Captain America: Civil War

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Source: Marvel.com

So good!!! I was lucky enough to go see the movie last night when it opened, and I was not disappointed. I was always hopeful that Civil War would live up to its predecessor Winter Soldier and would do its comic book namesake justice (comic reviewed here). But I also was nervous that, even with the Russo brothers at the helm, this movie could become unmanageable because of the sheer size of the cast or that it would no longer feel like a Captain America movie. I can tell you now, that none of those fears held true. I’m sure some will still criticize the film as “Avengers 2.5,” but it is, first and foremost, a movie about Captain America and his supporting cast (Falcon, Bucky, Sharon Carter) as they navigate the ideological quagmire that is the Sokovia Accords. These accords function as the MCU’s replacement for the Superhero Registration Act in the comics, building on UN-driven, international pressure to regulate and control superhuman activities. As any trailer from the last six months indicated, these accords drove a wedge in the superhero community, leaving Captain America and Iron Man on opposite sides. Each assembled a team of Avengers, new and old, to their causes, leading to some pretty epic battle sequences.

In this review, I will be avoiding spoilers, and focusing on things that were already revealed through trailers, as well as overall execution and tone of the film, rather than discussing specific plot points. I’ll basically break out the strengths and weaknesses of the film below. Don’t worry, there are many, many more strengths than weaknesses!

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Look familiar, True Believers? Source: Marvel.com
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Yes it does! That’s Civil War #7, Cover by Steve McNiven; Source: Marvel.com

Strengths: Though not at all surprising from Marvel at this point, one of the strengths of Civil War is in its comedic timing. There are plenty of jokes and quips from all of the characters you would expect (Spider-Man, Ant-Man, Hawkeye) but also some genuinely funny moments with the relatively new character: Vision. The Russo brothers did a great job of highlighting Vision’s explorations of humanity and a budding relationship with Scarlet Witch. The buddy humor between the three main characters (Cap, Falcon, and Bucky) was also a lot of fun. There was a sense of rivalry between Falcon and Bucky to be Cap’s best friend, and it was definitely fun to watch.

Another huge strength was the movie’s handling of scope. The huge cast of characters all fit into the story well and somehow did not seem overcrowded. The team alignment decisions all seemed well thought out (even if not always well-explained), and the power sets ended up pretty balanced. They also managed to find time to feature each Avenger in a way that showed their powers and their characters. Even Hawkeye, who so often gets overlooked, was shown in a much better light, holding his own against Iron Man and Black Panther, both of whom significantly overpower him. The introductions of both Black Panther and Spider-Man were handled extraordinarily well and the two stole most of the scenes they were in. Wonderful acting by both Chadwick Boseman and Tom Holland makes me extremely excited for their upcoming solo films! The decision to leave Thor and Hulk out was also a great one: either or both of them would have tipped the balance, and their enormous capacity for destruction would have further complicated things. Leaving them out kept the film as a more human affair, with an emphasis on finesse over raw power.

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Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa, AKA Black Panther was a perfect fit for the powerful and calculating Prince of Wakanda. He and Tom Holland (Spider-Man) were tremendous additions to the MCU. Source: Marvel.com

The huge airport fight scene was awesome — it is an incredible feat that it took place in the middle of the movie and did not result in the sort of massive destructive event that most recent films have. Minimizing property destruction and civilian loss of life was also especially important given that those very things had been the catalysts of the Sokovia Accords to begin with. The battle also blended some key elements of humor (though some of the best lines had been cherry-picked for ads over the past six months) and a sort of reluctance on the part of the heroes to fight one another.

Lest we forget, Daniel Bruhl’s Zemo was also wonderfully cast and his role in the film kept just enough on the fringes to make his motives and his influence a mystery to audiences and heroes alike. The resolution of the film allowed for some vital character development and emotional arcs in many of the central characters. Zemo fit the bill for this sort of nefarious plot quite well, and kept either side of the debate from being wholly wrong.

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I wish this had been a surprise rather than something given away in the first trailer. The moment would have been much more meaningful. Source: Marvel.com

Weaknesses: Very, very few overall. My primary criticism was that the picking of sides seemed rushed for some characters (namely Black Widow, Hawkeye, and Falcon). I think their motives were largely implied, but the film could have taken a few more minutes to flesh them out. Black Widow chooses to sign partly in an attempt to atone for past wrongs as an operative, Falcon just wants to be with his buddy and trusts Cap entirely, and Hawkeye…. I think he just doesn’t want his kids to be in danger because a government refuses to send heroes? Or something? I just wish they’d spent 4 more minutes on it to clear things up. Fortunately, this little hiccup is only relevant for a few minutes, as the subsequent battles and debates were well-constructed and deftly toed the line of keeping the fighting civil and between friends. It was far less brutal than previous battles with villains had been.

My other biggest complaint is actually based on the marketing materials leading up to the movie’s release. See the above photo of War Machine? Why was that part of the trailers? That ruined any element of surprise that we could have experienced while watching the movie. I guess the Russo brothers aren’t quite JJ Abrams with their big reveals, but I just thought they’d try to keep something this important under wraps. At least they did keep most of Spider-Man’s scenes out of trailers, that was a good call.

Overall, Civil War was a great movie and one of the better entries into the MCU. I don’t think it can quite top Guardians or Iron Man, but it’s pretty close. I absolutely loved it and hope I’ll be able to see it again soon!

Rating: 9 of 10

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Tom Holland is an Amazing Spider-Man. Source: youtube.com via giphy.com

 

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Hmmm see how Spider-Man was edited out of the trailer? Source: youtube.com via giphy.com

You’ve already read the safe review, now here are some of my favorite things from Captain America: Civil War that would definitely count as *SPOILERS* — Blorgons, proceed at your own peril! Ant-Man is finally Giant Man! He’s huge and he’s hilarious. Spider-Man’s first suit and how Stark found him! A quick glimpse of Wakanda as well as the cool blend of honor and straight up bad-assery that Black Panther brings. I also applaud Marvel’s willingness to remove some characters from the fight, at least for a while. I expected some deaths to help bring down the numbers, but this will do for now. There is still some risk of over-crowding in the future films, especially with characters still on their way and a Guardians/Avengers team-up imminent, but that problem can be put off for now.

Make Mine Marvel! Excelsior! Not Brand Ech!

 

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Civil War: The Comic Inspiration

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Civil War #1; Cover Artist: Steve McNiven; Source: Marvel.com

By 2006, Marvel was already pretty solidly into its new wave of crossover events (see more on the eventification of Marvel here). Many of these turned into overwrought and underdeveloped cross-promotional stunts to increase readership. But in the summer of 2006, Mark Millar and Steve McNiven released a seven-issue miniseries that would rock the core of the Marvel universe unlike anything ever had before. It was Marvel’s first real attempt to modernize their universe’s continuity to the post-9/11 worldview, integrating the fear and skepticism that were (and continue to be) very prominent in the real world into a comic book setting. The Civil War event focused on the distrust in authority and general feelings of divisiveness that had been growing in the American subconscious. The battle lines were drawn along ideological lines and began a superhero-wide debate about how to balance privacy and security. Many characters preferred to mortgage privacy and personal liberty in order to promote a broader sense of security and accountability, while others saw this choice as government overreach and a forced invasion of privacy.

This debate could have easily happened over any number of key political issues in the modern American media environment, ranging from gun control to the Patriot Act or whistleblowers, but the clever creators, Millar and McNiven, created a fictional analog that still held these tenets. Civil War presented a national tragedy caused by the negligence and inexperience of a group of immature superheroes chasing reality TV show ratings, rather than justice. The whole event, deemed the “Stamford incident” involved this inexperienced super-team losing control of the apprehension of some supervillains outside of an elementary school in Stamford, Connecticut. The result was a massive explosion that killed hundreds of innocent children. The event was a national tragedy, inspiring the US Congress to draft legislation to limit superheroes in an unprecedented act to regulate superhero vigilantism. The “Superhero Registration Act” would require all masked superheroes to register their identities to SHIELD and sign up to participate in a broader “50 State Initiative.”

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Civil War #7 Variant; Cover Artist: Michael Turner; Source: Marvel.com

The fallout from the Civil War was also pretty wide-spread. It set the tone for the rest of the decade’s mega-events, creating a rift in the superhero community that wouldn’t really be healed until the Heroic Age. Driving a large subset of the Avengers (led be Luke Cage) underground, and keeping peacekeeping and security agencies like SHIELD occupied with enforcing the Registration Act left the world vulnerable to multiple rounds of hostile takeover attempts in the Secret Invasion, Dark Reign, and Siege storylines. The far-reaching influence of the Civil War on the broader Marvel Universe makes this ambitious event even more essential reading to any Marvel fan.

I would be remiss not to mention the movie coming out later this week that shares the comic’s name: Captain America: Civil War. Though the movie will clearly drawn on Millar and McNiven’s source material, such as using civilian deaths and property destruction to demonstrate growing skepticism of the superhuman community. It will likely involve a similar Superhuman Registration Act, and the subsequent rift in the Avengers is very much like the comic. With Iron Man and Cap leading the two sides, it could seem, at first, like the movie will be a fairly direct interpretation of the comic.

However, I predict that the similarities will stop there, as key members of the cast will be vastly different. First, the scale of the comic included an enormous cast of characters from across the Marvel Universe, including the Fantastic Four and some members of the X-Men, none of whom can appear due to copyrights. This is particularly a bummer for the FF characters, as the comic does a great job of portraying how the event affected Sue and Reed’s relationship, but instead we have to suffer through more hackneyed attempts by Fox to make money off of their FF rights…

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Team Cap looks a bit different from the comics; Source: youtube.com via giphy.com

A second reason that I don’t think the comic is predictive of the movie is a *Spoiler* for the Avengers: Disassembled event that preceded Civil War by a few years (Side note: it’s a good read for those that want a jumping off point into the Bendis era/ 21st Century Marvel). Half of the characters that are in the MCU currently and make up this movie’s cast were either dead at the time (Hawkeye, Scarlet Witch, Ant-Man II – Scott Lang) or were portrayed as being members of the opposite team (Black Panther, Vision). Bucky, who presumably will be a key character in the film, doesn’t appear in the main 7-issue arc, though he is, admittedly, a primary character in the concurrent (and tremendous) Brubaker run on Captain America, which has significant tie-ins to the Civil War event. Black Widow and War Machine, though they don’t appear in the comic, are presumably on Iron Man’s side (Black Widow joins Iron Man’s Mighty Avengers shortly thereafter). That leaves only Cap, Iron Man, and Falcon as being consistent in their team alignments between the comic and movie.

Review:

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7th and Final Issue; Cover Artist: Steve McNiven; Source: Marvel.com

I have now read this event a good number of times, and each time I find that I am more impressed with it than the last. There are a significant number of characters featured in this event, but almost all of them seems like important cameos. The key characters really are Captain America, Iron Man, Spider-Man, and Sue and Reed Richards, but there are probably hundreds of characters that show up at one point or another. The only prominent characters who sit on the sidelines are the X-Men, who largely stay out of it because of self-interest, their repeated attempts to combat legislation requiring all mutants to register left them unwilling to draw any more interest upon themselves. But each read-through highlights another character’s fantastic cameo, whether it is Daredevil’s snarky Judas reference to Tony Stark, the attack on the Human Torch outside of a club, or the contrasting views of Captain America and the Punisher, this seven-issue series is absolutely packed with iconic Marvel moments.

Sure, there are those who say that this crowding distracts from the story, or makes it a bit unmanageable to read, but that’s where some of the gazillion tie-ins come in. They are designed to flesh out some side character arcs to explain their alignment and/or participation in the broader progression of the event. The primary Civil War miniseries is sufficient reading all by itself, but there are some good tie-in stories in the Captain America, Iron Man, and Amazing Spider-Man series that do a great job of showing each character’s position more fully. I think that this event is truly impressive in its scope and its allegorical assessment of the modern American psyche. The idea that our fear can drive us to punish those who are most invested in our interests strikes a very real chord in its readers, and inspires some further introspection.

Some other critics have opined the creative decision to reveal certain characters’ secret identities to the public, largely because of their impact to the solo titles. I can certainly understand and appreciate that frustration, however, I primarily looked at the Civil War event in terms of how it accomplished its own goals and the success with which it developed the central argument of privacy vs. security. In the end, that means that I found this event to be one of, if not the best, mega-event, crossover spectacular Marvel has ever released. The political allegory does what the best science fiction does, and critiques our modern society through a fictional portrayal of our fears and our hopes. Though some of the after-effects of this comic were detrimental to the overall Marvel universe, I think that this series’ readability and overall execution was fantastic. It is definitely on my short list of comics to recommend, to new and old readers alike.

Overall Rating: 8 of 10

Marvel’s Daredevil – Season 2

Marvel’s new lineup of Netflix shows stormed onto the scene last year with the first season of Marvel’s Daredevil, where Charlie Cox, Vincent D’Onofrio, and company delivered masterful portrayal of the iconic hero, as well as a dark and gritty look into the world superheroes at large. The violence and moral ambiguity of vigilantism and the horrible depravity of the criminal underworld led to some truly innovative scenes, pushing the superhero genre further than it had ever seen on television or in films. The frills and bombast of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) keeps its heroes fun and witty, fighting more with lasers and well-timed quips than beating their enemies to a bloody pulp. This is not a criticism of the MCU, as I greatly enjoyed the vast majority of their films (see a full review here), but the tone and intended audience is quite a bit different in these Netflix shows. The mature content drives plots to more complex and distressing topics like sexual and domestic abuse, human trafficking, and other horrible things that can occur in the underbelly of a major city. This first season was incredible and highlighted a whole new world of content made available to Marvel fans like myself. A resounding applause to the whole creative team, led by Jeph Loeb.

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Source: Marvel.com

After the wildly successful and creative first season of Daredevil, Marvel followed it with another new show six months later. This time, the title character was a little-known super-powered woman named Jessica Jones, a foul-mouthed, aggressive, functional alcoholic with a dark past. Marvel’s Jessica Jones pushed mature themes even further, as Jessica served as a sort of antihero, reluctantly seeking an odd and occasionally disturbing combination of justice and revenge. Her interests were sometimes selfish, her approach can only be described as unorthodox, and her treatment of friends and lovers was not always the nicest. The depth and complexity of Jessica’s character, delivered by Kristen Ritter, was perfect. She is the most complex and dynamic character Marvel has developed to date. The whole show, anchored by opposing performances by Ritter and David Tennant as the horrifyingly evil Killgrave was an absolute thrill. These two shows set the bar so high for following seasons in Marvel’s Netflix line, that it seemed the sky was the limit.

Following another six month gap, we arrive at the present. Marvel’s Daredevil released a second season to follow its incredible inaugural performance. Anticipation had been building for months, as casting decisions for the next two entries (Luke Cage and Iron Fist) were gradually announced. Marvel confirmed a second season of Jessica Jones would be on its way as well. Marketing and trailers revealed that two of the most iconic members of Daredevil’s supporting cast would be making their small screen debuts: the Punisher and Elektra. I had March 18th marked on my calendar. I was ready!

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Daredevil (Charlie Cox) was joined by Punisher (Jon Bernthal) and Elektra (Elodie Young) in the Second Season. Source: Marvel.com

The start of the season brought the same incredible drama that had drawn me in so completely in the first season. A new, unknown force (clearly the Punisher) was taking down large swaths of the criminal underworld in a massive, execution-style take-down. Naturally, Daredevil finds himself at odds with this brutal riff on vigilantism, leading to an epic ideological struggle. This first arc lasts for about six episodes, centering on the contrasting worldviews of Matt Murdock and Frank Castle, the latter of which, played perfectly by Jon Bernthal, absolutely stole the show. The rooftop scene where Frank and Matt first debate their competing visions of justice and vigilantism is iconic. Daredevil is chained to a chimney, while the Punisher tries to convince him that he is “just one bad day away from being me.” The contrast between Castle’s callous brutality and his severe emotional damage made for an extremely compelling character. He was terrifying and yet pitiable, a murderer and a hero. I can’t say enough about the handling of the Punisher’s character and that whole first arc.

Unfortunately, the second arc of the season was not quite as well fleshed out. The introduction of Elektra (played by Elodie Young) did work pretty well, and Young brought a certain crazed energy to the character that seemed true to source material. I also enjoyed the flashbacks to Elektra and Matt’s earlier romance, which cleanly provided the background audiences needed in order to understand the present-day relationship. The show’s decision to downplay the mystical elements of Miller’s original writing was a good one. Though the mysterious “Black Sky” did leave mystical or spiritual possession on the table for an explanation of Elektra’s blood-lust. I appreciated Marvel’s willingness to show Elektra as an erratic, thrill-seeking and borderline sadistic woman, though I never understand the romantic interest in such tropes. But beyond the characterization, much of the plot of this second arc was underdeveloped. The Hand seemed to appear out of nowhere and the question of their zombie-like “raised from the dead” status was more opaque than necessary.

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My favorite scene of the entire season: two vigilantes flesh out opposing philosophies on justice. Source: Marvel.com

All of that being said, my largest problems of the whole season came during the final episode, when it felt as though the show took some shortcuts in an attempt to wrap up many story lines at once. Needless to say, this paragraph will be largely *SPOILERS*, so just skip to the next one if you have not yet watched. First, why does Karen continue to go off alone and get into danger? I think it undermines the development of her “street-smart” persona if she continues to be so careless. Castle’s house, the Colonel’s house, abduction by the Hand… is she a strong, enabled character? Or just another damsel in distress? I would prefer the former. Second, the rekindling of Matt and Elektra’s romance seemed abrupt. He resisted romantic interest for most of the show then just decided he loved her again at the end? Eh, kind of lazy. Plus, that dialogue when they were trapped on the roof was oozing cheese. And not in a good, fresh nachos way. Worst of all, though, was the very end. Reminder, this is definitely a *SPOILER*, Elektra’s death, while expected, was kind of odd. The choice to kill her seemed reasonable, but after Daredevil and Stick had seen the Hand resurrect Nobu and all of their ninjas without heartbeats, did they really think burying Elektra was a good idea? They were fighting an enemy that was able to resurrect the dead and they didn’t think to at least cremate the body? A more believable outcome would have been if the Hand carted her body off during the fight. A funeral scene, while maybe more dramatic emotionally, made our heroes look like chumps. Seemed odd.

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Fightin’ some ninjas. NBD. Source: Marvel.com

All of that being said, this show is mostly great and there are far more positive things to say than criticisms. For instance, the supporting cast was incredibly good. Foggy Nelson and Karen Page are always tremendous, and personally, I loved that the show gave Foggy more of an opportunity to show his strengths as a lawyer and to show him as a brave person, rather than relegating him to the pudgy and pathetic comic relief that the comics so often do. Elden Henson is such a perfect fit for Foggy that the real stars of this Daredevil show continue to be the casting directors. Karen’s character continues to grow, though her inability to anticipate danger and leap headfirst into ridiculously risky situations has become a bit repetitive. I think for a character who is supposed to show some investigative smarts, she sure seems surprised by danger a lot. Next season, they should have her stop being the damsel in distress so much, but Deborah Ann Woll was great, yet again, and continues to show some serious emotional range. Rosario Dawson is always fun and believable, though her part seems to serve more as the binding for Marvel/Netflix’s Defenders crossover than to further individual plots at this point. But, once again, the absolute show-stopping performance of Vincent D’Onofrio as Kingpin was probably the highlight of the season. Unexpected and largely forgotten by the time he showed up mid-season, he instantly reminded viewers of his cold and terrifying performance from the first season.

Overall, the second season isn’t quite as perfect as the first one was, but sequels usually have that problem. It is still a great show and I will certainly watch it again at some point. Much like with the MCU, the cohesiveness of this show’s plot is somewhat impacted by the desire to flesh out the network of characters to build into Defenders and even spin off into their own solo series (Punisher, Elektra). This is somewhat of a reflection of the growing pains of an interconnected universe, and shouldn’t be criticized too much, since the resulting web of shows is sure to continue at a high level of excellence. It has a few weak points, especially toward the end of the season, and certainly more than season one or Jessica Jones, but some tremendous acting and Jon Bernthal’s Punisher help to make this still one of the best shows out there.

Season Two Rating: 8 of 10

 

 

Marvel’s Trend of Eventification

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Marvel’s penchant for “crossovers” and multi-title “events” has taken the comics industry by storm in recent years. What started simply as a marketing ploy for a new line of Hasbro toys (*ahem* Secret Wars), gradually developed into a company-wide strategy for cultivating and controlling continuity across their many books. These events have become increasing polarizing in the reading community. Though generally thought to bring people in to new characters and convince them to buy other books, the dearth of intertwined and overlapping stories makes it harder for comic traditionalists who just want to read a solo title about their favorite characters or enjoy something on the fringes of the greater Marvel continuity.

All of this is hardly news. Anyone who has read any Marvel comics since the 1990s knows about these crossovers and these complaints are all over Reddit and message boards across the internet. But not everyone hates events, and let’s be honest, not all of them are bad. Some have been really good (Infinity Gauntlet, Civil War), some are loved by some and loathed by others (Secret Invasion, Age of Apocalypse), but then some are just bad (Atlantis Attacks). The full range of complexity and creativity shown in these different arcs should give readership some hope that a Marvel-wide event can work. The real question, perhaps, is whether they all should.

Now, my opinion is that events tend to be too frequent. I don’t think events are inherently bad, but the frequency cheapens them. If every six months, there is a massive “earth-shattering” event, the magnitude of each is lessened. It’s a classic case of the boy crying wolf, especially when so few of these massive events can have far-reaching consequences or any lasting results. Another criticism of the frequency is that it prevents many of Marvel’s ongoing series to get any momentum going. This has been especially true of the recent Avengers titles (however many there are now). The team books are basically devolving into event-machines, leaving no room for smaller adventures or character development. And story-telling quality certainly suffers for it.

The proliferation of existential threats in recent comics also decreases the relevance of any solo adventures that manage to sneak in between these colossal events. If a character is on a super-team, why wouldn’t they always work as a team? Wouldn’t it be better to overwhelm any adversary with a fully-powered super-team than to go it alone and risk defeat? Sure, that doesn’t make for a good story, but it seems to be more plausible and risk-averse behavior. The original intent was that active Avengers would only come together to fight the fights that none of them could manage alone. This also operates under the assumption that each of its members are busy with their personal lives and smaller-level, solo crime-fighting adventures in between team activities. But if there is no time between mega-events, how can anyone have solo stories?

Let’s just calm down on the events for a few years. Maybe cut it back to every two years? I thought the new Secret Wars might help, but we’re already rolling into Civil War II, and I just can’t keep up, no matter how much I may (or may not) want to.

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Art by Steve McNiven for Marvel’s 2006 Civil War crossover. Source: Wikipedia

This same question has begun to plague the MCU. As excited as I am for Captain America: Civil War (very, very, hugely excited), there is a part of me that worries Marvel will start to make the same crossover mistakes they have been making with comics. I love the inclusion of so many of Marvel’s great characters into the MCU, but there is a risk of overpopulation. With too many heroes, each film will have to choose to cut some out (risking under-exposure of certain fan favorites), or virtually every film will become a massive Avengers film. To be clear, I love the Civil War story and Winter Soldier was one of the best Marvel movies ever (so props to the Russo brothers), but I don’t want to see every movie turn into a Secret Invasion style cameo-explosion. And maybe this worry is irrational. Kevin Feige seems to have earned our trust, turning unlikely heroes like Ant-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy into some solid properties. Let’s hope they avoid this pitfall and that, by the time we get there, Infinity War has fewer heroes in it than the name might suggest…

 

Doctor Strange: Mysticism in the MCU

The first Doctor Strange trailer is finally here! It came out on yesterday (April 12th) and unsurprisingly racked up over a million views in its first 12 hours. If you haven’t seen it, please go watch it here.

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Source: wikimedia

This November, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is going to face a tough challenge. I’m not talking about the specifics of introducing a little-known hero into the growing pantheon of Marvel heroes, because that is a gamble that has paid off time and again for Kevin Feige and co. A stellar cast, anchored by Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Rachel McAdams, and Chiwetel Ejiofor, is sure to deliver a quality movie. Stephen Strange’s comic book origins provide plenty of material for an emotional and dramatic film. Much like Iron Man, Doctor Strange will provide audiences with a complex and flawed character whose greatest enemy is often himself. I think the casting of Cumberbatch is absolutely perfect, as evidenced by his iconic portrayal of Sherlock Holmes in the eponymous Sherlock BBC series.

Even in the comics, Doctor Strange’s origin is the story of redemption. The fall of a prideful surgeon, whose wild successes had tainted the motives of his medical profession, driving Stephen to seek fame rather than focus on healing his patients. A horrible accident then left Stephen unable to perform surgeries, effectively destroying his life’s sole purpose. Aimless wandering leads him to the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) who takes him on a path of mindfulness, meditation, and the mystical arts. Stephen’s journey is a personal one, as he fights his own inner demons and overcomes his own weaknesses to become a powerful magician/mystic. Created by Steve Ditko in 1963, Strange’s path to heroism is not all that different from many of the other Marvel characters of the Silver Age, and these origins have all translated successfully to the big screen. All of that being said, I think Marvel has earned our trust to deliver solid movies with believable and likable characters, especially when the material is there for them to draw upon. The wild successes of MCU films and Netflix shows about lesser-known characters like Jessica Jones, Ant-Man, and most especially the Guardians of the Galaxy, have proven that any character can succeed with the right creative team (and with a little help from branding, to be sure). There is only one problem:

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Doctor Strange with the Eye of Agamotto. Source: Marvel.com

Magic. Don’t get me wrong, I love magical stories: Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Chronicles of Narnia, even movies like Prestige, or Inception are all wonderful. My hesitation is not about whether the magic or mystical powers of Doctor Strange and his foes will translate to film, because I’m sure they will. It is all about how the existence of magic in the MCU affects the rest of the films. I’m afraid it will taint them. How will magic blend with the science fiction elements of futuristic technology (Iron Man, Ant-Man), biological accidents/experiments (Captain America, Daredevil, Hulk), and alien technology/influence (Thor, Inhumans, Guardians)? Marvel has already done a lot of work to downplay some of their other mystical elements in Daredevil (see Stick and Elektra) and the seemingly Inhuman explanation of the Scarlet Witch’s powers. So maybe they will continue the trend, making the mystical arts more of a cosmic entity or alien technology, making it fit better in the MCU. There are a couple of ways to do that, but I am not sure if they would come at the expense of Doctor Strange’s own story.

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the Eye of Agamotto zoom of the above image. Source: Marvel.com

One big theory floating around is that the Eye of Agamotto is one of the Infinity Stones, of which only Time and Soul are presumed to remain, assuming the Aether from Thor: Dark World was actually the Reality gem, of which I’m kind of iffy. The portrayal of gravitational anomalies and portals in spacetime doesn’t seem to really show control over “reality” in the same sense that alternate universes would. And the first Doctor Strange trailer hints directly at a multiverse for the first time in any MCU or TV property: “what if I told you that reality is one of many?” This may lend to the exploration of alternate realities, and how better to do that than with the Reality Stone? Perhaps the Eye is actually the Reality stone and the Aether is something else (Time?). If Doctor Strange gets all of his magical powers from the Infinity Stone, it begs the question of what would happen once he loses the stone to Thanos (as he is bound to in one of the two Infinity War mega-films). If magic were only derived from the Infinity Stone, however, it would take away the permanence of Doctor Strange’s power, making him into merely the custodian of someone or something else’s abilities. I think that would short-change him, as his comic presence relied as much on the training and exploration of the mystic arts as on the artifacts he found along the way. Either way, using the Eye of Agamotto or another infinity stone to control Doctor Strange’s magical powers couldn’t be all-inclusive, since Baron Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the Ancient One, and other characters would have to have had magic of their own too.

That means magic will have to become a central force in the MCU. In order for it to blend well, Marvel will have to establish rules. Rules about magic’s limits, who can use it, how it works with or against technology or powered individuals, or even a good reason why magical individuals might not deign to participate in the more earthly conflicts (i.e. why Strange may be kept to the sidelines in other films). I hope that Doctor Strange, whether he is the Sorcerer Supreme or not, will be tasked with serving as the sole protector of Earth/this reality/this realm from magical attack. If he is pledged to inaction in non-magical events or otherwise indisposed, it might help to keep magic out of future films that rely more on technology or biological powers. The problem with magic is that it can be limitless or transcend rules of physics, that tend to limit the more science-fiction-based elements of the superhero genre.

Magic could introduce a sort of deus ex machina into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, giving heroes (or even their enemies) an “out” in seemingly unwinnable situations. I firmly believe that one of the MCU’s true strengths has been its attempt to keep things real-ish, creating an alternate reality only slightly different from our own. This relies upon believable explanations for the powers and events that drive the superhero films. Suddenly, magic can be a loophole or creative shortcut that brushes over sloppy plot points or neuters story complexity. Can you imagine the Avengers facing Ultron or Thanos or the Masters of Evil and having Doctor Strange show up and just conjure a spell that traps all of the bad guys in another reality? Or distorts time around him so that the Avengers can have a second chance to win? Suddenly, the limits that are placed on our heroes could be upended. Characters can be brought back from the dead, impossible things can become commonplace, and then our heroes can’t lose. Not that we want them to, of course, but for a movie to be good, the peril has to seem real. Magic can remove the consequences of mistakes and take the edge off of our heroes’ peril. If it does that, will the MCU survive?

 

 

 

Best Movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Welcome to my comprehensive ranking of all of the movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). This list does not include Marvel properties that have been developed by Sony, Fox, or whoever is responsible for the atrocity known as Ang Lee’s Hulk. For each entry, I will give a brief explanation to justify the movie’s placement on this list. Feel free to let me know what you think in the comments!

Before we start, I should say that even the worst film on this list is not a bad movie. The MCU has not turned out a bad film since taking the reigns in 2008. So the “worst” movies aren’t bad, just the “least best.” After this, I will be working on a comprehensive list ranking all superhero movies ever. You’ll see how all of the MCU ranks against the rest of the genre and there will be plenty of duds below all of these on the list. I will also be updating this list as the new Phase 3 movies come out, so check back in to see where they fall!

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Source: Marvel.com

13. Iron Man 2 (2010): Truly the “least best” of the MCU, the second installment of Iron Man had big shoes to fill after the inspiring first installment. However, the delivery faltered a bit, partly due to Iron Man’s limited rogues gallery in the comics world, giving the writers a limited number of villains to choose from. Even so, the hodgepodge effort to make a D-list baddie, Whiplash, into Iron Man’s new nemesis didn’t come across very well. Sure, there were good elements in the Vanko storyline, but all of those elements were stolen from a much better comic villain, the Crimson Dynamo: a Soviet-era Iron Man imitation who combined the Cold War ideological struggle with a personal vendetta against Tony Stark. The Hammer sub-plot is kind of lame and more of a distraction. Tony’s personal struggles in this film were all pretty solidly done: the fame getting to his head, the “Demon in a Bottle” parallels with alcohol, and the dichotomy of the Iron Man suit simultaneously keeping him alive and killing him. But, unfortunately, these bright moments are overshadowed by the Whiplash/Hammer story. The biggest reason to watch is the introduction of three key characters in the MCU: Black Widow, War Machine, and Phil Coulson.

 

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Source: Marvel.com

12. Thor: Dark World (2013): This story has some great moments, mostly due to Tom Hiddleston’s exceptional portrayal of Loki. Loki pretending to be Captain America, his complicated ally/enemy/brother/rival relationship with Thor is the highlight of the movie. The supporting cast is solid, Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings are great, but the normally wonderful Natalie Portman seemed almost as wooden as if she were acting opposite Hayden Christensen again.* Plot-wise, Thor 2 is mostly about developing a second Infinity Stone and conjuring up a villain (Malekith) to go along with it. But if the “fate of the realms” is so dire, why does only Thor show up? The scope got a little out of hand for a single-hero film. Chris Hemsworth is solid again as Thor and the adventure is certainly enjoyable, but it’s Loki who keeps you interested.

 

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Source: Marvel.com

11. Iron Man 3 (2013): Ok, so I should be up-front about this. My enjoyment of this movie was ruined by my knowledge of the comics upon which this movie drew. The quality of development of the story was much stronger in this movie than in Iron Man 2 and character development was solid, I just take issue with a handful of specific plot points and how they relate back to source material. The mysterious elements of the movie, the background of AIM, and why people kept exploding was actually very well done. The fear behind the Mandarin was also quite convincing. But my two favorite parts of the film are: the opening credits with “I’m Blue” and the well-developed “Tony the Tinkerer” scenes with the young genius kid in Tennessee. Guy Pearce as Aldrich Killian did work, but the big reveal (*SPOILER*) that Mandarin was just a puppet? Come on! That’s Iron Man’s arch-nemesis you just completely wrote out of the MCU! I get the appeal of the surprise, but I don’t like that it’s the Mandarin they chose to ruin that way. Lastly, Pepper as Rescue from the comics was fine, but she shouldn’t have had the weird transformation. That kind of invalidates the rest of it. Why is she special enough to survive? Implausible. Overall, a great concept, but some weak points stray too far from the comics and distract from a movie that, otherwise, has some brilliant moments.

 

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Source: Marvel.com

10. The Incredible Hulk (2008): A very solid movie, which made Edward Norton seem like the perfect Bruce Banner — up until Mark Ruffalo showed up in The Avengers. The strength of this movie is the portrayal of the inner struggle with the monster inside. This movie makes for a modern twist on the classic man vs. self storyline, opening with Banner’s struggles to find control and to hide from his past. Opening the movie with the Hulk already established created some suspense and anticipation before the monster was revealed. I also like how this is the only movie on this list that isn’t really a superhero movie. Though the Hulk does try to save Betsy (played by Liv Tyler), he isn’t really a hero until the very end. The acting was strong, led by Norton, but supported nicely by Liv Tyler, William Hurt, and Tim Roth. My primary gripes with this movie are largely not its fault. This film has the most difficulty integrating into the greater MCU because of the Banner actor change. While I did enjoy Norton’s portrayal, I think I like Ruffalo’s even better. The gratuitous fight scene in Harlem was largely unnecessary at the end, and the ending left us with unanswered questions that have been largely ignored by the MCU: where did General Ross and Betsy go? What ever happened to Abomination or the allusion to Tim Blake Nelson’s character becoming the Leader? Overall, this movie is definitely enjoyable and a true interpretation of Bruce Banner, but don’t think too hard about its fit in the MCU.

 

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Source: Marvel.com

9. Thor (2009): This was the film I was not sure would work. After the blockbuster success of Iron Man and even the slightly less blockbustery success of the Incredible Hulk, Thor was still a challenge. How could Marvel portray the might of the God of Thunder without invalidating all other superheroes? Answer: with a tongue-in-cheek, borderline-campy epic CGI explosion-fest. It was a huge success and the cast was terrific, the humor was spot-on, and the beautiful computer-generated Asgardian landscape was a wonderful blend of mystical magic and futuristic science fiction. Chris Hemsworth really sold his character and his enormity next to the tiny Natalie Portman helped to further the idea of his godliness. The supporting cast of Anthony Hopkins, Idris Elba, Stellan Skarsgard, and Kat Dennings added a good mix of power, poise, smarts, and levity, respectively. And let’s not forget, this is the first movie to introduce Hawkeye, one of the greatest characters in Avengers comics. But, once again, the true star of this film is Tom Hiddleston as Loki. Loki the trickster is so compelling, I almost find myself rooting for him against Thor. He is such a believable character and his motives are so well-developed, that it was an easy transition for him to become the main villain in the first Avengers film. Overall, this movie really embraced what it was and was carried by a wonderful supporting cast and some great humorous moments. I definitely recommend it to all, but even though I enjoyed the cheekiness of the tone, I just can’t bring myself to rate it higher than any of the next movies with that much cheese.

 

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Source: Marvel.com

8. Ant-Man (2015): Marvel’s biggest risk to date. A risk that would not have been possible if their previous big risk (Guardians of the Galaxy) had not been an enormous hit. The decision to make a superhero movie that was a full-on comedic heist film and use a hero whose power is the ability to shrink to the size of an ant? Not to mention using the less-popular, second iteration of an already B-list character? How could this possibly work? Answer: Paul Rudd. The man is more than just a lovable, ageless wonder. He’s a genuine actor who truly succeeded in selling the travails of Scott Lang, a good guy who makes bad decisions for good reasons. Let’s not forget that he’s supported by an awesome cast of Michael Douglas as the original Ant-Man (Hank Pym), Evangeline Lilly as the eventual Wasp, and Corey Stoll as Darren Cross. At first, I was highly skeptical of Marvel’s decision to abandon the complicated character of Hank Pym and his tale of self-doubt, his fall from grace, and his eventual redemption. How could they overlook the dramatic story-telling potential that Pym created? Well, this movie sold me on Scott Lang. The ascent of a convicted criminal to the role of hero provided some diversity to the MCU cannon, and a well-developed back story for Pym’s character ensured that the comic legacy wasn’t sold short. Overall, this movie turned out to be a carefully crafted, seriously funny, and innovative story of a hero whose effectiveness relies upon not being noticed. The risk paid off and Marvel definitely won the confidence of their fans, who will trust them to execute just about any off-the-wall movie idea they can come up with. Go watch it, you won’t regret it.

 

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Source: Marvel.com

7. The Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015): Joss Whedon’s second rodeo with the full cast of the Avengers was even tougher than the first. He had to add three new Avengers (Quicksilver, the Scarlet Witch, and the Vision), developing the new massive enemy in Ultron, and tying all of this back into a world that has changed a lot since the first Avengers movie. The endings of Cap 2, Iron Man 3, and Thor 2 didn’t tie everything off neatly, so Whedon had to use some valuable movie time to tie off loose ends and set the scene. This story also draws upon one of my personal favorites, Ultron Unlimited.** In the comic version, the fictional country of Slorenia is invaded and massacred by Ultron, before the Avengers go in to Avenge the fallen and limit his destruction before he takes the slaughter to neighboring countries. The movie does not include any mass slaughter, presumably because the preposterous city-bomb did not show the slaughter of that many innocent people, it merely threatened it. It also took place in a different fictional Eastern European country called Sokovia. This difference is of little import, but it made it sound a little more Slavic and lent better to some of the Quicksilver/Scarlet Witch storylines. Whedon’s integration of so many new characters and finally providing some character development to Hawkeye were big pluses. His handling of the Vision was possibly the highlight. But another movie littered with cameos (Ulysses Klaue, Nick Fury, War Machine, Falcon, Agent Hill, Baron Strucker, and more) all worked pretty well. Even the decision (of which I was again skeptical) to change Ultron’s creator from Hank Pym to Tony Stark worked, largely because of how it is likely to motivate him going forward. James Spader’s slow, brooding voice was a perfect fit for Ultron, and Whedon’s ability to pull off another epic showdown was a definite success. The only weakness of the film were in how it felt somewhat rushed to accomplish so much in under 2.5 hours, and the premise of using the city as a bomb. That was pretty far-fetched, I would have liked Ultron’s plan to be something a little more feasible or more digitally-focused: a nuclear launch, maybe? Overall, definitely worth seeing, but make sure you don’t step away or you’re sure to get lost.

 

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Source: Marvel.com

6. Captain America: First Avenger (2011): The challenge of this movie was to sell the idea of a moral, modest, all-around good guy to a modern audience. The seemingly antiquated boy scout mindset was thought to make a believable portrayal of Captain America impossible. But all of that was soon thrown out the window. Captain America became almost a fictionalized historical drama and leaned into that nostalgia that fans feared would ruin the tone, instead turning that same nostalgia back into a believable origin story for the “Man out of Time.” Evans lived up to the character, showing heart, courage, and a kind of calm humility that has epitomized Cap’s comic portrayals. Supported by a wonderful cast of allies and villains, this film recreates a classic comic story (The Cosmic Cube) and integrates it seamlessly into the MCU. The large time gap between this and the other films also gives a certain creative license, and plenty of space for offshoots like the Agent Carter TV miniseries that just completed its second season. Hayley Atwell as Agent Carter leads the supporting cast which includes wonderful performances from Sebastian Stan as Bucky Barnes and two of my all-time favorite actors: Hugo Weaving as Red Skull and Stanley Tucci as Professor Erskine. Overall, this is a wonderful, wholesome movie that truly feels like a vestige of a bygone age and a very fitting origin story for Marvel’s greatest and first Avenger.

 

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Source: Marvel.com

5. The Avengers (2012): By 2012, the success of the MCU was unquestioned. Feige and his band of merry men (and women) had released 5 high-grossing movies into the MCU, but the question remained of whether they could pull it all together into one massive super-team extravaganza. The Avengers provided the answer to that question: an unequivocal, resounding “Yes!” Under the directorship and careful crafting of renowned super-nerd and creative genius, Joss Whedon, the film was a roaring success and became the third-highest grossing film of all time (at the time, now fifth).  What Whedon accomplished in this first Avengers film was to fit all of the six featured Avengers from their own movies, plus the supporting cast, and Tom Hiddleston’s masterful Loki into one big blockbuster movie. The real strength of the movie is the banter between the main heroes and the believability of their relationships. This movie single-handedly doubled the scope of the MCU’s possibilities, showing that a movie with so many moving parts could work. This project was beautifully managed by the brilliant Joss Whedon and Kevin Feige and is an absolute must-see for all superhero fans. A beautiful mix of comic book action, humor, and a genuine story that highlights all of the Avengers (well, except Hawkeye), this movie was unprecedented in its scope. You won’t be disappointed.

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Source: Marvel.com

4. Captain America: Civil War (2016): Leading up to Civil War‘s release, everyone was talking about how the large cast and semi-political commentary inherent in this ideological struggle was going to render it unwieldly and over-crowded. Much maligned as “Avengers 2.5” and following hot on the heels of DC/WB’s Batman vs. Superman disaster, many viewers were skeptical. They could not have been more wrong. The Russo brothers delivered another iconic Captain America tale and beautifully captured the essence of each character featured in the film. The introductions of two huge characters in the MCU’s future, Spider-Man and Black Panther, went extraordinarily well and fans will be anxiously awaiting their solo films in the next couple of years. Despite the alignment of Team Cap and Team Iron Man being slightly rushed, the character development and genuine dilemma over friends fighting one another was portrayed very well. Cap and his supporting cast, notably Anthony Mackie as Falcon, were spot-on and the writers brilliantly blended humor and levity into the grandiosity of superhero battles. It really felt like a natural successor to the Russo brothers’ first MCU film, Winter Soldier, which only edges this sequel out slightly because of the espionage elements in the former. Civil War was everything I hoped it would be and nothing I feared. Even more than Age of Ultron, this really feels like the launching point for Phase 3, and leaves viewers excited for what’s next.

 

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Source: Marvel.com

3. Captain America: Winter Soldier (2014): After the success of The Avengers, Marvel started to experiment with genres. The second Captain America installment was a political thriller, featuring espionage, an invisible secret organization trying to topple the government. The political intrigue and secrecy are real and done as well as any Jason Bourne movie. The political thriller style works really well with Cap’s character and power set, relying more on strategy and grit than overwhelming might. It is a much more subtle superhero film and, apart from the giant flying aircraft carriers of death, a more believable story than most superhero movies tend to have. The Russo brothers really proved their mettle with this film and earned themselves a few more gigs in the MCU, with Captain America: Civil War and the two Infinity War films in the works. Chris Evans again delivered a strong performance as Steve Rogers, the unrelenting optimist and serial do-gooder, and he is complemented by Scarlet Johansson’s Black Widow, Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury, and the introduction of Anthony Mackie as the Falcon. From start to finish, the movie captures audiences’ attention and develops a really heart-felt plot that finally proves Cap’s relevance in the modern day, elevating him beyond his WWII imagery and almost anachronistic morality. Loaded with intrigue and loaded with action, Winter Soldier is an instant Marvel classic.

 

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Source: Marvel.com

2. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014): It was really close. I almost picked this over the ground-breaking, MCU-establishing Iron Man. That’s how good this was. A movie about a bunch of C-list (at best) characters on a comedic and Star Wars-like jaunt through space: pure gold. Guardians has a star-studded and hilarious cast cracking jokes as a band of unlikely heroes journey across the galaxy with top-notch special effects and a fun soundtrack of 80s classic pop hits blaring in the background. James Gunn did a wonderful job directing and writing the plot of the movie to introduce these quirky characters and all of the weirdness of the Marvel Cosmic universe to movie audiences. Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning’s (DnA) run on the Guardians of the Galaxy in the late 2000s paved the way for this movie, and I would be remiss if I didn’t offer a solid plug for that comic run in this review. If you like the movie, all of the Marvel Cosmic comics of the early-to-mid 2000s are a good bet – starting with “Annihilation” by DnA and Keith Gillen. Overall, I give this movie a hundred thumbs up. It is one of my all-time favorite movies, another instant classic for Marvel, and a truly fun experience for fans of superheroes, science fiction, or even creative comedies. I can’t think of anything bad to say about it. Just go watch it already!

 

… And now, the moment, you’ve been waiting for…

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“Rise, MCU!” Source: moviegifss.tumblr.com via giphy.com
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Source: Marvel.com

1. Iron Man (2008): People may disagree with me on this one, but I think that breaking ground on the MCU was Kevin Feige’s most significant accomplishment. With no rights to Spider-Man, the X-Men, or even the Fantastic Four, Marvel had an uphill battle in making some of their lesser-known properties into hits. What followed was a thoughtful and believable adaptation of this decidedly Cold War era character and reinvigorating him for the modern audience. The reinvention of Tony Stark’s story in another brutal, guerrilla war worked perfectly, substituting Afghanistan for Vietnam. The combination of a perfectly cast Robert Downey Jr., wonderful directing by Jon Favreau, and cutting-edge special effects, made the character of Iron Man, and even more notably of Tony Stark, the man behind the armor, a household name. This movie paved the way for Marvel movies about increasingly bizarre and unconventional heroes, but the power of the Marvel brand was established here. After Iron Man‘s release, there was no doubt that Marvel was here to stay.

 

Coming Soon: Phase 3 MCU movies will be added to this list as they come out!

  • Doctor Strange – November 4, 2016
  • Guardians of the Galaxy 2 – May 5, 2017
  • Spider-Man: Homecoming – July 7, 2017
  • Thor: Ragnarok – November 3, 2017
  • Black Panther – February 16, 2018
  • Avengers: Infinity War, Part I – May 4, 2018
  • Ant-Man and the Wasp – July 6, 2018
  • Captain Marvel – March 8, 2019
  • Avengers: Infinity War, Part II – May 3, 2019
  • Untitled Movie 1 – May 1, 2020
  • Untitled Movie 2 – July 10, 2020
  • Untitled Movie 3 – November 6, 2020

Inhumans – no longer slated to a particular date


*Star Wars, Episode II: The Clone Wars. See below:

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Just Gross. Source: imdb.com

** Ultron Unlimited written by Kurt Busiek, drawn by George Perez #19-22 Avengers (1998)

 

 

Feature Image Credit: Art by Matthew Ferguson, Owned by Marvel.com