May 2008 didn’t seem like a particularly significant month. Marvel was putting out a new movie, Iron Man. It had Robert Downey Jr. in it, someone I had heard about but didn’t really know his body of work. But hey, Jeff Bridges was in it and I was a huge fun. Besides, a sci-fi mech suit, cool technology, and a superhero flick… should be fun.
Flash forward 11 years and now I’ve seen Captain Marvel in theaters twice. It marked the 21st film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that the 2008 Iron Man started. These films have been the subject of articles and debates, both friendly and vicious for over a decade now. Even more, we as fans have watched our favorite heroes grow, change, age with us. Thinking back at how different Tony Stark and Steve Rogers were during their initial debuts versus where they are in the Avengers: Endgame trailer, and it’s difficult not to recognize the cultural and emotional impact these characters have had on the world.
11 years ago, I was in college. I was working part-time as a server and bartender while attending an undergraduate program at a local community college before transferring back to KU the coming Fall semester. I was living in my parents’ basement, playing a lot of Nintendo Wii. Now, I’ve got a mortgage, two cars, a fiancée, and the best dog in the world. It’s fair to say that a decade has changed me just as much as it has the MCU.
Just for some perspective, let’s recall 2008 culturally, specifically what the world was like when Iron Man debuted. The Dark Knight was still two months from opening and the internet was petrified Heath Ledger would screw up the Joker. We were just a year away from Spider-Man 3 and just oh-so-convinced it was going to be good. How naïve we were. Star Trek was set to return the following year and the future of Star Wars was still nebulous. It was the era of the PS3 and Xbox 360 and the Nintendo Wii. Obama and McCain were campaigning for office. The stock market was just a few months away from crashing and sending the US into the second largest recession in its history.
It feels so long ago, and the more I think about it, the more detached from that time I feel. The microcosms of our lives make it so easy to forget how different everything was a decade ago. And 2008 was indeed a landmark year for film, pop culture, comic books, and nerdom as a whole. There was no such thing as the Marvel Cinematic Universe yet. But having Tony Stark announcing “I am Iron Man” marked the beginning of something incredibly new, the cinematic universe. It was almost as if Robert Downey, Jr. himself was being the mouthpiece for everyone behind that film, assuring us that something amazing was headed our way.
Nothing about Iron Man should have worked. Casting Robert Downey, Jr. in 2008 was considered a very risky choice as he had been largely absent from the film scene due to recovering from his own demons. The studio pushed for a Tom Cruise lead film. The script wasn’t even finalized until shooting had started. Accounts from director Jon Favreau and Jeff Bridges both recall that the script was changed daily, with plans for the Iron Monger suit being scrapped and reinstated with each new day. Hell, the whole plan was started because Marvel had sold off literally all of their most successful properties to other studios, leaving them to feature their “B Team” characters, something not even the comics were doing that successfully.
Iron Man ended up being a remarkable success, turning some of the most staunch superhero haters into instant fans. Everyone loved that movie. There was even outrage when it was snubbed at the Oscars a few months later. This was just what Marvel Studios needed to move forward with what would be called “Phase 1” of Nick Fury’s Avengers Initiative.
Fun fact about Nick Fury: Samuel L. Jackson was approached by comic book writer Brian Michael Bendis when he was writing The Ultimates so that he could use his likeness for The Ultimate timeline’s Nick Fury. Jackson said they could under one condition: he gets to play him in the film. Marvel was only happy to oblige Mr. Jackson.
Incredible Hulk came next. It was met with some criticism with most people saying, “It’s not as good as Iron Man but it’s so much better than the Ang Lee film.” It wasn’t until after the release of the movie that all the drama with Universal Studios and Edward Norton came out. That drama was just enough for Marvel to move away from the Hulk as much as they could without completely nixing the character, which is just fine, because in the end, Mark Ruffalo has now become the face of the modern Hulk.
The rest of Phase 1 gave us decent introductions of some of the most prolific characters of the MCU today. In 2010, we got the first casting change in the MCU. Don Cheadle took up the role of James Rhodes (War Machine) after an extensive contract dispute with Terrence Howard. See, Howard actually ended up making more money than Robert Downey, Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, and Jeff Bridges, despite having a smaller part and being billed below all of them. He was able to achieve this by being the first one cast and having excellent negotiation skills. Marvel didn’t know any better. It wasn’t until all the others accepted their salaries that they figured it out. So when they offered him much less for Iron Man 2 and he hedged, they dropped Howard so fast. Before completely taking over the role, Don Cheadle did receive Howard’s blessing and became the War Machine we know and love today. Howard’s not doing badly either, completely ruling Fox on his series, Empire.
We also met Black Widow, the defected spy from Russia and the first woman of the MCU. She was portrayed by Scarlett Johansson in what would be a career defining role. Even now, one of the largest omissions of the MCU is not giving Black Widow her own standalone film during Phase 1 (if you don’t remember, that was one of the biggest fan complaints between 2010 and 2012.)
Thor, Loki, and, to a much lesser degree Hawkeye, were introduced in the MCU’s next film, Thor. While relative newcomer Chris Hemsworth was everything we always wanted in a Thor, it was Tom Hiddleston’s portrayal of Loki that brought the brooding sex appeal and charm that made all the fan girls go wild. It is unlikely that Marvel’s first choice, Josh Hartnett, would have created the same fan base that propelled Loki into four more films and an upcoming TV show. Hawkeye, on the other hand, was shoehorned into the film during the only place it made any sense right after it Joss Whedon cast him for Marvel’s The Avengers. The news of Jeremy Renner’s casting broke shortly before the movie dropped and literally no one expected his appearance.
In 2011, Captain America: The First Avenger also released, proving to us that Chris Evans had grown into an exceptional actor. Long gone were the days of whipped cream bikinis from Not Another Teen Movie. He brought life to a character that had felt out of place in the comics for decades, giving Cap the Boy Scout feel we love but the charm of the “man out of time.” Let’s not forget the utter brilliant performance of Hugo Weaving as the Red Skull, solidifying a precedent for amazing villains that Phase 2 would largely fail to live up to.
Then Avengers dropped. This movie forever changed the landscape of movie studios. It was cinema magic to the say the least. We’ve seen multiple companies try and recreate the fantasy that Marvel did and fail over and over. They’ve tried to repeat it almost step-by-step but forgot to add in the quirk and charm Marvel did (Universal’s “Dark Universe” comes to mind) or try to force their huge team up by rushing and convoluting the story (Warner Brother’s Worlds of DC, previously the DCEU, really wanted Justice League to be a thing). The trick with Marvel was they always had a plan, but they also had backup plan after backup plan in case this didn’t work out. In Phase 1, the studio trusted the directors to pull out the best performances of not just their actors, but their stunt coordinators, special effects artists, and script writers. They laid the groundwork for, what was at the time, the most ambitious and well laid cinema plans to date, and Joss Whedon followed through. That movie had it all: humor, high stakes, impressive action, a place for every character, depth, tragedy, endings, and beginnings. Frankly, it was the well-rounded superhero movie everyone had waited for and will always stand out as a bright spot of hope in the MCU.
Phase 2 remains a mixed bag of successes and problems. The first one out of the gate was Iron Man 3, which was the first largely divisive film of the MCU. Previous Iron Man director Jon Favreau had stepped down, mostly due to how badly his hands were tied creatively during Iron Man 2. Shane Black (that dude who died in Predator) stepped in and did what he could with The Mandarin, a story long-time fans of Iron Man had been waiting for since the beginning. I, for one, tried very hard to defend the story and the large twist but have since let it go. On the one hand, seeing Tony Stark experience PTSD as a direct result of his sacrifice from the Battle of New York is classic Marvel, humanizing our heroes right before our eyes. On the other, if you have a brilliant actor like Ben Kingsley in your role as a horrifying terrorist and you reduce him to fart jokes, I’m probably going to have a problem with your story. Sure, the Hail to the King one-shot story hinted at another Mandarin, but that’s a revelation that will never pay off. Sorry, fan boys. Not happening.
Thor: The Dark World and Avengers: Age of Ultron were also riddled with problems on and off screen which came down to one thing: Marvel Studios was scared to upset the status quo. They lacked faith in female villains (girls don’t buy toys, duh), in their directors, in their stories. Even newcomer franchise Ant-Man played things safe in places and cemented the fact that we’ll never see an Edgar Wright MCU film, which I think is a huge loss. The only stand out examples of Marvel doing something unique was 2014’s films: Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1. These movies were so spectacular and original, it’s very hard to believe that they were sandwiched by such safe mediocrity. The Winter Soldier was the first time we had seen the superhero genre merge with something else, being one of the most well-crafted spy thrillers of the new 2010’s. Guardians of the Galaxy took a collection of oddball characters from the deep recesses of the Marvel vault and put them in their very own spotlight and made it work. Marvel took chances on relatively unknown directors, unexpected actors, and unusual story lines. What they created were two of the best superhero movies to date. It’s almost as if they don’t belong in the Phase 2 set, but if they hadn’t, there is a huge chance that the MCU would have been written off as a whole.
Phase 3 has been a melting pot of wrapping up stories and beginning new ones. A deal with Sony had been struck to incorporate the Spider-Man character into the MCU on the condition that Sony retains the rights to the rest of the “Spider” characters. A Spider-Man/MCU franchise was fast-tracked, having his first solo film bump the timeline for Black Panther and Captain Marvel, along with reshoots to Captain America: Civil War incorporating him into the film. It was one of Joss Whedon’s regrets that he wasn’t able to get the character into Age of Ultron since the deal had been finalized but not fully realized at that time.
When Captain America: Civil War had been announced, I admit I got all tingly inside. It was one of the biggest and best crossover comic events that Marvel has put out to date. The tension between our cinematic Avengers had been building for years and this was going to be a solid payoff. While it remains one of the more successful MCU films, it was far from perfect. The Russo brothers were brought back for their second film and created, essentially, an Avengers film. Both our heroes, Iron Man and Captain America, are incredibly problematic. Black Widow makes a drastic 180 character turn, which is even called out by James Rhodes, and still doesn’t work. Yet it’s hard to deny that Black Panther had a brilliant introduction in what could have been an overstuffed movie, and finally seeing Ant-Man get giant sized was something I didn’t know I needed in my geeky life.
The introduction to Doctor Strange in his own eponymous title film told us the already familiar story of a snarky genius in times of physical tragedy (Iron Man and Doctor Strange are the same character in so many ways), but delivered it in a sparkly magical package that we hadn’t seen before. The visual effects were stretched beyond what Marvel had shown us before, giving us a hero both new and old to the MCU. Spider-Man: Homecoming also delivered a “familiar new” story, presenting us with the third live-action iteration of Peter Parker seen since 2000, and to some, the best. And while some joke it’s just another Iron Man film, it shines, in the addition of Michael Keaton as Adrian Toomes, the Vulture. This character was originally wanted for Sam Raimi’s fourth installment in the Sony Tobey Maguire series and had eyed John Malkovich to play him. While that had the potential to be a spectacle on par with Alfred Molina’s brilliant turn as Doctor Octopus, Keaton’s turn gave us a chillingly subtle performance, with the character’s secret identity being more frightening than his villainous one. It was absolutely the right call to keep the character alive AND have Keaton reprise it in the upcoming film, Spider-Man: Far from Home.
While phase 3 fizzled with Ant-Man and the Wasp and Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 (hey, we’re not saying they’re bad, just not as good as some of the other films), the MCU really shined with the first solo films of Black Panther and Captain Marvel, and the continuation of the Thor franchise in Thor: Ragnarok. Director Taika Waititi spent only a small amount of time with Chris Hemsworth before deciding he would lean into the actor’s natural humor for this third installment. He was also the first director to bring in a woman as the film’s big bad. Black Panther ended up being the highest grossing film of 2018, beating out Avengers: Infinity War. It also took home a few Oscars at the 2019 ceremony and is still discussed by fans if the social commentary of the film is more important than the quality of the film itself. Whether or not that’s true, it did give us one of the best villains in the MCU with Michael B Jordan’s Killmonger. Captain Marvel succeeded in diversifying the MCU and dividing the fan community. It was the first female lead film in the entire MCU (long overdue) and provided even the avid comic reader with an unexpected sci-fi twist. Despite how you feel about it, the movie was a financial success and ended up joining six other films in the MCU to make a billion dollars during their run time (Avengers, Iron Man 3, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Captain America: Civil War, Black Panther, and Avengers: Infinity War).
So here we are in 2019. Avengers: Endgame is less than a week away, the 22nd MCU film and likely the completion of Phase 3. It is easily the most anticipated movie of 2019, and possibly the decade (although strong arguments can be made for Star Wars: The Force Awakens). Directors Joe and Anthony Russo have done their best to keep fans guessing by putting out misleading trailers and denying every rumor ever. We do know a few things, though. We know this will be the end for some of our favorite characters. We know that some of the character deaths in Infinity War will stick. We know that this will be the last time we see some of these faces. In the opposite vein, there are nuggets of hope: we will be getting some of the dusted characters back, and this will most likely be the end of Thanos, as producer Kevin Feige has said this will be the end of The Infinity Saga. Meanwhile, Phase 4 is being put in motion as we speak with confirmed sequels for Black Panther, Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, and the Guardians, with a feature film for Black Widow and new franchise The Eternals. The acquisition of the former Fox properties such as X-Men (including Deadpool) and the Fantastic Four also gives new possibilities for future films. While we prepare to be both overjoyed and destroyed by Avengers: Endgame, we can look to the MCU’s bright and full future to keep us overjoyed and destroyed for another 11 years and beyond.
Whatever it takes.
This retrospective is a collaboration between myself (Rae Stewart) and Derreck Mayer. You can find us each week on the Screen Heroes podcast, available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Spreaker, Google Play, and more!