Looking Back at Phase One of the Marvel Cinematic Universe

(Originally written on April 19, 2018)

With Avengers: Infinity War coming out very soon, I thought it’d be cool to look back at the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where it all began and how it continued to build upon itself. For this entry I’ll be focusing on Phase One of the MCU, which began with 2008’s ‘Iron Man’ and ended with 2012’s ‘The Avengers.’

Iron Man (2008)

Where it all began. We had no idea this movie was going to kick-start a whole universe of films that would connect to each other. Better yet, we never thought a character like Iron Man (more a B-list comic book character at the time) would be able to entertain audiences the way he did in this movie. Director Jon Favreau and Robert Downey Jr., along with the rest of the cast and crew, delivered a fun, action-packed and rather grounded origin story. Though there were one or two moments that felt a little too ‘adult’ for a film that would bring in viewers of all ages, and with a villain that isn’t given much screen time, the overall experience was still dang exciting.

While we did have movies before that were based on comic books, Iron Man somehow felt fresh in both its filmmaking and the world it presented. My favourite scene is Tony testing the first suit he builds after coming back home (the silver one, the mk. II), flying out of his garage and through the city, showing that sometimes we ought to …run before you can walk.

Even the world (or universe) building wasn’t too in your face with just enough sprinkled throughout (*cough* Agent Coulson) to rouse your curiosity. And of course, this movie also started the post-credit scene trend that would continue in every Marvel Studio movie, with this one indicating Tony Stark was indeed part of a larger universe, as mentioned by Nick Fury (played by none other than Samuel L. Jackson).

The Incredible Hulk (2008)

Even from the beginning we received two Marvel movies in one year, with the second MCU movie being one that focused on the big green guy himself. While we were already given a Hulk movie back in 2003, it was about time for another film to be made that not only revitalized the character but also showed another compelling story about a man dealing with his inner demons. The action scenes were incredible, my favourite being one of the human characters holding his own against the Hulk. It was a slightly darker take on Bruce Banner’s story, but still very interesting.

I really enjoyed Edward Norton’s portrayal as Bruce Banner here, balancing the meager human man and the raging Hulk. We are also given characters like General Ross and her daughter Betty (William Hurt and Liv Tyler, respectively), and Emil Blonsky (played by Tim Roth) who is given a serum similar to the ‘super soldier’ serum (a reference of something to come in the MCU), who becomes a raging monster later on. Similar to the Hulk in some ways, he is eventually taken down by our green hero.

Again, this movie hints at a larger universe but does it in a very effective manner, especially in the post-credit scene where Tony Stark finds General Ross in a bar and talks about how they’re putting a team together. Little did we know that Ross would pop up again down the road.

Iron Man 2 (2010)

What can I say about this movie? More Tony Stark? Check. Rhodey finally suiting up? Check. Continuing to build the MCU? Double check. While not as action-packed as the first Iron Man, the sequel was great in other ways. The story focused more on Tony as he grappled with the consequences of revealing to the world it was actually him in the suit, and dealing with more personal issues like his potentially deteriorating health and how to carry on his father’s legacy. Also, despite the controversy surrounding the recasting of James Rhodes (Don Cheadle replacing Terrence Howard), I think it didn’t hurt the movie too much. At least much less than how an underdeveloped villain would.

With Jon Favreau returning to direct again, what we got was a good amount of humour, character development and more creative ideas surrounding Tony and his suits. While the scene with Tony and Rhodey fighting against drones is the standout, I really appreciated the smaller moments: Tony figuring out what his father wanted him to finish. Rhodey and Justin Hammer (played by Sam Rockwell) interacting at the air force base. Tony’s brief interactions with Agent Coulson. Tony meeting with Nick Fury in a doughnut shop and finding out his newly hired secretary is actually spy Natasha Romanoff (played by Scarlett Johansson). It’s all great. And we can’t forget the post-credit scene teasing the next movie, showing…a hammer?

Thor (2011)

I remember after watching Thor that I really enjoyed it. It introduced us to the fantastical realm of Asgard, with its majestic city and grand setting. The more grounded reality from the first “Iron Man” was now gone as we traveled through interdimensional portals and met larger than life characters. With director Kenneth Branagh, who adapted most of Shakespeare’s work to film, it felt like a good fit given the nature of Thor and his family drama. While we’re given a fairly straightforward story, everyone involved seemed like they were having a good time. It had Natalie Portman, Kat Dennings and Anthony freakin’ Hopkins as Odin! Talk about a high profile movie. I think the biggest take away from “Thor”, aside from Chris Hemsworth as the god of thunder, is the character Loki (played by the talented Tom Hiddleston). He was charmingly manipulative and a fascinating character.

I think one of the aspects I really enjoyed about this movie is how it continued to build the universe, both as a creative idea (MCU) and within the movie itself (traveling to Asgard, etc.). I also liked how Marvel Studios took a bit of a gamble with a character like Thor who came from a different realm. I’m sure there was enough trust built with audiences after having seen the films that came before this one.

As well, we are given more connective tissue in the forms of Agent Coulson and a small cameo with Hawkeye (played by Jeremy Renner). And we can’t forget that post-credit scene with Nick Fury showing scientist Erik Selvig (played by Stellan Skarsgard) a glowing blue cube, and Loki manipulating Selvig to say “Well, I guess that’s worth a look”.

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

Having released four films now, Marvel Studios was on a roll. Not only were they making entertaining movies, but also creating a cohesive universe in which all the characters resided. It wasn’t until this movie that we were introduced to who is, I think, the heart of the Avengers: Steve Rogers. It was also a sort of confirmation as to what Marvel Studios was building towards: The Avengers (with the ‘First Avenger’ seen in the movie’s title as the indicator). It took us back into the past during WWII, a time where people needed a sense of hope. The conflict between the allies and a radical group called Hydra, who found a way to create powerful weapons with a mysterious energy source, is where we find Steve and his comrades fighting to bring a better tomorrow.

What I love about this movie is how it shows that more important than beating the other side into submission is staying true to who you are. Throughout his journey, Steve is given an opportunity to do his part in the war after his transformation. However, what stuck with him (and me) is how Dr. Erskine (played by Stanley Tucci) implored Steve to stay a good man after receiving the Super Soldier serum; to not let his newfound power go to his head and stay true to who he is.

I think that’s what made this movie so charming for me. Even through the horrors of war and losing people dear to him, Steve is able to push forward and not lose himself. I also enjoyed how Peggy Carter (played by Hayley Atwell) held her own in this male-dominated society. The camaraderie between all the characters is nice to watch, even if most of the action is shown through a montage.

As for how it connects to the MCU at large, the head of Hydra Johann Schmidt, or Red Skull (played by Hugo Weaving), uses the blue cube (or tesseract) seen from Thor’s post credit scene to power his technology and weapons. Also, Cap unfortunately finds himself in a situation where he can’t land a bomb carrier safely and has to crash it into the ice. The tesseract also drifts into the ocean. Little did Steve know that he would wake up 70 years later, greeted by none other than the leader of S.H.I.E.L.D., Nick Fury. What a way to bring this super soldier into the present!

The Avengers (2012)

And finally we come to the last movie in Phase One, where the avengers are assembled. Though it took four years and five movies to get to this point, it was worth the wait in my opinion. Fans that were willing to stick with this preposterous idea of a shared universe were treated to a movie that culminated with these characters coming together to face a threat as a team. Both major and minor characters are present here, proving that no small role goes unnoticed in the MCU. This movie was exhilarating. Just the fact that they were able to reach this point made everyone believe in the Marvel Studios brand. Bringing together these characters, and more so these actors, was no easy task. Yet with time, effort and creative teams behind the scenes, we were given a great film to end Phase One.

If I’m honest, while the movie takes its time bringing all the characters together, I didn’t mind it. Having stuck with these movies until now, I was simply excited to see all of them in the same movie. It was unheard of at the time. Other minor gripes I had were how Bruce Banner was recast (Mark Ruffalo replacing Edward Norton) and Hawkeye being mind controlled for almost the entire film, but these became meaningless as I realized how the good outweighed the bad overall. Loki returning as the main villain here was a nice treat, getting to spend some time with almost all our heroes.

Additionally, we are given a mid-credit scene showing a mysterious figure, smiling at the fact that he would be given an opportunity to wreak havoc in the future.

Director Joss Whedon had a monumental task in front of him, but I think he did well and was able to balance everything nicely. The characters are pretty fleshed out, their interactions being both contentious and cooperative. I applaud the cast, crew and all the behind the scenes executives working toward a common goal and delivering an exciting Phase One. As the post-credit scenes for this movie shows, taking a break after a hard day’s work is definitely something they earned.

- A. Shin

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