We’ve arrived at a moment three years in the making, and a moment we won’t be in again for another five. It’s a moment that brings feelings of exhaustion for some critics, and great excitement for some fans. We find ourselves at the end of the second phase of Marvel Studios movies. To mark this occasion, I thought we’d take a moment and really look at where we are. Maybe that will inform where we are going – for better and for worse.
For the sake of clarity, I’m only concerning myself with what happens between the title cards. While the tags are fun, I won’t be thinking about them for the purposes of this post. Likewise for the rather nifty Marvel One Shots like “All Hail the King” and “Agent Carter”. Speaking of which, the TV Series this studio have spawned are also out-of-bounds, so there will be no consideration of Agent Carter, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., or my favorite thing Marvel has done so far – Daredevil.
If you ask me – and it’s my site so I’ll assume you are asking me – Phase Two can be divided into three groupings. The Great (THE WINTER SOLDIER and GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY), The Good (IRON MAN 3), and The Okay-But-Could-Have-Been-Better (THE DARK WORLD, AGE OF ULTRON, ANT-MAN). What that means is that after sticking the landing so well in Phase One, Marvel Studios struggle to keep the nose up in Phase Two. How is that possible? How were things so much more difficult to control the second time around?
One thought is that these films aren’t really meant to tell one long story, and that the ultimate goal of each film is only to get you stoked for the next film. I don’t believe this to be true. While it’s plain to see that there are indeed some bread crumbs being dropped on the path, most of what is happening is in service of the individual story…and those individual stories have a few more commonalities than meet the eye.
The most obvious theme – the one that carries through all six films – is the theme of the past coming back on these characters in a big way. All six films have incidents where characters in the present have to pay a heavy price for the sins of their past. Sometimes it is frighteningly close – such as Steve Rogers atoning for his inability to protect Bucky. Other times, it’s a much wider net, such as Ronan wanting to make the entire planet of Xandar pay for their treatment of the Kree. No matter what, it’s clear that with the first phase behind us, it’s time for these titans to earn the mythology that has made them what they are…and the only way to do that is to stand front and centre, and answer for your past transgressions.
However that theme is not absolute – which prevents this phase from being the Quest for Forgiveness Movement of this four-colour symphony. The past that made Scarlett Witch and Quicksilver what they are can’t completely be laid at the feet of The Avengers; neither can the war between The Asgardians and The Dark Elves be burdened to Thor.
So if that was Marvel’s overarching idea, it is, at best, incomplete.
The other constant theme – the one that began with the conclusion of Phase One, is that of team-building. So very many of these characters are used to being solo acts, if not the one in the spotlight. To take a superstar and get them used to being a team player with a narrower purpose is an interesting idea. It’s a concept some struggle with (I’m looking your way Mister Stark), and a concept that shouldn’t even be considered for others (ex-cons, yes I’m talking about you…including you, Ant-Man). And yet, bringing together a multi-faceted attack force that can come at a challenge from all-sides is something that should be celebrated in life. Too often, egomaniacs believe they have all the answers. They don’t play well with others and believe that they can fix it all.
But hell, even a god like Thor needs help sometimes.
Thing is, coming together as a team – be it the pseudo S.H.I.E.L.D. in The Winter Soldier, or Loki getting rolled into The Warriors Three (plus Jane Foster and Heimdall) feels like a splintered column by the time the sun sets on this phase. Hank Pym trusts his daughter enough to help train a new Ant-Man, but not enough to throw her into the fray…and the ordeal with Ultron doesn’t exactly do wonders for The Avengers’ cohesion.
So is the lesson of Phase Two “come together…but still plan a ride home”?
To this question, I suspect the answer will actually be “no”, since, going forward, more and more you will see these characters intermingle, which was really the point in creating “a universe”. That said, much work will need to be done to truly integrate the stories happening off-world. Every bit of GUARDIANS and much of the narrative surrounding THOR really feels like it’s happening independent of everything else, no?
But now that we’ve considered all that, where does that leave us? Will these themes continue through the nine-films-plus-Spider-man that will make up Phase Three? Or will the next phase of the story take us down a much different path? Hell, by the time we get there, will we even see these films in a different light?
Perhaps, for the answer to that, we need to look back to Phase One. In the midst of all those origin stories and character introductions, we had IRON MAN 2. That film, while commercially successful felt uneven compared to what we’d already seen, and more than any of the other early entries, seemed like one boxcar on a train rolling down the track – necessary (arguably) but part of a greater whole. Think about it, when do you ever form an opinion on “chapters six-through-ten” of a twenty chapter story? It’s the difficulty I’ve often faced in criticizing television – it’s tricky to consider a single episode as an individual bit, and as a piece of a whole season, and as a piece of a longer narrative all at once.
With all of that in mind, I ask you: What if Phase Two is one boxcar? What of we look back on this segment of films five years from now with greater clarity and context because we can see the seeds it has planted, and the themes echoed in the chapters to come?
It’s a long train – perhaps even too long of a train. Will the dream of building a universe give way because the centre cannot hold? Or will we look back in five years with more understanding of how these stories were out to inform the future?
Come on back to this site in 2020, and we’ll discuss.