MCU Retrospective: Thor: Ragnarok

Written by Anna Harrison

In these retrospectives, Anna will be looking back on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, providing context around the films, criticizing them, pointing out their groundwork for the future, and telling everyone her favorite scene, because her opinion is always correct and therefore her favorite scene should be everyone’s favorite scene. And now, for something completely different (again).

80/100

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read More of Anna’s Ongoing Marvel Retrospective Series Here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thor: Ragnarok Trailer

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

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MCU Retrospective: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Written by Anna Harrison

In these retrospectives, Anna will be looking back on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, providing context around the films, criticizing them, pointing out their groundwork for the future, and telling everyone her favorite scene, because her opinion is always correct and therefore her favorite scene should be everyone’s favorite scene. The a-holes are back!

85/100

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

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

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

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

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

Read More of Anna’s Ongoing Marvel Retrospective Series Here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 Trailer

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

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

MCU Retrospective: Doctor Strange

Written by Anna Harrison

In these retrospectives, Anna will be looking back on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, providing context around the films, criticizing them, pointing out their groundwork for the future, and telling everyone her favorite scene, because her opinion is always correct and therefore her favorite scene should be everyone’s favorite scene. And we are back to origin stories… 

70/100

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read More of Anna’s Ongoing Marvel Retrospective Series Here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doctor Strange Trailer

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

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

MCU Retrospective: 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: Guardians of the Galaxy

Written by Anna Harrison

In these retrospectives, Anna will be looking back on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, providing context around the films, criticizing them, pointing out their groundwork for the future, and telling everyone her favorite scene, because her opinion is always correct and therefore her favorite scene should be everyone’s favorite scene. And now, for something completely different.

85/100

There’s a scene from the beginning of Guardians of the Galaxy where Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill introduces himself as “Star-Lord” with all the seriousness and self-importance in the world, and he is promptly met with a violent, “Who?delivered courtesy of Korath the Pursuer (Djimon Hounsou).

That about sums up the reaction that many confused Marvel fans had when the first trailer for Guardians of the Galaxy was revealed, introducing us to an entirely new team comprised of that goofy dude from Parks and Recreation, a green lady named Gamora (Zoe Saldana), former WWE wrestler Dave Bautista playing someone called Drax the Destroyer, an honest-to-god raccoon (Bradley Cooper) named after a Beatles song, and a talking tree dubbed Groot (Vin Diesel). Who?

No one knew who these guys were. Even Iron Man, certainly far from the most famous of Marvel superheroes, had some name recognition, and Captain America, Hulk, and Thor were all Marvel staples. The Guardians of the Galaxy, though, not so much. This was Marvel’s first nonsequel since Captain America: The First Avenger? Marvel’s cultural importance had certainly grown, and coming off the heels of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, it was coasting on public goodwill, but here was its first true post-Avengers test: introduce a bunch of new characters that no one knows anything about and hope the film is good enough to strengthen brand loyalty rather than frighten casual fans away. It was risky: even the Thor films had elements of familiarity, setting much of the story on Earth and making some of our denizens main characters, but this was a movie set almost entirely in space about a bunch of nobodies directed by a guy who cut his teeth in horror-comedies. Even with the support of the Marvel brand behind them, Guardians’ success was far from assured; in fact, it was such a bizarre premise that Amanda Seyfried turned down the role of Gamora due to concerns over the talking raccoon and his tree buddy, thinking the movie might bomb. Would this be the first real MCU flop?

Luckily for Marvel, James Gunn ended up making one of its strongest films to date; it was a completely different tone from The Winter Soldier, which had arrived several months prior, but, like that movie, Guardians proved that Marvel wasn’t afraid to adapt and reinvent their wheel (not the wheel, just their wheel—at the end of the day, it’s still a Marvel film first and foremost) to stay fresh in the eyes of their fans. Winter Soldier went gritty, Guardians went goofy, and it paid off in spades.

Guardians’ opening scenes perfectly set the stage for that triumph, exhibiting the blend of heart and humor that courses through the film: we start with a young Peter Quill (here played by Wyatt Oleff) running away from a hospital after his cancer-ridden mother (Laura Haddock) dies. It’s a shocking opening, setting a much more somber mood than Marvel goes for and maybe even eliciting a few tears, despite the brevity of the scene. 26 years and an alien abduction later, an adult Quill goes to investigate an abandoned planet, the rain pelting down around him as he scopes out the harsh landscape.

And then, amidst this gloom and doom, something marvelous (ha) happens: Peter starts up his Walkman, “Come and Get Your Love” by Redbone starts to sound, and our hero begins to dance his way through these dank, vermin-filled ruins. In an instant, the movie has transformed; any tears that might have gathered vanish, replaced instead by a broad grin. It’s a brilliant juxtaposition, one that perfectly establishes the tone of the movie and introduces us to our hapless hero. Though he won’t speak for another two minutes or so, it’s already hard as hell not to like Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill. 

Read More of Anna’s Ongoing Marvel Retrospective Series Here

Quill isn’t our only hero, though. When he brings a mysterious orb to sell through a broker, he attracts the attention of some nefarious people, including Quill’s pseudo-foster father Yondu (Michael Rooker), who is tempted to let his Ravagers eat Quill as payback for stealing the orb; Gamora, who happens to be the adopted daughter of Thanos (Josh Brolin, in his first MCU appearance), and through him works for Kree warlord Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace); Rocket Raccoon, a raccoon bounty hunter with a penchant for stealing prosthetics; and Groot, a talking tree who only ever says, “I am Groot.” The latter three all try to hunt down Quill—Gamora by herself and Rocket with Groot—but end up being apprehended by the Nova Corps, the planet Xandar’s police force. 

(Specifically, they are apprehended by John C. Reilly as Rhomann Dey, whose boss, Nova Prime, is played by Glenn Close. The door is open for a return from those two, provided they didn’t get annihilated when Thanos destroyed Xandar before Infinity War; Reilly and Close are two of the most well-known and well-regarded actors the MCU has collected, and they’re relegated to glorified cameos here. It’s actually kind of funny, watching these A-listers take a backseat to a sitcom actor.)

Our ragtag bunch get sent to the Kyln, a galactic prison, where they encounter Drax. Drax is hell-bent on destroying Ronan, who killed Drax’s entire family; this means destroying Gamora, too, until she reveals that she intends to give the orb not to Ronan, who will use it to unleash destruction on Xandar, but to the Collector, Taneleer Tivan (Benicio del Toro), and wants to use the money she will get to flee from her father and the destruction he plans to sow. The five prisoners then stage a delightfully clever prison break, retrieve the orb, and set about getting the reward.

As it turns out, that orb is actually the Power Stones, one of six Infinity Stones (which, of course, have no plot relevance whatsoever), and after it blows up the Collector’s collection and ends up in Ronan’s hands, our heroes reluctantly go off to stop Ronan and save the galaxy. (“What has the galaxy ever done for you? Why would you want to save it?” Rocket demands, unwilling to go suicidal to defeat Ronan. “Because I’m one of the idiots who lives in it!” Quill retorts.)

The plot proceeds largely as expected. There’s a big bad guy, they have to defeat him, blah blah blah. Ronan himself is a fairly underwhelming villain, motivated only by vengeance and bloodshed, though Lee Pace clearly had a good time hamming it up in increasingly absurd ways (also, I believe his is the only nude butt we have seen in the MCU). Add Pace to the list of underutilized actors who play bland villains in Marvel films, I guess. 

Yet, despite the rote plot, Guardians soars. Its humor consistently lands, its characters exude charm. It, like Winter Soldier, is a breath of fresh air in the MCU, but it, unlike the very serious Winter Soldier, approaches its strange source material with a sense of glee. Its heroes are reluctant, they’re selfish, and they are definitely, definitely weirder than any of the other Marvel heroes we’ve seen before (even the guy who flies around with a hammer), and James Gunn uses these oddballs to wring out some of the best comedy of the MCU. (If this sounds eerily similar to James Gunn’s 2021 The Suicide Squad, well, you’d be right. The guy likes his found families full of mean misfits.)

Of course, it’s hard to mention the success of Guardians without pointing to its soundtrack. From “Come and Get Your Love” to “Cherry Bomb” to “O-o-h Child” (especially to “O-o-h Child” and the corresponding dance-off), each song injects Guardians with a healthy dose of joy or sentimentality. Not only are the songs perfectly timed, they have plot relevance, too—while not always quite diegetic, each needle drop comes from a mixtape Quill’s mother had given to him, giving them an extra emotional resonance. Awesome Mix Vol. 1 is full of so many earworms that it reached the top of the Billboard 200 chart, the first time a soundtrack consisting only of previously released songs had secured the number one spot, and it even became certified platinum. Baby Groot dancing to “I Want You Back” took the Internet by storm, and suddenly decades-old songs were back in the collective consciousness; the soundtrack indelibly shaped the movie, and while moviegoers fondly think back on AC/DC in the Iron Man films, or recall the excellent use of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” in Thor: Ragnarok, Awesome Mix Vol. 1 was a runaway success on an entirely different level, and it helped Guardians be one, too.

Guardians of the Galaxy isn’t a perfect film: its villain is nothing to write home about, and some performers (namely Zoe Saldana as Gamora and especially Karen Gillan as Nebula) take until Vol. 2 to settle into their (prosthetic, colorful) skin, but it’s so fun to watch that these criticisms become mere quibbles. It’s not just fun and games though—Guardians also sticks the landing on the more emotional beats, such as Groot’s tear-jerking (at least for this writer) sacrifice, and the moment when Peter finally takes his mother’s hand. 

Gunn has a knack for finding the heart under the rough surface; when he was (stupidly) fired for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 for decades old (but admittedly tasteless) joke tweets about rape and pedophilia (unearthed only after Pizzagate conspiracist Mike Cernovich sicced his followers on Gunn after Gunn took a dig at him), Gunn’s brother Sean (who plays Kraglin and provides the motion capture for Rocket) took to Instagram and said, “I’ve heard my brother say many times that when Quill rallies the team with ‘this is our chance to give a shit’—to care—that it’s the pep talk he himself needed to hear. It’s part of what made working on the Guardians movies such a rewarding experience for the cast. We managed to find ourselves involved in a big-budget superhero movie that was, at its core, deeply personal. That’s a gift. And that’s why it’s good… So I guess my hope is that fans continue to watch and appreciate the Guardians movies, not despite the fact that the filmmaker used to be kind of a jackass, but because of it. They are, after all, movies about discovering your best self. Working on those movies made my brother a better person, and they made me one too.”

Gunn was eventually rehired after he apologized and the cast rallied around him (though not before he was scooped up by DC to helm The Suicide Squad), but his brother’s post exhibits why Guardians was so successful. It’s superheroes flying around in space and blowing stuff up, sure, but there’s more to it than that: it’s a self-admitted “bunch of jackasses,” fallible and frustrating, finding family and above all working towards redemption, as Gunn did—and as we all do at some point or another. 

It’s really too bad that Marvel follows up these two back-to-back triumphs with… well. You know. (Or if you don’t, you’ll find out.)

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 is probably the biggest info dump we get about Infinity Stones (and the longest appearance of Thanos!) until Avengers: Infinity War.
  • Yondu was right: Quill’s father is a jackass, as we will find out in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.
  • When Rocket is being processed at the Kyln, “Lylla” is listed as one of his two associates (the other being Groot). In the comics, Lylla is Rocket’s otter soulmate, and seeing as Vol. 3 will have a heavy focus on Rocket, there have been rumors flying about her presence in the film.
  • Ronan and Korath both appear in Captain Marvel, which was a fun way to bring back two talented actors who didn’t get enough to do in this film. They don’t get enough to do in Captain Marvel, either, but it was a nice try.
  • There are a bunch of things in the Collector’s collection, including Howard the Duck (Seth Green), Cosmo the Spacedog, a Chitauri (one of the aliens from The Avengers), and a Dark Elf (from Thor: The Dark World).
  • Hey, you know, those Kree guys show up in Agents of S.H.I.E.LD.! Bet you thought I couldn’t find a way to connect it this time around, but I did.

Anna’s Favorite Scene: I mean, it’s gotta be “We are Groot,” right? That or the exquisite opening ten or so minutes. (Drax calling Gamora “this green whore” gets third place.)

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. Thor: The Dark World, 9. Iron Man 2, 10. The Incredible Hulk

Guardians of the Galaxy Trailer

Guardians of the Galaxy is currently available to rent and purchase on most digital storefronts, and is streaming on Disney+.

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

MCU Retrospective: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Written by Anna Harrison

In these retrospectives, Anna will be looking back on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, providing context around the films, criticizing them, pointing out their groundwork for the future, and telling everyone her favorite scene, because her opinion is always correct and therefore her favorite scene should be everyone’s favorite scene. Captain America: The Winter Soldier has a lot of favorite scenes, so buckle up.

85/100

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read More of Anna’s Ongoing Marvel Retrospective Series Here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Captain America: The Winter Soldier Trailer

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

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

MCU Retrospective: Thor: The Dark World

Written by Anna Harrison

In these retrospectives, Anna will be looking back on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, providing context around the films, criticizing them, pointing out their groundwork for the future, and telling everyone her favorite scene, because her opinion is always correct and therefore her favorite scene should be everyone’s favorite scene. Thor: The Dark World’s good scenes are a bit few and far between, however.

60/100

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read More of Anna’s Ongoing Marvel Retrospective Series Here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, this is from Comic-Con.

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

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

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

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

Thor: The Dark World Trailer

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

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

MCU Retrospective: 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.