Digesting Iron Man, Captain America, Black Panther and the Trajectory of the Marvel Cinematic Universe
I remember the Summer of 2008 very well. I had just graduated from college in May and I was treated to Iron Man, the first of the newly minted Marvel Studios films. It was followed in June by The Incredible Hulk, a film I liked as much, if not a little bit more. The Hulk was, of course, the biggest name Marvel Studios still retained, with Spider-Man and The X-Men off at other companies, making plenty of money. July soon rolled around and The Dark Knight was released. I saw it five times in theaters.
I remember thinking “Man, it’s a shame Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk had such stiff competition, I bet they would have been bigger.”
I guess, in my ignorance, I was right.
Two quick notes: First, many spoilers ahead. None for Infinity War though, so we should be cool. Second, the success of our previous “Digesting” pieces have indicated that you’re interested in my opinions, even a little past my formal arguments. You’ll get more of that here.
As mentioned, the first two films out of the gate were Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk. What’s important to remember here is that, at this point, not even Iron Man was a household name. The general public was served with a snarkier Stark than the one who appeared in the comics, arguably a justifiable utilization of Downey’s image. Robert Downey Jr. projects into Iron Man, not the other way around. It was a risk at the time, but one that paid off, and created the basis for the collective Marvel franchise. On the other hand, the film’s Nick Fury/Avengers stinger was a blatant attempt to get the die-hard fans committed, essentially by promising the continuity that other studios had avoided for decades. The Incredible Hulk would place Stark as an ambassador to “Thunderbolt” Ross, but the scene has been retconned so brutally that it’s basically irrelevant. What isn’t is that the producers were making a promise, even without a clear direction. A few years back, I wrote a piece for Den of Geek that still runs occasionally (Thanks Mike!). Though it is fairly light, I did a lot of research on the early days of the MCU. A lot of what I found were rumors, but there was one thing that kept popping up: It was a mess. Even Kevin Feige admitted that in the early days, they just weren’t quite sure what they were going to do. Films like Ant-Man and Black Panther were meant to come out in the first few waves of films, most likely to set up a strong, traditional Avengers line-up. Villains like The Leader and The Red Skull were all clearly set up to return, but never did. William Hurt’s “Thunderbolt” Ross is the only principal actor who even made it through and past The Incredible Hulk. With the character as the only firm basis for expansion, Iron Man 2 introduced War Machine and Black Widow to the fold, though not in any spectacular way. Its lack of relevance, perhaps outside of the connections to Howard Stark, was a real threat to momentum into The Avengers. The cool armors and Sam Rockwell’s incredible Justin Hammer softened the blow but the film mostly exploits Stark’s bad boy persona. It made its money and the audience moved on. Thor would debut next and though not the hit critically or commercially the first Iron Man film was, I admire it for taking a terrifically difficult premise and making sure it functioned on screen.
Last of the Pre-Avengers solo films, Captain America: The First Avenger introduced movie-goers to Marvel’s most lauded Avenger, in classic form. That’s important. Joe Johnston crafted one of the purest superhero films since Donner’s Superman, a distinctly different experience than the two Iron Man films, and even the Thor and Hulk entries. Cap was immediately a different beast and, overtly, a man who deserved his power. Not just the greatest soldier, but an exceedingly pure hero. Even his enemies are the Super-Nazis of Hydra. Cap, in this film, is early superhero through and through.
Though faith had been restored in the premise, The Avengers still had no clear direction.
Enter: Joss Whedon.
I’ll be the first to admit that I am not Whedon’s biggest fan, but I think his sensibilities were perfect here. The other films had left a lot on the board, and Whedon needed to clean it off. The majority of the team’s connections were pretty easy, military tech gone spectacularly right, but Thor stuck out like a sore thumb.
Thor and his world intrude on the more “grounded” MCU, forcing all of our fantastic freaks to join up. Whedon also saves Black Widow early on, making it clear that she’s not the underdeveloped SHIELD agent we got in Iron Man 2. The Avengers weak points are exaggerated in second and third viewings, but it moved so fast that first time that it’s hard to really go after it. It also introduces, if lightly, the conflict between Steve Rogers and Tony Stark. Two men with similar goals, but very different views of the world. Both at the front of the team, but neither truly the leader. At the end of the day, Whedon was able to pull together not only a functioning film, but an incredibly successful one. It certainly was the beginning of something yet unheard of.
First out of the gate after The Avengers was Iron Man 3, co-written and directed by the incomparable Shane Black. Incredibly well received and financially successful, the film proved that the films could still thrive without a giant team featured, and I’m sure that it paved the way for many other solo films to get the green light.
I, um, “greatly dislike” it. No, it’s not The Mandarin reveal. At that point, I needed the comic relief. It’s the general story being told in it. After all of the work put in to The Avengers to show the inter-connectivity of the films, continuity is basically dropped from this entry. Somehow, Stark is totally stranded in a world with flying aircraft carriers filled with his friends. He is also out of the suit for quite awhile and, admitting that I tend to like risks like this, I think it really drags the story down. Stark’s humor was already a bit grating and now without the wearable jet, it was inescapable. Oh, and the film ends with the quick dispelling of Stark’s Achilles’ heel, that big ole’ hole in the chest. I think they lost not only a cool plot point, but a unique visual element in the series.
Thor: The Dark World was up next, and really added very little to the mix, outside of a lead-in to the biggest risk in the history of the MCU, Guardians of the Galaxy. Prior to that space adventure, Marvel would release the film that really started the current tone of the franchise, Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
The Winter Soldier not only acknowledges the broader worldview necessary after The Avengers, but enriches the military overtones of it. In the contemporary world, Rogers evolves from a soldier into a dangerous super-agent, alongside Black Widow. Echoing the themes of Ed Brubaker’s run, Hydra also makes their presence known. In the modern world, they execute an insidious plot to dismantle the power of SHIELD, one that is in part successful. The Winter Soldier just might be the best film of the entire run, as it pulls off three major turns in the universe. First, it re-sets the focus on Earth to military technology, and the government’s intervention therein. Next, it obliterates the protective blanket of SHIELD. As exemplified in Iron Man 3, their presence was too broad not to be acknowledged, something that makes it hard to write around. Here, SHIELD becomes part of the problem and is ultimately downgraded to a more tenable concept. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the film hammers home the ethics of Captain America himself. In no way a government puppet, Captain America’s morals are paramount, and it is this that will drive the narrative in coming years.
The Avengers: Age of Ultron would reunite the team that made the Universe, and they would punch some stuff once again. The biggest take away from the film is the first clear portrayal of Stark’s attitude as more than just a personal problem. His vast intellect and resources put the world in a terrible situation, one that he is incapable of fixing on his own. Captain America recognizes this, but must take the high road and fight alongside Iron Man. Other than that, it is mostly an excuse to get some big action scenes on screen. Those action scenes in the film’s third act are probably the best thing in it, and while it did make money, it had nowhere near the impact the first did. Whedon would leave after this entry, citing the desire to produce smaller projects.
Ant-Man, once Edgar Wright’s pet project, was bounced around between writers and directors, and ended up a fun, if not a bit paint-by-numbers superhero tale. Many enjoyed the straight-forward storytelling, but I can’t help but feel it was a step back from the innovation of The Winter Soldier. Ant-Man ends this wave of films, as another major shift was about to take place.
Captain America: Civil War, isn’t really a Captain America movie, well, not when you look at the whole picture. Sure, Steve Rogers is the undeniable hero of the film, but he is backed up by the most complete version of The Avengers to appear in the films, and also the version that most adeptly tapped into their personae. Civil War takes the events of Age of Ultron and turns them into a prologue, effectively making it a more functional sequel to the first Avengers film. SHIELD is starting to get back on its feet, but now it’s The Avengers who’ve grown more fractured. Rogers and Stark’s relationship becomes seemingly irreparable, as the ever more agitated Stark finds out that Bucky Barnes assassinated his parents. Stark is unable to put his emotions aside for the greater good, and becomes the villain. The film also introduces The Black Panther and, notably, he IS able to see the truth about Captain America through his emotion, also having lost his father to an assassination. Like Rogers, he proves that he deserves his power. By the end of the film, all of the synergy that The Avengers had is dissolved. The world is once again an easy target for the bigger guns in the MCU.
Doctor Strange was a movie, one a lot like Iron Man and Ant-Man. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 was, thankfully, a direct sequel to the first and, as it had in the past, didn’t play much with what was happening on Earth. Spider-Man: Homecoming is well liked, and made some money. Though heavily involving Stark, it’s not a huge moment in the narrative. I felt it kind of highlighted how much the character has degenerated, and it was hard to see him as more than the villain he was by the end of Civil War. Thor: Ragnarok took some big risks, and aligned the franchise more with the Guardians’ view of the galaxy, comedy included.
And then, Black Panther.
A lot has been written about the social and political impact of the film, and while there is certainly something there, there’s an aspect of it too frequently overshadowed.
“Think back to Tony Stark, him being douchey and being okay. If that character, Stark, was created in a movie today, I wonder if the response would be like, ‘Oh, it’s cool that he’s douchey and disrespectful to women … That’s fine.’ I think we’re at a different place. I think it’s a better place.”
That’s a quote from Black Panther co-writer Joe Robert Cole, shortly after the release of the film. I don’t think I could agree more. The most compelling trend, perhaps since The Avengers, has been a move away from Stark’s worldview and the formulas used in the Iron Man films. Much like Captain America, T’Challa is a figure who time and time again proves that he is deserving of his power. Iron Man only provides more evidence that he doesn’t. It should come as no surprise that as the team stands divided, Black Panther and Captain America remain united. I’m going to take this one step further. The MCU Black Panther is not only similar to Captain America, but an advancement on the formula. While Rogers represents a heroic, American ideal, T’Challa’s success as both a hero and leader aligns him with heroes of ancient myth. He’s not only a pillar of virtue, but a messianic figure with the potential to lead humanity into the new age; he’s the MCU’s Superman. Black Panther was the biggest step in re-aligning the MCU, one that doesn’t need (and maybe doesn’t want) Iron Man. Paired with Spider-Man, Doctor Strange and a unique take on Thor, the films now have brand new worlds to explore. This leads me to one prediction about Infinity War, (which I have not seen, duh).
Captain America and Iron Man will die, not only heroically, but because thematically they can.
They have found the first true leader of The Avengers:
The Black Panther
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