We’re in the final month leading up to the culmination of a decade long story arc told in movie form. The conclusion of an historical event never before attempted in movie history. I speak, of course, of the Avengers story in the Disney Marvel Cinematic Universe, a three act, 22 movie story told over ten years. Like many fans, I’m re-watching all the movies of the series in story order in preparation for the long-awaited day (or as close as one can get to story order, making certain allowances for flashbacks, parallel arcs, etc.). I don’t intend to give a critique or movie reviews here, rather I’m interested in filling in the details that I missed the first time around, and noting patterns that weren’t necessarily obvious without the benefit of hindsight. If you have noted something that I’ve missed, please feel free to include it in the comments.
Now, on to Act 1 (creatively named: Phase 1).
Phase 1 Movies
The order I watched Phase 1 in was as follows:
- Captain America: The First Avenger
- Iron Man 1
- Iron Man 2
- The Incredible Hulk
- Avengers Assemble
A few of the Avengers Phase 1 movies were difficult to know how to slot in the viewing order. Specifically, Captain America, which is mostly set in the past, but is sandwiched between scenes from the present, and The Incredible Hulk, which would appear to be set at approximately the same time as Iron Man 2 (due to the end credits scene). Otherwise, however, the movies lead quite well from one into the other Avengers Assemble. For example, the closing credits scene of Iron Man 2 leads direction into Thor, and the closing credits of Thor, leads directly into the Avengers.
As I said, I’m not here to re-critique these movies. I enjoyed all of them, some more than others. But each is a well-written popcorn-munching, big-screen, action flick with lots of eye candy and even a few thought-provoking ideas (Iron Man has already inspired 3D printed gauntlets and suits, as well as a host of personal digital assistant apps and, arguably, an entirely new line of voice-activated home technology). In the order I watched them, I noticed some things I didn’t the first time around, when I was watching with a single-movie perspective. I also noticed some interesting trends through the movies, that fed into the Avengers.
First off, Captain America showed us Tony Stark’s father, thus tying us into the Iron Man franchise. We also see the Tesseract (although we don’t yet know it’s the space infinity gem) and we see it in association with Norse mythological symbolism. Specifically, Yggdrasil, the world tree. Thus, creating a link to the Thor movies, and to the 9 realms spoken of therein. In addition to the main chronology, this is another reason I believe Captain America is useful to place at the front of the series.
Of course, there were other links, such as Bucky, who comes back in Captain America 2, linking us to that movie, as well as Civil War, and providing us a lead in to the technology of Black Panther and Wakanda.
For me, the biggest revelation on re-watching this movie, was the ‘end’ of the Red Skull. Somehow, the first time around, I completely missed the fact that a portal had opened and he was whisked off, on a column of energy, into space (I had thought he was vapourised). On hindsight, this scene was very important to the franchise for two reasons.
First, the Russo Brothers have said all Phase 1-3 arcs will be wrapped up. That implies that we will learn what happened to the Red Skull (perhaps a servant of Thanos?). The second point that was important was the beam of energy itself — I’ll come back to this soon.
Of all the movies leading up to Avengers Assemble, Iron Man 1 was my favourite. Not only did Robert Downey Jr. Do an amazing job at portraying the super genius playboy Tony Stark, but the story itself was well written with interesting characters, and I completely geeked out over Stark’s man cave.
It’s not difficult to see how the Iron Man movies fit into the Avengers universe. Not only is Stark the link to Captain America, but his technology features heavily in the conclusion of Avengers, as it is likely the only energy source on the planet capable of creating the portal via the Tesseract. Perhaps even more importantly, in regards to phase 1, however, was that it was in the Iron Man movies that we saw, most obviously, the development of SHIELD and the introduction to Black Widow (specifically Iron Man 2). This is where we also meet Agent Phil Coulson, who also features in Thor, Avengers, and of course, his own spin-off TV series.
The Incredible Hulk
Chronologically, the Incredible Hulk seems to fall within the span of the Iron Man movies. It came out very closely after the first Iron Man movie, and the end credit sequence was the first real on-screen hint that this was the beginning of a shared universe (I was so excited at the end credit scene with Tony Stark and SHIELD).
The Hulk movie itself didn’t really seem to fit within the overall Avengers arc, however, something Disney/Marvel seems to have realized, as they never made another. However, there’s no specific reason why the supporting characters, especially Thunderbolt Ross, couldn’t be brought back in Phase 4, perhaps even in the background of 90’s Captain Marvel, before catching up with them in relation to SWORD?
The final solo-character movie of Phase 1, Thor introduced the relationships and broader universe necessary for the plot of the Avengers. It demonstrated the depth of the feelings between Thor and his adopted brother Loki, the lengths Loki would go to for acquiring the throne, and the vast difference in power between Asgard and Earth. Or, as Nick Fury put it,
“…we learned we are hopelessly, hilariously, outgunned.”
It also introduced Hawkeye, and the Bifrost (rainbow bridge), technically described as an Einstein-Rosen Bridge, or wormhole, by Jane Foster. At first, this appears to be just a cool piece of magi-tech, but it the scope of the entire Phase 1, it can be seen as something much more…
Signals to Space
In Thor, we see an energy beam bring the Asgardians around the Nine Realms, including to Earth. This is a cool piece of magic technology that fits well with the theme of Asgard, but I believe it’s also the piece of information that links the character’s movies together, and to Avengers (and even to Thanos).
The Bifrost is portrayed as an immense energy beam to space, which acts as a portal. That is, it acts just like the Tesseract. In fact, Thor and Loki use the Tesseract the same way at the end of Avengers Assemble. So, in terms of story chronology, when did we first see such a beam / portal? At the end of Captain America, when Red Skull was whisked away. Furthermore, we also saw a huge beam of energy come from the large arc reactor at the end of Iron Man 1 to destroy Obadiah.
That is, each of the first movies ofthe trinity (Thor, Iron Man Captain America) had an intense beam of energy blasting into space. A similar beam was then used in Avengers, along with the Tesseract, to create the portal. I believe this was an intentional connection made by the producers between the three movies, and is alluded to in Thor’s speech to Nick Fury,
“Your work with the Tesseract is what drew Loki to it, and his allies. It is the signal to all the realms that the earth is ready for a higher form of war.”
From a timeline of the movies, science adviser to the MCU Sean Carroll noted in May 2011 (before either Captain America or Thor had been released) a conversation with Kevin Feige where he mentioned the Einstein-Rosen bridge. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to conclude that this idea was popular enough that they added it to Captain America as an intentional tie-in to the broader space arc.
One thing the Tesseract arc in Avengers Assemble suggests to me for the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War movie, which I think has already been borne out from the trailers, is that Thanos first comes for the Power and Space gems. The reason being that he needs the power gem in order to fully utilize the space gem for intergalactic transportation. In addition, we get some hint at how powerful the mind gem could be when coupled with the power gem suggesting that for an interesting movie, it probably has to be one of the last gems collected.
The first Avengers movie nicely brought the diverse characters together, showed the conflicts within themselves and between the group members, and gave us some nice fan fun with the heroes fighting each other. Although Tony Stark featured heavily in the movie and his arc reactor was used to power the Tesseract, Avengers Assemble was ultimately a continuation of the story from Thor — the relationship between Thor and Loki, and Loki’s quest for power. Not only was this obvious from the plot, but the story began and ended with Loki. This may become important after analysis of Phase 2.
Phase 1 as Act 1
I was a bit disappointed in myself as a writer that it took me so long to realize that ‘Phase 1’ actually meant ‘Act 1’ of a three act story. The writers laid it out clearly, but hid the idea in a simple terminology difference.
Anyway, as the first act of a three act story goes, Phase 1 of the Avengers series hit all the right spots. It introduced the main characters, their back stories, their strengths and weaknesses, and brought them together. Considering the story from the perspective of the Avengers group, Avengers Assemble provided the call to action as well as the refusal (when the group fell apart) and the final acceptance (when they overcame their individual differences to come together and do what had to be done). The entire phase 1 set the scene very well for the rest of the series.
That’s been my look back at the Marvel Cinematic Universe Phase One movies from Disney/Marvel, and some of the interesting story and plot points I’ve observed when viewing them with the entire story arc in mind. I’ll be posting a look at the Phase Two movies and my thoughts on them shortly so be sure to check back.