Avengers: Age of Ultron


The consensus in the MCU fandom seems to be that Age of Ultron is bad, and that it’s the weakest of all 4 current Avengers films. I disagree with this, but I have very mixed feelings about this particular installment which, I feel, is of a higher production quality than its predecessor. I disliked the television feel and rapid camera cuts in Avengers Assemble, and I am pleased to report that neither of these issues are present in Age of Ultron. Of the several issues in this film, cinematography isn’t one of them.

The plot follows The Avengers as they face off against Ultron – a synthezoid created by Tony Stark that has gone rogue and is attempting to end humanity. This sounds relatively simple but it’s primarily the glue that holds a hundred other plot threads together. Age of Ultron is all about setting up the future of the MCU, and introduces us to a variety of new characters. The Maximoff twins, Vision, Ulysses Klaw, and Hawkeye’s family all make their first appearances here, and they are all given a decent amount of set up. Since this is the majority of the plot, the easiest way for me to discuss Age of Ultron is to discuss all these elements: starting with Pietro and Wanda Maximoff. 

The Maximoff twins are technically the first mutants in the MCU, but you won’t hear them called that because the rights to use that term were with 20th Century Fox at the time. This meant that a work around had to be found, and I think it’s fairly clever. The twins received their powers after Hydra used the Infinity Stone in Loki’s sceptre to experiment on them, which led to them becoming known as “enhanced”. This experimentation comes after they survived the collapse of their house where they spent several days staring down an unexploded Stark missile. This gives them a solid reason to stand with Ultron, but because they are acting out of revenge instead of pure malice, they are still willing to side with the Avengers once they learn Ultron’s full plan. My biggest issue with Pietro has nothing to do with the character, and everything to do with how he is used. He is killed by a hailstorm of bullets whilst pushing Hawkeye and a child out of the line of fire, which is particularly ridiculous given he is the fastest man alive. It feels as if this only happens to provide Wanda with further trauma. Wanda herself is a very likable character, but much like Black Widow, she is unnecessarily put into tight costumes. Actress Elizabeth Olsen has been very open about how against this decision she was, especially considering the director told her she wouldn’t have to wear anything like that. There’s no denying that the oversexualistion of women is at its worst in the first two Avengers films, and the more I hear about it, the more I’m filled with rage. As we go through the MCU, Wanda is going to get—in my opinion—one of the best characterisations in this franchise, and she deserves it. Much of this will come to a head in Wandavision, details of which we will take into account when we get there.

The introduction of Vision is handled very well. The lead up to his creation/birth is filled with tension, because it has only been a few days since Tony attempted something similar and ended up with Ultron. Despite being born in the middle of a massive disagreement between Avengers and an oncoming battle with Ulton, Vision is extraordinarily calm. He knows that he might not be trusted, but the moment he picks up Mjolnir he unknowingly proves to everybody that he is one of the most trustworthy beings there is. It’s a simple act, which means nothing to him but everything to those around him. He also happens to be one of the most powerful beings on the planet, having been created with Vibranium and with an Infinity Stone embedded in his forehead. It also helps that his birth was kickstarted by the lightning of Thor himself, who has a barely-present subplot about the possible incoming destruction of Asgard.

Ulysses Klaw gets a similar understated demonstration of power. We know that he’s an arms dealer with a dangerous history, because even Tony Stark at the height of his capitalistic nature wasn’t willing to trade with him. When we meet Klaw, he is afraid of nothing (except cuttlefish) and intimidates the Maximoff twins who have been sent to threaten him. He isn’t even set back when Ultron rips one of his arms off, which shows his unflinching determination.

Now we come to Mrs. Barton and her two children. Their introduction got a lot of backlash from some people who felt it completely undermined the romantic relationship that Avengers Assemble set up between Clint and Natasha. I am of the same opinion, however I feel like this isn’t a bad thing, and I’d like to explain why. Firstly, it gives The Avengers a much needed safehouse, and shows how desperate they are for safety because Clint would not allow his two worlds to collide unless it was a last resort. It also shows how much he cares about the Avengers, because it would have been easy for him to run and hide. In terms of negating the romantic relationship between Clint and Nat, I think that their characters work better with a platonic relationship. It shows how truly close they are, and how much they trust each other, whilst demonstrating that mixed gender relationships don’t need to be romantic.

This doesn’t mean that Nat has no love interest, because heaven forbid she be allowed to exist for herself. Age of Ultron features a relationship between her and Bruce Banner, which I find difficult to sit through. I’m aware that the comics did it once, but Nat has had a relationship with pretty much everyone in the comics and putting any of these in an MCU film doesn’t make it inherently good. To me it reads like Nat is sleeping her way through the team, but worse than that, she uses her relationship with Banner to calm him down as the Hulk, which is ridiculously manipulative. However the worst part of their relationship comes with how the film compares these two characters, making them seem equally monstrous. Natasha was trained as an assassin in the Red Room, which removes the ability to have children as part of the graduation ceremony, and this is equated to The Hulk who is an uncontrollable, dangerous monster. Good to know that not being able to give birth makes you a monster. Good to know that the trauma Natasha faced makes her a terrible person incapable of redemption. Coupled with Tony’s earlier line about reinstating Prima Nocta on Asgard if he can lift Mjolnir, it paints a very clear picture of how the director feels about women.

Age of Ultron definitely has some of the worst moments in the MCU, in particular its treatment of women, but I still find the plot to be impressive. There’s no denying that the pacing is off, but considering the amount of plot threads and set-up present, it’s almost a miracle that the film is as comprehensible as it is. I think that comes down to Ultron, who leads The Avengers from scenario to scenario and whose portrayal by James Spader is highly entertaining to watch. This isn’t a sequel or a continuation, it’s a beginning. A heavily padded beginning, with plenty of action and character conflict to remain entertaining.

Excelsior!

Signed: Your friendly neighbourhood queer

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

At the time of its release in 2014, The Winter Soldier was the most devastating thing to happen in the lore of the MCU. The events within the plot would shape the cinematic universe going forward and add an extra layer to the films that came before it. Whilst this is a Captain America film, it is intrinsically tied to the larger story of the MCU, as all 3 Captain America films are. He was the very first Avenger and many heroes/villains have come from governments/organisations attempting to replicate the serum that courses through his blood. Aside from being one of the most important stories in this franchise, The Winter Soldier was also one of the most profitable, making around $700million on a budget of about $170million. By the time this film arrived, it was almost a given that any film in the MCU would make bank, and this continued to solidify that statement as fact.

The plot follows Steve Rogers (Captain America) and Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow) as they find themselves on the run from SHIELD and a mysterious assassin known as The Winter Soldier. Along the way, they meet Sam Wilson (Falcon) and must face some harsh truths about the organisation they once thought to be safe. SHIELD has secretly been host to HYDRA agents and, in an attempt to expose the truth, both organisations must fall. The film wastes no time in establishing the stakes by killing SHIELD Director Nick Fury and having a STRIKE team attempt to kill Cap. Of course Fury survives (after all, no death is permanent except Uncle Ben) but for a solid chunk of the runtime none of the characters are aware of this. When his survival is finally revealed it doesn’t change the mission because there is too much at stake. It provides an excellent shift in dynamics between Fury and Cap, with Fury finally giving Cap his full trust and Cap finally feeling like he’s being trusted.

All of the relationships in The Winter Soldier are handled well, especially the friendship between Steve and Natasha, which is a core element of the plot and (thankfully) is never played as romantic. It’s clear that Nat has been shaken to her core by the revelations about SHIELD and is terrified that she is no longer the hero she thought she was. The faith that Steve places in her is clearly something that she experiences very rarely, and with her reciprocation, you get one of the best friendships in the MCU. Meanwhile, Sam is an excellent person to round out the trio. His military service and loss of a close friend gives him an instant connection with Steve, and he trusts Nat because Steve does. Sam is willing to take orders, but it’s clear that he won’t do so if it conflicts with his moral compass and, to top it off, he’s a super fun character.

The small spanner in the works, and one of many plot twists spoiled in the advertising, is the reveal that The Winter Soldier is Cap’s best friend Bucky Barnes, who supposedly died in 1945 after falling over a cliff from a moving train. It transpires that he fell into a river, which broke his fall, but he was picked up by Soviet Scientists and had his mind erased before being given a metal arm and getting cryogenically frozen between top secret missions. This is a traumatic experience for him once his memory begins to return, and the film never shies away from that. We are shown his mind being wiped and the rage of confusion as it grows inside him until he can’t bear it anymore. There are several tragic and sympathetic figures in the MCU, but I think that James Buchanan Barnes may be at the top of that list. 

The large spanner in the works, and a selling point for the film, is that HYDRA has embedded itself inside SHIELD. A couple of key players are shown to have been HYDRA all along such as Agent Casper Sitwell (from Thor) and Senator Stern (from Iron Man 2). The infiltration really does go all the way to the top, and there’s no knowing who can be trusted. To truly solve the problem, both organisations need to collapse, which will have a lasting impact going forward. Without SHIELD to protect them, The Avengers will finally be held accountable by the government, and will see their popularity start to falter. This is where the age of liability begins.

There’s so much happening in terms of the larger MCU continuity that I’d consider The Winter Soldier essential viewing in an MCU marathon. It marks a drastic change in circumstance and introduces characters, as well as destroying an organisation that has been ever present thus far. For once, in an Earth-based installment, there are no Infinity Stones, and they really aren’t needed because the stakes are big enough on their own. We won’t see ramifications this massive until Captain America: Civil War, and we won’t see a main Avenger in a non-ensemble film until Thor: Ragnarok. The main question that this film raises is where the other Avengers are, considering how devastating this event is, and you can keep wondering because it’s never explained. I suppose none of the other Avengers actually work for SHIELD, so they don’t need to step in, and they do eventually team up again to deal with the aftermath in Age of Ultron, but it might have been polite to check in. If this is my biggest issue with the film, I think that’s a pretty good sign.

This may be an MCU film, but it’s an espionage film through and through. It keeps the conflict focused on our main characters despite the conflict itself being massive. Each of our longtime characters get to progress their arc, and that includes Black Widow who gets to demonstrate that she’s a brutal spy with deep insecurities. I’m a little nostalgic for this era of the MCU, if I’m honest. It felt like there was more agreement back then.

Excelsior!

Signed: Your friendly neighbourhood queer

Iron Man 3

*Dedicated to the underappreciated and underpaid Mental Health services around the world. You deserve better* TW: Panic Attacks *

From what I can recall, there are a vast number of people who don’t like Iron Man 3. However, as I researched opinions for this piece, I found that many of those who disliked it at the time had softened to it over the years. Personally, I’ve always thought that Iron Man 3 was good, and have defended it to friends who disagreed, although I’ve never had to put as much effort into defending this as I have Iron Man 2. I think the threequel is the best in the trilogy, and it would appear that this opinion has gained some traction within the fanbase lately. When it comes to “bad” MCU films, I think this is the one that people have come around on the most.

The plot follows Tony Stark as he struggles with PTSD and panic attacks after coming close to death during the Battle of New York whilst attempting to foil a terrorist leader known as The Mandarin, without the aide of his mechanical suits. The film focuses on the elements of Iron Man within Tony Stark , much like the Dark Knight trilogy focuses on the Batman within Bruce Wayne. I’ve seen this levied as a criticism of the film because “you can’t have an Iron Man movie without Iron Man” but that is literally the central theme. Captain America once asked what Stark would be if stripped of his toys and, as this film shows, he would still be a genius capable of holding his own in a fight, and whose sole aim is to protect people. The suits are simply an extension of him, and that only becomes more true the further into the timeline we get with his nano-suits.

I also feel like this film does an excellent job of handling his PTSD and panic attacks. Mental Health is something that the MCU has attempted to handle on several occasions, with mixed results, but I think that Iron Man 3 gets it right. As somebody with a history of panic attacks, I can assure you that they are terrifying to experience. You can attempt to find various triggers, but even then there is no guarantee that you’ll be able to avoid them. In my experience, there is no knowing how long they will last, and the best you can really hope for is that you don’t breathe too quickly and pass out. It’s no joke, and this film never plays it like one, which is greatly appreciated. They also do a decent job of demonstrating that children might not fully comprehend what is happening, and that they may inadvertently trigger an attack without knowing how. Let me reiterate that panic attacks suck, and if it’s happening to someone you know, the best thing you can do is provide whatever they need. They may want space, reassurance, fresh air, or silence, and it’s important that you give them that.

The second complaint I’ve seen is the one that the most people seemed to get hung up on. If, as a fan of Marvel, you were angry with Iron Man 3, then there is a good chance that it was their depiction of The Mandarin. Throughout the course of the film he has been committing terrorist attacks and hijacking the television airwaves to lecture President Ellis of the United States about the lessons he can learn from these attacks. As we enter the third act, it is revealed that The Mandarin is being portrayed by an actor named Trevor Slattery with the “real” Mandarin being Aldrich Killian-CEO of Advanced Idea Mechanics. It’s a hell of a plot twist that I don’t think many people saw coming, and I think that some felt like they had been lied to. I can understand the frustration, especially given Sir Ben Kingsley’s stellar performance, but it feels like a sign that the plot twist did what it was designed to. I also saw some saying it was disrespectful to the original comic book character and I can understand that too. Whitewashing is a very real issue in Hollywood and Marvel has played it’s part in that, but it seems to be something that they were aware of. Neither Slattery or Killian are really The Mandarin, it is simply a title that they stole. The co-writer for Iron Man 3-Drew Pearce- also wrote a Marvel One-Shot titled All Hail The King.

The short film takes place shortly after the events of Iron Man 3, with Slattery in prison for his crimes. Here he is interviewed by an amateur documentarian who is secretly a member of The 10 Rings, sent to break him out on behalf of the real Mandarin. It is often presumed that this short was created as a response to the backlash faced by Marvel for botching The Mandarin, but this isn’t really the case. Plans for this short were already being discussed during production of Iron Man 3, and only a few lines were altered due to backlash… though I have no idea which ones. It left open the door for The Mandarin to one day make his first appearance, and he will finally get that chance, 8 years later, in Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. It’s genuinely exciting to me and I wouldn’t be upset or surprised if Trevor Slattery gets name dropped.

In terms of continuity, there’s more closure than there is set-up. Obviously, there is the return of The 10 Rings who made their first appearance 8 films ago in Iron Man. It’s worth noting that they aren’t really The 10 Rings, and are only appropriating their existence, but this group is a decent threat nonetheless. War Machine returns in a supporting role with a brand new paint job for his armour, and a new less-impressive name: the Iron Patriot. Neither of these remain going forward. There’s only one character cameo in this film, bar the end credits, which is Yensen from the original Iron Man in a flashback, and it’s genuinely lovely to see him again. Probably the biggest continuity introduction is the removal of the bomb shrapnel from Stark’s chest, which was a divisive decision as some felt like this should have happened sooner. Personally, I never had an issue with it because it marks a brand new chapter in his life and provides him with emotional closure. He may be present in practically every MCU film, but his trilogy is where most of the character progression takes place so it’s nice to put a little bow on it.

Iron Man 3 is all about closure. It’s the final instalment in the Iron Man trilogy, and the last time that we’ll see Tony Stark take on a threat without a team surrounding him. After this it’s mostly team-up ensemble movies and, whilst that isn’t inherently a bad thing, there’s something special about solo adventures. As solo adventures go, this may have the most heroic score which has been masterfully composed by Brian Taylor. Much like the theme from The Pirates of the Caribbean, I feel hyped listening to it, and I think that this hype is something Iron Man 3 provides. I’d list this as one of the most underrated films in the entire MCU alongside The Incredible Hulk and I’m glad that people are finally feeling the same.

Excelsior!

Signed: Your friendly neighbourhood queer

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2

With the success of 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy, it was only a matter of time before a sequel was greenlit and this was done before the film had even been released. It was a risk, but clearly one that the Studio Execs felt was going to pay off. It wouldn’t be until a year later (2015) that the sequel received its official title – Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2 – which was a perfect fit with the story being told and the lived experience of main character Peter Quill. During the course of Guardians of the Galaxy, Peter (and by extension, us) is listening to a mixtape created for him by his mother Meredith titled The Awesome Mix before finally opening a long un-opened gift containing The Awesome Mix: Volume 2. Before media was released in “parts” (looking at you Quiet Place Part 2) it was released in “volumes” so not only does the title serve as a nod to Meredith but it also helps to immortalise an era of history.

The plot of Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2 picks up a few months after the events of the original, with The Guardians on a mission for the Sovereign race, whom Rocket ends up betraying by stealing the very items they were hired to protect. Whilst on the run, the crew are saved by Peters long-lost father Ego, and his assistant Mantis, who take the crew – minus Rocket, Groot, and a captive Nebula – to his planet, where they learn some very dark secrets. Meanwhile, Rocket, Groot, and Nebula are taken prisoner by the Ravagers who have been hired to hunt them down by the Sovereigns, before a mutiny breaks out amongst the crew when Yondu refuses to deliver them. A friendship quickly forms between the former Ravager captain and Rocket, forming one of the 3 core relationships on which the film stands.

The emotional/familial throughlines here aren’t just confined to Yondu and Rocket, although I find theirs to be the most interesting. They are both snarky and aggressive characters who feel alone in the universe, despite having teams around them. Watching them cut through each others’ tough exterior to the emotional vulnerability beneath provides an explosive conflict different from any of the other relationships in this film. We witness the formation of a lifelong friendship where they feel like they can only be honest with each other, and seeing this friendship ended so quickly is truly heart breaking. Yondu is at the core of another relationship with Peter, where they have a father/son bond, although this is mainly explored through Peter’s new relationship with Ego. He can’t understand why his father would abandon his mother, but desperately feels the need to have him in his, life while Ego clearly abandoned her for for selfish reasons and hates himself for ever falling in love. They both want something that they feel they deserve, but neither is willing to give in to the others’ requests. Eventually, Peter learns that he has had a father figure in his life in the form of Yondu, who makes the ultimate sacrifice so that Peter can survive. This death is a massive gut punch, because Peter is losing a father and Rocket is losing a friend. Lastly is the relationship between the adopted daughters of Thanos: Nebula and Gamora, who were pitted against each other and tortured their entire lives. Those feelings finally come to a head, and they explore them the only way they know how… through violence. This is never depicted as abnormal, and feels like the way in which this family would resolve its issues because every family will deal with issues differently and that is okay. The original Guardians of the Galaxy had heart and writer/director James Gunn doubles down on it here.

The continuity of the larger MCU is more present here than in the previous instalment and, whilst rare, is incredibly important. Chronologically this is Marvel’s 10th film but it was released 15th which means that there were originally 4 Earth-based films between the volumes of Guardians of the Galaxy. It flows much better one after the other. Avengers Assemble introduces us to the dangers present in space, and it feels like the following films (Thor 2, Guardians 1 & 2) explore that theme. Possibly the largest piece of continuity comes in the form of the Stan Lee cameo, which is something that I have so far neglected to mention in any of my MCU reviews. He has had a cameo role in every single Marvel property which, by 2017, had led to a very popular fan theory. In the comics, there are a group of supernatural beings known as The Watchers, who simply exist to observe the universe, and it was theorised that Stan Lee was playing the role of a Watcher every single time he appeared. Word of the the theory reached Marvel and it appears that they were also a fan of the theory because, whilst he isn’t a Watcher, he is a Watcher informant, and is shown telling The Watchers of his adventures on Earth. He is specifically telling them of the time he was a FedEx delivery man, which isn’t a cameo we have yet seen chronologically as it appears in Captain America: Civil War. I suppose time works differently across the universe. The most important aspect of this role is the part it plays in immortalising the man himself, who clearly cared very deeply about the characters he had created and the fans who had helped make them a success, as an eternal being in the MCU. The second cameo comes curtesy of Howard the Duck, who was previously only glimpsed in the post-credits scene of the original Guardians of the Galaxy. There he was hidden away, almost ignorable, but here he is given an entire panning shot and line of dialogue as if to say “try ignoring this”. I spoke of his legacy in the previous review but that legacy is truly cemented here.

Whilst on the topic of post-credit scenes, I think Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2 has the most of any MCU property:

The first shows Kraglin, Yondu’s 2nd favourite Ravager, as he attempts to master Yondu’s whistle-controlled arrow with a head fin. The character has not yet returned but I can’t wait to see how far he has come when he finally does.

The second shows a crew of Yondu’s old Ravager teammates, who had previously ousted him for breaking the Ravager Code, reuniting after his funeral. I doubt we’ll ever see them again but it’s almost comforting to know that their out there, fighting the fight that Yondu would have wanted them to.

The third shows that Groot has grown into a teenager which acts as a nice piece of fluff after a film with some fairly heavy themes.

The fourth shows the leader of the Sovereigns, Ayesha, creating an artificial being to destroy The Guardians once for all, who she calls Adam. This has since been confirmed by James Gunn to be Adam Warlock who, in the comics, became a member of The Guardians himself, and will presumably play a part in Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 3, though this is still unconfirmed.

The fifth and final scene returns to Stan Lee, who is being abandoned by The Watchers although he states that he has so many stories left to tell. This hits a lot harder, having lost the legendary creator in 2018, and I can’t help but imagine the stories that will now go untold or the joy left un-given.

There remains one small Easter egg hidden inside the credits themselves, with the appearance of an as-yet-unintroduced character played by Jeff Goldblum. We will come to meet this man – The Grandmaster of Sakaar – in Thor: Ragnarok, which happened to be in production at the same time as Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2, and was released several months after. Given his role as an eternal being akin to Ego, this is a nice little nod and I’ll never turn down a surprise appearance by Goldblum, who always provides entertainment to any project he touches.

Personally, I prefer Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2 over Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 1. I think that the emotional core is deeper, and I’m a bigger fan of the country-centric soundtrack, which opens with the ever wonderful Mr Blue Sky. The film resonates with me on an emotional level, but still manages to pack in plenty of action. The visuals are also stunning, from Ego’s Planet to the Hyper-Jumps to the display at Yondu’s funeral. The whole MCU falls under the action/adventure umbrella, but the moments when it shines the brightest are in the moments of character growth, which this film has in spades. I think this is one of the franchise’s crowning achievements, and I’m delighted that Disney finally re-hired James Gunn for Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 3 after unjustly firing him.

Excelsior!

Signed: Your friendly neighbourhood queer

Guardians of the Galaxy

2012’s Avengers Assemble was a success. It was a massive risk for Marvel Studios, but they had proved that a ‘cinematic universe’ could make millions of dollars at the Box Office, and that superhero movies could do the same. Of course, the shift in opinion towards superhero films wasn’t just thanks to Marvel, as DC had recently gained massive popularity with Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and even in the early 2000s films like X-Men and Spider-Man were laying the groundwork. There have certainly always been fans for this kind of film but from 2008 onwards there was a real shift into mainstream pop culture so that, by 2014, they were really hitting their stride. All this is to say that with the release of Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel were taking yet another risk on a group that was not a household name and was, arguably, weirder than The Avengers.

Our core group of characters are a half human/half eternal being (Peter Quill), the cybernetically enhanced daughter of a madman (Gamora), a buff grey alien who takes everything literally (Drax), a cybernetically enhanced talking racoon (Rocket) and a talking tree (Groot). As bizarre as The Avengers were, at least they were all human(oid). Enter writer/director James Gunn- who you may remember as the man behind the legendary live-action Scooby Doo movies. He took each of The Guardians and boiled them down to their most human components, providing a heartfelt story in the process which is also soaked in action and humour. At the beginning of the film’s 3rd act, Quill notes that each of The Guardians have ‘lost stuff’ and the plot never shies away from that. At this point in the timeline, it might actually be the darkest that the MCU has gotten, with genocide and experimentation on living beings. The film opens with Quill’s mother dying of cancer, which in any other film might set the tone, yet Guardians of the Galaxy manages to be one of the most entertaining instalments in this entire franchise. The plot is juggling a mass of themes, characters, and moods but it never falters as a story. If I seem shocked, it’s because I am. Releasing a film like this at the time and having it be successful was only slightly shocking at the time, but in retrospect it seems like a miracle. Over the past decade, several movie studios have attempted to launch their own cinematic universes via team-up movies and, when compared to the MCU, it is very clear that none of them have any idea what they are doing. They all attempted to replicate Avengers Assemble, but realistically they should have been looking at Guardians of the Galaxy. The first was the culmination of several films of build up, but the latter built an entire team from the ground up in one film, which is part of what these other studios are trying and failing to accomplish.

The plot follows an adult Peter Quill, taken from Earth as a child by a group called The Ravagers, as he meets with his fellow Guardians and unwittingly ends up attempting to save the planet Xander from Ronan the Accuser. Quill’s love interest, Gamora, is the daughter of Thanos who is attempting to free herself from his clutches as well as the judgement of her murderous sister Nebula. I’m really not a fan of their romance, because Quill pesters her into it after she initially shows zero interest. It sends the message that if you ask somebody enough, they will give in to your demands, and I think that is really harmful especially in a film aimed at young teens. As relationships go, I much prefer the friendship of Rocket and Groot. Due to Groot’s limited vocabulary (I, am, and Groot), Rocket does all of the talking, which gives us a similar dynamic to Han Solo and Chewbacca or Shaggy and Scooby Doo, although its much more the former. Despite being motion captured/CGI characters, they have a very believable chemistry which leads to one of the saddest sacrifices in the MCU. I know it’s become a bit of a meme, but many of us really did cry when he said “WE are Groot” and despite living on as Baby Groot, the sacrifice is still meaningful. It’s a little like regeneration in Doctor Who in that it’s the same character but it also sort of isn’t. Then we have Drax, whose wife and daughter were murdered by Ronan, along with the rest of his village, and has sworn vengeance. He’s got a really simple arc but it’s built on the foundation of pure agony and I love him. Finally, there’s Yondu, leader of The Ravagers, who serves as Quill’s father figure and clearly loves him despite feeling that he can’t show it. Their relationship gets a solid introduction here, before being developed in the sequel, leading to yet another upsetting sacrifice.

In terms of continuity, there is a surprising amount for a film set lightyears away from Earth, and The Avengers. We get the return of Ronan the Accuser, having last seen him during the finale of Captain Marvel, 8 films ago. It would appear that his loss to Carol Danvers was the start of a destructive path that ended in genocide. We also get a proper introduction to The Collector (Taneleer Tivan if you want to use his actual name) having previously met him at the end of Thor: The Dark World. There’s something almost funny to me about him already having one Infinity Stone safely in storage but this one blows up his house. Probably the most important is the introduction of the mad Titan Thanos, who we previously glimpsed at the end of Avengers Assemble. He’s had a noticeable redesign since then, and even gets a few lines of dialogue. His aide also returns although he is swiftly killed by Ronan, which is oddly cathartic, and Thanos’ lack of reaction is a perfect demonstration of his strong, determined will. We also see how ruthless he can be through the cybernetic experimentation on his adopted daughters Gamora and Nebula, as well as his affinity for sitting down and letting other people do all the legwork for him. These points will all become relevant in time.

I couldn’t discuss Guardians of the Galaxy without mentioning the excellent soundtrack. A mixtape of music that Quill’s mother used to listen to, it has a narrative purpose but it’s also fun to listen to on its own. It’s so good that it was the first vinyl record I ever bought. It mixes brilliantly with the original score composed by Tyler Bates, which is itself filled with heart, soul and whimsy.

I want to round off this review by talking about legacy. By 2014, it was becoming clear that the MCU was here to stay, and that its films were going to range from okay to great. It’s a far cry from the Marvel Studios of 1986 who nearly toppled their house with Howard the Duck. Flash forward to the Guardians of the Galaxy post-credits scene 28 years later, and there sits the duck himself sipping a martini in the ruins of The Collectors home. Fully CGI, voiced by Seth Green, and the spitting image of his original comic book self. It was a shock to say the least, but I really think it exemplifies how far Marvel Studios has come and how aware of that progress they are. 1986 Howard isn’t their legacy anymore, this is, and that brings me a small sense of pride on their behalf. Guardians of the Galaxy is pure MCU. It’s bizarre, humorous and filled with darker themes but it’s also a shift from those early films into the MCU that followed. This isn’t just Kevin Fiege’s test project anymore, it’s his legacy.

Excelsior!

Signed: Your friendly neighbourhood queer

Thor: The Dark World

Once again, we find ourselves at the “worst” film in the MCU. Much like Iron Man 2, this is the second film of what will later become a trilogy and much like The Incredible Hulk it has a very modest score on IMDB (6.9 to be precise). However some might say that unlike these films, Thor: The Dark World is kind of important to the mainline story of the MCU. Iron Man 2 focuses more on Tony Stark as a character and The Incredible Hulk is a film that some fans just flat out ignore. Not this film though. It’s the first time that we are introduced to an Infinity Stone that isn’t the Tesseract and it marks the second time that Loki has died as well as giving further backstory to the relationship between Asgard and the rest of the nine realms. It also holds Loki accountable for his previous actions but we’ll get to that.

Thor: The Dark World picks up shortly after Avengers Assemble, with Loki in Asgardian prison and Thor poised to be crowned king. However, after an attack by an ancient race called Dark Elves nearly brings them to their knees, Thor embarks on a mission with Loki to bring a ceasefire which reunites them with Jane Foster, Darcy Lewis and Erik Selvig. Our McGuffin for these proceedings, and the weapon that leader of the Dark Elves- Malekieth is after, is The Aether. Capable of plunging all 9 realms into eternal darkness, The Aether is the second of our 6 Infinity Stones. This is a term that we’re familiar with now but this is the first time we are hearing it in the MCU as well as the first time we get an explanation for what they are. Whilst the Tesseract has been present for many of the previous instalments in this franchise, this is the first time that we learn what it truly is and just how much power any of the 6 stones hold. Why exactly The Aether choses to kidnap Jane Foster and use her body as a vessel, I can’t tell. It would seem that contrived plot elements are present even in the world’s largest film franchise. (Watch them explain it away in Thor 4 as fate or something.)

Whilst this carries the plot forward, the true core of the story is the relationship between Thor and Loki. It’s clear that despite Loki’s drastic flaws, Thor still loves his brother even if he can’t trust him. Actors Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston (Thor and Loki respectively) bounce off each other with such ease that you never doubt the relationship of their characters. Both Thor and Loki are at their most emotionally distraught here having lost their mother, their father becoming ill, facing the potential destruction of their home and facing a possible exile upon their return. Absolutely everything is at stake here and this is only amplified for Thor once Loki dies (again). I seem to recall his eventual survival being a point of contention for some fans at the time and I’m fully aware that his death count has become a running gag at this point but there is a saying for times like this. Unless you see a character die, don’t be sure it happened. It’s why the series 4 finale of Sherlock was so upsetting to me and it’s why, when Loki meets his demise at the hands of Thanos, I would be inclined to believe it. Once again Thor is fighting for the people he cares about but now he is also fighting to honour those he has lost.

While we’re talking about people that Thor has lost, I want to talk about his mother Friga. This is a woman who refuses to give up on her adopted son – the murderer – and is willing to die for her other son’s girlfriend who she had only just met. Her character is one of the kindest and most humble in the entire MCU and her death is given all the respect it deserves. The way that all the sound mutes, allowing Thor’s screams of anguish to pierce through is one of the MCU’s most heartbreaking moments. It is followed by her funeral which is beautifully shot and stunningly scored. There’s no dialogue. just the looks of paint that you would expect during a time like this. I know that many consider Thor: The Dark World to be one of the worst films in the MCU but these 10 minutes are definitely some of the best that the franchise has to offer.

This brings us to what many consider to be the film’s weakest aspect-Malakieth. I really want to like him as a villain and to find him threatening but he feels like such a standard villain. Christopher Ecclestone is clearly giving his all in the role and I know how talented he is as a performer but there’s just so little for him to work with here. It often feels like the film’s real threat is The Aether and as villains go Malakieth pales in comparison to others that Thor has fought. The Sentinal from Thor was several stories tall, The Chitauri from Avengers Assemble had an army of thousands and even at the start of Thor: The Dark World we see him take down a stone giant with ease. Malekieth meanwhile is at his most powerful after he has been consumed by The Aether which results in a tornado. We later learn that this particular Infinity Stone can alter reality so this makes Malakieth seem even weaker in retrospect. It’s a fun final battle and makes great use of the portals between realms but Malakieth is set up as a much larger threat than he ends up being. For those of you keeping score by the way, this is the 4th time that the villain of the piece has died, which means there’s also sadly no way to expand the character.

The other issue that I’ve seen some people raise is that Darcy Lewis is annoying and, whilst this criticism is entirely subjective, I’m going to disagree. I personally find her to be absolutely delightful and the kind of person that I could become friends with but she also provides moments of levity in an otherwise dark story. To me, there seems to be a noticeable divide between those who like her and those who don’t. It seems to come down to age, gender and how much we are willing to just enjoy things. This general divide is present throughout the fanbase but it seems to be more prevalent when it comes to discussing the “lesser” films in the MCU. It’s something that I really feel should be discussed, although I won’t go in depth with it here. I feel like it is still worth bringing up as just a caveat in moments like this, even if only to possibly start the larger discussion.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it a thousand times: every film is worth something. For Thor: The Dark World it’s the characters and the way that they interact as well as the sheer amount of lore it adds to the MCU. It’s where we first meet The Collector before he plays a slightly larger role in Guardians of the Galaxy and it gives us The Aether as well as the concept of Infinity Stones. If my theories are correct, it will also provide someimportant backstory for Jane Foster in Thor 4. I still don’t believe Thor: The Dark World is bad because even a “bad” MCU film is mediocre at worst. After this, there is one more of these “bad” instalments to get through and, I won’t lie, I’ll be glad to get it over with. I pour as much of myself and my love for cinema into these reviews as I can but when I have to write about a “bad” film like Iron Man 2 or Thor: The Dark World, I find it just a little more emotionally draining than usual. I just find negativity so exhausting, but these reviews are worth the effort. I could be the only person defending a film and I’d be ok with that.

Excelsior!

Signed: Your friendly neighbourhood queer

Avengers Assemble

CONTENT WARNING: Joss Whedon, abuse.

If that isn’t for you, I’ve put a noticeable break between the JW section and the Avengers section

I like Avengers Assemble, and there is no denying the impact that it had on Popular Culture and the cinema industry as a whole. However there is a huge problem with this film that, by now, has become practically unavoidable. That problem is writer/director Joss Whedon. He rose to prominence in the late 1990s for his work on the hit TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and stayed relevant through his work on the follow-up series Angel as well as the short lived space-western Firefly, however, he has been famous more recently for his horrific actions. As I publish this, we are still feeling the aftermath of how poorly Warner Brothers handled the creation of the 2017 film Justice League, a major part of which was Joss Whedon’s behaviour on set. Cast members, primarily Ray Fisher, have detailed Whedon’s violent behaviour, racist beliefs, and misogyny. This isn’t even about how he butchered that film to a point beyond recognition, this is about how he treated the people that he was supposed to be looking out for and taking care of. Ray Fisher risked his entire career and was fired by Warner Brothers to tell us this, and his words were echoed by people who had previously worked for Whedon. A large portion of the cast of Buffy and Angel came forward with their stories to demonstrate that he has always been like this. He threatened to fire cast members for getting pregnant, pinned cast members against walls and threatened to destroy the career of anybody who thought that they knew the character they were playing better than him.

Over the past few months, I have seen people defend Whedon, stating that he has made some great shows and films with some going as far as to claim that this should excuse him. No. I don’t give a damn how good you think his work is, this kind of behaviour is unacceptable from anyone. It is not necessary to build a career, and it is not necessary to create a piece of media. This behaviour is atrocious, and he should be held accountable for it. I considered writing a separate piece about Whedon, but it is important to me that he is being held accountable in as many places as possible and in relation to the projects that have made him famous. I wrote in my review for Thor that every director has their own creative flair, which means that there is a lot of Joss Whedon in Avengers Assemble. Most notable is his misogyny, which comes across in the oversexualisation of Black Widow. It’s present from her very first scene, in which she does a great number of flips in a very revealing camo top, through to her jumpsuit that is never zipped up to cover her chest. Then there is the semi-love triangle between her, Hawkeye, and Bruce Banner which has zero ramifications on any of the 3 characters except for in Age of Ultron. Yes, she gets to close the portal, but this isn’t what saves the day because Iron Man has already destroyed the Chitauri fleet. It becomes more clear every time I watch this film that Black Widow is only here for one reason, and it isn’t the plot.

On top of Whedon being a terrible person, I happen to think he isn’t a great filmmaker either. Avengers Assemble feels less like a film and more like a 2 hour long episode of a TV programme. He changes the camera angle every few seconds, which means that we almost never get a lingering shot to appreciate the moments of good cinematography. I say “almost” because there are some noticeably good shots in here. Loki’s arrival, Thor’s arrival, the old man standing up to Loki, and Hulk punching the Space Whale are all gorgeous, but we are never given enough time to appreciate them. As a fan of pairing classical music with violence, the scene of Loki at the Gala is especially infuriating to me because it just needed less camera angles. On top of this, Avengers Assemble feels so small compared to the rest of the MCU, and most notably to Thor which preceded it. It feels like it was all shot on a soundstage, which isn’t a vibe that you want in a blockbuster. I know that this is all really negative, and that you were likely expecting a positive review because that’s kind of my whole deal, and I’m also a huge MCU nerd, however there are three things to note here. Firstly, I wouldn’t be so annoyed about the quality of the movie if I didn’t think there was good movie in here Secondly, I also wouldn’t be so annoyed if this film wasn’t as important important to me, other people, and the state of pop culture as it is. Thirdly, Joss Whedon is human trash. It is important that his drastic failings are noted when talking about one of his greatest achievements, because I am about to launch into the positive part of the review and I will not be accused of tolerating Joss Whedon. I will not give him a pass. He had his hand in creating a historical moment but I still think that he should never work again.


Avengers Assemble is the film from which all cinematic universes attempt to build themselves. Studios see a group of individuals with entire backstories fighting a great evil, and the $1.5billion it earned at the box office. However, that isn’t why this film works. It works because it builds on an already established mythos. This isn’t where the story begins, it’s more like a mini-boss fight in a video game. This isn’t Luke fighting Emperor Palpatine, it’s Luke destroying the first Death Star. It’s an important part of a much larger narrative, that teases the main villain in the post-credits scene. It baffles me that companies either don’t understand that, or think that they can create a universe without doing it. The thing about Avengers Assemble is that it was a risk, and it paid off, but if it hadn’t we’d still have that first phase of Marvel movies. Phase One of the MCU consists of 6 films, building characters and hoping to convince people that a shared universe could work – with Avengers Assemble being the proof of concept. Yes, there were shared universes before, like Universal Monsters in the 1920s, but none were as expensive and grand as this.

In terms of continuity, this one is essential. It marks the formation of the titular team as well as the first time that many of them have even met. It finally continues the story of Captain America after starting with him 6 films ago, demonstrates how serious Stark was about not making weapons again, and brings our Asgardian brothers back together after their previous fight. There are 3 significant characters worth talking about at this juncture: Bruce Banner, Carol Danvers, and Phil Coulson. Bruce looks totally different to the last time we saw him, due to the role being recast after Edward Norton elected not to return. It is reported that he didn’t want to tie himself to a franchise, which is fine because Mark Ruffalo suits the role beautifully with a perfect mix of anxiety and intellect. Meanwhile, Carol is noticeably absent due her character not being introduced into the MCU until 2019. However, should you require an in-universe explanation, there is one of those because you’ve got to fill those plot contrivances. The Chaitauri invasion of New York simply isn’t a Captain Marvel level threat, and I think the plot makes that clear. The Avengers are supposed to be the first line of defence in the event that Captain Marvel is not readily available because she’s on the other side of space. Lines of defence in descending order are The Military, SHIELD, The Avengers, Captain Marvel. Lastly, we come to poor Agent Phil Coulson who did not need to be murdered… but was anyway. It’s a real testament to actor Colin Gregg that his character became a fan favourite, remains one to this day, and was revived for the spin-off TV Show Agents of SHIELD. I know that many people consider the first 2 series of this show to be canon, but I don’t and I never have. They are immensely fun as headcanon or an Alternate Universe timeline, but the characters never cross over into the films, even as quick mentions. I know that at the time Kevin Fiege hoped to fold it all in, but that hasn’t happened. Of course as a Doctor Who fan, I find the concept of “canon” totally ridiculous, so believe what you will.

In terms of the continuing story of the MCU, Avengers Assemble starts many threads that will carry us forward. Perhaps the most prominent of these is the formation of the team itself. As the story continues, they will always at least mention a fellow member at least, if not giving them an actual appearance. The MCU used to focus on individual stories, but now that this shared universe is so vast, those have become rare. The Battle of New York is also going to have a massive impact on Tony Stark going forward as he begins to struggle with PTSD. This also isn’t the last time that we will see The Tesseract, which Thor takes back to Asgard to store in Odin’s vault. It will remain here for quite some time, while we are introduced to more characters and more Infinity Stones, which isn’t even a concept that has been introduced at this point. We will later learn that Loki’s sceptre is powered by a different Infinity Stone, despite this film stating that The Tesseract is powering it. This may be a retcon, but I can also provide a solid in-universe explanation/theory which I have as headcanon. As far as The Avengers are aware, this Cosmic Cube is the most powerful thing in the universe, and is the only thing that holds this much unlimited power. If they scanned Loki’s sceptre and found that it was powered by something with as much power as The Tesseract, then of course they are going to assume that The Tesseract is the source of that power.

So, at last we have come to the famous post-credits scene. It is quite the historical artefact. Thanos is more burgundy than purple, and is smaller than the next time we see him. This is 2 years before Guardians of the Galaxy where he is officially introduced with a redesign, and this scene is only a few minutes long so it makes sense that he looks the way he does. At the time, I had no idea who this guy was, and that was the general response of anybody who didn’t know the comic books. It was only upon my own research into the character that I discovered how much of a threat he was, and started to get excited for his inevitable attack. Another odd artefact is that this is one of the few films with a confirmed year in the in-universe timeline. There is a general timeline, which is a little vague, but they are all centred around this: The Battle of Ney York in 2012.

Battles will come and go for The Avengers, but this is the first and that makes it special. Even with its flaws, this film is important and I really wish that movie studios could take the right lessons from it. Avengers Assemble was the proof that Kevin Fiege’s experiment was going to work, that it would make money, as well as being a moment in cinematic history. It mostly works because of the films that preceded it, but without it we wouldn’t have gotten what came after. I love what this film represents, and I don’t think I’m done with it.

Excelsior!

Signed: Your friendly neighbourhood queer

Thor

Every director in Hollywood has their own distinctive creative flair and artistic vision. For example, you may not recognise the name Wes Anderson, but all of his work has similar dialogue and his shots fill the frame in a unique way, so if I was to tell you he produced both The Grand Budapest Hotel and Fantastic Mr Fox you’d think “oh that was him”. I find myself compelled by his work, as well as the work of others like Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead) and Christopher Nolan (Tenet), but there is a lesser recognised filmography that I also admire, and that is the work of Sir Kenneth Brannagh. From acting on stage, to acting on screen, to stepping behind the camera, he’s a man of many, many talents though he’s most widely known these days for his 4 hour long film adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, in which he was writer, producer and titular actor. As an aside, if you want to experience Hamlet but it isn’t currently playing in a theatre near you, this is the next best thing. It’s probably the closest adaptation we have ever and will ever see on screen and Brannagh brings such a scale of grandeur that you’ll never mistake Prince Hamlet for anything other than royalty. So it is perhaps no surprise that he was hired as the producer for the MCU’s most splendid and theatrical Avenger – The Mighty Thor.

It’s the simple tale of an arrogant God, banished from his homeworld by his father, who meets a girl and learns to be humble. Meanwhile, his unknowingly adopted brother attempts to prove himself to their father by slaughtering their greatest enemies. There are two distinct plotlines in Thor, one about the God himself on Earth and one of Loki back on their homeworld of Asgard, and both of them are given an appropriate amount of attention. The story of Thor being so arrogant that he starts a war with the Frost Giants, meaning his father has no choice but to banish him is fraught with emotion. It’s clear that Odin trusts his son to redeem himself, otherwise he would not have put the hammer Mjölnir within his reach. The friendships that Thor forms with Dr Erik Selvig, Jane Foster, and Darcy Lewis are integral to him acknowledging and dealing with his feelings, which is a very human trait (explaining why he is so fond of this dumb little planet and the people on it). He laughs, cries, falls in love, and ultimately realises that battles are only worth fighting if it is to protect the people you care about. In the end, he believes this so strongly that he is willing to sacrifice himself twice – once physically to The Sentinel and once emotionally when he destroys the Bifrost.

Then there is our second main character, Thor’s younger brother and the God of Mischief, Loki. He really started a trend of sympathetic villains and re-watching this film again, I kind of get it. Loki isn’t as much of a villainous character as he is a tragic victim of circumstance. He has lived his entire life in the shadow of his brother, is attempting to put a stop to war that Thor started, and he’s just discovered that not only is he adopted, but he was a Frost Giant baby stolen (saved?) from his birth home by Odin. The Joker once so eloquently said that “all it takes is one bad day” and Loki is having one of those for sure. His attempted destruction of Jötunheimr, planet of the Frost Giants, is a clear act of desperation for validation and his final brawl with Thor is riddled with anguish. I won’t sit here and tell you that what he did was right, or that it completely negates his actions, but I will tell you that I understand why he did it. We are going to see Loki go through a decade long redemption arc moving forward but, arguably, a redemption arc is only as good as the person and actions you are redeeming and the character of Loki (and the acting of Tom Hiddleston) nailed it from day one.

The 4th MCU film to be released and the 6th chronologically, Thor is an interesting one. Until Guardians of the Galaxy 4 years later, his was the only instalment to take place in space, but even after that it held the title of the first MCU film in the timeline to be set there. Now that title goes to Captain Marvel, although it only really uses space for the first and last 20 minutes, whilst Thor is practically drenched in it. Even on Earth, there are descriptions of the Tree of Yggdrasil (first mentioned in The First Avenger) and explanations for how the Bifrost works which make it all sound so simple. The story is fantastical, but still feels grounded to the parameters of the universe set out by the MCU. The continuity from the previous films is present in the form of Agent Phil Coulson who, at this point, is essentially the lynchpin of the MCU. Sure, there’s Nick Fury, but he’s still more of a shadowy figure whilst Coulson is physically present in 4 of these films. He isn’t present for The First Avenger, because he is a child at the time it takes place, and he isn’t present in The Incredible Hulk because he’s dealing with the events of Iron Man 2 and Thor at the time. He has been Nick Fury’s right hand man for quite some time now, and he is so freaking likable that it’s no wonder he became a fan favourite. My fiancé has often asked why Phil is as liked as he is, and I can’t say for sure… but his general attitude, the way he plays the straight man to the absurdity around him and his tragic (unnecessary) conclusion certainly all play a part.

There’s also a small amount of set-up going on in Thor. We are introduced to Clint Barton/Hawkeye and it’s clear through his very brief interactions with Coulson that the two have a professional history. This now means that we have been introduced to all 6 members of the original Avengers line-up, in time for the team up itself. Thor also sets up his own appearance in the following film through his final conversation with Coulson, in which he determines his status as an ally and that, should he be required again, he will return. Meanwhile, the post-credits scene is a direct set-up for Avengers Assemble as it shows Selvig meeting with Fury to discuss working on The Tesseract, and shows that Loki survived his (first) supposed death. This also reintroduces our favourite Cosmic Cube, which hasn’t been seen since the end of Captain Marvel, 3 films ago. The biggest setup however is that Thor shows us exactly why Loki would want to go after Earth in particular. Not only is it home to people that Thor cares about, but it also contains the greatest source of power in the known universe. It’s a war for revenge and self-gain.

To me, the only issues with the film are purely subjective. First is the romance between Thor and Jane Foster which is going to bug you if you aren’t a fan of romance in your superhero movies. Personally, I don’t mind it because I think it’s one of the better MCU love stories, although that isn’t really a high bar. The second is unavoidable and one of those “fun facts” that people love to bring up – Thor’s eyebrows. Actor Chris Hemsworth wore a blond wig for this film, and to make sure his naturally dark eyebrows match, they were dyed blond. It’s especially odd here because that decision is never made again and, personally, I think he looks better without them dyed. However it is worth noting that naturally blond people can and do have naturally blond eyebrows, and much of the filmic medium gives people blond hair without changing their eyebrows. So Kenneth Brannagh’s decision here is the most accurate, we’re just not used to seeing it. Apart from these two things, Thor is brilliantly paced, well written, beautifully scored and visually stunning. It’s a perfect prelude to Avengers Assemble and proof once again that the sole purpose of origin stories does not need to be launching a cinematic universe. In fact, it shouldn’t be.

Excelsior!

Signed: Your friendly neighbourhood queer

The Incredible Hulk

The time has finally arrived to discuss the only solo Hulk film in the entire MCU, and why I think it is severely underrated.

The circumstances surrounding this film’s conception are absolutely fascinating to me, and I think are worth remembering. Having released the infamous Howard the Duck in 1986, Marvel Studios sold the rights to their arguably most prolific characters to stay afloat, including Spider-Man, and The X-Men. Our primary focus today is on Bruce Banner/The Hulk, who was purchased by Universal Studios for a seemingly undisclosed amount. Their plan was to launch into a solo Hulk venture as soon as possible, but the project promptly entered Development Hell, where it remained for a solid decade. In all that time the script went through various re-writes and producers, before it finally came to director Ang Lee in 2001.

2003’s Hulk featured Eric Banna as the titular character and details his origin story, along with the negative relationship he has with his father. The film also stars Jennifer Connelly as Betty Ross and Sam Elliot as her father General Thaddeus Ross, with Nick Nolte portraying Bruce’s father David, who eventually becomes The Absorbing Man. Hulk was criticised for not providing enough action in its 140 minute runtime, and for the exceptionally flat CGI of The Hulk himself. This film ends with the Ross’ relationship frayed and Bruce on the run, but it’s where we go from here that interests me. Hulk isn’t essential viewing. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I watched it. But it is still semi-relevant to the MCU’s Incredible Hulk. This film acts as a pseudo-sequel to its predecessor, but without any of the same crew, or indeed any canonicity to the MCU. The Incredible Hulk follows General Ross as he continues to hunt down Bruce whilst remaining mildly estranged from his daughter which seems to follow on directly from Hulk. The opening credits montage even details some of the events of Hulk, although the method through which Bruce is exposed to Gamma Radiation is different. His father is never mentioned, the CGI is noticeably better, and the film doesn’t hold any of Ang Lee’s unique visual stylings, so you could easily not notice how sequel-y The Incredible Hulk is.

If you want a more complex introduction to these characters then Hulk is probably worth a watch, but Incredible Hulk manages to condense all that story down into the aforementioned opening credits montage and through the context within the film. Kevin Feige made it very clear that he wasn’t interested in telling the origin story of a character that the majority of people already knew, and I think he made the right call. It allows for more focus on the characters, including the villains. As events unfold, General Ross hires Royal Marine Emil Blonsky and injects him with a failed recreation of the Super Soldier Serum given to Steve Rogers during World War 2, which leads to him becoming a Hulk-like creature called The Abomination. The contrast between Blonsky and Bruce Banner is central to the plot, with Blonsky obsessed with holding an amount of power that Banner wishes he’d never been given (technically stolen). The film has been criticised for being slow in places, but I think that if any hero deserves a little time to have their psyche explored, it’s The Hulk.

Bruce Banner is a man with a terrific amount of intellect, who could be winning Nobel Prizes but is instead unable to be a part of society because he could become a genuine threat at any moment. Chronologically, this is the 5th film in the MCU, and so far we have had two superpowered individuals, and one billionaire, who can easily settle into normal lives should they choose to. They have control over their abilities, and weapons in the case of Stark, but Bruce Banner doesn’t. He doesn’t have a superpower, he has a curse, and the film does a brilliant job of displaying that. Occasionally the film verges on psychological thriller, although it remains an action film at its core. To me, The Hulk has always been one of the most interesting characters because of this. He isn’t just a green rage monster that smashes things, he is a man desperately trying to prevent himself from becoming so much of a threat that he has to be taken out.

The biggest complaint I’ve seen levied at The Incredible Hulk is that it isn’t relevant or important enough to be included in your MCU marathon because nothing really carries over. To be honest with you, it’s a narrative that I am sick of seeing. Just because it doesn’t have major ramifications in the wider universe doesn’t make it not-worthwhile. Stating that it isn’t worth watching because it doesn’t matter is reductive, and kills any genuine conversation that could be had about the film. Also, the claim that it doesn’t matter in the MCU is becoming less true by the day. General Thaddeus Ross would go on to reappear 8 years later in Captain America: Civil War as well as several subsequent appearances. If it turns out that Marvel is working towards a “Thunderbolts” movie like many have theorised, then he will suddenly become one of the franchise’s key players. Betty Ross doesn’t reappear, although she is mentioned, and the super-habit of going on the run and hiding in a cabin in the woods makes its debut here. Perhaps the most unavoidable, and most exciting, is that The Abomination is set to return in the upcoming She-Hulk television series which is a direct part of the MCU. However, we are still to see Dr Samuel Sterns again, who in the comics went on to become The Red Leader which is set up here.

I also want to talk about the appearance of Tony Stark during the climax of this film, because that is super important. Iron Man stands on its own as the very first film in the MCU, but it is not solely responsible for building that world. The first time this world is built upon is right here, during the final scene of The Incredible Hulk where Stark approaches Ross at a bar to inform him that SHIELD is putting a team together. If you want to create a movement, then that first person is important, but so is the first person who follows their lead. It gives a thing validity, and I refuse to just let The Incredible Hulk‘s place in history be forgotten about because it “isn’t that important to the larger story”. Once you’ve finished watching this film, then the Marvel One Shot The Consultant is a must watch. It provides a really important piece of context to that final scene, as well as giving us an answer to where exactly The Abomination ended up.

As you can probably tell, I have a massive soft spot for The Incredible Hulk, and I kind of struggle to understand why it has received the level of hate within this fanbase that it has. It wasn’t received poorly upon its release, has a 7.7 rating on IMDB, and is sitting with an audience score of 80% on Rotten Tomatoes, so clearly the film is at least average. I suspect that there is this real belief with some fans that any MCU film that is less than perfect is bad, although that is something I have noticed about fanbases in general, and I will just never subscribe to that way of thinking. I really hope that people revisit it in light of the She-Hulk series and that we can begin end this frankly toxic view that seems to be prevalent in some corners of film criticism. In my humble opinion, The Incredible Hulk has always been one of the finest pieces of underappreciated media and I look forward to re-visiting it soon.

Excelsior!

Signed: Your friendly neighbourhood queer

Iron Man 2

Iron Man 2 is often considered to be one of the worst films in the MCU, and the thing is… I don’t think that’s wrong. However, I disagree with anybody saying the film is straight up awful. There are certainly criticisms I can (and will) make, but to write it off entirely kills any real discussion. This mentality of “the film is bad so don’t watch it” is the polar opposite of the ethos that I believe so firmly I made it this blog’s tagline; every film is worth something. It’s a mentality that will crop up a few more times in this franchise, so allow me to say, not for the last time, that even the “worst” film in the MCU is still of average quality. If you see films on a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being the best, then I believe at worst that the worst film in this franchise is still a 5.

Iron Man 2 takes place roughly 6 months after Iron Man and shows Tony Stark grappling with his own mortality as the palladium in the arc reactor in his chest slowly kills him. Meanwhile, he is attempting to prevent the US Military from taking his suits that they have classified as weapons, and surviving attacks from disgraced Russian scientist Ivan Vanko.

The son of Anto Vanko, who had helped create the original arc reactor with Howard Stark in the 1970’s, Ivan has also miniaturised the technology and is using it to electrify a pair of metal whips, whilst disgracing the Stark legacy. All of these events are escalated by weapons manufacturer Justin Hammer who has been hired to build Iron Man suits for the Military and brings Vanko in to assist him.

The film was released in 2010 as the third entry in the MCU, but it sits fourth chronologically. This essentially provides us with a two part story when coupled with the original Iron Man that details the origins of Tony Stark and his struggles. This is also the first of these stories that doesn’t feature an Infinity Stone, instead focussing on the world’s biggest superpower – money. Having watched Tony save his own life and decree himself a superhero in part one, we now get to see the full blown repercussions of those actions. The decaying of his body and his relationships, the attempts by Justin and Ivan on his life, and the overbearing presence of SHIELD are all his own fault. There’s this running joke within the MCU Fandom that everything is Tony’s fault—something worth keeping an eye on as we go forward—and with Iron Man 2 it’s definitely true. Not only has he let his ego run wild, but with his death imminent, he has chosen to let that trait dominate him. It’s only by the film’s climax that he’s even remotely attempting to reel himself in and, despite him being a jerk, it makes him a compelling character.

If the first 3 films in the MCU chronologically are hinting at a larger universe then Iron Man 2 is where we see the first actual signs of set-up. It’s here that we are introduced to Natasha Romanoff, otherwise known as The Black Widow, who is a top tier spy and very attractive and… that’s is all we learn about her. There’s a very real effort on behalf of the filmmakers to let us know how deadly she is, which I won’t fault them for, however it’s done from a very masculine perspective. Her clothes are tight and her hair is frizzy but not messy, and her costume is noticeably unzipped so as to give us cleavage. You would presume that because this was over a decade ago that her character and the way she is treated would change, but this is incorrect and, trust me, we’ll get to that. As far as 2010 character introductions go, this one is fairly solid.

Speaking of character introductions, we are re-introduced to Colonel James “Rhodey” Rhodes. We had already spent a large amount of time with him in Iron Man but between films actor Terrance Howard was replaced by Don Cheadle, who has played the role ever since. At the time, it was unclear as to precisely why this had happened, and the specifics still aren’t known to anybody outside of the situation, although it appears as though the issue was money related. It’s no secret that Robert Downey Jr was given a significant pay rise between films, and it appears to me as if Marvel was unwilling to extend that same courtesy to Terrance Howard, although that is just a theory. Whilst Cheadle has been brilliant in the role, I can’t help but wonder how much more imposing Howard’s Rhodey would have been. This was the first time that Marvel re-cast a role, but it was by no means the last and we’ll get to them soon enough.

I still have a soft spot for Iron Man 2, as I made clear up front I don’t think it’s bad, but its biggest impact is that it sets up a couple of elements that will crop up again. This isn’t to say that I think the film is boring, I find Ivan Vanko a really interesting contrast to Tony Stark and Justin Hammer is so ridiculously entertaining that I’m a little sad he hasn’t been brought back yet. However the way that the film choses to treat Vanko is far from perfect, seeming to have more interest in the drones that he helped create than the man himself. Ultimately his “climactic battle” is only a couple of minutes long, and it results in his death, making him the 3rd MCU villain to hold this fate and the 2nd by Tony’s hand. The really big takeaways from the plot seem to be that Black Widow is here now, that Agent Coulson is about to handle the discovery of Thor’s hammer Mjölnir and that SHIELD/Nick Fury doesn’t entirely trust Stark. It’s worth noting that Stark doesn’t leave this film as an Avenger, he leaves it as a consultant.

I think this one gets a bad rap, along with a couple of the following films, and I don’t think that’s fair. Like I said, I find it to be really reductive to just write a film off because it’s bad and there are some standout moments. Justin Hammer’s entire character is one of them, along with the way it shows Tony’s insane ego and how smart he is. The guy literally creates a brand new element based on decades old research from his dad. The final thing that gets mentioned a bunch is the theory that the kid in the Iron Man helmet at the Stark Expo is Peter Parker. It’s something that was “confirmed” by current Spidey Tom Holland and MCU Helmsman Kevin Fiege in 2017, but I don’t agree. I think that it’s a nice theory, but that it remains just that. Further, just because you state something retroactively, doesn’t make it true. I’m definitely a little biased on this because I’m not really a fan of the way that Tony Stark has replaced Uncle Ben in the MCU, but that is an issue for another time. As it is, I like Iron Man 2 and I like the way it leads into Tho,r but first it’s time for something incredible.

Excelsior!

Signed: Your friendly neighbourhood queer