This year marks the tenth anniversary of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and to celebrate this, and the run-up to Infinity War, I’ll be taking a look at every film released in the MCU at this point, starting from the very beginning.
Note: Due to the sheer number of films covered, these reviews won’t be as in-depth as my usual posts, simply taking a brief look at the film and my opinions of it.
Iron Man (2008) – Directed by John Favereu
It’s unbelievable that the MCU began ten bloody years ago with this strong start, Iron Man. This introduced everything the MCU is now beloved for, first and foremost, Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark, who has proven to be the perfect casting.
Who knows whether when they were making this whether they knew the amorphous monster this franchise will become? It doesn’t carry the burden of later movies; such as feeling like an episode in an unusually long TV series, it feels focused as a result on establishing Tony and Iron Man as the man and character, there were little glimpses of what’s to come, namely the now prerequisite post-credits scene, featuring the first mention of the word ‘Avengers’ and appearance of Nick Fury.
The film was directed by MCU favourite Jon Favreau, who would return for the sequel and portray Tony’s bodyguard, Happy Hogan, who’s appearance would become more and more vital as the films progress.
This is one of the stronger franchise starters, it made reference to a bigger future while focusing on the characters it is introducing, it’s also one of the few early MCU movies that I personally enjoy going back to, it’s enjoyable, funny and the action is honed to a fine shine.
The Incredible Hulk (2008) – Directed by Louis Leterrier
It only took until the second movie for Marvel to misstep. Now, The Incredible Hulk isn’t a terrible film, there are worse movies even in the MCU itself, but it is crushingly dull, which is a big enough crutch for a film.
It is unfortunate that this will probably be the only solo Hulk movie in the MCU. Seeing as Universal still hold half of the movie rights for the Hulk, hence this is the only Universal distributed film in the MCU, apart from that Paramount distributed all the Phase One films before Disney came along with their sacks of cash and bought the burgeoning franchise.
The director of this venture, Louis Leterrier, never returned to the MCU, he went on to make the average at best Now You See Me and the terrible Clash of the Titans, so it’s probably for the best.
When a franchise line-up includes films renowned for their entertainment value, it hardly makes a film like Incredible Hulk worth revisiting, except for revisionists sake, as I say it’s not bad, the final battle is suitably city-destroying, apart from that there’s not much else to it.
Iron Man 2 (2010) – Directed by Jon Favreau
Here is where the misstep off the path turns into a fall into a ditch. Can you tell I don’t like this film?
So, two years have passed since the touchstone Iron Man was released, The Incredible Hulk didn’t set the world on fire quite like Iron Man, it was time to return to the charisma of Tony Stark, it’s just a shame that his charisma was wasted in such an inconsequential film.
There seems to be an unwelcome trend in the Iron Man sequels where the big villain ends up being just a business man. Granted this was also the case in the first, but the thing with that is, Obadiah Stane was interesting and his motivation was believable, conversely Justin Hammer (portrayed by Sam Rockwell, who deserves better) is just irritating and the secondary villain isn’t much better. Mickey Rourke is so hammy in this you could stick him between two slices of bread and call him a sandwich.
There was also a focus on Tony’s relationship with Pepper, which isn’t what we’re all here for, I don’t know about anyone else, but I struggle to see why Pepper is portrayed as someone the audience is invested in when she’s about as interesting as a cereal box with a frowny face drawn on it. I was relieved when she wasn’t in Age of Ultron, only to come back in Spider-Man like your most unwanted neighbour, but we get ahead of ourselves.
I don’t know what happened to the Jon Favreau who helmed the interesting original film, but it just shows how little this film was thought of, since he was removed from the directors chair for the sequel.
I wouldn’t recommend watching Iron Man 2 now, since there are so many more MCU films worth your time, only touch it if you really, really want to watch all the MCU films before Infinity War.
Thor (2011) – Directed by Kenneth Branagh
So we’ve been left in a ditch after Iron Man 2 and Thor tries to claw us out of the ditch, but then fails and instead decides to recite Shakespeare to itself.
Apart from that incredibly contrived analogy, Thor is in the same category of Incredible Hulk, dull, yet functional and mostly just there to introduce the character before The Avengers must assemble.
Actually, that’s not quite fair, we’re also introduced to one of the franchise’s most beloved villains (a paradox in itself really) Loki, Thor’s adopted brother whose attempts to take over Asgard and later the Earth anchors the main post of the first phase, in that way it is significant to the rest of the series as whole.
You might be surprised, as I was when I remembered this, that this was directed by Kenneth Branagh, he of classical Shakespearean fame. You may remember that Branagh both starred in and directed one of my favourite films last year, but this is far from his finest hour. It’s just not a great fit, besides the mildly Shakespearean tone that the Asgardians talk in, he’s well acquainted with that at least, if not suited to superheroes.
This is the kind of film that is hard to critique. Functional, but not interesting enough to make me invested, I would rather watch this over Iron Man 2, but that’s not really saying much.
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) – Directed by Joe Johnston
And thus does the final jigsaw piece fall into place. A rather vital jigsaw piece too as the title tells us, Cap is ‘The First Avenger’ the guy who the rest orbit around, which makes it a bit of a shame that he’s not all that interesting, at least in this film.
So, in somewhat of an emerging pattern in Phase One, this could have been so much more. It is however, better than Thor, the World War II setting might be old hat, but here it is needed, Cap’s character needs to emerge unblinking from the glory of the War, to set him up as the patriotic war-hero character to extract from the 40’s into modern times for The Avengers.
It’s a basic plot, and will seem familiar if you’ve watched any WWII film, Hydra are a Cling film-thin facade for the Nazi’s and Red Skull is basically Hitler with a red skull… obviously. It also plants seeds for later, Bucky for instance, we get the start of his story here.
The director responsible for bringing the iconic Captain America to the silver screen is Joe Johnston, who brought us childhood favourite Jumanji and the not-so-favourite Jurassic Park III, his career also boasts a credit as ‘Art Director’ for Empire Strikes Back. Another one and done director, his career has recently stalled unfortunately, as his direction here is admirable, even when the script is often dull.
If I had to re-watch Phase One, I would probably look forward to this after Iron Man 2 and Thor, which isn’t exactly a point in it’s favour, but it at least ins’t awful and does have redeeming features, I might be tempted to go back to it for another watch for revisions sake but wouldn’t rank it as a favourite.
The Avengers Assemble (2012) – Directed by Joss Whedon
This is what four years of introducing plot points lead up to. At the time the biggest superhero movie ever released, Avengers was received with a rapturous response by critics and fans alike, and well deserved that praise is, it makes the dull moments in Phase One all worth it which is all you can ask.
This is the point where a thousand executives realised the potential in a Shared Universe and thus, ruined several films and properties, but you can hardly blame it for that, if you saw it’s profit, you’d probably want a share of it too.
It brought together all the elements introduced in the last four years and tied it up with a nice big bow, while leaving itself wide open for future installments, as we all now know all too well, as we navigate the tidal waves of new superhero movies.
Joss Whedon was the guy trusted with the keys to the kingdom here and a lot of responsibility sat on his shoulders, either the film would be a runaway success and launch a monolithic, and highly lucrative, future or it was underwhelming and faith would be lost in the project and it potentially trails off. Fortunately for us the first narrative came true and this movie is championed as one of the greatest superhero movies of all time.
Would I call it that? Maybe not, I think there’s been better films in the MCU, but at the time it was mind-blowing, several popular characters come together for the first time in cinematic history, you’d think that is the kind of hype you couldn’t replicate, but as we now know, with Infinity War on the horizon, this could not be more wrong.
If I were to watch Phase One out of choice, I’d probably only watch Iron Man and Avengers, which tells you more about the other films than it does about this, but this is still incredible amounts of fun to re-watch, even with the more modern films to watch.
And that brings this retrospective of Phase One of MCU to a close, despite this, I am nowhere near finished, we still have more heroes, more excitement and more boredom, although less than in this Phase. Keep a look out in the next few weeks for my retrospective of Phase Two.