Monday, April 27, 2015

Marvel's Avengers

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I am not an Avengers guy.

Growing up I loved Batman, Spider-Man, and the X-Men. Those were my comics. In the late eighties I added Ninja Turtles to that mix, but they still aren’t quite as solidly entrenched with me as those first three.

That’s not to say that I didn’t read anything else. Due to the nature of comic books I couldn’t help but be introduced to other characters by way of guest appearances and crossovers. And of course, once I really got into the hobby in the nineties I couldn’t help but learn about pretty much all of the various superheroes and characters that inhabited Marvel and DC’s respective universes.

The Marvel Universe used to be a whole lot more segregated than it is now. I started reading Marvel comic books in 1988 (I was surprised to discover it was that late – I was already twelve) and stayed current on Spidey and the mutant books through at least 1994 and I don’t remember seeing Iron Man, Hawkeye, Thor, Black Widow, or Vision pretty much ever. I went through a Hulk phase after becoming obsessed with Peter David after his work on X-Factor, so Hulk is a little more in my wheelhouse. 
Captain America is another story. I love Steve Rogers and I love the idea of Captain America, but for whatever reason I never got into his comics. He hung out with Wolverine a few times and I dug that (there was a story where Black Widow was there, too), but for some reason I never pursued Steve’s solo adventures. I have no idea why. Perhaps because he did seem to be a part of this other corner of the Marvel Universe that I didn’t delve into.

Super-Secret Honesty Time Side Note: I have tried to like the Fantastic Four many times. The idea appeals to me. At various points over the years I have picked up their books. It seems – and I am not proud of this and would never suggest that anyone should agree with me – that I simply do not like the Fantastic Four. Almost every time I have read it, I cannot get past the impression that Reed is a self-involved dick, Sue is an annoying jerk, Johnny is a jackass, and I really love Ben Grimm and empathize with him on what is, quite frankly, a painfully emotional level. I know the whole point is supposed to be that he was cursed while his friends got these awesome, non-physically-deforming abilities; but it seriously makes me really sad. Don’t tell anyone.

Perhaps it’s time to get to the point.

It’s pretty amazing that Marvel has constructed this cinematic universe that has gotten me so invested in these characters on which I previously couldn’t be bothered to spend a dollar a month. These are some of my favorite movies. Like, ever. I still can’t watch Captain America without tearing up. And while Guardians of the Galaxy isn’t directly Avengers-related, it ended up being a cinematic pop culture masterpiece the likes of which I don’t think I’ve ever seen.
There is no single element that makes these movies so special. It’s the casting, the continuity, the “Marvel Tone” as I call it. By which I mean that every movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has a lightness and hopefulness to it no matter how dark and dire the narratives may get. The characters are bright and powerful. Plus, every movie tends to be on the lighter end of the PG-13 scale, so we’ve been able to enjoy all of them as a family. Yeah, there have been a few things that I would have preferred Lil’ Troublemaker not see. But to me the bonding that the three of us have experienced is worth more than the occasional “shit” or, well… guy getting chopped into oblivion by a fighter plane propeller.

I’m still hoping that one doesn’t fully register. Is it weird that that bothers me more than Phil Coulson being visibly impaled?

As far as the more mature content goes, I look back at all of the things I was seeing when I was my son’s age and how little of it I actually understood. There have been so many movies that I’ve gone back and watched and been shocked that my parents allowed me to see. I saw Jaws 3D in the theater when I was seven. That is effing crazy. It’s a wonder I ever went in the ocean again. Oddly, I have much more of a lake phobia. I blame Creepshow 2 for that.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has given us something that has never been seen in cinema – an interconnected world that continues to grow exponentially. Without even getting into the television side, we now have an established and trustworthy brand that covers an almost unlimited number of recognizable IPs. Disney and Marvel can quite literally make movies until the end of time. And it will take much more than one dud to topple this cinematic empire.

Side Note: Many seem to think – and even seem hopeful – that Ant-Man will be the first dud. I’ll go on record now as saying that I don’t think so. Hate me if you will, but I think there was a better chance of that happening when Edgar Wright was still on board. I could not ever see his style fitting into the MCU. And yes – I know he was on board for Ant-Man before there even really was an MCU, but as much as I love Wright and what he does, it doesn’t fit tonally with what Marvel is doing. 
As far as Ant-Man as it currently exists, I think it’s going to be great. It’s not going to make more money than Age of Ultron, but that’s not the expectation. I’m excited for a fresh, new character (to the MCU). I think the people rooting for it to fail are the ones that just want to be able to say, “I called it! Look at me and give me page views!” and you guys should know by now – if I’m wrong, I’ll admit that I was wrong (but I’m not).

Age of Ultron certainly isn’t going to be a dud. Even if it’s the worst movie ever, it’s going to make massive bank just because of how established the brand is at this point. Everybody is going to go and see this movie. We already have our tickets. Before I touch on AoU, let me run down the Marvel movies thus far:

Iron Man – I was a big fan of Jon Favreau going in to this one. Zathura was what convinced me he would make a great superhero/sci-fi movie. Aside from the obvious shared traits between Robert Downey, Jr. and Tony Stark I didn’t have a whole lot of feeling about the cast and I definitely didn’t have any particular affinity for Iron Man. I can’t say that I was surprised at how good it was, but I was definitely surprised by how perfect it was.

The Incredible Hulk – I have a lot of sentiment for the Hulk, even if I don’t count him among my biggest comic book heroes. Like anyone from my generation, the TV show was a big deal. And those Peter David comics were powerful. My biggest hope for this one was that it wouldn’t be a steaming turd like the Ang Lee movie was. And it wasn’t. I loved this one. I thought Ed Norton played a fantastic Banner and that, from beginning to end, we got a very solid Hulk story. One in which the Hulk simply could not be stopped. And I think that's what I love about Hulk. Plus, who didn’t lose their shit when Robert Downer, Jr. sat down in that bar? That made the whole dream real. Also - the Leader is still just running around out there.

Iron Man 2 – I had huge expectations for this movie. Favreau was returning. The whole cast was returning. Plus Scarlet Johansson, Don Cheadle, and Sam Rockwell (Mickey Rourke was, at that time, too much of a wild card for me to get excited about). I loved it and still do. I cannot understand the people who hate this one (Joss Whedon is, seemingly, among them). I think the performances are great and the story – while all over the place – is so much fun. I don’t know what those other people wanted out of this one, but it delivered for me.

Thor – I wasn’t sure about Thor. Kenneth Branagh is not a selling point for me. I couldn’t even get excited about Natalie Portman because I still hadn’t gotten over her acting in the Prequels at that point. I went in not expecting much and I left feeling satisfied. Nay, delighted. Asgard looked amazing. And we got a powerless hero story that actually worked – we got to see a fully powered Thor kicking ass in the beginning, so we didn’t have to sit around for eighty minutes waiting for him to pick up Mjolnir. It was an effective narrative. Looking back, this isn’t my favorite of the movies, but it’s still very good.

Captain America: The First Avenger – This one, however, is my favorite. I was raised by a military man. My father loves this country and all of the best things that it stands for. And everything about this one is America. There is not one second of apology – it’s a celebration of the greatness of this country and the men and women that fight for it. And it’s also an amazing story of the underdog that will never quit and that always does what’s right. I cherish every second of this movie (even the propeller decimation). To me, this felt like a wonderful throwback to Indiana Jones and other great adventure movies that we just don’t see enough of anymore.

The Avengers – I mentioned this at the time, but initially I didn’t think that Joss Whedon was the guy for this one. I love Joss Whedon, but I never allow fandom to blind me to the fact that not everyone I love is right for everything. As brilliant as Whedon is, I didn’t see his niche quirkiness working with a group of personalities like the Avengers. I didn’t think it would be as bad as Bendis writing them or anything, but he just didn’t seem like the best fit. And boy was I wrong as wrong can be. The Avengers is an incredible movie that we have watched as a family more than any other. Of course the relationships are perfect, but the narrative is so good and it flows so smoothly. This thing delivers in every possible way. 
Iron Man 3 – What a heavy burden this movie had. After a year of no Marvel movies (gasp!), Shane Black was expected to deliver the next chapter. And not just the next chapter of Tony Stark’s saga. The Avengers had sealed the deal – the world at large now fully grasped the size and import of the term “Marvel Cinematic Universe”. So Iron Man 3 was following up one of the biggest and most universally loved movies ever released. It did that in the smallest-scale and most satisfying – and unexpected – way possible. It took Tony’s armor away and explored his character. And was an absolute success. We saw a shell-shocked Tony Stark recover from the Battle of New York and evolve into a different man. This wasn’t so much the beginning of Phase Two as it was the epilogue to Phase One. I admit to having been a little disappointed by that, but at the same time it’s a very satisfying movie (that still stands on its own).

Thor: The Dark World – I was super stoked about this movie. To me, the first Thor had been all about promise and potential. The world beyond the Rainbow Bridge had so many possibilities. I was dying to see more of Asgard and all of the other realms, not to mention those wonderful characters that the first movie had introduced and demanded I fall in love with. I was thoroughly happy with The Dark World. The burden that the post-Avengers movies must deal with is that nothing can eclipse the Chitauri invasion. The writers can’t rely on a huge event to sell the drama so they have to create great stories and great characters. I feel like that was done here. Yeah, at the end you do have to wonder why nobody else showed up to help fight Malekith in the climax, but whatever.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier – I can’t love it as much as the first Cap movie, but what a masterpiece. It delivered in every possible way. Additionally, it managed to feel very insular while still maintaining a presence in the MCU. The events were Cap and S.H.I.E.L.D. problems, as world-threatening as they were. There was no point where it felt like Thor should show up and hit something with Mjolnir, though I still find Hawkeye’s absence to be odd. Poor Hawkeye.

Guardians of the Galaxy – It’s not technically as much a part of the ongoing narrative, but I can’t very well skip over it. There was no way that this movie was going to do anything other than disappoint me. My love of James Gunn has been growing ever since the first live action Scooby-Doo movie (he wrote that). Every successive project has been bigger and better and the man seems to have a direct line into my pop culture taste. The cast was superb. All of the sneak peeks set an irreverent tone that had me clapping my hands in anticipation. And once we finally saw actual footage of the sets and planets… FUCK. I always try to clamp down on my expectations so as to not be disappointed, but I couldn’t help going into Guardians expecting one of the most wonderful movies I had ever seen. And the motherfucker over delivered. I still have trouble wrapping my brain around how not only incredible, but universally loved this movie is.

Side Note: I own a dancing Baby Groot. It’s not actually a great toy. It doesn’t dance all that well and the mechanics are way too loud and the music is even more way too loud to try and cover up the outrageously loud mechanics. But I had to have it. Not because it’s baby Groot. Because it stands for a perfect moment in cinematic history. A moment where the entire world was on the same page and getting teary-eyed because we were all so happy that Groot was okay and dancing. I am fucking tearing up right now just thinking about it. We all felt the exact same way about the exact same thing. James Gunn created a moment of perfect harmony and that sort of thing doesn’t happen all the time. Or at all, really.

And finally that brings me to Age of Ultron, which I honestly don’t have much to say about. Whedon proved he was The Man with The Avengers, which is actually the only thing that this movie has going against it. The first one was so damned good that I’m actually having a little trouble imagining how this one can follow it. But the advantage it has is the separation that the Phase Two movies provide. We’re not going directly from Avengers to Age of Ultron. We have three movies’ worth of character growth, world-building, and story in between them. Not to mention Guardians, which was a Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster of a palate cleanser. So while AoU is a follow-up, it isn’t a direct follow-up. It’s another link in the chain, another chapter of the ongoing story. This one just happens to have all of the primary protagonists in it. So in a way, expectations have been managed a bit.

That’s not to say that I think anyone is expecting anything less than an absolute blockbuster the likes of which this world has never seen. I’m just saying that we’ve been eased into it a bit more than has ever happened before. This blockbuster has a foundation unequaled by any other movie. Not even the James Bond franchise can boast the same kind of world building and continuity that Age of Ultron has going for it.

I don’t have any reservations about going into this expecting the world. And as much as we’ve seen thanks to the trailers, I still have far more questions than I have for any of the previous Marvel movies.
How did Ultron come about?

How does Strucker fit into this?

What’s the deal with Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver?

Why is Hulk fighting the Hulkbuster armor?

Did Banner even know Tony made Hulkbuster armor and if so how does he feel about it?

Is there Thorbuster armor?

How did we get from Tony blowing up all of the suits to having new suits?

How much of a role will War Machine play?

No Loki? Really?

Where the heck does Vision even come from?

Where is all of this happening? What are all of these places?

Watching the trailer again just makes me realize how little I actually know. And I can’t wait to find out – with my family – on Thursday night.

If you want the real scoop on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I highly recommend you tune in to Earth Station MCU every week to hear speculation and analysis on every corner of Marvel’s media empire. It’s a show that I would love to be on more, but now that our own NeedlessThings Podcast is (mostly) weekly, I just don’t have the time.

Also, you should buy some Marvel movies and help out Needless Things!:

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