Hey kids did you know Thor: Ragnarok was coming out in November? Well it is, and it got me reflecting on what a long way the Marvel Cinematic Universe has come. There have been 16 films spread across three phases so far. Although there were no shortage of comic book movies before 2008, the concept of a shared cinematic universe with eventual crossovers and larger continuing stories was at the time a risky gamble.
Due to the success of the MCU, countless others are trying to create their own shared universes, and many of them are failing miserably. Part of the issue is of course the fact that it helps to have an existing property you care about. With Marvel if you care about Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor you’re willing to take a chance on Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant Man films. There are too many shared cinematic universes that fail right out of the gate because either the films are terrible (Universal’s monster movies), or no one cares even about the basic story (Dark Tower). Arguably the only people who seem to be doing this right is again Disney with the never ending wave of Star Wars films they’re dumping on the public. Cinematic exhaustion can certainly set in and it can be a daunting task to invest so many hours of your life into some far reaching story that may or may not be worth it.
If you went to see Iron Man in 2008, then quickly went to check out The Incredible Hulk, you might be sitting pretty. However if you’ve glanced bits and pieces of select films from the past 9 years it may seem a bit daunting to get started on the whole MCU. Well I watched all of the first phase over the course of a week, and I’m going to break ‘em down for you here. So feel free to take a cursory glance, refresh your memory, and consult this page as you progress through the series.
Iron Man (2008)
Full disclosure, Iron Man has always been my favorite super hero. I started my comic collection with Iron Man and Captain America, and instantly became an Iron Man fanatic, and was pretty indifferent to Cap. As the first few super hero movies came out and took their clumsy awkward baby steps I kept up hope that one day my guy would get his shot. Many a nerdy hour was spent debating who would make the best Tony Stark, and when it was announced that Robert Downey Jr. we all collectively said “ah that makes sense”.
Watching the film for the first time was something of a dream come true, and until Thanos shows up to murder everyone with an Infinity Gauntlet, I will probably never be more excited for a super hero film to come out. So you can forgive some of my initial zeal for this movie in 2008. I have re-watched it twice since then and I’ll say it holds up fine on it’s own, but as often happens with these series we have come to expect more.
Now there’s no easy way to say this, but Tony Stark is a douche. Now I saw this right around the time I finished college, Obama was yet to be president, and I was in general a much dumber man. What was supposed to come off as suave or “playboy” makes Tony look like a tool. It is somewhat interesting to see just how much more politically correct we’ve become since then. The other flaw I would argue with the film is the somewhat lackluster “boss fight”. The Iron Man movies in general have done a poor job showcasing his best comic book villains, but after teasing with a potential bad guy we’re left with The Dude (Jeff Bridges) in a giant gray metal suit.
Now few things could have been as exciting as the end credit sequence here. Ever since I saw Masters of the Universe in the theater when I was 4, I’ve made it a point to sit through the credits. This annoys the holy hell out of everyone I ever go to the theater with, but I have to thank the good people at Marvel for finally rewarding my usually unnecessary dedication. I feel like the prospect of giant crossover films and expanded universes comes with a sigh and a bit of instant exhaustion, but in 2008 this was new, and it was awesome. The prospect of one day getting an Avengers movie was something to get excited about. More on that later though.
|Iron Man was walking away from explosions before it was cool|
As a first chapter it does a damn good job. It’s a safe gamble where we get invested in Iron Man, but admittedly this could have been it for the franchise, leaving The Incredible Hulk to be it’s own stand alone adventure. There is always going to be a slight amount of grumbling whenever you deviate from the source material, but I have to say in the context of this film it makes so much sense for Tony Stark to fess up to being Iron Man and ditch the planned cover of it being his bodyguard like in the comics. Some elements haven’t aged particularly well, but overall it got the ball rolling in great fashion.
The Incredible Hulk (2008)
Released just a couple months after Iron Man, the second Hulk film was also the second MCU chapter. There was definitely some trepidation with this film. Ang Lee’s much maligned Hulk was still fairly fresh in a lot of minds, and there was still the very real possibility that the CGI of 2008 wasn’t quite where it needed to be for a believable green monster. The marketing for this team was so worried, they even put the post-credit sequence with Tony Stark and General Ross, not just in the actual picture, but it suddenly became the focus of all the TV commercials.
After the crowd pleasing Iron Man, and the seemingly numerous warning signs going into this film it wasn’t hard to be apprehensive about this movie when it came out. For this reason a lot of people in 2008 either skipped The Incredible Hulk or walked out thinking “meh it was no Iron Man”. I think I had a similar reaction the first time I saw it, but considering I hadn’t watched a second of this film in 9 years, it was fairly fresh when I revisited it. 2017 me has to say this is one of the better Marvel movies. Tim Roth does an excellent job, as does William Hurt, and the collateral damage of Hulk and Abomination is a far more entertaining final fight, but hadn’t quite gotten over the top in a Man of Steel or Avengers sort of way.
|Can't stress how awesome Abomination is enough|
Now this has something to do with the fact that the Hulk movie happened just a few years before, but although this is not considered a sequel we’re spared another boring origin story. Origin stories can be fun when it’s a period film (ala Captain America), or when someone is learning new technology or building their powers (Iron Man). For the most part it’s just telling us a story we already know. How many times do we have to be reminded Spider Man was bit by a radioactive spider? Does anyone need to be reminded that Batman’s parents were killed and the killer never caught? In the opening credits we get a brief montage that successfully let’s us know science experiment = Hulk.
Whatever his difficulties with the higher ups at Marvel, Edward Norton is still a pretty good Banner. I feel like some of the Hulk scenes are a little ridiculous. Particularly when Betsy is trying to bond with him in the cave, wth? I also am not fond of the fact that Hulk never seems to be a different person than Banner. In the comics Hulk has his own thoughts, and most of them are about how much he hates Banner. Other than a few yells, Hulk doesn’t even get any lines. They could have done a better job “humanizing” him by letting Hulk have some sort of personality instead of the awkward rainy scenes with Liv Tyler.
Aside from the obvious highlights I might say my favorite moment came with Lou Ferrigno playing a security guard and getting a pizza from Banner. I still sometimes wish they’d let some roided out human play Hulk, but they mostly do the Godzilla 1998 trick and keep Hulk mostly in shadow. It looks light years better than Ang Lee’s version, but not quite as refined as the animation for Avengers, which made me question why not just get an actual person. It’s water under the bridge and now I couldn’t imagine going any other way.
|Cinematic gold right there|
Overall though I felt The Incredible Hulk might be the better of the first two films. I’d say neither one is perfect, but they got a lot of things right. Considering it’s been 9 years and no new solo Hulk films are on the horizon, it makes the Leader tease in this film a little more frustrating. Some research let me know the fate of The Leader in the comics. Basically he woke up, Black Widow found him and he got put in a test tube to be studied in some top secret SHIELD lab. Perhaps some day he’ll break out and be the awesome villain he was meant to be, a man can dream. If any Marvel films can be considered underrated it might be this one, so I wouldn’t hesitate to revisit it, it’s better than you remember.
Iron Man 2 (2010)
The third chapter in Phase 1 was also the first sequel. I first saw the film at a midnight screening and chugged a couple of tall boys of High Life in the parking lot. So basically I remember being slightly buzzed and also having to use the bathroom for the entirety of this film. Like many sequels this has the pre-requisite that it be bigger and louder than the original. It does however offer a chance to make Tony Stark a little more relatable.
Iron Man 2 is the film that really starts to line up pieces that will eventually be connected in The Avengers. SHIELD is a little more prominent in here, and we also get our first appearance of Natasha Romanov (Scarlet Johansson), or Natalie Rusman, or Black Widow. After a humorous tease in the first Iron Man, War Machine actually gets to do something here. Once again though we’re given the old switcheroo with Don Cheadle replacing Terrence Howard’s Jim Rhodes.
|Running out of funny captions|
The villains in Iron Man 2 are both excellent for very different reasons. Sam Rockwell is an obnoxious wiener, but he’s supposed to be. His Justin Hammer is so many steps behind Tony Stark that despite how irritating the character might be, it’s incredibly necessary. I particularly like the scenes of Hammer with Christine Everheart (Leslie Bibb), especially if you know her and Sam Rockwell are real life partners. Mickey Rourke acts his ass off as Whiplash/Ivan Vanko, turning a somewhat silly rogue from the comics into a formidable and compelling character. I could vote for Rourke as the best actor from any of these Marvel movies, it’s just a slight shame that none of Iron Man’s other major villains got this kind of treatment.
This film might be a damn fine sequel but it is not without it’s own flaws. It seems silly that after Black Widow hacks Vanko’s computer to free War Machine, she doesn’t bother shutting down all his drones. Seems like that would be just some more fast typing because hacking is SUPER easy in these movies. It plays into that movie trope that if you’re super smart at one thing you must be super smart at everything. If she had shut down all his drones though we wouldn’t get to see Iron Man and War Machine blow shit up. Although this film definitely ramps up the collateral damage it isn’t so over the top that it gets silly. I also thoroughly enjoyed the late Gary Shandling as Senator Stern.
I do feel like Iron Man 2 could have been a bit better. They touch on Tony’s growing alcoholism but other than a ridiculous party scene it doesn’t get particularly well addressed after that. I know they were trying to incorporate elements from Armor Wars and Demon in a Bottle storylines, but it just seems like it could have been better fleshed out. Perhaps the reason the Daredevil and Jessica Jones shows are so good is that the TV format allows for greater character development as opposed to big explosions and setting up the next film. Downey’s Stark is a little less of a douche-bro here than in the first film, and it seems any time he wants to be a big shot he’s getting checked ever so slightly.
|Avengers Assemble! or get coffee|
The question is how serious do you want your super hero movies, and how many bummer real life problems should they be dealing with? One of the reasons the MCU films have been so enjoyable is because they are largely escapist entertainment. DC decided to go all in on gritty and depressing, and no one likes any of those movies. The one time they tried to go escapist was the Green Lantern debacle, so I don’t want to complain that Iron Man 2 didn’t make Tony hit rock bottom with his drinking. The film is definitely worth seeing for Rourke, and arguably my favorite scene in any Marvel movie when Black Widow takes out all of Hammer Industries guards. Marvel’s first sequel still holds up quite well.
Kids always have favorite super heroes. When it came to Marvel, mine were Iron Man and Spider Man, my brother on the other hand was all about Captain America and Thor. Thor seemed like a very far fetched film to ever happen, considering Asgard would be pretty much 100% CGI. Thor also seemed like one of those characters that might not translate to film. Kenneth Branaugh might have seemed like an odd choice for director, but the man can coax some good performances out of his cast.
For straight comic fans Thor is entertaining, but I think that the film is geared more towards fans of Game of Thrones and Harry Pottter. It was hard not to think of white walkers when watching them fight frost giants, the actor who plays the Knight King (Richard Brake) in GoT actually appears in the second Thor movie, despite the resemblance here. The drama is definitely toned down here, and nothing seems too perilous. As for the first phase of movies, this might be the most fun of the films, and probably the most outright enjoyable until Guardians.
|Probably my favorite part of this film|
The cast is pretty good throughout, and Chris Hemsworth was an excellent choice for the god of thunder. Kat Dennings provides excellent comic relief without ever seeming to be annoying. Natalie Portman is serviceable but I feel like she often just smiles at Thor and that’s supposed to be chemistry just like in Attack of the Clones. I’d argue that The Lady Sif (Jaimie Alexander) and Warriors Three are my favorite part of the film. Anyone familiar with the characters from Walt Simonson’s run would be pleased with their depiction here. Tom Hiddleston was a perfect choice as Loki, almost too good, because he seems to be the villain in about half of Marvel’s movies since.
Like Incredible Hulk, I think Thor holds up a little better after a few years. Perhaps I was looking at these two films like chores and was pleasantly surprised to find they were in fact quite good. In hindsight it is fun to pick up some of the clues they drop throughout this first phase. Hawkeye makes his first appearance while about to snipe Thor. The scenes on Asgard might seem a little too Star Wars prequels in look, but the characters are infinitely more interesting. Branagh the director has plenty of experience dealing with ensemble casts and he gets the best out of nearly everyone here.
|Marvel is legally obligated to have their hero be shirtless at least once per movie|
There are ridiculous plot holes in nearly all of these films. For example the fact that Thor gets released from SHIELD custody because a scientist says he’s a doctor who’s got roid rage. No if you attack multiple government agents and break into a quarantined site, you will probably be sent to some secret prison for decades. I also feel like the film doesn’t have a very fleshed out conflict. Thor gets banished, get’s his power back then fights his brother.
As a character, Thor seems one of the few to get any sort of arc in these first films. Tony Stark decides to stop selling weapons, but he’s still sexist and probably more arrogant if anything. Captain America is more about his physical transformation, and Banner pretty much begins and ends the same. Not to say Thor isn’t still gung-ho for battle and every bit the hard living man child he was at the start but the character does develop some depth. He learns, he progresses, and it makes his transformation where he’s truly worthy of his power all the more satisfying.
Captain America - The First Avenger (2011)
I remember being very young, maybe first or second grade when my cousin showed me a Captain America movie. He warned it wasn’t too good, but we eagerly watched that boring abomination where Red Skull had plastic surgery because the movie didn’t have the budget for makeup. It was rough but in the early 90s we took whatever we could get regarding super hero movies. With that in the past, and arguably an even worse couple of Cap movies from earlier the bar was set so incredibly low.
|Good luck getting this image out of your mind|
If Marvel decided to make Captain America the first film in their cinematic universe quite a few of us older nerds would have been definitely apprehensive. There was also the debate as to whether or not he would retain his World War II origin story. Since this was the fifth film in the MCU, we had enough faith that things would be handled well. It also quickly became apparent that the origin story was essential to keep the same, so in many ways Captain America played it safer than any other entry in the series thus far.
So it can be somewhat tricky going into a movie where you essentially know all that’s going to happen and for that film to not be tiresomely predictable. Thankfully Joe Johnston does a great job in hitting all the key plot points but developing the characters enough so that we genuinely give a shit about what we’re watching. A lot of people were a little skeptical about Chris Evans after his very different turn in the Fantastic Four movies no one remembers. It seems hard six years later picturing anyone else in the role, and he did a damn fine job of erasing any early doubts.
Many of the early films are more about a quick origin and then CGI explosions. Now there is certainly a fair amount of the latter here, but enough time was taken with Steve Rogers the weakling to make us root for him. Hugo Weaving is quite excellent as Red Skull. As a change of pace we actually are introduced to him first this time around, which offers a pleasant contrast.
Now for the nitpicking which is necessary with nearly all of these films. I like Hayley Atwell as Agent Carter in this film, but the scene where she randomly shoots at Cap’s brand new untested shield is one of the stupidest things I’ve ever seen in a movie. This mind bogglingly idiotic moment was actually included in the trailer and should have probably resulted in Carter being given a court-martial, and probably a dishonorable discharge for shooting at the prize jewel of the super soldier project. I’ve also been racking my brain trying to figure out how damn old Howard Stark is. First time watching this I got a kick out of seeing Iron Man’s father appear as part of the secret weapon division and I feel like him inventing his shield was a cool way to tie it all in. Doing some math, it seems like he had Tony when he was in his forties or even fifties and didn’t look too much older in that Stark expo footage in Iron Man 2 which takes place thirty years later. Small gripe that I shouldn’t lose anymore sleep over but still it does stretch the timeline quite a bit.
I should also point out that I am VERY over the whole sepia filter for period pictures. When the Coen brothers made O Brother Where Art Thou in 2000 it seemed like a novel concept. Spielberg did his own gritty de-saturated palate thing for Saving Private Ryan, but at some point from then to now every film decided no film set in the past could be filmed with a normal color palate. I suppose studios think people are far too stupid to comprehend that primary colors existed in the world before every movie was made in color. This is a minor complaint but if you’re listening just stop it in the future, the past was in color just like today even if photography would have you believe otherwise.
|Seriously would it kill you to have a primary color?|
Most of the period details are quite well handled here as well, and I’m a particular fan of the war bonds montage. I also appreciated the random appearance of Marjorie Tyrell (Natalie Dormer) in her scene making out with Cap. A lot of the training footage is great as well, and the transformation sequence was done quite well including the ensuing chase with the Hydra agent. Most of all I probably appreciated Rogers awkwardness around Carter, which made the ending all the better. The essence of Captain America is that he does the right thing and is still an awkward nerd when all is said and done.
|Seriously so awesome|
Overall though Captain America does everything it’s supposed to. Now the post-credit sequence which was a subtle work of art in the first couple of films here simply turns into a trailer for the Avengers movie. Separate nit-picking, I got to give Steve Rogers credit for remembering the details of a random Brooklyn Dodgers game that he went to. These are mostly minor grievances, but there is so much to like about the film, so let’s end this on a positive note. Red Skull looks awesome, and is awesome. He’s evil and easily the best villain to yet appear in a Marvel film, sorry Loki.
The Avengers (2012)
Here we finally arrive at the film we waited four years or a lifetime for depending on how you want to look at it. I did discuss this film when it originally came out for those who care to scour the archives, but revisiting it again gave me a fresh perspective, especially in light of it’s sequel and several other entries in the MCU. So with that “holy shit it’s an Avengers movie” hype past we can discuss this somewhat honestly.
So certain films that come pre-packaged with extraordinary hype have an uphill battle when they’re released. Sometimes they deliver (ala The Dark Knight) but often they stumble under the extraordinary weight of their lofty expectations. I left the theater after seeing The Avengers thinking it was a decent enough film but dropped the ball in a few key spots. I should also point out that I am very much a Joss Whedon fan and that only added to my initial pre-judgement of “This will be the greatest thing ever.” Which perhaps wasn’t fair to the film to give it a fair go without my own projections coloring my opinion of things.
Let’s get into the good first before I ruin the movie for people who still enjoy it. Mark Ruffalo had an uphill battle stepping in as film’s third Bruce Banner. We did already have to get used to the Jim Rhodes/War Machine switch between the first two Iron Man films, but as any fan of Genesis or Van Halen will tell you, third time is rarely the charm. He does a good job, and the scenes with Hulk are among the best in the film, too bad we’ll probably never see him in a solo Hulk film. His “puny God” scene with Loki is arguably the best moment in any Marvel film and I must have watched a gif of that 1000 times. A close second is his fast punch of Thor.
|Yeah that's the stuff|
I also shouldn’t have to disclaim spoilers after five years, but the end credit sequence with Thanos was pretty much the greatest thing ever, and five years later I’m still being teased on the eventual Infinity War film. There is also something to be said about the whole seeing the gang all together. A hell of a lot of set up went in to this pay off, and I still get a slight chill seeing all of the Avengers fighting random alien robots that may or may not be Kree or Skrulls. I have mixed feelings about Loki in this film. Tom Hiddleston is great again, and he makes an excellent antagonist but after Thor I felt they could have gone for a new villain.
So before I start hating I want to say that the film itself is good, it’s not great, but the following few paragraphs might make it seem like I hated it which is untrue. For starters every character with the possible exception of Hulk and Black Widow are awful in this film. Everyone whines and bickers for the entire film and it actually starts to ruin the good will we had from these characters in their own solo film.
Considering Hawkeye was played by an Academy Award nominated actor, it seems like his character is completely wasted here. Say what you will about Hawkeye in the comics but Joss Whedon seems to have no idea what to do with him. After one scene of him being all emo, Loki uses some Jedi mind trick and he is a bad guy until suddenly he isn’t. Jeremy Renner and his character deserved better especially considering he had the least amount of screen time in the previous films.
There’s also that scene early on where Thor, Iron Man, and Captain America all meet and we’re supposed to buy that all three are equally powerful. With all due respect to Cap, he would have been massacred if they all weren’t pulling their punches (or hammers). Tony Stark is great as a cocky super smart super hero but here he just comes across as some annoying frat bro whose hell bent on proving he’s smarter and better than everyone. The last thing I’ll say about the characters is since when can Bruce Banner Hulk out at will and suddenly knows whose on his side?
DC seemed hellbent and determined to double down on destroying major metropolitan areas, but until Avengers Marvel largely avoided it. This film has them doing 500 9/11’s damage to such an absurd point that it’s hard to take it seriously very quickly. The final battle in many super hero films seems like a pointless foregone conclusion, and here we’re fighting random aliens that are nearly impossible to care about. I also had a problem with the whole blow up the mothership and then that’ll stop everyone else, seems a cop out.
There are a few other nitpicking things about the film, particularly how the hell they let Thor leave with Loki, or rather how the hell Thor even gets out of Asgard after the end of his own movie. The Agents of Shield show quickly showed that death is meaningless in the MCU, which retroactively nullifies Agent Coulson’s (Clark Gregg) death. This would be a further problem in future Marvel movies, but no matter how likable the character might have been he needed to be Joss Whedoned.
The fact that this movie made all the money also forever opened the doors to endless producers trying to create their own cinematic universes. I’ve discussed earlier how ill advised some of these are, but if you’re looking for where it all came from point the finger here. If I were grading these films nearly all of them would fall into the range of B- to A-. All are good, above average but the films are largely play it safe popcorn entertainment. If you’re expecting an outright masterpiece we might have to keep waiting, but there are certainly worse ways to waste your time.