Marvel Cinematic Universe: Phase One Retrospective

Way back in 2008, the first of the “Marvel Studios” movies was unveiled to the general public. I remember vividly before the first flick hit, how people were questioning if this Marvel Studios thing would really work.  “A comic book company directly making movies,” I heard some scoff on that great garbage heap known as the Internet. “It’s not going to work.”  11 years and 23 (and counting) movies later, the MCU has evolved from a quaint idea to a box office juggernaut. Now, it’s time to look back at the films that started it all.

Iron Man (2008)

Synopsis: Weapons manufacturer Tony Stark becomes a superhero after being captured by terrorists in the Middle East.

Going back to this film 11 years after first watching, I have grown to appreciate this movie more and more on subsequent viewings.  It’s easy in all the team-up films to forget that initially, it was just one guy in a metal suit. The movie does a really great job of taking along the journey of Tony Stark, the unlikeliest of heroes.  Downey Jr’s. performance seems more nuanced in this one, with quite a few serious moments breaking through his non-stop banter with the various characters. Likewise, Jeff Bridges is outstanding as the bad guy; Bridges rarely gives a bad performance.  Looking back, Terrence Howard was actually the perfect Col. Rhodes, a guy who was a career soldier who you believe would really be Stark’s good friend, despite their different viewpoints on the world.

There are only two real faults I can find with the film: after the making of the Mark 1 Iron Man suit in the cave, the subsequent long, drawn-out creation of what we came to know as the Iron Man suit seems almost anti-climatic. Considering what Stark made with a bunch of metal scraps, the prolonged creation of the Iron Man suit is really too long. It’s evident after his experiences in the cave that he will continue with the superhero mantle – the movie should have focused more on the build-up of the Obadiah Stane character as the chief villain. Speaking of which, Iron Man not being the principal reason that Stane is defeated is a bit of a fail. I found the Pepper Potts character overrated throughout the series and even though she is not as annoying as she was in some of the subsequent outings, she is not deserving as the reason for Stane’s defeat.

That being said, this is a really solid outing in a film that most people weren’t sure was going to work or not.  Iron Man wasn’t the household name of a Superman or Batman. By injecting life in the film through Downey’s charismatic performance and the film almost immediately putting the character in an underdog role (he has a potentially life-threatening injury and masterminds his escape out of nearly nothing), it’s easy to root for Iron Man to prevail.

The Incredible Hulk (2008)

Synopsis: Scientist Bruce Banner searches for a cure to stop his transformations into a giant green-skinned brute, as General Thunderbolt Ross creates a monster to battle the Hulk.

I’ve given this movie plenty of chances, and while I do think it is better than I initially thought, it is still an extremely-flawed movie.  Part of the reason is simply, there aren’t enough appearances of the Hulk; you have the factory (where he is barely seen), the fight at the university, on Stearns’ cot, and at the end.  That’s four appearances by the jolly green giant in an almost two-hour movie.  The rest of the time, we have Edward Norton, wandering the world, trying not to get angry, while looking for a cure.  It’s all very ho-hum.

Then there’s the Thunderbolt Ross character.  He’s definitely one of my least-favourite characters in the MCU and this film, where he is figured the most prominently n the series, is the reason why: the guy’s a jerk. No other way to put it.  He has no problem assisting Bruce Banner into trying to become a super-soldier, and when that fails, he goes back to the same drawing-board to make more monsters, all in the name of acquiring a military weapon.  The guy seriously needs the Hulk to pound the living hell out of him.  He is genuinely the leading cause of all the misery of the main characters in the movie and fails to toe that invisible grey line that the film sets up for him.  He is a villain, through and through, and the fact he doesn’t get his ass fired from the military is a frigging travesty.

I will say that the performances by Norton and Tim Roth are fine, and the action scenes are good.  Showing the Hulk mostly in the dark in the first action scene was a mistake (we know the Incredible Hulk is in the movie…it’s called “The Incredible Hulk”…so show him!), and the design of the Abomination is…an abomination (the character looks like it was designed by not a particularly bright eight-year-old).  There isn’t a lot to like about the movie, and it’s not surprising in the least that this was one of the few Marvel entries that didn’t get a sequel.

Iron Man 2 (2010)

Synopsis: As Tony Stark is slowly killed by the same device keeping him alive, a Russian criminal seeks revenge on him.

After the triumph of the first Iron Man movie, people were hyped for the second film. What they got instead was a colossal, annoying mess that easily is one of the worst of the MCU movies. Watching this movie again, I visibly cringed at times through the movie.  What was the cause of my angst? For one, Pepper Potts.  She is hands-down, probably the most annoying character in any of the films in this movie.  She yells and complains to Tony over everything in this movie, and I mean anything. Buy her strawberries? She’s allergic.  Make her CEO?  She has too much work.  Have a breakdown because you’re dying?  She thinks you’re a loser.  The woman literally has one note in this movie, and it’s not a good one.  Hilariously at the end, she proclaims she didn’t even know that Stark is dying, even though every single other character has noted at one point or another that he seems to be suffering from some disease.  Maybe if she wasn’t so self-involved, she would actually realize that she’s not the only person in the room with problems.

Then there’s the Black Widow.  While Scarlett Johansson is definitely visually pleasing in the role and definitely has the athleticism to pull off the action parts, she hits a dead note with the character. Even worse, she also begins to snipe at Tony Stark, apparently upset that he has the audacity to almost out her to Pepper later in the movie, even though she and S.H.I.E.L.D have infiltrated his company without permission!  So, apparently, it’s perfectly fine that she inserts herself in his company and acts as a spy; just don’t say so.  Right.

Unfortunately, most of the leading players are either miscast or just misused.  Don Cheadle plays Rhodes as an entirely different character than Terrence Howard, and his serious, no-nonsense demeanour makes it hard to believe that Rhodes would ever be friends with the free-wheeling Stark.  Mickey Rourke gets almost no chance to build up the main bad guy character, and his battle at the end with Iron Man and War Machine is the epitome of anti-climatic.  Sam Rockwell’s Justin Hammer is the only character who acquits himself well in the movie (other than Tony Stark, but how can you not be on his side when everyone’s bagging on him?).  Any of the impressive visuals that the movie offers is completely undone by the bad characterizations and general lack of excitement that permeates through the film.

Thor (2011)


Synopsis: Thor, the God of Thunder, is banished to Earth by his father Odin, while his adopted brother Loki plots to usurp the throne.

After The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man 2, my brain needed a mental floss.  While Thor was in no way a perfect film, it at least gave me a respite from green giants lurking in the dark and ungrateful harpies constantly complaining after being given the highest position in a gigantic corporation.

As a movie, it is mostly a satisfying excursion into a vastly different part of Marvel storytelling: myth.  The fact that the film handled the subject so deftly and allowed you to believe that a character like Thor could exist in the same world as Iron Man is commendable.  Chris Hemsworth is believeable as Thor, having both the physique and chops to play the God of Thunder. He has some hilarious moments when he first arrives in Earth, his outrage at how he is being treated a perfect foil for the other characters’ frantic confusion. Tom Hiddleston is terrific as the conniving Loki.  You can see his conflict between wanting to be loved in the same vein as his more valiant brother and his violent jealousy and resentment. The rest of the characters range from good to acceptable, with Stellan Skarsgard being a standout, as usual.

The visuals are terrific; the Bifrost bridge, as well as the overall design of Asgard, is, and I don’t use this word often, majestic.  It looks like a place where otherworldly, mythic characters would live, and brings to mind epic movies from the past.  The two big action set pieces, the battle against the Frost Giants in the beginning and the fight versus the Destroyer Armor closer to the end, are both well-executed.  If there is one complaint I have about the movie, it is the romance between Thor and Jane Foster – I just don’t believe it.  I don’t know if it’s the writing, the acting, or both, but it just comes across as rushed and contrived.  It’s almost as if the romance exists because the script demands it, instead of a natural bond forming.  It’s the biggest blemish in what is otherwise a decent flick.

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

Synopsis: Steve Rogers is turned into a World War II-era superhero after being given an experimental formula.

Let me just say this right off the bat: Captain America is my favourite of the Avengers. Unlike the rest of the characters, he doesn’t have to overcome some personality defect to be a hero.  Tony Stark is narcissistic and self-centred, Thor is petulant and immature, Black Widow and Hawkeye are assassins with heavy consciences, and Bruce Banner’s anger management issues are well-documented. Cap is the one character who was always good, always wanted to do good, and the obstacles he had to overcome were physical, not personality-based. Add in Chris Evans’ earnest portrayal, and you have a hero you can root for.

I have to say though, this is probably one of the best Marvel movies. Not only is Evan on point as Cap, Hayley Atwell is an equal match, which is hard to do with Evans’ physical presence, Tommy Lee Jones is hilarious as the crusty colonel, and Hugo Weaving is his usual solid self as the villainous Red Skull. The real star is Captain America though, and you really get a sense that this guy is a hero, even though his stature doesn’t show it – he tells Stanley Tucci’s character he hates bullies, he uses his brains to solve the flagpole problem, and he keeps trying to enlist to serve his country, even though he is physically incapable of well, just about everything.

There are some nice action scenes after Evans transforms into his super-soldier self, with the scenes by the docks, the blitzes of the Hydra factory and the train, as well as the final confrontation on the stealth bomber, but I think all of this is secondary to just how awesome Chris Evans is.  This movie is unusual too, in that I completely bought the burgeoning love between Atwell and Evans – I rarely care for when a romance blooms between the leads, as it usually comes across as contrived, but this one felt right, and I got Rogers’ heartbreak at the end of the film.

It isn’t all good, as I thought the climax was a bit of a letdown – Cap doesn’t really beat the Red Skull, he picks up the tesseract and melts…okay, not much of a mastermind, now is he?  However, that’s really a minor beef for me.  After an onslaught of films where I had to sit through the main character learning how to be a hero, this movie was a breath of fresh air.

The Avengers (2012)

Synopsis: Earth’s mightiest heroes assemble to battle a powerful foe who commands an army of alien soldiers.

This entry is undoubtedly, in my opinion, not just the best film of Phase One, but of all the MCU movies.  After years of suffering through X-Men movies where half the characters are ignored so we can bask in the glory of Hugh Jackman as Wolverine (I admit he is pretty damned good), this is the film that convinced me once and for all that you could have ensemble comic-book character movies where all the characters get their due and come off well.  Not only that, some of the characters improved – Black Widow for one actually shows she has a character in this film.  Having Tom Hiddleston as the main villain was great, he was the most charismatic villain in the first movies and a decent threat to the assembled good guys.  Mark Ruffalo doesn’t miss a beat and brings a less ponderous approach to the role than the ultra-serious Edward Norton.  The Chitauri are great fodder for the Avengers to beat up.

What really makes this movie great is seeing the characters interact.  Whether it’s Captain America and Iron Man interact after taking down Loki in Germany or seeing the Avengers team-up to take out some of the marauding invaders (my favourite is seeing Iron Man use Captain America’s shield as a reflector to hit multiple Chitauri at an angle), this movie is a treat to anyone who ever wondered if these characters would interact on the big screen.  Throw in the impressive helicarrier, a couple of massive action set pieces (the battle of New York is really long), and a killer score, and this basically is the perfect comic book movie.  While other entries have eclipsed this one by a bit, this movie is still one of the best and one of the MCU movies that I pop in, again and again, and still enjoy.

The Verdict

While most people love romanticizing the First Phase of the MCU, the reality is that there were as many hits as misses for the early films in the series. While some of the best movies in the franchise were produced (Captain America, Avengers), the lesser movies were so bad as to make the bottom of the list for the totality of the MCU movies.  I guess you can forgive the misses at it represented the studio trying to figure things out, but going back to see these movies, the problems with the film seem glaring after seeing the last Avengers film.  That being said, I commend Marvel for pulling off one of the craziest experiments and for actually making it work.