Looking Back on Marvel’s Phase One

Marvel Studios has come a long way since 2008 and they are showing no signs of slowing down. In their plan to ensure world dominance, Marvel has chosen to not only introduce their expansive library of characters, but to also combine them into a larger narrative. Iron Man would be the first, ushering in a new era of comic book movies that culminated in the holy grail of superhero mash-ups, The Avengers. Now, with Age of Ultron hitting theaters this week, I’m taking a look back on how far we’ve come in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, starting, of course, with Phase One.

Iron Man Iron_Man_ExplosionIndisputably my favorite film out of Phase One, Iron Man redefined what a superhero movie could do. No easy feat considering it came out the same year as The Dark Knight. Director Jon Favreau chose to embrace the colorful world of his characters, something not unlike Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man. Of course, there’s plenty of seriousness to go around. In the wake of the Iraq War, could a narcissist like Tony Stark find a place in a cynical, post-9/11 context? The opening scene alone proved that it was a match made in heaven. The casting of Robert Downey Jr. was spot on, a choice that was met with much skepticism leading up to the film’s release. Imagine everyone’s surprise at the end of the film’s first act, where Downey Jr. not only nailed the essence of the character but won over our hearts completely. That is perhaps the film’s biggest accomplishment. It reignited the flame of a star whom we all assumed had burned out for good. And the man continues to shine. Can Downey play Tony Stark for the rest of his life? Here’s hoping!

The Incredible Hulkthe-incredible-hulkMarvel has pretty much distanced itself from this film. Who can blame them? It’s a half-step back after a tremendous stride made by Iron Man. But the film has its merits. Using the fugitive-on-the-run story, it provided a gritty way in to the narrative without having to retread through the origins already covered by Ang Lee’s Hulk. That is both the strength and weakness of the film. Doing something different is admirable, but since the film dipped its toes into Banner’s origin anyway, one can’t help but wonder why they didn’t strive to create a definitive portrait of the character. What followed instead was a “this-is-kind-of-a-sequel-but-not-really” type of movie, which only made it more frustrating. Again, it’s not a bad film. Louis Leterrier stages the campus attack pretty well, and his creativity in the final battle sequence is quite fun (the Hulk using cars as boxing gloves is something right out of a child’s imagination). Aside from that, this was largely a missed opportunity, one that led to the casting of Mark Ruffalo. This was a mistake that Marvel needed to make.

Iron Man 2 2010_iron_man_2_076If Iron Man was the big bang that created the Marvel Cinematic Universe, then its sequel was more of a whimper into the abyss. It had the misfortune of juggling too many stories at once, which hindered the narrative and made the whole experience feel more like a detour than a journey. Right from the start, the film’s main theme is centered on legacy – an appropriate choice considering that Stark’s legacy is in utter freefall. What is Tony to do after dismantling his weapons branch? What becomes of the Stark name – a name that is synonymous with military weapons technology? These are all interesting questions, none of which gets its due screen time because the film is too preoccupied with other conflicts. Ivan Vanko is more of a loose end from the first film and feels like he got saved purposefully for Tony to confront his past when the story clearly wants him to focus on his future. Then, we have SHIELD coming in (turning the film into Avengers 0.5) and cheating the narrative by providing a quick solution to Tony’s palladium-poisoning, which is way too convenient for a guy who spent the entirety of the first film building the suit. Don’t get me wrong, these are all compelling elements on their own, had they been done right. Rushed and crammed into one film, however, they don’t make for a compelling movie. The film does have an action-packed finale, as Marvel finales often do, but it ends rather anticlimactically (You put your hand up. I put my hand up. EXPLOSION!!!). To top it all off, the film decides to end with a joke, one that’s nowhere near as resonant as declaring “I am Iron Man.” I’ll admit, it’s always fun to watch Downey Jr. at play, and nearly being outmatched by a wacked-out Sam Rockwell. Sadly, not even they can outrun a poor script.

Thor THOR-Loki-MovieIf Guardians of the Galaxy was Marvel’s most ambitious risk in Phase Two, then Thor was their biggest gamble out of all of Phase One. How could you possibly sell a hammer-wielding Norse god? In a world infused with magic and medieval fantasy? Turns out, a little bit of good-natured humor would go a long way, which made it easier for audiences to digest the film’s scope. Director Kenneth Branaugh succeeded by honing in on a human story, proving to be more of an exercise in humility, literally, than an exercise in special effects. Marvel, fortunately, learned their lesson from Iron Man 2 and downgraded SHIELD to a mere presence than a subplot. Nevertheless, the film made a star out of Chris Hemsworth, whose charm and pecs would have audiences swooning. But let’s not forget about Tom Hiddleston, whose performance as Loki was equally captivating (who else can stand up to Sir Anthony Hopkins like that?). Little did we know that Mr. Hiddleston was only getting warmed up.

Captain America captain-americaAs weird as it is to say, I didn’t think Steve Rogers would make for a compelling on-screen character. I didn’t think audiences would fare well with a guy who literally wears our nation’s emblem on his sleeves, one who embodies the patriotism and jingoism of the WWII era. Turns out, that was one of the film’s many strengths. One of the cardinal rules in storytelling is that you have to darken a character in order to make him interesting. But not Cap. You don’t need to overplay any emotional guilt or fixate on some unspoken childhood trauma. What you see is what you get, and he sums up his ideal in one line: “I don’t like bullies.” It’s more than enough to define who he is and what he will become. While the film does have its flaws (an ending that rushes to its epilogue; a muddled visual palette), overall it’s a good old-fashioned story about the underdog who triumphs in the end. The same could be said about Chris Evans. He had expectations going against him (the guy from Not Another Teen Movie???). But he proved to be a commanding presence, one that relied more on nuance than ego. His performance as Cap would only get better from there.

Alas, Captain America was the final piece of the puzzle. Each film had the daunting task of creating a standalone origin story while continuing to build Marvel’s massive universe – something that’s never been done before. You can tell they were preparing for something epic. And I don’t think any of us were ready for the sheer magnitude of it.

Tomorrow, my review of The Avengers.

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