Tag: Captain America

Marvel: The Best of the MCU – Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Marvel Cinematic Universe The Winter Soldier

As Avengers Endgame arrives to close to 11 years of Marvel storytelling (even if it isn’t quite closing off the MCU’s Phase 3), we take a look at the film that remains a benchmark for the MCU.

“Call in the asset”

THE MARVEL UNIVERSE HAS A HEALTHY FUTURE AHEAD OF IT ON THE BIG AND SMALL SCREEN SCREEN.  BUT ENDGAME, NOT LEAST IN NAME, PROMISES TO COMPLETE THE CYCLE THAT BEGAN IN 2008. It’s strange too look back to the stuttering beginnings of what was then the Disney-free Marvel Studios, long before they could command three theatre releases a year. It wasn’t too ago.  That the MCU arrived from nowhere with what appeared to be a difficult hand and a surprisingly cautious opening act.

Marvel just about had a grip on the big screen Incredible Hulk (then unaware, like the rest of us that Big, Green and on the Big Screen struggled in isolation), but no other key players with that level of popular fame. Its first family, the Fantastic Four along with key rogue Dr Doom, were parked over at the Fox lot along with the consistent victors of comic book sales at the time, the X-Men. Professor X’s gang had been making a dent at the box office since 1999, even if they fell short in their third outing. Superhero poster-boy Spiderman was ripping up receipts over at Sony, even if, again, the third instalment of Sam Raimi’s trilogy had demonstrated the dangers of overloading comic book adaptations.

But like Tony Stark trapped in a desert, Marvel improvised. And like Tony Stark, they nailed it. The properties that followed Iron Man into the MCU didn’t have a given right to sequels, but the phenomenal performance of that first film in 2008 had Captain America and Thor following within three years and Joss Whedon masterfully forging a team, with a little help from Nick Fury, within four.

Building to success

Until The Avengers, Phase 1 wasn’t commanding the outstanding box office the MCU enjoys today. Excluding that billion-breaking team up, it averaged a $458m worldwide haul compared to the $885m average pulled in by the first five films of Phase 3. In short, Marvel built something from very little, with the confidence and determination to create a shared universe which reflected the interlinked comic book life of a superhero in a way no studio had attempted before. What they had and what they wanted to do with them required more risk.

The very different Phase 2 showed how that risk was a crucial component of Marvel’s strategy. Phase plans required new properties to join existing properties, through shared characters and standalone debuts, which hopefully meant creating household names from the broadly unknown. Even though Thor had opened up the Rainbow Bridge, the space opera shenanigans of Guardians of the Galaxy were a gambit. Most importantly, Marvel Studios was quickly snapped up by Hollywood giant Disney. That turned the issues and risks that accompanied the formation of the studio five or so years before on their head, as if Thanos had snapped his fingers.

Challenging diminishing returns

Moving away from their proven origins, Captain America, Thor and Iron Man (even if his second film proved a mythically overladen early warning shot) carried different pressures into their sequels. New properties would now be built on their shoulders as Studio’s eyes were set on universe building. Released second in the phase, Alan Taylor’s Thor: The Dark World immediately stumbled by choosing a darker and underwhelming direction, but Iron Man 3 was a divisive triumph in the hands of Shane Black. It was the first Marvel standalone film to break the billion barrier on the back of Avengers, even if it was their most divisive film to date. It wasn’t surprising that the stable centrepoint of the MCU, Captain Steve Rogers, managed to combine risk, arc-propulsion, and a visible confidence in his new Disney-stable in a way that defined what the MCU could and would be.

For what it achieved and the legacy it set, Captain America: The Winter Soldier (TWS) hasn’t been beaten yet. It influenced the whole universe on and off screen and here’s why The Winter Soldier remains the MCU’s best…

Marvel Cinematic Universe Captain AmericaCaptain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Genre

“Grandad loved people but he didn’t trust them very much”

Much of Marvel’s success comes from internal checks and balances that limited repetition and guaranteed a certain distinction. For all the criticism that the early phases pitched like-for-like villains against heroes, that was a problem inherited from the page. While not taking it to an experimental extreme, a masterstroke was ensuring that each film tapped on the window of a different genre, ensuring an undulating texture throughout the MCU, even if directors were appointed for their cooperation with universe building as much as a singular vision.

At the end of Phase 2, Ant Man lent on the heist genre. In Phase 3, Doctor Strange would bring horror to the Marvel-mix. The First Avenger had been a period piece. Its sequel may have brought things right up to a futuristic present, but it was rooted in political and conspiracy thrillers, mainly of the 1970s. That brilliant choice enhances the material in a pivotal film, introducing edge-of-your-seat intrigue, but most importantly letting Captain Steve Rogers shine at its heart.

The potential complication of new and returning villains and allies becomes a strength in a  script that fuels conspiracy riddled with misdirection and a lack of trust.

At the time, franchise supremo Kevin Feige pointed out that the MCU timeline excluded their Cap the disorientation of the swinging ’60s, the darkness of the Watergate Era or the tough right of Reagan’s 1980s that his comic book counterpart experienced. He told Empire, “We wanted to force him to confront that kind of moral conundrum, something with that ’70s flavor. And in our film that takes the form of SHIELD”

After the slight Kryptonian appearance of SHIELD’s executive council in 2012’s Avengers, TWS solidifies the government bureaucracy behind the gigantic organisation including Alexander Pierce at the top of the Triskelion. But the film doesn’t dwell on menace. There are no furtive glances from Rumlow (the future Crossbones) and no real aspersions on Secretary Pierce until his unambiguous night-time meeting with the Winter Soldier, with its heavy nod to Watergate-era meetings. At the climax, the data-dump of Hydra and Shield secrets acknowledges the WikiLeaks era of the film and shows that there’s plenty of material to mine in the modern day.

Even better, most of this thriller happens in daylight. The scenes in the Triskelion, including the infamous lift set piece, have an oppressive backdrop of bright white and blue skies. The real beacon is Rogers, as he moves from “this isn’t right” to fugitive, his relationships with Fury, Black Widow and the 21st century revolving around him.

Marvel Cinematic Universe The Winter Soldier Cap

Man out of Time

“The real success is allowing Cap to convey the values of his time to the modern day just as the past rushes up to catch up with him.”

The Avengers did more than enhance MCU characters when it forged them into a dysfunctional team. It carried the initial leg work of bringing Cap into the 21st century and defining his role in it, through Joss Whedon’s sharp script. That gave TWS valuable breathing space to catch up on the First Avenger two years later. It also marked the return of Cap to the pen-custody of Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who would continue to shape the overall arc of the character, including the creation of the Agent Carter television show. They are very much the fathers of this incarnation of the character, and they have to take much of the credit for his success.

Captain America’s gleaming light isn’t as dull as it could be, thanks to a murky plot that highlights his fundamental character as much as it keeps his relationships moving forward at every level. “All the guys from my barbershop quartet are dead” and “secure the engine room, then find me a date” banter leads to the bedside of an aged Peggy Carter, then on to his neighbour, who happens to be Peggy’s niece and a nice bit of misdirection for followers of the comics.

Fury and Pierce’s tussle mirrors, or rather inverts, Cap’s relationship with Bucky Barnes, while they also represent mentor and chain of command archetypes at points. Acts like reclaiming his old uniform from an exhibit that demonstrates he’s an icon and curio as much as a man is carefully sewn into the narrative (Spike cameo: I am so fired”) as he unravels a classic ‘you are not alone’ story line – one that manages to have its cake and eats it: sacrifice and ambiguity.

Small touches like Cap’s notebook, where he lists the things he needs to catch up on are humorous and emotive. It captures the scale, large and small. Some entries apt, like Falcon’s suggestion of Marvin Gaye’s Troubleman soundtrack (1970s, of course); some are just worth it, like Thai food; some are a little more, well, Moon Landing and Berlin Wall sized.

TWS’s real success is allowing Cap to convey the values of his time to the modern day just as the past, in the form of Hydra, rushes up to catch up with him. But he’s no boy lost in time – after the notebook, the opening mission establishes his supreme leadership and strategic abilities, as well as that formidable attacking force. Some of that Cap sheen would be lost in the horror of Zukovia and a hasty Civil War. But that’s not at error here, this is his peak.

The SHIELD problem

“Getting a little tired of being Fury’s janitor”

You can tell the concept of SHIELD is a problem from the number of shared universes that tried to emulate it. Some have proved more successful than others, but from Universal’s shelved Dark Universe and the Jekyll-run Prodigium to Monarch at the centre of Legendary’s MonsterVerse, they’ve been presented as a cloying necessity. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby set SHIELD up as a central pillar of Marvel Comics in 1965. Four decades later Marvel’s Ultimate comic imprint saw Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch define a lot of what the Avengers could be on screen, including a prescient Nick Fury based on Samuel L Jackson, even if their Captain America was a right-wing throwback. When the Division arrived on film, it was caught between Men in Black parody on one hand and all-powerful organisation that threatened to cut Marvel’s valuable ties to reality on the other.

At the start of Phase 2, Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD emerged on ABC and cemented some of the weaknesses. The show was one-part a derivative Joss Whedon team, ten-parts dull bureaucracy, lacking the X-Files timing or pastiche that would serve them better in 90s-throwback Captain Marvel. Until TWS that is. The catastrophic events of the film not only create one of the series all-time great climaxes but unravelled SHIELD to the point of framing the organisation’s appearance ever since Nick Fury’s popped up in the Iron Man post-credit appearance as an elaborate ruse.

SHIELD had to go, and even better that it’s Cap who points it out. At stake here is the future of the MCU and Cap saves it with a literal clearing of the cache.

The Phase structure

“The 21st century is a digital book – Zola taught Hydra how to read it”.

The disintegration of SHIELD had immediate repercussions for the MCU and the phase that followed. Agents of SHIELD was saved by a stunning tie-in season close that transformed it into one of the twistiest shows on the small screen. The Earth-centric side of the big screen MCU jumped forward a step, bolstered by newly layered history and setting the scene for Civil War and personally explosive drama as bureaucracy retreated to a higher level. A Deus ex machina had been removed (although no one told Ultron). TWS is the pivotal Marvel film and interestingly considering its position right in the middle of the Infinity Stone arc, those fabled stones don’t make an appearance beyond the mid-credit scene.

Either side of TWS, Thor and the Guardians overdid the Stones, so this respite gives a refreshing boost to Hydra’s plans and Zola’s predictive data algorithm. Mention of “Stephen Strange” was a future echo and a sign of intent at the time – he would float into the Sanctum Sanctorum two and a half years later. The destruction of SHIELD and the threat of the future that Hydra’s Project Insight comes so close to ending invests the audience in supporting the MCU’s survival, not just a two-hour film. That’s real confidence from a lynchpin film.

Adaptation

It’s astonishing how little direct adaptation has fuelled the comic book boom. While all printed sources require literal adaptation to work in motion, the many years of continuous narrative in comic books has made it less likely that one specific story or arc will make it to the screen. With many established characters, origin stories from the golden or silver age of the medium (up to the 1970s) will have been rewritten many times by different creators. In the case of big hitters like Batman, Superman and Spider-Man, they have moved into myth. As such, most comic book films have opted to slotted in traits and scenes from their source material rather than directly adapting. It’s more astonishing that this approach has failed than adaptors haven’t chosen a simpler approach. The Avengers for instance, could only reference the comic book origins that had a lot to do with Loki, but little to do with SHIELD.

The MCU changed as it moved away from origins. Iron Man 3 had borrowed heavily from Warren Ellis 2005 Extremis arc, elements of which would further spark onto the small screen in Agents of SHIELD. TWS borrowed from Ed Brubaker’s Winter Soldier story line, picking up a natural narrative development from the first film, albeit modifying elements that were bedded into Marvel mythology. Interestingly that meant radically reducing the role of the Cosmic Cube.

The Action Set-pieces

For all the parts that come to work in TWS, from Chris Evans’ stirling performance to the writers who really know their Captain, most praise must fall on to the Russo brothers. Their impact with TWS was devastating, in a good way. It secured them the job of closing the Avengers arc, including Avengers 2.5, Civil War. But why? Well, just take a look at the set-pieces, which we’ll list as:

  • Boat.
  • Road.
  • LIFT.
  • ROAD.
  • THE END OF SHIELD.

Emphasis all ours. Each set piece, in this well-paced film, are pitch perfect. During the boat raid, the vibranium shield pings, the action is brutal and perfectly designed to showcase the super soldier at work. The Russos had the good sense to cast former MMA pro Georges St-Pierre as Cap’s antagonist to ram that home.  The famous lift sequence deservedly sticks in the mind. Set against that blue sky, the claustrophobic masterclass demonstrates three things: Don’t be afraid to shoot from the back; Don’t underestimate Captain America and; A super soldier never switches off.

It’s on the road and in climactic, epic, final battle that the Russos’ style is clear. Punchy and direct, their fluid fluid camera waves around, ready to snap with the action. The smoke, the cuts – it’s all very tactile. But there’s also the exquisite sound design. The bullets, the vibranium – they absolutely zing off the screen. There’s a rhythm that’s utterly captivating and thrilling mixed with crisp, clear and rugged cinematography. Each sequence has a threat behind it. For Fury, after taking a pounding, there’s the chilling introduction of the the Winter Soldier himself. And at this point in the franchise, six years in, it’s really not unbelievable that Fury could die. Coming at the 75 minute mark, the major road set-piece remains the pinnacle of the MCU: the ultimate Marvel moment. It sums up what the Russos brought to Marvel perfectly. They found a way to make the Marvel universe not so much work in a believable universe, but make it burst from the screen. No other director quite managed that.

The players

The risks of overloading a comic book film have been well recorded, particularly in the abrupt demise of the 90s Batman franchise. MCU films had a mission to build but they used that to, more often than not, find news ways to incorporate characters. Sam Wilson’s introduction is playful, but their shared military experience connects the two across the decades. Drifting from ability and hubris to a fugitive in her own right, Black Widow’s addition – crucially not a romantic interest – is more effective than in Iron Man 2 or Avengers.  

Disney’s acquisition of Marvel lifted expectations, but it also oiled the wheels that allowed the MCU to achieve its goal of becoming the world’s largest franchise. Risks like Guardians of the Galaxy were mitigated, but there was also the weight to secure high-level actors, talent and budget. In the first wave of this, came the extraordinary addition of Robert Redford as Alexander Pierce. Not only the kind of Hollywood heavyweight blockbuster’s long for, but one of the major players in the 1970’s political thriller All The President’s Men.

Marvel Cinematic Universe The Winter Soldier Hydra

The Villains

“Peace isn’t an achievement, it’s a responsibility.

As the cliche goes, a man is a measure of his enemies. TWS tells a once-in-the-MCU story of the man out of time having the past rush to overtake him. Captain Rogers is ready-made to defy a world of clandestine orders and moral ambiguity, but all the better when the real foe is proved to be the Nazi off-shoot that sealed his fate during WWII. That could backfire into an awkward repainting of the whites and blacks of the first film. But this Hydra was born in response to the War. As Zola puts it, a ‘beautiful parasite’, where modern life requires humanity to accept Hydra. Astonishingly Hydra, for all their pantomime, isn’t overblown – even when Zola reappears as a sardonic computer intelligence. The hook of the quantum surge in threat analysis and justice before the deed is top notch. And on the 70s side, Redford is an unexpectedly superb choice as the villain.

“Your work has been a gift to mankind…You shaped the century.  And I need you to do it again. Society is at a tipping point between order and chaos”

As for Bucky Barnes, well we all knew he wouldn’t stay villain for too long…

Last word

“Admit it, it’s better this way”

The Winter Soldier rewards repeat viewings by impressing more and more. That’s especially true as 11 years of storytelling come to a close. It manages to heighten almost every part of the MCU it touches and is unrivalled in setting the tone for the Phase and a half that followed. It does have flaws, the majority of them SHIELD related. Restricting Maria Hill to an ‘Oracle’ role is a mistake, but it’s astonishing how much it got right. And that five years later, it still shines like a gleam from Cap’s shield. If not the SHIELD it left broken, and in a far better place.  

As an underused Baron Wolfgang von Strucker puts it mid-credits, “it’s not a world of spies anymore, not even a world of heroes. This is the age of miracles, Doctor. There is nothing more horrifying than a miracle. “

Hail Hydra!

Take a look back at our dip into the MCU‘s Phase 2 at the time with Marvel: Phase 2 – One of our Tanks is Missing

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Marvel: Phase Two – Look to the Stars

Avengers Age of Ultron and the end of Marvel Phase 2

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. Continue reading “Marvel: Phase Two – Look to the Stars”

Marvel: Disney and the Age of Marvel

Disney Age of Marvel

Disney Age of Marvel

The Walt Disney Company’s costly acquisition strategy looks increasingly shrewd as Avengers: Age of Ultron pushes the Marvel Cinematic Universe to being the world’s highest grossing film franchise.

First published by Molewood Consulting on 29th April 2015.

THE NUMBERS ARE IN AND QUITE UNLIKE THE EVENTS THAT OFTEN ASSEMBLE EARTH’S MIGHTIEST HEROES, THEY’RE EMINENTLY PREDICTABLE. The latest installment in the unstoppable march of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe (MCU) looks set to break records all round. At home, highly aggressive estimates suggest Avengers: Age of Ultronmay make up to $230million and in actual terms is likely to smash $200.3 million taken by its 2012 predecessor in the United States. Opening across 44 international territories, it’s confirmed as setting a Hulk-like record of $200.2 million, despite alleged boycotts caused by rental fee disagreements in the German market.

Under the unrelenting march of Marvel’s new heroes, the UK showed the changing of the guard more than most. Ultron’s £20.18 million debut beat the opening set by James Bond with 2012’s Skyfall.

Not Just a Phase

Phase 2 will conclude this July

It’s safe to say that the second Avengers film has comfortably surpassed its estimated $280 million budget and is well on track to beat the $1.518 billion grossed by its predecessor. It also continues the phenomenal performance of the Marvel movies as their structured development process reaches the end of its second phase. Phase 2 will conclude this July with a new and lesser known Marvel IP Ant-Man. Even if that film matches the lowest grossing MCU film so far (2008’s Incredible Hulk took $263.4) Phase 2 will likely exceed $5.12 billion. Not bad, when you already have Phase 3 lined up…

Continue reading “Marvel: Disney and the Age of Marvel”

Marvel: Phase 2 – One of our Tanks is Missing

Oron Man The Winter Soldier
Tony Stark iron Man

The Winter Soldier is coming…

Spoilers aplenty in a look at cinematic Marvel mid-way through its second phase.

AS CAPTAIN AMERICA ENDS HIS SECOND TOUR OF DUTY ON THE BIG SCREEN, IT’S CLEAR THAT THE REIGN OF MARVEL WILL LAST A LONG TIME YET.  Having ridden high in charts and critical approval, Captain America: The Winter Soldier has secured over $680 million for the House of Mouse/Ideas at time of writing.  That’s far in excess of its rather cool pre-Disney predecessor, but it’s hardly a stealthy Hydra take-over.  The Winter Soldier comes in the middle of Marvel’s cinematic Phase 2: The second stage of the cinematic wonder of the modern age that’s constantly exceeded expectations as it’s risen from the gamma irradiated shell of The Avengers like a… well, never mind…

As the greatest motion picture phenomenon of recent times, it’s hard to recall the early years of this millennium when Marvel endured constant financial woe as Captain America ushers in August’s unknown quantities: The Guardians of the Galaxy.

If this new, fully Disney wave of Marvel films pushes any word it’s ‘sophistication’

How quaint and prosaic The Avengers looks now.  In Phase 2, only Thor failed to grasp the complicated cross-fire of ‘the laws of sequel’ – a fact its $644 million haul hides nicely.  On the whole Marvel has risen to the challenge with all the properties coming back louder, sharper, less in awe of their creative roots, brasher, higher budget and reasonably, far more economic with it.  If this new, fully Disney wave of Marvel films pushes any word it’s ‘sophistication’.  And that’s less reflective of shrewd business acumen on Disney’s part than their belief in consolidating brands.  With Phase 2 and 3 likely not only to bring out of contract franchise heavy weights like Downey Jr back into the fold but also introduce the likes of Robert Redford and Michael Douglas, there’s no doubt Disney’s presence has oiled some tricky wheels.  Downey Jr’s return for more than Avengers 2 and 3 is a must…

The Military PhaseTank meets Incredible hulk

A year ago, prior to Phase 1’s beginning, I watched all the Marvel films (in film-chronological order of course).  Here’s the proof!

The one thing that struck me about Phase 1 was how incredibly militarily-led it is.  The Hulk needs a tank to smash, Stark needs weapons to develop…  The armed forces are one heavy and consistent element.  The funny thing is that in spite of General Ross’ best efforts, the military had never ranked highly in my impression of Marvel before.  I signed off that long and four-colour day with the start of Phase 2.  And what a start.

Multiplicity

Marvel Studios looked as though they could recreate the unbelievably prolific zeitgeist of the 1960s

Iron Man 3 sits atop the franchise, an incredibly enjoyable and satisfying piece of film-making that has set the bar of incredibly high for Edgar Wright’s Phase opening Ant Man in 2015.  That second sequel took almost as much as its two prequels combined.  Even the mildly disappointing, drearily samey Thor: The Dark World took almost $200 million more than its predecessor.  But with the mid-way point that catches up with Captain America, there’s more than greys, mystery and cliff-hangers; there’s the undiscovered country of an untested and unfamiliar property in the realm of consistent half billion films.  But then the modern Marvel reign begun with, if not quite the unfamiliar, the little known.  Iron Man dwarfed the near-released Hulk (always a paler shade of green on the big screen) and set a trend for surprise that cinematic Marvel should never, ever forget.  As unlikely as it seemed, Marvel Studios looked as though they could recreate the unbelievably prolific zeitgeist of Lee, Kirby, Ditko and co in the 1960s…  Well, until they were shrewdly swallowed up by Disney.  As much as Marvel wears the amalgam of its cinematic universe as an iron suit, it’s that overarching connectivity that’s crucial.

Galactic Storm

Incredible Hulk meets TankIn 2014, Guardians has set down a confident space gauntlet with its brash teaser trailer.  The style’s not a massive surprise considering the overall Marvel approach, the original property and director James Gunn’s CV.  It’s aping of The Usual Suspects – especially considering its near release to Bryan Singer’s X Men: Days of Future Past shouts confidence and its musical recall to Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs cuts an interesting ‘70s/’90s vibe. The casting is satisfyingly leftfield, with two box office heavyweights supplying larynxes alone.  Reilly and Serafinowicz add some left-field lightness, although he less said about that trailer sign-off the better.

Winter has come

It looks like Guardians will be a far cry from Captain America’s second dry rollercoaster.  Robbed of the Second World War setting its main nods came in Philadelphia Experiment style poignancy.  Just scraping through on the make-up, Peggy Carter’s role seemed more about the potential spin-off series than as balance to the return of Bucky Barnes or any potential (comic-inspired) romance between Cap and her niece, the fleeting Sharon Carter in The Winter Soldier.

Cap’s second outing left some dry in the cinema but nonetheless managed to wow the critics to a praise just sat between Iron Man 3 and Thor 2.  And that’s just about right.

Aside from Carter, so many elements seemed  far too bolted on for what prides itself as a cohesive universe.  Toby Jones’ return was canonically fair enough but lacked some necessary anchor without any significant World War II flash backs.  There were neat lines (yes, the internet’s “helpful”) but even some witty understatement came up short against Whedon’s one-liners and baseball cards in The Avengers.

Nods to other films were frequent.  The excellently executed hijack reconnaissance kicked the film off like an espionage thriller classic while reintroducing and showcasing the impressive skills of the superheroes, and master spies, in SHIELD’s ranks.  With cracks appearing early, the film doesn’t let up on references as it powers on.

The film ends in pure Independence Day territory

For the first half of the film, cloudless, large, blue skies dominate frames in the Triskelion, a stark blank canvas that all the players are exposed against.  Unveiling that kind of conspiracy in bright daylight is a tricky thing to pull off, but it works.  Unfortunately, early Mission: Impossible allusions grow when the old ‘hero turned rogue’ line is wheeled out.  It’s a hackneyed plot device no matter the plot requirement.  It takes many pages from the M:I text book, especially the latter two entries that strongly follow the clean-cut, cash-cow JJ Abrams method.  Add in the double-crossing elder statesman and you’re dredging up all manner of films from Judge Dredd to Minority Report.  By the end, after an epic vista hinted at by the Inception-like score, the film ends in pure Independence Day territory.  The ‘spaceship’ take down’, where the individual craft have to be boarded separately and sabotaged is videogame plotting, not film.  That’s no slight, it just hints at the demands of a mechanic beyond simple, strong storytelling.

The Winter Soldier, for all its confident staging and well-drilled, hard-hitting set-pieces, contained huge and unforgivable gaps in between its references.  The comparison to Iron Man is unflattering.

Admittedly The Winter Soldier brings us the third dose of a monumentally dull character.  The super-serum did not generate charisma and an automatic weakness against Stark.  Such a noble lack of magnetism is no bad thing, just ask Superman, but means the script and plot have to work harder.  While The Avengers utilised each member’s opposition well (in life outlook, politics and ability – drawing on long held comic tradition), Black Widow doesn’t quite get mean enough in The Winter Soldier.

There’s plenty to be mined from Cap’s new indoctrination into SHIELD, but the organisation is disbanded far too soon to dig into it.  Of course, the whole plot paves the way for a Civil War storyline in about two Avengers time but it doesn’t play to any of Cap’s strengths bar the ‘living embodiment of good’ facet.  Indeed, the most fun Cap has takes place in the opening scene as he laps the soon to soar again Falcon.  So, what can you do with the the ultimate goody two-shoes (see about the other one here)?

An out and out dinosaur fascist

Millar had a simple approach in The Ultimates, the comic series that has played inspiration for much of Marvel’s cinematic forays: make him an out and out dinosaur fascist.  “Surrender? Does this A stand for France” yells Cap at a Nazi Chitauri in a pivotal scene of the first volume.  Such playful, and doleful caricaturing couldn’t wash on the big screen of course – there’s no room for that political speculation in this post-HYDRA world.  All the while, Stark can still play rampant with the personal and double-professional.

A full-on satire on super-costumery

And onto Cap’s Rhodes, the new Bucky.  Falcon is well, if conveniently realised.  The unforgivable part is the wing suit.  Inexplicably left in his care, it works like a dream, as does his exit from post-combat trauma.  Compared to his fellow iron-comparator, the evolution of the Iron Man suit (and combat stress) was used beautifully in Iron Man 3.  By the end, director Shane Black not only had his preference of keeping Downey Jr out of the suit and in a  buddy-cop duo, not only introduced the Hulk-Buster armour, but provided a full-on satire on super-costumery at the same time.  The Winter Soldier showed huge gaps in logic and set-up, understandable if it’s taking on an impossibly large and far-reaching) conspiracy.  Instead, its strength came in unravelling. And it was mighty good at that.

Hulk smash puny Tank - Pantone 348 (Angry)

Disassemble

The Mandarin is the real masterstroke

Increasingly it’s clear how bereft Iron Man 2 is in the Marvel cinematic universe. Robbed of the originality and surprise its simple forbear had, IM2‘s obsession with sewing SHIELD into the franchise and assembling the Avengers was a mistake, no matter how much a guilty pleasure the glimpse of that “that shield” was .

A few films and one Phase on, The Winter Soldier manages to take SHIELD apart far more skilfully than Iron Man 2 put it together.  That’s underlined by Gary Shandling’s rather wasted cameo in both.

While The Winter Soldier looked to recent successes and 70s intrigue while Iron Man 3 was focussed on the 1980s. While both the films looked at soldier technology to provide an opposition (one more Goth than the other), both used the comfort of the sequel to turn to recent comic book runs.  It’s a welcome development, but overall, that Mandarin twist (real or not) is the real masterstroke.

Dropped SHIELD

So, SHIELD is no more and the middling television spin-off looks like a ruse of great craft.  We still have Fury of course, now rogue himself and a little more perforated.   However, considering their own demise, how much neater if the antagonists had not been HYDRA but simply an opposing faction of SHIELD.  Too heated, too institution-baiting?  Sometimes the films can’t touch the comic’s ambitions and that’s the power of the printed page.

Summer Steel

Iron Man 3 may be one of the greatest 80s action films of all time.

Away from SHIELD and the Avengers (perhaps its real strength), Phase 2-opening Iron Man 3 remains the film to dethrone.

That film was more than another Downey Jr show, as crucial he was to its success.  Shane Black seemed a risk but if he was, he was a necessary one.  That Black’s CV is replete with that first script sale of Lethal Weapon, the excellent Downey Jr-starring Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang and his infamous script notes is good enough – you need to inject a film franchise built on the left-field with an edgy risk  and the result was the fifth highest grossing film of all time.

It could well have been Axel Foley…

Yes, it turned out that Black was exactly the guy.  John Favreau did an excellent job with the first Iron Man, but the second instalment stalled badly.  After the franchise created its own HYDRA so early on, Joss Whedon and Shane Black brought us gloriously and insanely well cast films, with crafted plot twists and great slabs of nostalgia.  Iron Man 3 is so nostalgic it may well be one of the greatest 80s action films of all time.  It wasn’t just the Black and Downey Jr re-match, it was that strong blending of 80s sensibility with the greatest current trend.  Iron Man 3’s littered with it.  Of course it’s most blatant in the  Riggs and Murtaugh buddy ending as sans-suits Stark and Rhodes take on the villain with gun in hands.  But there’s also the gratuitously silly villains’ lair scene.  Before the Mandarin is un-, or perhaps, re-masked, it could well have been Axel Foley striding around the villa, knocking out the sunglass wearing/machine gun toting sentries one at a time.  Utterly superb.  I can only hope that Stark put a banana in a few car exhausts as well.

The finale, similar to 2010’s The A-Team’s port-side knock-out, received a bashing on release but it wasn’t a question of money.  New York, San Francisco and Washington can be pulverised again and again film, but Man of Steel showed how one building may as well be a cargo pod.  Here the real emphasis was on suite of suits itself.  The Iron man films have captured the evolving suits well, each a facet of Stark’s life.  From the fleeting Hulk-Buster to the current version, triangle or circular arc, the empty suit is a motif every bit as powerful as the Batman/Bruce Wayne/ Mask/real dynamic that Batman films have been playing with for many years.

Turning Points

Bringing the loose association and gravity of the actors’ past roles

All the Phase 2 films have showed the well of resource and imagination that Marvel has to draw on for its movies; over five decades worth.  But it was Iron Man 3 and Cap 2 that really ran with it, both picking up direct, if highly modified, storylines.  Considering the links, it’s surprising how loosely some Marvel themes are set up – or perhaps it’s a neat homage to the 60s mentality that signalled the House of Idea’s most fertile time.  There’s also a real sense that Marvel want to strongly establish their films in the history of celluloid.  Casting the likes of Redford and Douglas helps, bringing the loose association and gravity of their past roles.  Like Watchmen, Douglas’ announcement as Hank Pym suggests that he’s very much passing the mantle of the atom on to Ant Mna – unless he’s a previous Giant Man, or Yellow Jacket…  The real question is: who gets the Wasp?

Divergent Futures

Accelerated or expected ‘twists’ of potential

Before the franchise goes intergalactic once again, 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 destined to become the Sorcerer Supreme.  Similarly the twins look to dodge the mutant bullet.  There are potentially no mutants in the marvel universes, simply accelerated or expected ‘twists’ of potential.

I can’t see Marvel be happy running without mutants.

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 Marvel like a candle wick and it’s welcome. Iron Man showed you don’t always need to call on The Avengers, Thor opened up space 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.

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