I read and watch a lot of movie reviews. And I often hate those movie reviews. On the reviewing scene recently, I’ve been seeing a lot of critical analysis of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Some of this analysis seems to hold that the MCU is great and above criticism; some holds that it’s turn-your-brain-off trash and not even worth criticizing because it’s bad; some of the blowback to said criticism seems to hold the view that the MCU is fun, and thus should not be criticized.
All of these views are inherently ridiculous.
I was recently watching this Now You See It video on so-bad-it’s-good film and stumbled across a really interesting argument:
The techniques of so bad, it’s good are present in tons of criticially acclaimed movies, and almost all the time, it’s done on purpose… audiences enjoy theatrical and over-the-top movies that still take themselves seriously.
Whatever you want to call it, fun-trash, camp, or something else, this rule applies not just to purposefuly ridiculous Wes Anderson romps or iconic movies like The Princess Bride. It applies to all campy movies. And comic book movies… are a really excellent example. They ask you to suspend disbelief and invest in ridiculousness but enjoy yourself anyway.
Fun-trash movies can be criticized for lacking a good viewing experience. An action movie can be good, and an action movie can be bad, and an action movie can be (as most movies are) a mixed bag. At the same time, reviewing does not have to be overcritical of fun trash because it lacks perfection; movies can lack some elements of literary merit and still be funny, or just flat-out tense. In sense, they can still have relevance and value in both what they say and how they work as viewing experiences. Just because something is campy doesn’t actually mean it doesn’t have merit as a work.
It’s also important to remember, especially with huge blockbusters Another relevant video on this topic, Sarah H’s excellent video on bad faith media criticism, makes a tangentally similar point:
…[this means that] even if the movie is excellent, it becomes your job to hate it. And that often means looking for the most minute details to criticize, even when those details end up having little to no bearing on the film’s central message, story, or enjoyability.
It is very easy to nitpick a movie for small details that do not work. But… a movie doesn’t fail because of one plot hole, or one messy shot, or one stupid line. These are elements that contribute to larger narrative issues, yes; if shots are consistently bad, or if plot holes make the larger plot completely unbelievable, that’s a problem. But nitpicks do not formal criticism make.
This is a really long monologue all specifically gearing up to say that I’ve been marathoning all of the marvel movies and I had a hot take on a good one, and a hot take on a bad one.
This was the budget breakdown for the movie Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015):
That One Extended SlowMo Shot Of The Avengers Assembling $3,600
someone who is good at the economy please help me budget this. my family is dying
I… hated this movie. I hated almost every minute of it. I will admit that some of this was just… me noting that plot points and dialogue were ridiculous and stupid and awful (you can find a super super long list of ridiculous stupid awful things about this movie here). But in thinking about good faith and bad faith media criticism, we have to note that campy isn’t always bad. This movie is not bad because it’s campy.
The Avengers (2012) is a film that I think around 90% of us can agree is wildly entertaining. I had actually never seen this original marvel movie before this month and I absolutely adored my viewing experience. But guys, let’s be real: that movie is ridiculous as all hell. The main conflict is quite literally solved by someone flying a nuclear bomb into a wormhole and then falling back out of the wormhole (why is there gravity in this wormhole??). Half the movie is taken up by the Avengers fighting with each other, the team comes together because someone dies dramatically, Loki’s plan falls apart partially because he’s more here for the drama than anything else.
But… it works. I honestly had fun watching the Avengers team up and slowly grow to like each other; every character was written as likable and compelling (yes, even Clint, who apparently has zero character development in any of these), the dynamics are clear, and you pump your fist at all the good fight scene moments because ridiculous as everything is, there’s a (fairly) clear conflict and clear goal.
So Avengers: Age of Ultron isn’t bad because it’s campy. Joss Whedon, the director of both these movies, is — though we need to talk about his problems with misogyny later on — a very good dialogue writer. There’s a reason Buffy and Firefly are still so iconic. The cast has enough good chemistry to pull the occasionally-too-quippy dialogue off. And yeah, Ultron’s dialogue honestly drove me nuts but… it’s not the real problem with this movie.
The problem with this movie is, fundamentally, that it’s so terribly paced and narratively incoherent that we as the audience are given the time to notice how ridiculous it is.
And while I’ll be breaking them down seperately, it’s important to remember that these two problems tie in quite strongly.
This movie starts off on a battle that is not really explained well and the introduction of two Evil Twins. Then Tony Stark and Bruce Banner decide to… make a killer robot. (Oh, and they pretended Tony Stark had never had any character development to make the essential premise of this movie even work but I can’t even be fucked to get into that because that would require i get invested in the character consistency of Tony Stark and that’s not a can of worms I plan to open ever.) These things are only tangentially related, and this problem of plot connection keeps coming back. There’s a battle between Hulk and Tony halfway through the movie that lasts ten minutes. If this were built up in a satisfying way, it would not matter that this battle is long and pointless. But… it’s not. We don’t care about this battle, because we only realize this battle will happen five minutes before it does; it feels like a weird diversion in the movie rather than a fundamental part of the story.
And this is how almost all of this movie feels: random. This movie has almost no structure or buildup – it’s an assortment of events, not a movie. The Ultron character’s goal is unclear to both us and the character for almost the entire movie.
This issue spreads out further into character development, and the broader problem of the fact that none of these characters have a remotely satisfying arc. The idea of Banner getting character development is excellent but the movie completely fails to plant it at the beginning OR to create a satisfying point A to point B; instead, he’s thrown off into a romance plot with an unsatisfying conclusion. Clint has a wife now, but how does he grow or change? Tony Stark’s writing is actively unsettling because he doesn’t change; at the beginning, he tries to build a robot that then kills the world, and at the end, he builds another robot. Like, you just almost killed the world and learned absolutely nothing from that and the movie has nothing to say about it.
Bad pacing, for those of you who do not spend all of your time reading media criticism, is an issue because it causes a movie to lose tension. Slow pacing is okay… sometimes, though I’d argue it’s almost always bad for an ensemble movie. Age of Ultron falls victim to something worse: inconsistent pacing.
Structurally, insofar as the sturcture is actually there, the first act of this movie is far too long and has a deeply unsatisfying inciting incident (aka Thing That Gets The Ball Rolling). We get this villain reveal that’s actually fairly ominous, with him… right downstairs at Tony Stark’s mansion. It’s been preceded by ten minutes of just them creating a villain. That’s good buildup. Then, of course, they cut to a fucking party (and like, an entertaining fairly well written one too, the only good part of the movie, so what the fuck) and it lasts. fifteen minutes. literally. fifteen minutes with no plot carrying on even though we know who the villain is and we know he’s downstairs from the heroes. It feels like Joss Whedon read Hitchcock’s rules for creating suspense and then decided to use them… for a comic scene.
This problem, unfortunately, does not end. In the third act, the movie essentially takes a full ten minute pause in both plot and character development to introduce Vision. It’s not a bad idea to introduce Vision here. The movie keeps stopping at random moments for a diversion to introduce character conflicts that go nowhere and sideplots that go nowhere and a romance plot that goes nowhere. And my god we’re gonna talk about the romance plot.
If I were going to guess at why this movie is so lacking in pacing or story structure, I would guess it’s partially due to studio interference. Two things make me think this: 1) that there are several character and plot intros in this movie, including, to name a few: the introduction of the Infinity Stones, both the existence of Wakanda and the villain from Black Panther, the setup of Thor: Ragnarok for both the Hulk and Thor, the introduction of Wanda, and the introduction of Vision. 2) A bit of research into the development of this movie will tell you that around 45 minutes of it were cut.
Now, speculation is a hard game to play. But if I were to guess, I’d bet the original cut of this movie utilized a much more drawn out and slow-burn plot, with a far more elaborate plot, pacing that was at least more consistent, and perhaps more weight given to characters.
That’s not to say all issues are studio-caused; the studio didn’t cause shot to shot editing in several action scenes, for example. it’s bad. I don’t know how to elaborate on this but it’s bad. With the exception of a few really excellent shots, the shot tracking in action scenes is actually nonexistent most of the time. And there’s also no fucking score or sound effects. This is going to be bug me so much, guys. There’s a scene in which a plane crosses the sky (like ten minutes in) and it fucking doesn’t have sound effects. NONE. And then the music in the scene after is just like,,,,, piano music? Look, I said I wasn’t nitpicking, but… they’re in a plane? Planes have noises? And this problem with sound… keeps popping up. It’s as if they forgot to add music or scoring to several scenes. I love movie scores and this movie score is the actual equivalent of wet lettuce. Which is fine, but I think the lack of good scoring actually does impact tension in the action scenes.
Whatever the reason, the problem is this: we, as the audience, are given too many reasons to be thrown out of the narrative of the movie, thinking thoughts such as what am I watching and please kill me. And it is this that allowed me notice just how deeply horrifying the meta-narrative of Natasha’s character arc is.
The romance between Nat and Banner isn’t actually an inherently terrible choice and yet they did such an amazing job making me hate every second of it. These characters actually could work for each other because Bruce is, on some level, a kind character, and Nat, yes with her backstory, is also a fundamentally kind character. They’re both hardasses due to circumstances and are actually kind, loving, caring people; Banner is actually this to a much higher degree.
On a broad level it seems like Nat should be getting character development. We explore her backstory, after all, and her feelings that her agency has been taken away. This, as a conceit, is excellent. But to make this work, they forgo her previous characterization as a hardass (a hardass with feelings, yes, but a hardass) and make her a damsel in distress within the narrative. Whose characterization as someone who believes she’s a monster is tied in with her being infertile. No, seriously. The played-straight line “you still think you’re the only monster on the team?” in reference to infertility seriously makes me want to kill whoever wrote this script and then myself. That is. So misogynistic.
This is not the basis the movie uses for their relationship. Instead, it utilizes Nat as a girl chasing after him, and, here’s the kicker, that is her primary purpose in the movie. This has no basis and no buildup, they’ve never even interacted before this movie, and it’s awful. and it’s made way worse by all the fucking shots of her boobs. And then it feels slightly worse because of that one moment of creepily sezualized violence of Bruce towards Wanda. Nat feels like an object for him to get and I hate it, I hate it so much I hate this movie so goddamn much.
She does nothing in this film, she has no role, her functional role is to be the damsel in distress. Literally. I was feeling that halfway through and then he literally saves her from death he literally saves her oh my god. and it happens twice.
So, to summarize: this movie is campy. However, it also struggles to establish a coherent narrative, has some of the worst pacing of any marvel movie, and sacrifices the only female character’s development for the sake of a romance plot that no one asked for and no one wanted.
I also recently rewatched a movie I have not seen since I was fourteen years old (twice. I actually rewatched it twice.), and yes it had flaws, but it was so entertaining, and I really loved it both times. I am talking, of course, about 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
here are, in my opinion, the essential ingredients of a good marvel movie:
- a believeable lead group dynamic
- at least one fight scene that makes you just yell OH SHIT!!! multiple times
- good, built up tension over the movie, with solid pacing
- at least one satisfying slash emotional twist
- a thematic arc of some kind that i can yell at you about later
This particular movie contains all of the above, and also toys with tension better than pretty much any other in the mcu, contains some of the best fighting choreography of the entire mcu, gets you very invested in the lead four characters, and has something to actually say. And it’s my favorite Marvel movie. I think.
I need to get it out of the way, so let’s talk about the fact that this movie has… the best action of any marvel movies. Fight scene music is such a careful art but the score of this movie is amazing. And yes, maybe part of my problem with Age of Ultron’s score is that the score of this (this movie was made a year earlier) is just… so good? The fight scene music of the opening scene in this movie kicks my ass. And also the Winter Soldier theme is fucking terrifying and I love it so much did you know this theme is made with distorted screams? It’s AWFUL. I LOVE IT.
Let’s talk about how to make good fight scenes. The first fight scene of this movie is so so excellent, well-paced and well-based-in-character. Steve’s opening fight scene with his shield is amazing and Natasha’s fight choreo made me the lesbian I am today. The fight scene at about 28 minutes in is a scene that utterly depends on tension: what we know, vs. what we don’t know, a slow build that makes the eventual car chase scene feel deeply satisfying. This follows for all continuing fight scenes: the elevator scene around 45 minutes in is uniquely powerful because we feel the tension build. By the time the scene gets going, we are legitimately on the edge of our seats. And again, the choreography of this scene is also deeply excellent; on top of the aircraft is improbable and ridiculous and I don’t even care, because I was screeching.
Most of the other fight scenes come later in the movie, towards the climax, and while they lack that sheer most-amazing-thing-I’ve-ever-watched quality, there are some major standouts. Sam’s fight scene with the Hydra agent is excellent because it serves as emotional payoff for Sam’s growth in confidence towards being the Falcon, and also because “man, shut the hell up” is honestly just so iconic.
At 54 minutes in, Nat and Steve have to escape Hydra again, and do it through deceipt. it is one of the most quietly tense scenes in the whole movie, but the movie does not see fit to add a pointless action moment; the tension is enough here. And indeed, all of the fight scenes in this movie depend on tension: what we know and what these characters know is often the same, meaning we’re left on the edge of our seats at every moment. But there is this one standout moment.
Let me just explain the DC bridge fight scene to you: ten minutes of action with both up and down beats, complete with a wondrously good score, in which a major character reveal is dropped. This fight scene begins incredibly abruptly with a villain getting dragged out of the car, then continues into a wheel getting ripped off and then a car chase sequence, sort of, where Sam and Steve and Nat get dragged on the shield. The Winter Soldier shoots at Steve, Steve goes over the bridge because he’s a self-sacrificing idiot like that, Nat and Sam separately attempt to survive and protect their group. So when Nat shoots The Winter Soldier, you expect it to be a moment of triumph. Instead, the camera focuses in on the Winter Soldier’s face as he takes off his eyemask, and at this point, yeah, you’ve probably figured out who it is, but you still want to gasp because oh my god, the payoff. (The music cuts out here and it is glorious.) Sam kicks ass and it’s also glorious and then he teams up with Steve and it’s so good oh my god I love this movie. And now we’re back to the Winter Soldier, and the shots are awkward and the music is gone and we’re in his point of view as he preys on a character we love and that is creepy as fuck. And then they start fighting with a knife and it’s desperate and brutal and really well choreographed and then, the mask falls off. and you fucking knew it was Bucky but holy fuck it’s Bucky. This is literally the best fight scene in any Marvel movie and I don’t care, there’s a REASON everyone makes memes of this set to Toxic by Britney Spears.
Okay I’m done talking about fight choreo now and I wanted to talk about villain reveals because this movie’s villain buildup… fucking slaps. The first reveal of the Winter Soldier comes at 32 minutes in, in which we see a figure in black standing in the middle of traffic, seemingly casually. The next time we see the Winter Soldier is in a flash through Steve’s window. we know it’s the same man in black; Steve does not. and then he catches and flings back Steve’s shield, in this little moment that is so well timed as to be deeply unsettling. his third appearance is in Alexander Pierce’s apartment; his fourth is on the DC bridge, fighting with the three leads, including another scene where he stands eerily in front of a car (it’s so creepy). his fifth appearance is the first one where we see him as fully human, as someone being tortured. And it’s here where we start seeing this character as a threat, yes, but also someone to be saved. It builds nicely, is planted and payed off, and focuses tension from saving the world to saving a person. Also, Sebastian Stan’s acting in this movie is insane.
So. Okay. I’ve told you, extensively, about why this movie is a well-done action movie. But it also has strong pacing, one of the better-written group dynamics of any marvel movie, a consistent narrative arc, very strong character arcs even for the newly introduced character (Sam Wilson is the most succesful one-movie new-character without-a-solo-movie intro they pull off in the mcu do not @ me you know I’m correct), and an excellent emotional core.
“The world has changed, and none of us can go back… All of us have to do our best. And sometimes the best we can do is to start over.”
The thing is: Steve Rogers had just been asleep for seventy years, and lost everyone he has ever cared about. That’s a hard arc to pick up. Captain America: The Winter Soldier chooses to be about trying to move on and find new friends and recognize that while the world has changed, values of freedom and your love for other people remains the same.
So, yes, this is a spy movie about the danger of compulsory loss of freedom. When shown the plan to essentially put nukes in the sky at all times, Steve rebutts immediately: “by holding a gun to everyone on earth and calling it freedom?” “this isn’t fighting for freedom. It’s fear.” And it’s argued by other characters that he’s looking at this from an old-fashioned perspective, which of course he is. But the movie doesn’t back down or slide on this point. We’re grappling at all times with this idea of attempting to find priorities in an increasingly complex world without compromising on morals. The villain’s argument is, quite literally, that humanity is ready to “sacrifice its freedom to gain its security.” But the movie says it isn’t. Humanity is messy and complicated on its own, without a gun held to its head.
See, this movie is also succesful because of how deeply human it remains; it’s centered on Steve’s attempts to find human connection, and though he’s encouraged to find a girl, his primary connections end up being with his friends. Captain America: The Winter Soldier begins with what is honestly the best character intro of any Marvel movie; the four-minute introduction of Sam, Steve, and Nat is perfectly paced, both funny and endearing. And the character dynamics are, in a choice that can only be described as revolutionary for marvel, treated with actual narrative weight (okay I said I wasn’t getting salty in this post I’m sorry).
“Everyone we know is trying to kill us.”
The relationship between Steve and Sam is so good I love them. Their meetcute (and yes I’m calling it a meetcute that’s what it is don’t @ me) is iconic. There’s some element of old heroism to this dynamic — “Captain America needs my help. there’s no better reason to get back in” — but there’s also just a lot of goodness between them. They’re ride or die for each other and it’s wonderful it’s so good. “I do what he does. Just slower.” And the callback to “on your left” at the end is… so so nice.
Sam and Steve’s dynamic is built primarily off the fact that they share trauma. Sam’s trauma from losing his wingman, Riley, is something he’s attempting to deal with by leading discussion groups at the VA. (The maturity… the emotional stability… the actual attempt to grapple with tragic backstories… I love the most emotionally stable avenger.) And Sam also, symbolically, works as a character who is emotionally together in a way Steve is not. He’s, on some level, living a life Steve wants to live; he’s lost his best friend, too, and is struggling to come home from constant war, but he’s trying. “The number of people giving me orders is down to about zero,” Sam tells Steve, happily.
“Our mission is to rescue the hostages.”
“That’s your mission.”
Nat and Steve’s friendship is written so so well and honestly lowkey the most compelling dynamic in any marvel film. When Steve lies to her, Nat calls him “a terrible liar,” because she gets him. She jokes with him — “well, this is awkward,” “I only act like I know everything,” “was that your first kiss since 1945?” — but they’re also just kind to each other. “Who do you want me to be?” “How about a friend?”
I think it’s pretty easy to dislike Scarlett Johansson personally at this point, but I had a lot of feelings about this character in 2015 and I think it was because of this movie. Natasha’s characterization in this movie is also exceptionally strong in comparison to certain other Marvel movies; she doesn’t serve the damsel in distress role at all, but it is instead a proactive character in her own right. She cries over Fury, her mentor, but also kicks ass. We love respect for women’s agency what’s an age of ultron I’ve never heard of her.
“I have lived a life. My only regret is you didn’t get to live yours.”
This line from Peggy is amazing, and made me tear up all three times I’ve seen this movie. It also made me real mad about the ending of Avengers: Endgame but it can’t ruin this movie for me!! She wants to let him go! She wants him to let her go! She wants them both to move on! That’s really emotionally heavy! And the scene in which Peggy forgets about Steve and then remembers him is honestly… awful like that shit gets me. every time.
“For as long as I can remember I just wanted to do what was right. Guess I’m just not sure what that is anymore… I thought I could throw myself back in and follow orders. Serve. It’s just not the same.”
On a personal level, this movie is one of the few mcu films that bothers to develop a solid character conflict for its hero (I would also nominate Thor Ragnarok, Black Panther, and surprisingly Iron Man 3 for this category).
When Sam asks Steve what makes him happy (also that’s so nice), Steve quite literally replies “I don’t know” — he has lost his personality outside of his image, an image of heroism he has no interacted with. Worse, he has completely changed surroundings and status, right before being thrown into a war against killer aliens. Prior to this movie, it’s easy to read him as a character who has lost his ability to live outside of that, and this movie actually chooses to dissect and discuss this.
But the thing is, it’s not just about the humanity of these three characters. It’s about the bravery of the boy at SHIELD who says he will not launch the ships, and Sharon Carter, who follows along despite no idea what will happen next. The villain here is the main character’s brainwashed best friend. Yes, there are other villains and other conflicts, but above all, this is a movie that respects humanity; the humanity of its characters, and the humanity of its conflicts.
Even the stakes of the final action are, smartly, played as more emotional: our three leads are fighting, pimarily, against someone we actually know from movie one. Towards the end of this scene, we shift from this battle for the world to this one fight between two characters and it’s not flashy, it’s just messy, because it’s… sad. The world has been saved and now it’s about this character conflict. And what they do with this character beat… honestly… iconic.
Because Captain America… loses. He drops the shield and says he’s not going to fight. And then he tells his ex best friend to literally kill him if he has to and quotes. his moving-in proposal. from 1938. And then! He falls! Out of a helicopter! And is clearly about to drown in the Patomac! Until his ex best friend! straight up jumps off a helicarrier to save his life. as you do! I don’t know if you can tell but it’s been. four years since I watched this movie and I still haven’t processed this! It’s fucking heartbreaking!
It’s a deeply satisfying movie on a lot of levels.
I think one of the best parts of any superhero movie is the satisfaction of a good heroic display (a she-did-that moment, as I like to call it). Sam’s phone conversation with the shield agent is honestly up there in my list of faves of this genre. there’s a moment at 1:14 that is the best of the entire mcu: “is this little display meant to insinuate you’re going to throw me off the roof? because it’s really not your style, Rogers” “you’re right. it’s not. it’s hers.” right before Natasha kicks him off the roof and Sam pulls him back up Falcon-style. This doubles as his official Falcon introduction and it is one of the best two minutes of any action movie.
Here are some other things about this movie that stay iconic:
- everyone dresses so wholesome in the first half of this movie it’s cute
- “i don’t think he’s the kind you save, i think he’s the kind you stop” “I don’t think I can do that” Steve Rogers is a legend nothing but respect for my consistent favorite avenger
- “nobody special, though?” “believe it or not, it’s hard to find someone with shared life experience.” -this line, delivered at around one hour into the movie, is absolutely the most queerbaited I’ve ever felt in my life
- on that note, breaking through brainwashing for your best friend is Marvel’s equivalent of queercoding (they did this with Carol and Maria and with Trish and Jessica it’s exclusively for the gays do not @ me)
- Sam saving Steve is supremely satisfying
- Sam’s wing being grabbed still makes me gasp every day it’s shot so well
- when Natasha took off her wig my wig flew off too
- “you’re not going to put any of us in a prison. you know why? cause you need us.”
- this movie ends on the note of Nat telling Steve to move on with Sharon Carter and then Steve and Sam agreeing to, instead, team up and find Bucky. iconic moment
So… this is the most kickass marvel movie, with the possible exception of Black Panther (the car chase scene in that?? magnificent). But also, this entire movie is about trying to move on and find new friends and recognize that while the world has changed, values of freedom and your love for other people remains the same. While also being a good kickass action movie. And I think that’s really wonderful.
Okay, so, I know I really went on for a while about Marvel movies, but here’s the thing: it’s not really about Marvel movies specifically. (Although if you want to see more of my Marvel opinions I made a Letterboxd ranking). What I’m saying here is that marvel movies are action movies, and yes, we can cut them some slack in certain areas. But something being a fun ridiculous action movie doesn’t mean we can’t expect character consistency, or strong central themes. The best MCU movies… have those. The worst ones don’t. And as film critics, or simply people walking around this world as human beings with opinions, we can and should point those things out.
I was deactivated on Twitter while rewatching Winter Soldier so it’s not my fault this got so long otherwise I would’ve just tweeted about it for nine hours straight. Let me know your thoughts on Marvel movies or film criticism, whatever your mood is, in the comments!