Next year, the Marvel Cinematic Universe will be wrapping up one of its biggest storylines. Not only will we finally get to meet Brie Larson’s Carol Danvers in Captain Marvel as she saves the world from getting caught up in an alien battle in the ‘90s – we’ll also get to see the chaotic aftermath of the Decimation, Thanos’ finger-snap that wiped out half the life in the universe. According to producer Kevin Feige, Avengers: Endgame will mark a watershed moment in the MCU that brings a natural close to the story we’ve been watching for ten years. After that, the franchise will go on, but it’ll be completely new. New Avengers, new storylines, new worlds, new possibilities. So, now is the best time to look back on the movies of the past ten years.
There have been a bunch of storylines in the MCU – not just the plots of the movies themselves, but the long-running narrative arcs that run through the whole franchise. The characters dip in and out of each other’s movies, and a plot point in one movie could have repercussions that affect five others.
Naturally, with a movie franchise that follows a bunch of individual plots, a series of long-running story arcs, and one big, overall narrative, there are going to be some ups and downs with the storytelling decisions. There have been some fantastic storylines in the MCU that have pleased fans, escalated the stakes of the conflict, and developed the characters in interesting ways. But at the same time, there have also been some lackluster storylines that have irritated fans, stopped movies in their tracks, or otherwise sucked.
Here are 11 Storylines That Hurt The MCU (And 10 That Saved It).
21 Hurt – Using Helmut Zemo in Civil War
Helmut Zemo is a great villain in the comics, but he was wasted in the MCU by being shoehorned into Civil War. The movie’s massive, epic story encompassing the break-up of the Avengers, along with its sweeping cast, didn’t give him enough room to shine.
What’s worse is that Daniel Brühl is a terrific actor and in the short time he did get dedicated to his character in Civil War, he was great as a quieter, subtler, more nuanced villain than we’re used to. Brühl just has to be added to the list of great actors the MCU has wasted: Christopher Eccleston, Tim Blake Nelson, Rebecca Hall, Mads Mikkelsen, Natalie Portman; the list goes on and on.
20 Saved – Janet Van Dyne speaks through Scott Lang
The two solo Ant-Man movies may be among the smallest-scale movies in the MCU (no pun intended), but they manage to rank among the most entertaining, because they have a secret weapon: humor. With comedy superstar Paul Rudd in the lead role, they’re the most consistently funny movies in the MCU. Ant-Man and the Wasp was even funnier than the first one, because director Peyton Reed has gotten to know his leading man’s strengths.
When Michelle Pfeiffer’s Janet Van Dyne became quantumly entangled with Scott Lang in Ant-Man and the Wasp, Rudd got a chance to show off his comic talents by doing a Michelle Pfeiffer impression. It was the perfect way to bring Janet back into the fold while also utilizing Rudd’s hilarious charm in the best way possible.
19 Hurt – Whiplash being in Iron Man 2
Iron Man 2 is one of the least critically acclaimed movies in the MCU. Reviewers called it overstuffed and they had good reason to. It puts too much emphasis on building the wider world of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and it’s chock full of villains. The script could’ve easily done with cutting one of those villains in particular: Whiplash.
The core story in Iron Man 2 is about the U.S. government trying to take Tony Stark’s Iron Man armor from him. The U.S. government is the villain. So, Whiplash was totally unnecessary. Every time the movie cuts to a scene involving Ivan Vanko, it feels like a pointless detour and a waste of time. Then the movie ends and you realize that, lo and behold, it was.
18 Saved – Thor gets Stormbreaker
Thor’s hammer Mjolnir is an iconic part of the MCU, but it was starting to get old. Also, a hammer isn’t actually a very effective weapon in battle – even a magical one. But an ax with more power than the six Infinity Stones that was forged in a dying star definitely is, and it’s infinitely cooler.
Plus, a part of this storyline was the moment in Thor: Ragnarok that sees Thor’s long-lost sister Hela grab Mjolnir mid-air while it hurtles towards her and crushes it in her hands. The birth of Stormbreaker in Avengers: Infinity War gave Thor: Ragnarok the perfect opportunity to demonstrate how powerful its villain was. It’s a creative synergy.
17 Hurt – Steve Rogers’ romance with Sharon Carter
It was a little weird to have Steve Rogers flirt with Sharon Carter. The logic behind the romance was that he loved Peggy Carter and then froze in time for seventy years, so now, he’ll fall in love with the most age-appropriate woman who has Carter’s DNA: her granddaughter.
It’s really creepy if you think about it. His girlfriend passed away and then he hooked up with her granddaughter at her funeral. Steve Rogers is basically Chazz Reinhold. Even worse, the romantic subplot was stuffed into an already overstuffed movie. This was Captain America: Civil War, the story of the Avengers falling apart. There was no time for a romantic subplot.
16 Saved – Tony Stark has to fight without his armor
In Iron Man 3, when Tony Stark lost his armor, he had to take on a building full of bad guys without it. If he had the armor, there’d be nothing stopping him and it might look cool, but he wouldn’t be in danger. By taking away his armor, writer-director Shane Black added more excitement and conflict to the situation.
Iron Man 3 is far from the most popular movie in the MCU. In fact, among diehard fans of the franchise, it might just be the most hated one. But this plot development and the subsequent action sequence – along with that spectacular Barrel of Monkeys scene – make it worth reconsidering. The only problem is that Tony’s un-superpowered siege of the bad guys’ fortress is what leads to the Trevor Slattery twist.
15 Hurt – Wanda Maximoff and Vision’s romance
Wanda Maximoff, as a mopey witch with basically no personality, and Vision, as a droll artificial intelligence with no emotions or sense of humor, are two of the least interesting characters in the MCU. And yet, ever since they got together, every movie has dedicated a few scenes to their romance and it always stops the movie in its tracks.
Even Avengers: Infinity War, a movie which has all the most interesting and entertaining characters in the MCU – Tony Stark, Peter Parker, Peter Quill, Rocket, Groot – dedicates an entire subplot of about fifteen minutes to these two lovers being on the run.
14 Saved – The Chitauri invasion of Earth
Joss Whedon could’ve used the Skrulls, but he went with the Chitauri as the invading force in The Avengers, because all he needed was a generic alien race. That way, the Skrulls were saved for a more important purpose in the MCU: battling the Kree next year in Captain Marvel.
If they’d been introduced in The Avengers and then swiftly wiped out by a nuclear bomb, then the Skrulls would come and go from the MCU without making much of a mark at all. And this is one of the most iconic alien races in the Marvel Comics universe. In Captain Marvel, they’ll be able to threaten Earth in a more meaningful way. Plus, if one fan theory is to be believed, the Skrulls take over the world, Body Snatchers-style, at the end of Captain Marvel, so their threat might expand to future movies.
13 Hurt – Black Panther’s visions of his father
A lot of viewers have joked that the plot of Black Panther is very similar to that of The Lion King. It’s set in Africa. The hero’s journey begins when his father passes away. His right to the throne is challenged by an evil family member. That guy takes over and the hero is sent off into the wilderness to find himself. Then he returns to seize the throne.
But it all rests on the scenes in which T’Challa has visions of his father. Without those scenes looking so identical to Simba’s visions of his father – right down to Rafiki’s ancient tree – fans wouldn’t have put the pieces together to figure out that Black Panther is basically a remake of The Lion King, which undermines its messages and commentary.
12 Saved – Hulk moves to Sakaar
For years, fans have wanted to see the “Planet Hulk” storyline adapted for the big screen, but thanks to rights issues, it’ll never happen. So, Taika Waititi gave us the next best thing in Thor: Ragnarok. After the Hulk flew off in the Quinjet at the end of Age of Ultron, it was unclear what he was going to do or when he was going to reappear.
When he turned up in a gladiator ring wearing armor on a distant planet in the first trailer for Thor: Ragnarok, fans went nuts. When the movie itself came out, fans went even more nuts, because the movie nails the first Hulk-centric storyline in the MCU’s history. Now, if only we could finally get that solo movie.
11 Hurt – Doctor Strange’s origin story
We’ve seen enough origin stories by now to know that they’re all basically the same. Obviously, movies like Iron Man and Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger needed to be origin stories back in Phase One, but Doctor Strange came way later in Phase Three. We’d seen the world saved from annihilation a dozen times, all the superheroes teamed up and later divided – it felt like a step backward to do a conventional origin story movie.
Not everyone knows the backstory of Stephen Strange. The uninitiated fans needed to know that Strange was a talented surgeon who got into a car accident and became the Sorcerer Supreme. But it didn’t need to be spelled out quite as much as it was, and it didn’t need to be the central focus of the movie.
10 Saved – The Hulk doesn’t want to come out and play
As Spider-Man 2 showed, the best way to test a superhero is by taking away his powers. In Infinity War, Bruce Banner’s relationship with his alter ego the Hulk is developed in a fascinating way as the Hulk refuses to come out and fight when Bruce needed it.
This was the next logical step in Banner’s character development, as he had just spent two years as the Hulk. He came to as Banner on a foreign planet with no memory of the past couple of years. After that, he presumably could imagine nothing worse than becoming the Hulk again. But then Thanos invaded Earth and he needed to turn into the green meanie. He went from being unable to not be the Hulk to being unable to become the Hulk, continuing his journey as one of the most interesting characters in the MCU.
9 Hurt – Thor’s relationship with Jane Foster
Obviously, movies need a romantic storyline. Without a love story, no matter how shallow or irrelevant it may be, movies seem incomplete. It’s like studios want to hit all the possible markets. If someone wants to watch a romantic movie, then they too can watch the superhero blockbuster. The problem with the romantic subplot in the first two Thor movies is that the love interest is so excruciatingly bland and uninteresting.
Natalie Portman is a terrific actress, which makes this crime even worse. They wasted her! Jane Foster spent two movies as a generic damsel in distress character. No one seems to mind that she was written out without a trace and Thor never mentions the woman he loves anymore, which isn’t a sign that she was a beloved character.
8 Saved – Peter Quill reconciling with Yondu
On the surface, it seems as though the big twist in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is that Ego, the father that Peter Quill had spent his life searching for, was really a bad guy. However, there’s a different twist that is much sweeter and more unexpected. Quill had been searching for his father for years, but it turns out he knew his father all along: Yondu.
While Ego turning out to be a villain was sort of a predictable plot turn, the emotional payoff of Yondu sacrificing himself to save Quill and Quill realizing that the guy who raised him is more like a father to him than his birth one was truly beautiful.
7 Hurt – Hawkeye has a wife and kids
There’s a lot in Avengers: Age of Ultron that fans have taken issue with, but one of the worst sins the movie commits is trying to win over the fans who call Hawkeye useless by making him a family man. This movie is a Frankenstein story about a cyborg that was built to protect people and ends up trying to destroy people, so that should’ve been the focus.
It would’ve been so much better without Hawkeye’s family. The scene where Hawkeye takes the other Avengers to his farm in the middle of nowhere and introduces them to his wife and kids does very little to make the least interesting Avenger any more interesting.
6 Saved – The Sokovia Accords
Captain America: Civil War sees the Avengers divided against one another. The government decides that one particularly destructive battle with Crossbones is the final straw and proposes legislation that will hold superheroes accountable for their actions. The plot development added to the realism of the MCU’s world and led to divisions in the Avengers, thus making them their own enemies.
Introducing legislation to the superhero world added a whole new angle to the narrative, and it led to what had been the most interesting plot development in the MCU up to that point: the Avengers facing consequences for their actions and turning against each other. Plus, this storyline gets bonus points for cropping up in a lesson Peter Parker was in.
5 Hurt – S.H.I.E.L.D. is really controlled by Hydra
The twist that S.H.I.E.L.D. wasn’t really S.H.I.E.L.D. was without a doubt the most difficult plot change to implement across the rest of the MCU, especially for a little show called Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and it was only conceived to fit in with the ‘70s political conspiracy thriller style that Captain America: The Winter Soldier was going for.
S.H.I.E.L.D. being controlled by Hydra was the kind of twist that you might find in a movie like The Parallax View or Three Days of the Condor. However, those movies weren’t trying to fit into a shared universe of films with an overarching narrative with a carefully constructed mythology like The Winter Soldier was.
4 Saved – Tony and Pepper finally get engaged
In Infinity War, Tony Stark and Pepper Potts finally got engaged – right before Tony latched onto an alien spaceship, battled with the Mad Titan, and got himself stranded on a distant planet with no hope of ever getting home. But still, there’s a ring on his finger.
It was about time. They’ve been together for years and Tony had already shown us he had the ring, so it was just a matter of time. The proposal was teased at the end of Spider-Man: Homecoming. When Peter decides he’s not ready to be an Avenger yet, Tony has a room full of journalists waiting for a big scoop, so he has Happy toss him an engagement ring. But it was good to have it confirmed.
3 Hurt – James Rhodes survives the fall
The airport battle in Captain America: Civil War is one of the most spectacular sequences in the MCU. Towards the end of it, War Machine chases the Falcon into the sky and some smoke and mirrors by the Falcon causes War Machine to plummet to the ground. As Tony Stark rushes to his friend’s side, he appears to be gone.
The emotional gut-punch of his best friend’s fall was the fuel that drove Tony’s rage to breaking point and led us to the thrilling climax of Civil War. But when the ending reveals he survived the fall and he’s not even that badly injured, the whole thing feels sort of pointless. Plus, he’s not that good of a character anyway, so it would’ve been an easy way to get him out of the picture.
2 Saved – The Vulture is Peter's date’s dad
One of Spider-Man’s hallmarks is that the hidden identities of the supervillains he fights have some sort of personal relationship with the hidden identity of Spider-Man, Peter Parker. At least that’s the case with all his best villains. The Green Goblin is his best friend’s dad, Doc Ock is a scientist he’s shadowing etc.
When Peter Parker went to his homecoming date’s house and the person who opened the door turned out to be Adrian Toomes, a new dimension was added to the conflict. He’d been fighting his love interest’s father this whole time! And by saving the reveal for the third act, director Jon Watts managed to preserve the shock until it would have maximum impact.
1 Hurt – The Mandarin fake-out
Shane Black ticked off a lot of fans with this plot twist that revealed the Mandarin, Iron Man 3’s big bad, to be a ridiculous actor who is merely the face of an evil organization. The only way this plot twist might have worked is if the Mandarin wasn’t an iconic villain in the comics and no one saw any trailers until the movie came out, because the trailers and posters teased Ben Kingsley as a fearsome villain.
The Mandarin twist makes an interesting point about real-world international crimes and political fear-mongering – that most feared leaders are just puppets controlled by a larger group – but people don’t come to comic book movies for interesting points about politics.
What do you think about these MCU storylines? Let us know in the comments!