Marvel Cinematic Universe: Phase Two Retrospective

After what was arguably the MCU’s best movie of Phase One with The Avengers, we transitioned into the 2nd phase of the MCU.  With this phase, the infinity stones, which were hinted at in the last couple of movies in Phase One, became more prominent.  It became clear that whatever the MCU was building towards, it was going to involve these six stones of immense power.  Also, characters introduced in Phase One continued to evolve, new characters were introduced, and by the end, the viewpoint of the world towards Earth’s Mightiest Heroes had changed forever.  Here’s a look back at Phase Two.

Iron Man 3 (2013)

Synopsis: After the events of The Avengers, Tony Stark must now deal with PTS, as well as a terrorist who seems to have a vendetta against the United States.

Iron Man 3, in my estimation, is the worst movie of the MCU.  While Iron Man 2 is arguably more irritating, with hardly anything going on, it never teases us the way IM3 does.

The movie starts out well enough.  We get the usual Tony Stark bravado, and there’s a cool action scene where helicopters literally blow Stark’s house into the ocean.  The Mandarin is introduced, and while he’s not comic-accurate, it looks like a fresh and exciting take on the character.  Things are looking up, and then it just all goes to hell.

The questions that pop up in my mind during this film are endless.  Why is Tony Stark getting a kid to help him repair the Iron Man armour?  What is that whole scene with the goofy television guy marking out on Tony Stark?  What the hell is Guy Pearce doing?  What is his plan?  Why does he want to kidnap the president?  And can someone please tell me why they would hire such a talented actor as Ben Kingsley, make him appear to be an absolute badass, just to end up being a buffoon?

Iron Man 3 is just a poorly crafted and told tale.  While subsequent viewings have answered some of my questions above (though not nearly all), I don’t care.  Tony Stark is barely in the armour the entire movie, Pepper Potts beats the main villain, and for some reason, Stark blows up all his suits at the end of the film.  Umm…sure.  The whole thing is just a mishmashed mess, without much clear direction or reason for me to care. Shane Black should be stuck to writing clever action-comedies and left directing in more capable hands.

Thor: The Dark World (2013)

Synopsis: Thor teams up with his brother Loki to stop the dark elves from plunging the world into darkness.

After the fiasco that was Iron Man 3, I was welcome for anything different from that flick.  What I got…was not much better.

There are some highlights in the movie.  In particular, Tom Hiddleston continued his one-man campaign to become the single-most interesting character in the entire MCU.  While his face-turn wasn’t that convincing (he risks himself to save Natalie Portman twice when they confront the dark elves, which seems, uh, out of character to say the least), he at least is charismatic and always worth watching.

Unfortunately, I can’t say the same about the rest of the cast.  Natalie Portman always strikes me as a person who is always just cashing a paycheck in big-budget movies. She has zero chemistry with, well, just about anyone, especially Thor, who she is supposed to be madly in love with.  Kat Dennings, while undeniably a gorgeous woman, is just flat-out annoying – she kills every joke she’s involved in, taking them too far (for instance, dropping items in the weird vortex – she insists on throwing more objects through, for no reason – it’s not funny).  The dark elves are boring – what are they doing for half the movie?  They attack Asgard and then go to sleep or something.  They’re antagonists in name, only.  The real antagonist of the movie is the pacing.

As for action, there are some neat moments, like the attack on Asgard and the end battle, but overall, I just shrug when I watch this film.  It just seems like something thrown together without any real point.  The actors (except for Hiddleston) seem disinterested, the plotting is uninspired, and really, the whole thing is a ho-hum exercise that is at its best as a solution for insomnia.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Synopsis: An insidious plot within SHIELD threatens to kill a large number of people unless Captain America can stop it.

A lot of people I know insist that this is one of the best films in the MCU.  I will say that it is undoubtedly one of the unique ones; unlike most of the movies, which focuses on “here is the good guy, let’s build up the bad guy, and then have them fight in the third act,” this one is more like a mystery film.  You wonder who is behind the attempts to murder Nick Fury, and the answer is somewhat surprising.

That being said, this movie tries to get too clever at times, I think.  Overall, it’s an interesting twist to the MCU movies, but in trying to emulate the 70’s Cold War paranoia movies, it sometimes seems to forget that it’s also a superhero movie.  The twists and turns, faking Fury’s death, having Hydra as a group inside SHIELD, bringing back Bucky Barnes, having Robert Redford as the bad guy – it’s all fine, but makes me sometimes wonder what I’m watching.

That being said, it is a good film.  While I’ve never been sold on the Winter Soldier character, the introduction of the Falcon is effective and gives Cap a worthwhile sidekick. Black Widow is at her best in the movie and finally establishes some sort of character.  The battle at the end with the helicarriers is impressive, with lots of stuff blowing up, which is always welcome.  There’s a lot of things to like about this film, though I would hesitate to heap all the praise on it that other people seem too glad to do.

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Synopsis: A group of misfits band together to stop a Kree warrior for destroying an entire planet.

Guardians of the Galaxy is my favourite MCU film.  I knew jack about the characters before the movie; the only one I had even heard of was Rocket Raccoon, and that was only because he had appeared in fighting games.  Walking in, I had zero expectations and fully expected the movie to bomb.  Instead, what I got was a fun-filled ride with real heart.

The movie never stops going.  The Guardians are always going somewhere, fighting people in ships, fighting each other, plotting how to escape impossible situations.  We learn about each of the characters and what makes them tick.  While everything is going on, each guardian seems defined and has their own moment where they do good.  In the end, they are more like a family than the Avengers ever seemed.

The bad guys are great as well.  I heard people say that Lee Pace’s Ronan “was just another villain,” which I didn’t get at all.  The guy is driven and possessed, willing to piss off the most powerful character in the universe to satisfy his own personal vendetta.  Karen Gillan is great as Nebula, the conflicted and often overlooked daughter of Thanos.  She brings a lot of nuance to a role that could have just been sleepwalked through.

Really, I have nothing negative to say about the movie.  I like everyone, which is a lot of say considering a talking raccoon is part of the cast.  I think it’s an exciting movie, the action is well staged and shot, and I get choked up at the end with Groot’s sacrifice (again, he’s a talking tree, so that’s saying something), as well as the selfless act the Guardians commit to save the universe.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

Synopsis: The Avengers must assemble again to stop Ultron, a sentient artificial intelligence devised by Tony Stark and Bruce Banner.

When I first saw this movie, I was a little disappointed.  The movie is called Age of Ultron, but it seemed he was hardly in the film.  When he was, he was a wise-cracking villain who seemed to belong in a futuristic buddy-cop movie, possibly starring Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones.  He certainly did not appear to be a threat on the level of the Avengers.

Seeing the movie now after so many years, I enjoy it a lot more.  The quips don’t bother me anymore; after all, he was patterned after Tony Stark, and we all know the guy can’t get through a dialogue sequence without some smart-ass remark.  What I appreciated the second time through though, was the themes of the movie.  It really does feel that this Avengers team, who are comprised of some truly powerful characters, are an uneasy alliance.  Their comradeship hangs by a threat, burdened with the different ideologies within the group.  Captain America wants to do what is right; Iron Man wants to do what must be done, even if it isn’t necessarily the right thing to do.

The inclusion of the Vision character was a genius move.  Here’s a character who can perfectly balance the human and the computer, who can look at things objectively through all the ego-driven bickering and posturing, and determine the best course of action.  While I’m not a big fan of the Hulk/Black Widow pairing (like, where the hell did that come from), I’m glad to see Black Widow continues to build her character.

Overall, the movie is good.  There are things here and there that are annoying (I don’t see much point of the twins or Thor really in this movie), but the scenes are memorable, particularly storming the Hydra base at the beginning, the Hulkbuster/Hulk battle through South Africa, and the end battle in Sokovia.  This movie really did a lot to shape the third phase of the MCU, and while it’s an easy one to dismiss, it does get better with further viewings.

Ant-Man (2015)

Synopsis: Thief Scott Lang helps retired scientist Hank Pym stop Pym’s former protégé from selling revolutionary shrinking technology to underworld figures.

When I first saw this movie, I loved it.  I thought it was smart and funny, introducing a new type of hero to the MCU.  Watching it now, I’ve lost some of my enthusiasm for the movie.  The jokes somewhat fall a bit flat at times, the extra characters who help out Lang seem unnecessary, and in all honesty, the Scott Lang character just seems to stand around waiting for Hank Pym to tell him what to do. The real hero of the movie is Michael Douglas’ Hank Pym; he takes command of every situation and seems to be the only one who knows what’s going on.  I also don’t get Evangeline Lilly’s beef with her dad; sure, Hank kept parts of her mother’s disappearance from her, but the inevitable explanation seems rather obvious and not worth the acrimony that the character harbours to her father.

I will say one of the standouts in the movie is Corey Stoll’s Yellowjacket.  The guy seems unhinged from the start, but not in the drooling, over-the-top way that would make the character a caricature. It’s more about the facial expressions, the bubbling anger and hurt below the surface.  When he puts on the Yellowjacket suit, he is a striking figure, far more imposing than Ant-Man.

As for Rudd’s Ant-Man, he’s okay.  I don’t really separate this one from any of his other roles, and he just seems to go with whatever is going on.  It’s still a fun movie, and a nice counterweight to some of the overly-serious Captain America or Avenger movies but I think upon repeat viewings, it’s not quite as good as the first time it’s viewed.

The Verdict

Much like Phase One, the second phase of the MCU had it’s hit-and-misses.  While Guardians of the Galaxy was undoubtedly spectacular, the other ones run the gamut of good to godawful.  The weight of trying to sustain a continued storyline through multiple movies shows more aptly in Phase Two, but they did try to show more variety and newer characters with lighter tones, which was the right choice.  I think Phase Two is better than Phase One, and there were fewer meh entries.  That being said, it’s far from perfect, and most of the films are not without their warts.