Avengers: Endgame opened to critical acclaim, smashed a handful or so of box office records, and capped off the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s “Infinity Saga,” which began 11 years ago with the debut of Iron Man. The success of these films managed to bring comic book stories out of their niche status and into the pop culture consciousness, and it shows absolutely no sign of stopping or even slowing down any time soon.
Those of us at Scoop wanted to take a moment to reflect on what the last decade-plus of Marvel storytelling on film has meant to us personally, looking at how it’s impacted our lives and how we’ve looked at the comic industry as a whole.
This reflection on the MCU comes to you courtesy of Gemstone Vice President of Publishing J.C. Vaughn.
They weren’t the first superheroes on film and television, but they were the ones who made the biggest difference culturally. To understand the degree to which the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has changed the dynamic, one must first consider what came before.
There were radio shows in the 1930s and ’40s, movie serials in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, The Adventures of Superman on TV in the 1950s, Batman in the ’60s, cartoons in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, TV shows in the ’70s and ’80s, a Superman movie series beginning in the ’70s and the first Batman series of films beginning in the late ’80s.
With the exception of the Superman movies starring Christopher Reeve, The Incredible Hulk on TV starring Billy Bixby and Lou Ferrigno, and the Batman films initially starring Michael Keaton, these productions were generally aimed strictly at kids. Some of them were hits – Adventures of Superman ran six seasons, Batman spawned Batmania, Hulk had a strong following – and many of them weren’t. The Superman films started very strong, but they then went dreadfully awry. The Batman films followed suit.
After the success of The Incredible Hulk, Marvel tried Captain America and Doctor Strange in TV movies (“I hate it a lot,” Stan Lee reportedly told Jim Shooter after seeing the first Cap telefilm, though I personally confess a soft spot for actor Reb Brown), and the Hulk TV movies that wound down the series featured Thor and Daredevil. For years, though, that was it as far as Marvel was concerned.
There were enough distinct periods of success that Hollywood kept coming back for more, but most often it was clear they didn’t trust – and couldn’t live up to – the source material. When the X-Men films came along, there was still an element of Hollywood-knows-best in the changes they made – uniforms for one – but they came much closer than anything Marvel had done before.
The Sam Raimi-directed Spider-Man films resulted from the success of the X-Men movies, and the success of the Spider-Man films spawned the Marvel Cinematic Universe as we know it today. While Raimi’s work wasn’t entirely slavish to its comic book predecessors, it overwhelmingly and consistently paid homage to its roots. This paved the way for Iron Man.
Robert Downey, Jr. owned the role of Tony Stark in a nonchalant powerhouse performance that belied the notion that an entire then-as-yet-unborn universe was riding on his shoulders. Fans could believe the armor, the guy inside the armor, and the people around him.
In The Incredible Hulk, when General Thunderbolt Ross was clearly talking about the Super Soldier project we would later see in Captain America: The First Avenger, and then when Stark walked in to the bar where General Thunderbolt Ross was drinking at the end of the movie, the universe was obviously, clearly coming together. Others could learn from this rather than announcing a big movie series before they’ve done one film. Just sayin’.
When things came together in the culmination of “Phase I” of the MCU with The Avengers, viewers were left with a clear understanding that the fans of the comic books could indeed be mobilized and that new fans could be created. Filmmakers now had a shot of living up to Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko’s incredible work from five and six decades earlier. For fans about my age, living through the failures of earlier eras framed the modern successes. The special effects provided the ability the make the films the way readers saw them in their heads. This made for some incredible experiences.
Here are my favorites among these movies:
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014): Based on a great comic book story and teaming Cap, The Falcon, and Black Widow was almost a dream for me. When I started reading Cap, it was Captain America and The Falcon, and for me that’s how it should be. So, I was way favorably predisposed to this film, but it surpassed my expectations. The story is great, the acting superb, and the scenes are relentless and yet they manage to pack in a lot of human moments.
The Avengers (2012): If this had been a Top Five list instead of Top Three, Captain America: Civil War might be in this spot. On the other hand, you can’t take away from the impact of seeing The Avengers come together as a team for the first time on screen. The characters all remain true to themselves and yet mesh together in a way that’s very gratifying for longtime fans and accessible to new ones. Again, despite all the action – and go back and look at it, there’s a lot of action – there are some stellar human moments for the characters. And the theme music was spot on.
The Incredible Hulk (2008): The Incredible Hulk doesn’t get a lot of love because Ed Norton didn’t last as Bruce Banner, but that shouldn’t prevent this film from being seen as one of the best of the MCU. First, it had to very quickly distance itself from the then-recent failure of Ang Lee’s (incredibly boring) Hulk movie. Second, this one – like Winter Solider – works as a movie, not just as a superhero movie. The little nods to the TV series were sweet, the relationships were solid and compelling, and it was easily accessible to viewers who weren’t steeped in years of comic book lore. And then there’s that Tony Stark cameo at the end.