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Marathoning the MCU

So about six weeks before AVENGERS: ENDGAME came out, I began re-watching the entire Marvel Studios filmography and commenting about it on social media. Just because, I guess. (Although truth be told, I didn’t finish until much after ENDGAME’s debut, for reasons not worth getting into here.) With ENDGAME poised to return to theatres with a new expanded edition, what better time to go back and look at what I thought about all of these movies, front to back. Let us begin:

Tonight begins the epic full Marvel Cinematic Universe rewatch, leading up to the release of AVENGERS: ENDGAME. First, the one that started it all, Jon Favreau’s IRON MAN. This one really holds up. The basis for everything that would come, anchored firmly by Robert Downey Jr. in the role that would not only save his career, but come to define it. The rest of the cast is outstanding too, particularly Jon Favreau’s Happy Hogan and Jeff Bridges delightfully chewing the scenery as Obadiah Stane (who delivers maybe my favorite line in any of these movies, screaming exasperatedly “Tony Stark built this in a CAVE! With a BOX of SCRAP!”). Also funny now in retrospect is how much time here is lovingly devoted to lengthy scenes of armor components being bolted on to Tony Stark, compared to the way the armor melts over him in recent movies like a magical flash.

Night #2 of the pre-ENDGAME Marvel Cinematic Universe re-watch: Louis Leterrier’s underrated THE INCREDIBLE HULK from 2008.  People really like to bag on this one, and I’m not sure why. It’s so much better than the earlier unwatchable Ang Lee HULK film, and Ed Norton has an moody intensity as Bruce Banner that feels spot-on (it’s not his fault that Mark Ruffalo would later come to define the role almost perfectly). Liv Tyler is likeable enough as Betty Ross, and I still wish we would have gotten to see more of Tim Blake Nelson as The Leader. The CG here isn’t quite up to snuff enough to make the Hulk scenes really believable, and there’s no excuse for the film’s design for the Abomination, which loses all of the Gil Kane Silver Age madness in favor of what looks like a big walking lump of crud. Certainly watchable, but nowhere near top of the mark.

Night #3 of the pre-ENDGAME Marvel Cinematic Universe re-watch: Jon Favreau’s unfairly maligned IRON MAN 2 from 2010. A little bloated and a little too long, there’s still so much to like here: the debuts of Scarlett Johannson’s Black Widow and Don Cheadle’s War Machine, Mickey Rourke’s brooding Whiplash, Sam Rockwell’s hilariously weaselly Justin Hammer, and John Slattery’s debut as a thinly disguised Walt Disney as Howard Stark. Plus: suitcase armor!!

Night #4 of the pre-ENDGAME Marvel Cinematic Universe re-watch: Kenneth Branagh’s utterly charming THOR from 2011. Branagh had the toughest job of all the original directors, I’d argue, getting audiences to buy in to the most far-out of Marvel’s early concepts, a Norse god walking the modern world. He succeeds here in a big way, doing some marvelous worldbuilding with his visual creation of Asgard, with the help of the most appealing ensemble cast of any of the Phase One films, as well as the best realized romance of any of the Marvel films thus far.

Night #5 of the pre-ENDGAME Marvel Cinematic Universe re-watch: Joe Johnston’s note-perfect sci-fi period piece CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER from 2011. Johnston is at his best when he’s indulging in nostalgia (just watch THE ROCKETEER if you don’t believe me), and he manages to weave seventy years’ worth of comics continuity into the quintessential origin story for Cap. Sebastian Stan as Bucky, Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull, Hayley Atwell’s exquisite turn as Peggy Carter (elevating the character’s significance in Marvel lore to new heights) — all the performances are great, but it’s Chris Evans who anchors this film, not as a muscle-bound super soldier, but as a skinny kid from Brooklyn who doesn’t like bullies. “I could do this all day.”

Day #6 of the pre-ENDGAME Marvel Cinematic Universe re-watch: Joss Whedon’s make-or-break blockbuster THE AVENGERS from 2012. This was the movie that would decide whether or not this whole experiment would work. Wisely, Marvel handed it to Whedon, and there’s no one better at genre ensembles. Almost everyone has great material here (with the exception of Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye, who would get his proper spotlight next time around), with Mark Ruffalo’s more empathetic Bruce Banner a standout, and Tom Hiddleston stepping up his game to become the MCU’s preeminent bad guy for years to come. Surprisingly, it’s Clark Gregg’s Phil Coulson who’s the heart of the piece, as the little guy who gives them something to avenge. This one holds up.

Day #7 of the pre-ENDGAME Marvel Cinematic Universe re-watch: Shane Black’s enjoyable if uneven sequel IRON MAN 3 from 2013. A little shaky in the plot department, the best stuff here has to do with a PTSD-wracked Tony Stark struggling to deal with the aftermath of the alien invasion in THE AVENGERS. The villains here are kind of a weak link, with the bait-and-switch revelation about Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin ultimately leaving me unsatisfied. The big finale is a hoot, as long as you don’t wonder why Iron Man’s armored suits, formerly the most powerful weapon on the planet, are now little more than flammable piñatas. Worth watching for RDJ and Cheadle if nothing else.

Night #8 of the pre-ENDGAME Marvel Cinematic Universe re-watch: Alan Taylor’s curiously dismissed THOR: THE DARK WORLD from 2013. I don’t really understand the hate I often see for this film, a perfectly enjoyable THOR adventure that reunites the original cast but gives them all a lot more to do, and fleshes out and deepens the complicated relationship between Thor and Loki (and sets Loki on his first steps toward his eventual redemption). The film plods a little in places, but makes up for it with beautiful imagery, as in Frygga’s haunting Viking funeral. If the film has a weak spot it’s probably Christopher Eccleston’s portrayal of the villain Malekith. Eccleston struggles under far too much heavy effects makeup, and it shows, obscuring his usually wonderfully expressive face and voice. If he could have played the same part with a mix of lighter makeup and CGI, like Paul Bettany’s Vision, I bet he would have knocked it out of the park. Still: great action, good humor, and how can you not love that second post-credits scene?

Night #9 of the pre-ENDGAME Marvel Cinematic Universe re-watch: Anthony and Joe Russo’s amazing CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER from 2014. The best of the solo Cap movies, and the one where Chris Evans’ performance as Steve Rogers fully crystallized, not just as the perfect soldier, but as a man who stands for what America should be, not for what it’s become. Anthony Mackie fits in immediately as the Falcon like he’d been there all along, and it becomes apparent how smart the casting of Sebastian Stan as Bucky Barnes was once he appears as the haunted Winter Soldier. Here was where Marvel Studios first began stretching their genre limits, offering a film that’s as much a political thriller as an action movie. Ultimately, it’s a movie about doing the right thing no matter what the cost, summed up by a nerdy little computer operator with a gun to his head who refuses to pull a switch that will kill thousands. Captain’s orders.

Night #10 of the pre-ENDGAME Marvel Cinematic Universe re-watch: James Gunn’s groundbreaking GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY from 2014. If there was any doubt about the nerve and ambition of Marvel Studios, this movie dismissed them once and for all. A big-budget movie about the most obscure characters in Marvel’s catalog, written and directed by a filmmaker best known for smaller, cult movies would seem like a recipe for disaster, but instead, viewers were treated to a grand space opera unlike anything seen since the original Star Wars, opening up the Marvel films to an entire new realm of characters and locales. This was a starmaking performance for Chris Pratt and a breakout debut for Dave Bautista, both of whom ground the film with both tragedy and laugh-out-loud comedic timing. CGI characters were nothing new by this point, but never had they seemed more real than with Groot and Rocket, who never for a second feel artificial or absent in the shot. Gunn’s uncanny ability to match music to his scenes also changed the face of Marvel Studios, with successive films all finding ways to smartly incorporate rock and pop classics in movies like THOR: RAGNAROK and CAPTAIN MARVEL. But perhaps the biggest surprise in GUARDIANS is how openly and shamelessly emotional it is. Peter Quill reaching out to his departed mother ruins me every time I see it. This is one of the great ones.

Night #11 of the pre-ENDGAME Marvel Cinematic Universe re-watch: Joss Whedon’s epic AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON from 2015. A more than fitting follow-up to the first Avengers movie, AGE OF ULTRON accomplishes the most difficult of tasks in fleshing out and further developing the relationships between the original Avengers, while introducing three new teammates and establishing a deadly new antagonist that’s as closely tied to the team as any of them. This, more than anything, is a Hawkeye movie, making up for the short shrift the character got in the first film with a starring role here that brings the character up to the level of his teammates if not more so. Of particular note is the stirring “Walk out that door, and you’re an Avenger” speech Clint gives to the traumatized Scarlet Witch. Great stuff. Also noteworthy is Aaron Taylor Johnson’s turn as Pietro, Paul Bettany finally stepping into the spotlight as the Vision, and James Spader’s excellently creepy performance as Ultron. If I had a single complaint about the film, it’s only in the design for Ultron, who lacks the terrifying “jack-o-lantern”-style visage that always made him super-terrifying in the comic-book pages.

Night #12 of the pre-ENDGAME Marvel Cinematic Universe re-watch: Peyton Reed’s irresistibly charming ANT-MAN from 2015. As much a heist comedy as a superhero movie, ANT-MAN succeeds thanks to its sharply funny script and the strength of its cast — after the global epicness of AGE OF ULTRON, the smaller scale (pun intended) of this one feels like a breath of fresh air. No earth-shattering stakes here, just a good man trying to make amends and see his daughter again. Paul Rudd is maybe the biggest surprise in the MCU, the funniest and most relatable hero in the bunch, but still completely believable in the action scenes. And as a lifelong Hank Pym fan, seeing him portrayed by someone with the gravitas of a Michael Douglas is immensely gratifying. This one’s great; one of my favorites. “Baskin-Robbins always finds out.”

Night #13 of the pre-ENDGAME Marvel Cinematic Universe re-watch: Anthony and Joe Russo’s next-level CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR from 2016. Strangely enough, it turns out that perhaps the best Avengers movie isn’t even officially an Avengers movie. There’s so much going on here, a massive globetrotting adventure that’s also a compelling character piece, and yet it never feels bloated or wears out its welcome. The airport fight sequence has already become kind of legendary, the kind of scene we all take for granted in comics but never thought could really be accomplished in film. And as if all that weren’t enough, the film introduces two pillars of the Marvel Universe in Black Panther and Spider-Man, and does so organically and with much success. And despite the giant cast and huge goings-on, this is still at its core a Steve Rogers story, torn between his loyalty to the team and his best friend Bucky Barnes. The climactic fight scene between Cap and Iron Man is vicious, thrilling and at the same time tragic, especially with the revelation of Bucky’s involvement in the murder of Tony Stark’s parents (who make a heartbreaking imaginary appearance in the first act).

“I don’t care. He killed my mom.”

If I had to show one movie to someone to demonstrate how great the MCU is, this would be it.

Night #14 of the pre-ENDGAME Marvel Cinematic Universe re-watch: Scott Derrickson’s captivating DOCTOR STRANGE from 2016. After the globetrotting madness of CIVIL WAR, Doctor Strange was a delight, being a simply told film about a simple character origin, with the benefit of being anchored by an actor as strong as Benedict Cumberbatch. The film makes a point of remembering that as much as the Avengers protect Earth’s physical world, so do the sorcerer supreme and her sorcerous students protect the Earth the rest of the time. Casting Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One was a genius move, subverting the stereotypes unfortunately to be found in the source material, while still giving the character the necessary gravitas. Special mention must also be made of the film’s conceptual design, which gave the notion of mystical powers an entirely new and stunning visual language. And the film’s unexpected climactic faceoff between Dr. Strange and one of Marvel’s biggest Big Bads is innovative and gratifying. Great movie.

Night #15 of the pre-ENDGAME Marvel Cinematic Universe re-watch: James Gunn’s unmatchable GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, VOL. 2 from 2017. Wake me up in the middle of the night from a dead sleep, and yell at me “What’s the best Marvel movie?”, and this would be my answer. I love this movie like no other. Everything James Gunn brought to the table in the first film, he finds a way to up the ante here. The first one was funny, this one’s funnier. The characters are more intriguing and reveal new facets to themselves. The action scenes are bigger. The music is even more integrated into the film and more emotionally relevant. Unanswered mysteries from the first film resolve themselves in ways both surprising and shocking. The entire cast ups their game with even more convincing performances, especially from Karen Gillan and Zoe Saldana, whose twisted sibling rivalry gets more murderous than ever, before turning into something maybe even close to affection. Michael Rooker steps it up as well, making Yondu so much more than just a two-dimensional bad guy, and as Groot suggests, even a fricking Guardian of the Galaxy (only he didn’t say frickin’). Kurt Russell adds some star power to the whole affair with a great turn as Ego (as does an unexpected but powerful supporting appearance from Sylvester Stallone of all people). And the question of who Peter Quill’s father really is gets an answer that will break your heart. When the Colors of Ogord flash before the tearful eyes of Kraglin and Rocket, I lose it every time.

Best Marvel movie, period.

Night #16 of the pre-ENDGAME Marvel Cinematic Universe re-watch: Jon Watts’ frustrating and disappointing SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING from 2017. If you only watched Tom Holland’s scenes as Spidey opposite Michael Keaton as the Vulture, you might think this was a great Spider-Man movie. But you’d be wrong. It’s astonishing how many missed notes and misunderstandings of the basic Spider-Man story there are here, with a protagonist who lacks even the most basic resemblance to the classic Stan Lee and Steve Ditko conception of who is Spider-Man is. Instead of a good kid tortured by guilt and the weight of responsibility, HOMECOMING’s Spider-Man is a self-involved juvenile who only cares about becoming an Avenger and doesn’t mind if his corner store gets blown up in the process. Saddled with an annoying sidekick at once too stupid to be trusted yet somehow smart enough to hack Stark technology, the Spider-Man we saw in CIVIL WAR, so smart and decent, is nowhere to be found here, replaced by a prattling jerk reduced to grand theft auto to get around and, more often than not, not as intelligent as his own robo-suit. It’s not just Spidey who suffers here, as both Tony Stark and Happy Hogan come across as brusque, uncaring jerks who could have prevented much of the film’s mayhem had they only listened to Peter Parker. Very easily skipped, and worth watching only for Michael Keaton’s outstanding performance. Let’s hope Keaton’s Vulture returns down the road in a much better movie.

Night #17 of the unavoidably delayed now post-ENDGAME Marvel Cinematic Universe re-watch: Taika Waititi’s hilarious and invigorating THOR: RAGNAROK from 2017. A deliberate shift in tone from the earlier two THOR entries, RAGNAROK is an action-packed romp that manages to be the funniest Marvel Studios film yet while at the same time having its share of serious and shocking moments. The relationship between Thor and Loki evolves here in a very satisfying manner, while newcomer Tessa Thompson makes a very strong impression as Valkyrie. On the villain side here are Jeff Goldblum’s exceedingly Jeff Goldblummy Grandmaster (trust me, that’s a compliment), and Cate Blanchett as Hela, the Goddess of Death, a darkeyed Goth badass who almost steals the movie as the most formidable Marvel antagonist to date. But the real selling point for this one is the teaming up of Chris Hemsworth’s Thor and Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner/Hulk, just a joy to watch every second they’re on screen together. And this really is the first time we see a Hulk that feels straight off the comics pages, savage and powerful, but also emotional and sympathetic – letting him talk the way he always has in the comics gives Ruffalo so much more to work with. The rewatchability factor on this one is off the charts; I can watch it over and over again.

Night #18 of the unavoidably delayed now post-ENDGAME Marvel Cinematic Universe re-watch: Ryan Coogler’s inspiring and visionary BLACK PANTHER from 2018. By far the best debut film for any Marvel character, and certainly in the running for best of all the Marvel Cinematic Universe offerings, BLACK PANTHER is fresh, exciting and completely enraptures the viewer in a world they’ve never seen before, one vibrant and honorable and seemingly far superior to the world we know: the technologically advanced African paradise of Wakanda. But as the new king T’Challa takes the throne, he learns that the idealized perfect history of his country and his father has a dark side that has come home to roost, threatening both his own nation and the world around them. Chadwick Bozeman owns this movie as T’Challa, and he’s aided by one of the best ensemble casts ever assembled by the MCU producers, with standouts including Michael B. Jordan, Danai Gurira and Winston Duke. There’s not a missed note to be found here. It’s a Marvel movie that doesn’t feel like any of the other Marvel movies, yet absolutely belongs in the canon, and stands out as maybe its high point.
Wakanda forever.

Night #19 of the unavoidably delayed now post-ENDGAME Marvel Cinematic Universe re-watch: The Russo Brothers’ epic and devastating AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR from 2018. Thus began the fulfillment of the promise made all the way back in the postcredit scene of the first Avengers movie: namely the arrival of Thanos on Earth and the rallying of all the MCU’s heroes to stop him. Only it doesn’t go so well at all, with our heroes divided, disillusioned and ultimately defeated, with a shock ending that truly mystified moviegoers who hadn’t read the comics and weren’t expecting that bleak an ending. And yet at the same time it’s action-packed and laugh-out-loud funny in classic MCU style. Standouts here include RDJ and Cumberbatch as immediate frenemies, Ruffalo once again providing the heart, and Hemsworth and Bradley Cooper/Sean Gunn as my new favorite team of Thor and Rocket. But there’s no denying that this movie belongs to Josh Brolin as Thanos, whose quiet nuanced performance brings gravitas to the proceedings and cements his place as the best MCU antagonist, bar none. The EMPIRE STRIKES BACK of Marvel movies, and for me there’s no bigger compliment.

Night #20 of the unavoidably delayed now post-ENDGAME Marvel Cinematic Universe re-watch: Peyton Reed’s action-packed and charming ANT-MAN AND THE WASP from 2018, a smart, funny comedy-action flick that hits the ground running and keeps moving at a brisk pace, with crisply executed action sequences and all the laughs and heart that made the first Ant-Man film such a pleasant surprise. Evangeline Lilly really steals the show here, jumping into the role of superhero with gusto, such that I can’t tell if it’s the character who’s enjoying being center stage or the actress herself. And after the character was so dour for most of the first film, seeing her much more vital and engaged here is a real treat. Paul Rudd remains the heart of the film, funny as ever, and his scenes with Abby Ryder Fortson as Scott’s daughter Cassie anchor what turns out to be a surprisingly emotional film. Also a standout is Michael Douglas as original Ant-Man Hank Pym, who gets much more involved in the action this time around, and the introduction of Michelle Pfeiffer as Hank’s wife Janet, the long-lost original Wasp, who shines in her limited screen time. A much-needed breath of fresh air after INFINITY WAR.

Night #21 of the unavoidably delayed now post-ENDGAME Marvel Cinematic Universe re-watch: Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s CAPTAIN MARVEL from 2019, a solidly satisfying sci-fi action piece that establishes the character firmly as a player in films to come, and sets the stage perfectly for Carol’s upcoming step into the spotlight in Avengers: Endgame.  Basically, all this film really had to do was make viewers excited at the idea of seeing Captain Marvel pound the hell out of Thanos in seven weeks. Mission accomplished. Brie Larson is strong and appealing as Carol Danvers, especially in the film’s third act when her memories return and she’s allowed to play it a little less restrained, and have some fun with her co-star Samuel L. Jackson. The rest of the cast is good from top to bottom, with Ben Mendelsohn, Jude Law, Annette Bening and Gemma Chan all delivering particularly strong performances.

I’d put Captain Marvel up there with the good “debut” Marvel movies like the first Thor and Dr. Strange, but not as good as the Guardians films and nowhere near the epic team movies like Civil War or Avengers: Age of Ultron. It’s amazing when you realize how spoiled we’ve all become by the Marvel Cinematic Universe experiment that you can walk out a little disappointed at a “only” getting a good fun movie.

Night #22 of the unavoidably delayed now post-ENDGAME Marvel Cinematic Universe re-watch: Anthony and Joe Russo’s AVENGERS: ENDGAME from 2019. Full of surprises, emotionally resonant, and with a third act like no other comic-book movie ever, is AVENGERS: ENDGAME the best of the Marvel films? If pressed, I’d probably have to admit that INFINITY WAR might be a better film strictly as a standalone viewing experience, but as a grand finale to end all finales, there’s no more satisfying time than ENDGAME. In a lot of ways, AVENGERS: ENDGAME, starring pretty much everyone who has ever been in a Marvel Cinematic Universe film, is kind of review-proof, in the sense that it’s less a single film and more of a grand finale to the entire Marvel Studios experiment. Can a new viewer come into this cold and really enjoy it? Probably so, at least superficially, because the Russos are so good at framing the colossal set pieces and widescreen action that even if you don’t know who everyone is, it would be hard not to get caught up in the excitement.

But let’s be honest: that’s not who this movie is for. No, this movie is for all of us who have been front and center for all of these films for the last eleven years, and who have been waiting for a big finish like this since the first time we saw Thanos turn and grimly smile at the camera at the end of the first AVENGERS film. So does this film satisfy those viewers? Absolutely, and in a way that I don’t think we’ll ever see again.

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