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: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 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. The a-holes are back!

85/100

Like its predecessor, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 opens with a bang. After a brief sojourn with Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) parents back in 1980, with Laura Haddock reprising her role of Meredith Quill and a de-aged Kurt Russell making his debut as Peter’s father, we get treated to an opening credits scene that rivals even Vol. 1’s highs: Baby Groot (the voice of Vin Diesel) dancing around to the Electric Light Orchestra’s “Mr. Blue Sky” in one long tracking shot as the rest of the Guardians get ravaged by an interdimensional beast in the background. It’s an absolutely joyous beginning, one that sets up the strengths of the movie to come: an abundance of humor (Dave Bautista as Drax very seriously intoning, “I have sensitive nipples”), a more comfortable—if still prickly—team dynamic between the Guardians, top-notch music choices, and a bright color palette that is a welcome change of pace from the monochromatic norm for Marvel. Director James Gunn takes what worked in the first film and amplifies it, though the paths he treads still feel fresh.

The Guardians, consisting of Peter Quill, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper), Groot, and Drax, have been dispatched by the golden Sovereign race to deal with this interdimensional beast in exchange for their prisoner, Gamora’s adopted sister Nebula (Karen Gillan). The exchange seems to have gone smoothly until it’s revealed that Rocket stole some valuable Anulax Batteries (“Harbulary Batteries,” Drax confidently declares), and so Sovereign leader Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) sics a fleet of ships on the Guardians.

With the help of a mysterious man in a pod-like ship, the Guardians destroy the Sovereign’s fleet before they crash land on a planet. The man from the pod, looking like current Kurt Russell, meets them and introduces himself as Ego, Peter’s father. He offers to take Peter to his planet, and so the Guardians split up: Drax, Gamora, and Peter go with Ego, while Rocket and Groot (and Nebula) stay to fix the ship. It’s a classic sequel move, à la The Empire Strikes Back: the gang gets separated and thus are forced to grapple with their own demons.

These inner demons are the driving force of the movie. Peter, having been plagued all his life with daddy issues, has to face the father he feels abandoned both him and his dying mother, only to discover that maybe his father isn’t all that bad. The movie never fully tricks the viewers into believing that Ego’s a good guy, but it gives us enough to fully understand why Peter—who’s spent so much time longing for a bit of kindness from Dad and a sense of belonging—would buy into Ego’s shtick. (And there is a hint of genuine sadness in Ego’s voice as he discusses how lonely he is.) It’s not just that Ego shares a bit of Peter’s humor or that he has a beautiful planet to himself, it’s also that on this planet, Peter suddenly has access to superpowers and immortality. They feel like signs he’s finally home. 

And what a beautiful home it is. Ego’s planet is introduced with the sweet sounds of George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord,” and it stands out as one of the most colorful sequences in the MCU. In a franchise that succeeds based on a certain level of predictability, Vol. 2’s array of brilliant colors present throughout the movie stand out, and Gunn puts a unique visual stamp on his film which few other Marvel films possess. The cinematography by Henry Braham similarly remains consistently impressive and stands far above most other Marvel films, representing what beauty can be found when the films are allowed to have a bit more character and individuality. Gunn, for what it’s worth, said that he had the utmost creative freedom when shooting Vol. 2, and while he might have been exaggerating due to the Marvel sniper aiming at anyone who speaks out of turn, it’s worth it to note that this was likely the first Marvel production completely free from the Creative Committee’s control, and Gunn’s voice is clearly heard throughout Vol. 2 in a way only rivaled by Taika Waititi in Thor: Ragnarok. It looks like a proper comic book, bright and colorful and sometimes a bit chaotic. Glorious.

Read More of Anna’s Ongoing Marvel Retrospective Series Here

Gamora, meanwhile, while initially urging Peter to get to know his father, quickly changes her tune once she begins to suspect Ego of malintent—she’s had a lot of trouble with her own family, most notably Nebula, and now that she feels a member her newfound family beginning to slip away from her and towards someone else, she reacts poorly. Drax spends a hefty chunk of this movie as (very effective) comic relief, but his friendship with Ego’s servant, Mantis (Pom Klementieff, an absolutely excellent addition), produces one of the most touching moments of the film: as Drax describes a day spent with his now-dead daughter, Mantis—whose empathic abilities let her feel what others do—lays a hand on his shoulder and begins weeping as she experiences the pain that Drax carries with him wherever he goes. 

Back on the ship, Nebula is filled with thoughts of revenge on Gamora, and Rocket stews with rage after he and Peter grate on each other’s sizable, fragile egos. (Baby Groot just looks cute.) They aren’t alone with their thoughts for long, however, as Yondu (Michael Rooker) has been hired by Ayesha to seize the Guardians; despite Rocket’s best efforts (and a wonderful setpiece to Glen Campbell’s “Southern Nights”), Yondu apprehends the three Guardians and Nebula. But then Yondu’s crew mutinies, and so he’s thrown into the ship’s brig alongside Rocket, Baby Groot is left to his own devices after getting manhandled, and Nebula flies off to go kill her sister. 

It sounds like a lot of spinning plates, and indeed it is, but Gunn balances them all well and allows each character to get their due without the movie feeling too overstuffed (but maybe just a little). Despite the balancing act going on, however, there’s not much plot actually happening: Peter and company go to see his father, Rocket and company get captured, and that is about it. Vol. 2’s plot doesn’t truly kick into gear until the third act, and for the first two-thirds of the movie, we are left to ruminate with the characters and a building sense of unease surrounding Ego. This kind of lulling story may not work for everyone, especially as it represents such a marked departure from the general shape of an MCU storyline, but coming off the heels of the disappointingly rote (though still fun!) Ant-Man and Doctor Strange, Vol. 2 feels like a breath of fresh air. The film is largely driven by character rather than simply going through the motions of the plot to get through it all, and as we know, character focus in the MCU will win out over plot almost every time for me. Vol. 2 lets its characters breathe, something that few other MCU movies seem able to do as they instead breathlessly rush from one action sequence to another. (Not to say, of course, that there aren’t action sequences in Vol. 2. There are still plenty.)

Part of the reason Vol. 2’s plot may seem thin is that there’s no clear villain until the third act. Ego, while obviously suspicious, is played with enough charm by the ever-great Kurt Russell that you find yourself wanting to believe his intentions are good, and so instead you can focus on the great character beats that happen in the leadup to Ego’s villainous reveal.

Gamora and Nebula, in particular, get standout moments in Vol. 2, and Saldana and Gillan’s performances make up for their stilted deliveries in their first Marvel outing. Where their awkwardness in Vol. 1 felt as though it came from the layers of makeup and odd dialogue that goes hand-in-hand with sci-fi and fantasy, here the two performers play their characters more comfortably: the awkwardness comes from Gamora and Nebula’s turbulent childhoods and lack of social skills rather than lack of acting prowess. The two rarely interacted in Vol. 1, but here their fraught relationship comes to the surface as both Nebula and Gamora find themselves without daddy Thanos to impress this time around. 

Nebula’s intense resentment towards Gamora, Thanos’ favorite, results in a fun sequence clearly inspired by North by Northwest as Gamora tries to outrun her sister’s ship and Nebula attempts to blast Gamora to bits. Though neither ends up dead, they do finally talk. It turns out when they were younger, Thanos would make the two of them fight together; when Gamora inevitably won, their father would replace some part of Nebula with a machine, so it’s no wonder Nebula’s got a bone to pick. “You were the one who wanted to win. And I just wanted a sister!” For a character who barely existed in Vol. 1, she works wonderfully here, and Gamora too becomes a much better character. (Her “unspoken thing” with Peter also succeeds where it was middling in Vol. 1, helped by the fact that it’s unspoken rather than acted upon in a rush.)

But it’s Rocket Raccoon who gets the biggest arc in Vol. 2, helped along by Yondu. Gunn perfectly bounces this pair of acerbic loners off each other as they reckon with the damage they have caused. Yondu, with his crew having mutinied against him, is ready to accept what he thinks he deserves and die, but Rocket is determined to get out of there. With the help of Baby Groot and Yondu’s right-hand man Kraglin (Sean Gunn), they escape, assisted by Yondu’s enormously cool flying arrow and “Come a Little Bit Closer” by Jay and the Americans. (The song choices in this one might even eclipse those of Vol. 1—they’re just so good.) When Yondu reveals that Ego wants to use Peter as an amplifier to take over the universe so that he, Ego, literally becomes everything, they set off to save him. Ego is a very literal name, apparently. 

Yondu and Rocket work so well together because they see themselves in each other, and that forces them to do some self-reflecting, even if they don’t want to. “I know everything about you,” Yondu growls to Rocket. “I know you play like you’re the meanest and hardest but actually you’re the most scared of all… I know you steal batteries you don’t need and you push away anyone who’s willing to put up with you ’cause just a little bit of love reminds you of how big and empty that hole inside you actually is… I know who you are, boy, because you’re me!” It’s one of the MCU’s most in-depth examinations and gives a raccoon more character than many of his human compatriots in other films, which says something about the strengths of this movie (and the weaknesses of the other ones). 

So, finally, as Yondu, Rocket, Baby Groot, and Kraglin go off to save Peter, Drax, and Gamora, who all finally accept each other as true family, flaws and all, the villain of Vol. 2 emerges, and to no one’s surprise, Ego the Living Planet turns out to be a massive narcissist. He meant it when he said he was lonely, but he’s only lonely because he thinks so highly of himself and his godhood that he couldn’t deign to spend his life among mere mortals. Meredith Quill got close to bringing him down to earth, and so he put a brain tumor in her head to avoid that fate. When Peter, whose love for his mother proves stronger than his desire to belong with his father, rejects his Celestial powers, Ego’s mask of kindness drops and we are submerged in the typical Marvel world-ending battle. 

The third act is the most unwieldy of the film as all the different players established earlier collide in one big messy heap, though it’s certainly not the most egregious Marvel finale. The bright colors that saturate Ego’s world make for an eye-catching final battle even though it begins to get a bit out of hand and go on for too long—but, again, it’s certainly not the first Marvel film to do that, and its offense is much smaller than Avengers: Age of Ultron or even the original The Avengers. Plus, Ego makes a a pretty compelling villain to watch, far more so than Lee Pace’s Ronan the Accuser from Vol. 1 (no offense, Lee, it wasn’t your fault). 

Even with the cluttered nature of the Ego vs. Peter showdown, it still manages to squeeze in affecting character moments and rollicking humor (mostly via a quest to find tape and Baby Groot, who was the cutest baby alien ever until Baby Yoda came along), and Yondu’s death as he sacrifices himself to save Peter is one of the most gut-wrenching moments in the MCU—and that’s no small feat, considering how ugly they make his teeth look (and the fact that he was basically sending kids to their deaths, of course)—and the resulting funeral with “Father and Son” playing is a hell of sendoff. 

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 isn’t the neatest Marvel film. It’s a bit messy and rough around the edges in places, but when it does succeed, it easily sets itself apart from its peers—even the original Guardians of the Galaxy, though it’s not quite the shock to the Marvel system that its predecessor was. But it’s still a feast for the eyes and full of an odd, thorny kind of heart that just beats stronger when you get to its core, much like its protagonists, and it serves as a reminder that while Marvel can sometimes get a little stale, there is something special to be found there every so often.

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:

  • Ego is a Celestial, beings which were mentioned in Vol. 1, as the mining colony Knowhere was situated within a Celestial’s skull, but will have much bigger roles to play come Eternals.
  • The “Adam” that Ayesha teases in a post-credits scene is none other than Adam Warlock, who will presumably show up at a future point in time. (Though not Vol. 3, apparently.)
  • Stan Lee’s cameo involves him talking to a group of Watchers, an alien race that, as their name suggests, watch over everything but don’t interfere. The Watcher named Uatu has become prevalent in What If…? and is played by Jeffrey Wright, though it remains to be seen if we will get further live action Watchers (Nick Fury sort of becomes one in the comics and chills on the Moon; it gets pretty wild.)
  • Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster from Thor: Ragnarok shows up in the credits.
  • The group at the end of Vol. 2, consisting of Sylvester Stallone’s Stakar and cameos from Michelle Yeoh, Ving Rhames, Miley Cyrus, and Michael Rosenbaum, is a nod to the original Guardians lineup from 1969.

Anna’s Favorite Scene: Yondu’s funeral + Cat Stevens. Instant waterworks. 

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

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 Trailer

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is currently available to stream on Disney+.

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

MCU Retrospective: Doctor Strange

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 we are back to origin stories… 

70/100

A tortured genius, a bit of an asshole, a lot socially inept—I could be describing any number of the characters Benedict Cumberbatch has played throughout his career, but in this particular case I am describing Stephen Strange, first name-dropped in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and now, two years later, making his big screen debut. Yet while Cumberbatch seems destined for the role, and indeed he was the first actor suggested, scheduling conflicts forced Marvel to look at a whole host of other performers, with everyone from Joaquin Phoenix to Matthew McConaughey apparently in the running, as well as future co-stars of Marvel’s upcoming Moon Knight, Oscar Isaac and Ethan Hawke. But, finally, Cumberbatch sealed the deal, cementing his typecast forever.

There’s a reason, though, that Cumberbatch is so well known for playing these rather callous individuals (a trend which started with Sherlock back in 2010)—he’s damn good at it. Stephen Strange, renowned neurosurgeon, is a huge ass. While he seems to have a decent relationship with his colleagues, he regularly touts how superior a surgeon he is (especially to Michael Stuhlbarg—woefully underused here—as Nicodemus West, a minor antagonist to Strange in the comics); he has an obnoxious collection of rotating watches; he turns down patients because he doesn’t want to mess up his perfect record and treats them as experiments rather than people in need of help. His fear of failure and desire to control everything drive him to extremes, so when he gets into a car crash, it’s not exactly heartbreaking.

It kickstarts an existential crisis for Strange, though, who loses the use of his hands—the hands which gave him his livelihood, which vaulted him to excellence—and, in his despair, pushes away the only person who truly cares about him (and his ex), Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), another in the long line of neglected female love interests. Eventually, he sinks so low that he is willing to seek out solutions that come not from science, but magic. Dr. Strange quickly finds his way to the Kamar-Taj in Nepal, where he meets a group of sorcerers led by the Ancient One, played by Tilda Swinton.

Marvel, as in Iron Man 3, tried to sidestep controversy in casting Swinton, and instead wound up stirring it up as they cast a white woman in a role traditionally occupied by a Tibetan man. Doctor Strange’s director, horror veteran Scott Derrickson, avoided casting an Asian actor in an attempt to steer clear of stereotypes, saying, “In this case, the stereotype of [the Ancient One] had to be undone. I wanted it to be a woman, a middle-aged woman. Every iteration of that script played by an Asian woman felt like a Dragon Lady… Who’s the magical, mystical, woman with secrets that could work in this role? I thought Tilda Swinton.” Co-writer (with Derrickson and Jon Spaihts) C. Robert Cargill called the situation “Marvel’s Kobayashi Maru,” referencing the impossible training situation from Star Trek: have a mustachioed Asian man dispensing “Eastern wisdom” to the white man, or have accusations of appropriation thrown your way by casting a non-Asian.

Yet the choice shouldn’t be between stereotypical representation or no representation at all. As Kevin Feige would later admit, “We thought we were being so smart and so cutting-edge. We’re not going to do the cliché of the wizened, old, wise Asian man. But it was a wake up call to say, ‘Well, wait a minute, is there any other way to figure it out? Is there any other way to both not fall into the cliché and cast an Asian actor?’ And the answer to that, of course, is yes.” (That he declines to elaborate on how he would do this now is perhaps an indicator that he only said this to cover up bad PR from years ago, but…)

Casting Swinton also means that Doctor Strange lacks Asian representation aside from Benedict Wong’s character (named, uh, Wong), something that stings when much of the movie builds itself on Westernized Asian “mysticism,” with monks and magic and chakras and no specificity. The white man goes to Asia, ogles at some things, and finds his spirit healed, hooray! Marvel would have similar problems with Netflix’s critically panned Iron Fist, with Finn Jones’ (white) Danny Rand utilizing his Chi to take down (Asian) bad guys, and to a lesser extent in Daredevil, where season two villainous group The Hand consisted of ninjas that had no characteristics except “foreign/Asian” and “scary.” Daredevil actor Peter Shinkoda would even claim that former Marvel Television head Jeph Loeb said, “Nobody cares about Chinese people and Asian people. There were three previous Marvel movies, a trilogy called Blade that was made where Wesley Snipes killed 200 Asians each movie. Nobody gives a shit.” 

(Loeb, it should be noted, reported to Ike Perlmutter rather than Kevin Feige until Marvel Television shut down in 2019, giving all television powers to Feige. It also should be noted that Marvel Television had Marvel’s first Asian superhero with Chloe Bennet’s Daisy Johnson, aka Quake, in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which also featured Ming-Na Wen’s Melinda May as a main character for all seven seasons, and had an Asian co-showrunner in Maurissa Tancharoen, whose brother Kevin helmed some of the series’ best episodes. S.H.I.E.L.D. is where it’s at, folks.)

In the case of Doctor Strange, there is also the small issue that China does not recognize Tibet as a sovereign state, and Marvel didn’t want to lose out on that sweet, sweet Chinese box office. Cargill explained, “[The Ancient One] originates from Tibet, so if you acknowledge that Tibet is a place and that he’s Tibetan, you risk alienating one billion people who think that that’s bullshit and risk the Chinese government going, ‘Hey, you know one of the biggest film-watching countries in the world? We’re not going to show your movie because you decided to get political.’ If we decide to go the other way and cater to China in particular and have him be in Tibet… if you think it’s a good idea to cast a Chinese actress as a Tibetan character, you are out of your damn fool mind and have no idea what the fuck you’re talking about.” This was not the first time Marvel catered to China and the CCP, nor will it be the last.

Read More of Anna’s Ongoing Marvel Retrospective Series Here

The circumstances around Swinton’s casting (and Marvel’s historically abysmal handling of Asian representation) are unfortunate, as she does a stellar job as the Ancient One, conveying all the wisdom of eternity while still maintaining a sense of playfulness that prevents the character from slipping into caricature or tropes. And, of course, she really looks like she could be an ageless, ancient sorcerer with immense power at her fingertips. “You’re a man looking at the world through a keyhole,” she tells Strange, and then opens the door.

What follows is a very trippy sequence involving Strange travelling through outer space, tumbling through different dimensions, and getting dragged to hell by a horde of hands. Up until this point, the MCU has largely tried to ground itself in some kind of implausible plausibility. Even Asgard’s magic was cloaked as science and handwaved away with Arthur C. Clarke quotes, but in Doctor Strange, we dive headfirst into something that cannot be explained with pure science, as much as its titular character would like to think so, and open up innumerable doors within the MCU sandbox. Strange, the ultimate logician, gets pushed so far that he seeks answers outside of the scientific realm he built his life on. It’s an interesting conundrum for a character to find himself in, though he seems to change course quickly enough, which leaves us wanting a bit more emotional turmoil. The revelation that magic exists should entirely upend Strange’s world, but we have a plot to get through, after all, and so after the initial shock of the Ancient One punching Strange’s astral form out of his body, he gets down to work.

Like Ant-Man before it, Doctor Strange has all the elements required for some very kooky shenanigans, yet plays it disappointingly safe. To Doctor Strange’s credit, none of its predecessors have tiny hands swarming around the main character as he tumbles through a strange LSD trip, but it never truly breaks free of the largely uninspiring Marvel visual palette. There’s always the sense that things could and should go even further, even though it certainly breaks new ground for Marvel. But not everything in this universe should just be good for Marvel (though that has certainly satisfied me plenty of times, don’t get me wrong), it should be bold in its own right, and Doctor Strange never quite goes far enough, leaving us only with weak comparisons to Inception and The Matrix.

As Strange throws himself into his sorcerer training, and his old arrogance begins to return, though it’s tempered with a bit more humility this time around. Still, he sees fit to pocket the Eye of Agamotto, a powerful magical object with the ability to reverse the flow of time, for himself. Control freak to the last, it would seem. 

Trouble comes in the form of Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a former student bearing striking resemblance in personality to Strange. Kaecilius wants to fold Earth into the Dark Dimension (whatever that is) and Dormammu (whoever that is, though he is also played by Benedict Cumberbatch) to give everyone eternal life (through locking everyone in a place without time), which is not the most exciting motivation for Marvel villain—world annihilation is so overdone these days—but it’s Mads Mikkelsen, and that gives a measure of gravitas to the proceedings. But it’s not just a desire to avoid the ravages of time that drives Kaecilius: in a reveal that bears less weight than it should, given that the Dark Dimension means virtually nothing to the audience, it turns out that the Ancient One can be so ancient because she draws on force from the Dark Dimension to extend her life, and Kaecilius wishes to drag her hypocrisy out into the light.

That he does, disillusioning fellow sorcerer Karl Mordo, played superbly by Chiwetel Ejiofor; though Mordo does not have a whole lot to do here, Ejiofor is magnetic, and poised to become one of the more interesting characters in future entries. Mordo is rigid, unyielding, and has no tolerance for the bending or breaking of rules, especially as the Ancient One made herself the only exception.

Kaecilius succeeds in fatally wounding the Ancient One, but before she dies, she and Strange astral project to have one final conversation on a hospital balcony, watching the snow fall. “We don’t get to choose our time. Death is what gives life meaning: to know your days are numbered, your time is short,” the Ancient One tells Strange. It’s a beautiful moment frozen in time, and Tilda Swinton is phenomenal; unfortunately, the Ancient One’s excuse for utilizing the Dark Dimension—“Sometimes one must break the rules in order to serve the greater good”—rings a bit hollow. Perhaps “hollow” isn’t the right word, but I wish her hypocrisy had been explored more, rather than by and large glossed over, as it adds an interesting dimension to the world Strange now inhabits, the Ancient One, and Kaecilius.

With their leader dead, Strange, Wong, and Mordo set out to stop Kaecilius and Dormammu once and for all. The finale to Doctor Strange serves as one of Marvel’s more unique ones: set in Hong Kong, our sorcerer trio have a relatively small-time fight against Kaecilius and a couple of his lackeys, but what sets it apart is Strange’s use of the Eye of Agamotto, which means that the final showdown happens while everyone around the combatants goes backwards in time. It’s a neat trick that allows for more engagement than, say, Avengers: Age of Ultron’s mind-numbing onslaught of robots. The real kicker comes when Strange enters the Dark Dimension to go toe-to-toe with Dormammu—not with his magical prowess, but with his mind. 

The actual logistics of this sequence don’t entirely hold up to scrutiny (mostly because it’s never really established what the Dark Dimension actually is), but Strange annoying Dormammu to defeat via a time loop and endless repetitions of, “Dormammu, I’ve come to bargain” is certainly a first for the MCU, and maybe cinema as a whole. (It even became a meme!) If the rest of Doctor Strange had shown the originality it does in its finale, the film would be among the best. As it is, there are brief flashes of brilliance amidst an otherwise rote Marvel story that pretends to be breaking new ground.

To be fair, origin stories are hard. Marvel is at its best when playing in an already-established sandbox, playing its characters off each other and letting them marinate in their interwoven world, but it’s much harder to come out of the gate swinging when so much of your success relies on crossovers and cameos (if that’s a good thing on a storytelling level, well…); if the MCU is a glorified television show, origin stories are a bit like bottle episodes, and like bottle episodes, they don’t always work. Doctor Strange is far from bad, and indeed has some stellar moments, but it’s not exactly memorable, either, though it should have had every right to be.

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:

  • Well, uh, that’s another Infinity Stone. Cool.
  • Christine Palmer goes by the Night Nurse in the comics, a moniker which goes to the Netflix character Claire Temple in the MCU, portrayed by Rosario Dawson (if we’re still counting the Netflix shows as canon, that is, but with the rumored appearances of Charlie Cox in Spider-Man: No Way Home and Vincent D’Onofrio in Disney+’s Hawkeye, it seems we are).
  • There were rumors flying that one of the potential patients Strange turns down was Captain Marvel, though this turned out not to be the case.
  • “This universe is only one of an infinite number,” the Ancient One says. You could even say that there’s a multiverse of madness out there!

Anna’s Favorite Scene: Strange and the Ancient One conversing on the astral plane while the latter lays dying on an operating table, but runner up is Strange and Kaecilius’ minion duking it out on the astral plane while Christine operates on Strange in reality.

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. Doctor Strange, 9. Ant-Man, 10. Thor, 11. Avengers: Age of Ultron, 12. Thor: The Dark World, 13. Iron Man 2, 14. The Incredible Hulk

Doctor Strange Trailer

Doctor Strange 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 3

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. Buckle up for some hot takes (mostly, that Iron Man 3 rocks).

75/100

“You know who I am.”

That’s the refrain that constantly dogs Iron Man 3: it’s written glibly by Tony Stark on a nametag in 1999, said by him in the voiceover that frames the film, broadcast by the supposed Mandarin as he threatens more terrorist attacks. And, of course, three movies in, we do know Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man, and so does everyone else, from kids in a restaurant to a local news cameraman. He’s an even greater celebrity than he was in his pre-Iron Man days: he was the hero in The Avengers’ Battle of New York, after all. He’s the biggest box office draw since the Skywalkers, the best thing since sliced bread. Everyone knows Iron Man, whether you’re a citizen in the MCU’s world or our very own flesh and blood reality.

“You know who I am,” but this movie spends most of its runtime challenging that. We know Iron Man, but what of Tony, when you strip him down to his bare essentials? Who does he become? That’s the question at the heart of Iron Man 3, tackled in its own superhero movie way. Another question haunting the movie: how do you follow The Avengers, a movie that—like it or not—forever changed the cultural landscape? (Or, at the very least, altered for quite some time.) The door has been blown open in the cultural consciousness, and also in the MCU, where the populace has been rudely exposed to aliens and a god flying around with a hammer. Iron Man 3 addresses all these questions by, well, mostly ignoring them. The Avengers went big, so this goes small. Of course, there are superheroes beating up bad guys and plenty of cheap tricks and cheesy one-liners (“Sweetheart, that could be the name of my autobiography,” as Tony says), but our titular hero spends most of this movie without his armor and without a superhero team to back him up. 

On the one hand, this is where the interconnected nature of the MCU starts to first show some of its fundamental flaws: logistically, not every superhero actor can show up in every movie. But if Tony is dealing with a terrorist threat, why don’t the other members of the Avengers show up? Where is Captain America, who could help? Thor, Hulk, Black Widow, Hawkeye? On the other hand, isolating Tony from his super friends and even his own suit makes for a better movie, one more interested in Tony than his other metal persona (though if you want to see Iron Man blow stuff up, there’s plenty of that, too).

Of course, Iron Man 3 doesn’t start with Tony separated from his suit, but just the opposite: since the events of The Avengers (where, to remind you, aliens came out of a wormhole in the sky and New York would have gotten nuked if Tony hadn’t made the sacrifice play and flown said nuke through said wormhole), Tony has been driven even deeper into his obsessive tendencies and holes himself up in his workshop, making new suits and avoiding sleep. Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) is at the end of her rope as she watches Tony circle the drain of self-destruction again, a different kind of destruction than Iron Man 2 but destruction nonetheless. Tony’s not sleeping, he’s having anxiety attacks at the mere mention of New York, he inadvertently sics a suit on Pepper. Things aren’t going great.

Tony’s declining mental state isn’t helped by the terrorist attacks going on lately, apparently carried out by a man styling himself as “The Mandarin” (Ben Kingsley), who sounds like John Goodman and Mick Rory had a child. Tony’s buddy Rhodey (Don Cheadle) gets rebranded as Iron Patriot, his own suit getting a nice new paint job to rally our crestfallen American spirits, and Tony stays to the sidelines: “It’s American business,” Rhodey tells him, though seeing as all our superheroes seem to have originated from or at least allied with America, the division between superhero business and American business is faint at best. Marvel doesn’t ever address this except obliquely, leaving any commentary on American exceptionalism to things like Watchmen and The Boys—which is probably for the best, considering Marvel’s lack of subtlety. (Though I don’t think anyone would call The Boys subtle…)

Regardless, Tony leaves this particular issue to the US military until former bodyguard/current head of security for Stark Industries and Downton Abbey fan Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau, no longer in the director’s chair but still producing) gets caught up in this plot and injured. Then it becomes personal: Tony provokes the Mandarin, the Mandarin’s people destroy Tony’s house, and Tony, presumed dead, ends up in Tennessee with a broken suit.

Read More of Anna’s Ongoing Marvel Retrospective Series Here

This would-be tale of woe is offset by a) the fact that this is a Marvel movie, so it’s probably not going to be too much of a downer, and b) writer and director Shane Black’s comedic sensibilities. (The movie is also set at Christmastime, a period that Black is rather fond of.) It’s got quips and banter for days, but they have a bit of a rougher edge to it than most MCU entries: upon landing in Tennessee, Tony meets precocious child Harley Keener (Ty Simpkins); upon learning that Harley’s dad left the family six years ago, Tony replies, “Dads leave. No need to be a pussy about it.”

For a big superhero movie, it seems odd that the best scenes would be set in the middle of nowhere in Tennessee, but Harley and Tony make for a great comedic duo as Tony tries to sniff out the Mandarin’s origins. Kids can certainly be a hindrance in films and tend to be cloying and/or annoying, but Shane Black eschews those pitfalls (as he does in The Nice Guys) and makes Harley endearing more than anything else, his clear-eyed optimism a good foil for Tony’s snark and cynicism.

Tony eventually connects the Mandarin plot back to businessman Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), whom Tony had rebuffed at a New Year’s party back in 1999, giving Killian a thirst for revenge and power. Killian, it turns out, created the character of “The Mandarin” and hired actor Trevor Slattery to portray him; the Mandarin conveniently serves as a scapegoat for the explosions Killian’s experiments with the regenerative drug Extremis causes. (The fact that most of these explosions are caused by disabled veterans who volunteered for this drug in order to regrow a limb is largely ignored, though it presents a potentially intriguing take on our treatment of veterans. However, the movie opts to sidestep this entirely by not addressing it.) 

The villains of Iron Man 3 are, to put it lightly, controversial. The Mandarin twist—where the imposing terrorist figure is an actor, and the real villain is the corporate suit—has continued to be a sore spot for fans, largely those already familiar with Marvel comics, who complain that Iron Man 3 wasted an iconic villain, that the twist was juvenile, that it was an insult to the fans, etc. However, the Mandarin of the comics that fans were apparently foaming at the mouth to see has a rather sticky legacy, as the original Fu Manchu-type character plays on ideas of yellow peril; this solution neatly avoids those issues—or perhaps it lampshades them, seeing as Killian purposely orchestrates the Mandarin’s appearance to prey on fear of a vague Middle Eastern “other.” As he says, “Ever since that big dude with the hammer fell out of the sky, subtlety has kind of had its day.” Killian aiming to rile up the military-industrial complex by manipulating Western iconography and conjuring imagined, otherized threats dressed in non-Western clothing all so he can fill his own coffers is far more interesting than a character whose origins are rooted in actual racist caricatures.

Unfortunately, Killian himself, though played with a sinister suaveness by Pearce, is a bit too thinly sketched to handle the weight the Mandarin twist dumps on him. Had Killian’s motivations been more fleshed out, or his threat greater than breathing fire (yes, that happens), the twist might have been better received even by the comic fanboys. (Pepper, it should be noted, is the one to land the final blow on Killian, taking her revenge on him for nonconsensually injecting her with dangerous drugs. This marks the third Iron Man villain Pepper has dispatched: she was the one who powers up the arc reactor that killed Obadiah Stane in Iron Man, alerts the authorities to Justin Hammer’s illegal tendencies in Iron Man 2, and here directly kills Killian. Don’t get on her bad side.)

Initially, Killian wasn’t even the main villain: that task instead fell to Rebecca Hall, though whether Hall’s character was a female version of Killian or the character she would go on to play, Maya Hansen, remains unclear. However, this was nixed when a call from Marvel corporate came and informed Shane Black that a female villain wouldn’t sell toys, and therefore the villain had to be a man. 

While Black says he doesn’t know who exactly placed the order, common speculation lands the blame at Ike Perlmutter’s feet. Perlmutter’s storied history with Marvel includes claiming that all Black people look alike and pushing back against the characters of Black Panther and Captain Marvel, so while this is all speculation, it doesn’t seem like a big leap to blame Perlmutter, at least in some capacity; in fact, Perlmutter is known to have limited Black Widow action figures for the same reason. (Black Panther and Captain Marvel would only get made after Perlmutter had been pushed away from Marvel Studios.) Rebecca Hall has voiced frustration at last minute changes to her character that made Maya little more than a footnote in the film, and given Killian’s just-okay-ness as a villain, more Maya could have been a welcome addition. 

But a villain change isn’t the only alteration made to Iron Man 3 to appease investors and audiences (though, for the record, changing a villain’s gender because of toy sales is both frustrating and imbecilic). A different version of Iron Man 3 played in China, featuring Chinese actors Fan Bingbing and Xuqei Wang (only the latter appears in the film outside of China), though the added scenes largely serve as product placement. Apparently, there were even discussions around making Harley Chinese to flatter Xi Jinping. More diversity, especially within Marvel, is always welcome, but perhaps it’s better to have diversity to more accurately represent our current world rather than solely to appease a, uh, problematic figure, to say the least. Marvel has consistently courted China’s market in such a way that their films suffer for it, from Iron Man 3 to Doctor Strange, where Tilda Swinton was cast as the Ancient One, typically portrayed as Tibetan, so as not to ruffle any Chinese feathers. 

Interestingly, Marvel’s upcoming Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, ostensibly a win for the China market as it features Chinese actors and is at least partially set within China, has received pushback for everything ranging from accusations of stereotyping to star Simu Liu not being attractive enough by Chinese standards, with some claiming that he looks too Western. (Liu was born in China but raised in Canada.) Director Chloé Zhao’s upcoming Eternals also faces an uphill battle, with Zhao’s critical comments on China (where she was born) potentially haunting her box office. Whether Marvel will take these setbacks in stride or try once more to appease remains to be seen.

Even with all this drama behind the camera, Iron Man 3’s finished product remains the best Iron Man film, even if it is a bit uneven. (Come for me with pitchforks, I beg you.) While at the time the first Iron Man was a fresh phenomenon, its novelty wears off after 20-plus similar films; Iron Man 3’s character-driven focus (character-driven for a big superhero movie, I should amend) gives it an edge over its predecessor; now that Tony has been established, the films can get meatier. Giving Tony PTSD and anxiety from the Battle of New York undercuts all Tony’s fake swagger, the persona that he crafts around himself like his suits; we are reminded that he is, at his core, painfully human, even if he is a superhero. When Harley asks for Tony’s name, he simply says, “The mechanic. Tony.” No big press conferences, no Stark Expo, just a mechanic trying to build things, trying to fix things. One of the best scenes comes from Tony assembling a prototype Iron Man repulsor from various items at a hardware store, fashioning everyday objects into something better. He doesn’t need the suit to be Iron Man. 

Too bad Joss Whedon will toss much of this characterization out of the window in Avengers: Age of Ultron (more on that later), but that’s the thing with comic books and their adaptations: they’re all about what Stan Lee called “the illusion of change.” Robert Downey Jr. was still game for more films, so Tony has to bring his suits back. Still, Iron Man 3 remains perhaps the most pivotal movie for Tony’s journey and certainly the one that best defines his character, and that vaults it above its peers (as does the post-credits scene, because it’s just fun).

Oh, sure, there’s an argument to be made about the problems of latching onto a certain character at the expense of the rest of the film, and how that drags us a bit too close to the hideously toxic world of stan culture. There’s no doubt that Iron Man 3 zigs and zags a bit, but in a cinematic universe where every film ends with some big bad evil guy fight scenes, it’s the smaller moments that make something stand out, and that’s what puts Iron Man 3 above its fellows, if only slightly.

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 response to the Mandarin twist was bad enough that Marvel made a short in 2014, All Hail the King, which had Trevor Slattery taken by a “real” member of the Ten Rings who threatened to bring him to the “real” Mandarin. (Cowing to angry fans almost never works out, and while the short is fun, its existence is, well, stupid.) The Ten Rings and the “real” Mandarin, this time played by Tony Leung, will (re)appear in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.
  • This marks the first verbal mention of Roxxon in the MCU. In the comics, Roxxon Corporation is a nefarious oil company that’s usually up to no good. In the MCU, its logo was shown in Iron Man and Iron Man 2; it doesn’t get namedropped until here. It’s mentioned in Agent Carter, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Daredevil and other members of Marvel’s now-apparently-forgotten non-Disney+ TV legacy. Roxxcart, presumably an offshoot of Roxxon, appears in the Disney+ show Loki.
  • Extremis is used in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., most notably on Bill Paxton’s John Garrett. 
  • Not groundwork, but there was a lot of speculation that Harley would go on to become Iron Lad; this hasn’t happened yet, but his appearance at Tony’s funeral in Endgame at least proved Marvel hasn’t completely forgotten about him. We can pretty safely rule out Iron Lad, however, seeing as Iron Lad is actually a young version of Kang the Conqueror, and Jonathan Majors plays Kang, who (spoilers?) first appears in Loki.

Anna’s Favorite Scene: Tony has a panic attack on the side of the road and Harley has to bring him back down to earth. “You’re a mechanic, right? Why don’t you just build something?” Great acting, great character work, great scene. 

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

Iron Man 3 Trailer

Iron Man 3 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.