Talking Movies [Sci-Fi Sunday]: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2


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


Talking Movies

Released: 5 May 2017
Director: James Gunn
Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Budget: $200 million
Stars: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldaña, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Karen Gillan, Kurt Russell, and Michael Rooker

The Plot:
After incurring the wrath of the Sovereign, the Guardians of the Galaxy are saved by Ego (Russell), a Celestial being who takes the form of a sentient planet. Claiming to be Peter Quill/Star-Lord’s (Pratt) true father, Ego promises to open Quill’s mind to the vast power and knowledge of the universe, but Quill’s adopted father-figure, Yondu Udonta (Rooker), reveals a far more sinister motive behind Ego’s seemingly benign nature.

The Background:
Despite being one of Marvel’s more obscure properties, and having undergone many changes over the years, the Guardians of the Galaxy proved to be a massive financial success after making their live-action debut in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Since the property was deemed to have strong franchise potential, and to even become as integral to the MCU as the Avengers, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the director and cast of the first film were soon revealed to be returning for a sequel. While determined to expand on the cast and lore of the first film, Gunn was mindful about overloading the sequel with a slew of new characters; Gunn went solo on the film’s story, which he planned to focus on exploring a new version of Star-Lord’s heritage, and was afforded a great deal of creative control regarding the direction of the story and its place in the wider MCU. Gunn also continued to push the importance of practical effects and set wherever possible, especially as the film would make far more liberal use of computer-generated effects to bring Ego (one of the most complex CGI creations ever) to life. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’s box office gross of over $863 million surpassed that of its predecessor, but reviews were generally more mixed; while the film was praised for being visually impressive and telling a surprisingly touching story, the pace and tone received some criticism. Still, the film cemented the team’s importance to the MCU and its success easily justified not only a third movie but also a holiday-themed special.

The Review:
I was pleasantly surprised by Guardians of the Galaxy; despite knowing next to nothing about the team or the concept heading into it when it first came out, the trailers and marketing had won me over and appealed to my love of science-fiction romps and bizarre comedic superhero adventuring. The film was a real breath of fresh air for the MCU at a time when things were just starting to really gear up towards full-on cosmic shenanigans and it remains one of my favourite entries not just in Phase Two, but in the entire franchise. So, to say my anticipation was high for the sequel would be an understatement; once again Marvel had outdone themselves by somehow getting Kurt Russell onboard and just the idea that they would even consider doing a concept like Ego, a literal sentiment planet, really told you all you needed to know about the scope of the MCU going forward: nothing was off limits, not even the most bizarre cosmic element of the source material.

The team may function a lot better now but they’re still a dysfunctional and argumentative bunch.

Some time has passed since the events of the first film, and the Guardians of the Galaxy have become somewhat renowned as a freelance peacekeeping force, of source and are happy to help those in need…for a price. Thanks to having saved the galaxy, they can afford to charge higher rates for their services, but it’s undeniable that they’re a much more well-oiled team than the band of misfits and outcasts we saw in the last film. The family dynamic has been dialled up to eleven, with Quill and Gamora (Saldaña) acting as the parental figures of the group, Drax the Destroyer (Bautista) and Rocket Raccoon (Cooper/Sean Gunn) acting as petulant teenagers, and Baby Groot (Diesel) as the curious and mischievous child. However, while they have clearly grown as a team and a surrogate family, the Guardians remain flawed and troublesome characters: hired by the Sovereign to destroy the inter-dimensional Abilisk, the team struggle to get their shit together and attack the beast between bickering with each other over their priorities and weapon choices and expressing concern for Baby Groot, whom they are all fiercely protective of. Although far from his larger, more capable self from the first film, Baby Groot proves instrumental in helping Rocket escape from the Ravagers, but is primarily here to cute appeal and comic relief; young and childish, he has trouble understanding things sometimes, which leads to a number of amusing instances where he struggles to retrieve items or follow instructions.

Rocket angers the Sovereign and pushes away his friends with his abrasive attitude, something Yondu can relate to.

As before, the one member of the team with the most sense remains Gamora, who is the only one capable and clear-headed enough to deliver the killing blow to the Abilisk. To be fair, Quill was the one who recognised that the creature had a pre-existing wound on its neck for Gamora to exploit, but Drax’s best plan was to foolishly try and attack the beast from the inside. While their methods are often haphazard and lacking in finesse, they get the job done and it’s Quill who takes point in speaking for the team to Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), the enigmatic and alluring High Priestess of the Sovereign race. While Quill flirts with Ayesha and attempts to keep relations with the proud race amicable, they incur her wrath when Rocket steals a bag full of their incredible rare and Anulax Batteries; of all the members of the team, it’s Rocket who struggles the most to let go of his selfish and underhanded ways, which brings him into continued conflict with the team and Quill’s leadership. A grouchy and antagonistic character, he actively pushes people away, even those closest to him, to avoid being hurt by them; he finds an unlikely confidante in Yondu Udonta (Rooker), an embittered space pirate who has spent his life doing the same thing and urges Rocket to recognise that he has people who actually care about him and help repair his relationship with Quill and his misfit family.

An ages-old Celestial, Ego wishes to spread his influence across the galaxy to consume all life.

Overwhelmed by the Sovereign fleet, the Guardians are mere moments away from being blown to smithereens thanks to Quill and Rocket wasting time and energy bickering over their piloting skills. Although they are saved by the timely intervention of Ego, the Milano is crippled, but Quill finds something he has long been missing in his life: his father. A sentient planet, Ego reveals himself to be an ages-old Celestial, a being who has known nothing but loneliness for the longest time; his only companion is Mantis (Pom Klementieff), a naïve and sheltered character who strikes up an odd relationship with Drax and uses her empathic powers to help Ego sleep…and to ease his conscience. Thanks to some extremely impressive de-aging effects and a facial double (Aaron Schwartz), the film opens with Kurt Russell appearing in his prime years back in the eighties to woo Meredith Quill (Laura Haddock) and sows the seeds (literally and figuratively) for Ego’s true plot to spread his consciousness across the entire galaxy using seeds planted on distant worlds. To do this, he needed to sire a part-Celestial heir but was continuously met with failure; the bodies of his rejected children are literally piled up and hidden away on his planet, and his joy at finding Quill can harness his cosmic powers soon turns to anger when his son chooses to turn that very power against him to oppose his dreams of galaxy-wide conversion.

The Guardians face threats from all sides as enemies old and new conspire to enact their revenge.

The Sovereign turn Nebula’s semi-cybernetic stepsister, Nebula (Gillan), over to the Guardians. Nebula’s hatred and resentment of Gamora has only grown between films; as children, their adopted father, Thanos (Josh Brolin), had them fight for supremacy over and over, and Gamora won every single time, reaping in Thanos’s praise while Nebula was replaced a piece at a time with mechanical parts. Gamora is happy to return Nebula to Xandar to collect her bounty and rid herself of her brutal stepsister once and for all, but Nebula is driven by rage and bitterness and takes every opportunity she can get to break free and hunt her sister down. This leads her to forming a brief, mutually beneficial alliance with the Sovereign and Taserface (Chris Sullivan), a mutilated member of Yondu’s crew who might be a laughable threat with a ridiculous name but he incites a mutiny and flushes those who stand against him and his followers out into space. This only further complicates matters for Yondu, who raised Quill as a space pirate and thief after learning of Ego’s true nature and intentions for the young Quill, but his part in child trafficking left him and his crew dishonoured and ostracised from the wider Ravager community by prominent Ravager figurehead Stakar Ogord (Sylvester Stallone). Betrayed by many of his crew, Yondu is forced to team up with Rocket to enact a merciless revenge with his fancy tricky arrow and rush to Quill’s aid when Ego’s true intentions are revealed, and an intense and brutal battle between Nebula and Gamora sees the two sisters reaching a mutual understanding and gaining the Guardians an additional unlikely ally for the finale.

The Nitty-Gritty:
As before, music and pop culture play an important part not just in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’s soundtrack but in defining Quill’s character, especially in relation to his mother. The flashback at the start of the film shows how Ego assumed the form of an irresistible 1980s rogue: he’s got the mullet, the car, and the tunes to go along with it and easily wins over Meredith with his good looks and silver tongue. Ego’s undeniable charisma and ability to manipulate his form are made more explicit when he pours vocal honey into Quill’s ears with stories of his love for Meredith and even assumes the form of his childhood hero, David Hasselhoff (Himself), showing that Ego knows exactly how to manipulate people by playing to (and preying on) their likes, hopes, and dreams. Quill’s love for music stems from his mother, who put together mixtapes for him that he listens to endlessly on his Walkman and onboard the Milano; so great is his love for music that Rocket even prioritises setting up a loud speaker for them to listen to Quill’s tune during their battle with the Abilisk and Quills still firmly drawing his pop culture reference from his childhood and the seventies and eighties. Just as these elements help him to remember and feel closer to his mother (and bond him closer with his newfound family), so too do they help to quickly build up a trust between him and his father when Ego expresses a liking for the same music and pop culture that was so integral to Quill’s childhood.

Space combat and action might be fleeting but are beautifully brought to life with some stunning visuals.

I remember being a little disappointed by Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 when I first saw it as I was expecting the film to be bigger and better than the first but, similar to Avengers: Age of Ultron (Whedon, 2015), it struck me as being just as enjoyable as the original, which actually knocked my rating of it. I have no problem with it telling a story more focused on the tea dynamic and exploring these characters further, I just hadn’t expected it when I first saw it, so I definitely appreciated it more on repeat viewings. However, there is still a decent amount of onscreen action and visual spectacle to keep viewers entertained: the Sovereign are a minor antagonistic force in the film existing mainly to drive the plot forwards and get our heroes to Ego, but they have a unique armada comprised of thousands (maybe even millions) of remote drones that are piloted very much like arcade machines and lead to some frantic space battles and an intense chase through a “quantum asteroid field” that’s like the asteroid chase from Star Wars: Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (Kershner, 1980) on steroids! The hexagonal jump points help to add to the mysterious nature of the galaxy and result in an amusing scene where Rocket and Yondu are warped in bizarre ways by multiple jumps, and Ego pilots a sleek, egg-like ship that is unlike any other in the galaxy, but the true visual spectacle of the film is realised when the characters arrive on Ego’s planet. A lush, verdant alien world home to some bizarre, vegetation and an elaborate palace housing Ego’s memories and plans, Ego’s world is just like him: beautiful and alluring at first glance but hiding a dark secret beneath the surface that comes to fruition when Ego’s very face warps the planet’s crust.

Family is even more pivotal this time around as bonds are reforged or rejected in favour of true family.

The dysfunctional family dynamic between the titular team is a pivotal element of the sequel; although they’re far more trusting and accepting of each other, they still wind each other up and get on each other’s nerves. While much of this is embodied by Rocket, Drax’s blunt and literal perspective doesn’t help matters much and Quill is continuously distracted by his attraction to Gamora. Despite Drax’s assertions that Gamora isn’t interested in him in that way, she’s incredibly supportive of Quill and is touched by his stories of his childhood pining for a father who wasn’t there, which confuses and angers him when she suspects that something isn’t quite right about Ego’s planet and raises questions about what counts as true family, blood or those you are closest to. Naturally, the question of Quill’s parentage is a huge plot point of the film; after being left as a blatant dangling plot thread and piece of sequel bait in the first film, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 goes to great lengths to establish that Quill isn’t fully human, like his comic book counterpart, and is instead part-Celestial thanks to being one of Ego’s many progeny seeded across the galaxy. This afford him many fantastic abilities when present on Ego’s plant form, and potentially opens up the vats secrets of the universe to him, but his human nature and the nurturing of his mother, his oddball family, and his father figure, Yondu, prove to be strong enough influences on Quill’s morals and character and force him to reject Ego. Quill is further driven to this decision when Ego drops the bombshell that it was he who caused Meredith’s fatal brain tumour, thus dooming her and pushing Quill into an enraged defiance that sees him pull out all the stops to oppose Ego’s plan to terraform the worlds he’s seeded.

Ego is destroyed at great cost but an even greater threat looms in the Guardians’ future…

This means not only turning down the ability to construct greater things, and even life, using Ego’s cosmic power but also the virtual immortality offered by Ego’s planet; disappointed by sentient life across the galaxy, Ego realised that his destiny wasn’t to simply walk among men, but to dominate and consume them through “The Expansion”. His façade as a loveable, charismatic figure quickly gives way to a cold-hearted, self-centred parasite befitting of his name and capable of great love (for he truly loved Meredith and was tempted to give up his enterprise for her) but also intense anger. Fully capable of manipulating every element of his planet-form to his will, Ego is a monstrous, nigh-unstoppable God-like being comprised of pure energy but capable of bending matter as he sees fit to protect his brain at the core of his planet. Thanks to being part-Celestial, Quill is also able to manipulate the planet to a degree, leading to a visually impressive sequence where Rocket drills through Ego’s crust using lasers and Quill constructs a massive version of Pac-Man to go head-to-head with his father. With the Sovereign closing in and adding to the melee, Mantis strains her powers to the limit to put Ego to sleep while Rocket cobbles together a bomb to destroy Ego’s core. Although the threat is ended and Gamora and Nebula finally reconcile (and Quill and Gamora finally admit their true feelings to each other), Quill forever loses his immortality and Celestial powers…and also his true father when Yondu sacrifices himself to save Quill from Ego’s destruction and the vacuum of space for a surprisingly emotional and heart-breaking finale. However, Yondu is finally honoured by the Ravagers in death, and Kraglin Obfonteri (Sean Gunn) assumes command of his arrow and his crew; while the Guardians find dealing with a moody adolescent Groot to be a challenge in the post-credits scene, they remain unaware that Ayesha has vowed to destroy them by breeding a perfect instrument of destruction dubbed “Adam”.

The Summary:
It’s definitely true that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 holds up much better with each subsequent viewing; in many ways, it’s more of the same from the last film, but with a far greater focus on the characterisations of the titular team and the dysfunctional family dynamic they have. While it doesn’t necessarily match or expand upon the space-faring action and excitement of the first film, and may disappoint some viewers in that respect, the grounded, more personal story told here is a poignant and affecting one. Seeing Quill struggle with his heritage, his feelings for Gamora, and to hold the team together is what makes these outlandish characters so surprisingly relatable, and the banter and relationship between each member of the team is some of the most entertaining produced by the MCU. What we have here is a film that peels back the layers of one of the most obscure properties in Marvel, and the MCU, and makes even their most alien members human and vulnerable; expanding on Yondu’s character and showing how complex Rocket is as a character was a surprising highlight, as was the heart-breaking final reconciliation between Yondu and Quill. There’s plenty of amusing elements throughout the film thanks to Drax’s blunt nature and Baby Groot’s childish antics, and Kurt Russell seems to be having the time of his life being part of his big-budget production. The cosmic scope of the MVU was expanded even further with the introduction of the Celestials and laying the groundwork for the future dynamic and troubles coming to the Guardians and, while I don’t rate it as highly as the first film, that’s not to say that there isn’t a great deal to enjoy here and I’d say it’s well worth your time, especially for those who might not have been convinced by the Guardians’ characterisation in the last film and wanted to get to know these characters better.

My Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Pretty Good

What did you think to Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2? Were you disappointed that the film wasn’t as action-packed as the first or did you enjoy the more character-focused story? What did you think to the added emphasis on the team as a dysfunctional family? Which of the new characters introduced was your favourite? What did you think to Ego’s plot and the changes made to his character? Would you have liked to see Quill retain his cosmic powers or did you dislike that he was made part-Celestial? Which members of the team would you like to see included in the MCU later down the line? I’d love to know your opinion on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, so sign up to share them below or leave a comment on my social media, and be sure to check in next Sunday as Sci-Fi Sunday continues!

Talking Movies [Sci-Fi Sunday]: Guardians of the Galaxy


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


Talking Movies

Released: 1 August 2014
Director: James Gunn
Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Budget: $232.3 million
Stars: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldaña, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Lee Pace, and Michael Rooker

The Plot:
Abducted from Earth as a small child, Peter Quill (Pratt) grows up to become the intergalactic rogue known as “Star-Lord”. However, after stealing a mysterious orb, Quill finds himself relentlessly pursued by the war-hungry Ronan the Accuser (Pace) and forced to team up with a rag-tag group of misfits and criminals in order to oppose the Kree warlord’s plans to devastate a peace-keeping world.

The Background:
While I’m sure that the Guardians of the Galaxy had their fair share of fans before they made their debut in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), I think it’s fair to say that the intergalactic superhero team were one of Marvel’s more obscure properties, especially compared to heavy-hitters like the Avengers. Writer Arnold Drake and the immortal Stan Lee changed Roy Thomas’s concept of super-guerrillas fighting Russians and Red China into an interplanetary team of misfits, and the team was resurrected and given their much more recognisable line-up over the years, and MCU head honcho Kevin Feige first name-dropped an adaptation of the team in 2010 as part of the MCU’s continued expansion towards more cosmic adventures. Director James Gunn won out to helm the film, which whole-heartedly embraced even the most ridiculous characters and concepts from the team’s history; the film embraced its ensemble line-up and utilised both practical and computer-generated effects to brings its bizarre characters to life. Gunn also emphasised the importance of featuring large, practical sets and bolstered the film’s humour and themes through a referential soundtrack. Guardians of the Galaxy was a phenomenal success, grossing over $772 million at the box office and proving that even Marvel’s most obscure creations could be a box office success. The film was met with an overwhelmingly positive reception; critics praised the banter and comedy, the quirky uniqueness of the film, and for bringing something new to the genre. Others were a little more critical of the film’s pace and comedic elements, but Guardians of the Galaxy’s box office success more than justified a sequel and the Guardians of the Galaxy quickly became a popular and integral part of the larger MCU.

The Review:
My knowledge of the Guardians of the Galaxy was basically non-existent when the film was first announced and released. In all my years of reading Marvel Comics, I had never once encountered the team beyond reading the issue where they encountered Cuchulain the Irish Wolfhound as part of my undergraduate studies and happening to read a story where Doctor Bruce Banner/The Hulk fought an early version of Groot. Thus, when I first heard of the film and saw the trailers, I was a little confused but intrigued by the concept, which reminded me of the kind of space-faring snark and adventure I’d enjoyed in Serenity (Whedon, 2005) and Star Trek (Abrams, 2009), and willing to go along with this risky venture of bringing such an obscure Marvel property to life. Although the film is unquestionably an ensemble piece and introduces many bizarre characters to the MCU, Guardians of the Galaxy is anchored by Peter Quill,  a vain and self-centred space adventurer who, as a boy (Wyatt Oleff), was forced to watch his beloved mother (Laura Haddock) suffer and ultimately succumb to a cancerous tumour. Unable to bare the loss, he ran out of the hospital in his grief and was unexpectedly abducted by Quill Yondu Udonta (Rooker) of the Ravagers on the order of his mysterious father, whom his mother descried in her delirium as an “angel”. Rather than be delivered to his father, Quill was raised by Yondu as a surrogate son and taught the ways of the space pirates, growing up to become a thief and modelling himself after the film stars of his youth, such as Patrick Swayze and Harrison Ford.

Quill wishes to be as notorious as Gamora, a bad-ass warrior known as the daughter of Thanos.

However, Quill is not as notorious throughout the galaxy as he likes to think, despite having a bunch of gadgets and tech at his disposal (such as his blaster, gravity grenades, personal space helmet and rocket boots, and even his own ship, the Milano). While Quill may be a loser with delusions of grandeur, his greatest ability is convincing others to listen to his words and come together against a common goal; even though he doesn’t always have a plan (or even a percentage of a plan), he’s able to talk his newfound allies into setting aside their differences first in the name of survival and profit, and then to defend Xandar from destruction. Gamora (Saldaña) begins the film as a minion of Ronan the Accuser (Pace), on loan to him from her adopted father, the Mad Titan, Thanos (Josh Brolin/Sean Gunn), much like her cybernetic stepsister Nebula (Karen Gillan). There’s a rivalry and animosity between the two that extends beyond simply trying to impress their father; while Gamora is a renowned and notorious warrior, she secretly plots against her father, who destroyed her people and turned her into a living weapon simply for his own amusement. She is a non-nonsense, laser-focused individual who is riled up by Quill’s inane banter and  buffoonery, but comes to find a surrogate family with her oddball team mates; as much as she hates Thanos and desires to kill him, she has a real love and pity for her Nebula, who has become cold and merciless and driven by hatred and resentment since Thanos always favoured Gamora, which inevitably leads to dramatic conflict between the two. Gamora is eventually convinced to trust Quill when he puts himself at risk not only by summoning Yondu for aid but by braving the cold, suffocating vacuum of space to save her, which also goes a long way to proving his selflessness and worthiness as a hero (however unlikely) to his newfound teammates.

Rocket, Groot, and Drax become reluctant allies after being convinced by Quill’s quick-thinking.

Rocket Racoon (Cooper/Sean Gunn) and Groot (Diesel/Krystian Godlewski) are already branded as criminals at the start of the film, but operate as independent bounty hunters who are simply trying to et rich by bringing in marks and run across Quill and Gamora while staking out Xandar for bounties. Though Rocket appears to be the brains of the operation, Groot is far from a mindless creature, despite only ever uttering “I am Groot!”; Groot is insightful, curious, and compassionate and surprisingly gentle for such a lumbering brute, and adds to the film’s humour and heart thanks to his childish nature. Rocket also has a surprising amount of depth to his character; essentially a snarky, embittered raccoon-like creature, he was subjected to horrific experiments and takes a perverse pleasure in sticking it to those in positions of authority. After being arrested by the Nova Corps and locked up in the Kyln, these four are reluctantly forced to work together since all of the other inmates immediately target them because of their association with Gamora and her association with Ronan and Thanos. No other inmate has more of a vendetta against Ronan than Drax the Destroyer (Bautista), a musclebound warrior whose family were slaughtered by Ronan for sport and who longs to kill Gamora as recompense. Drax, who comes from a race of people that take everything literally and cannot understand metaphors, is convinced to spare Gamora by the fast-talking Quill so that they can join forces to lure Ronan out and kill him. Although reluctant to team up, Drax is won over by Quill’s reputation and Rocket’s plucky adaptability, but is so focused on having his revenge against Ronan that he puts his newfound teammates at risk by summoning Ronan to Knowhere, only to be summarily humiliated in single combat with his hated foe.

Despite his potential to be a decent recurring villain, Ronan is a disappointingly forgettable antagonist.

Each of the film’s protagonists has either a personal vendetta against, or comes into conflict with, Ronan, a Kree warrior branded a terrorist as he refuses to abide by the peace treaty between his people and Xandar, home of the Nova Corps. A maniacal zealot who wishes nothing less than the power to strip Xandar of all life, he makes a deal with Thanos, to retrieve the Orb for him in return for Thanos unleashing his might against Xandar, however he’s sadly another largely lacklustre villain; even killing the Other (Alexis Denisof) and making demands of Thanos does little to impress and he’s simply a large, malevolent force for the team to rally against. He does have some notable moments, however, such as delivering a massive beatdown to Drax and laying claiming the Power Stone that lies within the Orb, thus granting him incredible, nigh-unlimited power. Unfortunately, there’s really not much to go on with him; his fanatical vendetta against Xandar make him largely unsympathetic, he does a lot of posturing for someone so feared and revered by other characters, and is easily distracted by Quill’s hilarious dance moves and undone by the titular Guardians sharing the power of the Power Stone between them and atomising him. It’s a shame, really, as I feel like Ronan could have been a decent enough recurring villain, or even a reluctant ally, of the Guardians in subsequent films (or repurposed into one of Thanos’s Black Order), but instead he’s simply built up as this unstoppable bad-ass and then done away with before he can really earn that reputation.

A number of supporting character actors bolster the film’s scope, or steal the show with their antics.

The film is bolstered by a number of supporting characters, with Yondu being the clear standout; Quill’s mentor and, essentially, adopted father, there is an animosity between the two as Yondu believes Quill is ungrateful that he wasn’t eaten by the rest of the Ravagers and Quill believes that Yondu only kept him around because he was small enough to help steal stuff. However, there relationship softens over the course of the film and Yondu goes from placing a bounty on Quill’s head and wanting him dead to helping him push back Ronan’s forces, which is good news for Quill as Yondu can command a specialised arrow with just a few piercing whistles and cut down enemies in the blink of an eye. As home to the peacekeeping Nova Corps, Xandar offers some additional faces to the film’s line up, including the exasperated Nova Prime, Irani Rael (Glenn Close), who is frustrated at Ronan’s continued attacks against her people and the reluctance of the Kree to intervene, and Nova Corpsmen such as Rhomann Dey (John C. Reilly) and Denarian Garthan Saal (Quill Serafinowicz), who are both impressed and judgemental of the titular team’s notoriety and become reluctant allies of theirs for the finale. Another additional highlight of the film is the enigmatic Taneleer Tivan/The Collector (Benicio del Toro), a peculiar gatherer of oddities and knowledge who reveals the Orb’s true nature as housing an Infinity Stone and pushing the Guardians into leaving it in the care of the Nova Corps rather than selling it or allowing Ronan to lay claim to it.

The Nitty-Gritty:
All young Quill had to cope with his mother’s failing health was his music; she would compile mix tapes for him that he would listen to repeatedly to help distract him from reality and, after being kidnapped by Yondu, he was (somehow) able to keep his Walkman and tapes working by retrofitting space technology. Quill is so attached to the Walkman and his music that he delays his escape from the Klyn to retrieve it, much to Drax’s chagrin, and he finds solace in the music of Blue Suede, Redbone, and Marvin Gaye. Obviously attracted to Gamora, Quill briefly begins to win her over by letting her share his music, and he has spent his entire adult life putting off unwrapping his mother’s final gift to him, which turns out to be a new mixtape full of even more classic tracks from the seventies and the eighties.

Guardians massively expanded the scope and intricacies of the MCU’s galaxy.

Being the MCU’s first adventure to be fully set in the deepest depths of space, Guardians of the Galaxy continues to impress with is visual presentation; from the sets, props, and special effects, everything has such depth and variety to it. Xandar is slick and advanced, clean and with the best resources available, while Knowhere is a desolate, lived-in hellhole full of scum and villainy. The Milano is a beat-up mess not a million miles away from the Millennium Falcon (although it doesn’t look like the Falcon), while Ronan’s ship, the Dark Aster, is a dark and ominous vessel carving its way trough the galaxy. The Ravagers are a bunch of degenerates holed up on a huge, filthy ship and made up of a variety of representable races, and the differences between their ship and the advanced forces of the Nova Corps is vast. However, it takes the combined efforts of these unlikely allies to defend Xandar and push back Ronan using a combination of space combat, a massive energy shield that amounts to a suicide run, and breaching the Dark Aster in an unsuccessful attempt to kill Ronan. I really enjoy the visual style of the film, which quickly shows in a very short period of time that the MCU’s galaxy is full of history, technology, and races that we’ve still only begun to scratch the surface of. Knowhere is carved from the severed head of a Celestial, the Collector’s museum is stuffed full of trinkets and captives from across the vastness of space and Marvel lore, and there’s a real sense that we could see another twenty films set in MCU space and still not really understand everything about it.

Family is at the heart of Guardians as its misfits and outcasts find a purpose in the universe.

One of the most prominent themes that separates Guardians of the Galaxy from other films in the MCU is the sense of family; unlike other films in the MCU, Guardians of the Galaxy was given the unenviable task of introducing a whole team of new heroes all in one film and, while many of them are analogous to their Avengers counterparts, they manage to stand out from them thanks to their individual personalities and quirks. Quill is desperate to make a name for himself as notorious outlaw Star-Lord; until now, he’s being trying to do that by stealing shit and being a disreputable rogue, but he finds his true calling as a reluctant space hero and saviour by the film’s end and finally gets his wish when Korath (Djimon Hounsou) uses his codename. Quill is also carrying a tremendous amount of guilt over never getting to say goodbye to his mother and has been running from his past ever since; while he seems to have no wish to return to Earth and find a new family in the Guardians, he clings on to the pop culture of his childhood, and it’s his love for his mother that gives him the strength to endure the Power Stone’s power in the finale. The familial themes continue with Gamora and Nebula, stepsisters who have a bitter rivalry but are reluctant to admit how much they both have in common: bother were used and abused by Thanos and both wish to see him dead, but Nebula is too blinded by her hatred and resentment to consider working alongside her sister. Drax is completely motivated by love for his lost family, whose deaths haunt him and dictate both his vendetta against Ronan and his eventual acceptance of his newfound friends.

Despite heavy losses, Ronan is defeated and the galaxy is left in the capable (?) hands of its new guardians.

This band of misfits, degenerates, and losers finally finds something worth fighting for thanks to their common goals and interests, forced to work together for survival, their interests quickly turn from profit and revenge to putting their lives on the line for a greater good when they pledge to defend Xandar from Ronan and keep the Power Stone out of his grasp. Alongside the Ravagers and the Nova Corps, the newly christened Guardians of the Galaxy fend off the likes of Korath and Ronan’s Necrocraft in a co-ordinated attempt to kill Ronan. Unfortunately, Ronan embeds the Power Stone into his Warhammer, obliterating Saal and many of the Nova Corps and easily shrugging off Rocket’s specially made missile. Outmatched by the empowered Ronan, the Guardians are only granted a reprieve when Rocket punches a whole in the Dark Aster sending it crashing down to Xandar, and they’re only saved by the selfless and poignant sacrifice of Groot, who shields his newfound family using his own body. Thanks to the Power Stone, Ronan also survives the crash, but is so busy making speeches that he probably would have ben undone even without Quill’s distracting him with his dance moves. With Ronan’s Warhammer destroyed, Quill lays claim to the Power Stone, but its sheer destructive power threatens to teat him apart; memories of his mother give him the strength to hold back the damage and link hands with his newfound friends, who share the burden of the Infinity Stone’s power and allow them to triumph over Ronan. For their efforts, Quill makes amends with Yondu (despite again cheating him out of the Orb’s bounty, and Yondu taking with him the truth of Quill’s true parentage). The Nova Corps repair the Milano and wipe away the Guardians’ criminal records, and the head out into the galaxy to cause more mischief.

The Summary:
I am continuously impressed by Guardians of the Galaxy; I was pleasantly surprised the first time I saw it and, even now, it stands out as one of the most unique and entertaining entries in the MCU. Essentially a space adventure, the film has a visual style and humour that really helps it stand out from other films in the MCU. The film does a fantastic job of extending the scope of the MCU beyond Earth and really showing how much variety, lore, and different technology, races, and conflicts exist out in the depths of space. Tying everything together is, of course, the titular team themselves; reminiscent of their Avengers counterparts (a man out of time, a warrior female, a snarky mechanic, a monstrous brute, and an oddball meathead), the Guardians shine trough their unique characteristics and the sense of loss that drives them. Each has a past, with many of them having committed unspeakable crimes prior to the film, and is motivated by a desire to find a sense of belonging, put to rest their demons, and discover their purpose in the wide, dangerous galaxy. Of course, to begin with, none of them would ever really admit to this and they’re more motivated by profit or revenge, but being forced together turns out to be the best thing for this band of misfits and assholes as they’re able to put their egos, pride, and selfish desires to come together for a greater good. It’s not easy debuting an ensemble team in one film, but Guardians of the Galaxy is fantastically paced and gives everyone a chance to shine; even supporting characters like Yondu and Nebula get a decent amount to do and, while Ronan is squandered as a villain, the overall package shines just as brightly now as it did when I first saw it and I remember coming away from Guardians of the Galaxy extremely excited for the future of the MCU, which looked to be near-limitless at the time.

My Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Fantastic

Are you a fan of Guardians of the Galaxy? Which of the characters was your favourite? Were you disappointed that the film didn’t feature the original version of the team, or a different line-up? What did you think to the MCU expanding its scope deep into space and with such an obscure property? Were you also disappointed with Ronan, or does he rank quite high in your list of MCU villains? What did you think to the hints towards the full scope of the Infinity Stones and the wider MCU peppered throughout the film? Did you enjoy the changes the film made to characters like Drax and the Nova Corps? Which members of the team would you like to see included in the MCU later down the line? I’d love to hear your thoughts on Guardians of the Galaxy, so please sign up to share them down below or leave a comment on my social media, and be sure to check in next Sunday for my review of the sequel as Sci-Fi Sunday continues!

Screen Time: The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special

Air Date: 25 November 2022
Director:
James Gunn
Network:
Disney+
Stars: Chris Pratt, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Pom Klementieff, Sean Gunn, and Kevin Bacon

The Background:
Although one of Marvel’s more obscure properties, and having undergone many changes over the years, the Guardians of the Galaxy proved to be a massive financial success when they made their live-action debut in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). With the property deemed to have strong franchise potential and integral to the MCU, a sequel was inevitably produced and went on to surpass the box office of the first film despite criticisms regarding its pace and tone. Although director James Gunn had plans for a third film, the team’s future was briefly thrown into doubt when Disney and Gunn parted ways after learning of some controversial tweets and comments he made in the past. After addressing and apologising for his comments, and following an outpouring of support from fans and stars alike, Gunn returned to Disney/Marvel and developed of the third film started up once more. Gunn and his stars also signed on to produce this holiday special for Disney+, which he planned to serve as an epilogue for Phase Four of the MCU after having worked on the concept for some years. Following delays due to COVID-19, the special finally released on Disney+ in December 2022 and was met with positive reviews; critics praised the heartfelt homage to Christmas specials of old and the light-hearted comedy on offer, though some questioned the motivation behind the special and the inclusion of Kevin Bacon despite Gunn stating that it would set up some key events for the team’s third movie.

The Plot:
With Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Pratt) still reeling from the death of Gamora (Saldaña) and the presence of her alternative self from a separate timeline, Mantis (Klementieff) and Drax the Destroyer (Bautista) head to Earth to bring Peter the greatest Christmas gift they can think of: his childhood icon, Kevin Bacon!

The Review:
The special opens with Kraglin Obfonteri (Gunn) shedding some light on young Peter’s (Luke Klein) childhood amongst the Ravagers to Mantis, Drax, and Nebula (Karen Gillan). As a boy, Peter was still very sentimental towards Earth (largely referred to as “Terra” out in the depths of space) and tried to teach Yondu Udonta (Michael Rooker) about its ways and traditions. Yondu, however, wasn’t just unimpressed at the idea of Christmas; he was enraged by it and forever ruined the festivities with his volatile temper. While Mantis is heart-broken at the story, Drax, in his usual boisterous fashion, finds Peter’s traumatic upbringing incredibly amusing, something even Nebula admonishes him for. The special does answer a lingering question I had about Taneleer Tivan/The Collector (Benicio del Toro), last seen as an illusion cast by the Mad Titan, Thanos (Josh Brolin), and presumed dead but he’s apparently still alive since he sold the entirety of Knowhere to the Guardians between movies. Because of this, the team has been too busy fixing the place up and restoring some kind of order and has been unable to indulge in festivities or even search for the elusive, alternative Gamora. Feeling a sense of obligation towards Peter, who’s revealed to be her half-brother since they’re both children of Ego the Living Planet (Kurt Russell), Mantis is spurred to give Peter the Christmas he missed out on as a child. Confiding in Drax, the only one who knows her secret, Mantis is elated when the muscled-bound buffoon suggests bringing Peter’s childhood hero to him as the ultimate Christmas gift and head to Earth to kidnap Kevin Bacon! Although their arrival initially causes a stir due to Drax forgetting to activate the ship’s cloaking device, the two easily blend in amidst the glitz, excess, and cosplayers of Hollywood, unwittingly earning themselves a decent wad of cash in the process as enthusiastic tourists clamour for selfies with their pair.

To cheer Peter up, Mantis and Drax head to Earth to kidnap Kevin Bacon!

After blowing all their dough on shots and revels, Mantis uses her empathic abilities to obtain a map to Kevin Bacon’s house, where the EE spokesman is relaxing in his spacious Hollywood home and awaiting the return of his family. Although he politely sends the two away when they come calling, they’re easily able to barge into his house and a frantic chase throughout Bacon’s abode ensues, with Mantis hopping from wall to wall like her namesake and things escalating when Bacon desperately asks the local cops for help, which thankfully ends without any bloodshed. This sequence also showcases Mantis’s fighting skill as she easily takes down the armed cops and renders them unconscious with her powers, showing that she’s more than just the team’s emotional, compassionate conscious. These same powers are used to quell Bacon’s fears and, at the lightest touch and softest suggestion, he become enthusiastic about accompanying the two and helping them deck their ship out with Christmas decorations. However, once he’s heading out into the big black and sharing stories of his career, Bacon unknowingly lets slip that he’s simply an actor rather than some world-renowned superhero, much to the disgust of Mantis and Drax, so Mantis coerces Bacon into believing he truly is a hero so as not to ruin Peter’s Christmas once more. Bacon then believes himself to be a World War Two soldier, adopting a…well, “Australian” accent would be generous…then briefly pretending to be Bruce Wayne/Batman before Mantis demands that he be himself but not “suck”. Thankfully, Bacon is just happy to be out in space and takes it all in his stride, and Peter is astounded to find that all of Knowhere has been decorated with Christmas lights, songs, decorations, and even a snow blower. Though touched by their efforts, Peter’s joy turns to horror when he discovers that his friends have kidnapped his childhood hero, regardless of how excited Kevin Bacon is to be there to celebrate Christmas with them. After demanding that Bacon be returned to normal, the actor’s enthusiasm turns to terror; however, after learning of how influential his career was to Peter’s life, Bacon has a change of heart and decides to stick around and help out.

The Summary:  
Naturally, given the title and when it released, Christmas is a central theme of The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special; it’s bookended by the God-awful “Fairytale of New York” song by The Pogues, the traditional Marvel Studios logo is overlaid by soft snow fall and Christmas lights, and the special opens with an animated flashback showing young Peter’s failed attempts to explain the sentiment behind Christmas to Yondu. He’s not the only one in the depths of space who struggles with the concept; Bzermikitokolok (Rhett Miller) and his band (The Old 97’s) to interpret the season through song recast Santa Claus as a superpowered master burglar who shoots missiles and has a flamethrower, much to Peter’s dismay. Drax and Mantis are equally dumbfounded by Earth’s traditions but soon enjoy the taste of Earth liquor, the excitement of a bar, and delight in the festive decorations littered across Kevin Bacon’s lawn. Those who delight in the action-packed adventures of the Guardians may be disappointed to learn that the Holiday Special is much more of a character-driven pieces; Groot (Diesel) is little more than a cameo (and looks a lot like a man in a suit, an effect I approve of) and the special primarily follows Drax and Mantis, which is pretty delightful as these two don’t always get much to do and it’s cute to see them bicker and Mantis ultimately gifting him with an inflatable elf he had grown fond of on their journey. Also, the special shows that the team is now aided in their efforts by Cosmo the Spacedog (Maria Bakalova), a sentient dog that developed psionic powers after being shot into space by the Soviet Union and who has a strained relationship with Rocket Raccoon (Cooper), though she responds much better to doggy treats than criticism.

Ultimately Kevin Bacon brings the spirit of Christmas to Peter and the other Guardians.

Although Kevin Bacon is terrified by Mantis and Drax, and rightfully so, fearing at first an invasion of his home, then an attempt on his life by overly enthusiastic cosplayers, and finally overwhelmed by being surrounded by strange alien lifeforms, his excitement at being out in the galaxy comes through thanks to Mantis’s spell. Despite his fear, however, he is touched by Kraglin’s story of how much his movie roles impacted Peter’s life and he decides to stick around Knowhere for a bit, singing a song and helping to teach them about the true meaning of Christmas. While Bacon’s explains the virtues of family and goodwill so associated with the season, Peter encourages the others to open their gifts: Groot is delighted by his Game Boy and even Nebula gets into the spirit by gifting Rocket James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes’ (Sebastian Stan) prosthetic arm! Thus, Kevin Bacon parts with the team on friendly terms, and even promises to be back for Easter, having brightened Peter’s life considerably with his generosity. Equally moved by the team’s effort, Peter reveals to Mantis that Yondu quickly came around to the spirit of Christmas after being amused by Peter’s gift (the first of many small toys for his control panel( and that he even gifted Peter his trademark blasters in return. Mantis’s revelation, however, trumps even that present and Peter is thrilled to learn that he has a sister, ending the special on a sweet note about family and goodwill and all that heart-warming Christmas spirit.

My Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Pretty Good

Did you enjoy The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special? What did you think to the focus on Drax and Mantis and their efforts to cheer Peter up with a most unusual present? Did you enjoy Kevin Bacon’s role as a clueless, well-meaning celebrity? Would you have liked to see a little more action in it or were you happy with the traditional Christmas message it delivered? Where do you see the team going in the future? What’s your favourite Christmas special? Whatever your thoughts, feel free to share them below or on my social media.

Screen Time [Christmas Countdown]: Hawkeye

Air Date: 24 November 2021 to 22 December 2021
Network: Disney+
Stars: Jeremy Renner, Hailee Steinfeld, Tony Dalton, Alaqua Cox, Vera Farmiga, and Florence Pugh

The Background:
In one of their more blatant borrowings from their competitor, Stan Lee and Don Heck debuted Clint Barton/Hawkeye in the pages of Tales of Suspense all the way back in 1964. Originally introduced as a foil for Tony Stark/Iron Man, Hawkeye eventually became a member of the Avengers, was involved in some of Marvel’s most prominent storylines, and has even become a symbol of representation for the deaf community in recent years. Jeremy Renner helped the D-list archer become a household name after he was cast in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) but was very much restricted to a supporting role compared to his other, more compelling peers. Marvel Studios sought to change this with the launch of Disney+, and Hawkeye was one of the first characters slated to have his own show exclusive to the streaming platform, which executive producer Trinh Tran aimed to explore his backstory, his time as Ronin prior to Avengers: Endgame (Russo and Russo, 2019), and introduce his protégé, Kate Bishop (Steinfeld), to the MCU. Accordingly, the show was heavily influenced by Matt Fraction’s comic book run, in which these elements (and Hawkeye’s deafness) were prominent features. The show aimed to delve deeper into Barton’s mindset and how the Snap had affected him, while also formally incorporating elements from Marvel’s Netflix shows into the MCU proper, and further lay the groundwork for a potential Young Avengers project. Despite issues caused by COVID-19, the six-episode series was highly praised when it debuted on Disney+; critics enjoyed the banter between the two archers, the seasonal setting, and the chance to spend more time with Barton, while also praising the grounded action sequences. While there has been no talk of a second series, a spin-off for deaf antagonist-cum-anti-hero Maya Lopez (Cox) was put into production for a 2023 release.

The Plot:
Former Avenger Clint Barton just wants to get back to his family for Christmas but his life is thrown into disarray when he crosses paths with would-be superhero Kate Bishop and is thrust into the middle of a conspiracy from his past that threatens to derail far more than the festive spirit.

The Review:
I mentioned in my review of his debut appearance that I’m not overly familiar with the character of Hawkeye; I’ve definitely read more stories of his DC Comics counterpart and Hawkeye generally just pops up in any stories I read that feature the Avengers or other Marvel Comics characters. As a result, while I’m familiar with Matt Fraction’s work with the character, I’m by no means a die-hard Hawkeye fan. I’ve always been a bit dismissive of him; this isn’t because he doesn’t have any superpowers, I’ve just never really been motivated to seek out his stories. However, having said that, I am a fan of Jeremy Renner’s portrayal of the character in the MCU; Hawkeye got a bit shafted in first Avengers movie, but has since become the heart (or, at least, moral compass) of the team. He’s shown himself to be a devoted family man, something none of his peers can boast of, a surrogate father and mentor and to have real emotional depth to his character, going on a killing spree as the vigilante Ronin after Thanos (Josh Brolin) wiped out half the universe (including Clint’s wife and kids, who eventually returned, of course) and being visibly broken after his best friend and partner, Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), sacrificed herself to help undo Thanos’s actions. I think it’s cool that Hawkeye got the chance to spread his wings in a series devoted to him, but I do think Marvel Studios missed the chance to do a sort of spy/thriller set in the past that showed how Clint and Natasha first met and joined the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division (S.H.I.E.L.D.), which would also have shed new light on S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), but I suppose that still isn’t completely off the table and this is a good compromise as I can’t say for sure if a Hawkeye solo movie would land too well.

Burdened by grief, Clint is forced to protect Kate from the ghosts of his violent past.

When we catch up with Clint, he’s still carrying the grief and guilt over Natasha’s death; he’s unimpressed, to say the least, and somewhat insulted by Rogers: The Musical’s glorification of the Avengers and their strife and haunted by Natasha’s sacrifice. He’s also now shown to be partially deaf and wearing a hearing aid (which he turns off to spare himself Rogers’ cheesy songs and later, to tune out Kate’s incessant babbling) and is irked that the musical includes superheroes who weren’t even in the battle. And that’s not even mentioning the “Thanos Was Right” graffiti he spots in the men’s room; here’s a guy who lost everything, put his life on the line countless times, and lost his best friend to bring back untold billions of lost souls and his reward is seeing his exploits turned into a cringe-worthy stage show (Marvel Universe Live! had better action, costumes, and production value) and anonymous accusations that all that pain and loss was not only for nothing, but unappreciated by a certain few. He’s also shown to be uncomfortable with the hero worship some show him, dismissive and annoyed by fans, and cares little for his “branding”; in “Hide and Seek” (Thomas, 2021), Kate voices her concerns that he’s too “low key” to sell and thus has been denied his proper share of the limelight and a big part of their emerging partnership is her emphasising that Clint needs to open himself up more so he can inspire people the same way he did her. “Partners, Am I Right?” (Bert and Bertie, 2021) shows his counterargument to this; Clint has always seen himself as a weapon, rather than a hero or a role model, and he’s too traumatised and too weary from his losses and years of fighting to want to be in the public eye. Indeed, he begins the show simply wishing to spend a happy, if cringe-filled, Christmas with his kids – supportive daughter Lila (Ava Russo) and his sons, veritable blank slate Cooper (Ben Sakamoto) and young Nathanial (Cade Woodward). He’s stunned when he sees a report of his former murderous vigilante persona, Ronin, on the news and immediately sends his kids back home to their mother, Laura (Linda Cardellini); haunted by the deaths he caused while in the guise, Clint makes it his mission to track down whoever’s in the getup to protect them from reprisals and is aghast to find Kate under the mask. Concerned for her welfare, Clint’s paternal instincts kick in and he takes her to safety; dismissive of her because of her age and claim to be “the world’s greatest archer”, despite her obvious talent with a bow, Clint wants only to dispose of the Ronin suit, tie up his loose ends with the Tracksuit Mafia, and get back to his family for Christmas; he has no interest in a partnership or teaching Kate anything at first, but they slowly bond throughout the events of the show despite his crotchety nature.

Kate is overjoyed to be joining forces with her idol and applying her skills to superheroics.

While the show bares the name of Clint’s alter ego and his strife and character are at the forefront of the narrative, Hawkeye is, primarily, the Kate Bishop show. The series begins with a flashback showing young Kate (Clara Stack), already a keen archer, being inspired by Hawkeye’s bravery and heroism during the Chitauri attack on New York City, which left Kate’s father, Derek (Brian d’Arcy James), dead and saw her and her mother, Eleanor (Farmiga), saved by one of Hawkeye’s arrows. Vowing to protect herself, her mother, and others in the same way as her hero, Kate grew up studying fencing, archery, and martial arts; the first episode’s opening credits are essentially an animated montage showcasing Kate’s tenacity and will to succeed but, while she’s certainly gifted with a bow and in a fight, she’s young, inexperienced in the field, and has no real idea of how to best use her skills. This comes up constantly throughout the show as she’s forced to think on her feet, react to dangers with either fast thinking or her martial arts skill, and use her surroundings to her advantage, all of which shows her to be highly adaptable, but in over her head. However, she has good intentions; she puts herself on the line to rescue a one-eyed stray dog, Lucky (Jolt), and manages to scramble through most fights through luck, perseverance, and the element of surprise. Kate briefly adopts the Ronin identity when she becomes suspicious of her mother’s new fiancé, the swashbuckling, charismatic Jack Duquesne (Dalton), and becomes caught up in a murder mystery after finding Jack’s uncle, Armand Duquesne III (Simon Callow), dead from a sword wound. Since the Tracksuit Mafia have a grudge against Ronin, and Kate’s not exactly a pro at covering her tracks, she quickly finds herself a target and is blown away when her hero, Hawkeye, rescues her. She’s disheartened to learn that he plans to part ways with her as soon as the suit is destroyed and when he shows reluctance to teach her anything, but she remains persistent; when Clint allows himself to be captured by the Tracksuits to try and warn them off her, she uses her mother’s security company to track him and literally comes crashing in to rescue him. Though aggravated by Kate’s recklessness, inexperience, and methods when it comes to dealing with criminal scumbags (she’s just as likely to offer them relationship advice as she is a beatdown), Clint genuinely wants to keep her safe and thus severs their fledgling partnership when Yelena Belova (Pugh) becomes involved. Though devastated at failing to live up to her promise and the example of her hero and his fellow Avengers, a candid discussion with Yelena only fuels Kate’s desire to be a part of that life and she openly defies him, her mother, and her naysayers to aid her hero and show that she’s more than capable of living up to the mantle of Hawkeye.

Family is at the heart of Hawkeye and drives much of the plot and its characters.

Family is a key component of Hawkeye; Clint is torn between cleaning up the mess from his blood-soaked past and spending Christmas with his family; having already lost so much time with them during his days as a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent (essentially a glorified assassin) and Avenger, to say nothing of the five years he spent indulging his violent whims as Ronin, Clint just wants to have a quiet, peaceful life with his wife and kids and is constantly heartbroken at the prospect of breaking his promise to be home for the holidays. Refreshingly, his relationship with his kids is as strong as his marriage; his kids are generally understanding, sympathetic, and supportive of him, as is Laura, who never gives him a hard time or yells at him for prioritising his mission over his family. It’s not like Clint needs the guilt trip, either, as he carries the burden of potentially letting his family down throughout the show and nowhere is this evidenced better than during his heart-breaking phone call with Nate where, thanks to having lost his hearing aid, he’s forced to rely on Kate to act as an interpreter. As a former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent herself, Laura understands Clint’s mission; his desperate desire to not only get rid of the Ronin suit but also recover a mysterious watch with ties to her past is only further fuelled by repeated references to the “big guy”, a dangerous individual who makes even the ridiculous Tracksuit Mafia more of a threat. Although he has no interest in taking on a partner after losing Natasha, Clint comes to see Kate as an equal and almost a surrogate daughter, and even builds his own network of allies after being forced to endure the theatricality of a group of live-action roleplaying gamers (LARPer) to retrieve the Ronin suit from firefighter Grills (Clayton English). Family is incredibly important to Kate, too; she’s more than a little perturbed to find Eleanor is engaged to someone else and, despite Jack’s efforts to be understanding and friendly, she is cold and aloof towards him. This turns to suspicion when she discovers a link between him and the Tracksuit Mafia; however, Eleanor refuses to listen to Kate’s claims and is horrified when she forces him into a fencing duel, accusing her of lashing out due to being at a crossroads in her life and still grieving over the loss of her father. Still, Kate is torn between being genuinely pleased with her mother’s newfound happiness and her vow to keep her safe; it brings her no pleasure to deliver evidence of Jack’s presumed misgivings, but she’s devastated to learn that he’s merely a patsy and that Eleanor has been orchestrating events to pay off a debt her husband owed to the “big guy”, none other than the kingpin of crime himself, Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio).

Backed by her goons, and against Fisk’s wishes, Maya is determined to avenge herself on Ronin.

The show’s themes of family are also exemplified in Maya Lopez, the head of the Tracksuit Mafia, whom Fisk regards as a daughter and one of his greatest assets. Deaf since birth, Maya communicates only through sign language (with helpful subtitles often appearing for our benefit) and violence thanks to being raised by her doting father, William Lopez (Zahn McClarnon), to be a keen fighter, thinker, and to closely observe and anticipate the movements and intentions of others using her other senses. Maya is thus a brutal and highly skilled fighter despite her lack of hearing and artificial foot; she was devested when Ronin murdered her father, the original head of the Tracksuit Mafia, and vowed to hunt him down and kill him, a vendetta that causes her close friend and second-in-command, Kazimierz “Kazi” Kazimierczak (Fra Free), to grow concerned not just for her welfare but for attracting undue attention to their organisation and angering the Kingpin. Distrustful and filled with rage, Maya has her goons target Kate as she’s their only lead to Ronin and refuses to listen to Clint’s claims that the vigilante is dead or Kazi’s attempts to reason with her; Clint goes so far as to ask Kazi to convince Maya to veer from her path as it can only lead to her destruction. Although Clint has the edge in terms of experience and adaptability, Maya proves the more agile and skilled of the two with her kicks and flips; still, Clint is able to subdue her and threatens to kill her if she continues to target his friends and family. Using a mixture of words and sign language, he attempts to relate to her since they’re both essentially living weapons but she only relents when she’s faced with the irrefutable proof that it was Fisk who ordered her father to be killed. As if Maya wasn’t bad enough, she has a whole gaggle of tracksuit-wearing goons at her disposal; the Tracksuit Mafia are a quirky bunch who all wear matching clothes and repeatedly end their sentences with “Bro”. The Tracksuits exhibit an amusing and interesting amount of personality; while they all dress and somewhat sound, look, and act alike, they’re not just mindless minions. They mock Clint and Kate, subjecting them to nonstop Christmas tunes while tied to kiddie rides, enjoy RUN DMC’s “Christmas in Hollies”, are fond of their lairs and offended when people question them and their methods, and are seen as both ruthless and clumsy, which ties into the themes of vulnerability and flawed characters.

Yelena is determined to kill Clint, while Fisk seeks to consolidate his stranglehold on New York.

Family is also a driving motivation behind Yelena’s vendetta; a flashback shows that, after the end of Black Widow (Shortland, 2021), Yelena was snapped away while freeing her fellow “sisters” from their programming. From her perspective, she instantly returned, finding her surroundings changed and life having moved on five years in the literal blink of an eye. Disorientated, her first thought was to find Natasha and she was devastated to learn that she was not only dead, but that Clint was responsible. I get that she’s blinded by rage and grief, but she’s very quick to judge Clint based on his bloody past considering how shady her own past is. Still, despite wishing to kill Clint, Yelena goes out of her way to warn Kate off him using her own signature (and awkward) brand of persuasion and even respects Kate’s ability and tenacity (it’s clear that she’s holding back during their encounters), but cannot condone her admiration of the man she believes killed her sister. Her final confrontation with Clint sheds some light on her motivations; refusing to fight, Clint relates a version of what happened to Natasha and takes a massive beating as Yelena works her grief out on him, blaming him for not fighting or trying harder and he’s only able to get through to her by sharing the secret whistle and knowledge he has of her from Natasha. It seems she’s jealous of the time Clint got to have with her and for not being there to try and stop her, and she finally realises that they both loved her and that she’s been consumed by anguish and gives up her vendetta (though their relationship remains noticeably frosty). And then there’s Fisk, making his official debut in the MCU and, presumably, tying the events of the Marvel Netflix shows closer to this shared universe; forced into a business arrangement with Fisk to pay off Derek’s debt, Eleanor angers the Kingpin when she not only tries to back out of their arrangement to keep Kate from knowing the truth but also tries to blackmail him. Garbed in his trademark white suit, Fisk exudes the same menace and authority as he did in Daredevil (2015 to 2018) with even the subtlest movements and it’s honestly fantastic to see him brought in as such a threat. He’s dangerous enough to put the wind up Clint and is known for reacting to insults with ruthless aggression; his threat is so tangible that Clint finally recognises Kate as his partner and vows not to leave until he’s been dealt with. Having trained and raised her as his own, Fisk admires Maya and demonstrates a respect and love for her but remains a natural manipulator and has a rage seemingly boiling under his skin. The audacity of Eleanor and Maya’s actions, and the reappearance of Ronin, enrages and insults him, leading to him personally attacking Eleanor after his plot to have Kazi assassinate her backfires. Here, we see his incredibly physical strength; he easily rips off a car door, shrugs off and breaks Kate’s arrows, and even survives being hit by a car and caught in an explosion when Kate’s forced to rely on her trick arrows to counter Fisk’s near-superhuman strength. Although wounded, the Kingpin manages to flee, only to be confronted by Maya; his attempts to reason with her apparently fall on deaf ears (…no pun intended) and result in his death at her hands, though we don’t actually see the shot or him die so I’m confident he’ll resurface at some point.

The Summary:  
Hawkeye stands out from much of the MCU by taking place during the Christmas season, which is a prominent theme throughout the series and lights, decorations, snow, and Christmas songs are everywhere. Even the first episode’s opening credits, styled after the art of David Aja, are sprinkled with Christmassy bells and tunes, and Clint’s primary goal is to get home to his family for the holidays. Although Kate constantly digs at him for refusing to open up to others and share his feelings, he’s only like this about the superhero life and his past; he relishes Christmas with his family, watching movies and wearing terrible jumpers and such, and a lot of his closed off nature is as much from his resentment at missing out on family time as it is the ghosts of his past. These ghosts are prominent elements throughout the show; although Clint is one of the more low-key Avengers, he has his fans and a reputation as a hero, which makes him extremely uncomfortable as he doesn’t want or ask for any thanks or special treatment but it proves useful in getting them information and co-operation from the LARPers and even winning the trust of Eleanor and Jack. However, this comes with a price; when Kate comes over with pizza and Christmas decorations, he accidentally lets slip a story about Natasha and, struggling with his grief, is barely able to tell Kate a version of his decision not to assassinate her and gets emotional reminiscing about her and the loss of his family during the Blip. This particular ghost resurfaces when Kate is tossed over a rooftop by Yelena; this time, Clint chooses to lower his would-be-partner to safety, and he makes a special trip to a plaque in the Avengers’ honour to bare his soul to his fallen friend when he makes the difficult decision to briefly return to the Ronin persona. Clint’s past is a driving reason behind Yelena’s distrust and hatred towards him; she questions why everyone has forgiven him for his murderous actions and Kate’s loyalty to someone she barely knows, especially after she deduces that he was the violent Ronin.

Archery, brutal hand-to-hand combat, and fun trick arrows make for some intense action scenes.

While Hawkeye’s emphasis is very much more on being an intriguing thriller full of character moments, there’s a fair amount of action peppered throughout to keep things visually interesting and engaging. Though just a man, Clint is extremely adept in a fight; he and Kate are similar in that they’re both adaptable and have to fight tooth and nail since they lack superpowers, though their accuracy with a bow borders on the superhuman at times. Clint is easily able to break or slip free of his bonds (amusingly leaving Kate clueless as to how he managed this), makes a habit of taking in and assessing his surroundings and potential threats, and is able to make seemingly impossible shots often without even looking. Both he and Kate can engage with multiple opponents at any one time, though Clint has the edge in experience even though the loss of his hearing aid can leave him disorientated. Their fighting and archery skills are at the heart of many of the show’s action sequences; there’s a recurring subplot regarding the retrieval and creation of Clint’s trick arrows, which allow him to blow up, ensnare, electrocute, disable, and even enlarge and shrink targets. Probably one of the best action sequences is in “Echoes” (Bert and Bertie, 2021) where Clint and Kate struggle to communicate when he’s rendered functionally deaf and must fight off Maya, Kazi, and the Tracksuits in a high-speed pursuit in a sequence taken almost beat for beat from Matt Fraction’s comic run. Yelena also contributes to some intense and thematically interesting fight scenes; her clashes with Kate are more like amusing scuffles between sisters since she’s not actually trying to hurt or kill the young archer, but her fight with Clint is as brutal and emotionally charged as Maya’s battles with the former Avenger since both are hellbent on avenging themselves on their opponent.

The show goes to great lengths to show the wear and tear this life has on its all-too-human characters.

This ties into one of the most intriguing aspects of Hawkeye; the depiction of emotional and physical vulnerability. As stated, and demonstrated, Clint isn’t superhuman and nowhere is this more evident than in this show, which routinely shows him applying frozen foods and ice packs to his many aches, pains, and bruises. Indeed, Kate is disappointed when her first lesson from her hero isn’t how to do anything exciting but how to dress and treat her wounds, and Clint repeatedly relates how living the superhero life has caused him a great deal of losses. Not only has he seen friends and colleagues perish, but he’s lost out on time with his family, is dealing with the burden of age and wear and tear, and a lifetime of explosive, high-octane action and dangerous situations have cost him his hearing. Kate, however, remains undeterred; she’s determined to learn from his example of being a regular person standing up to impossible situations and continuously tries to change his image and make him see that he’s an admirable hero since, while he has made his fair share of mistakes, his bravery and refusal to abandon her to her fate prove that’s not just some cold-blooded killer. Although she’s been raised in luxury and Clint sees her as somewhat spoiled, Kate has fought and grafted her whole life; she threw herself into her training specifically to live up to Hawkeye’s example and starts the series cut off from her mother’s money after damaging the college bell tower, meaning she has to break into the family home and her mother’s files to dig up any dirt on Jack. Vulnerability also comes into play with Maya; like Clint, she’s essentially a living weapon but one not yet slowed by age and injury. Rather than be a victim of her handicaps, Maya has learned to embrace them and use them to her advantage, proving to be an aggressive and driven adversary, but she’s just as vulnerable as Clint and Kate. Kazi is on hand to tend to her wounds but takes no pleasure in seeing her hurt, or on such a self-destructive path. It’s clear there’s more to their relationship than just being colleagues; she’s devastated when Kazi chooses his loyalty to the Kingpin and their criminal lifestyle over her and, just as she refused to give up her vendetta against Robin so too does he refuse to walk away and be with her, leading to a fight between the two that leaves him dead at her hand, much to her heartbreak.

An intense and engaging series that bodes well for the MCU’s street-level projects.

Overall, I was very impressed with Hawkeye. In this day and age, with where the MCU is now with all these cosmic, multiversal adventures, I can understand why some people might be disappointed to see things coming back down to Earth, literally and figuratively, for a more grounded series but, personally, I really enjoy that we can be galivanting around at the edge of perceiving reality one minute and then tackling street-level crime the next. Hawkeye is definitely the kind of character you want for a series like this and I’m really glad that Marvel Studios haven’t neglected to put some serious focus on their street-level superheroes; there’s so many stories to tell with guys like Hawkeye and villains like the Kingpin and it really helps to show how this world is alive and breathing both out in the universe and at home. While I’ve never been a massive Hawkeye fan, it was fascinating seeing a very human (if still very skilled), flawed hero grumbling and snarking his way through another jaunt into that life. The relationship between Clint and Kate was fantastic, with her being more optimistic and unorthodox in her methods and a quick study once Clint chose to actually share his knowledge, making her a fun addition to the MCU and, presumably the Young Avengers. The icing on the cake was including the Kingpin and I really hope we see more from him in Maya’s spin-off and future shows, but Hawkeye really impressed me with its deconstruction of what it means to be a superhero in the MCU and the toll that life can take on someone who just wants to leave the violence behind. And I haven’t even mentioned the glorious slice of cheese that was Rogers: The Musical and have only touched upon some of the intense action and exchanges seen in the film, all of which carry so much more gravitas as we see these characters hurt, dealing with the fallout from their fights and physical trauma, and struggling to cope with the burden of their past or living up to their expectations, whether self-imposed or otherwise.

My Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Great Stuff

Did you enjoy Hawkeye? What did you think to the themes of grief, vulnerability, and family explored in the series? Did you enjoy the exploration of Clint, the insight into his background, and the relationship between him and Kate? What did you think to Kate and are you excited to see her return as Hawkeye going forward? Were you surprised to see the Kingpin make his return/debut and how would you like to see him used in the MCU in the future? What did you think to Maya and Yelena and their vendettas against Clint? Whatever you think about Hawkeye, drop your thoughts below or leave a comment on my social media.

Talking Movies: Black Panther: Wakanda Forever 

Talking Movies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Great Stuff

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

Screen Time: Werewolf by Night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Rating:

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Could Be Better

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

Screen Time: Moon Knight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Fantastic

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

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


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


Talking Movies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Great Stuff

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

Talking Movies: Thor: The Dark World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Great Stuff

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

Talking Movies [Thor’s Day]: Thor


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Fantastic

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