EndGame - Marvel Phase 3

Marvel Phase Three: When Heroes Fall

Marvel Phase Three | Whether you’re a Marvel Cinematic Universe superfan, or a newcomer trying to get to grips with this sprawling world of gods, soldiers and men in iron suits, Isobel Roach provides a whirlwind round-up of Marvel’s three completed phases. In her final piece, Isobel brings us up to speed with a whistle-stop tour of Marvel’s hard-hitting third phase, packed with some of the most critically-acclaimed films of the entire Marvel franchise. 

Where do you go when you’ve had several onscreen apocalypses? In what creative direction do you turn after dealing with aliens, robots, gods, and ant-sized superheroes? And are there any consequences for superhuman vigilantes that level skyscrapers on a regular basis? Going into 2016, these were the questions Marvel’s creative team found themselves wrangling with. After two hugely successful phases of creative development, the superhero blockbuster was now a big screen staple and a kind of established genre in its own right. Eight years on from the release of Iron Man, the MCU was sitting pretty with a dedicated fanbase and the security of mainstream appeal. With the dawning of phase three, Marvel’s team of creatives were ready to take risks, be bold, and reshape the franchise in their own unique image, with serious forays into comedy, medical drama, and a much-needed diversifying of its lead characters.

But before any of that, the year kicked off with Steve Rogers’s latest escapades in the excellent Captain American: Civil War (2016). With the Russo brothers once again at the helm, there was little chance of this crossover spectacular going wrong. Civil War remains one Marvel’s highest earning solo flicks (and the seventh highest grossing movie overall), and it’s easy to see why. Acting as a kind of dry run for Marvel’s more ambitious Avengers duology that would eventually bring phase three to a dramatic close, Civil War drew in huge audiences by throwing together a huge cast of characters. Robert Downey Jr. shares the billing with Chris Evans in this Captain America outing, and the resulting movie feels very much like a group effort. It’s the perfect recipe for success; Civil War fulfils every Marvel aficionado’s secret desire to see their favourite characters come to blows. But there’s more to the film than just misunderstandings and gratuitous action. At its heart, the Russos’ movie is about the true consequences of unadulterated destruction and violence. With the signing of the Sokovia accords, the futile attempts at bureaucracy, and debates about the lawfulness of vigilantism, this is Marvel getting self-aware.

Rightful attention must also be given to the movie’s treatment of increasingly popular secondary characters and its new emerging talent. Sebastian Stan’s Bucky Barnes is the focal point of Civil War’s slowly unfolding pandemonium as he deals with the trauma and guilt of his past. Equally captivating are Chadwick Boseman and Daniel Brühl; the former making his presence felt in his first appearance as Black Panther, the latter bringing a certain gravitas to the antagonist, Zemo. 

As tantalising as it was to get a glimpse of Boseman’s King T’Challa, Marvel decided to pursue a very different direction after Civil War. Next to make his cinematic debut was Doctor Strange, in his self-titled origin story. Scott Derrickson’s interpretation of the sorcerer supreme marked another important turning point for the MCU – one whose impact can be felt in Marvel’s most recent projects, WandaVision and Loki. Doctor Strange’s exploration of magic makes it both unique and significant in the Marvel canon. It feels like a bold, brand new world with its enchanted capes, magic sigils, and Tilda Swinton’s sage portrayal of the Ancient One. Even Michael Giacchino’s soundtrack is something of a mystical wonder; it certainly can’t be compared to Iron Man’s electric guitar. Derrickson handles this foray into new territory with ease, giving his film a strong aesthetic sensibility (think wood-panelled mansions and cabinets of curiosity), as well as an exciting storyline.

Doctor Strange strikes an interesting balance between the real world and the realm of the supernatural. The film’s earlier scenes exploring Stephen Strange’s career as a surgeon and subsequent downfall are some of the most hard-hitting moments in the Marvel franchise. Benedict Cumberbatch is tragically captivating as Stephen, bringing a gritty darkness to his portrayal of a man slinking further and further into a pit of self-loathing. As the movie lightens, Cumberbatch’s Strange transforms into the hero we were promised. His chemistry with side characters like Wong (Benedict Wong) and Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) make for a consistently entertaining watch, and Doctor Strange is careful to plant the seeds of future conflict – seeds which have yet to come to fruition…

Doctor Strange - Marvel Phase 3
Marvel Phase Three | Doctor Strange

Speaking of storylines growing and developing; somewhere far across the universe, a very different cast of characters were about to make their second outing on the big screen. James Gunn’s ragtag group of intergalactic antiheroes were already fan favourites after their 2014 debut; surely Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 would be a guaranteed hit? There’s no doubting the popularity of the Guardians’ second outing – bringing home over $863 million at the box office to date – but its overall quality is a less certain prospect. Following on from Civil War and Doctor Strange, Guardians Vol. 2 is comparatively tame; there’s nothing fresh or ground-breaking amidst the high-speed spaceship escapes and slightly gaudy CGI planets. A month or so into my marathon re-watch of the MCU, the prospect of Guardians Vol. 2 felt more like a hurdle to jump over than a satisfying pitstop. Imagine my surprise, then, when I found myself enjoying it.

Was I gripped, sitting on the edge of my seat, humbled by the unexpected brilliance of Gunn’s movie? Perhaps not. But what I did experience was a sense of satisfaction, with the film’s cast of characters actually fulfilling arcs of development that had started in the very first instalment of the franchise. Bradley Cooper’s Rocket is always a joy to watch, even in relation to the more ‘real’ humanoid characters that aren’t computer-generated, and Guardians Vol. 2 shows him wrestling with his cruel instinct for self-preservation and coming out on top. Being an overlooked movie in the MCU canon has somehow worked in its favour, allowing so many of the jokes to carry the same impact they had on first viewing – a fate that the first Guardians film unfortunately does not share. For all its shortcomings – and between the general ugliness of the design work and the overblown finale, there certainly are quite a few – Gunn’s movie remains entertaining and heartfelt at its core.

From decent to outstanding, in the summer of 2017 we stepped away from the grandiose action of outer space and set our sights on a much smaller story. Enter Peter Parker, student by day and friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man by… slightly later in the day? The introduction of Tom Holland as the web-wielding not-quite-Avenger was one that changed the MCU for good. Like a breath of fresh air in a cinematic landscape that was becoming increasingly oversaturated with world-ending destruction, Peter swung in with his homemade super suit and embarrassing collection of nerdy t-shirts.

Spider-Man Homecoming is a testament to the power of good casting. Perhaps the true unsung heroes of the MCU, casting directors like Sarah Finn, have done the hard work of assembling the Avengers and finding heroes that can stand the test of time. Homecoming is an apposite example of this, with Holland’s Peter shining amidst an ensemble cast of teens and teachers alike. Jacob Batalon plays the lovable, geeky Ned with so much charm it’s almost a shame when he walks out of a scene. Zendaya brings her star-power to the role of loner MJ, and a special mention must be given to Martin Starr who steals plenty of laughs as Peter’s teacher Mr. Harrington. Robert Downey Jr. makes his presence felt as a kind of father figure for Peter, never stealing the spotlight from Holland but bringing out the best of him as an actor.

And then, of course, there’s Michael Keaton. In a movie so concerned with lightness, comedy, and coming-of-age antics, Keaton’s sinister Adrian Toomes provides a note of darkness that reminds us we’re still watching a Marvel movie. There can be no heroes without villains, and Peter learns the hard way that adults don’t always play fair. Holland and Keaton work together wonderfully, coming to a kind of climax in a particularly tense car ride on the way to prom. Here, like in so many other moments throughout the movie, Peter is out of his depth. But that’s the secret to Homecoming’s success; Peter, for all his superpowers, is just like us.

Spider-man homecoming - Marvel Phase 3
Marvel Phase Three | Spider-Man Homecoming

By the end of 2017, phase three was coming into its own. The perfect finale to the year was Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok, a technicolour, interplanetary adventure that saw the god of thunder and his brother Loki cast out from Asgard by their evil sister Hela (Cate Blanchett). Waititi’s bold new vision for the Thor franchise has had a lasting impact on Marvel’s cinematic landscape and reinvented the character as something of a fan favourite. Always playing second fiddle to Loki’s scene-stealing charisma, in this third big screen outing, Thor finally finds his own groove. From the very beginning of the movie, a captive Thor appears to break the fourth wall and explain to the audience precisely how he found himself in this sticky situation; from here on out, it’s clear that Thor Ragnarok is not going to be taking itself seriously. In choosing to approach the realm of Asgard and the world of the Norse gods with tongue-in-cheek humour, Waititi understands that the true secret to Marvel’s success is its self-awareness. 

But it’s not just Thor himself that benefits from Waititi’s excellent writing skills. Tessa Thompson shines as the outcast Valkyrie – a female character that has her own part to play in the film’s unfolding plot instead of existing as a blatant love interest for Hemsworth. Thor Ragnarok’s other ruthless warrior, the less pure-hearted Hela, also marks a welcome diversion from Marvel’s previous attempts at bringing women to the screen. Blanchett’s villainess is evil at her core, and watching the Norse god of death cause carnage and bring armies to their knees provides a stark comparison to the MCU’s earlier sexualisation of Johansson’s Black Widow.

Marvel’s Black Panther was huge even before its 2018 release. Now, three years on, Ryan Coogler’s tale of power and deceit set in the fictional kingdom of Wakanda, is more than a movie. Even by Marvel’s standards, Black Panther has taken on a cultural significance that extends far beyond the cinema screen. With the phrase “Wakanda forever” and the crossed arm salute adopted by Boseman’s T’Challa being repeated by adoring fans across the globe, Black Panther has remained in the public consciousness to this day. But what of the film itself? 

Following on from the events of Civil War, Coogler’s movie tells the story of T’Challa’s ascent to the throne of Wakanda. It’s easy to gaze in wonder at the film’s stunning visuals – Wakanda itself is a sight to behold – but the charm of an insular, gated community is challenged by the arrival of Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) who brings his violent idealism to the peaceful nation. Perhaps one of the MCU’s best antagonists, Killmonger’s power comes from his staunch moral code. The present-day relevance of Killmonger’s backstory coupled with Jordan’s natural charisma makes for a very persuasive and morally grey villain – one that T’Challa can come to respect in a heartbreakingly poignant finale. 

Black Panther is a success story on more than one front. Coogler’s direction, the outstanding soundtrack combining hip hop with traditional African music, and the beautiful character portraits make it an unmissable addition to Marvel’s phase three. Its relevance as a mainstream blockbuster with a majority black cast has shown the power of cinema – and the power of Marvel itself – to make a real, lasting impact on the way we represent the world.

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Marvel Phase Three | Black Panther

What kind of movie could possibly follow a box office hit like Black Panther? Could Marvel beat the levels of popularity they’d already achieved? The arrival of the end of all things, an apocalypse on a grand scale with an unfathomable budget, was certainly able to do the trick. Heralded as ‘the most ambitious crossover event in history’, Avengers: Infinity War (2018) was hotly anticipated and incredibly well-received. And it’s no surprise. For many (including myself), watching Infinity War in the cinema was an experience like no other. Marvel’s unprecedented power to unite an audience in suspense, terror, or jubilation has never been more evident than in its Infinity War duology; even during a re-watch in the comfort of my own home, I felt an unmistakable thrill at the sight of Captain America’s first appearance, arriving to save Vision just in time. This incredible sense of poise and presence is as much a testament to the skills of heavy-hitters like Evans, Johansson, and Downey Jr. as it is to Marvel’s team of writers and directors. As phase three comes to a close, the MCU’s original cast of superheroes have become icons of the screen. 

Even without the intricate plot, there’s enjoyment to be found in the unexpected combinations of characters as franchises collide and mix for the first time. The god of thunder making friends with a talking space racoon is just as rewarding as the reunions between long-separated characters, and the film’s funniest scene sparks from the unlikely combination of Star Lord, Iron Man, Spidey, and Doctor Strange. Relative newcomers like Holland and Cumberbatch hold their own and have a significance to the plot that feels genuine and well earned. In fact, the Russo brothers strike an excellent balance between each of the film’s many characters and their attention to detail is what gives Infinity War its heart. 

Perhaps the most memorable and ambitious sequence of the already impressive film is its final battle; a huge CGI brawl in which every hero gets a few licks in before Thanos (played by Josh Brolin) makes his appearance on the battlefield. It’s the culmination of everything Marvel has been working towards since phase one. Hints and easter eggs, a few infinity stones here and there – all of it carefully constructed to pave the way for Thanos and his dream of a better, less populated universe. When ‘the snap’ finally happens, the result is both devastating and wonderful; to have the heroes lose after a decade of relentlessly winning provides the kind of emotional pathos you can’t find anywhere else. It’s the perfect, tragic ending to an unprecedented cinematic saga – albeit a temporary one.

Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018) comes as something of a relief after the harrowing experience of Infinity War. Set before the snap, Paul Rudd’s Scott Lang takes on a mission with considerably lower stakes as he attempts to patch things up with Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and love interest Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly). The three shrinking heroes attempt to go ‘subatomic’ and rescue Hope’s lost mother from an inconceivably small dimension. Things start to get dangerous when Ava (Hannah John-Kamen), a mysterious assassin with the ability to phase through objects, attempts to steal Pym’s technology. There’s nothing groundbreaking about this storyline – tech falling into the wrong hands is something of a Marvel staple – but this second Ant-Man outing remains enjoyable and, above all else, funny. 

Perhaps not the standout film of phase three, Ant-Man and the Wasp occasionally falls a little flat and doesn’t bring anything particularly innovative to the table. Arriving after cinematic spectacles like Infinity War, and important cultural pieces like Black Panther, this light-hearted comedic romp can, at times, come across as vapid. 

At the beginning of 2019, we arrive at another important touchstone for Marvel in its cinematic journey. Since the conception of the MCU in 2008, there had been no female-led superhero blockbusters created by the studio. Coming at a time when conversations about feminism and women’s rights were increasingly hard to ignore, Marvel broke its own cycle of male-centric movies with the release of Captain Marvel. Any superhero film centred around the lives of women was bound to rustle some feathers, and Captain Marvel was no exception. Brie Larson’s Carol Danvers – an intergalactic warrior with a mysterious past on Earth – received criticism for her costume, hair, attitude, and abilities on social media. And yet, Captain Marvel remains as entertaining, exciting, and meaningful as it was on the big screen.

Danvers feels like a genuine hero with as much heart, pride, and power as any of her male counterparts. More of a well-rounded character than several of Marvel’s sexualised onscreen women, her struggle for identity and subsequent battle against the Kree are easy to get invested in. Boden and Fleck’s film also sees the return of Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury – a considerably younger, computer-enhanced 1995 version of him, that is. Unlike several previous attempts at de-ageing actors that shall not be named, Jackson is rendered as a convincing version of his much younger self. Both Fury and Carol’s best friend Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch) play excellently alongside Larson and the three have a dynamic that’s continuously entertaining to watch. Fans of the recent WandaVision miniseries will appreciate the small (but notable) role played by Maria’s daughter Monica (Akira Akbar) – soon to be a major player in phase four.

Captain Marvel - Phase 3 Marvel
Marvel Phase Three | Captain Marvel

With all these storylines winding around each other, crossing over, and weaving an intricate pattern of loss and triumph, there comes a time when the final stitch must be made. Concluding a franchise of such gigantic proportions, no matter how temporary the resolution, is a daunting feat in itself. Avengers: Endgame (2019) arrived with a sense of trepidation; no one was quite ready for what they were about to see, never mind the rumours that some of the MCU’s best-loved characters might be ruthlessly killed off by the Russos as a parting gift. The atmosphere in the cinema was just as electric as it had been for the first part of the duology – if not even more heightened – and Endgame is a movie so rich in content, emotion, and plot that it still elicits a reaction even on the small screen. Crowd pleasing moments like Steve Rogers picking up Thor’s hammer and the arrival of the other Avengers at the very last moment when all hope is lost haven’t lost any of their impact two years down the line. 

Diverting from the out and out carnage of Infinity War, the crux of Endgame centres around a ‘time heist’, cleverly plotted and named by Rudd’s Scott Lang who plays a vital role in the second clash with Thanos. Five years on from the devastation of Infinity War with half the Avengers turned to dust, the remaining heroes hatch a plan to go back in time and collect the Infinity stones before Thanos can take them for himself. This means revisiting several of the franchise’s most iconic settings and characters – an instant and effective crowd-pleaser.

Part of what makes Endgame so palatable and easy to re-watch is its self-aware attitude. Even in the face of extinction, the characters we’ve grown to love are allowed moments of reprieve; the Russos embrace humour whenever they can and understand its importance to the success of the MCU. But there’s darkness and tragedy here, too. The promise of character death is fulfilled with the loss of Downey Jr.’s beloved Tony Stark, whose on screen demise feels very much like the end of an era. Iron Man has come to represent a kind of hopefulness and an older, optimistic approach to heroism – the man in the suit that can create his own power in the face of gods and monsters. Stark passes on his mantle to a new generation of superheroes, proving that all good endings are really beginnings in disguise. 

Phase three comes to a close with a new beginning. Fresh-faced Tom Holland reprises his role as Spider-Man in the wake of Endgame’s dramatic resolution. 2019’s Spider-Man: Far From Home follows Peter Parker as he tries to win over MJ (Zendaya) on a class trip to Europe. Things don’t go so smoothly when huge elemental monsters pose a threat, causing Peter to seek help from Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal), a stranger that might not be as trustworthy as he first seems. As sweet and charming as Far From Home is, it’s also a movie that deals with heavier topics as Peter deals with the loss of a father figure and feelings of inadequacy. Gyllenhaal is wonderful in this respect, creating chemistry with Holland’s Peter in an attempt to fill the void left by Tony. As Peter grieves, so do we; Far From Home is a somewhat therapeutic viewing experience for Marvel fans still reeling from the death of Iron Man. Spider-Man’s plucky hopefulness and earnest devotion to the cause of justice are comforting and familiar for MCU fans that are used to the heroics of Stark and Rogers.

Spidey’s whistle-stop tour through the landmarks of Europe is the perfect backdrop for a series of capers involving his classmates. With the return of Ned, Flash, and Mr. Harrington, Far From Home hits the right notes of sentimentality and fun as Peter attempts to hide his secret identity. With the film’s conclusion marking the very end of phase three, its post-credit scene is more vital than ever and director Jon Watts doesn’t disappoint. J.K. Simmons returns as J. Jonah Jameson – a tantalising cameo for fans of the early noughties Spider-Man movies – and reveals Peter’s secret identity to the world. Phase three’s final moments are shocking enough to leave us wanting more, despite the pathos of the Infinity Saga and all that came before it; Marvel makes sure it isn’t finished with us yet.

Read Next…

Isobel Roach provides a whirlwind round-up of Marvel’s Phase One with films including Iron Man, Captain America, The Avengers and more.

Marvel Phase Two | Isobel Roach explores phase two, from the continuation of Iron Man’s story through to the introduction of Ant-Man.

Isobel Roach is a regular contributing writer at Wales Arts Review.

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