It’s been eleven years and more than twenty films, but the Marvel Cinematic Universe is closing its third and final phase. This week, GeekDad is looking back at Marvel’s superhero franchise, and today we’re focusing on phase one. This is our retrospective of each film’s place within the greater MCU and the specific aspects that may make it relevant to the tapestry that Marvel has woven with their storytelling. There will be spoilers for the films, so if you haven’t seen everything in the franchise, tread with caution. And if you’re not planning to go back and watch many, then perhaps the following will refresh your memory on a number of MCU happenings.
Iron Man was the first film, released at a time when Robert Downey Jr. felt like a has-been actor, and when Hugh Jackman played the only Marvel character anyone really cared about. Its unexpected success set the MCU in motion, and the first appearance of Samuel L Jackson’s Nick Fury as a post-credits surprise was both a bone thrown to comics fans and notice that Marvel was serious about its plans for a major film franchise moving forward.
There isn’t much in Iron Man that will give you any background in terms of the MCU’s Endgame finale, but if you’re planning a more completionist review of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there are far more skippable films than Iron Man. It’s true that the movie’s third act was lackluster, but it’s easy to forget how surprising the final twist was in 2008. Tony Stark did what no other superhero had done and went public with his identity, then Marvel dropped the mic by cutting to credits and blasting Black Sabbath.
The Incredible Hulk
It’s easy to forget that The Incredible Hulk is part of the MCU at all, given that Ed Norton was playing the character back in 2008. The only concrete ties to the other films that exist are the reappearance of William Hurt’s General Ross in Civil War and Infinity War, the easy-to-miss reappearance of Martin Starr’s character as Peter Parker’s teacher, and, of course, Tony Stark’s appearance in Hulk‘s after-credits stinger.
Overall, if you’re going to skip any film, The Incredible Hulk is a film you should skip. The callbacks to the old 1970s show were nice, and Tim Roth’s supersoldier character was a bright spot, although that didn’t work out great for him in the end.
Iron Man 2
Even Mickey Rourke and Sam Rockwell, both of whom were awesome, weren’t enough to bring Iron Man 2 out of the lower tiers of Marvel films. Iron Man 2 introduced Black Widow, had the first appearance of Gary Shandling’s Senator Stern, and brought Don Cheadle on board as a replacement actor for Rhodey, who became War Machine for the first time in this movie.
People got excited to see a replica of Captain America’s shield mid-movie, at a time before the character had been formally introduced, and the post-credits scene of Coulson looking out at Mjollnir set up Thor nicely. Also, it’s minor, but the kid who jumps out in front of one of Whiplash’s drones wearing a plastic Iron Man mask was retconned to be a young Peter Parker.
But the film’s meat was a subplot about how Howard Stark had envisioned technology he wasn’t able to implement given his era’s level of advancement, and how he’d encoded it for Tony to find once he’d grown up. Tony puts the inventor hat back on and synthesizes a new element, which enables him to cure his palladium poisoning. When I think of Iron Man 2, all I can think of is the party scene in which drunk Tony Stark in full armor battles War Machine to Daft Punk’s “Robot Rock.” It’s… not good.
The first Thor film had its work cut out for it from the start. It was introducing a hero who was something more out of the fantasy genre than the superhero genre. In the end, it was a fish-out-of-water comedy with heavy action and an underutilized Natalie Portman. It was also our first introduction to Hawkeye, who appeared only briefly as Thor was breaking into a SHIELD outpost to retrieve his hammer. My favorite bit is still Kat Denning’s mispronunciation of Mjollnir, which she repeats in Thor: The Dark World. Hilarious.
Thankfully, this movie also introduced Loki, who remains one of the MCU’s best characters. Still, unless you feel that you absolutely need this particular origin story, you don’t need to watch it again before Avengers: Endgame.
Captain America: The First Avenger
While Thor had a difficult task in making a Norse god into a superhero, Captain America: The First Avenger had an entirely different flavor of difficult task: putting a flag-wearing guy in tights with wings on his hat on the screen and having him not look like this guy.
They did it extraordinarily well. The effects that made pre-serum Chris Evans look scrawny were impressive. It did seem to drag at times, but the film introduced the Space Stone in the form of the Tesseract, which Red Skull found in an ancient church, and which was later lost at the bottom of the sea along with Steve Rogers.
It’s easy to forget that Stanley Tucci was in the movie and to forget how good his character was. It’s also easy to forget about Tommy Lee Jones as the grizzled old general. And Tobey Jones as Doctor Zola. If you’re looking for a more complete refresher, you may want to consider the first Captain America movie if for no other reason than the introduction of the Tesseract.
The Avengers remains my absolute favorite of the MCU movies. I could go into why, but that in itself is easily a very long article. Instead, I’ll redirect you to Bob Chipman’s excellent long-form video essay on the subject: The Avengers: Really That Good.
The Avengers not only deals with the five core Avengers members meeting each other, but it also characterizes every one of them amazingly well. Think of Black Widow’s introduction with the Soviets who think they have her captive or Thor’s joy at battling Hulk on the SHIELD helicarrier. Think of Iron Man flippantly offering Loki a drink at the film’s climax or Captain America’s line “There’s only one God, ma’am, and he doesn’t dress like that.” The characters are rock-solid.
Another reason to watch The Avengers is to track the Infinity Stones. Thanos, who’d apparently gotten hold of the Mind Stone, lends it to Loki by putting it in his scepter, and Loki steals the Tesseract and the Space Stone from Nick Fury. I can only imagine that Thanos was planning for Loki to take over Earth, at which point Thanos could come in and claim the Time Stone as well since the Eye of Agamoto was presumably in the care of the sorcerer supreme.
And I’m hard-pressed to think of any other movie with as many set pieces. The collapsing SHIELD facility, Cap’s fight with Loki in Germany, the Thor vs Iron Man fight, the massive battle on the helicarrier, and, of course, the climactic battle against the Chitauri. I’m not even sure whether I missed any. If you go back and watch only one film… watch Infinity War. But if you watch two, then watch The Avengers.
That’s it for Phase One. Next time, we’ll review all of the Phase Two MCU movies.