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Marvel Cinematic Universe: Explained

VO: Rebecca Brayton WRITTEN BY: Nick Spake

30 years after the original “Superman” made audiences believe a man could fly, the Marvel Cinematic Universe made us believe a man can shrink, a god can summon thunder, and a Hulk can smash. Today, we’re taking a look at the history of the action-packed films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Join WatchMojo as we go over Marvel’s first forays into film and biggest blockbusters.


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Script written by Nick Spake

Film Franchise: MCU

30 years after the original “Superman” made audiences believe a man could fly, the Marvel Cinematic Universe made us believe a man can shrink, a god can summon thunder, and a Hulk can smash. Welcome to and today we’re taking a look at the history of the action-packed films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Marvel’s cinematic adaptations got off to a rocky start with “Howard the Duck,” 1990’s “Captain America,” and Roger Corman’s “Fantastic Four.” Through the first “Blade,” “X-Men,” and “Spider-Man” movies, however, Marvel’s vast library of heroes finally started getting the silver screen treatments they deserved. Realizing that most of the key Avengers hadn’t been licensed to a major film studio like Fox or Sony, future Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige saw the potential for a shared universe comprised of Marvel characters. In the spirit of the printed page’s Marvel Universe, several characters would take center stage in standalone films, culminating in a comic book-like crossover event.

2008’s “Iron Man” was a risky venture, as it not only launched the MCU, but Marvel took something of a gamble on comedy-centric director Jon Favreau and the controversial Robert Downey Jr. But RDJ quickly proved he was tailor-made for the lead role, and Favreau had us hooked the second Tony Stark broke free from captivity in a suit of armor. The film featured a post-credit scene featuring Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury informing Tony Stark of the Avengers Initiative. These world-expanding post-credit scenes would become a staple of the MCU. Only one month later, “The Incredible Hulk” came crashing into theaters. While not as commercially or critically well-received as “Iron Man,” the film’s special effects, performances, and pacing were still considered a major step up from the 2003 film.

At the end of 2009, The Walt Disney Company bought Marvel Entertainment for a staggering $4 billion. Between 2010 and 2011, “Iron Man 2,” “Thor,” and “Captain America: The First Avenger” marked the beginning of the Disney era and were all released to widespread success. Demonstrating Marvel’s aptitude for world-building, audiences were impressed by how each film brought something unique to the table. With Iron Man being tech-based, Thor being grounded in fantasy, and Captain America being a period superhero, the franchise was able to experiment with various different styles and environments, laying the groundwork for the Avengers Initiative.

With five blockbusters under Marvel’s belt, Phase One of the MCU reached its climax in 2012. Written and directed by Joss Whedon, “The Avengers” commenced with a solid balance of humorous banter and stimulating set pieces, giving our seven heroes room to breathe. Whedon drastically kicked things up during the rousing New York battle, which packed in so much detail that it’s easy to overlook the fact that much of the action was filmed against green screens. Becoming the third highest-grossing film at the time, “The Avengers” was a landmark for the MCU and cinema on the whole.

Now that the Avengers had assembled, it was unclear if Marvel would ever be able to top themselves. “Iron Man 3” grossed over $1 billion and director Shane Black dazzled audiences with his inventive visual eye, but people were generally split over a plot twist involving the Mandarin. Likewise, “Thor: The Dark World” was by no means poorly-received, but still fell short with the film franchise’s lowest critical score on Rotten Tomatoes. Between its dull villain, dingy settings, and fairly routine action sequences, the film left many fans hoping that the MCU’s next outing would be a real game changer.

Fortunately, that’s exactly what audiences got in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” Where the first “Captain America” was a throwback to old-school serials, this sequel drew inspiration from 70s conspiracy thrillers. Featuring a more mature tone and action that felt surprisingly grounded, it shook up the MCU in more ways than one. “Guardians of the Galaxy” was another stunning surprise, being based on one of Marvel’s more obscure properties. Yet, director James Gunn turned the titular team of intergalactic misfits into household names, winning the masses over with humor, heart, colorful set pieces, and an awesome soundtrack.

As the MCU neared the end of its second phase, the Avengers were assembled once again in 2015’s “Age of Ultron.” Although it couldn’t quite outgross its predecessor, the sequel was another enormous hit with the climactic showdown atop a floating city being a marvel in itself. “Ant-Man” would naturally dial things down a notch, but this ultimately provided a refreshing change of pace. Even with smaller stakes, the titular character’s shrinking abilities paving the way for plenty of whimsical moments.

Phase Three would arguably be the MCU’s finest thus far, starting on a high note with “Captain America: Civil War.” Aside from pitting Team Cap against Team Iron Man, the film also marked this universe’s debuts of Black Panther and Spider-Man, who was finally given permission from Sony to join the fight. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo outdid themselves during the jaw-dropping airport battle, which made impeccable use of every characters’ powers without losing sight of the film’s compelling themes. That same year, “Doctor Strange” officially introduced magic to the MCU, amounting to the most mind-bending experience to come out of this franchise yet.

In 2017, the MCU went from releasing two movies per year to giving audiences three. “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” started the summer in style while “Spider-Man: Homecoming” solidified that the web-slinger was in good hands. It was “Thor: Ragnarok,” however, that etched its place as an instant superhero classic. In the spirit of “Big Trouble in Little China,” director Taika Waititi fully embraced the film’s zany settings and eccentric characters, delivering one of the absolute funniest Marvel movies. What’s more, the film blew everyone away with its wild stylized action, from Thor’s throwdown against the Hulk to Asgard’s last stand.

Although “Black Panther” was another anticipated addition to the MCU, it managed to exceed expectations, becoming the franchise’s highest-grossing domestic release and the most critically acclaimed. In addition to marking a significant turning point for diversity in Hollywood, the nation of Wakanda roared to life through director Ryan Coogler’s lens. Audiences returned to Wakanda in “Avengers: Infinity War,” which was not only the biggest MCU movie yet but a cinematic event ten years in the making. In a movie filled with heroes, each one had a moment to shine, but perhaps no character shined brighter than Thanos. A few months later, the more light-hearted “Ant-Man and the Wasp” provided a much-needed blend of comedy and action after the dour tone of “Infinity War.”

This ambitious endeavor paid off marvelously, grossing over $17 billion worldwide and consistently earning Certified Fresh ratings. Throughout ten years and twenty films, Marvel has forever changed the action and superhero genres, bringing the comics to life with a diverse mix of characters, storylines, and set pieces. The MCU only gains more momentum with each passing entry, giving us high hopes for “Captain Marvel,” “Avengers 4,” and “Spider-Man Far From Home” in 2019. The MCU is practically synonymous with the word, “Excelsior,” more than doing justice to the late great Stan Lee’s unbound imagination.

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