Lazy Luddite Log

30.5.19

Three Phase Power

For over a decade I have avidly followed the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). This sequence of movies has been lauded as innovative for presenting a huge and coherent set of interconnected tales. I suspect it can be compared to the much older movie serials of the black-and-white era. But those movies were shorts connected by a linear plot. The MCU involves long movies (some so long that I wish they had intermissions) and the entwining of several parallel plots.

Of course I might only be saying this because these are effects-laden action flicks. Such stuff tends to be looked on as shallow pulp but the MCU has escaped this with its focus on character development and relationships. By the time the overarching story became dire, viewers felt invested in characters at risk, and it had a lot of impact.

And it look a while for things to become dire. The MCU mostly escaped the trend, prominent since the 90s, to be gritty or gloomy just for the sake of it. Action, drama and comedy were deftly blended in a way that felt realistic. And from a kernel of realism grew a sprawling universe in which spy flick conspiracy, science fiction technology and fantasy powers could co-exist and be accepted by the audience.

I'm impressed but can always wish for some things to have been different. In the rest of this post I will describe an alternative MCU in which the same overall story to date will have been presented with somewhat different flow and some shifting foci. The first three 'phases' of the MCU are now collectively known as the Infinity Saga - this then is a scrambling of that saga by just one fan.

Phase One

Iron Man: The first is still one of my favourite MCU movies. More than any other it demonstrates the ability of the film-maker to slowly draw the audience from a realistic basis into accepting some pretty outlandish stuff. Each of the three powered armours is better than the last and by the end we believe that Tony Stark (wonderfully depicted by Robert Downy Junior) can function as human, jet fighter and tank rolled into one. The only thing I would change is that only one actor would play James Rhodes from the outset.

The Incredible Hulk: This is the only MCU movie that succumbed to 'gritty and gloomy' pretensions. I feel that would have been different if Mark Ruffalo had played Bruce Banner from the start. It is interesting that the movie puts the Hulk origins in its own past - one can pretend it is linked to the non-MCU Hulk movie that preceded it. I would have liked to see a different epilogue drawing it into the wider MCU. In it some Shield agents prominent in future movies would secretly monitor the fugitive Bruce Banner but would then be called away to a more pressing assignment in Budapest.

An Agents Of Shield Movie: I feel it makes sense for characters that become core Avengers to have an adventure of their own. Such a spy flick would have starred Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff, co-starred Jeremy Renner as Clint Barton and guest starred Samuel L Jackson as Nick Fury. Other characters like agents Coulson and Hill could also have appeared. The vibe would have combined the fun of xXx with the cool of Atomic Blonde but lacked the harshness of Red Sparrow (for now the closest thing I imagine we have to a Nat and Clint movie). By the end an array of criminal organizations would be shown to have links with Hydra. An epilogue would give the agents a history lesson on the World War II origins of that secret society.

Captain America - The First Avenger: Chris Evans is well-cast as the virtuous Steve Rogers and I enjoyed this historically-set comic book movie. However it always seemed to lack something for me but since I cannot define that thing I cannot suggest improvement. However the scene set in the present would involve Tony Stark. Tony would use his surname to get some kind of recognition from Steve. And yet he cannot resist acting the showman and would utter the knowingly corny line 'welcome to the future Captain America'. Maria Hill could be standing in the background and receive a call from Phil Coulson saying he has discovered something odd in Oklahoma.

Thor: Chris Hemsworth is perfect as the bold and rash Asgardian. I enjoy this movie but find the contrast between Asgard and the desert of the south-west US jarring. Rushing from a fantastic 'realm' (yet to be characterized as just another planet) of godlike aliens to dusty New Mexico gives me culture shock. Shifting the setting of the hammer-fall to something a bit more temperate and verdant would address that. Also Hawkeye seems out-of-place here. Otherwise this Kenneth Branagh directed movie feels like Shakespeare in space and works surprisingly well. Its epilogue could show that Loki is still alive and now working with other sinister powers intent on finding primordial artifacts.

The Avengers: The first super-powered ensemble movie of the MCU is one of my favourites. Joss Whedon was right for the job of writer-director because of how he portrays characters. They are never paragons-of-virtue. Rather they are flawed humans who recognize mistakes and try to make amends. I'm tempted to say this movie be left as is but there is something that bugs me with it - a whole gang of heroes face just one villain (and a villain who ends his story-line much later as a hero). I wonder how this would have worked as a movie in which some villains collaborate (beyond anonymous minions and a behind-the-scenes puppet-master). What if a Hydra cell were involved? What if Red Skull also returned from seeming-death in the cosmic vastness? How would these villains interact? I imagine an ex-fascist who had abandoned cruder prejudices for a kind of perverse meritocracy (surely the doctrine of Hydra) would initially admire Loki but eventually see his shortcomings and turn on him. As for Thanos working in the background - I wonder at the wisdom of risking one infinity stone in order to collect another one. It could always be part of another story.

Phase Two

An Iron Man Sequel: In my re-arrangement I am merging some movies so that others can exist. A movie that combined the better aspects of both Iron Man sequels is what I'm imagining. The trauma Stark experienced as a result of his brush with death in outer-space is exhibited in his drunken and disorderly conduct. Various characters (including Hawkeye rather than Black Widow) either help or hinder him in his journey to become whole but in the process he never destroys all his suits. Possibly an infinity stone can become part of the Iron Man story too.

Guardians Of The Galaxy: This is pretty fine as it is and frankly it has a lot of work to do with introducing another whole ensemble to the existing setting. Of course it does this by taking to the stars (or as fans say it is in the more 'cosmic part of this universe' which is an interesting use of synonyms). This movie truly took the MCU to lurid and outlandish vistas but by then we were well-prepared for more-and-more.

Captain America & The Winter Soldier: I love this political thriller inserted into a comic book setting but the name always confused me. Replacing the dash with an ampersand clarifies that the Winter Soldier is a distinct character. This is the best Captain America movie and that is partly because it is also an excellent adventure for Black Widow. We also meet the wonderful Sam Wilson and the creepy magnetic-tape incarnation of Dr Zola. And finally the link between Shield and Hydra is exposed.

Ant-Man: I was surprised at how well this movie worked. I somehow expected it to be too silly but the level of comedy was just right and by this time it seemed that any kind of movie could be inserted into the MCU. I just wish that Hope van Dyne would tell Scott Lang that most ants (including his winged steed) are female.

A Vision And Scarlet Witch Movie: I feel that Age Of Ultron was a hot mess of an Avengers movie but maybe aspects of it would have worked well as a more modest origin story for my proposed titular characters. We needed more of a chance to see what these powerful figures can do. It could also be another movie focused on key Shield agents and associates (including the geneticist Helen Cho) as they finalize the destruction of Hydra.

Spiderman - Homecoming: This was a fantastic re-booting of the character. Tom Holland ties with Toby McGuire as my favourite incarnation of Peter Parker but this movie gives something more. Vulture as depicted by Michael Keaton is possibly my favourite of all MCU villains to date. He can be menacing and then charming and then just an ordinary person stuck in a difficult life.

Avengers - Civil War: I feel like Civil War is practically an Avengers movie anyway so may as well make it so. To make it more completely Avengers it could take a few scenes from Age Of Ultron. The party scene would be a must but with more tensions brewing. The personal flashbacks could be the product of conversations rather than mind-probing (or otherwise be in other origin movies). The ability of one person to manipulate such powerful figures into conflict would continue to be central to this story. Some characters (Thor and Hulk) would be otherwise occupied but could appear in sideshow cameos.

Captain Marvel: Bringing on this prequel sooner in the sequence would give the character more of a sense of belonging in the history of the Avengers. I also have an interest in a different incarnation of the character - Monica Rambeau. I randomly own just one Avengers comic and in this 80s issue her version of Captain Marvel is leader of the group and bursting with energy. Having her as the central character (rather than just a child) would have been cool. Still this was an interesting movie. I particularly like how two key characters essentially switch the roles of hero-mentor and villain - a nifty trick for any actors to portray.

Phase Three

Guardians Of The Galaxy 2: This is more fun and madness in the wider cosmos. Also more pathos for various characters such as Rocket and Nebula. It also offers many promises of future developments that I only hope will be delivered in coming movies beyond what is described here.

Doctor Strange: This takes us from the wider cosmos of Guardians to a hint at a multiverse that results in the rules-bending of magic. I would have enjoyed a bit more character development for some of the supporting cast - Wong as more than just a comedic character could be worth exploring.

Black Panther: Some movies present new sets of characters but this one goes further in presenting a whole culture. Its production of something new that is nonetheless inspired by age-old African cultures is an impressive work of craft and design. The economics is fanciful but this is the MCU and they can get away with it. The nation of Wakanda (both as a locale and a community) plays a key part in the final two movies of the Infinity Saga but with one noteworthy exception. The spy Nakia is central to the Wakanda story yet absent later on. I would have rather seen her in the final battle at Avengers headquarters than the brilliant yet barely-armed Shuri.

Planet Hulk: Here I imagine the more Hulk-centric aspects of Ragnarok as a stand-alone Hulk sequel. Such a story could start in a scene of urban destruction on Earth caused by a berserk Hulk who later repents as Bruce Banner and exiles himself from Earth. In coming to Sakaar he must defend himself in Hulk form but then find himself suited to the life of a gladiator. Fun could ensue in Guardians fashion and the character who finds and fights Hulk could be the travelling Captain Marvel.

The Wasp: Both Scott Lang and Hope van Dyne are the central characters of two movies to date. One is barely more important than the other. So if Ant-Man can be the focus of one movie then the Wasp can be the focus of the other. This would involve only small changes in emphasis. However the Wasp could end the movie as the one trapped in the Quantum Realm. The scene of others ceasing to exist takes me to a small peeve of mine - 'the snap' special effect of turning to dust seems tacky to me. I would prefer the older yet subtler visual of simply fading. I feel this better conveys a sense of getting edited from reality rather than just destroyed. It could also easily be confused by viewers as something akin to the phasing problem also seen in this movie.

A Thor Sequel: A long fantasy movie that combines the best aspects of both Thor sequels is what I propose here. It would be more grounded in the Norse vibe but fit the Nine Realms more fully into a cosmic framework. The Dark Elves could just be a minor challenge overcome only to then face the greater danger of Hela (my other contender for favourite MCU villain). More time could be focused on Heimdall as a resistance leader and a still-extant Lady Sif could become protector of Asgardian refugees. Connection to the wider MCU could still be provided by scenes involving Dr Strange and others.

Avengers - Infinity War (Part 1) & Endgame (Part 2): I regard these as one very long movie with a shock cliff-hanger and intermission of several months. There is so much in this to be impressed by and barely anything I can even start to re-configure (I choose to overlook the cascading death that would result from a halved population - I cannot help that Thanos is a fanatical idiot). All my changes to other movies would result in a very similar culmination and what a ride it was!

* * * * *

I only ever imagine changes to things I value and that is very much so here. My wishful thinking is far easier to do than the epic task undertaken by thousands of workers who have given us the amazing Infinity Saga. What I found interesting with this exercise was to notice how changes at the start of a story necessitate many more changes later on. That is why my descriptions of change are explicit in Phase 1 but then vague in Phases 2 and 3. There are simply too many things I would have to reference in order to justify my reconstituted story. And to be honest I am very happy just to re-watch the Infinity Saga movies as they exist in this reality.

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