The modern superhero genre began in earnest in 1978 with the release of Superman, a highly acclaimed film adaptation of the popular comic series. It remains one of the best reviewed films in the genre. Naturally, it started a craze of similar films with varying degrees of success, and eventually the genre quieted down, with only a few releases here and there throughout the 80s and 90s.
In 2000, however, that changed once again with the release of X-Men, Bryan Singer’s take on the comic franchise. The film was critically acclaimed and performed very respectably at the box office. Two years later, it was followed up with X2, which met an even greater degree of success and acclaim. In the same year, Spider-man hit theaters and equally dazed audiences. The superhero genre had reemerged as a summer blockbuster force to be reckoned with.
The problem with this resurgence, however, is the scattering of various rights.20th Century Fox held the rights to X-Men and Daredevil, Sony the rights to Spider-man, and various other studios the rights to Marvel’s massive pantheon of superheroes. The issues with this system were not evident at first, as each film seemed to do pretty well in their own right (except Daredevil, which succumbed to the Rule of Three of villain decay). Eventually, however, the competing franchises took nose dives in their third installments: Spider-Man 3 was a disaster of which we do not speak and X-Men: The Last Stand was a shell of its former self.
The problem was a lack of unified vision. These were scattered film franchises based on comic series that existed in a single universe. Fortunately, that’s where Marvel Studios got involved. Moving from being solely a production company to being a distributor as well, Marvel Studios launched a massive undertaking known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Beginning with 2008’s Iron Man, the first film to be produced and distributed independently by Marvel Studios, a series of films based on Marvel’s iconic franchises would be produced, culminating in The Avengers in which all the heroes would come together to face a larger threat. The order was for six films – Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, and The Avengers.
What resulted from this major gamble is, in my opinion, the greatest achievement in film in the 21st century.
The spirit of Iron Man
2008 was an outstanding year for movies, especially summer blockbusters. We saw Iron Man perfect the lighthearted action that marked superhero films, and then we saw The Dark Knight shatter all expectations regarding how realistic and affecting a film about a man who dresses up as a bat to fight crime could possibly be. While Dark Knight pulled considerable numbers at the box office and forced Iron Man into the backseat, Marvel learned a valuable lesson from Iron Man.
What made Iron Man so good can be summed up in a single man: Robert Downey Jr. His performance as Tony Stark made the movie, and gave it just the sense of clever wit and action spectacle for which the comics that inspired the film were known. Iron Man wasn’t a comic book movie; it was a comic book in movie form. It captured precisely the spirit that the comic books captured and that is what made it an exceptional film.
Marvel was smart. They knew this is why it succeeded. It didn’t try to be a character study. It didn’t try to delve into deep pathos or philosophy. It was an exhilarating and hilarious action film that made you crave popcorn. That’s the spirit that they knew they had to capture. Unfortunately, by that time, The Incredible Hulk – undoubtedly the weak point in the MCU – had wrapped and was set for release a few months later. It managed to tell an interesting story and did so better than 2003’s Hulk did (not that that is much of an accomplishment, given Hulk‘s quality), but it took itself a little bit too seriously. As a result, the film was good but not great.
Marvel learned. After sitting out 2009, they returned in 2010 with Iron Man 2. While not as good as the first film – likely due to it being very, very similar – it had the same spirit that made the first film so successful. In this film you could see quite clearly that Jon Favreau, the director, had decided to push awesome and spectacle over the more character driven aspects of the film – whereas Iron Man had them in equal parts, Iron Man 2 sacrificed one for the other. It’s still a very fun film and a respectable addition, but it doesn’t reach the heights that its predecessor did.
Once again, Marvel learned. In 2011 they gave us two films – Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger. The former film is silly, and that’s the only way to say it – the God of Thunder, who isn’t really a god, gets banished to Earth and speaks strangely for the duration – many reviewers erroneously called it “Shakespearean” (maybe because Kenneth Branagh directed it?). It’s silly, but it’s fun – and that’s what made Thor work. The film embraced that silliness and made it a strength, and through it found a more human center – the brotherly conflict that was the central plot had a lot of weight to it, even if Thor and Loki felt like very archetypal hero/villain characters.
Captain America, conversely, was not silly. Captain America opted to recapture that old war film feel, and it succeeded in doing so. The look and feel of the film felt completely genuine, and even though it told a story that didn’t really have much weight or relevance in modern times – as most war-related period pieces try to have – it was fun solely because of that old-timey feel. That the film ended with a “Captain America will return in The Avengers” message followed by a clip and trailer for The Avengers is straight out of Bond, and was such a nice touch that it endeared itself even further. But the fun factor was not all Captain had going for it – at the center of the film was a character that was interesting. Rogers’ compulsion doesn’t feel forced, and nor does his later drive – he’s a loyal character through and through, and the film revels in that.
This four year setup led to a single film, establishing eight characters that would come together in what is already one of the most successful films in history, only days after its U.S. release: Joss Whedon’s The Avengers. The Avengers is the culmination not only of four years’ worth of plot, but of four years’ worth of learning from mistakes. The result is a film that does not take itself overly seriously, punctuating nearly every scene with a joke or physical gag of some sort, but still manages to find a human center that doesn’t feel forced. It, like its predecessors, is a film that can be enjoyed on many levels solely of its own merits.
Cohesion and how it works
The aspect of the MCU that elevates it above the rest of the major undertakings in the 21st century for film – namely the ambitious Harry Potter franchise – is that apart from working individually as films, the six film set that comprises the first phase of the MCU works incredibly well as a single, unified whole.
The reason they work as a whole is largely due to the “cross-pollination”, as Robert Downey Jr. called it, of each film with the characters of the other films. In every single film, at least one character from another film appears in even a small bit part – bit parts that escalate over the course of the franchise until they become plot critical appearances leading directly into The Avengers.
Iron Man started the trend with Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) appearing in a post-credits scene in which he attempted to recruit Tony Stark for the Avengers Initiative. It was a throwaway scene mostly there to appease fans – or so it seemed at the time. There was also Agent Phil Coulson, an invented character not present in the comics that represented the S.H.E.I.L.D. organization – he would become a mainstay in several films to come. A month or two later, Robert Downey Jr. appeared as Tony Stark in a post-credits scene in The Incredible Hulk. It was starting to seem more methodical.
Iron Man 2 is where the roots of the MCU really began to show, with a significant portion of the plot dealing with S.H.E.I.L.D., the interconnecting organization that would bring all the heroes together for The Avengers. Nick Fury’s role expansion and past history with Howard Stark, as well as the introduction of Black Widow, kicked off a rapid expansion of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s role in the lead up to The Avengers. But, because Fury had appeared in Iron Man and S.H.I.E.L.D. had been introduced by Coulson in the original film, it felt organic and not forced.
This paid dividends when, in 2011, Thor and Captain America were released. Thor featured a significant presence from S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Coulson as they investigated Mjolnir’s fall from the sky. Captain America meanwhile featured an ending scene that introduced the way Captain Rogers awoke in the present day, in S.H.I.E.L.D.’s waiting arms. In addition, the plot even revolved around the Tesseract, the artifact which would later be the driving factor of The Avengers’ plot, and which showed up in a post-credits scene in Thor.
The gradual escalation of S.H.E.I.L.D.’s involvement, the introduction of the Tesseract, and the “cross-pollination” of characters planted the seeds of The Avengers‘ plot long before the film actually released. As a result, the six films – though they stand alone just as well – feel like parts of a greater whole, like smaller stories that are just parts of a larger story. This cohesion is something that few film franchises have managed to do – even the gargantuan Potter franchise, eight films in all, did not manage to pull it off. The shifting of directors hamstrung its sense of completeness – a handicap the MCU does not have, despite the fact that no director directed more than a single film in the series.
Fortunately, there’s an even greater sense of cohesion in this films. Let’s take a step back: how can a Norse god, a scientifically enhanced soldier, a genius with a suit of armor, a mutated scientist, and two trained assassins all exist within the same, realistic universe? How can magic coexist with pure science and industry?
Marvel made a brilliant move here in slightly redefining one of their heroes, Thor, in answer to these questions. Rather than a mortal who picked up Mjolnir and became the God of Thunder, the Thor of the MCU is essentially an alien from a planet called Asgard. These aliens had visited Earth several times in the past, and had been passed into legend as the Norse pantheon. In Thor, when the title hero is banished to Midgard – Earth – he is found by a physicist seeking the Einstein-Rosen Bridge, a theoretical wormhole-like phenomenon. Thor tells her that this bridge is in fact real, and is called Bifrost by the denizens of Asgard. He says that, where he comes from, what the humans call “science” and “magic” is in fact the same thing.
This theme runs throughout many of Marvel’s films in the MCU. It resonates very strongly in Thor – Jane Foster comments that “magic is just science we don’t understand yet”. It continues into Captain America, as well, with the Red Skull being accused of wasting the Fuhrer’s time and resources chasing magic. He replies that magic and science are the same to him.
This is just one of many themes that run through the various MCU films, and it only serves to stitch the universe together very tightly – it feels like we’re watching different parts of the same world, rather than different worlds brought together. And given the many different directors and actors and writers working on this project over the four years it took to craft it, that’s an incredible feat – one that is, as of now, unmatched in film.
I cannot wait to see where they take the MCU with phase 2.