By Molly Atchison | Print-Managing Editor
Following the recent release of Marvel’s “Black Panther” and in anticipation of the upcoming “Avengers: Infinity War” release, it is the perfect time to revisit the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Over the next six weeks, leading up to the May release of the long-awaited “Infinity War,” I will be breaking down a group of movies in the MCU based off Digg.com’s Best Way to Watch the Marvel Cinematic Universe list, so sit down, grab your popcorn and your reading glasses, and prepare to have your Marvel-loving minds blown.
According to Digg.com, the best place to begin when interpreting the MCU is at the beginning. The first Avenger introduced to the public was Iron Man, which was released in the U.S. on May 2, 2008, as an independent movie. Being the first of its kind, Marvel Studios worked to gauge audience reactions to the movie in order to determine whether they should pursue a long-term plan.
Clearly, the audience loved the idea of a superhero series, and shortly thereafter, on June 13, 2008, the Incredible Hulk smashed into theaters, officially beginning phase one of the MCU arc. The first three movies in the arc are Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man 2, and each has its own relevance to the series and to the universe.
Iron Man (2008):
“Iron Man” is dedicated to introducing tech-genius and billionaire bachelor Tony Stark (Played by Robert Downey Jr.), who creates his alias “Iron Man” after a near-death experience inspires his changed view on the world.
Series Relevance: “Iron Man” is crucial in setting the stage for the MCU. It sets up a consistent plot line for the first few movies to follow, all the while revealing the nature of the superheroes who will be represented later. Introducing the MCU with Stark was definitely a smart choice, because he’s considered slightly more atypical than some of the other Avengers. The movie adeptly displays Stark’s transition from infamous playboy to disciplined hero, but it also sets up an internal struggle that will be present in movies to come.
“Iron Man” is brilliant, but his brilliance and his rebellious nature clash with his deep desire to make a lasting impact on the world. The disconnect between his desire to inspire positive change and his hot-headed personality make Stark one of the more complex of heroes, and simultaneously one of the most revered.
Entertainment Value: This was the perfect opening to a massive series. Not only was the casting perfect, but the sass and snark of Tony Stark combined with an interesting storyline left audiences wanting to buy the comics to find out what happens next. Not only does Robert Downey Jr. perfectly portray Stark, but the supporting roles were an equally perfect juxtaposition to help with Stark’s character development.
Several of these supporting parts are necessary in rounding out the “Iron Man” arc. For instance, the loyal assistant/love interest Pepper Potts (played by Gwyneth Paltrow) softened Stark’s near-obsessive creative drive. Jeff Bridge’s “Obediah Stain” was a less-than-perfect villain, but his connection to Stark’s past was a logical instigator for the creation of “Iron Man.” The movie was definitely entertaining enough to ignore some serious plot holes.
Cultural/Political Value: Contrary to popular belief, MCU has always tackled political issues in their movies. Superhero comics are built around the concept of righting the wrongs of society; each character in the Marvel Universe has its own unique reason for becoming a hero and fighting injustice.
“Iron Man” has a uniquely clear political agenda: Tony Stark owns a company that profits from the sale of weapons to military operations all over the world. Throughout the movie, Stark discovers that his company’s weapons are being sold under the table to terrorists and insurgent groups. Stark’s realization that his work in weaponry has caused death and destruction on both sides of the war on terrorism, on top of the understanding that his creative genius is not enough to right the wrongdoings in the world, is one of his primary motivations for creating the Iron Man suit.
In what is perhaps a naive goal of single-handedly preventing the death of innocent people, Stark decides to take the law into his own hands. The commentary surrounding war, technology and the influence private companies have on politics is loud and clear.
The Incredible Hulk (2008):
“The Incredible Hulk” was designed to bring scientist-by-day, monster-by-night Bruce Banner into the mix. Decidedly the biggest flop of the series, Edward Norton’s Hulk was widely criticized for its lack of clarity, coherence and entertainment value, and it’s not surprising that Marvel replaced Norton with actor Mark Ruffalo in the rest of the Hulk’s appearances.
Series Relevance: Unfortunately, “The Incredible Hulk” is incredibly important to MCU. At its core, the movie doesn’t simply set up the Hulk’s backstory — It is also the first film that connects Marvel heroes together.
Other than a half-hearted attempt to bring Stark into the last 15 minutes of the movie, there was no connection between Banner and the rest of the Marvel universe, and the movie gave no breathing room for Marvel to connect the two. In addition to gaping plot holes that are less-than-adequately explained at the beginning, the characters and their motivations did no justice to the brilliantly written comic book hero.
In the comic books, Bruce Banner is the victim of a faulty nuclear-radiation experiment and a desperately depressed fugitive on the run from the government. All Banner wants to do is die, which is the one impossible thing for him to do given the immortal manifestation of the Hulk hiding inside him. However, the movie dumbs down this impressively unique character into a socially awkward hero whose two-dimensional love interest and unconvincing acting does not do the Hulk justice.
Entertainment Value: To be blunt: there’s absolutely no entertainment value in this movie. Unless one is looking to be bored to sleep for two and a half hours by Norton’s monotone voice and Liv Tyler’s ridiculously flighty decision-making, there’s no reason to see this version of “The Incredible Hulk.”
If one is looking for more background on Bruce Banner, just read the comics, because even a cursory synopsis of the Hulk series is enough to understand how he fits into the MCU.
Cultural/Political Value: Aside from the movie’s attempt to villainize the government and its selfish abuse of scientific knowledge, there isn’t much discernible cultural or political value to this movie. It’s simply too convoluted of a plot line to support any larger messages.
Iron Man 2 (2010):
While the value of this movie in regard to the MCU is unparalleled, it is one of the least-developed movies of the three.
Series Relevance: “Iron Man 2” is the only sequel included in Phase One of the MCU Avengers arc. Most of this is due to the fact that “Iron Man 2” introduces Nick Fury (played by Samuel L. Jackson), the mysterious director of S.H.I.E.L.D., the agency that helps build the Avengers team. It also introduces a new avenger, The Black Widow, otherwise known as Natasha Romanoff (played by Scarlett Johansson).
While these characters are touched upon, the movie spends far too much time creating a red herring villain in mad physicist Ivan Vanko and his malevolent benefactor Justin Hammer. By spending too much time on meaningless characters, Marvel delayed the construction of core characters such as Fury and Black Widow, meanwhile stunting the growth of Iron Man’s best friend Rhody as a main contributor in the movies. Iron Man 2 does set the base for incorporating the S.H.I.E.L.D. agency into MCU, and it does help show Stark’s character growth, but it’s overshadowed by a winding and nonsensical plot.
Entertainment Value: The primary entertainment value in “Iron Man 2” is the growth of Tony Stark as a character. The movie furthers his internal struggle between his personality and his aspirations. Stark seems to spiral downhill when he faces a life-or-death situation, and the movie ultimately reveals Stark’s reliance on his support network of Rhody and Pepper. In the end, “Iron Man 2” is entertaining but lacks the wittiness of the first movie.
Cultural/Political Value: Although the creators touch on a bit of cultural insensitivity on the part of Stark’s father, this movie is significantly more devoid of outside meaning, perhaps because the first movie leaned so heavily on politicism. The introduction of Romanov as the only female Avenger is interesting; while the audience is not yet sure of her role in the Avenger initiative, it is clear that she will be overshadowed by her male counterparts and boxed in as the sensible, motherly character who will clean up after her cohort. While feminism has never been one of Marvel’s strong suits, this is an impressively belittling representation — one that is not truly righted until later in the series.