GENESIS — The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is the term of art given to the current franchised films centered on Marvel Comics characters that would go on to make up classic Marvel team of The Avengers. Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige learned his trade under Richard Donner and Laura-Shuler Donner who had created indelible comic movie films like Superman: The Movie and The X-Men. Feige, a self-professed fanboy, envisioned creating a shared universe just as creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had done with their comic books in the early 1960s.
Feige said that his first experience at Comic-Con was in 2000 after X-Men 1 had come out and just wandered around. But acknowledged that Marvel Studios has geared its following projects for the event every year that it has content to present.
Feige had a plan — PHASE 1 of his plan was to break these characters in individual stories that would lead us to an eventual larger world.
IRON MAN was the first character off the ground. Mr. Feige has said that when Jon Favreau gave a preview of Iron Man in 2007*, that was the kick-off of the Marvel Studios. I argue that it was not that moment, but another, which has only been revealed of late.
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What came first? The chicken or the egg? Marvel history is steeped in peaks and valleys in popularity and prosperity. Marvel began its cinematic universe with the introduction of Samuel L. Jackson at the end of the first Iron Man (which was also Marvel’s first tag scene) in 2008.
Kevin stated in 2006 that he wanted to create a shared universe with surprising candor when introducing the idea of Marvel producing its own films. However, a surprising revelation occurred recently when Jackson revealed that it was he who contacted Marvel first, only after seeing his likeness in the Ultimates comics.
So to whom do we owe a debt of gratitude for the current Marvel cinematic landscape? Feige or Jackson? I don’t remember if I learned of the Jackson secret before the movie came out, but I do remember clearly, every review imploring the audience to stay through the credits (a craze that has driven Marvel properties and other have tried to follow).
However, before this Easter Egg was laid, we got a cooler little nugget near the end of the film when that pestering man in a dark suit kept trying to meet with Pepper Potts.
The new character was named Agent Phil Coulson played by the great character actor, writer, and director, Clark Gregg (Teddy Kaye!). Jon Favreau has said that they hired Gregg because they loved his work. Gregg stated that he loved the genre and was a comic nerd himself, so he was his own cheerleader to expand his role past Iron Man.
Feige acknowledges how much of a risk the movie was, but ultimately Iron Man was an unmitigated smashing success, earning $ million at the box office. Marvel’s confidence was not granted by Iron Man, in as much as it was rewarded. They had taken a comic book character with a low general public profile. Hired an actor who, just a few years earlier, was a uninsurable jailed felon and turned him into the biggest character and movie star in the world. Until 2008, any character not named Spider-Man had earned only in the $150 million range domestically. In a sense, Marvel Studios now had its own Spider-Man to carry a franchise.
The Monday after Iron Man was released, Feige announced the slate to follow. Iron Man made an estimated $585, 200, 000 worldwide.
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THE INCREDIBLE HULK — The forgotten child of the MCU, The Incredible Hulk was brought back to life in an underrated (in my opinion) version with direct discussion of the super-soldier serum and harbingers of the Avengers Initiative. The production of this movie was troubled by a lack of a script early on and conflict with a star the director did not want. Also, the unwanted star wanted to play a large role in writing the movie to the chagrin of the director. Originally, director Louis Letterrier wanted Mark Ruffalo for his Bruce Banner, but this was vetoed because eventual star Edward Norton was “more famous at the time”. Letterrier felt that his movie should have really been a S.H.I.E.L.D.-centric, which makes sense as the super-soldier serum has become so central to the MCU. In the end the Incredible Hulk received good attention for its allusions to the popular former TV show, but ultimately failed to live up to Iron Man’s potentcy with fans and critics due to a disjointed production.
What is crucially important to the MCU is the idea that Gamma-infused anything can be troublesome, but especially when you mix in the Super Solder serum. We also learn that variations of the Super Soldier serum is still in the hands of the government, of which The Abomination is a by-product, making it a scary proposition for testing and use in the future (see The Winter Soldier).
The Incredible Hulk only went on to earn an estimated $236, 400, 000 worldwide, but this did not deter Feige from moving forward with his plan.
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IRON MAN 2 was fast-tracked as the next installment of the Iron Man franchise and events in the film were set 6 months after the first movie. Director Jon Favreau, Robert Downey Jr, Gweneth Paltrow, and Clark Gregg all returned for the 2nd film. However, one major change was made to the blockbusting chemistry of the first movie: Don Cheadle replaced Terrence Howard in the sequel as James Rhodes after Howard had contract disputes with Marvel executives.
Iron Man 2 cruised off the massive success of the first movie centering mostly on Robert Downey, Jr’s charisma. The story was essentially that Tony would get his comeuppance from Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), the son of a spurned Russian genius Anton Vanko, who helped to create arc reactor technology that made Howard Stark famous. Vanko gets bankrolled by Stark’s then-current competing arms manufacturer, Justin Hammer, portrayed by Sam Rockwell. Tony has personal struggles in this very convoluted story like looking for a replacement for the arc reactor that protected his heart, some substance abuse, and S.H.I.E.L.D. interference. This is also the first movie in the MCU where we meet another future Avenger in Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson).
This movie may have coasted off the 1st movie’s success, but there was also a palpable under-current of excitement from fanboys to see its connection to the MCU, which may have helped Iron Man 2 make an incredible $623, 900, 000, despite tepid reviews.
Iron Man 2 is important for the furthering of Howard Stark’s backstory and the notion that the government is hot to get its hands on Stark tech.
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THOR — The Avengers Initiative kicked off when we learned that Agent Coulson was off to take care of something in the desert in New Mexico. Thor is banished by Odin to earth for making the rash decision to pre-emptively strike against the Frost Giants. He must learn what it is to be a humble warrior, saves a town, and prevents his usurper brother, Loki, from taking over Asgard as king.
Thor was not groundbreaking, it was a safe movie that was not critically reviled, nor was it critically acclaimed. However, a clear breakout from this film was the excellent Tom Hiddleston. The actor who portrayed Loki was a Branaugh favorite from his BBC show ‘Wallender’. Hiddleston brought Shakespeare to a comic book movie and led Marvel higher ups to consider bringing him back for more movies.
Some of the biggest reveals from the movie is that Odin’s treasure room is crucial to the MCU. The treasure room (or “holder of McGuffins”) included the Tablet of Life, the Warlock’s Eye, Infinity Gauntlet, the Orb of Agamotto, the Casket of Ancient Winters, and Destroyer. Thor gives us a view of the cosmic world of Marvel and also throws echoes down the hall of the continuity.
Thor was another strong performer for the MCU opening at $65,723,338 and finishing with $449,326,618 worldwide.
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CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER — First off, I love this movie. Captain America is Indiana Jones and allows us to see a future in these MCU films that doesn’t feel derivative from most comic book movies.
The First Avenger is not loved by everyone. Some critics saw the movie as too hokey and not challenging enough. Other loved that director Joe Johnston gave direct homage to Raiders and the Cap comics. At its heart, Chris Evans brought depth and gravitas to a role that could easily have been paper-machee.
The First Avenger’s most important impact on the MCU was the introduction of Hydra as S.H.I.E.L.D.’s domestic threat. Ultimately, Cap coming back to the future helps Fury find a leader for the Avengers Initiative.
Captain America earned $65,058,524 on its opening weekend and $370,569,774 worldwide.
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THE AVENGERS — There was a drumbeat and groundswell that led us to the summer of
“How much dark energy did the Allfather have to muster to conjure you here?”
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PHASE 2 of the MCU was what happened when these heroes returned home after the Battle of New York meant for their realities.
IRON MAN 3 — The filmmakers wanted to take Tony back to the cave in Iron Man where he was a tinkerer. The Mandarin is a very obvious opponent in this movie and take the first directly to Stark and the U.S. government. We learn later that the villain has much smaller conceits, but ultimately the stakes are very high. So high that the President of the United States is kidnapped. However, this episode of Iron Man has him isolated and racked with anxiety with only his wits to get him out of this fight (for most of the movie).
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THOR: THE DARK WORLD — Thor returned to Asgard where their enemies had sought to wreak havoc on the 9 realms when they sense some weakness from Odin and Thor. Loki’s deception and villainy has been no secret and this tumult within the House of Odin threatens the sanctity of Odin’s reign.
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CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER — The tectonic plates have shifted in this production. Feige hired Joe and Anthony Russo (of Community and Welcome to Collinwood fame) to direct this movie. There was much skepticism with the hiring as most believed that hiring TV directors was a case of Marvel going to the cheaper route again. Maybe it was, but ultimately, what a brilliant hire this turned out to be. Captain America is now the 4th highest grossing (which is no slouch) MCU movie in their young history. The ranking may change with how strong an opening and 2nd week its had. At the very least, the Winter Soldier has outpaced the First Avenger already going into its 3rd week.
So far, The Winter Soldier has been a blockbuster, earning $95,023,721 on its opening weekend and currently holding at $646,426,753.
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GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY — Feige felt that there was less pressure making this film because of how risky Iron Man was.
The movie is described as a misfits in space adventure. “In the far reaches of space, an American pilot named Peter Quill finds himself the object of a manhunt after stealing an orb coveted by the villainous Ronan.”
Guardians of the Galaxy is set to release on August 1, 2014.
ANT-MAN — Feige acknowledges that this movie was part of the original plans for the MCU back in 2007, but never materialized until director Edgar Wright finally had time and a script. Now production is slated to start in May 2014 with the lead Paul Rudd as Scott Lang, Michael Douglas as Hank Pym, and Patrick Wilson.
It is not known yet where Ant-Man will fit in the MCU, but obvious signs point toward him becoming an Avenger in the future.
# Speaking of the future, what does it hold now that S.H.I.E.L.D. is no more? Maybe, just maybe, Tony Stark’s S.W.O.R.D. which was given a cheeky allusion in a deleted scene from Iron Man 2?
* Nerdist Podcast with Kevin Feige from November 8, 2013 at 21:10.
** Nerdist Podcast with Kevin Feige from November 8, 2013 at 25:38