COMPULSIVE FRANCHISE DISORDER: “The Marvel Cinematic Universe- Phase 2 (2013-2015)”.

Posted by
/

When “The Avengers” was released in 2012, it predictably became the highest grossing comic book movie of all time, the most profitable movie of its year and even managed to join the billion dollar club, but its importance to the franchise far outweighs its box office gross or positive reviews. For one, the movie was so successful that every subsequent entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe would be rewarded with an improved box office return, making it easy to forget that there were entries in ‘Phase 1’ that were relative underperformers in comparison. From now on, the vast majority of the movies would be tonally and visually similar to promote the ‘shared universe’ gimmick, for better or worse. But the influence of “The Avengers” wasn’t limited to its own saga, as other studios would now try to manufacture their own shared universes, with the key word being ‘try’. Almost all of them would fail, whether it was due to a lack of overarching vision, a rush to get to the cross-overs or a lack of quality films. This trend would lead to a minor backlash against Marvel, as the industry was now being flooded with these kinds of features thanks to its success, even if that backlash would not translate to box office loss…yet? It should also be noted that Marvel Entertainment is owned by Disney, which was expanding its empire to the point over overexposure, so some viewed the MCU as a General of its bloodthirsty army. ‘Phase 2’ of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has the most divisive entries within the franchise and would endure the most controversy, so could these behind-the-scenes issues have finally caught up with the brand? How successful was it in the long run?

This review series is the sequel to “COMPULSIVE FRANCHISE DISORDER- The Marvel Cinematic Universe: Phase 1 (2008-2012)“, so please follow the link and read my thoughts on the first round of flicks within this continuity, which includes “Iron Man“, “Captain America: The First Avenger” and more!

IRON MAN 3 (2013)

(Directed by Shane Black)

(Written by Drew Pearce and Shane Black)

(Starring Robert Downy Jr., Guy Pearce and Gwyneth Paltrow)

Iron Man 3” is probably the most divisive entry in the ‘Marvel Cinematic Universe’, although the creative decisions seem to be the major points of contention, not their execution. I have to admit that when I first saw this in theaters, my appreciation of the technical skill that went into the movie was upstaged by my anger at feeling duped by the marketing campaign. Over time, this emotion subsided and now I feel like I can give a fair critique of the story, which indeed makes some baffling-yet-inspired creative decisions. Tony Stark (Robert Downy Jr.) is not doing well since the events of “The Avengers“, as he’s suffering from some form of post traumatic stress disorder, which is causing problems in his relationship with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). But his life is about to get even more complicated with the arrival of a new rival named Aldrich Killiach (Guy Pearce) and a mysterious terrorist known as ‘The Mandarin’ (Ben Kingsley), who have sinister plans for our hero. The problem with “Iron Man 2” was that even though it had a good core story, it really felt like it was being used as a vehicle to set up the shared universe, sometimes at the expense of said story. “Iron Man 3” also has a good core story, but much like its predecessor, there are a lot of additional subplots and side characters that dilute it…except they have nothing to do with world building or shared universes…They spend so much time setting up the love story with Tony and Pepper, but she fades into the background early into the 2nd act to make room for a little kid named Harley (Ty Simpkins ). I liked Harley and his dynamic with Tony was golden, but did the narrative require his presence? Is he from the comics? Will he be an asset in subsequent entries? His entire subplot is a bizarre tangent that took away from the characters who are important to the narrative! I liked Rhodes (Don Cheadle) a lot more here and he has great chemistry with Tony. But they don’t get a lot of time to interact, because of these new characters, whom are inconsequential in the long run. Tony’s entire motivation for declaring war on the Mandarin is Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) nearly getting killed, but it’s almost like this is forgotten in favor of Tony’s PTSD…which itself is almost forgotten in favor of the villains’ motivations. All of this is interesting, it’s just that the story can’t really settle on what it wants to be about, wasting a lot of its potential. But I can’t say any of this is bad either, as all of it kept me entertained or intrigued on some level…

And then there is ‘the twist’…

I’m not going to spoil anything, but you’re either going to hate it, love it…but probably hate it and then maybe you’ll make peace with it… I still don’t really like what they did with the villain, even though the reveal did surprise me (and make me laugh). Once again, there is some GOLDEN material that comes along with it and the performances are great, so I can’t entirely dismiss the direction the story takes.I still found the motivations of the villains to be rather weak, even if I did like the ‘you create your own demons’ motif, as that is a large part of what makes Tony’s overarching development so interesting. A lot of viewers were disappointed in the lack of an actual ‘Iron Man’, as the suit spends most of its screen-time out of commission, but I thought this increased the stakes. The set pieces of “Iron Man 3” are INTENSE, perhaps even moreso than any other entries within the MCU, and I attribute this to Tony continuously being put in positions of vulnerability. When he isn’t able to rely on his suit, he’s forced to fall back on his wits and the action scenes are often built around this, which I thought that was inventive and thrilling. The finale boasts what is easily the coolest ‘hero vs villain’ confrontation of the Iron Man trilogy, as you see two vastly different types of combat styles collide and it’s very nicely choreographed. Once again, your own reaction to this might not be the same, as seemingly everything within “Iron Man 3” is ‘love it or hate it’. I thought the comedy was an improvement over “Iron Man 2” and there are also some really moving dramatic moments, so Robert Downy Jr. has a lot of great material to work with. His supporting cast is in top form as well and I do like how they develop some interesting scenarios with Pepper Potts, making her absence during the middle block EVEN MORE frustrating. In the context of 2013, “Iron Man 3” shows off the best CGI effects and they’ve yet to show any signs of aging. I respect Shane Black for trying something new and even when some of his ideas don’t quite work, I wouldn’t have minded them IF IT WEREN’T FOR THAT DECEPTIVE MARKETING CAMPAIGN. I understand why some would love “Iron Man 3” and I understand why they’d hate it too, but I think it’s…good…It takes a lot of risks, does some unique things with its characters and showcases top notch production values. The only reason I’m not more enthusiastic is…strangely, I keep forgetting “Iron Man 3” exists…Maybe it’s because it isn’t really interested in setting up future sequels, while at the same time allowing its own core story to be distracted by its own filler? Maybe it’s because of what they do with the Mandarin? Maybe it wanted to accomplish so much that very little was allowed to leave a lasting impression? Maybe it doesn’t matter, as I still really enjoyed “Iron Man 3” and it’s interesting how this plays with the MCU formula even before said formula was set in stone. Robert Downy Jr. says this will be the last “Iron Man” movie, but it wouldn’t be the last time he suits up. While being divisive, “Iron Man 3” was still incredibly financially successful, being the 2nd ‘MCU’ entry to join the billion dollar club.

Rating: 7/10 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ 

THOR: THE DARK WORLD (2013)

(Directed by Alan Taylor)

(Written by Christopher Yost , Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely)

(Starring Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman and Anthony Hopkins)

Thor: The Dark World” and “The Incredible Hulk” have been locked in an intense battle for the past 5 years to determine who is the rightful worst entry of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Prior to this marathon, I had my money on “The Incredible Hulk“, but I’m beginning to think I bet on the wrong contender. This movie…did not suck or anything…It’s fine? “Thor 2” is fine…It simply isn’t armed with anything I’d describe as exceptional, unique or interesting, even though this is the first MCU entry to spend most of its running-time in another world…which should by default, make this unique or interesting, if not exceptional…After the events of “The Avengers“, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is pacifying the nine realms by beating the marauders into submission, while his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has been imprisoned for his crimes. Thor pines for Jane (Natalie Portman), but his duties keep him from being able to see her until she’s suddenly infected by the Aether, an ancient weapon of mass destruction belonging to the Dark Elf, Malekith (Christopher Eccleston). Malekith wants to use the Aether to throw the universe into darkness, or some generic bad guy shit like that. How does a film with flying viking ships and space elves feel so underwhelming? This is only speculation, but “Thor 2” encountered some behind-the-scenes drama where the original director left the project at an inopportune time, the script had to be re-written and the cast was left frustrated by the monotony of the shoot. “Thor: The Dark World” is the first entry in the MCU that feels like it just wants to get itself over with, that it was developed less with inspiration and imagination and more with meeting a deadline. Maybe everyone was just too burned out to really care? For what it’s worth, even if this was the case, everyone involved is still competent enough to make a watchable movie. If “Thor: The Dark World” is the worst that the MCU has to offer, then at least it’s a testament to how stellar the franchise really is.

Every time I revisit “Thor 2“, I’m taken aback by how derivative it is, as this is a movie where spaceships look like they’ve arrived from the “Alien” universe, the aliens themselves can pass as cousins of the species from  “Predator” at times, the art direction borrows a lot from “Lord of the Rings” and the action set pieces are reminiscent of “Star Wars“. I’m sure the filmmakers would justify this by saying they were paying tribute to the classics, but is it worth it if I spend the majority of my viewing experience wishing I was watching said classics instead? I do like the Dark Elves masks though and the special effects were consistently good, even if they’re mostly unimaginative. I enjoyed all of the action on some level, as even if they reminded me too much of better movies, they’re still nicely choreographed, shot and edited. Tonally, “Thor 2″ is similar to “Thor“, except the drama is constantly being disrupted by questionable-to–bad comedic antics. Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) is a lot sillier this time around and while most seem annoyed with his change in characterization, I thought he had some amusing moments. I REALLY did not like Darcy (Kat Dennings) though, whose humorous contributions never made me laugh, but instead convinced me that the stakes weren’t as high as they were supposed to be. Her quips REALLY undercut the tension. The story is pretty routine by this point, except “Thor 2” wants to do more than it can. I was hoping that Thor’s comrades would finally get some real screen-time, but even though they do a little bit more fighting, they’re arguably even more under-used than before! Why play up Sif (Jaimie Alexander) being the third wheel in the love story between Thor and Jane if…she’s not going to really be a third wheel…They go nowhere with that! The marketing campaign focused on Thor and Loki’s unsteady alliance, but Loki isn’t in the movie THAT much and their scenes together are limited to the middle block. I actually have grown to like Jane as a character and romantic foil, thanks to Portman’s charisma, but there reaches a point when she becomes less of a character and more of a plot device. I HATED what they did with Odin (Anthony Hopkins), whose personality completely changes because Thor has to be a rebel, so needs to be at odds with his Father, even if Daddy must now be a douchebag. What makes this worse is he spends his introductory scene berating Loki for the same attitudes he would show not even 30 minutes later! Yet the cast is still really good and they make their interactions, few as they may seem, fun enough (Loki’s trolling is hilarious!). The exception is MalefuckIcan’trememberhisname, who is easily the worst villain to grace the MCU. He has boring motivations, a boring personality and was brought to life by a boring performance, with even his makeup and costume being boring compared to his more menacing underlings. It’s also hard to take him seriously when he gets his ass kicked by the heroes’ Mom during the battle that’s supposed to establish his skill…I’ve heard that most of his character was left on the cutting room floor, but either way, there’s just no reason to get invested in him or the threat he poses. There’s no reason to get invested in the story either. “Thor: The Dark World” goes through the motions and then ends, providing enough serviceable mediocrity to not kill the franchise’s momentum, while not pushing it forward either.

Rating: 5/10 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER (2014)

(Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo)

(Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely)

(Starring Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson and Robert Redford)

Captain America: The Winter Soldier” was the only sequel within the Marvel Cinematic Universe that thoroughly satisfied fans of the originals. Even those who weren’t as enthusiastic agreed that it was a step up from “Captain America: The First Avenger“, while others lauded the film as one of the franchise’s finest entries. The positive reception was reflected by its box office intake, which was almost twice as much as what its predecessor brought in. “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is probably the first- and possibly only- MCU flick that has gotten better upon subsequent viewings, even though I was already pleasantly surprised when I first saw it in theaters. The story follows Captain ‘Steve Rogers’ America (Chris Evans) as he continues struggling to adapt in the modern age of technology and moral ambiguity. He works as an elite agent of SHIELD, but his values cause friction with his boss Nic Fury (Samuel Jackson) and his co-worker/fellow Avenger, Natasha (Scarlett Johansson), whose methods are too shady for him. When the agency is suddenly targeted by the mysterious Winter Soldier (???), circumstances force Rogers into going on the run, where he discovers that all is not what it seems. “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” possibly has the best plot since the first “Iron Man“, as most of the other films excel thanks to their high energy, flashy visuals, fun characterizations and top notch humor. This one certainly has all of those, but at its core, there is a strong story and I was always interested in where it would go next. Admittedly, the major plot twists are a little predictable, but this is balanced out with some surprises that would change the landscape of the MCU. Whether the heroes win or lose, nothing will ever be the same again.

As the protagonist, Steve Rogers doesn’t develop as much as his presence forces everyone around him to develop, overcoming the inherent writing problems accompanying the character. This sounds like a backhanded compliment, but it’s hard to give character arcs to someone who is so righteous that they don’t need to change. But it’s very moving seeing more flawed characters follow his example and rise above their shortcomings, because of his actions. Chris Evans once again makes Captain America thoroughly likable, but he also spends nearly every scene selling his characters’ inner conflict. The supporting cast is great too! We learn more about Nic Fury and especially Natasha, both of whom have pivotal roles within the story. Scarlett Johansson stands out because she gets to show off her dry wit a lot more than her previous appearances allowed. Her chemistry with Cap makes all of their interactions engaging, whether they’re playfully exchanging barbs or are viewing each-other as potential threats. I like how even though they could’ve easily gone down the path, their relationship is always presented as platonic. There are some new faces and most of them could be argued as underdeveloped, particularly Frank Grillo’s and Emily VanCamp’s characters. But I thought they were given just enough personality and screen-time to make me eager to see more of them, without feeling like they weren’t given enough to do here. Robert Redford (Alexander Pierce) shows up to give the movie some class and the titular Winter Soldier (???) is both creepy and alluringly mysterious. I was also a big fan of Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), whose repertoire with Rogers is so perfect that once again, I was left eager for more, without feeling cheated. Everyone snugly fit within the narrative, improving upon it with their compelling personalities and fun contributions to the spectacle.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is more of a spy thriller with a super hero twist than it is a traditional comic book flick, focusing on conspiracies and intrigue, while also delivering the high octane action sequences. The Russo Brothers keep everything somewhat grounded in reality, sporting the BEST choreography AND editing to ever grace the MCU. The action scenes, whether they’re hand-to-hand brawls, shoot-outs or car chases, are exhilarating and sometimes even suspenseful. The finale does utilize a lot more CGI effects, but they’re convincing and serve as a satisfying backdrop for the climax. I liked “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” in 2014, but I might love it in the context of 2018. For all of my talk about how Phase 1 was different than the rest, this one is equally distinct, but significantly better than most of them. Are there any problems? My only complaint is that Georges St-Pierre’s starter villain somehow was a match for Captain America, despite there being no indication that he’s ‘enhanced’. Maybe he’s portraying a character from the comics or perhaps he’ll appear in a sequel, but it’s strange seeing him stand toe to toe against a man who has stood toe to toe against GODS. Yet this is minor, as it’s still a pretty cool fight scene. Is “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” my favorite entry within the franchise? No. Do I even think it’s necessarily among the best or most important? Not really, but I do think it has a great story that reflects real world concerns, action scenes that are designed to be just as intense as they are fun and characters who stand out, even with limited screen-time. Sounds pretty great to me…

Rating: 8/10 ★★★★★★★★☆☆ 

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014)

(Directed by James Gunn)

(Written by Nicole Perlman and James Gunn)

(Starring Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana and Dave Bautista)

Everyone was convinced that “Guardians of the Galaxy” would be the first Marvel movie to fail, but I thought it looked charming from the teaser trailer…although it took some time for me to catch on that this was even part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The film would be released to unanimous praise and showers of box office gold and it’s still regarded as one of the best entries within the franchise, so everyone was wrong. Even though “Iron Man” is superior, I would argue that “Guardians of the Galaxy” had a greater influence on the genre. There was a surge of ‘misfit ensemble’ films at the time, with Marvel’s dastardly nemesis- the DC Cinematic Universe- trying to capture the same magic with “Suicide Squad“. There was even a brief trend where movie trailers would be edited and scored in a way that imitated this. The success of “Guardians of the Galaxy” might also be why the majority of the franchise looks so digital these days, as it was so much more visually striking than the others. “The Avengers” left the bigger impact on the industry, but “Guardians of the Galaxy” perfected the formula that “The Avengers” had begun…subtly molding the Marvel Cinematic Universe into its image. This is the first entry within the franchise to identity as a comedy, even though the action is plentiful and the story does take some dark turns. If I have any complaint, it’s that the opening scene was too much of a downer, so when we’re subsequently introduced to Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) goofing around, I found it a little difficult to adjust. But once you’re settled in, the vast majority of the content is designed to make you laugh. The characters are all fun and colorful…and I swear, when I typed that, I was referencing their personalities…with even supporting roles being able to stand out in a limited amount of screen-time. The cast is in top form, armed with hilarious dialogue, but also showcasing phenomenal comedic timing and a natural chemistry with each-other. Peter Quill, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Groot (voiced by Vin Deasel) each contribute something special to the team and the actors contribute something special to the movie. Everyone has their ‘moment’, their time to shine, whether it’s a memorable line, a bad-ass action or a tear jerking reaction. The story is a strong platform for these characters to shine and their development unfolded believably. The art direction is fun and vibrant, with the excessive CGI being worth it thanks to the imaginative sets, props and eye popping colors. The action scenes are inventive and exciting and blah blah blah great editing blah blah blah great choreography. I’m not going to lie, for all of my enthusiasm, I don’t seem to have a lot to say…

But I do have something to say about the villains of Marvel’s shared universe…

I’ve always shrugged whenever I’d hear complaints about the MCU having weakly written villains, as I feel audiences have become conditioned to pay more attention to the bad guys than the good ones, because we’ve spent decades watching the likes of Jack Nicholson or Burgess Meredith upstage the protagonists. When I watch a movie called “Captain America“, I expect my attention to be on the one whose name is in the title, while the villain should function as a foil and primary obstacle for our intrepid hero. Yet I do understand and even agree with some of the criticisms. The filmmakers behind the Marvel movies have been trying to create complex villains, but the upper management tends to sacrifice their development or personality in favor of world building. Mickey Rourke and Christopher Eccleston have both complained that most of the scenes containing their character depth were left on the editing room floor. This leaves audiences unsure how they’re supposed to feel about them, as their backstories might be tragic, but they’re otherwise presented as standard villains. Ronan (Lee Pace) is often a punching bag for proponents of the ‘MCU villains suck’ opinion, but I actually liked him. Yes, his motivations are simple and he is very much your typical baddie, but the movie has no pretenses about this. He’s established by killing someone and BATHING IN THEIR BLOOD, making him scarier than most of the antagonists. He rants, raves and says horrible things to hurt the characters whom we like and this isn’t even including his genocidal actions. Is he complex? Absolutely not, but at least I know I’m supposed to hate him. Furthermore, Ronan ends up being a great foil for our heroes because he seems to think he’s an antagonist in a much more serious movie. In the end, he exists to be the punch-line of a very funny moment where he’s forced to confront the silliness of the titular Guardians. Lee Pace sold that brilliantly. So even if Ronan does not stand out as a great villain, I thought he was great within the context of this story. “Guardians of the Galaxy” would go on to be used as the template for the majority of ‘Phase 3’, both tonally and stylistically…but that is for another review!

Rating: 8/10 ★★★★★★★★☆☆ 

THE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON (2015)

(Written and Directed by Joss Whedon)

(Starring Robert Downy Jr., Chris Evans and James Spader)

The Avengers: Age of Ultron” was successful, but its reception drew attention to the cracks that were beginning to form in Marvel’s business model…which were apparently fixed by the time ‘Phase 3’ would begin, making this history lesson somewhat anti-climactic…BUT AT THE TIME, many interpreted these concerns as the beginning of a decline…that never really happened, BUT COULD HAVE! You see, “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” suffered from a lukewarm critical reception with a 75% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes, an “A” from CinemaScore and only a 7.4/10 on imdb…Wait, WHAT!? Aren’t those good scores?!…and even worse, the movie only grossed 1.4 billion dollars! Okay, you’re f@cking with me now, right?! But I assure you that I am not f@cking with…myself…Marvel had REALLY high expectations for this sequel, believing it would perform better than its predecessor. While that has never been formally confirmed, it should be noted that this is the 3rd most expensive movie of all time…They would actually put LESS money into “The Avengers: Infinity War“, even though that is arguably the climax of the ENTIRE FRANCHISE, so I think it’s safe to say that they expected more out of their investment. “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” is what happens when the hype spirals out of control, as I think audience expectations were also unreasonably high. People expect “Thor 2” to be a worthy successor to “Thor“, but they don’t expect it to be a worthy successor to “Iron Man“. But “The Avengers” sequels are saddled with those expectations, because it’s technically a follow-up to all of them. The first one satisfied everyone at the time because all it needed to do was function as a big cross-over event. But by the time “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” was released, the novelty of seeing all of these heroes interact had diminished. Now there would have to be a good story and strong character development, while getting mileage out of these character interactions. Furthermore, audiences would expect the action scenes to escalate, which is going to be a challenge when “The Avengers” had already provided some of the most bombastic spectacle and state-of-the-art effects that the genre had ever seen. Adding to the backlash that would inevitably follow “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” were reports of executive meddling, leading to Joss Whedon growing disillusioned with the brand (for awhile). This isn’t even considering the burnout that many were feeling in regards to franchises, shared universes and the MCU in particular, so the stars seemingly aligned to make “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” suffer a backlash that none of its predecessors had endured…

Which is a shame, as I think it’s pretty damn good!

The Avengers reunite to dissemble the remains of Hydra, whose experiments with Loki’s scepter has allowed them to create their own enhanced human beings, Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). The battle inspires Tony Stark (Robert Downy Jr.) to develop the Ultron program, an artificial intelligence program whose mission to bring peace to humanity. Unfortunately, Ultron (voiced by James Spader) goes insane and interprets ‘peace’ as the extinction of mankind. “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” is, in my opinion, a better movie than its predecessor….but it also fails a lot more than its predecessor. The overarching conflict does feel a lot more personal this time around and the stakes are arguably higher because the villain is not designed to put over a bigger threat, nor does he feel insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Ultron was my favorite MCU villain up until this point, as he’s not just an obstacle or a foil to our heroes. I love how he has all of the personality traits of Tony Stark, yet his charisma, narcissism, wit, inventiveness and unpredictable nature are packaged in such a menacing way that he manages to be frightening, amusing, loathable and pitiful all at once. Some have complained that his motivations were confusing or inconsistent, but I thought that was the point, as the robot was clearly going insane. James Spader’s voice acting stole the show for me, even though everyone else gets their moments to be dramatic, funny or awesome. The character development is a lot more intense and challenging. While it’s obvious that Whedon wasn’t entirely sure what to do with Thor (Chris Hemsworth), he takes special care to expose the flaws of the Avengers, so their in-fighting made a lot more sense than it did in the first one. Everyone HATES the romance between Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), as it reduces the token female character into a much more typical token female character. This didn’t bother me personally, because it’s used to expand upon Natashia’s messed up back-story. I do take issue with how Banner’s character development keeps coming down to his inability to get laid…He hits all of the same beats that the character did in “The Incredible Hulk“, so it really feels like the character is limited in terms of what they can do with him. At least a lot more time was spent on fleshing out Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), who finally comes into his own as a full fledged character. He ended up being a much different kind of person than I was expecting, but he rounds the team out nicely.

There is a lot more world building, but while many might think it’s distracting, I thought all of the new additions fit snugly within the narrative. Scarlett Witch and Quicksilver are fun, interesting and show a different side to Ultron’s personality, while also standing out on their own. Vision (*Spoiler Alert*) completely grabbed my attention once he was introduced and they even set-up “Black Panther” with the inclusion of Klaue (Andy Serkis), who entertains in his limited screen-time.The visual style is a lot grittier and “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” is a lot more grounded in reality than I had remembered it being. Most of the action scenes are simple in theory, as they’re car chases, shoot-outs and fist fights, but they scale them up to make the spectacle seem a lot more epic than it really is. The CGI is great and if real stunts weren’t performed during some of the set pieces, then the special effects wizards sure convinced me. Some have complained about the tone, as it’s supposed to be bleaker than the other films, but the characters are still making wise-cracks. I’m fine with this, because it’s part of the appeal of the franchise, yet I understand why you might disagree. But while “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” improves upon “The Avengers” in so many ways, sometimes ‘simple’ is just better. There is so much information to process here that the cast often rushes through exposition, making it a little difficult to keep up. I’m still at a loss as to what went down in the infamous ‘cave scene’, which allegedly was the mangled remains of a lost subplot. I also found the ending to be incredibly lackluster, as consequences needed to accompany the resolution, but we wouldn’t get any until “Captain America: Civil War“. Yet “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” still feels a little too long, in spite of also feeling like the filmmakers grew a little too overzealous in the editing room. The first movie might lack the depth and the tension of the sequel, but its reach never exceeded its grasp. “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” has genuine, problematic flaws, whereas “The Avengers” benefits and suffers from more subjective issues. Yet I’ve always felt that the main reason why it didn’t do as well as its predecessor is because ‘Phase 2’ didn’t add to the Avengers line-up. The MCU introduced the Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man, but the latter had yet to even debut and none of them appeared in “The Avengers: Age of Ultron“. The big cross-over event only included those who participated in the last one and those who were introduced within said ‘big, cross-over event’. Contrast this with “The Avengers: Infinity War“, which would add Spider-Man, Black Panther, Doctor Strange AND the Guardians of the Galaxy to the line-up, making it the REAL cross-over. “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” still deserves more credit than it gets though.

Rating: 7/10 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ 

ANT-MAN (2015)

(Directed by Peyton Reed)

(Written by Joe Cornish, Adam McKay, Edgar Wright and Paul Rudd)

(Starring Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas and Evangeline Lily)

If audiences thought that “Guardians of the Galaxy” would fail…then they knew “Ant-Man” would definitely be a failure…Edgar Wright (“Shaun of the Dead“) had been trying to get this project off of the ground since 2003, even though I have to assume this left a lot of people scratching their heads. Perhaps comic book enthusiasts knew something that the rest of us didn’t, but the name ‘Ant-Man’ alone is difficult to take seriously, even though Wright was insisting that his interpretation of the character was meant to be taken seriously…and his power? He shrinks? That sounds so lame! Yet Wright is a phenomenal filmmaker and his enthusiasm won over even cynics like me…and then he suddenly left the project he had been championing, taking our excitement with him. There have been a lot of delays, but it turned out that there had been a war waging between a passionate director and a powerful committee. I won’t get into the details, but it sounds like Marvel Entertainment wanted to promote the shared universe, while Wright wanted a standalone story. In the end, Wright couldn’t compromise his vision and parted ways with “Ant-Man” and Marvel. This happened late into the production, so when Peyton Reed was hired to replace him, Wright’s script was altered to accommodate Marvel’s vision and filming commenced…everyone was convinced “Ant-Man” would be a disaster.

But it wasn’t a a disaster, it was a…success. The reviews were positive and money was made. Marvel allegedly had doubts about “Ant-Man” itself, but the company was pleasantly surprised by how well it did and audiences were pleasantly surprised by how well it turned out. But I feel like the low expectations ended up playing a huge part in the films reception. The movie grossed $519 million, which would’ve been a big deal during Phase 1, but was the lowest intake of Phase 2. I only bring this up because while I personally think “Ant-Man” is pretty good, I think that’s…just it…The movie was pretty good, nothing more. Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is a thief who is given a chance of redemption when the brilliant inventor Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) loans him a suit that will allow him to shrink in scale, while drastically increasing his power. The story is solid, even if the writers are relying a lot on the established Marvel Formula. The characters are fun and likable, even if they’ve also been built on the established Marvel Formula. You can tell “Ant-Man” has limited production values…at least compared to its elder brethren…as most of the action scenes are small in scale up until the finale. The choreography is good, but a lot of the titular characters’ maneuvers are very reminiscent of what we’ve seen from the likes of Black Widow and (a de-powered) Thor. The CGI is fine, but it always looked a little too much like CGI to me. The finale utilizes the ‘shrinking’ gimmick very effectively though, balancing hilarious sight gags with imaginative set pieces and intense scenarios, while also…*sigh*…convincing me that Ant-Man can be taken seriously. As for the comedy, I found “Ant-Man” to be very funny, but I always struggle with revisiting the movie because the drama ends up being a wet blanket on the laughs. I won’t say that the troubled Father-Daughter relationships, the vitriolic interactions and Scott Lang’s difficulty adjusting to life outside of Prison aren’t moving on their own…They are heart warming and tear jerking when they need to be…but they get in the way of the laughs for me, which is a problem when your movie is being packaged as a comedy. I think Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) is an underrated villain, who’s both pitiful and menacing at once. I think people dislike him because he’s the archenemy of a supporting character, so he barely interacts with the protagonist. Villains are supposed to be foils to the heroes, so it’s weird that Cross and Lang don’t even meet until the 3rd act. “Ant-Man” is good, it just doesn’t really effect me in any way that other Marvel flicks haven’t already done before…and done better.

Rating: 6/10 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

How successful was ‘Phase 2’ of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the long run? I can’t answer that because I’m too busy smacking myself for even asking the question, although I somehow am able to explain why I can’t answer that instead…OF COURSE it was successful in the long run, especially as there was minimal competition during this time period from the other shared universes. Most of these movies were positively received and all of them made out like bandits at the box office, so why did ‘Phase 2’ get upstaged by ‘Phase 1’ and ‘Phase 3′? I think it was a combination of a few things, beginning with some bad press. Marvel Entertainment had to restructure the company after it became apparent that certain individuals and committees were obstructing the artists, who were just trying to deliver quality products. There was also FAR too much hype at this point, where fans had unreasonable expectations about the sequels to their beloved originals and the studios had unreasonable expectations about their box office draw. This meant that the complaints tended to grab everyone’s attention, as that was the trend, even though they were often in the midst of good reviews and billions of dollars. The rise of the netflix mini-series’ that were supposed to take place within the same universe probably didn’t help either, as “Daredevil” and “Jessica Jones” had begun snagging all of their accolades. But I personally believe that the biggest problem with ‘Phase 2’ of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a lack of overarching progression. When you think about it, very little seemed to change in hindsight. Tony’s retirement ended up being temporary, Thanos takes the entire Phase just to get off his lazy ass and we didn’t even see the fallout of SHIELD dissolving. Finally, Marvel might have been in a little bit of a rush, as this phase was completed in only two years. There wasn’t enough time to adapt more than a few new heroes for standalone movies, so there would inevitably be fewer opportunities for cross-overs, which is what we watch these movies for. ‘Phase 3’ would go on to address all of these issues and make damn sure we got to see new cross-overs, so it was more important (if not superior). Nevertheless, I am a defender of ‘Phase 2’, as all I want are stellar films that take risks when they can afford them, which ‘Phase 2’ of the MCU provided.