Thursday, August 13, 2015

Looking Back at MCU Phase 2

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Now that Ant-Man is over and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is going to start its third season at the end of next month (thus kicking off Phase 3 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe), this seems like as good a time as any to look back at MCU Phase 2 and see just what happened.  Next week I will have another article looking ahead to Phase 3, but before we get there, let’s take a look at Phase 2 and see what themes it explored.

Media in Question

During Phase 1 of the MCU, Marvel did a lot of testing and introducing new characters.  They did so with six movies as well as three Marvel One-Shots.


  • Iron Man
  • The Incredible Hulk
  • Iron Man 2
  • Thor
  • Captain America: The First Avenger
  • The Avengers


  • The Consultant (released on Thor)
  • A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Thor’s Hammer (released on Captain America: The First Avenger)
  • Item 47 (released on The Avengers)

In contrast, Phase 2 consisted of the same number of movies and less One-Shots, but vastly increased the amount of screen time through the introduction of several TV series.


  • Iron Man 3
  • Thor: The Dark World
  • Captain America: The Winter Soldier
  • Guardians of the Galaxy
  • Avengers: Age of Ultron
  • Ant-Man


  • Agent Carter (released on Iron Man 3)
  • All Hail the King (released on Thor: The Dark World)

TV Series:

  • Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. seasons 1-2
  • Agent Carter season 1
  • Daredevil season 1

Considering that a single season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has a longer run-time than all of Phase 1, I think we can look to Phase 2 as when the MCU really exploded in terms of sheer material involved.

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Phase 1:  A Quick Recap

Before we can talk about major themes from Phase 2, it’s important to understand what happened in Phase 1.  Simply put, Phase 1 was all about introducing the viewer to this world.  No aspect of the world was explored in depth, but several different areas of the world were introduced, along with key concepts and ideas.

Iron Man introduced us to the idea of superheroes—and was the first time anyone in the world’s recent history had seen a superhero.  The Incredible Hulk introduced the idea of heroes who do not look heroic, as well as the idea of conflict between “freelance” heroes and the established military.  Iron Man 2 gave us a proper introduction to S.H.I.E.L.D., though the universe as a whole did not learn about them.  Thor introduced the viewer to the Marvel Cosmic realm, and introduced it to a small segment of the earth-bound MCU.  Captain America: The First Avenger introduced “Retro Marvel” through the characters of Peggy Carter and Howard Stark and hinted at the rich history behind the modern MCU.  Finally, The Avengers brought all the characters together in the first superhero team-up of the MCU.  The Avengers also brought the Marvel Cosmic realm and S.H.I.E.L.D. to the attention of the world.

None of these concepts were fully explored in Phase 1, and I don’t think they were intended to be.  Phase 1 simply laid the groundwork:  there is a world full of superheroes out there, and there are threats out there which standard humans cannot confront.

Phase 2 Themes

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Aftershocks of The Avengers

The first two movies after The Avengers came out focused most of their energy on exploring the results of that movie for the main characters.  Iron Man 3 saw Tony Stark suffering from PTSD as a result of his trip through the wormhole and vision of the massive threat posed by the Chitauri.  This leads Tony to descend into madness, staying up late at night and building 30-something new armors so he will not be caught off-guard by just how scary the wide world is ever again.  This plants the seed which would become the “Iron Legion” in Avengers: Age of Ultron.  Iron Man 3 also expands on the idea of government-controlled superheroes first explored in Captain America: The First Avenger.  However, where that movie focused on a government-created super-soldier intended to serve during wartime, Iron Man 3 introduces the Iron Patriot as a military-controlled superhero serving during peace.  This is a direct result of the Avengers’ “coming out party,” but it also foreshadows the primary conflict for Captain America: Civil War, the first movie of Phase 3.

Thor: The Dark World also focuses on the ramifications of Loki’s actions on Asgard.  Because the Tesseract was returned to Asgard, Thor and Odin are able to reassert Asgard’s control over the other realms.  However, for his actions, Loki is imprisoned.  Much of Jane Foster’s arc in this movie centers on the conflict of Thor having returned to Earth to hunt down Loki (in The Avengers) and not having called her.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 1 explores how the world has been changed by the Chitauri invasion.  S.H.I.E.L.D. is now out in the open (a theme which also holds true in Captain America: The Winter Soldier).  There are grave threats out there which must be confronted.  For the most part, S.H.I.E.L.D. covers them up; sometimes S.H.I.E.L.D. can only contain the damage.

In the wake of The Avengers, global security is of vital importance.  This is something which S.H.I.E.L.D. steps in to do, but at the end of the day, the Avengers are the ones who take responsibility for protecting the Earth.

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Further Exploring the Introduced World

As I mentioned above, Phase 1 introduced us to Marvel Cosmic and Marvel History.  Both of these corners of the MCU receive extensive treatment during Phase 2.  There are two movies focused on the cosmic corner of the MCU:  Thor: The Dark World, which explores even more planets (though not in any depth) and deals with a potentially reality-altering cosmic event, and Guardians of the Galaxy, which falls more in line with the traditional science-fiction portrayal of space found in Star Wars and Star Trek.  Even Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. got in on the action, featuring Asgardians in 3 episodes and a Kree in 1, in addition to introducing the Inhumans, whose origins are tied very closely to the Kree. We meet numerous alien races, visit alien planets, and confront alien weapons and technologies.  Some of these things will become even more important during Phase 3—Kree, Nova Corps, Inhumans, Infinity Stones, etc.

There weren’t any period movies in Phase 2 that explored the MCU’s history, but Marvel History actually received much more screen time than the Cosmic Marvel.  Agent Carter was set in 1946 and explored the history of the Black Widow program, in addition to some of the events surrounding the founding of S.H.I.E.L.D. and even a nod to the Hydra infiltration.  Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. used numerous flashbacks to fill in some of the blanks:  the Hydra takeover, the origin of the term “0-8-4,” and the like.  There is even a quick hint at the background of the “Avengers Initiative”:  Coulson and Fury began working on the idea for a team of “gifted” people to confront major threats on behalf of S.H.I.E.L.D. shortly before Tony Stark became Iron Man.  Captain America: The Winter Soldier blew the history of S.H.I.E.L.D. sky-high with the reveal that Hydra had infiltrated the organization at the highest levels and was planning to take over the world.  Ant-Man introduced the concept of the “legacy hero”—a retired hero who passes his mantle to a successor—and introduced us to the idea of superheroes active well before Iron Man who just remained out of the public eye.  Could this lead to the reveal of even more pre-Iron Man superheroes, and even a “proto-Avengers” team which included Ant-Man and Wasp?  I certainly hope so!

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Introducing New Areas

Phase 2 also included very brief introductions to a pair of realms which could prove extremely important in Phase 3.  The first is the Quantum Realm, the MCU equivalent of the Microverse, which was introduced in Ant-Man.  This could prove to be extremely important in future movies, and especially in (the inevitable) Ant-Man 2.  The second is the overall concept of alternate dimensions, which was first introduced on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. in the episode “Repairs” (1x09) when a reactor explosion tears open a hole in reality which leads to either another planet or another dimension.  Inter-dimensional travel is rumored to play a crucial role in Doctor Strange.

The other new area of the universe which Phase 2 explored is the street-level MCU.  Though we get hints in the big movies of just how these superheroes and super-villains affect regular citizens, it is not until Daredevil that the MCU turns the spotlight on the “little guys.”  Daredevil is not a flashy hero; he’s a guy trying to make his city a better place.  While the Avengers battle alien invasions and killer robots, Daredevil disrupts heroin rings.  How will a hero like Daredevil be affected by the major events?  That is something we will find out in Phase 3.


Those are my three ideas for exactly how Phase 2 of the MCU coheres together.  It is much, much larger than Phase 1 was, and like the Phase 1 movies each piece can stand fine on its own merits.  However, when we step back to take in the broader picture, we realize just how well all of the pieces fit together.  Even seemingly-standalone movies like Ant-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy still play key roles in expanding the universe and building toward the future.

And if the MCU continues to balance out the needs of the metanarrative with the importance of standalone movies and TV series, I think that the MCU will continue to go strong for years to come, even after Infinity War.

How do you see MCU Phase 2 connecting together?  Are there any major themes that I missed?

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