Welcome to a new, semi-regular column where I analyze movies past, present and future that seem more-or-less separate at idea-birth. Hollywood is a great big bubble (or womb, to keep the metaphor going) and some ideas keep repeating and cycling out. Or, in this column’s case, franchises can directly affect each other. This is the Echo Chamber.
Fuck Avengers: Age of Ultron; why talk about a movie that’s already (almost) one (1!) week old when we can talk about movies that are 365-days away? That’s right, today is the one year mark before we are graced with Marvel’s Phase 3 kick-off, Captain America: Civil War.
Appropriately nicknamed “Avengers 2.5” in-house, it is a bonanza of heroes including Iron Man, Black Widow, Hawkeye, Falcon, Winter Soldier, Scarlet Witch War Machine, and Vision (even new ones like Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther and Asa Butterfield (Sorry, Tom Holland) as Spider-Man). It’s easy to forget that, before Civil War, comes some character named Captain America.
Chris Evans in someways has the most thankless role in the MCU. Like Superman, Cap has been accused of being dramatically inert and a static character who’s boy-scout routine is less interesting/entertaining that Robert Downey, Jr.’s charisma as Iron Man or Chris Hemsworth’s swagger as Thor or the mysteries of assassins/spies Black Widow, Hawkeye, or even Nick Fury. But at the same time, Evans has imbued Cap with ethos and, instead of being a weight, he is an anchor, giving the franchise a true north that is can then use to pivot on. It only makes sense that the biggest Phase 3 film – outside the Avengers duology – focuses on Cap in the same way Iron Man was the focus to Phases 1 & 2.
The success of Captain America is, in my not-so-humble opinion, an achievement up there with the success of the Avengers films. There was a moment where it was wondered how such a jingoistic character would fare in a post-9/11 world where America’s international image lies more or less in tatters. Would it make money in the ever-more-important overseas markets? It did, as the franchise went from barely topping $300 million with The First Avenger in 2011 to adding over twice that to the gross of last year’s sequel, The Winter Soldier ($714 million total worldwide gross).
How did Marvel change his perception? Ironically, the same way they changed the perception of the Thor character before almost completely undoing that change with the atrocious sequel The Dark World. In fairness, it grossed $200 million more than the original (informally called the “Avengers” effect) but still $100 million less than The Winter Soldier did and less than even Guardians of the Galaxy (which, like so many other Marvel properties, had its viability doubted right up until its release). So while Thor: The Dark World was not a financial flop, it was a creative one.
As it stands, Thor and Captain America are the two pillars of Phase 1-2 remaining, each earning their threequels in Phase 3. Both are said to be “seismic.” Funnily enough, The Winter Soldier, what with the collapse of the franchise glue SHIELD, was designed for Phase 2 to be just what Thor: Ragnarok is described as for Phase 3.
The two have followed opposite courses in their franchises. Thor was a good film, though it’s commonly said that, like Iron Man 2 the year prior (and Age of Ultron this weekend) the set-up for future MCU films – specifically the inclusion of SHIELD – was ham-fisted and tacky. Captain America on the other hand started out in the cinematic equivalent of a bottle episode with its connections growing organically from the WWII-era material. This material would fuel the MCU for years, most recently on ABC’s Agent Carter. Thor has now gotten away from the forced connections to Earth and SHIELD and HYDRA and whoever else who really wants their acronyms to pop and returned to Asgard, ready for a solo adventure to end all Thor solo adventures (until the inevitable reboot).
Captain America, though, succeeded exactly because the second movie was so different from the first, simply by virtue of a 70-year time jump from the 1940s to present day. His films have become increasingly integral to the state of the MCU and, as said above, Civil War is for all intents and purposes an Avengers film.
Marvel knows it has to play catch up. Downey rightfully get all the credit for Iron Man, but before Thor came out, no one was sure that Marvel could integrate their otherworldly elements in the science-fiction thriller universe of Iron Man (and the Hulk, kinda). But with a flick of screenwriting magic (“Your ancestors called it magic. But you call it science. I come from a land where they are the one and the same”) and solid direction by Kenneth Branagh, Thor grossed $100 million more than Captain America their same summer of release.
But then something interesting happened. The character’s fortunes flipped. Thor’s sequel, fast-tracked after the first’s success, ran into the production problems that Marvel, with their quick turnaround and “we’ll fix it later” mentality, practically beg for. Patty Jenkins was dropped, Alan Taylor joined, re-shoots to pander to Loki fans were awkward, and the plot and villains were cut down to inconsistent nonsense. It was devoid of meaning, other than the positioning of Marvel’s chess pieces.
On the other hand, Captain America: The Winter Soldier set out to redefine in a big way a part of the universe. It resulted in the creative resurgence of the then-struggling freshman ABC show Agents of SHIELD and proved that a Marvel movie could say something without being pretentious or heavy-handed, if it was said with care.
Now, Captain America has dominated the Age of Ultron marketing, standing front and center with Downey, Jr.’s Tony Stark. Just look at the first film’s marketing, where he appears to be hiding after misusing Ant-Man’s size-changing technology.
I love me some Hawkeye (hence why I have great affection for Age of Ultron. My review here) but he’s more visible than Cap for Christ sake. Wrong movie for that. Now though, he is ready to take on, literally and figuratively, Iron Man. But where does that leave our favorite Norse god?
Thor: Ragnarok will release a full four years after The Dark World. Chris Hemsworth seems quite eager to rectify as Kevin Feige told /Film that he was hounding him during the recent press junket to pressure Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost to finish the script. Once that is done, they can begin searching for directors. Filming would likely take place early-to-mid next year.
The key takeaway? Marvel needs to get a filmmaker who gets Thor and then let him do his job. It’s that simple. No pandering, no flying-by-the-seat-of-the-pants. Just a good story that focuses on Asgard and the Norse deities for, what will likely be, a final time*. Maybe Thor and Captain America can hang out and compare franchise notes in the meantime.
*until the inevitable reboot