Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Are You Not Ant-ertained?

As we all know, Quantumania did not sweep the nation, much less the world, when Ant-Man and The Wasp: Quantumania was released in theaters this past February. After a record breaking opening weekend that set a new high for the franchise, it quickly dropped off and, while it wasn't exactly a box office failure, it was certainly a surprising box office disappointment in terms of the MCU.

While many wanted to ascribe its weak box office performance to "superhero fatigue," I think it's been proven time and again that "superhero fatigue" is an imaginary phenomenon. Audience respond to films on an individual basis, not on grounds of their genre. So why was Quantumania about as welcome as ants at a picnic? This wasn't just a movie that was tepidly received, it was vilified. 

Aside from the fact that the internet occasionally loves to dog pile on certain films, and that kind of hostility can take on a life of its own, I think the unhappiness with Quantumania mainly comes down to two different aspects. First and foremost, as much as some enjoyed the deliberate change of pace for the series and the ambitious attempt by director Peyton Reed to make Quantumania an entirely different type of Ant-Man film, I think that's exactly what most audiences didn't like about it. 

What sold the first Ant-Man was the shot in the trailer of Thomas the Train Engine bearing down on Yellowjacket. That specific shot, more than anything else, is what really got audiences on board with the whole Ant-Man concept. Having fun with the scale of ordinary objects was the primary hook of those first two films and taking the real world out of the equation in Quantumania removed the element that had drawn viewers to Ant-Man in the first place. Putting Scott and the rest of the Ant Family into a world where nothing is recognizable just isn't as appealing to viewers as, say, watching a car chase through city streets where the twist is that all the vehicles are shrinking and enlarging. 

It also didn't help that having the movie take place in the Quantum Realm meant Scott's crew had to sit this one out and an Ant-Man movie without Michael Pena's Luis just isn't the same. And although David Dastmalchain's vocal performance as Ved was a highlight, it wasn't the same as having him back as Kurt. The first two Ant-Mans boasted one of the most entertaining supporting casts in the MCU so having those characters not appear was just another thing working against it. 

The second aspect that I believe made it hard for Quantumania to win over audiences was the fact that it was the first big movie in theaters after Avatar: The Way of Water. Both films took place almost exclusively in a CGI created alien environment and the bottom line is that the Quantum Realm could not compete with the ground breaking spectacle of Pandora. Maybe if there'd been more of a buffer between the two movies it wouldn't have mattered but having Quantumania arrive directly on the heels of Way of Water made the comparisons inescapable. While the FX of Quantumania looked just fine by normal standards, I think with Way of the Water so fresh in viewer's minds, there was no way for Quantumania to not hit viewers as being a major downgrade. No shame in being owned by Cameron, though, I say.  

Personally I really enjoyed Quantimania. As a lighthearted, family friendly adventure, it gave me happy flashbacks to a specific style of fantasy/sci-fi film that were Saturday matinee staples of my '70s childhood, like The Land That Time Forgot, At The Earth's Core and The People That Time Forgot.

Like Quantumania, these were films with protagonists who found themselves thrust into strange and savage alien environments in which they had to be resourceful and find allies among the local tribes and battle the challenges of the weird worlds they find themselves in. Those '70s films were primarily silly affairs but they had an endearing, sweet natured sincerity to them, which Quantumania shares, along with their B-movie spirit. Quantumania may not have been what most audiences were looking for but I can say that right from the start, it kept me highly antertained.   

Thursday, May 25, 2023

Peak Cinema, Ewoks and All: Return of the Jedi at 40

I think the hardest thing to convey about the original Star Wars trilogy to those who weren't there when those films were first released is just how singular they were then and how much they dominated the genre competition. In regards to cinematic spectacle, there was nothing else like them. Released on May 25th, 1983, Return of the Jedi celebrates its 40th anniversary today and to understand how much Jedi stood out at the time, not just by being the conclusion of (what was then) the most popular movie trilogy of all time, but as an unmatched FX achievement, you have to look at its competition back in the summer of '83. 

Consider the fact that we're talking about the summer movie season, the time when studios are putting their biggest spectacles on the big screen. Then realize that the would-be blockbusters that Jedi was competing against among ticket buyers in the summer of '83 were the likes of the latest James Bond entry, Octopussy, the newest installment in the Man of Steel's saga, Superman III, and a big screen adaptation of The Twilight Zone. Nothing to necessarily sneeze at, in all these cases, but none of them could come close to the wow factor of Jedi. Honestly, it hardly seems fair.

The closest of that bunch to Jedi as far as providing pure cinematic razzle dazzle would be Superman III but, putting aside the fact that III was regarded as a comedic downturn for the series, just talking about it strictly in terms of its special effects, III just couldn't even begin to give Jedi a run for its money. Even though Superman III was a state of the art production, it still looked downright chintzy next to the eye popping spectacle of Jedi

The array of creatures, alien environments, and space battles that Jedi boasted served up the kind of visuals that nothing else at the time could match - certainly not the sight of Superman in a faux video game recreation. Compared to Jedi, just about everything else on movies screens then was, for lack of a better word, corny. The wizards at ILM were playing the game on whole different level. 

The fact is, the FX landscape was not on an even playing field in the early '80s. Today, there is a certain uniformity across the board in terms of FX proficiency. Sure, you'll have an outlier like Avatar: The Way of Water that leaps ahead of the pack but generally - on purely technical terms - one big FX film today is as well executed as the next. There isn't a vast discrepancy from one to the other. 

Whether we're talking Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 or The Flash or Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, whatever blockbuster audiences are watching this summer, they're all going to meet what modern audiences regard as the current standards of FX. These films might edge each other out on grounds of storytelling and acting and so on but FX wise they'll all be on equal footing. 

In 1983, though, FX quality could still vary wildly from film to film. For example, in the summer of '83, multiplex audiences had the option of paying the same ticket price as Jedi to see the much less technically proficient sci-fi offering Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn. You'd never have that type of discrepancy today but in '83, it wasn't unusual for the new height of FX achievement to be on one movie screen while on another screen in the same theater, you could see a film that was pure B movie schlock with all the seams showing. 

The crazy thing is, no one even blinked at that. Yes, we knew Jedi was light years better but no one was expecting anything else to be that good. Fans understood that anything ILM touched, most of all Star Wars, was operating on a whole other level. 

Today, it's taken for granted the fact that made for TV fantasy and sci-fi shows like Game of Thrones or Rings of Power or House of the Dragon can look every bit as stunning as The Mandalorian or Andor but in '83, it was understood that even on the big screen, nothing would be able to keep up with Star Wars and Jedi was the peak of perfection. Back then, we wondered if anything would ever top it. 

To modern eyes, Jedi no longer looks all that special. Not like it once did, at least. Watching it in 1983 was a such a different experience. The whole landscape was different then in a way that is alien to younger viewers. It would be like going to the movies today and having one theater showing a movie made with the most state of the art technology and in the next, a movie that was about twenty years behind the curve. Say what you will about Shazam! Fury of the Gods, for example, but on the grounds of its FX, there's no denying that it looks in line with the best of what's out there. 

I was fourteen when Jedi came out and I still remember how floored I was by it. Sure, there were elements that I was prone to nitpick (Ewoks simply did not seem cool to teens, sorry, even if I've come to appreciate the critters since) but, on a technical level, it was undeniably impressive. And there was nothing else out, not just that summer, but the rest of the whole year that even came close to it. 

Today, it seems like the big cinematic achievement of one month is pushed aside weeks later by the next film to raise the bar. No movie holds the crown for long. No matter how much a movie may set a new standard, fans are immediately jumping onto whatever's next (a process hastened by social media). Avatar: The Way of Water gives way to Guardians Vol. 3 which will give way to Across the Spider-Verse and then The Flash and so on. 

In the early '80s, though, genre fans weren't as spoiled as they are today, where fans take for granted that every other month a new watershed genre film will arrive and if it doesn't the state of cinema must be in peril. Back then, it was normal for a film to be seen as the big thing for not just a few months but for years afterwards. That seems so antiquated from today's chronically impatient "what have you done for me lately?" mindset. It's a way of thinking that might as well be from a long time ago and a galaxy far, far away. 

Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Fatigue and Fandom and the Future of the MCU

Whether it be in the Marvel Universe of the 616 or that of the MCU's Earth-199999, Uatu of The Watchers is a figure that sees all, knows all and perceives all concerning the various branching realities that lead to consequences both good and bad. While we can't have Uatu's clarity of vision, we can still play armchair Watchers ourselves and try and divine the possible paths ahead for the MCU. 

With the Phase 5 releases of Ant-Man & the Wasp: Quantumania and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 not performing at or above the out sized expectations set by some previous MCU releases, the cries of "superhero fatigue," which have been heard since the early '00s, are once again being thrown around in the same old kneejerk fashion. To that, let's say first that anyone who would think that the MCU needed to or feasibly could sustain the same momentum of the Infinity War/Endgame era in order to prove its viability is not a serious commentator on pop culture trends. You can handily disregard any box office pundit who expresses faux concern at the fact that a cinematic universe now in its fifteenth year and that currently encompasses thirty two films along with eight television series (far more than that if you consider series like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Agent Carter and the Netflix shows to be in MCU continuity) and two Special Presentations is going to experience peaks and valleys of viewer interest. 

Yes, Avengers: Endgame represented a peak for the MCU. But getting to that point was the result of eleven years of build-up over the course of twenty one films. In a pop culture world where fads and trends quickly go in and out of fashion, the fact that the MCU was able to hold the level of engagement it did for as long as it did is extraordinary. To try and keep the audience's interest at that same peak level would be impossible. While hardcore fans will continue to stay engaged, a segment of the broader audience is naturally going to step back a bit. They're either going to get off the train altogether for a time or they're just going to become more selective about what specific aspects of the MCU still excite them. The MCU can continue to be massively successful for awhile without matching the high of Endgame

This is a cycle that the comics have experienced for decades, the ebb and flow of sales in relation to big events and reboots and so on. Some readers who have ditched comics for a time will jump back on board when some line wide event happens that calls upon the shared might of the Marvel universe to rally against an opponent of singular power. Or when a superhero team gets a spiffy new line-up, or when a hero gets a new costume or a power upgrade or a new #1 issue looks like an appealing point of re-entry. This is the dynamics that we're going to see mirrored in the MCU going forward. It's going to experience ebbs and flows of interest. And that's ok. It shouldn't be treated as a case of the sky falling when a new MCU movie doesn't break box office records. 

We might be at a point where every new MCU release isn't necessarily going to drive the same stampede to the theater but that said, it's also clear that there's a level of hardcore interest that remains locked in and, as the Multiverse Saga continues, it's just going to be a matter of getting the broader audience back on board for the bigger swings. Some might choose to sit out this movie or that in the post Endgame era but, just as with the comic crowd who might wait for an event to draw them back in, if these lapsed viewers see something that piques their interest, they'll have a renewed itch to check out what's new in the MCU. 

The biggest issue Kevin Feige is going to have to contend with going forward in regards to keeping a wider audience hooked is determining how much having a shared universe is both a selling point and a hindrance. Prior to Phase 4, there was a linear simplicity to following the MCU. It was one film and then another, one building block on top of the other, and the trajectory of each Phase was simple for a mainstream audience to understand. 

Phase 1 built up to the forming of The Avengrers and then Phases 2 and 3 were about the emerging threat of Thanos, the search for the Infinity Stones and the ramp up to Infinity War. It's with Phase 4 that things became much more complicated, to the delight of many fans but to the frustration of casual viewers who haven't been able to easily wrap their heads around Where It's All Going. 

Adding to that sense of complication and confusion is the fact that now there are a multitude of TV shows and specials that inform the movies and vice versa. If following the movies was becoming a hardship for some viewers, the addition of the Disney+ shows has made it feel impossible. It didn't help that due to the delays caused by the pandemic, Phase 4 crammed seven movies, eight shows and two specials into two years. That's a lot. For fans, it's a feast. For less dedicated viewers, I think it's been overwhelming and off-putting - especially when it's difficult for them to determine what the road map ahead is.

Comic fans naturally have a better sense of where concepts like "incursions" are going to lead as the Multiverse Saga continues but for non-nerd viewers, watching a lot of the Phase 4 and 5 content likely feels like running into a wall of gobbledygook. Fair enough, I suppose, even though there's really no more gobbledygook at play here than there was during the Infinity Saga. 

Once all the pieces start to fall into place, confusion will surely give way to a sense of "oh, so that's where all this was going" as the big picture emerges (Yes, we'll get back to dealing with that Celestial sticking out of the Indian Ocean. No, the matter of Doctor Strange's third eye hasn't been so easily resolved.) but we're not there just yet.     

Being a shared universe has been the MCU's defining characteristic. It's the quality that other studios have tried (and largely failed) to emulate. But as we pass the fifteenth anniversary of the MCU, the question is at what point does a universe that encompasses as much material as the MCU does become too daunting for some viewers? Its interconnectivity has been the MCU's strength but will it turn into a liability? At what point does the MCU's continuity represent too big of a buy in? 

When you look at the massive success of recent films like Top Gun: Maverick, Avatar: Way of the Water, and Super Mario Bros., it's easy to see there's a hunger among audiences for sharply made pop entertainment that requires minimal investment in a larger world. No one had to brush up on their Top Gun or Avatar knowledge to enjoy their sequels and even if they had, we're talking about one movie to get up to speed, not a couple of dozen or more. If there's one major factor in any downturn of audience interest in the MCU, it's likely the perception that it requires more attention than many viewers are willing to keep giving it. 

Whether the MCU actually requires that much attention, however, is debatable. I think, as with the comics, it's easy to pick and choose what interests you. No comic fan reads every comic that Marvel publishes every month and yet it's not a cause for confusion on the part of readers. You can focus on whatever characters that appeal to you and not need to know the details of every other narrative, or be familiar with every corner of the 616. Same with the MCU. You don't have to follow it all to enjoy whatever you do choose to check out. That said, it is true that the movies are now serving not just as sequels to previous films but they're also serving as continuations of the TV shows. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness isn't just a follow up to the first Doctor Strange, it's also a follow-up to Strange's appearances in Infinity War and Endgame and on top of that it's also a sequel to Wandavision. Similarly, this November's The Marvels isn't just a sequel to Captain Marvel but it's also a continuation of Monica Rambeau's story from Wandavision and Kamala Khan's from Ms. Marvel. It's hard to make a case that the MCU is new viewer friendly when in most cases it relies on the audience having made an investment in these characters across both film and TV. For MCU fans, this is an enticement not a deterrent but at the same time it's hard not to sympathize with the casual viewer that just wants to give two hours or so of their time to a movie and not have to be caught up on maybe twenty hours of material before hitting the theater on a Friday night. 

It's going to be interesting to see how Kevin Feige deals with this issue as time goes on. Clearly there is a commitment to keeping the present continuity going through Avengers: Secret Wars at least. The Multiverse Saga is well in progress and I don't think anything, box office wise, is going get that off track. The MCU is still racking up hits post Endgame. In some cases, some of their biggest to date so the path through Phase 5 and 6 seems safe. But after that, what then? Avengers: Secret Wars will be the fortieth MCU movie by that point. That's mind boggling to consider. It used to be that for a movie series to go past four or five entries was a sign that it was probably getting long in the tooth. The Fast & Furious franchise is going to be wrapping things up with its tenth and eleventh installments. So to think about the MCU at forty interconnected movies plus however many TV series by then, you have to wonder: at what point does doing a reset become a necessary move? 

In the comics, the 616 has continued unbroken since its inception and will likely continue as such on into eternity. That's a key to its success, the commitment to one ever-expanding narrative in which continuity matters (even if it has to be occasionally fudged). But comics are a very different medium than film. With characters made of pencil and ink, they can remain at their ideal age forever, can die if the story demands (only to return renewed and refreshed!) and so the task of keeping that universe intact is much easier. Movies are totally different. Actors age, they move on to other projects, and the movie going audience also shifts in ways that make maintaining a single continuity and having the audience stay invested in it over the course of ten, twenty years or more much more difficult. When Secret Wars comes out, if it stays on schedule, not only will it be the fortieth MCU film, but by 2026 we'll be getting very close to the 20th anniversary of the MCU itself. 

You can say that, well, Star Wars is well past forty years already and fans are still invested in that universe but it's also true that there's much less of a buy in to Star Wars. You've got three trilogies and two side films at this point. So, a mere eleven movies since '77. In contrast, there's been nine MCU films just since 2021. And yeah, you could point to the many Star Wars shows that have emerged over the past few years and the animated ones that have been popular as well but I don't think most audiences look at most of the SW material that exists beyond the movies as being essential to their ability to enjoy a new movie.

Then you have long running franchises like Bond and Godzilla but in both those cases, even though these franchises go back to the fifties and sixties, there's no obstacle to just jumping on board with a new entry. There's been 37 Godzilla movies to date (with a new one from Toho due this year) and 27 Bond films (if you count 1967's Casino Royale and 1983's Never Say Never Say Never Again) but with minimal continuity between them. All you need to be up to speed on going in is that Bond is a secret agent and Godzilla is a giant lizard. That's it. Now imagine if the Godzilla series had been telling one long narrative since 1954. On the one hand, I say that'd be pretty cool. On the other, it would have required an insane amount of coordination over the years on the part of studios and filmmakers as well as an uncommon level of commitment on the part of the audience. That we'll still have MCU movies in another twenty or thirty years seems certain to me. The question is whether they'll still be telling one big interconnected story by then. 

What I'm wondering in regards to the MCU is whether Secret Wars will be used as a reset point for the universe. In the comics, the Jonathan Hickman 2015 Secret Wars series saw the 616 destroyed and reformed. If the movie follows suit, it would be the perfect opportunity to start over while still preserving the previous continuity. Whatever new Marvel U that emerges in the wake of Secret Wars could acknowledge the existence of the previous one and retain certain aspects of it while also allowing for a square one reset. There could be a new Tony Stark, a new Steve Rogers, a new T'Challa even. The opportunity to start anew could also allow for the X-Men to be a part of the new MCU from the start. It could also allow for a young Peter Parker to be there from the beginning as opposed to joining midway in. That aspect could be tricky as we don't know what path the new set of Spidey films will be taking and how tightly they'll line up with the MCU. I don't think Sony or Marvel has any desire to shuffle Tom Holland off the stage too quickly but at the same time a reset would be the perfect time for a recast.

Whether any of this will happen is anyone's guess, of course. This is nothing but pure fan speculation on my part but I have to imagine that Kevin Feige is thinking along these lines. At the very least, he's got to be considering all the options of how to maintain a shared universe while still making it accessible to a wider audience that can't help but become a bit indifferent to it as it grows past the point where it's easy for casual viewers to follow. 

It's possible that overcoming that obstacle might not require a reset at all. While a reboot could be on the horizon, I truly feel like we've just seen the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the ongoing MCU narrative. I mean, the scope of Secret Wars is going to be so massive it will dwarf Infinity War/Endgame. I would be surprised if Secret Wars wasn't a two part film with the first film ending not with half the population of the universe turning to dust but the whole damn multiverse itself fading into oblivion (although I admit that this might be a beat too similar to Infinity War to go with) and the universe not being restored until Part 2. 

If they follow Hickman's Secret Wars from the comics, between the two films, we could have a whole run of movies and shows that take place in a "Battleworld" that encompasses many different regions that reflect the various aspects and genres of the Marvel universe, from sword and sorcery to Westerns to magic to mutants to high technology. Upon a reassembling of the MCU, if the previous continuity remains intact, there's so much that's been laid down that is still there to follow up on. 

We could eventually have the Defenders on the big screen, Marvel's contentious, oddball answer to The Avengers, compromised of Hulk, Namor, Silver Surfer, Doctor Strange and Valkyrie. And if there's a Defenders, it's inevitable that we'll have an old school Avengers/Defenders War. There's also the potential still there for a World War Hulk movie (even more so should Harrison Ford's Thunderbolt Ross become Red Hulk). And with Kate Bishop, Kamala Khan, America Chavez, Cassie Lang, Billy Kaplan and Riri Williams all in place there's a Young Avengers team and/or Champions team ready to go. There's also a street level aspect to the MCU that has barely been touched on that could possibly be the focus of the next Spider-Man film if the likes of Daredevil, Punisher and Jessica Jones get involved. And we haven't even gotten to the Fantastic Four or the X-Men yet. Both of which represent huge entire universes unto themselves. 

In addition to all that, I think it's inevitable that once the X-Men are established, that an Avengers vs. X-Men movie will be in the cards. How could they not go with that? You think Endgame was big? Please. An AvX movie would handily crush it. It'd make Civil War look like a playground squabble.   

People can talk about superhero fatigue all they want but the fact of the matter is, the MCU isn't going anyplace. Whether or not there will be some course correction here and there, the idea that the MCU might end is ridiculous. Warners has been floundering with their DC universe for over ten years now with no talk of throwing in the towel, despite all the mixed results. So if anyone thinks that failing to break box office records with each new release, while still being successful, is going to lead to Disney and Marvel giving up on the MCU, that person is nuts. I'm telling you now, strap in for years and years more of the MCU. The option for individual viewers to get off the ride is always there but people shouldn't confuse whatever personal apathy they might feel with the reality that the MCU is not going anywhere. It will be up to Kevin Feige and his creative collaborators to make the shared universe aspect of the MCU feel like an asset rather than an albatross if they choose not to ever hit the reset button but I expect everyone involved will be more than up for that challenge. 

If anything, I think it's fair to say that in another ten years or so we might look back at this era as the point when the MCU was just getting started. 

Tuesday, May 2, 2023

Rust Proof: Iron Man at 15

Here in 2023, we're still a long way off from the golden anniversary of the Golden Avenger's first solo film but I say the fifteenth anniversary of the release of 2008's Iron Man is still a momentous occasion. Not only is it the anniversary of Iron Man but it's also the anniversary of the MCU. Being the first release from the newly minted Marvel Studios, the first time that Marvel itself was fully in charge of bringing its characters to the screen, a lot was riding on Iron Man. And by "a lot," I mean everything. It's no exaggeration to say that the success of Iron Man changed the course of modern popular culture. It's impossible to imagine the current pop culture landscape without the MCU and none of it would have been possible without Iron Man having forged the foundation. 

To put Iron Man's success in context, you have to first consider that by 2008, the superhero wave had been going strong since 2000, much of which had driven by the success of adaptations of Marvel characters like the X-Men and Spider-Man. 

By the time Marvel Studios got to work on Iron Man, the most popular, best known aspects of the Marvel universe had already been well represented on screen and those characters were still in the hands of other studios. The characters that Marvel Studios had access to were largely thought of as B-listers at best, characters with little chance of becoming household names. In a CNN Money article, "Marvel goes Hollywood" from 2007, writer Devin Leonard asked "Can Marvel prevail with a slate of characters - Thor, the recently deceased (but sure to be resurrected) Captain America, Ant-Man - that, beloved as they are to longtime comic fans, are mostly unknown to today's kids?" Most of the talk surrounding Marvel Studios prior to Iron Man centered on the fact that Marvel was, in the eyes of many, being forced to work with scraps. 

Added to the challenge of launching a film series with lesser known characters was the fact that the entire superhero trend could possibly have been starting to wind down by 2008. Sam Raimi's Spider-Man trilogy had concluded in 2007, the X-Men trilogy had ended in 2006 and as much as other films were in the pipeline, there was a case to be made that we might well have already seen superheroes peak. Just over a month before Iron Man's release, the spoof Superhero Movie came out and while it was only a moderate success, usually once a genre receives its own parody, it's a sign that the genre is starting to wane. Was there even going to be an audience for Iron Man?    

Cut to today where the MCU is far and away the biggest entertainment franchise in the world and where millions of people who have never cracked open a comic know the details of the Marvel Universe. As much as the phrase "superhero fatigue" is often trotted out, that supposed fatigue is seldom is reflected in the enthusiasm of ticket buyers. What superhero films were before the release of Iron Man, as successful as they often were, looks downright piddling compared to the heights that the MCU has reached. Some might say the MCU peaked with Avengers: Endgame in 2019 and will never reach the same heights again but I say don't bet on that. Even if that were the case, though, what an unparalleled run the MCU has had, none of which could have been imagined when Iron Man was released on May 2nd, 2008. 

As a fan, I remember feeling that the first real encouraging sign when it came to Iron Man, back when it was just ramping up into production, was the casting of Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark. It seemed so perfect, just the ideal match of actor and character, and I believe that casting Downey Jr. was the decision that really put everything in place early on. It gave the project an automatic stamp of legitimacy and ever since then, the continued strength of the MCU has always come down to casting. Even when the films themselves have been so-so, the appeal of the characters always pulls them through. The first Thor wasn't anything more than ok but yet Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston as Thor and Loki were so terrific in their roles that it elevated the entire movie and created a demand to see more. Casting has been the ace up Marvel's sleeve throughout the MCU, their steady saving grace, all the way up to today with the instantly likable Iman Vellani as Kamala Khan, and it all started with Iron Man

Given where the MCU is now, with a multitude (and a multiverse) of narrative balls in the air, it's wild to think back on what a simple thrill it was to see that first post credit scene with Samuel L. Jackson making his debut as Nick Fury, coming to talk to Tony about the "Avengers Initiative." As much as the Marvel Universe had already been well served by the first two X-Men movies and the Spider-Man films, that thirty second or so appearance by Fury promised so much more. If you want to point to a single moment where nerd culture truly took over the mainstream, that might be it. Star Wars, Star Trek and previous superhero films were instances where nerds and mainstream audiences happened to find common ground. The MCU, however, put everyone on hardcore nerd turf. After Iron Man, being comic literate became key to navigating pop culture in a way that it never had been before. 

Last year, Iron Man became the first MCU film to be inducted into the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress. To be eligible to be inducted into the Registry, a film must be at least ten years old and be "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant," the first two of which Iron Man definitely qualifies as. Aesthetically, Iron Man isn't exceptional but it is an example of top notch mainstream filmmaking, a piece of pop cinema where all the components are in harmony (special shout out to the work of Stan Winston Studios who brought Iron Man's armor to the screen so faithfully - including the initial gray Mark 1 suit). It's a testimony to the craft that Jon Favreau, Kevin Feige and co. brought to the initial MCU outing that even stacked up against the celebrated likes of Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Endgame, it still ranks as a top tier MCU entry. Fifteen years later, Iron Man's gleaming red and gold armor doesn't have a speck of rust on it.