Released: 25 March 2014 Director: Kenichi Shimizu Distributor: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment Budget: Unknown Stars: Jennifer Carpenter, Brian Bloom, Grant George, JB Blanc, Eric Bauza, and John Eric Bentley
The Plot: After interfering with a top secret mission, Frank Castle/The Punisher (Bloom) is apprehended by Strategic Hazard Intervention Espionage Logistics Directorate (S.H.I.E.L.D.) agent and Avenger Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow(Carpenter) and the two are ordered by director Nick Fury (Bentley) to stop the terrorist organisation known as Leviathan selling stolen S.H.I.E.L.D. technology.
The Background: After his impressive debut in the pages of The Amazing Spider-Man #129, the Punisher quickly became one of Marvel’s most popular anti-heroes thanks to his tragic backstory and unwavering commitment to the eradication of crime. His popularity has led to the character appearing in a number of multimedia projects outside of the comics, including videogames and both live-action and animated portrayals. Between 2010 and 2011, Marvel Entertainment teamed up with Japanese animation studio Madhouse to produce four anime projects, known as Marvel Anime, to little success. Avengers Confidential: Black Widow & Punisher was the follow-up to those projects; released mid-way through “Phase Two” of the massively successful Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), the anime drew a mixedreception despite making over $1 million in domestic home video sales.
The Review: The movie opens to find the Punisher monitoring a rise in criminal and gang activities, as well as newspaper reports on himself, from his apartment (which, as is tradition, doubles as his armoury) while Black Widow expresses frustration at the Punisher’s mounting reputation as a vigilante. The opening credits play over a very quick montage of stills and images that give a quick recap of each character’s background and origin, showing Frank’s time as a family man and the deaths of his family in a mob hit and Natasha’s time training as a spy and assassin and association with S.H.I.E.L.D.
The Punisher makes short, brutal work of some black-market weapons dealers, filling them with bullet holes and easily taking them apart by himself (despite them having more weapons and the numbers advantage) until only one man, Cain (Hebert) is left. Though disturbed at the high-tech weaponry Cain was selling, his efforts to torture more information out of the perp are interrupted by the arrival of Black Widow. Unimpressed with Fury’s operation and Widow’s criticism of his methods, a fight between the two ensues; though the Punisher demonstrates greater physical ability and immediately goes for his pistols, Widow is easily able to match him blow for blow with her superior acrobatic skill until Fury (modelled after his Ultimate and MCU counterpart) and his soldiers interrupt and Frank is subdued by one of Widow’s tranquiliser darts. However, during all the commotion, Cain manages to slip away unnoticed.
Aboard the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier, Fury attempts to reconnect with Frank, whom he has a shared history with, and to impress upon him that his methods, while effective, are disrupting the bigger picture since he has started to interrupt S.H.I.E.L.D.’s procedures. Frank, however, is disgusted at the potential lives Fury’s methods have cost and it’s very quickly established that he and S.H.I.E.L.D., while working towards the same goal, are diametrically opposite. Still, Fury is able to inform Frank that the terrorist organisation Leviathan is selling stolen S.H.I.E.L.D. technology and the two are able to reach an agreement since the Punisher sees that the only reason he has been brought into custody is so that he can be unleashed upon Leviathan. Teamed with Black Widow, the Punisher shares the information Cain gave him and, begrudgingly, the two head to a Leviathan base in the frozen wastes of Slovenia; Widow exposits some background on Leviathan, who have grown into a sophisticated and deadly terrorist organisation that, it is soon revealed, has begun to experiment in created super soldiers and bioweapons. Thanks to their unique skills and training, the two are easily able to infiltrate the base and dispatch of the handful of guards with lethal effectiveness, but the Punisher immediately goes off script as soon as he spots Cain and another fight between the two breaks out.
This time, however, it’s much briefer and Frank simply storms out and leaves Widow to blindly follow Fury’s orders. Although he captures Cain, his efforts to torture him for more information are once again thwarted when Cain blinds him with a flash of light and slips away once more. Continuing on mission alone, Black Widow subdues the Leviathan scientists non-lethally before being attacked by her former lover, and ex-S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, Elihas Starr (George), who faked his death and has joined Leviathan. Angered at his betrayal, Widow is no match for Elihas, who easily avoids, counters, and matches her frantic attacks while expositing that he chose to develop super soldiers for Leviathan to prove himself worthy of being Natasha’s equal and partner. Elihas attempts to convince Widow into joining him in Leviathan but, though heartbroken at his betrayal, she vehemently rejects him and fights him with renewed vigour and purpose; the Punisher aids her and destroys the facility and the two bring Cain’s cell phone to S.H.I.E.L.D.’s resident kid super genius, Amadeus Cho (Bauza). Though slovenly, excitable, and a teenager pervert, Amadeus is able to decrypt the phone but inadvertently sets the flash function off once again, which puts the Punisher into a bloodthirsty trance that sees him killing numerous S.H.I.E.L.D. agents before he is brought back to his senses. However, while Widow advocates for the Punisher’s state of mind, he is shaken at his actions and willingly submits himself to S.H.I.E.L.D. incarceration after killing innocent men.
Natasha is left feeling further betrayed when Fury reveals that he not only knew about Elihas but was also fully aware that leviathan possessed mind control technology and that he had stolen the Avengers’ blood in order to create his super soldiers. This is, of course, perfectly in keeping with portrayals of Fury as the ultimate spy whose “secrets have secrets” but his willingness to sacrifice both her and the Punisher spurs Black Widow into defying Fury’s orders and convince the Punisher to help her bring down Elihas and Leviathan. This takes the two to an underworld auction in Mandripoor where Elihas’ super soldiers are being sold off to a number of Marvel’s notorious supervillains and, ultimately, forces the two to pool their resources as a more effective team rather than being at odds with each other. In the end, though the two have opposing methods and beliefs, they are able to find some common ground and build a mutual respect for each other’s methods that culminate sin Widow willingly letting Frank return to his never-ending, one man war on crime rather than arrest him as per Fury’s orders.
The Nitty-Gritty: Of course, every anime lives and dies by the quality of its animation and Avengers Confidential is a pretty slick and smoothly animated feature. Blood and gore fly in the air with a beautiful grace and characters move with either grace and poise or a heavy, weighty physicality when not standing around like statues. Amadeus is probably the most over the top character in terms of his animation, which plays into his quirky and impulsive personality, and the film does a decent job of emphasising the differences between its two main characters through their movements and physicality as much as their personalities.
The Punisher is cold, blunt force while Black Widow is slick efficiency; the Punisher seems disconnected from humanity and focused only on solving problems in the most direct way possibly, while Widow (and Fury) are concerned with the bigger picture and a strategic approach to secured the safety of millions. The Punisher’s presence turns a lot of heads around S.H.I.E.L.D., who view him with a mixture of awe and fear, and he earns this reputation thanks to his vicious efficiency; when under the influence of Leviathan’s mind control, he resembles little more than an emotionless killing machine. In comparison, Widow is effortlessly smooth and sexy in her movements, moving like liquid and with a serene grace that allows her to easily incapacitate even larger foes. Initially, Elihas is positioned as the primary antagonist of the feature and, thanks to his rushed connection to Black Widow, ensures that Natasha has a more personal stake in the film’s events beyond simply doing her duty to safeguard the world from Leviathan’s technology. Elihas exposed himself to his own super soldier serum, augmenting his strength and abilities in an effort to prove himself worthy of Widow’s love; though he believe that she loved him in the past, he was spurred by her always choosing missions with the Avengers and her life as a superhero over him and resolved to find a way to truly be her equal. Elihas truly believes that S.H.I.E.L.D. is actually oppressing people rather than saving them and that war and conflict are inevitable; as a result, he is perfectly fine with escalating and even starting wars with Leviathan’s technology and resources and sees his super soldiers as the next logic step towards consolidating their influence on the world.
Although the Avengers get top billing in the film’s title and feature prominently on the DVD artwork, they don’t actually play a big role in the film and only show up right at the end. Despite having defied Fury’s orders, Black Widow and the Punisher’s mission to stop Leviathan is provided much-needed support when Tony Stark/Iron Man (Matthew Mercer), Doctor Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Fred Tatasciore), Thor Odinson (Unknown), Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Mercer), James Rhodes/War Machine (Unknown), and Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel (ibid) all arrive to help fight off Leviathan’s super soldiers. This leads to some high-octane action but never really overshadows the more grounded and gritty storyline featuring the two leads, who remain at the forefront of the narrative thanks to Natasha’s arc with Elihas and the Punisher’s vendetta against Cain. This is made even more explicit with how unimpressed the Punisher is by Stark’s bravado and the Avengers’ powers and abilities; he’s there with a mission to fulfil and merely tolerates their presence rather than jumping at the chance to join forces with Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. The true head honcho of Leviathan is the mysterious Orion (Blanc), a semi-cybernetic, cloaked madman who doesn’t even physically appear until the last moments of the film. However, despite Orion’s influence and power, we learn basically nothing about him and he is ultimately unable to hold sway over Elihas; during his climatic and emotionally charged showdown with Black Widow, Elihas finally comes to his senses and realises that the love they two of them shared is still there. This proves to be his undoing, however, as he sacrifices himself to save Natasha’s life after Orion shoots at her and dies in her arms. The film does a decent, if rushed job, of trying to place some emotional significance on Elihas’s character and sacrifice but I find myself oddly apathetic since I have no idea who he is; all of their backstory is conveyed through flashbacks and is told to us. We never get to see them as a proper couple or in action together, which I feel hurts the emotional core of their story; he an extra five or ten minutes been included at the start of the film to show their relationship before his downfall, this might have gone a long way to addressing that issue.
The Summary: Avengers Confidential: Black Widow & Punisher is a really weird production, to be honest; the animation is great and it has that slick, silky smooth quality that you expect from an anime and some brutal, bloody fight scenes but I’m not really sure what the purpose of it is. As far as I can tell, it’s not supposed to tie into any other Marvel production, which makes characters such as Elihas, Orion, and Leviathan very underdeveloped and inconsequential since I have no real personal stake in their story or motivations, and they exist solely to give the title characters someone to fight against and force an emotional conflict for Black Widow. I feel like Punisher is a strong enough character to have carried the anime by himself but, while it is interesting to juxtapose his more extreme measures with the likes of the Avengers and S.H.I.E.L.D., this doesn’t really work when partnering him with Black Widow. Sure, her methods and motivations are different enough but she’s still a spy, a former assassin, with plenty of “red in her ledger” so I can only imagine that she’s partnered with the Punisher to give the anime some sex appeal. In the end, it’s a short and decent enough story; it doesn’t really add anything new to the Punisher or show you anything you can’t see in other Marvel animations or productions but it manages to be just entertaining and action-packed enough to stay afloat despite its mediocre plot and characterisations.
Rating: 2 out of 5.
Could Be Better
Have you ever seen Avengers Confidential: Black Widow & Punisher; if so, what did you think to it and how do you think it holds up against Marvel’s other anime and animated depictions of these characters? What did you think to the concept of teaming these two up and the animation style? Do you think it would have been better to see a solo Punisher feature or to emphasise the more popular Avengers more or were you happy with the story it told? Do you know who Elihas Starr is and, if so, can you tell me why I should care? What is your favourite Punisher story, character, and adaptation (whether it be a movie or videogame)? How are you celebrating the Punisher’s debut this month? Whatever your thoughts on Avengers Confidential: Black Widow & Punisher, and the Punisher in general, drop a comment down below.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
Rating: 4 out of 5.
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.
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 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.
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.
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’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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
Rating: 4 out of 5.
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.
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 betweenscience 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 widespreadacclaim; 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 largerstoryarc 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.
Rating: 5 out of 5.
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!
Released: 8 July 2022 Director: Taika Waititi Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Budget: $250 million Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Christian Bale, Tessa Thompson, Taika Waititi, and Russell Crowe
The Plot: After helping to restore half the universe’s population to life, Thor Odinson (Hemsworth) travels the galaxy looking for inner peace. However, when the embittered Gorr (Bale) makes it his life’s mission to slaughter all Gods, Thor must return to the fight alongside his old Asgardian allies…and his former flame, Doctor Jane Foster (Portman), who has now taken up the mantle of the Mighty Thor!
The Review: Considering that Thor’s first two live-action films are often under-rated and unfairly overlooked in the grand scheme of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), I find it incredibly gratifying that the God of Thunder is the first (and, currently, only) member of the original Avengers line-up to get a fourth film to his name. While I can’t say I fully agree with many of the thematic, narrative, and atmospheric decisions of the last solo Thor movie, I absolutely love that director Taika Waititi transformed Thor from a somewhat naïve, grandstanding, Shakespearian warrior and gave him a whitewash of glam metal, 1980s science-fiction, and Masters of the Universe as it really helps the action and these outlandishly cosmic concepts to stand out from other MCU efforts. As much as I enjoy Thor, however, I’m not the most well-read when it comes to him; as a result, I haven’t actually read any of Jane’s time with Mjölnir. I think her Thor turned up in a few crossovers I’ve read, like Generations (Various, 2017), but I haven’t properly experienced what she got up to in the pages of The Mighty Thor, though I found the idea of an unworthy Thor Odinson and a female Thor to be intriguing. Similarly, I haven’t read any of the stories or comics featuring Gorr the God Butcher; I’ve been on the fringe of his path of destruction by following the Knull stuff in the pages of Venom, but have yet to actually read his primary story arc, so I went into Thor: Love and Thunder without any expectations except for another outlandish, sci-fi/fantasy jaunt with one of my favourite MCU characters.
When we catch up with Thor at the start of the film, he’s back to his blusterous, buff self and still running around with the Guardians of the Galaxy. Having gotten himself back into shape, Thor has thrown himself into galivanting across the cosmos on all sorts of cosmic adventures with Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) and the other Guardians and alongside his loyal, if incredible foolish, Kronan friend, Korg (Waititi). Though revered and regarded as a benevolent and courageous hero, Thor continues to feel an emptiness inside himself; having left behind the throne of Asgard and in search of his true destiny beyond that which he was raised to assume, Thor longs for both a purpose and a love that can match the one he had with Jane. Thor’s yearning for battle and glory remain as powerful as ever, though, and are only matched by his rage when he and the Guardians pick up a number of distress calls from Gods all over the universe; splitting away from his cosmic allies (much to Star-Lord’s relief), Thor and Korg rush to the aid of Lady Sif (Jaimie Alexander) and learns of Gorr’s desire to slaughter every God to avenge his losses. Without hesitation, Thor transports himself and Korg to New Asgard to fend off Gorr’s attack and is stunned to find his beloved Mjölnir repaired and in the hands of his old flame, now transformed into a Thor of her own. The sight of Jane garbed in Asgardian armour and wielding his hammer with such proficiency is quite the blow for Thor, who struggles to reconcile his conflicting emotions of elation, jealousy, and admiration for Jane’s worthiness in battle. Indeed, a running joke throughout the film is that Thor struggles to remain loyal to his new weapon, the mighty Stormbreaker, after seeing his dear Mjölnir back in one piece and with expressing his feelings of love for Jane. Thankfully, Gorr’s threat gives him (and both of them) a pressing objective to focus on; when Gorr kidnaps the Asgardian children and spirits them away to the Shadow Realm (a place of pure and literal darkness), Thor rallies his people and his ragtag team (comprised of himself, Jane-Thor, Korg, and King Valkyrie (Thompson)) into recruiting other Gods for aid in recovering the kids and destroying Gorr before he can slaughter them all.
It’s wonderful to see Natalie Portman back as Jane; I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for her and she’s definitely put in the physical work to transform herself into a warrior worthy of the mantle of Thor. However, Jane’s physique and competency in battle are as much a by-product of Mjölnir’s magic as they are a façade for the pain she is in. Between movies, Jane was suddenly afflicted with terminal cancer and, at the start of the film, is coming face to face with her impending mortality despite the best efforts of herself and the scientific community. Although it appears as though she randomly travels to New Asgard in a last-ditch effort to cure herself with Mjölnir, she later states that the hammer “called to [her]”, however, despite being rejuvenated and granted Thor’s incredible powers, Mjölnir is actually stunting Jane’s ability to fight her cancer and accelerating her condition. Although she has very little time left, Jane is determined to go out in a blaze of glory and revel in the power of Thor, and to that end she willingly joins Thor’s quest to defeat Gorr and recover the Asgardian children. As long as she wields Mjölnir, she remains superhumanly strong and she can even direct the hammer to shatter into fragments to defeat multiple enemies at once, to say nothing of channelling the same lightning powers as Thor. Along the way, we get a deeper insight into Thor and Jane’s relationship; we see how loved up they were, how work and obligations drove a wedge between them until they finally parted ways, and how both still harbour those same feelings for the other. Their reconciliation fills a void in both their hearts but is sadly doomed to tragedy due to Jane’s illness; as far as swan songs go though, it’s tough to get any better than cruising through the cosmos on a Rainbow Bridge and visiting the land of the Gods!
Gorr is probably one of the most tragic and complex villains we’ve seen in the MCU so far; played with haunting, often maniacal glee by the always-excellent Christian Bale (I still can’t believe Marvel Studios were able to get him for this role), Gorr is a broken, embittered man who has watched his entire race and beloved daughter, Love (India Hemsworth), suffer and die from starvation and dehydration after all their prayers and beliefs in their God, Rapu (Jonathan Brugh), go unanswered. At the brink of death, Gorr encounters Rapu and finds him to be an arrogant, nonchalant, and dismissive blowhard who couldn’t care less about his people or his pain, but he also conveniently finds the Necrosword, a feared weapon from the dawn of time that gives its wielder the power to kill Gods. Corrupted by the sword’s influence, Gorr becomes a driven, sadistic butcher; using the blade, he can teleport through shadows, is granted incredible, God-like strength and endurance, and can even bring shadows to life to conjure various Lovecraftian beasts to do his bidding. Though he wages war against all Gods, we only see a handful of his victims and most of his kills are glossed over on the Guardians’ distress monitor, but his threat is so great that Thor goes to Zeus (Crowe) and the other Gods at Omnipotence City for aid. Compared to some of Thor’s other villains, Gorr gets a bit more screen time; he has a few clashes with Thor throughout the film, proving a ferocious and underhanded fighter, and his body and mind are corrupted into that of a twisted, malicious murderer who not only kidnaps children but delights in tormenting them. His ultimate goal is to lure Thor to the Shadow Realm in order to claim Stormbreaker, which is the key to him gaining an audience with Eternity and wiping out all Gods with a single wish. This is only fuelled by the Necrosword, which not only distorts his mind and body and encourages his anger and heartbreak but is also the source of his power. Like Jane, Gorr is living on borrowed time, both empowered by and slowly being killed by the very weapon he carries but chooses to use what little time he has left to avenge himself on all Gods after being slighted by his own. Just like Jane’s struggle against cancer, Gorr’s pain and rage are only too relatable; the desire to curse some All-Mighty power is strong in today’s increasingly bleak world and seeing Gorr, this emaciated, scarred, black bile-spewing zombie-like being loom over the MCU’s deities like an oppressive shadow makes him a fitting embodiment of the cold inevitability of death.
When Thor travels to Omnipotence City, he talks of how he admired and modelled himself after Zeus, the greatest and most powerful of the Gods. Unfortunately, Thor’s hero turns out to be another callous and disinterested God, one who would prefer to hide away in their impenetrable realm and revel rather than tackle Gorr’s threat head-on. Luckily, Thor is not without more reliable allies; Korg loyally follows him on his adventures, offering much of the film’s explicit humour in his mannerisms and soft-spoken observations, and it was quite a blow when it seemed as though Zeus had killed the good-natured Kronan. I almost wish Korg had died, however (but by Gorr’s hand as it would have helped add an extra layer of animosity to their relationship and raise the stakes of the film), but he survives and continues on as a literal talking head. Valkyrie also returns, gladly signing up for the venture after finding the bureaucracy and boredom of the throne unfulfilling; since Avengers: Endgame, New Asgard has become a popular tourist attraction and the Asgardians are starting to make a real life for themselves on Earth, but Valkyrie craves battle almost as much as she longs for passion in her life once more. Interestingly, the film spends a great deal of time establishing Thor, Jane-Thor, Korg, and Valkyrie as the team that will spearhead the fight against Gorr but Korg ends up shattered and just a head and Valkyrie is taken out of the fight after Gorr skewers her with Zeus’s thunderbolt, meaning Thor initially heads into the final battle alone until Jane powers up for one last bout. Another aspect I found interesting, but which quickly grew a little grating, was the introduction of Thor’s screaming goats and the expansion on the idea that Mjölnir and Stormbreaker are sentient. This is amusing at some points, such as when Thor talks to or tries to call Mjölnir only to be surprised when Stormbreaker comes floating by, but got a little bit more focus than I was expecting. It took up more screen time than Sif, for example, who appeared in basically a glorified cameo and ended up missing an arm thanks to Gorr. Similarly, Doctor Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings) and Doctor Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) are only brief inclusions, and the film kind of rushed through Thor’s time with the Guardians of the Galaxy, which was odd as I honestly expected him to feature in the team’s third film but it looks like that won’t be happening now.
The Nitty-Gritty: Like Thor: Ragnarok (Waititi, 2017), Thor: Love and Thunder is, essentially, a throwback to the sci-fi/fantasy epics of the 1980s and has a soundtrack fitting for this genre. This really benefitted the last film but, as much as I came to love Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song”, it was a little disappointing that this track was somewhat overused in the trailers and within the film. Thor: Love and Thunder opts to reignite your love for Guns N’ Roses; of course, “Sweet Child o’ Mine” is the main track of the film, but I loved that Waititi chose to have the awesome guitar solo from “November Rain” play during Thor’s final battle against Gorr alongside a couple of my other favourites from the band, “Welcome to the Jungle” and “Paradise City”. I mentioned up top that Waititi’s take on Thor owes a lot to the Master of the Universe franchise and that’s certainly true of Love and Thunder, which visually reminds me a lot of the under-rated live-action film while also heavily borrowing from the art style of the legendary Jack Kirby. This means we (briefly) get to see the classic Thor costume, characters are garbed in all manner of outrageous and garish outfits and armours, and the sheer heights of the cosmic bizarreness at work in the film really show just how far the MCU has come. When Thor was first introduced, Marvel Studios took great pains to explain him and his race as more like long-lived, super powerful aliens rather than literal Gods; now, that’s all out the window and we have actual Greek, Roman, and other Gods freely existing, Celestials, and mind-bending concepts like the embodiment of eternity being out there in the universe without apology. While this does raise some questions (if Eternity can grant any wish, why did the Avengers need to go on that time heist? If Thor could share his power with others, why didn’t he do this in previous films? Is there a one, true God above all other Gods?), I choose not to dwell on these too much as the MCU, for all its planning, has always been about escalation and introducing new elements, just like the source material.
Nowhere is this escalation more evident than in the introduction of Omnipotence City; with the golden realm of Asgard having been obliterated, Omnipotence City shines all the brighter as this floating realm of magnificence, a place for Gods of all worlds, creeds, shapes, and sizes to gather and revel in their glory. Sadly, we didn’t get a cameo from Khonshu (Karim El-Hakim/F. Murray Abraham) even though this would’ve been the perfect place for that, but Crowe absolutely stole this somewhat lengthy sequence as the unruly Zeus. A far cry from the implacable Odin Allfather (Anthony Hopkins), Zeus is unbelievably self-absorbed and arrogant with a dodgy Italian accent; he prefers to mock Thor and refuse his request for aid, forcing the Thunder God to seemingly kill his hero and take his thunderbolt for himself. Valkyrie briefly takes possession of this, effectively giving us three wielders of thunder and lightning for a short time, and thus the film’s fight sequences are heavy on the lightning and bombastic action. Gorr is able to conjure numerous, disposable shadow monsters for Thor and the others to wade through, blasting them with their enchanted weapons, frying them with lightning, and splitting them with blades. When Thor and Gorr clash, it’s a much more visceral and brutal affair; Gorr wields the Necrosword with a vicious, deliberate stance, easily fending off Stormbreaker and even Mjölnir with the blade’s dark magic. Visually, Thor: Love and Thunder certainly delivers; playing up due to jealousy over Mjölnir and Thor’s blundering ways, Stormbreaker’s ability to summon the Bifrost is channelled through Valkyrie’s ship, allowing them to sail through the cosmos and delivering some awesome sights. The beauty and eye-popping colour palette of the universe is fittingly contrasting with the Shadow Realm, a place where all light and colour are non-existent, giving the film a grainy, black and white hue that is only broken when the Thors utilise their magic weapons. Furthermore, Thor’s movies continue to outdo themselves with their costumes and armours; Thor rocks a number of different looks, from a space-faring Ravagers outfit that is similar to his short-lived successor, Eric Masterson/Thunderstrike, to a very Kriby-esque gold and blue variant of his usual armour, and finally rocking an outrageous helmet once more. Jane looks fantastic in her Thor outfit; she favours a helmet far more often and manages to look both sexy and powerful in her Asgardian armour, while Gorr cuts a menacing figure in his simple, tattered robes and bare feet, almost as if he has no regard for his personal safety thanks to submitting himself completely to the Necrosword’s power.
When Gorr kidnaps the Asgardian children, Thor, Jane-Thor, Valkyrie, and Korg immediately vow to track him down and rescue them, and to make him pay for the Godly lives he has stolen in his vendetta. When Zeus refuses to aid them, they steal his thunderbolt and journey to the Shadow Realm, only to learn that Gorr’s true goal was to lure them into a trap so he could steal Stormbreaker since the only way for him to gain an audience with Eternity is by using the Bifrost. With Valkyrie too injured to carry on and Jane’s health at risk, Thor opts to travel to Eternity’s altar to stop Gorr alone. Armed with Zeus’s thunderbolt, Thor is able to share his awesome powers of thunder and lightning with the Asgardian children, empowering them to help fend off Gorr’s shadow monsters while he tackles the twisted God Butcher personally. Gorr’s drive and skill with the God-killing Necrosword prove to be equal to Thor’s power, but luckily Jane comes riding in on Valkyrie’s horse, choosing to go out in a blaze of glory as the Mighty Thor. However, while Thor is able to free Stormbreaker from Gorr’s influence, the God Butcher succeeds in entering Eternity’s dream-like realm, a vast, serene ocean where the humanoid embodiment of the cosmos sits in silence. With Jane succumbing to her failing health, Thor chooses not to oppose Gorr’s ambition any longer; rather than fighting, he decides to be with his true love in their last moments and, realising the extent of the evils he has done, a repentant Gorr decides to wish his daughter back to life rather than destroy all the Gods. After professing their love for each other, Jane dies peacefully, ascending to Valhalla and urging Thor not to close off his heart and, indeed, the God of Thunder gives the dying Gorr his vow to watch over, protect, and raise Love like his own. Thus, in a turn of events I sure as hell didn’t expect to see, Thor ends the film with a new reason for living; now a surrogate father, he gifts Love Stormbreaker, takes up Mjölnir once more, and begins teaching her the ways of an Asgardian warrior! I had a feeling that one of the Thors would die; I was surprised that Natalie Portman even agreed to come back but legitimately thought it would be a coin toss between which of them would survive given how the MCU is shaking things up in its fourth phase, but the twist of having Thor become a father was very unexpected, even in the narrative of the film, and I’ll be interested to see where that leads. Of course, it wouldn’t be an MCU film without a post-credits sequence; in this case, we get two, one that reveals Zeus survived his encounter and has charged his son, the Mighty Hercules (Brett Goldstein), with killing Thor for his blasphemous actions, and another which shows Jane being welcomed into Valhalla by Heimdall (Idris Elba), presumably giving her a peaceful ending but I wouldn’t be surprised if they find some way to bring her back later down the road.
The Summary: I’ve really enjoyed Thor’s time in the MCU; right from his first movie, I’ve been a massive fan of the character, his attitude, and the way he’s been portrayed. His character arc from egotistical warrior to a humbled protector, to being plagued with doubt and being a bit more carefree and aloof has been fascinating and really helped to open up new avenues into the cosmic side of the MCU. As mentioned, these days it seems like nothing is off the table and Marvel Studios are far more confident adapting even their most outlandish concepts since we just accept that this universe is full of wonderous things, and that’s very evident in Thor: Love and Thunder through its many Gods and Gorr’s quest to reach Eternity. It’s humbling seeing Thor struggle to balance his warrior instincts with his emotions; seeing him be bashful and tripping over himself around Jane (and Mjölnir) continues to show him as a flawed character, one who is hiding behind bravado and his heroic reputation but just wants to be loved and happy. It was a blast seeing him upended by Jane’s time as Thor; she acquitted herself well in the role, easily proving herself his equal, but also brought a tragic vulnerability through her terminal battle with cancer. I was especially impressed with how her arc paralleled that of Gorr, a similarly tragic character who has every right to rally against the Gods and chooses to be a bitter and twisted killer in his grief and anguish. While I could’ve done with seeing more of him and his wrath in the film, Bale impressed every time he appeared, and even Waititi’s focus on jokes and light-hearted action was far more tolerably than in the last film, where the tonal shift really downplayed the significance of Ragnarok. While there were some awkward moments and sections that were either rushed through (like Thor’s time with the Guardians) or dragged out (like their time in Omnipotence City), Thor: Love and Thunder delivered a visually stunning and action-paced spectacle; some aspects might not hold up under close scrutiny but it was a fun and poignant entry that ended with Thor in a place I never expected him to be and I’m interested to see how that will impact the MCU going forward.
Rating: 4 out of 5.
Did you enjoy Thor: Love and Thunder? What did you think to Gorr, his motivation and his portrayal in the film and his vendetta against the Gods? Did you enjoy Thor’s character progression and the reconciliation between him and Jane? Are you a fan of Jane as Thor? What did you think to her being afflicted with cancer and her God-like power accelerating her illness? Where do you see Thor going as the MCU continues on? Whatever your thoughts about Thor: Love and Thunder, sign up and leave a comment below or drop a line on my social media, and be sure to check out my other Thor content.
In September 1961, DC Comics published “Flash of Two Worlds” (Fox, et al), a landmark story that brought together two generations of the Flash: the Golden Age Jay Garrick and the Silver Age Barry Allen thanks to the concept of the multiverse, an infinite number of parallel universes that allowed any and all stories and characters to co-exist and interact. Marvel Comics would also adopt this concept and, to celebrate the release of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness(Raimi, 2022) this month, I’ve been both celebrating the Master of the Mystic Arts and exploring the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s (MCU) equivalent of the multiverse every Sunday of May.
Air Date: 11 August 2021 to 6 October 2021 Network: Disney+ Stars: Hayley Atwell, Chadwick Boseman, Samuel L. Jackson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Ruffalo, Michael B. Jordan, Chris Hemsworth, Ross Marquand, and Jeffrey Wright
The Background: As a big comic book fan, it’s been absolutely amazing seeing the MCU become a multimedia juggernaut and some of Marvel Comics’ most beloved characters and concepts come to life on screen. Although Marvel Studios dabbled in television ventures with the likes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013 to 2020) and their Netflix shows, they really doubled down on TV productions for the MCU’s fourth phase to produce content for their parent company’s streaming service, Disney+. With MCU head honcho Kevin Feige behind them, the Disney+ shows aimed to maintain and expand the ongoing continuity of the MCU, but I don’t think anyone could have predicted that Marvel Studios would delve so deeply into the multiverse that we’d seen an adaptation of What If…?What If…? began life as a semi-consistent series of hypothetical, often light-hearted (or downright dark), stories that presented Marvel heroes and storylines with subtle (or major) changes. The Disney+ show followed this format and recontextualised the premise as an animated anthology series that would explore what the MCU would be like if characters or events had unfolded differently. The show’s animation was headed by Stephan Franck and sported a cel-shaded design that emphasised hyper-realism; as the MCU was officially exploring the concept of the multiverse, episodes could be part of the franchise’s overall canon and many recognisable faces, names, and voices returned to put a new spin on their iconic roles; however, although voice recording was able to continue remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic, this production sadly marked the final performance of the late Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa/Black Panther. What If…? was received extremely well and the series was praised as a love-letter to the fans; despite some reservations about the format and presentation, reviews were primarily positive and spin-offs were quickly announced as either being in production or on the cards. Crucially, the multiversal scope of the series would be revisited in the live-action MCU films and characters and concepts from the show even seem set to cross over into the main MCU canon going forward.
The Plot: From beyond the multiverse, the cosmic being known as Uatu the Watcher (Wright) observes as the events of the MCU unfold differently, resulting in Peggy Carter (Atwell) becoming Captain Carter, Doctor Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) becoming a force for evil, a zombie infection running rampant, and T’Challa (Boseman) becoming Star-Lord. However, when a version of Ultron (Marquand) acquires the Infinity Stones and threatens the entire multiverse, the Watcher must break his oath of non-interference to assemble a heroic force capable of fending off this threat.
The Review: Because of the nature of the series, I think it’d be much better to look at each individual episode, what they do and how they work by themselves, and then talk about some overall themes and give my opinion on the entire concept down in the summary. The first season of What If…? is a nine-episode series of animated adventures that examine familiar characters and events in the MCU but change things about in subtle, or major, ways to create entirely new stories as part of the MCU multiverse. These alternate realities are observed by the enigmatic Watcher, a cosmic being bound only to observe and never directly interfere, and who acts as the narrator of the show. The Watcher’s opening narration explains the basics of the multiverse; as we were told in Avengers: Endgame(Russo and Russo, 2019), time and reality in the MCU is not a single, linear, fixed path. Instead, multiple timelines and alternate universes exist, with the deviations occurring from different decisions being made at key moments in time, however big or small. In this regard, time is less like a line and more like a river, with an infinite number of paths trailing off all over the place, and the Watcher acts as our impassive guide to this vast multiverse. The Watcher also serves as our narrator, quickly catching us up on the events preceding the episode and explaining when, where, and how each divergent timeline was created; however, he has taken a solemn vow to never interfere in the events he witnesses, no matter how gruesome or extreme they are.
The series kicks off with “What If…Captain Carter Were the First Avenger?” (Andrews, 2021), essentially a retelling of Captain America: The First Avenger (Johnston, 2011). Unlike in the original timeline, Strategic Scientific Reserve (SSR) Agent Peggy Carter chooses to stay and watch on the ground as skinny, ill-bodied Private Steve Rogers (Josh Keaton) prepares to become a super soldier. However, when the Nazi sleeper agent attacks the experiment this time around, Peggy manages to keep him from escaping with a sample of the serum but Steve is wounded, so Peggy ignores the orders of her commanding officer, John Flynn (Bradley Whitford), and voluntarily becomes enhanced to the peak of human physical conditioning before the experiment is lost forever. Promoted to head of the SSR, Flynn is outraged at the result; disgusted that the super soldier serum was wasted on a woman, he refuses to allow Peggy to actively participate in the war, much less on the front line, out of sheer prejudice, much to her chagrin and fury. As before, Hydra figurehead Johann Schmidt/The Red Skull (Marquand) seeks to usurp Adolf Hitler and claim victory for himself with the mysterious and all-powerful Tesseract. Flynn, however, is unimpressed by the threat and unwilling to risk even one man, let alone an entire platoon, on recovering the cube; luckily, inventor Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) believes so strongly in the Tesseract’s threat that he furnishes Peggy with a striking Union Jack-style costume and a familiar Vibranium shield so that she can single-handedly recover the Tesseract from Schmidt’s Hydra colleague, Doctor Arnim Zola (Toby Jones), decimating an entire convoy of Hydra’s soldiers with efficiency and glee and earning herself an official promotion to “Captain Carter”. Although he lost his best shot at fighting alongside his friend, Sergeant James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan), Steve is fully supportive of Peggy’s newfound strength and abilities and only too glad to pilot Stark’s Tesseract-powered “Hydra Stomper” armour. However, following an action-packed montage, Steve is apparently lost during a familiar assault on an armoured train; though grief-stricken, Peggy forces information out of Zola and leads an all-out assault against the Red Skull’s fortress, where they find Steve alive but are too late to stop the Red Skull from opening a dimensional rift with the Tesseract. The tentacles of a gigantic, interdimensional, Lovecraftian creature breach the portal, killing Schmidt and threatening all life on Earth; Peggy and Steve fend off the beast as Stark tries to shut down the portal, but Captain Carter is forced to sacrifice herself to the unknown by physically forcing the creature through the rift. The story then skips ahead to find the Tesseract being reactivated, spitting Peggy and the remains of the beast’s tentacles out into a Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division (S.H.I.E.L.D.) facility where she meets Director Nick Fury (Jackson) and Agent Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and learns the bittersweet news that the Allied Forces won the war but she is now seventy years in the future, and thus forever cut off from her friends and loved ones.
While the first episode arguably played things a little safe, we really see the potential of a What If…? series with the second episode, “What If…T’Challa Became a Star-Lord?” (Andrews, 2021), which wildly deviates from the story of Guardians of the Galaxy(Gunn, 2014). Young T’Challa (Maddix Robinson) longed to explore beyond Wakanda but was shielded from the chaotic outside world by his beloved and overprotective father, T’Chaka (John Kani), only to be abducted due to a mistake by Yondu Udonta’s (Michael Rooker) subordinates. Surprisingly, he was excited at embarking on adventures throughout the cosmos with the Ravagers and, while T’Challa doesn’t possess the Black Panther’s near-superhuman abilities, he sports all of Peter Quill’s (Brian T. Delaney) gadgets in addition to his Wakandan fighting prowess. His greatest assets, however, are his charisma, diplomacy, and reputation as a Robin Hood-type figure. Indeed, T’Challa is far more competent, notorious, and respected than his mainstream MCU counterpart; not only does Korath the Pursuer (Djimon Hounsou) know who he is, he views sparring with Star-Lord as the greatest honour and willingly joins his crew. T’Challa’s positive influence means the Ravagers put their skills towards helping others rather than for personal reward, thus sparing Drax the Destroyer’s (Fred Tatasciore) family and even convincing Thanos (Josh Brolin) that his destructive aspirations weren’t the answer to the galaxy’s problems! Touched by T’Challa’s mission to save others after the presumed destruction of Wakanda, Nebula (Karen Gillan), now a far less violent and far more beautiful woman, proposes a heist to steal the Embers of Genesis, a cosmic dust capable of ending galactic hunger, from Taneleer Tivan/The Collector (Benicio del Toro). While sneaking around the Collector’s museum, T’Challa finds a Wakandan spacecraft and is angered to find that Yondu lied to him about Wakanda in order to help him realise his true calling as an adventurer. The two reconcile in the best way possible: by teaming up to fight with this much more formidable version of the Collector, who is enhanced by weapons, technology, and items retrieved from some of the MCU’s most powerful and prominent individuals and races. Thanks to their teamwork, the Collector is disarmed and left at the mercy of his captives, and T’Challa forgives Yondu’s deception before reuniting with T’Chaka and his people in Wakanda, bringing his two families together in celebration over their mutual friend. Across the world, however, a greater threat awaits when Ego (Kurt Russell) comes looking for his son, here a mere Dairy Queen employee.
“What If…the World Lost Its Mightiest Heroes?” (Andrews, 2021) takes us back to the middle of Iron Man 2 (Favreau, 2010) and Nick Fury and Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow’s (Lake Bell) latest effort to recruit Tony Stark/Iron Man (Mick Wingert) to the Avengers Initiative. Fury is horrified when his attempt to stave off Stark’s palladium poisoning apparently has the unexpected side effect of killing the would-be Avenger; this tragedy is quickly followed by Thor Odinson (Hemsworth) being accidentally killed by Hawkeye’s errant arrow and the archer later being found dead while locked in an impenetrable S.H.I.E.L.D. cell. Fury suspects that his recruits are being targeted by an unknown party, and charges Natasha to escape Brock Rumlow’s (Frank Grillo) custody and make contact with Doctor Betty Ross (Stephanie Panisello). Though initially distrustful of Natasha due to her association with those who’ve hounded her friend, colleague, and former lover, Doctor Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Ruffalo), Betty is convinced to take a closer look at the injector used on Stark and theorises that a microscopic projectile fired from the needle killed the superhero. Hungry for blood after learning of Hawkeye’s death, Natasha agrees with Fury’s theory that their killer is targeting Avengers recruits; unfortunately, General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (Mike McGill) arrives looking to arrest Banner and sparks his transformation into the rampaging Hulk as in his solo film. However, the seemingly immortal Green Goliath also falls victim to the mysterious killer when he violently explodes from the inside out, and things escalate even further when Loki Laufeyson (Tom Hiddleston) arrives looking to avenge Thor’s death. Fury manages to buy himself one day to solve Thor’s murder on the promise of delivering the culprit to the God of Mischief and, when Natasha finds that a dead agent’s credentials were used to access S.H.I.E.L.D.’s database, she’s brutally beaten to death by an unseen assailant, and only able to tell Fury that all the deaths are relating to “hope”. This, however, is enough to piece together the perpetrator’s true identity: Doctor Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), who targeted Fury’s recruits in the guise of the size-altering Yellowjacket after his daughter, Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), died while working for S.H.I.E.L.D. A broken, bitter, twisted old man, Pym blames Fury and has become a deranged killer due to his grief and anger. However, Pym and his tech are outmatched when Fury is revealed to be Loki in disguise but, after Pym is defeated and taken into Asgardian custody, Loki double-crosses Fury and declares himself ruler of humanity. To combat this threat, Fury gets back to work assembling his super team, starting with calling Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel (Alexandra Daniels) back to Earth and uncovering Captain America’s frozen body.
The show shifts over to the world of magic and mysticism for “What If…Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands?” (Andrews, 2021), which presents a world where Dr. Strange and Doctor Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) are still a couple in a loving relationship. Fully supportive and enamoured by Dr. Strange, Christine encourages his ego and his skills as a surgeon, but sadly her influence doesn’t extend to his driving skills. However, in this world, Dr. Strange is relatively unharmed from the car crash that took his MCU counterpart’s hands but is left grief-stricken when Christine dies as a result of his negligence. In a bid to fill the void in his life, and his heart, Strange travels the world and, once again, ends up studying the mystic arts at Kamar-Taj under the tutelage of the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). Like his mainstream counterpart, Strange becomes the Master of the Mystic Arts after the Ancient One’s death and successfully bargains with the Dread Dormammu (Cumberbatch), but remains preoccupied with the mistakes of his past and the promises offered by the Eye of Agamotto’s time-bending abilities. Haunted by memories of happier times with Christine, Strange ignores the warnings of the Ancient One and his manservant, Wong (Benedict Wong), and uses the Eye to place his current consciousness into the body of his past self. Unfortunately, the tragedy still occurs no matter how safely he drives, which route he takes, or even his refusal to go to the award speech as Christine dies again and again whether he’s there or what he does. Dr. Strange’s anguish at being unable to save Christine isn’t helped by the Ancient One’s explanation that her death cannot be averted as it would create a potentially universe-destroying time paradox (if Strange prevents her death, he won’t become a sorcerer and be able to go back and save her).
Refusing to believe that Christine is fated to die, and angered at the Ancient One’s refusal to help him break this “absolute point” in time, Dr. Strange uses the Eye to flee from the confrontation and consult the ancient tomes of the Lost Library of Cagliostro. There, he meets O’Bengh (Ike Amadi) and learns that one can potentially gain the power he requires by absorbing magical beings; thus, Dr. Strange conjures a variety of demonic, Lovecraftian, and magical creatures (including gnomes, familiars, dragons, and even the octopus-like creature Captain Carter fought). When they won’t willingly share their power, he resolves to forcibly take it, and quickly becomes obsessed with gaining more and more magical power from these entities over the course of centauries to become “Strange Supreme”. As he does so, he grows increasingly monstrous and takes on more of their attributes, but is shocked to learn from O’Bengh that he’ll never be powerful enough to achieve his dreams due to the Ancient One using magic from the Dark Dimension to split him in two and create two concurrent timelines. His other half, who took Wong’s advice and moved on from Christine’s death, is charged by an echo of the Ancient One to oppose his dark doppelgänger before his ambition erases all of reality. When Strange Supreme’s attempts to coerce his other half into joining his cause are rejected, a magical battle ensues that spans multiple dimensions. Despite Wong’s protective spells and Strange’s efforts to talk down his dark half, Strange Supreme’s centauries of basking in the powers of countless magical beings makes him the superior and he’s ultimately able to absorb his missing half. Finally whole again, Strange Supreme succeeds in undoing Christine’s death but is transformed into a demonic being by the effort this requires; understandably, she is horrified by his nightmarish appearance, and he’s left helpless to stop the time paradox from devouring all of his reality. Desperate to preserve the world, he begs the Watcher for help but he refuses to get involved, despite wishing to punish Strange Supreme’s reckless arrogance, and the once Sorcerer Supreme is left alone, despondent, and remorseful in the tiniest pocket of reality with nothing but his grief and regret for company.
One popular, recurring storyline in Marvel Comics in recent years has been the Marvel Zombies spin-off (Various, 2005 to present) that tells of a devastating zombie plague overwhelming the Marvel universe (and beyond). A version of this reality is explored in “What If…Zombies?!” (Andrews, 2021), which finds the Hulk crash-landing into the Sanctum Sanctorum as in Avengers: Infinity War (Russo and Russo, 2018) only to find it, and the streets of New York City, deserted. When Iron Man, Dr. Strange, and Wong arrive to take care of Ebony Maw (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) and Cull Obsidian (Terry Notary), Banner’s elation soon turns to horror when the three are revealed to be vicious, flesh-eating zombies who tear Thanos’s children to shreds, instantly infecting them in the process, and Banner is only saved from the same fate thanks to the timely intervention of Dr. Strange’s Cloak of Levitation, a swarm of ants commanded by Hope van Dyne/The Wasp, and Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Hudson Thames). Spider-Man’s amusing orientation video shows that the MCU’s zombies largely confirm to the “rules” commonly associated with their kind; they’re decomposing corpses with a voracious hunger who turn others with a single bite and can only be killed by removing the head or destroying the brain. However, they’re not as mindless or shambling as traditional zombies; they’re intelligent enough to co-ordinate their attacks and utilise tech like the Iron Man armour and magic like the Sling Rings. In a change of pace, the Watcher reveals a definite origin for the zombie outbreak by relating how Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) became infected with the virus while stuck in the Quantum Realm; when she bit Hank Pym, he brought the virus back with him and the entire world was quickly overrun once the Avengers were turned.
Banner joins up with the few uninfected survivors and learns from Okoye (Danai Gurira) of a possible cure at Camp Lehigh, New Jersey; the group travel to the Grand Central Station, where they’re attacked by zombified versions of Sam Wilson/The Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Hawkeye, and Captain America. Although they lose Harold “Happy” Hogan (Jon Favreau), the group is able to get the train working and fend off the zombies thanks to Okoye and the Wasp. However, the train is attacked by Zombie Cap, who infects Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp) and forces Bucky to end his undead existence, retrieving his shield in the process, but Hope is also infected from a small cut she receives after disposing of Sharon. Although Peter tries to remain optimistic that she’ll be cured before she can turn, Hope sacrifices herself to atone for her part in causing the outbreak by carrying the group through a horde of zombies and dropping them off at Camp Lehigh. There, they find the zombies refuse to breach the camp thanks to the presence of the Mind Stone in the Vision’s (Paul Bettany) head; he and the severed head of Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) reveal that the Mind Stone’s properties can reverse the zombie virus, and the group is excited to spread the cure throughout the world from Wakanda. However, Banner learns that they’re not the first to respond to the Vision’s beacon, and Bucky is horrified to find that the Vision has been feeding parts of other survivors (including T’Challa) to a zombified version of Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) since she’s proven resistant to the Mind Stone and he’s been unable to kill her due to his love for her. When Wanda breaks free and proves uncontrollable due to her powers and hunger, the Vision rips the Mind Stone out of his head to atone for his actions and the group’s escape is covered by Bucky and the Hulk, who finally emerges from Banner’s psyche and is able to resist the zombie’s bite and hold back Wanda so the others can take off. The one-legged T’Challa, beheaded Lang, and shellshocked Peter console themselves with the knowledge that they’ll be able to save the world once they reach Wakanda, completely unaware that the nation has already succumbed to the infection and is under the rule of a zombified Thanos and his partially-completed Infinity Gauntlet!
We then go back to where the MCU all started in “What If…Killmonger Rescued Tony Stark?” (Andrews, 2021), which recreates the opening moments of Iron Man(Favreau, 2008) with one key difference: right as Tony Stark is about to be injured by one of his own missiles, he’s saved by N’Jadaka/Erik Stevens/Killmonger (Jordan), who fends off the Ten Rings soldiers looking to kidnap Stark and thus means that the genius, billionaire philanthropist never learns the humility or courage that led to him becoming Iron Man. Instead, he remains a conceited, arrogant, self-serving glory hound who believes that he needs to build bigger, better weapons to protect America’s interests. To that end, he drafts in Killmonger, who wastes no time in publicly outing Obadiah Stane (Kiff VandenHeuvel) as the man who bankrolled the Ten Rings’ attack on Stark, and Stark is so grateful to his saviour that he quickly promotes Killmonger to his new Chief Operations Officer, alienating Virginia “Pepper” Potts (Beth Hoyt) in the process. Killmonger swiftly becomes Stark’s closest friend and confidante and, together, they create robot drones, the “Liberators”, based on Killmonger’s fandom for anime. Killmonger pushes Stark to use Vibranium as a power source for the Liberators, and Stark sends in Colonel James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Don Cheadle) to steal some from Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis). However, the Black Panther attacks the meeting to recover stolen Vibranium, only for Killmonger to reveal his true intentions and kill T’Challa with one of Stark’s weapons. He chastises Rhodey for wearing the uniform of his oppressors and kills him with the Black Panther’s claw to make it seem like they killed each other; thanks to Just A Rather Very Intelligent System (J.A.R.V.I.S.; Bettany), however, Killmonger’s actions are revealed to Stark. Stark tries to avenge his friend’s murder using a Liberator, but Killmonger easily bests the drone and kills Stark with a Dora Milaje spear, which escalates the tensions between the United States and Wakanda into all-out war. General Ross assumes control of Stark’s assets and the Liberators are pushed into mass production; Killmonger then kills Klaue in order to deceive the Wakandans, then seizes control of the Liberators to lead his people in “defeating” the invading army. His victory and battle prowess wins over his uncle, T’Chaka, and earns him the mantle of the Black Panther; however, T’Challa’s astral warnings of Killmonger’s impending defeat are left a distinct possibility not only due to Ross’s obsession with continuing the war but also when Pepper and Shuri (Ozioma Akagha) agree to work together to expose Killmonger’s deception.
“What If…Thor Were an Only Child?” (Andrews, 2021) lightens things up a bit by retelling the events of Thor(Branagh, 2011); in this version of the story, in the absence of a brother to grow up alongside, Thor is little more than a lackadaisical, party-loving frat-boy who, despite still being worthy of Mjölnir, is far more interested in wasting time revelling with his friends than following his mother, Frigga’s (Josette Eales), instructions to behave or becoming a bore like his father, Odin Allfather (Anthony Hopkins). To avoid the all-seeing gaze of Heimdall (Idris Elba), Thor and his drinking buddies head the Midgard, the most backwater, insignificant world in all the Nine Realms, and invite guests from all over to join them in a massive, nonstop party. Tracking the cosmic disturbance and fearful of an alien invasion, Doctor Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) investigates and is both disturbed to find that Thor’s parties are so out of control that they can kill planets and won over by the Thunder God’s otherworldly charm. Jane and her intern, Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings), join the party, quickly being swept up in all the intergalactic chaos and merriment on display; Darcy even marries Howard the Duck (Seth Green), and Jane and Thor get matching tattoos, but soon wake up to massive hangovers and the arrival of S.H.I.E.L.D. Acting Director Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) is deeply concerned that Thor is leaving a trail of destruction as he takes his party on the road, and calls in Captain Marvel to assist with the perceived threat. Thor’s reunion with fellow party animal Prince Loki of Jotunheim is interrupted by Captain Marvel’s arrival; Thor brushes off her demands that he leaves, and a fight ensues that sees the two battle all across the globe. Despite Thor’s petulant, childish nature, the two are seemingly equally matched in terms of power and durability, but Carol’s forced to hold back her full power to avoid damaging the world or endangering lives. Since Jane disagrees with attacking or eliminating Thor since she’s so enamoured by him, she uses her tech to contact Heimdall and literally tells on Thor to Frigga. As Hill prepares an all-out nuclear strike against Thor, he’s terrified by Frigga’s impending arrival and begs his guests to help him clean up all evidence of their shenanigans. Despite Thor’s best, most frantic efforts to put right all the anarchy he and his friends had caused, she sees through his deception; however, rather than being mad at Jane for selling him out, he thanks her for teaching him a lesson in humility and asks her out…only for he, and the Watcher, to be stunned by the sudden appearance of an alternate version of Ultron!
This cliff-hanger is explained in the following episode, “What If…Ultron Won?” (Andrews, 2021), which presents a post-apocalyptic world where Black Widow and Hawkeye are the only Avengers left to oppose the all-powerful Ultron. In this world, Hawkeye not only sports his ridiculous mohawk and a mechanical right arm, but Ultron successfully fulfilled its goal to cause an extinction-level event by claiming the Vision’s body as its own, killing Iron Man, Cap, and Thor, and launching a worldwide nuclear attack that decimated humanity. When Thanos arrived looking to retrieve the Mind Stone, Ultron split him in two with one shot and claimed the Infinity Stones for itself, becoming a God-like being capable of laying waste to entire worlds and Realms with its endless supply of drones. Asgard, Ego, Xandar, and countless others all fall before Ultron’s power and even Captain Marvel is unable to oppose it; having eradicated the vast majority of life across the universe and ascended to a higher pane of existence, Ultron not only sees but also hears the Watcher. Although the Watcher previously considered intervening in Dr. Strange’s story, he held true to his vow of non-interference since he deals in a cosmic balance beyond the lives of mere mortals, even ones as powerful as the Master of the Mystic Arts. However, Ultron’s threat is so terrifying even to this cosmic observer that the Watcher is sorely tempted to assist Natasha and Clint in their efforts to coerce Zola’s artificial intelligence into helping them. The Watcher is pleased when their perseverance pays off but, although Zola is able to possess one of Ultron’s drones, he cannot shut down Ultron’s hive mind as Ultron is outside of the known universe, meaning Clint is forced to sacrifice himself so that Natasha and Zola can escape. The Watcher is aghast when Ultron not only does the impossible and breaches his cosmic observatory but is also able to match even the Watcher’s cosmic power. Their battle sees them literally smashing the dimensional barriers into numerous alternate realities and sees Ultron devour a whole universe and force the Watcher to flee. While Ultron prepares to lay waste to the entire multiverse, the Watcher is forced to turn to Strange Supreme for help in opposing Ultron’s threat.
This story, and the entire show, comes to a head in the final episode, “What If…the Watcher Broke His Oath?” (Andrews, 2021), which sees the Watcher recruiting Captain Carter, T’Challa Star-Lord, Killmonger, Party Thor, and a previously unseen version of Gamora (Cynthia McWilliams) to join Strange Supreme as the Guardians of the Multiverse. He enlists each of them right as they’re in the middle of tying up loose ends from their respective episodes and emphasises that every one of them is needed to protect something even bigger than their individual lives or concerns. Captain Carter immediately recognises the gravity of the situation, while Strange Supreme sees this as his chance at true redemption, and, despite the odds, they all tentatively agree to work together to combat Ultron, steal his Soul Stone, and destroy it using Gamora’s “Infinity Crusher” device. While Strange Supreme struggles to contain the dark magics within his body, Gamora is troubled by Killmonger’s obsession with Ultron’s technology, and Thor accidentally attracts Ultron’s attention, but the group is thankfully shielded by Strange Supreme’s protection spell. Following Captain Carter’s lead, the Guardians are able to launch a co-ordinated attack that allows T’Challa to swipe the Soul Stone; when Ultron makes short work of Zombie Wanda and follows the Guardians to its home reality, it gets summarily pummelled by the Guardians’ repeated attacks and Strange Supreme’s ability to counteract both Ultron’s Time Stone and match its enlarged form with his monstrous magic. Although they’re stunned to find the Infinity Crusher ineffectual because it and the Infinity Stones are from different realities, Ultron’s threat is ended when Captain Carter helps Natasha avenge Clint and fire an arrow containing Zola’s consciousness into Ultron’s armour, erasing its sentience once and for all. In the aftermath, Killmonger claims Ultron’s armour and proposes using the Infinity Stones to “fix” their universes; when they refuse, he attempts to destroy them and they’re saved by a Zola-controlled Vision, who tries to take the Infinity Stones for himself. Before they can properly get into a potentially devastating battle over the gems, Strange Supreme freezes them in time and seals them within a pocket dimension, ending their threat once and for all. The Watcher trusts Strange Supreme with watching over the two, and returns everyone to their proper place and time; since Natasha’s world was left lifeless by Ultron, the Watcher sends her to help Nick Fury overthrow Loki, and then alters his vow of impassive observation to a pledge to protect the multiverse when needed.
The Summary: At first, I wasn’t too sold on What If…?’s animation style; the slick, computerised cel-shaded look has never been a favourite of mine, but I was quickly won over by it due to how closely each character and episode mirrors their live-action counterparts. Everything from the recreation of certain shots, to the musical cues, to the costumes and likenesses perfectly emulates the source material each episode is based on, meaning we get the brown-hued colour scheme of World War Two for Captain Carter, the barrage of bizarre cosmic colours for Star-Lord, and the industrial, high-tech grey of Stark and S.H.I.E.L.D. facilities. Although some notable names from the MCU didn’t return to lend their voices to their iconic characters, What If…? employs the services of some incredibly gifted soundalikes and even goes the extra mile in presenting a version of Bruce Banner that resembles both Edward Norton and Mark Ruffalo, which is fitting considering we encounter this character between his solo film and his first big MCU crossover. Animation also means that What If…? is theoretically able to do absolutely anything it desires, regardless of budget, and is limited only be the imagination of the animators; thus, while things are a little on the safe side with slightly different retelling of Captain America: The First Avenger, Thor, and other MCU films, it’s not long before we’re seeing massive Lovecraftian creatures, a whole host of Marvel heroes interacting in ways we’ve not really seen before, an additional taste of the cosmic madness of the universe (and multiverse), and a wide variety of both horrifying and oddball concepts to really test the waters of what the MCU is capable of going forward.
I really liked that, despite their reversed roles, Peggy and Steve still have a mutual attraction based on mutual respect and their respective struggles; Peggy faces an uphill battle due to being a woman in a male-orientated world (and war) that constantly weighs her down even after she’s enhanced by the super soldier serum, and of course Steve has been overlooked and undervalued his entire life due to his gaunt frame and sickly nature. While everyone else is either incredulous due to her being a woman or impressed by her fighting prowess because she is a woman, and she must prove her worth through her deeds to win them over, Steve admires the person that she is and her fighting spirit; he’s the only one that doesn’t judge her for her gender and who doesn’t need convincing that she’s the right person for the job and is only too grateful to be an active combatant alongside her in the Hydra Stomper. Peggy is also quite different in the role; like Steve, she attacks it with a sense of duty and honour, but she also takes far more joy in her newfound abilities. There’s a sense that she’s finally able to let loose, that she’s been given the physical gifts to realise her full potential, and she literally dives head-first into making the most of that opportunity. T’Challa’s characterisation as a galaxy-wide force for good is a fitting tribute to the late Chadwick Boseman; unlike Peter Quill, T’Challa is a well-respected and competent space mercenary, and I loved the running gag that he’s somehow able to convince even the most maladjusted individuals to give up their villainous or tyrannical ways simply through presenting a convincing argument. Korath is only too willing to change sides simply out of his worship of Star-Lord, and his crew follow his lead into doing good deeds simply because he was such a positive influence on them. Unfortunately, he’s not able to have the same influence on the Collector, who’s not only blinded by his position in this universe, but also driven by his inherent greed and given a major power boost thanks to his artefacts. However, while threats still remain in this timeline, on the surface it seems to be a far more peaceful and united universe simply thanks to T’Challa’s positive influence on others.
Things take a turn to the dark side once the Avengers (especially Stark) start getting killed off; What If…? is a self-contained show within the larger MCU multiverse, meaning literally anything can happen to anyone, and seeing the franchise’s core six heroes be so brutally murdered really hammers that home. It also gives Hank Pym, someone introduced later into the MCU, a chance to be a more prominent player in this sandbox; seeing him active in the MCU’s first phase is a great way of fleshing out the world in a unique way, especially as he’s become a murdering psychopath. This is a Pym whose neuroses and paranoia have been pushed to breaking point, which deftly showcases just how much of a threat a guy with Pym’s intellect and technology can be to even the most superhuman individuals. Of course, the epitome of dark character turns is the tragic tale of Strange Supreme; it’s absolutely heart-breaking to see Dr. Strange left so desperate and despondent by Christine’s loss that he fell deeper and deeper to the darkness. His frustration and anguish at being unable to change the past see him become obsessed with gaining more and more power, to the point where he is fixated only on being reunited with his love. This makes him blind to all pleas, even those of his uncorrupted counterpart, and it isn’t until all of reality is about to be erased forever that he realises the error of his ways. Sadly, by then, it’s much too late for him to undo anything; Christine once again dies in his arms and everything that ever was is unravelled due to his time paradox; even the Watcher judges his heinous actions, and the once mighty Strange Supreme is left alone and repentant in the tiniest slither of reality. It’s a poignant and gut-wrenching take on the snarky, stubborn, and arrogant Sorcerer Supreme, one that shows just how dangerous a threat he could be if he lost his strong moral compass, and it’s a testament to the show that the character remained a tragic and relatable figure right up until the end rather than simply being a malevolent antagonist.
Easily the darkest tale is the inclusion of zombies; never before has the MCU veered so closely towards traditional horror and I really appreciated the bleak, gory change of pace. It was fantastic seeing the MCU’s most powerful characters reduced to animalistic ghouls, forcing the few survivors to battle their lifelong friends and making painful sacrifices to ensure the safety of others against overwhelming odds. This was also a prime opportunity to show a new side to the Vision; him luring in survivors just to feed his love is a haunting glimpse at the darker side of his cold, calculating logic. We’ve seen such behaviour, this overpowering sense of denial, in zombie films before and, here, it served as a gruesome reminder of just how close to the brink this alternate reality is to total collapse. This continued in Killmonger’s welcome reappearance, with his alternate tale basically showing what could have happened if he had succeeded in his goals of reclaiming his Wakandan birthright; Killmonger was always one of the MCU’s more driven and dangerous antagonists and his episode showed just how truly vindictive and sadistic he really was. He had no qualms about deceiving or using anyone and any resource at his disposal, and even incited an all-out war just so that he could get himself into a position of trust and power, which serves as a stark reminder to just how ruthless a villain he really was. The party-loving version of Thor is the polar opposite; Party Thor cares little for battle or being a king and just wants to enjoy himself. He revels in being the centre of attention and throwing the biggest, most outrageous parties in all the Nine Realms and is lauded amongst his guests as being the wildest party animal around. Thor is a consummate free spirit and a friend to all; alien races, Gods, and recognisable beings from all across the cosmos cheer his name and share in his revelry, making for some of the most light-hearted and amusing moments in the entire series as Surtur (Clancy Brown) tries it on with Lady Liberty and Frost Giants deface Mount Rushmore. This episode also leads to one of the best fist fights in the series as Thor and Captain Marvel trade blows, but he delights in the fight as much as he does in enjoying himself with mead, and only the disapproval of his mother finally shakes Thor from his apathy and pushes him to make amends for his reckless merriment.
Of course, things come to a suitably dramatic and action-packed conclusion with the final two episodes, which finally force the Watcher into action. Up until then, the watcher existed outside of the normal universe, powerful and cosmic enough to remain completely undetected, but Ultron’s sentience and force grows to such an extent that it’s able to sense the Watcher, breach his observatory, and begin a maniacal campaign to conquer and destroy the entire multiverse. Untold aeons of quietly observing the multiverse haven’t exactly dampened the Watcher’s power cosmic, but in the face to Ultron’s might, enhanced by the six Infinity Stones, the enigmatic onlooker is forced to do the one thing he has never done and ask for help, calling upon the characters he has been observing and asking them to intervene where he cannot. Seeing these wildly different versions of these characters interacting was a blast; they arguably got on the same page much faster than the regular Avengers (which is no doubt due to the short length of the episodes) and were able to launch a united attack on Ultron as a result. Indeed, Ultron kind of got a bit shafted in the last episode; it went from going toe-to-toe with a cosmic being to getting battered about by a handful of mortals and Godlings simply because the Guardians were able to keep the pressure on and keep Ultron from activating the Infinity Stones. Realistically, Ultron could’ve just “snapped” them all away, but then that wouldn’t be anywhere near as exhilarating for a final battle now, would it? Seeing Killmonger claim the gems and just the idea of what his twisted imagination would use them for was a cool moment, as was the idea that he might someday escape his trap to threaten the multiverse again, and just about the only issue I had with that last episode was the random inclusion of a Gamora when they could’ve maybe employed Zombie Wanda instead. Overall, though, I thoroughly enjoyed this series; the presentation, the humour, the fun twists on established characters, and the bizarre stories were all really fun and engaging and I can’t wait to see more from this as the MCU continues to expand into more and ore obscure concepts.
Rating: 5 out of 5.
Did you enjoy What If…?? Which episode was your favourite, and which of the alternate characters did you like the most? Did you enjoy the Watcher’s inclusion and characterisation? What did you think to all the cameos and the animation style? Did you enjoy seeing Ultron as an all-powerful force and what did you think to its battle with the Watcher? Were you also disappointed that Gamora didn’t get her own episode? Are you a fan of the What If…? comics and, if so, which was your favourite? What other hypothetical scenarios would you like to see explored in a future season? Whatever your thoughts on What If…?, sign up to drop a comment down below and check back next Sunday for the final instalment of Multiverse Madness.
In Avengers: Infinity War(Russo and Russo, 2018) the Mad Titan, Thanos (Josh Brolin), finally made a significant appearance in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). When the idea of a two-film saga based on the Infinity Gauntlet comic book (Starlin, et al, 1991) was first announced, I, like many others, had many theories about what was going to happen, who was going to live and die, and how everything was )going to go down. For example, before Thor: Ragnarok(Waititi, 2017), I was certain that Thanos’ big entrance was going to immediately establish his threat by hanging him storm into Asgard kill Odin Allfather (Anthony Hopkins), and claim the Tesseract (and, obviously, the Space Stone it help). After all, how better to establish this big bad villain than by having him kill a God?
Instead, of course, Thanos wrecked Thor Odinson’s (Chris Hemsworth) ship and slaughtered half of the Asgardians onboard. Still an impressive feat, to be sure, but one that focused more on Thanos’ grandeur and pretentious philosophy rather than his actual physical strength thanks to the bulk of the work being undertaken by his underlings, the “Children of Thanos”. Headed by Ebony Maw (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), Cull Obsidian (Terry Notary), Proxima Midnight (Carrie Coon/Monique Ganderton), and Corvus Glaive (Michael James Shaw), the Children of Thanos didn’t actually appear in The Infinity Gauntlet and are, instead, relatively recent additions to Thanos’ ranks who first appeared (as the “Black Order”) in Infinity (Hickman, et al, 2013). In the film, we don’t really learn much about these guys at all except that they enforce Thanos’ will with unquestioning loyalty and that he trusts them to help him gather the remaining Infinity Stones and, while they certainly look visually interesting, they’re mostly disposable bad guys for the Avengers to fight in place of Thanos.
Now, I’ve never read Infinity; I have no emotional attachment to the Black Order or any of the characters and, as a result, they were merely nothing more than henchman to me and I only really recall one of them being referred to be name (“I take it the Maw is dead?”) While I enjoyed their inclusion in the film, I can’t help but feel like they could have been dropped and supplanted with some other, more recognisable MCU villains had some other films and events happened just a little differently. For example, take Cull Obsidian; he’s Thanos’ muscle who basically does nothing and is largely inconsequential. What if, instead of killing Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) in Guardians of the Galaxy(Gunn, 2014), Ronan had been soundly defeated and humbled and, having seen the extent of Thanos’ power (he did destroy Xandar (offscreen), which was what Ronan wanted, after all, and would be enough to bring Ronan to heel, I would wager), he pledged himself fully to Thanos’ cause to get revenge against the Guardians of the Galaxy? I’m not massively familiar with Ronan but it seems to me like it was a bit of a miss-step to kill him off when he could have fulfilled a role in Thanos’ little gang at the very least, if not remain as a recurring antagonist for the Guardians. Another potential replacement for Corvus would be Emil Blonsky/Abomination (Tim Roth) who, at the time, had been conspicuous by his absence from the MCU. However, arguably, it wouldn’t make as much sense for Thanos to recruit the Abomination as he’s not exactly floating around in the depths of space for him to encounter.
Intrigue was equally high in the build-up to The Avengers/Avengers Assemble(Whedon, 2012); I was hoping to see a version of the Masters of Evil, with Loki Laufeyson (Tom Hiddleston) joining forces with Johann Schmidt/The Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) – who was clearly transported away from Earth by the Bifrost at the end of Captain America: The First Avenger(Johnston, 2011 – and either the Abomination or Doctor Samuel Sterns/The Leader (Tim Blake Nelson) once they got to Earth. While I was happy with the first Avengers team-up we got, I do feel this was another missed opportunity that we never saw this anti-Avengers team-up. Consequently, I feel like we could have swapped out Ebony Maw for either of these characters; in The Infinity Gauntly, Thanos was advised by Mephisto, a role many expected Loki to play in Infinity War given his mischievous and devious nature. Naturally, of course, you could argue that this wouldn’t really fit with Loki’s character arc by that point but remember how he feigned loyalty to Thanos and then tried to stab him in the neck? Well, imagine that but throughout a large portion of the movie. Loki pledges fealty, willingly hand shim the Tesseract, and spends the remainder of the film waiting for the perfect moment to strike and then he’s killed for his efforts. Obviously, the Red Skull finally showed up in Avengers: Endgame(Russo and Russo, 2019) in a slightly different role as the Stonekeeper (Ross Marquand), but again…what if the Red Skull had replaced Ebony Maw? How much more interesting and impactful would it have been to see the Red Skull empowered by Thanos and making a triumphant return as Thanos’ chief torturer? Sure, if his death was the same then you could argue that he would’ve been “wasted” or been killed off too easily but I still feel like this would have been a better use of the character than as the keeper of the Soul Stone (a role that could’ve been filled by character’s envisioning the Stonekeeper as someone close to them, perhaps?)
Corvus Glaive is a trickier one to “replace” in this hypothetical alternate world, however I have one suggestion: Nebula (Karen Gillan). Now, similar to Loki joining Thanos, this would require quite a few changes to Nebula’s character arc; in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2(Gunn, 2017), she finally buried the hatchet with her “sister”, Gamora (Zoey Saldana) and it was great seeing her grow as a character, put aside her hatred, and learn how to work alongside the Guardians and the Avengers. In The Infinity Gauntlet, Nebula spends most of her time as a mindless zombie thanks to Thanos’ wrath but plays a vital role in his downfall by stealing the Gauntlet for herself (and promptly being driven mad by its power). By tweaking her character arc, or having it so that Thanos either intimidates or reprograms her into subservice, you could replace Corvus with a more prominent and recognisable character and still find ways to weave her existing arc into the story. Like, what if, after Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, Nebula is forced into Thanos to serve him (maybe he threatens to kill Gamora/the Guardians or promises to “repair” her once he’s assemble the Gauntlet) in Corvus’ place; she could still have been ripped apart and tortured to force Gamora into revealing the Soul Stone’s location and would have even more motivation to turn against her “father” since he would have lied to and manipulated her once again.
Another character who I, like many, expected to play a prominent role in Infinity War was Hela Odindottir (Cate Blanchett), a character who a lot of people expected would take the role of Lady Death as the object of Thanos’ affections. Of course, this didn’t turn out to be true as Hela was killed in Thor: Ragnarok and Thanos’ motivations were changed from worshipping Death to wanting to bring a sense of balance to the galaxy. Still, how awesome would it have been if Hela had taken Proxima Midnight’s place in the Dark Order? If killing the Allfather didn’t show you that Thanos was a bad-ass, bringing the Goddess of Death to heel totally would have and could have made for a much more memorable female villain for the finale in Wakanda. Again, there’s the question of her being killed off but what better way to help showcase Wanda Maximoff’s (Elizabeth Olsen) sheer power than by having her shred a Goddess to pieces? Or you could rewrite her death to maybe come at the hands of her brother, Thor, and his new weapon, Stormbreaker, to sell the awesomeness of the weapon.
Ultimately, I was more than happy with Avengers: Infinity War, Endgame, and the MCU’s portrayal of Thanos overall. His underlings were find cannon fodder for the film and helped to serve as extensions of the Mad Titan’s will but I do feel it would have been even more awesome to see these more recognisable villains swayed to Thanos’ cause so that we could see them interact with their rivals, and other heroes, in new and interesting ways. Sure, many have cropped up again since then and the potential of a Masters of Evil in the MCU is still there, I just think that maybe these huge movies could have been made even bigger if things had been slightly changed to accommodate these more familiar characters. Do you agree or disagree? Maybe you’re a big fan of the Black Order from the comics? Perhaps you’d have like to see a different route taken? Do you even want to see the Masters of Evil in the MCU? Either way, feel free to sound off in the comments below.
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 debut appearance!
Story Title: Thor the Mighty! and the Stone Men from Saturn! (also comprised of “Part 2: The Power of Thor!” and Part 3: Thor the Mighty Strikes Back!”) Published: August 1962 Writers: Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, and Jack Kirby Artist: Jack Kirby
The Background: Following the creation of Doctor Bruce Banner/The Incredible Hulk, legendary Marvel writer, editor, and creator Stan Lee was inspired by Norse mythology and legends to create an even more powerful superheroic character, one who was more than human…a literal God among men! In collaboration with Larry Lieber and the renowned Jack Kirby, Lee crafted a version of the character quite different from those that had appeared before, one who debuted in Journey into Mystery and effectively took over that title until eventually replacing it with a self-titled comic in 1970.
Thor would go on to become a founding member of Marvel’s premier super team, the Avengers, and his stories became increasingly elaborate and over the top, with the character undergoing numerous changes throughout the years whilst also taking on more of the mythological aspects of his inspiration. Adopting flamboyant, archaic speech patterns and wielding the indestructible, all-powerful, magical hammer Mjölnir, I’ve always enjoyed Thor’s aesthetic and unique qualities and he’s one of my favourite characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe but his comics can be a little impenetrable for me due to their dense and complex nature.
The Review: “Thor the Mighty! and the Stone Men from Saturn!” introduces us to Doctor Donald Blake, a frail and lame figure who walks with a cane and is vacationing in Norway at exactly the same time as the titular Stone Men from Saturn arrive on Earth. Like Clark Kent/Superman, the Stone Men find that Earth’s vastly different atmosphere affords them incredible superhuman strength in addition to the relative invulnerability of their stone bodies. As if that wasn’t enough, the Stone Men are also packing advanced weaponry that can vaporise objects in a flash of light, as witnessed by a stunned old man. Though the aged fisherman’s stories of stone creatures from outer space are met with ridicule and mockery by the local villagers, it catches the attention of the curious Blake, who heads out to the coastal region to investigate and soon stumbles upon the Stone Men! Unfortunately, Blake steps on a twig and gives away his presence and, thanks to his unexplained lame leg and losing his walking stick after a trip, has no hope of escaping from the aliens.
Blake finds refuge in a nearby cave but is disheartened to find that it’s a literal dead end; trapped, he begins to despair but is awestruck when a hidden stone wall suddenly opens and leads him to a secret chamber that houses a “gnarled wooden stick”. Ever the innovator, Blake attempts to use the cane as a lever but is unsuccessful and, in helpless anger, strikes the cane against the boulder which blocks his only viable exit. In a flash of blinding light, Blake and the cane are magically transformed into a heavily muscular, elaborately garbed form and an enchanted hammer, respectively. Overwhelmed by the power courses through his body, the figure observes the hammer’s iconic inscription (“Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of… Thor”) and quickly realises that the hammer is Mjölnir, the weapon of the mythological God of Thunder, and that he is now Thor!
Now possessing the power of a God, Thor easily lifts the boulder that was blocking his exit and, now safe and free from his prison, ponders the mystery of his newfound power. You’ll notice that, when he’s Thor, Blake retains his speech patterns and personality rather than switching places with the Norse God or having his personality fundamentally altered by the transformation; it’s basically a Billy Batson/Shazam situation where he magically transforms but retains his personality. Using what little he knows of Thor from Norse mythology, Thor walks us through the “rules” of the character’s early days: Blake transforms into Thor when he touches the hammer but, if he is separated from it for more than sixty seconds, he magically reverts back to Blake. In addition, Mjölnir is magically enchanted so that only he can wield it, it always returns to his hand after being thrown, and is functionally indestructible. Finally, by stamping the hammer on the ground twice, Thor can conjure storms or rain or snow and whip up a raging tornado, all of which can be dispelled with three hits of the hammer on the ground.
Before Blake can warn the world of the presence of the Stone Men, the aliens unleash a “three-dimensional picture” (basically a holographic projection) of a fearsome dragon to scare off incoming armed aircraft and shield themselves and their ship from reprisals and attacks with their advanced forcefield. Blake observes this with horror and, resolved to oppose the invading alien forces, he showcases one of his most iconic abilities: by swinging around Mjölnir as fast as possible, he can fly through the air and cover vast distances by hurling the hammer but holding on to the handle. It’s not quite flying and not quite the Hulk’s massive leaps but it’s something unique that no other hero can replicate. Astounded by Thor’s abilities, the Stone Men attempt to capture him but Thor is easily able to fend them off, break free of their prison, and use Mjölnir to disarm the aliens. In response, the Stone Men unleash their “Mechano-Monster”, a robot enforcer of theirs that is immediately and anti-climatically smashed to junk with one swing of Thor’s hammer. This is enough to scare off the Stone Men, who immediately flee alongside their entire fleet to avoid having to battle Thor and, possibly, more like him. The issue ends with the military dumbfounded as to what drove off the alien invaders and Blake resolving to head back to the United States with his newfound power.
The Summary: “Thor the Mighty! and the Stone Men from Saturn!” is an absolutely bat-shit crazy story; much like the Hulk’s debut, Thor’s first appearance isn’t a typical superhero story, being more a tale of random alien invasion that just so happens to feature a guy stumbling upon a magical weapon. The Stone Men get a lot of time in the comic but we’re not really told much about them; they simply arrive as a superior alien force and prepare to use their advanced weaponry and augmented physical abilities to dominate the planet.
Yet, despite how formidable they seem to be, they’re actually some of the most ineffectual villains I’ve ever seen; they utilise holographic technology and laser weapons and have an entire fleet of ships ready to attack but they’re no match for Mjölnir, Thor tears through their weapons like they’re paper, and their ace in the hole, the Mechano-Monster is an absolute joke. Of course, the Stone Men would later be retconned into the Kronans and one of their race, Korg, would become an important ally of the Hulk many years later.
Perhaps because of the presence of the aliens, we don’t really get to learn anything about Donald Blake; it’s not said what kind of doctor he is, why he chose Norway for his vacation, or what caused his lame leg. All we really learn about him is that he appreciates the beauty and ambiance of Norway and that he’s curious enough to investigate the claims of aliens nearby. When he’s on the run and hiding from the Stone Men, Blake fall into despair and is all but ready to accept what he sees as his inevitable death until he stumbles upon the power of Thor. Once he becomes Thor, he immediately proves why the hammer deemed him so worthy as he leaps into action to oppose the aliens but, again, we don’t really get a sense of why Blake is so morally inclined towards using his awesome power for the benefit of mankind. Obviously, as with many debuts of superheroes, much of Thor’s backstory and motivation would be revealed in time but, even with that in mind, “Thor the Mighty! and the Stone Men from Saturn!” is surprisingly light on characterisation for its debuting protagonist; even Tony Stark/Iron Man got a brief mention of his carefree ways before his life-changing transformation but Blake, instead, is a bit of a blank slate compared to Lee’s previous heroes.
Rating: 1 out of 5.
What are your thoughts on Thor’s debut appearance? Do you like that Marvel constantly tried to mix up all their new superheroes and characters with vastly different origins and backstories? What did you think to the Stone Men and the pacing of the story? What is your favourite character, arc, or era in Thor’s long publication history and where does Thor rank for you against Marvel’s other superheroes? How are you celebrating Thor’s debut this month, if at all? I’d love to hear your thoughts on Thor in the comments below so be sure to drop a line down there.
In 1995, Marvel Comics created “National Superhero Day” and, in the process, provided comics and superhero fans the world over with a great excuse to celebrate their favourite characters and publications.
Released: 4 May 2012 Director: Joss Whedon Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Budget: $220 million Stars: Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Tom Hiddleston, Clark Gregg, Stellan Skarsgård, and Samuel L. Jackson
The Plot: When Loki Laufeyson (Hiddleston) arrives on Earth wielding a mind-controlling spear and in search of the Tesseract, Nick Fury (Jackson), director of the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division (S.H.I.E.L.D.) activates the “Avenger Initiative”. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Downey Jr), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Evans), Doctor Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Ruffalo), Thor Odinson (Hemsworth), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Johansson), and Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Renner) are called into service but, with such big egos and personalities among their ranks, these assembled heroes must find a way to co-exist before they can combat this otherworldly threat.
The Background: The development of an Avengers film began in 2003 with an outrageous plan to release a series of solo films for each character before having them all meet up, similar to how the Avengers formed in the comics back in 1963 courtesy of Martin Goodman, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Dick Ayers. It was an unprecedented move, one which saw fledging studio Marvel Studios roll the dice on lower-tier heroes such as Iron Man and win big time with a slew of massively successful and popular superhero films, each one hinting towards a much larger, shared cinematic universe.
The Review: Avengers Assemble was the first time we had ever seen superheroes come together in a big screen, big budget movie. Before the MCU, before Iron Man, superheroes always existed in isolated bubbles and never interacted and, as a big fan of the interconnected world of the comics (not just in Marvel but in DC Comics and pretty much ever comic publication), I was excited to see these characters come together onscreen for the first-time and will always lean towards an interconnected, shared continuity. It was a risky venture taking admittedly B to D-tier characters like Iron Man and Captain America and shaping a series of movies around them but Avengers Assemble totally justified that risk, allowing these volatile egos and characters to share the same screen and mixing fantasy, science-fiction, magic, and technology all together in one action-packed adventure.
Loki’s threat is immediately established when he suddenly arrives on Earth and makes short work of Fury’s men and then uses his spear to take control of Professor Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) and Barton. Though only a singular villain, one whom Thor has been able to best in combat before, Loki is a significant threat to the world since he is, effectively, a God and he has the entire Chitauri army at his command. Before the Chitauri arrive, though, Loki is formidable enough to justify bringing in Iron Man (despite Fury’s earlier reservations) and Cap since Thor wasn’t supposed to be able to get back to Earth. When Thor does arrive, his mission to capture Loki and bring him back to Asgard is hampered by Earth politics (since Fury wants to hold Loki accountable for the death and destruction he’s already caused) and as a result Loki manages to manipulate the fledgling Avengers into bickering and fighting with each other rather than him, allowing him to take possession of the Tesseract and bring the Chitauri to Earth. While he avoids active, physical combat, Loki is a daunting opponent when he does engage in battle, able to go toe-to-toe with Thor (thanks, largely, to Thor holding back out of love for his brother), easily catching Hawkeye’s arrow, and tossing Stark out of a window with just one hand. His downfall comes not only through the unification of the Avengers but is spelt out by Stark, who monologues about how, win or lose, they would hunt down and hold Loki personally responsible to ensure that he never truly wins, and, of course, more explicitly through the sudden and hilarious beat down he receives at the hands of the Hulk.
Essentially, the film is a significant chapter in Cap’s story; since Captain America: The First Avenger(Johnston, 2011) ended with Cap being dethawed in the modern day, this was only the second time we had seen him in action; unfortunately, because of the nature of the film, Cap’s reintegration into society is largely glossed over and, rather than being dwelled upon, is replaced with Cap wishing to be given a mission, a focus, a reason to fight in the modern world. As a result, he unquestioningly follows Fury’s directions primarily out of instinct, duty, and a need to have a reason to go on in a world that has largely passed him by; he clashes with Stark’s rebellious attitude, believing that they should follow orders like soldiers, but is convinced enough to investigate further and is disgusted to find Fury in possession of Chitauri technology and with contingencies in place to combat the Avengers since they have the potential to be a threat to humanity. Cap is all business when in battle, instinctively taking command and exuding leadership even though he is the most out of touch and out of place of all the characters; his initial antagonism with Stark is eventually put aside to lead the team during the Chitauri invasion and Cap fights to the bitter end even when he is vastly overpowered by the alien forces, taking the most damage of any of his team mates (including the “weaker” members like Natasha and Barton).
Stark is just as stubborn and snarky as ever; he’s clearly insulted by Agent Phil Colson (Gregg) and Fury’s decision to relegate him to a “consulting” role in the Avengers Initiate despite his claims to not want to be part of the team and believes himself to be the only one smart and capable enough of combating Loki’s impending threat. He comes aboard with the program purely out of a selfish desire to lord himself over Fury and the other Avengers and to learn more of S.H.I.E.L.D.s secrets, using them to call Fury out on his hypocrisy, and constantly goading his team mates (particularly Banner) into being themselves and rejecting Fury’s orders and control. While the prevailing arc for the entire team is learning to work together, Stark personifies this as he is the most antagonistic and reluctant to work as a team; he’s the most affected by Coulson’s death due to him knowing the agent the best, his experiences witnessing death and suffering first-hand in Iron Man, and his inability to properly cope with death and loss. Coulson’s death galvanises Stark, turning his incredulity to vengeance and giving him the motivation to not only put aside his ego to work with the team but also acknowledge Cap’s superior leadership skills.
Banner appears very differently to where we left him in The Incredible Hulk (Leterrier, 2008); fearing the unpredictability and ferocious nature of the Hulk, he has stayed in hiding, suppressing the Hulk with some success, but is unable to deny his innate wish to help others in need with his scientific and medical expertise. Banner has managed to keep the Hulk at bay not only through a risky and unique technique (he’s “always angry”, indicating that he constantly keeps his emotions at a level where the Hulk is satiated but doesn’t actually emerge) and a vehement refusal to acknowledge or speak the Hulk’s name. Banner is convinced to help advise on Loki’s spear by Natasha’s beauty and simply her asking him nicely, rather than forcing him to comply, but, while he is clearly excited to be working with S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Tesseract and forms a fast, budding friendship with Stark (with Stark goading Banner and acting like an annoying brother to him), he quickly comes to realise that Fury’s intentions aren’t entirely noble and questions the validity and ability of a team that is little more than a “timebomb” of ego and emotions. When the Hulk is forcibly unleashed as part of Loki’s plan, he is unbridled rage and fury, lashing out at everything and everyone around him in a mindless rage since the transformation was against Banner’s will. Later, during the Battle of New York, Banner initiates the transformation willingly and the Hulk is much more…maybe not “docile” but let’s say willing to cooperate, taking Cap’s orders and specifically targeting to Chitauri threat while protecting and aiding his teammates. A measure of Banner’s influence and the Hulk’s intelligence is seen as the Hulk makes the effort to save Iron Man from his fatal fall and his dismissive grunt of “Puny God!” after beating the piss out of Loki.
Thor’s arrival on Earth comes out of nowhere and is quickly waved away with a brief line about “dark energy”; personally, I never liked this or understood why the filmmakers had the Bifrost be destroyed in Thor(Branagh, 2011) when they knew very well that Thor would be back in Avengers Assemble but it is what it is and Thor is there. Thor is handicapped by his emotions towards his brother; he is elated and heartbroken to see Loki alive after believing him dead and just wants his brother to abandon his crusade and come home. Loki, however, is too full of jealously, rage, and resentment and constantly taunts, defies, and dismisses his brother, who finds himself unable to simply wade in, muscles bulging, and retrieve Loki thanks to opposition from Iron Man, Cap, and Fury and the greater issue concerning the Tesseract. Thor offers knowledge of another world, another level of understanding, that is unique amongst his teammates and spends much of the film believing his brother still has good in him and wishing to return him home. After Loki kills Coulson before Thor’s eyes and tries to kill him with a trap intended for the Hulk, Thor reluctantly gears up and enters the fray, so determined to stop his brother’s mad schemes that he’s willing to fight alongside the Avengers and submit to Cap’s orders since he, like Cap, is a stranger in this world and still learning how to navigate modern, human society.
Natasha is still relatively new in this film since audiences only saw a fraction of her true character and abilities in Iron Man 2 so it’s good that she gets a solo action scene at the start of the film to showcase her physical and manipulative abilities. We learn bits and pieces of her character and backstory through her interactions with Banner, Loki, and Barton but she remains very much a mystery even by the end of the film. This would, of course, continue over the years since Black Widow was one of the last of the original Avengers to get a solo film, meaning an air of mystery constantly surrounds her, but much of her arc is focused on her relationship with Barton (which is one of duty, gratitude, and mutual, platonic respect) and her commitment to Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. Like Cap, she follows orders unquestioningly but it also feels like she has her own agenda and reasons for going along with S.H.I.E.L.D.; while she, like Barton, is one of the weakest links in the Avengers, she’s still capable enough to hold her own against the Chitauri…for a time, at least.
Barton, who is only referred to as Hawkeye once in the film, spends most of the movie under Loki’s command (though this does harken back to his comic book beginnings as a villain); as a result, all we know about him is the few bits and pieces Natasha reveals about their relationship and their background. However, we do get to see him in action on more than one occasion; he’s a crack shot, almost to superhuman levels, and is able to bring down an entire Helicarrier with a single, well-placed arrow. He is an essential soldier in Loki’s army, offering him insight into Fury’s operation and resources, but is also able to provide the Avengers with key information regarding Loki after Natasha literally knocks some sense into him. He proves himself capable enough in the finale by providing much needed and peerless cover from a high vantage point, from which he is able to take out multiple Chitauri with a few well-aimed shots. He’s easily the least developed of all the characters thanks to the role he plays in the film but it works for the plot and means we’re left wanting to know more about him and his backstory. Fury plays a much larger role in this film than in the previous MCU movies since he’s a pivotal supporting character rather than a mere cameo; he believes that Loki represents a very real threat to humanity but also believes wholeheartedly in the concept of heroes and the ability of the Avengers Initiative to combat Loki’s threat.
Fury opposes the World Security Council when they dismiss the Avengers as a legitimate solution and when they order a nuclear strike on New York which, along with his own brand of snark and dry wit, makes him a rebellious and layered character in his own right. However, he’s also a secretive and manipulative individual, constantly telling everyone only as much as they need to know and a handful of half-truths (as Stark says: “Fury’s secrets have secrets!”) and believes in having contingencies against any and all possible threats, both foreign and domestic. While he doesn’t fight alongside the Avengers in the final battle, he’s crucial to their formation and is a charismatic and alluring figurehead for their group. Sadly, this was as prominent as Fury would be for some time, with him quickly going back to being either a cameo or supporting character over the years, which is a shame as it’s always great to see Samuel L. Jackson in the role and interacting with these characters. Similarly, Coulson also gets much more screen time and development this time around; still acting as Fury’s go-to and the liaison between S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Avengers, Coulson (whose first name is revealed to be “Phil” rather than just “Agent”) is the relatable man among Gods, the common thread that links all of these volatile personalities together. Initially, all they really have in common beyond their heroic tendencies is their relationship with Coulson, with Stark having the closest link to him and Coulson being especially in awe of Cap, his hero and idol, and Coulson’s death is both sudden and heartbreakingly brutal. It’s a fantastic moment that serves to galvanise and motivate the them and, as much as I’ve enjoyed some episodes and seasons of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013 to 2020), it did annoy me that his dramatic death was undone so soon after the film’s release. Thankfully, the MCU movies don’t acknowledge Coulson’s resurrection so his tragic death remains the principal motivating factor behind the coming together of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.
The Nitty-Gritty: Considering the large cast of bombastic, unique characters and actors, Avengers Assemble is fantastically well paced; sure, Natasha and, especially, Barton don’t get anywhere near as much screen time or development as established guys like Cap or Stark but they get several character defining moments and character beats that help to keep them relevant and integral to the plot. The film isn’t full of non-stop action but it never feels slow or like it’s wasting time; any time there isn’t some kind of physical conflict, there’s a conflict of character, beliefs, or ideologies as each of the characters interacts with each other in different ways. The central conflict in the film is between the individual Avengers as much as it is with Loki as each one must learn how to interact and co-operate with the other, which leads to some friction between Rogers and Stark, disdain from the God-like Thor, and distrust from the understandably agitated Banner.
This all comes to a head in one of the film’s most intense moments where the fledgling Avengers argue over Fury’s manipulations, the threat each of them oppose, and their conflicting egos in a scene that is easily as powerful as any of the film’s fight scenes. Here, each character talks and argues over each other; lots of fingers are pointed, egos are bruised, and accusations are made thanks to the influence of Loki’s spear, which exacerbates their most negative aspects and fuels the distrust and tension between the group. It’s an amazingly realised scene, with lots of dynamic camera work on offer and allows the characters to vent their frustrations and concerns about each other, the mission, and the inevitable escalation of conflict that threatens Earth now that it has experienced otherworldly threats and, in it, these conflicting personalities actually grow stronger as a result of their brutal honesty.
However, amidst this, there are also numerous amusing little moments that help to add to the film’s levity and develop each character: Rogers handing Fury a $10 bill after being awe-struck by the Helicarrier, Stark pointing out that one of the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents is playing Galaga (Namco, 1981), Thor’s humiliation regarding Loki’s actions and heritage, and Banner’s flashes of anger all help to make the characters real and relatable. One of the best examples of this is Cap’s confrontation with Loki in which he, despite being “out of time”, recognises Loki’s evil and potential threat and openly opposes him just as he did a similar dictator in World War Two and engages him in combat despite Loki’s clear physical advantage over him. Cap’s whole character is that he continues to fight no matter the odds and that is continuously seen in Avengers Assemble as, even when outclassed or outnumbered, he continues to get back up and go on with the fight until it’s done, one way or another, and fails to give in to intimidation from concepts beyond his time such as Gods, aliens, and advanced technology.
Their interactions with each other are equally impressive, with the heroes just as likely to come to blows as they are to work together; this means we get to see these bright, colourful costumed characters fighting with each other as much as alongside each other. Iron Man fights with Thor, Cap joins in to make it a triple threat, Black Widow fights with Hawkeye, and Thor memorably goes toe-to-toe with the Hulk to set up a friendly rivalry that would be fantastically revisited in Thor: Ragnarok (Waititi, 2017). It’s a staple of superhero team-ups that the heroes simply must fight at least once and Avengers Assemble delivers on this in spades; we’ve watched each of these characters in their own films, or be involved in other MCU films, over the years so to see them match wits, trade blows, and fight together is a true fanboy’s delight.
The finale is little more than a battle against mindless, indistinguishable alien hoards who, conveniently, operate in a hive mind and are “easily” shut down by Stark tossing a nuclear weapon at their mothership. I honestly expected a version of the Masters of Evil for the first Avengers movie, with Loki joining forces with Johann Schmidt/The Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) outside of the Realms and then teaming up with Emil Blonsky/The Abomination (Tim Roth) and/or Samuel Sterns/The Leader (Tim Blake Nelson) once they reach Earth for a smaller scale, six on six style team vs. team movie and, in some ways, it is a bit disappointing that the Avengers only went up against one villain and an army of drones but it really works in the film since the entire point of the movie is to bring these volatile characters together. The actual antagonist could have be anyone or anything and it wouldn’t really matter but it being Loki works wonders thanks to Tom Hiddleston’s iconic performance; he’s truly a snake in the grass, a wily, manipulative, vindictive villain who is intelligent and cruel enough to match wits with each of the Avengers both physically and vocally and the only previous villain I could see being able to do anywhere hear as good a job would be Hugo Weaving.
One issue I have though is that, as much as I loved the “Avengers Assemble!” scene we eventually got, I still don’t get why we couldn’t have heard that iconic cry during that awesome panning shot of the team standing back-to-back. I think we definitely could have heard this cry in each of the team-up films and appearances of the group and it wouldn’t have taken away from that impactful scene; if anything, it would have added to it since it would be a rallying cry for the reunited heroes. Still, the Battle for New York is amazing in its scope; the Chitauri may be interchangeable alien drones but they are relentless. The Avengers are able to combat them and easily defeat them but their numbers are legion and, apparently, inexhaustible and it isn’t long before they are overwhelmed even with the might of Thor and the Hulk. The Chitauri’s larger reinforcements and advanced weaponry and sheer numbers mean that it is simply a matter of time before the Avengers, for all their power, are overwhelmed and Loki is successful, meaning that the Avengers’ main concern is holding the line and keeping the invasion at bay while their team mates confront Loki and cut off the source of the invasion. All throughout the film, Loki converses with “The Other” (Alexis Denisof) and is clearly being given power and resources from an unseen third party, revealed at the very end of the film to be none other than Thanos (Damion Poitier). At the time, we could never have anticipated the extent to Thanos’s threat and importance to the MCU but the bringing together of cosmic characters like Asgardians and threats like the Chitauri and Thanos only hinted at how large and varied the MCU was destined to become.
The Summary: Avengers Assemble is still one of the biggest and most entertaining movies in the MCU and, perhaps, ever made. Of all the movies in the MCU’s first phase, it’s easily my favourite and, for me, set the standard not just for subsequent MCU team-up movies but for every film in the MCU going forward. No longer were these characters going to exist in their own isolated bubble; they would interact with their fellow characters, reference the larger world we finally saw in all its glory, and be part of something much bigger and greater than a series of self-contained films.
For me, this is the greatest appeal of the MCU; before Iron Man, superhero films were always solo affairs and we never saw heroes interact with each other. Thanks to the MCU, all of that changed and, finally, the movies came to resemble the comics by having a shared universe that has a tight continuity and an actual tangible, long-term plan. The film is alive with character moments, an amusing dry wit, and action-packed sequences but, as thrilling as the bombastic fight scenes can be, it’s all the little interactions and interpersonal conflicts that really make this film so entertaining and appealing to me even to this day.
Rating: 5 out of 5.
What are your thoughts on Avengers Assemble? How do you feel it holds up now that the MCU has become this massive, multimedia juggernaut? Were you disappointed that the film focused solely on the one villain and side-lined Hawkeye with a mind control sub-plot or were you satisfied with Hiddleston’s performance and the interpersonal conflicts between the characters? Which of the Avengers is your favourite and which of the comic’s characters are you excited to learn more about or see join the team? Which of the MCU movies, shows, or characters is your favourite and why? How are you celebrating National Superhero Day today? Whatever your thoughts, leave a comment below and be sure to stick around for more superhero and comic book content throughout the year.
Superheroes may dominate television screens these days, but it all started back in the seventies. Long before the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) took cinemas by storm and drummed up enough cash to sink a small cruise liner, Marvel Comics had ventured into live-action adaptations of their comics books by licensing their properties to studios like CBS and Universal Television. This produced the iconic Incredible Hulk (1977 to 1982) television show that firmly entrenched the Green Goliath in the cultural consciousness and produced tropes that became synonymous with the character for years to come.
However, The Incredible Hulk wasn’t the only live-action adaptation of a Marvel Comics property to be produced in the seventies; in fact, there were so many productions (or, at least, so many Marvel characters) around this time that a version of the MCU can be seen to have existed long before Iron Man (Favreau, 2008) graced cinema screens. So, today, I’m going to take a quick look back at some of these productions and have a chat about the MCU we very nearly saw come together back in the days of Pink Floyd, frayed jeans, and mullets…
As I mentioned, The Incredible Hulk kicked all of this off; starring Bill Bixby as Dr. David Bruce Banner, the show depicted a scientist recklessly experimenting on himself with gamma radiation in a bid to unlock the hidden strength and potential of the human body. When he absorbs too much gamma radiation, moments of stress and anger cause him to transform into the green, bestial Hulk (Lou Ferrigno), a creature of limited intelligence, immense rage, and incredible strength.
Believed dead at the Hulk’s hands, Banner is forced to wander around the country in search of a cure, helping those in need with both his intelligence and the strength of the Hulk when pushed too far, all while being relentlessly pursued by reporter Jack McGee (Jack Colvin). The show was famous for coining the phrase: “Don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry”, which has since become so synonymous with the character that it has appeared in most Hulk adaptations. Equally popular was both Bixby’s portrayal of Banner as a wandering nomad, desperate to cure himself of his alter ego and return to normal life, and Ferrigno’s portrayal of the Hulk (a role that Arnold Schwarzenegger auditioned for and that originally went to mammoth actor Richard Kiel).
Ferrigno has since become so associated with his role as the Hulk that he went on to not only voice the character in the animated Incredible Hulk (1996 to 1997) television series but also collaborated with Mark Ruffalo in voicing the Hulk in the MCU and cameoed in both Hulk (Lee, 2003) and The Incredible Hulk (Leterrier, 2008), a movie that was heavily influenced by the ‘70s television show.
If there’s any downside to the show, and Ferrigno’s performance, it’s that they both popularised the notion that the Hulk is a feral, growling creature rather than a semi-to-impressively articulate individual. While Stan Lee himself may have signed off on this at the time (“I had the Hulk talking like this: “Hulk crush! Hulk get him!” […] that would have sounded so silly if he spoke that way in a television show” (Lee, quoted in Greenberg, 2014: 19 to 26)), I feel this was more a case of Lee signing off on anything for the licensing revenue. This portrayal even carried over into the MCU, where the Hulk was capable of rudimentary speech (one or two growling lines here and there) but did not properly articulate until Thor: Ragnarok (Waititi, 2017); to compare, Bradley Cooper was snarking up cinema screens as Rocket Raccoon in Guardians of the Galaxy (Gunn, 2014) before Hulk was allowed to properly talk.
In any case, The Incredible Hulk ran for eighty episodes before finally coming to an end on 12 May 1982. Banner’s adventures, however, continued in the made-for-television film The Incredible Hulk Returns (Corea, 1988). While the TV show shied away from including any Marvel characters aside from Banner and the Hulk, much less his fellow Marvel cohorts, The Incredible Hulk Returns featured two of the most unlikely inclusions you could imagine given the show’s relatively rounded approach to its source material. After successfully suppressing the Hulk for two years, Banner’s idyllic life is turned upside down when an old student of his, Donald Blake (Steve Levitt), seeks him out. Right as Banner is on the cusp of finalising a potential cure in the Gamma Transponder machine, Blake reveals that he discovered an enchanted hammer in Norway that, upon his command, releases the mighty immortal warrior Thor (Eric Kramer) from Valhalla.
When Thor upsets Banner, he briefly battles with the Hulk and damages Banner’s the Gamma Transponder, but the two (three, I guess) are forced to work together to stop criminals from stealing Banner’s research and harming his life interest, Dr. Margaret Shaw (Lee Purcell). In the end, while Shaw is rescued, Banner is forced to destroy a vital component to the Gamma Transponder and, with the Hulk’s presence catching McGee’s attention, promptly returns to the road to seek out a new cure for himself. When I was a kid, I never got the chance to watch The Incredible Hulk, so one of my first exposures to it was with The Incredible Hulk Returns, which I found to be hugely enjoyable largely because of the thrill of seeing the Hulk in live-action and the banter between Blake and Thor. Rather than transforming into Thor, as in the comics, Blake instead brings Thor forth with the hammer and is charged with guiding him in life and in the fulfilment of a number of heroic deeds so he can take his place at Odin’s side in Valhalla. It’s absolutely mental, especially as a continuation of the TV show, but Kramer is so much fun as the loud-mouthy, arrogant, meat-headed Thor that you can’t help but smile when he’s onscreen, especially when he’s drinking and fighting in a bar or battling with (and alongside) the Hulk.
I said I never really watched the show but, in truth, my first ever exposure to the Bixby and Ferrigno team was the follow-up movie, The Trial of the Incredible Hulk (Bixby, 1989), in which Banner, now a desolate soul who’s lost all hope, wanders into a city and, after disrupting a mugging on an underground train, is wrongfully imprisoned. As luck would have it, his appointed attorney is none other than Matt Murdock (Rex Smith), a blind lawyer who also patrols the streets at night as the black-clad vigilante Daredevil. Murdock is pursuing evidence against Wilson Fisk (John Rhys-Davies), an entrepreneur whom Murdock (rightfully) believes is a dangerous crime boss. While Banner is content to stay safely locked up in jail, the idea of being put on trial causes him to Hulk out and, eventually, team up with Murdock/Daredevil in bringing Fisk to justice.
The Trial of the Incredible Hulk is notable for a couple of reasons; it features Stan Lee’s first-ever live-action cameo in a Marvel production, it heavily adapts elements of Frank Miller’s iconic run on the Daredevil comics, and the titular trial only actually takes place in a nightmare Banner has while imprisoned. Nevertheless, Rhys-Davies is exceptional as Fisk; he’s never referred to as the Kingpin onscreen but that doesn’t stop him being a cool, calculating puppet master of a villain; his eventual escape (in a God-damn rocket ship!) is a loose end that was never tied up as the final TV movie, The Death of the Incredible Hulk (Bixby, 1990), chose to bring an end to the Incredible Hulk series and did not feature any additional Marvel characters.
Hulk wasn’t the only one to get his own live-action TV show though; after the feature-length pilot, Spider-Man(Swackhamer, 1977), proved popular, Marvel’s web-head got his own thirteen episode series in the form of The Amazing Spider-Man (1977 to 1979). In addition, episodes of the show were edited (“cobbled”, is probably a better word) together into two made-for-television movies, Spider-Man Strikes Back (Statlof, 1978) and Spider-Man: The Dragon’s Challenge (ibid, 1981), both of which (along with the pilot) are the only exposure to this show I’ve had. The Amazing Spider-Man starred Nicholas Hammond as Peter Parker (with the show’s stunt co-ordinator, Fred Waugh, taking the role of Spider-Man, which was pretty obvious given their wildly contrasting size and builds) and, if you thought that this show took more from the source material than The Incredible Hulk then you’re going to be woefully disappointed.
Jonah Jameson (played by both David White and Robert F. Simon) featured quite prominently but Robbie Robertson (Hilly Hicks) and Peter’s Aunt May (Jeff Donnell) only appeared in the pilot episode and, though Spidey tussled with hypnotists, terrorists, and gangs, he never once butted heads with any of his colourful rogues gallery. Spidey (and Parker) also initially ran afoul of Police Captain Barbera (played with gruff, loveable glee by Michael Pataki), but this character was sadly dropped for the show’s second season. The Amazing Spider-Man was an ambitious project, especially for the seventies; Spider-Man is a character who requires a lot of effects and stunt work to pull off correctly and is arguably far more dependent on modern computer effects than the likes of even the Hulk. As a result, while the show featured an incredibly faithful recreation of Spidey’s origin, costume, and web shooters and did its best to portray Spidey’s wall-crawling and web-slinging through wires, pulleys, and other camera tricks, the show always came across as being far more absurd than its Universal counterpart.
There was more to come from Universal Television, however, as they also produced a Dr. Strange (DeGuere, 1978) made-for-television movie that featured Peter Hooten in the title role (I guess Tom Selleck was unavailable…) and Jessica Walter as Morgan Le Fay. This one’s especially obscure and many have probably never heard of or seen it; it actually got a DVD re-release in 2016, coincidentally around the same time as Doctor Strange (Derrickson, 2016) was released in cinemas. Interestingly, Stephen Strange is portrayed as a psychiatrist rather than a physician and stumbles into his destiny as the Sorcerer Supreme when Le Fay possesses one of his patients, Clea Lake (Eddie Benton). The movie also featured other recognisable faces from the source material, such as Wong (Clyde Kusatsu) and the Ancient One (Michael Ansara), which is already a bit of a leg up on the Hulk and Spider-Man outings.
What scuppered Dr. Strange, though, was, again, the fact that it was produced at a time when special effects simply were not up to the task of doing the character justice. It also didn’t help that the film was criticised for being overly long and boring and lacking any real urgency. In all honesty, there really isn’t much to see here that’s worth you rushing out to watch except the novelty of seeing a C-list character like Strange get a live-action movie well before his time.
CBS also had one another Marvel character to offer the seventies; Captain America (Holcomb, 1979) brought the star-spangled Avenger to life on television screens and…dear Lord, is this a sight to behold! Reb Brown starred as Steve Rogers, a former marine-turned-artist living in the present day whose patriotic father was known as “Captain America”. After he’s nearly killed by an attempt on his life, he’s inexplicably chosen to be administered with the super-serum F.L.A.G. (Full Latent Ability Gain), which turns him into a superhuman. He then decks himself out in a horrendous version of the Captain America costume and takes to the streets on a modified super-cycle so massively over-the-top with gadgets and features than even K.I.T.T. would blush!
Luckily, by the end and the sequel, Captain America II: Death Too Soon (Nagy, 1979), Rogers adopts a more faithful version of the costume and uses his abilities to oppose the plans of General Miguel (inexplicably played by Christopher Lee!), who desires to create a dangerous chemical. I’m actually far more familiar with the equally-lambasted Captain America (Pyun, 1990), which is still a guilt pleasure of mine. Nevertheless, both films were released on DVD and, while Dr. Strange was lost to the mists of time and obscurity, these films appear to have at least partially influenced the MCU as Cap (Chris Evans) does favour a motorcycle (but, to be fair, so did the comics Cap…).
Both The Incredible Hulk Returns and The Trial of the Incredible Hulk introduced Thor and Daredevil with the intention of setting them up for spin-off shows of their own but, for a variety of reasons, this never came to be and that’s a bit of a shame. Smith is no Charlie Cox but, while his Murdock was quite dull and boring, he gave a pretty good turn as Daredevil and it would probably have been easier and far cheaper to produce a Daredevil TV show than a Hulk or even Thor one. Similarly, I love the portrayal of Thor in Trial; sure, he doesn’t look or act anything like his Marvel Comics counterpart, but it could have been pretty fun to see him tossing fools around, getting into bar fights, and learning lessons in humility on an episodic basis. One thing that is equally unfortunate about all this is that the inclusion of Thor and Daredevil really took a lot of the focus off of Banner and the Hulk; sure, in the show, he was often a supporting player in a bigger story and other character’s lives, but these movies devoted so much of their runtime to pushing and establishing their new characters that it’s easy to forget that Banner and Hulk are even in them. The Death of the Incredible Hulk rectified this, but at the cost of killing both characters off in what was, while emotional (as a child, anyway), probably the lamest way imaginable.
Unfortunately, there hasn’t been much love shown to The Amazing Spider-Man over the years; it’s never been released on home media outside of a few VHS tapes and, while Hammond appears to have been the basis for Parker’s design in the Spider-Man (1994 to 1998) animated series, he’s never returned to the character or the franchise again, not even for a quick cameo or a voice role (though I’m hoping the sequel to Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Persichetti, Ramsey, and Rothman, 2018) will rectify that). Interestingly enough, there were apparently talks in 1984 to produce a movie that would see Spider-Man cross paths with Banner and the Hulk, with Spidey even donning the black costume during the film. There were, apparently, also talks of an additional made-for-television Hulk movie, The Revenge of the Incredible Hulk, which would have seen Banner (somehow) revived and forced to recreate the accident that turned him into the Hulk (or be reborn as the Hulk with Banner’s intellect, depending on what you read) but neither of these ideas ever came to fruition and were ultimately halted when Bixby sadly died in 1993.
However, none of this changes the fact that, sometime around 1978 to 1979, there were all these Marvel characters running around on television screens at about the same time, all produced by two studios and, in some cases, airing on the same networks. What this effectively means, then, is that it’s easy to imagine an alternative world where negotiations never broke down and the shows and movies proved popular enough for Spider-Man to crossover with the Hulk and, by extension, interact with Thor and Daredevil. So, what if…? What if there were a threat so big, so far beyond petty street crooks and one-note villains that these heroes would be forced to band together? Dr. Strange was heavily steeping in magic and mysticism, which was already (however unfitting) be proven to be a part of The Incredible Hulk’s world; hell, even The Amazing Spider-Man dabbled in the paranormal at times.
Perhaps the threat would involve Fisk waging a war against Daredevil and all costumed heroes? The city is never named in The Incredible Hulk Returns but it could easily be New York City, the same New York City that Spider-Man swings around in. Perhaps this would be a chance to do a supervillain team-up, of sorts, between Fisk and Le Fay or to introduce other classic Marvel villains, such as Loki and the Red Skull. I would have loved to have worked Nick Fury (David Hasselhoff) into this imaginary Marvel team-up but it’s difficult to do that seeing as Bixby died in 1993 and Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Hardy, 1998) didn’t release until 1998 but what if…? What if Bixby hadn’t suffered from cancer, or had beaten the disease and Banner had been resurrected in The Revenge of the Incredible Hulk? Perhaps we would have seen a version of the Professor Hulk or Grey Hulk personas, one that merged the brawn and the strength together, and Fury could have banded these heroes together to fight a common enemy.
Personally, though, I would have preferred to see Banner and Hulk as they were portrayed in the television series; Bixby would have been the veteran actor who held this team up together and I would have limited his Hulk outs to two or three occurrences. Have him be the team’s moral compass, the hesitant advisor who learns to reconcile with his enraged alter ego through working with the other heroes. Murdock, as the older of the two, could have also acted as a kind of mentor to Spider-Man as the two are often portrayed as friends in the comics and have a lot in common with their “everyman” approach to super heroism. While the effects would not have allowed us to properly see the two swing across the New York rooftops, I think they could have cobbled together enough to produce some semi-decent, maybe even slightly acrobatic, fight scenes between the two.
You’d obviously think that Captain America would be the natural leader of this group but, remember, this isn’t the war-tested superhero we all know and love and I am not proposing an Avengers movie; Brown’s Cap is more of a secret agent, an enhanced super soldier who hasn’t nearly a fraction of the combat experience that Cap is usually known for. Because of that, I’d imagine him as the public face of the group and (in the absence of S.H.I.E.LD.), a source of the group’s intelligence resources. Perhaps Cap prefers to work alone and he has to learn to work with a group, rather than tackling everything head-on.
Instead, I’d have Doctor Strange be the de facto leader of the team by virtue of his age and power as the Sorcerer Supreme. His arc, perhaps, would have revolved around him needing to shift his focus from the bigger picture to factoring in the smaller issues that his peers face on a daily basis, effectively making himself both a public figure of the superhero community and improving his interpersonal skills. And then there’s Thor (and Blake, of course); Thor would be the group’s hot-headed jock, the guy who runs in, hammer swinging, trying to fix every problem with brute strength. This team up would be the perfect opportunity to teach Thor proper humility, to accept that he must work alongside mortals and lead by example rather than being a blundering buffoon. While he learned some of this in The Incredible Hulk Returns, it was clear that there was more to tell with his story and, perhaps, this team up and his learning of humility would be the final heroic act that would earn him his place in Valhalla, allowing Blake to, however sorrowfully, begin his life anew.
In the end, for as hokey and cringe-worthy as a lot of these seventies Marvel shows were, it does disappoint me that we never got, at least, to see Spider-Man, Hulk, and Banner crossover onscreen. There was a lot to like about each of these, from the impressively realised costumes to the heart-felt emotion, to even the woeful action scenes and I would honestly have loved to see all of these characters come together to battle a common enemy. What do you think about Marvel’s television show and movies from the seventies? Do you have fond memories of The Incredible Hulk? Do you also wish that The Amazing Spider-Man would get a release on DVD? Perhaps you hated the monotony and ridiculousness of these shows. Whatever your opinion, leave a comment below and get in touch.
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