There Was an Idea: A Tribute to Phase I of the MCU
“You think you're the only superhero in the world? Mr. Stark, you’ve become part of a bigger universe, you just don't know it yet.”
These prophetic words were spoken by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) in the end credits scene of “Iron Man” over ten years ago, leading to the genesis of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) — a collection of interconnected superhero franchises, including Iron Man, Black Panther and Thor — that revolutionized the film industry. It was a breakthrough moment, though we didn’t know it yet.
In 2008, post-credits scenes such as this one were not new phenomena. Superhero movies fans had been treated to end credits scenes previously. The much-maligned “Daredevil” and the horrendous “X-Men: The Last Stand” both utilized the post-credits scene to tease sequels that would (thankfully) never arrive. It appeared that the “Iron Man” scene was doing just that: teasing a direct sequel.
Except that it wasn’t. It was testing something much, much grander. Yet, it would not be for another month before what was really happening would become clear to MCU fans. In June 2008, Marvel released their second movie of the summer, “The Incredible Hulk.” The movie did not make huge waves, receiving mixed reviews and becoming the lowest grossing film in the entire MCU. Yet, it had one defining moment, a moment that one could argue was more significant to the MCU than Nick Fury’s opening speech.
In the final scene of The Hulk, General Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt), the film’s secondary antagonist, sits in a bar, distraught about his recent loss to the Hulk. As the bar music fades into the background, the door to the bar opens, revealing a shadowy figure hidden by the blinding rays of the sun. He begins speaking to Ross and, while we still cannot see his face, we recognize his voice. We have heard this voice before; quite recently, in fact. It takes a second to hit, but it does, just as the camera turns to reveal the identity of the mystery figure: Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark.
It was at this moment that it became clear just what was happening. “That’s Iron Man,” I remember saying to my brother as we sat in the theater, stunned by what we were witnessing. The appearance of a titular character of one superhero franchise in another franchise’s film was unprecedented. Up until now, everyone had existed on their own; Spider-Man stayed in his movies while the X-Men stayed in theirs. Not this time, said Marvel. They were not concerned with building up separate franchises. No, they wanted something much bigger. They were building a universe.
And build that universe they did, slowly but surely introducing the mainstream moviegoer to legendary comic characters such as Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), turning them into household names. With every release, Marvel added more pieces to their ever-growing toy collection while utilizing post-credits scenes and Clark Gregg’s Agent Phil Coulson as the connecting threads between movies that allowed their universe to grow.
Five movies and four years later, the grand finale arrived. Marvel finally released “The Avengers.” With “Avengers: Infinity War” behind us and “End Game” right around the corner, it’s hard to remember the excitement and novelty of this film, but it was grand. Like “The Incredible Hulk’s” post-credit scene, this was an unprecedented event in film history. Three major franchises — Iron Man, Captain America and Thor — coming together for a movie event that expected the audience to be aware of all three franchises, their major players and their individual stories. It was a lot to ask of a movie audience and was a massive risk, but, thankfully, the world got on board. What followed was nostalgic and dream-like storytelling, reminding me of when I used to empty my box of action figures for a major fight. Except this time, the images were not in my head; they were on the big screen, and it was magnificent.
Yet, it was not the scale of the movie or the massive invasion of faceless aliens that made people fall in love with “The Avengers.” What made it so good was seeing the interactions between the major characters. Whether it was Tony Stark and Bruce Banner (now played by Mark Ruffalo) talking science, Steve Rogers and Stark clashing over ideology that would set the stage for one of the most engaging relationships in film I have seen in years, or Thor taking on an out-of-control Hulk, the chemistry between the team was electric and, more importantly, organic. The characters fed off each other, allowing their viewpoints and personalities to influence one another in ways that would impact their individual franchises. It was a collision of worlds, like watching your childhood friends meet your college roommates with spectacular success. With “The Avengers,” Marvel had not just created a universe united by plot threads; they had created something that felt alive and, more importantly, human.
And just like that, after two hours of quips and a nuclear scare, it was over. Loki and Thor returned to Asgard with the Tesseract, Captain America went to work for S.H.I.E.L.D. while Stark and Banner started a science club. Sequels to “Iron Man 2,” “Captain America” and “Thor” were already announced. The Avengers were going their separate ways.
“Sir, how does it work now? They've gone their separate ways, some pretty extremely far. We get into a situation like this again, what happens then?” asked Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), Fury’s right-hand woman, at the end of “Avengers.”
“They’ll come back… Because we’ll need them to.”
With those words, Fury was once again setting the stage for the next phase of the MCU. The words sat in my head as the credits rolled on and I waited to see what Marvel had in store for me next. Finally, the first half of the credits ended, and the next threat was revealed. Thanos, the intergalactic titan and conqueror, sat on his infamous throne, giving the camera a chillingly terrifying smile as the screen cut to black.
We didn’t yet know what Thanos had planned, but it did not matter. That smile told us all we needed to know. The Avengers would come back, for we would need them. Now, going into “End Game,” we need them more than ever.
Photo Caption: “Avengers: Endgame” is set to release on April 26.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons