Series Retrospective: Marvel Cinematic Universe

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Ten films, six years, and two distinct phases later and Marvel are sitting pretty as kings of the proverbial movie castle. Try and cast yourself back to before Tony Stark strapped on his first scrappy suit of armour to escape from terrorists. It’s not easy to remember the film landscape before Marvel started overseeing the production of their own movies from start to finish.

In terms of Superhero blockbusters, the situation didn’t look all that promising in 2008. X-MEN and SPIDER-MAN, the twin architects of modern comic book franchises had petered out and died after lacklustre third instalments. We were still two months away from finding out that Christopher Nolan hadn’t just gotten lucky with BATMAN BEGINS, and over a year away from seeing the long-delayed film adaptation of WATCHMEN.

Then along came Kevin Feige, a man with the ambition to change in-house blockbuster filmmaking forever, who decided to try and launch one of the most profitable and well-received franchises in history with a director of kids’ movies and a burnt-out character actor.

What follows is a breakdown of Marvel’s first decalogy, what worked and what didn’t, and how I rank them from worst to best. Some spoilers follow, but surely you can’t have avoided seeing at least some of these superhero extravaganzas?

10. THE INCREDIBLE HULK (2008)

None of the performances in THE INCREDIBLE HULK are bad, just a little underwhelming. Norton, Tyler, Hurt, Roth are all fine, but none of them give anything more than they have to. The movie presses the reset button on Bruce Banner’s story but recaps his origins in the opening titles (I’m not complaining about this) and unfolds as a chase movie with horror elements. On a technical level, it’s fine, but key character beats and relationships feel rushed (especially compared to Ang Lee’s melodramatic take on the story) and the finale is just a big, ugly, boring punch-up in the dark.

9. IRON MAN 2 (2010)

Perhaps it was inevitable that the quality tailed off somewhat in Marvel’s first sequel. Whereas Tony Stark’s debut was lean and focussed and fresh, IRON MAN 2 is mostly bloated, plodding and lacking in charm. Sam Rockwell is amusing as a wannabe Tony Stark, and Don Cheadle and Scarlett Johansson are solid additions to the Marvel canon, but Mickey Rourke makes little impression, and the exploration a conspiracy tied to Stark Sr. doesn’t really work. The action and visuals are decent, but the whole thing just feels like it’s biding time.

8. CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER (2011)

CAPTAIN AMERICA is a decent movie, just not a particularly good superhero movie. It works really well as a sharp critique, even satire, of wartime jingoism and propaganda, but as a superhero story, it’s not very exciting, and I really don’t like the cartoonily evil Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) and his incredibly dull Nazi Hydra henchmen. Chris Evans is an appropriately earnest action lead, and is ably supported by Hayley Atwell and Tommy Lee Jones, but I was still left underwhelmed in the end.

7. THOR: THE DARK WORLD (2013)

The God of Thunder’s first appearance was where the Marvel Cinematic Universe got weird. In THE DARK WORLD, the weirdness is expanded ambitiously outwards and the wider Marvel Universe, if not exactly fleshed out (that happens later), is certainly teased. Like the first THOR, the film’s biggest strength is the very human comic streak, but GAME OF THRONES director Alan Taylor also adds scale and tangibility. More Loki never hurts either, but the film does feel over-edited to accommodate him, and like Red Skull, Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) is another villain who’s too thinly sketched and black-and-white. My full review of Thor 2 can be found here.

6. CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER (2014)

I wasn’t as sold on THE WINTER SOLDIER as everyone else. It’s certainly a step up from Cap’s previous outing, Evans, Johansson and Anthony Mackie bring their A-game, and the action is superb (as good, and even occasionally better than THE AVENGERS), but the big picture just didn’t hold for me. I admire Marvel for keeping the many secrets under wraps, and it’s certainly ambitious, but the revelation of a decade-spanning Nazi Hydra conspiracy that leads to the third act action I found quite laughable, and a little tired and derivative to boot. My full review of Cap 2 can be found here.

5. IRON MAN (2008)

What a kickoff. It’s now impossible to imagine anyone else as the genius billionaire playboy philanthropist, and Robert Downey Jr. could arguably hold up the entire film on charisma alone. Not that he has to – Jon Favreau sets just the right tone, a balance between grittiness and lightheartedness, a tone that is carried on by the vast majority of Marvel’s films – it takes itself seriously, but not too seriously. IRON MAN has among the best cinematic tellings of a superhero origin story, and just the right split of action/character stuff. Downey was born to play Tony Stark, and Jeff Bridges is always fun even if his character is a little one-dimensional.

4. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014)

Probably not quite as anarchic as you might expect a major blockbuster from James “SUPER” Gunn to be, but GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY still had an air of mischief about it, and could be considered the first outright comedy Marvel has produced. Marvel have pulled the “They’re dead…ah! Fooled you!” trick a few too many times now, but this oddball team were a joy to be around, and made you truly thankful they all made it through. with the addition of a pleasing, if familiar STAR WARS-y plot structure, vibrant makeup and effects, and the promise of much more to come, this was something pretty special. My full review of Guardians can be found here.

3. THOR (2011)

Only a director like Kenneth Branagh could make this work. It’s half-HAMLET, half-FLASH GORDON, and all entertaining, even if some of the SFX are a little off. It’s thematically grand, theatrically performed, and gets the split right between galaxy-spanning pathos and Earth-bound sitcom humour. The film gave us Marvel’s most beautiful score from Patrick Doyle, the series’ best love-to-hate character in Loki (Tom Hiddleston), a scene stealing comic supporting character in Darcy (Kat Dennings), and refreshingly, a male object of lust in Thor (Chris Hemsworth) for Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) to turn into a giggling schoolgirl over.

2. THE AVENGERS (2012)

This shouldn’t have worked. There were too many plates spinning, too much depended on it. Then Joss Whedon proceeded to demonstrate just why he’s one of the most talented men working in the film and television industry. The spectacle on offer is still the level to beat by all competing blockbusters since, but Whedon also brought wit aplenty, aesthetic confidence and a soul to proceedings. Great performances across the board don’t hurt either – Downey, Evans, Hemsworth and Hiddleston make the most of their ensemble screentime, but it’s Mark Ruffalo and Scarlett Johansson who steal the show playing vulnerable characters trying their utmost to hide their true selves.

1. IRON MAN 3 (2013)

I understand why people have issues with this one, but I adore it. It’s an unavoidably weird mix of the usual Marvel fireworks, middle finger genre iconoclasm and 1970s James Bond rompiness. Shane Black (and co-writer Drew Pearce) were the perfect men to prove that Marvel still has some tricks up their sleeves, and they make the conclusion to Tony Stark’s character journey funny, satirical and satisfying. Downey is electric once again, Guy Pearce gradually peels back layers of his devious slip-on shoes wearer to become MCU’s most interesting villain after Loki, and Ben Kingsley now has a triumvirate of very different tour-de-force performances – Gandhi, Don Logan and Trevor Slattery. What a dinner party they’d make. My full take on Iron Man 3 can be found here. SSP

About Sam Sewell-Peterson

I'm not paid to write about film - I do it because I love it. Favourites include Sam Mendes, Guillermo del Toro, Bong Joon-ho, Steven Spielberg, Danny Boyle, Edgar Wright, Taika Waititi and the Coen Brothers. All reviews and articles are original works owned by me. They represent one man's opinion, and I'm more than happy to engage in civilised debate if you disagree.
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