Long before the galaxy had its guardians, before a cohort of ants could execute a heist, or before our beloved heroes were divided by global accords, there was a simple beginning. Cold and alone in the unknown, Marvel Studios undertook the biggest project in cinematic history. We know now, of course, that it has grown into a modern renaissance of silver-screen mastery.
Back then, though, it was a small studio with a big dream, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and that dream began with an inkling of hope. That inkling was called “Phase 1”. It’s time to take a deep dive into the accomplishments of Phase 1 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and to pay homage to all that has come before.
Phase 1 was full of mystery. The superhero genre had, at that time, been largely based in fantasy. Even the realness of the Dark Knight Trilogy couldn’t be executed without encompassing its viewers in a dark and painful world. It had been a long time since we could be introduced to heroes on screen that filled us with hope and inspiration. Phase 1 flooded theaters with movies that did just that. These 6 movies, to be exact (in order of release):
- Iron Man (2008)
- The Incredible Hulk (2008)
- Iron Man 2 (2010)
- Thor (2011)
- Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
- Marvel’s Avengers (2012)
While all six of these films could be broken down and analyzed to the core, and they have been, that is not my purpose. I would like to highlight the brilliance of them as a collective piece of art; a subset of a much larger vision. With that, these are Marvel Studio’s 5 greatest accomplishments in Phase 1:
- Widespread Familiarity of Unfamiliar Characters
It seems farfetched to look back and realize that people weren’t familiar with the likes of Captain America, Thor or Iron Man prior to the release of these films, but it’s true. Outside of the common comic book reader, people were not familiar with these characters, their supporting casts, or their backstories. Having lost the rights to their biggest characters, Marvel had to undertake the challenge of developing a cinematic universe without the likes of Spider-Man, X-Men or The Fantastic 4. Considering that ‘nerd culture’ was just finding its way to mainstream popularity, this was a massive hurdle for Marvel to cross. By the end Marvel’s Avengers was released in 2012, effectively ending Phase 1, these characters were not only loved by millions, but they became household names on a global scale.
- They Changed the Formula: Human Stories + Superhuman Protagonists
“What kind of stories can we tell with these characters?” That is the question that Marvel Studios had to ask themselves. It seems like a simple question to answer but, until that point, every story had been told from the perspective of a globally recognized hero who happens to have super strength or the ability to fly. These stories are fun, of course, but it’s not relatable to the average movie-goer. It’s not a platform on which Marvel felt they could build an entire world around in a way that would make people crave the depth and continuity which they were prepared to give, so they changed the genre entirely. They decided to take human stories about soldiers, businessmen, lovers and family members and used ‘the superhero element’ as an afterthought. They were telling timeless stories under the pretense of people with the money, intelligence, determination or willpower to do something about the injustices that they were seeing. This matters so much more than anyone could have imagined because it unlocks an aspect of character growth and development that could not be achieved without such relatability.
- The ‘Science Is Better Than Magic’ Approach
By 2008, we had entered an age where seemingly anything was possible on screen. The realm of movie magic, by way of CGI technology, had grown in popularity and while it worked for some franchises (i.e. Harry Potter), Marvel quickly realized that if they wanted to set their cinematic universe in a background that is based on real-life Earth, then people needed to be able to relate to it. Their approach to doing that was grounding everything in science. Iron Man’s suit came from engineering. The Hulk came to be after Gamma Radiation Exposure. Steve Rogers became Captain America as a science experiment. Even the world of Thor was well thought out and explained as ‘Advanced Asgardian Technology’. This furthered the relatability factor instead of distracting from the story and the impact was much larger as a result.
- The Invention of the Cinematic Universe
Right now, in 2016, the idea of cinematic universes is a very common one. From Warner Brothers and DC Entertainment attempting to launch a cinematic universe (commonly referred to as DCEU), to Hannah-Barbara trying to launch their own wacky live-action universe, the idea has become common language. This wasn’t always the case. When Marvel had the idea, it was creative and it was original. Marvel Studios is the true inventor of the cinematic universe and the schematic was wildly complex in execution, but the concept itself was a simple one: Let’s provide a world full of lovable characters and, as we tell their stories, it will have real-time impact on other characters in the world. This vision also allowed them to use larger story arcs, which is the sole reason that the impossible happened when Marvel’s Avengers was released as, both critically and financially, the biggest and most successful cinematic crossover event of all time.
- A Foundation Upon Which a Future Could Be Built
Throughout Phase 1, it was apparent that we were headed toward an Avengers movie. That was awesome. It was clear that Marvel’s Avengers was going to culminate all of the work Marvel Studios had done in Phase 1 into a massive cinematic spectacle where the heroes join forces to save the day. We were right. The heroes won, the credits rolled and we all were ready to go home satisfied, right? Right. That is until a critical moment, with 60 seconds of film left, where the screen fades in from black and audiences hear:
“Humans. They are not the cowering wretches we were promised.
They stand. They are unruly, and therefore cannot be ruled.”
Then, in a moment of complete surprise, Thanos turns and grins as if to say, “you’ve only witnessed the beginning.” It was in this moment that we realized the importance of the work Marvel had done. They had built a foundation for their cinematic universe upon which sequel after sequel and story after story could be told. Not only does each movie and each phase have a concise and logical story arc, but they unveiled that an entire three-phase arc was in place, and Thanos is coming. Get ready.
Marvel Studios is building, perhaps, the greatest piece of cinematic art in movie history. They are revolutionizing the way that we experience movie and the expectations that we have from those film. Every piece of art has its beginning; it’s backdrop. Marvel has painted their backdrop exceptionally well and it has become the bar for building a foundation for a cinematic universe. That foundational bar is called Phase 1, and it will be a very long time before someone else reaches it.