COMPULSIVE FRANCHISE DISORDER- “The Marvel Cinematic Universe: Phase 1 (2008-2012)”

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The ‘Marvel Cinematic Universe’ is…kind of popular right now…

‘Marvel Entertainment’ was no stranger to film adaptations in the past, as they would license their properties to other studios, such as New Line Cinema and 20th Century Fox. This lead to some good movies, such as Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” trilogy and “Blade“, but was also responsible for some misfires like “Electra” and “Ghost Rider“. Apparently Marvel didn’t make a lot of money from these co-productions though, so they decided to risk everything to form their own independent studio, where they would have full artistic control over their brand…and reap the profits… When I say they risked everything, I am saying that they collateralized nearly all of their remaining properties to secure a $500,000,000 loan to get this project off the ground. The problem they encountered was that the majority of the household Marvel names, such as Spider-Man and Wolverine, were in the hands of other studios that had no desire to part from their cash cows. This meant that Marvel would have to rely on their lesser known characters, so there was absolutely no guarantee of box office success, regardless of the quality of their films. They had planned on building a shared universe from the beginning, but settled on Iron Man as their flagship character for pragmatic reasons. Marvel also had the cinematic rights to the equally quasi-famous Incredible Hulk and Captain America, but unlike them, Iron Man had yet to be tainted by a previous adaptation. Yet the studio continued to take risks, hiring Jon Favreau to direct “Iron Man“, even though he was primarily known for comedies and his attempt at a big budgeted blockbuster ended in…well, “Zathura“…They cast Robert Downy Jr. to be the lead, despite Jr. mostly being famous at this point for his drug addiction. They apparently even entered production without a completed script, letting the cast come up with their own dialogue! All of this must’ve sounded like some deranged form of seppuku to other studios, but did all of this risk-taking pay off?

Well, the ‘Marvel Cinematic Universe’ is…kind of popular right now…

I’ve actually reviewed a lot of these movies in the past, which can mostly be seen in the form of mini-reviews, so click HERE and search for those, if you like.

IRON MAN (2008)

(Directed by Jon Favreau)

(Written by Mark Fergus , Hawk Ostby , Art Marcum and Matt Holloway)

(Starring Robert Downy Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeff Bridges)

When I first saw “Iron Man” in 2008, I was convinced that I had just witnessed one of the finest adaptations of a comic book to ever grace the screen. When I saw “Iron Man” in 2018, I grew very depressed because it has been 10 f@cking years and I am practically a Grandpa at the ripe old age of 32…*Sigh*…But before that dawned on me, I was still convinced that I had witnessed one of the finest adaptations of a comic book to ever grace the screen. The story follows Tony Stark (Robert Downy Jr.) a brilliant-yet-hedonistic weapons manufacturer, whose life drastically changes when he’s abducted by terrorists for the sole purpose of building an incredibly deadly bomb for them. Instead, he uses those resources to create a suit of armor that will allow him to escape. He soon realizes that he can do a lot more than just ‘escape’ with this idea…Everything that I adored about the movie a…*sigh*…decade ago still holds up today. I love the story because it uses the ‘War on Terror’ as a backdrop for Tony Stark’s journey, making the conflict seem more grounded in reality. Yet our escapist desires are quenched when we see the first ‘Iron Man’ suit in action, kicking the crap out of the bewildered terrorists. I actually believe Tony Stark is the most compelling (cinematic) comic book hero…period…even moreso than the likes of Batman and Superman, because he has the most moving character arcs. He’s shallow, spoiled and vain, but even from the beginning, there is something charming and likable about him…even when he’s being kind of a dick. Yet when he’s brought down and forced to build himself back up, the story showcases his attempts to improve himself, without really changing his central characterization. But Rome was not built in a day and Tony isn’t going to undo all of his bad habits immediately, so his journey feels a lot more meaningful. Robert Downy Jr. was PERFECT casting, as his sharp and witty lines are consistently hilarious, BUT he also knows when to pull back. When things grow dire, he becomes serious and Downy Jr. sells us on the urgency of whatever situation Tony’s in. He also has great chemistry with everyone he encounters, whether it’s his love interest Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) or his banter with his buddy Rhodes (Terence Howard; who would eventually be replaced by Don Cheadle) and his mentor Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges). I won’t discuss the villains too much here, but let me just say that their performances are menacing and they provide a great foil for Tony.

In the context of 2018, it’s sort of baffling to go back and revisit the early entries of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. We’ve become so accustomed to excessive CGI, larger than life battle sequences and out-of-this-world threats that it’s easy to forget the MCU’s smaller scale beginnings. Iron Man doesn’t fight aliens, gods or cyborgs. His enemies are tanks, jets and armed insurgents, but I actually find this to be a lot more visually interesting than seeing him face mutants, robots, etc. The action is simpler, yet a lot more effective and it’s very satisfying seeing the iconic suit get formed for the first time…and even more satisfying seeing it get used for the first time. The CGI still holds up well and it’s balanced with practical effects, along with some nice sleight-of-hand editing which makes the CGI resemble practical effects. I still feel like the final battle with the Iron Monger was the weakest part of the movie, as I don’t really like it when a hero fights an evil version of himself. Yet it doesn’t really weaken the movie, as I was still invested in the stakes and the drama of the conflict. There are a few plot holes, which are filled in the deleted scenes section, but I was willing to step around them as the explanatory deleted scenes weren’t very interesting. “Iron Man” is perfectly paced, while Jon Favreau’s direction is inventive, fresh.and allows the cast to perform at their fullest. “Iron Man” is just one of those special cases where all of its pieces united to make an awesome whole, an awesome start to a franchise and an…impossibly awesome high standard that the MCU has yet to really reach…

Rating: 9/10 ★★★★★★★★★☆ 

THE INCREDIBLE HULK (2008)

(Directed by Louis Leterrier)

(Written by Zak Penn)

(Starring Edward Norton, Liv Tyler and William Hurt)

I was hostile towards the existence of “The Incredible Hulk” when it was first released, because I don’t like the idea of a movie being rebooted within 5 years of the last one. There was admittedly a lot of ambiguity as to whether this was a reboot of the franchise or a sequel to the 2003 incarnation of “Hulk“, but it quickly became apparent that at the absolute least, this was a soft reboot. Spider-Man would eventually upstage Hulk by annoying me with its quick succession of reboots, while “The Incredible Hulk” was just sort of…forgotten about…even though it’s technically still part of the ‘Marvel Cinematic Universe’. Watching it now in 2018, I think the movie is forgettable yet passable. “The Incredible Hulk” has little that I would call impressively good, but it also has little that I would call annoyingly bad. 10 years ago, I thought the special effects and direction were underwhelming compared to “Iron man“, but I will admit that they’ve aged more gracefully than the majority…maybe even all?…of the ‘Phase 1’ Marvel flicks. The Hulk himself will always look a little animated, but the havoc he wrecks still looks convincing. The action scenes are fun and nicely staged, with the final battle between Hulk and the Abomination showcasing decent storytelling along with the cool spectacle. But “Thor” and “Captain America: The First Avengers” had more eye popping visual styles, “Iron Man” and its immediate sequel would have more inventive action set pieces and “The Avengers” makes Hulks’ rampages here look small in comparison…and all of them have better scripts, even though I wouldn’t call “The Incredible Hulk” poorly written. The story and the character development…they’re fine…just fine…I have little good or bad to say about the writing. The Hulk himself has a much different design than the one that was popularized by “The Avengers“, which I thought was interesting. The filmmakers are trying to sexy him up, but I liked the green eyes, the muted skin tone and the greater emphasis on his muscle definition. I’m not saying that this version is any better than what we would get later on, but it’s different. The Abomination looks really cool too, even though I felt Blonsky (Tim Roth) was an underdeveloped villain. He’s not as nasty as General Ross (William Hurt), but he also doesn’t have any depth, stakes or nuance. I couldn’t tell what I was supposed to feel about him throughout the majority of his screen-time, whereas Ross is easy to both pity and hate at the same time.

One of the reasons why “The Incredible Hulk” is often overlooked is that it under-performed both critically and financially, being the closest to a ‘bomb’ that the MCU has yet to experience. Fans of the source material prefer “The Incredible Hulk” over “Hulk (2003)” for being more faithful to the comics and focusing more on entertainment value than a misguided attempt at being artsy, but its box office performance wasn’t any better in the long run. Edward Norton (Bruce Banner) is good here, but I think he’s at his best when he’s playing edgier roles, so it’s strange that this version of Bruce Banner is less conflicted than Eric Bana’s interpretation of the character. There are many conflicting reports as to why Norton didn’t reprise the role, ranging from money to creative differences to Norton being difficult to work with, but either way, Mark Ruffalo filled Hulks’ shoes more naturally…yet the recasting certainly pushed “The Incredible Hulk” into obscurity. Furthermore, I think most of us will agree that it was too early to start world building, as both SHIELD and Nic Fury are name-dropped, while Tony Stark (Robert Downy Jr.) cameos, but these references came off as more tacky and distracting than anything else. Even though the comics attempt to explain this, “Iron Man 2” contradicts the continuity in regards to Tony’s involvement with the Avengers. Finally, the tone is much darker than ANY of the MCU flicks, for better or worse. The formula that the franchise would ultimately adopt would be more light hearted and humorous, even though it wouldn’t shy from drama and tension either. “The Incredible Hulk” is a bit of a wet blanket, focusing on Banner’s PTSD, his inability to find happiness and his helplessness to deal with the situation. The filmmakers are trying to make you care, but the director overcooks the drama, using stale methods. When characters are sad, it will start to rain…because apparently that cliche is still alive…Liv Tyler’s performance is so overwrought that she even clutches at her heart when thinking about the man she loves and it’s played so straight. I couldn’t take it seriously at all! There are a few (intentionally) comical moments, but they stand out as incredibly awkward, as if they were forced in there following the success of “Iron Man“. I don’t care if ‘HULK SMASH’ is his catchphrase from the comics, it sounds silly in a movie where the music is dour and Edward Norton is putting on his best sad face…”Hulk (2003)” took itself seriously and people hate it, but I’d argue “The Incredible Hulk” took itself equally seriously, which becomes baffling when it suddenly embraces the campy elements of the comic books.

There are other problems, such as how the military seems abnormally dumb at times, even if the film itself acknowledges this. Betty Ross (Liv Tyler) has a boyfriend, but his subplot dissipates so unceremoniously that I wondered why they included it in the first place. These aren’t critical flaws, but like everything else, “The Incredible Hulk” is just a very middling movie and Marvel’s standards have increased so much since the initial release date that it simply has no place in their business model anymore. They did eventually bring back General Ross for “Captain America: Civil War” though and there have been rumors that Betty will return to the saga eventually and the tie-in comics do continue the storyline of the Abomination and…oh yeah, I almost forgot about ‘The Leader’…That set-up was seemingly forgotten about, but apparently he does appear in the extended universe. So it’s not like “The Incredible Hulk” is a source of shame, nor has it been scrubbed from the continuity like “Hulk (2003)” was, but it’s unlikely we’ll ever get a sequel because Universal technically owns the distribution rights for any standalone Hulk movies. Personally, I’m content with the Hulk being part of an ensemble, as I don’t think the character is compelling on his own.

Rating: 5.5/10 ★★★★★½☆☆☆☆ 

IRON MAN 2 (2010)

(Directed by Jon Favreau)

(Written by Justin Theroux)

(Starring Robert Downy Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow and Don Cheadle)

The much anticipated sequel to “Iron Man” was released to positive reviews, but it seems like the reputation of “Iron Man 2” has grown toxic over the years. Even its most passionate defenders will acknowledge that it’s not as great as the first one, even though one could argue that “Iron Man” was lightning in a bottle, which the MCU is still trying to recapture. But I do remember the majority of its viewers in 2010 agreeing that it was good enough to be a satisfying sequel, whereas most compliments it receives these days are more backhanded. I think part of the backlash is that it was eventually revealed that Jon Favreau endured a lot of executive meddling during production, contributing to a reputation that the studio would eventually be forced to address after similar controversies emerged surrounding “Ant-Man” and “The Avengers: Age of Ultron“. Looking back on the story, it’s easy to see where Favreau’s vision ends and the studio’s begins. Tony Stark (Robert Downy Jr.) has outed himself as Iron Man and must now endure the consequences of his actions. The Government wants his suit, hostile countries are trying to create their own and his reactor is slowly killing him…fueling his self destructive tendencies. When he’s suddenly attacked by Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), a similar prodigy with his own suit and a wildly different upbringing, he’s pushed off the edge. He begins alienating those closest to him- most prominently Pepper Pots (Gwyneth Paltrow), who he has made CEO of his company and Lt. Rhodes (Don Cheadle, who replaced Howard and whose performance in THIS movie isn’t quite as good), who’s getting tired of sticking his neck out for Tony. I suspect all of this was what Favreau wanted to explore, but most of these conflicts end up being underdeveloped because Marvel wanted to use “Iron Man 2” to set up “The Avengers“. SHIELD ends up playing a sizable role, as Nic Fury (Samuel Jackson) is trying to both save/recruit Tony, while also planting spies in his company. There are also some pretty heavy references to Captain America and Thor, both of which stop the story dead in its tracks…This isn’t even counting all of the other Easter Eggs (Hulk, Tesseract), the introduction of the Black Widow and Rhodes becoming War Machine. One of the problems with shared universes is that you start to get the impression that the movie is more interested in setting up sequels than telling its own story, but “Iron Man 2” is an unusual case. I do feel like “Iron Man 2” was more interested in telling its own story, it just also has to make room for setting up the sequels, at the expense of the story it wants to tell. There is just too much going on and I often found myself questioning if certain characters like Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) or certain storythreads (Stark’s conflict with the Government) were even necessary. The villain, Ivan Vanko, ends up being the biggest casualty of this cluttered narrative. Mickey Rourke’s performance is intense and mysterious, but Vanko often feels like an afterthought. Most of the story is focused on Tony’s personal demons and Vanko only shows up when an action set piece is necessary to remind us that he’s still around. After an initial fight, Tony spends the majority of the movie unaware that he even has a real nemesis, so their conflict is just as underdeveloped as Vanko is.

Yet…I liked “Iron Man 2” upon release and my feelings haven’t changed over my recent reviewing. Marvel might’ve crammed too much additional material that compromises the narrative, but you know what? At least every strand of story is entertaining on its own. I liked Tony’s interactions with the various agents of SHIELD, the Captain America gag was just as amusing as it was pointless and even if Justin Hammer could’ve been written out, he’s also hilarious in his Sam Rockwell kind of way. The banter between Tony and Pepper or between Tony and Rhodes might not be as inspired as the equivalent from “Iron Man“, but it’s still charming and fun. The special effects have aged gracefully, moreso than the majority of its contemporaries. A lot of attention is paid to the details, so the CGI interacts more with the environments, making it seem more realistic. I liked how Vanko’s whiplash technology tears into the roads whenever it misses its target. I liked how the action scenes are (mostly) grounded in reality and simple compared to what would come later. The battle on the race track is awesome because it’s inventive with its effects. The ‘Iron Man suitcase’ was really cool and it’s so much more exciting watching him suit up like that, piece by piece, rather than just having it materialize through nanotechnology. I know it makes more sense that future movies would have him continue to upgrade his technology, but it’s much more visually interesting at this current level. When Vanko starts slicing off pieces of the car, I thought to myself “This is too small in scale for any of the recent MCU films“, but I PREFER that. These days, the car probably would’ve been blown away or disintegrated somehow, but watching Vanko’s whips sever one part at a time makes the effect feel more elaborate and convincing. I also thought Vanko’s whips were unique and added a nice contrast to Iron Man’s style, although unfortunately, the final battle was a step down compared their much more exciting first round. “Iron Man 2” might be unfocused, somewhat messy and perhaps it even embodies everything tiring about shared universes, but it moves fast enough, maintains much of the charm of its predecessor and Tony Stark continues to be the most compelling of the MCU heroes. I still enjoyed it and consider it to be a solid sequel, even with its flaws.

Rating: 7/10 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ 

THOR (2011)

(Directed by Kenneth Branagh)

(Written by Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz and Don Payne )

(Starring Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman and Tom Hiddleston)

One of the more surreal aspects of revisiting the earlier entries of the Marvel Cinematic Universe these days is beholding how much the franchise has changed over the years, for better or worse. With “Thor: Ragnarok” and “The Avengers: Infinity War” so fresh on my mind, it’s easy to forget that there was a time when Thor was not a comedic character, but had his introduction in a story of Shakespearean drama. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is the god of Thunder, ready to inherit the Throne of Asgard from King Odin (Anthony Hopkins), but his arrogance leads to a war, forcing his Father to strip him of his powers and banish him to Earth. Thor finds himself learning a lesson in humility the hard way, but his enemies conspire against his Kingdom, so will he learn in time? I’ve always felt that “Thor” had an incredibly strong first act, one that the rest of the movie isn’t able to live up too. The CGI is somewhat uneven by todays standards, but the visuals are imaginative and eye popping. Marvel has improved upon the special effects and have created many fantastic worlds, but none measure up the majesty of Asgard, which continues to take my breath away. Thor’s powers are awesome and make for some inventive, exciting action sequences. But “Thor” isn’t just about eye candy, as the Asgardians are all interesting and fun characters. I especially liked Thor’s friends, who’re all so colorful, eccentric and distinct. As one can expect from Kenneth Branagth, the acting is very broad, so everyone emotes to ridiculous levels, but it fits perfectly within this setting. Watching Anthony Hopkins and Chris Hemsworth battling to see who could chew the most scenery is worth the price of admission alone, but I felt like everyone had their moment to stand out. Everyone contributed to me being entertained on some level…making it sting even more when the film shifts gears.

I understand the dramatic appeal of taking away everything that made Thor…Thor…I get why the filmmakers would think that taking him out of his element and forcing him into the mortal realm is a compelling idea…For what it’s worth, I had a warmer reception to Thor’s character arc this time around than I did in my initial viewing. Chris Hemsworth sold me on the character development, even if it does seem a little rushed. I also thought that Hemsworth and Natalie Portman (Jane) had good enough chemistry to make their romantic interactions work, even if Jane only exists to be his love interest. I even appreciated Stellan Skarsgård (Selvig) and Kat Dennings (Darcy), who round out the supporting cast on Earth…But even though these characters aren’t boring, I found myself wishing that the focus was on Thor’s comrades. They entertained me more, so when they’re more-or-less replaced by the Earthlings within the context of the story, it left a crater that would never be filled. The acting is deliberately toned down on Earth, which makes sense, but I preferred the campiness of what was taking place in Asgard. The action isn’t going to be as exciting because without his powers, Thor brawls like every other action hero…The visuals aren’t going to be as breathtaking because the fantastical Kingdom of Asgard has been traded out for a boring desert town…I understand what the director was going for, but it resulted in my interest being really inconsistent. I was never bored or impatient, but I ended up preferring Loki over Thor, just because Loki interacted with the more interesting characters, within a MUCH more compelling environment. I’m used to Loki being funny, so I had forgotten how angsty he was in his debut. He’s a great character because you never really know what he’s going to do next. Once again, this doesn’t mean the scenes which take place on Earth are bad. They’re fine, it’s just the movie teased us with a feast, only to serve salad instead. The finale is really uneven thanks to some questionable editing and framing, but you can never go wrong with a climax that takes place on a Rainbow bridge. “Thor” isn’t as intent on setting up future entries as “Iron Man 2” was, but its references were arguably more distracting. When I first saw Hawkeye (Jeremy Runner), I was confused because he was clearly set up to be important, but nothing was done with him…because he’s only present so that we know who he is when “The Avengers” comes around. “Thor” might be a little frustrating, a little hokey in parts and even a little underwhelming in the grand scheme of the franchise, but it’s a solid film that stands out more now because the Marvel formula has changed so much. The movie is more dramatic than comical, more character driven than action packed and has a villain who is more tragic than threatening. It’s neither among my favorite or least favorite entries in the MCU, standing safely in the middleground.

Rating: 6.5/10 ★★★★★★½☆☆☆ 

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER (2011)

(Directed by Joe Johnston)

(Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely)

(Starring Chris Evans, Hayley Atwell and Tommy Lee Jones)

Joe Johnston, Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely and the rest of their team are responsible for what might be the finest accomplishment in the history of cinema…one that transcends the art itself…They were able to make me take Captain America seriously…I’ve never followed the comics, but the design of the character alone is so giggling inducing that I couldn’t imagine him in the dark and gritty era of Christopher Nolan, Bryan Singer and Zack Snyder. The only way the filmmakers could pull this off is if they…built a time machine…and returned to the 1990’s, where it could be double billed with “Batman and Robin“, making it look better by default…or they could just hire Reb Brown to play Cap, but that would be silly…Yet for all of my doubts, I found myself liking the titular character of “Captain America: The First Avenger” and thought they incorporated his inherently cheesy gimmick in a creative, clever way that fit snugly in the age of darker comic book adaptations. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is Captain America, but before he dons the shield and spandex, he was a scrawny, sickly man who just wanted to serve during World War 2. He eventually gets his shot to be part of an experimental procedure that might enhance him, but the Nazi organization known as ‘Hydra’ has its own scientific developments that could tip the war in their favor…So Rogers has to save the world by…touring the country and selling bonds…like a true super hero! Chris Evans is the real hero of this movie though, as without his natural charm, charisma and likability, I don’t think “Captain America: The First Avenger” would’ve succeeded. The character doesn’t have the same standout personality or potential for a character arc that Thor and Iron Man benefited from, nor is he a tragic figure like the Hulk. He doesn’t even have any real flaws, which makes Steve Rogers sound incredibly boring, but Chris Evans’s performance strikes the perfect balance of wish fulfillment and relatability. Admittedly, there does reach a point where the character stagnates…but we aren’t quite there yet.

The first half of “Captain America: The First Avenger” is really good, as the writers do an excellent job at setting up the story, characters and setting. Everything about Rogers’ origins was moving and satisfying, while Johann ‘Redskull’ Schmidt (Hugo Weaving) oozed of menace and intrigue. The supporting cast play off of the hero and the villain nicely, while being reasonably interesting on their own. We get to meet Tony’s Father, Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) and see the foundation of SHIELD. The action scenes are unique because a lot more practical effects are used and visually, “Captain America: The Fist Avenger” is more akin to a war movie with science fiction flavoring than it does a Comic Book adaptation, something that continues to make Captain America’s first outing stand out amongst the remainder of the MCU. I actually found myself loving how Captain America’s campy outfit contrasted with the bleak landscapes, as the cheesiness of it serves the story in a way that makes sense. But everything starts to grow stale around the final hour…There is a lot more CGI and it stood out awkwardly even back when the movie was first released…and also has aged poorly over the years…The final battle is shockingly dull and tonally doesn’t fit with the rest of the feature. Steve Rogers reaches the peek of his development around the half way point, so stops being a character and starts becoming a handsome looking prop for the action scenes- although the final few minutes make up for this *sniffles*. I remember thinking back in 2011 that Bucky (Sebastian Stan) was poorly utilized, as little time is spent on him adjusting to the new dynamics of his and Steve’s relationship. His ‘story’ concluded in an abrupt manner that made me wonder why he was even in the movie in the first place…It turns out that he exists to set up the sequel, but that doesn’t change how awkwardly implemented he is here. I liked Peggy (Hayley Atwell) and thought she had good chemistry with Steve, but they separate for a large period of time, derailing the credibility of their romance and…now that I think about it, the quality arguably drops when the supporting cast is changed out far too late in the story. The new faces are played by great actors, but their characterizations amount to their ethnic backgrounds and accents, so it’s harder to care about them. Redskull also deteriorates as a villain, as his imposing presence had previously made up for his lack of depth, but when he starts losing EVERY battle, it becomes difficult to take him seriously. “Captain America: The First Avenger” is one of my least favorite MCU movies, as the 2nd half siphons out so much of the entertainment value that the first half was delivering. BUT as I said, it made me able to take Captain America seriously, so it’s not a total loss. In fact, even when Marvel stumbles, they only stumble softly…

Rating: 6/10 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

THE AVENGERS (2012)

(Directed by Joss Whedon)

(Written by Joss Whedon and Zak Penn)

(Starring Robert Downy Jr, Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth)

The Avengers” is the reason why the ‘Marvel Cinematic Universe’ is probably the biggest franchise in history, as it boasted such a simple-yet-insanely effective gimmick that I’m surprised wasn’t used more often in the past. “Iron Man“, “Thor“, “Captain America” and “The Incredible Hulk” are mostly standalone movies, but what happens when you put all of these larger than life personalities in the same room? The answer is a marketing departments’ wet dream and it was no surprise when this ended up being the biggest success for the company at the time. In fact, “The Avengers” was so popular that even the subsequent MCU entries would get a boost in the box office, despite having softer critical acclaim. I reviewed this back in 2012, which you can read HERE and I heralded “The Avengers” as a ‘perfect blockbuster’ and one of the finest comic book adaptations ever made. I would still argue that it’s great…within the context of 2012…I’m not entirely sure “The Avengers” has aged with the utmost grace, as we’re now used to seeing these same characters interact in deeper storylines, with better character development and bigger action set pieces. Yet back then, this was completely new and it was exhilarating to see the likes of Thor and Tony Stark bicker or Bruce Banner and Steve Rogers bond. Joss Whedon does a great job at highlighting all of the characters personality differences, so it’s fun watching everyone develop a repertoire that felt right with their characterizations. There are a lot of funny lines and great reactions to the absurdities going on all around the cast, so I was in a constant state of laughter. At the time, I was concerned that “The Avengers” would struggle with balancing its screen-time amongst all of the characters, but everyone has multiple moments to shine and serve a distinct purpose within the story. We knew Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and the Incredible Hulk would be the primary players, but I was surprised how much Nic Fury (Samuel Jackson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Black Widow (Scarlett Johanson) and even Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) were able to stand out amongst the crowd. During the final battle, everyone brings their skill set to the table and I didn’t feel like any of them were less interesting than the rest. Mark Ruffalo replaces Edward Norton as Bruce Banner/the Hulk and I found him to be more relatable, endearing and complex than any of the Hulk’s previous incarnations- including Norton. Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is the antagonist once more, but he’s more sinister and funny this time around, playing off everyone else perfectly.

The Avengers” is a lot of fun. It moves at a swift pace, showcases a lot of epic battle sequences with top notch effects, choreography and style. I don’t think Whedon is as great of a director as some of the other filmmakers behind the MCU, such as the Russo Brothers, but he was the perfect choice for this because he knows how to the pump the audience up. The ‘heroic pose’ shots are so cool and the final battle has this AWESOME tracking shot where we get to see everyone in action. The visuals utilize a vibrant color scheme that feels reminiscent of a comic book, being completely unlike what we had seen in the previous films…and what we would see in subsequent films…I have heard complaints about this, as it can look a little too cartoonish at times and Captain America’s costume stands out as especially ridiculous, but Whedon’s campier sensibilities fit the tone and I didn’t have a problem with it. But in hindsight, as entertaining as “The Avengers” is, it’s pretty shallow compared to what was to come. The character development and conflicts sometimes felt forced. I understand why they’re bickering, but did Thor seriously just try to kill Captain America with his hammer? It’s a great visual, but seems…wrong…Banner and Thor are repeating the same character development they underwent in their solo films, although at least Tony’s arc continues to progress. I didn’t mind Rogers’ prickly behavior, as it’s established he’s still pretty bitter over the events of “Captain America: The First Avenger“, but this never seems to go anywhere. There is a shot of Thor reluctantly picking up his Hammer, as if he’s worried he might be unworthy, but we never had any reason to believe he had doubts about himself. I’ve heard that deleted scenes restore a lot of the depth for these characters, but they were removed because they slowed down the pacing too much, so it’s hard to tell whether the trade was worth it. Sequels would arguably make “The Avengers” somewhat obsolete, but the simplicity of the shared universe gimmick and the emphasis on quips, action scenes, etc. was what audiences wanted, so the movie accomplished its goals and then some. I still had a lot of fun during my most recent viewing though, so even if I no longer agree with my previous ‘one of the finest comic book adaptations ever made‘ claims, it’s still one of the more entertaining and important comic book adaptations ever made.

The remainder of the franchise would be molded in its image and other studios would desperately attempt to create their own shared universe, based solely on the success of “The Avengers“. Unfortunately, Marvel Entertainment seems to have been the only one to understand that you need to build up to these cross-over events, whereas everyone else wanted to immediately cash-in on them…Is it bad that I almost want to drop the MCU review series to do a ‘Compulsive Franchise Disorder’ critique on the colossal-yet-fascinating train-wreck known as the ‘DC Extended Universe’? That sounds like something I’d love to sink my teeth into, as the DCEU is what happens when you screw up the ‘shared universe’ gimmick…and let’s not even get into what happened to the ‘Dark Universe’…They haven’t all failed though. The ‘Monsterverse’, which has spent three movies building up to “King Kong Vs Godzilla“, has found success. Deadpool and Harry potter have been dabbling in the concept and The Conjuring Universe“…if that must be a thing…is swimming in profit. “The Avengers” didn’t create shared universes, as Universal Studios was technically doing that all the way back in the 1940’s. Toho then combined its iconic properties in the 1960’s. In the 2000’s, Freddy fought Jason, Aliens battled Predators and…Puppet Masters allied themselves with Demonic Toys to torment ME, but until “The Avengers” conquered the box-office, cross-over events were regarded as desperate attempts to salvage dying franchises. Marvel not only made the gimmick cool, it made the gimmick into the hottest trend that the industry has seen in years! Some might be burned out on shared universes, but I still adore them, as if they aren’t good, then at least they’ll probably be interestingly bad.

Rating: 7.5/10 ★★★★★★★½☆☆ 

 

‘Phase 1’ of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is in some ways the weakest of the three phases, but in other ways the most interesting of them. The franchise was enduring growing pains early on, so the films are all tonally, stylistically and structurally different, as Marvel had yet to settle on its soon-to-be classic formula. It was strange revisiting the older entries and remembering that there was a time when the filmmakers balanced CGI with practical effects, when the stories were much more grounded in reality and when the settings didn’t always feel like they were part of a shared universe. “Iron Man” is still the best entry within this franchise, but most of the other films within phase 1 are (usually) not as good as their equivalents from Phase 2 and Phase 3. The latter sequels and additions might start to blend in with each-other after awhile, as they share the same kind of comedic banter, aesthetics and story structure, but the MCU only uses its cherished formula because it works. There isn’t a single bad ‘Phase 1’ flick, but sometimes the narratives sag or the visual effects falter, probably because the early entries didn’t have the resources that subsequent phases would demand. ‘Phase 1’ might have been struggling to find its identity, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Those who are burned out on the Marvel Cinematic Universe these days usually favor ‘Phase 1’, as It was developed during a period when the individual filmmakers still had their voices and could make their own kinds of movies, even though they were also partaking in a shared vision. ‘Phase 1’ is the most distinct and easy to remember of the three phases, even if it’s not necessarily the best.