The Marvel Cinematic Universe – A 10 Year Retrospective

It’s no secret – I love Marvel. Ever since I saw the first Raimi Spider-Man film at an early age, I’ve been hooked on the characters, the storytelling and the action. My tiny 10 year old mind was blown when I saw all my favourite characters together in the animated series The Avengers: Earths Mightiest Heroes. Two years later, and there they were on the big screen – with teases and endless possibilities for more. Looking back now, I cannot imagine a world without the MCU. One could compare it to growing up with the Harry Potter movies, though with the MCU it’s not a character you follow, but the world the characters inhabit, expanding upon every detail, exploring every corner. So, to mark the release of Avengers: Infinity War and the 10 year anniversary of Marvel Studios, I’m going to look back on all the films in the MCU and see what makes them great, what makes them suck, and what ties them all together. This will take an age so I’ll probably finish this about a month too late to be relevant but hey, it’s not like Marvel Studios are going to stop being relevant any time soon.

Iron Man (2008), dir. Jon Favreau

Iron Man is the best movie Marvel Studios could have possibly made to kick-start the MCU. It’s so good that its success managed to keep the studio afloat for years until The Avengers made the MCU a mainstay in the modern cinematic landscape. Honestly, it’s better than I remember it. Tony Stark’s journey from cocky arms dealer to cocky superhero is so compelling that there isn’t any real plot until the last 20 minutes of the movie. It’s mostly just Tony messing about in his workshop, exploring the limits of 2008 CGI (which, surprisingly, looks so much more polished and realistic than the CGI of recent movies) as he discovers his powers as Iron Man. The first sequence of Stark in the cave follows a basic five act structure on its own – keeping us engaged and interested in Stark’s character now that we’d see him suffer and sacrifice already.

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Obviously, it’s not a perfect movie. One of the problems that comes with neglecting the plot for most of the movie means that the final act conflict comes far too suddenly, with Jeff Bridges being a decent, if not a bit moustache-twirly, villain, setting the trend of Marvel movies having either a.) a big grey baddie or b.) a dark reflection of the hero’s powers. However, all of this is completely trivial when weighed against the performance of a certain Robert Downey Jr. The RDJ Renaissance had just began with Iron Man, and thanks to the MCU he has become a trusted household name – a far cry from his reputation a few years earlier. This movie also features one of the best soundtrack choices: Suicidal Tendencies’ Institutionalized. “Sometimes I try to do things / And it just doesn’t work out the way I wanted to.” Talk about predicting Stark’s character arc for the coming films.

The Incredible Hulk (2008), dir. Louis Leterrier

The Incredible Hulk is a bit of a non-movie. Sure, it introduces us to the character of Bruce Banner, sets up his love life, teases some villains for the future and then… is barely referenced ever again in the MCU. Banner mentions the ‘mess’ he made in Harlem, William Hurt’s General Ross makes a return in Captain America: Civil War, but everything else is wiped clean. Even Ed Norton was replaced – which was probably for the best, as much as I enjoy his take on Banner, I doubt his ego would have fit well with an ensemble cast that the MCU has grown into. The real shame is how the Hulk’s villains and side characters will likely not reappear, meaning no Doc Samson, no Leader and definitely no Red She-Hulk (a lot cooler than it sounds).

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It’s difficult to believe that Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk were released by the same studio in the same year. The CGI doesn’t look nearly as good and the dialogue and plotting is flimsy at best. Where Iron Man made up for a lack of plot through pure RDJ charisma, The Incredible Hulk moves from Hulk action scene to Hulk action scene, with time for Norton’s Banner to look sad and lonely in between. It’s not all bad, the first action scene in the drinks factory plays like a decent horror movie and most of the casting was on point (sorry Tim Roth, not you), but what really made this movie unenjoyable for me was one particular scene: Bruce and Betty take a taxi ride where the driver is reckless, Betty gets angry and Bruce cracks a joke. It’s so tonally jarring that it spoils all the sincerity that came before, and the final act is a low-stake smash fest that struggles to pull me back into the movie. If Iron Man was a hit, The Incredible Hulk is as close to a miss as Marvel Studios have ever come.

Iron Man 2 (2010), dir. Jon Favreau

Iron Man 2 gets a lot of flack, but honestly there is plenty to love. Personally, the casting change of Colonel Rhodes from Terrence Howard to Don Cheadle, while not planned, is a benefit to the franchise as a whole. Plus, it means Howard can pursue his weird, alternate maths that he’s so sure is true. The final action set piece is entertaining and just plain badass – the only issue being the dark colours making everything difficult to see. The introduction of ScarJo’s Black Widow is well done, she’s intriguing, skilled and deadly, a character that the audience just wants to see more of. And not forgetting the  Iron Man suits themselves, with the new War Machine and Mark V suitcase armours allowing for some great action set pieces set to a very rock-and-roll soundtrack.

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On the flip side, there is also plenty to not love. The Pepper/Tony relationship coasts through convoluted plotting on RDJ and Paltrow’s chemistry alone, with some dialogue being confusing at best. It’s a weird problem with the film as a whole: a lot of scenes just have characters talking over eachother, leading to a struggle to understand what’s actually being said. Sam Jackson has what is essentially an extended cameo in this film, only showing up to remind Tony to save his own life and set up future movies. Plus, the turbulent relationship Tony has with his father is shoehorned in halfway through the movie, given an emotional payoff very quickly and then promptly forgotten about. It feels like this movie was made purely to ride off the success of Iron Man and pitch an Avengers movie to the audience – which leaves much to be desired when it comes to character development and conflict.

Thor (2011), dir. Kenneth Branagh

For a long ass time, this movie was my favourite MCU flick. I can just remember being about 12 and always wanting to watch this movie. I was in love with the score, the pseudo-Shakespearean story, the incredible cast and characters. And honestly? It still mostly holds up. Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston are outstanding as Thor and Loki respectively, with their interactions defining not only Thor but much of the MCU as a whole. Clark Gregg is always fantastic as Agent Coulson, and it helps that he gets a bit more to do here than in the Iron Man films, being the connective tissue that really makes the Marvel Studios films feel part of a cinematic universe. These characters fit so well in a story of epic battles, family betrayals and ultimately, redemption and humility.

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Unfortunately, some of the characters leave less of a fantastic impression. Natalie Portman reprises her role from the Star Wars prequels as ‘bland love interest’, with her character’s rational, scientific background thrown out the window as soon as a hunk from space comes into the picture. And, as much as I love Kat Dennings, her character is the most annoying of the bunch. What really, really didn’t hold up in this film though was a certain stylistic choice Branagh made. To try and replicate the skewed panelling of comic books, the director employed a few Dutch angles. Well, more than a few. A lot. It’s disorienting at best, nauseating at worst. However, I still love this film, and nothing can beat the excitement of this message after the credits:

                                         “Thor will return in The Avengers”

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), dir. Joe Johnston

This film was the first MCU film I saw in cinemas and I fell in love immediately. What makes the film so good is the humble honesty that follows it’s protagonist, everyone’s favourite patriot: Captain America. He is morally sound, unassuming, thoughtful and above all – consistent. Not many characters in the MCU have that trait, and it’s partly due to the fantastic writing team of Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. Making their MCU debut with this film, these two would go on to write some very important and acclaimed movies in the franchise and, in hindsight, it’s easy to see the groundwork being laid for some characters’ developments. Captain America is a pretty lame concept for a superhero, and yet, Markus and McFeely’s script, Alan Silvestri’s score and Chris Evans’ nuanced performance are able to bring the character to life in a grounded, believable manner. He’s not corny; he’s charming and kind.

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This film is very, and I mean very, dense on plot. Something is pretty much always happening, and parts of it fly by very quickly. Yet, as much as I would love to see a full movie detailing Cap and the Howling Commandos’ raids on Hydra bases, I concede that Johnston’s usage of montage is engaging and effective. Especially during Captain America’s stage tour, the repetition showing the monotony of Steve Rogers’ life as he longs for some greater purpose. (Side note, the song written for this scene deserved a Best Original Song win, or even just a nomination.) The film also does a fantastic job of hiding it’s MCU links neatly within the story. The MacGuffin Tesseract is explored in plenty of time for it’s use in the upcoming team up film, the Stark Expo from Iron Man 2 is wrapped into the story in an organic way and, most impressively, convinces the audience that a 30ish year old Howard Stark in the 1940s works perfectly with a 40ish year old Tony Stark in 2010. Like come on, Howard waited until he was in his 60s to have kids?? Kevin Feige please explain this??

The Avengers (2012), dir. Joss Whedon

Honestly, this movie belongs to Black Widow. Sure, she might not have any powers or many of the coolest moments, but this film fully explores her determined mindset – including the amount of emotional repression that comes with it. We’ve already been introduced to her in Iron Man 2, but there was nothing really of substance, just cool spy action sequences and smooth one-liners. The Avengers starts off with the same, with Scarlett Johannson’s Natasha Romanoff being interrogated, yet at the same time interrogating her interrogator. She’s cool, calm and collected, and gets the job done. She always gets the job done. Even after she’s just been traumatised by a rampaging Hulk, she pulls herself out of it to defend the S.H.I.E.L.D helicarrier. Even though she’s got the skillset of a spy, she fights in a full on war. In one moment, she almost attacks Captain America after finishing some alien soldiers; she is so invested in getting the job done that she loses herself. It’s details like this that make the movie more interesting, and paves the way for the character’s development in later instalments.

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Not to say that Black Widow was the only great part about this film, because holy cow. Whedon’s masterpiece should not be as good as it was – incorporating characters from 4 separate franchises and giving them all compelling motivations, character developments and exciting action moments. No wonder it blew my mind when I was a kid. The decision to bring Tom Hiddleston’s Loki back as the main villain paid off massively: we already knew his history, his motivations and his relationship to Thor and Earth in general, cutting most of the exposition that would have been dumped on us. (I’ve got a theory that Loki actually died at the end of Thor and was resurrected – that’s why he looks so greasy and gross in this film.) The group shots of the Avengers uniting to defeat him is pure, unadulterated joy. Alan Silvestri’s Avengers theme will always give me goosebumps.

Iron Man 3 (2013), dir. Shane Black

Iron Man 3 is a severely underrated movie. Given the task of following up to the massive crossover tentpole film of the previous year and simultaneously kicking off Phase 2 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Shane Black fully took the reigns in a movie that is very consistently a Shane Black movie. The humour is dark and cynical, with the light moments brought mostly by Ben Kingsley’s masterful take on ‘the Mandarin’, regardless of how well that twist went down with fans. Personally, it made the movie better and worse at the same time: on the one hand, it’s a break from the stereotype  of Middle-Eastern terrorist leader and reflects how much blame for these kind of terrorists lies in western government and corporations, on the other, it means we get some white dude with dragon tattoo’s screaming “I AM THE MANDARIN” as his skin burns. Not exactly the greatest villain.

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Luckily, you don’t need a great villain in your movie when you’ve got a great hero. After the events of The Avengers, we rejoin Tony Stark as he struggles with his PTSD and anxiety, building more and more suits to shield himself away from dealing with his emotions head on. After the spectacle of the Battle of New York, these smaller consequences are a genius move on Black’s part, affecting Tony throughout the films to come. Iron Man is no longer the confident asshole from Phase 1 – he’s scared. Having worked with RDJ before on Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, it’s clear Black knew how to draw out his best performances, and it really carries the film. A lot of people were confused by the ending, with Tony blowing up his suits, but then back to being a full time Avenger in the next film. I just think they missed the point. Tony Stark was making his suits to hide himself. The end of the film is his realisation that he doesn’t need to hide himself, because he is Iron Man. The suit is no longer his cocoon.

Thor: The Dark World (2013), dir. Alan Taylor

I got so bored rewatching this movie that I read some issues of Thor (1998) instead of paying attention. Thor: The Dark World is the most formulaic Marvel action movie product you could possibly imagine. There’s a MacGuffin. The villain wants to destroy the universe. There is a big action set-piece at the end. Quips. Wacky side characters. It’s such a cynical attempt to recreate the successes of the last few movies, that it just falls flat. I often mourn for the Patty Jenkins Thor film that we will never see, a Shakespearean story akin to Romeo and Juliet. The Shakespearean element that was so compelling with the first film is lost here, and it causes the uniqueness of Thor’s character and the world he inhabits to fade into a general Marvel blandness.

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Not everything is awful. Brian Tyler’s score is fantastic, with one particular track being one of my favourites throughout the entire MCU. Visually, there are some brilliant shots, often making use of the crazy portals of ‘Convergence’, and the set and costume design is fantastic, really bringing the land of Asgard to life. The performances of Hemsworth and Hiddleston continue to carry the movie forward, however one thing bugs me about the way Loki was handled. He begins the story refusing to regret his actions in The Avengers, and slowly, through grief, helps his brother and sacrifices himself to save him. It’s a perfect conclusion to his redemptive arc – only for it all to be undone by the end, as we realise that was all fake and he’s posing as the ruler of Asgard. While this might leave Loki around for some great moments in the future, it negates any development he may have had over the course of the last 2 hours. It makes the movie entirely skippable. Aside from the ‘Infinity Stone’ name drop in the mid-credits scene.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), dir. Anthony and Joe Russo

Here’s a controversial opinion: Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the most overrated movie in the MCU. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good movie. It’s not the best movie Marvel Studios has ever made. It’s not even the best Captain America movie. I actually think it’s the worst. Part of what brings the film down in my eyes is how emotionally cold it is. Usually, these stories have heart, or at the very least a character moment that shows growth or change, something that transcends out of the screen. Captain America: The Winter Soldier has none of this. The first film is the story of Steve Rogers, a guy who suffers loss with the intent of doing the right thing, and realising self-sacrifice is the only way to save those he loves. This film is the story of Captain America, who finds out some people he thought were good are actually bad, so he stops them. Sure, the events that take place impact the future of the MCU and the Marvel television shows, but they don’t change Captain America as a character. The Russos try to force in some emotional tension between Steve and his no-so-dead pal, Bucky, but because their conflict is explored through wordless action scenes alone, the payoff has less of an emotional punch than the directors intended.

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Not to say this movie is bad in any way, I actually really enjoy watching it. Chris Evans gives a fantastic performance, as usual, making Cap cool again after how lame his character was in The Avengers. The Russos had a hard task of making a Cap sequel when the ending of the original essentially wiped all the supporting characters, setting and themes off the slate, and I think they did a superb job of building a new world for Steve Rogers to inhabit. Anthony Mackie’s Falcon is the first character we see on screen – an introduction that immediately warms us to him and makes the way he is brought into play later feel natural. Bringing in ScarJo’s Black Widow and Sam Jackson’s Nick Fury further establishes the connectivity in this cinematic universe, and brings plenty more sarcasm to Cap’s life. If only people would stop shipping Cap with Widow. Or with Bucky. Or with Falcon. Clearly the MCU’s most eligible bachelor.

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), dir. James Gunn

Some of my favourite comics are the ones featuring the cosmic characters of the Marvel Universe. Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning’s run on Nova, their work on Annihilation, it’s sequel, Annihilation: Conquest, and from that, the formation of the Guardians of the Galaxy. I love these characters, and when I heard that Marvel had green-lit a movie for such an obscure property, I was a mess of worry and excitement. And when I first saw the movie, I was a bit disappointed. These aren’t the characters that I love ripped from the pages. Star Lord isn’t a war-scarred, disillusioned ex-superhero, Gamora isn’t a heartless assassin, Drax isn’t a deadly tactician out for blood, and Groot is no longer a royal without a home. The only Guardian true to his comics portrayal is Rocket – and that’s why he’s my favourite.

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It took me a while to get this expectation out of my mind. But I do now love this movie. It is a great movie. It’s got heart, humour, a fantastic soundtrack and one white boy named Chris. The winning formula. As much as it adheres to the standard Marvel Studios tropes, this film was a massive risk. We hadn’t seen a Marvel film with based on new, original characters since 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger. And yet, the characters are all fleshed out and their dynamics as a team explored in ways that leaves no member out. The villains are a sore point, with Lee Pace’s Ronan the Accuser being a tragic waste of a complex character, reduced to a simple Xandarian-hating terrorist. Josh Brolin as Thanos gets a cameo, where he – wait for it – ….. sits down. Thrilling. At least our heroes, the incredible performances behind them, Gunn’s snappy dialogue, and some fantastic moments of spectacle are there to bring the film into greatness, and cement the Guardians of the Galaxy as a household name. We are Groot, indeed.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), dir. Joss Whedon

I enjoy this movie more every time I re-watch it. Which is incredible, because I really disliked it when it came out, and now it’s one of my favourite Marvel movies to watch when I just want some pure superhero comic book spectacle. This movie has no right to be as good as it is – what with various director and studio conflicts, story restructuring, the Feige Vs Perlmutter drama and a shed load of set up for future movies. Joss Whedon was broken by all of this, and admittedly his brand of quippy humour falls flat in some areas, but it’s all made up for by how pure Marvel this film is. Fantastic action sequences, superhero stunts, high stakes, and the heroes wanting to protect as many people as possible. Honestly, I think this film supersedes the sum of its parts. And holy cow there are a lot of parts. I’m just gonna say here that Ultron was a passable villain before I run out of space.

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Robert Downey Jr continues his run of fantastic performances as Iron Man, as a PTSD suffering Tony Stark is spooked by a vision, leading to paranoia and mistakes. Stark doesn’t resolve these issues by the end of the film – they hang over him in future instalments, leading to a character shift that organically shifts his character’s worldviews. You see this begin to happen to Captain America as well, seeing how Steve Roger’s feelings of mistrust develop off the back of the events in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Poor Thor gets the short straw for sure. At least Hawkeye gets some much needed character development, with the introduction of a wife and kids humanising the entire team: this is something normal people do, the Avengers aren’t completely omnipotent gods. Well, except Vision. Black Widow and the Hulks romance… I actually like. I can see how it grew from events of the first film, even if it wasn’t necessarily obvious. The connection between them is a shared guilt and shame, Banner for the Hulk and Romanoff for the person she used to be. I’m glad Quicksilver was the one who died out of the twins – Wanda Maximoff is a far more interesting and powerful character, I really hope Marvel Studios don’t waste her. And surprise surprise, Thanos is standing up at the end of this one!!

Ant-Man (2015), dir. Peyton Reed

You like Iron Man? This is basically Iron Man again. Quippy protagonist with questionable morals? Check. A suit that grants them superhuman abilities? Check. Love interest who is clearly more capable in every way? Check. Businessman villain with the same suit, just with more stuff put on it? Check. Yet Ant-Man is missing some of the things that made these elements work so well in Jon Favreau’s 2008 masterpiece. The love subplot is completely sprung out of nowhere; Evangeline Lily’s Hope Van Dyme looks at Paul Rudd’s shirtless body once, and then they kiss at the end. That’s just baseless. Corey Stoll’s villain, Yellowjacket, doesn’t have any real personal reason to hate Scott Lang like Obadiah Stane has in Iron Man. The final showdown feels empty; we want the hero to win because he’s the hero, not because we care about their almost non-existent character conflicts.

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It’s unfair to compare Ant-Man to Iron Man. Because, to be honest, there’s a lot that’s unique about this Frankenstein’s monster of a film. The flashback/storytelling sequences are a flash of genius, likely birthed from the crazy editing maelstrom that exists as Edgar Wright’s brain. The relationship between Hank Pym and Scott Lang works well also – despite the audiences imagination having to do a lot of groundwork during the training montages. It’s something that we haven’t really seen yet in the MCU: the passing of the torch from one superhero to the next, and you can see in Michael Douglas’ performance that he doesn’t want Scott to make the same mistakes he did, as Ant-Man and as a father. The way the shrinking and growing mechanics are used in the action sequences is inspired, with Thomas the Tank Engine making one of the best cameos in the film (and believe me, there are many). Aside from that, I don’t have much to say. This movie exists, sets up the character and explores some new tech. It does it’s job in the most passable way possible. Yet, somehow it got me to mourn for an ant named Anthony.

Captain America: Civil War (2016), dir. Anthony and Joe Russo

The Russo brothers kick off the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Phase 3 with a bang. If The Avengers was a miracle of a movie, this film is a whole bible’s worth. This is a movie that looks like a mess on paper, the Wikipedia page’s plot section is a jumble of character names and locations that it’s almost impossible to comprehend. So much of this film relies on the developments in previous movies, and yet it’s a testament to the Russos and to the writers, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, that the story remains as standalone and understandable as possible. I saw this movie in the cinema with someone who hadn’t been interested in the Marvel films before – they were so enthralled and engaged in the world that they wanted to watch another immediately after. If I’m going to be completely honest, it’s my favourite MCU movie. (Though I may change my mind as we go through because I’m fickle. Basically, if you made me watch this movie non-stop for a week, I would probably thank you.)

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Building off the mistrust seeded in the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Steve Rogers is for once, kind of wrong. Yet, at the same time, kind of right. And that’s the beauty of this film. While the movie belongs to Cap, he’s neither the antagonist or the protagonist, nor is Iron Man. Their convictions both have flaws, and we see how their stubbornness leads to disastrous conflict. The Avengers should have some form of oversight sure, but at the same time they should have the ability to interfere when they feel it’s right. There’s a fine line between arrogance and responsibility and most of the characters walk it. Not only does this film build upon established heroes, but it does a stellar job of introducing two new ones: Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther and Tom Holland’s Spider-Man, bringing regal stoicism and boundless energy respectively. There are complains about the tonal inconsistencies, but personally, I’m not bothered by it. The quips, jokes and sarcasms come from the quippy, jokey and sarcastic characters. The rest of the time, the movie takes itself seriously, and there’s nothing more serious than that final twist and emotional 3-way fight. I’m still in awe and it’s been over 2 years.

Doctor Strange (2016), dir. Scott Derrickson

I’m not going to lie, I was not looking forward to re-watching this one. I saw it twice before, once in the cinema and once at home, and distinctly remember being incredibly unenthused by the whole experience. To my complete and utter surprise, I genuinely enjoyed myself this time around. Sure, it’s very much strapped to the Marvel conventions of an origin story. Doctor Strange has much in common with the Iron Man character: possesses a large ego, endures personal struggle, has a cool beard, etc. Yet there is something very different about the two, and that mostly stems from the worlds they inhabit, the journeys they undertake. While Tony Stark is very much the master of his trade of the real and the technological, Cumberbatch’s Stephen Strange is a novice in a world that is mystical to him, and to the audience. Sure, there’s talent there as a neurosurgeon, but the pleasure of this film comes from watching Strange grow as a sorcerer, coming to some semblance of an understanding of the concepts of time and morality and where he fits into both.

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Time is such a huge motif in this film, which isn’t surprising since a certain Infinity Stone makes its debut. Throughout the entire first act we see wristwatches or timepieces everywhere; a collection in Strange’s apartment, on the wrists of his colleagues and, dripping with symbolism, Strange’s last broken possession, gifted to him by a former lover that he cannot let go of. The implementation of the Time Stone is perfect in my eyes; it’s not used as a MacGuffin like the other Stones have been, it’s used simply as a tool for Strange to defeat the bad guys with. Though, the heroes would have them beat on many levels if its a contest of good character. Mads Mikkelsen is wasted here as Kaecilius, a stand in villain for a much larger threat, giving a fair few monologues about hypocrisy and time being the ‘true enemy’. I doubt many will be clamouring for his return, however the end credits stinger leaves hope that Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Mordo will redeem the Sorcerer Supreme’s rogues gallery in a future sequel – which we know is going to happen, I mean come on, this is Marvel Studios we’re talking about.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017), dir. James Gunn

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 begins what I like to see as Marvel Studios’ golden streak, which has still yet to come to a close. Gunn made the right move and toned down the ‘cinematic universe’ aspect of these movies, instead focusing hard on the characters and their relationships with one another. Boy, did it pay off. You know in a movie, when you reach that point in the protagonists arc where the dialogue, the music and the performances all sync up, causing emotion to fill you and goosebumps to cover your arm? Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 had so many of those moments that I was actually worried for my hair follicles. That’s why I think – hot take alert – that this film is better than the original. It manages to even give Nebula and Kraglin compelling arcs, which is an incredible feat.

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The real standout performances are those of the original Guardians. Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord has his arrogance and childishness deconstructed, and he learns to stop seeking for a family he lost, and be happy with the one he found. Zoe Saldana’s Gamora has to accept responsibility for the harm she caused her sister. Admittedly, Dave Bautista’s Drax and Vin Diesel’s Baby Groot don’t have much of an arc, but they both thrive off character interactions, which allows for some sentimental and hilarious moments – even if some of the humour doesn’t land as well as Gunn thought it would. Surprisingly, the most heartfelt performances come from a CGI raccoon and a man covered in blue make-up. Bradley Cooper’s Rocket and Michael Rooker’s Yondu have a very similar lesson to learn that is very relevant to humans on planet Earth as well: it’s okay to let people love you. Overcoming that fear of love, of family, is what makes that final shot so emotional. Who knew I would cry at a space raccoon shedding a tear because he finally feels accepted. This goddamn wonderful movie.

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017), dir. Jon Watts

Spider-Man is my favourite superhero. I’ve always been so enamoured with his comics: the quippy nature of his commentary, the variety of villains and the struggles he faces balancing his life as a superhero and as a normal, teenage guy. Raimi’s Spider-Man films were great at the latter two, but as soon as Tobey Maguire put on the costume, it was like a different character. Andrew Garfield attempted the role a few years later, absolutely nailing the immature, jokey Spider-Man we all know and love. It’s a shame his Peter Parker, and the rest of the production, was lacking. Spider-Man: Homecoming came out a few days before my birthday and holy cow – it was the perfect Spider-Man movie. Honestly, it’s even better than Spider-Man 2. It feels like it’s ripped straight out of a Dan Slott comic and I absolutely loved it.

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The stakes for this movie are considerably lower than in other MCU flicks: instead of having to save the world, Peter Parker has to choose whether to let a crime take place or expose his crushes dad as a criminal, a twist that is so masterfully executed and shocked everyone seeing it for the first time. His need for acceptance and longing to be grown up is something I could relate to at the time of release, and something I’m sure most people have felt in their teenage years. Being set in a high school, there’s also some light high school drama. What makes it work is the way that each thread has a payoff, in not just the life of Peter Parker, but in the escapades of Spider-Man too. I was initially worried by how heavily Tony Stark featured in the promotional material, but he really just had an extended cameo. The true stars are Tom Holland and Michael Keaton, playing cat and mouse with each other over the course of the story, with each’s actions being obviously flawed and yet obviously sympathetic at the same time. An actual good villain from Marvel, who would have thought it?

Thor: Ragnarok (2017), dir. Taika Waititi

If the start of the MCU was about Iron Man, then the next part was all about Captain America. Now comes the age of Thor, in this spectacular redemption of the character and the franchise. I think everything that Waititi touches turns to gold, and I’m yet to be proven wrong. Chris Hemsworth clearly was having an awful time as Thor in his last few outings, looking miserable as sin in Avengers: Age of Ultron, ready for his contract to expire. But now, with the amount of joy injected into this movie, Hemsworth has mentioned that he would be eager to return for more. I’ve been reading a lot of Thor comics recently and the colours are just as vibrant. The earlier films in the franchise stuck too much to the Medieval/golden themes and suffered for it. The world of Sakaar is a visual delight, with all the colourful characters leaping out the screen.

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Colourful characters is a bit of an understatement. Hemsworth shines in his newfound goofiness, and Mark Ruffalo’s performance as Hulk begins to rival that of Bruce Banner. Newcomer Tessa Thompson would have stolen the show as Valkyrie, if it weren’t for a certain Jeff Goldblum. He doesn’t even play a role, it’s just his normal, extravagant self in a funky costume. I absolutely love it. A lot of people have issues with the humour in the movie – saying it undermines the emotional weight of the film. I can agree to a lesser extent, one or two jokes don’t land but it never takes away from the emotion of the film. This is Thor’s story of learning leadership, learning how to deal with the ugly truths of his family’s past. This ugly truths are also the ugly truths of colonialism, and how cultures tend to cover up these dark parts of their histories. The central conflict reflects conflicts relevant in society today, and the film is all the better for it.

Black Panther (2018), dir. Ryan Coogler

I’ve already written on this blog about Black Panther, and, good lord, have I talked about it a lot. This movie is incredible in so so so many ways, and completely deserves all the hype and love and recognition it got upon release. I saw a lot of people online saying all the praise was because of the political and social messages (how black people being in a movie is a controversial topic, I don’t know), but no matter your views, there’s no way to deny that this movie is good. Like really good. It’s very rare to have such a perfect blend of character, plot, pacing, and world building while also fitting into the requirements of a superhero genre. There’s fantastic action, vibrant costumes, and thought provoking character interactions. Plus an absolutely stellar cast of talented actors, all of them giving stand out performances in a movie that they clearly enjoyed making. What more could you ask for?

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One thing I didn’t mention in my blog post was the way the central conflict develops the story and the characters. It flows through every scene, right from the start, like a stream that grows into a river, eventually bursting it’s banks in an explosion of conflicting ideologies. Our hero is forced to learn something from Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger, forced to admit that his cultures ideologies. traditions and the actions of his father were wrong. And we, as the audience, are forced to admit this too. It’s natural that we want to side with the Black Panther at all costs, he is the hero of the movie after all, the titular character. But if he was right all the time, there would be no way for him to grow. If we were right all the time. there would be no way for us to grow. The way that Coogler creates a resolution that balances both sides of the argument and is in no way unnatural, is a perfect ending for a movie that exists in such a binary world. It’s important to find that middle ground.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018), dir. Anthony and Joe Russo

And so we come to the latest instalment in the MCU: Avengers: Infinity War. Branded as the culmination of the first 10 years of the franchise, this movie is definitely the first part of that. And until I see the second half, I’m not sure how to talk about it. Because honestly, I enjoyed it. I loved the movie for what it is, and also for what it means for the next one. Which is a horrible way to love a movie, because what if the next one isn’t as good? It taints half of my enjoyment for this one. As I mentioned above, we’re currently in Marvel Studios’ golden streak. And I just don’t want that streak to end. The Russo brothers manage to top their juggling feat in Captain America: Civil War, balancing multiple threads from multiple franchises. It is the first Marvel movie that is structured like a comic book crossover, with minimal exposition and characters just showing up when needed. It expects the audience to know, or at least go along with it.

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Even so, the film is very self-contained, thanks to the central story being about the main villain, Thanos himself. After being teased for years, he did not disappoint. Being the character with the most screen time, he dominates every storyline, even when physically absent. His smash-and-grab run to collect all the Infinity Stones is enthralling, and I find myself, against all conscious thought, rooting for him. In some sadistic way, I wanted him to tear the heroes apart. Not to say that Josh Brolin’s CGI performance was the only excellent one; all the cast did spectacularly, even those given maybe a few lines and minutes of screentime. RDJ in particular continues his masterful take as Iron Man, being the only hero that Thanos views as an equal. And damn, Thor kicks some serious ass.

To be continued…

Writing this took a long time. It would have taken longer because I was originally planning to include all the television and short films included under the MCU banner. I thought that would be too much. I thought watching all the MCU films one after another would be too much. I thought I would start to hate them all. But no, I don’t think that could ever happen. Marvel Studios injects their movies with so much fun and care and passion, it rarely fails. And when it does, it’s because those ingredients are lacking. These movies aren’t all masterpieces, but they plough ahead in a new direction with each instalment, filling up this expanded cinematic universe that feels more and more comprehensive every day.

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