10 films that have changed the face of the movie industry. 10 films that exist within an unprecedented shared universe. 10 films that have collectively grossed over US$7 billion worldwide. Yes, there’s no doubt that commercially, the MCU films have done fantastically well but what about creatively? Can the films stand up to critical scrutiny or is their popularity a product of marketing hype and nothing more? Let’s investigate.
IRON MAN (2008)
You know the story. Grossing over $500 million worldwide, Iron Man was an unexpected mega-hit for Marvel Studios’ first venture, marking the comeback of Robert Downey Jr and making the movie industry sit up and take notice. The post-credits scene was used for the first time, to introduce the concept of the MCU to movie audiences as Nick Fury said the words “Avengers Initiative” as a promise of things to come. Putting aside the milestones, it’s worthy to remember that this Jon Favreau-helmed film was very well made with strong performances from Jeff Bridges (Obadiah Stane), Gwyneth Paltrow (Pepper Potts) and Terence Howard (James Rhodes). The age of Marvel (films) had begun. (9/10)
THE INCREDIBLE HULK (2008)
In some ways, The Incredible Hulk was actually better than Iron Man, although its box performance only managed half the latter’s numbers ($263 million). For one thing, Ed Norton was riveting as Bruce Banner and the special effects worked well to give the Hulk a more streamlined look than that achieved in the Ang Lee version (2003). Story-wise, the two stories were very similar and that demonstrated the weakness in detailing super-hero origins. Liv Tyler and William Hurt provided good support as Betty Ross and her father, Thunderbolt Ross respectively. Downey Jr even appeared in the post-credits scene, if only to cement the shared universe concept – hitherto unknown in feature films. Unfortunately, Norton fell out with Marvel and the role was passed on to Mark Ruffalo in the Avengers. Sigh. (8/10)
IRON MAN 2 (2010)
Although Iron Man 2 was by no means superior to its predecessor, it grossed more at the box office ($623.9 million) and proved that the franchise at least was solid. Was the MCU on sure ground yet? Not by a long shot. The first half of this movie is almost flawless and moves along at a determined pace but by the time Tony Stark undergoes his crisis of faith (peeing in the armour is a definite low), the quality declines quickly before ending on a bit of a whimper. Noteworthy though was the introduction of Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), a Russian SHIELD operative with a dark and mysterious past. Romanoff would play a significant role in Avengers and Captain America: The Winter Soldier and has become a popular character. The post-credits scene served to set up Thor, the next movie in the MCU lineup. (7/10)
A gross of 449.3 million for a super-hero movie about a Norse god who falls to Earth and has to earn the right to lift his magic hammer again was simply astounding. Director Kenneth Branagh managed to weave this tale of mythic deities with earthly issues well enough to make Thor one of the top grossing films of the year. Much of which was also down to the superb casting of Aussie newcomer Chris Hemsworth as the God of Thunder and English actor Tom Hiddleston as the mischievous Loki. The geek girls simply fell in love with Hiddleston and a new demographic was born! The story itself was simplistic – as origin tales go – but there was enough emotional resonance to carry the film through. Visually, the film looked stunning with the Kirbyesque designs coming to life well, especially in the portrayal of The Destroyer. The post-credits scene introduced movie audiences to the Tessaract (to play a major part in Avengers). (7/10)
CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER (2011)
A period film that did well to capture the tone and mood of World War II as the MCU introduced its Golden Age Avenger – Captain America! In the first Act, Joe Johnston lovingly re-created the transformation of Steve Rogers from a weakling to a super soldier in a manner faithful to the vision of Joe Simon & Jack Kirby. However, the story takes a strange and utterly illogical turn when Cap – despite his abilities – is not allowed into battle but has to go on the road to raise funds for the war effort. But once his credentials are established, Cap and the Howling Commandos (remember Nick Fury is now an Afro-American in this version) bring the fight to the Nazis and in particular to his arch-nemesis the Red Skull (played deliciously by Hugo Weaving) and HYDRA. Chris Evans provided a credible Cap, and the likes of Tommy Lee Jones, Hayley Atwell (as Peggy Carter), Dominic Cooper (as Howard Stark) and Sebastian Stan (as Bucky Barnes) performed well. Enough for the film to gross a healthy $370 million worldwide. At the very end, SHIELD discovers Cap and brings him back to life in the present day, setting up perfectly for Avengers. (8/10)
THE AVENGERS (2012)
This was the big one. And a massive risk as well. Would having so many super-heroes work? Would director Joss Whedon – better known for his TV series – be able to pull it off? The answer was yes, to the tune of $1.5 billion worldwide! The Avengers was a bona fide phenomenon and suddenly super-heroes were super hot and everybody wanted a piece. The story itself holds up well, considering the many factors at play. Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner, though significantly different from Ed Norton’s portrayal, was good enough as a foil for Tony Stark/Iron Man. Whedon also managed a tight connection between the Widow and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) that suggested a long history together. Once again, Iron Man was the centrepiece, even as Captain America and Thor had their moments. Hiddleston revelled in his evil antagonist role as well. Probably one of the best written super-hero films to date. For once, commercial success followed critical acclaim. And how! Marvel Studios was now on top of the world! (9/10)
IRON MAN 3 (2013)
Riding on the coattails of The Avengers‘ amazing popularity, Iron Man 3 grossed over $1.2 billion worldwide! However, it was probably the worst instalment of the franchise. Shane Black took over from Jon Favreau in the director’s chair and much of the naturalistic tone that Favreau had favoured went out of the door with him. A lot of the plot made little sense. The whole deal with the little kid was pointless and the manner in which Extremis was portrayed was hokey and cliched. And what about the Mandarin? Sigh. If nothing else, that demonstrated Black’s lack of respect for the source material and it is surprising that Marvel let him get away with that campy approach. The entire denouement was awful especially with the fake death of Pepper Potts leading to her saving the day with super powers as well. The meaningless post-credits scene said it all. Ugh. (4/10)
THOR: THE DARK WORLD (2013)
Phase Two seemed to be going off the rails quickly as this sequel proved to be even worse than Iron Man 3! Again, it was Alan Taylor at the helm instead of Kenneth Branagh and it showed. For some reason, Asgard was designed to look like Naboo (Ugh!) and suddenly became a scifi rather than fantasy environment with laser beams and space ships! Sigh. Hemsworth and Hiddleston were not able to save the movie by themselves with a illogical conclusion sticking to the craw as well. Fans still loved the movie though, spending over $644 million! Marvel could now do no wrong. (3/10)
CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER (2014)
This movie somewhat redeemed Phase Two with a taut spy thriller that involved the destruction of SHIELD at the hands of HYDRA and the return of Bucky Barnes but as The Winter Soldier. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo crammed so much into this film, it is amazing that it worked out as well as it did. Introductions to the Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and Sharon Carter (Emily Vancamp) were made, while Steve Rogers was finally reunited with the aged Peggy Carter. Black Widow teamed up well with Cap and Nick Fury was prominent. Grossing over 714 million, this is a significant film in the scheme of things for the MCU, the mid-credits scene also introduced movie audiences to Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch – a teasing setup for Avengers: Age of Ultron. (8/10)
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014)
The Midas touch? Yes, it did seem that Marvel possessed this. Taking a bunch of no-hope B-grade characters and transforming them into the top grossing movie in the USA for the year ($774.2 million worldwide) was a minor miracle in itself. In my opinion, director James Gunn somehow managed to make Guardians of the Galaxy the best MCU film thus far, turning average characters like Rocket Racoon and Groot into phenomenons and providing the most satisfying moment with Thanos seen on film. There seems no stopping Marvel Studios after this! (10/10)
With Avengers: Age of Ultron on the horizon and the news that Spider-Man will finally be part of the MCU, Phase Three promises to be even more exciting for fans and more profitable for Marvel Studios. A irresistible momentum has been built up combining Marvel’s creative harnessing of their characters and parent Disney’s marketing clout, making Marvel Studios an entertainment juggernaut that the likes of Warners and Fox can only envy. With the Phase Three release schedule already mapped out to 2019, it’s going to be a hectic four years but geeks worldwide will not be complaining.
MAKE MINE MARVEL. Indeed.