Story Title: “And Men Shall Call Him… Warlock!” Published: April 1972 Writer: Roy Thomas Artist: Gil Kane
The Background: It’s generally accepted that Marvel Comics head honcho Martin Goodman tasked then-editor Stan Lee with creating a superhero team in response to DC Comics’ Justice League of America. Lee used this opportunity to create stories and characters that appealed to him and drafted a synopsis of the dysfunctional Fantastic Four for the legendary Jack Kirby to work on, creating the “Marvel Method” of writer/artist collaboration in the process. Although Kirby disputed this story, the duo are credited as co-creators of Marvel’s First Family, whose comic books went on to introduce characters and concepts that would become integral to Marvel Comics. One such character was the mysterious cosmic entity initially known only as “Him”; also created by Lee and Kirby, He first appeared in Fantastic Four #66 and 67 as an artificial being created by a malevolent group known as the Enclave, who were bent on world domination. After rebelling against his creators and being rechristening “Adam Warlock” by Herbert Wyndham/The High Evolutionary, an arrogant supervillain scientist known for creating bizarre animal/human hybrids, Warlock was imbued with the power of the Soul Gem and headed out into the universe to find his true self. Though a relatively unknown Marvel creation, Adam Warlock was at the forefront of one of the publisher’s biggest stories, The Infinity Gauntlet (Starlin, et al, 1991), fought against his own dark half given physical form, and was often positioned as an allegorical Messiah against the backdrop of cosmic discord. Adam Warlock has featured in minor roles outside of the comics, appearing as a supporting character in Marvel videogames and cartoons, and was name-dropped at the end of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2(Gunn, 2017) as a future threat for the titular Guardians before making his live-action debut in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3(Gunn, 2023), portrayed by Will Poulter.
The Review: Since Marvel Premiere #1, in true Marvel fashion, features a lengthy recap of Adam Warlock’s origin, I didn’t think it was necessary to do an in-depth review of His first true appearance in Marvel Comics but, for those who are curious, He came about after Ben Grimm/The Thing’s blind girlfriend, Alicia Masters, was abducted by the Enclave and taken to their unreasonably complicated, beehive-like lair. There, she learned that the Enclave’s highly advanced scientists desired to create a perfect race of human beings, with “Him” being the first; however, He proved so unstable and powerful that they were forced to contain Him and unable to look upon Him due to his blinding light. They wanted Alicia to sculpt a likeness of Him and she braved His destructive power to reach and appeal to Him, completely unaware that the Enclave wished to use His power to conquer the Earth. Initially encased within a rock-like cocoon, He burst free and enacted a brutal revenge upon his creators, sparing Alicia but exhibiting a cold disinterest in the destruction of the beehive laboratory that birthed Him as He fled to the stars until the world was ready for His power.
“And Men Shall Call Him… Warlock!” opens in the vastness of space to find the High Evolutionary’s massive asteroid space station drifting through our galaxy; aboard, the High Evolutionary himself muses on the long and difficult journey he has taken in the quest to produce his half-human, half-animal “New-Men”. His highly advanced technology saw him transform an ordinary wolf into a man-sized beast that was savage enough to battle Thor Odinson in combat; the failure of this project exposed the High Evolutionary to the threat his creations pose to his former homeworld, so he transported the Man-Beast and a contingent of “evil” New-Men to a faraway world, where they only further regressed, forcing him to turn to Doctor Bruce Banner/The Hulk to quell their aggression. In the fracas, the High Evolutionary was mortally wounded, forcing him to abandon his armour and subject himself to an experimental process that saw him ascend to the pinnacle of human evolution. Immortal and God-like, he merged with the greater cosmos but was driven to the brink of madness from isolation, thus returning to his armour to fulfil some mysterious purpose. His ruminations are interrupted by Sir Raam, the most loyal of his Knights of Wundagore, who alerts him of His mysterious cocoon floating in space; curious, the High Evolutionary has it brought onboard his planetoid so he can investigate further. Unfettered by His visage, the High Evolutionary is instead captivated by His unblemished perfection and urges the divine man to share his story. After fleeing Earth, He also came into conflict with Thor before retreating to the stars to await the day when He could exist in a universe free from hatred and oppression. Impressed, the High Evolutionary agrees to expediate His journey through the stars but He is intrigued by the immortal’s “Project Alpha”, an ambitious plan to create a mirror version of Earth whose evolution he can directly influence.
The two agree that humanity is too volatile and too quick to descend into misery and bloodshed, so the High Evolutionary creates a Counter-Earth as a haven for his own creations. Although the process places an intense strain on the High Evolutionary, he pushes through his discomfort to bombard a rock sample with “rays” and accelerate the formation of this new world, one safely hidden from ours by being placed on the opposite side of the Sun and, within the space of a few panels, has created a prehistoric world whose development he’s able to speed up beyond the limits of creation, evolution, and even the divine. This Counter-Earth is thus ripe for the coming of the High Evolutionary’s superior race of men, one purged of their killer instinct, but the effort of creating it is so intense that it causes the High Evolutionary to pass out from exhaustion. This is the moment that the Man-Beast and his followers, who had been observing their creator, choose to strike, gunning down Sir Raam and perverting this new world, introducing violence and aggression and causing the Counter-Earth to descend into generations of war at the simple twist of a dial. The High Evolutionary recovers and surprises the Man-Beast with his newfound superior physical strength; however, a ”bestial mind-blast” and the sheer numbers and savagery of his rebellious creations threaten to overwhelm the would-be deity and, seeing this, He decides to break free from his cocoon to intervene. Emerging garbed in a “resplendent […] armour and ornaments” created by his cocoon, He causes the beasts to flee in terror to the Counter-Earth. Dismayed by the Man-Beast’s actions, the High Evolutionary sees no other choice but to destroy his new world but He beseeches him to spare the world. Retracting his condemnation of humanity and wishing to nurture their better nature, He requests to be sent to the Counter-Earth to track down the Man-Beast. Touched by His words, the High Evolutionary reluctantly agrees; he gifts Him with a mysterious jewel to protect Him from the Man-Beast’s snares and transports Him to the surface of the fledgling world with a heavy heart and bestowing upon Him that which He has never had: a name, “Warlock”.
The Summary: Previously, I only really knew Adam Warlock from The Infinity Gauntlet; I’ve literally never read another story with Him in in all my years of reading comics, so He’s always been a very elusive and mysterious figure for me. It’s actually refreshing that He’s not been wheeled out every time there’s a big cosmic event as it makes Him more alluring and significant, at least to me, so I was intrigued to see some of His background in this story. There was clearly a conscious effort to build a sense of mystery and divine beauty to this character, who is touted over and over as the pinnacle of human scientific acumen and seen as the next step in our evolution, a golden creation so astounding that to look upon Him is to suffer greatly. Yet, He is a deeply sensitive man-god; capable of sensing the intentions of men and fully capable of judging them accordingly, He has no interest in mindless combat and wishes only to isolate Himself until the time is right for Him to walk amongst men. Despite having battled the likes of Thor, He hasn’t ever encountered anyone worthy of his presence until He’s discovered by the High Evolutionary, a mind with whom He can relate to so strongly that He openly shares His assessment of our tumultuous species and His chaotic origins.
I’m equally unfamiliar with the High Evolutionary, a highly advanced individual who I’ve always seen as a combination of Doctor Victor Von Doom/Doctor Doom and Dr. Moreau from H. G. Wells’ titular 1896 science-fiction story. The parallels are pretty explicit, given both characters like to create monstrous human/animal hybrids but the High Evolutionary isn’t just some sadistic mad scientist. Disillusioned with humanity and our warring wars, he seeks to “improve” upon our aggressive nature and faults not by destroying humankind but by creating his own world and actively directing the course of the counter-humanity’s evolution. However, comic books generally cast anyone who seeks to create life through scientific or magical means, effectively defying the natural order, as a villainous character and, to be sure, the High Evolutionary’s methods are highly questionable, yet he expresses genuine regret over the savagery of the Man-Beast. His plot isn’t to create a race of superpowered or animalistic abominations to dominate the world, or to wage war against the Earth from his asteroid laboratory; he simply wishes to create a utopia on the other side of the Sun to manipulate humanity to be the very best of themselves. In Him, the High Evolutionary sees his dreams take physical form; just seeing His visage is enough to captivate the High Evolutionary, who refers to Him as the son he never had on more than once occasion.
The two share a unique bond, agreeing that humankind is far too quick to resort to warfare than strive towards peace and prosperity, and both are impressed by each other’s abilities. However, He recognises humanity’s inherent potential for “goodness” and, thanks to his divine nature, is perhaps the only one capable of staying the High Evolutionary’s hand when he prepares to destroy the Counter-Earth he created with such ease. The High Evolutionary expresses regret in His decision to be a champion on Counter-Earth but respects Him enough to allow Him the chance to try; he doesn’t rate His chances for success but prepares Him as best as he is able, even bestowing Him with His first true name. Thus, the stage is set for the newly-christened Warlock to be not a destroyer or an impassive observer but an active participant in the formation of this Counter-Earth’s development. Those who read comics looking for some cosmic action and to see what Warlock is truly capable of may be left disappointed; as is often the case, much of the story is taken up with recaps of each character’s backgrounds but, at its core, it’s a rumination on the nature of humanity and the conflict these powerful, God-like beings feel in regards to our volatile ways. Warlock and the High Evolutionary share some engaging and introspective exchanges, there’s an interesting dialogue on offer here concerning their morally grey and ambiguous natures, and I think the story does a decent job of leaving you wanting to know where Warlock’s story goes from here on out and how he goes from desiring to inspire Counter-Earth’s residents to almost literally playing cosmic chess with Marvel’s greatest heroes and characters in The Infinity Gauntlet.
Rating: 3 out of 5.
What did you think to the return and naming on the God-like “Him”? Were you intrigued by Adam Warlock’s presence and eager to know more about Him or did you find Him a rather bland character? What do you think to the High Evolutionary, his opinions on humanity, and his plan to create his own Earth? Did you read Adam Warlock’s subsequent stories and, if so, what are some of your favourite moments of His? What did you think to this MCU debut? Whatever you think about Adam Warlock and Marvel’s cosmic shenanigans, please share your thoughts below or leave a comment on my social media.
In 1995, Marvel Comics created “National Superhero Day” and, in the process, provided comics and superhero fans the world over with a great excuse to celebrate their favourite characters and publications.
Released: 24 October 2006 Developer: Raven Software Also Available For: Game Boy Advance, Nintendo Wii, PC, PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Portable (PSP), Xbox 360, Xbox One
The Background: Perhaps few videogame publishers are as synonymous with Marvel Comics than Activision; the publisher has been spearheading adaptations of some of Marvel’s most popular properties since the year 2000. They weren’t all smash hits, of course, but some of their titles have been praised as among the best for characters like Peter Parker/Spider-Man and Marvel’s resident Mutant team, the X-Men. In 2004, the publisher teamed with developers Raven Software and saw big success with X-Men Legends, a team-based brawler that incorporated role-playing elements and simultaneous co-op gameplay. Following similar success with the sequel, Activision’s partnership with Raven Software expanded to incorporate much of the rest of Marvel’s line-up with this title, which was built on Vicarious Visions’ Alchemy engine. The game also greatly benefitted from utilising the Havok physics engine; in addition to including many of Marvel’s most popular characters alongside those added as downloadable content (DLC), Nintendo staples Link and Samus Aran were initially planned to be Wii-exclusive characters before being nixed. Marvel: Ultimate Alliance received generally favourable reviews; critics praised the game’s presentation and for improving and expanding upon its predecessors, and the game was successful enough to warrant an equally-successful sequel three years later and (eventually) a Nintendo Switch-exclusive third entry that received mixed reviews. Sadly, despite a remastered version being developed for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One in 2016, Marvel: Ultimate Alliance is currently delisted from digital storefronts and quite difficult to come back for an affordable price as a result.
The Plot: When Doctor Victor Von Doom and his Masters of Evil launch an attack against the Strategic Hazard Intervention Espionage Logistics Directorate (S.H.I.E.L.D.), Colonel Nick Fury sends out a distress call to all available superheroes for assistance. Steve Rogers/Captain America, Spider-Man, Thor Odinson, and Logan/Wolverine respond to the call and must soon join forces with a myriad of other Marvel heroes in order to put a stop to Dr. Doom after he attains incredible cosmic powers from Odin Allfather.
Gameplay: Marvel: Ultimate Alliance is a top-down, team-based brawer peppered with some very light puzzle solving, opportunities for exploration, and role-playing mechanics. Players can (eventually) assemble a team of four from around thirty available superheroes and journey across a number of recognisable Marvel locations battling against the nigh-on endless minions of the Masters of Evil. Up to four players can play at once, though a single player is able to battle on alone, using the Left Trigger and directional pad (D-pad) to direct their computer-controlled team mates or switching to another superhero by pressing a corresponding direction on the D-pad. Players are given two primary attack options: A for a quick attack and B for a stronger attack, which can be charged up, and alternating between these commands will allow you to string together a few simple combos that will stun, trip, or blast your foe into the air, which can be essential to breaking through some enemy’s guards. X is the “action” button, allowing you to open doors, activate consoles, turn levers, or grab enemies to pummel, throw, or relieve them of their weapons, and Y allows you to swim and jump (you can also double jump, web-sling, or fly by double pressing and holding the button, respectively). Players can block incoming attacks by holding the Left Bumper or tap it to dodge out of the way entirely and each character has their own special abilities, which are accessed by holding the Right Trigger and selecting either A, B, X, or Y. Special powers can only be used if you have another energy, which is represented by glowing blue orbs dropped by enemies or uncovered from smashing crates or opening chests, and allow you to fire energy beams, toss projectiles, entrap enemies (by freezing or webbing them up, among other options), boost you (and your team mate’s) defense, attack, and other attributes, and cause status effects to your enemies like stunning, burning, or electrocuting them. While many of the effects are largely shared amongst the roster, each character pulls them off in their own unique way; Tony Stark/Iron Man’s Repulsor blasts are different from Mark Spector/Moon Knight’s projectiles, even though both can ricochet around the environment, and each character has a variety of special powers that you can power-up and assign to the face buttons from the “Hero Management” menu.
Each character also has a big, character-specific attack that can be performed when your energy gauge is completely full and you press Y while holding RT this will see them unleash a huge, screen-clearing attack specific to them and each character will perform these in succession if their energy gauge is full. You’ll also earn additional bonuses if certain characters pull off their special moves at the same time, and this also happens if your team is formed of characters who have a history together, like the X-Men or the Fantastic Four. The game’s story mode is comprised of five “Acts”, which drop your team in a variety of locations that should be familiar to Marvel Comics fans. After clearing the first mission, which has you retaking a S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier from Dr. Doom’s forces, you’ll be dropped into one of five hub areas where you can interact with Nick Fury, Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow, and other non-playable characters (NPCs) to learn more about your current or next mission, gain insight into the heroes and villains, and be given side quests to perform. In the hub area, and scattered throughout each location, are S.H.I.E.L.D. Access Points where you can save or load your game, change up and upgrade your team, or revive fallen teammates. Just as blue energy orbs can be acquired during gameplay, so too can red health orbs, but some environmental hazards or bottomless pits will see you or your teammates taken out of action. It can take about three minutes for your fallen ally to be ready for revival, but they can only be brought back into the fight from one of these save points. As you defeat enemies, you’ll earn experience points (XP) and level-up once you’ve gained enough XP, which will improve both your individual and team stats and unlock additional special moves for you to utilise. From the Hero Management screen, you can switch your character entirely, change their costume (which affords different abilities), equip gear to boost their stats, and name and improve the competence of your team to increase your odds when in a fight.
Gameplay in Marvel: Ultimate Alliance quickly grows quite repetitive; you can charge through most missions by repeating the same combos and special moves over and over, and opportunities for exploration are quite limited as areas generally only give the illusion of being large and multi-pathed. Combat doesn’t get much deeper than tripping, stunning, or blasting enemies, or avoiding using physical or energy-based attacks, and it’s surprisingly easy to get turned around in areas even with the presence of a mini map as one dark, grey corridor looks the same as the last. Puzzles aren’t much of a head-scratcher here; you’ll generally fight your way to a console or power generator that needs to be activated or destroyed, though sometimes you’ll need to activate two switches at once with the either of a partner, and you’ll sometimes have to perform these tasks against a time limit. You’ll need to push or pull heavy objects onto pressure pads, redirect sunlight to free Balder Odinson, defend Dum Dum Dugen in a glorified escort mission, perform character-specific motions to activate statues, or complete quick-time events (QTEs) to open doors or take out larger, otherwise-invulnerable bosses. You’ll jump behind the controls of an anti-aircraft cannon, be joined by NPCs like Major Christopher Summers/Corsair, and have to rescue characters like Doctor Bruce Banner and Prince Namor McKenzie/The Sub-Mariner, though some of these are optional side quests. These optional missions appear during the main campaign and often having you searching for items for a specific character, or destroying certain targets along the way, and sometimes you’re faced with an impossible choice between two options which will fundamentally alter the multiple endings. Gameplay really gets interesting, though, when you end up in Murderworld, a twisted funfair featuring bumper cars, a giant pinball set, a hedge maze, and even an old-school Atari-style mini game that sees you awkwardly swinging from ropes and collecting Golden Tickets to rescue Doctor Jean Grey/Phoenix from Arcade’s clutches.
Graphics and Sound: Marvel: Ultimate Alliance is largely an impressive looking title, despite how old it is now, thanks to the zoomed out, almost isometric camera perspective. This means that the in-game character models, while hardly the most detailed, pop out nicely against the various backgrounds and I liked how they all had their own unique flourishes, like Spider-Man being able to web enemies up when he grabs them and Norrin Radd/The Silver Surfer floating around on his cosmic surfboard. Unlike some similar team-based brawlers, this really helps it to feel as though each character plays a little differently since they don’t just share the same animations and have a little individuality to them; you’ll need a stronger character to move certain objects, for example, and it’s much easier to explore the environment with a character who can fly. While your customised team won’t appear in the pre-rendered cutscenes, they do all have a lot of unique dialogue during the game, and when talking to or fighting against other characters; dialogue trees exist so you can ask a number of questions to NPCs or pick different options, which either helps you answer trivia questions, kicks off a side mission, or has you picking to team up with or save a different character, and villains like “Lester”/Bullseye or Quinten Beck/Mysterio. Unfortunately, the music isn’t really on par with the voice acting; it’s all very generic superhero-y or militaristic themes, and the in-game tracks often awkwardly loop, which is very jarring; the music’s also very loud, so you might want to adjust the sound settings in the options.
The pre-rendered cutscenes also often let the game down a bit; they haven’t aged too well, and have a very rubbery and surreal quality to them (though they are pretty epic, especially when the Masters of Evil are discussion their evil lot and when Galactus and Uatu/The Watcher enter the story) that I’d criticise more if I could actually see them but the cutscenes are very dark and the only way to brighten them is by changing your television’s settings. The game’s environments often don’t fare much better, either; while it’s fun visiting places like the Sanctum Sanctorum and Valhalla in the hub worlds, the actual mission locations quickly become confusing and boring. While there’s a lot to destroy and see in each area, and even some hidden paths to uncover, rooms, corridors, and sections all start to blend together and the levels themselves can outstay their welcome at times, which only makes the monotonous combat more glaring. That’s not to say that there aren’t some visually interesting locations, though; you’ll swim through the depths of Atlantis, travel to Hell itself, battle across the length of the Bifrost Bridge and through the frozen wastes of Niffleheim, and infiltrate the gothic, regal stone walls of Castle Doom. Easily the most impressive area you’ll visit, though, is the Skrull home world, which is currently under attack by Galactus; the World-Devourer is seen lumbering around in the background between the futuristic skyscrapers and even pursues your across the walkways in an exciting (if frustrating) sequence, though the gameplay and visual variety offered by Valhalla is equally fun as you can visit the Warrior’s Hall (where NPCs are enjoying revels) and hop across Viking ships amidst a cosmic backdrop.
Enemies and Bosses: Since a gaggle of Marvel’s most notorious villains has joined forces in Marvel: Ultimate Alliance, you can expect to come up against a bevy of disposable goons during your adventure. It doesn’t take long for you to basically have seen everything the game has to offer in this regard, but each location does at least change up the appearance, dialogue, and some of the attacks of the enemies you face; you’ll battle Ultron’s minions, Loki Laufeyson’s trolls, and soldiers from the Shi’ar Empire and the depths of Atlantis, all of whom can be defeated using your standard combos or special powers. You can set your team mates to follow, attack, or defend formations, but I always like to choose an aggressive approach to overwhelm the hoards of enemies that can flood each area. Some of these carry weapons, either melee armaments like axes, spears, and swords which you can appropriate, or laser rifles for long-range attacks; others shield themselves and need to be attacked from behind or stunned. Some, like the imp-like demons from Mephisto’s Realm, leap onto you and drain your health, while others fly above taking pot-shots at you, and some are resistant to physical or energy attacks or need to be tripping, stunning, or blasted into the air. Some are larger, dealing and taking more damage, while others regenerate their health (or their allies), sap your health or energy, or boost the attack of other foes, so it’s best to take those guys out first.
The Masters of Evil have assembled quite the smorgasbord of allies; you’ll do battle with almost every single villain from Marvel Comics throughout the course of the game, sometimes more than once, as various underlings dog your progress throughout each mission. Often, you’ll battle at least two of these sub-bosses at a time; sometimes they flee after an initial encounter and need to be fought again, other times they’re powered up to be more formidable, and in other cases they’re able to heal or shield each other from your attacks by working together. However, defeating the likes of Mac Gargan/The Scorpion, Bullseye, James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes/The Winter Soldier, Chen Lu/Radioactive Man, Valentin Shatalov/Crimson Dynamo, Aleksei Sytsevich/The Rhino, Herman Schultz/The Shocker, Doctor Curt Connors/The Lizard, Hussar and Neutron, Paibok, and even the corrupted superheroes you eventually fight really don’t require much more than you constantly attacking them with combos and special powers. Indeed, while it’s impressive that so many villains appear in the game, very few actually offer much in the way of a challenge beyond being a little tougher than the regular enemies you encounter, with even the likes of notorious villains like Ultron and Titannus proving quite disappointing encounters as, while they keep you at bay with laser blasts or destroy everything in a rampage, respectively, both can be similarly put down without any complicated strategies. Many of these villains are fought in teams, however, and they can also reappear in the simulator missions you unlock by finding discs, allowing you to battle them with different characters and in different situations, but as long as you string together your usual combos and unleash your best special attacks they go down pretty easily, even when bolstered by disposable minions.
Other villains, however, do bring a little bit more to the table: Mysterio uses illusions to throw you off and, while Paul Pierre Duval/Grey Gargoyle can disable you by turning you to stone, Baron Carl Mordo, Kl’rt/Super Skrull, and the Mandarin disable you with elemental attacks to encase you in ice or send you flying with a blast of wind. The Mandarin also ends up being a particularly annoying boss as you need to lure his spider-like robots into teleporting to his safe spot to destroy his endless supply of Ultimos and actually bring him down for good. Mental/Mobile/Mechanized Organism Designed Only for Killing/M.O.D.O.K. challenges you to a trivia quiz to get closer to him, then brings in waves of Advanced Idea Mechanics (A.I.M.) minions to annoy you in addition to firing lasers and shockwaves at you. When battling Byrrah Thakorr-So and Krang, you also need to destroy sonic emitters to progress the mission, while Attuma and Todd Arliss/Tiger Shark can be difficult to hit as they’re swimming all over the place, making for a more aggravating encounter. Dragon Man randomly drops in as a tough obstacle to bypass since he’s capable of dishing out some formidable damage, while Blackheart employs multiple versions of himself to attack you and you’ll need to take on all three members of the Wrecking Crew at once (though they fall pretty easily if you’re wielding an axe or other weapon). Amora the Enchantress can allure you and your teammates into not attacking her, and will heal her brutish ally, Skurge the Executioner, Ulik and Kurse can only be defeated by attacking one with melee attacks and the other with energy attacks, and you’ll need to lower the shields protecting the likes of Kallark/Gladiator, B’nee and C’cil/Warstar, and Cal’syee Neramani-Summers/Deathbird (who flies around the arena tantalisingly out of reach and swooping down to grab you otherwise).
Luckily, the game claws back a bit of challenge and intrigue by its large and engaging end of Act boss battles. After fending off Dr. Doom’s attack on the Helicarrier, you’ll battle Fing Fang Foom on the main deck; this gigantic alien dragon blasts fireballs at you from the air, covers the ground with shockwaves when it lands, and can only be brought down by firing anti-aircraft cannons at it and making good use of your ranged attacks. After making it past his robots and death traps, you’ll battle Arcade’s massive mech in a circus tent, which you need to fire yourself at using cannons and succeed at QTEs in order to have it damage itself in frustration. The eldritch Kracken is one of the ore frustating bosses as you can’t damage it directly and must lure it into attacking the nearby columns so you can complete a QTE sequence, but it seems completely random when it’ll actually smash into these columns, meaning the fight drags a bit. Fittingly, Mephisto awaits you in the depths of Hell; this demonic villain spews hellfire at you, protects himself from attacks with a shield, and can even screw up your controls with his powers, though you can disarm him and use his Hellsword to damage him. You’ll have to take extra care when Mephisto compels Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler or Jean Grey to attack you, however, and will lose that character forever when they sacrifice themselves to stop Mephisto. At first, Loki isn’t really too much of a threat; sure, he’s got lightning attacks that stun you and is assisted by his Frost Giant minions, but he goes down pretty easily. However, it’s all a ruse as he then poses s Nick Fury to have you activate the indestructible Destroyer, which you must flee from while desperately searching for the ice-shielded Loki; once you find him, simply attack him until his shield breaks and the fight is ended. Galactus, however, is a threat far too big for you to tackle head-on; instead, you must desperately flee from him (destroying his drills if you have time) and then avoid his massive fists to activate three consoles and blast at him as the Silver Surfer in a QTE sequence. Finally, you must take on Dr. Doom himself; however, despite stealing Odin’s power to become a literal God, the mad doctor really isn’t too difficult to defeat even with the corrupted Fantastic Four acting as his personal guard. Simply destroy the four generators powering his shield, chase him down as he dashes and teleports across his throne room, mashing buttons when he grabs you, and pummel him as you would any other enemy or boss and, eventually, he’ll be defeated without too much problem regardless of his electrical attacks or shockwaves.
Power-Ups and Bonuses: As mentioned, you can refill your energy and health by collecting blue and red orbs, which are dropped by enemies or found by destroying crates or opening chests. While some hazards can whittle your health down pretty quickly, or kill you immediately, health is pretty easy to come back, and you can also grab weapons to dish out greater damage to enemies (in fact, this is highly recommended as weapon attacks easily cut down even the most intimidating Super Soldiers and Doombots). You will also acquire S.H.I.E.L.D. Credits from enemies and the environment, which can be spent on upgrades to your character’s powers, costume-specific abilities, and upgrading your team’s stats; you cans et these to auto-upgrade, but they increase in cost each time you boost them so you can burn through Credits pretty quickly. Defeating the game’s many sub-bosses and bosses will also yield special gear that you can assign to each character; this will boost your attack, XP, or gauges, resist or inflict elemental damage, and offer numerous other perks but you can only equip one item to each character and your inventory has limits, meaning you’ll need to sell some to make way for new pick-ups as you come across them. Finally, as mentioned, you’ll get boosts to your stats and performance for forming teams of related characters, and performing special moves with certain characters, so it can be beneficial to experiment with different combinations and search around the environments for chests for more loot.
Additional Features: There are forty-six Achievements on offer in Marvel: Ultimate Alliance, with the majority of them popping after clearing each Act and defeating bosses. Other Achievements include tossing enemies to their deaths, performing a certain number of finishing moves, defeating a certain number of enemies, unlocking every character and costume, and finishing the game on Hard mode, among others. Since the only difficulty-based Achievement you get is finishing on Hard, you may as well play through on Easy unless you’re going for that Achievement, and you’ll also get Achievements for finishing missions with another human-controlled character and upgrade every character’s special moves. Throughout each level, you’ll find a number of collectibles scattered about; art books unlock artwork to view, action figures allow you to unlock T’Challa/Black Panther and Matt Murdock/Daredevil as playable characters (and you can play a claw mini game in Murderworld to unlock Eric Brooks/Blade as well), and you can unlock Nick Fury by finishing the game once and the Silver Surfer by earning at least a Bronze medal in the game’s bonus simulator missions. These are unlocked by finding S.H.I.E.L.D. Simulator discs and recreate key moments and battles from each character’s history in a series of tough challenges. You can also take on five sets of trivia questions in each hub world for additional XP and Achievements, replay and revisit any Act, hub, and mission once you’ve finished the game, view movies and other unlocks in the gallery, and go head-to-head with your friends batting for points in an “Arcade” mode. By defeating numerous enemies with each character, you’ll eventually unlock up to four different costumes for each one, with these offering slightly different abilities that you can upgrade. Unfortunately, you can no longer purchase the two additional DLC packs, which added eight new characters to the roster in addition to twelve extra Achievements, none of which can be accessed on home consoles any more, which is a shame as I wanted to have Eddie Brock/Venom on my team and had to settle for symbiote Spider-Man.
The Summary: I’d played Marvel: Ultimate Alliance before on the PlayStation 3 and, while I’d enjoyed it, I remember being put off by the lack of Trophies to earn and the fact that the DLC was only available on the Xbox 360 version. When I finally bought an Xbox 360, this game was on my buy list and, coincidentally, was a bit more expensive than I’d like and the DLC was still unobtainable, unless I wanted to shell out ridiculous amounts for an imported version. When I finally got it again, I enjoyed getting back into it; the game is very action-packed and chock full of playable characters, cameos, and villains to fight, but there’s really not a great deal to the combat, graphics, or the story. It’s fine and enjoyable enough, but things get repetitive very quickly and you’ve basically seen everything the game has to offer (apart from a few bells and whistles) after the first Act. You’ll beat on the same generic goons with the same tedious combos over and over, solving simplistic puzzles and spending your Coins on upgrades, but very rarely will you actually find much t set this apart from other, similar brawlers. The character selection and variety is great, and I like how they feel distinctive despite basically all being the same, and I enjoyed how some stages were more visually interesting than others, allowing you to swim or venture onto the hull of a space craft. While the sub-bosses weren’t up to much, the bigger bosses offered a bit more challenge and entertainment, but it feels a bit like the developers maybe crammed a little too much into the game without trying to make each villain a unique encounter. Overall, it’s a decent enough team-based brawler that’s probably more fun with a couple of friends to play with; there’s some decent replay value on offer with the different endings you can get based on your decisions and the extra missions and unlocks to find, but it does feel a little lacking in presentation and overall content to really score much higher.
Rating: 3 out of 5.
Have you ever played Marvel: Ultimate Alliance? If so, what did you think to it and who made it into your team? What did you think to the combat, character selection, and the overall gameplay? Were you disappointed that the boss battles were mostly just a tedious log? Which of the characters, villains, and locations was your favourite? What endings did you get and did you ever unlock all of the costumes and characters? Did you ever play as the DLC characters? Where would you rate this game against its sequels and other similar games? How are you celebrating National Superhero Day today? Whatever your thoughts, sign up to leave a comment below or leave a comment on my social media, and be sure to stick around for more superhero and comic book content throughout the year.
Released: 25 March 2014 Director: Kenichi Shimizu Distributor: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment Budget: Unknown Stars: Jennifer Carpenter, Brian Bloom, Grant George, JB Blanc, Eric Bauza, and John Eric Bentley
The Plot: After interfering with a top secret mission, Frank Castle/The Punisher (Bloom) is apprehended by Strategic Hazard Intervention Espionage Logistics Directorate (S.H.I.E.L.D.) agent and Avenger Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow(Carpenter) and the two are ordered by director Nick Fury (Bentley) to stop the terrorist organisation known as Leviathan selling stolen S.H.I.E.L.D. technology.
The Background: After his impressive debut in the pages of The Amazing Spider-Man #129, the Punisher quickly became one of Marvel’s most popular anti-heroes thanks to his tragic backstory and unwavering commitment to the eradication of crime. His popularity has led to the character appearing in a number of multimedia projects outside of the comics, including videogames and both live-action and animated portrayals. Between 2010 and 2011, Marvel Entertainment teamed up with Japanese animation studio Madhouse to produce four anime projects, known as Marvel Anime, to little success. Avengers Confidential: Black Widow & Punisher was the follow-up to those projects; released mid-way through “Phase Two” of the massively successful Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), the anime drew a mixedreception despite making over $1 million in domestic home video sales.
The Review: The movie opens to find the Punisher monitoring a rise in criminal and gang activities, as well as newspaper reports on himself, from his apartment (which, as is tradition, doubles as his armoury) while Black Widow expresses frustration at the Punisher’s mounting reputation as a vigilante. The opening credits play over a very quick montage of stills and images that give a quick recap of each character’s background and origin, showing Frank’s time as a family man and the deaths of his family in a mob hit and Natasha’s time training as a spy and assassin and association with S.H.I.E.L.D.
The Punisher makes short, brutal work of some black-market weapons dealers, filling them with bullet holes and easily taking them apart by himself (despite them having more weapons and the numbers advantage) until only one man, Cain (Hebert) is left. Though disturbed at the high-tech weaponry Cain was selling, his efforts to torture more information out of the perp are interrupted by the arrival of Black Widow. Unimpressed with Fury’s operation and Widow’s criticism of his methods, a fight between the two ensues; though the Punisher demonstrates greater physical ability and immediately goes for his pistols, Widow is easily able to match him blow for blow with her superior acrobatic skill until Fury (modelled after his Ultimate and MCU counterpart) and his soldiers interrupt and Frank is subdued by one of Widow’s tranquiliser darts. However, during all the commotion, Cain manages to slip away unnoticed.
Aboard the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier, Fury attempts to reconnect with Frank, whom he has a shared history with, and to impress upon him that his methods, while effective, are disrupting the bigger picture since he has started to interrupt S.H.I.E.L.D.’s procedures. Frank, however, is disgusted at the potential lives Fury’s methods have cost and it’s very quickly established that he and S.H.I.E.L.D., while working towards the same goal, are diametrically opposite. Still, Fury is able to inform Frank that the terrorist organisation Leviathan is selling stolen S.H.I.E.L.D. technology and the two are able to reach an agreement since the Punisher sees that the only reason he has been brought into custody is so that he can be unleashed upon Leviathan. Teamed with Black Widow, the Punisher shares the information Cain gave him and, begrudgingly, the two head to a Leviathan base in the frozen wastes of Slovenia; Widow exposits some background on Leviathan, who have grown into a sophisticated and deadly terrorist organisation that, it is soon revealed, has begun to experiment in created super soldiers and bioweapons. Thanks to their unique skills and training, the two are easily able to infiltrate the base and dispatch of the handful of guards with lethal effectiveness, but the Punisher immediately goes off script as soon as he spots Cain and another fight between the two breaks out.
This time, however, it’s much briefer and Frank simply storms out and leaves Widow to blindly follow Fury’s orders. Although he captures Cain, his efforts to torture him for more information are once again thwarted when Cain blinds him with a flash of light and slips away once more. Continuing on mission alone, Black Widow subdues the Leviathan scientists non-lethally before being attacked by her former lover, and ex-S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, Elihas Starr (George), who faked his death and has joined Leviathan. Angered at his betrayal, Widow is no match for Elihas, who easily avoids, counters, and matches her frantic attacks while expositing that he chose to develop super soldiers for Leviathan to prove himself worthy of being Natasha’s equal and partner. Elihas attempts to convince Widow into joining him in Leviathan but, though heartbroken at his betrayal, she vehemently rejects him and fights him with renewed vigour and purpose; the Punisher aids her and destroys the facility and the two bring Cain’s cell phone to S.H.I.E.L.D.’s resident kid super genius, Amadeus Cho (Bauza). Though slovenly, excitable, and a teenager pervert, Amadeus is able to decrypt the phone but inadvertently sets the flash function off once again, which puts the Punisher into a bloodthirsty trance that sees him killing numerous S.H.I.E.L.D. agents before he is brought back to his senses. However, while Widow advocates for the Punisher’s state of mind, he is shaken at his actions and willingly submits himself to S.H.I.E.L.D. incarceration after killing innocent men.
Natasha is left feeling further betrayed when Fury reveals that he not only knew about Elihas but was also fully aware that leviathan possessed mind control technology and that he had stolen the Avengers’ blood in order to create his super soldiers. This is, of course, perfectly in keeping with portrayals of Fury as the ultimate spy whose “secrets have secrets” but his willingness to sacrifice both her and the Punisher spurs Black Widow into defying Fury’s orders and convince the Punisher to help her bring down Elihas and Leviathan. This takes the two to an underworld auction in Mandripoor where Elihas’ super soldiers are being sold off to a number of Marvel’s notorious supervillains and, ultimately, forces the two to pool their resources as a more effective team rather than being at odds with each other. In the end, though the two have opposing methods and beliefs, they are able to find some common ground and build a mutual respect for each other’s methods that culminate sin Widow willingly letting Frank return to his never-ending, one man war on crime rather than arrest him as per Fury’s orders.
The Nitty-Gritty: Of course, every anime lives and dies by the quality of its animation and Avengers Confidential is a pretty slick and smoothly animated feature. Blood and gore fly in the air with a beautiful grace and characters move with either grace and poise or a heavy, weighty physicality when not standing around like statues. Amadeus is probably the most over the top character in terms of his animation, which plays into his quirky and impulsive personality, and the film does a decent job of emphasising the differences between its two main characters through their movements and physicality as much as their personalities.
The Punisher is cold, blunt force while Black Widow is slick efficiency; the Punisher seems disconnected from humanity and focused only on solving problems in the most direct way possibly, while Widow (and Fury) are concerned with the bigger picture and a strategic approach to secured the safety of millions. The Punisher’s presence turns a lot of heads around S.H.I.E.L.D., who view him with a mixture of awe and fear, and he earns this reputation thanks to his vicious efficiency; when under the influence of Leviathan’s mind control, he resembles little more than an emotionless killing machine. In comparison, Widow is effortlessly smooth and sexy in her movements, moving like liquid and with a serene grace that allows her to easily incapacitate even larger foes. Initially, Elihas is positioned as the primary antagonist of the feature and, thanks to his rushed connection to Black Widow, ensures that Natasha has a more personal stake in the film’s events beyond simply doing her duty to safeguard the world from Leviathan’s technology. Elihas exposed himself to his own super soldier serum, augmenting his strength and abilities in an effort to prove himself worthy of Widow’s love; though he believe that she loved him in the past, he was spurred by her always choosing missions with the Avengers and her life as a superhero over him and resolved to find a way to truly be her equal. Elihas truly believes that S.H.I.E.L.D. is actually oppressing people rather than saving them and that war and conflict are inevitable; as a result, he is perfectly fine with escalating and even starting wars with Leviathan’s technology and resources and sees his super soldiers as the next logic step towards consolidating their influence on the world.
Although the Avengers get top billing in the film’s title and feature prominently on the DVD artwork, they don’t actually play a big role in the film and only show up right at the end. Despite having defied Fury’s orders, Black Widow and the Punisher’s mission to stop Leviathan is provided much-needed support when Tony Stark/Iron Man (Matthew Mercer), Doctor Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Fred Tatasciore), Thor Odinson (Unknown), Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Mercer), James Rhodes/War Machine (Unknown), and Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel (ibid) all arrive to help fight off Leviathan’s super soldiers. This leads to some high-octane action but never really overshadows the more grounded and gritty storyline featuring the two leads, who remain at the forefront of the narrative thanks to Natasha’s arc with Elihas and the Punisher’s vendetta against Cain. This is made even more explicit with how unimpressed the Punisher is by Stark’s bravado and the Avengers’ powers and abilities; he’s there with a mission to fulfil and merely tolerates their presence rather than jumping at the chance to join forces with Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. The true head honcho of Leviathan is the mysterious Orion (Blanc), a semi-cybernetic, cloaked madman who doesn’t even physically appear until the last moments of the film. However, despite Orion’s influence and power, we learn basically nothing about him and he is ultimately unable to hold sway over Elihas; during his climatic and emotionally charged showdown with Black Widow, Elihas finally comes to his senses and realises that the love they two of them shared is still there. This proves to be his undoing, however, as he sacrifices himself to save Natasha’s life after Orion shoots at her and dies in her arms. The film does a decent, if rushed job, of trying to place some emotional significance on Elihas’s character and sacrifice but I find myself oddly apathetic since I have no idea who he is; all of their backstory is conveyed through flashbacks and is told to us. We never get to see them as a proper couple or in action together, which I feel hurts the emotional core of their story; he an extra five or ten minutes been included at the start of the film to show their relationship before his downfall, this might have gone a long way to addressing that issue.
The Summary: Avengers Confidential: Black Widow & Punisher is a really weird production, to be honest; the animation is great and it has that slick, silky smooth quality that you expect from an anime and some brutal, bloody fight scenes but I’m not really sure what the purpose of it is. As far as I can tell, it’s not supposed to tie into any other Marvel production, which makes characters such as Elihas, Orion, and Leviathan very underdeveloped and inconsequential since I have no real personal stake in their story or motivations, and they exist solely to give the title characters someone to fight against and force an emotional conflict for Black Widow. I feel like Punisher is a strong enough character to have carried the anime by himself but, while it is interesting to juxtapose his more extreme measures with the likes of the Avengers and S.H.I.E.L.D., this doesn’t really work when partnering him with Black Widow. Sure, her methods and motivations are different enough but she’s still a spy, a former assassin, with plenty of “red in her ledger” so I can only imagine that she’s partnered with the Punisher to give the anime some sex appeal. In the end, it’s a short and decent enough story; it doesn’t really add anything new to the Punisher or show you anything you can’t see in other Marvel animations or productions but it manages to be just entertaining and action-packed enough to stay afloat despite its mediocre plot and characterisations.
Rating: 2 out of 5.
Could Be Better
Have you ever seen Avengers Confidential: Black Widow & Punisher; if so, what did you think to it and how do you think it holds up against Marvel’s other anime and animated depictions of these characters? What did you think to the concept of teaming these two up and the animation style? Do you think it would have been better to see a solo Punisher feature or to emphasise the more popular Avengers more or were you happy with the story it told? Do you know who Elihas Starr is and, if so, can you tell me why I should care? What is your favourite Punisher story, character, and adaptation (whether it be a movie or videogame)? How are you celebrating the Punisher’s debut this month? Whatever your thoughts on Avengers Confidential: Black Widow & Punisher, and the Punisher in general, drop a comment down below.
Air Date: 24 November 2021 to 22 December 2021 Network: Disney+ Stars: Jeremy Renner, Hailee Steinfeld, Tony Dalton, Alaqua Cox, Vera Farmiga, and Florence Pugh
The Background: In one of their more blatant borrowings from their competitor, Stan Lee and Don Heck debuted Clint Barton/Hawkeye in the pages of Tales of Suspense all the way back in 1964. Originally introduced as a foil for Tony Stark/Iron Man, Hawkeye eventually became a member of the Avengers, was involved in some of Marvel’s most prominent storylines, and has even become a symbol of representation for the deaf community in recent years. Jeremy Renner helped the D-list archer become a household name after he was cast in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) but was very much restricted to a supporting role compared to his other, more compelling peers. Marvel Studios sought to change this with the launch of Disney+, and Hawkeye was one of the first characters slated to have his own show exclusive to the streaming platform, which executive producer Trinh Tran aimed to explore his backstory, his time as Ronin prior to Avengers: Endgame (Russo and Russo, 2019), and introduce his protégé, Kate Bishop (Steinfeld), to the MCU. Accordingly, the show was heavily influenced by Matt Fraction’s comic book run, in which these elements (and Hawkeye’s deafness) were prominent features. The show aimed to delve deeper into Barton’s mindset and how the Snap had affected him, while also formally incorporating elements from Marvel’s Netflix shows into the MCU proper, and further lay the groundwork for a potential Young Avengersproject. Despite issues caused by COVID-19, the six-episode series was highly praised when it debuted on Disney+; critics enjoyed the banter between the two archers, the seasonal setting, and the chance to spend more time with Barton, while also praising the grounded action sequences. While there has been no talk of a second series, a spin-off for deaf antagonist-cum-anti-hero Maya Lopez (Cox) was put into production for a 2023 release.
The Plot: Former Avenger Clint Barton just wants to get back to his family for Christmas but his life is thrown into disarray when he crosses paths with would-be superhero Kate Bishop and is thrust into the middle of a conspiracy from his past that threatens to derail far more than the festive spirit.
The Review: I mentioned in my review of his debut appearance that I’m not overly familiar with the character of Hawkeye; I’ve definitely read more stories of his DC Comics counterpart and Hawkeye generally just pops up in any stories I read that feature the Avengers or other Marvel Comics characters. As a result, while I’m familiar with Matt Fraction’s work with the character, I’m by no means a die-hard Hawkeye fan. I’ve always been a bit dismissive of him; this isn’t because he doesn’t have any superpowers, I’ve just never really been motivated to seek out his stories. However, having said that, I am a fan of Jeremy Renner’s portrayal of the character in the MCU; Hawkeye got a bit shafted in first Avengers movie, but has since become the heart (or, at least, moral compass) of the team. He’s shown himself to be a devoted family man, something none of his peers can boast of, a surrogate father and mentor and to have real emotional depth to his character, going on a killing spree as the vigilante Ronin after Thanos (Josh Brolin) wiped out half the universe (including Clint’s wife and kids, who eventually returned, of course) and being visibly broken after his best friend and partner, Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), sacrificed herself to help undo Thanos’s actions. I think it’s cool that Hawkeye got the chance to spread his wings in a series devoted to him, but I do think Marvel Studios missed the chance to do a sort of spy/thriller set in the past that showed how Clint and Natasha first met and joined the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division (S.H.I.E.L.D.), which would also have shed new light on S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), but I suppose that still isn’t completely off the table and this is a good compromise as I can’t say for sure if a Hawkeye solo movie would land too well.
When we catch up with Clint, he’s still carrying the grief and guilt over Natasha’s death; he’s unimpressed, to say the least, and somewhat insulted by Rogers: The Musical’s glorification of the Avengers and their strife and haunted by Natasha’s sacrifice. He’s also now shown to be partially deaf and wearing a hearing aid (which he turns off to spare himself Rogers’ cheesy songs and later, to tune out Kate’s incessant babbling) and is irked that the musical includes superheroes who weren’t even in the battle. And that’s not even mentioning the “Thanos Was Right” graffiti he spots in the men’s room; here’s a guy who lost everything, put his life on the line countless times, and lost his best friend to bring back untold billions of lost souls and his reward is seeing his exploits turned into a cringe-worthy stage show (Marvel Universe Live! had better action, costumes, and production value) and anonymous accusations that all that pain and loss was not only for nothing, but unappreciated by a certain few. He’s also shown to be uncomfortable with the hero worship some show him, dismissive and annoyed by fans, and cares little for his “branding”; in “Hide and Seek” (Thomas, 2021), Kate voices her concerns that he’s too “low key” to sell and thus has been denied his proper share of the limelight and a big part of their emerging partnership is her emphasising that Clint needs to open himself up more so he can inspire people the same way he did her. “Partners, Am I Right?” (Bert and Bertie, 2021) shows his counterargument to this; Clint has always seen himself as a weapon, rather than a hero or a role model, and he’s too traumatised and too weary from his losses and years of fighting to want to be in the public eye. Indeed, he begins the show simply wishing to spend a happy, if cringe-filled, Christmas with his kids – supportive daughter Lila (Ava Russo) and his sons, veritable blank slate Cooper (Ben Sakamoto) and young Nathanial (Cade Woodward). He’s stunned when he sees a report of his former murderous vigilante persona, Ronin, on the news and immediately sends his kids back home to their mother, Laura (Linda Cardellini); haunted by the deaths he caused while in the guise, Clint makes it his mission to track down whoever’s in the getup to protect them from reprisals and is aghast to find Kate under the mask. Concerned for her welfare, Clint’s paternal instincts kick in and he takes her to safety; dismissive of her because of her age and claim to be “the world’s greatest archer”, despite her obvious talent with a bow, Clint wants only to dispose of the Ronin suit, tie up his loose ends with the Tracksuit Mafia, and get back to his family for Christmas; he has no interest in a partnership or teaching Kate anything at first, but they slowly bond throughout the events of the show despite his crotchety nature.
While the show bares the name of Clint’s alter ego and his strife and character are at the forefront of the narrative, Hawkeye is, primarily, the Kate Bishop show. The series begins with a flashback showing young Kate (Clara Stack), already a keen archer, being inspired by Hawkeye’s bravery and heroism during the Chitauri attack on New York City, which left Kate’s father, Derek (Brian d’Arcy James), dead and saw her and her mother, Eleanor (Farmiga), saved by one of Hawkeye’s arrows. Vowing to protect herself, her mother, and others in the same way as her hero, Kate grew up studying fencing, archery, and martial arts; the first episode’s opening credits are essentially an animated montage showcasing Kate’s tenacity and will to succeed but, while she’s certainly gifted with a bow and in a fight, she’s young, inexperienced in the field, and has no real idea of how to best use her skills. This comes up constantly throughout the show as she’s forced to think on her feet, react to dangers with either fast thinking or her martial arts skill, and use her surroundings to her advantage, all of which shows her to be highly adaptable, but in over her head. However, she has good intentions; she puts herself on the line to rescue a one-eyed stray dog, Lucky (Jolt), and manages to scramble through most fights through luck, perseverance, and the element of surprise. Kate briefly adopts the Ronin identity when she becomes suspicious of her mother’s new fiancé, the swashbuckling, charismatic Jack Duquesne (Dalton), and becomes caught up in a murder mystery after finding Jack’s uncle, Armand Duquesne III (Simon Callow), dead from a sword wound. Since the Tracksuit Mafia have a grudge against Ronin, and Kate’s not exactly a pro at covering her tracks, she quickly finds herself a target and is blown away when her hero, Hawkeye, rescues her. She’s disheartened to learn that he plans to part ways with her as soon as the suit is destroyed and when he shows reluctance to teach her anything, but she remains persistent; when Clint allows himself to be captured by the Tracksuits to try and warn them off her, she uses her mother’s security company to track him and literally comes crashing in to rescue him. Though aggravated by Kate’s recklessness, inexperience, and methods when it comes to dealing with criminal scumbags (she’s just as likely to offer them relationship advice as she is a beatdown), Clint genuinely wants to keep her safe and thus severs their fledgling partnership when Yelena Belova (Pugh) becomes involved. Though devastated at failing to live up to her promise and the example of her hero and his fellow Avengers, a candid discussion with Yelena only fuels Kate’s desire to be a part of that life and she openly defies him, her mother, and her naysayers to aid her hero and show that she’s more than capable of living up to the mantle of Hawkeye.
Family is a key component of Hawkeye; Clint is torn between cleaning up the mess from his blood-soaked past and spending Christmas with his family; having already lost so much time with them during his days as a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent (essentially a glorified assassin) and Avenger, to say nothing of the five years he spent indulging his violent whims as Ronin, Clint just wants to have a quiet, peaceful life with his wife and kids and is constantly heartbroken at the prospect of breaking his promise to be home for the holidays. Refreshingly, his relationship with his kids is as strong as his marriage; his kids are generally understanding, sympathetic, and supportive of him, as is Laura, who never gives him a hard time or yells at him for prioritising his mission over his family. It’s not like Clint needs the guilt trip, either, as he carries the burden of potentially letting his family down throughout the show and nowhere is this evidenced better than during his heart-breaking phone call with Nate where, thanks to having lost his hearing aid, he’s forced to rely on Kate to act as an interpreter. As a former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent herself, Laura understands Clint’s mission; his desperate desire to not only get rid of the Ronin suit but also recover a mysterious watch with ties to her past is only further fuelled by repeated references to the “big guy”, a dangerous individual who makes even the ridiculous Tracksuit Mafia more of a threat. Although he has no interest in taking on a partner after losing Natasha, Clint comes to see Kate as an equal and almost a surrogate daughter, and even builds his own network of allies after being forced to endure the theatricality of a group of live-action roleplaying gamers (LARPer) to retrieve the Ronin suit from firefighter Grills (Clayton English). Family is incredibly important to Kate, too; she’s more than a little perturbed to find Eleanor is engaged to someone else and, despite Jack’s efforts to be understanding and friendly, she is cold and aloof towards him. This turns to suspicion when she discovers a link between him and the Tracksuit Mafia; however, Eleanor refuses to listen to Kate’s claims and is horrified when she forces him into a fencing duel, accusing her of lashing out due to being at a crossroads in her life and still grieving over the loss of her father. Still, Kate is torn between being genuinely pleased with her mother’s newfound happiness and her vow to keep her safe; it brings her no pleasure to deliver evidence of Jack’s presumed misgivings, but she’s devastated to learn that he’s merely a patsy and that Eleanor has been orchestrating events to pay off a debt her husband owed to the “big guy”, none other than the kingpin of crime himself, Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio).
The show’s themes of family are also exemplified in Maya Lopez, the head of the Tracksuit Mafia, whom Fisk regards as a daughter and one of his greatest assets. Deaf since birth, Maya communicates only through sign language (with helpful subtitles often appearing for our benefit) and violence thanks to being raised by her doting father, William Lopez (Zahn McClarnon), to be a keen fighter, thinker, and to closely observe and anticipate the movements and intentions of others using her other senses. Maya is thus a brutal and highly skilled fighter despite her lack of hearing and artificial foot; she was devested when Ronin murdered her father, the original head of the Tracksuit Mafia, and vowed to hunt him down and kill him, a vendetta that causes her close friend and second-in-command, Kazimierz “Kazi” Kazimierczak (Fra Free), to grow concerned not just for her welfare but for attracting undue attention to their organisation and angering the Kingpin. Distrustful and filled with rage, Maya has her goons target Kate as she’s their only lead to Ronin and refuses to listen to Clint’s claims that the vigilante is dead or Kazi’s attempts to reason with her; Clint goes so far as to ask Kazi to convince Maya to veer from her path as it can only lead to her destruction. Although Clint has the edge in terms of experience and adaptability, Maya proves the more agile and skilled of the two with her kicks and flips; still, Clint is able to subdue her and threatens to kill her if she continues to target his friends and family. Using a mixture of words and sign language, he attempts to relate to her since they’re both essentially living weapons but she only relents when she’s faced with the irrefutable proof that it was Fisk who ordered her father to be killed. As if Maya wasn’t bad enough, she has a whole gaggle of tracksuit-wearing goons at her disposal; the Tracksuit Mafia are a quirky bunch who all wear matching clothes and repeatedly end their sentences with “Bro”. The Tracksuits exhibit an amusing and interesting amount of personality; while they all dress and somewhat sound, look, and act alike, they’re not just mindless minions. They mock Clint and Kate, subjecting them to nonstop Christmas tunes while tied to kiddie rides, enjoy RUN DMC’s “Christmas in Hollies”, are fond of their lairs and offended when people question them and their methods, and are seen as both ruthless and clumsy, which ties into the themes of vulnerability and flawed characters.
Family is also a driving motivation behind Yelena’s vendetta; a flashback shows that, after the end of Black Widow (Shortland, 2021), Yelena was snapped away while freeing her fellow “sisters” from their programming. From her perspective, she instantly returned, finding her surroundings changed and life having moved on five years in the literal blink of an eye. Disorientated, her first thought was to find Natasha and she was devastated to learn that she was not only dead, but that Clint was responsible. I get that she’s blinded by rage and grief, but she’s very quick to judge Clint based on his bloody past considering how shady her own past is. Still, despite wishing to kill Clint, Yelena goes out of her way to warn Kate off him using her own signature (and awkward) brand of persuasion and even respects Kate’s ability and tenacity (it’s clear that she’s holding back during their encounters), but cannot condone her admiration of the man she believes killed her sister. Her final confrontation with Clint sheds some light on her motivations; refusing to fight, Clint relates a version of what happened to Natasha and takes a massive beating as Yelena works her grief out on him, blaming him for not fighting or trying harder and he’s only able to get through to her by sharing the secret whistle and knowledge he has of her from Natasha. It seems she’s jealous of the time Clint got to have with her and for not being there to try and stop her, and she finally realises that they both loved her and that she’s been consumed by anguish and gives up her vendetta (though their relationship remains noticeably frosty). And then there’s Fisk, making his official debut in the MCU and, presumably, tying the events of the Marvel Netflix shows closer to this shared universe; forced into a business arrangement with Fisk to pay off Derek’s debt, Eleanor angers the Kingpin when she not only tries to back out of their arrangement to keep Kate from knowing the truth but also tries to blackmail him. Garbed in his trademark white suit, Fisk exudes the same menace and authority as he did in Daredevil (2015 to 2018) with even the subtlest movements and it’s honestly fantastic to see him brought in as such a threat. He’s dangerous enough to put the wind up Clint and is known for reacting to insults with ruthless aggression; his threat is so tangible that Clint finally recognises Kate as his partner and vows not to leave until he’s been dealt with. Having trained and raised her as his own, Fisk admires Maya and demonstrates a respect and love for her but remains a natural manipulator and has a rage seemingly boiling under his skin. The audacity of Eleanor and Maya’s actions, and the reappearance of Ronin, enrages and insults him, leading to him personally attacking Eleanor after his plot to have Kazi assassinate her backfires. Here, we see his incredibly physical strength; he easily rips off a car door, shrugs off and breaks Kate’s arrows, and even survives being hit by a car and caught in an explosion when Kate’s forced to rely on her trick arrows to counter Fisk’s near-superhuman strength. Although wounded, the Kingpin manages to flee, only to be confronted by Maya; his attempts to reason with her apparently fall on deaf ears (…no pun intended) and result in his death at her hands, though we don’t actually see the shot or him die so I’m confident he’ll resurface at some point.
The Summary: Hawkeye stands out from much of the MCU by taking place during the Christmas season, which is a prominent theme throughout the series and lights, decorations, snow, and Christmas songs are everywhere. Even the first episode’s opening credits, styled after the art of David Aja, are sprinkled with Christmassy bells and tunes, and Clint’s primary goal is to get home to his family for the holidays. Although Kate constantly digs at him for refusing to open up to others and share his feelings, he’s only like this about the superhero life and his past; he relishes Christmas with his family, watching movies and wearing terrible jumpers and such, and a lot of his closed off nature is as much from his resentment at missing out on family time as it is the ghosts of his past. These ghosts are prominent elements throughout the show; although Clint is one of the more low-key Avengers, he has his fans and a reputation as a hero, which makes him extremely uncomfortable as he doesn’t want or ask for any thanks or special treatment but it proves useful in getting them information and co-operation from the LARPers and even winning the trust of Eleanor and Jack. However, this comes with a price; when Kate comes over with pizza and Christmas decorations, he accidentally lets slip a story about Natasha and, struggling with his grief, is barely able to tell Kate a version of his decision not to assassinate her and gets emotional reminiscing about her and the loss of his family during the Blip. This particular ghost resurfaces when Kate is tossed over a rooftop by Yelena; this time, Clint chooses to lower his would-be-partner to safety, and he makes a special trip to a plaque in the Avengers’ honour to bare his soul to his fallen friend when he makes the difficult decision to briefly return to the Ronin persona. Clint’s past is a driving reason behind Yelena’s distrust and hatred towards him; she questions why everyone has forgiven him for his murderous actions and Kate’s loyalty to someone she barely knows, especially after she deduces that he was the violent Ronin.
While Hawkeye’s emphasis is very much more on being an intriguing thriller full of character moments, there’s a fair amount of action peppered throughout to keep things visually interesting and engaging. Though just a man, Clint is extremely adept in a fight; he and Kate are similar in that they’re both adaptable and have to fight tooth and nail since they lack superpowers, though their accuracy with a bow borders on the superhuman at times. Clint is easily able to break or slip free of his bonds (amusingly leaving Kate clueless as to how he managed this), makes a habit of taking in and assessing his surroundings and potential threats, and is able to make seemingly impossible shots often without even looking. Both he and Kate can engage with multiple opponents at any one time, though Clint has the edge in experience even though the loss of his hearing aid can leave him disorientated. Their fighting and archery skills are at the heart of many of the show’s action sequences; there’s a recurring subplot regarding the retrieval and creation of Clint’s trick arrows, which allow him to blow up, ensnare, electrocute, disable, and even enlarge and shrink targets. Probably one of the best action sequences is in “Echoes” (Bert and Bertie, 2021) where Clint and Kate struggle to communicate when he’s rendered functionally deaf and must fight off Maya, Kazi, and the Tracksuits in a high-speed pursuit in a sequence taken almost beat for beat from Matt Fraction’s comic run. Yelena also contributes to some intense and thematically interesting fight scenes; her clashes with Kate are more like amusing scuffles between sisters since she’s not actually trying to hurt or kill the young archer, but her fight with Clint is as brutal and emotionally charged as Maya’s battles with the former Avenger since both are hellbent on avenging themselves on their opponent.
This ties into one of the most intriguing aspects of Hawkeye; the depiction of emotional and physical vulnerability. As stated, and demonstrated, Clint isn’t superhuman and nowhere is this more evident than in this show, which routinely shows him applying frozen foods and ice packs to his many aches, pains, and bruises. Indeed, Kate is disappointed when her first lesson from her hero isn’t how to do anything exciting but how to dress and treat her wounds, and Clint repeatedly relates how living the superhero life has caused him a great deal of losses. Not only has he seen friends and colleagues perish, but he’s lost out on time with his family, is dealing with the burden of age and wear and tear, and a lifetime of explosive, high-octane action and dangerous situations have cost him his hearing. Kate, however, remains undeterred; she’s determined to learn from his example of being a regular person standing up to impossible situations and continuously tries to change his image and make him see that he’s an admirable hero since, while he has made his fair share of mistakes, his bravery and refusal to abandon her to her fate prove that’s not just some cold-blooded killer. Although she’s been raised in luxury and Clint sees her as somewhat spoiled, Kate has fought and grafted her whole life; she threw herself into her training specifically to live up to Hawkeye’s example and starts the series cut off from her mother’s money after damaging the college bell tower, meaning she has to break into the family home and her mother’s files to dig up any dirt on Jack. Vulnerability also comes into play with Maya; like Clint, she’s essentially a living weapon but one not yet slowed by age and injury. Rather than be a victim of her handicaps, Maya has learned to embrace them and use them to her advantage, proving to be an aggressive and driven adversary, but she’s just as vulnerable as Clint and Kate. Kazi is on hand to tend to her wounds but takes no pleasure in seeing her hurt, or on such a self-destructive path. It’s clear there’s more to their relationship than just being colleagues; she’s devastated when Kazi chooses his loyalty to the Kingpin and their criminal lifestyle over her and, just as she refused to give up her vendetta against Robin so too does he refuse to walk away and be with her, leading to a fight between the two that leaves him dead at her hand, much to her heartbreak.
Overall, I was very impressed with Hawkeye. In this day and age, with where the MCU is now with all these cosmic, multiversal adventures, I can understand why some people might be disappointed to see things coming back down to Earth, literally and figuratively, for a more grounded series but, personally, I really enjoy that we can be galivanting around at the edge of perceiving reality one minute and then tackling street-level crime the next. Hawkeye is definitely the kind of character you want for a series like this and I’m really glad that Marvel Studios haven’t neglected to put some serious focus on their street-level superheroes; there’s so many stories to tell with guys like Hawkeye and villains like the Kingpin and it really helps to show how this world is alive and breathing both out in the universe and at home. While I’ve never been a massive Hawkeye fan, it was fascinating seeing a very human (if still very skilled), flawed hero grumbling and snarking his way through another jaunt into that life. The relationship between Clint and Kate was fantastic, with her being more optimistic and unorthodox in her methods and a quick study once Clint chose to actually share his knowledge, making her a fun addition to the MCU and, presumably the Young Avengers. The icing on the cake was including the Kingpin and I really hope we see more from him in Maya’s spin-off and future shows, but Hawkeye really impressed me with its deconstruction of what it means to be a superhero in the MCU and the toll that life can take on someone who just wants to leave the violence behind. And I haven’t even mentioned the glorious slice of cheese that was Rogers: The Musical and have only touched upon some of the intense action and exchanges seen in the film, all of which carry so much more gravitas as we see these characters hurt, dealing with the fallout from their fights and physical trauma, and struggling to cope with the burden of their past or living up to their expectations, whether self-imposed or otherwise.
Rating: 4 out of 5.
Did you enjoy Hawkeye? What did you think to the themes of grief, vulnerability, and family explored in the series? Did you enjoy the exploration of Clint, the insight into his background, and the relationship between him and Kate? What did you think to Kate and are you excited to see her return as Hawkeye going forward? Were you surprised to see the Kingpin make his return/debut and how would you like to see him used in the MCU in the future? What did you think to Maya and Yelena and their vendettas against Clint? Whatever you think about Hawkeye, drop your thoughts below or leave a comment on my social media.
Having introduced comic readers to a whole host of colourful characters, in September of 1963 the legendary duo of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby brought together six of Earth’s mightiest heroes to form the Avengers. A super team like no other, with a constantly rotating roster, the Avengers has become the premier team of Marvel Comics and, thanks to the team and its individual members forming the backbone of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), have become an unbelievably popular and successful franchise in their own right.
Released: 1 May 2015 Director: Joss Whedon Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Budget: $365 million Stars: Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, James Spader, Elizabeth Olsen, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and Paul Bettany
The Review: Much has changed in the MCU since the conclusion of Avengers Assemble; not only has the entire world seen that extraterrestrial threats lie beyond our planet, but all manner of strange and powerful cosmic artefacts and concepts are now loosed upon the Earth. One positive that came out of the whole debacle, though, was the formation of the Avengers themselves and, since the last film and the fall of the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division (S.H.I.E.L.D.), the team have dedicated themselves to tracking down Loki Laufeyson’s (Tom Hiddleston) sceptre and erasing the last remnants of the clandestine organisation Hydra, which has secretly been manipulating events behind the scenes ever since World War Two.
The retrieval of the sceptre is a cause for much celebration within the team as it marks the end of a lengthy campaign against Hydra, but it leads into not only all of the film’s subsequent problems but also opens the MCU up to an ever greater threat lurking deep amongst the stars. Within the sceptre, Tony Stark and Bruce Banner (who had bonded over their keen love for science in the first film) discover a powerful gem, just one of the many Infinity Stones, that holds the key to completing Stark’s plans for a global defence program known as “Ultron” that he is desperate to deploy to protect the world form extraterrestrial threats. Shaken by his experiences in the last film, where he saw just how outgunned and outmatched the Earth was compared to the vastness of the galaxy, Stark is keen to build a metaphorical suit of armour around the world and encourages Banner to assist him in completing Ultron despite the doctor’s reservations. Banner, still a timid and cautious fellow, argues the moral and potentially dangerous consequences of giving birth to an artificial intelligence without the approval of the entire team and without proper testing, but is persuaded to co-operate by the force of Stark’s conviction.
Although in a far more comfortable position within the team and with himself, Banner is still subject to the whim of his green-skinned alter ego. Thanks to his ability to summon the Hulk at will, Banner is a valuable asset to the Avengers out in the field and, in an unexpected turn of events, the Hulk is easily subdued and calmed down by the influence of Romanoff. When in his more stable and timid human form, Banner has a close relationship with Romanoff that sees him clearly besotted by her but missing or ignoring her obvious flirtatious advances. He explains this as him being aware that Romanoff flirts with everyone, and the obvious interpretation is that he is afraid to act on his feelings because of his monstrous passenger, but he later reveals that he is holding himself back because he cannot offer her anything resembling a “normal” life. After the accident that first triggered his transformation, Banner has been rendered sterile and potentially dangerous by the sheer amount of Gamma radiation coursing through his veins, to say nothing of the fact that he can’t allow himself to get too excited for fear of triggering a transformation, burdening the doctor with a tragic loneliness no matter how close he is to his team mates. While it may seem strange that Romanoff is suddenly so infatuated with Banner, he represents a sense of kindness and stability that is often missing from her chaotic and deceptive life; even when Banner is explaining himself to her, she opens up to him and reveals some of the horrendous experiences she suffered in the “Red Room” while being trained as an efficient and ruthless spy. Since this also involved a full hysterectomy, she also sees herself as inadequate and monstrous since she’s not only done countless despicable things in the past but is so pained by her inability to be a “real” woman that she feels she can’t be anything more than the famed Black Widow.
For Thor, recovering the sceptre spells the end to his brother’s impact upon his beloved adopted world; since the last film, Thor has built quite the rapport with his team mates and their extended families and revels with them as he would conquering Asgardian comrades. Thor is enraged, however, when he sees Loki’s magic perverted into Ultron and very nearly comes to blows with Stark over his reckless actions in meddling with cosmic powers beyond his comprehension. Thor’s concerns over the gem are only exacerbated after his encounter with Wanda, which causes him to suspect a greater threat and seek out his friend, Doctor Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård), to accompany him on a short side quest to learn more about the mysterious gems that keep popping up in his life. After spending the majority of the first film under Loki’s control, Barton gets far more screen time and relevance in the sequel than I think many people expected; rather than focusing on his relationship with Romanoff, the film initially suggests that he may be a double-agent or keeping his own secrets from the team, but dramatically reveals that he has a wife and kids that he has kept quiet from everyone except for Romanoff. Protected and hidden from official records by former S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Barton’s family provides refuge for the wounded and exhausted team after their encounter with the twins and goes a long way to fleshing out Barton’s character beyond just being “the guy with the arrows”.
Finally, there’s Captain America himself, Steve Rogers. Still very much the field leader and default commander of the superhero team, Steve has committed himself to tracking down and eradicating Hydra’s influence as part of the guilt he feels over not finishing the job back in World War Two. Steve’s old-fashioned sensibilities are a source of much amusing banter within the team, but his pure heart, dedication, and moral integrity mean that he’s devoted to saving and protected all lives above anything else. Indeed, he’s so pure-hearted that he’s even able to ever so slightly budge Mjölnir during a friendly competition, is the only one of the team not driven into a paranoid frenzy by Wanda’s cruel visions, and, of course, takes the moral high ground when he sees the consequences of Stark’s arrogance first stumble to life. Burned by the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Russo and Russo, 2014), Cap is understandably annoyed that Stark would go behind their backs and unleash a potentially world-ending threat upon the world, but is also fair and just enough to try and convince the twins of Ultron’s threat and accept them into the team despite the destruction their actions have caused.
As for Ultron…Like a lot of people, I was surprised to see the second Avengers film make a sudden left turn towards Marvel’s famous cyborg maniac, but curious to see how the character would be brought to life. Since Doctor Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) would not make his debut until the following year, the film alters Ultron’s origins and has it be a creation of Stark and Banner (though mainly Stark); personally, I feel like another redraft of the script could have restored Pym as Ultron’s creator and introduced the character earlier, perhaps with Pym also taking the place of Doctor Helen Cho (Claudia Kim) and helping to further set up his antagonism towards Stark and the Avengers in Ant-Man(Reed, 2015). Regardless, I can understand the change, and Ultron’s depiction as this conceited, self-righteous, boastful villain makes for one of the MCU’s most loquacious and enigmatic antagonists if nothing else. Positioned as a dark reflection and extreme perversion of Stark’s desire to protect the world, Ultron learns of humanity’s tendency towards war and self-destruction by first absorbing Stark’s resident A.I., Just A Rather Very Intelligent System (J.A.R.V.I.S.; Paul Bettany) and then trawling the internet. It concludes, as many sentient A.I.’s do, that humanity can only be truly united and learn to survive and prove their worth after suffering from near extinction and sets in motion a dual plot to spread his influence through multiple, disposable copies of itself while forced Cho to construct a near-invulnerable synthetic body and to turn the ravaged nation of Sokovia into a gigantic meteor to drop onto the planet and bring humanity to the brink of desperation…and greatness.
Ultron is assisted by the twins Wanda and Pietro, who were subjected to bizarre and horrendous experiments by Baron Wolfgang von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann), a Hydra commander who unfortunately gets very little screen time before being killed offscreen but who leaves a lasting impact in his influence on the twins. While the brash and snarky Pietro exhibits superhuman speed, Wanda wields a dangerous and unpredictable red energy that allows her to fire off psionic bolts and manipulate the minds of others. It’s thanks to her influence that Stark sees a vision of the Avengers left decimated and the Earth vulnerable to alien invasion (which compels him to create Ultron in the first place), that Romanoff is forced to relive her traumatic experiences in the Red Room, that Thor learns of the cosmic disaster threatened by the Infinity Stones, and that the Hulk goes on a mindless rampage through Johannesburg. Wanda and Pietro have their own vendetta against Stark that causes them to willingly assist Ultron; Stark’s weapons caused the deaths of their parents and left them trapped, fearing their own death, for two days when they were children. However, when Wanda learns that Ultron’s plan extends beyond killing Stark and destroying the Avengers and into worldwide genocide, the twins turn against the maniacal machine and reluctantly join forces with the Avengers for the action-packed finale.
The Nitty-Gritty: It’s true that Avengers: Age of Ultron had a lot to live up to; not only was Avengers Assemble a massive, massive box office event, but it changed the course of the MCU and both comic book films and cinema forever. Add to that the decision to title the film after one of the biggest and most complex crossovers in then-recent Marvel Comics and the film definitely had a bit of an uphill battle; I get that titling films “Age of…” was a common practice in Hollywood for a while, and the desire to capitalise on Brian Michael Bendis’ story arc, but I would have picked Ultron Unleashed instead, which would have both paid homage to the comics while also slightly lowering audience’s expectations somewhat. Still, the banter and wit on offer is just as entertaining and compelling as in the first film; the team give Steve a hard time for calling out Stark’s bad language, Thor’s mission report on the Hulk’s actions against Strucker’s forces is amusing (as is his banter with Stark regarding their girlfriends), and it’s nice just see the team relaxing and socialising outside of battle.
I think the film gets a bit of a bad reputation because it opts for a more subdued and interpersonal story rather than necessarily being bigger and better; the film starts basically where the first film left off, with the Avengers operating as a co-ordinated and efficient team, sharing banter and doing their parts individually and collectively in the assault on Strucker’s fortress. It took basically the entirety of Avengers Assemble to get these big egos and characters to work through their issues and set aside their personal grievances for the greater good, so to see them in action as a fortified unit is incredibly gratifying as a comic book fan. When Ultron first reveals itself to the team, they instinctively leap into action and the question isn’t whether they can fight together, but whether they can co-exist and stay on the same page regarding the greater threats. While Stark’s actions in trying to pre-empt their defences against these dangers were irresponsible, his motivations are entirely understandable and he was right: the Earth did need to prepare itself for a greater threat, but arguably they would have been in a better position to do that if Stark had consulted with his team mates first. As angry as Thor is with Stark for meddling in cosmic powers, Steve is equally disappointed in his friend’s recklessness and the first hints of friction between the two are sowed in this film; while Steve fully believes that the team is best served working together, win or lose, Stark would rather prepare for the best-case scenario and have contingencies in place, no matter how morally questionable they are.
This is further evidenced in the dramatic and exciting depiction of “Veronica”, a massive mech-suit designed by Stark and Banner specifically to combat the Hulk. A contingency neither wish to see put into action, Stark is forced to call upon this “Hulkbuster” armour when Wanda screws with Banner’s mind and sends the Hulk on a mindless rampage. Although we don’t get to see Banner’s nightmarish vision, we can assume that it must be either incredibly devastating, traumatic, or tragic based on what Stark, Cap, Thor, and Romanoff are forced to relive, and it’s most likely something that ties into the fear Banner and the Hulk have of each other. Either way, the rest is an absolutely massive and incredible impressive brawl between the Hulk and the Hulkbuster; easily Stark’s biggest and most powerful armour yet, the Hulkbuster quickly repairs and rearms itself when damaged by the Hulk and is more than capable of going toe-to-toe with the Green Goliath, however it’s still heavily implied that the suit was designed to quickly overpower and subdue the Hulk, something easier said than done considering the Hulk’s ever-growing rage. Indeed, it’s only after a prolonged beatdown and having a building dropped on his head that Wanda’s influence is finally shaken for the Hulk, who’s left visibly distraught at the damage and destruction he has wrought.
Sadly, despite the Hulk clearly uttering words in Avengers Assemble, the Green Goliath returns to being a largely mute creature who communicates only in growls, grunts, and facial expressions; indeed, he kind of fades into the background by the finale before jetting off to places unknown in order to keep Romanoff safe from his violent nature. While I was quite happy with the amount of Hulk action on offer in the film, it is disappointing that he wasn’t depicted as talking here as I was expecting him to be fleshed out more in that regard. Age of Ultron does, however, have time for a few fun cameos from Colonel James “Rhodey” Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle) and Sam Wilson/The Falcon (Anthony Mackie), who officially join the Avengers by the end of the film, and provides a slightly bigger role for former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), who largely replaces Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) and even Fury as the Avengers’ go-to liaison, and all of these characters (except, obviously, for Coulson) play a part in the final battle against Ultron. Another criticism of the film was the shoe-horning in of unnecessary world-building, specifically Thor’s “vision quest” that seems to serve little purpose other than reminding audiences of Thanos’ (Josh Brolin) looming threat. Personally, I never had much of a problem with this as it made Thor pivotal to the creation of the Vision (Bettany); furthermore, much of the film is devoted towards further exploring Stark’s guilt and desperation regarding his friendship with the team and his desire to protect the world, all of which paid off beautifully as the MCU progressed.
Thanks to being revealed to be a loving and devoted father and husband, Hawkeye slips naturally into the role of a mentor to the twins and the heart of the team; he initially has an antagonistic rivalry with the condescending Pietro but is the only one of the team to anticipate and counteract Wanda’s mind control. When the twins join the team, he helps to integrate them into the Avengers’ code and nowhere is this more evident in the pragmatic and honest pep talk he gives to Wanda, who is overwhelmed by the chaos and insanity of the battle against Ultron’s drones. This perfectly encapsulates not just Barton’s moral centre but also the entire point of the Avengers as a team and a concept: no matter how crazy things get or how unwinnable the odds seem, they shake it off and keep fighting until the very end, regardless of the outcome. Cap reinforces this philosophy when he tells the team: “If you get hurt, hurt ‘em back. If you get killed, walk it off”, and these words have a significant impact not only in encouraging Wanda not to hold herself back in the battle against Ultron but also in Pietro’s decision to be selfless for the first time in his life. Seeing Barton using himself as a human shield to try and protect an innocent child, Pietro rushes in and saves them both at the cost of his own life, a random and absolutely unexpected (and potentially unnecessary) sacrifice that continues to be a little confusing. It appears Whedon decided to kill off Pietro because it would have been too obvious to off Barton, a character who had been set up throughout the entire film as basically doomed and living on borrowed time, but keeping him alive ended up paying off on a longer story arc for the character within the MCU.
Ultron begins life as a confused and disembodied artificial intelligence; as it quickly absorbs information, its curiosity turns to contempt and it soon perverts Stark’s desire for “peace in our time” to the extreme. It regards Stark’s other creations as mere puppets and is quickly able to learn everything about the team, and the world, and evade true destruction by escaping through the internet and transferring its consciousness halfway across the world into a slew of disposable bodies. As a fully CGI character, Ultron is certainly impressive; the only real complain I have is that I don’t think it needed to have lips. Thankfully, Spader provides an enigmatic and surprisingly layered performance; Ultron fully believes that its actions are just and truly cares for the twins, and is unsettling in its unpredictability as it can be charismatic and almost kind-hearted one minute and then a complete psychopath the next. To help position itself as an unstoppable overlord in its new world, Ultron has Cho create a perfect synthetic body; however, the Avengers are able to intercept this form and, despite concerns about Stark’s recklessness, infuse it with J.A.R.V.I.S.’s consciousness, Thor’s lightning, and the mysterious Mind Stone that was contained within Loki’s sceptre, thus giving birth to a new artificial lifeform dubbed the Vision. Understandably cautious and wary of this new individual, the Avengers’ fears of the Vision’s intentions are immediately set aside when he proves his mettle by being capable of wielding Mjölnir; while I can understand the argument that the Vision’s introduction is a bit rushed and his powers somewhat ill-defined, having him grab Mjölnir like it’s nothing was a great shorthand to tell us everything we needed to know about the character at that point, and he plays a pivotal role in paralleling Ultron’s destructive megalomania with a more pragmatic and reasonable logic.
Having used Stark’s technology, Cho’s research, the power of the Mind Stone, and the near-limitless potential of Wakanda’s Vibranium, Ultron succeeds in lifting Sokovia high up into Earth’s atmosphere. Its inexhaustible army of drones may be simply disposable minions for the Avengers to tear apart, much like the Chitauri, but the stakes are far bigger this time around as the Avengers are forced to hold off Ultron and its copies while also trying to slow or safely stop its make-shift meteor, all while trying to evacuate the entire city onto Fury’s repurposed Helicarrier. They’re successful largely thanks to Wanda who, devastated by her brother’s death, decimates Ultron’s drones and crushes its primary body, ripping its heart out for good measure before the Hulk sends it flying off the floating city. Thanks to Stark and Thor, the landmass is overloaded and blasted to smithereens before it can pose a threat, and Ultron’s final form is seemingly eradicated forever following a philosophical debate with its “son”, the Vision. In the aftermath, Thor returns to Asgard to investigate the Infinity Stones and Stark officially leaves the team to follow through with the promise he made to Virginia “Pepper” Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) in Iron Man 3(Black, 2013) and Cap and Romanoff move to a new Avengers facility far outside of the city where they prepare to train a new team of Avengers. However, while all seems well between the team, the Mad Titan, Thanos, arms himself with a glistening gauntlet and prepares to take care of matters personally.
The Summary: I remember being somewhat underwhelmed by Avengers: Age of Ultron when I first saw it at the cinema; it wasn’t that it was bad, or necessarily worse than Avengers Assemble, but it didn’t really seem to be much better than its predecessor. Avengers Assemble was such a big event because it was the first time these characters were coming together onscreen and I had waited so long so see comic book characters in a shared universe rather than being restricted to isolated worlds, so it always gets extra credit for me due to that and the power of nostalgia. Being just as good as one of the MCU’s best films is nothing to be ashamed of, however, but I think I, like many audiences, was just expecting something a little more substantial from the team’s next big outing. Still, it’s definitely gotten better over time and remains an action-packed spectacle that ties into Phase Two’s themes of challenging the status quo of the MCU and lays the first hints of dissension within the Avengers. Seeing the Avengers in full force never gets old; as much as I enjoy the direction the MCU took, part of me would have liked to see one more film of them as a cohesive unit with the resources of S.H.I.E.L.D. behind them, possibly battling the Masters of Evil, simply because I enjoy the banter and teamwork of the Avengers so much and it’s always a spectacular moment whenever that rousing theme kicks in and the team appears onscreen.
While it’s not a perfect film by any means, Age of Ultron introduces a lot of new elements to the MCU and makes an impact with its entertaining action scenes; it’s still amazing seeing Iron Man don the Hulkbuster armour, Pietro’s superspeed and Wanda’s freaky magic add some unique pizazz to the film’s events and finale, but the film really makes its mark with the introduction of the Vision and Spader’s performance as Ultron. A complex and psychotic villain who is all the worst parts of Stark dialled up to eleven, Ultron is both menacing and amusing thanks to its overabundance of personality and snark, and is perfectly juxtaposed by the more life-affirming and analytical Vision. Overall, I feel it’s an under-rated entry in the MCU that is more than deserving of a little more respect and credibility; sure, it’s a little overstuffed and introduces a lot of new elements but, as Ultron states, “with the benefit of hindsight” I think there’s a lot on offer in Avengers: Age of Ultron and that it works wonders for encapsulating the spirit and integrity of the team, perfectly setting them up for their eventual disassembling and climatic reassembling against their greatest every threat, so I’d say it’s a more than worthy follow-up despite some flaws here and there.
Rating: 4 out of 5.
Are you a fan of Avengers: Age of Ultron? How do you feel it holds up against the first film, and the other Phase Two movies? Were you disappointed with the depiction of the Hulk, Banner’s romance sub-plot with Romanoff, and Pietro’s sudden and dramatic death? What did you think to the new characters introduced to the team in this film, specifically Wanda and the Vision? Where does Ultron rank amongst the Avengers’ villains for you and what did you think to the alterations made to his origin, and Spader’s performance? Would you have liked to see one more Avengers movie before the team splintered and, if so, which characters would you have liked to see added to the team? How are you celebrating the debut of the Avengers today and what are some of your favourite Avengers storylines, characters, or adaptations? Feel free to sign up and share your thoughts and opinions on the Avengers in the comments below, or drop me a line on my social media.
Air Date: 19 March 2021 to 23 April 2023 Network: Disney+ Stars: Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Wyatt Russell, Erin Kellyman, Daniel Brühl, and Emily VanCamp
The Background: Unquestionably, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has become more than a success; from humble beginnings, it has evolved into a nigh-unstoppable multimedia juggernaut that has brought some of Marvel Comics’ most beloved, and obscure, characters to life in a way that no one could have ever predicted. Only a handful of the films produced by Kevin Feige and Marvel Studios have met with any kind of negativity or mixed reaction, and in a world that is becoming increasingly bleak and cynical the MCU achieved an impossibility by making the Star-Spangled Avenger himself, Captain America, a blockbuster movie franchise. Although Marvel Studios had dabbled in television ventures before, most notably with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013 to 2020) and their various Netflix shows, they really ramped up their focus on TV productions to coincide not just with the MCU’s fourth phase but also the release of Disney+, the streaming service of their parent company. Unlike other MCU TV shows, these shows were spearheaded by Feige and focused heavily on maintaining and expanding the continuity of the MCU going forward. One of the first pitches for this concept was a “buddy cop” series the focused on the dysfunctional friendship and grating banter between Sam Wilson/The Falcon (Mackie) and James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes (Stan); the series aimed to not only explore this relationship and Sam’s struggles with accepting the mantle of Captain America, but also tackle relevant social issues such as racism and coping with grief and change. Although delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier eventually released weekly on Disney+ starting from 19 March 2021 and was the most-watched show on the service for some time. Critically, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was extremely well-received, with reviewers praising the show’s depiction of racism and the dynamic between the two leads, though some criticised the show’s pacing and execution. Still, the show was successful enough to earn not only a second season but also a fourth Captain America movie that will see both stars reprise their roles on the big-screen and continue the plot threads left hanging at the end of the season.
The Plot: Six months after the events ofAvengers: Endgame(Russo and Russo, 2019), Sam Wilson struggles to live up to the mantle of Captain America and Bucky is still recovering from his brainwashing as the Winter Soldier. The two are forced to begrudgingly join forces with not only each other, but one of their worst enemies, to investigate a terrorist group in a worldwide adventure that tests both their abilities and their patience.
The Review: I am a bit late to the party when it comes to Disney+ and their various original content; the main reason for that is the sad fact that neither my television nor my service provider actually carry the app, and I didn’t really want to be watching the shows on a smaller screen. Ordinarily, I would wait for the home media release but it seems as though we might have to wait a while for that, or might not get it at all, so I finally decided to get started on working through them earlier this year and was excited to finally sink my teeth into The Falcon and the Winter Soldier since it was the one that looked most like what I enjoy about the MCU. Naturally, given the title, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier primarily focuses on Sam and Bucky and the fallout from Avengers: Endgame. At the start of the show, Sam continues to run missions for the United States military as the Falcon, quickly making an enemy out of Georges Batroc (Georges St-Pierre), and enjoying the chance to make a positive difference in people’s lives. Sam is determined (obsessed, almost) with helping people, trying to offer his services and council, and protecting others, even when it’s beyond him, but he is conflicted about taking on the mantle of Captain America.
Believing that he’s not able to live up to Steve Rogers’ (Chris Evans) legacy, Sam delivers an emotional speech in Washington, D.C. at a ceremony (more like a eulogy) at the Smithsonian Museum for Captain America where he entrusts the shield to the museum so it can be displayed as a symbol of hope and unity. In a recurring motif throughout the show, Colonel James “Rhodey” Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle) questions this decision, believing that times have changed, and that the world is “broken” and in need of fixing, and that Captain America is more important than ever before. Sam, however, remains steadfast in his decision to give up the shield since he can’t shake the feeling that it doesn’t belong to him, and instead tries to direct his attentions to reconnecting with his family. Sam’s sister, Sarah (Adepero Oduye), and his nephews Cass (Chase River McGee) and AJ (Aaron Haynes), maintain the family fishing business in Louisiana, but fell on hard times during the Blip and have struggled to stay afloat since the snapped were returned. While Sam is still somewhat stuck in the pre-Blip past, Sarah is faced with the cold, hard fact that she is out of options thanks to getting into debt; Sam, however, is determined to help, despite her cynicism, and is sure that he can help broker a new deal/loan at the bank and turn the business around. However, despite the adulation of the bank clerk for his heroics, Sam faces greater hurdles than he expected; things changed after the Blip, Sam’s income is questionable (apparently Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr) didn’t pay the Avengers, which I find odd), and the Wilson’s don’t have the collateral or standing to qualify for a loan. However, there’s also an undercurrent of racial prejudice throughout this meeting; though Sam refuses to quit, Sarah isn’t surprised that they got turned away and somewhat resents Sam’s absence (whether by choice or by fate) and efforts to swoop in and save the day when she’s been struggling so hard for so long, by herself, to keep the business afloat.
Already greatly troubled by these burdens, Sam is clearly conflicted when the United States government opt to reactivate the shield and pass the mantle of Captain America on Captain John Walker (Russell). The former Winter Soldier, Bucky Barnes, isn’t quite as shy about hiding his feelings regarding the matter, however. Although he’s received a full pardon for his past crimes, Bucky is legally mandated to attend regular therapy sessions with Doctor Christina Raynor (Amy Aquino) and continues to be haunted by vivid, explicit memories of his heinous past. Although he routinely lies to and criticises her, Dr. Raynor sees through his bullshit and he reluctantly relates that he’s been going through a list of his victims and trying to make amends with their families or bring those responsible for his conditioning to justice according to Raynor’s strict series of rules that prohibit him from killing, harming others, or doing anything illegal in order to help stave off his nightmares. Bucky is aggravated that Sam gave up the shield; he believes that Steve trusted in Sam, that he believed in him, and that Sam threw it all away like it was nothing and his stoic demeanour cracks when he states that if Steve was wrong to believe in Sam then maybe he was wrong to believe in him (as in Bucky) as well. This causes a great deal of tension between the two, who already had a pretty frosty relationship to begin with, which only escalates as they investigate a terrorist group known as the Flag Smashers. Led by Karli Morgenthau (Kellyman), the Flag Smashers believe that society was better during the Blip and want to restructure the world to remove all borders, both political and social, but are radical in their methods. Karli, and seven of her followers, have been granted superhuman strength and durability thanks to a new version of the super soldier serum, and use that power to launch a campaign against the oppressive governments and conglomerates, particularly the Global Repatriation Council (GPC), who seek to return the world to the way it was before the Blip. Sam is first alerted to the group by his military liaison, Joaquin Torres (Danny Ramirez), who is badly injured trying to fight Karli during a bank robbery in Switzerland, and the bulk of the series revolves around his efforts (and the efforts of others) to track them down. Karli comes across as very sympathetic and morally grey antagonist; her idea for a united world free from corruption is an admirable one, but she enforces her ideals through extremism and violence, which clearly puts her in the wrong. With slightly different methods and motivations, she could have rallied people into a productive force for good but, instead, she is a revolutionary posing as a freedom fighter. In a very short time, she has amassed a cult-like following of people only too eager to offer them food, shelter, and resources and Karli is determined not to let the same people who were in power before the Blip return to positions of authority, and to go to any lengths necessary to bring about “One world, One people”.
While Sam actively sympathises with Karli’s plight, and makes every effort to try and talk her down, neither Bucky or Walker share his unique approach to the situation; a former high school football star, decorated soldier, and American patriot, Walker initially struggles with the weight of expectation placed on him by assuming this mantle of Captain America. His wife, Olivia (Gabrielle Byndloss), and best friend, Sergeant Major Lemar Hoskins (Clé Bennett), offer him their utmost encouragement and support and Walker quickly takes to the public limelight, signing autographs and appearing live on Good Morning, America, and coming across as humble and appreciative of the opportunity (despite his impressive military record, physical fitness, and intelligence quotient) and selling himself not as a super soldier, but as a brave man looking to continue Steve’s legacy. Walker’s position as Captain America causes a great deal of friction between him and Sam and Bucky; although he helps them to (unsuccessfully) fight Karli and the Flag Smashers, his repeated attempts to work with them are met with reluctance and hostility (especially from Bucky, who quickly senses something is off about Walker). Bucky and Sam’s resentment of Walker is only exacerbated by his increasing arrogance and bravado; Walker’s mental stability is fractured further when he’s repeatedly left one step behind (or out of the loop) in the pursuit of Karli, is met with scorn and disrespect by the Flag Smashers, and is repeatedly bested in combat by both super soldiers and the Wakandan special forces, the Dora Milaje. He’s resentful of those with enhanced abilities, and the judgement he faces from the likes of Sam, and being forced to sit on the side lines, which causes him to blunder into situations full of piss and vinegar and even disrupts Sam’s attempts to talk Karli down.
Walker is joined in the field by Lemar, who fights by his side as Battlestar. While Bucky is ready to simply force Walker to give up the shield, Lemar acts as the voice of reason and not only manages to keep Walker focused but tries to keep the peace between them and Sam and Bucky to better pool their resources. When Walker is distraught at being so handily beaten by the Dora Milaje, Lemar admits that he would jump at the chance to take the super soldier serum since the benefits would far outweigh any side effects, arguing that they could have saved lives (and spared themselves a lot of bloodshed) during their time in Afghanistan. This is all the convincing Walker needs to take the serum for himself, but his already unstable mind and quick temper are only exacerbated by the serum, and by Lemar’s death at Karli’s hands. Walker’s grief quickly turns to outrage, and he takes his anger and pain out on Nico (Noah Mills), Karli’s close friend, beating him to death with the shield in front of numerous bystanders, many of whom record the incident on their phones. Walker is so traumatised by these events that he actually tries to justify them as being part of his duties as Captain America, and a brutal fight breaks out between him, Falcon, and Bucky when Sam tries to reason with Walker and Walker’s paranoia kicks in. Walker rips Falcon’s wings off, half-crazed by ego and madness, and Falcon is forced to break Walker’s arm to get the shield off him. Although Walker avoids a court martial for his actions thanks to his service record, he’s stripped of his rank, benefits, and the mantle of Captain America. Understandably, Walker is outraged at this betrayal but is given a second (well, third, technically) chance by Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), who sympathises with his plight and offers him a new assignment as the U. S. Agent.
Walker’s instability isn’t helped by Sam and Bucky’s decision to turn to Helmut Zemo (Brühl) for help; although Zemo is a dangerous radical and terrorist who cannot be trusted, he knows more about super soldiers than anyone left alive, but even Sam is aghast when Bucky orchestrates Zemo’s escape from prison and convinces him to aid them based on their common enemy. Zemo is only too eager to help rid the world of super soldiers, who go against everything he believes in, and the two reluctantly agree to utilise Zemo’s wealth and resources as a baron (not to mention his knowledge of Hydra and the super soldier serum). Zemo adds an extra dimension to the abrasive relationship between the two leads, riling up both Bucky and Sam with his mind games and taunts; Zemo questions the logic behind giving symbols and people too much power as you forget their flaws and it brews conflict. Despite being a bigot and a terrorist, Zemo makes some great points about the parallels between good and bad, heroes and tyrants; Zemo argues that his willingness to murder Hydra scientist Doctor Wilfred Nagel (Olli Haaskivi) shows he has the will to complete their mission, indicating his intention to kill Karli, whose attacks are becoming more and more frequent and dangerous. He also makes a convincing argument that to be superhuman is to be a supremacist, that Karli will not be able to stop herself escalating her methods and her goals, and basically comparing the Avengers to the Nazis and other supremacist powers on principal alone, while also expressing respect for Captain America for his strength of character. Zemo’s poisonous philosophies and mind games continually grate on Sam and Bucky, and his very presence causes controversy, especially when Ayo (Florence Kasumba) and the Dora Milaje come looking for him. Ayo only allows Bucky (whom she still refers to as the “White Wolf”) eight hours to make use of Zemo out of a fraying sense of respect, however while nobody trusts Zemo (and rightfully so), he actually proves to be super useful to the group’s investigation: he leads them to Madripoor, a desolate, neon-drenched haven for disreputable types run by the mysterious “Power Broker”, and to Nagel’s knowledge of the new super soldier serum. He often slips away from conflict and is ordered to stay out of the way, but actually goes out of his way to help Sam and Bucky, even donning his iconic ski mask to clear a path for his unlikely allies.
Zemo’s even able to use Turkish Delight and his way with children to lead them to Karli, but doesn’t show his whole hand to maintain his leverage, which riles Bucky up almost as much as Zemo’s smug, self-righteous, condescending hospitality. Still, his single-minded campaign against super soldiers causes some problems for the more righteous heroes; he not only executes Nagel, but he wounds Karli and angrily destroys the majority of her serum vials, which only serves to galvanise her extremism further. Zemo is instrumental not just in aiding Sam and Bucky but also in granted Bucky some of the closure he desperately needs; his code words no longer trigger Bucky’s conditioning, and Bucky opts to spare him so he can face imprisonment, and the two even part ways with a kind of mutual respect and understanding for each other. Zemo actually proves to be more of an asset than Sharon Carter (VanCamp), who was driven off the grid to Madripoor after helping Sam and the other Avengers during Captain America: Civil War (Russo and Russo, 2016). Resentful that she was left without the aid of the Avengers and to fend for herself, Sharon is less than welcoming to them, especially Zemo, because she’s been forced to live on the run, without contact with friends and family, and has been alone this whole time. Begrudgingly, she offers them shelter and has set herself up as the owner and proprietor of an art gallery filled with stolen, priceless pieces; recent events have left her cynical of the whole hero gig and she openly criticises their devotion to a cause she no longer believes in. Distrustful and bitter, Sharon agrees to help in return for Sam’s help in clearing her name and returning her home; while Sharon brokers a deal with some clients, the three blend in at her party, resulting in the now-infamous clip of Zemo partying down to some beats! Although Sharon’s information proves fruitful, and she’s instrumental in stopping Karli and the Flag Smashers in the finale, she is repeatedly shown to be somewhat shady and untrustworthy throughout the show, making suspicious phone calls and even hiring Batroc to add a wild card to the final episode. When Sam, Bucky, and Walker join forces to chase Karli down, Sharon is revealed to be the Power Broker in a tense showdown that sees her gun down Batroc for having the insolence to blackmail her and then shoot Karli to save Sam’s life after his attempts to reason with her fall on deaf ears. Despite her odd behaviour, Sam arranges for her to receive her full pardon, but, while she gratefully returns to a governmental role, she makes a suspicious call to an unknown party promising to deliver full access to the government’s resources going forward.
A central theme throughout The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is of racism and the power of symbols, labels, and Captain America; racist struggles and undertones permeate every aspect of the show, from Sarah’s efforts to keep the family business afloat to Sam being referred to as “Black Falcon”, and there’s even an unsettling scene were some cops randomly accost Sam, with the implication that they only backed down after realising that he’s the Falcon. These racial tensions are explicitly emphasised through the introduction of Isaiah Bradley (Carl Lumbly), an African American veteran super soldier who fought, and defeated, the Winter Soldier in the Korean War. Jaded and betrayed by his country, Isaiah was imprisoned and experimented on for thirty years to help replicate the super soldier serum, leaving him a cynical and tortured individual. Sam is angered that a Black super soldier existed and has been buried and forgotten, and how many people got screwed over just to make the shield and Captain America a thing, regardless of how much good both have done. Isaiah bitterly talks about the oppression faced by Black people everywhere, especially soldiers who put their lives on the line for their country only to face bigotry and hatred upon returning. Isaiah reveals that his wife died while he was in prison, and that a bunch of prisoners such as himself were subjected to super soldier experiments and sent on missions even if they were unstable. After some of them got captured, Isaiah learned that the higher-ups were planning on destroying the camp rather than let their dirty little secret get out and rescued his comrades, only to be left a lab rat whose only salvation came from a sympathetic nurse. Sam is moved by his tale, and desperate to use every resource he has to tell it to the world, but Isaiah doesn’t share Sam’s optimism since Black people have been oppressed and erased for generations; he maintains that “they” will never let a Black man be Captain America, and that no self-respecting Black man would want to represent such a flawed symbol.
Although Isaiah’s tale causes Sam to contemplate if he should destroy the shield, Bucky emphasises that the shield is a symbol of hope to many, including himself. When Sam calls in the favours owed to his family by the neighbourhood, even Bucky gets stuck in with fixing up the family boat, and apologises for judging Sam’s decision. He helps Sam train with the shield and Sam encourages him to find his own path in life rather than looking to other people to guide him, and to “do the work” to make amends for his past by offer his victims closure, or a service, to properly put his sins to rest and, in that moment, they forge their friendship (though they still maintain their grating banter). Bucky’s support helps Sam to conclude that, while Isaiah may have a point, he owes it to all of those who suffered and sacrificed to stand up and keep fighting…and take on the shield, which he eventually manages to get the hang of after an inspirational training montage. This culminates in Sam making a dramatic appearance in the finale garbed in his all-new Captain America costume, courtesy of Wakanda, which is heavily based on his Cap suit from the comics and incorporates elements from his Falcon outfit, including the wings. As faithful as the suit is, though, I do feel like it’s a bit “busy”; it’s got white and blue and red and all kinds of different parts and details to it, which is fine, but it does seem like it could be streamlined and simplified going forward. Crucially, while Cap has (presumably Vibranium) wings and his additional technology and abilities allow for particularly exciting chase and action sequence involving a helicopter and a rematch with Batroc, Sam refuses the super soldier serum and uses his position to make an impassioned speech to the GRC representatives, the crowd, and the press about the dangers of labels and the importance of asking why people do the things they do. In a poignant address, Cap emphasises that that they all have a chance to make real change, to help those in need, and acknowledges that people will hate and judge him for being a Black Captain America but, despite that, he’s still there, a simple man with a strong belief that people can do better and the importance of setting a strong example and wielding power responsibly.
This comes after a dramatic and tragic final confrontation with Karli and the Flag Smashers, who launch an attack on a GRC conference; earlier in the series, Nico expressed his belief that the world needs heroes that “look like them”, that can relate to their plight, and even suggests that Karli has the potential to be as influential as Captain America because of her willingness to fight for those in need and to get her hands dirty in the process. Karli believes that the shield is “a monument to a bygone era” and serves as a reminder only of the people history forgot, and that the serum is the only way to bring about real change, and as part of that she only plans on killing people that “matter”, like John Walker and even Sam, as it will send a stronger message. This dismissive attitude raises the ire of Walker in the finale, but Sam consistently sympathises with Karli’s plight; for five years, the world completely changed the way it operated, offering aid and co-operating in a way that had never been seen before, but things have returned to normal and that is a jarring transition for many, especially the poor, underprivileged, and oppressed, who see Karli as a freedom fighter. Sam attempts to reach out to her, and convince her to come along peacefully, and is met with aggression and resistance; Karli rejects the notion that she’s a supremacist because she’s fighting against big, oppressive corporations but Sam argues that she’s killing recklessly, and heading down a dark path. Even when Karli threatens Sam’s family, he continues to try and reason with her and, when they go head-to-head in the finale, he refuses to fight her…or to back down…even as when she flies into a rage and mercilessly attacks him. After Karli is fatally shot by Sharon, she dies in Cap’s arms, leaving him with only an apology and regret at the unnecessary loss of life, and that tragedy fuels his big speech at the end.
The Summary: I really enjoyed The Falcon and the Winter Soldier; everything about it was indicative of a top-notch MCU production, from the music to the presentation, characterisation, and world-building. It was literally like watching a six-hour long movie rather than an episodic show, and a lot of that is due to how well the two leads characters are written. Sam and Bucky share some relatable and entertaining banter and dick measuring regarding their knowledge of pop culture, the craziness of their superhero lives, and it’s clear that they have a begrudging, grating, almost brotherly relationship. Bucky despairs of Sam’s reluctance to make or share his plans and goes out of his way to match his efforts, even leaping out of a plane at two-hundred feet without a parachute just to prove a point. When Karli threatens Sam’s family, Bucky insists on suiting up with him and has his back, despite the two having an abrasive relationship; this is best seen in an amusing moment where Dr. Raynor forces the two to sit down for some therapy and they push back against Dr. Raynor’s methods, rile each other up, and are forced to confront their issues. Although the two agree to part ways and never see each other again following this, they are soon bonded by their mutual respect and come to trust and even help each other with their doubts and issues. Bucky even has a little flirty banter with Sarah (which Sam warns him about) and, by the end, is laughing and enjoying himself with Sam’s family and neighbours. Their dysfunctional, brotherly, odd-couple dynamic is one of the highlights of the show and it’s great to see them ending the season as trusted allies.
A clear standout of the show was also John Walker, who gave a great turn as an unstable, violent, and unhinged version of Captain America. At first, he’s the humble, dutiful poster boy but it doesn’t take long for cracks to begin to show in his façade; the pressure of living up to Cap’s legacy weighs heavily on his shoulders and his ego and anger are only exacerbated by the disrespect and lack of recognition he receives from Sam, Bucky, and others. Walker has a tumultuous relationship with Sam and Bucky, who both see him as unworthy of the shield, and their attempts to join forces almost always become a war of words and very nearly lead to them coming to blows. The super soldier serum only escalates things further, finally granting Walker the power he so desperately craved but also driving him to sully his image by literally staining the shield with blood. However, Walker remains a complex and layered character; a tool of the system, he was used and abused just like countless other soldiers and left hanging after the government that made him washed their hands of him. After being stripped of the shield, Walker fashions his own, far less durable one and heads into the finale looking to kill Karli to avenge Lemar, but ultimately chooses to abandon his crusade in order to help save a truck load of hostages. Despite Sam and Bucky’s very valid reservations about Walker, he comes through in the end, but the series ends on a slightly ominous note with him rebranded to U. S. Agent and signed up to whatever Valentina has in store for him.
Other highlights of the show obviously include Zemo, thanks to his moral ambiguity and his twisted philosophies that actually make a great deal of sense; his inclusion was a masterful addition and really added to the dynamic between Sam and Bucky, as well as allowing the character to shift gears towards a more comic-accurate depiction, and it was fun seeing him rile the two leads up. Equally, Karli proved to be a surprisingly sympathetic and relatable antagonist; just as Zemo predicted, she grows increasingly bolder and more violent in her methods, eventually becoming willing to die and execute hostages for her cause, which unsettles even her followers. Yet, even when pushed right to the edge, she has a vulnerability to her; her adopted mother gave her shelter and love, and she’s just looking to provide for those in need and to stand up for the oppressed, but has turned her crusade against corporate or governmental propaganda and symbols like Captain America and her physical strength more than matches the strength of her beliefs thanks to the super soldier serum, making for an extremely dangerous and unpredictable enemy to unite these unlikely allies. Another emotional highlight was Bucky’s quest for redemption; haunted by this past and lost in a world that has passed him by, Bucky is desperately trying to find some purpose in life but finds himself constantly hampered by his violent actions. Not even a cute little date with a waitress (Miki Ishikawa) helps to alleviate his guilt and it’s only through fighting alongside Sam and that he’s able to start to come to terms with his sins. This comes to a head in the finale when he finally heeds Sam’s advice and finds the courage to confess his part in death of his friend Yori Nakajima’s (Ken Takemoto) son; it’s clear that he’s still got a long way to go to find the peace he wants but he ends the show in a far better place that he started it thanks to the partnership (and friendship) he builds with Sam.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is full to the brim with the biting, witty banter you’d expect from an MCU production and some exhilarating and exciting action sequence; Falcon dives and barrel-rolls through the air in freefall, Bucky throws bombs with his cybernetic arm, and action scenes are given a real punch (no pun intended) thanks to the Flag Smashers being augmented by the super soldier serum. Sam’s refusal to enhance himself in this way might be a questionable decision given he’s taking on the mantle of Captain America, but it goes a long way to keeping him humble, vulnerable, and relatable; he’s just a normal man striving to do better, without the shortcuts that Walker takes. Ayo and the Dora Milaje also contribute to some epic fight scenes, particularly in the way they humble Walker and even subdue Bucky by disabling and removing his Vibranium limb. Even more impactful, though, are the socially relevant themes in the show, such as racism and the power of labels and symbols; it’s no surprise that Isaiah’s story is framed as a dark parallel to Steve’s, and it’s deplorable to hear about what he went through while Steve was heralded a hero for similar deeds. It thus carries a significant impact when Isaiah ultimately gives Sam his begrudging approval and respect after being won over with Sam’s determination to be a symbol of his people and all those who suffered to make America the country it is today. Isaiah is moved when he sees that Sam has made good on his promise and arranged for him and his fellow soldiers to finally be recognised and honoured at the Smithsonian’s Captain America wing, and I applaud the show for tackling these unsettling issues head-on, even if Sam’s big speech might be a bit on the nose. Overall, this was a fantastic experience; it was literally like a fourth Captain America movie and really helped to flesh out Sam and Bucky and the changes brought to the MCU following Avengers: Endgame. I do wonder how explicitly subsequent movies and productions will relate to the events of this show, but it was a fun journey to go on and I’m excited to see how all the loose threads will be connected together going forward and for Sam’s big-screen debut as the new Captain America.
Rating: 5 out of 5.
Did you enjoy The Falcon and the Winter Soldier? What did you think to the banter between Sam and Bucky, and the dynamic added to the duo by Zemo? Were you happy to see Sam accept the mantle by the end or would you have preferred Bucky become the new Captain America? What did you think to Karli and her motivations, and did you enjoy the moral ambiguity of the show’s characters? Did you enjoy the introduction of U. S. Agent to the MCU and what do you think the future holds for him? Are there any Captain America stories and villains you would like to see make it to the MCU? How have you been celebrating the Star-Spangled Avenger’s debut this month? Whatever your thoughts on The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, or Captain America in general, sign up to let me know below or drop a comment on my social media.
Released: 6 May 2016 Director: Anthony and Joe Russo Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Budget: $250 million Stars: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Elizabeth Olsen, Daniel Brühl, and Chadwick Boseman
The Plot: After saving the world from a near-extinction event, Steve Rogers/Captain America (Evans) and Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Johansson) work alongside a new team of Avengers. However, Wanda Maximoff’s (Olsen) unpredictable powers damage their credibility and spell the end of the team unless they agree to fall under the jurisdiction of the world’s governments. This causes tensions between Steve and the other Avengers, particularly Tony Stark/Iron Man (Downey Jr.), that are only further exacerbated when Helmut Zemo (Brühl) activates James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes/The Winter Soldier’s (Stan) brainwashing and inspires a conflict within Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.
The Review: I honestly can’t say that I really had much of a reaction when I found out that the third Captain America movie wouldn’t be tackling the Serpent Society; I only really know the group from the Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes (2010 to 2012) cartoon, where I found them to be annoying and over-used. However, I was a bit concerned when it was revealed that Marvel Studios would be adapting the “Civil War” (Millar, et al, 2006 to 2007) storyline as not only was I not a fan of how out of character everyone (especially Iron Man) acted in that story but the MCU Avengers had just ended Avengers: Age of Ultron(Whedon, 2015) on a high note and, like the downfall of the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division (S.H.I.E.L.D.), it seemed a bit too soon to be tearing these characters apart when they were still so new as a group.
One thing I’ve always found odd about the “Civil War” storyline is the fact that Captain America, the living embodiment of America’s ideals, is the one fighting against the government and Stark, the arrogant industrialist who actively spits in the face of governmental boards, is the one pushing for registration and culpability. Yet, it sends a clear message when the bastion of truth and freedom finds something oppressive about the ruling body and Steve is a proud man who sees the world in old-fashioned shades of black and white and has learned enough about the modern world to become suspicious of those who wield too much political power and who just wants to do the right thing without compromise. The trailers and hype for the film excited me and I was keen to see a Marvel solo movie featuring so many additional costumed characters in supporting roles as I am a big fan of that in my superhero movies after years of them all living in isolated bubbles. Plus, even with the expanded cast, the film remains, at its core, a Captain America story and is completely focused on Cap’s divided loyalties between his Avengers team-mates and his old friend-turned-brainwashed assassin, Bucky. Cap begins the film as the field commander of the newly-formed team of Avengers we first saw at the end of Age of Ultron; as always, he is all business when on the job and determined to teach the younger members of the team, like Wanda Maximoff, how to best scope out potential targets and situations and build a rapport as a team.
The catalyst for the eventual conflict within the Avengers is Wanda; unlike the other members of the Avengers, she’s still very young, inexperienced, and an outsider. Add to that the fact that her “Hex Powers” are both unpredictable and volatile and she is a bit of a powder keg, despite her generally calm and composed demeanour. Deep down, she just wants to help people and do the best she can so, when she instinctively uses her powers to hurl Brock Rumlow/Crossbones (Frank Grillo) into the air to keep his suicide bomb from killing innocents, she is devastated when her throw goes awry and kills several Wakandan humanitarians. Although Steve tries to console her, rightfully pointing out that no-one, however (super)powerful can save everyone, she only really feels a connection with the Vision (Paul Bettany), another being born of an Infinity Stone to whom she has grown very close and who desires to not only explore his abilities and humanity but who also seeks to understand the nature of the Infinity Stone embedded in his forehead.
Cap’s team is also comprised of his friends, Sam Wilson/The Falcon (Mackie) and Black Widow. Now much more comfortable in his role as a superhero, the Falcon has built a camaraderie with the other Avengers and is a vital member of the team thanks to his drone, Redwing, and his specialised flight suit, both of which allow him to provide unprecedented air support. Natasha, meanwhile, continues to be an absolute bad-ass in the field, striking with speed, precision, and power, while also sharing the responsibility of teaching Wanda how to conduct herself out in the field. They, and many of their team mates, live and train at a specialist compound, paid for by Stark’s not-inconsiderable funds. Stark, meanwhile, has semi-retired from the superhero life and is only brought back into the fold after the incident in Lagos which, especially after the devastating events in Sokovia in Age of Ultron, call into question the unchallenged actions of the Avengers. Thus, in a continuation of his growing sense of impending cosmic danger and his desire to protect the planet by any means necessary (and due to his guilt at being responsible for collateral damage caused by the Avengers’ actions), Stark is immediately onboard with the “Sokovia Accords”. Although Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross’s (William Hurt), now promoted to Secretary of State, acknowledges that the world owes the Avengers an unpayable debt, he stresses that they must register to answer to a democratic committee before acting so that they can be properly held accountable for their actions. The Sokovia Accords rattle each member of the team in different ways based on their previous experiences and relationships; James “Rhodey” Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle) and the Vision, for example, look at the numbers and the orders and, influenced by their relationship with Stark, believe that signing the Accords is the only logical action whereas Sam is adamant that it will only be a matter of time before the government screw them over.
Steve, ever the soldier and pragmatist, argues against “[surrendering] their right to choose” and his conviction to take a stand against being controlled, even by the United States government, is galvanised after the death of his former flame, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), who firmly believed in standing up for her beliefs. However, when it appears as though Bucky has attacked the ratification of the Accords and killed the peace-affirming Wakandan king, T’Chaka (John Kani), Steve makes it his mission to personally track down his former friend and bring him in before he can be arrested by the authorities. T’Chaka’s son, T’Challa, overwhelmed by grief and bloodlust, dons the ceremonial Vibranium suit of the Black Panther to hunt down and kill Bucky, causing tensions to bubble to boiling point. It is into this tumultuous storm of ideals, emotions, and conflicting beliefs that Zemo enters the fray. A survivor from Sokovia who relentlessly goes on a hunt torturing and murdering Hydra operatives to acquire “Mission report. December 16. 1991”, a document that proves the final spark to ignite the titular civil war within the Avengers. Zemo has acquired the Soviet’s book of codewords and is able, through his charm and false documents, to gain access to Bucky after he is arrested and activate him in order to acquire the information he seeks. Bucky, who has been living off the grid and on the run since the end of The Winter Soldier, continues to suffer from decades of cryogenic stasis, manipulation, brainwashing, and memory wiping, which have made him a confused and purely instinctual creature. Although Steve still remembers their time together as friends and the entirety of Bucky’s past, Bucky is haunted by fragmented memories of his time as an assassin and naturally paranoid, lashing out at friend and foe alike when they try to reach him.
While Wanda shoulders a lot of the guilt for what happened in Lagos, Steve feels he is also to blame as he was distracted by Rumlow’s mention of Bucky. Still, he is steadfast that what he, and the other Avengers, do cannot be regulated by a governing body, especially after how deeply entrenched Hydra was into S.H.I.E.L.D. This causes a clash of ideals and beliefs between and Stark; showing his partial growth as a character, Stark is now more than willing to compromise and work within the system to keep them in check and also to ensure that the team stays together but Steve is adamant that they shouldn’t have to answer to anyone lest they be stopped from intervening where they are most needed. While the Sokovia Accords themselves probably would have divided the Avengers enough to cause some kind of conflict, they potentially wouldn’t have come to blows if it wasn’t for Zemo’s manipulations and Bucky’s apparent culpability in T’Chaka’s death. When he comes to his senses, Bucky reveals that he was just one of many Winter Soldiers created by the soviets and that Zemo was responsible for the bombing at the ratification. Stark, however, remains oblivious to the deception that has taken place and takes it upon himself to lead his allies in apprehending Bucky, even if it means recruiting the young and relatively untested Spider-Man to help throw Cap off his game and fighting against his allies for the greater good. Steve, realising that he is now, once again, a fugitive, puts together a team of his own to defend Bucky and fight their way to uncovering and exposing Zemo’s plot. To this end, he recruits Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and, on Sam’s suggestion, Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) to help him out, and such is the strength of Captain America’s conviction and fortitude that he is able to convince ex-cons like Scott, retired heroes like Clint (both of whom have familial responsibilities), and Agent Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp) to put themselves and their careers at risk to help his cause.
The Nitty-Gritty: Being as it’s basically an Avengers movie in disguise, Captain America: Civil War is a natural escalation of The Winter Soldier in every way. As a result, it’s bigger and far more intricate and bombastic than the previous Captain America movies but, arguably, maybe not the definitive ending to a trilogy of standalone movies in the same way as, say, Iron Man 3(Black, 2013) tried to be. However, there is a very good reason for this and that is that, at this point, MCU movies were much more about focusing on a singular hero but also expanding their shared world exponentially in the lead-up to their biggest movies ever. Despite its heavy subject matter and action-packed events, the film also has time for absolute tone-perfect comedy; Bucky and Sam’s reaction to Steve’s admittedly awkward kiss with Sharon, Scott’s gushing over meeting Captain America and the other Avengers, and Spider-Man’s incessant quips and references during the big airport fight all brilliantly break the tension and add some pitch-perfect levity to the film.
Of course, one of the main selling points of the film is the climatic fight between Team Cap and Team Iron Man and the introduction of Spider-Man to the MCU. As much as I loved Andrew Garfield in the role and still think it would’ve been a lot simpler and easier to simply fold him and the Amazing Spider-Man films (Webb, 2012 to 2014) into the MCU, casting a younger actor as an inexperienced version of the character was a great way to introduce Spider-Man with a clean slate and Tom Holland played the role to perfection. Although enthusiastic about getting a shot to team up with heavy-weights like Iron Man and the Vision and eager to impress both Stark and the Avengers, Spider-Man is in way over his head; still he holds his own and delivers both quips for days and some of the best web-slinging in just one big fight scene even after (at the time) nearly fifteen years of Spider-Man movies. Though young and operating in a homemade suit that allows him to use his powers responsibly, Peter is still portrayed as something of a child prodigy as he manufactures his own webbing and web shooters and, despite not mentioning his beloved Uncle Ben by name, has the same strict moral code as any other iteration of the character, making for perhaps the most well-rounded portrayal even after many decades of Spider-Man adaptations.
The clash between Team Cap and Team Iron Man isn’t just about Spider-Man, though, or even Steve and Stark; instead, it’s a reluctant fight between close friends and allies, many of whom use known weaknesses against their team mates in order to gain a bit more ground. While you might think that a guy like Hawkeye is no match for the Vision, his various trick arrows do a decent job of disrupting the synthezoid and burying Iron Man beneath a pile of cars. Similarly, Cap is technically physically outmatched and reluctant to fight against a teenager like Spider-Man but is able to best him using his shield and distracting him with falling debris. Another star of the conflict is Ant-Man who, in addition to enlarging vehicles with Pym Particles, makes an entertaining and amusing debut as Giant-Man, and we even get to see Hawkeye and Black Widow go at it, albeit with an acknowledged reluctance. Even Stark doesn’t actually want to fight; he brings his team to the airport to convince Cap to stand down out of respect for their friendship and for the sake of the team, and specifically orders them to subdue their former allies rather than grievously harm them. However, despite this, and as entertaining as this clash between the two groups of Avengers is, things end up becoming much too real when an errant shot from the Vision ends up crippling Rhodey from the waist down, which only adds further fuel to Stark’s fire.
Both Steve and Stark make compelling arguments for and against signing the Sokovia Accords but, as is to be expected of the storyline and these larger than life characters, take their argument to the extreme. In the source material, this led to Stark hunting down and imprisoning his fellow heroes in the ultimate act of uncompromising betrayal, becoming something of a tyrant in the process. Here, he doesn’t go quite that far until he has absolutely no other choice; despite his grating personality, it’s clear that Stark sees Steve and the others as trusted friends and allies and like Natasha, is more than willing to compromise to keep the team together, in check, and to advocate for amendments to the Accords later down the line. However, both Steve and Stark are pushed too far when the others continuously refuses to see things from their perspective and to compromise their integrity or conscience. After the climatic airport fight, however, and the truth of Zemo’s manipulations is revealed, Stark swallows his pride and heads to Siberia to investigate the other Winter Soldiers. Unfortunately, his conflict with Steve and Bucky is reignited when it is revealed that Bucky was brainwashed into killing Howard and Maria Stark (John Slattery and Hope Davis, respectively) to acquire super soldier serum for the Soviets. Stark’s introduction to the film, and a major sub-plot of his previous appearances, dealt with his unresolved issues with his father and, upon learning that both of his parents were taken from him, he flies into a mindless rage and attacks the two in a fantastically realised and emotional fight scene. Though torn between his friendship with Stark and his loyalty to Bucky, Steve ultimately has no choice but to choose to defend his old friend in order to get him the help he needs and, in the process, Zemo’s master plan succeeds as the Avengers are torn apart and Cap gives up his shield to go on the run with Bucky.
This finale is the perfect culmination of a film that is packed full of fantastic action sequences and fight scenes; expanding upon the brutal, gritty action of The Winter Soldier, Civil War continues to deliver some hard-hitting action from the likes of Cap and Black Widow, especially. Their fight against Rumlow is a great way to open the film and, following an equally engaging conflict of ideologies and beliefs, the action only escalates as Steve desperately tries to reach Bucky and bring him in independently only to end up fighting against the German police in a cramped stairwell and racing across the rooftops and streets of Berlin. Black Panther joins the battle for this latter sequence in a brilliant introduction to the character that only scratches the surface of his physical capabilities. Unlike other MCU villains who, by this point, showed glimmers of complex personalities and had somewhat multi-faceted personalities but were often just dark mirrors of the titular heroes, Zemo is quite the layered villain. Unlike his comic book counterpart (who, visually, he wouldn’t come to resemble for some time), Zemo isn’t some crazed fascist dictator or maniacal supervillain. Instead, he’s a former Sokovian soldier haunted by the loss of his family in Sokovia due to the Avengers’ actions and who wants to bring them down from the inside out in order to ensure that they never again threaten the safety of innocents. Simultaneously, Zemo has no love for Hydra either and wishes to see both costumed heroes and villains made a thing of the past; he also views his crusade to be a suicide mission as, once he sees Iron Man driven to the point of murderous rage, he considers his mission complete and prepares to kill himself. He is stopped, however, by Black Panther who, having witnessed the Avengers tear themselves apart over grief and rage, chooses to spare his father’s killer and see him brought to true justice. The damage, however, is done; even though the film ends with Cap going to rescue his friends from imprisonment on the Raft and offering an olive branch to Stark, the Avengers are effectively disbanded and wouldn’t come together again until the greatest threat imaginable came knocking.
The Summary: As brilliant as the last two Captain America films were, Captain America: Civil War was a massive escalation for the character. In many ways, you could make the argument that Marvel Studios could have had the third Cap film focus solely on his hunt for Bucky and made a third Avengers movie for the “Civil War” storyline, but it does a surprisingly good job of balancing its different characters and themes. None of the extra Avengers or the wider conflict between them overshadow Cap’s story or the continuation of his character arc and story with Bucky and, if anything, all of the different conflicts and personalities help to bolster this narrative. At its core, Civil War is a film about secrets, truths, and complex ideologies; both Steve and Stark have valid points for and against superhero registration and Bucky is a tortured soul responsible for an untold number of tragedies and atrocities and yet he wasn’t in full control of himself and was forced into perpetrating those acts and that, as much as their friendship, motivates Steve to protect him to see that he gets help rather than be unjustly imprisoned or killed. Black Panther vows to kill Bucky to avenge his father but chooses to spare Zemo when he learns the truth, showing a fundamental moral compass that helps to define him in his brief screen time. Stark is also driven to avenge his parents when he learns that the Winter Soldier killed them and the result is the complete fracturing of any trust between him and Steve, disassembling the Avengers and, similar to the destruction of S.H.I.E.L.D. in The Winter Soldier, fundamentally changing the nature of the MCU to ensure the stakes are as dire as possible for when Thanos (Josh Brolin) comes calling. As under-rated a gem asCaptain America: The First Avenger(Johnston, 2011) is and as impressively thrilling as The Winter Soldier is, Civil War edges both out in terms of sheer spectacle and showed that even a solo MCU film could have Avengers-level implications for Marvel’s shared universe.
Rating: 5 out of 5.
Were you a fan of Captain America: Civil War? What did you think to the conflict between Steve and Stark and were you on Team Cap or Team Iron Man? Did you enjoy seeing the other Avengers in the film or do you feel like it got a bit too crowded for a Captain America movie? What did you think about Zemo, his character and motivations, and Bucky’s overarching story? Are you a fan of the “Civil War” comic book? Did you enjoy the debut of Black Panther and Spider-Man? What did you think to the decision to tear the Avengers apart at that stage in the larger MCU story? Are there any Captain America stories and villains you would have liked to seen make it to the big screen? How have you been celebrating the Star-Spangled Avenger this month? Whatever you think about Civil War, or Captain America in general, drop a comment down below.
In September 1961, DC Comics published “Flash of Two Worlds” (Fox, et al), a landmark story that brought together two generations of the Flash: the Golden Age Jay Garrick and the Silver Age Barry Allen thanks to the concept of the multiverse, an infinite number of parallel universes that allowed any and all stories and characters to co-exist and interact. Marvel Comics would also adopt this concept and, to celebrate the release of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness(Raimi, 2022) this month, I’ve been both celebrating the Master of the Mystic Arts and exploring the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s (MCU) equivalent of the multiverse every Sunday of May.
Air Date: 11 August 2021 to 6 October 2021 Network: Disney+ Stars: Hayley Atwell, Chadwick Boseman, Samuel L. Jackson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Ruffalo, Michael B. Jordan, Chris Hemsworth, Ross Marquand, and Jeffrey Wright
The Background: As a big comic book fan, it’s been absolutely amazing seeing the MCU become a multimedia juggernaut and some of Marvel Comics’ most beloved characters and concepts come to life on screen. Although Marvel Studios dabbled in television ventures with the likes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013 to 2020) and their Netflix shows, they really doubled down on TV productions for the MCU’s fourth phase to produce content for their parent company’s streaming service, Disney+. With MCU head honcho Kevin Feige behind them, the Disney+ shows aimed to maintain and expand the ongoing continuity of the MCU, but I don’t think anyone could have predicted that Marvel Studios would delve so deeply into the multiverse that we’d seen an adaptation of What If…?What If…? began life as a semi-consistent series of hypothetical, often light-hearted (or downright dark), stories that presented Marvel heroes and storylines with subtle (or major) changes. The Disney+ show followed this format and recontextualised the premise as an animated anthology series that would explore what the MCU would be like if characters or events had unfolded differently. The show’s animation was headed by Stephan Franck and sported a cel-shaded design that emphasised hyper-realism; as the MCU was officially exploring the concept of the multiverse, episodes could be part of the franchise’s overall canon and many recognisable faces, names, and voices returned to put a new spin on their iconic roles; however, although voice recording was able to continue remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic, this production sadly marked the final performance of the late Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa/Black Panther. What If…? was received extremely well and the series was praised as a love-letter to the fans; despite some reservations about the format and presentation, reviews were primarily positive and spin-offs were quickly announced as either being in production or on the cards. Crucially, the multiversal scope of the series would be revisited in the live-action MCU films and characters and concepts from the show even seem set to cross over into the main MCU canon going forward.
The Plot: From beyond the multiverse, the cosmic being known as Uatu the Watcher (Wright) observes as the events of the MCU unfold differently, resulting in Peggy Carter (Atwell) becoming Captain Carter, Doctor Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) becoming a force for evil, a zombie infection running rampant, and T’Challa (Boseman) becoming Star-Lord. However, when a version of Ultron (Marquand) acquires the Infinity Stones and threatens the entire multiverse, the Watcher must break his oath of non-interference to assemble a heroic force capable of fending off this threat.
The Review: Because of the nature of the series, I think it’d be much better to look at each individual episode, what they do and how they work by themselves, and then talk about some overall themes and give my opinion on the entire concept down in the summary. The first season of What If…? is a nine-episode series of animated adventures that examine familiar characters and events in the MCU but change things about in subtle, or major, ways to create entirely new stories as part of the MCU multiverse. These alternate realities are observed by the enigmatic Watcher, a cosmic being bound only to observe and never directly interfere, and who acts as the narrator of the show. The Watcher’s opening narration explains the basics of the multiverse; as we were told in Avengers: Endgame(Russo and Russo, 2019), time and reality in the MCU is not a single, linear, fixed path. Instead, multiple timelines and alternate universes exist, with the deviations occurring from different decisions being made at key moments in time, however big or small. In this regard, time is less like a line and more like a river, with an infinite number of paths trailing off all over the place, and the Watcher acts as our impassive guide to this vast multiverse. The Watcher also serves as our narrator, quickly catching us up on the events preceding the episode and explaining when, where, and how each divergent timeline was created; however, he has taken a solemn vow to never interfere in the events he witnesses, no matter how gruesome or extreme they are.
The series kicks off with “What If…Captain Carter Were the First Avenger?” (Andrews, 2021), essentially a retelling of Captain America: The First Avenger (Johnston, 2011). Unlike in the original timeline, Strategic Scientific Reserve (SSR) Agent Peggy Carter chooses to stay and watch on the ground as skinny, ill-bodied Private Steve Rogers (Josh Keaton) prepares to become a super soldier. However, when the Nazi sleeper agent attacks the experiment this time around, Peggy manages to keep him from escaping with a sample of the serum but Steve is wounded, so Peggy ignores the orders of her commanding officer, John Flynn (Bradley Whitford), and voluntarily becomes enhanced to the peak of human physical conditioning before the experiment is lost forever. Promoted to head of the SSR, Flynn is outraged at the result; disgusted that the super soldier serum was wasted on a woman, he refuses to allow Peggy to actively participate in the war, much less on the front line, out of sheer prejudice, much to her chagrin and fury. As before, Hydra figurehead Johann Schmidt/The Red Skull (Marquand) seeks to usurp Adolf Hitler and claim victory for himself with the mysterious and all-powerful Tesseract. Flynn, however, is unimpressed by the threat and unwilling to risk even one man, let alone an entire platoon, on recovering the cube; luckily, inventor Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) believes so strongly in the Tesseract’s threat that he furnishes Peggy with a striking Union Jack-style costume and a familiar Vibranium shield so that she can single-handedly recover the Tesseract from Schmidt’s Hydra colleague, Doctor Arnim Zola (Toby Jones), decimating an entire convoy of Hydra’s soldiers with efficiency and glee and earning herself an official promotion to “Captain Carter”. Although he lost his best shot at fighting alongside his friend, Sergeant James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan), Steve is fully supportive of Peggy’s newfound strength and abilities and only too glad to pilot Stark’s Tesseract-powered “Hydra Stomper” armour. However, following an action-packed montage, Steve is apparently lost during a familiar assault on an armoured train; though grief-stricken, Peggy forces information out of Zola and leads an all-out assault against the Red Skull’s fortress, where they find Steve alive but are too late to stop the Red Skull from opening a dimensional rift with the Tesseract. The tentacles of a gigantic, interdimensional, Lovecraftian creature breach the portal, killing Schmidt and threatening all life on Earth; Peggy and Steve fend off the beast as Stark tries to shut down the portal, but Captain Carter is forced to sacrifice herself to the unknown by physically forcing the creature through the rift. The story then skips ahead to find the Tesseract being reactivated, spitting Peggy and the remains of the beast’s tentacles out into a Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division (S.H.I.E.L.D.) facility where she meets Director Nick Fury (Jackson) and Agent Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and learns the bittersweet news that the Allied Forces won the war but she is now seventy years in the future, and thus forever cut off from her friends and loved ones.
While the first episode arguably played things a little safe, we really see the potential of a What If…? series with the second episode, “What If…T’Challa Became a Star-Lord?” (Andrews, 2021), which wildly deviates from the story of Guardians of the Galaxy(Gunn, 2014). Young T’Challa (Maddix Robinson) longed to explore beyond Wakanda but was shielded from the chaotic outside world by his beloved and overprotective father, T’Chaka (John Kani), only to be abducted due to a mistake by Yondu Udonta’s (Michael Rooker) subordinates. Surprisingly, he was excited at embarking on adventures throughout the cosmos with the Ravagers and, while T’Challa doesn’t possess the Black Panther’s near-superhuman abilities, he sports all of Peter Quill’s (Brian T. Delaney) gadgets in addition to his Wakandan fighting prowess. His greatest assets, however, are his charisma, diplomacy, and reputation as a Robin Hood-type figure. Indeed, T’Challa is far more competent, notorious, and respected than his mainstream MCU counterpart; not only does Korath the Pursuer (Djimon Hounsou) know who he is, he views sparring with Star-Lord as the greatest honour and willingly joins his crew. T’Challa’s positive influence means the Ravagers put their skills towards helping others rather than for personal reward, thus sparing Drax the Destroyer’s (Fred Tatasciore) family and even convincing Thanos (Josh Brolin) that his destructive aspirations weren’t the answer to the galaxy’s problems! Touched by T’Challa’s mission to save others after the presumed destruction of Wakanda, Nebula (Karen Gillan), now a far less violent and far more beautiful woman, proposes a heist to steal the Embers of Genesis, a cosmic dust capable of ending galactic hunger, from Taneleer Tivan/The Collector (Benicio del Toro). While sneaking around the Collector’s museum, T’Challa finds a Wakandan spacecraft and is angered to find that Yondu lied to him about Wakanda in order to help him realise his true calling as an adventurer. The two reconcile in the best way possible: by teaming up to fight with this much more formidable version of the Collector, who is enhanced by weapons, technology, and items retrieved from some of the MCU’s most powerful and prominent individuals and races. Thanks to their teamwork, the Collector is disarmed and left at the mercy of his captives, and T’Challa forgives Yondu’s deception before reuniting with T’Chaka and his people in Wakanda, bringing his two families together in celebration over their mutual friend. Across the world, however, a greater threat awaits when Ego (Kurt Russell) comes looking for his son, here a mere Dairy Queen employee.
“What If…the World Lost Its Mightiest Heroes?” (Andrews, 2021) takes us back to the middle of Iron Man 2 (Favreau, 2010) and Nick Fury and Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow’s (Lake Bell) latest effort to recruit Tony Stark/Iron Man (Mick Wingert) to the Avengers Initiative. Fury is horrified when his attempt to stave off Stark’s palladium poisoning apparently has the unexpected side effect of killing the would-be Avenger; this tragedy is quickly followed by Thor Odinson (Hemsworth) being accidentally killed by Hawkeye’s errant arrow and the archer later being found dead while locked in an impenetrable S.H.I.E.L.D. cell. Fury suspects that his recruits are being targeted by an unknown party, and charges Natasha to escape Brock Rumlow’s (Frank Grillo) custody and make contact with Doctor Betty Ross (Stephanie Panisello). Though initially distrustful of Natasha due to her association with those who’ve hounded her friend, colleague, and former lover, Doctor Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Ruffalo), Betty is convinced to take a closer look at the injector used on Stark and theorises that a microscopic projectile fired from the needle killed the superhero. Hungry for blood after learning of Hawkeye’s death, Natasha agrees with Fury’s theory that their killer is targeting Avengers recruits; unfortunately, General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (Mike McGill) arrives looking to arrest Banner and sparks his transformation into the rampaging Hulk as in his solo film. However, the seemingly immortal Green Goliath also falls victim to the mysterious killer when he violently explodes from the inside out, and things escalate even further when Loki Laufeyson (Tom Hiddleston) arrives looking to avenge Thor’s death. Fury manages to buy himself one day to solve Thor’s murder on the promise of delivering the culprit to the God of Mischief and, when Natasha finds that a dead agent’s credentials were used to access S.H.I.E.L.D.’s database, she’s brutally beaten to death by an unseen assailant, and only able to tell Fury that all the deaths are relating to “hope”. This, however, is enough to piece together the perpetrator’s true identity: Doctor Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), who targeted Fury’s recruits in the guise of the size-altering Yellowjacket after his daughter, Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), died while working for S.H.I.E.L.D. A broken, bitter, twisted old man, Pym blames Fury and has become a deranged killer due to his grief and anger. However, Pym and his tech are outmatched when Fury is revealed to be Loki in disguise but, after Pym is defeated and taken into Asgardian custody, Loki double-crosses Fury and declares himself ruler of humanity. To combat this threat, Fury gets back to work assembling his super team, starting with calling Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel (Alexandra Daniels) back to Earth and uncovering Captain America’s frozen body.
The show shifts over to the world of magic and mysticism for “What If…Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands?” (Andrews, 2021), which presents a world where Dr. Strange and Doctor Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) are still a couple in a loving relationship. Fully supportive and enamoured by Dr. Strange, Christine encourages his ego and his skills as a surgeon, but sadly her influence doesn’t extend to his driving skills. However, in this world, Dr. Strange is relatively unharmed from the car crash that took his MCU counterpart’s hands but is left grief-stricken when Christine dies as a result of his negligence. In a bid to fill the void in his life, and his heart, Strange travels the world and, once again, ends up studying the mystic arts at Kamar-Taj under the tutelage of the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). Like his mainstream counterpart, Strange becomes the Master of the Mystic Arts after the Ancient One’s death and successfully bargains with the Dread Dormammu (Cumberbatch), but remains preoccupied with the mistakes of his past and the promises offered by the Eye of Agamotto’s time-bending abilities. Haunted by memories of happier times with Christine, Strange ignores the warnings of the Ancient One and his manservant, Wong (Benedict Wong), and uses the Eye to place his current consciousness into the body of his past self. Unfortunately, the tragedy still occurs no matter how safely he drives, which route he takes, or even his refusal to go to the award speech as Christine dies again and again whether he’s there or what he does. Dr. Strange’s anguish at being unable to save Christine isn’t helped by the Ancient One’s explanation that her death cannot be averted as it would create a potentially universe-destroying time paradox (if Strange prevents her death, he won’t become a sorcerer and be able to go back and save her).
Refusing to believe that Christine is fated to die, and angered at the Ancient One’s refusal to help him break this “absolute point” in time, Dr. Strange uses the Eye to flee from the confrontation and consult the ancient tomes of the Lost Library of Cagliostro. There, he meets O’Bengh (Ike Amadi) and learns that one can potentially gain the power he requires by absorbing magical beings; thus, Dr. Strange conjures a variety of demonic, Lovecraftian, and magical creatures (including gnomes, familiars, dragons, and even the octopus-like creature Captain Carter fought). When they won’t willingly share their power, he resolves to forcibly take it, and quickly becomes obsessed with gaining more and more magical power from these entities over the course of centauries to become “Strange Supreme”. As he does so, he grows increasingly monstrous and takes on more of their attributes, but is shocked to learn from O’Bengh that he’ll never be powerful enough to achieve his dreams due to the Ancient One using magic from the Dark Dimension to split him in two and create two concurrent timelines. His other half, who took Wong’s advice and moved on from Christine’s death, is charged by an echo of the Ancient One to oppose his dark doppelgänger before his ambition erases all of reality. When Strange Supreme’s attempts to coerce his other half into joining his cause are rejected, a magical battle ensues that spans multiple dimensions. Despite Wong’s protective spells and Strange’s efforts to talk down his dark half, Strange Supreme’s centauries of basking in the powers of countless magical beings makes him the superior and he’s ultimately able to absorb his missing half. Finally whole again, Strange Supreme succeeds in undoing Christine’s death but is transformed into a demonic being by the effort this requires; understandably, she is horrified by his nightmarish appearance, and he’s left helpless to stop the time paradox from devouring all of his reality. Desperate to preserve the world, he begs the Watcher for help but he refuses to get involved, despite wishing to punish Strange Supreme’s reckless arrogance, and the once Sorcerer Supreme is left alone, despondent, and remorseful in the tiniest pocket of reality with nothing but his grief and regret for company.
One popular, recurring storyline in Marvel Comics in recent years has been the Marvel Zombies spin-off (Various, 2005 to present) that tells of a devastating zombie plague overwhelming the Marvel universe (and beyond). A version of this reality is explored in “What If…Zombies?!” (Andrews, 2021), which finds the Hulk crash-landing into the Sanctum Sanctorum as in Avengers: Infinity War (Russo and Russo, 2018) only to find it, and the streets of New York City, deserted. When Iron Man, Dr. Strange, and Wong arrive to take care of Ebony Maw (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) and Cull Obsidian (Terry Notary), Banner’s elation soon turns to horror when the three are revealed to be vicious, flesh-eating zombies who tear Thanos’s children to shreds, instantly infecting them in the process, and Banner is only saved from the same fate thanks to the timely intervention of Dr. Strange’s Cloak of Levitation, a swarm of ants commanded by Hope van Dyne/The Wasp, and Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Hudson Thames). Spider-Man’s amusing orientation video shows that the MCU’s zombies largely confirm to the “rules” commonly associated with their kind; they’re decomposing corpses with a voracious hunger who turn others with a single bite and can only be killed by removing the head or destroying the brain. However, they’re not as mindless or shambling as traditional zombies; they’re intelligent enough to co-ordinate their attacks and utilise tech like the Iron Man armour and magic like the Sling Rings. In a change of pace, the Watcher reveals a definite origin for the zombie outbreak by relating how Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) became infected with the virus while stuck in the Quantum Realm; when she bit Hank Pym, he brought the virus back with him and the entire world was quickly overrun once the Avengers were turned.
Banner joins up with the few uninfected survivors and learns from Okoye (Danai Gurira) of a possible cure at Camp Lehigh, New Jersey; the group travel to the Grand Central Station, where they’re attacked by zombified versions of Sam Wilson/The Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Hawkeye, and Captain America. Although they lose Harold “Happy” Hogan (Jon Favreau), the group is able to get the train working and fend off the zombies thanks to Okoye and the Wasp. However, the train is attacked by Zombie Cap, who infects Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp) and forces Bucky to end his undead existence, retrieving his shield in the process, but Hope is also infected from a small cut she receives after disposing of Sharon. Although Peter tries to remain optimistic that she’ll be cured before she can turn, Hope sacrifices herself to atone for her part in causing the outbreak by carrying the group through a horde of zombies and dropping them off at Camp Lehigh. There, they find the zombies refuse to breach the camp thanks to the presence of the Mind Stone in the Vision’s (Paul Bettany) head; he and the severed head of Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) reveal that the Mind Stone’s properties can reverse the zombie virus, and the group is excited to spread the cure throughout the world from Wakanda. However, Banner learns that they’re not the first to respond to the Vision’s beacon, and Bucky is horrified to find that the Vision has been feeding parts of other survivors (including T’Challa) to a zombified version of Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) since she’s proven resistant to the Mind Stone and he’s been unable to kill her due to his love for her. When Wanda breaks free and proves uncontrollable due to her powers and hunger, the Vision rips the Mind Stone out of his head to atone for his actions and the group’s escape is covered by Bucky and the Hulk, who finally emerges from Banner’s psyche and is able to resist the zombie’s bite and hold back Wanda so the others can take off. The one-legged T’Challa, beheaded Lang, and shellshocked Peter console themselves with the knowledge that they’ll be able to save the world once they reach Wakanda, completely unaware that the nation has already succumbed to the infection and is under the rule of a zombified Thanos and his partially-completed Infinity Gauntlet!
We then go back to where the MCU all started in “What If…Killmonger Rescued Tony Stark?” (Andrews, 2021), which recreates the opening moments of Iron Man(Favreau, 2008) with one key difference: right as Tony Stark is about to be injured by one of his own missiles, he’s saved by N’Jadaka/Erik Stevens/Killmonger (Jordan), who fends off the Ten Rings soldiers looking to kidnap Stark and thus means that the genius, billionaire philanthropist never learns the humility or courage that led to him becoming Iron Man. Instead, he remains a conceited, arrogant, self-serving glory hound who believes that he needs to build bigger, better weapons to protect America’s interests. To that end, he drafts in Killmonger, who wastes no time in publicly outing Obadiah Stane (Kiff VandenHeuvel) as the man who bankrolled the Ten Rings’ attack on Stark, and Stark is so grateful to his saviour that he quickly promotes Killmonger to his new Chief Operations Officer, alienating Virginia “Pepper” Potts (Beth Hoyt) in the process. Killmonger swiftly becomes Stark’s closest friend and confidante and, together, they create robot drones, the “Liberators”, based on Killmonger’s fandom for anime. Killmonger pushes Stark to use Vibranium as a power source for the Liberators, and Stark sends in Colonel James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Don Cheadle) to steal some from Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis). However, the Black Panther attacks the meeting to recover stolen Vibranium, only for Killmonger to reveal his true intentions and kill T’Challa with one of Stark’s weapons. He chastises Rhodey for wearing the uniform of his oppressors and kills him with the Black Panther’s claw to make it seem like they killed each other; thanks to Just A Rather Very Intelligent System (J.A.R.V.I.S.; Bettany), however, Killmonger’s actions are revealed to Stark. Stark tries to avenge his friend’s murder using a Liberator, but Killmonger easily bests the drone and kills Stark with a Dora Milaje spear, which escalates the tensions between the United States and Wakanda into all-out war. General Ross assumes control of Stark’s assets and the Liberators are pushed into mass production; Killmonger then kills Klaue in order to deceive the Wakandans, then seizes control of the Liberators to lead his people in “defeating” the invading army. His victory and battle prowess wins over his uncle, T’Chaka, and earns him the mantle of the Black Panther; however, T’Challa’s astral warnings of Killmonger’s impending defeat are left a distinct possibility not only due to Ross’s obsession with continuing the war but also when Pepper and Shuri (Ozioma Akagha) agree to work together to expose Killmonger’s deception.
“What If…Thor Were an Only Child?” (Andrews, 2021) lightens things up a bit by retelling the events of Thor(Branagh, 2011); in this version of the story, in the absence of a brother to grow up alongside, Thor is little more than a lackadaisical, party-loving frat-boy who, despite still being worthy of Mjölnir, is far more interested in wasting time revelling with his friends than following his mother, Frigga’s (Josette Eales), instructions to behave or becoming a bore like his father, Odin Allfather (Anthony Hopkins). To avoid the all-seeing gaze of Heimdall (Idris Elba), Thor and his drinking buddies head the Midgard, the most backwater, insignificant world in all the Nine Realms, and invite guests from all over to join them in a massive, nonstop party. Tracking the cosmic disturbance and fearful of an alien invasion, Doctor Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) investigates and is both disturbed to find that Thor’s parties are so out of control that they can kill planets and won over by the Thunder God’s otherworldly charm. Jane and her intern, Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings), join the party, quickly being swept up in all the intergalactic chaos and merriment on display; Darcy even marries Howard the Duck (Seth Green), and Jane and Thor get matching tattoos, but soon wake up to massive hangovers and the arrival of S.H.I.E.L.D. Acting Director Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) is deeply concerned that Thor is leaving a trail of destruction as he takes his party on the road, and calls in Captain Marvel to assist with the perceived threat. Thor’s reunion with fellow party animal Prince Loki of Jotunheim is interrupted by Captain Marvel’s arrival; Thor brushes off her demands that he leaves, and a fight ensues that sees the two battle all across the globe. Despite Thor’s petulant, childish nature, the two are seemingly equally matched in terms of power and durability, but Carol’s forced to hold back her full power to avoid damaging the world or endangering lives. Since Jane disagrees with attacking or eliminating Thor since she’s so enamoured by him, she uses her tech to contact Heimdall and literally tells on Thor to Frigga. As Hill prepares an all-out nuclear strike against Thor, he’s terrified by Frigga’s impending arrival and begs his guests to help him clean up all evidence of their shenanigans. Despite Thor’s best, most frantic efforts to put right all the anarchy he and his friends had caused, she sees through his deception; however, rather than being mad at Jane for selling him out, he thanks her for teaching him a lesson in humility and asks her out…only for he, and the Watcher, to be stunned by the sudden appearance of an alternate version of Ultron!
This cliff-hanger is explained in the following episode, “What If…Ultron Won?” (Andrews, 2021), which presents a post-apocalyptic world where Black Widow and Hawkeye are the only Avengers left to oppose the all-powerful Ultron. In this world, Hawkeye not only sports his ridiculous mohawk and a mechanical right arm, but Ultron successfully fulfilled its goal to cause an extinction-level event by claiming the Vision’s body as its own, killing Iron Man, Cap, and Thor, and launching a worldwide nuclear attack that decimated humanity. When Thanos arrived looking to retrieve the Mind Stone, Ultron split him in two with one shot and claimed the Infinity Stones for itself, becoming a God-like being capable of laying waste to entire worlds and Realms with its endless supply of drones. Asgard, Ego, Xandar, and countless others all fall before Ultron’s power and even Captain Marvel is unable to oppose it; having eradicated the vast majority of life across the universe and ascended to a higher pane of existence, Ultron not only sees but also hears the Watcher. Although the Watcher previously considered intervening in Dr. Strange’s story, he held true to his vow of non-interference since he deals in a cosmic balance beyond the lives of mere mortals, even ones as powerful as the Master of the Mystic Arts. However, Ultron’s threat is so terrifying even to this cosmic observer that the Watcher is sorely tempted to assist Natasha and Clint in their efforts to coerce Zola’s artificial intelligence into helping them. The Watcher is pleased when their perseverance pays off but, although Zola is able to possess one of Ultron’s drones, he cannot shut down Ultron’s hive mind as Ultron is outside of the known universe, meaning Clint is forced to sacrifice himself so that Natasha and Zola can escape. The Watcher is aghast when Ultron not only does the impossible and breaches his cosmic observatory but is also able to match even the Watcher’s cosmic power. Their battle sees them literally smashing the dimensional barriers into numerous alternate realities and sees Ultron devour a whole universe and force the Watcher to flee. While Ultron prepares to lay waste to the entire multiverse, the Watcher is forced to turn to Strange Supreme for help in opposing Ultron’s threat.
This story, and the entire show, comes to a head in the final episode, “What If…the Watcher Broke His Oath?” (Andrews, 2021), which sees the Watcher recruiting Captain Carter, T’Challa Star-Lord, Killmonger, Party Thor, and a previously unseen version of Gamora (Cynthia McWilliams) to join Strange Supreme as the Guardians of the Multiverse. He enlists each of them right as they’re in the middle of tying up loose ends from their respective episodes and emphasises that every one of them is needed to protect something even bigger than their individual lives or concerns. Captain Carter immediately recognises the gravity of the situation, while Strange Supreme sees this as his chance at true redemption, and, despite the odds, they all tentatively agree to work together to combat Ultron, steal his Soul Stone, and destroy it using Gamora’s “Infinity Crusher” device. While Strange Supreme struggles to contain the dark magics within his body, Gamora is troubled by Killmonger’s obsession with Ultron’s technology, and Thor accidentally attracts Ultron’s attention, but the group is thankfully shielded by Strange Supreme’s protection spell. Following Captain Carter’s lead, the Guardians are able to launch a co-ordinated attack that allows T’Challa to swipe the Soul Stone; when Ultron makes short work of Zombie Wanda and follows the Guardians to its home reality, it gets summarily pummelled by the Guardians’ repeated attacks and Strange Supreme’s ability to counteract both Ultron’s Time Stone and match its enlarged form with his monstrous magic. Although they’re stunned to find the Infinity Crusher ineffectual because it and the Infinity Stones are from different realities, Ultron’s threat is ended when Captain Carter helps Natasha avenge Clint and fire an arrow containing Zola’s consciousness into Ultron’s armour, erasing its sentience once and for all. In the aftermath, Killmonger claims Ultron’s armour and proposes using the Infinity Stones to “fix” their universes; when they refuse, he attempts to destroy them and they’re saved by a Zola-controlled Vision, who tries to take the Infinity Stones for himself. Before they can properly get into a potentially devastating battle over the gems, Strange Supreme freezes them in time and seals them within a pocket dimension, ending their threat once and for all. The Watcher trusts Strange Supreme with watching over the two, and returns everyone to their proper place and time; since Natasha’s world was left lifeless by Ultron, the Watcher sends her to help Nick Fury overthrow Loki, and then alters his vow of impassive observation to a pledge to protect the multiverse when needed.
The Summary: At first, I wasn’t too sold on What If…?’s animation style; the slick, computerised cel-shaded look has never been a favourite of mine, but I was quickly won over by it due to how closely each character and episode mirrors their live-action counterparts. Everything from the recreation of certain shots, to the musical cues, to the costumes and likenesses perfectly emulates the source material each episode is based on, meaning we get the brown-hued colour scheme of World War Two for Captain Carter, the barrage of bizarre cosmic colours for Star-Lord, and the industrial, high-tech grey of Stark and S.H.I.E.L.D. facilities. Although some notable names from the MCU didn’t return to lend their voices to their iconic characters, What If…? employs the services of some incredibly gifted soundalikes and even goes the extra mile in presenting a version of Bruce Banner that resembles both Edward Norton and Mark Ruffalo, which is fitting considering we encounter this character between his solo film and his first big MCU crossover. Animation also means that What If…? is theoretically able to do absolutely anything it desires, regardless of budget, and is limited only be the imagination of the animators; thus, while things are a little on the safe side with slightly different retelling of Captain America: The First Avenger, Thor, and other MCU films, it’s not long before we’re seeing massive Lovecraftian creatures, a whole host of Marvel heroes interacting in ways we’ve not really seen before, an additional taste of the cosmic madness of the universe (and multiverse), and a wide variety of both horrifying and oddball concepts to really test the waters of what the MCU is capable of going forward.
I really liked that, despite their reversed roles, Peggy and Steve still have a mutual attraction based on mutual respect and their respective struggles; Peggy faces an uphill battle due to being a woman in a male-orientated world (and war) that constantly weighs her down even after she’s enhanced by the super soldier serum, and of course Steve has been overlooked and undervalued his entire life due to his gaunt frame and sickly nature. While everyone else is either incredulous due to her being a woman or impressed by her fighting prowess because she is a woman, and she must prove her worth through her deeds to win them over, Steve admires the person that she is and her fighting spirit; he’s the only one that doesn’t judge her for her gender and who doesn’t need convincing that she’s the right person for the job and is only too grateful to be an active combatant alongside her in the Hydra Stomper. Peggy is also quite different in the role; like Steve, she attacks it with a sense of duty and honour, but she also takes far more joy in her newfound abilities. There’s a sense that she’s finally able to let loose, that she’s been given the physical gifts to realise her full potential, and she literally dives head-first into making the most of that opportunity. T’Challa’s characterisation as a galaxy-wide force for good is a fitting tribute to the late Chadwick Boseman; unlike Peter Quill, T’Challa is a well-respected and competent space mercenary, and I loved the running gag that he’s somehow able to convince even the most maladjusted individuals to give up their villainous or tyrannical ways simply through presenting a convincing argument. Korath is only too willing to change sides simply out of his worship of Star-Lord, and his crew follow his lead into doing good deeds simply because he was such a positive influence on them. Unfortunately, he’s not able to have the same influence on the Collector, who’s not only blinded by his position in this universe, but also driven by his inherent greed and given a major power boost thanks to his artefacts. However, while threats still remain in this timeline, on the surface it seems to be a far more peaceful and united universe simply thanks to T’Challa’s positive influence on others.
Things take a turn to the dark side once the Avengers (especially Stark) start getting killed off; What If…? is a self-contained show within the larger MCU multiverse, meaning literally anything can happen to anyone, and seeing the franchise’s core six heroes be so brutally murdered really hammers that home. It also gives Hank Pym, someone introduced later into the MCU, a chance to be a more prominent player in this sandbox; seeing him active in the MCU’s first phase is a great way of fleshing out the world in a unique way, especially as he’s become a murdering psychopath. This is a Pym whose neuroses and paranoia have been pushed to breaking point, which deftly showcases just how much of a threat a guy with Pym’s intellect and technology can be to even the most superhuman individuals. Of course, the epitome of dark character turns is the tragic tale of Strange Supreme; it’s absolutely heart-breaking to see Dr. Strange left so desperate and despondent by Christine’s loss that he fell deeper and deeper to the darkness. His frustration and anguish at being unable to change the past see him become obsessed with gaining more and more power, to the point where he is fixated only on being reunited with his love. This makes him blind to all pleas, even those of his uncorrupted counterpart, and it isn’t until all of reality is about to be erased forever that he realises the error of his ways. Sadly, by then, it’s much too late for him to undo anything; Christine once again dies in his arms and everything that ever was is unravelled due to his time paradox; even the Watcher judges his heinous actions, and the once mighty Strange Supreme is left alone and repentant in the tiniest slither of reality. It’s a poignant and gut-wrenching take on the snarky, stubborn, and arrogant Sorcerer Supreme, one that shows just how dangerous a threat he could be if he lost his strong moral compass, and it’s a testament to the show that the character remained a tragic and relatable figure right up until the end rather than simply being a malevolent antagonist.
Easily the darkest tale is the inclusion of zombies; never before has the MCU veered so closely towards traditional horror and I really appreciated the bleak, gory change of pace. It was fantastic seeing the MCU’s most powerful characters reduced to animalistic ghouls, forcing the few survivors to battle their lifelong friends and making painful sacrifices to ensure the safety of others against overwhelming odds. This was also a prime opportunity to show a new side to the Vision; him luring in survivors just to feed his love is a haunting glimpse at the darker side of his cold, calculating logic. We’ve seen such behaviour, this overpowering sense of denial, in zombie films before and, here, it served as a gruesome reminder of just how close to the brink this alternate reality is to total collapse. This continued in Killmonger’s welcome reappearance, with his alternate tale basically showing what could have happened if he had succeeded in his goals of reclaiming his Wakandan birthright; Killmonger was always one of the MCU’s more driven and dangerous antagonists and his episode showed just how truly vindictive and sadistic he really was. He had no qualms about deceiving or using anyone and any resource at his disposal, and even incited an all-out war just so that he could get himself into a position of trust and power, which serves as a stark reminder to just how ruthless a villain he really was. The party-loving version of Thor is the polar opposite; Party Thor cares little for battle or being a king and just wants to enjoy himself. He revels in being the centre of attention and throwing the biggest, most outrageous parties in all the Nine Realms and is lauded amongst his guests as being the wildest party animal around. Thor is a consummate free spirit and a friend to all; alien races, Gods, and recognisable beings from all across the cosmos cheer his name and share in his revelry, making for some of the most light-hearted and amusing moments in the entire series as Surtur (Clancy Brown) tries it on with Lady Liberty and Frost Giants deface Mount Rushmore. This episode also leads to one of the best fist fights in the series as Thor and Captain Marvel trade blows, but he delights in the fight as much as he does in enjoying himself with mead, and only the disapproval of his mother finally shakes Thor from his apathy and pushes him to make amends for his reckless merriment.
Of course, things come to a suitably dramatic and action-packed conclusion with the final two episodes, which finally force the Watcher into action. Up until then, the watcher existed outside of the normal universe, powerful and cosmic enough to remain completely undetected, but Ultron’s sentience and force grows to such an extent that it’s able to sense the Watcher, breach his observatory, and begin a maniacal campaign to conquer and destroy the entire multiverse. Untold aeons of quietly observing the multiverse haven’t exactly dampened the Watcher’s power cosmic, but in the face to Ultron’s might, enhanced by the six Infinity Stones, the enigmatic onlooker is forced to do the one thing he has never done and ask for help, calling upon the characters he has been observing and asking them to intervene where he cannot. Seeing these wildly different versions of these characters interacting was a blast; they arguably got on the same page much faster than the regular Avengers (which is no doubt due to the short length of the episodes) and were able to launch a united attack on Ultron as a result. Indeed, Ultron kind of got a bit shafted in the last episode; it went from going toe-to-toe with a cosmic being to getting battered about by a handful of mortals and Godlings simply because the Guardians were able to keep the pressure on and keep Ultron from activating the Infinity Stones. Realistically, Ultron could’ve just “snapped” them all away, but then that wouldn’t be anywhere near as exhilarating for a final battle now, would it? Seeing Killmonger claim the gems and just the idea of what his twisted imagination would use them for was a cool moment, as was the idea that he might someday escape his trap to threaten the multiverse again, and just about the only issue I had with that last episode was the random inclusion of a Gamora when they could’ve maybe employed Zombie Wanda instead. Overall, though, I thoroughly enjoyed this series; the presentation, the humour, the fun twists on established characters, and the bizarre stories were all really fun and engaging and I can’t wait to see more from this as the MCU continues to expand into more and ore obscure concepts.
Rating: 5 out of 5.
Did you enjoy What If…?? Which episode was your favourite, and which of the alternate characters did you like the most? Did you enjoy the Watcher’s inclusion and characterisation? What did you think to all the cameos and the animation style? Did you enjoy seeing Ultron as an all-powerful force and what did you think to its battle with the Watcher? Were you also disappointed that Gamora didn’t get her own episode? Are you a fan of the What If…? comics and, if so, which was your favourite? What other hypothetical scenarios would you like to see explored in a future season? Whatever your thoughts on What If…?, sign up to drop a comment down below and check back next Sunday for the final instalment of Multiverse Madness.
Having introduced comic readers to a whole host of colourful characters, in September of 1963 the legendary duo of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby brought together six of Earth’s mightiest heroes to form the Avengers. A super team like no other, with a constantly rotating roster, the Avengers has become the premier team of Marvel Comics and, thanks to the team and its individual members forming the backbone of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, have become an unbelievably popular and successful franchise in their own right.
Story Title: The Coming of the Avengers! Published: September 1963 Writer: Stan Lee Artist: Jack Kirby
The Background: In 1960, DC Comics brought together their most popular and powerful characters to form the Justice League of America. Never ones to let the competition get a leg up on them, and having seen successful with the Fantastic Four and the debut of the X-Men in that very same month, Marvel Comics head honcho Martin Goodman asked Stan Lee to create a similar team of superheroes. Helpfully, Lee and a number of his most famous collaborators had already established a number of colourful characters to bring together: Tony Stark/Iron Man, Doctor Bruce Banner/The Hulk, Doctor Donald Blake/Thor Odinson, and Doctor Hank Pym/Ant-Man and Janet van Dyne/The Wasp. Since the debut issue, the Avengers have been a consistent and influential presence in Marvel Comics; the roster constantly shifted and changed, with the Hulk leaving the team in the second issue and Lee memorably dusting off the long-retired character of Steve Rogers/Captain America in issue four. Since then, the team has expanded and changed many times, seen spin-offs and splinter groups, been disassembled and reassembled, and taken part in all manner of massivecosmic events in the decades since their introduction.
The Review: “The Coming of the Avengers” begins with Thor’s brother, Loki Laufeyson, the God of Mischief, imprisoned on the “dreaded Isle of Silence” in the mythical realm of Asgard. This is, of course, back when Loki was a despicable, irredemable villain whose previous mad schemes for power and conquest were thwarted by his brother; consequently, Loki is incensed at being exiled to the barren wasteland by Odin Allfather and plots a devious scheme for revenge.
Though his physical self is trapped, Loki is able to use his vast magical abilities to project his disembodied self across the length of he dimension-spanning Bifrost and down to Earth, the planet Thor loves so dearly. He spies in on Donald Blake but dismisses him as a lame and insignificant mortal; he is acutely aware that Blake and Thor are one and the same but desires victory over Thor, not his crippled mortal shell. After many long hours, Loki comes upon the Incredible Hulk and is instantly intrigued by the creature’s brute strength and disdain for humanity. Thanks to Loki’s manipulations, the Hulk is blamed by the media when a train almost derails (despite the fact that the Hulk went out of his way to keep the train on track after Loki’s tricked him into damaging the tracks). Concerned for the well-being of his friend, Rick Jones desperately attempts to contact the Fantastic Four for help but Loki intercepts the broadcast and successfully coerces Blake to transform into Thor.
However, Rick’s broadcast is also intercepted by Ant-Man and the Wasp and Tony Stark, who eagerly leap into action to stop what they perceive to be one of the Hulk’s trademark rampages. Though he’s now decked out in his slightly more streamlined gold plated armour (which can also charge through solar power), Stark is still entirely reliant upon his iron plated chest device to keep him alive but, nevertheless, he’s eager to test the strength of his armour against the Hulk’s much-vaulted power. The Fantastic Four eventually pick up the transmission regardless of Loki’s interference but are unable to assist since they’re already busy on another case but Rick and his fellow “Teen Bridge” are star-struck when Thor, Iron Man, Ant-Man, and the Wasp all show up to answer their summons. This is probably as good a time as any to talk about how much I loathe Janet van Dyne, especially in her earlier appearances in the sixties and seventies! She’s such a ditzy, scatterbrained little tart; all she ever does is think about her hair, make-up, and appearance and constantly fawn over other men right in front of her partner/husband, Hank. Sure, Hank is generally much more focused on his work, the mission, or being professional and is largely neglectful and ignorant of Janet but that doesn’t excuse her God-awful characterisation. Similar to Susan Storm/Invisible Girl, Jean Grey/Marvel Girl, and many of Marvel’s supporting female characters at the time, Janet is constantly patronised and spoken down to by men but, unlike many of them, she actually deserves such harsh treatment since she’s more of a glorified model or brainless celebrity than a capable superheroine, much less an individual worthy of their respect since all she wants to do is drool over Thor’s muscles!
Anyway, having inadvertently brought together some of Earth’s mightiest heroes, Loki changes tactics and uses his powers to trick Thor into thinking the Hulk is right outside their door! Acting without thought or logic, Thor immediately heads out to battle the Green Goliath and immediately heads to Asgard when he realises that the “Hulk” is merely one of Loki’s visions…just as Loki planned all along! Meanwhile, the Hulk, now free from Loki’s control, has…disguised himself as Mechano the Mechanical Man and hidden himself away at a circus? Thanks to Ant-Man’s uncanny helmet, which allows him to control and communicate with ants, Pym is able to first locate the Hulk and then use countless numbers of ants to cause a cave-in beneath the beast’s feet. Unimpressed and irritated, the Hulk easily bursts free of the trap and reacts with anger when Ant-Man attempts first to calm him and then to trap him. As in his debut appearance, the Hulk is far more than the mindless, rampaging beast he is generally known as; he’s eloquent and intelligent, using words like “masquerade” and being smart enough to disguise himself as a circus performer and use weapons to blow the Wasp out of the air and render her helpless. The Hulk is kept from crushed the Wasp into a fine paste by the timely arrival of Iron Man; after Iron Man’s attempts to lure the Hulk into a trap fail, he gives chase but the Hulk is wily enough to allow Iron Man to pass harmless overheard so that he (as in the Hulk) can deliver a crippling blow to Stark’s “propulsion battery”. Over in Asgard, Odin grants Thor permission to travel to the Isle of Silence to confront Loki and he has to overcome numerous traps and hazards conjured by Loki’s black magic along the way. Thor perseveres and shatters Loki’s magical barrier using his enchanted hammer, Mjölnir, in his mission to “avenge” Loki’s foul deed. However, Thor is kept from attacking Loki first by the sudden arrival of a monstrous troll, a nature of the isle, and then by Loki’s deceitful illusions.
Regardless, Thor triumphs again by summoning lightning to drive the creature away and then dispels Loki’s duplicates with an implausible twirling of his hammer. Though Thor has Loki in his grasp and intends to bring him to Earth to answer for his deception, there’s still the little problem of the Hulk to contend with; Iron Man, having repaired his battery, continues his pursuit of the Hulk to an automobile factory, where the Hulk is able to endure and outwit Iron Man’s attempts to subdue him. Thor interrupts the battle and reveals that Loki was behind everything; Hulk’s desire to make Loki pay for framing him is momentarily avoided when Loki breaks free of Thor’s grasp and prepares to resume his battle with his hated brother…only for a hoard of ants to open a trapdoor beneath his feet and cause him to fall into an lead-lined chamber. With the threat ended, Ant-Man suggests that the six of them join forces as a team, which the others (including the Hulk, despite everything he went through during the issue) readily agree to and it is the Wasp who suggests the team’s name: The Avengers!
The Summary: “The Coming of the Avengers!” is a breath of fresh air after the year I’ve had looking back at early origin stories and comic books; even compared to standalone stories of the time, it’s refreshing to not have the plot be endlessly bogged down with recaps of the characters’ origins and to not have every other piece of dialogue by a description of that character’s ability. Characters do still have an annoying tendency to monologue and describe what they’re doing as they’re doing it but it’s a far more action-packed issue than some other comics I’ve read this year, that’s for sure.
If you’re a newcomer to Marvel, this is obviously a bit of a disadvantage since you’d have no idea who any of these characters are; the only characters who really get any extended backstory and focus are Thor and Loki, which is only natural considering it is Loki who drives the main plot of the issue. However, we never see an appearance from the Hulk’ alter ego (Banner isn’t even mentioned in the issue), Ant-Man and the Wasp are never seen outside of their costumed identities, and the comic even has time to waste panels on a cameo by the Fantastic Four. The intention, however, is pretty clear: Rick’s first thought is to call the Fantastic Four since there are only a couple of superhero teams in existence at that time and the implication is that Loki is a threat worthy of the Fantastic Four’s involvement, which thus makes the Avengers appear just as capable and formidable by proxy. Not that the Avengers really need any help in that regard; each character has already had numerous chances to shine and show how capable they are in their solo issues but what better way to showcase that to its fullest than by pitting them against the Hulk, the most powerful mortal in Marvel Comics at the time?
Iron Man, especially, is eager to pit his skills and augmented strength against the Hulk’s (who sadly never gets to tussle with Thor to see which of the two truly is mightier) and it’s certainly unique seeing Ant-Man and the Wasp futilely try to subdue the beast with traps and trickery. It’s not a perfect story by any means; I could talk for days about Janet’s characterisation and she basically does nothing except buzz around, pine after Thor, and name the team and Loki never thinks to use his powers to send the Hulk into a mindless rampage to help tip the balance in his favour. Indeed, though Loki’s powers are vast and have the potential to be extremely dangerous, he’s pretty ineffectual as Thor easily fights off his illusions, he’s anti-climatically defeated by Ant-Man and the Wasp (of all people), and all he succeeds in doing is uniting Earth’s Mightiest Heroes as a team. He might have had more success if he’d tried to manipulate them into fighting each other or used his powers to better effect but, as an excuse to bring together six of Marvel’s most formidable superheroes into a super team, “The Coming of the Avengers!” succeeds far more than it fails…it just needed to be a bit longer and have a bit more interaction between the characters.
Rating: 3 out of 5.
How do you feel about “The Coming of the Avengers!”? Do you feel it was an effective introduction to Marvel’s newest and greatest team or do you, perhaps, find it a little weak and light on content? Which of the original line-up is your favourite? What did you think to the Wasp’s characterisation and the treatment of females during this time? Which version of the team is your favourite or who would you like to see on an Avengers roster one day? Do you think the singular threat of Loki was suitable enough justification for bringing together these heroes or would you have preferred a bigger threat? How are you celebrating the debut of the Avengers today and what are some of your favourite Avengers storylines, characters, or adaptations? Feel free to share your thoughts and opinions on the Avengers in the comments below.
In 1995, Marvel Comics created “National Superhero Day” and, in the process, provided comics and superhero fans the world over with a great excuse to celebrate their favourite characters and publications.
Released: 4 May 2012 Director: Joss Whedon Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Budget: $220 million Stars: Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Tom Hiddleston, Clark Gregg, Stellan Skarsgård, and Samuel L. Jackson
The Plot: When Loki Laufeyson (Hiddleston) arrives on Earth wielding a mind-controlling spear and in search of the Tesseract, Nick Fury (Jackson), director of the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division (S.H.I.E.L.D.) activates the “Avenger Initiative”. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Downey Jr), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Evans), Doctor Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Ruffalo), Thor Odinson (Hemsworth), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Johansson), and Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Renner) are called into service but, with such big egos and personalities among their ranks, these assembled heroes must find a way to co-exist before they can combat this otherworldly threat.
The Background: The development of an Avengers film began in 2003 with an outrageous plan to release a series of solo films for each character before having them all meet up, similar to how the Avengers formed in the comics back in 1963 courtesy of Martin Goodman, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Dick Ayers. It was an unprecedented move, one which saw fledging studio Marvel Studios roll the dice on lower-tier heroes such as Iron Man and win big time with a slew of massively successful and popular superhero films, each one hinting towards a much larger, shared cinematic universe.
The Review: Avengers Assemble was the first time we had ever seen superheroes come together in a big screen, big budget movie. Before the MCU, before Iron Man, superheroes always existed in isolated bubbles and never interacted and, as a big fan of the interconnected world of the comics (not just in Marvel but in DC Comics and pretty much ever comic publication), I was excited to see these characters come together onscreen for the first-time and will always lean towards an interconnected, shared continuity. It was a risky venture taking admittedly B to D-tier characters like Iron Man and Captain America and shaping a series of movies around them but Avengers Assemble totally justified that risk, allowing these volatile egos and characters to share the same screen and mixing fantasy, science-fiction, magic, and technology all together in one action-packed adventure.
Loki’s threat is immediately established when he suddenly arrives on Earth and makes short work of Fury’s men and then uses his spear to take control of Professor Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) and Barton. Though only a singular villain, one whom Thor has been able to best in combat before, Loki is a significant threat to the world since he is, effectively, a God and he has the entire Chitauri army at his command. Before the Chitauri arrive, though, Loki is formidable enough to justify bringing in Iron Man (despite Fury’s earlier reservations) and Cap since Thor wasn’t supposed to be able to get back to Earth. When Thor does arrive, his mission to capture Loki and bring him back to Asgard is hampered by Earth politics (since Fury wants to hold Loki accountable for the death and destruction he’s already caused) and as a result Loki manages to manipulate the fledgling Avengers into bickering and fighting with each other rather than him, allowing him to take possession of the Tesseract and bring the Chitauri to Earth. While he avoids active, physical combat, Loki is a daunting opponent when he does engage in battle, able to go toe-to-toe with Thor (thanks, largely, to Thor holding back out of love for his brother), easily catching Hawkeye’s arrow, and tossing Stark out of a window with just one hand. His downfall comes not only through the unification of the Avengers but is spelt out by Stark, who monologues about how, win or lose, they would hunt down and hold Loki personally responsible to ensure that he never truly wins, and, of course, more explicitly through the sudden and hilarious beat down he receives at the hands of the Hulk.
Essentially, the film is a significant chapter in Cap’s story; since Captain America: The First Avenger(Johnston, 2011) ended with Cap being dethawed in the modern day, this was only the second time we had seen him in action; unfortunately, because of the nature of the film, Cap’s reintegration into society is largely glossed over and, rather than being dwelled upon, is replaced with Cap wishing to be given a mission, a focus, a reason to fight in the modern world. As a result, he unquestioningly follows Fury’s directions primarily out of instinct, duty, and a need to have a reason to go on in a world that has largely passed him by; he clashes with Stark’s rebellious attitude, believing that they should follow orders like soldiers, but is convinced enough to investigate further and is disgusted to find Fury in possession of Chitauri technology and with contingencies in place to combat the Avengers since they have the potential to be a threat to humanity. Cap is all business when in battle, instinctively taking command and exuding leadership even though he is the most out of touch and out of place of all the characters; his initial antagonism with Stark is eventually put aside to lead the team during the Chitauri invasion and Cap fights to the bitter end even when he is vastly overpowered by the alien forces, taking the most damage of any of his team mates (including the “weaker” members like Natasha and Barton).
Stark is just as stubborn and snarky as ever; he’s clearly insulted by Agent Phil Colson (Gregg) and Fury’s decision to relegate him to a “consulting” role in the Avengers Initiate despite his claims to not want to be part of the team and believes himself to be the only one smart and capable enough of combating Loki’s impending threat. He comes aboard with the program purely out of a selfish desire to lord himself over Fury and the other Avengers and to learn more of S.H.I.E.L.D.s secrets, using them to call Fury out on his hypocrisy, and constantly goading his team mates (particularly Banner) into being themselves and rejecting Fury’s orders and control. While the prevailing arc for the entire team is learning to work together, Stark personifies this as he is the most antagonistic and reluctant to work as a team; he’s the most affected by Coulson’s death due to him knowing the agent the best, his experiences witnessing death and suffering first-hand in Iron Man, and his inability to properly cope with death and loss. Coulson’s death galvanises Stark, turning his incredulity to vengeance and giving him the motivation to not only put aside his ego to work with the team but also acknowledge Cap’s superior leadership skills.
Banner appears very differently to where we left him in The Incredible Hulk (Leterrier, 2008); fearing the unpredictability and ferocious nature of the Hulk, he has stayed in hiding, suppressing the Hulk with some success, but is unable to deny his innate wish to help others in need with his scientific and medical expertise. Banner has managed to keep the Hulk at bay not only through a risky and unique technique (he’s “always angry”, indicating that he constantly keeps his emotions at a level where the Hulk is satiated but doesn’t actually emerge) and a vehement refusal to acknowledge or speak the Hulk’s name. Banner is convinced to help advise on Loki’s spear by Natasha’s beauty and simply her asking him nicely, rather than forcing him to comply, but, while he is clearly excited to be working with S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Tesseract and forms a fast, budding friendship with Stark (with Stark goading Banner and acting like an annoying brother to him), he quickly comes to realise that Fury’s intentions aren’t entirely noble and questions the validity and ability of a team that is little more than a “timebomb” of ego and emotions. When the Hulk is forcibly unleashed as part of Loki’s plan, he is unbridled rage and fury, lashing out at everything and everyone around him in a mindless rage since the transformation was against Banner’s will. Later, during the Battle of New York, Banner initiates the transformation willingly and the Hulk is much more…maybe not “docile” but let’s say willing to cooperate, taking Cap’s orders and specifically targeting to Chitauri threat while protecting and aiding his teammates. A measure of Banner’s influence and the Hulk’s intelligence is seen as the Hulk makes the effort to save Iron Man from his fatal fall and his dismissive grunt of “Puny God!” after beating the piss out of Loki.
Thor’s arrival on Earth comes out of nowhere and is quickly waved away with a brief line about “dark energy”; personally, I never liked this or understood why the filmmakers had the Bifrost be destroyed in Thor(Branagh, 2011) when they knew very well that Thor would be back in Avengers Assemble but it is what it is and Thor is there. Thor is handicapped by his emotions towards his brother; he is elated and heartbroken to see Loki alive after believing him dead and just wants his brother to abandon his crusade and come home. Loki, however, is too full of jealously, rage, and resentment and constantly taunts, defies, and dismisses his brother, who finds himself unable to simply wade in, muscles bulging, and retrieve Loki thanks to opposition from Iron Man, Cap, and Fury and the greater issue concerning the Tesseract. Thor offers knowledge of another world, another level of understanding, that is unique amongst his teammates and spends much of the film believing his brother still has good in him and wishing to return him home. After Loki kills Coulson before Thor’s eyes and tries to kill him with a trap intended for the Hulk, Thor reluctantly gears up and enters the fray, so determined to stop his brother’s mad schemes that he’s willing to fight alongside the Avengers and submit to Cap’s orders since he, like Cap, is a stranger in this world and still learning how to navigate modern, human society.
Natasha is still relatively new in this film since audiences only saw a fraction of her true character and abilities in Iron Man 2 so it’s good that she gets a solo action scene at the start of the film to showcase her physical and manipulative abilities. We learn bits and pieces of her character and backstory through her interactions with Banner, Loki, and Barton but she remains very much a mystery even by the end of the film. This would, of course, continue over the years since Black Widow was one of the last of the original Avengers to get a solo film, meaning an air of mystery constantly surrounds her, but much of her arc is focused on her relationship with Barton (which is one of duty, gratitude, and mutual, platonic respect) and her commitment to Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. Like Cap, she follows orders unquestioningly but it also feels like she has her own agenda and reasons for going along with S.H.I.E.L.D.; while she, like Barton, is one of the weakest links in the Avengers, she’s still capable enough to hold her own against the Chitauri…for a time, at least.
Barton, who is only referred to as Hawkeye once in the film, spends most of the movie under Loki’s command (though this does harken back to his comic book beginnings as a villain); as a result, all we know about him is the few bits and pieces Natasha reveals about their relationship and their background. However, we do get to see him in action on more than one occasion; he’s a crack shot, almost to superhuman levels, and is able to bring down an entire Helicarrier with a single, well-placed arrow. He is an essential soldier in Loki’s army, offering him insight into Fury’s operation and resources, but is also able to provide the Avengers with key information regarding Loki after Natasha literally knocks some sense into him. He proves himself capable enough in the finale by providing much needed and peerless cover from a high vantage point, from which he is able to take out multiple Chitauri with a few well-aimed shots. He’s easily the least developed of all the characters thanks to the role he plays in the film but it works for the plot and means we’re left wanting to know more about him and his backstory. Fury plays a much larger role in this film than in the previous MCU movies since he’s a pivotal supporting character rather than a mere cameo; he believes that Loki represents a very real threat to humanity but also believes wholeheartedly in the concept of heroes and the ability of the Avengers Initiative to combat Loki’s threat.
Fury opposes the World Security Council when they dismiss the Avengers as a legitimate solution and when they order a nuclear strike on New York which, along with his own brand of snark and dry wit, makes him a rebellious and layered character in his own right. However, he’s also a secretive and manipulative individual, constantly telling everyone only as much as they need to know and a handful of half-truths (as Stark says: “Fury’s secrets have secrets!”) and believes in having contingencies against any and all possible threats, both foreign and domestic. While he doesn’t fight alongside the Avengers in the final battle, he’s crucial to their formation and is a charismatic and alluring figurehead for their group. Sadly, this was as prominent as Fury would be for some time, with him quickly going back to being either a cameo or supporting character over the years, which is a shame as it’s always great to see Samuel L. Jackson in the role and interacting with these characters. Similarly, Coulson also gets much more screen time and development this time around; still acting as Fury’s go-to and the liaison between S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Avengers, Coulson (whose first name is revealed to be “Phil” rather than just “Agent”) is the relatable man among Gods, the common thread that links all of these volatile personalities together. Initially, all they really have in common beyond their heroic tendencies is their relationship with Coulson, with Stark having the closest link to him and Coulson being especially in awe of Cap, his hero and idol, and Coulson’s death is both sudden and heartbreakingly brutal. It’s a fantastic moment that serves to galvanise and motivate the them and, as much as I’ve enjoyed some episodes and seasons of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013 to 2020), it did annoy me that his dramatic death was undone so soon after the film’s release. Thankfully, the MCU movies don’t acknowledge Coulson’s resurrection so his tragic death remains the principal motivating factor behind the coming together of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.
The Nitty-Gritty: Considering the large cast of bombastic, unique characters and actors, Avengers Assemble is fantastically well paced; sure, Natasha and, especially, Barton don’t get anywhere near as much screen time or development as established guys like Cap or Stark but they get several character defining moments and character beats that help to keep them relevant and integral to the plot. The film isn’t full of non-stop action but it never feels slow or like it’s wasting time; any time there isn’t some kind of physical conflict, there’s a conflict of character, beliefs, or ideologies as each of the characters interacts with each other in different ways. The central conflict in the film is between the individual Avengers as much as it is with Loki as each one must learn how to interact and co-operate with the other, which leads to some friction between Rogers and Stark, disdain from the God-like Thor, and distrust from the understandably agitated Banner.
This all comes to a head in one of the film’s most intense moments where the fledgling Avengers argue over Fury’s manipulations, the threat each of them oppose, and their conflicting egos in a scene that is easily as powerful as any of the film’s fight scenes. Here, each character talks and argues over each other; lots of fingers are pointed, egos are bruised, and accusations are made thanks to the influence of Loki’s spear, which exacerbates their most negative aspects and fuels the distrust and tension between the group. It’s an amazingly realised scene, with lots of dynamic camera work on offer and allows the characters to vent their frustrations and concerns about each other, the mission, and the inevitable escalation of conflict that threatens Earth now that it has experienced otherworldly threats and, in it, these conflicting personalities actually grow stronger as a result of their brutal honesty.
However, amidst this, there are also numerous amusing little moments that help to add to the film’s levity and develop each character: Rogers handing Fury a $10 bill after being awe-struck by the Helicarrier, Stark pointing out that one of the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents is playing Galaga (Namco, 1981), Thor’s humiliation regarding Loki’s actions and heritage, and Banner’s flashes of anger all help to make the characters real and relatable. One of the best examples of this is Cap’s confrontation with Loki in which he, despite being “out of time”, recognises Loki’s evil and potential threat and openly opposes him just as he did a similar dictator in World War Two and engages him in combat despite Loki’s clear physical advantage over him. Cap’s whole character is that he continues to fight no matter the odds and that is continuously seen in Avengers Assemble as, even when outclassed or outnumbered, he continues to get back up and go on with the fight until it’s done, one way or another, and fails to give in to intimidation from concepts beyond his time such as Gods, aliens, and advanced technology.
Their interactions with each other are equally impressive, with the heroes just as likely to come to blows as they are to work together; this means we get to see these bright, colourful costumed characters fighting with each other as much as alongside each other. Iron Man fights with Thor, Cap joins in to make it a triple threat, Black Widow fights with Hawkeye, and Thor memorably goes toe-to-toe with the Hulk to set up a friendly rivalry that would be fantastically revisited in Thor: Ragnarok (Waititi, 2017). It’s a staple of superhero team-ups that the heroes simply must fight at least once and Avengers Assemble delivers on this in spades; we’ve watched each of these characters in their own films, or be involved in other MCU films, over the years so to see them match wits, trade blows, and fight together is a true fanboy’s delight.
The finale is little more than a battle against mindless, indistinguishable alien hoards who, conveniently, operate in a hive mind and are “easily” shut down by Stark tossing a nuclear weapon at their mothership. I honestly expected a version of the Masters of Evil for the first Avengers movie, with Loki joining forces with Johann Schmidt/The Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) outside of the Realms and then teaming up with Emil Blonsky/The Abomination (Tim Roth) and/or Samuel Sterns/The Leader (Tim Blake Nelson) once they reach Earth for a smaller scale, six on six style team vs. team movie and, in some ways, it is a bit disappointing that the Avengers only went up against one villain and an army of drones but it really works in the film since the entire point of the movie is to bring these volatile characters together. The actual antagonist could have be anyone or anything and it wouldn’t really matter but it being Loki works wonders thanks to Tom Hiddleston’s iconic performance; he’s truly a snake in the grass, a wily, manipulative, vindictive villain who is intelligent and cruel enough to match wits with each of the Avengers both physically and vocally and the only previous villain I could see being able to do anywhere hear as good a job would be Hugo Weaving.
One issue I have though is that, as much as I loved the “Avengers Assemble!” scene we eventually got, I still don’t get why we couldn’t have heard that iconic cry during that awesome panning shot of the team standing back-to-back. I think we definitely could have heard this cry in each of the team-up films and appearances of the group and it wouldn’t have taken away from that impactful scene; if anything, it would have added to it since it would be a rallying cry for the reunited heroes. Still, the Battle for New York is amazing in its scope; the Chitauri may be interchangeable alien drones but they are relentless. The Avengers are able to combat them and easily defeat them but their numbers are legion and, apparently, inexhaustible and it isn’t long before they are overwhelmed even with the might of Thor and the Hulk. The Chitauri’s larger reinforcements and advanced weaponry and sheer numbers mean that it is simply a matter of time before the Avengers, for all their power, are overwhelmed and Loki is successful, meaning that the Avengers’ main concern is holding the line and keeping the invasion at bay while their team mates confront Loki and cut off the source of the invasion. All throughout the film, Loki converses with “The Other” (Alexis Denisof) and is clearly being given power and resources from an unseen third party, revealed at the very end of the film to be none other than Thanos (Damion Poitier). At the time, we could never have anticipated the extent to Thanos’s threat and importance to the MCU but the bringing together of cosmic characters like Asgardians and threats like the Chitauri and Thanos only hinted at how large and varied the MCU was destined to become.
The Summary: Avengers Assemble is still one of the biggest and most entertaining movies in the MCU and, perhaps, ever made. Of all the movies in the MCU’s first phase, it’s easily my favourite and, for me, set the standard not just for subsequent MCU team-up movies but for every film in the MCU going forward. No longer were these characters going to exist in their own isolated bubble; they would interact with their fellow characters, reference the larger world we finally saw in all its glory, and be part of something much bigger and greater than a series of self-contained films.
For me, this is the greatest appeal of the MCU; before Iron Man, superhero films were always solo affairs and we never saw heroes interact with each other. Thanks to the MCU, all of that changed and, finally, the movies came to resemble the comics by having a shared universe that has a tight continuity and an actual tangible, long-term plan. The film is alive with character moments, an amusing dry wit, and action-packed sequences but, as thrilling as the bombastic fight scenes can be, it’s all the little interactions and interpersonal conflicts that really make this film so entertaining and appealing to me even to this day.
Rating: 5 out of 5.
What are your thoughts on Avengers Assemble? How do you feel it holds up now that the MCU has become this massive, multimedia juggernaut? Were you disappointed that the film focused solely on the one villain and side-lined Hawkeye with a mind control sub-plot or were you satisfied with Hiddleston’s performance and the interpersonal conflicts between the characters? Which of the Avengers is your favourite and which of the comic’s characters are you excited to learn more about or see join the team? Which of the MCU movies, shows, or characters is your favourite and why? How are you celebrating National Superhero Day today? Whatever your thoughts, leave a comment below and be sure to stick around for more superhero and comic book content throughout the year.
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