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The 2018 Superhero Watch: Reflections on the Marvel Cinematic Universe

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  • The 2018 Superhero Watch: Reflections on the Marvel Cinematic Universe

    Click image for larger version  Name:	MCU Grid.JPG Views:	1 Size:	161.1 KB ID:	606As both a movie lover and a ginormous geek, I like to periodically set movie-watching goals for myself. I’ll try to tackle the films in a certain genre, or featuring a certain character, or built around a certain theme. And as a writer and a ginormous geek, I also tend to document some of these challenges. In the past, I’ve done film study projects about the history of horror, the legacy of horror/comedies, my favorite TV Christmas specials and, one memorable December, 25 different incarnations of Ebenezer Scrooge. That I missed out on that Family Ties episode where Alex P. Keaton plays the part is my one regret in life.

    Like so many other things, though, my movie watching habits had to evolve when my wife and I had a baby. It simply wasn’t feasible to set aside an entire month to watch slasher movies and write a detailed analysis of each one. So in 2018, I set a different kind of goal for myself: to watch as many superhero movies as possible, and in the case of those I’ve seen before, determine whether my original impressions of the film hold up. Four and a half months into the year, I’ve ranked 65 movies and shorts as of this writing (you can keep track of the full list on Letterboxd). With school about to end for the summer, I’m hoping to ramp things up soon.

    Thus far, I’ve had no rhyme or reason behind which movies I’ve watched -- I watched whatever I felt like at the moment, or whatever was on HBO, or what YouTube link I came across. In fact, there has only been one specific goal to date: rewatching all of the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (including shorts) prior to Avengers: Infinity War. Since this is the tenth anniversary of the MCU, I thought a good place to begin my reflections on my Superheroic Cinematic Odyssey would be here, with the biggest franchise in the world.

    The MCU, I don’t think anyone will deny, has been wildly successful. The films have long since made back the $4 billion Disney paid for the company, and both the characters and actors are now household names. If I had gone to school as a child and tried to talk about what Yondu did in the most recent issue of Guardians of the Galaxy, people would have looked at me as though I had grown a red fin of my own. Now, if you just say the character’s name, fifty percent of the population will fire back, “I’m Mary Poppins, y’all!”

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ID:	607The question, then, is what has made the MCU work so well? There are several reasons, of course, but I think it has to start with casting, and with the casting of the first Iron Man movie. Robert Downey Jr. famously went through a very public cycle of substance abuse and self-destructive behavior. What better way to rehabilitate his image and career than by channeling that into Tony Stark, a character who is known for facing those same demons? Downey went from being a guy who couldn’t get fired in Hollywood to being one of the most famous actors in the world, and that happened because he totally embodies Tony Stark. And while his performance is, of course, informed by the comics, it goes both ways. It would almost be impossible to find an Iron Man comic from the last ten years that doesn’t bear his stamp.

    It was maybe even a bigger shock when lightning struck again in the form of Chris Evans. A lot of people were skeptical that the guy who had played the Human Torch just a few years prior would be an effective Captain America. But look at him now. The poise, the posture, the persona is Steve Rogers. He’s strong, brave, confident, and fearless in the pursuit of what he believes is right. The aura of command, of leadership about the man is almost tangible. If Evans put on that voice and told me to go fight Thanos single-handedly, I’d probably pick up a gun and run to my death because that wouldn’t be as scary as the idea of letting Captain America down.

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ID:	608Although a lot of the casting in the MCU is spot-on, these two stand out to me as being two of the top five superhero performers of all time. (The other three, for the record, are Christopher Reeve as Superman, Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, and Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman.)

    The next crucial part of the MCU’s success is the world-building. They did it right, starting with four films that could have been left completely unrelated, but linking them together almost immediately. As a result, the entire first Avengers movie felt like a massive payoff for what would become known as “Phase One” of the MCU. Since then, they’ve not only continued the momentum of those films, but expanded to characters nobody ever would have considered for a major motion picture 15 years ago like Ant-Man and Doctor Strange. As great as Tom Holland is as Spider-Man, and as cool as it would be to have the Beast join the Avengers, I think it’s been oddly beneficial that Marvel did not have the rights to Spidey or the X-Men when they started. If they had, they would have started there, and it seems highly unlikely that things like Guardians of the Galaxy would have ever been made.

    This is not to say the MCU has been flawless. As many have pointed out, they have a villain problem. Far too many of their villains have been bland, unmemorable, and had cookie-cutter motivations for their misdeeds. Even Black Panther, which got a lot of praise for its villain, didn’t escape this entirely. Michael B. Jordan’s performance as Killmonger was strong, and his motivations certainly had more depth than most other MCU villains, but in the final reel of the film we got what amounted to the hero fighting an evil version of himself, just like in Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, and Ant-Man. Captain America: Civil War was a great movie not because it had a great villain, but because the conflict between the two heroes was so compelling.

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ID:	609Who have been Marvel’s best baddies? Tom Hiddleston’s Loki is iconic now, with his smooth, smarmy charisma, but he’s always straddled the line between being a true villain and simply being a selfish opportunist. He even lapsed into being a heroic figure in Thor: Ragnarokand Infinity War. Josh Brolin's Thanos is given a great motivation that makes sense in a severely warped kind of way (which is essential for a great villain) and he plays the part wonderfully. But for my money, the MCU’s best villain to date? Michael Keaton as the Vulture in Spider-Man: Homecoming. Performance aside (and a fine performance it was), he gave us Marvel’s most relatable villain: a blue-collar guy who got pushed around one too many times and leapt when he saw an opportunity to push back. He’s not out to rule the world, not even to change the world, he just wants money to provide for his wife and daughter. The conflict stems not from some deep-seated need for revenge, but because he’s committing crimes (that’s what criminals do) and Spider-Man wants to stop the crimes (that’s what superheroes do). It's so simple it almost feels like a mistake.

    The conflict doesn’t become personal between them until the final act switcheroo when we discover that the “Liz” Peter has been crushing on the whole movie is not Liz Allen, as longtime comic readers were supposed to assume, but the daughter of Keaton’s Adrian Toomes. Even then, Toomes has no beef with Peter at first. It comes about in a frankly brilliant scene where he’s driving Peter and Liz to a school dance. He discovers Spider-Man’s true identity not because of some convoluted coincidence or because of some staggeringly stupid mistake or slip of the tongue on the hero’s part, but through the perfectly natural conversation any father might have with the boy taking his daughter on a date. The pieces fall into place cleanly and snap together like the inevitable LEGO sets based on the film. The tension in this scene is as thick as the Rhino’s skull, the performances by Keaton and Holland are magnificent, and the writing is flawless. It might be my single favorite scene in the entire MCU.

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ID:	610This is one of the more recent MCU movies, of course, and the creators have a lot of experience now. Earlier movies relied more on coincidence and switcheroos that didn’t work as well, but there’s one movie that I found I liked considerably more in the rewatch than I did when it first came out, and that’s Iron Man 3. While the revelation that Ben Kingsley’s character was not really the Mandarin seemed weak at the time, in retrospect, I like it more. I think I’m less precious now about comic book movies being strictly faithful to the source material, more open to weirder interpretations. What’s more, the stuff about Tony Stark struggling with PTSD after the events of the first Avengers movie was pretty compelling, and I’m a little disappointed that this thread largely disappeared after this film, not really coming back strong until Infinity War. At the time, I ranked Iron Man 3 as my least-favorite Marvel film, but I like it a lot more now, moving it ahead of even Iron Man 2. (My least-favorite MCU film now, after the rewatch, is Thor: The Dark World, for those of you keeping score.)

    One last thing about the MCU: let’s talk about the shorts. For a while, Marvel did “One-Shots,” short films they included as DVD extras that expanded on the side characters from the films. “The Consultant” explained the Tony Stark cameo in Incredible Hulk, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Thor’s Hammer” let Agent Coulson show how badass he can be, “Item 47” dealt with the aftermath of the Battle of New York, “All Hail the King” was a funny look at Kingsley’s character in prison, and “Agent Carter” was sort of a mini-pilot for the ABC television series. The shorts were a lot of fun, but Marvel apparently ran out of time to do them as their film slate got more and more crowded. Disney recently asked Marvel to start the program up again, but Kevin Feige essentially said they’re still too busy. I hope they find a way to get them back, because this would be a great way to showcase fan-favorite characters like Shuri, Wong, and Peter Parker’s buddy Ned, or even introduce minor heroes that have fan followings but may not support a movie of their own, like Night Thrasher, Firestar, Slapstick, or Quasar.

    The MCU feels like it’s in a very good place right now. Even after the end of Infinity War, the franchise has more creative steam than anything else in the movies, and I frankly can’t wait for the announcement (when it finally comes) of what awaits us beyond Ant-Man and the Wasp, Captain Marvel, and Avengers 4.
    Blake M. Petit, who knows perfectly well he’s probably the only person who would buy a ticket to a Slapstick movie and doesn’t care, has been pontificating about pop culture online for over a decade. You can follow him at BlakeMPetit.com and, if you're feeling generous, check out his books on Amazon.

    • Blake M. Petit
      #3
      Blake M. Petit commented
      Editing a comment
      Gough and Simmons are both great in their roles. If I were to start expounding on supporting characters, I'll have to throw in Margot Kidder as Lois Lane and Gary Oldman as Comissioner Gordon as being other perfect choices.

    • Craig Reade
      #4
      Craig Reade commented
      Editing a comment
      Kidder absolutely yes. Oldman is nothing like I would have pictured Gordon, but he's such a brilliant actor, he still pulled it off.

    • Blake M. Petit
      #5
      Blake M. Petit commented
      Editing a comment
      I'll certainly be writing about the Superman and Batman movies in their own reflections later on, but now you've got me thinking about a piece specifically about the supporting players...
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