28 Mar 2019

Movie Magic - Celebrating the marvelous achievement that is the MCU (part 1)

Whether you're a fan or not... I don't think one can help to be impressed by what Marvel Studios has achieved in the past decade with the MCU. They have interwoven 22 mostly distinct films (some more, some less - or so it appeared at first - connected to the rest) into a vast tapestry that really is a cinematic universe! Each movie has its story to tell, and while for some of them it would be highly recommended you see other related ones (in particular the sequels), they can all be enjoyed independently of the other. Of course the experience is much enriched by having seen all of them and keeping track of the threads that weave in and out and tie so many of them together.

Tony Stark, the epitome of "cool"
Marvel put together this universe with a collection of characters from its wide roster of superheroes and villains, some who were already well-known to the general public (Hulk!), others were more familiar only to comic book fans (Iron Man). They took these characters and the traits that made them who they are, but often tweaked their origin stories or current ones in order to better meld them into an over-arching coherent cinematic universe and bring the stories into the 21st century. They even started enriching this cinematic universe with TV outings (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Agent Carter, the Netflix shows Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist - culminating in the team-up Defenders, and the Punisher etc.), but between 2 separate branches of the studio responsible for movies vs TV, and the differences between the chronology to put together a TV show and a movie, there's almost no connection or references between the TV/movie outings. The movies definitely don't reference the TV shows (although we'd love to see some of our favorite TV characters get at least a cameo!), and the TV shows only reference the movies obliquely (e.g. calling the Avengers-set "Battle of New York" as "the incident"), except for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. which in its first season does bring in a few elements of Captain America Civil War and Thor 2, and in its fifth season has side references to what's happening in New York and Wakanda... In any case, for the present I'm centering on the movies.

Of course with a collection this vast, with a diversity of characters/actors (although to be fair not enough gender or racial diversity - it took them 10 years to have a film with women either as the main lead or directing) and different voices of scriptwriters and directors, playing with different genres, well quality varies somewhat from one to another, as well as people's tastes. For me the highlight of the MCU, what keeps me coming back, are the characters (ok, the awesome spectacle on the big screen as well). Even in the movies that aren't that great, there's always some saving grace thanks to the lead characters and many of the supporting ones! Iron Man 2 and Thor 1&2 are generally agreed to be duds, but Tony Stark, Thor and Loki still shine in them! The exception might be The Incredible Hulk, none of the characters seemed to be allowed to meaningfully grow or let the viewer connect with them...

So, let's dive in, shall we? I started out planning on doing one overall post, but as I've been writing it I realize with 21 movies it's much too long! So dividing it in 3 parts - and NO the "parts" do not 100% coincide with the MCU "Phases" because I've decided to re-watch these chronologically according to the in-universe timeline, not order of release, so Captain Marvel is shifted to the top of the list. Oh! And as I said, I won't review/re-watch the TV shows (not enough time!), but I will include a mention of when they would be set...

The Phase 1 movies were mostly everyone's origin story, and getting them where they need to be to team up in later - so Captain Marvel is a perfect fit!

So for Part 1 we revisit: Captain America (2011) - becoming a super-soldier but retaining that sense and ability to do what's right, Captain Marvel (2019) - discovering who she truly is, and claiming her power through that self-knowledge, Iron Man (2008) & Iron Man 2 (2010) an egotistical billionaire learns he can't go it alone and his actions have consequences, The Incredible Hulk (2008) - not sure really, since so much was ignored later, I guess acceptance of the beast inside, and a beginning of control, Thor (2011), and then of course The Avengers (2012).

Needless to say, SPOILERS BELOW!

Captain America: The First Avenger (dir. Joe Johnston) - How do you bring such a straight-laced hero, a man of his time (as in 1940's America), into the 21st century? Well you let him start at his beginnings (WW2), and then put him on ice! His existence, his exploits and inspiration for other people, eventually leads those same people (Peggy Carter and Stark) to creating SHIELD, which will lead to the Avengers Initiative.

How's it connected to the rest?
  • Howard Stark is Tony Stark's (a.k.a. Iron Man) father.
  • Peggy Carter has cameos later (plus her own TV show!) and is the aunt of Sharon Carter in the 2nd & 3rd Cpt America movies.
  • The Tesseract (and its power) gets introduced.
  • The idea of science creating a super soldier, and wanting to recreate this somehow, is what leads to Banner becoming the Hulk.
  • In the post-credits scene, Fury recruits Steve to the Avengers Initiative.

TV: Agent Carter - 2 seasons of delightful post-WW2 adventures for Agent Peggy Carter who finds herself under-estimated and under-appreciated by most of her male colleagues in 1940s America (first NY then LA). Hijinks ensue with the help of Jarvis and occasional appearances by Howard Stark. Had the series continued we could have hoped it would have concluded with the founding of S.H.I.E.L.D (Carter was a founder). *sigh* Another show canceled too soon!

Captain Marvel (dir. Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck) - the highly anticipated and final film before we wrap up the MCU as we know it (and hopefully undo Thanos' snap, see below), chronologically speaking it takes place before all the others except the first CA. The movie isn't one of Marvel's best, but the characters and the acting are amazing! In particular Marvel's first solo movie heroine (the fabulous Agent Carter got her own TV series several years before, but no one seems to remember that, *sob*) - Carol Danvers (Bree Larson!) is simply brilliant!!! Her relationships with the people around her are the highlight of the film, particularly the "buddy cop" relationship with Agent Nick Fury. Captain Marvel beautifully bookends Phases 1-3 since it indicates that she inspired Fury to start the Avengers initiative, and she's the one who's going to reappear in Avengers Endgame and put things right (we hope!).

How's it connected to the rest?
  • First (chronological appearances) of Fury, Coulson, the Kree (in particular Ronan and Korath from GotG).
  • The Tesseract (see CA, Avengers Assemble & Avengers Infinity War) has a key role.
  • Inspires Fury to start thinking of the Avengers Initiative
  • We finally know who Fury paged in the end-credit sequence of Infinity War.
  • The post-credits scene here points directly to that same pager in Avengers Endgame and Carol's return.

Iron Man (dir. Jon Favreau) - The one that started it all. When no one thought Robert Downey Jr would ever be a box-office draw again. When very few people outside of comic geeks knew who Iron Man was. When we all thought it was just another early summer action movie. Little did we know the success of this would lead to worldwide fascination with the MCU a decade later! And a huge part of that is the brilliance of RDJ as playboy genius inventor turned hero Tony Stark who's ego is so big he needs people to know he's Iron Man and get the credit for his heroics. "I am Iron Man"

How's it connected to the rest?
  • First (cinematic) appearances of Stark, Pepper Potts, Rhodey, Agent Coulson and Nick Fury (post-credits)
  • First mention to someone of the Avengers Initiative (post-credits with Fury trying to recruit Stark)

Iron Man 2 (dir. Jon Favreau) - I think most people would agree this is one of the worst of the MCU outings... probably tied with Thor Dark World. It doesn't contribute that much to the overall tapestry, except in that it develops Stark's personality more (particularly his flaws) and his relationship to Pepper, brings us War Machine (although with a new face?!) and introduces us to Black Widow. Once again it pretty much rests on RDJ's shoulders as Stark, but this time the rest of the story just isn't engaging enough for him to sustain it, no matter how brilliant he himself remains. "I have successfully privatised World Peace." "I told you, I don't want to join your superscript boyband." 😜

How's it connected to the rest?
  • We see Rhodey get his own suit and become War Machine
  • S.H.I.E.L.D. agents Coulson, Natasha Romanov (a.k.a. Black Widow) and Director Fury are involved quite a bit
  • Further references to the Avengers, but with the caveat that although Iron Man would be a great recruit, they don't want Stark (and his personality issues)

The Incredible Hulk (dir. Louis Leterrier) - Came out a few months after Iron Man, wasn't bad, but not particularly memorable either. Since most people know who the Hulk is, there's really no need to see this to understand the wider tapestry - particularly since for some reason they changed actors! Also the Hulk's future storylines have very little to do with this one, except for Bruce Banner's efforts to keep the Hulk in check... An interesting artistic decision they made here was to start the film with Banner on the run, trying to find a scientific solution to his green alter ego. The whole "origin" part, gamma experiments etc. are succinctly summarized in a few vignettes that flash by as the starting credits play. Cool idea, since as I mentioned most people know the Hulk and his origin (there was another unrelated Hulk movie a few years earlier and the '70s TV show that kept on in reruns, a show that they paid homage to quite a bit through the soundtrack).
Note: although not clear, and despite having been filmed before, for me this film feels like it should be set around the same time or shortly after Iron Man 2, because of the post-credit scene.

How's it connected to the rest?
  • We see the army using S.H.I.E.L.D resources and Stark technology during their hunt for Banner/Hulk
  • The super soldier program that created Captain America is referenced
  • At the very end, Stark walks into a bar and tells a drunk General Ross that they're putting together a team (one could assume he is acting in his role as a consultant to S.H.I.E.L.D.). To hunt down the Hulk? To recruit him? (but then why go to Ross?) Unclear...

Thor (dir. Kenneth Branagh) is a story of brothers, of trying to get parental approval, but too often going down the wrong path for that. A brilliant casting job (Tom Hiddleston takes the cake, Loki is the best!) and world building with the Asgardians, the relationships all feel very real. But the love story on Earth feels shoehorned and the chemistry between the two leads a bit flat. Upon re-watching it now I enjoyed it much more than I remember doing when it originally came out! It could be because of knowing how it fits in with the rest, having more of a connection with some of the characters. I had never realized Hawkeye was in it! And of course we get a bit more Coulson which is always a good thing. ☺️ Thor started to bring the cosmic element into the MCU, opening the door for aliens, other galaxies (and their guardians) and putting forward that "magic" is just very advanced science that poor humans don't understand yet. 

How's it connected to the rest?
  • To previous films: agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. swooping in, led by our mysterious friend Agent Coulson; mention of Stark (and his tech) when the Destroyer arrives on Earth "Is that one of Stark's?"; Fury showing Selvig the Tesseract in the end-credits sequence.
  • To the Avengers: Clint Barton a.k.a. Hawkeyes has a significant cameo (although we don't get to see his famous archery skills in action); Loki is at odds with Thor, and appears to be on Earth, invisibly whispering in Selvig's ear (up to no good!)
  • To everything else: there is life out there, far more advanced than on Earth.

The Avengers (dir. Joss Whedon) is also an origin story, it's the story of how a disparate group of soldier, spies, "god", scientist, billionaire playboy philanthropist, became a team and defeated an alien army invading Earth (brought in by a mischievous god). The culmination of the preceding 5 films, it brought together the threads woven through them allowing us to glimpse for the first time a section of the overall tapestry. Having certain "smaller" characters weave in and out of the other films gives their roles in this one more meaning, which isn't necessarily a good thing for them since Joss Whedon has become well-known for eliminating beloved characters to better bring together the rest of the ensemble in a reaction to their loss... (no, George RR Martin and GoT don't have the exclusive on killing off beloved characters). Combine this with Whedon's characteristically snappy dialogue ("Have care how you speak. Loki is beyond reason but he is of Asgard and he is my brother. - He killed 80 people in 2 days. - He's adopted." // "Big man in a suit of armor, take that off and what are you? - Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist"), and his ability to work with a group and let each individual shine, and he makes The Avengers truly feel like an ensemble piece that hooks you in and doesn't let you go until you're desperate for a shawarma at the end. And don't worry, if you're wondering why Captain Marvel isn't part of the team, it's made perfectly clear in her movie! (plus Fury was clearly counting on these guys being able to do the job).

How's it connected to the rest?

  • It's the culmination of the previous films (5 + in a way Captain Marvel since her call sign was Carol "Avenger" Danvers and having met her is what inspired Fury to start the Avengers Initiative to fight off "extra" threats).
  • S.H.I.E.L.D. has a significant role with active participation of director Nick Fury, Agent Phil Coulson, Agent Maria Hill and more; much of the action is on a S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier.
  • S.H.I.E.L.D. spies Natasha Romanov - a.k.a. Black Widow - and Clint Barton - a.k.a. Hawkeye -  (seen before in Iron Man 2 and Thor, respectively) join the Avengers Initiative, after undoing Clint's brainwashing stint.
  • Introduction of the World Security Council which oversees S.H.I.E.L.D.
  • Thor's friend Doctor Selvig is still doing research on the Tesseract
  • Pepper Potts conversations with Agent Coulson are indicative of a comfortable relationship, much to Stark's surprise "Phil? His first name is Agent!", the formation of which we caught glimpses of in the two Iron Man films.
  • The main (visible) villain is Loki, who seems to have gone off the deep end after falling into the void at the end of Thor and is doing the bidding of some dark figure (to retrieve the Tesseract) is who is shown in...
  • The post-credit sequence gives us our first glimpse of the true "big bad" Thanos.
  • The Tesseract is once again the movie's McGuffin (after having been so already in Captain America and Captain Marvel)

Next up: Part 2! With more Stark-isms, Asgardians, galactic guardians, internal conflict in S.H.I.E.L.D and more infinity stones...


  1. And here's me sitting here thinking there are way too many super hero movies and working out elaborate strategies to blow up Hollywood so it will stop. And turns out there IS an audience for them after all. And it's YOU, Cris. :)

    Hope you are well!!!

    1. Hey Veg! Yup, I'm a big fan of the Marvel movies!!! Although even I will admit to suffering from "superhero fatigue" from time to time... It's just that the MCU films are so well done, and vary sufficiently from one to another with characters, style etc., that they keep me coming back for more! Ditto my dad.
      It is harder for me to get excited about other superhero films though...


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