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: 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: 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.

MCU Retrospective: Iron Man 2

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. Next up is Iron Man 2, which made the first Iron Man seem like a one-time stroke of good fortune.

60/100

If the MCU started with a bang with the first Iron Man, its two immediate follow-ups more closely resembled whimpers, making this burgeoning cinematic universe look like a flash in the pan rather than something that could stand on its own two feet. While Iron Man 2 is less laborious than The Incredible Hulk and possesses some of the wit that made the first Iron Man soar, its overstuffed plot and boring action set-pieces make it land with a bit of a thud, moving the MCU to rocky ground.

Where Iron Man’s opening act—Tony Stark in a cave with a box of scraps—is careful and meticulous, stripping our hero of everything but his wits and thereby giving him humanity, Iron Man 2 opts for a more haphazard approach even as it consciously tries to echo those opening moments from its predecessor. Instead of Tony in a cave, we have Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) in a derelict building in Russia, but he too has a box of scraps—and a thirst for vengeance upon Tony Stark for some unknown wrong done to Ivan’s dead father, Anton (Yevgeni Nikolayevich Lazarev). All of this is truncated into the span of about five minutes, so where Tony’s grief at Yinsen’s death in Iron Man lands, Ivan’s overexaggerated howl at his father’s passing comes off as satire even as the movie tries to play it straight.

But, thankfully, we still have Robert Downey Jr. as our anchor, and Tony Stark continues to be endlessly frustrating and endlessly charming. As we reacquaint ourselves with our hero, we learn that the palladium core in Tony’s arc reactor that keeps him alive is also killing him, something that has sent Tony into a depressive spiral. 

Since the beginning, Tony has had a rather self-destructive streak; he can never let himself rest, and instead keeps pushing and pushing. He gets obsessive. He talks about using the Iron Man suit to protect the world, but often it’s really to protect himself from the guilt he feels over his parents’ deaths, the guilt he feels from Stark Industries’ murky legacy, always the guilt over something. His impending doom in Iron Man 2 accelerates this, his suicidal tendencies making him even more reckless than normal and sending him back to his old, pre-Iron Man self: he drinks, he parties, he ogles new assistant Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson), and generally acts like a prat, though we know him enough to know that he’s faking it and putting on a front—at least to some extent. However, his actions result in Rhodey (Don Cheadle, replacing Terrence Howard) confiscating one of Tony’s suits after a mano-a-mano beatdown. To cap off his string of bad decisions, Tony decides to compete in the Monaco Historic Grand Prix, where Ivan is lying in wait for him. Aside from a great suit-up (and Pepper and Tony’s back-and-forth while director Jon Favreau’s Happy Hogan tries to run Ivan over), the fight is largely dull.

Tony learns that Ivan is seeking revenge on behalf of his father Anton, whom we learn worked on the original arc reactor project with Tony’s father, Howard, before Howard had him deported after Anton leaked secrets. This sets up the central idea of the movie: legacy. The legacy of Anton, the legacy of Howard, the legacy of Tony’s suits and Tony himself. (“If you could make God bleed,” Ivan says, “people would cease to believe in him. There will be blood in the water, the sharks will come. All I have to do is sit back and watch as the world consumes you.”)

Again, the movie tries to play up the parallels between Tony and Ivan: they both create suits with the technology their fathers built, they both wrestle with their fathers’ deaths—the movie almost suggests that the only difference between the two is money. Tony has it, Ivan does not. Unfortunately, Mickey Rourke cannot give Ivan the same nuance as Tony, due both to the script and to Rourke’s own acting, so this concept—one that could have been potent in the right hands—largely fizzles.

However, to Rourke’s credit, not all of this failure rests on his shoulders; in fact, according to Rourke himself, studio interference resulted in much of his performance getting left on the cutting room floor, stripping Ivan of any complex interior life in favor of a run-of-the-mill baddie made to sell cool toys (more on selling toys when we get to Iron Man 3). The production of Iron Man 2 was rushed and frantic even outside of Rourke’s complaints, with Marvel trying to capitalize too quickly on its initial success and rushing production in order to churn out another film, and it shows. Coming off an Oscar nomination for The Wrestler, it’s not as though Rourke had suddenly lost any acting abilities, and comments similar to Rourke’s would be made down the line by other directors and actors who worked with Marvel, though largely before 2015, when the so-called “Creative Committee” was disbanded and Marvel allowed directors a looser rein (more on studio meddling when we get to Age of Ultron).

Where Rourke—or, rather, the studio—fails, though, Sam Rockwell swoops in to save the day. As Tony’s rival Justin Hammer, Rockwell (who was originally in the running to play Tony himself) hams it up, clearly having a blast as he struts around and breaks Ivan out of prison. Hammer wants to use Ivan to make his own version of the Iron Man suits to sell to the US military, failing to consider the consequences or the fact that other people like Ivan have their own wants too. (Here’s another underexplored parallel that never goes beyond surface level: Hammer is the greedy corporate man who throws morality out the window in favor of profits, a path that Tony was going down until the events of his first movie. But the movie opts instead for a shallow comparison, portraying Hammer merely as a peacocking Tony-wannabe rather than a slightly warped mirror image.)

Luckily for Tony, S.H.I.E.L.D., in the form of Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury and Clark Gregg’s Phil Coulson, shows up again to save him from himself. Turns out that Tony’s new sexpot assistant, Natalie, is also S.H.I.E.L.D., and her real name (most of the time) is Natasha Romanoff. Scarlett Johansson has spoken out against the sexualized nature of Natasha’s first MCU outing, and these missteps are glaringly obvious upon rewatch: multiple shots of her derriere, a completely unnecessary scene where she changes in the car while Happy tries to sneak a peek, et cetera. It feels like a very 2000s approach to gender equality: she’s sexy and the movie very overtly draws attention to this, but she can beat up people and is smart, and therefore it’s really a win for feminism. (It’s not.) As the MCU has gone on, Natasha has become one of the more interesting characters—and not because she has a nice ass—however, her introduction has aged poorly. 

S.H.I.E.L.D.’s arrival not only reveals the truth about Natalie, but also about Howard Stark—turns out he was its co-founder. S.H.I.E.L.D. is part of his legacy, but again, Iron Man 2 drops the ball by barely addressing how blindsided Tony is by this revelation, leaving it up to Robert Downey Jr. to do the heavy lifting here. He’s more than able, but he should have a script that backs him up as well. 

With the help of his dad from beyond the grave, Tony fixes his arc reactor, which is good news because Ivan has double-crossed Hammer (color me surprised) and rigged his Iron Man drones to run amok and destroy Tony and his legacy. What follows is a mind-numbingly boring and tediously long affair where various featureless iron suits shoot lasers at each other. It’s the Iron Monger fight from Iron Man, but longer and without any personal stakes because the movie never took the time to build up any sort of relationship between Ivan and Tony (unlike Tony and Obadiah), even though the seeds of something more interesting were right there.

The seeds of something more interesting seem to be always just out of reach for this MCU entry. Much of the film concerns itself with who gets to make and have the Iron Man suits, which raises many thorny moral questions: should technology be in the hands of only a select few? Should the American military have access to this, and if so, what does that mean for the rest of the world? Tony proclaims, “I have successfully privatized world peace.” What dangers could arise from this? Is this really something to aspire to?

But Marvel skates over these questions, giving them less than even a cursory nod. Tony is our hero, and therefore he as an individual should have the suit because he is the main character and thus deserves it. Rhodey can get a suit because he’s also a good guy, and he can use it for the American military because freedom, hell yeah! Comics have always been slightly better at handling weightier themes because they are less beholden to investors and have a smaller audience (for example, the “Demon in a Bottle” comic arc featuring Iron Man delves much deeper into Tony’s alcohol issues than Iron Man 2 does), but to have all this discussion on the military-industrial complex via Stark and Hammer Industries, to set up this proto-Cold War between Tony and Ivan, and then to ignore the complications that arise from these ideas feels disingenuous.

Iron Man 2’s saving graces are found within its smaller moments, in the relationships it builds upon from the first movie and in the easy rapport of its cast—at least, other than Rourke. Cheadle smoothly slides in to replace Terrence Howard, his Rhodey a little less down to party than the prior version but a better character for it. (To help the audience get over this speed bump, Cheadle’s first line as Rhodey is, “Look, it’s me, I’m here, deal with it. Let’s move on.” Guess the movie didn’t listen to Ike Perlmutter’s claim that no one would notice the replacement because all Black people “look the same.”) Gwyneth Paltrow and Robert Downey Jr. continue their chemistry from the first movie, making Pepper and Tony’s first kiss at the end feel earned, especially in comparison to some of the rushed Marvel romances that would come after; Clark Gregg and Samuel L. Jackson’s inclusion, however brief, points to the bigger universe that Marvel is building to. Sam Rockwell, as stated before, owns. For a movie with such boring action sequences and an overly convoluted plot, Iron Man 2 manages to have (mostly) good performances and strong character work.

Yet Iron Man 2’s failures mean that Marvel is, so far, only one for three. Not exactly a great ratio. They are balanced on a precipice, liable to tip either way depending on the success of the next several movies, and while we now know how they land, Iron Man 2 did not do much to help at the time.

Groundwork: Marvel has no big master plan; rather, they plant seeds wherever they can in the hopes that some of them might one day germinate. None of these were planned from day one, lest the whole ship sink, but the seeds germinated nonetheless:

  • If there is any justice in the world, Justin Hammer will show up in the new Disney+ show Armor Wars. (It’s only a rumor right now.)
  • Senator Stern (Garry Shandling) appears again in Captain America: The Winter Soldier as a Hydra agent.
  • The movie all but states this outright, but the issue in New Mexico that Fury and Coulson deal with ends up being Thor. Here’s something fun.
  • Howard Stark is dead here (obviously). Later, it’s revealed that Bucky Barnes as the Winter Soldier killed him, though Marvel didn’t know that yet. A young Howard will show up in a couple movies, looking nothing like John Slattery.
  • There really isn’t much groundwork laid in this movie, honestly—or, rather, no groundwork that just isn’t part of the plot already (like introducing Black Widow). 

Anna’s Favorite Scene: “If you try to escape or play any sort of games with me, I will taze you and watch Supernanny while you drool into the carpet,” Coulson tells Tony. Not really a scene, more of just a single line. (Scene-wise, it’s probably when Tony apologizes to Pepper by bringing her strawberries—which she is allergic to.) Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is great and everyone needs to stop sleeping on it. I don’t care it’s not really canon anymore, the Framework arc is damn good television.

MCU Ranking: 1. Iron Man, 2. Iron Man 2, 3. The Incredible Hulk

Iron Man 2 Trailer

Iron Man 2 is currently available to rent and purchase on most digital storefronts, and is streamable on Disney+.

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

MCU Retrospective: Iron Man

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. We start at the very beginning (of release order, that is). 

Update, July 15, 2021: Upon reflection, and upon watching Captain America: The First Avenger, I had amended my initial score of 80 to become a 75/100; I still had my nostalgia-tinted glasses on when rating this. Iron Man holds up well, but not overly so.

80/100

“I am inevitable.”

These words, spoken by Thanos in Avengers: Endgame, seem as if they could easily be applied to the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole; from our viewpoint now, where Marvel has saturated nearly every corner of our lives, it can be easy to think that the MCU was a given, and that its rise was just waiting to happen, but that would be disingenuous. With Iron Man, Marvel Studios pulled off a miracle, and they kept doing so until they finally climbed to the top of the media landscape—and then they did it again with Endgame, creating a (largely) satisfying end to a 22-film saga that somehow managed to balance its ridiculous multitude of characters. Of course, your mileage may vary on how much good you think these miracles do, and how good they actually are, but inevitable? Hardly.

And it all started with 2008’s Iron Man.

Having slowly clawed its way back after filing for bankruptcy in 1996, Marvel was still on unsteady ground in the aughts, and had sold off many of its biggest characters to other film studios: Spider-Man belonged to Sony, the X-Men and Fantastic Four to 20th Century Fox. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies and the X-Men trilogy performed like gangbusters, but Marvel Studios itself made little from these films, the bulk of the profits instead going to Sony or Fox.

Their solution? Take out a $525 million loan from Merrill Lynch and hire an independent director best known for the cult hit Swingers to make a largely-improvised movie around a C-list superhero played by an actor widely regarded as damaged goods. It hardly seems foolproof, and indeed, it wasn’t.

Yet against the odds, Iron Man worked, and it worked well, laying the blueprint for future MCU entries with its blend of action, humor, and heart (though Mamma Mia ended up outgrossing it that year). Much of its success rested upon the shoulders of Robert Downey Jr., who came roaring back to stardom with a pitch-perfect performance as Tony Stark, who would become the linchpin for the budding MCU. Tony would go on to undergo one of the most dynamic character arcs in the MCU, and it all starts here.

The first third of the movie could almost function as a standalone: Tony Stark, drinking and flirting his way through life, gets captured in Afghanistan after showing the US Army Stark Industry’s latest weapon design. Tony learns that his weapons have been being used for nefarious purposes by the terrorist group that captured him, dubbed the Ten Rings. (No one has ever accused Marvel of too much nuance.) The Ten Rings asks that Tony make a new weapon for them; Tony and fellow captive Yinsen (Shaun Toub) pretend to do so while secretly making a suit that will allow them to escape. From there, and after Yinsen’s inevitable death, Tony sets out to make things right and disarm his business, our perfect post-9/11 superhero out to single-handedly stop the War on Terror. (Iron Man is about the closest Marvel ever gets to critiquing the military-industrial complex, but we’ll table the discussion about Marvel’s relationship to the military for later.)

It is hard to overstate how much Downey owns Tony Stark. Here is a superhero who can’t shoot webs, who doesn’t have adamantium claws, who isn’t a nigh-undefeatable alien; hell, he doesn’t even have a six pack. He is just a man in a can, skating by on his wits (and his money, of course), by turns charming and infuriating, his every action streaked by a sense of desperation that pushes him to nearly a suicidal obsession with righting his wrongs and protecting those he initially failed. It’s a lot to juggle, but Downey does it with such ease that it’s hard to believe the studio was against his casting at first.

Director and fellow co-star Jon Favreau surrounds Downey with a talented cast of players, most notably Jeff Bridges as Obadaih Stane and Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts. While much has been said over Marvel’s forgettable villains, Bridges makes Obadaih by turns genial and menacing, leaving an impression despite the rather unremarkable third act that largely devolves into men in metal suits punching each other. But Obadaih is still fun, chomping on his cigar and yelling at this subordinates; he doesn’t want to eliminate half the population or rule over the entire galaxy, he is just a greedy corporate crony willing to gloss over human loss for a bit of money and power, and his existence serves to remind Tony of what he can never become. (Again, this is about the closest Marvel ever gets to critiquing corporate greed and capitalism run amok. But it’s fun to watch.)

Much has also been said over Marvel’s forgettable romances, though there are a few exceptions, Tony and Pepper being foremost among them. This is due in large part to Favreau’s willingness to wait a couple films before throwing them together, and also because of Gwyneth Paltrow and Robert Downey Jr.’s great chemistry. Even if you don’t buy into Goop, it’s hard to deny the charm she displays in the film. Pepper herself, of course, is a great character, and she will become increasingly important in these films.

Terrence Howard is there too, obviously, though the character of Rhodey has become Don Cheadle’s so much so that the original Rhodey feels like a placeholder (the rumor goes that Howard left over a pay dispute, having gotten more money than Robert Downey Jr. for the first Iron Man and getting upset when that trend was reversed for Iron Man 2). Still, though Howard may believe that 1×1=2, he makes a good foil to Downey, his Rhodey a bit less responsible than Cheadle’s and a bit friendlier.

Iron Man, in retrospect, does not stand out as the most daring or inventive Marvel film, though that’s easy to say when comparing it against the 20+ films that have come out since. (It does, however, have the MCU’s steamiest scene: some dry humping that lasts about thirty seconds. It seems that Paramount was a more forgiving distributor than Disney would become in 2009.) But let’s not forget that while critics might complain about the now-staid nature of the MCU, it was founded on several enormous gambles, not the least of which includes Samuel L. Jackson’s cameo as Nick Fury: with the words “I’m here to talk to you about the Avenger Initiative,” the cinematic door suddenly burst wide open in a way it never had before. This was not just going to be a standalone movie, or part of a trilogy centered around one character; as Fury puts it, “You’ve become part of a bigger universe. You just don’t know it yet.”

Ah, but that’s for another day. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

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 Avenger Initiative, obviously, leads to the formation of the Avengers later down the line.
  • Clark Gregg’s Agent Coulson and the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division become more and more important, most especially in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (and, of course, the TV show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., neglected by Marvel at large but eking out its own bizarre, fun existence).
  • Rhodey says, “Next time, baby” while looking at an Iron Man suit. In Iron Man 2, he becomes Iron Patriot. Wow. Crazy!
  • The Ten Rings will appear in the upcoming Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, which will no doubt retrofit Tony’s backstory a little bit.
  • Yinsen mentions meeting Tony at a party several years ago, though Tony—drunk at the time of the party—cannot recollect this. In Iron Man 3, Yinsen and Tony will appear via flashback at this aforementioned party.
  • The guy to whom Obadaih yells, “Tony Stark was able to build this in a cave with a box of scraps!” pops up in Spider-Man: Far From Home
  • Who could have guessed that this voiceover gig for Paul Bettany as the artificial intelligence J.A.R.V.I.S. would eventually result in his own TV show with Elizabeth Olsen?

Anna’s Favorite Scene: Pepper switching out Tony’s arc reactors. Funny and then sweet (“I don’t have anyone but you”). I can’t help it, I’m a schmuck.

MCU Ranking: 1. Iron Man

Iron Man Trailer

Iron Man is currently available to rent and purchase on most digital storefronts, and is streamable on Disney+.

Sources: Slate, Digital Spy, my own unholy amount of Marvel knowledge

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