Thor The Dark World Revisited

(Welcome to Road to Infinity War, a new series where we revisit the first 18 movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and ask “How did we get here?” In this edition: Thor: The Dark World defines Marvel’s “villain problem” and doesn’t do much else.)

Thor: The Dark World plays like Marvel’s first truly troubled production. The rush to get the ball rolling on the space-set sequel saw the exit of Thor director Kenneth Branagh, after which Patty Jenkins was hired but departed soon after, citing creative differences. It was for the best; Jenkins would go on to direct Wonder Woman for DC, which is arguably The Dark World’s only lasting impact on the superhero genre. It’s a messy film sprinkled with bits of fun, aiming to take Thor on a universe-spanning adventure on a larger scale than before.

But the film’s existence is nearly antithetical to the Marvel formula regardless of how much it depends on its tone, replacing interesting character beats with overwrought plotting and exposition. And while it manages to deliver a romp of a third act, it commits perhaps the one shared-universe cardinal sin: its main character ends up right where he began, and goes nowhere in between.

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(Welcome to Road to Infinity War, a new series where we revisit the first 18 movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and ask “How did we get here?” In this edition: Iron Man 3 brings a personal new style to the MCU, even as it stumbles in the homestretch.)

Marvel needed to prove exactly one thing after The Avengers, and that was the possibility of different kinds of stories. While Guardians of the Galaxy would go on to be the biggest post-Avengers (“Phase 2”) departure, it was Tony Stark’s first solo adventure after the Battle of New York that answered the question on everyone’s mind: “What comes next?” Would Marvel be able to come close to rivalling its superhero team-up spectacle?

Well, no. It most certainly wouldn’t, but it also didn’t have to. Iron Man 3 is nothing like its crossover predecessor. In fact, it barely has anything in common with Jon Favreau’s Iron Man and Iron Man 2, but what it does have, despite featuring another vaguely defined character arc, is a unique sense of identity.

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(Welcome to Road to Infinity War, a new series where we revisit the first 18 movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and ask “How did we get here?” In this edition: The Avengers is a big party of a movie…and a party that may have changed studio movies forever.)

The Avengers is the quintessential blockbuster experience. No film before or since has resulted in the kind of global celebration that followed in May of 2012, something even its second sequel Avengers: Infinity War may or may not be able to top despite bringing together twice as many franchises. Only time will tell, but time has been kind to Marvel’s first culmination, and not without good reason.

It’s a film that changed the way movies were made and watched, impacting everything from industry goals to the mainstreaming of “nerd culture” and fandom. Its lasting legacy isn’t just the sprawling Marvel Cinematic Universe, which drops its nineteenth entry into theatres soon (not to mention its seventeenth seasons of television, if you’re a complete-is)t. The mark left by the MCU can be felt in almost every other studio’s failed shared-universe franchises, from Sony’s The Amazing Spider-Man spinoffs, to Paramount’s shared film/television Terminator-verse, to Universal’s The Mummy-led Monsters series, and of course, to Warner Bros.’ own superhero crossover world, which all but fizzled out with Justice League.

And while the failures of its imitators are hardly cause for celebration, it stands to reason that Marvel was far ahead of the curve even before its purchase by Disney. Kevin Feige & co. have been doing it right before anyone else was doing it at all. The proof is in the pudding, and the pudding set to perfection at one very specific moment…

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Captain America The First Avenger Revisited

(Welcome to Road to Infinity War, a new series where we revisit the first 18 movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and ask “How did we get here?” In this edition: Captain America: The First Avenger offers Marvel Studios a proper moral compass.)

Steve Rogers is the heart and soul of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Whether we’re watching his solo outings, his Avengers team-ups, or a combination of the two (like Captain America: Civil War), he’s interwoven with the moral fabric of this fictional world; a dynamic that arguably holds true even for films in which he doesn’t appear. Broken down to his basics, he’s the benchmark for righteousness in an ever-changing political landscape, even when said righteousness is called into question. This has been his role in the comics for the better part of this century, making him a vital addition to their filmic equivalent – a series steeped in real world post-9/11 military conflict right from the get-go.

Captain America’s first big adventure, much like his 1941 comicbook origin, takes place during World War II. It’s an arguably more black-and-white setting compared to the complexities of contemporary geopolitics – the kind of complexities the Iron Man films try (and occasionally fail) to capture – but this backdrop provides both Steve Rogers and the larger Marvel Universe a framework within which to position their outlook on heroism.

Sometimes heroism means fighting on the front lines, like in Captain America: The First Avenger. Sometimes it means lurking in the shadows, like in Avengers: Infinity War. Whatever the case, the answers are never easy and price of freedom is high, but it’s a price the Star Spangled Man is willing to pay.

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(Welcome to Road to Infinity War, a new series where we revisit the first 18 movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and ask “How did we get here?” In this edition: how the blend of Shakespearian drama and goofy comedy in Thor sets a new tone for the MCU.)

After a trio of relatively grounded sci-fi action flicks, the Marvel Cinematic Universe took its first leap of faith. Thor was the first Marvel film to go into production after Disney purchased the company in 2009, but its departure from its predecessors didn’t simply hinge on the brand name behind it. Where Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk helped established the politics of this world, Kenneth Branagh’s Thor redefined the visual and tonal language of the Marvel Universe as a whole, not to mention the fact that Marvel somehow convinced Kenneth Branagh to leave his personal stamp on a superhero movie.

The result, while messy from a character standpoint, strikes an unprecedented balance. It straddles two distinct tones, a combination that would eventually coalesce in 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy, but lest we get ahead of ourselves, it’s the meshing of these two seemingly disparate approaches that forms the crux of Marvel’s first cosmic adventure, and what the film is at its core.

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Iron Man 2 Revisited

(Welcome to Road to Infinity War, a new series where we revisit the first 18 movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and ask “How did we get here?” In this edition: Marvel misfires on every cylinder with Iron Man 2.)

In the seasonal game that is ranking the Marvel movies, most folks would place the franchise’s first proper sequel near the bottom of their lists. However, at the time of its release in 2010, the film found itself sitting atop a lofty pile of over $620 million, with three out of every four reviews on Rotten Tomatoes coming in at some degree of positive. At the time, a lot of people liked Iron Man 2 just fine.

Upon re-watch, it’s fine in the most middle-of-the-road, passive-watch sense of the word. “Fine” is the descriptor that feels most apt, given that the film has neither the novel spark of its predecessor nor features the emotional heights that Marvel’s future films would eventually reach, but it also doesn’t have enough going on by way of narrative risks to drop the ball hard enough. Is that worse than a film that shoots for the moon but lands among the dirt? Arguably, though average is still average at worst. Even as a feat of world-building, it does little to expand on what came before it in both Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk, but it remains at the very least a showcase for why the Marvel formula works even when it misses the mark.

If this is the worst the MCU has to offer – and it very likely is – then Marvel Studios has been doing just fine for quite some time. But it’s worth examining why exactly it failed to live up to its predecessor, and how that failure set the stage for Marvel’s future successes.

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The Incredible Hulk Revisited

(Welcome to Road to Infinity War, a new series where we revisit the first 18 movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and ask “How did we get here?” In this edition: revisiting the oft-maligned and underrated The Incredible Hulk.)

It’s easy to dismiss The Incredible Hulk when revisiting the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Striking it from canon seems to have few long-term narrative repercussions, and the recasting of Edward Norton’s Bruce Banner in future films primes it all the more for being swept under the rug. However, it’s an integral part of what the folks at Marvel were attempting to do in their early days, the then-unprecedented shared universe concept that now seems to be on every studio’s mind. While the film has crossover references a-plenty, it’s set apart from the rest of the MCU by its distinct tone, one that feel less “superhero movie” and more “classic monster picture,” though the way it marries said tone to the now familiar Marvel sensibility helped build the platform from which The Avengers would be launched. Forgettable or not, the road to Infinity War would be incomplete without it.

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(Welcome to Road to Infinity War, a new series where we revisit the first 18 movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and ask “How did we get here?” First up: Iron Man, and how Marvel turned a series of flaws into profound strengths.)

The Marvel machine went into production without a completed script. A few years prior to Disney purchasing the House of Ideas, director Jon Favreau and then newly named President of Production Kevin Feige began laying track in front of train on Marvel’s first in-house feature – or as co-star Jeff Bridges described it, a “$200 million student film.” Unlike any other movie at the time, Iron Man also had to open up a whole new world of characters yet unseen, scribbling just outside its own margins in order to make good on Feige’s promise of an entire Avengers universe at Comic Con 2006.

How did it go? Well, the year is 2018, and we’re waiting (im)patiently for Iron Man to charge into cosmic battle alongside the Avengers, the Guardians of the Galaxy, Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, and all of Wakanda in a few weeks’ time. Not only have the aforementioned characters become mainstays of global popular culture, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has also long since become the highest grossing film franchise in human history. Quite a return on investment for a student film.

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