The runaway success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has changed the film industry. Now DC, Ghostbusters, Knights of the Round Table, Transformers (Unicron help us) and more have announced their intent to get in on the shared universe craze. But the secret to much of the MCU’s success (through its self-styled first two “phases”) is that much of the material is, well, good! Action, heart and humor are all parts of the formula, and for my part I am a fan but a critical one who knows there’s room for improvement. So in the first section of this post I’ll just run down some of my personal rankings of all things MCU (and I’m sure I’ll think of some later I’ve neglected to include); in the second, I want to get my recommendations for Phase 3 out there. And now, something to think on. If the release slate as it stands now plays out as planned, by summer 2019 there will be 22 films in the MCU (released in a span of 11 years). 22!!! That is only one fewer than the 23 films in the James Bond series now in 2015!
My MCU Rankings
Ranking the films, least favorite to favorite: Iron Man 2, The Incredible Hulk, Thor: The Dark World, Thor, Iron Man, Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man, Captain America: The First Avenger, The Avengers, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Iron Man 3
Ranking the TV seasons, least favorite to favorite: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 1 (although I’m a fan of pretty much everything after the Hydra reveal), Daredevil Season 1, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 2, Agent Carter Season 1
Best Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episodes: “Turn Turn Turn”, “Melinda”, “The Dirty Half Dozen”
Best Agent Carter episodes: “Now is Not the End”, “Bridge and Tunnel” (the first two)
Best Daredevil episodes: “Speak of the Devil”, “Nelson v. Murdock”
The Two Strongest Post-Credits Scenes: Schawarma in The Avengers (simply classic – my favorite detail is Chris Evans trying to cover the beard he grew for Snowpiercer); “Therapy” in Iron Man 3 (a tag that actually reaches its tendrils into the opening of the film to give it a layer of humor).
The Two Weakest Post-Credits Scenes: The Gym in Captain America: The First Avenger (exciting in 2011, weak by technicality in 2015 since it’s basically just an Avengers sizzle reel); Thanos and the Infinity Gauntlet in Avengers: Age of Ultron (I’ve talked a bit about this before).
Best Third-Act Blowouts: Battle of New York in The Avengers; London Portalpalooza in Thor: The Dark World; The Incredible Shrinking Skirmish in Ant-Man
Best Stan Lee Cameo: Thor: The Dark World as a mental patient
Favorite Scores: Ramin Djawadi’s Iron Man; Brian Tyler’s Iron Man 3; Henry Jackman’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier; Christophe Beck’s Ant-Man
A moment of acknowledgement for creative “casualties” of the studio: Edward Norton, Mickey Rourke, Jon Favreau, Alan Taylor, Edgar Wright
My Recommendations for Phase 3
1) Diversity in Character
Right now, in the wake of Age of Ultron, there is only one white male Avenger. The film series as a whole would be wise to lean into this and follow its cue into other movies (not to mention utilizing that Avengers team to its potential). One of the only negatives from the MCU Spider-Man announcement was the news that including a solo Spidey film would push back Black Panther and Captain Marvel, crucial films when it comes to addressing diversity in comic book movies. But even so, the urban high school setting of the Spider-Man movie is also a good place to cultivate a diverse (nonsuperpowered, supposedly) cast of characters. The bottom line is that forward momentum in representation here is key. The world is watching.
2) Diversity in Genre
You hear a lot about comic book movie “fatigue” in discussions about if and when the superhero bubble will burst. One great way to pre-empt monotony is to lean into genre diversity for your superhero films. Make Doctor Strange a horror-tinged supernatural/psychedelic freak show (early comments by cinematographer Ben Davis calling it “Marvel’s Fantasia” are encouraging). Make the next Spider-Man solo film a high school dramedy with fireworks. Make Black Panther a mix of mysticism, politics, and science unlike anything we’ve seen. Create unforgettable and distinct space operas with Captain Marvel and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Balancing these novel elements with what you could describe as Marvel’s house style is a challenge that the filmmakers behind Phase 3 will need to meet head on.
3) Manage the Sony Issue
Asa Butterfield is the new Peter Parker! … Oh, okay, it’s Tom Holland. Jonathan Levine for director! … Who’s Jon Watts again? I’m not saying anything against Holland or Watts, or even that there’s anything to the speculation I’m about to peddle, but it’s hard for me to see these evolving news stories and not think that the reversal at the finish line is due to Marvel finally having to compromise with another studio, namely Sony. I hope I’m wrong, and that Marvel is sticking to its guns where its talent recruitment is concerned, but the fact is, it’s a lot harder to come to an agreement about anything creative when two major studios are involved. I think the 2017 Spider-Man film is in danger of being micromanaged and pulled in two directions throughout its production. Don’t forget, his solo outing is still nominally a Sony movie. The fact that for the first time Marvel has to meet another studio halfway for something other distribution is a bit of a red flag for me, so I recommend to Marvel that they really make sure they’re getting the Spider-Man they want on screen.
4) Honor the Source Material, but Still Take Risks
In the current landscape, many comic book movie designs look like they’ve leapt right off the inked and lettered page. Looking to Fox for two examples, Storm in X-Men: Apocalypse and Deadpool in, er, Deadpool, feel of a piece with familiar comic book art. This same tendency will likely mean more and more faithfulness to the storytelling of the source material. Which is great, to a point; I would urge Marvel Studios to continue to take significant risks when diverging from the tone, content, or what-have-you of the comics, when they feel it’s right. Balance pleasing the diehard readers with telling the best possible story. Speaking for myself, I don’t want an MCU where a Trevor Slattery can’t be used to play a fake Mandarin.
5) Make Thanos Stand Out
The Mad Titan Thanos is the villain pulling the strings throughout the first three phases of the MCU, trying to bring the Infinity Gems into his Infinity Gauntlet, thereby gaining unlimited power, absolute dominion over every living soul and the universal subconscious, not to mention mastery of time, space, and reality itself. So you’d better end up making this a character for the ages, one you remember for who he is, in addition to the omnipotent, multifarious powers he gains. No pressure!
So those are my nerdy musings about the MCU. Its commercial hit streak looks to just keep on rolling in the years to come, and just in this year and the next there’s plenty to look forward to. Onward Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Dr. Strange, and the continuing adventures of the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Peggy Carter, Captain America, and Daredevil!