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: Captain America: Civil War

Written by Anna Harrison

In these retrospectives, Anna will be looking back on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, providing context around the films, criticizing them, pointing out their groundwork for the future, and telling everyone her favorite scene, because her opinion is always correct and therefore her favorite scene should be everyone’s favorite scene. Hey, who took the last donut?

85/100

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read More of Anna’s Ongoing Marvel Retrospective Series Here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Captain America: Civil War Trailer

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

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

MCU Retrospective: Ant-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. Ants!

70/100

Avengers: Age of Ultron was an ambitious, scrawling, sprawling mess, so worried with setting up the future MCU that it left its own plot to limp along. Ant-Man, on the other hand, switches gears, introducing a new cast and a new story, one that is largely self-contained outside of cameos from the likes of John Slattery, Hayley Atwell, and Anthony Mackie, and it’s a breath of fresh air after Age of Ultron’s world-ending robot hordes. 

Yet for being such a breezy flick to watch, Ant-Man had a laborious birth. Edgar Wright was attached to an Ant-Man film as far back as 2006, though it was put on the backburner as Marvel began its plans for what would become the MCU proper and the leadup to The Avengers. In 2012, things finally got rolling: Wright shot some test footage, and by 2013 a script was ready. Casting soon became locked and loaded, but Marvel kept pushing back on the script; eventually, they even commissioned some in-house writers for rewrites without Wright’s knowledge, and this finally drove Wright away only two months before filming was supposed to begin.

“I think the most diplomatic answer is I wanted to make a Marvel movie but I don’t think they really wanted to make an Edgar Wright movie,” Wright said of the whole debacle. His firing is one of the nastier stories from the Creative Committee era; you can’t help but wonder what Wright’s film might have been like had he been given more creative freedom. Now free of Ike Perlmutter and his ilk, Marvel generally allows directors more creative control (to an extent, of course): Thor: Ragnarok very much feels like a Taika Waititi movie, just one with more action and starring the god of thunder, and Eternals is shaping up to closely resemble Chloé Zhao’s other directorial efforts, at least as much as a Marvel film can. Perhaps a post-Creative Committee Marvel would have been more willing to let Wright make an “Edgar Wright movie,” but who knows. (It would certainly make a great What If…? episode.)

Now with Ant-Man sans a director, Marvel had to scramble to find a replacement, courting directors such as David Wain, Ruben Fleischer, and Adam McKay before settling on Peyton Reed, previously a contender for the Guardians of the Galaxy gig. (McKay withdrew his name from directing consideration but helped out with the script enough to get a screenplay credit; he and Paul Rudd—also credited—used large chunks of Wright and Joe Cornish’s script, tweaking here and there but keeping roughly the same outline.)

Despite all the hullabaloo that occurred before shooting, the shoot itself was relatively smooth, and the finished product blends nicely into the rest of the MCU while still having enough merits on its own to make it a worthwhile, if slight, watch. It’s certainly a nice palette cleanser after Age of Ultron and gives everyone a bit of breathing room before the fisticuffs of Captain America: Civil War, the film which will kick off Phase Three.

In Ant-Man, our hero is just a dude: he’s Paul Rudd, America’s most likable everyman, funny and ageless but still a relatable guy. Scott Lang might have a master’s in electrical engineering, but he has to grind like everyone else. He’s not an uber-wealthy playboy, a genetically engineered super soldier, or a god from outer space. He’s… just a dude.

Well, not entirely. After blowing the whistle on embezzlement at his previous job, Scott hacked into his company’s bank account and distributed the money back to the customers, eventually getting arrested for his good deeds. Now out of prison and determined the walk the straight and narrow, he struggles to hold down even a job at Baskin-Robbins and is unable to see his daughter, Cassie (Abby Ryder Forston), as he can’t make the child support payments he owes his ex-wife, Maggie (Judy Greer). Parts of his backstory—the kid, the ex-wife, the struggle to provide for himself and his family—may be more relatable than, say, the playing Robin Hood and getting thrown in prison part, but Rudd’s charming presence makes it easy to pretend that a Scott Lang could be among us. After all, at his core, he’s just a man trying to be better for his family.

However, Scott quickly backslides and gets roped into a get-rich-quick heist as he becomes desperate to find a way to make his child support payments so he can visit his daughter. He joins ex-con and friend Luis (Michael Peña), along with Kurt (David Dastmalchian, who should be in everything) and Dave (T.I., as in the rapper, who should not be in everything with all his recent sexual assault accusations), and the four set out to steal from an unknown man’s safe while he’s out of town. There, Scott finds nothing but an odd motorcycle suit, which he takes home. 

Well, it turns out that motorcycle suit allows Scott to shrink to the size of an ant, and was purposely planted by Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) for Scott to find. Hank, it turns out, was the first superhero known as Ant-Man (in the comics, Hank is also the creator of Ultron, a role which was given to Tony in the MCU), and he’s been looking for someone to pass the mantle to so he can take down his rogue protégé Darren Cross (Corey Stoll). That someone happens to be Scott. 

Read More of Anna’s Ongoing Marvel Retrospective Series Here

Why Scott? There are the burglary credentials, of course, but there is also Hank’s desire to live vicariously through Scott. Hank too has a daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly), though their relationship has become frosty ever since the death of Hope’s mother, Janet, and Hank seems to believe that if he can help Scott redeem his relationship with Cassie, then Hank can salvage his relationship with Hope. The father and daughter relationships in Ant-Man drive the film—specifically, the sins of the father—as both Scott and Hank try to live up to what they should be so they can have their daughters look at them with pride and love once more, though the order is taller for Hank, who has isolated himself from his daughter for nearly 20 years and all but driven her away completely.

Other than the Thor franchise, few other Marvel films have such a focus on family, and the complicated dynamics at play here elevate the character relationships in the film. The “overprotective parent (usually a father) wants to shield their child (usually a daughter) from the world so they inadvertently stifle them” trope has been done a thousand times before, but Douglas and Lilly do excellent work here and make Hank and Hope’s relationship more than the sum of its stereotypes. 

While Scott and Cassie’s relationship can’t have quite the same depth (she is a small child, after all), Cassie is just so damn cute that you might want to end up adopting her, and her presence succeeds in grounding Scott the way Whedon wished Hawkeye’s nameless spawn would have in Age of Ultron. Cassie isn’t just some random child inserted so we feel empathy for a character, she has a personality and plot function in her own right, and as a result this MCU family is one we actually care about. Take notes, Joss! (Also, as far as I know, Peyton Reed is a decent guy, so maybe take notes on that too, Joss…)

Hope, of course, will join Ant-Man as a titular character in her next film, Ant-Man and the Wasp, as the stinger at the end (pun intended) hints at. As she very rightly points out to her father in this Ant-Man, she has all the skills necessary to stop Cross from selling the Ant-Man technology to Hydra, yet her father won’t entrust her to do so. Finally trying to rectify the pain he caused his daughter, Hank eventually reveals the truth about Hope’s mom: Janet had been a compatriot known as the Wasp and, in order to stop a Soviet missile in 1987, had to go “subatomic,” meaning she was lost forever to the Quantum Realm (aka the microverse, but Marvel can’t say that for legal reasons, because nothing’s ever easy when you sold off a bunch of your IP to keep your company afloat), and so he never wanted his daughter to risk befalling the same fate. Now that she understands the reason behind Hank’s overprotective nature, Hope manages to forgive him.

Of course, as the sole female of the movie, Hope was bound to become romantically entangled with Scott, though this movie is more setup than payoff. And, to the movie’s credit, Hope stands far better on her own two feet than most other Marvel love interests, and she has relationships that are important to the plot other than the one she shares with Scott. Hope stands nearly side by side with our titular hero in Ant-Man and has her own grand ambitions outside of him, so it’s no surprise that she gets co-billing the next time around. It’s certainly a step in the right direction, even if Evangeline Lilly’s wig strains believability in certain scenes. 

But, of course, it’s not Ant-Man and the Wasp yet, so Hope stays largely on the sidelines of the action as everyone prepares to stop Cross. Like Captain America: The Winter Soldier before it, Ant-Man attempts to cross genres, but where Winter Soldier went for political thriller, Ant-Man goes for heist movie, and the results aren’t as grand or elaborate as an Ocean’s Eleven, but they’re fun sojourns nonetheless (though why you wouldn’t go as balls to the wall as possible with your heists when your hero can control ants and get up to all sorts of shenanigans is beyond me).

The inevitable Ant-Man vs. Cross-in-the-Yellowjacket-suit showdown that we march towards is bolstered by the fact that it involves two men who can shrink to the size of insects, which results in some great set pieces and one excellent Siri joke. While he doesn’t play an overly memorable villain, Corey Stoll is quite good at creating a manic glint in his eye, and it’s enjoyable enough to watch his sanity slowly slip. (Does that make me sound psychopathic?) Gone are the masses of indistinguishable bad guys from the two Avengers movies so far; instead, we have two grown men running around a Thomas the Tank Engine playset, the life and death stakes with which they battle looking pretty meager when the camera zooms out and all we see is poor Thomas quietly falling off his tracks, accompanied by some pitiful sparks. The MCU has, historically, not been known for its creative fight sequences, so Ant-Man’s playful action provides an excellent dose of fun and makes full use of its hero’s unique and rather bizarre superpowers.

That said, Ant-Man is certainly not the most memorable Marvel movie, and falls pretty squarely in the middle. It’s certainly a good deal tighter than Age of Ultron’s unwieldy mess and the burgeoning relationship between Scott and Hope has more going for it than, say, Natasha and Bruce’s ogling of each other, but you’d be forgiven if you don’t remember specific plot details from the movie. This review isn’t as long as the others for a reason: there’s just not as much to discuss.

Ant-Man is perhaps the best example of your typical Marvel movie post-Phase One: it’s inoffensive fun bolstered by a game cast (Peña provides some of the best humor in the MCU) and an easy way to spend an afternoon. Like, really, it is a whole lot of fun. Marvel has finally become a well-oiled machine, and so Ant-Man comes off the assembly line ready to drive exactly how you expected (and how you like), but it’s not going to be winning races anytime soon. (Is that how car metaphors work? I don’t know.) For some, that’s an indication that Marvel is too stale, that it lacks creativity and too often plays it safe. And to a certain extent, that’s true: they’ve found a formula and they’ve stuck to it. But for others, that formula works even when it’s not firing on all cylinders, and maybe that’s enough. 

If that’s good for movies as a whole, well, let’s wait until Avengers: Endgame to unpack Marvel’s prickly cinematic legacy.

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:

  • “Tales to astonish!” Cross says at one point, mocking the tales of Hank Pym’s time as Ant-Man. Tales to Astonish was the comic series that introduced Ant-Man. Not groundwork, but fun.
  • If Scott returned from the Quantum Realm/going subatomic, it stands to reason that the presumed-dead Janet van Dyne could too, no? And we see a shape that looks suspiciously like the Wasp while Scott’s in the Quantum Realm.
  • In the comics, Cassie Lang becomes the superhero known as Stature. With the casting of Kathryn Newton as an older Cassie Lang, it seems inevitable that Stature (and the Young Avengers) will soon make her MCU debut. (Kathryn Newton has consistently rubbed me the wrong way as a performer, and it was shitty of Marvel to recast Emma Fuhrmann—the older Cassie in Endgamewithout telling her. But I should withhold judgement until Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania… I guess.)
  • Hank talks about how he never wants his work falling back into the hands of a Stark. Well, I hate to break it to you, buddy, but… that’s exactly what’s gonna happen in Endgame
  • There was a whole theory that the TVA in Loki was actually located in the Quantum Realm. Technically that hasn’t been disproven yet, but it seems unlikely. Still… 

Anna’s Favorite Scene: The Falcon vs. Ant-Man. The cameo is brief enough not to overshadow everyone else in the movie and keeps the MCU connected even when it’s not an Avengers movie, plus it’s funny to watch Sam get dragged around a bit.

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. Ant-Man, 8. Thor, 9. Avengers: Age of Ultron, 10. Thor: The Dark World, 11. Iron Man 2, 12. The Incredible Hulk

Ant-Man Trailer

Ant-Man 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: 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.

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+.

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