The Avengers Initiative Progress Report – Reviewing the Marvel Studios One-Shots So Far

In just over 2 weeks, Marvel Studios will release its 10th feature film in the Avengers film franchise – James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy. With that in mind, over the next few weeks I’m going to be taking a look at the Marvel Cinematic Universe – the One-Shots, TV series, and the films themselves – and breaking down what’s worked and what hasn’t.

Back when Captain America 2 came out, I ranked each of the films by which was my favorite (and after Guardians comes out in 2 weeks, I’ll readdress and update that list). Today, I wanted to start off this series with a look at something that has been very hit-and-miss so far: The Marvel Studios One-Shots.

For those unfamiliar, the One-Shots are short films that started appearing on the Marvel blu-ray releases as far back as Thor. They usually feature a side character from one of the films, and offer some sort of fun little story. Or at least, that’s usually the intention.

Spoilers after the jump.

The Consultant (Thor Blu-Ray)

At a diner somewhere, likely in / near New Mexico, S.H.I.E.L.D. Agents Phil Coulson and Jasper Sitwell sit down to discuss the Blonsky problem – namely that the World Security Council (those shadowy guys from Avengers and Winter Soldier) will only approve the Avengers Initiative if Emil Blonsky – the Abomination (from Incredible Hulk) – is on the team. Since that is a terrible idea, Coulson sabotages the idea by recruiting Tony Stark (serving as a consultant for Fury post-Iron Man 2) make the request from General Ross – thus explaining what the hell he was doing at the end of Hulk telling Ross they were “putting a team together.”

This is a fun little short, but in hindsight this was a strange one to start off the One-Shot line. For one thing, it exists entirely to explain away a continuity error – namely that Stark’s appearance at the end of Hulk seems to go against the upcoming Avengers line-up. For someone like me, a short film like this is important, since it helps explain away an issue that only bothers someone like me – but this movie doesn’t have a lot of rewatch value outside of that.

Thus, starting off the One-Shot series with this film seemed to suggest that these shorts would serve to fill in the gaps / resolve awkward plot holes (especially in the wake of the continuity-muddling Iron Man 2).  But by and large, that’s not how these movies ended up going…

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To Thor’s Hammer (Captain America: The First Avenger Blu-Ray)

S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Phil Coulson is on his way to New Mexico, to investigate that hammer, when he stops for gas and to buy some donuts for the road – and happens to witness an armed robbery. He apparently surrenders, only to single-handedly disarm both robbers, and then casually pay for his donuts.

This is an especially odd film to follow-up The Consultant, but in a way it makes sense, since it establishes very quickly that not all of these films are going to be plot-heavy, continuity-conscious “missing pieces.” Sometimes it’s just a fun story. In this case, this short is very good at helping to develop Coulson as someone who can be badass when the need arises, and makes the audience like him all that much more – which is especially important for a re-watch going into The Avengers.

It can also be interpreted as a part of Clark Gregg’s screen-test for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. in a way, since we’re getting to see Coulson in the field in more mundane settings – and seeing if he can be fun on his own. However, these two shorts (The Consultant and A Funny Thing) are both VERY brief, and so they’re really just here to serve as light stories, which are mostly inconsequential in the long run.

Item 47 (The Avengers Blu-Ray)

It’s Bonnie and Clyde with space weapons. In the aftermath of the Battle of New York at the end of Avengers, two twenty-somethings have found an alien gun and figured out how to make it work, and are robbing banks across the country – until Agent Jasper Sitwell is sent to bring them in. After a brief, action-packed scuffle, he arrests them both, but ends up recruiting them as Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

If A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Thor’s Hammer is Coulson’s audition for a solo series, then this film is the proof of concept for the idea that would eventually become Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. I’m not sure if the original idea was for these two characters to become main cast members or not, but the idea is certainly there – the latest Marvel movie has left some sort of fallout directly in the path of ordinary people, and it’s up to the men and women of the Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement and Logistics Division to save the day. It’s certainly not hard to draw a straight line from this short to the series, which came out almost exactly a year later.

Unfortunately, the issue with this short is the same as with that series, at least when it premiered (more on that next week) – but in this short, we don’t really have much investment in these characters. We’d seen Jasper Sitwell a few times, but there was nothing that made us root for him. We are introduced to the criminals, Bennie and Claire, and they’re likable enough, but not especially interesting as far as characters go. And, at the end of the day, it just doesn’t grab the audience on the same level as it could – it just seems like a filler story… and of course, it is.

Agent Carter (Iron Man 3 Blu-Ray)

In the aftermath of Captain America: The First Avenger, Agent Peggy Carter is still working for the Strategic Scientific Reserve in the code-breaking department – but it’s a man’s world, and she’s not getting the chances she deserves to go out on missions. That is, until one night when she intercepts a call for a mission, and tackles it solo.

This video is very well done. Unlike any of the other shorts before it, the film took its time to establish the character, and form a connection with her. We’re involved in her struggles at the beginning of the film, working for her misogynistic boss (played wonderfully by Bradley Whitford), and so once the action begins, we as an audience are incredibly engaged. It’s also worth noting that Haylee Atwell is terrific as always, and it’s incredibly gratifying to see her in the thick of it, with no reinforcements (male or otherwise) or back-up – and none is needed.

This video was out for maybe 24 hours before the internet picked up on this as another television proof-of-concept – and that’s exactly what it was. I can’t say for sure that Marvel knew they were hoping to do a TV show, but they definitely wanted to have a conversation about continuing this character. Haylee Atwell is terrific as Agent Carter, but unlike most of the Avengers, Captain America loses his entire supporting cast at the end of his first film, as he outlives most of them. What’s to be done with those marvelous actors? (Pun intended.)

Despite the reception of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (again, more on that next week), ABC and Marvel still considered that show to be successful, and you barely need a Twitter or Tumblr account to see how much of an appetite the fans have for a strong female protagonist in a Marvel project. Marvel was able to use the One-Shot format to test the waters, and were greeted by an overwhelming surge of support for more.

All Hail The King (Thor: The Dark World Blu-Ray)

Spoilers for Iron Man 3

In the third act of Iron Man 3, Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin character is revealed to be just that – a character. He is a construct of the true villain (Aldrich Killian), meant to deflect attention from his own nefarious ends. The man we know as the Mandarin is a washed-up London actor named Trevor Slattery.

In this One-Shot, Trevor is in prison, enjoying his fame and infamy. He is being interviewed by a documentary filmmaker, who is just trying to get to the root of who Trevor Slattery is, and how much he actually knows about the Mandarin and the Ten Rings… which, to Slattery’s surprise, is an actual terrorist organization – and they’re very pissed off that Slattery impersonated the very real legacy of their leader… the filmmaker is revealed to be a member of the Ten Rings, and he abducts Slattery so he can stand justice before the real Mandarin. (Slattery continues to be oblivious, because of course he is.)

When Marvel announced that Ben Kingsley would actually be appearing in a Marvel One-Shot, the rumor spread fast that it might indeed serve to retcon the identity of the Mandarin. While the Mandarin from the comics is COMPLETELY unadaptable to film (yeah, I said it), he still has fans who begrudged his portrayal in the film. With this One Shot, Marvel got to have its cake and eat it too – they are not tarnishing the character of the Mandarin, only his name in the public eye – the character is still out there, and he’s just as real and dangerous as the fans might imagine.

This short is a nice combination of the traits of a film like The Consultant (retconning a story beat from the films) with the A-list acting chops of a short like Agent Carter. The result is that we just get to see another 14 minutes of Ben Kingsley’s bumbling Trevor Slattery – and, in all honesty, that’s what makes this film a true joy. The reveal at the end, the sinister shadow of the Mandarin, all of that is interesting – but we’re watching because Trevor Slattery is an IDIOT, and sometimes it’s fun just to watch a moron who is entirely out of his depth.

The question, of course, is where does this leave the character? Not Slattery – that dude is SUPER dead by now. But the question is, where does this leave the Real Mandarin? He is probably not going to appear in Iron Man 4, since they’ve already done their version of the Mandarin, and it doesn’t make sense to retread that ground – besides, there’s no guarantee at this point that Downey Jr. will even come back for an Iron Man 4, no nobody’s really talking about that film yet.

However, as I will discuss more next week, there are five more television series coming to Marvel, and the Mandarin might be set to appear in any one of them – particularly Iron Fist.

Despite my extensive comics knowledge, I don’t actually know much about the character of Iron Fist (other than that he got his powers by killing a dragon with his bare hands and punching it in the heart – and when you get right down to it, what else do you need to know?), but I’m sure he has plenty of villains that Marvel is ready to use for the television show. That said, the Real Mandarin might be ideally placed to tie into that series, if they chose to go in that direction. He could also be used to set up the character of Shang-Chi, another martial arts-themed Marvel hero, if Marvel wants to use him in the future. Shang-Chi is literally the son of Fu Manchu in the comics, but if Marvel didn’t want to go that way (for obvious reasons), the Mandarin could be neatly inserted into that role.

And what about Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.? As noted above, we’ll be talking more about that show and its future next week, but if they’re looking for another Big Bad for Season 2, the Mandarin might be just the guy. It’s more likely they’ll want the arc of the show to tie into Avengers: Age of Ultron, the same way they did with Winter Soldier, but that may not be the case – it’s hard to deny that Winter Soldier had a LOT to do with the future of S.H.I.E.L.D., in a way that Age of Ultron might not in the same way. Again, there’s a lot they can do with the Mandarin if he does not appear on TV next year – because according to the One Shot, he’s still out there…

What’s Next?

There is no One Shot on the upcoming Winter Soldier blu-ray, so we likely won’t see another until the Guardians of the Galaxy blu-ray comes out (probably early 2015, if not Christmas 2014). Most of the One-Shots have been approximately one film removed from the blu-ray they appear on – a Thor tie-in on the Captain America blu-ray, an Iron Man 3 tie-in on the Thor: The Dark World blu-ray, etc. – so would the next one-shot tie into The Dark World, or Winter Soldier? If either one?

Given that they’ve had success with Agent Carter, they might want to try a similar direction with Emily VanCamp’s character from Winter Soldier, but would that be redundant? Especially since, in the comics, she’s Agent Carter’s niece? They haven’t committed to that connection yet, but that might be just the thing to incorporate into a One-Shot…

What about Thor: The Dark World? That giant ice-monster summoned at the end of the film is still presumably running around London (I kind of figured the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. tie-in episode might have been about that), so maybe somebody is going to try tackling that story? I actually think that’s unlikely, for the same reason I think a Guardians of the Galaxy tie-in One-Shot is unlikely – budget.

So far, the One-Shots have all been fairly small-scale productions – the visual effects have been very limited. That means we can probably give up on seeing a Rocket Raccoon One-Shot, much as it mains me to say it.

The One-Shots also, generally, seem to go backwards rather than forwards – that is to say, they address established characters rather than setting up new franchises. We aren’t going to get an Ant-Man or Dr. Strange One-Shot before their films come out, since that doesn’t do them any good. Furthermore, the tie-in episodes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. have removed some of the necessity of the One-Shots – if Marvel wants to do a one-off story with Sif from Thor, they can drop her onto the show for a quick adventure.

So what will we get next? More tales of the Warriors Three from Asgard? A look at what happened to Tim Blake Nelson’s character from The Incredible Hulk? A flashback to Sam Wilson’s past, before he met Cap in Winter Soldier? A solo Black Widow adventure?

Or maybe – just maybe – we could just get a fun adventure starring Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner. I would LOVE to see what that guy has been up to.

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