Saturday, April 16, 2016

Marvel Cinematic Universe Phase 2 Binge (Yes, again)


Call it what you want, but the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is my go-to film and TV series for popcorn entertainment. I've already done a few posts on the various films and shows, all of which I've now seen anywhere from two to more than a half dozen times. They give me the comfort of well-produced and often well-written fantasy action story when I want a break from heavier, darker, more profound films.

With the forthcoming film, Captain America: Civil War, set for imminent release, I went on this recent binge over roughly a six-week period, during which I watched every single movie, short film, and TV series episode that comprises Phase 2 of the MCU, released between the summers of 2013 and 2015. All told, the tally is six feature films, 65 TV show episodes, and two short films.

After plowing through these many hours of comic book-inspired movie entertainment, I feel that Phase 2 has the chance to end up being the single greatest "Phase" that the MCU will ever produce. This might be a bold prediction, given that there are quite literally dozens of movies and hundreds of TV shows episodes planned for release in the coming five to ten years, when Phases 3 and 4 unfold. Still, I'm already seeing some signs of weakness in the MCU, narratively if not commercially. But I'll get into this after my revisit of Phase 2.

To watch all of these shows, I went into full "nerd mode" and meticulously watched them in the exact order in which they were released, either on the big screen, on television, or on blu ray home video release (for the short films). This was to try and maintain the narrative cohesion that has been steadily built as each show is released. My thoughts:

Iron Man 3 (2013) My original review is here

This movie has grown on me since its release. I never thought it a bad movie by any means, but things which previously annoyed me have since grown less irksome. The overall plot is still one of the better ones in the MCU, thanks to semi-maverick writer/director Shane Black's mischievous sensibilities. The story arc brings different elements together nicely, and I am still firmly in the camp of loving what the story did with "The Mandarin." While Killian is not the most original villain in the MCU (another icy-cold, hyper-intelligent, rich white guy in a suit), he was more compelling than others of his ilk. Downey Jr. is still spot-on in this one, and Black's script is packed with gags that still hold up really well.

Agent Carter One-Shot (on the Iron Man 3 blu ray)

Flat-out awesome. After her great but somewhat limited role in the first Captain America movie, I had hoped for more of the tough soldier Peggy Carter. This short film gave us a glorious, 15-minute glimpse of the heights the character can be brought to, thanks to crisp writing and actress Hayley Atwell. This short had to be what sold the execs at ABC on giving her a mini-series.

Agents of SHIELD, Season 1 (Fall 2013 to Spring 2014)

This bold concept took a good two-thirds of the season to really find it's footing. Once it did, though, it was amazing. When one semi-binge watches the entire season over 10 to 14 days, it comes off as a strong season. However, parts of the first 14 or 15 episodes are a bit clunky in terms of dialogue and character development. It was always clear that it had a good foundation of plot elements, building towards a major resolution, but it takes a little too long to build steam. Still, once you get to the episodes immediately before and everything after The Winter Soldier was released, the show completely takes off and never looks back. Those final 6 episodes are among some of the best moments that the MCU has given us.

Thor: The Dark World (2013) My original review is here

Still one of the most mediocre entries in the MCU catalogue. The concept of The Aether is curious. The Kursed is an exciting enemy, being a Dark Elf version of The Hulk for Thor to fight. Seeing Friga go out was an unexpected twist. Of course Tom Hiddleston's Loki tends to steal nearly every scene. And the world-jumping fight between Thor and Malekith is fairly fun. Still, there are quite a few lame and misplaced jokes, Malekith is a rather boring villain, and I've long since had it with Jane and Darcy.

Hail to the King (on the Thor: The Dark World blu ray)

Really solid short film that entertains, responds to many fans' major complaint about Iron Man 3, and sets up interesting possibilities for the MCU's future. The tale follows a journalist who is interviewing Trevor Slattery, the flaky actor who was posing as "The Mandarin" in Iron Man 3. Ben Kingsley returns and goes all-in with a great comedic performance of the dopey, burnt-out Slattery. Just when you think that the entire 12-minute short is a throw-away comedy piece, things get crazy real and extremely relevant in a hurry. Anyone who was upset about how The Mandarin was handled in Iron Man 3 would be well-advised to track down this short and revise their opinion.

Fun Fact: Hail to the King was the final "Marvel One-Shot" made. The studio has stated that there are no plans to make any more. I find this curious and unfortunate, given that a few of them have been really good. 

Captain America: The Winter Solder (2014) My original review is here

This movie is my "1.b" to The Avengers "1.a" status as best movies in the MCU. Though I had seen it four times prior to this viewing, I was again riveted by everything about this movie. The story is smart and tackles relevant issues that go well beyond comic hero fantasy. Nearly every joke in the script hits. There are virtually no wasted scenes or interactions. The action is some of the best you will ever find in any movie, and the acting is high-quality. If any criticism can be leveled at the movie, one might argue that there are a few references that could be lost on those who haven't seen the first Captain America, but these are minor enough that they hardly weaken this amazing sequel. As of right now, one could argue that this movie and the TV shows right before and after it have been the peak of the MCU.

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) My original review is here

I hold pretty much the same opinion of this movie that I did when I first saw it. Really fun, and I greatly appreciate its unique place in the MCU. However, Guardians seems to be the most consistently, if only slightly, overrated of all of the MCU movies. I have seen list after list ranking this movie as the absolute best movie in the entire MCU, and I just can't agree with that assessment. I could argue for it being the third-best, but I cannot see how it is better than The Avengers or The Winter Soldier. Though I don't find it on-par with those earlier films, I still love the oddly charming bond between Rocket and Groot, the humor of Drax's insane zeal for combat and death, and Peter Quill's sarcastic hero/scoundrel. I love how it does bring back the fun of 1980s sci-fi adventure movies, though its third act lacks the novelty for me to thrust it into all-time classic status.

This movie allows me a chance to bring up a bone I've been picking regarding certain action character actors in the MCU (or any action movie): One thing that will always bother me about Guardians of the Galaxy is the casting of Zoe Saldana as Gamora. The woman is simply not an athlete. She's certainly a decent enough actress, and yes, she's gorgeous. But when a character, male or female, is meant to be a world- or galaxy-class fighter and assassin, then damn it, they better move like it. Anyone who has played or watched enough contact sports knows the violent and powerful efficiency with which such athletes move, and it can be painfully obvious when an actor can't. Zoe Saldana can't. Neither can Scarlett Johannsen or Adrienne Palicki, both of whom play nigh-unbeatable hand-to-hand fighters in the MCU. In contrast, Hayley Atwell moves like a fighter. So do Ming-Na Wen and Evangeline Lilly. I don't know if any of that latter group can actually fight, but they sure move like they know how to throw a real punch and adopt fighting stances like they can truly knock out some fools. These three mainstays of the MCU prove that you can find attractive, skilled actors who can actually convince us viewers that they know how to fight.

End of rant. At least for one more paragraph...

Agents of SHIELD, Season 2 (Fall 2014 to Spring 2015) My original review is here

From start to finish, the second season of this show was excellent. Learning from its mistakes in the first season, the show came out swinging with a clear purpose, well-paced plotting, and great dynamics between the characters, old and new alike. While I have issues with Bobby Morse and even Hunter, to a lesser extent, the additions of characters like Mack and even villains like Cal and Gordon made this season distinctive and entertaining. It's also great to see Simmons and Fitz become significantly more than "the nerds/comic relief" on the team.

My only running issue with this season (and the series, up to this point) is Adrienne Palicki as Bobby Morse. For one thing, there is my peeve about actors who can't move like the supposed world-class fighters they are playing (see Gamora rant above). For another, I don't think she's much of an actress. In a lesser show, this might not stand out as much, but there are too many strong acting jobs being done in Agents of SHIELD for me not to notice. Whereas Ming-Na Wen conveys Agent May's strength with quiet grimness and convincing yet subtle posture, Palicki seems to project toughness by doing little more than pushing her chest out, thrusting her chin up, and throwing in the occasional icy glare. I have a really hard time buying her as a globe-trotting super spy. Morse and Hunter are actually set to get their own show, which I can't be terribly excited about. However, their departure is likely to strengthen Agents of SHIELD, in my view.

Agent Carter, Season 1 (Winter to Spring 2015)

A great fulfillment of the promise of the Agent Carter short film released the previous year. While it lost just a tiny bit of steam towards the very end, this 8-episode mini-series was a tight, well-written combination of great characters, the theme of gender discrimination, and a solid story in which the fantastic elements added the right amount of spice to the more human drama. This was also another MCU addition which stands on its own feet, rather than relying on previous films or shows for its strongest materials.

Murdock's talks with his neighborhood priest add plenty
of heart and depth in ways that the feature films and even
network shows can't or won't attempt.
Daredevil, Season 1 (Fall, 2015) My original review is here.

After rewatching the first season of this Netflix series, I still love it. Yes, Vincent D'Onofrio's performance as the Kingpin still bothers me as overly twitchy, and the character is not written with enough strength or domination for my liking. Everything else is gold. Unlike the MCU movies or even the network shows, Daredevil was given plenty of room to slowly reveal characters' depth. Seeing Matt Murdock anguish over his desire to punish and even kill men whom he deems as evil is palpable. I particularly enjoyed his several conversations with the local priest. It's great to see a "comic book" movie not shy away from religion as a story element (and I'm agnostic), as it is a very large part of many people's lives. I had wondered, going into this second viewing, if these extended verbal exchanges would drag. Not in the least. On the contrary, they strengthen the show immensely.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) My original review is here.

Since it's release, director Joss Whedon has admitted how tough it was to juggle the many elements at play in Age of Ultron. Even after four viewings, this is very clear. The MCU had heaped a ton of ingredients onto his cooking counter, some of which didn't quite work together. I do still enjoy the movie, on the whole. The basic story is a good one, which brings together several elements in a clever way. I also think that the action scenes, if not quite as consistent as the first film, are entertaining (I still love the Hulk vs. Veronica/Hulk Buster fight). There are really only two things which irk me about the sequel. One is that there were simply too many characters. Any sort of depth or character exploration, outside of Tony Stark's psyche, was left in the dust. The other is a general bugaboo of mine regarding Joss Whedon: often, the man simply can't rein in the snappy dialogue. It's fine and good when you have known brokers in sarcasm like Tony Stark, Black Widow, or Hawkeye firing off one-liners (I can even buy Ultron, who is supposed to be based on Stark's personality). But it feels forced and out of place when usually troubled or stoic characters do the same, even if the lines themselves are amusing. It simply sounds off-key when The Vision, the arms dealer Kang, or Baron Von Strucker are dropping pithy little side comments, especially in the middle of tense action scenes. When such otherwise-grim or literal characters spout off little jokes, it's too easy to see Joss Whedon's fingers on the keyboard.

I still enjoy this movie, but it may end up as the harbinger of the things which can weaken and seriously erode the strength of the MCU. Namely, character overload. More on this below.

Ant-Man (2015) My original review is here. 

This was my second viewing of this one. It's fun, but I feel it received a bit more love than it actually merited, not unlike Guardians of the Galaxy. I do still enjoy this movie's relatively independent spirit. Paul Rudd makes a great Scott Lang, and Luis is still the best comedic sidekick in the entire MCU. There are plenty of great little gags throughout the movie, and the visuals for the micro-verse are fun. The movie does suffer a bit from lack of creativity, in that it follows typical "origin story" pathways and features (yet another) villain who is the "evil, white-collar white man". And Cross isn't nearly as interesting as Obadiah Stane, Alexander Pierce, or Aldridge Killian. I'll still always enjoy this movie, but I'll also always wonder if it wouldn't have been better had the brilliant Edgar Wright not left the project midway through production.

Will this big fellow oversee the the destruction of the MCU as
we know it, literally and figuratively?
State of the MCU After Phase 2

We're now only about 7 months into Marvel's four-year long Phase 3 set of movies and TV shows. It was already a behemoth, and it is only growing more and more. While the massive Phase 2 had a grand total of 73 movies, TV shows, and short films, Phase 3 is likely to have at least twice as many. The potential for overload is hard to ignore.

I am currently unsure of what to expect going forward. Based on season 1 of Daredevil and Phase 3's Jessica Jones, I think that the Netflix shows may be where the real future lies for the MCU to remain lively and relevant. Even the very best movies and network TV shows, like The Winter Soldier and season 2 of Agents of SHIELD, have never completely broken out of the standard superhero story formula. The Netflix shows, however, have been given the freedom to delve into alternative film styles such as noir. With no ratings restrictions and over 11 hours to work with, the 13-episode Netflix season allows for far deeper exploration of more complex motives, characters, and plots. Daredevil and Jessica Jones, as much as I liked them, have just scratched the surface.

My greatest fear is that the MCU may lose the ability to tell creative, fun, self-contained stories in its movies. I cannot imagine how confusing much of Age of Ultron must have been to someone who had not seen several of the preceding MCU movies, so reliant was it on those earlier films for its backstory details. When I see the trailers for the upcoming Captain America: Civil War, with its dozen-plus superhero cast, I fear that any chance of character depth is going to be left in the dust. It is almost at the point where Marvel should cease calling the movies Thor or Captain America, but instead simply number them MCU 14, MCU 15, etc., with a subtitle indicating which character is supposed to be the "primary" one among the dozen-plus superguys and gals who will be in each movie.

Should my biggest concern be realized, I will have to wonder if the MCU will ever have a period when it puts out strong and relatively stand-alone movies such as the best ones in Phase 2. More and more, I doubt it. On top of this, I already detect a dropoff in the quality of the network TV shows. While Agents of SHIELD has actually gotten stronger, the second season of Agent Carter was rather disappointing. Recent news also indicates that an upcoming series has been greenlit for Bobby Morse and Hunter from SHIELD, two of my least favorite characters. I'll give these series an honest shot in the future, but my hopes are not high.

I still assume that a Phase 4 and others will be coming, as the franchise is still raking in obscene amounts of money. However, I feel that the only way the MCU can continue creating strong movies is for them to go through a contraction of sorts, whereby most of the superpowered characters are killed off, allowing a restart of sorts. While the mad Titan Thanos could certainly be a part of something like that, I doubt such an extinction event will happen. This means that the stories and character list will become diluted and convoluted. If this does happen, then I think we fans of the MCU will look back very fondly on Phase 2 as the strongest era in the entire series. I hope Kevin Feige and the other heads of the MCU can prove me wrong.