A Look Back: The Marvel Cinematic Universe The First 11 Years
On April 26, 2019 the conclusion of the aptly dubbed “Infinity Saga” will be released onto the masses in the form of Avengers: Endgame, the 22nd entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). With a run of box office hits spanning over ten years, opinions vary on the state of Marvel movies, with opposition stating ‘superhero fatigue” as an issue due to the fact that Marvel Studios has released 21 (22 if you count Avengers: Endgame) films in just 11 years. On the other side of the argument, you have those who flock to these movies yearly, who are more than satisfied with the content being released. Whichever side of the argument you fall on, it simply can not be denied that Marvel has done something never before seen in the history of cinema. They have managed to craft an interconnected, consistently expanding cinematic universe over the course of the last 11 years, with no signs of stopping anytime soon. So without further ado, lets take A Look Back at the Marvel Cinematic Universe by starting from the beginning, one last time…
The year is 2008 and up until this point, while movies like am Raimi’s original two Spider-Man films and the first two X-Men movies were popular and critically acclaimed, they were not near the level of impact that the MCU is at today. In 2005, Christopher Nolan would release his first entry into the Dark Knight Trilogy with Batman Begins reigniting the Batman movie craze, which would then be followed up by the record-breaking sequel which was also released in 2008, The Dark Knight. Batman had always been a household name though, along with Superman and to some extent Spider-Man. However, on May 2, 2008, that all changed.
Prior to the release of Iron Man, Marvel Studios had undergone some changes with studio head Avi Arad stepping down as both Studio Chair and CEO, leading to the appointment of Kevin Feige as President of Production at Marvel Studios in 2007, just as Iron Man began filming. Had anyone guessed that a movie based on a very obscure (to mainstream audiences) superhero, being played by Robert Downey Jr., who just years earlier had a very public fall from grace due to alcohol and drug abuse, would succeed and launch the most financially successful film franchise of all time they would be called crazy. And yet, that is exactly what happened. Jon Favreau came in and delivered one of the most surprising movies to ever be released, launching the Marvel brand to new heights.
Downey Jr.’s casting has become widely regarded as one of the best film castings of all time, as well as one of the major reasons as to why Iron Man works so well. For many, Robert Downey Jr. is Tony Stark, with their lives echoing each other. Characters like Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), Jarvis (Paul Bettany), and James Rhodes (Terrence Howard) all still exist in the MCU, with Rhodes now being played by Don Cheadle. While the film’s plot does center around the dated War on Terror, dating it to the 2000’s, it still manages to hold up 11 years later.
This film also introduces what has become a mainstay in not just MCU films, but also many blockbusters since; the post-credits scene. For non-comic book fans, this most likely left many people wondering why Samuel L. Jackson showed up and who he was, but for any hardcore fans who heard the name “Nick Fury” they knew something big was happening. This was not just some throwaway line in the movie used as an Easter egg, rather a tease of what was to come, planting the seeds for the future of the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe.
It really is amazing that the Marvel Cinematic Universe actually got off the ground when looking at the string of movies they released in the follow-up to the amazing success that was Iron Man. One month after Iron Man’s release, the second entry into the MCU was released with The Incredible Hulk. To put it simply, this was not Iron Man. The film lacked the strong script and direction that its predecessor had, as well as not knowing how to handle the character of the Hulk.
To those who have not seen this film, Bruce Banner is not played by Mark Ruffalo, rather it was Edward Norton portraying the gamma-infected Doctor. Out of the entire lot of the MCU, this is the one that still feels incredibly disconnected with the only trace of it in today’s landscape being General Ross (William Hurt). As mentioned before, this is an entirely forgettable affair, however the performances from Norton, Hurt, and Tim Roth as The Abomination (still alive in this universe, so let’s pray we get some more Tim Roth in the MCU!!!) all help save it from being the worst film in the MCU.
Iron Man 2 was released in 2010, with 2009 being the one year that saw no Marvel movies released, as the first direct sequel in the MCU. While many will point to this as the worst film out of the currently released 21 outings, and while it is not inherently good, it does offer quite a few solid additions to the world of the MCU. Firstly, the role of James Rhodes/Rhodey was recast, replacing Terrence Howard with Don Cheadle, a very positive move in terms of chemistry, with Cheadle and Downey Jr. feeling like a much more natural pairing together. Samuel L. Jackson makes his return from the post-credit stinger as Nick Fury, bringing Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) with him, in the process continuing to build the future Avengers roster.
The last thing to mention in this movie is the villains. The less said about the character Whiplash, the better. Mickey Rourke was certainly doing something in this movie. Had they decided to completely erase the Whiplash story arc and make Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) the sole antagonist, with a focus on the rivalry between he and Tony, Iron Man 2 would have been an incredibly more versatile and interesting Marvel movie. Seriously, Rockwell gave one of the most fun performances in the MCU’s 11 year history and has now blown up since his turn as the fraudulent arms dealer. The Marvel Cinematic Universe does not deserve Justin Hammer, it needs Justin Hammer (as long as they do not recast)!
For the last two entries prior to the first team-up film, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger, I’m just going to put them together. Both of these films follow pretty standard origin story formulas, leading to them both being lower tier MCU movies. The performances from respective stars Chris Hemsworth as Thor (I love Hemsworth in the role, but the bleached beard/eyebrows/hair look DOES NOT look good and it never did on Thor, ever) and Chris Evans as Captain America are both solid enough, but the films surrounding them simply do not hold up against the best of the MCU’s offerings. With that being said, Thor does introduce Tom Hiddleston’s beautifully wicked portrayal of Loki, as well as memorable turns from Anthony Hopkins as Odin and Stellan Skarsgård as Dr. Erik Selvig. In Cap’s first solo outing, the roots are planted for future stories with the introduction of the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), Peggy Carter (Haley Atwell), a young Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), and the Tesseract, a cosmic cube that would go on to become an integral part of the overarching story within the MCU.
May 4, 2012. That is the date that the MCU changed the film industry forever with the release of The Avengers, the first “Event” movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, setting the stage for future “Events” as well as showcasing just what these movies can do. For the first time ever, a full superhero team that was built up from 2008 till this point, with the original lineup consisting of; Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, The Hulk (now played by Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow, and Hawkeye (Jermey Renner). Each of these characters had been introduced in either their own solo film, or as a supporting character in one of those (i.e. Black Widow in Iron Man 2 and Hawkeye in Thor), with their character traits and arcs continuing into this team-up story, which was something that had never been done before. Not only were the main stars back, but supporting characters also made their returns, Erik Selvig, Nick Fury, Agent Coulson, and Pepper Potts all being in this film.
The film also saw Loki taking on the role of the central antagonist here, making his triumphant return following Hiddleston’s much-praised turn as the villain in Thor a year earlier. Everything has already been said about the character of Loki that can be said. He is great in each movie that he is in and Tom Hiddleston is also on the list of arguably the best castings of all time for his portrayal of the character. In regards to the aforementioned “Events” this movie also saw the first tease of the Mad Titan Thanos. This tease was something that blew everything anyone knew out of the water, with it planting the seeds for even bigger than this team-up, which was already a movie that nobody ever thought would happen.
With The Avengers quickly becoming one of the highest grossing films of all time following its release, this brought about the end of Phase One of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
So, how do you follow up something as big as The Avengers? The answer to that question is simple; hire Shane Black to helm the sequel to Iron Man 2, allowing him to make it in his style of film and completely subverting everyone’s expectations with the introduction of The Mandarin, in what has become the most polarizing movie in the MCU. Iron Man 3 was released on May 3, 2013, almost exactly a year after the last outing in the MCU, and saw director Shane Black reunite with Robert Downey Jr. after their 2005 neo-noir movie, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Jon Favreau was out as director, but still maintained his role as Tony Stark’s bodyguard Happy Hogan, a role he still plays today. The big additions to the cast came in the form of Ben Kingsley as The Mandarin and Guy Pearce as Aldrich Killian. Kingsley’s casting was the first bit of controversy surrounding the villain since in the comic it was an Asian character (albeit a racist caricature of an Asian character). This would not be the end of the story though, as upon release it was revealed that he was not playing The Mandarin at all, as he was actually playing an actor who was hired to play the The Mandarin for propaganda purposes by Pearce’s Aldrich Killian, who was then revealed to be the main antagonist of the film.
While Iron Man 3 may not be one of the top tier films in the MCU, is significantly better than the already mentioned The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Captain America: The First Avenger, and Thor. However none of these films come close to the mess that is Thor: The Dark World…
I do not even know what to say about Thor: The Dark World. It is a movie that exists, but fails on every level of what it attempts to do. The villain, Malekith, is an absolute joke, the introduction of The Aether (Reality Stone) is wasted, Loki dies and then it is almost immediately revealed that it was a fake death, something that should have been saved for a surprise reveal down the line. Hemsworth and Hiddleston are still both great as Thor and Loki, Stellan Skarsgård is hilarious, and Natalie Portman does the best she is given as Jane Foster, but the movie as a whole just does not work. Not only is this a bad movie, but it is a forgettable seemingly unimportant movie, with the only impact it had on the larger MCU is its post-credit scene introducing The Collector prior to his debut in the much, MUCH better Guardians of The Galaxy.
Literally anything would have been considered and upgrade following the release of Thor: The Dark World, but Marvel ended up releasing back to back smashes in 2014 following that huge misstep. First up was Captain America: The Winter Solider, and boy does this movie hold a special place in my heart. I saw this in theaters just as my true appreciation and love for movies was forming, and while the whole “this movie is highbrow espionage/spy thriller” comments are a bit exaggerated, this still does fall in my personal top 5 MCU films. This just felt different than anything we had seen in the MCU, with a significantly more grounded approach (until the climax Hellicarrier battle) to the superhero film. It also saw the Russo Brothers make their MCU directing debuts and knocking it out the park with this one. Also, Robert Redford as a secret Nazi running S.H.I.E.L.D.? Yes please! Seriously, as much love and praise as I have for the next movie on this list, Captain America: The Winter Soldier deserves the love it gets.
Now with all that being said, Guardians of The Galaxy deserves as much praise as The Avengers or the original Iron Man for pulling off what it did. It took characters that the vast majority of moviegoers had never heard of and turned them into fully realized big-screen versions of themselves with more charm and uniqueness than any other character in the MCU. This movie’s main cast features the following; a guy from Earth who is now a space cowboy, an alien assassin with daddy issues, a deadpan alien brute, a foul-mouthed talking raccoon, and an anthropomorphic tree. When you look at that on paper, in no way should this movie be good or even work for that matter, and yet it still is regarded as one of the best superhero movies ever created.
Writer/Director James Gunn deserves all of the praise in the world for bringing these weird, dysfunctional characters to life in a way that no one else could have. This is easily the funniest Marvel movie to date, as well as one of the most well-rounded in terms of writing. Gunn gave each of the characters their own distinct voice while also managing to build a complete team dynamic among them despite none of the characters appearing in a previous film. The casting for this movie also deserves recognition, with this being Chris Pratt’s breakout role following his stint on Parks and Recreations, as well as a supporting role in 2012’s Zero Dark Thirty. And while this was not an “Event” movie, they still brought together an extremely strong ensemble cast to the table made up of a weird amalgamation of all backgrounds with, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, John C. Reily, Glenn Close, Benicio Del Toro, and Michael Rooker all having leading or supporting roles in the film. If that was not enough, Guardians of the Galaxy also features a soundtrack littered with classic rock and pop songs from the 1970s juxtaposed against its distant space setting, which helps build its unique identity even further. It is also easily one of the most visually innovative and distinct looking MCU movies, with the issue of cinematography being a topic of contention when talking about these movies. There is a reason that this remains towards the top of many’s favorite MCU films, and it is pretty clear to understand why.
On May 1, 2015 The Avengers made their return to the big-screen with the next “Event” movie being Avengers: Age of Ultron. To say the hype was high for this would be an understatement. Not only were we getting another Avengers movie, but it was going to be a type of adaptation of the popular Age of Ultron comic book. Joss Whedon was returning to helm the sequel which garnered a lot of hope from the fans as his writing & directing style was one of the reasons the first film turned out so well. Sadly this would not be the case for the sequel, as it did not live up to the hype for really anyone. A messy story littered with strange narrative choices and lack of that “it” feeling the original had just led to this being an OKAY film. Some positives surrounding the movie are, James Spader voicing Ultron was great, Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olson) and Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) are introduced, and Paul Bettany finally became something other than an A.I. voice. It is not a bad movie, but out of the 3 Avengers movies already released it is absolutely the weakest.
Finally, closing out Phase Two of the Marvel Cinematic Universe was Ant-Man, a film that was originally set to be directed by Edgar Wright, (Shaun of the Dead, Baby Driver) who was let go/quit/fired after creative differences and then replaced by director Peyton Reed. There is not much to be said about this one. It was a nice buffer movie after the big, world-ending-high-stakes film in Avengers: Age of Ultron, and it introduces the characters in Ant-Man’s world well enough, but it just is not very memorable. Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Evangeline Lilly, and Michael Pena all carry the weight of the movie on their shoulders, with each of them turning in wonderful performances from top to bottom. That being said, if you were doing a marathon and were looking for movies to cut, this would probably be one of the ones to hit the cutting room floor.
Phase 3, the best of the MCU Phases, is still currently active with it ending not after Avengers: Endgame, rather following the route of Phase 2 by ending after the buffer film following the Avengers, this time being Spider-Man: Far From Home. To kick things off Marvel went for another loose adaptation of a very popular, yet polarizing comic book. The Russo Brothers were back in the directors chair and came out swinging with the follow-up to their 2014 smash hit in the form of Captain America: Civil War, and adaptation of the Civil War comic book. Fun fact: this is one of the only two MCU movies I have not seen in theaters (the other being The Incredible Hulk). I absolutely regret that to this day, but I have to live with it. This film saw the more than surprising reintroduction of General Thaddius “Thunderbolt” Ross from The Incredible Hulk, as well as the introduction of villain Baron Zemo and heroes Spider-Man and Black Panther. If we are being honest as well, it really is not a Captain America movie either, it really is Avengers 2.5, which is not a bad thing rather a battle of semantics in the title. Also, the airport fight scene is a thing of beauty and deserves all the praise it gets. The big thing this movie accomplishes is breaking up Earth’s Mightiest Heroes by the end of the film’s runtime, actively setting up for the next “Event” which would come several movies later.
In another effort to save time since this is already very long, I am grouping Doctor Strange, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and Spider-Man: Homecoming together. Each of these movies are very good in just about every way imaginable. Doctor Strange introduces the Benedict Cumberbatch as the Master of the Mystic Arts, in what can only be described as another perfect casting, as well as introducing the Time Stone, all while boasting some of the best special effects of a movie in the MCU. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2 is not quite as good as the original, although it does pack more of an emotional punch and offers up both another solid rock/pop-infused soundtrack and kicks off a string of the best MCU villains to date with Kurt Russell’s Ego the Living Planet. As for Spider-Man: Homecoming, it is the best Spider-Man movie since Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2. Tom Holland is perfect as Peter Parker and Michael Keaton as The Vulture (easily one of the goofiest villains in the comic books)is still arguably one of the top 3 villains to date in the MCU. Everyone good? Great, cause these next few movies are where things get real good…
This is still my favorite MCU film to date, and is the movie that turned me onto Taika Waititi’s other works, and boy am I glad it did because this man is a treasure. Thor: Ragnarok sees Thor make his return after the mess of a movie that was Thor: The Dark World, and this movie fixes everything. It completely takes down and then rebuilds the character of Thor, all while poking fun at the mistakes made in the past and creating something completely new, something akin to the original Guardians of the Galaxy. As per the usual, Hemsworth and Hiddleston are both wonderful throughout the movie, with Chris especially being great. Anthony Hopkins is also hilarious whenever he is on screen (“Are you Thor, the God of Hammers?” comes to mind as a top tier moment). Amazing new additions come in the form of Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), The Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), Korg (Taika Waititi), and Skurge (Karl Urban). The strong line of villains also continues with Cate Blanchett’s turn as The Goddess of Death, Hela.
This whole movie just feels like a breath of fresh air compared to literally every other superhero movie, even the best ones. Whether it be the completely off-the-wall comedy, the incredible performances, the vibrant color palette, the wonderful soundtrack from Mark Mothersbaugh, or literally anything else present in the movie. Seriously Marvel, do not let Taika go, give this man the reigns to Thor 4, please and thank you.
Truth be told, Black Panther was actually in my top 5 MCU movies when I first saw it, but as time passed and after rewatching it 3 times, it has fallen off. It is still great do not get me wrong, it just is not the best superhero movie of all time as some make it out to be. That being said, it probably is one of the most important superhero movies ever. Some people have brought up Blade being the first major comic book movie to feature a Black protagonist, but that is just a false narrative. Blade was a rated-R, Action-Horror movie that was made before the superhero craze began and was about a Black vampire hunter. In no world does that movie have any of the appeal or impact as something like Black Panther.
Anyways, with that being said, this movie is a triumph for being the first predominately all-Black cast led superhero movie, and it showed with its immense success at the box office, breaking all types of records. As cookie cutter as the story of the film was, it was basically The Lion King without animals, the world built and characters introduced were all phenomenal. Michael B. Jordan and Andy Serkis undeniably steal the show as the antagonists, Killmonger and Klaue, both turning in mesmerizing performances. Killmonger specifically is still probably the best non-Thanos antagonist in the MCU solely for the fact that his motives are almost completely understandable, with the only aspect of his character that makes him a villain is his extremist tactics. The musical score by Ludwig Göransson is also arguably one of the best out of the entire MCU. Overhype aside, the film is a good watch and features some incredible world-building and a genuinely interesting cast of characters.
That brings us to the big one, Avengers: Infinity War, the biggest “Event” to date (until Avengers: Endgame arrives). This was originally scheduled to be Avengers: Infinity War Part One before they ultimately decided to not do a Part One and Part Two, rather going for separate titles entirely despite being tightly tied to one another. Despite the name change this is another thing that had just never been done before, like The Avengers before it, this movie took every single movie that came before it in the MCU and put it together, with all of the superheroes anyone could ever ask for. While Avengers: Endgame is the big payoff, this was something else entirely to experience, just seeing a movie with as many moving pieces as this one had, with a wide array of characters who had never interacted before all coming together in this one to fight the Big Baddie teased at the end of The Avengers back in 2012, Thanos (and his Black Order). That is all without even mentioning the ballsy ending that this film brings with The Decimation. This movie literally ends with half of ALL life across the universe wiped from existence. If that is not the bleakest ending in cinema history, I genuinely do not know what is. Obviously things will change or go back to normal by the end of Avengers: Endgame, but the principle remains that ending the movie the way the Russo Brothers did is noteworthy nonetheless.
Ant-Man and The Wasp and Captain Marvel both had the unfortunate luck of being sandwiched in between the two biggest superhero movies (or movies in general) of all time. Both of these are actually really solid movies if you have not seen them yet and I highly recommend them both. Peyton Reed did great with Ant-Man and The Wasp now that he was working on it from the beginning rather than being brought in as a replacement director like he was for the first film. It is also great to see Evangeline Lilly kicking ass and taking names as The Wasp, with Michelle Pfeiffer being cast as Janet Van Dyne, the original Wasp. It really is just a fun, entertaining movie with a deeply saddening end credits scene to connect it with Avengers: Infinity War. As for Captain Marvel, I already did an entire review of that movie on this site which is linked below! Quick thoughts are; Brie Larson is a solid Carol Danvers and will grow into the role as time goes on, Samuel L Jackson & Ben Mendelsohn steal the show, and it is a surprisingly very funny movie.
Wow. When I first sat down to write this, I never intended it to be this long, but here we are, 21 movies in with just one remaining; Avengers: Endgame. The ending of the “Infinity Saga” is about to arrive and will bring about the conclusion to an 11 year journey that started with a relatively unknown comic book hero stuck in a cave making a suit out of scrap metal. To say this movie will be emotional is a dramatic understatement. For many, myself included, these are characters that we have grown up with. These are movies that are going to influence a new generation of filmmakers, with an impact that will be felt for years to come when the dust settles.
Be sure to check out Avengers: Endgame in theaters April 26th, 2019.
If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check out another one of my stories in the A Look Back series and to follow me on Twitter @PatCoyleSimmons.