It’s been almost a decade since 2008’s Iron Man planted the seeds of the Marvel Cinematic Universe by inviting Tony Stark to be a part of the ‘Avengers Initiative’, in the first of their now iconic post-credits scenes. And now we’re here, sixteen films, multiple TV and Netflix shows, and countless billions of dollars later, it’s safe to say that Marvel’s gamble worked out for them. Superhero movies are in, in a way they haven’t been before, and Marvel’s output of blockbusters are responsible before that.
That’s not to say it’s always been smooth sailing. While all of the films have seen a great deal of success, there have been ups and down relative to that, and a fair few things have, in retrospect, revealed themselves to be incredible missteps. When was the last time anyone talked to you about 2008’s The Incredible Hulk, for instance, or Iron Man 2? There’s been some teething pains, and some awkward moments, but it seems Marvel has a coherent direction to go in now, and they’ve been plenty more consistent of late. With Avengers: Infinity War slowly approaching on the horizon, and with the looming (and very real) possibility that whatever comes afterwards could look very different, now seems an opportune time to evaluate where we’ve been, and where we’re going.
Phase One was shaky. That’s pretty much the only way to describe it, in retrospect. Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America were held together mostly by the strength of brilliant casting. Robert Downey Jr’s snarkiness and quick wit doesn’t hide the dated and shaky politics of the Armored Avenger’s first time on the big screen (though, to its credit, it wasn’t afraid to have a stance on arms dealing). Iron Man 2 was similarly flimsy; who honestly expected us to believe that Mickey Rourke was a scientist?
2011’s Thor was much the same way. It had its fun moments, but it was very self-serious without really earning it, and it wasted the aesthetic and dramatic potential of Thor’s homeworld by spending most of the film on Earth. Perhaps the greatest film from those formative years was Captain America: The First Avenger, which wasn’t an especially high bar. Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull was perhaps the first interesting villain that wasn’t Loki, and remains one of the only ones (at least he looks cool). The different setting was also a nice break, and who doesn’t love Chris Evans? Pro tip: if you don’t love Chris Evans, you’re lying to yourself. But this film also suffers from mostly being an advert for Avengers Assemble, which is fine in the grand scheme of things because Avengers Assemble was the first truly brilliant MCU movie.
Bolstered by Joss Whedon’s brilliant way with dialogue, and his unmatched ability to make sense of so large an ensemble cast, Avengers Assemble was exactly the kind of fun romp a summer blockbuster should be. Every character left that movie more defined than they had been previously, and it made excellent use of all the threads that were building throughout the previous movies. Extra points also go to making a perfect use of Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, who has since been a beloved staple of the franchise. It’s just fun. That’s all I ever wanted out of these films, and that was finally delivered here, complete with Samuel L Jackson in the most ‘Samuel L Jackson’ role there has ever been. That’s not to mention the first mentions of Thanos and the Infinity Stones, which would come to define many of the forthcoming films.
With introductions out of the way, and a main cast who where now starting to feel like fully realized characters, Phase Two of Marvel’s sprawling content plan got a little more intimate with our established heroes, and a little more adventurous with its new ones. While it’s still a bumpy road, it was definitely a step in the right direction; Iron Man 3 suffers from an exceptionally weak plot and a final scene that only exists to sell plenty of toys, but it wins bonus points for forcing some humility onto Marvel’s snarkiest jerk. Thor: The Dark World was perhaps one of the most ill-received films, but it’s not without its charm: plenty of Loki, more of a chance for Chris Hemsworth’s great comedic chops to be shown off, and some truly stunning otherworldly visuals. Ant-Man was also really good fun, but there’s not much more to say about it.
There were two obvious standouts of this stint of films, however. One of which was Captain America: The Winter Soldier, still one of the studio’s most brilliant accomplishments. I wasn’t kidding when I said these films got more personal with their heroes. Steve Rogers is forced to face a past he can’t return to, as well as a future he can’t contend with, while his best friend has been brainwashed into killing him. It plays out like some of the most brilliant political thrillers, and includes some of the grittiest combat there’s ever been in a superhero movie. It also introduces Anthony Mackie as the Falcon, one of the greatest side characters the franchise has to offer (that’s right, some of the superheroes are side characters now. The future is wild!).
The other great film of Phase Two was Guardians of the Galaxy, and this is where things get very interesting. Because Guardians was different. These films had been fun in the past, occasionally even funny, but that was the central thrust of this film. Our first embrace of the Marvel Cosmic was led by Chris Pratt (of Parks and Recreation fame), and it was stupendously funny. Even the style of humour is different here; rather than Avengers’ witty banter of a bunch of wiseguys trying to outdo one another, the humour in Guardians comes straight out of the characters and the situations. It lent the movie something that felt real, and it didn’t stop at the great jokes; the opening scene of this movie is one of the most emotional in all of the MCU’s lengthy history. It’s a trend that continued into Guardians Vol. 2: more so than any other property under this colossal umbrella, the characters in these films feel real, and you connect with them on a level you can’t connect with a God of Thunder or a snarky billionaire with a flying suit of armor. You feel Drax’s heartache for his family. You feel Rocket and Gamora’s loneliness. And oh boy, do you feel every bit of Quill’s rage when he finds out what Ego did to his mother in the sequel. The first movie introduced me to characters I could really get on board with, and then volume two took me on such a profound, intense emotional journey with them that it’s hard, nay impossible for me to rank it as anything less than my favourite Marvel Movie to date.
I’ve focused on Guardians of the Galaxy here because it seems to have set a standard that a lot of Phase Three has followed so far. The first of the planned trilogy of Star Lord sagas was an unexpected smash hit, and it seems to have provided a formula for subsequent movies to follow on from. It was a smart move, that frankly I’m grateful for: the cumbersome Avengers: Age of Ultron was at its best in those small, character-based and humorous moments, and it (like much of Phase One and Two) largely took itself a little too seriously. Guardians was the first movie to provide a real alternative to that; it let itself be silly, while still rooting itself in serious (and very well done) character and world building. After the solid but a little underwhelming Captain America: Civil War got all of that out of its system, it seems that alternative has been the way forward for Marvel of late. Smart movies with well defined characters, with enough self-respect to have time and effort put into them, and enough self-awareness and comfort to be able to crack a good joke. They’ve also let themselves get weird, as emphasized by the aforementioned Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (the antagonist of which was a giant, living planet) and Doctor Strange, as well as the recent colorful excuse to let Jeff Goldblum do whatever he wants on screen for twenty minutes in Thor: Ragnarok. Marvel has a great grasp on the smaller scale as well; Spider-Man: Homecoming was an exceptionally fun film, and for most of its running time, it’s mostly just a film about a high schooler who happens to also be a superhero. Each of these types of movies works so well now because, as I keep saying, we care about the characters now. Even the new ones that keep cropping up seem somehow so much better defined than they would have been back when the MCU was a grumpy toddler who draws frowny faces on all of its toys.
Suffice to say, we’ve come a long way in nine years. There’s exciting stuff on the horizon: Black Panther is looking fantastic, and if the leaked Comic-Con trailer for Avengers: Infinity War is anything to go by, we’re in for a crazy ride. What happens after that is anyone’s guess, but it seems to me like Marvel have really figured out what they’re doing, and I’m all for following whatever rainbow bridge or interdimensional portal they take us too from here.