It is the end of an era for Marvel. Or at least that’s what they claim. When Avengers: Endgame gets releases in theaters later this week, we will have supposedly experienced what the last ten years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe have been building up to. All of the major heroes introduced in the twenty plus movies since Iron Man will have met, and banded together, to defeat the abominable Thanos. The success of the MCU is probably the biggest success story of mainstream studio filmmaking this decade. On the one hand, Marvel Studios – led by producer Kevin Feige – has been able to achieve an unprecedented level of interrupted commercial success. On the other hand, the quality control that’s made the movies so popular has also made them bland and repetitive. Actor and co-host of the Blank Check podcast Griffin Newman has famously compared the MCU to chain of fast food restaurants. To paraphrase: it’s incredible that you can go anywhere in the world and get a Big Mac that tastes like a Big Mac, but being able to do such a thing means that the quality of food has a lower ceiling than something cooked by a more experimental chef.
It’s that quality control, which dulls the peaks and valleys of the Marvel movies, that steered me away form my original idea for commemorating the arrival of Endgame. I was going to rank all twenty one Marvel movies, but it became apparent pretty quickly that it’d be futile to rank a bunch of movies that I think are “mostly fine.” Instead, I took a retrospective approach to my own feelings toward the Marvel Universe, and found that there was a specific time in which I was positively excited for the next Marvel movie to come down the pike. At first I assumed it was just a side-effect of my later teenage years, but the more I thought about that time, the more I convinced myself that something was different. I believe there is a time in which the promise of large scale epic story-telling of the Marvel Cinematic Universe was truly exciting. A time in which the door was open just enough for artistic expression and commercial security to live in harmony. I believe this to be the peak of the MCU, and it comes in the form of three consecutive movies: Captain America: The First Avenger, The Avengers, and Iron Man 3.
I understand this might be a contrarian opinion, but consider for a moment that I am a person whose disgust with the Marvel Cinematic Universe continues to grow with each movie. While there have been triumphs lately (such as Black Panther), there is something that has been lost in the years since these movies came out. I will now try to make my case on a film-by-film basis:
Captain America: The First Avenger is perhaps one of the most fun movies in the MCU. It’s important to make a distinction between fun and funny, in this case. The MCU has come to think that quippy banter is the equivalent of fun at the movie, and audiences have forgiven a lot of weaker elements in superhero movies as long as they’ve had funny dialogue. What makes The First Avenger fun is that it squeezes the melodramatic elements of its pulpy origin for all they’re worth. The set-up is simple and recognizable: Steve Rogers is a skinny kid who wouldn’t last a day in the battlefield, but he has such a generous heart he is the best candidate to be a super-soldier. The moment in which Steve jumps over the grenade is one of the most effective pieces of story-telling in the whole MCU, capturing the core of why superheroes have endured as role models. If that weren’t enough, the movie is set in World War II, features a wonderfully romantic sub-plot, and is full of great character actors.
The Avengers, meanwhile, is a movie that could easily be taken for granted now that the MCU is a behemoth, but is quite an achievement when you think about it. There was no guarantee that the mixing of all these superheroes in one movie was going to work. If anything, movies like Justice League have proven that what Joss Whedon did with The Avengers is nothing to sneeze at (and yes, I know Whedon was involved in Justice League but if you know anything about that movie’s production you know it’s not the same). What’s most impressive is that Whedon was able to come in and re-write the movie to his strengths, making this a true ensemble when it could’ve easily been an “Iron Man and Friends” situation. Whedon is also (at least partially) responsible for making large-scale team action work. The battle of New York remains one of the best action sequences in the MCU because it is perfectly connected to the script, and built around character beats. No one expected to come out of The Avengers thinking Black Widow was one of the best characters in the MCU, and yet it happened.
Finally, Iron Man 3, probably my favorite movie in the whole MCU, and also the one that is most probably responsible for steering the ship into the waters it navigates currently. Not because it did anything bad, but because it was misunderstood by so many people, who complain about a silly villain twist and that Tony Stark spends too much time out of the suit. The reason Iron Man 3 is great is because it is the most personal film in the whole MCU (give or take Black Panther), as much a superhero movie as it is writer-director Shane Black’s treatise on the benefits of Freudian analysis. The complaints I listed above are precisely the things that make the movie so effective for me. Stripping Tony of his armor and landing him in the middle of nowhere forces the character to make a change in his life, and by the end of the movie, truly change. Iron Man 3 gives such a beautiful end to Tony Stark’s character arc that it’s a shame he had to come back for other movies.
What I see in these three movies that I don’t see in where we’ve gone since is a willingness to let filmmakers experiment and figure out what kind of movie they’re making. There have been flourishes of personality since then, but once Feige pinned down a formula to make a successful movie, it became easier for him to quality control. I assume plenty of people will disagree with me, so please have at it in the comments. And if you happen to think there has been a different peak to the MCU, then feel to share it with the rest of us.
Conrado Falco is a New York-based playwright who loves movies. He publishes most of his film writing at CocoHitsNY, but the best way to keep up with him is to follow him on Twitter (@CocoHitsNewYork).