Marvel Cinematic Universe: Phase One review

This summer Phase Two of Marvel’s cinematic universe will conclude with Avengers: Age of Ultron and Antman.

It’s the second part of an increasingly sprawling series of connected films. The first began back in May 2008 with Iron Man, bringing to the world a host of Marvel superheroes as a kid I never would have dreamed I’d get to see on the big screen.

I’ve been reading Marvel Comics since I was in short pants, and I have to give Marvel Studios head honcho Kevin Feige and his associated filmmakers serious props for what they’ve managed to achieve here. They’ve landed on the right formula for this material—a reverence to the source material without being too dour, a sense of playfulness when required, terrific special effects and action,  clever scripts and bang-on casting.

Something I also really appreciate: A sense of continuity. They’ve put some serious thought into how all these films relate to each other.  They’re satisfying on their own but also work as connected chapters, which is more than I can say for most Marvel comics at the moment, where the most popular characters show up in multiple titles and a variety of storylines with little overarching thought or relation to each other.

For the most part these are high end, well-made popcorn films. Aside from an unfortunate over-reliance on things (and people) falling from the sky—though with Iron Man and Thor, you kind of expect it, they do fly after all—I find them to be reliable fun.

Here’s my look back at the first part. I’ll revisit Phase Two (to date) next.

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Iron Man (2008)

Directed by Jon Favreau, Written by Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum, Matt Holloway

It’s hard to underestimate what a risk this was back in 2008. Ex-con and former abuser of substances Robert Downey Jr playing a superhero no one in the mainstream has ever heard of. Now those kinds of plays are just accepted as Marvel’s stock and trade, a knack for taking chances that pay off big time.

Turned out RDJ was Marvel’s secret weapon—a fast-talking, hilarious asshole in pretty much every role, but turned up to 11 here. His Tony Stark is a bit like a soused, American James Bond, or a less tortured Bruce Wayne. He’s also plausibly plays vulnerable and sincere, rooting the action heroics in some real human drama. It’s a great character arc—the sleazy inventor and weapons manufacturer who finds a conscience and a better use for his tech: a flying metal suit.

Also, props to Favreau and his writers—the opening with the cocky Stark blown out of his pants in Afghanistan, then flipping back in time to how he got there, is a terrific introduction. And there’s a lot for longtime Iron Man comic fans to appreciate, including the throwback armour he builds in a cave.

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The much maligned Gwyneth Paltrow is zippy as Pepper Potts, Stark’s Girl Friday, and they couldn’t have chosen a better heavy than a bald Jeff Bridges, with his distinctive growl and practiced ease. When he goes insane, it’s actually quite terrifying. Terrence Howard is fine as Rhodey, though this would be his only appearance as Stark’s military liaison and BFF, replaced by Don Cheadle in the later films.

Series stalwart Clark Gregg as SHIELD Agent Coulson first appears here, and he has a great, dry presence. Some of the movie’s the best and funniest moments come from Stark’s testing his tech, and subsequent interactions with his robot assistant Butterfingers and his virtual butler, J.A.R.V.I.S., voiced by Paul Bettany.

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Also worth mentioning: a suitably anthemic score by Ramin Djawadi, who brought a similar sound to bear on Pacific Rimand the incidental contributions from ACDC, Suicidal Tendancies, and, of course, Black Sabbath, are perfectly selected.

MVP: RDJ, natch’.

Jump/Fall From A High Place: On Tony’s first test flight in his armoured suit he goes way the hell up into the atmosphere, freezes up, then drops back down to earth.  Oh, and then, at the end, when pursued by Stane as the Iron Monger, he does it again.

After Credit Scene: Oh, hi Nick. The Avengers Initiative, you say?

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The Incredible Hulk (2008)

Directed by Louis Leterrier, Written by Zak Penn

I’ll start with five things I liked in my revisit of the mostly unloved Edward Norton Hulk, followed by five I really didn’t:

1) The handy during-credit montage of Bruce Banner’s backstory—knowing the Ang Lee Hulk was only five years old, and that we all knew the origin, we didn’t need much more than this to get our bearings. Sony should have taken a few notes for The Amazing Spider-Man reboot.

2) The Rio favela footage is impressive—I can see where Justin Lin was inspired for his establishing shots in Fast 5

3) The nods to the history of Hulk for those nerds who know: Grainy TV cameo from former Hulk actor Bill Bixby, Lou Ferrigno as a security guard bribed with pizza, and the appearance of the purple pants. All nice touches.

4) Nods to Beauty and the Beast, Frankenstein, the classic monstrous fantasy antecedents to this story.

5) General Ross (William Hurt) looking to weaponize the creature and the connection with the Super Soldier program, which we’ll hear all about when Captain America shows up. Again, the continuity is solid, making it feel like a unified system.

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1) Louis Leterrier is a journeyman genre director who tends to rely on the same tropes over and over. Visual cliches abound, whether it’s clouds of smoke in the bottle factory (it was tired in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman) or the mostly terrible action sequence of armoured vehicles and unexplained sonic weapons in the college green space. He especially enjoys putting his camera on the ceiling of rooms or up on a crane for no good reason.

2) Norton is OK as Bruce Banner, Liv Tyler as well, but together they’re a little dull here, never as desperate (given the circumstances) nor as romantic as they should to be. No disrespect to Norton, but the vulnerability Mark Ruffalo would provide later in the first Avengers movie really took the character to a new place.  (It also helped a lot that he had Joss Whedon giving him direction and words.) Hurt is typically gruff, but despite a moustache worthy of his predecessor in the role (Sam Elliot) he’s not nearly as frightening as he should be. When RDJ shows up for a cameo, that’s when we get to see some real charisma.

3) The CGI monster is actually a step down from what Ang Lee accomplished with his Hulk in 2003. The final battle versus The Abomination? A good idea in theory, but awful in practice. I’ve played video games (before and since) with better graphics than this.

4) I know Toronto has stood in for New York plenty of times, but you can’t slap an Apollo Theatre sign on Yonge Street and fool us into thinking its Harlem. And how many times can the exterior of Convocation Hall be used in movies before audiences start to recognize it? Maybe this is a complaint particular to residents and former residents of the Big Smoke, but come on. There’s a laziness in the locations here that pervades other parts of the movie.

5) The fact that no one in this movie has reappeared in any other Marvel Studio picture, including Samuel Sterns (a game Tim Blake Nelson) who, the last time we see him, is on his way to becoming a super villain called The Leader, is indicative of how they’ve more or less disowned the narrative seeds they planted here.

MVP: N/A

Jump/Fall From A High Place: In an especially goofy moment, when Banner jumps out of the back of a helicopter onto a Harlem street, hoping to become Hulk on the way down, but the monster only appears after he smashes through the pavement.

After Credit Scene: Nope, though when Stark strolls into that bar in the final scene before the credits, it practically qualifies.

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Iron Man 2 (2010)

Directed by Jon Favreau, written by Justin Theroux

To the strains of AC/DC’s “Shoot To Thrill” Iron Man is back, arriving at the Stark Expo in Queens, a meeting of the most talented scientific minds of the age, at least that’s the sales pitch according to Tony Stark. It’s also an opportunity for his personal cheerleaders to do their routine.

It wasn’t until this very moment that I realized what it is about Stark that’s so genuinely obnoxious. He’s a bro. Because he’s this tech nerd I was distracted, and the arc of his character in the first movie tended to suggest he’d found some kind of clarity about his role in the world, but the fact of it is he’s a bro—vain and arrogant and entitled. Worse, he’s somehow managed to “privatize world peace,” as he explains in a great early scene at a senate hearing. As if he didn’t have enough to feel smug about.

Senator Stern (Garry Shandling) and new major weapons contractor Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) both get shown up by Tony and his patter, and sure, it’s funny. But he’s so totally self-satisfied, it’s almost unbearable. It makes you feel sympathy for Hammer, who spends the rest of the movie trying to one-up Stark.

But part of Tony’s attitude is understandable: he’s covering with braggadocio because he’s sick. Tony’s chest device is killing him, making his blood toxic. He needs some kind of synthetic element for it to keep working, an interesting wrinkle they didn’t feel it necessary to mention at all in the last film. As a result he’s especially douchey, so he appoints Pepper as his company’s CEO to allow for more personal irresponsibility.

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Oh, and there’s other stuff going on. Tony’s dad, Howard (John Slattery here, though he’s Dominic Cooper elsewhere, like on Agents of SHIELD or Agent Carter TV series) had big dreams for the Arc Reactor tech and for Tony, but he also had a collaborator, a Russian dude who he eventually had deported. That guy’s son, Ivan (Mickey Rourke), shows up with a beef against Stark and wearing serious armoured suit with, uh, laser whips.

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Meanwhile Tony is taking on a new assistant, who it turns out is SHIELD agent Natasha Romanov, The Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and given his erratic behaviour, before long Agent Coulson and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) are checking in on him, too.

And Don Cheadle, now on duty as Rhodey, takes Tony’s backup armour, fights him to a standstill, and delivers the armour to the military.

I wasn’t kidding about a lot of the stuff. Revisiting this hot mess made me realize a couple of things: It is as I remembered it—too cluttered with character and event and less satisfying than the first film, especially as the movie’s best villain, Whiplash (Ivan), is sidelined for much of the second act.

But it’s also got a whole bunch of incidental pleasures: The dialogue, especially the verbal bullets fired by RDJ, is sharp as ever, the action and effects sequences are bang on, and it never ceases to entertain, even as it’s shooting to thrill all over the place. The final setpiece with Tony and Rhodey in their suits fighting off homicidal drones, rocks. Overall, I was much more impressed with the movie the second time around.

One message for Marvel:

FFS, how is it possible you haven’t yet green-lit the Black Widow feature? Her disarming of goons in the Hammer hallway is one of the real highlights of Iron Man 2, and her appearances since then have been nothing but big fun. What, the massive success of Lucy wasn’t a tip that people love a superheroic Scarlett Johansson?

MVP: Johansson, naturally. The Widow is terrific.

Jump/Fall From A High Place: Tony’s opening scene arrival through fireworks to the Expo mainstage qualifies.

After Credit Scene: A large hammer in the New Mexico (“The Land Of Enchantment”) desert

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Thor (2011)

Directed by Kenneth Branagh, written by Ashley Miller, Zach Stentz, and Don Payne, story by Michael J. Straczynski and Mark Protosevich

The first time I saw Thor, I was entertained but I wasn’t hugely impressed. There were parts that dazzled, but the best bits—Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) arrival on earth, his cocky strutting around and interacting with mortals—pass too quickly.

Watching it again, I relished those moments on Earth, and found myself appreciating the other bits more, especially Branagh’s ease with the weight of the drama and his ability to make this inherently silly material work. It’s a hell of a lot better than The Incredible Hulk, that’s for sure.

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Loki is such a wonderful villain—his tricks and twists are genuinely unpredictable, and Tom Hiddleston delivers the emotion that comes from a core betrayal, a lie that usurps his entire identity. Furthermore, his lie, to Thor, about the fate of Odin (Anthony Hopkins), is key to Thor’s bottoming out and subsequent self-awareness. This is reasonably complex stuff amidst all the rainbow bridges, frost giants and so on. And when Thor, having been banished to earth for his pride, finally regains his power, it’s a great moment.

I also really enjoyed the bits of levity, like Selvig (Stellan Skarsgaard) and Thor drinking at the local small town watering hole, and Selvig’s “I still don’t believe you are The God of Thunder, but you should be!” The Warriors Three are a likeable bunch too, and I wish we’d seen more of them. Volstagg (Ray Stevenson) gets their best line:  “Do not mistake my appetite for apathy!” Kat Dennings mispronouncing “Mjolnir” may earn the biggest laugh. “Meow-meow? What’s Meow-meow?”

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MVP: Clark Gregg as SHIELD Agent Coulson, providing the glue in these movies.

Jump/Fall From A High Place: Loki, off the bridge and into deep space

After Credit Scene: Selvig, Loki, and Fury discuss the a cube of cosmic power. 

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Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

Directed by Joe Johnston, written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely

An enormous plane is found stuck in the frozen tundra. Back in WWII the Germans are looking for a cube of power. And in New York, skinny, brave Steve Rogers keeps trying and failing to sign up for the war effort…

And so the fifth movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe begins, with a serious Raiders of the Lost Ark vibe to it, as I noticed back when I saw and reviewed the film the first time. Maybe a little Close Encounters, too—Johnston (The Rocketeer) channelling the best of Spielberg, at any rate. And his choice to emulate the master isn’t a bad one.

It works really well early on, when Rogers (the CGI that shrinks Chris Evans down is really impressive) becomes the subject of a Super Soldier test and is transformed into Charles Atlas, before becoming a public relations tool for the US Army. He gets his chance to shine eventually, of course.

Watching it again, I felt like we spend too much time in the early going indulging the machinations of the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), his snivelling scientist friend, Armin Zola (Toby Jones), and their ridiculous German accents (though Stanley Tucci’s is, by far, the most cartoonish—which actually is great for this material).

Maybe the most disappointing part of the movie is the villain. The Red Skull is very, very dull. He was so vivid in the comics! What happened? He should be a ranting madman, bigger than life, but Hugo Weaving plays too small, and he gets no memorable lines.

But otherwise the film works, and a period superhero film is a genuine novelty. Now that we’ve had time to enjoy Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) in her own TV series, it’s fun to go back and see how she kicked ass in the war and also find her connection to Rogers was sincere. Evans is A-Plus as the Captain, squeaky clean but not dull and not a cartoon, and Tommy Lee Jones brings his inimitable crustiness to Colonel Chester Phillips.

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Funnily enough, while I felt the third act was rushed when I first saw this movie, seeing it again the pace felt appropriate. The final showdown with the Skull is a thrill ride, though I didn’t entirely understand why it was Cap didn’t try and tell Peggy where he was crashing the plane—he’s a super-soldier, he had every chance of making it. Some explanation of how he wound up surviving being frozen in ice for 70 years would have also been appreciated.

MVP: Joe Johnston and his gift for retro style.

Jump/Fall From A High Place: Bucky from the cliffside train.

After Credit Scene: Pretty much just an Avengers trailer.

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The Avengers (2012)

Directed by Joss Whedon, written by Whedon and Zak Penn

How many times have I seen this movie? Five or six by now. I don’t know if I’d say it’s getting better, but every time I revisit it’s as least as good as I found it the first time, which was just terrific.

This is the King of Superhero movies, the best anyone’s made so far. I’m sure some would say that title is owned by Christopher Nolan’s second Batman movie, but I’d argue that’s a crime drama first, superhero movie second. I’m happy to have the debate with anyone who wants to take on the opposing perspective.

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Watching the five movies leading up to this one makes it even more engaging. Individually they have their strengths and weaknesses, but Joss Whedon is the Best Nerd—he knows these characters better than anyone and he knows how to write the wittiest dialogue to put in their mouths. The various action set-pieces are so much fun, including an all-out alien war in Midtown Manhattan the likes of which I haven’t seen since, oh, the comic book Avengers #166, when the hyper-powered Count Nefaria lifted buildings and tried to pick up Thor’s hammer.

But my favourite scenes remain the second act discussions, bickering, and insults. Superheroes arguing is just the best.

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If you’re on the fence about watching these movies and just want to try just one, The Avengers is the one to go for. The plotting may be a little opaque, but the great escapist adventure of the thing is unparalleled.

MVP: Whedon, though Tom Hiddleston as Loki is a close second. Villains this good are hard to come by.

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Jump/Fall From A High Place: Thor, Loki, Iron Man, and Captain America all jump out of a Quinjet. Thor and the Hulk both fall out of the Helicarrier. Tony Stark is thrown off the top of his building by Loki, and then, toward the end, Iron Man falls out of the space rift. It’s a lot of jumping and falling.

After Credit Scene: Two of ’em this time: A set-up of Thanos, future interstellar baddie we get to see more of in The Guardians of the Galaxy, and the excellent and considered shawarma scene.

About the author

flawintheiris

Carsten Knox is a massive, cheese-eating nerd. In the day he works as a journalist in Halifax, Nova Scotia. At night he stares out at the rain-slick streets, watches movies, and writes about what he's seeing.

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