Not even the producers of 2008’s Iron Man could have predicted the sweeping phenomenon that the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has become. It’s turned some true B-listers into the forefront of the Marvel universe. Let’s take a look at the history and some things to remember when watching any of these now exalted movies.
As mentioned, the movies began with “Iron Man” (2008) starring Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, a multi-billionaire playboy philanthropist who has a loose grip on life. Opposite Downey Jr. is Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts, his longtime friend and assistant who keeps his unseemlier activities in check. Stark comes face first with how some of his technology is being used by radical militants and once he escapes their clutches, he turns his life around and builds the now famous Iron Man suit. In the first movie of the MCU, the hero’s journey is perfectly exemplified when he takes down the Iron Monger played by legendary actor Jeff Bridges.
Where did the MCU go after “Iron Man?” Well, we started to see a new medium develop. Marvel would go on to release a sequel to Iron Man in 2010, a film based on Thor (2011), “Captain America: The First Avenger” (2011) and finally culminating in a superhero team up film to set the bar for team ups with “The Avengers” (2012). This kind of crossover film had been done before but never with the amount of detail and care that had been done with “The Avengers.” It started a chain reaction that spawned a whole overarching universe of stories.
Why has the MCU become such a pop culture craze? Plain and simple: Marvel Studios has figured out the magical movie formula. Nearly all of their movies follow a similar format of “hero gets knocked off their pedestal and has to work their way back up.” This is not a bad thing because clearly, they are movies that people enjoy but it does create a complacent moviegoer.
It should also be noted that the MCU is made for the average movie audience, not for the comic book afficionado. They certainly want to honor their comic book inspirations, but they aren’t beholden to them. This is evident in some of the more realistic adaptations of characters such as Crossbones and Batroc the Leaper in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (2014) or the “Iron Man 3’s” (2013) villain, The Mandarin. Ultimately, these edited versions of classic characters can create better movie experiences by not bogging down the film with expositional lore. However, this tendency to edit for story presentation can cause some rather large downfalls as well.
In “Avengers: Age of Ultron” (2015), the film introduces Wanda and Pietro Maximoff, known as Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver respectively in the comics. The two are twins who are recruited by Hydra, the MCU’s analogue to the Nazis, and given special abilities by one of the infamous Infinity Stones. The only issue with this is that in the comics they are children of the X-Men’s Magneto, a Holocaust survivor. Making characters whose origins include being descendants of a Jewish Holocaust survivor work with almost literal Nazis is not a good look. One might say, “Well, it’s a different adaptation.” Yes, but they made that choice to have two canonically Jewish characters work with Nazis willingly. They weren’t captured against their will. They volunteered to work with Hydra. It doesn’t mean the MCU as a whole is bad or that you can’t enjoy the films. It’s just something to be aware of while watching.
Ultimately, the MCU is a great saga and still ever evolving in its scope and size. The latest installments of “WandaVision,” “Falcon & The Winter Soldier,” and the upcoming “Black Widow” all appear to be great additions to the MCU. And just so we’re clear: the MCU should be watched in release order, not chronological order.