Marvel Cinematic Universe raises the stakes in first two phases

By Eli Fine

(Courtesy of Marvel)
(Courtesy of Marvel)

Editor’s Note: The following article is part one of a two-part feature on the phases of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This article contains spoilers for the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

We can all agree that the best Marvel movie to date is “Iron Man,” can’t we? Personally, I don’t find it at all surprising that the very first Marvel Cinematic Universe film is also the best. For one thing, Marvel was taking a real risk at the time by kick-starting their cinematic universe with Tony Stark, a relatively unknown character. For another, they were taking a chance casting Robert Downey Jr. in the lead role – he hadn’t starred in a successful blockbuster since his downward spiral in the 1990s. Luckily, they had hired an imaginative, ambitious and capable director in Jon Favreau. Favreau had a great vision for the film, and he insisted that Downey was the right choice for the role. This proved to be a smart move. Downey gave a fantastic performance with just the right ratio of humor to pathos. The movie turned out great and made a ton of money at the box office.

Unfortunately, though, it seems like Kevin Feige and the people at Marvel have decided they’ll never take another risk again, with one or two possible exceptions. Let’s take a look at Marvel’s Phase One (entitled “Avengers Assembled”). Whereas they casted a dynamic and intriguing lead in “Iron Man,” Marvel cast three extremely bland, generically handsome white guys in “Thor,” “Captain America” and to a certain extent, “The Incredible Hulk.” Marvel also hired three essentially characterless directors to helm these movies. As a result, “Thor,” “Captain America” and “Hulk” were tedious, badly written and had absurdly high stakes, unlike “Iron Man,” which had intriguing secondary characters, humorous dialogue and relatable, human stakes. I leave “Iron Man 2” off of this list because, despite no question that it was a much safer movie for Marvel to make than the original, I actually enjoyed that film.

The one thing that they did get right in this batch of films was casting Tom Hiddleston as Loki, the villain of “Thor.” He became an immediate fan favorite and broke out as the only redeeming quality in “Thor.” Because the people at Marvel had given up on risk-taking at this point, they decided to take Loki, newly established as their most popular character, and make him the villain in the Phase One culmination movie, “The Avengers.” “The Avengers,” directed by TV veteran Joss Whedon, ended with a gigantic climax sequence where Loki’s never-before-mentioned huge army of flying alien-robots destroyed New York.

At this point, I could no longer connect with anything that was happening in these movies. The stakes were just way too high and not relatable on any level. Moreover, I really didn’t like “The Avengers” very much. From its boring opening sequence to its quipping dialogue to its meaningless climax, it felt very much like a bad episode of a Joss Whedon TV show.

Now on to Phase Two. For “Iron Man 3,” Jon Favreau stepped down as director and the reigns were handed over to Shane Black. As a result, the movie was a weak shadow of the first two installments, and ended up a mishmash of nonsense with no discernable narrative or plot. The first act of the movie wasn’t half bad, to be honest. Ben Kingsley played The Mandarin, a threatening villain not unlike terrorists we’ve seen in the real world. Then, halfway through the film, it is revealed that Kingsley’s character is just a fool being manipulated by another character played by Guy Pearce, who is just about as bland as it gets. Not to mention he can breathe fire. It’s all downhill from there. The “Thor” sequel was even worse than the original, and the “Captain America” sequel, while not terrible, was convoluted and gimmicky.

“Guardians of the Galaxy” seemed at first to be an anomaly for Marvel. Director James Gunn adapted it from an obscure comic book and cast the terrific Chris Pratt in the lead role. Ultimately though, “Guardians” followed the “Avengers” formula – the group chases down some nondescript rare artifact while an extremely unremarkable villain (Lee Pace), whose motivations are vague at best, tries to recover it so he can use it to destroy the world.

“Avengers: Age of Ultron,” again directed by Whedon, is guaranteed to destroy at the box office, but is unlikely to rise above the first Avengers movie in terms of quality. The next Marvel movie on the schedule, “Ant-Man,” is an important one. It had real potential for a while when the great English director Edgar Wright was attached, but once he dropped out due to creative differences, most of that potential disappeared. However, because of the unexpected casting of Paul Rudd and the fact that “Anchorman” director Adam McKay was brought in to rewrite the script, “Ant-Man” could still rise above the pack. While it couldn’t possibly be as good as if Wright was directing, there is some hope that it could at least be an interesting variation on the standard Marvel movie.

Eli Fine can be reached at [email protected]