Phase 2 of the Marvel movies focused mostly on returning heroes, but two new properties came to the screens. The second of these was 2015’s Ant-Man.
Ant-Man had to be a hard character to bring to screen in a believable fashion. A man who shrinks to bug-size does not seem useful in a fight. The entire premise seems comical–which is the angle Marvel Studios seized upon with this film. The casting of comedic actor Paul Rudd as Scott Lang sent a message–this film was not to be taken too seriously. While Michael Douglas’ Hank Pym created ties to the larger movie universe, this film was as small in scope as its lead.
The result is an affable, and unremarkable, entry in the series. Following many beats of the original Iron Man film, we see Lang get a super-powered suit, learn to use it in better ways, and eventually fight against a bald villain who stole both a technology company and a powered suit. Yet as charismatic as Rudd is, he failed to bring the energy and the reality Downey gave Iron Man. Rudd’s humor ends up playing like a poor man’s version of Chandler from Friends, and the movie’s funniest moments are owned by supporting actor Michael Peña.
The result is the first Marvel Cinematic Universe film that seems perfect for little kids, and forgettable by adult standards. This film had been called the first film of Phase 3, then changed to the last film of Phase 2. I believe that’s because they didn’t want to start a new phase with such a small effort.
6. Captain America: The First Avenger
Captain America was another challenging hero to sell to audiences. Created pre-World War II, the flag-draped Star Spangled Man seemed to have no place in a modern world. Starting with the Vietnam war patriotism became quite un-hip. Even Guns N’ Roses decried Cap’s usefulness in their 1987 hit “Paradise City.”
Today Captain America’s fifth film opens, and it’s been proven he can work in the modern day. Marvel Studios pulled it off. But to get there, to create the All-American Hero, they started with an origin story set in World War II.
Having this period-piece setting was perhaps the single boldest move of Marvel’s Phase 1 films. Yet doing so allowed for a full origin story for the hero, and having him come from a time when such righteousness and patriotism were commonplace.
The movie has many issues. The pacing is off. I love the time we spend with “skinny Steve” (star Chris Evans’ head CGI-ed onto a thin, frail body). This movie is his origin story and this part of the film demonstrates his earnest and brave nature. But the focus on this origin leaves little time for Hugo Weaving’s baddie The Red Skull to shine. His Hydra organization is ill-defined, and his final plan lacked weight. I put many of these issues on the director Joe Johnston.
But the film is much better in hindsight. Supporting characters Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) and Agent Peggy Carter (Haley Atwell) have grown from their roots here. Five more Captain America films, and a Peggy Carter TV series, have spawned all due to this period piece. Plus The First Avenger also showcases the roots of The Winter Soldier and Hydra–both of which improve in Cap’s second film.
Finally, even in his first outing, Chris Evans shines as the star. This former Johnny Storm has gone on to own this role as fully as Robert Downey Jr. owns Iron Man, and it all started with The First Avenger.
Thor was another comic character that had to be difficult to bring to screen. Outside of comic circles few may have even known Thor was an Avenger, thinking of only his roots in Norse mythology. More, the Marvel Cinematic Universe had all its origins firmly rooted in science — super computers, armored suits, and super soldier serums. With Thor comes a fantastical realm that, done wrong, could end up playing like a torturous Shakespeare in the Park performance.
Marvel Studios played with those expectations, and (as they would later do with Ant-Man) changed the genre. In this film, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is stripped of his powers and banished to Earth. There he meets physicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and a fish-out-of-water rom-com ensues. The closest comparitive I can make is 2001’s Jean Reno/Christina Applegate comedy Just Visiting.
Kenneth Branagh was an inspired choice to direct Thor (replacing Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class, and Stardust director Matthew Vaughn). Branagh is likely best known for acting and directing his Shakespeare adaptations. His ability to work with Shakespearean language and setting lends confidence to his staging of Thor’s realm of Asgard. But more, Branagh has a knack for Shakespeare’s comedies — his Much Ado About Nothing remains my favorite of his Shakespeare films. His knack for timing and grandeur carry this film.
Don’t expect a kick-ass action film, though. While an early battle with the Frost Giants is a spectacle to behold, much of this movie has Thor powerless. As antagonist Loki, Tom Hiddleston shows only conflict, not evil. The result is a weak bad guy who I couldn’t imagine standing up to The Avengers.
Your enjoyment of Thor will fully depend on your enjoyment of films like Crocodile Dundee — a man out of place in modern America, and falling in love. Thor succeeds in everything that it tried — it just may have not tried hard enough for fans used to Iron Man and Hulk.