Tag: Marvel comics

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’s Inhumans: Partial Eclipse of the Big Screen?

Marvel's Inhumans hit the IMAX

Marvel's Inhumans hit the IMAX

There’s no hiding place now. Marvel’s moon dwelling Inhumans have evaded live screen adaptation for years. But now it’s caught up with them. Jokerside visits their comic past and reviews their television future. At the cinema, of course.

It can’t really be that bad, can it? Well… Shh, the King’s about to speak…

It’s no King’s Speech…

The show’s apparent existential crisis couldn’t deter fans from a rarity

PICTURE THE HEART OF A METROPOLIS, WHERE HUGE STACKED BLOCKS AND GEOMETRIC SHAPES LIE SCATTERED ACROSS A BROAD TARMAC BANK LIKE ROLLED DICE. Asymmetric inroads, sheared by irregular narrow alleys and broad lanes that somehow loop to a centre; channels of asphalt that loop and swirl around a central monolith. Underground, a warren of tunnels spiral from that structure’s base, marking each compass point of its rounded walls, providing quiet foundations to the lit, glass and metal column as it soars through and past ground level.

No, not Attilan, the moon surface city and home to Marvel’s Inhumans. This was BFI IMAX in London’s Waterloo, home to a crucial, further step on those same Inhumans’ biggest leap into mainstream pop-culture.

But while seeds of this leap, and their existence in the Marvel Cinematic Universe were laid the franchise’s longest continuing storyline, via Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD, Inhumans’ route to adaptation has been tortuous. In recent months, the mini-series format Marvel settled on for its moon-based regulars has met with mockery. For its posters, promos… And then a legendary screening of a new trailer at this year’s San Diego Comic Con that was met with laughter. And they say, not the good kind. Mockery was becoming the default…

We caught our ticket on the opening night of the Inhumans IMAX outing – the opening two episodes shot especially for the format and edited together for a limited run. Surely a nod to the middle ground of the ever-extending web of the MCU on small and big screens, but risky given the run-up. Notably, the screening wasn’t near selling out earlier in the day, booking only popping up on listings shortly before. But on the night, while not a full-house, the show’s apparent existential crisis couldn’t deter fans from a rarity: An exclusive, cinema-shot limited release Marvel film. Really, that’s what it amounted to.

This was the moment that Inhumans’ journey reached its end. Two weeks before the small screen premiere of the eight-part ABC television series that developed from a once-announced film adaptation, a limited run of the first two episodes at IMAX cinemas across the world. In all, it’s a confusing start, if not inauspicious, for what Marvel’s know is one of their hidden gems.

Enter the Mist

The Inhumans properly appeared in the 45th issue of the Four’s comic in December 1965

There may have been a clue to this adaptation in the Inhumans mid-1960s four-colour introduction. Then, two prominent Inhumans, Medusa and Gorgon found their way in the pages of Fantastic Four in early 1965. Of course, that premier family of the House of Ideas has struggled to make it on the big screen, under Fox’s watch, over two instalments. Following the two heralds, the Inhumans properly appeared in the 45th issue of the Four’s comic in December 1965. But just as they’ve popped up in many off-screen chats since the emergence of the MCU powerhouse, the seeds for this impossibly close-to home new race, was actually sewn two decades before. It was in the pages of Captain America Comics #1 (March 1941), a story penned and drawn by Jack Kirby, that the city of Attilan was first mentioned – populated by a nearby race that had advanced its civilisation while humans floundered in the Stone Age.

Come 1964, was the inkling of a mysterious new super villain named Madame Medusa apparently aided a group of the Fantastic Four’s foes. By 1965, the hoofed powerhouse named Gorgon came into opposition with the Four as he pursued that mysterious Medusa. But the fear not  True Believers! Soon both were revealed to be members of the Royal elite of Attilan, and the wonderfully punctuated tales, Those Who Would Destroy Us! and Beware the Hidden Land! had the Fantastics unite with these freshly revealed Royal Inhumans. Gorgon and Medusa, Queen to the recently dethroned King Black Bolt, working to seize back control from the despotic, and wonderfully named Maximus the Mad – none other than the king’s brother. The readership, along with young Johnny Storm were most taken by Medusa’s sister, Crystal and her gigantic teleporting dog Lockjaw.

Alien interference

So was another example of the great staple of a lost or unknown civilisation unlocked through the adventures Marvel’s premier family, under Stan Lee’s pen. But it was in the pages of Thor #146 to #152, over the winter of 1967 to 1968, that the Inhumans’ origins was revealed. Tying directly into key Marvel-mythos, the moon-dwellers were the result of experiments by the alien Kree, abandoned when a prophecy foresaw the experiments’ role in the destruction of the Kree Empire. The Inhumans evaded death, but in leaving Earth to hide on its satellite, forced an acceleration beyond their human cousins that any reasonable comic book character would anticipate as leading to an inevitable confrontation.

What’s most intriguing is that this society long separated from humans developed strictly imposed societal constraints, quite at odds with those fast-emerging on the less advanced Earth by the time the two cultures came into contact with each other.

Their society is predominantly dictated by power, with the ruling Royal family sitting atop a city where citizens are assigned a specific place, based on their abilities. The meritocratic caste-system is unbreakable: Once assigned, an Inhuman cannot change their place, standing, nor mix with any other species to any great degree. Except, of course for members of the Royal family as Crystal proved by marrying the mutant Quicksilver.

From monarchy to revolution

Elevated by Kree science, Inhumans are well named.

Since their emergence, the Inhumans have had a chequered publication history of cancellation and major arcs. Frequently embroiled in the fate of the Fantastic Four, their soap opera led to a short-lived series of their own in the 1970s, before they went missing in action for much of the 1980s. Later decades saw them back in vogue, with the introduction of many more Inhumans and the complication of NuHumans – an off-shoot among others not helped by things like Terrigan bombs and secondary terrigenesis – and taking point on major maxi-arcs.

Elevated by Kree science, Inhumans are well named. Through exposure to Terrigen Mist Inhuman powers are revealed, select physical, mental or other abilities beyond humans. Depending on your perspective, the process was transformative or unlocked the inner Inhuman that was always there. But most important of all, the Inhumans are downright comic book crazy. They are literally out of this world, their difference exacerbated by the close proximity to humans.

A race apart

The outlandishness that the Inhumans tapped into would precede Kirby’s quest

A genetically enhanced race, rather than the generation X evolution of Earth, when we met these moon-dwellers, the only family association equivocal with Xavier’s school or the X-Men themselves was the ruling elite. It’s a reversal, but one that kept the Inhumans, in spite of their outlandishness, in Marvel’s second tier. In laying the earliest hints of their existence, the legendary Jack Kirby helped shape the Inhumans journey on the page – even though their initial storyline was quickly wrapped up to make way for Kirby’s soon to be seminal Galactus storyline. The outlandishness that the Inhumans tapped into would precede Kirby’s quest to promote the truly, jaw-droppingly, seminally bonkers – from Marvel’s Eternals in the early 1970s to DC’s Fourth World later in that decade.

Leap forward five decades from their advent and the Inhumans arrive on screen at a crucial time. Ahead of the release of back-to-back Avengers films, as Marvel Studio’s switch to a three film per annum release schedule, the MCU’s continued ascendance on the big screen is matched by profligacy on the small screen. Cancellations are to be excepted – poor old Peggy Carter – but their first real misstep came with the fifth Marvel Netflix series Iron Fist. It was all the more apparent as  And there’s a larger concern. The film expansion of the DC Expanded Universe, as ever Marvel’s direct rival, has at its heart the wealth of Kirby’s Fourth World barminess. Those adaptations will face many of the gaping holes that Inhumans does and…  Manages to fall into.

The Series

*And here flow the spoilers for episode one and two thick and fast*

Marvel’s Inhumans may have many precursors in the pages and rushes of Marvel history, recent and old, but the rumours that have hounded the property since a film was first mooted have coalesced like an untypical Terrigen Mist. It has to be noted off the bat that, quite astonishingly, nothing in this adaptation happens for any reason whatsoever. That in itself makes it a bit of an MCU oddity. In fact, reason is willfullyy misunderstood. When events kicks off and Crystal reasonably asks her cousin Karnak why Maximus is taking over Attilan, he replies, “it’s a coup”. It’s happening, because of what it is. And that comes shortly after Karnak’s made an unsubtle speech predicting the very same. Yes, the script struggles, and that doesn’t help a simultaneously simple and  muddled narrative.

There’s a shame and an inevitability in that. Because as much as it follows the Inhumans earliest comic appearance, it makes some changes that at best border on the detrimental and at their worst play up the bland.

The first-misstep reads like a terrible joke: in the opening Earth-bound scene we not only meet a wrong Inhuman, we watch her get slain like a red shirt red herring. Triton’s there, a fleeting, failed appearance for a Marvel mainstay, but before we can marvel at the sense behind immediately killing off a freshly-transformed Inhuman who Triton fails to save (a double-fail), or indeed Triton’s make-up, we’re propelled to the moon and the Inhuman status quo cascading from its Royal Family. Compared to their mystery-packed arrival in the comics of 1965, it manages to make the whole affair a great deal more impenetrable, while diluting the mystery.

Calling the bad guy

The Richard III, conniving underdog, mould

Maximus is the big bad. Well, in a Richard III, conniving underdog, mould. There isn’t enough time in the early scenes to pull much interest from him, despite Karnak’s warnings. On one level Maximus case is helped by the need to right the wrongs of an, on the face of it, imbalanced society, and the fine niggling motivation that terrigenisis failed to affect him, yet has kept him in a privileged position tantalisingly close to the throne. His nominal goal, drawing on the will of the similarly disenfranchised people, is to betray his brother and break what he calls “Black Bolt’s meritocracy” – where generally, the terrigenisis-failed-’humans’ are sent to the mines while Inhumans enjoy the perks. It’s blunt and shallow, as the pilot attempts a short-hand for the rigid caste system that the comics spent years building up. We shouldn’t buy into the lie that lays the blames at his brother’s feet – after all, we first see the regal first couple imagining their life before they were called to the throne – but there’s really very little time to dig into it.

Quite what the non-Royal Inhumans get up to in their lower castle dwellings is unclear, but on screen it amounts to swanning around just above the humans, especially helpful if you’re gifted wings.

The trigger for Maximus’ long-gestating coup, unbelievably isn’t simply that there’s a coup. It’s the very real threat from Earth as humans develop. He plays up this threat as a moon buggy crashes into the invisibility wall that hides the city, although it soon becomes evident that in one of the many wasted twists that he’s pulling strings on two spheres. The Inhumans are not immune to activity on Earth, thanks to their inexplicable regal feeds, to the point that the stranded Queen Medusa later enquires after a Hawaiian bus.

Maximus the not quite mad

Way to endear the main characters to an entirely human audience

We’re left in no doubt that Maximus is evil, if not quite mad as his name suggests in the comics. But the depths of his plotting are left to ferment as he tries the outlandish and obvious move of stealing his brother’s wife at a moment of not-terrible crisis.

But regardless of his actions, it’s difficult to argue for the society that’s presented, as shallow and dull as it is. Crystal, Medusa’s sister is one of the characters of interest, yet plays the spoilt princess, truly living in her ivory tower. And crucially, for all her bouts of bravery and loyalty as she resists the usurper while her family are stranded on earth, she loses a great deal of empathy when she spits at Maximus that he’s human. Way to endear the main characters to an entirely human audience. Even if there’s a slither of intriguing greyness in there, the opening two episodes leave little space to manoeuvre.

Into the Mist

Judged and monitored by the silver cloaked genetic council

Terrigenesis takes the form of a regally sanctioned ritual on the moon, but presented in a  split-broadcast season with Agents of SHIELD, it’s unlikely many of its audience will be unfamiliar with the concept. The comics have presented a mixed history for the brutal terrigenesis cocoons that added an element of tension and surprise to SHIELD, but here they make way for a hideous debutant awkwardness. Like the more familiar structures of Krypton – itself the subject of a brewing eponymous proto-show which will also have to deal with many of the problems Inhumans faces – the subjects (in many ways) are judged and monitored by the silver cloaked genetic council… A council we crucially never get to see.

The dialogues suggest that they will turn up before long. Yet, the ritual is an early example of narrative strain. Maximus, seeking to comfort an apparently failed-Terrigenesis subject, is the only one who notes his emerging prophetic powers. But still, he lets someone who many might consider a very promising apprentice head to the mines, even after he seizes the throne. These niggles are frequent as scene after scene fails to live up to its promise, harshly back-lit against broad sets that betray a disappointing budget. When the Queen is captured, the shaving of Medusa is symbolic, horrifically so given its blatant and layered subtle connotations. Yet, the merest threat the Queen can level against Maximus for his betrayal is that she will never forgive him.

While Medusa’s torture may have some logic it underlines how the needs of the characters override the narrative. Maximus’ coup breaks after the earlier, rather weak, prophecy comes through, while the episode’s greatest twist – that he is linked to Inhuman-hunting death squads on Earth- is held back to throwaway a few scenes later. It’s left to his underlings, descending stairs to greet Karnak and proclaiming themselves envoys of “King Maximus”. It’s weak, and clearly twisted to parallel the responses from two of King Black Bolt’s loyalist lieutenants, Gorgon on Earth and Karnak in Attilan. That we don’t see the issuing of any Order 66 is just one element that, dictated by the need to a twist the dramatic flow of events, is perplexing. No wonder Crystal was confused. It’s a coup! That the series can continue, and Maximus’ coup face any opposition at all is down to the strategy-dissolving fact that Maximus didn’t deal with Crystal’s sweet but under-engineered teleporting dog LockJaw first.

None of the character’s powers are explained. Scenes are heavily chopped, fleeting and a few served up merely for show or to provide a backdrop for some dialogue dripping in exposition. No doubt aided by the budget constraints, it undermines its character’s abilities almost as wilfully, as it lets Hawaii become an increasingly distracting backdrop (“Stupid dog”, as Karnak remarks of Lockjaw when left on cliff peak for half an episode). And the splitting of the party breaks the welcome comic relief of Karnak and Gorgon. It may have sat uneasily with the rest of proceedings, but the close of episode two suggests it won’t be making a comeback for some time.

Aside from the wasted characters littered around the 50th State, Inhumans great mistake is misreading the true heart of the story: the Inhuman leader – absolute ruler though he may be – Black Bolt.

The quietest heartbeat

From Fox letting their hair down… To Marvel fumbling

While character’s powers range from the laboured (Gorgon, Medusa) to the inexplicable (Crystal, and comic-defyingly, Karnak), the flashback to Black Bolt’s evisceration of his parents is notably brief and chilling. But perversely, it can’t shout the trick it misses loud enough. The last full debut of a Marvel property was the willfully obtuse, eccentric and thoroughly brilliant Legion. That was Fox letting their hair down, but this is Marvel fumbling. It’s a huge step back for their small screen properties. The challenge set by a lead who can’t speak is a great opportunity, particularly given his pivotal role in the comic storylines of the past two decades.

While the sign-language invented for his live-action debut is a marvellous balance to the thought bubbles of the comics – neither could work in the other media – the show should have saved the Royal soap of the moon for flashbacks and cantered on his confused arrival on Earth. Imagine the scope of following this mute, alien and noble ruler through our reality… At least then there may have been a notion to expand the Hawaiian adventures of the second episode to something more than arrest for shoplifting (three police cars arrive to deal with that, no less) and being called a “freak”.

In Black Bolt a bold, inventive premise far removed from the staid and poorly sketched betrayal of family members that’s been tackled with far greater success elsewhere. After two episodes, it’s sad to think that wherever the show goes it faces a struggle. And to think it’s cutting the episode count of its parent. The endlessly inventive SHIELD that itself emerged from an ignoble opening half season.

Wasted

An unfair comparison when creating a feuding and fraternal web is Game of Thrones

There’s little mystery to these big or small screen Inhumans, and that’s a travesty for a huge, undiscovered, and fantastic corner of the Marvel universe. An unfair comparison when creating a feuding and fraternal web, as with any new pretenders, is Game of Thrones. That show established an enviable and immersive world for all its stumbles. But any comparison set by Inhumans’ opening forest hunt and Throne’s original and bloody prologue sortie beyond the Wall, ends with the blood.

The concept of Inhumans was shouting out for a local story, told through either a king, or the lowest of the caste, to bridge the inner-Gormenghast with the wider-Marvel universe and set the stage for the wealth of its kingdom. Where Guardians of the Galaxy rooted the fantastic in an ‘80s obsession, it’s proved an anomaly as much as Inhumans reinforces the difficulty of establishing a Marvel universe on screen that can fuse all the facets of its comic properties. The hard, political and solid pinnacle set by Captain America 2: the Winter Soldier (oh gosh, it’s so good), looks harder to breach than ever.

That said, some of the clues to helping the struggling Inhumans have already made it to the screen in the affecting tale of Steve Rogers. He proved more than anyone that the comic drama needs to be character driven. It needs to be personal. As Maximus and Black Bolt respectively, Iwan Rheon and Anson Mount wring phenomenal promise from some narrowly sketched characters. But that’s not enough. What Inhumans really needed was a Jon Snow; apparently they only got the Ramsey Bolton side of the equation.

Read more MARVEL at Jokerside.

Fictionside 104: Heroes & Villains

001 Frankenstein's Monster

Fictionside Heroes and villains

This half-birthday we pick out 10 of our favourite heroes and villains …

IT’S JOKERSIDE’S FOURTH AND A HALF BIRTHDAY, AND SO HERE’S ANOTHER OF OUR BI-ANNUAL FICTIONSIDES AS WE CAREER TO THE CLOSE OF JOKERSIDE’S FIVE YEAR MISSION! This time round, we’re picking out some of our favourite fictional heroes and villains. And wouldn’t you know, some of them are a bit misunderstood…

Actually, wouldn’t you know that with a Fictionside, things are a little more complicated than that. We’re going to pick out four and a half heroes and four and a half villains. There’s lots of Brits, and lots of hoods, a surprising amount who first appeared in comics, but bear with us…  Because it’s a Hell of a dinner party!

Heroes & Villains

Hero: Captain Britain

First appearance: Captain Britain Weekly #1, 1976

001 Captain BritainA champion in the great and noble line of great British heroes, and of course, measured against the quality of his foes…

Brian Braddock. Bloody brilliant. Originated created by Chris Claremont and Herb Trimpe in 1976, it’s when Alan Davis and Alan Moore stepped aboard to ‘learn their craft’ that the Marvel universe’s premier British hero earned his finest hour. And by Merlin, did he earn it.

The story that kicked off with a trip to A Crooked World didn’t simply define the British equivalent of Captain America, who’d been sauntering around for the best part of half a decade. It played a huge role in unfurling the Marvel multiverse, naming the main super-powered universe as Earth-616 under Moore’s predecessor David Thorpe, and introducing two barely stoppable Marvel supervillains. In the dapper form of Terry Thomas came Mad Jim Jaspers. And at the hand of Sir James’ megalomania, The Fury. Unsettling and unnerving.

In his first stab at a mainstream Marvel book, Moore took on Thorpe’s storyline mid-way through and proceeded to hone a champion in the great and noble line of great British heroes, and of course, one measured against the quality of his foes left at the writers disposal. Jaspers’ is one of the Marvel universe’s great mutants, and by achieving the position of British Prime Minister yet another warning to George Osborne about taking on too much work. Jasper’s reality altering mutant skills were vast, and once used on a large scale triggered inevitable madness. His creation, the Fury, was a cyborg killing machine so perfect it could survive the collapse of reality and traverse the multiverse in pursuit of its single-minded aim. Within issues Moore had killed off the hero on the failing, warning Earth-238 before resurrecting him on 616, ready for the same, unstoppable events to threaten that reality.

Braddock’s powers were the parallel of Captain America’s, reflecting Albion. Instead of the truth, justice and American Way, Braddock was invested by the ancient, mystical powers of the British Isles by Merlin, destined to uphold the laws of Britain and by implication, become a chief guardian of the multiverse. Who knew that the role thrust upon this Brit would prove so influential. Starting with the wonderful Silver Age conceit of rubbing his sacred amulet, Britain’s comfort in his role changed as his abilities and weapons were refined and his distinctive, patriotic suit pared down just before he first encountered mad Jim.

Excalibur and Arthurian legend continues to wind around Captain Britain’s story, in storyline and pun. He’s inextricably linked to the wider Marvel-verse as the twin of mutant Psylocke. While she was last seen on the big screen in X-Men: Apocalypse, resolutely not with an Essex accent, Brian fans are still questioning whether Marvel’s simply forgotten to announce their Captain Britain film… Like any great British hero, he’s hardly a one trick wonder, mystic or otherwise. Informed by Holmes, Bond and the best of Blighty, the Braddock story has not only dragged in childhood trauma, the secret service, and huge wad of British society, but also granted him a Ph.D. in physics. Bloody brilliant. Continue reading “Fictionside 104: Heroes & Villains”

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”

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