The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been going strong for 10 years now, and the culmination of that decade of stories comes to a head with the release of not one but TWO Avengers movies in the next year. The second of these has no title and honestly I have no idea what it’s going to be about. The first however is probably the most famous (in this reader’s mind) story of the Marvel Universe; Infinity War. Based on the Infinity Gauntlet series from the early 90’s, it was the first major comic crossover event I can remember growing up. With the upcoming film I wanted to go back and watch the story unfold from the beginning and write up some thoughts about each of the movies and reflect a bit on how I felt about them when they were originally released. I'm going to tackle Phase 1 in this piece.
At this point, we’d had some limited success with Marvel properties on the big screen. I have fond memories of Blade 1&2 (Trinity less so) and X-men 1&2 for sure. But just as many misses (both Fantastic Four movies). That had me apprehensive or more accurately cautiously optimistic about what honestly amounted to a “second tier” Marvel character. I mean let’s be honest here, X-men and Spider-man were the marquee players, but a movie dedicated to Iron Man? I liked the cartoon from the 90’s as much as anyone, but it wasn’t a slam dunk like the above mentioned properties.
So as I began watching this decade old “relic” I’m still amazed at how instantly happy I was to see Robert Downey Jr.’s take on Tony Stark. From the very first scene I knew he’d nailed the essence of the character, a brilliant, egotistical man who’d not really experienced any true hardship. But once he’s nearly killed and taken prisoner he starts begins to realize everything his work has caused and has a truly transformative moment. The “hero’s trial” as it were.
I must call out how much I beamed with joy at seeing the first introduction to an unsung hero in the MCU: Phil Coulson, whose first appearance here laid the groundwork for the introduction of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the greater MCU building blocks to come. I’m still slightly disappointed that the TV show doesn’t get to have as much of impact/interaction with the movies as it should.
A few more quick things I liked about the movie and then a few qualms I have. First, they made sure not do fall back on the crutch every “masked hero” movie uses and have their hero lose his helmet/mask/etc. so you can see his face (I’m looking at you Thor) but created the weird “Tony view” where we see just his head & armor HUD, but I’ll take that any day over no helmet in climactic battles. Also, the armor design (both the Mark I and Mark II) were fantastic, and the use of practical effects always makes me happy. The weakest parts of the movie generally involve the villain stuff, which is easy enough to overlook when going back and watching now. I still want The Mandarin (THE REAL ONE) as a villain in an Iron Man movie but I doubt we’ll get that until a possible reboot of the franchise.
The Incredible Hulk
Again, a cartoon from the 90’s was the most exposure I had to the character (even outside of comics) and of course the “infamous” Hulk from Ang Lee 5 years prior made it an uphill battle from the start. Edward Norton seemed like a fine enough actor for the role, and I was newly hopeful after the success of Iron Man earlier in the year. What I most remember about the movie is it being incredibly adequate if forgettable. Upon watching it again for possibly the 3rd or 4th time I can say my opinion hasn’t changed much.
The premise is interesting enough, if fairly standard for many of the Hulk stories I remember. Bruce Banner on the run, trying to desperately find a cure. His main antagonist being General “Thunderbolt” Ross, and a lot of generic army guys. The problem with using a generic villain like that is there isn’t much unexpected with regards to the action. Just like with the ‘03 movie, the military tries to take down the Hulk with guns and ammo, which just makes him stronger. Even the inclusion of a proper supervillain in Emil Blonsky (Abomination) doesn’t really do much other than showcase the aged CG effects and less than stellar fights between the two monstrosities.
I’m not even a fan of the “romance” between Bruce and Betty Ross, and this is from someone who has an undying crush on Liv Tyler. It never felt like they “clicked” the way some of the other relationships did in the MCU. Heck, I’m not a Gwyneth Paltrow fan but her Pepper Potts is MILES beyond what’s on display here.
In the end, the movie just kind of ends with a less than stellar fight between Hulk and Abomination in “Harlem” that has no stakes other than fitting in the obligatory “Hulk smash!” line. They didn’t even bother doing a post credits stinger in this one folks. Sure they have Tony Stark meet General Ross and discuss the Avengers, but it doesn’t even seem like that has any real stakes to it either.
Iron Man 2
There were serious expectations set with the 1st sequel for the Marvel Movies, and even though this is thought of by many as one of the “lesser” films in the MCU it still has a lot to like about it.
Some of the high points of course include the continued amazing performance of Robert Downey Jr. who pretty much embodies the swagger of the character as well as his ability to implode when confronted with personal demons. His journey throughout the movie is pretty well handled I thought, and even though it’s a little “deus ex machina” when it comes to resolving his condition, it still feels earned.
In what turned out to be a lucky bit of casting, Don Cheadle’s version of Major Rhodes is MILES better than Terrance Howard’s portrayal in the first movie, especially his comedic chops which are exceptional.
I’m a bit torn on the “villains” of the movie, with Sam Rockwell’s Justin Hammer being essentially a less cool version of Tony Stark with some severe inferiority issues. Overall though I like his role in this as a reflection of what Tony used to be like before his life changing moments in Iron Man. What is still fairly disappointing even upon rewatching is Mickey Rourke’s Whiplash. It seems like it might have been an interesting enough character if given some time but we’re basically given a bunch of snippets right up front indicating he hates the Stark family and that’s about it. It’s not until later that we get any real “meat” about why he’d be angry, but at that point it’s fairly pointless. And the “final battle” with him, Iron Man and War Machine is very underwhelming.
In the end, Iron Man 2 has some great character moments but as a story it seems like a filler issue from the comics at best.
The first Marvel movie not set on Earth (at least in part) had me excited for sure. Even though I knew very little about Thor (other than what I had read in The Ultimates comics) I still had a general sense of the character and his motivations. It was also intriguing that Kenneth Branagh was tapped to direct, especially since the world of Asgard definitely felt like a perfect fit for a Shakespearean take on the comic character.
Even if the rest of the movie was mediocre (it’s not) it would be worth it for the introduction of Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, who to this date is the best villain that has been in the MCU. He embodies the character so fully that it’s hard to see him as anything else. The fact that he’s the only REAL villain who doesn’t die at the end of a Marvel movie is a testament to how good his character is.
As for Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, it’s perfectly suitable for a first attempt. He’s got the look and swagger of the God of Thunder, but the fact that he takes off the helmet within the first minute of appearing on screen still irks me to this day. Other movies have been able to adapt to masked characters since but I’ve come to grips with it.
The remaining cast is almost entirely great, save for one of the Warrior’s Three who was easily replaced in the sequels. And as my friends and I have come to conclude; Anthony Hopkins was most likely not given a script to read and just told: “Hopkins, GO!”
Captain America: The First Avenger
When it was revealed that this would be an origin story set in World War 2 I was instantly excited. Seeing Cap and the Howling Commandos run rampant was something extremely exciting. Also the introduction of the first “major” recurring villain group with Hydra presented the opportunity to seed more long term stories that wouldn’t play out for years.
Even though the CG is slightly dated at this point, it is still incredibly impressive how the pre-Cap version of Steve Rogers is handled. It’s completely believable and honestly sets a great tone for the character and his motivations for wanting to do his part. Chris Evans was one of the few bright spots in the TERRIBLE Fantastic Four movies, and I’m glad to got another shot at Marvel glory here, and have enjoyed his portrayal as the first superhero.
His supporting cast is also exceptional, but I have to make a special callout to Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter. She’s so fantastic in this role that she got her own series Agent Carter which miraculously got 2 seasons on ABC and should absolutely be watched by any fan of the MCU. She’s a perfect foil for Cap and is portrayed as she should be; an equal of Cap on pretty much every level (save for being without the Super Soldier serum). Even though their role is brief, the Howling Commandos all have just enough to do in the movie to feel like they matter, but it’s Bucky who gets the most to work with here. I’m still a fan of their handling of his relationship with Cap, and *spoiler alert* especially with his later introduction of him as the Winter Soldier.
As for the villains, again they’re a bit one-note, with Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull being sufficiently menacing and terrifying at the same time. It’s just that he’s not given much to do other than spout about world domination a lot and how he and Cap are “the next step” in humanity. But man o man the costume & weapon design for the Hydra troops is excellent to see on screen for sure.
The tragedy about the movie is that we all know how it ends: Cap frozen for decades and then awakened in the modern era. I’ve always hoped we get perhaps some further flashbacks to the wartime escapades of Captain America, but alas this movie was pretty much it.
One thing to call out up front; I have very unique feelings about this movie, in large part due to how I saw it the first time. I was fortunate enough to attend the first Marvel Marathon where they screened all the MCU movies to date and ended with the 1st screening of the Avengers that started around Midnight. Needless to say I was exhausted and falling asleep near the end of Captain America, but all that slipped away within minutes of the opening scenes.
Getting to see Nick Fury in action, as well as the rest of S.H.I.E.L.D. was pretty awesome, and the re-introduction of Loki was also great. What wasn’t cool was seeing Hawkeye instantly turned into a pawn of the big bad for over half the film.
The best thing about this being a team up movie is that they don’t need to really spend much if any time giving backstory on the characters. We had 5 movies already to do that, so they can just focus on the character and world building. And the action, boy oh boy did they nail the action. Watching it again, I’m still impressed with how they captured the essence of reading a comic panel and capturing it in motion.
Highlights for me include the Hulk/Thor interactions, Mark Ruffalo wiping the stink of Edward Norton’s movie from our minds, and especially Phil Coulson….even with his “tragic” end. I especially liked his interactions with Captain America and wished we’d get more of that for sure. I also really liked how they handled the “non-powered” members of the team, especially with Black Widow and her interrogation scene with Loki just for the excellent payoff.
It’s hard even now to find any genuine faults with the movie, which is a testament to how well Marvel built to it overall. And even more incredible is how I couldn’t have cared less about the Avengers growing up reading comics, yet I’m completely invested in what used to be Marvel’s 3rd tier heroes.