A Beginner’s Guide to the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Ten years ago there was no such thing as the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Just a not-very good Hulk movie. It wasn’t until 2008 that Robert Downey Jr had the mother of all comebacks in Iron Man. And even with a post-credits tease featuring Samuel L Jackson’s Nick Fury, we still didn’t know that it would kickstart the most lucrative franchise in film history.

Robert Downey Jr in Iron Man

Fast-forward to 2017, and there have been 16 movies (with at least seven still to come), six TV shows (with four to come), and several one-off movies, web series, comics and more.

Promotional image for Avengers: Age of Ultron 2015 / Director: Joss Whedon / © 2017 MARVEL / © The Walt Disney Company (Australia) Pty Limited

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a single continuity of feature films and other media based on characters and stories from Marvel’s sprawling comic book history, released in ‘phases’. Though each film is self-contained, their thematic threads, recurring characters and subplots create a deep interconnectedness, which invites fans to identify hidden links and speculate feverishly on how the next chapters will unfold. Accessible to a wide audience thanks to canny casting, keen humour and a willingness to push the limits of genre, MCU films have enjoyed both critical and popular success.

Following the success of its first film, 2008’s Iron Man, the MCU expanded rapidly to become one of the most successful contemporary cinema properties, which gave the studio confidence to take risks, such as putting the lesser-known cosmic adventurers from Guardians of the Galaxy alongside top-tier heroes like Iron Man and Thor. Marvel also cleverly heightens anticipation for each adventure — fans know to sit through the closing credits for amusing interludes that sow the seeds for upcoming stories.

Production still of Guardians of the Galaxy 2014 / Director: James Gunn / © 2017 MARVEL / © The Walt Disney Company (Australia) Pty Limited
L to R: Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), Drax The Destroyer (Dave Bautista) and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel)
Charlie Wen / Thanos on throne no.4 / Keyframe for Guardians of the Galaxy 2014 / Courtesy: Marvel / © 2017 MARVEL

In addition to bringing in A-list actors to play its mentors and villains (among them Sir Anthony Hopkins, Robert Redford, Mickey Rourke and Tilda Swinton), Marvel gives directing duties to filmmakers of singular vision. Kenneth Branagh’s Shakespearean approach elevated the first Thor; brothers Anthony and Joe Russo were best known for episodes of comedies Arrested Development and Community before delivering the taut thrills of Captain America: The Winter Solider; and New Zealand’s Taika Waititi directed the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok on the strength of low-budget comedies, such as the multiple award-winning Hunt for the Wilderpeople, 2016.

The MCU translates the comic book experience into the cinematic realm. Currently released in a series of three narrative chapters, or phases, the films distil years of storytelling into an interconnected narrative, with each film expanding to include new characters and frontiers.

Phase One begins with Iron Man introducing the brilliant but troubled arms magnate Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr), whose technological talents allow him to fight terror as the titular metal-suited hero. The Incredible Hulk sees another haunted genius, the gamma-radiated Dr Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) face his demons. Iron Man 2 brings the wide-reaching, extra-governmental intelligence agency S.H.I.E.L.D. (Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division) into play, with its director Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) and undercover agent Natasha ‘Black Widow’ Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson). Inspired by Norse mythology, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the hammer-wielding God of Thunder, is banished to Earth where he finds himself at odds with his scheming adopted brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston). In Captain America: The First Avenger, set during World War Two, Chris Evans plays Steve Rogers — a big-hearted Brooklyn kid transformed into a super solider by the experiments of Howard Stark (Tony’s father and founder of S.H.I.E.L.D.). We are also introduced to the Infinity Stones — powerful gems that can manipulate certain domains of reality. One of them, the blue Space Stone contained within the Tesseract, is the object of the villains’ desires in Phase One’s culminating film, Marvel’s The Avengers. Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) directed the first full team-up, in which Fury assembles Stark, Banner (now played by Mark Ruffalo), Romanoff, Thor, a cryogenically preserved Rogers, and marksman Clint ‘Hawkeye’ Barton (Jeremy Renner) to face off against the nefarious Loki and a swarming alien army in a climactic battle for New York.

Robert Downey Jr’s brilliant portrayal of billionaire Tony Stark in the Iron Man and Avengers movies, as well as this year’s Spider-Man: Homecoming, has made him the lynchpin of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Hard to imagine, then, that back in 2007, he was considered a huge risk and director Jon Favreau had to beg Marvel to cast him.

While Robert Downey Jr had won critical acclaim for roles in movies like Less Than Zero and Chaplin, by the late 1990s he had become better known for his off-screen antics and was virtually unemployable since no movie studio could insure him. It took Mel Gibson paying Robert’s insurance himself for 2003’s The Singing Detective to bring him back to the big screen, and Favreau’s persuasive ways for him to go from Hollywood bad boy to comic-book hero/movie megastar.

Robert Downey Jr in Iron Man

Best known for his roles in independent dramas like The Kids are Alright and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, slimly built (and, erm, not exactly statuesque) Oscar-nominated actor Mark Ruffalo didn’t seem an obvious choice for the role of the biggest, angriest and greenest superhero on Earth – indeed, one Daily Telegraph writer described it as “either very bold, or very batty casting”.

The casting turned out to be very bold 🙂 with most fans of the Marvel character agreeing that Ruffalo’s nervy, fun performance beats the Hulk’s other recent and rather dull incarnations (by Edward Norton and Eric Bana) and is the best version of the angry green guy since Lou Ferrigno’s 1970s TV portrayal.

Mark Ruffalo as the Hulk in the Avengers movies

Phase One Movies
Iron Man 2008
The Incredible Hulk 2008
Iron Man 2 2010
Thor 2011
Captain America: The First Avenger 2011
Marvel’s The Avengers 2012

Phase Two finds our heroes coping with the fallout of New York, and reveals the machinations of mad titan Thanos as he schemes to collect the Infinity Stones. Stark confronts his own mortality and morality in Iron Man 3, while Thor is forced to ally with Loki to save Asgard in Thor: The Dark World. Captain America: The Winter Soldier takes cues from 1970s spy thrillers, sending Rogers and Romanoff on the run to uncover a menacing conspiracy within S.H.I.E.L.D.

Infinity Stones
The Infinity Stones are six gems of immense power scattered across the Marvel Universe. Five of these stones have found their way into the films: the Space Stone (within the Tesseract), Power Stone (within the Orb), Reality Stone (Aether), Mind Stone (in the forehead of Vision, the benevolent AI played by Paul Bettany), and the Time Stone (in the amulet Eye of Agamotto, worn by Doctor Strange). The sixth gem, the Soul Stone, is yet to be revealed. The gems are sought by the super-villain Thanos in Guardians of the Galaxy 2014 and Avengers: Age of Ultron 2015 for the unlimited power they contain.

Phase Two also introduces the Guardians of the Galaxy — a pan-galactic sci-fi branch of the MCU that brings together a new motley of heroes: half-human Peter ‘Star-Lord’ Quill (Chris Pratt), the raccoon-like Rocket (Bradley Cooper), sentient tree Groot (Vin Diesel), literal-minded Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), and Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the adopted daughter of Thanos (Josh Brolin).

Phase Two Movies
Iron Man 3 2013
Thor: The Dark World 2013
Captain America: The Winter Soldier 2014
Guardians of the Galaxy 2014
Avengers: Age of Ultron 2015
Ant-Man 2015

In Avengers: Age of Ultron, the earth-bound Avengers reunite when Tony Stark accidentally animates the malevolent artificial intelligence Ultron (James Spader), whom they can defeat only in a destructive confrontation, with help from psychic Wanda ‘Scarlet Witch’ Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany), the benevolent Infinity Stone-powered AI. Phase Two closes with a dimensional detour, when former cat burglar Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) takes on the mantle of miniaturised hero Ant-Man.

Production still of Thor: The Dark World 2013 / Director: Alan Taylor / © 2017 MARVEL / © The Walt Disney Company (Australia) Pty Limited
Jackson Sze / Train throw / Keyframe for Ant-Man 2015 / Courtesy: Marvel / © 2017 MARVEL

In the chaotic wake of Age of Ultron, Phase Three opens with Captain America: Civil War, which splits the heroes into two groups: a Tony Stark-led faction that supports the global push for regulation of the Avengers, and a Steve Rogers-fronted bloc that opposes them. The film introduces African king and warrior T’Challa, aka Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), and friendly neighbourhood web-slinger Peter Parker (Tom Holland) — Spider-Man’s first MCU appearance. Mystical dimensions are introduced when Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), a self-absorbed but brilliant surgeon, seeks supernatural healing after his hands are irreparably damaged. Under the tutelage of the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), he finds himself on a path to a new magical mastery aided by an Infinity Stone that can manipulate time.

Phase Three Movies
Captain America: Civil War 2016
Doctor Strange 2016
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 2017
Spider-Man: Homecoming 2017
Thor: Ragnarok 2017

In 2017, Phase Three continues with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and adorable Baby Groot; Peter Parker’s first MCU standalone film, Spider-Man: Homecoming; and the highly anticipated Thor: Ragnarok, which was filmed in Queensland and Brisbane’s CBD. Little bears already have their gold tickets 🙂 for Thor: Ragnarok.

Production still of Captain America: Civil War 2016 / Directors: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo / © 2017 MARVEL / © The Walt Disney Company (Australia) Pty Limited
Production still from Doctor Strange 2016 / Director: Scott Derrickson / © 2017 MARVEL / © The Walt Disney Company (Australia) Pty Limited

The MCU is set to expand further from 2018:

Black Panther – 2018
Avengers: Infinity War – 2018
Ant Man and the Wasp – 2018
Captain Marvel – 2019
Untitled Avengers film – 2019
Untitled Spider-Man sequel – 2019
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 – TBA

Cast of Marvel Thor Ragnarok and Black Panther

So much eye candy! 🙂

Original story on GOMA blog.

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