Talking Movies: Black Panther: Wakanda Forever [SPOILERS!]

Talking Movies

Released: 11 November 2022
Director: Ryan Coogler
Distributor:
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Budget: $250 million
Stars:
Letitia Wright, Tenoch Huerta, Angela Bassett, Danai Gurira, Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Dominique Thorne, and Martin Freeman

The Plot:
With Wakanda in mourning after the tragic death of their beloved monarch, T’Challa/The Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Princess Shuri (Wright) is forced to step into the unlikely role of ruler and protector when her nation is threatened by their imperious K’uk’ulkan, Namor (Huerta), who wishes to wipe out the surface world.

The Background:
Readers of Marvel Comics’ Fantastic Four were introduced to the first-ever black superpowered character, the Black Panther, for the first time in 1966. After a Wesley Snipes-led live-action adaptation languished in Development Hell for decades, the Black Panther finally made his debut in Captain America: Civil War (Russo and Russo, 2016), setting the character up for his own critically and financially successful solo film that impressed with its performances and candid themes of racial oppression. Sadly, the character’s future was thrown into doubt when star Chadwick Boseman sadly passed away after secretly battling cancer; Marvel Studios head honcho Kevin Feige promised that the role wouldn’t be recast to ensure a lasting legacy for Boseman, surprising and devastating writer/director Ryan Coogler, who had been working with Feige and Chadwick to develop the character’s reign as Wakanda’s monarch. Rather than recast or utilise a CGI double, the script was reworked to expand upon the supporting characters and culture of Wakanda. The script also introduced Marvel’s first Mutant, Prince Namor McKenzie/The Sub-Mariner, to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), albeit with a heavily altered background; to avoid comparisons with Arthur Curry/Aquaman, the script changed Namor from a prince of Atlantis to the God-king of a hidden, underwater Mesoamerican subculture and leaning into star Tenoch Huerta’s Mexican heritage to bring the complex anti-hero to life, ankle wings and all. Switching Atlantis for Talokan, the film took visual inspiration from Mayan culture and Jack Kirby’s comic book imagery to bring Namor’s undersea kingdom to life, and employed anamorphic lenses to warp the screen with the fog of loss to reflect the cast and crew’s grief over Chadwick’s passing. Although COVID-19 didn’t affect the film’s release, a series of injuries and delays did interrupt filming and star Letitia Wright attracted some controversy after speaking out about the COVID-19 vaccination. Regardless, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever released to largely unanimous praise but reviews were a little mixed; critics praised the film as a celebration of Chadwick’s life and the individual performances but many took issue with the film’s length, worldbuilding and believed it struggled with Chadwick’s absence. Still, the film was a financial success, bringing in over $355 million at the box office and setting up not just another Disney+ spin-off but also sparking discussions for a third entry in the franchise.

The Review [SPOILERS!]:
Like many, if not all of us, I was stunned to learn of Chadwick’s passing in 2020; it really did come out of nowhere and raised some uncomfortable questions about the future for the character of the Black Panther. Obviously, real world tragedies like this are more important than any fictional narrative but it was still a difficult situation for the MCU to address; a recast could anger Chadwick’s fans, ignoring his passing could be seen as disrespectful, and the question of whether anyone would accept a new character taking on the Black Panther mantle led to some pretty despicable shows of toxic masculinity across the internet despite the fact that Shuri has adopted the role in the source material. Personally, as much as I enjoyed Black Panther (Coogler, 2018), it almost felt as though it might be best to downplay Wakanda’s influence in the MCU going forward; perhaps merge any future stories into other movies, such as their upcoming Fantastic Four reboot, since the situation was so delicate. Instead, the decision was made to forge ahead and immortalise Chadwick’s legacy with a celebration of his life and to allow every involved, the creators, characters, actors, and the audience, to commemorate his life and mourn his loss collectively in this sequel. Even with this in mind, I was very surprised to see the film open on the eve of T’Challa’s death not long after the events of Avengers: Endgame (Russo and Russo, 2019); like the late Chadwick, T’Challa was stricken by a fatal illness and suffered in silence, with his condition being discovered far too late for Shuri’s advanced technology to be of any help. Indeed, she was so desperate to try and artificially recreate the mystical heart-shaped herb to cure her brother than she spent all her time in her lab and even prayed to the panther god Bast for help, only to be devastated to learn of T’Challa’s untimely passing despite her best efforts.

Wakanda mourns their loss, but none feel T’Challa’s passing more so than Queen Ramonda and Shuri.

The entire nation of Wakanda was united in mourning for their fallen king and protector; Wakanda’s traditions teach that death is simply the first step on a great journey in the afterlife, a belief that brings little solace to Shuri. With one foot planted in science and the other in spirituality, she’s conflicted over the loss, finding little comfort in the assertions of her mother, Queen Ramonda (Bassett), that T’Challa lives on in spirit around them. Instead, she’s abandoned her efforts to recreate the heart-shaped herb, believing that it and the symbol of the Black Panther are relics of the past that should be laid to rest with her brother, and has been busying herself crafting new weapons and technology for Wakanda’s all-female army, the Dora Milaje, much to the chagrin of her mother and General Okoye (Gurira). In the wake of T’Challa’s death, Queen Ramonda has had to forge on as Wakanda’s sovereign ruler; though the tribes of Wakanda are fully united and behind her, with even the hulking M’Baku (Duke) and his Jabari tribe now represented on the council, Wakanda has come under fire from the United Nations as the world’s superpowers begin to feel threatened by Wakanda’s advanced technology and exclusive access to Vibranium. Although T’Challa opened Wakanda’s borders and established a number of outreach centres across the glove to help oppressed and struggling people, Queen Ramonda resolutely promises swift and aggressive retribution against any party or nation that tries to take Wakanda’s resources (especially their Vibranium) by force, upsetting the geo-political perception of the nation and putting Wakanda at risk of all-out war.

Shuri forges new relationships to work through her grief, including protecting Riri from Namor’s reprisals.

Of all the returning characters, Shuri obviously receives the most obvious growth; in the first film, she was an outspoken rebel, as arrogant in her scientific acumen as Anthony “Tony” Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and who openly mocked Wakanda’s traditions. Now, she’s a broken young woman struggling with a burning desire for vengeance; grief is consuming her and has hardened her demeanour, yet her moral integrity is strong enough to oppose Namor’s desire to kill scientific prodigy Riri Williams (Thorne) after she creates a machine capable of detecting Vibranium, purely on a whim, and threatens to expose the lost underwater nation of Talokan to the world. Although clearly wanting to be seen as an intimidating figure, Namor makes an effort to appeal to Shuri, bringing her to the depths of Talokan and sharing both his backstory and some of the history of his aquatic people. Believing he’s found a kindred spirit in Shuri and that she will join him in launching a pre-emptive strike against the surface world, Namor proposes an alliance while both threatening Riri’s life and promising that Talokan’s superpowered forces, further empowered by their own Vibranium weapons, are no match for Wakanda. Ultimately, Shuri chooses to protect Riri, who meant no harm and poses no threat to anyone, incurring Namor’s wrath; his attack upon Wakanda sees the capital city partially flooded, eventually evacuated, and leaves untold numbers dead, including Queen Ramonda. With this act, Namor only further stokes the raging fire burning within Shuri; having literally lost her entire family, she now finds herself promoted to sovereign ruler and having to live up to expectations that were never asked of her before, and is finally compelled to continue her research into the heart-shaped herb so that the Black Panther can live again and give her the means to take her revenge upon Namor.

In addition to fleshing our returning characters, the film introduces a new child prodigy to the MCU.

T’Challa’s passing means a greater focus on Wakanda’s supporting characters; as mentioned, M’Baku and the Jabari are now fully integrated into Wakanda society, though he remains a proud and outspoken man mountain. He’s given greater depth, however, by him assuming the role of Shuri’s protector and confidante; charged by T’Challa with providing Shuri with council, he urges her to embrace her role as Wakanda’s leader and protector while also warning against provoking endless war against Talokan and killing their God-king since this would set not only her down a self-destructive path but bring ruin to their homeland. The stoic and implacable Okoye is equally devastated by her king’s passing; as loyal as ever, she convinces Queen Ramonda to allow Shuri to accompany her to Cambridge, Massachusetts to intercept Riri, only to end up being disgraced and discharged from her duties after failing to protect them from Namor’s forces. Despite her resistance to utilising Shuri’s technology, Okoye upgrades to a superhero persona of her own by the end of the film as she and fellow Dora Milaje Aneka (Michaela Coel) make use of Shuri’s “Midnight Angel” armour in the final battle against the Talokan warriors. While Riri’s involvement in the movie is somewhat akin to the introduction of Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland) to the MCU and has more than a few parallels to Iron Man’s origin, she quickly forms a bond with Shuri, Okoye, and Nakia (Nyong’o), with the four being united in their grief and common enemy. Since the first movie, Nakia has left Wakanda and become a schoolteacher; the pain of T’Challa’s passing was too great for her to attend his funeral, but she readily agrees to rescue Shuri and Riri from the outskirts of Talokan after Okoye’s dismissal. Everett K. Ross (Freeman) of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) also returns in a small role as an outside ally to Wakanda; with the United States legitimately considering going to war with Wakanda over their Vibranium, he tries to convince the Secretary of State (Richard Schiff) and CIA director Valentina Allegra de Fontaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) of the Talokan plot only to be arrested on charges of treason by Valentina, who’s revealed to be his ex-wife, further placing him in Wakanda’s debt. Ross is right to be concerned; Talokan is a serious threat not just to Wakanda but to the entire world. Their people’s origins are as seeped in mysticism as the Wakandans, with their ancestors being directed to the same heart-shaped herb by divine intervention, however this one was found near an underwater deposit of Vibranium and thus mutated the Talokan into a water-dwelling species.

While his enforcers aren’t very flesh out, Namor is a complex and alluring anti-hero who hates the surface world.

Establishing a fully functional city deep beneath the ocean, one seeped in Mesoamerica traditions and aesthetics, the Talokan have been ruled for centuries by their God-king, Namor, whom they refer to as “K’uk’ulkan” (or “Feathered Serpent God”). Born a Mutant, able to fly thanks to wings on his ankles and drawing both superhuman strength and oxygen from the water directly through his skin, Namor is the child of two worlds but has absolutely no love for the surface world. After witnessing first-hand the aggression of colonisers and invaders, he has prepared a dedicated and formidable water-dwelling army to strike back against humanity before they can even think about trying to raid Talokan’s depths for their resources and Vibranium. Although charming, alluring individual who makes intelligent and persuasive arguments, Namor is nonetheless an aggressive and driven warrior who’s willing to threaten not just Wakanda but also Riri’s life since he doesn’t want her creating any more machines that could expose Talokan. While the Talokans are far more tribalistic in their ways and strategies, they’re no less dangerous; they’re capable of luring targets to their deaths with a hypnotic siren’s song, boast superhuman strength and speed and Vibranium weapons, employ destructive concussive water grenades, and can both command water and travel through the sea on whales. Namor’s chief enforcers are Namora (Mabel Cadena) and Attuma (Alex Livinalli), two characters with little personality or development beyond forging a rivalry with Nakia and Okoye, respectively, but I can forgive this as the film rightfully forces on fleshing out Namor’s character. He’s a very layered antagonist, assuming more of an anti-hero role since he fights to protect his people and prove Talokan’s strength rather than simply for sheer bloodlust but, as understandable as his motives are, he still strikes a devastating blow against Wakanda and Shuri when both were already struggling with their grief and comes very close to sparking a global conflict.

The Nitty-Gritty [SPOILERS!]
As you might expect, a major theme in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is grief. Although Wakanda celebrates death and makes a big exhibition about honouring T’Challa and seeing him off to the Ancestral Plain in glorious fashion, it’s of little comfort to Shuri. Even Queen Ramonda and Okoye, who staunchly uphold the traditions and beliefs of Wakanda to the letter, after clearly shaken by their loss, and the pain was so great that it drove Nakia away from her homeland for six years. Since she’s a scientist first and foremost, Shuri struggles to find the same comfort in her spiritualism as her mother and isn’t ready to let go of her pain, fearing that it would mean forgetting her brother or lead her to resent the entire world in her grief. Although she’s putting on the face of a strong leader, Queen Ramonda has been deeply affected by the loss of her husband and child; when Okoye delivers news that Shuri has been lost as well, the queen launches into an emotional outburst while stripping the general of her duties, showing just how deep her pain runs. Shuri’s own pain is only exacerbated by her mother’s death; although she was awestruck by Talokan and felt a kinship with Namor’s tragic childhood, she resorts to pure, unbridled vengeance after he attacks Wakanda. Her determination to see Namor dead unsettles even M’Baku, who is resolutely against killing Namor and risking a lifetime of war against Talokan’s formidable forces, yet Shuri is able to convince…no, demand…his loyalty and assistance by finally asserting herself as Wakanda’s leader and protector, showing just how far her character has grown given the hardships she’s suffered.

Namor and the Talokan deliver some of the film’s most impressive visuals and action sequences.

Black Panther impressed with its picturesque beauty and its sequel is certainly no slouch in this department; Wakanda is bathed in the red-orange glow of dusk and bustling with celebrations and tributes to their fallen king, with new aspects of their culture being highlighted as a result of this loss. Their technological acumen remains as advanced as ever; Shuri now has the capability of replicating organic life, eventually extracting the essence of the heart-shaped herb from Namor’s bracelet to repopulate the flower, and has become far more reliant on her interactive artificial intelligence, Griot (Trevor Noah), in creating new weapons and tools for her people. Riri holds her own in this area as well; like Stark, he’s able to cobble together unimaginably advanced tech from spare parts and her own initiative, building not only a machine that can detect Vibranium but also a fully-functioning (if crude) Iron Man-esque suit for herself. Astounded by the resources on offer in Wakanda, she’s able to create a much more impressive armoured suit, one that’s sleek and aerodynamic and gives her the tools to play and active role in the finale but is inexplicably taken from her by Shuri so that Riri can rediscover her origins in her upcoming Disney+ spinoff. However, as impressive as all this is, one of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever’s primary goals is on establishing the underwater nation and race of Talokan. Their city, which is reminiscent of Mayan architecture and society, is hidden deep beneath the ocean depths; unlike Aquaman’s (Wan, 2018) elaborate and fantastical representation of Atlantis, Talokan is dark, devoid of tangible gravity, and is seeped in a tribalistic mentality the sees them worship the seemingly ageless Namor like a God. Namor brings light to his kingdom through an artificial sun, has equipped them with the tools to pose a significant threat to surface dwellers, and reveals in this worship, sporting ceremonial beads and pieces of armour, comprised of Vibranium, to cut an intimidating figure. While his race is depicted with blue skin on the surface, speaking in an ancient dialect and utilising special masks to breath out of the water, Namor is freely able to come and go as he pleases and speaks a variety of languages. Namor also delivers some of the film’s best action sequences; while the majority of the action is centred on wide-scale conflict between Wakanda and Talokan, Namor darts around the sky in a really unique way, cutting through bodies and vehicles alike and is both touted, and presented, as an incredibly formidable superhuman force against which Wakanda’s armies potentially stand now chance.

Ultimately, Shuri assumes her brothers role and leads her people in meeting the Talokan, and Namor, head-on.

This is, of course, unless Shuri is able to synthesise the heart-shaped herb; since all of Wakanda’s supply was torched by N’Jadaka/Erik Stevens/ Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) in the last film, their enhancing properties and the mantle of the Black Panther had remained dormant as Shuri has focused on other things. Namor’s threat leads her to finally making a breakthrough and, as Wakanda’s ruler, drinking the herb’s liquid to enter the Ancestral Plane. There, rather than meeting with her beloved family, she has an emotional confrontation with Killmonger’s spirit as he tries to foster the rage building inside of her. Indeed, upon assuming he mantle of the Black Panther, Shuri is hellbent on drawing Namor out, weakening him with intense heat, and battling him to the death to make him pay for killing her mother and endangering her people. Despite showcasing a superhuman agility and a multitude of technological armaments built into her nanotech Black Panther suit, Shuri is no match for Namor one-on-one so she works with Riri not only to perfect her Ironheart armour but also to trap Namor in a super-heated prison that will sap his strength and even the odds. While her allies battle the Talokans in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, Namor and the Black Panther have a brutal fight in the sweltering desert that leaves the K’uk’ulkan severely dehydrated and scarred by Shuri’s talons and the young princess impaled on a pole. Through sheer force of will, she’s able to free herself, sever (or, at least, severely wound) one of Namor’s ankle wings, and force him to yield after catching him in a burst of jet flame. Queen Ramonda’s spirit is able to calm Shuri’s rage and convince her to show Namor mercy and the conflict comes to an end; however, while Namora expresses disappointment in Namor’s surrender, he insists that it’s all part of a larger plan to allow Talokan with Wakanda for an inevitable conflict against the surface world and the question of Wakanda’s position within the geo-political climate is left up for debate. Although Shuri appears to step away from her role as Wakanda’s ruler, she finally achieves a measure of peace, burning her ceremonial funeral garments and discovering a lifeline to her lost family in the surprising appearance of Nakia and T’Challa’s young son, Toussaint/T’Challa (Divine Love Konadu-Sun) and having forged new relationships with both Everett Ross and Riri Williams and a newfound level of respect for the likes of Okoye and M’Baku.

The Summary [SPOILERS!]:
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever had an unenviable task; not only did it have to follow up one of the most influential and well-regarded superhero movies of all time, but it had to tackle the tragic passing of its star actor. Fittingly, the film is dedicated to Chadwick and the first part, especially, is focused on giving him a celebratory send off and allowing us to all collective mourn his passing. It’s a tall order to ask anyone, man or woman (or otherwise), to fill his shoes and I think there’s always going to be that cloud of trepidation surrounding the character going forward, but the film did a really good job of exploring that journey and those emotions through Shuri. Her development into a much more hardened and well-rounded character was great to see, and hit a lot of similar beats to T’Challa’s journey in the MCU with her learning to work past her personal grief and rage for a greater cause. The film also nicely established that the MCU can continue trucking along quite nicely by building up secondary characters; increasing the prominence of the likes of Okoye and M’Baku gives Shuri a strong support network and introducing new characters lie Riri Williams continues to expand the MCU, even if her role could’ve easily been cut from the film without impacting the narrative all that much. For me, though, the true highlight was Namor; I loved the changes they made to his backstory and how multifaceted his character and motivations were. He continues the staple of having more human and understandable villains who are more shades of grey than purely black or white and added another new visual flair to the already jam-packed variety of the MCU not just in his appearance and portrayal but in the presentation of Talokan. I think we’ll come to find Black Panther: Wakanda Forever one of the most pivotal MCU films going forward, not just for establishing these new characters but also for the way it alters the existing lore; big things are clearly brewing, and I think this will be where that all links back to. Overall, this was an enjoyable experience; it was a tasteful tribute to Chadwick and treated his memory with dignity and respect while actually tackling the subject of death head-on in a way most superhero films simply gloss over.

My Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Great Stuff

Did you enjoy Black Panther: Wakanda Forever? What did you think to the way it handled Chadwick Boseman’s passing? Were you happy to see Shuri step into the title role or would you have preferred a different character take up the mantle? What did you think to Namor, the changes made to him and the presentation of his culture and abilities? Where would you like to see Wakanda go in the future? What do you think to the building intrigue surrounding Valentina Allegra de Fontaine? Whatever you think about Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, feel free to share your thoughts and memories of Chadwick Boseman in the comments below or on my social media.

Screen Time: Werewolf by Night

Air Date: 7 October 2022
Director: Michael Giacchino
Network: Disney+
Stars: Gael García Bernal, Laura Donnelly, Harriet Sansom Harris, Kirk R. Thatcher, and Carey Jones/Jeffery Ford

The Background:
Back in February 1972, Roy Thomas, Jeanie Thomas, Gerry Conway, and Mike Ploog (under the direction of the legendary Stan Lee) introduced readers to Jack Russell/Werewolf by Night in the pages of Marvel Spotlight. After a ridiculous ban kept Marvel from publishing stories about werewolves and other supernatural creatures, the writers were finally free to explore these elements, and Werewolf by Night, soon graduated to his own self-titled series later that same year. Coming from a long line of lycanthropes and sharing a complex history with Count Dracula and the cursed Darkhold, Jack Russell became a feral beast under the light of a full moon and was repeatedly targeted by a nefarious cabal known as the Committee, who also introduced the emotionally damaged vigilante Marc Spector/Moon Knight to Marvel’s readers. Despite being one of Marvel’s more obscure characters, Werewolf by Night was pegged for a big-screen adaptation back in 2001; after numerous drafts and delays, Crystal Sky Pictures seemed ready to begin shooting when the project simply vanished from their slate. Hopes for the Werewolf lived again, however, when Kevin Smith was denied use of the character for a 2019 project, and the character was officially announced to be a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s fourth phase in a one-hour, horror-themed special for Disney+. Director Michael Giacchino drew specific inspiration from the classic monster movies of the 1930s and 1940s and promised that the special would include some of Marvel’s most famous monster characters, such as Doctor Ted Sallis/Man-Thing. Upon its release, Werewolf by Night was met with largely positive reviews; critics praised the aesthetic and brisk pace, and the homage to classic Hammer Horror films, while also noting that the characters and certain visuals were somewhat disappointing.

The Plot:
A group of monster hunters gather at Bloodstone Manor following the death of their leader and engage in a mysterious and deadly competition for a powerful relic, which will bring them face to face with a dangerous monster.

The Review:
I might not know much, if anything, about Werewolf by Night but I’m more than familiar with the Hammer Horrors of yesteryear, classic black-and-white terrors that laid the foundation for popular depictions of screen monsters such as Count Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, and Larry Talbot/The Wolf Man. I’m actually more a fan of the 1930 Hammer Horrors than the later renaissance spearheaded by the likes of Christopher Lee; there’s just something about the gothic aesthetic surrounding the likes of Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jr. that I find endearing and appealing in its simplicity. Plus, those classic horrors are super brisk; you could probably watch all of them, or a good three or four, in just a few hours and that’s perfect for when you just want a short, sharp fix of horror rather than sitting through a two-hour feature film. Similarly, as someone who struggles to binge-watch even six-episode shows for these reviews, I couldn’t be happier that Werewolf by Night opts to simply be a short special presentation, clocking in at a little under an hour. I miss when Marvel used to produce one-shots to fill in gaps between movies and definitely think they would benefit from producing more one- or two-hour specials to flesh out some of their more obscure characters. Similar to how the old Hammer Horrors would open with some text or a voice over, so too does Werewolf by Night begin with an opening narration touching upon the malevolent monsters lurking in the darkness and those who hunt and kill them, with none being more prominent than the legendary Bloodstone family, whose patriarch has slaughtered monsters across the generations with the supernatural relic known as…well…the Bloodstone.

Jack and Elsa reach an agreement to allow him to free the Man-Thing and her to claim the Bloodstone.

Following the death of Ulysses Bloodstone (Richard Dixon), the Bloodstone is in need of a new master, a process determined by inviting monster hunters from all over the world to take part in a ritualistic hunt to establish who is worthy of this powerful relic. Ulysses is survived by his widow, Verusa Bloodstone (Harris) and his estranged daughter, Elsa (Donnelly); Verusa is Elsa’s stepmother and is greatly disappointed by Elsa’s lack of interest in continuing the family tradition. Once thought to be capable of surpassing Ulysses’s abilities, Elsa instead abandoned her duties and her training but is nonetheless determined to take the Bloodstone for herself. Verusa acts as the hostess for the gathering of hunters, with over two-hundred confirmed kills shared between the death-dealers. Jovan (Thatcher) is easily the most bombastic of the group, making an impression through his impressive beard and facial scars, though only Jack Russell (Bernal) can claim over a hundred kills just for himself. With the exception of Elsa, all present see their crusade as a righteous one, a mission of mercy for the cursed and their victims, though there’s a definite flavour of cult-like sensibilities to their hunt. The hunt itself takes place on the grounds of Bloodstone Manor, a dark forest that leads to an Maurits Cornelis Escher-like labyrinth guarded by members of the Time Variance Authority (TVA), which probably explains why the layout and logic of the labyrinth makes little sense. Sporting tribalistic make-up to honour his ancestors, Jack is randomly selected to head out into the woods ahead of the others and his life is deemed to be as fair game as the monster, and any of the other hunters. Despite his impressive reputation as a monster killer, it turns out that Jack isn’t there to hunt their quarry, the swamp creature we know as the Man-Thing (Jones/Ford), but is actually there to rescue him and even refers to him by his real name, Ted. Thus, Jack wants no part of the hunt and even suggests to Elsa that they forget they saw each other, Jovan is driven into a frenzy by his desire to earn the Bloodstone, attacking Elsa with his axe and being surprised and unarmed by her martial arts skill. She then uses Jovan’s axe to more literally disarm Liorn (Leonardo Nam) and kill him with his own wrist-mounted crossbow, proving that she hasn’t been neglecting her training in her time away from Bloodstone Manor.

Verusa triggers Jack’s transformation into the titular Werewolf and seals her fate.

Although the Man-Thing is incapable of communicating beyond a few grunts and creaks, Jack is fully capable of understanding him and promises to relieve him of the Bloodstone, which hurts and weakens him, and blast their way out of there and to freedom. Although Azarel (Eugenie Bondurant) isn’t quite so altruistic, her attack does lead to Jack and Elsa finding some common ground and agreeing to help each other in return for her getting the Bloodstone and him getting the Man-Thing to safety. Although sceptical about Jack’s motives and his relationship to Man-Thing, Elsa is duly convinced that the creature is only a threat when provoked or senses a threat when he calms down after she reluctantly refers to him by his real name and takes Jack’s advice to treat him like an old friend rather than a monster. After some pratfalling with the explosives, Jack succeeds in freeing his friend but, when he tries to pick up the Bloodstone, it rejects him because he’s also hiding a monster within himself. Naturally, Verusa is disgusted by Jack’s charade and has him locked up with Elsa for her part in freeing the Man-Thing; although embittered that Jack kept his secret from her, Jack assures Elsa that he has “systems” in place to manage his monstrous side and that he works hard to keep that part of himself from hurting others. Unfortunately for him, Verusa doesn’t need to wait for the next full moon to witness Jack’s transformation as she possesses the Bloodstone; fearing what he’s capable of, he desperately tries to remember Elsa’s scent and begs for a merciful death, but Verusa forces him to undergo a startling transformation into a ravenous werewolf with her family relic. Naturally, the Werewolf goes on an animalistic rampage, savaging and tearing his way through anyone he deems a threat, but even his supernaturally-enhanced strength is nothing compared to the debilitating power of the Bloodstone, necessitating Elsa’s intervention to keep him from being killed. Retrieving the Bloodstone, Elsa is spared an evisceration after showing compassion for the Werewolf and Verusa meets a gruesome end when the Man-Thing gets his hands on her.

The Summary:  
Werewolf by Night establishes itself as a very different kind of Marvel production right from the start; not only is the entire feature in black-and-white like the old Hammer Horror films, but the Marvel Studios logo and main theme have been altered to evoke the gothic horror aesthetic of those classic horror films, all the way down to flashes of lightning over the logo, a suitably Hammer-esque orchestral score, and even film grain to give it that weathered, 1930s feel. Everything about the special screams Hammer Horror, right down to the gothic Bloodstone Manor and its hieroglyphics depicting the generations of monster hunting to the stuffed monster heads adorning the walls and the presence of the Bloodstone family crypt. In fact, the only time colour is even used in the special is when the Bloodstone itself is on screen, with the gem shining with a piercing blood-red light and breathing colour into the film after Elsa claims it in the finale. Sadly, the visual presentation doesn’t extend to the cast of characters; it takes about thirty minutes to learn Jack’s name and none of the characters introduce themselves so it was pretty difficult to tell who was who. None of the hunters except Jovan really stood out and we never really get a sense of who they are or their backgrounds; even Elsa and Jack’s origins are left frustratingly vague and Verusa came across as a cackling pantomime villainess that, while suitable for the Hammer vibe of the special, didn’t exactly make her any more nuanced than wanting to destroy all monsters simply because they are monsters.

Both Man-Thing and the Werewolf end up being startlingly brought to life.

On the flip side, I have to say that it’s great to see a character as obscure and visually interesting as the Man-Thing finally make it into the MCU after years of subtle allusions and references. Although an entirely CGI creature rather than being a marriage of digital and practical effects like in the 2005 film, the Man-Thing certainly impresses when onscreen. While the Man-Thing is supernaturally powerful and capable of melting a man’s head with one giant claw-like hand, he also showcases a childish demeanour; the creature is in pain and frightened by his current situation and desperate to get to safety, there’s a definite sense of victory when Jack and Elsa are able to work together to free the lumbering swamp monster from his pain and bondage. Even better, we get to see the Man-Thing in full colour and even handing Jack a cup of coffee after he recovers from his transformation, showing that the creature isn’t just some mindless beast and has not just a measure of intelligence but also a sense of humour. Interestingly, Werewolf by Night bucks a trend of many werewolf tales by not drawing upon the classic An American Werewolf in London (Landis, 1981) for its transformation sequence; instead, Jack’s transformation is largely relegated to a CGI light show and silhouette, which adds an air of mystery to the Werewolf, for sure, but half the fun of a werewolf feature is the gruesome body horror of the transformation. The Werewolf’s look, in the few instances where he is shown, is a nice throwback to The Wolf Man (Waggner, 1941); a furry, voracious humanoid wolf, the Werewolf makes short work of Verusa’s TVA guards, mangling, mauling, and manhandling them as Elsa takes out the last two hunts, all while framed by flashing lights and with a generous helping of gore splattering across the screen.

While I enjoyed the Hammer Horror homage, I don’t feel the special lived up to its potential.

Ultimately, I’m somewhat torn; I enjoyed the visual presentation of the special, which is unlike anything else we’ve seen in the MCU and a fantastic throwback to the classic 1930s Hammer Horror films, but the characterisations are severely lacking. Obviously, it’s only an hour-long special so there’s only so much you can cram in there, and there’s something to be said for keeping an air of mystery around Jack and the Bloodstone family. However, it’s hard to care about the other hunters when none of them are ever named onscreen and they’re simply there to be cannon fodder for Elsa and the Man-Thing; even the appearance of TVA agents is a real head-scratcher and is never explained, nor do we learn anything about the Man-Thing’s backstory even as a throwaway line. The effects are pretty decent, but we don’t get to see the titular Werewolf until the last twenty minutes or so and even then he’s kept in shadow and framed in a way that keeps him monstrous to enhance his threat. I enjoyed seeing the Man-Thing in action, but I guess I was just expecting more monster action from this monster-centric special. I can understand wanting to showcase Jack as a human being trying to suppress his monstrous alter ego and I enjoyed that he goes out of his way to help monsters rather than hunt and kill them, but I didn’t find him a particularly compelling character. Similarly, there was some nuance to Elsa and potential in her conflict with her stepmother and her father’s legacy, but it just wasn’t expanded upon sufficiently enough for me. She’s just another bad-ass female fighter who distances herself from her family’s actions, but it’s not really explained why and all we’re really told is that Verusa and Ulysses recently Elsa for not living up to her potential (yet we see she’s the most capable fighter of all the hunters). In the end, I applaud the attempt at something new, visually and stylistically, and the introduction of monsters to the MCU, but, as presented, Werewolf by Night could easily be skipped or ignored at this point and I’d be surprised to see it directly referenced in later MCU projects.

My Rating:

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Could Be Better

What did you think to Werewolf by Night? Were you disappointed by the lack of insight and characterisation in the hunters? What did you think to Man-Thing, his visuals and his portrayal? Would you have liked to see more monsters featured in the special? What did you think to the Werewolf, his transformation and his bloody rampage? Did you enjoy the references to classic Hammer Horror films? Would you like to see more from these characters, and are there any specific Werewolf by Night and Man-Thing stories you’d like to see adapted into the MCU? Whatever your thoughts Werewolf by Night, leave them below or drop a comment on my social media.

Screen Time: Moon Knight

Air Date: 30 March 2022 to 4 May 2022
Network: Disney+
Stars: Oscar Isaac, Ethan Hawke, May Calamawy, Gaspard Ulliel, and Karim El-Hakim and F. Murray Abraham

The Background:
In May 1975, Doug Moench, Don Perlin, and Al Milgrom’s silver-clad mercenary, Mark Spector/Moon Knight, debuted in the pages of Werewolf by Night. The character, who was inspired by 1930s pulp heroes like Lamont Cranston/The Shadow, evolved into one of Marvel’s more complex and bizarre characters thanks to his Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), which went a long way to quash unfair comparisons between him and Bruce Wayne/Batman. Although easily one of Marvel’s more obscure superheroes, Moon Knight featured in a number of Marvel videogames and cartoons; a live-action appearance was also hinted at in Blade: The Series (2006) and development of a Moon Knight television series has done the rounds at Marvel Studios since 2008. Things finally got underway in 2019, when the series was greenlit for streaming on Disney+, with Marvel bringing in writers and directors to develop the series with a focus on the character’s Egyptian history and mythology. Marvel Studios head honcho Kevin Feige specifically saw Moon Knight as a means to push the boundaries of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) by offering a darker product than their usual output and through exploring the character’s DID. Oscar Isaac landed the title role and emphasised that the show would explore aspects of the Jewish faith alongside delving into the character’s complex multiple personalities, while Marvel scored another coup by getting Ethan Hawke onboard as the main antagonist (and without showing him a script). Meghan Kasperlik designed the eponymous vigilante’s costume, incorporating a functionality and an otherworldliness that would be in keeping with the show’s supernatural slant, alongside the more formal “Mr. Knight” suit. After some delays due to COVID-19, Moon Knight released in weekly instalments on Disney+ and was met with extremely positive reviews; critics praised the visuals and subversion of expectations offered by the series, and the bizarre nature of the show was particularly lauded, though some did question the execution and Moon Knight’s lack of screen time. Although Oscar Isaac didn’t initially sign on for future appearances, Kevin Feige stated that Moon Knight would eventually cross over into other MCU properties, and he and many of those involved were open to returning in the future.

The Plot:
Mild-mannered gift-shop employee Steven Grant (Isaacs) is plagued with blackouts and memories of another life thanks to suffering from DID. When one of his personalities, mercenary Marc Spector, bubbles to the surface, he learns that he’s actually Moon Knight, the cloaked avatar of the Egyptian moon god Khonshu (El-Hakim and Abraham), and Steven is drawn into zealot Arthur Harrow’s (Hawke) plot to “heal the world” through the malicious power of the Egyptian goddess Ammit.

The Review:
Moon Knight is a character I know next to nothing about beyond some sporadic appearances in Marvel videogames, and a general understanding of him, so his appeal, for me, has always been a very visual one. There’s something about his silver, hooded outfit and crescent moon gadgets that really speaks to me and I’ve always wanted to read more his stories but haven’t yet found an appropriate place to start. I’m a big fan of Oscar Isaac, Egyptian mythology, and the psychology and visual spectacle exploring a character like Moon Knight offers, however. I was hoping that Moon Knight would help to establish a contingent of street-level vigilantes in the MCU, ones whose concerns weren’t with sky beams and alien invasions, and delivering something a little more gritty and violent compared to the generally family-friendly MCU formula. When we’re first introduced to Steven Grant, he’s a simple gift shop clerk at the British Museum and having a great deal of trouble with his sleeping habits; suffering from insomnia and blackouts, he chains himself to his bed and rigs precautionary measures throughout his flat to track when he’s gone walkabout and stays up late playing with a Rubik’s Cube and reading up on the Ennead, a group of nine Egyptian Gods due to have a special exhibition at the museum. Steven’s tardiness and constant attempts to put his knowledge of and respect for Egyptian lore to better use as a tour guide earns him the ire of his boss, Donna (Lucy Thackeray), and he comes across as a bit awkward and frustrated with his lot in life. He wants more from life, and aspires to be more and put his knowledge to good use, but people frequently get his name wrong and he’s constantly shot down by Donna and held back by that quirky British politeness that keeps us from complaining. Steven’s only confidantes are his one-finned fish, Gus, and a mute, motionless living statue, Crawley (Shaun Scott), to whom he can freely vent about his issues and anxieties; however, he does leave regular messages for his beloved mother and has a crush on his co-worker (and actual tour guide), Dylan (Saffron Hocking). Although he has no memory of arranging a date with her, he’s excited at the prospect and consequently left absolutely devastated when his frequent blackouts cause him to miss entire days, thus ruining his chances with her.

Steven’s mundane life is thrown into chaos when he finds his body houses another, more violent personality.

It’s said that Steven’s blackouts have caused him to find himself in odd situations with no memory of how he got there, and he often treats many of the things he witnesses as nightmares, but his perception of reality is shattered when he finds himself being chased by armed men in the Austrian Alps! There, he not only discovers a strange golden scarab and encounters the measured and fanatical Arthur Harrow for the first time, but the mysterious, disembodied voice of Khonshu chastises him, calling him an “idiot” and a “parasite” and demanding that he “surrender the body to Marc”. Steven’s nightmare literally comes to life, however, when Harrow proves to be real and shows up at the museum looking to retrieve the scarab, which is actually a compass that can lead him to the tomb of Ammit, an Egyptian Goddess whom he serves and whose power he uses to judge whether souls are (or will ever be) capable of good or evil deeds. Recognising Steven as a “mercenary” who stole the scarab from his sect, Harrow is a former servant of Khonshu’s who became disillusioned with the moon god’s reactionary methods and has pledged himself to Ammit, who sees and knows all and judges people fairly according to their character, which he believes could’ve prevented some of the world’s most disastrous tragedies and wicked tyrants from rising to power if she hadn’t been betrayed and imprisoned by the Ennead. Like Steven, Harrow also hears a “maddening, relentless” voice in his head but he’s a far more emotionally composed and subdued individual, speaking with confidence and conviction and fully at ease with himself and his life’s mission. When he tries to judge Steven, the scales remain out of balance due to there being “chaos in [him]”; this chaos is Marc Spector, an alternate personality who inhabits Steven’s body and takes control of it whenever he’s in danger. This leads to a number of jarring and amusing jump cuts that show Steven having an episode and then waking up to find himself in the middle of a high-speed car chase or surrounded by dead bodies, but it’s not until Harrow’s jackal-like minion comes after him that Steven is forced to acknowledge that the voice in his head and his independent reflection are actually real and allow Marc to take control.

While Steven struggles to use the suit, Marc utilises it to be a brutal and efficient agent for Khonshu.

While Steven is somewhat awkward, a little sarcastic, very honest, and polite and speaks with the facsimile of a British accent, Mark speaks with an American accent and is a far more confident and self-assured individual. A disgraced and dishonoured soldier who turned to working as a mercenary, Marc is a dangerous and formidable fighter who carries a great deal of guilt on his shoulders; the avatar of Khonshu, Marc is charged with protecting the vulnerable and delivering Khonshu’s “justice” to the wicked, but this is contingent on Steven not interfering and Khonshu regularly admonishes Marc for not being able to keep Steven under wraps. Believing that he’s suffering from paranoid delusions and fully prepared to seek medical advice about his condition, Steven is confused and intrigued when Marc’s wife, archaeologist and adventurer Layla El-Faouly (Calamawy), tracks him down to finalise their divorce. After months of trying to get a hold of him and believing him to be dead, Layla initially believes that Marc is indulging in a deep cover story and is frustrated by his odd accent and behaviour, so she is understandably distraught to find that he not only doesn’t remember their life or adventures together, but also that Marc never confided in her about his condition. For his part, Marc has desperately been trying to keep both Steven and Layla safe; he’s distanced himself from his wife to keep her out of Khonshu’s grasp, since he’s always on the lookout for a new avatar, and the moon god effectively manipulates Marc into prolonging his service by threatening to take Layla if he doesn’t prevent Harrow from awakening Ammit. Marc is given the power to accomplish this through Khonshu’s “armour”, a wrapping of magical bandages that he can summon at will to become the titular Moon Knight. Armed with crescent moon weapons and capable of gliding on his matching cape, Moon Knight exhibits superhuman strength, agility, and durability, easily beating Harrow’s jackal to death and overwhelming a number of armed foes. The suit grants him accelerated healing and effectively makes him unkillable, allowing him to survive being shot at and impaled, but he’s not resistant to pain and loses his power when Khonshu is imprisoned in a small stone ushabti by the Ennead. Marc is well versed in the suit’s capabilities and has amassed quite the body count carrying out Khonshu’s will, but Steven is far more awkward; when he’s attacked by another jackal, Steven summons a literal three-piece suit and matching mask, much to Marc’s disappointment, and uses two far less lethal batons as Mr. Knight. However, just being granted superhuman abilities doesn’t make Steven a competent fighter and, when innocent bystanders are put at risk or the situation gets out of hand, Steven allows Marc to take control as Moon Knight so he can glide through sky, flinging himself across rooftops, and impale such monstrous creatures in suitably dramatic fashion.

Egyptian folklore plays a huge role in the series, with its Gods and myths playing an important part.

Steven greatly disapproves of the bloodshed, however, and constantly interferes whenever Marc or Moon Knight are close to killing; when chasing down leads in Cairo, Marc is frustrated by these constant blackouts, which see Steven trying to get them out of the country before Marc can hurt or kill anyone, but both of them are confused when the bodies continue to pile up without their knowledge and they’re left without a lead when Harrow’s men demonstrate their commitment through suicide. Thus, they’re forced to turn to the Ennead for help and Khonshu summons a meeting of their avatars within the Pyramid of Giza by manipulating the sky; this is a problem, however, as the Gods disapprove of Khonshu’s theatrical and volatile nature as it threatens to expose them to the world. While Khonshu claims to be “real justice” since he punishes those who’ve done “real harm”, Harrow believes that Khonshu is a fickle and unstable liar who preys on those with a strong moral conscious, and it’s true that none of the Gods have much respect for him. In attempting to warn of Harrow’s intentions, Khonshu condemns himself to the Gods’ avatars – their leader, Selim (Khalid Abdalla), avatar of Osiris; Yatzil (Díana Bermudez), avatar of Hathor; and the avatars of Horus (Declan Hannigan), Tefnut (Hayley Konadu), and Isis (Nagisa Morimoto) – by accusing them of abandoning humanity. This enraged outburst is all the ammunition Harrow needs to manipulate the Gods into imprisoning Khonshu, thereby stripping Marc and Steven of their superhuman abilities, by branding the moon god a paranoid, jealous, unhinged outcast who’s so off the deep end that he acts through a psychologically unstable avatar. Although she’s powerless to prevent Khonshu’s imprisonment, Yatzil gives Marc a lead on Ammit’s tomb out of respect for her previous relationship with Khonshu and, thanks to Layla’s connection, they’re able to locate a sarcophagus in the possession of conceited, condescending self-styled philanthropist Anton Mogart (Ulliel). While Harrow pursues them and ultimately destroys the sarcophagus in a demonstration of power, Steven uses his knowledge of Egyptian scripture and hieroglyphics to help piece together the location of Ammit’s tomb, proving his usefulness despite not being as physically useful as his alter or Layla in a fight. Along the way, Steven becomes excited at the prospect of an adventure and exploring an actual Egyptian tomb and a strange love triangle eventually develops between Steven, Layla, and Marc as Layla warms to Steven because of his honesty and morals and they share both a kiss and a tender moment when she reminisces about the adventures of her father, Abdallah El-Faouly (Usama Soliman).

Harrow’s machinations see Steven questioning reality and discovering uncomfortable truths about his past.

In contrast to Steven, who’s ungainly and full of self-doubt, and the mercenary Marc, Harrow is a well-spoken, composed, and enigmatic religious zealot and cult leader who willingly subjects himself to daily pain by filling his shoes with glass. His cane not only carries the likeness of Ammit but also contains a fraction of her power; with it, he’s able to determine whether a person is or ever will be good or evil, with the impure instantly dropping dead on the spot. Such is his allure and silver tongue that he’s easily able to manipulate regular mortals and Gods alike with just a few words and has swayed many to his cause; enough, in fact, to have established an idyllic society free from fear, crime, and selfishness where he is heralded as a savour, father figure, and leader. There, food is free, information and experience are openly shared, and everyone strives to better themselves…and all he asks is utter servitude to Ammit’s unbiased judgement. Having also spent time as Khonshu’s “Fist of Vengeance”, Harrow sympathises with Steven’s plight and encourages him to resist the moon god’s demands, but Steven finds the idea of pre-judgement disturbing and is disgusted when Harrow likens Ammit’s genocidal methods, which includes the murder of innocent children, to the severing of a diseased limb. Harrow’s cane grants him unique insight into Steven’s mind and this eventually impacts his relationship with Layla; although he tries to avoid discussing his bloody past and downplay Harrow’s poisonous words, he’s ultimately forced to admit that he was there when her father died. However, Marc was trying to save him and, for his insubordination, was also left fatally wounded by his former commanding officer, Bushman, and forced to accept Khonshu’s bargain in order to survive. This, however, is merely scratching the surface of Marc’s emotional damage; after being shot and killed by Harrow, Marc finds himself in his interpretation of the Duat (the Egyptian afterlife and just one of many “intersectional panes” that await us after death; since the Duat is impossible to comprehend, Marc interprets it as a psychiatric hospital in a reflection of his fractured mind. There, Marc and Steven exist as separate beings under the care of their therapist, Doctor Harrow, who tries to convince them that they’ve simply created an elaborate fantasy for themselves based on their love of adventure film Tomb Buster and to cope with a childhood trauma. Initially, Marc is more inclined to believe that he’s crazy and simply imagining everything rather than accept that an anthropomorphic hippo, Taweret (Antonia Salib), is guiding them to the afterlife, but is forced to face the truth when he sees the vast sands of the Duat for himself. Marc’s relief that he’s dead rather than insane quickly turns to desperation when the adorable Taweret urges the two to reconcile their unbalanced heart before they read Aaru, the Field of Reeds, as they won’t be able to find eternal paradise otherwise. Despite Marc’s best efforts to convince Steven not to dig into his fractured memories and to simply take control of Taweret’s boat for themselves, Steven is distraught to learn that he’s simply an alternate personality Marc constructed as a child to shield himself from the emotional and physical abuse of his mother, Wendy (Fernanda Andrade).

After reconciling his fractured psyche, Moon Knight and Khonshu take the fight to Harrow and Ammit.

Wendy was left devastated when Marc’s younger brother, Randall (Claudio Fabian Contreras), accidentally drowned to death while play-acting Tomb Buster alongside young Marc (Carlos Sanchez). She not only spitefully blamed Marc for it, punishing and condemning him, but constantly shunned him and took every opportunity to make him suffer despite the best efforts of his father, Elias (Rey Lucas). Terrified of Wendy’s reprehensible outbursts, Marc created the alternate identity of Steven Grant (Tomb Buster’s Indiana Jones-type hero) to give himself a normal, happy life to retreat to rather than suffer his mother’s abuse. Initially, Steven is overwhelmed by the truth (and the revelation that his mother has been both dead for some time and wasn’t the doting woman he believed she was) but his anger turns to sympathy after witnessing first-hand the immense guilt and abuse Marc had to suffer. He’s even more disturbed when he witnesses Khonshu’s manipulation of Marc; appearing before him when he was on the brink of suicide, Khonshu offered to make him into an instrument of vengeance and encouraged his self-deprecating view of himself as nothing more than a killer, an event that Steven interprets as the moon god simply taking advantage of Marc when he was at his most vulnerable. Finally having found common ground, Marc is so devastated when Steven is dragged from the boat by hostile spirits and turned to sand that he rejects the peace and tranquillity of the Field of Reeds to reunite with his “brother” in the Duat and return to life through the Gates of Osiris (and the intervention of Tawerert). Thanks to Layla freeing Khonshu from his prison, Moon Knight is restored to full health and power, with Marc and Steven sharing the body equally, rapidly switching personalities and between Moon Knight and Mr. Knight as a united force, allowing them to broker a new deal with the moon god. After Harrow kills the Ennead, frees Ammit, and has his followers conduct mass judgement, Khonshu battles his fellow God in a kaiju-like brawl across Cairo while Moon Knight tackles Harrow. He’s not alone in this endeavour, however; since it takes multiple avatars to seal Ammit, Layla reluctantly agree to temporarily become Taweret’s avatar, the Scarlet Scarab, gaining her own armour and wing-like blades to help fight Harrow. In the end, though, Harrow is summarily defeated following another of Steven’s blackouts and Moon Knight ultimately rejects Khonshu’s urging to kill Harrow and Ammit. However, while it seems as though Marc and Steven have finally found a peaceful co-existence and been freed from their service to the moon god, a mid-credits sequence shows that there was a third, far more violent personality all along when Khonshu has this psychopathic alter, Jake Lockley, execute the Ammit-possessed-Harrow.

The Summary:  
Moon Knight is definitely a different flavour for the MCU; while there’s many of the traditional elements we’ve come to expect, especially in the high-stakes, CGI-infused finale and Harrow’s abilities basically boiling down to shooting electrical bolts, the depiction of duality and conflict and suffering in its main character really helps it to stand out. These days, we’re used to the MCU dipping its toe into Norse mythology and cosmic deities so exploring the Egyptian side of things really added a unique slant to the show. Steven treats Egyptian culture with a great deal of respect and is dismayed that the once grandiose society has been reduced to trinkets, toys, and sweets; he showcases an intricate knowledge of Egyptian folklore and traditions, particularly when it comes to their burial techniques and beliefs of the afterlife, and Cairo and its pyramids and society take the spotlight from the third episode, lending themselves to some stunning visuals and parkour chases. I really enjoyed how the show went balls-in with the depiction of Egyptian Gods and lore as well; Khonshu is this terrifying, robed figure with a bird’s skull for a head, we’ve got anthropomorphic alligators and hippos, and eight of their most prominent holy figures were represented in the Ennead. The depiction of the Duat was incredibly striking as well; Black Panther (Coogler, 2018) delved into the afterlife through the Celestial Pane and Moon Knight runs with this concept, postulating that all religions and afterlifes not only exist but that they are also connected and that there is some kind of serenity (and judgement) awaiting us in death. This set the stage for the show’s biggest revelations but also delivered its most harrowing scene; seeing Steven find his inner strength and then turn to sand was absolutely heart-breaking and it was very rewarding (if incredibly easy) when Marc decided to go back for him rather than be at peace.

Oscar Isaac shines throughout Moon Knight, effortlessly switching between his personas on the fly.

Make no mistake about it, Moon Knight is the Oscar Isaac show. Just as Split (Shyamalan, 2016) showcased James McAvoy’s incredible range and versatility as an actor, so too does Moon Knight allow Isaac to show exactly what he’s capable of. Everything from his accents, his body language, and his little physical quirks helps to differentiate his personalities, to the point where Steven is horrified when he sees himself on security camera footage and can tell, simply through the way he’s carrying himself and the look on his face, that it’s not “him”. Mirrors play an important role throughout the film; reflective surfaces are plentiful, especially when Stephen is suffering from hallucinations, and he and Marc communicate through them. It’s absolutely captivating watching Steven have an emotional breakdown while Marc is pleading for control of the body, and Marc also exhibits his own unhinged side when he’s in control. Since he’s more composed and aware of their condition and what’s going on, his priority is always to shield Steven (and Layla) to protect them, even if it means pushing them away, lashing out, or fighting for control. The banter and interplay between Steven and Marc is a real highlight and an absolute testament to Isaac’s acting ability; the two bicker and squabble like brothers over the body, tactics, and even girls, with Marc threatening to throw them off a cliff and then forcing Steven to punch himself right in the nose for kissing Layla! This kind of physical comedy was also showcased in the first episode, where Steven was physically unable to hand the scarab over to Harrow and was jerked around like a puppet before blacking out so Marc could take control of the situation. As fantastic as Isaac as at switching between his personalities, you really get a sense of camaraderie and affection for the two when they’re split into separate beings in the Duat. Watching them endure Dr. Harrow’s manipulations while going on a painful and emotional journey of self-discovery was a harrowing experience and learning just how vindictive and abusing Marc’s mother was really drove home how damaged he was by the whole experience. It’s thus extremely cathartic when they come together for the finale, effortlessly sharing the body and their knowledge and experience to be a more effective whole, even though the hints to their more destructive third personality were peppered throughout the show and hint towards a greater conflict in the future.

Both Layla and Harrow prove extremely competent and the kaiju-like finale really stands out.

Moon Knight was also a visual highlight as well and I really liked how his costume was interpreted as a magical construct of bandages and that it granted him superhuman abilities; while different from the comics, Mr. Knight persona also looked brilliant and Isaac’s quirky movements and snarky behaviour in this guise helped to make it a real treat when it showed up. Unfortunately, both incarnations of Moon Knight are used quite sparingly; thanks to Steven and Marc’s blackouts, we rarely get to see much onscreen violence and are generally left with the chaotic aftermath, which I actually found to be quite an amusing and unique narrative device. It really helped to build the mystique around Moon Knight and this was reflected in the few fight scenes of his we did get where the character is so ruthless and nigh-unstoppable that it’s difficult to believe he’s at risk so limiting his appearances helped make him more special, like he was Steven’s “big gun” to bust out and solve a situation. Plus, there’s a decent amount of action on offer; we’ve got car chases, parkour, and some pretty violent scenes as bad guys are squashed and sliced up or people simply drop dead from Harrow’s power. Layla proves herself extremely competent in a combat situation, gunning down and taking out Harrow’s men and undead Egyptian priests and even trying to assassinate Harrow before she agrees to become the Scarlet Scarab. These abilities make her an even more effective combatant and she and Moon Knight are clearly positioned as equals for the finale, where Harrows proves incredibly formidable, though he’s presumably overwhelmed by the brutality of Jake Lockely. Furthermore, we get a big kaiju fight between Khonshu and Ammit; it can be presumed that the general public doesn’t actually see this since Khonshu and Harrow’s jackals were invisible to those not “touched” by the Gods, but if you told me back when Robert Downey Jr was bombing about in a suit of armour that we’d eventually see two Egyptian deities fighting in Cairo then I would’ve called you a liar! Still, as great as these bursts of action, suspense, and the occasional bit of horror are (particularly whenever Khonshu is on screen), the interpersonal drama is the heart of this story; Steven is a deeply troubled man, one who’s been allowed to live a normal, mundane life thanks to Marc shouldering all the pain and regret, and seeing his unsatisfied but still chirpy demeanour falter when he discovers the truth was pretty tragic. Yet, his moral resolve holds true; while he lashes out at Marc for lying to him, he quickly comforts his “brother” and is always pushing for them to do the right thing, whether it’s apologising for his violent actions with that trademark British politeness, begging Mark/Moon Knight not to kill, or out-right trying to remove them from violent situations when he’s in control.

The harrowing series ends with the suggestion that Khonshu is still in control of Marc through his third alter.

While it was a bit disappointing that we didn’t get to see more of Moon Knight or his fight scenes and it was admittedly a little cliché reveal that Steven wasn’t the true personality, there was an awful lot to like here. I found Marc’s justification for sparing Harrow to be a little odd considering the body count he’s amassed in Khonshu’s name (the souls of whom literally return to haunt and attack him in the Duat); I have to agree with the moon god that Harrow and Ammit’s threat was too great to let him live while other, less dangerous criminals were killed but I understand the sentiment. Not only did it tie into Marc’s now far more productive outlook on life and refusal to blindly obey all of Khonshu’s commands, it also led nicely into showing just how deep the moon god’s deceptions and machinations grow with Jake’s reveal at the end. All throughout, I was captivated by Isaac’s deeply emotional and incredibly impressive performance; watching him jump from an awkward, confused milksop to a focused and grim mercenary was fascinated and he was perfectly supported by a beautiful and adventurous co-star and juxtaposed by a disturbing and intense villain. Harrow is the best type of bad guy, one who truly believes that he’s doing the right thing in his intention to end suffering and selfishness by weeding out impurities and evil, and he’s so committed to Ammit that he’s more than ready to accept her judgement when she decrees that his soul is also unbalanced and tainted from his actions. Having formally been pledged to Khonshu, he knows full well what the moon god is capable of but, while he condemns Khonshu’s temperament and deceptive nature, he is grateful for being set on his path towards what he perceives as the greater good and often regretful of the lives that have been sacrificed to achieve that. Composed, measured, and a true manipulator, Harrow doesn’t necessarily need to pose a physical threat to be dangerous since he has Ammit’s power, a slew of disciples, and his principles behind him and yet he’s still able to fend off Moon Knight and the Scarlet Scarab in the finale. Supporting characters like Khonshu and Taweret also help to make Moon Knight incredibly enjoyable; I loved how Khonshu was this disgraced outcast, how dead set he was on his particular brand of justice no matter the cost to his reputation or the psyches of his avatars, and he was perfectly paralleled by the delightful Taweret and the scathing condemnation of the Ennead. For telling an incredibly moving and complex story of duality and guilt, delivering one of the MCU’s most visually impressive and brutally efficient superheroes, and delving into Egypt’s colourful folklore, Moon Knight definitely made an impression on me and I really hope that we see Marc, Steven, Jake, Layla, and Khonshu show up again for another round to see what other dark secrets and surprises are lurking in Steven’s fractured mind.

My Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Fantastic

Did you enjoy Moon Knight? What did you think to Oscar Isaac’s performance and the depiction of his multiple personalities? Which of the two personalities was your favourite and did you guess early on that Jake Lockley would be involved? What did you think to the Ennead, Khonshu, and the other aspects of Egyptian folklore? Were you impressed by Harrow’s threat or did you find him to be a bit underwhelming? What did you think to Moon Knight and Mr. Knight, their suits and abilities, and Layla’s transformation into the Scarlet Scarab? Would you like to see more from these characters, and are there any specific Moon Knight stories and villains you’d like to see in the future? Whatever your thoughts Moon Knight, leave them below or drop a comment on my social media.

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.

Talking Movies: Thor: The Dark World

Released: 8 November 2018
Director: Alan Taylor
Distributor:
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Budget:
$150 to 170 million
Stars:
Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Christopher Eccleston, Stellan Skarsgård, Rene Russo, and Anthony Hopkins

The Plot:
After defeating his step-brother, Loki Laufeyson (Hiddleston) alongside his fellow Avengers, Thor Odinson (Hemsworth) has been busying fighting to maintain order across the Nine Realms. However, after his love interest, Doctor Jane Foster (Portman), becomes infected with the mysterious “Aether” and becomes a target of the malevolent Dark Elf, Malekith (Eccleston), Thor is forced to set aside his grievances and team up with his brother to confront this dangerous new threat.

The Background:
Even before the blockbuster release of Avengers Assemble/The Avengers (Whedon, 2012), Kevin Feige, head honcho of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), promised that Thor would have another adventure. The team-up’s unprecedented box office success meant the MCU entered is second phase with a huge amount of momentum and expectation, but the experience of directing Thor (Branagh, 2011) left director Kenneth Branagh drained and reluctant to return for the sequel. At one point, Patty Jenkins was attached to direct but left due to “creative differences”, a decision that angered star Natalie Portman. Once Alan Taylor secured the director’s chair, the filmmakers set about progressing Thor’s relationship with Loki and expanding upon the gritty, more grounded approach to the merger of science and magic seen in the first film. Although Thor: The Dark World surpassed its predecessor’s box office with its worldwide gross of almost $645 million, the film wasn’t as well received as others in the MCU; while the performances and fantastical elements were praised, many criticised the film’s pace and weaker elements.

The Review:
Like the first film, Thor: The Dark World opens with some narration and scene-setting from the wise and powerful Odin Allfather (Hopkins), who tells the story of the Dark Elves (an ancient, malevolent race from the time before there was light in the universe) and their leader, Malekith, who sought to return the Realms back to darkness using the destructive power of the Aether before he was stopped by Odin’s father, Bor (Tony Curran). Unable to destroy the Aether, Bor buried it deep in a far away Realm and Malekith disappeared for aeons to Svartalfheim at the darkest corner of the cosmos. Sadly, this time around the narration falls into the same trap that so many narrations do in that we end up hearing the story all over again when Jane arrives on Asgard; it would have been just as effective to show the opening scene without Odin’s narration and then have him fill the gaps in later, or flash back to the opening battle later in the film to combine them into one scene.

Still a mighty warrior, Thor has matured a lot, though is preoccupied with thoughts of Jane.

Thanks to Loki’s attack on New York City, the balance between the Nine Realms has been upset and Thor has been too busy setting things right alongside his allies to make good on his promise to return to Jane. Thor still retains much of his arrogance in battle (but then again, when he can explode a Kronan with one swing of Mjölnir, I feel a little pride is understandable) but he’s noticeably changed since learning humility in the first film; he’s far more respectful to Odin, who treats him as more of an equal for his good deeds, but the two disagree on Thor’s feelings for Jane. Odin believes that, since human lives are so fleeting, Thor would be better served turning his attentions towards his ally and comrade, Lady Sif (Jaimie Alexander), but the Thunder God is driven to distraction by his yearning for Jane. This actually sows the seeds for an eventual character arc for Thor in the MCU; since the first film, Thor has been groomed for and expected to take the throne but, here, we see that his adoration for Jane and Earth means that he cannot focus on the remaining Realms in the way a true king of Asgard should. We’d see the culmination of this in Avengers: Endgame (Russo and Russo, 2019), of course, where he abdicates his royal responsibilities and finally embraces his true self but, here, he’s at a crossroads between doing what’s right for him and doing what’s right for the cosmos.

Thanks to being possessed by the Aether, Jane visits Asgard and we see more of the mighty Realm.

Despite her half-hearted attempts to move on from the hunky Thunder God, Jane remains equally distracted by thoughts of Thor; however, when Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings) alerts her to odd readings nearby, she can’t help but investigate in hopes of seeing Thor return to Earth. Instead, they find odd gravitational and special anomalies at an abandoned industrial district in London that render some objects weightless and transport others to another dimension. Following the source of the signal, Jane is unwittingly sucked into the Aether’s hidden dimension and absorbs the protoplasmic Infinity Stone. Their paths finally cross again when Heimdall (Idris Elba) loses sight of her in this moment and Thor returns to check on her, finding her not only as feisty as ever but also incredibly dangerous thanks to the Aether’s influence. This results in one of the best things a sequel can do and that’s taking a character tied to one world in the first film (Jane) and bringing her to another (Asgard) in the sequel; just as Thor was a stranger in a world beneath him in Thor, so too is Jane a stranger in a world beyond her here. Odin is unimpressed, nay angered, that Thor would bring a mortal to all-mighty Asgard and Jane is both overwhelmed and captivated by the technology and culture of the Golden Realm.

Malekith might be a bit of a weak villain and a waste of Eccleston but damn, does he look bad-ass.

Malekith’s plot can only occur at a specific time when the Nine Realms are in perfect alignment known as the “Convergence”, which temporally sees brief portals to the Nine Realms open up and cause all kinds of disruption and conveniently comes around at the same time as the Aether is discovered. Having fled to the further reaches of the universe with what little remained of his army following his defeat, Malekith is also awoken when the Aether is disrupted by Jane and immediately restarts his campaign to claim its awesome power. Considering how strong and complex a villain Loki was in the first film, it is admittedly disappointing to see him followed by Malekith, a character whose motivations basically boil down to wanting to spread darkness and discord throughout the known universe simply because he wants to. Indeed, Malekith is so obsessed with his plot for power and destruction that he willingly sacrificed a great number of his own people during the great war with Bor. However, I don’t really know much about the character as he’s only popped up in a couple of the Thor comics I’ve read, so all I’m really looking for in a superhero villain is someone who looks cool, is vaguely threatening, and for the hero to butt heads with (anything else is just a bonus for me), so my main gripe with Malekith is that the filmmakers completely wasted an actor of Eccleston’s talents since the Dark Elf disappears for massive chunks of the film and is mainly just seen posturing and monologuing until the finale.

Loki steals the show in every scene he’s in and completely overshadows Malekith.

It doesn’t help that Loki returns to this film and not only overshadows Malekith at every turn thanks to Hiddleston’s effortless charisma but also steals every scene he’s in. Following his defeat in Avengers Assemble, Loki is brought before his father to explain his actions; Loki is unapologetic and even arrogantly justifies his actions as simply being his divine right to conquer and rule lesser beings such as humankind. Odin, however, is unimpressed, countering that it was Loki’s destiny to die and that only Odin’s mercy spared him from that fate so that he could grow to hate him. Indeed, Odin specifically states that it’s only because of the mercy of his wife, Frigga (Russo), that Loki has been condemned to an eternity in the dungeons of Asgard rather than execution for his heinous acts. Ever the petulant child, Loki remains an emotionally complex and damaged character; he is deeply resentful of his father and brother, and yet still has much love for his mother and truly believes that he was simply doing what was destined of him to do and that his actions pale in comparison to the blood Odin has spilt in his aeons of conquest.

Malekith’s army, led by the monstrous Kurse, storm Asgard and kill Frigga.

Although they lack the numbers they once had (largely because of Malekith nonsensically killing most of them), the Dark Elves are quite a formidable army; wielding energy weapons and grenade-like devices that cause miniature black holes that destroy everything in range, their numbers are further bolstered by Algrim (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a Dark Elf that Malekith transforms into Kurse, a monstrous being of pure rage and animalistic strength. Having infiltrated the prisoners being taken to Asgard, Kurse causes a jailbreak; though he amusingly decides against freeing Loki, the God of Mischief directs him in Odin’s direction and unintentionally causes his beloved mother’s death when Kurse delivers a fatal stab wound to Frigga after she chooses to protect Jane. Just as Frigga’s death sends Thor into a blind rage, scarring half of Malekith’s face in the process, so too is Loki distraught by her loss; united in their grief, Loki agrees to assist Thor in once more defying Odin’s decree to remain on Asgard and use a secret exit to track the Dark Elves to Svartalfheim. Seeing Thor, Jane, and their allies interacting with Loki is a source of great amusement since none of them like or trust him but are forced to rely on him, and Loki of course uses the situation to his advantage to fake his death as part of his ultimate scheme to seize Asgard’s throne.

While his Asgardians allies don’t factor too much, Thor’s human friends play a vital role in the finale.

In a surprising twist, the consequences for Loki’s brain tampering are seen in Doctor Erik Selvig (Skarsgård), who has been driven to near madness by what he saw and learned while under the spell of Loki and the Tesseract. Despite his unpredictable and wild demeanour, this proves to be valuable information in helping Thor and his allies oppose Malekith’s plot. Unfortunately, the Warriors Three – Volstagg (Ray Stevenson), Fandral (Zachary Levi), and Hogun (Tadanobu Asano) – are still largely used for little more than comic relief and to add recognisable Asgardian bodies to the fight scenes but Thor: The Dark World does manage to squeeze in a far larger role for Heimdall; he not only takes down a Dark Elf ship with nothing but knives(!) also suffers a crisis of conscience when his duties as Gatekeeper are rendered superfluous by Malekith’s looming threat. Similarly, Odin is greatly expanded upon; grief-stricken by his beloved’s death, he prepares to fortify Asgard’s defences and sacrifice as many Asgardian lives as it takes to ensure ultimate victory, once more pushing Thor into taking matters into her own hands.

The Nitty-Gritty:
In a nice change of pace, much of the Earth-bound side of the story is set in good old Blighty so we get to see London under threat from cataclysmic destruction rather than the United States, which is nice, and much more of the film takes place on Asgard. Jane’s arrival causes much consternation among the Asgardians, who believe her to be largely inconsequential and meaningless even though she possesses the Aether, with only Thor and Frigga treating her with any kind of respect and kindness. While awestruck by the beauty and magnificence of Asgard (she has, after all, effectively paid a visit to Heaven), Jane still manages to hold her nerve; she openly challenges Odin’s boorish attitude towards her and even slaps Loki right in the face for the destruction he caused in Avengers Assemble. As for Loki, he adds a great deal of comedy to the film through his witty criticisms of Thor’s plan, demeanour, and actions; he even assumes Steve Rogers/ Captain America’s (Chris Evans) form in an amusing scene and seems to live to mock and critique his brutish brother.

Thor: The Dark World wonderfully expands the cosmic scope of the MCU.

While Thor masterfully introduced the idea of the MCU’s vast cosmic universe, Thor: The Dark World expands upon it wonderfully; as mentioned, a great deal takes place on Asgard and just the film’s very existence was further proof that there are many competing legends, stories, and warmongering races out in the galaxy just waiting for their time to strike. Accordingly, the film is much bigger and action-packed in its scope; unlike the first film, Thor is at full power for the entire movie and we get to see him and his people in far more battles than before. The opening depiction of Asgard’s war with the Dark Elves effectively set up how desperate and obsessed Malekith is with obtaining the power to achieve his goals, the prison breakout was a great way to showcase Loki’s indifference (however true or false) to the fate of his adopted people, and Malekith’s merciless campaign against Asgard made sure that both Thor and Loki would have personal stakes in the battle against Malekith. Of course, it’s not all perfect: the destruction of the Bifröst Bridge was this big, emotional event in Thor but it’s since been rebuilt and the status quo has returned as a result, which kind of undermines the first film’s ending (though, to be fair, that already happened in Avengers Assemble so I’m really not sure why a line or something wasn’t added in to Thor to downplay this event or at least plant the seeds of hope for Thor).

Loki plays on his brother’s affections to weasel his way to a position of power once more.

Still, the costume design remains incredible; of all the MCU characters, Thor may very well be my favourite both in terms of his character and his visual representation. His always looks fantastic, as do all of the Asgardians, and I really like the threatening and somewhat alien design of the Dark Elves; Malekith may be a bit of a weak villain in terms of characterisation but he definitely cuts an intimidating figure. The film also beautifully and naturally continues the ongoing sibling rivalry between Thor and Loki; Loki’s deceptive nature is key to tricking Malekith into freeing Jane from the Aether and, while he initially appears to have double-crossed his brother and reverted to his vindictive ways, it turns out that Loki was simply playing a role to give Thor the opportunity to try and destroy the Aether. So committed to this role is Loki that he even shields, an actively saves, Jane from attack and ultimately dies in Thor’s arms in an emotionally weighty scene after suffering mortal wounds to destroy Kurse. Of course, this is later revealed to all be part of a grander deception by Loki as the film ends with the twist that he has somehow disposed of Odin and taken his form as king, a surprise that the third film would unfortunately simply explain away in anticlimactic fashion rather than capitalise on the potential of Loki ruling Asgard under the guise of his father.

Thanks to his allies, Thor is able to end Malekith’s dark ambitions and save the Earth once more.

Of course, there has to be a big, climatic battle between Thor and Malekith at the end of the film. Having absorbed the Aether, Malekith wields incredible cosmic power that more than makes him a match for Thor’s brute strength. Easily able to take Thor’s blows, and even his lightning, the battle between Thor and Malekith rages through the Nine Realms thanks to the Convergence, which makes for a striking visual as they topple and tumble between the Realms (and, amusingly, all over London) and Malekith teleports around, renders himself incorporeal, and attacks with tendrils of red energy. Unlike in the last film, where Thor took out the Destroyer in a triumphant return to full power and bested Loki in a dramatic battle between siblings, Thor actually has help this time around as Jane, Selvig, Darcy, and Darcy’s intern Ian Boothby (Jonathan Howard) construct and place the specialist scientific equipment needed to send Malekith packing back to Svartalfheim, where he is subsequently crushed by his own ship. It’s definitely a bigger and more bombastic finale than the first film, which was obviously much more focused on Thor proving his worth as a hero and a warrior, but Phase Two of the MCU was all about kicking things up a notch and Thor: The Dark World definitely does that while still addressing and hitting the same emotional beats and themes of the first film.

The Summary:
Honestly, to this day I still don’t understand why people don’t like Thor: The Dark World; it’s very similar to how I don’t get why people rag on Iron Man 2 (Favreau, 2010) but I think some of the problem might be that the first films were so well done and Phase One of the MCU was such a massive surprise in terms of success and consistent quality that expectations were maybe a bit too high going into the sequels. Now, obviously Thor: The Dark World isn’t quite as good or memorable as the first film (primarily because of how weak Malekith is) but it’s a really good follow-up to the themes and characters set up in Thor and Thor’s character progression in Avengers Assemble. I like how the scope is so much bigger, how the society and inhabitants of Asgard are expanded upon, and how well it sets up the Infinity Stones and contributes towards the larger overall narrative of the MCU’s second phase. The film is far more action-packed while still being humorous and heartfelt, developing the complex relationship between Thor and Loki while also showing how much Thor has grown as a character since the first film. Maintaining the franchise’s incredible costume design, special effects, and visual style, there’s a lot to enjoy in Thor: The Dark World and I definitely feel like it’s worth another look with fresh eyes.

My Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Great Stuff

Are you a fan of Thor: The Dark World? If not, what is it about the film that you dislike, specifically? What did you think to Malekith as a character and a villain? Did you enjoy Thor’s character progression and the expansion of his relationship with Odin and Loki? What did you think to setting more of the film off-world and in a location other than the United States for a change? How are you celebrating Thor’s debut this month, if at all? Whatever you think about Thor: The Dark World, sign up and leave a comment below or drop a line on my social media.

Talking Movies [Thor’s Day]: Thor


In August 1962, Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, and Jack Kirby introduced readers of Marvel Comics (specifically Journey into Mystery) to Thor Odinson, God of Thunder and mightiest of the Asgardian deities. Through associations with Marvel’s premier super team, the Avengers, and a number of cosmic, mythological adventures, Thor has gone on to become another of Marvel’s most successful and versatile characters, with appearances in cartoons, videogames, and a number of incredibly profitable live-action movies. Being as it’s the first Thursday (or “Thor’s Day”) of the month, what better way to celebrate the God of Thunder than to take a look back at his impressive MCU debut!


Released: 6 May 2011
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Distributor:
Paramount Pictures
Budget:
$150 million
Stars:
Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Stellan Skarsgård, Kat Dennings, and Anthony Hopkins

The Plot:
The heir to the legendary throne of Asgard, Thor Odinson (Hemsworth) is a brash warrior who longs for glory and is almost unstoppable thanks to his enchanted hammer, Mjölnir. After inciting war between Asgard and the Frost Giants of Jotunheim, he is stripped of his powers and banished to Earth by his father, Odin Allfather (Hopkins), and forced to learn humility to reclaim his lost powers.

The Background:
Thor may have been the fourth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) but a big-screen adaptation of the character was originally pitched by director Sam Raimi to 20th Century Fox back in the nineties; though the project lay dormant for nearly a decade, it gained momentum after the success of X-Men (Singer, 2000). After the character and movie rights changed hands numerous times, writer Mark Protosevich came onboard to draft a script that was part-superhero, part-Biblical allegory for the fledging Marvel Studios as part of producer Kevin Feige’s outrageous plan to introduce a number of Marvel’s greatest heroes in solo movies before uniting them against a common foe. After Matthew Vaugh dropped out of the project, Guillermo Del Toro briefly flirted with the concept before Marvel scored a massive coup by securing Kenneth Branagh as the film’s director. Relative-unknown Chris Hemsworth beat out his own brother and co-star Tom Hiddleston for the title role and Branagh landed a coup of his own by casting renowned actor Anthony Hopkins as Odin, who lent a credibility and gravitas to the production. As the first film in the MCU to introduce cosmic, magical elements, Thor was to be a bridge between science and magic and to help expand the scope of Marvel’s shared universe, while still laying the foundation for their first big team up. Thor released to widespread acclaim; the film made just under $450 million at the box office and catapulted Hemsworth and Hiddleston to superstardom in the process.

The Review:
After Iron Man (Favreau, 2008) proved to be such a phenomenal success, I was cautiously optimistic about the fledgling MCU; when Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) appeared in the film’s post-credits scene and hinted at other “[superheroes] flying around” and name-dropped the “Avenger Initiative”, the excitement for what was to come was palpable. And yet even I was curious as to how the films, which had been so heavily based in technological and science-fiction, would introduce more bizarre, cosmic events and characters such as Thor. When Mjölnir appeared in the post-credits scene of Iron Man 2 (ibid, 2010), the possibilities for Thor’s inclusion in this world suddenly seemed endless; was he known to the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division (S.H.I.E.L.D.)? Had he appeared in Marvel’s shared world before? For me, Thor was the true test of whether the MCU would be an actual success because its one thing to present characters augmented by science but it’s quite another to have them rub shoulders with a literal Norse God!

Thor was our introduction to what would become a much larger and more dangerous universe.

Thor was also a first in the MCU for opening with a narration, fittingly enough by Odin himself, that briefly introduces the idea of the Nine Realms and Asgard’s place in the tapestry of the universe; thankfully, this information isn’t made completely redundant when it’s shared with other characters later in the story as Thor notably relates the true nature of the universe in a different way from his more grandiose father. A wise, enigmatic, and stern figure, Odin has high hopes for both of his children regarding their destiny as future kings of Asgard. It’s important to not that, while Asgard is certainly populated by beings we would consider to be superhuman, they are not strictly Gods in the MCU. Instead, they are others of their kind have been worshipped as Gods, had stories told about them as though they were Gods, but are just as mortal and fallible as we are for all their superior strength, technology, and durability. For me, this doesn’t diminish Thor’s appeal or that of the Asgardians; they’re still incredibly long-lived, with Thor himself being thousands of years old and yet still very much a child, and capable of wondrous acts, such as instantaneous travel across the Nine Realms thanks to the Bifröst and summoning thunder and lightning with their incredible weapons.

Be merciful, say “death,” For exile hath more terror in his look, Much more than death. Do not say “banishment.”

Asgard is a realm of great prosperity and peace; for centuries, Odin has led the Asgardians in defending the Nine Realms from chaos and incursions and the film begins with him ready to step down and pass those responsibilities onto Thor, his eldest son. Heralded as a hero, Thor is a battle-hungry warrior who has proved himself in conflict time and again to be brave and strong enough to lead his people into battle, but Odin cautions that a true king must also be wise, fair, and just. Nevertheless, he’s fully prepared to pass the crown to Thor when the ceremony is interrupted by Frost Giants from the desolate ice realm of Jotunheim who attempt to reclaim the mystical Casket of Ancient Winters from Odin’s treasure vault. Angered at the Frost Giants’ blatant disrespect and consumed by his pride, Thor disregards his father’s decree that he is to launch no counterattack and heads into Jotunheim alongside his allies to confront their king, Laufey (Colm Feore), an action that angers his father as it breaks the shaky, but long-standing, truce between the two realms. With Asgard now on the brink of an unnecessary all-out war, father and son rage at each other in a fantastically well-acted scene in which Odin’s heartbreak at Thor’s sheer blind arrogance is all too clear; enraged at Thor’s reckless actions, Odin strips Thor of his powers and armour and banishes him to “Midgard” (what we call Earth) without his hammer in a burst of fury.

Thor finds allies on Earth but is devastated when he finds he can’t lift his enchanted hammer.

Rendered a mortal, Thor is both angered and dismayed at what he sees as his father’s cruel and unjust punishment. Almost immediately, he (quite literally) bumps into a group of scientists in New Mexico: Doctor Jane Foster (Portman), Doctor Erik Selvig (Skarsgård), and spunky intern Darcy Lewis (Dennings). The three are conducting research in the area when Thor is deposited in their laps through what they perceive as a wormhole and become immediately captivated by him for his physicality, lineage, and knowledge of worlds beyond our own. Her curiosity piqued, Jane becomes enamoured by Thor; the mysteries of his being are as attractive to her as a scientist as his allure is to her as a woman and he is equally taken by her inquisitive nature and scientific tenacity. Thor’s arrival also attracts the attention of S.H.I.E.L.D., who dispatch Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) to secure the area, resulting in Jane’s notes and equipment being seized. Eager to retrieve Mjölnir, atone for disrupting Jane’s work, and to prove to the group that he is the God of Thunder, Thor is aided in infiltrating the S.H.I.E.L.D. base but is left devastated when he finds his hammer has been enchanted so that only one who is “worthy” can lift it. Finally realising the folly of his impetuous ways, Thor becomes repentant and is heartbroken to learn from Loki (Hiddleston) that his father has died of a broken heart and that he can never return home, but finds solace in regaling Jane and his newfound friends with stories of Asgard and the Nine Realms.

Loki is a manipulative trickster who conspirers to seize the throne of Asgard for himself.

Of course, Thor has been deceived, as has all of Asgard, but the God of Mischief himself, Loki. Raised alongside Thor and having fought by his side in countless battles, Loki nonetheless finds himself constantly in his brother’s shadow; smaller and slighter than his muscle-bound brother, Loki’s strengths lie in illusions and manipulation rather than brute force and strength. With his silver tongue, he easily encourages Thor’s campaign into Jotunheim with but a few words all while conspiring with Laufey to murder Odin and take what will not be willingly given to him. Craving the throne of Asgard for himself, Loki showed the Frost Giants a way into Asgard that even the all-seeing Heimdall (Idris Elbra) was blind to and, after learning his true heritage as Laufey’s son, he flies into a distraught rage at his adopted father that exacerbates his falling into the “Odinsleep”. Seizing his opportunity, Loki claims the throne and prepares to allow his true father to enact revenge on his fated enemy; after toying with his brother and leaving him distraught with his lies, Loki resolves to tie up loose ends with the Destroyer, a massive mechanical construct that he sends to Earth to kill Thor so that his rule can never be challenged. There’s a reason why Loki is one of the MCU’s most enduring characters, both as a villain and an anti-hero, and that’s largely due to Hiddleston’s masterful performance at capturing the God’s anguish and fury at being denied his rightful time in the sun; there’s a tragedy to Loki that motivates his actions and an intriguing dichotomy as he both loves and hates his brother and father, respects and is envious of them, and his every motivation is geared towards winning the affection and approval of both by any means necessary.

Thor’s allies provide him with the support necessary to be a great warrior and a better man.

Luckily for Thor, his Asgardian allies learn of this plot and arrive on Earth to aid him. The large and ravenous Volstagg (Ray Stevenson), the grim and stoic Hogun (Tadanobu Asano), Fandral the swashbuckling romantic (Josh Dallas) – collectively known as the “Warriors Three” – and Lady Sif (Jaimie Alexander), the strong-willed warrior maiden, all willingly follow Thor into even the depths of Jotunheim and have fought many battles alongside him and Loki. At first, they are devastated to learn of Thor’s banishment but pledge their allegiance to their new king out of loyalty to the throne of Asgard. When they learn the truth of Loki’s deception, however, neither they nor Heimdall hesitate to provide Thor with back-up but, fundamentally, these characters are primarily there for comic relief, to flesh out Thor’s world and relationships, and to add a few more superhuman bodies to the battle against the Destroyer. Indeed, the film wisely places much of its focus and runtime on Thor’s burgeoning relationship with Jane and grounding him in the “real world” of the MCU in the process. Not only does this provide some amusing moments (Darcy tasing Thor, his attempt to escape the hospital, and Erik trying to match beers with him are notable highlights), but it also gives Thor the chance to learn that there’s more to life than glory and battle and he grows from a selfish, arrogant warrior into a selfless hero who puts others before himself and is willing to sacrifice his own life to save even those he has only just met.

The Nitty-Gritty:
At its core, Thor is a tale of fathers and sons; fittingly Shakespearean in its grandeur and scope, Thor weaves a story of betrayal and secrets as Odin’s attempts to maintain and foster peace between Asgard and Jotunheim ultimately lead to the destruction of his family. Though a benevolent figure, Odin is harsh and uncompromising; he doesn’t hesitate to subject Thor to a punishment worse than death as recompense for his foolhardy and rash actions. At the same time, though, it’s pretty clear that Odin does this fully expecting Thor to learn humility and to prove himself worthy of Mjölnir once more. Doing away with the dual persona of Doctor Donald Blake was a great move, I feel (and I enjoyed the quick shout-out to Thor’s traditional alter ego), as it really isn’t necessary to tell this story and it’s so much more impactful seeing the muscled, fittingly God-like Thor struggle to adapt to being a mortal.

Thor is forced to learn a lesson in humility to earn back his power and his hammer.

Of course, the downside to this is that Thor isn’t really Thor for the vast majority of Thor’s runtime; we get to see him in full regalia at the beginning of the film, where Asgard is rendered in stunning beauty, and for the climatic finale but, in the middle, he’s stripped down to the basics. However, this is obviously the entire point of the film and it works fantastically as a way to slowly introduce these cosmic and outlandish concepts to the otherwise grounded MCU. Dumped on Earth as a mortal, Thor’s history is related to us and the other human characters by Selvig so we can see how Asgardians were worshipped as Gods here on Earth, and Thor reveals to Jane that magic and science are one and the same in the realm of Asgard and directly relates outlandish concepts like Yggdrasil to Jane’s more scientific understanding of the universe. This grounded approach to the subject also results in two extremely emotional and impactful scenes: the first is Thor’s cry of utter anguish when he finds that he cannot lift Mjölnir and the second is his triumphant return to full power after giving his life. Thanks to us following Thor’s journey from braggart to humility, it’s not hard to share Thor’s adulation at having proved himself worth once more.

I absolutely love Thor‘s visual style and costume design.

One of the things I absolutely love about Thor is the costume design and aesthetic of the film; Asgard is a gorgeous golden city full of wondrous and grandiose architecture and technology and its inhabitants, particularly our main characters, look absolutely fantastic all decked out in their armour and attire. Even now, the sheer spectacle of seeing the likes of Thor, Odin, and Loki in glistening armour remains impressive and I absolutely love how weighty Mjölnir seems and how intricate all of the costumes are. Clearly inspired by Olivier Coipel’s 2007 redesign of the character, Thor looks both familiar and suitably updated for his big-screen debut and I love how the film showcases even ridiculous aspects of his powers, such as spinning Mjölnir around rapidly in order to fly. That’s not to discount Loki, Heimdall, and Odin, who all look stunning as well; garbed in regal armour, Odin appears both wise and glorious and Loki looks both regal and menacing fully garbed in his green and gold attire and sporting a fearsome horned helmet. Add to that the visual of the Destroyer wrecking its way through New Mexico, the dark and dreary ice wasteland of Jotunheim, and the imposing, demonic appearance of the Frost Giants and you have a film that, while not necessarily action-packed like other MCU movies, is visually breath-taking to behold.

Loki is defeated and presumed lost, just like Thor’s road back to Earth and Jane.

Thor also turns things on their head a bit by kind of casting S.H.I.E.L.D. as antagonists; concerned only with isolating Mjölnir and learning everything they can about the hammer’s arrival, both S.H.I.E.L.D. and Coulson appear much shadier and untrustworthy than in their previous appearances. However, this is obviously just a misunderstanding and, by the end of the film, Thor pledges to Coulson that he is a trusted ally and the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent is more than willing to return Jane’s work to her after getting to the bottom of the incident. Restored to full power, and now fully aware of his brother’s deception, Thor returns to Asgard to confront Loki, who has killed Laufey as part of his desperate attempt to win Odin’s approval. Although Loki is far from a physical match for his brother, he’s more than capable of holding his own thanks to his illusions and his prowess with daggers and a staff, and refuses to listen to Thor’s pleas to end his mad aspirations for power. Although bested by his inability to lift Mjölnir, Loki sets the Bifröst to remain open, thus threatening the very existence of Jotunheim and forcing Thor to make another sacrifice, this time of the heart as he willingly destroys the Rainbow Bridge and strands himself on Asgard (…for a short time) to end Loki’s theat. In the end, Thor tries to save his brother from falling into the chaotic abyss beyond Asgard but the mischief-maker ends up willingly falling into it after his pleas for Odin’s approval are rejected. With Loki presumed dead and the doorway to Earth closed, Thor reconciles with his father, having grown into a wiser man over the course of the film, and is moved to learn from Heimdall that Jane is tirelessly searching for signs of his return.

The Summary:
Honestly, Thor may very well be my favourite solo film of the MCU’s first phase; if this film were to be made now, I have no doubt that Marvel Studios wouldn’t have played the concept anywhere near as safe as they did here but it’s thanks to Thor easing the general audience into the fantastical, cosmic aspects of the MCU that we now just take for granted that we now have so many mystical and alien heroes and stories in this interconnected universe. A fantastic marriage of action, humour, and resonating themes of betrayal and humility, Thor is both grandiose and grounded in its scope; add to that some absolutely stunning visuals, costume design, and performances from Hemsworth, Hiddleston, and Hopkins and you have a truly unique superhero film that set the standard for the genre to be so much more than just mindless action. The sheer gravitas that Kenneth Branagh brings to the narrative and these often ludicrous characters is astounding and his vision of the story as this Shakespearean epic was absolutely spot-on, resulting in one of the most beloved and memorable anti-villains in the MCU and the beginning of a far larger story arc for Thor (and his brother) within these films and it all began here, with a harsh lesson in humility for the battle-hungry Thunder God.

My Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Fantastic

Are you a fan of Thor? Where does it sit for you in MCU hierarchy, especially in Marvel’s first phase? What did you think to the performances by the actors and the Shakespearean slant on the narrative? Were you impressed with the film’s visuals and costume design? What did you think to Thor’s lesson in humility and his romance with Jane and what are your opinions on Loki as a villain? How are you celebrating Thor’s debut this month, if at all? I’d love to hear your thoughts on Thor in the comments or on my social media so feel free to drop me a line and be sure to check back in next Thursday for my review of the sequel!

Screen Time: The Falcon and the Winter Soldier

Air Date: 19 March 2021 to 23 April 2023
Network: Disney+
Stars: Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Wyatt Russell, Erin Kellyman, Daniel Brühl, and Emily VanCamp

The Background:
Unquestionably, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has become more than a success; from humble beginnings, it has evolved into a nigh-unstoppable multimedia juggernaut that has brought some of Marvel Comics’ most beloved, and obscure, characters to life in a way that no one could have ever predicted. Only a handful of the films produced by Kevin Feige and Marvel Studios have met with any kind of negativity or mixed reaction, and in a world that is becoming increasingly bleak and cynical the MCU achieved an impossibility by making the Star-Spangled Avenger himself, Captain America, a blockbuster movie franchise. Although Marvel Studios had dabbled in television ventures before, most notably with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013 to 2020) and their various Netflix shows, they really ramped up their focus on TV productions to coincide not just with the MCU’s fourth phase but also the release of Disney+, the streaming service of their parent company. Unlike other MCU TV shows, these shows were spearheaded by Feige and focused heavily on maintaining and expanding the continuity of the MCU going forward. One of the first pitches for this concept was a “buddy cop” series the focused on the dysfunctional friendship and grating banter between Sam Wilson/The Falcon (Mackie) and James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes (Stan); the series aimed to not only explore this relationship and Sam’s struggles with accepting the mantle of Captain America, but also tackle relevant social issues such as racism and coping with grief and change. Although delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier eventually released weekly on Disney+ starting from 19 March 2021 and was the most-watched show on the service for some time. Critically, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was extremely well-received, with reviewers praising the show’s depiction of racism and the dynamic between the two leads, though some criticised the show’s pacing and execution. Still, the show was successful enough to earn not only a second season but also a fourth Captain America movie that will see both stars reprise their roles on the big-screen and continue the plot threads left hanging at the end of the season.

The Plot:
Six months after the events of Avengers: Endgame (Russo and Russo, 2019), Sam Wilson struggles to live up to the mantle of Captain America and Bucky is still recovering from his brainwashing as the Winter Soldier. The two are forced to begrudgingly join forces with not only each other, but one of their worst enemies, to investigate a terrorist group in a worldwide adventure that tests both their abilities and their patience.

The Review:
I am a bit late to the party when it comes to Disney+ and their various original content; the main reason for that is the sad fact that neither my television nor my service provider actually carry the app, and I didn’t really want to be watching the shows on a smaller screen. Ordinarily, I would wait for the home media release but it seems as though we might have to wait a while for that, or might not get it at all, so I finally decided to get started on working through them earlier this year and was excited to finally sink my teeth into The Falcon and the Winter Soldier since it was the one that looked most like what I enjoy about the MCU. Naturally, given the title, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier primarily focuses on Sam and Bucky and the fallout from Avengers: Endgame. At the start of the show, Sam continues to run missions for the United States military as the Falcon, quickly making an enemy out of Georges Batroc (Georges St-Pierre), and enjoying the chance to make a positive difference in people’s lives. Sam is determined (obsessed, almost) with helping people, trying to offer his services and council, and protecting others, even when it’s beyond him, but he is conflicted about taking on the mantle of Captain America.

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

Believing that he’s not able to live up to Steve Rogers’ (Chris Evans) legacy, Sam delivers an emotional speech in Washington, D.C. at a ceremony (more like a eulogy) at the Smithsonian Museum for Captain America where he entrusts the shield to the museum so it can be displayed as a symbol of hope and unity. In a recurring motif throughout the show, Colonel James “Rhodey” Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle) questions this decision, believing that times have changed, and that the world is “broken” and in need of fixing, and that Captain America is more important than ever before. Sam, however, remains steadfast in his decision to give up the shield since he can’t shake the feeling that it doesn’t belong to him, and instead tries to direct his attentions to reconnecting with his family. Sam’s sister, Sarah (Adepero Oduye), and his nephews Cass (Chase River McGee) and AJ (Aaron Haynes), maintain the family fishing business in Louisiana, but fell on hard times during the Blip and have struggled to stay afloat since the snapped were returned. While Sam is still somewhat stuck in the pre-Blip past, Sarah is faced with the cold, hard fact that she is out of options thanks to getting into debt; Sam, however, is determined to help, despite her cynicism, and is sure that he can help broker a new deal/loan at the bank and turn the business around. However, despite the adulation of the bank clerk for his heroics, Sam faces greater hurdles than he expected; things changed after the Blip, Sam’s income is questionable (apparently Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr) didn’t pay the Avengers, which I find odd), and the Wilson’s don’t have the collateral or standing to qualify for a loan. However, there’s also an undercurrent of racial prejudice throughout this meeting; though Sam refuses to quit, Sarah isn’t surprised that they got turned away and somewhat resents Sam’s absence (whether by choice or by fate) and efforts to swoop in and save the day when she’s been struggling so hard for so long, by herself, to keep the business afloat.

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

Already greatly troubled by these burdens, Sam is clearly conflicted when the United States government opt to reactivate the shield and pass the mantle of Captain America on Captain John Walker (Russell). The former Winter Soldier, Bucky Barnes, isn’t quite as shy about hiding his feelings regarding the matter, however. Although he’s received a full pardon for his past crimes, Bucky is legally mandated to attend regular therapy sessions with Doctor Christina Raynor (Amy Aquino) and continues to be haunted by vivid, explicit memories of his heinous past. Although he routinely lies to and criticises her, Dr. Raynor sees through his bullshit and he reluctantly relates that he’s been going through a list of his victims and trying to make amends with their families or bring those responsible for his conditioning to justice according to Raynor’s strict series of rules that prohibit him from killing, harming others, or doing anything illegal in order to help stave off his nightmares. Bucky is aggravated that Sam gave up the shield; he believes that Steve trusted in Sam, that he believed in him, and that Sam threw it all away like it was nothing and his stoic demeanour cracks when he states that if Steve was wrong to believe in Sam then maybe he was wrong to believe in him (as in Bucky) as well. This causes a great deal of tension between the two, who already had a pretty frosty relationship to begin with, which only escalates as they investigate a terrorist group known as the Flag Smashers. Led by Karli Morgenthau (Kellyman), the Flag Smashers believe that society was better during the Blip and want to restructure the world to remove all borders, both political and social, but are radical in their methods. Karli, and seven of her followers, have been granted superhuman strength and durability thanks to a new version of the super soldier serum, and use that power to launch a campaign against the oppressive governments and conglomerates, particularly the Global Repatriation Council (GPC), who seek to return the world to the way it was before the Blip. Sam is first alerted to the group by his military liaison, Joaquin Torres (Danny Ramirez), who is badly injured trying to fight Karli during a bank robbery in Switzerland, and the bulk of the series revolves around his efforts (and the efforts of others) to track them down. Karli comes across as very sympathetic and morally grey antagonist; her idea for a united world free from corruption is an admirable one, but she enforces her ideals through extremism and violence, which clearly puts her in the wrong. With slightly different methods and motivations, she could have rallied people into a productive force for good but, instead, she is a revolutionary posing as a freedom fighter. In a very short time, she has amassed a cult-like following of people only too eager to offer them food, shelter, and resources and Karli is determined not to let the same people who were in power before the Blip return to positions of authority, and to go to any lengths necessary to bring about “One world, One people”.

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

While Sam actively sympathises with Karli’s plight, and makes every effort to try and talk her down, neither Bucky or Walker share his unique approach to the situation; a former high school football star, decorated soldier, and American patriot, Walker initially struggles with the weight of expectation placed on him by assuming this mantle of Captain America. His wife, Olivia (Gabrielle Byndloss), and best friend, Sergeant Major Lemar Hoskins (Clé Bennett), offer him their utmost encouragement and support and Walker quickly takes to the public limelight, signing autographs and appearing live on Good Morning, America, and coming across as humble and appreciative of the opportunity (despite his impressive military record, physical fitness, and intelligence quotient) and selling himself not as a super soldier, but as a brave man looking to continue Steve’s legacy. Walker’s position as Captain America causes a great deal of friction between him and Sam and Bucky; although he helps them to (unsuccessfully) fight Karli and the Flag Smashers, his repeated attempts to work with them are met with reluctance and hostility (especially from Bucky, who quickly senses something is off about Walker). Bucky and Sam’s resentment of Walker is only exacerbated by his increasing arrogance and bravado; Walker’s mental stability is fractured further when he’s repeatedly left one step behind (or out of the loop) in the pursuit of Karli, is met with scorn and disrespect by the Flag Smashers, and is repeatedly bested in combat by both super soldiers and the Wakandan special forces, the Dora Milaje. He’s resentful of those with enhanced abilities, and the judgement he faces from the likes of Sam, and being forced to sit on the side lines, which causes him to blunder into situations full of piss and vinegar and even disrupts Sam’s attempts to talk Karli down.

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

Walker is joined in the field by Lemar, who fights by his side as Battlestar. While Bucky is ready to simply force Walker to give up the shield, Lemar acts as the voice of reason and not only manages to keep Walker focused but tries to keep the peace between them and Sam and Bucky to better pool their resources. When Walker is distraught at being so handily beaten by the Dora Milaje, Lemar admits that he would jump at the chance to take the super soldier serum since the benefits would far outweigh any side effects, arguing that they could have saved lives (and spared themselves a lot of bloodshed) during their time in Afghanistan. This is all the convincing Walker needs to take the serum for himself, but his already unstable mind and quick temper are only exacerbated by the serum, and by Lemar’s death at Karli’s hands. Walker’s grief quickly turns to outrage, and he takes his anger and pain out on Nico (Noah Mills), Karli’s close friend, beating him to death with the shield in front of numerous bystanders, many of whom record the incident on their phones. Walker is so traumatised by these events that he actually tries to justify them as being part of his duties as Captain America, and a brutal fight breaks out between him, Falcon, and Bucky when Sam tries to reason with Walker and Walker’s paranoia kicks in. Walker rips Falcon’s wings off, half-crazed by ego and madness, and Falcon is forced to break Walker’s arm to get the shield off him. Although Walker avoids a court martial for his actions thanks to his service record, he’s stripped of his rank, benefits, and the mantle of Captain America. Understandably, Walker is outraged at this betrayal but is given a second (well, third, technically) chance by Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), who sympathises with his plight and offers him a new assignment as the U. S. Agent.

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

Walker’s instability isn’t helped by Sam and Bucky’s decision to turn to Helmut Zemo (Brühl) for help; although Zemo is a dangerous radical and terrorist who cannot be trusted, he knows more about super soldiers than anyone left alive, but even Sam is aghast when Bucky orchestrates Zemo’s escape from prison and convinces him to aid them based on their common enemy. Zemo is only too eager to help rid the world of super soldiers, who go against everything he believes in, and the two reluctantly agree to utilise Zemo’s wealth and resources as a baron (not to mention his knowledge of Hydra and the super soldier serum). Zemo adds an extra dimension to the abrasive relationship between the two leads, riling up both Bucky and Sam with his mind games and taunts; Zemo questions the logic behind giving symbols and people too much power as you forget their flaws and it brews conflict. Despite being a bigot and a terrorist, Zemo makes some great points about the parallels between good and bad, heroes and tyrants; Zemo argues that his willingness to murder Hydra scientist Doctor Wilfred Nagel (Olli Haaskivi) shows he has the will to complete their mission, indicating his intention to kill Karli, whose attacks are becoming more and more frequent and dangerous. He also makes a convincing argument that to be superhuman is to be a supremacist, that Karli will not be able to stop herself escalating her methods and her goals, and basically comparing the Avengers to the Nazis and other supremacist powers on principal alone, while also expressing respect for Captain America for his strength of character. Zemo’s poisonous philosophies and mind games continually grate on Sam and Bucky, and his very presence causes controversy, especially when Ayo (Florence Kasumba) and the Dora Milaje come looking for him. Ayo only allows Bucky (whom she still refers to as the “White Wolf”) eight hours to make use of Zemo out of a fraying sense of respect, however while nobody trusts Zemo (and rightfully so), he actually proves to be super useful to the group’s investigation: he leads them to Madripoor, a desolate, neon-drenched haven for disreputable types run by the mysterious “Power Broker”, and to Nagel’s knowledge of the new super soldier serum. He often slips away from conflict and is ordered to stay out of the way, but actually goes out of his way to help Sam and Bucky, even donning his iconic ski mask to clear a path for his unlikely allies.

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

Zemo’s even able to use Turkish Delight and his way with children to lead them to Karli, but doesn’t show his whole hand to maintain his leverage, which riles Bucky up almost as much as Zemo’s smug, self-righteous, condescending hospitality. Still, his single-minded campaign against super soldiers causes some problems for the more righteous heroes; he not only executes Nagel, but he wounds Karli and angrily destroys the majority of her serum vials, which only serves to galvanise her extremism further. Zemo is instrumental not just in aiding Sam and Bucky but also in granted Bucky some of the closure he desperately needs; his code words no longer trigger Bucky’s conditioning, and Bucky opts to spare him so he can face imprisonment, and the two even part ways with a kind of mutual respect and understanding for each other. Zemo actually proves to be more of an asset than Sharon Carter (VanCamp), who was driven off the grid to Madripoor after helping Sam and the other Avengers during Captain America: Civil War (Russo and Russo, 2016). Resentful that she was left without the aid of the Avengers and to fend for herself, Sharon is less than welcoming to them, especially Zemo, because she’s been forced to live on the run, without contact with friends and family, and has been alone this whole time. Begrudgingly, she offers them shelter and has set herself up as the owner and proprietor of an art gallery filled with stolen, priceless pieces; recent events have left her cynical of the whole hero gig and she openly criticises their devotion to a cause she no longer believes in. Distrustful and bitter, Sharon agrees to help in return for Sam’s help in clearing her name and returning her home; while Sharon brokers a deal with some clients, the three blend in at her party, resulting in the now-infamous clip of Zemo partying down to some beats! Although Sharon’s information proves fruitful, and she’s instrumental in stopping Karli and the Flag Smashers in the finale, she is repeatedly shown to be somewhat shady and untrustworthy throughout the show, making suspicious phone calls and even hiring Batroc to add a wild card to the final episode. When Sam, Bucky, and Walker join forces to chase Karli down, Sharon is revealed to be the Power Broker in a tense showdown that sees her gun down Batroc for having the insolence to blackmail her and then shoot Karli to save Sam’s life after his attempts to reason with her fall on deaf ears. Despite her odd behaviour, Sam arranges for her to receive her full pardon, but, while she gratefully returns to a governmental role, she makes a suspicious call to an unknown party promising to deliver full access to the government’s resources going forward.

A central theme of the show is racism and overcoming oppressive labels and bigotry.

A central theme throughout The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is of racism and the power of symbols, labels, and Captain America; racist struggles and undertones permeate every aspect of the show, from Sarah’s efforts to keep the family business afloat to Sam being referred to as “Black Falcon”, and there’s even an unsettling scene were some cops randomly accost Sam, with the implication that they only backed down after realising that he’s the Falcon. These racial tensions are explicitly emphasised through the introduction of Isaiah Bradley (Carl Lumbly), an African American veteran super soldier who fought, and defeated, the Winter Soldier in the Korean War. Jaded and betrayed by his country, Isaiah was imprisoned and experimented on for thirty years to help replicate the super soldier serum, leaving him a cynical and tortured individual. Sam is angered that a Black super soldier existed and has been buried and forgotten, and how many people got screwed over just to make the shield and Captain America a thing, regardless of how much good both have done. Isaiah bitterly talks about the oppression faced by Black people everywhere, especially soldiers who put their lives on the line for their country only to face bigotry and hatred upon returning. Isaiah reveals that his wife died while he was in prison, and that a bunch of prisoners such as himself were subjected to super soldier experiments and sent on missions even if they were unstable. After some of them got captured, Isaiah learned that the higher-ups were planning on destroying the camp rather than let their dirty little secret get out and rescued his comrades, only to be left a lab rat whose only salvation came from a sympathetic nurse. Sam is moved by his tale, and desperate to use every resource he has to tell it to the world, but Isaiah doesn’t share Sam’s optimism since Black people have been oppressed and erased for generations; he maintains that “they” will never let a Black man be Captain America, and that no self-respecting Black man would want to represent such a flawed symbol.

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

Although Isaiah’s tale causes Sam to contemplate if he should destroy the shield, Bucky emphasises that the shield is a symbol of hope to many, including himself. When Sam calls in the favours owed to his family by the neighbourhood, even Bucky gets stuck in with fixing up the family boat, and apologises for judging Sam’s decision. He helps Sam train with the shield and Sam encourages him to find his own path in life rather than looking to other people to guide him, and to “do the work” to make amends for his past by offer his victims closure, or a service, to properly put his sins to rest and, in that moment, they forge their friendship (though they still maintain their grating banter). Bucky’s support helps Sam to conclude that, while Isaiah may have a point, he owes it to all of those who suffered and sacrificed to stand up and keep fighting…and take on the shield, which he eventually manages to get the hang of after an inspirational training montage. This culminates in Sam making a dramatic appearance in the finale garbed in his all-new Captain America costume, courtesy of Wakanda, which is heavily based on his Cap suit from the comics and incorporates elements from his Falcon outfit, including the wings. As faithful as the suit is, though, I do feel like it’s a bit “busy”; it’s got white and blue and red and all kinds of different parts and details to it, which is fine, but it does seem like it could be streamlined and simplified going forward. Crucially, while Cap has (presumably Vibranium) wings and his additional technology and abilities allow for particularly exciting chase and action sequence involving a helicopter and a rematch with Batroc, Sam refuses the super soldier serum and uses his position to make an impassioned speech to the GRC representatives, the crowd, and the press about the dangers of labels and the importance of asking why people do the things they do. In a poignant address, Cap emphasises that that they all have a chance to make real change, to help those in need, and acknowledges that people will hate and judge him for being a Black Captain America but, despite that, he’s still there, a simple man with a strong belief that people can do better and the importance of setting a strong example and wielding power responsibly.

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

This comes after a dramatic and tragic final confrontation with Karli and the Flag Smashers, who launch an attack on a GRC conference; earlier in the series, Nico expressed his belief that the world needs heroes that “look like them”, that can relate to their plight, and even suggests that Karli has the potential to be as influential as Captain America because of her willingness to fight for those in need and to get her hands dirty in the process. Karli believes that the shield is “a monument to a bygone era” and serves as a reminder only of the people history forgot, and that the serum is the only way to bring about real change, and as part of that she only plans on killing people that “matter”, like John Walker and even Sam, as it will send a stronger message. This dismissive attitude raises the ire of Walker in the finale, but Sam consistently sympathises with Karli’s plight; for five years, the world completely changed the way it operated, offering aid and co-operating in a way that had never been seen before, but things have returned to normal and that is a jarring transition for many, especially the poor, underprivileged, and oppressed, who see Karli as a freedom fighter. Sam attempts to reach out to her, and convince her to come along peacefully, and is met with aggression and resistance; Karli rejects the notion that she’s a supremacist because she’s fighting against big, oppressive corporations but Sam argues that she’s killing recklessly, and heading down a dark path. Even when Karli threatens Sam’s family, he continues to try and reason with her and, when they go head-to-head in the finale, he refuses to fight her…or to back down…even as when she flies into a rage and mercilessly attacks him. After Karli is fatally shot by Sharon, she dies in Cap’s arms, leaving him with only an apology and regret at the unnecessary loss of life, and that tragedy fuels his big speech at the end.

The Summary:
I really enjoyed The Falcon and the Winter Soldier; everything about it was indicative of a top-notch MCU production, from the music to the presentation, characterisation, and world-building. It was literally like watching a six-hour long movie rather than an episodic show, and a lot of that is due to how well the two leads characters are written. Sam and Bucky share some relatable and entertaining banter and dick measuring regarding their knowledge of pop culture, the craziness of their superhero lives, and it’s clear that they have a begrudging, grating, almost brotherly relationship. Bucky despairs of Sam’s reluctance to make or share his plans and goes out of his way to match his efforts, even leaping out of a plane at two-hundred feet without a parachute just to prove a point. When Karli threatens Sam’s family, Bucky insists on suiting up with him and has his back, despite the two having an abrasive relationship; this is best seen in an amusing moment where Dr. Raynor forces the two to sit down for some therapy and they push back against Dr. Raynor’s methods, rile each other up, and are forced to confront their issues. Although the two agree to part ways and never see each other again following this, they are soon bonded by their mutual respect and come to trust and even help each other with their doubts and issues. Bucky even has a little flirty banter with Sarah (which Sam warns him about) and, by the end, is laughing and enjoying himself with Sam’s family and neighbours. Their dysfunctional, brotherly, odd-couple dynamic is one of the highlights of the show and it’s great to see them ending the season as trusted allies.

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

A clear standout of the show was also John Walker, who gave a great turn as an unstable, violent, and unhinged version of Captain America. At first, he’s the humble, dutiful poster boy but it doesn’t take long for cracks to begin to show in his façade; the pressure of living up to Cap’s legacy weighs heavily on his shoulders and his ego and anger are only exacerbated by the disrespect and lack of recognition he receives from Sam, Bucky, and others. Walker has a tumultuous relationship with Sam and Bucky, who both see him as unworthy of the shield, and their attempts to join forces almost always become a war of words and very nearly lead to them coming to blows. The super soldier serum only escalates things further, finally granting Walker the power he so desperately craved but also driving him to sully his image by literally staining the shield with blood. However, Walker remains a complex and layered character; a tool of the system, he was used and abused just like countless other soldiers and left hanging after the government that made him washed their hands of him. After being stripped of the shield, Walker fashions his own, far less durable one and heads into the finale looking to kill Karli to avenge Lemar, but ultimately chooses to abandon his crusade in order to help save a truck load of hostages. Despite Sam and Bucky’s very valid reservations about Walker, he comes through in the end, but the series ends on a slightly ominous note with him rebranded to U. S. Agent and signed up to whatever Valentina has in store for him.

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

Other highlights of the show obviously include Zemo, thanks to his moral ambiguity and his twisted philosophies that actually make a great deal of sense; his inclusion was a masterful addition and really added to the dynamic between Sam and Bucky, as well as allowing the character to shift gears towards a more comic-accurate depiction, and it was fun seeing him rile the two leads up. Equally, Karli proved to be a surprisingly sympathetic and relatable antagonist; just as Zemo predicted, she grows increasingly bolder and more violent in her methods, eventually becoming willing to die and execute hostages for her cause, which unsettles even her followers. Yet, even when pushed right to the edge, she has a vulnerability to her; her adopted mother gave her shelter and love, and she’s just looking to provide for those in need and to stand up for the oppressed, but has turned her crusade against corporate or governmental propaganda and symbols like Captain America and her physical strength more than matches the strength of her beliefs thanks to the super soldier serum, making for an extremely dangerous and unpredictable enemy to unite these unlikely allies. Another emotional highlight was Bucky’s quest for redemption; haunted by this past and lost in a world that has passed him by, Bucky is desperately trying to find some purpose in life but finds himself constantly hampered by his violent actions. Not even a cute little date with a waitress (Miki Ishikawa) helps to alleviate his guilt and it’s only through fighting alongside Sam and that he’s able to start to come to terms with his sins. This comes to a head in the finale when he finally heeds Sam’s advice and finds the courage to confess his part in death of his friend Yori Nakajima’s (Ken Takemoto) son; it’s clear that he’s still got a long way to go to find the peace he wants but he ends the show in a far better place that he started it thanks to the partnership (and friendship) he builds with Sam.

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

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is full to the brim with the biting, witty banter you’d expect from an MCU production and some exhilarating and exciting action sequence; Falcon dives and barrel-rolls through the air in freefall, Bucky throws bombs with his cybernetic arm, and action scenes are given a real punch (no pun intended) thanks to the Flag Smashers being augmented by the super soldier serum. Sam’s refusal to enhance himself in this way might be a questionable decision given he’s taking on the mantle of Captain America, but it goes a long way to keeping him humble, vulnerable, and relatable; he’s just a normal man striving to do better, without the shortcuts that Walker takes. Ayo and the Dora Milaje also contribute to some epic fight scenes, particularly in the way they humble Walker and even subdue Bucky by disabling and removing his Vibranium limb. Even more impactful, though, are the socially relevant themes in the show, such as racism and the power of labels and symbols; it’s no surprise that Isaiah’s story is framed as a dark parallel to Steve’s, and it’s deplorable to hear about what he went through while Steve was heralded a hero for similar deeds. It thus carries a significant impact when Isaiah ultimately gives Sam his begrudging approval and respect after being won over with Sam’s determination to be a symbol of his people and all those who suffered to make America the country it is today. Isaiah is moved when he sees that Sam has made good on his promise and arranged for him and his fellow soldiers to finally be recognised and honoured at the Smithsonian’s Captain America wing, and I applaud the show for tackling these unsettling issues head-on, even if Sam’s big speech might be a bit on the nose. Overall, this was a fantastic experience; it was literally like a fourth Captain America movie and really helped to flesh out Sam and Bucky and the changes brought to the MCU following Avengers: Endgame. I do wonder how explicitly subsequent movies and productions will relate to the events of this show, but it was a fun journey to go on and I’m excited to see how all the loose threads will be connected together going forward and for Sam’s big-screen debut as the new Captain America.

My Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Fantastic

Did you enjoy The Falcon and the Winter Soldier? What did you think to the banter between Sam and Bucky, and the dynamic added to the duo by Zemo? Were you happy to see Sam accept the mantle by the end or would you have preferred Bucky become the new Captain America? What did you think to Karli and her motivations, and did you enjoy the moral ambiguity of the show’s characters? Did you enjoy the introduction of U. S. Agent to the MCU and what do you think the future holds for him? Are there any Captain America stories and villains you would like to see make it to the MCU? How have you been celebrating the Star-Spangled Avenger’s debut this month? Whatever your thoughts on The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, or Captain America in general, sign up to let me know below or drop a comment on my social media.

Talking Movies: Captain America: Civil War

Released: 6 May 2016
Director: Anthony and Joe Russo
Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Budget: $250 million
Stars: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Elizabeth Olsen, Daniel Brühl, and Chadwick Boseman

The Plot:
After saving the world from a near-extinction event, Steve Rogers/Captain America (Evans) and Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Johansson) work alongside a new team of Avengers. However, Wanda Maximoff’s (Olsen) unpredictable powers damage their credibility and spell the end of the team unless they agree to fall under the jurisdiction of the world’s governments. This causes tensions between Steve and the other Avengers, particularly Tony Stark/Iron Man (Downey Jr.), that are only further exacerbated when Helmut Zemo (Brühl) activates James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes/The Winter Soldier’s (Stan) brainwashing and inspires a conflict within Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.

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

The Review:
I honestly can’t say that I really had much of a reaction when I found out that the third Captain America movie wouldn’t be tackling the Serpent Society; I only really know the group from the Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes (2010 to 2012) cartoon, where I found them to be annoying and over-used. However, I was a bit concerned when it was revealed that Marvel Studios would be adapting the “Civil War” (Millar, et al, 2006 to 2007) storyline as not only was I not a fan of how out of character everyone (especially Iron Man) acted in that story but the MCU Avengers had just ended Avengers: Age of Ultron (Whedon, 2015) on a high note and, like the downfall of the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division (S.H.I.E.L.D.), it seemed a bit too soon to be tearing these characters apart when they were still so new as a group.

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

One thing I’ve always found odd about the “Civil War” storyline is the fact that Captain America, the living embodiment of America’s ideals, is the one fighting against the government and Stark, the arrogant industrialist who actively spits in the face of governmental boards, is the one pushing for registration and culpability. Yet, it sends a clear message when the bastion of truth and freedom finds something oppressive about the ruling body and Steve is a proud man who sees the world in old-fashioned shades of black and white and has learned enough about the modern world to become suspicious of those who wield too much political power and who just wants to do the right thing without compromise. The trailers and hype for the film excited me and I was keen to see a Marvel solo movie featuring so many additional costumed characters in supporting roles as I am a big fan of that in my superhero movies after years of them all living in isolated bubbles. Plus, even with the expanded cast, the film remains, at its core, a Captain America story and is completely focused on Cap’s divided loyalties between his Avengers team-mates and his old friend-turned-brainwashed assassin, Bucky. Cap begins the film as the field commander of the newly-formed team of Avengers we first saw at the end of Age of Ultron; as always, he is all business when on the job and determined to teach the younger members of the team, like Wanda Maximoff, how to best scope out potential targets and situations and build a rapport as a team.

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

The catalyst for the eventual conflict within the Avengers is Wanda; unlike the other members of the Avengers, she’s still very young, inexperienced, and an outsider. Add to that the fact that her “Hex Powers” are both unpredictable and volatile and she is a bit of a powder keg, despite her generally calm and composed demeanour. Deep down, she just wants to help people and do the best she can so, when she instinctively uses her powers to hurl Brock Rumlow/Crossbones (Frank Grillo) into the air to keep his suicide bomb from killing innocents, she is devastated when her throw goes awry and kills several Wakandan humanitarians. Although Steve tries to console her, rightfully pointing out that no-one, however (super)powerful can save everyone, she only really feels a connection with the Vision (Paul Bettany), another being born of an Infinity Stone to whom she has grown very close and who desires to not only explore his abilities and humanity but who also seeks to understand the nature of the Infinity Stone embedded in his forehead.

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

Cap’s team is also comprised of his friends, Sam Wilson/The Falcon (Mackie) and Black Widow. Now much more comfortable in his role as a superhero, the Falcon has built a camaraderie with the other Avengers and is a vital member of the team thanks to his drone, Redwing, and his specialised flight suit, both of which allow him to provide unprecedented air support. Natasha, meanwhile, continues to be an absolute bad-ass in the field, striking with speed, precision, and power, while also sharing the responsibility of teaching Wanda how to conduct herself out in the field. They, and many of their team mates, live and train at a specialist compound, paid for by Stark’s not-inconsiderable funds. Stark, meanwhile, has semi-retired from the superhero life and is only brought back into the fold after the incident in Lagos which, especially after the devastating events in Sokovia in Age of Ultron, call into question the unchallenged actions of the Avengers. Thus, in a continuation of his growing sense of impending cosmic danger and his desire to protect the planet by any means necessary (and due to his guilt at being responsible for collateral damage caused by the Avengers’ actions), Stark is immediately onboard with the “Sokovia Accords”. Although Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross’s (William Hurt), now promoted to Secretary of State, acknowledges that the world owes the Avengers an unpayable debt, he stresses that they must register to answer to a democratic committee before acting so that they can be properly held accountable for their actions. The Sokovia Accords rattle each member of the team in different ways based on their previous experiences and relationships; James “Rhodey” Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle) and the Vision, for example, look at the numbers and the orders and, influenced by their relationship with Stark, believe that signing the Accords is the only logical action whereas Sam is adamant that it will only be a matter of time before the government screw them over.

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

Steve, ever the soldier and pragmatist, argues against “[surrendering] their right to choose” and his conviction to take a stand against being controlled, even by the United States government, is galvanised after the death of his former flame, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), who firmly believed in standing up for her beliefs. However, when it appears as though Bucky has attacked the ratification of the Accords and killed the peace-affirming Wakandan king, T’Chaka (John Kani), Steve makes it his mission to personally track down his former friend and bring him in before he can be arrested by the authorities. T’Chaka’s son, T’Challa, overwhelmed by grief and bloodlust, dons the ceremonial Vibranium suit of the Black Panther to hunt down and kill Bucky, causing tensions to bubble to boiling point. It is into this tumultuous storm of ideals, emotions, and conflicting beliefs that Zemo enters the fray. A survivor from Sokovia who relentlessly goes on a hunt torturing and murdering Hydra operatives to acquire “Mission report. December 16. 1991”, a document that proves the final spark to ignite the titular civil war within the Avengers. Zemo has acquired the Soviet’s book of codewords and is able, through his charm and false documents, to gain access to Bucky after he is arrested and activate him in order to acquire the information he seeks. Bucky, who has been living off the grid and on the run since the end of The Winter Soldier, continues to suffer from decades of cryogenic stasis, manipulation, brainwashing, and memory wiping, which have made him a confused and purely instinctual creature. Although Steve still remembers their time together as friends and the entirety of Bucky’s past, Bucky is haunted by fragmented memories of his time as an assassin and naturally paranoid, lashing out at friend and foe alike when they try to reach him.

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

While Wanda shoulders a lot of the guilt for what happened in Lagos, Steve feels he is also to blame as he was distracted by Rumlow’s mention of Bucky. Still, he is steadfast that what he, and the other Avengers, do cannot be regulated by a governing body, especially after how deeply entrenched Hydra was into S.H.I.E.L.D. This causes a clash of ideals and beliefs between and Stark; showing his partial growth as a character, Stark is now more than willing to compromise and work within the system to keep them in check and also to ensure that the team stays together but Steve is adamant that they shouldn’t have to answer to anyone lest they be stopped from intervening where they are most needed. While the Sokovia Accords themselves probably would have divided the Avengers enough to cause some kind of conflict, they potentially wouldn’t have come to blows if it wasn’t for Zemo’s manipulations and Bucky’s apparent culpability in T’Chaka’s death. When he comes to his senses, Bucky reveals that he was just one of many Winter Soldiers created by the soviets and that Zemo was responsible for the bombing at the ratification. Stark, however, remains oblivious to the deception that has taken place and takes it upon himself to lead his allies in apprehending Bucky, even if it means recruiting the young and relatively untested Spider-Man to help throw Cap off his game and fighting against his allies for the greater good. Steve, realising that he is now, once again, a fugitive, puts together a team of his own to defend Bucky and fight their way to uncovering and exposing Zemo’s plot. To this end, he recruits Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and, on Sam’s suggestion, Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) to help him out, and such is the strength of Captain America’s conviction and fortitude that he is able to convince ex-cons like Scott, retired heroes like Clint (both of whom have familial responsibilities), and Agent Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp) to put themselves and their careers at risk to help his cause.

The Nitty-Gritty:
Being as it’s basically an Avengers movie in disguise, Captain America: Civil War is a natural escalation of The Winter Soldier in every way. As a result, it’s bigger and far more intricate and bombastic than the previous Captain America movies but, arguably, maybe not the definitive ending to a trilogy of standalone movies in the same way as, say, Iron Man 3 (Black, 2013) tried to be. However, there is a very good reason for this and that is that, at this point, MCU movies were much more about focusing on a singular hero but also expanding their shared world exponentially in the lead-up to their biggest movies ever. Despite its heavy subject matter and action-packed events, the film also has time for absolute tone-perfect comedy; Bucky and Sam’s reaction to Steve’s admittedly awkward kiss with Sharon, Scott’s gushing over meeting Captain America and the other Avengers, and Spider-Man’s incessant quips and references during the big airport fight all brilliantly break the tension and add some pitch-perfect levity to the film.

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

Of course, one of the main selling points of the film is the climatic fight between Team Cap and Team Iron Man and the introduction of Spider-Man to the MCU. As much as I loved Andrew Garfield in the role and still think it would’ve been a lot simpler and easier to simply fold him and the Amazing Spider-Man films (Webb, 2012 to 2014) into the MCU, casting a younger actor as an inexperienced version of the character was a great way to introduce Spider-Man with a clean slate and Tom Holland played the role to perfection. Although enthusiastic about getting a shot to team up with heavy-weights like Iron Man and the Vision and eager to impress both Stark and the Avengers, Spider-Man is in way over his head; still he holds his own and delivers both quips for days and some of the best web-slinging in just one big fight scene even after (at the time) nearly fifteen years of Spider-Man movies. Though young and operating in a homemade suit that allows him to use his powers responsibly, Peter is still portrayed as something of a child prodigy as he manufactures his own webbing and web shooters and, despite not mentioning his beloved Uncle Ben by name, has the same strict moral code as any other iteration of the character, making for perhaps the most well-rounded portrayal even after many decades of Spider-Man adaptations.

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

The clash between Team Cap and Team Iron Man isn’t just about Spider-Man, though, or even Steve and Stark; instead, it’s a reluctant fight between close friends and allies, many of whom use known weaknesses against their team mates in order to gain a bit more ground. While you might think that a guy like Hawkeye is no match for the Vision, his various trick arrows do a decent job of disrupting the synthezoid and burying Iron Man beneath a pile of cars. Similarly, Cap is technically physically outmatched and reluctant to fight against a teenager like Spider-Man but is able to best him using his shield and distracting him with falling debris. Another star of the conflict is Ant-Man who, in addition to enlarging vehicles with Pym Particles, makes an entertaining and amusing debut as Giant-Man, and we even get to see Hawkeye and Black Widow go at it, albeit with an acknowledged reluctance. Even Stark doesn’t actually want to fight; he brings his team to the airport to convince Cap to stand down out of respect for their friendship and for the sake of the team, and specifically orders them to subdue their former allies rather than grievously harm them. However, despite this, and as entertaining as this clash between the two groups of Avengers is, things end up becoming much too real when an errant shot from the Vision ends up crippling Rhodey from the waist down, which only adds further fuel to Stark’s fire.

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

Both Steve and Stark make compelling arguments for and against signing the Sokovia Accords but, as is to be expected of the storyline and these larger than life characters, take their argument to the extreme. In the source material, this led to Stark hunting down and imprisoning his fellow heroes in the ultimate act of uncompromising betrayal, becoming something of a tyrant in the process. Here, he doesn’t go quite that far until he has absolutely no other choice; despite his grating personality, it’s clear that Stark sees Steve and the others as trusted friends and allies and like Natasha, is more than willing to compromise to keep the team together, in check, and to advocate for amendments to the Accords later down the line. However, both Steve and Stark are pushed too far when the others continuously refuses to see things from their perspective and to compromise their integrity or conscience. After the climatic airport fight, however, and the truth of Zemo’s manipulations is revealed, Stark swallows his pride and heads to Siberia to investigate the other Winter Soldiers. Unfortunately, his conflict with Steve and Bucky is reignited when it is revealed that Bucky was brainwashed into killing Howard and Maria Stark (John Slattery and Hope Davis, respectively) to acquire super soldier serum for the Soviets. Stark’s introduction to the film, and a major sub-plot of his previous appearances, dealt with his unresolved issues with his father and, upon learning that both of his parents were taken from him, he flies into a mindless rage and attacks the two in a fantastically realised and emotional fight scene. Though torn between his friendship with Stark and his loyalty to Bucky, Steve ultimately has no choice but to choose to defend his old friend in order to get him the help he needs and, in the process, Zemo’s master plan succeeds as the Avengers are torn apart and Cap gives up his shield to go on the run with Bucky.

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

This finale is the perfect culmination of a film that is packed full of fantastic action sequences and fight scenes; expanding upon the brutal, gritty action of The Winter Soldier, Civil War continues to deliver some hard-hitting action from the likes of Cap and Black Widow, especially. Their fight against Rumlow is a great way to open the film and, following an equally engaging conflict of ideologies and beliefs, the action only escalates as Steve desperately tries to reach Bucky and bring him in independently only to end up fighting against the German police in a cramped stairwell and racing across the rooftops and streets of Berlin. Black Panther joins the battle for this latter sequence in a brilliant introduction to the character that only scratches the surface of his physical capabilities. Unlike other MCU villains who, by this point, showed glimmers of complex personalities and had somewhat multi-faceted personalities but were often just dark mirrors of the titular heroes, Zemo is quite the layered villain. Unlike his comic book counterpart (who, visually, he wouldn’t come to resemble for some time), Zemo isn’t some crazed fascist dictator or maniacal supervillain. Instead, he’s a former Sokovian soldier haunted by the loss of his family in Sokovia due to the Avengers’ actions and who wants to bring them down from the inside out in order to ensure that they never again threaten the safety of innocents. Simultaneously, Zemo has no love for Hydra either and wishes to see both costumed heroes and villains made a thing of the past; he also views his crusade to be a suicide mission as, once he sees Iron Man driven to the point of murderous rage, he considers his mission complete and prepares to kill himself. He is stopped, however, by Black Panther who, having witnessed the Avengers tear themselves apart over grief and rage, chooses to spare his father’s killer and see him brought to true justice. The damage, however, is done; even though the film ends with Cap going to rescue his friends from imprisonment on the Raft and offering an olive branch to Stark, the Avengers are effectively disbanded and wouldn’t come together again until the greatest threat imaginable came knocking.

The Summary:
As brilliant as the last two Captain America films were, Captain America: Civil War was a massive escalation for the character. In many ways, you could make the argument that Marvel Studios could have had the third Cap film focus solely on his hunt for Bucky and made a third Avengers movie for the “Civil War” storyline, but it does a surprisingly good job of balancing its different characters and themes. None of the extra Avengers or the wider conflict between them overshadow Cap’s story or the continuation of his character arc and story with Bucky and, if anything, all of the different conflicts and personalities help to bolster this narrative. At its core, Civil War is a film about secrets, truths, and complex ideologies; both Steve and Stark have valid points for and against superhero registration and Bucky is a tortured soul responsible for an untold number of tragedies and atrocities and yet he wasn’t in full control of himself and was forced into perpetrating those acts and that, as much as their friendship, motivates Steve to protect him to see that he gets help rather than be unjustly imprisoned or killed. Black Panther vows to kill Bucky to avenge his father but chooses to spare Zemo when he learns the truth, showing a fundamental moral compass that helps to define him in his brief screen time. Stark is also driven to avenge his parents when he learns that the Winter Soldier killed them and the result is the complete fracturing of any trust between him and Steve, disassembling the Avengers and, similar to the destruction of S.H.I.E.L.D. in The Winter Soldier, fundamentally changing the nature of the MCU to ensure the stakes are as dire as possible for when Thanos (Josh Brolin) comes calling. As under-rated a gem as Captain America: The First Avenger (Johnston, 2011) is and as impressively thrilling as The Winter Soldier is, Civil War edges both out in terms of sheer spectacle and showed that even a solo MCU film could have Avengers-level implications for Marvel’s shared universe.

My Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Fantastic

Were you a fan of Captain America: Civil War? What did you think to the conflict between Steve and Stark and were you on Team Cap or Team Iron Man? Did you enjoy seeing the other Avengers in the film or do you feel like it got a bit too crowded for a Captain America movie? What did you think about Zemo, his character and motivations, and Bucky’s overarching story? Are you a fan of the “Civil War” comic book? Did you enjoy the debut of Black Panther and Spider-Man? What did you think to the decision to tear the Avengers apart at that stage in the larger MCU story? Are there any Captain America stories and villains you would have liked to seen make it to the big screen? How have you been celebrating the Star-Spangled Avenger this month? Whatever you think about Civil War, or Captain America in general, drop a comment down below.

Talking Movies: Thor: Love and Thunder

Released: 8 July 2022
Director: Taika Waititi
Distributor:
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Budget:
$250 million
Stars:
Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Christian Bale, Tessa Thompson, Taika Waititi, and Russell Crowe

The Plot:
After helping to restore half the universe’s population to life, Thor Odinson (Hemsworth) travels the galaxy looking for inner peace. However, when the embittered Gorr (Bale) makes it his life’s mission to slaughter all Gods, Thor must return to the fight alongside his old Asgardian allies…and his former flame, Doctor Jane Foster (Portman), who has now taken up the mantle of the Mighty Thor!

The Background:
Even before the blockbuster success of Avengers Assemble/The Avengers (Whedon, 2012), Marvel Studios head honcho Kevin Feige planned for Thor would have another adventure following his first solo adventure, Thor (Branagh, 2011), which was widely praised, incredibly successful, and catapulted stars Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston to superstardom. Although Thor: The Dark World (Taylor, 2013) was more profitable, many criticised the film’s weaker elements and star Natalie Portman was angered that Marvel let director Patty Jenkins slip through their fingers and refusing to return for the much-lauded third film. Following the megahit that was Avengers: Endgame (Russo and Russo, however, Portman made a dramatic return to the franchise to rejoin co-star Hemsworth for an adaptation of the character’s recent run as a female iteration of the Thunder God. Writer Jason Aaron and artist Russell Dauterman had Jane Foster take on the Thor mantle in 2014; sadly, while that story arc was quite well-received, the announcement of a female Thor annoyingly caused the bigots to rear their ugly heads once more. Regardless, Portman was excited at the opportunity, largely because of writer/director Taika Waititi’s madcap ideas to explore even more bizarre aspects of Thor’s cosmic scope thanks to the inclusion of the Guardians of the Galaxy. Following delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Thor: Love and Thunder finally released and went on to gross $760 million at the box office making it the tenth-highest-grossing film of 2022 at the time. Critically, the received a mixed to positive response; reviews praised the performances, especially those of Bale and Portman, and the mixture of action and emotion, though some were put off by the film’s conflicting tone and wackier moments.

The Review:
Considering that Thor’s first two live-action films are often under-rated and unfairly overlooked in the grand scheme of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), I find it incredibly gratifying that the God of Thunder is the first (and, currently, only) member of the original Avengers line-up to get a fourth film to his name. While I can’t say I fully agree with many of the thematic, narrative, and atmospheric decisions of the last solo Thor movie, I absolutely love that director Taika Waititi transformed Thor from a somewhat naïve, grandstanding, Shakespearian warrior and gave him a whitewash of glam metal, 1980s science-fiction, and Masters of the Universe as it really helps the action and these outlandishly cosmic concepts to stand out from other MCU efforts. As much as I enjoy Thor, however, I’m not the most well-read when it comes to him; as a result, I haven’t actually read any of Jane’s time with Mjölnir. I think her Thor turned up in a few crossovers I’ve read, like Generations (Various, 2017), but I haven’t properly experienced what she got up to in the pages of The Mighty Thor, though I found the idea of an unworthy Thor Odinson and a female Thor to be intriguing. Similarly, I haven’t read any of the stories or comics featuring Gorr the God Butcher; I’ve been on the fringe of his path of destruction by following the Knull stuff in the pages of Venom, but have yet to actually read his primary story arc, so I went into Thor: Love and Thunder without any expectations except for another outlandish, sci-fi/fantasy jaunt with one of my favourite MCU characters.

Thor’s quest to find himself leads him to opposing a sadistic God killer alongside some powerful allies.

When we catch up with Thor at the start of the film, he’s back to his blusterous, buff self and still running around with the Guardians of the Galaxy. Having gotten himself back into shape, Thor has thrown himself into galivanting across the cosmos on all sorts of cosmic adventures with Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) and the other Guardians and alongside his loyal, if incredible foolish, Kronan friend, Korg (Waititi). Though revered and regarded as a benevolent and courageous hero, Thor continues to feel an emptiness inside himself; having left behind the throne of Asgard and in search of his true destiny beyond that which he was raised to assume, Thor longs for both a purpose and a love that can match the one he had with Jane. Thor’s yearning for battle and glory remain as powerful as ever, though, and are only matched by his rage when he and the Guardians pick up a number of distress calls from Gods all over the universe; splitting away from his cosmic allies (much to Star-Lord’s relief), Thor and Korg rush to the aid of Lady Sif (Jaimie Alexander) and learns of Gorr’s desire to slaughter every God to avenge his losses. Without hesitation, Thor transports himself and Korg to New Asgard to fend off Gorr’s attack and is stunned to find his beloved Mjölnir repaired and in the hands of his old flame, now transformed into a Thor of her own. The sight of Jane garbed in Asgardian armour and wielding his hammer with such proficiency is quite the blow for Thor, who struggles to reconcile his conflicting emotions of elation, jealousy, and admiration for Jane’s worthiness in battle. Indeed, a running joke throughout the film is that Thor struggles to remain loyal to his new weapon, the mighty Stormbreaker, after seeing his dear Mjölnir back in one piece and with expressing his feelings of love for Jane. Thankfully, Gorr’s threat gives him (and both of them) a pressing objective to focus on; when Gorr kidnaps the Asgardian children and spirits them away to the Shadow Realm (a place of pure and literal darkness), Thor rallies his people and his ragtag team (comprised of himself, Jane-Thor, Korg, and King Valkyrie (Thompson)) into recruiting other Gods for aid in recovering the kids and destroying Gorr before he can slaughter them all.

Imbued with the powers of Thor, the dying Jane is only too eager to embark on a cosmic adventure.

It’s wonderful to see Natalie Portman back as Jane; I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for her and she’s definitely put in the physical work to transform herself into a warrior worthy of the mantle of Thor. However, Jane’s physique and competency in battle are as much a by-product of Mjölnir’s magic as they are a façade for the pain she is in. Between movies, Jane was suddenly afflicted with terminal cancer and, at the start of the film, is coming face to face with her impending mortality despite the best efforts of herself and the scientific community. Although it appears as though she randomly travels to New Asgard in a last-ditch effort to cure herself with Mjölnir, she later states that the hammer “called to [her]”, however, despite being rejuvenated and granted Thor’s incredible powers, Mjölnir is actually stunting Jane’s ability to fight her cancer and accelerating her condition. Although she has very little time left, Jane is determined to go out in a blaze of glory and revel in the power of Thor, and to that end she willingly joins Thor’s quest to defeat Gorr and recover the Asgardian children. As long as she wields Mjölnir, she remains superhumanly strong and she can even direct the hammer to shatter into fragments to defeat multiple enemies at once, to say nothing of channelling the same lightning powers as Thor. Along the way, we get a deeper insight into Thor and Jane’s relationship; we see how loved up they were, how work and obligations drove a wedge between them until they finally parted ways, and how both still harbour those same feelings for the other. Their reconciliation fills a void in both their hearts but is sadly doomed to tragedy due to Jane’s illness; as far as swan songs go though, it’s tough to get any better than cruising through the cosmos on a Rainbow Bridge and visiting the land of the Gods!

Following a lifetime of suffering, Gorr wages war against all Gods to expose their failings.

Gorr is probably one of the most tragic and complex villains we’ve seen in the MCU so far; played with haunting, often maniacal glee by the always-excellent Christian Bale (I still can’t believe Marvel Studios were able to get him for this role), Gorr is a broken, embittered man who has watched his entire race and beloved daughter, Love (India Hemsworth), suffer and die from starvation and dehydration after all their prayers and beliefs in their God, Rapu (Jonathan Brugh), go unanswered. At the brink of death, Gorr encounters Rapu and finds him to be an arrogant, nonchalant, and dismissive blowhard who couldn’t care less about his people or his pain, but he also conveniently finds the Necrosword, a feared weapon from the dawn of time that gives its wielder the power to kill Gods. Corrupted by the sword’s influence, Gorr becomes a driven, sadistic butcher; using the blade, he can teleport through shadows, is granted incredible, God-like strength and endurance, and can even bring shadows to life to conjure various Lovecraftian beasts to do his bidding. Though he wages war against all Gods, we only see a handful of his victims and most of his kills are glossed over on the Guardians’ distress monitor, but his threat is so great that Thor goes to Zeus (Crowe) and the other Gods at Omnipotence City for aid. Compared to some of Thor’s other villains, Gorr gets a bit more screen time; he has a few clashes with Thor throughout the film, proving a ferocious and underhanded fighter, and his body and mind are corrupted into that of a twisted, malicious murderer who not only kidnaps children but delights in tormenting them. His ultimate goal is to lure Thor to the Shadow Realm in order to claim Stormbreaker, which is the key to him gaining an audience with Eternity and wiping out all Gods with a single wish. This is only fuelled by the Necrosword, which not only distorts his mind and body and encourages his anger and heartbreak but is also the source of his power. Like Jane, Gorr is living on borrowed time, both empowered by and slowly being killed by the very weapon he carries but chooses to use what little time he has left to avenge himself on all Gods after being slighted by his own. Just like Jane’s struggle against cancer, Gorr’s pain and rage are only too relatable; the desire to curse some All-Mighty power is strong in today’s increasingly bleak world and seeing Gorr, this emaciated, scarred, black bile-spewing zombie-like being loom over the MCU’s deities like an oppressive shadow makes him a fitting embodiment of the cold inevitability of death.

Although Thor finds no help from his fellow Gods, his allies are more than willing to fight by his side.

When Thor travels to Omnipotence City, he talks of how he admired and modelled himself after Zeus, the greatest and most powerful of the Gods. Unfortunately, Thor’s hero turns out to be another callous and disinterested God, one who would prefer to hide away in their impenetrable realm and revel rather than tackle Gorr’s threat head-on. Luckily, Thor is not without more reliable allies; Korg loyally follows him on his adventures, offering much of the film’s explicit humour in his mannerisms and soft-spoken observations, and it was quite a blow when it seemed as though Zeus had killed the good-natured Kronan. I almost wish Korg had died, however (but by Gorr’s hand as it would have helped add an extra layer of animosity to their relationship and raise the stakes of the film), but he survives and continues on as a literal talking head. Valkyrie also returns, gladly signing up for the venture after finding the bureaucracy and boredom of the throne unfulfilling; since Avengers: Endgame, New Asgard has become a popular tourist attraction and the Asgardians are starting to make a real life for themselves on Earth, but Valkyrie craves battle almost as much as she longs for passion in her life once more. Interestingly, the film spends a great deal of time establishing Thor, Jane-Thor, Korg, and Valkyrie as the team that will spearhead the fight against Gorr but Korg ends up shattered and just a head and Valkyrie is taken out of the fight after Gorr skewers her with Zeus’s thunderbolt, meaning Thor initially heads into the final battle alone until Jane powers up for one last bout. Another aspect I found interesting, but which quickly grew a little grating, was the introduction of Thor’s screaming goats and the expansion on the idea that Mjölnir and Stormbreaker are sentient. This is amusing at some points, such as when Thor talks to or tries to call Mjölnir only to be surprised when Stormbreaker comes floating by, but got a little bit more focus than I was expecting. It took up more screen time than Sif, for example, who appeared in basically a glorified cameo and ended up missing an arm thanks to Gorr. Similarly, Doctor Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings) and Doctor Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) are only brief inclusions, and the film kind of rushed through Thor’s time with the Guardians of the Galaxy, which was odd as I honestly expected him to feature in the team’s third film but it looks like that won’t be happening now.

The Nitty-Gritty:
Like Thor: Ragnarok (Waititi, 2017), Thor: Love and Thunder is, essentially, a throwback to the sci-fi/fantasy epics of the 1980s and has a soundtrack fitting for this genre. This really benefitted the last film but, as much as I came to love Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song”, it was a little disappointing that this track was somewhat overused in the trailers and within the film. Thor: Love and Thunder opts to reignite your love for Guns N’ Roses; of course, “Sweet Child o’ Mine” is the main track of the film, but I loved that Waititi chose to have the awesome guitar solo from “November Rain” play during Thor’s final battle against Gorr alongside a couple of my other favourites from the band, “Welcome to the Jungle” and “Paradise City”. I mentioned up top that Waititi’s take on Thor owes a lot to the Master of the Universe franchise and that’s certainly true of Love and Thunder, which visually reminds me a lot of the under-rated live-action film while also heavily borrowing from the art style of the legendary Jack Kirby. This means we (briefly) get to see the classic Thor costume, characters are garbed in all manner of outrageous and garish outfits and armours, and the sheer heights of the cosmic bizarreness at work in the film really show just how far the MCU has come. When Thor was first introduced, Marvel Studios took great pains to explain him and his race as more like long-lived, super powerful aliens rather than literal Gods; now, that’s all out the window and we have actual Greek, Roman, and other Gods freely existing, Celestials, and mind-bending concepts like the embodiment of eternity being out there in the universe without apology. While this does raise some questions (if Eternity can grant any wish, why did the Avengers need to go on that time heist? If Thor could share his power with others, why didn’t he do this in previous films? Is there a one, true God above all other Gods?), I choose not to dwell on these too much as the MCU, for all its planning, has always been about escalation and introducing new elements, just like the source material.

The visuals continue to impress as the MCU goes all-in with its cosmic aspects.

Nowhere is this escalation more evident than in the introduction of Omnipotence City; with the golden realm of Asgard having been obliterated, Omnipotence City shines all the brighter as this floating realm of magnificence, a place for Gods of all worlds, creeds, shapes, and sizes to gather and revel in their glory. Sadly, we didn’t get a cameo from Khonshu (Karim El-Hakim/F. Murray Abraham) even though this would’ve been the perfect place for that, but Crowe absolutely stole this somewhat lengthy sequence as the unruly Zeus. A far cry from the implacable Odin Allfather (Anthony Hopkins), Zeus is unbelievably self-absorbed and arrogant with a dodgy Italian accent; he prefers to mock Thor and refuse his request for aid, forcing the Thunder God to seemingly kill his hero and take his thunderbolt for himself. Valkyrie briefly takes possession of this, effectively giving us three wielders of thunder and lightning for a short time, and thus the film’s fight sequences are heavy on the lightning and bombastic action. Gorr is able to conjure numerous, disposable shadow monsters for Thor and the others to wade through, blasting them with their enchanted weapons, frying them with lightning, and splitting them with blades. When Thor and Gorr clash, it’s a much more visceral and brutal affair; Gorr wields the Necrosword with a vicious, deliberate stance, easily fending off Stormbreaker and even Mjölnir with the blade’s dark magic. Visually, Thor: Love and Thunder certainly delivers; playing up due to jealousy over Mjölnir and Thor’s blundering ways, Stormbreaker’s ability to summon the Bifrost is channelled through Valkyrie’s ship, allowing them to sail through the cosmos and delivering some awesome sights. The beauty and eye-popping colour palette of the universe is fittingly contrasting with the Shadow Realm, a place where all light and colour are non-existent, giving the film a grainy, black and white hue that is only broken when the Thors utilise their magic weapons. Furthermore, Thor’s movies continue to outdo themselves with their costumes and armours; Thor rocks a number of different looks, from a space-faring Ravagers outfit that is similar to his short-lived successor, Eric Masterson/Thunderstrike, to a very Kriby-esque gold and blue variant of his usual armour, and finally rocking an outrageous helmet once more. Jane looks fantastic in her Thor outfit; she favours a helmet far more often and manages to look both sexy and powerful in her Asgardian armour, while Gorr cuts a menacing figure in his simple, tattered robes and bare feet, almost as if he has no regard for his personal safety thanks to submitting himself completely to the Necrosword’s power.

Although the price of victory is high, Thor finds a new, unexpected lease of life by the film’s final.

When Gorr kidnaps the Asgardian children, Thor, Jane-Thor, Valkyrie, and Korg immediately vow to track him down and rescue them, and to make him pay for the Godly lives he has stolen in his vendetta. When Zeus refuses to aid them, they steal his thunderbolt and journey to the Shadow Realm, only to learn that Gorr’s true goal was to lure them into a trap so he could steal Stormbreaker since the only way for him to gain an audience with Eternity is by using the Bifrost. With Valkyrie too injured to carry on and Jane’s health at risk, Thor opts to travel to Eternity’s altar to stop Gorr alone. Armed with Zeus’s thunderbolt, Thor is able to share his awesome powers of thunder and lightning with the Asgardian children, empowering them to help fend off Gorr’s shadow monsters while he tackles the twisted God Butcher personally. Gorr’s drive and skill with the God-killing Necrosword prove to be equal to Thor’s power, but luckily Jane comes riding in on Valkyrie’s horse, choosing to go out in a blaze of glory as the Mighty Thor. However, while Thor is able to free Stormbreaker from Gorr’s influence, the God Butcher succeeds in entering Eternity’s dream-like realm, a vast, serene ocean where the humanoid embodiment of the cosmos sits in silence. With Jane succumbing to her failing health, Thor chooses not to oppose Gorr’s ambition any longer; rather than fighting, he decides to be with his true love in their last moments and, realising the extent of the evils he has done, a repentant Gorr decides to wish his daughter back to life rather than destroy all the Gods. After professing their love for each other, Jane dies peacefully, ascending to Valhalla and urging Thor not to close off his heart and, indeed, the God of Thunder gives the dying Gorr his vow to watch over, protect, and raise Love like his own. Thus, in a turn of events I sure as hell didn’t expect to see, Thor ends the film with a new reason for living; now a surrogate father, he gifts Love Stormbreaker, takes up Mjölnir once more, and begins teaching her the ways of an Asgardian warrior! I had a feeling that one of the Thors would die; I was surprised that Natalie Portman even agreed to come back but legitimately thought it would be a coin toss between which of them would survive given how the MCU is shaking things up in its fourth phase, but the twist of having Thor become a father was very unexpected, even in the narrative of the film, and I’ll be interested to see where that leads. Of course, it wouldn’t be an MCU film without a post-credits sequence; in this case, we get two, one that reveals Zeus survived his encounter and has charged his son, the Mighty Hercules (Brett Goldstein), with killing Thor for his blasphemous actions, and another which shows Jane being welcomed into Valhalla by Heimdall (Idris Elba), presumably giving her a peaceful ending but I wouldn’t be surprised if they find some way to bring her back later down the road.

The Summary:
I’ve really enjoyed Thor’s time in the MCU; right from his first movie, I’ve been a massive fan of the character, his attitude, and the way he’s been portrayed. His character arc from egotistical warrior to a humbled protector, to being plagued with doubt and being a bit more carefree and aloof has been fascinating and really helped to open up new avenues into the cosmic side of the MCU. As mentioned, these days it seems like nothing is off the table and Marvel Studios are far more confident adapting even their most outlandish concepts since we just accept that this universe is full of wonderous things, and that’s very evident in Thor: Love and Thunder through its many Gods and Gorr’s quest to reach Eternity. It’s humbling seeing Thor struggle to balance his warrior instincts with his emotions; seeing him be bashful and tripping over himself around Jane (and Mjölnir) continues to show him as a flawed character, one who is hiding behind bravado and his heroic reputation but just wants to be loved and happy. It was a blast seeing him upended by Jane’s time as Thor; she acquitted herself well in the role, easily proving herself his equal, but also brought a tragic vulnerability through her terminal battle with cancer. I was especially impressed with how her arc paralleled that of Gorr, a similarly tragic character who has every right to rally against the Gods and chooses to be a bitter and twisted killer in his grief and anguish. While I could’ve done with seeing more of him and his wrath in the film, Bale impressed every time he appeared, and even Waititi’s focus on jokes and light-hearted action was far more tolerably than in the last film, where the tonal shift really downplayed the significance of Ragnarok. While there were some awkward moments and sections that were either rushed through (like Thor’s time with the Guardians) or dragged out (like their time in Omnipotence City), Thor: Love and Thunder delivered a visually stunning and action-paced spectacle; some aspects might not hold up under close scrutiny but it was a fun and poignant entry that ended with Thor in a place I never expected him to be and I’m interested to see how that will impact the MCU going forward.

My Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Great Stuff

Did you enjoy Thor: Love and Thunder? What did you think to Gorr, his motivation and his portrayal in the film and his vendetta against the Gods? Did you enjoy Thor’s character progression and the reconciliation between him and Jane? Are you a fan of Jane as Thor? What did you think to her being afflicted with cancer and her God-like power accelerating her illness? Where do you see Thor going as the MCU continues on? Whatever your thoughts about Thor: Love and Thunder, sign up and leave a comment below or drop a line on my social media, and be sure to check out my other Thor content.

Talking Movies: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Fantastic

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