by Alex Poquette
Although many people didn’t realize it at the time, the release of Iron Man in 2008 completely changed the concept of franchising in film. Instead of being one continuous set of movies all directly related to each other (e.g. Star Wars), a franchise could now be more of a “universe” in which many different sub-series coexisted. Since 2008, an unprecedented 13 movies were released as part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and it quickly grew to be the most financially successful franchise of all time, competing with 30-40 year old franchises like Star Wars or James Bond. The key to the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s success is that all of these movies, while having different directors, actors, and plots, connect to each other just enough to make fans want to keep up to date. For most fans this is an impossible task, with ticket prices quickly rising (which is why every fan needs MoviePass). For fans who haven’t had a chance to watch every single movie in the MCU or those who can’t see the connection between them all, I’m here to explain each films’ importance to the franchise as a whole.
The first thing to establish is exactly what series are a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There is the Iron Man series (3 films), The Incredible Hulk, the Thor series (2 movies), the Captain America series (3 films), The Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man, and the over-arching Avengers series (2 films). So far, these are the only films to have come out in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The nice thing about the MCU is that the movies tend to be released in chronological order. With that being said, the majority of Captain America: The First Avengers takes place in the 1940s, much before any other movie in the series. With the franchise also being broken down into phases with multiple solo movies and a climatic Avengers film, Marvel Studios attempts to create organization out of their chaos.
Phase 1 of the MCU all started in 2008 with Iron Man. Iron Man’s main job was introducing us to Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), a former weapons developer turned superhero. The main film also established the entire “universe,” with the appearance of S.H.E.I.L.D. (a recurring team of spies) agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) who later appears in more media than any other character. However, it wasn’t until the post-credits scene, when S.H.E.I.L.D Director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) explains to Tony his plan for an “Avengers” initiative, that the fan-boys (including myself) got excited. This was when we learned that Iron Man was part of something bigger.
Post-credit scenes have since become a staple of the MCU to tease upcoming films, including the one after the next Marvel movie, The Incredible Hulk. In this post-credits scene, Tony Stark appears to explain a “team” (The Avengers) he’s helping put together, solidifying the shared universe with his appearance in another movie. The main film also introduced Bruce Banner/The Hulk although the actor, Edward Norton, would be quickly replaced by Mark Ruffalo in the Hulk’s next appearance.
Iron Man 2 came after The Incredible Hulk. Here, S.H.I.E.L.D’s role extends dramatically helping draw attention to the upcoming Avengers program. Also an undercover agent, Natasha Romanov/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), plays a major role (she becomes a founding Avenger). Iron Man 2 also gives Tony’s best friend, James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), a much larger role, as he now has a suit of his own, calling himself the Iron Patriot. Later, a post-credits scene shows Phil Caulson’s discovery of a Large Hammer in New Mexico.
This leads to the next movie, Thor, which introduced us to the the prince of Asgard (a fictional planet) and the “god of thunder.” Thor has a cameo from a S.H.E.I.L.D. agent known as Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), a future founding member of The Avengers. On the other side of the spectrum, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), “the god of mischief,” is introduced as Thor’s half-brother and a major foe, who is generally considered the MCU’s best villain. After being presumed dead, Loki shows up in the post-credits scene with Nick Fury and new character Erik Selvig (who Loki has mind-controlled) while he takes a hold of a mysterious cube object.
It isn’t until Captain America: the First Avenger, the final solo film of the phase, that we learn about the cube. Captain America’s first appearance as a part of the MCU mostly takes place in 1942, During World War II. At the time, a Nazi division called Hydra obtains the Tesseract (the blue cube we saw) and harnesses its energy to build great weapons. Steve Rogers, a weak man who is transformed into super soldier Captain America, fights off Hydra. He helps Howard Stark (Tony’s father) retrieve the tesseract, but in the process his best friend Bucky dies and he is frozen in ice until modern day, where he is found by Nick Fury who approaches him with a top secret mission.
This, of course, leads to The Avengers, the culmination of all these stories. As Loki returns to Earth in hopes of obtaining the tesseract which he can exchange for an army, S.H.E.I.L.D. recruits Iron Man, The Hulk, Thor, and Captain America to help form the Avengers team, along with Hawkeye and Black Widow. In this movie we learn that S.H.E.I.L.D. was attempting to use the tesseract for their own weapons, Phil Coulson kind of dies (he returns to TV), and most importantly the Avengers fight off the army of Chitauri (aliens) who are led by Loki in the Battle of New York. After Iron Man risks his life to close a portal allowing the Chitauri to enter, the battle ends. Loki is imprisoned, the tesseract is returned to Asgard and the Avengers go their separate ways. All seemed well until a post-credits scene showed a new villain, Thanos, who was actually in charge of the Chitauri. Phase One concludes with the Avengers eating in silence at a Shawarma restaurant.
Phase 2 began with Iron Man Three, six months after The Battle of New York. The most important part of Iron Man Three is the introduction of a very different Tony Stark. Instead of a cocky anti-establishment playboy millionaire, Tony is now much more conservative as the events in New York have clearly affected him. He often experiences panic attacks and in a post-credits scene is even seen using Dr. Banner as a therapist. This is the beginning of Tony’s descent.
Thor: The Dark World comes next. In terms of the greater universe, the main revelation in The Dark World is that Loki is back at large and the Tesseract is an infinity stone. Along with the Aether, they are two of the five infinity stones, which hold great power. We also meet the Collector (Benicio Del Toro), a man determined to collect the five stones, in a mid-credits scene.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier comes after The Dark World and is very important in terms of the universe as a whole. Captain America is back in Washington D.C. working for S.H.E.I.L.D. He quickly meets Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie). Along with Black Widow and Nicky Fury, they discover that the Hydra still looms large and has infiltrated S.H.E.I.L.D. They also meet a new villain, The Winter Soldier, who turns out to be a brainwashed Bucky, Captain America’s old best friend. By the end of the movie, Washington D.C. is destroyed, S.H.E.I.L.D. is in complete disarray, and The Winter Soldier is still out in the world, but learning more about his past every day (sort of like Jason Bourne). In a post-credits scene we see two new enhanced individuals, Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and his sister Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen).
The next movie is The Guardians of the Galaxy. The Guardians of the Galaxy are a new team of heroes including a human, Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), an adopted daughter of Thanos, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a revenge hungry warrior, Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), a talking raccoon (Bradley Cooper), and a talking tree, Groot (Vin Diesel). Together they travel the universe in search of anything to do. The film shows Thanos in a much bigger role than ever (but still a small performance), as he tries to get his hands on an infinity stone along with other characters, including The Collector. By the end of the movie, this third infinity stone is on Xandar, a new planet. Unlike all other MCU movies, this team hasn’t come into contact with any other heroes, yet.
After The Guardians of the Galaxy, we were brought back to earth for The Avengers: Age of Ultron. The movie opens up with the Avengers already assembled due to circumstances on the show, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.E.I.L.D. In Joss Whedon’s follow up to The Avengers, they are up against Ultron, an artificial intelligence created by Tony Stark whose main purpose is to find peace. He decides that only the end of humanity can create it, hence starting the age of Ultron. Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch are back. They start working for Ultron because of their hate for the Avengers, but by the end of the movie, they become part of the Avengers. A new Avenger is created by Stark, Banner, and Thor when J.A.R.V.I.S. is uploaded into an android created by Ultron for himself. A Bruce Banner and Black Widow relationship begins during the second Avengers and we also learn that Hawkeye has been hiding a family away from everyone. The movie ends with the Avengers saving the world with the main crew going on their separate ways. Tony Stark goes home, Hulk disappears in a jet, Thor returns to Asgard, Hawkeye retires, and Captain America, along with Black Widow, go to a new Avengers base to train a new team of Avengers: War Machine (James Rhodes), Vision, Falcon, and Scarlet Witch.
After the conclusion of the Avengers: Age of Ultron, Phase Two isn’t quite finished. Ant-Man follows a new hero, Scott Lang (Ant-Man), who is the second person to don the shrinking suit. In terms of the greater universe, Ant-Man comes into contact with Falcon, as he has to rob the new Avengers facility. By the end of the movie, we know Falcon is trying to contact Ant-Man because he needs his help. During the mid-credits, we are shown a scene from the next film, Civil War, where Falcon tells Captain America that since they can’t contact Tony Stark because of “the accords,” Falcon knows someone who could help. This makes it seem like Ant-Man overlaps into the beginning of the next movie.
Captain America: Civil War follows Ant-Man and begins a new phase of the MCU. The film opens with the new Avengers team out on a mission where they accidentally blow up a building killing innocents. This leads to a call for the “Sokovia Accords,” which will put the Avengers under UN control. This causes a split in the Avengers (an internal conflict not really seen before) where certain characters refuse to sign the bill, including Captain America. This causes a rift between Captain America and Tony Stark, its main contributor. Other characters choose sides as all Avengers end up on a particular team, except Thor and Hulk, who aren’t in this movie. Two new characters are introduced, Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland). By the end of the movie, Iron Man and Captain America are on good terms, but there is a split in the Avengers with certain people, like Iron Man, War Machine, and Vision, working with the government, and a secret Avengers led by Captain America, with help from Falcon, Scarlet Witch, Hawkeye and The Winter Soldier. With certain characters just returning home, like Spider-Man and Black Panther (we don’t know who he supports fully yet), the Avengers are more split than ever. Only the future holds what comes next for this team of superheroes.
With many more films slated for release, the next being Doctor Strange on November 4, The MCU still has a bright future. Phase 3 is just beginning. So, make sure to stay tuned as I will help explain the future of the MCU.
Did I miss anything (I’m sure I did)? Did I not mention a character who you think is important to the greater universe? Let us know in the comments below.