MCU Phase One: A Retrospective

Jason O’Toole

Images Courtesy of Marvel

As we approach the release of Avengers Infinity War and its as of yet untitled sequel it is a good time to look back on the movies that have led us to here. Each piece of the cinematic universe has helped build the ongoing narrative that has followed. It is interesting to look back and try to understand how each film has helped shape the story thus far.

Iron Man (May 2nd, 2008)

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The movie that started it all. Robert Downey Jr. leads a great cast including Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts, Jeff Bridges as Obadiah Stane and Terrence Howard as Colonel Rhodes. Marvel was faced with an insurmountable goal, to build a universe without their biggest properties the X-Men and the Fantastic Four. This film does an amazing job of laying the groundwork for what was to come. The origin is presented with the modern setting of Afghanistan instead of Vietnam, which the original comic used. The Iron Man Mk 1 armor is a perfect recreation of its original comic counterpart. The story builds to a climactic battle between Iron Man and Iron Monger. The implications on the larger narrative are presented in the MCU’s first post credit scene. Tony returns home to find Nick Fury who tells him about the Avengers initiative, which is the first step into a larger world.

Incredible Hulk (June 13th, 2008)


Marvel and Universal had a big job with their second film, making the Hulk a viable character again after Ang Lee’s horrible film left a sour taste in fans mouths. This time around the role was given to Edward Norton, who admittedly does a much better job than Eric Bana before him. Norton is joined by William Hurt as General Ross, Liv Tyler as Betty Ross and Tim Roth as Emil Blonsky. This film definitely drops hints at the larger narrative by making the program that Banner was working on an attempt by the government to recreate the super soldier serum that created Captain America. To even the playing field Blonsky agrees to undergo treatment that will ultimately turn him into the Abomination. A monster battle in the streets of Harlem ensues, ultimately showing the government that the Hulk is not the enemy. The post credit scene furthers the continuity between films by having a cameo from Tony Stark telling General Ross of the team that Fury is building.

Iron Man 2 (May 7th, 2010)

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Robert Downey Jr. returns as Tony Stark in a sequel that does more to add to continuity than the previous films. Downey Jr. is joined by Gwyneth Paltrow returning as Pepper Potts, Mickey Rourke as Ivan Vanko, Don Cheadle replacing Terrence Howard as Colonel Rhodes and Scarlet Johansson as Natalia Romanov. This sequel shows us a world where the Iron Man armor is trying to be recreated by foreign nations and arms dealers the world over. Furthermore, the arc reactor in Tony’s chest is killing him. The palladium it’s made from is slowly poisoning Tony. It is only through the intervention of Nick Fury and Black Widow, undercover within Stark Enterprises, that Tony is able to discover a new element to power the arc reactor. The world building gets pushed into overdrive in this sequel. Howard Stark, Tony’s father, is introduced as one of the founders of S.H.I.E.L.D. We get to see a prototype of Captain America’s shield. Recently, we have also found that a child Tony saves during the films climax was actually a young Peter Parker aka Spider-Man. Finally, the post credit scene directly sets up the next phase 1 film showing S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Coulson arriving in New Mexico at a crater containing a hammer.

Thor (May 2nd, 2011)


The opening of this movie takes us back to the past to show us a great battle between Asgard and Jotunheim, home of the frost giants. Ancient earthlings thought of the Asgardians as gods and they ultimately became legends of Norse mythology. Chris Hemsworth leads a great cast including Tom Hiddleston as Loki, Anthony Hopkins as Odin, Natalie Portman as Jane Foster and Stellan Skarsgard as Erik Selvig. Thor’s arrogance and thirst for war leads Odin to have no choice but to banish him to Midgard, earth. There he meets Jane Foster, an astrophysicist studying astral phenomenon. Odin sends the hammer to earth as well with an enchantment that will allow Thor to reclaim it once he learns humility. S.H.I.E.L.D. arrives on the scene, joined by Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye, to study the hammer. The whole movie winds to a conclusion that reveals that Loki has betrayed his adopted family to claim power for himself. Thor challenges Loki and it is believed that Loki perishes in the end. This film doesn’t do much to build the ongoing narrative until its post credit scene, which introduces us to a still living Loki and the Tesseract. It was later revealed to be an infinity stone.

Captain America The First Avenger (July 22nd, 2011)


The fifth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe takes us back to World War II to show us not only the origin of Captain America but S.H.I.E.L.D. as well. Chris Evans is cast in the titular role joined by Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter, Sebastian Stan as Bucky Barnes, Tommy Lee Jones as Colonel Phillips and Hugo Weaving as Red Skull. This film also introduces us to a young Howard Stark, who we know by now was a founding member of S.H.I.E.L.D. Captain America is the first super hero chronologically in this universe. Red Skull leads a Nazi deep science program called Hydra, who have got their hands on the Tesseract and are using it to research weapons and new technology to take over the world. In the ensuing battles Cap’s best friend Bucky is killed, which leads to a final showdown with the Red Skull at a Hydra research base. Captain America makes the ultimate sacrifice to save the world and is presumed dead. The epilogue to this film shows us Cap found in a glacier alive. He is thawed out in the present day and is confronted by Nick Fury who talks to him about the Avenger initiative. The post credit scene is literally a teaser trailer for Avengers, the film that would bring phase 1 to a close and set up the future.

Avengers (May 4th, 2012)


All of this brings us to Avengers, considered by many fans to be the best super hero movie ever made. This film brings all the heroes we have met thus far into a single team up. At the time this kind of shared universe was unheard of in the film industry. The villain of this film is revealed to be Loki, brother of Thor, on a mission to bring the Tesseract to a mysterious overlord. The story of this movie becomes the event that all other films reference as the moment that everything changed. Loki’s actions ultimately bring together the very heroes that can stop him. The climactic battle at the films conclusion show the world that heroes exist. The alien invasion reveals that we are not alone and the enemy is much bigger than we ever could have imagined. The implications on the larger narrative are felt throughout. However, it is revealed in a post credit scene that the actual villain of the story is Thanos, an intergalactic dictator who is bent on universal domination. To do this he begins collecting the infinity stones, ancient sources of power that can make him a god. The stage was set to build phase 2 and ultimately Infinity War, which comes to theaters this May.

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