Marvel Cinematic Universe: Phase One – Setting the Stage

Comic book movies were in a very different place before Iron Man kicked off the Marvel Cinematic Universe way back in 2008. We were coming fresh off movies like X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), Ghost Rider (2007), and Spider-Man 3 (2007). Things were looking uncertain for the superhero genre, and expectations were low. With Robert Downey Jr.’s turn as narcissistic billionaire Tony Stark, we were instantly given a reason to be excited again. Little did we know that eleven years later that bottled up excitement comic book fans had at the thought of seeing Marvel’s heroes come together on the movie screen would turn into a global phenomenon worth billions of dollars for their benevolent overseer, Walt Disney Pictures. The Marvel machine as we know it has consumed movie theaters and movie goers for the entirety of the decade, growing in stature and impact year after year. In 2018, Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War both became Marvel’s highest grossing films to date and two of the four highest grossing films domestically of all time. Later this month, Marvel will release Avengers: Endgame, the twenty-second film of the MCU and the final film of Phase 3, otherwise known as the ending of the “The Infinity Saga.”

With Phase One, audiences were introduced to six heroes that would ultimately come together and fight as one with the sixth and final film of the phase, The Avengers (2012). These early films were set to position these heroes as characters we would fall in love with and grow an attachment to. The intention from the beginning was to build this universe and gear up audience’s interest over time, brilliantly including teasers at the end of every film looking ahead at what was to come. There was some calibration needed early on with actors backing out and finding the right tone for each character, but over time things would be ironed out, making the way for the Marvel Cinematic Universe to become the well-oiled machine that it is. This retrospective is meant to profile each film and act as a refresher ahead of Endgame.

Iron Man

Robert Downey Jr. and Jeff Bridges in Iron Man (2008)
  • U.S. Release – May 2, 2008
  • Director – Jon Favreau
  • Starring – Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark (Iron Man)
  • Villain – Jeff Bridges as Obadiah Stane (Iron Monger)
  • Support:
    • Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts
    • Terrence Howard as James ‘Rhodey’ Rhodes
    • Clark Gregg as Agent Phil Coulson
    • Jon Favreau as Happy Hogan
    • Paul Bettany as Jarvis

The MCU got off to an overwhelmingly positive start under the guidance of director Jon Favreau. Watching it now, the film is much more grounded in realism than what we are used to today with the MCU. The stakes are relatively low, the charm and wit is extraordinarily high, and the performance of Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark is a revelation. His chemistry with Paltrow and Howard was palpable, and you could really feel the energy between the three of them come through the screen. It was a great jumping off point for Marvel’s cinematic universe, but at the same time we are able to appreciate it just for being a great movie. Despite suffering from a poorly written villain played by Bridges, the movie was able to rise above it with an overwhelming sense of heart and pleasure.

The Incredible Hulk

Edward Norton in The Incredible Hulk (2008)
  • U.S. Release – June 13, 2008
  • Director – Louis Leterrier
  • Starring – Edward Norton as Bruce Banner (Hulk)
  • Villain – Tim Roth as Emil Blonsky (Abomination)
  • Support:
    • Liv Tyler as Betty Ross
    • William Hurt as General ‘Thunderbolt’ Ross
    • Tim Blake Nelson as Samuel Sterns (The Leader)
    • Ty Burrell as Leonard

Time hasn’t been as kind to The Incredible Hulk, but frankly, it was doomed from the start. With Edward Norton starring as Banner, the movie was going for an interestingly darker tone than what we have now come to expect from Mark Ruffalo’s lovingly bumbling green giant. Here, the movie takes itself far too seriously and when it does go for a laugh, fails to connect and comes off as being very awkward. Tim Roth’s snarling portrayal of Blonsky is grating and unnecessary, culminating in the film ending with him turning into Abomination and engaging with Hulk in a lackluster CGI street battle. The film has become something of the forgotten step-child of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, both due to the change in actor for Hulk following this film and because of the lackluster execution that it displayed. Still, it’s a shame more things about this couldn’t have been carried over and improved upon, like the short shrift Liv Tyler’s turn as Betty Ross received.

Iron Man 2

Don Cheadle and Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man 2 (2010)
  • U.S. Release – May 7, 2010
  • Director – Jon Favreau
  • Starring – Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark (Iron Man)
  • Villains:
    • Sam Rockwell as Justin Hammer
    • Mickey Rourke as Ivan Vanko (Whiplash)
  • Support:
    • Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts
    • Don Cheadle as James ‘Rhodey’ Rhodes (War Machine)
    • Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow)
    • Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury
    • Clark Gregg as Agent Phil Coulson
    • John Slattery as Howard Stark
    • Garry Shandling as Senator Stern
    • Paul Bettany as Jarvis
    • Kate Mara as U.S. Marshal
    • Jon Favreau as Happy Hogan

Iron Man 2 was released with mixed reception to say the least, saddled with the impossible task of living up to Favreau and Downey’s groundbreaking arrival to the screen two years earlier. Years later, we can look back on the movie with a greater appreciation. It is the most fundamental to building the world of the MCU up to this point, and it features two larger than life villains that are given enough nuance from their respective actors that it really works. Mickey Rourke and Sam Rockwell excel and remain two of the MCU’s best villains to date. The film also is critical in establishing S.H.I.E.L.D. as an all-powerful force of the government, presenting Samuel L. Jackson and Scarlett Johansson as intimidating agents of the organization. The movie works because it continues the intimacy shared between Stark, Potts and Rhodes and brings in wildly interesting outside characters as forces of disruption. Favreau expands upon his ability to film action and spectacle with standout setpieces and breathtaking execution. While this sequel doesn’t feel as grounded or relatable as its predecessor, it expands and improves in scope and grandeur.


Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, and Idris Elba in Thor (2011)
  • U.S. Release – May 6, 2011
  • Director – Kenneth Branagh
  • Starring – Chris Hemsworth as Thor
  • Villain – Tom Hiddleston as Loki
  • Support:
    • Natalie Portman as Jane Foster
    • Anthony Hopkins as Odin
    • Stellan Skarsgård as Erik Selvig
    • Kat Dennings as Darcy Lewis
    • Clark Gregg as Agent Phil Coulson
    • Idris Elba as Heimdall
    • Jaimie Alexander as Sif
    • Rene Russo as Frigga

Our first foray into Asgard and our introduction to Chris Hemsworth as Thor came in 2011 with the fairly modest production from director Kenneth Branagh. In it, we would be privy to both the fantastical imagery of Asgard along with the idea of Thor’s arrival to Earth and the affect it would have on the humans he meets. The latter provided for the bulk of the film’s enjoyment, rife with hilarious moments between Hemsworth and scientists that discover him, played by Natalie Portman, Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings. The film is also elevated by a now iconic villainous performance from Tom Hiddleston as Loki. Every time he is on the screen he manages to chew the scenery while keeping the viewer on edge. Still, the movie suffers a lot from failed attempts at establishing lore with the world of Asgard and losing the audience in all its intricacies. The correct tone hasn’t been set yet for our hero and his universe yet, with Hemsworth playing a little too serious, but there are enough moments where his inherent humor and likability shine through to keep us entertained.

Captain America: The First Avenger

Chris Evans, Hugo Weaving, JJ Feild, Sebastian Stan, Tommy Lee Jones, Hayley Atwell and Neal McDonough in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
  • U.S. Release – July 22, 2011
  • Director – Joe Johnston
  • Starring – Chris Evans as Steve Rogers (Captain America)
  • Villain – Hugo Weaving as Johann Schmidt (Red Skull)
  • Support:
    • Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter
    • Sebastion Stan as Bucky Barnes
    • Tommy Lee Jones as Colonel Chester Phillips
    • Dominic Cooper as Howard Stark
    • Stanley Tucci as Dr. Abraham Erskine
    • Neal McDonough as Dum Dum Dugan

Captain America: The First Avenger is essentially Marvel’s version of an Indiana Jones-like adventure movie. It is also a prime example of a very well-done superhero origin story. Chris Evans embodies the characters of both Steve Rogers and Captain America perfectly, once again proving to be a knockout casting choice for Marvel and immediately giving them their co-lead of the universe with Downey for years to come. The movie achieves the essence of its titular character by imbuing him with impenetrable heart and courage. The World War II setting is displayed to great effect, with Red Skull (Weaving) and the Nazis proving to be an inherently daunting and intriguing enemy for our hero. Hayley Atwell’s presence as Peggy Carter also can’t be understated. Her charisma bleeds through the screen and brings the relationship between her and Rogers to the forefront of the viewer’s concerns. The film ends in emotional fashion while also providing intrigue for the future of our hero.

The Avengers

Mark Ruffalo, Jeremy Renner, Cobie Smulders, Robert Downey Jr, Samuel L. Jackson, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, and Chris Hemsworth in The Avengers (2012)
  • U.S. Release – May 4, 2012
  • Director – Joss Whedon
  • Starring:
    • Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark (Iron Man)
    • Chris Evans as Steve Rogers (Captain America)
    • Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner (Hulk)
    • Chris Hemsworth as Thor
    • Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow)
    • Jeremy Renner as Clint Barton (Hawkeye)
  • Villain – Tom Hiddleston as Loki
  • Support:
    • Clark Gregg as Agent Phil Coulson
    • Cobie Smulders as Agent Maria Hill
    • Stellan Skarsgård as Erik Selvig
    • Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury
    • Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts
    • Paul Bettany as Jarvis

Joss Whedon brought the images we had only previously dreamed of to life in extraordinary fashion. The humor he weaves into the script is absolutely perfect for a superhero team-up film and all the actors involved seem to know exactly the tone this movie should exhibit. This is even further conveyed through Hiddleston’s performance as Loki, who is completely hamming it up like an absurd 90s villain. It works. Everything melds together to form an experience that turns audiences into wide-eyed children for its entire runtime, featuring setpieces and spectacle that pushed the envelope for what was possible. The Avengers is a nearly perfect rendition of the superhero team-up and one that the studio has been struggling to replicate ever since. It also introduces us to ideas within the cosmic universe that would take greater shape and become focal points of the story today. The post-credits scene features our first look at Thanos, planting the seed in our brains that he would be the ultimate villain representing imminent danger.

The totality of the first phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe wowed audiences around the world, changing their expectations for the superhero genre and drawing them into the world created by Kevin Feige. His creation would continue to grow more vast in scope and more profitable in box office in the years to come. The actors would all become more famous and more iconic in their roles, and the directors brought into the universe would become more highly regarded as well. These early films feature a noticeably different tone from the formula that Marvel has recently embedded into its installments. They each feel more of their own entity, whereas in recent years these movies have really taken on more of a “small part in a larger machine” type feel, or more frankly, an episodic structure. Because of this, it is nice to visit the Phase One films for their character development and their comparatively low ambitions. Decisions made with casting and plotting would all be set in place to propel Marvel forward to being the juggernaut that it is today. Phase One stands as an incredibly solid foundation by which Marvel has stood and will continue to build off of for years to come.

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