Simply, if you haven’t heard of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (which you totally have if you’ve been anywhere near a cinema, TV, billboard, another person or a Burger King since 2008): they are a series of superhero films created by Marvel Studios to make money and explode things and stuff. Based on characters created in Marvel Comics and mostly adapted from Marvel Comic storylines, the films, like the comic books, all take place within the same Marvel Universe. For the most part, they’re a damn good time, and it’s not hard to see why the money has been pouring in as audiences have clamoured for their superhero fix with every instalment.
That’s despite the fact that the universe varies hugely in style and quality. For instance, Kenneth Branagh (Hamlet, The Magic Flute, Sleuth) was directing his spectacular Shakespearean theatrical Thor at the same time as Joe Johnston (Jurassic Park III, Jumanji, Honey I Shrunk the Kids) was busy creating Captain America, his half-assed war-film-cum-propaganda-porno-plus-magic, for the same studio. What has remained consistent, however, is that they have all been marked by excellent casting decisions and clever scriptwriting. By successfully combining storylines that span 10 films to date (11, with Avengers: Age of Ultron’s release on 23 April in the UK) and filtering it through Disney’s marketing machine, Marvel have on their hands the second most successful film franchise in the world, and most successful US film franchise ever.
Its success has lain in several areas – largely, they’re a whole lot of fun, and spectacular set-pieces with high-tension action goes a long way in the box office. Crucially, stars such as Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo and Scarlett Johansson were given the opportunity to ignite an incredibly broad and international fanbase while heartthrobs like Tom Hiddleston, Chris Hemsworth and Chris Pratt (aaaaaall the Chrises!) were made by their Marvel debuts. With each cast member comes another demographic, another group of fans, another stab at pulling in audiences. It’s no secret that these actors are sculpted to a hilarious degree in preparation for each MCU instalment because, simply, the franchise relies on ridiculously hot actors doing ridiculously cool things, and the fans absolutely love it. In the same way that the characters themselves each contribute something different and vital to the team, each actor’s reputation – Robert Downey Jr.’s irresponsibly tormented bad-boy, Chris Hemsworth’s stoic Aussie charm, Jeremy Renner’s utter shock at ending up where he is after 20 years as a makeup artist – contributes to a group that is fun to watch on and off set.
With clever writers, these superhero movies have been able to tap into the surprisingly mature themes that Marvel comic books have built into their mythology: those of the cost and responsibilities of power; the value of a team and dangers of ego; what is the common good and who has the right to make life-and-death decisions; the very human tendency to lash out when we feel small or vulnerable; what makes a good leader; sticking it to the man; punching vs. therapy when experiencing panic attacks; whether you can ever justify spandex; the merits of bringing along a shield… it’s all pretty spectacular when you get down to it.
The film collection itself has been split into three phases by Marvel Studios: Phase 1 is already complete and consisted of the original run of Iron Man (2008), The Incredible Hulk (2008), Iron Man 2 (2010), Thor (2011), Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) and culminated with The Avengers (2012) in which the entire cast was pulled together in a surprise critical success. What looked to be a mess of egos and conflicting storylines was tightly controlled by Joss Whedon, who knew how to make the best of an ensemble cast in an action film of that scale; keeping it simple, identifying a clear and entertaining bad guy in Loki and using the complex team dynamic as the central struggle rather than just another messy issue to deal with.
The first phase is basically a giant intro reel for each member of the team who gets their own film or two before the Avengers actually “Assemble” (apart from Black Widow and Hawk-Eye because lets face it, Hawk-Eye’s archery “power” is lame and Black Widow is, ew, a giiiirl… ). Phase 2 has included Iron Man 3 (2013), Thor: The Dark World (2013), Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) and Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) so far, with Guardians signalling the first of their “cosmic” MCU films (and arguably their best film to date). Phase 2 will end with Avengers: Age of Ultron and Ant-Man (2015).
Phase 3 will reportedly include Captain America: Civil War (2016), Doctor Strange (2016), Guardians of the Galaxy 2 (2017), Thor: Ragnarok (2017), Avengers: Infinity War Part I (2018), Black Panther (2018), Captain Marvel (2018), Avengers: Infinity War Part II and finally Inhumans in 2019. Phase 3 will finally launch the Infinity War, which has been signalled numerous times by increasing preoccupation with six “infinity stones” that crop up in the form of various MacGuffins to fight over in Guardians, Avengers, Thor, etc. Phase 3 also finally signals a change in the air with the MCU’s terrible diversity record: as a parade of sexy white dudes being sexy, white and very into US Republican values, it has been repeatedly criticised for sidelining female and non-white characters on an inexcusable level considering the sheer number of casting opportunities. On some occasions, this even included toning down the involvement of diverse characters in favour for their white-male “heroes” *cough cough* Guardians *cough cough*: why are all the black actors painted green, cyborgs or CGI trees? *cough cough* come on guys *cough* I mean seriously *cough*.
The MCU is first and foremost a huge cash-cow and has now expanded into a number of one-shot shorts and TV series, including ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Carter, and Netflix’s Daredevil, A.K.A. Jessica Jones, Iron Fist and Luke Cage. It’s also a wonderful and inspiring universe full of varied characters and a wealth of incredible stories that have made die-hard fans of millions. It’s not just all catsuits and incredible torsos, though there are plenty around: the Marvel Cinematic Universe represents the choice storylines from a comic-book universe that has a history and following almost bordering on the legendary. It’s phenomenally ambitious and has produced some stunning blockbusters – though plenty of folks can’t wait for the superhero fad to die out, the MCU has its place in the hearts of millions. Oh wait, make that billions.
The top 5 MCU films you have to watch if you want to understand what the hell is going on:
The Avengers (2012): As the first film where all the major players meet, it’s the big one in terms of Phase 1. It’s also skilfully penned by Joss Whedon and therefore funny as all hell while tugging at your heart strings just a little.
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014): Arguably the best of the series, Guardians of the Galaxy marks the first of the “cosmic” films. Its ties to the rest of the MCU are not yet clear except for significant information gleaned about the “Infinity Stones”, which are sure to come into play in the next few ensemble films.
Thor (2011): Apart from being gorgeous and featuring the introduction of Tom Hiddleston’s Loki – who would go on to be the big bad in The Avengers – the events of Thor are incredibly important in the MCU. This is the first time cross-dimensional travel comes into play; basically when humanity realises it just isn’t one of the big boys, and this sets the stage for S.H.I.E.L.D. and their interest in the Avengers.
Iron Man (2008): Start at the beginning. Robert Downey Jr. is fantastic, while the film itself is exciting, explosive and gives you everything you need from a superhero flick. It’s the reason the series happened and deserves due respect.
Captain America: the First Avenger (2011): It’s really not the best film, and never really escapes the fact that Steve Rogers is a propaganda monkey who makes up for not having a sense of humour with a mind-numbingly dull sense of moral fortitude. It doesn’t exactly make for a gripping character arc. However, it does introduce a huge theme of the series: a huge mistrust of and disillusionment with authority, and a distinct hatred of being seen as a weapon. This one is important if you are going to understand the way all the Avengers treat authority figures, considering their leader’s experience with corrupting power. You won’t find any unquestioning super-soldiers here.