Marvel’s Phase One

This post is part of a series I am writing on the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe from Iron Man to Endgame. There will be spoilers for the entire series of films.

With their first six films, Marvel had a simple goal: introduce a number of characters who could carry their own film franchises while also creating a framework for crossover events, much like the annual events that take place in the comics. The first solo films stand on their own, with minor references and the occasional cameo tying them together, and then The Avengers was the one point where it all came together into a single universe.

I can’t help but think some of that initial simplicity has been lost as the Marvel Cinematic Universe has grown. We still get the stand-alone films, but largely for characters who are less important for the crossovers, and the major heroes spend more time in events rather than solo features – Captain America and Thor are the only ones to receive a solo film after Phase Two, and Captain America: Civil War was more of an Avengers film than a Captain America film.

Along with a shift toward solo films as filler and the event films as the main focus, there’s been a tendency to try and tie the various films into part of the overall narrative – what’s now been titled the Infinity Saga. Thanos, of course, first appears in the MCU in the end credits of The Avengers, so his being positioned as the final challenge of the first era of the MCU does make sense on that level, but Phase One itself doesn’t seem like it was made with that in mind. The first mention of the Infinity Stones comes in the end credits of Phase Two’s Thor: The Dark World, in which both the Aether and the Tesseract are established as Infinity Stones. I wouldn’t be surprised if the idea of the Tesseract and Loki’s staff – both of which were important in The Avengers – containing Stones didn’t actually come about until after the film was made, when the people in charge were deciding on a direction for Phase Two. It looks like they wanted to use the Infinity Stones because they were using Thanos, and they didn’t want to have to introduce all the Stones separately, so decided to point at some things that had already been used and say “that’s an Infinity Stone”.

The Tesseract is the one that bothers me. The Cosmic Cube of the comics is an entirely different object with its own power, not connected to the Infinity Gems, and could have served as a macguffin for other narratives not connected to Thanos, but once it was turned into an Infinity Stone, that was it. Maybe the Stones will come back at some point, but it will always be an Infinity Stone and not a Cosmic Cube. Decisions like these can limit the stories they tell in future, and they continue to make them in later films with their tendency to use up and kill off characters who could have been interesting long-running villains.

Speaking of villains, at least one interesting thing from Phase One is that it did leave some villains out there, with the potential to come back. Abomination was alive and in captivity at the end of The Incredible Hulk, while the Red Skull’s fate in Captain America: The First Avenger was ambiguous but looked a lot like he had been transported somewhere in outer space by the Tesseract. It would have been nice to see these get some followup beyond the cursory Red Skull cameo we eventually received in Infinity War and Endgame.

Phase One was not a grand narrative – it was set up, a series of introductions that created the ground on which the future films could build. There was no guarantee it would work, so there wasn’t much reason to spend significant time on setting up future films that might not happen. In that way the success of the MCU has perhaps been a mixed blessing for fans who enjoy stand-alone character driven features. While Phase Two films would continue to mostly stand-alone, the amount of setup they included would increase, to the point that the second Avengers movie suffered heavily for it.

But perhaps that’s not as much of a flaw as it seems. The MCU started with a mixed bag of movies that ranged from good (Iron ManCaptain America) to just okay (The Incredible Hulk, Thor), but they were entertaining enough, and the idea of the shared world, the continuity, may be what kept people coming back for more. It’s certainly what allowed them to branch out into weirder areas like Guardians of the Galaxy in Phase Two. So while I could complain that the need to take decisions one creator makes in a film and shoehorn them into part of a bigger narrative has held individual films back, it could also be argued that it’s better for Marvel to focus on its crossovers and shared narrative, because the big stories and shared universe are what keeps people interested. It hasn’t stopped me being a fan, after all.

I guess I’m getting ahead of myself somewhat; at this point I’m only six films in to the rewatch and have a lot more to go.

One of the interesting things about Phase One is the timeline: the films don’t entirely take place in chronological order, and they happen within a much shorter timeframe than you might expect. While The Incredible Hulk was released only a few months after Iron Man, it actually takes place concurrently with the end of Iron Man 2, which was released two years later. Thor begins immediately after Iron Man 2, meaning three of these six films happen within a single week. Where later films seem to skip ahead months or years at a time, roughly matching their release schedule, the Phase One timeline is very compressed.

After The Avengers, having established their universe, it was time for Marvel Studios to build on that. Phase Two needed to deliver sequels to the Phase One films while also expanding the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and keep audiences from losing interest as things grew beyond the scale of all previous superhero franchises. It’d be pretty easy to screw that up.

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