Avengers: Endgame (2019)

Oh boy oh boy oh boy! It’s here! It’s finally here! We’re in the Endgame now. All good things must come to an end, after all.

Speaking of all good things, remember how that was the title of the series finale for Star Trek: The Next Generation? And how that episode showed our dearly beloved Captain Picard visiting the past and the future, solving a mystery that spanned decades and giving the audience a chance to revisit where that series had started and where it could go in the future, while also putting a nice little bow on the journey of Picard and his cohort? Going into Endgame, I had the same feeling, and as it turns out, this was intentional, going as far back as last March, when Marvel Films bigwig Kevin Feige cited “All Good Things … ” as an influence on this latest (last?) Avengers picture. So for once, I’m not just inserting a Star Trek reference where it doesn’t belong; it’s relevant.

Here there by spoilers! You have been warned! There’s virtually no way to talk about this movie without them, so saddle up buckaroos.

The film opens exactly as Infinity War ends, with Hawkeye/Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) at a family picnic teaching his daughter archery. He turns his back for a moment and looks back, only to find that his entire family has been raptured turned to ash as part of Thanos (Josh Brolin)’s stupid, stupid plan to end scarcity across the universe by killing half of all living things. (This is also the plan of Kodos the Executioner from the classic Star Trek episode “The Conscience of the King,” because you should know by now that you can’t trust me not to insert Star Trek references were they don’t belong from time to time as well.) Three weeks later, the devastated remains of the team, Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and War Machine/Rhodey (Don Cheadle) are joined by the only surviving Guardian of the Galaxy, Rocket (Bradley Cooper) in their existential depression. Luckily, Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and his companion Nebula (Karen Gillan) are found in deep space by Captain Marvel/Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) just in time to prevent their suffocation, and she brings the two back to earth. With Nebula’s help, they locate Thanos’s little retirement farm and head straight there to retrieve the Infinity Stones and bring back everyone who was raptured dusted. When they get there, however, they learn that Thanos has already destroyed the Stones to prevent exactly this thing; Thor beheads the mad titan unceremoniously.

Five years later, people are still struggling. Struggling with depression, struggling with moving on. Cap goes to group counseling meetings. Natasha keeps the mechanisms of the Avengers in place, coordinating efforts to keep the peace, overseeing outreach and relief. Captain Marvel’s in deep space, helping the planets that don’t have the benefit of superheroes looking after them. Banner has managed to reconcile his two selves and lives full time as an intelligent Hulk. Tony has retired to a lakehouse with wife Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) and adorable daughter Morgan. And Ant-Man/Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is still stuck in the Phantom Zone Quantum Realm until his equipment is accidentally reactivated, popping him back out into the regular world so that he can have a tearful reunion with now-teenage daughter Cassie (Emma Fuhrmann) and heads to Avengers headquarters, where he tells Cap and Natasha that it’s only been five hours for him, not years. With help from a hesitant Tony, the team works out how to use the Ant-Man equipment to stage an elaborate “time heist,” plucking the Infinity Stones out of time to recreate Thanos’s gauntlet and undo the damage he wrought. It’s “All Good Things … ”! But Marvel! And I cried! I really did!

You don’t need the ins and outs of how all this shakes out. There’s that Marvel house style of comedy that you’ve come to know and (probably) love, coupled with the emotional devastation that you would expect in a world where half of the population has disappeared. Clint’s taken on the Ronin persona from the comics (although this codename is never used on screen), tracking down and murdering criminals as the result of having no moral tether after the loss of his family. Scott’s headlong run across San Francisco to try and find his daughter only to discover a memorial to the lost, which he searches frantically in the hopes that her name won’t be there. Natasha puts on a brave face, but you can tell that she counts every life lost as red in her ledger (she clears every crimson drop by the end of the movie, and then some). An unnamed grief-stricken man in Cap’s support group recounts a first date with another man; they both break down in tears over the course of the evening, but this is the status quo now, so they’re seeing each other again (so, you know, the post-snap world isn’t all bad).

The time travel premise lets us revisit past events from new perspectives, which makes for a lot of fun to counterbalance all that drear. This includes contemporary smart Hulk having to act like his brutish past self, much to his embarrassment and consternation. Tony’s interactions with his daughter are adorable, and went a long way toward making him more relatable and likable, especially after I’ve been pretty anti-Iron Man for a while. One of the most moving parts of the movie also comes as a result of its comedic elements; we learn that the remaining refugees from Asgard have set up a “New Asgard,” where a broken Thor has retired and let himself go (he’s got pretty standard dad-bod, but the internet has reacted as if he looks like Pearl from Blade, just in case you were wondering if bodyshaming was still a thing). Once the heist kicks off, this means that Thor and Rocket have to travel to the time of Thor: The Dark World to get the Aether from Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), giving our favorite Asgardian hunk a chance to have an affirming heart-to-heart with his departed mother Frigga (Rene Russo), retroactively adding more depth to her character in a lovely way.

I’m burying the lede, though, since what really matters about all these time travel shenanigans is that we get to see Peggy (Hayley Atwell) again. PEGGY! As soon as there was a wrinkle in the time plan and they mentioned having to go back to the seventies, I knew where we were headed and could barely contain my excitement. If I remember nothing else from this movie on my deathbed, I will remember the thrill of seeing Peggy one last time (and then again). That doesn’t even include the fact that Tony gets to have a nice moment with his father (John Slattery), too, and that there are appearances from every character.

Look, this is the perfect capstone for this franchise. If there were never another MCU film, it would be totally fine, because as a finale, this is pitch perfect. Every important and semi-important character (other than Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia, because she was presumably busy shooting Us) gets a moment to shine, as the Snap is undone (come on, you knew it would be). There’s even a moment where every living lady hero from the entire MCU is onscreen at once, and it is delightful, although I’m sure the internet is already full of comments about how it was “forced” or “cheesy,” but I don’t feed trolls and I try not to cross the bridges that they live under, so I wouldn’t know. But, as the people behind the MCU have noted, this is a finale, not the finale. We get to say our goodbyes to many of our favorites, but the future is in good hands with Falcon/Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) taking up the mantle and shield of Captain America, Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) taking her place as the new leader of the Asgardians in diaspora, and the possibility of future adventures of Pepper Potts as the heir apparent to Iron Man. The future is now, and it couldn’t be brighter.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Do as Peggy Says: Saying Goodbye to the MCU’s Best Hero

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The greatest Marvel Cinematic Universe character passed away last week. Margaret “Peggy” Carter, a founder of S.H.I.E.L.D. and all-around onscreen delight, was shown to have gone to her rest with the release of Captain America: Civil War last week. The film’s release was followed up by the announcement that ABC would not be renewing Agent Carter for a third season, leaving the show on a cliffhanger and disappointing hundreds of fans. When Brandon asked me if I wanted to take a minute to talk about what Peggy meant to me, I jumped at the call. Please, allow me this moment to eulogize one of the greats.

Who was Peggy Carter? The character first appeared in the MCU in a supporting role in Captain America: The First Avenger. As revealed in the second season of Agent Carter, Peggy had grown up a tomboy before ultimately giving in to the expectations of femininity that were thrust upon her and enforced by her mother. She joined the war effort, initially as a code-breaker, and was ultimately recruited to join the Special Operations Executive organization, which led to her meeting with Steve “Captain America” Rogers. Following Cap’s disappearance, he was considered missing in action, and Peggy joined the Strategic Scientific Reserve, the precursor to S.H.I.E.L.D. In this position, Peggy helped thwart an attempted Hydra takeover and foiled the assassination attempts of a graduate of the Black Widow program. She later participated in overthrowing a corrupt cabal of powerful men on the East Coast. Forty years later, she was still an active part of S.H.I.E.L.D. and serving on its board, as shown in the opening scene of last summer’s Ant-Man. When Cap finally re-emerged in the modern world, Peggy was his last remaining connection to his old life, and we had the pleasure of seeing him visit her bedside in Winter Soldier.

All of that, is, however, just fact. Or, “fact,” rather, given that we’re talking about a fictional character. Who was Peggy Carter, really, though? 2015 saw the release of an astonishing three American television shows that revolved around women from the comics: Agent Carter, Supergirl, and Jessica Jones. Despite the more obvious familiarity with the Supergirl character and the surprise success of the Netflix interpretation of Jessica Jones, Peggy Carter’s stories stood out just as strongly as those of the other series. Although it was a network show and therefore would never be able to address the lie of a enviable past with the same depth as, say, Mad Men, Agent Carter still put a woman in an important role in a spy agency in the late forties and was as honest as it could be about how she and her sisters would be treated. In one of the first season’s greatest speeches, Peggy is confronted by her chief and two male co-workers, who are incredulous that she could have spent the whole season performing an independent in-depth exploration of evidence under their noses. “I conducted my own investigation because no one listens to me,” she says. “I got away with it because no one looks at me. Because, unless I have your reports, your coffee, or your lunch, I’m invisible.” And, unfortunately, it looks like Agent Carter itself wasn’t visible enough to warrant further investigation.

But that does not mean that we can’t adore the episodes that we were blessed with until the dark night consumes us all. We can always look back fondly at a program that featured women who loved to eat (and even secreted away gravy compartments in their handbags to allow for dining after hours), women who protected each other, and women who saw the opportunity for jealousy and instead took the road of affection. It’ll be a darker world without her, but we’ll make it through. As for me, in the meantime, I’ll keep on doing as Peggy says.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.: Captain America 2 – The Winter Soldier (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: Captain America: The Winter Soldier was very nearly a different kind of movie. Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely announced before the premier of the first Cap that they had already been hired to draft the sequel’s script, and there were three choices for direction: George Nolfi, F. Gary Gray, and sibling directorial team Anthony and Joseph Russo. Gray would certainly have been the most interesting choice, as he would have been the first person of color to helm an MCU film and have helped with Marvel’s ongoing diversity problem (as demonstrated just in the past week by the announcement that Danny Rand would be portrayed in the upcoming Netflix Iron Fist series by white Game of Thrones alum Finn Jones). To date, only two films based on Marvel properties have been directed by non-white directors, Hulk (Ang Lee) and Blade II (Guillermo del Toro), and only one has been directed by a woman, Lexi Alexander’s Punisher: War Zone. At present, Black Panther is set to break this white streak with director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed), although the revolving door of directors (with Selma’s Ava Duvernay and Gray himself having been attached to production at different points) makes one wonder if there will be any more upsets between now and when production actually begins. Ultimately, Gray passed on the project in order to direct last year’s Straight Outta Compton, and the reins to the film were handed over to the Russo brothers, best known for their work on the early (good) years of NBC’s Community.

Those who are only familiar with the movies may be unaware, but S.H.I.E.L.D.’s contribution to the primary Marvel Comic universe took place largely outside of the context of superheroics. In fact, one could read comic books for several years without ever finding out that such an organization exists within that world; I certainly did. When interest in strong men and Amazons waned in the mid-Twentieth Century while the popularity of western, detective, and horror comics grew, S.H.I.E.L.D. took on prominence as a vehicle for telling stories about war and espionage, with books like Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos. The idea that S.H.I.E.L.D. should play a role in the founding of a superhero team is taken wholly from the Ultimate Marvel comics, a sub-imprint launched in the early 2000s to provide an entry into the comics world for new readers whose interest in the medium came as the result of the success of the Spider-Man and X-Men films. Forsaking the moniker “Avengers,” the equivalent team in the Ultimate books was known as “The Ultimates,” featuring a line-up of heroes that were brought together by Ultimate Nick Fury, who was consciously drawn to resemble Samuel L. Jackson in the hopes that he would be interested in the role should a film adaptation ever come to fruition. Many of the ideas that made their way into the MCU found their origins in the Ultimate imprint, with some scenes in the films even shot to be evocative of similar scenes in the comics (Thor’s visit from Loki, who lies that Odin has died in the first Thor film, is probably the most direct lift). The MCU has so far managed to mix stories from both the main books and the Ultimate line with new ideas to make sure that even comic book readers can never quite predict what twists the narrative will take. For instance, in the Ultimate Universe, Black Widow is revealed to be a double agent who turns on the rest of the team; non-readers who see Winter Soldier won’t have this knowledge and thus don’t know whether Natasha can be trusted, while readers who love the MCU Romanoff will constantly be anxious, wondering if she’ll follow in her ink counterpart’s footsteps, adding an edge to the movie.

Writing duo Markus & McFeely initially wanted to do an adaptation of Ed Brubaker’s Winter Soldier storyline (from the mainstream Marvel books) but were hesitant to commit to that idea, unsure if they would be able to make the story fit into the MCU while also doing it justice. Ultimately, with encouragement from MCU coordinator Kevin Feige, the two drafted the script as a political conspiracy thriller that incorporated elements of that plot but that also included S.H.I.E.L.D. in a larger role than in Brubaker’s story, given the greater prominence of the agency in the film franchise. Feige was quoted as saying that stories about Cap dealing with the fearmongering and political unrest of the seventies and eighties was “a hell of a journey” for the character. Although they couldn’t do stories set in that time period due to the fact that this version of Cap was frozen during that era, they “wanted to force him to confront that kind of moral conundrum, something with that ’70s flavor.” As such, the script was written with the intention of incorporating elements from political conspiracy thrillers of that era, like Three Days of the Condor and All the President’s Men.

To cement that connection, Robert Redford, who had appeared in both of those films, was cast to portray Alexander Pierce, the man to whom Nick Fury reports. Another new face in the cast was Anthony Mackie, who plays Sam Wilson, a character from the comics codenamed the Falcon. Cap and Falcon have had a long working relationship in the comics, with the Captain America comic even being retitled Captain America and the Falcon for 88 issues from 1971 to 1978, as the two duplicated the two-buddies-travel-the-world-and-have-different-social-perspectives narrative of the groundbreaking 1970-1972 Green Lantern/Green Arrow books. Emily van Camp was eventually cast as Agent 13, a longtime Cap love interest from the comics (originally introduced as Peggy Carter’s younger sister then later retconned as her niece given the nature of comic books’ static timelines) after beating out Alison Brie, Emilia Clarke, and Imogen Poots (among others) for the role. The film also introduced Crossbones in his civilian identity as a S.H.I.E.L.D. footsoldier revealed as a Hydra interloper; in the film, he is portrayed by Frank Grillo.

The nature of the time jump at the end of Captain America meant that most of Cap’s supporting cast would not be able to reappear in this film, although there is a heartbreaking cameo by Hayley Atwell as a very old Peggy Carter, and Sebastian Stan’s Bucky Barnes plays a prominent role. Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, and Cobie Smulders reprise their roles from other MCU features as Black Widow, Nick Fury, and Maria Hill respectively. Maximiliano Hernández, who had previously appeared as S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Jasper Sitwell in Thor, The Avengers, and ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., also appears in the film as a turncoat, as does Garry Shandling’s senator character from Iron Man 2 (it’s a good thing that Stark managed to keep the senator’s hands off the Iron Man suit, then). Toby Jones also reprised his role as Hydra scientist Arnim Zola, both in flashback and as an electronic ghost.

So, what did you think, Brandon? Captain America got high praise from you; how does this one fare?

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Brandon: I was head over heels for the first Captain America film, which played like a retroactively-perfected version of The Rocketeer. Captain Steve Rogers’ bully-hating, Nazi-punching earnestness was a much welcome antidote to the sarcastic, megalomaniacs like Deadpool & Iron Man who often test my completist patience. I was, of course, stoked to catch up with the second installment in the Captain America series not only because I found the found The First Avenger so perfectly sincere, but also because ever since this project began The Winter Soldier has been sold to me as the height of what the MCU has to offer. I don’t want to say that I was exactly disappointed by the film that was delivered after all that hype, but I will say that the burden of expectation definitely colored my experience in a negative way. From the outside looking in, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a fine action film, a perfectly entertaining superhero movie that does a great job of tying the Marvel mythology in with real-life political intrigue. However, I think the film stands as a dividing line between the franchise’s die hard fans who greedily eat up the ins & outs of the Marvel lore (particularly the narrative arc of S.H.I.E.L.D.) and the more casual observers such as myself who are mostly looking for an escapist spectacle with a cool hero in a kooky costume (which is more in line with what The First Avenger delivered). Fans who love the MCU enough to devotedly follow all of its short film bonus material & televised spin-offs are likely to love The WInter Soldier. The more detached devotees will enjoy the film’s action sequences & cool cat protagonists, but perhaps with less hyperbolic rapture.

Freshly unfrozen in the modern world, Captain Steve Rogers is simultaneously dealing with the post-Battle of NYC PTSD issues that Tony Stark wrestled with in Iron Man 3 & the same kind of fish out of water awkwardness as his Norse god buddy/fellow beefcake model Thor eternally suffers. Besides having to catch up with cultural markers like Marvin Gaye & Star Wars that he missed while taking an extensive nap on ice, Rogers also has to deal with the fact that his one true love (and ABC star) Peggy Carter lived a full life without him & is now spending her last days alone in a hospital bed. Friends & colleagues pressure Rogers to ask someone less geriatric for a date, but he refuses to move on. Of course, these small personal concerns are dwarfed by an evil world domination scheme Rogers has to put to a swift end. The Nazi offshoot Hydra from the first Captain America film is apparently alive & thriving, having successfully infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D. & subtly influenced all of the world’s war & unrest from behind the scenes in the decades since the second World War. Can Rogers stop the Hydra from hijacking an advanced weapons system & using a sinister algorithm to destroy every one of its potential enemies in one fell swoop before it’s too late? Of course he can. He is The Greatest Soldier in History, after all (having now graduated from comic book hero status to living museum exhibit in his own lifetime).

What’s most interesting about The Winter Soldier is the way it complicates who & what is Captain America’s enemy. Rogers joined S.H.I.E.L.D. because it was partly founded by his one true love & he finds great value in reliving his wartime specialty: rescue missions. S.H.I.E.L.D. is too powerful to trust, however, especially since its participation in a worldwide (& maybe even intergalactic) arms race is what provides the weapon that Hydra intends to use the wipe out its enemies wholesale. By showing the faults of our modern day surveillance state by attaching a gun to each camera, The Winter Soldier approaches the most biting political commentary the MCU has offered yet, especially when Rogers criticizes his S.H.I.E.L.D. overlords for “holding a gun to everyone in the world & calling it protection” (a theme that will later be repeated in Age of Ultron). I don’t think the film’s political themes are ever explored any deeper or more thoroughly than they’d be in any other high budget, explosion-heavy action film, though. For MCU die hards who’ve been following every Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode & tangentially-related S.H.I.E.L.D. mythology-related media, the film’s big reveal that the organization has been hijacked by Hydra might’ve landed with massive impact, but the betrayal never feels too significant from an outsider perspective. It’s mostly a political thriller springboard for a cool action movie with a lovable hero & some of the best fight choreography in the MCU outside the Avengers films (including increasingly inventive uses of Captain’s shield in its hand-to0-hand brutality).

It feels almost like a betrayal to nerdom at large to say I really liked this movie but didn’t love it, but that kinda points to the way Marvel Studios have spread their properties so, so very thin. In the greater, 10,000+ hour span of MCU content, The Winter Soldier is a major turning point & a fulfilling payoff for irons that have been in the fire for years. As a standalone property surviving on its on isolated merits, its a very solid picture, but far from the pinnacle of any of its various genres: political thrillers, action flicks, superhero media, etc.

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Boomer: I love this movie. It’s the MCU picture that I’ve watched and rewatched the most and the one that I find the most enduring, thoughtful, and well-paced; for my money, it’s the best of them all. It’s a testament to Winter Soldier’s excellence that, despite the fact that I got dumped two hours after I walked out the theatre on that 2014 afternoon, it wasn’t ruined for me (like so, so many things were in the wake of that breakup). I can look back on that day and say, “Hey, that was one of the worst days of my life, but I also saw Winter Soldier.”

I’m not ever sure where to start with all the things that make this film work for me. I’m a sucker for a good conspiracy flick (and even some bad ones), and the tonal similarities between Winter Soldier and things like Enemy of the State, The Manchurian Candidate, and most obviously (and explicitly) Three Days of the Condor hit all the right buttons for me. It brings Black Widow into the foreground in a way that the previous films attempted with mixed success and introduces a great new hero character to the mythos in Falcon, and both Johannson and Mackie bring a lot of energy into the mix that harmonizes well with Evans’s leading man charisma. Redford is perfect in his role as the turncoat leader of the World Security Council, and the film puts a lot of work into including and subtly commenting on contemporary issues of security, privacy, and systemic violence. Evans was serviceable in his previous appearances as Cap, but he clearly understands the role better here than in the earlier outings: Cap is a man who fought a brutal war that history has painted as a righteous one, and as such is best suited to remind those around him when they are repeating the mistakes of the past.

The film draws a clear line between itself and other films of the same genre that came before, both within the text (most notably with Natasha quoting War Games) and metatextually, especially with the casting of Redford. Although his most notable contributions to political thrillers were his roles in All the President’s Men and Three Days of the Condor, I also have a fondness for Sneakers, which shares plot elements like computer algorithms and heisty shenanigans with Winter Soldier. Of course, the movie to which I feel this film is most tonally similar isn’t your standard contemporary political thriller like your Sneakers or even your classics like The Parallax View: it’s Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.

I’ll keep this as brief as I possibly can, given that I have a (deserved) reputation of making everything about Star Trek, despite any obstacles. The Star Trek franchise was always about creating the rhetorical space that science fiction inhabits when it’s at its best: commenting upon contemporary social mores through a lens that provides the viewer or reader with enough metaphorical distance that he or she can see the absurdity and beauty of the human experience. (Last year’s Hugo Awards were undermined by a small group of rabid people who fail to realize that this is and always has been the purpose of the genre.) As such, the classic 1960s series created by Gene Roddenberry featured groundbreaking elements like people of color and women being treated as colleagues and equals by their white and male crewmen while also exploring the relationship between different earth cultures by projecting them onto extraterrestrial confederations.

Most notably, this was demonstrated by the way in which the Klingon Empire was a clear stand-in for the Soviet Union, and this was made all the more textual in The Undiscovered Country, which opened with a Chernobyl-esque disaster that places the Federation (the society in which Kirk and Spock abide) in a position to finally hammer their swords into plowshares… or bring their enemies to their knees. In the midst of all this is Kirk, who has fought the Klingons all his life and even lost his son to them; still, the Federation believes that, just as only Nixon could go to China, only Kirk can present the Klingons with a metaphorical olive branch. Unfortunately, Kirk ends up being framed for the assassination of the Klingon Chancellor and is assigned to a Siberia-esque gulag, while Spock works out the mystery. Working from opposite ends toward the middle, the two find a peace-endangering conspiracy that has wound its way around the heart of the seemingly-utopian Federation, fueled by long-stewing grudges, cultural fascism, and speciesist (read: racist) attitudes.

The Undiscovered Country is a fantastic movie, and although it’s not the best entry in the film franchise (Wrath of Khan is the undisputed champion), it’s a viable contender for runner-up. The Winter Soldier plays out similarly with its revelation that Hydra was never destroyed, but that it was instead reborn by planting its monstrous seeds within S.H.I.E.L.D. from its conception. Like ST6, this film also features the great and historical hero who finds himself framed and caught up in political machinations, dealing with strategic espionage maneuvering which is far outside of his control but in which he has a vested personal stake. Both films take the tropes and traits of the conspiracy narrative and add them to their respective genres, elevating both films to increased notability outside of their franchises.

And Natasha! Romanoff is back, baby, taking on heavier narrative lifting here than ever before and not only rising to the challenge, but killing it. Natasha never comes off as a sidekick here, instead acting as the perfect foil to Rogers. He’s the perfect soldier, and she’s the perfect spy: the focus on the ways that their respective skills and worldviews inscribe, complement, and conflict contributes to the film’s constant momentum. Johannson nails the small moments of vulnerability and the fact that Widow is always a few steps ahead of everyone else, like she’s accustomed to always being the smartest person in the room. This is just as much a story about her as it is about Cap, despite how much of the plot is devoted to his feelings of having failed Bucky. The film also does a better job of displaying professional respect and friendship between the two than most films are able to with a male-female friendship, and their emotional arc is perfect, forsaking the easy road of creating a romantic relationship between the two.

If anything, the titular Winter Soldier is the weakest link for me here. Part of that may be that his true identity as a brainwashed Bucky is no secret to comic fans (and it kind of surprises me that it was a shock to film-goers, given how recognizable Stan’s face is even with a mask on). It provides a counterpart to Cap’s friendship with Natasha, but it’s not as emotionally satisfying to me. Cap and Bucky’s friendship was built up in the first film, but it never quite clicked for me; I’m not as invested in the two of them as the franchise wants me to be, mostly because we actually see the two of them interact with each other much less than we see Cap interact with Natasha or even Tommy Lee Jones’s General in the first film. His involvement raises the stakes for Cap personally, but not for me.

That doesn’t make me any less invested in loving this movie, however. It hits the sweet spot for many in virtually every way, and I can hardly thing of a disparaging thing to say about it. Every few months, we see a new thinkpiece being published that asks if this genre is on its way out. Although I haven’t really seen any signs of slowing or stopping at this point, I’d wager that Winter Soldier will long outlive its peers in the public consciousness even if the MCU draws to a close.

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Brandon: One thing that has been super impressive over the last few MCU features is how they’ve turned around my frustration with one-line cameos & half-assed tie-ins. I think that The Avengers, while not the height of the franchise, was an entirely necessary step in bringing this whole mess of a universe into an increasingly sharp focus & The Winter Soldier in particular is a great collaborative effort that directly reflects that shift. It’s doubtful that Nick Fury or Black Widow will ever star in their own standalone vehicles, but they’re both given way more to do in The Winter Soldier than ever before. Black Widow has already had ample time to show off her badassery in previous pictures, but her extended presence is always a welcome asset. This is really Nick Fury’s big break as a major player, though, and it’s fantastic to see him elevated form a walk-through cameo in a stinger to a fully-realized character. It’s also incredible how characters like Falcon & Bucky are shoehorned in there (even if I spoiled their individual reveals for myself by watching MCU content out of order) without ever cluttering up the film’s proceedings. Again, The Winter Soldier is a well made political thriller-leaning action flick that covers a lot of ground in its massive 2 1/2 hour runtime. I’m not sure that each of its characters & themes are given enough room to properly breathe & resonate, but there’s an impressive juggling act in how many personalities & plotlines get involved in the first place and the film delivers a wealth of entertainment in its genre-based treats alone.

Boomer: The furthest-reaching repercussions of this film on the franchise is the revelation that S.H.I.E.L.D. has been infected by Hydra from its very inception. For me personally, S.H.I.E.L.D. has always been a non-essential element of the MCU; sure, most of the stories would be different without their involvement, but not by much and not necessarily detrimentally. This reveal did end up creating more plotlines for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., with that series finally developing into something worth following in the wake of Winter Soldier, but it also annoys me. The rest of the MCU must now pay lip service to this development constantly, with references to Hydra showing up in shows and films that don’t really relate to S.H.I.E.L.D., if as nothing more than a bogeyman. Other than films where it wouldn’t make sense (such as Guardians of the Galaxy), all the villains relate back to Hydra now, if only tangentially. It makes me like past, unrelated villains like Jeff Bridges’s Obadiah Stane more in retrospect, since they weren’t required to tie in as heavily. It’s not that I feel the franchise is hamstrung by this revelation, but I find it weakens a plot when everything has to tie back into one evil mastermind or organization, limiting storytelling possibilities.

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Combined S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. Rating for Captain America 2 – The Winter Soldier (2013)

fourhalfstar

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

Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.: Captain America – The First Avenger (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: For me, the key difference between DC and Marvel as companies is that Marvel has always been better at creating characters that are down-­to-­earth and grounded, while DC’s characters are traditionally larger than life and iconic in their titanic stature. Spider-­Man and the X­-Men are relatable characters; Superman and Wonder Woman are inspirational ones. This isn’t absolutely true across the board, and when discussing characters that have existed for nearly a century under the pen of dozens (if not hundreds) of different writers over the decades, there are bound to be many counter-arguments to this admittedly reductive distinction. However, dissecting the different companies’ primary characteristics and output, that difference is the major division between the two. In this sense, Captain America, with his concrete­-if­-antiquated moral code, larger-­than­-life prestige, and well defined ethical concepts, is the Marvel character most like a DC hero, and this, combined with the built-­in fandom that comes from such an outspokenly and inherently patriotic character, has made Cap an enduringly captivating dramatis persona. Despite being only one of many, many jingoistic characters introduced in the build up to (and following) WWII, Captain America continues to be a fan favorite, and it’s no surprise that Marvel has gone to his well many times in their creation of non­-graphic media.

Following his introduction in March 1941 (nine months before the US officially became involved in the war), Cap made his way to the silver screen in under three years, with a film serial being filmed in six weeks in October and November 1943 that started screening in February of the following year. This serial bore little resemblance to the comics character, which film historians attribute to the likelihood that the original script was written to feature Fawcett Comics character Mr. Scarlet; as a result, there is no super soldier serum, no shield, and no mention of Nazis, and Cap’s secret identity is not Steve Rogers but civilian District Attorney Grant Gardner. This would be Marvel’s only theatrical release until 1986’s Howard the Duck. Two made-­for­-TV films, Captain America and Captain America II: Death Too Soon, were released in 1979 and starred Reb Brown; these featured a contemporary former­-marine­-turned­-artist who acquiesces to undergo testing of a “super-­steroid” following an accident and then fighting crime using the costume that he envisioned for the character he created as a visual artist. A Captain America feature, inspired by the financial success of Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989, was filmed and intended for theatrical release in 1990, but the completed film was such a disaster that it was quietly dumped into the VHS market with little fanfare.

After three attempts at a film adaptation, mostly unsuccessful, a new vehicle for Captain America was envisioned. Screenwriters Leslie Bohem (Daylight, Dante’s Peak) and Larry Wilson (The Addams Family) were initially approached in 1997, but the project was put on hold due to a legal dispute between Joe Simon (co-­creator of Captain America alongside Jack Kirby) and Marvel regarding rights and royalties. This suit was settled in 2003, and the film was batted around for a couple of years, with Avi Arad optimistically announcing in 2006 that he hoped to see the film released in 2008. These plans were again put on hold due to the 2007-­2008 WGA Strike, and plans were finalized in late 2008 following the release of Iron Man, with a planned release date in May 2011 (eventually pushed back to July) under the working title The First Avenger: Captain America (with the two parts of the title being swapped later in production). Joe Johnston, well known for his effects work on Raiders of the Lost Ark and his direction of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and The Rocketeer, was tapped to helm the picture, and Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, the screenwriting duo behind the Chronicles of Narnia films, wrote the script.

The film follows scrawny Brooklyn artist Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) who, desperate to participate in the fight against the Axis, becomes a test subject in an experiment to create super soldiers, an experiment based on the studies of German expatriate Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci). Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) also participates in the experiment under the supervision of Colonel Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) and British liaison Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell). The experiment is a success, but an on­site attack means that the project cannot be recreated. Meanwhile in Europe, the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) and his super-science organization, Hydra, have broken away from Nazi oversight in order to pursue his own interests, assisted by Dr. Arnim Zola (Toby Jones). Rogers is immediately enlisted as a figurehead for the war effort, but when he goes behind enemy lines to rescue his childhood friend Bucky (Sebastian Stan), he becomes a real hero. I already have an idea as to how Brandon feels about this film, but, without further ado, here’s his opinion:

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fivestar

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Brandon: I’m in that weird little pocket of movie nerds who hold Disney’s cheesier live-action flops like Tomorrowland & John Carter of Mars in much higher regard than they probably deserve. That’s probably a large part of why I got such a huge kick out of 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger. At heart, this is director Joe Johnston remaking his commercial flop for Disney, The Rocketeer, into a much more successful film. I know Marvel Studios gets a lot of flack for valuing a “house style” over individual director’s visions, but I think they got the formula right here.They seemingly matched an already-appropriate director to the style they wanted, something mildly attempted by bringing in Shakespearean vet Kenneth Branagh for Thor, but brought to its full collaborative potential with Johnston’s Captain America. I really like The Rocketeer, but it’s a deeply flawed movie. Captain America recreates The Rocketeer‘s Nazi-punching retro-future with no discernible flaws or blemishes. It achieves the exact aesthetic it aims for with few to no missteps. It’s essentially a perfect superhero movie, easily ranking up there with Batman Returns & The Dark Knight as the best I’ve ever seen. And although it’s more closely associated with being a Marvel property than existing under the larger Disney umbrella, I do believe it snugly fits with the old-fashioned earnestness of the flops mentioned above.

From the outside looking in, I wasn’t exactly sure why I had been seeing so much Captain America merch around lately. Captain America t-shirts & jackets are seemingly becoming just as ubiquitous as Hulk Hands were in the early 2000s, except without the iconic quirkiness of the product design to explain the merch sales. I totally get the appeal now. Chris Evans’ Cap is perfectly charming in his 1940s “just a kid from Brooklyn” moxie, especially once he explains that he’s desparate to enlist as a soldier in World War II not to kill Nazis, exactly, but because he can’t stand bullies. So far in the MCU, our heroes have been an ivy league academic of a scientist, a billionaire playboy arms dealer, and a Norse god. Against these titans, Captain America/Steve Rogers stands as the little guy . . . literally. Through a surprisingly smooth bit of CGI magic Chris Evans is shrunken down into a scrawny little baby of a protagonist with a long list of health problems that prevents him from enlisting in the Army. As opposed to the Hulk’s experiment-gone-wrong origins, Captain stands as an experiment-gone-right. A kindly scientist (Stanley Tucci) sees as much potential in Steve Rogers’ moxie as the audience does, and with a little help from Tony Stark’s eccentric bajillionaire daddy (who looks nothing at all like a young John Slattery, by the way) transforms the Captain into the muscled-up beefcake superhero Evans embodies so well. Captain America is a 100% earnest, sarcasmless virgin who physically cannot get drunk. He’s essentially the antithesis of Tony Stark & it’s a welcome change of pace for the franchise at large.

Captain America is a too-good-to-be-true ideal of an American super-soldier, something straight out of a propaganda reel. My favorite part of this film is the way it accentuates that idea instead of downplaying it. Both sides of the war are greatly exaggerated as a Defender of the Free World, Captain’s weapon is a shield made of unobtanium, uh, vibranium & instead of fighting run-of-the-mill Nazis, he faces a futuristic force of futuristic super-Nazis equipped with laser cannons & lead by the even-worse-than-Hitler monster villain Red Skull (whose CGI design is even more impressive than scrawny Rogers’). More importantly, before Captain finds a particular use for himself in the Army, he’s employed as a public face for the war’s propaganda machine, marking the first time I can recall where a Marvel character (if not any superhero at large) exists in a world where he stars in comic books & movies. That’s such a cool idea. An even cooler idea is what happens when he actually starts fighting in the war & the movie devolves into an actual winning-the-war-effort montage instead of faking one. It’s one hell of a callback to the earlier propaganda montage, not to mention a fascinating bit of meta narrative play, and it works like gangbusters.

A lesser film would’ve tried to turn Captain America’s inherent cheese into something darker, grittier, but Joe Johnston’s The First Avenger embraces the cheese wholesale. Far removed from the post-Dark Knight doom & gloom casting its shadow over most blockbusters in recent years, Captain America first introduces its hero in costume selling war bonds at a USO show & first using a shield by wielding a trash can lid in a back alley brawl. This line of irreverent, but wholesome humor is balanced expertly with some surprisingly severe touches, especially in the introduction of Hydra as a worse-than-Nazis force to be reckoned with & in its higher-than-usual wartime bodycount (which includes a kill that might stand as the best propeller death since The Titanic). I said in our Thor review that I wasn’t sure exactly when the MCU became the cutting edge of superhero cinema, since the first few films felt oddly old-fashioned. It’s curious that a film set in the 1940s stands as the first glimpse of the franchise’s transition into becoming the modern standard. It’s a thoroughly fun watch, but stands as the MCU’s most brutally violent film at the time of its release, striking a more or less perfect balance. I’ve heard that 2014’s Captain America: Winter Soldier is an even better example of the superhero film as a genre, but it’s difficult for me to imagine it getting much better than what’s accomplished here.

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­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Boomer: I wasn’t terribly impressed with Captain America (I hate the subtitle) the first time I saw it. I remember that the frail bodied Steve Rogers looked really silly on the big screen, which put me in the wrong frame of mind from the outset. This wasn’t my only complaint either; I didn’t care for the way that the film seemed to go out of its way, from very early in the runtime, to focus its attention on Hydra as a proxy for the Nazi forces rather than on Hitler’s forces proper. I also hated the way that Cap’s war experiences were condensed into a single montage, which I felt undermined the character’s relevance as a long­-term soldier. Looking back, though, I can’t believe I was such a stick in the mud about it.

This is a delightful movie and represents a continued positive change in the MCU’s direction with regards to protagonist characterization. Steve Rogers is the polar opposite of Tony Stark from the ground up and represents the better angels of our nature. He’s the kind of self-sacrificing role model you or I hope we would have the temerity to be should we be given great power (while Tony is a genius bro who uses his great intellect to build toys for himself and cover his sex and substance abuse issues while only working toward the greater good when he has no real choice). Evans is also the perfect choice to play Cap. There are plenty of men wandering around Hollywood with the physical presence needed to fill out the Cap suit, but Evans brings a humility and humanity to the role that could easily have been lost if casting was only looking for the perfect human specimen (which isn’t to say Evans isn’t, because damn). This could be difficult to pull off, as there really isn’t that much of a character arc for Cap this go­-round; he experiences a lot of changes that don’t affect his characterization up to the loss of Bucky, which is a flaw in the film’s design but also allows room for the character to grow over the course of the films to come.

Sebastian Stan doesn’t seem to be given a lot to work with here, but as obsessive Stan fans on Tumblr who have vivisected all of his scenes with long essays in effort to delineate character moments have shown us, he does some great work with his background role. The casting of Tommy Lee Jones as yet another irascible veteran badass is a little on-­the-­nose, but he’s a lot of fun to watch in his gruffness and begrudging respect, even if it is all a little rote. Dominic Cooper in particular deserves praise for differentiating the elder Stark from his son, embodying many of the same qualities while also demonstrating grief and self-­doubt, effectively portraying a greater depth of character in Howard’s supporting role than we’ve seen in two featured appearances from Tony. On the other hand, Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull was far too over­-the­-top, calling to mind Raul Julia’s portrayal of M. Bison in the terrible Street Fighter adaptation. Toby Jones’s Zola was likewise poorly executed, as his simpering and faux­-sycophancy was obnoxious; every time the villainous duo was onscreen, the film devolved into a bit of a cartoon. Of course, all of this pales in comparison to the introduction of Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter, a.k.a. the Best! MCU! Character!, even if there are moments in this introductory chapter that undermine her badassery (i.e., her apparent jealousy).

Johnston’s experience with period drama and action do the film a great service. Markus and McFeely wouldn’t have been the first team I would have thought of to pen a Captain America flick, but their work on the Narnia adaptations means they, like Johnston with The Rocketeer, have also plied their trade at WWII­-era escapist fantasy period work as well. The pacing is a little strange, as the film invests a great deal of the first act in establishing Steve’s motivations and ideals, compresses all of Cap’s great and valorous wartime battles into three set pieces and one brief montage, and has an epilogue longer than one would expect in a standard action movie. The unusual plot structure helps the audience feel somewhat time-­lost, however, which adds to the film in equal measure to the extent that it detracts from it. The film also manages to set up future installments without that distracting from the cohesiveness of this film as well. Overall, this is the first truly great film of the MCU, and cemented, at least for me, the long term viability of this franchise.

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Boomer: Continuity-­wise, Cap will, of course, go on to participate in the Avengers films, the first sequel The Winter Soldier, and the upcoming Phase Three flagship feature Civil War. Best MCU Character Peggy Carter has now appeared in more individual Marvel productions than any other character, with her appearance here and cameos in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Winter Soldier, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Ant-­Man, and, of course, her leading role in Agent Carter (catch the premiere of Season 2 on January 19!). Dominic Cooper’s Howard Stark reappears on that series in a supporting role as well, but the film’s most far-­reaching addition to the MCU canon (other than Cap himself) is the first appearance of Hydra, which will have implications that reverberate way down the line. In non­-continuity news, I always forget that future Doctor Who companion Jenna Coleman and future Game of Thrones competitor Natalie Dormer are both in this film in small, inconsequential roles, so it’s a nice re-­surprise to see them here.

Brandon: My biggest gripe about the MCU as a whole has been its individual films’ shoutouts to outside properties often having no immediate consequence. There’s a little bit of that wankery going around here, mostly in a last minute Nick Fury cameo (as always) & in a post-credits stinger that promotes the then-upcoming Avengers crossover movie in a hilariously awful “You Wouldn’t Steal a DVD” editing style. For the most part, though, other Marvel properties are incorporated into the fold for more purposeful effect here. Daddy Stark is given an integral role in the creation of Captain America instead of merely making an appearance. Even more importantly, the MCU’s MacGuffin-at-large, the Infinity Stones, aren’t especially interesting in the abstract, but I don find it highly amusing that Hitler would be desperately seeking an Infinity Stone in this version of history. They even create a little bit of retroactive connective tissue here by making it perfectly logical that Tony Stark would be in possession of Cap’s shield in a throwaway gag in the previously-released Iron Man 2. Even if Nick Fury’s presence is again mostly inconsequential (as has been in the case in every MCU film besides Iron Man 2), they’re still working in the right direction here.

Combined S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. Rating for Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

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fourhalfstar

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