Marvel Cinematic Universe: Phase 1

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Regular readers of Taking The Short View can hardly have missed my many mentions of how far behind I have fallen in my viewing ot the Marvel Cinematic Universe films. For the record, those are the 22 movies to date that have been produced by Marvel Studios in-house since 2008, as opposed to those made under license by other companies such as Sony’s Spider-Man entries and Fox’s X-Men, Deadpool and Fantastic Four films.

After falling off the MCU wagon very early on, I was never quite able to catch up and climb back on. I always intended to do so when I had the time, but the longer it went on the bigger the task became and the more I put it off – especially when the films accelerated from at most a couple per year to the current three or four in rapid succession. The latest, Avengers: Endgame came out just six weeks after Captain Marvel while its predecessor was still in the UK Box Office top three.

Locked out of the main continuity I limited myself to watching those films such as Guardians of the Galaxy that didn’t connect directly into the overarching MCU narrative. But they became few and far between, and when I finally totted up which of the MCU films I had seen, the situation was even worse than I had realised: of those 22 films, I had seen … Four. Ouch. Or epic fail, you might say. Clearly something had to be done! So the last few weeks I’ve been trying to address the situation, viewing an MCU film on average every other week with the aim being to get through the first six films which between them comprise what is currently referred to as Phase 1 of Marvel’s remarkable franchise.

And now I’m here to send dispatches from the front line of that ongoing catch-up campaign. I should add that there are spoilers, but given that these films are so old that they are practically historical texts I dare say that this won’t trouble any up-to-date reader.

Iron Man (2008)

Starring: Robert Downey Jr, Gwyneth Paltrow, Terrence Howard, Jeff Bridges
Written by: Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum, Matt Holloway
Directed by: Jon Favreau

For me, Iron Man is unique among the MCU films in that not only did I watch it pretty soon after its release, I have even rewatched it again in the years since. I enjoyed it a lot the first time around, and even more the second. But that was some five or six years ago, and if my new campaign to make in roads into MCU continuity was to have any hope of success then clearly I would have to refresh my memory of where it all started in 2008. That meant a third viewing. And guess what? I liked it even more this time around too.

What’s remarkable about Iron Man is that is pretty much delivers the MCU format fully-formed. Everything that the MCU goes on to build up, expand and develop can be found in embryonic form here, from the way that the movie handles its iconic comic properties with the reverence of a true comic book geek, to the look and feel of the production and the injection of humour which differentiates it from those dark and gloomy DC counterparts. There is excellent character development, and it addresses issues of genuine import such as the morality of arms dealing. There’s also the slightly oddball choice of director which successfully injects something unusual into the production, and an equally unusual selection of leading man. Who would have expected to see an actor of Robert Downey Jr’s calibre as a superhero? And yet the choice is utterly inspired, and it’s on Downey’s shoulders that the House of Marvel builds its future success.

The other significant thing about Iron Man is how much of a one-man film it is – something that’s very rare for an action blockbuster of this scale. Yes, there’s able support from Gwyneth Paltrow as Tony Stark’s assistant and platonic love interest, Terrence Howard as best friend Rhodey, and Jeff Bridges as business partner Obadiah Stane (just that fabulous name alone tells you that he must be the real villain of the piece behind the Taliban terrorists!) but it’s really all-Downey, all the time. And that’s fine, because both actor and character are fabulous and it’s this that raises Iron Man from being just another comic book superhero film to something genuinely great and hugely enjoyable.

The film ends in a prolonged knock-down CGI fest, which is usually where superhero films end up in a loud, violent mess along the lines of an average Michael Bay Transformer effort. But even here the film raises the game and our expectations and keeps us involved. And then there is the post-credits scene with Samuel L Jackson which is our first indication that Marvel isn’t just in this for one film but has far bigger ambitions. Although I dare say, even the Marvel executives couldn’t have seen quite how big things would actually get over the next decade.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2

The Incredible Hulk (2008)

Starring: Edward Norton, Liv Tyler, Tim Roth, William Hurt
Written by: Zak Penn
Directed by: Louis Leterrier

Even though it was released into cinemas just five weeks after Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk is the black sheep of the MCU and the film I had been least looking forward to watching for the first time. The surprise is that it’s actually perfectly decent and watchable; but the fascinating thing about the film is why is really sticks out like a sore thumb from the rest of the franchise.

One difference is that unlike other entries in the MCU series, the film is not an origin story for its titular character. A version of that tale had been told five years earlier in director Ang Lee’s idiosyncratic, cartoon panel-styled psychodrama starring Eric Bana as Bruce Banner. However Lee’s approach didn’t fit in with Marvel’s coherent vision for the sustained development of the MCU, so despite commercial success it was quietly consigned to the archives and forgotten in favour of this film. It doesn’t attempt to follow the 2003 movie in any way, but rather fashions itself after the 1970s TV series starring Bill Bixby. The origin tale is told as a title sequence which specifically copies the stylings of the television version, and the movie’s basic plot likewise follows the show’s convention of setting Banner up somewhere new where he makes friends (and enemies) until something causes his Hulk alter ago to emerge, forcing him to move on. The film’s soundtrack even co-opts the TV programme’s elegiac “Lonely Man” piano theme for the moment this happens here.

It’s fascinating to see The Incredible Hulk as the MCU road not travelled, and use the film as a mirror to hold up to the MCU as a whole in order to work out what went so right with Iron Man which set the template for the MCU for a decade, and what it was that failed here. Some things are fairly obvious, such as the lack of the sort of wisecracking humour of the earlier film. Here, Banner is a tragic character not given to jokes and most of the laughs on offer tend to be of the meta variety such as comments about stretch pants, and Banner’s poor language skills causing him to mangle the “You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry’ catchphrase of the TV show – something that would probably have sailed over the heads of most of the teenage audience.

There’s also something about the casting of Edward Norton in the central role that doesn’t quite work. He’s an excellent actor, but one mainly interested in portraying the mental anguish of the character he’s playing, which makes him a less accessible and likeable screen presence than he needs to be for this sort of comic book fare. This approach to the character – apparently heavily reworked by Norton during production – was at odds with what Marvel envisaged for their franchise. Elsewhere, Liv Tyler’s role of Betty Ross is disappointingly paper thin, and while William Hurt is surprisingly good as her father General Ross, Tim Roth seems miscast as Emil Blonsky even before he goes completely mad as the CGI Abomination. Talking of the effects, the hyper realistic styling to the Hulk and his antagonist hasn’t aged well, and the overly detailed presentation of every muscle, sinew, tendon and popping vein is peculiarly unpleasant and ugly; it’s interesting that in subsequent MCU appearances the appearance is significantly toned down.

Ultimately there’s a sense that this film was already in production before Iron Man, and before Marvel had really thought about where they wanted to go with the MCU as a whole. Continuity aspects are limited to glimpses of Stark Industries in the opening titles, and to Robert Downey Jr. turning up in a pre-end credits sequence which actually doesn’t even fit in with the subsequent films in the franchise. As a stand-alone film it’s quite enjoyable, especially for fans of the old TV show, but for a new generation of fans of the movies there’s something quite definitely ‘off’ with this entry which rather explains its semi-detached relationship with the other 21 films in the series.

Rating: ★ ★ ★

Iron Man 2 (2010)

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Mickey Rourke, Gwyneth Paltrow, Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell, Jon Favreau
Written by: Justin Theroux
Directed by: Jon Favreau

It took Marvel almost two years after the release of The Incredible Hulk to come up with their next film, an amazingly long gap compared to modern schedules. And it’s significant that the follow-up arrives as a straightforward sequel to the first Iron Man film with no mention of the Hulk at all (although he can be glimpsed on monitors in a scene toward the end, a rather grudging continuity reference in the circumstances.)

As a result, it initially feels that Marvel is rebooting the MCU to get back into the game and re-establish the format. Rather than giving the impression of building a franchise, Iron Man 2 appears to follow the usual rules for a direct movie sequel: pretty much the same story and narrative arc as the first, only with more and bigger and deadlier enemies as represented by Ivan Vanko’s army of mechanoid drones instead of the singular threat of Obadiah Stane in the original. We even get two Iron Men in this film, with Rhodey (now played by Don Cheadle) stepping up in one of Stark’s older suits of armour as War Machine.

The film even seems to roll back the character development of the first film by having Stark revert to the same reckless, self-destructive playboy behaviour that he manifested when we first met him, to the extent that his friends end up feeling forced to stage an intervention. That initially feels like a disappointingly retrograde step for the series, but at least here there is good reason for his misbehaviour, as Stark knows he’s dying from the technology being used to sustain him. He has only a short time before the Invincible Iron Man dies, putting world peace at risk if anyone else should get hold of the technology. As a result of this tragic edge, Stark’s quips and one liners might still be present but they come from a darker, angrier place making it a less fun movie than the first by quite a margin. In fact most of the genuine belly laughs in the film come from director Jon Favreau cameoing as chauffeur/bodyguard Happy Hogan.

But in other respects the film is being quietly ambitious by carefully laying the ground for some important franchise elements, such as introducing the character of Tony’s father Howard (played by John Slattery) in a very clever way, and then bringing Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) into play in a much more significant manner than his brief cameo at the end of the first movie. Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts also gets something more substantial to get her teeth into, and as well as Rhodey and Vanko there are also interesting additions to the cast in the form of Sam Rockwell (scene stealing as Stark’s technology rival) and Garry Shandling (a preening politician).

And then there’s Scarlett Johansson, who is initially introduced undercover as a corporate lawyer but who eventually shows her true Black Widow colours in an astonishingly choreographed sequence as she fights her way into the enemy headquarters. She damn well nearly steals the entire movie – an amazing feat given it’s still Downey’s name above the door.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★

Thor (2011)

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Anthony Hopkins, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Stellan Skarsgard, Colm Feore, Idris Elba, Ray Stevenson, Rene Russo
Written by: Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, Don Payne
Directed by: Kenneth Branagh

Thor is the other Phase 1 MCU film that I had watched before now, thanks to a patient friend sitting me down and making me watch it on DVD about a year after its theatrical release.

After three films set on (a technologically advanced but still recognisable) Earth, a shift to the realm of the gods is on the face of it a risky move for Marvel, who might have lost a significant portion of their more sceptical, doubting audience. But in many ways, Thor actually plays it safe and sticks close to the Iron Man formula in telling the story of a narcissistic, hedonistic playboy having to learn the lessons of what it means to be a decent man let alone a hero. It’s just that in this case, the playboy in question is not a brilliant billionaire inventor but the Norse god of thunder and crown prince of Asgard.

Thor is still just as reckless and inconsiderate as Stark, it’s just that he’s strutting around the halls of the gods instead of the premier party spots in Los Angeles. Chris Hemsworth manages to give him the likeability of a successful high school quarterback, and when he’s consigned to earth without his powers he also manages to convey the out-of-place comedy of a ‘god among men’ as well as deftly handing the physical pratfalls of being knocked down by a camper van (twice) and tasered. Eventually it turns to pathos as he learns the lessons that his father Odin (only Sir Anthony Hopkins could pull off the part of the god of all gods, surely?) needed him to understand in order to make him a fit future ruler.

The choice of Kenneth Branagh as director is one of the more left-field decisions by Marvel, but it works a treat here as Sir Ken is able to give Asgard a sense of Shakespearian splendour and majesty that stops it from ever becoming silly or risible, as could so easily have happened in lesser hands. The production design of Asgard is also quite stunningly beautiful and contrasts very effectively with the cheap, tacky, temporary human encampment in New Mexico where Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and her colleagues including Stellan Skarsgard are carrying out scientific research.

Perhaps compensating for Hemsworth’s then-unknown status, Hollywood A-lister Portman is part of an expanded line-up of characters which include Thor’s brother Loki (a superb, scene-stealing Tom Hiddleston) and his band of merry friends which include Ray Stevenson and Jaimie Alexander. We even get Idris Elba as Asgard’s gatekeeper, and Clark Gregg’s best outing yet as Agent Coulson. Unfortunately Rene Russo is severely underused as Odin’s wife and Thor’s mother, and Colm Feore’s King of the Frost Giants makes a good entry but is then entirely squandered in the second half of the film as Loki comes to the fore.

In fact for all of Branagh’s strengths of a dramatic director, it’s the action sequences that never quite work as well as they should do. They seem almost an inconvenience. The final act ends in a bit of a confused mess, Thor’s sudden destruction of the rainbow bridge looking like a fit of teenage pique rather than the act of self-sacrifice it’s subsequently explained as being once things settle down. Even so, Thor’s sudden conversion to saving the Frost Giants at all costs, having earlier sought to wipe them out, does rather come out of the blue and is insufficiently related to the moral lessons he learned from his exile on Earth. It’s almost as though a late studio rewrite had bolted on a compressed ending to the film that jars with what has gone before.

It’s by no means mortal damage to the film, which is still perfectly fun and enjoyable, but it’s also a step down from Iron Man into more average comic book fare. However just when we think this is a light weight entry into the MCU canon comes a post-end credits sequence which suddenly raises the stakes considerably, with the return of the presumed-killed Loki (hurrah!) and our first glimpse of the artefact that we will come to know as the Tesseract which will dominate much of the next six years of MCU movies, right up to Infinity War and Endgame

Rating: ★ ★ ★ 1/2

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

Starring: Chris Evans, Hugo Weaving, Hayley Atwell, Sebastian Stan, Tommy Lee Jones, Toby Jones, Neal McDonough, Stanley Tucci, Dominic Cooper
Written by: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely
Directed by: Joe Johnston

The Tesseract shows up right at the start of the next movie, which was released just a couple of months after Thor. In fact Captain America: The First Avenger is something of an origin story for the artefact as well as for the titular hero, as we return to the Norwegian town of Tønsberg where we briefly glimpsed an early confrontation between the Asgardians and the Frost Giants in 965AD in the previous movie. It turns out that the Tesseract came from Odin’s vault and was inadvertently left behind after the battle, and now it has been discovered by Hydra, a specialist Nazi weapons development unit commanded by Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving). In the wrong hands, the energy cube could tip the balance of power and allow Germany to win World War 2.

There’s a curious ‘prologue’ feel to Captain America: The First Avenger, that it’s not really a stand-alone film at all but mainly exists to put in place a whole lot of other elements in time for Avengers Assemble – not unlike the way Richard Wagner eventually added Das Rheingold as a ‘short’ prologue to the Ring Cycle when he realised that many plot elements he needed for the main trilogy of operas had to be established in advance. That feeling here is heightened by the way that the film starts in the present day with the discovery of a wrecked aircraft in the ice, before the film switches to WW2 for what you expect will be a flashback sequence of maybe 30 or 45 minutes. Instead the flashback lasts pretty much the entire film and only in the final few minutes do we return to the 21st century.

Otherwise the film plays out like a series of small vignettes, brief tales drawn from comic books and short stories of the period. We start with sickly Steve Rogers getting his powers from Stanley Tucci’s Dr Abraham Erskine (prefigured by the use of the same supersoldier serum on Emil Blonsky in The Incredible Hulk, albeit with sub-optimal results on that occasion). He then goes on a series of short missions, initially to his chagrin as a war bond fundraiser and then eventually on the front lines where he becomes a hero under the patriotic sobriquet of Captain America, until he finally comes up against Hydra itself and sets off to take down Schmidt.

Rogers lacks the comedy gene that both Tony Stark and Thor possess and he is a very earnest, serious character – a surprise as Chris Evans previously demonstrated his comedy prowess as the ebullient Human Torch in another superhero franchise, the aforementioned Fantastic Four. He’s also not given a great deal of depth or development to work with: he starts off as a decent person wanting to make a difference in the war effort but lacking the physical abilities; and when he’s given them he simply steps up to the plate and does exactly what he always yearned to. He seems almost unaware of the change, and it’s left to his friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) to note that whereas before it was Steve who was Bucky’s weakling sidekick and wingman, now it’s Captain America who is the star of the show while Bucky is relegated unhappily to the sidelines in his best friend’s shadow.

Even so, it takes almost the entire film for the augmented Rogers to finally pluck up the courage to kiss the girl he likes. The woman in question is Agent Peggy Carter (a magnificent Atwell) who is such a vibrant and lively personality that she really does take over the film (and wins herself a sadly short-lived spin-off TV series as a result). In fact almost in compensation for Roger’s largely one-dimensional American Hero stereotype role, the film has one of the best supporting casts of MCU films to date including Tommy Lee Jones (who gets the biggest laugh of the film), Toby Jones, Richard Armitage, Neal McDonough, JJ Feild, and Dominic Cooper as a young, dashing version of the Howard Stark we previously met in Iron Man 2. Clearly shot in the UK, there’s an amazing number of both established and up and coming British stars in the cast including Natalie Dormer, Sam Hoare, Jenna Coleman, Luke Allen-Gale and Nick Hendrix as well as long-term Americans-in-residence Michael Brandon and William Hope.

The whole thing is an undeniably fun WW2 pastiche played out in something of the same vein as the Indiana Jones movies, making Rocketman director Joe Johnson quite the perfect choice to pull off a satisfyingly authentic period atmosphere among the Boys Own heroics. The wartime setting allows the film to have more violence and a higher body count than most of its MCU stable mates with a lot of soldiers getting gunned down or atomised into blue mist by Schmidt’s experimental weapons. While mostly bloodless there are one or two genuinely gory if brief moments, such as one Nazi being dropped into a plane’s propellers which vaporise him into a vivid red mist.

Ultimately though the episodic approach to the story means we never seem to get more than skin deep into the characters or the missions, and it’s all wrapped up too quickly with a montage of successful assaults on Hydra bases and a curiously lacklustre face-off between Rogers and Schmidt on an airplane, where the major priority seems to be placing both the Tesseract and Rogers into the locations they need to be in order to be found in the 21st century in time for their part in the biggest tentpole movie of the entire franchise to date.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ 1/2

Avengers Assemble (2012)

Starring: Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L Jackson, Jeremy Renner, Stellan Skarsgård, Clark Gregg
Written by: Joss Whedon and Zak Penn
Directed by: Joss Whedon

Ever since Nick Fury name-dropped Marvel’s all-star superhero team at the end of Iron Man, the franchise had been building up to this film as the one to rule them all. The question now became whether the intervening movies had raised the bar and expectations so high that they couldn’t possibly be matched? It wouldn’t be the first time that a wildly ambitious series of films had dropped the ball at the vital moment, especially when the job was in the hands of a writer/director with limited experience of making big budget motion pictures.

Fortunately the person in question is Joss Whedon, who as well as creating top TV genre shows such as Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Serenity had also worked for Marvel Comics writing for the X-Men and Runaways series. In fact one look at his CV would have persuaded anyone with any sense that Whedon was uniquely qualified to handle Avengers Assemble and that in his hands it would be a huge success. And they would have been completely correct.

What Whedon appreciates is that the most important thing fans want from a film of this sort is to have their favourite characters back on screen, and to see how they interact and work together. That means that each character from earlier films has to be true to their earlier appearances and not become twisted out of shape to meet the plot, or cut out and left on the sidelines altogether. A Thor fan should feel that this is a Thor movie, and a Captain America fan likewise, or else they go home unhappy. So all of Whedon’s attention is on the individual characters and how they work together as a whole; the plot is just the method of achieving that interaction.

It’s why the choice of Loki as prime antagonist is such a good one: as the god of mischief he’s able to disrupt his adversaries and seed discontent. In that regard he’s unwittingly helped by Tony Stark who is an equally, naturally disruptive presence at the best of times. Between the two of them the Avengers are soon falling out and feuding with each other, often with wonderfully comic effect, with the cynical Stark clashing badly with the idealistic Steve Rogers in particular. It all means that Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans and Tom Hiddleston dominate large parts of the film.

The film ultimately belongs to Downey (he gets to make the hero’s sacrifice at the end) but everyone gets their turn. Captain America blossoms with old-school calmness under fire, showing natural leadership and tactical qualities – although his best moment is the almost childlike delight he displays when he gets a 1930s pop culture reference that none of the 21st century heroes do. Even Fury gets to flourish, having to deal with SHIELD’s senior management making disastrous decisions and getting in the way of his plans, as well as mistrust from the Avengers themselves. There’s also some of the best material yet for Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) who becomes an important plot point as the film progresses. Scarlett Johansson once again excels as the Black Widow (not just in her action sequences but in two clever interrogation sequences as well), while we finally get to meet Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) after a shadowy cameo in Thor – although it has to be said, he’s not really himself in the first two acts.

Perhaps the most jarring aspect of the film is Mark Ruffalo turning up as Bruce Banner (after Marvel failed to reach terms with Edward Norton.) Ruffalo is actually great casting – he should have had the gig originally, to be honest – but given how seamlessly the rest of the MCU had been put together it still feels rather odd when he simply shows up, far more so than when Don Cheadle took over from Terence Howard as Rhodey between Iron Man instalments. Not that it really matters once Banner Hulks out and becomes the Jolly Green CGI giant, much more satisfactorily depicted here than he was in the earlier solo film. But the biggest surprise is that this incarnation of the Hulk proves not only well-meaning and heroic but also genuinely funny, nabbing perhaps the best line of the film after reducing Loki to a pulp.

The film is largely structured around two huge action set pieces: one on the SHIELD helicarrier and the other in a pitched battle in New York City against invading alien hoards from an alternate dimension (just another normal week day in NYC, then). The Chitauri are nothing but a blatant, empty plot device to deliver an all-action finale given that Loki alone doesn’t present a sufficient physical threat to require calling up the Avengers, but they’re sufficient for their one-note purpose. It has to be said that the set pieces do go on rather too long, but they’re more successful than similar sequences in most superhero movies by virtue of Whedon keeping the focus on the characters. He uses the stunts and explosions to show off each of their abilities and personalities, and to show through action rather than dialogue the way that they gradually bond together. At times you can see the mechanics of how he’s achieving this – by systematically pairing up different Avengers for side missions and then cutting between them in rapid succession – but the awareness doesn’t lessen the effectiveness or the enjoyment. Indeed, it probably helps stop the audience getting confused or lost amid the welter of action.

There’s no doubt that Avengers Assemble is a huge movie that could have gone wrong in a million different ways. Instead it’s rather an unmitigated success and a joy to watch, a real reward to fans who had stuck with the careful development of the MCU over the past four years. And of course it would prove to be just the start of Marvel’s increasingly ambitious project that has in no small part changed the shape of modern cinema.

And now, on to Phase 2…

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2

Availability: All films have been released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK, and have also been collected together in a Marvel Universe: Phase 1 boxset.

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