- April 20, 2022
MCU Retrospective: Rewatching the Phases of the MCU
The Marvel Cinematic Universe started in 2008 with the release of Iron Man 1. We had Marvel movies before that with the Raimi Spider-Man Trilogy, the Blade duology, and a series of X-Men movies. But the MCU was the first time anyone had attempted to replicate what only the comic books had ever achieved… an interconnected universe of characters with distinct, separate, yet parallel stories.
The X-Men movies brought many heroes together to underrated success, but they started together, and only Wolverine & Deadpool got to out on their own. The MCU truly built up and expanded on individual characters who could each carry their own franchise, and made them make sense together.
The Fall of Comic Books
The circumstances as to how the MCU came together are as captivating as the films themselves. From the 1970s to the 1980s, Marvel was a comic book and merchandising company in basic terms. They didn’t make movies, or cartoons, or anything else. They licensed out their properties both to get their characters out there and to stave off financial disaster.
Sure, there were many at Marvel Comics who worked hard to produce movies, TV shows, and cartoons, but Marvel Comics did not have a movie division like they do today.
Marvel had always licensed out their characters too, but they didn’t go on their infamous licensing binge until around 1993 when the comic book market began to collapse. By then, DC had been bought by Warner Bros and had been owned by them for years. They had and still have a company to keep them afloat who made so much money off of DC properties through film, tv, and toys, that they would still fund DC despite comics not making too much money in comparison to other industries. Marvel didn’t have this financial net, and wouldn’t for decades more until they were purchased by Disney in 2009, after the release of Iron Man 1.
To survive the collapse of the comic book market, they made their famous auctions to the movie studios. Sony got Spider-Man; Fox got X-Men, Daredevil, and the Fantastic Four; New Line had Blade, and Universal technically still partially owns the Hulk and Namor. This left Marvel with a dearth of characters with quality storylines to work with if they ever wanted to do something on their own.
Luckily, when Marvel did want to get into movies, Kevin Fiege was able to work with what he had.
The Original C-Tier of Marvel
Make no mistake, many can pretend now that they were big Iron Man and Captain America fans, but there was a reason no one bought their movie rights. They, and many of the original characters of the MCU, weren’t worth buying. They didn’t have the popularity, name recognition, and honestly, the quality of Marvel franchises like the X-Men and Spider-Man. I’m sorry, but Iron Man has been more often than not, considered a C-Tier character, B-Tier at best before the MCU.
Iron Man, along with most other Avengers, was not ranking high in comic book sales charts like the X-Men and Spider-Man titles were. In fact, the only Avengers character whose solo title sold and still sells well is the Hulk, not Iron Man.
So Marvel’s newly founded movie studio, aptly named Marvel Studios, reinvented a lot of the characters they had. The producers, writers, and directors cherry-picked the best aspects across many runs to create the MCU under Kevin Feige’s leadership. Some heroes remained more intact than others, and some are honestly unrecognizable. (Guardians of the Galaxy) It’s a mixed bag when it comes to who was improved, and who was a husk of their original selves. That’s a whole other discussion, but it led to the best action film franchise of all time, and some of the greatest films of all time.
Or are they?
You see, I’m rewatching the MCU as I write this video. I’m making a video ranking them as well because I love ranking things. You may judge me.
But this video is less about ranking them, and more about taking a look back if you can’t already tell. After going over the history of the MCU, I want to take a closer look at what they have in common. What phase is the best, and what defines each phase of the MCU?
Where else to start, but with Phase One?
Phase One: The Start of the MCU
Phase One contains Iron Man 1, Iron Man 2, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, and The Avengers.
This phase gets a lot of credit for being the first, but not for just how experimental it was. It gets a lot of flack, even from me, and if we’re being honest, it was because they were the most by-the-books films. Upon rewatch, I realize that’s not true.
Each of them has a genre that they’re going for. They’re just more niche than say… the spy genre of The Winter Soldier, or the heist genre for Ant-Man.
The first Thor is straight-up a Shakespeare movie. From the way the characters talk to the way they emote and behave, it has old Willy written all over it. Then there’s the Incredible Hulk, which is possibly the first and last anti-military movie in the MCU. It’s a thriller with horror elements because of the Jekyll & Hyde situation between Banner and the Hulk. It doesn’t shy away from even the most risque reasons of why it’s terrible and terrifying to be one-half of the Green Goliath.
Even the first Captain America movie, which everyone knows is a WWII film, really doesn’t get the credit for how it replicates the time. I would say that it goes farther than even the first Wonder Woman film. Captain America replicates the tone and the artistic style, showing you how we picture the supposed Greatest Generation.
And even more than the films that follow, these are the movies that took the most time to deep-dive into their characters. The best scenes are the small scenes, with Tony Stark making his armor, Bruce Banner learning to control his rage, and Steve Rogers throwing himself on a grenade. It’s these small moments that allow us to believe in the larger-than-life beliefs they strive to live up to.
Though, there is a reason many people generally don’t think of these films as being as deep and introspective as they are. It’s because of the Avengers.
The First of its of Kind
The MCU is the first brand of its kind in the media of film, but the Avengers is the first movie of its kind as well. It brings all these heroes together, doing what no one else has for the first time. It makes sense that it would define all the movies that led up to it, and de facto, Phase One overall.
At the same time, this pays the films preceding it a disservice. The Avengers is the best film of Phase One, in my personal opinion. It had the best, and at the time, most complete characterizations to just bounce off each other. It was fun, it was entertaining, and it made more people understand what was special about superheroes in a way films hadn’t since the original Richard Donner Superman.
But, in its effort to be the purest kind of superhero action, it colors over what came before. It’s no longer commonly recognized that the movies of Phase One were doing genre films just like Phase Two and Three. I firmly believe that is the fault of the first Avengers film. The First Avengers film was a superhero film and superhero film alone, and that’s great. When we think of Phase One, that’s the movie we talk about more often than not. That’s great, it’s just not great for what came before.
And that’s a real shame because it keeps more and more people from going back. If you rewatch them, you may find that the ones you once disliked, are better than you thought. I did.
Phase Two: Setting Up the Rules of the MCU
Phase Two contains Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Ant-Man.
This was the turning point for the MCU. You can see across these movies that they were beginning to let go of the reins. New directors came in and had varying degrees of success, leading to some of the best and worst parts of the MCU.
To get the worst out of the way, you can clearly see them working out the kinks. Iron Man 3 starts with Shane Black at the helm. You see someone experimenting with the storytelling and action, really getting to the root of the character, but not going terribly far. It’s the perfect example of one Marvel movie walking so future films can run.
This is even more prevalent because when Thor: The Dark World followed Iron Man 3, Marvel Studios got a rude awakening. After the future director of Wonder Woman, Patty Jenkins was taken off the project for a more by-the-books movie, we got the worst film in the MCU. Thor: The Dark World didn’t take risks in any way, feeling stale and boring. The process of making this film seems to have taught Marvel Studios a valuable lesson because they did not make the same mistake with the two movies that followed.
In 2014, we got Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy. Both of these films are clearly the handcrafted films of their creators. In the Russo Brothers case, they made the spy movie of their dreams, with action scenes and twists that will stand the test of time. With James Gunn, he got to make gold out of the impossible. He turned characters comic book readers barely cared about into household names with one of the most eccentric films to date.
Marvel found themselves with two great successes in 2014, but 2015 showed that Marvel Studios respected their characters too much to just start letting anything be done with them, all willy-nilly.
The Director Who Failed
In 2015, Phase Two ended with two directorial debacles. The infamous Joss Whedon attempted to have the same creative control as previous directors, and Marvel Studios proved that despite the success of their 2014 films, they weren’t going to roll over for famous eccentric directors.
I can only hope that after he wrote a script that butchered Ultron’s character and made the now-infamous romantic subplot and traumatic backstory involving Black Widow, Marvel Studios watched him more closely. With reportings from the man himself that he wanted to extend some of the most boring scenes of the movie about Thor’s sequel, I imagine Marvel learned that they couldn’t wholly trust directors to have a vision worth telling.
Joss Whedon had already filmed and injected the film with rather crude jokes, particularly at Black Widow’s expense, then he wanted to give us more of Thor in a pool?
I’m particularly glad Marvel stood their ground. Avengers: Age of Ultron is the weakest film of Phase Two for a reason.
Ant-Man was a whole different story.
Before I talk about that, I must admit something. While I think Guardians of the Galaxy is a great movie and that James Gunn is a fantastic director and writer… I’m never gonna be over the fact that his characters are not the Guardians from the comics.
Star-Lord is not an idiot goofball, he’s a criminal who, you know, is actually incredibly smart, sly, and cunning; Gamora truly is the deadliest woman in the galaxy; Drax is a competent destroyer of worlds who finds that vengeance isn’t all it’s chalked up to be; Groot is actually intelligent but with a speech problem, not dumb as a dog; and Rocket… actually Rocket’s pretty spot-on, he’s just streamlined.
What we have in the comics is vastly superior in character development and storylines. It’s a real shame that now, every adaptation, from video games to cartoons, are adapting the movie and not the comics. James Gunn has defined these characters in a way that forever makes me fear what the MCU will do next.
What does this have to do with Ant-Man? Well, Edgar Wright is known for being eccentric about as much as James Gunn.
The Ant-Man Paradox
I don’t want another guy like James Gunn redefining Marvel characters again. I have a hard time imagining that a stylistic director like Edgar Wright wouldn’t try to do the same thing with a lesser-known character like Ant-Man. Also, I would hate it if Ant-Man ended up not being the awesome movie it is, to have an edgier Scott Lang more in-line with Scott Pilgrim, or something bland and boring like Baby from Baby Driver.
Scott Lang is perfect as he is in the Ant-Man movie we got. He’s kind, down-to-earth, with relatable motivations one can respect. The last time I saw a movie by Edgar Wright with a “relatable” protagonist, we got the toxic nerd, Scott Pilgrim. I just… have no faith that an Edgar Wright Ant-Man movie wouldn’t ruin what I love about Ant-Man. I don’t think it would be bad, but it would miss what makes the MCU movie special.
Plus, it’s also pretty telling that when the Guardians who are the most different from any of the other heroes in the MCU, meet other characters later on, they’re the weakest parts. Thank god, that’s not true of Ant-Man.
On the other hand, Edgar Wright did play a part in my favorite things about Ant-Man. He cast the movie, picking Paul Rudd to play a fantastic character. His story also formed the “spine” of the film. We do owe him for some of the best parts of the movie, so I can’t say that I’m writing him completely off.
The best way to put it is that Phase Two showed how giving directors full creative control can be a double-edged sword. With the Russo brothers, they wanted to make a film that fit in the MCU. I’m not sure how much James Gunn cared but it doesn’t fit that well, and I imagine Edgar Wright didn’t care for it because he was taken off the project. I guess I’m just saying, I’m glad things happened in the way they did for the most part.
Phase Three: Expanse of the MCU
Phase Three was the longest section of the MCU, and may still be after Phase Four ends. It contained Captain America: Civil War, Doctor Strange, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, Ant-Man & the Wasp, Captain Marvel, Avengers: Endgame, and Spider-Man Far From Home.
In this Phase, the first thing that sticks out to me is how the MCU’s schedule felt as precise and systematic as it had ever been. It was pushing 2-3 films out per year, with there always being at least 1 film among them that introduced a new set of characters to the MCU.
But they didn’t just put them through the formula, they found a more balanced relationship between them and the director. They didn’t overextend as they did with Thor: The Dark World, or fail to stop a problematic director before it was too late like they did with Avengers: Age of Ultron. Instead, we got films like Doctor Strange, Black Panther, and Spider-Man: Homecoming that had distinctive styles both in their visuals, themes, and genres that set them apart from the others that came before.
It appears that after Avengers: Age of Ultron, the minds behind the MCU realized they couldn’t sit on their laurels. That film still made over a billion dollars, but it wasn’t helping the next film do so either. So to build out the universe, make it feel more lived-in, the MCU became something more.
Doctor Strange was the first departure, being a fantastical film with psychedelic elements. It has more in common with Inception and urban fantasy films like Percy Jackson than most MCU films. While it didn’t quite set the world on fire, it proved that the MCU could stand to be even more diverse in the kind of films the universe could create.
Bringing Out True Diversity
Phase Three, both in the genres it tackled and the characters it focused on, really brought diversity to the MCU. While Phase One and Phase Two all had their sub-genres, they became their most overt in Phase Three.
As I said, Doctor Strange is the fantasy film the first two Thor films failed to be; Spider-Man: Homecoming is a teen drama-comedy, that captures life in High School; even a sequel like Thor: Ragnarok, blows up everything that came before it to become a pulp action space opera comedy.
Thor Ragnarok, more than any other sequel, reinvents its Avenger and their section of the world to be something unrecognizable. It was a zany, action romp the likes of which could only be said to resemble Flash Gordon. It’s a film that recognizes the failings of its predecessors, finds a new niche and risked it all that it would work.
By the end of Phase Three, we have a fantasy film, a high school drama, a space opera, a disaster film, and a time-travel film. By the end of Phase Three, we knew there wasn’t anything that was off-limits to the MCU… as long it didn’t include the X-Men I mean.
The Diverse Billion-Dollar Club
But the diversity doesn’t end with the genre of films, it also extended to the characters and the voices behind the camera. In Phase Three we got the first MCU films led by a black superhero and female superhero in Black Panther and Captain Marvel. It took 18 films for us to get a superhero movie about a black superhero and 22 for a female superhero. That’s something the MCU should be embarrassed about.
We didn’t get to see different walks of life or different backgrounds have the main role for that long, and it shows. The fact that most MCU leads fit one of three categories–a snarky rich guy with multiple PhDs, bearded beefy man-children, and down-to-earth everyman–is insane.
I’m not going to act like that’s not reductive. To say that the characters who fit into those three categories are the same is objectively wrong. It just helps me get to a bigger point.
Black Panther doesn’t fit in any of those categories. He is not like Tony Stark, Thor, or Captain America in anything other than that he’s a superhero. He immediately brought a new dynamic into the MCU with his introduction, along with new themes, and an interesting and original supporting cast. T’Challa was a new kind of superhero for the MCU. That’s why you need to focus on people of other backgrounds than the same old same old. The moment you focused on a new kind of person, you bring so much more to the artistic table.
And it’s even more important to point out that Black Panther was the first MCU film to be directed by a black director, Ryan Coogler. It became the first MCU film, and one of the first superhero films to touch on something like race in such a big way. It could have easily felt hamfisted in the hands of someone who wasn’t black. Instead, it tackled the issues the black community has with the world, with superhero movies, and a black superhero with so much power and wealth that he doesn’t know what to do with.
It’s hard to point to a theme in Black Panther that doesn’t feel directly referential to the black experience, even down to Wakanda being the fantasy nation black people wish we had for generations before the film deconstructed it. You’re not going to get that with any of the directors who worked on a superhero movie before Black Panther.
A similar thing happened with Captain Marvel. While the first female superhero movie didn’t bring nearly as much to the MCU as Black Panther, there are reasons for that. It still brought more than another new character of the same kind we had been getting.
Captain Marvel missed the boat on being the first female superhero movie in the modern era with Wonder Woman coming out the year before. It also wasn’t directed solely by a woman who could bring to the MCU what Black Panther did. The film was also a period piece, where the conversation around women feels bypassed because “that’s the way things were back then.” The commentary that could have been there basically wasn’t allowed, but it still found a way to give women and little girls the thing that men and boys have had for decades.
This is why the potential of a modern-day Captain Marvel film in The Marvels makes me so excited.
The Importance of Diversity in the MCU
And you can complain about forced diversity all you want, I know there are naysayers rolling their eyes who think things are more equal than they actually are. Think about this.
When you have people with similar backgrounds making all your art pieces, you get characters and stories who all resemble each other on a surface level. Making the conscious choice to bring in new and different backgrounds adds something inherently new to the next project you enjoy.
If you prefer they leave it to chance for the sake of not feeling “forced,” then good luck to you. You’ll keep getting the same stories about the same type of characters again and again. The people who aren’t represented would continue to not be if we followed your way because people of different backgrounds aren’t given the chance more often than not. There’s rarely such a thing as “picking the best person for the job on merit.”
You never truly know who’s best for the job until they do it. People who are never given the chance without a “Black,” “Hispanic,” or “female” requirement in the job application process, will never be able to gain that merit because that’s how the world works for people who aren’t white men.
Phase Four: A Mixed Bag of Experimentation
There’s one thing you cannot say about the MCU if you’ve actually seen the majority of their films: that they don’t experiment the longer they go on. With each phase, the choice of directors, themes, characters, and styles have branched out more and more. With Phase Four, this didn’t just continue, it exploded, with the Marvel Cinematic Universe coming to streaming with TV shows as well.
I’m sure several of you are saying, “Didn’t they do that in Phase Two with the Netflix shows and Agents of Shield?” Well, yes, and with Daredevil possibly being retroactively confirmed as canon, you can say they’ve done this before. But in reality, those shows reference the movies, but the movies don’t care about them. They feel disconnected, unimportant, and have no bearing on the plot. There isn’t even a mild reference to the events of that era of Marvel TV shows in any of the MCU films.
But as of right now, with WandaVision, The Falcon & the Winter Soldier, Loki, and more, the MCU expands into a new format entirely. We get the chance to really dive deep into these characters in a way a two-hour film simply cannot. But the new format didn’t only give the MCU more freedom with time, but more freedom with creativity as well.
The Magic of Streaming
The risk of failure is minimized tenfold when you don’t have a box office number to hit. The same is also true when you have so much more time to make up for something that doesn’t hit with the audience. Does the MCU want to experiment with people’s favorite sitcoms of the last couple of decades? They could never do it in a movie for fear of turning off their audience. But in a TV show? They’ll spoof a different sitcom every episode!
Does The Falcon & the Winter Soldier want to talk about America’s history of being absolutely terrible and hypocritical to its black soldiers? If you do that in a movie, your audience will call you preachy and a waste of time. In a TV show, they have several hours of action and super-heroics in between that so the majority of people will ignore it. Well, they will if they don’t suck as a person.
Does the MCU want to expand into animation? Who would want to see an animated Marvel movie? Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse barely turned a profit! But wait! People will give anything a shot on Disney+. Now we have What If…?
This phase has been truly freeing. While not everything works for everybody, almost everyone has a different favorite and least favorite MCU show at this point. That just makes it cooler. With the films, everyone has that dark horse favorite, but the majority of people agree on the quality of each entry. The MCU shows have added so much to the conversation.
The Inconsistency of Film
In the subtitle, I said that Phase Four of the MCU was a mixed bag. I wasn’t necessarily talking about how no one can agree on the best MCU show. My personal favorite is What If…? and all of my friends have different favorites. It would make sense to think I was talking about that.
But actually, I was talking about the films.
While yes, it’s important to remember that several, if not all of the Phase Four films, save for Black Widow, have had to deal with the pandemic, so have the shows. You can see the pandemic’s effects on the shows more than on the films, and they still shine. It would be unrealistic for me to blame the inconsistent quality of Phase Four’s films on the pandemic.
Between Black Widow, Shang-Chi, the Eternals, and Spider-Man: No Way Home, the films of this Phase lack an identity. Phase One was about proving the method; Phase Two handed the reins to their directors; but Phase Three was about expanding and diversifying in as many areas as it could. Each of the films in Phase Four could have fit better in one of those phases rather than this one.
Black Widow feels like a Phase One film as it introduces edgier themes and characters that feel more in line with the Incredible Hulk than anything else. The Eternals was a film dominated by the vision of a director who wanted to completely change an unknown comic material. Spider-Man: No Way Home expanded into the multiverse, taking risks by bringing in outlandish ideas, old Spider-Man movies, and long-lasting stakes to change the status quo. Shang-Chi is the only film that feels like it could have fit in anywhere. It serves a largely self-contained story that could have happened everywhere on the timeline if it weren’t for a few cameos.
What’s To Come for the MCU?
This doesn’t serve to create bad films, I love three out of the four of Phase Four’s films. It could mean something a bit scary. For the first time, we can’t assume or predict what the MCU will be. Sure, we couldn’t predict what was going to happen in any movie, especially not Endgame, but we could predict where they were going. For ten years, we knew we were watching the Infinity Stones come together. We knew that from the moment one first appeared in Captain America: The First Avenger.
We know nothing now.
None of these four films are all that connected, and none of them feel like they’re going to interact. That could mean that things have just gotten bigger than we could have imagined, but that can also mean the MCU is moving away from what we love about it. Spider-Man: No Way Home just made a billion dollars in the pandemic, they can afford to change. But that isn’t necessarily exciting.
I want them to build up to the next big bad so I can be excited to see every film. That has been the MCU’s identity for so many years and it would suck to lose that. I want to be excited for Dr. Doom, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, and the future line-up of Avengers.
But I’m not, because I have no idea where to start anymore. That’s sucked a lot of excitement out of the future Phase Four films for me.
The Future of the MCU
I don’t want to leave the video with doom and gloom because while I’m not excited about the interconnectedness of the MCU, I’m still incredibly excited. For a while now, the MCU has been about heroes who I generally didn’t like before they had their movies. These films have helped me find new favorites and read comics I wouldn’t have otherwise tried. But in Phase Four and beyond, they’re finally making films and TV shows for me.
Characters like She-Hulk, the Mighty Thor, Adam Warlock, Blade, and the Fantastic Four are all projects with titles, actors, and directors. Some have trailers and release dates already! I finally have MCU projects that I’m already excited about based on nothing but the name alone.
And while the content of Phase Four has been inconsistent to me, I’d rather have inconsistent streaming content when I get bangers like What If…? and The Falcon & the Winter Soldier. When you get a movie, that’s 2 ½ hours of content, that’s it. That’s basically a weekend night of entertainment and a week’s worth of conversation. But with these TV shows, I have so much more to consume and things to talk about every day I go into work.
Thank You For Reading This Far
This shift to Disney+ and television is truly a win for me. Of all the entertainment mediums, film is my least favorite. Finally seeing the MCU branch out and populate TV with their characters is a dream come true.
And the thing to remember about the MCU is that even when it’s inconsistent for me and a lot of the fans of the franchise, that just means it was only good more often than not. Having something that I know is at least going to be good to entertain me, is comforting. I feel lucky to have grown up with this franchise, to have consumed it as long as I have, and to know it’s going to last for many more years to come.
Also, I enjoyed looking back at the MCU, researching and highlighting some historical events that stood out to me and talking about what stuck out to me in every phase. I want to do the same at some point for the Netflix shows, which would take significantly longer to go back and rewatch, but I think it would be worth it. Maybe I’ll even go back and rewatch my favorite comic book movie franchise, and see how it holds up.
Until then, thanks for reading, and let me know what Phase of the MCU is your favorite. I think my favorite is pretty obvious at this point.