In prep for Avengers: Infinity War, I decided to rewatch the entire sequence from its 2008 beginnings. Why? Well, first: Why not? This audacious sequence of films has pulled off something no one has even come close to producing, except Lord of the Rings. During the course of 18 films over 10 years Marvel has woven a story together with the goal of paying it off in film 19. They found great actors to tell great stories about flawed heroes; heroes we recognized ourselves in.
And with the exception of one of those films, they were all solid and well done. And the one that wasn’t so great, well, it still has my respect because unlike Sony’s flailing at the Spidey universe, it woke them up to the fact that they had to produce quality if they wanted to succeed. They never stumbled again, though certainly the movies had differing impacts and approaches. And the clues and nods are just incredible to see when you know everything that is to come. As we get ready to leave the Joss Whedon era, who really set the template for this cycle, you have to wonder if anyone would have the guts and talent to try this again.
If you want to rewatch it all yourself, do it over at least three weeks. I squeezed this into less than two weeks at two or three films a day. Fun, but exhausting.
So here we go, in brief, through the dots that brought us here.
Phase One (though we didn’t know that for sure until Thor)
Iron Man is still a surprisingly effective movie. My original write-up is lost, but I still am amazed at how it subverted the comic genre on screen by being a real movie. We got to know and care about Tony Stark, despite his ego, or perhaps because of it. He was flawed but engaging. The world was believable and intriguing. It had humor and action and, above all, a really good script and acting. This wasn’t done with a nod and a wink, it was done to do it well and it showed, launching the huge franchise we are celebrating this year. Sure, the ending was a bit overblown and the villain a bit too teeth-gnashy, but the series would learn as it went along.
The Incredible Hulk is already a second bite at the apple at this character (third if you include Bixby’s series), but it does an interesting job of not disavowing Ang Lee and Eric Bana’s take by bridging from it to the this new version during the credits. It is substantially more comic book style than Iron Man and still struggles with its villains and finale. However, it is an important piece in the Avengers puzzle. It introduces the Super Soldier program, something lost on me till now, and it provides an important pivot for David Banner. This more morose and pouty Hulk has to leave his past behind and accept who he is to become the Ruffalo version. Sure that comment is a bit revisionist, but you get to do that when you see it after knowing where it will go. It isn’t a great film, but it continued the character-driven approach Marvel wanted and gave us hope they had some real sense of what they had…the tag with Tony and the General sealed the deal on it.
We all would like to forget that Iron Man 2 existed. It was rushed to screen and just doesn’t have the same polish as what had come before. But it is easy to forget that it also introduced Black Widow, got Pepper and Tony together, shifted Tony’s attitude, queued up Captain America with a couple nods, and continued Phil Coulson’s involvement. Having watched this the day after Rampage, however, I can confidently point out that while it may be just an action flick, it is still better than most of the similar tripe being produced even if it isn’t up to the MCU standards by any stretch. However, it also put the fear of god into Disney/Marvel/Kevin Feige. They never tried for a pure money grab again, knowing that they had to meet the expectations of their audience or risk losing it all. Here we are almost 19 films later because they learned their lesson.
Thor is where the MCU really started to hit its stride, understanding what they had and where they intended to go. It is the first 3D. It is the first to push the comedy throughout. It introduced the first Infinity Stone. And it tagged the end with a mention of The Avengers. Thor was always the one hero that worried me because it was off-realm gods and magic. How do you make that mainstream and believable next to human heroes (even if they’ve been mutated huge and green)? But they did it, and managed to launch Branagh’s career as a director of huge films to boot. They also took an existing god and gave him an origin story by making him mortal-ish for a good part of the film. Its one misstep, though it worked for the story, was Portman’s Jane, who they had to disappear to keep things going in subsequent films.
Captain America: The First Avenger. Hail Hydra! Where Thor had nailed the stride of the humor, Cap nailed the format of the MCU journey. The movie had its own style, reflective of its time period,ss and set up everything that was to come through Civil War (and a couple of TV spin offs as well). Despite the CG of Rogers never looking quite right at the beginning, it was still an effective and smart choice. And the ending manages to give us both action and pathos in a way that made it a great story as well as a solid action flick.
Marvel’s The Avengers redefined the term “big” when it came to films. Its non-stop action and coalescing storyline still amaze. It is full of character and some of the best moments yet to grace the series (then and now: Puny God!). It is the first taste of what Joss and Feige had planned for a much bigger feast and it certainly whet the appetite and proved they could pull off something no one else had even tried. And damn if they didn’t get you to feel the passing(ish) of a minor character with a great scene. Oh, and of course our first glimpse of Thanos.
Pivoting into Phase Two, Iron Man 3 kicked off a sequence that could best be termed: Consequences. Unexpectedly, if sometimes ham-handedly, it took on some serious matters like PTSD. It did so with humor and action, though it went a little off the rails in its blithe quippiness, Christmas theme, and kids. We know this world now, and with IR3 and Phase 2 , we’re getting a new sense of the characters, watching necessary doubt creep in this middle stretch of the sequence. It wasn’t what a lot of folks wanted, but it was fascinating and, again, necessary to build the platform that eventually becomes Ultron and Civil War. And, despite any of its weaknesses, it still is incredibly entertaining and rewatchable.
Thor: The Dark World has an odd flavor of political intrigue, but intrigue that has been in motion for quite a while. It also introduces the next Infinity Stone, but you could blink and miss that aspect if you didn’t know what you were looking for. In retrospect it is clear and sets up the Collector as well, who has his own role to play. It is full of humor and action, and it does advance some of the characters, but it feels a bit outside the Phase in some ways.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier takes a huge and brave leap for such a big sequence. It irrevocably changes the face and structure of the world, setting up Phase Three as well as impacting the spin-off series. Certainly there is a lot of character work here shimmed in between the action, and new characters who will continue forward. And, if you needed any other sense of how far ahead the crew plan, we also get our first mention of Doctor Strange in a throwaway interrogation…a hint that wouldn’t pay off for another five movies.
And now for something completely different; Guardians of the Galaxy. This romp, while still very much in the MCU, was a welcome break from what we knew and a huge expansion of characters to play with. Yes, it is a bit silly at times, especially how quickly the Guardians all bond, but the humor is fun and the action is great. There really is something for everyone in this branch of the universe, as well as laying out the mysteries to grow on and our first real interaction with an Infinity Stone.
All damaged characters, enter here: Avengers: Age of Ultron. This marked the end of the Joss Whedon era, and perhaps not on quite as high a note as he would have wanted. This story rewatches better than it played initially, though. It is a very psychologically complex tale with a lot of layered construction and cultural nods. It also has the trademark Whedon dialogue throughout, and the brilliant choice of Spader as Ultron. Also, this is the first direct mention of Wakanda and the tee-up for Black Panther. When you realize that this is the culmination of 10 previous films and the setup for the next eight (or 11 if you go through the full Phase Three sequence), the threads Whedon wove, and the guidance to get there, is going to be tough to match. Also, it’s worth noting that they were again willing to take the risk of pivoting to new characters and big changes, with more yet to come to keep it both fresh and, let’s face it, affordable.
Ant-Man gets a little absurd, admittedly, but maintains the connections and thread of the universe. And it’s a universe that can sustain a lot of different styles. That alone is something of note. Each movie, or perhaps better considered, each character has a particular sensibility that shapes the movies they are in. Be it the earnestness of Capt. America or the nuttiness of the Guardians or the comic book silliness of Ant-Man, each style supports the sense of the stories they are in. Ant-Man is fun and amusing, and uses its tech relatively well…at least within the confines of a PG rated film. That said, Ant-Man is the movie that feels the most out of place in the collection so far, even more than Guardians. I think that is because it is such a familiar world, but the action and dialogue are very broad in comparison.
Where Ultron showed the cracks in the friendships and group, in Captain America: Civil War it all goes to hell, launching the third phase through a moment of crisis and uncertainty. This installment is really more like Avengers 3 than a Captain America, but the schism formed here will surely come back to roost in a few films. For now, however, it serves more to break up the gang, redeem Bucky, and launch Black Panther. It is also the first of the films to show real fallout from the carnage that the heroes inflict upon the world trying to save it. The world’s reaction is eerily apropos current politics as well.
Forgetting that the medical scenes in Doctor Strange were just, well, absurd, the rest of it was really pretty fun visually, in action and dialogue. Where else could a cape become a character? And while it feels rather on its own in the universe for most of the tale, other than some throw-away side comments, by the end it is solidly ensconced in the larger tale leaving only a single Infinity Stone unaccounted for.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 tries a bit too hard to be bigger and better than its first iteration. The fact that is has the highest number of tags at the end of the film is symptomatic of that as well. However, some questions get answered, some necessary information was layered in, and the action is huge. Fortunately, the humor continues unabated as well. As romps go, it was a hoot, if not as unexpected now that we’ve seen these characters and have a sense of them. It does cement the Guardians as a self-selected family and has given them a purpose that will aim them squarely at Infinity War, even if some of the moments were a little forced. Also, the two Guardian movies make the best use of 3D in the MCU (at least so far). Or at least make the most conscious use of it. They do have an advantage being in space and all, but really it is more about the director thinking about the presentation from the outset and throughout the story.
Spider-Man: Homecoming was a wonderful surprise entering into the MCU. And with Marvel guiding the Sony franchise, it has been reinvigorated and morphed into something both new and closer to the original material. Whether Sony will respect that input and collaboration and stick with it remains to be seen (and rumors on the street are that they won’t). Still we’ll get at least a couple more appearances of Spidey over the next few years and we’ll get to watch him grow-up in reality and in his role as a superhero.
Meanwhile, back in Asgard… Thor: Ragnarok brings about a few necessary aspects of plot and relationship, but it is generally just a good romp. While it is mostly just a pause before the finale that is coming, it does also take make some radical changes, declared right in the title. How that will play out, other than with some additional fighters to tackle Thanos, we’ll find out soon. But as a film it is a weird, anachronistic, pastiche of Waititi’s humor and the MCU ethos. Great fun, to be sure, but definitely one of the oddest of the films in the sequence in terms of how the bits clash at times.
Black Panther surprised me by not being as good for rewatching as I’d expected. It still is fun, and a great new world to explore, but it is not the action film it feels like the first time through and had even weaker character motivations than I had recalled. And, on seeing it again, it is the political message that rings through it like a gong. Not that it was subtle the first time, but after you know the story, it is that aspect that clearly drives and shapes it all. By the end, though, all the pieces are in place for Thanos and one heck of a showdown. What will be very interesting is seeing where they take Wakanda and the very real issues raised in Panther’s launch.
And now, on to Infinity War… and then probably the longest coda and shift ever conceived (2 years and 3 movies) with Ant-Man and the Wasp, Captain Marvel, and what was originally Infinity War part 2 (as conceived by Whedon). Where MCU goes at that point is a matter of much conjecture and very little information, but these last films should give us a good sense of the direction.