What were you doing on May 1st 2008? No doubt it was just an average Thursday in Spring but little did we all know, it was in fact the eve of a revolution in moving pictures. For only three short years previous to this fateful date, uber fanboy Kevin Feige (weirdly pronounced fey-gee) and the newly created Marvel Studios laid down a blueprint which would realise the vision of original Marvel creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby – the shared cinematic universe.
Do you even remember a pre-MCU existence? A time when Robert Downey Jr. was no longer relevant and Ang Lee directed Hulk films?? An era when you left the cinema the second the screen faded to black??? Madness! I vaguely recall a dark age of not being in a constant state of post-Guardians wonderment or pre-Avengers intrigue but these memories are hazy at best. In striking whilst the iron was hot, Marvel Studios with their extraordinary wealth of characters, inbuilt fan base and amazing script writers cashed in on the diversion from the camp escapades of super heroes past and changed the cinematic landscape forever.
But you already know all this. Chances are if you are reading this article then you are a Marvel fan, unswerved by DC’s efforts to steal your attention with their Suicide Squad’s, Wonderous Women and twice rebooted Batmen. With Ant-Man neatly completing the second Phase of the grand Marvel plan, what better time to take stock and with the glorious aid of hindsight, analyse how Phases I and II actually stack up against one another?
I AM IRON MAN!
Phase One in Stats
20/30 Empire star rating
3.33 average Empire star rating
$1.744 billion at the box office to date
% of box office takings – The Avengers 36% Iron Man 18% Iron Man 2 18% Thor 10% Capt. America 10% The Incredible Hulk 8%
Highest grossing-The Avengers ($623m)
Lowest grossing-The Incredible Hulk ($134m)
Friday May 2nd 2008. Robert Downey Jr. emphatically embodies playboy philanthropist Tony Stark and comic book readers the world over are embraced by the mainstream. By virtue of laying the foundation for everything to follow and introducing a new audience to Marvel’s most valuable of stock, Phase One is the founding father. The constitution. Genesis. But remove the Stan Lee rose tinted aviators and in an obvious diversion from the expected series of pure origin stories, two of the weakest entries in the Marvel canon can be found buried beneath the rubble of Phase One. Edward Norton is an incredible actor (that’s mainly hinged on American History X) but he was never going to be the right fit for the tone of this franchise, what the hell was tiny Tim Roth all about, the less said the better about Mickey Rourke’s dodgy Russian with a grudge in Iron Man 2 and despite being a personal fave of mine, it stands to reason why many were turned off by the understated exploits of good ol’ Cap having gorged at the FX laden table of Norse Gods and tech savvy lords of war.
The piece de resistance of this grandest of escapades was the realisation that these heroic figures inhabit the same reality, breath the same air. With Joss Whedon masterfully conducting the orchestra of egos, character arcs and future plot lines, The Avengers (or Avengers Assemble as we in the UK were forced to choke on) is possibly (probably) the greatest comic book superhero story ever committed to film and the reason why movie fans exist. With the battle of New York ringing in our ears and an education in schawarma, the book was closed on Phase One and the curtain drawn on the first instalment of a brave new world in film.
I HAVE A PLAN. YOU HAVE A PLAN? I HAVE… PART OF A PLAN!
Phase Two in Stats
24/30 Empire star rating
4.00 average Empire star rating
$1.769 billion at the box office to date
% of box office takings – Avengers: Age of Ultron 26% Iron Man 3 23% Guardians of the Galaxy 19% Capt. America: The Winter Soldier 15% Thor: The Dark World 12% Ant-Man 6%
Highest grossing-Avengers: Age of Ultron ($456m)
Lowest grossing-Ant-Man ($106m)
In less than a year it was time for the second act. Back stories were established, the Avengers had assembled and shit got real. This could only go one of two ways; Option A) more of the same. The formula ain’t broke so why fix it? A common thread could continue to draw the separate entities towards the same climatic showdown with much humour had along the way. Or B) shake the tree and see what happens. Welcome to Phase Two – the tree has been well and truly shaken.
Struggling to keep a handle on things in the aftermath of battle, first up and rounding off his personal trilogy was the darker, depressive Iron Man 3. By delving into the damaged psyche of a superhero and exploring post traumatic stress, Shane Black injected life back into the stuttering franchise with Ben Kingsley’s odd portrayal of the Mandarin the only off note. He is a villain the same as Thanos or Roman so why the camp English thespian? Rather formulaically, both Thor: The Dark World and The Winter Soldier developed their properties by turning up the destruction but despite an underwhelming reveal (I can’t believe the Winter Soldier is Bucky! Er, who’s Bucky?), are enjoyable none the less.
Phase two was ticking along splendidly with successful sequels out performing their predecessors in both scale and box office takings. There was stability in the Universe and an audience base locked in so it was time to test the waters with a psychotic racoon, linguistically challenged tree and ill prepared Star Lord. Comic book aficionados may have been well versed in the ways of the Guardians of the Galaxy but to green horns such as I, this meant change. But who was I to doubt the might of Marvel? The resounding triumph of Guardians optioned a shift in tone for the franchise should the old guard become stale, a tone tested again to less success with Ant-Man.
And so we close with the second glossy unification of the shared universe in Avengers: Age of Ultron. In truth, audiences had begun to tire of citywide destruction and alien aerial attacks at this juncture in time which was reflected at the box office (down by nearly $200m on The Avengers). It was evident on the screen this was probably a stretch too far for Whedon, tasked with Phase One and Two continuity, segueing the new ensemble of Avengers whilst providing a spring board for Civil War and Ragnarok. Could audiences spoilt thus far with the maelstrom of the Marvel Cinematic Universe now be expecting too much…
Although Phase One has a place in our hearts as the origin of this amazing adventure in cinema, they know The Incredible Hulk was a misfire. Why else recast the role and cancel any further stand alone features? For me, Phase Two crushed it. The weakest entries (Thor: Dark World & The Winter Soldier) did no damage to their properties, unlike arguably Iron Man 2 and The Incredible Hulk, James Spader’s Ultron was worth the ticket price alone, Iron man 3 was perfectly pitched and Guardians of the Galaxy is quite frankly one of the greatest comic book sci-fi films I have ever seen.
Marvel have to anticipate some audience drop off as the MCU progresses beyond its more famous characters and with the universe mapped out until Avengers: Infinity War Part 2 in May 2018, who knows what shape we’ll be in by then. Phase Three kicks off with two heavy hitters in Captain America: Civil War looking set to break records and Guardians of the Galaxy 2 praying they mine the same comedy gold a second time around but who knows how audiences will take to the likes of Black Panther, Captain Marvel, Inhumans and Doctor Strange? As rivals DC enter their own darker shared territory and Disney’s new Star Wars trilogy inevitably steeling everybody’s attention, Infinity War may prove to be Marvel’s last throw of the dice to salvage their own Cinematic Universe…
What’s your favourite entry in the Marvel canon and whose side will you be on when the Civil War comes?? Please leave your comments below, we’d love to discuss the MCU with you and take part in our Marvel poll!
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