In June 2008, Robert Downey Jr. announced to a small press conference that Tony Stark -genius billionaire, playboy philanthropist Tony Stark – was Iron Man. Little did he know that eleven years later, he would again be declaring these words against the mad titan Thanos in a battle for the fate of the universe. That’s where just over a decade of storytelling has taken us: Los Angeles, World War II, Wakanda, and the far reaches of space. How did a full decade of superhero films manage to tell an expansive, cohesive story and wrap it up so perfectly in this years’ Avengers: Endgame? We’ll break it all down here, but let’s first look at the most impressive feat the Marvel Cinematic Universe achieved: this has never been done before.
When looking at franchise films, Star Trek and Star Wars seem to be the longest running and most episodic series in film. But we should realize that Star Trek – as long-running as it may be – does not tell one cohesive story. In fact, the franchise saw multiple continuation series including The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise. Clearly, those cast members would play the same characters in both television and cinematic roles, but their stories were never as linear as audiences have come to expect. Credit must be given to Gene Roddenberry for creating the blueprints back in 1966 that would ultimately pave the way for serial sci-fi storytelling.
Both Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk were released in 2008 and seemed at first to be separate stories, at least until audiences were given their first taste of MCU post-credit scenes. The MCU hardly invented post-credits, but they certainly breathed a new life into them, creating something akin to a secret handshake that teased what territory the franchise would be adapting next. It wouldn’t be until May 2010 that the MCU kicked into high gear, however, with their ten year plan for Tony Stark in Iron Man 2. Tony is a complex character but also the Marvel equivalent of Batman, making him the perfect core to center the endless MCU storytelling structure around. Stark is given the opportunity to work alongside other heroes in the hope of preserving their world and – to his surprise – countless other planets. This began our ascent to the most expansive nature of the MCU: space.
Thor opened up endless possibilities by implying that mythology and magic were just branches of science that could fit cohesively in a world full of radioactive monsters and armor-clad billionaires. Simultaneously, this also laid the groundwork to bring us the cosmic weirdness of Guardians of the Galaxy – a group of misfits including a lone human stuck in the 80’s, a talking raccoon, and a tree-like being named Groot. Chris Hemsworth’s Thor was the next character to see an incredible arc through his almost decade involvement in the MCU. At first expecting the throne to his fathers’ kingdom of Asgard, Thor Odinson would see an eight year journey regarding what it actually takes to be a king, a son, a brother, and a friend. At first entitled and selfish, Thor transformed into a being worthy of admiration and respect. But before we see he would interact with our already established characters, the 1940’s period piece The First Avenger introduced us to the MCU’s Superman-like beacon of hope: Captain America.
In Captain America: The First Avenger, we see the origins of Steve Rogers, a young man who dreams of serving his country despite his feeble structure. Almost the anti-Tony Stark, Steve dreams of helping others by doing whatever he can – even if it means receiving a supersoldier serum to stop Nazis from destroying the world. Chris Evans portrays Rogers as the ultimate patriot with a heart of gold and a conscious that won’t surrender. This is the anchor Stark would need by his side decades later as a constant reminder that the world has issues, but becoming skeptic and pessimistic of the future doesn’t save lives. The First Avenger also introduced the world to what will be its first MacGuffin tether to the next 8 years of films: the infinity stones.
These stones were singularities later crafted into stones by the Big Bang. The individual stones – each wielding the power of reality, time, space, mind, soul, and power – granted its recipient a unique power unmatched by any living being in the universe, ultimately relying on the wielder’s better nature to choose how such power is used. In The First Avenger, a Nazi agent named Johann Schmidt – whose failed attempts with the original supersoldier serum turned him into the Red Skull – obtained a cube known as the Tesseract whose untapped power would later be revealed as that of the Space Stone. It was was buried alongside Captain America after crashing into an ocean and frozen upon entry. Both Captain and the stone were dug up almost 70 years later and brought to New York, making them the catalysts for our first voyage into the MCU’s event scale: The Avengers.
Throughout the MCU’s early entries was one constant: Nick Fury. Portrayed by an eye-patched Samuel L. Jackson, Fury is the director of S.H.I.E.L.D. – the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division – and ringleader behind the Avengers Initiative. Recruiting heroes across four years, Fury brought together Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Black Widow, Hawkeye, and the Hulk to stop a full scale invasion brought on by Thor’s adopted brother, Loki. Wielding the Tesseract and a scepter later revealed to have contained the Mind Stone, courtesy of the Mad Titan himself, Loki sought to rule over Earth after losing the throne of Asgard to Thor.
The Avengers was a mind-blowing feat back in 2012 that had audiences asking “where else can they go?” Seven years later, the MCU would answer with what is arguably its biggest movie in regards to both scale and importance. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The Avengers capture Loki, contain the Tesseract, and go their separate ways until called upon again by Fury. Side stories of this world would later be told by the Marvel Television properties like Agent Carter, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, and Inhumans, but nothing that matched the film’s scope.
While The Avengers seemed like the biggest milestone in the MCU at the time, it was simply the conclusion of the first of many “Phases” planned across the span of eleven years. In Phase One, we saw the previously mentioned Avengers become the new standard of blockbuster crossover success. In Phase Two, we were given multiple sequels and Avengers: Age of Ultron, which saw our heroes torn by the literal creation of personal demons and having to face them. While they faced those demons, audiences were introduced to new characters that would permanently join the MCU ranks. In both Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man, the MCU created easily their funniest and most comedic takes in storytelling yet. Guardians introduced us into the goofy and wild west-like cosmic side of Marvel while Paul Rudd’s Scott Lang showed how small of a scale (pardon the pun) Marvel films can get while remaining entertaining. These characters would prove crucial to Phase Three, which would ultimately bring the MCU to its first real conclusion.
Going into Phase Three, audiences were now fully aware of Thano’ plan to obtain all six Infinity Stones. The only stones not yet introduced were the Time and Soul Stones, the former of which was held by one Stephen Strange. Doctor Strange gave our first look into the potential of Marvel’s magical and supernatural realms, something that will come in handy later down the road. Strange’s story is similar to Tony Stark’s, although Strange seems to have much more of a fascination for these realms than Stark, who is still haunted by the scale of space. Strange holds the Time Stone in a container named the Eye of Agamotto, only using it when absolutely necessary. That left just the Soul Stone, which Infinity Wars would streamline into something quite dark.
Phase Three saw more new character introductions than any previous Phase, including The Wasp, Captain Marvel, Black Panther, and everyone’s favorite friendly neighborhood hero, Spider-Man. In a jaw-dropping turn of events, Sony and Marvel Studios reached a deal that would allow Spider-Man, formally a Sony property, to join the otherwise Disney-owned Avengers universe. This gave the world Spider-Man: Homecoming and Tom Holland’s involvement in Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Infinity War, and the Phase Three finale Spider-Man: Far From Home. While this was an incredible display of the MCU’s power as a business, their branding power would soon display even greater event moments.
Black Panther not only introduced a hidden Afro-futuristic nation and Shakespearean tale of royalty and political responsibility, but also became the first solo MCU film to feature a black lead and predominantly black cast. The result was an enormous response by audiences who clamored over not just the film’s diversity, but also the love and care given to T’Challa’s story and its depiction of Wakanda. Black Panther went on to earn over a billion dollars in less than a month and solidified itself as a monument on the importance of diversity in films. Audiences did not have to wait too long to see their favorite characters from Black Panther again as they returned the same year for the epic Avengers: Infinity War.
Released almost a decade after Iron Man, Avengers: Infinity War was the culmination of ten years and eighteen films that would bring the original Avenger’s story to an end. Unexpectedly, fans were not prepared for how imperative the word “end” was to Infinity War. After Thanos obtains all six infinity stones – including the soul stone by sacrificing something/someone that he loves – he wipes out half of the universe’s population, including most of Earth’s mightiest heroes. Most of the Guardians, Doctor Strange, Black Panther, Spider-Man- among countless others- were “snapped” out of existence, with the credits rolling over a proud Thanos and the remaining Avengers reeling from a genuine defeat.
The MCU had two more films planned before the Infinity Saga’s true end, including its introduction to the most powerful Avenger seen yet: Captain Marvel. Captain Marvel continued Marvel’s streak of diversity inclusion by introducing Brie Larson as a cosmic hero capable of bringing down any foe in her path. However, what she can’t do is turn back time or reverse the actions seen in Infinity War. The only way to stop the past from happening is to undo the events altogether using quantum knowledge introduced by Ant-Man following his release from the Quantum Realm in Ant-Man and the Wasp‘s post-credit scenes. This leads to the epically satisfying grand finale that is Avengers: Endgame. Endgame is still fairly fresh so I will avoid spoilers, but suffice to say the story of these heroes we’ve grown to love are given proper conclusions, all while leaving doors wide open for new faces.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is not dead. Certain characters will return and some will do so in the form of television shows streamed exclusively on Disney’s new Disney+ app. But to mention the history of cinema across the past decade and not talk about the sheer scope of storytelling provided by Kevin Feige and Marvel Studios is an enormous mistake. The world of superhero movies will never be the same and we have Disney, Marvel, Kevin Feige, and Robert Downey Jr. to credit. The only question left is a simple one: “what’s next?”