Talking Movies [HulkaMAYnia]: The Incredible Hulk


Since his explosive debut in May 1962, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s gamma-irradiated Jade Giant has been one of their most recognisable and successful characters thanks, in large part, to the Incredible Hulk television show (1977 to 1982) catapulting the Hulk into a mainstream, pop culture icon. Hulk has been no slouch in the comics either, being a founding member of the Avengers, joining teams like the Defenders, and has gone through numerous changes over the years that have added extra depth to the green-skinned behemoth and made him one of their most versatile and enduring characters.


Released: 13 June 2008
Director: Louis Leterrier
Distributor:
Universal Pictures
Budget:
$137.5 to 150 million
Stars:
Edward Norton, Liv Tyler, Tim Roth, and William Hurt

The Plot:
In a bid to recreate the super-soldier serum, Doctor Bruce Banner (Norton) exposed himself to gamma radiation and, whenever provoked or enraged, transforms into a green-skinned behemoth known as the “Hulk” (Lou Ferrigno). Desperate for a cure, and to avoid the attention of General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (Hurt), Banner reluctantly rekindles his relationship with former flame Doctor Betty Ross (Tyler) and finds himself hounded by Emil Blonsky (Roth), a relentless soldier who exposes himself to the same process to match the Hulk’s physical abilities.

The Background:
Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s green-skinned rage monster had a troublesome road to the big screen; although Hulk (Lee, 2003) featured its fair share of impressive visual effects shots and was relatively profitable, its poor critical performance quashed plans for a sequel. However, when Universal Pictures failed to produce a follow-up in time, the rights reverted to Marvel, who were currently riding high after the critical and commercial success of the first film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), Iron Man (Favreau, 2008). Opting to reboot the property, Marvel hired director Louis Leterrier and writer Zak Penn, who both drew significant inspiration from their love of The Incredible Hulk television show (1977 to 1982). Edward Norton was cast as Banner and also provided some work on the script, which caused some tension between him and Marvel when many of his additional scenes were cut and ultimately led to him leaving the role. Like Hulk, The Incredible Hulk brought the Hulk to life through visual effects specifically tweaked to portray him beyond the peak of human physical ability and the film even brought back Joe Harnell’s iconic and tragic “Lonely Man” theme from the TV show. The Incredible Hulk was not quite as profitable as Iron Man; it made a little more than its predecessor with a worldwide gross of nearly $265 million but was again met with mixed reviews. Although development of a solo sequel film stalled after disagreements with Universal Pictures, the character would be recast for subsequent appearances in the MCU, where he received something of a “mini arc” and many of the film’s loose ends were eventually addressed in later MCU productions.

The Review:
I came away from Hulk relatively satisfied; it was longer and far more cerebral than I was expecting but I always thought that it was a pretty impressive and enjoyable big-screen debut for the Jade Giant and I was disheartened to learn that we wouldn’t be getting a direct sequel. Still, hearing that the next film in the MCU would feature another crack at the Hulk was an encouraging sign that Marvel Studios were eager to both do the character justice and make him a prominent feature in their fledgling interconnected universe. Even better was the fact that The Incredible Hulk benefitted from a surge of fantastic casting in superhero films at the time; actors like Robert Downey Jr., Jeff Bridges, Michael Caine, and Morgan Freeman were really adding a lot of legitimacy and gravitas to the genre and I thought it was quite the coup to see Edward Norton cast in the lead role in The Incredible Hulk. Sadly, Marvel Studios seemed to lose faith in the project before the release day and spoiled Tony Stark’s (Downey Jr.) appearance the pre-credits scene in the last few trailers and, even now, The Incredible Hulk remains one of the lowest-grossing films in the MCU.

Banner is a desperate man on the run trying to cure his unique condition and avoid capture.

Like Hulk, The Incredible Hulk plays its opening titles over a montage that is both a clear homage to the 1970s TV show and a revised origin for the character as Banner exposes himself to gamma radiation in an attempt to recreate the super-soldier serum rather than as an experiment on the limits of the human body. As much as I enjoy Mark Ruffalo in the role, there’s no denying that Edward Norton is a different quality of actor; he makes for a great Banner, showcasing the same empathy, humanity, intelligence, and desperation that made Bill Bixby so great in the role, and is still probably the most accurate onscreen portrayal of the character in my mind. Actively hiding his identity and staying off the radar of both Ross and the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division (S.H.I.E.L.D.), Banner busies himself with a menial job while communicating with the mysterious “Mr. Blue” in an effort to synthesise a cure for his condition. Banner also wears a heart rate monitor to warn him when he’s getting too stressed and works with an Akido instructor (Rickson Gracie) to control his emotions and anger through breathing and meditation techniques. Having reached the limit of what he can accomplish with his mediocre resources, and after accidentally alerted Ross to his presence with a single drop of blood, Banner has no choice but to abandon his hard but largely peaceful life and return to the United States in an effort to find a cure.

Betty can’t help but be drawn to Bruce and helps him out of pure adoration and love.

This reunites him with Ross’s daughter and Banner’s former love, Betty, a renowned and capable scientist in her own right who, despite being in a relationship with psychiatrist Leonard Samson (Ty Burrell), has never forgotten her feelings for Bruce. Reunited after five years apart, she immediately insists on helping him in any way she can, which involves bringing him clothes after his Hulk-out, helping him gain access to Culver University, going with him on the run, and shielding him from her tyrannical father at every opportunity. Betty is, once again, an empathetic and supportive character who is both clearly besotted with Banner and exhibits a sympathetic protectiveness of his green-skinned counterpart; Tyler and Norton have a very real, tangible chemistry and it’s great seeing their characters interact as equals and attempting to act on their obvious attraction to each other. Crucially, Betty also holds key data that Mr. Blue (who turns out to be Doctor Samuel Sterns (Tim Blake Nelson)), needs to properly help synthesise a cure for his condition.

The Hulk is far more aggressive and wild than usual and more like a force of nature.

Though still largely a silent character, the Hulk continues to exhibit a great deal of personality to separate him from Banner. Far more aggressive and angrier than his 2003 counterpart, this is a Hulk who has had to deal with being constantly suppressed within Banner’s subconscious and finds himself relentlessly hounded by Ross, Blonsky, and the military. As he simply wants to be left alone but is quick to fly into a rage and even mumble a few words of protest when provoked, the Hulk appears to be much more feral than usual, though he does retains his child-like demeanour at times while also seeming much more akin to a wild animal. Crucially, the Hulk is fiercely protective of Betty, who’s the only person to show him any kindness, and notably shields her when Ross allows his selfish vendetta against him to threaten her safety, lending further credibility to Betty’s later belief that the Hulk has great potential as a force for good. Since the film doesn’t delve into Bruce’s childhood or emotional trauma, the Hulk is much more of a result of science gone wrong but there’s also the suggestion that he has the potential to be so much more; Banner, however, is more concerned with ridding himself of his ailment than learning to properly accept it as part of himself and his fear of the Hulk is almost as great as Ross’s hated of him.

Just as Ross is desperate to apprehend Banner, Blonsky is obsessed with fighting the Hulk.

Speaking of ol’ Thunderbolt, General Ross continues to be a stubborn and vindictive character; personally directing the missions to detain Banner, his motivations stem just as much from Banner’s first transformation landing Betty in the hospital as it does from his desire to contain the beast lest anyone discover the role Ross and the U.S. military played in his creation. Again a stern and uncompromising authority figure who prioritises his duty and career over his daughter, Ross begins the film estranged from Betty and their relationship is only further strained by the revelation that Ross is seeking to dissect the Hulk from Banner’s body in order to weaponise the creature. Ross’s ceaseless campaign against Banner sees him employ the services of Emil Blonsky, a former Royal Marines Commando who quickly develops an intense rivalry with the Hulk. Eschewing promotions that would take him away from the combat he craves so dearly, Blonsky obediently follows orders to the letter but, having witnessed the Hulk’s destructive power (and feeling the physical strain of a lifetime of combat), candidly requests more information on Banner and the Hulk and is only too eager to receive a version of the super-soldier serum in order to improve his own strength, speed, reflexes, and recuperative powers. However, when even this fails to make him a match for the Hulk, Blonsky seeks more extreme methods to battle the Green Goliath. Sterns is only too willing to further augment Blonsky’s body with mutated samples of Banner’s blood, which causes him to transform into a bestial form of his own to finally battle the Hulk on equal ground for the finale.

The Nitty-Gritty:
I touched on this earlier but, for a time, it wasn’t entirely impossible to view The Incredible Hulk as a follow-up to Hulk; the film opens in Brazil, very similar to where the 2003 film ended, and it’s easy enough to believe that Banner was granted permission to return to the U.S. to help with the super-soldier serum only to be further ostracised by Ross, and you could even explain away to recasting of Talbot from Josh Lucas to Adrian Pasdar and his revival can be explained away by the questionable canonicity of Marvel’s television shows. I always felt like there was just enough connective tissue to link the two without explicitly stating it but, ultimately, The Incredible Hulk also works extremely well as a reintroduction to the character. By evoking the familiar imagery of the TV show and leaning into the accepted tropes associated with the character, the film is much faster and more action-packed since it doesn’t waste time delving into the Hulk’s origin and instead kicks things off with Banner a desperate man on the run, something immediately familiar to fans of the early comics and the aforementioned TV show.

Banner comes to consider that the Hulk could be used as a force for good.

That’s not to say that The Incredible Hulk isn’t without its poignant moments; it may not be a methodical in-depth character study like the last film but there’s a great amount of time devoted to Bruce’s increasing desperation to rid himself of the Hulk. This has left him alone and exiled from his home and love, and constantly on edge and reluctant to trust anyone with too much of his blood or research lest he be discovered or his condition weaponised. Banner is outraged to discover that Sterns has synthetised large quantities of his blood for medicinal purposes and is disheartened to find that Sterns’ efforts have been unable to produce an actual cure. When he returns to the U.S., Banner is initially reluctant to reconnect with Betty but she insists upon offering her assistance out of a genuine affection for him; Betty is also the one who suggests that the Hulk is actually a force for good, something that kept him from dying from a gamma exposure, and plants the first seed in Banner’s head of trying to “aim” the beast and influence the Hulk’s actions rather than simply eradicate the Jade Giant. There’s also an interesting addition whereby Banner’s condition means he cannot allow himself to get sexually aroused since this risks provoking the Hulk’s emergence, replacing the allegory of the Hulk as an expression of his repressed childhood trauma with a metaphor for impotence.

The Hulk is a highly adaptable and aggressive fighter.

Like his 2003 counterpart, the Hulk is a purely digital creation; similar to the last film, the Hulk is initially obscured by darkness and very much painted as a mysterious and fearsome monster. This time, he’s got more of a grey/green hue, is noticeably much more ripped than his predecessor, and there’s loads of really intricate details in his model like bulging veins and muscles that make him a far more impressive digital creation. However, despite this, it can’t be denied that the special effects have aged somewhat. Although the Hulk’s digital model is visually far more impressive than his predecessor, the effects remain somewhat inconsistent in his quality; the Hulk appears very cartoonish when he emerges on the university campus but looks far more believable and fearsome when filmed at night and in the finale. Though he doesn’t continuously increase in mass as he gets madder and stronger, this Hulk is far more aggressive and much more diverse in his attack patterns. He performs his patented thunderclap manoeuvre and his ability to use his surroundings to his advantage, coupled with his ferocious rage, make him a terrifying force of nature. Indeed, the Hulk is smart enough to rip apart military vehicles and turn them into makeshift shields and weapons, very similar to The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction (Radical Entertainment, 2005), which he uses to trash Ross’s heavy ordinance and sonic weapons. Although he wishes to be left alone, the Hulk’s threat only increases the more he is provoked and Blonsky certainly drives him to his limits with his persistence and taunts, earning him a near-fatal blow from the Green Goliath, who appears to rack up quite the body count through his many rampages.

Despite being a dark mirror of the Hulk, the Abomination makes for a thrilling final foe.

Thankfully, there are no gamma dogs this time around and the Hulk surprisingly appears in a number of populated areas, adding to the film’s level of destruction over its predecessor. While Blonsky’s enhanced abilities provide a taste of what we would later see from Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), his obsession with besting the Hulk leads to him forcing Sterns into transforming him into a version of the Abomination. This bony, hulking monster is quite the upgrade compared to the finale of the last film but is a noticeable departure from his traditional comic book appearance and does admittedly add to the MCU’s tendency to rely on dark mirrors of their heroes. Still, the brawl between the Hulk and the Abomination makes for a far more visually impressive finale, not least because you can actually see what’s going on this time around. Potentially because of his conviction or having been exposed to a more potent version of the super-soldier serum, Blonsky retains his personality and intellect when transformed but, drunk with the power afforded to him, the Abomination goes on a rampage through Harlem, attacking civilians and Ross’s troops alike to draw the Hulk out and forcing Ross to risk sending Banner into the hot zone to take Blonsky down. I can totally understand the argument that ending the film with two similar-looking CGI characters bashing each other senseless takes away from the human element of the narrative but it’s a Hulk film so what do you expect? The scene is also framed in a way to make the Hulk appear both heroic and monstrous; though he attacks the Abomination, he causes a great deal of damage in the process but his rage is effectively directed in a more productive way. Despite boasting bony protrusions, the Abomination is ultimately bested by the Hulk’s unquenchable rage but is saved from being choked to death by Betty’s intervention. Humbled by having to turn to the Hulk for help, Ross is far from impressed when Stark comes seeking to recruit the Hulk and the film ends with the ambiguous suggestion that Banner has learned to control his transformations.

The Summary:
Honestly, it annoys me that people overlook The Incredible Hulk; it doesn’t help that legal issues between Marvel Studios and Universal Pictures kept the film somewhat suppressed for a great deal of time and meant that all of the dangling plot threads and sequel bait would sadly never be developed or take a long time to be addressed in the wider MCU. The film’s homages to 1970s show and films like An American Werewolf in London (Landis, 1981) are a nice touch and the cast is absolutely fantastic; Norton, Tyler, Hurt, and Roth all bring a real humanity and intensity to their roles in their own ways and the Hulk is realised perfectly onscreen. Despite being much brisker and more action-orientated compared to the 2003 film, The Incredible Hulk still perfectly captures the desperation of the character as seen in the source material and the popular TV show, and even an admittedly lacklustre finale doesn’t spoil what I find to be an extremely enjoyable and under-rated entry in the MCU.

My Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Pretty Good

Are you a fan of The Incredible Hulk? Would you agree that it’s an under-rated entry in the MCU? What did you think to the cast and would you have liked to see Edward Norton reprise the role in the MCU? Were you a fan of the Hulk’s appearance and characterisation this time around and how did you interpret the film’s final shot? Would you have liked to see all of its loose ends addressed in a dedicated Hulk sequel or were you happy with how the MCU incorporated these elements later on? What Hulk story from the comics would you liked to see adapted one day? Whatever your thoughts, feel free to leave a comment below.

Talking Movies [Multiverse Madness]: Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness


In September 1961, DC Comics published “Flash of Two Worlds” (Fox, et al), a landmark story that brought together two generations of the Flash: the Golden Age Jay Garrick and the Silver Age Barry Allen thanks to the concept of the multiverse, an infinite number of parallel universes that allowed any and all stories and characters to co-exist and interact. Marvel Comics would also adopt this concept and, to celebrate the release of this very film, I’ve been both celebrating the Master of the Mystic Arts and exploring the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s (MCU) equivalent of the multiverse every Sunday of May.


Released: 6 May 2022
Director: Sam Raimi
Distributor:
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Budget: $200 million
Stars:
Benedict Cumberbatch, Elizabeth Olsen, Xochitl Gomez, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, and Chiwetel Ejiofor,

The Plot:
Following a number of reality-altered events, Doctor Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) is unexpectedly thrown into a fight not just for his life, but for the fate of the entire multiverse when a girl with the power to traverse alternate dimensions is threatened by a corrupted force seeking to take her power for her own.

The Background:
Steve Ditko and Stan Lee’s bizarre creation, Dr. Strange, has undoubtedly become one of Marvel’s most pivotal figureheads since his unimpressive debut and has had a storied history with adaptation. After an ill-fated lie-action film in the seventies, a number of animated ventures, and a long period of Development Hell, Marvel’s Master of the Mystic Arts finally made his big-screen debut as part of the MCU to both universal praise and incredible financial success. Development of a sequel began in 2016, with director Scott Derrickson eager to incorporate the villain Nightmare and really delve into Dr. Strange’s weirder aspects. MCU producer and figurehead Kevin Feige saw Dr. Strange as the linchpin on the MCU’s fourth phase, which would expand upon the multiversal aspects of their successful franchise, while Derrickson initially aimed to introduce more horror elements to the sequel. This caused some creative differences between the two parties, and led to Derrickson stepping down and Sam Raimi being brought in as the director and injecting his own blend of horror to the script after delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic. After attempting to introduce the character in previous MCU projects, Feige finally found an avenue to bring in America Chavez, and the script was rewritten to both play to Raimi’s strengths as a director and to further expand on Wanda Maximoff’s (Olsen) character growth from WandaVision (Shakman, 2021). Seeking to infuse a horror vibe to the MCU and explore the consequences of dabbling in black magic and the multiverse, the film also ended up including a number of cameo appearances from iconic actors and fan casted characters to tease towards even bigger things for the MCU. Despite the film not seeing a release in LGTBQ+-intolerant countries, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness has currently amassed a worldwide gross of nearly $510 million and has been met by widely positive reviews; critics praised its harrowing tale of grief and desperation, the unique horror slant, and the visual spectacle on offer, though some found it to be a bit formulaic and bloated at times.

The Review:
Right off the bat I have to say that I’m not actually the biggest fan of comic book movies delving into the multiverse concept. It’s a strange opinion to have given I regularly celebrate the trope and have enjoyed a lot of multiversal stories in comics, but I’m having a lot of difficulty reconciling that audiences aren’t more confused by it all. I’m a lifetime comic book fan and even I struggle with it a bit and, as much as I enjoyed Spider-Man: No Way Home (Webb, 2021) and Alfred Molina’s portrayal of Doctor Otto Octavius/Doctor Octopus, I can’t help but wonder if bringing that version of that villain back cost us seeing a new actor’s take on the character. I give Marvel a lot of leeway, though; after ten-plus years of building up their cinematic universe, exploring science, the cosmos, time and space, I think they’re in a far better position to start exploring beyond the confines of their singular reality. It’s not like, say, the DC Extended Universe, which jumped into alternate versions, timelines, and multiverse shenanigans just a few years after their first movie, to the point where they’re already having to rejig their timeline to try and make sense of it all. I feel Marvel’s execution so far has been very respectful and very exciting for us die-hard fans of the comics and movies, and also suspect that this phase of bringing back popular actors in their iconic superhero roles may soon pass as we head towards whatever the culmination of Phase Four really is.

With the world still reeling from the Blip, Dr. Strange is thrust into the chaotic multiverse.

Still, if you’re going to explore the multiverse, what better character than the Master of the Mystic Arts himself? When the movie begins, Dr. Strange is still guarding the Sanctum Sanctorum in New York City but, thanks to being dusted during the Blip, is also still no longer the Sorcerer Supreme, with those duties now being fulfilled by Wong (Wong). Their relationship isn’t one of master and servant, but more one of bickering peers; there’s a recurring gag that Dr. Strange refuses to bow to Wong since he’s still a bit annoyed at having lost his lofty position but, despite this, he remains a dedicated and powerful spellcaster since Wong’s duties are more focused on training sorcerers at Kamar-Taj. Dr. Strange is, however, facing a bit of a personal crisis; his dedication to his newfound lifestyle, and having been gone for five years, means that he’s missed out on the girl. Doctor Christine Palmer (McAdams) has not only met someone else, but is getting married to him, and he’s plagued by doubts concerning his decision to surrender the Time Stone to the Mad Titan, Thanos (Josh Brolin), which saved the lives of billions but also disrupted the lives of countless others, including his former colleague, Doctor Nicodemus West (Michael Stuhlbarg), who questions Dr. Strange’s actions. Strange remains justified, however, as he acted out of the greater good, having viewed millions of potential timelines, but these doubts over his character and motivation continue to surface throughout the film when he learns from America Chavez (Gomez) that his alternative selves have been so focused on the big picture that they’ve been driven to unspeakable acts, such as attempting to take America’s power for his own and even being corrupted by the forbidden magical tome, the Darkhold. Since she’s being pursued by forces far beyond her power, and is unable to control her dimension-hopping abilities, America has little choice but to trust Dr. Strange to protect her, but both her and the alternate versions of Christine have reservations about Strange’s character after seeing the lengths his other selves have gone to to keep the vast multiverse safe.

Devastated at losing her kids, Wanda covets America’s power and wages all-out war as the Scarlet Witch.

America is quite the anomaly; in an infinite number of alternate realities, it appears as though there’s only one of her, since she hasn’t encountered a counterpart in all of her random travels throughout the multiverse and she doesn’t dream (the film posits that dreams are a window into the lives of our alternate selves, which is an intriguing concept). Desperate, afraid, and alone, America is carrying a great deal of guilt after her chaotic powers accidentally sucked her mothers to an unknown fate when she was a child. America’s ability to conjure a massive, star-shaped portal to anywhere in the multiverse is triggered by fear and panic, meaning she has little control over her abilities but they offer a wealth of possibilities to more powerful and experienced forces who could absorb her power for their own ends. Dr. Strange first meets America when she’s being pursued by an unspeakable eldritch abomination, which he and Wong recognise to be a creature of witchcraft rather than sorcery, so he seeks out console from Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch, hoping to recruit the former Avenger to help protect America. However, Wanda has been so consumed with grief after losing her magically-conjured sons, Billy (Julian Hilliard) and Tommy (Jett Klyne) from the conclusion of WandaVision that she’s turned to the Darkhold to find ways of being reunited with them in an alternate reality. The Darkhold’s dark magic, coupled with the destructive potential of the Scarlet Witch, have driven Wanda into a maniacal obsession with obtaining America’s powers and, when Dr. Strange refuses to hand the girl over peacefully and condemn her to death at the Scarlet Witch’s hands, Wanda launches a brutal all-out assault against Kamar-Taj and, after they’re stranded in the multiverse, to force Wong to take her to the forbidden land of Mount Wundagore, where the Darkhold was transcribed, to both locate them and find the power to “dream walk” into the body of her alternate self to relentlessly pursue them, slaughtering anyone and everyone who gets in her way.

The alternate Mordo brings Dr. Strange before the Illuminati, but Wanda mercilessly slaughters them all.

Since America can’t control or direct her powers, Dr. Strange immediately out his alternative self for help, only to find that he heroically died saving the universe from Thanos and that his former mentor, Baron Karl Mordo (Ejiofor), has taken his place as the Sorcerer Supreme. For those who were hoping for a resolution to Mordo’s vow to hunt down and eliminate sorcerers at the end of Doctor Strange (Derrickson, 2016), you’ll be disappointed to learn that “prime” Mordo (i.e. the one from what the MCU calls “Earth-616”) isn’t actually in this film and his counterpart is a far less antagonistic character…or so it seems. Initially, Mordo is welcoming and courteous but, all too soon, Dr. Strange and America find themselves drugged, fitted with power-dampening restraints, and placed in holding cells under the observation of the alternative Christine to determine whether 6161-Strange is as much of a threat as his counterpart. This leads to Mordo bringing Dr. Strange before the judgement of the “Illuminati”, a panel of superpowered beings who stood against Thanos and executed their version of Dr. Strange after he became corrupted by the Darkhold. Comprised of Mordo, Captain Peggy Carter/Captain Carter (Hayley Atwell), Captain Maria Rambeau/Captain Marvel (Lashana Lynch), Blackagar Boltagon/Black Bolt (Anson Mount), Professor Charles Xavier (Sir Patrick Stewart), and Doctor Reed Richards/Mister Fantastic (John Krasinski), the Illuminati underestimate Wanda’s devastating power in favour of focusing on Strange’s potential threat, which ultimately results in all of them being mercilessly slaughtered by the raging Scarlet Witch when she puppets her alternative self right into their chamber. Wanda easily negates Black Bolt’s destructive voice, turning it back on himself so he blows a hole in his head, slices Captain Carter in two with her own shield, crushes Captain Marvel to death, reduces Mr. Fantastic to spaghetti, and snaps Xavier’s neck in a harrowing sequence that’s just one of many allusions to director Sam Raimi’s past as a horror director. Thought assisted by Christine and led towards the Book of Vishanti, which promises the power to oppose Wanda’s black magic, this tome is destroyed, America is captured, and Dr. Strange is forced to turn to another corrupted version of himself, and ultimately the Darkhold, to find the means to keep Wanda from killing America, regardless of the toll such dark magic threatens to extract on his soul.

The Nitty-Gritty:
Loneliness, grief, and desperation are core themes in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness; Dr. Strange maintains that he’s perfectly happy being the Master of the Mystic Arts and with his newfound purpose in life, but it’s clear that he still has feelings for Christine and regrets losing his chance to be with her. All throughout the film, he’s disturbed (but not surprised) to learn that his alternate selves all fumbled their chance at happiness, though the ramifications of this were far more destructive for his counterparts; similar to Strange Supreme from What If…? (Andrews, 2021), Strange’s corrupted doppelgänger was turned towards dark magic after losing Christine and his focus on trying to scour the multiverse for a world where they could be happy directly led to his universe being torn asunder by an “incursion” event, the very thing the Illuminati feared both their Dr. Strange and 616-Strange would cause if he wasn’t put down ahead of time. America’s fear of her powers and of trusting others is directly tied to that traumatic incident in her childhood where she literally swept her parents away in an accidental outburst, and her reluctance to trust Dr. Strange is based entirely on his alternative self turning on her to keep her powers out of Wanda’s hands, so her character arc isn’t just about learning that the ability to control her powers has been within her all along but also about finding a place to belong in the infinite worlds of the multiverse. Finally, Wanda is so desperate to be reunited with her children that she not only allows the Darkhold to corrupt her vast powers but also attacks friend and foe alike, embracing her destiny as the destructive Scarlet Witch and fully prepared to sacrifice America’s life (and the life of her doppelgänger) to be with her children once more.

The multiverse and all its monstrous potential is vividly brought to life in this visual spectacle.

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness takes the rules of magic and the snippet of the multiverse we saw in Doctor Strange and Spider-Man: No Way Home and absolutely runs with it; in the years since his debut movie, Dr. Strange’s power and command over magic has vastly increased, meaning he’s able to do far more than just conjure protective shields or glowing whips. Now, he can summon magical buzz saws, demonic hands, animated musical notes and use them as projectiles, and perform all manner of miraculous and visually entertaining feats. Naturally, this makes him an incredibly over-powered character, but the film goes to great lengths to put him in jeopardy by placing even greater, often more monstrous, threats in his path; when Gargantos attacks America, it takes both Dr. Strange and Wong to put it down, which is a feat in and of itself, but even they and their magical cohorts of Kamar-Taj are no match for the full fury of the Scarlet Witch, who leaves an untold number of charred corpses and ashen remains in her wake as she pursues America. When America transports herself and Dr. Strange through the multiverse, the film really starts to come alive; they are blasted through an animated universe, the Quantum realm, the Dark Dimension, a universe where they’re turned into paint, and one where they’re literally pulled apart into tiny pieces. Eventually dumped in the M. C. Escher-esque void between universes and a desolate universe where a devastating incursion has caused reality and physics to fold in on itself, Dr. Strange’s brief and violent tour of the multiverse sees him travelling to strange worlds where society and history are slightly different, characters are noticeably changed, and even possessing the lifeless body of one of his counterparts in order to oppose Wanda. I can certainly see why Wanda’s turn to the dark side probably rattled a few people; I definitely didn’t expect that to happen (or, at least, I thought maybe the reveal that she was behind it all would happen mid-way through or near the end) and I was doubled surprised by just how many references were made to WandaVision since the MCU has notoriously ignored its TV projects in the past. WandaVision was a startling examination of the destructive power of grief, and I think the idea that someone can just get past the sort of trauma Wanda has been through without lasting repercussions is a bit unlikely, and the film definitely paints her as someone in a great deal of pain and corrupted by the Darkhold’s influence. While seeing her match Dr. Strange blow for blow was a great way to showcase her power, having her tear through the Illuminati was an even greater example of her potential threat to the multiverse.

Dr. Strange is forced to use dark magic to keep Wanda from stealing America’s powers and threatening the multiverse.

While it’s clear that many of the Illuminati’s actors weren’t all on set at the same time, it was fun seeing Patrick Stewart back in his iconic role (and accompanied by the nineties cartoon theme, no less) one last time, and to see long-time fan casting John Krasinski portray Mr. fantastic, but it was Anson Mount returning as Black Bolt which really surprised me as I never thought we’d see the Inhumans referenced or included after their disastrous show. Again, you could argue that these characters were “wasted” but I saw them as fun little bits of fan service for long-time fans; I said up top that I get annoyed at other actors not having a crack in these roles, though, so I am still holding out hope that we see a new actor portray Xavier if and when the X-Men are properly introduced to the MCU. Dr. Strange doesn’t come to this decision lightly; all throughout the film, his goal has been to claim the Book of Vishanti to acquire the power to stop the Scarlet Witch but, when it’s destroyed, he’s left with no choice but to turn to the Darkhold possessed by his corrupt alternate self. Transformed into a three-eyed, monstrous version of himself, this alternate Strange has become as consumed by the Darkhold as Wanda and, after his defeat, the lingering question of how the book will affect 616-Strange hangs in the air for the finale. Thankfully, the alternate Christine is on hand to act as his moral compass, encouraging him to utilise the power of the dark spirits seeking to punish him for desecrating his other self’s body, which is enough for him to save Wong from Wanda’s rock monsters and free America before her power (and life) can be consumed. Finally harnessing her incredible powers, America first lashes out at Wanda and then, when she realises she’s no match for the Scarlet Witch, grants the corrupted Avenger her wish and transports her to her boys, who are naturally terrified of this malevolent version of their loving mother. Devastated at seeing them cower in fear of her, Wanda abandons her crusade and, to atone for her heinous actions, willingly brings Mount Wundagore down around her, presumably killing herself in the process (but we never see a body, so I wouldn’t be surprised if she doesn’t pop up again in some way, shape, or form). in the aftermath, Wong beings repairing Kamar-Taj and training his students (with America among their number, the implications of which could make her one of the MCU’s most powerful characters ever) and Dr. Strange finds a peace with himself after finally admitting to the alternate Christine that he loves her. However, his jovial mood is immediately shattered when he’s crippled by whispering voices and the emergence of a third eye on his forehead like his corrupted counterpart as a result of the Darkhold’s influence, but even this is instantly swept under the rug when, in a mid-credits sequence, a mysterious woman (apparently Clea (Charlize Theron)) demand she help her repair an incursion in the Dark Dimension…

The Summary:
After seeing Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, I have to commend Marvel for their marketing strategy; while the trailers hinted at Wanda’s turn to the dark side, nothing was made explicit and even the official blurb was little more than a vague statement about the film, so I was very surprised to see her transform into this malevolent, vindictive witch of incredible power. Wanda’s pain and grief are very real and believable, and I was also surprised that the film didn’t shy away from assuming the audience was familiar with WandaVision as a part of her character arc, and seeing her become this malicious force of darkness definitely raises the stakes for the MCU and means that anything can happen to these characters, no matter how heroic they may be. Dr. Strange also had an intriguing arc in the film; torn between his regrets and his duties, he fully commits to protecting America at all costs, no matter the sacrifice and the lingering question over whether he will also succumb to the darkness helps add a fascinating edge to the character as his concerns must be on a far wider scale at all times, necessitating tough choices and questionable actions. The exploration of the multiverse was great; I definitely think the film has established a short-hand for the concept and that future iterations of it will simply be taken for granted going forward, and I did enjoy seeing some new and old faces appear in cameo roles as the Illuminati, which again hints towards some exciting things in the MCU’s future. The film does suffer a little from some pacing and repetitive issues, however; obviously it can’t be all action all the time, but it does slow down to explain its concepts one time too many, and I found the framing of Dr. Strange’s meeting with the Illuminti jarring as it just highlighted that many of the actors weren’t actually there. Leaving Mordo’s vendetta unresolved was also a bit of a disappointment for me, as was the mid- and post-credits sequences, but I’m interested to see these plot threads resolved in a future film and had a blast with the film’s bizarre visuals and bat-shit-crazy moments. Bolstered by some great horror-themed shots and full of fan service and surreal imagery, the film, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness was an entertaining thrill-ride and absolutely galvanised Dr. Strange as one of the cornerstones of the MCU and, I hope, has opened the door for new versions of some of Marvel’s most popular characters to join this ever-expanding cinematic universe.

My Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Great Stuff

What did you think to Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness? Are you a fan of the muliverse concept or do you find it a bit too complex? What did you think to Dr. Strange’s character arc and the potential of him turning bad? Were you a fan of America Chavez or do you think she’s a bit too overpowered? What did you think to Wanda’s turn to the dark side and were you disappointed that Mordo was pushed to the side? Which member of the Illuminati surprised you the most and what did you think to their inclusion? Were you a fan of the film’s horror elements? Whatever your thoughts on Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, sign up to leave your thoughts below or leave a comment on my social media, and thanks for sticking around for Multiverse Madness!

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


In September 1961, DC Comics published “Flash of Two Worlds” (Fox, et al), a landmark story that brought together two generations of the Flash: the Golden Age Jay Garrick and the Silver Age Barry Allen thanks to the concept of the multiverse, an infinite number of parallel universes that allowed any and all stories and characters to co-exist and interact. Marvel Comics would also adopt this concept and, to celebrate the release of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (Raimi, 2022) this month, I’ve been both celebrating the Master of the Mystic Arts and exploring the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s (MCU) equivalent of the multiverse every Sunday of May.


Air Date: 11 August 2021 to 6 October 2021
Network: Disney+
Stars: Hayley Atwell, Chadwick Boseman, Samuel L. Jackson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Ruffalo, Michael B. Jordan, Chris Hemsworth, Ross Marquand, and Jeffrey Wright

The Background:
As a big comic book fan, it’s been absolutely amazing seeing the MCU become a multimedia juggernaut and some of Marvel Comics’ most beloved characters and concepts come to life on screen. Although Marvel Studios dabbled in television ventures with the likes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013 to 2020) and their Netflix shows, they really doubled down on TV productions for the MCU’s fourth phase to produce content for their parent company’s streaming service, Disney+. With MCU head honcho Kevin Feige behind them, the Disney+ shows aimed to maintain and expand the ongoing continuity of the MCU, but I don’t think anyone could have predicted that Marvel Studios would delve so deeply into the multiverse that we’d seen an adaptation of What If…? What If…? began life as a semi-consistent series of hypothetical, often light-hearted (or downright dark), stories that presented Marvel heroes and storylines with subtle (or major) changes. The Disney+ show followed this format and recontextualised the premise as an animated anthology series that would explore what the MCU would be like if characters or events had unfolded differently. The show’s animation was headed by Stephan Franck and sported a cel-shaded design that emphasised hyper-realism; as the MCU was officially exploring the concept of the multiverse, episodes could be part of the franchise’s overall canon and many recognisable faces, names, and voices returned to put a new spin on their iconic roles; however, although voice recording was able to continue remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic, this production sadly marked the final performance of the late Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa/Black Panther. What If…? was received extremely well and the series was praised as a love-letter to the fans; despite some reservations about the format and presentation, reviews were primarily positive and spin-offs were quickly announced as either being in production or on the cards. Crucially, the multiversal scope of the series would be revisited in the live-action MCU films and characters and concepts from the show even seem set to cross over into the main MCU canon going forward.

The Plot:
From beyond the multiverse, the cosmic being known as Uatu the Watcher (Wright) observes as the events of the MCU unfold differently, resulting in Peggy Carter (Atwell) becoming Captain Carter, Doctor Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) becoming a force for evil, a zombie infection running rampant, and T’Challa (Boseman) becoming Star-Lord. However, when a version of Ultron (Marquand) acquires the Infinity Stones and threatens the entire multiverse, the Watcher must break his oath of non-interference to assemble a heroic force capable of fending off this threat.

The Review:
Because of the nature of the series, I think it’d be much better to look at each individual episode, what they do and how they work by themselves, and then talk about some overall themes and give my opinion on the entire concept down in the summary. The first season of What If…? is a nine-episode series of animated adventures that examine familiar characters and events in the MCU but change things about in subtle, or major, ways to create entirely new stories as part of the MCU multiverse. These alternate realities are observed by the enigmatic Watcher, a cosmic being bound only to observe and never directly interfere, and who acts as the narrator of the show. The Watcher’s opening narration explains the basics of the multiverse; as we were told in Avengers: Endgame (Russo and Russo, 2019), time and reality in the MCU is not a single, linear, fixed path. Instead, multiple timelines and alternate universes exist, with the deviations occurring from different decisions being made at key moments in time, however big or small. In this regard, time is less like a line and more like a river, with an infinite number of paths trailing off all over the place, and the Watcher acts as our impassive guide to this vast multiverse. The Watcher also serves as our narrator, quickly catching us up on the events preceding the episode and explaining when, where, and how each divergent timeline was created; however, he has taken a solemn vow to never interfere in the events he witnesses, no matter how gruesome or extreme they are.

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

The series kicks off with “What If…Captain Carter Were the First Avenger?” (Andrews, 2021), essentially a retelling of Captain America: The First Avenger (Johnston, 2011). Unlike in the original timeline, Strategic Scientific Reserve (SSR) Agent Peggy Carter chooses to stay and watch on the ground as skinny, ill-bodied Private Steve Rogers (Josh Keaton) prepares to become a super soldier. However, when the Nazi sleeper agent attacks the experiment this time around, Peggy manages to keep him from escaping with a sample of the serum but Steve is wounded, so Peggy ignores the orders of her commanding officer, John Flynn (Bradley Whitford), and voluntarily becomes enhanced to the peak of human physical conditioning before the experiment is lost forever. Promoted to head of the SSR, Flynn is outraged at the result; disgusted that the super soldier serum was wasted on a woman, he refuses to allow Peggy to actively participate in the war, much less on the front line, out of sheer prejudice, much to her chagrin and fury. As before, Hydra figurehead Johann Schmidt/The Red Skull (Marquand) seeks to usurp Adolf Hitler and claim victory for himself with the mysterious and all-powerful Tesseract. Flynn, however, is unimpressed by the threat and unwilling to risk even one man, let alone an entire platoon, on recovering the cube; luckily, inventor Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) believes so strongly in the Tesseract’s threat that he furnishes Peggy with a striking Union Jack-style costume and a familiar Vibranium shield so that she can single-handedly recover the Tesseract from Schmidt’s Hydra colleague, Doctor Arnim Zola (Toby Jones), decimating an entire convoy of Hydra’s soldiers with efficiency and glee and earning herself an official promotion to “Captain Carter”. Although he lost his best shot at fighting alongside his friend, Sergeant James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan), Steve is fully supportive of Peggy’s newfound strength and abilities and only too glad to pilot Stark’s Tesseract-powered “Hydra Stomper” armour. However, following an action-packed montage, Steve is apparently lost during a familiar assault on an armoured train; though grief-stricken, Peggy forces information out of Zola and leads an all-out assault against the Red Skull’s fortress, where they find Steve alive but are too late to stop the Red Skull from opening a dimensional rift with the Tesseract. The tentacles of a gigantic, interdimensional, Lovecraftian creature breach the portal, killing Schmidt and threatening all life on Earth; Peggy and Steve fend off the beast as Stark tries to shut down the portal, but Captain Carter is forced to sacrifice herself to the unknown by physically forcing the creature through the rift. The story then skips ahead to find the Tesseract being reactivated, spitting Peggy and the remains of the beast’s tentacles out into a Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division (S.H.I.E.L.D.) facility where she meets Director Nick Fury (Jackson) and Agent Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and learns the bittersweet news that the Allied Forces won the war but she is now seventy years in the future, and thus forever cut off from her friends and loved ones.

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

While the first episode arguably played things a little safe, we really see the potential of a What If…? series with the second episode, “What If…T’Challa Became a Star-Lord?” (Andrews, 2021), which wildly deviates from the story of Guardians of the Galaxy (Gunn, 2014). Young T’Challa (Maddix Robinson) longed to explore beyond Wakanda but was shielded from the chaotic outside world by his beloved and overprotective father, T’Chaka (John Kani), only to be abducted due to a mistake by Yondu Udonta’s (Michael Rooker) subordinates. Surprisingly, he was excited at embarking on adventures throughout the cosmos with the Ravagers and, while T’Challa doesn’t possess the Black Panther’s near-superhuman abilities, he sports all of Peter Quill’s (Brian T. Delaney) gadgets in addition to his Wakandan fighting prowess. His greatest assets, however, are his charisma, diplomacy, and reputation as a Robin Hood-type figure. Indeed, T’Challa is far more competent, notorious, and respected than his mainstream MCU counterpart; not only does Korath the Pursuer (Djimon Hounsou) know who he is, he views sparring with Star-Lord as the greatest honour and willingly joins his crew. T’Challa’s positive influence means the Ravagers put their skills towards helping others rather than for personal reward, thus sparing Drax the Destroyer’s (Fred Tatasciore) family and even convincing Thanos (Josh Brolin) that his destructive aspirations weren’t the answer to the galaxy’s problems! Touched by T’Challa’s mission to save others after the presumed destruction of Wakanda, Nebula (Karen Gillan), now a far less violent and far more beautiful woman, proposes a heist to steal the Embers of Genesis, a cosmic dust capable of ending galactic hunger, from Taneleer Tivan/The Collector (Benicio del Toro). While sneaking around the Collector’s museum, T’Challa finds a Wakandan spacecraft and is angered to find that Yondu lied to him about Wakanda in order to help him realise his true calling as an adventurer. The two reconcile in the best way possible: by teaming up to fight with this much more formidable version of the Collector, who is enhanced by weapons, technology, and items retrieved from some of the MCU’s most powerful and prominent individuals and races. Thanks to their teamwork, the Collector is disarmed and left at the mercy of his captives, and T’Challa forgives Yondu’s deception before reuniting with T’Chaka and his people in Wakanda, bringing his two families together in celebration over their mutual friend. Across the world, however, a greater threat awaits when Ego (Kurt Russell) comes looking for his son, here a mere Dairy Queen employee.

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

“What If…the World Lost Its Mightiest Heroes?” (Andrews, 2021) takes us back to the middle of Iron Man 2 (Favreau, 2010) and Nick Fury and Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow’s (Lake Bell) latest effort to recruit Tony Stark/Iron Man (Mick Wingert) to the Avengers Initiative. Fury is horrified when his attempt to stave off Stark’s palladium poisoning apparently has the unexpected side effect of killing the would-be Avenger; this tragedy is quickly followed by Thor Odinson (Hemsworth) being accidentally killed by Hawkeye’s errant arrow and the archer later being found dead while locked in an impenetrable S.H.I.E.L.D. cell. Fury suspects that his recruits are being targeted by an unknown party, and charges Natasha to escape Brock Rumlow’s (Frank Grillo) custody and make contact with Doctor Betty Ross (Stephanie Panisello). Though initially distrustful of Natasha due to her association with those who’ve hounded her friend, colleague, and former lover, Doctor Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Ruffalo), Betty is convinced to take a closer look at the injector used on Stark and theorises that a microscopic projectile fired from the needle killed the superhero. Hungry for blood after learning of Hawkeye’s death, Natasha agrees with Fury’s theory that their killer is targeting Avengers recruits; unfortunately, General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (Mike McGill) arrives looking to arrest Banner and sparks his transformation into the rampaging Hulk as in his solo film. However, the seemingly immortal Green Goliath also falls victim to the mysterious killer when he violently explodes from the inside out, and things escalate even further when Loki Laufeyson (Tom Hiddleston) arrives looking to avenge Thor’s death. Fury manages to buy himself one day to solve Thor’s murder on the promise of delivering the culprit to the God of Mischief and, when Natasha finds that a dead agent’s credentials were used to access S.H.I.E.L.D.’s database, she’s brutally beaten to death by an unseen assailant, and only able to tell Fury that all the deaths are relating to “hope”. This, however, is enough to piece together the perpetrator’s true identity: Doctor Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), who targeted Fury’s recruits in the guise of the size-altering Yellowjacket after his daughter, Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), died while working for S.H.I.E.L.D. A broken, bitter, twisted old man, Pym blames Fury and has become a deranged killer due to his grief and anger. However, Pym and his tech are outmatched when Fury is revealed to be Loki in disguise but, after Pym is defeated and taken into Asgardian custody, Loki double-crosses Fury and declares himself ruler of humanity. To combat this threat, Fury gets back to work assembling his super team, starting with calling Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel (Alexandra Daniels) back to Earth and uncovering Captain America’s frozen body.

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

The show shifts over to the world of magic and mysticism for “What If…Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands?” (Andrews, 2021), which presents a world where Dr. Strange and Doctor Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) are still a couple in a loving relationship. Fully supportive and enamoured by Dr. Strange, Christine encourages his ego and his skills as a surgeon, but sadly her influence doesn’t extend to his driving skills. However, in this world, Dr. Strange is relatively unharmed from the car crash that took his MCU counterpart’s hands but is left grief-stricken when Christine dies as a result of his negligence. In a bid to fill the void in his life, and his heart, Strange travels the world and, once again, ends up studying the mystic arts at Kamar-Taj under the tutelage of the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). Like his mainstream counterpart, Strange becomes the Master of the Mystic Arts after the Ancient One’s death and successfully bargains with the Dread Dormammu (Cumberbatch), but remains preoccupied with the mistakes of his past and the promises offered by the Eye of Agamotto’s time-bending abilities. Haunted by memories of happier times with Christine, Strange ignores the warnings of the Ancient One and his manservant, Wong (Benedict Wong), and uses the Eye to place his current consciousness into the body of his past self. Unfortunately, the tragedy still occurs no matter how safely he drives, which route he takes, or even his refusal to go to the award speech as Christine dies again and again whether he’s there or what he does. Dr. Strange’s anguish at being unable to save Christine isn’t helped by the Ancient One’s explanation that her death cannot be averted as it would create a potentially universe-destroying time paradox (if Strange prevents her death, he won’t become a sorcerer and be able to go back and save her).

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

Refusing to believe that Christine is fated to die, and angered at the Ancient One’s refusal to help him break this “absolute point” in time, Dr. Strange uses the Eye to flee from the confrontation and consult the ancient tomes of the Lost Library of Cagliostro. There, he meets O’Bengh (Ike Amadi) and learns that one can potentially gain the power he requires by absorbing magical beings; thus, Dr. Strange conjures a variety of demonic, Lovecraftian, and magical creatures (including gnomes, familiars, dragons, and even the octopus-like creature Captain Carter fought). When they won’t willingly share their power, he resolves to forcibly take it, and quickly becomes obsessed with gaining more and more magical power from these entities over the course of centauries to become “Strange Supreme”. As he does so, he grows increasingly monstrous and takes on more of their attributes, but is shocked to learn from O’Bengh that he’ll never be powerful enough to achieve his dreams due to the Ancient One using magic from the Dark Dimension to split him in two and create two concurrent timelines. His other half, who took Wong’s advice and moved on from Christine’s death, is charged by an echo of the Ancient One to oppose his dark doppelgänger before his ambition erases all of reality. When Strange Supreme’s attempts to coerce his other half into joining his cause are rejected, a magical battle ensues that spans multiple dimensions. Despite Wong’s protective spells and Strange’s efforts to talk down his dark half, Strange Supreme’s centauries of basking in the powers of countless magical beings makes him the superior and he’s ultimately able to absorb his missing half. Finally whole again, Strange Supreme succeeds in undoing Christine’s death but is transformed into a demonic being by the effort this requires; understandably, she is horrified by his nightmarish appearance, and he’s left helpless to stop the time paradox from devouring all of his reality. Desperate to preserve the world, he begs the Watcher for help but he refuses to get involved, despite wishing to punish Strange Supreme’s reckless arrogance, and the once Sorcerer Supreme is left alone, despondent, and remorseful in the tiniest pocket of reality with nothing but his grief and regret for company.

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

One popular, recurring storyline in Marvel Comics in recent years has been the Marvel Zombies spin-off (Various, 2005 to present) that tells of a devastating zombie plague overwhelming the Marvel universe (and beyond). A version of this reality is explored in “What If…Zombies?!” (Andrews, 2021), which finds the Hulk crash-landing into the Sanctum Sanctorum as in Avengers: Infinity War (Russo and Russo, 2018) only to find it, and the streets of New York City, deserted. When Iron Man, Dr. Strange, and Wong arrive to take care of Ebony Maw (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) and Cull Obsidian (Terry Notary), Banner’s elation soon turns to horror when the three are revealed to be vicious, flesh-eating zombies who tear Thanos’s children to shreds, instantly infecting them in the process, and Banner is only saved from the same fate thanks to the timely intervention of Dr. Strange’s Cloak of Levitation, a swarm of ants commanded by Hope van Dyne/The Wasp, and Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Hudson Thames). Spider-Man’s amusing orientation video shows that the MCU’s zombies largely confirm to the “rules” commonly associated with their kind; they’re decomposing corpses with a voracious hunger who turn others with a single bite and can only be killed by removing the head or destroying the brain. However, they’re not as mindless or shambling as traditional zombies; they’re intelligent enough to co-ordinate their attacks and utilise tech like the Iron Man armour and magic like the Sling Rings. In a change of pace, the Watcher reveals a definite origin for the zombie outbreak by relating how Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) became infected with the virus while stuck in the Quantum Realm; when she bit Hank Pym, he brought the virus back with him and the entire world was quickly overrun once the Avengers were turned.

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

Banner joins up with the few uninfected survivors and learns from Okoye (Danai Gurira) of a possible cure at Camp Lehigh, New Jersey; the group travel to the Grand Central Station, where they’re attacked by zombified versions of Sam Wilson/The Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Hawkeye, and Captain America. Although they lose Harold “Happy” Hogan (Jon Favreau), the group is able to get the train working and fend off the zombies thanks to Okoye and the Wasp. However, the train is attacked by Zombie Cap, who infects Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp) and forces Bucky to end his undead existence, retrieving his shield in the process, but Hope is also infected from a small cut she receives after disposing of Sharon. Although Peter tries to remain optimistic that she’ll be cured before she can turn, Hope sacrifices herself to atone for her part in causing the outbreak by carrying the group through a horde of zombies and dropping them off at Camp Lehigh. There, they find the zombies refuse to breach the camp thanks to the presence of the Mind Stone in the Vision’s (Paul Bettany) head; he and the severed head of Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) reveal that the Mind Stone’s properties can reverse the zombie virus, and the group is excited to spread the cure throughout the world from Wakanda. However, Banner learns that they’re not the first to respond to the Vision’s beacon, and Bucky is horrified to find that the Vision has been feeding parts of other survivors (including T’Challa) to a zombified version of Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) since she’s proven resistant to the Mind Stone and he’s been unable to kill her due to his love for her. When Wanda breaks free and proves uncontrollable due to her powers and hunger, the Vision rips the Mind Stone out of his head to atone for his actions and the group’s escape is covered by Bucky and the Hulk, who finally emerges from Banner’s psyche and is able to resist the zombie’s bite and hold back Wanda so the others can take off. The one-legged T’Challa, beheaded Lang, and shellshocked Peter console themselves with the knowledge that they’ll be able to save the world once they reach Wakanda, completely unaware that the nation has already succumbed to the infection and is under the rule of a zombified Thanos and his partially-completed Infinity Gauntlet!

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

We then go back to where the MCU all started in “What If…Killmonger Rescued Tony Stark?” (Andrews, 2021), which recreates the opening moments of Iron Man (Favreau, 2008) with one key difference: right as Tony Stark is about to be injured by one of his own missiles, he’s saved by N’Jadaka/Erik Stevens/Killmonger (Jordan), who fends off the Ten Rings soldiers looking to kidnap Stark and thus means that the genius, billionaire philanthropist never learns the humility or courage that led to him becoming Iron Man. Instead, he remains a conceited, arrogant, self-serving glory hound who believes that he needs to build bigger, better weapons to protect America’s interests. To that end, he drafts in Killmonger, who wastes no time in publicly outing Obadiah Stane (Kiff VandenHeuvel) as the man who bankrolled the Ten Rings’ attack on Stark, and Stark is so grateful to his saviour that he quickly promotes Killmonger to his new Chief Operations Officer, alienating Virginia “Pepper” Potts (Beth Hoyt) in the process. Killmonger swiftly becomes Stark’s closest friend and confidante and, together, they create robot drones, the “Liberators”, based on Killmonger’s fandom for anime. Killmonger pushes Stark to use Vibranium as a power source for the Liberators, and Stark sends in Colonel James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Don Cheadle) to steal some from Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis). However, the Black Panther attacks the meeting to recover stolen Vibranium, only for Killmonger to reveal his true intentions and kill T’Challa with one of Stark’s weapons. He chastises Rhodey for wearing the uniform of his oppressors and kills him with the Black Panther’s claw to make it seem like they killed each other; thanks to Just A Rather Very Intelligent System (J.A.R.V.I.S.; Bettany), however, Killmonger’s actions are revealed to Stark. Stark tries to avenge his friend’s murder using a Liberator, but Killmonger easily bests the drone and kills Stark with a Dora Milaje spear, which escalates the tensions between the United States and Wakanda into all-out war. General Ross assumes control of Stark’s assets and the Liberators are pushed into mass production; Killmonger then kills Klaue in order to deceive the Wakandans, then seizes control of the Liberators to lead his people in “defeating” the invading army. His victory and battle prowess wins over his uncle, T’Chaka, and earns him the mantle of the Black Panther; however, T’Challa’s astral warnings of Killmonger’s impending defeat are left a distinct possibility not only due to Ross’s obsession with continuing the war but also when Pepper and Shuri (Ozioma Akagha) agree to work together to expose Killmonger’s deception.

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

“What If…Thor Were an Only Child?” (Andrews, 2021) lightens things up a bit by retelling the events of Thor (Branagh, 2011); in this version of the story, in the absence of a brother to grow up alongside, Thor is little more than a lackadaisical, party-loving frat-boy who, despite still being worthy of Mjölnir, is far more interested in wasting time revelling with his friends than following his mother, Frigga’s (Josette Eales), instructions to behave or becoming a bore like his father, Odin Allfather (Anthony Hopkins). To avoid the all-seeing gaze of Heimdall (Idris Elba), Thor and his drinking buddies head the Midgard, the most backwater, insignificant world in all the Nine Realms, and invite guests from all over to join them in a massive, nonstop party. Tracking the cosmic disturbance and fearful of an alien invasion, Doctor Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) investigates and is both disturbed to find that Thor’s parties are so out of control that they can kill planets and won over by the Thunder God’s otherworldly charm. Jane and her intern, Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings), join the party, quickly being swept up in all the intergalactic chaos and merriment on display; Darcy even marries Howard the Duck (Seth Green), and Jane and Thor get matching tattoos, but soon wake up to massive hangovers and the arrival of S.H.I.E.L.D. Acting Director Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) is deeply concerned that Thor is leaving a trail of destruction as he takes his party on the road, and calls in Captain Marvel to assist with the perceived threat. Thor’s reunion with fellow party animal Prince Loki of Jotunheim is interrupted by Captain Marvel’s arrival; Thor brushes off her demands that he leaves, and a fight ensues that sees the two battle all across the globe. Despite Thor’s petulant, childish nature, the two are seemingly equally matched in terms of power and durability, but Carol’s forced to hold back her full power to avoid damaging the world or endangering lives. Since Jane disagrees with attacking or eliminating Thor since she’s so enamoured by him, she uses her tech to contact Heimdall and literally tells on Thor to Frigga. As Hill prepares an all-out nuclear strike against Thor, he’s terrified by Frigga’s impending arrival and begs his guests to help him clean up all evidence of their shenanigans. Despite Thor’s best, most frantic efforts to put right all the anarchy he and his friends had caused, she sees through his deception; however, rather than being mad at Jane for selling him out, he thanks her for teaching him a lesson in humility and asks her out…only for he, and the Watcher, to be stunned by the sudden appearance of an alternate version of Ultron!

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

This cliff-hanger is explained in the following episode, “What If…Ultron Won?” (Andrews, 2021), which presents a post-apocalyptic world where Black Widow and Hawkeye are the only Avengers left to oppose the all-powerful Ultron. In this world, Hawkeye not only sports his ridiculous mohawk and a mechanical right arm, but Ultron successfully fulfilled its goal to cause an extinction-level event by claiming the Vision’s body as its own, killing Iron Man, Cap, and Thor, and launching a worldwide nuclear attack that decimated humanity. When Thanos arrived looking to retrieve the Mind Stone, Ultron split him in two with one shot and claimed the Infinity Stones for itself, becoming a God-like being capable of laying waste to entire worlds and Realms with its endless supply of drones. Asgard, Ego, Xandar, and countless others all fall before Ultron’s power and even Captain Marvel is unable to oppose it; having eradicated the vast majority of life across the universe and ascended to a higher pane of existence, Ultron not only sees but also hears the Watcher. Although the Watcher previously considered intervening in Dr. Strange’s story, he held true to his vow of non-interference since he deals in a cosmic balance beyond the lives of mere mortals, even ones as powerful as the Master of the Mystic Arts. However, Ultron’s threat is so terrifying even to this cosmic observer that the Watcher is sorely tempted to assist Natasha and Clint in their efforts to coerce Zola’s artificial intelligence into helping them. The Watcher is pleased when their perseverance pays off but, although Zola is able to possess one of Ultron’s drones, he cannot shut down Ultron’s hive mind as Ultron is outside of the known universe, meaning Clint is forced to sacrifice himself so that Natasha and Zola can escape. The Watcher is aghast when Ultron not only does the impossible and breaches his cosmic observatory but is also able to match even the Watcher’s cosmic power. Their battle sees them literally smashing the dimensional barriers into numerous alternate realities and sees Ultron devour a whole universe and force the Watcher to flee. While Ultron prepares to lay waste to the entire multiverse, the Watcher is forced to turn to Strange Supreme for help in opposing Ultron’s threat.

The Guardians of the Multiverse join forces to end Ultron’s threat.

This story, and the entire show, comes to a head in the final episode, “What If…the Watcher Broke His Oath?” (Andrews, 2021), which sees the Watcher recruiting Captain Carter, T’Challa Star-Lord, Killmonger, Party Thor, and a previously unseen version of Gamora (Cynthia McWilliams) to join Strange Supreme as the Guardians of the Multiverse. He enlists each of them right as they’re in the middle of tying up loose ends from their respective episodes and emphasises that every one of them is needed to protect something even bigger than their individual lives or concerns. Captain Carter immediately recognises the gravity of the situation, while Strange Supreme sees this as his chance at true redemption, and, despite the odds, they all tentatively agree to work together to combat Ultron, steal his Soul Stone, and destroy it using Gamora’s “Infinity Crusher” device. While Strange Supreme struggles to contain the dark magics within his body, Gamora is troubled by Killmonger’s obsession with Ultron’s technology, and Thor accidentally attracts Ultron’s attention, but the group is thankfully shielded by Strange Supreme’s protection spell. Following Captain Carter’s lead, the Guardians are able to launch a co-ordinated attack that allows T’Challa to swipe the Soul Stone; when Ultron makes short work of Zombie Wanda and follows the Guardians to its home reality, it gets summarily pummelled by the Guardians’ repeated attacks and Strange Supreme’s ability to counteract both Ultron’s Time Stone and match its enlarged form with his monstrous magic. Although they’re stunned to find the Infinity Crusher ineffectual because it and the Infinity Stones are from different realities, Ultron’s threat is ended when Captain Carter helps Natasha avenge Clint and fire an arrow containing Zola’s consciousness into Ultron’s armour, erasing its sentience once and for all. In the aftermath, Killmonger claims Ultron’s armour and proposes using the Infinity Stones to “fix” their universes; when they refuse, he attempts to destroy them and they’re saved by a Zola-controlled Vision, who tries to take the Infinity Stones for himself. Before they can properly get into a potentially devastating battle over the gems, Strange Supreme freezes them in time and seals them within a pocket dimension, ending their threat once and for all. The Watcher trusts Strange Supreme with watching over the two, and returns everyone to their proper place and time; since Natasha’s world was left lifeless by Ultron, the Watcher sends her to help Nick Fury overthrow Loki, and then alters his vow of impassive observation to a pledge to protect the multiverse when needed.

The Summary:
At first, I wasn’t too sold on What If…?’s animation style; the slick, computerised cel-shaded look has never been a favourite of mine, but I was quickly won over by it due to how closely each character and episode mirrors their live-action counterparts. Everything from the recreation of certain shots, to the musical cues, to the costumes and likenesses perfectly emulates the source material each episode is based on, meaning we get the brown-hued colour scheme of World War Two for Captain Carter, the barrage of bizarre cosmic colours for Star-Lord, and the industrial, high-tech grey of Stark and S.H.I.E.L.D. facilities. Although some notable names from the MCU didn’t return to lend their voices to their iconic characters, What If…? employs the services of some incredibly gifted soundalikes and even goes the extra mile in presenting a version of Bruce Banner that resembles both Edward Norton and Mark Ruffalo, which is fitting considering we encounter this character between his solo film and his first big MCU crossover. Animation also means that What If…? is theoretically able to do absolutely anything it desires, regardless of budget, and is limited only be the imagination of the animators; thus, while things are a little on the safe side with slightly different retelling of Captain America: The First Avenger, Thor, and other MCU films, it’s not long before we’re seeing massive Lovecraftian creatures, a whole host of Marvel heroes interacting in ways we’ve not really seen before, an additional taste of the cosmic madness of the universe (and multiverse), and a wide variety of both horrifying and oddball concepts to really test the waters of what the MCU is capable of going forward.

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

I really liked that, despite their reversed roles, Peggy and Steve still have a mutual attraction based on mutual respect and their respective struggles; Peggy faces an uphill battle due to being a woman in a male-orientated world (and war) that constantly weighs her down even after she’s enhanced by the super soldier serum, and of course Steve has been overlooked and undervalued his entire life due to his gaunt frame and sickly nature. While everyone else is either incredulous due to her being a woman or impressed by her fighting prowess because she is a woman, and she must prove her worth through her deeds to win them over, Steve admires the person that she is and her fighting spirit; he’s the only one that doesn’t judge her for her gender and who doesn’t need convincing that she’s the right person for the job and is only too grateful to be an active combatant alongside her in the Hydra Stomper. Peggy is also quite different in the role; like Steve, she attacks it with a sense of duty and honour, but she also takes far more joy in her newfound abilities. There’s a sense that she’s finally able to let loose, that she’s been given the physical gifts to realise her full potential, and she literally dives head-first into making the most of that opportunity. T’Challa’s characterisation as a galaxy-wide force for good is a fitting tribute to the late Chadwick Boseman; unlike Peter Quill, T’Challa is a well-respected and competent space mercenary, and I loved the running gag that he’s somehow able to convince even the most maladjusted individuals to give up their villainous or tyrannical ways simply through presenting a convincing argument. Korath is only too willing to change sides simply out of his worship of Star-Lord, and his crew follow his lead into doing good deeds simply because he was such a positive influence on them. Unfortunately, he’s not able to have the same influence on the Collector, who’s not only blinded by his position in this universe, but also driven by his inherent greed and given a major power boost thanks to his artefacts. However, while threats still remain in this timeline, on the surface it seems to be a far more peaceful and united universe simply thanks to T’Challa’s positive influence on others.

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

Things take a turn to the dark side once the Avengers (especially Stark) start getting killed off; What If…? is a self-contained show within the larger MCU multiverse, meaning literally anything can happen to anyone, and seeing the franchise’s core six heroes be so brutally murdered really hammers that home. It also gives Hank Pym, someone introduced later into the MCU, a chance to be a more prominent player in this sandbox; seeing him active in the MCU’s first phase is a great way of fleshing out the world in a unique way, especially as he’s become a murdering psychopath. This is a Pym whose neuroses and paranoia have been pushed to breaking point, which deftly showcases just how much of a threat a guy with Pym’s intellect and technology can be to even the most superhuman individuals. Of course, the epitome of dark character turns is the tragic tale of Strange Supreme; it’s absolutely heart-breaking to see Dr. Strange left so desperate and despondent by Christine’s loss that he fell deeper and deeper to the darkness. His frustration and anguish at being unable to change the past see him become obsessed with gaining more and more power, to the point where he is fixated only on being reunited with his love. This makes him blind to all pleas, even those of his uncorrupted counterpart, and it isn’t until all of reality is about to be erased forever that he realises the error of his ways. Sadly, by then, it’s much too late for him to undo anything; Christine once again dies in his arms and everything that ever was is unravelled due to his time paradox; even the Watcher judges his heinous actions, and the once mighty Strange Supreme is left alone and repentant in the tiniest slither of reality. It’s a poignant and gut-wrenching take on the snarky, stubborn, and arrogant Sorcerer Supreme, one that shows just how dangerous a threat he could be if he lost his strong moral compass, and it’s a testament to the show that the character remained a tragic and relatable figure right up until the end rather than simply being a malevolent antagonist.

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

Easily the darkest tale is the inclusion of zombies; never before has the MCU veered so closely towards traditional horror and I really appreciated the bleak, gory change of pace. It was fantastic seeing the MCU’s most powerful characters reduced to animalistic ghouls, forcing the few survivors to battle their lifelong friends and making painful sacrifices to ensure the safety of others against overwhelming odds. This was also a prime opportunity to show a new side to the Vision; him luring in survivors just to feed his love is a haunting glimpse at the darker side of his cold, calculating logic. We’ve seen such behaviour, this overpowering sense of denial, in zombie films before and, here, it served as a gruesome reminder of just how close to the brink this alternate reality is to total collapse. This continued in Killmonger’s welcome reappearance, with his alternate tale basically showing what could have happened if he had succeeded in his goals of reclaiming his Wakandan birthright; Killmonger was always one of the MCU’s more driven and dangerous antagonists and his episode showed just how truly vindictive and sadistic he really was. He had no qualms about deceiving or using anyone and any resource at his disposal, and even incited an all-out war just so that he could get himself into a position of trust and power, which serves as a stark reminder to just how ruthless a villain he really was. The party-loving version of Thor is the polar opposite; Party Thor cares little for battle or being a king and just wants to enjoy himself. He revels in being the centre of attention and throwing the biggest, most outrageous parties in all the Nine Realms and is lauded amongst his guests as being the wildest party animal around. Thor is a consummate free spirit and a friend to all; alien races, Gods, and recognisable beings from all across the cosmos cheer his name and share in his revelry, making for some of the most light-hearted and amusing moments in the entire series as Surtur (Clancy Brown) tries it on with Lady Liberty and Frost Giants deface Mount Rushmore. This episode also leads to one of the best fist fights in the series as Thor and Captain Marvel trade blows, but he delights in the fight as much as he does in enjoying himself with mead, and only the disapproval of his mother finally shakes Thor from his apathy and pushes him to make amends for his reckless merriment.

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

Of course, things come to a suitably dramatic and action-packed conclusion with the final two episodes, which finally force the Watcher into action. Up until then, the watcher existed outside of the normal universe, powerful and cosmic enough to remain completely undetected, but Ultron’s sentience and force grows to such an extent that it’s able to sense the Watcher, breach his observatory, and begin a maniacal campaign to conquer and destroy the entire multiverse. Untold aeons of quietly observing the multiverse haven’t exactly dampened the Watcher’s power cosmic, but in the face to Ultron’s might, enhanced by the six Infinity Stones, the enigmatic onlooker is forced to do the one thing he has never done and ask for help, calling upon the characters he has been observing and asking them to intervene where he cannot. Seeing these wildly different versions of these characters interacting was a blast; they arguably got on the same page much faster than the regular Avengers (which is no doubt due to the short length of the episodes) and were able to launch a united attack on Ultron as a result. Indeed, Ultron kind of got a bit shafted in the last episode; it went from going toe-to-toe with a cosmic being to getting battered about by a handful of mortals and Godlings simply because the Guardians were able to keep the pressure on and keep Ultron from activating the Infinity Stones. Realistically, Ultron could’ve just “snapped” them all away, but then that wouldn’t be anywhere near as exhilarating for a final battle now, would it? Seeing Killmonger claim the gems and just the idea of what his twisted imagination would use them for was a cool moment, as was the idea that he might someday escape his trap to threaten the multiverse again, and just about the only issue I had with that last episode was the random inclusion of a Gamora when they could’ve maybe employed Zombie Wanda instead. Overall, though, I thoroughly enjoyed this series; the presentation, the humour, the fun twists on established characters, and the bizarre stories were all really fun and engaging and I can’t wait to see more from this as the MCU continues to expand into more and ore obscure concepts.

My Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Fantastic

Did you enjoy What If…?? Which episode was your favourite, and which of the alternate characters did you like the most? Did you enjoy the Watcher’s inclusion and characterisation? What did you think to all the cameos and the animation style? Did you enjoy seeing Ultron as an all-powerful force and what did you think to its battle with the Watcher? Were you also disappointed that Gamora didn’t get her own episode? Are you a fan of the What If…? comics and, if so, which was your favourite? What other hypothetical scenarios would you like to see explored in a future season? Whatever your thoughts on What If…?, sign up to drop a comment down below and check back next Sunday for the final instalment of Multiverse Madness.

Screen Time [Multiverse Madness]: WandaVision


In September 1961, DC Comics published “Flash of Two Worlds” (Fox, et al), a landmark story that brought together two generations of the Flash: the Golden Age Jay Garrick and the Silver Age Barry Allen thanks to the concept of the multiverse, an infinite number of parallel universes that allowed any and all stories and characters to co-exist and interact. Marvel Comics would also adopt this concept and, to celebrate the release of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (Raimi, 2022) this month, I’ve been both celebrating the Master of the Mystic Arts and exploring the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s (MCU) equivalent of the multiverse every Sunday of May.


Air Date: 15 January 2021 to 5 March 2021
Network: Disney+
Stars: Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Kathryn Hahn, Teyonah Parris, Kat Dennings, and Evan Peters

The Background:
Without a doubt, the MCU has become a nigh-unstoppable multimedia juggernaut that has brought some of Marvel Comics’ most beloved, and obscure, characters to life on the silver screen. Although Marvel Studios had dabbled in television ventures as well with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013 to 2020) and their Netflix shows, they really upped their focus on TV productions for the MCU’s fourth phase and to coincide with the release of their parent company’s streaming service, Disney+. Spearheaded by MCU head honcho Kevin Feige, the Disney+ shows focused heavily on maintaining and expanding the continuity of the MCU going forward, and the first of these announced was a spin-off that would focus on the previously underutilised characters of Wanda Maximoff (Olsen) and the Vision (Bettany). WandaVision was a curious venture that aimed to explore new areas of the MCU, and the multiverse, by placing the characters in different decades and parodying popular sitcoms throughout the years. Feige aimed for the show to shed new light on Wanda’s potentially dangerous powers and to lay the foundation for the MCU’s fourth phase by dabbling in the multiverse. Inspired by both classic sitcoms and notable comic book storylines involving both characters, the show was framed as a surreal and bizarre mystery that would weave in aspects from outside the MCU and build to a dramatic finale that fundamentally altered Wanda’s character. Released in weekly episodes that sent fan speculation into a frenzy, WandaVision received widespread critical acclaim; critics praised the show from breaking away from the usual MCU formula and its emotional and dramatic themes, though some criticised the finale and the show’s overall pacing. Still, WandaVision was highly successful and, while there are currently no plans for a second season, its story arcs were continued in further MCU films and spin-offs.

The Plot:
Three weeks after the events of Avengers: Endgame (Russo and Russo, 2019), Wanda Maximoff and the Vision are living an idyllic suburban life in the town of Westview, New Jersey, where they conceal their true natures. However, things are not as they seem as their surroundings begin to move through different decades and they discover that they’re being manipulated by a malevolent supernatural force.

The Review:
I’m admittedly pretty late to the Marvel Disney+ shows, primarily because neither my television nor my service provider actually carry the app, and it’s not the same watching on a smaller screen. I’d usually be content to wait for the DVD release, but it’s looking like we won’t actually get one so, with Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness right around the corner, now seems like as good a time as any to actually watch WandaVision, which I honestly was the least excited about of all the Disney+ shows. This isn’t because I dislike the characters or the actors that portray them, it just seemed like a weird spin-off to produce, especially given the events of Avengers: Endgame, but I heard a lot of good things about it and followed the every-growing fan speculation so it was great to actually sit down with it and binge-watch it in one sitting.

Wanda and the Vision are trying to life normal lives but there’s something undeniably odd about Westview.

Thanks to the inclusion of super cringe, super appropriate jaunty theme songs and opening titles at the start of each episode, WandaVision quickly catches us up with the two Avengers and the general theme of the show; somehow, Wanda and the Vision have gotten married and settled down in Westview, a quiet little town where they hope for a fresh start amongst normal, everyday people. To achieve this, the two keep their extraordinary abilities hidden; however, when in the privacy of their own home, Wanda freely uses her magic to perform household chores, such as tidying and cleaning, and the Vison walks around in his default synthezoid form without a second thought. Outside of the house, the Vision alters his physical appearance to pass as human and works at Computational Services Inc.; while he is naturally incredibly efficient and hardworking, neither he nor his co-worker, Norm (Asif Ali), has any idea what the company actually does. Although Wanda and the Vision seem perfectly happy in their new life, with all its quirks and eccentricities, WandaVision shows hints towards a darker side of their lives right from the first episode; while entertaining his boss and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Hart (Fred Melamed and Debra Jo Rupp), neither of the main characters can recall where they came from, when they got married, or how they even got there. Wanda is so confused by her inability to answer such simple questions that she simply sits, perplexed, while Mr. Hart chokes to death on a piece of food and Mrs. Hart is locked in an agonising loop where she can only say “Stop it!” with good humour. Eventually, Wanda sees how serious the situation is and asks the Vision to step in and the whole incident is laughed off as a gag, but it’s a disturbing moment made all the more intriguing when the episode ends with its events being watched by another within the show, providing our first hint that WandaVision is a show within a show.

Wanda’s concerns over her lack of children are superseded by strange goings-on and imposters in her quaint life.

Still, despite this incident, the two are determined to fit in with their quaint little suburban community; the Vision joins the neighbourhood watch, Wanda joins the planning committee for the local talent show, and Wanda is keen to take the family trick-or-treating later in the show. Essential to helping her to fit in is Agnes (Hahn), Wanda’s “neighbour to the right”, who constantly drops in on her at the most convenient of times to offer friendly advice about how to deal with the local social committee or to help her out of awkward situations. Agnes takes a special interest in Wanda and the Vision’s sex life (apparently because she is under-sexed and under-valued by her unseen husband, Ralph), and continuously probes Wanda for intimate details about her life and offers Wanda advice about how to spice up her sex life. Right from the off, Agnes is dropping hints about the two starting a family, and this is only exacerbated when Wanda feels detached from the community because she doesn’t have children like Dottie Jones (Emma Caulfield Ford), the head of the committee and a prominent figure in Westview’s social elite. After their magic show is a smash hit (despite the Vision being inebriated due to gum clogging his systems and Wanda frantically using her Chaos Magic to explain away her husband’s superhuman feats, and the fact that there are no children in attendance for show), Wanda is overjoyed when she spontaneously becomes pregnant and so angered by the strange appearance of a beekeeper’s outfit emerging from a manhole that she literally rewinds time to return to her happy moment.

Pregnancy throws Wanda’s powers out of whack but Geraldine incites her wrath by mentioning Ultron.

Wanda’s pregnancy is explored through the third episode, “Now in Color” (Shakman, 2021); while she is delighted to find that she is already four months pregnant and happy to busy herself using her magic to decorate and prepare a nursery, the Vision begins to find himself disturbed by the strange goings on in their lives and around Westview. Every time he stops to consider why his neighbours are acting so strangely or how Wanda’s pregnancy is progressing so fast, Wanda gets closer and closer to popping, replacing his concerns with the dual emotions of happiness and anxiety at the thought of becoming a father. Wanda’s pregnancy sends her powers all out of whack and causes a neighbourhood blackout; when she worries that Westview will suspect she’s the cause of it, this strikes a chord with the Vision but, again, Wanda causes an abrupt jump cut to keep him from following his thoughts through any further and he’s soon rushing off to retrieve Doctor Stan Nielsen (Randy Oglesby) to help deliver the baby. Although she tries her best to hide her condition using bowls of fruit and to wish away a stork she randomly brings to life, Wanda eventually succumbs to her pregnancy but, luckily, her new friend Geraldine (Parris) is on hand to help out. Thanks to Geraldine, Wanda successfully gives birth to Baby Tommy and then she and the Vision are shocked at the arrival of his twin, Baby Billy. While thanking Geraldine and cooing over her babies, Wanda is reminded of her own twin brother, Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson); this seems to snap Geraldine out of her trance and, when she accidentally reminds Wanda of her brother’s death at Ultron’s (James Spader) hands, Wanda becomes enraged and forcible ejects Geraldine from Westview, which is revealed to be encased within a translucent energy field not unlike television static and monitored by government agents.

While Monica, Woo, and Darcy try to help Wanda, S.W.O.R.D. director Hayward is convinced that she’s a threat.

This is the perfect way to transition to some actual context for the show as, after three episodes of intrigue and mystery, “We Interrupt This Program” (Shakman, 2021) goes a long way to explaining just what the hell is happening by following Geraldine after she is restored to life by the second snap of the Infinity Gauntlet. It turns out that she’s not a native of Westview at all and is, in fact, a grown-up Monica Rambeau, which is relayed in a harrowing sequence where Monica stumbles through a hospital thrown into disarray by people suddenly returning from being disintegrated and culminates in her receiving the heart-breaking news that her mother, Maria (Lashana Lynch), succumbed to cancer while Monica was lost to the snap. Monica is a former fighter pilot captain in the Sentient Weapon Observation and Response Division (S.W.O.R.D.), an intelligence agency founded by Maria and now run by Director Tyler Hayward (Josh Stamberg) that monitors and responds to threats posed by robotics and artificial intelligence. Monica is assigned to assist the Federal Bureau of Investigation (F.B. I.) with a missing persons case in Westview and liaises with Jimmy Woo (Randall Park), whose investigation has stalled because no one seems remember Westview or its inhabitants and the entire town is sealed within an odd temporal anomaly referred to as the “Hex”. After Monica’s drone disappears inside the Hex and Monica is sucked within shortly after, Hayward brings in Doctor Darcy Lewis (Dennings) and a number of other scientists to help. Darcy then recognises the patterns of cosmic background radiation and discovers that they are akin to old analogue broadcast signals, successfully tunes into WandaVision, and becomes invested in the show. Woo and Darcy ascertain that WandaVision’s “cast” is comprised of Westview’s missing residents, and that Monica and everything that breaches the Hex is assimilated into the show to become part of the cast a harmless toy, or a beekeeper. Their attempts to contact Wanda using radio signals only unnerve Wanda and injure Dottie, and Wanda is enraged at Monica trespassing in Westview; their confrontation is so traumatic for her that her sitcom demeanour falls away, and she’s briefly horrified by an apparition of the Vision’s mangled corpse.

While the twins adore their uncle, Wanda is confused by Pietro’s altered appearance and personality.

From then on, WandaVision routinely switches between the ongoing drama within the show and the efforts of those outside the Hex to try and figure out what’s happening. Wanda and the Vision’s struggles to calm their crying children are skipped over when the twins spontaneously age-up to five years old; Billy (Baylen Bielitz) and Tommy (Gavin Borders) adopt a stray dog, “Sparky”, and then age-up another five years to be “old enough” to keep him. Sadly though, Sparky goes missing and is found dead by Agnes; Wanda struggles to comfort her boys, hypocritically asking Billy (Julian Hilliard) and Tommy (Jett Klyne) not age-up any further so they can face the natural reality of Sparky’s death. However, having seen what their mother is capable of (she soon decides she’s “tired of hiding” and openly uses her magic in front of Agnes), they implore her to use her powers to “fix the dead”, a feat that she believes is beyond even her and yet she’s stunned when “Pietro” (Peters) shows up on her doorstep, alive and well but sporting a new face and personality. The twins quickly become close to their fun-loving, free-spirited uncle; Pietro still has his superspeed, here depicted very similarly to his MCU counterpart, and is very much the freeloading man child archetype. Pietro causes havoc on Halloween night and is generally a bad influence on the twins, which he claims is what Wanda wants from him. Wanda doesn’t fully trust or understand his appearance, however, and is confused by their differing memories of their childhood; he relates a fuzzy memory of being shot to death and then hearing her calling for him and expresses an awareness of Wanda’s influence on Westview. Rather than judging her, Pietro is impressed at how far her powers have progressed but, just as she begins to feel comfortable enough to open up about how alone she has felt, Wanda has a brief vision of Pietro’s bullet-riddled corpse dead and strikes him with her powers when he makes a glib remark about the Vision’s death, which is enough to cause her to distrust him from then on.

The Vision is angered to discover that Wanda has enslaved Westview, but equally determined to help her.

Despite Wanda’s best efforts, the Vision’s concerns about Wanda and Westview continue to niggle at him; he’s aghast when Wanda brazenly uses her magic in front of Agnes and horrified when he learns the townsfolk are being manipulated by Wanda’s powers. When he confronts her, Wanda tries to walk away from the heated argument, and even rolls the credits, but the Vision persists, desperately trying to talk sense into her and infuriated that he’s being controlled, though Wanda insists that she’s not in control of what’s happening and is simply trying to make the best of it. Still, Wanda is troubled by the Vision’s behaviour towards her and his increasing tendency to go “off-script”; the Vision finds residents locked in (and pained by) endless, repeating loops or frozen in place at the edge of town and is stunned when Agnes reveals that he’s not only an Avenger…but also dead, two things he has no memory of. When he attempts to breach the Hex, he begins to disintegrate before Darcy and Hayward’s eyes, distressing Billy so much that Wanda expands the Hex to cover an even greater area and causes Darcy and several other S.W.O.R.D. agents to become assimilated into WandaVision. This only encourages Hayward’s belief that Wanda is a significant threat to Westview; already antagonistic towards superpowered individuals thanks to the struggles he lived through during the Blip, Hayward believes that Wanda is an aggressive terrorist and routinely clashes with Darcy, Woo, and Monica when they champion Wanda’s heroic actions and frame her as a victim of oppression and experimentation rather than aggressor, despite her recent actions. However, Hayward is unconvinced and even manipulates security footage to suit his agenda when, in reality, he’s reconstructed the Vision’s physical remains into a weapon under his direct control.

It turns out that Agatha Harkness was behind (almost) everything in a bid to steal Wanda’s powers.

When Monica successfully breaches the Hex using a 1980s drone, Hayward attempts to assassinate Wanda, so she leaves her idyllic fantasy land to deliver a warning against him trying to interfere in her life. This, and expanding the Hex’s influence, causes Wanda’s mental state and control over Westview to begin to deteriorate as the show jumps ahead to the late-2000s; the house and town glitch and switch between eras and Wanda jumps at the chance to take a personal day while Agnes watches the twins. However, her confusion over her unpredictable powers soon turns to dread when she discovers an ominous, gothic lair in Agnes’s basement and her magic is rendered useless by a series of runes. This is when Agnes reveals (through a jaunty musical number) that she’s actually a malevolent witch named Agatha Harkness and has been behind everything happening in Westview (including Sparky’s death!) all along. While this is a fun reveal and definitely changes the context of the show, it does fall a little flat as many watching (including myself) would have no real idea of the significance of the name “Agatha Harkness”. Still, WandaVision tries to make up for this with a flashback to 1693 Salem, Massachusetts that shows Agatha being condemned by her fellow witches for practising dark magic from the forbidden tome known as the Darkhold and revealing that she’s capable of draining the magic and lifeforce of other witches to increase her powers. Drawn to, and envious of, Wanda’s power, Agatha desires to learn the secret of Wanda’s natural affinity for magic and forces her to relive some of her most traumatic memories to understand how the Avenger could possibly be the fabled “Scarlet Witch”.

Agatha forces Wanda to relive her worst memories, while the Vision reconciles with his reanimated remains.

Wanda witnesses a childhood memory of how she and her family would regularly watch old US sitcoms to bond and practice their English. It was during young Wanda’s (Michaela Russell) favourite episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961 to 1966) that their home was bombed, killing her parents and trapping her and young Pietro (Gabriel Gurevich) and actually the first instance of her using her Chaos Magic to affect the probability of the missile exploding. A subsequent memory of her volunteering to be a part of Hydra’s experiments with the Mind Stone shows that the Infinity Stone simply amplified Wanda’s natural magical abilities rather than causing them, as the MCU first suggested. Wanda also remembers a time when the Vision offered her comfort after Pietro’s death by suggesting “grief [is] love persevering”, and the truth behind her visit to S.W.O.R.D. headquarters after his death; contrary to Hayward’s earlier footage, Wanda was denied custody of the Vision’s expensive and potentially dangerous remains but was allowed to see for herself that he was truly gone. Grief-stricken, she visited Westview, where the Vision had intended for them to start a life together, and exploded in a burst of Chaos Magic; empowered by her pain and loss, her powers not only swept through Westview, transforming it into its original 1960s sitcom setting and enslaving its citizens, but also reconstituted an exact replica of the Vision for Wanda to settle down with and alleviate her anguish and she willingly lost herself to this fantasy world. Essentially a magic vampire, Agatha takes power from those she deems unworthy, and is far more adept at wielding dark magic than the more emotional and naïve Wanda; Agatha mocks Wanda for wasting the powers of the Scarlet Witch in such a way and goads her into a battle by threatening her children so that she can take that power for herself. Wanda is saved by the intervention of Hayward’s reconstructed Vision; cold and ruthless, White Vision attempts to kill Wanda as per Hayward’s orders, but she’s saved by the Vision. As both Visions prove to be equally matched in terms of powers and abilities, the Vision is able to subdue his counterpart by hypothesising that neither are the “true” Vision by using the philosophy of the Ship of Theseus to show that they are simultaneously both the Vision and not the Vision. The Vision then restores White Vision’s memories and personality, releasing him from Hayward’s control and ending his threat as he darts off the an uncertain future.

Wanda outsmarts Agatha, free Westview, and isolates herself to better understand the powers of the Scarlet Witch.

Hayward’s efforts to bring Wanda down lead Agatha to condemn him and his S.W.O.R.D. troops as being little more than the modern-day equivalent of witch hunters, but Wanda protects them regardless and Monica reveals that repeated exposure to the Hex has granted her superhuman abilities that allow her to shield the twins from Hayward’s attempt to gun them down. Darcy then rams his jeep to keep him from getting away and, thanks to Woo’s subterfuge, Hayward’s plot to emerge a hero from the whole affair is exposed. Agatha reveals that the Darkhold foretold that Wanda’s power is destined to not only rival the Sorcerer Supreme’s, but also to destroy the world, and forces her to face the consequences of her actions by releasing Westview’s citizens from her spell. Wanda is distraught to learn that those she thought she was protecting were in such physical and emotional pain, to the point where they beg her to let them go…or die to be free from their torment. Wanda creates a gap in the Hex so that the citizens can finally leave in order to both atone for her actions and to reject Agatha’s claims, but quickly reseals the Hex to keep Billy, Tommy, and the Vision from being erased. Forced to choose between saving her family or saving the town, Wanda ultimately accepts that she is the legendary Scarlet Witch and manages to outsmart Agatha by first overloading her with her Chaos Magic and then turning Agatha’s trick against her by casting protective runes that render Agatha’s powers inert. Wanda punishes the defeated and despondent Agatha by forcing to reassume her “role” as Agnes as recompense for her actions, and finally dispels the Hex, restoring Westview and the surrounding area to normal. Wanda and the Vision head home with the twins and reassure them that they’ll always be a family, before the two share an emotional last moment together where she admits that he was a product of her love and hope as much as her sadness and promises that they’ll see each other again. While Monica knows how much Wanda sacrificed to restore Westview and understands her pain, Wanda’s faced with the judgemental eyes of those she inadvertently hurt, so she heads out to understand her power in isolation at a remote cabin, where she studies the Darkhold in her astral form.

The Summary:   
At its core, WandaVision is a story about grief, loss, and the extremes one goes to after having suffered through some of the worst traumas both imaginable and unimaginable. Hayward’s concerns over Wanda’s threat, while radical, are well founded as, in a moment of anguish, she effectively manipulated the minds and wills of an entire town and forced them to bend to her desires just to make herself feel better. However, it’s clear that Wanda hasn’t done this out of any animosity or aggression; she’s simply suffering and in a great deal of pain, but has caught many innocent souls in her web as a result. Even the Vision is disturbed to see what Wanda’s influence is doing to Westview’s citizens; by touching his fingers to their temples, the Vision is able to free them from Wanda’s control and is met with only hysteria and pleas for help and to get Wanda to stop. When he confronts Wanda, the Vision is enraged at her actions and yet hoping that she didn’t tear families apart and hijack people’s lives out of any malicious intent…however, even Wanda begins to question her intentions and motivations, and her tendency to lash out and the uncertainty about the true nature of the Scarlet Witch certainly raises questions about her character.

The show’s visual style and presentation change as the characters jump through different sitcom eras.

WandaVision wonderfully separated itself from other MCU productions with its production style, format , and overall presentation, which becomes very metatextual and is full of homages to both the source material (the family dress up in comic-accurate costumes for Halloween) and a wide variety of American sitcoms. The first few episodes are presented in black and white, using an older aspect ratio, and clearly drawing inspiration from the sitcoms of the 1950s and 1960s, particularly the likes of Bewitched (1964 to 1972) in not only its premise and setting but also the filming techniques used (the special effects are achieved using practical, in-camera effects and of-the-time methods to give it that authentic fifties feel). The Bewitched influences are even more explicit in opening titles of the second episode, “Don’t Touch That Dial” (Shakman, 2021), which are directly influenced from that show, and we see this again as the series progresses, particularly in “Breaking the Fourth Wall” (ibid), which emulates the opening titles of Modern Family (2009 to 2020). The series is injected with a wash of colour at the conclusion of “Don’t Touch That Dial” and jumps into the vibrant brightness of the 1970s from “Now in Color” (ibid) to evoke groovy, jaunty, sitcoms like The Brady Bunch (1969 to 1974). With each new era, the character’s wardrobes, hair styles, and the show’s furnishings are all updated accordingly, and the focus quickly becomes about depicting the growth of Wanda’s family unit. Initially, episodes feature a canned laughter track to accompany the many sight gags and double entendres; this laughter track remains even when odd or disturbing events are happening onscreen, such as when characters are in danger of going “off-script”, and is ultimately replaced in favour of characters directly breaking the fourth wall or being filmed in a mockumentary, as was the style of late-2000s sitcoms.

A bunch of weird events, moments, and character quirks sent internet speculation running wild!

WandaVision certainly got people talking when it first came out, and it’s easy to see why; every episode is peppered with gags, double meanings, and vague hints about what’s really happening in Westview (Agnes refers to Wanda as “The star of the show!”, which is another double meaning as she’s the star of the talent show and her own actual show). Many of the episodes end with false commercials for products and services that act as metaphors for Wanda’s suffering and anguish: The Stark Industries ToastMate 2000 is a metaphor for her sex life (and emits the same ominous beeping as the Stark missile that threatened Wanda’s life as a child, alongside the slogan “Forget the past, this is your future!”), Strücker watches directly reference the man who experimented on Wanda, Hydra Soak bath powder promises an experience so relaxing that it’ll make bathers forget their troubles and unlock the “Goddess within”, Lagos paper towels are tough and absorbent enough to clean up any accidental mess, the claymation Yo-Magic yoghurt is delivered to a boy stranded on a desert island who struggles to open the lid and wastes away to a skeleton over the course of several days and nights, and Nexus antidepressant pills offer a reprieve for those struggling with the weight of loneliness, guilt, and the feeling of life moving on without them and desperate for some relief. As if these odd commercials weren’t enough, the early black and white episodes are often punctuated by bursts of colour that disturb Wanda and allude to things being not quite right; Wanda is confused to find a toy helicopter that matches Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey, Jr) colour scheme and a tense discussion between Wanda and Dottie quickly turns bizarre when Woo speaks directly to Wanda through the radio, briefly causing Dottie to snap out of character and cutting herself to reveal red blood against the monochrome surroundings. Furthermore, there are numerous allusions to a greater threat looming in the background, one many assumed to be Mephisto; Dottie states that “The Devil’s in the details” and Agnes lends Wanda her rabbit, Señor Scratchy, but ultimately the threat proved to be much closer to home and hiding in plain sight.

A poignant tale of grief that gives some of the MCU’s supporting characters a chance to shine.

Overall, I can see why so many people were impressed by WandaVision; the show is practically the definition of variety, featuring a lot of humour, heart, and drama to keep you invested throughout its run time. No two episodes are the same, even those set within the same time period, and the show evolves as we learn more about what’s going on, splicing in more of those familiar MCU elements while giving returning side characters like Darcy and Woo more time in the spotlight to shine as interesting personalities in their own right. WandaVision also introduces a new superhero to the MCU in the form of the grown-up Monica Rambeau, who ends the series altered at a cellular level and with the prospect of her own space adventure ahead of her with the Skrulls. Of course, there are some things that don’t work; it’s a bit of a tease to bring in Evan Peters only to have him revealed to be an actor with a ridiculously suggestive name who was manipulated by Agatha rather than actually being the Quicksilver from the X-Men movies (Various, 2014 to 2016). Agatha’s reveal didn’t really work for me either, as mentioned, but I did enjoy her as a villain and puppet master; however, it can’t be denied that reducing WandaVision to a big light show battle did kind of go against the deeper themes explored throughout the previous episodes. I think it might have been more effective to leave the Visions to handle the heavy combat in the finale and have Agatha and Wanda engage in a battle of wills rather than tossing fireballs at each other, but it was a colourful and intense end to the series. I enjoyed the chance to explore these characters in more detail, the new introductions to the MCU, exploring the effects of the snap from a different perspective, and the introduction of Wanda’s children and the expansion of her powers. WandaVision definitely tries something new and, for the most part, manages to stand out through its unique presentation; when it’s exploring Wanda’s complex trauma or paying homage to classic sitcoms, it’s really at its strongest, but there are a few missed opportunities spliced in there that may put some viewers off.

My Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Pretty Good

Did you enjoy WandaVision? What did you think to the themes of grief and loss explored in the series? Did you enjoy the exploration of Wanda and the Vision and the additional spotlight given to some of the MCU’s side characters? What did you think to the use of different colours and filming techniques? Were you also caught up in the speculation, and were you suspicious of Agnes at the time? Did you find Evan Peters’ inclusion disappointing or were you excited to see him included? What do you see happening next for these characters and are you excited to see more from Monica and White Vision? Whatever you think about WandaVision sign up to let me know below or leave a comment on my social media, and check back in next Sunday for more Multiverse Madness!

Talking Movies [Multiverse Madness]: Doctor Strange


In September 1961, DC Comics published “Flash of Two Worlds” (Fox, et al), a landmark story that brought together two generations of the Flash: the Golden Age Jay Garrick and the Silver Age Barry Allen thanks to the concept of the multiverse, an infinite number of parallel universes that allowed any and all stories and characters to co-exist and interact. Marvel Comics would also adopt this concept and, to celebrate the release of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (Raimi, 2022) this month, I’m both celebrating the Master of the Mystic Arts and exploring the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s (MCU) equivalent of the multiverse every Sunday of May.


Released: 4 November 2016
Director: Scott Derrickson
Distributor:
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Budget: $165 to 236.6 million
Stars:
Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Mads Mikkelsen, Benedict Wong, and Tilda Swinton

The Plot:
Doctor Stephen Strange’s (Cumberbatch) life is a celebrated neurosurgeon is shattered after a car accident robs him of the use of his hands. When traditional medicine fails him, he looks for healing, and hope, under the tutelage of the enigmatic Ancient One (Swinton). Arrogantly mastering spells and magics in a short space of time, Dr. Strange is forced to choose between his life of fortune and status and defending the world from the dark forces rogue sorcerer Kaecilius (Mikkelsen) seeks to unleash.

The Background:
The creation of legendary artist Steve Ditko, Dr. Strange started out as a five-page pitch prior to his debut in the pages of Strange Tales and was known for his elaborate spells and quirks and bizarre adventures. Dr. Strange is renowned as one of Marvel’s most pivotal figureheads, and actually has quite the storied history with adaptation. Like a number of Marvel superheroes, the Master of the Mystic Arts first flirted with the silver screen in the seventies thanks to an extremely obscure live-action adaptation that I’m sure the vast majority of people have never heard of. Dr. Strange also cropped up in Marvel cartoons over the years, and even had a feature-length animated adventure back in 2007, but another live-action adaptation very nearly happened in the late-eighties and mid-nineties as well. After many failed attempts to bring the character to cinema screens throughout the 2000s, the legalities surrounding Dr. Strange were tidied up when, in 2014, Dr. Strange was officially announced to be part of the MCU’s third phase of films. Scott Derrickson was chosen to helm the film after producing not only a twelve-page scene for the film but also a ninety-minute pitch, concept art, and even an animatic all at his own expense. Derrickson’s background was in horror, and he aimed to ensure that he had actors of the highest calibre to experience the film’s fantastical elements. Although many actors were considered for the title role, Derrickson (and many fans) always envisioned Benedict Cumberbatch as the Sorcerer Supreme, and the actor took great care to properly reproduce the character’s hand gestures from Ditko’s art work. Derrickson also returned to Ditko’s original art for the film’s special effects, which aimed to bombard the viewer with surreal imagery and fantastical visuals to set the film apart from others in the MCU. Despite being one of Marvel’s more obscure superheroes, Doctor Strange was a massive success; its worldwide gross of almost $680 million ensured that the film would receive a sequel, and the film was universally praised for its visuals and originality in a genre quickly becoming bloated with superhero adventures.

The Review:
I remember being quite excited and intrigued when Doctor Strange was announced and the first trailers dropped; Dr. Strange is another Marvel superhero who I am not really all that familiar with, as my reading of him is limited to a few sporadic appearances in other stories and the comics collected in his Marvel Platinum compilation. Thus, the bulk of my knowledge about him comes from what I’ve read online, his appearances in the 1994 Spider-Man cartoon, and the aforementioned animated feature; however, it turned out that this was more than enough to make me familiar with the character, some of his abilities, and a couple of his major enemies ahead of seeing his live-action debut for the first time.

Arrogant neurosurgeon Dr. Strange is ironically left unable to operate after a devastating car crash.

When we’re first introduced to Dr. Strange, he’s already a wealthy, acclaimed, and arrogant neurosurgeon; so talented are Dr. Strange’s abilities that he can easily perform life-saving brain surgery while identifying music tracks, and not only instantly identify a premature case of brain death and operate on a man already declared clinically dead but also perform complex invasive procedures into the brain without the aid of scans or camera imagery. Dr. Strange is so full of himself that he talks down to others at every opportunity, offering little in the way of professional courtesy or respect, and routinely turns down surgical prospects that he deems unworthy of this time and attention in order to be given a real challenge. He believes that a normal, everyday Emergency Room is a “butcher’s shop” that is capable of only saving one life at a time compared to the scope of his more specialised field of expertise, which has brought him fame and acclaim. This has bought him a luxurious apartment full of expensive clothes and accessories, and a supercar that he drives with reckless abandon that is only compounded by his insistence on talking on speaker phone while rocketing around tight, winding roads outside of the city; distracted by his phone, Dr. Strange is blindsided and sent careening down a cliff side in a horrific car crash that leaves him a bloodied, broken mess. Although he survives, his hands are completed shattered from the accident and, following many painful and desperate surgeries, he is left frustrated and angered by a constant trembling in his hands that spells the end of his surgical career.

Former lover Christine is the closet thing Dr. Strange has to a friend.

Dr. Strange’s condescending attitude and tendency to show off means he clashes with fellow surgeon Nicodemus “Nick” West (Michael Stuhlbarg), a fully qualified and experienced doctor whom Dr. Strange sees as an incompetent fool at the start of the film. Dr. Strange partially blames Nick for the state of his wrecked hands mid-way through the film, but he is forced to turn to him later on when his trembling hands still prove incapable of performing surgery. However, while also frustrated by Dr. Strange’s attitude, his medical skill and sheer genius in the operating room are a source of awe to Doctor Christine Palmer (McAdams), a former lover of Strange’s and the closest thing he has to a friend. While he helps her with a misdiagnosed patient, he does so mainly to stick it to Nick and more to show off his incredible talents rather than out of any kind of professional courtesy, and, though the two share some banter given their previous relationship, she knows all-too-well how vain and self-centred Dr. Strange is. However, even she couldn’t predict the sudden shift in his attitude following the accident; where he was once arrogant and condescending, Dr. Strange becomes a broken, infuriated, embittered man who lashes out at her attempts to help, drains his fortune on experimental procedures, and is so driven to desperation that he seeks out Jonathan Pangborn (Benjamin Bratt), a former paraplegic who made a miraculous recovery and points him towards Kamar-Taj.

Mordo is a devout follower of the Ancient One, an all-powerful sorcerer with a dark secret.

Using the last of his resources, Dr. Strange travels to Kathmandu to seek out the mysterious Kamar-Taj and attracts the attention of Karl Mordo (Ejiofor), who saves Strange from a brutal beating at the hands of muggers and brings him to the doorstep of a dilapidated building, where he is introduced to “The Ancient One”. Even in his pain and suffering, Dr. Strange remains sceptical and somewhat insolent; this is understandable, to be fair, given he’s a man of science and logic and the idea of magic is as bizarre to him as it would be to us, but his insolence is only exacerbated thanks to his relentless ego and temper. Mordo empathises with Strange’s scepticism, and even relates to it, but is a far more respectful and informed individual after learning from the Ancient One. The Ancient One literally forces Dr. Strange to open his eyes to a wider world, one beyond the limits of the physical body and his rational perspective on life, by pushing him into the Astral Dimension by separating his Astral Form from his body. There, beyond time and space and the limits of reality, he is given the briefest glimpse of the vast, dangerous wonder of the multiverse. Though cast away from Kamar-Taj, Dr. Strange’s stubbornness impresses Mordo, who is able to convince the Ancient One to give the damaged neurosurgeon a chance to redeem himself under their tutelage, despite the similarities she sees between Strange and Kaecilius.

Though a quick study, Dr. Strange struggles to let go of his scepticism and overcome his physical ailments.

What follows is an extended training montage in which the Ancient One introduces to Dr. Strange (an the audience) the logistics of magic and how it works in the MCU; through training and hard work, sorcerers are able to draw upon energies from across the multiverse to conjure weapons, cast spells, and work wonders. Because of the damage to his hands, Strange initially struggles with the physical aspects of his training, but is humbled when he sees an amputee performing spells and learns that he must set aside his ego, and his disbelief, in order to succeed; the Ancient One pushes him to this revelation by stranding him on Mount Everest and forcing him to transport himself back or risk death. Thankfully (or conveniently, depending on your perspective), Dr. Strange possesses a photographic memory; just as this allowed him to acquire Medical Doctorate and PhD at the same time, this means that he can digest multiple volumes from the Kamar-Taj library both while awake and asleep thanks to utilising his Astral Form. Dr. Strange’s thirst for knowledge and incredible learning ability impresses the Kamar-Taj librarian, Wong (Wong), who puts Strange onto more advanced tomes and warns him against stealing from the Ancient One’s private collection. Stoic and gruff, Wong provides much of the film’s comic relief, but it’s also through him (and while learning combat alongside Mordo) that Dr. Strange learns more about Kaecilius and how he fell from grace.

Kaecilius is determined to expose the Ancient One and “save” the world from death and suffering.

Kaecilius was introduced at the very start of the film, when he and his zealots attacked Kamar-Taj, and stole pages from one of the library’s many mystical tomes before managing to escape from the Ancient One after one hell of a visually impressive confrontation in what we later learn is the “Mirror Dimension”, a pocket reality where the environment is constantly shifting and changed around the inhabitants as the caster dictates. Proud and headstrong, Kaecilius questioned the Ancient One’s teachings and turned against his teacher after learning that the Ancient One was drawing forbidden powers from the Dark Dimension to extend her lifespan and grant her her awesome powers. A cold, driven man, Kaecilius believes her to be a hypocrite who deceived all of her pupils and, alongside those he has convinced to his cause, works to decipher the pages he stole from Kamar-Taj to both draw from that same dark energy and expose the Ancient One’s true nature. This sees him, and his fellow zealots, become imbued with the malevolent influence of the Dread Dormammu (Cumberbatch), a primordial cosmic entity that is seemingly the embodiment of hatred and seeks to infest and conquer all realities using sorcerers like Kaecilius as puppets. Kaecilius, sadly, falls into the same trap as many MCU villains in that he’s largely a waste of a talented actor and disappointingly absent for much of the film; spoken about as a kind of bogeyman and as a dark mirror of Dr. Strange, Kaecilius ends up being a lot like Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) in that he makes an impression when he is on screen thanks to Mikkelsen’s scowling countenance and silky-smooth line delivery but ends up being a regrettably forgettable villain who is simply there to give Dr. Strange someone to fight against and strive to be the opposite of.

The Nitty-Gritty:
Magic such as this is a tricky concept to bring to life, and was wholly new to the MCU at the time; we had seen a version of magic before, of course, one that is just as much attributed to near-God-like alien physiology and technology, but had never seen literal, unequivocal magical spells and abilities before. Thus, it was smart of the film to introduce this franchise-changing concept slowly, and in a way that kept things tantalisingly grounded (for the most part) while hinting at magic’s incredible (and near-limitless potential). Sorcerers tend to limit their magic to glowing, sparking whips, shields, or melee weapons and to instantaneously shift from one location to another, and often focus their abilities through weapons or objects such as the Staff of the Living Tribunal or the Sling Ring. The film slowly develops the wealth and potential of magic as it progresses, localising it in the mysterious foreign land of Kamar-Taj and then expanding it to encompass more familiar and urban locations, such as New York City. This allows us to see that this kind of magic has always existed in the MCU, we just haven’t experienced it yet, and it was smart to frame magic, and the secret of Kamar-Taj, as a mystery that Dr. Strange must solve.

Dr. Strange mostly focuses on defensive magic, but recklessly experiments with the Time Stone.

Wong reveals to Dr. Strange that the true purpose of Kamar-Taj, and the sorcerers, is to man three Sanctum Sanctorums across the world and continuously fend off threats from beyond their world, such as Dormammu, in an on-going battle of light against darkness. Despite everything he’s seen and learned, this is where Dr. Strange initially chooses to bow out since he has no intention of fighting a magical war, but he is forced to fight alongside Mordo and Wong when Kaecilius suddenly attacks the Sanctum Sanctorums. Though a talented and peerless surgeon, Dr. Strange struggles to learn the ways of magic; even after absorbing knowledge from Wong’s library, he is severely outmatched against Kaecilius and his followers, and succeeds only through luck, the use of rudimentary spells, and the intervention of the Cloak of Levitation, a semi-sentient cape that allows him to fly and adds more comic relief to the film. Dr. Strange’s scepticism soon turns to an insatiable thirst for knowledge and to challenge himself by experimenting with more and more advanced magic; this not only leads him to steal volumes from the library and question the nature of Kamar-Taj, but also to experiment with the Eye of Agamotto. This ancient relic houses the Time Stone and allows the user to control the flow of time itself, localising it to reverse or speed up time as they dictate, and Wong and Mordo are angered by Strange’s recklessness with the Infinity Stone. Mordo, in particular, is outraged at Strange’s careless tampering with the laws of reality, something he believes should be protected at all costs, just as he whole-heartedly believes in the teachings and standards set by the Ancient One.  

The Ancient One teaches Dr. Strange about the vast dangers of the multiverse which dwarf his ego.

The multiverse is presented as a veritable acid trip, a bizarre bombardment of colours, energy, and surreal environments that overwhelm Dr. Strange’s perception of reality and throw all logic out of the window. This, and the fantastical nature of Dr. Strange, allows the film to stand out from others in the MCU with some truly trippy visuals, such as New York collapsing in on itself, Dr. Strange’s Astral Form directing Christine’s attempts to save his physical body (and even killing one of Kaecilius’s followers, something he is aghast at thanks to his Hippocratic Oath), and worlds full of fantastic visuals, warped gravity, and cosmic impossibilities that exist side-by-side with a Dark Dimension full of malice and hatred, where only malevolence lives. Seduced by Dormammu’s influence, Kaecilius longs to destroy all concepts of time and allow the Dark Dimension to envelop the world in a perverted attempt to “save” it. So driven by his conviction and power is Kaecilius that he fatally wounds the Ancient One, but not before revealing that the Ancient One has been drawing power from the Dark Dimension. Before dying, the Ancient One explains to Dr. Strange, in the Astral Dimension, that her methods were necessary in order to defend the world and that such bending of the rules will be necessary to balance out Mordo’s steadfast nature and defeat Kaecilius.

Dr. Strange successfully bargains with Dormammu, but Mordo is left disillusioned by deception.

Indeed, Dr. Strange is faced with an apocalyptic scenario when Kaecilius and his zealots conjure Dormammu in Hong Kong, leading to widespread chaos and destruction and the deaths of Wong and many other sorcerers. Taking the Ancient One’s words to heart, Dr. Strange sees no other option but to first reverse time to restore those who have fallen and journey to the Dark Dimension himself and confront Dormammu head-on. There, in a world of swirling, nightmarish, eldritch horror, we see how truly gigantic the scope of the MCU is as the titanic cosmic being that is the Dread Dormammu dwarfs the fledging sorcerer and threatens to overcome the entire world and spread his reach to every man, woman, and child. However, Dr. Strange has the last laugh when he unleashes the power of the Time Stone to trap Dormammu in an ever-repeating loop of time; there, Dormammu’s continual attempts to kill Dr. Strange, though successful, ultimately fail as the loop resets over and over, angered the malevolent creature since he is unfamiliar with the concept of time and forced to bargain with Dr. Strange. In return for taking Kaecilius and his followers and abandoning his desires to consume the Earth, Dr. Strange agrees to release Dormammu from the loop, thus saving the entire world and ending the threat from the Dark Dimension. Although we see Dr. Strange die again and again, we have no way of knowing exactly how long this loop lasted for, or how much pain and suffering Dr. Strange endured as he made perhaps the greatest sacrifice of anyone in the MCU as he was fully committed to ending his days in that cycle of death and this moment not only completed Dr. Strange’s character arc in the film of learning to set aside his ego but also cemented him as a big-time player in the larger MCU. Unfortunately, while Dr. Strange finally sees that his true destiny is to serve a greater good, Mordo is disillusioned by the revelations and the lengths that Strange goes to to repel Dormammu and pledges to rid the world of sorcerers.

The Summary:
Doctor Strange remains one of the most unique and intriguing entries in the MCU; even when Thor Odinson (Chris Hemsworth) first burst into the franchise and shook it up by introducing Gods and a version of magic, and we started seeing the first hints of the Infinity Stones, I never would have guessed that we would see the Sorcerer Supreme reversing the flow of time, fending off cosmic entities like Dormammu, or blowing the fabric of his fictional world apart with concepts like the multiverse. And yet, at its core, Doctor Strange is the humbling story of redemption for a vain, arrogant asshole of a man who endures a horrific accident, has his entire world destroyed, and is forced to accept a greater destiny. It’s pretty clear now that the intention was to set up Doctor Strange as a counterpart to Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr); both are snarky, self-absorbed men who put their unique talents to use in service of both personal glory and the wellbeing of the world around them. However, while Iron Man helped to ground the MCU and make its fantastical elements relatable, Dr. Strange’s very existence meant that the scope of the MCU was basically limitless and we’ve since seen that it stretches beyond even our reality. Full of mind-bending visuals that make for some entertaining action sequences, Doctor Strange might have played things a little too safe but that’s not exactly a bad thing when it comes to a concept like magic, which can basically do anything and make characters like Dr. Strange severely overpowered. Thankfully, the film frames Strange as very much a rookie and struggling to master and even fully understand this bizarre world he has entered into, meaning that subsequent appearances by the character can simply build upon the foundations laid by this fantastical first film.

My Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Great Stuff

Were you a fan of Doctor Strange? What did you think to the introduction of magic to the MCU and the way the film explained the concept? Did you enjoy Dr. Strange’s character arc and portrayal in the film? What did you think to the Ancient One and the depiction of Mordo? Were you also a little disappointed by Kaecilius, and what did you think to the final showdown between Dr. Strange and Dormammu? What are some of your favourite stories involving these characters and do you think Dr. Strange is too overpowered as a character? Whatever your thoughts on Doctor Strange, sign up to leave your thoughts below or leave a comment on my social media, and check back in next Sunday for more Multiverse Madness!

Talking Movies [Iron Man Month]: Iron Man 3


Anthony “Tony” Stark/Iron Man first lived, walked, and conquered in the pages of Tales of Suspense #39, published in March 1963 and brought to life by Marvel mastermind Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, and Don Heck. Since then, ol’ shellhead has gone through numerous different armours, served on Marvel’s premier super team, the Avengers, struggled with alcoholism, and shot into mainstream superstardom thanks to am iconic, career-defining portrayal by Robert Downey Jr. and, to celebrate Iron Man’s debut, I’m dedicating every Monday in March.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Rating:

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Could Be Better

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

Talking Movies [Iron Man Month]: Iron Man 2


Anthony “Tony” Stark/Iron Man first lived, walked, and conquered in the pages of Tales of Suspense #39, published in March 1963 and brought to life by Marvel mastermind Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, and Don Heck. Since then, ol’ shellhead has gone through numerous different armours, served on Marvel’s premier super team, the Avengers, struggled with alcoholism, and shot into mainstream superstardom thanks to am iconic, career-defining portrayal by Robert Downey Jr. and, to celebrate Iron Man’s debut, I’m dedicating every Monday in March.


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

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

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

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

Tony’s characteristic bravado masks his debilitating sickness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Great Stuff

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

Talking Movies [Iron Man Month]: Iron Man


Anthony “Tony” Stark/Iron Man first lived, walked, and conquered in the pages of Tales of Suspense #39, published in March 1963 and brought to life by Marvel mastermind Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, and Don Heck. Since then, ol’ shellhead has gone through numerous different armours, served on Marvel’s premier super team, the Avengers, struggled with alcoholism, and shot into mainstream superstardom thanks to am iconic, career-defining portrayal by Robert Downey Jr. and, to celebrate Iron Man’s debut, I’m dedicating every Monday in March.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Fantastic

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

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

Talking Movies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Talking Movies [Sci-Fi Sunday]: Ant-Man


January sees the celebration of two notable dates in science-fiction history, with January 2 christened “National Science Fiction Day” to coincide with the birth date of the world renowned sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov, and HAL 9000, the sophisticated artificial intelligence of Arthur C. Clarke’s seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), being created on 12 January. Accordingly, I’m spending every Sunday of January celebrating sci-fi in all its forms.


Talking Movies

Released: 17 July 2015
Director: Peyton Reed
Distributor:
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Budget: $130 to 169.3 million
Stars:
Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll, Abby Ryder Fortson, and Michael Douglas

The Plot:
Petty thief Scott Lang (Rudd) struggles to adapt to the straight and narrow after being released from prison. Determined to prove himself to his young daughter, Cassie (Fortson), he turns to stealing once more and unwittingly finds himself in possession of Doctor Hank Pym’s (Douglas) incredible Ant-Man suit. Gifted with a real opportunity to turn his life around, Scott trains with Pym and his stern daughter, Hope van Dyne (Lilly), to master the suit’s ability to shrink and control ants in order to keep the conniving Doctor Darren Cross (Stoll) from perverting Pym’s life’s work into a weapon.

The Background:
When comic book readers were first introduced to Hank Pym/Ant-Man, he wasn’t quite the garishly-costumed Avenger would later help form the Avengers; instead, he was merely a scientist featured in the pages of Tales to Astonish #27. The creation of the legendary duo Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the character was re-envisioned as a superhero eight issues later and would go on to be a consistent, if unstable, character in the pages of Marvel Comics. Crucially, however, Pym wasn’t the only character to take up the mantle of Ant-Man; one of Pym’s most notable successors was Scott Lang, a reformed criminal created by David Michelinie, Bob Layton, and John Byrne, who took over the role in 1979. Both Hank Pym and Scott Lang had featured in Marvel cartoons and videogames since their debut, but development of a live-action film can be traced back to the 1980s, when development was scuppered by a similar concept, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (Johnston, 1989). The project finally started gaining traction in the early-2000s when Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish wrote a film treatment focusing on the Scott Lang version of the character for Artisan Entertainment, who held the film rights at the time.

Ant-Man is a mantle worn by many characters and the film took over ten years to develop.

Over the next ten years, the film was continually showcased and teased; the character was bumped from the first phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and eventually slotted in to debut in Phase Three. Sadly, Wright eventually left the project in 2014, right after both casting and the script had been finalised, due to “creative differences” between himself and Marvel Studios. Peyton Reed soon succeeded Wright as the director and worked closely with star Paul Rudd (who underwent a physical transformation for the role) and writer Adam McKay to rework and expand upon Wright’s script. Double Negative and Industrial Light & Magic handled the film’s shrinking effects, with star Corey Stoll sporting a motion capture suit to bring the villainous Yellowjacket to life. Finally, after being in development for over ten years, Ant-Man released to a massive $519.3 million worldwide gross; the reviews were equally impressive, with critics praising the film’s family dynamic, performances, and the unique blend of humour and action that set it apart from other MCU films. The film performed so well that a sequel was produced in 2018, and a third instalment is due for release later this year, and only served to further bolster Rudd’s undeniable charm and charisma.

The Review:
Ant-Man is one of those Marvel superheroes that I’ve never really had strong feelings about one way or another. Like many, I mostly know the character as being an emotionally and psychologically unstable individual who occasionally abuses his wife and has inferiority complexes, though I primarily associate the character with one of the Avengers’ greatest villains, Ultron. Consequently, while Ant-Man and the Wasp were instrumental in the formation of the Avengers in the comics, I can’t say that I was too disappointed to see the character miss out on the big screen debut of Marvel’s premier superhero team. However, by the time Ant-Man was produced, the MCU was really ramping up its scope; the Avengers had formed, we’d seen Gods and bleeding-edge technology and even space adventures and, while Ant-Man probably would have fit in nicely during the MCU’s first phase (although it probably would have been deemed too derivative), it was actually a surprising breath of fresh air to come back down to “ground level”, so to speak, before really getting balls deep into the Infinity Saga.

Years after Hank quit S.H.I.E.L.D., ex-con Scott tries his best to set a good example and rebuild his life.

Ant-Man opens up in 1989 and by showcasing just how far de-aging technology has come as Hank Pym (digitally restored to match the time period) angrily confronts Howard Stark (John Slattery), Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell made up to look noticeably older), and Mitchell Carson (Martin Donovan) after discovering the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division’s (S.H.I.E.L.D.) attempts to replicate his Hank Particle technology. While Peggy is shocked at the revelation, Howard tries to impress upon Hank that his research could be put to far better, greater use than simply fuelling his efforts as Ant-Man. Already annoyed at being reduced to a glorified errand boy, Hank is pushed to the edge when Carson mocks his anger and brings up his late-wife, Janet, leading to Hank lashing out, breaking Carson’s nose, and quitting S.H.I.E.L.D. Although Howard pleads with Hank to reconsider, Hank storms out, making an enemy of Carson in the process and establishing a few key plot points for the movie: Hank doesn’t trust S.H.I.E.L.D., seems a little unstable, and is highly protective of his research. The film then jumps ahead to then-present day to introduce us to Scott Lang right as he’s being released from prison; a former VistaCorp systems engineer, Scott is a veritable genius, holding a Master’s degree in Electrical Engineering but is reduced to working a menial job at Baskins-Robbins in his desperate attempt to stay on the straight and narrow and set a good example for his young daughter, Cassie (Fortson). It’s crucial to note that that Scott wasn’t arrested for anything violent or threatening (indeed, he states that he hates violence); instead, he hacked into VistaCorp’s security system and redistributed misbegotten funds to their victims before exposing their misdeeds online, painting him as a sympathetic, almost Robin Hood-like figure right from the outset as he strives to do good deeds and has a clear moral compass but isn’t exactly the best at making responsible decisions. Although Scott has a strained relationship with his ex-wife, Maggie (Judy Greer), and her new fiancé, cop Jim Paxton (Bobby Cannavale), he is extremely close to Hope, who is always excited to see him. He’s desperate to make up for lost time but faces nothing but an uphill battle to show that he’s changed and can be a responsible adult.

Luis’s enthusiasm is offset by Hanks’ cantankerous nature and Darren’s lust for power.

After his release, Scott is taken in by his former cellmate and best friend, Luis (Michael Peña), an enthusiastic, supportive, and incredibly friendly and optimistic former con who initially tries to coax Scott back into his former life. Luis is one of many highlights in Ant-Man; in many ways a predecessor to the colourful characters and banter we’d see in Thor: Ragnarok (Waititi, 2017), Luis just exudes likeability and friendliness. Peña’s delivery and fast-talking cadence also provide one of the film’s most hilarious moments where Luis rapidly breaks down the particulars of a big-time score, which is fantastically realised with Peña’s voice playing over a number of other ancillary characters as he enthusiastically tells Scott how he came by this information. Luis sets Scott up at an apartment and introduces him to Dave (Tip “T.I.” Harris) and Kurt (David Dastmalchian), both of whom are only too eager to assist with Scott’s heist into a rich old man’s house and make that big score. Scott doesn’t return to his cat burglar ways lightly, but believes he has no choice if he ever hopes to set himself up with an apartment, pay his child maintenance fees, and see his daughter again. In the interim years after the opening, Hank Pym has done pretty well for himself; he set up his own company, Hank Technologies, and is clearly quite wealthy from the research and technology developed there. However, he has slowly become more and more of a recluse and been pushed further away from his company; his protégé, Darren Cross, is in the final stages of assuming full control of Hank Technologies, renaming it Cross Technologies, and fully replicating the Hank Particle technology. Fascinated by Hank’s past as the shrunken secret agent superhero Ant-Man, Darren has developed a suit, the “Yellowjacket”, to reproduce the technology and sell it as a peacekeeping weapon for geo-political and military applications. Hank is frustrated by all of this, especially Darren’s insistence on reproducing the Ant-Man technology, but handicapped by his ability to do anything about it; prolonged exposure to the Hank Particles has left Hank physically unable to suit up again because of the risk of further (and permanent) damage to his mind and body but he is equally adamant that his estranged daughter, Hope, not take up the mantle because of the risk not only to her but also his lingering guilt and fear after losing his wife to that same technology.   

Darren is not just on the cusp of having everything he lusts for, but also completely going off the rails.

Although Darren is frustrated at his inability to shrink organic material, both Hank and Hope know that it’s only a matter of time before he cracks the secret and begins manufacturing weaponised Ant-Man technology. Although Hank is reluctant to risk losing Hope, he’s more than happy to recruit Scott to his cause, having identified him as the perfect expendable candidate for their operation thanks to his intellect and skills as a cat burglar. I always found Hank’s reasoning here very interesting, and somewhat hypocritical; he won’t risk losing Hope so he brings in Scott, positioning him to a point where the former thief has little choice but to agree to become Ant-Man, but Scott has quite a lot to lose as well so it just goes to show that Hank, for all his morals and ethics, doesn’t necessarily have the most clean-cut of motivations. Anyway, Scott is initially disheartened to learn that all his efforts have resulted in only an old motorcycle suit and a funky helmet but, upon slipping into the outfit out of sheer curiosity, he is both excited and horrified to discover that it enables him to shrink down to near-microscopic proportions at the push of a button! Scott is naturally freaked out and attempts to return the suit, only to be arrested in the process and perfectly placed for Hank to exposit a truncated version of his life story and his troubles with Darren Cross. For a stereotypical, suit-wearing antagonist, Darren actually has a few things going for him that help him to break free of the corporate bad-guy trope I loathe so much. Of course he’s a smooth-talking, slick weasel and a sharp businessman, but he’s also a manipulative and sadistic asshole; he took full advantage of Hank’s trust and faith to gain a majority interest in Hank Technologies, leeched every bit of information and brilliance from his mentor he possibly could to advance his own career and self-interests, and has no qualms about killing those who get in his way using perverted Hank Particles to reduce them to a gooey residue. He’s a highly intelligent, and highly unstable, antagonist who oozes charm but also menace; you’re never really sure what he’s thinking and you can almost see the urge to lash out and go full crazy bubbling beneath the surface. In many ways, he’s a dark opposite for both Scott and Hank since he’s kind of like what Scott could have become if he’d gone down that path while also being on the verge of a full-on meltdown like Hank seems to be half the time. Both Darren and Scott also have eyes on Hope, but Darren’s lack of mortality and lust for power are what separate him from his rival.

Hope resents her father keeping things from her and stopping her from suiting up.

Hope and Hank have a strained relationship, to say the least; she resents her father for keeping the truth about what happened to her mother from her, and for picking Scott over her, however they come together when they realise how dangerously close Darren is to perfecting and weaponising the Ant-Man technology. Still, Hope is very abrasive to both Scott and her father, referring to him as “Hank” or “Dr. Pym” for much of the film and constantly annoyed at Scott’s ignorance. Familiar with both Darren’s research and personality, as well as the particulars of Hank’s technology, to say nothing of the company’s security measures and systems, Hope is also Scott’s physical superior in every way; she sees Scott as a bungling, naïve fool who’s in over his head and is greatly frustrated at her father’s apparent lack of trust in her. To be fair, Hank distrusts almost everyone; he resents both S.H.I.E.L.D. and the flamboyant nature of the Avengers, and sees this job as being more about subterfuge then barging in all guns blazing. Hank is also tortured at the loss of his wife, who joined him for his pint-sized adventures as the Wasp and was lost to him after she was forced to reduce herself down beyond the limits of the suit and got lost in the “Quantum Realm” as a result. Scott’s influence on the two is palpable; by sharing with Hope that Hank clearly loves her and doesn’t want to risk losing her, he not only learns the trick to communicating with Hank’s ants but also helps mend the rift between father and daughter, finally revealing the truth about her mother’s death and her father’s inability to cope with the grief of his greatest failure. Consequently, all three are forced to set aside their differences, and self-doubts, in order to redeem each other and keep Darren from potentially threatening the world for the next generation.

The Nitty-Gritty:
One thing that sets Ant-Man apart from other films in the MCU, particularly at the time it was made, was its strong emphasis towards humour; humour has always been a big part of the MCU, but Ant-Man is basically part-comedy and shines all the brighter for it. Paul Rudd impresses in the title role with his incredible screen charisma, likeability, and comedic timing and the film features not just the traditional snark and biting wit of the MCU but also some truly amusing gags relating to Baskin-Robbins (they always find out) and Titanic (Cameron, 1997), but also excellent use of sight gags and editing (the film consistently cuts away from the drama of Scott’s shrunken adventures to see him barely having an impact on the real world). Ant-Man also separates itself from other MCU movies by being as much a heist movie as it is a superhero affair; Scott and his crew undergo a great deal of preparation and planning before breaking into Hank’s house, which involves acquiring uniforms, cutting power lines, and communicating from a nondescript van. Once Scott is inside the house, we get to see just how capable and adaptable he is; he’s slick and agile, easily able to slip inside with barely a whisper, and cobbles together unique solutions to break into Hank’s antique vault using only household items. Whilst being trained in combat by Hope and the particulars to the suit by Hank, Scott lends his skills to planning the assault on Pym Technologies, which involves studying the layouts and the security systems and the defences surrounding the Yellowjacket suit. This requires a highly co-ordinated attack on all fronts, using every resource at their disposal, including not just Scott’s crew (much to Hank’s chagrin) and also an infiltrating into the Avengers compound. This leads to a brief scuffle between Ant-Man and Sam Wilson/The Falcon (Anthony Mackie) that is the first true test of Scott’s newfound abilities, and additional opportunities for Luis and Scott’s amusing cohorts to shine with their hilarious shenanigans.

The suits look fantastic thanks to both excellent practical and digital effects.

Ant-Man absolutely excels in its visuals and presentation. The Ant-Man suit itself is a thing a beauty; fittingly drawing its influences from Scott Lang’s comic book adventures and more modern interpretations of the character, it’s not a mechanised suit of armour or made up of fancy nanotech and wis, instead, a very tangible and almost rudimentary costume that resembles a motorcycle outfit. It looks advanced, but not so advanced that it’s impossible to believe a genius like Hank Pym could have made it at home and with limited resources, and I love how it seems so functional and practical. The helmet is especially impressive, especially in this first outing for the character; rather then peeling back like nanotech, it flips up and is a largely practical prop, all of which works wonders for bringing this frankly ridiculous character to life. Darren’s Yellowjacket outfit is functionally similar, but noticeably different; for starters, it was brought to life using digital effects but I sure as hell couldn’t really tell that when watching the film. Yellowjacket has always been a bit of an absurd character, costume, and concept for me but the film presents the character as very menacing and technologically superior to Ant-Man in everyway. While it’s admittedly very “safe” for the film to wheel out the dark doppelgänger trope again, Yellowjacket can not only shrink and grow himself and other objects but he can also fly and sports stinger-like blasters on his back; this, coupled with the characters’ distinctive red and yellow colour schemes, really makes it much easier to distinguish the two in their climatic fight scene.

Ant-Man’s unique ability to shrink makes for some fun and innovative action sequences and visuals.

Naturally, Ant-Man’s most unique selling point is the character’s ability to shrink down to a near-microscopic level; this effect is rendered using digital technology and directly attributed to the suit and the Pym Particles, meaning that Scott must stay in the suit and the helmet at all times to stay alive when shrunken. Although minuscule in size, Scott retains his full-size strength and weight, effectively making him superhuman when he’s shrunk. However, the dangers surrounding him are many and varied; normal, everyday things such as a person entering a room, rats, and water are life-threatening hazards and the effect is, quite naturally, very disorientating for Scott for much of the first half of the film. Thanks to a lengthy (and amusing) montage sequence, Scott slowly learns to master the suit, which enables him to shrunk and grow in a fraction of a second to pass through the smallest openings, strike with near-superhuman speed, strength, and swiftness, and enlarge or reduce everyday objects to be used as weapons in combat. As versatile as the suit is, perhaps the greatest benefit of the suit is the ability to control ants using electromagnetic waves. Hank is obviously the absolute master of this; he controls flying ants to spirit Scott across the city, commands “Bullet Ants” to keep him subdued, and even directs drones to communicate and pass sugar cubes. While Hank is very clinical about this ability, preferring to number the ants rather than name them and grow attached to them, Scott is much more appreciative of their help and bonds with them like one would a pet. He names his flying ant “Anthony” and is devastated when it is killed near the finale, but also learns through his training of the particular differences and practical applications of each of the different types of ants at his disposal: “Crazy Ants” can conduct electricity to fry electronics, Bullet Ants deliver an excruciating sting, “Carpenter Ants” allow him to fly about at high speeds, and “Fire Ants” not only bite but also form bridges and pathways. By the finale, Scott has fully mastered the suit and the ants, and is able to shrink and grow in the blink of an eye to dodge bullets and take down entire groups of highly trained, armed men, leading to some of the MCU’s most unique action sequences as everyday locations are rendered exciting and action-packed thanks to Scott’s diminutive stature.

Yellowjacket is defeated, Ant-Man returns from the Quantum Realm, and Hope finally earns her wings.

A particularly frosty confrontation between Hank and Darren sets Cross off and sees him beefing up security, leading to an escalation in Hank’s plans. Although he despairs of Scott’s friends, Hank begrudgingly accepts their help in causing distractions and infiltrating Pym Technology. While Ant-Man and his ants fry the servers and cause chaos to the security systems, Hank puts himself in considerable danger as Darren negotiates the selling of the Yellowjacket technology to Carson and his Hydra associates, and the two finally reveal their true faces as hated enemies. Although Hank is wounded in the fracas, the timely intervention of Hope allows Scott to escape when he’s captured; Hope’s pleas to Darren fall on deaf ears and, pushed to the edge by the destruction of his company, he dons the Yellowjacket suit for himself and fully embraces his hatred and lust for power. This leads to some fun and incredibly unique fight scenes as Ant-Man and Yellowjacket battle not just on a damaged helicopter but also in a suitcase, bouncing about between packets of sweets, keys, and a mobile phone, and Ant-Man bats Yellowjacket into a fly zapper with a table tennis pad. Darren’s knowledge of Scott’s identity leads to him targeting Cassie, escalating their conflict significantly and leading to my favourite fight sequence of the film where Ant-Man and Yellowjacket duke it out on a toy train set and across Cassie’s bedroom, leading not just to an enlarged ant being set loose upon the city but a gigantic Thomas the Tank Engine crashing out into the street! Yellowjacket’s titanium armour proves too tough for Ant-Man and, with his daughter at risk, Scott has no choice but to risk going sub-atomic in order to disrupt Darren’s suit and reduce him down into a twisted nothingness. Adrift in the Quantum Realm, Scott is disorientated and bombarded with bizarre visuals but holds on to his memories and love for Cassie and uses those emotions to force himself back to consciousness, repairing his regulator and returning to the real world. His heroic actions and self-sacrifice earn him not just his daughter’s adulation but Paxton’s respect, finally allowing him to be a part of Cassie’s life once more or for them to build a family unit. His return also gives Hank the hope that he might be able to retrieve his wife one day, and finally sees Scott and Hope act on their mutual attraction for each other. The film concludes with Luis (eventually) relating that the Falcon is actively seeking out Ant-Man for help with a much bigger problem that affects not just the superhero community, but the entire world, and Hank finally gifting Hope with her own Wasp suit for the next go-around.

The Summary:
I wasn’t expecting much when I went into Ant-Man; the MCU was growing and starting to veer away towards the cosmic and outlandish and it seemed like their days of doing more grounded, more human heroes were all but done but Ant-Man definitely set a precedent for diverse storytelling that the MCU continues to stick to. It’s amazing to me that even after expanding their scope towards Gods and the depths of space and hinting towards larger cosmic threats the MCU is still masterfully able to snap back to ground level with a character like Ant-Man, and Scott Lang was such a breath of fresh air for the franchise. Paul Rudd is so immediately likeable, and he brought a real comical, heartfelt performance to Scott Lang, and it’s largely thanks to him that I found myself actually caring about Ant-Man for the first time in…I think forever. The comedy and gags on offer were absolutely top notch, with Luis being an obvious highlight, but I also really enjoyed Michael Douglas’s performance; he played a world weary, cranky, slightly unstable former superhero-come-mentor perfectly and brought so much presence to every scene he was in. He, like all of the actors in this, also seemed to be having a great time with the film, which doesn’t take itself too seriously and perfectly incorporates elements of a heist movie to give it a unique flavour. While we see incredible cosmic visuals and escalating threats quite often in the MCU, Ant-Man’s shrinking sequences are still really impressive; I love how our senses are changed alongside Scott’s when he’s smaller and how everyday things we take for granted suddenly become a life-threatening obstacle for Ant-Man. It’s fun seeing Scott learn about the suit and what he can do, and seeing him bond with the different ants and work alongside his crew, and while I think Ant-Man probably would have been better placed in the MCU’s first phase, it was a much-needed palette-cleanser at the time and remains one of the most entertaining and unique entries in the MCU.

My Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Great Stuff

Did you enjoy Ant-Man? How did you think it compared to other films in the MCU? What did you think to the emphasis on comedy and heist elements and on Scott’s status as a struggling ex-con and father? Did you enjoy the film’s unique action sequences and shrinking effects? Were you disappointed that Yellowjacket ended up just being a dark mirror of Ant-Man or did you think Darren’s character stood out enough to justify it? Were you a fan of Ant-Man prior to this film and, if so, which iteration of the character was your favourite? Whatever you think about Ant-Man, sign up to drop a comment below or leave a comment on my social media, check back in next week as Sci-Fi Sunday continues.