Marvel Phase II: The Review

With Ant-man now well and truly in cinemas it brings a close to Phase II of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Phase III begins in May when Captain America 3: Civil War comes out, but before we look to the future it’s worth looking back and seeing what worked and what didn’t, because although Marvel Studios should be praised for managing to create a compelling universe of interesting characters that now spans seven years of cinema, it hasn’t done so without some missteps. Some of the movies from Phase II have received abundant praise, but not every movie was universally loved. The six movie series began with Iron Man 3, and while I’ve only reviewed a couple of them through 1Up Culture I have seen them all in cinemas. Plus I clearly feel it necessary to make my ‘special’ opinions known. Here’s my review of Phase II, movie to movie, both as movies and as a grander vision of the MCU.

Oh, and while most people reading this are probably beyond that point, spoilers ahead, so read at your own risk.

Iron Man 3

Oh boy, didn’t Phase II begin with some controversy? The first Iron Man will go down as one of the most important movies in the genre and also one of the most fun, while the second one is all but forgettable, with its only real accomplishment being that it introduced Black Widow into the MCU. The third Iron Man movie was Marvel’s first post-Avengers movie, and they leaned heavily on those events in setting up much of Tony’s internal battle.

The controversy of course came at the hands of the primary villain, The Mandarin. One of Iron Man’s main villains (he’s the equivalent of Joker or Green Goblin to the Iron Man lore) he was built up as a menacing modern re-imagined threat in the trailers, and they then proceeded to pull the rug out from under audiences with the twist that the man behind the Mandarin was just an actor, orchestrated by the man who was seemingly the secondary antagonist.

This moment more or less separates the audience into two camps: Those who liked the movie and those who detest it. Generally those in the latter are comic fans who were pissed at the bait and switch of an important comic villain. There are other divisive aspects in the movie, but if anyone mentions Iron Man 3, the Mandarin tends to be the talking point.

Me? I’m in the camp of the latter. I can appreciate the idea of the twist, and I think in a regular action movie or Bond flick it could have been a brilliant move. And while producers shouldn’t be held to following a character interpretation to exactly as they appear and act in the comics (first off that’d be impossible given how the comics industry is) there’s a line creators need to be careful about crossing. And dragging an important character through the mud is only going to piss off more people than it entertains. I know there was a one-shot that tried to save the situation, but the damage was already done, and it reeks of backtracking in order to save face.

Beyond that, this movie still has its flaws. The final fight scene isn’t as epic as it tries to be, Tony makes an unforgivably stupid move to get into such trouble in the first place, and the bait and switch ultimately leaves the movie with a boring main antagonist while the humour of the post-reveal ‘Mandarin’ jars with the darker tone of the movie. What’s worse, all of the key plot points surrounding the movie are completely ignored or retconned without explanation once Age of Ultron rolled out. All of Tony’s PTSD development are potential retirement is thrown out, and it leaves the movie being pretty pointless right now. It’s a true love it or hate it movie.

Thor: The Dark World

The first Thor movie was a fun if mediocre ride, but both Thor and his half-brother Loki quickly become crucial to the MCU with their involvement in Avengers, as well as securing a certain audience demographic who lifted Loki from an ensemble highlight to one of the genre’s biggest names. The sequel expands upon their relationship as well as building the the greater mythology surrounding the characters alongside a war between Asgard and the Dark Elves, and continued to expand the MCU’s off-Earth events.

I enjoyed this in cinemas, more so than the first Thor movie. But when I tried to watch it a second time I found it terribly boring. There’s some interesting stuff going on here but it feels like there’s a lot of iffy execution. Loki fans have a lot to enjoy here, but this movie is proof of one of Marvel’s biggest issues right now: building strong villains. They have some great heroes to push but outside of Loki none of their villains have really been all that interesting.

I was discussing this issue after seeing Ant-Man with a friend, and when it came to villain of ‘Dark World’ I couldn’t find a way to remind myself or my friend who he was. I was trying to explain to him (who is a bit more versed in the Marvel mythology than I am, having always been a DC guy) that it was the ‘ugly goblin guy’ which did nothing to fire up his memory. As it turned out (after a quick Google) that by goblin I meant elf, and I was trying to think of Malekith. We both went ‘aaah that’s right’ and then proceeded to not care any more than we did before. He was a pretty worthless villain that wouldn’t entice you with a return in later movies like some of the villains we’ve seen from DC (Zod/Faora, Joker etc). Across the board the only strong/interesting villains have been Loki and The Winter Soldier (who is now more likely to be an anti-hero). Even Ultron (and I’m getting ahead of myself here) for all of the trailer hype was ultimately pretty meh in his execution. Thanos obviously is being built up, but considering how fun and interesting a strong villain can be, it’s letting down some of Marvel’s work when we get boring antagonists like Whiplash or even big names like Red Skull.

I went off track there, but truth be told there’s not a whole lot worth talking about with the second Thor movie. There were some interesting bits, but it’s pretty forgettable. The humour is hit and miss and the action doesn’t leave a lasting impression. There does seem to be some important plot points here that will be expanded upon in the Ragnarok movie come Phase III, which might at least make it required viewing for MCU viewers, but beyond that it doesn’t hold up well as its own movie.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

So it’s been a pretty rocky start for Marvel’s Phase II. But boy if the year 2014 didn’t change that. The first Captain America movie was pretty mediocre, enough to get the likable hero out there and establish his world without captivating us like Iron Man did. But the Winter solider took a radical change in tone and style, turning into a conspiracy movie with co leads of Cap and Black Widow (and also introducing an interesting new hero in Falcon) that not only holds up as a movie in its own right but had major implications for both the television series ‘Agents of Shield’ and the rest of the cinematic universe.

There was buzz surrounding this movie early on, but it still managed to surprise a lot of viewers by how good this movie was. It was a brilliantly executed movie that tightened the screws on its heroes and built upon their characters. Just about everyone involved came out more interesting at the end of it, and its Black Widow’s best outing to date by far. Personally, I think the Winter Soldier is the best Marvel movie to date. Better than Iron Man, better than the Avengers. It’s up there with The Dark Knight at the top of the superhero pile, and truly transcends the superhero genre to be something that just about anyone can enjoy. Steve Rogers is the kind of hero that can work as a straight action hero, and Chris Evans has managed to keep the overly patriotic aspects of the character without making him inaccessible to international audiences.

From an MCU standpoint, there’s also a lot that happens. Falcon debuts here, and has already proven to be a valuable recurring character that will only grow with importance, and The Winter Solider is set to be instrumental in future MCU movies. SHIELD as an organisation is completely upturned and supporting characters like Hill and Fury are given more in depth characterisation that makes you care about their future. Anyone who knows the comics and what happens in some of the material Phase III will be borrowing from will no doubt be curious to see what kind of role Bucky Barnes ends up playing, but the movie itself is absolutely brilliant.

Guardians of the Galaxy

Chris Pratt, he’s so hot right now [/Mugatu]. While Captain America was a departure from the norm and was a critical darling as a result, Guardians was the Marvel movie everyone wanted to talk about. A true litmus test on how far fans would follow the MCU, this seemed like it could be the movie to bomb until the first trailer came out and turned everybody into believers. A misfit group of space travelers thrown together, which included a gun totting raccoon and a sentient tree with a three (four) word vocabulary? It’ll either equal brilliant or bust, and it leaned heavily on the former. Most of the audience came to Guardians without any expectations from the ensemble, but the entire team worked, bouncing off of each other and managing to make each character interesting and worth investing into.

While Captain America 2 is my personal favourite movie out of the MCU, Guardians is by far the most fun. It’s a space opera romp that fills a gap as we wait for a new Star Wars movie, and even distracts us from the fact Firefly was also an amazing ensemble cast story about misfits in space. Even Drax the Destroyer (played by Batista) who I was a little negative on in my initial review of the movie, has won me over convincingly upon rewatching, while the Groot/Rocket pairing was executed far better than it had any right doing so. It was fun, colourful and action packed, and while it’s far from the deepest movie it encapsulates much of what Marvel is trying to do.

Its importance to the MCU is pretty clear too. We get more on Thanos here than the rest of the MCU combined, but also it begins to build the mythology surrounding the infinity stones, which WILL be crucial to the upcoming Avengers movies. I suspect people who skipped this movie for whatever reason might be a little confused by the stones come Avengers 3, especially since it seems Marvel are assuming you’ve watched everything. It’ll be a must watch for the MCU, and anyone with even a passing interest in space fantasy or just fun movies should check Guardians out.

Avengers: Age of Ultron

The first Avengers was an amazing proof of concept. You could bring together a group of solo-movie hosting heroes and make it work as a team-up film. Anticipation was high for the sequel, but it didn’t really live up to the hype. It’s not a great film, and nor is it a terrible film. I said it in my review before, and I’ll say it again. Both this and the Avengers are great spectacles, but as straight films there are a lot of weak points that will be incredibly difficult to overcome because of what they’re trying to achieve. It’s Still fun, but it lacks the depth of a lot of the solo films.

I rewatched this one recently, hoping it’d lift my opinion on it (since I thought my own hype for the movie might have clouded my initial judgement) but unfortunately it didn’t. When the movie works it is fantastic. The opening scene, the party and the development of Hawkeye from odd man out to an Avenger of actual value. But the movie tries to do too much and what it does do could have been done better. It’ll definitely be important to the future of the MCU (quite a few scenes are set up with future movies in mind) but the actual conflict between them and Ultron feels very much like a filler couple of issues in a comic book run as they build up to the big highlight arc or crossover. If you want a deeper look into the film, my review on here is available to read. But ultimately, it was good, not great, but might be held in higher esteem once all the plot points come to fruition.

Ant-Man

I was interested if a little under-excited by the prospect of an Ant-Man movie, and the teaser certainly didn’t help, even if the full trailer did make up for it. I had even planned on reviewing it here on 1Up but couldn’t muster the interest to see it when I could opening weekend (I think I was still reeling from the meh’ness of Ultron). But the mostly positive acclaim it was receiving reignited my interest. Now I’ve seen it? I can attest to the other critical opinions out there hailing it a success.

The movie plays things pretty safe, in many ways it is the original Iron Man movie under a different skin. A snarky protagonist with a particular set of skills which helps him stumble across some fancy new technology, and eventually doing battle with a variation of that tech. It’s not broad in its vision as a world altering plot that holds worlds in the balance, but it’s a nice change of pace. It’s fun, action packed and interesting, as well as expanding on the MCU as a whole. It was even nice to see people talking about the Avengers in universe who aren’t (yet) involved with them.

One complaint I had, and it also extends to the wider MCU again, is how the movie approaches death. When old man Hank Pym is shot at point blank range, at no point did I suspect he was going to die. And while Cap 2 tried to pull this with Nick Fury (to no effect honestly, I doubt many thought he would really die) Ant-Man didn’t even try to make the audience think he was done for, there was no tension building, and it seemed he was only shot so as to throw in an extra obstacle, rather than act as an emotional low for the main cast.

Death scenes have become pretty arbitrary in the MCU, and it’s falling into a classic ‘boy who cries wolf’ scenario where not only will these death scenes fall flat on the emotion because we just assume he will get better, in cases when they do seem to kill someone off -coughQuicksilvercough- the full impact is kinda hard to take in. Even now I’m assuming he’ll be brought back somehow, so why care? And even though Age of Ultron executed that pretty well, as a viewer the impact is lessened because I’ve been trained to presume the death is only temporary.

It’s a problem that’s tough to deal with, since you want to keep audiences in suspense and on the edge of their seat without painting your vision into a corner by offing a character who can make you money and be a storytelling asset, but fake us out too much and we stop caring. Plain and simple. And considering each movie in the MCU is interconnected, constantly relying on the same tropes negatively affects future films rather than acting as a one off event in its own universe.

But despite that complaint, Ant-Man does a good job as both a stand alone film and as a part of the wider MCU universe. It plays with the size ratio well but it is hard not to wonder what could have been if Edgar Wright had stayed on the project. His kind of directorial vision could have done wonders for a movie like Ant-Man, and might have taken it from fun but safe movie to something far more distinctive and memorable.

The Future: Phase III

So what next for Marvel? Well Civil War shaping up to basically be an Avengers 2.5 film, and the mythology will only expand with forays into magic through Doctor Strange and the realisation of their first solo female hero flick in Captain Marvel. Spiderman is set to find his way home and the Inhumans looms off in the distance. We’ve got an Avengers double header looming as well as the highly anticipated Guardians sequel. There’s a lot to be excited about.

The question in all this for me was: Did Phase II improve on Phase I? And while I have my fair share of complaints about Phase II, I do feel it was better than the first. Not only were their strongest movies stronger (Cap 2 and Guardians I think are better than Iron Man and Avengers – even if it’s an opinion not everybody shares) and outside of Thor 2, the missteps were at least ambitious. I have my complaints about Iron Man 3, but it took a risk at least. I’d rather these films try something rather than be status quo, which is a line Ant-Man might have playe with somewhat dangerously. Guardians of the Galaxy is proof that taking a risk is worth it. Now a z-list team only the most hardcore of Marvel fanboys once knew of are highly relevant in the pop culture sphere. It’s a huge success for not only the MCU but Marvel as a whole.

Phase II was ultimately a success, producing 2 top tier movies (Cap, Guardians and Ant-Man), one good movie (Ant-Man) a decent movie (Age of Ultron) and two weak movies (Iron Man 3, Thor 2). And even the ‘weak’ movies were still successful financially. People are still turning out to an MCU film, and after the colossal bomb that was Fan4stic Four, it’ll only serve to paint Marvel Studios in a better light. Yeah, Age of Ultron could have been better, but it wasn’t that. Besides, I’m sure the executives aren’t too disappointed with the money it raked in, and that was off some weak reviews in the leadup to the American release. On that note, the damage the earlier international release potentially did to the American opening weekend box office numbers (and I do believe they had an effect) may influence those in charge to not do that anymore.

Next year DC step up to the plate to show the world how it plans to counter the dominance of the MCU, but right now Marvel’s strength comes from the universe it has already begun to build. After two phases in the juggernaut, its success will be a highlight of the current period of cinema, and might prove to be more influential to the pop culture climate than the sum of its parts.

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