Enjoy Taika Waititi narrating the Marvel Studios intro.
As we move forward into 2019 I want to do a series on film structure, character design, plot elements - all sorts of writery-type things.
My ulterior motive of course being to show just how bad Rian Johnson is at it. As is my motive with pretty much everything I do.
For these posts I’ll mainly be using the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) as my touchstone for a number of reasons.
First, I like them. I’ve always been a comic book geek, so this is my home turf.
Secondly there’s a bloody lot of them, so scientifically the sample size is fantastic.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, is the combination of diversity and homogeneity. All of the films are radically different in their own ways, but all of them follow the same cookie cutter plot, overseen by the iron fist (not to be confused with Iron Fist) of Kevin Feige - who Lucasfilm should throw all of their money at.
However before we begin I thought I should dip the toe in with something light. I think you should know where I stand on the MCU and where I rank the various MCU entities (especially considering the controversy I stirred up when I suggested that Black Panther wasn’t that good). So here’s my list, in ranked order, of where I put each of the MCU films and TV shows (they need to be thrown in here because they’re ostensibly the same universe - even if the various corporate entities beyond the fourth wall couldn’t play nice), based solely on the metric of my personal enjoyment: (Don’t worry, it get shorter as it goes on because I cover what I need to and of course beware spoilers if you've not seen them)
Guardians of the Galaxy This one came out of nowhere and blew me away. When I put this list together I didn’t expect Guardians to be at the top but here it is. This is the only Marvel film I’ve seen more than once at the cinema, and the only film outside of Star Wars and Lord of the Rings franchises to accomplish that feat. The perfect mix of action, humour, banter, pathos, bathos, establishing and continuing the larger universe, heartbreak, and hope. It’s exceedingly well written, exquisitely cast (most of the MCU is actually) and just plain fun. The soundtrack is one of the best of all time. (I’ll delve into these footnotes later but I believe this film to be a kickback against tampering by carpetstrollers. Other films suffered from the suits not knowing when to back off and all of a sudden there’s a film written by an unknown - although Nicole Pearlman needs credit for the shitload of work she put into the script, directed by the guy who did Scooby Doo (James Gunn), starring the fat guy from Parks and Recreation, the chick from Avatar, a WWE wrestler in a deadpan comic role, pretty-boy eye candy Bradley Cooper as a CGI Racoon and Vin Diesel as a tree. Imagine the pants shitting that must have gone on when that script dropped and the minds blown when it was a mega-hit. Did they learn their lesson and trust artists? Fuck no, Age of Ultron happened. More on that down the list.) “We are Groot” is the closest I’ve ever come to crying.
Thor: Ragnarok I was genuinely upset when this movie ended because I was having so much fun. Rian Johnson, get a pad and pen out. This is how you subvert expectations. The Thor films have always been problematic so Marvel rolled the dice and came up deuce sixes. How about we take our super serious, above-the-concerns-of-mortal-men, demi-god who is facing the apocalypse and turn it into an action comedy? It couldn’t have worked better. It is amazing. The entire cast is on point for this one. The influence of Taika Waititi can’t be understated here - this is what happens when you put people with actual talent in charge of making your movie. (And keep them on a leash, even if a generous one. Did I mention Lucasfilm needs Kevin Feige?)
The Avengers The original combo movie and still the best. I’ll devote an entire blog to why the “Loki plot-hole” isn’t a plot-hole. This is also the most cookie cutter of all of the films, it’s just less noticeable because it’s done well. Like how there’s no such thing as a good toupee (a good toupee being indistinguishable from real hair, a bad one being very noticeable). Phase One was the buildup to this film and it delivers. This film is one of my go-to happy places when I’m mired in melancholic depression, I usually watch it three times in a row. The king of pop-culture, Joss Whedon, and his snappy dialogue, some frankly jaw-dropping action sequences and - as anyone who knows me will tell you - any film with Jeremy Renner in it gets a bonus point.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier A surprisingly robust political espionage thriller in its own right - then add Avengers and you have a slam dunk. Cap is where he needs to be in this one, a man out of time and fighting the good fight in a world turned to shades of grey. Romanov is a perfect foil as his somewhat opposite. Great action sequences, perfectly held tension, the freaking Winter Soldier! I love how Cap movies are pretty much Avengers movies with slightly less Avengers. This one makes you want to see more of Bucky Barnes regaining his identity, which we do, and I do hope that (speculation here) after Steve’s heroic sacrifice in Endgame, Bucky takes up the mantle of Cap. Another risk paying off - hey how about we get the Russo Brothers from that comedy show to helm the darkest installment of the MCU yet?
Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 More of the same. That isn’t a bad thing. Not at all. As above, Guardians was my favourite MCU film, James Gunn realised how many people liked it and didn’t fuck with the formula. Everyone take notes, especially you Rian, when the formula works you don’t fuck with it. Was it as good as the original? No. But that would be damn hard to accomplish. The only reason this isn’t higher up the list is because of some sheer brilliance by Taika Waititi, the ensemble movie this whole series was made for and a surprisingly dark and awesome psuedo-Avengers film. Yondu’s scene at the end is incredible, Gunn knows how to stir emotions in autistics.
Iron Man The original, the one that kicked it all off and it remains just outside of the top five. This movie is exceptionally crafted in all the ways that count. I’ll be expanding on this a great deal in a subsequent post about just how much this gets right. Credit for going with Iron Monger as the big bad - a brand new franchise about to take over the world, with all the expectations that engenders, and you go with a much lesser known villain. Brilliant. Tip of the hat for not jumping at Mandarin at the first chance, wag of the finger for what you did when you finally brought him in. Apparently the majority of the script was improvised. Funny what happens when you let talented people do their thing. Jon Favreau’s record as a director is hit and miss, but when he hits he hits hard.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. I’m placing this so high up the list because for the first season and well into the second this was my favourite TV show of all time. I was smitten. I loved the premise - what are these cosmic events like for the grunts on the ground? What are the inner workings of this mysterious spy organisation? Clark Gregg is underrated and carries this on his heroic shoulders. It had Joss Whedon’s fingerprints all over it, it fit in nicely with the greater MCU and it was a magical diversion. Then it all went to shit. The show became about Skye/Daisy/Quake (Chloe Bennett's agent can make this happen for her but somehow not stop her from falling for the internet's biggest douchebag, Logan Paul? The mind boggles) and her developing superpowers whilst operating as a rogue organisation - totally abandoning and inverting the original premise of the show. But for a brief time there it was glorious.
Avengers: Age of Ultron This is a good film with a lot of behind the scenes issues. You get everything you expect from a Joss Whedon Avengers film - great dialogue, awesome action sequences, a few fun scenes where people let their hair down and a decently serviceable plot. James Spader is utterly, utterly brilliant as Ultron and they need to find some way to bring him back. The Nat and Bruce plotline seemed weird, but hey, love is strange. From what I’ve gathered this is so far from what Whedon actually wanted that it's barely the same film. The carpetstrollers came in with their “cut this, add this, this is too long, this is too short, sell more toys” routine and fucked with the movie so bad that the figurative father of the MCU decided to quite in a huff. That’s a problem that will get its own post. A movie that is absolutely guaranteed, 100% guaranteed, to make all the money in the universe no matter what and you still need to fuck with it? Plus one for Jeremy Renner.
Dr Strange Benedict Cumberbatch was born to play this role but for the love of everything holy, why not just make him British? If Ultron can not be designed by Hank Pym, Stephen Strange can be British. PopeVeggieUnit is a fantastic actor, he is Dr Strange, he absolutely carried Infinity War, but his American accent is shit (fun game: take a pope, half a vegetable and mix it with a unit of measurement and you’ll get a variant of Benedict Cumberbatch’s name. For example: Urban Celerounce). This film was a trip and I loved it. I have a friend who watched it whilst tripping and he loved it even more. Like I said, Cumberbatch's scenes in Infinity War were the best in the film and I cannot wait for the next movie with him in it. Scott Derrickson is Rian Johnson's Bupa.
Captain America: Civil War Hands down the best fight scene I’ve ever seen in film, which was a title long held by, of all things, Hellboy 2. With only the barest resemblance to the comic book arc of Civil War, this turned into a great examination of the characters and motivations of the various meta-humans. For all the leaps and bounds that he’s made, Tony Stark is still a dick. Steve Rogers will always fight for what is right. Thunderbolt Ross was always a dick and always will be. A nice introduction of T’Challa and Spider-Man. Thank You for not doing origin stories anymore. We get it. Uncle Ben, no! Power. Responsibility. Sadness. Yawn. By the way, calling it now - because of how this movie went down I’m saying Stark and Rogers die in Endgame. The Russo's upped their game here, lifting Infinity War ever closer to the sun.
Daredevil When this came out shit got real. A TV tie-in to the MCU that was a lot (I mean A LOT) darker than Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 1 was brilliant, as Matt Murdock develops his Devil of Hell’s Kitchen persona and takes on the might of the brilliant Wilson “Kingpin” Fisk. Season 2 never really reached the lofty heights of Season 1 but handled the obligatory Elektra storyline really well and served as a very functional backdoor pilot for The Punisher. This is what I wanted a superhero show to be. What it could have been. It’s too bad that the film and television departments entered a cold war and everything went to shit, this could have been a real golden age. I’ve not seen Season 3 yet so I won’t comment. (Side-note: for all my praise of Daredevil, the guy behind it, Steven S. DeKnight, would later go on and sodomise to death my favourite movie of all time.)
Avengers: Infinity War I call this movie “Icarus”. They said it was the most ambitious crossover event of all time. They said that it couldn’t be done, there was too much to cram in. They were right. This wasn’t a bad film, but it was just too large in scope and it felt diluted because of it. It had some great fight scenes, though none of them were as good as the airport fight in Civil War. There was some top banter, though nowhere near as good as Joss Whedon can write. There was some good bathos, though nowhere near what Gunn and Waititi could manage. Infinity War was the jack of all trades and the master of none. There were too many diverse plotlines for it to feel coherent - Thor needs a weapon, the Guardians fail to stop Thanos, the battle on Titan, the battle in Wakanda, Stark finally meeting his match with Strange. Stark trying to be a father figure to Parker. Quill being an idiot. A few of these would have made an incredible movie, but as it stands there are just too many plates to spin at once and inevitably some crash to the floor. So many established plot points just hand waved aside (like The Collector) because there wasn’t enough time. I honestly don’t know how you would make it work, I think with the ambition of this film there was no way it could work. I’m also taking points away for the literal deus ex machina of Stark's “nano-technology”, for making Thanos just a little too likeable (though this might be Josh Brolin’s top notch acting), killing off one of the most interesting characters in the series in Loki - right at the start and just as he’d matured as a character, and for forgetting that Korg existed. And since I always add a point for any movie with Jeremy Renner in it, I deduct a point for no Jeremy Renner. (I have the same rule for Idris Elba and I’m still debating that point) The whole thing just felt like it should have been better. Like they should have patted the Russo's on the back for their service and then begged Whedon to come back.
Thor As I’ve said, Thor is a bit of a problem and this film was a prism for those problems. First of all he’s probably the least well known of the Avengers outside of comic book fans. Secondly, as Marvel’s analogue to Superman, he’s hard to make interesting. This film did the best it could with what it had. The opening sequence is fucking incredible, the rest had some good fight scenes, Thor had some memorable dialogue. It’s better than people give it credit for. The problems came from the boardroom. Kenneth Branagh was the lazy man’s choice to direct it: “Thor speaks like Shakespeare, now that Larry Olivier is dead who’s the shakiest Shakespeare to ever shake a spear? Kenneth Branagh!” and while he did a decent job, perhaps this wasn’t for him. Actually I think the grander problem was that Chris Hemsworth hadn’t hit it big yet (this was pre-Cabin in the Woods) and the execs needed some “star power”. So they shoe-horned popular favourite Natalie Portman into the film for no reason (which went down so well she’s been basically forgotten in the MCU by this point) and Kat Dennings, who was briefly a big deal at the time. Neither of them had a place in this universe and it showed.
The Incredible Hulk A lot of people have forgotten this even existed, which is a shame. It isn’t bad. It’s just not that good either. A lot of this can be attributed to the bad taste left in everyone’s mouth by Ang Lee’s Hulk and the fact that Edward Norton was a terrible casting choice and should have been Mark Ruffalo the whole time. This does everything you’d want in a Hulk movie, it’s more that the Hulk is better as a seasoning in other people’s movies, much like Hawkeye. Great work by Tim Roth as Emil Blonsky, hopefully Abomination hasn’t been forgotten as well in the grand scheme of things. Plus one star for not being another boring origin story. They understand that we get it: Banner, gamma rays, Hulk, we’ve all heard the song. I feel like the studios saw this one coming and instead of giving the reins to someone with vision, they threw schlockbuster veteran Louis Letterier under the bus.
Spider-Man: Homecoming The Sam Raimi films were good Spider-Man films with a shit Peter Parker (well two and a half of them were). Then for a brief moment we got a good Spider-Man film with an amazing Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield was perfect) and a Stan Lee cameo that surprisingly wasn’t painful. Then that franchise imploded like a neutron star in the second installment and we’re left with this. I like how we assume the origin story, good move. I like that Marisa Tomei is Aunt May - finally addressing something that never made sense to me (why is Aunt May always old?). Michael Keaton’s Vulture was a well written and well executed character and a good choice of villain. Credit again where due, they avoided the Spider-Man movie trap of trying to throw in the entire Sinister Six in every film. The Spider-Man segments were, for the most part, a lot of fun. But then there were the painful Peter Parker segments with his posse of target-every-demographic Parkerteers. Tom Holland isn’t a great Peter Parker, just like Tobey Maguire wasn’t a great Peter Parker. Andrew Garfield absolutely nailed that mix of awkward teenager, scientific genius, nerd, comedian and irrepressible hero. Holland doesn’t. Either you do Parker well or you maximise the time as Spider-Man. Those are the rules. Jon Watts felt like a weird choice as director. Although I'll always advocate Guillermo del Toro when you want a film with wonder, I acknowledge that he's busy. Still, when you're making the most child friendly MCU film to date, you don't usually go straight to the guy who directed a terrifying clown-based horror movie.
Captain America: The First Avenger This was made because it needed to be made so that we could have The Avengers. There’s nothing all that wrong with it, but it just feels unnecessary. Cap is done well, the Howling Commandos are a lot of fun, go-to bad guy Hugo Weaving is great as Red Skull, Tommy Lee Jones is...Tommy Lee Jones. It’s not bad, it’s just an optional prologue for The Avengers. Good call on getting Joe Johnston to direct. Everyone knew this was going to be a throw-away but the powers that be thought to give it a good enough shot with some absolute pedigree.
Black Panther I’m in no way qualified to comment on the cultural significance of this film. What it means for persons of colour is not for me to say. So I’ll give my opinion of the face value take of a blue-collar white male who enjoys movies and let the movie and the myth be their own entities. Black Panther was boring. It was vibrant and colourful and had amazing special effects, but it was boring. It was all wrapping paper. The breakdown of this will be one of my feature posts about good use of structure and bad use of structure - because all of the elements are there, everything is built according to the instructions, but it just feels hollow. Chadwick Boseman does an admirable job to sell us a character that ultimately isn’t that interesting. T’Challa’s conflict as a king has some moments but the Black Panther is a Mary-Sue. Yes they managed to make a genuine Mary-Sue, rare in this savvy day and age. His suit and all of the mystical powers of vibranium make him invulnerable. Without danger there are no stakes, without stakes there is no drama. You see it all through the movie when they realise the only way to make Black Panther vulnerable is to repeatedly take away the things that make him the Black Panther. This is the Superman problem magnified. Going into it all of the reviews were praising Michael B Jordan as the best Marvel villain to date. I found him boring. I respect Jordan as an actor but he just mumbled his way through the script and his character didn’t really offer anything except to be a dark mirror to T’Challa. Technically, on paper, he was a good antagonist, when actually he wasn't. Daniel Kaluuya was reduced to a puppet who just went along with whatever the person he was talking to at that particular moment told him to do. Which is ironic for the star of Get Out. Danai Gurira and Letitia Wright offered some much needed vibrancy but, and this is where we get really controversial, the hands down best performance and most interesting character in this film was Andy Serkis’ Klaw - one of only two white characters. I'm really not trying to be racist, Gurira and Wright were fantastic (and I look forward to them in the sequel) but Serkis is a bloody good actor. Check out 24 Hour Party People. Or Lord of the Rings. We don't mention the other film. I’d hate to throw the “P” word around, but I really think that a lot of people were too scared to judge this movie objectively. I don't know how much of this was Ryan Coogler's fault and how much his hands were tied, so I'll stay my decision.
Iron Man 2 A largely forgettable experience from when the MCU was still finding its feet. More of a way to introduce War Machine and work the Terrence Howard craziness out of everyone’s system than an actually compelling film (seriously, google “Terrynomics”. The guy invented his own system of mathematics). Of all the MCU films, even the terrible ones, I think this was the one we could most do without. Remember when I said Favreau was hit and miss? You can set your watch to it.
Jessica Jones This one was always going to be a hard sell. Jessica Jones has always been about a superhero who doesn’t want to be a superhero. Ritter was perfectly cast and plays this to perfection, but I feel that the subject was never going to work. Jones as a character has never really wanted to be a part of the Marvel universe and that was never going to translate well into her own television show. It’s an interesting look at character - issues like superhero incident PTSD, what it means when you DON’T feel the responsibility that comes with great power, and things of that nature. But it’s an incongruity in the greater MCU. David Tennant was brilliant and carried this thing on his dreamy shoulders, but without him I’ve had no impetus to explore Season 2. It’s an interesting concept, and it’s well crafted, but the experiment failed.
Iron Man 3 I didn’t hate this movie. Hate is a strong word that I try to reserve for The Last Jedi. But I did very much dislike it. I was bored the whole time and couldn’t wait for it to end. Tony Stark’s character arc was fine without this, we didn’t need to see him grow - the entire premise of this movie was covered in The Avengers and Age of Ultron, this is just rehashing old ground. I love Guy Pearce but when he literally breathed fire I clocked out. I want to wipe this one from the canon. On writer/directors - Shane Black is an incredibly talented writer/director. He makes some great films - Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, The Last Action Hero (it was never meant to be taken seriously), but he also does things like The Nice Guys and Monster Squad. This film was essentially a re-write of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (which is easily in my top films of all time) with Gwyneth Paltrow instead of Michelle Monaghan. Do a blow by blow comparison, you’ll see Shane really phoned this one in.
Thor: The Dark World Another that really didn’t need to happen. This one felt more like avoiding paying out Natalie Portman’s presumably exorbitant contract severance fee than anything else. Kat Dennings is back, because reasons. And The IT Crowd’s Chris O’Dowd is in this for reasons I cannot even begin to fathom. If his agent is reading this, I acknowledge you as the Dark Lord and wish to engage your services. I would offer you my firstborn but I don’t intend to breed. The Thor and Loki interactions save this from being a complete disaster. Marvel went the The Last Jedi route and brought in an unknown quantity in Alan Taylor and look what happened.
Ant-Man Points for going with the Scott Lang variant and not Henry Pym. Good call. Paul Rudd does a more than admirable job as the lovable rogue but for as far back as I can remember I believed that this was the role Nathan Fillion was born to play. Points deducted for using the name “Hope” for a character - this isn’t a Twilight rip off teen drama. The whole film felt more like a way to chain together Rudd’s quips than an actual plot. Michael Pena’s role was forced and didn’t need to happen, Yellowjacket had so much potential and felt like a waste. Another example of a film made so that we can have a character in a better movie. Given the subject matter and tone of the film, Peyton Reed wasn't a bad choice. But let's be real here, the only reason anyone went to see Bring It On was Eliza Dushku.
The Defenders Let this statement go for all of the Netflix series: I get that your respective board rooms couldn’t play nice with each other, but for the sake of the show you have to realise that you’re in the MCU. You can’t ignore it. A token line about “the incident” is the closest we get. “The Incident” is a motherfuckin' alien invasion of New York which was saved by a guy with a bow and arrow, a Russian assassin who took a failed version of the legendary Super Soldier Serum, a World War II hero who actually took that serum, the green rage beast that destroyed Harlem a couple of years ago, that world’s equivalent of Steve Jobs in a robot battle suit and the Norse god of thunder. All of that happened. People saw that. You can’t then have your character say shit like “you focus your chi? That’s crazy! I can’t believe that.” Yeah that’s insane, I’ll just watch this news report of these evil robots levitating an Eastern European city. Oh look, alien warships just appeared downtown and kidnapped a wizard while Iron Man and Spider-Man tried to stop him. But chi, that's crazy. This series was painful to watch. Everyone is a dick to each other for no reason. Everyone refuses to believe even the faintest crazy shit even though in their world that shit happens on the reg. Iron Fist is...I’m getting to him last. The only decent character is Stick. Every episode boiled down to “Stick says do the thing. No we can’t do the thing, that’s bad. Oh, Stick did the thing and now everything is better. Should we listen to him next time? No, that would be silly”. Suspension of disbelief is important for the screen, but this didn’t allow me to let go. There was no way that they could have a crisis important enough for these four dickheads to team up that wouldn’t be big enough for the Avengers to come in and take a look. Which don’t exist now because reasons. I mean the whole plot-line is that an ancient organisation of ninjas is doing funky magic shit in New York. New York is the home to the Sanctum Sanctorum that Dr Strange runs, there’s no way he wouldn’t stick his head in. (I will concede that he has one of the more expensive power sets for a cameo though). This was awful. Poorly written characters doing dumb things for no reason to create artificial tension. The Last Jedi spread over a season.
Iron Fist The Iron Fist is the world’s greatest martial artist. He is a man of drive and focus and an almost unstoppable force on the battlefield. This version of the Iron Fist is a mopey imbecile who struggles to fight random dudes on the street until he remembers that he once punched a dragon in the heart and can use an indestructible magic fist. Then he forgets until the climax of the next episode. Apparently you refocus your chi by crying like an emo and coming up with dumb plans while ignoring your much more competent girlfriend. It is nice to see David Wenham getting work though. Go Faramir/Diver Dan. The original rumour was that he was going to play an older Iron Fist. I wish that was the version we got. God this show was awful. I won’t even bother with Season 2 and I’m glad it got axed.
Finally here are the things I’ve not seen so I won’t comment on them (I only have so much time in the day y’know)
Ant-Man and The Wasp
Jessica Jones Season 2
Luke Cage (any of them)
Iron Fist Season 2
Daredevil Season 3 Anything Punisher related that isn't Daredevil.