Here

While in both Thor and The Dark World the scenes on Asgard stood a step or two above the scenes set elsewhere, here it’s the opposite. The time spent on Asgard with Hela is certainly still enjoyable due to both Blanchett and the addition of Waititi’s fellow Kiwi Karl Urban as Skurge, a lackey who gets roped into Hela’s bloodthirst rather unwillingly. It’s just that there’s not much to do other than reveal once again that Odin was terrible and summarily dispense with the Warriors Three (Zachary Levi, Ray Stevenson, and Tadanobu Asano)—Sif (Jaimie Alexander), it seems, was too busy filming Blindspot to attend the reunion. 

It’s not exactly a heartbreaking moment, as the Warriors Three had precious little screen time before (though Levi certainly hammed up his two minutes in The Dark World), and Hela dispatching them so easily establishes not only her threat but also Waititi’s willingness to turn the Thor world on its head. This disregard for the past is refreshing, and in some cases needed for this particular franchise, but the deaths of three of Thor’s closest friends perhaps should carry a bit more weight. Levi’s Fandral and Stevenson’s Volstagg barely get a word in edgewise before getting stabbed, and Asano’s Hogun fares only a little better before Hela promptly skewers him; Thor, when he does return to Asgard, does not acknowledge any of this, and so the inclusion of the Warriors Three simply to get killed in a very nonchalant manner sits a tad uncomfortably. To quote a different Disney franchise, “Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to,” but maybe not this quickly.

While Hela has been killing his friends, Thor has been having a hell of a day on Sakaar. First, a space wormhole deposits him in a pile of interdimensional trash. Next, an ex-Asgardian Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) shows up and captures him with zero regard for his social standing. Then, he is ushered to the being known as the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum) as an instrumental, hellish version of “Pure Imagination” plays in the background. He learns that he has been dumped on a planet known as Sakaar, where the Grandmaster keeps everyone entertained by having slaves (though he prefers the term “prisoners with jobs”) fight each other to the death, à la panem et circenses; Thor, full of bluster and looking extremely ripped, has the honor to become the Grandmaster’s next pet fighter. Also, Loki has been there for weeks and has already ingratiated himself with the Grandmaster, being the sly trickster that he is, and he declines to assist Thor.

It’s a lot to take in, so Thor is understandably euphoric when he realizes that the ominous “champion” the Grandmaster has been praising and whom he has to fight is none other than the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). But Thor’s “friend from work” has no interest in playing nice, it seems, even smashing Thor up the way he did Loki in The Avengers (“Yes! That’s how it feels!” Loki holleres), though Thor puts up enough of a fight that the Grandmaster has to interfere lest his precious champion lose and become unpopular.

This Sakaar storyline, adapted from the Planet Hulk comics, is immense fun. It’s got Jeff Goldblum melting people with sticks and improvising jazz on an alien piano—what more could you possibly want? It also adds a dash of bright color into the MCU, and while its visuals don’t quite match Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, it’s a refreshing change of pace and shows the dividends that pay when Marvel plays outside its typical sandbox. Waititi’s voice can be heard loud and clear throughout Ragnarok (and not just because he does the voice and motion capture for Thor’s fellow gladiator Korg) in a way that’s hard to imagine happening while the Creative Committee was still around. Large chunks of the movie were improvised, allowing the actors’ natural humor to shine, and directorial freedom was nearly absolute. Oh, it’s definitely a Marvel movie with all the requisite fights and whatnot, but it’s definitely a Taika Waititi movie, too.

The Thor/Hulk buddy comedy that unfurls after their fight is a happy marriage of two characters who have had precious little previous screentime together despite sharing two Avengers movies. Thor tries to badger and pester Hulk into turning back into Bruce Banner, but Hulk, finally having found a group of people that accept and even adore him (as opposed to Earth’s frosty reception after he destroyed Johannesburg in Avengers: Age of Ultron), resists. Hemsworth and Ruffalo spit childish insults at each other with glee, and though the dynamic shifts when Hulk inevitably turns back into Bruce Banner after seeing a clip of Black Widow, it only increases in fun as Ruffalo gazes wild-eyed around at the chaos and stress of Sakaar, marveling at their love for his alter ego.

Thor and Bruce set off to go back to Asgard, and on the way, run into Valkyrie, who’s had a change of heart. She had left Asgard after Hela, years and years ago, slaughtered all her fellow Valkyries; disillusioned with Asgard and lamenting the loss of everyone she loved, this Valkyrie retreated to Sakaar to drink her remaining days away. But, as she says, “I don’t want to forget. I can’t turn away anymore. So, if I’m going to die, well… it may as well be driving my sword through the heart of that murderous hag.” Thompson is a fantastic addition to the MCU, and she and Hemsworth have great chemistry, though thankfully not of the romantic kind. (There is a deleted scene somewhere that reveals Valkyrie to be bisexual, as she is in the comics, and it adds another reason for Valkyrie to hate Hela so vehemently, but it was cut for, uh… reasons, I guess. Sure.)

The unlikely trio dub themselves the Revengers, snag and then lose a certain trickster god after another betrayal, start a revolution in the gladiator pits, steal the Grandmaster’s orgy ship, and head back to Asgard through the Devil’s Anus to stop Hela (imagine saying that sentence back in Phase One!). The confrontation between Hela and Thor in the throne room gets the film tantalizing close to truly dissecting Odin’s faults—“It would seem our father’s solution to every problem was to cover it up,” Hela comments—before brother and sister, the warring sides of Odin’s legacy, duke it out and leave conversation by the wayside.

Hela easily lays waste to Thor, blinding him in his right eye like his father before him, and things seem to be looking very dire for our seductive Lord of Thunder and his fellow Asgardians, who are trapped between Hela’s forces. Luckily for them, Loki, in his fully horned glory, reappears with a ship that dwarfs the Grandmaster’s, proclaiming, “Your savior is here!” It’s a move that redeems Loki while never letting him become a good guy: he’s still devious and narcissistic, but he cares for his brother and he cares for his people at the end of the day. (Of course, the completion of his redemption arc makes him excellent cannon fodder for Avengers: Infinity War.)

“What were you the god of again?” she sneers as her knives pin Thor to a balcony railing. As Thor’s bravado fades, his mind transports him back to Norway, where Odin waits. Falling to his knees, for perhaps the first time in his life Chris Hemsworth looks small(ish). He feels hopeless without Mjolnir and without Odin, but then his father asks him, “Are you Thor, god of hammers?”

What follows is just so damn satisfying. “What were you the god of again?” Well, Hela finds out, and quickly too, as Thor lets loose. Fireworks go off, Hulk fights a giant wolf, Loki flips his helmet in a cool way, and Thor proceeds to absolutely wreck Hela’s minions as Led Zeppelin plays in the background. Other MCU movies play up Thor’s physical strength, and so does Waititi, but he also allows his titular character to run wild with the true power of a god, and hot damn does it feel good. 

This is Thor as we have never seen him: battered and bloody, sans an eyeball, but at the height of his power with lightning crackling all around him, no hammer necessary. Finally, finally, Thor stands on his own two feet as a dynamic character in his own right, stepping out of the shadow cast by his charismatic, scene-stealing brother. It took six years to get there, but what a hell of a payoff.

But his newfound power still isn’t enough to defeat Hela, and Thor realizes that he has to destroy Asgard in order to destroy her, bringing about the Ragnarok he was trying so desperately to avoid. But, as he says, “Asgard is not a place. It’s a people,” and so Loki dashes to Odin’s vault to free Surtur (and steals an Infinity Stone in the process), all the remaining Asgardians are loaded onto a ship, and we all watch as Surtur and Hela obliterate Thor’s home and all its riches, technology, and history. But perhaps, given its bloodied history, it’s “easier to let it burn,” as Loki says earlier in the film. The past caught up, Asgard had to reckon with it, and in this reckoning it gets reborn looking very different, but now free of its past sins.

And then… Korg makes a joke about it, and so we arrive at the crux of the problem with Ragnarok, and why it doesn’t crack my top three: it’s too funny. “Wait,” I hear you clarmoing, “Anna, what’s the problem with that?” The jokes almost always land, after all, and they make Ragnarok one of the most memorable MCU entries with such lines as the improvised, “There was one time my brother transformed himself into a snake, because he knows how much I like snakes, and so I picked the snake up to admire it, but then he turned back and went, ‘Blergh! It’s me!’ And then he stabbed me. We were eight, at the time.” That is an absolute classic.

The problem, however, is that the abundance of jokes hampers the film’s burgeoning commentary on colonization and legacy because it all becomes couched in humor, which can certainly be effective at conveying messages but needs space in order to be so, and Ragnarok has precious little of that. When Waititi goes for the more serious moments, he can land them—both scenes with Odin on the cliffside, Loki saying, “I’m here” at the very end of the film—but the balance here skews far more towards humor, undercutting the emotional impact of, say, your home world getting destroyed by your secret imperialist sister. Waititi can certainly balance comedy with drama, and would go on to take home an Oscar for exactly that skill in Jojo Rabbit, but here the balance is off. There is no time to process anything: the Warriors Three get killed within seconds, a pedestrian reveals that Jane broke up with Thor in an offhand line. None of the mayhem promised by the revelation in The Dark World that Loki is now posing as Odin happens, and instead that and most of his deep-seated family issues get turned into jokes. Asgard gets destroyed, joke. Thor finally takes the throne as his theme from the first Thor movie swells, joke. 

As Marvel movie sins go, this is far from the worst one, and it’s no small feat to go from New Zealand indie movies to successfully revamping the image of one of the world’s most famous superheroes. But just a little more breathing room, just a little more time to get messier with the characters and give the emotional beats all the weight they deserve, would have been nice.

Groundwork and stray observations: 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:

  • Not much groundwork, since the whole point of Ragnarok is to blow up the Thor franchise and start over. The mid-credits scene does nicely set the stage for Infinity War’s opening, though. 
  • Natalie Portman does not appear in this film, presumably because her experience during The Dark World left a bad taste in her mouth, but Waititi’s remodeling of the franchise lured her back in for Thor: Love and Thunder, where she’ll be playing Thor, but also Jane. Jane gets cancer, but she can wield Mjolnir and get superpowers, but then that accelerates her cancer… it gets a bit weird in the comics, but it will be nice to have Portman back and not simply relegated to “love interest.”
  • I didn’t mention Heimdall (Idris Elba) in the bulk of the piece, but it’s very nice to see him get to do something other than ominously judge from afar. Elba is great.
  • When Thor sees Odin in a vision towards the end of the movie, Odin says, “Asgard is not a place. Never was. This could be Asgard.” The “this means Norway, a place which will in fact become Asgard come Avengers: Endgame, with Tønsberg (seen in both Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger) becoming New Asgard.
  • A statue of Beta Ray Bill’s head is on the outside of a building in Sakaar; when Christian Bale was cast for Thor: Love and Thunder, there was a lot of speculation he would play Beta Ray Bill, who has wielded both Mjolnir and Stormbreaker, the axe Peter Dinklage makes for Thor in Infinity War. Bale will instead be playing Gorr the God Butcher.
  • I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the only good thing to come out of Bruce and Natasha’s “relationship” in Age of Ultron is Thor attempting to calm down Hulk in this film by saying, “Sun’s getting real low.”
  • Fun fact for any What We Do in the Shadows fans out there: Carlo van de Roer, who played absolute legend Stu in the movie, helped create the lighting rig that makes this Valkyrie scene so cool.

Anna’s Favorite Scene: I mean… come on, it’s Thor absolutely wrecking shit while “Immigrant Song” plays. Can’t beat that. 

MCU Ranking: 1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, 2. Captain America: Civil War, 3. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, 4. Thor: Ragnarok, 5. Guardians of the Galaxy, 6. The Avengers, 7. Spider-Man: Homecoming, 8. Captain America: The First Avenger, 9. Iron Man 3, 10. Iron Man, 11. Doctor Strange, 12. Ant-Man, 13. Thor, 14. Avengers: Age of Ultron, 15. Thor: The Dark World, 16. Iron Man 2, 17. The Incredible Hulk

Thor: Ragnarok Trailer

Thor: Ragnarok is currently available to rent and purchase on most digital storefronts, and is streaming on Disney+.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

MCU Retrospective: Captain America: Civil War

Written by Anna Harrison

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. Hey, who took the last donut?

85/100

Thus far, the MCU has done precious little introspection. The arrival of aliens on Earth, the collateral damage our heroes cause, international laws and politics, all of that has been either swept under the rug or acknowledged only with the wave of a hand, but Captain America: Civil War is here to rectify this. Like Captain America: The Winter Soldier before it, Civil War attempts to be a different breed of Marvel film; while the MCU would crumble if it spent too long looking inward and figuring out the mechanics of its world, it can certainly pretend to do so, and pretend well. If you are looking for an erudite, soul-searching movie about the costs of combat, look elsewhere, but for a theme park ride superhero movie, Civil War does a bang-up job of positing some serious problems, even if its answers don’t quite live up to the questions. 

Its title is a bit of a misnomer. Really, it should be Avengers: Civil War, or at the very least Captain America and Iron Man: Civil War, because it’s really a twofer between Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers and Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark. Marketing revolved around “Team Cap” or “Team Iron Man,” and the hype around this movie was perhaps even stronger than for Avengers: Age of Ultron. It was more than just a Captain America movie, it was an event that wouldn’t change just one character, as was the case with most other non-Avengers Marvel efforts, but whose effects would reverberate through the MCU at large.

The Civil War comic only features the barest similarities with its movie counterpart (it relies heavily on the existence of secret identities, which have very little presence in the MCU, and in the aftermath, a brainwashed Sharon Carter kills Captain America and then stabs her own womb to get rid of her unborn child, so there is quite a lot more going on here), but the showdown between Captain America and Iron Man is integral to the plot (this shot from the film is based off this comic cover), and to attempt an adaptation without Iron Man, or to have Iron Man’s presence lessened, would be nigh impossible, yet that was what our favorite interfering overlord Ike Perlmutter sought to do. 

Initially, Tony was going to have a smaller role, but Downey and his team lobbied for a bigger one; this apparently angered the famously frugal Perlmutter so much that he ordered Iron Man to be written out of the script entirely over fears of a ballooning budget. Kevin Feige, hell-bent on making Civil War the spectacle it should be, became so upset that he apparently toyed with quitting, and it was this kerfuffle between Perlmutter and Feige that finally caused Disney CEO Bob Iger to restructure Marvel, shunting Perlmutter to the side and centralizing Feige’s power. This move would ease restrictions on cast and crew, opening the doors for films such as the female-led Captain Marvel and the zany Thor: Ragnarok; since Perlmutter moved and his Creative Committee was disbanded, Marvel has allowed much more creative freedom or has gotten much better at making its talent keep their mouths shut. Either way, it’s hard to view Perlmutter’s departure as anything other than a success—as I have discussed, his outdated and offensive views on gender and race hampered Marvel, and it’s easy to see how (by and large) the MCU has only gotten better since it escaped Perlmutter’s clutches.

Once the dust settled, Robert Downey Jr. emerged with screen time nearly equal to that of Civil War’s titular Captain America, and while this may seem incongruous with the fact that this is supposed to be a Captain America movie, Downey does such tremendous work here, and Tony has such an interesting arc, that it’s hard to be that mad at returning directors Joe and Anthony Russo or Marvel veteran screenwriters Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus. 

After the catastrophic events of Avengers: Age of Ultron (flying city, hordes of murderbots, etc.), public scrutiny has been turned on the Avengers. It becomes especially critical when what should have been a routine mission in Lagos—aka downtown Atlanta with a yellowish filter slapped over it—goes horribly wrong and winds up killing 23 civilians. This, coupled with a confrontation with a grieving mother (the immensely talented Alfre Woodard, who would go on to play Mariah Dillard in Netflix’s Marvel offering Luke Cage) whose son was killed during the events of Age of Ultron, sends Tony Stark spiraling as his ever-present guilt and self-loathing rear their heads again, and so when Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt, who is the first actor from The Incredible Hulk to reprise his role and prove that Marvel doesn’t want to sweep it entirely under the rug) approaches with the UN-sanctioned Sokovia Accords, which would put the Avengers under the oversight of a UN panel, Tony is the first to sign.

It’s quite a remarkable turnaround from the man in Iron Man 2 who said such things as, “You want my property? You can’t have it!” and “I’ve successfully privatized world peace” at a Senate hearing, yet it fits seamlessly into his arc. The arrival of aliens and the existence of threats such as the Chitauri completely altered Tony’s worldview, saddling him with PTSD and resulting in the creation of Ultron, because Tony believed that no one else would be better equipped to protect the world than himself. When that backfired spectacularly, giving Tony proof that, contrary to what Steve Rogers may believe, the safest hands are not his own, and that he can’t be trusted on his own because everything he touches turns rotten. And, as always with Tony, there’s an intensely personal element to this as well now that Tony has pushed Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) away again: “A few years ago I almost lost her so I trashed all my suits. Then we had to mop up Hydra. Then Ultron, my fault. And then, and then, and then. I never stopped. ’Cause the truth is I don’t wanna stop. I don’t wanna lose her. I thought maybe the Accords can split the difference.”

Steve’s ideology, on the other hand, has always been consistent. He is an embodiment of our anxiety over the post-9/11 surveillance state (where Iron Man represents a very different post-9/11 American chutzpah and desire for a swift end for terrorism and safety), and his faith in institutions has understandably grown thin: first he’s a dancing monkey for the United States government, then a pawn for S.H.I.E.L.D., then learns that S.H.I.E.L.D. has secretly been his old enemy Hydra the entire time. Steve has never gone through a true character arc like Tony has, because his strength of moral character is already such that it’s hard for him to improve, and so to make his character dynamic you have to throw him in hot water and place him among those whose moral compasses might be a tad shakier: it was Hydra in Winter Soldier, and here the Accords present the conundrum. Steve refuses to sign, and thus the Avengers’ Civil War begins. To the film’s credit, it really does try to focus on the MCU’s internal politics and lays out decent arguments for both sides of the Accords debate (even though it is ostensibly Captain America’s movie), avoiding condemnation as best it can. 

Read More of Anna’s Ongoing Marvel Retrospective Series Here

The real trouble doesn’t begin until there’s a bombing in Vienna at the signing of the Accords, and everything points to one James Buchanan Barnes (Sebastian Stan) as having been the perpetrator. This prompts a worldwide manhunt: Steve and Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) race to get Bucky before the authorities do so Steve can protect his oldest friend, the UN wants to bring him in for questioning, and a certain Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) of Wakanda wants to kill Bucky as revenge for the explosion that killed his father, T’Chaka (John Kani). There is a very fun chase scene in Romania that involves Steve, Bucky, and T’Challa all handily outstripping the passing cars and Bucky flipping onto a motorcycle in a way that captured the minds of many a teenage girl around the world (myself included), but it ends with the three heroes apprehended by the UN. 

Remarkably, this is the first big action sequence in the film and it doesn’t come until about 45 minutes in, which has got to be a record for Marvel. Civil War is perhaps the least action-heavy MCU entry so far, only having three notable fight scenes (four if you count brainwashed Bucky vs. everyone else), none of which are against more than six people; for being all but an Avengers movie in name, it certainly bucks the trend of fighting innumerable faceless foes, and that’s a welcome change of pace. 

Boseman, of course, nails his introduction as T’Challa. Both he and the character he plays would go on to become revered figures, not only due to the cultural impact of Black Panther finally arriving on the screen, but because T’Challa, through Boseman’s performance, is such a commanding presence from the first: he’s a powerful and regal king, but still a fallible human being battling with grief and a desire for vengeance. His quiet scene with Zemo at the end is a beautiful moment that, despite his little screentime, cements T’Challa as iconic far before the release of his solo movie. “Vengeance has consumed you. It’s consuming them. I’m done letting it consume me.” (And he gets to run fast and beat up fellow superheroes to boot. What’s not to love?)

Back in UN custody, things seem to be going alright—Tony even almost convinces Steve to sign the Accords until he lets slip that he’s keeping Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), the inadvertent creator of the destruction in Lagos, under lock and key with Vision (Paul Bettany) at the Avengers compound—until the psychiatrist assigned to analyze Bucky speaks the trigger words implanted in his brain by Hydra and sics him on the rest of the Avengers after drilling him about a mission report from December 16, 1991. Turns out this psychiatrist is actually Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl), a former member of the Sokovian military whose family was killed during Ultron’s attempt to drop a city-meteor on the world in Age of Ultron. Zemo will go on to become a fan favorite in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, but here he is all cruel and cold calculation setting out to topple the powers that killed his family, and the personal nature of his issues with the Avengers gives his actions more weight than most Marvel villains. He is also the only villain besides Thanos to succeed at his goal. (Of course, the threat of Thanos eventually brings the gang back together again, but Zemo’s villainy certainly has more repercussions than, say, Malekith’s evildoings.)

And topple the Avengers do. Determined to exonerate the last remaining thread connecting him to his old life, Steve goes after Bucky, accompanied by Sam. When Bucky reveals that other genetically enhanced Hydra soldiers exist, Steve assumes that Zemo means to wake them from their cryogenic sleep and use them to destabilize the world’s governments, and so the three set out to stop him. They enlist Wanda, Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), but find the path barred by those who supported the Accords: Tony, Rhodey (Don Cheadle), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), T’Challa, Vision, and some kid with web shooters called Spider-Man (Tom Holland). 

The ensuing fight in an empty German airport is simply an excuse to show off all the characters’ cool powers and acts as little more than fanservice, though if you’re like me, it’s certainly enjoyable fanservice, though the reasons for its existence are flimsy at best. But Ant-Man becomes Giant-Man, Spider-Man swings around and does backflips, Black Widow and Hawkeye duke it out, et cetera, and it provides a good deal of fun. Marvel has finally gotten their hands back on some of their most valuable IP, dammit, and they’re not going to let it go to waste.

Spider-Man, of course, has a long history on our movie screens, starting with Sam Raimi’s original trilogy in the early 2000s, continuing with two Amazing Spider-Man movies with Andrew Garfield before that endeavor was aborted, and finally winding up here in the MCU proper. Having sold off their rights to Spider-Man before the MCU, Marvel was forced to make do without him at first while Sony continued to try and pump the character for money; with the recency of The Amazing Spider-Man duology (2012 and 2014, respectively), not to mention the Raimi trilogy (Spider-Man 3 was only 2007), it seemed unlikely there would be a third reboot of the character within less than two decades.

That is, until the infamous Sony email hacks from 2014 revealed that… maybe? But then talks broke down and people forgot about it, though some were hopeful that, given Spider-Man’s prevalence in the Civil War comics, he would be a presence in its adaptation. Rumors continued to swirl, though as some rightly pointed out, Civil War the movie could work just fine without Spider-Man. The rumors were tantalizing nonetheless: the MCU had been built off the back of lesser-known heroes, but what would happen when they finally got their hands on Marvel’s most iconic character?

Well, it turns out the speculation didn’t last long, and Sony and Marvel reached a deal to share Spider-Man, with Peter Parker’s first appearance in Captain America: Civil War

The Sony/Marvel relationship has been very contentious, and Sony’s desire to expand into their own Spider-Man universe confuses things immensely. While everything seemed to be going smoothly at first, things broke down in 2019, after Spider-Man: Homecoming and Spider-Man: Far From Home had already come out, and it seemed like Tom Holland’s Spider-Man would be no more, and Peter Parker would be relegated to Sony’s Marvel Universe—not to be confused with the MCU at large—which so far only consists of 2018’s critically panned but financially successful Venom. This caused a brief meltdown among fans (myself included) before another agreement was reached, which pulled Spider-Man back into the MCU, but also allowed him to visit some of Sony’s other offerings. Probably. 

It’s all very vague, but Sony’s upcoming Morbius—which looks just absolutely dreadful—features Michael Keaton’s Vulture, who first appeared in Spider-Man: Homecoming. All in all, it’s a very confusing deal, one which will only continue to muddy the MCU canon upon the release of Morbius and Sony’s upcoming Spidey-related slate. Disney and Marvel’s steady amassing of IP is concerning from an artistic standpoint as they continue their stranglehold on the entertainment industry, subbing recognizable IP for capital-A Art, but, you know… there’s something to be said for simplicity and streamlining. At the very least, some clarity would be appreciated. (Yes, if it must be said, I vote in favor of axing the Sony Spider-Man Universe and folding it all under Marvel and continuing the agonizing death of independent cinema. Yes, a not-insubstantial chunk of this desire is the fact that I do not want certified creep Jared Leto to be in the MCU proper.)

Despite the treacherous road to his MCU debut, Spider-Man shines in Civil War. It helps that Tom Holland actually looks like a high school student, unlike Tobey Maguire or Andrew Garfield, and this Peter Parker radiates a charm that is decidedly boyish in energy. This is just a kid—a very strong and a very smart one, but a kid nonetheless. Even though Spider-Man could have been excised from the Civil War plot with no consequences (he’s really just there because it’s all about increasing that Marvel brand, baby!), his presence gives an infectious jolt of energy to the proceedings and provides a great source of humor in a film that, for Marvel standards, is practically dour. 

But where Spider-Man gets some great moments in Civil War, you know who doesn’t? Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp). I have previously lamented Sharon’s wasted role in the MCU, and it continues here. Judging from concept art, she was supposed to have been a part of the big airport battle, but in the finished product does exceedingly little. The kiss between her and Steve doesn’t work because Markus and McFeely spent so little time developing Sharon as a person that it reads as a character beat they were forced to hit rather than something that came about organically, so of course fan response would be tepid (at best, and harassment at worst—take a gander through the fandom side of Twitter or Tumblr and you will find some truly vile and downright misogynistic takes about Sharon, though the “stan” corner of the internet is mind-numbing to begin with). And yes, I will continue to pick this bone until it snaps, because it is frankly infuriating. Sharon’s writing in the MCU has been and continues to be lazy, though—as with Winter Soldier—it seems the easiest thing in the world to slot her in on “Team Cap” and give her a more substantial role other than “designated love interest” who gets “strong woman” qualities such as fighting prowess so Marvel can pretend they’ve written a good female character. I will, in fact, stay mad. (If you think this is bad, wait until Avengers: Endgame.)

After the two sides, sans Sharon, fight it out, Steve and Bucky escape to Siberia to catch Zemo and those who didn’t sign the Accords get shipped off to the underwater prison known as The Raft. Rhodey, having been inadvertently injured by Vision, gets over his paraplegia very quickly with the help of fancy Stark technology. The brief disability representation was nice while it lasted, though it never really got started. Tony realizes that Bucky has been framed for the UN bombing, gets Steve and Bucky’s whereabouts from Sam, and goes rogue, ignoring Secretary Ross’s wishes.

Yet when the three of them arrive in Siberia, they discover that Zemo hasn’t let out Bucky’s fellow superhuman assassins. In fact, Zemo has killed them all while they were in cryosleep. He never intended to unleash them on the world, only lure Tony, Steve, and Bucky here so he could end the Avengers that ended his family. “An empire toppled by its enemies can rise again. But one which crumbles from within? That’s dead… forever.” 

But how to topple an empire full of superheroes? You can’t beat them physically, so you appeal to their emotions. Tony has never been entirely emotionally stable even at the best of times, especially when it comes to his latent feelings of guilt and even more so when it concerns his relationship with his parents, and Steve has shown that he’s willing to go to the ends of the earth to protect Bucky, so the revelation that Bucky not only killed Tony’s parents on December 16, 1991, but that Steve purposely withheld this information from Tony, is the perfect storm that throws these unshakeable Avengers into a tailspin. The ultimate showdown isn’t about the Accords themselves, but Tony’s grief over his parents, his guilt over his failure to express his love for them, Steve’s drive to protect the only old friend he has left, and the clash that these conflicting desires cause. 

Civil War is perhaps Marvel’s most personal movie. In the end, it’s just Steve, Bucky, and Tony, duking it out in an abandoned Hydra base in Siberia. That’s about as personal a finale you can get at Marvel, and it anchors the final confrontation in frighteningly understandable human impulse: it’s not the world ending, it’s just yours, and sometimes that can feel even worse. There are no Chitauri or robots, there is no Hydra or Mandarin, just two friends (and a brainwashed assassin) that hurt each other in different ways.

While it certainly makes for an affecting climax, the pivot to an intensely personal battle means that the political nuance that Civil War set itself up for gets left by the wayside: Tony and Steve’s differences on the Accords become forgotten in the wake of the revelation about Tony’s parents, and so any true ethical examination of said Accords gets tabled for another day. Civil War discards that which made it unique in the first place—attempting to address the ramifications of its predecessors—in favor of a more personal approach that, conversely, makes the film more unique than standard MCU fare, so we are at net zero. Both impulses are welcome in the MCU, but perhaps they would have worked better in separate films, rather than one replacing the other. Still, in a somewhat homogenous cinematic universe, you get credit for trying, and Civil War uses its solid performances and character beats to elevate itself to the upper echelons of the MCU.

The effects of Civil War are all but gone after the first act of Avengers: Endgame, and the existence of the Accords has, so far, barely changed a thing about how these heroes operate, but Civil War almost makes the illusion of change real. It certainly affects Avengers: Infinity War, where our heroes’ divisions keep them apart and ensure their loss, but otherwise, while the Accords’ existence makes Civil War one of the more compelling Marvel movies, they remain largely inconsequential. Marvel was never going to seriously examine the political ramifications of its heroes’ existence because the foundations of its universe would collapse, but it was certainly nice to pretend for a while.

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:

  • This marks the first appearance of The Raft, which will pop in and out of the MCU whenever they need a place to store a villain for a while in case Marvel wants to reuse them.
  • Certain Avengers: Endgame set photos sent everyone into a tizzy about how Tony’s B.A.R.F. (binarily augmented retro-framing) technology would come back into play and help the team find hints about the Infinity Stones or whatnot. This did not happen.
  • Natasha says, “You could at least recognize me” when fighting Bucky, leading some fans to speculate that future MCU movies could expand on their relationship—in the comics, they have a storied romantic history that begins when Natasha was first in the Red Room and Bucky was brainwashed by the KGB—but alas, this never happened, and so Natasha was only referencing The Winter Soldier. If Marvel had gone down this route, though, it would have been easy to elaborate on this.
  • It’s hard to think of specific groundwork/easter eggs when the whole movie is basically setting up what’s to come: it introduces Black Panther and Wakanda, Spider-Man, Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), reintroduces Thunderbolt Ross (no relation to Everett), splits the Avengers for Avengers: Infinity War, sends half of the team on the run, etc. There aren’t that many offhand references to things that will come down the line: they’re all in plain sight.

Anna’s Favorite Scene: “Can you move your seat up?” “No.” That’s not really a whole scene, though, just a couple lines, so my favorite scene might be T’Challa stopping Zemo from killing himself. It wonderfully encapsulates T’Challa’s arc in this movie, and is an affecting and quiet moment before the big Cap vs. Iron Man beatdown.

MCU Ranking: 1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, 2. Captain America: Civil War, 3. Guardians of the Galaxy, 4. The Avengers, 5. Captain America: The First Avenger, 6. Iron Man 3, 7. Iron Man, 8. Ant-Man, 9. Thor, 10. Avengers: Age of Ultron, 11. Thor: The Dark World, 12. Iron Man 2, 13. The Incredible Hulk

Captain America: Civil War Trailer

Captain America: Civil War is currently available to rent and purchase on most digital storefronts, and is streaming on Disney+.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

MCU Retrospective: Avengers: Age of Ultron

Written by Anna Harrison

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— oh, sorry, still not yet.

65/100

You know the old adage that sequels are never as good as the original?

Yeah.

Avengers: Age of Ultron has the benefit of familiarity; our titular Avengers are already acquainted, so we waste no time with introductions but get right back in the fray as the they go about cleaning up the Hydra facilities unearthed from the fall of S.H.I.E.L.D. in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It’s comfortable: we’re back to Joss Whedon’s old quippy dialogue that worked so well in The Avengers, but this time around everyone is more at ease with each other and work as a well-oiled machine. Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark, Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner, Jeremy Renner’s Clint Barton, Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers, and Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff, all back together again, their skillsets showcased in several of Whedon’s favored long, uncut takes as he opens the movie with style and pizzazz to spare. (We’re also back to Whedon’s frumpy old geezer Steve, who now gets offended when Tony says, “shit,” but it’s a bit less egregious this time around.)

Unfortunately, Age of Ultron gets rather unfocused after its tight opening, branching out into several different plots, some of which won’t pay off until later installments, and shoving some characters where they ought not to be shoved. It’s ambitious to a fault, and while watching it you can feel the Herculean effort it must have taken from Whedon to put this together. Alas, Whedon is not quite a demigod, and so the result is a grand but uneven tale with some truly weird character developments.

At one of these Hydra facilities, the gang runs into Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), citizens of the fictional Sokovia who volunteered to undergo experiments using Loki’s scepter from The Avengers, which contains the Mind Stone. The results left Pietro a speed demon and Wanda a… well, as Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) puts it, “He’s fast and she’s weird.” 

In the comics, Wanda and Pietro—codenames Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver—have been a part of both the X-Men and Avengers teams, making their film rights a bit fuzzy: while Marvel sold the rights to the X-Men to 20th Century Fox, they kept the rights to the Avengers, meaning that Wanda and Pietro could appear in both Fox’s X-Men movies and the MCU. In fact, a year before Age of Ultron, the world was introduced to Evan Peters’ Quicksilver in X-Men: Days of Future Past, who quickly became a fan favorite due to his now-iconic “Time in a Bottle” scene. (Wanda, meanwhile, is only hinted at in the Fox franchise.)

With how beloved Peters’ version quickly became, Joss Whedon had a tall task in front of him. He and Taylor-Johnson opt for a more serious take, one without big slow-mo set pieces. Barred from saying the word “mutant” as those rights belonged to Fox, Wanda and Pietro came to their powers not by their lineage (in the comics, they are the children of powerful mutant Magneto) but through illegal human experimentation. They’re “enhanced,” and neither get codenames; in fact, it takes until WandaVision for “Scarlet Witch” to be uttered aloud, and no one ever calls Pietro “Quicksilver.”

The two had volunteered for Hydra’s experiments due to fierce anti-American sentiment in Sokovia; this sentiment is bolstered by the fact that Wanda and Pietro’s parents were killed by a Stark Industries shell when they were young (and Tony was still being irresponsible and inadvertently causing war crimes), and the twins were almost killed themselves, saved only because the shell that landed by them was faulty. Staring at the Stark Industries logo for days and days as they waited to be rescued, it’s easy to understand why that grudge fueled them to try and gain enough power to topple the Avengers.

The turmoil and unrest that led Wanda and Pietro to volunteer has the potential to be an interesting thread—after all, the Avengers are a largely American group constantly trespassing in international territory and shooting a bunch of people, seemingly with no (or very little) government oversight. Surely that’s a bit murky, legally-speaking, and this unchecked American group running amok would no doubt cause tensions to flare. Yet Whedon only obliquely acknowledges this by showing a couple scenes of angry protests, which somehow seems worse than ignoring the issue altogether: why bring it up at all if you’re just going to gloss over it?

It’s a problem that Marvel has largely avoided by staging their conflicts either in America or in outer space, but here the logic of the MCU begins to buckle a bit under its own weight. Marvel will only commit so much to exploring the geopolitical consequences of the Avengers’ existence; a movie dedicated to unraveling the American exceptionalism that bubbles beneath the team might alienate some of their audience, and so Marvel continually tiptoes around the subject.

Read More of Anna’s Ongoing Marvel Retrospective Series Here

After retrieving the Mind Stone, Tony and Bruce begin to experiment with it to create an artificial intelligence. As Dr. Frankenstein found out all those years ago, playing god usually doesn’t end well. In this case, it results in the creation of Ultron (James Spader), who was meant to be a global defense program but decides that the best way to achieve “peace in our time” is to eliminate humanity. 

It’s a shame that Tony had a wonderful arc in his last movie that ended with him blowing up all of his suits only to relapse in Age of Ultron and create a bunch more. “A suit of armor around the world,” as he says. The weapons manufacturer turned protector. It fits that Tony would do something like this, that his fear, guilt, and ego would mix together and create a murderbot, but it fits poorly after the events of Iron Man 3 and makes that film seem simply like a bump in the road for Tony’s character arc, though it certainly frames itself as the end. But what would be the point of a movie featuring Iron Man that doesn’t actually have an iron man in it? So here we are, not back quite at square one but at about square… well, not where we should be. (Thor will also run into similar problems with his characterization; it all depends on what the directors and screenwriters need his character to accomplish in their respective movies, and so he bounces all over the place.)

Fan response to Ultron himself was generally tepid, and coming off the heels of Loki’s malicious turn in The Avengers, he had big shoes to fill. There were complaints that Ultron wasn’t strong enough, that he was too quippy (though that is to be expected with a Whedon film; besides, Tony Stark made him, and Tony is the quip king), but he’s certainly not a terrible villain as these things go. He just fades a bit into the background and offers nothing particularly interesting, and his fondness for religious settings and divine metaphors never goes anywhere. (Are Tony, Ultron, and Vision the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost? Each progenitor tries to get usurped by their offspring… Very Oedipal, though there’s no mother to speak of. I might be on to something.) James Spader gives a great vocal performance, but the interesting philosophical doors that Ultron’s A.I. existence could have opened remain shut.

In their attempt to defeat Ultron, the Avengers run into Wanda and Pietro, who have begun working for the A.I. Wanda uses her powers to get into the Avengers’ heads and toy with their brains, sending everyone into a spiral; Hulk spirals so much that he destroys a large swath of Johannesburg. Fearing international retribution, the team retreats to a safehouse, which turns out to be Clint’s family’s home. However, Thor doesn’t stay long, instead spurred by the vision Wanda gave him to go on some mythic quest with Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) to discover more about the Infinity Stones.

Hawkeye’s secret family—two kids and pregnant wife Laura (Linda Cardellini), who apparently waits in an isolated house twiddling her thumbs until her husband drops by—proved to be an enormous point of contention between Marvel and Joss Whedon. It’s not hard to understand why the studio raised issues, as this revelation comes out of nowhere, but the conflict also showcases much of the studio meddling that defined Phases One and Two, and how it so often drove Marvel’s creatives away from the studio.

Much of this meddling came at the hands of the so-called “Creative Committee,” a group consisting of Ike Perlmutter, whom I’ve previously railed about (reminder: he said Black people look the same, he didn’t want Black Widow toys made because he thought they wouldn’t make money, he didn’t want a female villain in Iron Man 3, etc.), and various others ranging from executive Alan Fine to comics writer Brian Michael Bendis. The group had caused issues on Iron Man 2, pushed back against the use of Awesome Mix Vol. 1 in Guardians of the Galaxy, and wrested creative control away from Marvel’s employees, leaving everyone from Alan Taylor to Mickey Rourke burnt out. Their meddling came to a head in Age of Ultron, and the compromises that Whedon and the Committee arrived at resulted in a messier movie and an unpleasant production. They wanted to nix the farm scenes, Whedon wanted to nix Thor’s Stone visions he receives with Dr. Selvig, and so ultimately we got a truncated version of both, stretching the movie to its breaking point as it juggles too much at once.

The Committee was dissolved in 2015, the year Ultron was released, as Marvel was restructured and Kevin Feige began to report directly to Disney CEO Bob Iger instead of Perlmutter. Feige and Perlmutter had reportedly butt heads repeatedly, to the point where Feige almost quit, but eventually Iger shuffled things around, freeing Feige from Perlmutter’s tight leash. It’s no coincidence that the MCU produced their most creative crop of movies after the disbanding of the Committee, or that no Phase Three and Four directors have been vocal about lack of creative autonomy. With the Committee off the creatives’ back, everyone can breathe a little easier and think a little more freely, but unfortunately that came too late for Whedon.

While studio interference has done more harm than good with the MCU, there is one thing their interference would have been welcome on in this case: One of the most glaring issues with Age of Ultron, and one that really kicks into gear at the Barton home, is the absolutely nonsensical romantic subplot between Natasha and Bruce. Marvel has been very hit-or-miss with its romances, but even its misses (namely Thor and Jane) have some buildup and at least a sliver of believability. This, however, comes out of absolutely nowhere—Bruce and Natasha had barely shared screen time in The Avengers except when the Hulk tried to smash Natasha (and not in the sexy way), and, what’s more, it largely reduces Natasha to the stereotypical female caregiver role. She, with her soft and feminine energy, is the only one who can calm down Bruce when he Hulks out, and the best thing to come out of that whole ridiculous lullaby nonsense is Thor: Ragnarok’s parody of it. 

It’s uncomfortable to watch the sole female member of the team be the one to soothe the Hulk, to be the only one with enough empathy towards him to bring him back from the edge; it feels as though Natasha has become a housewife from sixty years ago, waiting patiently for her stressed out husband to return from work so she can fasten a napkin around his neck and feed him a nice cut of steak. It’s disturbing to see that the task of emotional labor has fallen to the woman (the! only! woman!), who must soothe her turmoil-filled man. It’s… well, it’s not great, Bob

Even removing the gross stereotypes the relationship imposes on Natasha, it’s written terribly. It starts with some atrocious, overly sexy flirting at a bar, continues with Bruce falling onto Natasha’s breasts (an absolutely hilarious “joke”—ha ha I am laughing so much ha ha—Whedon will repeat in Justice League), includes a nice family planning scene despite the fact they haven’t kissed by this point, and ends with the Hulk flying away in a quinjet and resurfacing in Thor: Ragnarok as a galactic gladiator. It feels wildly out of character for both of these people to act the way they do in this movie—Natasha even discusses running away with Bruce, and when has she ever been one to run from a fight, even if she has some self-doubt? In a different world, maybe the characters could work out a relationship, with both of them facing their inner demons together, but as it is, it stuffs a poorly written, out-of-nowhere plot line into an already crowded movie. 

Seriously, where the hell did this come from? Was this Joss Whedon’s self-insert fanfiction, with the sexy hot girl falling in love with the nerdy awkward man? (To say nothing of the 17-year age gap between Mark Ruffalo and Scarlett Johansson, though that is about par for the course with Hollywood.) The depth that Natasha was given in Captain America: The Winter Soldier flies out the window, and she becomes some bizarre mashup of caring mother figure and flirty Bond girl ripoff. It’s wholly unnecessary for both the characters and the plot. It’s not just another mediocre romance from Marvel, but a development so out of left field that it ends up damaging an already-overloaded movie.

(Luckily for all the unwitting denizens this relationship was inflicted upon, it was so poorly received that subsequent directors will drop the matter entirely, save for a few offhand references that mostly play as humorous.)

Other than the bizarreness happening with Bruce and Natasha, the Barton family home gives the movie a welcome chance to breathe a little bit, though Clint’s family life remains a bit of a puzzle. Seriously, does Laura just do nothing but wait for her husband? Does she have a job? Does she have a personality outside being “wife”? Again we have a woman assigned to the emotional support role, and while Cardellini is lovely, the whole situation rests uneasily in the stomach. It’s good to have an Avenger with their boots firmly on the ground, less good for this revelation to feel so strange (especially after many fans believed Clint and Natasha were bound for romance after the events of The Avengers—“Is this love?” Loki hisses at Natasha as she bargains for Clint’s life—and they have a romantic history in the comics, something that Bruce and Natasha do not). But the farm gives everyone a chance to recoup and take a break before the second half of the movie.

Over in Seoul, Ultron uses Loki’s scepter to put Avengers ally Dr. Helen Cho (Claudia Kim) under his control so he can utilize her lab to create a synthetic body for himself. During this sojourn, Wanda looks into Ultron’s mind as he uploads himself and discovers his plans for human extinction, so she and Pietro flee and join up with the Avengers, who seize Ultron’s wannabe future body; Thor remembers some of his trippy cave visions (prompted by some “Water of Sight” that gets mentioned only right before it appears on screen, and then never again—it’s not hard to understand why Whedon didn’t like this clunky sidequest) and activates the Mind Stone in the body’s head, and thus the Vision (Paul Bettany) is birthed. 

Bettany, initially booked just for a voice gig as J.A.R.V.I.S., Tony’s personal robotic assistant, proves to be an excellent Vision; he has the knowledge of J.A.R.V.I.S., Ultron, and the Mind Stone, yet still retains the naïveté of a child. Vision and Wanda give each other a couple knowing looks, but neither will get the development their Avenging peers do until WandaVision, though it’s off to a smooth enough start here. (For the record, I would like to add that while everyone started thinking Vision was hot in WandaVision, I was on that train from the start. Thanks.)

With Vision, Wanda, and Pietro in tow, the team heads back to Sokovia to stop the impending destruction of the world. Ultron’s plan involves sending out smaller robot Ultrons to wreak havoc while he literally raises Sokovia into the air so he can let it drop like a meteor and raze life on earth, letting his metal children reign supreme. It’s one of the more absurd villainous plans from Marvel, and Ultron’s robot army is thoroughly uninspiring after so many movies before it (including The Avengers) have dealt with hordes of interchangeable baddies, and sloppy editing doesn’t help matters.

Things seem to be looking dire for our team until Fury shows up with a S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier full of S.H.I.E.L.D. employees like nothing ever happened in The Winter Soldier. The implication is that Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg, here only in spirit) and the gang helped dust the helicarrier off, as the MCU had not completely abandoned Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. at this point, but it still feels weird, especially considering that Fury had previously told the team they would only have their wits in this fight as no backup could come. 

One of the most frustrating parts of this battle, however, is the death of a certain speedster. How did all those bullets kill him when he could have easily outrun them? Or, taking a cue from a different Quicksilver, couldn’t Pietro have simply pushed the bullets away so they shot harmlessly into the air? His death lacks emotional resonance as well, though it’s framed as a big moment: alas, Pietro, we barely knew ye, though what we got seemed promising and it still stings that this is how Whedon chose to off you. Logistically, it’s hard to present tangible threats to a speedster (as evidence, see The Flash’s increasingly absurd justifications for their villains’ successes), so Pietro would be tough to write for; furthermore, confusion with the wildly popular X-Men version would no doubt have abounded had our silver-haired friend lived. However, these excuses don’t make Pietro’s death any better. It’s still cheap, illogical, and a waste of a good performer. (Seriously, the fastest man in the MCU was killed by bullets?)

His death does spur Wanda (and Vision) to finally kill Ultron, though Ultron’s ultimate demise feels as though Joss Whedon was trying to achieve two opposing goals: have a big superhero beatdown required in Marvel movies, and also have the defeat of the bad guy be a bit more sad and poetic, showing that not every showdown needs to end with a bang—sometimes it’s a sad whimper. However, it’s nigh impossible to have both of those things, and the shift from a world-ending city-meteorite infested with robots to a quiet execution on a hillside is jarring.

It’s a problem that Age of Ultron seems to run into repeatedly: it wants to let its characters breathe, but what the characters say and do during this downtime can often be incongruous to not only the rest of the film, but the MCU at large. If it can get bigger than its britches sometimes and fail to keep all its balls juggling, it’s admirable that Ultron at least tries to get introspective (and indeed is more subdued in places than its sequels). If only that introspection were filled with something other than Natasha flirting with Bruce, or Steve rebelling against change (“the most adaptive man on the planet,” Winter Soldier screenwriter Christopher Markus called him—he’s got the gist of Steve more than Whedon does, although perhaps Markus should have paid more attention to this Whedon line of Steve’s, “Family, stability… The guy who wanted all that went in the ice seventy-five years ago. I think someone else came out,” when writing Avengers: Endgame). 

Not all of it’s bad: Tony and Bruce get some excellent dialogue together, and Tony, still full of that potent mixture of self-loathing and narcissism, gets an extra heaping of guilt from this film that will fuel his future actions. Steve rips a log in half with his bare hands, and Thor steps on a LEGO set. The good aspects of this film, and how easily The Avengers seemed to flow, make Age of Ultron’s misfires that much more baffling; its glaring mistakes are few but so obvious that they threaten to derail the entire thing. 

It’s flawed but garners points for its very grand ambitions; it’s a tale of legacy, fear gone haywire, the dangers of acting preemptively, the follies of humanity, the dangers of playing god (for both Tony and Ultron). Ultimately, Age of Ultron simply gets too big, so it’s a good thing the next movie goes so small… 

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:

  • More Thanos and Infinity Stone teases, look at that.
  • Steve lifted Thor’s hammer a little bit, that seems like it could be cool down the line.
  • “That up there, that’s the endgame.” Sounds kinda familiar, doesn’t it?
  • This is the first mention of Wakanda, and the first appearance of Andy Serkis’ Ulysses Klaue, who will appear in Black Panther.
  • Hulk’s quinjet goes into space at some point, seeing as it’s present in Thor: Ragnarok, but here it’s said that the signal is lost over the Banda Sea. Initially, the plan was for the signal to be lost in space, but in order to dispel rumors that Marvel was adapting Planet Hulk, Feige had Whedon change this. Of course, Marvel did end up adapting part of Planet Hulk in Ragnarok.
  • Holding off on Steve actually saying, “Avengers, assemble” until Endgame will pay dividends.

Anna’s Favorite Scene: That little dinner party scene before things go south is nice, except for the god-awful flirting between Natasha and Bruce, and so is the bit with Tony and Fury in Clint’s barn. “I watched my friends die. You’d think that’d be as bad as it gets, right? Nope. Wasn’t the worst part,” Tony says. To which Fury responds, “The worst part is that you didn’t.” Tony, I am begging you to get a therapist even though your guilt makes for an interesting character. Or Wanda and Clint having a heart-to-heart that inspires her to mess up some bad guys and allows for some self-reflection on Clint’s part.

MCU Ranking: 1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, 2. Guardians of the Galaxy, 3. The Avengers, 4. Captain America: The First Avenger, 5. Iron Man 3, 6. Iron Man, 7. Thor, 8. Avengers: Age of Ultron, 9. Thor: The Dark World, 10. Iron Man 2, 11. The Incredible Hulk

Avengers: Age of Ultron Trailer

Avengers: Age of Ultron is currently available to rent and purchase on most digital storefronts, and is streaming on Disney+.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

MCU Retrospective: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Written by Anna Harrison

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. Captain America: The Winter Soldier has a lot of favorite scenes, so buckle up.

85/100

Back in 2011, the Community episodes “A Fistful of Paintballs” and “For a Few Paintballs More” aired, both directed by Joe Russo. Joe and his brother, Anthony, both served as executive producers on the show, and directed many of its more iconic episodes, building on their experience with fellow sitcom classic Arrested Development. In this particular doubleheader, the denizens of Greendale Community College get pitted against each other in a paintball war; the episodes expertly mimic Spaghetti Westerns and Star Wars to create a parody so precise it could almost pass off as the real thing, save for Community’s self-aware brand of humor.

Well, as it turned out, Marvel bigwig Kevin Feige greatly enjoyed these episodes of Community, so much so that he reached out to the Russo brothers to ask about directing a Marvel gig. The gig turned out to be Captain America: The Winter Soldier, an entry widely regarded as among the MCU’s best (if not the best) and one whose success ensured that the Russo brothers would be at the helm for much of the Infinity Saga, concluding their tenure at Marvel with Avengers: Endgame. And to think, all of that started with a couple of episodes about a community college dousing each other with paint.

(The Russos will even bring back Community alums Danny Pudi, Jim Rash, and Yvette Nicole Brown to cameo in their Marvel films, as well as the infamous Bluth stair-car from Arrested Development. As it turns out, Community and Rick and Morty creator Dan Harmon has nurtured quite a few future Marvel employees on his shows, most notably Jessica Gao, the She-Hulk showrunner; Jeff Loveness, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania writer; and Michael Waldron, Loki showrunner and writer, who also wrote the upcoming Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and whatever Star Wars thing Kevin Feige is doing—Waldron in particular will be a very big deal for the MCU in the upcoming years. On a more unrelated note, Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins worked on Arrested Development alongside the Russos, and is the director of the infamous “Mayonegg” scene. What humble beginnings all these folks had.)

Feige chose well: the Russo brothers took their action movie parody experience from Community and applied it seriously, crafting not only the best Marvel film to date but a solid spy thriller flick in its own right. The team of the Russo brothers with screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (writers of Captain America: The First Avenger and, uh, Thor: The Dark World, unfortunately) would go on to shape the biggest moments in the MCU, but it all starts here.

Where I lamented Steve’s characterization in my review of The Avengers, Markus and McFeely smoothly course-correct; the banter and humor doesn’t just come from old man jokes at Steve’s expense, but allows Chris Evans to flex some subtle comedy chops. In The Avengers (and Avengers: Age of Ultron), Steve becomes a bit of a caricature—a hyper-patriotic goody two-shoes with a stick up his ass and his gaze constantly turning to the past—even down to his costuming choices, and it’s a lazy choice to mine for easy comedy. Here, he’s back to his old (no pun intended) self, breaking rules and creating the witty comments himself, rather than being the oblivious subject of them. 

As Markus himself put it: “We also knew what we didn’t want to do, which was the grandpa story of ‘Oh my god, I’m in the future! What are these buttons? What do they do?’ It’s very tempting to go ‘Oh, this rock and roll…’ But he’s the most adaptive man on the planet. His brain’s been juiced, so he’s not going to be baffled for very long by your iPhone, so you have all those ideas first and then you’re like ‘Those are stupid.’”

At one point, Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) says, “You must miss the good old days.” 

“Well, things aren’t so bad,” Steve replies. “Food’s a lot better—we used to boil everything. No polio is good. Internet, so helpful. I’ve been reading that a lot trying to catch up.” Steve of The Avengers might have agreed with Sam, but his answer here is much more in character.

This isn’t to say that Steve doesn’t think about his past; in fact, the movie is chock-full of ghosts, living or dead, coming back to haunt Steve. He prowls his own exhibit at the Smithsonian just to get a glimpse of the people he’s lost, most noticeably his best friend Bucky (Sebastian Stan) and lost love Peggy (Hayley Atwell), and one particularly gut-wrenching scene involves Steve visiting a very old Peggy, now bed- and dementia-ridden. He’s adapted easily to the world around him, but he’s done so alone.

Still, he’s managed to carve a life for himself by working for S.H.I.E.L.D. and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), jumping out of planes without a parachute and demonstrating some exhilarating hand-to-hand combat. He’s assisted by Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), her cynical outlook bounces off Steve nicely, as he remains an optimist at heart; her presence also lets the MCU feel more lived-in—it doesn’t always require an Avengers movie to have our heroes cross paths. 

However, Steve begins to grow uneasy with S.H.I.E.L.D. and especially Fury, whose compartmentalization rubs Steve the wrong way; Project Insight, in particular, makes Steve properly angry. The project involves three helicarriers that would patrol the skies and eliminate threats before they occurred, à la Minority Report (but with computers as the Precogs), in order to avoid another Avengers-type cataclysm. While Fury, always the pragmatist, expresses pride in the project, Steve points out, “This isn’t freedom. This is fear.” Steve chafed when the government prohibited him from helping the war effort in the 1940s, and here he chafes again at the terrible oversight the helicarriers would give S.H.I.E.L.D., refusing to compartmentalize and become like Fury. 

There’s no particular political ideology behind Steve’s constant balking at governmental orders (the closest Marvel has gotten to endorsing any particular political leaning is The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and even that is vague enough to avoid ruffling most feathers); rather, there is simply a refusal to bend before authorities abusing their power, though things are much grayer here than in Cap’s first outing. The First Avenger preyed on sentimentality and nostalgia for the clear-cut morals of World War II, whereas Winter Soldier complicates things a bit by throwing Steve into a world where even the good guys aren’t so good, drawing on the spy thrillers of the 1970s such as The Parallax View and Marathon Man.

Alas, just as Fury begins to feel suspicious about the organization he runs, he gets knocked out of commission by the mysterious Winter Soldier. (Or “Wiener Soldier,” if you’re Sebastian Stan.) Steve and Natasha find themselves on the run from S.H.I.E.L.D., armed only with their wits, Steve’s shield, and a hard drive Fury gave to Steve before he got shot. The hard drive directs them to Camp Lehigh, the training camp Steve attended in The First Avenger, and so the two make their way there, Evans and Johansson’s long-standing friendship lending authenticity to their characters’ hesitant allyship.

Steve and Natasha’s friendship never attempts to be anything more, a refreshing change of pace when Nat has been shunted around seemingly at random between men. Had they been written to be romantic, it would have been believable (certainly more so than the Natasha/Bruce misfire in Avengers: Age of Ultron); their friendship, however, is even better, especially in a universe where any attractive man and woman who glance at each other seemingly must go to bone town.

Speaking of bone town, Winter Soldier provides our first glimpse of Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp), aka Agent 13. Sharon, the grand-niece of Peggy, is Steve’s main love interest in the comics and a formidable character in her own right, at various points joining different Avengers teams and becoming director of S.H.I.E.L.D. Peggy in the comics stays relegated to the 1940s, an afterthought next to Sharon. However, in the MCU, Sharon is the afterthought—much more on this later, but suffice to say most of this film could be summarized with nary a mention of Sharon Carter, and that is quite a damn shame.

Winter Soldier serves as a decent enough introduction for her, despite her lack of screen time; even with the brief appearances here, had she been given a bigger role in Captain America: Civil War, she might have even let fans forget about Peggy. However, Sharon’s treatment in the MCU leaves a hell of a lot to be desired, and it starts in Winter Soldier, even though easy fixes are staring Markus and McFeely in the face: put Sharon in the Natasha role, as she is another spy whose experience could help Steve on the run; put Sharon in the Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) role as Nick Fury’s right-hand woman; have her join Steve and Natasha on the run; have her be a part of Fury’s secret cabal who knows he’s in hiding after the attempt on his life. (Kevin Feige, if you’re reading this, please hire me. I can fix your problems with female characters.) Any of the above would have given Sharon a) more screen time with Steve (with whom she shares a grand total of three scenes) and b) more screen time in general. Alas, this is perhaps the best version of Sharon Carter we’ve seen in the MCU, and we barely see her at all.

Read More of Anna’s Ongoing Marvel Retrospective Series Here

But back to the story. At Camp Lehigh, Steve discovers a computer containing the electronic consciousness of Dr. Arnim Zola (Toby Jones), the Red Skull’s (Hugo Weaving) lackey from the first Captain America, who was hired on by S.H.I.E.L.D. as a scientist after the Nazis fell, presumably as a part of Operation Paperclip or the MCU equivalent. Zola secretly grew Hydra, the Nazi rogue science division he and the Red Skull were a part of, within S.H.I.E.L.D. until it spread to the top, including World Security Council secretary Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford). 

Pierce is a memorable villain precisely for how ordinary he is. He’s every high-ranking bureaucrat you’ve ever seen, operating on cool logic and played perfectly by Redford in an inversion of his role in Three Days of the Condor, back when he looked a bit like Steve Rogers. “What if Pakistan marched into Mumbai tomorrow,” he posits to a member of the World Security Council, “and you knew that they were going to drag your daughters into a soccer stadium for execution, and you could just… stop it. With a flick of this switch. Wouldn’t you? Wouldn’t you all?” All the deaths Pierce plans to wreak are smoothed over by good old logic, but at Project Insight as well as Hydra’s heart is fascism.

So Steve sets out to stop Pierce and Hydra, and he and Natasha join up with newcomer Sam Wilson, aka Falcon. Anthony Mackie has an easy charisma onscreen, and provides a bit of levity in one of the most serious Marvel movies out there, proving himself a valuable addition to the MCU (an addition which, of course, will only get bigger and bigger). 

When Sam tells Steve and Natasha his wings are locked behind a fort, they shrug and tell him it’s not a problem, and we cut to Sam having already procured the wings. One of The Winter Soldier’s strengths is its trust in its audience: it has a somewhat unwieldy plot for an MCU entry, but largely avoids huge exposition dumps and overly obvious reminders of the storyline. The audience has well-earned faith in these characters by now, and in turn this movie has faith in its viewers. 

The trio’s plan to use Hydra mole/fake S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Jasper Sitwell (Maximiliano Hernández, reprising his role), however, falls apart when the Winter Soldier and Hydra jump them. The ghosts of Steve’s past come roaring to the forefront as the Winter Soldier is revealed to be none other than his childhood best friend, Bucky Barnes, brainwashed and turned into an assassin by Hydra. While the plot elements from Ed Brubaker’s original comic run featuring the Winter Soldier are completely different, Winter Soldier the movie still contains the thrust of its character beats, including the now-iconic “Who the hell is Bucky?” line

Understandably, this revelation throws Steve into a tailspin. He seemed to have made peace—or at least a tentative treaty—with the modern world and the personal losses brought with it, but here comes a blow that knocks him completely out of orbit, a living ghost perfectly preserved as he was in the 1940s but missing that crucial spark of humanity, that easy smile and charm, replaced instead by the empty shell of a killer.

For a certain corner of the internet circa 2014, a corner largely populated by teenage girls, the Steve/Bucky relationship became an obsession: whether you viewed Steve and Bucky as platonic or romantic, it was everywhere—it was hot guys acting torn up and tortured inside, so what’s not to love? Sebastian Stan’s performance as Bucky in particular—a mostly mute performance, but one brimming with inner turmoil and a deep vulnerability underneath that expressionless assassin mask—sent ripples through the fandom corners of the web. “Stucky,” as it’s called, became a sensation, for better or worse, and lines like “Even when I had nothing, I had Bucky” and “I’m with you till the end of the line” became peppered over the internet. (The “ship” itself, of course, is harmless, and a way for some fans to create some LGBTQ representation for themselves, since the MCU has been severely lacking in that department, but some of its fans are something else entirely—but let’s table that discussion until Civil War, when the Steve/Sharon kiss drew their ire and coaxed out some very virulent misogyny.) 

For a character with only a handful of lines—despite being one of the two titular characters—Bucky makes quite an impression as the Winter Soldier, helped by his cool-looking metal arm and cool-sounding theme by Henry Jackman. The great showdown on the helicarriers as Steve and company bring down Hydra has its grand CGI moments, as Marvel is wont to do, but the final fight between Steve and Bucky feels more visceral and emotional than most MCU finales, full of stabbings and punches but also loss and grief intermingled with hope.

Bringing down Hydra, though, means bringing down S.H.I.E.L.D. as well, tossing away the whole bad egg. Taking down the organization that shaped much of Phase One is certainly a bold move; unfortunately, this will have more of an impact on the television show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. than the MCU, seeing as Joss Whedon will resurrect a helicarrier in Avengers: Age of Ultron and have a S.H.I.E.L.D. skeleton crew help with the mess at Sokovia. 

Still, it’s a huge leap for The Winter Soldier to take, and though it’s one largely undercut by the next big team-up movie (thanks, Joss!), at the time it felt like a Big Deal. It was a risk, and showed that Marvel was willing to blow it all up—even if the fallout from this and subsequent blowups is never as steep as we expect. The illusion of change, as I’ve discussed.

Even if the storylines of the MCU only veer so far off the side of the road, The Winter Soldier did permanently change the nature and perception of Marvel films. It lived more easily in its shared universe than Iron Man 3 or Thor: The Dark World, as it wasn’t afraid to bring in preexisting characters even as Captain America remains a focal point; it had big plot points with ramifications outside a teamup movie; most importantly, it showed that superhero movies don’t only have to be superhero movies. Post-Winter Soldier, the diversity of Marvel films flourished. We had the ’70s political thriller of Winter Soldier, and that paved the way for the action comedies of Guardians of the Galaxy or Thor: Ragnarok, for teen coming-of-age flicks like both Spider-Man entries, for Black Panther and Eternals

Yes, obviously there are common threads and tropes running through all of these films—you can only go so far with a monstrous corporation like Marvel had become by this point, especially one owned by Disney and concerned with remaining palatable to the masses—but Winter Soldier feels distinctly unique within the Marvel canon: tight, visceral, light on quips (it’s probably the least funny MCU film) but heavy on thrills, exciting action choreography, and character moments. It deftly balances the introduction of new characters (well, maybe not Sharon) that will shape the future of the MCU while ripping the rug out from underneath the existing ones, and brims with a fresh energy sorely needed after The Dark World. If Phase One was the birth of the MCU, Winter Soldier is where it grows up.

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:

  • Not groundwork, but an easter egg that’s been pointed out many times before: the Bible passage quoted on Nick Fury’s fake tombstone, Ezekiel 25:17, doesn’t exist, and is a nod to Samuel L. Jackon’s Pulp Fiction character, who quotes this fictitious passage.
  • “Last time I trusted someone, I lost an eye.” This line of Nick Fury’s will be explained in Captain Marvel, which… hm. No comment.
  • The S.H.I.E.L.D. agent who refuses to initiate the Project Insight launch sequence also appears briefly in Avengers: Age of Ultron.
  • Oh, look, a Stephen Strange namedrop from Sitwell.
  • Robert Redford showing up in Avengers: Endgame was one of the most shocking cameos in a movie built on shocking cameos.
  • During computer Zola’s discussion about the Winter Soldier, a newspaper headline appears proclaiming that Howard and Maria Stark have died in a car accident, heavily implying that the Winter Soldier is the one that caused it. This will be an enormous source of conflict in Captain America: Civil War.
  • Batroc the Leaper (Georges St-Pierre), the leader of the pirates on the ship in the opening act, appears again in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, which is fun. He does more leaping in that.
  • Steve’s notebook also appears in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Obviously that show takes a lot of cues and characters from this film, but some of the smaller ones are a bit less noticeable to a more casual viewer.
  • Both in this movie and the original Captain America, Bucky very briefly picks up Steve’s shield, a nod to his time as Captain America in the comics and foreshadowing in case the MCU decided to go down the Bucky-Cap road (which, of course, they did not, ultimately going with Sam Wilson, another shield-wielder in the comics).
  • If you stopped watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. midway through season one because it was mediocre, the episodes set after Winter Soldier, when Hydra is revealed to have been inside S.H.I.E.L.D. all along, skyrocket in quality, and it keeps going up from there (generally). Just saying. They also do some time traveling in season seven and Project Insight plays a part in their travels.

Anna’s Favorite Scene: Where to begin? The hand-to-hand fight on the Lemurian Star, the “who the hell is Bucky?” fight on the highway, Robert Redford slapping around shirtless Sebastian Stan, the elevator fight, Natasha and Steve having a heart to heart which gives Natasha more characterization in two minutes than the entirety of Iron Man 2… the list goes on.

MCU Ranking: 1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, 2. The Avengers, 3. Captain America: The First Avenger, 4. Iron Man 3, 5. Iron Man, 6. Thor, 7. Thor: The Dark World, 8. Iron Man 2, 9. The Incredible Hulk

Captain America: The Winter Soldier Trailer

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is currently available to rent and purchase on most digital storefronts, and is streaming on Disney+.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

MCU Retrospective: Thor: The Dark World

Written by Anna Harrison

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. Thor: The Dark World’s good scenes are a bit few and far between, however.

60/100

Thor: The Dark World often has the distinction of being labelled the worst MCU movie, a distinction which is not entirely unearned: Thor: The Dark World takes the worst aspects of its predecessor (unearned romance, too many things happening on Earth, not enough things on Asgard, boring non-Loki villain) and amplifies them. Instead of recognizing the inherent absurdity of the premise, director Alan Taylor takes his gritty Game of Thrones background and attempts to graft it onto the MCU, resulting in a gray-looking misfire that nonetheless has some good individual moments even as the film as a whole represents the first major misstep for a post-Avengers MCU. Luckily for the film, it still retains its stellar leads in Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston, who once again provide a saving grace here; at its worst, Thor: The Dark World is still a decent enough popcorn movie bolstered by a handful of standout scenes, and it remains more memorable than Iron Man 2 and The Incredible Hulk, the other two Marvel films that get relegated to the bottom of the heap. 

Like Thor, this movie starts with a flashback to Thor’s ancestors fighting some vague alien race, but this time instead of the Frost Giants we are introduced to the Dark Elves, led by Malekith (Christopher Eccleston). Eccleston has repeatedly complained (and rightfully so) about his Marvel experience: he was stuck in a makeup chair for hours upon hours, and on top of that, Malekith is underwritten and underutilized, giving Eccleston precious little to work with. Eccleston is certainly among the most talented performers the MCU has gathered, but all his talent gets wasted in a completely thankless role (other Marvel actors who will join Eccleston’s ranks include Lee Pace, Mads Mikkelsen, and fellow The Leftovers alum Carrie Coon). Malekith is just boring in a way that even bottom tier Marvel villains usually aren’t.

Malekith has a plan involving the mysterious substance known as the Aether, and wishes to use it to destroy the Nine Realms, something only feasible during the conjunction of the Nine Realms (yes, it sounds very much like The Conjunction of the Spheres from The Witcher). While Odin’s ancestors defeat Malekith, they can only bury the Aether, which will of course be foolproof and not come back to bite them in the ass. After this exposition dump, we get the title card, and off we go.

Back in present day Asgard, Loki gets imprisoned for the crimes he committed in The Avengers, including but not limited to: murder, attempted world domination, and stabbing his brother. Odin (Anthony Hopkins) continues to be the worst father imaginable, telling Loki that his “birthright was to die” and informing Loki that he will never see his mother, Frigga (Rene Russo), again. Honestly, this guy is supposed to be a wise and good king? He sucks. (Okay, yes, maybe Loki did some bad things. Odin is still terrible.) Meanwhile, Thor and his buddies Lady Sif (Jaimie Alexander), Fandral (Zachary Levi, replacing Josh Dallas due to scheduling conflicts as Dallas once replaced Levi in the first Thor), Hogun (Tadanobu Asano), and Volstagg (Ray Stevenson) are pacifying the Nine Realms. Why are the Nine Realms in conflict? It’s rather unclear, but Thor makes them stop it, so no worries.

Even as he goes off quelling unrest and furthering Asgard’s imperialism, Thor is feeling pretty down without his love, Jane (Natalie Portman). Jane has been trying to get over her own heartsickness by going on dates and putting herself out there, but she, Darcy (Kat Dennings), and Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) are all still searching for a way to reach Thor. Upon arriving at a gravitational anomaly in London, Jane gets sucked into Asgard’s basement where the Aether is kept, and it latches onto her and alerts Malekith to the Aether’s location. “The convergence returns,” he intones prophetically, as if this should make us quake in our boots. Alas, it does not.

So Thor and Jane are reunited, and for a supposedly epic reunion of lovers, it’s pretty uninspiring. It does give us a chance to explore Asgard a bit more, and it’s nice to see the place given a bit more fleshing out. It also allows us to hate on Odin some more as he compares his son’s girlfriend to a goat. However, as nice as this worldbuilding is, the plot now hinges almost entirely on Jane, and the writing does no favors to either Jane or Natalie Portman.

Perhaps a reason for Portman’s middling performance comes from the director—not the one they hired, but rather the one they didn’t. Thor: The Dark World cycled through multiple directors, including Patty Jenkins—who would go on to direct Wonder Woman and its sequel—before landing on Alan Taylor. Jenkins was initially brought on to the project but ended up leaving after two months due to “creative differences,” which she would later elaborate on: “I did not believe I could make a good movie out of the script they were planning on doing,” she said, which is a fair assessment, judging from the finished product. Her idea for The Dark World involved a Romeo and Juliet-type plotline revolving around Thor and Jane, the star-crossed lovers separated by space, but the studio didn’t go for it; when Jenkins departed the project, Natalie Portman was apparently furious, upset that Marvel had driven away a female director whose focus on the Thor/Jane romance would have undoubtedly given Portman much more to do than the original Thor, and certainly more than The Dark World presents her.

So Portman gets saddled with little more than a damsel in distress, given importance only because the plot MacGuffin entwines itself with her. Her middling chemistry with Chris Hemsworth from Thor vanishes here, replaced instead by a relationship so flat it makes even Loki and Jane seem more palatable: when Thor leaves Asgard to reunite with Jane in the post-credits scene, the result is an eye roll rather than jubilation. (Due to scheduling conflicts, and probably lack of interest, Portman couldn’t film some of this scene; instead, Elsa Pataky of the Fast and Furious franchise—and Hemsworth’s wife—doubles as Jane.) It’s little surprise then that Portman does not reprise her role for Thor: Ragnarok; instead we are informed that Jane broke up with Thor, and that’s that. She will, however, reappear in Thor: Love and Thunder, lured back in by Taika Waititi’s fresh take on the franchise along with many other Marvel fans. This time, Jane is sure to have more to do, seeing as Love and Thunder will adapt the comics arc which sees Jane become Thor, but in this film Jane does exceedingly little other than faint at various inconvenient times.

Read More of Anna’s Ongoing Marvel Retrospective Series Here

She is still a far more interesting character than Malekith, whose Dark Elves are among the dullest villains Marvel has created (which says quite a lot, as villains have always been a weak spot for the MCU). They infiltrate Asgard and kill Frigga, though they fail to acquire the Aether. Frigga’s Viking-style funeral scene remains a touching and impactful spot amidst a movie with many forgettable elements, and its visuals and music are among the strongest in the MCU—they evoke emotions that otherwise wouldn’t have been felt for a character with very little screen time and even less dialogue.

Reeling over the loss of his mother and fearing for his kingdom, Thor wishes to seek out the Dark Elves on their home turf of Svartalfheim rather than risk another invasion of Asgard. When Thor presents this plan to Odin, Odin refuses and, his mind bent on the total annihilation of the Dark Elves, says he will fight “till the last Asgardian falls, till the last drop of blood is shed.” 

“What makes you so different than Malekith, then?” Thor counters, to which Odin responds, “The difference, my son, is that I will win.” Thor calls him out on this megalomania, but the chance to truly dig into Odin’s failings as a king and father goes undeveloped aside from this handful of lines. At the end of the day, the film still tries to frame Odin as a good and just king despite the fact that he has repeatedly shown his failings, and so it falls to me to berate him instead. He’s the worst.

Forced to resort to subterfuge, Thor enlists the help of Loki. The reunion of these two results in some of the best bits of the movie, and proves yet again the potency of the Hiddleston/Hemsworth pairing: they make these moments sing in a way the rest of the movie doesn’t purely from the force of their chemistry. Once again, Loki in particular shines, proving why he has become such an enduring character in the Marvel universe. Like Iron Man 2, what makes Thor: The Dark World passable are its character beats, the moments where the movie takes a breath and lets its actors do the heavy lifting. (Heavy lifting might be giving too much credit to the script, but they do some lifting, at least.) 

So Thor, Jane, and Loki go to Svartalfheim, the home of the Dark Elves. While they (or, rather, Malekith) get(s) the Aether out of Jane, Loki becomes fatally wounded. What follows is a touching little death scene between Thor and Loki, with Thor promising to tell Odin of Loki’s heroics and Loki replying, “I didn’t do it for him.” (15-year-old me was absolutely distraught watching this scene in theaters for the first time. And the second time. And the third time. And… you get the picture.) Though the scene will get excellently parodied in Thor: Ragnarok, it is a nice moment of emotion before the movie becomes a mess of gray-tinged fight scenes.

Of course, despite this redemptive death scene, Loki still lives, as hinted at by the green shimmer appearing over an Asgardian soldier searching Svartalfheim and confirmed by the reveal at the end of the movie. Initially, Loki was going to perish permanently here, completing his arc and dying a hero (of sorts). However, test audiences refused to believe that Loki, the consummate trickster, was actually dead, so Marvel reversed course and added the reveal that Loki faked his death and is posing as Odin. Marvel’s decision was helped, no doubt, by the monstrous fan base that Loki spawned; when Tom Hiddleston made his infamous appearance in character at the 2013 San Diego Comic-Con, bringing the audience to their feet as they chanted “Loki” (someone even shouted out, “My wife loves you!”), Marvel chief Kevin Feige realized the full extent of Loki’s impact on the MCU. He took on a life of his own, his importance to the fans far outstripping his actual screentime as he consistently outshone his heroic counterparts. In a cinematic universe populated by charismatic and attractive superheroes, to have the primary villain of its biggest movie so far, The Avengers, turn out to be one of the most popular characters is no small feat. It’s a testament to the character and to Hiddleston’s ever-perfect performance that he has thwarted death twice; first here, and later in Avengers: Endgame (sort of). 

But his fake demise in The Dark World does mean Loki is out of the picture for the rest of the movie, and The Dark World becomes far less interesting as a result. The trappings of the film—the performers (the ones actually given things to do, that is), the humor, the music—all provide entertainment and emotion enough (though the humor does occasionally undercut the more impactful moments, a critique that has been leveled at Marvel more and more as the years have gone by), but when the plot shifts to the paltry villains and generic magic liquid, The Dark World loses its way; this becomes especially obvious for the last third of the movie, as Loki ceases to bring his charm to the screen and the focus narrows down to Malekith vs. Thor and company.

Had this been an introductory movie, The Dark World would have been a disaster. However, the strength of Marvel’s foundation is such that they can make mistakes and still triumph. (Obligatory “of course, it’s your opinion if Marvel triumphs or just succeeds in damaging cinema.”) Audiences are already invested in Thor, in Loki, in their world, even if they aren’t invested evenly between all the characters (if you can’t tell, I might be a bit more invested in Loki than those around him), and so there is a base level of enjoyment to be had even if the particulars of the film are a bit weaker than other MCU entries. There’s still plenty of fun: Thor hanging Mjolnir on a coat rack, Thor taking the tube, Dr. Selvig running naked around Stonehenge, everything Loki says and does. The music, like in the first Thor film, stands out as one of the more memorable Marvel scores, this time composed Brian Tyler, who will go on to compose Avengers: Age of Ultron, adding to a resume already including Iron Man 3 and the revamped Marvel fanfare.

Audience goodwill can certainly help gloss over the errors of this movie; unlike The Incredible Hulk or other Phase One films, by now viewers have a certain trust in Marvel that allows the MCU to make mistakes, as in The Dark World, and not suffer huge box office or cultural consequences. Without the middling response of this movie, we might never have gotten the zany escapades of Thor: Ragnarok, which completely revamp Thor’s world and do away with the self-serious Shakespearan stylings in favor of something that more fully embraces its absurd comics roots. It certainly ranks towards the bottom of the Marvel universe, but Thor: The Dark World still has its saving graces, and its falters forced some very needed self-reflection upon Marvel Studios; from here on out, it only gets better. 

Well, some of the time. Most of the time? At least sometimes.

Yes, this is from Comic-Con.

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:

  • The Aether turns out to be the Reality Stone: “It is not wise to keep two Infinity Stones so close together,” Vosltagg says in the mid-credits scene. Cue audience gasp.
  • Benicio del Toro’s character, called “The Collector” and only appearing in the mid-credits scene, will show up again in Guardians of the Galaxy, and then later in Avengers: Infinity War. The payoff is a bit small for such a setup, but perhaps he’ll show up again. Who knows. 
  • In the play that Loki stages in Thor: Ragnarok, while Matt Damon’s Loki dies, the choir sings the piece that plays in this movie during Loki’s death (and Frigga’s funeral). Top tier comedy.
  • Dr. Selvig’s chalkboard sort of alludes to the multiverse, but mostly just the Nine Realms, though he does write “616 Universe” on it, referring to Earth-616, the main universe in which the comics take place.
  • The whole “Loki is secretly posing as Odin and now de facto rules Asgard” stinger at the end is left open-ended, but certainly does not seem to bode well for Asgard. Had the Thor franchise continued down its somber path, the consequences could have been a bit more dire; however, when Taika Waititi took the reins for Thor: Ragnarok, it turns out that all Loki does with this newfound power is make statues and plays dedicated to himself. Sometimes Marvel’s seeds do not bloom where you think they will.

Anna’s Favorite Scene: Frigga’s funeral or the scenes of Thor and Loki attempting to pilot a Dark Elf ship. You could make a whole movie about their tense reconciliation, though here it’s only a handful of scenes; luckily, they’re among the best in the movie. (I still wouldn’t say no to more, though.)

MCU Ranking: 1. The Avengers, 2. Captain America: The First Avenger, 3. Iron Man 3, 4. Iron Man, 5. Thor, 6. Thor: The Dark World, 7. Iron Man 2, 8. The Incredible Hulk

Thor: The Dark World Trailer

Thor: The Dark World is currently available to rent and purchase on most digital storefronts, and is streaming on Disney+.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

MCU Retrospective: The Avengers

Written by Anna Harrison

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.

80/100

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.

Read More of Anna’s Ongoing Marvel Retrospective Series Here

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).

MCU Ranking: 1. The Avengers, 2. Captain America: The First Avenger, 2. Iron Man, 3. Thor, 4. Iron Man 2, 5. The Incredible Hulk

The Avengers Trailer

The Avengers is currently available to rent and purchase on most digital storefronts, and is streaming on Disney+.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.