By Tom Percival / @twpercival1
When Nick Fury told Tony Stark at the end of Iron Man ‘you’ve become part of a bigger universe, you just don’t know it yet’, I doubt even the filmmakers realised how prescient those words would be.
Here we are 11 years and 23 films later though, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has become arguably the biggest film franchise of all time, with Spider-Man: Far From Home closing out the third phase of what’s retroactively become known as The Infinity Saga.
So with the release of Avengers: Endgame on DVD and Blu-ray, it seems apt to look back on what an incredible cinematic achievement the MCU is, and reflect on the legacy of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, The Avengers, or at least the ‘Big Three’: Cap, Iron Man and Thor.
And where better to start than at the beginning with Iron Man, the first film and superhero introduced (by release) in the MCU.
Directed by Jon Favreau and starring Robert Downey Jr. as the titular hero, Iron Man shouldn’t have worked.
After all, it was a film about a, if I’m being generous, a B-List superhero, with a lead actor who’d become more famous for his off-screen antics than his acting, produced by a studio that had nearly bankrupt itself in the previous decade.
It was a recipe for disaster, but despite all of this it worked.
Iron Man was a commercial and critical success, and would go on to be the template upon which all future MCU films would be based, basically putting character, humour, and spectacle at the heart of its films.
A large part of the film’s success, however, was down to the easy charisma of Downey Jr. who made the role of Tony Stark his own, portraying the character as a narcissistic show-off, whose heart (or at least his arc reactor) was in the right place.
Over the last decade though Downey Jr. has slowly changed Stark as the character matured, softening his rough edges, making him more compassionate and less self-aggrandising, until (to paraphrase Cap) he becomes the guy to make the sacrifice play in Avengers: Endgame.
In the last 11 years it’s funny how popular Iron Man has become with Downey Jr. and Stark becoming synonymous with the MCU and Marvel Comics, even supplanting Spider-Man as the comicbook company’s unofficial mascot, something that would have been unthinkable a decade ago.
Iron Man wasn’t the only character revitalised by the MCU. Both Captain America and Thor also got a much-needed boost in popularity thanks to their inclusion in the MCU, not that their success was as immediate as Iron Man’s films.
Captain America: The First Avenger is, in my opinion, an underrated gem, but it was when the Russo Brothers came on board for Winter Soldier (which remains my favourite MCU film) that Steve Rogers really got a shot in the arm (and some Vita-Rays) and proved how compelling a character he can be.
Cap’s journey to self-fulfilment and realising, to paraphrase Ultron of all people, that ‘he could live without a war’, across his solo and team-up films was beautiful, and if I’m being honest, his arc was more cathartic than Stark’s ending.
Thor like Cap also got off to a bit of a rough start. Thor is alright at best, and the less said about The Dark World the better, but when Taika Waititi got his hands on the character, the God of Thunder finally became worthy of the MCU.
Ragnarok is an ultraviolet masterpiece with Watiti dialling up the comedic fish-out-of-water elements of the first film to eleven, and allowing Hemsworth to stretch his considerable comedic muscles, a trend that continued in Infinity War and Endgame.
It’s apt then that as the final member of the ‘Big Three’ it’s Thor who, after struggling to find his feet with his first two solo films, is the only one who’s still in the fight after Endgame and getting a Phase Four film, Love and Thunder, because his story doesn’t feel like it’s over.
As the cliche goes though, heroes are only as good as their villains, and while many have criticised the varying quality of the MCU’s bad guys over the years (Malekith the Accursed springs to mind), you’d have to be as stubborn as Odin not to enjoy the villainy of characters like Loki, Mysterio, and Killmonger.
However, there’s one bad guy who stands head and shoulders above the rest (he’s a giant alien after all), as not just a great antagonist, but perhaps one of the most three-dimensional villains to ever grace a comicbook movie.
Thanos the Mad Titan, played wonderfully by Josh Brolin, is in my mind the greatest Marvel villain because as Christopher Vogler said in The Writer’s Journey, he’s the hero of his own story.
Thanos believes his quest to wipe out half of all life in the universe is a noble cause, and can’t be dissuaded of this notion. Not only that, he does the one thing movie villains almost never do: Thanos wins.
With a single snap, Thanos does what he set out to do and reduced some of the most beloved characters in fiction to literal ash in a scene that left audiences stunned and upset. Effective and principled, what’s not to like about Thanos? Besides the genocide of course.
Of course, in the words of the inimitable Tony Stark, ‘part of the journey is the end’, and it would be unthinkable to discuss The Infinity Saga without mentioning the film that concluded it, Avengers: Endgame.
Now, there are about 14,000,605 things I could write about Endgame, from the adorable Morgan Stark and what she might become, Thor’s PTSD, and whether he’ll hang around with the Guardians, or Cap wielding Mjolnir, and FINALLY telling the Avengers to assemble.
But the best moment of the film remains Iron Man’s indignant last stand. It was inevitable that Tony would be the one to see Thanos off, but doing so with a snap of his fingers and one last defiant declaration, ‘I am Iron Man’, the line that ended the first film in the saga, was just perfect.
Those of a gloomier disposition though might argue that with Robert Downey Jr. hanging up his helmet, Chris Evans’ Cap finally deciding to try some of that life Tony was telling him about, and the uncertain future of Spider-Man in the series, that the MCU is in danger of running out of steam as it’s the main roster of Avengers slowly fall out of contract.
Not only that, but how can Marvel Studios top Endgame? They’ve literally saved the universe from its darkest hour, where do they go now? Well, Disney’s recent acquisition of Fox, which brings the X-Men and Fantastic Four back home, brings a lot of new characters and stories to the MCU.
But as the recent Comic-Con and D23 announcements have proven, Marvel Studios have plenty of spectacular, amazing and sensational characters left in their own toy box they can use before they get Wolverine to pop his claws again.
Over the next few years, Marvel fans will get to know Black Panther, Captain Marvel and Doctor Strange better, as well as meet new heroes like, The Eternals, Shang-Chi, Ms Marvel and She-Hulk, as they go on new adventures and battle new enemies.
And I’m sure we’ll love them all 3000.
Avengers: Endgame is now out on home media, available on Blu-ray, DVD, 3D, 4K and Steelbook.