(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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(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: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 deals with cycles of abuse, and becomes unintentional commentary on its director’s firing.)
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 occupies a noteworthy place in the Marvel Universe, thanks to both its unique dramatic focus and to the real-world firing of James Gunn. The returning writer-director had, by this point, carved out a unique blockbuster space to discuss thoughtful ideas. The rest of the Marvel series was largely Earth-bound and linear; it focused on men who needed to come to terms with non-specific paternal grief, and whose arcs, more often than not, culminated in punching bad guys. Here, Gunn was given the freedom to tell a story that, while Thanos-adjascent, had little to do with the larger narrative of the Infinity Stones. The only ways it set up future installments were rooted in character.
While Gunn was recently re-hired for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, his haphazard ousting by Disney last year over decade-old shock humour (initially dug up by bad-faith actors upset at his political opinions) was inadvertently reflected in the themes he explored with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. The film is oodles of fun, but its first three scenes dramatize a complex mission statement.
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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: Marvel Studios enters spiritual territory with Doctor Strange.)
Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) adheres to Hollywood’s orientalist “white saviour” tradition, and Doctor Strange even whitewashes an already complicated Tibetan character, The Ancient One — an issue that has since been discussed from all angles (including by the director). However, in other, less apparent ways, the film proved to be Marvel’s first step into a larger world, one outside the series’ American and western defaults.
Marvel Studios had seen the occasional non-American setting thus far; London in Thor: The Dark World, South Korea in Avengers: Age of Ultron, various vaguely Middle Eastern towns in Iron Man. Doctor Strange however, felt like the beginning of a more noteworthy trend, one wherein not just the locations, but the creative viewpoints felt fresh.
The series’ shift in artistic worldview continued noticeably through the likes of Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther (and more subtly with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2), with Marvel slowly beginning to cater to a wider array of perspectives. The MCU began to introduce ideas that felt more eastern, more non-white and more postcolonial in approach, rather than the series continuing its bad habit of harping half-heartedly on American militarism.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe began as military propaganda eight years prior. Iron Man, the first film in the series, was subsidized by the U.S. Department of Defense, and thus, its script had to be military-approved (as was the case with Iron Man 2, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain Marvel). By 2016, the MCU had evolved into a landscape-dominating phenomenon, for better and for worse. On the “better” side lies Doctor Strange which, despite the film’s white, western gaze towards some of its characters, is not only aesthetically alluring, but employs eastern philosophies like Buddhism and Taoism to build its narrative framework — a far cry from the way most Hollywood stories are 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: Captain America: Civil War pays off years of build-up by injecting politics with personal impulse.)
The Marvel Cinematic Universe tries to re-invent itself every few years, albeit within a limited narrative formula. From scrappy “real world” solo films, to fun, landscape-shifting crossovers, to alien family dramas, the series has been laying track for its two-part finale — Avengers: Infinity War and the upcoming Avengers: Endgame — for quite some time.
A decade of narrative investment in the superhero genre, especially in a series that aims to be so political, can’t be achieved without a feeling of loss. Last year, after having been scattered by the events of Captain America: Civil War, the Avengers were finally defeated.
While no Avengers lose their lives in Captain America: Civil War, the team tears itself apart from within; they may as well have lost their identity. The series’ long-term personal and political narratives finally boil over, clashing with one another for reasons both idealistic and petty, opposing impulses that are (rightly) framed as a continuum. It’s a harrowing watch at times, despite building on its predecessors’ confused politics. Debates about military intervention rage on in the real world, and as of Avengers: Age of Ultron, the Avengers’ legacy finally began to stand in for America’s. That legacy is complicated, and Civil War finally grants the series an element it had been missing for nearly a decade: deeply personal drive behind political ideology.
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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 is charming, but feels like two different scripts smashed together)
Ant-Man would’ve been a different beast under director Edgar Wright (Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead), who left the project over creative differences in 2014. The Avengers had recently swept the globe, and with the note-factory that was Marvel Creative Committee still intact under Marvel chairman Ike Perlmutter, directorial freedom wasn’t exactly on the table. (The Committee was finally disbanded in 2015).
Marvel Studios then was a far cry from Marvel Studios today, just a few years removed. While it’s nice to imagine what could have been, Peyton Reed of Yes Man and Bring It On did an ample job; for better or worse, the film the studio wanted seems more fitting for Reed’s wheelhouse than Wright’s. Several visual flourishes people presume were Wright’s were actually Reed’s doing — Luis’ hilarious callbacks, for one — though the story feels like the product of conflicting rewrites.
While Ant-Man’s personal scale feels like a palette cleanser from Marvel’s end-of-the-world bombast, one might ponder whether going smaller and more personal is inherently more sound, especially when major decisions still feel like they’ve had their edges sanded down. Wright was rumoured to have written a more morally grey film, about a hardened criminal being reformed. The end result is anything but, yet it curiously (and paradoxically) echoes elements of Wright’s original drafts — as if the finished product were unable to escape its past.
Like the protagonist at its center, it’s tough for Ant-Man to be truly good when forces beyond its control keep holding it back.
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