So with Ant-Man being released, Phase Two of Marvel's Cinematic Universe is complete. Launching from the success of the Avengers, there were two schools of thought as to how this would go. Either it had peaked with The Avengers, and the standalone films would just hold us over until Age of Ultron came along, or we'd get sick of comic book films and stop going. Neither happened.
To give some kind of context to the job in hand, you have to remember that Phase One was not that impressive. Sure, we enjoyed them but looking at the standalone films, the first Iron Man was the only 3 stars or higher score in there. Phase One had two genuine hits in the six films. That was fine. Like a rising music artist, it's wise not to put your best stuff out on the first album. Phase Two, however, needed to offer more. Raise the stakes. Be more compelling. Avoid clichés and predictability. So how did Marvel do?
IRON MAN 3
The most successful standalone film of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it felt more like a Tony Stark film than it did an Iron Man film. That's not a criticism. It was a fresh take and gave us a story that was driven by the character, rather than cataclysmic events. This is worth noting as the Iron Man franchise has successfully steered clear of the "end of the world" stakes. It did set the tone for the MCU in providing us with a big twist mid-story that very few saw coming. Some it irked. Others, myself included, thought it was a brilliant play by Marvel. Riding the crest of the Avengers, it was a good start out of the blocks by Marvel.
THOR: THE DARK WORLD
An improvement on the previous instalment, it still didn't feel like the definitive Thor film. If anything, it felt like a definitive Loki film. This film ticked all the right boxes and was enjoyable but it proved that the MCU doesn't have a villain more compelling than Tom Hiddleston's god of mischief. So much so that Malekith started to fall in that odd category Marvel has of a "Use once and dispose" baddie. Not one you'd mind watching but not the first you're going to pick off the shelf.
CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER
Game on! For me, this is still the best film in the MCU. A taut thriller that takes a believable political subterfuge plot and blends the superhero element effortlessly. Filled with slick action sequences, a clever streak of comedy and plenty of twists, it revitalised a character that needed to be elevated to iconic status. It also shook the entire MCU. Suddenly, every film was unmissable because it could contribute massively to the next film and the next phase. Off the back of this, Captain America: Civil War is now hugely anticipated and rightly so.
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY
Marvel's big movie risk came off spectacularly well. Led by Chris Pratt, who might as well change his name to Mr Franchise at the moment, it was like a Diet Star Wars for this generation. What it did was give us characters to care about and once they were off, we wanted to tag along for the ride. It had just enough snark in it to keep us amused, plenty of action and deep roots in where the MCU is headed. The only criticism is one that could be levelled at the entire of Phase Two, that being the villain, Ronan the Accuser, was horrendously under developed. No matter. We loved it and for many people, it's the best film Marvel has ever made.
AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON
Four Marvel films at its back, three of them stand out hits, this was Marvel's chance to cement its dominance as the lurking DC started to gather strength. Instead, it turned out to be a missed opportunity. Age of Ultron is not a bad film. It's just not on a par with its Phase Two counterparts. Where did it go wrong? A familiar sin for the MCU, namely a poor fleshing out of the main antagonist, was a key factor. The reality is that Loki drove the story in Avengers. We understood his motivations and all things happened because of him. In Ultron, he would often become a side show to the Avengers squabbling, instead of being the genuine cause. It was such a waste, made worse when you consider that Spader was probably the best thing in the film. The tension was lacking, the pace was choppy and the story was clumsy. It was still a thrill to watch but it wasn't the step up we had all hoped for.
Under the cloud of Edgar Wright leaving, this long developed film finally made it out. It is an enjoyable romp but not one to rock your world. It will be one of those Marvel films that will forever sit in the mid-table position when Marvel films get ranked. Well acted with clever ideas and a fresh concept for a superhero film, namely a heist movie, it falls back into the category of holding us over until the Marvel film we want to see shows up.
Six films. Three hits. It is an improvement on Phase One and filled with entries Marvel should be proud of until its dying day. Moving into Phase Three, which will feature nine films (ten if you include Sony's collaborative Spider-Man film), the challenge is now to make a majority of them hits, not just "fun to watch" films that could have been just as viable on Netflix. DC, and to a lesser degree Fox, sit in wait, ready to fight for the throne of comic book films. In 2019, we'll know if Marvel is king or if it missed its chance with a Phase Two that started well, got better but tailed off at the end.
Grading: Better but more expected.