Saturday, 4 July 2015

A Complete Guide to the ‘Marvel Cinematic Universe’: Phase One

by Tim Bustin

3 phases. 24 films. 3 TV shows. 60 years of comic source material. A gazillion superheroes. A whole heap of awesome.

I must confess, three years ago when I first saw ‘The Avengers’ on an airline coming back from Universal Studios Florida, I thought it was one of the most silly and ridiculous things I’d ever watched. And now I’m totally in love with it.

the list of released and currently planned MCU films

It’s not just that the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is a vast and rich world, has epic battles and philosophy, or has hilarious, stunning, and visually amazing moments. Superheroes themselves are fascinating. In any normal-worldly film or literature, intriguing characters can be created with different combinations of backstory and goals – say, a high-aiming politician held back by his drinking habits, or perhaps a talented drummer who practises though she hates it simply to gain her parent’s respect. But superheroes are unique – their individual powers, mixed perhaps with either ordinary or supernatural backstories, create a totally individual product. The MCU Bruce Banner, for example, is a mild-mannered man who simply wants to make the world a better place, yet he is torn as he is often forced to become the overpowering Hulk, desperately trying to avoid the fight because he knows he will win with destructive consequences. Or take the recent addition to the MCU, Scarlet Witch, a success of human experimentation, channelling her raw emotions from a war-torn childhood into her ability to induce fear in others. Only forgotten superheroes merely look cool and blow stuff up.

So, given this new found passion, I have decided to try and understand and explain as much of the MCU as possible. It may start of simple enough in the early films as Marvel were debating whether to risk creating a franchise, but trust me, this stuff gets complicated pretty quick. Admittedly I’m kind of new to this too, and still haven’t seen Iron Man 2 or the Agents of S.h.i.e.l.d TV series, so this is as much of a learning process for me as it is for you reading – but, given its enormity, I doubt that not even Stan Lee is omniscient in the full Marvel world.

Before we start, it is important to mention two themes dominate throughout the Marvel films (and no, making money isn’t one of them): firstly is the idea of war; secondly are the six Infinity Stones – but we’ll get to that.

Oh yeah – spoilers.

Released Marvel films:

Phase One
The MCU is divided (currently) into 3 phases. Phase one and two are all released films (the last of Phase 2 being Ant-man, release date 17th July). Phase three is a list made entirely from films that either planned or currently in production.

Iron Man (2008)

Characters first introduced: (red dictates an Avenger)
·         Tony Stark/Iron Man (Powers: flight, shoots lasers, genius)
·         Agent Coulson (Phil Coulson – S.H.I.E.L.D. agent)
·         Lieutenant Colonel James Rhodes (Stark’s friend – later War Machine/Iron Patriot)
·         J.A.R.V.I.S (a slightly sassy computer system that aids Stark – later his protocols form The Vision)
·         Pepper Potts (Stark’s assistant and love interest)
·         Nick Fury (director of S.H.I.E.L.D.)

the first Iron Man suit 
In a word: awesome. The MCU kicks off dramatically with ‘Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist’ Robert Downey Jr. …. erm, I mean Tony Stark. A surprisingly humanising tale, the world renowned weapons creator is captured by terrorists, where he discovers his life’s work is constantly used by terrorists. He escapes by building a prototype Iron Man suit, powered by an Arc Reactor in his chest (a source of clean, fusion energy, that also protects his heart from shrapnel in his chest), and after changes his lifestyle, stops creating weapons, and works on cool Iron Man suits to defeat terrorists worldwide, aided by his comical computer program butler (sort of A.I.) J.A.R.V.I.S. Stark also gives up playboying for love interest and assistant Pepper Potts. Probably one of the best MCU films, it also introduces S.H.I.E.L.D (Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division)  and its Agent Coulson, as well as Tony Stark’s bestie Lieutenant Colonel James Rhodes who gets a bigger role later on.

Post credits scene: Samuel L. Jackson’s one-eyed spy boss Nick Fury is introduced briefly here, telling Stark he is not "the only superhero in the world" and that he wants to start the "Avengers Initiative".

The Incredible Hulk (2008)

Characters first introduced:
·         Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Powers: near unmatchable strength)

Hulk and Bruce Banner
Oh poor, poor Hulk – how many film incarnations have you had to suffer over the decades? Thankfully this is one of the better ones, with Edward Norton playing tortured soul Bruce Banner (replaced in later films by Mark Ruffalo), who becomes the Hulk after human experimentation with gamma radiation is used to try and create a ‘Super Soldier’. Little of this film is consequential to the MCU, apart from introducing General Thaddeus Ross (who may appear in future films), and that the film ends with Banner separated from his girlfriend (the General’s daughter, Betty), living far-away in hiding in British Columbia, attempting to control his Hulk-transforming rage.

Post credits scene: Tony Stark briefly meets General Thaddeus Ross in a bar, telling him a team is being put together (gee, I wonder what team that could possibly be? Sure couldn’t possibly be The Avengers, now could it?)

Iron Man 2

Characters first introduced:
·         Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (former Russian spy, now working for S.H.I.E.L.D.)
·         Howard Stark (Tony’s father)
·         War Machine (Tony Stark’s friend, Lieutenant Colonel James Rhodes, now working for the military with his own Iron Man suit)

The MCU is still very much in its infancy in these early films, as Marvel decided whether or not to gamble on making the franchise. Hence, again there is little development in this film, and Iron Man 2 is not as memorable as 1 or 3. Essentially Tony Stark is living the superstar lifestyle as Iron Man, but refusing to share his suit’s designs with the government (apart from his buddy Lieutenant Colonel James Rhodes who becomes War Machine). Then there’s some plot, something happens, blah de blah, but the only important things worth mentioning are the introduction of former Russian spy Natasha Romanoff and Howard Stark (via old footage Tony watches), some news footage of a rampaging Hulk (implying this movie and Hulk occur at the same time), and Stark’s buddy Rhodes getting his own Iron Man suit, and becoming War Machine.

Post credits scene: Agent Coulson (of Iron Man 1 fame) reports of the discovery of a large hammer in Rockwell, New Mexico. Now who’s could that be…


Characters first introduced:
·         Thor Odinson (Powers: slow ageing, wields Mjolnir, summon lightning, superhuman strength)
·         Loki (adopted brother of Thor)
·         Odin (father of Thor, and Loki (adoptively))
·         Dr. Erik Selvig (Norwegian scientist)
·         Dr. Jane Foster (colleague of Selvig; Thor’s love interest)
·         Heimdall (Gatekeeper to the Bifröst Bridge – is all seeing (omniscient))
·         Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Master Archer)
·         Frigga (Thor’s mother)
·         Sif (one of Thor’s fellow warriors (also has a major crush on him))

Infinity Stones in film (out of 6): Space Stone (the Tesseract)

Things are about to seriously pick up now.

Asgard – the ruling realm of all nine
The film Thor (which someone thought would be a good idea to let Kenneth Brannagh direct) really expands the entire MCU, and starts many of the important themes and story lines that weave together the following 20 films (11 released so far), including the all-important Infinity Stones. The film itself is fun, at times Shakespearian, admittedly quite nonsensical in its plot, and draws a lot on Norwegian mythology.

Essentially, the universe is divided into nine realms, interconnected through the world tree, Yggdrasil. Asgard, Thor’s realm, is the ruling realm; Earth, or Misgard, exists in another dimension to the other 8 realms, however can be travelled to via the Bifröst bridge (or ‘Rainbow Bridge’).

full map of Yggdrasil – the world tree
n 965 A.D., a race called the Frost Giants (large, evil looking figures with basically the same powers as Elsa from Frozen) invade Earth. Odin, Thor’s father, leads the Asgardians into battle, freeing the Earth (which is supposedly where all the legends of Thor originate from on Earth). Odin adopts a baby Frost Giant, raising him as Thor’s brother Loki. In 977 A.D., Thor and Loki are young boys, and Odin takes them both to the Asgard treasure room, where an Infinity Gauntlet and the mysterious Tesseract cube are (Odin hides this in Norway in 1409 A.D.). Odin tells the boys they are destined to be kings – or at least Thor is, because in 2015 he is on the cusp of being crowned. Loki has always been jealous of Odin’s favouritism of Thor, and desperately wants the throne – he lets Frost Giants secretly into Asgard and, when Thor pigheadedly retaliates in a way that could start a war, Odin banishes Thor to Earth and strips him of his power (and his hammer, Mjolnir, which Agent Coulson finds on Earth) until he becomes worthy.

To add believability, magic and science are combined in this film (Thor says “I come from a place where they are one and the same thing”). Thor meets theoretical physicists Dr. Erik Selvig and Dr. Jane Foster on Earth (who are studying the sort of portal the Bifröst Bridge is). Meanwhile, Loki discovers he is adopted and, after Odin falls into a deep ‘Odinsleep’ he temporarily steals the throne – that is until Thor becomes worthy on Earth by realising his own arrogance, and returns to battle Loki, which ends with Loki seemingly falling to his death in space, and the Bifröst Bridge broken. Thor now cannot return to Earth (he has by now become romantically involved with Jane Foster), and tells Odin (after he wakes) he believes he is still not ready to rule. Jane starts trying to study ways back to Asgard.

Hawkeye, the master archer, makes a brief cameo as a guard for Thor’s hammer when S.H.I.E.L.D. finds it on Earth.

Everybody got all that? Good – it’s going to be a long article, this one.

Post credits scene: Nick Fury opens a briefcase for Dr. Erik Selvig (who we see is sort of under Loki’s control (spoiler: Loki ‘aint dead)), who is now working for S.H.I.E.L.D.. The briefcase contains a powerful, glowing blue cube. This is the Tesseract cube, that Odin hid on Earth in Norway in 1409 – but where did S.H.I.E.L.D. get it, eh?...

Captain America: The First Avenger

Characters First Introduced:
·         Steve Rodgers/Captain America (Powers: superhuman strength, increased metabolism)
·         Peggy Carter (Agent Carter)
·         Sergeant James ‘Bucky’ Barnes (later The Winter Soldier)

Infinity Stones in film (out of 6): Space Stone (the Tesseract)

see the transformation of these before and after, with
Super Soldier Serum! Available in all good superhero retail stores
The last solo film before any Avengering is mostly set previous to the others, between 1942 and 1945. In actor Chris Evans’ very capable hands, a potentially ridiculous concept that is Captain America comes across as powerful and deeply human.

Steve Rodgers (Cap) is a weedy, asthmatic young man who believes in all the right things and wishes more than anything to protect his country against “bullies” just as much as any man could (like his friend Bucky Barnes). He is offered the chance of experimentation, using a Super Soldier Serum (an early version of the Hulk program), and is transformed into an Arnold Schwarzenegger type, who would boss any Olympic event. 

Meanwhile, the Tesseract cube is found in Norway by Nazi officer Johann Schmidt, or the ‘Red Skull’, head of the Nazi’s science division, H.Y.D.R.A., who has also been given the same serum as Cap. He uses this highly powerful energy source to power his weapons, and potentially expand beyond Hitler.

Cap is left as the only Super Solider after H.Y.D.R.A. assassinates the scientist who created the serum, and instead of fighting he is turned into a national icon, with comic books, trading cards, and films, all to increase support for the war.

With the help of Peggy Carter (or Agent Carter) and Howard Stark (Tony’s father), Cap is able to fight. Stark gives him his iconic shield, made from vibranium, a completely vibration-absorbent metal from the African nation Wakanda. In the finale, Cap kills Red Skull aboard a jet (Red Skull touches the powerful Tesseract cube and is disintegrated into Yggdrasil), though is unable to land the jet filled with nukes safely, crashing it into the arctic where Cap is frozen in ice (the Tesseract is recovered though by Howard Stark). Cap and Peggy Carter were romantically close, though never got to have their dance together.

Earlier in the film, Cap’s friend Bucky appears to fall to his death.

Captain America is discovered 70 years later and wakes in New York in 2012, greeted by Nick Fury.

The Agent Carter TV series follows her as she sets up S.H.I.E.L.D., which is
secretly infiltrated by H.Y.D.R.A. Bucky, who survived his fall, is found by H.Y.D.R.A., and is patched up, brainwashed, and then frozen, like Captain America, until the Captain America sequel.

Post credits scene: Nick Fury approaching Captain America sometime after he wakes, proposing a mission with worldwide ramifications.

Avengers Assemble

Characters first introduced:
·         Maria Hill (S.H.I.E.L.D. agent)
·         Thanos (the backbone villain to the whole MCU – but he’s just a cameo for now)
·         The Other (Thanos’ servant)

Avengers (in this film):
·         Iron Man (aided by J.A.R.V.I.S.)
·         Hulk
·         Thor
·         Captain America
·         Hawkeye
·         Black Widow

Infinity Stones in film (out of 6): Mind Stone (Loki’s sceptre); Space Stone (Tesseract)

evil trickster Loki, with his sceptre containing
one of the 6 Infinity Stones (Mind Stone)
We’re finally here. All the heroes so far, all the villains, all those unique and wonderful characters. Now the real fun begins.

It’s hard not to admire screenwriter/director Joss Wheldon for so brilliantly bringing together 6 such dynamic characters: superhuman Captain America, only just coming to terms with missing the last 70 years; super cocky, super smart Iron Man; Thor, literally a god amongst men, with a hammer made from neutron star matter; the loner Hawkeye, a master archer; Black Widow, former Russian spy turned S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, an old friend of Hawkeye’s; and Hulk, torn by his danger to others, recruited by Black Widow from his hiding in British Columbia. One heck of a risky film to make.

The film starts at a secure S.H.I.E.L.D. compound, where Dr. Erik Selvig, Nick Fury, Hawkeye, and trusted S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Maria Hill are working on the Tesseract cube, as a potential source of unlimited, clean energy (Stark is simultaneously doing this with Stark Tower, run by a large version of his chest Arc reactor). The cube is also capable of large distance travel across space (where “doors open from both sides”) and Loki (who survived the end of Thor film) uses enters earth through the Tesseract to the S.H.I.E.L.D. compound. He has a Sceptre with mind control capabilities, and turns Dr. Erik Selvig and Hawkeye to his side and steals the Tesseract. This Sceptre, like the Tesseract, is one of the 6 extremely powerful Infinity Stones (explained later) – it was given to him by Thanos, a brutish being bent on collecting all 6 Infinity Stones, and their deal is Loki gives Thanos the Tesseract and Loki gets an army to conquer Earth (he’s bitter after losing the Asgard throne)

Agent Coulson now approaches Stark again about the ‘Avengers Initiative’ – and soon Captain America, Iron Man, Black Widow and Bruce Banner have met up aboard a S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier (a flying aircraft carrier). Coulson is a big fan of Cap, and asks him to sign his trading cards. Stark and Banner, as fellow scientists, get along and track the Tesseract cube’s gamma radiation signal (Banner is an expert of course), but there is generally tension. They track and capture Loki, who is rescued by Thor (learning of his brother’s survival by their mother, Frigga, communicating via magic, and travelling to Earth by secret neurones of Yggdrasil). Loki refuses to give up his conquest of Earth, and Loki is recaptured with Thor joining the Avengers. 

Whilst bickering on the Helicarrier, the Avengers are appalled to find S.H.I.E.L.D. planned using the Tesseract to create powerful weapons (to defend against other planets they now know exist when Thor arrived in 2011). Meanwhile, Hawkeye (under Loki’s mind control) attacks the Helicarrier, freeing Loki. Hulk falls to earth. Black Widow brings Hawkeye back by massively hitting him on the head. Agent Coulson is killed, but his blood-splattered trading cards unite the Avengers, where in New York they assemble to fight Loki. 

In the New York battle, Loki uses the Tesseract to open a portal in space, so his army from Thanos (the Chitauri) can invade Earth. Dr. Erik Selvig (after also getting hit on the head by Black Widow) use Loki’s Sceptre to close the portal, and Iron Man sends a nuke as it closes to destroy the alien mothership. Yay! The world is saved (for now).

Lokis is taken back to Asgard as prisoner, and Heimdall (the all-seeing gatekeeper) repairs the Bifröst Bridge with the Tesseract. Loki’s Sceptre is given to S.H.I.E.L.D. for study. Banner ends up working in Stark’s lab. Captain America, Black Widow, and Hawkeye continue working for S.H.I.E.L.D. And Agent Coulson, due to the laws of Marvel where main characters rarely stay dead, is resurrected in the Agents of S.h.i.e.l.d. T.V. show (something about a serum from an alien corpse and memory wiping his death – I dunno really, there just is a reason, okay?).

Post credits scene: You’d have thought Thanos would be a little irritated, given how his plan to retrieve the Tesseract failed, and he lost the Mind Stone in the process – but nope, he just grins sinisterly, planting the seeds for the next films to come.

2nd Post credits scene: Iron Man takes the Avengers out for a little shawarma, after saving the world in the battle in New York

Look out for Phases 2 and 3 of the MCU in Portsmouth Point articles later this week.

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