Marvel Cinematic Universe – Phase 1

mcu_phase1

I started this project of watching through the Marvel Cinematic Universe films in late April. The idea had been bubbling under for some time after repeatedly hearing that the MCU is more than the sum of its parts. I’d seen a few of the parts and they mostly did not convince me, but deep down I’m a fan boy of even super hero stuff, so I couldn’t avoid being intrigued. The final trigger was seeing a few more of the films, when Nelonen was showing one MCU film every Saturday during the spring.

The MCU films (and series to an extent) have been divided into phases. Currently films are being released for phase 3. The phases seem to consist of a bunch of films featuring individual Marvel heroes finishing off with an Avengers film that gathers all the heroes into one film.

This extended film universe project has been hugely successful. There’s been 16 film releases thus far and about 3 films scheduled per year for the future. In addition there’s 6 TV series with released seasons and further 3 scheduled to start already this year. The production rate seems pretty astounding.

There’s already imitators with DC Comics trying to build something similar with its cadre of heroes, and now even Universal Studios dusting off its B monster films of yore in order to build an extended film universe of its own.

I’ve now gone through all the films and series of phase 1 (well, actually I’ve seen two phase 2 films already, but I’m a lazy blogger). My reviews of the phase 1 products I’ve seen can be found here:

The MCU is the reason I’m watching the Marvel films – the wider universe and a meta plot that runs through several separate film franchises and connects them into one story. The idea that they might build something bigger than just individual films or even just franchises based on individual heroes. Phase 1… is starting to get there.

With the exception of Iron Man 2 and the phase finale, The Avengers (Well, even The Avengers can be thought of as the origin story of the Avengers, the group of heroes.), phase 1 consists of origin stories. Mostly they are bad. Super heroes are by definition on a level above us. At first glance they seem invulnerable and it would seem that they’d have to be able to build a happy life for themselves – being capable of what they are capable of must mean that they can build a fortune and a stable life and occasionally go face off with a big bad. This is obviously a bad premise for any story that’s supposed to have some drama in it. Hence, origin stories. They are meant to build some drama into the heroic characters, so that they can partake in dramatic stories. Unfortunately, at the same time we are talking about super heroes and that’s taking the story straight out of anything that is directly connected to our mundane reality and thus our capability of connecting with the drama is limited.

Watchmen (the comic, not the film) spends great amounts of time taking its super heroes apart and showing the flawed characters underneath the masks, and does it really well, but that’s pretty much the only super hero product that succeeds in that. These films – not so good. Marvel has always been the popcorn of super heroes, so the fan base has expectations of popcorn. Marvel has to meet the expectations, if they want to keep building the universe. Unfortunately, it means that popcorn takes over, drama is very thinly built and it the whole just doesn’t work. The exception to this is Iron Man, as the character is a playboy billionaire, who works better with popcorn.

The lone TV series connected to phase 1, the Agent Carter stories, turned out mostly to be a waste of time. While it shows some glimpses into the birth of S.H.I.E.L.D. and some other important early players of the game, it headlines a character, who is either dead or otherwise completely sidelined by the time of the main MCU events. This is a pity as I liked said character. Despite the agent Carter, the series veered into deep boredom by season 2. I expect that this is a problem with most of the MCU series – they can’t contain major events important for following the meta plot, as most of the audience is doing that just through the MCU films, so the series are bound to struggle with irrelevance and boredom. I expect to be skipping most of the series in later phases, as there’s more and more of them being produced all the time.

Even with a bunch of at best average films and a mostly irrelevant series, the phase 1 starts to show the strength of the meta plot and the MCU. The films contain more and more hints and scenes about the meta plot the later they were produced. The Avengers brings this to the front for major parts of the film. Ultimately at this stage, the meta plot is stuck in the same struggle with the individual origin stories – it is being introduced, justified, dramatized, but in the end, brushed aside too quickly for audience expectations of popcorn.

Still, I’m hooked. The meta plot has caught me. I’m watching all the films waiting for glimpses of agent Coulson or Nick Fury or something. It is kind of like with the X-Files series in the past – the weird unexplained thing of the week got boring quite fast, but I was looking towards all mentions of Deep Throat or any other character connected to the deep plot that was running through the series. It’s a fun feeling.

It has been a somewhat conflicted ride thus far, but I guess I’ve swallowed the hook, line and sinker. I’m at a point, where I’m sad to see the phase 3 films in theatrical release, as I feel like I should see all the phase 2 and earlier phase 3 films, before I can go see the latest ones, so I can follow the meta plot as it unfolds. Oh well, I’ll catch up with them pretty soon at this pace and then I can enjoy my fan boyish giddiness with the other fans at the premiere of whatever the next film will be at that point… I feel weird to say that I’m looking forward to it.

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