What it’s like to watch all the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies in 6 days

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In anticipation of the new Avengers movie, comic book creator Rob Cham watches all the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies. Photo from MARVEL STUDIOS

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Marvel Studios is the biggest film studio on the planet right now, having a track record competing with Pixar and Studio Ghibli’s reputations for consistently good films, some of the highest grossing films of all time, and an ever expanding universe with no signs of slowing down. I am fascinated with the films they made to get here, and just how this is still unreal to me. I’ve decided to try and watch all of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films in one go in anticipation for “Avengers: Infinity War” to sort of review why it is that this happened.

I came up with a plan to keep myself sane, and the rules I established for myself are as follows: I limited this marathon to three movies a day to ration it out, and I can’t watch anything else so I can save my energy.

I know “Black Panther” still isn’t out yet on home release so this is an incomplete rewatch, but I saw it in the cinemas, and I will include it in the discussion.

Here we go.

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Day One (“Iron Man,” “The Incredible Hulk,” “Iron Man 2”)

What I admire about the first Phase One films is how, right out of the gate, they were gunning to get people’s attention to their idea of a shared cinematic universe. Marvel would have these films introduce new characters, dangle plot threads for future movies, tease easter eggs and cute references, and plant all these other seeds for what they were building toward.

“Iron Man” (2008) had that first Marvel post-credits scene, introduced S.H.I.E.L.D., Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), and the idea that there’d be an Avengers movie, but it is also probably the last movie we’d see that didn’t get weighed down by juggling the shared movie elements.

Watching “Iron Man” again, it really feels like the standard fun and straightforward summer blockbuster action film we were accustomed to with superhero films, an origin story with a really great actor (Robert Downey Jr.) as Tony Stark just winning all of us over. It avoided a lot of the pitfalls of previous superhero films by having such a refreshing lead character, a more introspective approach to what made Tony Stark want to be a hero, and really cool costumes. Plus they had Jeff Bridges as Obadiah Stane who brings a certain charm to the villain role.

I do like that Marvel superheroes for the most part in the MCU kind of don’t really care about their secret identities. Tony Stark straight up admits he is Iron Man at the end of this movie.

With “The Incredible Hulk” (2008), starring Edward Norton as Bruce Banner, this film I think is mostly forgotten by a lot of people, even by Marvel Studios itself. A lot of the characters and story elements introduced in this film would never pay off, which showed just how Marvel Studios would deal with flops in the future. They would just drop whatever they were setting up. No fuss, no muss. It didn't do as well as they hoped and they would just use Hulk as a recurring presence in future films.

It is a shame that “The Incredible Hulk” has been mostly forgotten because I think they had an even more important post-credits scene where they actually showed that continuity of these films taking place in a specific order on the same planet. Tony Stark shows up at a bar to talk to one of the antagonists of the films, General Thunderbolt Ross (William Hurt). This was the first time a superhero from one film shows up in another.

I also really feel like “The Incredible Hulk” is underappreciated in other ways. Watching it now made me realize even then that Marvel Studios was aware of how superhero films started to feel similar to one another, and that in order to survive, they just probably had to blend these superhero movies with other genres. In this case, “The Incredible Hulk” was a mix of a superhero fiction and a Jason Bourne movie, a fugitive on-the-run story that happened to be about the Hulk. I dislike this movie in other ways, like how the Hulk model they used in this movie was just plain ugly. The action scenes are one of the best showcases of these larger-than-life characters.

“Iron Man 2” (2010) was, I think, a prototype movie for a lot of how these films would try and fit together in a larger universe as sequels. For one, the consequences of the first “Iron Man” were being explored, with Tony Stark being questioned by the government about his suit, and because people were trying to compete and make their own Iron Man armor. All these logical progressions considered by the writers made it feel like this stuff matters and is set in a real world with consequences.

I think there is however a strain throughout this movie. With its two antagonists, Tony Stark trying not to die from being poisoned by the arc reactor in his veins, the persistent presence of S.H.I.E.L.D. and their demands of Tony to join the Avengers Initiative, tying up how Howard Stark would be an important character in the history of the MCU, and Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow … it felt like too much.

As far as trying to juggle everything, I think “Iron Man 2” didn’t get everything right, but this was for the most part a learning exercise for Marvel about balance. This movie is all over the place, but their next films showed that they learned from this. Maybe not in “Age of Ultron.” They got most of the things right after that, I think.

I think I had an eagerness that day. I haven’t seen these movies in a while, and was trying to pick them apart if I’d notice anything new. So far a pleasant experience. Three Down, 15 more to go.

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Day Two (“Thor,” “Captain America: The First Avenger,” “The Avengers”)

I was not expecting to enjoy “Thor” (2011) on rewatch but it won me over. I thought I would be bored. I think “Thor”, more than “Hulk“ or “Iron Man,“ managed to contribute to how big the Marvel Cinematic Universe could be compared to the other Phase One origin movies.

“Thor” introduced the concept of other beings from other worlds and just how flexible the tone of these franchises could be.

A fish out of water fantasy film, “Thor” is probably the most straight up action adventure fantasy movie of all of them, with Asgard, magic involved, a bridge between worlds, frost giants, and gods, it eased us in to the concept of how magic and technology would be treated in the MCU so we can get on board with how grounded it could feel.

What I want to take away from this is how it gave us the first good Marvel villain with Tom Hiddleston as Loki. Marvel has been said to have a villain problem, but I think Loki was responsible for that criticism by giving us such a good character who challenges the hero, and has his own arc, compared to the usual villains Marvel would be known for which would be ‘the superhero but bad’ such as Yellow Jacket in “Ant-Man,” Red Skull in “Captain America: The First Avenger,” Iron Monger in “Iron Man,” Whiplash in “Iron Man 2,” etc.  

It also introduced Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) because Hawkeye is not a character who can have his own movie, but he also doesn’t really do anything in this movie? Oh, Hawkguy.

While “Thor” was able to open these movies up to the possibilities of interdimensional, interplanetary beings, “Captain America” (2011) is where Marvel firmly plants that the MCU Earth is a completely different Earth to our own. It has this whole alternate history with the presence of Hydra, flying cars, absurd retro future tech, giant death wheels, lasers, super soldiers. But I feel the more important thing “The First Avenger” gave us was Chris Evans as Captain America. The first of many Chrises in the MCU. He’s my favorite. He is too pure and good for this world, tries to only do the right thing, and never gives up. I hope he doesn’t die in “Infinity War.”

Agent Phil Coulson was an interesting tool to use in these movies where they had him be sort of the sampler of what was to come. He shows up in almost each of the Phase One films except “Captain America.”

I thought that it was real smart that they showed just how interesting it would be to see Coulson bounce off different characters, and that sort of fueled interest into “The Avengers” (2012) Here was the movie that was untread ground for superhero films, and cinema in general. Marvel was laying the foundations with all these Phase One Films and we saw it all collide and answered the question ‘What would happen if these characters collided?’ I still get chills from that one group shot of all six of them finally together. I think that what I can say about “The Avengers” is that they were really economical given how there were all these personalities are involved that it really helped that they managed to squeeze in so much character in whatever line of dialogue.

Mark Ruffalo was introduced as the Hulk because of creative differences with Edward Norton, and this is where I feel like I really can’t believe how good Marvel is at casting. I am not tired of this movie at all because of just how Hulk is such a highlight in that final fight scene.

There is just so much to say why “The Avengers” is such an important cultural moment where it was years of work paying off, everyone was buying Avengers t-shirts, sharing memes of moments from the movie, and even to the point where every film studio ever wanted to make their own Cinematic Universe. I highly recommend checking out Moviebob’s video essay on what makes “The Avengers” such a monumental milestone in the history of cinema if you’re interested in a deeper analysis.

There are two post-credits scene of “The Avengers”, one where we are introduced to the bigger threat behind the movie, Thanos, then uncast, and the iconic shawarma scene where they did not show that here in the Philippines because they shot it only a few weeks before the premiere of “The Avengers” and it was only ever available to American audiences.

I’m honestly still fine at this point of the marathon. “The Avengers” was just so much dang fun and I can’t say it doesn’t bring a smile to my face.

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Day Three (“Iron Man 3,” “Thor: The Dark World,” “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”)

Phase Two. I think this is where things kind of start to go wrong … but also really right?

Superhero movies prior to the MCU would have a standard template, and that would be the characters' origin stories. Adaptations of superhero films would choose to adapt those because that is where the story starts.

In sequels, adaptations of source material traditionally could be sort of whatever book comes next, but with superhero comics that have hundreds of issues and story arcs, and film studios can’t really afford to put out movies that fast to adapt each of them, so there is a freedom here in the MCU to sort of have this wealth of material to draw from, and use it to create something new entirely in its canon. Superhero film sequels were a mixed bag and with the MCU hoping to grow beyond where we’ve been before, the next few films would be a sign of things to come.

I love how “Iron Man 3” (2013) is a Shane Black movie through and through (he wrote “Lethal Weapon” and “The Last Action Hero”), and we have to admire that Marvel got the talents that it did to direct these movies. At this time, they tapped directors such as Edgar Wright of the Cornetto Trilogy (“Shaun of the Dead,” “Hot Fuzz,” and “The World’s End”) for “Ant-Man;” James Gunn, a relative unknown for “Guardians of the Galaxy;” and the Russo Brothers — best known for directing sitcoms such as “Arrested Development” and “Community” — were the last people you’d think of when it came to helming a blockbuster.

“Iron Man 3” is a nice send off to the franchise, a definite improvement over “Iron Man 2,” it is a great ‘middle’ sequel in these series of Phase 2 movies. This was the first film post-Avengers and it had stuck to having characters deal with real consequences of the previous movies.

Tony now has PTSD after the incident in New York, and having these films build up toward the next series of films while building off of what the past films have done offers us the benefits of serialization of seeing these characters evolve. It fits into the themes of “Iron Man 3,” where the ghost of our past sins will come back to haunt us. It also manages to avoid the pitfalls of adapting a character like the Mandarin, a caricature of the Yellow Fear and Communist overtones at the time of his creation, played by Ben Kingsley, revealed to be nothing more than just a puppet known as Trevor Slattery.

I saw a lot of ire in that these movies were not following the comic books, but I have to say that this was the right move and made for a more interesting take on the character as problematic as the Mandarin. It also proved that what we can expect from these films is something different from the comics we’ve all read.

“Thor: The Dark World” (2013) is seen as a low point along with “The Incredible Hulk,” and I could say at this point the superhero fatigue was starting to weigh heavily on audiences. These Marvel movies are now just setting us up for next thing with the Infinity Stones for the big fight with Thanos, and I can tell you that made “Thor: The Dark World” suffer, and I can say that this is a familiar fatigue as a comics fan for over 15 years. There are downsides to a shared universe.

I do admire that they did something completely different for the final fight scene in “The Dark World,” where it could have been the standard big fight but they made it fun with all the portal shenanigans. Chris Hemsworth continues to charm me as Thor, Tom Hiddleston as Loki goes through his own arc here, and I do appreciate just how Loki grows from where he was at in “Thor” and “The Avengers,” but I really hate that Christopher Eccleston as Malekith was just such a bland villain, and how grey this film was with its cinematography. This film, I think, just suffers from mediocrity. But I got through it because I was looking forward to “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.”

“The Winter Soldier” (2014) is said to be the best MCU film and it definitely strays away from well tread ground of superhero films. I said “The Incredible Hulk” was this mix of genres, and we can look at “Iron Man” as this action comedy, “The Dark World” is this fantasy epic, but with “The Winter Soldier,” it was approached as this spy thriller which we have never really seen done in superhero film fiction, and this was where I think they really started thinking about what kind of genres they could mix with superheroes.

It was apparent that they were aiming to have political overtones in this by having a lot of post-9/11 themes present about freedom versus security, and just reckoning with the government’s role in the world. It is fascinating that there is this discussion and a deconstruction of the superhero genre in these Captain America films, and this is why this sub-franchise in the MCU is my favorite. They also gave Scarlett Johannson a character arc as Black Widow, finally.

At this point, I remember how back then, I would be irked forever by how post-Avengers, that a lot of people would complain why these characters just wouldn’t call on the Avengers to help, and I don’t know, dude, they’re living their own life and adventures, and the immediacy of the problem doesn’t really give them a lot of time to try and organize a get-together. Also, Hulk probably couldn’t have helped at all in “The Winter Soldier.”

Day Three. Nine movies down, nine more to go. I’m at the halfway point and I am getting tired of the same superhero shenanigans and all these set pieces are starting to lose their charm. I only ever loved the action scenes in “The Winter Soldier” where you had the tanker scene that showed us just how lethal Captain America could be, the elevator scene, the highway fight with “The Winter Soldier,” and those Helicarrier sabotage scenes. “Iron Man 3” was fun but the action scenes in that movie were not its bread and butter.

Thankfully, I remember just how the next few films they’d be doing would solve these problems. Maybe not “Age of Ultron.” I was not looking forward to “Age of Ultron.”

Part Two: The curse of “The Age of Ultron,” why “Doctor Strange” is useless, and the lead-up to “Infinity War.”