With their “Phase One” complete, Marvel (and now Disney) had opened up a cinematic sandbox to play in. A world of heroes was established, now they had to expand. Just not too quickly.
Their first order of business in 2013 was to bring back Iron Man for one more (last?) solo effort. With Jon Favreau preoccupied (and likely a bit tired of creation by committee) RDJ would go to bat for Shane Black as director of choice.
While Iron Man is credited with Downey’s return to greatness, it was actually Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang from writer/director Shane Black that kick started it. It wasn’t a runaway hit, but it definitely made a lot of people stand up and take notice again. Unfortunately it didn’t have the same effect for one-time-Batman Val Kilmer.
Iron Man 3 is, for my money, the strongest overall effort of that specific franchise. Seeing Stark come to terms with his humanity and his own genius, it’s also an action-packed thrill ride. Unfortunately it bastardizes another well regarded Iron Man story, Extremis, and adds in the Mandarin. Though I’ll happily admit to loving that little twist. Ben Kingsley and Guy Pearce are fun as the two baddies, and Don Cheadle really comes into his own as Rhodey. It’s almost the perfect definition of popcorn fare, and it doesn’t need to apologize for it.
Their other release for 2013 is Phase Two’s biggest failure, Thor: The Dark World.
With it came a sort of nervous tension that Marvel wasn’t going to be able to land any of its second bites. And with Captain America and The Avengers both looming, that wasn’t something any fanboy wanted.
Still, the Thor sequel is not without its bits of excellence. Hemsworth can’t help but be charming, and most of the supporting players are just as fun (or more so) here than in the first film. Natalie Portman seems to have completely lost interest, and the wedging of the Darcy and Erik characters into the narrative is just annoying. The best performance of the film, however, is Tom Hiddleston’s Loki. He’s always been a complicated antagonist, but leaning him towards protagonist here adds another layer. And the way he deals with the death of Frigga (and the way the film visually portrays it) is more heartbreaking than maybe any other moment in the MCU.
In the end, the biggest flaws of the MCU were laid out in the open once again. One-note villains, paper thin plots and a movie that relies more on charm than skill. Director Alan Taylor, who had a solid run directing TV (including several Game of Thrones episodes) was maybe hamstrung by the same things that tripped up other MCU directors, but I think his inexperience in movies didn’t help much either.
Then, in 2014 Marvel would see two of its biggest gambles pay off in the most tremendous way.
Coming in to Captain America: The Winter Soldier, directors Joe and Anthony Russo had two films under their belt, Welcome to Collinwood, an underrated gem, and You, Me and Dupree, the complete opposite of that. In between those two films the had established themselves as excellent episodic directors, specifically in the comedy world. With Arrested Development, Community, and Happy Endings in their resume, they somehow landed the task of changing the MCU forever.
There is one bad thing to say about The Winter Soldier, and that’s the spoiler that is its title. Years before Ed Brubaker and a host of artists had crafted the return of Bucky Barnes as the Winter Soldier in grand fashion on the comic page. While readers got to see the mystery play out (and not in the way it does on film), they walked in to the movie knowing that tidbit already.Then the Russo’s (as well as MCU scripting stalwarts Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeeley) proved that didn’t matter at all.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier would quickly become the crown jewel in the Marvel crown. Proof that these superhero films could be far more than adolescent male power fantasies (not my argument; I’d tell those folk to see Spider-Man 2, X2 and The First Avenger). They planted these characters in a world that wasn’t always going to be black and white, and where what was moral wouldn’t always be considered right.
They also gave us Black Widow, a character that up until this film was nothing but a placeholder at best and eye candy at worst. Johannson owns every moment she’s on screen. Anthony Mackie instantly became a brilliant edition to the MCU as Sam Wilson, and his relationship with Steve is pitch perfect, as if it stepped off the page.
Much like the first Avengers film, there’s so much here I still cannot believe came to fruition that it’s hard to focus on them individually. It’s a damn near perfect film. Also, Robert Redford!
But like I said, it was only the first gamble of the year for Marvel. The second was much bigger. In fact, every single thing about Guardians of the Galaxy was a gamble.
An obscure comic book property that featured no nameable characters, two of which were a talking raccoon and a nearly mute tree, and it’s set in space. It’s the kind of movie VHS rental empires were built on, except Marvel and Disney were going to spend $170 million making it.
Who do you get to bring it to life? Well, James Gunn of course. A guy whose biggest hits were the live-action Scooby-Doo films, and he didn’t direct those. Like so many of their chances, this one has a logic that actually makes sense when you look at it. The movie needed to be fun, accessible and have the slightest bit of pathos. Gunn had built a solid writing career on the first two, and his only two films to date, Slither and Super certainly had the last bit. Add in the fact that he studied at the heels of Lloyd Kaufman (of Troma legend), and he was actually a solid choice. Just not the sexy one.
So, they had to cast huge. First, get the schlubby goofball from Parks & Recreation, Chris Pratt. Add in pro wrestler Dave Bautista and perpetual “hey, it’s that guy!” Michael Rooker, and you’ve got a head scratching start to a giant budgeted film. In fact, going it its two biggest on-screen stars were Zoe Saldana, fresh off the Star Trek reboot, and Glenn Close, who plays a small but important role. Karen Gillen was coming off a solid run on Doctor Who, but still relatively unknown outside geek culture, and you add in a few more of “those guys!” actors like John C. Reilly, Lee Pace and Peter Serafinowicz and then mix. The final touches would wind up being THE biggest stars of the film, in every possible way you can perceive the statement; Bradley Cooper as Rocket and Vin Diesel as Groot.
The resulting product is one I’ve struggled the most with in the MCU.
I want to love this movie, but its goofier elements (ones I should have known would be there given the creators) often trip me up. The prison section remains one of the most fun pieces in any MCU movie, but for every great moment like it there’s a “dance-off” counter point. It brings Thanos firmly into the MCU, but manages to make Ronan look like a buffoon, it gives us the Nova Corps but treats them as mostly cannon fodder, we get a specific and interesting glimpse into the bigger cosmic universe, but rather than give us one of those character we get Peter-is-a-god to solve everything. And while it has probably the most fun opening segment in all of the films, it has probably the most disappointing ending of any of the MCU films to date.
But luckily my opinion was not that of the rest of the world. It became the third biggest hit of the year, grossing over $770 million worldwide (The Hobbit would surpass it, technically released the same year at Christmas, and somehow Transformers: Age of Extinction made $1 billion). And while I still shrug my shoulders at a good deal of it, it makes me happy to know that almost everyone else loved it.
That left two more to round out Marvel’s second phase, Age of Ultron and Ant-Man.
The Avengers sequel was nearly a no-brainer, coming after the upheaval of the MCU that was Winter Soldier, we saw the team operating as a whole, working to wipe out what remained of Hydra and becoming global “symbols,” rather than just right-place-right-time heroes. But that couldn’t last. If Winter Soldier proved one thing it was that these characters work best when things aren’t so crystal clear.
It introduces plenty of new characters, but most importantly it brings us The Scarlet Witch and Vision, two characters that embody that sentiment as well as any others. Both designed and molded for evil purposes, manipulated by the people/things they trust and forced to draw their own lines in the sand. Their stories are what truly drive this movie for me.
It’s exploration of how security often lies in ignorance (a theme the Cap films definitely touched on) and how we’re so often our own worst enemies (something touched on in the Iron Man movies) are important to what the MCU needed to become. Like almost every one of its predecessors, it’s not anywhere close to a perfect film, but it has so many perfect moments that it’s easy to forgive the flaws.
Then, finally, we have Ant-Man, the little-engine-that-could of superhero films.
Marred by repeated delays in production, a complete overhaul of the creative team (I’ll let you look up all the crazy details) and an “I don’t care” attitude from the comic book fans, it was set to be Marvel’s first true failure. But somehow it succeeded anyway.
In fact, outside of the Captain America films, I think Ant-Man is the most cohesive movie in the MCU. Sure, it also suffers from the same-but-bad villain, but it has a driving force that nearly anyone can get behind. It’s about a guy who did the right thing and was punished for it, and now he’s trying to prove he can be the father his daughter needs. Except his pesky moral compass pulls him back into doing the right thing in the completely wrong way.
Paul Rudd is brilliantly funny and every bit as charismatic as the MCU’s hunky leads. Evangeline Lilly is a fun foil to his immaturity, and Michael Douglas is having a blast playing Scott’s mentor. The supporting players do exactly what supporting roles are supposed to due, and though Michael Pena does steal the occasional scene, it’s the story that really keeps you invested in the movie.
The original promise of Marvel’s “Phases” was that every one of them would end with an Avengers film, and they almost immediately broke that mold. No film was more perfect for that than Ant-Man. Even though it is effects-laden, it’s an excellent demonstration of (pardon the pun) less is more. The consequences can be global, but the motivation can be just to save their own world, not the whole world. We got a brief glimpse at that with Hawkeye in Age of Ultron, and it became fully realized in Marvel’s final film of Phase Two.
To be concluded…