Wednesday, August 5, 2015

An Assessment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe

I always see these movies on opening day. I don't know why, maybe it's because I want to get swept up in the hype before it dies down within the week, or want to stop avoiding spoilers on the internet, or want my friends to stop asking if I've seen them yet. All of those reasons apply, actually.

For some reason I thought it would be a good idea to run through my thoughts on all of the Marvel films —at least the ones I haven't covered yet and have something to say about — because this blog has spent a few posts on them so far and I don't see them stopping any time soon, and also because I like to give myself way more work than I need to for no reason whatsoever. So sit back and enjoy my longest post to date.

I originally wrote this to celebrate the opening of Age of Ultron, but whoops, I took too long. Good thing for me a new Marvel film comes out every minute, because now I can pretend that this post was actually written to review Ant-Man. These movies are like mayflies, wow. Anyway, here we go!

In other words, spoiler alert.

When discussing Marvel movies, it's probably best to split them into their respective gimmicky "phases" and arrange them chronologically, because there aren't many other methods of organization that make sense. So far, we're nearing the end of the second Phase, and undoubtedly there will be more.

- PHASE 1 -

~ verily, I say ~

Thunder Thor, coming soon to thorters.

Thor was the first Marvel film I saw in theaters. It was actually the first one I saw, period, if you don't count Fox's X-Men and Sony's Spider-man trilogies.

I really liked this movie and after I saw it I remembered it so well that I was able to recount the entire plot. And now, a few years later, I still can.

This movie is a lot more solid then other entries in the MCU. The villain has motives — what?! Unheard of! — The humor is on point: not too little, not too try-hard,  and most importantly, it shows a whole new world, Asgard, which offers the perspective that Earth is really very insignificant, which I always like. In films like The Avengers, and its sequel, they make Earth seem much more important then it is, which tends to bother me. I know the big action finale wouldn't have any weight if they pointed out that from space the battle isn't even visible, but it'd win me over. Men in Black is my favorite movie, not just because of that established viewpoint, obviously, but it certainly contributes to a large portion of my enjoyment of it.

Unfortunately, the big action finale is a weak point in Thor. Aside from the Destroyer being a pretty good design, there was more standing and talking and running from explosions than actual fighting.
But when there was, it was well-directed, with a lot of tension, especially when Sif was on top of the Destroyer.

This scene is basically the Wonder Woman movie.
I wish the Warriors Three had more to do, but I'm glad they bothered getting the civilians to safety, unlike certain other movies, (*cough*Avengers*cough*).

Of course, when you watch this movie you still have to suffer through one of the worst onscreen romances ever, and some cheesy, though admittedly fun, filler. If a cheesy filling is the worst you can get, I say you're doing pretty well.

~ filler or not? ~

Yes, but is he really, technically the first Avenger?

Curiously enough, what I would expect to be the most outright militaristic Marvel film is one of the least — but it all has to do with the movie's perspective on it. Captain America is a "super soldier", so that would seem to imply that a huge chunk of the movie would be non-stop war battles... but it isn't. Instead, the army-pandering portion is contained within a short montage. The film is also not afraid to show the darker side of war, like when Steve is the only person willing to sacrifice himself for the rest of his team during a surprise training grenade attack, when the general reads through the lists of the deceased soldiers, or when the war-weary troops reject Captain America.

The movie also has a lot of fun with that dark edge, which sounds like an oxymoron but totally works, most noticeably during the big, patriotic Captain America number, which is one of my favorite fake songs ever.

Skinny Steve really works in this film as well. It's one of the few times in these movies that the visual effects help tell a story instead of being bombastic.

Oh look, he's almost as skinny as I am.
Though I really appreciate all these things, that's where my praise for the film ends. The movie is ultimately weaker than most MCU films because of it's seen-before done-again premise and rather bland villain. I felt like there was more they could have done with the Nazi implications of the character of the Red Skull that could've made him more sinister for sure, and maybe even sympathetic if taken down the right path. It's a trend in old comic book stories to have flat villains with evil as a primary cause for their actions and that's probably why so many MCU villains don't have the same appeal as, say, Loki, who is the only multi-dimensional one. It is these films' duty to round out characters for the modern age, but more often than not they fail to do so, and this film isn't an exception.

The setting of the film could've been established better as well. There's so much flavor and culture in the 1940s that was just kind of missing to make way for Bucky dying and other whatnot.

And of course, there's the rather oddly botched finale, where there seemed to be plenty of time for Steve to find a way out of the airplane. Still, despite these flaws, the film is just enjoyable enough to squeak by, and I think the ending makes up for a lot.
- PHASE 2 -

~ the one that took a risk ~

Oops, is that the Chinese poster? Ah ha ha — my mistake.

In previous posts I've mentioned that my favorite film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, (or at least one I enjoyed, I try not to pick favorites), is Iron Man 3, a controversial statement to some fans who swear that's the rottenest banana of the bunch. Well, you can either attempt to eat that disgusting banana as it is, or blend it into a smoothie with other, more ripe fruits, and I did the latter.

Iron Man 3 is more introspective then the other Marvel movies, and for some people that bogs down the story. For me, it felt like I was finally seeing a proper arc. In both The Avengers and its sequel Age of Ultron the "low point" of the movie is basically nonexistent, unless I'm supposed to believe that the team chilling out at Hawkeye's house or being sad over some some random agent in S.H.I.E.L.D.'s death are low points for the characters. Here, Tony's house is destroyed, along with all of his Iron Man suits, (though for some reason not the drone-piloted ones). That's what I think is the true low point for his type of character. Not "his legacy", whatever the hell that's supposed to mean, but his things being smashed. And in the movie, he overcomes that fear by being the one to smash them himself.

The mystery of the movie is also pretty unique and wide in scope. There was probably more they could've done with the human bombs angle, but it was still horrific and intriguing enough to hold my attention. Have I mentioned all the quips this movie had? They weren't anything outstandingly memorable, but at the same time they don't feel too forced because they're often layered, like this exchange here, which includes a slight nod to how they usually write Iron Man in these films:

Brandt: Is that all you've got? A cheap trick and a cheesy one-liner?
Tony Stark: Sweetheart, that could be the name of my autobiography.

The movie isn't without flaws, obviously. The fight at the end was kind of a mess, but it did have a  start and end point, some good action shots, and a unique endgame goal, which is something I can't say about Age of Ultron's similarly robotic finale, (and I mean robotic in all senses of the word).

On the whole, I can't remember being bothered by anything else in the film. I've already talked about how the Mandarin reveal didn't bother me, but I'll elaborate a little more here.

What an interesting hair doo.
We should let these films make more mistakes, because it means they're taking risks, and risks are what make things interesting. I should note that "risks" aren't the same things as "flaws". A flaw is an unintentional mistake, a risk is a calculated gamble that may not pay off. When I say risks are good, I also assume that the risk was taken with the anticipation that something good would come of it. I believe that the Mandarin twist falls in this category, which is why I can't count it among one of the film's flaws. (This long paragraph was probably not even necessary, but hey — sometimes you've gotta trudge through the semantics).

~ a passable diversion ~

So cool and yet so far.
Oddly enough, this one's up there with Iron Man 2 in terms of how much people name-drop it as a bad Marvel film. To be honest, I see where they're coming from, but if you don't take these things too seriously it's actually pretty good.

I know that sounds hypocritical coming from me, the king of taking things seriously, and it totally is, but let me amend that a bit. These films serve a purpose: popcorn entertainment, and as long as there is both popcorn and entertainment I have no complaints, even if the film has huge gaping flaws. After all, flaws only exist when you look for them, and the only reason to look for them is if you're attempting to explain why the whole wasn't satisfying — you've got to break it up into its components to articulate to others why you didn't like it. (This long paragraph was probably not even necessary, but hey — sometimes you've gotta binge through the bad seasons).

Thor just learned his father is having an old friend for dinner.
Thor as a character in the Marvel Universe isn't very interesting to me, but at least he has a personality, and occasionally his stories delve into actual Norse mythology, (admittedly a perversion of it, but I take what I can get). In his first film they kind of emphasized his fish-out-of-water-ish-ness, and there's some of that to be had here too, but the jokes work, the few of them that there are.

There are two major problems with this movie, and they both come in the form of characters: Jane Foster, (I had to look up her last name), and Malekith the Emo Elf. Whoops, I meant Evil Elf, sorry.

Yes, his goal is: "darkness". But... why? The Dark Elves are established as being from the Dark World, but they can clearly survive even in the light, so it's not like they need the light to be able to conquer other worlds, if they were so malevolently inclined. It doesn't seem like wiping out other races is the intent, unless I missed something, so this plan becomes especially idiotic when you consider the effect turning the sun off will have on everyone else. You can't rule over people when they die from freezing to death.

His plan isn't the only thing that isn't properly fleshed out. He just isn't a very good character, with no personality traits other than "evil", and unclear at best motivations.

Enough about him, though, because the thing people really wanted to see was more forced Jane/Thor romance subplot!

Thor likes to look out over balcony railings a lot in this movie.
The reason for a romance subplot is usually to showcase a new dynamic between characters. If it's a primary character motivation, then it's almost always part of the main plot somehow. Thor 2 eschews those reasons for a lamer one: Romance subplot? [√].

This romance plays out like a mathematical theory, where 1 good-looking person x 1 good-looking person = 1 good-looking relationship. Real relationships aren't as straightforward, and movie relationships shouldn't be either.

They're really more like fractals.
The "just because" nature of this romance is a shoehorning fail, and the shoehorning in question was done for the date movie people. My advice is: stop pandering to them. Every movie is a date movie.

Loki also has a presence in this movie, to varying degrees of success. Least successful was the attempt to fool people into thinking Loki was dead, which was a question that wasn't even worth thinking about during the movie. Obviously, he lives on.

The thing about fan-favorite characters is that they're usually pretty awesome, but because of their fan favorite-ness they get used too often and so everyone gets fatigued. The Loki fandom hasn't died down yet, but it's a few slip-ups short of a fizzle — which could also be said of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole.

I found Thor: The Dark World pretty enjoyable, more so the second time I watched it. I think what saves it in my eyes are its humor and action scenes, which never lose focus and are very well shot. The production design all around is pretty good, and while Malekith isn't a great villain, he LOOKS like a great villain, I'll give him that.

~ as good as it gets ~

Why does Black Widow look completely oblivious to the massive destruction all around her?

Captain America's sequel surprised me a lot. I like how it explores corruption and the seeds of evil, and though I wish Hydra had even more of a presence, it was all around just a really solid film with great action scenes, some humor, and a surprisingly fleshed out villain.

My only nitpick is really with Fury's fake-out death. I never bought his death scene, just like I didn't buy Loki's death scene in Thor 2.  They were just a little too expensive to buy.
Nick Fury is kind of like the anchor of the MCU. Pretending to kill him was a pointless plot point that was only there to make S.H.I.E.L.D.'s position seem bleaker — thing is, we didn't need that, since things were already pretty bleak. Having people undermine Fury's orders would've worked better, storywise.

Wow, really had to stretch for a complaint there. That's how you know this film's good. Don't worry, there's troubled waters ahead! Moving on!

~ the pleasure island of the MCU ~

In this movie, the Avengers fight a sometimes amusing, but mostly dangerous Photoshop job. At least that's what I get from this poster.

Ugh, let's get started. So, to the average moviegoer, one who just wants an excuse to eat popcorn covered in soybean oil and beta carotene, this movie is probably totally harmless. However, the idea that someone could see this movie as a Marvel fan and not be utterly fed up with it is difficult for me to grasp.

If I had to denote one problem, the one that bogs the movie down and makes it beyond "okay" to "mediocre" for me, it'd be the Black Widow/Hulk romance, obviously. Not one scene between them works. But other reviewers have already covered this topic in detail — how it betrays Black Widow's cold, black-hearted persona, or how the chemistry is about as good a combination as glycerol with white fuming nitric acid, (it's oily, colorless, and anyone making it should be very, very careful).

Black Widow and Hulk were actually composited together later for this scene.
Instead, I'd like to spotlight the other failures of the movie. For instance, the fact that every bad thing that happens in the movie is really the Avengers' fault. Yes, there's the obvious — Tony creating Ultron. But there's more. Thor has a joke in the helijet, (or whatever it's called), after the CGI casualty now mournfully remembered as Scene 1. He attempts to convince Bruce that he didn't REALLY rend flesh from bone and kill thousands of people during their mission. That's actually kind of interesting! I wish this movie had spent more time showing the Avengers, or anyone really, cleaning up the city, or doing a civilian death count, or anything that further acknowledged how much damage they inflict. There was a definite effort to show Avengers helping people in this movie, but it wasn't really done right. Yes, they were trying to evacuate civilians during the final battle, yet somehow that wasn't a priority during the Hulkbuster fight in Wakanda.

Speaking of, the Hulkbuster fight felt a bit too forced to me. For one thing, all plot stopped so that the fight could happen. For another, it was a product of Deus Joss Machina mind-control, which rubbed me the wrong way. Good fights feel justified. If there's poor justification for a fight scene, you screw up motivation and you lose the arc of the fight, which has to be character-based to work. Here, what does anyone learn or gain from this fight? Does Bruce suddenly resent Tony for knocking his tooth out, (which apparently grew back as soon as he detransformed)? Nope. Does Tony bring up the damage Bruce or both of them caused during the fight? No, partially because they already brought it up earlier! So, in essence, the only reason this fight is in the movie is fanservice, which is one of the worst possible reasons for a scene to exist.

If only there was a word to describe this movie's flaws... hmm, how about "unnecessary"? This film is covered in movie dandruff — dialogue that makes no sense, subplots that go nowhere interesting, characters that don't really matter, plot threads that repeat themselves, character continuity errors in general... please, PLEASE use shampoo next time you write a script! I won't make allegations without evidence for them, though, so here are a few things that really didn't work for me:

~ H A W K E Y E ' S  H O U S E  ~

I was expecting Howard the Duck or Spider-Ham to be on Hawkeye's farm, but THAT never happened. Missed opportunities!
Yes, I love the idea that a huge, high-grossing summer blockbuster can waste ten minutes at a safehouse in the country. But it was just that — a waste of time. Why would Hawkeye bring these high-profile people to his little cabin, near his family, just when a maniacal robot artificial intelligence that has ravaged the entire globe through the internet is after them, and on top of that everyone on the planet hates them? Safe house? No. As a low point, it fails because nobody seems to learn from their mistakes during the downtime when it's time to rise up again. As character development, it fails because all it does is further turpentine the portrait of the Bluce Wanner ship. I won't go over it too much, but yes, I'm pretty ticked off at the line "You think you're the only monster on the team?", because it seems to impart that if you can't have children, you're a monster, which is completely wrong and demeaning. Even if the line is actually referring to Black Widow's past as an assassin, the place it was put in the conversation doesn't make it seem that way.

~  Q U I C K S I L V E R ' S  D E A T H  ~

Slower than a speeding bullet.
So first we get a nice fake-out when Quicksilver gets shot in the arm and walks it off with barely more than a "what's wrong with you?" face. Then he gets shot again and dies — with no repercussions whatsoever. Yes, Avengers 2: The Squeakquel has a large enough cast for a death to matter without mattering, so to speak, and I was honestly looking forward to someone dying just to see the impact it would have on the team. But the person the plot killed had barely any noteworthy dialogue, a backstory that was never paid off or acknowledged, and after he died there wasn't a single character who learned or grew from it. Everyone just shrugged and continued fighting. Not only that, but is Quicksilver really not fast enough to run past a bullet? Really? I don't buy it. My only hope for this is that it helps Scarlet Witch's character.

~  T H E  T O N E  ~

He's got a blanket! Fetal position's at 45°! We are "dark", people! DARK!!

There was a stipulation that this film would be "darker" than The Avengers. Unfortunately, it worked against it in the end. What could've been a fun movie with a sinister villain was a depressing movie with a wishy-washy villain. I wanted to see a legitimately creepy and terrifying Ultron for the Avengers to face. Instead, he's just kind of a joke, a fun guy with a justifiable gripe with the Earth. I didn't want the Avengers to beat him up, I wanted them to sit down and talk to him about the real and definite problems with society — probably not what the movie wanted me to want. Now, why he couldn't have done his repopulating on the moon instead of the Earth, I have no idea. But as motivations go, it wasn't SO bad. A step above "I'm evil", at least.

If you've ever read the series Pendragon, the main antagonist has a similar primary goal. But it's handled better there because he's a creepy, despicable, genuinely malignant person who you want to punch in the face whenever he speaks. Ultron only elicits my sympathy.

Getting back to tone, the dream sequence was probably the best thing to come out of it. Aside from that, it was basically the first Avengers tone-wise but somehow less fun and more tired and exhausting. Apparently "dark" means having Bruce look at people with sad and tortured expressions. The movie wears out its characters, welcome, and subsequently, audience. Oh look, an entire robot army to smash. Oh look, a huge village to prevent from destruction. Oh look, the U.S. Arm — uh, S.H.I.E.L.D.'s back and they're here to help. Well, I do suppose it's clobbering time again. SIIIGHHHH. And speaking of...

~  T H E  F I N A L  B A T T L E  ~
From this angle, they almost look like the toys they're selling.
There are some moments that work here, like Hawkeye giving the pep talk to Scarlet Witch, the joke where Hawkeye briefly ponders knocking off Quicksilver, and Black Widow's bleak acceptance of going down with the ship, though they could've played with that idea more. But mostly, it's more missteps again. War Machine and Falcon show up and what do they do? Help the villagers get to safety while the white people blow things up. That doesn't seem fair in the least, I mean, maybe it is to Falcon, since he's equipped for that kind of work and he hasn't gotten used to the team yet, but not War Machine, who is called freaking WAR MACHINE, has GATLING GUNS on his shoulders and has been around since Iron Man 2!! Why should he be helping people to S.H.I.E.L.D. lifeboats?

What hurts the most about this movie is that, with a few more days in the editing room, I would've loved it. The new characters mostly work, aside from Ultron. I liked Helen Cho, Vision, Scarlet Witch, and Quicksilver. The action scenes are way too long, but if they were shorter they would've been solid and memorable. Without Wulk Bidow, Veronica Fanservice, or Hangin' at Hawkeye's in the way, the movie would've had a real sense of fun to it. Would've, could've, should've. Too late, movie. Sorry.

My hope is that Civil War does what this movie wanted to do, but better, and I have high hopes for the upcoming Spiderman as well. I'm not the only one who has high hopes around here, though...

~ a potentially good picnic ruined ~

Oh look, a well-designed poster for once. Oh right, it's not the main poster.
So yes, this movie is at a "smaller scale" than the other MCU movies, as I'm sure countless other reviews have already cheekily pointed out. For the most part, it does more good than harm, helping the movie stand out a little and keeping the plot simple. I feel like this film, more than the others, is really aimed at younger audience members. Judging it as a kid's film, it's excellent, really. As a film that can stand alongside other MCU films, however, it comes up short, (no pun intended. Not on this review. You've heard all the jokes before).
The Yellowjacket!
 As usual the biggest problem I have with this film is the villain. Whereas I didn't like the interpretation of Ultron in Age of Ultron for being too tongue in cheek to be threatening, here the opposite is kind of true. I actually like the balance of Darren Cross's character, how one minute he kills a guy and the next he's basically asking if a suit makes him look fat. I wish the film had made him a little more extreme, a little more mercurial and violent. I knew from the second he was onscreen that he was the bad guy, mostly because of the small cast but also because the story wasn't exactly trying to suppress the telegraphing of its plot, so the movie definitely had license to go more over-the-top. A Who's The Villain mystery, this is not. It's a small story, small characters, small world. Once you're used to that, it gets a little more fun.

The most fun parts of the film are easily the parts most influenced by former director Edgar Wright.
Though I can't say for absolute certain how many scenes were directly under his sway, there were definitely more than a few classic Wright-like choices that stood out to me: juxtaposition of quiet/loud moments, situational humor, and humor through movement.

I am extremely saddened, (yes, I get the irony), that he did not end up directing the film. I was in desperate need of someone to punch up the dialogue portion of the movie.

You will see this shot again and AGAIN AND AGAIN!
I feel like during those scenes the cinematographer was thinking "let's get this over with". When I'm watching a movie, I shouldn't be thinking about what the cinematographer was thinking, I should be immersed in the movie. This movie has so many mid shots and medium close-ups that it's easy to forget the characters are wearing shoes or even have legs at all.

It's especially weird how dry those scenes are considering that this movie has some of the best, funniest, well-designed action scenes of any of the MCU films. It's not just punching and blasting. There's real thought to this.

My only other gripe is the opening scene of the film, which feels detached and unnecessary. It's like the writers just wanted to see an old Howard Stark. We get all the information the scene imparts again later, and what doesn't get said again didn't need to be said anyway.

I have no other big complaints here. It's actually a fun movie, if slightly irrelevant. The side characters are great, the action's great, and Scott is actually a pretty identifiable character.
It's good.


Here are my other reviews of Marvel films, Guardians of the Galaxy and The Amazing Spider-man 2.
The movies that are missing from this list are The Avengers, Iron Man, Iron Man 2 and The Incredible Hulk, but because I have Writer's OCD I'm going to just go over them real quick here:

THE AVENGERS: I hope I've made it clear that I love this film and I honestly don't have any nitpicks or complaints.

IRON MAN: Pretty interesting. Overall I enjoyed it. I just don't remember it well enough to give a full review. Maybe in a post update later.

THE INCREDIBLE HULK: Pretty forgettable, except for that Blue character. It's definitely more enjoyable than Ang Lee's Hulk, but that's not a hard bar to jump.

IRON MAN 2: It's not that bad, really. I liked Whiplash's design and I wasn't deterred by the "I'm going to invent an element" thing. There was nothing for me to say about it that hasn't already been said, though.

Finally, I'd like to apologize for all the semantic satiation I probably gave you. Count how many times I say "kind of", "like",  "though", "however", "I felt", or "it seems". It's kind of painful, how many times it seems I feel like using the same expressions all the time, however, my apology somewhat makes up for it, though.

This post took way too long, sorry. Hopefully I can get back to writing more assessments soon. Maybe an Inside Out review. We'll see...

1 comment:

  1. I love the spoiler cartoon. As always, witty and enjoyable reads.