Yes, I know, I run a book blog, not titled themoviewyrm, but I want to try something a little different anyway. I’ve actually not seen most of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies. Shocking, I know. I’ll hand in my nerd card. I’ve seen several of them; all of phase 1 and a handful of some of the later ones, but mostly I feel like I live under a rock where these movies are concerned. I’ve also started to hear a lot more critique about these movies and the messages they’re sending, which actually makes me kind of curious to view them under a slightly more critical lens. Therefore I decided to watch all the ones available on streaming, in release order, and blog about my impressions.
This is going to contain explicit spoilers of all the movies so if you haven’t seen them and want to do so unspoiled, here’s your warning to click that little x in the corner of your browser window before it’s too late.
Out of the MCU movies I have seen already, I recall thinking the Ironman movies were the weakest, but I couldn’t remember why. I actually used to like Ironman second most out of the original Avengers (Thor is fave) because I admired his snark (Tony Snark, amirite?), but found his original movies to be lackluster compared to Thor or Captain America.
Rewatching Ironman 1, though, I do think it was probably quite a fun movie back in its day. There were some shallow visual things that I liked. I enjoyed watching Tony iterate through designs of the Ironman suit, and was jealous of all his futuristic tech-gadgets and butler robot. Below surface-level campy fun, though, Ironman 1 really hasn’t withstood the test of time.
Tony Stark, far from being the clever and witty character I remembered, is actually kind of an asshole. To be fair, at the beginning of the movie, he is supposed to be an asshole. He is arrogant, womanizing, and extremely cavalier about his inventions being used to slaughter nameless civilians in the Middle East. But despite undergoing considerable character growth in the first movie, Tony continues to be extremely self-absorbed and arrogant. I suppose this is realistic, but still a little disappointing.
A recent viral Twitter thread accused the MCU movies of glorifying war and the military, going so far as to blame them for current conflicts. I think blaming the MCU is going a little far, since the US, and humanity in general, have engaged in stupid pointless wars for far, far longer than Disney has been making superhero movies. But stories that glorify war irresponsibly are always worth taking a critical look at, lest we blindly accept their messages without thinking it through.
At first glance, Ironman’s message seems to be adamantly anti-war. Tony Stark begins the movie as a shameless war profiteer, and this is painted as a Very Very Bad Thing. After undergoing a harrowing captivity behind enemy lines, he resolves to turn over a new leaf and stop manufacturing weapons, much to his business mentor’s and shareholders’ dismay.
This is all well and good, but I think it could have been presented a lot better. I feel like Disney wanted to explore the horrific consequences of war, but were afraid to do so in a way that wasn’t safe, sanitized, and, well, Disneyfied. The only reason Tony is forced to confront his war profiteering at all is because he finds out that the other side has gotten ahold of his weapons and might potentially use them against Americans. That the US military might, too, put his weapons to dubious use, is never considered, and the implicit assumption that American war is fine because Americans are doing it is never questioned.
In one scene, the terrorists who hold Tony captive at the beginning of the movie attack a small village for seemingly no reason. Tony, being the hero, has to swoop in in his Ironman suit and rescue the hapless villagers. This has a whiff of white saviorism to it, but also, maybe it was my imagination, but it sure seemed like the villagers, the “good” Middle Eastern people, had considerably paler skin than the browner-skinned “bad” Middle Eastern terrorists. Additionally, pretty much every Middle Eastern character with a speaking role was a one-dimensional stereotype.
I feel like this movie had real potential to tackle some really difficult moral quandaries, and it has this sort of feeling of almost, almost getting there, but then chickening out at the last moment.
This movie for the most part stands on its own without ties to the rest of the MCU. Until the end-credits scene where Nick Fury does his now-famous “I’m putting a team together” spiel, there is no indication that there is any wider universe of superheroes. We do meet Phil Coulson in this one, and there’s a bit of a gag where he keeps spelling out the full SHIELD acronym and everyone makes fun of him for how much of a mouthful it is. But missing from this movie are the supernatural and futuristic tech of the later movies — with the exception of the arc reactor, the bit of sci-fi tech that gives rise to the Ironman suit, there’s nothing to say this movie couldn’t happen in the plain old real world, 20 minutes in the future.
The Incredible Hulk
Hey, I lied! I’m not watching all the Marvel movies! This one’s not on streaming anywhere and Mark Ruffalo isn’t in it so eh fuck it I’m skipping this one.
I did watch it a few years ago and I recall is that Arwen from Lord of the Rings is there and Hulk Smashes.
Ironman 2 brings us further into the MCU fold, with Nick Fury and Phil Coulson stopping in a little more frequently. There are a couple of references to either Thor or the Hulk movie that I didn’t watch, when Nick says he needs to “handle a situation in New Mexico.” We also meet Scarlet Johansson’s Black Widow for the first time, in the guise of Tony’s new assistant, since his faithful assistant and sometimes love-interest Pepper has been promoted to CEO.
Of the original phase 1 movies, I feel like Ironman 2 was probably the least memorable. All I remembered coming in is that Elon Musk does a cameo and there was a car race at one point which goes badly. However, I actually liked this movie a lot more than the first one.
The movie begins with Stark seeming to live his best life. He is extremely popular saving the world as Ironman, the US is at peace for the first time in approximately ever, and of there are plenty of parties and booze and attractive women.
However, all is not well in Stark-land. The arc reactor Tony requires to keep him alive is slowly poisoning him. The government wants the access to his battle mech. His business rival, named, believe it or not, Hammer, would do anything to bring him down. And now, Ivan Vanko, son of his father’s estranged business partner, has come along looking for revenge.
These central conflicts are what keep this story compelling, because unfortunately, most of the characters are kind of a drag. Tony does a lot of backsliding from his character development in the first movie, perhaps largely because he thinks he is dying and is out of fucks to give. The romance between Tony and Pepper was kind of irksome as well. In their interactions, she acts more like his mother than a partner, and he in turn is an entitled manchild in need of mothering. This does not the foundations of a healthy partnership make.
Then we have this major douche.
Wait, shit, wrong Hammer.
This major douche.
Justin Hammer is not a terribly well-developed character. He seems to have been made for the sole purpose of being an over-the-top, ridiculous, major douche. And you know what, I’m okay with this. Sometimes it’s fun to have an over-the-top sleezeball to root against. They probably could’ve turned the douchery down just a little and not lost any of the story, though.
The other vilain, Ivan Vanko, is actually the most compelling character in the movie. He is eccentric and loves his pet bird and doesn’t put up with any of Douche Hammer’s bullshit even when they’re working together.
I do wish they’d leaned more into why his grievances were justified. Tony and Ivan’s fathers were business partners who invented the arc reactor together. In the beginning it seems like maybe Howard Stark stole the arc reactor plans from Vanko Senior and got him deported back to Russia, which would give Ivan a plausible revenge motive and knock Stark Senior down from his vaunted pedestal, creating delicious delicious character drama.
Instead, however, Nick Fury gives some explanation that makes no gotdamn sense, about how Vanko wanted to use the arc reactor to get rich, so Stark had him deported. First of all I didn’t know you could deport someone for wanting to get rich but I guess if you’re Howard Stark you can do what you want. Second of all, ummm, still major dick move, Howard Stark. But the characters don’t treat it like that. Instead, they just sit in Tony Stark’s massive billionaire mansion going, “Mmm, yes, getting rich, terrible goal, Vanko was a bad bad man.”
Like the first movie, I also thought the second movie leaned into the stereotypes quite a bit with regards to foreign villains. When we first meet Vanko he is carrying around a bottle of vodka in his slum as if to demonstrate “Look, behold, how Russian I am.”
Even though Howard Stark is on my shit list right now, I will say I teared up a bit at that moment when Tony watches the recording his father made for him, saying his greatest creation was Tony himself. Parenting hormones, people. Hell of a drug.
Overall I thought this movie was fun in a campy way, but like the first one, displays a certain, I almost want to say cowardice, in that it comes close to raising interesting moral questions but then skirts around them at the last moment.
Next up I’ll be watching Thor. I’ll probably just be ogling Chris Hemsworth and Natalie Portman the whole time, but I’ll also try and review it too!