Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.: Ant-Man (2015)

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Superhero Watching: Alternating Marvel Perspectives, Fresh and Longterm, Ignoring X-Men, or S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X., is a feature in which Boomer (who reads superhero comics & is well versed in the MCU) & Brandon (who reads alternative comics & had, at the start of this project, seen less than 25% of the MCU’s output) revisit the films that make up the Marvel Cinematic Universe from the perspective of someone who knows what they’re talking about & someone who doesn’t have the slightest clue.

Boomer: Ant-Man came very close to being the second Marvel feature, as a script was shopped around to different studios just a few years after the release of George Lucas’s Howard the Duck. In 1989, Stan Lee presented a basic script treatment to New World Entertainment, of which Marvel Comics was a subsidiary at the time (if you’re wondering about how the film corp that gifted us such cult classics as Rock ‘n’ Roll High School and The Slumber Party Massacre came to own the House of Ideas, I recommend checking out Chuck Sonnenberg’s “The Rise and Fall of the Comic Empire”). Ultimately, production began but was never completed because Disney was working on Honey, I Shrunk the Kids at the time. Depending upon conflicting reports, New World either didn’t want to put out a film that would have similar concepts as the much higher-budgeted Disney film, or they didn’t want to be perceived as copycatting the more successful studio; whatever the reason, the movie was not meant to be. Over a decade later in 2000, after the surprising success of Private Parts, shock DJ extraordinaire Howard Stern attempted to purchase the rights to make an Ant-Man film, but this concept never came to fruition either.

In 2003, a couple of years after the end of his successful British comedy series Spaced (starring frequent collaborators Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, as well as Jessica Hynes nee Stephenson, who won a best newcomer award for her performance on the program) but a year before the release of surprise cult hit Shaun of the Dead, writer/director Edgar Wright and his writing partner generated a treatment for Ant-Man. There are still large parts of Cornish/Wright’s ideas present in the final film despite the number of cooks who had a hand in the broth, like the idea that Scott Lang is a burglar, but Wright himself has said he doesn’t think the script ever made it very high up the chain at Artisan, where it was being pitched. Wright also cited influence from the novels of Elmore Leonard, author of Rum Punch (i.e., the source material for Jackie Brown) and Get Shorty, but was advised to make the script more family friendly, which he did before pitching a new script to Kevin Feige in 2004. This script had even more conceits that filtered into the 2015 film, like the inclusion of both Lang and original Ant-Man Hank Pym, and that the plot point that the two would become reluctant partners. Feige loved the concept, and when the first partnerships that would eventually bring the MCU into being were being forged in 2006, Marvel officially hired Wright to handle the Ant-Man film.

The development of the film from there was slow. Wright made occasional announcements about the film over the next five years; as Ant-Man was not a flagship character like Captain America who could carry a tentpole feature, production on the film was a fairly low priority, with Wright and Feige working on refining the script over the course of a few years. As a result, the MCU took off and gained popularity while Wright’s script kept being polished; by 2010, Wright had announced at SDCC that the film would not line up with The Avengers (putting to bed rumors that Ant-Man would be a founding Avenger, as he was in the comics). This further fueled speculation that Ant-Man wouldn’t be anchored in the greater narrative of the MCU at all, as Wright said his origin story didn’t quite fit. This, too, became a part of the final film, as the origin story for the original Ant-Man takes place in a time period not previously seen in the MCU, with Hank Pym acting as a secret hero during the Vietnam War. Finally, in 2013, Feige announced that Ant-Man would be produced as part of Marvel’s Phase Three, although the film would ultimately end up closing out Phase Two instead.

In March of 2014, rumors began to swirl that Wright might be leaving the picture. By this time, Michael Douglas and Paul Rudd had both been cast in their roles as Pym and Lang respectively, and Evangeline Lilly had just joined the film as Hope van Dyne. The film was on either its fifth or sixth draft, and Wright seemed to be increasingly frustrated with Marvel’s attempts to cram in as many connections to the rest of the franchise as possible, which Wright felt cheapened his vision. Two months later, Wright and Marvel announced that he had left production, and it was unclear what would happen to the project; Variety suggested that Cornish could take over, but Marvel chose not to go that way. Director Adam McKay, who was best known for his collaborations with SNL alum Will Ferrell (including Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Stepbrothers, and The Other Guys), was tapped as a potential new director, but his campaign for the role ended after a single day. McKay was kept on to rework the script (along with Rudd), and Peyton Reed (who had helmed Bring It On as well as a few episodes of the last season of Mr. Show, including the acclaimed finale) was brought on to direct. Although there was some concern that the shake-up would lead to a lack of success for the film, it garnered a decent enough box office return to secure a sequel.

Brandon, what did you think of Ant-Man?

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threehalfstar

Brandon: When trying to piece together exactly where Ant-Man fits in with the rest of the MCU, it seems that Guardians of the Galaxy is the only viable comparison point. Both properties exist almost in total isolation from the rest of the franchise (so far), tenuously connected only through a brief cameo from lower-tier characters like Falcon or Thanos or S.H.I.E.L.D.. More importantly, though, due to this isolation they’re both the only MCU properties allowed a certain amount of freedom in straying from Marvel’s so-called “house style”. In Guardians of the Galaxy, director James Gunn’s usual madman sadism was tempered somewhat by the PG-13 mold Marvel has aimed for in each of its individual properties, but the compromise between the two extremes wound up producing one of the best, most crowd-pleasing works in the franchise to date. Ant-Man is less of a success story in the tiny auteur vs. gigantic corporation divide. Edgar Wright has a very strong comedic voice that carries across as distinctly his own in films like Shaun of the Dead & Hot Fuzz and it’s that very voice that made the idea of him directing Paul Rudd in a movie about an ant-sized superhero super exciting. (I’m currently going through the same excitement phase with Taika Waititi’s upcoming Thor sequel.) Wright was ultimately less able to compromise with Marvel than Gunn over how much creative control he was willing to cede and the movie suffers somewhat from him having been pulled from the project before completion. Bring It On‘s Peyton Reed was a serviceable replacement & there’s still tons of Wright’s personality lurking under the surface here, but it’s difficult to watch Ant-Man without wistfully imagining the film that could’ve been with Wright fully at the helm.

Whether or not the final product is somewhat compromised by the behind-the-scenes shenanigans, Ant-Man is still remarkably charming as is. There’s honestly too much going in the film’s favor for it not to be. I mean, Paul Rudd is cute & all, but a miniature Paul Rudd? Who could resist that? I have, as I’m sure many people do, a bad habit of geeking out over how cute miniature models are, so whenever they pop up in a film like Beetlejuice or Pee-wee’s Big Holiday much of my critical eye goes completely blind & I’m enraptured. For instance, while recently watching the animated Batman movie Mask of the Phantasm I was fascinated by the climactic brawl with the Joker inside his Gotham miniature and it ended up being my favorite hand to hand combat scene in any Batman film. Ant-Man features a somewhat similar climactic battle involving a child’s train set that’s likely to be the closest we’ll ever come to seeing a live action version of that altercation in a superhero film. That’s not the only aspect of the film that checked off my particular boxes either. I went on a huge kick of watching films about giant ant attacks last year (there’s more than you’d think!) that put in me in the exact right frame of mind for this movie’s insectoid thrills. The innerspace visuals of microscopic shrinking-down touched on my affinity for cosmic psychedelia. The classic comedy structure of the film’s plot was a perfect primer for the silliness of its premise (where a Nolan-level of seriousness would’ve failed miserably). On paper Ant-Man does everything exactly right, if not exactly Wright.

So much of Ant-Man is endearing merely by default that it’s almost disappointing that it’s a really good film instead of a stunningly great one. As a self-contained episode within a franchise that has to bend over backwards to include all of its moving parts in films like Age of  Ultron it’s  a a nice break from the norm. There’s no true way to tell if the film could’ve been more than that if Wright had stayed in the driver’s seat, but that nagging question will always remain. I guess we’ll have to see how the promised sequel, Ant-Man and the Wasp, does without his guidance entirely.

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fourhalfstar

Boomer: My review of Ant-Man was the first thing I wrote for Swampflix, and after re-watching it, I stand by my high score of it and my appreciation for its themes, scope, imagery, and ideas. The sight of tiny Scott Lang running around in ant tunnels and riding a flying insect like a mighty steed is perfection, and I wouldn’t have wanted anything other that what we have here.

On the other hand, it would have been a lot of fun to see how the film would have been composed if Wright had been kept on to complete production. Shaun of the Dead might be his most popular original film, but I have the softest of spots in my heart for Hot Fuzz; when I’m having a bad day and need to laugh a lot, Hot Fuzz is the movie I turn to in order to lift my spirits. It’s a comedy that parodies over-the-top buddy cop flicks, but the best thing about it is that it doesn’t sacrifice a good mystery plot in order to focus on references and allusions. The film presents you with enough hints that you can solve the mystery alongside Pegg’s Sergeant Angel, but when he reveals his solution to the crime he’s wrong, despite all of his logic being completely sound and his assumptions being consistent with all available clues. That’s a stroke of brilliance that most best-selling mystery peddlers can’t pull off, and Wright managed to do it in a film that was first and foremost a pastiche comedy. As good as Ant-Man was, I can only assume that most of its best moments came from Wright, and I wish I could see the film as he wanted it to be seen.

I’ll also reiterate how much better this film is than Age of Ultron. When I first saw Ant-Man, it had been a few months since I saw the Avengers sequel, and I had only seen both films once. Although my opinion of Ultron has actually gone up in the intervening time, as I mentioned in our Agents review of that film, Ant-Man still stands head and shoulders above that film in regards to characterization and fun. The bedroom-based fight between Lang and Yellowjacket, for instance, is more dynamic and exciting than ten overlong Sikovian slow-mo panorama fights, no matter how much we were being directed to find those sequences epic. I’ll admit it: Thomas the Tank Engine being thrown through the air and bursting out of Paxton’s house was more exciting than watching a knock-off CGI-garbage Transformer make a city fly off from its moorings. I can’t say enough good things about Ant-Man, except to say that if you’re reading this and you miss the days when “nerd humor” was actually nerdy and not regurgitated trash like The Big Bang Theory, you should really check out Spaced.

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Lagniappe

Brandon: Paul Rudd is very funny in this film & deserves all the attention he gets in the starring role, but Michael Peña steals the show for me. He nails the film’s oddball humor with every line-reading afforded him, which is no surprise given Peña’s history in excelling in comedic scumbag roles. What did surprise me, though, is that the actor more or less resurrected his exact character from the underappreciated Jody Hill black comedy Observe & Report here. Both Peña roles are a wonderfully absurd collection of self-contradictions & pitch-perfect deadpan and if you love what Peña delivers in Ant-Man I highly recommend giving Observe & Report a gander, since his gives his particular weirdness a little more room to breathe.

Boomer: So, where does this film fit into the larger MCU? Well, we get another look at the new Avengers facility after the team relocated to an abandoned Stark production plant following the realization that putting their headquarters in the middle of New York was a horrible idea (I will miss the tower, though). We also get to see Anthony Mackie again, which is always a lot of fun, and the scene between Falcon and Ant-Man (while probably the kind of thing that Wright was looking to avoid) was a good way to connect this film to the larger universe without making room for more heroes. The plot also has Lang ask why the Avengers shouldn’t be called in to help out in this situation (a question that a lot of viewers have, although this has never been something that mattered to me), and we get the legitimate answer that not a lot of people have faith in them, which will tie into the plot of the upcoming Civil War. And I personally can never get enough of best-MCU- character Peggy Carter, so getting to see her as an older S.H.I.E.L.D. leader was delightful.

This may also be the last time that Hydra plays a significant role in the MCU as (spoilers for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), this week’s episode “Singularity” saw Coulson and Agent May watching as the evil organization’s remaining bases of operation were wiped off the map. This comes on the heels of a season and a half of plots that mostly focused on the rise of the Inhumans, and recently tied the two together with the revelation that pre-Nazi Hydra was a cult devoted to worshipping an ancient Inhuman that was banished to a distant planet. It was a bit of an (intentionally) anticlimactic end to an organization that went from being a relatively character-specific antagonistic force to the unified faction of evil that permeated many of the films (and programs) that followed, but I’m looking forward to an MCU that doesn’t feel the need to tie all of its antagonists back to Hydra in some way. This was another one of Ant-Man’s strengths, insofar as Yellowjacket’s plans to sell the suit prototype to Hydra was a matter of irresponsible capitalism (the greatest of evils) and not a devotion to their questionable ideals. Given that Marvel has withdrawn the upcoming Inhumans film from its production schedule, it looks like there may be even more divergence between the film and TV franchises in the future.

As a comic book reader, the thing that I liked least about the way that the MCU has adapted different plotlines is that Scott Lang’s inclusion in this film meant that the Scott-Luke-Jessica love triangle that was so well handled in Brian Michael Bendis’s Alias (the inspiration for Netflix’s Jessica Jones) couldn’t end up on the JJ show. I was always a fan of how Jessica’s relationship with the two different men and their respective worlds (with Scott as a member of the Avengers and Luke as a man who was more on Jessica’s level) said a lot about Jessica as a person and the things that were important to her. Still, Jessica Jones was a great show and definitely worth the minimal time investment it asks of you.

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Combined S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. Rating for Ant-Man (2015)

fourstar

-Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.

Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.: Avengers – Age of Ultron (2015)

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Superhero Watching: Alternating Marvel Perspectives, Fresh and Longterm, Ignoring X-Men, or S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X., is a feature in which Boomer (who reads superhero comics & is well versed in the MCU) & Brandon (who reads alternative comics & had, at the start of this project, seen less than 25% of the MCU’s output) revisit the films that make up the Marvel Cinematic Universe from the perspective of someone who knows what they’re talking about & someone who doesn’t have the slightest clue.

Boomer: Do you need a history of the Avengers sequel here? The first movie cast such a shadow that it was impossible to escape this film, even if you wanted to (and most people didn’t). Even when it was unclear whether or not director Joss Whedon would return to helm the second film, there were no other potential directors announced before he eventually acquiesced. By the time this movie came out, virtually every blog that is created and consumed by humans had talked about the upcoming film in extreme detail. Next time, when we talk about Ant-Man, there’ll be a lot of production history to discuss, as that film had a long and troubled road from inception to release, but not Age of Ultron. Let’s just get to it, shall we?

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threehalfstar

Brandon: When I first reviewed Age of Ultron last summer I had kinda marked it off as a breaking point for the MCU. I enjoyed the film very much as a loud, chaotic action film, but felt like it was stretching itself a little thin trying to please both people like me who (at the time) only casually checked in on the Marvel films every now & then and hardcore fans who had consumed all ten films, three television shows, several DVD-exclusive shorts, and untold amount of tie-in comic books worth of content that preceded it. Age of Ultron was enjoyable to an outsider, but it had to labor fairly heavily to get there & I felt like at some point the franchise would have to leave me behind if it wanted to keep already-established fans engaged in future films. In the past year I’ve since caught up with all of the preceding MCU films & a few of the comic books and it turns out Age of Ultron still feels a little overstuffed & compromised now that I’m somewhat in the know. It’s a sluggish, sprawling mess of an action film that stresses itself out trying to provide significant character beats for each of its many larger than life heroes while also juggling with the introduction of several new supervillains for them to thwart. In a lot of ways Age of Ultron repeats a lot of the highlights and downfalls of the first Avengers films. It’s fun & inspired in moments both big (a stunning slug-it-out fight between Iron Man & The Hulk) & small (the repeated gag with who can/cannot lift Thor’s hammer), but also labored in a way that’s impossible to ignore, especially in its overlong, stop & start exposition.

However, there is a new spark of inspiration at work in Age of Ultron that gives me great hope for where the MCU is headed as a franchise. Now that the individual introductions & character quirks for each Avenger member are out of the way, the series has made a little room for itself to go into unexplored territory beyond the basic novelty of seeing all of these superheroes function as a unit. This development comes twofold. The first & flashiest change afoot here is the breathing space the film allows for its eccentric villainy. James Spader is a total hoot as the titular Ultron, just devouring the scenery at every opportunity he gets (even as soon as his introduction as a disembodied voice). The second development is the very nature of Ultron as a form of artificial intelligence. Thus far, MCU movies have centered on very traditional superhero plots: origin stories, tales of revenge, moral crises over the very nature of heroism, etc. Captain America: The Winter Soldier & Thor 2: The Dark World both promised new lines of narrative with their respective experiments in political thriller & space epic plot lines, but Age of Ultron takes this adventurous genre play a step further. The film’s pedigree as modern A.I. sci-fi makes it surprisingly satisfying & unique as a modern superhero work (and as a result it ranked fairly high on our recent list of the best A.I. sci-fi titles of the 2010s). Age of Ultron may be a little messy in its attempts to juggle so many varied larger-than-life personalities & sidebar plot lines, but James Spader’s over-the-top performance as the central villain & the resulting A.I. sci-fi plot that surrounds him make the film at the very least an interesting, entertaining mess. It’s at least as good as the first Avengers film & promises that there’s even better work to come in the near future (I’m starting to get really stoked about Captain America: Civil War‘s imminent release, as I’m sure most people are).

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three star

Boomer: I’m never really sure where to start when talking about this one. Age of Ultron isn’t a bad movie. In actuality, it’s a pretty decent outing for a group of characters that people were losing their minds over the first time we saw them unite. I’d dare say it’s good, if not great. The cinematography is clean, the pacing moves swiftly and cleanly, and the likable characters are terribly likable while the unlikable characters are not.

Buuuuuuuut…. this movie bores me? Maybe “bores” is the wrong word; it’s more that the film just fails to really grab me? Although there are some tonal inconsistencies and narrative problems throughout, the same could be said of Avengers, and I still found that movie enjoyable in spite of its flaws. I’d even go so far as to say that this film might be technically better, but I don’t get the same thrill from it that I still get from the first one. Admittedly, it would have been virtually impossible to capture a second lightning bolt in this particular Marvel-shaped bottle regardless, but I still feel underwhelmed with each viewing. This was my third watch of the film (after seeing it in theatres and then again at Christmas), and this was probably the most rewarding watching experience, but does an Avengers flick need to be the kind of movie that takes multiple rewatches to be fully enjoyed? This isn’t Jacob’s Ladder or Primer that I’m talking about; it’s the eleventh movie in a franchise that walks the thin line between “media made for children” and “media aimed at adults,” a direct sequel to a movie that was so much fun we all willingly ignored the fact that its plot is pretty threadbare and that the villain’s motivations were utterly inexplicable. So how did a follow-up with more explicit character motivation and expanded personal stories for many of the heroes end up being so… blasé?

When Whedon finally announced that he would return to direct Age of Ultron, he said that it was because he “actually started to consider it [and] it became so clear that [he] desperately wanted to say more about these characters.” This is most evident in Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye, which is ironic given that the actor couldn’t stop putting his foot in his mouth during the press tour. Overall, the film garnered a mixed response among new media outlets: many people interpreted Black Widow’s line about being a monster, a declaration that came on the heels of the revelation that she was sterilized as part of her espionage training, to mean that she considered herself less than a woman because she could not have children (I don’t personally subscribe to this inference, but the placement of that line is unquestionably insensitive and poorly timed). And it’s no real surprise that Whedon got burnt out from working on the film, considering that he was trying to grow the mythology while also being beholden to the Marvel franchise at large. This was a pretty big contributing factor to his eventual departure from social media, which was solidified when people reacted angrily to his accusation that Chris Pratt’s character in the then-upcoming Jurassic World smacked of “seventies-era sexism” (an observation that turned out to be absolutely correct, for anyone keeping score at home).

But those are all things that aren’t specific to the film itself; so, what about the movie? Well… clocking in at 2.5 hours, there are still too many stories that feel unresolved. In my review of Batman v Superman, I mentioned the scene wherein Lois Lane has to retrieve a Kryptonite spear from a flooded building after throwing the damn thing into the water in the first place; both I and the friend with whom I saw the movie immediately referred to this as the “Riker Fights a Monster” moment, referencing RedLetterMedia’s Plinkett Review of Star Trek: Nemesis. In that film, there is a scene in which Jonathan Frakes’s character goes down into the bowels of the ship to fight Ron Perlman’s Nosferatu-esque Reman character for no other reason than to give Riker an irrelevant plot point; as “Harry Plinkett” points out, making a main character run off to engage in hand to hand combat with a monster simply to give that character something to do is a demonstration of utter failure to properly craft a story. The same thing happens here with Thor, who takes off from the Barton farm halfway through the movie to go submerge himself in some magic waters and have a mystical vision, for the sole purpose of getting him out of the way for a little while and providing Thor with the information needed to provide exposition about how the MacGuffins of the MCU are interconnected, even though we kind of already got that explanation from The Collector in Guardians. Because the film has to introduce three new Avengers but Thor is still on the team, he has to be sent off on an irrelevant side quest just to give him something to do.

I didn’t read any books written by men in 2015. The biggest reason for this is that, while I was reading Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe last January, I realized I was reading the fifth novel in a row that was about a relationship between fathers and sons, specifically one that was estranged. Like a lot of writers, I also have a strained relationship with my Pops, but I’m sick to death of having to see that narrative device in every piece of media that I consume. It’s been a central thematic element of most of the Marvel films, with Stark having to face off against his surrogate father in Iron Man and Iron Man 2 revolving around him having to finish his father’s work (with bonus daddy issues coming from a parallel story about Whiplash’s own dead father). Thor could have been subtitled “Odin is kind of a bad dad,” and the plot of Thor 2 is basically “Loki has daddy issues some more, and also there are evil elves.” Guardians of the Galaxy has both Nebula and Gamora rebelling against their “father” Thanos, and Star Lord’s father is mentioned several times, setting up more dad-focused shenanigans further down the line. The Incredible Hulk didn’t focus on the patriarch of the Banner family (although Ang Lee’s non-MCU Hulk certainly did), but it did milk drama from the relationship between Betty and General Ross. Even Ant-Man, which I really enjoyed, wrung most of its pathos from the parallel father-daughter relationships between the two Ant-Men and their respective offspring. The only movies that don’t have bad father-child relationships as a central element were the Captain America films. And, hey, I get that, I really do. Assuming that your parents were present in your life, the relationship that you have with them is the first and most formative relationship that you have; further, especially in God-haunted America, the relationship between fatherhood and the divine takes on such familial and social importance that one’s father is often one’s model for how they conceive God. I’m just saying that this is a metaphorical well that has been visited by storytellers so often that they’re hauling up buckets of dust at this point and trying to get us to drink it.

Age of Ultron takes this idea and cranks it up as high as it will go. Wanda and Pietro turned to Baron von Strucker and his experiments as a way of getting back at Stark for the death of their parents. The Barton family farm gives every character the opportunity to reflect on their own place in the world and whether or not that precludes them from starting families of their own: Banner and Widow have a heart-to-heart about how neither of them is biologically capable of starting a family (the idea of adopting, as is so often the case, never crosses anyone’s mind); Stark talks about building Pepper a farm, implying that he is thinking about continuing the Stark lineage (legitimately). Cap’s is a little more subtle, as we see him dreaming about the end of the war and being able to finally dance (and, by implication, settle down) with Peggy, a dream that can never be realized. Even Thor becomes a kind of father by the end, as his lightning gives life to Vision. But, of course, all of this pales in comparison to Ultron and his hatred for his “father,” Tony Stark. It’s thematically connected but ultimately feels hollow.

Where do I even begin with Ultron? For one thing, his design is terrible. The effects team did some excellent work making him look as good as he does, but he still doesn’t quite fit. The Iron Man suits are almost always CGI, but they work for me because they don’t have as many distracting details on them and they aren’t required to imitate real facial expressions; Ultron, on the other hand, has a stupid cartoon face that laughs and speaks and looks absurd. Combined with James Spader’s disarmingly likeable dialogue, this doesn’t work for me at all. I understand that Ultron wants to become more human (even if the film fails to properly explain why this is a goal for him), but he would have been more unsettling if his jokes and attempts to seem more affable had come from a less expressive face. When Ultron first interrupts the after-party at Avengers tower and gives his “I’m alive, father” speech to the gang while inhabiting a broken Iron Legion bot, he’s much more menacing in that moment than he is at any point later in the film, and that’s a problem; a villain should become more frightening as he goes from party-crasher to world-destroyer, but Ultron gets less creepy as the film goes on. If they weren’t going to keep him in a broken robot suit the whole time, the least that could be done would have been to make his face immobile to ramp up the uncanny valley factor.

On top of that, the film sells itself short by having Ultron move into full-blown extinction-event villainy almost immediately. Remember the scene from The Fifth Element in which Leeloo discovers the concept of “War” and briefly has a psychic break before returning to her mission with a renewed vigor? Age of Ultron would have benefited from downplaying Ultron’s maliciousness at the outset. For instance, he could have worked alongside Jarvis for a scene or two, maybe even helping to design the anti-Hulk “Veronica” system, which would have foreshadowed that Ultron would eventually work against the team. Then have him come to the conclusion (after having a Leeloo-like epiphany but with the opposite result) that the world would be better off without humans in general and the Avengers specifically, so that he goes rogue, kills Jarvis, and sets out on his own to unmake life as we know it. This would raise the emotional and thematic stakes without changing the plot all that much, while also making Stark look less foolish by having his “son” turn to evil eventually rather than instantaneously.

All that having been said, do I hate this movie? Not really. I actually enjoyed its mindless summer action flick elements, and I continued to laud the fact that the MCU heroes really are heroic in that they focus their attentions on saving people as much as they do on defeating villains. Compared to the mindless ultraviolence of, for instance, Man of Steel (and the petulantly sarcastic “good thing this island we’re utterly destroying is uninhabited” violence of follow-up BvS), Age of Ultron truly reflects the superheroic ideal in a way that other franchises fail to understand. The trailer for Civil War even shows that there were fewer than 200 casualties in this film, which is mind-boggling, given that an entire city is obliterated in the climax. The action scenes are fun, even if there are so many that the excitement is diluted and diminished (the Iron Man versus Hulk fight is narratively justified but could have been excised with few changes). I also like that the film takes the time to remind us that Tony Stark is a real asshole, and that the character growth he’s experienced over the course of the franchise hasn’t absolved him of the guilt of his past (as evidenced by his recognition of a notable black market arms dealer and the fact that the Maximoffs were orphaned as a result of his company’s war profiteering) or of his pathological egomania (as seen in his accidental creation of what is essentially Skynet and his willful refusal to destroy the experiment that would become Vision, despite all available evidence at the time indicating that this was the best course of action).

Still, the spectacle doesn’t make up for the looseness of the plot this time around, and the film’s thematic focus on progeny and responsibility is neither as strong nor as clever as it tries to be. It’s the quintessential example of a sequel that reduces its narrative world rather than enriches it. It’s a recommended watch, but not a required one.

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Lagniappe

Brandon: I’m giving a lot of credit to the character of Ultron here for what makes this film so entertaining as a work of superhero-themed A.I. sci-fi, but Ultron’s philosophical counterpoint Vision is just as fascinating. I know both Ultron & Vision are both inorganic lifeforms entirely dedicated to their respective good & evil plots to “save” the world (Ultron’s Murder Everyone policy is particularly inventive in that regard), but what strikes me most about these two characters is their off-putting sexuality. James Spader has always been something of a creepy sex symbol throughout his career & even though he appears here mostly as a voice, his work as Ultron is no different, so no surprise there, really. What’s really off-putting is the sex vibes I get from his heroic opposite Vision. Vision is creepily sexual in a way that a subtly flirtatious yoga instructor or an enigmatic cult leader would be and it makes me simultaneously super fascinated & super uncomfortable watching him at work. It’s highly probable that this is all in my head, but I still think it was a reaction worth mentioning.

Boomer: As much as I cited the problematic over reliance upon father-child relationship clichés, it is worth pointing out that this is, to my knowledge, the first and only time that anything created by Joss Whedon has a good father archetype. From Buffy (in which literally every single character’s father was either not present, abusive, or both) to Toy Story (in which Andy’s father is notably absent), Joss Whedon has a the same hard-on for bad fathers that Jonathan Safran Foer has for fatherhood in general. Arguably, Fred’s dad on Angel was decent, but Hawkeye is the first good, relevant father that we have ever had in a Whedonverse product.

On a more random note, non-comics character Helen Cho feels like an attempt to fix the comics-to-screen adaptation of Kavita Rao, who was created by Whedon during his Astonishing X-Men run and who was unfortunately ruined by her appearance in Fox’s X-Men: The Last Stand.

I’d also like to point out that I really like Vision. He’s a favorite character of mine from the comics because he’s just such a total weirdo. For those who don’t read the comics, Vision’s neural patterns were based on those of fellow Avenger Wonder Man (who has no analog in the MCU, possibly because he was excised from The Ultimates); when Coulson was killed in the first Avengers film, my theory was that they would bring him back by using his mind as the basis for Vision. I’m not saying that my idea was better, but… okay, I am saying that. Still, I appreciate that the MCU has brought on such a bizarre comic character and I have to admit that I’m really looking forward to seeing what they do with him. I also like that they slyly alluded to his comic-book relationship with Scarlet Witch, with Ultron saying early in the film that she needs something different from/more than a man, and with Elizabeth Olson’s reaction to seeing Vision for the first time (her face basically says “Oh, my, yes”).

Of course, even more than Vision, I love Wanda. She’s a notoriously difficult character to get right, and even though the movie makes some changes for the worse (divesting both Pietro and Wanda of their Roma heritage and instead making them generically Eastern European is unnecessary and insulting, especially considering that you can count the number of Roma comics characters on one hand), her characterization is pretty neat. The Ultimates version of the twins was awful, and the dumbed-down nature of X-Men Evolution meant that she was turned into a pretty generic goth girl with issues, a la Nancy in The Craft. My favorite non-comics version of her is probably from the all-too-brief Wolverine and the X-Men cartoon from five or so years ago; pairing her off on adventures with Nightcrawler made sense thematically (given both character’s connections to the Roma) and making her an ambassador for Genosha allowed her to be involved without making her a part of the team.

As for how this film fits into the wider MCU, we haven’t quite gotten to see the ramifications of these events inform the growth of the franchise in quite the same way as, for instance, the events of Winter Soldier did. When that film was released, it had an immediate and apparent impact on other films, taking away the S.H.I.E.L.D. support system that the characters and the audience had come to rely upon and making Hydra a real threat in the present. This had an obvious and instantaneous effect on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., finally refining that program into something worth watching. How does Ultron tie into the program this time around? An off-the-books project is referenced many times throughout the second season, a project so secret that it causes dissension in the ranks (when Ming Na’s Agent May finds out what it is, a few weeks before the audience does, she seems pretty pissed). The big surprise is that this secret project is actually the new helicarrier that is used to rescue the fleeing Sokovians at the end of Ultron, which doesn’t make sense given what Agents showed us and is completely irrelevant to viewers who only follow the films and don’t care about the shows. Ignoring that, it looks like the events of this film will be important in the upcoming Civil War, so that’s something to look forward to. And, of course, we can expect to see more of Andy Serkis’s character when the Black Panther finally gets involved.

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 Combined S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. Rating for Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

three star

-Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.

Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.: Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

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Superhero Watching: Alternating Marvel Perspectives, Fresh and Longterm, Ignoring X-Men, or S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X., is a feature in which Boomer (who reads superhero comics & is well versed in the MCU) & Brandon (who reads alternative comics & had, at the start of this project, seen less than 25% of the MCU’s output) revisit the films that make up the Marvel Cinematic Universe from the perspective of someone who knows what they’re talking about & someone who doesn’t have the slightest clue.

Boomer: There was a great deal of consternation in the nerd and mainstream communities when Guardians of the Galaxy was first announced. Eagle-eyed viewers (and readers of Wizard) had already spotted an appearance by the Infinity Gauntlet in Odin’s weapons locker in Thor, and many had correctly guessed that the Tesseract that appeared in Captain America was one of the Infinity Gems, meaning that an adaptation or re-imagining of Marvel’s Infinity War storyline would eventually be on its way. With that in mind, there had to be a way to incorporate more of Marvel’s cosmic mythology into the MCU, but no one was certain which form this would take. Within the comics, space-based plotlines generally revolved around either the Shi’ar Empire or the Kree-Skrull War; neither of these two elements lent themselves to the MCU, however, because of the rights issues surrounding each. The Shi’ar are mostly linked to the mythology of the Phoenix Force (and thus the X-Men) and the Skrulls were a longtime recurring enemy of the Fantastic Four; with the film rights for both of those teams tied up at Twentieth Century Fox, there was much debate as to how the MCU would be able to address interstellar plots. Notably, Avengers had taken the Skrull stand-ins from the Ultimate books, the Chitauri, and made them the alien invaders in that film. Ultimately (no pun intended), the Kree play a role in this film, although the Skrulls go unmentioned.

Kevin Feige hinted in 2010 that a film bearing this title could be on its way, and confirmed in 2012 that the film was in production. Initial announcements named Peyton Reed as the director, although at that point his biggest successes were over ten years behind him, having helmed a few episodes of the last season of HBO’s terrific Mr. Show with Bob and David and 2000’s underrated Bring It On. Writing/Directing duo Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden (the team behind Ryan Gosling vehicle Half Nelson) were also in talks to create the film and its world, but the project eventually found its way into the capable hands of James Gunn. Gunn only had two features under his belt as director, horror satire Slither and Rainn Wilson’s superhero pastiche dramedy Super, but the majority of his work was in writing, including the 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake. Joss Whedon, director of The Avengers, was kept on by Marvel as a consultant for the films leading up to the (then untitled) sequel to the team-up film, and he was vocal in his excitement about Gunn’s hiring, citing the director’s enthusiasm and cinematic eye.

A virtual unknown, Nicole Perlman, was later announced as the film’s screenwriter. She had previously acted as an uncredited script doctor on a draft of Thor, and she was given free reign to choose which Marvel property she wanted to draft a script for, choosing Guardians because of her fondness for space opera. Although Disney’s screenwriting program no longer exists, Perlman was one of the last to graduate from it, and her script for Guardians was the only reason the film ended up being made, according to Variety in 2012; Senior Editor Marc Graser wrote at the time that Marvel “was high on” her initial script treatment. Since then, Perlman has admitted that she’s also written a draft of a potential Black Widow script that has yet to see the light of day, and she has also been announced as the screenwriter for the upcoming Captain Marvel film due out in 2019. Perlman’s name is also frequently banded about as the potential writer of a rumored reboot of Jim Henson cult classic Labyrinth (although talk of a reboot has largely died down in the wake of David Bowie’s recent passing). In the meantime, however, she has not one single IMDb entry that does not relate to the MCU, which is heartening considering what a boys club the franchise can seem to be at times.

Casting for the film’s default lead, Star Lord, began in September 2012, with a laundry list of people who tested or read for the role: Eddie Redmayne, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Joel Edgerton, Jack Huston, Michael Rosenbaum, and many, many others. Lee Pace also auditioned for the role, ending up instead slotted into the role of Ronan, the film’s main antagonist. Five months later, Marvel finally announced that they had found their man in Chris Pratt. Jason Momoa auditioned for the role of Drax, but he was passed over in favor of Dave Bautista (Momoa, of course, is slated to appear as Aquaman in DC’s upcoming attempted franchise). The nature of this new film meant that none of the MCU’s previously appearing characters could not reasonably make cameos in this film, although Buffyverse alum Alexis Denisof reprised his role as The Other, Thanos’s emissary who gave Loki his marching orders in Avengers. There was little publication surrounding other roles and testing for them, but the film’s cast was finalized by mid-2013 (minus Vin Diesel, whose vocal acting for Groot was only confirmed after the end of principal photography), and filming began in July of that year.

For those of you who have forgotten everything about the film except for a wisecracking raccoon and freshly-buff Chris Pratt being hosed down while flouncing about in underwear, a quick refresher: Young Peter Quill fled the hospital where his mother was dying in 1988 and was picked up by an alien ship. Years later, Quill (Pratt) acts as a scavenger in a fleet led by Yondu (Michael Rooker), a blue alien with an inexplicable Southern accent; he finds and takes a valuable item from a space tomb and ends up on the run from Kree radical Ronan (Pace). Multiple bounty hunters are sent to apprehend Quill, including Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and his partner Groot (Diesel) and assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), who was kidnapped from her home by intergalactic warlord Thanos (Josh Brolin) and trained as a killer. These four untethered people are eventually captured and detained in a space prison; when they escape, they are joined by fellow inmate Drax (Bautista), who has his own axe to grind with Ronan and Thanos. They are opposed by Ronan and Gamora’s warrior “sister” Nebula (Karen Gillan) and the police-like Nova Corps, led by Nova Prime (Glenn Close). These decidedly-not-team-players reluctantly accept that no one else is in a position to save the galaxy from total annihilation and rise to the challenge.

Brandon, what did you think about Guardians of the Galaxy? If I remember correctly, this was one of the MCU flicks that you had seen before starting this project; does it fare better or worse now with more of a background in this world? Or, given that this film that lies outside of the MCU’s reach for the most part, does that context change your opinion at all?

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fourhalfstar

Brandon: I’m starting to feel extremely foolish about how I received Guardians of the Galaxy at the time of its release a couple years ago. I liked the film well enough as a loud, vibrant action comedy that provided a much-deserved starring role for America’s affable older brother (or boy toy sex symbol, depending who you are) Chris Pratt. However, I remember buying into the idea that the Marvel “house style” had significantly put a damper on the over-the-top exuberance of madman schlock director James Gunn. Gunn was familiar to me as the dark soul behind depraved camp titles like Slither and Tromeo & Juliet, so it was weird to see his style somewhat homogenized into a Luc Besson-style space epic. The truth is, though, that Gunn’s version of an uninhibited MCU entry probably would’ve turned out more like the grotesquely asinine Deadpool film I’ve spent the last month brooding over. In fact, Gunn already directed a nastily misanthropic superhero film, simply titled Super, that I generally enjoyed, but also found difficult to stomach at times due to the lighthearted way it depicts sexual assault. I don’t know if this is me getting increasingly sensitive with age, but another The Fifth Element, Star Wars-style space epic with Kevin Feige & company keeping Gunn’s sadistic id in check actually sounds preferable now to what might’ve been delivered otherwise. It might also be the case that the act of catching up with the rest of the MCU’s output in recent months has helped me realize just how unique Guardians is as a modern superhero popcorn flick & just how much of Gunn’s personality is noticeably present on the screen.

In any case, returning to Guardians of the Galaxy with fresh eyes was a revelation. This is a fantastic work of crowd-pleasing action cinema, the exact kind of delirious spectacle I look for in blockbusters. In that respect, the only film that might‘ve topped it in the year or so since its release is Mad Max: Fury Road & I mean that with full sincerity. The film’s detailed, lived-in version of space opera is literally worlds away from the rest of the MCU. Its superheroes aren’t truly heroic or even all that super. They’re mostly thieves, murderers, aliens, and the bi-products of cruel science experiments. Something that largely got by me the first time I watched Guardians of the Galaxy was just how emotionally damaged its central crew of space pirates are. Their families are dead. They’ve never known true friendship. They’re sometimes prone to drunkenly curse their own very existence. The film’s tendency for 80s nostalgia & crowd-pleasing action set pieces are really fun in an overwhelming way that I think often distract from just how devastatingly sad its emotional core can be. I never knew an anthropomorphic raccoon grimly complaining, “I didn’t ask to get made!” could make me so teary-eyed, but Guardians has a way of making the emotional pain of its damaged, nonhuman non-heroes feel just as real as the physical space they populate looks. That’s no small feat.

That’s obviously not to say that all of Guardians is deep-seated emotional pain. The film is mostly a riotously fun action comedy with broken hearts & bruised egos only peppering its blockbuster thrills. I love how inane its outer space worldbuilding is. Blue people, green people, purple people, and purple people eaters all roam about as if they are on a silly 60s sci-fi television show. Villains are known to say absurd things like “Nebula, go to Xandar and get me the Orb.” The MCU’s ultimate MacGuffin, the Infinity Stones, actually feel at home in this kind of space age gobbledy gook. It’s also fun to watch this atmosphere clash with Pratt’s womanizing bro humor as Star Lord, as I feel like I’ve lived in this kind of space adventure before, but I’ve never met anyone I could describe as a “space bro” as comfortably as Star Lord. I particularly enjoyed the line when describing the filth of his space ship/bachelor pad he confesses, “If I had a black light these walls would look like a Jackson Pollock painting.” The kicker is that Guardians not only has the most successful humor of the MCU’s output so far; it also has some of the most exhilarating action sequences in the franchise. The Kyln prison break in particular is a beaut & watching Rocket Raccoon operate his homemade weaponry gives me the same thrill I caught watching primates operate automatic machine guns in 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

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I could probably prattle on about how my favorite two MCU entries so far, Guardians of the Galaxy & Captain America: The First Avenger, thrive on their own strengths by distancing themselves from the rest of the franchise, but I don’t believe that best captures what makes Guardians so special. Honestly, the film’s own mixtape gimmick is a better access point to understanding its wide appeal. A mix of crowd-pleasing songs like “I Want You Back” & Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” and offbeat essentials like “Cherry Bomb” & “Moonage Daydream“, the film’s mixtape soundtrack mirrors its larger mashup of action comedy marketability & cult film tendencies. In retrospect the marriage of James Gunn’s mean nerd exuberance & the MCU’s action comedy accessibility is a match made in blockbuster heaven. It delights me to no end that you can actually purchase a copy of Star Lord’s beloved mixtape cassette. That piece of comic book movie ephemera actually seems more to the heart of the film’s appeal than a Rocket Raccoon figurine or even a Blu-ray copy of the film could ever be.

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Boomer: Last time we were here, I mentioned how much Captain America: Winter Soldier reminded me of Star Trek VI and how that only made me love the former all the more. I have to admit that I was one of the naysayers with little hope for Guardians. By the time it came out, I was sick to death of the endless stream of advertisements for the movie; in every commercial break and before every YouTube there was a clip of Chris Pratt slowly flipping off John C. Reilly. But what I found when I saw the film was that I actually loved it, but mostly because it was the closest I felt we would ever come to having a Farscape feature.

The parallels don’t track perfectly, but they are obvious. We have the wise-cracking American thrust into an interstellar society made up of various societies and factions (Peter Quill/John Crichton), who has a relationship with a woman who was taken at birth and trained to be a deadly soldier and assassin (Gamora/Aeryn Sun). They’re joined by a large warrior with ritual scarrification and tattoos (Drax/D’Argo), a pint-sized wiseass (Rocket Racoon/Rygel), and a living plant (Groot/Zhaan). Farscape’s premiere episode even involves a prison break in which many of the main characters escape captivity, and both ragtag crews eventually find themselves drawn into the greater war going on around them in spite of their individual desires to simply overcome the traumas of their past. Both Drax and D’Argo have lost their wife and child (although D’Argo’s son is still alive, albeit enslaved), and both Gamora and Aeryn slowly warm to the human crewmate that helps them feel closer to their (in)humanity. The sequence in which the titular Guardians visit a mining colony inside of a once-living giant is even reminiscent of the episode in which the crew of Moya find a mining colony inside of the budong, an ancient spacefaring being of humongous proportions.

For the most part, the similarities end there, however. Although Groot and Zhaan are both plant people, the former lacks the metaphysical wisdom and spirituality of the latter. Although Rocket is full of himself, he lacks the imperial pomposity of the dethroned Rygel. Still, once can’t help but feel that Guardians is a spiritual sequel to Farscape, and that greatly contributes to my enjoyment of the film. I have to admit, however, that this rewatch wasn’t the thrill ride that I remembered fro my first few viewings. Guardians is undoubtedly the coolest of the MCU flicks so far, but the repetition of the jokes from the film in the real world has stolen some of the luster from their enjoyment. There’s still a lot to enjoy here, but Guardians doesn’t hold the endless rewatchability for me that Winter Soldier does, despite being much more fun than the comparably dour Captain America sequel. It was a smart move on Marvel’s part to follow up a somber MCU installment with a film that was exhilarating in a different way and for different reasons, but Guardians has a problem that the other films don’t have.Whereas the previous ensemble in The Avengers had the luxury of multiple individual films to flesh out the members of the team (minus the characters who were supporting players in previous installments, with Hawkeye never being fully realized as a character until Age of Ultron), Guardians has the unenviable task of introducing all five of its mains as well as their world and the ramifications thereof in a very short amount of time. The script is excellent in that the film doesn’t feel overloaded, but reflection upon the movie does lead to some questions that feel unanswered. We know that the Kree and the Xandarians have recently reached a peace accord, but what was their relationship beforehand? Are many of the Kree fanatics like Ronan, or is he an outlier, and, if so, why does Nova Prime have such difficulty getting the Kree ambassador(?) that she contacts late in the film to make a political statement decrying Ronan? And why wouldn’t the Kree condemn a terrorist anyway? This scene and others blow past so quickly that viewers may not realize just how much information is needed, but scenes like this have a way of niggling the subconscious.

Still, Guardians is a lot of fun. When I first saw it in theatres, I would have given it five stars, but time and distance have made me a bit more critical of it. Maybe I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind this time around, but the film just doesn’t have the magic for me that it did in 2014.

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Brandon: It’s impossible to talk about Guardians‘ likability without addressing the absurd strength of its cast. Besides the appeal of Chris Pratt’s affable bro humor & “pelvic sorcery”, watching James Gunn regulars like Michael Rooker & Lloyd Kaufman appear among Hollywood heavyweights like Benicio Del Toro & Josh Brolin is a strange delight. Goofball comedic actor John C. Reilly interacting with Glenn Close is equally enjoyable as novelty. Bradley Cooper appears as a CG raccoon wearing people clothes. Vin Diesel outs himself as a huge D&D-oriented nerd as a talking tree. Bautista & the much-hated (among cinephiles, anyway) comic book prankster Howard the Duck both make a massive impact, which combine to make it feel as if this film were aimed to please my own particular nerdy obsessions: bad movies & pro wrestling.

The only complaint I might have about Guardians‘ insanely stacked cast of always welcome faces is the way it largely wastes the eternally-underutilized Lee Pace. I enjoyed Pace’s turn as impossibly cruel Ronan the Accuser more than I did the first time around but I do still think it was a huge mistake to cover up his luscious eyebrows with the alien makeup. Those might be the most handsome eyebrows in Hollywood. They deserve to run free.

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Boomer: For anyone reading this who is still mourning the loss of Farscape, I recommend current sci-fi series Dark Matter. It has fewer obvious commonalities with Farscape than Guardians, but its tone is the closest thing to Farscape’s that I’ve been able to find in a long time, even if it lacks the older series’s humor.

When joking in our earlier review about the fact that the Ninth Doctor appeared in Thor 2 and that the Tenth Doctor had played the villain of Jessica Jones, I had completely forgotten about the fact that Karen Gillam, who played the Eleventh Doctor’s companion Amy Pond, played Nebula in this film. There’s also the fact that Tobey Jones, who portrayed a nightmare version of the Doctor a few years back in “Amy’s Choice,” portrayed the evil Doctor Zola in both Cap flicks. Were it not that Jenna Coleman (who portrayed Clara Oswald, companion to the Eleventh and Twelfth Doctors) played a minor role in Captain America, all the Doctor Who alums who have thus far appeared in the MCU would have portrayed villains.

Regarding how the film plays into the larger mythos of the franchise, the plot elements from Guardians have largely only been important in how they affect Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Just as one of the main characters on the program was revealed to be a Hydra mole near the end of the first season, the second season featured major developments in the form of the revelation of the existence of the Inhumans and that another member of the squad was one such being. The Inhumans, for those who understandably gave up on Agents early on, are a subspecies of humanity who possess abnormal physiological traits as the result of a Kree genetic engineering campaign in Earth’s distant past. It’s also an easy way for the MCU to introduce large numbers of super-powered individuals despite not having the right to use the term “mutant,” what with the rights to the X-Men franchise still tied up at Fox. For those of you playing along at home, there is also a planned Inhumans film slated for release in 2019.

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Combined S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. Rating for Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

fourhalfstar

-Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.

Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.: Iron Man 3 (2013)

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Superhero Watching: Alternating Marvel Perspectives, Fresh and Longterm, Ignoring X-Men, or S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X., is a feature in which Boomer (who reads superhero comics & is well versed in the MCU) & Brandon (who reads alternative comics & had, at the start of this project, seen less than 25% of the MCU’s output) revisit the films that make up the Marvel Cinematic Universe from the perspective of someone who knows what they’re talking about & someone who doesn’t have the slightest clue.

Boomer: In 2014, director Jon Favreau released the indie critical darling Chef, in which he appeared as a man who tired of the world of elite haute cuisine that values style over substance, a man who forsakes that world to fix up an old food truck and take a more “back to basics” approach to food. As has been pointed out by other critics, this can be seen as a metaphor for Favreau’s fatigue with the Iron Man franchise, as he bowed out of directing the third film, although he reprised his role as Hogan (if spending 80% of the film comatose can be considered a reprisal). Instead, the reins were handed over to Shane Black, whose resume as a writer includes Lethal Weapon, Monster Squad, and The Long Kiss Goodnight, and as such was already well-regarded before he began directing with 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

In 2007, British TV producer Drew Pearce created the cult hit No Heroics, a sitcom focusing on the downtime of troubled British superheroes, and the series aired in late 2008. The surprise cult following of the show led to some interest in an American adaptation during the shaky post-Heroes years in which many stations were looking to ride the superhero wave to the top. An American No Heroics pilot was shot, but ABC ultimately passed on the project (although they greenlit No Ordinary Family, a show that should have gotten a hard pass, just a few years later). Still, this had been enough to bring him to the attention of stateside production companies, and Pearce was initially hired to write the film adaptation of Marvel series Runaways. Although that film’s production stalled out, he was invited to co-write IM3 with Black. The resulting story took large chunks from Warren Ellis’s work on the popular “Extremis” arc from the Iron Man comics (homage is paid in the film by naming the president, played by William Sadler, after Ellis).

Robert Downey, Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, and Paul Bettany(‘s voice) reprise their roles from previous films, and the post-credits gag features a cameo from Mark Ruffalo as Dr. Bruce Banner. New faces include Ben Kingsley as Mandarin, Guy Pearce as Aldrich Killian, and Rebecca Hall as Maya Hansen. As the lead-in to what Marvel Studios called “Phase Two,” IM3 follows up on the events of The Avengers, showing a Tony Stark who is traumatized and living with the aftereffects of the Battle of New York. And, since Shane Black is involved, the film is set at Christmastime for no real reason.

Brandon, what did you think?

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twohalfstar

Brandon: Because I had heard that director Shane Black had taken over Jon Favreau’s directoral duties for the third Iron Man installment, I had gotten my hopes up that it might be the turning point where I started liking the Iron Man franchise at large. Black’s darkly comic work on properties like Lethal Weapon, The Last Action Hero, and The Monster Squad seemed to position him as a perfect fit for taking the Iron Man films into a new, more purposeful direction. I can recognize flashes of that newfound sense of purpose straining to break through this feature’s bogged down mess of a narrative, but ultimately Iron Man 3 felt like just as much of a mixed bag as Iron Man 2.

The film opens with America’s Favorite D-Bag Tony Stark tooting his own horn to Eiffel 65’s “I’m Blue” & referring to the absolute worst era in popular culture (the late 90s, *shudder*) as “the [good] old days” (which, appropriately enough, is when his bad boy schtick & awful facial hair might’ve actually felt fresh). Things get worse from there. The film’s completely-besides-the-point Christmastime setting allows Stark to move on from his previous soundtrack of AC/DC dad jams to dance club remixes of Yuletide carols, which is, musically speaking, my worst nightmare. Tony’s snarkiness has also gotten worse, since the success of the character had apparently lead Feige & company to believe that what the world wanted more of was exchanges like [from a pretty lady] “Where are we going?” “To town on each other,” [to a lady on fire] “I’ve dated hotter chicks than you,” and [to a boy who’s been abandoned by his father] “Guys leave. No need to be a pussy about it.” There are other ways in which the Iron Man franchise has improved in a general sense, but its billionaire playboy protagonist might be a bigger piece of shit than ever here and the worst part is it still feels like the movies are asking its audience to celebrate him for it.

The frustrating thing is that there’s so much of Iron Man 3 that does work, especially elsewhere in the cast. I was a little dubious at first about the series’s return to its War on Terror roots, but Don Cheadle’s transition from toeing the water as The War Machine to full-blown superhero status as The Iron Patriot was encouraging to see. Ben Kingsely’s villain, who I’m pretty sure he was told was supposed to be named Osama Bin Nixon instead of The Mandarin, also has some entertaining moments in the film. I particularly enjoyed the following monologue that accompanied one of his terrorist-funded propaganda films: “True story about fortune cookies – They look Chinese. They sound Chinese. But they’re actually an American invention, which is why they’re hollow, full of lies, and leave a bad taste in the mouth.” The MVP for me, though, believe it or not, was Gwyneth Paltrow as the surprisingly endearing Pepper Potts. I don’t have any particularly strong opinions about Paltrow as an actress, but get the sense that her performances in these films aren’t especially popular among diehard MCU fans, which is a shame. Iron Man 3 allows Potts the opportunity to try on one of Stark’s mech suits, which made for a kinda awesome (and on a personal note, oddly sexy) moment when she gets to save the day for a change. Better yet is her climactic freakout moment, which releases a feral side to Paltrow’s screen presence I didn’t know she had in her (although it was teased in her line-reading of “Are you out of your mind?!” in Iron Man 2).

Speaking of the suit-sharing, Iron Man 3 features more Iron Man suits than ever, which, when combined with remote-controlled automation, makes for some absolutely killer action sequences involving an Iron Man army, some ludicrously complicated suit-hopping/exploding choreography, and a sublimely corny, parachuteless freefall rescue that played nicely into the film’s comic book origins. It’s a shame that none of these charming moments or character beats ever amount to a satisfying whole, though. Repeating the exact same mistakes of Iron Man 2, the film splits its time between two villains, a formula that bogs down its plot, only to make a third act decision to follow the least interesting of the pair to the conclusion. Iron Man 3 even takes this mistake a step further and retroactively ruins its most interesting threat, reducing Kingley’s monstrous terrorist from an Osama bin Nixon to a buffoonish Russell Brand archetype. What a waste. And to think, they casually kick him aside in favor of a fire-breathing version of Val Kilmer’s generic Dieter Von Cunth villain from MacGruber. It’s not a good sign when your film’s lead antagonist most closely resembles a character meant to spoof the genre you’re working in.

Once that shift occurs, Iron Man 3 devolves into generic superhero action cinema. The last 40 minutes of the film feel like a total waste, despite the suit-hopping heroics & Pepper Potts silliness mentioned above. Every now & then Iron Man 3 would throw out a fistpump-worthy moment or two (Stark taking out a helicopter by hurling a grand piano comes to mind), but for the most part the film felt like a mess of compromises & disappointments with half-cooked references to A Christmas Carol that went more or less nowhere & an entirely unnecessary performance by series-vet Jon Favreau as The World’s Shittiest Comic Relief. At best, it’s a generic mixed bag of an action film that almost gets its shit together before completely losing track of what makes it special. At worst, it’s a disappointingly low entry to Shane Black’s catalog, whether or not it helped him gain some notoriety for the strange body of work he had quietly put together prior.

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fourstar

Boomer: A lot of people really disliked this movie when it came out, citing the appearance of a kid sidekick character and the purported ruination of The Mandarin. Personally, however, I have to say that this is probably my favorite of the Iron Man flicks. I’ll admit that the kid sidekick character doesn’t really bother me in the slightest (and he appears onscreen for such a short period of time that his presence is virtually negligible). As for the way that the film used The Mandarin… I actually think that it was a bit of an ingenious move. I understand that this is a character into whom a lot of people have invested time and emotional energy, and I can understand the outrage because I felt much the same way when Star Trek Into Darkness sprang a whitewashed terrible Khan on the audience. The difference, however, is that the fact that Benedict Cumberbatch’s character is Khan contributes nothing to the film other than a familiar name, whereas the Mandarin reveal in Iron Man 3 actually serves to further the plot in an interesting way, and the film does well to play that reveal close to the chest up to the point where we finally meet Trevor Slattery. This was a neat twist that played on expectations of comic book fans and mainstream filmgoers alike, and I think a lot of people were simply caught off guard by the revelation and overreacted to it.

As for other issues viewers took with the film, I don’t really lend a lot of credence to what could be called the Avengers Problem, or, more loosely, the Shared Universe Problem. For some, once a shared universe is established or canonized, there is a need to ask why such-and-such character doesn’t appear in so-and-so’s film. I don’t really understand this impulse on the part of the audience to criticize this element of a work; it’s not as if every character spends all of their downtime together, nor is it a far-fetched idea that a person like Tony Stark who is accustomed to self-reliance would, in a period of self-doubt, try to fix all of his problems without calling on his superfriends. It’s not a problem for me that Banner shows up after the fact and only for a chat, and I feel that a lot of people were looking for elements of the film to complain about, as the honeymoon patina of the MCU was starting to wear thin. All of this is to say: this is a movie about a man who is pried loose from his moorings and forced to confront both his mortality and his potential for failure, and ends up being the least cliche of the Iron Man movies as a result.

There are problems, of course. The film is smart to focus on Tony and his one-man journey, but Paltrow and Cheadle end up underutilized this time around as a matter of consequence. Although Kingsley’s performance as both Slattery and The Mandarin is fantastic, Hall’s botanist character ends up feeling underdeveloped, and we never get a real feeling for her motivations. Pearce’s motivations are also less than perfectly defined, but he stands out as still being a better villain than either Hammer or Whiplash from Tony’s last solo outing. The deus ex machina elements of Pepper’s superheroics at the end of the film are a little on-the-nose, but it was nice to see her get to have more agency this time around, especially since her appearance early in the film painted her in a less than stellar light.

Still, I liked this one. The film largely restrains its elaborate set-pieces to the film’s back half, instead focusing the first half on character building and establishing the new relationships between all the characters, new and old, and the film benefits greatly from this structure. The humor here isn’t derived solely from trying to elicit envy of the Tony Stark way of life, which is a refreshing change of pace. Furthermore, making Stark more vulnerable provides Downey with additional ways to approach the character, which makes both actor and character come off as more likable than in previous installments. It’s a different approach, and the non-standard format of the film’s narrative sets a good example for the way that this film and the five that followed it would change the tone of the MCU at large.

Lagniappe

Boomer: It’s super weird to me that the MCU has a white president. It’s something that felt strange the first time I saw it; normally, I wouldn’t bring it up, but with recent news that Marvel bigwig Ike Perlmutter donated a hefty chunk of money to the Trump campaign, it does raise some questions. Also, it’s a bummer that we don’t hear about Extremis or see any of the fallout in the films that follow. Pepper’s newfound superherodom doesn’t even get a line of dialogue in Age of Ultron, even though she is mentioned. It’s strange, given the fact that the movie seems to set her up as a new power player–not that we needed another character in Ultron gumming up the works.

Brandon: Here’s where I praise Iron Man 3 for what it gets exactly right. Part of what’s been bugging me about the MCU as a cohesive unit of films is that outside of the Avengers crossovers the individual properties haven’t interacted with each other in any significant way. Iron Man 2 was better than most MCU properties on that front, mostly in the way that it gave outside characters Black Widow & Nick Fury something more significant to do besides popping up for a post-credits cameo. Iron Man 3 finally works the Marvel Universe at large into its core narrative, though, which posits it as the most well-integrated MCU property yet (well, outside The Avengers, which is integration by nature).

In the film, Tony Stark is suffering from PTSD after the “gods, aliens, other dimensions,” and robots caused so much mayhem at the climax of The Avengers. He confesses to Potts, “Nothing’s been the same since New York” and in a nice change of pace his ego is put into check by nightmares & panic attacks that can occasionally become life-threatening, especially once he begins operating mech suits in his sleep. I love this sense of progression. It finally feels like a standalone MCU property is actually, significantly affected by the preceding films outside its realm. I look forward to seeing more of the franchise function this way.

Curiously, although Iron Man 3 is the most well-integrated, non-Avengers MCU film so far, it feels like it brings its narrative to a close by the end credits. Everything feels thoroughly wrapped up, finite, as if Tony STark’s time with the franchise were over. If I didn’t know any better, I’d believe that “I am Iron Man” would be Starks’s final word to tie a neat little ribbon on his entire d-bag story arc. What’s even weirder is that after all this finality & integration, the film reverts back to a meaningless post-credits cameo for Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner. Again, the film is the definition of a mixed bag.

Side note: Did anybody else find it strange that this film found time for references to Joan Rivers, Downton Abbey, and the Home Shopping Network? I don’t know what to make of those nods other than to say they felt bizarre in this context.

Combined S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. Rating for Iron Man 3 (2013)

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three star

-Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.

Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.: The Avengers (2012)

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Superhero Watching: Alternating Marvel Perspectives, Fresh and Longterm, Ignoring X-Men, or S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X., is a feature in which Boomer (who reads superhero comics & is well versed in the MCU) & Brandon (who reads alternative comics & had, at the start of this project, seen less than 25% of the MCU’s output) revisit the films that make up the Marvel Cinematic Universe from the perspective of someone who knows what they’re talking about & someone who doesn’t have the slightest clue.

Boomer: The Avengers was always one of Kevin Feige’s goals. Audacious and ambitious, when Feige started conceptualizing the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe his intention was to create a crossover film that united characters originally featured in individual films, mirroring the character/team dichotomy that permeates superhero comics. As such, a great deal of the history of the Avengers film project is really the history of the MCU up to this point, which has been discussed in our previous posts.

Casting for the film began in 2010, with Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye being cast far enough in advance that Kenneth Branagh was able to insert an early cameo from him into Thor in 2011. Marvel’s official story is that they “declined” to have Ed Norton return as Bruce Banner, whereas Norton has claimed that he never intended to return to the role after the 2008 The Hulk flick, as he “wanted more diversity” in his career. His role was recast with Mark Ruffalo. The only other major addition to the ensemble was Cobie Smulders, who was cast in the role of Maria Hill. Hill is well-known to comic book fans as the sometime director of S.H.I.E.L.D., and she was a key player in Marvel’s then-recent Secret Invasion storyline. As a result, her casing fueled fan theory that her casting was an indication that the metamorphic Skrulls would be the primary antagonists in the film, especially when the Chitauri (who essentially stand in for the Skrulls under Marvel’s Ultimate imprint) were announced as well; ultimately, these theories were proven incorrect. Other than the six Avengers themselves, the film also featured the return of Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts and Paul Bettany’s Jarvis from the Iron Man flicks and Stellan Skarsgård’s Erik Selvig and Tom Hiddleston’s Loki from Thor. Clark Gregg also reprised his role as Agent Coulson, and Samuel L. Jackson is featured as Director Nick Fury.

Early story work was completed by Zak Penn, who also contributed to the story for the excellent X2 and co-wrote the screenplay for the abysmal X3; the script was rewritten by Joss Whedon when he was brought on board to direct. There’s no need to explain who Whedon is, right? There are probably sea mollusks out there that are sick of hearing about the Cancellation of Firefly like it was an actual battle that was lost. Still, Whedon’s experience as a director as well as a purveyor of superhero yarns (his run on Astonishing X-Men was particularly good, although I didn’t care for his work on Runaways) made him the perfect fit for bringing the Avengers to celluloid life. Composer Alan Silvestri so impressed Marvel Studios with his composition for Captain America that he was brought back to score this film as well.

But enough about the seeds of the franchise. Brandon, what did you think?

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threehalfstar
Brandon: Finally, an MCU film I’ve actually seen before! When I went to the theater to see The Avengers in 2012 I was aware of its individual characters’ basic attributes, but a little lost as to what exactly was happening in the film plot-wise until about halfway into its massive runtime. The funny thing is that now that I’ve watched all five standalone films that have lead up to this crossover effort, I still found myself somewhat lost. The Avengers is the beginning of the MCU’s descent into full-blown Infinity Stone, MacGuffin-chasing nonsense. The film’s opening sequence feels like the ending of a nondescript action film that just happens to include a magic scepter and a “tesseract”. It’s a pretty clever idea to throw the film’s in-the-know audience into just as much of a confused state as those who just happened to wander into the universe for the first time, but the film’s central Infinity Stone caper is not nearly as much of a draw as the thrill of seeing six wildly varied superheroes share top billing in a single feature, so it feels a bit like wasted time. And once the film sets up its stolen tesseract conflict, it then takes way too much time to re-introduce each of the film’s disparate heroes & bring them together as a single unit. I had a lot of fun with going into an IMAX 3D screening of The Avengers completely blind of context in 2012, but returning to the film fully-informed (movie-wise, anyway) dampened my enthusiasm a good deal. It’s still a fun, crowd-pleasing action film, to be sure, but I think the effort required to get to its gang’s-all-here charm rolling reveals itself to be a little more labored on repeat viewings.

That being said, there are at least two scenes in The Avengers that rank among the best moments in superhero cinema of all time. I’m thinking, firstly, of the scene where the pissant god Loki’s evil scepter causes all six Avengers & (released from his post-credits stinger prison) Nick Fury to bicker in a slowly ratcheted moment of bitter discontent. It’s a well-played moment that sets up how a group of inflated superegos would have a near-impossible time working together as a unit. That scene functions as a set-up for the much more obvious centerpiece: the climactic battle with the alien robot army that destroys an entire metropolis. I don’t really have much to say about the film’s concluding action sequence other than it’s a grand spectacle of fist-pumping action that might be one of the single most fun to watch half hour stretches in the history of superheroes on film. I have no doubt that the reason I left the theater so satisfied in 2012 is that the spectacle of that Battle for the Fate of the Universe completely obliterated any concerns about the labor it took to get there. I was probably also less bored with the film’s individual introductions to the characters & the concept of Infinity Stones on that first go-round, since I feel now like I already put in that effort in the 10 hours of media leading up to that point. Still, I’m entirely grateful for the isolated moments of excellence that The Avengers delivers on its own time, not to mention some wonderful character beats for my favorite duo within the franchise so far (Black Widow & Captain America) and a fantastic revision of a character who simply did not work the first time around (The Hulk). I’ll just be more likely to return to those moments as isolated scenes in the future instead of watching the film as a whole, unless it’s as background noise. The Avengers is one of those movies I can see working best as something you can drift in and out of, maybe while channel surfing or housecleaning or something along those lines.

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fivestar

Boomer: It’s been three-and-a-half years (and roughly 7,283 thinkpieces of varying insight and coherence about whether or not Joss Whedon’s body of work is sufficiently feminist or hopelessly static and outdated) since a group of friends and I went to see The Avengers after a long and trying semester. There was some concern that the film would be bloated or an overall mess. While there’s certainly a case to be made that Age of Ultron would realize those concerns three summers later, I find myself drawn in by Whedon’s first MCU outing every time I watch it, despite the number of times that I have seen it. Between the whip-smart dialogue, the extended but imaginative action set-pieces, and the undeniable cool of seeing super-powered characters come together and coalesce into a united, if volatile, front, there’s so much to enjoy about the film that even the most cantankerous of critics found it hard to commit to panning the movie.

The Avengers is a fun ride, and although the Battle of New York—as the final action sequence would come to be called in later MCU media—admittedly experienced a series of diminishing returns, most of the myriad of other high-octane set-pieces were genuinely thrilling and engaging. It was a smart move to start the film with an action sequence that was largely Avenger-free and which instead focused on Fury, Coulson, and Maria Hill before following that up with a series of smaller scenes that reintroduce each of the key players with varying degrees of bombasity. Other checkmarks in the “good idea” column include the decision to have characters express reluctance and hesitance to commit to the idea of a full-on superhero team, and to introduce the seeds of discord early on. As a result, when the temporary falling out occurs at the end of Act Two, it feels properly earned and not as forced as it so easily could have.

As a writer, Whedon has always had a talent for drafting dialogue and characterization that is at once clever, observational, and occasionally devastating. Jeremy Renner isn’t given much to do in this first flick as he spends most of the film under the brainwashed control of Loki’s staff, but the other Avengers work well here. In particular, Tony Stark improves a great deal as a character under the direction of Whedon, as his dialogue, while still pompous, is less obnoxious in all its crackling Buffy-esque witticism than when other writers have put words in his mouth. Chris Hemsworth’s Thor gets in some good lines as well (the reference to the bilgesnipe is a favorite of mine despite its brevity, as it’s totally wacky while remaining oddly conversational), and Evans gets to show more dimensions to Cap, now a man out of time. Evans’s performance is particularly strong, but, for my money, Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha is the MVP here, not that it should be any surprise that Whedon would expand her role significantly from her previous appearance in Iron Man 2.

Throughout the film, Romanoff is surrounded by men who project assumptions onto her: the Russians she is “interrogating” in her first scene see her only as an object of sexual scorn, using derogatory and charged language; Banner initially underestimates her strength and resolve; Loki spits insults at her, concluding that her investment in saving her friend is purely the result of pathetic romantic attachment. In every instance, these assumptions are false, and Black Widow uses these misogynistic and presumptive attitudes against the antagonists at every turn. Despite some well-choreographed ass-kicking in her last appearance, Natasha was still mostly played for the male gaze (potentially an inevitable consequence of appearing in an Iron Man film); here, she’s an extremely competent agent who is so skilled that she doesn’t seem out of place as a team-member alongside supersoldiers and literal gods. And, like Buffy before her, Nat is not an “strong female character” in the sense that she is an emotionless and implacable badass–she gets hurt, experiences doubt, mourns her comrades, and is forced to fight her closest friend. She doesn’t have to be coded as a male character, and it’s just grand.

Overall, The Avengers is an ambitious but well-suited capstone to the first phase of the MCU. It expands a lot from here, as Phase Two would include not only six films but two network television series (it’s not clear where Daredevil and Jessica Jones fit into the “phase” structure, if they fit in at all) over the following three years. It’s big fun that’s mostly (but not wholly) a surface-deep spectacle.

Lagniappe

Boomer: Not only did my friends and I go see this film in costume, but we caught it in 3D as well, as we had with Thor. For those so inclined, I daresay that Chris Evan’s punching bag scene towards the beginning of the film may well justify the extra dollars spent on the post-conversion.

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(image courtesy of user thecaptainrogers of rebloggy)

With regards to the larger MCU, the events of the Battle of New York will come up again and again, especially in regards to how the public and governments will respond to the team. The death of Phil Coulson is cheapened by the knowledge that his character returned a mere three months later when Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. debuted; the reason for his sudden and unexpected resurrection was one of the ongoing mysteries of that show’s lukewarm first season (arguably the weakest). My original theory at the time was that his mind would be used to create the personality imprint for Vision when that character eventually appeared in the MCU, standing in for Wonder Man, although the MCU obviously went in a different direction.

Brandon: The feeling I got while watching The Avengers‘ 2015 followup, Age of Ultron, was that the MCU was stretching itself a little thin trying to include both barely-interested newcomers & deeply invested comic book supernerds in the same audience. Now that the novelty of meeting the MCU’s characters for the first time in the first Avengers film has worn off a bit for me, I feel that strained divide might’ve begun as soon as 2012. As a compromise between pleasing both the well-informed and the completely contextless, The Avengers is a massively impressive balancing act. However, I think that these crossover films might be better served as standalone works of art if they left newcomers behind completely & just focused on serving the audience who’ve already put in the effort to get there. And I’m saying that as a recent convert who’s just barely keeping up as is.

Combined S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. Rating for The Avengers (2012)

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fourstar

-Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.

Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.: Thor (2011)

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Superhero Watching: Alternating Marvel Perspectives, Fresh and Longterm, Ignoring X-Men, or S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X., is a feature in which Boomer (who reads superhero comics & is well versed in the MCU) & Brandon (who reads alternative comics & has thus far seen less than 25% of the MCU’s output) revisit the films that make up the Marvel Cinematic Universe from the perspective of someone who knows what they’re talking about & someone who doesn’t have the slightest clue.

Boomer: The ironic thing about the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that it owes so much to the success of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, but Thor owes its placement in the MCU to the failure of that series of films, although I’m getting ahead of myself. Sam Raimi initially conceived of making a Thor film after he finished production on 1990’s Darkman, one of the best films ever made about a costumed hero even before one takes into account that it was not based on a previous intellectual property. This project never got off the ground, but after the success of Bryan Singer’s first X-Men film in 2000, interest in the potential of adapting Marvel’s Thunder God was renewed, although by that time it was being considered for a series adaptation for UPN. After a few years of discussion, the project was again tabled until Kevin Feige started dreaming up the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

In 2007, Mark Protosevich, fresh from having written the screenplay adaptation of the Will Smith vehicle I Am Legend, based on the novel by Richard Matheson, expressed interest in drafting a Thor script. That same year also saw the beginning of the definitive 21st Century arc for Thor comics in the wake of Civil War, penned by J. Michael Straczynski. Straczynski was already well known in nerd circles for having created Babylon 5 (and would become even more so following the publication of One More Day, the notorious Spider-Man arc in which Peter Parker makes a deal with Mephisto that costs him his marriage and unborn child). This new direction, envisioning a newly recreated Asgard hovering over farmland in the American breadbasket, featured interaction between Asgardians like Thor, Sif, and Balder and locals. You can see a definite influence from that story in this film, even if the specifics are quite different.

Ultimately, both Protosevich and Straczynski ended up with story credit on this film, with the screenplay credit going to Ashley Edward Miller & Zach Stentz alongside Don Payne (the ampersand here indicating that Stentz and Miller worked together on their version of the script). Stentz and Miller had also previously worked together on television series as varied as Andromeda, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and Fringe, where they created the scripts for several episodes of the second season, including the premiere. The last screenwriter, Don Payne, had a series of one-to-two episode stints on utterly forgotten sitcoms in the nineties, like Hope & Gloria, Pride & Joy, Men Behaving Badly, and something called The Brian Benben Show. His breakthrough big screen work was 2006’s My Super Ex-Girlfriend, which is the antithesis of the above-cited Darkman, in that it is one of the worst films ever made about a costumed hero, even after taking into account those others which were not based on previous intellectual properties. As Payne also had the critically and popularly reviled 2007 Fantastic Four sequel on his C.V., there was much speculation about whether or not Thor would be the MCU’s first artistic and financial failure (which was later the speculative case for Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man).

At the same time, over at Sony, the Spider-Man series was running out of steam. The goodwill that was built up by the first two films had been virtually obliterated by the backlash against the third when it was released in 2007. Jokes about Peter Parker’s pseudogoth makeover following his bonding with the Venom symbiote persist to this day, even after an entire reboot series in the interregnum between Tobey Maguire and the new kid set to reappear when Spidey finally shows up in the MCU. A script for a fourth film was solicited, and concept art even appeared in Wizard Magazine showing designs for the costumes of Vulture and his daughter (supposedly to have eventually been played by John Malkovich and Anne Hathaway, which seemed farfetched even then). Ultimately, however, Spider-Man 4 was cancelled following friction between Raimi and Sony, and the release date for Thor was bumped up. Kenneth Branagh, who was most well known for his adaptations of Shakespeare, including Much Ado About Nothing and As You Like It, was brought on as director. With such a long time in development limbo and with so many fingers in the pot creatively, there was much debate as to whether Branagh’s film would be any good.

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three star

Brandon: At this point in the MCU’s trajectory I was just desperately hoping for a movie that didn’t involve Tony Stark in any way. It’s no surprise, then, that Thor ended up being my favorite film in the franchise so far, especially since I had set the bar so underachievingly low. The silliness is cranked to deliriously enjoyable heights in this film, a nice change from the wealthy douche fantasy fulfillment of the Iron Man movies & the somber romance machinations of The Incredible Hulk. Thor is essentially a fish-out-of-water action comedy about a Norse god stranded in Modern Times America once he is banished from an Oz-looking palace on a planet where gods live for being “nothing but a little boy trying to prove himself a man.” This is a film where a one-eyed Anthony Hopkins plays a space lord in a golden Jack Kirby getup similar to Skeletor’s at the end of Golan-Globus’ Masters of the Universe. Idris Elba, also playing a golden space lord, serves as a “Gatekeeper” for a “rainbow bridge” that can transport these gods to any location in the Universe (although they often end up settling for America, because of course they would). And then there’s the copious amounts of lush, reverent shots of a magical mallet, a.k.a. Thor’s hammer. It’s all quite ridiculous.

The comedy didn’t work nearly as well in Iron Man because it was coming from a nasty, misogynistic place. The Incredible Hulk had flashes of comedy spread throughout its runtime, but they were mostly buried under an overwhelmingly grim tone. After watching the self-absorbed antics of a playboy billionaire & the pensive longing of a blood-poisoned scientist, it was thoroughly refreshinging to watch an empty-headed, naive, absurdly trusting bimbo of an ancient god bumble his way through political relations between warring planets & through the logistics of life in modern America. And because Thor is played by handsome/buff/charming actor Christ Hemsworth, there’s an absurd lean towards shirtless beefcake here that’s a nice change after two movies’ worth of Tony Stark’s grotesque womanizing. Natalie “What Is She Doing Here?” Portman is also pretty refreshing as Thor’s Earthling arm candy, which is somehow less gross than it is when Tony Stark’s endless parade of faceless hotties fill that role. It’s at the very least amusing when Portman’s smitten scientist easily gives in to her boy-toy’s explanation of the Universe’s nine realms & his own origins in a place “where science & magic are one & the same”, disregarding all skepticism that would be necessary for her to sustain a career in her field.

I’m not saying that the film is entirely successful. It’s just that it’s silly enough to pass as an entertaining trifle. Most of what gets in the way of Thor being a thoroughly winning film is director Kenneth Branagh’s over-reaching personal style. I know that it’s a common complaint that Marvel Studios doesn’t allow for enough of a personalized touch in its films & relies heavily on a “house style” (especially considering the way they homogenized the typically-recognizable work of Edgar Wright & James Gunn), but I gotta say that most visual traces of Branagh’s touch are distracting in this particular case. I suppose he was well suited for the task based on the Shakespearean nature of Thor’s home life on the magical god planet Asgard, but the melodrama is laid on fairly thick here. Far worse is the director’s perverse use of Dutch angles, tilting the camera so drastically left to right to back again that I swear it was mounted to a seesaw. The effect was downright nauseating. There were also some generic superhero movie problems afoot here presumably out of Branagh’s control. The CGI “Frost Giants” serve as pretty bland, vaguely-defined villains. Tom Hiddleston’s Loki has a thoroughly unsurprising heel turn in the second act (Could anyone ever buy him as a “good guy”? Don’t answer that). There’s a pretty annoying false-death crisis (or “Disney Death” if you will) in the third act, etc.

None of these faults register as too tragic, though. For the most part Thor is a decent example of what sets the MCU apart from other post-Dark Knight superhero franchises: lighthearted humor. This a fun, dumb movie, one with irreverent gags like its alien god protagonist demanding that a strip mall pet store provide a horse or a dog/cat/bird large enough to ride & getting called a “dumbass” when he mindlessly wanders into traffic. I suppose they mostly made this tonal choice to contrast the ridiculous/large-scale power its Norse god hero holds in comparison to the blood-poisoned scientist & rich douche with a mech suit heroes in the films prior. Whatever the reason, it was a welcome glimpse into the mindless fun of films I had previously seen from this “universe” before starting this project: the two Avengers movies, Ant-Man, and Guardians of the Galaxy. It makes me a lot more eager to continue watching how this whole thing unfolds, as opposed to how Jon Favreau’s Iron Man movies were beating me down.

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fourhalfstar
Boomer: I was a little nervous about rewatching this film. It was the first MCU movie that I saw in theaters (in 3D, even, because some of my friends were a little slow to realize what a cheap and useless gimmick that is and always has been); in fact, we went to the opening night, and I still have the half-sized poster the ticket taker handed out to prove it. Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk had failed to make a huge impact on me even though I found them passable, but I was more hesitant to commit to a Thor movie. I had only been introduced to Thor as a character (outside of his involvement in Avengers and crossover events) as of the Straczynski run mentioned above. This was a character with a very involved backstory and so many supporting characters that I wasn’t certain how that would translate to the screen; moreover, this was a character that actually mattered to me as a reader, and I was almost certain it was bound to fail. My expectations were overturned, and I remember walking out of Thor and immediately texting several of my nerd friends in other cities about how it was one of the best comic book movies I had ever seen.

My concerns that the movie would not hold up turned out to be unfounded as well. The market saturation of the MCU and the omnipresence of superhero narratives has dulled a bit of the movie’s shine (not to mention some serious Loki fatigue brought on by the continual revisitation of that character), but it still holds up as a fun movie that manages to lend gravitas to the more outlandish and potentially cheesy ideas. Although it borrows the same tired opening structure as Iron Man—a bunch of characters in a vehicle encounter an event, and then the film flashes back to show the audience “how we got here”—the film makes this stupid in-media-res-then-[x time]-earlier thing seem fresh. In fact, considering that the film credits the story and script to a cumulative five people, the narrative is surprisingly streamlined and internally consistent, never splitting focus to the point where the audience becomes bored (as was the case with Iron Man 2).

I have to admit that I have never seen any of Branagh’s Shakespeare adaptations, but coming from that world probably made him the person best suited to helm this film, especially considering that the title character and his entourage were always based more on Shakespearean drama than real Norse myth anyway. The Thor books always used characters from a largely dead religion with great dramatic license; one of the most noteworthy things about Marvel’s Thor is that he has blond hair, but traditional Norse Thor has a fiery red mane and beard. It’s fine that the comics (and thus the films) deviate from tradition, and it’s much more fun to accept the Elizabethan speech patterns than try to rationalize them. The plot is like someone threw a Shakespeare anthology into a blender with some Norse characters and made a smoothie that was not merely palatable but compelling: a Lear-like Odin has unwittingly instigated a rivalry between his roguish natural-born son and the Iago-esque son he adopted; he realizes that his son is not yet fit to lead, to so he banishes him to a far-off land to teach him a lesson, but falls ill before the prodigal’s return, allowing his even more ill-suited, manipulative son to take the throne.

Thor could easily come off as terribly unlikable (and some parts of the internet will defend any interpretation of the film which lends itself to positing that Thor was a bully and Loki was justified in his actions by default), but Chris Hemsworth deftly treads the line between aggression and exuberance. Ultimately, he keeps Thor sympathetic and the audience is invested in his evolution from an immature prince to knowledgeable leader with enough wisdom to know that he is not ready to be king but will be one day. Tom Hiddleston is also quite good in his role, and I really enjoyed watching his manipulations this time around. It’s hard to divorce the role from the overwhelming outpouring of Loki apologia that has haunted particular corners of Tumblr for the past five years, but he does well in keeping Loki grounded. Sure, Loki wants More! Power! just like Obadiah Stane, Justin Hammer, and General Ross, but this desire stems less from the lust for power itself and more from his need to demonstrate his worthiness to his father. Of course, whether or not that’s actually the case or just one more of his manipulations is never made utterly clear, which is what makes him so interesting.

As a character and in theory, Thor had the potential to be just as much of a jerkass as Tony Stark; as the potential future leader of the highest realm, he was an even greater child of privilege than Stark was (as much as Howard Stark swaggers, I sincerely doubt he ever gave Tony a “all the light touches will one day be yours” speech). The film is well served by focusing on his depowered earthbound adventures, as this allows Thor to be a newcomer who must learn the ways of the new world in which he finds himself. Instead of your typical origin story, this is a spiritual journey in which a man who believes that his way is the only way and that peace can only be achieved with subjugation becomes a man who understands the importance of self-sacrifice and the realizes that the most virtuous use of power is to show mercy. Those are hardly groundbreaking concepts, but they’re larger and more thoughtful than the topics tackled in superhero films before this point, and Thor represents a step in the right direction towards more heady ideas and more inventive plot structures for the MCU.

There’s a lot to love here, from the humor of Thor’s exploration of Midgard, the great interactions between Jane and her crew of ragtag science outsiders, Thor’s confrontations with S.H.I.E.L.D. and the early-bird introduction of Hawkeye, the incredible performance that Idris Elba brings to a largely thankless part, Anthony Hopkins’s pitch-perfect Odin, etc. In fact, the only element that rings a little false is Jane and Thor’s relationship, which moves too fast. As a narrative weakness, that’s pretty common, and may even be part of the intentional Shakespeare atmosphere, but it doesn’t irreparably harm the movie. Overall, this was the first truly good MCU flick, and proved that there was potential for Marvel projects that weren’t based on names with which mainstream audiences were already familiar.

Lagniappe

Brandon: Although I enjoyed this film more than any other entry in the MCU so far, it did backslide a bit in terms of making its inter-connected universe count for something. The exciting development in Iron Man 2 was that it finally gave non-Iron Man Marvel characters something significant to do in an Iron Man film, namely ScarJo’s Black Widow & Sam Jackson’s Nick Fury. Here, Nick Fury is again relegated to post-credits stinger status & future-Avenger Hawkeye basically just pops into acknowledge that he exists. There’s also a quick, throwaway reference to Iron Man in a climactic battle with a space robot where one of the members of S.H.I.E.L.D. asks “Is that one of Stark’s?”. Speaking of S.H.I.E.L.D., they’re actually given the most do here as connective tissue, acting as total Big Government dicks even though they’re essentially on the same team as the scientists they overpower. That was a nice touch. I’m still getting the sense in these early MCU films that the studio was getting too ahead of themselves in promising the next big spectacle where all of this will finally pay off (in the first Avengers film) instead of making it count for something in the moment.

It’s also throwing me off how out of date & behind the times these films feel. This is mostly detectable in Thor by taking a glance at free spirit/comic relief Darcy’s (Kat Denning’s) wardrobe. I’d swear that her awful hats & scarves where purchased sometime in the early 2000s & not in 2011 if I didn’t know any better. Similarly, Thor’s ragtag group of immortal ass-kicking buddies are amusingly out of step with what’s cool & what’s corny (although I suppose you could argue that some of that effect was intentional). At some point in its lineage the MCU became the cutting edge of superhero cinema. I’m still not seeing it yet.

Boomer: Josh Dallas’s Fandral looks really silly here. Like, really silly. Every time he appeared in a scene, it really took me out of the moment. Also, how strange is it that his daughter on Once Upon a Time is played by Jennifer Morrison, who in turn played the wife of Chris Hemsworth’s character in the Star Trek reboot? That has absolutely no bearing on this movie but felt it merited consideration. As for how Thor fits into the rest of the MCU, this film features the return of fan favorite Coulson, although S.H.I.E.L.D. is outright antagonistic for the first time in this film in a way that will be explored further down the line. This is also the first appearance of Agent Sitwell, who was a total non-entity to me the first time I saw Thor, but his appearance here is noteworthy based on what comes to light later. Also, in retrospect, I can’t believe it took four films to finally introduce a villain who would recur later in the franchise (not counting General Ross, who is set to reappear in Civil War). It’s just too bad they’ll go to the Loki well so soon and so often that this goodwill will wear out.

Combined S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. Rating for Thor (2011)

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fourstar

-Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.

Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.: Iron Man 2 (2010)

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Superhero Watching: Alternating Marvel Perspectives, Fresh and Longterm, Ignoring X-Men, or S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X., is a feature in which Boomer (who reads superhero comics & is well versed in the MCU) & Brandon (who reads alternative comics & has thus far seen less than 25% of the MCU’s output) revisit the films that make up the Marvel Cinematic Universe from the perspective of someone who knows what they’re talking about & someone who doesn’t have the slightest clue.

Boomer: After the somewhat surprising success of Iron Man and the mostly tepid response to The Incredible Hulk, Marvel Studios allowed their product line to lie fallow for 2009. Instead, they spent most of their behind the scenes time conceptualizing and drafting the growing interconnected universe and putting forth just enough information to whet the appetites of the general public. Iron Man 2 in 2010! Thor and Captain America (which would later have the silly, unwieldy subtitle The First Avenger added to it) in 2011! Avengers in 2012! Iron Man 2 was heavily marketed in the U.S., but there was a distinct decline in the attention from film and comic trade papers compared to the whirlwind of publicity that surrounded the first picture. If anything, most of the hard copy from trade journals was less about the film itself and more about notable lunatic Terrence Howard’s exit and replacement by prestige performer Don Cheadle. Howard has claimed on separate occasions that he left the film of his own volition and that he was let go, the former statement having only recently become part of his repertoire of stories. Lately, his claim is that his departure was due to a vast pay discrepancy between himself and Robert Downey, Jr., but Howard is also infamously difficult to work with—just look no further than the madness that was his September Rolling Stone interview for proof. Imagine what it must be like to work with someone whose conceptualization of mathematics makes Time Cube seem straightforward in comparison. I would prefer working with class act Don Cheadle, too.

There’s not as much backstory about the history of this film, but the expansion of the cast is noteworthy. Of the four main actors appearing in the first film, only Gwyneth Paltrow and Downey reprise their roles, due to Howard’s exit and the death of Jeff Bridges’s character. Samuel L. Jackson’s role was expanded, and Mad Men actor John Slattery was cast to play Tony’s father Howard Stark in file footage. Sam Rockwell joined the cast as rival weapons mogul Justin Hammer, and Mickey Rourke, of all people, was cast as unrepentant Russian ex-con Ivan “Whiplash” Vanko. Even stranger, likable comedian Garry Shandling was brought on board to play blowhard politician Senator Stern. Most notably, the film introduced Scarlett Johansson as S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a. Black Widow, in a role that raised the profile of both actress and character significantly. Director Jon Favreau returned to helm the film and appear as Tony’s driver, “Happy” Hogan, and screenwriting duties were handed over to Justin Theroux, who is more recognizable as an actor in films like Mulholland Drive and American Psycho (and as the current Mr. Jennifer Aniston) than a writer. He also played the villain in Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, following on the heels of Rockwell’s villainous turn in the first Angels film. Can the two of them working together make a decent Iron Man film? Read on for our reviews!

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twohalfstar

Brandon: Are we back to this dude already? Seems like just two films ago I was complaining about Tony Stark’s obnoxious rich boy D-bag fantasy fulfillment horror show of a personality. And here we are again, watching The Last of the Famous International Playboys work the crowd in his expensive suits & Guy Fieri sunglasses/goatee combos. As much as I would love to say I hated it even more the second time around, Jon Favreau’s second Iron Man film wasn’t nearly as bad as the first. Despite insistent warnings from friends that this would be the worst entry under the MCU brand to date, I found myself enjoying a great deal of the film, especially in moments where Mr. Stark was nowhere to be seen. Even though I could feel myself being won over, though, I think it’s much more that the MCU is growing on me & coming into its own than it is that this individual property is worth anything more than mixed praise.

The major improvement in Iron Man 2 is in the strength of its cast. Don Cheadle was a huge get in replacing Terrence Howard as Col. James Rhodes & it was super cool to see him fly around in a spare Iron Man suit, effectively establishing himself as the MCU’s first non-white superhero. Jon Slattery is as amusingly smug as ever in his role as Iron Dad. Gary Schandling & Sam Rockwell are always-welcome faces, even if the latter was asked to do such undignified things as blabbering about super-“cool”, super-deadly weapons to an obnoxious blues rock soundtrack. Scarlett Johansson is a refreshing glimpse into a better, future MCU in her kickass performance as the (undercover) Black Widow. Even the much-complained-about Gwyenth Paltrow gets a couple great moments in there, especially in her delivery of a particularly passionate line-reading of “ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR MIND?!”

The real MVP here, though, is Mickey Rourke. I suspect that Rourke’s performance as the oddly grandmotherly supervillain Ivan “Whiplash” Vanko wasn’t universally beloved by fans, but I was personally won over. I can’t be too objective about Rourke in this film because I’m pretty much on board with everything he’s done on film in the past 15 years or so. Even in dire properties that I have no patience for like Sin City & The Expendables, Rourke’s weird, hardened, subdued energy is a breath of fresh air. It’s hard to tell how much of this is leftover goodwill from how much I love him in Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, but it’s true all the same. Rourke’s softened, heavily tattooed Russian terrorist of a villain is easily the most deliciously over-the-top aspect of anything I’ve seen in the first three MCU entries. I loved everything about him, from his dumb girl’s-first-year-at-Burning-Man dreds to his fetish-inspiring lightning whips. When the film opens with Rourke’s oddly gentle brooding I was expecting to fall for Iron Man 2‘s charms . . . a feeling that lasted only briefly, as it was promptly interrupted by Iron Man flying around to AC/DC dad jams & my Iron Man 1 deja vu kicked in.

The problem with Iron Man 2 is not in the villains, but in Iron Man himself. I wasn’t convinced that Tony Stark’s reformed bad boy act in the first film outweighed his more unpalatable impulses as a rakish dick & he indeed dismisses his moral salvation in that film (an interest in renewable energy sources instead of military grade weapons) as a “liberal agenda” that he now finds boring here. I guess his new path to salvation is in his evolving romance plot with Pepper Potts. I’ll admit that I find the characters’ chemistry fairly compelling (way more than Ed Norton & Liv Tyler’s chemistry in The Incredible Hulk, at least), but there’s too much else working against Stark’s personality for it to save the movie for me. It’d be one thing if Stark’s go for broke narcissism were played as villainous, but it’s largely celebrated in the film. He’s applauded for “successfully privatizing world peace” without a trace of irony. He sexually objectifies the MCU’s first female superhero at first glance, joking “I want one of those” in ScarJo’s first scene, and the audience is supposed to think “Heh, heh me too”. And then there’s his love of a expensive-looking version of European NASCAR, Iron Gams chorus girls, and – worst yet – scratching records like an idiotic RoboDJ. Ugh. I’m surprised they stopped short of giving him a backwards baseball cap & a skateboard.

I could probably get behind Tony Stark’s persona if he were played as a villain, but he’s just too openly celebrated in the film for it to work for me. When he jokes about a beautiful woman standing next to his ride, “Does she come with the car?” we’re supposed to think “What a cool dude!” instead of “What a vile pig!”, which is the film’s main problem in a nutshell. Perhaps as his relationship with Potts develops the more grotesque aspects of his personality will soften, but for now I mostly find Stark to be a source of embarrassment. This isn’t helped at all by director Jon Favreau’s now-extended glorified cameo as Stark’s personal driver, since it confronts the viewer with the film’s oddly conservative power fantasy looking us in the eye, desperately hoping some of his creation’s supposed cool will rub off on him.

There’s so much going on in Iron Man 2 that had me rooting for the film – mostly in the superhero/villain antics of ScarJo, Rourke, and Cheadle. It’s just a shame that Iron Man had to get in the way of what makes Iron Man 2 work. When one character warns Stark, “The device keeping you alive is also killing you” I found myself thinking, “Would his death really be so bad for this franchise?” I doubt that was the desired effect.

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three star

Boomer: When Brandon told me that he had watched this film, I expressed my sympathies and referred to IM2 as the nadir of the MCU. Upon rewatch, however, this film was a lot better than I remembered, and outpaces The Incredible Hulk easily. The problem, I think, is that I had never actually sat through the entire film from beginning to end without commercial interruption, which bloats the already overlong film out to an interminable three hours and exacerbates the film’s pacing problems as well. It’s not great, but there were a lot more fun elements present than I remembered. Unfortunately, those moments are buried under a mountain of bizarre acting choices, miscast roles, and about 50% more subplots than any film should try to support.

How many subplots are there? Do we define the main plot as “Tony Stark attempts to find the cure for the blood toxicity problem caused by his arc reactor,” given that this would presuppose that “Tony faces off against the son of a man from whom his father may have stolen ideas” is not also the main plot? Of course, that would also further presuppose that “Tony faces off against the spoiled, rich weapons manufacturer who he could have been (and kinda is)” is not also the main plotline. Right away, the fact that all three of these ideas are primary narratives in their own right means that the film is overloaded. Then there are all the subplots: the Senate subcommittee hearings, the tension between Tony and Rhodey as the latter is pressured by the government to obtain an Iron Man suit, Pepper’s promotion to CEO of Stark Industries, the introduction and integration of Black Widow and the reveal of her true alliances, the uneasy alliance between Vanko and Hammer, Tony coming to understand his father’s real legacy and accept their emotional distance, and Tony forging a new element (“LOL” -everyone who paid even the barest minimum attention in high school chemistry). Every time the film changes scenes, you find yourself thinking “Oh, right, these people are doing things in this movie too; I forgot.” There are too many sequences in the film, and by the final act, there’s such a sense of narrative fatigue that you can hardly bring yourself to care.

A lot of the performances are flat and, frankly, terrible. ScarJo’s Black Widow had a lot of presence in the first Avengers film, and her appearance in Captain America: The Winter Soldier is far and away one of the best things in an inarguably fantastic film, but here, she’s wooden and unlikable. There are a few moments in which her emotionless seems like a façade (the way she drops her smile when Happy makes dismissive and sexist assumptions about her physical prowess is a nicely underplayed moment, actually), but it’s obvious that she had a hard time finding this character. Of course, given that her character seems poorly thought out on paper as well, this is hardly a surprise. Paltrow’s Pepper is also more of a damsel in this film than she was in the last, which is a disappointment, and Cheadle’s Rhodey is written as decisive in his actions but easily swayed in his motivations; both of them feel like they were written down in this installment in praise of the almighty Tony Stark.

Speaking of which, Tony Stark is a self-important blowhard who lacks humility, not entirely unlike Downey (who’s basically a white Kanye with an ego that the general public doesn’t police as heavily because of his whiteness); in order to make him more likable, his villains have to be utterly devoid of any redeeming features that could accidentally render them sympathetic. Ivan Vanko can’t just be a prodigal son seeking revenge on the child of the man who he believes stole his father’s legacy, he has to be a criminal who sold uranium to terrorists, and his father must also have been involved in wartime espionage. Senator Stern can’t possibly be presented as someone with reasonable objections to Tony Stark’s self-described privatization of worldwide peacekeeping; he has to be a barely-competent parody of fear-mongering, war-hungry senatorial arrogance. And Justin Hammer can’t just be a rival industrialist who wants to experience the successes that seem to come so easy to Tony Stark; he has to be a spoiled brat infatuated with his own decadent lifestyle and possessed of the misconception that he is capable of being intimidating, with occasional bouts of impotent rage.

Everyone in this movie feels like they’re slumming it, and the bad performances I mentioned earlier really show through in regards to the villains. Sam Rockwell is particularly terrible. I mentioned above that this movie has a longer running time than is necessary or warranted, and the film doesn’t have to be as long as it is, either. It’s unusual to feel a film’s length because of performative choices, but a good five percent of this film consists of Rockwell (and, to a lesser extent, Downey) repeating and repeating their lines, not for emphasis but as filler. Every scene that Rockwell is in feels interminable, and it only gets worse once he breaks Vanko out of prison and enlists him to make Hammer’s failed experiments moderately functional, with Rourke’s choices as the Russian criminal/mechanical genius almost (but not quite) working based purely on their sheer audacity. Without these two characters, almost nothing of substance would have been lost (less the Monaco racing/action sequence, which was a better set piece than the overloaded finale and a highlight of the film). Further, more time could have been spent focusing on the way Tony’s self-destructive behavior pushed his friends away, rather than abbreviating that plot point.

Overall, Iron Man 2 is a film that is overburdened by too many ideas, only half of which should have made it past the first draft. Returning characters are marginalized in lieu of introducing two major villains, when the plot of Tony’s poisoning and his completion of his father’s legacy would have been sufficient to carry a grounded and compelling film. Instead, those interesting narratives become so lost in the shuffle that by the time Tony invents his new element (LOL) you’ve already forgotten why he needs to. Still, I’d put it on nearly the same level as the first film, even if it doesn’t come together as coherently in the end.

Lagniappe

Brandon: Iron Man 2 feels like the MCU finally coming into its own. I get frustrated when the individual movies include references to other MCU properties with no in-the-moment consequence besides promoting The Next Big Show. There are indeed a few MCU calling cards left on the table here with no purpose for the task at hand – Captain America’s shield, Thor’s hammer, an envelope that reads “The Avengers Initiative” – but they’re isolated moments in a more general push to truly get the ball rolling. The biggest change here is that the characters of Sam Jackson’s Nick Fury & ScarJo’s Black Widow are given more to do than just to pop in & acknowledge their own existence. A move away from brief cameos toward active involvement is an important one. When Black Widow gets her hands dirty kicking nameless goons’ asses towards the film’s climax the crossover potential of MCU properties finally, excitingly sees some payoff. If it weren’t for Mickey Rourke’s lightning whips weirdness it would’ve been my favorite moment in a film that almost worked for me (when its titular “hero” protagonist wasn’t getting in the way).

Boomer: This film is really the first one in which a larger universe feels like it’s beginning to unfold, as evidenced by Nick Fury’s exasperation at having to deal with Tony Stark’s emotional problems when he has bigger fish to fry. Hammer and Vanko are distinctly disposable villains in a way that Obadiah Stane was not, which makes the decision to kill him off in the first film even more shortsighted; theoretically, we could see Hammer reappear, but it hasn’t happened yet, and I’m glad for it. Johansson will have solidified Natasha’s character by the time of her next appearance, and she definitely goes on to be one of my favorite things about the MCU as a whole. Even though I complained about the paper-thin characterization of Senator Stern above, I’m looking forward to his later appearances. Finally, one of the things that I really disliked about this film is that Tony, even when he is staring his mortality in the face, never seems to feel the weight of his impending death in a way that matures him; I’m looking forward to rewatching Iron Man 3, which I remember having the most depth of character of all three, despite its poor reputation.

Combined S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. Rating for Iron Man 2 (2010)

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three star

-Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.

Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.: The Incredible Hulk (2008)

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Superhero Watching: Alternating Marvel Perspectives, Fresh and Longterm, Ignoring X-Men, or S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X., is a feature in which Boomer (who reads superhero comics & is well versed in the MCU) & Brandon (who reads alternative comics & has thus far seen less than 25% of the MCU’s output) revisit the films that make up the Marvel Cinematic Universe from the perspective of someone who knows what they’re talking about & someone who doesn’t have the slightest clue.

Boomer: In our previous installment, we talked about how Marvel managed to keep itself afloat in dark financial times by licensing its properties to other companies across different media platforms, which led to many Marvel characters being distributed to different film studios. This was a move that saved the company while causing other issues down the line, but even when playing from a disadvantage, Marvel’s lawyers knew how to build in failsafes. After the mixed box office reception to Ang Lee’s meditative but pretentious and reviled 2003 film Hulk, Universal Pictures failed to produce a sequel within the appropriate timeframe required to retain the rights to the character (which, as you may recall from Brandon’s Fantastic Four review, was the reason Roger Corman’s notorious FF film exists). The rights to the character reverted to Marvel, with Universal merely distributing. Writer Zak Penn, who had written a previous Hulk treatment script ten years before, was brought on to write the first draft of the script for The Incredible Hulk, which was initially planned as a sequel to Ang Lee’s film. The 2006 and 2007 trade papers referred to the film as such and stated that the character of Bruce Banner had been recast with Ed Norton, while heavily implying that everyone else would reprise their roles. The script Penn turned in was designed to begin welding together the larger interfilm universe, which means it was very nearly the case that the Lee Hulk was technically the first MCU film.

Ultimately, this bullet was dodged when Marvel eschewed the sequel nature of the project and instead chose to treat this as the MCU’s introduction to the Hulk. There are still some parts of the final draft that are obviously left over from earlier versions (General Ross at one point states, for instance, that Banner has been on the run for five years—the same length of time between the Lee film and this one). Gone are the melodramatic contemplations of Lee’s film; gone too are most of the elements of the Hulk’s origins, replaced with a montage sequence played over the opening credits that encapsulates how Banner and the Hulk came to exist and borrowing extensively from the imagery of the 1970s Incredible Hulk TV series.

Norton himself performed an overhaul on the script, and the reportage and history of what happened next are contentious. Some articles printed at the time seemed to state that Norton had edited the script with the studio’s blessing, and he claimed to have edited it so extensively as to deserve a writing credit. To this day it’s not entirely clear why he went this far (although the potential to collect royalties as both an actor and a writer certainly makes it worth an attempt), but there was hostility behind the scenes, with Penn upset that Norton was claiming he “wrote” the script and the WGA having to get involved, ultimately siding with Penn. Although Norton isn’t named for this contribution in the film’s actual credit reel, the publicity surrounding the issue made it a moot point, and the fact that Marvel had recast the Hulk yet again by his next appearance in 2011 does strongly imply that Norton might have been considered a problem, even forgetting that he already has a reputation for being difficult to work with. Still, the new and improved Incredible Hulk was well-received in its day, with most criticism comparing it to the previous film and praising its improvements. But, would and can it be appreciated now, as a film so distanced from the failures of its predecessor that it can’t simply be judged as being better than it? Can it be enjoyed as a solo film, divorced from its context for fans of the MCU and Marvel Comics in general?

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twostar

Brandon: Okay, I have so many questions about just what in the living fuck is going on in Not-Ang-Lee’s Hulk movie, but I guess the most pressing one is about the film’s quality. Is it a hot mess, a hopelessly mediocre bore, or a mixed bag floating somewhere between either extreme? Is it possible that it could be all three?

Even having just watched The Incredible Hulk for the first time, I have no idea where to land on a solid assessment, which isn’t a good sign in terms of the film’s overall quality. It’s at least pretty easy to point out what doesn’t work here. The casting is all wrong, first off.  Any “Hey that’s not Ed Norton!” awkwardness that must’ve cropped up when Hulk reappeared in the first Avengers film was well worth the transition into Mark Ruffalo’s reign as the Angry Green Giant. Norton is far from the only miscast role (any movie where Liv Tyler is more than a supporting player raises an instant red flag for me), but because he plays the titular beast, his presence is a huge drag on the film. I genuinely enjoy Norton as an actor & he’s engaging enough in Bruce Banner form, but his CGI Hulk incarnation feels entirely removed, like it couldn’t possibly be the same person as Banner. That’s not an effect you want in a Dr. Jekyll/Mr Hyde situation. Another easily recognizable flaw is the film’s CGI itself, which is so excessive, empty, and flat that I can’t believe the Marvel folks (successfully) gambled to bring the character back in The Avengers. And that’s not even to mention some leftover late 90s/early 00s visual cheese (including a Matrix-like view into the Internet) that could’ve been lifted from such shitfests as Swordfish or XXX or, hell, the also seemingly-outdated Iron Man from the very same year. At some point the MCU became the cutting edge in superhero cinema (especially considering how the still on-going, seemingly endless parade of grim Dark Knight knockoffs choose to dwell in the past) but in 2008 it felt at least five years behind the times.

But, you know what? Complaining about comic book movies on the Internet is such a cliché at this point that I fell the urge at this point to mention that 2008’s The Incredible Hulk is far from a total wash. At the very least I appreciated that it sidestepped a by-the-numbers origin story narrative (perhaps in an attempt to learn from Ang Lee’s mistakes) & relegated Bruce Banner’s “gamma poisoning” past to a quick Hulk Cam montage during the opening credits. The movie also seemed to be well aware of how flat & false its CGI looked, making conscious efforts to hide its Hulking Out transformations in the shadows, the way an old school monster movie would. There are also some spare weird ideas here or there that make the journey almost-worthwhile (the blood gallery, a blood-contaminated bottle of not-Surge, and Tim Roth’s rival Hulk monstrosity Abomination come to mind), as well as some decent, humorous irreverence, like when Banner poorly translates his infamous catchphrase to “You wouldn’t like me when I’m hungry.” I’d be a total liar, though, if I didn’t admit that my favorite moment of the whole film was Lou Ferrigno’s featured cameo as a nameless security guard. It’s a sublimely silly moment in a movie that could’ve used more of them. My picture of the writer’s room for The Incredible Hulk is Michael Bluth urging his son George Michael to “keep your head down & power through.” For all of its occasional virtues, the film often feels hopelessly dutiful, necessary to further the MCU narrative, but never establishing its own individual purpose.

In the end, I get the sense that The Incredible Hulk is a mostly forgettable entry on the MCU landscape. Mark Ruffalo’s re-casting of the role was honestly a godsend for the franchise. Norton is a gifted actor, but he was entirely wrong for the role, a feeling that’s only reaffirmed by my giddiness over seeing Lou Ferrigno’s appearance, since Ferrigno is The Hulk. Still, the film’s not quite bad enough to be outright hate-worthy like the dad rock soundtracked, wealthy D-bag fantasy fulfilment of Iron Man. If nothing else,  The Incredible Hulk is a difficult film to pin down. I didn’t like it, but I couldn’t fully dismiss it.

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three star

Boomer: I hadn’t seen The Incredible Hulk since it first came to DVD over half a decade ago. During the intermittent times that I happened to have cable, FX never had quite the hard-on for re-running this film that it did for the first two Iron Man flicks and, about a year ago, Captain America and Thor, although I do remember a time when it felt like the Lee Hulk aired at least twice a week. As a result, I have more memories of watching that picture than this one. The 2003 film is in many ways a very flawed enterprise, although within the past year the internet at large has noted that it might be worth reappraisal; I’m not sure that I agree, as the film is almost inarguably a failure, but I also appreciate that the things that it attempted and failed at were weighty and introspective. It stands out because it tried to be an exploration of too many ideas: mad science experimentation, the lingering traumas of child abuse, military dominance, the interconnectedness and fragility of the ecosystem, and the duality of how two lovers exist within their relationships to and with their respective fathers, to name a few. Then, Lee paired those concepts with bizarre cinematic experiments like transitions and multi-angle shots inspired by the paneled nature of the comics page. It’s an attempt to fuse a superhero narrative with art film composition, but the demands of those two disparate approaches to film as a medium ended up making a muddled mess of ideas.

So, of course Incredible Hulk was more well-liked, although its concepts are smaller in their successes than Hulk was in its failures. Even at the time, it was noteworthy for its starpower, the one-two punch of Norton and Robert Downey Jr. both appearing in superhero movies in the same year going a long way to legitimize the growing MCU and the exponential growth of comic adaptations as a genre, paving the way for a decade that has seen both The Walking Dead and Jonah Hex brought to life. Of course, getting the star of such award-attracting fare as American History X and The 25th Hour was a good idea—that backfired on both sides of the camera. Norton intentionally plays up Banner’s social awkwardness and makes him seem like much more of a weirdo, imbuing the character with a lot of traits that make the performance seem overthought and out of place rather than organic. On the one hand, I want to praise the film for not attempting to play up Norton’s Banner as a hunky scientist and instead treat him as the kind of average-looking, highly-intelligent guy who spent most of his adolescence and adulthood in a lab. On the other hand, the film still expects us to buy that this kinda nerdy biologist had an intensely loving and powerful relationship with Betty Ross. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that I have difficulty accepting that Betty and Bruce would fall in love with each other, or that there’s anything unbelievable about them having had a relationship. I’m merely saying that I have a hard time buying that the relationship between them could be so sweeping, with him having a passion for her that fuels his desire to find a cure, even after five years with no contact.

This isn’t helped by the fact that Norton and Liv Tyler have no real chemistry either. The under-baked Betty as she existed on paper would seem incompletely conceptualized even if she weren’t acting as a foil for Norton’s overwrought Banner character, seeing as so much of her role is to be observed through a gauzy lens while in the path of destruction and let her hair blow in the wind. There’s a dissonance in the way that she and Norton approach the material and that gives neither anything to play off of in their intimate scenes; if they don’t seem to be passionate about one another, it’s difficult to accept that Betty would just leave the new relationship that she’s in and take back up with Banner as soon as he reappears after such a long period of time with no interaction. It would have been a more interesting narrative choice if she and Bruce had reunited and she had moved on in the meantime, but she still loved him enough to help him seek a cure. As a plot element, this would also leave Bruce emotionally compromised in a way that paved the way for the Hulk to emerge. Instead, she completely leaves behind all of her responsibilities, including a boyfriend she seems to be living with, to go on the run with Bruce.

It’s not that Tyler’s a bad actress (necessarily), but Betty is barely a character in this movie, existing solely to motivate the two men in her life: Banner, and her father, General “Thunderbolt” Ross. William Hurt turns in a slightly hammy performance as Ross, cartoonish in the way that a lot of notable actors were when appearing in genre pictures of the Aughts before they became the new normal. His obsession with revisiting the (arguable) success of creating the Hulk demonstrates such an intense lack of foresight that he’s impossible to empathize with, when he would be better served by a more nuanced approach. Tim Roth’s character takes this even further, and his generic compulsion to become More! Powerful! makes him one of the more unmemorable villains of the genre (although he’s not as bad as what’s coming next time).

Overall, even though this is a more objectively successful film than the much-maligned Lee Hulk, it’s also a more mainstream and flat one. It does not follow as a matter of course that a film becomes more emotionally compelling or better art simply because its narrative holds together better than another. Virtually every actor in the film feels miscast, and the film as a whole doesn’t demand or reward investment, which I felt that even Iron Man managed to accomplish. Despite the fact that it leaves the door open for several ideas to recur in the MCU, like Abomination, Tim Blake Nelson’s character (i.e., the future Leader), and Betty, none of these threads has been followed up on, so I give this one a solid “skip,” unless your appetite for metropolitan destruction is still going strong after destruction porn like 2012 and Man of Steel. It’s a fine movie, it’s just not necessarily worth your time.

Lagniappe

Boomer: I understand why Banner isn’t a developer of a gamma-based weapon in most of the adaptations; not only would that make it more difficult to empathize with him, we’ve already got a weapons designer who’s hard to like in the form of Tony Stark. Still, it is weird that no adaptation of the Hulk to date has used his actual origin story, at least to my knowledge. It’s like if every non-comic incarnation of Superman had his ship landing in a farm in Nebraska instead of Kansas; it’s not different enough to elicit fanboy anger, but it is unusual. Additionally, were it not for the fact that Hurt is set to reprise his role as General Ross in Captain America: Civil War (he can be seen in the trailer), this film could be almost complete dismissed from the MCU. Abomination and the Leader actually could be interesting foes to appear down the line, but it seems unlikely that Kevin Feige and company will drag them out of the mothballs after over seven years. The weirdest thing is that Betty has been virtually excised from the MCU as a whole, what with her never reappearing, Banner being recast, and Age of Ultron establishing a romantic relationship between Banner and Black Widow. I’m not really all that sad to see her go (sorry Liv, but I’m Team Jennifer Connelly for life), but it is worth remarking upon. As Civil War does look like it’s set to address the way in which costumed heroes/vigilantes are responsible for mass destruction, it’ll be interesting to see if Abomination’s path of destruction in New York will be referenced (it hasn’t been at all in either Daredevil or Jessica Jones), especially given that the responsibility for that damage falls on General Ross more than anyone else.

Brandon: Ugh, America’s favorite D-bag billionaire Tony Stark drops by in The Incredible Hulk‘s final scene to promise a crossover that ain’t coming for four more features. I’m hoping at some point I’ll warm up to MCU’s interplay between its individual properties, but so far it doesn’t amount to much more than Downey’s Stark or Sam Jackson’s Nick Fury ominously hinting at future payoffs in films where they don’t belong. Surely, there’s a way to incorporate these characters in each other’s universes besides arbitrary cameos with no in-the-moment narrative consequence, but I’m just not seeing it yet.

Combined S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. Rating for The Incredible Hulk (2008)

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twohalfstar

-Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.

Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.: Iron Man (2008) & The Rise of the MCU

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Superhero Watching: Alternating Marvel Perspectives, Fresh and Longterm, Ignoring X-Men, or S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X., is a feature in which Boomer (who reads superhero comics & is well versed in the MCU) & Brandon (who reads alternative comics & has thus far seen less than 25% of the MCU’s output) revisit the films that make up the Marvel Cinematic Universe from the perspective of someone who knows what they’re talking about & someone who doesn’t have the slightest clue.

Boomer: It’s hard to believe now, but there was a time when superhero films were considered box office poison, and Marvel wasn’t even thinking about producing live­action adaptations of its material for the big screen. I won’t get into all the gritty details of the rise and fall of the House of Ideas here, but suffice it to say that political machinations behind the scenes and creative differences abounded, meaning that one of the most recognizable brands in the world nearly went bankrupt many, many times. If you’re looking to take the equivalent of a capstone class in the history of Marvel Comics, I recommend a viewing of Chuck Sonnenberg’s “Rise and Fall of the Comic Empire” video series on his website SFDebris, which offers a fair and concise outlining of Marvel’s corporate shenanigans and infighting over the past four decades, and that series still clocks in at thirteen segments ranging from ten to thirty minutes in length. I’ll try to be more succinct here.

Considering that Marvel consistently has the creative edge over the more staid DC Comics, it’s ironic that DC is usually the first to enter new realms of media. DC put two live action television series on air (the Adam West Batman in the 1960s and Wonder Woman in the 1970s) before Marvel ever got a TV show off the ground, and they beat Marvel to theatres by two solid decades (not counting the Republic Pictures Captain America serials of the 1940s and George Lucas’s 1986 Howard the Duck, which is best forgotten). Richard Donner’s Superman took the world by storm in 1978 and was followed by three sequels and an attempted spinoff. As a result of the increasingly diminished returns on the Superman film series, the general public largely fell out of love with film adaptations of comics, before the genre was briefly reinvigorated in 1989 following the success of Tim Burton’s Batman and that film’s first sequel. That franchise also devolved into garbage, with the DC’s box office domination effectively being murdered in 1997 by the dual death blows of the notoriously terrible Batman & Robin and the stunningly unimaginative Shaquille O’Neill vehicle Steel. Finally, it was Marvel’s turn.

Although the X-­Men were unquestionably Marvel’s most lucrative property in the eighties and nineties, and many people would credit the success of the X-­Men film series (alongside Sam Raimi’s Spider­-Man films) as creating the modern zeitgeist of superhero saturation, bringing Beast, Storm, and Nightcrawler to life in a film was considered prohibitively expensive at the time. The real catalyst for this revolution was the surprising success of 1998’s Blade (budgeted at $45 million but earning over $131 million worldwide). Blade proved that superhero movies didn’t necessarily have to be created by committee to appeal to a wide audience, and that a comic book adaptation could be financially successful even if it eliminated the merchandising potential of toy sales (which tied the hands of the creative teams involved; in order to prevent watchdog and advocacy groups from causing a stink about inappropriateness of toys, films had to be made not only safe for children, but to appeal to them as well). Blade was an R-­rated movie that brought in tons of new fans for Marvel, and kick­started the company’s interest in features. The problem was that, to save itself from going under following the Comic Speculator Bust of the Nineties, Marvel had sold off the film rights to its most noteworthy properties in order to get funding to keep the lights on and the presses printing. Japanese film company Toei produced a (notably ridiculous) live action Spider­Man series in the 1970s, and the character was the most popular Marvel property in that country; as a result, his film rights ended up in the hands of Sony. Twentieth Century Fox ended up with the rights to the X-­Men, the Fantastic Four, and Daredevil. Marvel pictures were making money, but the comic company itself was still struggling.

This diaspora of character rights didn’t leave Marvel many characters or franchises to choose from, and the company made the logically sound but ultimately detrimental choice to make its first foray into film production with Marvel icon The Incredible Hulk. The television series based on the character had run for five successful seasons in the seventies and the gamma­-irradiated antihero had long been a mascot for Marvel as an instantly recognizable figure and a representative of Marvel’s introspective approach to storytelling in contrast to DC’s implacable supermen; investing in a film adaptation seemed obvious. Unfortunately, Ang Lee’s 2003 film Hulk was a mess, and it would take years before Marvel started co-­producing films in a meaningful way again. With the further failures of forgettable fare like 2004’s The Punisher and 2007’s Ghost Rider, it became apparent that a new approach was needed.

Kevin Feige was a Marvel exec who actually cared about the stories and characters, and he came up with a plan of creating a movie franchise that would function in much the same ways as the books did, allowing characters to cross over, team up, and occasionally come to blows. Since Hulk had been such a disaster, the newly founded Marvel Studios (with Feige at the helm) decided to move forward with an adaptation of Iron Man first, hitching the fledgling production company’s wagon to Robert Downey Jr.’s unpredictable star. And the rest, as they say, is history. In the seven years since that film’s release, the studio has moved from co­-producing features with Paramount to releasing directly through Disney (Marvel’s decades of questionable solvency having ended with the decision to allow the media demigod to buy them out) and churned out two “phases” of films, with Phase II having concluded with Ant­-Man, which was my first review for this site. With Phase III set to take off in a few months with the release of Captain America: Civil War, and with Brandon’s Russ Meyer project and my Dario Argento project winding down, we’ve decided to go through all twelve official Marvel Cinematic Universe films in order and review them, from the perspective of an old hand (me) and a newcomer (him). We’re calling it Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X..

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threehalfstar

Boomer: I’ll be as upfront about this as I possibly can: I never really cared much for Iron Man as a character. I didn’t dislike him, I simply remained utterly apathetic to him for most of my life. Of all the Marvel cartoons that aired during the nineties, his was the most forgettable and (to my memory) the most cheaply animated. On the Marvel side of the comic aisle, I loved the X­-Men most of all, but I also liked the titular Thor beginning with J. Michael Straczynski’s run, the recently popular (and I love it) Jessica Jones, and Captain America, who represented, to me at least, the purest ideals of true ethical and upright citizenship. Then, in 2006, along came Marvel’s Civil War crossover event, which pitted Steve “Captain America” Rogers against Tony “Iron Man” Stark. To keep it simple, the narrative of Civil War was instigated by a deadly event that led Iron Man and Cap to fall on opposite sides of a political issue, the Superhuman Registration Act; the SRA would be a government mandate requiring all superpowered individuals (which in the comics is a huge but socially vulnerable minority) to reveal themselves to the government and be registered (and basically submit to the superhero version of the selective service, if the selective service had a 100% drafting rate, but I digress). Marvel’s editorial mandate was that Iron Man’s weirdly conservative Pro­Registration side be depicted as being “right,” with Cap’s more individualistic and liberal Anti­Reg side being shortsighted and “wrong.” This was despite the fact that a proposed Mutant Registration Act had been a topic of plots in the X-­Men comics for literally decades, with such a missive being treated (and rightfully so) as a gross civil rights violation. (The trailer for Captain America: Civil War that was released last week seems to show that the film version will have a more balanced approach.) I won’t discuss how that comic arc played out for fear of potentially spoiling the viewing experience for Brandon, but I will say that I found Iron Man’s choices to be unconscionable and eventually came to hate Tony Stark the way that the blogosphere hates Gwyneth Paltrow. Of course, I was super pissed a year later when I read a copy of Wizard Magazine and learned that a character responsible for so much that I hated would be the face of Marvel’s new cinematic initiative.

I still watched it, though. Eventually.

I saw the first fifteen minutes or so of the film while hooked up to a centrifuge at a plasma “donation” center, literally selling part of my blood for an extra $40 a week because I suffered from the distinct but common misfortune of coming of age in Bush’s America and the accompanying recession. The center had a small collection of DVDs they would play in the donor area to pass the time, and someone must have rented Iron Man since it was screened only once (as opposed to the dozens of times I watched their copy of Miss Congeniality, a movie I can recite backwards and forwards, much to my own embarrassment). I have to admit, Iron Man didn’t leave much of an impression on me at the time, but after nearly a decade to get over my sophomoric and hormone­-addled (if well­-founded and still totally justified) feelings about Civil War, I found this viewing to be much more enjoyable, even if it errs on the side of disbelief a bit too often.

By the way, has this review seemed a little overly political to you? That’s intentional. Iron Man is a strange movie in the way that it is paradoxically both steeped in and independent of the politics of 2008, especially with regards to the othered “foreign” antagonists. White businessman Obadiah Stane and his vaguely country accent have a clear narrative arc: Stane likes money, and he wants to keep making money, and if he has to play both sides to keep raking in the dough, he has no moral or ethical qualms about doing so. The motivations of the vaguely Middle Eastern group (who are obviously modeled after Al Qaeda but have an English language group name and live in an unnamed desert country) are never explained and implicitly irrelevant. The script takes great pains to dance around the word “terrorist” when discussing the Ten Rings, instead opting for “warlord,” but it clearly utilizes visual rhetorical strategies to evoke that image. But to what end? Why are they rounding people up? Is Stane complicit in an ethnic genocide? A bloody border dispute? The film expects you not to think too hard about it, or anything else, for that matter, especially not matters of narrative convenience.

For instance, Stane confronts the leader of the terrori—I mean, the Ten Rings, and obtains the suit Tony built “in a cave(!) with a box of scraps(!)”; in the next, Pepper visits Tony and he asks her to go to Stark Industries and steal files using his magic flash drive; in the very next scene, Pepper finds plans for a finalized Iron Monger suit on the desktop before Stane walks in. Everything that happens off-­screen happens instantly. It’s so ridiculous that it would be insulting if the film didn’t make up for its inadequacies by being so much fun. The intermix of horror tropes that seem to come out of nowhere (in the scene of Tony’s escape at the end of Act I, and when Pepper is startled by Stane in the Monger suit, for instance) somehow don’t feel tonally inconsistent, and there are scenes that are, frankly, exhilarating; in fact, I think the fighter jet set piece is probably one of the best sequences that Marvel has done to date, and easily out-paces the finale. A lot of that fun comes from the tightness and polish to the script, which reads like an exemplary if basic lesson in successful planting­-and­-payoff, with regards to things like high-­altitude freezing points, magic nuclear pacemakers, and the sonic paralyzer (I have no idea if that device has an actual name). It’s easy to go along for the ride if you can accept it for what it is: a comic book movie.

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onehalfstar­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­

Brandon: Full disclosure: A large part of the reason I’ve been avoiding catching up with the dozen or so MCU movies & TV shows I haven’t bothered with is my distaste for Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man. The four hours I’ve spent with the character in the two Avengers films has been more than I would’ve ever asked for. He just hits this annoying little anti-hero sweet spot that always gets on my nerves: the “lovable” jerk. The philosophical opposite of characters like Kenny Powers & BoJack Horseman, who ruin everything they touch, the lovable jerk is a character you’re supposed to celebrate for their asshole tendencies. If you want a concrete example just look to just about any character Vince Vaughn has played since Old School. Or, better yet, look to Tony Stark, a womanizing drunk whose reformed bad boy act is never quite as convincing as his grotesquely egotistical beginnings.

I’m admitting to all of this prejudice early because it was highly unlikely that I was ever going to be able to get on Jon Favreau’s Iron Man‘s wavelength. As soon as the dad rock licks of AC/DC play Tony Stark into the frame so he can crack smarmy, chauvinistic jokes in the back of a limousine in the film’s opening scene my worst fears about Iron Man were confirmed  & the next two hours left me with the distinct feeling of taking my medicine so that I can enjoy better MCU titles down the line. Everything from the stewardess-banging to the US-Iraq War context to the throwaway transphobic joke in the airplane hangar to Stark’s horrific Guy Fieri sunglasses & facial hair combo were huge turn-offs for me. By the time our hero suffers the irony of being attacked with the very weapons he pushed as an arms dealer & gets the liberal bug, all of a sudden super stoked about renewable energy sources instead of getting laid, it registers as too little too late. Too much of the film reads as a being-a-rich-dick fantasy fulfillment for me to focus on anything else.

Speaking of which, I’ve  been so wrapped up in ranting about Iron Man’s Lifestyles of the Rich & Douchey aspects that I forgot to mention that it’s also a superhero movie. The few elements of Iron Man I appreciated were distinctly non-Tony Stark related. Jeff Bridges was deliciously evil & barely recognizable in his role as the film’s Big Bad, who was giving off an unignorable daddy bear vibe (especially in a bedtime Skype session). Gwenyth Paltrow had a gloriously uncomfortable surgery scene that has inspired a new fetish in me: chest-fisting. I also liked a good deal of the film’s gadgetry, especially J.A.R.V.I.S. the sassy robot, the car battery heart Stark carries around like a lunch box, and the crude Iron Man suit prototype he builds in a terrorist cave to take advantage of the gullibility of his unintelligent brown people captors (ugh). And, you know, there’s always plenty of mindles surface pleasures to be found in watching two dudes in mech suits fighting it out. By the end of the film, even the flying-through-the-air superhero antics were exhausting to me, though, especially in the relentless suiting up montages & the empty spectacle of the climactic battle.

I’m promising myself & anyone else who’s interested that I’ll be more open-minded about future MCU outings, especially since the select few I’ve already seen (the two Avengers films, Ant-Man, and Guardians of the Galaxy) were all very enjoyable, Tony Stark content notwithstanding. I just couldn’t commit to what Iron Man was selling me & I expect that it’ll probably stand as one of my least favorite entries in the MCU franchise. I also suspect that it’s probably a crowd favorite among George W Bush & his supporters, since it feels distinctly tied to the tail end of their era of American thinking.

Lagniappe

Boomer: As to where Iron Man fits into the rest of the MCU, I have to say it’s a pretty good place to launch, and it was probably a smart decision to focus the first Marvel pic on an entirely human character whose gimmick is combining wealth and mechanical genius, rather than going straight for the Norse gods, sentient robots, and super soldiers. Regarding plots left to unfold, I think the fact that this film was only responsible for sowing a few seeds of the larger universe contributed to the movie’s more laid­back feeling. As someone who spent his childhood obsessing over Star Trek and his adolescence reading comics and Kurt Vonnegut books, I’m used to the idea of maintaining an elaborate, intersectional fictional universe in my head; I don’t generally think too much about accessibility, but, looking back, Iron Man is refreshing in its simplicity in this regard. S.H.I.E.L.D. is present throughout but only tangentially, with the first appearances of fan favorite Phil Coulson and Nick Fury’s post­-credits scene comprising the organization’s entire role in the plot. It actually made me a little nostalgic for the early days of the MCU, when things were less complicated and not all villainy had to link back to Hydra somehow. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Brandon: When I was watching Jessica Jones last month I found nearly every element of the series enjoyable except for its gestures to tie itself into the MCU at large. Fans already tuned into the MCU were likely tickled by offhand references to the Hulk & the loose ends of Luke Cage’s storyline, but I found they were mostly wasted efforts, weakening some of the the series’ strengths as a self-contained property. Iron Man’s Nick Fury & S.H.I.E.L.D. nods work sort of in the same way. I get the feeling that the MCU’s formula is going to play out the same way as pro wrestling or soap operas or, hell, comic books: always promising to deliver on the next spectacle instead of focusing all efforts on the task at hand. I’m not entirely opposed to letting the story arcs build toward a larger goal, but as a moviegoer unfamiliar with the comic book source material, it can be a little frustrating to not know where this whole thing is going or if it even has a final destination to begin with.

Combined S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. Rating for Iron Man (2008)

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twohalfstar

-Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.