The history of the MCU, film by film!

Avengers: Infinity War is just a couple weeks away. Are you new to the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Have you been living under a rock or perhaps you just woke up from a coma?

Here’s what you missed!

IRON MAN

The MCU began with a producer, the bottom of the super hero barrel/properties no one wanted to buy, and a B-list actor with so many legal problems he had to have a special insurance policy put in place on the chance he flaked out or got arrested midway through shooting.

Kevin Feige had an idea to take the few Marvel properties he had in his possession (Iron Man, Captain America, Ant-Man, sortakinda Hulk, Thor) and bring them together for a shared-universe of films, climaxing with an Avengers movie.

Kick-starting the audacious idea was Iron Man, starring Robert Downey Jr. The title character was a low-seller for Marvel with a premise major studios found too difficult to translate on screen. The movie went to the hands of Jon Favreau who played it loose and fun, setting the template for all future MCU films. This movie came out in 2008, the same year WB’s The Dark Knight hit theaters and became the first superhero flick to gross a billion dollars. It was getting above the line Oscar buzz. It was the pinnacle of DC’s movie dominance. Marvel was reeling after a pair of Fantastic Four turds, a laughably bad X-Men 3 fiasco and a Spider-Man 3 movie that, while successful, was almost instantly reviled. Iron Man wasn’t just a last-ditch effort; it was a death rattle.

And yet it grossed half a billion dollars. It was only half what The Dark Knight brought in, but it was the beginning of something (Dark Knight was the beginning of the end of something).

RATING: 10/10

MUST-SEE BEFORE INFINITY WAR: YES!

THE INCREDIBLE HULK

It can’t be understated how remarkable it was to see RDJ’s Tony Stark make a cameo, even though it was just a last-minute add-on to help establish the larger universe of movies. 99% of the film was stand-alone, because it was conceived before the MCU was conceptualized. The film works better than the Ang Lee attempt (which was more cerebral and artistic than straight-action/adventure), but it’s not the lowest-grossing MCU movie for nothing. It’s a bit too sterile and hollow, lacking the spark that would later come to define all the movies in this universe.

RATING: 7/10

MUST-SEE BEFORE INFINITY WAR: Nah

IRON MAN 2

Originally, Ant-Man would have followed Incredible Hulk, but original-director Edgar Wright delayed and delayed forcing Marvel to go in a different direction. The great success of the first Iron Man made greenlighting an earlier-than-expected sequel a no-brainer. Unfortunately, the movie suffers from being rushed to release. Director Faverau returns, but has stated his frustrations with not having the time to really crack the story. The result is a movie that feels very stitched-together. There’s a good (traditional) Iron Man sequel here, but there’s an Avengers prequel-storyline as well, working to lay additional seeds for future movies in the larger universe.  The movie suffered as a result.

RATING: 7/10

MUST-SEE BEFORE INFINITY WAR: Nah

THOR

Fish out of water meets comic book meets sci-fi adventure. It feels like a 1980’s guilty pleasure film (like Masters of the Universe), and Kenneth Branagh really laid the ham on thick in the Asgard stuff. It doesn’t hold up as well as later Marvel movies, since this is the feeling-out years for the franchise, but there are hints of the brilliance that Hemsworth will later bring to the table. It’s a slight, speedy, fun little movie with small stakes. It’s good, but not much else.

RATING: 8/10

MUST-SEE BEFORE INFINITY WAR: You don’t have to

(CAPTAIN AMERICA) THE FIRST AVENGER

An excellent debut for the superhero and one of the most underrated in the MCU. It lacks the big stakes and filmed-perfection of its sequels, but it makes up for that by being good-natured, earnest and simply fun. It’s a great compliment to Thor in that respect, and in 2011 it probably looked like it would remain the second-fiddle franchise behind Iron Man. Things would get remarkably better very quickly for it, but this one shouldn’t be overlooked. It’s cheesy, but in a good way.

RATING: 9/10

MUST-SEE BEFORE INFINITY WAR: Yes

THE AVENGERS

The worldwide box office intake of the previous movies in the franchise goes like this: Iron Man (585mm), Incredible Hulk (263mm), Iron Man 2 (623mm), Thor (450mm), The First Avenger (370mm). There was every reason to say the Avengers team-up movie would gross maybe a little better than Iron Man 2. After all, RDJ/Stark was the break out star, with the other movies only being modest hits. A team-up between the popular Iron Man and the mildly-popular rest of them might be good for, what? Another 100mm, plus the extra 50mm an Iron Man sequel would have grossed on its own? Saying “Avengers might gross 750mm” would not have been a crazy statement. Saying “if the stars aligned they might inch close to a billion,” wouldn’t be too nuts, but beyond that would be asking too much…

$1,518,800

Until this year it was the biggest success of the lot, no matter how much better the films got, or how much bigger the team-ups would be, this one remained the top banana until Black Panther this year (though this remains the top when adjusting for inflation). It was a remarkable achievement, bolstered first and foremost by being fun. It’s the word that made Thor work despite its silly premise. It’s the word that made Captain America work despite its unknown commodity character. It’s the word that made Iron Man such an instant-hit, despite every reason to ignore it in favor of Batman. Marvel movies were fun.

Avengers came out the same year as The Dark Knight Rises, and while the end of Chris Nolan’s epic trilogy also crossed a billion, it fell short of Avengers and its bright and colorful world. DC has never recovered.

Marvel was just getting started.

RATING: 10/10

MUST-SEE BEFORE INFINITY WAR: YES!

IRON MAN 3

This was the logical follow-up to Avengers. It’s hard to come down from such a big movie, and expect people to pay the same price to see just one hero after seeing all of them the year before. Marvel wisely put their franchise-star out in front of the next phase of their universe. The result is a movie that grossed 1.2 billion (giving birth to the so-called “Avengers bounce”) but which failed to reach the heights of the first film’s tight and fun presentation. Iron Man 3 wasn’t as weighed down by the universe as part 2 was; it was just a mediocre story.

RATING: 7/10

MUST-SEE BEFORE INFINITY WAR: Nah

THOR: THE DARK WORLD

Thor also received a post-Avengers bounce, jumping up to 650mm at the box office, but his movie likewise suffered compared to his first outing. The Dark World‘s biggest sin was that it was too serious, too brooding, too “dark” and (still) didn’t know what to do with Chris Hemsworth. The flashes of subtle comedic genius he showed in the original movie were less-apparent here, and though the movie was a success, fans have largely dismissed it (rightly so).

RATING: 6/10

MUST-SEE BEFORE INFINITY WAR: Nah

(CAPTAIN AMERICA) THE WINTER SOLDIER

This movie is perfect.

It would be a disservice to add a qualifier and say “…for a comic book movie.” No. This is the kind of movie my Baby Boomer, factory-worker, war vet dad would enjoy. It’s a 70’s-esque spy thriller with excellent set pieces and cinematography.

There’s nothing else to say. This is still the very best thing the MCU has ever done.

RATING: 11/10

MUST-SEE BEFORE INFINITY WAR: YES!

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY

The whole “Marvel movies are fun” mantra is best exemplified with this movie right here. Nothing is sacred, any situation can end with an explosion or with a gag (or both). The fun doesn’t just reside in the dialogue or the physical comedy, but in the soundtrack, the camera work, even the title card at the beginning just makes me smile. Marvel makes it look so effortless.

RATING: 10/10

MUST-SEE BEFORE INFINITY WAR: YES!

AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON

How do you follow-up the biggest thing you’ve ever done? Joss Whedon went back to the well and tried to do something different. He went a bit darker, he went bigger, he went a little more experimental, and it almost all works, but it also kind of doesn’t work at all. It’s weird and the weirdness was noticed by ticket-buyers. Though it ended up being a billion-dollar earner, it failed to surpass the 2012 original at the box office. In fact, adjusting for inflation it missed the mark by 200 million dollars.

What’s the movie’s biggest problem? It’s probably James Spader’s portrayal of Ultron. On his own it’s a great performance, equal parts menacing and mocking, like the bizzaro Iron Man he’s meant to be, but in the context of the movie, it just feels too jarring and quippy to work. And since Ultron is sort of the core and anchor of the movie, without him working the rest just sort of fails to launch. It’s not a bad movie, just a mild misfire.

RATING: 8/10

MUST-SEE BEFORE INFINITY WAR: You don’t have to

ANT-MAN

“Solid, if unspectacular.” It’s the phase one movie we didn’t get until phase two. It’s not bad…anywhere. None of it is bad, a few moments are even great, but most of it dances between “serviceable” and “good.”

RATING: 8/10

MUST-SEE BEFORE INFINITY WAR: You don’t have to

(CAPTAIN AMERICA) CIVIL WAR

The commercials and trailers promised something epic, and to be fair, the airport scene was all that. But the story itself was small, personal, and a true follow-up to The Winter Soldier. Like Iron Man 2, it juggles being two things (a Winter Soldier sequel and an Age of Ultron sequel) but it blends the two stories much better than Iron Man 2 did. It’s an excellent movie from beginning to end, with an action peak at the airport that blows everything else in the franchise away, and an emotional peak (with some pretty baller action) at the end that works only because the Rogers/Stark relationship is now several movies deep).

RATING: 10/10

MUST-SEE BEFORE INFINITY WAR: YES!

DOCTOR STRANGE

Like Ant-Man it feels like a step backward from what came before it. It does some crazy things visually and introduces a key character going forward, not to mention an important Infinity Stone, but the overall film feels small and not in an intimate/storytelling way, but in a “lesser movie” way. It’s good and occasionally great, but nothing spectacular.

RATING: 8/10

MUST-SEE BEFORE INFINITY WAR: You don’t have to

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2

The follow-up to the most purely-fun Marvel movie (to that point) had a lot riding on it. The first GOTG was an August release based on a property no one heard of. More than a few people said Marvel had stretched themselves too thin and flown too close to the sun trying to take such an obscure team into box office success. The 700mm the film brought in (not to mention staggering success on home video) proved that wrong. The follow-up was a May release and was to be Disney’s big summer tent-pole. Not to mention how hard it is to do a follow-up when the first was a surprise hit and the second has everyone buzzing.

GOTG vol 2 didn’t quite land every joke the way the first one did, and the emotional core of the story never quite found its stride either, but the highs were very high and the lows were only minor complaints. It’s a success, but a slightly lesser one than its predecessor.

RATING: 9/10

MUST-SEE BEFORE INFINITY WAR: YES!

SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING

This marks the third start to a Spider-Man film franchise in fifteen years, with the previous two coming and going and both ending with a whimper. There was a palpable Spider-Man film fatigue hanging over the property but that all went away with Disney and Sony struck a deal to “use” the character in the MCU. Homecoming was the test to see if the “MCU” brand was strong enough to get ticket-buyers to buy-into a third reboot of the superhero. $900mm later, I’d say they did.

Homecoming takes the character back to high school, back to his roots as a kid being bullied by day and swinging through New York alleyways by night: It understands its hero and his appeal better than any of the five Sony-produced films before it (even 2004’s stellar Spider-Man 2). Tony Stark’s extended cameo just shows how far this franchise has come; just seeing Stark in Incredible Hulk was surreal. Now, having him fight crime with Spider-Man elicits merely an “oh cool.” Shared universe indeed.

RATING: 10/10

MUST-SEE BEFORE INFINITY WAR: YES!

THOR: RAGNAROK

After a first movie that missed the mark, and a follow-up that flopped (not to mention leaving little of an impression in Avengers or Age of Ultron), Thor needed some fresh blood at the helm. Taika Waititi was a bizarre choice at first glance, famous mostly for a Vampire mockumentary (which, I mean…What We Do in the Shadows is awesome, but still), but it quickly became apparent he was just what the character needed.

Hemsworth’s comedy chops are finally put to good use, with a story that, without Waititi’s light-hearted touch, would have been the darkest and saddest in the MCU. I mean, the story is about the death of Asgard itself; a little levity, please. Waititi nailed the tone and delivered the easiest, breeziest, most popcorn-fun Marvel movie since the first GOTG (arguably surpassing it).

RATING: 10/10

MUST-SEE BEFORE INFINITY WAR: YES!

BLACK PANTHER

A movie so impactful it finally dethroned the original Avengers (not adjusting for inflation). Black Panther was a cultural phenomenon, grabbing the attention of the black community in particular. As a comic book movie, it manages to avoid being another Ant-Man or Dr. Strange, rising beyond the “formulaic origin story” feel of those, much the way Spider-Man Homecoming did (I guess their small roles in Civil War paid off).

Black Panther is fast, intense, fun when it needs to be and dramatic when it has to be. It also has one of the most compelling one-off villains in the whole MCU and manages to move the larger universe’s storyline forward without losing sight of its own tale to tell. More of this, please.

RATING: 9/10

MUST-SEE BEFORE INFINITY WAR: YES!

Infinity War is going to blow them all away (I hope). But before it does, go back to the well and enjoy the movies that brought us to this point. It’s been ten years of build-up and it’s almost time to pay it off.

Here’s to Thanos and the gauntlet to come!

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