Thursday, April 30, 2015

Marvel Cinematic Universe Review

I went over most of the "Avengers" movies about a year ago on this post, but I was itching to do an update. I've recently been re-watching the movies and TV shows, along with every last extra feature on the blu-ray discs, so here's a revised overview of what has been dubbed the "Marvel Cinematic Universe" (MCU). While I try never to give "number" scores for films, I'm breaking my own rule to grade this ever-expanding catalogue of movies.

Phase 1

Iron Man (2008)

Still one of the very best of the MCU. I've watched this one at least a half dozen times, and it holds up exceptionally well. The acting and humor still hit, the plot is solid, and the effects and action are exciting. This was all done when the entire concept of the MCU was barely formed, but it still fits seamlessly into the shared universe. I'll never be crazy about the paint-by-numbers final fight, but it hardly ruins the film.

Score: 8/10

The Incredible Hulk (2008)

As a major fan of the Hulk comics as a kid, I greatly preferred
the more simian, tank-like physique that Whedon's team gave
the jade giant. Not the HGH Schwarzenegger we got here.
Arguably the weakest of the entire MCU. After seeing it three times, it simply doesn't get any better than "average." You can see the frame for a decent story in the movie, and there's nothing I would say is "bad" about it. Still, nothing about it is any better than mediocre. The script is very flat, and I simply didn't like the look of the CGI titular creature. It looks like a steroided body-builder painted green, in terms of physique, which isn't what I expect from the Hulk. The Avengers did a far better job with this, along with making the Hulk more smashing.

Something of interest, though, comes from the DVD/blu-ray extras. There is an alternate opening during which Bruce Banner attempts suicide on a snowy mountaintop. It's actually a pretty interesting, if dark, opening sequence that I feel would have made for a better start to the movie. Viewers of The Avengers are probably aware of this, as Banner makes reference to it in the movie.

The movie's not a waste of time, but I would suggest that viewers not expect anything at all special about it.

Score: 5/10

Iron Man 2 (2010)

This one has actually grown a bit better upon further viewing, though it's still one of the weakest films in the MCU. The basic story is fine, and the insertion of SHIELD into the tale is very well done, resulting in plenty of comical moments with Agent Coulson and Black Widow. The additions of actors Don Cheadle, Mickey Rourke, and Sam Rockwell help immensely.

I still think several of the action scenes are forced and silly. The best example is the first part of Whiplash's initial assault on Tony Stark at the Monaco Grand Prix, which is ridiculously bad on a Michael Bay level. However, I've often overlooked some of the rather good action sequences, most notably the very end of the otherwise dull grande finale. When Stark and Rhodes are in the Oracle Dome, their dispatching of the enemy drones is wonderfully entertaining, and I hadn't really given it credit before.

Iron Man 2, though, will always be weakened by many little problems. The Grand Prix scene is just one, but a viewer can't get through ten straight minutes of the movie without some kind of plot hole or silly oversimplification. The banter between Stark and Potts gets a bit annoying; Hammer is still cartoonishly moronic; Vanko/Whiplash is too much of an enigma. This one is just barely on the right side of "OK," though.

Score: 6/10

Thor (2011)

Still one of the better MCU films. I've now seen it four times, and it hasn't dulled to me. The pacing with character development feels a tad rushed at times, and not all of the jokes are great. Still, Kenneth Brannagh did an excellent job bringing the Norse gods to life on screen. The links between Asgard and the tiny fictional town in New Mexico are well done, giving us a great large-scale/small-scale balance that works well. Nice little introduction of Hawkeye, too.

Score: 7/10

The blu-ray of Thor includes the MCU one-shot short film The Consultant. This is actually a cool little piece that ties to the pre-credit scene in The Incredible Hulk, when Tony Stark is sent to talk with General Ross about the Avengers Initiative. In The Consultant, however, we learn that it was not Bruce Banner but rather the Abomination who SHIELD committee members wanted as a recruit. The four-minute short makes for a fun little connection, though it's hardly required viewing.

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

I still like the first Captain America movie quite a lot. This is due mostly to its great first act and the solid final scenes. It still has as much genuine heart as any of the MCU films, and Chris Evans was a great choice for the title role. He, Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter, and Stanley Tucci's great turn as Dr. Erskine carry a lot of what makes this movie more than a dull superhero punch-up.

I'll never love the fact that the film completely glosses over exactly how Steve Rogers became such a brilliant tactician and hand-to-hand fighter, and the lack of good one-on-one fighting sequences is still obvious. However, in light of the fact that the Russo brothers did immensely better with all of these in the sequel, it's not hard to suppress my little disappointments with this first Cap movie.

Score: 7/10

The blu-ray of The First Avenger contains the one-shot film A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Thor's Hammer. It's a fairly amusing little piece about Agent Coulson stopping at a convenience store and running into a bit of trouble. It's hardly a must-see segment that's crucial to the MCU, but it's fun.

The Avengers (2012)
The battle in Manhattan is one of best-executed large-scale
film fights in movie history. The epic scope doesn't drown
the individual heroes' skills and personalities one bit.

I've now watched this movie at least six times, and I never tire of it. On this recent viewing, I marveled at how Whedon tied together so many great characters and story elements so well. He used his considerable skills in script-writing and overall directing to create one of the tightest, most entertaining fantasy action movies ever. There are a few moments when the script is trying to be a little bit too clever for its own good, but these are rare. Nearly the entire movie hums along from one great scene to the next, with very little worth missing.

Score: 9/10

The blu-ray of The Avengers contains the one-shot short film Item 47, which is about an average couple who finds one of the Chitauri weapons left in the aftermath of Loki's assault on New York. They use it to rob banks along the east coast, but SHIELD is tracking them down. This is actually a rather puzzling short film, as it raises more questions than it answers, and the resolution is just plain silly. This is arguably the weakest of the five one-shot films the MCU has given us.

Phase 2

Iron Man 3 (2013)

I did a short review of this one a while ago on this post.

An improvement over Iron Man 2, but not as strong as the first Iron Man. I love the greater sophistication of the plot, which involves misdirection, fear, and manipulation of the attentions of the masses. Aldridge Killian is also a far better nemesis than either Whiplash or the idiotic Justin Hammer. Ben Kingsley's Mandarin is a perfect addition, as well. I also revised my opinion about what I perceived as a plot hole: I had always wondered why Tony didn't unleash the "House Party Protocol" far earlier in the film. This is actually addressed, albeit so briefly as to be easily missed.

Some of the story pacing is still a bit forced and rushed, especially in terms of Stark's battle with PTSD and his relationship with the young boy who helps him. I will also never love the final battle, which amounts to the same type of demolition derby of the first two films, although in a more memorable setting. These weaknesses keep Iron Man 3 from being one of the elite MCU films, but it is still one of the better ones. I wouldn't mind seeing writer/director Shane Black come back to do another MCU movie, whether Iron Man or one of the other human characters.

Another thing to note is that Iron Man 3 is where we can first see one of the bigger criticisms of the MCU - that as the universe expands and grows more connected, it gets more and more difficult to tell tales that are fully self-contained. Viewers who haven't seen at least The Avengers are bound to be puzzled by some of the key storylines and little references in this movie.

Score: 7/10

The blu-ray of Iron Man 3 contains the one-shot short film Agent Carter, which is the first time we get to see Peggy Carter since her introduction in Captain America: The First Avenger. Surprisingly, this film seems to break the otherwise meticulous continuity and chronology of the MCU just a bit, in light of the Agent Carter mini-series released in 2015. Still, it's easily the best of the Marvel one-shots, and it spawned the recent commendable mini-series. Anyone who enjoys the character should check it out.

Thor: The Dark World (2013)

Here's my original review post.

This sequel to the solid first Thor film is very similar to Iron Man 2 - it's not terrible by any means, but there are a few too many little problems that limit it to being merely decent. The basic story is fine, and the development of the fraternal relationship between Thor and Loki is compelling. Several action sequences are also rather entertaining, including the world-jumping fight between Thor and Malekith. There are even a few decent moments of levity, and we get more fine acting by the cast.

The flaws, though, are rather obvious. The villain, Malekith, is yet another one-dimensional bad guy, which makes him rather dull. Some of the humor is oddly misplaced in the middle of what should be more intense moments of action or emotion. Also, I'm personally tired of the characters Jane Foster and her annoying little tagalong, Darcy. The latter is clearly meant as pure comic relief, but I've always found her simply a snarky, pesky dimwit. On top of all of this, Thor: The Dark World suffers more than any other MCU film in its reliance on previous entries in the series. If one hasn't seen Thor or The Avengers, much of the tale and many of the references are bound to be confusing.

Score: 6/10

The blu-ray contains the one-shot short film All Hail The King, which is easily the second best one-shot in the MCU. In this one, we see the "Mandarin," Trevor Slattery, in prison after the events of Iron Man 3. A hilarious Ben Kingsley plays the role full-tilt, which is funny enough. Even more than this, though, are the hints that something far greater is at work in the MCU, most likely dealing with Tony Stark and an as-yet-unseen villain. This one is well worth the 13 minutes of your time.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Here's my original review post.

The only solo MCU film that might be as good as or better than The Avengers, The Winter Soldier is a nearly flawless piece of action adventure cinema. I've watched it five times now, and it's skilled execution still amazes me. I'm not a particular fan of extended action or fight sequences, especially in these days of the shaky-camera or Michael Bay "techniques," but the action in The Winter Soldier is phenomenal. I've never grown bored with any of the action sequences, which is a testament to the people who constructed them.

The story is also one of the timeliest and most sophisticated in the MCU. The question of security versus freedom in the information age is eminently relevant, and the movie makes good use of it. I still can't shake the question of what, exactly, HYDRA had in mind after Insight is launched and they kill a few million people in one fell swoop. Did they not think that the rest of the world could and would rise against them? Aside from this, though, the movie is extremely well done, and it's the current gold standard for superhero movies.

Score: 9/10

Agents of SHIELD TV Series, Season 1 (2013-2014)

Spawning mostly from the events of The Avengers, in which the affably wry Agent Coulson is seemingly killed, we follow his mysterious resurrection and his assembling his own team of SHIELD agents. The series of 22 episodes carries two main stories: the mystery of Coulson's return to life and the grand revelation that many SHIELD operatives have been HYDRA all along. These two stories kept things moving fairly well, especially during the last six episodes of the show.
As a whole, the season was a bit uneven, but it found very firm footing by its finale.

The show did go through some duller patches in its middle sections, but the larger story arcs remained present enough to keep things humming along well enough. This was a show that I didn't feel constituted "must see TV" as the episodes aired originally. However, when I rewatched them in more rapid succession, I found them more enjoyable. The twists and the appearance of Bill Paxton towards the series' end boosted the entertainment level greatly. The entire first season proved to be a worthy addition to the MCU.

Score: 7/10

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Here's my original review post.

The oddball entry into the MCU. I do really enjoy Guardians, though I don't quite proffer it the "classic" status that some have bestowed upon it. This movie was a great return to the fun action adventure science fiction movies of the 1980s, where things weren't taken too seriously. Sure, I have to turn off the nerd part of my brain that wants to ask questions like "How, exactly, does every alien species in this movie speak English?" and similar queries about logical inconsistencies or overdone silliness. Once I do that, this movie is really good fun.

What sets Guardians apart is, of course, the humor, which holds up thanks to great performances by the entire main cast. I will still always feel that Gamorra wasn't handled quite as well as the others, but not in a tragic way. The plot and action are colorful and playful, while also offering plenty of raucous and dynamic fights. Once again, the MCU offers us a rather dull arch villain, though, in Ronan the Accuser - yet another one-dimensional bad guy with a deep voice and English accent. By this point, I had hoped that the writers could come up with something a bit more original.

Guardians is the quirky, entertaining cousin of the other MCU films, which is its greatest strength. I only hope that it serves as a model for future films, which could be different in tone from past entries.

Score: 8/10

Agent Carter TV Series (2015)

This 8-episode series started out amazingly strong, and faded only a little bit at the end. The writers took the great angle of using Carter to comment on glass ceilings, gender bias, and misogyny prevalent in U.S. society in the 1940s. Hayley Atwell is perfect as the tough, highly skilled Peggy Carter as she battles both the obvious threat of grand evil forces and the subtler threats from her male chauvanist cohorts.

Having Howard Stark be a significant part of the story helped further connect the series to the Iron Man films, but the way Stark was handled was a bit uneven at times. The best addition was James D'Arcy as Stark's upright butler Edwin Jarvis, who added great levity. Bridget Regan also did excellent work as Carter's immediate and lethal nemesis, Dottie Underwood.

This was a fun, rapid-fire mini-series that was another welcome addition to the MCU.

Score: 8/10

Daredevil TV Series on Netflix (2015)

Stunningly good. For the very first time, Marvel gets away from the tone and structure of everything else in the MCU, and it worked phenomenally well.

Daredevil was released exclusively on Netflix, with all 13 episodes available at once. The story that is told over those 13 shows is easily the darkest, grittiest, and most humanized of the entire MCU. Yes, it is yet another "origin story" of sorts, though it hardly dwells very much on the beginnings of the title hero. Rather, the show spends a great deal of time on the inner struggles of the main characters, both heroes and arch-villain alike. Most of these turmoils are teased out through extended dialogue, which can occasionally try one's patience. However, most of the conversations are extremely compelling, as they reveal and explore some rather dark corners of heroism and villainy that no other MCU show has had the time or inclination to look into.

Lest you think that the show is 12 hours of talking, the action is there and outstanding. Eschewing the annoying "shaky cam" phenomenon, we get plenty of fixed camera shots that show Matt Murdock getting into plenty of fisticuffs with all sorts of opponents: thugs, corrupt cops, ninja, SWAT shock troops, and even the Kingpin himself trade blows with "the Devil of Hell's Kitchen," and they are incredibly brutal. This show features fights that are, by a longshot, the most gut-wrenching, blood-soaked, and brutal that Marvel has dared give us. This works to great effect, as a major theme of the show is the constant struggle of Murdock to not only survive one lethal encounter after another, but also his decision about whether and why to get back up and resume the fight after getting knocked down. And he does get knocked down. A lot. This is what makes his war arguably more impressive than those of the heavy hitters of the MCU.

Daredevil does have some flaws that can be seen. The shows dark tone is conveyed in aesthetic darkness. Even the scenes set during the day are often shot in shadowed, lightless rooms. This is fine for a while, but it does wear on one several episodes in. A greater weakness to me is exactly how the Kingpin is portrayed. Without giving anything away, I never found his character to completely cohere well enough. It's as if the writers tried to do too many things with him, emotionally. I applaud the effort, given the number of dull, one-dimensional villains in MCU films; however, this attempt didn't completely succeed. These flaws are hardly fatal, though.

Score: 8/10

In Progress and In the Future...

The second season of Agents of SHIELD has been quite good through its first 20 episodes. Things are more focused and intense, and it's clearly building towards a much larger and more interesting story involving the Inhumans. Perhaps taking a cue from the success of the Game of Thrones series, the show has also displayed that it's not afraid to kill off appealing characters. I'm completely on board with how this ties into the films and future TV series.

I'm proud of keeping myself mostly in the dark about The Avengers: Age of Ultron. Knowing so little about the first one was part of the reason I enjoyed it so much, and I hope to replicate that. My biggest fear is that Joss Whedon and the MCU overlords will throw far too many characters into the stew, spoiling the overall effect. I'm generally optimistic, though.

I'm really not sure what to expect from the other upcoming projects. Ant-Man could surprise me, and this is the final movie in the "Phase II" cycle. I imagine that it will serve as a bridge to the next cycle of shows and films, though I hope that it is able to stand on its own. I was upset when I heard that Edgar Wright left the project, so if the film is not great, it is bound to become the biggest "What if?" in the MCU.

The MCU just keeps expanding, too. There are multiple Netflix series that are slated to come out in 2015 and 2016, including A.K.A. Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, and The Defenders. Based on the strength of Agents of SHIELD and Agent Carter, I like the odds of the shows making some of these lesser-known characters entertaining.

Then there is the giant list of movies that are in the "Phase III" segment. There are the expected Thor, Captain America, and Guardians of the Galaxy sequels. The more curious ones are the new characters getting mixed in: Doctor Strange, Black Panther, Captain Marvel, and the Inhumans are all joining in. The most buzz-worthy news of late is that Marvel reacquired the movie rights to Spider-Man, who will be joining the MCU. We'll see if they can handle him any better than the latest movie incarnation of the beloved little arachnoid. He and the other characters will apparently have their hands full dealing with the "mad Titan" Thanos, who has been the arch villain teased ever since The Avengers in 2012.

Is the MCU "Destroying" Cinema?

As with all things that grow to the massive size of the MCU, questions have arisen about the downside of its existence. More and more, cinephiles are decrying how this interconnected behemoth of a franchise has sent other movie studios scrambling to get on the bandwagon. This, in turn, leaves less support for innovative, original film stories in the large-scale "blockbuster" mold. This is certainly a fair observation, though I think some are misplacing blame.

To me, what Marvel and Paramount have done in creating the MCU is akin to what Peter Jackson did with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, though it has greatly expanded on it. The MCU has taken pre-existing characters from a different medium - comic books - and created a serialized world on an epic scale that we've never seen. This is not unlike when scribes first took beloved characters from folklore and started to use them as characters in serialized short stories or novels.

These movies are, simply, a blast for me. While I watch plenty of heady films that are steeped in artistry and intellectualism, the MCU has given me a go-to place for all-out popcorn fun. It also scratches that fan-boy itch that I've always had for continuity and large-scale epics that connect many story threads. I love that I have so many more of these to look forward to.