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.