With Marvel having laid the groundwork for their cinematic universe, they were now free to branch out and go bigger. As if they hadn’t already. So what comes next? More importantly, what becomes of these characters in the wake of The Avengers? Such is the question that Marvel had to answer moving forward. While it’s tough to not root for another superhero mash-up, Marvel reminds us that these characters are individuals with their own stories to tell. This is Phase Two.
Iron Man 3Aside from a few minor references, IM3 stands completely apart from the MCU. It dismisses the larger world that Tony has found himself in and throws him back in his cave – an emotionally rewarding arc for Tony, but also the most frustrating from a logical standpoint. While discussing the Mandarin’s attacks, Rhodie says to Stark, “This isn’t superhero business, its American business.” Is there a difference? Since the plot raises the stakes against Iron Man, doesn’t that make it superhero business anyway? And if it is American business, shouldn’t Captain America be involved? The film desperately wants move on. But being that it’s the first film after Avengers, it’s obligated to tie up loose ends. Throughout the film, Harley badgers Tony about the wormhole, which stirs his anxiety, and understandably so. At the same time, we can’t help but echo Harley’s sentiment.
Director Shane Black manages expectations as best as he can. He knows that to address such questions will only hinder the narrative, so he sidesteps this by re-engaging us into Tony’s lovable narcissism and wit. Here is where Black’s many strokes as a storyteller begin to shine. But he asks a lot of us as viewers along the way. He asks us not to fixate on the fact that Tony uses a prototype for a majority of the film when he has 41 perfectly capable suits in his garage. He asks us to lower our expectations for a villain who’s massively important in the comics. Above all, when Jarvis takes Tony on an impromptu trip to Tennessee, he asks us to just go along for the ride. It’s hard not to. Black’s handle on dialogue is infectious (“Honestly, I hate working here. They are so weird”) and his ability to stage action is exhilarating. I never know which sequence I like better: the escape from the Mandarin’s compound, or the shipyard finale. Either way, Black provides us with plenty of reasons to sit back and relax, even if it means ignoring our questions.
Thor: The Dark WorldThor, out of anyone, went through the most in Avengers. He watched his brother go from villain to arch-nemesis. So the residing question isn’t so much of what becomes of Thor, but of Loki, who has no remorse for his actions. His punishment, then, is a fortunate one because the film doesn’t quite know what to do with its most complex character. The pressure diverts to Thor, and Hemsworth does a solid job of carrying the film. It’s just a shame that he’s burdened with a dull story: The Dark Elves seek vengeance upon Asgard for ruining their grand plan to turn the universe into darkness. Odin’s father then took their instrument of destruction and hid it somewhere it could never be found. Cut to Jane, on Earth, who coincidentally stumbles upon the Aether in the middle of all this talk of Convergence. And the story only takes more shortcuts from there.
I don’t have an issue with the plot so much as I do with the so-called “villain.” If Iron Man 3 suffered from a complicated villain, then The Dark World suffers from a one-dimensional villain. Malekith, as terrifying as he looks, doesn’t have a particularly terrifying motive. He says he wants to avenge his people, yet we recall that at the beginning of the film he had no problem sacrificing his comrades for his escape. Something is clearly amiss when a villain stuck in a dungeon is far more menacing than the one attacking Asgard. That, fortunately, is the film’s saving grace. When the script brings Thor and Loki back together, it feels like the film we came to see. Their bickering in a spaceship is comedy gold, and proves that Thor has more chemistry with Loki than he does with Jane. But whatever problems the film has in its first half, it shares none of them in its second half, when the humor keeps coming in spades. Thor hanging up Mjolnir on a coat rack gets me every time, and I always lose my shit whenever Darcy tries to pronounce “Mjolnir.” The film composes itself just in time for the finale. Rather than topping The Avengers, it goes the other way, or rather, a multitude of ways. The film fuses its unabashed charm with sprawling action and keeps us on our toes as the planet-converging plot finally comes to fruition. The Dark World may have been a slight misstep. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it.
Captain America: The Winter SoldierWinter Soldier was remarkable for a number of reasons. First, it delivered a stunning action picture worthy of its shining protagonist. Second, for shaking up the entire MCU by dismantling SHIELD – a bold move leading up to Age of Ultron. In fact, Winter Soldier made more strides in that direction than any other film in Phase Two. That being said, there’s plenty to admire here. You would never have known that this was the Russo brothers’ first action movie. They direct the hell out of a thrilling car chase sequence, and then transition to a claustrophobic elevator beatdown. The highway skirmish remains my favorite set-piece, serving as the perfect vehicle for the Winter Soldier’s ferocity. He’s truly an intimidating foe, one who represents the inversion of Cap’s ideals. Cap needs a moral compass in order to navigate a world full of gray areas. Otherwise, he would be a highly efficient assassin for the government. It’s an unsettling subtext because it questions what we’re willing to compromise in the name of national security. Points go to Hydra for deconstructing this illusion of safety. But, to be fair, their plan in the end doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. They’ve created an algorithm that locates all the brilliant people in the world, and Hydra’s objective is to then kill them via Helicarriers. Sounds much too simple for an organization that spent years infiltrating SHIELD, which is a far more malevolent scheme than shooting people from the sky. Nevertheless, such stakes provide the film with the kind of over-the-top spectacle that we’ve come to expect out of a Marvel finale. So while Winter Soldier may give in to convention towards the end, the film as a whole upsets any notion of complacency in the Marvel universe. Civil War can’t get here fast enough.
Guardians of the GalaxyWhat can I say about this film that hasn’t already been said. It is the best Marvel movie by far, and far more entertaining than Avengers because it isn’t dwarfed by massive set-pieces. Guardians is certainly bigger in scale, but director James Gunn keeps things grounded on a personal level. Because these characters aren’t superheroes; they’re misfits. And they’ve got plenty of charm to spare. Everyone gets their moment, whether it be a hilarious one-liner or an emotional beat. What’s truly impressive here is that they often have very little to say (Groot, for example), and yet they reel you in all the same. They had me laughing and crying, sometimes in the same scene. Like the film’s climax, where Chris Pratt literally goes from a dance-off to a heartfelt reconciliation with his mother, whereas in the beginning of the film we found him crying on his mother’s deathbed, then dancing his heart out. How these polar opposites exist in the same space is beyond me, but Gunn pulls it off in a rip-roaring fashion. Guardians is a gem of a Marvel movie and, hands down, my favorite. No pressure, Age of Ultron.