film.Antrikshy | Thoughts on film and games

2023 MCU Rewatch Diary - Phase Three

Of the MCU’s first three Phases, the third one is not only the longest, but also the most ambitious by far.

Arguably, it’s more ambitious than Phases Four and Five. I say it’s arguable for a very specific reason. David Gauthier of the They’re Just Movies podcast once pointed out that the MCU doesn’t just make more movies per Phase; they push the boundaries of genre and style in their movies in each successive Phase. This forever changed how I view the MCU, because he was 100% right. Think about Ant-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy in Phase Two. Unfortunately, I don’t remember which of their MCU episodes they discussed this in. If I come across it again, I’ll link it here with a timestamp.

Anyway, this would imply that Phases Four and Five must be more experimental and ambitious. I can see arguments on both sides.

Marvel Studios are now making more and more streaming-exclusive content that is gradually weaving in and out of their feature films. They’re expanding their genres, tone, and casting beyond anything we’ve seen thus far. They’re leaning into the style of storytelling that radiates outwards from tentpole content, in every direction. Think teamups leading to spinoffs with narrower appeal, such as Avengers: Endgame to Loki. We’ve seen this type of storytelling before - not in mainstream cinema - but in comics. They don’t seem to be worried about alienating an audience they held captive, one that cared about every single new release. In exchange, they are trying to garner a more diverse audience with relatively niche interests. Compare: She-Hulk, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, Ms Marvel, Moon Knight.

On the other hand, Phase Three’s sheer ambition and scale completely eclipses Phases One and Two by a huge margin. Building up a 10 year cinematic universe to such an incredible climax, actually pulling it off with broad cultural impact, the first time, makes it particularly commendable. I still see critic reviews and Reddit comments alike compare new MCU releases with Infinity War and Endgame, so many years after they released. In a way, the ambition and sheer success of Phase Three’s climax may have set the bar way too high for Marvel Studios themselves to compete with.

Diary Index

Find entries in this diary here:

  1. Introduction
  2. Phase One
  3. Phase Two
  4. Phase Three (you are here!)

Poking Holes

The MCU really matured in Phase Three. It’s pretty watertight and bulletproof. It was not as easy to poke holes in the plot anymore. Perhaps it’s because of increasingly diverse storylines. Many of these titles go in their own directions and tell their own stories. So, it’s less likely they’ll contradict much.

Of course I still have nitpicks.

What Are the Avengers?

Back in the era of The Avengers, it made sense. Avengers were assembled by SHIELD, making them government employees, or at least contractors. We briefly see Maria Hill apply for a job at Stark Industries in The Winter Soldier, then work “for” the Avengers in Age of Ultron. That would imply that they were actually employed by Stark Industries, perhaps under a government contract.

Then, things got really murky after the fall of SHIELD. The Avengers not only continued to operate, but also moved to a large campus in upstate New York. In their… activities, they would seemingly freely travel the world and operate advanced weapons. We even see no-name employees at the Avengers facility when it first gets revealed to us.

I get it, suspension of disbelief and all. But it’s insane to me that the US government would let them operate that freely, with their base of operations completely above board. I guess saving the world from an alien invasion that traumatizes humanity gets you significant street cred with your government. I suppose there’s also Tony’s compromise of letting his friend and USAF Colonel, Rhodey, keep the War Machine suit.

Speaking of government property, no one comes after Sam Wilson after he stole the government prototype Falcon suit and just… kept it? This happened off-screen, so maybe they just hoped the audience would forget about it. But I didn’t.

In all fairness, while the topic is seldom addressed, it is brought up. In She-Hulk, in a conversation with her cousin Bruce Banner, Jennifer Walters offhandedly calls the Avengers a “secret government contractor squad”. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier also addresses the nature of the Avengers briefly. Trying to get a loan approved for his sister, Sam Wilson talks about his income when he was with the Avengers. He speaks in very vague terms, including “goodwill”. It must have been an intentional writing decision to keep things vague. He never mentions being paid by Tony Stark or the government, which is strange. However, said goodwill could have referred to sporadic government funding. In fairness to him, he did leave the Avengers after Civil War and was on the run for years. After that, he was Blipped by Thanos.

And, of course, General Ross explicitly addresses the issue of low oversight in Captain America: Civil War.

Why Assemble In Germany?

Captain America: Civil War’s big airport battle in Germany is one of the more consequential action scenes in the entire series. In addition to being part of escalating conflicts that lead to the Avengers’ falling apart, it introduces Spider-Man, leads into Spider-Man: Homecoming, and sets up stakes for Ant-Man and the Wasp. Basically, it’s not a one-off throwaway scene.

Yet, if you really think about it, the whole situation is so contrived. I had memory of this, but I trusted the Russos and expected this rewatch to clear things up for me. It didn’t.

Here’s how that scene is laid out for us: Thunderbolt Ross gives Stark thirty six hours to capture Steve Rogers and gang. Everyone involved is in Europe at this point. For some reason, Stark travels all the way to New York City to recruit Peter Parker, a kid who he only knows from YouTube, into #TeamIronMan. And for some other reason, somehow Sam Wilson manages to recruit Scott Lang, who lives all the way in San Francisco for #TeamCap.

These two characters’ appearances are mostly relegated to the big airport battle. In the real world, obviously the writers wanted to set up a massive action set piece involving almost every big screen MCU super person. In-universe, it’s such a stretch. Just considering the travel times between Germany and the US east coast makes Stark’s idea a non-starter. Not to mention travel time between California and Germany. There is also little explanation how exactly Team Stark found Team Cap at the airport, and why Team Cap was ready for an opposition (“suit up”) only once they got to the airport.

A small change to the plot could have improved the believability, even if not fixing it entirely. Simply increase the 36 hour dealine to something like 72 hours or a week. Easy!

Later movies don’t brush these things under the rug, which I appreciate, but also find iffy. Spider-Man: Homecoming treats Peter’s travels like a business trip, posh hotel and all. Ant-Man and the Wasp sees Scott Lang under house arrest. It’s explained away with Scott saying something like he was told it was a matter of national security.

Characterization Of Long-Lived Characters

As far as we know, the MCU is written by humans on Earth. Humans are not known to live very long, and thus cannot relate to fictional characters who live to be hundreds or thousands of Earth-years. Therefore, the MCU, like a lot of other fiction, is notoriously bad about writing characters with very long lifespan. I have written about this before.

We continue to see this trend in Phase Three. I should preface this by saying that I don’t consider these unforgivable mistakes or plot holes.

In Thor: Ragnarok, Thor describes the time when Loki disguised himself as a snake and stabbed him. “We were eight at the time,” he says. I’ve always felt that that was a too anthropocentric line of dialogue. There was great potential in that scene for him to say they were eighty or a hundred and eighty years old. That said, we don’t really know the rate at which Asgardians grow up and develop emotional maturity. Maybe it’s just like humans. It could be argued that neither of these characters is very mature.

In Avengers: Endgame, we are reminded that Thor only recently lost both his parents, his sibling, a newly found sibling, and his home. In the vast cosmic scales of the universe, with both his parents being many centuries old, what are the odds that all of this bad stuff happens to him in such quick succession? Again, not unforgivable, just seems highly improbable. But then there are other aspects of the MCU (and comics) timeline that can only be explained by cosmic magic, like all the Infinity Stones ending up so close to each other.

Also in Avengers: Endgame, we see Thanos go through a major character shift between Earth-years 2014 and 2018. He goes from complete evil Mad Titan to a self-righteous person who thinks he can improve quality of life in the universe. Note that the Russos have confirmed in real life that they intended Thanos to be a 1000-year-old character (younger than Thor!). I guess just like the Asgardians, even though Thanos has such a long life behind him, his mind is still so human-like that he can change his whole worldview within four Earth-years. We don’t really know how long he would have lived if the Avengers hadn’t killed him, but at a 1000-year lifespan, four years is equivalent to a couple months at human scale.

Civilian POV

I said earlier that the intensity of events really ramps up in Phase Two. Well, in this one, half the population gets wiped out for five Earth-years, which is… a bit more significant.

Even ignoring that, this Phase begins with Captain America: Civil War, so with a huge bang. This is also the movie that retrospectively judges our heroes’ involvement in all the previous events that I’ve been rating on this scale.

This Phase also has multiple movies, and many big action set pieces that take place in space or in isolated locations, thus reducing their craziness from an Earth civilian point of view. It almost makes me wonder if the fast growing cinematic universe and the in-universe media retrospective in Civil War made screenwriters extra conscious about setting up new visible situations.

Here’s a rundown of major superhuman events that the general public would have learned of (and cared about) in Phase Three.

IR = Intensity Rating, on a 5-point scale.

Captain America: Civil War

  1. Lagos explosion, made bigger because of the media frenzy around it. Or at least the media frenzy that we, the audience, directly see integrated into the story for once. [IR 2/5]
  2. Major bombing at the UN with body count including at least one head of state. In real life, this would have been a massive event, but I have to scale the score down in relation to other MCU events. [IR 2/5]
  3. Super soldier foot chase involving vehicle crashes and a tunnel collapsing in Bucharest. [IR 2/5]
  4. Major superhero battle at an airport in Germany, albeit with the general public evacuated. [IR 3/5]

Doctor Strange

So much of this movie takes place in magical planes and realms, and in remote areas with only sorcerers present, it’s hard to say if anything happens in view of the public.

There is one relatively minor moment, where some pedestrians see the Ancient One falling onto a sidewalk after the big New York City mirror dimension battle.

We also see Hong Kong get demolished, but I can’t rate this one either because it’s all fixed by localized time rewind magic and only the main characters retain any memory of this.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

The only noticeable thing that happens on Earth in this movie is Ego’s glob crushing a big part of a small town in America. There was significant property damage, and definitely some body count. This was pre-Sokovia Accords and all (Earth year 2014), so it must have received significant attention. This one must have been confusing to the media because poor humans never got any explanation. [IR 1/5]

Spider-Man: Homecoming

  1. Washington Monument event with Spider-Man helping school kids on a field trip. [IR 1/5]
  2. Staten Island Ferry literally getting cut in half with Spider-Man and Iron Man saving the day. [IR 3/5]
  3. The Avengers’ transport plane with cloaking tech crashing into Coney Island with Spider-Man battling the Vulture. [IR 3/5]
  4. This movie had a bunch of smaller events where Spidey saves the day, stopping minor crimes. And there was the scene with the Shocker attacking Peter at the homecoming, which wasn’t seen by a lot of people but some may have heard it. [IR 1/5]

Thor: Ragnarok

Nearly the whole movie takes place off-world. There are bits in New York City, where citizens see Thor and Loki walking around, and a little bit in Norway, where nothing of note happens.

Black Panther

  1. Violent robbery at the museum by Killmonger, mostly out of view of the public, but very likely covered by the media. [IR 1/5]
  2. The whole incident in the illegal Seoul casino ending in a major car chase through city streets. This was at least the second incident within a year or two (after the one in Avengers: Age of Ultron). [IR 2/5]
  3. All of Wakanda seemed to be involved in a major political situation in the country, including a civil war that certainly claimed some body count. [IR 3/5]

Avengers: Infinity War

This movie threatens my entire intensity rating scale although half of it takes place off-world.

  1. NYC sees a second major alien invasion event within a decade. There was chaos in the streets, civilians evacuated out of several city blocks, various superheroes and sorcerers fighting aliens in public. [IR 3/5]
  2. Some action in the dark hours of Edinburgh with aliens coming after Vision. Not a lot of civilians may have noticed this one. [IR 1/5]
  3. All of Wakanda seemed to be involved in the Battle of Wakanda against Thanos’s forces. [IR 4/5]
  4. The entire population of the universe is cut in half. [IR off-scale] (can you blame me?)

Ant-Man and the Wasp

  1. Major car chase and shootout through San Francisco streets, including damage to the squiggly part of Lombard Street. [IR 3/5]
  2. Action at the waterfront, where the public sees a huge building shrink and grow out of nowhere (with miraculously no one getting hurt), and Scott turn into Giant-Man in water and accosting someone on the ferry. [IR 2/5]
  3. Giant-Man suit propped up against a building in San Francisco for some period of time, found by the FBI. [IR 1/5]

Captain Marvel

  1. Half-alien person crashes through the roof of a Blockbuster store, investigated by government agents. [IR 1/5]
  2. Car and train chase through Los Angeles involving shapeshifting aliens. [IR 2/5]
  3. Earth almost gets invaded and attacked in a big way. Most of these events take place in the desert, away from civilization, but there’s no way nobody saw the alien missiles being fired at the planet, intercepted by some superpowered being. [IR 2/5]

Avengers: Endgame

This movie is extremely difficult to judge in this way.

A lot of events take place on Earth, but outside the main timeline continuity that I have been considering thus far. I’ve decided to ignore those events.

A lot of events seem to take place off-screen as well. We see this in Nat’s interactions with the rest of the Avengers, Rocket, and Carol early on in the movie. We even see Steve Rogers running a support group, implying many of the remaining Avengers continued helping their world during the Blip.

  1. At some point off-screen, New Asgard is founded in Norway. Aliens now live in a small town on Earth. [IR 1/5]
  2. A lone assassin named Ronin running around the world, killing gangsters and the like. [IR 1/5]
  3. The Blip ends, and life returns to the entire universe. [IR off-scale] (obviously)
  4. Avengers facility destroyed before an extremely large scale battle against an alien invasion in upstate NY. While no civilians were present there, it seems like the general public is aware of what happened (see: the opening of Ms Marvel), presumably by livestreams or the events being relayed to the press later. [IR 5/5]

Spider-Man: Far from Home

  1. Elemental attack in Venice. [IR 2/5]
  2. Elemental attack in Prague. [IR 2/5]
  3. Huge battle around the Tower Bridge in London. [IR 3/5]
  4. Spider-Man’s identity revealed to the public. [IR 1/5]

In Retrospect

Phase Three is the MCU at its most mature. The studio knew what they wanted to do and they did it. It’s not impossible that the Multiverse Saga will culminate into something similar by its end. But in the context of the prior two Phases, I can clearly see a downward trend in growing pains and thrash.

By the start of this Phase, the general audience had become more comfortable with the idea of the shared universe and characters popping in and out. That gave us fun little touches like Doctor Strange’s appearance in Thor: Ragnarok, and less hand wavy continuity like what we got between Age of Ultron and the Phase Two movies leading into it. Nitpicking continuity was much easier in the first two Phases. I had a hard time picking topics for my Poking Holes section.

The scale of the Avengers movies in this Phase was truly ambitious. They feel so much grander than so many other films, sometimes it’s hard to believe that they’re only two feature length movies. They are commendable not only standalone, but more so in retrospect. The long-term bricklaying that Marvel Studios did to make them such a success requires a special kind of long-term planning that few publicly traded companies seem to be capable of. Their cultural impact is undeniable. Moreover, their impact on the film industry is undeniable too. Just like Harry Potter set off a trend to split the final film into two parts, these films have left a lot of studios yearning to make their own shared universes.

The first title in this Phase, Captain America: Civil War decided to “look back” at major events of the MCU. That created a habit within MCU writing that I appreciate. To this day, the Blip remains the most memorable event the MCU population has ever seen, possibly in all recorded history. Unlike in the comics, stories in Phases Four and Five don’t try to sweep it under the rug. On the contrary, several stories hinge upon the Blip to various extents. Not being dismissive of city-destroying events has got to be the biggest reason the MCU feels so grounded despite being so over the top.

Phases One through Three have also been excellent at tying up most plot points, not leaving any major threads unresolved. I do concede that Marvel Studios has a bad habit of making some post credits scenes and leaving them hanging for years, and some perpetually. The one exception to this is Spider-Man: Far From Home. This one was marketed as an epilogue to Phase Three, but we all know it was PR coverup for a weird release schedule because of their Sony deal. It ends in a huge cliffhanger. Like Ant-Man being the awkward, post-Avengers finisher to Phase Two, Far From Home logically fits better in Phase Four, setting up its 2021 sequel.

Other than that exception, the MCU’s first three Phases are nicely self-contained, frozen in time. For a lot of people, these are the movies that they grew up with, like Star Trek, Back to the Future, Star Wars, and other franchises of prior decades. Hopefully, they can be enjoyed by generations to come, unaffected by whatever the future of the MCU holds. I appreciate that they treated Endgame as the end of an era, skipping the usual post credits scene even when they had already announced more content. This allowed Phase Four to be a new beginning, allowing creative flexibility in where they want to go from there.