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…
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.
In 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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.