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Face-Off: MCU Phase 1 vs. MCU Phase 2

Ah, welcome back ladies and germs! Avengers fever is in the air, with the recent release of AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR being even bigger than we expected. The movie pits our heroes against their greatest foe yet, Thanos, and the end result is an epic, emotional ride that pushed our beloved heroes to their limit. A lot has happened to lead up to this, with two full Phases of movies leading our characters to this moment. There's been a lot of excitement, thrills and one or two disappointments to come out of the Phases, and now, with INFINITY WAR upon us, it's time to look back and see which slate of films did best by these characters and their universe, thus yielding the best results.

MAJOR PLAYERS
Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man
Chris Evans as Steve Rogers/Captain America
Chris Hemsworth as Thor
Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/The Hulk (also played by Edward Norton)
Don Cheadle as James Rhodes/War Machine (also played by Terrance Howard)
Scarlett Johnasson as Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow
Jeremy Renner as Clint Barton/Hawkeye
Tom Hiddleston as Loki
Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury
Clark Gregg as Phil Coulson
Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill
Sebastian Stan as Bucky Barnes
Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts
Jon Favreau as Happy Hogan
Anthony Hopkins as Odin
Natalie Portman as Jane Foster
Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man
Chris Evans as Steve Rogers/Captain America
Chris Hemsworth as Thor
Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/The Hulk
Scarlett Johnasson as Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow
Jeremy Renner as Clint Barton/Hawkeye
Don Cheadle as James Rhodes/War Machine
Tom Hiddleston as Loki
Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury
Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill
Sebastian Stan as Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier
Chris Pratt as Peter Quill/Star Lord
Zoe Saldana as Gamora
Dave Bautista as Drax
Vin Diesel as Groot
Bradley Cooper as Rocket
Michael Rooker as Yondu
Karen Gillan as Nebula
Benicio Del Toro as The Collector
Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts
Jon Favreau as Happy Hogan
Paul Rudd as Scott Lang/Ant-Man
Evangeline Lilly as Hope Van Dyne
Michael Douglas as Hank Pym
Anthony Hopkins as Odin
Natalie Portman as Jane Foster
Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Pietro Maximoff/Quicksilver
DIRECTORS
We won't go into the details of every director's style and work on their respective films, because then we would be here all day and I know you all just wanna know who won. With Phase 1, Marvel got their hands on some directors who had all been the game for a long while with a list of films under their belt. With the first two IRON MAN movies, Jon Favreau brought his knack for humor and breezy entertainment and centered it all on the fascinating character of Tony Stark. Louis Leterrier did a solid job with the action in INCREDIBLE HULK, while Kenneth Branagh brought his penchant for dramatic work to THOR. Then there's Joe Johnston who gave CAPTAIN AMERICA that same old-school flair he did THE ROCKETEER, utilizing his passion for elaborate set work and visual flair. Finally, Joss Whedon made use of his years of TV work to bring this massive ensemble on screen and making, at that time, the most gloriously dorky movie ever made. These men all had a good amount of work on their records and brought established styles to their movies, doing reliable work.
With Phase 2 Marvel got a little more bold with their choices in directors. Not that the Phase 1 directors did a bad job by any means (well...HULK), but the choices in Phase 2 were much more inspired. You got Shane Black in IRON MAN 3, an odd but exciting choice given his work on 90s action flicks like LETHAL WEAPON and THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT. Alan Taylor is the most basic of the bunch for THOR 2, but he only came after Patty Jenkins bowed out of the project. Then came the two riskiest options in the MCU in Anthony and Joe Russo for CAPTAIN AMERICA 2 and James Gunn for GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY. The former two mostly had TV work as their claim to fame, with only one major movie in YOU, ME AND DUPREE. Then there's Gunn, who had done a lot of writing work, but in terms of directing, probably hadn't done much anyone would've seen, unless you were a genre movie buff. These two men crafted two of the best Marvel movies ever that completely upped Marvel's game, with the Russos having the biggest impact on the series thus far. Then came 2015, and though Whedon did an excellent job with the character work on AGE OF ULTRON, giving it some complexity even, he struggled to handle the sheer scope of it all. Peyton Reed did a solid job taking over Ant-Man when Edgar Wright bailed, even though we may all dream of what his final cut would've been like. Hey, we wouldn't have BABY DRIVER had he stayed, so, that's a win.
THE FILMS

Iron Man: This is the one that started it all ten years ago, and did it on the strongest of feet. The movie holds up incredibly well thanks to a well-rounded story, energetic tone and a strong performance by Robert Downey Jr. in his most iconic role ever.

The Incredible Hulk: Okay, so maybe the next movie in the MCU didn't reach the same heights as the first one. There are some strong elements here, including Edward Norton as Bruce Banner and...other stuff, I'm sure. Look, let's just leave it at "solid effort."

Iron Man 2: This sequel had the difficult job of not only living up to the first film but in starting to establish the greater MCU. The result is a movie with too many characters, but one that has fun moments nonetheless.

Thor: This marked the MCU's first foray into the cosmic, giving us a good introduction to characters like Thor and Loki. There's some strong character work and performances here, even if the earth-bound setting makes for a less spectacular affair than the cosmic setting would've offered.

Captain America: The First Avenger: The heart and soul of the Avengers rests within Captain America, and his first movie did a wonderful job selling him as the courageous and kind hero he is. Along with the heart, there's plenty of pulpy, comic-book-panel thrills to be had with one of the franchises best villains ever in Red Skull.

The Avengers: Marvel needed to drive home their extraordinary game here or not at all, and thanks to a tremendous ensemble cast, thrilling superhero set pieces and confident directing and writing from Joss Whedon we got a blockbuster film to end all blockbuster films.

Iron Man 3: This threequel from Shane Black operates by its own set of rules, not much caring about the greater universe that's now been established. What we get is a caper flick with some twists (not all appreciated by some in the fanbase) with a reliable performance from RDJ.

Thor: The Dark World:You wouldn't be stoned in the street for saying this was your least favorite MCU movie. Aside from some solid visuals and great work from Tom Hiddleston as Loki there's not much to admire here, especially not the story or villain.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier: Phase 2 didn't start off on the strongest feet, but Winter Soldier made up for that with a thrilling entry that doubles as a superhero blockbuster and taut political thriller. There are some of the strongest action scenes of the series here, and a lot of praise goes to the Russo Brothers for their firm grasp on the style and characters.

Guardians of the Galaxy: Taking the least-known characters ever to be put into a comic book movie and hoping it was a hit was Marvel's ballsiest move yet, and it paid off in spades. James Gunn crafted a strange, hilarious and heartfelt entry in the franchise thank benefits immensely from performances by the whole cast.

Avengers: Age of Ultron: Here is a movie that suffers under the weight of its absurd expectations, but ultimately gets looked down upon too often. Whedon tried to dig into the complexity of the characters and the nature of humanity, only achieving part of his goal. The character work is fantastic, while the action is often too chaotic and overblown for its own good.

Ant-Man: After the chaos of Avengers 2 we needed a simple, lively tale, and Ant-Man answered the call. Not the most unique movie in terms of tone and story, but the movie is consistently entertaining with Paul Rudd proving to be one of the best leading men in the series.

THE 10 BEST MOMENTS

1. Avengers Assemble (THE AVENGERS)

2.The Battle of New York (THE AVENGERS)

3."I am Iron Man" (IRON MAN)

4.Nick Fury and Tony (IRON MAN)

5.Thor vs. Iron Man vs. Captain America (THE AVENGERS)

6.The Captain America Montage (CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER)

7. Action Sequence on the Helicarrier (THE AVENGERS)

8.Thor vs. Loki (THOR)

9.Steve Rogers' Transformation (CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER)

10. Iron Man and War Machine vs. Robot Army(IRON MAN 2)

1.Cap vs. The Winter Soldier in the Streets (CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER)

2.Rumble in the Kyln (GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY)

3.Battle of Sokovia (AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON)

4. Ant-Man vs. Yellowjacket (ANT-MAN)

5.The Real Mandarin (IRON MAN 3)

6. The Ant-Man Suit(ANT-MAN)

7. Battle Over Xandar (GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY)

8.Taking Down S.H.I.E.L.D. (CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER)

9.Thanos (GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY)

10. "Death" of Loki (THOR: THE DARK WORLD)

VILLAINS
Maybe it's because Marvel brought in some big guys first, but the first phase of the MCU benefitted from having pretty strong central villains. In the first movie, you had Obidiah Stane, played wonderfully by Jeff Bridges, who has a fatherly-figure-type relationship with Tony, but is always exuding some sinister energy. Whenever I go back and watch it I sense a real dynamic at play when these two characters are in the same room, even if he doesn't emerge as a villain until towards the end. Then we have General Ross (William Hurt) and Emil Blonksy (Tim Roth) in HULK are alright, even though both actors do what they can. I do like Roth's thrill-seeking operative character, a man who desperately wants the kind of power Hulk has. Still, they are the most forgettable in this Phase. Come THOR, we get one of the best villains ever in Loki, and what words can be said for him that already hasn't? He has the poise to make his dastardly action so much fun to watch. We saw him become the evil figure he was meant to in THOR, and he then made the perfect figure for the team to fight in AVENGERS. As for CAPTAIN AMERICA, we got Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) a villain so woefully short-lived. He fit right in with the pulp style of the movie, and I pray that he's still alive out there somewhere, waiting for his moment! Like Robin Williams in JUMANJI.
Phase 2 of the MCU didn't get the villain angle off on the right foot. The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) turned out to be a guy named Trevor Slattery, and though I had fun with the twist, it drops him down from a villain to more of a red herring. Then we are left with Aldrich Killian, the Malibu Ken Doll of villains. He's your typical megolmaniac...who can also breathe fire. Next, we have Malekith, in THOR 2, and Jesus help us, what a waste. You can basically sum this guy's personality up to "Stomp! Stomp! Grr!" Ugh. With WINTER SOLDIER we get some good villains in Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) and the Winter Soldier/Bucky. One represents a more ideological threat (as he's really just a dude in a suit), while the other is Cap's past come back to life. Redford is good in the part and sells his character's plans with conviction, while Stan is just as good as the brain-washed Bucky, even if he is more of a physical threat here. In GUARDIANS we have several villains, mostly in Ronan and Nebula. They're certainly colorful, even if a bit one-dimensional. Nebula has the most going for her, and luckily that's explored in the sequel. Then there's Yondu, but he's more of loveable anti-hero. For AVENGERS we have Ultron (James Spader), and though he may be too theatrical for some I find he's one of the most powerful villains in the franchise. His goals may be generic (destroy the world), but his reasoning and logic are much more elevated than people give him credit for. Finally there's Darren Cross, who is the same sort of business tycoon villain we saw in IRON MAN 3, but Corey Stroll has way more fun with the part. There are way more villains (or villainous characters) in Phase 2, and it makes up for the fact Phase 1 used some of theirs more effectively.
SPECTACLE/VISUALS
When Marvel Studios got started making movies they didn't quite have the budget they do now. IRON MAN had a budget of about $140 million, which is by no means chump change, but you sort of wonder if that's how much it cost to digitally create the Iron Man suit because the movie feels incredibly small scale and minimalist compared to today's Marvel behemoths. This is because the movie, as well as the other outings in this Phase, are all very contained. Movies like IRON MAN 2, THOR and CAPTAIN AMERICA all have their thrills and some solid visual effects, but they play out like contained action movies in line with something like the X-MEN movies or the SPIDER-MAN movies before them. Marvel didn't quite know what they had, so they were probably playing it a bit safe. Once AVENGERS came along they decided to go big and offer a visual effects extravaganza that's given immense scope thanks to all the heroes finally being assembled. Though I think this Phase loses this category, AVENGERS captured a certain sense of spectacle even the movies of Phase 3 hadn't truly replicated until INFINITY WAR
If there's one area where Phase 2 blows the doors off Phase 1 it's in the spectacle department. The movies in the first Phase are very simple in scale, with things not really picking up until AVENGERS, maybe even CAP 1. Even THOR 1 spends a lot of time on earth. But with Phase 2 everything got kicked up a notch. The visual effects are far more refined and the scope of the action is unbelievable in comparison. I mean, as not great a movie as it is, THOR 2 makes THOR 1 look like an after-school special on friendship. As the universe was now established they could afford to go to bigger worlds, involve more characters, and continue to expand. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY takes the cake here, and only the sequel and INFINITY WAR are above it in terms of the most spectacular-looking MCU movies to date. The spectacle kind of goes overboard in AGE OF ULTRON, but that may be because Whedon may have bitten off more than he could chew. ANT-MAN ended things on a tremendous note, sporting some of the most unique visual effects in the series until DOCTOR STRANGE that next year.
EFFECT ON MCU
They say the start of any story is the hardest to come up with. It has to set the whole tone for what the rest of the creation will be. That, and if you don't rope your audience in quick, the whole thing is shot. Taking that into account, Marvel absolutely nailed it with their first Phase. It was all about introducing the characters and establishing that they all share this world together, while at the same time not yet putting them together (until AVENGERS, of course). Everything we know about the characters started here, whether it's digging to the heart of Tony Stark to establish motivations that would carry into the movies of today all the way back in IRON MAN, or finding the soul of Steve Rogers at the very beginning of CAPTAIN AMERICA. Even INCREDIBLE HULK establishes Banner as a man who is meant to live on the run, and who cannot have any normal relationships with anyone, which is something that AGE OF ULTRON dug into in Phase 2. Audiences needed to know who these characters were and what their world(s) was in these movies. Not Phase 2, not Phase 3, but now. The MCU wouldn't exist at all had Marvel not gotten these characters and the tone right this go around, and we should be thankful they did such a marvel-ous job! Get it? Because they have Marvel in their name and the word marvelous can be used in that sentence, so when you combine the two...
Phase 2 was all about expanding the world of the MCU, and the characters within it. On that note, Phase 2 did a pretty good job of with the world building. They took a big step in destroying S.H.I.E.L.D., which set the stage for CIVIL WAR by making the Avengers a more autonomous group. Then there's GUARDIANS, which took us into the stars and showed us just how far this universe spans. But there are also some movies where they didn't take things far enough. IRON MAN 3 was all about proving Tony could be a hero all without his toys (only for his toys to help him save the day), which is a solid progression, but not near as powerful as his arc in IRON MAN. I would even go as far as to say it was about as impactful as his arc in IRON MAN 2, which tackled his history with his dad. Then there's THOR 2, the biggest crux of which is that it did almost nothing of importance with either the character or the cosmic realm it played with. ANT-MAN kept things simple, mostly giving us a new character(s) to love. AGE OF ULTRON does a lot right with the characters, developing on their dynamic and evolving frameworks set up in the first movie.
CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT
As I've said before none of the MCU exists without the characters being as strong as they are. This first round of movies had the difficult task of introducing heroes to a world that no one outside of comic fandom knew anything about. For the most part, they exceeded incredibly well, especially with Iron Man and Cap. With the former, we're treated to the start of one of the most fascinating origin stories of the genre, with Stark beginning to confront his past and make amends after years of war profiteering. IRON MAN 2 continued that arc, with Stark learning more about his father and coming to terms with the responsibility ahead of him. His whole arc is about him trying to become a better person than he was in his past, and these first two movies kickstart that with firm focus, solidifying Stark and Downey as the main player in this whole franchise. Cap's story is much sweeter, and with him we get the emotional core of the MCU. He's a hero through and through, a man who will always take the steps to do what's right. What makes FIRST AVENGER so good is that Cap's unflappable morals are at the core of every choice he makes, and never loses that "kid from Brooklyn" spirit. Thor and Hulk don't get as rich an origin, with Thor's movie focused on him learning to love others more than himself, which is a necessary if not totally inspired arc, while Banner in INCREDIBLE HULK is shown as a man trying to deal with his demons. The latter is the most interesting concept in an otherwise subpar movie. Then there's Hawkeye and Black Widow, who are there to look cool and give the universe some more realistic heroes. They do their job here and get some time to shine in the next Phase. By the time they all came together for AVENGERS, their characters had been established so well that we didn't need any more info, and they were allowed to work off each other to thrilling results.
With Phase 2 we get to see the characters taken even further with some mostly strong results. The Iron Man arc takes an interesting turn by focusing on a story that forces him to save the day using mostly his wit and intellect and not his armor, affirming that he's just as good a man without or without his armor. In short, what makes him special has been inside him all along (Awww!). Thor doesn't really get any progression in THOR 2, which is a damn shame because it's taken so long for him to finally shine in the movies. Cap gets the biggest character upheaval when he has to make serious decisions even if it means compromising institutions he once believed in, setting him on the path for CIVIL WAR in a big way. The GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY was the toughest nut to crack, but James Gunn understood these outsiders probably better than anyone else would've, and crafted three-dimensional characters out of even a talking tree and raccoon. Come AGE OF ULTRON, the characters really start to form some more deep-seeded characteristics that are very present in CIVIL WAR and even AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR, especially between Cap and Stark. Characters like Hulk, Hawkeye and Widow don't get the most complex development, but their characters are expanded on...even if it's just a romance angle between Hulk and Widow. With Ant-Man we got a new, fun character in Scott Lang, who is possibly the most grounded character of them all, and is a man fueled by his desire to do right by his child.
AWARDS, PRAISE & MONEY
Oscars: Oscars (Total):
    4 Oscar Nominations, Zero Wins
Golden Schmoes (Total):
    27 Nominations, 8 Wins
Praise Money (Total):
    $1.74 billion domestic ($3.8 billion global)
Oscars: Oscars (Total):
    4 Oscar Nominations, Zero Wins
Golden Schmoes (Total):
    36 Nominations, 8 Wins
Praise Money (Total):
    $1.84 billion domestic ($5.2 billion global)
PHASE 2

Phase 2 is by no means perfect. Marvel had yet to work out the kinks as they tried to mesh spectacle and character work, somewhat trying to figure out just what it was they had. But, some of the strongest movies of the bunch have come out of this Phase, and though there's some stuff left to be desired and some expectations unmet, Phase 2 did an excellent job of exploring their characters further, exploring the world and delivering on levels of spectacle that are lightyears beyond what the first series of movies had in store. Characters were moved forward in powerful ways, and you can watch any Phase 3 movie and trace back the behaviors of these characters back to key moments in Phase 2 films. Phase 1 did an excellent job setting the world up, but Phase 2 took it all further and proved why Marvel is currently the number one name in blockbuster entertainment. But, in a way, this fight is meaningless: Phase 3 kicks both of their asses.

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