One of the most consistent complaints about Captain Marvel has been that it feels too much like a film from “Phase 1” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Those films — released between 2008 and 2012 — introduced the MCU’s inaugural group of core characters, with Iron Man (2008), Black Widow (2010), Thor (2011), and Captain America (2011) all making their big screen debuts.
Most of those characters arrived via origin stories, tales of how the heroes came to have their powers (or, in Thor’s case, came to care about the fate of Earth). Black Widow, who first showed up as a femme fatale in Iron Man 2, was handled slightly differently, but became a core Marvel character nevertheless. Then, in 2012, Phase 1 came to a grand conclusion with the first Avengers movie.
For as much as Captain Marvel tries to not feel like an origin story, a tale about how Carol Danvers became a kind of cosmic superwoman, it can’t escape those trappings — it is, after all, Carol Danvers’s first appearance in the MCU.
Perhaps that’s why the movie is set in 1995; no matter how much it slices up and rearranges Carol’s past (by making her an amnesiac who doesn’t remember that she grew up on Earth, as a very human woman, instead of an alien Kree warrior), it’s never going to not feel a little like a throwback.
Plus, that throwback feel harks back to a certain other Marvel movie, 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger, which is mostly set in the 1940s. And that speaks to Captain Marvel’s greatest strength as a cog in the mighty Marvel machine: The trickiest thing the film does is cement the new core of the Marvel Cinematic Universe going forward, all without quite making you realize how derivative it is.
Doctor Strange = Iron Man; Black Panther = Thor; Captain Marvel = Captain America
The first two phases of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (Phase 2 unfolded from 2013 through 2015) were built around the idea of Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America all holding down their distinct corners of that universe, while other characters — particularly Ant-Man and the Guardians of the Galaxy — had their own wacky adventures around the edges. So long as the movies could always come back to this central trio, Marvel had a kind of home base or a status quo.
But as the MCU moves out of Phase 3 (which ends with April’s Avengers: Endgame) and into Phase 4 (which begins with July’s Spider-Man: Far From Home), it’s going to start losing its core heroes. Marvel’s contracts with actors like Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans are going to expire, most likely after Avengers: Endgame.
Also, a third Guardians of the Galaxy movie, originally scheduled for 2020, has been delayed by controversy surrounding James Gunn, the writer and director of the first two films who had signed for the third before getting booted from the project over tasteless jokes he made almost a decade ago. Gunn has since been reinstated as the film’s director, but the film won’t be making that original 2020 release date.
Sure, an actor like Chris Hemsworth, who’s struggled to find success outside of the Marvel universe, could sign on for another appearance (or three) as Thor, but if the MCU is to survive, it necessarily has to transition to a spinoff of itself while simultaneously resolving the continuity it’s set up so far. And that’s easier said than done!
Marvel seems to be using Phase 3 to build the new versions of its core three heroes, allowing them to step into the roles previously filled by other actors. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange (introduced in 2016) has the snarky ego and snappy one-liners of Iron Man. Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther (introduced in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War and given his own solo movie in 2018) has the alternate world royalty intrigue of Thor. And Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel is a born leader with a giant heart, just like Captain America.
What’s notable is just how similar these characters’ first few movies are to the original characters’ first few movies, with a few tweaks. Doctor Strange suffers a tremendous tragedy, just like Tony Stark, then has to battle his way back from the brink. Black Panther struggles to live up to the expectations of his father and his kingdom and also tries to dip into our world without causing a fuss, like Thor always did. And Captain Marvel is a former military woman, undervalued for her abilities, who is gifted with immense power in some weird combination of pure accident and seeming destiny, much like Captain America.
But it’s easy to not really think about how similar Doctor Strange, Black Panther, and Captain Marvel are to the original core three, for a bunch of reasons.
First, the MCU is so much bigger now than it was in Phase 1 that its central trio is slightly less important than it was back then. For instance, Marvel Studios doesn’t have full access to Spider-Man — though it is allowed to use the character thanks to a deal with Sony Pictures — but he’s more important to the main story of the MCU than, say, Ant-Man was.
Second, and perhaps most obviously, the optics of a central trio comprised of a white man, a white woman, and a black man are substantially different than those of a trio comprised of three white guys. And given the massive box office returns for Black Panther and Captain Marvel (so far), Marvel’s bet on obvious diversity has paid off.
Finally, although the circumstances of these new central characters are vaguely similar to those of the original three, they’ve clearly been chosen from legions of other MCU characters to keep certain familiar elements in place while remixing others. For instance, Iron Man is the character from the original trio whose powers come from technological know-how, but that’s true of Black Panther (gifted with amazing tech from Wakanda’s workshops) in this phase, rather than Doctor Strange. Similarly, Thor’s powers, straight out of myth, map more cleanly onto Captain Marvel’s cosmically driven abilities than Black Panther.
This very subtle redistribution of certain traits allows Marvel to at once place viewers on very familiar ground while also appearing to do something very, very different, even if at this point in the MCU, it’s become incredibly obvious how the studio goes about making its movies.
Having a strong central trio is going to be vital for Marvel going forward, as it weathers its most treacherous phase yet — one in which it won’t have its most familiar heroes to fall back on and one that will, in all likelihood, see the company acquire so many more new toys to play with in the X-Men and Fantastic Four, all characters whose rights it will gain access to as soon as Disney’s acquisition of 20th Century Fox’s assets closes, probably in just a matter of days.
The MCU didn’t achieve its astonishing level of cultural dominance by always playing it safe; the very idea of an interconnected cinematic universe is still something no other film studio has pulled off to this degree. But it also didn’t get there without making sure that audiences always felt like they were in the loop. If it must spend its next phase navigating troubled waters, it’s smart to do so with a hefty dose of familiarity at its side.