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The Road to ‘Avengers – Endgame’: MCU, Phase One

Greetings and salutations!

With the release of “Avengers: Endgame”, we’re going to take a look at everything within the Marvel Cinematic Universe (henceforth known as “The MCU”) that has led up to the moment Thanos did “The Snap”. We’ll do a small synopsis of each film, we’ll give you some Easter Eggs and the significance of each film as it relates to the grand scheme of things and we’ll tell you whether or not you should watch or skip the content in question.

Do be aware: this is for the fans who have pretty much seen everything the MCU has to offer, but if you’re that kinda person who doesn’t want to watch 25 movies and 12 TV shows spanning about 36 seasons or so, this is for you, too. Beware, though: HERE THERE BE SPOILERS. You’ve had several years to prep for the new flick. Back out now. Or, join us if you want a bit of a capsule of each film.

So, without further ado, let’s get into it…

IRON MAN (2008)

WHICH ONE IS THIS?

The one that started the entire MCU. After 18 years, a slew of horrible “Batman and Robin” type ideas for the character and almost a dozen writers (including Avengers helmer Joss Whedon and filmmaker Quentin Tarantino), Jon Favreau was hired to direct the film. Robert Downey, Jr. was chosen to play Tony Stark because, as Favreau put it, “Robert has overcome obstacles that went beyond his career…that’s Tony Stark.” It was a fantastic choice. Downey plays Stark with the right mix of arrogance and confidence required of the character while also showing a humble side he hides from the public. Here, we get Stark’s origin story: he’s a weapons maker whose weapons are predominantly used in the U.S. military’s arsenal. After nearly getting taken out by an ambush coordinated by the terrorist organization, The Ten Rings, Stark is kidnapped and given an ultimatum: make weapons for the organization or die. After building a miniature electromagnet and embedding it in his chest to keep shrapnel from entering his heart, Stark engineers his escape by building a robotic suit powered by said device. Upon his return to the United States, Stark creates “Iron Man”, a more sleek, weaponized version of the suit he used to escape. This is much to the delight of his business partner, Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) who wants to further line his pockets after Stark announces the end of the company’s weapons manufacturing program and much to the chagrin of his secretary/handler, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) who doesn’t want to work for somebody who will end up dead from his adventures in the suit.

EASTER EGGS

Let’s see…

  • James Rhodes (Terrence Howard), Stark’s military liaison and close friend eyeballs Tony’s “Mark II” suit, one he would later don and become “War Machine”.
  • The man who helps Tony in the cave is Ho Yinsen. Ho tells Tony that the two of them met once before — at a big convention in Bern, Switzerland in 1999. Stark, however, was plastered at the time as the conference coincided with New Year’s Eve and doubled as a party. We’ll see that story in Phase 2.
  • Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson — did I mention this universe has fantastic casting?) open us up to a wider universe by introducing Stark to the idea of joining The Avengers. We’ll get more into that as we go along.
  • There’s a building seen in the background during Iron Man’s fight with Stane in the Iron Monger suit. The company’s name is “Roxxon”. This is an oil corporation which is responsible for several evils throughout the MCU and is also responsible for endowing Tandy Bowen and Tyrone Johnson with superpowers…but more on that later.

HOW IMPORTANT IS THIS TO THE MCU?

Very. Although Iron Man wasn’t the first “superhero” in this “universe” (Captain America & Captain Marvel pre-dated Stark’s activities according to the chronology), his antics push Nick Fury to start recruiting for the “Avengers Initiative”, a sub-plot that runs in the background courtesy of S.H.I.E.L.D. (which stands for “Strategic Homeland Intervention and Enforcement Logistics Division)” Agent Phil Coulson.

THE INCREDIBLE HULK (2008)

WHICH ONE IS THIS?

The pseudo-origin of the Hulk. Bruce Banner (Ed Norton) is already on the run from General Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt), living in Brazil. Ross wants Banner so that he can mine Banner’s body to make a Super Soldier program. When he doesn’t get his way, Ross turns to one of his own, a soldier named Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth). Using serum generated by research done by Ross’s scientists, Ross injects Blonsky, giving him all enhanced everything. Meanwhile, after being forced out of hiding and arriving back in the United States, Banner attempts to gain access to his old research at Culver University and reunites with his old flame, the daughter of General Ross, Betty Ross (Liv Tyler) which further complicates things, seeing as though Betty can’t stand her father and Ross hates Banner. There’s a big action sequence at Culver University where Ross tries (again) and fails (again) to nab the Hulk and a great showdown between a mutated Blonsky and the Hulk.

EASTER EGGS

So many…

  • The entire film is a homage to the 70’s television show of the same name. This means…
    • Norton’s entire look from hair style to wardrobe is modeled from the late Bill Bixby who played Banner in the old show.
    • We get the “sad theme” that played over the credits of the old show whenever Banner had to move to another town once his cover was blown.
    • The opening credit sequence shows you snippets of how Banner became the Hulk. This includes a scene where Banner is in a chair with a green laser in the shape of crosshairs over his eye. This is lifted directly from the show.
    • That’s Lou Ferrigno playing the muscled security guard who Norton gives a free pizza to. Ferrigno played the Hulk in the old series because CGI wasn’t an option back then. Ferrigno reprises his role with his voice only,
  • This is one three MCU Phase 1 films involved in a comic book tie-in called “Fury’s Big Week” which shows the story of Nick Fury as he wheels and deals behind the scenes. The tie-in gives us further insight to certain characters and shows why decisions by Fury, Coulson and SHIELD are made. We will talk about these references as we go along.
  • At the end of the film, we see Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) confront a half-in-the-bag General Ross and tells him that “they’re putting a team together”. At first, one would think Stark is requesting Ross’s help in securing The Hulk but, as the short film, “The Consultant” makes clear, Ross and his people want The Abomination (Tim Roth) to join the team, much to SHIELD’s anger. Stark is there to make sure that doesn’t happen.
  • Ty Burrell plays “Leonard Samson” who, by all means, should become “Doc Samson”, a “frenemy” of Banner/Hulk. Sadly, this plot has not been utilized.
  • Tim Blake Nelson plays Doctor Samuel Sterns who, in the film, is exposed to blood containing radiation. It’s hinted in both the film and “Fury’s Big Week” that this was intended to transform Sterns into one of Hulk’s enemies, “The Leader”.

HOW IMPORTANT IS THIS TO THE MCU?

I’ve heard people say that you can skip this film. I disagree. First, it’s a great nostalgic homage to the old series which I loved growing up. Secondly (and I’m probably in the minority here), Norton makes for a better Bruce Banner than Mark Ruffalo does. All due respect to Ruffalo, despite him being a great actor, dude’s a pretty boy, so I just don’t buy him as a total geek doctor type. Even in the comics, Banner is dweeby. It’s a shame, really, that Norton chose not to reprise his role. Anyway, it’s a solid supporting feature within the MCU and gives you some idea that Banner is tortured and doesn’t want any part of the beast that resides inside him. Plus, the big brawl between Hulk and The Abomination is a balls out great.

IRON MAN 2 (2010)

WHICH ONE IS THIS?

The sequel to the smash hit that was 2008’s Iron Man. Here, we find that everything is aces with Tony Stark: his Iron Man technology has privatized world peace (much to the chagrin of the U.S. Department of Defense), he’s more popular than he’s ever been and he’s still tinkering…which all well and good because Stark is dying of the substance powering that magnet in his chest and only has a few days left before he’s fatally poisoned. Because there’s no cure for what he’s got and Stark has stopped giving a shit about his own well-being, he becomes reckless and causes a scene at his birthday party which endangers his guests. His friend James “Rhodey” Rhodes (now played by Don Cheadle) resorts to stealing the Mark II in order to stop Stark from his own self-destruction and transforms the armor into “War Machine”, a more bulked up version of Stark’s original design. Meanwhile, weapons designer Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) wants to cut in on Tony’s action, creating his own army of robotic drones with the help of Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), a computer hacker and engineer whose father was wronged by Stark’s family back in the 1950’s. Also, we get our first look at Natasha Romanoff, AKA “Black Widow” (Scarlett Johansson), one of Fury’s best spies who helps Stark and his friends in a pinch. Also, Pepper Potts (Paltrow) is now the CEO of Stark Industries and all’s well that ends well when Stark discovers a new element that powers his Arc Reactor and cures the poison in his blood at the same time. Because he’s a damn genius, that’s why.

EASTER EGGS

Oh man…

  • So, again, this ties into “Fury’s Big Week” as well as to Thor and The Incredible Hulk…
  • We learn that Coulson (Gregg) has been investigating some sort of anomaly in New Mexico, something Fury (Jackson) makes reference to when he confronts Stark in the donut shop. Later, because the energy storms over that region are becoming more intense and register as unnatural, Coulson is re-assigned to the area to investigate…more on that later.
  • The resolution where Fury debriefs Stark features a scene where Stark has several screens up in front of him. One of the screens plays a news clip showing the aftermath of the “Incident at Culver University” which, if you read the last bit about the Hulk, you should recognize as the battle between Ross’s troops and the Hulk.
  • On another screen: a map of Africa…with a red dot on it…foreshadowing the possible location of Wakanda, Black Panther’s homeland.
  • An incomplete version of Captain America’s shield is among the things SHIELD brings to Tony to study. It’s cute how Coulson nearly geeks out — he’s a huge fan of Cap.
  • Ivan obtained his ticket to the Monaco race via The Mandarin, the leader of The Ten Rings…who we will see a bit later.
  • We get a glimpse of an older (now deceased) Howard Stark (John Slattery) through film reels. We will see him again many times throughout our journey.

HOW IMPORTANT IS THIS TO THE MCU?

It’s pretty important only because it gives us more of an idea of how much ground SHIELD covers…but that’s about it. There’s a lot going on in this movie and it’s a bit of a mess. First, Ivan’s a really boring, one-note villain, which is ironic considering Rourke was back on top of his game following a slew of personal issues that saw him barely making ends meet enough to survive and he wanted this role “to challenge the audience”. I sense more could have been made of the character had we focused more on Ivan’s hatred and not Tony’s disease and SHIELD’s needs and Justin Hammer. Instead, we got a mumbling, nearly unintelligible Rourke doing a terrible Russian accent while yelling about a pet bird and pretending to type on a computer. You know things are bad when Ivan’s supposed to be “Whiplash” — but that name is never mentioned once even though he has the Whiplash gimmick. Sam Rockwell steals the show out from under him as the overly loquacious, hyperactive Justin Hammer. He ends up being more of a foe than Ivan is. Overall, this felt like a commercial for bigger, better films to come. Still fun if you want to see how Rhodes became War Machine and how Stark created a new suit. We also learn that Stark is denied membership to The Avenger Initiative due to his overall behavior — but that he stays on with SHIELD as a consultant.

THOR (2011)

WHICH ONE IS THIS?

Our introduction to Thor (Chris Hemsworth), an Asgardian demi-god who is on the cusp of ruling his kingdom before his father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), kicks him out for attempting to go to war with an entire race of beings because a militant faction decided to infiltrate Asgard on their own. Stop me if you’ve heard that one. Banished to Earth indefinitely, Thor makes friends with Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and her friends in an attempt to see if there’s a way back to his home world and that, right quick: his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has designs on the throne and wants it for himself. Added to the fun is Phil Coulson (Gregg) who has just been reassigned to area (see “Iron Man 2”) to investigate the energy storms above New Mexico. If you hadn’t guessed, it was because the worlds of Asgard and Earth were about to become connected. Also, we get the introduction of Black Widow’s partner, Clint Barton, AKA “Hawkeye”, a SHIELD agent who is extremely proficient with a bow and arrow and has impeccable aim.

EASTER EGGS

  • Blah, blah, blah, Fury’s Big Week, blah, blah blah…the cool thing is that we get a bit of an epilogue at it pertains to the giant Destroyer robot that SHIELD captures after Thor brings it down during the film’s climax. SHIELD’s scientists are told, by Coulson, to make the Destroyer “100 times smaller with a trigger added to it”. That weapon will show up later…
  • The town of “Puente Antiguo” means “Old Bridge” which is a reference to the Bifrost between Earth and Asgard.
  • The Tesseract is introduced in the final post-credits scene. This is hugely important for reasons below.

HOW IMPORTANT IS THIS TO THE MCU?

Important because it gives us our first glimpse of Thor, a major arm of the original Avengers, and also gives us a quick tease of “The Tesseract”, a cube with unlimited power which was kept in Odin’s collection on Asgard for some time before ending up on Earth, stolen by the Nazis and eventually recovered by Howard Stark, given to Mar-vell before ending up with the Kree — and ending up back with SHIELD again. But what powers the Tesseract? That will be revealed much later…we also get our first look at Loki, Thor’s brother, who will come back into play when Phase 1 culminates in “The Avengers”. this is one of the most enjoyable and underrated films in the MCU.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER (2011)

WHICH ONE IS THIS?

The origin of Steve Rogers, AKA “Captain America” (Chris Evans). A Brooklyn native and all-around patriot, all Rogers wanted to do was serve his country. During World War II, he tried several times to get enlisted but couldn’t due to health issues and his size. He didn’t have the muscle nor the strength. But Rogers DID have the heart. Enter Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) who gives Rogers the ability to be what he’s always wanted to be: a hero. Aided by SSR Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), Howard Stark (Tony’s father, played by Dominic Cooper) and his team of “Howling Commandos”, Rogers helps shift the war in America’s favor which puts him on a collision course with The Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), a Nazi who has stolen the aforementioned Tesseract in order to harness its power to make advanced weaponry that will turn the tide of the war.

EASTER EGGS

Several…

  • First, the “Super Soldier” program eventually inspired later attempts to replicate it. This, of course, led to The Red Skull’s appearance, the accidental unleashing of The Hulk in Bruce Banner (Norton/Ruffalo) and The Abomination in Emil Blonsky (Roth)…and one more person…the serum also inspired Project Centipede which came from a mixture of that serum and the Extremis formula…but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. We’ll learn about that last person and Extremis a little later.
  • The Tesseract is back in all its glory, making energy weapons that are used to vaporize objects and people. At the end of the film, it falls into the ocean but is recovered, post-war, by Howard Stark and his crew.
  • Howard Stark, Tony Stark’s father, is seen here, only much younger. He’s a flirty, womanizing fool…but brilliant, just like his son ends up being. He’s the dominant weapons manufacturer for the U.S., something even Colonel Phillips acknowledges when he says that they can’t run afoul of him.
  • We are also introduced to Agent Peggy Carter, an officer for the Strategic Scientific Reserve, a classified spy agency and weapons division which later becomes SHIELD. Peggy is intelligent and strong and we will see more of her in her own TV series.
  • Once again, we get a cameo from Nick Fury (Jackson) as he chases down Rogers after Rogers escapes a SHIELD facility after waking from a decades-long coma.

HOW IMPORTANT IS THIS TO THE MCU?

Extremely important. Captain America is a staple in this series and a huge part of the founding members of The Avengers. That, and this movie stands as a building block for many of the characters and set pieces we’ve come to know throughout the MCU from the Tesseract to Howard Stark to Peggy Carter. We also meet Bucky, Captain America’s best friend who meets a very tragic end…but, of course, that’s not the end of the story…and, of course, this culminates in our final film…

THE AVENGERS (2012)

WHICH ONE IS THIS?

The epic conclusion to Phase One of the MCU. To refresh: Thor (Hemsworth) has returned to Asgard and the Bifrost is being repaired. Tony Stark (Downey) is just a “consultant” for SHIELD, Banner’s (Ruffalo) in hiding, away from General Ross (Hurt) or anyone else, using his skills as a doctor to help the sick in India — who Romanoff (Johansson) locates. Captain America (Evans) is awake and living in modern times. There is no “Avenger Initiative” because Fury (Jackson) failed to get everyone he was eyeballing together into a team. And it couldn’t have come at a worse time: Thor’s brother, Loki (Hiddleston), has arrived on Earth via The Tesseract and takes control of both Erik Selvig (last seen in “Thor”) and Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) by way of a mystical Chitauri scepter. Loki steals the cube and makes an attempt to stabilize it — but runs into Captain America and Iron Man who manage to subdue him, prompting Thor to confront his brother about his recent behavior. Meanwhile, Fury has re-activated the Avenger Protocol due to Loki’s actions, as an attempt to unite Thor, Banner, Stark and Rogers, all of whom are highly reluctant to team up due to clashing attitudes, egos and personal desires. It’s only when Fury’s Hellicarrier is attacked by Loki’s troops and Agent Coulson (Gregg) is seemingly killed that The Avengers realize that they have no choice but to unite because the fate of the planet depends on it.

EASTER EGGS

  • Remember the part where Coulson told his scientists to make the Destroyer weapon “100 times smaller and with a trigger”? We finally get to see that weapon in action during Loki’s escape.
  • We have our very first look at Thanos!!! He’s there, in the mid-credits scene, grinning from ear to ear after it’s revealed that Earth has a team of defenders who won’t stand by and allow evil to triumph.
  • Project PEGASUS, the mission to get to the bottom of the Tesseract started after the arrival of Captain Marvel, is destroyed thanks to Loki’s actions.
  • Loki’s scepter is powered by The Mind Stone, one of the six Infinity Stones. It was bestowed to Loki by Thanos in order to help conquer Earth.

HOW IMPORTANT IS THIS TO THE MCU?

The battle for Earth and everything? That’s pretty damn important. Plus, it’s revealed that this was Thanos’ first attempt to conquer the planet so as to make his job a lot easier. If everything before this was your regular old ballgame, then this is the All-Star Game where we get to see everyone do their thing all at once. This is one of the best films in the entire MCU — beautifully simplistic and gives the audience exactly what they want — good overcoming evil with a sense of hope and the ushering in of a new era. Great stuff.

OTHER MCU PHASE ONE VIEWING

Marvel released about a half dozen short films on various home releases of their MCU films. They tell smaller stories that aren’t really required but fun nonetheless:

  • “The Consultant” – Following the events of “Thor”, “Iron Man 2” and “The Incredible Hulk”, Agent Coulson (Gregg) meets with Agent Sitwell (Maximiliano Hernandez) at a roadside diner. The World Security Council apparently wants The Abomination to be part of The Avengers, so Coulson sends Stark (Downey) to dissuade General Ross from releasing him to SHIELD. This utilizes the mid-credits sequence from “The Incredible Hulk” with Ross and Stark in the bar.
  • “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Thor’s Hammer” – On his way to landing site of Thor’s hammer, Agent Coulson (Gregg) stops for gas at a Roxxon station. There, he thwarts a heist of the adjoining convenience store, then leaves.
  • “Agent Carter” – A short film detailing Agent Peggy Carter (Atwell) as she takes control of an assignment after her department heads put it on hold. This might be the only notable short next to “All Hail the King” (which we will get to a bit later) because it directly leads to Howard Stark hiring her as the head of SHIELD, as a result, much to her boss’s disgust.
  • “Item 47” – A short film about a couple who uses Chitauri weaponry to rob a series of banks — which puts them on SHIELD’s radar.

Join us tomorrow as we go over Phase Two of the MCU!

About Matt Perri

Matt Perri
Matt Perri is one of those literary Ronin you’ve never heard of until he shows up and tells you he’s a literary Ronin. He’s a native Californian, a film buff, old school gamer geek, and a sports/entertainment fan. A lifelong Giants, 49ers and Sharks fan, he also covers the world of pro-wrestling, writing recaps for WWE Monday Night RAW and Total Divas at Scott’s Blog of Doom. You can follow the guy on Twitter via @PerriTheSmark as well as here at The Workprint and his own blog, We Hate Your Gimmick.

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