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 [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: Iron Man 3

Released: 3 May 2013
Director: Shane Black
Distributor:
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Budget:
$200 million
Stars:
Robert Downey Jr., Guy Pearce, Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Rebecca Hall, Ty Simpkins, and Ben Kingsley

The Plot:
Suffering anxiety attacks following his experiences in The Avengers/Avengers Assemble (Whedon, 2012), Tony Stark/Iron Man (Downey Jr.) has been busying himself creating a whole slew of new armours. While smooth-talking entrepreneur Aldrich Killian (Pearce) woos Stark’s love interest, Virginia “Pepper” Potts (Paltrow), with his “Extremis” technology, Stark is incensed when his friend Harold “Happy” Hogan (Jon Favreau) is left critically injured as a result of the mysterious and sadistic terrorist known only as the Mandarin (Kingsley). After declaring war on the Mandarin, Stark is left without his vaulted technology and with only his wits and genius intellect to uncover the terrorist’s connection to Extremis.

The Background:
Although both Iron Man (Favreau, 2008) and Iron Man 2 (ibid, 2010) were both incredibly profitable, the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) was secured after the unprecedented success of their first team-up movie. Moving into Phase Three, the MCU faced some corporate issues that led to Walt Disney Studios purchasing the distribution rights to the films from Paramount Pictures before production of a third Iron Man movie began. Although actor/director Jon Favreau remained attached as a producer and actor, he opted not to return to the director’s chair and star Robert Downey Jr. reached out to Shane Black to take the reigns. Drawing inspiration from Warren Ellis’ “Extremis” arc (2005 to 2006), Iron Man 3 (curiously titled “Iron Man Three” in the credits) sought to strip Stark of his resources and be more of a Tom Clancy-style thriller than a traditional superhero film. Although the film drew some controversy for dramatically altering Rebecca Hall’s role and prominence and including a very ill-advised (in my opinion) twist, Iron Man 3 was ridiculously successful and made over $1.200 billion at the box office. Critically, the film’s reviews vary; some praised the tonal shift towards comedy and more grounded action while others took issue with these same aspects.

The Review:
Unlike its predecessors, and the majority of films in the MCU, Iron Man 3 is bookended by Tony Stark narrating the seemingly-insignificant events from his past that led to his latest struggle in the film. While this makes for an amusing post-credits scene where it’s revealed that he’s been boring Doctor Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) to sleep with the events of the movie, his voice over is only really used at the start and the end of the film so it seems a bit pointless to me. Add to that the fact that this post-credits scene is telling us that Tony’s battle against the Mandarin is boring an uninteresting, and this kind of sets a precedent for what to expect from Iron Man 3.

Stark shuns Killian back in the nineties and creates one of his most dangerous foes in the process.

As part of the film’s aim to harken back to the themes and atmosphere of the first movie, Iron Man 3 begins at a New Year’s Eve Party in 1993. Here we are reminded of just how selfish, self-centred, and vindictive Stark can be as he’s too busy drinking, partying, and flirting with Maya Hansen (Hall) than giving the likes of Ho Yinsen (Shaun Toub) or the awkward and ungainly Aldrich Killian the time of day. In this flashback scene, Killian is depicted as a bespectacled, awkward cripple and a goof in an employment of one of the worst tropes of superhero movies. However, thankfully, we’re spared watching him undergo a physical and mental transformation and degradation over the course of the movie and his inelegant manner is limited purely to this brief sequence and a subsequent flashback later in the film. This trope is also primarily used to show that he overcame his limitations and Stark’s dismissal of his idea for a collaborative think-tank of the country’s top minds and to further emphasise that Stark’s ignorance and egotism leads to him effectively creating his own villains later in life for not being more considerate to others.

Suffering from PTSD and insomnia, Stark neglects Pepper and focuses on building more armours.

When we catch up with Stark in the then-present day, he’s fully committed to his relationship with Pepper and seemingly in a much more stable place in terms of his personality (though he retains his trademark snark and sardonic nature) but he’s haunted by his near-death experience in Avengers Assemble. Suffering from frequent nightmares and flashbacks to the wide, unknown dangers that lie beyond our world, Stark is stricken by harrowing panic attacks any time the subject of New York comes up and has spent more and more time finding comfort in his Iron Man armour and tinkering down in his workshop. Constantly distracted, highly strung, and fatigued, his relationship with Pepper suffers a bit as a result of the fact that, rather than open up to her, he prefers to make more and more Iron Man variants and work on perfecting his Mark XLII armour, which is capable of separating into self-propelling parts that respond to his commands via micro-repeater chips.

Rhodey features prominently as the government-sponsored superhero Iron Patriot.

Despite having gained new allies in his fellow Avengers, Stark feels more alone than ever; not wanting to worry Pepper, he keeps her at arm’s length and works around the clock to ensure her safety. Happy is busy with his new position as head of security at Stark Enterprises (a job he takes very seriously) and, though Colonel James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Cheadle) unsuccessfully tries to ask about Stark’s mental health, his loyalty to the military necessitates keeping independent costumed heroes like Iron Man out of the loop. Indeed, in an extension of Rhodes’ sub-plot in Iron Man 2, President Ellis (William Sadler) has officially commissioned Rhodes to ditch the War Machine moniker and don the garishly patriotic red, white, and blue armour of the “Iron Patriot” and act as governmentally-sanctioned superhero to help allay fears following the Chitauri invasion.

Pepper’s fears about Extremis prove correct when Happy is injured by its destructive instability.

Since Stark is preoccupied with his mounting anxiety issues, Pepper is left feeling unappreciated and shunned. Though she stays loyal to Stark, despite his eccentricities, she is more than a little impressed when Killian shows up at Stark Enterprises having transformed into a physically gorgeous, confidant businessman. After Stark’s dismissal of him back in the nineties, Killian resolved to make Advanced Idea Mechanics (A.I.M.) incredibly successful and profitable and, through A.I.M..s research, was able to not only cure his own degenerative physical condition but potentially offer a cure for those suffering from all kinds of mental and physical ailments in the development of Extremis. However, while Killian’s presentation and charisma are impressive, Pepper ultimately turns down a proposed business venture between Stark Enterprises and A.I..M. out of fears about the potential weaponisation of the Extremis technology. Pepper is right to turn down this proposal as, very quickly, it is shown that a number of ex-soldiers have been exposed to Extremis and become living weapons as a result. The virus, cultivated from Maya’s research, promises to spontaneously heal wounds and even regrow limbs as well as curing mental and physical deficiencies and granted a degree of superhuman strength and dexterity to its subjects.

When Stark antagonises the Mandarin, he’s left without his tech and reliant upon a child.

However, Extremis is, as the name implies, extremely volatile and many of those exposed to it burn out and explode as veritable suicide bombers. When Happy is critically injured in one of these attacks, Stark is incensed and openly challenges the one responsible for these, and many other devastating terrorist attacks, the terrorist known as the Mandarin. The Mandarin, who flashes up the symbol of the Ten Rings and frequently issues ominous threats by hijacking the airwaves, directly threatens President Ellis and proudly takes credit for the deaths of innocents in his unrelenting attacks against the United States. However, despite Rhodey cutting Stark out of the Mandarin investigation, Stark publicly (and recklessly) calls out the Mandarin after Happy is put in the hospital; the result is an all-out attack that devastates his home, burying his armours and technology, and leaves Stark stranded in Tennessee cut off from Just A Rather Very Intelligent System (J.A.R.V.I.S.; Paul Bettany) and with his Mark XLII armour powerless. Stripped of his resources and technology, Stark is forced to team up with young Harley Keener (Simpkins), who helps Stark link the Extremist terrorist attacks, and the Mandarin, back to Killian.

The Nitty-Gritty:
Given that it’s written and directed by Shane Black, Iron Man 3 takes place around the Christmas season; while Christmas doesn’t really factor into the overall plot in any tangible way beyond a few trees, decorations, and Tennessee being covered in a frigid snow, it does help the film to stand out against other MCU movies, and superhero films in general, as there aren’t very many that take place in the festive season. Thankfully, despite some of the flaws in the direction of the film and the decisions the filmmakers make regarding certain characters, the change in directors doesn’t diminish the perfect blend of snark and humour at work in Iron Man 3. Indeed, Stark’s interactions with the likes of Rhodey, Happy, and Harley are one of the film’s highlights and it’s great to see that he’s still a droll prick when he needs to be despite being a “piping hot mess”.

While it’s great for his character growth, Stark spends a lot of the film without his armour.

Indeed, the film adds further layers to Stark’s complex personality by adding post-traumatic stress to his laundry list of character defects; traumatised to the point where he suffers from insomnia and a deep-seated urge to build and create armours for every conceivable scenario, the last thing Stark needs is to be left without his tools and technology and yet that’s exactly where he finds himself. Stark’s efforts in Tennessee effectively return him to the cave where he must rely on his innovative genius to survive; when he tracks the Mandarin to Miami, he infiltrates the terrorist’s base with little more than some cobbled-together armaments that ape his usual Arc Reactor-powered arsenal. Teamed with a similarly suit-less Rhodey (whose henchman, Eric Savin (James Badge Dale), appropriates the Iron Patriot suit to kidnap President Ellis), Stark becomes much more of a resourceful spy than a colourful superhero and he spends a great deal of the film (arguably too much, in my opinion) outside of the armour rather than in it.

The Mandarin stupidly turns out to be a drunken buffoon merely acting the part.

When he confronts the Mandarin, Stark is confused and enraged to find that he’s little more than a drunken, substance-dependent eccentric English actor named Trevor Slattery. Trevor willing reveals that he was contracted by Killian to pose as a credible terrorist threat in order to kill the President and replace him with Vice President Rodriguez (Miguel Ferrer), a puppet leader who will do exactly as Killian dictates. This twist on the traditional Fu Manchu sorcerer figure who I grew up seeing as Iron Man’s archenemy is undeniably amusing but, in retrospect, was a pretty awful idea; you had Ben Kingsley, Ben Kingsley, who absolutely crushed it when portraying the Mandarin and you turned him into an alcoholic buffoon. Indeed, the MCU producers backtracked on this depiction of the Mandarin pretty quickly and eventually brought the true Mandarin into the fold but even then the character was significantly altered from the source material. Sadly, though, this came out long after Stark’s emotional death so we were robbed of seeing him go toe-to-toe with his most iconic nemesis, which remains a bitter pill for me to swallow.

Killian is positioned as the main villain and claims to be the true Mandarin…

As has been publicly explored, Maya’s involvement in the plot as a tertiary antagonist is similarly swept under the rug; rather than be a significant threat to Stark, she merely ends up being a pawn of Killian’s who is gunned down the moment she has a crisis of conscience. Consequently, it’s Killian himself who acts as the film’s primary villain; a malicious, ruthless, and cunning adversary, Killian is yet another dark mirror of Stark (at least in terms of his business acumen) who subjects numerous desperate souls to his Extremis process despite knowing full well that it could kill them. He even forcibly infects Pepper with the virus, though this ultimately proves to be his downfall when she conveniently proves to be far more stable than most of his usual subjects. Killian ultimately takes on the Mandarin moniker for himself, showcasing superhuman strength, unparalleled regenerative abilities, and even the ability to breathe fire (making him like a composite of the comic’s Killian, Mandarin, and Fing Fang Foom).

The army of armours shows up way too late and are almost immediately destroyed, which is a shame.

While there is a noticeable lack of Iron Man action in Iron Man 3, the film does make up for it with a particularly exciting sequence where Stark has to rescue a bunch of the President’s personnel when Air Force One is destroyed, which is quite the innovative and unique rescue scene. Still, one of the primary selling points of any Iron Man movie, especially for me, are the various different armours Stark constructs for himself and Iron Man 3 culminates in a veritable smorgasbord of suits for our viewing pleasure. Sadly, though, while many of these were a significant aspect of the film’s marketing, they only appear onscreen for the briefest of moments in the finale, where Stark has J.A.R.V.I.S. remote pilot every single one of his suits to assist in the battle against Killian. Even his apparently revolutionary Mark XLII armour is pretty underwhelming as it constantly breaks, shatters, and loses power, making it probably the most ineffectual of all of his armours. Once Pepper kills Killian off, Stark immediately orders every single one of his suits to self-destruct and then just fixes not only Pepper’s condition but also his own, removing the shrapnel from his chest and apparently retiring from the superhero life. This, however, would simply be the start of another sub-plot and character arc for Stark throughout the remainder of the MCU which specifically dealt with his inability to walk away from Iron Man, the Avengers, and the thrill of being a superhero.

The Summary:
It’s not that Iron Man Three (I still don’t get why it’s credited like that…) is a bad film. For much of its runtime, it’s actually pretty entertaining and dark thanks to the intense and menacing nature of Kingsley’s portrayal of the Mandarin. Even seeing Stark genuinely affected by his experience in Avengers Assemble was intriguing to watch and showed that the character was clearly growing and learning and influenced by the ever-escalating nature of the MCU, to say nothing of further solidifying Rhodey’s growth as his own legitimate armoured superhero. I didn’t even mind, conceptually speaking, the idea of Stark being robbed of his resources and having to improvise as it went a long way to showing just how adaptable, intelligent, and increasingly neurotic the character is becoming about safeguarding his friends, family, and the greater good. However, the execution is flawed in a lot of ways; the film “feels” just as big and exciting as the previous Iron Man movies but any and all of its positives are immediately soured by that God-awful Mandarin twist. Imagine if a Batman movie gave us the most perfect casting and interpretation of the Joker and then threw a curveball by revealing that he was a simple janitor playing dress-up; people would go crazy and, while I understand that the Mandarin comes with many cultural issues, the fact that the MCU eventually managed to translate a more faithful version of him to film years down the line makes me wish that they had stuck with the casting and the magic they had in Kingsley’s casting and given us (and by “us” I mean “me”) the long-awaited showdown between Iron Man and his greatest foe. Instead, we’re left with a decent enough film but one that gambles, and loses, its credibility on a nonsensical decision and one of the weaker films in the MCU line-up, in my opinion.

My Rating:

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Could Be Better

What did you think to Iron Man 3? Can you explain to me why the credits spell the number three out because I honestly don’t get it? What did you think to the aspect of Stark suffering from anxiety attacks? Did you like that he was forced to innovate and work without his armour or were you annoyed at how little Iron Man action there was in the film? What did you think to the twist regarding the Mandarin? Did you enjoy it or, like me, were you annoyed by it? Which of Stark’s new armours was your favourite and would have liked to see more of and what did you think to the introduction of the Iron Patriot suit? What are some of your favourite Iron Man characters or stories? Where does Iron Man rank in your hierarchy of comic book characters? Are you doing anything to commemorate Iron Man’s debut appearance and, if so, what is it? Feel free to drop a comment down below and thanks for being a part of Iron Man Month!

Talking Movies: Iron Man 2

Released: 7 May 2010
Director: Jon Favreau
Distributor:
Paramount Pictures
Budget:
$170 to 200 million
Stars:
Robert Downey Jr., Mickey Rourke, Sam Rockwell, Don Cheadle, Gwyneth Paltrow, Scarlett Johansson, and Samuel L. Jackson

The Plot:
After publicly outing himself as Iron Man, Tony Stark (Downey Jr.) arrogantly refuses to hand his technology over to the United States government. Suffering from palladium poisoning, Stark is also targeted by Ivan Vanko (Rourke) who, bankrolled by Stark’s rival Justin Hammer (Rockwell), builds his own Arc Reactor to pursue a vendetta against Stark’s family.

The Background:
Although the production of Iron Man (Favreau, 2008) and the casting of troubled actor Robert Downey Jr. was a huge risk for fledgling studio Marvel Studios, it ultimately paid off dividends. Development of sequel began immediately after the first film’s release; actor/director Jon Favreau always envisioned the film as the first in a trilogy and chose to skip over some of the source material’s more fantastical elements and draw inspiration from the iconic “Demon in a Bottle” arc (Michelinie, et al, 1979). A big focus of Iron Man 2 was on setting up the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), which caused some friction between Favreau and the film’s producers; compounding matters was the recasting of Terrence Howard with Don Cheadle and the cutting of many of Rourke’s scenes. This came to be reflected in the film’s critical response but, despite this, Iron Man 2 was still incredibly successful and made over $620 million at the box office.

The Review:
Iron Man 2 sees Tony Stark more renowned than ever; his admission to being the superhero Iron Man has made him even more of a beloved celebrity and he relishes in the unparalleled freedom his technology has provided to him. Stark uses his increased celebrity status to help bring more eyes to his Stark Expo, which was originally dreamed up by his father, Howard (John Slattery), as a place for the world’s greatest scientific minds too pool their resources.

Tony’s characteristic bravado masks his debilitating sickness.

Stark, however, faces pressure from the United States government, particularly Senator Stern (Garry Shandling), to hand over his Iron Man technology so that it can be taken out of Stark’s irresponsible hands. Though Stark easily shoots down Stern’s demands and retains the same egotistical arrogance that was such a big part of his public life in Iron Man, it’s immediately clear that this is all an elaborate façade. Not only is Stark still struggling with unresolved issues with his father and living up to Howard’s vast legacy, he’s also being slowly poisoned by the Arc Reactor imbedded in his chest, which is flooding his bloodstream with palladium. Burning through his Arc Reactors faster and faster every day, and running out of options, Stark grows more and more impulsive and reckless; while this starts off rather innocently, with him promoting Virginia “Pepper” Potts (Paltrow) to CEO of Star Industries, he soon makes a very public display of himself when he gets drunk while wearing his armour.

Ivan is adept at Arc Reactor tech and has a personal vendetta against the Stark family.

Stark’s primary physical threat in the film is Ivan Vanko, a variation of the comic book Anton Vanko (who was known as both Whiplash and Crimson Dynamo), a hardened Russian technician whose father, Anton (Yevgeni Lazarev), worked with Stark’s father on the Arc Reactor that powers Stark’s heart and armour. Having watched his father die penniless and forgotten, Ivan vows revenge against Stark for stealing all of the credit to the technology and, in scenes that directly parallel Stark’s forging of his Mark I armour, builds his own Arc Reactor and a limited exoskeleton. While Stark primarily fights using projectiles and Repulsor Rays, Ivan favours Repulsor-charged whips that can cut through steel and concrete. Though shown to be just as ingenious and versatile as Stark when it comes to building armours and weapons, Ivan is so focused on humbling Stark in front of the world and driven to near madness by his vendetta that, initially, he forgoes protecting himself (especially his head) and, while he strikes a very public and aggressive first blow against Stark, his campaign is quickly cut short by Stark’s superior technology.

Hammer is so determined to out-do Stark that he forms an alliance with Ivan.

Ivan finds an ally, however, in Stark’s business rival, Justin Hammer. Hammer, who is constantly one step behind Stark in every way, is another mirror of Stark; he’s just as condescending and self-righteous as Stark and enjoys the limelight as much as his rival but is perfectly willing to take any advantage and underhanded tactic he can to get a leg up on Stark. To this end, he liberates Ivan from imprisonment and puts him to work constructing an army of mechanical drones, with which he hopes to make Iron Man obsolete. However, Ivan has little interest in Hammer’s ambitions or money; as long as he has his beloved cockatoo and the resources to destroy Stark, Ivan is prepared to cause as much death and destruction as he possible can to enact his revenge.

Rhodey has a new face, a shiny suit of armour of his own, and a far bigger role this time around.

As before, Stark isn’t alone in his fights against these enemies; however, James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Cheadle), now promoted to a Lieutenant Colonel, identifies that there is a potential threat in third parties attempting to replicate Stark’s technology and, though he stands by Stark and wishes to officially involve Iron Man in the existing military structure, he is forced to oppose his friend when Stark begins to succumb to both his palladium poisoning and one-too-many cocktails. Personally, the switch to Cheadle was nothing but a benefit from my point of view; he’s far better suited to the role and much more believable as a straight-laced military man while still sharing a fun brotherly chemistry with Stark and he has come to own the role in a way that Terrance Howard could only dream of. While it is a bit odd that Rhodey would deem himself more worthy to wear the armour than Stark, and how adept he is at wearing it despite the fact that it seems like he’s never worn it before, he emerges the victor from their scuffle and commandeers the Mark II armour for himself. Bringing it under the jurisdiction of the American government, and being outfitted with Hammer’s technology, Rhodey takes on the identity of War Machine and is fully prepared to lead Ivan’s automated drones into battle for the good ol’ U. S. of A only to find that he has been outfitted with useless weapons and susceptible to Ivan’s control.

Allies old and new assist Stark as S.H.I.E.L.D. continues to monitor his activities.

Though driven to exasperation by Stark’s continued antics and eccentricities, Pepper takes her role as CEO very seriously and begins to make real headway in turning Stark Industries around. Facing the cold reality that he could die, the budding romance between her and Stark blossoms over the course of the film despite Stark’s eye being caught by Natalie Rushman (Johansson). Initially appearing to be little more than a notary and Pepper’s very capable assistant, Rushman turns out to be Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow, sent by Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division (S.H.I.E.L.D.) director Nick Fury (Jackson) to assess Stark’s for the Avenger Initiative. This leads to some kick-ass fight scenes where Romanoff’s acrobatic versatility is on full display and serves as an alluring introduction to this mysterious character and also ties into the greater MCU by having Fury be so invested in Stark’s suitability.

The Nitty-Gritty:
Like any good sequel worth its time, Iron Man 2 is bigger (and, in many ways, better) than the first film. Without having to spend copious amounts of its runtime establishing Stark’s character and journey towards becoming Iron Man, the film can jump right into the action and picks up about a year after the end of the last movie. While many lamented how much world-building and sequel/spin-off bait was put into the film, I loved it and didn’t feel like the inclusion of Black Widow and Fury or Agent Coulson’s (Clark Gregg) allusions to other superheroic events got in the way of the story at all. If anything, they helped build my anticipation for seeing more from the MCU and the then-upcoming Avengers crossover and I’ve always considered Iron Man 2 to be a far stronger sequel than the third film in the series.

Stark finds the key to his condition by examining his estranged, late-father’s research and blueprints.

As in the last film, Tony’s journey and growth as a character is a central aspect of the film; clearly still haunted by his experiences in the cave and desperate to hide how critical his condition has become, Stark is, seemingly, more reckless and egocentric than ever. However, this is all merely a front to hide his fear at his impending demise and to cover up the insecurities instilled in him by his father’s harsh upbringing. In the end, though, thanks to Fury, Star sees that Howard did have his best interests at heart in his own way. Indeed, thanks to Howard’s designs for the Stark Expo, Stark discovers the key to his survival and is able (quite ridiculously, I’ll admit) to cure himself by creating a “new element”, which ends the threat of palladium poisoning.

Iron Man 2 features some of my favourite armours, with the Silver Centurion being a personal highlight.

In service of outdoing its predecessor as much as possible, Iron Man 2 features a new array of armours and toys for Stark to use; my favourite of these is the Silver Centurion armour, which Stark dons via a suitcase just like in the 1990s cartoon I used to enjoy on a regular basis. While the red and gold armour is very similar to the one from the first film, there are subtle changes and improvements and the special effects are just as good at rendering Iron Man’s actions as before. Add to that an absolutely fantastic adaptation of War Machine, one of my all-time favourite armours from the comics, and Iron Man 2 does a fantastic job of stepping things up a few notches and laying the foundation for the big MCU crossovers that would follow.

Ivan’s conviction, rage, and genius make him a formidable opponent and dark mirror of Stark.

In comparison, Ivan Vanko’s armour is, initially, much more improvised and yet he’s no less capable than his rival. Ivan’s exoskeleton is more than capable of withstanding a head-on car crash and Iron Man’s blasts and his electrified whips are surprisingly effective at damaging Stark’s armour and draining his power. Thanks to Hammer’s resources, Ivan is able to construct a far more menacing and formidable suit of armour for himself for the finale; while this does, admittedly, greatly resemble the finale of the first film, which pitted Stark against a hulking grey counterpart, Ivan stands out just enough thanks to being backed up by Hammer’s drones and still incorporating those same whipping tentacles into the design. Mickey Rourke is an actor who has always been a bit before my time but this film was released right around the time of his big comeback and I have to say he regularly smashed every role he had around this time. His performance here is muted and subdued but threatening; he can say more with a glare and a grunt than many actors can with pages of dialogue and he makes an immediate visual impression with all his tattoos and imposing physique.

Iron Man 2 features a lot more world-building hints and references for the larger MCU.

Hammer, by comparison, is Stark’s business and intellectual opposite and, while Rockwell is no Jeff Bridges and Hammer is visually nothing like his comic book counterpart, Rockwell plays the role of a seedy mirror of Stark to perfection (which is only fitting given that he was considered for the role of Stark in Iron Man). However, Hammer’s ambition to crush and overtake Stark in business and his enthusiasm for Ivan’s genius quickly lead him to getting in over his head and he ends up watching helplessly as his drones are hijacked by Ivan and I am greatly anticipating the character’s eventual return to the wider MCU since he ends the film in jail rather than dead. Speaking of endings, Iron Man 2 concludes with Tony in a much better place, physically and mentally, thanks to having solved his palladium poisoning and officially hooking up with Pepper, but is deemed unfit to be a part of the Avengers due to his many personality defects. Instead, Fury positions Stark as a liaison to help build the team, which is looking in good stead when Coulson leaves to investigate a mysterious hammer in New Mexico.

The Summary:
I often see a lot of people online, especially on my social medias, bad-mouthing Iron Man 2 and, even now, I really don’t understand why; the first film was fantastic, almost lightning in a bottle, but the sequel is a pretty damn decent follow-up. Sure, you can argue that it’s awfully convenient that Fury just dropped the key to Stark’s survival into his lap but I just saw this as world-building and setting the stage for a greater purpose. None of it takes away from Stark’s growth as a character, or his character arc in this film which, we now know, was all part of a much bigger and longer arc of redemption. Facing a different but no less challenging odds and delivering a taste of the extent to Stark’s imagination when it comes to his armours, Iron Man 2 is an intense story of Stark facing the ghosts of his past and setting himself on the path to a greater future while also effectively sowing the seeds for the rest of MCU’s first phase of movies in an entertaining and action-packed spectacle that I feel deserves more credit than it gets.

My Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Great Stuff

What are your thoughts on Iron Man 2? Do you think it deserves the hate it gets or, like me, were you a fan of how it built upon the themes and action of the first film? What did you think to the sub-plot of Tony being slowly poisoned and the solution to that problem? Did you enjoy the introduction of Black Widow and the hints towards the larger MCU? What did you think to the film’s villains, specifically Rourke and Rockwell’s performances, and Rhodey’s promotion to War Machine? Which of the film’s armours was your favourite and why? What are some of your favourite Iron Man characters or stories? Where does Iron Man rank in your hierarchy of comic book characters? Are you doing anything to commemorate Iron Man’s debut appearance and, if so, what is it? Feel free to drop a comment down below and be sure to check back in next week for the final part of Iron Man Month!

Talking Movies: Iron Man

Released: 2 May 2008
Director: Jon Favreau
Distributor:
Paramount Pictures
Budget:
$140 million
Stars:
Robert Downey Jr., Jeff Bridges, Terrence Howard, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Shaun Toub

The Plot:
Billionaire industrialist and arms manufacturer Anthony “Tony” Stark (Downey Jr.) finds himself humbled after his own weaponry leaves him near death. Captured and forced to make weapons for the terrorist group the Ten Rings, Stark instead constructs a suit of armour and, upon escaping, resolves to put his genius intellect and resources to good use as Iron Man.

The Background:
The development of a live-action Iron Man movie can be traced back to 1990, with stars Nicholas Cage and Tom Cruise both once attached to the titular superhero, but the various scripts and film rights languished in development hell for nearly fifteen years with nothing to show for it. Once the film rights reverted to Marvel, the publisher created Marvel Studios and, encouraged by their success at licensing their more popular characters, began developing movies based on their remaining properties. The first of these was Iron Man; the film’s armours were created by legendary special effects maestro Stan Winston and actor/director Jon Favreau was drafted to direct the film and immediately saw the story as being one of redemption and reinvention. Nowhere was this emphasised more than in the casting of Robert Downey Jr. in the title role; Downey, whose career and life had been in a downward spiral, shot to superstardom after being cast and almost immediately became the linchpin of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) that Iron Man kicked off. Against all expectations, Iron Man was an unprecedented success; it made nearly $590 million at the box office and received rave reviews. Its success led not only to a two sequels but also a slew of other MCU movies and easily the most successful series of superhero movies in modern times as the MCU dominated cinemas over the next ten years and beyond.

The Review:
Iron Man opens in the war-torn deserts of Afghanistan to the tunes of “Back in Black” by AC/DC; here, we find billionaire industrialist, investor, and consummate playboy Tony Stark sharing some bants with some American soldiers. Stark’s jovial, boastful mood is rudely interrupted when the convey is suddenly attacked, all of his detail killed, and he is caught in the blast from one of his own Stark Industries missiles while trying to message for help. Tony finds himself injured and held hostage by Raza (Faran Tahir), the leader of the terrorist organisation known as the “Ten Rings”, and, from here, we flash back in time some thirty-six hours for a quick recap on Tony’s life. Heralded as a genius, philanthropist, and American patriot, Stark was orphaned as a teenager and, at age twenty-one, took the reigns of his father’s company.

Stark is a lauded genius but his aloof and irresponsible ways make him a flawed character,

Stark is touted as an acclaimed keeper of the peace though his advanced and innovative weapons technology but, for all his genius, he is aloof and bored with such trivialities as receiving awards or really stopping to think about the moral implications of his actions and would much rather be playing craps at Caesar’s Palace and picking up random woman, even reporters who brand him the “Merchant of Death”. Tony is an impulsive and easily distracted individual who simply does rather than thinking since he is so smart that he is often a few steps ahead of everyone else and prefers to be tinkering with his vast collection of cars and in his personal workshop in his grandiose house rather than remembering things like birthdays and keeping his appointments, all while putting himself, his father, and his company on a pedestal for the world-changing technologies his weapons manufacturing has produced and funded.

Stark’s nearest and dearest react to his impulsive attitude in different ways.

Tony’s lackadaisical, self-centred attitude may win over the general public and be a hit with the women but it grates against his closest friends, such as his chauffeur, Howard “Happy” Hogan (Favreau), Obadiah Stane (Bridges), and Colonel James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Howard), who are left to make excuses in his stead. None are left with more trash to clean up, however, than Stark’s personal assistant, Virginia “Pepper” Potts (Paltrow), who constantly finds herself having to chase after him for decisions, signatures, and directions relating to Stark Industries. Each of these characters deals with Tony’s childish ways differently; Happy is happy to indulge Stark’s whims and play along on the sly, Rhodey chews Stark out for disrespecting himself (and Rhodey) with his attitude, Pepper is exasperated by his ways but endures them out of loyalty and a mutual attraction between the two, and Stane is seemingly perfectly happy for Tony to do as he wishes since his brilliant mind helps keep him, and the company, extremely profitable.

Injured by one of his own weapons, Stark resolves to fight back against his captors.

The attack in Afghanistan forces Stark to witness first-hand the consequences of his actions; trapped in a dingy cave and kept alive by a car battery and some cables, Stark is about as far from his faithful artificial intelligence, Just A Rather Very Intelligent System (J.A.R.V.I.S; Paul Bettany), as he can possibly get. His cellmate, Ho Yinsen (Toub), brings him up to speed with his predicament; shrapnel from the missile is lodged dangerously close to Stark’s heart and only the electromagnet imbedded in his chest is keeping him alive. The Ten Rings demand that Stark construct for them an arsenal of his famed “Jericho Missile” and he is subjected to constant torture when he refuses. Horrified to see the terrorists are wielding his weaponry, Stark resolves instead to build a miniature version of his famed “Arc Reactor”, a clean energy device that will more effectively stave off death and plot their escape.

With limited resources, Stark builds his first suit of armour to fight his way to freedom.

What follows is an incredible sequence where, torn away from his luxuries and faced with the cold reality that he has been causing death and destruction across the world, Stark sets to work constructing a powerful exoskeletal suit of armour to fight his way out of the terrorist camp. This is a fantastic scene that shows Stark’s adaptability and ingenuity and that he is a formidable foe even without the benefits of modern technology; with a few scraps, his unmatched intellect, and some old-fashioned welding techniques, Stark is able to fool his captors long enough to complete the suit, a clunky, grey monstrosity with just enough power to fight past the guards and blast away to safety. Sadly, Yinsen sacrifices himself to cover Stark when the suit is powering up; with his dying breath, he begs Stark not to waste his life and, humbled by his experiences and Yisnen’s sacrifice, Stark takes his revenge on his captors and resolves to end all weapons manufacturing once he is recovered by Rhodey.

Focused on his new mission, Stark works to perfect his armour and right his wrongs.

Haunted by his experiences in Afghanistan, Stark is angered at his weapons and technology being misused by terrorists and, after a few trials and working out some kinks, finally perfects his armour design into a sleek red-and-gold suit that rockets through the sky, fires missiles and Repulsor Rays, and is fully connected to all available networks and communication devices thanks to J.A.R.V.I.S. Stark wastes no time in attacking Ten Rings sites, freeing those subjugated to their terrorism with extreme prejudice and, in the process, attracts the attention not just from the U.S. military but also Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) of the mysterious Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division (S.H.I.E.L.D.), who wishes very much to “debrief” Stark on the particulars of his escape and extra-curricular activities.

Stane turns on Stark in order to steal his Arc Reactor and armour technology for himself.

Although having shifted his focus onto a more honourable goal Stark remains as arrogant and obnoxious as ever after becoming the “Iron Man”; both Pepper and Rhodey despair at him when they discover what he’s been up to and believe that he is self-destructing but the truth is that his experiences have finally given him something worth living and working for. His actions, however, have far-reaching consequences; Stark is devastated to discover that Stane ordered the hit on him as the two were depicted as being firm friends up until that point. When Stane then steals Stark’s Iron Man technology and garbs himself in a bigger, more menacing exosuit as the Iron Monger, the stage is set for an epic showdown full of personal animosity between the two armoured men.

The Nitty-Gritty:
Even now, Iron Man remains almost timeless in its presentation; thanks to a fantastically old-school method of blending live-action suits with high-quality CGI, the film holds up incredibly well and is just as good now as it was the first time I saw it in cinemas. A rocking soundtrack full of classic heavy metal tracks and a rousing, industrial theme only serve to punctuate the special effects and the whole film seems to have been made with the actors given free reign to ad-lib their dialogue as interactions and banter are all incredibly natural and amusing. Indeed, Stark’s sudden declaration of “I am Iron Man” was an ad-lib and, with that one line, largely dictated the course for the MCU, which generally treats it superheroes like celebrities rather than falling back on the “secret identity” cliché. While I am perfectly happy to see secret identities in superhero films, it was massively refreshing to see a comic book movie buck that trend and made Iron Man even more memorable in the long run.

I was shocked to see Bridges as part of the cast and he steals every scene he’s in!

One thing that makes Iron Man stand out is the quality of the actors; both Iron Man and Batman Begins (Nolan, 2005) changed the game, as far as I am concerned, by featuring high-quality actors like Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine. I remember being incredibly surprised that Jeff Bridges was a part of this film; almost unrecognisable as Obadiah Stane, Bridges is a charismatic, bombastic father-figure who both nurtures and tries to temper Stark’s genius and impulsive nature. His delivery and magnetism steal every scene he’s in and, yes, it’s probably a littler derivative that Stark’s first adversary was basically a dark mirror of himself but Bridges is such a gem that it’s effortlessly entertaining even if it is at the expense of Iron Man’s more famous foes. Stane constantly exudes an odd sense of menace even before he’s incapacitating people with his little ear gadget; when one of his technicians is unable to miniaturise the Arc Reactor technology, Stane simply disables Stark and rips it right from his chest in order to power his own massive suit. Upon donning the Iron Monger armour, Stane immediately becomes obsessed with its power and as drunk on the feeling of freedom and empowerment as Stark is on his own self-adulation (and alcohol, half the time), which ultimately becomes his downfall as he becomes irrationally fixated on taking his frustrations out on a weakened Iron Man. Seeing Stane suited up in the massive Iron Monger armour was pretty fantastic and it serves a stub-plot of the film, and the entire MCU, of Stark confronting his past and overcoming it and his unresolved issues with his father.

Thanks to a combination of practical and special effects, the armours look incredible.

All of this leads me to the biggest draw of the film: the suits themselves. Even now, it is absolutely bad-ass to see the original Mark I clunker of a suit in action which is made all the more visually impressive by just how much of it was actually a practical suit of armour. Stark follows this up with the all-silver Mark II suit, which he wears to test out the limits and capabilities of his Arc Reactor technology (and, in the process, discovers the suit’s tendency to ice up when breaching the upper atmosphere). The final red-and-gold suit is as close to a live-action Iron Man armour you could ask for and looks like one of Adi Granov’s illustrations has literally sprung to life. Iron Man even solves the problem faced by a lot of masked superheroes by switched to a view from inside of the Iron Man helmet so that we can still see Stark’s face and stay emotionally connected to the character even when he’s in full armour and Iron Man is made all the more interesting since we see Stark building, testing, and perfecting the armour and because he constantly remains adaptable and flawed throughout the film.

Iron Man truly was the first tentative step into a much larger world…

Finally, there are the hints towards a much larger world. I remember watching Iron Man for the first time and never twigging that Coulson worked for S.H.I.E.L.D. since the acronym isn’t used until right at the end of the film and feeling like an idiot when they finally dropped the organisation’s name. Look closely in the background of one scene and you’ll see that Stark has Captain America’s shield in his workshop, Rhodey very nearly jumps into the Mark II suit for himself at one point, and the film ends not just with Stark’s impulsive declaration that he is Iron Man but also a visit from Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), director of S.H.I.E.L.D. Again, I remember hearing rumours of this cameo back in the day and specifically waiting for the credits to finish to see if it was true and being absolutely blown away by the implications of the “Avenger Initiative” but I could never imagine what Iron Man would set in motion for superhero cinema (and cinema in general).

The Summary:
My experiences of Iron Man were extremely limited when the film first came out; I enjoyed watching his cartoons and saw him pop up in a few comics from time to time but, for me, he was definitely a low-tier Marvel superhero and I think it’s fair to say that’s true for a lot of people and the general audience at the time. Iron Man, however, changed all of that; more than that, it changed the superhero genre forever and brought some big names, big money, and big audiences to see these films in a way that no one could have predicted and which certainly hasn’t been replicated since. Even without the larger MCU to help bolster it, Iron Man is a hugely enjoyable science-fiction/superhero romp full of charismatic actors, impressive performances, amusing banter and dialogue, and top-notch special effects. Iron Man may have been a massive gamble for Marvel Studios, and may have been eclipsed by other, bigger films in the MCU, but it’s not to be underestimated. Even at the time, I remember sensing that I was witnessing something very special, something very different from other superhero films, and I’m happy to say that neither time nor repeated viewing has diminished Iron Man’s appeal in any way.

My Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Fantastic

What do you think about Iron Man? How did you find it as a story and as an origin for ol’ shellhead? Do you think it still holds up to this day? What did you think to the cast and the performances in the film? Were you a fan of the film’s special effects and soundtrack? What did you think to the use of Obadiah Stane as the film’s villain? What was your reaction when Nick Fury walked out of the shadows and when Stark admitted to his dual identity? What are some of your favourite Iron Man characters or stories? Where does Iron Man rank in your hierarchy of comic book characters? Are you doing anything to commemorate Iron Man’s debut appearance and, if so, what is it? Either way, I’d love to hear your thoughts on Iron Man so leave a comment below.

Talking Movies: The Invincible Iron Man

Released: 23 January 2007
Director: Patrick Archibald, Jay Oliva, and Frank Paur
Distributor:
Lionsgate
Budget:
Unknown
Stars:
Marc Worden, Gwendolyne Yeo, Fred Tatasciore, Rodney Saulsberry, and Elisa Gabrielli

The Plot:
When cocky industrialist Anthony “Tony” Stark’s (Worden) efforts to raise an ancient Chinese temple leads him to be seriously wounded and captured by enemy forces, he builds a mechanised suit of armour to escape and ends up embroiled in an ancient prophecy regarding a supernatural despot known as “The Mandarin” (Tatasciore).

The Background:
Before the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) took cinemas by storm, Marvel had some notable success in the field of animation. While the X-Men animated series (1992 to 1997) remains one of their most celebrated efforts, other Marvel properties came to be adapted into cartoons, including ol’ shellhead himself, Iron Man. I used to watch the Iron Man cartoon (1994 to 1996) as a kid and, for the most part, this was my primary window into the character as I was more into Peter Parker/Spider-Man at the time. In 2004, perhaps as preparation for their upcoming series of live-action adaptations, Marvel entered into an agreement with Lions Gate Entertainment to produce ten direct-to-video animated features. The success of the Ultimate Avengers (Richardson, et al, 2006) features led to a solo feature for Iron Man and, while this film made notably less than its predecessors and was met with mixed reviews, this did little to deter Marvel from producing more animated features or their live-action efforts.

The Review:
The Invincible Iron Man is an interesting twist on the Iron Man formula that many may be accustomed to in that it’s perfectly happy to mix the supernatural and mystical with the character’s more technological aspects. While these elements have often been intertwined in the comics and led to many a story pitting science against magic, I have to say that I was a bit surprised to find the film having such an oriental flavour right from the get-go and intertwining Iron Man’s origin in with that of the mystical and prophecy regarding an “Iron Knight” opposing the entity known as the Mandarin.

Tony’s brazen attitude is a serious point of contention amongst his friends and family.

In China, James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Saulsberry) is overseeing the work on unearthing an ancient city. As if superstitions weren’t bad enough, the work is threatened by potential geological issues, and Tony Stark constantly letting Rhodey down in regards to supplies and resources for the project. Even worse is the constant threat of a terrorist group known as the Jade Dragons, who attack the site with bazookas. Frustrated, Rhodey tries to force Tony into action; Tony is aghast at the idea of sending munitions to help defend the site since he doesn’t want any bloodshed but, despite promising to fly out to support him, Tony finds himself more distracted by a gorgeous redhead. Tony’s cavalier attitude and arrogance aggravates his Board of Directors, who disagree with his excavation of the temple and have grown tired of his egotism and the secrecy regarding his scientific endeavours and even his father, Howard (John McCook), reluctantly agrees to cut Tony’s funding and influence off.

Tony is critically injured but kept alive to undo the raising of the Mandarin’s resting place.

At the site, a bombardment of sonic vibrations expand “liquid steel” to safely raise the entire lost city up to ground level. The Jade Dragons’ leader, Wong Chu (James Sie), adamantly opposes this and vows to kill anyone who gets in their way; though Li Mei (Yeo) openly defies this order, the attack is successful and Rhodey is taken prisoner, which is finally the kick up the ass Tony needs to get over there and get involved. However, this is all part of the plan for the Jade Dragons to ambush Tony’s convoy and, in the attack, he is not only also captured but critically injured as well. This presents another interesting twist on Iron Man’s origin where Tony is held captive alongside Rhodey as well as Ho Yin (Unknown/Unclear), and also that his entire capture was by a group of extremists trying to return the Mandarin’s tomb to the ground.

Tony’s armour comes in handy in battling the supernatural Elementals.

Unlike traditional depictions of the character, The Invincible Iron Man’s Mandarin is a purely mystical and supernatural entity of myth and magic; he is protected by the four Demon Elementals, which take the form of armoured, Samurai warriors. Thanks to Ho Yin and Rhodey’s background as an army medic, Tony’s life is saved by a crude iron lung, of sorts. After Ho Yin informs them of the legend of the Mandarin and is executed by Wong Chu, they construct an elaborate suit of armour to stop the Elementals, who are causing destruction all over the world in search of the ten rings that will resurrect the Mandarin.

The Nitty-Gritty:
If there’s one thing holding The Invincible Iron Man back, it’s the quality of the animation; while it’s okay, for the most part, and has a bit of a pseudo-anime flavour going on, it’s all very rigid and basic and a bit blurry around the edges. Similar to the Iron Man cartoon of the nineties, it also features an abundance of CGI animation, particularly in the depiction of the Demon Elementals, which lends them an otherworldly quality and helps realise them as creatures of magic.

The armours look pretty good and are quite varied but aren’t featured that much.

Rhodey is initially incensed to find out that Tony has secretly been constructing various armours behind his back; believing that Tony has betrayed his anti-weapons ideals, his concerns are set aside as all of those armours come in handy not only for tracking down the Mandarin’s rings but battling the Elementals. The CGI work on the armours is good, if maybe a little too “fluid” at times, and there are a decent array on show here, from the bulky grey armour to the submarine suit and the familiar red-and-gold armour that’s become Iron Man’s standard. Unlike other depictions of Iron Man, the actual construction and capabilities of the armours is of little consequence here; we don’t really learn anything about the Arc Reactor technology or the Repulsor blasts and there’s no allegorical scenes of Tony building the armour. They simply exist because he built them prior to the film, which is good on the one hand as it lets the film get to the fights a lot faster but also a little disappointing as seeing the construction and evolution of the armours is always a fun aspect of the character. Still, thanks to the Mandarin’s rings being hidden all over the world, Iron Man’s battles against the Demon Elements get to take place in such animated locations as the bottom of the ocean and inside a raging volcano. While the CGI in these fights can be a little jerky and wonky at times, they’re decent enough, for the most part, and add some visual variety to the proceedings (a fact helped by the inclusion of actual dragons for Iron Man to fight!)

Tony, Rhodes, and Pepper end up running afoul of S.H.I.E.L.D.

There’s also a couple of competing sub-plots at work in the film, including a bit of corporate intrigue surrounding Stark Industries and Howard’s insistence on directing the company (and Tony’s genius) towards weaponry. This leads to him running afoul of Strategic Hazard Intervention Espionage Logistics Directorate (S.H.I.E.L.D.) Agent Drake (John DeMita), who is potentially a prototype for Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), and him and Rhodey finding themselves fugitives. It is also the cause of a great deal of animosity between Tony and his father as Howard is indirectly responsible for Tony and Rhodey’s capture and Ho Yin’s death since it was he (as in Howard) who supplied weapons to the site and thus armed the Jade Dragons.

Li Mei ends up being used as a pawn in the Mandarin’s resurrection.

While there isn’t a great deal for Virginia “Pepper” Potts (Gabrielli) to do other than offer dry witticisms and cover Tony’s escape and actions in her own way, Li Mei is a pivotal part of a crucial sub-plot in the film; initially depicted as a reluctant follower of Wong Chu, she is burdened by having been born a woman and thus judged as being insufficient to opposing the Mandarin in a strictly patriarchal society. There’s a bit of a brief romantic angle teased between her and Tony but, rather than being reduced to a mere prize for Tony to earn or a damsel to save, Li Mei strikes back against her oppressor when she shoots Wong Chu dead to help Tony and Rhodey escape and even travels to America to help Tony track down the last of the rings. Li Mei’s story turns out to be one of deception as, after Iron Man retrieves all of the rings, she claims them for herself and reveals that she tried to keep him away since she is destined to be the vessel for the Mandarin’s resurrection. Although despondent at her fate, and Tony’s decision to stand by her and thus fulfil the prophecy of the Iron Knight battling the Mandarin to the death, she nevertheless willingly allows the Mandarin’s malevolent spirit to posses her body for the finale. Thus, in another twist on the traditional depiction of the Mandarin as a Fu Manchu-type, the sorcerer is instead rendered as an ethereal force that inhabits and surrounds Li Mei’s naked body and wields incredible elemental powers. Ultimately, though, Iron Man is able to dispel the Mandarin not through brute force or technology but by appealing to Li Mei’s humanity, though she dies in the process. Having learned the value of responsibility and self-sacrifice, Tony returns to America makes amends with his father by buying a controlling interest in Stark Industries and giving ownership to Howard (who immediately fires the entire Board).

The Summary:
The Invincible Iron Man is a decent enough animated feature; it’s not exactly the most action-packed cartoon I’ve ever seen but there’s some interesting twists on the classic Iron Man formula that make it an entertaining watch, at times. The decision to tie Iron Man’s origin in with the Mandarin is a fascinating one; the two have always had a violent and storied history and represented the dichotomy of technology versus the supernatural and, to me, the Mandarin has always been Iron Man’s greatest foe. It’s disappointing, then, that the Mandarin doesn’t really show up until the final few minutes of the feature and in a greatly altered form; while the Demon Elementals fill the void on his behalf, a lot of the film seems like needless filler. The Invincible Iron Man seems to primarily function as a prequel to the Ultimate Avengers animated movie and, in that regard, it does help shed a little light on the character but there’s not really much Iron Man action for my liking and Marvel definitely did a better job representing the character in the nineties cartoon and the subsequent live-action films.

My Rating:

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Could Be Better

What did you think to The Invincible Iron Man? How do you think it compares to the other Iron Man cartoons, Marvel’s other animated efforts, and the character’s live-action movies? Did you like the twists presented in the film, specifically regarding Iron Man’s origin and the depiction of the Mandarin? Would you have liked to see more animated films in this style or were you never a fan of Marvel’s feature-length cartoons? Whatever your thoughts on The Invincible Iron Man, leave a comment below and check in next Monday for more Iron Man content.

Back Issues [A-Day]: The Avengers #1


Having introduced comic readers to a whole host of colourful characters, in September of 1963 the legendary duo of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby brought together six of Earth’s mightiest heroes to form the Avengers. A super team like no other, with a constantly rotating roster, the Avengers has become the premier team of Marvel Comics and, thanks to the team and its individual members forming the backbone of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, have become an unbelievably popular and successful franchise in their own right.


Story Title: The Coming of the Avengers!
Published: September 1963
Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Jack Kirby

The Background:
In 1960, DC Comics brought together their most popular and powerful characters to form the Justice League of America. Never ones to let the competition get a leg up on them, and having seen successful with the Fantastic Four and the debut of the X-Men in that very same month, Marvel Comics head honcho Martin Goodman asked Stan Lee to create a similar team of superheroes. Helpfully, Lee and a number of his most famous collaborators had already established a number of colourful characters to bring together: Tony Stark/Iron Man, Doctor Bruce Banner/The Hulk, Doctor Donald Blake/Thor Odinson, and Doctor Hank Pym/Ant-Man and Janet van Dyne/The Wasp.

Since their introduction, the Avengers have changed members and fought many cosmic threats.

Since the debut issue, the Avengers have been a consistent and influential presence in Marvel Comics; the roster constantly shifted and changed, with the Hulk leaving the team in the second issue and Lee memorably dusting off the long-retired character of Steve Rogers/Captain America in issue four. Since then, the team has expanded and changed many times, seen spin-offs and splinter groups, been disassembled and reassembled, and taken part in all manner of massive cosmic events in the decades since their introduction.

The Review:
“The Coming of the Avengers” begins with Thor’s brother, Loki Laufeyson, the God of Mischief, imprisoned on the “dreaded Isle of Silence” in the mythical realm of Asgard. This is, of course, back when Loki was a despicable, irredemable villain whose previous mad schemes for power and conquest were thwarted by his brother; consequently, Loki is incensed at being exiled to the barren wasteland by Odin Allfather and plots a devious scheme for revenge.

Loki burns with a desire to destroy Thor, not Blake, and sees the Hulk as his chance to do so!

Though his physical self is trapped, Loki is able to use his vast magical abilities to project his disembodied self across the length of he dimension-spanning Bifrost and down to Earth, the planet Thor loves so dearly. He spies in on Donald Blake but dismisses him as a lame and insignificant mortal; he is acutely aware that Blake and Thor are one and the same but desires victory over Thor, not his crippled mortal shell. After many long hours, Loki comes upon the Incredible Hulk and is instantly intrigued by the creature’s brute strength and disdain for humanity. Thanks to Loki’s manipulations, the Hulk is blamed by the media when a train almost derails (despite the fact that the Hulk went out of his way to keep the train on track after Loki’s tricked him into damaging the tracks). Concerned for the well-being of his friend, Rick Jones desperately attempts to contact the Fantastic Four for help but Loki intercepts the broadcast and successfully coerces Blake to transform into Thor.

Words almost can’t express how much I despise Janet’s characterisation in these early comics!

However, Rick’s broadcast is also intercepted by Ant-Man and the Wasp and Tony Stark, who eagerly leap into action to stop what they perceive to be one of the Hulk’s trademark rampages. Though he’s now decked out in his slightly more streamlined gold plated armour (which can also charge through solar power), Stark is still entirely reliant upon his iron plated chest device to keep him alive but, nevertheless, he’s eager to test the strength of his armour against the Hulk’s much-vaulted power. The Fantastic Four eventually pick up the transmission regardless of Loki’s interference but are unable to assist since they’re already busy on another case but Rick and his fellow “Teen Bridge” are star-struck when Thor, Iron Man, Ant-Man, and the Wasp all show up to answer their summons. This is probably as good a time as any to talk about how much I loathe Janet van Dyne, especially in her earlier appearances in the sixties and seventies! She’s such a ditzy, scatterbrained little tart; all she ever does is think about her hair, make-up, and appearance and constantly fawn over other men right in front of her partner/husband, Hank. Sure, Hank is generally much more focused on his work, the mission, or being professional and is largely neglectful and ignorant of Janet but that doesn’t excuse her God-awful characterisation. Similar to Susan Storm/Invisible Girl, Jean Grey/Marvel Girl, and many of Marvel’s supporting female characters at the time, Janet is constantly patronised and spoken down to by men but, unlike many of them, she actually deserves such harsh treatment since she’s more of a glorified model or brainless celebrity than a capable superheroine, much less an individual worthy of their respect since all she wants to do is drool over Thor’s muscles!

Sadly, this is the closest we get to a fight between Thor and the Hulk.

Anyway, having inadvertently brought together some of Earth’s mightiest heroes, Loki changes tactics and uses his powers to trick Thor into thinking the Hulk is right outside their door! Acting without thought or logic, Thor immediately heads out to battle the Green Goliath and immediately heads to Asgard when he realises that the “Hulk” is merely one of Loki’s visions…just as Loki planned all along! Meanwhile, the Hulk, now free from Loki’s control, has…disguised himself as Mechano the Mechanical Man and hidden himself away at a circus? Thanks to Ant-Man’s uncanny helmet, which allows him to control and communicate with ants, Pym is able to first locate the Hulk and then use countless numbers of ants to cause a cave-in beneath the beast’s feet. Unimpressed and irritated, the Hulk easily bursts free of the trap and reacts with anger when Ant-Man attempts first to calm him and then to trap him.

The Hulk outsmarts Iron Man (!) and lands a crippling blow to Stark’s armour.

As in his debut appearance, the Hulk is far more than the mindless, rampaging beast he is generally known as; he’s eloquent and intelligent, using words like “masquerade” and being smart enough to disguise himself as a circus performer and use weapons to blow the Wasp out of the air and render her helpless. The Hulk is kept from crushed the Wasp into a fine paste by the timely arrival of Iron Man; after Iron Man’s attempts to lure the Hulk into a trap fail, he gives chase but the Hulk is wily enough to allow Iron Man to pass harmless overheard so that he (as in the Hulk) can deliver a crippling blow to Stark’s “propulsion battery”.

Loki is apprehended but the battle between Iron Man and the Hulk continues to rage!

Over in Asgard, Odin grants Thor permission to travel to the Isle of Silence to confront Loki and he has to overcome numerous traps and hazards conjured by Loki’s black magic along the way. Thor perseveres and shatters Loki’s magical barrier using his enchanted hammer, Mjölnir, in his mission to “avenge” Loki’s foul deed. However, Thor is kept from attacking Loki first by the sudden arrival of a monstrous troll, a nature of the isle, and then by Loki’s deceitful illusions. Regardless, Thor triumphs again by summoning lightning to drive the creature away and then dispels Loki’s duplicates with an implausible twirling of his hammer. Though Thor has Loki in his grasp and intends to bring him to Earth to answer for his deception, there’s still the little problem of the Hulk to contend with; Iron Man, having repaired his battery, continues his pursuit of the Hulk to an automobile factory, where the Hulk is able to endure and outwit Iron Man’s attempts to subdue him.

Loki is defeated with ridiculous ease and a new super team is born!

Thor interrupts the battle and reveals that Loki was behind everything; Hulk’s desire to make Loki pay for framing him is momentarily avoided when Loki breaks free of Thor’s grasp and prepares to resume his battle with his hated brother…only for a hoard of ants to open a trapdoor beneath his feet and cause him to fall into an lead-lined chamber. With the threat ended, Ant-Man suggests that the six of them join forces as a team, which the others (including the Hulk, despite everything he went through during the issue) readily agree to and it is the Wasp who suggests the team’s name: The Avengers!

The Summary:
“The Coming of the Avengers!” is a breath of fresh air after the year I’ve had looking back at early origin stories and comic books; even compared to standalone stories of the time, it’s refreshing to not have the plot be endlessly bogged down with recaps of the characters’ origins and to not have every other piece of dialogue by a description of that character’s ability. Characters do still have an annoying tendency to monologue and describe what they’re doing as they’re doing it but it’s a far more action-packed issue than some other comics I’ve read this year, that’s for sure.

The brisk pace means some characters get more focus than others but there’s still time for cameos…

If you’re a newcomer to Marvel, this is obviously a bit of a disadvantage since you’d have no idea who any of these characters are; the only characters who really get any extended backstory and focus are Thor and Loki, which is only natural considering it is Loki who drives the main plot of the issue. However, we never see an appearance from the Hulk’ alter ego (Banner isn’t even mentioned in the issue), Ant-Man and the Wasp are never seen outside of their costumed identities, and the comic even has time to waste panels on a cameo by the Fantastic Four. The intention, however, is pretty clear: Rick’s first thought is to call the Fantastic Four since there are only a couple of superhero teams in existence at that time and the implication is that Loki is a threat worthy of the Fantastic Four’s involvement, which thus makes the Avengers appear just as capable and formidable by proxy. Not that the Avengers really need any help in that regard; each character has already had numerous chances to shine and show how capable they are in their solo issues but what better way to showcase that to its fullest than by pitting them against the Hulk, the most powerful mortal in Marvel Comics at the time?

For all his power and scheming, Loki is incredibly ineffectual and his plan massively backfires!

Iron Man, especially, is eager to pit his skills and augmented strength against the Hulk’s (who sadly never gets to tussle with Thor to see which of the two truly is mightier) and it’s certainly unique seeing Ant-Man and the Wasp futilely try to subdue the beast with traps and trickery. It’s not a perfect story by any means; I could talk for days about Janet’s characterisation and she basically does nothing except buzz around, pine after Thor, and name the team and Loki never thinks to use his powers to send the Hulk into a mindless rampage to help tip the balance in his favour. Indeed, though Loki’s powers are vast and have the potential to be extremely dangerous, he’s pretty ineffectual as Thor easily fights off his illusions, he’s anti-climatically defeated by Ant-Man and the Wasp (of all people), and all he succeeds in doing is uniting Earth’s Mightiest Heroes as a team. He might have had more success if he’d tried to manipulate them into fighting each other or used his powers to better effect but, as an excuse to bring together six of Marvel’s most formidable superheroes into a super team, “The Coming of the Avengers!” succeeds far more than it fails…it just needed to be a bit longer and have a bit more interaction between the characters.

My Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Pretty Good

How do you feel about “The Coming of the Avengers!”? Do you feel it was an effective introduction to Marvel’s newest and greatest team or do you, perhaps, find it a little weak and light on content? Which of the original line-up is your favourite? What did you think to the Wasp’s characterisation and the treatment of females during this time? Which version of the team is your favourite or who would you like to see on an Avengers roster one day? Do you think the singular threat of Loki was suitable enough justification for bringing together these heroes or would you have preferred a bigger threat? How are you celebrating the debut of the Avengers today and what are some of your favourite Avengers storylines, characters, or adaptations? Feel free to share your thoughts and opinions on the Avengers in the comments below.

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: Tales of Suspense #39

Story Title: Iron Man is Born!
Published: March 1963
Writers: Stan Lee and Larry Lieber
Artist: Don Heck

The Background:
Long before Robert Downey Jr. uttered that unforgettable line, “I am Iron Man”, Stan Lee’s original idea behind creating Iron Man was to take a concept his readers would hate (a rich, military industrialist), throw in a little inspiration from Howard Hughes, toss in a little vulnerability and personal tragedy, and make him a character they would root for.

Iron Man’s bulky, powerful armour was donned by industrialist philanthropist Tony Stark.

Although Lee intended to write Iron Man’s debut, mounting deadlines saw him turn to his younger brother, Larry Lieber, to flesh out this concept. Though artist Don Heck drew the interior artwork, the cover art (which posits the question “Who? Who? Who?” and depicts Iron Man’s awesome, super chunky grey armour) was done by the legendary Jack Kirby. Stark and his armoured alter-ego was initially a whimsical, Errol Flynn-type anti-communist who existed, largely, for Lee to comment on both industrialism and the Cold War, and debuted in the pages of Tales of Suspense, a title known for including science-fiction mystery and (fittingly) suspense stories.

The Review:
“Iron Man is Born!” begins in “a secluded area somewhere in the U.S. perimeter” where Anthony Stark is demonstrating the power and awesome potential of his “tiny transistors”. Though the General is initially unimpressed with Stark’s grandstanding, with just a flick of a switch, Stark’s transistor technology increases the power of even the smallest magnet a thousandfold to tear open even a heavily-sealed vault door in an impressive demonstration of the technology he believes to be “capable of solving [the] problem in Vietnam”.

Stark impresses both military officials and ladies alike with his many talents.

Having introduced us to Stark’s impressive technological genius, the story then spends the next couple of panels giving us a glimpse into the type of character Stark is. A rich, handsome, glamorous playboy, Stark is seemingly lusted after by every woman who lays eyes on him and is both a sophisticate, millionaire bachelor and a scientist who wants for nothing, is capable of getting, making, or having anything he wants, and who is one of the premier hot-shotters in the U.S.

Wong-Chu has been terrorising South Vietnam, trouncing all who dare oppose him.

We’re then introduced to the tyrannical Wong-Chu , a stereotypical “Yellow Peril” menace who has mercilessly dominated the majority of South Vietnam, bringing village after village to its knees and besting all who dare challenge him in single combat and plundering without compassion. Wong-Chu and his “Red Guerrillas” vastly outnumber the stationed U.S. forces and have the advantage of being able to navigate through the dense jungle, which keeps the U.S. military’s heavy weapons and armaments at bay. Considering it’s Vietnam and we all know how messed up that particular conflict was, it’s a bit odd that the army would rather employ Stark’s transistor technology (as groundbreaking as it apparently is) to solve this problem rather than, I dunno, simply burning the jungle.

A booby trap causes sharpnel to become lodged near Stark’s heart, giving him just days to live!

However, while wandering around in the jungle for apparently little other reason than to deliver exposition, Stark triggers an unseen booby trap and is captured by the Red Guerrillas while he lies wounded. At the Guerrilla chief’s headquarters, their physician reveals that Stark is in critical condition; shrapnel near his heart makes it impossible for them to operate and Stark will be dead within about a week. Undeterred, Wong-Chu decides to coerce Stark into using what little time he has left to make weapons for them instead. Immediately sensing Wong-Chu’s deception, Stark agrees to their terms if only to use their resources in one last, desperate attempt to keep himself from dying. Considering he has untold pieces of shrapnel lodged in his chest and is, apparently, in critical condition and mere days away from death, Stark is rather spirited, able to stand, walk around, and work himself around the clock with only the looming threat of his impending demise working against him rather than, you know, agonising pain.

Yinsen helped Stark, and sacrifices himself, to create a powerful suit of armour to save his life.

On the second day, Wong-Chu bring Stark an assistant, the aged Professor Yinsen, a man whom Stark recognises and seems to idolise after studying Yinsen’s texts while in college. Stark shares his plans with Yinsen and they work together to complete Stark’s imaginative solution to his problem: a mighty electronic body powered by Stark’s transistor technology. This massive iron frame is specifically crafted to replicate all the natural movements of a man and to work in conjunct with Stark’s transistors to both keep him alive and grant him freedom of movement. With Stark’s conditioning worsening as time goes on, Yinsen presents him with the iron chest-plate to applies it, and the remainder of the suit, to Stark’s body. However, after powering up the generator, Yinsen selflessly rushes out to keep Wong-Chu’s forces at bay while Stark lies motionless and helpless.

The suit saves Tony’s life but it takes him some to adjust and adapt to it.

As the transistors charge up Stark’s suit, he is devastated to hear the sound of his friend being shot and killed and swears vengeance for him. Once the suit is fully charged, Stark’s life is saved; the transistors imbedded in the chest plate are vaguely depicted as being something akin to a life support machine that keeps Stark’s heart beating but we know, from the demonstration of the transistor’s magnetic powers that we saw earlier and from subsequent stories, that the suit is actually keeping the shrapnel at bay to keep Stark from dying. Surprisingly, and somewhat hilariously, Stark struggles to adjust to his new armoured suit, falling and having to take a panel or two to master the awesome power of the suit. Even more surprisingly, as Wong-Chu’s men head towards his cell, Stark has a moment of despair; he sees the oncoming battle as his “greatest test” and wonders if his suit will be up to the task while simultaneously doubting his own humanity and the unknown future that lays ahead of him as he must remain reliant upon, and encased within, his iron suit. It’s a startlingly affecting couple of panels and really shows just how much the experience has affected the formally carefree Stark.

Iron Man’s armour affords Stark many abilities and allows him to easily best Wong-Chu in combat.

Pragmatic as ever, Stark utilises his “transistor-powered air-pressure jets” to perform a great vertical leap and hides from Wong-Chu’s forces using “suction cups” to cling to the ceiling. After hearing clarification of Yinsen’s death, Stark again swears to make the Red Guerrilla’s pay for killing an innocent, harmless old man as Iron Man. Out in the courtyard, Wong-Chu is celebrating another victory over a hapless villager when Here Comes a New Challenger!! Iron Man approaches Wong-Chu and challenges him to single combat, easily besting him with his transistor-powered strength.

Iron Man uses his many gadgets and gizmos to deter and and demoralise Wong-Chu’s forces.

Iron Man’s reinforced metallic shell is even capable of deflecting bullets and, when Wong-Chu orders the use of grenades, Iron Man simply “[reverses] the charge in [a] magnetic turbo-insulator” and “[uses] a top-hat transistor to increase its repelling power a thousandfold” to deflect the incoming projectiles. Wong-Chu is incensed when his men flee from Iron Man’s power and uses a loudspeaker to offer a thousand yen reward to the man who can destroy the metallic menace who threatens his rule; however, Iron Man uses “electrical interference” to drown out Wong-Chu’s words and replace them with an order for the Red Guerrillas to flee in panic.

Though stunned by a rock-filled filing cabinet, Iron Man brings an end to Wong-Chu’s threat.

Though he easily uses his miniature buzz saw to cut through the locked door that hides Wong-Chu, Iron Man is briefly incapacitated when Wong-Chi is able to topple a rock-filled filing cabinet on top of him. Okay…first of all: where did Wong-Chu get the rocks to fill the filing cabinet and, secondly, how was is it he had the strength to push it down the stairs but Iron Man, with all his transistor-powered strength, struggled to lift it off of him? Regardless, Iron Man soon lifts the weight off of him but finds that he has exerted his power levels far too much and cannot pursue Wong-Chu. However, determined to keep the tyrant from slaughtering all of the prisoners in the camp, Iron Man squirts a thin stream of oil towards the ammunition storage building Wong-Chu is running past and ignites it, blowing Wong-Chu to smithereens without hesitation and leaving Stark to ponder his unknown future that lies before him as Iron Man.

Tony does not initially appear to be made out of traditional hero material…

The Summary:
“Iron Man is Born!” is quite the snappy little story; Tony Stark is indeed a very different character compared to some of Marvel’s other heroes in that he is a womanising philanthropist. While he’s not shown to be aloof or carefree, the panels depicting him as a billionaire playboy certainly indicate that this is the case; sure, he’s clearly a patriot but he seems to assist the military effort more out of personal pride and to show off his technology rather than out of any real inherent duty to his homeland.

A prisoner with only days to live, Stark falls back on his intellect to save his life.

Yet, when captured by the Red Guerrilla’s, Stark comes face-to-face not only with the true extent of the brutality of the Vietnam conflict but also his own mortality; where other Marvel heroes may have faced this threat with a witty remark or a patriotic resolve, Stark instead invests himself in the only thing he really knows: his science and genius. He works tirelessly to construct the Iron Man armour, crafting a sophisticated, life-saving machine out of a smattering of resources and technology, not just to save his own life but also to take Wong-Chu down with him.

Stark faces an uncertain future as he is initially bound to the armour in order to survive.

Indeed, initially, Stark seems to accept that this will be a suicide mission and that he may very well fail before he can even complete the armour; his motivations turn to revenge after the death of Yinsen, however, and he becomes quite the unlikely hero thanks to the experience of being held prisoner, coming to terms with his mortality, and the unlimited potential of his transistor-powered Iron Man persona. In the end, I actually felt like Stark had a lot in common with Doctor Bruce Banner/The Hulk in that he is somewhat horrified by the monster he has made himself into; he is not only overwhelmed by the implications of being trapped within the armour but ends the story satisfied with his vengeance but uncertain how the man once known as Tony Stark can continue to live in the world as an Iron Man.

My Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Pretty Good

Have you ever read “Iron Man is Born!”? How did you find it as a story and as an origin for ol’ shellhead? What did you think of Tony Stark compared to other Marvel superheroes at the time? What are some of your favourite Iron Man characters or stories? Where does Iron Man rank in your hierarchy of comic book characters? Are you doing anything to commemorate Iron Man’s debut appearance and, if so, what is it? Either way, I’d love to hear your thoughts on Iron Man so leave a comment below.