Marvel Cinematic Universe Retrospective – Phase Three

So, this is a blast from the past.

Last year, I did a pair of retrospectives on the MCU (available here and here), and my aim was always to finish the job, and only now will I get the chance to do just that, after the release of Far From Home.

So, a year (and a bit) in the making, here’s my look back at the third phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Captain America: Civil War (2016) – Directed by Joe and Anthony Russo

Might as well start with a bang, eh?

So, Civil War was an adaptation of a classic comic arc of the same name, one beloved by fans, so not a small task to kick off the next phase of the story. Luckily it was helmed by the Russo Brothers, the duo responsible for the excellent Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Whereas the first two Phases started smaller and got bigger, Phase Three starts huge and just keeps growing, delivering one of the best films in the franchise in the process, we’re introduced to new heroes in Black Panther and the newest incarnation of Spider-Man, while all the heroes we’ve come to know and love get together and batter each other.

It also boasts one of the finest action scenes in the MCU and maybe cinema as a whole with the airport scene, which has some great action mixed in with amazing camera shots, Civil War was a real statement of intent for Phase Three.

Doctor Strange (2016) – Directed by Scott Derrickson

I’ve always been conflicted about this film. I’ve never really enjoyed it, but have been able to acknowledge its achievements as a film.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not all bad. The casting of Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange was a masterstroke, and he slot into the character with ease. embodying the arrogance of the doctor at the start and growing as the film progresses, he’s one of the bright sparks of the film.

The other area where it exceeds expectations is in the visuals department, there is some truly staggering VFX work going on in this film, some Inception-level visual trickery, and some really imaginative uses of it as well, but as I’ve said before VFX cannot carry a movie.

What I’ve always said about the film is, it’s very nice visually, but it’s crushingly dull. It has a fantastic cast, but wastes it for the most part. Mads Mikkelsen is a phenomenal actor, but gets almost nothing to do, Tilda Swinton is very disappointing as The Ancient One, and the film’s climactic villain fight is just Benedict Cumberbatch talking to himself.

Doctor Strange would find himself as a character as time went on, but his solo movie debut was very disappointing.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017) – Directed by James Gunn

It’s safe to say that I did not envy James Gunn on this venture.

Nobody saw the success of the first Guardians coming, and if you think you did, you’re a liar. So after that, the task was to do it again, but better this time.

So, James Gunn set out to do just that, and succeeded, somehow.

There are people who prefer Guardians 1 as a whole, and I love the first Guardians, it’s hard to realise now how much of a breath of fresh air it was, but Guardians 2 takes all the aspects we loved about the first outing and amps them up a notch.

The villain is better this time out, for a start. It’s always nice to see Kurt Russell and he delivers the necessary charismatic performance here as Ego, and all the Guardians get more time to expand their characters, as well as picking up a few more friends along the way.

It’s hard to imagine an MCU without the Guardians now, and not to discredit the first film, but this installment truly cemented their status as cherished characters.

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) – Directed by Jon Watts

Thinking back, this film seems like a lifetime ago. So much has happened with the character of Spider-Man. He’s died, been resurrected and almost repossessed by his actual owners, but cast your minds back to when the future looked rosy.

All the signs are here for a really good film, and truth be told, it isn’t bad, but there are teething problems for his first solo outing.

Firstly, and most galling, is calling it a solo Spider-Man movie is a bit of a stretch as it’s more like a Spider-Man and Iron Man movie, and as great as Tony Stark is, he’s completely unnecessary here, he adds nothing to Peter’s character development besides being a stern father figure that he didn’t need, and mostly just gets in the way of the plot.

It takes no risks with the character, but really doesn’t need to, it’s basically just there to remind us of Spider-Man’s potential, a placeholder for a future, more exciting, film.

There are parts that make it worthwhile, however. Tom Holland continues to stake his claim as the best Spider-Man ever, Michael Keaton plays a really interesting villain, and Peter Parker’s high school life manages to be engaging without being too stereotypical.

Overall, a cautious first step in integrating solo Spider-Man movies into the MCU, it wouldn’t be perfect on its first attempt, but the promise was there.

Thor: Ragnarok (2017) – Directed by Taika Waititi

After the perpetual series low point that was Thor: The Dark World, pressure was on to prove that Thor could handle his own solo outing without boring the world to tears.

Thankfully, Taika Waititi was on hand to remind everyone that Thor doesn’t have to be a miserable pseudo-Shakespearean misery, he can be charming and charismatic, and crack a joke just as well as any Guardian of the Galaxy.

Yes, it took them long enough, but they finally figured out the formula to making Thor interesting, dust off all the grit the first two films languished in, and replace it with a bit of colour.

The Thor present here is almost unrecognisable when compared to Thor from The Dark World. He’s engaging and bright, still with a hint of heartache, but presenting a facade of goofy lovable-ness, in fact, all the characters here are a far cry from the past of Dark Elves and the like. Instead we have an enigmatic and eccentric dictator, a warrior Hulk and a creature made of rocks with an unmistakable New Zealand accent.

All the aspects of Ragnarok come together in an orgy of colour and fun, and it’s so far removed from the previous entries that it’s hard to believe they share any similarities at all. I don’t think it’s an understatement to say that Waititi saved the character from becoming background noise in the franchise.

It may be leaning on the comedy a bit too much for some peoples tastes, but I found that just added to its charm. Thor was interesting again, and he had a bunch of interesting new friends the merchandise department could take full advantage of; everyone’s a winner!

Black Panther (2018) – Directed by Ryan Coogler

Well, in terms of quality, Marvel have been pretty consistent these last few years; a few films can be fairly accused of being formulaic, but when the formula is as successful as the MCU has been, then one can hardly blame them for returning to the well. In terms of telling one continuous story, a few films stand-out on their own, Black Panther is one such film.

I believe this is one of the few films in the franchise that could almost be viewed in a vacuum, it rarely flirts with the larger series storyline, it instead tells a smaller, more personal story, one that really resonated with audiences.

It is often praised for being ‘revolutionary’ in its method of making the struggles of black characters mainstream, something which I believe to be over-stated, but my focus is, and always will be, on the quality of the film (there are exceptions, I mainly operate on a case-by-case basis) and there is plenty of quality about Black Panther, in fact it’s probably one of the franchises’ best films, certainly one of its most ambitious.

I have said a lot in the past (especially on an early edition of my podcast) that I was slightly aghast at its inclusion as a Best Picture nominee for this past years’ Oscars, and I stand by the opinion that it didn’t belong in that category, but I fear what may get lost in that argument is how much I truly did love the film, how it presented a complex, yet cohesive, villain, built a new world teeming with life right in front of our eyes; even just in the ways it is considered ‘different’ I think make it brilliant.

It’s a film that I think got lavished with a lot of deserved praise, but may get lost in the mists of time alongside its bigger stablemates, being followed by Infinity War for example, but this is an instance where Marvel got everything spot-on; the storytelling, direction and writing are all excellent, and it deserves to be regarded as one of the MCU’s high points.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018) – Directed by Joe and Anthony Russo

Okay, we’re on the home stretch now…

Now twenty films in, the MCU comes to its epic conclusion, well, part one of its epic conclusion, at least.

The pressure was well and truly on to deliver a worthy ending to ten years of continuous build toward this film, anyone could be forgiven for folding like a pack of cards in delivering a film that simply HAD to be generation-defying, explosive, and fitting.

It’s genuinely difficult to comprehend the impact this film and its sequel have had on the film industry, for all intents and purposes, it was the culmination of a great experiment that could have easily blew up in everyone’s face, and superhero films would have remained a red-headed stepchild in the eyes of Hollywood. It’s true that their reputation had been climbing over the previous decade, but I believe this film cemented their permanent seat amongst the big boys.

Thinking about it for a second, previously, a bad film in a superhero series was the death knell for a franchise; think Superman IV or Batman & Robin, nowadays, their position is unassailable, unable to be dented by even the most underwhelming of films, and the previous two Avengers films making almost $5 Billion between them massively helped this.

Even looking at it apart from its financial achievements, it’s an awe-inspiring success. Managing to wrangle that many characters into even a basically comprehensible plot is an achievement, to make it seem as balanced and brimming with life as Infinity War does verges on being a miracle. Some films struggle to keep a film interesting with just a few characters, Infinity War manages to be engaging with upwards of twenty main characters, this isn’t just a reflection of the Russo’s skills, but also that of their screenwriters, who I feel get over-looked when all the congratulations are handed out.

It’s exactly what the ending needed to be, epic, emotional and exciting; with an ending that will stand the test of time as one of cinema’s great cliffhangers. There may have been better comic book films in terms of quality, but none will ever match Infinity War’s (and by extension, Endgame) scale.

Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018) – Directed by Peyton Reed

I can only imagine what it must have been like to follow Queen at Live Aid, I can imagine David Bowie stood in the wings (that’s right, I do my research you know) trying to figure out how quickly you can contract laryngitis. This is analogous to how I think Peyton Reed was feeling when his Ant-Man sequel was scheduled to follow Infinity War.

In fairness to the film, the first one was a fun little romp fronted by an endlessly-charismatic leading man, so a sequel was almost inevitable, I just think it was completely out of its depth in its positioning, literally the only thing important to the over-arching series story was the post-credits sting, something that could have been released as a short film on the Infinity War Blu-Ray, or placed at the start of Endgame.

Don’t get me wrong, it was still a fun little film, and an ideal palate cleanser between bigger releases, but I think it really wasn’t done any favours by its placement, especially since it was quite lacking story-wise, and as mentioned, offered little to the over-arching narrative.

Instead it got by on the likeability of Paul Rudd, and his chemistry with Evangeline Lilly and Michael Douglas; which works to a degree, but it was always going to fall short. For some it may be enough, but otherwise it seems a bit inconsequential.

Captain Marvel (2019) – Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck

I remember saying at the time of Captain Marvel’s release that it seemed like the final piece of the puzzle that we needed to complete the build towards Endgame, in hindsight, that might have been over-stating it slightly.

To say Captain Marvel is divisive would be an understatement, however, for both valid reasons, and not-so-valid, the latter views being a strong current of obvious misogyny that plague the internet, but again, not really my interest, I’m here for the valid arguments.

I remain on the fence and reasonably apathetic towards Captain Marvel, I feel like it was a disappointment, but also unfairly ridiculed, at the same time. To be honest, I feel it’s biggest flaw is not being memorable enough, it really didn’t push any boats out or take many risks as perhaps it should have, and the result is a film that I just can’t feel passionate about.

Brie Larson was good as Captain Marvel and there was some nice moments with her old friend in the later stages of the film, but I feel a lot more needs to be done with the character in the future. A bit of an anticlimax, truth be told.

Avengers: Endgame (2019) – Directed by Joe and Anthony Russo

While enough has been said about Endgame and its predecessor to fill several books, and this films significance as the biggest film of all time is secure, I must stress again that this film was by no means risk-free.

Getting that balance of character screen time right once can be seen as a fluke, but to do it twice? Now, there would be an achievement, then just as we thought Infinity War couldn’t be topped in terms of scale and emotion, those darned Russo’s surprised us once more.

Which film you prefer comes down to personal preference, personally I don’t think there’s much to separate the two, but Endgame just edges it. I think it’s the finality, the satisfaction of a conclusion that we’d wanted for ten years, Infinity War gave us that to a degree, but still left us on a cliffhanger, this film gave us the closure.

I’ve said before that a story can it be considered great until it has ended, and while the MCU will probably never truly end, this is as close as we’re going to get to that explosive payoff.

It wasn’t just that though, it was the anticipation in finding out how they would write themselves out of the almighty corner Infinity War had left them in, but write themselves out they did, and in spectacular fashion, at that.

This film may contain some of my favourite moments in superhero films, just the mention of the word ‘Portals’ is enough to send a shiver down my spine, just as the phrase ‘I love you 3000’ will bring a tear to my eye.

Combine this with some truly great performances, seriously, everyone brought their A-game here, even those who have previously been sidelined were spectacular, Jeremy Renner is the best he’s ever been in the MCU, and then there’s Robert Downey Jr, who provides a perfect swan song performance.

What’s that? RDJ is going to be in Black Widow? Motherfu…

Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019) – Directed by Jon Watts

So, here we are, the end of the road. Well, at least until Phase Four finishes, which I estimate will probably be around 2035.

While following Endgame is no small feat, I do think this film was in a better position than Ant-Man the year before; mainly because, no disrespect to Ant-Man, he’s no Spider-Man. That and there was an unresolved arc for Spider-Man following the loss of his father figure, Tony Stark (spoiler alert, although if you haven’t seen Endgame yet, then please let me know how you figured out how to breath on Mars) how he was going to bounce back was going to be an interesting point.

Well, it turns out he bounces back by touring Europe and fighting illusions that destroy famous landmarks.

Far From Home May well be one of the best Spider-Man films, its certainly an upgrade on Homecoming, mainly because it actually feels like a Spider-Man film, a film where he finally steps out of everyone’s shadows and becomes his own hero, an important aspect in the film being how ‘ready’ he was to be a hero, judging by this film, he’s ready to be the face of the franchise, but knowing the fragility of the Sony-Marvel relationship, let’s not be too hasty.

The plot is high-stakes, but still light and fun in the way that Spider-Man excels at, and Tom Holland is a treat, an electrifying presence on screen, and for my money, he’s the best on-screen Spidey.

It wasn’t Endgame scale, but it established the direction the series would be taking from here on out, simultaneously closing the Third Chapter of the MCU, and opening the Fourth, starting an era of rebuilding and reestablishing. Where will we go next? What heroes shall we encounter? We can only wait to find out the answer.

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