Independence Within the Marvel Cinematic Universe

I’m going to try to do something a little different today.

Before we get any further – comment below with the MCU movie that you think stands alone most successfully. There are plenty of answers with all kinds of justification; I’m just curious to see what you think.

With Avengers: Endgame imminent, my plan had been to rewatch the preceding MCU movies and write a fresh piece ranking them. Thanks to work and other stuff I only made it to Thor: The Dark World before I had to sit down to put this post together.

Hopefully we’ll get to Age of Ultron and Infinity War again before we see Endgame, but I’m not gonna hold my breath. It’s okay. I know these movies fairly well by now; or at least, I hope I do. Today’s post relies on my familiarity.

The reasons I switched approaches for this are The Incredible Hulk and Thor: The Dark World.

Up until this marathon I felt mostly the same about the MCU films. Some I even enjoyed more, like Iron Man 3, which works better as the epilogue to Phase 1 than it does as the start of Phase 2. I’ve watched most of the movies at least a couple of times and my first impression usually sticks, with Thor: Ragnarök being the sole exception until now.

But for the first time I really perceived the flaws in Hulk and the first Thor sequel.

While The Dark World is still a beautiful film and provides plenty of spectacle and fun, Christopher Eccleston either phoned it in or was restricted too much. And I’m still not entirely sure what Malekith’s plan was. But imagine a loud, snarling, scenery-chewing elf instead of the distant, garbeldy-voiced bore we got.

Heck, that stupid voice effect alone was enough to spoil any performance Eccleston might have given.

The Incredible Hulk, on the other hand, is just boring. I have long said that I prefer Ed Norton’s Banner to Mark Ruffalo’s and I think I have to admit that I’ve been wrong.

In a different kind of Hulk movie Norton would have been perfect. I can see his quiet, tense Banner working very well in a darker, horror-tinged adaptation. But that’s not what the MCU is. The MCU needs tragic but relatable heroes and as fantastic an actor as Ed Norton may be, he doesn’t have that chummy magic that Mark Ruffalo – and the rest of the MCU leads – have.

My point here is that my opinion of those two MCU films has changed rather dramatically and I don’t feel comfortable ranking the rest without more recent viewings than I’ve had.

So  instead I’m going to attempt to rank according to how well each movie works without the rest of the MCU to support it. It might be tougher than I expect and I’m not sure exactly how this format is going to work out, but I think it’s an interesting thing to consider.

From the very beginning with 2008’s Iron Man the intention has been to create a connected series of movies about Marvel superheroes. That’s why *spoiler* Nick Fury showed up after the credits.

They didn’t know they were going to pull it off and I’m sure in 2019 the success of the project has surpassed their wildest expectations, but the intent was there.

At the same time these movies needed to function with a certain amount of autonomy. In the beginning, Marvel couldn’t rely on audiences having seen Iron Man or Thor to bolster the success of each film. They needed to work as standalone projects in order to build the foundation for what was to come.

There were teases and acknowledgements that these characters inhabited the same world, but plots and events never hinged on a knowledge of other movies. This is something that really struck me in rewatching Phase 1 – remembering just how exciting all of those little moments were and always living with the uncertainty of whether or not the connections would actually pay off and if we’d really ever see these characters sharing screen time. It seemed so unlikely back then that all of the necessary factors would align and it was absolutely thrilling to see the project unfold.

Since then we’ve received a regular supply of MCU films. Some are direct sequels for specific characters, some have launched new characters and concepts, and some are specifically meant to bring all of the elements of the universe together for unabashed displays of excitement and spectacle.

This rundown isn’t about the quality of each film, it’s about how well I think each film works within its own corner of the MCU; independent of the rest.

For my purposes direct sequels – Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Iron Man 3 or the various movies with Captain America in the title – get to build on their predecessors. But if you need information from, say, Thor to enjoy something in Doctor Strange that’s a knock against Doctor Strange’s independence. But not its quality because, again, that’s not what we’re discussing today.

I sure hope I can explain my logic on all of these. Several times when I mention a film “relying heavily” on elements established in prior entries I’m simply referring to the plot points used, not suggesting that the movie couldn’t have existed without them or with slight modifications.

Also, I give elements introduced via post- or mid-credits scene less weight than events that are part of the main narrative. This may or may not be fair. I dunno.

Are you thoroughly confused yet?

Me too – let’s do this!

So, from most reliant on the rest of the existing MCU to least, here we go:

Avengers: Infinity War – Obviously this one sits in last place. Without the prior films none of the emotional beats have the maximum and the whole damn thing is probably way too bonkers to stand alone. I can’t imagine what someone new to the MCU would make of this one.

Avengers: Age of Ultron – This ultimate exploration of Tony Stark’s hubris works as a sequel to the existing Iron Man films in a way, but it requires all of the preceding MCU films – minus Guardians of the Galaxy – to fully deliver.

The Avengers – As the culmination of Iron Man, Iron Man 2, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger this movie obviously relies on everything that came before. I think it probably still works as a standalone film to a certain extent, as it establishes these characters meeting and their relationships, but it would have so much less impact without the rest of the MCU.

Spider-Man: Homecoming – I predict this one’s placement will generate the most discussion.

Tom Holland’s Peter Parker/Spider-Man is great. Character-wise he is the best on-screen version we’ve had.

Story-wise he is not.

Because of Sony’s rights to produce Spider-Man films the character was not introduced early in the MCU. As such, he has received a sort of tacked-on treatment – he’s an appendage to the existing material; mainly Tony Stark. While his history is as an independent operator, we don’t see that. What we see is a Peter Parker who is enabled by Stark. He wears Stark’s suits, he does Stark’s bidding, and he lives in stark’s world.

This Spider-Man as we know him and the events of his “solo” movie would not happen without Tony Stark. As such, this movie is low on the list.

Note: No, I’m not crazy about how the MCU has handled Spidey so far. I am hoping for better from Far from Home, but Nick Fury’s presence is not reassuring. I have a possible acceptable – maybe even great – explanation for that though and I’m hoping I’m right.

I think Spider-Man: Homecoming is a very entertaining movie. It’s just not a good Spider-Man movie.

Captain America: Civil War – At its core this movie is continuing the narrative of the previous two Captain America movies, but it incorporates elements from Iron Man, The Avengers, and Ant-Man. It’s essentially an Avengers movie, but thematically is a Captain America movie. Without the support of the other MCU entries, though, the story of Steve Rogers and Tony Stark’s conflict would not have been possible.

It’s interesting that, since this is a Captain America movie, Tony Stark is presented as more of an antagonist. If it had been Avengers: Civil War that role might not have been as clear. In an alternate universe there might have even been an Iron Man: Civil War that could have presented things slanted more towards Tony’s perspective.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier – While The Winter Soldier is a clear sequel to Captain America: The First Avenger, it does use many elements from other MCU films.

SHIELD, Nick Fury, and Black Widow were introduced in the Iron Man movies.

Agent Jasper Sitwell was introduced in Thor.

Maria Hill was introduced in The Avengers.

Note: I will never stop being disappointed at the cop-out on Arnim Zola. I WANT ROBOT FACE TUMMY, DAMMIT. I won’t be happy until I see Toby Jones’ face on a TV screen in a robot’s abdomen. Especially after they teased it in The First Avenger.

Captain Marvel – This one is tricky. Marvel made the events of this film precede anything else that has happened in the MCU, so technically it is a completely standalone film. From an in-universe chronology standpoint.

We, as the audience, know better, which makes it tough for me to decide how to judge this one.

This story uses:

Nick Fury – previously introduced in Iron Man but now introduced here

Agent Phil Coulson – also previously introduced in Iron Man, now introduced here

The Tesseract/Cosmic Cube/Space Stone  – introduced in Captain America: The First Avenger, a critical element of The Avengers, and a recurring element through Thor: The Dark World, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Thor: Ragnarok, and Avengers: Infinity War

The Kree – introduced in the MCU Agents of SHIELD television show

Ronan the Accuser – introduced in Guardians of the Galaxy

Korath the Pursuer – introduced in Guardians of the Galaxy

In my opinion Captain Marvel successfully stands alone and I will watch it first in future MCU marathons. But as a long-time fan and someone who knows these elements were pulled from existing MCU lore I can’t put this one at the top of the list, where it would belong if I were judging purely on narrative content.

Thor: Ragnarok – Relies heavily on characters and events from non-Thor films – Bruce Banner/Hulk from The Incredible Hulk and Avengers, Thor’s vision of Ragnarök in Avengers: Age of Ultron, Hulk leaving Earth in a Quinjet in Age of Ultron, Banner and Romanoff’s relationship in Age of Ultron, Stephen Strange from Doctor Strange, Banner’s PTSD from the Sokovia conflict in Age of Ultron.

Iron Man 3 – The plot relies almost entirely on fallout from The Avengers. Tony Stark’s PTSD is front and center. This is much more of a follow-up to that film than it is a sequel to either of the previous Iron Man films. Obviously it builds on the elements introduced in its predecessors, but the focus is on what happened to Tony in Avengers.

Ant-Man and the Wasp – Relies on elements from prior non-Ant-Man films – Scott Lang on house arrest after his involvement in Civil War, as well as the strain this put on Scott’s relationship with Hank Pym.

Note: This, like Iron Man 3, serves as a sort of epilogue to the event movie that preceded it. Or more of a side mission, really, but the mid-credits scene folds it firmly into the Infinity War story.

Black Panther – Relies on events from Captain America: Civil War to establish the story. Also uses Ulysses Klaue from Avengers: Age of Ultron.

I feel obligated to mention the presence of Bucky – introduced in Captain America: The First Avenger and recovering from the events of Captain America: Civil War – in the post-credits scene, though it had no impact on the narrative.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 – Relies only on elements established in Guardians of the Galaxy. This technically makes it more standalone than its predecessor, but it does require the plot points that film used from other MCU films.

Guardians of the Galaxy – Relies somewhat on the introduction of The Collector, Taneleer Tivan, at the end of Thor: The Dark World. Also uses Thanos – introduced in The Avengers – as a touchstone for character motivations from Drax, Nebula, Gamorra, and Ronan. Since these foundations are critical to the plot this makes Guardians less independent than the next two films, which surprised me.

Ant-Man – Relies heavily on elements introduced in previous Marvel films – SHIELD, Howard Stark, Peggy Carter. In this instance SHIELD can’t easily be replaced with “shadowy government agency” because of the specific personalities involved that are integral to the story.

Thor – Relies heavily on elements introduced in Iron Man and Iron Man 2 – Agent Coulson and SHIELD. While these are important plot points, the movie could have worked exactly the same with analogs. What I’m saying is that to me Thanos is more critical to Guardians than SHIELD is to Thor. Shadowy government agencies are a dime a dozen, while insane intergalactic tyrants are fairly special.

Thor: The Dark World – Relies less on non-Thor elements than its predecessor. The Tesseract from Captain America and The Avengers is mentioned, but is not technically part of the plot. Loki is imprisoned on Asgard due to his actions in The Avengers.

Captain America: the First Avenger – Uses Howard Stark, a character established off-screen in Iron Man. While Howard is never even technically mentioned prior to The First Avenger, the Stark family is already the center of the MCU.

The Incredible Hulk – Requires no support, but has an appearance from Stark.

Doctor Strange – Requires no support, but mentions Rhodes’ injury in Civil War.

Iron Man 2 – Requires no support from non-Iron Man films.

Iron Man – Requires no support.

The last two were pretty obvious and I feel like the list sort of ends with a thud, but none of that matters because Avengers: Endgame comes out tomorrow and nothing will ever…


be the same…


Be sure to join the Needless Things Podcast Facebook Group and share your thoughts! Did I miss stuff (probably)? Would you rank them differently? Let us know!

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