Marvel Cinematic Universe Phase One Review
Most people have their opinions formed on the MCU/super hero genre of movies, so reviewing them is hardly original, but upon re-watching them all, I found that each "Phase" had a different feel to them. I thought it would be fun to review each movie from the three phases (So far) and also give my impressions of the phase itself. So let's get started!
Perhaps the smartest thing ever done by the executives behind the MCU was cast Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark. So much so that it's hard to think of Iron Man as anyone else - quick-witted, self-destructive, and genius to a fault.
Iron Man is an origin story where Tony Stark is trapped in a cave by a terrorist group who demand he build them a deadly rocket. Instead he and another captive man build the original Iron Man suit, which Tony uses to break free. Unfortunately, the other fellow is killed in the process. The beginning of the movie is not only original, but exciting; not at all what I expected when I first saw it. The second act is centered around a change in Tony; he no longer wants to profit off of war, but instead build a new Iron Man suit and protect people. The process of him building the suit, throwing his company into jeopardy by declaring they would no longer sell weapons, and a mission to the middle east where he saves a town and gets some well-deserved revenge on the terrorists who kidnapped him.
Terrence Howard plays Stark's friend, Colonel Rhodes. If you don't recognize him, it's probably because you're used to Don Cheadle playing the role. There aren't many differences in the character between this and the sequel, so it shouldn't bother viewers too much. Rhodes role in the first two movies is to be Tony's concerned friend. In the second movie he acts on those concerns and that's the only difference between the two portrayals.
I should also mention Gwyneth Paltrow is brilliant as Pepper Pots. They needed someone to keep up with RDJ on-screen and she was the perfect choice. She matches his dry humor and quick wit, and many of her interactions with the more serious characters are funny as a result.
The third act is probably the weakest part of Iron Man. The big villain reveal had some obvious hints to it in the second act and the motivations become confusing. This is also the first example of an MCU movie throwing a villain at us that is nearly the same as our hero, but evil. The action is still good for the time and it doesn't at all ruin the movie. It just devolves from what was a smarter story line from before. Still fun, but not thought-provoking as an ending.
Overall, this is where it all began, and it seems to me that the high quality of this movie did not at all hurt the chances of these movies eventually becoming its own universe.
The Incredible Hulk
What can I say about this movie? Well, it sure is better than the Hulk movie that came out in 2003! The first time I saw this, I was pleased that it had quality action and didn't bore me to death, but how did it age?
The Incredible Hulk follows Bruce Banner after his origin story and elects to pick things up well after the initial experiment that turned him into the Hulk. He is in hiding south of the border, working at a factory for free. After accidentally contaminating a soda, General Ross, who has been trying to hunt down Banner, dispatches a team to recover him.
Much of the first act is setup to the attempted extraction. Edward Norton plays a reserved Bruce Banner, but is surprisingly vanilla for a guy who is known to play characters that come unhinged at any given moment (American History X, Fight Club). Perhaps that was on purpose; to further offset the difference between Banner and the Hulk.
The second act involves Bruce escaping back to America to find his former lover, Betsy Ross (Daughter of the general as it happens). The love story part of the movie really drags it down. First off, Betsy is with a new guy, but as soon as she finds out Bruce is back in town, she makes excuses to leave him and tries to sleep with Bruce immediately. I mean, damn! The guy she left then informs General Ross that Banner is back, which causes a huge confrontation at a college campus.
I forgot to mention that another... er... sort of antagonist of this movie is Emil Blonsky, a grizzled veteran who never fails, until encountering the Hulk of course. General Ross hooks him up with a super solider serum that for some reason is just lying around. Emil gets a big head and thinks he can take on Hulk after that, but hilariously he gets beaten with a single kick and almost all bones in his body are broken! He's not really played off as a bad guy until the movie's end, which I'll get to in a second...
Now would be a good time to mention how unbelievably dated Hulk's CGI looked in this movie. He appears shiny and around any realistic thing (Human, environment, etc.) it looks bad. Between this movie and the next time we see Hulk in Avengers, the improvements are incredible.
Anyhow, the climax of the film involves Blonsky getting injected with some of Bruce's DNA to become Abomination. Bruce reverses the Hulk effects and thinks he'll never become him again... until he has to. In a brief moment of humor, he jumps out of a chopper, thinking he'll hulk out just in time, but actually he doesn't and makes a big old crater in the ground. Hulk comes out after that of course, but I found it funny. The final battle is 100% CGI and confusing as hell to watch. A bit disappointing to be honest.
We wouldn't see any of these actors again in future MCU movies save for General Ross, who plays an unexpected roll down the line which we'll discuss in a later post.
Overall, this is miles better than the 2003 Hulk, but still a mediocre action movie. The CGI is dated and the love story bogs it down a bit. It's watchable, but there's much better to be seen in later movies.
Iron Man 2
This is the one that people like to say is bad, but I don't know about that. I'd say it's more unfocused, and needed a better villain.
Iron Man 2 follows Tony Stark facing the consequences of admitting to the public that he's Iron Man at the end of the first movie. We're introduced to more members of S.H.I.E.L.D like Black Widow, which make this begin to feel like a shared universe, and also War Machine makes his debut.
As mentioned before, Don Cheadle replaces Terrance Howard as Colonel Rhodes, but he maintains the same exact feel as in the first movie, so it's all good. I imagine this is the version of Rhodes most are familiar with anyway.
The first act of the movie involves Stark having to combat US congress, who try to grill him for owning a "dangerous weapon", but with his usual dry humor and wit, RDJ makes a mockery of the whole thing and even frustrates one of the politicians enough to get him saying "**** you Mr. Stark, **** you buddy!" - I died laughing at that one.
In addition to this, there's a weird sub-plot where Micky Rourke plays an evil Russian guy who claims the Starks stole his dad's arc reactor idea. To prove it, he builds his own and makes some laser whips. Tony on the other hand is suffering from poisoning due to the the shrapnel inside of him (Consequence of the first movie). The result is that Tony becomes more and more self-destructive as the movie goes on, and it's surprisingly relatable. Nobody really discusses this aspect, which I think is the strongest part of the film. How many people have we witnessed destroy themselves because they were unhappy or maybe even dying?
Anyway, after a confrontation between Micky and RDJ that makes its way to national TV, the worries pick up once more among the public that anyone can make an Iron Man-like suit. Still feeling self-destructive, Tony decides to throw a big party where he abuses his Iron Man suit in a drunken stupor. This is when Colonel Rhodes has seen enough, and confiscates one of the suits for himself to stop Tony. They have a big fight which ends in a sort of stalemate, but Tony doesn't stop Rhodes when he flies off. This is where S.H.I.E.L.D. intervenes. Nick Fury comes in and tells Tony that he can discover a new element to cure his poisoning; to create something stronger.
There's yet another sub-plot in the meantime, with Tony's former rival Justin Hammer wanting to make an Iron Man-like suit. He's the sort of "too nice" sounding business man that's really a jerk, and Sam Rockwell portrayed that well. I got a kick out of it anyway, but the problem is that neither he, nor Vanko (Rourke) feel like main villains. They're just kind of there and have flimsy reasons to be bad.
Black Widow is also introduced in the third act, and man are her stunts shot poorly in this one. I'm not expecting Scarlet Johanson to do all of the stunts here, but it's so incredibly obvious when the stunt double is doing her thing, and then they'll end the sequence with a shot of Scarlet posing toward the camera. It just looks bad.
Tony getting his act together and curing his poison is a good feeling. He leaves most of his self-destructive habits behind and teams up with Rhodes in the climax to take on Vanko. It's an okay fight, but more machine CGI fighting did not really serve the movie well. The fact that Vanko isn't all that interesting didn't help either.
Overall, there are some good elements to this one, namely in how Tony is self-destructing because he thinks it's all hopeless and that the shrapnel will kill him. The US getting all riled up about an Iron Man suit is also interesting and frankly realistic given the circumstances. The lack of concrete villain and sub-plots involving them hurt the movie, but overall I feel the good outweighs the bad. I think this one is above average.
Another great casting choice by Marvel was Chris Hemsworth as Thor. Not only does he look the part, but he plays it quite well too. I've found that with most of the Thor movies, the problem is not Thor himself; it's everyone around him.
The first act of the movie follows the legend of Thor quite well; Thor is headstrong and overconfident in his abilities. He really only cares about battle. Odin wants him to be the next king of Asgard, but before he can make it happen, ice giants attack during a ceremony under mysterious circumstances. Wanting to teach them a lesson, Thor takes some of his friends to their world and slaughters a bunch of their people. Odin interferes and takes Thor back to Asgard, and after a heated argument, he strips Thor of his powers and banishes him to Earth.
It's here that we meet Jane, played by Natalie Portman. She discovers Thor, who tells her many things that any normal person would think is insane, but she believes him for some reason. lol. I guess we just have to suspend our disbelief on that one. Much of the movie's middle act involve Thor flubbing around and making a fool of himself to hilarious effect while things unfold in Asgard that tell us how and why the ice giants attacked. The true antagonist is revealed in a slow burn, and anyone who knows anything knows that it's Loki. Of course it's Loki! He is a perennial villain in the Thor legends and comics, so it's not exactly a spoiler unless you know nothing of mythology.
I think my issue with Loki as villain is that he doesn't do very much. This is effective at first, because we're not totally sure just how bad he is. There's even a weird bit where he makes it seem like he's about to kill Odin, but completely out of left field saves him instead. It didn't make a whole lot of sense to me.
Meanwhile the human characters like Dr. Selvig and Jane trying to understand Thor and the seemingly crazy ideas he has is entertaining. Kat Denning is supposed to be the comic relief, and while she has a few funny lines, I felt she wasn't necessary and her act got tired quickly. The comedy of Thor is Thor himself, not her quirky humor. Thor's friends also act as side characters, but they're only memorable as archetypes: There's the sophisticated fencer type, the feisty warrior woman, the blood thirsty bearded man who loves combat, and er... some other guy but there's not much memorable about him!
Surprisingly the budding love story is not what bogs this one down. I felt Hemsworth and Portman had decent chemistry in this one, which is odd because in the sequel it felt like they had none, but that's a complaint saved for a different post! The big weaknesses here are Loki as a benign villain, and many forgettable side-characters. Asgard is a cool setting, but unfortunately most of the plot takes place in a desert-like area on Earth. Not very interesting.
The movie follows Thor's arc from the legends pretty well though; they usually went as follows: Thor acts like an idiot/overconfident in some way and Odin has to take him down a peg to teach him a lesson. That sums up the movie too; it's just a shame that the big final showdown is with an empty shell of a CGI monster and Loki just plain getting his ass whooped by Thor and intentionally letting go when Thor tries to save him. (Which made me laugh by the way. Like he'd rather die than live with Thor!)
Oh yeah, and Hawkeye is revealed for the first time in this one. He doesn't do anything of note, but it's nice to know he's there, I suppose? I think it was meant to be a harmless bit of world-building.
On the Strength of Thor, Jane, the Doctor, some comedy, and following the legends well, this movie manages to overcome its many shortcomings, but it's still average overall. Maybe worth seeing once, just for the comedy aspect.
Captain America: The First Avenger
After some fairly average marvel movies, Captain America felt like a breath of fresh air. It portrays Cap in the way he was meant to be with no hint of being apologetic. He's patriotic to a fault, selfless, and filled with self-righteous one-liners. I enjoyed this movie quite a bit when it first came out, but how did it hold up?
Chris Evans as Steve Rogers must've felt like a big risk at the time. His previous major role was Johnny Storm in the mediocre Fantastic Four series. Not that he was bad in those movies, but there was nothing about Johnny Storm that made me think of Steve Rodgers. Turns out Evans was practically born for the role. He looks and acts the part well. As a matter of fact, the entire movie is well cast. Hayley Atwell plays Peggy Carter, one of the eventual founders of Shield, and she gives off a great confidence in her performance. I remember rooting for her and Steve to get together, even if it was a typical romance sub-plot. Tommy Lee Jones is the overly sarcastic drill sgt./ captain of the war effort, and even he, as a side character is fun for all of his snappy comments.
Hugo Weaving as Red Skull does a pretty good job. There's something about him that just makes a perfect bad guy. Skull himself doesn't have any sort of new motivation outside of trying to advance beyond humanity. We'll get to that later, though.
A scientist has developed a "Super Soldier" serum that could turn an average man into a superhuman. He doesn't want to just choose some already strong macho man, but instead someone with a good heart. He comes across Steve Rodgers, who has tried to enlist in the army many times to aid the WWII effort, but got denied for health reasons. So the scientist gets him into boot camp, where Steve proves his worth by jumping on what he thinks is a live grenade.
Meanwhile, the Red Skull finds a blue glowing artifact that can power his super weapons - strong enough to disintegrate a human instantly. His Hydra division within the Nazi's reich become even more radicalized and separate themselves. Red Skull even kills some top Nazi officials to show that he's even more evil than they are!
Although you'd think the second act would be a bunch of high octane action since Steve Rodgers becomes Captain America, the movie swerves you a bit and keeps things moving slow. It's not until Cap learns that his best friend Bucky is MIA that he goes into action. The army had considered Cap more of a sideshow up to this point, which I think is the flimsiest part of the movie. I mean, they witnessed him chase down a car, then a submarine all in one go. He clearly could have been useful.
Instead, Cap has to take matters into his own hands, with help from Carter and a young Howard Stark. Stark represents a small point of contention for Steve, because he thinks that Howard and Peggy are together. It's kind of a dumb plot point that wasn't needed, though. It all stems from the fact that he doesn't know how to talk to women. I guess being a small nerd most of his life automatically means he can't get a date either... in the 40's that may have been true to be fair.
Anyway, Cap storms a Hydra compound and frees a bunch of prisoners that would eventually become his "team". This is cool in concept, but they play almost no role. There's a few snappy lines here and there, but that's about it. It feels like they were put in the movie because they were also in the comics. Bucky is also rescued, and he would go on to play a bigger role later in the series.
The final act is straight up action. Red Skull plans to use his new weapons on various places in the world, said to be capable of "killing millions in minutes", so basically he has nukes? Cap and his team storm the compound, defeat Hydra, but Red Skull escapes in an aircraft meant to bomb the US. After a first kiss between Peggy and Steve, he boards the ship and puts the beat down on Red Skull. However, the artifact sends Skull somewhere before Cap can get the win, so he has no choice but to crash the ship into the antarctic before it can reach US soil.
The ending to this movie is quite possibly one of Marvel's best, so I won't spoil it. Overall, it was nice to see a return to form after some average movies before it, but Captain America isn't perfect. Mostly in how Red Skull continues the MCU tradition of being exactly like our hero, but evil instead, and also the dumb sub-plot where Steve kisses another woman because he's jealous of Peggy and Howard. Still, a strong action movie that sticks to its guns, just like Captain America should be.
Marvel's The Avengers
They said it could never be done. Whether for budget or plot reasons, an inter-universe movie that wrapped everything up in two hours was unheard of before this movie. However, they pulled it off. The Avengers manages to make everyone shine, while everyone is there: Cap, Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, Black Widow, Hawkeye... everyone gets a piece of the action - except arguably Hawkeye, but we'll get to that.
The thing people will notice early on is that we have a new Bruce Banner. Mark Ruffalo plays him this time, and I prefer his Bruce to Norton's. Whereas Norton feels meek and worried, Ruffalo feels like he's sick of it all and paranoid; something that comes into play throughout the movie.
The first act is almost entirely setup. After all, there's a lot to unpack and intertwine. Loki is the main villain again, but this time he plays a much more involved role and is powered up by the Teseract, which we find out is what powered Red Skull's weapons in the previous movie. He's still not overpowered, but interestingly enough that's a part of his big plan.
After the Avengers... erm... assemble in the second act, we find out that they do not at all agree with one another or act as a team. In fact, they constantly bicker and argue with one another. The most at odds are Tony Stark and Steve Rodgers, and that's 100% by design. Even though neither likes to play by the rules, the big difference in their personalities is that Steve is the boy scout, Tony is the bad boy.
Turns out Loki wanted to get captured, and for his secret mind controlled team to attack the air carrier Shield is housing the Avengers in so that the Hulk will do his thing and wreck the place. Not only does the plan succeed, Loki escapes and uses the Teseract to summon an intergalactic army (Gee, I wonder whose it could be?) that attacks New York City.
This cues the final act, where the Avengers get together and finally start functioning as a team. I should mention that Hawkeye was under mind control up to this point, something that bothered his actor, Jeremy Renner, to no end. I have to agree that the movie made Hawkeye feel like the weak link of the group. The joke among Marvel fans is that Hawkeye and Black Widow are kinda useless in the grand scheme big battles, but Black Widow still got her good action scenes (Which were shot MUCH better this time btw) and BS like knowing how to fly an alien spacecraft. Hawkeye, even after coming back to the good side, sort of just stands on the sidelines shooting arrows.
Still, seeing the Avengers work so well together when it all comes down to it is very satisfying. The action is strong, the teamwork is there, and when that Avengers theme hits, you get goosebumps!
This movie doesn't go for any sort of deep message like later Avengers movies would try to do. Instead it's all about the team coming together and thwarting Loki's nefarious plans. Seeds are planted for the overall villain of the series, and I don't have many complains about this one. Most of them are nitpicks. All the actors play off of each other so well that it's easy to look past any flaws.
Overall, phase one is strong enough for viewers to understand why the MCU stuck around after. Especially after Avengers, which was groundbreaking. We're used to seeing all of these inter-universal team ups now, but when it first came out? It was the first successful one of its kind. The casting in these movies is fantastic, and the fact that overall, they don't take themselves too seriously makes it more relatable. People will sometimes complain that Marvel is too much about the humor, and while maybe that becomes the case later on, I didn't feel that way with Phase One. It was a good mix of comedy and action. The biggest problems with this phase were the antagonist selection. Most are just mirrors of the hero, but evil. Loki is the best antagonist of this phase, but only in Avengers. He's not very good in Thor. The best way I could characterize phase one is that it had a strong start, an average at best middle, but a strong end.