In Honor of the Upcoming Avengers: Endgame: The Marvel Cinematic Universe Retrospective

Avengers: Endgame brings the hammer down on The Marvel Cinematic Universe on Apr. 27, so I'm looking back at the films that have built a massive phenomenon.  Are they any good? 

Iron Man (2008)

By the time Iron Man came out in the summer of 2008, the superhero movie was experiencing a revolution thanks largely to Christopher Nolan's Michael Mann-style Batman movies and (arguably) the forth-coming Watchmen.  Batman Begins proved that an origin story need not be a hack-strung series of genre obligations; The Watchmen proved that superheroes could be fallible and make hard-hitting mistakes.

Iron Man has both, but it lands somewhere in the middle.  For one thing, the load here is lighter, less sour, and far more confident.  What they all have in common is that they focus on the characters (which the X-Men movies failed to do).  Tony Stark is a billionaire with an ego the size of, well, Ego himself.  He can build state-of-the-art weaponry either in the caverns of his vast estate or in the caverns of the Middle East, but his best weapon is his mouth.  Its a laser, skewering the pomposity of selling futuristic weaponry to those who are likely to use it for nefarious purposes.  Then it's an even better weapon when he comes to realize that mistake that he's making.

The masterstroke here is the casting of Robert Downey, Jr. whose performance here is a comeback from some well-publicized off-screen problems.  His character, Tony Stark, is written and performance with a measure of looseness.  Downey is given the freedom to let his character be fun and light and without all the broody requirements have weigh heavily around the neck of the Dark Knight.  He's having a ball with this role and he is a large part of the reason that it works so well, not because he's the perfect superhero but because he's anything but.  He gets ahead of himself, makes self-serving mistakes and then works to wriggle his way out of them.  He's a human being under all the technology and that's better than all the special effects in the world.

The Incredible Hulk (2008)

I think it is clear by now that Hulk by himself doesn't work as an entity onto which you can build a convincing story - he only has one speed and it is a limited one at best.  For anyone to tackle this character, the focus must remain largely on his alter-ego.  Bruce Banner bears a curse fit for Shakespeare.  When he becomes angry, he becomes a super-rage green behemoth who is capable of decimating an entire city block with the power of his fists.

This material was tackled previously in Ang Lee's badly received (and grossly underrated) Hulk five years earlier.  That movie shook the world in a very bad way.  It spent most of its running time dealing with Bruce's volcanic relationship with his father.  And, as much as it was hated by the public, did turn the story in a logical direction.

The MCU version does away with the daddy issues and tries to tackle the Hulk/Bruce duality in much the same way that the Bill Bixby TV series did, showing us a brilliant man, whose life has been sidelined as he searched for a cure for what ails him.  But what the movie needed to capture the spirit of the TV series was a sense of melancholy, the story of a genial, goodhearted man whose pursuits at bettering mankind are sidelined by a mistake caused by his own hubris.

Instead The Incredible Hulk goes for a lighter tone and so what we get are in-jokes and action scenes that undercut the drama.  The movie's third act is a crushing manipulation of pulling out an equally destructive bad guy named Abomination so the audience can get its money's worth.  In doing so, the story goes out the window.

I am more interested in the science at work here. I realize that in a smash-and-bash action movie the hard science is simply connective tissue that pulls together the action scenes, but I would be interested in knowing how a man’s level of accelerated blood pressure causes a metamorphoses that gives him super strength and the body of Mr. Universe? What makes him green? How is he able to take so many bullets without bleeding? Is his skin bulletproof? What causes Banner to grow from 6 feet to 12 feet? What is the time between his fits of rage and when he becomes Hulk? What is the downtime before he changes back? Why am I having to ask questions that the movie should be answering?

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Iron Man 2 (2010)

As 2008 drew to a close, one of my overriding joys was being able to confidently place Iron Man on my 10 Best list.  It's always fun to put a great piece of commercial film-making on a list among the more important prestige pictures.  That movie was a shock to the system, a curious and funny and exciting action picture with a fun performance by Robert Downey Jr. at its center.  Naturally, I had expectations for the sequel and, well . . . I opened my review by calling it "a curious misfire".  Nine years later I still stand by that assessment.

Iron Man 2 is a movie that takes forever to get going and once it does, it comes together piecemeal in a way that feels more like Iron Man 1/2.  It establishes a plot that seems so underwritten that it felt like a rough draft.  There are two stories going on that never really get going - one involving Tony Stark's failing mechanical heart and the other an assault by a Russian physicist (Mickey Rourke) who wants revenge because his old man got screwed out of billion-dollar idea by Tony's old man.

The ideas are here but the approach is a real headscratcher.  The light tone and fun and creative spirit of the original has been retooled here into a movie that is oddly mean-spirited.  There is a lot of hostility here which isn't helped by the action scenes which seem to abruptly end before they've even started.  When the villain is finally dealt with at the end, I'm not sure exactly what happened to him.  Iron Man 2 is a movie that is never sure what it wants to be.  The ideas are in the blender, but no one seemed sure how to put it all together.

Thor (2011)

Walking into the first Thor movie back in 2011, I confess that I had no real knowledge of the character either from Nordic mythology nor from the pages of Marvel comics.  This was all new to me.  Walking out of the movie 115 minutes later I was convinced that the screenwriters had even less of an understanding of this character than I did.

I realize, full-well, that this is a generally beloved super-hero movie, but for me there is a connective tissue and a sense or orientation that is missing.  There is a badly drawn family drama in which Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) fight for the affections of their father Odin (Anthony Hopkins), but it's so badly constructed that it feels like community theater.  And I'm afraid the rest of the movie isn't any better.  This is a badly confused movie that doesn't understand its characters, their relation to one another nor the settings that they are supposed to be in.  Half of the movie takes place in the heavenly realms of Asgard, which looks as if it bears a population of about 30.  The other half takes place on Earth where Thor is dropped into our world so we can get a half-constructed retread of Crocodile Dundee.

But why?  Why is this movie so bland and lifeless?  It has the sure-handed touch of director Kenneth Branagh whose experience with Shakespeare should have brought the movie a sense of drama.  Were his hands tied?  Why is the movie allowed to ride such an unsure and confusing narrative?  I'm not convinced that anyone knew how to write this character, nor could they get their hands around anything dramatic that we could get our feet in.

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

Origin stories are a dime a dozen - an exhausting dozen to be honest.  But good ones are rare and therefore you treasure them.  To recount the origins of Steve Rogers/Captain America might have been easy to hammer together with lots of portents and action and soft trailer lines and heaps of obvious World War II references, but Joe Johnston's (who also directed the The Rocketeer) approach to this character is not only well-made but it's created with loving care, loving detail and a reminder of a time gone by, an America whose population pulled together when the world needed her.

It's also very innocent.  Here is a movie that could have been made in the 1950s during the Cold War.  You feel the sense of national patriotism but the story ebbs toward the fears that would follow it, a fear of national infiltration, of a paranoia that things are being eroded from the inside.

That idea is brought to life by Cap's chief nemesis, The Red Skull, whose vile (and disturbingly far-reaching) forces are infiltrating every facet of American life.  In the midst of this potential calamity is the story of Steve Rogers, the 90-pound weakling who, through a successful experiment becomes a durable and indestructible super-soldier - BUT - it doesn't change his personality.  Normally in a movie like this, such an experiment would turn the hero into a jerk, but Steve remains the same patriotic and goodhearted kid that he was before.  The situation has shifted and so has his perspective as he moves into battle.

Captain America: The First Avenger is a goodhearted movie.  It's a fun movie with a lot of period details and comic book spirit that I'm afraid that rest of the MCU hasn't been able to capture.  Here you feel like you're watching a living comic book - a good one!  The others largely feel like modern-day action movies.  They're not bad, but they rarely feel as special as this one.

Marvel’s The Avengers (2012)

By the time Marvel's The Avengers came out in 2012, the result of the movie had to be nothing less than a magnanimous box office blockbuster.  Because of the enormous success of the preceding films - Iron ManThe Incredible HulkIron Man 2Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger, this team-building blend of all of these introductions was going to succeed at the box office in spite of itself.  Even if it was a failure as a movie the guarantee of a $300 million gross was already in the bag.

Fortunately, Marvel's The Avengers turned out to be a pretty damned entertaining movie.  Okay . . . it wasn't a monumental moment in the art of the cinema, but it was a positive affirmation that a big-budget tent-pole movie need not be a negligible chuck of empty-headed hot air (Hello, Independence Day).  The brilliant decision to introduce these characters in previous adventures meant that the weight was off of this movie.  It could slide past all of the obligatory introductions, alleviating the possibility of leaving the supporting characters as unfocused strangers hanging around in the background (Hello, X-Men).

What is not surprising is that the first adventure featuring Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Black Widow, Hawkeye and the Hulk would be a massive series of trash and bash action set pieces.  What is surprising is that the movie allows these characters time to get to know one another i.e. to work past their distrust of each other and somehow form a family.  Having the world now under the dominant power of Thor's brother Loki, the template of having Thor and Iron Man and Captain America meet for the first time, meant that they had to work through a lot of distrust.  The movie overturns a great deal of conflict when Thor throws his might hammer a Cap's shield and . . . what do you know? . . . the shield wins.  Respect.

Marvel's The Avengers isn't straining to challenge you.  It wants to put a lot of likable characters on the screen and have them do a lot of action stuff.  It's not trying to rearrange the art of cinema or to make a cultural statement.  It's entertainment, fun entertainment, and that's not a bad thing.

Iron Man Three (2013)

Here is a question that no one seems completely able to answer: In Iron Man Three, why does Tony Stark go on live television and give his home address to his arch nemesis?  Why would he do that?  What is the point, particularly when he doesn't have a plan to combat the enemy once they start lobbing missiles at his front door?  There.  I've gotten that off my chest.  Moving on.

I have seen Iron Man Three at least twice since 2013 and in both cases I have come away with the same feeling: this is a very convoluted movie.  It's odd.  It has a narrative structure that feels unfocused and surprisingly flat.  It is a movie that I find extremely difficult to immerse myself in largely because I am not exactly sure how I'm supposed to feel about it.

Certainly, the problem is not Robert Downey, Jr. who has a natural gift for comic wordplay.  He can twist his way around a smarta** quip like few actors that I've seen.  Certainly, it's not the production design which is colorful and effectively apocalyptic.  It’s not the visual effects, which seem to have improved even from the first movie.  Perhaps the problem is that the movie promises so much, delivers so little and makes turns that make no sense (see above).  There are ideas here but there doesn't seem to be an effort to want to carry it through.  Elements of the film just sort of lay there.

This is the third solo go-around for Tony Stark and this time he's faced with his arch nemesis The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley).  That should be epic.  The Mandarin has organized a highly efficient terrorist group that can kill and destroy and disappear without a trace.  That's a pretty tall order and, I thought, maybe the movie will be a commentary on the real-life issues of global terrorism.  But, no.  In a development that I won't spoil, the movie tosses The Mandarin in the garbage - a middle finger to the audience and a waste of a good villain!

In the middle of this mess is a sort of compelling story about how the events of The Avengers and his previous adventures are causing Stark to have panic attacks.  Again, there is an idea there, but the movie won't carry it through.  It plays a big part in Tony's inability to face the threat that is coming after him.  But there isn't a moment when it all comes together.  The third-act climax more or less just happens because it has to and when it’s over, I'm not sure how to feel about what I just saw.  I'm still questioning that thing about Tony's house.  I shouldn't be thinking about that.

Thor: The Dark World (2013)

If you peel back the expensive multi-million-dollar production values and visual effects of Thor: The Dark World then you might agree that it is the most expensive B-movie ever made.  I mean that as a compliment.  Watching the movie again, I was reminded of those cheap sword and sandal epics from the 60s starring Steve Reeves and bearing titles like "Hercules Unchained" and "Colossus and the Headhunters."  All that is missing would be Sandahl Bergman in a brass brassiere, a horde of ax-wielding cave-dwellers and at least one gratuitous nude bathing scene.  I guess you can’t have everything.

But above everything else, Thor: The Dark World is refreshingly fun.  This coming off of the previous Thor movie that was dull as dishwater because no one involved in its production seemed to have any idea how to approach this character.  The massive improvement here is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously.  There’s a jokey and light tone to the proceedings and less like a dirge in a formal dress.  Chris Hemsworth has, by this point, relaxed into the role and Tom Hiddleston who plays Loki has found the joke under the character.

The story?  Who could care?  It’s so thin that you could spell it out on the back of a matchbook: Asgard has experienced generations of peace but now finds itself threatened by an endangered species of dark elves who want to harness the power of a substance called Aether (pronounced ether) which will plunge the Nine Kingdoms into darkness.  The elves are led by a malevolent dullard named Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) who speaks in flat, threatening phrases (“Your bravery will not ease your pain.  Your family, your world will be extinguished!”)  He has a heavy-sloped evil-guy forehead that makes him look like something left over from “The Lord of the Rings.”

Strangely enough, I find that Thor: The Dark World doesn’t have many fans.  Talking to people lately, I have found that it makes their list of the least impressive of this MCU cannon.  Truthfully, I’m not sure why.  Yes, the plot is stale, and the villains are so wooden that they have splinters.  But it is fun and not so damned serious.  It is reminiscent of the old Hercules movies in its spirit and its cheapness.  I think Bert I. Gordon would have approved.  The spirit of American International pictures is alive and well here, with a bigger budget, of course.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

There are a great many things that you carry with you in your mind when Captain America: The Winter Soldier is over, which is more than you can’t say about a lot of these movies.  The most important, I think, is that it is a true sequel.  The follow-up to Captain America: The First Avenger could easily have been a hack-strung fish-out-of-water story poking around at Steve’s disorientation of being flung head-first into the 21st century.  But this is a movie with much more important matters on its mind.

For one thing, it continues a patterns begun in First Avenger in that Hitler was a threat to global peace during World War II, while the world was distracted from the secret machinations of a underground organization called Hydra that was taking over the world by infiltrating everything from the most rudimentary aspects of everyday life right up to the leadership housed at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

What is intriguing is that this idea is slow to build.  Yes, Cap knows that Hydra was a problem but having been propelled forward 70s years, he is shocked to see that its tendrils are still at work in the new millennium – and are working their way through the upper echelons of S.H.I.E.L.D. itself.  That’s a fascinating angle, and one that ebbs very close to the comic book esthetic.  This is a very well-paced movie.  Yes, it has a smash and bash ending, but the awakening of the machinations of Hydra make it unexpected and, in many ways, kind of creepy.  I haven’t used that work about a Marvel movie before or since.

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

When it arrived late into the summer of 2014, Guardians of the Galaxy dropped on me like a ton of bricks.  I confess that I had heard of this particular Marvel property only maybe in passing.  I’m not a comic book guy, and so these characters were new to me.  Plus, it was the first time that the MCU had cast itself adrift from the Avengers and by doing so Disney took a risk.  The Guardians of the Galaxy aren’t exactly household names and so any outsider approaching this movie would do so only because it was attached to the MCU.  There are no attachments here, no Iron Man, no Hulk, No Captain America, no Thor.  We know that this is the same universe, but it’s dealing in a different neighborhood.

It’s also a different kind of film.  First, Guardians of the Galaxy is the MCU’s first comedy.  Yes, it’s an action movie but largely it’s a comedy and surprisingly a very good one.  It’s characters – which comprise of curious names like Star Lord, Gamora, Groot, Rocket Raccoon and Drax – are one of those rag-tag groups who are thrown together by circumstance, but all admit they’d be better off on their own.

Let’s put it this way: If the MCU was a circus and the Avengers are the acrobats, then the Guardians would be the clowns.  They’re heroes but they aren’t exactly heroic.  They’re self-serving, faithless, honor-less and each is really out for themselves.  That’s not to say that they are hateful or off-putting.  I’ve tried to land on an accurate description and the best I could come up with was ‘endearingly self-centered’

Setting itself apart from the world of The Avengers, the terrain of Guardians of the Galaxy is curious too.  It doesn’t take place in our solar system, rather it takes place in a far-flung section the galaxy that owes more than a little to Mos Eisley – scum and villainy are the normal walks of life here.  Of course, the galaxy is steeped in darkness thanks to a power-mad villain, a loathsome snort named Ronan who, of course, seeks to possess the ultimate power in the universe.  That’s kind of a requirement but it doesn’t feel like forced march through villain clichés.  Ronan is interesting.  He’s humorless but he’s also pouty and loaded with merciless proclamations of doom.

My feelings for Guardians of the Galaxy have moved back and forth.  When I saw it in August of 2014, I admitted that I enjoyed but complained that it suffered under the weight of a weak villain.  By the end of the year, those objections had dried up and, in a moment of madness, I put the film on my 10-best list.  I don’t know if I would have made that same decision now, but the movie is still very endearing to me.  It’s a strange off-shoot of a series that sometimes tends to get too caught up in itself.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

I have always found the public’s reaction to Avengers: Age of Ultron to be kind of curious.  When it was released in May of 2015, there was the usual hype, but the public reaction was oddly indifferent.  Missing was the hyper-active raves from fans that had flocked to Iron Man, Thor and The Avengers.  In talking to people, I found a lot of shrugged shoulders.  Watching the film again, I tried to figure out why.

Action-wise there is a curious sameness to Avengers: Age of Ultron.  By 2015, this series had become the biggest line of hyper-popular merchandise since the Beanie Babies and so there may have been a sense that it was spinning its wheels.  The movie made money at the box office, but the audience didn’t reaction with the usual fanfare.

In revisiting the movie recently, I landed on the opinion that this is the movie that I had hoped to get from Iron Man Three.  For me, it’s not necessarily an Avengers movie but it’s really an affirmation that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.  Tony Stark is one of the most human of the superhero cannon – he’s as flawed as he is brilliant.  Here he comes full circle with his impulses.  After a vision of the dark future in which something has laid waste to mankind, he decides to build a global defense system . . . which of course comes to life and tries to wipe out humanity.  The result is Ultron, a sentient being that Stark can’t seem to turn off.

The kind of human touch is, for me, more interesting than all the trash and bash special effects in the world.  It brings the story home and gives us something more than just a special effects show.  It also shows that Stark is the most interesting of the Avengers because his flaws don’t come from his abilities nor from daddy issues but from his own hubris.

But to return to the issue, I’m not sure why the audience didn’t take to this film like they did the previous Avengers movie.  Maybe the flaws in Stark’s character were a turn-off.  Maybe, again, the movie felt like more of the same.  For me, I didn’t think so.  This is the story of a flawed and difficult man coming to grips with what he has wrought upon the world.

Ant-Man (2015)

Ant-Man is living proof of Disney and Marvel’s faith in the cinematic universe that they have created.  When fashioning together a connected universe of films based on superheroes, Ant-Man isn’t exactly a priority.  Let’s face it, no one was exactly sitting around saying, “Gee, I hope someone makes and Ant-Man movie.”

Ant-Man is not exactly the coolest nor the most profound of superheroes.  By description he’s the goofiest of superheroes, and seemingly the narrowest in terms of his functionality. The challenge with this movie is to effectively explain to the uneducated what a man shrinking down to the size of an insect is good for. Fortunately, the movie is very good at explaining itself. You don’t believe one minute of it, and the logic has holes that you could throw The Hulk through, but it makes for an entertaining movie that doesn’t drive you away with distracting logistical question marks.

The masterstroke of Ant-Man is that it is, from one end to the other, a comedy.  That’s the only real way that you can approach this character.  The humanity comes from the character’s flaws.  Scott Lang is a petty criminal with a crippling sense of arrested development.  He’s a divorced Dad trying to get his life together while also providing for his daughter and dealing with the fact that he has just stepped into the role of a superhero who can shrink down the size of a LEGO.

That’s really all the story that is needed here.  The point of the film is to use Ant-Man’s size for a great deal of fun special effects as he traverses a world in which the most rudimentary object is the size of a skyscraper.  This is especially effective in the climax.  I’ve complained about the Avengers movies becoming victims of a trash and bash ending, but here the writers are able to get really creative.  Using ingenuity that ebbs somewhere between The Incredible Shrinking Woman and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, the action scenes move within a micro-world that is harmless when you are of normal height but terrifying when you’re the size of an ant. Ant man is threatened by rats, a record player, a bathtub, a vacuum cleaner, a toy train set, a shag carpet, and a room full of dancing feet. The special effects here are really creative, not just at recycling explosions but creating a world for Ant-Man to play in.

I’m starting to really enjoy myself in the MCU when the filmmakers let go of real-world stuff and just create a world to play in.  Ant-Man is not the most profound nor the most endearing of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe but, for my money, it is one of the most creative.  It may not be true that anyone really wanted to make this movie, but when they did, the filmmakers knew what they had and let their creativity go nuts.

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