Kat's Reading List, Marvel Cinematic Universe, Movies, Stories, Writing

Marvel Cinematic Universe: Phase Two

One of the things that I love about the MCU movies is that one could take the entire series and use it as a course in storytelling. Even though the basis of all the movies is superheroes, there are still multiple other sub-genres represented: war movies, spies and espionage, fantasy and mythology, heists, and, I would argue, the Iron Man movies are your basic modern action movies with some interesting character development thrown in. There are also quite a wide variety of characters and relationships, which evolve within individual movies but also throughout the entire series: romantic relationships, friendships, parent/child relationships, relationships towards authority. And many, though not necessarily all, of the movies pose very important and interesting philosophical and moral questions for our times. Many of the heroes are seriously flawed but rise above those flaws to show true virtue. And a few even manage to show us the true heroic ideal of selfless humility and sacrifice (I’m looking at you, Peter Parker).

The movies are diverse enough to give a student of storytelling a broad body of knowledge to work with and learn from. Because they all share the same internal rules for how the universe works and the same external vision of Marvel Studios, comparisons can also be made between what did and didn’t work in the different movies. The sub-genres add diversity to the storytelling styles and techniques but the overarching umbrella of Marvel Studios still allows a certain level of expectations and standards to be set, because even if the movies have different writers and directors they are all still answerable to the studio and the overall vision of the series. For example, the series as a whole seems to value character-driven plots and yet some of the character relationships end up just falling flat due to lack of development. A few of the villains in particular end up just coming across as cardboard cutouts (*cough*Malekith*cough*), and yet it would be unfair to make such judgements and comparisons with movies in the standard Action genre where interesting, multi-layered villains are usually the exception and not the rule. So the MCU gives us diversity in storytelling but also a baseline on which to make comparisons as to what one movie-maker did well and what another did poorly, allowing us to learn from those victories and failures.

Anyway, I finally managed to get through my viewings of Phase Two and you can read my thoughts on each movie below. If you missed my first post on Phase One, you can read it here.

Iron Man 3

I’m generally pretty torn about my feelings towards this third Iron Man installment. I think it’s an important example of Tony Stark’s character development; showing his PTSD after the events of the first Avengers movie also makes it clear that there are actually consequences to some of these catastrophic events that take place. Tony’s relationships to other people is a driving factor for his character, and that is really exemplified in this movie, particularly in regards to Pepper and Happy. His need to protect and safeguard others comes into play in later movies with his mentorship of Peter Parker but is already shown very clearly in this one, especially with the young boy who ends up as his temporary sidekick. And his deep sense of loyalty and devotion to those few people whom he trusts also sets us up for his personal struggle over the falling out he has with Steve.

My few complaints about this movie mostly has to do with the rather dues ex machina feeling of the ending. Also, this is the only Iron Man movie where Tony’s father, Howard Stark, is never even mentioned. Yes, it’s probably best that they didn’t try to play up Tony’s daddy issues yet again, but Howard is still an important figure in the Marvel universe (co-founder of S.H.E.I.L.D. and all that) and was such a prominent feature of the previous movies that it seems strange that he would never bear a mention in this one. This third installment is great for advancing Tony’s overall character, but doesn’t do a whole lot for advancing the overall series.

Thor: Dark World

Once again, the Thor movies are not really the best among the Marvel cadre. I enjoy Dark World slightly more than the first Thor movie, but it also has some notable weaknesses. The most painful part of this movie is the one-dimensional character of the villain, Malekith. We are given little-to-no motivation for why he is doing what he is doing beyond just general evil and disgruntlement. As I was saying above, this kind of flaw might be overlooked normally in such a movie but when you compare it with the excellently written villains in some of the other Marvel movies it becomes a bit more obvious. Even Ronan in the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie somehow had more depth and believability, though he comes across as a very similar character.

However, there are enough high points in Dark World that I can still enjoy watching it. Again, the characters of Darcy, Erik, and Jane really hold everything together and steal the show. We are also given a bit more insight into some of the Asgardian characters, such as Loki and Frigga’s relationship, Sif’s attachment to Thor, and the continued poor parenting of Odin. The dynamic between Thor and Loki is allowed a bit more levity, with Hemsworth being allowed to use his comedic abilities a bit more, and it’s truly their relationship that anchors the Thor movies at all.

Captain America: Winter Soldier

Even apart from it’s stellar status as a Marvel installment, Winter Soldier is just a solid movie in general. Spies and espionage, intrigue and plot twists, dynamic characters that you are never quite sure if you should trust or not. Because of my dad, I watched a lot of movies like this while I was growing up; various James Bond, Bourne Identity, Mission: Impossible, etc. I’ve seen some really great and some horrible movies in this genre, and Winter Soldier can definitely stand up to the best ones.

The relationship between Steve and Natasha is, in my opinion, one of the best in the entire MCU, and a great example of a non-romantic male/female relationship. Yes, they flirt (or rather, Natasha does), but there is never any serious sexual tension. A soldier and a spy, it’s all about them learning whether they can truly trust and rely on each other. Natasha is one of the few characters that spans multiple movies (Iron Man 2, Avengers, and the Captain America series), but Winter Soldier is the best look at her motivations and drive as a character. Then, throw in the character of Sam Wilson, who is probably one of the purest, loyalist souls in the whole of the MCU. So, not only is Winter Solider solid in its script, it also has a great ensemble of characters. A+

Guardians of the Galaxy

Another solid installment in the MCU, Guardians of the Galaxy is probably the best for a standalone movie; you don’t really need to have seen any of the others and you don’t really need to watch any afterward. Also, Chris Pratt is just a gift to the world in all that he does. There are few actors who can pull off that level of verbal comedy and dance skills, and yet still devastate your heart just by staring straight ahead and not-quite-crying. Zoe Saldana is a queen of modern Sci Fi movies, and absolutely kills it as Gamora. I could actually go on for a while in praise of all the actors in this movie, but suffice it to say that the entire cast is phenomenal.

Guardians is also an important installment in the MCU, because it effectively expanded the universe beyond just earth. Yes, we get exposed to Asgard and other worlds in the Thor movies, but do we really care about those other worlds? Asgard, Jotenheim, and wherever the Dark Elves came from, those places mostly just feel like plot devices for stories that still primarily take place on Earth. But in Guardians, we are fully pulled out into the rest of the galaxy, engaged by the different races and planets and shown the potential of all that we don’t know yet. This awareness will be expanded, in a different way, when we get to Doctor Strange. Of course, Guardians is also important because it gives us our first explanation of the Infinity Stones, though we have seen several of them already in the other movies, and we also get introduced to Thanos. So, even though Guardians of the Galaxy can stand on it’s own, it also does a lot to set up the end-game of the entire series.

Avengers: Age of Ultron

I don’t have any serious criticisms of Age of Ultron, but I’m also somewhat indifferent to it at times, I have to admit. It has some really wonderful elements, but it can all seem a little too forced at times. As much as I adore Joss Whedon as a writer and director, I think that the big studio atmosphere really started to smother him a bit with this one. Things got too ambitious with the plot and some of the character development, and there just wasn’t space or time to fully explain or resolve everything properly. I still have issues with the “romance” between Bruce Banner and Black Widow; whether it was poor writing or just lack of chemistry between the actors, I don’t know. But that whole device just irritates me fore some reason. It strikes me as unnecessary to the plot and just weakens the characters, if anything.

But Ultron is not a bad movie, it’s not even a bad MCU movie. The introduction of Scarlett Witch, Quicksilver, and Vision is important, and they are also some of my favorite characters overall. The best character development that we get in Ultron is that of Hawkeye, in my opinion. He is briefly introduced to us in the first Thor movie, but then we only get to see him again in the Avengers. And in the first Avengers, he spends the majority of the time as a brain-washed puppet for Loki. But he really gets to shine in Ultron, giving us some grounding in this fantastic universe of superpowers, aliens, and ‘gods’ where he is just a regular guy with a bow and arrow.

Ant-Man

I love a good heist movie, and I love most things that involve Paul Rudd, so Ant-Man is naturally one of my favorites in the series. It’s also a great movie to use as an introduction for people who aren’t quite sure about the whole superhero thing in the first place. It has a great plot, great characters, and Paul Rudd as Scott Lang is seriously just the best (I live for the day when we get to see him and Chris Pratt as Peter Quill interact on-screen). I really enjoy the father-daughter theme of the movie as well, with the contrasting relationships of Scott and his daughter and then Pym and his daughter, Hope. I also appreciate the relationship that they show between Scott and his ex-wife, Maggie, and her new fiance, where they are all focused on what is best for Scott and Maggie’s young daughter.

Ant-Man benefits a lot from the smaller scale of its plot, with a clear objective and focus and no other-worldly themes that need to be introduced and explained. Even the science behind the Ant-Man suit, which allows its wearer to shrink to a minuscule size, is given just the minimal explanation to allow the story to advance. And just like the grounding that Hawkeye gives us in Age of Ultron, it’s somewhat refreshing to watch a superhero movie where no one actually has superpowers, it’s all just human science.

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