I’m so excited to finally bring you something I have been wanting to do since I started this blog. When I started Drew’s Movie Reviews back in 2013, I had this idea for a yearly feature to examine the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). In the article, I would go over the good and the bad from that year, update my MCU film rankings and look towards the future films and what I hoped to see from them. Jump ahead six years and, uh, well, I have a lot of catching up to do!
I had a hard time figuring out how exactly I wanted to do this feature since I have six years and 21 movies to catch up on. While brainstorming, I came up with two ways: 1) do an individual State of the MCU address for each phase, or 2) do one address for the entire thing. In the end I chose to do the latter. Also, I have decided to split my State of the MCU address into four parts, so you don’t have to read one gigantic post. First I will talk about the good of the MCU. Be sure to check back throughout the week for more.
For as much as the MCU has gotten correct, their casting has easily been what they have gotten most correct. Right off the bat, Marvel Studios cast Robert Downey Jr. to play Tony Stark in Iron Man to kick off their little cinematic experiment. From there, they made great casting choice after great casting choice. Actors like Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Pratt, and many others have come to be synonymous with the characters they portray, often getting the compliment that no other actor or actress can be seen as a better fit. Since 2001, three actors have played Peter Parker/Spider-Man. As a huge Spider-Man fan myself, Tom Holland is my favorite of the three. He perfectly captures the humor the character is known for in the comics, bringing in the best parts of the Toby Maguire and Andrew Garfield iterations while creating his own unique version of the character.
Most of the MCU’s villains don’t stick around very long but several of the actors playing them are just as superbly cast as the heroes. Sam Rockwell, Tom Hiddleston, James Spader, Jeff Goldblum, Michael B. Jordan, and Josh Brolin, along with several others, have given memorable performances.
Even castings I wasn’t sure were about ended up being impeccable choices. For instance, when Paul Rudd was announced as Ant-Man, I didn’t think that was the best fit. But Marvel Studios played to his strengths and proved me wrong. After that, Marvel Studios had my full trust in their castings.
Besides great actors, Marvel Studios have placed their films in the hands of many capable directors, many of which hadn’t directed a big-budget blockbuster before. Again, starting at the beginning, Jon Favreau kicked off the more grounded universe to great praise. Throughout the rest of Phase One, each director put their own spin and flavor on the characters, culminating in arguable the most influential director of the MCU: Joss Whedon. Continuing into Phase Two, these early directors still had some freedoms restricted by Marvel Studios oversight, causing some friction between Marvel Studios and the directors, such as the aforementioned Whedon, who has been quoted saying working for Marvel Studios was exhausting, or Edgar Wright, who departed Ant-Man due to creative differences with the studio and was replaced by Peyton Reed. However, as time progressed, Marvel Studios began giving the directors more freedom to implement their creative visions in their films. This flexibility has brought us unique movies like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Black Panther, and Thor: Ragnarok. Marvel Studios eventually figured out that the best way to make the best movies is to let the directors make their movie their way.
Clear, connected universe
One of the most important things when developing a franchise is creating a sense of cohesion and connectivity between the films in the franchise. Starting as early as The Incredible Hulk, Marvel Studios was throwing in references and easter eggs towards other heroes, characters and events of other films. Even a simple call-out like a picture of Bruce Banner in Peter’s classroom alongside other pictures of famous scientists make the world feel small, despite the expansiveness of the franchise. One of the cool things about the comics universe is that heroes show up in other heroes’ books and there are crossovers and references to events. The MCU has taken this template and shifted it from print to film, creating one of the most unique experiences in cinema.
When creating a franchise of the scope the MCU has, it is imperative that there is a person or a group in charge of maintaining an overview of the franchise. Kevin Fiege has been Marvel Studios’ not-so-secret weapon in crafting the MCU, overviewing things like what’s coming up, how it connects to what’s already been established, and an overall cohesion between the films and in the franchise as a whole. Personally, errors in story continuity is one of my pet peeves of film. While there are a few continuity errors (“Eight Year Later” anyone?), for the most part, there are few discrepancies in the MCU timeline. A lot of this has come from one person (Fiege) overseeing the story. So you might say that without Fiege, the MCU very well could be a mess like the X-Men timeline. Or maybe not. Who knows. All I can say for sure is Fiege has been instrumental in the success of the universe building in the MCU.
Build up to Thanos and Avengers: Infinity War
Nick Fury showing up at the end credits scene of Iron Man filled fanboys and fangirls with excitement once they realized what Marvel was trying to accomplish. However, what really sent them into a frenzy was when Thanos made an appearance during the mid-credits scene in The Avengers. It was clear that The Avengers was just a stepping stone in Marvel’s larger plan. While many assumed Thanos was going to be the villain in the second Avengers movie, Marvel had a different idea. Instead, they spent the time to build anticipation for his arrival.
Thanos was given a minor role in Guardians of the Galaxy to sell how feared he was across the universe, followed by a final stinger at the end of Avengers: Age of Ultron to get people excited for the infinity gauntlet. Then not much was seen of him until Avengers: Infinity War, really letting the anticipation simmer. But Marvel didn’t stop working towards Infinity War. Knowing that the infinity stones would be a part of Thanos’ story, Marvel spent Phase Two and Phase Three setting up and explaining these objects and their power, working as plot devices in many of their films.
After seven years of build up of Thanos and the infinity stones, Infinity War had a lot of expectations to fill. Marvel couldn’t afford to drop the ball after building their behemoth franchise for a decade. And in typical Marvel fashion, they delivered on all of those expectations. Infinity War brought together plot threads from literally every previous film. It is a lot to take in but for those that have been waiting since 2012, the payoff was worth it.
Loki, Killmonger, and Thanos
It’s no secret that the MCU has a real villain problem. Most don’t stick around very long and/or lack much character depth, which I will touch on more in-depth later. However, amid the sea of forgettable and lackluster villains, there are several that do manage to stand out.
First, there’s Loki, the trickster god and Thor’s adopted brother. What sets Loki apart from any other villain in the MCU is that he received just as much growth as his brother and every other hero. Over four films (five if you include his brief appearance in Infinity War), we have seen him go from villain, to uncertain ally, to even being a hero in his own right. Of course, it helps that he was portrayed by the talented Tom Hiddleston. Hiddleston brings an element of empathy to Loki, and makes him sound like someone straight from a Shakespearean play. I think you would be hard-pressed to find someone to better portray the trickster.
Next, there’s Erik “Killmonger” Stevens, T’Challa’s half-brother. Unlike Loki, Killmonger was only around for one film. However, that’s all he needed to make his mark as one of the best villains in the MCU (granted it wasn’t a very high bar). Brought to life by the up-and-coming Michael B. Jordan, Killmonger was another empathetic villain. You can understand his point-of-view and how he came to his conclusions, despite how wrong and villainous they are. Once again, perfect casting makes this character go above and beyond what the script could do alone. Jordan, his second outing as a Marvel character, brings a true sense of emotion to Killmonger that oozes off the screen.
Last, but not least, is the big bad of the entire MCU: Thanos. As I said above, Marvel Studios spent seven years building up Thanos before we see him as the antagonist in Infinity War. Once he finally makes contact with our heroes, it was well worth the wait. Thanos wants to save the universe from losing resources due to overpopulation. Like Loki and Killmonger, you can understand what they want but know they are going about it the wrong way. Josh Brolin brings a gravitas to the character that adds to his intimidation factor. Marvel Studios knew they had to deliver one of, if not, their best villain with Thanos so they gave him as much screen time as the heroes in Infinity War. I would argue that Infinity War is Thanos’ story, not the heroes we’ve come to cheer for over the last ten years.
To start, it was a huge risk on Marvel’s part to even attempt to build such an expansive, interconnected franchise. Shared film universes were nothing new but nothing to the scope of what Marvel Studios was trying to achieve had never been done. The current age of the superhero film was barely a decade in. While there were many hits, there were also many misses. But more than that, the film rights of many of Marvel’s fan-favorite characters, such as Spider-Man, the X-Men, and the Fantastic Four, were owned by other movie studios. Instead, they were forced to use some of their other, often less popular characters. Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America are considered Marvel’s trinity but their popularity back in 2008 was nowhere near what it is today, so even making a movie based around those characters was considered a risk.
After getting over the initial hurdle of getting the MCU off the ground, they still didn’t have the rights to all their characters. Remember, the deal with Sony hadn’t been made yet (which was a surprise to probably everyone that it even happened), and Disney buying part of 20th Century Fox was still a pipe dream. Marvel had to reach down into their catalog for characters and franchises to bring to the big screen.
Guardians of the Galaxy was predicted to be Marvel Studios’ first real flop. It was their first movie in space. It had no apparent connection to any of the previous films. One of its main characters was a talking raccoon and another was talking tree. How absurd does that sound? Luckily, director James Gunn thrives in absurdity, and with a fun script, excellent cast, and catchy soundtrack, delivered arguably one of the best films in the MCU.
Ant-Man, the follow-up film to Avengers: Age of Ultron and closer of Phase Two, was deemed to be Marvel Studios’ next first real flop. But once again, through a combination of an interesting script that was comical and reveled in its crazy concept, and a spot on casting of Paul Rudd, Marvel Studios delivered an exciting and entertaining film. Although it didn’t deliver in the box office compared to several other MCU films, it could by no means be considered a dud.
Going into Phase Three, Marvel Studios had proved that they could make any character or concept work because they had the writing, casting, and directing to make it work.
Tone and Formula
In Phase One, still unsure of what would work and what would not in their films, Marvel Studios experimented with different styles and tones with their films. After The Avengers and into Phase Two, they had begun to create a common tone throughout their movies. They also began to all share a sense of humor. I think a lot of this has to do with Robert Downey Jr.’s sarcastic version of Tony Stark and Joss Whedon’s The Avengers. This combination of writing and humor style which most of the films began using has been dubbed the “Marvel Formula.” While it removes some of the individualism from the films, it also works to bring them together, giving the audience an expectation going in, as well as preventing them from going too dark. That’s DC’s territory.
What do you think is good about the MCU?
Tomorrow I will shift to the other side and go over the bad of the MCU.
Until next time, cheers!