Rewatching 10 Years of the MCU: Part 3

I haven’t actually watched all of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) Films in a while. I revisit my favorites when the mood strikes, but otherwise I haven’t really gone back in a way that’s comprehensive. But given it is the 10th anniversary of Iron Man, and Avengers: Infinity War is coming out at the end of April, it seems like an ideal time to reflect.

I’ll be going chronologically, and covering at least two films per entry, since there are eighteen of them in all. Part 1 covered Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, and Thor. In Part 2, I revisited Captain America: The First Avenger and The Avengers. This entry kicks off Phase 2, covering Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World.

7. Iron Man 3 (dir. Shane Black, 2013)

From Iron Man 3 forward (at least through Black Panther), every Marvel movie is about the sins of the past coming back to bite us in the ass. In a lot of ways, this mirrors a similar trend in superhero comics, and it’s easy to see why. Giving the hero a personal connection to the villain is a way to raise stakes that might matter more than the upteenth world-ending threat as well as building on the mythology in a way that feels more impactful than a new threat rising. Many of these also bring questions of self-identity, and the past is a convenient way to address that, as well as an important segway to all the Daddy issues. There are a handful of Marvel heroes that aren’t obsessed with their dad (Captain America and Doctor Strange, though presumably the later has a crazy father we don’t know about) but as goes Iron Man, so goes everyone else.

In that way, Iron Man 2 is sort of the model for every film since, because a threat from Tony’s father’s past comes back for Tony to reckon with. By contrast, Iron Man 3 is about Tony wrestling with his own legacy, as well as his post-traumatic stress from The Avengers. The latter is more interesting than the former. While the legacy stuff mostly works, this might be the most high profile film hero to openly have emotional issues from events in a prior film. Even though it is occasionally played for laughs, seeing the “genius billionaire playboy philanthropist” Tony Stark with crippling anxiety does make me feel a bit better about my own issues. I get that most people probably wouldn’t want to see a film that was solely focused on this, but I think it would be brilliant, and I give Shane Black full credit for even going there.

But watching this film again reveals that it is a film consisting of real highs and lows. There’s some of the best moments in any Marvel film (including Robert Downey, Jr.’s best performance as Tony Stark) as well as some of the worst. Watching it so closely to the first two films in this trilogy, I was wondering what Jon Favreau’s third film would have been like. I always assumed that Favreau wanted to tackle the “Demon in a Bottle” storyline from the comics where Tony deals with his alcoholism, but that seemed abandoned even by Iron Man 2. Then Favreau went to try to make Magic Kingdom and ended up doing The Jungle Book and The Lion King digital remakes, so what do I know. Shane Black was clearly brought in based on his work with Downey on the career-revitalizing Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and their voices mesh extremely well together. It’s a good call, and giving Black the freedom to make this film his own mostly pays off. However, some of Black’s tendencies don’t serve the franchise as established in the first two films.

First, the things that really work. The Mandarin reveal—that he is really a stage actor with a substance abuse problem—totally works. It was pretty controversial at the time for some reason* but it’s a really clever choice, and the more the films choose outdated concepts from the comics and reinvent them, the better. The relationship stuff with Pepper in the first act mostly works because we know that Tony, a self-described narcissist, would be an awful boyfriend. The reveal of Maya Hansen is really fun, but the film doesn’t actually sell the impact of it as much as it should, despite Rebecca Hall’s excellent performance. And everything about Tony without his suit going McGuyver is the best stuff in the film.

But the rest of the villainy in this film just drags it down way too much. Aldrich Killian was brought in because they couldn’t sell toys of a female villain as easily (Where are my Obadiah Stane and Justin Hammer action figures?), but is a total waste. And then it gets worse when he goes shirtless, reveals a giant dragon chest tattoo and calls himself the real Mandarin. It’s awful and it’s dumb. And his underlings range from blandly evil to innocent victim. I think. The whole point of the Extremis idea is that it was going to heal military veterans and other amputees, making them whole again or even super soldiers. But the film never articulates if everyone in this program (or in the AIM thinktank) was evil to begin with, or a rube that was manipulated (which means we should feel bad when they get exploded).

And then there is the way this film treats Pepper Potts. Yes, she is still in charge of the company, but it plays into the tired trope of making her the damsel in distress in the third act. Yes, having Killian literally want her as a trophy (but also murder her with Extremis injections) makes him more of a slimeball, but this is already a dude who has a giant dragon chest tattoo. So redundant at best. But it’s a credit to the first two films that they don’t go there, and to use it in the fourth film these characters appear in feels awfully lazy. Ditto for both Iron Man sequels having Rhodey’s suit being hijacked by the villains. So while there are some clever bits, overall, I liked this movie less than I remembered from the last time I watched it.

*I’ve been reading comics pretty constantly for almost 15 years, and I can’t name a single story the classic version of the character appeared in, not to mention easily interpreted as culturally insensitive no matter the intention. Plus he has ten magic rings, and if you are a stickler enough to want a character who is easily just a stereotype if not executed perfectly that you want ten magic rings, they can barely explain how a single Infinity stone works when it is the MacGuffin for the entire film, yet you want a film that bores people with explaining how a pinky ring can create perfect darkness, plus another nine? Sorry. Not gonna happen, and it is for the best.

8. Thor: The Dark World (dir. Alan Taylor, 2013)

Lots of “creative differences” behind the scenes with this one. Future Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins left the project because she wanted to make a film focusing on the forbidden romance between Thor and Jane Foster. It’s basically my dream project, especially because Natalie Portman is so good at looking at Chris Hemsworth like he is a supremely handsome demigod (I’m not saying it’s difficult to look at Hemsworth that way, but she does a great job selling a sense of awe as well as awwww).

But instead, Marvel decided to focus on the relationship between Thor and Loki. After Tom Hiddleston’s performance made Loki one of the biggest breakout characters in Phase 1, it is hard to argue with that logic. So they made the A-plot all about Thor and Loki, and regulated Jane to a secondary plot (even though she is technically the MacGuffin of the entire thing). It’s not a bad choice necessarily, but there’s probably a better way to thread those two stories together.

And then there’s Malekith. The image above is a comparison between an on-set photo of Christopher Eccleston and the version of Malekith from the comics. The comics version is just a more engaging visual design. The version in this film is bland and feels generic. Eccleston was a great casting choice, and the manic nature of his Doctor Who performance would have been fantastic. One of the biggest improvements the MCU has made over the course of the last few years is to embrace the colorful nature of comics, and while this film does a better job with the Asgardian elements of the film, everything else is pretty unremarkable.

Those are the major problems with Thor: The Dark World. But this movie actually kind of rules. The interplay between Odin, Thor, Loki, Jane, and Frigga is great, with lots of passive-aggressive sniping. It’s played for comedy, but also has enough weight to show the characters changing and evolving. It’s great stuff, and highly entertaining.

The film has a longer exposition than is maybe needed (sort of like part 1 of a Doctor Who story), but from the Asgard escape onward, it really comes together as a fantastical action-adventure with characters that are great to spend time with. The back-and-forth between Thor, Loki, and Jane is enough to make up for the blandness of Malekith. And the finale that involves interplanetary portals is really fun, with great comedy and character moments as well as action.

This one is underrated compared to some of the other films, and deserves a better reputation than it enjoys primarily because it wholeheartedly embraces the crazy nature of cosmic comic book stories.

Also, on a fun note, Thor: The Dark World is the first MCU film I reviewed for this website, and I feel like I’ve gotten a lot better in the last 5 years.

Overall ranking after this viewing:

  1. The Avengers
  2. Captain America: The First Avenger
  3. Iron Man
  4. Thor
  5. Thor: The Dark World
  6. Iron Man 3
  7. Iron Man 2
  8. The Incredible Hulk

Author: Ryan Silberstein

Ryan spends his days at a company named one of the best to work for in the Philadelphia area, and his nights as a mysterious caped vigilante saving his city from the disease that is crime watching movies. He lives on a diet consisting of film, comic books, experimental beer, black coffee, and those big metal historical markers around town. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.

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