30 Thoughts on AGE OF ULTRON

*SPOILERS, OBVIOUSLY*

So I just watched Avengers Age of Ultron a few days ago. And in that time, I've let some of my feelings and opinions on the film simmer and crystallize a little. Judging from the length of this blog, I've also probably put in way more time thinking about this movie then any healthy person should.

Anyway, I remember feeling very ambiguous about Age of Ultron when I left the theater, and while I did enjoy myself, I did have a number of objective and subjective problems with the film. Do note that these are just my first impressions - opinions on films often change with fan discussions or repeat viewings, so maybe I might rank it higher (or lower) in the near future. But for now, Age of Ultron earns a 8/10 score from me. It doesn't really hit the heights of the MCU's finest like Iron Man or The Winter Soldier, but it does largely accomplish what it set out to do.

So without further ado, 30 Thoughts on Avengers Age of Ultron:

1. Hawkeye

Oh Sweet Christmas, I loved Hawkeye in this. After the mind-control fiasco of the first film, Whedon did not disappoint with this one. The movie's first half foreshadows this with some jabs about Clint being a mere mortal, and then when we see his healthy well-adjusted family life (a nice inversion of The Ultimates 2), and all that dialogue about Clint being the heart of the team that keeps them grounded....God, it was all done so well. This is the first time I've ever felt like MCU Hawkeye was the 616 Hawkeye that I love. This is what makes Clint such a great character. Cap isn't the Batman of the Avengers; it’s Hawkeye. He's the mere mortal with a bow and arrow who can keep up with the demigods, who reminds the Avengers about who they're fighting for. And that speech he gave to Wanda about being an Avenger? Unbelievably awesome. Thumbs up to Whedon and Renner for finally doing Hawkeye justice, and for the character's best portrayal in the MCU so far.

2. Captain America

Speaking of characters whom I felt got slighted in the first film, Cap....was a motherf*cking boss in this film. I guess it might be because of Stark's (perhaps) villainous turn in the forthcoming Civil War, but I felt like Whedon gave more shine to Steve in this one. I think The Winter Soldier proved to Marvel that Steve could be a headline character, and making him the official leader of the team was great for both his character (all that stuff about him being a soldier who could never have a normal life) and finally made Cap feel like 616 Steve. I'll admit, I was a little apprehensive about Cap coming in to this film after the first Avengers film, and the fact that Cap seemed to constantly get his butt whupped in all the TV spots/trailers. But man, was I surprised. And the feats! Oh Lord, the feats! Throwing the bike, tossing that shield, taking on Ultron (which feels like a consolation prize after that Loki fight in the first one); Steve’s prowess just keeps getting more and more impressive with each MCU film. They really relied less on practical stunts and more on CGI this time round to showcase the impossible acrobatics that Cap can pull off. I also loved it whenever Captain America was in command and barked out marching orders. That "If you die, walk it off" line was absolutely killer (though morbidly ironic in the wake of Quicksilver’s death…). And also, it's not a MCU Cap movie if Chris Evans doesn't take off the helmet at some point in the final battle.

3. Captain America Pt. II

Chris Evans is the breakout character/standout performance for this movie, seriously. Thank God John Krasinski didn't beat him out. It's phenomenal to see how much Evans has matured in this role; from the grunt soldier in TFA, to his coming-of-age as a leader capable of independent thought in Avengers and Winter Soldier, and finally the top-dog boss in this film. He's basically taken Nick Fury's place. Interesting factoid: based off the success of the Winter Soldier, Marvel decided to list Chris Evans as #4 in the credits (his original place was #2), so that Evans' name would be front-and-center in the posters. I feel like Captain America might very well supersede Tony as the face of the MCU – all due love to RDJ, but as a Cap fan first before an Iron Man one, I'm a little biased. So far, of the Avengers’ Big Four, Cap has had the best track record in terms of the quality of his films.

4. Global scale

The title of "Earth's Mightiest Heroes" never rang truer for the team than in this film. I honestly think we spent more time overseas than we did in the States, which is a nice change of pace for the MCU (barring obvious exceptions like Guardians, of course). We got Africa, Asia, Europe. Ultron was definitely threatening the entire world, and seeing the Avengers fight in different environments was a blast. That whole South Korea segment as a whole was gold, and Strucker's fortress is just some classic Marvel action. On a somewhat related note, I also feel like Joss Whedon has grown a lot as a director since his Buffy days. There were some scenes in the first Avengers where I wasn’t entirely convinced that the approach used was the best one – i.e. the directing and camera-work didn’t feel as crisp or as refined as something like Iron Man or Winter Soldier – but Age of Ultron looks fantastic for the most part.

5. Ultron's plan

I liked Ultron's plan, actually. I know some viewers didn't, but I thought it was ripped straight out of the pages of a kooky Marvel Silver Age story (and if you know anything about the Shark, you know I have a soft spot for that era). The film tried to make it more palatable to general audiences by selling it as an "extinction-level event", but I just kept thinking about Graviton lifting an entire town back in the 70s Avengers. I mean we had the Avengers fighting a robot army on a floating city. It's nothing too revolutionary in the long history of supervillain schemes, and I'll admit I wasn't exactly blown away by it initially, but the more I thought about it...the more it started to grow on me. I guess it might be the most-effective way of causing a mass-extinction event without the use of nuclear missiles too. Poor Sokovia, though.

6. Ultron

Okay, here's where we start getting into the iffier stuff. Ultron was a mixed bag for me. I like James Spader. He's a great actor with a wonderfully magnetic presence (Robert California!), but his Ultron never felt like...Ultron to me. There have been many occasions when I feel like Joss Whedon 'Whedonizes' a character too much, i.e. makes him/her a little snarkier than appropriate with the Buffyspeak, and Ultron is one such occasion. What makes Ultron so frightening in the comics is that he's a machine. You can't appeal to his humanity because he has none. He's intimidating because he's not some human opponent you can punch; but intangible lines of code and data. Now I get that Whedon wanted more characterization for the main villain, by trying to portray Ultron as this psychopathic man-child, but it just doesn't work. Ultron's actions were a threat to the team, but as a villain himself, I never felt that his personality had the menace that Ultron should have. This is a guy who soloes the entire Avengers on a regular basis, he should be terrifying. Instead it felt like we got a Netflix Daredevil done to Ultron (i.e. a softer/more human version of a traditionally heartless villain). I thought they should've played up the whole 'artificial intelligence' angle more...in the super-connected world that we live in today, think of how compromised global security could be with a sentient virus. Also Ultron's face is just...off. It is way too emotive than I like my Ultron to be. And Wanda tearing out Ultron's heart...wait does that mean her TK is able to tear through vibranium (a.k.a. Cap's shield), or did I miss something there?

7. Quicksilver & Scarlet Witch

Sadly underutilized. I know that Whedon had such a large cast, and I get why he included them in the first place. You have Ultron, so you must have Vision, but you can't only have one new Avenger...so you include the twins because it's easy to tie them in to the whole "Ultron destroys a fictional Eastern European country" trope from Kurt Busiek's Avengers run. But I never got a full sense of their characters in this film - they just felt like generic heroes with powers. There's a slight hint of Quicksilver's arrogance and impatience, but not to the degree that he's usually portrayed with in the comics. The only thing I really dug were their accents, which I think we readers often forget they have, because that kinda thing doesn't really shine in print. The new "our parents were killed in a civil war" origin also strips away a lot that was interesting about these characters, though I suppose the whole redemption from villains to heroes that the 616 twins had is replicated with Ultron in this film. I mean I'm glad they were included, it's just that Whedon didn't really do much with them. And he killed Quicksilver off, so only Wanda gets future development. The problem here is that if you don’t sell these characters to the general audience, they become forgettable to them. As comic-book fans, we know Pietro and Wanda are essential to the Avengers team because we’ve read the source material, but most viewers won’t understand the significance of their inclusion here. Still, if nothing else, I enjoyed this Quicksilver more than the DOFP one (whom I maintain felt nothing like Pietro personality-wise).

8. Vision, and him lifting Mjolnir

I liked Vision. It was great that they included what was a very unworkable comic-book concept to the big screen, and you can't do an Ultron origin without throwing in the Vision, anyway. Paul Bettany also certainly feels like he was born to play the character. He's like green Doctor Manhattan. But again, same problem with Vision that I had with the twins - I felt like he wasn't developed too much. He was born, there was some exposition, he lifted Mjolnir, and then he became a part of the team. Again, understandable given the time constraints, but not ideal. He never felt like a smooth and natural extension of the film's plot, but more like a box that had to be ticked off. On him lifting Mjolnir: Initially, I was really shocked that they went that route. But then, it started to grow on me. For one, it adds a layer of characterization to Vision, a character whom desperately needs it. For another, I interpret it as him having been "born yesterday", which is why he's still pure of heart. And lastly, I don't think it takes too much away from Steve, as we saw that Cap could still budge the hammer. Whedon again, likely anticipating the fan flame wars, also left it ambiguous by suggesting at the end that it was because he's a machine. I'd have liked to see more of Vision's density-phasing powers though. I mean I guess he's technically using it when he punches things (Vision can increase his density too...though then again does he really need to with that vibranium body?), but I only recall one or two moments where he phased through enemies. I liked how they explained the cape/gloves of Vision's (admittedly goofy) costume by having him glance at Thor, though.

9. Expectations

You know, I only had two wishes on my fanboy list, going into this movie. The first was that Cap would lift Mjolnir, but as I covered above, I'm alright with that one not being (entirely) fulfilled. The second was that Cap would say "Avengers Assemble" in battle. And on that point, Whedon had to fudge it up with that stupid cut at the end. I enjoyed most of Joss Whedon's inversions in the film. He turned many classic Avengers conventions on their head to keep the audience entertained, and they mostly worked (e.g. the Widow/Hulk relationship, Vision lifting the hammer). But not giving the Avengers trademark battle cry its proper screentime...grr that really needs to be fixed in Infinity Wars. I know, I know, it's petty...but I've always loved that about the team. On a somewhat related note, have we heard Thor say “For Midgard” yet in the MCU? Also, where was my “We would have words with thee”, Joss?

10. Callbacks

This movie had a lot of callbacks to the first Avengers film. E.g. Hawkeye being the one Avenger not affected by Scarlet Witch's voodoo, the first opening shot that followed all the separate Avengers before the team came together in the glorious slow-mo jump, Hulkbuster Iron Man giving that final side punch to the Hulk, Thor choking Tony, Loki's scepter, Cap and Thor using the shield + hammer tactic et cetera. Those are just the ones off the top of my head. For the most part, the majority of them worked, but I felt that some were a little too self-indulgent on Whedon's part. Like they came across as an egregious wink-wink to fans who had seen the first film. I did dig all the subtler references that only hardcore Avengers fans would catch though; like the crimson cowl that Ultron was rocking, the Invaders name-drop, the launch technician from Winter Soldier, or the “Roy Thomas Players” from Cap’s dream. The plot as a whole drew a lot of inspiration from classic Avengers comics too, as expected of Whedon, including: Avengers #16 (Pietro and Wanda join the team), #54-58 (Ultron and the Vision's origin), and Kurt Busiek's Ultron Unlimited story where an army of Ultrons slaughtered an entire Eastern European nation (sound familiar?).

11. A Larger Universe

One of the best aspects of Age of Ultron was that the film truly felt like it was taking place in a greater Marvel universe. Fans are, on occasion, irritated by MCU movies that don't explain why Hero X never showed up in Hero Y's movie when the entire world was being threatened, but this film makes full use of the other characters in the cinematic U. We get to see Falcon, War Machine (so happy they got rid of the fashion faux pas that was the Iron Patriot suit), Heimdall, Peggy, and Selvig. It was beautiful to get all these disparate characters from these different franchises come together in one movie. Helen Cho felt like a weird addition to the team, though. On one hand it's glad to see them throw in some diversity with an Asian woman...but on the other, it came across a little as pandering to the South Korean government, and I felt like the task of Vision's creation could have just as easily been passed on to Banner. Still, minor nit-picking. But the fact that no one's addressed Phil Coulson's existence still bugs me a little, especially given that Maria Hill is right there. I mean Coulson’s been going around on crazy adventures throughout the entirety of Agents; do the Avengers seriously still think he's dead? I've heard rumors that Renner might guest-star as Hawkeye in the TV show though, so who knows. I understand the time restrictions of dealing with Coulson’s resurrection too, so I can't really fault Whedon and crew for this one.

12. World-Building

Age of Ultron also spent a lot of time setting things up for future Marvel installments. I'm still on the fence on whether or not this was a good thing. The inclusions felt organically-integrated for the most part (Klaue sells Ultron the vibranium, loses his arm, and references Wakanda...the Mind Gem is used to power Vision...the preemptive war debate between Steve and Tony hinting at Civil War). There's even a reference to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. with the inclusion of List speaking to Strucker in the opening minutes. But a part of me wonders if the film was too constrained or steered by the necessary seeds for future movies that they had to plant in this one.

13. Dream Sequences

Speaking of being on the fence about things: the dream sequences. On one hand, they gave great insights into the characters of each Avenger (thank heaven Cap's shield wasn't really shattered!), which led to some great moments down the line like the Bruce-Natasha conversation about how they're both incapable of having a family. On the other hand, they did feel too long at points, and an unnecessary plot contrivance to bring in side-characters like Peggy and Heimdall. Also, I still have no idea what the hell was up with that Thor in the Spirit Pool bit. What was he doing there exactly? Whedon revealed in an interview that Marvel Studios essentially forced him to insert that sequence, so it appears it might be an instance of the world-building being a negative. Presumably it's to set up Ragnarok and the Infinity Wars, as well as conveniently allowing Thor to explain the purpose of the Mind Gem and the necessity of the Vision, but it just felt so off-script, I was left confused.

14. Title Font

The Avengers title font still sucks hard. It bugged me in the first film, and it bugs me now. Why don't they change it to the far more aesthetically-pleasing font that they use in all other promotional materials? Why make it look like a weird Iron Man 1 font ripoff? Grr.

15. Costumes

I really liked Hawkeye and Cap's respective new looks in this film. Hawkeye's purple colors and the longcoat seem like a great mish-mash of the classic 616 Clint and the Ronin look. Glad they didn't give him the stupid sunglasses that current Hawkeye wears. Cap's new costume is this interesting merge of the usual Cap suit and the darker Super-Soldier look from Winter Soldier. I'm one of the few people on this planet who actually loved the Avengers suit, but this is a marked improvement. Even Whedon admitted so in an interview. The new helmet and the overall 'military' feel of the suit works much better; and Cap looks great in action (although I’m still a little iffy on the goofy arm-magnets inspired by the Lee-Kirby Avengers run). Thor and Hulk remained largely the same save for a few minor tweaks, far as I could tell. Hulkbuster was cool, but Iron Man's standard armors are starting to blend together a little after so many films. I get that this suit was a Bleeding Edge reference, but meh. Still cool to see that Stark has perfected the whole separate-parts-remotely-controlled aspect from Iron Man 3 though, but I am a little apathetic to the Iron Legion designs. I wasn't too keen on Widow's new costume either, it's a little too much color for me. I guess it fits the larger-than-life Avengers tone, but that and the escrima sticks just didn't jive with me. Pietro and Wanda were alright. It's understandable why they didn't have costumes, but Quicksilver did look a little goofy running around in a tracksuit and regular sneakers. Vision...well, whether or not he looks good is up in the air, but I'm just astounded/gleeful that they stuck so closely to the original kooky design. Kudos to Whedon and crew for that.

16. Hulkbuster vs. Hulk

Okay seriously, is the suit called "Veronica" or is that the satellite platform that launches the suit? Either way, I get the Archie reference, but "Hulkbuster" just sounds way cooler. I enjoyed the fight for the most part. The trailers kinda ruined it a little for me, but it was still entertaining. They've significantly toned down the hero vs. hero fights in this sequel, but part of the fun for these types of battles is that you never know who's gonna win. I'm still surprised that Tony defeated Hulk without any additional help (can't wait to see the fallout from that on the Battles board). One thing that I didn't like too much about this battle were Tony's quips though. I felt it was one witty statement too many. Fighting the Hulk should be desperate and terrifying. But still, minor complaint. Interestingly enough: ILM revealed that Banner was supposed to turn into Grey Hulk after Scarlet Witch messed with his mind. That would’ve been too awesome for words, but I understand why they had to ditch the idea. And at any rate, we don’t want to see the Hulkbuster suit going up against one of the weaker incarnations of the Hulk, do we?

17. Civilian Lives

One of my favorite ‘types of scenes’ for the superhero genre is when the reader gets to see the civilian aspect of the heroes' lives. I really enjoy reading those issues where it's just the heroes having downtime – kicking back and doing regular-people things for a change. It's moments like these where the interplay and banter and individual character traits really get to shine. So even though the TV spots have pretty much spoiled the whole Mjolnir hammer scene, I still thought it was bloody brilliant. The party as a whole; with the Stan Lee cameo, Steve giving girl advice to Banner, War Machine's ‘story’ - I loved it all. Even the later scenes in Hawkeye's farm, and the conversations between the team then. Good stuff. One minor nitpick though: was I the only one weirded out by Cap calling Widow 'Romanoff' the whole time? Like I get it if Thor or Tony called Widow by her last name, but it just felt odd for Cap, considering all those missions that they did together with S.T.R.I.K.E., and the fact that Steve constantly referred to her as 'Nat' or 'Natasha' in Winter Soldier. Hmm.

18. Language

This running joke as a whole deserves its own section. I just find it hilarious how the first line of any Avenger in this movie was "Shit!"

19. Iron Man/Tony Stark

I'm still a little confused by what they were trying to accomplish with Iron Man in this film. For a plot that hinges a fair amount on Stark, RDJ turns in a remarkably phoned-in and unmemorable performance as Tony in this one. We get some references to Stark building weapons with the twins' backstory, and Scarlet Witch's reference of his 'fear'. And then we get some hints to a future disagreement between Cap/Iron Man with the creation of Ultron, and later with the creation of Vision. But the film never really goes into how any of this reflects on Tony's character. So is Ultron technically Tony's fault? Is Ultron a dark reflection of Tony like Frankenstein's monster, and is Tony's idea of a protective shield around the world inherently flawed? This also ties into Ultron's motivations - I just don't buy it. His monologues were all really scattershot about how he wants to evolve humanity by causing an extinction...I don't know. Maybe a second viewing might clear this up, but for now, I'm really confused about what Age of Ultron is trying to say about the character of Iron Man. I mean in the end we have Tony and Steve hash things out, so presumably everything's kosher between them, but who's responsible for Ultron, then? Did I miss something? On a related note, did the film ever address the end of Iron Man 3 and the Clean Slate protocol?

20. The Action

The fight scenes in this film kinda range and jump between exhilarating to confusing/exhausting. I guess this might be because I watched it in 3D (of which I'm not a huge fan of), so maybe that's why it didn't come across as being that great. I loved the grand majority of the fights in this one. The opening raid on Strucker's fortress, the entire South Korea sequence, the Hulkbuster vs. Hulk battle. But there were times when I felt the whole 'bigger is better' mind-set was taken to uncomfortable extremes. A good example is the final battle in general. First, the whole bit with the Avengers protecting that vibranium machine from the Ultron drones was very jarring. In fairness, probably a 3D thing, but I just thought it looked messy and disorienting. Secondly, Ultron being pummeled by the Vision-Thor-Iron Man combo seemed anticlimatic in nature. And lastly, the battle felt like it kept starting and stopping - e.g. when Ultron came back with the Quinjet - so somehow the pacing just felt off to me. I might enjoy the final battle more with a second 2D viewing, but for now, the Battle of New York remains the standard for a great live-action superhero battle.

21. New Avengers

I'm a little saddened that we only got Avengers Tower for the span of a single movie (barring minor cameos in Daredevil). I thought it was a really kickass headquarters for the team to have (though I suppose the Tower could still be the main HQ, and the new compound is just a training facility...). Still, the new headquarters is cool too, and appears to be a homage to the West Coast Avengers compound from Roger Stern's run. It seems like the Avengers are just shooting through headquarters from the comics in these films...first the Helicarrier, then the Tower, and now the compound. Who knows, we might get Avengers Mansion next. Anyway, I'm surprisingly happy with the roster for this new Avengers team. Of course that's not to say the other members won't return in the future, and it's sad that we only got the classic team for two movies, but I still really like this new assembly. It seems like a reference to Cap's Kooky Quartet (which I love), and it's a lot more diverse too. Two women, two African-Americans, and an android in addition to Cap himself. And they've all been actual Avengers in the comics to boot. I'm excited to see where this takes us in the future of the MCU. If nothing else, at least the Quinjet will be less-packed, given that 4/6 members of the team can fly…

22. Hulk/Widow Relationship

You know, I'm not as adverse to this 'pairing' as many fans and even critics seem to be. I don’t see how it’s ‘cringe-worthy’. I feel like it's almost deserved, given all the screentime they shared in the first film. And another reason why I applaud it is that it's a great departure from the standard Hawkeye-Widow relationship that most fans expected. Whedon also gave them some deep character growth with their discussion about having a family. All that said - one of the things that I've loved about MCU Widow till now was that she was never written as some male hero's romantic interest. She stood on her own. She never hooked up with Stark in Iron Man 2, or Hawkeye in The Avengers, or Cap in Winter Soldier - despite the fact that all of those pairings would be standard Hollywood logic for any female character. So I think her being in a relationship does take something away from the character (I've heard some reviewers complain about how it's another instance of a woman's value being solely associated with motherhood…food for thought). It does seem oddly counterproductive considering how much they emphasized Widow's competence in the first one (think the interrogation scene with Loki), that she becomes a love interest and a hostage in need of rescue in this film. Hmm. Still, they did axe it with that final (heartbreaking) scene of Hulk leaving, so that's that I guess. Hopefully Vision/Scarlet Witch will pick up the slack!

23. Saving Lives

One of the things I liked the most about the first film was that we were constantly shown how the Avengers tried their best to save innocent civilians and minimize collateral casualties. They weren’t able to prevent the loss of life entirely - it was an actual war after all - but it’s still fairly remarkable that only ‘hundreds’ were killed as opposed to the thousands one would expect in a battle of this scale. Age of Ultron continues that great trend. These films remind us that superheroes don’t stop the villain because of the villain’s actions…they do so because said actions threaten innocent people. Superheroes save. So when we got Cap’s adamant stand that everyone in that chunk of Sokovia had to be evacuated, or the Avengers helping the civilians into the Helicarrier’s Killzone-esque lifeboats, or Tony scanning for civilians before dropping the Hulk, or Quicksilver and Wanda stopping the train...it’s these little touches that had me beaming. Plus, if nothing else, at least it gives the street-level Avengers like Clint something to do in the scheme of the greater battle.

24. Music

I wasn't too impressed with Brian Tyler and Danny Elfman's score on this one, it just felt derivative of Alan Silvestri's. After the great scores from Winter Soldier and GoTG, the Age of Ultron one left a little to be desired. I don't know, maybe I'll give it a re-listen on YouTube or something. The original Avengers theme by Silvestri is still golden, though.

25. Mid-credits scene

Ugh. It's starting to go from "Ominous setting-up for the inevitable Infinity War" to "Really, this again?" Seeing Thanos - even with the Infinity Gauntlet - has lost its luster by this point. I would've preferred another shwarma-esque scene to this one. I mean you guys have been teasing this since the first film...we get it. Also, and this isn't really a problem with this one film in particular, but what the heck is up with the "Infinity Stones". Gems. GEMS. They're called GEMS. Why do these films keep insisting on referring to them as Stones?

26. Dialogue

I suppose I understand why Joss Whedon might have turned the humor and quips up a notch with this installment. Because of the somewhat darker and grimmer nature of the film (that final battle in Sokovia alone looked less like a superhero battle and more like a terrifying urban war), the witty dialogue was likely used to counterbalance that, and remind the audience that yes, we’re still watching a superhero movie. For the most part, I think the jokes and quotable lines hit their mark. There were some bits that I wasn’t too huge a fan of (as aforementioned, I thought Ultron and Tony in the Hulkbuster had one crack too many), but scenes like the Avengers discussing Mjolnir, or Thor trying to console Banner, were very well-timed and executed. That said, I can understand if some viewers were a little irked by the humor levels in this one. The Winter Soldier was a prime example of healthy levels of humor mixed with more serious drama. Age of Ultron isn’t as bad as The Dark World, but there’s more wisecracking banter here than most.

27. Press Tour

This doesn’t really have much to do with the quality of the movie itself, but wow, the AoU press tour has been...let's be generous and go with 'eventful'. That Robert Downey Jr. interview (you know the one) was just awkward to watch. I’m on RDJ’s side on this one though…hes' promoting a superhero film and he's here to talk about the work he's done; why would you want to intentionally antagonize the actor by bringing up whatever sordid past he has? That just seems like exploitative journalism. Then there was the Renner/Evans comment about Black Widow being a ‘slut’ and ‘whore’. I thought it was appropriate for them to apologize for those comments, unintentional or not, and the fact that Widow is a fictional character (no duh) seems beside the point. Still, the less said about this the better, as we’ve already had more than enough debate about that kerfuffle on the Vine. But I did see a video which showed the cast touring the States, South Korea, China, and London…it seemed like the Avengers were really having a genuinely enjoyable (if exhausting) time.

28. “Together”

This was one of the ‘arc words’ of the movie, definitely. The Avengers, moreso than say the Justice League, have always been plagued with bureaucracy, team politics, and in-fighting among their members. In a team that includes such powerful demigods and strong Type-A alpha male personalities, it’s only natural that they’ll clash on occasion. But what Whedon understands is that despite all their disagreements, what makes the Avengers so great is that true heroes are able to set aside their differences and unite when it counts. It’s a theme that was strongly established in the first film, and that carries over here. Yes, we get all the customary interpersonal drama throughout the sequel, but once Ultron gets his doomsday plan going – playtime’s over, and it’s time for the Avengers to suit up, act like grownups, and get shit done. That’s the whole premise of the team – that they’re there to fight the battles that no single superhero can win – together. And it was also great to see that the title of 'Avenger' held a lot of significance in this film. It wasn't just a nickname for our heroes, it was a badge of honor, and it meant a lot to these brave men and women to be part of something greater.

29. Cohesion

I understand why Age of Ultron wasn't as well-received as (perhaps) most of us were expecting. I think it comes down to the movie trying (or having to because of future MCU movies) to do too much in too little time. I love a lot of the individual elements and concepts of this movie, but it's the tying-them-together part of the process that the movie started to show its cracks, and as a whole it's not as foolproof as I'd ideally like it to be. I'll need to rewatch the film to confirm whether this is entirely true. Maybe the extended 3-hour cut that Marvel will apparently be releasing might make the movie more well-rounded (or even more chaotic, who knows)? But I will also note that many reviewers brought up the fact that Age of Ultron stumbles because superhero movies are becoming increasingly limited by what they can do. The spectacle will always be grand and incredible, but at the end of the day, the villains are starting to feel interchangeable as we know our heroes will always win. Comic fans will always dig these movies, but I don't know how effective Marvel's long-term business plain is going to be.

30. Thor and that final feat

I don't know, it seemed like Thor did all that under his own power.

And....fight!

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Captain America: The Definitive Reading Guide

At ease, Cap Fans! The Shark has compiled a definitive reading guide for every major Captain America run in the character's history; listing the creative team involved, the era, the issues per run, as well as the most-efficient way of collecting these stories in trade/omnibus format.

Hopefully, this guide will help present Cap fans interested to read more of the Star-Spangled Avenger's adventures, as well as any new readers looking to get into Ol' Winghead.

This reading guide - for the most part - only lists Cap's finest runs, so if you're looking for team books (Avengers), event books (Civil War), or limited series/unrelated one-shots (Man out of Time); I'm afraid they won't be included here (with the exception of some stuff from Ed Brubaker's run). If you have any questions, corrections, or suggestions for the guide - feel free to leave a comment below.

Joe Simon & Jack Kirby (1941-1942)

Captain America Comics v1 #1-10

The original wartime Captain America comic-book by the Living Legend's very own creators. Simon & Kirby worked on the first ten issues of the series, before the book was taken over by various creative teams in its later stories (including Stan Lee himself). Read the very first adventures of Cap and his sidekick Bucky Barnes; as they go up against evil Axis villains like the Red Skull, Fifth Column spies, and....um, Orientals! It was a different time. A fun romp into Captain America's earliest days during the Golden Age.

Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, & Jim Steranko (1964-1969)

Tales of Suspense v1 #59-99

Captain America v1 #100-113

After Cap is reintroduced to the Silver Age with The Avengers v1 #4, he begins starring in a co-feature with Iron Man, entitled 'Tales of Suspense'. The two Avengers would co-headline the book; until its 99th issue, when both characters would split into their respective solo comics. These tales of Cap & Bucky, set in the WWII era, were Lee & Kirby at their creative peak during the the 60s.

Kirby would eventually leave in #109, but Jim Steranko would follow up with a classic stint that despite only being four issues long (#110-113), would prove to be one of the most memorable stories for our Super-Soldier. Lee would continue working on the book, renaming it Captain America and the Falcon, until #141 - but it's these select ones that are the real gems worth reading. These issues were also the debuts of several iconic Cap elements like the Cosmic Cube, M.O.D.O.K., and Batroc the Leaper.

Stan Lee & Gene Colan (1969-1971)

Captain America v1 #115-137

While certainly not as well-known as the runs that preceded it, Lee's subsequent arcs with Gene Colan are still worth mentioning, due to their historical significance for Cap's mythology. It was in the Colan issues that the Falcon was first introduced as Cap's partner, in a classic story-arc involving the Red Skull, the Cosmic Cube, and the Exiles.

With the introduction of the first major African-American superhero in mainstream comics, the book was retitled to Captain America and the Falcon as the two heroes tackled more socially-relevant issues. In a sense, these stories were basically Cap's version of the 'Hard-Traveling Heroes' era for Green Arrow/Green Lantern. Also, Colan was one of the finest Marvel artists of the day, and his work on Cap is some of his best, matching the likes of his Daredevil run.

Steve Englehart & Sal Buscema et al. (1972-1975)

Captain America v1 #153-186

During the early 70s, when America was faced with the weighty dilemmas of war and racial inequality, the comics of Captain America followed suit. Cap's adventures have always reflected the American era they were written in; but Englehart's run was arguably the first serious attempt to tackle real-world issues.

With his partner Falcon, Cap would take on classic villains like William Burnside and the Red Skull, but also challenge more serious threats - like the Secret Empire, an analogue for Nixon's Watergate scandal at the time. Cap's subsequent disillusionment with the government would lead him to abandon the uniform (the first time of many), and later take up the identity of Nomad.

*The uncollected issues (#160-168) are available in the Essential format in Essential Captain America Vol. 4 (which collects #157-186)

Jack Kirby (1976-1977)

Captain America v1 #193-214, Annual #3-4

Captain America's Bicentennial Battles

After leaving Marvel to work for the Distinguished Competition in the early 70s, the King would eventually return to the House of Ideas in 1976, and to one of his greatest creations. Kirby was given free rein on the title, and produced one of the kookiest and funnest (yes that's a word) runs in Cap Rogers' history.

Gone were the heavier themes and ideas of Englehart's work; replaced instead by killer roller-derbies, a tiny mutant who lived inside a wristwatch, Cap fighting on the Moon, and the insidious Arnim Zola! No, none of that makes any sense without context, but that was the fun of Kirby's run. He even had Cap travel through the different eras of American history in the action-packed Bicentennial Battles one-shot.

Sal Buscema et al. (1978-1979)

Captain America v1 #218-223, 224-237

Sal Buscema's second artistic tenure on the title of Captain America isn't really a 'run' per se - as his art is the only unifying aspect of three short runs by writers Don Glut, Steve Gerber, and Roger McKenzie - but I've included his work here for posterity's sake.

Aside from Buscema himself being one of Cap's iconic artists - this run includes several of Cap's most notable arcs including the introduction of Ameridroid, the Red Skull Helicarrier hijacking, and most importantly, Dr. Faustus and the Grand Director's attempt to instigate a race war. That last storyline in particular would be used by Brubaker to great effect during his Death of Captain America arc. Historically speaking, Buscema's 'run' is definitely important reading.

*While these issues remain uncollected in the Masterworks format, they are available in the Essential format as Essential Captain America Vol. 6 and Vol. 7 (which collect Captain America v1 #206-230 and #231-257 respectively).

  • Uncollected (#218-223, 224-237)

Roger Stern & John Byrne (1980-1981)

Captain America v1 #247-255

It was a short but beloved run; Stern would eventually leave Marvel over creative disputes, but his nine-issue tenure with John Byrne stands as some of the man's best Marvel work - right up there with his Spider-Man and Avengers catalogs.

Stern's brief run was packed with seminal character-defining moments for Steve, including - Cap running for President, the greatest Batroc the Leaper tale, the introduction of one of Cap's most compelling love-interests in Bernie Rosenthal, and the infamous issue where Steve was forced to kill the Nazi vampire Baron Blood. Stern and Byrne closed their run with the fantastic #255, a modern retelling of Cap's origin and history that served as an important touchstone for the Sentinel of Liberty.

J.M. DeMatteis & Mike Zeck et al. (1981-1984)

Captain America v1 #261-264, 267-270, 272, 275-290, 292-300, Annual #6

DeMatteis' run is perhaps the most underrated era for the character of Captain America, as it was unfairly interrupted by various other writers, but this is one of those hidden gems in Steve's comic-book history. DeMatteis was responsible for building on Cap's supporting cast; 50s Bucky aka Jack Monroe was brought back as Nomad, Sam Wilson was featured a lot more, and DeMatteis also introduced Steve's childhood friend Arnie Roth - who was quite possibly the first recurring gay character in Marvel comics history.

Plus, DeMatteis capped his run off with one of the most epic struggles between Captain America and the Red Skull - as the two lifelong foes fought to the death in Cap's 300th issue. Most of the run remains sadly uncollected, but portions of it have been released in trade paperbacks, though most of these are pretty dated and may be expensive to procure.

Note: some of DeMatteis' earlier issues are also collected in 'Dawn's Early Light' along with Stern's run.

Mark Gruenwald, Kieron Dwyer, & Ron Lim et al. (1985-1995)

Captain America v1 #307-443, Annual #8

This is it folks, the big one. The longest run on Captain America is not Brubaker's, but that enviable award goes to longtime Marvel editor and writer Mark Gruenwald. Gruenwald wrote Cap for over a decade, and I don't even know where to begin when it comes to his influence on Steve Rogers.

Look at all the staple characters he introduced to the Cap mythos: Crossbones, U.S. Agent, D-Man, Diamondback, Scourge of the Underworld, Flag-Smasher. Or the classic stories like The Bloodstone Hunt, the iconic Cap/Wolverine team-up annual, and Captain America No More - the latter being the highlight of Gruenwald's run, when Cap took on the identity of 'The Captain', a prescient precursor to the events of Civil War.

Sure there were some stinkers towards the end of the run (think Superia Stratagem, Man and Wolf, or the ridiculous Cap-armor), and Gruenwald's insistence that Cap didn't kill anyone in WWII is a little silly, but you can't deny the man's influence. Gruenwald's work on Cap was straight-up superheroics mixed with ideological concepts. In an era of Punisher, Wolverine, and Frank Miller's Batman - Gruenwald's Captain America proved that honorable and compassionate heroes still made for great comic-books.

Mark Waid & Ron Garney et al. (1995-1999)

Captain America v1 #444-454

Captain America v3 #1-23

Captain America The Legend

Captain America Sentinel of Liberty v1 #1-12

And here begins Cap's adventures in the modern era of comic-books. Ignoring the fuckery that was Jeph Loeb and Rob Liefeld's Captain America vol. 2 during Heroes Reborn, Waid and Garney brought Cap back to his former glory with the fantastic 'Operation Rebirth' story-arc. While 'extreme' titles dominated Marvel in the 90s, Mark Waid's work on Captain America was a gem of quality and old-school superheroics in a sea of mediocrity. Waid essentially did what Waid does best - he proved to us that you don't need to reimagine or rework Cap to make him relevant and engaging in the 21st century comicdom.

Dan Jurgens (2000-2002)

Captain America v3 #25-50, Annual 2000, Annual 2001

Another underrated gem in the Captain America canon - Jurgens took over after Waid's departure for a two-year stint, and perhaps the reason why it's not as renowned as other Cap tales is because it really doesn't offer anything too a new. It's just fun Jurgens action with straightforward superheroics. Jurgens' Cap work is an all-around solid if unremarkable comic-book, with it's most memorable storyline likely being the introduction of the Super-Soldier-gone-wrong - Protocide. The entire run has recently been collected by Marvel in three trade paperbacks:

Ed Brubaker & Steve Epting et al. (2005-2013)

Captain America v5 #1-50

Captain America 65th Anniversary Special

Winter Soldier Winter Kills

Young Avengers Presents Patriot #1

Captain America v1 #600-619

Captain America Reborn v1 #1-6, Reborn Digital Prologue

The Marvels Project v1 #1-8

Captain America Who Will Wield the Shield?

Steve Rogers Super-Soldier v1 #1-4

Secret Avengers v1 #1-12

Captain America Book of the Skull

Fear Itself 7.1 Captain America

Captain America v6 #1-19

Captain America and Bucky v1 #620-628

Winter Soldier v1 #1-14

Don't lie, you probably just skipped ahead and scrolled straight to this run, didn't you?

I don't think I need to say anything more about this particular run that hasn't already been said. This is arguably the most-celebrated and critically-acclaimed run in the history of the character of Captain America - I mean Ed Brubaker got three freaking Eisners for Best Writer off of his work on this title alone.

Brubaker's time on Cap may not have been the longest, but it's certainly the most well-known, and served as the entry point for many readers to the character of Steve (myself included). I've said enough praise about Brubaker's run already. I even wrote a whole blog on the first story-arc alone, after all, so go read that if you're interested.

All I'll add is that Ed Brubaker's story was revolutionary for reintroducing the long-dead sidekick of Bucky - and making him into one of the finest characters in Marvel's stable. In the long history of crappy resurrection/retcon/replacement hero storylines, Bucky's eventual assumption of the Captain America mantle after Steve Rogers' assassination is what makes this run so iconic in my mind. I've already posted an extremely detailed reading guide for collecting all of Brubaker's trades, but the omnibus editions are probably the most-ideal way of collecting this run:

Rick Remender (2013-ongoing)

Captain America v7 #1-25

Uncanny Avengers v1 #1-25, 8AU, Annual #1

Winter Soldier The Bitter March #1-5

AXIS v1 #1-9

All-New Captain America v1 #1-5

It's probably still way too early to tell if this will go down as one of the seminal runs of Captain America, but Remender's definitely been making some waves with his Marvel NOW take on Cap. From the complete 180 in tone from Brubaker's run for a more Kirby-esque sci-fi, to the introduction of new elements like Dimension Z and Zola's 'children', to the Falcon replacing Steve as the new Captain America...it's certainly different.

Only time will tell whether this run will be remembered as one of the best stories for the Man out of Time.

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Captain America by Ed Brubaker (Reading Order)

For the benefit of any readers currently reading or looking to start reading Ed Brubaker's Captain America run; I've compiled this trade paperback checklist. This reading order is a complete listing of all Marvel comics that Brubaker ever wrote featuring either Steve Rogers or Bucky Barnes as the central protagonist, and is complete to the best of my knowledge and ability. If I've missed anything, let me know in the comments below and I'll update the checklist.

Chapter I: Steve Rogers

Winter Soldier is the start of Brubaker's work on the character, and collects Captain America (vol. 5) #1-9, and 11-14. The storyline was originally collected in two separate trades. There is also a Captain America Winter Soldier Hardcover that was released in conjunction with the MCU movie, and that edition features extras such as bonus covers, Epting's sketches, and Brubaker's original pitch - for a heftier price, of course.

Red Menace collects #15-21, as well as the 65th Anniversary Special. Like the Winter Soldier trade before, this storyline was originally collected in two separate trades.

For those of you who can afford Omnibuses, the two Captain America trades written by Brubaker have also been collected in Captain America Omnibus Vol. 1. The omnibus also collects the #10 House of M tie-in (see below), and #22-25. Do note that the omnibuses, for the most part, are pretty pricey as I believe they're no longer in print. But if you're willing to shell out the cash - by all means.

Chapter II: A New Captain America

The next chapter of Brubaker's run features the death of Steve Rogers in the aftermath of Civil War, Bucky Barnes' redemption for his actions as the Winter Soldier, and the latter's eventual assumption to the mantle of Captain America.

The Death of Captain America collects the entire saga, specifically #22-42 and the Winter Soldier Winter Kills one-shot. These stories were originally collected in four separate trades. #22-24 and the Winter Soldier one-shot take place during the events of Civil War. The following issues occur after Steve Rogers' surrender and arrest in the final battle of the event.

The Man with No Face collects #43-48, and Road to Reborn collects #49-50 as well as #600-601. At this point in time, Marvel decided to renumber its books in celebration of the company's 70th anniversary. Essentially, all past and present volumes of Captain America were compiled together, and so Captain America (vol. 5) #51 was renumbered to just Captain America #600. Other books like Invincible Iron Man and Thor experienced this weird renumbering too.

Anyway, Steve Rogers finally comes back to life (spoiler!) during Captain America Reborn, a trade that collects #1-6 of the miniseries, as well as the Reborn Digital Prologue.

For omnibus readers, The Death of Captain America saga is also collected in The Death of Captain America Omnibus, but there's minor double-dipping here, as the omnibus also collects #25 from the previous omnibus. The Captain America Lives! Omnibus collects #43-50, #600-601, as well as the complete Reborn miniseries and the prologue.

Chapter III: Bucky Barnes

The third chapter of Brubaker's run features Bucky's adventures in his newfound role as Captain America. Of course, there are other stories out there that feature Bucky-Cap (most-notably Bendis' New Avengers, Avengers/Invaders, Invaders Now! et cetera), but these are the stories that were exclusively written by Ed Brubaker.

Two Americas collects the Who Will Wield the Shield? one-shot (where Cap decides to pass the torch to Bucky), and #602-605 of the ongoing series. No Escape collects #606-610, The Trial of Captain America collects #611-615, and #615.1, and Prisoner of War collects #616-619. Note that #616 was the 70th anniversary issue for Cap and features a selection of Cap stories by different writers, and Prisoner of War collects all of them.

For Omnibus readers: The Trial of Captain America Omnibus collects all of the above issues, as well as the Steve Rogers Super-Soldier miniseries and the first ten issues of Captain America (vol. 6), both listed in later chapters of this checklist.

Chapter IV: Super-Soldier

Chapter IV runs roughly concurrently with the events of Chapter III, as during this period Bucky was Captain America while Steve took over Nick Fury's old job. Steve Rogers Super-Soldier collects #1-4 of a miniseries starring Steve in his new role. Secret Avengers Vol. 1 collects #1-5, and Vol. 2 collects #6-12. This was a series where Steve led a covert team of Avengers, and the book was also written by Brubaker.

Chapter V: The Return of Steve Rogers

Finally, we're at the end of Brubaker's time with the character of Captain America. To start off, Fear Itself collects #1-7 of the miniseries, and the Fear Itself Book of the Skull one-shot. While the event itself isn't essential reading and wasn't written by Brubaker, it does feature the seminal moment of Bucky's death at the hands of Sin/Red Skull/Skadi (spoiler!) so it's worth picking up. The trade also collects the Book of the Skull one-shot which was written by Brubaker. The issue stars Cap and the Invaders, and serves as a prequel to the main event.

After Steve Rogers goes back to being Captain America during Fear Itself, Captain America gets relaunched as Vol. 6 with a new number one issue to coincide with The First Avenger's release, while the original Captain America series is retitled Captain America & Bucky.

Captain America Vol. 1 collects #1-5, Vol. 2 collects #6-10, Vol. 3 collects #11-14 (as well as Captain America #328 from Mark Gruenwald's run in the 1980s), and Vol. 4 collects #15-19. This volume pretty much concludes Brubaker's time with Steve Rogers, barring a few guest appearances in the Winter Soldier solo series.

Captain America & Bucky was published concurrently with the new Captain America volume, but its stories are essentially flashbacks to Steve and Bucky's adventures in WWII, so really they can be read at any point in time. These were written by Brubaker with the aid of other writers. The Life Story of Bucky Barnes collects Captain America & Bucky #620-624, picking up from where the Prisoner of War TPB ended, and Old Wounds collects #625-628 and a What If? #4 from 1977.

The Winter Soldier solo series was launched in the aftermath of Fear Itself when Bucky was revived (spoiler!), and decided to readopt his old identity to right his past wrongs. The story was originally collected in three separate trades, but this edition collects all #1-14 of the series, as well as Fear Itself 7.1 - a tie-in which depicted Buck's resurrection. While the Winter Soldier solo series was published around the same time as the two Captain America volumes, it can be read on its own.

And again, for any Omnibus readers out there, the entire Captain America & Bucky and Winter Soldier runs, as well as the remaining Captain America vol. 6 issues, will be collected in the forthcoming Captain America Return of the Winter Soldier Omnibus.

Appendix A: Optional Reading

This section is comprised of Cap-related material that Ed Brubaker wrote, but either a) don't factor into his ongoing story, or b) only feature Cap or Bucky in a supporting role as opposed to a starring one. These stories are not essential reading for Brubaker's run, but I've included them here for completionists, and they're still all very well-written stories for the most part. If nothing else, they give more insight into the history of Captain America.

The missing issue from Vol. 5, #10, is a House of M tie-in, and was not reprinted in any Captain America trades, only in the House of M: World of M, Featuring Wolverine TPB. This issue takes place out-of-continuity and has no relation to the ongoing Winter Soldier story-arc.

The Marvels Project collects #1-8 of the miniseries. While the original collection was published some time between Reborn and Two Americas, the book can really be read at any point in time. The miniseries deals with the rise of superhumans during WWII, and the formation of the Invaders - the superhero team of the Allies during the War. It has some elements that tie in to Brubaker's Secret Avengers run, and has a large ensemble cast that includes Cap and Bucky.

Young Avengers Presents #1 deals with Patriot of the Young Avengers, as he meets with Bucky to talk about Steve Rogers' legacy. The issue takes place during The Death of Captain America. It is collected in the Young Avengers Presents TPB. It's an interesting one-off, and builds off from the Winter Soldier Winter Kills one-shot too. It also builds on some elements from other Cap-related material like Truth Red White and Black, The Crew, Karl Kesel's Patriot, and of course, Young Avengers itself.

Appendix B: Supplementary Reading

To cap this off, I've also listed some supplementary reading material. None of these stories were written by Ed Brubaker, but they offer some useful context for the greater Marvel Universe during the time of his Captain America run.

The first are the major Marvel events. All events listed here had a great impact either on the character of Captain America, or on Brubaker's run. Avengers Disassembled serves as a prequel of sorts, as Brubaker's first issue begins shortly after the Avengers disband. Secret War explains the disappearance of Nick Fury between the Winter Soldier and Red Menace TPBs.

Civil War is self-explanatory, and sets up The Death of Captain America saga. Secret Invasion features Bucky's first major appearance in the greater Marvel U. Siege has the reunion of the Avengers' Big Three after years of in-fighting and disagreements, as well as the first major appearance of Steve Rogers in the larger MU since the events of Reborn. All of these events are available in their respective trades.

New Avengers by Bendis picks up post-Disassembled and before Civil War, and has Cap playing a pretty major role in the team. Cap's death and the subsequent outcome of the Civil War also plays a large role in the series, as do all of the following events like Secret Invasion. Bucky also becomes a member of this team in its later volumes.The subsequent Heroic-Age-era Avengers book (also by Bendis) doesn't really tie in to Brubaker's work, so I've elected to ignore it.

The entire New Avengers series is available in thirteen separate trades beginning with New Avengers Vol. 1 Breakout. There's also a New Avengers Omnibus Vol. 1, but this only collects up to the sixth trade paperback. The omnibus also collects Avengers Disassembled however.

Lastly, Fallen Son was a 5-issue miniseries by Jeph Loeb. Sigh...it's Jeph Loeb, so it's not the greatest, but it provides some interesting insight to the reactions of Cap's friends in the wake of the icon's death. Best read during The Death of Captain America storyline.

Happy reading, Cap fans. And thanks to Mr. Brubaker for eight years of fantastic Captain America adventures!

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Veshark's Top 8 Villains of the Marvel Cinematic Universe

"Shots" take on a whole different meaning in this bar...

It's no secret that villains have never been the Marvel Cinematic Universe's forte. In fact, the majority of them kinda blow. The fact that I couldn't even come up with a Top 10 illustrates the point rather succinctly, I think.

For a franchise with such exemplary casting decisions for its protagonists, it's surprising that the villain portrayals tend to flounder between generic mediocrity to being outright ill-conceived. Now of course, such a bold assertion is largely a matter of opinion, and in the trapeze act of balancing plot, character-development, and world-building, it's understandable that some elements may fall on the wayside. And there's also no denying that as a whole, the MCU has had more hits than flops, and even the worst films aren't outright unwatchable so much as extremely polarizing.

But we're about ten movies in, and the MCU's baddies have tended to lean more towards the Reynolds' Barakapool end of the movie villain spectrum as opposed to the Ledger's Joker one. I don't want to say any names, or trigger redundant debates/flame-wars that have been done-to-death, but needless to say I didn't appreciate one of my favorite Marvel villains being reduced to an 'ack-tor'. Or the scenery-chewing ham that was a certain Kree Accuser. Or Malekith the Accursed in general. Because f*ck Malekith. #F*ckMalekith.

Anyway.

Still, in anticipation of the forthcoming Avengers sequel - which God-willing will do justice to one of the team's seminal adversaries - I've decided to compile a list of the best villain portrayals that the MCU has managed to churn out so far. Like I said before, a good villain isn't necessarily essential to a good movie - sometimes a merely functional one suffices - but more so than any other genre, supervillains are a big part of what makes comic-books unique. Superheroes are one of the few concepts in fiction where the binary nature of good and evil plays such a prominent role. E.g. both Captain America and Red Skull have the Super-Soldier Serum in them - but it's their inherent nature and personalities, and decisions, that put them on separate paths and make them the 'hero' and 'villain'.

My criteria for what constitutes a good villain portrayal includes any of the following:

  • Overall character development and sensible motives
  • A menacing/charming presence and personality traits
  • General aesthetic and design
  • Source-material faithfulness and a solid translation from the comic-book page to the celluloid screen

Do note however, that just because a villain isn't on my list, doesn't mean I necessarily consider him/her 'bad' per se. Some villains had dynamic visual appearances and exciting battles with the hero, a la Nobu, The Destroyer, Kurse, Batroc, or the Chitauri, even. But such portrayals make them less of a wholly-realized villain and more of a plot-device. And then there are the villains who have proven charming and well-characterized - but it's their limited screentime that holds them back from appearing on this list. Think Crossbones, Arnim Zola, Yondu, Nebula, Dr. Faustus or Thanos. And lastly, there are also villains who have committed the ultimate sin - they're not bad portrayals, but neither are they great...they're just perfunctory. Think Red Skull, Whiplash, Abomination, or Thunderbolt Ross. Largely accurate to the source material, yes, but executed with such a by-the-books mentality that the viewer feels they're just there to give the hero something to punch.

But the best of the best transcend all those limitations, and become villains that not only stay faithful or build off the original comic-book storylines, but also introduce something new and compelling to the table. This is the creme de la creme of the MCU's villains. Now, who knows, maybe once the summer closes I might just add Ultron and Yellowjacket to the list, and we'll finally have a solid Top 10. But until then, the following eight remain the most vile, vicious, and villainous of the greatest shared film franchise to date...

Onward!

8. Dottie Underwood (Bridget Regan)

"Is that pistol an automatic? I want that."

In the furious war for superhero television dominance, Arrow/Flash and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D./Daredevil are oft-cited as the primary contenders for the small-screen, yet no one ever mentions Agent Carter. Seriously, watch this show (yes, you, I know you haven't don't lie to me). Aside from being another stellar addition to the Captain America franchise's track record in the MCU, this eight-episode miniseries nailed everything that a fan could want in an MCU tie-in. A concise plot, solid casting with a great female protagonist played by thespian/goddess-in-disguise Hayley Atwell, a charming 40s-era aesthetic, and most importantly - references and ties to the comics and the larger cinematic U. And one such thread came in the form of the show's most menacing adversary, Dottie Underwood - or as I like to call her, 1940s Black Widow.

Oh you knew right from her introduction that the ditsy small-town rube she portrayed was all an act, and when she started sneaking around Peggy's drawers you knew she was a baddie - but tying her to Natasha Romanoff's history was just a brilliant idea. In a show largely dominated by dull and ordinary mooks, having a comic-book villain of sorts was a welcome change. And boy, did she not disappoint. Bridget Regan could switch from sweet and naive to dangerous and sinister (much like Scarlett Johansson, actually) at the drop of a hat, and throughout the show she's portrayed as being ruthlessly efficient and effective. You can believe that she was the precursor to Romanoff, and a worthy enemy spy to Agent Carter. That final round of fisticuffs she had with Peggy is one of the most tension-filled moments in the entire series.

Also, I suppose that kiss she had with Agent Carter plays some small part in her inclusion on this list (oh now you want to watch it).

7. Kingpin (Vincent D'Onofrio)

"I always thought that I was the Samaritan in that story."

I want to preface this by saying that my opinions on Kingpin are very premature. Daredevil has only been out for a little over a week at this point, and having only seen the entire series through once, my thoughts on the character are still forming. Who knows, they might change with a second viewing of the miniseries. But needless to say, D'Onofrio's Kingpin is quite possibly the most polarizing adaptation of a Marvel villain since Iron Man 3's "Mandarin". Now I'm not exactly the most well-read fan of Daredevil. I've caught snippets of Miller and Brubaker's work on the title, as well as some stuff from Bendis's Ultimate Spider-Man run, so I'm admittedly not too knowledgeable on comic-book Kingpin. But as I understand it though, the MCU's version of Kingpin does stray from most portrayals of the character. Where we usually have an intimidating Scorsese-esque Tony Soprano-type character, we've got a very flawed and indecisive Kingpin in Daredevil.

But here's the largest distinction between Wilson Fisk and Iron Man 3's "Mandarin" - the new conception of the character still made for incredibly compelling television. Both strayed to a degree from the source material (Mandarin moreso arguably), but while the Killian's generic 'Evil Businessman' shtick didn't do anything for me, I found Fisk to be a very nuanced character. The initial stuttering and awkwardness at Kingpin's introduction had me a little puzzled, but when we began receiving flashbacks to his past, and saw his relationship with Vanessa grow - the character became as interesting as Matt Murdock. Yes, his 'rise to power' seems a little suspect given his personality, and adapting him as a 'necessary evil' type bad guy seems contradictory to comic-book Kingpin, but Fisk provided a counter-balance to Matt at every turn, which is what a good villain is supposed to do. That final episode's back-alley brawl with Daredevil practically cements this too.

So is D'Onofrio's Kingpin necessarily an accurate adaptation of comic-book Kingpin? Probably not. But did he present an interesting and well-rounded character that contributed to the story? Yes he did. And for that alone, I'm willing to overlook straying from the source material.

6. Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell)

"I call it 'The Ex-Wife'."

I swear I'm one of only six comic-book fans on the face of the planet who actually enjoyed Iron Man 2. Oh I'm not saying it was a flawless movie, far from it, and it certainly doesn't even reach the heights that the first one did. But come on. Silver Centurion briefcase armor! Iron Man vs. War Machine! A three-act story like every classic Stan Lee-era Marvel story! If not well-executed, at least this sequel made for some stunning action-packed sequences. But coming to the subject of #6, one of the most-enjoyable elements of Iron Man 2 for me was without a doubt - Sam Rockwell's Justin Hammer. Now again, not a particularly comic-book-accurate version of the character. 616 Hammer was a ruthless septuagenarian who actually proved a serious threat to Tony throughout the Stark Wars storyline. A far cry from the ineffectual and comedic Rockwell in this movie.

But god, he's just so charming. Rockwell's Hammer (great name for a band) reminds me of that one class clown in every class - that goof who is a desperate attention-seeker, but you still laugh at his jokes and pranks. Hammer just exudes charisma and levity in every scene, which I know might not necessarily be the ideal tone for a superhero film, but I for one actually enjoyed it. That bit with Rhodey alone, where he lays out all these high-tech firearms and heavy ordnance in a humorous montage, was just great. And I guess a part of me feels almost bad for Justin Hammer. Here is a guy who is constantly upstaged by Tony Stark, a man who succeeds and upstages him in every conceivable category, and I guess I'm always a sucker for the underdog. I'm unapologetic about my inclusion of Hammer on this list. Oh he's a fairly non-threatening B-sideplot villain but I still thought he was a really enjoyable aspect of the film.

And come on, have you guys seen Hammer's cameo in the All Hail the King short? With his boyfriend in Seagate? Funny stuff.

5. Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan)

"Who the hell is Bucky?"

Yes, he's a villain. Can we just get that out of the way? I know Bucky Barnes on a whole is not a bad person, I'm one of the most-notable fans of Captain America on this board for crying out loud (yup, tooting my own horn), so you can sit down. Yes you, guy with the copy of Ed Brubaker's run in his hand. But for the duration of The Winter Soldier (right there in the title, guys), Bucky is a villain, and so he deserves a spot on this list.

First things first, can I just point out that Winter Soldier has - bar none - the best comic-to-film costume adaptation of any character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. No other MCU villain matches the faithful translation that the Winter Soldier's film appearance represents. I mean look at that. Yes they replaced the domino mask with eye-shadow and Harry Osborn's New Goblin gear, but everything else is gold. The leather uniform, and god, that bionic arm! It's like a drawing of Steve Epting come to life. And the character just exudes menace and badassery in every moment on the silver screen. The Winter Soldier is chocked full of some of the best action sequences in the MCU, and Bucky is the star of most of these incredible scenes. The assassination of Nick Fury. The extended highway fight against Cap, Widow, and Falcon. The final, emotional encounter with Steve on the Insight Helicarrier. Every time the Winter Soldier appears, and that high-pitched soundtrack kicks in, you knew shit was about to go down.

Now the only thing that keeps Bucky Barnes from ascending any higher is the argument that he doesn't receive much development throughout the second movie. Which, credit where credit is due, is a fair point to raise. It's why he's only #5, despite him hitting all the comic-book-accuracy, good design, and menacing villain criteria. But I'll counter that with the assertion that we actually received a fair amount of development for Bucky in The First Avenger. We saw the 'death' of that character in the first movie, so those emotional repercussions come into play in the sequel. So yes, while the Winter Soldier doesn't say much in the way of dialogue, and his most emotive expression is glaring, Bucky (taken as a whole) makes for a very tragic and layered bad guy. It's the tried-and-true trope of the friend-turned-enemy; so when we see the flashbacks of Buck and Steve after the latter's mom's funeral, to the painful brainwashing at the hands of Alexander Pierce, to that last battle where Steve willingly stands down...

I mean, damn, if you don't feel something at that "I'm with you till the end of the line" speech, you probably don't have a heart. Christ, now I'm going to cry.

4. Iron Monger (Jeff Bridges)

"We're iron mongers, we make weapons."

We've probably reached the 'Evil Businessman in a Suit' quota of the Marvel Cinematic Universe by this point. Three in a row is a little overdoing it, don't you think, Tony? That said, I give Obadiah Stane his props because 1) He was the first and 2) Jeff Bridges gives a criminally-underrated performance. At first glance, Stane is a fairly generic origin movie bad guy. Close confidante of the father who secretly wants to overthrow the son; a power-hungry unscrupulous industrialist who makes black market deals and only cares for profits. We've seen this done a hundred times before in movies, and the claim isn't inaccurate at all. But Iron Monger is the villain who started it all. Had he not hired the Ten Rings to assassinate Tony, the MCU world would never have gotten Iron Man and consequently, the Avengers. His villainy was the spark that lit the entire universe, and for legacy reasons alone, I'm willing to reserve a spot for Obadiah Stane on this list.

And barring that, Jeff Bridges is just fun to watch. There've been numerous interviews confirming that most of Iron Man's dialogue was improvised, seeing as how the scripts weren't complete (and the fact that the end result was so good blows my mind), and despite Bridges admitting that this wasn't how he liked to work, he went with it, and the villain turned out great. It's hardly the thespian's most meaty and heavy role, but for what it was, I always enjoyed it whenever 'Obie' was on-screen. From his silky-smooth voice which made you believe he was a charming corporate tycoon, to the still-memorable "TONY STARK WAS ABLE TO BUILD THIS IN A CAVE WITH A BOX OF SCRAPS" moment...Obadiah Stane was a crucial element of the first movie's success. And one can't forget that Iron Monger armor too. Many criticize it for being just 'a larger Iron Man suit', but go rewatch that final fight again. That is easily one of the most 'comic-book-ish' battles ever portrayed on film

I know in this day and age, we tend to take CBMs for granted, but back in 2008 - seeing Iron Monger toss Iron Man through a bus while spouting off a classic villain monologue - was the closest to a comic-book I'd ever seen a movie go.

3. HYDRA (Assorted)

"Hail HYDRA!"

Look at the person sitting in the cubicle next to yours. Can you trust that person? Is he secretly whispering something that looks suspiciously like 'Hail HYDRA' to another co-worker?

That's the overall genius of what makes HYDRA such a convincing and terrifying force of evil. One could make a pretty persuasive argument that of all the villains in the MCU, it was HYDRA that came to closest to total world domination. In The First Avenger, HYDRA was little more than appendage for the Red Skull to wield. They provided cannon fodder for the good Captain to clobber, a handy excuse to avoid any mention of Nazism (and alienating certain geographic markets), as well as cool Killzone-esque outfits too, I suppose. But aside from being stylish henchmen, there wasn't much else separating HYDRA from any generic villain organization. Fast-forward three years later to The Winter Soldier, and this stellar movie single-handedly transformed HYDRA from a forgotten science-death-cult to what essentially amounts to the freaking Illuminati. Think about it. They'd infiltrated the world's foremost intelligence organization. Accumulated enough firepower to wipe every threat to their devious machinations. And seeded countless conflicts and presumably caused thousands of civilian deaths just to further their cause of fear-mongering. And they did all this whilst hiding in plain sight.

You know what The Winter Soldier did for HYDRA? It made them 616 HYDRA.

Plus, in what is perhaps an even greater feat for the movie than legitimizing HYDRA as a threat, this plot twist was the shot in the arm that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. so desperately needed. Before Cap 2, Agents was a sickly Steve Rogers, and this movie proved to be the veritable Super-Soldier Serum. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was mind-numbingly boring in its first few episodes. I remember having to force myself to endure the below-average freak-of-the-week plots, characters whom didn't really endear themselves to me, subplots and ominous references that had me rolling my eyes. It got to the point that every time I heard the term 'T.A.H.I.T.I.' one more time, I would drop-kick an infant baby. It was a grueling exercise just to get through those first fifteen or so episodes. But once the HYDRA revelation kicked in, and the team was put on the run, and one of their number was revealed to be a traitor...jeez, I'd stopped watching the show right around the tenth episode, but when I finally got back to it, I blew through the show all the way to that superb finale with its glorious Sam L. Jackson guest-appearance.

And sadly enough, while we didn't get Sonny Chiba for Daredevil, we did get Robert freaking Redford for The Winter Soldier. Another reason to hail HYDRA!

2. Loki (Tom Hiddleston)

"You mewling quim."

Honestly, what can I say about Hiddleston's Loki that hasn't been said already? Don't act like you were even remotely surprised at his inclusion on this list. Loki is a critically-acclaimed hit in the MCU. Hiddleston's an incredibly charming actor; the fans love his portrayal - as do many preteen girls (much to the chagrin of some fans, funnily enough. Come on, let the girls do their thing) - and he was the main villain of the Avengers - the culmination of years of post-credit scenes. Loki is arguably the most enduring and compelling antagonist of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. Truth be told, I'm wracking my brain to think of something new to say about Hiddleston's Loki. We have the (largely) comic-accurate green/gold costume and even the goofy horned helmet. We have a likeable yet sinister performance on Hiddleston's part. We have a multitude of great action scenes starring Loki - the entire Battle of New York alone obliterates the memory of any MCU battle in my mind (yes, even The Winter Soldier's). I mean what more do you want, right?

So all I can really say about what makes Loki such a great MCU villain is this: his relationship with his adopted brother. Thor and Loki are arguably the glue of the Thor film franchise; their brotherly bond is the central cornerstone of those movies, and even The Avengers to a certain degree as well. And it's this familial relationship that elevates Loki from run-of-the-mill world-conquer to a truly 'human' villain with depth and pathos. At the end of the day, I feel like all Loki wants to be is like his brother. Loki isn't satisfied with the cards that he's been dealt with in his life. He's a Frost Giant and not the true son of the father whom he just wants to impress. He lacks the masculine power and outgoing charm of Thor, but instead has been gifted with sorcery and intellect. And all of his mischievous maneuvers and devious plots are just in pursuit of this ultimate goal of being like his brother - powerful and respected. And I feel all of that is what makes Loki such a convincing villain. All of us have a little Loki in our lives. We all have people in our lives whom we look up to and always strive to emulate, and yet our own human failings hold us down.

For Loki to represent such a true and real experience that many have gone through, I think that's what makes him such a fantastic villain. And I think ultimately, what makes the Loki-Thor brotherhood such a delight to watch is that at the end of the day, you know the two siblings still love each other so much. That one scene in Avengers, on the mountaintop, where Thor basically begs Loki to stop his madness and come home...you can tell that all both brothers want to do is to return to how things were. But by the events of The Dark World, they know that they've both gone too far down their respective journeys, and have begun their legends as the hero and the villain.

1. Malekith the Accursed (Christopher Eccleston)

"I suck!"

Ha. Just kidding. #F*ckMalekith.

1. Grant Ward (Brett Dalton)

"It wasn't personal."

OK, I know whether or not Grant Ward is actually a 'supervillain' is debatable but goddamn. Go watch the first season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Specifically the latter half. By the time you come back, I guarantee you you'll have zero reservations about labeling him the greatest villain of the Marvel Cinematic Universe so far.

When we're first introduced to Ward in the pilot, he comes across as your average 'by-the-rules-I'm-too-cool-to-work-alone' badass super-spy agent that every show of this genre tends to have at least one of. Every character of Coulson's team had their character trait; Skye was the charismatic newbie, Fitz-Simmons were the nerds, May was the 'Batman', and Grant Ward himself was budget Captain America. Uninteresting, dull, and flat. Then, midway through the series - and this comes back to what I mentioned about HYDRA earlier - the show suddenly reveals why Ward was characterized the way he was. So why he was so bland and unremarkable? (brace for year-old spoilers): Because he was a fucking double agent! Once we get there, all the pieces suddenly fit. And earlier flashbacks to his childhood take on a whole new meaning. Of all the twists and surprise reveals that the MCU has had throughout its ten movies and assorted tie-ins - this was the only one that had me genuinely go, "Oh shit."

What I love so much about the characterization of Grant Ward, and what makes him such a superb example of villainy, is that he's no genius mastermind - he's just a soldier following orders. Ward is almost like a dark inversion of Captain America; a man who only knows how to follow his superior and obey authority. And whereas Cap's moral compass was able to break rank in The Winter Soldier, Ward was the complete opposite, and in the S.H.I.E.L.D. civil war, he succumbed to his role as a mindless grunt. Think of some of the greatest examples of villainy in the real-world. How many times have normal, everyday people done horrible things just because they were 'ordered' to? That's what Grant Ward is. When he was a child, he was afraid to disobey his older brother's orders to beat up their younger sibling. When he was recruited by Garrett, he shot his own dog just because the man told him to. And when HYDRA finally revealed itself, and Ward was forced to turn on his friends - men and women whom he'd fought side-by-side with for months now - he betrayed them without hesitation.

Just because he was ordered to. Because he was on a mission. Because it 'wasn't personal'.

I can't think of anything more chilling than that in a villain.

So here we are at the end. Veshark's Top 8 Villains of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Well, I'm bracing for it. The passionate arguments for the inclusion of your favorite villain. The mocking and haranguing of one of the baddies on my list. Sound off in the comments below!

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Veshark Rants: On Being A Superhero Comic Fan

DISCLAIMER: There's a good chance this won't make sense once I finish; it's more of a stream-of-consciousness rant of some recent thoughts rather than any coherent piece of writing, so if this amounts/devolves to delusional bullsh*t at the end, I apologize for wasting your time.

I remember reading All-Star Superman when I was around 15 (or 16, perhaps), and honestly that book changed my worldview. It sounds a little silly saying it out loud, but picking up that comic and watching the Smallville television show actually made me want to be a better person. I'd never understood the character of Superman before that comic. To me, and the values that I'd formed growing up, being a kindhearted and caring human being was an optional goal at best, a liability at worst. I was a teenager with a very pragmatic and utilitarian mentality (which seems almost contradictory for a comic-book fan in retrospect) - looking out for others came second to self-survival and being a profitable member of society. 'Expect the worst from everything and everyone and you'll never be disappointed' could have been my life's adage then.

But reading All-Star Superman, the story of a good man who constantly believed that everyone has the potential to be good, it moved me in a very profound way. I don't want to go too entirely off-topic here, but to me, that's always been the ultimate message of the character of Superman to me. Compassion. Throughout All-Star, even when faced with his inevitable mortality, Superman selflessly and constantly believes that everyone (yes, even Luthor) has the potential to do good. From Bar-El & Lilo, to the Bizarros, to that single, insignificant girl about to take her own life - Superman cared for everyone. Like Mark Waid says in the second volume's intro; gods are powerful because people believe in them. Superman is powerful because he believes in us.

And that was what All-Star Superman essentially did for me. At a very formative age, a comic-book instilled in me some vague sense of moral values - inspired me in some way to be a better human being, a better man. Now the actual debate of what constitutes 'right and wrong' is a discussion best tabled for a later date, but for me personally, the book basically taught me that it's okay (and in fact one should be willing) to be the 'nice guy', to care for others, and to believe that things get better. It sounds lofty and high falutin' and naive, even as I say it, but the book truly did have a profound impact on the person I am today. There's a Morrison interview out there where the writer says something to the effect of (and feel free to read the following in a Scottish accent): "Superheroes are bullshit. Everyone knows they can't exist in real-life. That's something that even little kids know and yet adults struggle with the idea that superheroes aren't real. They don't have to be, they're not supposed to be. But even though the superhero isn't real, the emotions and beliefs that these ideas and characters conjure in us are real, and that's the power of fiction. We know Batman isn't real, but what Batman represents to us is."

In a sense, one could draw an analogy to superhero comic-books with religion. Whether or not the actual content is factual is not the point - but the positivity and ethics and faith that we derive from these stories are very real. And if that's what gets you through the day, then who am I to judge you for believing it? And if I'm being entirely frank, despite years of a Christian upbringing, a Midwestern corn-fed alien in blue-red tights made me want to be a better person moreso than the Bible did. I don't mean to be blasphemous, but I'm speaking from the heart for a moment here, so bear with me (Religion-debate-flame-war-nuts, you know where the exit is).

But I guess the larger question I'm trying to ask is: "Are superhero comics just plain entertainment, or can they be more for comic-book readers?" I'm not saying that these stories are life-guides to live your existence by. Putting aside quixotic idealism for a moment, realistically speaking, at the end of the day I do have enough self-awareness to acknowledge that these are just fantasy stories made by ordinary men and women who have bills to pay, to entertain masses and generate revenue. I get that. And no one's asinine enough to suggest that something like All-Star Batman or Ultimates 3 or Secret Crisis Civil Wars of Infinite Tie-Ins is going to generate anything more than bland eye-candy for some light afternoon reading.

But I don't think I'm the only one who has ever read a superhero comic-book, has become so enamored by the on-paper ideas, that it has influenced my very real and tangible life. For most readers I'd imagine that superhero comics are nothing more than a merry distraction, and for some perhaps they're fodder for creative inspiration or academic discussion, but to me it's been - on occasion - something deeper. There's no denying that the primary reason I read superhero comics is because they're cool and action-packed and fun.

But sometimes when I flip through Black Panther or Martian Manhunter - I can empathize with those characters' feelings of being a foreigner in America, of being torn between two cultures and not belonging to either. Or when I read Batman or Captain America, I admire and want to emulate the great lengths of courage and compassion that they have for random but still consequential innocent lives. Many a times I'll read a story where a superhero gets unfairly shitted on by some ungrateful member of the public, and still stand firm in his willingness for forgiveness and understanding. And I always go, "Damn, I wish I could be that big-hearted in real-life. The resolve that Aquaman had to not pimp-slap that fool across the state is something I want to strive for."

Fantastic and grand and fictional as their adventures may be, there's something fundamentally human and relatable about all these characters that have endured throughout the decades.

And I'd like to believe I'm not the only one in comicdom who feels this way. Now, I don't want to blanket my terms or paint broad strokes with my brush, but comic-book fans have a somewhat-stereotypical reputation in regards to their behavior. Not to reopen any worm-filled cans like Comic-Con harassment or whatever, but needless to say, we can be a difficult bunch at times. Just peruse through the topics on this forum alone, and I can guarantee you that you'll find a bad apple or two. I know this is universal across any form of fandom, but for a hobby that (mostly) involves reading about good people doing good things, we can be very unpleasant individuals.

Now again, no broad strokes here. Things get heated with any fandom, and it's only natural when people feel so passionately about the subject matter. But a lot of amateur psychoanalysts love to point to superhero comics as being some 'male power fantasy', and perhaps there is a sliver of truth to it, but I can't say it's ever been the case for me. No high horse here, but I genuinely have never been (even subconsciously) chasing after the superpowers or the domination or the adoration when I read the books...aside from the entertainment value, it's always been about the good traits to me. Even in more flawed and conflicted characters like Iron Man or Cyclops - I can still see admirable qualities, and these types of fallible heroes remind me that while all men and women stumble, it's the best of us that get right back up.

At this point in the rant I'm sort of petering out, and truth be told I'm not entirely sure what my original intentions even were, but if I leave you with anything I guess it's this: Am I the only one who feels this way? Yes superhero comics are fun, but does anyone else feel anything deeper when they read these stories? Does anyone else feel that we should not only be better fans but better people too? Is there a middle road between delusional naivete and cold, hard reality?

I don't know.

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All-New Moon Knight #1

Rated T+ for strong language and violence

In light of Moon Knight Month, I decided to stimulate those creative juices and pen a MK fanfiction tale. The following is essentially the story I'd write were I ever put in charge of the title (or a professional comic-book writer, hah). At present, I've finished up this first 'issue' with plans for about ten, but we'll see how the feedback goes before I start the next one.

Without further ado, introducing All-New Moon Knight, and the first part of a four-part 'Phases' story-arc:

“Would you like a cup? It’s not that drip-brew crap – this is the good stuff. Genuine espresso machine. Even’s got a bunch of Italian buttons on it…‘lavazza’…‘pronto’…I don’t even know what this one does, the names all end in vowels. Machine was donated during one of those events the brass holds every now and again. ‘Spector Corp’, was it?”

Detective Flint turned away from the chrome coffeemaker, and directed his attention back to the recipient of his offer for caffeine. The man-in-white was seated by Flint’s desk, imperceptibly still. He didn’t answer. At this late hour, the squad room was as soundless as the vacuum of space. Everyone else on night shift was out on rotation, and Detective Flint and his associate were the only living souls in Major Crimes.

Flint shrugged. The detective slumped back into his swivel chair and breathed a weary sigh. On his desk was a single case file marked ‘F.B.’, and just under those letters, his lieutenant had scribbled ‘Pass to Flint’. F.B. stood for ‘freak beat’; the Detective’s very own specialty. Other cops got the larceny cases, or the homicides committed by grown men who actively referred to themselves as ‘supervillains’.

But Flint…Flint had made a career out of cases like the one in that file. The ones that most of New York’s Finest would blink at. The freak beat.

“Right to business we go then. Sure, sure, business before pleasure. I can appreciate that. Y’know, your digs remind me of someone I work with…” Flint leaned forward in his chair, prompting a little squeak that was a cry for more WD-40, “You ever hear of the term ‘bad religion’? Well this one’s kinda like that. Not Jonestown, Scientology-bad - a little less so than that. But still…pretty messed up.”

Flint propped the case file open, and spread its contents on his desk like a poker player folding a hand. The evidence came pouring out. Forensic photos of the victims at various crime scenes across N.Y. – all of the corpses displaying extreme facial mutilation. Autopsy reports from the coroner; listing the details of the unlucky vics: names, DOBs, addresses. The separate pieces to a macabre jigsaw puzzle that would reveal the killer’s identity.

The man-in-white inched closer to Flint’s desk; moving for the first time since he’d sat down in the squad room. He perused the items before him in wordless inquiry. If the graphic images of mangled faces disturbed the man, there was nothing in his stoic façade that betrayed it. Detective Flint’s lower lip pouted in an expression of approval. The average Tom, Dick, or Harry would’ve lost their lunch by this point. For a civvie…

After a minute or two, the man retracted back to his original seated position, apparently finished with the file’s lurid contents. Flint had unwrapped a Weetabix; his long years of police work having made his appetite quite immune to rigor mortis. The detective shuffled the papers and photos back into their place. It seemed like the respectful thing to do. Eating in front of the dead was just like eating the dead – poor taste.

“Done, then?” Flint said between mouthfuls of processed wholegrain wheat, “If you want to break out the shorthand, now would be the time. Sex of the perp is male. Race’s unknown, though height’s supposed to be short – 5’7”, 5’8” maybe. M.O.’s all about the faces – real Jack-the-Ripper-Red-Dragon-type stuff. ‘Skinning of portions of facial epidermises’ was how the coroner’s report put it, I think. Motive, as aforementioned, appears to be religious.

“Most of this we got from this son-of-a-bitch’s last victim – the one that got away. The only one still breathing. ’Course now he’s got a plastic mask keeping the facial tissue to the bone…docs are talking about giving the poor prick pig-skin grafts. But I digress. Point being, he actually lived to tell the tale. Which brings us one step closer to IDing this perp.

“As for how Hannigan got away, and why MCU’s labeling this ‘religious crime’ - I’ll get to that in a bit,” Flint gobbled down the last of his late-night snack. The man-in-white remained as still as ever; listening attentively to the detective’s words with a Catholic schoolboy’s focus. Flint resumed, “But first: I’ve got to start at the beginning. In medias res just won’t do.

“Time for a flashback. Our story begins in Hell’s Kitchen – sometimes known as Clinton if you’re selling realty to yuppies – on a stormy night just two days ago. There’s the No. 4 victim Hannigan…the killer himself…and a vigilante who wears a white paper bag over his head…”

It was a stormy night in Hell’s Kitchen; or Clinton, or Midtown, or whatever other name they’d given to this watering hole of Manhattan crime. Build a couple of clubs, a gym; a cafe with some whimsical Irish name like ‘Kerry Castle’…it didn’t change the fact that these streets were all under Fisk’s grip. ‘A neighborhood by any other name’…it didn’t change the fact that this was a proverbial hell-on-earth. They even had their very own devil.

Marc Spector rarely ventured into the Devil’s turf. Every clown with a mask and Tae-Bo training had his own territory, one of the unspoken rules in this line-of-work. The Big Apple had plenty of slices to share. But now and again, one of Spector’s marks would cross borders. In an effort to elude vengeance, the mark would seek asylum in foreign lands. The mark would tell himself, “No way that fantasma’s gonna follow me all the way out here…”

And the mark would be wrong. Because no matter where you are on this planet – the moon always finds you eventually.

Tonight, the mark was known by Finn Hannigan. As the Mooncopter descended towards the Kitchen, the knight-with-many-names rappelled out of the craft, and landed on the rooftops. Most days, people called him Spector; or occasionally Grant, or Lockley. But come night, the city only had one name for him. He was the soldier of vengeance, the avatar of the Egyptian god of the moon, the guy who’d been in the West Coast Avengers that one time…

Moon Knight stepped up onto the edge of the roof. The downpour of precipitation made cracking sounds as it rebounded off his white investments. Before him, the nine circles of Hell stretched out to the horizon. Somewhere in this labyrinth of whiskey bars was the mark. Spector’s foremost C.I. – a criminal Profiler of sorts – had told him Hannigan could be found frequenting the Moench’s drinking establishment at this late hour.

A stakeout was in order, then. The war-on-crime reminded Marc of his private sector days: 10% life-and-death combat, with about 90% tedious waiting. Moon Knight leaped from the rooftop, a predator rearing to catch his prey, and bounced off a water tank with practiced ease. Behind him, the lightweight fabric of his silver cloak trailed after his fluid motions like a gymnast’s ribbon. There was vengeance to be served on this night.

Like every man in Hell, Finn Hannigan had sins to pay for. ‘Bombing’ was a dirty term in the modern American lexicon; right above ‘schoolyard-shooting’ and ‘unemployment’. A month prior, factions of the anti-nationalist group Ultimatum had been primed to do just that. A Symkarian embassy was ground zero. The explosives had been smuggled in. All that was left was to hit the radio detonator.

The only thing that’d averted this Fawkes-esque plot was Moon Knight himself. A handful of crescent darts, one or two cracked heads, and the day was saved. Twenty-eight Balts would see their families again and a diplomatic crisis was deterred. All in a day’s work for the hero the Bugle had dubbed the ‘Lunar Legionnaire’.

But the Legionnaire knew that he had only stemmed the symptoms. The tumor was still festering, the real source of the terror still somewhere in Manhattan. And so the avatar of vengeance asked himself a question: “Who had supplied the fifty pounds of Semtex?” And then he’d asked, “Who provided the variable frequency receiver? Ultimatum had squeezed the trigger…but who gave them the piece and rounds?”

The answer to all those questions, as Moon Knight discovered, was a single man. Hannigan was what the underworld referred to as a ‘fundraiser’. The local street-level equivalent of an arms-dealer. For a fee, Finn Hannigan could provide his skel clientele with everything from two-toned SigArms to salvaged Punisher hardware. He was the source of the sickness.

And he was the reason why Moon Knight found himself on the Devil’s turf tonight – in what the fuzz called a ‘target-rich environment’ – heading towards the tumor. How many bodies could be put on Hannigan’s head-all in the name of murder as commerce? Spector didn’t know. But since he learned of the mark’s name, Moon Knight had vowed there wouldn’t be any more. A month’s worth of hunting would end tonight at Moench’s, here in Hell itself.

The corner bar was brimming with patrons by the time Moon Knight arrived; mostly white-collar suit-and-tie professionals rushing to find shelter from the rain. It was a full-house night. Music emanated from the inside; the Buzzcocks with a little Pogues. From the roof of an office across the street, Moon Knight observed Moench’s behind the foggy lenses of his binoculars.

Sixty minutes passed as people entered the bar sober and dry, then left belting out the lyrics to Carrickfergus. Moon Knight studied the ebb-and-flow like an unwavering gargoyle. No sign of the fundraiser yet. But Marc knew fortune favored the forbearing. His time at Langley had taught him that; the disciplined hunter was often the one with the highest success rate.

And Moon Knight’s training paid off in time – when he glassed a tall man with a ponytail exit the premises. The intelligence provided by the Profile had come with snapshots. It was definitely the mark. Moon Knight watched as Finn Hannigan stepped out of Moench’s into the pouring rain, and the source of the virus was given form. The binoculars in Spector’s hands were swiftly replaced with a truncheon. The wait was over. Time for vengeance.

In the storm, Spector’s habit made him into a veritable Casper, his white ensemble blending seamlessly with the rainfall. Moon Knight trailed after Hannigan from up-high; stealthily keeping pace with him as the man turned into an alleyway. Already the soldier within Marc was counting down the ways to hurt Hannigan. There was a time for restraint, for leaving the unconscious offender hanging from a streetlamp with a cute note attached.

I have 12 oz. of crack up my ass-crack – arrest me please,” or something similarly glib.

…But then there’s also a time for leaving the offender in a full-body cast, and ensuring that the only words he thinks of for the next six months are ‘traction’, ‘physiotherapy’, and ‘inguinal hernia’. A time like tonight. A few broken bones and the whole ‘criminals are a cowardly lot’ shtick wasn’t going to work here. Finn Hannigan and his wares had to be taken off the streets entirely. The bastard needed to have the fear of God instilled in him.

Moon Knight had carbon-plated truncheons…and spiked knuckle-dusters…and all manner of objects that would never pass Customs. Hannigan’s fate was sealed the moment he left Moench’s. At this point, the best he could hope for was a phone to call the ambo he’d inevitably need. Up on the roofs overlooking the alley, Moon Knight closed in on his mark. It was time to fulfill his duty as an apostle of his god. It was time to be the avatar of vengeance.

Finn Hannigan! The God Khonshu cries for your blood!

Moon Knight blinked. That was his cue, and his line – but the words never had the chance to leave his lips. Who the hell just said…?

Spector’s eyes immediately scanned his surroundings; finding the source of the unexpected voice. A second man had appeared behind Hannigan in the alleyway. The newcomer was dressed in a grey goose-bubble, with the jacket’s hood disguising his appearance. Marc quickly backed from the roof’s edge. His zeal to break Hannigan vanished momentarily, having been replaced by confusion at the new man below. Who was this here?

“The god whooooo?” Hannigan said by way of reply, slurring his words in obvious inebriation. The arms-dealer began stumbling towards Mr. Goose-Bubble with an unsteady gait. Above them, Moon Knight viewed the two men from the shadows.

This new man was an unknown variable, and unless Spector heard him wrong, he was also another disciple of the God of Vengeance, or at least...he was claiming to be. Heliopolitan deism wasn’t exactly a popular belief-system. Could this joker be one of those Knight of the Moon fanatics, Marc pondered? After a quick weighing-of-the-options, Spector called an audible, and decided to watch the situation play itself out.

As the lumbering Hannigan closed the gap, the man in the goose-bubble reached into his pockets. In the rain, Spector thought he saw a firearm; before realizing the man had produced a Taser. 50,000 volts, 1.8 milliamps, and two piezoelectric probes later – Hannigan was supine on the alley floor, mouth agape and limbs shuddering. The man had come prepared. Even drunk, Hannigan was still built like an ox; the Taser was a smart call.

And if Goose-Bubble was trying to exercise his faith, Moon Knight had to admit the man was certainly on the right track. Khonshu’s gospel was generally less ‘Have you heard about the good news?’ and more ‘Let me cripple you for life.’ Evidently, this newcomer had just done Marc’s job for him. Though witnessing Finn Hannigan getting electroshocked brought up more questions than it did answers for Moon Knight.

Was this second man also aware of Hannigan’s sins? What was this man’s motive here? Moon Knight resumed observing the confrontation unfolding beneath him: watching as Goose-Bubble paced towards the prone Hannigan, watching as the man reached into his pockets for a second time, and waiting for some clue that would solve the mystery.

But all thoughts of 21 Questions vanished when he saw the knife appear in the man’s hand.

Aggravated A&B was one thing, cold-blooded homicide another. The question of the newcomer’s motive seemingly-answered; Moon Knight sprang into action through pure instinct and muscle-memory. The third-degree could come later – right now all Moon Knight was concerned with was preventing a one-eighty-seven. Spector wanted Finn Hannigan in the emergency ward, not on the cold slab of a morgue.

Moon Knight’s cloak blossomed into a crescent-shaped parachute as he dove for the alleyway below. Puddles erupted once his boots graced earth; the landing jolting the newcomer in surprise. The look on the man’s face as Moon Knight approached him was a familiar one. The Pope wore a mozetta and zucchetto, the rabbis had their kippahs. The Fist of Khonshu, on the other hand, was dressed like the Grim Reaper in photo-negative.

And that brief second of shock – that pause that a civilian who’s only seen super-people on Nightline makes upon meeting one in real-life – was Moon Knight’s opening. Marc didn’t hesitate. There’d be time for the Gitmo routine when Taser-Man woke up. Truncheon. Temple. Moon Knight’s arm arched back, readying itself to connect the two, when —

“Hkkk—Nggeeahhh—my! Head…!”

The truncheon slipped from Moon Knight’s grasp as the Silver Avenger keeled over. Pain! A sharp, searing pain went off in Marc’s head like a 40 Mike-Mike. Pain! Moon Knight felt his legs give way – what the hell was happening to him? Seizure? Stroke? Morpheus?! The pain overwhelmed all coherent thought, and Spector could only cradle his skull in agony.

Amidst the pain, Spector screamed in his mind. Screamed for his limbs to move, for his arms to respond. It took Moon Knight an excruciating five seconds just to glance up at the newcomer, who now stood above him. In the rain, and with the jacket’s hood, Marc couldn’t make the man’s features. But Marc knew – the shock had passed. All that remained was the man, a knife, and the helpless vigilante who’d just tried to assault him.

One stab wound probably wouldn’t do it. Moon Knight’s vestments came with magnesium composite-armor and SAPI trauma plates. Pectoral crosses tended to do squat vs. small-arms fire. But enough lacerations to the face or neck… After Bushman, and Knowles, and any number of Ravencroft alumni – tonight, a virtual unknown could succeed where every other thug or villain had failed.

Marc began to wonder if there was a cap on Khonshu’s resurrection policy.

Then, a first for Hell’s Kitchen happened. Every banger’s wet-dream: to have a cape at gunpoint (or knifepoint, as the case went), and at your mercy. But the man in the grey goose-bubble stepped away. Moon Knight would’ve felt relief if not for the inconvenient aneurysm. Until Marc saw where the newcomer was headed.

Moon Knight could only stare helplessly as the man returned to the prone and semi-conscious form of Finn Hannigan. The knife began a slow descent to Hannigan’s face. All Spector had done was delay the newcomer by a minute or two. Marc roared for his muscles to act, but the pain wouldn’t allow it. Marine, PMC, moon-themed vigilante – Spector was well-acquainted with pain, but this was something else entirely.

The carving began. Alcohol was a pale substitute for anticholinergics as it turned out. Paralyzed though he was, Hannigan could still feel the blade shaving chunks of his face off like orange peel. His screams were mercifully drowned out by the storm. Moon Knight watched in horror as blood splatters decorated the alley. Frustration bubbled beneath his pain…Hannigan was just inches away, but Marc's body simply refused to budge.

The entire messy process of facial mutilation wouldn’t take long. And an inevitable coup-de-grâce would follow. You didn’t do something like that to another human being and expect him to live. Personal experience informed Moon Knight on that. If there was anything to be done – Moon Knight knew it had to happen soon.

With a silent prayer to Khonshu to grant him strength, Moon Knight’s left fingers sluggishly crawled their way to his right arm. For use in times-of-emergency, Spector’s gauntlets housed tear-gas darts; ideal for distracting a foe or making a quick getaway. And the present situation certainly qualified as a CODE 3. After a couple grunts and grimaces, Moon Knight managed to unclip a single weaponized crescent.

“Here goes,” Moon Knight muttered through gritted teeth, though with the pain, it came out more as ‘Hrrgghhh’. One press primed the chemical agent, a second one pulled the electronic safety pin. Hannigan was still shrieking. Now or never. Moon Knight flicked the crescent dart down the alley; turning away as the projectile exploded with a bright BANG.

80 grams of CS cyanocarbon shot out the dart in a violent cloud of white vapor. The tear-gas filled the entire alley within moments. Moon Knight heard a voice yell in confusion – either Hannigan or the second man – and saw a figure scrambling behind the smoke. Marc’s mask had filter-cartridges, but the dart’s contents wreaked havoc for its other recipients.

When the gas finally lifted, the man in the grey goose-bubble was nowhere to be found. On that stormy night in Clinton, in that grimy alley just across from Moench’s - the only souls left were a disfigured arms-dealer and a vigilante in filthy white tights. Moon Knight clambered awkwardly to his feet; the mystery pain apparently having left with the newcomer. He was still breathing, and he’d prevented the mark from being worm-food.

All things considered, Marc figured the night could’ve gone a lot worse.

Then Moon Knight remembered that Finn Hannigan was still bleeding out not more than two steps away. Hannigan had stopped screaming, but the fundraiser was falling into severe shock. Liquor, high-voltages, maiming, and riot-control agents could do that to a person. Moon Knight rushed over to the man’s side. The pool of blood around Hannigan stained Spector’s cloak, as the vigilante knelt down beside the fundraiser to inspect the damage.

“Jesus Christ…” Moon Knight whispered, when he saw what was left of Hannigan’s face.

“This was all that was left of Finn Hannigan’s kisser when Wedding-Gown-Man dropped him off at County Med,” Detective Flint said drily, as he extracted the horrific picture from the F.B. file, “Tell you, if there’s a more conspicuous mugshot of a skel out there, I ain’t seen it. March’s a little early for Thanksgiving, huh? Look at that. Our perp carved a clean chunk off Hannigan’s left temple-to-chin. Like a, a, well you look at it and tell me…

“And this was the lucky one. But we got lucky too – see, even though Hannigan was on-the-bottle, punk was still cognizant ’nuff to relate what he remembered. About ‘Khonshu’ – that’s the Egyptian god of falcons or some such, according to Wikipedia – which got me thinking this is one of those cult crimes. Religion. So Hannigan was the only wit. Well, him and my vigilante friend, but good luck preserving chain-of-custody with these cape types.

“Anyway. Nobody gives a rat’s ass about this case; Lew’s not even leaning on me to put it in black. The vics weren’t exactly Webelos, and that’s the only thread between them. No. 4: arms-dealer. No. 3: 66 Bridges, No. 2: child-pornographer, No. 1 a henchman for one of the Hobgoblins. For all we know, this perp could be a Punisher-lite, maybe that’s why he did this to Mr. Hannigan here. Carving into his face a…well, you look and tell me, it’s a…”

“A crescent,” the man-in-white answered. Flint gagged on his cereal upon realizing that the man actually had a voice. “The killer skinned a portion of Mr. Hannigan’s face off, leaving behind a patch of exposed tissue in the shape of a crescent,” the man explained, “Tell me, Detective: Have you noticed the pattern between these mutilations?”

Detective Flint felt his left eyebrow rise a slight millimeter at the word ‘pattern’. You didn’t trade your silver shield in for a gold one through felony arrests alone. Police go plainclothes with intuition, and Flint could sense his tingling. The man-in-white had noticed something. Flint cracked the case file open, and began sorting through the macabre puzzle, his brain buzzing with legit Italian caffeine, his fingers reaching for the autopsy headshots of each vic.

Finn Hannigan had a – what did the man say? – A crescent carved into his face. Flint found the picture of No. 2, the snuff-filmmaker, and immediately saw the connection to Hannigan. Two dots with a line between them. No. 2 was a mirror-image of No. 4; a crescent-shaped patch of skin was all that remained on the flayed face. Flint pulled out No. 1…Macendale’s accomplice had his whole face peeled off. And No. 3 had half his mug missing. Patterns!

Phases,” Flint said in a hushed whisper when the Eureka moment finally struck him, “Like ‘faces’! ‘Phases’ of the moon. Numero uno was a full moon – his whole face was skinned. No. 2 was waning; three-quarters of his face missing, leaving behind a crescent patch of skin. No. 3 was a half-moon, and Hannigan…Hannigan was supposed to be a crescent moon.”

“And Khonshu is the Ancient Egyptian god of the Moon,” the man-in-white concluded, “As well as the god of vengeance – hence the choice selection.”

God. Bit of cosmic coincidence that it was Moony who found him then, huh?” Flint leaned back in his chair, prompting another succession of squeaks. His mind was still reeling and coming to terms with the epiphany. Somewhere in New York – a town with no present deficit of madness – was a serial-killer who disfigured the criminal element in the name of a god mentioned solely on the History Channel.

The man-in-white simply smiled at the detective’s observation like it was an inside joke; making the first facial-expression outside of ‘impassive’ since their exchange began. Then the man rose from his seat, shook Flint’s hand, thanked the detective for his time, and departed the building posthaste. Detective Flint only realized that the headshots and all pertinent files were missing when he heard the click-clack of the MCU’s doors closing.

Outside the precinct, Khonshu stepped into the open air. A storm was already brewing, and the falling drizzle stained the white garb of his mortal guise like runny watercolors. The god of vengeance and the moon let out a jaded sigh. His misgivings were confirmed. The ritual sacrifices, what his avatar had related about a sudden onset of pain, the sensations that he himself felt - tonight’s visit to Spector’s contact had simply cemented the god’s fears.

And anything that could make a god afraid was something to fear indeed.

Khonshu walked down the streets of New York under the glow of the night’s crescent moon. A little divine magic to the detective told him everything he needed to know. Within this modern-day Babylon; a second god of vengeance and his avatar were rising. The monopoly that Khonshu held in the market of cold-dishes was slipping. A new competitor was in town, and the man-in-white did not appreciate the fact one bit.

“Only room for one moon in the night sky,” Khonshu murmured, as the rain began to pour, “Only room for one moon."

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Veshark's Top 10 Superhero Movie Scenes

Disclaimer

This is the Shark's opinion, and the Top 10 scenes from CBMs that I felt were most memorable in my mind. There were several scenes that didn't make it into the list - Rorschach's death in Watchmen, the Nuada fight from Hellboy 2, the Raindrops scene from Spider-Man 2 among others...but these are the Top 10 scenes that I look forward to whenever I rewatch these films, and the ones that stay with me long after the end credits.

10. Superman - "Who's Got You?"

It would be remiss of me not to include at least one scene from the Donner films, especially one from the very first superhero feature film in cinematic history. Till this day, Reeve's Superman still holds up in a charming and quaint manner of its own. And this iconic scene where Superman makes his debut remains a CBM milestone - it must've been something to see if you were a comic-book fan back in the 70s.

Lois Lane's copter hangs off the edge of a skyscraper, and Clark knows that this is a job for his alter ego. After a cheesy super-speed-costume-change in a revolving door, Supes zips up and catches the falling Lois in his arms. Which leads to this gem: "I've got you." "You've got me? Who's got you?!". This is how Superman should be portrayed; noble, friendly, but with a glint of humor too.

9. Iron Man 2 - "Monaco"

Okay, you know what - screw you. Don't judge me. I can feel the hate emanating as your eyes gloss over these very words. Still, regardless of the actual quality of the entire film as a whole, I can't deny that I enjoyed the hell out of this scene. I remember watching it for the first time on the silver screen. My seat was right next to the wall speakers. Every time Whiplash lashed his whips, my eardrums ruptured. And I loved it.

But the real kicker comes when Tony puts on the suitcase armor. Sure, most of it is just fanservice - it was a callback to Silver-Age Tony keeping his suits in a briefcase, and the color scheme a blatant Silver Centurion reference. But that's one of the best parts of a CBM. The 'cool factor' that stems from Tony donning a new armor, particularly one as novel as the Mark V. The actual fight itself versus Whiplash was short, but still a satisfactory prelude for the action to come.

8. Batman Begins - "Backup"

Alright, so they basically cribbed took inspiration from Year One with this one, but don't pretend like you didn't pop a nerd boner with this scene. To be honest, I thought long-and-hard whether to put the DKR escape-from-the-prison scene on the list over this one. Both evoke the bat-cloud-symbolism so well, but in the end, I felt like Begins deserved the spot, as the bat cloud is a running motif throughout the entirety of the first film.

The cloud of bats begins as a representation of Bruce's childhood fear, and starts the core theme of the movie: Fear. When Bruce finds the cave, the cloud of bats reappear again as his baptism, when he first transforms his fear into the image of Batman. And as Batman, the cloud of bats come to his rescue in this scene, as a physical symbol of Bruce finally weaponizing the power of fear in his crusade against crime.

Also, the scene's f&^*%n badass.

7. X2 - "Lady Deathstrike"

I remember being a kid when X2 first came out, and reading an article where Singer said that the scene where Deathstrike sticks her claws through Logan was one of the hardest things to film. Years later, the fight between Wolverine and Lady Deathstrike still holds up as my favorite battle in the entire X-Trilogy. This is easily one of the hardcore-iest (yes, that's a word) fights in the franchise, between two ruthless adamantium killers.

It's painful, it's brutal, and it's exhilarating to see Wolverine let loose with the violence for the first time. Logan stabs Deathstrike and looks genuinely flabbergasted when her wounds heal. Deathstrike pins Logan on the platform and stabs him repeatedly like some deranged acupuncturist. And that final killing blow? Gawddamn... Easily one of the most vicious death scenes in a CBM...bravo, Logan, bravo.

6. X-Men First Class - "Rage & Serenity"

I'll admit, I had a lot of issues with First Class. The movie basically butchered the trilogy's continuity, the costumes were cringe-worthy, and there were pacing issues...but one thing I can't deny? The movie was spot-on with its casting of McAvoy and Fassbender. Just when you think the franchise couldn't get any luckier than with Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen...Matthew Vaughn and crew end up doing this.

McAvoy and Fassbender were definitely the highlights of the film, and every scene they had together was character gold...but there was none better than this one here. "Rage & serenity" - those three words connected these two friends for the first time, and it describes these two icons very aptly too. Before all the tragedy and violence to follow, this was a touching moment between Charles & Erik before they became Professor X and Magneto.

5. Captain America The First Avenger - "Compassion"

Instead of doing a write-up, I'm just going to quote myself. This was one of the earliest posts I ever wrote on the Vine, and I still feel the same way:

My favorite MU inspirational speech is probably the one that Erskine delivers to Rogers in Captain America: The First Avenger. It's short, and a little more casual, but this small bit by Tucci really gave more insight into Erskine rather than just a generic comic-book scientist. He is both humorous and sincere here. This small scene with the two of them, the night before Rogers becomes Captain America and Erskine is killed, really shows a great dynamic between the two.

My favorite bit is probably this part: "This is why you were chosen. Because a strong man, who has known power all his life, will lose respect for that power. But a weak man knows the value of strength, and knows compassion."

I think that line really states what Captain America is all about. He doesn't want to become powerful just for power's sake. He wants to become powerful so that he can serve his fellow man. That's some profound sh#t right there.

4. The Dark Knight - "Interrogation"

The Dark Knight was a superhero film full of Top-10-worthy scenes, and a movie that elevated the superhero genre into something far greater. Everything was pure cinematic magic with this one: from the action, to the themes, to the characters...it remains the pinnacle of Nolan's work, and it's easy to see why TDK takes the top spot in the minds of most comic-book fans. But in what is arguably the greatest superhero film ever made, the greatest element of the movie was undeniably Heath Ledger's Joker.

And while there's the opening bank scene, and the 'Why So Serious' scenes, and even the final epic battle with Batman...this interrogation scene remains my top Joker moment. For the first time since the Joker's reign of terror began, Batman & his opposite number finally get to sit down and have a chat. This is the deepest that the movie ever goes into the relationship between the Knight & his Jester...this is the Killing Joke scene, where the two guys meet in a lunatic asylum...and where the Joker first becomes Batman's archnemesis.

3. Avengers - "Assemble"

I'd include the entire Battle of New York if I could, but that would be cheating, wouldn't it? But damn...from the first time we saw this moment in the trailer, to actually seeing it on the big screen. This is the moment when the Avengers finally came together as the world's first superhero team, and the moment when we all realized, "Holy sh&t...it actually happened. Marvel actually made an Avengers movie...and people outside fandom actually give a damn!"

From the full-circle pan of the camera as it catches the entire Avengers team assembled and facing off against impossible odds...to the sweeping orchestral score by Alan Silvestri (which is on my iPod, incidentally)...this is the moment we'd all been waiting for. Over four years of hype, dreams, and aspirations came to a stunning climax. This was it. The time when the heads of Marvel fans all across the globe simultaneously exploded, and the entirety of DC Comics was put on suicide watch.

2. Spider-Man 2 - "The Train"

I'll take Raimi over Webb any day, and when someone asks me why - I show them this scene and say, "Until the day an Amazing Spider-Man movie does a scene this good, Spider-Man 2 will remain my second favorite CBM of all-time". This is what Peter Parker is all about. Self-sacrifice, and never giving up no matter the odds. This train scene is the cinematic equivalent to Amazing Spider-Man #33.

The moment when Spider-Man has shot off streams of web and strains with all his might to stop the runaway train...as the carriage metal bends and the windows shatter....as Spidey's costume rips and Peter's face is contorted in pain and determination...my eyes were glued to the screen at this moment as a nine-year old, and they still are now. And then the final bit when all the passengers lift Spidey's body over them and one man whispers in wonder, "He's just a kid. No older than my son." That right there. That's Spider-Man to me.

1. Man of Steel - "Flight"

Love it or hate it, there is no argument that this scene from Man of Steel encompasses all the wonder and adventure that the character of Superman represents. It builds slowly. Hans Zimmer's score starts off with the gentle theme as Superman launches for an uneasy climb, soars a little, and then crashes back down to earth. The music goes silent. You hear Russell Crowe's voice narrating the words of All-Star Superman...In time, they will join you in the sun. In time...you will help them accomplish wonders. The music starts to build again. The ground shakes underneath Superman's feet.

And then Superman launches into the air like the rocket that sent him from Krypton...a ballistic streak of red-and-blue that goes supersonic across the skies...across the mountains...across the seas...and then Superman shoots up into outer-space and flies across the entire Earth...the planet of his adopted home and adopted people. I can't describe how much I look forward to this scene every time I rewatch this movie, and how it always stirs up the same feelings of childlike awe.

You really believe that a man can fly with this scene, and in many ways, the ability to fly is Superman's most iconic and important superpower. It's not the heat-vision or the strength, but this culturally-universal image of an ordinary man in a cape soaring above the clouds. That's what people think of when you say the name 'Superman'. And this is the point in Man of Steel when Clark Kent first adopts the identity of a protector, as a symbol of hope, and his mastering of the power of flight cements the beginning of Superman.

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Thor vs. Martian Manhunter (Three-Page Fights)

And the Shark has returned for yet another Three-Page Fight installment, featuring: Thor, the God of Thunder going up against the Martian Manhunter!

For those unfamiliar with the concept; the idea is to draw a three-page comic-book fight with zero dialogue, using visual storytelling alone. I use it as practice for improving both my artistic talents and sequential narrative skills.

I recalled a few Viners commenting that I should try drawing a 'high-tier' battle, and since every Three-Page Fight I've done so far has been street-level, I figured why not. The clash between these two powerhouses allowed me to draw on a larger scale, and also to change the scenery midway through the fight (Think of it as being a Level Transition, like from Injustice).

Overall, I dare say that this might be the best one I've done so far. The last panel of the fight itself is an Easter Egg for Thor fans, and any Thor fan worth his salt should be able to guess what I'm referencing there.

As always, constructive feedback of any kind is always appreciated. Enjoy:

To check my other Three-Page Fights, click on the links below:

Vote on the Next Three-Page Fight!

And if you have the time, feel free to leave a vote in a comment to decide which Three-Page Fight I should do next. I've thrown in one fight for each tier (high-tier, mid-tier, street-level), and whichever one gets the most votes will get the comic-book treatment.

  1. Green Lantern vs. Hyperion

  2. Aquaman vs. Black Panther

  3. Deathstroke vs. Spider-Man

Thanks for reading!

54 Comments

Rereading Ed Brubaker's Winter Soldier

Out of Time

In expectation of the upcoming Captain America: The Winter Soldier movie, I went back and reread the movie's primary source of inspiration - the original 13-issue arc by Ed Brubaker, Steve Epting, & Michael Lark. It was basically a way of hyping myself up for the movie, and a chance to go through one of my favorite Cap stories, and look back to where it all started. Without this book here, we wouldn't have such an awesome MCU movie today, and the Marvel U would be poorer without the resurrection of Bucky Barnes.

I also took it as an opportunity to look at the story arc one last time, before the new movie comes out and changes everyone's expectations. Because let's be honest, once Cap 2 hits North America, and once the character of the Winter Soldier hits the 'mainstream'....there'll be changes. Now I've already seen the movie myself, but below are just some of my thoughts on this classic Cap story, that I wrote a couple of weeks back.

Enjoy.

Steve’s Personality

One of the first things I noticed when I first read this story arc was that this was a very different Steve then we’re used to. This isn’t the friendly, confident leader slash inspiring role model of the Avengers. As Red Skull puts it in #1 – this is Cap at his lowest point. Throughout the Winter Soldier arc, we hardly ever see Steve crack a smile or make a joke.

The Avengers have disbanded, Aleksander Lukin is constantly manipulating Cap’s emotions, and his oldest friend is now a brainwashed killer. We’re dealing with a very grim and furious Captain America here. Steve is basically at his breaking point, and I feel like his mood fits the darker tone of the arc to a tee. While Steve’s definitely still in-character, it’s a refreshing change to see a more human side of the usually-infallible icon.

Tone

And speaking of the darker tone…one of the best aspects of the Winter Soldier arc was definitely the more grounded approach that it took to Captain America. A lot of fans describe Brubaker’s run as being ‘political’ or ‘espionage’, and while those terms are accurate to an extent (though probably more fitting for say…Rucka’s Checkmate), I don’t think they paint quite the right picture.

Basically, what Brubaker did for Cap was what Fraction and JMS did for Iron Man/Thor. Remade the Captain America title’s identity with a more modern sensibility. Brubaker’s handling of Cap is very similar to his work on Gotham Central: he doesn’t neglect the more fantastical aspects of the superhero world, but he grounds it with a more real-world approach.

That’s why the Red Skull’s master plan isn’t treated like some insane supervillain scheme, but an urban terrorism plot. That’s why Cap is going up against bombs and assassins, instead of fighting Armadillo or Batroc. That’s why the Skull wears a suit, why Crossbones wears a vest, and why the AIM grunts carry rifles instead of sci-fi lasers.

The tone that the arc had was actually so consistent that I was jarred out of the story for a second when I saw the flying car in #3. Brubaker and co. don’t ignore or try to whitewash the goofier parts of the MU – in fact they even embrace it at points, like the giant mecha in #13. But they’re smart enough to maintain a tonal quality that both fits the story’s content, and gives the title its own unique setting.

Color of Cap’s Costume

Did anyone else notice that the coloring for the blue parts of Cap’s costume changed after about four issues? Cap’s uniform started out with a darker navy blue, but over time, the colorist began using a lighter shade that would remain for the rest of Brubaker’s run. The shift is subtle, and I didn’t notice it at first, but I have to say I actually far prefer the darker blue. It was a stronger hue that simply made Cap stand out more on the page. The navy blue gave off a more visually-striking impression of the character. Just read the train fight from #1, then compare it to the later issues, and you’ll see what I mean.

Red Skull

Outside of Steve Rogers, the next character that I think Brubaker has the most impressive grasp of is the Red Skull. Seriously, I feel like Brubaker’s depiction of Johann Schmidt is easily one of the best portrayals of a modern comic villain. This is how you write a hero-villain relationship, and this is how the Red Skull should be written.

Throughout the entire 13-issue arc, the Skull is just a complete asshole with his plan. He has a long-term goal to accomplish, sure; but every move he makes is just one more opportunity to mess with Cap. From unlocking Steve’s memories, to making him relive the day Bucky died, to vandalizing those graves…he knows his archenemy so intimately that he can push every single one of Steve’s buttons. He knows how to make Cap angry, how to make him lose his edge and fall for every trap.

And the best part is the reveal: you don’t even know that it’s been the Red Skull doing all these things all along until the last page! This arc (and the Death of Captain America) really exemplifies why the Red Skull is one of the most devious and dangerous plotters in the Marvel U.

Train Fight

Brubaker himself once said that the opening train fight in #1 was one of his favorites. And as far as first fights for first issues go – it doesn’t get any better than this one. I think this opening sequence really sets the tone for Captain America, and sells the book to the reader in a way. Right off the bat: we see that Cap isn’t going up against supervillains – he’s fighting a domestic terrorist cell.

One might say that the battle is too mundane or not flashy enough to draw a reader in, but I think that’s what makes it work. Cap fighting terrorists on a speeding train is like an action scene straight out of Die Hard, and you instantly get the sense of the kind of tone that this book is going for. Epting’s choreography is beautiful and perfectly-executed: from the opening panoramic shot, to that one panel of Cap’s gritted teeth…this is sequential storytelling at its finest. Every page flows so smoothly, and even with minimal speed-lines, Epting’s able to portray the dynamism of Cap. This is how Cap should be drawn: like a force of nature.

WWII Flashbacks

Every good Cap story has one of these. Now I know some might argue that tying Cap to this same war has become redundant at this point, but personally, I dig a good flashback to Cap’s time in the war. It probably helps that I have a bit of a historical interest in this time period, but really, it’s a fundamental part of the character. With Cap saving the world from the likes of Thanos and the Builders these days, it’s nice to get a reminder of Steve’s roots. This was where Rogers really became the icon that he is today – in the fires of the most important war in human history.

Michael Lark’s awesome artwork certainly helps too. And Brubaker is able to seamlessly tie these flashbacks into the larger story; he uses them to expand on the villains’ motivations, or to drop little Cap factoids to help newer readers along. Look at the brief flashback in #2, which instantly tells the reader what Cap’s relationship to the Skull is. Or the one in #4 where Brubaker fills us in on obscure Golden Age characters like the Patriot & Spirit of ’76.

But the best flashback sequence is definitely the one that fills up all of #5; which not only gives us the backstory on Vasily Karpov and Aleksander Lukin, but also marks the debut of Brubaker’s reinvention of Bucky as a trained killer. This definitely set the stage for what would later come in the Winter Soldier.

Brubaker’s Writing

At first glance, Brubaker’s writing doesn’t immediately strike you as being the most impressive. He doesn’t have the witty dialogue of Fraction, or the technobabble of Ellis. Or the summer-action moments of Millar, the prose-like detail of JMS, or the high-concept ideas of Morrison. I’ll admit, on my first read-through of Winter Soldier, I didn’t really understand all the acclaim that the writer was getting.

But as I read the same story arc over and over again, and pieced the entire picture together – I finally understood what Brubaker’s strengths were. Yeah, his dialogue is often blunt and to the point, and his characters tend to lack a certain comic-book panache. But where Brubaker really excels is in telling a focused story. Narrative is where Brubaker truly hits his stride.

Epting’s Covers

There are artists that can do great interiors, but are generally more underwhelming when it comes to covers (see: Bryan Hitch). And on the flipside, there are also artists with fantastic cover renditions, while their actual pages are lackluster (see: Don Figueroa). But damn if Steve Epting isn’t the best of both worlds. You could not have picked a better artist for Brubaker’s revamping of Cap – Epting’s pencils and chalk-like inks just have this fantastic air of verisimilitude that fit the tone to a tee. He’s certainly come a long way since his Avengers days.

But it’s his covers in this story arc that really stand out for me. Epting’s Winter Soldier covers are easily some of the most well-designed and eye-catching pinups for a superhero book. Look at the cover for #11 – a simple yet effective image of the Winter Soldier with a collage of old Bucky comics in the background. Or the two-cover combo of #6, where one cover has Cap while a variant has a mirror reflection of the same cover with Bucky.

But my favorite Winter Soldier cover is without a doubt, #4. I mean, just look at that. A dramatic shot of Cap standing over an Arlington grave, with his shield in hand and rows of graves for fallen soldiers stretching out to the distance. This cover is easily one of the most iconic Cap images; even to the point that it seems to have been the inspiration for a The First Avenger poster. Epting also goes on to do more top-notch covers for the rest of Brubaker’s run. Highlights include #16-17 with Crossbones & Sin, as well as the great three-page combo from #43-45.

Cap & France

I guess special mention should be given to the moment in #3, where Cap and Sharon have a night off in Paris, and he tells her about his time in France during WWII. The dialogue in question is when Cap talks about how it really galls him whenever his fellow Americans dismiss the French as being cowards. As even though their government capitulated, the French people and the Resistance movement never stopped resisting the Third Reich.

I always enjoy the integration of real-world history into comics. As long as the subject in question is treated with the appropriate respect; it’s a good way to drop some gems on readers, and also gives the comic a little more gravitas.

But I suppose what makes this moment so notable is the fact that it’s probably a direct response to the infamous ‘A for France’ moment from The Ultimates. Though this issue was released about a year after Ultimates #13, I think it was definitely a great way for Brubaker to illustrate the difference between 1610-Cap and 616-Cap. Ultimate Cap’s a soldier, but 616-Cap is an icon. Mainstream Steve is the hero you look up to, and a worldly man of many experiences. He’s a little more thoughtful, and perhaps more mature than his alternate-U counterpart as well.

James Buchanan 'Bucky' Barnes

And I guess there's no Winter Soldier review that's complete without a mention of the star himself - Bucky Barnes. I've always felt that Buck was the real protagonist of Captain America Vol. 5. Steve is only around for the first 20 or so issues, but from the start to the end of the volume, it was Bucky who was the constant centerpiece of each story arc. Brubaker's run began with the resurrection of Captain America's sidekick as the Winter Soldier, and came full-circle when Buck inherited his mentor's title.

To date, Bucky's resurrection is probably my favorite of all the death retcons in comic-book history. There used to be a saying that there were only three characters in mainstream superhero books that would never be resurrected - Uncle Ben, Buck, Jason Todd....so far, only Uncle Ben's still in the grave haha. But unlike Todd's comeback in Under the Red Hood, Bucky's resurrection fit in seamlessly into Brubaker's run, and he was really fleshed out as a character of his own overtime. It probably helps that not much was done with him in the Golden Age up until the 2000s, so there was a blank canvas for Brubaker to reinvent here.

Brubaker rewrote Buck's history, gave him an identity and a personality, and came up with a plausible reason for Buck to exist in modern times. Brubaker said that he nearly got cold feet at some points, and almost made Buck a robot instead, but I'm glad they stuck through with it. This was an idea that could've gone horribly awry. Dead sidekicks brought back as evil antiheroes have rarely been successful, and that Cable-esque arm could've backfired in a cheesy 90s way. But Brubaker and co. definitely pulled it off, and transformed Buck from just another part of Cap's origin tale into a hero in his own right.

Oh, and Bucky as Cap was a lot better than Dick as Batman :P

The Perfect Cap Arc

One thing I loved about Winter Soldier was that every issue built on an element of Captain America. It must have been awesome for a Cap fan to read in the monthly format; and it felt like Brubaker had a checklist of Cap tropes to tick off for the whole arc. You’ve got the classic WWII flashback issue, the SHIELD assault issue, and even the mandatory team-up between Cap and his two best buds: Falcon and Iron Man.

I’ve read that Brubaker has read every major issue of Cap in existence, and his knowledge of the character certainly shows with the entire story. You’ve got cameos from past Cap cast members like Union Jack, the Invaders, & Jack Monroe. And what Cap arc is complete without a flashback to the moment of his ‘death’ in WWII? To boot, we know that some of the best Cap stories always have two iconic elements: The Cosmic Cube & the Red Skull.

On a whole, it’s easy to see why Winter Soldier is often high on the recommendations list for new Cap readers.

Conclusion

Well I hope this blog post has inspired some of you out there to reread (or pick up) Brubaker's run in anticipation of the upcoming movie. Feel free to share your own thoughts as well, and if you agree or disagree with my points. Thanks for reading.

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Cyclops vs. Deadshot (Three-Page Fights)

The Shark has returned with his third Three-Page Fight: featuring Cyclops going up against Deadshot in a forest!

For those unfamiliar with the concept; the idea is to draw a three-page comic-book fight with zero dialogue, using visual storytelling alone. I use it as practice for improving both my artistic talents and sequential narrative skills.The aim that I had with drawing this battle was to experiment and push my skills to their limits. For this fight, I tried to draw poses and angles that I'd never done before. I strove to make the fight as dynamic as possible, with every panel trying something new.

The results are...mixed, I feel. There are some panels that I'm really happy about, but some that I felt turned out somewhat mediocre. Regardless, here is the entire Three-Page fight for your enjoyment, and as always, comments and criticisms are highly welcomed:

Page One
Page Two
Page Three

To check out my other Three-Page Fights, click on the links below:

And as always, let me know what you think. Have I improved? Is this one crappier? Which panels did you like - which could use more work on? Did I represent both characters well? Feedback is always appreciated!

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