Marvel: Phase Two – Look to the Stars

Avengers Age of Ultron and the end of Marvel Phase 2

Jokerside’s second major look at the Marvel Cinematic Universe as it nears the end of Phase Two. Spoilers abound like Ultron drones – if you’re not up to speed with events on the small and large screens as of May 2015 then Code Green.

MARVEL’S PHASE TWO HAS REACHED ITS PEAK. IT’S NOT OVER, THE CURIOUS ANT MAN HAS THE HONOUR OF CLOSING THE PHASE LATER THIS YEAR. BUT THAT FILM WOULD HAVE TO PREPOSTEROUSLY EXCEED ITS DIMINUTIVE NAME TO REACH THE HEIGHTS OF GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY OR THE SECOND AVENGERS FILM. So let’s call Age of Ultron the peak – the one film that would not only buck the trend but also set off some mild warning bells should it fail to top the box office list this year. Sitting atop a phase that’s destin­ed to rake in considerably more than $4 billion, it’s clear that the Avengers fuelled Marvel machine is marching on, although not on the same tank tracks it used to.

All Change

What was extraordinary about Phase One was the dominance of military strength

At the half-way point of Phase Two, Jokerside took a sly glimpse at the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) at what was a significant turning point. Starting with the imperious Iron Man 3 (and only dropping slightly with a follow-up trip to Asgard) the newly imbued and properly Disneyfied Phase Two did exactly what it should: raise the game in every film and on every level. The MCU was expanding and consolidating with barely a glance back at the narrower scope of its 2008 beginnings. What was extraordinary about Phase One was the dominance of military strength, starting with Tony Stark’s life-changing trials in Afghanistan and culminating in the full reveal of SHIELD’s far-reaching machine. That build up overwhelmed the unfortunate Iron Man 2, but by the time the Avengers initiative had reached its fruition at the end of Phase One there was little doubt that we were watching the SHIELD show.

So it was only natural that SHIELD would spin off into an actual television show, and presumably why, in-spite of that small screen expansion, Phase Two set about ripping SHIELD up. With Stark going solo at the start of Phase Two, it was up to Captain America’s fight against the Winter Soldier to prove how much Phase One’s build-up could be forgotten. It was the right film for it, splintering SHIELD under the shield of a man who was never an easy fit into that organisation. That film proved monumental for the MCU, setting the agenda for the future of Marvel properties on the big and small screens.

Missing Mutants

Mutation was packed off to Fox

Beyond SHIELD’s fate, there was a giant mutant elephant standing in Stark Tower. A year ago Jokerside explored the clear agenda that Winter Soldier’s post-title sequence set out:

“The Winter Soldier’s biggest contribution may not be the dissolution of SHIELD but its clear design on the 21st century. Here was its own Iron Man 2 moment – after all, which Marvel film can risk standing still? In a scene a little too tell not show, the real pattern for future films was laid down. It’s a hook with a nicely sinister overtone, whether HYDRA succeeded or not (they couldn’t have wiped out all the potential…). Von Strucker’s closing cameo shows that the next century had been unlocked by their prophecy of potential. It was almost distracting to hear Stephen Strange get a mention, not that Cap blinked at it. If Strange already exists, he may well not be ‘active’ (met the Ancient One…) and yet still destined to become the Sorcerer Supreme. Similarly the twins look to dodge the mutant bullet. There are potentially no mutants in this Marvel universes, simply accelerated or expected ‘twists’ of potential.”

Marvel: Phase Two – One of our Tanks is Missing

Mutation had been packed off with the X-Men to Fox, with the two legendary Mutant members of the Avengers now a product of experimentation. And that meant the phase that properly launched into the universe (after Thor’s tentative first steps ) also had to take long hard looks at the human condition. Just two films later, Avengers: Age of Ultron would complete the set by destroying Hydra and unlocking two famous twins.

“For external reasons, it was important to get the Scarlet Witch and her speedy brother in before Fox’s Marvel X-Films latched onto Quicksilver. Whether mutant or brought to ‘potential’, the final shot makes it clear that little in the Marvel universe will change. That closing, chilling sight of a deranged Scarlet Witch left no doubt that the story is heading every bit the way the comics did prior to House of M, mutants or no. And I can’t see Marvel be happy running without mutants.

Matrix-style thread of choice and destiny now runs through the MCU like a candle wick and it’s welcome. Iron Man showed that you don’t always need to call on The Avengers, Thor opened up the galaxy further while Captain America left all bets either very wide open or unbelievably constrained. The Marvel cinematic universe is built on risk and long may that continue…”

– Marvel: Phase Two – One of our Tanks is Missing

This was a major change and necessitated some sleight of hand. While Fox, cinematic rights owners of the X-Men (alongside the non-mutant Fantastic Four), could run with the civil rights analogy of Homo-Superior, Marvel replaced SHIELD with destiny and powered potential, real or forced. It’s a fascinating canvas to lay the rest of the Universe against, especially as all parts, terrestrial and beyond, are closing their orbit on the Infinity Gauntlets that will form the MacGuffin of the next two Avengers films. And it just about gets around that mutant issue.

The MCU promptly took a holiday in space with Guardians of the Galaxy, not just the greatest risk property this phase but a large step forward in the brewing Infinity plot that had started off as a glint in Phase One. It wasn’t unexpected, but it was somewhat cautiously, that SHIELD’s future fell to the erstwhile Agents of SHIELD on ABC. Cinema watchers may have assumed SHIELD and indeed HYDRA were banished in a blink, with little impact on their film watching. But the small screen showed that things were far more complicated – apparently to the scratching of studio execs’ heads.

What was unexpected is that show had time to look to the stars as well.

Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD

Arrival of the Suits 

Not a concept that easily captures the imagination like the Avengers

Reaching the climax of the second series, just as the sequel to the Avengers movie that spawned it reaches cinema, Agents of SHIELD had to mature quickly. The SHIELD organisation was quite possibly the loosest and most challenging part of lore to bring meaningfully into the MCU. Not to mention build it around. SHIELD was a staple in Marvel comics, but for all the characters it pushed to the fore – from Fury to Black Widow, Mockingbird to Agent 33 – it’s not a concept that easily captures the imagination like the Avengers themselves. In the wrong hands, what else are SHIELD but an army of suits? Often that’s how the MCU portrays them, at their best and worst.

For that reason and the reaching need for mythology it came to represent, SHIELD has been the weakest part of the MCU to date. Iron Man 2 remains the biggest disappointment as it bore the brunt. Thor handled things better, while The Avengers allowed them to free the big guns to the point that the middle of Phase Two could represent them as the sprawling, ridiculous, overblown and hierarchically mistrustful agency they really were.

It may not sound the ideal hook for a television series, but buoyed by the popular and growing support for Clerk Gregg’s Agent Coulson it was enough for NBC to pick-up a series. Coulson would headline of course, despite his demise in The Avengers. And that’s where things get wonderfully complicated.

Difficult Beginnings

Responding diligently to major changes on the big screen

When Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD debuted in fall 2013, it seemed to confirm that Coulson should have stayed in ‘Haiti’. It was a tricky, slow start – riddled with expectation it couldn’t fail to disappoint slavering fans. And it mixed small screen down-sizing with an irritatingly manufactured team that grasped at a duller inclusivity than even Star Trek: Voyager. Even worse, it forced smart dialogue on the crew’s larynxes in a cruel parody of previous Whedon shows. It was all a little bit self-serving and a shift down from the high stakes dramatics of the MCU. Which is saying something considering how downbeat and corporate some of Phase One was. That may not have been a surprise, but it wasn’t attractive.

It was certainly well made mind you, slotting monster of the week episodes intelligently into the universe while responding diligently to major changes on the big screen. Even Lady Sif’s appearance in that first season was dulled by the fact the show’s Thor: The Dark World tie-in saw those SHIELD scamps effectively tidying up Greenwich. Building to the end of its first series Winter Soldier’s events unravelled in real-time, and we were promised the same response and respond agenda. But suddenly, in the midst of that quick unravelling plot, everything changed. Or rather: Bill Paxton arrived. Boom. Buoyed by sterling performances and setting a bar for desperation heaped on desperation, Agents found its own feet and set its own agenda; fleshing out the devastating consequences of events on film. Astonishingly the season finale actually made Winter Soldier a better film. Even more astonishingly, Agents new template established it as one of the twistiest shows on television. A remarkable turn-around in one series.

Take Two

Wringing twists from nothing

But it left the show in another rather unfair situation. Those events either destroyed Agents’ concept or proved that first year to be a cynical ruse. And that was for those who’d stuck with it. That slow and laboured start ensured that Agents would never reach the kinds of numbers it should. And it really should. But that’s a tricky argument when even season openings don’t signal great jumping on point.

Which is a shame. Freed of the SHIELD trappings of the previous MCU films, Agents’ second season was even better. Wringing twists from nothing, it remained a show happy to leave its cast beaten, wrecked and destroyed. Amid the Hydra war there was time for the Real SHIELD to emerge in opposition to Coulson’s micro team and for each of the rapidly shuffling iterations to combust and pull apart at the seams. But the real back-bone of that series tied far more into Guardians of the Galaxy.

To the Stars

Inhumans are yet to take their turn on the big screen.

Coulson’s resurrection and Sky’s background were major mysteries in the first season, but came into their own in the second. And had the same Kree cause. Lee Pace’s Ronan the Accuser cut a highly impressive figure in Guardians of the Galaxy. Rising above the mildly awkward comedy of the denouement his dark and threatening villain is probably the best the MCU has offered up so far (the jury’s only just returning on Ultron). In Agents, aside from the Kree corpse that saved both Coulson and Sky’s life – the Kree seeding of Homo sapiens inhumanus propels the show’s narrative. A large part of the Marvel Universe, the Inhumans are yet to take their turn on the big screen. Although a film has been announced, Agents have a few years free reign to explore that mythos – all as long as they steer clear of the big name Inhumans on the moon it appears.

Skye’s mother is the protagonist, Kyle MacLachlan in a feat of incredible casting (he’s surprisingly brilliant) is her father is Marvel villain Mr Hyde. And that of course, after two years, makes Skye the comic SHIELD Agent Quake. Inhuman links were sent back into characters’ stories, well the ones who didn’t have a HYDRA secret to bolster them. Coulson himself had always sat precariously between bureau-suit, one-liners and unflappable team management, especially when he took over as Director of SHIELD. In Season Two he still seemed a long stretch from capable female agents shown by Mae, Hill and Romanoff and Morse, but was a better fit in an expanded cast of characters. And tangibly dangerous to boot.

Skye’s journey, a mystery maintained for the majority of two seasons, turned out to be quite affecting – leading through familial and genealogical terms to a blistering season finale. By the end, this gang of Inhumans and their dastardly plot may have been vanquished and the opposing SHIELD forces brought back together, but it there was another compelling reason behind its success. Agents no longer rode in the wake of the films. Some tight plotting saw Agents fill in before, during and after Age of Ultron. Real SHIELD and Coulson’s SHIELD combined when Coulson disclosed that Fury was alive and his trips around the globe were revealed to be a cover for Theta Protocol: the fully functioning helicarrier that Fury magicked up in Age of Ultron. Fury didn’t return the favour by telling the Avengers that Coulson lived – although his language is ambiguous – but in the scheme of that film, why would he?

More impressively, in the end-game that saw a daring in rescue of Deathlock and an Inhuman from a HYDRA base, with Coulson teaming up with the errant Agent Grant Ward under the auspices of REAL SHIELD, Phil even managed to steal the location of Strucker’s East European base and pass it on to Maria Hill at Avengers Tower. Yes, for once the events of Age of Ultron couldn’t have taken place without Colson – that film’s beginning attack nor its end rescue. So while Agents may have gorged itself on the destruction of SHIELD it also helped secure the final battle against HYDRA.

Jokerside’s glimpse at Disney’s acquisition strategy took some glee in Phase Two’s nod to Star Wars. To reinforce Agents renewed place in the MCU, Agent Coulson joins the ranks of characters who’ve lost their arms this phase.

It may have been a long journey, but could it actually be the twistiest and most exciting show on television? Next Step for these Agents is Phase Three.

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Straight into the action

It’s real comic book stuff

Age of Ultron well and truly kicks off on Earth, right in the middle of a high-end assault on HYDRA possible thanks to Coulson’s coordinates. It’s real comic book stuff, the perfect opening gambit that easily exceeds the first film’s SHIELD break-out. The heroes may not fall completely at this hurdle, but the arrival of the mysterious twins certainly leaves the victors on the back foot.

Sadly, this opening proves a waste of Thomas Kretschmann’s Von Strucker after his menacing tease at the close of Winter Soldier. Henry Goodman’s Dr List had a longer shot at peddling his brand of horror experimentation in Agents of SHIELD, while Strucker’s deputy Simon Whitehall saw a fair amount of arc. But here, and for all the earlier talk that HYDRA was now irrelevant, von Strucker’s cameo is strangely comedic and rather pathetic. Dispatching a notable villain so quickly was unexpected… But how far can you take a rip-off Red Skull when you have a villain like Ultron waiting around the corner?

No Strings

This is more Shakespearean tragedy than Pinocchio

Ultron was an inspired foe. Taking linguistic and personality cues from his creator, Stark suddenly had a rival in the humour stakes. Especially with the masterstroke of casting James Spader. Even Stark’s ‘grandson’ the Vision pushes Iron Man further out the picture. What’s incredible is that this was a once only chance for the MCU to have a villain who could flash so brightly before burning out. Such rapid propulsion of a villain from literal birth to patricide is rare and adds the rarest of literary threads to the story. This is more Shakespearean tragedy than Pinocchio, although that meta-Disney joke worked wonderfully. And while Ultron and Stark brings Hamlet, newcomer Scarlet Witch brings Macbeth. Seeping into each other through Stark’s fuelled premonition and the ill-defined abilities of the Scarlet Witch, we’re clearly in a stranger world than ever.

That makes for a tone markedly different to the first Avengers film. The fantasy, or unreality, falls on what is clearly the zenith of Battle of New York trauma. Far less the obvious ticking time-bomb we saw in the last film, Whedon masterfully shows that the fault lines run deeper than ever. And things move quick, Quicksilver quick, too quick, without SHIELD regulation.

Slings and Arrows

More fulfilling than the first film

It’s quite an extraordinary film. More fulfilling than the first it’s actually difficult to compare their respective success in bringing this disparate and growing team to the screen. The end may fall prey to the standard city fight, but it tries to up the stakes at every level. These aren’t the residents of a collapsing New York running for their lives, but a city-worth of potential collateral damage. It leaves the state of the MCU changed but only partially. It’s all a little disconcertingly flat. Even the Hulk takes more of a holiday than a trip to the long-mooted World War Hulk. That would work as the film makes it clear this is the first canonical Hulk rampage on camera.

Age of Ultron a film that immediately makes you pick it to bits, only to find the internal logic sound. There isn’t time to dwell while it whizzes past, but astonishingly even Stark’s motivation, no matter how fleeting or partially encouraged by Scarlet Witch, hangs together. There is and will always be the benchmark of Stark’s outstanding “We’re mad scientists” speech. The prolonged team talks that punctuate everything, the Witch’s one on ones, Stark quickly making Banner a tacit accomplice, Thor’s short mystical trip all add to the Shakespearean narrative.

The Undiscovered Country

Layers of red herrings

And of course, the shadow of death hangs over it all, leading to some extraordinarily prolonged misdirection. Layers of red herring falling from the sky. In particular Hawkeye, a notoriously stroppy, temperamental and unlucky character in the comics just shouldn’t have that dream-like second life. Or rather, he shouldn’t have been able to get back to it. It can’t just have been a response to Renner’s gripes over his script in the first film… Still, his story’s not over yet and if the MCU was built for anything it’s having your cake and eating it. If you’re a fan of the Avenger’s archer than perhaps you should steer clear of Mark Millar’s The Ultimates. The real cost comes at the expense of a new addition. But Quicksilver’s demise is not only a fine way to get out of that rights squabble with Fox, but also means Wanda won’t have to suffer any difficult sibling chats regarding her future suitors.

Noble of the Mind

Age of Ultron may prove the difficult epic of the MCU.

Necessarily, Age of Ultron is not as twisty as Agents of SHIELD. It’s tricky to make out whether these two strands of the universe alters expectations of both. Such clashes are concerns apparently shared by execs. Certainly the MCU is a far more finely honed melting pot than it was this time last phase.

Aside from that, Whedon had a tough job as has been clearly recorded. But he’s managed to create something spectacular. That’s no mean feat with a fast growing roster of superheroes. There was always going to be a tipping point before a cull started, and with cameos abounding the film’s balance owes much to the consistent track record of a man who crafted his trade on ensemble television.

As Whedon’s swansong to directing the team-up films, Age of Ultron may prove the difficult epic of the MCU. It makes a suitable jumping off point before the two-part Infinity Gauntlet starts production next year but we should all hope that he’ll stay in the mix to ensure that zing and banter stays in the scripts.

What’s surprising by the end is not the draft of New Avengers nor the New Avenger facility they now inhabit in Upstate New York (amazingly Norwich in reality)… But the easy relationship hanging between the team-mates. Since Jokerside’s opening box office review Age of Ultron has stormed to a dominant position, but one slightly behind its predecessor. Could it be the fact that Hulk doesn’t speak? That Loki’s MIA. It seems that Ant Man’s imminent double-bill with Age of Ultron will prove crucial. As Thanos’ mitts lands on the Infinity Gauntlet there’s a changing of the guard.

Next stop: Civil War.

Coming up on Jokerside: So what went so wrong with the Amazing Spiderman?

4 replies »

  1. Thanks for the comprehensive glosses! Our Little Ones (ve faaaamly) have resulted in the last film we saw at the cinema being Avengers Assemble… and I managed to miss everything after Episode V of Agents of Shield S2, I think the one where Agent Cooper Sky’s dad chins the security goon with the MacGuffin-containing case. Srsly, I mean, I only just saw Thor Dark World… basically, buggerloads to catch up on…

  2. Plural ones – how wonderful! I’d prioritise getting Agents of SHIELD all caught up before Twin Peaks revs back up – may save many a headache.

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