Flashback: ‘Captain America: The First Avenger’

Before The Avengers would assemble, audiences were introduced to perhaps the team’s most crucial member…

Chris Evans leads as Steve Rogers/Captain America in director Joe Johnston’s ‘Captain America: The First Avenger’ (image credit: Disney/Marvel Studios).

Year:  2011

Starring:  Chris Evans, Hugo Weaving, Hayley Atwell, Sebastian Stan, Tommy Lee Jones, Dominic Cooper, Stanley Tucci, Toby Jones, Samuel L. Jackson

Directed by:  Joe Johnston / written by:  Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (Captain America created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby)

What’s it about?

Rejected from enlisting in the U.S. Army, Steve Rogers, a physically weak but strong spirited young man from Brooklyn is recruited for a secret programme that will see him transformed into the ‘Super Soldier’ Captain America, to lead the fight against the forces of Hydra…

Retrospective/review

In July of 2011, Marvel Studios edged closer to the culmination of ‘Phase One’ of its plans for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as it approached The Avengers, with the release of Captain America: The First Avenger introducing audiences to Steve Rogers/Captain America, the classic Marvel hero who will be the keystone of the eponymous comic book superhero team.

Directed by Joe Johnston (The Rocketeer, Jurassic Park III), and starring Chris Evans, Captain America: The First Avenger is predominantly a period piece bookended by scenes taking place in modern day.  The bulk of the narrative unfolds at the height of World War II, where Steve Rogers (Evans), a physically diminutive but noble spirited young man from Brooklyn, repeatedly refused enlistment in the U.S. Army, is selected for a top-secret programme where an experimental serum transforms him into the tall, muscular and agile Super Soldier ‘Captain America’ who will lead the fight against Nazi lieutenant Johann Schmidt – aka ‘The Red Skull’ (The Matrix trilogy’s Hugo Weaving) – and the forces of Hydra as they seek to unlock the powers of a mysterious and powerful artefact known as the Tesseract.

The casting of Chris Evans in the lead role may not have seemed an obvious one (even though he was a highlight of 20th Century Fox’s not-so-great Fantastic Four films, where he played The Human Torch) but any fears where quickly allayed with an instantly likeable and grounded performance as Steve Rogers, prior and post-transformation and it’s now difficult to imagine anyone else playing the role.  It helps that writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely provide Rogers with a strong character arc, from the frustrated underdog and determined recruit to subsequent propaganda performer (the stage shows and movie serials with accompanying costume providing nostalgic homages to the history of Marvel’s ‘Star-Spangled Man’) and his eventual first real mission as Captain America, it affords Evans with rich material to invest in.  Kudos also must be given to costume designer Anna B. Sheppard as Cap’s World War II battlefield uniform is a standout example of creating something that is both faithful and unique and looks great onscreen.  The use of doubles and digital effects trickery also proves convincing in presenting viewers with the smaller and more slight pre-serum Rogers.

Hugo Weaving as Johann Schmidt/The Red Skull, one of the MCU’s more memorable villains (image credit: Disney/Marvel Studios).

Evans is ably supported by Sebastian Stan, making his first appearance as Steve Rogers’ best friend James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes (later to become the Hydra-conditioned assassin known as The Winter Soldier) but it’s undoubtedly the superb Hayley Atwell who proves his equal as the no-nonsense and dutiful British Agent Peggy Carter.  Evans and Atwell have wonderful chemistry and Carter is a great addition to the MCU, so it’s little wonder that Atwell would reprise here role in subsequent films and earn her own short-lived tv series (the sorely overlooked Agent Carter).  As the main antagonist, Hugo Weaving (who had previously worked with Joe Johnston on Universal Monster remake The Wolf Man) effortlessly delivers one of the MCU’s more memorable villains as the iconic Red Skull.

The cast is rounded out impressively with the participation of Oscar Winner Tommy Lee Jones (earning the prestigious award for Best Supporting Actor in The Fugitive) as Colonel Phillips, Stanley Tucci as the Super Soldier serum’s creator Dr. Abraham Erskine (who also has a great rapport with Chris Evans, with some great character-building scenes between the two), Dominic Cooper as Howard Stark (father of future Iron Man, Tony Stark), Neal McDonough as “Dum Dum” Dugan (one of the infamous “Howling Commandos”) and Toby Jones as Hydra scientist Dr. Arnim Zola.  Lest us also not forget that there’s another enjoyable cameo from late Marvel Comics legend, Stan Lee as well as an appearance from Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury.

Much like he demonstrated on The Rocketeer, Joe Johnston balances story, character and action brilliantly, weaving touches of Raiders of the Lost Ark into the nostalgic and adventurous fantasy period piece.  Of the film’s action set-pieces, they are numerous (and enhanced by Predator and The Abyss composer Alan Silvestri’s music score) and expertly staged, whether it’s Rogers’ rescue of imprisoned soldiers from the clutches of Hydra or the tense and gripping flying-wing finale.  Said finale of course sees Captain Rogers attempting the ultimate sacrifice to save the free world from annihilation.  Luckily, he is frozen deep in ice, to be discovered and revived in present day, leading to a poignant dénouement that paves the way for Marvel’s expanding film and television universe.

Captain America: The First Avenger is an underrated early effort from Marvel Studios that firmly establishes Marvel’s Golden Age hero and puts the final pieces in place before unleashing their ambitious and highly anticipated team-up, The Avengers.

Geek fact!

Actress Laura Haddock, later to play Peter ‘Star Lord’ Quill’s mother in Guardians of the Galaxy makes a brief appearance in The First Avenger as an autograph seeking admirer of Captain America.  Subsequent Doctor Who companion Jenna Coleman can also be seen in a small role as Bucky’s date at the Stark Expo.

All images herein remain the property of the copyright owners and are used for illustrative purposes only.

Have You Seen… ‘The Rocketeer’?

Film and TV you might not have checked out but really should…

Bill Campbell, Jennifer Connelly and Timothy Dalton star in ‘The Rocketeer’ (image credit: Disney).

Year:  1991

Starring:  Bill Campbell, Alan Arkin, Jennifer Connelly, Timothy Dalton, Terry O’Quinn

Directed by:  Joe Johnston / written by:  Danny Bilson & Paul De Meo (story by Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo & William Dear.  Based on The Rocketeer, created by Dave Stevens)

What’s it about?

Test pilot Cliff Secord comes into possession of a prototype rocket-pack that allows him to soar into the skies as the heroic ‘Rocketeer’…

In review: why you should see it

An unfortunate financial disappointment for Walt Disney Pictures on its theatrical release (barely recouping its budget of around $40 million) in the summer of 1991, The Rocketeer has thankfully earned more appreciation in the years since to become something of a cult favourite.  Based on the graphic novel by the late writer/artist Dave Stevens, itself inspired by 1940s adventure serial King of the Rocket Men, The Rocketeer is a charming film of a more innocent and less cynical time and is a fun, heroic adventure taking place in late 1930’s America.  With lots of heart, an adventurous spirit and a nostalgic magic it’s impossible not to fall under its spell.

A charismatic and likeable Bill Campbell (recognisable by fans of Star Trek: The Next Generation from his guest role in the 1988 episode “The Outrageous Okana”) plays Cliff Secord, a daring young stunt pilot who comes into possession of a hi-tech rocket-powered jet pack invented by Howard Hughes (a fictionalised version of the real-life aviator portrayed by Terry O’Quinn), lost by its creator and desperately sought after by both Nazi agents and the FBI.  Unaware of the origins of the rocket pack and the danger he faces, Cliff uses it to rescue his friend, who runs into trouble during an aerial performance at a local air show.  His deeds witnessed by the crowd, the mysterious helmeted hero is celebrated by the media as “The Rocketeer”.  Needless to say it isn’t long before Cliff is embroiled in troubles of his own as enemies who will stop at nothing to possess the rocket-pack begin to close in on him.

The ever-stunning Jennifer Connelly is wonderful as Cliff’s actress girlfriend, Jenny Blake, who is more than just the token love interest or a mere damsel in distress and comfortably holds her own as she gets involved in the action.  There’s great chemistry between Connelly and Campbell and together with Secord’s friendship with his mentor, “Peevy” (Alan Arkin) helps drive the emotional core of the story.  Played with a seething menace and maniacal intensity, Flash Gordon’s Timothy Dalton (following his all-too brief and undervalued stint as super-spy James Bond in The Living Daylights and Licence to Kill) is brilliant as the central villain, arrogant box office star Neville Sinclair with a sinister agenda and a true identity that only enhances the threat he poses to not just Secord and his friends but also the entire world.

Cliff Secord blasts into the skies in ‘The Rocketeer’ (image credit: Disney).

Director Joe Johnston (later to helm Jurassic Park III and Marvel’s Captain America: The First Avenger) is the perfect fit, his experience working with Steven Spielberg on the Indiana Jones films lovingly infused into the retro-pulp action adventure of The Rocketeer.  Johnston skillfully directs the aerial sequences and delivers some solid action set-pieces, including a climactic duel between Sinclair and Secord aboard the airship Luxembourg which provides a suitably exciting finale that tops things off nicely.  The high-flying action is facilitated by Industrial Light & Magic who produce some commendable special and visual effects work.

The Rocketeer is something of a lost gem, a film that is incredibly entertaining with likeable characters, a good script and decent special effects.  It’s disappointing that the film’s lack of success (despite receiving favourable reviews) nixed the prospect of any sequels and sobering to think that Disney might have ever had a comic book flop on their hands, but this was some years before the corporation would acquire Marvel Studios and reap the benefits of the popular and lucrative Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Still, despite the further adventures of The Rocketeer appearing in comic book form and an animated series aimed at young viewers (for which Bill Campbell would reprise his role), it’s a shame that the property has not been revived for the big screen, something it is more than ripe for.

Geek fact!

Screenwriters Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo had another comic book property under their creative belts, the writing duo responsible for the development of the short-lived 1990 television series of DC’s The Flash, featuring future Henry Allen, John Wesley Shipp in the lead role of Barry Allen.

Image(s) used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).

TV Review: ‘The Falcon and The Winter Soldier’

Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan reprise their superhero roles for the latest Marvel/Disney+ series…

Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan return to the Marvel Cinematic Universe for Disney+ series ‘The Falcon and The Winter Soldier’ (image credit: Disney/Marvel Studios).

Warning! Contains SPOILERS

Starring:  Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Wyatt Russell, Daniel Bruhl, Emily VanCamp, Erin Kellyman, Adepero Oduye

Series created by:  Malcolm Spellman (based on the Marvel comics)

What’s it about?

As the U.S. government unveils a new Captain America, Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes unite to take on the threat of an emerging radical group…

In review

Following the conclusion of the first Marvel Cinematic Universe streaming series for the Disney+ platform – the excellent WandaVision – Marvel Studios’ six-episode superhero action drama The Falcon and The Winter Soldier has now also wrapped up and it’s another hit for entertainment goliaths Marvel and Disney.  The series sees lead stars Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan reprise their roles as Marvel heroes Sam Wilson/The Falcon and “Bucky” Barnes/The Winter Soldier, respectively (both last seen in 2019 blockbuster Avengers: Endgame), as they take on the threat of a revolutionary group calling themselves the ‘Flag Smashers’ whilst also facing their own personal post-Blip concerns and the rise of the U.S. government’s newly appointed Captain America, decorated Afghan War veteran John Walker (Wyatt Russell – son of Kurt Russell).

The Falcon and The Winter Soldier is an engrossing Tom Clancy-esque action-espionage thriller in the spirit of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War (the “flavour” further enriched by bringing back composer Henry Jackman to score the show).  Series creator Malcolm Spellman and his writing staff tap into present day concerns, commenting on themes such as racial prejudice and division, the political state and social unrest whilst mirroring the buddy-cop character dynamics of the Lethal Weapon films, making the pairing of Sam and Bucky even more enjoyable.  Blessed with a handsome budget, The Falcon and The Winter Soldier boasts top-notch action scenes – Sam’s aerial battle in episode one and a truck-top fight involving Sam, Bucky and Walker as they take on the Flag Smashers in episode two are early examples – but is not driven by them, taking the time to delve into its characters and plot more deeply than a two-hour film possibly can.  This obviously results in a slower and more measured pace than an MCU film which some viewers might struggle with, but a generally consistent rhythm is quickly established, injecting the action where it’s called for and not just for the gratuity of it.  The Falcon and The Winter Soldier is far more motivated by character drama and the rich, thought provoking thematic elements it presents and as a result, anyone expecting straightforward superhero entertainment may be disappointed.

The series’ premiere episode does a good job of reintroducing the lead characters and their status quo following their return from non-existence in the ‘Blip’ (as per the events of Endgame) as Sam and Bucky attempt to get a grip on their lives.  Doubtful about taking up the role bequeathed to him by Steve Rogers, Sam Wilson relinquishes Cap’s shield to the U.S. government, before finding out that his status as an Avenger won’t help him secure a bank loan to help his sister Sarah (played by Adepero Oduye) and save the Wilson family’s fishing business.  Things are no better for Bucky Barnes, now gifted a Presidential pardon for his previous actions as The Winter Soldier, he begrudgingly submits to therapy for post-traumatic stress and plagued by guilt befriends an elderly Japanese man (Ken Takemoto), whose son he had murdered during one of his past operations as a Hydra assassin.  It creates an interesting set-up for both characters giving both Mackie and Stan plenty of depth to explore and they have never been better in their roles as they are elevated above their place as supporting players in the MCU films.

With Sam and Bucky taking on government contracts to make ends meet and Bucky questioning Sam’s decision to give up Cap’s shield and all that comes with it, tensions rise as the two begin to clash with a headstrong and determined John Walker.  Discovering that the Flag Smashers have super soldier serum-induced abilities, matters are further complicated when Sam and Bucky decide to team up with Zemo (Daniel Bruhl), incarcerated at the end of Civil War.  Travelling to Madripoor (a location Wolverine fans will know, weaving an X-Men related element into the MCU) with Zemo, who we learn actually is a Baron, aligning the character more closely with his Marvel Comics counterpart (even donning the iconic purple mask at one point), allows the investigation of the Flag Smashers to progress as well as facilitating a reunion with exiled former S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp, also last seen in Civil War) who helps the mismatched trio search for the shadowy string-puller of events: the enigmatic Power Broker.  The dingy criminal underworld vibe and accompanying action is comfortable territory for John Wick screenwriter Derek Kolstad and he gleefully infuses those elements here into The Falcon and The Winter Soldier.

Daniel Bruhl is assuredly excellent, bringing a snarling arrogance and scheming duplicitousness to the wholly untrustworthy yet surprisingly helpful Zemo.  Releasing the Baron naturally has its consequences, drawing the attention of Wakanda (again, recalling the events of Civil War, where Zemo was responsible for the death of King T’Chaka) heating things up further as the eminent African nation dispatches it’s formidable royal guard, the Dora Milaje.  Lead by Ayo (Black Panther’s Florence Kasumba), there’s a gripping hotel room fight that’s a swift reminder of how down-right awesome and unstoppably efficient Wakanda’s warrior woman are.  Flashbacks to Bucky’s recovery in Wakanda burdens him with a sense of betrayal as the scenes demonstrate how Ayo helped to break his Hydra induced programming.  It’s another small but significant aspect that enriches Stan’s character whilst providing organic connectivity with the wider MCU.

Wyatt Russell as the new Captain America, John Walker in ‘The Falcon and The Winter Soldier’ (image credit: Disney/Marvel Studios),

As John Walker, Wyatt Russell is a great addition and enjoys a strong character arc, the new Captain America a harder-edged combatant who becomes more intense and increasingly frustrated at the perceived interference from Sam and Bucky, their methods seen as too tame in order to get results.  Walker is very much a man of action and prepared to do what is necessary so it’s fitting that angered by the slaying of his partner Lemur Hoskins – a.ka. Battlestar (Cle Bennett) -, the new-Cap gets himself serum-boosted.  Consequentially, no punches are pulled in the shocking scenes (in the closing moments of the aptly titled “The Whole World is Watching”) of an enraged John Walker, giving chase and bludgeoning a Flag Smasher with Captain America’s shield as crowds capture the brutal event on their smartphones.  It presents some unsettling and potent symbolism that once again presses upon the issues of today and makes the need for a more noble-spirited and just Captain America in the mould of Steve Rogers even more desperate.  Walker is not “bad” in simple black and white terms, but a product of a different time and forged by a different kind of conflict, this notwithstanding it remains a reminder of Captain America: The First Avenger in that it’s not just an enhancing super solider formula that makes a Captain America but that there also needs to be a good and balanced soul at the end of the needle.

What really works well with The Falcon and The Winter Soldier is that beyond its characters and action set pieces, it paints an interesting picture of the post-Blip world and how many who have returned after a five-year absence are displaced and that not everyone is fortunate to receive the help and understanding they need.  Whilst the Flag Smashers are labelled as terrorists and commit deplorable acts, the series provides its villains with believable motivation and even an angle of sympathy through the group’s leader, Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman) and the scripts bring some prescient arguments to the table.  This is exemplified in a philosophical exchange between Sam and Morgenthau as the heroic Flacon recognises her cause but questions the execution of her agenda.  It’s well-written and wonderfully performed by both Anthony Mackie and Erin Kellyman and makes for good drama.  There’s also an addition to Marvel mythology as Sam and Bucky’s initial investigations lead them to the doorstep of Isaiah Bradley (first introduced to the Marvel Comics universe in 2003’s Truth: Red, White and Black #1 and played here by the superb Carl Lumbly), an African America super soldier who fought in the Korean War and was subsequently imprisoned and experimented on.  This abuse makes a powerful and evocative statement that highlights important issues and does so in a thought-provoking manner.

Given John Walker’s turn, the penultimate episode opens with a necessary confrontation between the rogue Captain America and Sam and Bucky, before unexpectedly changing gear to a contemplative character-driven piece that’s actually a highlight of the series as Sam, through the counsel of Bucky, realises that he is the man for the job.  Whilst also introducing Veep’s Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Marvel Comics character Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine, it lays the groundwork for a pacey and poignant finale (“One World, One People” – another appropriately titled episode) in which Sam finally takes up the role of the true Captain America.  It’s a triumphant moment and the battle to stop the Flag Smashers once and for all allows the former Falcon to display all the daring-do and heroics incumbent of any Captain America.  It culminates in a potent and evocative media-facing speech from Sam Wilson that, although could be seen as a little too ‘on the nose’ is, once again, an address of important issues of race and equality.

Of course, it was never in doubt that we would see Sam Wilson’s inevitable transition from Falcon to Captain America and a natural and fitting evolution for the character as has been seen in the comics.  It’s similarly unsurprising that Sharon Carter is revealed as the Power Broker (speculation is already rife that she is actually a Skrull agent, given that the Secret Invasion series is nearing production…but who knows?) and likewise that John Walker would be redeemed, in a manner, as he assumes his new identity:  U.S.Agent (again, mirroring the Marvel comic books), ready to take on the under-the-radar assignments Captain America morally cannot and under the orders of the Contessa.

As we’ve seen with WandaVision and now The Falcon and The Winter Soldier, there is a lot of creative potential for the various other upcoming Disney+ Marvel series (Loki being the next to arrive this June) and provide fans with some substantial long-form storytelling and entertainment between the popcorn blockbuster offerings of the MCU films.

The bottom line:  The Falcon and The Winter Soldier presents viewers with a superior form of dramatic superhero entertainment that’s laced with prescient and thought-provoking themes.

All six episodes of The Falcon and The Winter Solider are now available to stream via Disney+.

Image(s) used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).

Film Review: ‘Doctor Strange’ (spoiler free)

Mighty Marvel casts its spell…

Starring:  Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Tilda Swinton, Mads Mikkelsen.

Directed by:  Scott Derrickson / Written by:  Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson & C. Robert Cargill / 115 minutes

What’s it about?

His hands mangled in a car crash, brilliant neurosurgeon Stephen Strange’s career is seemingly over.  Exhausting all surgical efforts to repair his injuries, Strange travels to a place called Kamar-Taj where an encounter with a mysterious figure sees him thrust into the world of the mystic arts…

In review

With the runaway successes of Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man, Marvel Studios have proved adept at bringing lesser and more obscure comic book properties to the big screen and in a manner that manages to please fans and regular audiences alike.  Doctor Strange would immediately seem a far trickier and more daring gamble than those previous hits but for the most part, Marvel Studios succeed once more.

Based on the Marvel comic books by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, the journey of neurosurgeon Doctor Stephen Strange from arrogance to fall from grace and eventual redemption may be a little clichéd but via the film’s exploration of magical abilities and mystic realms there lies another dimension to the storytelling that opens up the possibilities for future Marvel Studios productions.  It’s fair to say in that sense that this makes the “Sorcerer Supreme” an important character as the looming apex of Avengers: Infinity War approaches.

In the role of Stephen Strange, Benedict Cumberbatch makes for a strong lead and although for some it may take a little time to adjust to his American accent, the Sherlock and Star Trek Into Darkness star laps up the material handed to him in a performance that’s impassioned, witty and by the end of it all, noble.  Seemingly the requisite love interest, Rachel McAdams is somewhat underserved as Christine Palmer although she does share some vital scenes with Cumberbatch that helps the audience become more invested in the character and his arc throughout this origin story.

Tilda Swinton is wise and otherworldly as the enigmatic Ancient One and co-stars Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Wong fit nicely into the mix as fellow sorcerers Mordo and Wong respectively.  As the main antagonist, Mads Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius – a former pupil seeking to unlock the secrets of dark magic –  has some great moments, rising to the challenge of being pitted against the talents of Cumberbatch and Swinton but is ultimately less memorable than Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull (Captain America: The First Avenger) or James Spader’s Ultron (Avengers: Age of Ultron).

There’s a slight over reliance on humour at times, parts of it are welcome relief but some moments feel forced, included merely for the sake of it and arguably undermine several key scenes that would have benefitted from a more dramatic tone.  Where Doctor Strange really excels is via its jaw-dropping, kaleidoscopic visuals as director Scott Derrickson intertwines influences of Escher with the cinematic awe of Inception and the mesmerising psychedelia of 2001: A Space Odyssey that bring the trippy imaginings of Messrs. Lee and Ditko breathtakingly to life.  The extra expense of an IMAX 3D ticket is fully warranted for the fullest possible immersion in the mind-bending spectacle of folding cityscapes and unravelling astral planes.

Ultimately it’s the visual elements that gloss over the overall flaws in the tone and narrative of Doctor Strange but there’s no denying the charm of Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance and the potential of further adventures of Marvel’s Master of the Mystic Arts.

The bottom line:  Despite some formulaic elements and jarring moments of silliness, Doctor Strange is a reliably entertaining and visually stunning addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Doctor Strange is screening in UK cinemas now and opens in the US and worldwide from 4th November.

Benedict Cumberbatch confidently leads Marvel Studios' 'Doctor Strange'.

Benedict Cumberbatch confidently leads Marvel Studios’ ‘Doctor Strange’.

TV Review: Marvel’s ‘Agent Carter’ S2 EP1 “The Lady in the Lake” – SEASON PREMIERE

Starring:  Hayley Atwell, James D’Arcy, Enver Gjovak, Chad Michael Murray, Bridget Regan, Wynn Everett

Series created by:  Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely

Written by:  Brant Englestein / Episode directed by:  Lawrence Tilling / aired in the UK  : 28/01/2016

What’s this episode about?

SSR Agent Peggy Carter is transferred to Los Angeles where she’s reunited with old friends and faces a new mystery…

Episode review

With Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on its State-side mid-season break, Marvel’s second network television series returns to fill the gap.  Since Agent Peggy Carter’s introduction in Marvel Studios’ Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), actress Hayley Atwell has been able to forge a likeable and important screen presence with numerous subsequent appearances in episodes of Marvel’s first small screen spin-off, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (courtesy of flashback sequences) as well as big screen hits Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) and Ant-Man (2015) helping to develop connective strands woven through the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Given the overwhelmingly positive reception of the Agent Carter ‘Marvel One Shot’ short included in the Iron Man Three blu-ray release it was no surprise that Atwell would subsequently land her own series.  Over its eight episodes the first season of Marvel’s Agent Carter proved to be a successful mix that was thrilling, fun and funny.  The season 2 premiere (which aired together with episode 2 in the U.S.) sees Peggy transferred to the newly established L.A. division of the SSR by disgruntled Chief Jack Thompson (Murray), not wanting to be outshone by Carter whose struggles to prove her worth as a skilled and competent agent in a male dominated environment were explored last season.  The breaking point for Thompson comes when Carter aides in the capture and interrogation of Black Widow assassin Dottie Underwood (seemingly tying up lose threads from last season?  That may not be the case?).  These chain of events allow for an action packed opening and for Atwell to stretch her acting chops in some well-played scenes between Carter, Underwood (a returning Bridget Regan once again providing the right level of cool and unhinged femme fatale villainy) and Thompson.

Gladly, Carter arrives in L.A. to be reunited with Howard Stark’s faithful (albeit suffering) butler Edwin Jarvis, bringing back together the exceptional team of Hayley Atwell and James D’Arcy that was a one of season 1’s most successful elements.  D’Arcy is pitch perfect in the role of Jarvis and deftly infuses the character with doses of British stiff upper lip as he bemoans of the glitz and glam of the Hollywood lifestyle and the obsessions and demands of his master.  Dominic Cooper’s Howard Stark may himself be absent from this episode but his presence is certainly felt as Jarvis grapples with the latest addition to Stark’s menagerie…a pink flamingo that refuses to co-operate!

There’s some unease when Carter confronts her new chief, Daniel Sousa (Dollhouse’s Enver Gjovak) given hints of a blossoming romance at the end of last season but both soon re-establish their camaraderie as the SSR investigates the corpse of a mysterious women, frozen in a lake (during an L.A. heatwave no-less) and how it may tie to actress Whitney Frost (Wynn Everett), the LAPD and a radioactive isotope being manufactured by shady corporation Isodyne Energy.

The move to L.A. provides the series with a fresh start that’s welcoming to new viewers and once again the recreation of post-War 1940s is well-presented via costume and production design (aided by the peppering of some period stock footage).  Brant Englestein’s script serves well as a reintroduction to the main characters and a taster for this season’s storyline along with some neat twists (and a surprising connection to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) and the odd easter egg for die hard Marvel Comics fans.

The bottom line:  Peggy Carter is back in a fun and tantalising opening for Agent Carter’s second season.

Marvel’s Agent Carter airs in the UK Thursday evenings on Fox.  U.S. viewers can catch it on ABC.

What did you think of the ‘Agent Carter’ season premiere?  Share your thoughts below!

Hayley Atwell returns as Peggy Carter in Marvel's 'Agent Carter'.

Hayley Atwell returns as Peggy Carter in Marvel’s ‘Agent Carter’.

TV Review: ‘Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ S2 EP1 “Shadows” – SEASON PREMIERE

Enter S.H.I.E.L.D. 2.0…

Starring: Clark Gregg as Agent Phil Coulson, Ming Na-Wen as Melinda May, Brett Dalton as Grant Ward, Chloe Bennet as Skye, Iain De Caestecker as Leo Fitz, Elizabeth Henstridge as Jemma Simmons

Series created by: Joss Whedon, Jed Whedon & Maurissa Tancharoen

Episode directed by: Vincent Misiano / Written by: Jed Whedon & Maurissa Tancheroen / aired in the UK: 24/10/2014

What’s this episode about?

Coulson and his team must prevent a superhuman criminal from stealing a powerful artefact stolen from Hydra during World War II…

Episode review

Having endured mixed reactions from fans and critics for much of its first season, it was great to see Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. begin to find its creative footing as it moved from the format of an episodic family-friendly procedural to something edgier and more arc driven as Marvel’s fledgling show linked into the events of big screen hit Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

AoS makes a confident and sure return – kicking as much back-side as Ming Na-Wen – as “Shadows” picks up were season one left off, with ‘Director’ Coulson leading the remnants of S.H.I.E.L.D. in the fight against Hydra and other extraordinary threats to the general populace. As the episode title infers, Coulson and his team are now working from the shadows as they continue to thwart the plans of their enemies whilst evading capture by the U.S. Government.

Much as the show’s direction has undergone some change, so has Coulson and his team. Whilst Skye has become an adept and loyal agent, Ward must deal with the consequences of his betrayal (allowing some rather creepy Silence of the Lambs-esque moments between Ward and Skye) just as Fitz’s mental state is fast deteriorating – offering more depth and dramatic potential for actors Brett Dalton, Chloe Bennet and Ian DeCaestecker.

The team are also joined by some new faces including former Cylon and Warrior Princess Lucy Lawless as Isabelle ‘Izzy’ Hartley – a beer swilling tough cookie that could very nearly give Agent May a run for her money. Although Clark Gregg feels absent from much of the episode, his inclusion is no less significant and his narrative sparring with Adrian Pasdair’s General Talbot are amongst the episode’s many highlights.

The episode’s plot surrounding a stolen Hydra artefact is serviceable, yet intriguing, and offers links to the larger live action Marvel Universe as well as hints at this season’s story arcs. Despite a sizeable threat from superhuman heavy Carl Creel (aka the Marvel Comics villain ‘The Absorbing Man’), facilitating the episode’s requisite action, it’s arguably the show’s characters and their plight that are now in the driving seat.

The season premiere’s real treat though comes right in it’s opening scenes as we flashback to 1945 as Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter and the SSR (the proto-S.H.I.E.L.D. organisation established in Captain America: The First Avenger) lead the charge against Hydra as Nazi Germany faces defeat by the allies. More than just a spot of viewer-baiting it provides a welcome tease for the upcoming mid-season Agent Carter series.

All in all, AoS may have had an uneasy ride during its first season but is sure to deservedly find itself atop of the watch list of many a discerning comic book fan.

The bottom line: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is back with gusto and based on this season’s premiere, shows great potential for the show’s future.

Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. airs in the UK on Fridays at 8pm on Channel 4. US viewers can catch it Tuesday nights on ABC.

'Director' Coulson (Clark Gregg) leads the fight against Hydra from the shadows in the exciting season 2 premiere of Marvel's 'Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'

‘Director’ Coulson (Clark Gregg) leads the fight against Hydra from the shadows in the exciting season 2 premiere of Marvel’s ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’

What did you think of the season premiere of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. ? Share your thoughts below!

Film Review: ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ (spoiler-free)

Starring:  Chris Evans, Scarlett Johannson, Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Robert Redford and Samuel L. Jackson

Directed by:  Anthony and Joe Russo / Written by: Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely / 136 minutes

What’s it about?

Steve Rogers, aka Captain America, must go off-grid to thwart a deadly conspiracy at the heart of S.H.I.E.L.D. but must first come face to face with the mysterious assassin known as the Winter Soldier…

In review

Marvel Studios continues to deliver the post-Avengers goods as Captain America: The Winter Soldier proves to be another confident hit that stands on equal footing with their afore-mentioned 2012 cinematic juggernaut.

It works equally well as a sequel to Joe Johnston’s Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) and as a follow-up to Avengers Assemble and as with Iron Man Three and Thor: The Dark World (also forming part of ‘Phase Two’ of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe) more than capably stands on it’s on legs and assuredly so.  The Winter Soldier is more than just a standard superhero flick with some surprising depth in terms of character and story that meshes neatly with the anticipated (nay, expected) spectacle of a comic book action blockbuster.

The story itself (wisely drawing on the fan favourite comic book run by writer/artist team Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting) is enhanced by a strong script, delivering equal measures of action, excitement, drama and even the odd dash of wit that feels more humble than the at time near-slapstick tendencies of Iron Man and Thor.  As many reviewers have cited, TWS is both a political conspiracy/espionage thriller, with its numerous twists and turns, and rollercoaster blockbuster serving up a series of well-staged and often visceral adrenalin-fuelled action sequences from the opening assault on a hijacked freighter, increasing the stakes and intensity right through to an epic and visually stunning and searing showdown with the film’s main antagonist.

Chris Evans (not, not me unfortunately) once again provides another likeable and even relatable performance as Rogers/Cap, a man out of time who refuses to waver in his beliefs and convictions – he may be Captain America but, much like Superman, his moral values are universal.  Evans is capably matched by Johannson, delivering her best turn thus far as Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow who gets plenty of dramatic meat to chew on in between femme-fatale sassiness and a** kicker-y and Samuel L. Jackson makes a welcome return as S.H.I.E.L.D. Director, Nick Fury.  Joining the ‘team’ is Anthony Mackie as Cap’s new pal, Sam Wilson (aka Falcon) who shares good chemistry with his co-stars and adeptly handles both the action and drama (with some well integrated commentary on PTSD) and Marvel bag another impressive A-list veteran with Robert Redford as S.H.I.E.L.D. founder Alexander Pierce.

As to the Winter Soldier himself, he is a force to be reckoned with and a chilling opponent for our heroic Super Soldier…but I’ll leave that for you to discover for yourself!

Succeeding Joe Johnston are the Russo Brothers (Welcome to Collinwood) who prove the perfect choice for a film that brings Cap smack bang (literally, both with his fists and shield) into the present and keep the action tight, frantic and tense balancing the large scale pieces neatly against the slower-paced dramatic sections.  Even at over two hours it never feels like a drag, thanks to the intrigue and strong character focus.

Completing the package are the usual fan-pleasing easter eggs with surprise cameos and references to the wider Marvel Universe sprinkled throughout together with the traditional post-credits scenes providing tantalising hints of what’s to come as Marvel plough ahead towards next year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron.

The bottom line:  Marvel Studios keep hitting the mark and with Captain America: The Winter Soldier have confidently delivered their best film since Avengers Assemble.  It’s exciting, thrilling and fun without sacrificing character and story and will leave you hungry for more Marvel-ous entertainment!

Captain America: The Winter Solider is in cinemas across the UK now and is released in theatres in the U.S. on 4th April.

What did you think of Captain America: The Winter Soldier?  Share your spoiler-free thoughts below!

Marvel Studios hits the mark yet again with 'Captain America: The Winter Soldier'!

Marvel Studios hits the mark yet again with ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’!