Feb 12, 2018

A Look Back at Marvel's Phase 1 Films

Scene from The Avengers
The year 2018 is going to be a banner year for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). For starters, its first film Iron Man premiered in 2008 with a relatively obscure superhero who would become one of modern cinema's most recognized characters. On top of that, this Friday marks the release of Black Panther: the latest in the Phase 3 portion of the MCU, which is also getting its own fair share of positive reviews and recognition for a pretty fun soundtrack. While the story of Black Panther is relatively new, the journey to this moment has been a long and arduous one full of mistakes. However, what's probably the most impressive thing is that Phase 1 was more on the ball than it had any right to be. Not only did it introduce Iron Man, but it created a rough outline of what was to come better than anyone could've ever expected.
Before the summer of 2008, it seemed like the superhero fad was waning. While the X-Men movies were still drawing crowds, other flagship series like Spider-Man were reaching creative lulls while Marvel in general had yet to form a cohesive style with films like Fantastic 4, Ghost Rider, and Daredevil. It's why the origin of Iron Man seemed kind of brilliant. It was a Trojan horse for an audience not yet aware of post-credit scenes. To those who left as the Black Sabbath song played over the credits, they had no idea that Tony Stark's journey wasn't over - and not just in the typical way that all popular movies had sequels. No, the brilliance came at the very end when, seemingly out of nowhere, Nick Fury appeared from the shadows to explain The Avengers Initiative.
For a move that likely went unnoticed at the time, it had an impact that changed modern cinema. While The Dark Knight would redefine the genre as being capable of being darker and grittier, Iron Man dared to dream bigger. This was going to be one of the biggest gambles in comic book cinema history. At worst, they would become an obscure bunch of movies that failed. At best, they would do the impossible: they would turn cinema into a motion comic book, where every theater ticket was buying another chapter to a story that crossed several universes and concepts that to banal moviegoers would've seemed unmarketable in 2008. Who would care about Guardians of the Galaxy or Doctor Strange, or even Black Panther? These were all obscure figures who became tent pole releases. It's safe to say that the gamble paid off to the point that, beyond its uniform construction, it is a convincing universe that currently spawns 18 movies (with two more scheduled for 2018), several TV shows, and its own travelling live show (among other things). 
It's hard to look back at Phase 1 as Phase 3 pulls to a close and see what was so great about it. Sure, there was something immediate about Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark. He had a confidence that made him immediately as iconic as Hugh Jackman as The Wolverine. But to compare the fledgling series to what it is now is a bit difficult. Iron Man is very much a Bush-era film about America selling weapons to the Middle East, just with more AC/DC tunes. It had plenty of quips and played like how a comic book movie of the time would, though maybe a little better thanks to performances that weren't just fun, but they were charismatic centers to the early franchise, with Tony Stark and Pepper Potts servicing to banter incessantly off of each other. 
The irony is the MCU's first two films also featured the first two examples of recasting. Terrence Howard's James Rhodes got recast to Don Cheadle, a move made more ironic by Howard's foreshadowing joke of "Next time, baby" that alluded to him becoming War Machine in Iron Man 2. Likewise, The Incredible Hulk followed a month later and remained largely forgotten as an MCU film, in part because Iron Man did the heavy lifting and the Edward Norton film was considered a weaker film. It could just be that Hulk movies have historically done poorly (see also: Angle Lee's The Hulk), but reports since have suggested that there won't be another MCU Hulk movie, in spite of Norton replacement Mark Ruffalo doing excellent work in supporting roles throughout the rest of the franchise. It was ironic that both Howard and Norton were fired because of conflicts in shaping the character. Had it not been for Martin Starr's Mr. Harrington appearing in The Incredible Hulk, there would be almost no ties, down to character design, to even consider the film part of canon.

Scene from Captain America: The First Avenger
If the first two films were subtle about what was to come, the final four films laid it on a little thicker, and also set the template for every film to come. Audiences were starting to suspect the value of a post-credits sequence in which clues connected each film, leaving discussion points for the interim months until they would be answered. They became scavenger hunts beyond the idea of "How is this going to work?" Downey surprised everyone by staging a comeback unlike any other thanks to his random ascension from disgraced drug addicted actor in the 90's to leading man and international icon. But how was the world going to respond to a world of characters that were even less tested? At best, one could argue that Captain America was a character vaguely known for his patriotism, but he was no Batman or Superman.
Unlike in future phases, it was interesting to see that their third film was Iron Man 2: a film that banked off of the success of the first while showing a basic structure of how these films would work. There would be the presence of Captain America's shield. Thor's hammer would appear in the closing credits. Black Widow would have a sideways introduction with help from FBI stand-in group Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. member Agent Coulson, who took care of superhero matters. While some would definitely argue that it's among the weaker of the films, it was the building block between an experiment that had yet to find its footing, and what was to come: a world that would drop clues randomly in the background of scenes, forcing the audience to piece together potential clues that wouldn't again appear for several years. There's even theories that there were clues for the films Spider-Man: Homecoming and Black Panther somewhere in Iron Man 2. The universe is THAT layered.
The beauty of the other two origin stories, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger, is that they fall into a more traditional style of superhero cinema. While Chris Hemsworth and Chris Evans respectively would come to mold the roles into their own, the introductions were risky, casting unknowns for parts that would span years (and soon a decade). Still, they were the first two characters that were introduced within a known MCU, and thus had to cover a lot of ground. For Thor, it meant connecting Earth to a galaxy that Iron Man could not. In this case, it was Asgard. Thor has largely been seen as the weak link of the franchise in general, and the original film is in large part a bit droll compared to the fun nature of his original Avengers. Even then, Thor continued the tradition by introducing Hawkeye in a very small cameo.
Captain America would introduce more political elements, including the idea of the "super soldier." Neither film is necessarily has every piece in place. Asgard in particular has benefited from a visual upgrade as recent as Thor: Ragnarok. Still, it was a quaint starting point that fit with the time. This was an era when people were still used to superheroes having standalone stories which at best were connected by sequels. Here, the MCU took five films to tell a complete idea: The Avengers Initiative and how to assemble it. The biggest achievement was making them accessible to an audience who probably wouldn't pay to see a Thor movie in standalone form. At worse, they were literally advertisements for the 2012 film The Avengers down to Captain America ending with a teaser trailer for said film.

Scene from The Avengers
By the sixth film, The Avengers, the gamble was going to reveal just how successful it would be. If Phase 1 was met with an out-and-out dud, then it would be a short lived phenomenon. If The Avengers made big bucks, then this would be the start of a new era of film making. In short terms, the film succeeded in large part because of the hype. The previous five films had promised "the ultimate superhero movie" in which the Avengers literally assembled. It's a precious moment, and one that none of the films to come have managed to capture. The first moment in which the original group took to the streets to protect, the camera sweeps around them in a sense of wonder. One superhero was limited to what they could achieve. A group could take on a massive crowd, and it was the crux of what worked. Beyond the characters being understood on some deep level by the audience as individuals, the sight of seeing Iron Man fly around as Hulk smashed and Captain America threw his shield is a thing of beauty for comic book cinema, and something that no Batman movie had been able to capture.
One could argue that what was to come would only isolate fans more. Phase 2 is arguably the weakest phase in part because it had to mix introductions with continuing stories that needed excessive exposition. Still, by the time that Iron Man 3 came out, the norm for superhero cinema and franchises in general had been understood. This wasn't just about creating action movies with superpowers. This was about creating a universe where so much was implicit even as the explicit dazzled on screen. The world was growing bigger, and the days of small origin stories were disappearing. The tropes were starting to take form, and the MCU would become an unstoppable force.

Scene from The Incredible Hulk
In terms of the 12 films that followed, Phase 1 is a bit uninteresting. The stories were at best conventional and largely built to a shared universe that none of them had existed in. There was no formula yet to the direction, and the soundtrack laid the AC/DC on a little too thick. Still, it was almost as useful to look at the films like a marketing ploy where every character was a piece to The Avengers puzzle. It helped audiences understand how to make a cinematic universe, and it did so in a way that was just as rough as other versions, but still felt more assured once the kinks were worked out. The MCU may lack an ability to be more than a singular direction, but it set a bar where characters can pop in momentarily into other films, or even become supporting characters in other journeys. It may seem like an obvious narrative device, but never had it been done on a scale of MCU.
So, why did the MCU succeed where everyone else faltered? For instance, The D.C. Extended Universe was accused of being tonally inconsistent to the point that rumors of the franchise dropping its shared universe technique rose following the success of Wonder Woman and the failure of Justice League. Likewise, The Mummy notoriously failed to start The Dark Universe in 2017 in part because it introduced a world before it was fully understood. The only series that appears to be doing it close to right is the Monsterverse, currently made up of Godzilla and Kong: Skull Island - both films of which benefited from hiding their shared universe techniques in the credits. The issue has become the idea of drawing audiences to the idea of a shared universe instead of letting progression dictate how shared everything is.
Where did Phase 1 succeed? It may seem juvenile and at times redundant later on, but it worked because it gradually exposed the universe. Iron Man's story doesn't involve a sense of "How does this connect to The Avengers?" quite like how Batman v. Superman or Suicide Squad did. There was no need to wonder what this vision was going to be. It even risked a good movie in Iron Man 2 by making a film that centered around audiences learning how to read this world. That's the one tool that most films miss: a basic understanding of how to read their vision. As much as tonal consistency is important, so is knowing what you're looking at. It helps that Marvel has a bunch of actors who are at least charismatic at the center. Even then, that only goes so far. Each piece does a gradual build which may sacrifice the quality of later films, but there's still something to their conjoined pieces. It can be frustrating, but it definitely creates the cinematic equivalent to what a comic book looked like. It has only gotten more fluid in the years since. 

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