The Marvel Cinematic Universe: What has Been, What to Expect

With the release of Iron Man 3 this summer and Thor: The Dark World coming in just a few weeks, the second phase of Marvel’s movie universe is in full swing. Let’s take a moment to review the existing films and how they compare to the source material. We will also take a look forward to the coming slate of movies as well as the possible unannounced future of the Marvel ‘movieverse’.

...And the Oscar goes to...oh, wait...
…And the Oscar goes to…oh, wait…

Marvel has had such a great run of films in recent years, it is sometimes hard to recall a time when that was NOT the case. There was once a very dark time when the biggest Marvel films were The Punisher starring Dolph Lundgren and Howard the Duck. Once the film industry realized that spending time and effort to make decent comic adaptations would make money, films like X-Men, Blade and Spider-Man became possible; but those franchises were not under Marvel’s direct control. The licensed films do not always represent what Marvel would want to do in their shared cinematic universe. With the exception of the Daredevil characters, recently reverted back from FOX, Marvel still does not own the film rights to a large number of their characters. So that means things like, any meaningful crossover on film between the Fantastic Four and the Avengers is not likely for some time and the X-Men will be in their own self-contained universe for a very long time, or at least as long as FOX feels they can make money. Even Marvel’s most recognizable character, Spider-Man is likely to remain under the control of Sony for the foreseeable future.

If this is confusing, a little clarification on what exactly is and is not part of Marvel’s cinematic universe may be in order. Properties like the FF, X-Men, Ghost Rider, Spider-Man, Blade and the Punisher are currently licensed out to other studios. These licensing deals include most of the related characters as well. So since Marvel cannot directly use the FF, they similarly cannot use Galactus or the Silver Surfer. To add to those restrictions on heroes, the supporting casts and the villains are mostly off-limits as well. The properties remaining that Marvel has control over, mostly consist of the Avengers family and many of the ‘street level’ characters such as Iron Fist or Luke Cage. There are a few gray areas here though. Fox recently lost (or allowed them to revert, depending on who you ask) the rights to Daredevil, but it is not entirely clear anymore as to what other characters that loss/reversion may include. Similarly, in the Avengers universe the Scarlet Witch will be in the next Avengers film, but her brother Quicksilver will be in FOX’s next X-film Days of Future Past. So while there may be some wiggle room in the future, don’t hope for much.

Anyhow, enough with the digression, let’s get back to the movies, specifically the first phase…

Iron Man

Iron Man

Marvel’s first phase started in 2008 with the first of three Iron Man films. Cast perfectly with Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark all three films have been huge hits and by far the most successful of the solo films so far, but that was not always a given. The first of these was a gamble and a test case, as Marvel was by no means sure it would do well. The second film was an even bigger success though not as well received by the fans. The third film took a fairly sharp turn away from what had gone before, thanks mostly to new director Shane Black. It was a bit of a gamble, but it paid off with a darker film that added depth to the character.

In comparison to the source material, the Iron Man films mostly do well. In the first film, ‘The Ten Rings’ terrorist group was a nod to the Mandarin, but did not go over well with fans who wanted the Mandarin to be the villain. Iron Man 3 shows quite effectively that the Mandarin would be a hard character to play straight so, in another tooth grinder for fans, the character is not at all what he was in the comics.

The Stark character has more depth at the cost of some of the defining attributes from the comics. Tony is no longer a recovering alcoholic, but is rarely without a drink in hand as a nod to the alcoholism. Since this has been played down in the comics in recent years, it does not surprise me. The inclusion of Happy, as played by Jon Favreau (director of the first two films) was a welcome inclusion as was Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts.

Technically IM3 was the first film of phase two with the many references to The Avengers, but it felt to me in many ways to be an epilogue to the first phase. The shift in tone (I really didn’t buy the ‘Tony Stark as James Bond’ feel they were going for) made for a film that didn’t feel much like an Iron Man film. The references to things that have already been used in the new Agents of SHIELD TV series and a lot of fun action beats made this a strong start to phase two.

The Incredible Hulk


After the lukewarm response Ang Lee’s Hulk movie received, rebooting the franchise seemed like the right thing to do but this film was not a guaranteed winner either. As it was The Incredible Hulk directed by Louis Leterrier, is the least successful film of the first phase. I think that is actually too bad, as this film has a lot of great points not the least of which is a strong performance by Edward Norton as the title character.

The heavily Dale Keown influenced Hulk
The heavily Dale Keown influenced Hulk

As with its now-ignored predecessor, Leterrier’s film played a little fast and loose with the origin but the original origin was SO much a product of its time that it just wouldn’t work now. The revised version of the origin (told very briefly as the opening credits went by) owes more to the Bill Bixby TV show than the original comics. The film more or less ignores its predecessor by just assuming there was something before this film but does not delve into any specifics. While there are elements of the Ultimate version of the Hulk, the version in this film is just as heavily influenced by the mainstream Marvel Universe. The most noticeable carry over from the comics was the look of the title character. In many shots, Hulk looks so much like Dale Keown’s version you almost expect word balloons. While mostly a success, the Hulk effects in this film seem out-of-place against those in The Avengers.

With Norton being replaced by Mark Ruffalo in The Avengers, and the positive reaction of audiences to that change, there is a small possibility there may be more Hulk films after phase two.



That brings us to the first Thor film. This was a great movie to showcase the franchise as there are piles of little nods to things inside the Marvel films and as well as possibilities for future concepts (Odin’s vault is a lot of fun in pause mode on Blu-ray). At the same time, this is a very isolated film with only the presence of SHIELD agents (and a cameo by the not yet named Hawkeye) connecting directly to a world outside this one.

Much of what made its way into this film was heavily influenced by the Walt Simonson run in the comics and worked very well on film. Fans were generally pleased with the result and stars Chris Hemsworth as Thor and Tom Hiddleston as Loki were very popular with fans. Odd or hokey ideas like the rainbow bridge were done surprisingly well on film and the movie was the first of the Marvel films to really feel like its own world could be made real.

To me, the only complaining about the first film was done by morons that either had never really read the books or were just ignorant hicks. The casting of Idris Elba as Heimdall was hailed by people wanting a strong performance, as a fabulous choice. Both Elba and Tadanobu Asano (cast as Hogun) were controversial choices for some based entirely on their races. Some conservative types pointed particularly to Heimdall in Norse myth as being referred to as ‘the white god’. Sadly, they seemed to feel threatened by these actors taking the roles. To clear up ‘the white god’ thing; this refers to Heimdall’s purity of spirit and loyalty, not his skin color you dummies. Anyone with his unlimited ability to observe would either be the most trusted friend or the biggest enemy of all regardless of how he looked. More importantly, Asgard as portrayed in the film was deliberately multi-racial to show that they are another species (for lack of a better word), mistaken by early Norsemen for Gods. There were even people offended on religious grounds, or so it was ‘reported’ on FOX News. This was a film interpretation of a comic book interpretation of an ancient pantheon of mythical characters and there were people objecting to it on religious grounds? Riiiiiight!

Captain America: The First Avenger

Captain America

This was the film I most wanted to be great and the one I was most scared would suck. I love the character and was so frightened this would be awful; I almost didn’t go to see it. As it turns out all the things that concerned me initially turned out to be some of my favorite parts of the film.

While Chris Evans turned out to be an outstanding choice (I was afraid he would play as too young), the supporting cast was the real joy here. Hayley Atwell, Sebastian Stan, Tommy Lee Jones, Neal McDonough (Dum Dum!!) and the always amazing Stanley Tucci gave this film a depth and personal emotional resonance that none of the others have had.

Comparisons to the comic involve a lot more nit-picking. There are very few actual differences although there are bits of both regular Marvel and the Ultimate Marvel present. While there is a lot of ‘retcon’ present (mostly to allow the howling commandos to be teamed with Cap instead of Nick Fury), none of it detracts from the experience. Since Cap’s origin is one of the most heavily ‘retconned’ in the Marvel U, most fans will not be likely to pick out what is different here. The film creates a very personal connection with Steve Rogers for the viewer; partly because of Chris Evan’s performance and partly because of the fantastic effects that make him seem so frail and helpless. This is the movie in the first cycle with the most heart.

The post-credits ‘button’ of this film and the teaser that followed for The Avengers got me more excited to see a film than I have EVER been.

The Avengers

The Avengers

When fans ask each other what the great comic-to-film adaptations are, the regular names get bounced around: The Crow, Batman Begins, Superman (1978), 300… blah blah blah. I’m sorry but I really have to use my self-appointed veto power to say The Avengers. Not that it is the BEST film; far from it but the closest to a comic book? Definitely! There are better films out there and a lot of likely candidates to pick from. The Avengers was the most LIKE reading a comic I have ever seen. There was never a moment from start to finish that the film didn’t feel like a comic, in both good and bad ways (The very best example of the ‘both’ is the old comic book trope of having our heroes in conflict with each other before teaming up, but Marvel pretty much invented the trope, so they can be forgiven!). Batman Begins is, for my money, a fantastic film that never feels anything like a comic but that was the whole point for the filmmakers. The Avengers, whether it set out to do this or not, is SO much like the feel and enjoyment of reading a really great comic that I was just giggling and giddy throughout the entire film. Fanboy squee-ing abounds!

The biggest difference between the film and the comic is the one that seems most griped about by fans, the absence of two founding members, The Wasp and Ant-Man. I cannot say I was all that upset by their absence, but future films could definitely use more female heroes.

And now for Phase two…

As I already mentioned, Iron Man 3 was officially the first film of phase two in the Marvel ‘movieverse’ and while it was a strong film by itself and made a good bridge between the two phases, it never really felt like an Iron Man film to me. It is a little unfortunate that only the first one felt like it was its own film while the other two really felt more tied to the greater franchise; sometimes to their detriment.

Thor 2: The Dark World

Thor 2

Release date: October 30th (international) November 8th (U.S.)

What we know…

This one was a little troubled at the start. The two directors (Don Payne and Brian Kirk) were named before deals were finished but were quickly dismissed off the project. Then Patty Jenkins (Monster) was named, with the full-throated support of returning co-star Natalie Portman, but when Jenkins left the project over good old ‘creative differences’; Portman was less than thrilled and made some off-the cuff remarks that painted the situation in a fairly negative light.

Alan Taylor (Game of Thrones) came on as director and things seemed to be moving more smoothly but then it came out that Mads Mikkelsen was unable to participate as a villain due to scheduling issues. Christopher Eccleston eventually cast as Malekith the Accursed, which may prove to be a better move. With the exception of Josh Dallas (replaced by Zach Levy as Fandral), the entire original cast is returning.

What we have heard…

Some of the advanced buzz has not been flattering. The mountain this and the other films in the new cycle need to climb is high thanks to the huge success of The Avengers. Unfortunately, I think Thor 2 is the film I believe most likely to suffer by comparison. Not really fair but good films fail all the time and fanboy retaliation can be swift and vicious. The trailer looks interesting and the film will clearly have a different flavor than the first, but if ‘franchise fatigue’ is going to set in we will see the first hints of it here.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Captain America 2

Release date: April 4, 2014

What we know…

The events of this film follow about two years after The Avengers and will give us some of the ‘man out of time’ vibe unavailable to us in the first film and only hinted at in the theatrical cut of The Avengers. Scarlett Johansson will joins as Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow, presumably adding to the spy flavor. This film also adds The Falcon from the 1970s comic book adventures into the mix. Other additions to the cast include Emily VanCamp as Sharon Carter and Robert Redford as Alexander Pierce which combined with the villain Batroc, SHIELD boss Nick Fury and Agent Maria Hill, make the core of this cast a strong one.

Directors Anthony and Joe Russo are a bit of an unknown quantity as this is their first big budget film, but onset reports seem to indicate positive results.

What we have heard…

With the spy thriller/cold war vibe present in the script and returning cast member Sebastian Stan’s comments about how he sees the character of the Winter Soldier, this looks to be a very somber and intimate film at least as far as super-hero action flicks go. It appears as though some of the returning cast members like Hayley Atwell and Dominic Cooper will be used in flashback sequences, with VanCamp reportedly playing Sharon Carter (In the comics, the granddaughter of Atwell’s Peggy Carter), there could be some powerful and personal character moments.

When the title of this film was announced the anticipation for it among fans was high, and so far there has been very little to dim that excitement. I expect this will do quite a bit better than the first one as the character is better known now. While Marvel is hoping for a post-Avengers bump for all of the films, I suspect that this will be a bigger hit than they were hoping for.

Guardians of the Galaxy

Guardians of the Galaxy logo

Release date: August 1st, 2014

What we know…

Director James Gunn’s tenure as director on this started out a rocky one, thanks to some not so nice off-the-cuff remarks he’s made in the past. That minor oddity aside, everyone involved with the film seems to think he is the perfect choice.

How can you NOT want to see this guy in a movie?
How can you NOT want to see this guy in a movie?

Gunn has an outstanding cast to work with in Chris Pratt as Starlord, Zoe Saldana as Gamora, Lee Pace as Ronan and Karen Gillan as Nebula. Most of the early attention on this film has been on the totally CG generated characters of Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), and if the film makers can pull off these two quirky buddies without it being stupid. It looks like a great deal of effort is being spent (not to mention money) to make these beloved characters fun and real. When Glenn Close (as Nova Prime), John C Rielly (as Rhomann Dey) and Benicio Del Toro (as The Collector) were added to the mix, Guardians of the Galaxy suddenly became a movie with a staggering amount of potential.

What we have heard…

The characters used here appear to be mixing classic Guardians characters (Yondu, as played by Michael Rooker and Ronan-as the film’s main villain) mixed with more modern ones (Drax and Gamora), this film looks like a wild ride into the cosmic end of Marvel’s universe. And yes, Producer Kevin Feige has stated that Thanos will be involved in the film but I would expect a smaller role that will be expanded in later films.

Beyond that, very little is known about this film.

The Avengers: The Age of Ultron

The Avengers 2 logo

Release date May 1st 2015

What we know…

Not much, really. The film has a title that was a bit of a disappointment to many fans hoping for Thanos, but as mentioned above, I would expect him to appear in a later film possibly Avengers 3. The title would suggest that The Age of Ultron story from the books is being used but Director Joss Whedon has said that is not the case; rather he just liked the title. James Spader is playing Ultron (presumably as a mostly CG creation) but beyond that, very little is known about casting or plot.

What we think…

This film looks to be the final one with the complete group of heroes, the next phase being sold as a little more ‘street level’. At this time there are no announced plans for an Iron Man 4 or Thor 3 but Downey Jr. and Hemsworth both have options for enough pictures to include them if needed. At this point however, Avengers 3 would be the last for both of the actors. I think with Ant-Man being announced as the first film of phase 3, the smaller films may take center stage for a while.

And for Phase Three…

There are two announced dates after Ant-Man but no films officially attached to those dates as of yet. A great deal of speculation has focused on Doctor Strange, Luke Cage and Iron Fist as possible contenders. But Daredevil could be in that mix now that Marvel has the property back.

Marvel has yet to make a serious misstep in the current cinematic universe and with the momentum they currently have, things look bright indeed for the heroes of the Marvel U.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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While I quietly wait for a really good excuse to go on an interstate mayhem spree, I read comics and watch movies. While I do the "writing" here, my wife makes it readable.

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  1. Matthew Garrett

    I am pretty excited for GOTG. I don’t know too much about the characters but I am excited to learn more about them. Feel like I will go in with a different mentality than Cap, Iron Man, Hulk, and Thor since I know more about those characters.

    • Taylor Ramsey

      The current run in the books by Bendis is a decent one, and the Abnett & Lanning era is outstanding and entirely available in trade. I recommend them.

  2. IMO they failed to portray Captain America as this incredible legend that he’s supposed to be. Chris Evans lacks the necessary charisma, and the build-up of the myth happens too fast. The movie does well in showing Captain’s early origin, how he became a super soldier, but it did nothing to establish Captains’s status as an outstanding super hero, so when he’s found in the ice in the end he still seems like a newcomer instead of this idol that Steve Rogers is in the comics, the man everyone looks up to.

    Other stuff I didn’t like was the idiotic romance, the lifeless generic action scenes (who needs stupid explosions?) and the Red Skull, who is one of the most boring villains of the Marvel universe IMO. And of course how they changed Bucky’s history. Bad choice.

    Overall it was an OK movie, but it didn’t really do the character justice.

    • Elastigirl

      It was my absolutely favorite of the solo films. Captain American is my favorite comic character and I was incredibly skeptical about them being able to do the movie well and live up to my expectations. I went in expected to dislike it, even if I was being kind to it. But it exceeded all of my expectations. All the actors did an amazing job portraying their characters, the directing and cinematography made it feel like the 40s, the script/story was top notch and did a great job condensing events that were suppose to take place over the course of months and even years.

      Frankly, I can’t think of a bad thing to say about it.

      • Taylor Ramsey

        I have to say that the movie version of Cap is nost like the comic version I grew up with in the 90s. While there is a lot pulled from the Ultimates version too, this was much more my Cap than I expected.
        The Red Skull always bored the hell o9ut of me, but I liked the film version a lot.

  3. Louise Jordan

    Would it be cool if they would mash teams up and introduce a ton of characters alongside each other. The Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy. Thanos was at the end of the Avengers movie, but he’s going to be the big baddy in the Guardians of the Galaxy movie. Also it’s stated the Avengers movie and Guardians of the Galaxy, will take place in the same universe, unlike the entirely separate X-Men/Wolverine movies. All this means is, if they do ever introduce the X-Men in this universe, it’ll be a whole new cast, not the cast currently seen as X-Men. (which I think is a good thing)

  4. Good article. I’m looking positively on the future of Marvel movies. On a related topic, here are some villains I could see for Phase III (along with the movies I could see being made for it):

    Ant-Man: Radioactive Man

    Thor #3: King Surtur as the main villain, with The Enchantress and The Executioner as supporting villains

    Dr. Strange: Baron Karl Mordo (and possibly Dormammu)

    Captain America #3: Baron Heinrich Zemo and Man-Ape (if The Black Panther is involved)

    For a GOTG sequel or a film for the Inhumans, I could see Thanos being the main villain (with Ronan The Accuser and/or The Other helping him, along with some other minions).

    Avengers #3: Thanos

    • Taylor Ramsey

      I always liked the Radioactive Man, so good cho8ice there.
      The Executioner was an early candidate for Thor 2, based on what I had heard.
      With Ronan in this coming GOTG film, he may end up in more films too, but I dont get that he is quite the Ronan we are used to from the books.

    • Aguilar

      I think that The Leader will have to appear at some point as he was basically shown at the end of Incredible Hulk. I would like to see MODOK if he is done well but he may be a hit or miss character.

  5. destructo dude

    I do not read comics but I do love CBM movies, especially Marvel movies. When it comes to Marvel movies, I am easily impressed and I even liked Iron Man 2. With Iron Man 3, they promised us a movie with great depth and an ongoing struggle of Tony Stark with the nice punching line: “Do you want an empty life, or a meaningful death”. But what we got instead? That highlighting dialogue of the trailer turns out to be an absolute joke! Instead of a witty Tony Stark, we get a stupid Tony stark who does not miss a chance to crack jokes no matter what happens. And not to forget the ‘actual’ villain who seemed like was ‘hired’ just for the sake of this movie and who screams ‘I am the mandarin’ to enlighten anybody who may yet do not know. And the biggest problem? We are now led to believe the Iron Man armour is extremely buttery weak, who once bothered even the mighty Thor.

  6. Gah! Why did you have to remind me of Howard the Duck? For years I always thought it was some weird lucid dream I had because nobody seemed to know what it was (or at least admit that they’d watched it).

  7. Lachlan Vass

    This has almost nothing to do with this article, but for the record the Toby MacQuire Spider Man’s (excluding the third one, obvs) were way better than the reboot

  8. Cory Ramirez

    It would be pretty damn cool if The Punisher joined the avengers. While the group is planning how to kill Thanos, he’s already blasting his henchmens heads off and pops a pullet in Thanos’s head with a sniper rifle, killing him, the end.

  9. claudia reed

    I am a huge Thor fan and I am getting sick and tired of how Marvel depicts him as a second tier strength Character on the big screen. Thor is regarded by many reliable sources to be the strongest super hero of all but for some reason Marvel treats him like the hulks whipping boy in the cartoons and in the movies he is barely strong enough to beat a powered up Ironman.

    Comic book Thor could have taken on the entire Chautari army but big Scene Thor can barely lifts a chautari off their feet when he hits them. Some may not like “Man of Steel” but at least Superman displayed his strength and super speed somewhat like his comic book counterpart. I hope that Thor 2 does a better job of displaying Thors strength and ability but judging by the trailer I don’t think that will happen..

  10. They’ve stated the Marvel Cinematic Universe will go at least to 2021. This is good. The continuity in the films is actually quite light: you don’t need to see the precursor films to enjoy The Avengers, and there were plenty of fan complaints that IM3 didn’t have enough Avengers-related material in it.

    Marvel is treating the movies the way they do the comics: every movie is someone’s first MCU movie, so it needs to be accessible to people that don’t have the background of the prior films.

    They’ve kept it up in the comics for decades, and in the heyday of the industry, they were acquiring hundreds if not thousands of new readers every issue. Instead of feeling bogged down by the weight of continuity, those readers sought out the back issues not for new information–since it had been presented in the story they’d already read–but to get a more complete view of the Big Picture of the Marvel universe and to enjoy some cracking good stories. When the continuity gets to be a problem, the Marvel approach is to retcon rather than reboot.

    Here is to many years of Marvel movies.

  11. tim0taka

    It would be pretty amazing if Brad Bird did a Marvel film.

  12. Derrick

    Marvel is planning 4 TV series and a mini-series! Interesting that they will be shopping them to areas like VOD and cable channels…as opposed to strictly being Network properties.

    Would be really nice if they could pitch a show to a premium network like HBO or Showtime and get some real talent and production values behind it.

    As long as they don’t ship it to CW and make another soap opera for teens for that audience… Tried watching Arrow a while back, and even that can’t escape that feel. If it didn’t have a guy in a costume, you’d think it was Days of Our Lives or something.

  13. Kelsey Clark

    Pretty excited for the next films. I would say I am an average comic book reader and I have thoroughly enjoyed most of these films. I can agree and say I found something lack from Iron Man 3, but I did enjoy that Tony got to be more than just a rich man in a fancy suit. But was he ever more than that? I’m not so sure. Only a few days not until Thor 2 and I am excited/nervous. I know promos are never a good thing to go off, but it already looks like a lazy screenplay to me…

  14. Jordan

    It seems like if they decided to focus more on Iron Man’s recovering from alcoholism, it could potentially distract from the plot-driven thing the films are going for. It could have worked in the 3rd film though, as they spent a little more time on Stark as a character.

    I haven’t read any of the comics ( I know, I’m a bad person) – but I didn’t like Thor because I wasn’t fond of the character. He seemed very straight forward and predictable. Maybe I am another ignorant person complaining though?? Compred to Tony Stark, the Hulk, Captain America… they are more down to earth and sympathetic (well, except maybe Stark for being rich and up himself haha)

    Cool article 🙂

  15. With Iron Man, it sounds like Stark became more realistic.

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