By Molly Atchison | Print Managing Editor
Following the recent release of Marvel’s “Black Panther” and in anticipation of the upcoming “Avengers: Infinity War” release, it is the perfect time to revisit the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). In the next 2 weeks, leading up to the April 27 release of the long-awaited “Infinity War,” I will be breaking down a group of movies in the MCU based off Digg.com’s “Best Way to Watch the Marvel Cinematic Universe” list. So sit back, grab your popcorn and your reading glasses, and prepare to have your Marvel-loving minds blown.
This week we’re turning to brand new heroes, focusing on the movies “Ant-Man” and “Doctor Strange,” and bringing it back to the very beginning with the final installment of Captain America’s arc, “Captain America: Civil War.” These Avengers are totally off the wall (or through the wall, in Doctor Strange’s case), and although they don’t have their own arc yet, “Ant Man” and “Doctor Strange” are definitely going to be major players in the upcoming Avengers movie “Infinity War.”
“Ant Man” (2015)
One of the more … creative ideas to come out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, “Ant-Man,” surprised many with its hilarity and well-placed ethos. Ant-Man (played convincingly by Paul Rudd) enamors viewers with its redemptive story of a criminal-turned-hero, giving us insight into the inner workings of the S.H.I.E.L.D. initiative.
Series Relevance: In “Ant-Man,” we are privy to a crucial turning point in the construction and corruption of the S.H.I.E.L.D. initiative. Viewers are officially introduced to Peggy Carter, Captain America’s wartime love and one of the S.H.I.E.L.D. founders, in addition to being reintroduced to Howard Stark, Iron Man’s genius of a father. Over the course of several flashbacks, viewers discover that Hank Pym, the creator of the Ant-Man suit (which includes shrinking technology that allows the wearer to pull an “Alice in Wonderland” and shrink or grow to fit their needs), has hidden its technology in fear of it falling into the wrong hands. Throughout the movie, Pym guides ex-con Scott Lang through the process of becoming Ant-Man, and Lang not only fights (and teams up with) the Avengers, but also prevents Hydra, the evil sub-organization that corrupted S.H.I.E.L.D., from creating their own shrinking suit.
This sort of diversion is exactly what the series needed. The introduction of a new hero and a new backstory allowed the creators to give a bit more insight into parts of the MCU that fans thought had been overlooked. The Ant-Man character fit in perfectly with the Avengers unit, and the director did a seamless job of introducing him into the mix. Along with the new “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” TV show, which premiered in 2014 and instigated a whole sub-universe of characters in the MCU, “Ant-Man” opened doors for Marvel creators to play with other dimensions of the Avengers’ world, and to bring more relatable characters into the mix. Lang’s story of redemption set a new tone for films to come, creating a more imperfect-human, relatable mentality in approaching superhero stories. TV characters such as Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Daredevil have been spawned from these ideas.
Entertainment Value: I was incredibly skeptical of the “Ant-Man” premise. It didn’t seem like a concept that would be interesting enough to add to the MCU in any way. However, I, like many Marvel fans, was pleasantly surprised with the way “Ant-Man” tied empathy to humor and outlandish ideas. The shrinking concept, unlike many of the other superhuman storylines, was easy enough to follow, and the fact that the storyline was focused on Lang’s search for redemption in the eyes of his ex-wife and daughter diverted attention from the lack of technological explanation. Throw in some confusing, science-y sounding words and a hot love interest, and you’ve got every comic book geek hooked. The jump back in time to explain the corruption of S.H.I.E.L.D. was well-placed, helping to clear up some specifics people had been wondering about (such as how people like Peggy Carter and Howard Stark could have let S.H.I.E.L.D. go so wrong.)
Cultural/Political Value: The concept of redemption is a common theme in superhero films, but creating a likable, relatable character out of an ex-con is not easy to do. Rudd was accurate in saying his character was akin to George Clooney’s Danny Ocean in “Ocean’s 11” because, in order to make a petty criminal likable and worthy of a super suit, a filmmaker is tasked with developing a backstory filled with enough sap and empathy. Producers must overcome the challenge of reminding the audience that just because someone does bad things doesn’t always make them a “bad guy.” “Ant-Man” took that to the next level by humanizing people who had been screwed by the system. While it’s definitely controversial to validate criminals, reminding audiences that sometimes criminals are just looking for a way to support their families and survive is a reality check the public needs. Keeping it light and making the situation uniquely hyperbolic (because how many ex-con’s get a super suit and team up with the Avengers?) helped Ant-Man serve up some truth without leaving a bad taste in anyone’s mouth.
“Doctor Strange” (2016)
In “Doctor Strange,” MCU filmmakers definitely took a ride on the crazy train. One of the most visually intense, theoretically stimulating movies in the Marvel Universe, “Doctor Strange” plays with the threads of reality, taking a famed neurosurgeon, breaking him and then creating a super-zen, mind-melding martial arts master capable of bending reality to his will.
Series Relevance: While this is an incredibly appealing movie in so many ways, it’s difficult to see how the story of Dr. Steven Strange (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) ties into the rest of the MCU. Other than his interaction with magical and otherworldly relics in the Sanctum, and the presence of an infinity stone, Strange channels to bend time. “Doctor Strange” is much more of a standalone movie than any other film in the MCU. Unfortunately, this is one of the reasons the film was so difficult to grasp and the reason that many critics did not appreciate the film as part of the MCU. Claiming that the sorcerers in this film focus more on “mystical” threats is a weak way of justifying Strange’s role in the Avengers unit. Perhaps it is too soon to see the way Dr. Strange will fit in with the Avengers team, or perhaps Marvel creators have taken on too much with this “Strange” arc.
Entertainment Value: Although the film did not appeal to Marvel die-hards who probably wanted a concrete connection, the introduction of the multiverse from a different, less technological angle than that of “Guardians of the Galaxy” or even “Thor,” is refreshing. Focusing on ancient, mystical forms interacting with the universe, along with the introduction of eastern philosophies, made “Doctor Strange” a much easier film to digest. While it is easy to get distracted by the fantastical, “Inception”-style effects (involving lots of inverted street scenes and magic portals appearing out of thin air), focusing on the biting sarcasm and surprisingly full explanations of fairly lofty concepts makes the film much easier to digest. Technically, this film stands out from even the most advanced MCU movies (like “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Captain America”), but since the effects aren’t tied as strongly to technical aspects such as weapons or spaceships, its much more difficult to follow the visual design of the film.
Cultural/Political Value: Like many of the more conceptual films, this one doesn’t contain much political value, although it definitely offers a few lessons and includes a cultural aspect that has not yet been explored by the MCU. Experimenting with eastern culture, and incorporating meditation, chakras and Asian-influenced costume design, “Doctor Strange” welcomes a more diverse cast and offers insight into a part of the world often overlooked in traditional, American comic books.
“Captain America: Civil War” (2016)
The last film we’ll look at in this article is “Captain America: Civil War.” This film follows several divergences and gives viewers time to regroup after the disasters that struck as a result of the Ultron fallout. However, the Earth that the characters return to is much more fractured than previously thought possible. Hydra is still working to defeat the Avengers, and now there is a rift between two originals: Captain America and Iron Man. Like Lincoln said, a country divided cannot stand, and thus the Avengers’ world plunges into chaos.
Series Relevance: “Civil War” is perhaps the most significant film in the series leading up to “Avengers: Infinity War.” It displays significant rifts in the Avengers team, and thus, the issues the team must overcome when they face Thanos in “Infinity.” It also reveals more of the team leaders’ character flaws, which are often overlooked in favor of heroism.
While this film does focus on Captain America, it definitely features more of the other characters in films from other arcs. The Avengers have been present in many of their teammates’ films, but none have leaned as heavily on overlapping storylines as they do in this movie. However, the melding of these storylines signifies a shift in the filmmaking. While all of the arcs will feature one significant character, “Civil War” represents the unification of the Avengers in the MCU, despite the internal battle they experience during the movie.
Entertainment Value: Unpopular opinion: I really disliked “Civil War.” Perhaps it’s the stubborn positivity in me that refuses to enjoy my favorite heroes going head-to-head, or perhaps it was too dark for my taste, much like the third installments of other arcs. Either way, Civil War was tough for me to watch. However, personal opinions aside, there was plenty of entertainment value in this film. As with the other films, the visual effects are impeccable. The incredibly violent and fast-paced action scenes, the introduction of Black Panther into the mix and the follow-up with our beloved Bucky Barnes (the Winter Soldier) added some entertainment to the mix. Perhaps my favorite part was the more significant roles assigned to female characters in the series. Natasha Romanoff and Wanda Maximoff brought a less-than-feminine touch to the film, and bringing their talents to center stage was pure awesomeness.
Cultural/Political Value: There’s plenty of political undertones in this film, as we’ve seen in many of the Captain America movies. Not only does the issue of extreme governmental oversight come up, but the introduction of the Avengers on an international scale breaks new boundaries and opens doors for more heroes to be added to the mix (such as Black Panther). The question of the government’s role in the Avengers initiative is an important one: How much power and autonomy should a group of such capable individuals have? While this question is not exactly answered in this film, it’s something that the Avengers ponder, and that will be relevant when larger, multidimensional threats come into play.
We’re wrapping it up here. With only three films left, its almost time to find out the fate of our favorite heroes when they go up against their biggest threat yet in “Avengers: Infinity War.” Tune in next week to see why the last three movies line up perfectly for the upcoming release.