(Welcome to Road to Endgame, where we revisit the first 22 movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and ask, “How did we get here?” In part 1 of our look at Avengers: Endgame: how the film sets up its breathtaking finale.)
It’s never too late for course-correction.
As Marvel has steamrolled its way through popular culture, its failings seem to matter less and less. For every middling entry like Thor: The Dark World, there’s a riotous follow-up like Thor: Ragnarok, which lampshades its series’ tropes, remixes its themes and kills-off existing characters it doesn’t know what to do with, effectively removing the former from canon. To borrow the parlance of sister-franchise Star Wars, “Let the past die. Kill it if you have to.” Though, what Star Wars: The Last Jedi understood about this approach (spoken and acted upon by the villain Kylo Ren) was, ironically, something Ragnarok understood as well, despite sweeping its predecessor under the rug: that failure undealt with can come back to haunt you, and that real growth and catharsis means learning from the past before moving on.
Spoilers for Avengers: Endgame begin here.
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(Welcome to Road to Endgame, where we revisit the first 22 movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and ask, “How did we get here?” In Part 2 of Captain Marvel: forgotten stakes, and the narrative fallout of blatant propaganda.)
[Read part one of our Captain Marvel piece here.]
Marvel movies tend to be littered with in-jokes. Cameos, sequel setups and obscure comic trivia reward the loyalty of certain audiences, and while Captain Marvel speaks this not-so-secret dialect (in addition to an avalanche of ’90s references), it’s also fluent in winking allusions to the U.S. military. For instance, the Kree designation for Earth is C-53, after the World War II fighter plane. The film even combines the worlds of comic book and military Easter eggs; the Avengers are retroactively named after an Air Force callsign, as if to conflate the function of these fictional and real-world entities.
In recent Marvel films like Black Panther, whose ruthless villain was dubbed “Killmonger” by his black ops peers, U.S. militarism was finally framed in a questionable light, albeit with caveats. After military-funded entries like Iron Man, Iron Man 2 and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, it seemed, for a moment, that the Marvel Cinematic Universe had left its propaganda behind. However, the studio took a considerable step back with the production of Captain Marvel.
What little goodwill Marvel earned on this front seems to have been squandered. Like so much of the MCU, Captain Marvel is nominally critical of war, yet implicitly supports it in a western context. The film is practically a recruitment dog-whistle and its story suffers in the process.
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(Welcome to Road to Endgame, where we revisit the first 22 movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and ask, “How did we get here?” In part one of our two-part look at Captain Marvel: how the movie tries, and fails, to frame memory and perspective.)
Between the two halves of its massive finale — the apocalyptic Avengers: Infinity War and the upcoming Avengers: Endgame — the Marvel Cinematic Universe feels like it’s being stripped for parts.
Ant-Man and the Wasp, a smaller, more intimate entry, did away with the trappings of the Marvel formula, though it failed to supply a working substitute. Its leads no longer provided quip-laden momentum (a task that fell to supporting players independent of the plot), but the lead characters had no internal conflict either, despite pasts that so clearly called for some. The film sidestepped the usual pre-visualized mayhem divorced from story, though its climax might as well have had no stakes at all. And rather than Marvel’s half-hearted expression of meaning — often a character arc culminating in punching harder — the film had no real theme to dramatize.
Captain Marvel, on the other hand, is a swing in the opposite direction, amping up the well-worn Marvel template to the point of inducing whiplash. It’s fun in parts, and it magnifies the series’ strong-suits; though in doing so, it exposes just how low the bar was set to begin with. The film can’t help but magnify the series’ weaknesses too, since they’re often one and the same.
Everything that was missing from Ant-Man and the Wasp comes rushing back, with the studio’s very name stamped across the title, as if to parody the common through-lines of twenty prior films without the self-awareness to do so. And while it’s filled to the brim with metaphor and ostensibly political outlook, the film is both haphazardly assembled, and shackled by the same constraints as fellow military-funded entries Iron Man, Iron Man 2 and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Only this time, the effects of the film’s mandated propaganda are significantly stronger.
Captain Marvel is a Marvel movie through-and-through, and that’s a problem.
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(Welcome to Road to Endgame, where we revisit the first 22 movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and ask, “How did we get here?” In this edition: Ant-Man and the Wasp is an easy, breezy, meaningless entry.)
As the Marvel Cinematic Universe increases in bombast, it needs the occasional palette-cleanser. The bloated Avengers: Age of Ultron was followed by Ant-Man, a heist film in the vein of a studio comedy. Similarly, the gargantuan Avengers: Infinity War was succeeded by Ant-Man and the Wasp. The Ant-Man films are as literal as “going smaller” gets, focusing not only on shrinking superheroes, but on intimate father-daughter dynamics, thus steering the MCU away from its usually apocalyptic stakes.
As with its predecessor, though, Ant-Man and the Wasp begs the question: is smaller inherently better when it comes to superheroes?
For what feels like the first time since Thor: The Dark World, a Marvel movie fails to be about anything in particular. Ant-Man and the Wasp is hardly a contender for bottom spot — it’s too well-meaning, and its supporting cast is too likable for the film to be truly worthless — and it breaks from Marvel’s traditions in notable ways. A handful of these deviations are refreshing. For instance, tonal consistency, along with visual and aural filmmaking that actually matches it. Other departures however, render the film thematically vapid, making it stick out even further in a series so otherwise loaded.
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(Welcome to Road to Endgame, where we revisit the first 22 movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and ask, “How did we get here?” In part two of our look at Avengers: Infinity War: confused action, and a cliffhanger that asks, “Who are the Avengers?”)
[Read part one of our giant look at Avengers: Infinity War here]
The first big action scene in Avengers: Infinity War unfolds when Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Wong (Benedict Wong) rendezvous in Manhattan. It’s a fun excursion filled with setups about Infinity Stones, character decisions and the plot at large. Though by swiftly ensuring all civilians are out of the picture (unlike The Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron, where they were a constant presence), the scene is robbed of immediate stakes beyond the Stones themselves. Our heroes simply battle on empty streets.
The Avengers, in theory, fight to protect innocent people. But by failing in to dramatize this — both on Earth and elsewhere — the film misses a vital opportunity to contrast the Avengers’ actions with those of Thanos (Josh Brolin) and his henchmen (the nefarious Black Order), whose collective mission is genocide.
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(Welcome to Road to Endgame, where we revisit the first 22 movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and ask, “How did we get here?” In Part One of our two-part look at Avengers: Infinity War: how Thanos and the Infinity Stones rewrite our favourite heroes.)
Avengers: Infinity War stormed through the 2018 blockbuster landscape, one-upping the industry-wide shift in tone, scale and narrative priorities Marvel had ushered in over a decade. The film combined eight existing franchises to deliver the first half of a humungous finale; the result was on-screen enormity, matched by an inevitable $2 billion box-office haul. The sequel, Avengers: Endgame, is sure to surpass it.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has its roots in military propaganda; the U.S. Department of Defense subsidized (and thus, had screenplay approval over) Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain Marvel. And though Avengers: Infinity War didn’t need to run its script by the Pentagon (as far as we know), it falls back on the series’ paradoxical framing of heroism, as a result of its military-funded predecessors. However, this unprecedented crossover event could not have succeeded, or even existed, without a decade of narrative investment. The film takes full advantage of this — albeit to mixed results.
For better or worse, Avengers: Infinity War is a culmination of everything the Marvel Cinematic Universe stands for.
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(Welcome to Road to Endgame, where we revisit the first 22 movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and ask, “How did we get here?” In this edition: Black Panther, a Marvel film that finally tries to be honest about American politics)
Black Panther is a sprawling superhero epic, the likes of which American cinema has never seen — or heard, for that matter, given the prominence of its African accents, treated anywhere from average to heroic; a far cry from the usual villainous or derisive framing of non-western voices in Hollywood. The film is one of the most important pieces of the Marvel puzzle, not necessarily in terms of long-term narrative (it’s relatively isolated from its 17 predecessors) but rather, as a potentially landscape-shifting benchmark for mainstream filmmaking. It was also the first superhero movie nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.
It’s hard to measure the full scope of film’s legacy just a year after its release. However, it’s safe to say that no American film since Marvel’s own The Avengers has had this seismic an impact. Black Panther flew past all critical and financial expectations, shattering the long-held Hollywood myth that Black stars couldn’t open films internationally. It also completed Marvel Studios’ third act turn of stepping outside the norms of Western storytelling — as seen in Doctor Strange, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Thor: Ragnarok — albeit more substantially. Though, like several other Marvel films, its framing of American power is occasionally questionable.
Black Panther is pop filmmaking at its finest, but its success is owed, in large part, to the creative lens through which it’s told.
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(Welcome to Road to Endgame, where we revisit the first 22 movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and ask, “How did we get here?” In this edition: Thor: Ragnarok reinvents the God of Thunder through a Maori lens.)
Thor’s first solo film, Thor, narrowly missed a coherent character arc. His second, Thor: The Dark World, didn’t give him one at all. For a number of years, the God of Thunder was, at once, one of the most popular Avengers, and one of the least narratively interesting. That is until New Zealand’s Taika Waititi was given carte blanche to re-imagine the character and his world.
Waititi’s film not only course-corrects Thor’s prior installments, it does so while leaning heavily into the delightfully bizarre Jack Kirby designs of Marvel’s 1960s golden age. It’s an oddball of a movie, featuring everything from a giant undead wolf, a naked Hulk and a kindly rock monster, to the best drag-inspired comic villainess since Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy. More importantly, it features Jeff Goldblum’s The Grandmaster, a character so zany and eccentric that you momentarily forget he’s a human trafficker who has people killed for sport.
Which is, in essence, the thesis of Thor: Ragnarok. It’s comedy about the effects of downplaying colonialism, made by an unapologetically Maori filmmaker.
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(Welcome to Road to Endgame, where we revisit the first 22 movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and ask, “How did we get here?” In this edition: Spider-Man: Homecoming offers an on-the-ground perspective of the Avengers’ world, but little else)
The film’s “Homecoming” sub-title sent a singular message to fans worldwide: this was Spider-Man back where he belonged, at the House of Ideas, alongside characters he’d shared the page with for over 50 years. In order to re-establish him, Marvel Studios would need to answer a key question following his MCU debut in Captain America: Civil War:
Where does Spider-Man fit in a world of Avengers?
The resultant film, Spider-Man: Homecoming, answers in great detail. It weaves this question into its text, and in doing so, it even adds dramatic heft to the post-Civil War character arc of Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), the studio’s flagship character. However, in the process, the story of Spider-Man himself is left wanting.
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I think I fell asleep during Manta Ray — the debut feature of Thai cinematographer Phuttiphong Aroonpheng — though I can’t be sure. If that’s a value judgement on the film, it might not be entirely negative.
Aroonpheng showed up to address the audience before the film’s New Directors/New Films Festival premiere, at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. He was heavily jetlagged, and ready to nod off. “My film is quite slow,” he said. “Please don’t fall asleep during the screening! I’ll try and stay awake too.” He knows what kind of film he made; Manta Ray, or Kraben Rahu, is oblique, meditative, and hypnotic. It’s light on dialogue, and heavy on symbolism that you, the viewer, might need to project upon. It opens —after a brief title card that reads “For the Rohingyas” — in a dense forest, scattered with strings of coloured lightbulbs and cheap, plastic disco balls; their presence is, at once, calming and invasive.
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