The film that started the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Iron Man (2008) put Marvel Studios on the map as Robert Downey, Jr. breathed life into the character of Tony Stark who essentially became the central figure of the MCU itself. Therein, weapons manufacturer Tony Stark is captured in wartorn Afghanistan by the Ten Rings to construct his latest missile in the “Jericho.” However, Stark instead miniaturizes his father’s arc reactor design for a chest module to protect his heart from shrapnel fragments embedded from when he was kidnapped and to power a suit of armor to escape. The plan would work as Stark would be inspired to abandon making weapons (save a revised version of the armor he made when captured with an improved arc reactor). However, it’s revealed Stark’s capture was orchestrated by Obadiah Stane (portrayed by Jeff Bridges), the manager of Stark’s business who had been covertly selling arms to the Ten Rings. Stane would steal one of Stark’s arc reactors to power a larger suit of armor he adorned but would be defeated by Iron Man. The original Iron Man hit many of the notes future Marvel Studios films would follow, blending humor with action but never forgetting to be a work of drama. In a manner, Downey’s portrayal of Stark was his redemption as the personal demons he fought interfered with his career. Iron Man was the comeback of Downey, playing a part that was seemingly made for him and making him a major player at the box office. The cast around him was also seemingly perfect to play off of him, including Jon Favreau (who also directed the picture) as bodyguard Happy Hogan, Gwyneth Paltrow as assistant Pepper Potts, and Terrence Howard as military liaison James “Rhodey” Rhodes which offered a great bit of chemistry to the mix. Iron Man was the movie that created the MCU, offered its blueprint, made Downey/Stark its centerpiece, and whose success meant the very survival of Marvel Studios (which had gambled on its success wagering the movie rights of ten of its properties, including Captain America and the Avengers, as collateral).
As noted, Marvel Studios is something of a gambler. They bet by making movies in house, they could have better results than by licensing properties out to various entities. When Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) was announced, it was the sign of another gamble. Finding great success with few hiccups across nine films by centering on superheroes, could they apply their formula to make a Sci-Fi action film in space? The answer was a resounding yes when it became the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s third highest grossing film (behind The Avengers and Iron Man 3). For Guardians, half-human former Ravager Peter Quill/Star-Lord (portrayed by Chris Pratt) becomes embroiled in a plot between the Mad Titan Thanos and Kree terrorist Ronan the Accuser (played by Lee Pace) over an Infinity Stone he uncovered. Forced into an uneasy alliance of misfits with assassin Gamora, warrior Drax, and bounty hunters Rocket and Groot (portrayed respectively by Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, and Vin Diesel), the group becomes the only hope of preventing Ronan from destroying the planet Xandar, capitol of the Nova Empire. Bearing the Marvel Studios formula of humor, action, and drama, what perhaps makes Guardians most unique is its use of music. As a child, Quill was given an audio cassette of music by his mother and it’s the last piece of her he owns after her death from before his kidnapping by the Ravagers (save a gift she gave him for his birthday he didn’t open until film’s end). A mix from the 1960s and 1970s, Guardians was almost like an experiment in music with perhaps some inspiration drawn from the film Heavy Metal (1981) forming an integral component of the picture’s impression. In fact, the soundtrack Guardians of the Galaxy: Awesome Mix Vol. 1 went to the top of the US Billboard 200 chart (the first soundtrack with only previously released songs in history to achieve this), was the second best selling soundtrack of the year (behind Frozen), and was certified Platinum by the RIAA (selling over a million copies). However, the music was only a piece of the puzzle as the cast chemistry made Guardians the success it was. Deeply rooted with issues around family and loss, Quill’s group connected on an emotional level while maintaining a strong balance of humor as to a degree the picture resembled a sitcom made up of music videos, action sequences, and pathos. A unique mixture to be sure which worked extremely well.
The film that brought the Marvel Cinematic Universe together, The Avengers (2012) was directed by Joss Whedon whose credibility in genre work is with few parallel be it from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, Astonishing X-Men, or Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. The sixth film in Marvel Studios’ MCU, Avengers formed the crown made from the pieces established in Iron Man 1 & 2, Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America by bringing those characters as well as S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Black Widow and Hawkeye together to face an alien invasion by the Chitauri. For the film, Loki returns from being lost in the abyss where he struck a bargain with the Mad Titan Thanos to retrieve the Tesseract from S.H.I.E.L.D. employing the Chitauri Scepter in a bid to conquer the Earth with the alien Chitauri. With such a threat facing the world, the Avengers form to stop Loki and bring him to justice. The Avengers was groundbreaking, assembling characters from across several film series which proved to be exceptionally successful with the biggest opening weekend in North America and the third highest-grossing film in box office history. Just its precedence alone and seeing the various characters assembled was mind blowing but what may have been the greatest achievement is the blend of smart writing and character performances. Each character in Avengers was unique, each a distinctive voice with nuanced characteristics and foibles and the chemistry shared between each other is a credit to the actors, dialogue, and their direction. Avengers was like a living, breathing entity giving a modern day take of the hero’s journey as Loki drew parallels in a manner to Hamlet in his darkest points in the play (the overall arch of Loki across the MCU a more clearly defined line through this base of thinking, admittedly) as the protagonists battle against fate in a desperate bid for survival. The finale with the reveal of Thanos clearly (at least to comic fans) signified this to only be the first battle in a coming war which made an excellent film that much more exciting (perhaps only comparable from my vantage point as reading The Two Towers or watching The Empire Strikes Back). Avengers is just such an enjoyable diversion that it can be consumed repeatedly, many of its visuals seemingly lifted from the comic page with a distinct heft to its significance as the fate of the world hangs in the balance. It’s simply an adventure that hits all the right notes and deserves all the praise it receives.