Marvel Cinematic Universe 101: All you need to know about the massive franchise

Anshu Lal and Ankita Maneck

May,07 2017 10:33:37 IST

There are movie franchises. And then, there is the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).

Thanks to Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, the MCU movie franchise has now raked in a staggering $11 billion worldwide. This means that the Marvel Cinematic Universe grossed more than movie franchises like the James Bond series, Harry Potter films or the Star Wars franchise.

But it's not just about the big bucks. The MCU is more than that. It is about the fictional universe that is shared by some of the world's most famous superheroes based on Marvel Comics. The MCU has given us a whole new world to imagine, full of metallic suits, super-soldiers, demi-gods, assassins and some extremely sharp wit. Some of the most critically acclaimed superhero movies belong to the MCU.

This article is all about the movies which shaped the MCU, the characters which defined it and the changes the franchise went through since its birth in 2008. And as the MCU grows in the future, so shall this article.

Before we dive into the details of the films of this franchise, here is a timeline of all the MCU movies released so far:

The entire franchise is divided into three phases (for now). Each phase has a distinct set of movies and the franchise evolved as it went from one phase to another.

PHASE ONE

The first phase was all about introduction of the most important characters of the franchise till now. In its early stage, the MCU could be a bit cliched sometimes, but the first and last movies of this phase are films which will be remembered as great cinema for all times to come.

Iron Man

Screenshot from YouTube video

Screenshot from YouTube video

"I am Iron Man," said Robert Downey Jr's Tony Stark before the credits rolled out for Iron Man, released in May 2008.

It was with that movie that the world was introduced to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Iron Man was the big bang for the MCU. All the main features of the Marvel Studios films, from their unique brand of humour, the post-credit scenes which we patiently wait for, the 'genius-billionaire-playboy-philanthropist' persona of Tony Stark, SHIELD and Samuel L Jackson as the badass Nick Fury, were introduced in this film.

Iron Man was a breath of fresh air and the beginning of the highest grossing movie franchise in the world.

The movie was about how rich industrialist Tony Stark built an armoured suit after being abducted by terrorists. Stark then ultimately uses the suit to fight evil.

Before Iron Man, "it was a rough time for Marvel characters on the big screen. But that would all change a year later with a new movie, this time direct from Marvel themselves, about a then second-tier comic book hero called Iron Man," as this article in io9 so aptly put it.

Iron Man was no longer a second-tier hero after the movie, though. The character and his portrayal by Robert Downey Jr in MCU's Phase One cannot be highlighted enough because for the rest of the phase, it was Iron Man who dominated the screen, not Captain America, Hulk, Thor, Black Widow or Hawk-Eye.

The Incredible Hulk

Image courtesy: @Hulk/Facebook

Image courtesy: @Hulk/Facebook

After Iron Man, another one of Marvel's most iconic superheroes, The Hulk, was re-introduced in The Incredible Hulk, released in June 2008. Even though Edward Norton portrayed Bruce Banner aka The Hulk in the movie and Tim Roth was quite convincing as the villain Abomination in the movie, the film generated a lukewarm response. The Incredible Hulk was the first and the last time Norton portrayed Bruce Banner. And even though The Hulk is one of the most known faces in Marvel comics, he has not had a film of his own in the MCU since The Incredible Hulk.

The film was about the origin of the giant and angry green superhero. In the movie, Bruce Banner turns into The Hulk (a green-skinned, muscular giant with a massive temper problem) every time he is under emotional stress because of a gamma ray experiment gone wrong. While Banner struggles to deal with his alter ego, he also has to stop a soldier who uses the same technology to become the Abomination.

Iron Man 2

Screenshot from YouTube video

Screenshot from YouTube video

The much-awaited Iron Man 2 was released two years later in May 2010. Even though Downey Jr's charm as Iron Man carried the film on its shoulders, the sequel was not as good as Iron Man. However, this movie introduced some of the most important characters in the MCU. Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow and Don Cheadle's War Machine were introduced in this movie. It also had one of the better Marvel villains: Ivan Vanko played by the legendary Mickey Rourke (who also played Randy Robinson in The Wrestler).

Thor

Image courtesy: @Thor/Facebook

Image courtesy: @Thor/Facebook

Thor was released in May 2011 and it again introduced one of the main characters in The Avengers. Chris Hemsworth played the powerful but arrogant Asgardian, Thor, who is banished from his home and sent to live among human beings on earth to learn humility. Yes, the plot does sound childish but Thor is a very significant movie in the MCU because it introduced probably the best villain the MCU has had so far: Loki.

Tom Hiddleston's Loki has a very special place in Marvel not only because of the character's naughty-bordering-on-evil demeanour but also because Loki had some extremely convincing motivation to be evil when he finds out his family's secrets in the movie. Idris Alba played Heimdall, based on the god Heimdallr of Norse mythology. His character may play an important role in the movies to come. And Odin was played by none other than Anthony Hopkins. One of the most disappointing aspects about the movie, though, was that the role played by Natalie Portman was reduced to a bit more than a damsel in distress.

Captain America: The First Avenger

Image courtesy: @CaptainAmerica/Facebook

Image courtesy: @CaptainAmerica/Facebook

It was only in July 2011 that Captain America, the long-time leader of the Avengers, was brought to the MCU. Chris Evans' Captain America in Captain America: The First Avenger focused a bit too much on the superhero's boy scout image. It would not be until this movie's sequel in the second phase of the MCU that Evans' character would dominate the MCU and get himself the fame and respect that he enjoys in the Marvel comics. Sebastian Stan also played Bucky Barnes, another crucial character whose significance would rise in the second and third phase. Red Skull, the villain, was played by Hugo Weaving (famous for portraying Agent Smith in The Matrix).

Marvel's The Avengers

Screenshot from YouTube video.

Screenshot from YouTube video.

And it was on 4 May 2012 that all these superheroes came together on the silver screen for the first time in Marvel's The Avengers.

Apart from the grand battle sequences in the film, there is something about the beauty of the depiction of these characters coming together, fighting among themselves, resolving their disputes, and eventually forming an alliance to fight a common threat that has made The Avengers one of the best superhero movies of all time.

There could not have been a better finale to the first phase of the MCU. This movie also showed the importance of a villain in a movie as Hiddleston portrayed Loki with exactly the right balance of intensity and wit to create a character evil enough that he needed to be stopped by a team of superheroes.

Even though Downey Jr's Iron Man clearly dominated the film with his 'genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist' and 'We have a Hulk' dialogues, every other character was also given his or her due time and importance in the movie.

After the massive success of The Avengers, filmmakers sensed an opportunity and a lot of films with superheroes coming together were made and will be made.

But perhaps no group of superheroes will assemble the way the Avengers assembled in this movie.

PHASE TWO

The second phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe focuses on the post-Battle of New York exploits of the Avengers, introduces more heroes, and a few very important villains.

If you say that the first phase of the MCU is the introductory phase, you could say that phase 2 gives us a more detailed look at our favourite heroes. And you know what that means – a barrage of sequels.

Iron Man 3

Iron Man 3. Image courtesy: AP

Iron Man 3. Image courtesy: AP

The first film of phase II starts off with Iron Man 3. Tony Stark is traumatized by his actions in The Avengers whereby despite all his technology and wealth at his core he is still a man and as such vulnerable. Furthermore it's the first major time we have seen Tony's greatest weakness and indeed the source of his power in action, his fear.

Iron Man 3 works well because it infuses a dose of reality into The Avengers spectacle, like taking in the consequences of the destruction the superheroes have caused, and putting it into perspective in the real world. But does nothing to cover the overall story line of The Avengers/MCU storyline.

Thor: The Dark World

Image via Facebook.

Image via Facebook.

Shifting to Thor: The Dark World, the film did a lot to build the overall story arc of the MCU. After the events of the first Thor film, our celestial hero returns to earth where he finds a mysterious element called the Aether that attaches itself to his lover Jane's body, and is slowly killing her. Thor returns to Asgard with Jane in search of a solution, where they are attacked by a villain called the Malekith and the Dark Elves, who were prevented from unleashing the Aether eons ago. Thor realises the only way to defeat Malekith is to enlist the help of Loki.

Though the film might be strictly average in terms of storyline, it is must watch because it introduces another supervillain Aether. You could say the film it was clearly the first step taken towards the post Phase II world and that of Avengers: The Infinity War.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Poster of the film. Image via Creative Commons/Flickr.

Poster of the film. Image via Creative Commons/Flickr.

The Russo Brothers masterpiece is one of the best films in the history of the MCU.  The plot follows Steve Rogers, along with Black Widow and Falcon, who uncover the secrets hidden within S.H.I.E.L.D., while also battling a dangerous new enemy, the Winter Soldier, whom Captain America knows from his past along with a shadowy organisation called 'The Hydra.'

The film works because of its villain — the Winter Solder/Bucky Barnes and the equation he shares with Captain America.

Instead of an alien super villain with motives of world domination, we are faced with an antagonist that struggles with human emotions and that's what makes this film work.

Guardians Of The Galaxy 

Guardians-of-the-Galaxy_first_Screenshot

A group of intergalactic misfits band together to stop an evil celestial being, Thanos, from taking control of the universe. Thanos wants possession of an orb known as the Infinity Stone, which is capable of destroying the world. Peter Quill/Star Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana) team up with a bunch of criminals to thwart Thanos's plan of possessing the infinity stone.

The out-of-the-world storyline combines with an amazing soundtrack and razor sharp dark humour makes this the MCU hit that nobody envisioned.

Though it does great as a stand-alone film, it introduces one of the major villains in the Marvel multiverse, Thanos.  Thanos will play an important role in Marvel's Phase III Avengers: Infinity War story line.

Avengers: Age Of Ultron

A still from the film.

Joss Whedon returned to the director's chair to helm the sequel of the hugely successful Avengers film. The superhero ensemble bands together to fight an artificial intelligence program, Ultron, who has gone rogue. The film also introduces two new Avenger recruits: Scarlet Witch, Quick Silver and the infinity vision stone bearing Vision.

James Spader voices the menacing robot with plans of world dominance, but fails to be a convincing villain.

Though the film might not have received critical acclaim, it was packed with lots of easter-eggs for Phase III of the Marvel cinematic universe: the Wakanda name-drop point to Black Panther, the Mind Gem points to Avengers: Infinity War, the wood-chopping feud between Captain America and Iron Man points to Captain America: Civil War, Thor's vision points to Thor: Ragnarok, and even Scarlet Witch's mind-bending magic is preparing us for more magic to come in Doctor Strange.

Joss Whedon walked out of Marvel after the studio failed to meet his expectations of making the film better by cutting a few scenes and making the story more believable rather than making it a visual VFX masterpiece.

Would the film look any different?

Ant-Man 
Ant Man Pub Still

Con artist Scott Lang gains the ability to shrink in the scale of an ant with the help of a futuristic suit designed by the scientist, Hank Pym. Lang must help Hank Pym and his daughter to retrieve a similar suit — before it gets into the wrong hands.

Ant-Man, played by Paul Rudd was supposed to be the underdog of the MCU.

No one thought the superhero film about a man who could shrink to the size of a red minuscule being would work — but it proved all its critics wrong. Not only was it a box-office success, fans loved Paul Rudd's take on Ant-Man. He is to have famously said that he wanted to take 'the Chris Pratt approach' for his superhero role, making it obvious that his focus was on humour and not giving the audience another boy-scout, do-gooder superhero.

PHASE THREE

Marvel really started taking risks and letting go of its conventional story arcs in phase III, now that it had properly developed its characters.

There's a dose of magic from Doctor Strange, a tale about team dynamics in Captain America: Civil War and the return of the intergalactic misfits in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. 

That's what makes this phase the best one, Marvel's experimentation means you never know what to expect onscreen. Here are the films so far:

Captain America: Civil War 

Image via Facebook.

Image via Facebook.

Death and destruction are the results of any war: whether or not superheroes participate. After the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron, this film takes a look at the internal conflicts between our Avengers. Sides are taken: Tony Stark aka Iron Man ensembles his own team of Avengers (which includes the teenage Spider-Man and Black Panter) to battle Captain America, the Falcon, The Winter Soldier and in a surprise cameo, Ant-Man.

The Russo brothers (Joe Russo and Anthony Russo) once again weave their magic on a superhero film with the right focus. Rather than having a super villain who wants to conquer the universe, the secret of the film's success lies in the dynamics of the superhero team. The villains are more believable, and heroes more human.

The film also sets up the next Black Panther film, along with heralding the joining of Spider-Man to the cast of Avengers: Infinity War in 2019.

Doctor Strange (2016)

Benedict Cumberbatch stars as an extremely unique Marvel superhero: his superpowers are a result of his abilities of concentration and knowledge of alternate dimensions; instead of a bug bite (Spider-Man), or being a homegrown experiment (Black Widow) or exposing themselves to radiation (Hulk).

Doctor Strange works because of its humour and because Benedict Cummberbatch looks like he was made for the role; but the film's conventional story line of an unwilling hero who has the responsibility of saving the world on his shoulders has been exploited time and again in other phases of the MCU. Its time to pursue a fresh story arch.

Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

guardians-volume-2

The guardians team up again in a tale of family and belonging. Chris Pratt returns as Star Lord/Peter Quill, only this time his jokes are stale and his only goal is to locate his lost dad. His adopted family, the Guardians, tag along as he goes on a wild goose chase to look for his biological father, Ego (played by Kurt Russel.) Then, he realixes his real family is the Guardians, and Yondu, the man who raised him is his dad, not the man who gave birth to him.

The story arc of Peter and his lookout for his biological dad are more suited to a 80s Bollywood film starring Amitabh Bachchan. But nonetheless, the film works because, like the first Guardians of the Galaxy film, it sets up an important premise of the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War film.

What's Next?

After Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Spider-Man will be making its MCU debut (previously Spider-Man was owned by Sony pictures) in his own film titled Spider-Man: Homecoming.

Other films that are lined up include Thor: Ragnarok, Avengers: Infinity War—Part 1 (2018), Black Panther (2018), Captain Marvel (2018) an untitled And Man and The Wasp film which will all lead upto the climax of Phase III in Avengers: Infinity War (2019) and its sequel.

THE CURIOUS CASE OF SPIDER-MAN

Holland's Spider-Man in Captain America: Civil War. Image courtesy: @SpiderManIN/Facebook

Tom Holland's Spider-Man in Captain America: Civil War. Image courtesy: @SpiderManIN/Facebook

Ask any Marvel fan, or any avid comic book reader for that matter, about who their top five superheroes are, and Spider-Man should definitely be a part of that list. The web-slinger is probably the most popular face of Marvel.

And because of his popularity, the character of Spider-Man has seen multiple reboots in cinema, which can make things a bit confusing. Add to this the fact that Spider-Man: Homecoming is the first standalone Spider-Man film in the MCU and it gets even more confusing, especially because the MCU has such a rich history so far but not one Spidey movie in it.

This issue is all about film rights.

It was not Marvel Studios but Sony Pictures which controlled the rights to the character from 1999 to 2015. So technically, all the Spider-Man movies which we saw so far (We're not counting Captain America: Civil War because Spider-Man just made a brief but nonetheless spectacular appearance in the movie) in that period were not part of the MCU because movies in that film franchise are made by Marvel Studios.

In 2002, Sony Pictures hired Sam Raimi to direct Spider-Man, in which we saw Tobey Maguire play the shy, reclusive high-school student Peter Parker who get superpowers when he is bitten by a genetically-engineered 'super-spider' and adopts the identity of Spider-Man. Even though Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2 (2004) are great films which depict the superhero and some of his most iconic enemies really well, things turned quite bad in Spider-Man 3 (2007). The dance moves of Peter Parker in that movie will always be a nightmare for Spider-Man fans.

It was after Spider-Man 3 got mostly negative reviews that Sony Pictures decided to reboot the franchise and The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), directed by Marc Webb, was released in which Andrew Garfield portrayed Peter Parker. The movie was a refreshing change from Raimi's series but The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014) again failed to generate enthusiastic response.

Because Sony Pictures needed to breathe life back into the series and Marvel really needed to get one of its most iconic superheroes into the now massive MCU, in February 2015, Sony, Disney and Marvel Studios announced a deal to share the Spider-Man film rights.

And it was in 2016, with the release of Captain America: Civil War, that we finally saw our beloved web-slinger in an MCU movie. And how!

One of the key qualities of Spider-Man which was very clearly missing in the Spidey movies so far was Peter Parker's sharp sense of humour. The movies focused too much on how Parker is nerdy and either ignored or were not able to do justice to how hilarious he really is.

For example, check out the first ten seconds of this video from the 2000 game Spider-Man, in which Spidey lands on Venom's head shouting 'Tag!' after Venom asks him to 'come out and play'. (In fact, play the entire game if you want to get a good understanding of what Spider-Man is all about.)

In the brief appearance of Spider-Man in Civil War, we finally saw a glimpse of that sense of humour with its perfect timing. Perhaps this is why we loved it.

And perhaps this is why people are waiting with bated breath for Spider-Man: Homecoming to be released in July 2017. Will this movie finally give us the goofy but extremely funny Peter Parker we all know and love? We'll just have to wait and see whether Tom Holland does justice to the character.

MCU TV SHOWS

Screenshot from YouTube video

Screenshot from YouTube video

The Marvel Cinematic Universe would not be complete without the TV shows which are set in the MCU. Most of these TV shows have not only received a lot of positive reviews but have also depicted some iconic Marvel superheroes and supervillains in a realistic way — which some would say is better than what we have seen in the MCU movies.

After the success of The Avengers, the first MCU television show Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was aired in September 2013. The series revolved around the character of Phil Coulson, played by Clarg Gregg, and his team of agents of the spy agency Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division (S.H.I.E.L.D.), who investigate unusual cases and fight against enemies, including those from evil organisation Hydra.

After the first season, the show's premise also deals with events which take place in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The show has met with a lot of positive reviews, especially the last two seasons and has helped give an important place to the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. in the MCU. With this show, the audience got the idea that the events in MCU's TV shows will also play a vital role in its future.

Marvel's Agent Carter was aired in January 2015 and is based on one of the most important characters from Captain America: The First Avenger: Peggy Carter, played by Hayley Atwell. The show is set in 1940s America and depicts how Carter balances her life as a secret agent for the Strategic Scientific Reserve (SSR) while secretly helping Howard Stark (Tony Stark's father), who is framed for supplying weapons to enemies of the US.

The show was praised for the complexity of the protagonist's character and how she deals with the rampant sexism that exists in 1940s America. Despite the positive reviews, the show was cancelled in May 2016 due to declining viewership.

The MCU TV shows which were launched after Agent Carter were aired on Netflix. In April 2015, the popular superhero Daredevil was depcited in the show Marvel's Daredevil, in which Charlie Cox stars as Matt Murdock aka Daredevil, a blind lawyer who uses his heightened senses to fight crime. Apart from the realistic portrayal of the moral dilemma which Daredevil faces many times in the show, the show also gave MCU one of its best villains: Wilson Fisk, played by Vincent D'Onofrio.

But perhaps the best character of Daredevil was the iconic anti-hero The Punisher, played by Jon Bernthal, who definitely gave us all the best depiction so far of the angry and ruthless vigilante.

Another one of MCU's most powerful TV shows was Marvel's Jessica Jones, aired on Netflix in November 2015. The show is about Jessica Jones (played by Krysten Ritter), a former superhero who opens her detective agency and has to fight against a menacing supervillain. Apart from the hard-hitting performance by Ritter, and the gripping performance by David Tennant as the supervillain Kilgrave, the show also successfully delved into some dark issues like rape and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Marvel's Luke Cage, aired on Netflix in September 2016, is again one of the most socially relevant TV shows of the MCU, especially considering that we live in a world where Donald Trump is the US president. The show revolves around Luke Cage, a superhero with superhuman strength and unbreakable skin who eventually uses his superpowers to fight crime. The show also had great performances by Mahershala Ali and Alfre Woodard.

Marvel's Iron Fist, aired on Netflix in March 2017, is probably the weakest of the MCU TV shows made so far. The show is about Danny Rand aka Iron Fist is a martial arts expert who uses the mystical powers of the Iron Fist. Even though the show was criticised a lot for its poor storytelling, it is still an important watch as Iron Fist will play a crucial role in the upcoming Defenders crossover series.

But overall, the MCU TV shows were successful in giving the audience what was missing in most of its movies: Focus on a realistic portrayal of superheroes, complex characters, some great storytelling and the use of good acting and writing rather than flashy stunts and visual effects to tell a spectacular story.

Updated Date: May 13, 2017 17:07 PM