Monday, April 30, 2018

The Children of Generation X, Part 4: A Spoilers-Laden Look at Avengers: Infinity War

Just in case the title didn't clue you in, this review contains massive honking spoilers and should not be read until you've seen Avenger: Infinity War. Or, unless Jeff from the office blabbed everything on social media and you've thrown up your hands in disgust. This, by the way, is why you don't get invited to Trivia Night, Jeff. You've got no filter. You can't keep your mouth shut. Why do you do that, Jeff? Why?

Okay, given the large amounts of words spent last week on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it seemed weird to not discuss part one of its ten-year culmination. I outlined my thesis in Part 1, talked about what I liked about the MCU in Part 2, and threw some non-critical caveats around in Part 3. How does it all stack up against this movie?

Spoilers ahead!

Thursday, April 26, 2018

The Children of Generation X, Part 3: How to Get Along with Your New Step-Dad

Part 1 is here.
Part 2 is here.

So, here we are, on the eve of Avenger: Infinity War. The culmination of the entire MCU to date. Except, it really isn’t it. It’s the first half of the culmination, right? The movie is a two-parter, with a minimum of two guaranteed cliffhangers in the middle, and potentially two or three more. Everyone (and I do mean everyone) online with any kind of media presence or any kind of click-bait site is wildly speculating about who is going to live, and who is going to die, and what it all means, and will they, and won’t they, or what they have already gotten wrong, or what they likely will get wrong, and blah blah blah blah blah. It's tempting to start clicking and reading, but please don't. Not until you hear me out. I don't know much, but I know these things to be true, and they will help you with your tossing and turning at night. Here’s what you all need to know before you get your knickers in a twist: 

The deal with Fox isn’t done, yet. They have a lot to work out and it may not all go through. It may be only partially go through. But we don’t really know (and won’t know) until 2019 when the courts decide how much of Fox’s Intellectual Property Disney gets to acquire. That will affect a lot of things, such as how much more money they can dangle in front of Downey, Jr., Evans, and Hemsworth to stay on for one more movie. Everyone has a boat payment to make. Everyone is for sale.

It ain’t over ‘til it’s over. With apologies to Yogi Berra, this movie is only the first half of the film. We have to wait a whole year to really see the entire 5-hour megamovie. And while I’m very excited to see what they came up with, I also know it’s going to end just when things are at their most bleak. So, there’s no way I’m pinning all of my hopes and dreams on this movie—and neither should you.

The Infinity Gauntlet Reshapes Reality. In other words, not only does this first movie not really matter (because whatever gets done can get undone later), but whoever puts on the gauntlet gets to reset the clock and dial it all back to zero. Or not. Or somewhere in-between. We won’t know how the MCU shakes out until 2019. A year away. Why do you think they’ve been so tight-lipped about what movies come next? It’s because they don’t know.

Until the suits sit down in a boardroom with a bunch of lawyers, and all of the contracts are negotiated, there is zero point in speculating about what comes next, who lives, who dies, and how it all ends up. Anything can happen. But it’ll happen legally first, and then get handed down by the studio: “This is what you have to work with. Make it work.” And I’m sure Feige will do what he did the first time around. He’ll make lemonade out of lemons if he has to. At best, I’m betting he’s got a few contingency plans mapped out. But they don’t get to pick them until the courts sign off on Disney’s acquisition. Fan-Nattering online is just that. Just say no to the clickbait speculation sites. 

This isn’t about comics anymore. When you kvetch, write a letter, or even tweet your displeasure, you’re not talking to an editor and a creative team. You’re talking to a cavalcade of accountants and lawyers in suits, all of whom do not care about this material in the slightest beyond what its earning potential is for the company. Always remember that, and you’ll see how meaningless the online chatter really is.

As much as no one is talking about it, this franchise does not exist creatively any more. It exists as intellectual property belonging to a megalithic corporation specializing in global entertainment, brand name recognition, and the most savvy and targeted marketing strategies in the world. That’s Disney. That’s who they are. And what comes later in Phase 4 and Phase 5 and on down the road will be negotiated by lawyers in suits, with contracts, and licensing. It’s just how it is, now. I don’t want to think about it, but the best part of the MCU may well be over and done with. I hope not, but I’m not na├»ve, and you shouldn't be, either.

I’m going to watch Avengers: Infinity War for the spectacle it surely will be. I’m going to appreciate all these great actors in roles I’ve come to love interacting and bouncing off of one another. That’s going to be a lot of fun. And I’m bracing myself for when the movie goes dark, because that’s surely coming, too.

Remember: There's always
Ant-Man and the Wasp!
We cannot judge the movie on its own merits because it’s like turning Casablanca off in the middle of the film and surmising how it’s all going to end. “Oh, looks like Rick and Elsa get back together again! Awesome!” You wouldn’t do that, and you can’t do that. Certainly not to Casablanca, but also to any story. And I don’t think it’ll be possible to evaluate this film until 2019, when we can see it all together in one giant five-hour butt-numbing binge.

Going into the weekend, please take all of this into consideration. Don’t click on every negative review you read. In fact, you can skip the gushing ones, too. You can’t possibly be on the fence about the movie. You’re either going to watch it, or you’re not. Just temper your own expectations down and you’ll be fine. It’ll be worth the price of admission just to see if they can pull off something of this logistical complexity. Given Marvel’s track record, my feeling is that they will.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

The Children of Generation X, Part 2: My Rambling Thoughts on the MCU

Part 1 of this essay is here.

I don’t want to rank these movies for you. What’s the point? You’re just going to incredulously point out that Guardians of the Galaxy should be higher or derisively sneer that Iron Man 3 should be lower. Make your own damn list. Instead, I’m going to talk about my impressions and insights (such as they are) regarding the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies up until now.

In very broad strokes, I liked all of them, and moreso than any of the previous Marvel movies, with a few exceptions, as you’ll see below. This giant-ass list of entertainment media contains only one genuine false start and one really sour note, both of which were recent TV properties. Everything else has been overall quite pleasurable to watch, and as a fan with an understanding of the different storytelling mediums and how they might dictate the way a story is presented, it has been fascinating to watch the MCU origami-fold 35, 50, even 75 years’ worth of stories into the essential beats and elements for a film series. Some things get added, some things get taken away, and many things get re-purposed or streamlined. But the ends have justified the means in nearly every instance.

More to the point, let me say that, judging movie for movie, the MCU movies that I liked the least--out of all of them--I liked way better than I liked Spider-Man 3. Or X-Men: The Last Stand. Or Elektra. Or Daredevil (the Affleck version). Or X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Or all three Fantastic Four movies. So, if you need a barometer by which I'm grading these things on, let the above movies stand as your negative integers. I talked about this clear line of demarcation earlier in the year as part of a long diatribe on Super Hero Fatigue.

The other thing that these movies have done is to create a sub-genre unto themselves: “The Marvel Super Hero Movie.” I know it seems like a thin distinction, but perhaps the best thing that the studio did was to figure out how to translate the Marvel Comics style of storytelling into movies. That now-famous quote from Feige comes to mind about how Captain America: Winter Soldier isn’t a super hero movie; it’s a Cold War spy thriller that just happens to have super heroes in it. That aesthetic going forward, especially in Phase 2 and Phase 3, really set them apart from the Distinguished Competition, who have been trying, with limited success, to replicate their previous successes with Batman and Superman. I say this genuinely and without any acrimony whatsoever, because I love those characters, but Marvel has simply beaten Warner Brothers to the punch in nearly every way—with notable exceptions, like 2017’s fantastic and long overdue Wonder Woman.

Meanwhile, Marvel’s movies have forged complex relationships with one another, fueled by secondary and tertiary plotlines that eventually converge into Avengers movies. We get to see these heroes at their best, and also at their worst, and sometimes, they are more on point in their civilian guises than they are saving the world in their battle suits. Such as always been a key ingredient to the Marvel storytelling formula. Heroes with problems. Relatable, undate-able, and debatable—these guys aren’t always right. They make mistakes, bad calls. Tony Stark in particular has to carry the weight of several Silver Age scientists who screwed up, but Marvel Studio has deftly given Stark an ego the size of Avengers Mansion so he can handle it when he has a mega-setback (like, say, Ultron, for instance). They are Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, and they are also wonderfully broken in the ways that make them fascinating characters to watch. Some of the best scenes in all of the Marvel movies happen with no high-flying punching, just people sitting around a table, talking, or better yet, standing up and arguing.

Finally, this is not necessarily part of their plan, but because of their aggressive schedule it’s worked out in their favor. Having three movies a year gives Marvel a tighter turning radius than other studios and super hero properties. It allows them to make corrections on the fly—relatively speaking—regarding inclusion and representation. I think Marvel has done an excellent job of folding these concerns into the movies and letting them stand on their own merits, rather than asking to be noticed with press releases. More studios could take a page from this practice. Show, don’t tell. Make Shuri from Black Panther a cool character and more people will want to see Shuri again. Because she’s cool, see? It’s not hard to do in a universe where people have lasers coming out of their faces. Make cool characters, and then tell good stories. That’s certainly the Silver Age and Bronze Age ethic from which most of these films are derived.

Here are my talking points and take-aways from the MCU projects, all of which I’ve watched at least twice, and some as many as ten times. Skip over any shows or movies you haven't seen, because I cavalierly discuss plot points that you may not want to know. Spoiler alert. 

Phase 1
We didn’t even know there was a “Phase One” until they started talking about “Phase Two.” Looking back on these early movies, you can readily see that they had an idea in place, even if it look a while longer to get up to speed.

Iron Man
Still very watchable for a number of reasons, most of them related to Robert Downey, Jr.’s brilliant performance of Tony Stark. He carries the movie—he really has to—and comes out of it both better and worse in the end. The suit tech has this veneer of believability to it, like using the repulsors in his gloves to stabilize his flight. And the updating of his origin—while sticking really close to it—was just the thing to bring the fans in. Bonus for the Stan Lee mis-cameo as “Hef.” By 2008, Stan had been in all of the Marvel films from other studios, and so it was a bit overplayed, but Tony mistaking him for Hugh Hefner was very funny.

And it was very cool (at the time, really forward thinking) to use Black Sabbath's "Iron Man" for the closing credits. Stark playing AC/DC and wearing old metal band shirts is another reminder that he's really one of us, the kids from the 1980s, much as the actor himself wasn't much other than we were in those teen comedies he played in.

The Incredible Hulk
I wish this had been Ang Lee’s Hulk movie. What a pleasure it was to not have to sit through the Hulk’s origin (using a montage in the opening credits, borrowed from the TV show of the same name). Let’s just cut to the chase, literally, as Banner’s hiding out in South America and looking for a cure. They threw a lot of stuff into this movie, but the biggest puzzle piece they re-arranged was the idea that Banner was looking for the Super Soldier serum. It was a nice shortcut that served as a dog whistle for comic book fans in the audience—all 40,000 of them—to signify that this was, in fact, the Marvel Universe, just different. A lot of people thought this movie was mindless, but frankly, a lot of Hulk comics were slugfests, too. The movie ends with a teaser about The Leader, but I don’t think we’ll ever see that particular villain until Hulk’s rights gen unentangled from Universal.

And as much as I love Ed Norton, watching Mark Rufalo take over for the Hulk, physically, has been great. His involvement in the character’s arc has been a positive all the way, and I think it’s because he got to play both sides of the character.

Iron Man 2
People frequently list this at the bottom of their Marvel rankings, but it holds up much better the second time around, and in hindsight with what’s gone on since. At the time, a Russian ex-convict being a brilliant computer hacker was stretching the bounds of credulity; but in 2018, it now makes perfect sense. Whiplash was always one of the many B-Grade villains from the Justin Hammer stories, and it was nice to see him re-imagined as a blunt instrument/ex-Soviet terrorist who actually gives Iron Man some trouble.

The best thing about this movie is the introduction of Black Widow. Scarlett Johansson took a cheesecake role and leaned into it, playing the seductress and the ass-kicker with the same aplomb. Later she would get to do more than just pole-swing around a bunch of stuntmen, and this is when her character really takes off. Don Cheadle as Jim Rhodes was another inspired choice, and he’s a much better foil for Downey, Jr. to play off of, and their chemistry is noticeable. Another quick shout-out to Stan Lee being mistaken for Larry King this time around. 

Probably the best decision Marvel made in this period was to make use of good directors with an affinity for the source material. Kenneth Branagh is the unsung hero of the first Thor movie, putting the emphasis on the High Court Drama and inter-family squabbling that is such a rich part of Shakespeare’s plays; his work with the Bard’s body of work is largely what made Branagh’s reputation as a director and an actor. The other best decision, geekily speaking, was giving us a glimpse of Hawkeye, character I never dreamed would be realized in a film.

This movie, I think, is probably the closest to a standard "super hero" movie, a structural hold-over from what had come before. There’s an economy of scale here that drops Thor into a small town in the desert, stripped of his powers, and so of course, the appearance of the Destroyer would seem epic by comparison, only it's not, really, is it. The final scenes felt a little cheap, almost rinky-dink. That’s not to say it’s not a fun movie, mostly because of Hemsworth, but subsequent uses of Thor had the spectacle that was missing from the inaugural outing.

Captain America: The First Avenger
Director Joe Johnston, on the other hand, knocked it out of the park. This is one of my favorite Marvel movies, despite a weak third act, and for one simple reason: this was the only way to do Cap, and it was the first time since the comics themselves in 60+ years that they got it right. Cap starts out scrawny Steve Rogers and takes the Super Soldier serum and bathes in Vita-Rays and out comes Captain America. Dr. Erskine is killed by Nazi saboteurs and Rogers goes on tour as Captain America. But what gets him into the war is the word that Bucky’s unit is captured. So he breaks them free and joins their unit, the Howlin’ Commandos. What’s not to love? It’s a great simplification of the story, and it’s really satisfying to watch Cap kicking Hydra ass with Dum-Dum Dugan. Talk about something I never thought I’d see in my lifetime. Chris Evans is pitch perfect in the role, easily one of my favorite MCU characters, because he is instantly recognizable as his comic book counterpart.

The Avengers
I love this movie, from start to finish. It starts small, gets weird, and then blows up at the end. We go from seeing one-on-one fights and petty bickering—straight out of the Marvel Comics Standard Playbook—to an epic, city-wide battle with civilians scrambling and Avengers as a team, coming together to save the city, and this incredible tableau of fantastic violence that is part of any good Avengers comic.

Joss Whedan knows what makes a good Marvel comic, having written and read a ton of them himself, and easily the best thing he did with the characters was beef up the role of Black Widow. She’s almost like Batman in this first Avengers, solving problems, providing tactical support for the big guns, and in general proving over and over again why she is on the team. Mostly, the movie was proof of concept that not only could super hero movies work, but that they would be accepted by a larger audience. Not just Spider-Man and the X-Men, but a movie with Black Widow and Hawkeye on the team. That idea moved the whole thing forward in a way that Elektra and The Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer never could.

Phase 2
These movies represent a lot of mid-points in various character’s journeys, and while they are perhaps the most uneven of the lot, they still hold up solidly under repeated viewings. Most of the playing pieces were on the table at this point, fueling rampant speculation about Thanos and it was around this time that the concept of “Super Hero Fatigue” first set in. Also, here in Phase 2 is when the Grey Beards in comic book fandom began to speculate that, despite the success of the first set of Marvel movies, they were sure to be upended, hoisted on their own petard, and otherwise in danger of screwing the pooch for bringing “Fill in the blank upcoming movie” onto the big screen.

The one I’m talking about that had everyone doubting the power of Marvel was, of course, Guardians of the Galaxy. Honestly, I thought this would be the one. They’d pushed it too far. Thankfully, I was proven wrong and those characters have become among the most popular in the whole MCU. I was happy to shut my mouth after that, but the Grey Beards, looking for a failure so they could cackle online and say, “See!? I was right all along!” because we are our own worst enemies, they next fixated on Ant-Man and were again proven wrong.

Iron Man 3
I like this movie more than I should, mostly because of director Shane Black. For all of the off-putting weirdness and the misfires of the fake and real villain, Black working with Downey, Jr. is movie gold and this was no exception. Black is not afraid to go cynical, hate on children, and bludgeon Christmas to death as an ironic counterpoint to the horrible things happening in his movies.  Together, they brought Tony’s arc-reactor (see what I did, there?) to a somewhat satisfying conclusion, but left him wide open for future psychic trauma, as we will see. The misuse of the Mandarin was well-handled, meaning, as much as I would have liked to see the guy with ten rings on his fingers that each did something cool, building him as a political propaganda puppet (and explained just so) in the movie was a bold choice, and I think one that worked far better than if they'd grafted an actual Asian into what has since become a highly problematic character. I may be the only Iron Man fan that thinks that way, but let me ask all'a y'all this: would you rather the Unicorn? Remember, Iron Man has some of the dorkiest villains ever committed to pen and ink. Not a lot of primo choices, there.

Thor: The Dark World
I found this the weakest of the three Thor movies, but there are a lot of people who would disagree with me based on a number of reasons that boil down to personal preferences. Regardless, the epic scope of the movie was sufficiently beefed up after The Avengers, and Thor’s mass battle scenes were a lot more satisfying. Leaving most of Asgard on the table and concentrating on Thor and Loki’s relationship was a great choice, and one of the things that saved the movie.

It's not a stretch to suggest that Loki is the most interesting, most well-developed, and most popular villain in the MCU, and easily one of the most popular characters overall in the MCU. Tom Hiddleston and Chris Hemsworth are going to go down as one of the best acting duos in the first three phases. There’s a real rock star quality to the character even as he’s shown failing at more than one scheme. But his role never devolves into comic relief. Loki is too proud for that. This movie was the peak of Loki-mania, and I think this is what saved the movie.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
More than once I have referred to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. as “the Silmarillion of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.” It’s not necessary to consume it to enjoy the main story, but for those who like deep dives into obscure background material, this is that show. What they initially sold as a spy drama with super heroes dropping in quickly pivoted away from that model and became the place to lay out real estate and concepts that they could pick up later in other projects; things like the Kree and the Inhumans. The Darkhold. Ghost Rider (a GOOD Ghost Rider, not a Nick Cage Ghost Rider). All sorts of great things have played out in five seasons. It’s one of my favorite shows on television, but I realize it’s insider baseball for comic book nerds like myself.

Captain America: Winter Soldier
One of the best movies in the MCU, period. The Russo brothers perfectly balanced the Cold War Spy elements with the absurdities of super heroes and shadow organizations. And hey, best of all, we got The Falcon, another one of my favorite Marvel characters. He made a great partner for Cap in the comics and they are able to bond instantly as fellow veterans in the MCU. So simple, so well-done. A great part for Anthony Mackie, one he really seems to enjoy.

Also, Black Widow is all over this movie in a great way, using her Cold War spy stuff to get the upper hand more than once. Oh, and hey—Batroc the Leaper? Are you kidding me? What a cool way to use that iconic and also very stupid character. But I think Robert Redford as the spymaster was the best casting, clearly a more than passing acknowledgement of the Three Days of the Condor elements and another great use of these cool actors. The MCU is for American character actors what the Harry Potter movies were for British character actors.

Guardians of the Galaxy
As I stated earlier, I thought this would be the one that tanked. Mostly because of Rocket Raccoon. But I was wrong, and quite happy to be so. That said, as enjoyable as it is, it’s a little too silly for me at times and I think the humor doesn’t always work. I liked it. But I didn’t love it like how some folks do. Pratt and Saldana are awesome together, and I was glad to see their chemistry build in the second movie.

Still, I feel like this whole movie was Gunn’s audition tape and sizzle reel for making a Howard the Duck movie. That will be great, if they let him do it. Big if. Colossal if. Because Howard the Duck needs almost an R-rated sensibility to do the right way. Otherwise, why make it? 

I suppose part of the popularity of this movie lies in the fact that it’s a one-off. I mean, there’s nothing to connect it to the plots on Earth, save the mutual threat of Thanos. As such, GotG is actually a weird on-ramp to joining the Marvel Cinematic Universe in media res, as it were. Granted, there’s probably only a dozen people in America who made this movie their first MCU film, but I’ll allow it could happen. There are some people, though, who aren’t big into comics and super heroes, but love space-pirate-based Science Fiction, and this movie is certainly SF of the “Pew, Pew” variety. It just happens to have a couple of super heroes (barely functional, but still) in the space pirate movie. If there was ever a need for proof of concept regarding the MCU, it’s this movie, right here.

This was also the first of the Marvel movies to trade on the 1980s nostalgia, another hand-waving sign that Generation X is helming and lensing these movies for the 45-55 year olds in the audience. That’s not to say that 1980s music (really, it’s 1970s music in the movie, but we were listening to it back then, too) isn’t for everyone, but...okay, you know what? It’s not for everyone. But in this case, the songs were a nice counterpoint to the action on the screen, if a touch overdone and in a couple of cases, repurposed.

Marvel’s Agent Carter
This was one of their best projects and the reason for its cancellation has never been fully explained nor was the half-assed explanation satisfying in the least. Peggy Carter kicked ass for two full seasons, and even got to re-unite with The Howling Commandos. It’s available to stream. If you loved the first Captain America movie and you somehow didn’t catch this series, go fix that right now.

I wish this series had found a wider audience. It had everything that people praised Wonder Woman for in 1017, and it did it in an 8-part series that was much sharper in its commentary. Probably the best part of the show is the Howling Commandos episode where Peggy re-joins them as not only an active member of the squad, but as team leader, something she hadn’t been able to do until that point. It was glorious, watching her finally get the acknowledgement in the show that we’d been giving her since the first episode. Also, we get to see the Soviet program that trained the Black Widow agents (but only super nerds would know that). 

Avengers: Age of Ultron
I think this movie suffers from two things: it didn’t meet the unspoken expectations of its audience, who all seemed to say, “We don’t know what we were expecting, but we weren’t expecting that,” and also you can see the stress cracks from Joss Whedon dealing with his new Mouse-Eared Overlords.

All that aside, it’s a pretty worthy sequel to the first Avengers, made all the more interesting by the choice of James Spader to play Ultron. He’s never not James Spader, and so it’s alot like putting Joker make-up on Jack Nicholson. He’s still terrifying, even as he’s reading to audience members completely as Spader and not the homicidal Vibranium-enhanced AI Android from Marvel comics that we all know and love to hate. Instead, he's playing the James Spader villain we love to hate. Am I splitting hairs? Yeah, so did the movie.

Avengers: Age of Ultron pays a lot of things forward, introducing Klaw and Wakanda in one fell swoop, right alongside Vision, Quicksilver, and Scarlet Witch. Lots going on. I went back and paid close attention to the Black Widow trying to start a relationship with Bruce Banner and I really think a lot of people had a knee jerk negative reaction to the idea of Natasha having any kind of romantic entanglement. Unfortunately for the Internet, that was her character from the very first page in her origin story; a seductive Soviet super-spy who uses any means necessary to achieve her goals. Eh, to each her own, I guess. The George Perez-inspired slow-motion capture shots at the beginning and the end of the movie kept me more than somewhat entertained.

The second film in the “Will ‘Movie X’ be the film that kills the Marvel Franchise” litany of “Well, I don’t know...I mean, it’s Ant-Man...” nonsense. Especially with an outlier like The Guardians of the Galaxy doing so well previously. I think people were nervous about the attempts to work with writers and directors and actors known for comedic work. After all, comics aren’t funny, right? Oh yeah, smart guy? Then why do they call them “funny books?” Boom. Done.

Where was I? Oh, right. This heist-caper flick starring former thief Scott Lang, played by Paul Rudd. I know I sound like a broken record, but I love this character so much. I always liked the one-off heroes with really specific gimmicks. The Falcon. Hawkeye. Black Panther. Ant-Man. It’s like The Marvel Cinematic Universe was made for me.

This movie was no exception. Rudd does an incredible job as Lang, the former Do-Gooder thief who is just trying to make things right with his daughter, his ex-wife, and her new husband, who just happens to be a cop. I don’t normally like Michael Douglas, but he was great as former bad-ass Hank Pym, now that he’s finally playing characters his age and not being creepy as a sex object.

The only problem that some people had with the movie was the sameness of the hero/villain set-up from Iron Man. That couldn’t be helped. Tony Stark and Hank Pym were both scientists. They both made cool suits. They both fought their mirror images, armed with tech they created, and often. I think Ant-Man was different enough that it didn’t bother me any. But, then again, I’m the hardcore fan.

I had no idea what to expect, other than the guy that was the showrunner also did the first two seasons of Spartacus on Starz, and that went over pretty well, so what the heck. I was not disappointed in the slightest. De Knight spent a long time—hours of it—introducing Wilson Fisk and making us actually care about him. Then, when he finally meets Daredevil, and says, “Take your shot!” and Fisk beats him nearly to death in an inconsolable rage, we are reminded that “oh, yeah, right, the Kingpin is a sociopath.” This first season, from its hallway fight tracking shot in episode 2 to the long, slow burn to simply line up all the pieces in a thoughtful manner, it really altered the tenor and scope of what could be done with narrative TV and super hero stories. Bonus points for actually letting us see Murdock and Nelson doing lawyer stuff.

Jessica Jones
If there was any doubt as to how “dark” the Marvel Knights line on Netflix was going to be, Jessica Jones answered it and spiked the ball: charcoal. Kristen Ritter has found her calling as the exceptionally capable and exceptionally damaged private investigator and former super hero. Jones was a more recent addition to Marvel Comics, but writer Brian Bendis wasted no time in stitching her into the fabric of the world. Specifically, she hooks up with Luke Cage. Now, in the comics, they end up together and having a baby. I don’t think we are quite there yet. But when Luke Cage showed up in Jessica Jones, the Internet exploded.

Phase 3
By the time this was announced, everyone knew that there was an endgame movie and it would feature the inevitable dust-up with Thanos. But as the schedule got longer and longer, thanks to real interest in a Spider-Man movie and an Ant-Man sequel, the timeline didn’t so much as lengthen as the number of hurdles before we got to Avengers: Infinity War have increased. I see this as a feature rather than a bug, since we had a great many things to distract us while we waited for Thanos and the Guardians of the Galaxy to come crashing down to Earth.

Captain America: Civil War
Why are the Captain America movies so good across the board? I don’t know, but this one ticks all of the boxes. You’d think with twelve heroes onscreen, squaring off against one another, plus the introduction of Spider-Man and Black Panther, that the movie would feel crowded. Instead, it moves with alacrity toward the inevitable conclusion and teases a couple of great instances; namely, Cap breaking everyone out of jail, and the Wakandans working on Bucky to get the Winter Soldier program out of his head. Both events obviously (we presume) happened between movies, but that we know exactly how these things played out is a testament to the quality of the writing where Chris Evans and Captain America are both concerned. Some of the credit has to go to comic book writer Ed Brubaker, whose excellent stories were the source material for Cap’s (and Bucky’s) character arcs.

That super hero throw-down at the airport is, again, a classic Marvel trope, expertly rendered, full of great surprises, like Ant-Man’s embiggening, and of course, everything that came out of Spider-Man’s mouth. Sony’s past attempts have done a good job of capturing one or two aspects of Spider-Man’s character and pathos, but they never really got it all in one place. With two scenes, inside of the Captain America movie (and a bonus scene at the end), Marvel showed how Spider-Man could and should be done.

Doctor Strange
I’m on record as not being a big Benedict Cumberbatch fan, mostly because I’m not a woman, but also because he has an oddly-shaped head that I find distracting, but when he was cast as Doctor Strange, I had to admit that at least from the point of view of his gargantuan cranium, it was a good fit. Kudos, too, for taking the source material as created by Steve Ditko and making movie-sense of it. Ditko frequently drew Doctor Strange off-kilter, and in fact, many of his more strange and unusual characters (like Odd Man, a one-shot deal from DC comics) used spatial distortions to frighten and confuse enemies. Yes, Yes, Poindexter, they did the same thing in Inception. We get it. You spotted it. You’re very clever. Now go sit down. Having Inception do the heavy lifting of establishing the architecture of dreamscapes in such a way made it instantly recognizable and something they didn’t really have to spend any time dwelling on. It was a smart choice.

Points, too, for getting Dormammu into the movie and making his head be a giant ethereal ball of flame. Take that, shitty Galactus from the second Fantastic Four movie! I can’t wait for more Doctor Strange, and honestly, I’d love a cameo from him in everything in Phase 4.

I wonder, since Doctor Strange is so removed from the rest of the MCU, if this isn’t another weird on-ramp to the Marvel Universe, alongside GotG. I’d like to think there’s a gaggle of very confused Cumberbatch fans who came staggering out of the movie on opening night, stunned, and said, “Well, I guess we’ve got to watch Thor, now.”

Luke Cage
Sweet Christmas! Another of my favorites, done right, and really done with the kind of agency and also gravitas that really helps his origin rise out of the “black hero” trope that Marvel and DC both employed during the seventies, when they tried the first time to be more diverse and inclusive. In Marvel’s case, they copied the language of Blackploitation films. Only, see, Luke Cage, hero for hire, couldn’t swear in the 1970’s. So, “Sweet Jesus” became “Sweet Christmas.” You can guess what “flamin’” was a stand-in for. Most of the “mature characters” in Marvel comics in the 1970s have their own version of Cockney Rhyming Slang that is just hilarious in hindsight.

But we’re talking about Luke Cage, expertly and deftly written to knowingly nod at the Blacksploitational elements in his comic stories, but not imitate them. Update, yes, but with the kind of verve and swagger that’s more New Jack City by way of Do The Right Thing than, say, Super Fly. Mike Colter plays the part like he’s born to it, and his supporting cast is terrific all around. Also, the music is practically its own character, and easily the strongest soundtrack the MCU has produced, hands down, no takebacks.

It’s a small thing, tiny really, but there is one scene in the show where Cage appears, wearing blue jeans, the headpiece he wore during the experiment that gave him his powers, and a yellow blouse that he found on a clothesline. He takes a look at himself—the spitting image of Power Man in the 1970s, and says, “I look like a damn fool.” I haven’t laughed that hard at an in-joke since Cyclops glanced at Wolverine, back in 2000, and said, “Would you prefer yellow Spandex?”

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2
I don’t know if this movie was a home run, but it was certainly an off-the-wall triple. Director James Gunn doubled down on everything that worked in the first movie, and while the experience was different, it was also kinda the same, too. The only character that got any growth was Star-Lord, and it was forced upon him by the realization that his father, Ego, the Living Planet, was actually a rampaging asshole. Go figure. With a name like Ego, the Living Planet. I can't make this stuff up, folks.

I really think that the combined soundtracks are part of the appeal of these movies. This deliberate attempt to tap into the broader tapestry of pop culture (dig the Ramones album cover-inspired poster on the left) and the judicious application of certain songs in both the trailer and the movie should get partial credit for this particular franchise's continued success. I'm not going out on any limbs here when I say that was the best use of "Fox on the Run" ever in a movie. Sweet gets no love these days. 

Also, massive Kudos to Gunn for giving us Ego, the Living Planet (take that, shitty Galactus from the second Fantastic Four movie!) as well as all of the original (and really damn goofy) Guardians of the Galaxy, like Charlie-27 (that's really his name) and Martinex, in a more recognizable form.

Spider-Man: Homecoming
This was one of the mid-stream-announced Marvel movies that I was most looking forward to. I pinned my fanboy hopes on this movie not sucking and I was not disappointed. Not just in the setup and execution of the film, but in all of my fears being allayed by them doing everything the way I thought they should do it. That doesn’t happen very often, but in this particular case, I was so relieved.

 Here’s what they got right: 1. They didn’t even bother to re-tell the origin. More room for a better story; 2. They scaled down the scope of the movie to something resembling the kind of things Spidey dealt with in his first 20 issues. They Lee and Ditko stuff. It wasn’t epic stuff, Wagnerian opera-type things. It was Peter standing up his homecoming date. In high school, that is epic enough. And it played that way in the movie; 3. Tom Holland is the youngest guy to play a teen-age Spidey, and it shows. Spider-Man should be a teenager, not a senior-nearly-a-freshman-in-college, nor a thirty-year old glandular case in hipster clothes. The teen angle is what made all of his choices—the “Great Responsibility” parts—have that extra oomph; and 4. No Green Goblin/Gwen Stacy iteration anywhere in sight. Thank you Marvel. And the Ramones in the soundtrack made me extra happy. ‘Cause they’re from Queens, too, ya mook, and not just from Queens, but Forest Hills, which is Peter Parker’s old neighborhood. Is that a deep cut, or what? I know, right!?

Thor: Ragnarok
I loved this movie, but it’s a hybrid. Tonally speaking, it’s about two-thirds Guardians of the Galaxy and one third Thor: The Dark World. But the part that is a Thor movie at least focused squarely on the Loki-Thor-Odin triangle. Thor and Loki manage to patch up their differences, to both escape the garbage planet and reclaim Asgard, and then they don’t really, because Loki will always be Loki. The Hulk, as he has been written in the comics for fifty years, finally makes an appearance as the guttural-speaking brute who can keep himself transformed so long as he keeps simmering. We finally get a Valkerie (if not the Valkerie), which is nice. Idris Elba finally has something to do as Heimdall. And Kate Blanchett crushes it as Hela. Oh, brother, does she crush it. 

Ironically, there’s more Kirby-inspired design in this movie than the other two Thor films, though they did take a stab at it in the first movie. And while Jack Kirby got his due credit, it would have been nice to see a little bit more of his work represented. The Doctor Strange cameo sorta makes up for it. 

But I mentioned before how Thor should have an epic scale. This one has that scale, and as bookends to the movie, no less. If you didn’t get a vicarious thrill out of the Mjolnir-Cam at the beginning of the movie, then you’re dead inside and probably not the target audience for these movies. Moreover, if the inspired use of Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” as fight scene music didn’t move you, then I suspect you never played Dungeons and Dragons as a teenager, which begs the question: how did we meet, again, exactly? Finally, Jane Foster was completely written out of the story. This made me way happier than it should have. That story was going nowhere, and their romance felt weirdly shoehorned in to the second movie, anyway. I like Natalie Portman, but not in this role. Don't worry about her. She's got Star Wars money. She'll be fine.

Iron Fist
From the first announcement that Luke Cage and Iron Fist would be in the Netflix shows, I had two parallel thoughts: well, martial arts are easy to do these days; they can’t possibly screw this up—and—holy crap! We’re going to get a Power Man/Iron Fist team-up!

Well, I was wrong. At least, about one thing. They could mess up Iron Fist, and did. It’s not that it’s bad—but it’s certainly the weakest of the four Netflix series. Allegedly the show got the shortest amount of lead-in time (this same showrunner also worked on The Inhumans—see below) and it actually feels like a first draft script with a lot of weird redundancies that a couple more passes would have expertly eliminated. It’s a shame, too, because I loved both Power Man and Iron Fist as a kid, and when they teamed up, my head exploded. I wanted this to be great, especially since I was the target audience for this show. And I wanted to like it, and I tried to like it. There are certainly pieces of it that aren't bad, and I think the criticism was so vitriolic because the other three shows were so good. It just felt like a major step down in quality and tone. 

Thankfully, Jeph Loeb has been listening to the massive feedback. Iron Fist Season 2 is now at the back of the schedule, and they are clearly driving for a Heroes for Hire team up. But Danny needs fixing, first. He’s got a better showrunner and more lead-in time to get it right. If Into the Badlands can have a third season, there is no reason on Earth why Iron Fist can't be fixed so as to not suck.

The Inhumans
Well, here it is: the first real failure from Marvel since 2008. And it’s a total failure, too, from the casting on down to execution. It’s a failure made all the more baffling because it didn’t have to be. This could have been handled by the same team working on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (and really should have been) but for some reason, they wanted a mini-series and gave this thing literally 3 months of prep time (as opposed to all of the Netflix shows, which got 9-12 months lead-in time or more). Not only do the stitches and seams show where they jammed this Frankenstein together, but the two greatest sins it commits are (a) it didn’t even bother to link up with the detailed groundwork laid out by Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. over three seasons, and (b) from tone to execution, this feels like it was made in the mid-1990s, back when producers would say, “Okay, we get it, she’s got telekinetic hair, but that’s going to inflate the budget, so how about we cut her hair off in the second episode?” and “hey, I get it, this is based on one of those, whaddayacallit, graphic novels, or some shit, but no one is going to care if we switch some of this stuff around. For example, do you know how cheap it is to film in Hawaii?”

Skip this show. I’m serious. You gain nothing by seeing it, and you lose nothing by omitting it. And if anyone tells you, "Oh, it's not that bad," you punch them in the throat and unfriend them on Facebook. Because they are wrong, so very wrong. 

The Defenders
It’s not fair to cast this mini-series as “the Avengers of the Netflix MCU series” but that’s kinda what it was, only not really. Sorta. Kinda. I don’t know. The biggest problem with the show is that the timing of the series didn’t quite match up regarding villain development. The Hand, an ancient criminal organization that fought both Daredevil and Iron Fist, was the engine driving the storyline, which is about extracting dragon bones from under the bedrock of New York City. The process would have caused the city so suffer massive seismic distress that would have brought it tumbling down, but the Hand doesn’t care, since it would have the dragon bones it needed. Not bad, but as a story goes, it’s both too epic and not quite epic enough. It could have used a lot more Vincent D’Onofrio and a lot less Sigourney Weaver, a statement I never thought I’d make in print.

As a story point, people are going to look back on The Defenders with fondness, since it presents connective tissue into everyone’s second and third seasons, and also manages to get some key players into the room together. I’m looking at you, Misty Knight and Colleen Wing. For my money, I’d take Knight Wing Investigations right alongside Heroes For Hire, if both are on the table, and why wouldn’t they be? The Defenders goes into conspicuous contortions to get those two in the same room together. There’s no other reason other than to have them team up.

All that aside, it's okay. It's not awesome. There are parts of the series that are great. Scenes in every episode that are just awesome. But it doesn't hang together as well as it should. Those great scenes feel like padding, which isn't fair, because among other things, they establish these characters getting to know one another despite vast differences (Danny and Luke, for example). 

The Punisher
This Netflix series was an add-on after Jon Bernthal tested so well as the Punisher in season 2 of Daredevil that they sort of had to make a spin-off. Now, I am not a big fan of this character. Written well, he can be entertaining in small doses, but he’s very rarely written well. The reason for this lies in the Punisher’s origins. Not his character origins, but how we got to him in 1974, shooting Spider-Man with a gun on the cover of the comic book.

Marvel was floundering in the 1970s. We didn’t know it at the time, but the Silver Age was over and they were really trying to keep up with the rapid changes in the world. So, they took a lot of cues from movies. Shang Chi and Iron Fist were attempts to slipstream behind the martial arts movie craze. Luke Cage was the attempt to borrow some cool from Blacksploitation. Ms. Marvel and She-Hulk and Spider-Woman were trying to emulate Wonder Woman’s success as a feminist symbol for the Women’s Lib movement. And The Punisher? Well, he’s straight up a costumed reworking of Charles Bronson from Death Wish. He hunts the people who killed his family. With a gun. Back in 1974, this was very radical stuff. Heroes didn’t use guns and they didn’t kill. Not back then.

The Punisher changed all of that. He appeared in a vacuum, the literal “good guy with a gun,” although that’s not quite right, either. For years, he was written as an antagonist, right up into the early 1980s. But he became insanely popular, thanks to Frank Miller using him in Daredevil (which is why he showed up in that Netflix series, of course). And it was inevitable that The Punisher would get his own movie. How hard could it be, right? I mean, he’s got no super powers. He just shoots people with guns. Easy peasy, right?

Google the Punisher movies. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Yeah, they all suck green donkeys. The reason is simple: what’s unique and special by omission in comics is woefully commonplace in the movies. He shoots criminal with guns? Get in line, Frank Castle. Everyone shoots everyone in the movies. You can’t feed beef back to the cow. That’s how you get Mad Cow’s disease. Or, if you prefer, shitty Punisher movies.

So, I told you that to tell you this: Netflix finally got it right. This series isn’t about him killing people. It’s about how he got so messed up—and now that we know more about PTSD, unfortunately, in modern combat veterans, this story bristles with meaning and nuance, something that was always lacking in every other movie version of the character. You won’t believe how good it is. You may still not like it for its subject matter, but you will not-like-it way less than any of the other Punishers that you totally hated. That sounds like I’m damning it with faint praise, but I’m really not. There’s a great story in there, but it starts in Daredevil, Season 2 and you need that before you watch the series. Not a chore, I promise.

Black Panther
It’s easy to like this movie; it’s got everything going for it. A likeable and engaging cast, from the heroes to the villains (Andy Serkis retuning as Klaw is awesome), some cool spy-drama throwbacks that are half Captain America: Winter Soldier and half Luke Cage, and the coolness of Wakanda, in all its splendor (I’m totally including Man-Ape when I say this). This is also a more intricate back story than the set-up we got in Captain America: Civil War—which, it turns out, did some of the heavy lifting for this movie by giving us the short-hand origin story. I can’t think of another movie franchise which is able to chain-link its heroes in such a way as to introduce them in a couple of scenes in one movie and then spin them off into an entire film all their own the following year. That kind of thing has never been done before, but they did it with two different characters in the same damn movie, both times with great end results. No small accomplishment.

Oh, and for the record, I want an armored war rhinoceros. I think that would effectively end them being poached if we gave them armor and taught them to charge their attackers. That whole scene felt like an outtake from The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I say that in the nicest possible way.

Part 3 coming Tomorrow. 

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

The Children of Generation X, Part 1: The Marvel Cinematic Universe Ten Years Later

I think one of the worst aspects of our New Digital Lives is that the Internet tends to speed up and also shorten lengths of time between Intellectual Property discussions. You don’t have the luxury of processing and mentally digesting genre film and TV anymore; the same day that a movie debuts, there’s a dozen articles on the Easter Eggs you missed. No need to see the movie a second time, or really even pay that close attention in the first place. Stupid Internet.

The thing is, I need time to think about this stuff. Always have. I get some brilliant insights, usually during the first viewing, but I need to let them percolate and cook for a while. Sometimes, I figure out that my insights aren’t that insightful. Other times, I have a working theory that takes years to develop.

Case in point: Iron Man, when it first debuted, ten years ago, was just another super hero movie, in a fairly unbroken stream of Marvel Comics movies that ranged from Soup to Nuts. For every X-Men, there was an X-Men: The Last Stand. For Every Spider-Man, there was a Spider-Man 3. For every Daredevil, there was an Elektra. They weren’t all great, but they were nowhere near the awfulness of the failed Marvel TV and movie efforts that came before them.

But Iron Man had this different vibe for me. It just felt different, never mind the assurances from the studio that it was going to be “unlike anything that’s come before.” Yeah, right, pull the other one, Charlie. This ain’t my first rodeo. But it really was true in the case of Iron Man.

That super cool landing became Iron Man's signature move. 
There was an internal metric that made the world seem not closed off, as opposed to the X-Men universe, which made it clear that there wasn’t anything else in the world except mutants, so please don’t ask. Granted, some of this seeming spaciousness was implied. The mention of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the appearance of Nick Fury at the end (looking exactly like the Nick Fury from Marvel’s Ultimates comic, no less) were the only hints at what was to come; namely, Rhodes glancing at the armor and muttering, “Next time.” Okay, we get it. You want to do more movies.

It wasn’t until The Incredible Hulk came out the same year that we saw, imbedded in the movie, more clues in the form of Easter eggs. The very idea that the Hulk was a failed experiment to re-create the Super Soldier serum that made Captain America was, well, the first real clue that we were going to get a Captain America movie set in World War II. No way of knowing if it would be any good, really...except for that one scene with a pre-Abomination Emil Blonsky running in to engage the Hulk. Watch it again, if you don’t remember, and see if his moves don’t look exactly like the moves Cap used in comics all the time. I remember watching that scene and saying to myself, “We’re going to get Cap! And this is what he’s going to look like in action!”

I remember back in the late 1980s and early- to mid-1990s when I was working in comic shops, and as was frequently the case, a crowd would gather and let me hold court about comics, movies, and what-not. We came to the mutual conclusion back then that a JLA movie could never work, because it took them two whole hours to make us care about Batman, and there was no way you could introduce the concept of Flash, Hawkman, and Green Lantern into a normal-length film and expect it to not be weird and rushed and ultimately, very cheesy. We saw the Cheese-Creep happen at the end of Superman 2, and then it blossomed like a flower in Superman 3 and Superman 4. We were surprised by it in Batman Returns (remember the penguins with rocket launchers?) and it only got worse as the 90s progressed.

No, we reasoned, the only way to do it right would be to make a separate movie for each character and then you could make a Justice League movie and clean up because all of the fans would come together no matter which character they liked, see? It was genius...but it would never work, because what movie studio wants to make five movies, just so they could make a sixth one?

Fast forward to the 21st century. Super Hero movies are now not only probable, and even possible, but a going concern. Special effects were finally able to duplicate (with an army of programmers and months of time) on the screen what Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko could do with a pencil and ink on Bristol board in a single afternoon. We’ve seen Spider-Man. We’ve seen Wolverine. We got Nightcrawler, and Colossus, and even Daredevil.  It wasn’t a far stretch to get Iron Man, or a better Hulk (don’t get me started on Ang Lee’s movie. It’s terrible. And I love the Hulk, a whole lot). And even Thor and Captain America were great—really satisfying to watch in their own way. Each one getting it more right than wrong. Highlighting the strengths of each character and story.

They were wise to put this shot in the trailer. It's still cool.
But when I saw The Avengers for the first time, it cut deeply into my chewy geeky center. That movie, probably more than any of the other Marvel Cinematic Universe movies to date (as they were now called), actually felt like a Marvel comic book. Everything from the snappy banter to the heroes’ first meeting where they end up fighting each other until they realize they are after the same thing, from the quiet, interpersonal moments, to the sweep of the epic scale battle...this was what comics looked like in my head; George Perez Avengers comics, written by Roger Stern.

During the epic final battle, there’s a scene wherein Cap vaults into a bank where the Chitauri had a gaggle of civilians held hostage, and he does his shield-slinging thing, of course, and gets the people out of harm’s way. But the bad guys throw a grenade down, and Cap sees it and in a split-second, he leaps into mid-air, tucking and crouching behind his shield (which absorbs kinetic energy, remember), protecting himself from the blast, which knocks him backward out the window. I turned to my wife and said, “That was a Jack Kirby move, right there.”

That was the real start of it, looking back. That’s when we got Thanos for the first time. All of the building blocks were there. It was clear that Marvel (and soon, Disney) were playing a very long game. But the success of even the early movies turned on something else. Something that people have incorrectly mis-attributed to “the same plot, over and over again.” It ends up being the beating heart of the Marvel Cinematic Universe: the family unit.

Everything important in the MCU hinges on family, both nuclear and extended, and the heroes (and villains) relationships with primarily their father and occasionally, their mother. These movies are resonating with members of Generation X because they are in part written by members of Generation X, who grew up reading Bronze Age Marvel and DC comics in the 1970s and well into their teenage years in the 1980s. The latchkey kid generation grew up and these movies are an ongoing conversation with absent and/or inadequate parents.

In Iron Man, Tony Stark is living in his father’s shadow. His substitute father, Obie Stane, ends up betraying him and Iron Man dispatches him handily. In Iron Man 2, Nick Fury steps in as Tony’s substitute father because Tony has no emotional rudder and he actually grounds Tony, confining him to his house (hardly a punishment). Despite a scene where an aged Howard Stark tells Tony how much he loves him, Tony doesn’t seem to quite believe it. Or maybe the barn door has been open for too long. Either way. Tony starts to take a little responsibility for his actions. A bit.

Later, Tony creates Ultron, a child of high intelligence and zero empathy and wisdom. He decides the best way to protect the world is to kill every human. Like his creator, he makes the Vision in his new image of himself, but his “child” is stolen from him and the Avengers give the Vision life, creating an ideal Dad who can actually wield Thor’s hammer. He’s the only other one who can.

All of this guilt drives Tony into a kind of self-therapy. He’s out of control and he knows it. The only way to course correct is to swing his emotional pendulum the other way. This causes problems, of course. He’s not ready for responsibility and those bad choices come back to haunt him in Iron Man 3 and Captain America: Civil War.

The Hulk is the living embodiment of men behaving badly. Driven by his unmanageable anger—a creature of the Id, he is opposed by his girlfriend’s father, who doesn’t like Betty hanging around Bruce Banner. It’s a classic “That Boy is No Good For You” situation, only General "Thunderbolt" Ross is actually spot-on in his assessment. Later, when Mark Rufalo takes the role, Joss Whedon puts these words into his mouth: “That's my secret, Captain: I'm always angry.” The Hulk eventually gives into his anger completely, shutting himself off from the people who care about him, like Natasha Romanov, and running away from his problems. It's unfortunate that Ang Lee's movie really muddied the pond from which the Hulk's current origin is derived--namely, that because he was under the thumb of an abusive parent, his manifestation from the gamma exposure is that of a wounded child, flailing out in anger. We don't see that so much in the MCU, but it doesn't take a giant leap to see the subtext.

Thor and Loki are constantly in competition for their father’s love. Thor is delightfully immature because he wants for nothing, privileged and entitled. Loki has to keep proving his worth, to stunning indifference. Odin favors Thor over Loki and this bit of bad parenting decision sets the whole movie in motion. Loki plays father against son in a perfect imitation of the Shakespearean melodrama that fueled the Thor comics for decades. And that theme runs through all three Thor movies and right into The Avengers, as well.

Captain America has no father. He’s trying to become a man, literally and figuratively. He calls people “son.” He’s a member of The Greatest Generation, something that actor Chris Evans brilliantly alludes to in subsequent portrayals, but never over-plays. Cap becomes the heart of the Avengers, the symbolic patriarch, which cuts right across Iron Man’s bow, since—and this almost comes out in Captain America: Civil War verbatim—“Dad always liked you best!” Cap becomes Iron Man’s target for all of his displacement and unresolved feelings about his father by treating him like the older brother he never had, and moreover, Cap never was.

Cap, on the other hand, has set to rebuilding a semblance of a family for himself. Black Widow, Falcon, and eventually, Bucky, the brother he chose to have, all factor heavily into his personal and professional choices. This includes extending his fatherly protection to Scarlet Witch, who lost her parents and her brother. Black Widow he treats as a sibling. She’s a product of Soviet Spy Programs, and it’s her mother-figure who does the betraying. Father Russia holds no sway for her, since it forced her to become sterile. No wonder she went elsewhere.

War Machine, The Falcon, and Hawkeye are all versions of the career soldier, the person who placed the mission before themselves. Only Hawkeye has the holdout secret family—who he abandons to go save the world—and this weirdly is the most normal familial relationship than anyone else’s on the team; a wife and two kids, with one on the way, in an out of the way farmhouse. He’s gone for weeks at a time, but the family knows he’s being a super hero, so it’s presumably okay. What would be untenable in the real world is a comforting normalcy is the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

In Guardians of the Galaxy, the whole movie resonates with conflicts relating to broken homes. Gamora and Nebula, daughters of Thanos rebel after the years of abuse they suffered by his side. Star-Lord has no mother, an absent father, and a terrible step-father who turns him into a criminal. Drax lost his wife and child because of Thanos. Rocket Raccoon has no family, nor, presumably, does Groot. Later, Star-Lord meets his father and realizes he’s a monster, and his step-father, Yondu, tells him he loves him. Gamora and Nebula work through their sibling rivalry. And Star-Lord realizes his created family fills the emotional needs, even as he’s honoring his step-father’s death.

Ant-Man is trying to be a good father to his daughter, and he is hamstrung by the decisions he made in his youth. Hank Pym is trying to protect his daughter from the dangers that using the shrinking tech presents, as he feels responsible for his wife’s death. Hope Van Dyne, meanwhile, is eternally pissed at her father for not letting her spread her wings. And later, about lying to her regarding her mother’s death. Together the three of them team up to stop the adopted son who betrayed the family trust—and he’s also mad at Pym for not sharing his legacy with him.

Doctor Strange would seem to be an exception, but his narcissism and infantile behavior, which seems to echo Tony Stark’s initial character arc to a lesser degree, is more akin to the man-children of Generation X who have grown up but are not completely mature. Strange’s Journey into Mystery (ahem) represents his fledgling attempt at becoming a functional adult with emotional maturity, something he’d previously lacked. Once his hands are mangled, he has no identity, or so he thinks. The Ancient One teaches him that the world does not, in fact, revolve around his hands, and Strange begins to re-engage with the world just in time to save it.

Out of respect for my readers, I’ll not rehash Spider-Man’s origin, nor should I have to point out what the death of Peter Parker’s parents and also his Uncle Ben do to him. “With great power comes great responsibility.” Spider-Man’s story is about learning how to be an adult when you are still just a kid. Classic Generation X. And Peter, looking for a male role-model, finds one (not a good one) in Tony Stark. Meanwhile, the Vulture is looking to provide for his family the best way he knows how. He’s being a good father and husband and also trying to protect his daughter from Peter. Lots of teenage angst, especially since the film intentionally mimics John Hughes movies from the 1980s in structure and content.

Black Panther has stepped into his father’s shoes and onto his throrn after his untimely death. In the most pointed and not-even-allegorical scene, he confronts his father’s living ghost-spirit and tells him his decisions, made twenty years ago, were wrong. Killmonger is created following the death of his father at the hands of Zuri by way of King T’Chakka. Black Panther has to contend with the sins of his father revisited upon him.

Even the TV shows follow this pattern. Iron Fist? Dead parents, abusive and manipulative father figure and ersatz siblings. Daredevil? Living in his father’s shadow. Abusive foster father figure in Stick. Kingpin? Abusive father. He passed his rage onto his son, who is a giant-sized manipulative sociopath. Luke Cage? Has a half-brother he didn’t know about. His half-brother did know all about him, though, and he’s the villain, enraged by what he thinks Luke Cage got that he didn’t; namely, an acknowledged father. Jessica Jones’ parents died, and she grew up with a foster mother who treated her like a second-class citizen and lavished her attention on her foster sister instead.

Not a scrap of Spandex in sight. And we're cool with that.
The Runaways. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Even the God-Awful and not-worth-watching The Inhumans. It’s all there. All over these stories featuring characters trying to get their shit straight, to figure it all out, to be better versions of themselves. I think it’s partially why the women in these movies are more capable and also seem to have more agency and less emotional encumbrance. They simply don’t have the baggage that the men have. Shuri is certainly unaffected by her father’s decisions. Only T’Challa internalizes them in his self-struggle. As angry as Hope Van Dyne is, she’s twice as capable as Scott Lang in or out of the Ant-Man rig. Black Widow establishes her bad-ass-ness in Iron Man 2 and only gets better through her five subsequent movie appearances. She’s now one of the strongest characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe in terms of utility and agency. Scarlet Witch comes of age at the end of Avengers: Age of Ultron. Gamora has assumed the matriarchal role for the team in Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 2, which only highlights Star-Lord’s arrested development. When Hela (now Thor’s sister in the MCU) shows back up in Thor: Raganrok, she takes over the family business by blowing up the household. Firstborn and daddy’s favorite, until she outstripped him, she’s as angry as Loki is, but for different reasons. And she wins the movie and sends Thor packing.

Jessica Jones is a work in progress, even if her decisions for dealing with her issues aren’t particularly healthy. Apart from the explosive anger, she doesn’t read as masculine at all. Her agency comes from her surviving the abuse at the hands of the Purple Man. Contrast this with any of the male heroes in The Defenders, whose personal damage informs all of their choices.

This notion of surviving broken families is the engine that has driven the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first three phases. These 19 (and counting) movies have become their own genre, pushing away from the more generic “super hero” movie formula that DC and Warner Brothers is still struggling to update some thirty years after they created it. By keeping the characters more or less intact and recognizable in terms of personality and presence, the filmmakers have latitude with costume and appearance, something that didn’t used to be the case. All that remains is plot and story, and in the case of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, these “heroes with problems” look a lot like our own problems. Thus, they are relatable and more easily personally identifiable to a mainstream audience. Only in the final acts of their movies do their true comic book origins come to the fore, where they can blast, swing, fly, and punch their way free of the conflict. 

But it’s always a temporary fix, because violence never really solves the problem. Howard Stark still never hugged Tony. Star-Lord’s dad is still a colossal asshole. T’Challa will always be compared to his father. These things can’t be punched away. And that leads the characters to those quiet moments, the conversations and introspective sharing that shows us that these heroes have feet of clay. They are as flawed as the rest of us. We couldn’t do any better in the armor, or with that shield. And that is as much of a comfort, knowing we’re doing the best that we can, as it is knowing that the Avengers are always going to protect us from the bad guys.

Part 2 coming tomorrow.