Talking Movies [A-Day]: Avengers: Age of Ultron


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.


Talking Movies

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 Plot:
After finally defeating the last remnants of Hydra, 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) face an even greater threat when Stark and Banner’s prototype for an artificial intelligence, Ultron (Spader), becomes self-aware and concocts a diabolical scheme to unleash an extinction-level event upon the world.

The Background:
After the unprecedented success of Avengers Assemble/The Avengers (Whedon, 2012), the MCU was well and truly on its way to becoming an unstoppable multimedia juggernaut. Following the conclusion of that film, the MCU firmly entered its second phase and director Joss Whedon stated early on that his intention for an Avengers sequel was to tell a more personal and intimate story rather than necessarily being bigger and better. Taking inspiration more from the likes of Star Wars: Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (Kershner, 1980) than the Marvel Comics story of the same name, the script initially included the first appearance of Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel, and many were surprised to see Whedon focus on Ultron after teasing Thanos (Damion Poitier) the end of the first film. The script also saw the introduction of Wanda (Olsen) and Pietro Maximoff/Quicksilver (Johnson), who both Marvel Studios and 20th Century Fox were allowed to include in separate film franchises thanks to a legal loophole. Tensions were frayed between Whedon and Marvel’s executives, however, as they disagreed with some of his scenes and choices, which eventually led to Whedon parting ways with the studio. Although Avengers: Age of Ultron made about $100,000 less than its predecessor, it still grossed $1,404 billion at the box office. Critical reception wasn’t quite as universally positive as with the first film, however; while the effects and action were praised, many were disappointed with how overstuffed and mundane the film was.

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.

Inspired my Loki’s sceptre, Stark convinces Banner to help him create Ultron.

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.

Banner and Romanoff struggle with their pasts, natures, and feelings for each other.

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.

While Thor’s side quest derails things somewhat, it’s great to see Barton’s personality fleshed out.

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”.

Tensions rise between Steve and Stark as both characters have very different methods and ideologies.

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.

Ultron twists Stark’s vision for peace and personality quirks into a megalomaniacal plot for extinction.

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.

The twins cause havoc with the Avengers before reluctantly joining forces with them to oppose Ultron.

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.

While the action is big and exciting, the film primarily sows the seeds of dissension between the Avengers.

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.

When Wanda screws with the Hulk, Stark is forced to bust out the awesome Hulkbuster mech!

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.

Although the Hulk doesn’t get to talk, the film is full of fun cameos to set up the new Avengers team.

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.

Hawkeye forms a bond with Wanda and seems destined to die but it’s Pietro who takes one for the team.

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 aims to transfer itself into the perfect body, but its Vision grows to oppose and destroy it.

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.

The Avengers stop Ultron and avert worldwide disaster, unaware of an even greater threat on the horizon.

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 a bit bloated, Age of Ultron is a stronger entry in the MCU than you might remember.

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.

My Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Great Stuff

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.

Screen Time [Captain America Month]: The Falcon and the Winter Soldier


First appearing in 1941, Marvel Comics’ star-spangled super soldier, Steve Rogers/Captain America, has become one of Marvel’s most recognisable and celebrated characters not just for his super patriotism but also for being a prominent member and leader of Marvel’s premier super team, the Avengers. Having successfully made the jump to live-action, Cap is now a widely celebrated, mainstream superhero and, since American’s celebrated Independence Day this month, I’ve been spending every Tuesday in July paying tribute to the star-spangled man with a plan himself!


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 of Avengers: 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.

Sam gives up the shield, feeling he can’t live up to expectations, and tries to help his family.

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.

Bucky and Sam clash over the shield, but are forced to unite against a new breed of super soldiers.

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”.

Walker is made the new Captain America, but his psyche deteriorates from the pressure.

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 driven to the edge by Lemar’s death, but given a new opportunity by the mysterious Val.

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.

Zemo adds an extra dimension to the show, offering a twisted but logical perspective on the world.

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.

Both the Dora Milaje and the jaded Sharon disapprove of Zemo, but Sharon is hiding a dark secret.

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 of the show is racism and overcoming oppressive labels and bigotry.

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.

Sam finally embraces the Captain America mantle and delivers an impassioned speech about responsibility.

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.

After much loss, Sam and Bucky form a real partnership, while Val prepares her own schemes…

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.

Walker becomes increasingly unhinged, but it remains to be seen if he’s truly redeemed himself.

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.

The longer run time allows for a deeper exploration of these complex and flawed characters.

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.

Sam resolves to use the shield as a positive for for real change, and to help Bucky through his trauma.

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.

My Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Fantastic

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.

Talking Movies [Captain America Month]: Captain America: Civil War


First appearing in 1941, Marvel Comics’ star-spangled super soldier, Steve Rogers/Captain America, has become one of Marvel’s most recognisable and celebrated characters not just for his super patriotism but also for being a prominent member and leader of Marvel’s premier super team, the Avengers. Having successfully made the jump to live-action, Cap is now a widely celebrated, mainstream superhero and, since American’s celebrated Independence Day this month, what better way to celebrate this than by spending every Tuesday in July paying tribute to the star-spangled man with a plan himself!


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 Background:
Considering that Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Russo and Russo, 2014) was such a massive hit and that, by 2016, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) had basically become an unstoppable franchise juggernaut, a third Captain America movie was never in question. The first film of Phase Three of the MCU was originally revealed under a very different title before it was revealed to be taking inspiration from the controversial storyline of the same name. Pitched as a psychological thriller, Captain America: Civil War quickly became the biggest solo Marvel movie when many returning characters and Avengers signed on to feature. The film saw not only the debut of a new team of Avengers and the introduction of T’Challa/Black Panther (Boseman) but also the long-awaited inclusion of Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland) to the MCU. The directors lobbied hard to include Spider-Man and, after much negotiating, Marvel were able to reach an agreement with Sony Pictures to recast and share the character. Though ostensibly Avengers 2.5, Captain America: Civil War was incredibly successful; it made over $1.150 billion and was the highest-grossing film of 2016. Like its predecessor, the film was almost universally praised; while some criticised the film’s bloated cast and premise, many were impressed with the film’s action and intrigue and the dramatic way it fractured the Avengers to set the stage for the MCU’s biggest film yet.

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.

Cap’s efforts to train a new Avengers team are disrupted when his loyalties are divided.

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.

Wanda’s unpredictable powers are the catalyst for the film’s events.

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.

The Avengers are divided on the Sokovia Accords, which would see them conform or retire.

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.

Zemo plots to destroy the Avengers from the inside out and is focused only on his vengeance.

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.

Everyone, especially Black Panther, is after Bucky thanks to Zemo’s machinations.

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.

Tom Holland made an immediate and exhilarating impression as the all-new Spider-Man.

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 fight between the two teams soon escalates when Rhodey is critically injured.

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.

Cap is forced to defend Bucky from Stark in the finale as the Avengers implode from within.

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.

It’s a bittersweet ending as the Avengers are left divided and scattered thanks to Zemo’s efforts.

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 as Captain 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.

My Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Fantastic

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.

Talking Movies [Captain America Month]: Captain America: The Winter Soldier


First appearing in 1941, Marvel Comics’ star-spangled super soldier, Steve Rogers/Captain America, has become one of Marvel’s most recognisable and celebrated characters not just for his super patriotism but also for being a prominent member and leader of Marvel’s premier super team, the Avengers. Having successfully made the jump to live-action, Cap is now a widely celebrated, mainstream superhero and, since American’s celebrated Independence Day this month, what better way to celebrate this than by spending every Tuesday in July paying tribute to the star-spangled man with a plan himself!


Released: 4 April 2014
Director: Anthony and Joe Russo
Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Budget: $170 to 177 million
Stars: Chris Evans, Sebastian Stan, Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Mackie, Cobie Smulders, Frank Grillo, Emily VanCamp, Samuel L. Jackson, and Robert Redford

The Plot:
Having helped to save the world from an alien invasion, Steve Rogers/Captain America (Evans) now works alongside Nick Fury (Jackson), director of Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division (S.H.I.E.L.D.), and Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Johansson). Steve’s efforts to acclimatise to the modern world are fraught with doubt concerning a potential conspiracy within S.H.I.E.L.D. and only further exacerbated when he continually runs afoul of a mysterious assassin codenamed the “Winter Soldier”.

The Background:
Honestly, of all of the Phase One films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), I was the least excited for Captain America: The First Avenger (Johnston, 2011). However, while a little run of the mill in some ways, the film proved to be a massive box office success; like many critics, I was impressed with the film, especially in hindsight without the anticipation of Marvel’s first team-up movie clouding my judgement, and Marvel entered Phase Two with the intention of not only refining everything that worked so well in Phase One but also shaking things up considerably for the MCU and laying the groundwork for bigger stories going forward. In many ways, Captain America: The Winter Soldier was central to this edict; ostensibly inspired by Ed Brubaker’s seminal comic book story, the filmmakers chose to ground the story in the then-present day and craft a spy thriller very much in the style of a 1970s political thriller that would have wide-reaching ramifications across the MCU. Captain America: The Winter Soldier was a massive hit; it made nearly $715 million at the box office and was the fifth-highest-grossing film of 2014. Reviews were unanimously positive, with critics praising the character development and suspense and geo-political relevance, and the film is held in high regard as one of the best (if not the best) films of the entire MCU.

The Review:
Two years have passed since Avengers Assemble (Whedon, 2012) and, despite being thrown in the deep end at the end of The First Avenger and during the chaotic events of that film, Steve has largely adjusted to modern life. This is primarily because he has been focusing on S.H.I.E.L.D. missions alongside their counter-terrorism team, Special Tactical Reserve for International Key Emergencies (S.T.R.I.K.E.), led by Brock Rumlow (Grillo), a fact Romanoff chastises him about. Although Steve has been researching the events he missed out on while under ice and has compiled a handy-dandy list of pop culture to catch up on, he maintains that he is “too busy” to think about dating or anything other than the next mission, and yet is growing increasingly perturbed by Fury’s secrecy and the questionable nature of many of his missions.

Steve’s black and white view of things clashes with the morally grey way of the modern world.

Carrying a great deal of loss, survivor’s guilt, and sorrow for the years, friends, and loved ones he has lost, Steve strives to maintain his composure; he is compelled to continue following orders and serving his country out of a sense of duty and to trust S.H.I.E.L.D. since his former flame, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), helped found the organisation. Steve struggles a bit to form new friendships and relationships, though he does take the advice of his colleagues to heart and tries, somewhat awkwardly, to ask out his neighbour, Sharon Carter (VanCamp). His difficulties in this aspect are only exacerbated by Fury’s cagey demeanour and when Sharon turns out to be S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent 13; struck by a series of devastating revelations that turn friend into foe and unable who to trust, The Winter Soldier is as much a film about Steve coming to terms with the grimy and chaotic nature of the modern world as it is about shaking the world of the MCU to its very core.

Thanks to his increased screen time, Fury’s character is fleshed out considerably.

Steve’s more old-school sensibilities and dislike for secrecy causes some friction between him and Fury; Fury, however, remains the consummate spy’s spy and is fully prepared to compartmentalise information from even super soldiers like Steve. Thanks to Fury’s extended screen time, we learn much more about his character, backstory, and motivation than in his previous bit-parts and cameos; Fury’s plan to launch a series of Helicarriers to monitor and eliminate potential threats as part of “Project: Insight” insults and angers Cap, who sees it as oppression rather than freedom. Cap’s discomfort with secrecy, Fury’s motives, and recent events are shown to have some basis when, unable to decrypt the data S.T.R.I.K.E. retrieved from Batroc, Fury requests that Secretary of Internal Security Alexander Pierce (Redford) delays the project until a proper investigation can be undertaken.

Steve and Nat are horrified to discover that Hydra infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D. decades ago.

The data is suddenly and violently stolen by a mysterious and aggressive assassin known as the Winter Soldier, who attacks Fury while in transit and then appears to kill the S.H.I.E.L.D. director. When Cap refuses to share the encrypted file with Pierce, he is branded a fugitive and hounded by the very people he once fought alongside and considered allies. With Romanoff’s help, Steve decrypts the data and is led to a S.H.I.E.L.D. bunker where the electronically preserved consciousness of his old foe Arnim Zola (Toby Jones) reveals, to Steve’s horror, that Hydra are not only alive and well but have infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D. and much of the world’s government, including members of the World Security Council and Senator Stern (Garry Shandling), and that Pierce is planning to use Project: Insight to eliminate potential threats to their power before they can become a problem.

Pierce’s instrument is Bucky, who’s been brainwashed into a ruthless assassin.

Much like previous casting in the MCU, Robert Redford was quite the coup for Marvel Studios and his enigmatic presence lends an authority and credibility to the film that is in stark contrast to the idea that superhero films are just big, dumb action flicks. Pierce’s primary agent is the titular Winter Soldier, a menacing and almost robotic assassin who attacks with precision, efficiency, and has a cybernetic left arm. Superhumanly fast and incredibly strong, the Winter Soldier is easily able to catch and fling back Steve’s shield and unbelievably adept with guns and, especially, knives. Romanoff is familiar with the assassin, having heard of him as something of a bogeyman during her time as a Russian agent, but Steve is absolutely stunned to discover that the assassin is his old friend, James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes (Stan), who survived his seemingly fatal plunge in The First Avenger. Recovered by Hydra agents and subjected to a version of the same super soldier serum that augmented Cap, Bucky was routinely brainwashed into becoming a ruthless assassin; kept in cryogenic stasis and unleashed whenever Hydra required a target to be eliminated, Bucky’s sense of identity is all but lost thanks to decades of mindwipes and manipulation. For the first time since he became the Winter Soldier, Bucky begins to question himself and his mission; intrigued by Steve’s knowledge of him, he is curious to find out more but no less dangerous as his conditioning dictates that the mission must always come first at the expense of all other distractions.

Though surrounded by betrayal, Steve is supported by allies both old and new.

While Steve’s oldest friend may have been turned into a merciless enemy, Cap gains a new ally in United States Air Force pararescueman Sam Wilson (Mackie); though fully trained in advanced aerial combat and utilising a specialised rocket-and-wing pack as the Falcon, Sam is primarily focused on helping veterans to reacclimatise to society after serving overseas. As a result, he forms an immediate friendship with Steve based on their mutual military experience and losses; with few friends and confidantes to talk to, Steve finds a kindred spirit in Sam and he helps Cap to focus on moving on with his life as best as he possibly can. When Pierce brands Cap a traitor and orders all agents (both those loyal to S.H.IE.LD. and those oblivious to Hydra’s infiltration) to hunt him down, Sam is one of the few who stands by Steve and suits up as the Falcon to join him in his desperate assault against the Helicarriers in the film’s finale. Black Widow also gets a great deal more time to shine here than in her previous appearances; ostensibly placed as Cap’s partner in S.T.R.I.K.E. missions, she is a pragmatic, straightforward, and very modern character in contrast to Cap’s more dated sensibilities. Indeed, while he struggles to adjust to the morally grey nature of the modern world, Romanoff has lived in a morally grey area for her entire life and sees (and approaches) situations very differently to Steve. Her secretive nature conflicts with Steve’s more honest ways just as much as Fury’s but, when push comes to shove, she prioritises her friendship and partnership with Steve over all other concerns. Still a kick-ass, impossibly alluring character, Romanoff actively tries to encourage Steve to socialise more and explore his potential in the modern world, seems legitimately heartbroken when Fury is killed, and works alongside Cap to uncover the mystery of the Winter Soldier and the depth to Hydra’s infiltration of S.H.I.E.L.D. personnel.

The Nitty-Gritty:
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is an impressively intriguing and complex political thriller masquerading as an action-packed superhero film; for those who say all the MCU films look and feel the same, I would recommend taking another look at The Winter Soldier, which is far more gritty and serious than the average superhero film, to say nothing of its MCU cousins. Filled with as much intrigue as it is action, the film challenges our perception of the MCU by turning friends into foes and making us question the motives of everyone we’ve grown accustomed to by this point. Accordingly, the primary goal of The Winter Soldier is to take everything that has been established about he MCU and tear it down; S.H.I.E.L.D., especially, once this seemingly benevolent governmental arm that provided the Avengers with every resource they could ask for, is shattered into fragments by the reveal that Hydra has infiltrated it since the end of the Second World War.

Hydra’s agents have been posing as trusted allies and are ready to consolidate their power.

At the time (and, if I’m being honest, even now), I somewhat disagreed with stripping S.H.I.E.L.D. away from the Avengers as it felt like we hadn’t really had a chance to really explore what it was all about or see them operate at the peak of their power but it definitely put the MCU on the path towards the fracturing of its premier super-team and the extremely effective unification of every costumed hero against a cosmic threat. Zola reveals that, over the years, Hydra has been destroying individuals and governments (primarily using the Winter Solder) to weaken society and the will of humankind. The culmination of this is an algorithm, developed by Zola, which is capable of identifying those who could become threats to Hydra’s power and eliminating them; this list includes names such as Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), Doctor Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), and the yet-to-be-introduced Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch).

The Winter Soldiers considerably ups Cap’s fighting scenes and skills.

As much as I enjoyed The First Avenger, its action scenes weren’t really too much to shout about; the film gave a general overview of Cap’s superhuman abilities but he didn’t have too many chances to really show what he was capable of. The Winter Soldier changes all of that; Cap freely dives out of aircraft without a parachute, is fully capable of taking on entire groups or armed (and unarmed) men in both large and confined spaces, and he uses his indestructible Vibranium shield to fantastically brutal effect as an offensive weapon. Cap’s almost single-handed takedown of Georges Batroc (Georges St-Pierre) and his terrorists is only the top of the iceberg when it comes to how hard-hitting and impressive the film’s action and fight scenes are, with Cap’s extraordinary scuffle with Rumlow and other undercover Hydra agents in the lift and his multiple fist-fights with the titular Winter Soldier being a notable highlight.

The film ends with S.H.I.E.L.D. destroyed and the MCU heading for major changes.

The Winter Soldier culminates in a two-pronged attack against Hydra, which is positioning S.H.I.E.L.D.’s own technology to rain fire upon major American cities. When Fury reveals that he faked his death, he is able to get Black Widow close enough to Pierce to take him out of play and broadcast all of Hydra (and S.HI.E.L.D.’s) secrets to the world to effectively neuter whatever secrets and leverage the organisation may have. At the same time, the Falcon and Cap attack the Helicarriers; while Falcon fights with Rumlow, Cap switches the control chips so that the Helicarriers attack each other rather than their intended targets and, in the process, is forced into a final, brutal fist-fight with the Winter Soldier. As the Helicarrier collapses around them Steve refuses to fight his former best friend and tries to reach him; although he takes a savage beating, his words apparently strike enough of a chord in Bucky for him to rescue Steve from drowning and he disappears, alone and free for the first time in over seventy years. While Easter Eggs and references to the larger and ever-growing MCU are actually far less prominent in The Winter Soldier than in its Phase One counterparts, the film ends with Steve and Sam starting a new mission to track Bucky down, Fury adopting a pretty half-assed new look in a new-S.H.I.E.L.D.-less world, and a tantalising tease for the next big Avengers crossover.

The Summary:
For me, and for many, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is kind of where the MCU “got serious”; the films before it had always dealt with some pretty serious issues but generally approached them or balanced them out with some spectacular action or moments of entertaining levity. Here, though, the focus is definitively on being more of a political spy thriller full of intrigue, mystery, and suspense as much as action. That’s not to say that it’s dull, boring, or too serious for its own good; in fact, The Winter Soldier perfectly balances its action with its gritter aspects in a way that other superhero films can only dream of. The result is easily one of the best MCU, and superhero, films ever made and a vast improvement over the first film…and that’s keeping in mind that I am a big fan of The First Avenger! But The Winter Soldier fully sold me on Cap as a character, fleshing out his morals and motivations and challenging his perception of the world and his allies by turning them all upside down. Better yet, the film introduces one of my favourite MCU characters, the Winter Soldier, who is played to perfection by Sebastian Stan and is a wonderfully realised tortured reflection of the morally just Captain America. The decision to tear S.H.I.E.L.D. down and reveal that Hydra had secretly been operating behind the scenes for decades was a bold one and one that was definitely part of a well-crafted long game for the MCU and it all stated here with this exceptionally well-crafted thriller of a film.

My Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Fantastic

What are your thoughts on Captain America: The Winter Soldier? What did you think about the way the film, and the MCU, handled Cap’s return to the world after being frozen in time? Did you truly believe that Fury had died in the film? What did you think to Bucky’s reintroduction as the Winter Soldier and the debut of the Falcon? Were you a fan of the changes the film made to the MCU and the destruction of S.H.I.E.L.D.? Where does this film rank against the other Captain America movies and the larger MCU? How are you celebrating Captain America this month? Whatever your thoughts, drop a comment below and be sure to pop back for more Captain America content throughout July.

Talking Movies [Captain America Month]: Captain America: The First Avenger


First appearing in 1941, Marvel Comics’ star-spangled super soldier, Steve Rogers/Captain America, has become one of Marvel’s most recognisable and celebrated characters not just for his super patriotism but also for being a prominent member and leader of Marvel’s premier super team, the Avengers. Having successfully made the jump to live-action, Cap is now a widely celebrated, mainstream superhero and, since American’s celebrated Independence Day this month, what better way to celebrate this than by spending every Tuesday in July paying tribute to the star-spangled man with a plan himself!


Released: 22 July 2011
Director: Joe Johnston
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Budget: $140 to 216.7 million
Stars: Chris Evans, Hugo Weaving, Hayley Atwell, Sebastian Stan, Dominic Cooper, Tommy Lee Jones, and Stanley Tucci

The Plot:
Steve Rogers (Evans) wants nothing more than to enlist in the United States Army to combat the Axis Forces in the Second World War but has been repeatedly rejected because of his frail body and ill health. Intrigued by his resolve, Doctor Abraham Erskine (Tucci) enlists him into the experimental super soldier program, transforming him into a veritable superhuman. With the tide of the war teetering on a razor’s edge after his Nazi counterpart, Johann Schmidt/The Red Skull (Weaving), acquires the mysterious Tesseract, Steve defies orders and engages on a crusade to bring down the Red Skull’s Hydra forces as Captain America.

The Background:
Captain America: The First Avenger was the fifth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) but a big-screen adaptation of Marvel Comic’s patriotic super soldier was actually in development as far back as the year 2000. After settling an ugly lawsuit regarding the character, and bolstered by the early success of the MCU, producer Kevin Feige soldiered on (no pun intended) with his plan to introduce some of Marvel’s classic characters in solo films before bringing them together for a big team up and chose to focus on setting the stage for Cap’s “man out of time” story arc in the wider MCU. After signing director Joe Johnston, production began in earnest in 2010; after some hesitation, Chris Evans (who had previously starred as Johnny Storm/The Human Torch in separate, unconnected Marvel adaptations) joined the film in the title role and cutting edge digital effects were used to portray him as a weak and frail man prior to showcasing his impressive physique. Perhaps because audience anticipation for the upcoming Avengers movie was reaching its peak, Captain America: The First Avenger was a resounding box office success; the film made over $370 million in worldwide gross and was met with widespread critical acclaim, though some noted that it was maybe playing things a little too safe, which I agreed with at the time. Nevertheless, the film’s success led directly into the aforementioned Avengers movie and galvanised Captain America as an icon for an entirely new audience, one who would go on to become a major part of the MCU as it continued to unfold in subsequent years.

The Review:
Captain America: The First Avenger is bookended by scenes set in the then-modern day; the opening sequence depicts a team of scientists (and a few representatives from the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division (S.H.I.E.L.D.)) discovering a futuristic aircraft buried in the Arctic that houses the frozen body of Steve Rogers. From there, the film jumps back to 1942, at the tail-end (and height) of the Second World War; Nazi Germany is aggressively spreading death and destruction across most of Europe and the Allied Powers (mainly the United Kingdom and the United States of America, especially in Hollywood) are frantically trying to push them back. As a result, the U.S. continues to ask for volunteers to join her ranks to fight for the ideals of freedom and equality. None embody these beliefs more than young Steve Rogers, a frightfully malnourished man whose family were killed as a result of the War and who has been repeatedly denied his time in service of his country due to his many physical ailments.

Steve is a frail, sickly young man whose heart and determination are unmatched.

Frustrated at his inability to “do his part”, Steve upholds his ideals on the home front; even when he is clearly physically mismatched against bullies and braggarts, Steve continues to get up and fight back in an effort to prove himself (and to vent his frustrations). While his friend, Sergeant James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes (Stan) is often on hand to help him out, both physically and with the ladies, Steve desperately wishes to contribute to the war effort despite him being basically infirm and more than a little unlucky in love. His latest effort to lie his way into active service catches the attention of Dr. Erskine, who is inspired by Steve’s moxie and his lofty idealism. Dr. Erskine sees Steve as the perfect candidate to undergo the super soldier procedure not because he is a good soldier, but because he is a good man and Steve, who has no desire to kill anyone and simply wishes to stand up to bullies, jumps at the chance to be a part of “Project: Rebirth” and the Strategic Scientific Reserve (S.S.R.). While Colonel Chester Phillips (Jones) is less than impressed with Dr. Erskine’s selection above the other far more physically capable recruits in his regiment, Dr. Erskine remains resolute in his choice and Steve’s adaptability and never-say-die mentality catches the admiration of British agent Peggy Carter (Atwell). As part of their unit, Steve is put through the paces of basic training and demonstrates his bravery on numerous occasions but the one that stands out the most is when he willingly throws himself upon what is believed to be a live grenade to shield his fellow soldiers.

Cap soon finds himself leading the charge in co-ordinated strikes against Hydra facilities.

The super soldier serum is more than just a simple shot in the arm or a light show; in conjunction with technology provided by Howard Stark (Cooper), Erskine subjects Steve to a series of deep injections and a bombardment of “Vita Rays” that augment his physical stature and abilities far beyond those of a normal man. Now tall, muscular, and sporting a rapid metabolism, Steve is made a veritable superhuman but at the cost of Dr. Erskine’s life as Hydra agents strike following the procedure and cause the super soldier serum to be lost. Angered at being denied an army of super soldiers, Philips decides not to utilise Steve’s amplified abilities and he is, instead, reduced to touring the nation as the colourful “Captain America” to promote war bonds rather than fighting alongside the other troops. When Bucky and his unit are declared missing in action in Berlin, Steve disobeys Philips’ direct orders and goes in alone to rescue them; in the process, he meets his Nazi counterpart and learns of Hydra’s plan to attack major American cities with his Tesseract-powered weapons. Alongside Bucky and his unit, the “Howling Commandos”, Steve is officially drafted into the US army as Captain America and given an amazing suit of red, white, and blue and a circular shield made of the supposedly-indestructible “Vibranium” and sets out to put a stop to the Red Skull’s goals of world conquest. In the process, Steve earns not only the respect of his peers and fellow soldiers but also (after some awkward miscommunication) the love of Carter; however, his crusade against Hydra soon becomes as much of a personal vendetta as a mission to safeguard the world and Steve is soon forced not only into a desperate battle against the Red Skull but also into making the ultimate sacrifice for the greater good.

The Red Skull, and Weaving in general, is one of the film’s biggest highlights.

While the super soldier procedure is a success with Steve, Dr. Erskine’s earlier efforts were just as successful but on the opposite end of the spectrum. Johann Schmidt is an extremely charismatic and learned man; with a fascination and deep knowledge of legends and mythology, he seeks the ultimate tangible power in the form of the Tesseract. To acquire this magical object, he ransacks the small town of Tønsberg using both the imposing force of Hydra and his enigmatic personality. As charming as he is ruthless, Schmidt doesn’t hesitate to kill innocents in his pursuit of power and, having obtained the Tesseract, his goal expands considerably; thanks to the near-limitless power of the cosmic cube, Schmidt and his right-hand man, Doctor Arnim Zola (Toby Jones), is able to develop incredibly advanced weaponry almost overnight and, very quickly, he sets his sights on conquering the world not in the name of his Fuhrer but in the name of Hydra and the Red Skull! Subjected to an incomplete version of the super soldier process, Schmidt has gained incredible superhuman abilities and found his intellect and brutality augmented a thousand-fold but at the cost of his physical appearance. Now sporting a blood red visage beneath a life-like human mask, the Red Skull is a horrific and formidable adversary even without the Tesseract but, once he begins experimenting with its powers, he comes almost unstoppable. Thanks to Weaving’s unparalleled screen charisma and some absolutely top-notch practical effects, the Red Skull is brought to gruesome life; as great as many of the film’s effects, period-appropriate technology and attention to detail, and even Cap’s costume are, the Red Skull’s appearance and portrayal are a constant highlight for me every time I watch Captain America: The First Avenger and I never fail to feel like we were robbed of subsequent appearances by the villain.

The Nitty-Gritty:
When I first saw Captain America: The First Avenger, I was extremely eager to get the film out of the way as it was the final step towards the long-awaited Avengers film; as a result, while I enjoyed it at the time, I wasn’t exactly blown away by it. However, in the years since, I have come to appreciate what an impressive piece of superhero cinema it is. Setting the vast majority of its run-time in the 1940s was a brilliant way to separate it from other MCU movies and to devote the proper time to establishing the ideals and morals of Captain America, a character who could easily be seen as hokey and cheesy in modern times. Additionally, like I mentioned in my review of Iron Man (Favreau, 2008), one of the things that really helped the MCU (and other superhero movies of this time) out was the quality of its casting. Although the film doesn’t ask much of Tommy Lee Jones other than to be every gruff and jaded military commander you’ve ever seen, he steals every scene he’s in; Hayley Atwell is both gorgeous and impressive as Agent Carter (a woman living in a man’s world who is striving to prove herself as much as Steve is); and even the smallest roles are bolstered by some well-placed humour and appealing character actors.

The film’s action and aesthetic are bolstered by Chris Evans’ appealing performance.

Considering how grounded and gritty the film is compared to the other MCU films from that era, Captain America: The First Avenger is no slouch in the action and effects department; while some of the special effects are a little iffy compared to other MCU films as the film came out around the time when it was in-vogue to cater to the 3D market, the costume and set design is incredibly impressive. All of the Hydra forces and weaponry are ripped right out of the comic books, the quaint 1940s technology is given a suitably futuristic flair thanks to the efforts of both Stark and Hydra, and once Cap launches his campaign against the Red Skull the film really ramps up. Thanks to his superhuman metabolism, Cap is virtually inexhaustible and a formidable opponent despite his lack of training and experience compared to his fellow soldiers; crucially, he’s also still a man and capable of being injured, which helps as much as his uncompromising commitment to justice and fairness to make him extremely easy to root for. Much of this is down to Evans’ likeable charisma; he portrays Steve as a shy, quirky man just trying to do the right thing even after he balloons out into a muscular physique and it’s impossible to not be won over by his idealism and rugged good looks.

After losing Bucky, Cap defeats the Red Skull and makes the ultimate sacrifice.

This goes a long way to empathising with Steve after he is left devastated when Bucky falls to his apparent death during his team’s successful mission to capture Zola; although anyone who is familiar with the characters and comics knew that Bucky was destined to return later in life, this is still a powerful scene and motivation for Cap’s renewed efforts to strike back against Hydra using information given to the S.S.R. by the seemingly remorseful Zola. This leads to a physical confrontation between Cap and the Red Skull on a Hydra aircraft carrying devastating weapons of mass destruction. Though physically even, the fight remains a brutal slugfest between the two that sees the Tesseract damaged; when he touches the cube, Schmidt is seemingly vaporised by an intense blast of rainbow energy and Steve is left with no choice but to pilot the craft to a suicide dive into the frozen wasteland. Of course, the film ends with Steve awakening in then-modern times and finding the world has moved on over the last seventy years; though despondent at having missed his chance with Peggy, Steve is immediately approached by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), director of S.H.I.E.L.D., with a new mission to defend the world from an approaching danger. One aspect that I’ve always enjoyed about the film is the incredible attention to detail to its setting and the wider MCU; not only do we get the prerequisite cameo from Stan Lee but Cap dons a fabric version of his costume that is a direct one-to-one interpretation of his comic book counterpart (and still somehow looks better than the suit in the 1990 movie). The film also includes a brief cameo from Jim Hammond/The Human Torch and iconic Howling Commandos such Timothy “Dum Dum” Dugan (Neal McDonough). Additionally, when we’re first introduced to Zola, he’s framed in a magnifying glass to resemble the android body of his comic book counterpart, Hydra’s Tesseract weapons emit the same distinctive whine as Tony Stark/Iron Man’s (Robert Downey Jr.) Repulsor Rays, and Schmidt makes frequent references to Norse mythology.

The Summary:
Honestly, of all the colourful superheroes in Marvel Comics, I’ve never had much of an affinity for Captain America. This may have something to do with the fact that I am British and not really much of a patriot but, in my experience, he generally falls into the unenviable role of the staunch, righteous leader rather than being an especially interesting or engaging character. My indifference towards the character was changed by this film, and Cap’s portrayal in the MCU in general, though. As I mentioned, on first viewing, I didn’t think much to it; it was just another by-the-numbers superhero origin story that was a necessary step on the road to the Avengers movie and, while I enjoyed it, it didn’t exactly blow me away beyond some impressive special (and practical) effects and performances. Very quickly into the MCU’s second phase of movies, though, I came to appreciate just how entertaining this film is; all too often, many people complain about the MCU being too derivative and indistinguishable but I generally believe to be nonsense as the first phase of films alone dabbles in science-fiction, fantasy, and this period piece that all mesh as part of a greater whole thanks to the film’s having a focused goal in mind. Captain America: The First Avenger is, perhaps, one of the under-rated gems of the MCU that quickly became eclipsed by its bigger, better sequel but make no mistake about it, this is one hell of an entertaining watch that is full of action, heart, and some fantastic performances from the likes of Chris Evans and, especially, Hugo Weaving.

My Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Great Stuff

What did you think to Captain America: The First Avenger? Were you a fan upon first viewing or, like me, did you come to appreciate it more over time? What did you think to the film’s presentation and special effects, especially the Red Skull and Captain America’s suit? Were you also disappointed that we never got a rematch between Cap and Schmidt? Where does this film rank against the other Captain America movies and the larger MCU? How are you celebrating Captain America this month? Whatever your thoughts, drop a comment below and be sure to pop back for more Captain America content throughout July.

Screen Time [Multiverse Madness]: What If…? (Season One)


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.

Peggy takes Steve’s place and is forced to make the ultimate sacrifice to stop Hydra’s interdimensional beast.

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.

T’Challa is a galaxy-renowned force for good who has a positive influence on even the Mad Titan himself!

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.

Pym is revealed as the culprit but, after taking him into custody, Loki usurps his threat and conquers the world!

“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.

A grief-stricken Dr. Strange finds he cannot save his love no matter how many times he tries to alter the past.

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).

Strange Supreme saves Christine, but only briefly and at the cost everything that ever is or was in his reality.

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.

Banner is horrified to find the world, and many of its heroes, infected by a zombie virus.

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.

The survivors narrowly escape Zombie Wanda, completely unaware of a greater threat waiting in Wakanda.

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!

Killmonger rescues Stark and becomes his most trusted confidante to kill his way to his birthright.

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.

This Thor just wants to party, but his good time is spoiled by Captain Marvel and Jane blabbing to Frigga.

“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 alternate version of Ultron is such a threat to the multiverse that the Watcher is forced to intervene.

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.

The Guardians of the Multiverse join forces to end 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.

Captain Carter and T’Challa Star-Lord are just as competent, if not more so, as their MCU counterparts.

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.

What If…? isn’t afraid to get very dark and show twisted or corrupted versions of these popular characters.

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.

What If…? showed characters are their grimmest and worst and also at their most carefree.

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.

The Watcher is forced to take action for the first time in his long life in order to defend the multiverse.

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.

My Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Fantastic

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.

Talking Movies: What If…? Thanos and the Masters of Evil

Talking Movies

In Avengers: Infinity War (Russo and Russo, 2018) the Mad Titan, Thanos (Josh Brolin), finally made a significant appearance in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). When the idea of a two-film saga based on the Infinity Gauntlet comic book (Starlin, et al, 1991) was first announced, I, like many others, had many theories about what was going to happen, who was going to live and die, and how everything was )going to go down. For example, before Thor: Ragnarok (Waititi, 2017), I was certain that Thanos’ big entrance was going to immediately establish his threat by hanging him storm into Asgard kill Odin Allfather (Anthony Hopkins), and claim the Tesseract (and, obviously, the Space Stone it help). After all, how better to establish this big bad villain than by having him kill a God?

Thanos’ Black Order made their MCU debut in Avengers: Infinity War.

Instead, of course, Thanos wrecked Thor Odinson’s (Chris Hemsworth) ship and slaughtered half of the Asgardians onboard. Still an impressive feat, to be sure, but one that focused more on Thanos’ grandeur and pretentious philosophy rather than his actual physical strength thanks to the bulk of the work being undertaken by his underlings, the “Children of Thanos”. Headed by Ebony Maw (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), Cull Obsidian (Terry Notary), Proxima Midnight (Carrie Coon/Monique Ganderton), and Corvus Glaive (Michael James Shaw), the Children of Thanos didn’t actually appear in The Infinity Gauntlet and are, instead, relatively recent additions to Thanos’ ranks who first appeared (as the “Black Order”) in Infinity (Hickman, et al, 2013). In the film, we don’t really learn much about these guys at all except that they enforce Thanos’ will with unquestioning loyalty and that he trusts them to help him gather the remaining Infinity Stones and, while they certainly look visually interesting, they’re mostly disposable bad guys for the Avengers to fight in place of Thanos.

While Abomination is a good choice, I definitely think Ronan could’ve taken Cull’s place.

Now, I’ve never read Infinity; I have no emotional attachment to the Black Order or any of the characters and, as a result, they were merely nothing more than henchman to me and I only really recall one of them being referred to be name (“I take it the Maw is dead?”) While I enjoyed their inclusion in the film, I can’t help but feel like they could have been dropped and supplanted with some other, more recognisable MCU villains had some other films and events happened just a little differently. For example, take Cull Obsidian; he’s Thanos’ muscle who basically does nothing and is largely inconsequential. What if, instead of killing Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) in Guardians of the Galaxy (Gunn, 2014), Ronan had been soundly defeated and humbled and, having seen the extent of Thanos’ power (he did destroy Xandar (offscreen), which was what Ronan wanted, after all, and would be enough to bring Ronan to heel, I would wager), he pledged himself fully to Thanos’ cause to get revenge against the Guardians of the Galaxy? I’m not massively familiar with Ronan but it seems to me like it was a bit of a miss-step to kill him off when he could have fulfilled a role in Thanos’ little gang at the very least, if not remain as a recurring antagonist for the Guardians. Another potential replacement for Corvus would be Emil Blonsky/Abomination (Tim Roth) who, at the time, had been conspicuous by his absence from the MCU. However, arguably, it wouldn’t make as much sense for Thanos to recruit the Abomination as he’s not exactly floating around in the depths of space for him to encounter.

What if Loki or the Red Skull had aligned themselves with Thanos in place of Ebony Maw…?

Intrigue was equally high in the build-up to The Avengers/Avengers Assemble (Whedon, 2012); I was hoping to see a version of the Masters of Evil, with Loki Laufeyson (Tom Hiddleston) joining forces with Johann Schmidt/The Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) – who was clearly transported away from Earth by the Bifrost at the end of Captain America: The First Avenger (Johnston, 2011 – and either the Abomination or Doctor Samuel Sterns/The Leader (Tim Blake Nelson) once they got to Earth. While I was happy with the first Avengers team-up we got, I do feel this was another missed opportunity that we never saw this anti-Avengers team-up. Consequently, I feel like we could have swapped out Ebony Maw for either of these characters; in The Infinity Gauntly, Thanos was advised by Mephisto, a role many expected Loki to play in Infinity War given his mischievous and devious nature. Naturally, of course, you could argue that this wouldn’t really fit with Loki’s character arc by that point but remember how he feigned loyalty to Thanos and then tried to stab him in the neck? Well, imagine that but throughout a large portion of the movie. Loki pledges fealty, willingly hand shim the Tesseract, and spends the remainder of the film waiting for the perfect moment to strike and then he’s killed for his efforts. Obviously, the Red Skull finally showed up in Avengers: Endgame (Russo and Russo, 2019) in a slightly different role as the Stonekeeper (Ross Marquand), but again…what if the Red Skull had replaced Ebony Maw? How much more interesting and impactful would it have been to see the Red Skull empowered by Thanos and making a triumphant return as Thanos’ chief torturer? Sure, if his death was the same then you could argue that he would’ve been “wasted” or been killed off too easily but I still feel like this would have been a better use of the character than as the keeper of the Soul Stone (a role that could’ve been filled by character’s envisioning the Stonekeeper as someone close to them, perhaps?)

With some tweaks, nebula could have taken Corvus’ role as Thanos’ chief assassin.

Corvus Glaive is a trickier one to “replace” in this hypothetical alternate world, however I have one  suggestion: Nebula (Karen Gillan). Now, similar to Loki joining Thanos, this would require quite a few changes to Nebula’s character arc; in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (Gunn, 2017), she finally buried the hatchet with her “sister”, Gamora (Zoey Saldana) and it was great seeing her grow as a character, put aside her hatred, and learn how to work alongside the Guardians and the Avengers. In The Infinity Gauntlet, Nebula spends most of her time as a mindless zombie thanks to Thanos’ wrath but plays a vital role in his downfall by stealing the Gauntlet for herself (and promptly being driven mad by its power). By tweaking her character arc, or having it so that Thanos either intimidates or reprograms her into subservice, you could replace Corvus with a more prominent and recognisable character and still find ways to weave her existing arc into the story. Like, what if, after Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, Nebula is forced into Thanos to serve him (maybe he threatens to kill Gamora/the Guardians or promises to “repair” her once he’s assemble the Gauntlet) in Corvus’ place; she could still have been ripped apart and tortured to force Gamora into revealing the Soul Stone’s location and would have even more motivation to turn against her “father” since he would have lied to and manipulated her once again.

If Hela wasn’t going to take Death’s place, she could’ve replaced Proxima Midnight.

Another character who I, like many, expected to play a prominent role in Infinity War was Hela Odindottir (Cate Blanchett), a character who a lot of people expected would take the role of Lady Death as the object of Thanos’ affections. Of course, this didn’t turn out to be true as Hela was killed in Thor: Ragnarok and Thanos’ motivations were changed from worshipping Death to wanting to bring a sense of balance to the galaxy. Still, how awesome would it have been if Hela had taken Proxima Midnight’s place in the Dark Order? If killing the Allfather didn’t show you that Thanos was a bad-ass, bringing the Goddess of Death to heel totally would have and could have made for a much more memorable female villain for the finale in Wakanda. Again, there’s the question of her being killed off but what better way to help showcase Wanda Maximoff’s (Elizabeth Olsen) sheer power than by having her shred a Goddess to pieces? Or you could rewrite her death to maybe come at the hands of her brother, Thor, and his new weapon, Stormbreaker, to sell the awesomeness of the weapon.

As cool as the Black Order were, would a version of the Masters of Evil have been better…?

Ultimately, I was more than happy with Avengers: Infinity War, Endgame, and the MCU’s portrayal of Thanos overall. His underlings were find cannon fodder for the film and helped to serve as extensions of the Mad Titan’s will but I do feel it would have been even more awesome to see these more recognisable villains swayed to Thanos’ cause so that we could see them interact with their rivals, and other heroes, in new and interesting ways. Sure, many have cropped up again since then and the potential of a Masters of Evil in the MCU is still there, I just think that maybe these huge movies could have been made even bigger if things had been slightly changed to accommodate these more familiar characters. Do you agree or disagree? Maybe you’re a big fan of the Black Order from the comics? Perhaps you’d have like to see a different route taken? Do you even want to see the Masters of Evil in the MCU? Either way, feel free to sound off in the comments below.

Talking Movies [National Superhero Day]: Avengers Assemble


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.


Talking Movies

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.

Like their comic counterparts, the Avengers assembled after a series of solo adventures.

When the time came for Earth’s Mightiest Heroes to finally meet onscreen, Marvel Studios turned to Joss Whedon to rewrite the script and direct the film and included Iron Man (Favreau, 2008) and Iron Man 2 (ibid, 2010) director Jon Favreau as an executive producer. After some differences of opinion, Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige chose to recast Edward Norton in the role of Banner/Hulk and easily the biggest superhero film of all time was officially underway. The Avengers (known as Avengers Assemble here in the United Kingdom) was an absolutely phenomenal success, making over $1.500 billion at the box office, receiving rave reviews, and kicking off the extraordinary blockbuster success we know of today as the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).

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 comes to invade Earth and realise his grandiose desires for power and servitude.

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.

It’s a rough experience for Cap, who has awoken to a world that has radically changed.

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 joins the team with his own agenda but eventually comes to respect and defer to his peers.

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.

The naturally apprehensive Banner has attained a measure of tenuous control over the Hulk.

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 complex relationship with Loki is a pivotal plot point throughout the film.

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 remains a mystery despite the showcase of her skills and hints towards her past.

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.

Though he spends the majority of the film under Loki’s spell, Barton proves a formidable opponent.

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.

Coulson is the glue that connects Fury’s Avengers and his death galvanises the team into action.

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.

Loki’s influence exacerbates the tension within the fledgling team…

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.

Even when he’s clearly outmatched and in over his head, Cap continues to fight.

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.

Seeing these colourful and volatile individuals interact is every fan’s dream come true!

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 Chitauri are, admittedly, underwhelming antagonists but they serve their purpose.

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.

The Avengers win the day but a greater, far more powerful threat looms in the background…

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.

Avengers Assemble is my favourite Phase 1 film and remains a top tier MCU movie.

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.

My Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Fantastic

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.

Game Corner: Captain America and the Avengers (Arcade)

Released: 1991
Developer: Data East
Also Available For: Game Boy, Game Gear, Mega Drive, Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES)

The Background:
First created in 1940 by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, Steve Rogers/Captain America was an icon of the Second World War, embodying America’s obsession with patriotism and pride by taking the fight directly to the Axis Forces. Superhero comics went on a bit of a decline after the war and Captain America wouldn’t return to prominence until 1964, when he was famously revived to join Marvel Comics’ all-star team, the Avengers. Since then, the character has been largely synonymous with Earth’s Mightiest Mortals, often acting as the team’s moral compass and leader. In 1991, both comics and arcades were undergoing something of a renaissance; Marvel published the influential Infinity Gauntlet (Starlin, et al, 1991) during this time and sidescrolling beat-‘em-ups like Final Fight (Capcom, 1989) and The Simpsons (Konami, 1991) were proving popular coin munchers. It is perhaps these factors that led to Data East developing a four-player beat-‘em-up game centred around Marvel’s popular super team, a game that is often forgotten because of genre-defining titles like X-Men (Konami, 1992) and a title I first played on the SEGA Mega Drive in all its inauspicious glory.

The Plot:
Johann Schmidt/The Red Skull has assembled an army of the world’s most dangerous supervillains in order to take over the world using a gigantic, Moon-based laser! Answering the call to action and adventure are Captain America, Tony Stark/Iron Man, Clint Barton/Hawkeye, and the Vision, collectively known as Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, the Avengers, are the only ones capable of putting a stop to the Red Skull’s nefarious plans for world domination! Avengers Assemble!!

Gameplay:
Captain America and the Avengers is a 2D, sidescrolling beat-‘em-up in which you, and another player if you have a friend, control one of the four Avengers and mindlessly pummel a bunch of robots, cyborgs, and iconic Marvel bad guys across five different stages (referred to as “Scenes”). No matter which character you choose to play as, the game pretty much plays exactly the same with only some minor aesthetic differences separating the characters.

Each Avenger has their own special attack but, otherwise, controls exactly the same.

Despite this, though, I found Cap the most enjoyable character to play as, with Iron Man a close second. The controls are as simple as you could want: you can beat down your enemies with some simple punches and kicks, charge through them with a dash attack, block by holding down the punch button, and perform two different jumping attacks depending on how high you’re jumping. You can also grab and throw enemies (and objects) and unleash a unique ranged attack by pressing down the attack and jump button simultaneously: Captain America hurls his mighty shield, Iron Man fires his repulsor rays, Hawkeye fires arrows, and Vision fires laser blasts from his forehead. I found there to be a bit of a delay in activating these special attacks, however, which can leave you vulnerable but at least they don’t drain your health. Speaking of which, your health is measured in hundreds; you begin each Scene/life with 100 health but can increase it by grabbed the rarely-seen small blue orbs or the power-ups dropped by other Avengers like Namor the Sub-Mariner and Pietro Maximoff/Quicksilver.

Autoscrolling shooting sections help to add some variety to the gameplay.

You can also increase your health, all the way up to “Max”, by entering coins to keep you alive and kicking, effectively sacrificing your pocket money and extra lives for more health. Thankfully, emulation means you don’t need to worry about wasting your hard-earned pocket money so you never have to worry about running out of lives or health. Unlike a lot of arcade games, Captain America and the Avengers doesn’t feature a time limit; however, if you stand around idle for too long, an explosion randomly drains your health until you either die or get moving, which is a cruel but unique inclusion. It’s not all mindless right-to-left fighting, either; Scene 2, Scene 3, and Scene 5 feature autoscrolling shooting sections that take place in the skies of a wrecked city, deep underwater, and in the cold vastness of outer space. If you’re playing as Cap or Hawkeye, you’ll get to pilot a Sky-Cycle in the first of these stages, but for the others you’ll throw on some scuba gear and a rudimentary space suit. Either way, you must blast enemies with your ranged attack (which is now just a simple button press), avoiding their projectiles and holding down punch to block. These sections are only short but they held to mix things up a bit and, when it comes to sidescrolling beat-‘em-ups, variety is hard to find so it’s appreciated.

Graphics and Sound:
I remember Captain America and the Avengers looking very unimpressive on the Mega Drive, with small sprites in large areas and lacking a lot of the detail and quality of other games of the time. In that regard, the arcade game is better since the sprites are much bigger and more distinct and detailed but you’ll notice that they’re not as large, colourful, or intricate as those seen in games like X-Men, for example.

The game is colourful and varied but not as impressive as others in its genre.

Still, it does a decent enough job; the camera is zoomed out quite far compared to other beat-‘em-ups, though, giving you a much larger battlefield which would be a positive but, while areas can get swamped with enemies and do feature interactive elements (mainly barrels and other objects to throw or explode), they are quite empty and there’s little benefit to exploring or attacking your surroundings. You will find some interesting elements, though, such as enemies bursting out of windows and the background, an Avengers mural, burning cars, wrecked buildings, and both a sprawling city in the background and water rushing beneath you as you fly, with comic book sound effects punctuating the onscreen violence.

Comic book panels and hilariously mistranslated dialogue tell the game’s story.

As you might expect, comic book-like panels and text are used to convey the bulk of the story; each character is given a brief demonstration of their in-game abilities and a biography, which is a nice touch, and the game is peppered with some in-game cutscenes that feature dialogue between the Avengers and their enemies. These are some of the most ludicrous examples of mistranslation ever, which hilarious exchanges such as “Seeeeee my powerrr!”, “Where is the laser?”/“Ask the police!”, “You can’t escape!”/“You will be the one escaping!”, and “Why should it goes well!?” It’s cheesy and ridiculous in a “Welcome to die!!” kind of way that adds some unintentional entertainment value to the game, which also features a suitably heroic soundtrack; you’ll hear the main theme quite a bit, since it kicks in once bosses are close to defeat, and while it’s nothing special it’s very catchy and rousing and gives the game a stirring, stimulating gallant feel.

Enemies and Bosses:
For the most part, you’ll battle seemingly endless wave upon wave of robots or cybernetic enemies; the most common of these incessantly shoot at you with lasers, sometimes while jumping, while others carry shields or can grab and hold you with retractable arms. You’ll also battle enemies that hover in jetpacks, bigger, more muscle-bound variants that squeeze the life out of you with a bear hug, and hopping bug-like robots. Underwater, enemies will fire harpoons at you while you try to dodge mines and, in the air, they’ll circle around firing lasers in a simple formation. Most of these are destroyed in just a few hits, and both increase in number and become tougher to defeat as you progress, exploding upon defeat, making me believe them to be cyborgs and mechanical rather than flesh and blood.

In Scene 1, you’ll battle some minor Marvel foes after they rob a bank.

One thing Captain America and the Avengers does really well, though, is its expansive use of Marvel’s rouges gallery; in each Scene, you’ll have to contend with a main boss and a series of sub-bosses, many of whom will be recognisable to fans of the source material (and even the movies, to a degree). In Scene 1, you’ll have to contend with the duo of Arthur Parks/The Living Laser and Ulysses Klaw/Klaw mid-way through the stage as they cover David Cannon/Whirlwind’s escape following a bank robbery. Laser and Klaw are best faced with a partner since they hop around the screen, blasting lasers and projectiles at you, but, like all of the game’s sub-bosses and bosses, can be easily pummelled solo as well. When you do go toe-to-toe with Whirlwind, it’s dead easy to just wail away on him, with his only threat being his ability to transform into a literal whirlwind to dash about the screen and whip up nearby objects to rain them down on you.

After disposing of a Sentinel, you’ll fight the Grim Reaper, though the Wizard or the Mech. Taco are a threat.

Scene 2 sees you having to relentlessly blast away at a Hydra aircraft on your way to the wrecked city and a confrontation with the gigantic, screen-filling “Giant Robot” (clearly a Sentinel). The Sentinel is a slow, plodding sub-boss who tries to smack you out of the sky, fires lasers, and grabs you in its near-endless supply of robot hands. After blowing it to pieces, you’ll battle through the ruins of the city and into a confrontation with Eric Williams/The Grim Reaper, one of the game’s tougher bosses. Grim Reaper can block your projectile attack with his spinning scythe, rush across the screen with lightning speed to slash and strike you, hover in the air, and fires explosive projectiles as the fight progresses. In Scene 3, you’ll battle Bentley Wittman/The Wizard on the deck of a wrecked battleship; the Wizard favours diving punches, throwing discs, and quick-firing laser bolts but is, otherwise, a minor inconvenience at best. After exploring the depths of the ocean, you’ll encounter a giant mechanical octopus referred to as “Mech. Taco”; this is functionally the same fight as against the Sentinel, requiring you to avoid the Taco’s tentacles, swim beneath its lasers, and simply fire at it relentlessly until it explodes.

Even some of Marvel’s most recognisable villains end up being a bit of a pushover.

After emerging victorious, you’ll battle through a submarine and into a confrontation with the Mandarin; the Mandarin is a bit of a trickster, floating around the arena, rocketing into the air, firing at you with lasers, encasing you in ice, and even duplicating himself for double the threat. The Mandarin can command his duplicate to charge at you, send you flying with his floaty movements, and loves to bash you senseless when he gets up close. Like all the other bosses, though, he might have a lot of flair but he’s got a glass jaw and it’s easy to land a few combos and whittle his health down in seconds. Scene 4 sees you infiltrating the Red Skull’s Moon base, where you’ll have to contend with Cain Marko/Juggernaut (who is, ironically, actually smaller than the game’s bruiser enemies…). Juggy likes to roll around the arena in a ball, land big uppercuts, charge at you with a shoulder barge, and trying to cave your skull in with a big double axehandle smash. Oddly, the most difficult thing about fighting him isn’t his much-vaulted strength but actually his speed, since he cannot be damaged in his ball form and likes to speed around the arena like a whippet. After defeating Juggernaut, you’ll eventually battle Ultron, who fires electrical beams from his face, dashes across the screen in a fireball-like form, fires lasers blasts from his hands, pummels you with punches, and causes lasers to rain down across the arena once his health gets low. It’s not an especially difficult fight but, thanks to Ultron’s array of abilities and speedy, damage-dealing moves, it’s comparable to the ones against the Grim Reaper and the Mandarin in that it can be frustrating navigating through Ultron’s attacks but, once you get some hits in, he goes down as easily as any other boss.

Surprisingly, Crossbones is pretty tough, but the final confrontation with the Red Skull couldn’t be simpler.

Having destroyed the Red Skull’s giant laser in Scene 5, you’ll again battle two sub-bosses at once; in this case, “Control” (who is possibly supposed to be Basil Sandhurst/The Controller). This fight is made more troublesome by the buzzsaws that travel across the grid on the ground but is still easier than the first fight against the Living Laser and Klaw since Control just tries to grab you and land flying kicks. Once they’re dealt with, your penultimate boss is against Brock Rumlow/Crossbones, of all people. Not gonna lie but Crossbones is a bit disappointing as a penultimate boss in terms of his character and stature but he’s no pushover; Crossbones leaps, bounds, and tumbles across the arena leaving a shadow in his wake and raining explosive mines (which home in on you) down around you. He also pulls out a pistol to fire at you from a distance and isn’t afraid to either rush at you with his trusty knife or toss the blade your way in rapid succession. Because of his speed and relentless attacks, Crossbones is no pushover but you can tip the tide in your favour by throwing his explosives back at him. Once you corner the Red Skull (who is seen smoking a cigarette in his introduction idle animation!), you’ll go head-to-head with the Nazi superman in a good, old-fashioned slugfest. If you’re wondering where the cliché elevator stage is, it’s right here in this simple fight that turns out to be a trap! Once you drain the Red Skull’s health, he grows into a massive mechanical form and it’s revealed you’ve been fighting a decoy all along. The real Red Skull watches, safely protected within a glass tube, as you battle the formidable “Mech. Skull”, which boasts such devastating attacks as twin gatling guns, energy bolts, massive melee attacks, rockets, a big slam attack, and can summon whirlwinds to mess you up. Still, it’s a big, largely stationary target so it’s pretty simple to get close to it to avoid the majority of its attacks and just pummel away until it explodes, seemingly taking out the Red Skull with it and destroying the Red Skull’s entire Moon base in the process.

Power-Ups and Bonuses:
Unlike most sidescrolling beat-‘em-ups, there aren’t many power-ups to be found in Captain America and the Avengers. Very rarely, in the autoscrolling stages, you’ll find small blue orbs to restore your health and there are a variety of objects to pick up and throw but there are none of the traditional health power-ups, invincibilities, or melee weapons to be found. At certain, predefined points in a lot of Scenes, another Avenger will make a brief cameo and toss out a big health-restoring power-up, which is a fun inclusion. In the autoscrolling sections, you can also pick up a “W” icon and gain the help of Janet van Dyne/Wasp, who encircles your character and can be shot forwards to deal additional damage for a limited time. It’s a shame that more of the other non-playable Avengers don’t aid you in the same way (though Namor does provide some brief assistance in Scene 3).

Additional Features:
It’s an old arcade beat-‘em-up so, of course, there’s really nothing else on offer here except for obtaining or beating the high score or playing alongside a friend. Apparently, some versions of the arcade cabinet supported four-player co-op, which seems like a missed opportunity, but I do know that the consoles versions included different difficulty settings and a “Training” mode that allows you to pit each playable character against each other in a pale imitation of games like Street Fighter II: The World Warrior (Capcom, 1991).

The Summary:
If you’re looking for a classic, sidescrolling arcade beat-‘em-up, you can do a lot better than Captain America and the Avengers. It’s a decent way to waste about half an hour or so and is big, colourful, mindless fun but there are far better arcade beat-‘em-ups out there, whether carrying the Marvel license or not. The game is fun with a second player and for the completely off-the-wall voice acting and dialogue but it’s very empty and basic, even for an early-nineties beat-‘em-up title. I will say, though, having previously owned the Mega Drive version, that the arcade version of the game is the superior of the two so I would recommend playing this version over any of the others…and then jump back into X-Men right after.

My Rating:

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Could Be Better

Have you ever played Captain America and the Avengers? If so, which version did you play and which do you feel was the superior iteration? Which of the four Avengers was your go-to character and which of the unplayable Avengers would you have liked to see made playable characters? What did you think to the game’s many sub-bosses and bosses and cheesy, terribly translated dialogue? Have you got a favourite arcade beat-‘em-up or Marvel videogame; if so, what is it? Either way, I’d love to hear your thoughts so drop a comment below.

Back Issues [Captain America’s Debut]: Captain America Comics #1


First appearing in March 1941, Marvel Comics’ star-spangled super soldier, Steve Rogers/Captain America, has become one of Marvel’s most recognisable and celebrated characters not just for his super patriotism or for famously punching out Adolf Hitler, but also for being a prominent member and leader of Marvel’s premier super team, the Avengers. Having successfully made the jump to live-action, Cap is now a widely celebrated, mainstream superhero with a rich and full history and what better way to celebrate this than by spending some time paying tribute to the star-spangled man with a plan himself!


Story Title: Case No.1. Meet Captain America, Captain America and The Riddle of the Red Skull, and other untitled stories
Published: March 1941
Writer: Joe Simon
Artist: Jack Kirby

The Background:
By 1941, World War Two was in full swing; Nazi Germany had overtaken Denmark and Norway in April 1940 and, after a period of resistance to joining the war effort, the United States entered the fray during 1941, providing much need support against the combined “Axis powers” of Germany, Japan, and Italy.

Captain America and Bucky: Sentinels of Liberty and Purveyors of Propaganda!

As a result of the ever-escalating conflict, patriotism and national pride was high, especially in America, and it was at this turbulent time that Joe Simon and the legendary Jack Kirby first debuted Steve Rogers/Captain America and his kid sidekick, James Buchanan Barnes/Bucky, two characters who would not only take the fight directly to the enemies of America and the free world but also encourage readers to support the war effort by any means necessary.

The Review:
Captain America Comics #1 is a bumper forty-five page debut issue for the First Avenger that features four short stories (and even a two-page text story with only a couple of accompanying drawings and panels) but only two of these stories have actual titles.

In 1941, the war was being fought on all fronts, both foreign and domestic.

The first, “Case No.1. Meet Captain America”, details the origin of the titular star-spangled Avenger; the War is in full swing and, while America faces real threat from the vast Axis armies overseas, they also face the threat of sabotage, treason, and terrorist bombings on their home turf thanks to the actions of the “Fifth Column”, spies and traitors from the Axis forces who perpetrated such heinous attacks.

The F.B.I. are brought to a sophisticated laborator that is hidden beneath a Curio Shop.

To combat this threat, the President of the United States has J. Arthur Grover of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (F.B.I.) take two high-ranking military officers to “a sinister-looking Curio Shop” in a “shabby tenement district” in Washington, D.C. that is actually the front for a highly sophisticated laboratory.

Frail Steve Rogers is transformed into the peak of human physical ability!

There, they join other attendees in witnessing a frail, young man who was deemed unfit for active service be miraculously transformed into a man in peak mental and physical condition by Professor Reinstein’s mysterious serum. Reinstein thus dubs the young man “Captain America” and explains to his awestruck audience that he is to be the first in a “corps of super-agents” who will actively oppose spies and saboteurs on America’s home turf.

A Nazi spy kills Reinstein and destroys the super-soldier serum.

Unfortunately, one of the men in attendance is one of these spies (so much for the military’s stringent background checks…); with only a few frantic shots, the spy kills both Reinstein and Grover and destroys the only remaining vial of the super-soldier serum! Luckily, Captain America is able to subdue the spy, driving him to stumble into a bank of laboratory equipment and causing him to be summarily electrocuted to death.

Bucky discovers Steve’s dual identity and, obviously becomes his masked kid sidekick!

Sadly, though, the damage is done; with Reinstein dead, the serum destroyed, and the laboratory trashed, America’s hopes of building an army of super solders are dashed. Undeterred, Cap enlists in the army as Private Steve Rogers whilst also battling enemies of American soil as Captain America. Cap’s heroic antics catch the awe and imagination of his regiment’s mascot, young Bucky Barnes. Bucky is both stunned and exhilarated to stumble onto the fact that Steve is his patriotic hero, literally walking in as Steve is halfway through changing into his Captain America costume in perhaps the most anticlimactic and convenient of accidents. If you thought that was contrived and ridiculous though, Steve decides that the only logical course of action is for Bucky to join him as his partner. And so, donning a brightly-coloured outfit, a domino mask, and the laziest codename ever (Bucky goes by “Bucky”…), Captain America and his woefully-inexperienced sidekick pledge themselves to opposing the Axis powers in all their forms.

Sando and Omar’s destructive predictions arouse Cap’s suspicions…

They continue this fight in the issue’s next story, which goes untitled; in this story, a stage performer known as Sando has his diminutive, hunchbacked accomplice Omar stun audiences with predictions of the future, all of which detail terrorist attacks or destructive events. Although Bucky believes the two to be fakes, Cap is convinced when Omar’s prediction of the destruction of a nearby bridge comes true and the two suit up to confront the two stage performers.

Cap and Bucky subdue the Nazi goons and put a stop to their nefarious plot.

Cap doesn’t pull any punches, aggressively questioning Sando and then laying him out with a punch while Omar makes a quick getaway. I wouldn’t mind but the two haven’t even done anything yet or been proven to be responsible! Luckily Conveniently, Cap’s war-time paranoia turns out to be true as, when he races after Omar, he finds both Bucky and a beautiful reporter named Betty Ross (no relation, I’m sure) being held hostage at gunpoint by Sando and Omar, who are revealed to be working in league with Hitler’s spies to cause disasters across the country. Unimpressed, Cap and Bucky make short work of the Fuehrer’s goons, with Bucky swiftly tackling one and tossing the bomb he planned to use to kill them all out of the window before disappearing into the night.

Cap and Bucky tackle Rathcone’s assassin after the self-styled “Dictator” murders Admiral Perkins.

The issue’s third story also goes untitled and introduces a crazed Nazi who is known only as Rathcone but who comes to brand himself “The Dictator”. A malformed, goblin-like man, Rathcone has his own plans for world conquest and favours crafting little chess pieces that resemble his opposition, announcing his intentions to kill a target over the radio, and then employing a number of Nazi agents to carry out the deed. Captain America and Bucky seek Rathcone out after the self-styled Dictator makes good on his promise to kill Admiral Perkins; the witnesses to the gruesome visage of Perkins’ execution are whipped into a frenzy and baying for blood but Cap and Bucky waste no time in tracking down the assassin responsible for the murder.

Honestly, Steve, your constantly snark to your superior officers isn’t helping the situation!

Despite Cap questioning (presumably in jest) Bucky’s ability to handle “a man’s job”, Bucky successfully tackles the killer and Cap is all set to force information out of him when an unseen assailant kills the man. This is also the first instance of Cap using his shield to…well, shield himself from gunfire, however neither he nor his kid partner are able to find the shooter. Next, Rathcone targets General Ellsworth; coincidentally (and conveniently) enough, Rogers and Bucky are ordered to report for “special duties” at Ellsworth’s hut, which means that they are the first to discover the General dead at his table!

Rathcone captures Bucky but wastes time monologuing so Cap lays him out.

The media, of course, has a field day and Rathcone is so enthused by the two murders he has orchestrated that he begins to set his sights on the lofty goal of invasion; but first, he plots to remove Cap and Bucky from his chess board by…having his goons lure them into a trap that Bucky walks right into. Returning to his tent and finding that Bucky has gone off alone, Steve pulls on the stars and stripes and sets out to rescue him, making short work of Rathcone’s muscleman, Herr Strangler, in the process. Rathcone, however, holds Cap at gunpoint and, typically, wastes his best chance to off the two masked men by explaining his master plan, which gives Cap the chance to lay him out with a good, old-fashioned punch to the jaw.

Cap emerges victorious again, keeping America’s ideals safe and baffling his superiors.

After freeing Bucky, the two are set upon by Rathcone’s goons, with Bucky again requiring Cap’s assistance when two Nazis pin him down and try to stab him (I mean, it’s almost as if Cap has partnered up with a child with no training or physical acumen of any kind…). Although Rathcone recovers, tries to make a break for it, and even attempts to fight Cap off by smashing a chair over the Avenger’s head, Cap easily puts him down for the count and they uncover detailed documents of the self-styled Dictator’s plans to put an end to his scheming.

The Red Skull’s ability to apparently will his victims to death gives Cap reason enough to go solo…

The issue concludes with the first ever appearance of the Red Skull, Cap’s Nazi counterpart who would go on to be his most iconic, and enduring, archenemy. Though the Red Skull is typically the codename of Johann Schmidt, in his debut story it’s actually the persona adopted by George Maxon, a seemingly innocuous American businessman who has turned traitor and is working for the Nazis. Like Rathcone, the Red Skull’s modus operandi is to target influential military personnel in order to weaken America’s will and capabilities; he does this by stalking them, attacking them, and getting them in a choke hold all while chanting “Look at me! Look at death!” to, apparently, will his victims to death with a death gaze. So notorious is the Red Skull that he’s become something of an urban legend amongst the military personnel but, when Major Croy is found dead, the latest victim of the Red Skull, Cap takes it upon himself to investigate.

“Death to America! …And, also, rob their banks and steal their loot! Hoo-rah!”

Annoyed at being left behind (to be fair, I don’t blame Cap for this but, at the same time, it is extremely random (and, again, convenient) that he decided not to bring Bucky along this time…), Bucky decides to conduct his own investigation and (…somehow) stumbles upon the Red Skull’s secret lair where he is outlying his plan to overthrow the American government by “[looting] the First National Bank” because nothing says “Superhuman Nazi Terrorist” like a bit of old-fashioned bank robbery!

Luckily for Bucky, Cap just happens to arrive and rescue him, though the Red Skull slips away…

Thanks to some shoddy masonry, Bucky falls into the villain’s lair as he moves to warn Cap of the Red Skull’s plan and, once again, finds himself being held as a hostage; this time around, though, Bucky’s slightly more feisty and doesn’t let himself get captured without a fight but, wouldn’t you know it, Cap also found the Red Skull’s lair and arrives just in time to bash up his goons, though the Red Skull manages to slip away.

There’s something fishy about that Maxon fellow…

The next day, Steve, Bucky, and their squad are introduced to Mister Maxon who has come to join them in watching his new plane take a test flight. However, the plane catches fire in mid-flight and plummets to the ground in a fireball. Steve is disgusted that Maxon only cares about the loss of the plan rather than the men who were in it and is reprimanded by his superior officer as a result but vows to investigate further as Captain America.

Despite a brief setback, Cap is finally able to take out the Red Skull.

Later that evening, the Red Skull strikes again, literally crossing General Manor off his hit list, but is distracted from escaping into the night by the General’s wife. Though this allows Cap to get the drop on the Red Skull, he is knocked out cold when the nefarious Nazi smashes a chair over his head (which is odd as Cap shrugged off a similar shot easily enough earlier in the comic…). Luckily, Bucky flies in and rescues Cap from the Red Skull’s death gaze and, upon regaining consciousness, Cap fells his foe with a punch so hard that it shatters the Red Skull’s head! It turns out, of course, that the Red Skull was wearing a “false-face” and that Maxon had used the guise of the Red Skull, and a hypodermic needle filled with poison, to terrorise and murder his victims. Quite why he felt the need to make such a dramatic affair of it all with his “look at death” spiel is beyond me; it’s not like any of his killings took place in public or had any witnesses, after all.

Turns out it was Maxon all along but it’s okay because Cap allows him to accidentally kill himself…

Anyway, Maxon makes one last, desperate lunge for Bucky and, in the fracas, rolls over onto his own needle and dies! Interestingly, Bucky questions why Cap didn’t try to intervene and he simply replies: “I’m not talking, Bucky”. Regardless, with the Red Skull dead, Cap and Bucky flee into the night, returning to their tent for some much-needed rest (Steve loves to puff away on his pipe after a good bit of manslaughter…), and ready for more adventures as Captain America and Bucky!

As you might expect, patriotic propaganda are a pretty big theme in this issue…

The Summary:
Captain America Comics #1 is little more than what you might expect it to be; a bright, colourful piece of patriotic propaganda featuring a superhero literally wrapped in Ol’ Glory herself and tackling foreign enemies on American soil. It’s a brief, action-packed affair full of contrivances, conveniences, and long out-dated dialogue and virtues, but it’s a product of its time so you kind of have to expect that.

Cap has little use for his shield, which was originally a very different design.

You’ll notice, of course, that Captain America uses a completely different shield in his debut appearance; Cap wields a diamond-shaped shield in these stories, one far less versatile and iconic as the discus-shaped shield he would acquire in the very next issue and generally favour over the next eighty-odd years. As a result, there’s very little shield-based action or combat in this issue; Cap only uses it as a shield once, never throws it, and the rest of the time it’s more of a prop than anything else as Cap prefers to use his fists to settle his foes.

Cap’s exact strengths and limitations are quite vaguely defined in his debut appearance.

Speaking of which, Cap’s a bit of a blunt instrument here; in contrast to the majority of superhero origin stories, literally no time at all is spent showcasing Rogers’ training or physical abilities (and even less is spent on Bucky’s) and Cap’s exact strengths and limitations are extremely vague. He’s described as hitting hard and fast and can clearly take a good deal of punishment, and yet he can be stopped in his tracks by a gun, knocked out cold, and never displays any of the near-superhuman levels of strength we’ve come to associate with the character.

Fear the grotesque, foreign meance that seeks to usurp American ideals!

Stylistically, the comic is obviously designed to make monsters out of the Axis powers, specifically Nazis and their ilk. Both Rathcone and the Red Skull take on grotesque visages and appearances, appearing more like demons than humans, and their underlings are depicted as slimy, cowardly traitors or muscle-bound henchmen who all blindly follow the Fuehrer’s commands even to their deaths. The idea is pretty simple: America is the bastion of all that is good and just, with their army made up of red-blooded men and patriots who are giving it all for their country, and the Axis powers are misshapen, demonic, nefarious devils who revel in spreading death and terror. In that regard, Captain America Comics #1 does its job extremely well but, overall, I can only really recommend it for containing Cap’s iconic origin story and the first appearance of the Red Skull.

My Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Pretty Good

Have you ever read Captain America Comics #1? If so, what did you think of it and the early adventures of Captain America and Bucky? What was your first exposure to Captain America and where do you rank him against other superheroes, where Marvel or otherwise? What story or character of his is your favourite and why? How are you celebrating Captain America’s star-spangled debut today? Whatever your thoughts, drop a comment below and be sure to pop back for more Captain America content in the next few weeks!