Backtracking the Marvel Cinematic Universe Part 1: World Building

I bet you’ve seen a preview or commercial for The Avengers: Infinity War due out April 27 at just about every movie theater and pirated movie website near you.  If you aren’t like Geoff, who is super cool because he is a long time comic book collector and in no way a major dork, you may not realize that this third Avengers film is the 19th Marvel Studios film to be released in the last 10 years.

Also, if you are super uncool (unlike Geoff – who is not typing this article by the way), you may not have seen all the previous movies.

Worry not, true believers!  Face front because it is time for the Merry Marching Marvel Society to come at you with a quick rundown of the entire story up to this point!  Thanks to your friendly neighborhood comic collector (not Geoff, though, it’s definitely not him writing this article and calling you uncool for not seeing all these movies), we’ll get you ready for the release of this summer’s super blockbuster!  Excelsior!

So, here’s how this is going to work, kiddos.  Over the next three Mondays, I’m going to talk a little bit about six movies in each “Backtracking” article.  These aren’t going to be full on reviews or complete and total breakdowns of each movie.  I likely won’t be giving a great deal of opinion over each movie.  Instead, I’ll talk about the most important pieces to take away as a “The story so far…” kind of feature you might see at the beginning of comics back in the 90s.  I’ll also make sure to cover the post-credit scenes which have become a staple of the series.

This first part covers how this whole crazy thing got started in what is now called “Phase One” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe!

1. Iron Man (2008)
We begin with the story of Tony Stark – mega-bizillionare inventor, weapons manufacturer, genius, and playboy.  Tony is orphaned after his parents were killed in a car accident.  He’s a little shallow.  He likes to drink – much.  He likes to hit on women.  Tony is a bit of a Howard Hughes type of maverick.

His world is turned upside down when he is taken hostage in the Middle East after showing off his newest missile built by his company, Stark Industries.  He’s forced to try to help a group of terrorists build new weapons for them to oppress people in their country.  When kidnapped, Tony suffers an injury that forces him to have to wear what is called an arc reactor to keep a piece of shrapnel from reaching his heart and killing him.  The reactor also powers a suit of iron he builds to escape.  Later, he upgrades the armor into a lean, mean, fighting machine that he uses to bring down the terrorists after growing a conscience realizing his weapons are being dealt to the bad people by one of his closest advisors.  After Iron Man proves himself a true hero, Tony reveals himself as said hero setting off a new Marvel Age of Heroes.

Post-credits scene: In the famous, and oft-parodied, post-credits scene, Tony is approached by Nick Fury, the head of a clandestine organization about the creation of a team of heroes under a project named “The Avengers Initiative”.

2. The Incredible Hulk (2008)  
A brief five weeks after the release of Iron Man came The Incredible Hulk.  This one is a bit of an oddball in the grand scheme of things.  In 2003, Ang Lee made the underwhelming Hulk for Universal Studios.  The Incredible Hulk, on the other hand, was received much better, but it is not exactly clear whether or not this is a sequel to Lee’s film.  It’s a little bit of a reboot (for as much as I hate that phrase) mixed with a sequel.  What is clear, though, is that this movie has a very small connection to the rest of the Cinematic Universe (mostly due to the universe still being new and somewhat untested – and perhaps this film was not initially part of the plan until Iron Man blew up).

This movie follows gamma irradiated Bruce Banner who is on the run from the military who wants to weaponize Banner’s alter ego, the anger-filled beast known as the Hulk. The main antagonist is General Thunderbolt Ross whose daughter, Betty, is the love of Banner’s life.  Ross sends a special forces team, led by Emil Blonsky who is also injected with a little bit of gamma radiation which turns him into the Abomination, another hulking beast, to take down Banner.  After a big ol’ fight scene that destroys a bunch of New York, Hulk defeats Abomination, and Banner hits the road again and hides out, ultimately learning how to control his transformations into the Hulk.

Post-credits scene:  Thunderbolt Ross is commiserating at a bar about allowing the Hulk to slip through his grasp yet again.  Tony Stark approaches him and lets him know that a team of special people is being formed.  (NOTE: I usually think of this movie to be the “Goldfinger” of the series as it firmly establishes the Marvel Cinematic Universe trope of the post-credits scene teasing future events just as Goldfinger established that a pre-titles sequence would forever be part of the James Bond series that continues to this day.)

3. Iron Man 2 (2010)
We’d have to wait for two years in order to get the next film in the series – something nearly unheard of today.  Really…  The DC Cinematic Universe can’t wait at all to properly introduce characters before shoving them all together into a Justice League movie.  Hell, we can’t go more than a year without a Star Wars movie these days.  Marvel took their time and made sure they had what they thought they had before jumping off the deep end too quickly.

Iron Man 2 picks up with Tony Stark’s ever-rising popularity after coming out as Iron Man.  Seemingly everything is coming up Tony, but the arc reactor uses palladium as its core which is keeping that piece of shrapnel out of his heart but also poisoning him.  While he deals with trying to keep himself alive, a rival arms dealer, Justin Hammer, enlists the help of the son of a former collaborator with Tony’s father, Howard, to build more advanced weapons than Stark.  Naturally, this partner, Ivan Vanko, takes advantage of Hammer’s own desire to topple Stark and builds a suit for himself to battle Iron Man.  You can probably imagine that Iron Man wins the day and defeats Vanko. 

This movie introduces two additional pieces of the Marvel Universe into the Cinematic Universe – War Machine, piloted by Tony’s friend James “Rhodey” Rhodes, and Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow.  Rhodes was seen in the first Iron Man movie, but he finally gets his own suit as he does in the comics.  Black Widow is implanted into Stark Industries as a spy for S.H.I.E.L.D. (the clandestine organization creating the Avengers which stands for Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division). 

Post-credits scene: Agent Phil Coulson (introduced in Iron Man, and assigned to Tony Stark by S.H.I.E.L.D. in this film) is called to New Mexico, where a mysterious hammer from the heavens has crash landed… 

4. Thor (2011)
Next up, we’re introduced to Thor Odinson, god of thunder, and son of the king of the Norse gods, Odin.  Just before being handed the throne of Asgard, Thor tries to battle frost giants against his father’s wishes, he is banished to “Midgard” (Earth for those who don’t know their Thor or Norse mythology – like super cool Geoff does – also he is still not writing this article) to learn modesty and humility which Odin believes is the only way he will be able to truly learn to lead and be king.  On Earth, Thor acts brutish and discovers that his enchanted hammer, Mjolnir, was also sent to Midgard and guarded by S.H.I.E.L.D.  When he tries to retrieve it, Thor discovers that his father has made Mjolnir impossible to lift without being properly worthy of the power of Thor.

Meanwhile, Loki, Thor’s ne’er do well adopted brother, has learned of his true heritage – that of a frost giant taken by Odin when his father was defeated by the Asgardians.  He attempts to usurp the throne of Asgard to keep Thor banished forever.  However, with the help of his new friends, Jane Foster (a love interest for Thor), her assistant, and Norwegian research scientist Erik Selvig, Thor regains his worthiness and is able to foil Loki’s plans to plunge Asgard into a war against the frost giants, and Odin regains the throne of Asgard.

An important character introduction along with Thor and Loki is Clint Barton, aka Hawkeye, who is an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. and stationed where Mjolnir is being watched in New Mexico.

Post-credits scene: Selvig is recruited by Nick Fury to research a cubed object S.H.I.E.L.D. is in possession of and a ghostly Loki prompts Selvig to agree to take on the project of unlocking the object’s power. 

5. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
The first Captain America film is also the first Marvel film to have a subtitle.  It’s also the final piece of the puzzle that will finally lead into one of the most ambitious productions ever.  In order to tell this story, Marvel Studios goes back in time to 1942.  Here, we meet Steve Rogers, a scrawny runt who desperately wants to volunteer to fight the Nazis in World War II.  Previously, Johann Schmidt, a Nazi officer in Hydra, the science division of the Third Reich, has come into possession of the cubed object seen at the end of Thor.  This object is known only as the Tesseract and the source of unimaginable power that Schmidt, aka the Red Skull, and his main scientist, Arnim Zola, plan to use to create weapons that Hydra will use to take over the Nazi party and then win the war.

After Rogers is turned down yet again, he is hand selected by Dr. Abraham Erskine to take part in a program to create the world’s first “super soldier”.  Rogers’ personality, kind nature, and heroism allows for the project to work to turn him from a runt into the perfect specimen of a human being.  Unfortunately, Erskine is killed and with him dies the secret to create more super soldiers like Rogers.  Eventually, Rogers is recruited into performing as Captain America in a USO touring outfit.  While in Europe, he discovers that his childhood friend, James “Bucky” Barnes has been taken hostage by Hydra.  Captain America goes from star of the USO show to a real life hero in saving Bucky and leading a team of commandos.  After several successful missions against Hydra and the Nazis, Bucky is apparently killed when an explosion knocks him off a Hydra train and into a ravine.  He gets his iconic shield from Howard Stark, and with help from his love, Peggy Carter, Rogers is able to stop the Red Skull, but is unable to save himself from having the plane he is piloting from crashing in the Arctic, freezing Rogers until he is discovered.

Not only do we see Tony’s father Howard in his prime, but we are introduced to Bucky who plays a major role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (which we will get to over the course of the next two weeks).  Additionally, we’re introduced to Peggy Carter who becomes an important piece with the creation of S.H.I.E.L.D. (as we will also talk a bit more about in the next two articles). 

Post-credits scenes: This is the first film in the series that has two post-credits scenes.  The first comes midway through the credits and shows Rogers waking up in what seems like a 1940s style hospital room which turns out to be a ruse.  He escapes to find himself in the bustling world of present-day New York City where Nick Fury approaches him to tell him he’s been asleep for nearly 70 years.  After the credits, Fury approaches Rogers with a mission which leads into the epic trailer for Marvel’s The Avengers which finally brings all the heroes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe together.

6. Marvel’s The Avengers (2012)
And here we finally are!  The culmination of four years and five previous films – The Avengers.  We were teased about it, and we were waiting to see how this movie was going to work.  Never before had we ever seen a project come together quick like this one.  Marvel hired Joss Whedon to manage the giant cast and all the fun that could possibly come along with it.

And until this year, it was by far and away the highest grossing comic book movie ever made.

Loki has returned through a portal opened by the Tesseract in a secret S.H.I.E.L.D. facility, and given a staff from an alien force known as the Chitauri that allows for him to take control of minds.  He takes control of Hawkeye and Dr. Selvig.  Hawkeye is mostly used for his knowledge of S.H.I.E.L.D. operations, but Selvig is charged to find a way to use the Tesseract to open a subspace portal to allow the Chitauri to invade Earth.

When the Tesseract is stolen, Fury, Coulson, and Black Widow assemble Captain America, Iron Man, and Bruce Banner to locate the cube and stop whatever Loki is planning to do with it.  After Loki is taken captive after a brief encounter with Cap and Iron Man, Thor arrives back on Earth to retrieve Loki to stand trial in Asgard.  Cap, Iron Man, and Thor have a standoff but eventually agree to return to the flying S.H.I.E.L.D. fortress, the Helicarrier, to discuss what Loki is doing with the Tesseract and how to deal with him.

The heroes don’t initially get along all that well.  Their personalities are clashing, and, worse, they discover S.H.I.E.L.D. is involved with a plan similar to Hydra’s in World War II to create ultra-powerful weapons with the Tesseract.  Loki uses this to his advantage and his controlled agents attack the Helicarrier causing Banner to lose control and become Hulk.  Loki escapes while the heroes deal with the enraged Hulk.  

This also leads to Loki killing Coulson which ultimately leads to Fury able to convince the heroes to work together as the Avengers.  They fight against the Chitauri who are pouring out of the rift Selvig opens with the Tesseract into the streets of New York City.  They figure out how to close the rift and destroy the remaining Chitauri forces.  Loki and Thor return to Asgard, Rogers goes off to find his place in this world, and Stark and Banner ride off to do science stuff. 

Post-credits scenes: In a scene that takes place halfway through the credits, a Chitauri leader approaches his “master” (who turns out to be the despot Thanos) saying they have failed and to continue to try to take Earth would be to “court death” to which the master smiles (in the comics, Thanos was in love with the actual physical embodiment of death – a lady with a skull for a head in a cloak).  After the credits, the Avengers, tired and weary from fighting, are sitting in a wrecked shawarma joint eating that references a joke made by Tony Stark earlier in the movie.

So there you have it!  The first phase in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is done, and so are we – for this week.  Come back in one week as we dive into Phase Two which begins with another Iron Man film and ends with an Avengers sequel!

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