Marvel Cinematic Universe – Phase 1

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I started this project of watching through the Marvel Cinematic Universe films in late April. The idea had been bubbling under for some time after repeatedly hearing that the MCU is more than the sum of its parts. I’d seen a few of the parts and they mostly did not convince me, but deep down I’m a fan boy of even super hero stuff, so I couldn’t avoid being intrigued. The final trigger was seeing a few more of the films, when Nelonen was showing one MCU film every Saturday during the spring.

The MCU films (and series to an extent) have been divided into phases. Currently films are being released for phase 3. The phases seem to consist of a bunch of films featuring individual Marvel heroes finishing off with an Avengers film that gathers all the heroes into one film.

This extended film universe project has been hugely successful. There’s been 16 film releases thus far and about 3 films scheduled per year for the future. In addition there’s 6 TV series with released seasons and further 3 scheduled to start already this year. The production rate seems pretty astounding.

There’s already imitators with DC Comics trying to build something similar with its cadre of heroes, and now even Universal Studios dusting off its B monster films of yore in order to build an extended film universe of its own.

I’ve now gone through all the films and series of phase 1 (well, actually I’ve seen two phase 2 films already, but I’m a lazy blogger). My reviews of the phase 1 products I’ve seen can be found here:

The MCU is the reason I’m watching the Marvel films – the wider universe and a meta plot that runs through several separate film franchises and connects them into one story. The idea that they might build something bigger than just individual films or even just franchises based on individual heroes. Phase 1… is starting to get there.

With the exception of Iron Man 2 and the phase finale, The Avengers (Well, even The Avengers can be thought of as the origin story of the Avengers, the group of heroes.), phase 1 consists of origin stories. Mostly they are bad. Super heroes are by definition on a level above us. At first glance they seem invulnerable and it would seem that they’d have to be able to build a happy life for themselves – being capable of what they are capable of must mean that they can build a fortune and a stable life and occasionally go face off with a big bad. This is obviously a bad premise for any story that’s supposed to have some drama in it. Hence, origin stories. They are meant to build some drama into the heroic characters, so that they can partake in dramatic stories. Unfortunately, at the same time we are talking about super heroes and that’s taking the story straight out of anything that is directly connected to our mundane reality and thus our capability of connecting with the drama is limited.

Watchmen (the comic, not the film) spends great amounts of time taking its super heroes apart and showing the flawed characters underneath the masks, and does it really well, but that’s pretty much the only super hero product that succeeds in that. These films – not so good. Marvel has always been the popcorn of super heroes, so the fan base has expectations of popcorn. Marvel has to meet the expectations, if they want to keep building the universe. Unfortunately, it means that popcorn takes over, drama is very thinly built and it the whole just doesn’t work. The exception to this is Iron Man, as the character is a playboy billionaire, who works better with popcorn.

The lone TV series connected to phase 1, the Agent Carter stories, turned out mostly to be a waste of time. While it shows some glimpses into the birth of S.H.I.E.L.D. and some other important early players of the game, it headlines a character, who is either dead or otherwise completely sidelined by the time of the main MCU events. This is a pity as I liked said character. Despite the agent Carter, the series veered into deep boredom by season 2. I expect that this is a problem with most of the MCU series – they can’t contain major events important for following the meta plot, as most of the audience is doing that just through the MCU films, so the series are bound to struggle with irrelevance and boredom. I expect to be skipping most of the series in later phases, as there’s more and more of them being produced all the time.

Even with a bunch of at best average films and a mostly irrelevant series, the phase 1 starts to show the strength of the meta plot and the MCU. The films contain more and more hints and scenes about the meta plot the later they were produced. The Avengers brings this to the front for major parts of the film. Ultimately at this stage, the meta plot is stuck in the same struggle with the individual origin stories – it is being introduced, justified, dramatized, but in the end, brushed aside too quickly for audience expectations of popcorn.

Still, I’m hooked. The meta plot has caught me. I’m watching all the films waiting for glimpses of agent Coulson or Nick Fury or something. It is kind of like with the X-Files series in the past – the weird unexplained thing of the week got boring quite fast, but I was looking towards all mentions of Deep Throat or any other character connected to the deep plot that was running through the series. It’s a fun feeling.

It has been a somewhat conflicted ride thus far, but I guess I’ve swallowed the hook, line and sinker. I’m at a point, where I’m sad to see the phase 3 films in theatrical release, as I feel like I should see all the phase 2 and earlier phase 3 films, before I can go see the latest ones, so I can follow the meta plot as it unfolds. Oh well, I’ll catch up with them pretty soon at this pace and then I can enjoy my fan boyish giddiness with the other fans at the premiere of whatever the next film will be at that point… I feel weird to say that I’m looking forward to it.

The Avengers [2012]

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After a bunch of origin stories for the various heroes, this film brings the heroes together and the phase 1 of the MCU to a close.

Loki was set adrift in the finale of Thor, and now turns up in earth preparing the way for his new allies, the Chitauri, to invade earth. Loki enters earth via the Tesseract, an artifact held in a S.H.I.E.L.D. facility. Loki promptly converts a few S.H.I.E.L.D. agents into his followers and escapes. The heroes that have gained their origin stories earlier in the MCU films are then gathered up on the S.H.I.E.L.D. flying air craft carrier with even Thor arriving in pursuit of his brother. This was obviously Loki’s plan all along – get the Avengers together, sow disorder and chaos among them, escape, and open a portal to bring the Chitauri to New York. Obviously, S.H.I.E.L.D. allowed this to happen to give the Avengers a reason to actually work together (death of agent Coulson) and thus stop the invasion and Loki. Furthermore, the whole chain of events gives Nick Fury a justification for The Avengers in the first place – Earth needs a defense force and The Avengers are it as demonstrated during the battle of New York.

It is nice to finally see a bit more of the meta plot, the structure intended to hold all the MCU films together, that is, the S.H.I.E.L.D. We even see the World Security Council, that seems to be in control of S.H.I.E.L.D., although Nick Fury is something of a rogue – he seems to agree on the goals, but takes liberties with the methods.

As an individual film, this is a fun romp. The fight scenes are mostly interesting as there’s more heroes involved and thus more variety. The calmer sequences are mostly nice, as there’s more surprising interactions, and some actually impressive revelations. The dialogue is kept on a not too serious level, so it is fun to follow.

The climax, the battle of New York against the Chitauri, is unfortunately a bit of a letdown. The Chitauri are boring – it is just about taking out the next half a dozen Chitauri infantry and the next Chitauri war machine, interspersed with scenes of the heroes becoming more and more desperate as they are taking small hits all the time, but there’s no end to the Chitauri force. Loki is mostly sidelined during the fight, so he completely fails to impress.

Altogether, it seems that everyone involved had loads of fun creating this – as the screen time between all the heroes is pretty evenly split, the script or the performances don’t even try to reach deeply personal or dramatic depths (which the MCU has mostly failed to do thus far).

One of the more impressive films of the MCU, as it aptly avoids the weaknesses of the franchise. I did hope for even more time spent on the meta plot, but, oh well, I had a lot of fun with this.

  • Director: Joss Whedon
  • Watched on: 13th May 2017
  • Watched at: Home (Nelonen)
  • Fanboy grade: 4/5
  • 3/5

Thor [2011]

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Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is set to inherit his father’s, Odin’s (Anthony Hopkins), throne, but he is a brash young man, who hungers for war and glory. He does a foolish thing and brings the Asgardians on the brink of war with the frost giants of Jotunheim. Instead of a throne, he gets banished to Earth without his powers. His brother’s, Loki’s (Tom Hiddleston), plots are twisted and filled with even more hubris. I don’t think there’s a single person or being involved in said plots, who doesn’t get double crossed. Well, the father ends up in some godly sleep that may last for years, and Loki claims the throne. His intention is to prevent Thor from returning, to slip some frost giants into Asgard to threaten Odin’s life, and to swoop in to save the day in order to seem worthy of the throne in his father’s eyes. Thor, in the meanwhile, has to do without his powers and hammer, when Loki sends a war machine of some sort after him on Earth. When he performs a selfless act to save his love interest, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), and her colleagues from the war machine, instead of dying, he regains his powers and use of his hammer. He swoops back to Asgard just in time to stop his brother from destroying Jotunheim and the frost giants completely, and obviously Odin wakes up just in time to witness the whole thing. Loki chooses to not be saved and falls into a void, while Thor is still left without a throne, but at last gains his father’s trust. Asgard is left without Bifrost, which is their primary means of traveling between the worlds, so Thor is left without Jane for the time being.

It is often quite painful to write those short plot descriptions, while reviewing these Marvel Cinematic Universe films. They are quite bad. You have to have some thick, bottle bottomed fanboy glasses to get through these films without balking at everything. Oh, and Chris Hemsworth is the worst of the MCU super hero actors I’ve seen thus far. I’m not sure, if he was told to play it like this – I mean Thor is a brash god, who is either drinking ale and being merry, or bashing some skulls and being merry, or sulking. But Hemsworth’s takes that description and manages to make it even more naive.

We see more and more of the S.H.I.E.L.D. in each of these films, but the mode is the same – they are a faceless government agency, that has a slightly less intimidating face than most faceless government agencies as depicted in films. They act as a backdrop that has its hands in everything and as a deus ex machina, but nothing more is revealed. I guess they’ll get to it in the next film, The Avengers. We get even more glimpses of Nick Fury, of agent Coulson, and for the first time, of Clint Barton / Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner).

Despite Hemsworth, this is actually one of the better films in the MCU thus far. The big bad is deeply connected to the rest of the characters, so you don’t just nod of, when he has screen time, and the supporting cast is pretty great in terms of the actors, and doing a decent job being entertaining.

  • Director: Kenneth Branagh
  • Watched on: 25th May 2017
  • Watched at: Home (DVD)
  • Fanboy grade: 3/5
  • 1.5/5

Iron Man 2 [2010]

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This is a classic sequel suffering from classic sequel syndrome. The protagonist has a new tragedy that is a bit far fetched and everything is bigger and more dramatic… which means that there’s less emotional attachment to anything and the film is just worse. Now Iron Man is dying. The arc reactor is powered by palladium, which builds up some poisonous gunk in his system and we keep getting blood toxicity readings throughout the film. Using the suit makes the toxins release faster. Due to dying, he is alternating between self destruction and trying to do something meaningful with his life, including handing over his company to Pepper Potts. Unfortunately and unsurprisingly the tech that was supposed to be 10 years away from anyone, who is not Tony Stark, is there. Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), a scientist that Tony’s father got deported, builds him some neat laser whips and takes Iron Man for a ride. Vanko is caught and jailed, but sprung from the prison by Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell). He is a wannabe Tony Stark, who controls a military contractor that is trying to fill the void left by Stark Industries leaving military tech behind. Nick Fury shows up to cheer up Tony Stark, who ends up figuring out a new chemical element from stuff left behind by his father – the material neatly solves the palladium poisoning issue and Tony is back in business. Obviously Vanko betrays Hammer and uses Hammer’s resources to build an army of Iron Man like drones that he utilizes to attack Iron Man in a personal vendetta. Iron Man is now helped by War Machine/Lt. Col. James Rhodes, who got a suit by “taking” it from the self-destructive Tony Stark. “Taking”, because, well, Tony can prevent that from happening, but I guess that was another moment of self-destructive behavior / trying to do something good. The big bad is defeated by the duo – hurray.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen this film in full before, but I’ve seen long bits of it, when it has been running on TV and I’ve had it open in the background. Some parts were very familiar, but others I’m very sure I haven’t seen before.

From the MCU point of view, we get more crossing over. Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) is on assignment from S.H.I.E.L.D. to watch over Iron Man, agent Coulson pays a visit and Nick Fury has a quick scene. Even the big bad is tied in with Howard Stark, Tony’s father, who was there in practically all supers related events before he died.

Still, this is a bad story about trying to cope in the face of dying (which is solved by deus ex machina) and fighting a meaningless baddie in the meanwhile. Robert Downey Jr. is still great as Tony Stark, when Tony is not wallowing in self-pity, unfortunately the chemistry between Tony Stark and Pepper Potts is mostly gone, Sam Rockwell is just ridiculously bad in every scene as Justin Hammer, and Mickey Rourke feels like he is on whatever stuff ruined his face.

Some decent fight scenes, but not counting the increased connections to the rest of the MCU, this is just worse in every way compared to the first Iron Man.

  • Director: Jon Favreau
  • Watched on: 25th May 2017
  • Watched at: Home (DVD)
  • Fanboy grade: 2.5/5
  • 1.5/5

The Incredible Hulk [2008]

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The Marvel Cinematic Universe got off to a quick start by releasing two films on their first year of releases. It was only five years earlier, that the very bad Ang Lee version of Hulk came out. I went to see that, because Ang Lee. The disappointment still stung, when this came out, so I skipped this then. Later on, I’ve seen big parts of this film, but never in full, so it was clear that I needed to watch this completely for this MCU project.

Yet another origin story… Well, the true origin is only told in flashbacks, but what happened right after – how Dr. Banner (played by Edward Norton) tried to cure his affliction. The origin – he was part of a secret military project (a continuation of the project that spawned Captain America as told in his origin film), and decided to try a serum on himself without knowing, what it actually was, and turned himself into the Hulk. The Hulk comes out, when his pulse hits 200. For a 40-something doctor, his pulse seems to race towards that number pretty easily as seen very often with Dr. Banner glancing at his sports watch. Happily he can just breath calmly for three seconds and see his pulse drop by as much as 40 beats per minute. That’s some breathing technique! Oh well, obviously there’s no cure, but he gets to meet his love interest, Dr. Ross (played by Liv Tyler), and is chased by the general responsible for creating him, General Ross (played by William Hurt. Finally, his nemesis for the film, The Abomination, is revealed, when a soldier under General Ross’ command, Blonsky (played by Tim Roth), imbibes a bit too much of the same serum that created the Hulk in the first place. A few city blocks are leveled and Hulk comes out victorious.

Compared to the MCU’s opening film, Iron Man, this is just bad. There’s some big names here, but the results just don’t fly. The Hulk’s story is intended as tragic, but it just doesn’t fly. There’s only so much compassion the audience can feel towards a guy, who pauses every five minutes to take a quick breath. The Hulk is entertaining tossing around tanks and bashing the Abomination around, but that’s about it.

As a part of the MCU franchise, the film still feels a bit left out. There’s the usual nods towards the rest of the MCU, but this film contains the first major MCU role that had the actor change – Edward Norton probably just didn’t want to return to the MCU films and Mark Ruffalo plays Dr. Banner later on. The Hulk himself is also very different from his later appearances. Here he is a tragic character, but later on, he is having fun – he is dangerous still, but having fun. Here he is vulnerable – he is wounded by mere tanks and some crowd control ultra wave weapons, but later on he tosses gods around like rag dolls.

Ang Lee’s Hulk was a major disappointment, but I had my expectations way higher then. This is just, I don’t know, forgettable. The story does make the MCU a richer place, but that just barely justifies the existence of this film.

  • Director: Louis Leterrier
  • Watched on: 24th May 2017
  • Watched at: Home (DVD)
  • Fanboy grade: 1.5/5
  • 0.5/5

Iron Man [2008]

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This was the first production ever released in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The film itself was in limbo for a few decades, before rights reverted back to Marvel. Around the same time Marvel decided to form Marvel Studios and to build a whole franchise around this MCU concept. This, it turns out, was a good decision.

I’ve seen Iron Man once before and parts of it again later on, but it has been a while, so I decided to watch it again for this MCU project of mine. Last film was origin story of Captain America, this one is origin story of Iron Man. A brilliant inventor and a playboy billionaire, who turns his life around, when he is captured by some militants in Afghanistan and he sees the weapons he has developed used for bad. He escapes by building a miniaturized arc reactor and utilizing that to power a scrap iron contraption that is strong enough to defeat a few badly armed and trained militants. Back at home he builds a proper high tech version of the suit and returns to destroy his own weapons. Afterwards he finds out that it is his own second in command, who has been dealing the weapons to the militants and ends up facing said man, Obadiah Stane, mano-a-mano, when he too builds a suit.

This is definitely an entertaining film. Jon Favreau was right, when he said, that Robert Downey Jr. is Tony Stark – Downey is clearly comfortable in his role and having fun. This crosses the screen. There’s some flashy combat scenes, a cute love interest that doesn’t go anywhere yet in Pepper Potts (played by Gwyneth Paltrow), and a nicely menacing villain that you love to hate in Stane (played by Jeff Bridges).

The list of negatives is obviously long. The depiction of the Afghani militants is… well, no effort was put into that. The descent of Stane from corporate asshole to a megalomaniac… well, you have to buy into super hero comics to find that believable for one second. Camera work is boring. In the end it’s just made for pure entertainment with no ambition for anything but making fanboys drool and some millions of dollars… But that’s obviously the case with all the Marvel films, so I’ll try to not mention that too often, while writing these reviews.

There’s again a few quick nods to the rest of the MCU – S.H.I.E.L.D. plays a role and Captain America’s shield is in Stark’s private workshop. Nick Fury and a few other names flash by in some news clippings. Obviously there can’t be too much, as the its the first MCU release. Nice that they worked some of that into the film though.

Altogether a fun and harmless film.

  • Director: Jon Favreau
  • Watched on: 24th May 2017
  • Watched at: Home (DVD)
  • Fanboy grade: 4/5
  • 2.5/5

Marvel’s Agent Carter

HAYLEY ATWELL

The two seasons of the series and the one shot film constitute the latest footage of the MCU phase 1. The series was released in 2015-16 and the short film in 2013, while the last feature film of the phase was released in 2012. However, they are closely related to the Captain America origin story and thus early on in my MCU watching list.

I watched these in a spree over three days and I’m a bit undecided on whether I should’ve watched them at all. The season 1 is pretty closely tied in with the Captain America story and quite interesting at times. Season 2 on the other hand descends complete irrelevance quite quickly. Not really sure, what happened between season 1 and 2, since the first one ends a bit abruptly, but they don’t continue that in any manner during season 2. There’s a quick line in season 2 about the events of season 1 and nothing else. Not sure, if they had grander plans, but had budget cuts or what, but it just seems that they had to change direction pretty quickly. For much of season 2 I found myself grabbing the nearest magazine to read a quick article or checking my blog feed, while I waited for something interesting to happen.

The short film, it turns out, was actually all that was needed. Basically the series and the short film tell the same story – Agent Carter stuck in a soon to be obsolete war time agency, where her colleagues treat her as a secretary, and her proving to be superior to the men and moving onward. The thing is, the short film does this in 15 minutes as opposed to 18 episodes of 40+ minutes of the series.

Haley Atwell is wonderful as Agent Carter, but that’s about it. The series starts right where Captain America ended and there’s a few nods towards the rest of the MCU – Howard Stark, the father of Iron Man plays a major role, and S.H.I.E.L.D. appears shortly, but not much else. In the end, there’s very little to justify the hours spent on this. I probably would be happier, if I hadn’t watched season 2 – maybe happiest, if I’d just went with the short film and skipped the series altogether.