Picture a parabola. It starts off at the top of the graph, dips quite significantly, only for it to rise back up towards the end of the line. As anyone who follows my Instagram stories knows, I am currently re-watching the Marvel Cinematic Universe in chronological order, from Captain America: The First Avenger to Spiderman: Far From Home. I have currently just passed the “significant dip” of the parabola that is the MCU: Phase Two. It has the worst Avengers film, the atrocious Thor film and a weak Iron Man film. Ant Man was serviceable, but hardly essential viewing. With a couple of exceptions, the films in the middle phase of the Infinity Saga are painfully average, with some even being too boring to watch. These films are littered with problems that, thankfully, Fiege and the rest of the creative team fixed in time for Phase Three.
The infamous villain problem in the MCU is at its most noticeable in Phase Two. Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy may be widely considered the exceptions- the stand outs- in this average run from the MCUs, but even these films lack engaging villains. The Winter Soldier initially appears to be the villain of the second Captain America film, but it soon turns out not to be the case. This leaves Alexander Pierce, a name I had to google. His goal was power and control of the planet. Ronan also pursues power in Guardians (he is literally hunting for the power stone). Killian is your typical Iron Man villain: someone Tony Stark upset in the past and is looking for revenge. I could go on. All of the villains in the Phase Two villains have cliched, one dimensional goals. Villains are rarely given enough screen time to develop and display more nuanced and interesting characteristics. Ultron is the closest Phase Two gets to displaying a villain with an actual ideology and set of unique beliefs, but he is ineffective as a villain. He feels more like the Avengers’ court jester than a series threat, constantly losing battles with them, lacking an intimidating presence throughout, and constantly telling jokes. Fortunately, this infamous problem was fixed by the time Phase Three arrived in 2016.
This is part of a wider problem with character in this phase of the MCU. The protagonists, the superheroes themselves, are given a lot of attention and space to develop and grow. Tony Stark’s PTSD is a very worthwhile storyline and one of the most interesting aspects of Iron Man 3. Captain America’s growing disillusionment with America and what it represents is fascinating. For him, the world used to be black and white, good vs. evil, America vs. Nazi Germany. The modern world he wakes up to at the end of his first film in is much greyer. His belief in America and in the government to do what is right crumbles. It is engaging to watch. The MCU knows how to do justice to its lead characters. As stated, this attention to character does not extend to the villains. In fact, it rarely extends to anyone other than the superhero lead. The side characters of the first two Thor films are completely forgettable, essentially walking stereotypes who could be anybody. There is a lack of strong female characters too. Until Captain Marvel, released towards the tail end of the Infinity Saga, there are no female superheroes. This would not be so bad if the supporting female characters were three dimensional. For the most part, they fulfil the cliched role of damsel in distress. Jane Foster became a host for Thor: The Dark World’s McGuffin device. Black Widow and Pepper Potts need to be rescued by the male superheroes. Gamora comes out more positively, but even she is represented as a mere sidekick and possible love interest to Star-Lord. Phase Two films have fully fledged protagonists, but this is at the expense of nearly every other character.
The focus on MCU protagonists is also at the expense of plot momentum. Phase One was about building up to the assembling of The Avengers. Phase Three was about the assembling of the Infinity Gauntlet. There was an exciting drive towards a dramatic conclusion in Phase One and Phase Three. Phase Two lacked that. Each film was a standalone character study of each respective hero, or an origin story for a new superhero/superhero team. This is not the reason why the Phase Two films are worse, but it did mean that Phase Two lacked a goal to reach. Age of Ultron did not feel like a culmination to years worth of storytelling. In fact, the final film of Phase Two was about a character who had never been introduced before, and had no links to any of the other avengers, save Falcon. Phase Two films do not build upon each other, nor contribute significantly to the overarching story. This made for a less exciting section of the series. With the Infinity Saga now over, I’m worried Phase Four will be plagued by the same sense of inertia. The Phase Two films lacked a sense of necessity to the overall narrative, nor urgency. These stories did not feel like they needed to be told.
Nor were they told with any particular flair or creativity. Other than Gunn’s Guardians and the Russos’ Winter Soldier, none of the Phase Two films have any personality or individuality. They all look the same, and they all seem to be checking the same boxes. Humour? Check. Doing something dark and interesting with the villain? No, keep it family friendly. This was clearly an aesthetic choice on Fiege’s part. Edgar Wright famously left the production of Ant Man due to a lack of creative control. He had a vision for the character, but Fiege wanted the film into the typical MCU box. Perhaps this was an attempt to keep all the films feeling like they are part of the same universe. Or, perhaps they found a winning formula and did not want to fiddle with it. Either way, I’m glad Phase Three directors were allowed to bring in their own personalities and take more risks.
Considering Endgame recently became the highest grossing film of all time, what Fiege and Marvel have created has clearly worked. People still came to see them. However, I believe this is a testament to the quality of Phase One and The Avengers. We all became hooked and engaged with the slow-burning narrative, as any good first season of a TV show does. Fortunately for Marvel, Phase Two was just good enough not to lose viewers’ interest. It kept the ship steady as we waited for the tumultuous (and much more exciting) Phase Three to arrive. Nevertheless, it was filled with flaws, and this prevented Phase Two films reaching the same glorious heights as other MCU films.