Evolution of Marvel Movies: How the MCU Has Changed for the Better

When The Avengers: Endgame drops on April 26, it will both open brand new chapters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and close others that were a decade in the making. A lot has changed since Iron Man kicked off the MCU in 2008, both in the film universe and behind the scenes. Some of the changes show a natural progression of this seemingly neverending story.

Rewatching the series shows that while some threads big and small remain from 2008, the MCU that launched in 2008 is different than the one we’re at today. From shifting studios and adding characters to the general evolution of ideas, the MCU is a testament to the shift it created in superhero movies and the dynamic ways in which it continues to evolve today.

Marvel’s trust in Robert Downey, Jr.

With the MCU and Disney being so inextricably linked today, it is easy to forget that Disney was not part of the picture when Marvel Studios, led by Kevin Feige, partnered with Paramount. The studio took its chances on Robert Downey Jr. — an actor who had become more famous for off-camera exploits than his acting — as he put on the suit of Iron Man, a relatively unknown commodity to mainstream audiences at the time.. While the expanded universe was always part of the plan, as we see in the post-credits scene where Nick Fury recruits Tony Stark to S.H.I.E.L.D., viewers of the film today will see that this was the beginning of a different kind of universe.

Released right before Christopher Nolan’s follow-up to Batman Begins, Iron Man lives in a variation of a similar world — one that exists with several superhero tropes and rules but also is grounded in a gritty, realistic style. Stark is not fighting aliens from outer space or giant flashing lights in the sky, but technology made by his company. The entire world seems independent to the one in 2019, which has Wakanda, The Guardians, and Thor’s extended family.

How ‘Iron Man’ helped the MCU find itself

Perhaps the most noticeable outlier in the MCU is Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk, starring Edward Norton. While the MCU is known for helping to change the way we look at superhero movies, Hulk seems of a different world in 2019. While Iron Man has its tonal departures, Hulk, save for the presence of recurring characters, seems largely independent of the MCU, and the moody titular character is a far cry from the troubled, comedic, three-dimensional character it’s become since Mark Ruffalo took the reigns immediately after. 

The 2008 film exists on a plane more akin to pre-MCU movies, where the story was often taking a backseat to video game-like fight scenes that were the main draw. With Iron Man as its core, it is everything after this moment which truly builds the MCU into the success that it is today. Starting with Iron Man 2, everything from the world-building to the rules began to expand.

Iron Man 2 starts expanding the rules of the world to feel more in tune with the comic book world around it, and makes it so that Thor, a god from outer space, fits seamlessly into the grounded world set up in Iron Man. Thor, in turn, helps set bring the fantasy element to the world of the 1940s-set Captain America, which melds those fantastic elements with science fiction and realism. With all of these in place, Avengers, with the help of the Disney machine behind it, was able to set off the world going forward, marrying the initial slate of films into a universe more akin to today.

The Road to ‘Avengers: Endgame’

With every phase of the MCU, Feige and his team have progressively shifted with the times and added depths in a way that allowed films like Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man, and Black Panther to blend seamlessly with what was already set up. Beginning with a semi-grounded story, the MCU has become a shared universe which is not afraid to layer on new genres, worlds, and rules in the mythology. 

As Avengers: Endgame‘s premiere draws closer, fans who have been there since the beginning can appreciate the long, calculated, unlikely journey which took them from Iron Man to Avengers: Endgame and beyond. The MCU is like a puzzle that doesn’t always know where it is headed, but when it gets the audiences there, they always seem to react with praise and awe.