Last week we began with PART 1 of our Beginner’s Guide the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) and its related properties. Marvel Studios’ films have a (nearly) flawless continuity. Their brethren? Not so much. But since the X-Men, pre-MCU Spider-Man, and more are vital members of the Marvel family, they are included in this timeline in a slightly less official capacity. My job, as your guide, will be to detail the nature of entries that might make a little less chronological sense, and let you know which Marvel films are worth watching, why… and, most importantly, in what order to make the most of this sprawling narrative.
Each entry includes the film’s year of release, Rotten Tomatoes score, trailer link, studio continuity (MCU, Fox, or Sony, etc…), and my recommendation as to whether the film is a MUST SEE, FUN ADDENDUM, or for COMPLETIONISTS ONLY.
In Part 2 we will be covering the following:
- Iron Man 2
- A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Thor’s Hammer – One Shot
- The Incredible Hulk
- The Consultant – One Shot
- The Avengers
- Item 47 – One Shot
- The Wolverine
- Daredevil – Season 1 – Netflix Series
IRON MAN 2
Verdict: MUST SEE
Iron Man 2 has a reputation as one of the weaker entries of the MCU, and this is largely a result of its lack of focus. The film bounces pretty wildly between unrelated arcs concerning Tony’s failing health and his father’s legacy coming back to haunt him. This theme of legacy tries to tie the disparate pieces of the film together, but an extensive S.H.I.E.L.D subplot leading in to The Avengers strips the film of its own identity.
Fortunately, Marvel Studios learned its lesson from this, and while their future films are obviously coming from somewhere and leading to somewhere else, they feel less like their existence depends on something else happening after the credits roll.
Despite these criticisms, Iron Man 2 is still a really fun movie with a lot of great moments. Robert Downey Jr. manages to ooze charm, even when his character is tripping over Daddy Ex Machina elements of the story. The film’s anticlimactic end battle is at least precluded by some wonderfully flashy action, and S.H.I.E.L.D.’s involvement is fun, if not necessary to the overall story. Despite it’s shortcomings, Iron Man 2 is nonetheless an enjoyable connecting link to the remainder of the MCU.
Continuity note: Don Cheadle replaces Terrence Howard as Tony’s bestie Rhodey in this film. No, Howard didn’t die between movies. After RDJ’s pay increase, he thought he should also be paid more to be a superhero. CEO of Marvel Ike Perlmutter disagreed, and decided that nobody would notice if they recast the black guy.
A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THOR’S HAMMER
MCU – One Shot
Verdict: MUST SEE
This 4 minute interlude picks up between where Agent Coulson left off in Iron Man 2 and his role in Thor. Weirdly, it appears on the special features of Captain America: The First Avenger. It’s so short that describing the premise would basically be a spoiler. This film really has very little bearing on anything that happens in any of the surrounding films. So why is it a MUST SEE?
Because Coulson is great, and this just makes him even greater.
Verdict: MUST SEE
Thor is a silly movie, but that was always going to be the case. The comic features Norse gods on rainbow bridges speaking in Olde English. Marvel wisely chose to drop the King James lingo, but hired director Kenneth Branagh to keep that Shakespearean tone alive. Turns out, it worked like a charm. Thor miraculously manages to embrace its silliness and grandiosity with nuanced royal family dynamics and an empathetic and fascinatingly disturbed villain to rival Branagh’s own turn as Iago.
Of course, the big complaint from comic nerds is that so much of Thor primarily takes place in the middle of nowhere in New Mexico, instead of across a galaxy of fantastical fantasy realms. For the purpose of the plot of this first film, it actually makes sense for Thor to end up nowhere as a nobody. Considering the relatively limited budget of these initial high-risk Marvel standalone films, it also makes a lot more sense to start small.
Whether you find Natalie Portman’s talents underutilized, or her sidekick Darcy annoying, Thor is one of the most essential links in the Marvel chain, and effortlessly leads into the plot of The Avengers, making it a Must See!
THE INCREDIBLE HULK
Verdict: FUN ADDENDUM
Marvel Studio’s greatest mistake was not letting director Louis Leterrier cast Mark Ruffalo in the starring role of The Incredible Hulk. Instead we got Edward Norton, who was deemed more capable of headlining a film. He turned out to be such a prima donna about the whole process that he wasn’t asked to return for The Avengers. Then director Joss Whedon independently also decided he wanted Ruffalo, and this time Marvel gave in. I guess it was in the stars! I’ve heard from fans of the old TV series that Norton’s turn of the character is more in line with the beloved “David (Bruce is a gay name) Banner” iteration. I think the problem with Norton is that he always comes across as a bit twitchy, whereas the normally amicable Ruffalo’s rage sneaks up on you in a terrifying way.
Casting issues aside, The Incredible Hulk is also the only movie the official MCU canon not to fall into my MUST SEE category. This isn’t because it’s bad. It’s an okay movie. But it doesn’t act as an origin story for the Hulk, and it also doesn’t really take Banner anywhere meaningful in the Marvel Universe. It seems to pick up where the 2003 Ang Lee Hulk movie left off, with Banner hiding in South America. But that movie’s origin was so convoluted, and, frankly, so bad, that neither Marvel (nor this list) thought it would be prudent to actually acknowledge it.
Which is a bummer. Hulk is one of the most popular Marvel heroes, and he deserves a solid film that focuses on him. Joss Whedon pointed out why this is so difficult:
The Hulk is the most difficult Marvel property, Is he a monster? Is he a hero? Are you going to root for a protagonist who spends all his time trying to stop the reason you came to the movie from happening?
The Hulk finally clicks when The Avengers rolls around, but the version in Incredible Hulk is so different in tone, visuals, and performance that you’d be forgiven for simply skipping it. Nobody from this film, save General Thunderbolt Ross, has returned to the MCU. And even then, his character has radically changed.
MCU – One Shot
Verdict: COMPLETIONISTS ONLY
So how about that stinger at the end of The Incredible Hulk, eh? That’s actually the moment that solidifies that film as a post-Iron Man 2 event, despite it being the second Marvel Studios movie filmed. The stinger absolutely should have been at the end of the credits, as it detracts from the finality of Banner’s last scene. But Marvel was really nervous about people missing it, and not knowing that it’s all connected, so here we are. The worst thing is, in hindsight, the stinger doesn’t make any kind of sense.
Enter The Consultant, Marvel’s One Shot attempt to fix what they realized was a grave screw-up to their continuity. This is the weakest entry in Marvel’s One Shot canon, and functions more as a deleted scene to undo that other scene than an actual mini-story. It has a funny premise, and a few amusing little moments, but it’s easier for me to tell you “That stinger at the end of Incredible Hulk didn’t matter” than for you to pop the Thor disc back in to watch it.
Verdict: MUST SEE
And just like that, it all came together. Joss Whedon had his work cut out for him, merging Marvel’s disparate worlds and heroes into one fully formed team. Fortunately, the man is a genius of ensemble. Considering the Iron Man franchise was the most popular and long running at this point, the movie very easily could have become Iron Man and his Less Interesting Super Friends. But Whedon gave each of the heroes an important role and voice in both the film and the team. Their meetings, disagreements, and eventual coalescence occur naturally as a result of their individuality and the greater circumstances at play. Newcomer Hawkeye perhaps feels a bit shortchanged, but he’s used well in the overall plot (and Whedon made it up to Jeremy Renner by giving Hawkeye all the best lines in the sequel).
Simply put, The Avengers wasn’t just an unprecedented event film. It is THE perfect comic book movie. It set the bar for everything that followed, and though many have tried, Marvel Studios are the only ones who have come close to topping it. There may be better films out there, but for my money, no film has made me “squee” with nerd joy more than this one.
To be clear, if you’ve made it this far in the Marvel Chronology and felt like The Avengers was “just okay”, it’s likely that Marvel movies are not for you. But if you’re anywhere near as excited as I was the first time I saw it, rest assured that Marvel’s rocky first steps are behind them. Every follow up film may not be quite as exciting, epic, or team-uppy, but this film solidified the level of talent and budget necessary to make all future iterations truly soar!
MCU – One Shot
Verdict: FUN ADDENDUM
It’s unfortunate that the Item 47 One Shot on The Avengers video release doesn’t tie into the MCU in any significant way, because its characters are pretty great. At 12 minutes long, it’s a funny little short story about two desperate individuals who find a piece of alien technology left over from the events of The Avengers.
Claire and Bennie seem to have missed their shot at re-appearing in the MCU, but their antagonist, S.H.I.E.L.D Agent Sitwell, does. This one’s enjoyable enough that I almost marked it as a MUST WATCH, but you’re seriously not missing anything important if you’re really that busy.
20th Century Fox
Verdict: FUN ADDENDUM
The Wolverine is shockingly good. Not exceptionally good, mind you. I mean to say that it’s shocking that The Wolverine isn’t bad. A lot of fans of the character hate this film, and that’s absolutely fair. It comes damn near close to undermining everything good about itself with a bafflingly cartoonish finale, which neither allows Wolverine to finally be as badass as he is in the comics, nor respects the source material enough to play the mythology straight. The oddest thing about this is that the rest of the film has a thoughtful, deliberate tone that apes a Kurosawa film in all the right ways. Director James Mangold (Girl, Interrupted, 3:10 to Yuma) does a mostly fine job, but the fact that Darren Aronofsky was originally attached speaks volumes as to what this film was supposed to be. At its best moments, it’s actually a better film than anything else the X-franchise has to offer.
I placed The Wolverine at this point in the continuity not just because this was roughly when it came out, or because it’s nice to take a deep breath after the craziness of The Avengers, but also because it picks up a long time after the original X-trilogy ended. To be clear, there is one specific plot point that doesn’t quite make sense having skipped X-Men: The Last Stand.
[Spoilers for X2 and The Last Stand follow – in case you’re reading ahead]
Jean Grey is presumably dead at the end of X2, so it makes sense that Logan (a.k.a. Wolverine) would be haunted by her death. But in The Last Stand, Jean returns from the dead as the unstable Phoenix force and Wolverine is forced to kill her. Logan’s specific guilt over this (shown in dream sequences) is a big part of his arc in The Wolverine. So why didn’t I include The Last Stand as a COMPLETIONISTS ONLY option? Well, that’s because it confusingly features completely different iterations of Bolivar Trask and Moira McTaggert than exist in superior X-films. Also because The Last Stand disintegrates Professor X and puts him in a different body in an end credit stinger. Don’t worry. He shows up in Patrick Stewart again later as if nothing ever happened.
Marvel’s DAREDEVIL – Season 1
MCU – Netflix Series
Verdict: MUST SEE
Iron Man 3, and really all the following films that Tony is in, will deal with the personal ramifications of The Battle of New York. Item 47 focused on the mayhem this caused in the lives of a couple of crooks. But nothing explores the aftermath of war quite as well as Netflix’s first contribution to the MCU. Hell’s Kitchen is in shambles, but what will replace it? When crooked businessman Wilson Fisk (a brilliantly cast Vincent D’Onofrio) moves in to gentrify at the expense of the weak, only one man can stop him.
Actually that’s not true, and Daredevil‘s nature as an ensemble crime investigation drama makes it something really special. Despite being a super-ninja, Daredevil needs his friends. Charlie Cox is incredibly charismatic as Matt Murdock, lawyer by day, vigilante crime fighter by night. He does an amazing job balancing the character’s genial humor with an intense rage and darkness, and his flexibility with both sides of the role go a long way to making you fear for his soul.
Daredevil also feels like it truly has stakes. It has a likable yet flawed supporting cast, and it truly feels like any of them could bite the big one at any moment. Wilson Fisk is also among the best villains in a Marvel property… mostly because he’s not mad, he’s just wrong about what the right thing is, and does horrible things to make sure it happens. His strength and deep-rooted belief that he’s doing the right thing make him not only fascinating, but also a terrifying parallel to Matt’s own journey.
To be clear, if you skip Daredevil because you don’t want to invest the 13 hours it takes to watch the first season, you’ll be able to enjoy the rest of the MCU. You’ll just be missing out on one of the best parts of it. While The Avengers is a jumping off point for Daredevil, he hasn’t crossed into the films just yet. But if he hasn’t by the third or so Sony/Marvel Spider-Man feature, I’m officially going to throw a fit.