Saturday, December 19, 2015

Review: Marvel Cinematic Universe, Phase 1

Marvel did it first, but did Marvel do it best? Time to take a look at the first Phase of Marvel's groundbreaking Cinematic Universe.

Unlike some of the other things I've covered, like Back to the Future and various cartoons, the MCU movies aren't the most... uniform things. That is to say, they're the culmination of many visions and stories, rather than a 100% unified whole, especially in Phase One. As such, I'll be forgoing a few aspects that I usually cover when I look at such a big chunk of entertainment. Because it's kind of hard to talk about, say, the music of six movies that were mostly composed by different people.

But there are some things that tie these movies together, and they deserve to be talked about.

Mostly Iron Man.
Main Theme

What sets the heroes apart from the villains is that villains upgrade externally, and the heroes upgrade internally. Sure, Tony builds his armor, Thor gets his hammer back, Bruce Hulks out, et cetera. But what separates them from the villains is developing internal strength. Learning responsibility. Learning control. Learning humility. And the villains always want to take what makes our heroes powerful on the outside. Armor. Serums. Hammers. But in the end, it’s courage and wisdom that reigns supreme, not power. Just like in the Zelda games.

Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg)
A character originally named “Agent,” who got his own TV show after the Marvel suits watched Item 47. Not bad.

Making him a Captain America fanboy was pretty genius because it helped turn him into a stand-in for the audience. S.H.I.E.L.D. agents are the closest thing to superheroes that ordinary humans can be, so Agent Coulson was as “normal” as you could get and still have him be involved with the events of the movies. For a character who was originally exclusive to the films, the amount of love he gets rivals fellow originally-a-non-comic character Harley Quinn.

Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.)
The character. Every film he’s in has him furthering his character arc. And what an arc it is.

He starts off as a self-absorbed jerk who makes weapons for a living, only to discover the horror he’s inflicting on the world by releasing weapons into it. His weapons, designed to end war, got shipped to both sides, merely prolonging conflicts and hurting civilians. From there, he tries to undo his mistakes and try to craft a new legacy for himself. But in the end, his greatest flaw is that though he became a better human being, he still has an unshakable faith in himself. Tony Stark does not believe that there is a problem he can’t fix. Though he eventually learned that sometimes, he has to take one for the team. Heck, he learned that he sometimes actually needs a team. In the end, he became a better human being, but is still true to himself. He’s a narcissistic jerk, but now he also fights bad guys. And through his experiences, he stopped doing it simply to atone for his own past mistakes, but simply because it was the right thing to do.

But as we’ll see in Phase 2, his journey is far from over….

Thor (Chris Hemsworth)
The odd man out. The man from the land of magic. It’s actually pretty amazing how much he gels with the science-based world of the other films, thanks in no small part to how magic is treated as science that Earth doesn’t understand. His personal arc is pretty much contained to his own film, allowing more room for a focus on his relationship with Loki in The Avengers. Which is... well, typical brotherly love. Loki is a terrible person, but Thor still genuinely cares for him. Adoption jokes notwithstanding..

Bruce Banner (Eric Bana, Ed Norton, and Mark Ruffalo)
The man with many faces.
While Ang Lee’s Hulk isn’t in canon with the MCU, strictly speaking, I still feel it’s important to discuss Eric Bana here as, technically, The Incredible Hulk was envisioned as a follow-up to Hulk.

The character doesn’t have much of a journey through all three films, mainly because each Bruce Banner is written to supersede the last one. But each Bruce Banner is unique in their own way. Eric Bana is a frazzled, emotional mess of a man. Ed Norton is like a caged tiger. And Mark Ruffalo is just a normal guy with some anger issues. If you try, you can put together a journey that takes Eric Bana, and has him gradually work through his issues until he becomes Mark Ruffalo, though any and all character development pretty much happens between movies.

Actually, come to think of it, the constant recasting, new character interpretations, and new character motivations make it difficult, if not impossible, to treat Bruce Banner as one character. And I already said how much I preferred Mark Ruffalo to Bana or Norton. But what I will say is that Bruce Banner works best in an ensemble cast.

Let’s face it, deep down, we all want to see him Hulk out and wreck stuff. The fact that his main goal in life is to not Hulk out just gets in the way of this. His whole thing is staying calm. Well, that doesn’t leave much room for character growth. Anytime he has to confront emotional obstacles, boom. Hulk. So all the Banner time is pretty limited in what the character can do in terms of an emotional character arc. Which is why Bruce Banner works best in an ensemble cast; there’s no pressing need for Bruce Banner to be an interesting focus 100% of the time, so he can just be brought into scenes and situations when he can contribute in some meaningful way, whether it be delivering snark or scrambling to technobabble the doohickey to save the day.

Hulk (Eric Bana, Ed Norton, and Mark Ruffalo)
It's not easy being green.
As for the Hulk, as I said, he’s what we really want to see. Which is why I think the reversal of the usual reaction in The Avengers was pretty brilliant. When the first Hulk out happened in Hulk, the audience went “Yeah! YEAH! Smash!” When the first Hulk out happened in The Incredible Hulk, the audience went “Yeah! YEAH! Smash!” When the first Hulk out happened in The Avengers, the audience went “Oh, God, no, he’s going to kill Black Widow!”

For the first time, the audience felt dread that Bruce Banner was losing control. And really, that’s the way it should be. Not only does it share Bruce’s reluctance to Hulk out with the audience, but it allows the “Yeah! YEAH! Smash!” reaction to be saved for the final act, where it belongs.

Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans)
Captain America got the short end of the character development stick, as far as “headline” Avengers go. And that’s because his signature fish-out-of-water story didn’t happen until the end of his first film and were largely cut from The Avengers. But in the end, it’s clear that he’s a charismatic leader with a heart of gold, who would finally begin to go through the wringer in Phase 2.

Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner)
Hawkeye got the shaft, simple as that. A cameo in Thor, and a brainwashed henchman for most of The Avengers. Luckily, this was noted and remedied in later films.

Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johanssen)
Black Widow is the all-purpose Avenger, and not in a good way. The MCU films just kind of slot her in and adapt her to fit the needs of the script. In Iron Man 2, she’s treated as a potential rival of Pepper Potts for Tony’s affections (though this was much more prominent in some deleted material). In The Avengers, she’s Hawkeye’s best buddy. And if I may bring in Phase 2 real quick, she kisses Captain America after being his partner for a whole movie and pursues a relationship with Bruce Banner.

Now, I’m not calling Black Widow a whore because she got involved with multiple guys. (Who do I look like, Jeremy Renner?) But I’m just saying that there’s little consistency to her; her motivations and romantic interests change from film to film at the whims of the writers. Which is a darn shame, because she has many wonderful moments in every film she’s in.

Loki (Tom Hiddleston)
Loki is like the anti-Tony Stark. Tony becomes a better person through hardship, Loki becomes worse. At the beginning of Thor, he starts as a jealous, mischievous brother, only to turn to evil as hardships get thrown his way. By the time he meets up with Thanos, he’s spiraled down to full psychotic evil. The heroes raise themselves above hardship, Loki drags others down. In the end, Loki is small and petty. Or in other words….

The Tesseract
The main thing uniting the films. Basically, it’s the MCU version of the wish-granting Cosmic Cube, nerfed to make it less of a game breaker, but still powerful enough to bring the Avengers together and unite the movies. Captain America fought against it, Howard Stark used it to create the Arc Reactor, Loki wants it, and Bruce Banner can track it. The Cube has served its purpose, narratively speaking. But thanks to some upcoming retcons, its journey has only just begun….

But seriously, why did Odin just dump it on Earth? Was it just because he was an old man and a fool? In the end, I guess it doesn’t matter. It came along to unite the films after The Incredible Hulk, and did a darn good job getting all the plots on track for The Avengers. Unfortunately, it worked so well that Phase 2 will be beset by problems tying everything in with everything else. You’ll see when we get there.

...why did he want Earth, again? Later films will retcon that he wanted the Tesseract, along with retconning what the Tesseract even IS, but if that were the case, then why bother with an invasion? Probably to gain resources, technology, maybe some slave labor, give The Avengers a third act, I don’t know. But whatever his goal was, his General, Loki, has failed him. And now, Thanos sits on his throne, coming up with his new scheme.

The problem comes later, when he refuses to get up, but that’s another story.
Thanos’s time will come. In about twelve movies’ time or so.

Best Film: The Avengers/Iron Man
Iron Man is the nearly-undisputed classic, but The Avengers is just so darn satisfying.

Worst Film: The Incredible Hulk
It just doesn't mesh well with the other films and is often completely forgotten.

Most "Meh" Film: Captain America: The First Avenger
It's good. Not great.

Best One-Shot: Item 47
It opened the MCU up to new storytelling possibilities in an expanded universe.

Worst One-Shot: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Thor’s Hammer
It’s just an action scene.

Most “Meh” One-Shot: The Consultant
By default. It’s the only one left.

Best Actor: N/A
Everybody gives a wonderful performance within the confines of their genre/character. Comparing the acting of Thor and Iron Man is like comparing apples to oranges.

Best Hero: Iron Man
He has the most growth and is simply one of the msot enjoyable characters to watch.

Most "Meh" Hero: Hawkeye
He’s barely in these movies.

Worst Hero: Ed Norton as Bruce Banner
He just retreads the same standard Bruce Banner territory and ends up being a lot less interesting than Iron Man, Thor, or any of the other characters. Not only that, but his arc is practically nonexistent while spending most of the film trying to not give the audience what it wants, i.e. the Hulk.

Best Supporting Character: Agent Coulson
‘Nuff said!

Most "Meh" Supporting Character: Betty Ross
Pepper Potts is a firecracker, Jane Foster is a scientist, Agent Carter is a badass, Betty Ross… is female.

Worst Supporting Character: Terence Howard as James "Rhodey" Rhodes
He seems more like a lobbyist than a friend. Cheadle-Rhodey has Tony’s back. Howard-Rhodey wants him to go back to making weapons.

Best Villain: Loki
The only villain as of this point to have a multi-movie arc. The others all kind of died, mostly. And what an arc it is, too.

Most "Meh" Villain: General Ross
He chased the Hulk and he had a mustache. …That’s about it. Sure, he was mostly a secondary villain, but the other films in Phase 1 had secondary villains that were much more memorable. Raza, Justin Hammer, Arnim Zola, Laufey, even the Other was surprisingly memorable. So in the end, General Ross, while not a terrible villain, is just kind of… there.

Worst Villain: Obadiah Stane
And that's not to say he's a bad villain, but his sudden lapse into stereotypical supervillainy doesn't have the Abomination's excuse of mental instability, or Red Skull's excuse of being a Nazi, or even Ivan Vanko's desire for revenge. His sudden urge to go creating wanton destruction in the third act works to a degree in a standalone movie, but when you put that movie in the rest of the MCU, it seems a little… motivation-less by comparison.

Best Thing About Phase 1
That (nearly) every Avenger got a stand-alone film before crossing them all over in The Avengers. Though “Cinematic Universes” are the new paradigm, Marvel did it first and best.

Worst Thing About Phase 1
The Incredible Hulk, apparently. I didn't plan on criticizing it so much, it just kind of happened.

Final Verdict
Positively phenomenal. Chalk it up with the original Star Wars trilogy and the Back to the Future movies and marathonable masterpieces.

But the ride doesn't stop here. Next week, Phase 2 begins the same way Phase 1 did: with Iron Man.

See you then!


  1. "The man with many faces."

    This reboot of Dr Who is weird.

    - Faceless Enigma

    1. Well, what else can you expect from the American version of a British show?