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

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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 ★★★★★★★★☆☆