MCU Retrospective: Spider-Man: Homecoming

Written by Anna Harrison

In these retrospectives, Anna will be looking back on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, providing context around the films, criticizing them, pointing out their groundwork for the future, and telling everyone her favorite scene, because her opinion is always correct and therefore her favorite scene should be everyone’s favorite scene. Are we sure this isn’t a John Hughes movie? (Yes, we are.)

80/100

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

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

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

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

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

Read More of Anna’s Ongoing Marvel Retrospective Series Here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spider-Man: Homecoming Trailer

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

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

MCU Retrospective: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Written by Anna Harrison

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

85/100

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

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

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

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

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

Read More of Anna’s Ongoing Marvel Retrospective Series Here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 Trailer

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

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

MCU Retrospective: Iron Man 3

Written by Anna Harrison

In these retrospectives, Anna will be looking back on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, providing context around the films, criticizing them, pointing out their groundwork for the future, and telling everyone her favorite scene, because her opinion is always correct and therefore her favorite scene should be everyone’s favorite scene. Buckle up for some hot takes (mostly, that Iron Man 3 rocks).

75/100

“You know who I am.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read More of Anna’s Ongoing Marvel Retrospective Series Here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iron Man 3 Trailer

Iron Man 3 is currently available to rent and purchase on most digital storefronts, and is streaming on Disney+.

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