The Avengers is officially a record-shattering box office success – a film revered by millions of fans that even managed to impress a lot of those ‘snobby critics’ out there. Here at Screen Rant we gave the film a 4.5 out of 5 star review, and filled over an hour and a half of our Avengers Podcast Special with glowing praise for writer/director Joss Whedon’s blockbuster Marvel superhero team-up. No doubt about it: Avengers is a monumental success on many levels.

However, it’s important to remember the road that led to The Avengers as Marvel Studios enters the next phase of its shared movie universe, in the build up to The Avengers 2. A few years ago, we posed the question of whether the road to Avengers was being paved at the expense of  the solo character films. Now that Avengers is here, we once again have to ask ourselves: was the big payoff worth the comprises in storytelling it took to get there?

To be clear: we’re not going to debate the quality of The Avengers. Us giving the film a good review obviously says that we thought Joss Whedon and company did a good job. What we will do here is look back at Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor and Captain America, and identify which elements of those films were crucial to the story of The Avengers, and if each solo film was well-served by its inclusion in (and obligations to) a larger cinematic universe.

Click on each of the titles below to jump to the discussion of that film:

Iron Man 

Our Review Score: 4.5 out of 5

Avengers Contributions: Iron Man origin / Arc reactor creation / S.H.I.E.L.D. Introduction / Avengers Initiative

Iron Man was the film that started it all. By earning a worldwide total of $585 million, it proved that even second-tier Marvel superheroes (i.e., not Spider-Man or Wolverine) had legitimate box office appeal. Iron Man also proved that Marvel Studios was indeed the best place for these heroes to be adapted for the big screen – in full accordance with their source material origins and mythos – instead of being tinkered with and altered, as some third-party studios had done (see: Fox’s (mis-)handling of the X-Men movie franchise).

Of course, being released so early in the game – when Marvel’s plan to build a cinematic universe was largely still a gamble married to a pipe dream – Iron Man was free from some of the pressures that its followers (including its own sequel) would inevitably face. After all, the most direct connections between IM and The Avengers are S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) and the brief post-credits  “button scene,” which revealed Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury – more of a fun nod to fans than the obligatory weaving of a larger mythos.

Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) sets The Avengers initiative in motion.

In the end, Iron Man was mostly left free to tell its own story: How an arrogant arms dealer is nearly destroyed by his own hubris, and must learn to use his talents for a greater good. As a standalone narrative it’s complete and well-developed – even though it didn’t even have a fully-formed script as it entered production. Thanks to star Robert Downey Jr.’s charisma and his ability to successfully collaborate with director Jon Favreau, Iron Man was more than just a solid story: It was a fun introduction to the Marvel Movie Universe.

Verdict: Since it didn’t have a lot of Avengers obligations to fulfill, Iron Man was able to stand strong on its own mechanical legs.



The Incredible Hulk

Our Review Score: 4 out of 5

Avengers Contributions: Hulk origin / Introduction of “Smart” Hulk  / First Marvel Movie Crossover / *Captain America Introduction 

Like Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk was an early addition to the Marvel movie universe – before Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige and the other execs necessarily had a clear sign of whether or not The Avengers was going to be a feasible endeavor. That initial uncertainty meant that Marvel had to again create a self-contained film, with only loose ties to a larger mythos. Having received the Hulk property rights back from Universal, Marvel Studios had the equally daunting task of having to wipe away the bad taste left in moviegoers’ mouths after Ang Lee’s lackluster 2003 film, Hulk.

Incredible Hulk wasn’t quite the runaway smash that Iron Man was; in fact, the reboot made pretty much the same profit margin as Lee’s film did ($263 million on a $150 million budget). However, even though The Hulk didn’t smash the box office his second time out, Louis Leterrier’s retooled version of the jade giant did score major points with Marvel’s primary base (fanboys), and offered more irrefutable proof that Marvel could adapt its characters for the screen better than some third-party studio ever could.

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) in 'Incredible Hulk'

A mid-credits scene featuring Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark sent fanboys into the geek stratosphere by giving us the first official Marvel movie crossover, while other elements of the story (Bruce Banner’s research into the super-soldier project and the subsequent creation of The Abomination) only added to the fun by hinting at a larger universe waiting in the wings to be explored.

(*An alternate opening to Incredible Hulk also features a sequence of  Bruce Banner in the Arctic attempting to kill himself, but instead triggering The Hulk (remember that anecdote from Avengers?). The enraged Hulk smashes a glacier, inadvertently breaking open the ice containing Captain America. Go HERE for a look at that moment.)

'Incredible Hulk' Alternate Opening

With two (relative) successes under its belt, Marvel Studios had all the reason it needed to push on down the road towards The Avengers.

Verdict: While it’s only so-so as a standalone film, Incredible Hulk implemented its shared universe elements without sacrificing its self-contained story.



Iron Man 2

Our Review Score: 3 out of 5

Avengers Contributions: Arc Reactor Renewable Energy Source / Introduction of Black Widow

As the first film released after Marvel Studios had firmly-established its blueprint for The AvengersIron Man 2 is arguably the first (and greatest) casualty of shared universe movie-making. In fact, it’s a film whose shortcomings have only grown more apparent as better comic book movies – like The Avengers – have been released.

Iron Man 2‘s story is adequate (Tony Stark must unlock his father’s research on a new energy source to save his own life), but the actual story beats of the screenplay missed the mark by a considerable margin. A lot of the problem can be found in what is now known as ‘the Marvel movie formula': a rigid, three-act plot structure that spends three-quarters of the time telling a standalone character story, and one-quarter of the time shoehorning threads of the shared universe into the main narrative.

"Sorry I ruined your movie, Mr. Stark."

Iron Man 1 & 2 director Jon Favreau has been pretty diplomatic about the whole affair, but in the years since Iron Man 2‘s release, we’ve learned how it was his friction with Marvel over creative design (including shoehorning those shared universe story elements into the film) that led him to depart the franchise and give up his desire to direct The Avengers. Even stars Mickey Rourke and Robert Downey Jr. have since come out and said that the sequel was a botched operation that never had a clear roadmap to follow.

Worse yet, the lack of commitment to any one direction (standalone story or world-building narrative) left the few elements of Iron Man 2 that were actually relevant to The Avengers – Black Widow, S.H.I.E.L.D.’s history and Howard Stark’s new energy source – woefully underserved and/or overlooked. Silver lining (sarcasm): at least we got to see Tony Stark get drunk and goof off a lot.

A plot point of 'Iron Man 2' that's actually relevant to 'The Avengers'

This lackluster sequel clearly showed that Marvel Studios was still learning how to go about building its cinematic world effectively – and the fans certainly took notice. IM2 remains the weakest link in the Marvel movie chain.

Verdict: Iron Man 2 is a prime example (onscreen and off-screen) of how a shared movie universe gets built the wrong way.




Our Review Score: 3.5 Out of 5

Avengers contributions: Thor & Loki Origins / Introduction of Marvel Cosmic Universe / Introduction of Hawkeye / Introduction of Dr. Selvig / *Introduction of the Tesseract

Out of all the lead-in films, Thor arguably has the strongest and most direct ties to the plot of  Avengers. However, like Iron Man 2, Thor was also hampered by its dual obligations: building the larger Marvel cinematic universe, and telling a standalone story that introduced both a new protagonist (Thor) and a pivotal antagonist (Loki). Sure, we got to see more of S.H.I.E.L.D., saw The Avengers start to come together when a post-credits scene revealed the Tesseract to Loki – and the brief cameo by Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) was a thrill for comic book geeks. But on the whole, the second act of Thor was a mishandled affair.

Many of the crossover elements in the film came at the sacrifice of much-needed character development; meaning that when Thor eventually does learn the humility and wisdom he was sorely lacking, the change feels as rushed and unearned as the fly-by-night romance between the muscled Asgardian and the petite Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). It’s a shame, really, since star Chris Hemsworth ended up owning the role and achieving breakout stardom as a result of it.

Marvel could’ve – should’ve – had more faith, and leaned heavily on their leading man to carry the show (as Jon Favreau did with Iron Man). The story arc would’ve been complete, the character more fully realized, and Thor would’ve likely earned more accolades from critics, and more profits from mainstream moviegoers. SPOILER ALERT: Audiences appreciate a good, fun, well-developed story.

As it stands, Thor left a somewhat shallow sketch of the God of Thunder on the screen, and director Kenneth Branagh’s departure from the franchise is just another indication that Marvel’s tight creative control comes at a sacrifice. While Avengers managed to offer a more vivid picture of Thor (at least as far as his superpowers are concerned), it will really be left to Thor 2 to paint a masterful portrait of the Thunder God.

Verdict: In a lot of ways, Thor is another example of Marvel Studios’ growing pains as they learned how to tell proper stories in a shared universe.





Captain America: The First Avenger

Our Review Score: 4 Out of 5

Avengers contributions: Captain America Origin / Tesseract Origin  / S.H.I.E.L.D. Origin /Hydra Introduction

As a period piece, Captain America: The First Avenger had more freedom than any other Marvel movie (besides Iron Man) to tell an isolated, character-driven story. No matter how you feel about director Joe Johnston’s handling of the action sequences; the inclusion of Nazi space-age lasers; or the contrived second-act montage that left things open for Captain America sequels to once again explore the character’s WWII adventures – First Avenger, at the very least, told a great story about how a wimpy kid from Brooklyn realized his dream to become a real American hero.

The film is also a great example of universe building done the right way: While telling its own story, First Avenger also laid the groundwork for the entire age of Marvel superheroes to follow – including the technological race that would give birth to Iron Man; the super-solider research that would give birth to The Hulk; the revelation of Asgard’s ancient history with Earth; the start of advanced terrorist organizations like Hydra, and the coming together of specialized agents that would rise to combat them (S.H.I.E.L.D.).

This little cube would go on to wreak havoc in 'The Avengers'

Captain America (which was, in part, guided by Avengers director Joss Whedon) found a coherent and relevant way to fit its narrative and character arcs around the convoluted frame that Marvel had designed – primarily by treating its various crossover elements as incidental to the story of the character around whom they revolved. To put it simply: the film did its job (told a story) and left the rest to comic book fans to geek over and piece together – and then explain to their friends.

Verdict: If not for that lackluster montage in the middle, First Avenger would be a perfect example of how to balance story in a shared movie universe. Instead, that honor goes to The Avengers



After Avengers: Phase 2 of the Marvel Movie Universe

As you can see from our final verdicts on the 5 solo films that brought us to this point, Marvel Studios still has room to improve their approach to building a shared movie universe. Sure, some fans will continue to point to The Avengers as “evidence” that Marvel is doing things 100% right – but again, the success of Avengers (which we gave 4.5 out of 5 stars, please remember) isn’t the point. The point is: how well do the solo films stand on their own two feet? When you go to drop your hard-earned cash to watch the entire Avengers saga on home video – is every chapter worth your while?

Going forward, Marvel Studios would do well to learn from past mistakes and find a better balance between telling complete stories for their individual characters, and maintaining the awareness, fun and (hardest of all) logic of their shared universe. From questions like “Why doesn’t Iron Man just call The Hulk for help?” to the dangers of an over-crowded playing field  (where certain characters get marginalized), Marvel is going to need a much bigger Movie universe timeline if they hope to maintain this world in an orderly fashion.

If Marvel truly plans to go in two directions with their films – into the Cosmic Universe with movies like Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor 2; focusing on Earth-bound threats in Ant-Man, Iron Man 3, a S.H.I.E.L.D. movie and/or Captain America 2then we’re ALL going to need a focused and clearly-marked path in order to follow the story. Below you’ll find some tips for building “Phase 2″ of the Marvel Movie Universe – tips that Marvel Studios might do well to consider:

Stick with the “Showrunner” Model

It’s working for TV series like Mad Men and Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad – and it has worked for both DC and Marvel’s most successful movies to date: Gather a small circle of talented people and let them run the show. Marvel’s movies culminated with such delicious synergy in The Avengers largely because of a few individuals leading the way: Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige has always been the biggest shepherd of the Mavel Movie Universe, and Joss Whedon’s involvement with both Captain America and The Avengers is a large reason why those films stand out from the pack. That’s not to mention Robert Downey Jr.’s consistent and much-needed collaboration on the Iron Man and Avengers franchises.

Now that Marvel has Whedon, they should lock him down the way DC/Warner Bros. tried (failed?) to lock down Chris Nolan as the “godfather” of their universe. Even if Whedon isn’t directing the film in question, or even writing the screenplay, let him consult on all projects (as he did on First Avenger) while Feige oversees the business end. Sure, reach out to creative talent like Edgar Wright (Ant-Man) and Alan Taylor (Thor 2, Game of Thrones) – but have Whedon be the final word on how to combine the narrative pieces and shape the characters. We’re not trying to brown-nose, but the man clearly has the talent to manage this Marvel Movie Universe the right way.

Be Efficient: Make the Logical Connections

Black Widow was a somewhat wasted character in Iron Man 2, as Hawkeye was a wasted character in Thor – they simply weren’t needed in the respective films that introduced them. But where the execution might’ve been wrong, the idea was sound: Do more with these solo films – just do it smartly and logically.

For instance: Ant-Man is  a tricky prospect to sell on its own; however,  Ant-Man: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. would make sense (and is the rumored approach to the film) and could introduce any number of additional characters (Wasp, The Vision, or even Black Panther, if they went in a direction similar to the Earth’s Mightiest Heroes cartoon show). Dr. Strange, a mystical character, seems like an odd choice for a movie franchise – until you link the Sorcerer Supreme to Thor 2 via the cosmic artifacts hidden in Odin’s vault. That’s called “getting more bang for your buck,” and it’s a game plan Marvel would be wise to adopt. If you know the characters and their worlds well enough, you should be able to utilize the obvious points of intersection.

Know The Limits

How many characters are there? How many different versions of those characters? (Are we talking TV Hulk? Or movie Hulk? Which movie Hulk again?) Are the movies separate from the TV shows? Is the outer space stuff related to the Earth stuff? Wait… how many characters are there, again?

When Marvel Studios was first announced, many fanboys and fangirls rejoiced. Many of them were under the impression that this new studio represented a change – that the people who should be in charge of the characters were finally in charge of the characters, and no wrong would, or could, be done. But there have been missteps, and the flagship of comic book creativity has become something more rigid and corporate in its pursuit of big-screen glory. (“Marvel” is now “Disney/Marvel.” Just chew on that for a minute.)

How much Hulk can you handle?

The fantasy of “doing it for the fans first” has likely dissolved with the billion dollar-plus earnings of The Avengers; the money is officially on the table, and it’s going to be seized. But therein lies a bit of irony:

A shared movie universe is a veritable Jenga™ stack. It’s totally impressive when you keep finding ways to add another layer – but the higher it builds, the easier it is for one wrong move to bring down the house. There are always limits to a good thing – and people are always told there are limits to a good thing – but they still push those limits anyway. So I’m not expecting a miracle in this case. However, Marvel should be careful and do the one thing that so many other studios do not: When it comes to expanding their product base, don’t just ask “Can we?” also ask, “Should we?” Because as it stands, trying to keep TV Hulk separated from movie Hulk is already giving me a headache.

Despite some criticisms, it’s been a fun ride watching Marvel fill movie screens with the stories and characters that so many millions of fans have adored for so long. Indeed, the ride has already been great – but like the truest of fans, we only want it to get better down the road.

As usual, we’ll keep you updated on the status of all Marvel Movies, as soon as information comes to light along the journey to Avengers 2.

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