Over the coming months, Marvel Studios is set to ramp up its fourth phase, with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Eternals, and Spider-Man: No Way Home all set to drop before the year is out. As Marvel fans around the globe are salivating to see what Kevin Feige and co. have cooked up, it’s worth taking a look back at MCU’s Phase Two.
This is when the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) came into its own, officially becoming the blockbuster behemoth it is today and the cultural touchstone that binds fans from Brooklyn to Budapest and beyond.
Some franchises concluded during Phase Two (Iron Man), while others regressed from their superior first installments (Thor, Avengers). And still, the myth-making machine found time to churn out new fan favorites: Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man, giving the brand new flavors to attract new adherents and keep old heads entranced.
MCU’s Phase Two: Great Power, Great Responsibility
Phase Two kicked things off with Iron Man 3, the final entry in the much-beloved trilogy. Dropping nearly a year to the day after The Avengers hit screens, the film is a back-to-basics thrill. For 131 minutes Tony Stark is doing what he does best. Wrestling with his duality, battling a near-equal foe, all while living the high life and launching quip after quip.
The film opens with Stark hobnobbing at a party in 1999. He’s approached by a disabled scientist named Aldrich Killian. Tony swiftly rejects his offer to collaborate. Years later, Killian, cured by the same technology he hoped Stark would lend his genius to, re-enters the picture — this time bent on revenge.
Iron Man 3 was panned upon its release, with fans and critics alike despising the Mandarin red herring, who the audience was led to believe was the mastermind behind a string of terrorist attacks. In retrospect, the film attracted unwarranted hate since it came immediately after The Avengers, which officially catapulted the MCU to the stars.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is without a doubt one of the best MCU films to date. Its pacing and tone were masterful, its action sequences tight. The film managed to be suspenseful without feeling manipulative. The S.H.I.E.L.D./Hydra dynamic was enchanting, thought-provoking, and a joy to unpack. Not to mention highly impactful to the MCU.
The clear highlight of Phase Two, The Winter Soldier pitted Steve Rogers against his childhood best friend. The eponymous character and unwitting Soviet stooge, Bucky Barnes. Part political thriller, part Cold War-style spy film, The Winter Soldier is devoid of fat. It’s a perfectly plotted, gritty action film brimming with big ideas and nuanced character development.
MCU’s Phase Two Sophomore Jinx
The so-called “sophomore jinx” is when an artist’s second release – be it an album, a film, or any other work – fails to live up to the expectations set by a successful first effort. Thor: The Dark World and Avengers: Age of Ultron fell into this dreaded trap. Both films, while highly important to the overall mythology of the MCU in films to come, fell far short of their predecessors.
While Ultron boasts one of the finest villains in the MCU – the titular AI accidentally brought into being by Tony Stark – Thor: The Dark World features the listless (and speechless) elf Malekith as its baddie. The second and fourth entrants in Phase Two, Ultron and Thor: The Dark World, suffered from convoluted, hole-riddled plots, unimaginative dialogue, and thin characters.
Critics slammed Thor: The Dark World, which garnered a paltry 66 percent approval on Rotten Tomatoes (fans were slightly more generous, giving it a respectable 75 percent). Ultron fared better with critics and fans alike. However, in the ensuing years, the film is mostly viewed as fun if confusing, and a schizophrenic viewing experience.
MCU’s Phase Two Shaky Sequals
Fan-favorite Loki is an unquestioned bright spot in an otherwise bland Thor: The Dark World. His multifaceted nature and trickster ways – the very qualities that draw his legions of fans – are on full display. At the beginning of the film, he’s imprisoned on Asgard. It’s a consequence of his Marvel debut wrecking New York City with a horde of Chitauri in The Avengers.
His stint in prison is short. After the destruction of the Bifrost, a rainbow bridge connecting the various realms, Thor recruits Loki to help him pursue Malekith and avenge their fallen mother, Frigga. The god of mischief lives up to the moniker, fooling both Thor and Malekith before taking the throne of Asgard, fulfilling the dream he’s held since his youth, spent in Thor’s shadow.
Like Thor, the second Avengers film is a low point in the Marvel canon. But that doesn’t mean it was without the occasional delight. Chief among these is Ultron himself, a sentient AI inadvertently built by Tony Stark who is hell-bent on obliterating humanity in a twisted bid to save the planet.
Ultron, voiced by James Spader, forces the audience to wrestle with themes and existential questions relevant to our time: Is technology a force for good? Is humanity’s obsession with progress a recipe for our own destruction? And, perhaps most vital: Are the Avengers a source of good or well-intentioned evil?
Whole New Worlds
Phase Two of The Infinity Saga featured some grand experiments; it found Marvel launching two franchises full of lesser-known characters, plumbing the backwaters of the comic books to introduce new tones and worlds to complement its more familiar faces like Iron Man and Thor. Enter Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man.
Guardians was the first time Feige and the Marvel brain trust elected to bring some of the more obscure characters and stories from the comic books onto the big screen. Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, Captain America. These are all big-ticket heroes, among the most well-known and long-standing names associated with the Marvel brand. Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax, Groot, Rocket?
This motley crew led even die-hard comic book fans to scratch their heads. But the outcasts – led by Peter Quill, an Earth-born brigand, joined by a gorgeous green orphan, a massive warrior with a penchant for revenge and semantics, an adorable tree, and a talking raccoon with a potty mouth – have since become some of the most cherished ensembles in the Marvel universe.
Anchored by its energetic soundtrack (a collection of 1970s favorites), its lightning-fast plot, its winning mixture of comedy and earnestness, and the out-of-this-world imagination of director James Gunn, Guardians is the crown jewel of Phase Two. It gave fans a new world to explore, full of colorful characters that would prove critical to the MCU’s broader arc and a playful vibe.
Meanwhile, Ant-Man, shrunk the MCU down, bringing Phase Two to a close with a rollicking, Earth-bound ride. Though the film didn’t reach the heights of previous MCU films, it provided a welcome change of pace and a more manageable adventure after the chaotic, sprawling Avengers: Age of Ultron.
The film revolves around Scott Lang, an amiable thief played by comedy mainstay, Paul Rudd. On paper, bringing Rudd into the MCU was a strange choice. But it worked like a charm. The whimsy of the Ant-Man character – who uses a fitted suit and Pym particles to shrink to subatomic size – proved a natural fit for Rudd’s affable demeanor and everyman charm.
After years of fast-paced action, films featuring well-known Marvel mainstays, and budget-busting action sequences, Guardians and Ant-Man proved that the MCU has more tricks up its sleeve. It could do more than peddle big names and established action stars. These films added a new dimension – quite literally – to the MCU and infused its universe with new blood.
Calm Before the Inter-Galactic Storm
Before the MCU would become synonymous with pop culture, before Marvel unleashed some of the finest films of the 2010s, came Phase Two. This string of films ushered in characters that would eventually be elemental to the Infinity Saga, including Thanos, the Winter Soldier, and the Guardians crew. It also expanded upon the Infinity Stones mythology.
Phase Three would eventually include some of the MCU’s highest-grossing and most critically acclaimed films. Such as Black Panther and Avengers: End Game. Phase Two was like the calm before the storm. Dynamic and wide-ranging, Phase Two said goodbye to the Iron Man franchise while welcoming the Guardians and Ant-Man.
It included two knotty, overwrought disasters – Thor: Dark World and Avengers: Age of Ultron. Also, it gave us one of Marvel’s finest efforts to date in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It was often funny and lighthearted – see Paul Rudd’s inclusion and the whizzing banter between the Guardians.
In the wider context of the MCU, Phase Two plays like a set-up for larger ideas. These stories would fully blossom in Phase Three, and can at times feel half-baked and overly ambitious. At its best, these six films are a stunning display of the MCU’s growing depth. At its worst, a microcosm of the universe’s biggest faults.
What is your favorite moment of the MCU’s Phase Two? How does it compare to phases one and three? Which new character brought the most life to the screen? Let us know in the comments below!