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


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


Talking Movies

Released: 1 May 2015
Director: Joss Whedon
Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Budget: $365 million
Stars: Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, James Spader, Elizabeth Olsen, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and Paul Bettany

The Plot:
After finally defeating the last remnants of Hydra, Tony Stark/Iron Man (Downey Jr), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Evans), Doctor Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Ruffalo), Thor Odinson (Hemsworth), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Johansson), and Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Renner) face an even greater threat when Stark and Banner’s prototype for an artificial intelligence, Ultron (Spader), becomes self-aware and concocts a diabolical scheme to unleash an extinction-level event upon the world.

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

The Review:
Much has changed in the MCU since the conclusion of Avengers Assemble; not only has the entire world seen that extraterrestrial threats lie beyond our planet, but all manner of strange and powerful cosmic artefacts and concepts are now loosed upon the Earth. One positive that came out of the whole debacle, though, was the formation of the Avengers themselves and, since the last film and the fall of the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division (S.H.I.E.L.D.), the team have dedicated themselves to tracking down Loki Laufeyson’s (Tom Hiddleston) sceptre and erasing the last remnants of the clandestine organisation Hydra, which has secretly been manipulating events behind the scenes ever since World War Two.

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

The retrieval of the sceptre is a cause for much celebration within the team as it marks the end of a lengthy campaign against Hydra, but it leads into not only all of the film’s subsequent problems but also opens the MCU up to an ever greater threat lurking deep amongst the stars. Within the sceptre, Tony Stark and Bruce Banner (who had bonded over their keen love for science in the first film) discover a powerful gem, just one of the many Infinity Stones, that holds the key to completing Stark’s plans for a global defence program known as “Ultron” that he is desperate to deploy to protect the world form extraterrestrial threats. Shaken by his experiences in the last film, where he saw just how outgunned and outmatched the Earth was compared to the vastness of the galaxy, Stark is keen to build a metaphorical suit of armour around the world and encourages Banner to assist him in completing Ultron despite the doctor’s reservations. Banner, still a timid and cautious fellow, argues the moral and potentially dangerous consequences of giving birth to an artificial intelligence without the approval of the entire team and without proper testing, but is persuaded to co-operate by the force of Stark’s conviction.

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

Although in a far more comfortable position within the team and with himself, Banner is still subject to the whim of his green-skinned alter ego. Thanks to his ability to summon the Hulk at will, Banner is a valuable asset to the Avengers out in the field and, in an unexpected turn of events, the Hulk is easily subdued and calmed down by the influence of Romanoff. When in his more stable and timid human form, Banner has a close relationship with Romanoff that sees him clearly besotted by her but missing or ignoring her obvious flirtatious advances. He explains this as him being aware that Romanoff flirts with everyone, and the obvious interpretation is that he is afraid to act on his feelings because of his monstrous passenger, but he later reveals that he is holding himself back because he cannot offer her anything resembling a “normal” life. After the accident that first triggered his transformation, Banner has been rendered sterile and potentially dangerous by the sheer amount of Gamma radiation coursing through his veins, to say nothing of the fact that he can’t allow himself to get too excited for fear of triggering a transformation, burdening the doctor with a tragic loneliness no matter how close he is to his team mates. While it may seem strange that Romanoff is suddenly so infatuated with Banner, he represents a sense of kindness and stability that is often missing from her chaotic and deceptive life; even when Banner is explaining himself to her, she opens up to him and reveals some of the horrendous experiences she suffered in the “Red Room” while being trained as an efficient and ruthless spy. Since this also involved a full hysterectomy, she also sees herself as inadequate and monstrous since she’s not only done countless despicable things in the past but is so pained by her inability to be a “real” woman that she feels she can’t be anything more than the famed Black Widow.

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

For Thor, recovering the sceptre spells the end to his brother’s impact upon his beloved adopted world; since the last film, Thor has built quite the rapport with his team mates and their extended families and revels with them as he would conquering Asgardian comrades. Thor is enraged, however, when he sees Loki’s magic perverted into Ultron and very nearly comes to blows with Stark over his reckless actions in meddling with cosmic powers beyond his comprehension. Thor’s concerns over the gem are only exacerbated after his encounter with Wanda, which causes him to suspect a greater threat and seek out his friend, Doctor Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård), to accompany him on a short side quest to learn more about the mysterious gems that keep popping up in his life. After spending the majority of the first film under Loki’s control, Barton gets far more screen time and relevance in the sequel than I think many people expected; rather than focusing on his relationship with Romanoff, the film initially suggests that he may be a double-agent or keeping his own secrets from the team, but dramatically reveals that he has a wife and kids that he has kept quiet from everyone except for Romanoff. Protected and hidden from official records by former S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Barton’s family provides refuge for the wounded and exhausted team after their encounter with the twins and goes a long way to fleshing out Barton’s character beyond just being “the guy with the arrows”.

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

Finally, there’s Captain America himself, Steve Rogers. Still very much the field leader and default commander of the superhero team, Steve has committed himself to tracking down and eradicating Hydra’s influence as part of the guilt he feels over not finishing the job back in World War Two. Steve’s old-fashioned sensibilities are a source of much amusing banter within the team, but his pure heart, dedication, and moral integrity mean that he’s devoted to saving and protected all lives above anything else. Indeed, he’s so pure-hearted that he’s even able to ever so slightly budge Mjölnir during a friendly competition, is the only one of the team not driven into a paranoid frenzy by Wanda’s cruel visions, and, of course, takes the moral high ground when he sees the consequences of Stark’s arrogance first stumble to life. Burned by the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Russo and Russo, 2014), Cap is understandably annoyed that Stark would go behind their backs and unleash a potentially world-ending threat upon the world, but is also fair and just enough to try and convince the twins of Ultron’s threat and accept them into the team despite the destruction their actions have caused.

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

As for Ultron…Like a lot of people, I was surprised to see the second Avengers film make a sudden left turn towards Marvel’s famous cyborg maniac, but curious to see how the character would be brought to life. Since Doctor Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) would not make his debut until the following year, the film alters Ultron’s origins and has it be a creation of Stark and Banner (though mainly Stark); personally, I feel like another redraft of the script could have restored Pym as Ultron’s creator and introduced the character earlier, perhaps with Pym also taking the place of Doctor Helen Cho (Claudia Kim) and helping to further set up his antagonism towards Stark and the Avengers in Ant-Man (Reed, 2015). Regardless, I can understand the change, and Ultron’s depiction as this conceited, self-righteous, boastful villain makes for one of the MCU’s most loquacious and enigmatic antagonists if nothing else. Positioned as a dark reflection and extreme perversion of Stark’s desire to protect the world, Ultron learns of humanity’s tendency towards war and self-destruction by first absorbing Stark’s resident A.I., Just A Rather Very Intelligent System (J.A.R.V.I.S.; Paul Bettany) and then trawling the internet. It concludes, as many sentient A.I.’s do, that humanity can only be truly united and learn to survive and prove their worth after suffering from near extinction and sets in motion a dual plot to spread his influence through multiple, disposable copies of itself while forced Cho to construct a near-invulnerable synthetic body and to turn the ravaged nation of Sokovia into a gigantic meteor to drop onto the planet and bring humanity to the brink of desperation…and greatness.

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

Ultron is assisted by the twins Wanda and Pietro, who were subjected to bizarre and horrendous experiments by Baron Wolfgang von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann), a Hydra commander who unfortunately gets very little screen time before being killed offscreen but who leaves a lasting impact in his influence on the twins. While the brash and snarky Pietro exhibits superhuman speed, Wanda wields a dangerous and unpredictable red energy that allows her to fire off psionic bolts and manipulate the minds of others. It’s thanks to her influence that Stark sees a vision of the Avengers left decimated and the Earth vulnerable to alien invasion (which compels him to create Ultron in the first place), that Romanoff is forced to relive her traumatic experiences in the Red Room, that Thor learns of the cosmic disaster threatened by the Infinity Stones, and that the Hulk goes on a mindless rampage through Johannesburg. Wanda and Pietro have their own vendetta against Stark that causes them to willingly assist Ultron; Stark’s weapons caused the deaths of their parents and left them trapped, fearing their own death, for two days when they were children. However, when Wanda learns that Ultron’s plan extends beyond killing Stark and destroying the Avengers and into worldwide genocide, the twins turn against the maniacal machine and reluctantly join forces with the Avengers for the action-packed finale.

The Nitty-Gritty:
It’s true that Avengers: Age of Ultron had a lot to live up to; not only was Avengers Assemble a massive, massive box office event, but it changed the course of the MCU and both comic book films and cinema forever. Add to that the decision to title the film after one of the biggest and most complex crossovers in then-recent Marvel Comics and the film definitely had a bit of an uphill battle; I get that titling films “Age of…” was a common practice in Hollywood for a while, and the desire to capitalise on Brian Michael Bendis’ story arc, but I would have picked Ultron Unleashed instead, which would have both paid homage to the comics while also slightly lowering audience’s expectations somewhat. Still, the banter and wit on offer is just as entertaining and compelling as in the first film; the team give Steve a hard time for calling out Stark’s bad language, Thor’s mission report on the Hulk’s actions against Strucker’s forces is amusing (as is his banter with Stark regarding their girlfriends), and it’s nice just see the team relaxing and socialising outside of battle.

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

I think the film gets a bit of a bad reputation because it opts for a more subdued and interpersonal story rather than necessarily being bigger and better; the film starts basically where the first film left off, with the Avengers operating as a co-ordinated and efficient team, sharing banter and doing their parts individually and collectively in the assault on Strucker’s fortress. It took basically the entirety of Avengers Assemble to get these big egos and characters to work through their issues and set aside their personal grievances for the greater good, so to see them in action as a fortified unit is incredibly gratifying as a comic book fan. When Ultron first reveals itself to the team, they instinctively leap into action and the question isn’t whether they can fight together, but whether they can co-exist and stay on the same page regarding the greater threats. While Stark’s actions in trying to pre-empt their defences against these dangers were irresponsible, his motivations are entirely understandable and he was right: the Earth did need to prepare itself for a greater threat, but arguably they would have been in a better position to do that if Stark had consulted with his team mates first. As angry as Thor is with Stark for meddling in cosmic powers, Steve is equally disappointed in his friend’s recklessness and the first hints of friction between the two are sowed in this film; while Steve fully believes that the team is best served working together, win or lose, Stark would rather prepare for the best-case scenario and have contingencies in place, no matter how morally questionable they are.

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

This is further evidenced in the dramatic and exciting depiction of “Veronica”, a massive mech-suit designed by Stark and Banner specifically to combat the Hulk. A contingency neither wish to see put into action, Stark is forced to call upon this “Hulkbuster” armour when Wanda screws with Banner’s mind and sends the Hulk on a mindless rampage. Although we don’t get to see Banner’s nightmarish vision, we can assume that it must be either incredibly devastating, traumatic, or tragic based on what Stark, Cap, Thor, and Romanoff are forced to relive, and it’s most likely something that ties into the fear Banner and the Hulk have of each other. Either way, the rest is an absolutely massive and incredible impressive brawl between the Hulk and the Hulkbuster; easily Stark’s biggest and most powerful armour yet, the Hulkbuster quickly repairs and rearms itself when damaged by the Hulk and is more than capable of going toe-to-toe with the Green Goliath, however it’s still heavily implied that the suit was designed to quickly overpower and subdue the Hulk, something easier said than done considering the Hulk’s ever-growing rage. Indeed, it’s only after a prolonged beatdown and having a building dropped on his head that Wanda’s influence is finally shaken for the Hulk, who’s left visibly distraught at the damage and destruction he has wrought.

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

Sadly, despite the Hulk clearly uttering words in Avengers Assemble, the Green Goliath returns to being a largely mute creature who communicates only in growls, grunts, and facial expressions; indeed, he kind of fades into the background by the finale before jetting off to places unknown in order to keep Romanoff safe from his violent nature. While I was quite happy with the amount of Hulk action on offer in the film, it is disappointing that he wasn’t depicted as talking here as I was expecting him to be fleshed out more in that regard. Age of Ultron does, however, have time for a few fun cameos from Colonel James “Rhodey” Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle) and Sam Wilson/The Falcon (Anthony Mackie), who officially join the Avengers by the end of the film, and provides a slightly bigger role for former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), who largely replaces Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) and even Fury as the Avengers’ go-to liaison, and all of these characters (except, obviously, for Coulson) play a part in the final battle against Ultron. Another criticism of the film was the shoe-horning in of unnecessary world-building, specifically Thor’s “vision quest” that seems to serve little purpose other than reminding audiences of Thanos’ (Josh Brolin) looming threat. Personally, I never had much of a problem with this as it made Thor pivotal to the creation of the Vision (Bettany); furthermore, much of the film is devoted towards further exploring Stark’s guilt and desperation regarding his friendship with the team and his desire to protect the world, all of which paid off beautifully as the MCU progressed.

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

Thanks to being revealed to be a loving and devoted father and husband, Hawkeye slips naturally into the role of a mentor to the twins and the heart of the team; he initially has an antagonistic rivalry with the condescending Pietro but is the only one of the team to anticipate and counteract Wanda’s mind control. When the twins join the team, he helps to integrate them into the Avengers’ code and nowhere is this more evident in the pragmatic and honest pep talk he gives to Wanda, who is overwhelmed by the chaos and insanity of the battle against Ultron’s drones. This perfectly encapsulates not just Barton’s moral centre but also the entire point of the Avengers as a team and a concept: no matter how crazy things get or how unwinnable the odds seem, they shake it off and keep fighting until the very end, regardless of the outcome. Cap reinforces this philosophy when he tells the team: “If you get hurt, hurt ‘em back. If you get killed, walk it off”, and these words have a significant impact not only in encouraging Wanda not to hold herself back in the battle against Ultron but also in Pietro’s decision to be selfless for the first time in his life. Seeing Barton using himself as a human shield to try and protect an innocent child, Pietro rushes in and saves them both at the cost of his own life, a random and absolutely unexpected (and potentially unnecessary) sacrifice that continues to be a little confusing. It appears Whedon decided to kill off Pietro because it would have been too obvious to off Barton, a character who had been set up throughout the entire film as basically doomed and living on borrowed time, but keeping him alive ended up paying off on a longer story arc for the character within the MCU.

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

Ultron begins life as a confused and disembodied artificial intelligence; as it quickly absorbs information, its curiosity turns to contempt and it soon perverts Stark’s desire for “peace in our time” to the extreme. It regards Stark’s other creations as mere puppets and is quickly able to learn everything about the team, and the world, and evade true destruction by escaping through the internet and transferring its consciousness halfway across the world into a slew of disposable bodies. As a fully CGI character, Ultron is certainly impressive; the only real complain I have is that I don’t think it needed to have lips. Thankfully, Spader provides an enigmatic and surprisingly layered performance; Ultron fully believes that its actions are just and truly cares for the twins, and is unsettling in its unpredictability as it can be charismatic and almost kind-hearted one minute and then a complete psychopath the next. To help position itself as an unstoppable overlord in its new world, Ultron has Cho create a perfect synthetic body; however, the Avengers are able to intercept this form and, despite concerns about Stark’s recklessness, infuse it with J.A.R.V.I.S.’s consciousness, Thor’s lightning, and the mysterious Mind Stone that was contained within Loki’s sceptre, thus giving birth to a new artificial lifeform dubbed the Vision. Understandably cautious and wary of this new individual, the Avengers’ fears of the Vision’s intentions are immediately set aside when he proves his mettle by being capable of wielding Mjölnir; while I can understand the argument that the Vision’s introduction is a bit rushed and his powers somewhat ill-defined, having him grab Mjölnir like it’s nothing was a great shorthand to tell us everything we needed to know about the character at that point, and he plays a pivotal role in paralleling Ultron’s destructive megalomania with a more pragmatic and reasonable logic.

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

Having used Stark’s technology, Cho’s research, the power of the Mind Stone, and the near-limitless potential of Wakanda’s Vibranium, Ultron succeeds in lifting Sokovia high up into Earth’s atmosphere. Its inexhaustible army of drones may be simply disposable minions for the Avengers to tear apart, much like the Chitauri, but the stakes are far bigger this time around as the Avengers are forced to hold off Ultron and its copies while also trying to slow or safely stop its make-shift meteor, all while trying to evacuate the entire city onto Fury’s repurposed Helicarrier. They’re successful largely thanks to Wanda who, devastated by her brother’s death, decimates Ultron’s drones and crushes its primary body, ripping its heart out for good measure before the Hulk sends it flying off the floating city. Thanks to Stark and Thor, the landmass is overloaded and blasted to smithereens before it can pose a threat, and Ultron’s final form is seemingly eradicated forever following a philosophical debate with its “son”, the Vision. In the aftermath, Thor returns to Asgard to investigate the Infinity Stones and Stark officially leaves the team to follow through with the promise he made to Virginia “Pepper” Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) in Iron Man 3 (Black, 2013) and Cap and Romanoff move to a new Avengers facility far outside of the city where they prepare to train a new team of Avengers. However, while all seems well between the team, the Mad Titan, Thanos, arms himself with a glistening gauntlet and prepares to take care of matters personally.

The Summary:
I remember being somewhat underwhelmed by Avengers: Age of Ultron when I first saw it at the cinema; it wasn’t that it was bad, or necessarily worse than Avengers Assemble, but it didn’t really seem to be much better than its predecessor. Avengers Assemble was such a big event because it was the first time these characters were coming together onscreen and I had waited so long so see comic book characters in a shared universe rather than being restricted to isolated worlds, so it always gets extra credit for me due to that and the power of nostalgia. Being just as good as one of the MCU’s best films is nothing to be ashamed of, however, but I think I, like many audiences, was just expecting something a little more substantial from the team’s next big outing. Still, it’s definitely gotten better over time and remains an action-packed spectacle that ties into Phase Two’s themes of challenging the status quo of the MCU and lays the first hints of dissension within the Avengers. Seeing the Avengers in full force never gets old; as much as I enjoy the direction the MCU took, part of me would have liked to see one more film of them as a cohesive unit with the resources of S.H.I.E.L.D. behind them, possibly battling the Masters of Evil, simply because I enjoy the banter and teamwork of the Avengers so much and it’s always a spectacular moment whenever that rousing theme kicks in and the team appears onscreen.

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

While it’s not a perfect film by any means, Age of Ultron introduces a lot of new elements to the MCU and makes an impact with its entertaining action scenes; it’s still amazing seeing Iron Man don the Hulkbuster armour, Pietro’s superspeed and Wanda’s freaky magic add some unique pizazz to the film’s events and finale, but the film really makes its mark with the introduction of the Vision and Spader’s performance as Ultron. A complex and psychotic villain who is all the worst parts of Stark dialled up to eleven, Ultron is both menacing and amusing thanks to its overabundance of personality and snark, and is perfectly juxtaposed by the more life-affirming and analytical Vision. Overall, I feel it’s an under-rated entry in the MCU that is more than deserving of a little more respect and credibility; sure, it’s a little overstuffed and introduces a lot of new elements but, as Ultron states, “with the benefit of hindsight” I think there’s a lot on offer in Avengers: Age of Ultron and that it works wonders for encapsulating the spirit and integrity of the team, perfectly setting them up for their eventual disassembling and climatic reassembling against their greatest every threat, so I’d say it’s a more than worthy follow-up despite some flaws here and there.

My Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Great Stuff

Are you a fan of Avengers: Age of Ultron? How do you feel it holds up against the first film, and the other Phase Two movies? Were you disappointed with the depiction of the Hulk, Banner’s romance sub-plot with Romanoff, and Pietro’s sudden and dramatic death? What did you think to the new characters introduced to the team in this film, specifically Wanda and the Vision? Where does Ultron rank amongst the Avengers’ villains for you and what did you think to the alterations made to his origin, and Spader’s performance? Would you have liked to see one more Avengers movie before the team splintered and, if so, which characters would you have liked to see added to the team? How are you celebrating the debut of the Avengers today and what are some of your favourite Avengers storylines, characters, or adaptations? Feel free to sign up and share your thoughts and opinions on the Avengers in the comments below, or drop me a line on my social media.

Talking Movies: Thor: The Dark World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Great Stuff

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

Talking Movies [Thor’s Day]: Thor


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Fantastic

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

Screen Time: The Falcon and the Winter Soldier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Fantastic

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

Talking Movies: Captain America: Civil War

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Fantastic

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

Talking Movies: Thor: Love and Thunder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Great Stuff

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

Talking Movies: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Fantastic

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

Screen Time: Loki (Season One)

Season One

Air Date: 9 June 2021 to 14 July 2021
Network: Disney+
Stars: Tom Hiddleston, Owen Wilson, Sophia Di Martino, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Wunmi Mosaku, and Jonathan Majors

The Background:
It’s hard to deny that the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has evolved from humble beginnings into a nigh-unstoppable multimedia juggernaut. Although Marvel Studios dabbled in television ventures before with the likes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013 to 2020) and their Netflix productions, the launch of Disney+ saw head honcho Kevin Feige produce a number of streaming shows that aimed to maintain and expand the continuity of the MCU going forward. Considering how popular Tom Hiddleston’s rendition of the Norse God of Mischief, Loki Laufeyson, has been since his first appearance in the MCU, it’s perhaps not surprising (or, dare I saw it, inevitable) that he was received his own spin-off series in which he would be revealed to have been causing mischief throughout history. The project was seen as the perfect opportunity to fill in some blanks in the MCU, expand Loki’s character and relationships, and help lay the foundation for Phase Four’s focus on exploring the vast multiverse and branching timelines within the MCU. Originally conceived of as a single-season show, Loki was extended into a second season to better develop the show’s intricate plot points, which explored the nature of Loki’s character and fate and the complexities of time and reality in the MCU. Loki’s debut episode was the most-watched series premiere on Disney+ the week it launched and the show was met with universal praise; critics loved the banter between Loki and Mobius M. Mobius (Wilson), the unique nature of its presentation and narrative, and the show’s focus on expanding the scope of the MCU beyond even the all-powerful Infinity Stones. While a second series is in development, the show’s fallout was established to have significant impact on the MCU’s fourth phase and immediate future thanks to establishing that time has been fractured and literally anything is now possible.

The Plot:
After stealing the Tesseract during the events of Avengers: Endgame (Russo and Russo, 2019), an alternate version of Loki is brought to the mysterious Time Variance Authority (TVA), a bureaucratic organisation that polices time. They give Loki a choice between being erased from existence due to being a “time variant” or helping to fix the timeline and stop a greater threat.

The Review:
It’s actually been pretty fun catching up with the 2021 Marvel Disney+ shows this year; I was a bit late getting to them because my television and service provider don’t carry the app, and it just isn’t the same watching on a smaller screen. Since it’s looking like we won’t get a home media release, this seems like as good a time as any to catch up with Loki since Thor: Love and Thunder (Waititi, 2022) releases tomorrow, though I will say that I wasn’t too excited at the prospect of Loki getting his own spin-off series. It’s not that I don’t enjoy the character, but his death in Avengers: Endgame seemed like a fitting end to his story and continuing one with his character like a decision geared more towards cashing in on Tom Hiddleston’s popularity more than anything else. As it turned out, though, Loki proved to be one of the most essential and important aspects of the MCU’s fourth phase thanks to it delving deep into the multiverse and exploring the scope of the time travel elements introduced in Avengers: Endgame that would become so important throughout subsequent MCU productions.

Loki is apprehended by the TVA and coerced into helping hunt down a dangerous variant of his.

Loki begins by reusing footage from Avengers: Endgame to remind viewers that an alternative version of Loki stole the Tesseract from the Avengers during their time heist, and goes on to show that he teleported to the Gobi Desert; however, his attempt to subjugate a group of Mongolians is interrupted by “Minutemen” from the TVA, who arrest Loki for “crimes against the Sacred Timeline”. Although he is a formidable opponent thanks to his Asgardian durability and powers of illusion and deception, Loki is completely baffled by the TVA, who are able to slow his personal perception of time to a crawl while still allowing him to feel pain in “real time” and “rewind” him whenever he tries to escape thanks to fitting him with a “Time Twister” collar. Confused and insulted at the bureaucratic and humiliating methods of his captors, Loki is nonetheless powerless to oppose them and forced to stand trial for his crimes when he’s brought before Judge Ravonna Renslayer (Mbatha-Raw) in what amounts to a kangaroo court. He’s given no representation, has little understanding of the crimes committed against him, and makes a good point that it was the Avengers who disrupted the timeline rather than him. However, his proposition to hunt them down as recompense for their actions is dismissed since they were “supposed” to travel through time, but he wasn’t meant to escape. Naturally, Loki finds this accusation ludicrous; after all, how was he supposed to know that he wasn’t meant to take advantage of that situation according to his nature? His requests to meet with the Time-Keepers are denied as their “busy” dictating the “proper flow” of the Sacred Timeline, and is found guilty of his crimes and sentenced to be “reset”, much to his outrage. However, he’s spared from this vague fate by the intervention of TVA analyst Mobius M. Mobius, who recruits Loki to help investigate a series of Minutemen killings across the Sacred Timeline perpetrated by a mysterious individual who has also been stealing the “reset charges” the Minutemen use to “reset the timeline” after a divergence. The somewhat jaded but nonetheless approachable Mobius interrogates Loki to get to the root of his selfish ambitions; Loki desires little more than to rule the Nine Realms and believes that all life is beneath him, and that only he has the power and wisdom to maintain order across reality. Mobius is disappointed that Loki wants to squander his vast potential on merely oppressing others and forces him to relive, through a movie projection, his subjectively-recent failure against the Avengers and the mischief he caused as D.B. Cooper. Loki rejects the notion that he’s not in control of his own actions or destiny, which he adamantly believes is to rule, but Mobius questions Loki’s violent and selfish ways as they’ve brought him nothing but failure and, to press this point, shows Loki the life that his mainline counterpart lived: in a harrowing moment, Loki’s devastated to view the footage of his selfishness resulting in his mother’ Frigga’s (Rene Russo) death.

Mobius is a loyal agent of the TVA, which polices the Sacred Timeline, but has a fondness for Loki.

Mobius confronts Loki with the truth: that he wasn’t born to rule, he was born to cause pain and suffering in order for others to be the best versions of themselves. Mobius admires Loki’s mischievousness and adaptability, but is adamant that he can provide much-needed insight into his investigation. The vast, brass-hued offices of the TVA headquarters exists outside of time and is where disruptive “variants” such as Loki are tried for their crimes. The interior merges out-dated technology and aesthetics with advanced time-altering devices and a reality-warping science-fiction exterior. The TVA is all about rules, regulations, paperwork, and bureaucracy; time “passes differently” there, so no one really knows how long they’ve been there, and no magic works there. The purpose of the TVA is explained to a baffled Loki by Miss Minutes (Tara Strong), the organisation’s chirpy and pretentious anthropomorphic cartoon mascot; a long time ago, a devastating multiversal war threatened to destroy all reality itself before the enigmatic Time-Keepers (voiced by Majors) amalgamated the infinitesimal separate timelines into the Sacred Timeline, and stood guard over it to keep time flowing in the proper order. When “variants” deviate from the Sacred Timeline, it creates a “Nexus Event” which could cause full-scale madness as the timeline splits into multiple branches and heads towards another multiversal war. Thus, the Time-Keepers created the TVA to maintain and police the Sacred Timeline, removing variants and setting the timeline back to normal; Loki is not only sceptical but finds the prospect of “three space lizards” deciding the fate of trillions of lives to be an absurdity. He sees the TVA as an illusion, a desperate attempt at controlling “the weak” by inspiring fear in others, but is convinced of their power after finding that the Infinity Stones are powerless there (which is a fun shorthand to show just how the TVA is far beyond anything we’ve seen in the MCU up until this point). Curious, he views more of his counterpart’s life and, over the course of an emotional and distressing sequence, sees all of the character progression the “prime” Loki went through, including grieving for his father, Odin Allfather (Anthony Hopkins), reuniting with his brother, Thor Odinson (Chris Hemsworth), and ultimately perishing at the hands of Thanos (Josh Brolin) to protect his brother and his fellow Asgardians. Having witnessed first-hand the potential for heroism and honour within him, Loki admits to Mobius that he doesn’t enjoy killing or hurting others; it’s just part of his own illusion to assert control of himself and others.

Hunter B-15 and Ravonna distrust Loki and question Mobius’ fascination with him even after learning the truth.

Since he can’t return to the timeline, Loki is intrigued to learn that Mobius’s target is another Loki variant who has been specifically targeting Minutemen, and he agrees to assist in the hopes of gaining an audience with the Time-Keepers. Neither Ravonna Renslayer or Hunter B-15 (Mosaku) approve of Loki’s involvement, seeing him as both a liability and an untrustworthy, insubordinate backstabber. Mobius, however, fully believes that Loki can provide unique insight into his counterpart’s thinking and methods and that anyone, even a Loki, is capable of change, despite this being directly against the Time-Keepers’ design. Ravonna is the only one in the TVA depicted as having met and communicated with the Time-Keepers, who are eventually revealed to be wizened, amphibious alien creatures who sit in a huge, foreboding stone chamber beneath the TVA and lord their presence and power by positioning themselves above all others. Ravonna is absolutely loyal to the Time-Keepers’ vision for stability and order; she enforces their will without question and, even when their true nature is revealed and she’s fully aware that she and everyone in the TVA (to say nothing of everyone ever) have been deceived and manipulated. She has a particular vendetta against Loki, whose variants have a reputation as troublemakers and has personally seen to it that many different versions of him have been “pruned” for violating the Time-Keepers’ laws. She has a close relationship with Mobius, one based on a shared belief in the TVA and on mutual respect; while he’s never met the Time-Keepers and is a little off put that she keeps trophies of his investigations in her office, it’s clear that they have a lot of faith in each other’s abilities, and she thus questions Mobius’s trust in Loki and the two even end up set against each other by the finale. After Ravonna literally stabs him in the back since she maintains that the TVA can’t have been for nothing, regardless of the truth, Mobius tries to appeal to her morals in an attempt to rebuild the TVA into something better to avoid stripping people of their free will, but she refuses and heads out to find her own purpose, clearly hurt that he threw away their friendship and mission in favour of Loki.

Sylvie is obsessed with bringing down the TVA and confronting whomever is behind ruining her life.

Still, Ravonna remains a vindictive, bureaucratic administrator; she had no qualms about arresting a female variant of Loki for “crimes against the Sacred Timeline” when she was just a little girl (Cailey Fleming) and guilty of little more than existing and playing with her toys. Although terrified, she swiped Ravonna’s TemPad and fled into the timestream, and Ravonna has been pursuing her ever since. Everywhere the variant went caused a Nexus Event as her timeline was erased and she wasn’t supposed to exist, so she found sanctuary at the ends of worlds and civilisations and, over time, grew to resent and hate the TVA for taking everything away from her. Renouncing the name Loki, she grew up to become Sylvie (Di Martino) and used the TVA’s own technology to hunt down their Minutemen and swipe their reset charges with the express purpose of “bombing” the Sacred Timeline and throwing the TVA into chaos. Unlike Loki, who relies on his daggers and illusions to combat and deceive others, Sylvie is adept at enchantment; through physical contact, she draws upon her victim’s memories to enthrall them with lifelike illusions. This power has the additional impact of revealing that Minutemen like Hunter B-15 and Hunter C-20 (Sasha Lane) (and, in fact, everyone at the TVA) are all variants who were plucked from their lives and turned into the Time-Keepers’ puppets. Although they are as condescending, narcissistic, and deceptive as each other, Sylvie is very different from her male counterpart; she’s more direct and brutal, for one thing, has a greater knowledge of the TVA and time travel, for another, and has a very different history thanks to Ravonna’s meddling. Not only was she aware of her true heritage from an early age, but she spent the majority of her life on the run from the TVA and thus wasn’t trained in magic by Frigga. Instead, she taught herself and, as a result, her powers and experiences are very different from Loki’s; like him, she is alone and finds it difficult to trust others, preferring to use and cast them aside as a means to an end, but she’s also become paranoid and self-reliant after a lifetime of running. Her goal is to infiltrate the TVA, tear it down from the inside out, and confront the Time-Keepers directly; a goal she succeeds at, only to learn that the Time-Keepers are merely mechanical constructs and part of a greater deception. Thus, she sets out to find the puppet master behind the Time-Keepers and is forced into an alliance with Loki to reach her goals.

In the ultimate narcissistic move, Loki falls for “himself” and throws the multiverse into chaos as a result.

Mobius knew that Loki wouldn’t be able to resist proving himself the superior of the two, but even he is astounded to discover that Loki has fallen for his female counterpart; although they are antagonistic with each other and constantly playing a game of one-upmanship against each other, especially in the early going, Loki and Sylvie are forced to rely on one another to survive. When trapped on Lamentis-1 and facing their imminent death, Loki delivers a rousing speech painting Sylvie as a survivor who was able to slip through the TVA’s fingers and almost single-handedly destroy their entire organisation and, when they hold hands and take solace in each other’s company, it causes a Nexus Event greater than anything the TVA have seen before. After being apprehended and subjected to a time loop where Lady Sif (Jaimie Alexander) repeatedly beats and berates him, Loki lies to Mobius in order to protect Sylvie and is visibly hurt when his former friend lies about her demise and relieved to learn that she’s still alive. Sylvie is furious when she learns that the Time-Keepers are mere puppets, and equally devastated when Ravonna appears to erase Loki from existence right before her eyes just as he was about to admit his true feelings to her. Since pruned timelines and variants are impossible to completely destroy or reset, they’re transported to the “Void”, a post-apocalyptic wasteland filled with relics from deleted timelines (it even includes Thanos’ helicopter!) and home to Alioth, a massive cloud-like creature that hunts and consumes all life. When Sylvie learns of this, she transports herself there specifically to reunite with Loki and to push past the Void and to the man behind the TVA; this involves a significant risk as Sylvie proposes enchanting the monstrous Alioth. As this venture could cost them their lives, Loki and Sylvie share an intimate moment beforehand, one made more awkward by their inability to properly express, trust, or connect with others; Loki promises that, despite this chequered past, he has no intentions to betray her even if he gained his coveted throne and they promise to figure out where they go next once they’ve achieved their goal.

The Void is home to the monstrous Alioth and a whole slew of Loki variants.

Loki takes the concept of multiple timelines and really runs with it; in the MCU, divergent timelines are created due to time travel or going against the Sacred Timeline, and this can lead to completely new universes and new variations on characters and worlds forming. The TVA is made up of these variants, who have no memory of their previous lives, and is built on a series of rules that dictate how the timestream works: Minutemen can’t just travel to before an incident occurred since Nexus Events disrupt the time flow and can only be pruned in real time, and variants like Sylvie can effectively avoid detection by hiding out at the worst Nexus Events in history, such as cataclysmic events like the destruction of Pompeii. Reset timelines and pruned variants are sent to the Void to be consumed by Alioth, and Loki is stunned to find this hellscape populated by more of his variants: Kid Loki (Jack Veal), “Boastful” Loki (DeObia Oparei), Alligator Loki (Wally), and Richard E. Grant in a 100% comic-accurate costume as “Classic” Loki! The variants encourage Loki to focus on staying alive rather than trying to escape and take him to their underground shelter and share their Nexus Events: Kid Loki killed his version o Thor, Boastful Loki claims to have defeated all of the Avengers and taken the Infinity Stones for himself, Alligator Loki(who the Lokis are able to understand presumably telepathically, though we never hear his thoughts) ate the “wrong neighbour’s cat”, and Classic Loki used his magic to fool Thanos with an illusion and was arrested the moment he tried to leave his a self-imposed exile. Loki is dismayed to see all of his worst attributes on show: Boastful Loki betrays his comrades to President Loki (Hiddleston) and his rag-tag group of variants, who promptly turn on him and cause them to waste their energies in petty squabbles and fighting. Classic and Kid Loki lament their fate to constantly lie and cheat and betray each other, and to be doomed to the Void as the “God of Outcasts” whenever they try to change their nature, but Loki remains determined to kill Alioth and bring down the TVA.

Quite unexpectedly, Loki forges some real friendships and relationships but is constantly judged for his past deeds.

Despite his untrustworthy and deceptive nature, Loki forms a bond with Mobius that quickly develops into an unlikely friendship; a self-confessed fan of Loki’s, he fully believes that there’s more to the God of Mischief than the Sacred Timeline would suggest, and he’s personally hurt when Loki appears to have betrayed him and joined forces with Sylvie, a notorious killer. However, when he learns of Ravonna’s deception and the true nature of the TVA, he and Loki reach an understanding of trust and true friendship, only for Loki to be left devastated when Ravonna seemingly erases Mobius from existence in a scene that has more than a few visual, thematic, and emotional parallels to Loki’s murder of Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg). Thankfully for Loki (and the audience), Mobius is merely transported to the Void, where he has an emotional reunion with Loki before sharing a heartfelt hug with his newfound friend and heading back to the TVA to “burn it to the ground”. Loki also finds allies in his Void variants; while they refuse to leave the Void since it’s now their home and find the idea of challenging Alioth laughable, Kid Loki gifts Loki with a blade and Classic Loki, moved by Loki’s plight and ambition, uses all of his powers to distract Alioth with a full-scale recreation of Asgard at the cost of his life. Of course, his greatest and most unpredictable ally is Sylvie; although they are united in their desire to confront the one behind the TVA and in rejecting the idea that they’re not in control of their destinies, Sylvie is absolutely obsessed with getting revenge for her stolen life and refuses to make any compromises. Thus, the two come to blows since Loki has managed to change his true nature but Sylvie is unable to let go of her past. Seeing his intervention as a betrayal, she fights him in the Citadel at the End of Time with all of the multiverse in the balance, but he repeatedly tries to reason with her; he doesn’t want to hurt her, or anyone else, and tries to convince her that the situation is bigger than either of them but she sees it another of his deceptions to achieve his “glorious purpose”. Although Loki believes that he’s gotten through to her and the two share a tender kiss, he’s devastated when she uses the TemPad to send him back to the TVA and has her revenge on the one responsible for her pain.

Unable to let go of her pain, Sylvie kills He Who Remains and seemingly dooms the multiverse to all-out war.

This would be the enigmatic “He Who Remains” (Majors), an eccentric man clearly driven mad by untold aeons of isolation and the pressure of presiding over all of time and space in the Citadel at the End of Time, a surreal cosmic wasteland devoid of life where time has no meaning. There, the Sacred Timeline exists as a perpetual stream of boundless energy, like a concentric ring of water surrounding the ancient, decrepit, cracked citadel. Upon arrival, Loki and Sylvie reject his offer to reinsert them into the Sacred Timeline in a non-disruptive way and allow Loki to reign over all of his universe with the Infinity Gauntlet and give Sylvie the happiness she desires. He Who Remains is said to see all, control all, and be all that is left at the beginning and the end of time; accordingly, he’s easily able to avoid Sylvie’s attempts to kill him using a pre-programmed TemPad since all of life, our decisions, actions, and words, is recorded in volumes of typed up pages, like a movie script, providing him cosmic awareness. Although they’re angered and insulted at the idea of one man dictating the course of their lives, and everyone else’s, he admires their tenacity and adaptability but fully believes that his deceptive methods, and the TVA, were necessary to protect the Sacred Timeline from multiversal war and his far less benevolent variants. He reveals that, long ago, his variants discovered the multiverse and came together in narcissistic and self-congratulatory peace. Soon, some of them saw it as an opportunity to conquer new worlds and all-out war broke out; contrary to the Time-Keeper dogma, He Who Remains explains that he found Alioth (a creature “created from all the tears in reality”), experimented on it, and harnessed its power to consume all of time and space end to the mutiversal war. He then isolated his timeline and set up the TVA to not only keep divergences from arising but also keep his evil variants from creating more explicitly “evil” havoc. He then offers Loki and Sylvie two choices: kill him and risk something worse taking his place or take over as the overseers of the Sacred Timeline to ensure stability. Naturally, Loki and Sylvie are incredulous, but his explanation is simple: he’s tired and far older than his appearance would suggest and desires someone young and eager to take on the burden. Unable to see past that point in the conversation, and with the timelines beginning to diverge, he’s genuinely excited to see what path they choose. Fully aware that, eventually, he will end up back there as always, He Who Remains doesn’t resist when Sylvie kills him, resulting not only in the Sacred Time to rapidly and uncontrollably splintering into an infinitesimal number of branches but Loki finding all memory of him has been erased and a variant of He Who Remains has replaced the Time-Keepers as the overseer of the TVA!

The Summary:   
I was pleasantly surprised by Loki; as mentioned, I had become a little burnt out by the character (even though I initially believed that Avengers: Endgame would end with the revelation that he was still alive and causing mischief in the universe) because of how often he crops up and how popular he is, but Tom Hiddleston absolutely kills it in the role and it’s a joy to see him given more time to shine in this show. Like the other Disney+ shows, Loki’s presentation is absolutely top-notch and on par with that of its silver screen cousins; I initially wasn’t a fan of the multi-font title, but the shifting fonts really sold the idea of there being countless variants of worlds and characters and I absolutely loved the anachronistic, nonsensical presentation of the TVA. Nothing there makes any sense as there’s outdated computers and naïve office workers existing side-by-side with reality-warping technology and futuristic gadgets, all of which makes it very surreal and visually interesting. Even the sight of Loki garbed in a mundane shirt and tie and going through files of paperwork to get a lead on Sylvie ties into the bizarre nature of the show; for all their power, omniscience, and ability, the TVA is still reduced to filing paperwork and going through the motions of bureaucracy as dictated by an unseen corporate overlord. While it was jarring to have “Lamentis” (Herron, 2021) set largely on a train mid-way through the season, this allowed for a fantastic introspective discussion of Loki and Sylvie’s nature, differences, and characters and the show more than made up for it with the spectacle of Lamentis-1’s impending doom, the many visual Easter Eggs to spot scattered around the Void, and the cosmic eccentricity of the Citadel at the End of Time.  

Loki is full of great, and surprisingly emotional, performances from all of its cast.

As mentioned, it’s the performances that really help Loki to shine; although Hiddleston is playing a different, far less humbled and heroic version of Loki (this Loki was literally leading an alien invasion of New York City and causing untold death and destruction for his own ends mere moments before he was arrested), the implication is explicitly made that Loki has always been this misguided and tortured character. His issues go far beyond being overlooked in favour of his brother or undervalued because of his true nature as a Frost Giant and instead tie into the show’s overall themes regarding destiny. Loki believes it is his right to rule, to subjugate others to his will, but admits that he has no real desire to hurt or kill others; it’s simply part of the nature and the illusion of being in control he is projecting. His relationship with Sylvie and the other variants helps him to see the ugly side of his true nature almost as much as the noble end to his mainline counterpart and he very quickly grows beyond his own selfish desires. However, despite his growth as a character, he’s continuously judged because of his past misdeeds and his reputation as a trickster; even those closest to him, such as Mobius, Sylvie, and the other Lokis, have difficulty trusting that he’s not just playing some larger endgame to seize power for himself and, in the end, he has to prove it by physically opposing the one person he’s grown to care about (who is, ironically, “himself”). I was also surprised to find that Owen Wilson was a standout addition to the cast; I’m no fan of his but he excelled in his role, projecting a friendly and affable demeanour while also being somewhat conflicted. He truly believes in the TVA’s mission but also believes in free will and people’s capacity for change; little things like his desire for a jet ski and his loyalty to Loki above even the TVA help to make him an enjoyable character and I really liked the rapport between him and Loki.

Loki’s experiences see him change from a selfish trickster to fighting to ensure the stability of the multiverse.

Mobius and the other variants help to tie into another of the show’s themes, that of destiny versus free will. Even Classic Loki finds it difficult to believe that a Loki could ever be more than a conniving, backstabbing traitor, and Mobius is driven to reveal the truth of the TVA to Hunter B-15 and all of the Minutemen simply because he believes it’s not their right to take free will away from anyone, regardless of the will of the Sacred Timeline. Loki actively and adamantly resists the notion that he’s not in control of his actions; he recognises power, for sure, but not that he’s some mere puppet, even when the truth is staring him in the face. However, his desire to be free from the TVA’s machinations become secondary to the fate of all reality when he learns that killing He Who Remains will result in rampant timelines and the coming of an even worse, far less reasonable threat. He battles Sylvie not because he desires to be lord of all space and time but because he feels it’s their responsibility to keep the timeline safe and that they can be far more benevolent overseers of the Sacred Timeline. When the first trailers for Loki came out, I was concerned that it was going to be a throwaway show depicting Loki popping up throughout time to cause mischief but, instead, Loki greatly expands upon the idea of time travel in the MCU, showing that this rather mundane-looking organisation routinely prunes and maintains the Sacred Timeline but also opening up the possibility of different actors playing different versions of these characters. This not only gave us the great Richard E. Grant as a comic-accurate Loki but also opens the door for potentially limitless stories to be told now that the multiverse has been broken as a result of Sylvie’s actions.

Despite having grown close, Loki is unable to keep Sylvie from splintering the timeline into infinite paths.

Sylvie presented a unique opportunity for Loki to see himself in a new light and to discover new things about himself; primarily, how alone he’s been and his capacity for love. The romance between the two is volatile and chaotic, but it’s what separates him (both of them) from all their other variants. It’s something that simply shouldn’t be, and gives them the power to overcome Alioth and, effectively, confront “God” face-to-face. However, Sylvie has spent too much time alone and her nature is to be distrustful of everyone, even “herself”, whereas Loki undergoes significant character growth to form a true friendship with Mobius and to actually care about the fate of all reality. He’s aghast when he learns that Mobius and the others are variants who’ve lost their worlds and lives and his desire to expose the TVA is motivated as much by his own rejection of their dogma as it is his wish to open their eyes to the truth. While the other Lokis are content to live out their lives in the Void, he has something worth fighting for: his friends and, more importantly, Sylvie. When they come to blows over He Who Remains, he constantly tries to talk sense into her, which shows just how far he’s come, and is heartbroken when she sends him back to the TVA and seals the fate of the multiverse. His first thought isn’t for himself but to warn Mobius of He Who Remains’ malevolent variants, only to discover that his friend has no memory of him and that he’s too late: a variant of He Who Remains has conquered the TVA and Loki may be the only one aware of what’s happened to the multiverse as a result of Sylvie being unable to see the bigger picture. This ends the show with Loki in a unique situation; before, everyone judged him as a deceptive trickster but, now, people will have no reason to trust him because they have no idea who he is!

My Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Fantastic

Were you a fan of Loki? What did you think when the show was first announced? Did you enjoy seeing Tom Hiddleston take centre stage and what did you think to Loki’s character arc throughout this first season? Which of Loki’s variants was your favourite and what did you think to Sylvie and the romance between her and Loki? Were you surprised by the reveal of He Who Remains and what do you think will happen now that the Sacred Timeline has been disrupted? Are there any of the Loki variants you hope to see in the future? Feel free to sign up to drop your thoughts on Loki below, or leave a comment on my social media, and be sure pop back next Thursday (and next month) for more Asgardian content.

Talking Movies: Captain America: The First Avenger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Great Stuff

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

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.