With a nail in the coffin of a successful Avengers team-up film, Marvel had successfully proven that they could conceptualize and execute a full series of a a cinematic universe in which many characters could have in depth story arcs resulting in a much larger cross-over film. Phase 1 was a critical and financial rags-to-riches story. It would be drastically understated to claim that their largest challenges were behind them, though. At this point in the real-world timeline, they had fans and critics alike on their side, but it is much easier to fall from grace when you’re at the top and that was the real battle of Phase 2. “How do we continue to find success among the same characters and stories from Phase 1?” Put simply, you don’t. They took a complex core concept, the cinematic universe, and they implemented it in Phase 1. In Phase 2, they added depth to the concept to innovate, once more, the idea that they invented and they did it concisely through these 6 films (in order of release):
- Iron Man 3 (2013)
- Thor: The Dark World (2013)
- Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
- Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
- Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
- Ant-Man (2015)
As with the previous article in this series (“5 Things Marvel Studios Accomplished in Phase 1”), I am going to avoid taking a critical analysis of these movies individually. My goal is to take a historical look at Marvel Studio’s impact on film as a whole, the reasons for their success, and to pay respect for the groundbreaking artistic development process that they’ve mastered. With that, these are Marvel Studio’s 5 greatest accomplishments in Phase 2:
- The Induction of Alternate Genres to the Realm of Superhero Movies
Superhero movies have been long-criticized for their redundancy. The genre-defining tropes are strong and the plots are few and far between. These movies have had a tendency to follow one of two possible paths:
- The Origin Story
- Act I: The Hero Gets His/Her Powers
- Act II: The Hero Meets His/Her Villain
- Act III: The Hero Defeats His/Her Villain
- The Sequel
- Act I: The Hero Catches the Audience Up While Battling a Minor Villain
- Act II: The Hero Meets His/Her Villain, but With a Twist (Maybe Someone He/She Knows This Time, No Way!)
- Act III: The Hero Defeats His/Her Villain
It’s been done to death and Marvel is even guilty of utilizing these plots during Phase 1. However, in Phase 2 we were introduced to a new concept: “What if we took different genres of storytelling, and told those stories with our own heroes?” This stroke of clever genius allowed Marvel to take several risks in Phase 2. Instead of having another by-the-book sequel after the moderate success of Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World, they decided to attempt Captain America: The Winter Soldier as a political thriller. Finding success there, they went on to make a massive space opera (and the most original of its kind since the original Star Wars saga) with the new characters of Guardians of the Galaxy. They took it even a step further by using a classic cat burglar character, Ant-Man, to execute a heist plot. With Ants. Oceans 11 million, perhaps? These risks paid off massively and have impacted the way that the superhero genre is defined. This will continue to be a highly-utilized formula as Marvel Studios ventures into Phase 3 and beyond.
- The Foundation Is Always the Priority
When Marvel entered Phase 2, the Avengers had gotten together, and won, so the whole world expected an onslaught of sequel after sequel. The Avengers had 6 protagonists, 4 of whom had already had their own separate film franchises. At the time, everyone was looking forward to the release of the second Avengers movie with the expectation that adding more characters would be nonsensical, because movies simply cannot balance with so many primary characters. Marvel never lost sight of the brilliance that they had developed during Phase 1 though: the logic that all this is possible is because we built a foundation on fresh characters that people loved. They executed that concept just as well in Phase 2 as they did in Phase 1 with the addition of Ant-Man, Vision, Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver and The Guardians of the Galaxy. These characters played a pivotal role in Phase 2 and will continue to implant themselves into the foundation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as their stories grown in volume and complexity in the future.
- The Evolution of the Cinematic Universe As a Concept
In my previous article breaking down the success of Phase 1, I highlighted that Marvel conceptualized the idea of the cinematic universe as one that was relatively simple. In Phase 2, they layered on top of that core idea to create a much more complex environment. Not only were we seeing drastic character development as a byproduct of the events that happened in Phase 1 (i.e. Tony Stark’s massive PTSD and anxiety development in Iron Man 3), but as direct crossovers between movies through cameos and story entanglement. We saw Captain America and The Collector in Thor: The Dark World, we saw infinity stones from all of the movies to-date in Guardians of the Galaxy and in Avengers: Age of Ultron, and we even saw Thanos appear in multiple movies throughout Phase 2. Marvel found success in this time period because they did not simply settle on the success of Phase 1 by having a repeat, step-for-step, but instead reinvented the concept that they, themselves, created to begin with!
- The Extension to the Small Screen
Marvel had broken ground on the big screen in a way that left fans leaving the cinema wanting more and more is exactly what they delivered. During Phase 2, Marvel made a giant leap from an already difficult-to-manage platform in a cinematic universe by stretching that universe to the living room of fans globally with T.V. series’. Marvel’s Agents of Shield and Marvel’s Agent Carter pulled characters directly from the movies on network television (Phil Coulson and Peggy Carter, respectfully), while Marvel’s Daredevil and Marvel’s Jessica Jones reached audiences on Netflix with clear references to the overarching cinematic universes. This was a feat unlike any other ever attempted and, even though the network shows only found moderate success, they opened the door for movie-to-television crossover events within the same cinematic universe for the first time in history. The massive success of the Netflix series’ have also provided the opportunity for them to develop an entire street-level corner of the universe with a future that holds an entirely new type of crossover platform.
- The Development of the Infinity Storyline
To Marvel Studios’ credit, they manage to produce movies with exceptional detail on a granular level while, simultaneously, never losing sight of the bigger picture. They used Phase 2 to make audiences intimately familiar with 4 out of 6 of the precious infinity stones. For the uninitiated, these relics of the Marvel universe are are incredibly powerful and, with a glove called the “Infinity Gauntlet,” they can be combined to create the most powerful device in the universe. It has been made clear that the saga-ending battle will be one over the nature of these very stones. Each one is as important as the next. Phase 2 used 4 of them to familiarize audiences and build hype for Phase 3, where it will all come together in a storm of beautiful chaos. After this introduction to them, the glue of the high level plot was set in place when Marvel Studios stayed true to form with no time left in Avengers: Age of Ultron when Thanos once again appears on screen. He slides his hand into a stone-less Infinity Gauntlet and mutters the words:
“Fine. I’ll do it myself.”
In Phase 1, it was clear that Marvel Studios hoped to build something amazing. It would have been an easy out for them to stick to that formula by producing a replica in Phase 2, but they didn’t. They took risks, they kept their eye on the prize, and they took the bar that they’d set in place and set it even higher. No one can be certain of what is to come in Phase 3, but if Phase 2 is any indicator, it will be big. Phase 1 was the foundation; Phase 2 was the backbone. It is more clear than ever that it is not Marvel’s Avengers, but our Avengers, who are ready for the fight of their lives.