Tag: Joss Whedon

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)


“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.


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.

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

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: 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.


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)


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.

Man of Steel III: “The Rising Price of Kryptonite”

Man of Steel III - Gotham Jokertoon


(ED: Continued from part II)


IT HAD BEEN TWO MONTHS SINCE I’D LAST VISITED THE CORP TOWER WHEN I FOUND MYSELF, LATE ONE NIGHT, RECEIVING A SPECIAL INVITATION.  It came in the form of two gigantic, suited, monosyllabic bodyguards.  The glimmer of the single letter signet rings they both wore were introduction enough. The rest was force.
            Within seconds I was in car, just able to grab a camera and notepad from my apartment and balance glasses on the end of my nose.  The drive was quiet, but quick; there was I sat firmly between the two beefcakes, staring at a black tinted driver shield.  Outside I saw the city fleet past, not a head turning toward the dark limo.
            Within minutes I was at the Corp Tower, walking around the labyrinthine corridors that spiralled from the ornate reception, past gigantic sculptures and escorted into a glass lift.  As the lift rose I thought I saw a familiar face below, looking impassively up at the rising elevator.  Was it impassive?  I could make out the turned, glossed lips and immaculate make-up.  Something switched in my head and I suddenly remembered my lucky pack – surely lying quietly on a shelf at home.  I gulped and left my stomach on floor 65 as I sped to the top of the tower.
            Emerging onto a helipad, all watered down cement, fresh blue markings and chrome bars I was met by a young woman, clasping a raincoat tightly around her.  She held an umbrella above my head as she pulled me towards her.  The rain was light and I got the impression that the covering was more for the benefit of my destination.
            There ahead of me sat a purring helicopter.  Huge, seemingly levitating on the wet pad.  The rotors swooped in slow motion, throwing a soft buzz into the wet breeze.  As we walked, I heard the instructions given by the woman close to my ear.  Half warning, half order.  Her voice slowed with our strides as the chopper neared.  The green chassis gleamed. Behind the cockpit glass I saw only black equipment with black gloved hands slowly working.    I could feel black eyes stare at me from behind shades. 
            We were nearly at the open door when I dared ask my guide what the rush was.  She looked at me just for a moment at the base of the steps. 
“Didn’t you feel it?” She asked.  I didn’t need to try to look perplexed.    
            “You can’t keep him waiting”.  Her eyes dropped as I climbed the steps and saw him, the last person I wanted to see.  I knew he’d be there of course.  I was stuck, suddenly feeling rather lonely, at the top of his bloody tower.  As usual, he was sharply attired in a sleek air suit.  I was not.  His head gleamed, his hands worked.  One picked up a safety harness and flak jacket which he threw at me, the other worked a miniscule tablet device.  I knew where we were going before I recognised the map on the screen: due south.  Something had happened, something had to have happened.  But I knew that seed of a thought would only make the trip longer still. 

Chapter I

            “Hope.”  That’s all the hulk said to me as the helicopter rose into the air. “Hope”. 
            Rising from the tallest tower in the City, moonlight still managed to catch the skyline below and strafe his face with shadow.   I stared into the reflection, the dark eyes embedded in pits that stayed resolutely black in spite of the strobe. 
            “I know you had hope, of a kind, but it’s gone”.
He might be true.  My body suddenly felt heavy and sluggish.  I blamed it on the helicopter and shook my head slightly. The last time I had confronted this man there had been talk of a doomsday.  That had stopped some weeks before, abruptly.   Whatever had been coming hadn’t.  It had been halted in its tracks.  But with that act, the city’s guardian had disappeared.  Searches continued in the suburbs of the city, where huge craters pock-marked what once were amusement parks and lakes, fields and reservoirs.   It had been weeks, but it was still too early to say that hope had gone.  
            The deep voice continued.  “He was more than hope, more than anything any human should ever believe in.  He was a distortion of everything human, a forced Messiah”
            Ah.  We were back in that office, as if no time had passed at all since the uncomfortable interview.  This time, despite the rush and surprise I was far more prepared. That first meeting had run and run through my mind…  I had wanted a rematch and now I had it.
            “I was surprised” I acknowledged, taking the nape of my nose between my fingers as a the nausea abated.  Ahead of me, the eyes didn’t move.  They remained trained intently on me…
Following the heavy symbolism of Superman Returns (the son and the father, the fall to Earth, the resurrection), I was amazed that Man of Steel pushed the symbolism even further.  The church visit and the spread-arm descent from space are blunt, but the world wandering and name-checked age of 33 are deliberate additions. In support, Warner Bros also accompanied the film’s release with some peculiar specialist Christian marketing…
            However, the Christ-like qualities of Superman’s myth have been present for many years.  It was no coincidence that Returns, a self-styled sequel to Superman II, drew it out.  Superman’s is a history full of symbolism, responsibility, sacrifice and often, resurrection – whether that’s the Death of Superman storyline in the comic books or the last third of Superman Returns.  He is named as the light, the leader and his central role is that largest of metaphors: the son who becomes the father.
            The Kryptonian’s resurrection is hardly a unique quality among comic-book heroes.  Even so, Superman arrives as an apparent Christian metaphor through a variety of sources.  Superman is a fundamentally natural and biological phenomenon.  A human-sized, red-caped battery powered by the yellow sun.  His is an exaggerated use of the same source that gives us life, one that has also been a symbol of worship for many civilisations – the ancient Greeks, Egyptians, Aztecs and others.  Man of Steel drew on that bold idea of the god walking among us.  The Codex that Superman carries in his DNA draws comparison with not only Noah, but Prometheus – another mythological figure who casts a mighty shadow on comics and science fiction.
            Perhaps most noteworthy, is the fact that Superman was created by two Jewish teenagers.  Undoubtedly, he was not conceived as this Christ-like figure – their first character called Superman was a mad scientist with more in common with Superman’s greatest nemesis.
            Across the cabin, the lips curled.
            But just as Superman grew to focus his powers, so that early groundwork built up through the decades to form a Christian allegory that film creatives still find so compelling.

Chapter II

            We were sat in a flying lump of metal I could only, lamely, describe as the most futuristic thing I had ever seen.  It was sleek and solid, huge and powerful.  It was a statement of intent.  It was aimed south and I was on it.  The rest was unclear.  We were careering across the southern suburbs of the great metropolis at an incredible rate, but still the rotors made hardly any noise, the open doorways –  there were no doors – were guarded so closely by  the design that there was neither the incredible rush of air or the flight of the wind.  I looked around as my interviewer examined me closely.  My eyes darted.  For a second, I was sure that I saw an indentation at the top right hand of the cabin…  It looked like a hand.  No… But, in the changing light it was impossible to see it properly. I certainly didn’t intend to unbuckle myself and stand in the cabin at that precise moment.
            The next question seemed to pick up on my thoughts, dwelling as they did on the contemporary and futuristic.  I shuddered slightly and raised my chin.
“He’s outdated, he has no place in the 21st century”
            I parried back once more.
            Superman is not an easy to evolve.  If he ever was, he isn’t now.  Once the character had developed, he proved too archetypal to play with too much.  One factor must have been the massive rise of the superhero during the Silver Age of comics.  With the powers that all others are judged by, Superman was forced into a locked and lead-lined template of sorts.   Each change since, whether momentary such as the Death, Transformed or power loss storylines or life changing (until reboot) like his marriage to Lois, have created opprobrium in the press and fair-weather fans alike.  But that’s not too say that Big Blue hasn’t changed.  For all the tropes and stock parts of the myth that stay intact (costume, phone boxes, Lois, Daily Planet) important ones have been lost (Lois’ obliviousness, the Jimmy Olsen watch – for the most part, Luthor the mad criminal scientist…).  In fact, Superman has changed greatly since his inception.  It’s just not been easy to notice.
            Fandom is defined by its lobbying for then outrage at change.  But despite his many mythical elements, Superman is on a far more sticky wicket than the Dark Knight.  While the basics stay intact, Batman is defined by his constant evolution.   In fact, his evolution has turned into a real Bat-asset.  While the Dark Knight can be identified as 60s camp, 70s dark, 80s gothic, Nolan-real and so on, Superman apparently remains very similar.   Henry Cavill’s relationship with Ma Kent isn’t that different from Welling, Cain or Christopher Reeves’.  It may be that the Bat-family is more durable.  The first Robin grew up to spread his wings as Nightwing while no such enduring success has served Jimmy Olsen, the latter Superboys or Krypto the Superdog.
            “You talk about the man…  A man with a family.  If he’s just a man, there are others”.
            There are others.
            The DC Universe presented on film has been markedly influenced by Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy.
            (Although, that introduction’s an injustice.  It is writer David S Goyer who lay not only at the heart of the Dark Knight trilogy, but also Man of Steel and its forthcoming sequel as well as the new Commissioner Gordon television show and the here before you know it Justice League film.)
            2012 was a key year for superhero films, pitching Nolan’s ‘realistic’ take against the highly militaristic but jocular Marvel Avengers.  It was a battle of the billion dollar film franchises – Marvel’s long-trailed team-up versus the Dark Knight’s ‘satirical’ violence.  Both emerged well from the scrap, but it was a battle that established very clear rules for the rematch in 2015 – a year that Spielberg and Lucas might well call the make or break year of the blockbuster.
            With Man of Steel it’s clear that Warner Bros saw strength in the darker, more serious tones that Nolan and Goyer established as opposed to matching the Marvel universe gag for gag.  The Avengers wasn’t a camp affair by any means.  But while Marvel may play with killing a character – in DC’s universe anything is possible.   Given the 2011 Green Lantern disaster, that’s not a bad decision.

Chapter III

“Some of Gotham’s finest minds gone in an instant, so much trust placed in those alien hands and based on what?  How many must he kill?”
On the seat next to the figure I saw a short stack of papers pawed over by his large hands.   As the paper shifted I thought I saw a logo I hadn’t seen for years.  The tip of a yellow triangle, a star..?  How deep did this man’s reach go, how far below the streets, past the sewers…
            I looked from the window, where the sun sat low on the horizon and barns and outhouses cast long dark shadows over fields and vineyards. I knew where we were going, but why?
Anything is possible? Really?  The deaths of major characters, the surprising (presumed) demise of Emil Hamilton – it all set a tone for tone for Man of Steel’s new universe.  It’s not without comedy and neither was the Dark Knight, but it creates a world of repercussion and consequence.
            During the course of the Dark Knight trilogy Gotham visibly transformed from Kowloon to Manhattan.  It’s not exactly Morten Harket breaking out of his comic world, but it shows an intent to increasingly ground the universe in realism, even within its own narrative.  After the Dark Knight, that almost seems a crucial approach to modernising a definitive superhero.  Were it not for Joss Whedon that is.  There’s more that one way to skin a bat after all.
            Warner’s is not an easy path, but runs less risk of the comic campery that has wounded them more than most.  Superman has appeared as outdated for years and although the mass devastation, or rather the ambiguous human cost, of Man of Steel appears very un-Superman, it acutely makes that modernist argument.  Goyer has recently spoken out about the death count and voiced his strong support for Superman’s right to kill, acknowledging the opposition from many other comic writers.  In the DC film universe, death really is the catalyst that The Avengers built into its plot.
            While Batman has lived in this universe of consequence since 2005, it’s a big step for Superman.  Why not easy?   In essence it’s a finite universe that works contrary to the rules of comic books, one where death is real and consequences eternal.
            I used to rail at the middle ground comic films took to death before.  Taking the original Batman films of the ‘80s and ‘90s, the Joker was killed off in part one, the Penguin in part two.  There was death rather than incarceration in Arkham Asylum, but there was no consequence to it.  These were westerns, where the lone slinger lived to walk away to lick his wounds until the next gang rode into town.  That was a Batman who battled super villains one at a time, each one of them meeting a grizzly end after a week or so of conflict.  It wasn’t compelling, although the films were immensely enjoyable.  This unwritten law of the superhero film fortunately changed in the 2000s – an even more sequel-savvy time – despite Spiderman’s best efforts to keep it going.  In The Dark Knight trilogy, every death had a purpose. Whether Batman Begins was intended to establish a trilogy (highly unlikely), by the time The Dark Knight had granted Christopher Nolan a blank sheet for the follow-up, the third part could only provide closure.
            In 2012, The Avengers expertly established a super team in the Marvel world of comics.  In fact, it was more effective than any other Marvel film at putting Marvel on film – mainly thanks to Joss Whedon who evidently breathes the House of Ideas.  Man of Steel is a film that reflects the contemporary Superman ‘universe’.  It’s darker, it’s a world of ramifications, it’s drawing on the lines of history laid down by 60 years of the comics, just like The Dark Knight trilogy had done for his caped comrade…
            The helicopter buzzed. It had been a smooth journey so far, the sound of the machine hardly audible, but now I noticed it.  Looking from the window, I saw that we had dropped – virtually skimming the thinning trees.  We were approaching the suburbs – I’d seen the trees thin like this a thousand times.  Soon to be replaced by dark canals, lakes and stacks of rundown warehouses…   But this time something was different.  There were less trees, or rather less treetops.  Giant stems and trunks lay flat on the ground, giant swathes of earth fleeing the root cavities.   I realised that both my hands were flat against the windows as I strained to see more.  Running through the trees laid furrows and trenches, like fissures, ripping the forests and fields into shards.
            “Update.” The voice was deep and commanding, it wasn’t a question.  I don’t know who it was aimed at but I was sure that whoever it was intended for had heard it.  A tinny voice rang through the cabin, clear and crisp as though it came through the walls.
            “Sir, confirmed as a 7.6 quake with an epicentre on the south west outskirts. Government response teams testing viability of remaining bridges around the island.  Seven minutes to the Tower”.
            The figure was impassive.  I turned back to the window, where metres below the mud trenches were clearly revealed as faults.  There had been a cataclysm and we were heading right into it.

Chapter IV

            I was reeling, trying to understand why I was in the transport with perhaps the most important people in the country heading for a disaster zone. Why me?  The smallest whimper may have escaped my lips.  Fortunately I had some questions to distract me.  Unfortunately they were drilled at me by the same person.
“But then you’ve got to agree that souped-up boy scout isn’t as interesting as that lying rodent…” – I must have missed the “f” in the rush of air.  Small branches snapped against the undercarriage.
            “I’ve heard that.  I’ve heard that many times in the last month.” 
            The sound of flight was much louder now, as if the air was resisting our arrival.  Just like this city to reject help I thought.  Below me, the broken husks of warehouses had begun to litter the landscape.
            “I’ve heard Superman described as a difficult character because he just isn’t as interesting as Batman, but really?” 
            There’s two sides to it each equally as interesting, and I laid them out.. 
            On one hand Superman’s lost his home planet and entire species, not just his parents.  On the other he’s one of the few superheroes who was able to make a choice of his own free-will.  Although Man of Steel saw Zod’s actions force Kal-El’s hands somewhat, the addition of Kryptonian ‘genetic set roles’ adds a new dimension.
            Batman’s dual identity may appear more compelling, set as it is against a city of madness, but aside from the ‘which persona is the mask?’ debate, is Bruce Wayne so much deeper than Clark Kent?
            Superman, Kal-El and Clark Kent are three distinct personalities: world saviour, Kryptonian son and Kansas farm boy turned Pulitzer-baiting journalist.  Each feeds in to the other and it’s far more than simply donning a suit under a crisp white shirt.  Biographically the character was first and foremost raised as Clark.    His super powers developed over time, leading to the creation of one persona and discovery of the other.  One is the moral question of great responsibility coming with great power, the other the inevitable quest to discover his origin.  While Kal-El may have arrived at around the same time as Superman, it’s easily identifiable as an objective route to dealing with his role as Superman.  It can be looked at in different ways.
            Film, TV series and comics have dealt with this differently and if you want to break up the various Supermen from Superboys, it’s far easier to look at their on-screen portrayals.  Superman’s different personas are more nuanced than the pre-eminent modern Batman debate of which character is the mask.  Superman is far less psychologically tortured, but there is plenty of room for many different interpretations.
            Smallville, by TV necessity, was all about Clark Kent’s discovery of Kal-El.  Taking on the caped mantle was the end result and was only seen in the final episode alongside that typical Superman power, flight.  Superman the Movie dealt very much with Clark Kent.  Here we saw Superman arrive fully developed.  The discovery of Kal-El was touched upon, but revealed by the Clark Kent character as well as external factors – importantly, the loss of his father.  He was then nourished in a ice fortress for years until the ready-formed mind-set of Kal-Superman emerged.
            In Man of Steel Clark’s character undergoes similar loss, but sitting between its two predecessors, it creates a loner Clark Kent who embarks on a long Christ-like period of discovery but also pre-destiny.  The film shows that his years of searching eventually trigger a set of events that rapidly answer long hanging questions.  Strong with coincidence Man of Steel balances the change against a long Bruce Banner style journey of self-discovery before Zod’s arrival suddenly brings the decision to the fore.   Unlike the Movie, Clark does not have years encased in the Fortress of Solitude to understand his situation – those years are instead spent among the best and worst of the people he will chose to adopt.   His persona emerges from his battle with his biological people.  The effect is a less contrived and more human Superman.   He discovered the role of Superman at the age of 33, far later than the Welling or Reeve iterations.
            Onscreen, the channelling of different facets of the character by each actor has helped create Superman as a successful screen icon – yes, including Dean Cain.  It’s possible, that this has served to limit his growth in the comics.  Certainly, you are far more likely to imagine an actor as your Clark Kent than with Bruce Wayne.  The infamous, but abating Hollywood curse hasn’t helped Superman loosen that distinction.
            “Curses, fate and destiny.  Is that where we’ve arrived?  I have always dealt in fact and certainty”
            Below groups of people had started  to form.   Even from meters above, they were disorientated, dispossessed.  A tragedy was unfolding.

Chapter V

            Both Superman and Batman are figures of tragedy and the paternal legacy that leads from that.  It’s intensely personal, but also about the personnel. While Bruce Wayne famously lost his parents as a young boy, he replaced them with a framework of characters, among them his faithful ‘batman’ of conscience Alfred, figure of justice Commissioner Gordon and figure of (business) moral Lucius Fox.  The Dark Knight trilogy took this to its extreme, supplementing and layering those paternal analogies throughout the trilogy.
In contrast, Superman lost his parents and his race as an infant and has been a product of two parental sets ever since.   True there are others, but they are not strong.  Daily Planet editor Perry White could take on such a role easily, but he also serves it for Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen and his other employees.
            Man of Steel purposefully delivered its disaster movie plot through individuals.  It wasn’t just the central message that was bottled down to a personal level.  It was seeded and foreshadowed through the characters caught up in the third act’s destruction of Metropolis.
            Instead of seeing the large military presence that’s seen elsewhere carry out the evacuation, it was followed through Perry White and the Daily Planet staff.  This was a big film played out through the archetype characters of Superman lore.  Zack Snyder has recently defended the mass destruction of comparing it to the Japanese monster films of the 1950s and beyond.  When he first appeared, Godzilla was a clear analogy for the horror of nuclear weapons, a close response to a very real and recent tragedy. Godzilla’s  relocation to America over the years hasn’t had quite the same effect, but in Man of Steel, Snyder adopted the idea.  It’s not a new idea that Superman forms part of a modern America’s pantheon akin to the Greek gods of Olympus or Nordic gods of Asgard.  Man of Steel saw Snyder rope in stronger beats, more reflective of modern America.  Just as the first Godzilla film was repurposed for American audiences (Raymond Burr intercut into destruction for added resonance), Snyder used the film’s individuals to counter-balance this.  At the start, Godzilla had little perception of the people in the mass disaster he dealt, just as the Kryptonians had little perception of the humans in their metropolis.
            Batman is a more immediately personal crime-fighter.  Partly it’s because he’s human and he loves a gadget, just like many husbands.   Partly he’s defined by his fights against individual villains or even against the highly anthropomorphic Gotham City.  His fight is a dark and self-destructive one.  But people love the dark vigilante and Batman has become a definitively brilliant example of that.  That said, Superman may be the exception to the rule that the good guys are less interesting in comparison.  While Batman’s origin has become mythic, but Superman’s is biblical.
            The son of two worlds idea is a deep and powerful one – albeit more opaque than Batman’s son of two sides of a city.  It’s B-movie versus film noir, and you only have to look at critical reception to see how that unfolds.
            I noticed that across the cabin a hand lay against the glass window.  Impassively, the thick neck and strong dome were studying the devastation below.  The thick knuckles were white against the pane.  As the inevitable dark clouds fell around us as we neared the city districts, the reflection of his face was lost in shadow.
            I was speaking louder and more confidently now as if to keep his attention, I had to finish before we arrived.  Who knew what would happen then… “It’s that Superman’s perceived as outdated, clean-cut and too powerful to be opposed that a lot of emphasis falls on the darker and so ‘more interesting’ Batman.” 
            I paused as I remembered my lucky pack.  I thought of the King of Clubs and King of Hearts vying for the top deck. 
The next film has been announced as Superman versus Batman – even if the name changes in the interim, the long mooted struggle is at last reaches the big screen.  That opposition, purposefully, sounds a little more drastic than it is.  In reality, they are just ideologically opposed.  It’s a concept that’s nicely murky for our times, and their first meeting will make for interesting viewing. Notes that swiftly accompanied the casting of Ben Affleck in the Dark Knight’s role confirmed that this would be a grizzled, older Batman.  Not Dark night Returns perhaps, but no Batman beginning.
            Of course, Bats and Supes have historically come to blows in the comics, and most aficionados will opt for the mortal side of the coin.  Usually that opposition comes in some form of corruption to what Superman is or does.  Superman isn’t a vigilante after all, with a public persona and allegiances sworn at various times to US and world bodies.   Batman is all about vigilantism.  In any dystopian shift, a government, just like any villain, would seek to corrupt the more powerful Superman first (remember, Batman’s only a mortal).  In that role, Batman always rises to the surface as the champion of right.  There are levels of irony in their pairing, but over the years it’s forged a close bond.
             “The most dangerous mortal on Earth.  Perhaps he still is…”
            We were over the city outskirts.  Below I could see the stately parks and manor houses of the city’s founding fathers.  Those that were still intact had the ground ripped from underneath them.  One sat among chasms, a dark pit spreading from its base.  It looked like foundations were exposed in the cave below.  The figure in front of me craned his neck.
            There is no defence against Superman.  He gets all the attention from governments, cartels or rival injustice leagues because he’s the one to take down.  Swearing allegiance to the President of the USA in a far more – perhaps necessarily – open way than Batman, he is the first to succumb.  At the first sign of a metahuman registration act, in the first wave of hypnosis or brainwashing into, he’s a prime target – whether villain, governments or both are behind it.  As he a natural the symbol of the American Dream it oozes dramatic potential.  As opposition to the ultimate symbol of vigilantism, it’s even better.
            When it comes to kryptonite knuckle-dusters, the rule of the underdog gives the Dark Knight of Gotham a distinct advantage.

Chapter VI

            We were nearing the end of our journey I assumed.  There must be a stopping point.  Surely he wasn’t here just to circle…  There were rumours he had far more property in the city below us than anyone knew of course.  Rumours that a duplicate of his Scottish manor to the north had been constructed here as well.  I was curious to see if would head there before or after The Tower. 
            I turned back to my interviewer.  Inevitably, the challenge for the next film was set. 
             “Invincible.” It sounded chilling above the devastation.  “He’s invincible”.
            “He’s a storytelling challenge who’s been underserved…” 
            The head twisted slightly on the thick neck too face me.
            In the comics, when they have clashed, it’s Batman who’s invariably the victor, but there are inherent problems with bringing Superman to the big screen.  The same issues that make him the one to take down, also ensure that he’s perceived as dull.
            That Batman has the greater and better known gallery of rogues is good indicator of the difficulty with the Superman.  The Caped Crusader has almost inarguably the best roster of nemeses, perhaps only rivalled by Spiderman.  The fact that Gotham City’s guardian is mortal helps immensely of course, as does that fact that they are generally mentally unstable and reside for the most part in an asylum.
            But with Superman you can’t just ramp up the gothic.
            Superman’s foes may have been around as long or longer than Batman’s, but they haven’t achieved the same cultural familiarity.  Braniac is no Joker, Metallo is no Riddler.  Some of the earliest have all but disappeared as solo Superman rogues, such as the Ultrahumanite.  Others like Luthor have changed immeasurably.   However, much of the problem is that for the most part, they can’t be realised on screen.  Even with the arrival of CGI Superman Returns illustrated the resistance perfectly.
            Now, with reboot fresh in the minds and a sequel announced, we still aren’t being introduced to universal foes such as Darkseid, Mogul or Brainiac.  All the emphasis in the next film, sensibly, has to fall to the modern day corporate Lex Luthor.
            Man of Steel chose to favour the General Zod, last seen in cinemas in Superman II (1980), which made great origin sense.  Still, the General’s earlier appearance had played it’s part Superman’s difficulty.  Despite a broad range of foes and storylines crossing nearly eight decades, the failure to draw on them in the past has just served to diminish the Man of Steel. That he’s just too powerful has been a constant challenge in the books and films, although the rise of CGI should helped combat this.  So far, the common attempt to combat it has been a sharp divergence between the Superman comics and onscreen representations.  At last, it appears that the Kryptonian has allies on celluloid.
            Previously, the blame has lain with the film creators themselves.   While Superman the Movie is wonderful in its scope, as is the sequel that unleashed General Zod onto the world, Superman III, IV and Returns suffered from poor decisions.  The latter two continued the outdated and limiting misreading of Superman’s biggest foe – as enjoyable as Gene Hackman’s portrayal was.  While Lex Luthor had started off as a mad scientist in the comics, the current corporate Luthor is a far more interesting creation than the one seen in the Reeve films or their belated sequels.  It was only in the 1980s that the current nuanced and interesting take on the character came to the fore in the comics.  Various storylines and creative teams have established Luthor as the greatest human who has ever lived, knocking off cancer cures at a whim (and of course charging tons to patients in the process), providing innate genius to a multi-billion business that Bruce Wayne can barely touch.  Effectively he’s the greatest human Earth has ever produced but then…  An alien just happens to land in America and steals all the glory.  Luthor will always be number two, and every despicable plan has its root in that jealousy inspired by an unnatural twist of fate.  Even in the 1960s (Adventure Comics 271), it was posited that Luthor and Clark Kent knew each other as children, an idea recently brought back to the fore in the tremendously successful Smallville.  So in all, it’s curiosity that lead to jealousy at the root of Luthor’s evil.  Another in a long line of fantastic and jealous villains.  It’s an emotion that has powered brilliant plots and inspired great writers for centuries, including, it must be said, those who’ve breathed life into Superman.  In the comics anything is fair game, from Lois to morals, from Metropolis to the Earth.
            I resisted the urge to push Mark Millar’s Red Son once again…
            I pulled the collar around my neck as the cold glare chilled the air around me.   Under the intense scrutiny I contemplated making a leap for it.  If there was one man who didn’t need a look to kill…


            Saved.   Red lights blinked and confirmation came to the cabin that we were near our destination.  The chopper smoothly dipped through the cloud that had built up at the centre.  There were less buildings than there used to be, I noted unemotionally.   The sky was strangely quiet, but below the clouds the streets were chaos.  Swathes of concrete and tarmac had been overturned, gigantic trenches dotted every block wriggling in and out of the buildings.  Blue and red lights flashed in between, main a sea of white light.  I couldn’t even gauge the devastation.  I couldn’t consider the loss…  The city as everyone knew it was gone.  It wasn’t a tourist trap, it wasn’t visited by people other than those who had a reason.  Those who knew what had gone were select, many of them in the streets now…
            Somehow through all of it we landed.   There was a mist, a haze… Like the disorientation couldn’t rest in the streets and was reaching up to escape.
The cabin release lights flicked on and I earned a scowl from the figure that flashed past to leave the cabin as I grappled with my safety belt.  In the minute it took me to put a foot to the concrete and find my land legs, he was already standing 20 metres in front of me surveying the scene as if he’d been there a thousand years.
            I realised we were on the top of a skyscraper, perched in the middle of the city.  His skyscraper?  I couldn’t remember him having one before…  It was eerie…
            What would happen next I thought…
            Man of Steel left vast swathes of the Superman mythos waiting while it redefined the story and set many other cogs in motion.   Using the sequel of this successful Superman as a springboard for the rebooted Batman is a clever one, and not just financially.  Batman can survive very well on his own of course, but he needs to be cajoled into the DC universe just as his Justice League peers occasionally need to convince him to be a team player.  While Arrow promises to introduce the Flash to the small screen, within a few short years a functional Justice League could be ready to go, showing up Marvel’s not-so-secret-invasion as slow.  Many things need to align for that to happen, but the establishment of the two male cornerstones of the DC universe in that one film will help greatly in bringing that vision to the big screen.  That battle, though mostly inferred will be far larger than the sum of its parts.  While Superman sits awkwardly in the Man of Steel Universe, those flip-side ideologies promise to be scintillating.
            There is still the third icon of DC’s trinity to come of course, and she really is a goddess.  Rumours are circulating that Wonder Woman’s being cast in the film, potentially shifting it into the Trinity core of the Justice League.
            But what else could be in store?  Luthor must be a shoe in for the next instalment – not just as the enemy of Superman in Metropolis, but a major competitor of Bruce Wayne across the trading floor.  Although Professor Hamilton’s presumably gone, Luthor’s surely the link to Kryptonite but crucially, that’s the one element that Batman needs to make a fight of it.  Add in the Amazonian princess, and the cards are being stacked for a multi-textured struggle.  Exactly what you’d expect from this burgeoning universe.
            I thought of my playing cards again and looked at my host.  He sat above his tower overlooking the devastation.  I could see it there again.  Opportunity, that’s what he saw in ever displaced person, every broken street, every upturned house.  In the distance a cloud grew in the air from a controlled explosion.  It looked like the river.  Perhaps the island and was being separated from the mainland.  We were being sealed in, I knew it almost instinctively…   Next to me, the focussed eyes gleamed.  One of the country’s major cities in ruins, one man to save it.  I thought the lights might reflect in his eyes and reached into my bag for a notepad.  I didn’t want to miss the moment those reflected lights turned into the facsimile of the Oval Office reflected in his eyes.  As I floundered, he turned to look at me.  The steely gaze refreshed with zeal and confidence.  He spoke slowly and deliberately, his words reminding me of the last time I was in this city, joining that select group.
            “Some time ago a friend asked me a question…”

(The end..?)

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