MCU Retrospective: Thor: Ragnarok

Written by Anna Harrison

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

80/100

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read More of Anna’s Ongoing Marvel Retrospective Series Here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thor: Ragnarok Trailer

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

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

MCU Retrospective: Spider-Man: Homecoming

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. Are we sure this isn’t a John Hughes movie? (Yes, we are.)

80/100

Spider-Man: Homecoming is the sixth live-action Spider-Man movie to be produced since 2002. A decade after the original Sam Raimi Spider-Man, and only five years since Spider-Man 3, Marc Webb directed The Amazing Spider-Man, closely followed by The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which performed well below expectations and quickly tanked the burgeoning Sony Spider-Man universe. (For a refresher on Spider-Man rights and Sony, click here.) So, finally, we wind up here: Spider-Man: Homecoming, directed by Jon Watts and starring Tom Holland as the titular web-slinger, finally a member of the MCU. It really did feel like a homecoming, and to have Spidey folded into the MCU proper seemed a much better use of his character than Sony’s floundering attempts to make their own universe (though Marvel being forced to rely on their lesser-known characters such as Iron Man to kick things off certainly helped keep them on their toes as they started this endeavor). But how to differentiate this Peter Parker from Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield?

The first answer: ditch the origin story. Have Peter’s parents and his uncle Ben be long dead. There’s no “with great power comes great responsibility”—we got our version of that in Civil War, but from Peter himself: “When you can do the things that I can, but you don’t, and then the bad things happen, they happen because of you.” Everyone had been inundated with Spider-Man origin stories for a decade-and-a-half. Everyone knew Peter Parker’s parents died in a plane crash, and that Uncle Ben bit the bullet afterwards. By respecting the intelligence of his audience, Jon Watts trimmed any excess fat so we could jump right in with Peter (of course, Peter’s appearance in Captain America: Civil War helped, making doubly pre-established by both pop culture at large and the MCU). 

Who is our Peter, though? His origin story might be cut, but is he just going to go through the same plot beats as his predecessors? And so we arrive at the second answer: have this Peter actually act like a 15-year-old. Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield were 26 and 27, respectively, when they first played their Spider-Man, and by their later entries they were 30 and older. Tom Holland was 19 when he was first cast in Civil War, and his small stature and bit of a baby face let him pass as a high schooler much more easily than Maguire or Garfield. But it’s not just his appearance that makes MCU Peter seem so much younger than his counterparts: it’s him getting excited over a LEGO Death Star, jumping on the bed, awkwardly trying to impress the girl he likes, struggling to look intimidating to criminals, walking down the halls and seeing excruciatingly awkward student news, making a jumprope out of web when he gets bored.

He even starts the film by making a vlog about his time in Germany during Civil War, and if his overeager, fast-talking nature doesn’t immediately win you over, then I don’t know what to tell you. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, Peter jumps at the chance to be an Avenger, and even after months of no contact from either Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) or Tony’s head of security, Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), he still bolts to get into his suit after the last bell rings and leaves long voicemails for Happy detailing the bicycle thefts he stopped that day. The realization that he’s just a kid is almost overwhelming, especially when he’s silhouetted against the enormous backdrop of New York City.

His interactions with Tony and Happy provide the third answer on how the MCU sets their Peter apart: have him immediately connected to the universe at large. This is a solo movie, but it’s one that never lets you forget you’re watching an interconnected world, as Peter spends so much of his time trying to live up to Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.). Grappling with the expectations of the adults in his life not only gives Peter a good arc and characters to butt heads with, but also reminds everyone that there is a world outside. (Chris Evans also makes a cameo in his ridiculous, ear-less suit from The Avengers that perhaps eclipses even his Loki impersonation in Thor: The Dark World.)

Read More of Anna’s Ongoing Marvel Retrospective Series Here

Peter has been spending a bit too much time thinking about the world outside, though, to the point where he even quits his last remaining extracurricular, the academic decathlon, much to the chagrin of his friend, Ned (Jacob Batalon), and the team captain, Liz (Laura Harrier), whom Peter has a raging crush on. Luckily, the MCU has never been one for secret identities and the long, drawn-out dramatics they entail, and so Ned finds out very quickly about Peter’s double life, though it’s still hidden from Peter’s aunt May (Marisa Tomei) and the rest of his classmates, including bully Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori) and loner Michelle Jones (Zendaya). 

Despite Tony’s advice to be a “friendly neighborhood Spider-Man,” we can’t watch Peter eat churros on rooftops all day, and so Peter soon stumbles upon a weapons deal between Jackson Brice (Logan Marshall-Green), Herman Schultz (Bokeem Woodbine), and Aaron Davis (Donald Glover); however, these weapons are no ordinary guns. Peter confronts Brice and Schultz after they pull their weapons on Davis, and a merry chase ensues that lovingly rips off Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

Soon, however, a Vulture sweeps down from the sky, and Peter gets introduced to the film’s villain, Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton, who loves playing his bird-inspired roles). Toomes, as with so many Marvel villains, owes his origin story to Tony Stark: he and his salvage company were hired to clean up New York after the events of The Avengers, but when Tony partnered with the U.S. government to assist the efforts, the Department of Damage Control came in and seized Toomes’ job, leaving him high and dry. Toomes managed to steal some Chitauri technology and create weapons with it, and soon found himself wealthy, with high-powered weapons and a big bone to pick.

Peter only makes it out of this confrontation alive because Tony sends one of his suits to help, but he insists on taking down Toomes himself to prove his worth as an Avenger; after various fun sequences, including a delightful montage of Peter discovering all the high-tech things the suit that Tony gave him can do, he follows Toomes to a weapon deal on the Staten Island Ferry. His overeagerness proves his undoing, however, and in his rush to stop Toomes, he foils an FBI raid (one called by Tony) and fails to stop a weapon from slicing the Staten Island Ferry in half, yet again needing to be saved by Iron Man.

The ensuing verbal beatdown between the two is a fantastic little scene, with Downey making the most of his very limited (and very expensive) screentime. When Tony calls Peter 14 and he weakly protests, “I’m fifteen,” he absolutely feels 15 in a way that no other onscreen Spider-Man has. He feels very, very small. “This is where you zip it, alright? The adult is talking,” Tony snaps. 

Much of Homecoming’s strength lies in its willingness to not only be a superhero film, but a coming-of-age dramedy; Watts does a tremendous job integrating the life-or-death stakes of Spider-Man’s world with the high school drama of Peter’s world (after all, high school certainly feels life-or-death at the time), and the resulting balance is by and large superb. The MCU is at its best and most creative when it stretches the superhero genre and fits it into new shapes, such as Winter Soldier’s political thriller and here, where Homecoming takes a cue from John Hughes. While the other Spider-Man movies were set in high school, they seem only to acknowledge the fact obliquely; here, Watts neatly marries Peter’s coming to terms with his newfound power with his coming-of-age, making them one and the same. They don’t just happen to coincide, they’re entangled with each other, and it makes for a well-structured, more engaging story. (One that even gives Tony some more depth, too: Peter says, “I just wanted to be like you,” and Tony replies, “And I wanted you to be better.” Tony, go to therapy, buddy.)

And so Tony scolds Peter like the child he is and takes away Peter’s suit. Peter, with nothing else to do, begins to pay more attention to his high school life—he even works up the nerve to ask Liz to the homecoming dance, and she accepts. Things seem to be looking up, if not looking as exciting, for our hero. Until, that is, he goes to pick up Liz for the dance and discovers that her father is none other than one Adrian Toomes, a twist that blindsides both the viewers and Peter himself.

The resulting car ride to the dance, as Peter tries to keep his cool and figure out how much Toomes knows, and as Toomes slowly begins to realize that his daughter’s date isn’t just a nervous 15-year-old, is among one of the tensest scenes in the MCU. Keaton is fantastic, and cements himself among the best Marvel villains (the bar is middling, but still): he easily switches from loving father to merciless killer in seconds, and the flicker in his eyes as he realizes Peter’s true identity—and the stoplight changes from red to green—is eerie. He gives Peter one last chance, though, and offers to let him go if he promises to leave Toomes alone. But with great power comes great responsibility, and so Peter ditches the homecoming dance and goes after his date’s father. (We have pretty firmly left John Hughes territory at this point.)

Vulture, like Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger in Black Panther, is one of those Marvel villains whom the movie has to go out of its way to establish as a murderous bad guy, because otherwise we would sympathize with them too much. When Peter points out that “selling weapons to criminals is wrong,” Toomes retorts, “How do you think your buddy Stark paid for that tower, or any of his little toys? Those people, Pete, the rich and the powerful, they do whatever they want. Guys like us, like you and me… they don’t care about us. We build their roads and we fight their wars and everything… We have to pick up after them. We have to eat their table scraps.”

Everything Vulture says is true. Were he not been attempting to kill a 15-year-old kid, he would be quite reasonable; in fact, he might even be likeable. Yet the validity of his points goes undiscussed—at least in Black Panther, Wakanda found a way to help execute Killmonger’s dream, just in a different way (though the effectiveness of that way—through United Nations bureaucracy—could certainly be questioned, and how exactly they plan to eliminate oppression remains vague and politically formless); here, neither Tony nor Peter acknowledge the root of Toomes’ grievances. They make him a compelling villain, but it would make for a more compelling film if Toomes’ motivations had any effect on Peter. As it happens, they glance off Peter even though they should force him to do some serious self-reflecting on his mentor, especially as Peter himself comes from a lower socioeconomic background, something which typically informs much of his character. But the MCU version of Peter Parker, helped by wealthy benefactors, largely skates around this issue and never disrectly addresses his financial state; in fact, Civil War does a better job at this than Spider-Man’s titular movie, so what could and should cause inner conflict for Peter only serves to make Toomes a more interesting antagonist, doing nothing for his heroic counterpart.

Even if this dynamic gets underexplored (a frustratingly common theme with Marvel films and their villains, but alas), the mano-a-mano beatdown between Spider-Man and Vulture is exhilarating and anxiety-inducing—perhaps even tear-inducing as Peter, having been buried under piles of rubble by Toomes, cries out for help, and we are once again reminded of just how young he is. If Tom Holland was superb at playing the comedy towards the beginning of the movie, he’s even better here: Peter hyping himself up to push away the rubble by yelling, “Come on, Spider-Man!” is not only a reference to this comic scene, it’s a beautiful encapsulation of his character arc in this movie. Even without his fancy suit, even in glorified pajamas and buried under a mountain of concrete with blood caked everywhere, Peter is a superhero. “If you’re nothing without the suit, then you shouldn’t have it,” Tony tells him earlier in this movie. Well, he certainly isn’t nothing, not anymore. (And yes, it’s very interesting that Tony, who relies so heavily on his suit, is pushing his protégé to be more than one. “And I wanted you to be better” indeed…)

Though charged with the unenviable task of reinventing Spider-Man for the third time within 15 years, Spider-Man: Homecoming rises to the occasion with aplomb, bolstered by a damn good performance from Tom Holland—though the franchise and character comes with a hell of a lot of baggage and expectations, Homecoming meets all of them beautifully, smoothly introducing Spider-Man to a new generation of moviegoers while simultaneously setting itself apart enough to appease older fans wary of another rehash. It’s a Marvel movie comfortable enough in its own Marvel-y skin (and free enough of behind-the-scenes drama) to tinker with the formula a bit, and the result is a joyous romp through adolescence with the added bonus of superpowers. What’s not to love?

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

  • The “8 Years Later” title card at the beginning of the movie caused a lot of head-scratching when it first came out. Adrian Toomes was cleaning up after the events of The Avengers, which was in 2012, and so eight years later would mean Homecoming takes place in 2020, which makes zero sense as it’s supposed to pick up right after Civil War, which came out in and was set in 2016. It was only years later that this was rectified (sort of), and even then… why don’t you just retroactively change the title card to “4 Years Later”? Is it that hard? How did this happen when you have so much money? I could have fixed it, if only Kevin Feige would hire me! I am available, Kevin!
  • The principal of Peter’s high school, Principal Morita, is the grandson of Howling Commando Jim Morita from Captain America: The First Avenger, whose picture is on the wall in the principal’s office; both are played by Kenneth Choi.
  • A painting of Howard Stark (the John Slattery version, not Dominic Cooper) is seen in a mural at Peter’s high school, and a picture of Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner hangs in his science classroom.
  • The guy (Zach Cherry) who yells at Spider-Man to “do a flip” appears in Shang-Chi during the bus fight and busies himself with livestreaming the fight around him.
  • Aaron Davis is known as the villain Prowler in the comics and is the uncle of future Spider-Man, Miles Morales. (Donald Glover’s appearance is likely a nod to his campaign to become Spider-Man in The Amazing Spider-Man and his voice role as Morales in the animated Ultimate Spider-Man TV series. Here’s hoping the MCU Spider-Man movies bring him back and don’t let Donald Glover go to waste.)
  • Jennifer Connelly voices Karen, Peter’s “Suit Lady,” and is married to Paul Bettany, who of course got his MCU start by voicing J.A.R.V.I.S., Tony Stark’s “Suit Man.”
  • Martin Starr plays Peter’s teacher Mr. Harrington, who apparently went to Culver University in The Incredible Hulk. (This is definitely just one of those coincidences that the Marvel heads just kind of rolled with and said that Starr’s character in The Incredible Hulk was just a young Mr. Harrington, just like how Marvel said that of course that kid in Iron Man 2 was Peter Parker all along. Sure, why not?)
  • Michael Mando’s Mac Gargan, known as Scorpion in the comics, has a rather sinister (ha ha ha) post-credits scene, but nothing’s come of that (yet).
  • Angourie Rice plays Betty Brant, though I don’t believe Betty’s name is ever said in the movie, but she’s important in the comics.
  • My friend Hannah is clearly visible as an extra in the gym and homecoming scenes. She probably won’t ever read this and will never know I name-dropped her, but I did.

Anna’s Favorite Scene: I’m cheating and saying three: the Tony and Peter confrontation after the Staten Island Ferry incident (“Oh my god, it’s Robert Downey Jr.!”), Vulture driving Peter to Homecoming, and the “Come on, Spider-Man” scene.

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. Spider-Man: Homecoming, 7. Captain America: The First Avenger, 8. Iron Man 3, 9. Iron Man, 10. Doctor Strange, 11. Ant-Man, 12. Thor, 13. Avengers: Age of Ultron, 14. Thor: The Dark World, 15. Iron Man 2, 16. The Incredible Hulk

Spider-Man: Homecoming Trailer

Spider-Man: Homecoming is currently available to rent or purchase on most major VOD platforms.

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

MCU Retrospective: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Written by Anna Harrison

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

85/100

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

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

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

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

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

Read More of Anna’s Ongoing Marvel Retrospective Series Here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 Trailer

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

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

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings: A Conversation hosted by Patrick Hao

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, 2021

Patrick Hao: The latest Marvel release, Shang-Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings, has been called groundbreaking and monumental by featuring an Asian American superhero with a predominantly Asian-led cast. It certainly did phenomenally at the box office by making $94.4 million during the four-day Labor Day weekend, shattering the previous record from Rob Zombie’s Halloween (30.6 Million). Mind you, we are still in a pandemic. 

As Marvel/Disney is wont to do, they, and the media covering them, have been quick to celebrate the achievement that they themselves have perpetuated by not casting Asian led superheroes and leads. Marvel/Disney has had a history of doing this representational checklisting with their constant trotting out of “exclusively gay moments” and female empowerment.

All of this discourse around Shang-Chi and the importance of representation in Hollywood films has made me, a first-generation Asian American and lover of media, feel very ornery about the whole thing. And this is not the first time. I have felt this way during the discourse around the release of Fresh Off the Boat and Crazy Rich Asians. While I acknowledge that it is a big deal that this movie is as successful as it is, I prickle at the fact that it takes a major studio superhero movie to validate our (Asian Americans) existence in order to feel seen.

So I thought it would be great to have a running dialogue to explore these feelings about representation and media, and what better person to do it with than Drink in the Movie’s resident Marvel expert and overall great mind for media, Anna Harrison.

Anna Harrison: Thanks, Patrick!

Representation is a thorny issue to begin with, and then add on that Disney’s tendency to self-congratulate and tout things like LeFou dancing with a man in Beauty and the Beast as uber progressive and it can be tricky to tackle. Marvel has certainly diversified in recent years and continues to do so, but like you said, most of the time they will tout what should be commonplace as an artistic and personal triumph for them, the most recent example being the discussion around Eternals having an openly gay character kiss his husband.

I think there is something to be said, however, for seeing representation as a superhero. When I saw the original Wonder Woman’s No Man’s Land scene, I teared up in the theater. When I saw Wonder Woman charge across the trenches, I was touched in a way that I was definitely not expecting—I’m normally the very unsentimental type, and so my reaction caught me by surprise. Superheroes have such a mythic status in our culture: they’re supposed to represent the best of humanity, they’re the strongest, the bravest, the smartest, etc., and to see one of those superhumans on screen that reflects you to after so many years of the same can be quite affecting, as I found out. (Captain Marvel would not inspire such a reaction in me, I’m afraid.) It’s a bit like proof that you, too, could be an Avenger/member of the Justice League/whatever, and that it’s not just for hot white guys named Chris. Projection is what superhero movies are all about, after all. I think their prevalence in pop culture and the idealized nature of the heroes themselves makes it mean a little bit more when you finally see a superhero that reflects you. (Whether said prevalence is a good thing is a whole different conversation.)

Read Anna’s Ongoing Marvel Retrospective Series

Patrick: There is no doubt that there is emotional power in representation. I still pump my fists in the air every time the theme song from The Nanny namedrops Flushing, Queens (my hometown). But I’ve been thinking a lot about this tweet from Tao Leigh Goffe recently: “when representation is the only aspiration, it ensures that all firsts will be lasts.

And I wish Tao Leigh Goffe would expand a little bit more on this thought but I interpret this to mean that representation in and of itself is not enough. What matters more to me are the narratives involving diversity. Asian Americans are in a complicated space in American culture. Firstly, the term encompasses a large number of people, races, and countries—many of which are vastly different in terms of cultures and social hierarchy. But, as a social group and monolith created for ease of narrative, Asian Americans fall somewhere between white and black. When it suits the narrative, Asian Americans are used as the “model minorities,” an example to other POCs to the myth of “pull yourself up by your bootstrap” success in America. And then in an instant, xenophobic racism even in predominiantly Asian ethnic enclaves. And from that trauma and contradictions, I think a lot of Asian Americans and culture would like to fit into the former than the latter fueling a lot of anti-POC sentiments within the Asian American community itself. 

I think mainstream Asian American art reflects this desire to be accepted by mainstream audiences (really what I am saying is white America) in a way that irks me. I think there is an interest in creating a universal experience which is great, but what that does is sand off the edges and problems of the diaspora in America. Eddie Huang, the author of Fresh Off the Boat in which the sitcom is based on, famously complained that the show creators of Fresh Off the Boat adapted his memoir of a complicated, angry childhood into a “universal, ambiguous, cornstarch story about Asian Americans.” And watching that show, I too was frustrated by how easy assimilation was for this Taiwanese family to crack wise so easily with White Orlando neighbors. 

Getting back to Shang-Chi, it seems fitting that the ultimate conflict I felt within the movie is a story of fitting into the expectations of success of your parents. Shang is escaping the shadow of his father and starts as the lovable schlob who is perfectly content with partying and karaoking while being a valet attendant. Similarly, Katy (Awkwafina) is in a similar situation with her more normal immigrant parents. The movie contrasts this early on with a conversation with their other Asian American friend who followed the traditional path of becoming a lawyer. This trope of first and second generation Asian Americans not living up to parental expectations seem to be the most palpable Asian American story to tell. I suspect it could be because it is cultural but universal in a way that does not necessarily have to deal with the thorny complicated issues of diaspora. To have even the superhero story be about that felt pandering.

Anna: I’ve never seen that tweet before but I think it brings up a great point. Often there’s so much hype around something like Shang-Chi, Black Panther, or Captain Marvel that any missteps they make get lost, and attempts to criticize get shouted down because everyone is so caught up in the idea that we finally have an Asian/Black/woman-led movie it simply becomes enough that the movie exists at all, when really you should be able to level nuanced critiques at them. This, of course, excludes anyone who review-bombed these films; I’m talking more about criticisms like yours. One thing that irks me a lot when people bring up valid criticisms surrounding representation is that often the response will be something like, “Just be grateful you got representation at all.” People shouldn’t have to choose between no representation and subpar representation—that’s not an either/or situation, though some people often act like it is, and mere representation isn’t always enough.

With Shang-Chi specifically, from my standpoint, I think the conflict was less specifically about parent/child relationships—though it’s certainly a part of that conflict—but about reconciling all the disparate parts of yourself and the struggle with identity. There was a lot of focus on Shang-Chi being pulled between two worlds: he ran away from his father to America and Anglicized his name, and resists getting pulled back; he tries to avoid being like his father, but is always reminded that he’s both a product of his mother and his father; in the end, he accepts the Rings and his father’s legacy while still maintaining his sense of self and finding that balance. Of course, it all gets settled easily enough over the course of this one movie (and my commentary is coming from someone who’s descended from a long line of white Americans, so grain of salt!), and, like you said, is all made pretty palatable/monolithic for non-Asian audiences and doesn’t go into specifics. 

Oftentimes when movies that bill themselves as being representative of X race, Y gender, Z culture come out (and allow their producers/distributors to cross off one more spot on their representation bingo card), they run into the issue where one camp will say they wish the movie had been more authentic in showing the struggles that a certain group faces, and another camp will want simply to watch the movie and not be reminded of their own issues they face outside the theater. I think Shang-Chi tried to straddle the middle of that and throw bones to both sides. I personally don’t really know which “side” I fall on, as I think both have merits—and I also think it’s another issue where it doesn’t have to be an either/or situation; rather, they can be threaded together. I was wondering what you thought of that conundrum (and if it’s a conundrum at all or I’m just making it up in my head).

Read Anna’s full Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings Review

Patrick: I know, personally, that I feel anxiety whenever I criticize a “seminal project” like Shang-Chi. I believe the phrase for this right now is called “rep sweats,” or, as that article defines it, “the feeling of anxiety that can come with watching TV shows or movies starring people who look like you, especially when People Who Look Like You tend not to get a lot of screen time.”

I do wonder if I would feel any differently if I truly believed in Shang-Chi’s arc in the movie. Trying to avoid spoilers, I never felt him coming to terms with his identity and father issues, which deflated his self-realization at the end. To give positive notes on Shang-Chi, the opening wuxia ballet between Wen Wu (Tony Leung) and Ying Li (Fala Chan) might be one of the best scenes in a Marvel film. What a brilliant move on their part to cast Leung and his devastatingly sad eyes to give the film instant gravitas. 

Speaking of the conundrum you were speaking of—representation of struggles or escapist entertainment—I often feel like, unfortunately, the movie industry has made things feel like one or the other. Either it is Minari or Tigertail in which it feels so oppressively about the struggles of recent immigrants or it is Mortal Kombat, Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins, and Shang-Chi in which there are Asian leads in blockbusters as prior properties and kung fu/karate ninjas. 

That’s why I felt so attached to movies like Lucky Grandma (dir. Sasie Sealy) and The Half of It (dir. Alice Wu) from last year. Both are not perfect movies, but there is a liveliness—one is a comedy and the other is a coming of age romcom—to these films that felt true to the experience without feeling like “oppression porn.” Authenticity is a hard thing to define but you can immediately feel the difference. 

Anna: I do appreciate that this movie has brought Tony Leung so much international recognition—I even got a friend to watch Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love and now I’m getting sent daily TikToks about how hot Leung is (which… yeah). He’s just so good. I do appreciate that Shang-Chi pays homage to its roots with that wuxia scene and by casting legends like Leung and Michelle Yeoh (though almost all her dialogue was exposition), and it was helmed by Asian creatives, which is something that Marvel’s failed to do in the past. (Iron Fist immediately comes to mind, which was problematic in a lot of ways; Daredevil and Doctor Strange also appropriated certain Asian cultures and used them as either a threat to their main white character, as in Daredevil, or some vague mystic power to heal their main white character, as in Doctor Strange.)

“Oppression porn” is a great phrase. I think there’s also a sense that, by watching those oppression porn movies, you (white people or people whom the movie isn’t about) gain “woke points” for being so supportive of minorities. Disney’s definitely given themselves woke points, not for oppression porn necessarily, but for making any movies involving non-white casts. I think that’s the hardest thing about representation today—it’s so tied up in profit that, even if it starts from a genuine place, it inevitably starts to be seen as a cash grab or a way of courting a new market. It’s really hard to separate the intention of the individual creators from the intention of the huge corporation trying to score brownie points with certain audience segments.

Patrick: Listen, we can easily make this whole conversation about how hot Tony Leung is. It is very heartening to see people discover the power of “Little Tony.” 

In terms of the homages to wuxia, something about it feels affected as well. This results in vague cultural things like the mythical village of Tae Lo, which was very Shangri-La and orientalist—more Panda Express or PF Chang’s than something “authentic.”

I think a lot about this scene from Do The Right Thing where Mookie talks to Pino about how his favorite actor, musician and sports athlete were black, yet he still used the n-word and has racist views. This year the most popular movie has been Shang-Chi, the most popular baseball player is Shohei Ohtani, and BTS is regularly on the radio. Yet this is the same year that Robert Aaron Long killed six Asian women in a spa in Atlanta along with a slew of other Asian hate crimes. Thinking about my childhood, Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan are the coolest movie stars. Yet when I was called Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan on the playground, it did not make me feel cool. Even if Shang-Chi makes a lot of Asian kids feel proud, being called Shang-Chi won’t make it better. 

That is why I am frustrated by representational checklisting as an end. We hold these works in high regard in the cultural discourse because it feels anointed by a big studio. Yet there are lots of Asian American art that are undervalued and underseen that have been doing the work. I started my time at Drink in the Movies after not writing about film for a long time because I felt so inspired by Drink a Bowl of Tea. This was a 1988 movie directed by Wayne Wang about the problems of diaspora in Chinese communities in the late 1940s. Wayne Wang has continued to make interesting work about diaspora since then, yet it felt like it took a while for people to come around to talking about his work as a filmmaker. Same thing with the previously mentioned Alice Wu, whose first film Saving Face is a cult classic LGBTQ+ film, set in the Asian community. Yet it took her 15 years between that film and The Half of It. When people express appreciation for Shang Chi as it is a savior for representation, as a first of its kind, it feels diminishing to other pieces of valuable art. I do not wish to make this an either/or situation, but Marvel has sold itself as that and continuously fuels that thinking by taking money from mid-budget films and theater space.  

There is a great book by Cathy Hong Park called Minor Feeling: An Asian American Reckoning and in it she presents a lot of ideas of discomfort of Asian American identity in America. She has a passage about Crazy Rich Asians in which she says of the opening scene in which Michelle Yeoh decides to buy the hotel that would not house them because of discrimination: 

“The takeaway from the crowd-pleasing opening scene… if you discriminate against us, we’ll make more money than you and buy your fancy hotel that wouldn’t let us in. Capitalism as retribution for racism. But isn’t that how whiteness recruits us? Whether it’s through retribution or indebtedness, who are we when we become better than them in a system that has destroyed us?”    

In many ways, I feel like the celebration of Shang-Chi is rooted in the idea above. There is a desperate need to be accepted by a system that so easily discriminates. Look into the behind the scenes controversies behind three of the biggest Asian American mainstream works: Fresh Off the Boat, Kim’s Convenience, and Crazy Rich Asians. Despite being prominent shows and movies about Asian Americans, power imbalance continues to brew and racist tendencies appear. 

So my question is, what does Shang-Chi ultimately solve? Do we need an Asian superhero? Well, we have Detective Dee, Bahubbali, Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, all of anime. 

Do we need more Asian Americans on screen? Sure, but at what costs are we bending over backwards to a certain ideal to plead to people to look at us as people?

I am not sure if Shang-Chi is the salve that people declare it as—that Disney declares it as.

If you enjoyed this conversation you can follow Patrick and his passion for film on Letterboxd and Twitter and you can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings Trailer

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is currently available in wide theatrical release and will be available to stream on Disney+ October 17th.

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.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Written by Anna Harrison

75/100

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, as Marvel’s first introductory story since Avengers: Endgame, has a lot riding on it. The Avengers we know and love are slowly fading out, and now Marvel has to fill the rosters with newcomers and hope audiences latch onto them the same way they did Iron Man and Captain America; plus, as Marvel’s first Asian-led film, the heavy baggage of representation also rests on Shang-Chi’s shoulders. The film neatly emerges from Marvel’s sleek assembly line, yet this time, under director Destin Daniel Cretton’s sure hands (and helped by a beautiful score by Joel P. West, who bucks the tradition of forgettable Marvel melodies in favor of more memorable motifs), it feels a little fresher, a little bolder, and shows that Marvel might be slowly eking towards something a little bit braver as it begins (somewhat) afresh in Phase Four.

It helps, of course, if you have one of the world’s greatest living actors in your movie. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings opens with Tony Leung’s Wenwu single-handedly decimating an army with no weapon other than the ten rings that adorn his arms. Wenwu is the MCU’s new Mandarin (old, technically, since he’s been around for a thousand years) as Marvel handwaves away Guy Pearce’s Aldrich Killian in Iron Man 3 and gives the power behind the Ten Rings a new name in the process—and a good thing, too, considering the original Mandarin from the comics was steeped in racist caricatures and preyed on yellow peril, something that Iron Man 3 tried to lampshade with varying degrees of success. (“He didn’t know my actual name. He invented a new one,” Wenwu says of Killian. “He gave me the name of a chicken dish. It worked. America was afraid of an orange.”)

An expository voiceover reveals that Wenwu had used the power of the Ten Rings to gather power for more than a thousand years until the day he met his match, Ying Li (Fala Chen). Through the sensual power of Tony Leung’s eyes and wuxia-inspired fight scenes, Wenwu and Ying Li fall in love, and both of them abandon their old lives to start a family. While this beginning is certainly exposition-heavy, the lushness of the scenery and grace of the choreography pave the way for what’s to come, and Leung radiates an intense, quiet charisma (though Chen ably holds her own as well).

Read Anna’s Ongoing Marvel Retrospective Series

While Tony Leung’s name may not be ubiquitous in the West, his legendary status in Asia is most decidedly well-earned, and his presence as villain Wenwu elevates every scene he appears in; as Simu Liu, the titular Shang-Chi, told GQ, “[Leung is] Leonardo DiCaprio, Marlon Brando, Brad Pitt, George Clooney, all rolled up into one.” Marvel has a talent for racking up, well, talent, but even among peers such as Sir Anthony Hopkins and Glenn Close, Leung stands out, and not just because I’ve nursed a massive crush on him since I first saw In the Mood for Love in my intro to film class, though that certainly has made me biased.

So it stands to reason that the children of these two powerful warriors would be poised for greatness, right? Well, maybe not. After the death of Jiang Li, Wenwu slipped back into his terrorist ways, driving away son Shang-Chi and daughter Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) in the process; when we first lay eyes on adult Shang-Chi, he’s working as a valet in San Francisco and going by the Anglicized “Shaun,” and he and his friend Katy (Awkwafina) spend their free time getting wasted in karaoke bars. Soon enough, though, his father has roped Shang-Chi and Xialing back into the world of the Ten Rings.

Shang-Chi is at its best when exploring the fractured family dynamics whose effects have continued to ripple out even years after Jiang Li’s death: Shang-Chi ran away, preferring to bury the pain of his past, and Wenwu relapsed into his life of crime and murder, but both abandoned Xialing, whose icy exterior developed as a way of protecting herself from further abandonment. The moments where they come face-to-face with each other and are forced to grapple with their own failings are among the film’s strongest, and again Leung excels in a role that could have easily been one-note in the hands of a lesser performer. Though Wenwu sends assassins after his children and locks them in prison, and Leung delivers his lines with a cool cruelty, at his core, Wenwu is a tragic, heartbroken romantic, the only peace in his life having shattered with Jiang Li’s death. There is perhaps no one better at forlorn love than Leung, and though his younger co-stars are all capable and admirable performers, Leung acts circles around them (which is more a testament to his skills than a dig at the others; Zhang in particular is a standout).

The movie stutters as it enters its exposition-laden third act and introduces an entirely new threat which fails to completely mesh with the earlier portions of the film. Still, even as the typical Marvel CGI finale ensues, said finale stands apart from its brethren, as do the rest of Shang-Chi’s fight sequences, due to its stellar fight choreography (and, uh, the fact that there’s a dragon…). The late Brad Allan, a member of the Jackie Chan Stunt Team and stunt choreographer here, puts in the work, and the results are eye-popping fights whose use of martial arts gives them a kinetic energy that Marvel fights often lack.

Even with its stumbles, Shang-Chi ultimately finds its balance and opens up an entirely new side of the Marvel universe. Aside from a few fun but non-vital cameos, Shang-Chi largely exists within its own sphere, and so is not beholden to the larger mythos at play; instead, it crafts its own, and lets the MCU creep out a bit from its hyper-American roots. Its majority-Asian cast is both welcome and overdue (and especially relevant with the recent spike in anti-Asian hate crimes), and while Shang-Chi may not feel entirely like a breath of fresh air, it’s at least a nice breeze to cool you off.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings Trailer

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is currently out in theaters.

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: 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: 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+.

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