MCU Retrospective: Avengers: Infinity War

Written by Anna Harrison

In these retrospectives, Anna will be looking back on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, providing context around the films, criticizing them, pointing out their groundwork for the future, and telling everyone her favorite scene, because her opinion is always correct and therefore her favorite scene should be everyone’s favorite scene. Now, the beginning of an end of an era. But not really an end. Like, half an end.

85/100

“Dread it. Run from it. Destiny arrives all the same. And now, it’s here. Or should I say… I am.”

The unbearable anticipation for Avengers: Infinity War made the hype around Joss Whedon’s The Avengers look like child’s play. Ten years after the arrival of Iron Man, the MCU had built its own complicated mythology, weaving in characters and storylines in a way that no other movie franchise had attempted; its characters had become instantly recognizable, the actors who portrayed them became megastars, and its cultural dominance was absolute. Even if you didn’t watch every Marvel film, there was no way to avoid them: the memes, the inside jokes, the lines, the gestures were everywhere. Suddenly your arms crossed in an “X” over your chest meant something greater, and if you said something as innocuous as, “I understood that reference,” you would—intentionally or not—open the door for endless Marvel, well, references. 

Since The Avengers premiered in 2012, the looming threat of Thanos on the horizon had grown ever larger alongside Marvel’s own growing importance. Damion Poitier appeared as the Mad Titan in The Avengers’ post-credits scene as merely a tease, but two years later, in Guardians of the Galaxy, he was in the body of the movie, this time played by Josh Brolin. In Avengers: Age of Ultron, Thanos would again cameo in a post-credits scene, and so by the time he shows up in Infinity War, the audience has been prepared.

With Thanos come the Infinity Stones. First the Space Stone (within the Tesseract) in Captain America: The First Avenger, the Mind Stone (within Loki’s scepter) and the Space Stone again in The Avengers, the Reality Stone (aka the Aether) in Thor: The Dark World, the Power Stone in Guardians of the Galaxy, the Mind Stone again in Avengers: Age of Ultron, and the Time Stone in Doctor Strange. Always there, always waiting for their big payoff. 

And so, at last, Avengers: Infinity War, originally titled Avengers: Infinity War Part 1 but renamed to avoid misconceptions (and presumably to give Avengers: Endgame a more final-sounding name than simply Infinity War Part 2). Joe and Anthony Russo, directors of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War, reunited with writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely to craft the first part of the end of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (or, at least, the MCU as we knew it to that point). Theories were flying on who was going to die, and how, and when, with people hanging onto Kevin Feige’s every word regarding this movie and breaking down the trailers frame-by-frame. Clips shown at San Diego Comic-Con caused the enormous Hall H crowd to lose its collective mind, and the trailer now has well over 100 million views. It was all your favorite characters—even the disparate ones, like the Guardians of the Galaxy—coming together, it was the beginning of the culmination of 18 previous movies, it was all so unbelievably big

But when Infinity War begins, with no fanfare, no music, no images, just the crackling voice of Sir Kenneth Branagh (director of the first Thor movie) pleading for anyone to come help the Asgardian refugee ship last seen in Thor: Ragnarok, all the anticipation of the past ten years becomes swiftly replaced with foreboding. The opening of Avengers: Infinity War hits you like a bus, a train, an expletive, take your pick (I prefer the lattermost, starting with an “m” and ending in an “er”), and the ending only hits harder. 

That refugee vessel slowly comes into view as it floats listlessly in space, dead in the water; soon, the camera begins to survey the wreckage in one long, harrowing take, lingering on the dead civilians that litter the floor of the ship. Then Thanos (Josh Brolin) appears, dragging a beaten and bloodied Thor (Chris Hemsworth) across the wreckage like he weighs nothing. The fight has already happened, and Thor has lost—the triumph and jubilation from Thor: Ragnarok vanishes in an instant as we see how easily Thanos tosses Thor aside, and the dread only rises when even the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), one of the most powerful beings in the MCU, gets bested by Thanos with little more than a flick of the wrist. It rises, and rises, and rises: Heimdall (Idris Elba) sends Hulk to Earth and gets killed for his efforts, Thanos adds the Space Stone to his collection, and finally it all culminates in the Thanos lazily snapping the neck of fan-favorite Loki (Tom Hiddleston). 

It’s a one-two-three-four gut punch: what remains of Asgard decimated, Hulk defeated, Heimdall killed, Loki killed, bam, bam, bam, bam. Loki’s death in particular sends a shock to the system: the formidable villain of the first Avengers movie tossed to the ground like a broken ragdoll, the antihero from the Thor franchise who stole so many scenes he brought that same Hall H to its feet all those years ago merely by shushing them, making one last heroic stand that gets thwarted with astonishing ease. Loki has perhaps the most gruesome, drawn-out death in the MCU, thrashing and writhing wildly about like an animal, blood trickling out of his eyes and ears from the force of Thanos’ meaty hand around his neck before the God of Mischief gets his corpse bodily dumped in front of his defeated, crying brother. It is an utterly bleak opening and unlike any other Marvel movie that came before—there are no quips, there is only defeat and despair as we finally behold the true power of the Mad Titan Thanos.

In short, it’s one hell of an opening, and Infinity War hardly lets up on the gas pedal for the rest of its hefty runtime.

The Hulk conveniently lands in the Sanctum Santorum, the abode of Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and fellow Master of the Mystic Arts Wong (Benedict Wong), and he turns back into Bruce Banner upon landing. (Despite Bruce’s proclamation in Ragnarok that if he turned into the Hulk again he would never turn back, here he is; depending on what the directors need him to be, the relationship between Bruce and the Hulk tends to change at the drop of a hat. Taika Waititi needed Bruce to be Hulked out, but the Russos need Hulk to be beaten down to establish Thanos’ strength and simultaneously leave a powerful player off the battlefield, because otherwise the Avengers might win too easily. Back and forth we go.)

Bruce’s proclamation that “Thanos is coming” spurs Dr. Strange to get the Avenging band back together again. Strange interrupts Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Pepper Potts’ (Gwyneth Paltrow) walk through the park and family planning discussion, and Tony almost swallows his pride and calls Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), but they get interrupted by the arrival of Thanos’ lackeys, the Black Order. (A reminder, in case you forgot: the last time Tony and Steve saw each other, Tony was attempting to kill Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), Steve’s childhood friend, for killing his mom, and Steve was doing his best to give Tony a very severe concussion or twenty.)

Trent Opaloch, the cinematographer for the Russo brothers’ MCU films, has crafted a handful of cool shots for Marvel, but by and large his camera has been workmanlike, favoring function over style. Yet here, like in the opening scene, he employs another long take that works beautifully to ramp up the tension: Tony walks out onto the streets of New York, the wind from the Black Order’s ship sending debris flying, and the chaos that unfolds around him gets no time to breathe or ease up via a cut, it only keeps growing. Someone runs into Tony and falls to the ground, a car hits a lamppost right in front of him, signs are precariously buffeted by the wind, and our trepidation only grows as he picks his way through the chaos to find the threat.

The threat turns out to be Cull Obsidian (Terry Notary) and Ebony Maw (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), the former of whom is forgettable but the latter of whom proves to be very coldly frightening. Seeing the impending threat from aboard his school bus, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) joins the fight, which ends with Dr. Strange, Tony, and Peter all aboard Ebony Maw’s ship, headed to a rendezvous with Thanos on his home planet of Titan.

Read More of Anna’s Ongoing Marvel Retrospective Series Here

And then, with a needle drop of The Spinners’ “The Rubberband Man,” the Guardians of the Galaxy enter Infinity War. (It’s not all gloom and doom, guys!) Zooming through space to answer a distress signal, they soon realize that they’ve arrived too late: the source of the call, the Asgardian ship from the opening, has splintered apart, and its occupants float eerily through the cosmos, all dead save the one-eyed bodybuilder who lands on their windshield. So, finally, our space misfits get to interact with the Avengers, or at least one. The Guardians bring Thor onto their ship, where Drax (Dave Bautista), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), and Rocket (Sean Gunn for the motion capture, Bradley Cooper for the voice) ooh and aah over Thor’s significant muscles at the expense of Peter Quill (Chris Pratt). “He is not a dude,” Drax says. “You’re a dude. This… this is a man. A handsome, muscular man.” 

The subsequent interaction between Thor and the Guardians is a moment of immense fun amidst a very heavy movie (at least, heavy for Marvel), and seeing the Guardians finally interact with an MCU character outside of their own franchise sparks great joy. So much of the MCU’s success relies on how well it plays around in its own sandbox: it has established characters you know and love on their own, which is well and good, but when you put them together, it’s double the fun and double the novelty. Plus, the Guardians are such a bizarre bunch that putting them with any character even slightly less weird will pay dividends, and as these characters interact with their hitherto unknown fellows, it can coax out new sides of everyone involved, so not only is it simply fun to watch these worlds collide, it’s good character development, too.

In fact, the combination of Thor and Rocket produces one of the best scenes in Infinity War. The two, along with Groot (Vin Diesel), split off from the Guardians so that Thor can find a weapon strong enough to defeat Thanos, leaving the Guardians to go to the planet Knowhere to speak to the Collector (Benicio del Toro), seen in Thor: The Dark World’s post-credits scene and in Guardians of the Galaxy, who possesses the Reality Stone. Rocket, in a moment of remarkable maturity and empathy for the racoon (Yondu (Michael Rooker) really helped him with his issues in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2), notices Thor is feeling a bit blue, to put it lightly. Where Thor: Ragnarok dealt with its own repercussions a little too glibly, here Markus and McFeely strike a perfect balance between the newfound humor in Thor and the immense trauma he just experienced: there are jokes, but they are laced through with a current of sorrow.

“You know,” Thor tells Rocket, “I’m fifteen-hundred years old. I’ve killed twice as many enemies as that, and every one of them would have rather killed me than not succeeded. I’m only alive because fate wants me alive. Thanos is just the latest in a long line of bastards, and he’ll be the latest to feel my vengeance. Fate wills it so.”

“Mhm. And what if you’re wrong?”

“Well, if I’m wrong, then…” Thor replies, “what more could I lose?”

It’s a standout scene in a standout movie, one elevated by Chris Hemsworth’s standout performance. Thor: Ragnarok leaned overly hard into the comedy, often forgetting Thor’s age and largely ignoring the bigger emotional repercussions from things like his dad dying, his sister getting released from Hel, attempting to kill him, slashing his eye out, and then dying, and his home world getting destroyed; here, you feel the weight of it finally come crashing down.

Elsewhere, yet another thread of the movie gets introduced as we are reacquainted with Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and the Vision (Paul Bettany), now officially an item. Vision also looks like Paul Bettany for a few minutes, sparing the makeup team several hours of their time and letting everyone know he can change his appearance at will (and probably make it an easier pill to swallow for the audience that Wanda is dating a synthezoid thing). The two had shared moments in Age of Ultron and Civil War hinting at their future as a couple, but they were more snatches of time than anything, so Bettany, Olsen, and the movie have to work overtime to make their relationship believable. Luckily, it largely succeeds; even if Wanda and Vision will not get the limelight they deserve until their titular TV show, Bettany and Olsen’s charm and chemistry help sell their relationship very quickly.

Vision, unfortunately, becomes the target of the other two members of the Black Order, Proxima Midnight (Carrie Coon in a very thankless role, and I would please like Sarah Finn to cast her again as someone bigger, thank you) and Corvus Glaive (Michael Shaw). Vision gets wounded early on, conveniently nerfing (as the kids say) his formidable powers so he and the Mind Stone can’t run around and defeat the Black Order without dropping a sweat (not that Vision would sweat anyway). Luckily for our favorite sitcom couple, Bruce had called Steve, who shows up with Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) in appropriately dramatic fashion. They decide to take Vision to Wakanda, where T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and Shuri (Letitia Wright) might be able to patch him up. (Steve, having been on the run since the events of Civil War, also sprouts a beard, a thrilling development everywhere for the female gaze.)

And so we finally have all of our plot threads: Tony, Strange, and Peter heading to Titan, having dispatched Ebony Maw; Thor and Rocket heading to the dwarf home world of Nidavellir to get a weapon; the Guardians off to Knowhere; the earthbound Avengers (now with Don Cheadle’s Rhodey in tow) off to Wakanda, where they also pick up recently de-brainwashed Bucky Barnes

Well, almost all. There’s still Thanos to deal with. Before the Guardians get to Knowhere, Gamora takes Peter aside and makes him swear to kill her if Thanos tries to take her; when the Guardians get to Knowhere, they find the planet burning and Thanos waiting for them, Reality Stone in tow. When Thanos takes Gamora, Peter follows through on his promise and shoots her, but the shot turns to harmless bubbles as Thanos harnesses the power of the Reality Stone. It’s a shocking moment—not the bubbles, but the fact that Peter actually tries to kill Gamora. Nearly every time something similar happens in a movie, the shooter can’t follow through. It’s become trite at this point, but Peter bucks tradition and pulls the trigger, which (conversely) speaks to the strength of his relationship with Gamora and the trust they have built between Vol. 2 and now. Like Olsen and Bettany, Pratt and Saldana have to work hard to sell their characters’ relationship, which was last seen as defined as “some unspoken thing” in Vol. 2, but it works. Saldana in particular turns out her best performance as Gamora yet as she confronts the adoptive father who slaughtered half of her planet, proving to be the unexpected MVP of Infinity War.

So now we finally have all of our plot threads: Tony and company on Titan, the Guardians on Knowhere, Thor and Rocket on Nidavellir, Steve and company in Wakanda, and Thanos on a quest to find the Soul Stone.

It is quite a lot of plates to keep in the air. Frankly, it is a marvel (ha) that Infinity War is even slightly coherent, considering that so many of its pieces stay separated throughout the entire movie. It operates, of course, on the assumption that you have seen at least a handful of the previous eighteen movies: it doesn’t have any pretensions about being able to stand on its own two legs without the foundations laid by its predecessors. It’s a movie that trusts its audiences, that trusts that we know the characters, that we know their relationships to each other, that we’ve been paying attention and understand what Thanos and the Infinity Stones mean to the universe. Taken in a vacuum, this would make Infinity War hugely messy, but it was never meant to be taken in a vacuum. You could count that as a valid flaw, and symptomatic of how the MCU is changing our movie landscape into a monolith, but you could also sit back and joyously watch ten years’ worth of solid character work pay off.

Infinity War marks perhaps the most obvious point in the MCU where it becomes nigh impossible to gauge a Marvel movie on its own: the MCU has built such a twisting mythos for itself that to judge Infinity War without judging what came before simply can’t work. The MCU has taken on a life of its own, and if you want to know what’s going on in pop culture, what’s making the rounds on Twitter, you’re going to have to sink quite a lot of money and time into the MCU just to catch up. There is a very cynical way to look at this, to view this money-making, independent-film-driving-away-ing, Disney-domination-cementing machine as nothing more than a hollow and artless cash grab, but the genuine glee that arises from pushing all these characters together in new ways and writing them into impossible corners is apparent from the care and love with which everyone is handled.

None of our main heroes get much development in Infinity War, per se, with a few exceptions here and there: Tony gets to yet again undergo extraterrestrial trauma, Thor processes his grief through vengeance, Gamora (and, later, Karen Gillan as Nebula) come face-to-face with the sins of their father. But most other characters, including even Steve Rogers, rely on their previous characterization to power them through this movie—luckily, a decade’s worth of content gives quite a lot to go off.

It’s not only the dense plot that forces these characters to the side, nor is it the sheer number of cast members to juggle (there were 23 character posters, which is insane), though those certainly played their part. It’s also the fact that Thanos is the true main character of Infinity War. In order for these stakes to be felt, and for this six-year buildup starting with The Avengers to pay off, Thanos has to be front and center. While all the rest of our characters get split up, he doggedly powers through with one goal in mind, going through his own hero’s journey. He makes pivotal decisions, he makes personal sacrifices, he is the one thread connecting everything—all the others are merely accessories.

Thanos’ goal comes from seeing his own planet, Titan, wither and die from a lack of resources; he had proposed an “at random, dispassionate, fair to rich and poor alike” culling of half of Titan’s population in order to stave off this destruction. Titan refused, and so it crumbled. Convinced he was right, Thanos then set out to eliminate half of the universe’s population to preserve the other half. “This universe is finite, its resources finite,” he tells Gamora. “If life is left unchecked, life will cease to exist. It needs correction.” This argument was so convincing that it spawned a lot of “Thanos did nothing wrong” memes, though they were mostly ironic; still, Brolin makes us feel something almost approaching sympathy for the big purple grape. Thanos is calm and logical, but he isn’t dispassionate, and he sees himself as a maligned hero honorably sacrificing everything for the rest of the world. Brolin does an absolutely tremendous job with the motion-capture and vocal performance, and he imbues Thanos with a tremendous amount of gravitas that has extended well outside the MCU and into pop culture; it’s thanks in large part to him that Infinity War works as well as it does and hits its emotional beats.

It turns out that the reason Thanos took Gamora was not entirely out of fatherly love; rather, it was because she knows where the Soul Stone is, and she reveals its location on Vormir after Thanos begins torturing her adopted sister Nebula (a nice parallel to the opening where Loki gives up the Tesseract and the accompanying Space Stone after witnessing Thor’s torture at the hands of Thanos). After Thanos and Gamora go to Vormir, Nebula escapes and alerts the Guardians to join her on Titan, and our threads slowly begin to coalesce. 

Unfortunately, not all of these threads are equally engaging. While Thor and Rocket have some of the best interactions in the movie, their plotline seems like a minor sidequest, one that ignores that whole moment in Thor: Ragnarok that establishes how Thor doesn’t need a weapon to go around and wreck shit. Ragnarok has him grappling with and overcoming the loss of his hammer, Mjolnir, before realizing that he is the God of Thunder, not the God of Hammers, but Infinity War has him turn right back around and decide that he needs a weapon. (It also gives him a replacement eyeball, which is easier for both Hemsworth and the VFX team, but negates another Ragnarok development.) The Nidavellir plotline seems to exist only to take Thor away from the action until the most opportune time while still giving him something to do, and the introduction of the giant dwarf Eitri (Peter Dinklage) feels like an unnecessary addition in an already-crowded movie. Sure, Thor gets a cool axe, and it’s Peter Dinklage, but… why? Is it really necessary? Not really.

Luckily, though, the Guardians are here to save the day. They arrive on Titan and immediately cross paths with the Avengers, resulting in some very funny misunderstandings and a lot of very tired, very exasperated looks from Tony as he deals with their insanity. Placing all these characters in new situations and letting their personalities clash organically results gives rise to some excellent humor. The Russo brothers’ previous forays into the Marvel world, Winter Soldier and Civil War, are among the most serious MCU titles (Winter Soldier especially), and Infinity War continues that trend while also, for my money, having some of the funniest scenes in the entire MCU, yet it’s not as quip-laden as many other Marvel movies. Markus and McFeely excel at naturally coaxing the humor out of character interactions, something they also did in Civil War; rather than tacking on a joke at the end of a beat, the funny moments are (by and large) seamlessly baked into the dialogue, advancing the plot, giving character depth, and keeping the audience entertained all in one fell swoop. Plus, it’s just so damn satisfying to watch all your favorites finally interact with each other—provided, of course, that you’re already invested in them, but again, the entirety of Infinity War is predicated on the fact that its audience already cares. If you don’t, then why are you watching? (Highlights: “Why is Gamora?,” “Kick ass, take names,” which is coincidentally my Instagram bio, “That’s on Earth, dipshit,” “What master do I serve? What do you want me to say, Jesus?,” and “Please don’t put your eggs in me!”) 

Elsewhere in space, Thanos and Gamora arrive on Vormir, where they are greeted by a familiar face: the Red Skull (formerly Hugo Weaving, now voiced by Ross Marquand in an uncanny imitation), last seen in Captain America: The First Avenger getting sucked into space by the Space Stone and now guardian of the Soul Stone. It’s a bit random, but a neat way to tie together a loose thread and a fun reappearance from an old villain. Vormir is a desolately beautiful place, a properly somber setting for what’s about to occur: to get the Soul Stone, you must sacrifice something you love. The resultant scene serves to heighten Thanos’ villainy, of course, but also his humanity: the horror at what he’s doing and the sheer willpower it takes to sacrifice Gamora plays out in vivid detail across Thanos’ face, turning the scene into a veritable Greek tragedy. The work that Infinity War puts in to build up Gamora and Thanos’ relationship pays off here, though it has no right to: Gamora has been a main character in the Guardians series, but not one who necessarily evokes much pathos, so to successfully build her up in this movie while balancing so many other characters and make her death truly mean something is no small feat. Saldana continues to grow more comfortable with Gamora, and here she turns in an incredibly impressive performance; combined with Brolin’s anguish, the pair expertly sell their twisted relationship, even though they get saddled with some clunky expositional dialogue in the middle, making it the unlikeliest heart of Infinity War. (Or maybe I’m just predisposed to care too much about these Marvel people, who knows.)

And so, now with four Infinity Stones, Thanos sets out to retrieve the Time Stone from Strange on Titan, and the remaining Black Order members go to Wakanda to get the Mind Stone from Visions forehead. The pieces inch ever closer.

The reason for how separate all these pieces are can be found in Civil War. When Steve and Tony broke up, they split the Avengers, and so when a threat like Thanos appears, they can’t band together and stop him. Thanos could divide and conquer because the dividing part was already done for him by the Avengers themselves; without a united front, the chinks in their armor become that much more obvious. See, guys, here are some events in the MCU that actually have ramifications down the line! 

As the climax approaches, we now only have three things (only three, imagine that!) to cut between: Thanos duking it out with the crew on Titan, Thor taking the full force of a star to make his axe, and the Black Order hunting Vision in Wakanda. The fight on Titan is the most interesting of the three plots as it allows Dr. Strange to go ham with his powers and Thanos to utilize the full force of four Infinity Stones, leading to some interesting visuals and downright cool moments; the fight on Wakanda doesn’t have nearly as much going for it, and the enjoyment from that scene comes from simply watching all the different characters’ fighting styles as they face down the Black Order and their unimaginative dog-looking alien things. (Why don’t the Avengers just destroy the Mind Stone and possibly Vision along with it, you ask? “We don’t trade lives,” Steve says, before asking a bunch of Wakandans to trade their lives to defend a synthezoid they have never even met. It’s a good sentiment, Steve, but… you might want to work on your logic a bit there, buddy.) When things seem to be looking dire, Thor arrives in the most triumphant fashion possible and does some very, very cool shit. It is very, very awesome, and the payoff almost makes up for the strange nature of his subplot in this movie. Plus, we get this eloquent exchange between Groot and Steve: “I am Groot,” Groot says as he skewers a bunch of bad guys. “I am Steve Rogers,” Steve says, very politely

Elsewhere on Titan, things seem to be almost looking up, and everyone is working together to restrain Thanos and get the Infinity Gauntlet off, but when Peter Quill learns of Gamora’s death, he discards the plan in favor of trying his best to cave Thanos’ skull in. A lot has been said about this moment and a lot of fingers have been pointed towards Peter as the reason the Avengers lost, and yes, it was a bad move on his part. But it was also completely, 100% in character: Peter is still emotionally stunted from his mother’s death and always incredibly reactive, thinking with his heart instead of his head, so of course he’s going to throw the plan out the window when he hears of the death of the woman he loves. The understandable impulses driving Peter’s actions make it that much more tragic when they allow Thanos to regain control of the Infinity Stones; Peter is, after all, only human (or at least 50% human). Reunited with the Infinity Gauntlet, Thanos handily defeats his foes and stabs Tony with a bit of his own nanotech in a very sudden move that provoked many a gasp in the opening night audience, prompting Dr. Strange to give up the Time Stone. (Tony patches up himself right away, but that scene is the closest I have ever come to having an honest-to-god heart attack.)

From there, Thanos arrives in Wakanda, and with five Infinity Stones in tow, proceeds to completely decimate the remaining Avengers. It’s harrowing to watch when we have become so accustomed to success after success for our heroes (barring Civil War, which had no winners); against Thanos, they’re nothing. Annoying gnats buzzing in his ear. The only one who can put up any fight is Wanda.

Faced with annihilation or the death of one man (robot, android, synthezoid, whatever), the Avengers finally choose the one—or, rather, Vision chooses to sacrifice himself. Alas, the only person able to hurt him is his lady love, and so Wanda gets saddled with the task of killing her boyfriend. Fun! As with Gamora’s (unwilling) sacrifice, this shouldn’t really work, given the limited screentime Wanda and Vision have had, but Olsen and Bettany act the hell out of the scene, a feat made even more impressive when you realize that some of it was improvised. It seems as though, through Wanda and Vision’s sacrifice, crisis was averted.

And then Thanos simply turns back time and takes the Mind Stone out of Vision’s head by force.

But wait! Thor is here to save the day, driving his axe into Thanos’ chest as revenge for everything he has suffered. Our heroes have finally won.

And then Thanos says, “You should have gone for the head,” snaps his fingers, and half the world turns to dust. Thanos vanishes, the music stops, the world stops as we slowly watch some of our favorite characters vanish from sight, disappearing in a puff of ash. If you’ve made it this far in the MCU, if you care in the least about any of these people, this moment should floor you. Indeed, it floored pop culture for quite some time, and you couldn’t move five feet on the internet without bumping into a reference about Thanos’ snap. (There was even a whole subreddit that banned half its community in an attempt to emulate Thanos, attracting the attention of Josh Brolin and Anthony Russo.) 

Peter Parker’s cries of “I don’t wanna go” (also improvised) in particular are gut-wrenching, because for all the ass-kicking he’s been doing over the course of the movie, he’s a 16-year-old kid clinging to his father figure in a desperate attempt to stave off the inevitable. It is incredibly heavy fare for Marvel. “It was the only way,” Dr. Strange tells Tony, but it certainly seems like the end times. Even Steve Rogers can’t think of a rallying cry, as he simply collapses next to Vision’s body and says, “Oh, god.” And Thanos, like he promised earlier, gets to “finally rest and watch the sun rise on a grateful universe.” And so the movie ends with the triumph of the villain.

Of course there’s going to be a sequel, and of course everyone who was snapped away will return, but that knowledge does little to lessen the distress evoked from seeing the utter decimation of the Avengers. Infinity War has some of Marvel’s highest highs (the Guardians meeting everyone else, Thor arriving in Wakanda to much fanfare), but its ending packs a wallop that no other MCU movie has even attempted to. It no doubt has its flaws, but at the end of the day, Infinity War is one of the gutsiest tricks Marvel has ever pulled—there is no reason a movie this crowded, this plot- and MacGuffin-heavy should have worked, and yet it did. It still does, even knowing what comes after. 

Avengers: Infinity War is one very agonizing descent into hell for our favorite characters, an inevitable fall made all the more excruciating because possible wins are presented at every corner before slipping through our heroes’ fingertips. They almost get the Gauntlet off on Titan, and then Quill lets his emotions get the best of him; Vision’s sacrifice seems to make Thanos’ goal impossible before Thanos winds back the clock; Thor’s axe strikes true but his desire to make Thanos suffer before death backfires. And so here we are, and the credits start to roll, and there’s no music playing, and you’re left to rot in the despair left behind in Thanos’ destructive wake. Put simply, there was nothing like Avengers: Infinity War: not because it’s the best movie ever made, or because it’s even the best Marvel movie (though it comes damn close), but because it turns the entire MCU on its head. I don’t think there will be anything like it for quite some time. 

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

  • The post-credits scene shows Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) paging Captain Marvel so we can all get excited about Marvel’s next movie and give them even more money!
  • Loki’s death sets the tone for the movie quite well, but some fans were upset that the consummate trickster’s big plan to best Thanos was… stab him with a knife. It was so straightforward a plan that people thought Loki would still be alive, and there were theories that he simply cast an illusion and hid himself among the wreckage and went off elsewhere; while this didn’t come to pass, and Thanos even says, “No resurrections this time” to preempt any “Loki lives” discussions, Richard E. Grant’s Classic Loki in the Disney+ show Loki did exactly what was theorized, probably as a nod to how flimsy OG Loki’s “plan” was.
  • There’s a far subtler “girl power” moment here than in Endgame with Wanda, Natasha, and Okoye (Danai Gurira) taking down Proxima Midnight. #girlboss
  • On the different side of the #girlboss spectrum, though, is Shuri making a dig at Bruce for not thinking of some science-y technobabble stuff, which isn’t unfunny but shows a lack of imagination: you shouldn’t have to knock others’ intelligence just to make Shuri look smart, she should simply be doing that on her own. (Game of Thrones fell into that trap all. the. time.)
  • I find it very funny that while T’Challa and Steve show off their superhuman strength and speed by sprinting out in front of everyone during the Wakandan battle, Bucky, who has that same strength and speed (as evidenced in Civil War’s car chase scene), is perfectly content to lag behind with the normies. He’s too old for this shit.
  • The Bruce/Natasha eye contact and Sam muttering, “This is awkward” is the perfect way to move past their misfire of a “relationship.”
  • The Russo brothers love to sneak in references to their past work on Community and Arrested Development in their Marvel movies: Community alums cast throughout, the Bluth staircase car in Civil War, and here, a blue man looking suspiciously like the never-nude Tobias Fünke slumped over in one of the Collector’s cases.
  • Ebony Maw burning his hand on Dr. Strange’s medallion is a nod to Raiders of the Lost Ark, which I learned because I, like all cool people do, watched the entire movie with commentary one afternoon.
  • If Eitri has no use of his hands, how does he pee? How does he do anything, as a matter of fact? How is he still alive? I need answers, Kevin!

Anna’s Favorite Scene: Woof. I have to say, the opening is pretty fantastic, even if it causes me great emotional distress, and Peter’s “I don’t wanna go” kills me every time, but I have to give it to Thor: both his “what more could I lose” scene with Rocket and when he arrives in Wakanda with Stormbreaker are very great scenes for very different reasons.

MCU Ranking: 1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, 2. Avengers: Infinity War, 3. Captain America: Civil War, 4. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, 5. Thor: Ragnarok, 6. Guardians of the Galaxy, 7. The Avengers, 8. Spider-Man: Homecoming, 9. Captain America: The First Avenger, 10. Iron Man 3, 11. Iron Man, 12. Black Panther, 13. Doctor Strange, 14. Ant-Man, 15. Thor, 16. Avengers: Age of Ultron, 17. Thor: The Dark World, 18. Iron Man 2, 19. The Incredible Hulk

Avengers: Infinity War Trailer

Avengers: Infinity War is currently available to rent and purchase on most digital storefronts, and is streaming on Disney+.

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

MCU Retrospective: Captain America: Civil War

Written by Anna Harrison

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

85/100

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read More of Anna’s Ongoing Marvel Retrospective Series Here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Captain America: Civil War Trailer

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

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

MCU Retrospective: Avengers: Age of Ultron

Written by Anna Harrison

In these retrospectives, Anna will be looking back on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, providing context around the films, criticizing them, pointing out their groundwork for the future, and telling everyone her favorite scene, because her opinion is always correct and therefore her favorite scene should be everyone’s favorite scene. Avengers, assem— oh, sorry, still not yet.

65/100

You know the old adage that sequels are never as good as the original?

Yeah.

Avengers: Age of Ultron has the benefit of familiarity; our titular Avengers are already acquainted, so we waste no time with introductions but get right back in the fray as the they go about cleaning up the Hydra facilities unearthed from the fall of S.H.I.E.L.D. in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It’s comfortable: we’re back to Joss Whedon’s old quippy dialogue that worked so well in The Avengers, but this time around everyone is more at ease with each other and work as a well-oiled machine. Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark, Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner, Jeremy Renner’s Clint Barton, Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers, and Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff, all back together again, their skillsets showcased in several of Whedon’s favored long, uncut takes as he opens the movie with style and pizzazz to spare. (We’re also back to Whedon’s frumpy old geezer Steve, who now gets offended when Tony says, “shit,” but it’s a bit less egregious this time around.)

Unfortunately, Age of Ultron gets rather unfocused after its tight opening, branching out into several different plots, some of which won’t pay off until later installments, and shoving some characters where they ought not to be shoved. It’s ambitious to a fault, and while watching it you can feel the Herculean effort it must have taken from Whedon to put this together. Alas, Whedon is not quite a demigod, and so the result is a grand but uneven tale with some truly weird character developments.

At one of these Hydra facilities, the gang runs into Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), citizens of the fictional Sokovia who volunteered to undergo experiments using Loki’s scepter from The Avengers, which contains the Mind Stone. The results left Pietro a speed demon and Wanda a… well, as Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) puts it, “He’s fast and she’s weird.” 

In the comics, Wanda and Pietro—codenames Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver—have been a part of both the X-Men and Avengers teams, making their film rights a bit fuzzy: while Marvel sold the rights to the X-Men to 20th Century Fox, they kept the rights to the Avengers, meaning that Wanda and Pietro could appear in both Fox’s X-Men movies and the MCU. In fact, a year before Age of Ultron, the world was introduced to Evan Peters’ Quicksilver in X-Men: Days of Future Past, who quickly became a fan favorite due to his now-iconic “Time in a Bottle” scene. (Wanda, meanwhile, is only hinted at in the Fox franchise.)

With how beloved Peters’ version quickly became, Joss Whedon had a tall task in front of him. He and Taylor-Johnson opt for a more serious take, one without big slow-mo set pieces. Barred from saying the word “mutant” as those rights belonged to Fox, Wanda and Pietro came to their powers not by their lineage (in the comics, they are the children of powerful mutant Magneto) but through illegal human experimentation. They’re “enhanced,” and neither get codenames; in fact, it takes until WandaVision for “Scarlet Witch” to be uttered aloud, and no one ever calls Pietro “Quicksilver.”

The two had volunteered for Hydra’s experiments due to fierce anti-American sentiment in Sokovia; this sentiment is bolstered by the fact that Wanda and Pietro’s parents were killed by a Stark Industries shell when they were young (and Tony was still being irresponsible and inadvertently causing war crimes), and the twins were almost killed themselves, saved only because the shell that landed by them was faulty. Staring at the Stark Industries logo for days and days as they waited to be rescued, it’s easy to understand why that grudge fueled them to try and gain enough power to topple the Avengers.

The turmoil and unrest that led Wanda and Pietro to volunteer has the potential to be an interesting thread—after all, the Avengers are a largely American group constantly trespassing in international territory and shooting a bunch of people, seemingly with no (or very little) government oversight. Surely that’s a bit murky, legally-speaking, and this unchecked American group running amok would no doubt cause tensions to flare. Yet Whedon only obliquely acknowledges this by showing a couple scenes of angry protests, which somehow seems worse than ignoring the issue altogether: why bring it up at all if you’re just going to gloss over it?

It’s a problem that Marvel has largely avoided by staging their conflicts either in America or in outer space, but here the logic of the MCU begins to buckle a bit under its own weight. Marvel will only commit so much to exploring the geopolitical consequences of the Avengers’ existence; a movie dedicated to unraveling the American exceptionalism that bubbles beneath the team might alienate some of their audience, and so Marvel continually tiptoes around the subject.

Read More of Anna’s Ongoing Marvel Retrospective Series Here

After retrieving the Mind Stone, Tony and Bruce begin to experiment with it to create an artificial intelligence. As Dr. Frankenstein found out all those years ago, playing god usually doesn’t end well. In this case, it results in the creation of Ultron (James Spader), who was meant to be a global defense program but decides that the best way to achieve “peace in our time” is to eliminate humanity. 

It’s a shame that Tony had a wonderful arc in his last movie that ended with him blowing up all of his suits only to relapse in Age of Ultron and create a bunch more. “A suit of armor around the world,” as he says. The weapons manufacturer turned protector. It fits that Tony would do something like this, that his fear, guilt, and ego would mix together and create a murderbot, but it fits poorly after the events of Iron Man 3 and makes that film seem simply like a bump in the road for Tony’s character arc, though it certainly frames itself as the end. But what would be the point of a movie featuring Iron Man that doesn’t actually have an iron man in it? So here we are, not back quite at square one but at about square… well, not where we should be. (Thor will also run into similar problems with his characterization; it all depends on what the directors and screenwriters need his character to accomplish in their respective movies, and so he bounces all over the place.)

Fan response to Ultron himself was generally tepid, and coming off the heels of Loki’s malicious turn in The Avengers, he had big shoes to fill. There were complaints that Ultron wasn’t strong enough, that he was too quippy (though that is to be expected with a Whedon film; besides, Tony Stark made him, and Tony is the quip king), but he’s certainly not a terrible villain as these things go. He just fades a bit into the background and offers nothing particularly interesting, and his fondness for religious settings and divine metaphors never goes anywhere. (Are Tony, Ultron, and Vision the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost? Each progenitor tries to get usurped by their offspring… Very Oedipal, though there’s no mother to speak of. I might be on to something.) James Spader gives a great vocal performance, but the interesting philosophical doors that Ultron’s A.I. existence could have opened remain shut.

In their attempt to defeat Ultron, the Avengers run into Wanda and Pietro, who have begun working for the A.I. Wanda uses her powers to get into the Avengers’ heads and toy with their brains, sending everyone into a spiral; Hulk spirals so much that he destroys a large swath of Johannesburg. Fearing international retribution, the team retreats to a safehouse, which turns out to be Clint’s family’s home. However, Thor doesn’t stay long, instead spurred by the vision Wanda gave him to go on some mythic quest with Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) to discover more about the Infinity Stones.

Hawkeye’s secret family—two kids and pregnant wife Laura (Linda Cardellini), who apparently waits in an isolated house twiddling her thumbs until her husband drops by—proved to be an enormous point of contention between Marvel and Joss Whedon. It’s not hard to understand why the studio raised issues, as this revelation comes out of nowhere, but the conflict also showcases much of the studio meddling that defined Phases One and Two, and how it so often drove Marvel’s creatives away from the studio.

Much of this meddling came at the hands of the so-called “Creative Committee,” a group consisting of Ike Perlmutter, whom I’ve previously railed about (reminder: he said Black people look the same, he didn’t want Black Widow toys made because he thought they wouldn’t make money, he didn’t want a female villain in Iron Man 3, etc.), and various others ranging from executive Alan Fine to comics writer Brian Michael Bendis. The group had caused issues on Iron Man 2, pushed back against the use of Awesome Mix Vol. 1 in Guardians of the Galaxy, and wrested creative control away from Marvel’s employees, leaving everyone from Alan Taylor to Mickey Rourke burnt out. Their meddling came to a head in Age of Ultron, and the compromises that Whedon and the Committee arrived at resulted in a messier movie and an unpleasant production. They wanted to nix the farm scenes, Whedon wanted to nix Thor’s Stone visions he receives with Dr. Selvig, and so ultimately we got a truncated version of both, stretching the movie to its breaking point as it juggles too much at once.

The Committee was dissolved in 2015, the year Ultron was released, as Marvel was restructured and Kevin Feige began to report directly to Disney CEO Bob Iger instead of Perlmutter. Feige and Perlmutter had reportedly butt heads repeatedly, to the point where Feige almost quit, but eventually Iger shuffled things around, freeing Feige from Perlmutter’s tight leash. It’s no coincidence that the MCU produced their most creative crop of movies after the disbanding of the Committee, or that no Phase Three and Four directors have been vocal about lack of creative autonomy. With the Committee off the creatives’ back, everyone can breathe a little easier and think a little more freely, but unfortunately that came too late for Whedon.

While studio interference has done more harm than good with the MCU, there is one thing their interference would have been welcome on in this case: One of the most glaring issues with Age of Ultron, and one that really kicks into gear at the Barton home, is the absolutely nonsensical romantic subplot between Natasha and Bruce. Marvel has been very hit-or-miss with its romances, but even its misses (namely Thor and Jane) have some buildup and at least a sliver of believability. This, however, comes out of absolutely nowhere—Bruce and Natasha had barely shared screen time in The Avengers except when the Hulk tried to smash Natasha (and not in the sexy way), and, what’s more, it largely reduces Natasha to the stereotypical female caregiver role. She, with her soft and feminine energy, is the only one who can calm down Bruce when he Hulks out, and the best thing to come out of that whole ridiculous lullaby nonsense is Thor: Ragnarok’s parody of it. 

It’s uncomfortable to watch the sole female member of the team be the one to soothe the Hulk, to be the only one with enough empathy towards him to bring him back from the edge; it feels as though Natasha has become a housewife from sixty years ago, waiting patiently for her stressed out husband to return from work so she can fasten a napkin around his neck and feed him a nice cut of steak. It’s disturbing to see that the task of emotional labor has fallen to the woman (the! only! woman!), who must soothe her turmoil-filled man. It’s… well, it’s not great, Bob

Even removing the gross stereotypes the relationship imposes on Natasha, it’s written terribly. It starts with some atrocious, overly sexy flirting at a bar, continues with Bruce falling onto Natasha’s breasts (an absolutely hilarious “joke”—ha ha I am laughing so much ha ha—Whedon will repeat in Justice League), includes a nice family planning scene despite the fact they haven’t kissed by this point, and ends with the Hulk flying away in a quinjet and resurfacing in Thor: Ragnarok as a galactic gladiator. It feels wildly out of character for both of these people to act the way they do in this movie—Natasha even discusses running away with Bruce, and when has she ever been one to run from a fight, even if she has some self-doubt? In a different world, maybe the characters could work out a relationship, with both of them facing their inner demons together, but as it is, it stuffs a poorly written, out-of-nowhere plot line into an already crowded movie. 

Seriously, where the hell did this come from? Was this Joss Whedon’s self-insert fanfiction, with the sexy hot girl falling in love with the nerdy awkward man? (To say nothing of the 17-year age gap between Mark Ruffalo and Scarlett Johansson, though that is about par for the course with Hollywood.) The depth that Natasha was given in Captain America: The Winter Soldier flies out the window, and she becomes some bizarre mashup of caring mother figure and flirty Bond girl ripoff. It’s wholly unnecessary for both the characters and the plot. It’s not just another mediocre romance from Marvel, but a development so out of left field that it ends up damaging an already-overloaded movie.

(Luckily for all the unwitting denizens this relationship was inflicted upon, it was so poorly received that subsequent directors will drop the matter entirely, save for a few offhand references that mostly play as humorous.)

Other than the bizarreness happening with Bruce and Natasha, the Barton family home gives the movie a welcome chance to breathe a little bit, though Clint’s family life remains a bit of a puzzle. Seriously, does Laura just do nothing but wait for her husband? Does she have a job? Does she have a personality outside being “wife”? Again we have a woman assigned to the emotional support role, and while Cardellini is lovely, the whole situation rests uneasily in the stomach. It’s good to have an Avenger with their boots firmly on the ground, less good for this revelation to feel so strange (especially after many fans believed Clint and Natasha were bound for romance after the events of The Avengers—“Is this love?” Loki hisses at Natasha as she bargains for Clint’s life—and they have a romantic history in the comics, something that Bruce and Natasha do not). But the farm gives everyone a chance to recoup and take a break before the second half of the movie.

Over in Seoul, Ultron uses Loki’s scepter to put Avengers ally Dr. Helen Cho (Claudia Kim) under his control so he can utilize her lab to create a synthetic body for himself. During this sojourn, Wanda looks into Ultron’s mind as he uploads himself and discovers his plans for human extinction, so she and Pietro flee and join up with the Avengers, who seize Ultron’s wannabe future body; Thor remembers some of his trippy cave visions (prompted by some “Water of Sight” that gets mentioned only right before it appears on screen, and then never again—it’s not hard to understand why Whedon didn’t like this clunky sidequest) and activates the Mind Stone in the body’s head, and thus the Vision (Paul Bettany) is birthed. 

Bettany, initially booked just for a voice gig as J.A.R.V.I.S., Tony’s personal robotic assistant, proves to be an excellent Vision; he has the knowledge of J.A.R.V.I.S., Ultron, and the Mind Stone, yet still retains the naïveté of a child. Vision and Wanda give each other a couple knowing looks, but neither will get the development their Avenging peers do until WandaVision, though it’s off to a smooth enough start here. (For the record, I would like to add that while everyone started thinking Vision was hot in WandaVision, I was on that train from the start. Thanks.)

With Vision, Wanda, and Pietro in tow, the team heads back to Sokovia to stop the impending destruction of the world. Ultron’s plan involves sending out smaller robot Ultrons to wreak havoc while he literally raises Sokovia into the air so he can let it drop like a meteor and raze life on earth, letting his metal children reign supreme. It’s one of the more absurd villainous plans from Marvel, and Ultron’s robot army is thoroughly uninspiring after so many movies before it (including The Avengers) have dealt with hordes of interchangeable baddies, and sloppy editing doesn’t help matters.

Things seem to be looking dire for our team until Fury shows up with a S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier full of S.H.I.E.L.D. employees like nothing ever happened in The Winter Soldier. The implication is that Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg, here only in spirit) and the gang helped dust the helicarrier off, as the MCU had not completely abandoned Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. at this point, but it still feels weird, especially considering that Fury had previously told the team they would only have their wits in this fight as no backup could come. 

One of the most frustrating parts of this battle, however, is the death of a certain speedster. How did all those bullets kill him when he could have easily outrun them? Or, taking a cue from a different Quicksilver, couldn’t Pietro have simply pushed the bullets away so they shot harmlessly into the air? His death lacks emotional resonance as well, though it’s framed as a big moment: alas, Pietro, we barely knew ye, though what we got seemed promising and it still stings that this is how Whedon chose to off you. Logistically, it’s hard to present tangible threats to a speedster (as evidence, see The Flash’s increasingly absurd justifications for their villains’ successes), so Pietro would be tough to write for; furthermore, confusion with the wildly popular X-Men version would no doubt have abounded had our silver-haired friend lived. However, these excuses don’t make Pietro’s death any better. It’s still cheap, illogical, and a waste of a good performer. (Seriously, the fastest man in the MCU was killed by bullets?)

His death does spur Wanda (and Vision) to finally kill Ultron, though Ultron’s ultimate demise feels as though Joss Whedon was trying to achieve two opposing goals: have a big superhero beatdown required in Marvel movies, and also have the defeat of the bad guy be a bit more sad and poetic, showing that not every showdown needs to end with a bang—sometimes it’s a sad whimper. However, it’s nigh impossible to have both of those things, and the shift from a world-ending city-meteorite infested with robots to a quiet execution on a hillside is jarring.

It’s a problem that Age of Ultron seems to run into repeatedly: it wants to let its characters breathe, but what the characters say and do during this downtime can often be incongruous to not only the rest of the film, but the MCU at large. If it can get bigger than its britches sometimes and fail to keep all its balls juggling, it’s admirable that Ultron at least tries to get introspective (and indeed is more subdued in places than its sequels). If only that introspection were filled with something other than Natasha flirting with Bruce, or Steve rebelling against change (“the most adaptive man on the planet,” Winter Soldier screenwriter Christopher Markus called him—he’s got the gist of Steve more than Whedon does, although perhaps Markus should have paid more attention to this Whedon line of Steve’s, “Family, stability… The guy who wanted all that went in the ice seventy-five years ago. I think someone else came out,” when writing Avengers: Endgame). 

Not all of it’s bad: Tony and Bruce get some excellent dialogue together, and Tony, still full of that potent mixture of self-loathing and narcissism, gets an extra heaping of guilt from this film that will fuel his future actions. Steve rips a log in half with his bare hands, and Thor steps on a LEGO set. The good aspects of this film, and how easily The Avengers seemed to flow, make Age of Ultron’s misfires that much more baffling; its glaring mistakes are few but so obvious that they threaten to derail the entire thing. 

It’s flawed but garners points for its very grand ambitions; it’s a tale of legacy, fear gone haywire, the dangers of acting preemptively, the follies of humanity, the dangers of playing god (for both Tony and Ultron). Ultimately, Age of Ultron simply gets too big, so it’s a good thing the next movie goes so small… 

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

  • More Thanos and Infinity Stone teases, look at that.
  • Steve lifted Thor’s hammer a little bit, that seems like it could be cool down the line.
  • “That up there, that’s the endgame.” Sounds kinda familiar, doesn’t it?
  • This is the first mention of Wakanda, and the first appearance of Andy Serkis’ Ulysses Klaue, who will appear in Black Panther.
  • Hulk’s quinjet goes into space at some point, seeing as it’s present in Thor: Ragnarok, but here it’s said that the signal is lost over the Banda Sea. Initially, the plan was for the signal to be lost in space, but in order to dispel rumors that Marvel was adapting Planet Hulk, Feige had Whedon change this. Of course, Marvel did end up adapting part of Planet Hulk in Ragnarok.
  • Holding off on Steve actually saying, “Avengers, assemble” until Endgame will pay dividends.

Anna’s Favorite Scene: That little dinner party scene before things go south is nice, except for the god-awful flirting between Natasha and Bruce, and so is the bit with Tony and Fury in Clint’s barn. “I watched my friends die. You’d think that’d be as bad as it gets, right? Nope. Wasn’t the worst part,” Tony says. To which Fury responds, “The worst part is that you didn’t.” Tony, I am begging you to get a therapist even though your guilt makes for an interesting character. Or Wanda and Clint having a heart-to-heart that inspires her to mess up some bad guys and allows for some self-reflection on Clint’s part.

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

Avengers: Age of Ultron Trailer

Avengers: Age of Ultron is currently available to rent and purchase on most digital storefronts, and is streaming on Disney+.

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

MCU Retrospective: Iron Man

Written by Anna Harrison

In these retrospectives, Anna will be looking back on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, providing context around the films, criticizing them, pointing out their groundwork for the future, and telling everyone her favorite scene, because her opinion is always correct and therefore her favorite scene should be everyone’s favorite scene. We start at the very beginning (of release order, that is). 

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

80/100

“I am inevitable.”

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

And it all started with 2008’s Iron Man.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MCU Ranking: 1. Iron Man

Iron Man Trailer

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

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

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