Ragnarok, more MCU, Phase 3 films

save Asgard!

Thor.RagnarokI’ve now gotten to the part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe where the release dates and the chronology of the movies – or most of the films – diverge. And the various TV shows, none of which I ever saw save for a handful of SHIELD eps, fit in there as well. Fortunately, I’m going to mostly ignore those facts. The titles in italics I saw in July 2020.

Captain America: Civil War (2016). When I used to read comic books, the creative teams often developed fights among the superheroes. Sometimes it’d be a brief misunderstanding. Occasionally, it’d be a more elaborate brawl. Too often, though, the motivation seemed sketchy. Not here.

The Hero Registration Act, designed to limit the actions of superheroes, was embraced by Tony Stark/Iron Man, but Steve Rogers/Captain America balks. I found this film surprisingly emotional, especially with the big reveal. Why it’s a Captain America movie, I don’t know, since most of the combatants were Avengers, but whatever.

Doctor Strange (2016 ) -it was an origin that took too long to get going. And it felt formulaic. But I did like the weird dimensional stuff, walking on the sides of buildings.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017). Apparently, this takes place before Avengers: Age of Ultron, not that it particularly matters. Odd that despite the massive amount of comic book violence, the story was much more interesting to me than the first Guardians. Part of that is Kurt Russell as Ego, whose presence makes the Star-Lord character feel less of a Han Solo wannabe. I also like Sly Stallone’s appearance and the curious character of Mantis. And Baby Groot is cuter.

Heck, even when the music was too much on the nose – Fathers and Sons by Cat Stevens, really? – I found it touching. Speaking of music, it also featured my favorite Fleetwood Mac song ever, The Chain.

Dorky high school kid

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) – There was a movie called The Birdman starring Michael Keaton as an actor pigeon-holed as someone who had played a superhero. I didn’t love it, though it reviewed well. Yet I projected that character onto his playing the Vulture in THIS movie, and it worked, especially his threat to Peter while the young man was on a date.

I’m starting to warm up to Tom Holland as this version of the web-slinger. His classmates are appealing, though incredibly patient with Peter. And while he’s hanging out with Tony Stark, he still feels like your friendly neighborhood dude.

Thor: Ragnarok (2017) – Despite the serious theme – save Asgard! – this turned out to be a very funny film, with great action to boot. Even Doctor Strange was fun in a cameo. Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) is as stubborn as the Thunder God. Hela (Cate Blanchette) appears invincible. The Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum) is very Goldblumesque. Did I mention the Hulk?

I take it that director Taika Waititi deserves some of the credit. Clearly, the best Thor film.

Black Panther (2018) – I saw it when it came out before I was aware of the events of Captain America: Civil War. This actually makes the accomplishments of this film more impressive. Because the real star of Black Panther is Wakanda itself.

Well, those last two Avengers films and a couple of others will have to wait until next time.

Winter Soldier, other MCU Phase 2 films

A.I.

Winter SoldierMore Marvel Cinematic Universe movie reviews. The ones marked in italics I’ve seen since the summer solstice 2020 in the northern hemisphere.

Iron Man 3 (2013) – Entertaining enough, I suppose, but a bit of a slog. It does bring us the Black Widow for the first time. I don’t love the theoretical villain. “Stark discovers the answer to the question that has secretly haunted him: does the man make the suit or does the suit make the man?” Yeah, yeah.

There was this recent article about racist terms. Somehow the author determined that “douchebag” could be a slur towards certain white people. I didn’t quite get the argument. Still, it suggested that Tony Stark was a douchebag and that Steve Rogers, Captain America, most assuredly was not. And that’s the underlying annoyance about Iron Man. He’s that guy named Steve in my library school classes who claimed to know everything.

Thor: The Dark World (2013). I suggested to a friend that IM3 was a slog. “Wait until you watch the next one,” they said. I’m afraid they were right. It was confusing keeping track of the nine realms. Any time you have that many screen overlays to try to let you know where you are, it’s usually problematic. Wormholes that lead to where? What? I did like the fiery farewell to one of the characters. And the final fight was a bit of goofy fun.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014). This movie was great! You don’t even need to know the characters well to appreciate this conspiracy-laden story. Who ARE the good guys? Nick Fury of SHIELD (Samuel L. Jackson) doesn’t even know. I was holding my breath quite often, particularly when the title pair collide. And Robert Redford’s character is unfortunately quite credible. The introduction of Sam Wilson, the Falcon.

Hooked on a feeling

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014). I may not have seen this in the right setting. It was on a bus tripon the way to Indiana in 2019. The movie seemed disjointed and dark. The ’70s soundtrack, which hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts, was often an affectation and a distraction to me. And yet I later bought the album, mostly for the Bowie, 10cc, Redbone, and Five Stairsteps. I don’t suppose it helped that one of my pastors thought the film was pointlessly violent. I should probably watch it again.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). Now you’ve done it, Stark. You’ve helped create an Artificial Intelligence that wants to destroy humanity. Earth’s mightiest heroes need to work together. I’m glad I used to read the comics, as I understood better who the Vision, the Scarlet Witch, and Quicksilver were. The movie was occasionally confusing, but I got the gist. An overstuffed film which I nevertheless mostly enjoyed.

Ant-Man (2015). As I noted in my review, my wife, who is not a big comic book fan, and I saw this when it came out. I figure that an origin story could stand alone, and it did. We liked it quite a bit. It’s light and funny when so many of these MCU films seem serious and ponderous.

Thor, Cap, and The Avengers, BTW, I watched in one 28-hour period on July 4 and 5 when my blog was down. Viewing them kept me from looking at my URL and wondering, “Is t working yet? Is it working yet? Why isn’t it working yet?”

The Avengers and more MCU, Phase 1

A wait of eight years

On March 13, just a couple hours before the COVID lockdown in New York State, I ran to the Pine Hills branch of the Albany Public Library and grabbed seven Marvel Comics Universe (MCU) DVDs to check out. Sure enough, the library was closed the very next day. Three months later, they remained totally unwatched.

I then decided that Alan David Doane’s very good idea of rewatching all the films in order was going out of the window. I had plenty of movies to see, and not just the seven. Fortunately, every single one that I did not have I could catch on cable.

MCU, Phase One

I saw all of these within the year of their release, except IM 2 and The Avengers. I’ve not rewatched any of them.

Iron Man (2008). I liked it quite a bit, as I noted.

The Incredible Hulk (2008). I never saw the 2003 movie directed by Ang Lee. My recollection of this film, which starred Edward Norton as the scientist Bruce Banner, was that it was murky. It looked weird, the storyline was confusing, and the behemoth was unimpressive.

Iron Man 2 (2010). It wasn’t as good as the previous one, but I saw it on video, not the big screen. Don Cheadle replaced Terrance Howard as James Rhodes.

Thor (2011). I remember liking it well enough. Yer basic god kicked out of Asgard and set straight.

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011). Now, THIS film I unabashedly liked a LOT. A great telling of the origin story. The Red Skull. Government experimentation. A man out of time. Chris Evans played Johnny Storm in those non-MCU FF movies; this is quite a step up.

Put the brakes on

But then I stopped watching the MCU films. There was a great dispute at the time over the credit that the late Jack Kirby, co-creator of almost all the Marvel characters, should receive for the films. (The general consensus: Jack was owed a LOT, including monetarily.) When the situation was finally settled in 2014, I never got back to see the ones I missed. Until now.

Marvel’s The Avengers (2012), which I watched in late June 2020. Having all those characters in one film could have been a recipe for disaster. It’s a bit slow as the formation of the group develops. But it turns out to be an entertaining enterprise, filled with action. And it had a REASON to get together and fight as a team, “to stop the mischievous Loki and his alien army from enslaving humanity.”

A lot of its success involves the humor among the disparate characters. It may have been the most fully realized comic book to hit the screen to that time. The action sequence, which must go on for a good half hour I allowed myself to get sucked into.

Spider-Man, and other films, non-MCU

ANOTHER iteration?

The_Amazing_Spider-Man_theatrical_posterI started watching the movies in what was eventually labeled the Marvel Cinematic Universe back when it started in in 2008. Now for those of you NOT seeped in these things, not every Marvel character that appeared in a movie this century is an MCU film.

For convoluted aesthetic and licensing reasons, the films with the X-Men, Fantastic Four, Blade, and Deadpool films, among others, are not part of the canon. The Spider-Man films in 2002/2004/2007 and 2012/2014 are not MCU. But the recent ones with Tom Holland, including Captain America: Civil War and the last two Avengers films, ARE MCU. Got that? There will be a test.

Despite having had collected comic books for over a quarter-century, primarily Marvel products – and I still own some Marvel Masterworks books – I hadn’t watched all that many of the films. Before I tackle the MCU, I thought I’d check to see which ones of the other Marvel films I’ve seen.

Howard the Duck (1986) – the movie was previewed in Albany in a movie theater, sponsored by FantaCo, the comic book store where I worked. I related to the “trapped in a world that he never made” description in the comic book, which also transferred to the film. It was roundly panned, and perhaps deservedly so. Yet I had an odd fondness for it.

Fantastic Four (1994 – unreleased) – at some point in the 2010s I saw this, possibly on YouTube. It was not very good. In fact, it was so awful, it was mildly enjoyable.

Friendly, neighborhood…

Spider-Man (2002) and Spider-Man 2 (2004) . These are the ones starring Tobey Maguire. I saw the first one in a cinema, the second at a resort in the Berkshires. Never saw the third one. I liked the first two enough to get them on DVD.

X2 (2003) – I watched in a hotel in Oneonta on New Year’s Eve many years back. Maybe because I didn’t see the first X-Men film, it didn’t make as much sense as I thought it should.

Fantastic Four (2005) – I thought Michael Chiklis was actually quite good in this. That is high praise since he was all but unrecognizable as The Thing. The rest of the story, as I recall, was pretty pedestrian. That’s necessary, I suppose for an introductory piece, but still… Never saw the follow-up.

The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) – for reasons I’ll explain soon, I have been watching a LOT of MCU movies this summer. So in early July 2020, I needed a palate cleanser before starting on Avengers: Infinity War.

Why did we need ANOTHER iteration of the web-slinger? I say that as someone whose favorite Marvel character is Peter Parker, the awkward young man with a secret.

Maybe we didn’t. But I felt Andrew Garfield was a credible Peter. And since the earlier Sam Raimi stories focused on his relationship with Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), it seemed natural that the series deal with his first love, Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone). Her internship with Osgood Corp may have been a bit too coincidental for my taste.

Still, I appreciated their relationship. Her father, the cop (Denis Leary) felt like a real dad, as did Peter’s uncle Ben (Martin Sheen). Aunt May (Sally Field) fretted a lot. If the villain was more tortured soul than actually evil (Rhys Ifans as Curt Connor/the Lizard), that would be in keeping with the comic book narrative.

Ultimately, I didn’t enjoy it as much as the films I had seen a decade and a half earlier. Still, it was time well-spent. I’m still warming up to the new Spider-Man. But that’s a story for another time.

Stan Lee: Marvel’s misunderstood showman

Fred Hembeck on Stan Lee (2009): “The man is Fantastic, Amazing, and Incredible, with the Uncanny ability to keep us in Suspense, all the while Astonishing us–even if he is a bit Strange at times!”

Stan LeeBy the time I started reading comic books in the early 1970s, Stan Lee had just recently stopped scripting the bulk of the Marvel titles. He had ceded the title of editor-in-chief in 1972 to Roy Thomas, and other writers were joining the fold.

But Lee, born Stanley Martin Lieber, was listed as publisher and his name was still prominent in every issue: “Stan Lee Presents” and his chatty Stan’s Soapbox. Then I started reading the back issues of the Amazing Spider-Man, via the reprint title Marvel Tales, drawn by Steve Ditko. This inevitably brought me to reading other 1960s works, mostly Lee/Jack Kirby material.

The Hollywood Reporter noted: “Beginning in the 1960s, the irrepressible and feisty Lee punched up his Marvel superheroes with personality, not just power. Until then, comic book headliners like those of DC Comics were square and well-adjusted, but his heroes had human foibles and hang-ups… The evildoers were a mess of psychological complexity.”

As I was learning about the Marvel Universe, I picked up The Origins of Marvel Comics, a book by Stan Lee which Alan David Doane lovingly wrote about. And I got Son of Origins and several other books.

Larry Wilson, who owned a comic book store rival of FantaCo in Albany, noted that “he taught me history, irony, bravery, how to be heroic, fairness, and humility. He gave hope to the downtrodden and told us that good defeats evil, racism is vile, and we all have a role to play in the cause of justice.”

Christopher Allen wrote: “I can’t begin to calculate his impact on me as not just a lover of comics but of reading, of words, and how he affected how I saw the world and the people in it, how even heroes have problems, how everyone deserves respect, and how we are responsible for using our abilities to try to make the world a little better for others.”

Chuck Rozanski, President of Mile High Comics wrote about being “a scared 10 year-old kid hiding in his room from an abusive father in 1965 who found hope and strength through Stan’s awesome early Spider-Man stories…. I took great solace from [Peter Parker’s] struggles to find his place in a hostile world, while still maintaining his decency and never losing his moral compass.

“In many regards, Stan Lee became my surrogate father through the power of his remarkable prose, which still resonates with children (and adults) today. He instilled positive values in me that continue to guide my life, and for that I will be eternally grateful to him.”

Back when my friend Fred Hembeck used to have a daily blog, he always wrote about Stan on December 28, Lee’s birthday. In 2009, wrote: “The man is Fantastic, Amazing, and Incredible, with the Uncanny ability to keep us in Suspense, all the while Astonishing us–even if he is a bit Strange at times!” For an earlier birthday note, see HERE.

John Trumbull collated recollections by people Lee worked with, including Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway and many others. Even in his nineties, Stan was the face of Marvel, as his IMDB page makes clear, with dozens of movie appearances, game voiceovers and the like.

Comic book writer Mark Evanier has an interesting perspective. “The trouble with having mixed feelings about someone is that there are those who just want to dwell on the negative ones.”

Also: “Those of you who feel like I do that our friend Jack Kirby was wronged by credits in the past, please remember that Marvel now credits Jack where for decades they did not.” Stan, for his part, was almost always generous in describing Kirby and Ditko’s role in the Marvel method.

I was sadly aware that his last year or so was difficult. “Lee’s wife and partner in nearly everything, Joan Lee, died on July 6, 2017, leaving a void that made her husband… vulnerable to hangers-on who began to surround him.”

The Vanity Fair article, and title, are correct: Stan Lee’s True Legacy Is a Complicated Cosmic Mystery. Ditto the subtitle: “Marvel’s greatest showman was always misunderstood—by those who inflated his importance, and those who dismissed him as a boastful egomaniac.”

Finally, this public service message from Stan. RIP, true believer.
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Now I Know: When a Court Ruled Whether the X-Men Are Human