Marvel Cinematic Universe, Movies, Stories

Marvel Cinematic Universe: Phase One

When Avengers: Infinity War is released in theaters next month, it will be the 19th installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), and, somehow, the movies just seem to keep getting better. This is quite an impressive thing for such a massive franchise, which involves so many different directors, writers, actors, genres, and themes. The fact that all of these movies can work so well on their own while also forming a coherent whole is an unprecedented feat, in my own personal opinion. 

It wasn’t until the first Avengers movie was released in theaters in 2012 that I jumped on the Marvel bandwagon. Up to that point, my only real interest/knowledge of the superhero genre was the various incarnations of Batman (Michael Keaton will always be my Batman), and the old animated TV series of the X-Men and Spider-Man. At that point, I may have seen the first Iron Man and Captain America, but that was it. The only reason that I actually went to see the first Avengers movie is because it was written and directed by Joss Whedon, and to this day I’m still a huge fan of his shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly/Serenity.

After the Avengers, though, there was no going back for me.

The MCU is really the only major franchise that I am dedicated to, which I guess says a lot considering that EVERYTHING seems to be a franchise these days. I’m pretty indifferent to Star Wars these days, the DC Universe has no interest for me at all, I’ve never managed to get into Harry Potter, and I don’t even really pay attention to know what else is out there right now. But I never miss a new Marvel movie, and I own every single one of them on DVD or Blu Ray.

The best explanation that I can come up with for my love of the Marvel movies is that 1) each movie is excellent in its own right and 2) the internal consistency and continuity across all of the movies is extremely satisfying to my soul.

In preparation for Avengers: Infinity War, I’ve been re-watching all the other movies. I try to watch them all in chronological order, and will note that the only tweak I recommend is that I always start with Captain America: the First Avenger. Technically, it was released just prior to the Avengers and after the first two Iron Man movies, The Incredible Hulk, and Thor. However, within the MCU, Captain America takes place before the events of any of the other movies and helps to set the stage for everything. So, if you are going to marathon, I strongly recommend starting with Captain America and then watching everything else in release order.

Here are some of my thoughts on the first six installments of the MCU.

Captain America: the First Avenger

I am a sucker for a period setting, and the WWII era is especially fascinating to me. I think that the backdrop of Steve Rogers in WWII is important for Steve’s perspective in the rest of the movies; his attitude towards war, the greater good, etc. is pretty vital to his character and especially his conflict with other characters like Tony. It’s not just that Steve and Tony have different personalities and styles, it’s that they are coming from completely different generations and perspectives.

I love starting with this one, not necessarily because I think it is one of the better movies in the series, but because I love seeing this period of history, it has some of the most amazing actors (Stanley Tucci, Hugo Weaving, Tommy Lee Jones), and I also just REALLY FREAKING LOVE PEGGY CARTER. I’m not going to lie, when I turned 30, I had a Hero-themed birthday party purely so that I could dress up as Peggy Carter. She is one of the most dynamic characters in the entire MCU, and it kills me that so much of her story is still untold (though maddeningly hinted at). Her short-lived TV series was also incredible, and I wish it was more accessible for people to watch.

Iron Man

Starting everything off with Steve Rogers and then Tony Stark is really important for setting the tone for all of the other movies. Technically, Steve Rogers as Captain America is the first “superhero”, but Tony is the one who really sets things off in the modern era. And especially as more heroes start popping up, it’s important to remember how much Tony was really on his own in the beginning. He was lonely and isolated, and it’s no wonder having the Avengers comes to mean so much to him. The background presence of Howard Stark, Tony’s father, in the Iron Man movies is also so much more impactful when you start with Captain America and have had a chance to see Howard as a character in his own right.

It’s important to remember Tony’s beginnings in order to place into context his later actions, such as the Sokovia Accords, and the guilt that he still feels about his past as a weapons dealer. His brush with death is also important to understanding his character, and the idea that he shouldn’t even be alive unless it’s for a purpose. It really helps to highlight what is really driving Tony in all of the future movies, and especially when you get to Spider-Man and his mentorship of Peter Parker.

The Incredible Hulk 

I think this movie is oft forgotten when people think of the MCU, and that is understandable with the different casting of Edward Norton vs. Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner. And I understand why they didn’t bring in Edward Norton for the Avengers, because it is hard to imagine him taking a background roll in an ensemble cast. But I still love Norton’s Banner (as I love Norton in most things), and feel that this installment is seriously undervalued. The relationship between Bruce and Betty is something that I seriously regret them not addressing in other movies, as it’s pretty significant to Bruce’s character (we’ll get to my feelings about his relationship with Black Widow later). Betty Ross, like Jane Foster, is another very dynamic female character who is practically wasted by being relegated to just a love-interest. At least Peggy Carter gets acknowledgment and praise from characters across the series, and recognition for her accomplishments that have nothing to do with her relationship with Steve Rogers.

Probably the most interesting aspect as concerns the series as a whole is General Ross’s character. Apparently William Hurt based his portrayal of Ross on Captain Ahab from Moby Dick, and this adds a lot of depth when you consider Ross’s relentless attitude later in the series.

Iron Man 2

This is one of the more disappointing installments, in my opinion. Jon Favreau is a brilliant writer and director, but he was apparently under a lot of pressure and obligation to keep re-writing his script in order to set up events for The Avengers, such as establishing S.H.I.E.L.D as a bigger presence. However, the movie is not a total waste. Sam Rockwell is a gift in any movie, and his character Justin Hammer has the best lines and is just a delight to watch. We also got one of the rare re-castings in the MCU, with Don Cheadle taking over as Rhodey.

It’s interesting to notice how possessive Tony is of the Iron Man suit when the government intervenes in this installment, in light of how quickly he wants to accept the Sokovia Accords later on. He is so vehemently against government control at this point, which shows how shaken up he is later on that he is willing to sign over his freedom as Iron Man.

This installment is also worth watching for Agent Coulson alone. Seriously. I mean, that line about watching “Super Nanny”? Pure. Gold.

Thor 

The Thor movies are (in my opinion) the weakest link in the MCU chain, though I do still enjoy them individually. Due to the different directors for each movie, they are extremely inconsistent in their tone, which led me to have some serious problems with Thor: Ragnarok upon my first viewing (though now it’s my favorite). And I’m just going to say it: I don’t think Chris Hemsworth is actually a good leading man. Don’t get me wrong, I love him and think he is an amazing actor. But he does much better in the Avengers movies or in the scenes with Tom Hiddleston as Loki, where they can play off each other. Hemsworth shined in Ragnarok, because he was allowed to utilize more of a comedic performance, and he works wonderfully in the Avengers because again he is allowed to function more as comic relief than having to carry the weight of the plot (Robert Downey Jr and Chris Evans are more than capable of doing that for the ensemble).

The strength of the Thor movies really comes from the supporting characters, I think. Jane Foster, Erik Selvig, and Darcy could really have their own series and it would be just as interesting without the Asgardians. It’s unfortunate that Jane couldn’t be incorporated into more of the MCU, because she has some of the most important and fascinating observations, especially as the series explores more of space and the concept of “magic”. Her quotation of Arthur C. Clark, “Magic is just science we don’t understand yet”, becomes increasingly relevant as the MCU goes on. And Erik is probably one of the most rational characters in the entire series. I love the hints that he is much better connected that we might be aware of, as he makes references to knowing not only Bruce Banner but also other prominent scientists that feature in the other movies.

The Avengers 

As I already stated, I am a huge Joss Whedon fan and that was the reason I was bought into the MCU in the first place. I honestly don’t believe that the MCU would have had the power to really take off if this first Avengers movie had not been executed well, and Whedon managed to execute it extremely well. Juggling so many important characters while also telling a compelling story, a story that had to tie into the five films that came before it while also setting up future films, these are not easy feats. I think that this first Avengers movie also really helped to set the tone for the future installments of the entire MCU. It’s as if the previous movies had all still just been testing the waters, but with the Avengers the MCU really staked its claim about what everything is about. The excellence in storytelling, the depth and dynamics of the characters, and the farsighted scope of the plot are really what characterize the entire MCU now.

Obviously, I could go on for a while about all the things that I love in this movie. But instead of that, I’m just going to suggest that you watch (or re-watch) it for yourself. Even if you haven’t really paid attention to anything else in the series, just watch the first Avengers and let yourself soak it in.

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