Assessing the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Part 2

WARNING: Spoilers for the MCU.

(NOTE: My Good list from my previous post omits the best film I’ve seen based on a Marvel Comics property, Logan, the swan song for Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine. It has its share of grit and grime, but it also has a heart and a grace note of hope, and it boasts sterling performances from all its principals. The movie’s young heroine, Laura, is almost a co-protagonist in terms of the development and emphasis she is given. But I had to leave it out, since it’s not officially a part of Disney’s MCU. I just wanted to note my regard for it.)

THE OKAY:

Captain America: Civil War. Third time isn’t quite the charm for the Captain America series, at least where female characters are concerned. While I enjoyed the intriguing and charismatic Black Panther (the highlight of the film, for me), and the movie’s central question of how and why superheroes might be policed has no easy answers, the problem is that the more characters are included, the less development there is to go around, and this time, sadly, the women (Black Widow and Scarlet Witch) are given short shrift. Black Widow does get my favorite line in the movie, however; when another character asks her whether anyone has ever told her she’s paranoid, she responds, tongue firmly in cheek, “Not to my face. Why? Has somebody said something?”

Avengers: Age of Ultron. Some of the fun of the last team-up is preserved, and the addition of Scarlet Witch is welcome, but again, Scarlett Johannson’s Black Widow is underserved. In the first film, she plays the distressed damsel. In this one, she is the distressed damsel, the only team member to get captured. She observes and thinks while in captivity, but she must wait for her male partners to rescue her — a sad case of a sequel being less progressive than its predecessor in terms of representation and challenging the old gender stereotypes.

Iron Man. Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark is an engaging anti-hero, and while non-powered love interest Pepper Potts is a quivering bundle of terror at the climax (as well she might be), she still manages to be useful. Yet Pepper’s first scene puts a bad taste in my mouth that never quite goes away, as she refers to dispensing with Stark’s latest bed-mate, an investigative reporter, as “taking out the trash” — to the woman’s face. What exactly makes this woman “trash”? That she sleeps with Stark, or that she asks him hard questions? Or is this a way of pointing out that “trash” is how Stark sees her? Because Pepper is the heroine, we in the audience are clearly supposed to be fine with this bit of catty slut-shaming. Well, sorry. It bugs me.

THE DISAPPOINTING:

Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 2, or The Movie Everyone Else Loves. I can handle a villainess like the High Priestess of the Sovereigns as long as the female hero gets her share of badass moments. Gamora, my favorite green-skinned assassin, gets one, and only one, badass moment, and it takes place in the movie’s first ten minutes. Thereafter she gets next to nothing to do but fret about Peter Quill and commiserate with her evil sister Nebula. To make matters worse, we’re introduced to Mantis, a thinly veiled stereotype of an Asian “comfort woman” who has very little to contribute and is accordingly the first to get knocked out at the climax. Aside from Quill himself, the only members of the team who have truly meaningful “hero moments” are Rocket Raccoon and ex-villain Yondu. As a result I find myself longing to edit the Sovereigns right out of the movie. It has plenty of story without them, after all.

Doctor Strange. Setting aside the obvious objections — the miscasting of Tilda Swinton in a role for which Michelle Yeoh would have been ideal, and the criminal underdevelopment of yet another non-powered love interest (I swear, once, just once, can’t a superpowered man fall for a superpowered woman? Just to shake things up?) — my dissatisfaction can be summed up by a brief description of the climactic battle. Evil is represented by a man and two women. On the side of Good, we have three men. I just can’t bring myself to be okay with that.

Thor: The Dark World. Kenneth Branagh’s failure to return as director should have been sufficient warning that a lot of the earlier movie’s charm would be lost in this one. Its worse crime: the reduction of Jane Foster, the active and competent heroine of the first film, to a damsel who does nothing useful until the last fifteen minutes and who spends nearly half the running time unconscious, being carried hither and yon by Thor and even Loki. In the first film, I could almost understand why Thor would fall for Jane when the amazing Sif was right there, but in this one it becomes a clear case of “Gentlemen Prefer Damsels,” a trope that sets my teeth on edge. Not helping matters: seeing another female character go full badass just long enough to get herself killed.

Iron Man 2 and Iron Man 3. The most important thing about these films is how little I remember them. I remember from 2 the first appearance of Black Widow getting a big build-up with little payoff and Tony Stark being a charmless jerk for most of the running time. From 3 I remember Pepper finally getting superhero capabilities only to lose them, because apparently a superhero’s love interest just has to be an Ordinary Girl. Beyond that, I couldn’t tell you a thing about what happens in either of these films.

HAVEN’T SEEN:

Ant-Man. The sidelining of a capable potential female hero in favor of a less competent man is actually a significant plot point in this one, and a closing-credits scene really can’t make up for it. It just isn’t for me.

THE OUTLOOK:

Spider-Man: Homecoming. Despite great reviews, I will probably wait for the Blu-Ray release to see it. I have heard from people who note that the movie shows a conscious effort to make its young female characters smart and interesting, and this time around they aren’t damseled. Good. But I think I may need a bit more distance from Wonder Woman in order to enjoy it properly.

Thor: Ragnarok. My lack of interest in this one is based entirely on the trailer. Cate Blanchett’s Hela is a powerful force for Evil, but unfortunately it looks like Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie is also a villain, albeit a more minor one. No one remotely like a heroine, let alone a female hero, appears in the trailer. Some movies seem to have been designed from the ground up to please me (from last year, Hidden Figures, Moana, and Zootopia). This one looks as if it were designed not to please me. All the same, I’ll keep an eye out for some Spoilery reviews, because sometimes trailers are misleading.

 

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