With Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War coming out this year, I figured I would get fully up to speed with the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). I’ve seen many of them before, but not all of them. This franchise is a truly exceptional creation by showing you can be entertaining to mass audiences and faithful to the source material at the same time. This could have been a disaster from day one, but ever since Iron Man in 2008, Marvel has been making some of the most entertaining superhero movies ever, all set in the same universe, with B list characters mainstream audiences had never even heard of.
I am splitting up this review into three parts, with each part covering one phase of the MCU. So this part will cover Phase One, the next whenever it comes out will be Phase Two, and finally the last one will be Phase Three ending with Thor: Ragnarok. Black Panther and Infinity War will have their own entries for review.
We start off on a pretty good foot with the first Iron Man movie. Iron Man was a B list character not well known to general audiences, and hiring an actor like Robert Downey Jr., whose career seemed to have come and gone just added more risks to it. Yet, the movie is really good. RDJ as Tony Stark is one of the best casting decisions in history, because he IS Iron Man. The movie begins on a surprisingly dark note, with Tony Stark being kidnapped after his escort of American soldier is murdered by terrorists in a shootout. He then works with another scientist to escape, and has a change of heart about the practices of his company. They actually take time to develop the relationship between Tony and this scientist, causing you to genuinely care for them and hope they succeed. The other relationships he has, like with his best friend James Rhodes played by Terrance Howard and Gwyneth Paltrow as his loyal, snarky, and highly intelligent personal assistant Pepper Potts are interesting and feel real as well thanks to good acting and dialogue.
Tony’s development from a selfish jerk who is blind to the consequences of his company’s weapons dealing, to a selfless, but still flawed man who wants to make amends is poignant and well done. And it still manages to keep things relatively bearable by having very funny dialogue and character moments in between all the serious scenes and action. It’s plot is overall simple but well told, with some political elements sprinkled throughout to give it a sense of realism. Compared to the other Marvel movies it is also shockingly small scale, with more personal stakes. It’s not the best of the bunch though, with the villain being just a greedy, envious businessman, the action scenes aren’t really that impressive save for the scene with Iron Man and the two jets, and the third act in general being a disappointment. Still, it’s really good and still holds up today overall.
The Incredible Hulk
This movie is boring. Personally I’ve always found Hulk not to be an interesting character but I’m sure you can make good movies out of him. This is not one of them. Edward Norton as Bruce Banner is good, but doesn’t distinguish himself in any way anyone else couldn’t have done. I am sure that’s the fault of the material he was working with, not him though. The romance between him and Betty Ross played by Liv Tyler is so bland I’m struggling to remember it, thanks to her unremarkable performance. The villain is boring too. Really boring is the best word to describe this movie, and apparently the MCU agrees because this movie and most of its characters are forgotten about in later MCU movies. The one interesting thing about it is the element of Bruce having a heart monitor to keep an eye on his stress level, and he can’t even have sexual intercourse because he gets too excited and risks the Hulk coming out. Skip it, you’ll miss nothing.
Iron Man 2
The first direct sequel in the MCU. It’s not as bad as Hulk was by virtue of having Robert Downey Jr. in it, but it’s still mostly forgettable. This time there are two main villains, Justin Hammer and Ivan Vanko played by Mickey Rourke. Mickey Rourke is definitely a step up from the previous two main baddies, but he gets taken out in the most anticlimactic way possible, and Justin Hammer is just another smarmy businessman like the first Iron Man movie villain. The whole movie feels mostly concerned with setting up future movies than being its own, with hints of Captain America and the big Avengers movie to come. It’s a bit jarring at first to see Colonel James Rhodes played by Don Cheadle, replacing Terrance Howard, but he grows on you over the course of the movie. Black Widow gets introduced in this movie too, and all her scenes are pretty entertaining. It’s not an awful movie, just rather dull and doesn’t have that charm and sense of originality that the first one did.
Okay we’re getting a bit back on track here with Thor, Marvel’s resident Norse God. This movie is again, not bad, but a very mixed bag and average in the long term. Whenever the plot is on Asgard, it’s really entertaining and creative. With the visuals and design of Asgard evoking grand myths of old and all the characters speaking like they’re in a Shakespeare play, it’s really cheesy but they make it work. It even begins in media rias like old myths did. Chris Hemsworth as Thor is another casting jackpot and Tom Hiddleston as Loki is equally great, and cements himself as one of Marvel’s best villains ever, playing a tragic and complex character motivated for personal reasons beyond simple greed and revenge. Hell, every single cast member playing the Asgardians are perfect for the roles. Anthony Hopkins as Odin is both commanding and intimidating, and Idris Elba as Heimdall is awesome in his own right next to them all. Too bad the plot on Earth drags it down. When Thor gets banished to Earth for his arrogant and selfish actions leading to war, I mostly lost interest. The human characters are dull and exactly what you’d expect them to be, with Natalie Portman playing Thor’s boring love interest. That and everything on Earth just looks so bland compared to the majestic visuals of Asgard. I am sure that’s intentional, but you can still keep things engaging. What just keeps it above water is Thor’s character development. It’s kind of like Tony Stark’s in that it’s about a jerk learning the consequences of his actions and not being a jerk anymore, but it remains fresh by it about Thor learning how to grow from an overgrown boy into a wise man who is worthy of being a king. It’s not that it’s a bad movie, but it had the potential to be so much more.
Captain America: The First Avenger
At last an MCU movie that reaches the bar Iron Man did, mostly. Captain America is big step up from the previous three movies, thanks to some great action scenes, a perfect lead, and a tone that feels like it was ripped right out of a pulp magazine from the 40s. Chris Evans as Steve Rogers/Captain America is just as great casting, if not more so than RDJ. He comes across as a genuinely heroic man with no strings attached, something that is refreshing compared to the previous flawed heroes that the MCU had showcased. Hugo Weaving as the Red Skull is so gloriously evil that he makes the perfect villain for Captain America to go up against, a Nazi obsessed with power and glory versus a kid from Brooklyn who just wants to do the right thing. The supporting cast all manage to do a good job as well, and even the romance between Rogers and Peggy Carter is a step up from the previous Marvel movies, and comic book movies in general. What also makes this movie stand above the crowd is how it embraces the ridiculous. The World War II setting features futuristic Nazi technology and occult research that you would expect to see in a Wolfenstein game. What hurts the movie the most is that it’s first half is considerably stronger than its second one. The first half is about Steve Rogers being recruited, proving himself to be stronger in heart than he is in body, getting the super serum injected into him, being used as a recruitment tool instead of the frontlines, and finally rescuing American troops from a Nazi prison camp in the movie’s best action scene. After that the movie doesn’t reach those levels of emotional engagement or excitement, with most of Captain America’s WW2 exploits being glossed over in a quick montage. The movie would have benefited from actually showing and exploring those scenes. Still with a genuinely great first half and having a quite tragic ending, Captain America: The First Avenger is a pretty good, entertaining movie that shows Marvel wasn’t just a one trick pony with the first Iron Man movie.
After five movies of build up, some good, some bad, it’s finally arrived. This movie attempted something that had never been done before, to have multiple characters from different movies within the MCU crossover into one, mega blockbuster event. It had everything going against it, and could have been a miserable failure, but it wasn’t. The Avengers is a great movie, and one of the best comic book movies ever made. All your favorite heroes are here, fighting an alien invasion led by a returning Loki. It’s like seeing a great comic book crossover event play out on the big screen, with all the grand spectacle you would expect. Every single character plays off of each other perfectly, with neither overshadowing the other. Mark Ruffalo replaces Edward Norton as Bruce Banner and he is about ten times better than Norton ever was, portraying him in a way that means that no one can replace Ruffalo as Hulk now. The only real negative is that the first act is kind of slow due to needing to build up the rest of the movie, but it ends on a high note, and it just gets better from there. The action scenes are all extremely creative and have the heroes use their talents individually or together in interesting ways, with everyone being useful and having a purpose to being there. Thor for example, might be the god of thunder, but he alone can’t stop the invasion, and Captain America can’t just do it all himself. They all genuinely work as a team, and they don’t just get along from the beginning either. Acts one and two have them mostly at each other’s necks, with no one really trusting the other’s intentions until a beloved side character gets killed, and they realize they need to set aside their differences to save the world. The movie also keeps things light and fun by having smart, clever dialogue, thanks to director/writer Joss Whedon. That, and having a pretty kickass main theme that is now instantly recognizable, The Avengers is excellent and is Joss Whedon’s finest hour. See Justice League and Warner Brothers?! THIS is how you do a superhero team up movie!