The MCU Is Nearly Unrecognizable 15 Years After It Began

The Marvel Cinematic Universe began 15 years ago, and the massive franchise is nearly unrecognizable after all this time compared to where it began. Marvel Studios kicked off the phenomenon that would become the MCU with the release of Iron Man on May 2, 2008. The film starring Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark managed to be the launching point for an unprecedented run that saw the MCU rise in popularity over the years. 2023 marks the 15-year anniversary of Iron Man's release and thus the beginning of the shared universe that helped change the landscape of Hollywood.
Marvel Studios has come a long way from releasing Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk in theaters in 2008. The MCU has expanded to the point where audiences expect to see several movies released every single year that are all connected to an overall narrative, such as what happened with the Infinity Saga films from 2008 to 2019. This has brought a lot of success to Marvel Studios and the development of a formula or system that is used to engineer each project. However, the franchise has also changed a lot over the years, making it nearly unrecognizable on the MCU's 15-year anniversary thanks to the differences.
Iron Man & Phase 1 Are Very Different From Disney’s MCU Movies The MCU's 15-year anniversary is a stark reminder of how much Disney's MCU movies are different from Iron Man and other Phase 1 movies, for better and worse. Marvel Studios felt the need to take a very specific approach when starting the MCU due to the perception of superhero movies at the time. The decision was made to make Iron Man and the rest of Phase 1's films as grounded as possible. The franchise focused first on a billionaire inventor with a technological suit before turning to slightly more sci-fi and fantasy stories with Hulk, Thor, and Captain America.
The MCU wasn't able to lean into crazier concepts or characters without risking alienating general audiences when it began 15 years ago, but Marvel Studios has fully embraced that side of the comics now. After finally tackling Thanos and the Infinity Saga, the MCU's future rests with the multiverse. This includes stretching the limits of what audiences can follow and introducing increasingly powerful, and sometimes wacky, characters. There is no question that many of the stories and heroes that are the focus of recent and upcoming MCU titles would not have meshed with Iron Man and Phase 1's tone. Marvel had to build to this point over 15 years.
It is also worth remembering that Disney's MCU movies are drastically different from Phase 1 based on the Mouse House's involvement. Before Disney bought Marvel in 2009 and began distributing their films with The Avengers, Paramount and Universal were responsible for helping make the early MCU movies. This meant Marvel Studios was allowed to include some elements, such as sex scenes, Tony Stark's alcoholism, hypersexualizing Black Widow, smoking, and more. Disney's family-friendly brand has meant most of this has been completely removed from the Marvel movies released over the last decade.
Conversely, it has been under Disney's reign that the MCU has changed dramatically in terms of how diverse its heroes are. Iron Man and every other Phase 1 movie starred straight white men. That trend continued for over half of the MCU's 15-year history. The diverse nature of the MCU movie leads began to change in 2018 with Black Panther, which was the first Marvel Studios production to star a person of color. Captain Marvel followed the year after to be the first MCU movie starring a woman. The desire to include better representation has since brought multiple movies and Disney+ shows that follow non-white male leads.
Marvel Studios Is No Longer The Superhero Underdog Marvel Studios is also in a very different place within Hollywood on the MCU's 15-year anniversary than where it was in 2008. The release of Iron Man and hopes of launching a shared universe were not guaranteed to be a success. X-Men and Spider-Man represented examples of successful Marvel movies starring the comics' biggest characters, but Marvel Studios had to use heroes most considered to be C or D-list. The rights issues caused by Marvel nearly went bankrupt years before and the small team at Marvel Studios turned the studio and its franchise aspirations into a superhero underdog story that was easy to root for.
Fast-forward to 2023 and the MCU and Marvel Studios are no longer the underdogs of Hollywood. The MCU has become not only the dominant form of superhero entertainment, but it is also the biggest movie franchise in history. Marvel Studios and Kevin Feige are similarly viewed as one of the most powerful studios and executives in the industry. This has transformed the MCU from the underdog to the heavyweight of Hollywood. Even though the box office performances and critical reception of certain films in Phases 4 and 5 have brought questions about the MCU's future, it is still true that Marvel's movies are more popular than the majority of Hollywood releases.
The change in the MCU's perception by its 15-year anniversary could somewhat explain the growing criticisms of Marvel. Instead of being a franchise and studio that are easy for audiences to root for, questions about its negative impact on Hollywood as its popularity has grown have risen. Whether it is reports of poor treatment of VFX workers or being blamed for Hollywood's obsession with superhero movies and shared universes, it is just as common for skepticism and questions about the future to exist for each MCU release as it is for excitement and speculation to dominate the discussion.
The MCU Has Lost Interest In Solo Movies Over Time Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk helped launch the MCU 15 years ago with a focus on solo movies. Audiences met Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, and Captain America in origin films that helped set the stage for The Avengers as the culmination of Phase 1. As the franchise has continued, though, there has been less of a focus on true solo movies and origin stories. Shang-Chi was the MCU's only solo movie in Phase 4 that was not an ensemble film starring a character who never appeared before. Marvel's focus has instead turned to make sequels to established franchises, but solo movie sequels have evolved into team-ups themselves.
The reason for the lack of true solo movies in the MCU's future is partially the result of the expanding nature of the franchise. The launch of Disney+ in 2019 gave Marvel Studios a new gateway to make stories, and they have prioritized making shows based on characters audiences do not know at all or do not know well enough. Instead of solo movies for Ms. Marvel, Moon Knight, She-Hulk, Scarlet Witch, Hawkeye, or Loki, the streaming service has unlocked longer-form storytelling to dive deeper into the characters.
Only 2 Iron Man Characters Are Still Relevant 15 Years Later The lack of characters who were introduced in Iron Man who are still relevant at the MCU's 15-year anniversary marks another massive difference to where the franchise is now. The 2008 movie helped audiences quickly fall in love with Tony Stark, Pepper Potts, James Rhodes, Happy Hogan, Phil Coulson, and Nick Fury. Each of these characters played recurring roles in the MCU for the next decade, but most do not have a future. Tony Stark died in Avengers: Endgame, likely cutting Pepper out of the universe too. Phil Coulson died in The Avengers and has no clear future role to play, while Happy's story should be done too.


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