The Marvel Cinematic Universe has arguably gotten better over time. Part of the reason for this is that it has learned from its mistakes. For big-budget movie franchises, that’s a rarity.
The MCU is the greatest superhero movie franchise of all time. Through 10 years and 19 films (so far), the series has captivated and entertained audiences around the world. It has been a resounding success both in terms of box office success, and also in maintaining a high level of creativity and purpose typically not seen in major cinematic properties. The MCU has been able to aptly translate some of the most popular comic book superheroes from page to screen, appealing to audiences that otherwise might not have been very interested in comic books in the first place.
However, the MCU is also not perfect. The studios, filmmakers, and even actors have made some decisions along the way that have diminished the final product to some degree. Yet, these mistakes, if you can call them that, haven’t yet tripped up the cinematic juggernaut. Part of the reason for this is that the MCU has actually evolved over time, incorporating changes influenced by negative feedback from audiences and critics. These changes aren’t necessary big ones, instead they are little tweaks here and there, but they do go a long way to make the series more entertaining and substantial from a critical perspective.
Phase 1 - Moving Beyond Origin Stories
The initial MCU films were somewhat conservative origin stories. Marvel wanted to first introduce us to Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and Hulk. These characters would form the foundation of the franchise moving forward, upon which everything else would be built. Therefore, it was very important to make a good first impression. If audiences had a bad initial experience, they wouldn’t necessarily come back for the other films. Marvel had to also find a way to appeal to both seasoned comic book readers who were familiar with these characters already, and everyone else who weren’t.
Iron Man was the biggest hit with audiences and critics, probably because people genuinely loved Downey Jr.’s acting and the character he created. One of the most difficult aspects of any superhero film is figuring out how to make your superhuman characters feel realistic. If an audience cannot connect to the characters of the film on a personal level, the film will not be as impactful. This was a struggle for some of these Phase One films. Captain America was from a different time, Thor a different realm, and Hulk’s lead actor would later be replaced anyway. These initial films didn’t really offer much beyond your typical superhero fare. But in the beginning, this was enough. After all, besides Nolan’s Batman trilogy, we hadn’t seen a comic book movie transcend the stigma of the breed.
The question would become, what can the MCU do moving forward to evolve the franchise? The films needed to convince people that Disney was making something bigger, and better than your run-of-the-mill superhero flick. Initial efforts in this regard didn’t pan out too well. The second Iron Man film, for example, found it difficult to add to the excitement of the first film. It simply doubled down (literally) on the mechanized suits, ego-driven geniuses, and explosion fueled mayhem. Thor was the first film that tried to go beyond Earth, and the filmmakers were understandably concerned about how audiences would respond to something so unfamiliar. They paired the Norse God of Thunder with a human scientist, so that audiences would have someone to connect with. However, Jane Foster became a hinderance more than a reference point, a mistake that didn’t get corrected until the third Thor film. Captain America changed up the formula a bit because it took place many decades before the other films. But having the film take place in the past reduces the importance of the events that take place therein because they don’t seem as immediate (and we as an audience mostly know how it was supposed to end anyway).
But despite some of these challenges, the franchise had already taken many important steps to prevent minor problems from unraveling the entire endeavor. The inclusion of post-credit scenes was a very good first move. These short clips not only allowed audiences a glimpse of what was going to happen next, but they established a consistent trend/trademark for fans to look forward to. With the first Avengers film, and to a lesser degree Iron Man 2, we saw another important characteristic of the MCU that we hadn’t really seen anywhere else; the crossover. Creating the Avengers crossover films is ultimately what the MCU was all about, and the first Avengers film didn’t let us down. By putting more than one of our favorite heroes in the same film, the MCU was showing how its contribution to the genre would be more substantial than anything we had seen before. Most importantly, both of these first steps invited audiences to become more involved. With end credits scenes linking the films together, and multiple heroes appearing at the same time, there was a perceived need to watch all of the films or else you fear you might miss out on something important.
Phase 2 - Tweaking the Formula
But while linking the films together with post credit scenes, and actually seeing our heroes fight side by side in the same movie was great, new problems began to emerge in Phase 2. For one, those attributes could only take the series so far before they too would become convention. Once again, it seemed like only a matter of time before Disney would run out of ideas on how to make superhero movies new and exciting, especially when re-using the same characters for sequels. To combat this problem, the studio began looking for more diverse filmmakers to incorporate their unique visions and perspectives into the series. Buddy cop filmmaker Shane Black was given the reins to the third Iron Man movie, acclaimed TV director Alan Taylor was given a shot at the Thor sequel, and B-movie filmmaker James Gunn was given a shot at Guardians of the Galaxy. At the time, these names didn’t exactly seem like the most qualified to dictate the direction of one of the biggest movie franchises ever produced. But that was the kind of the idea.
Ultimately these filmmakers would have mixed success with their Marvel films. The most famous creative control debacle in Phase 2 was related to the direction of the Ant Man film. Comedic director Edgar Wright was originally hired to helm the film, but he eventually left the project citing creative differences. This was the first sign that there could be a conflict between the MCU’s need for more diverse offerings, and its need to maintain the consistency of its film productions. It is understandable that with such massive productions that there is a lot of risk involved - people’s jobs and the studio’s investment is on the line. As such, it is not surprising that Disney would want to keep a close eye on their property, which meant that it would be difficult for some filmmakers to have the freedom that they were used to. Moving forward, the MCU seemed to have learned from this conflict by finding filmmakers who could add something while still being able to work within the constraints of the franchise.
Speaking of creativity issues, the biggest struggle in Phase 2 was actually the lack of strong antagonist characters. That’s not to say that the villains weren’t memorable, or formidable, or intelligent. Phase 2 villains like Ultron, Ronan, and the Dark Elf Malekith were mostly one-dimensional. They either wanted power or to show off their power. That not only seems repetitive, but audiences have seen those types of villains countless times before. I always like to say that the best antagonists are ones that you can find something to admire about. The Phase 2 antagonists were very much like the Phase 1 antagonists. That is; Disney thought that their big tough superheroes needed big tough bad guys in order to prove how big and tough they were. For audiences, the effect was watching a video game on the big screen. There wasn’t much emotional investment.
There was some attempt to experiment with this matter in Phase 2. Iron Man 3 is a great example of a creative solution to this villain problem that did not work out. Mandarin is a major antagonist for Iron Man in the comics, and audiences thought that Iron Man 3 would finally bring the infamous character to the big screen. In reality, the character’s appearance in the film was wasted by the filmmakers in order to pull off an elaborate twist. In Captain America: Winter Soldier, Steve Rogers faces off against a brainwashed version of his friend Bucky. Bucky is the most fearsome antagonist of the film, but he is representative of Hydra, a large organization that is multi-headed and thus not exactly an easily recognizable foe. It wouldn’t be until Phase 3 that Disney would really figure out how to make the MCU villains more compelling.
Phase 3 - Providing Diversity to Reflect Global Audiences
As the MCU franchise continued to pump out well-received films, its popularity grew. That was a very good thing for Disney, which is in the business of making movies. But like any other business, greater success brought new problems. Greater success brings larger audiences, which increases the level and diversity of audience expectations. The MCU could have easily taken a step back and tried a more conservative approach in order to try and appeal to as many people as possible. But such a move would have also been at the expense of everything that the franchise had built so far. Further success also increases expectations, and painted a larger target for the competition. So far, the franchise has evolved to get to this point, and it will need to continue to do so in order to survive. And while DC’s cinematic franchise may have a lot of work to do to catch up, the MCU has provided a formula for which audiences have responded well.
At this point, there is nothing that can stop the MCU except itself. More than ever, Disney has to be careful how it proceeds. With more eyes focused on its films than ever before, there is more scrutiny, and that attention has led to, among other things, a concern over inclusivity. Indeed, this remains as one of the biggest criticisms of the MCU to date. Before Black Panther, all of the leading characters in the franchise have been white men. There have been no MCU films to date helmed by women, and the existing female characters have mostly been relegated to supporting roles (see Jane Foster comment in Phase 1). Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War showed promise in this regard as female characters besides Black Widow have significant screen time and important roles in the plot. We’ll see how the rest of the Phase 3 films proceed with an eye towards better representation.
10 years after the release of Iron Man, we can now see how the MCU had been crafted carefully over time to position its pieces in important places. With Avengers: Infinity War, the MCU has put those pieces into motion and really hit its stride. Although the franchise hasn’t been without shortcomings along the way, the studio has done a tremendous job maintaining consistent quality and making sure not to repeat past mistakes. It will be interesting to see how the franchise continues to evolve moving forward. If there’s one thing we know for certain, it is the fact that the MCU won’t (and can’t) rest on its laurels.
For a more in-depth look at the impact of Marvel's super heroes, check out our multi-part series here.