A while back a few of us at the MCU Exchange were involved in a discussion about what retrospective pieces we could do on Marvel Studios’ Phase 2 films. You’ve started to see the fruits of those discussions and will continue to do so over the next few weeks. One of our tangents led to this collection of tweets by Film Crit Hulk (nicely put into Storify by Grant S.), one of the great people to follow if you’re on Twitter.
Those tweets really resonated with me and helped me scaffold some thoughts I’d been having for some time. Film Crit Hulk was right: Avengers: Age of Ultron was a film without any real consequences to the heroes (other than Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch). But Age of Ultron wasn’t the only film without lasting consequences…Phase 2 was almost entirely without them.
Going back to the very beginning of Phase 2, it’s almost like each film was an episode of Whose Line Is It Anyway? where the stakes are made up and consequences don’t matter. To me, Phase 2 was all about furthering the large scale narrative in preparation for what is going to go down as Marvel Studios caps off its great creation in Mays of 2018 and 2019.
I’m going to clarify this before I begin: I really enjoyed almost all of the Phase 2 films. I find Iron Man 3, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy to be films I can re-watch and enjoy over and over. They are filled with good to great action, some great comic book moments and wonderful characters. I’m sure Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ant-Man and I will share that same relationship down the line. Unfortunately, I just can’t get into Thor: The Dark World as much as I’d like to, so I certainly look towards Thor: Ragnarok where I get more of a look at the person Thor was in Avengers: Age of Ultron and much more of the Nine Realms. Having said all that, the films had minor consequences, if any, existing as little more than a series of bridges from Phase 1 to Phase 3. For all it’s fun, Phase 2 seems to have existed only to set the stage for Captain America: Civil War and the 2-part Avengers: Infinity War.
Phase 1 had teeth that sunk in. It introduced the world to the idea of superheroes, monsters and gods and then brought them all together to defeat a horde of alien invaders led by a power-crazed god. The lasting consequences of this for the imaginary world of the MCU aren’t really debatable. That world was exposed to some incredible things, both good and bad, and would never be the same.
After assembling to defeat Loki and the Chitauri, the heroes would never be the same either. Much of that was explored in Phase 2: Steve Rogers had found his place, Tony Stark was a hero with PTSD, Bruce Banner could stop running and Thor was conflicted about his place in the universe. While Phase 2 seemed to be shaking those firm foundations for our heroes, in hindsight it’s hard to argue that it really did.
Iron Man 3 gave us a much different Tony Stark than the one we had seen before. Things mattered to Tony now and he spent all of his time trying to protect those things. Ultimately, Tony found himself up against a monster of his own making in Aldrich Killian. Stark’s arrogance gave Killian enough of a reason to spend a long time seeking revenge, and when he began to take it, it hit Stark where it mattered most with Happy and Pepper falling victim. Of course, Tony saved the day and found out that he is the hero and not just the suit. He symbolically destroyed his suits, not because he was retiring but because he realized who he COULD be without them. At the end of Iron Man 3, it was reasonable to assume Tony Stark had learned his lessons and that, going forward, we would see a different hero.
I understand that part of Tony’s character is that he’s a futurist and always looking for the next way to change the world; however, much of what happened in Iron Man 3 was erased by Stark’s mistakes in Avengers: Age of Ultron, the same mistakes he had apparently already come to realize he had made. It was as if the events of Iron Man 3 never happened nor made any impact on the decisions of the hero.
By the end of Avengers: Age of Ultron, Tony has once again escaped intact from his failures. Even the glimpse of the horrible future that he saw courtesy of Wanda Maximoff seems to have been forgotten. Throughout the film there was just enough foreshadowing to show us why he and Steve Rogers will eventually come to blows, but it all ends on a high note for Tony Stark. His fellow Avengers had forgiven him and he seemed ready to move on to his happily-ever-after place with Pepper.
Despite being one of my least favorite Marvel Studios’ films, Thor: The Dark World did actually contribute something to the overall narrative of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. We were finally given some exposition on the Infinity Stones and introduced to one capable of rewriting the rules of Physics that govern reality. This film also put Thor in a rough place. By films’ end, he had lost his mother, his brother (as far as he knew) and abdicated his throne in order to become Midgard’s champion. The problem? None of that mattered for Phase 2. It was all about positioning Thor on the board for what appears to be a HUGE role in Phase 3.
The true plot of the film was resolved without any lasting damage to Thor or Earth. I had at least hoped that Thor would actually lose his arm, having recently read the comic arc in which he had the arm of the Destroyer attached. Malekith and his army of Dark Elves, despite having access to the Reality Stone, seemed very inept. After having been endowed with the power to alter reality, I highly doubt I’d allow Jane, Darcy and Dr. Selving to be by downfall. Maybe I’d just send them to an alternate reality where they couldn’t interfere, or turn their hands into cucumbers…
And so, when Thor entered the fray in Avengers: Age of Ultron, he should have carried the burden of his lost mother and brother into battle as the protector of Midgard. Instead, outside of the mention of the Infinity Stones, the events of that film seemed to matter very little and despite being a great help in the battle against Ultron, Thor’s very existence in the film seemed to be all about setting up Avengers: Infinity War. His time apart from the team gave him clarity about what was to come, enabling him to use another Infinity Stone to empower Vision as the protector of Earth. The most important thing Avengers: Age of Ultron did with Thor was get him off Earth for Phase 3. He likely won’t play a part in Captain America: Civil War and Thor: Ragnarok is said the to be the film that really kicks off the Infinity War. Again, Phase 2 served to position Thor for Phase 3.
Steve Rogers entered Phase 2 with a bang. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is considered by many to be one of Marvel Studios’ best films. I don’t disagree. It is intense and thrilling, filled with plot twists and double-crosses that pay homage to some great espionage films. I’ve watched it 8 times or so and I really enjoy the action; however, it may have the lowest stakes of any of Marvel’s Phase 2 films. Despite having been labeled as a game-changer by Marvel Studios, it arguably changed very little about the MCU.
At this point, none of the events of the Captain America: The Winter Soldier have had any long-term impact on the MCU. Robert Redford’s Alexander Pierce was the film’s villain, a HYDRA operative in a place of power. The film also revealed to us that HYDRA has many other people in similar positions and that they’ve been trying to implement a new world order since World War II. The problem is that within the film, HYDRA wasn’t ever established as a real threat rendering their downfall mostly meaningless.
This film was about shaking the firm ground upon which Steve Rogers was beginning to stand. Just when he thought he knew who he was and what he fought for, he was confronted with a huge piece of his past while simultaneously realizing that all he thought he was fighting for was a facade. Steve Rogers had been doing to devil’s work. So, Steve led the charge to tear it all down. It seems like the events of that film should have reverberated throughout the MCU; instead, they seem to have given Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s second season some direction and otherwise have almost faded away. In fact, the events of the film made me think more about what I had seen that what I would see.
When Avengers: Age of Ultron begins, Steve Rogers is doing just fine. He hasn’t lost anything with the loss of S.H.I.E.L.D. He is still on a mission, still searching for his friend. If anything, the fallout from Captain America: The Winter Soldier put Steve Rogers in a better place and the MCU seemed to be doing just fine without S.H.I.E.L.D.
By the end, Steve Rogers, who seemed to lose everything he had recently gained, walked away with his very own team of shiny New Avengers and having a renewed sense of purpose in finding Bucky. It’s easy to see that the events of Phase 2 were all about positioning Steve Rogers for the beginning of Phase 3. While he seems to have exited Phase 2 unscathed, I believe Phase 3 won’t treat him as well.
Peter Quill and the Guardians of the Galaxy
One of Marvel Studios’ highest rated and most entertaining films, Guardians of the Galaxy introduced new characters and a new corner of the universe to the MCU. It also served to give us even more exposition about the true power of the Infinity Stones ahead of Thanos’ attempt to unite them all.
I love the film. A group of dishonorable thugs bands together to save Xandar and possibly the rest of the galaxy of a overzealous madman. It gave us great moments and characters and is easily to most rewatchable of Marvel’s films. However, once the film ends and the thinking begins, it’s clear that a big part of it is about what’s to come. These are the Guardians that have to meet up with the Avengers to band together to defeat Thanos once he has collected all the Infinity Stones in the Gauntlet. So, we meet Thanos, we find out how powerful the stones can be and get left with a BUNCH of questions (not the least of which is who is Quill’s father) to be answered…in Phase 3.
I won’t say a single negative thing about the film; however, it’s another piece of a patchwork bridge leading us to Avengers: Infinity War. The Guardians were rewarded for all their thievery and win the day. Nice job, Xandarians: you set a band of thieves and murderers free so they could save the Cosmos.
Scott Lang, Hope van Dyne and Hank Pym
So almost always, there’s an exception to the rule. In this case, it was Ant-Man. This film was full of consequences that mattered. Scott Lang securing his very awkward position with his family and back in the world is a big deal. While some people will argue that the film’s climax carried little weight, almost any father of a daughter would disagree. For Scott, protecting his daughter from evil and then being welcomed back into her life was everything.
While Hank Pym’s character may not have played well to everyone, he was on the verge of losing everything. Not only his company and his life’s work, but his daughter, the one thing he had fought to protect. It was a touching moment when he finally revealed Janet’s fate to Hope, clarifying to her why he made the choices he had for her entire life. It was that moment in the film and not the climax, that saved the day for Hope and Hank. As a result, the team stayed together, allowing them to stop Darren Cross and move on to becoming heroes.
Ant-Man is a film that works well for a number of reasons, chief among them is the much discussed smaller scope of the film. The early promos for the film used Hank Pym’s line to clarify that this film wasn’t about saving the world, but about saving the worlds of the heroes daughters. It’s hard to argue for higher stakes than parent-child relationships. I think that’s why the film feels like it ends so satisfactory. It wasn’t because of the fate of the villain, but the salvation of the familial relationships of the protagonists. It’s also very clear though that all of the protagonists are just hitting their strides and have bigger days ahead.
Generally speaking, the Phase 2 films existed to continue the expansion of this wonderful interconnected cinematic universe, a grand experiment that seems to keep succeeding. The films’ heroes all live to fight another day, but in hindsight many of their conflicts are left unresolved, setting the stage for some serious business to go down in Phase 3. It seemed to become the thing to do to criticize Marvel Studios for following the so-called “Marvel formula” in Phase 2; in other words, Act 3 has a big battle in which the good guy wins. To be fair, through Marvel’s first 12 films that is exactly how it’s worked out. While we have no proof of this, one last thing that Phase 2 has been setting us up for is an end to that run. It’s my belief that Phase 3 films, beginning immediately with Captain America: Civil War will see the “Marvel formula” turned on its head and the heroes in some very uncomfortable spaces (possibly even some coffins). Phase 3 might be the first time our heroes are truly faced with the consequences of their actions.