I don't hate the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Seriously, I don't hate it. I've seen all 15 movies in the MCU at the theater, most of them advance showings. I was largely entertained and satisfied until Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, which was disastrously disappointing to me. I've said before that while the MCU doesn't have the level of storytelling and character depth that I would like to see in these movies, they are all still entertaining in their own right.
The thing is, four years ago it seemed like Marvel Studios actually WAS headed on a path to stronger storytelling and character development, but it only lasted for a short time. One phase to be exact by MCU measurement, specifically Phase Two of the franchise. In case you don't remember exactly which MCU movies were part of Phase Two, here's the list in order of release:
IRON MAN 3
THOR: THE DARK WORLD
CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY
AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON
Now after looking at that list, you might have some questions about my rationale here. Maybe you're thinking "Is he nuts? Does he not remember how bad Iron Man 3 was?" Or maybe you're thinking, "I can no longer trust this guy's judgment because he's actually defending Age of Ultron." Some of you could even be thinking, "He must be mistaken, Captain America: Civil War" is in Phase Three and THAT's the best one." I can't stop you from thinking any of those things because that is your opinion.
What I'm hoping you are thinking at this point is, "I'm intrigued. Where are you going with this?" Allow me to explain, starting with just before Phase Two. We had six MCU movies at the time, five of them solo movies and the one big team up that everybody loved. Marvel Studios decided that they needed solo movies for everyone outside of Hawkeye and Black Widow to set the team members up. Many have called this "THE way to do a comic book movie shared universe." It's A way, not THE way, but I digress. The point is that by the time Phase One ends, we have origins fleshed out for four of the six Avengers at the time and they have all done battle together as a team. Now it's time to go deeper down the rabbit hole and really see what makes these characters tick.
Phase Two starts that analysis with Iron Man 3. Put aside your Mandarin anger for just a moment and consider this: The movie really is a great examination of Tony Stark's PTSD after The Battle of New York. He's clearly rattled by what happened and he is visibly struggling to get over it and move forward with how the world works now. The guy becomes a bit of a recluse, shuttering himself away to build his Iron Legion of suits because it makes him feel safer, until his past sins with Aldrich Killian come back to bite him and he has to deal with it even through his own personal troubles, which leads him into some very vulnerable moments of soul searching in the middle of the movie. By the time it's over, Tony has wrestled with his past sins, his PTSD and comes out a better man for it, even having the operation to have his pieces of shrapnel removed so that he no longer needs an arc reactor in his chest. He is seemingly a changed man and his "trilogy" is thematically complete.
Now, slide into Thor: The Dark World. To begin with, this is the first time we see Thor as his completely formed self and he needs every bit of that to deal with the conflicts in this movie. He's not only fighting Malekith the Accursed, he's also fighting his own father Odin, who doesn't agree with him on how to handle the situation. After his mother Frigga dies in battle, he has to approach his deceitful brother Loki, who is FULL of his own demons especially in the wake of Frigga's death, to take care of Malekith's threat and save the Nine Realms from the dangers of the Reality Stone. The whole movie, Thor is dealing with the trials and troubles of his own family, the pressure of him to eventually be king of Asgard, and his duty to protect Jane Foster and the Earth. In the end, after he mistakenly thinks Loki dead, he pledges his support to protect Earth and leaves Asgard, now clear of where his duty lies and what it must be. Thor is more developed and more sure of himself than he was before in many ways.
Next is the pinnacle of MCU filmmaking, Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Marvel Studios has yet to make a film as good as this one is, in my opinion. The character development of Steve Rogers with Falcon and Bucky supporting that subplot, the spy thriller twist of S.H.I.E.L.D. actually becoming HYDRA that forces Rogers to destroy the organization completely, which has repercussions on the entire franchise from that point on, and the subtext of "freedom versus fear" that is touched on within the movie is just fantastically done. It's the most serious MCU movie with the greatest stakes and tension, Captain America is supported by a cast that never threatens to outshine him in his own movie, and the action is phenomenally well choreographed. It feels like this was the peak performance of the MCU, right at the halfway point of Phase Two and then slowly but surely, the peak began to lower just a bit every time.
Guardians of the Galaxy was a surprise smash hit and the chemistry between Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax, Rocket and Groot was unmistakable. In fact, it's what made the movie because otherwise the plot wasn't that great. The villain Ronin, who wants to destroy Xandar with the Power Stone that he has retrieved for Thanos is pretty one-dimensional. We never get a true sense or feeling of why he wants to destroy the planet other than blind Kree hatred. He's just there to provide a reason for the Guardians to band together and become heroes. It works to perfection in that department, especially since we are given glimpses of life on Xandar with John C. Reilly's character as an example to give you an idea of just what is at stake in the movie. For being relatively unconnected to the rest of the MCU, it's a more than solid movie that gives the main cast equal opportunity to shine.
Now we come to another of the hotly debated films, Avengers: Age of Ultron. Ok, this isn't a perfect movie by any stretch of the imagination and Ultron is developed entirely too fast and is really no more than a plot device like every MCU villain is except Loki, BUT this movie DOES do some things very right in the character development area, such as everyone's insecure hallucinations when Scarlet Witch messes with their minds. We get newly emotionally reformed Tony Stark presented with his fear of everyone ending up dead on his watch, which puts him in "protect the planet" mode and leads directly into him creating Ultron. We get Captain America dealing with his demons about being a man out of time, Thor dealing with issues from his abandonment of Asgard for Earth at the end of Thor: The Dark World, and Black Widow "controversially" dealing with her own insecurities as a woman. Did it totally work? No, not by a long shot, but there was at least an attempt at something deeper and more engaging with the character stories in the movies. Even though it didn't reach where it was trying to reach, I felt like the "try" was there, at least.
Finally we have Ant-Man, which is a heist movie with a heart of gold. This one works well again because of great cast chemistry with Scott Lang, Hank Pym and his daughter Hope, and similar to Guardians of the Galaxy, a story that serves only to give them the great character moments to shine and strengthen the movie. All of the MCU movies are very personal stories about the heroes themselves and they work best when the cast is genuinely cohesive enough for the story itself to support their growth while staying out of the way. It's really the last time that an MCU movie had a near perfect blend of humor and seriousness so that the narrative wasn't ill-effected in the long run. That's Phase Two in a nutshell.
So what has changed from then to now with Phase Three? Well for starters, major course corrections on characters and settings. Even with what happened at Sokovia in Age of Ultron, how does Stark just do a complete 180 on his position about keeping the world safe from hostile threats outside of Earth? In Age of Ultron, after already being confronted about his mistake in creating the villain, he was willing to make the exact same mistake later in the movie by putting Jarvis into Vision's body. The only difference is that instead of striking out like he did the first time, he hit a home run and added a valuable member to the Avengers. Shouldn't that have emboldened him to continue his plan of keeping the world safe? Instead, on the strength of just ONE woman that comes to him and blames him for the death of her son, mere months before she would go to Harlem and become the notorious Black Mariah (casting overlap, anyone?), he decides that planetary safety is no longer a thing to fight for and succumbs to government intervention? Seriously? This is the same Tony Stark that personally flipped off Congress and told them they couldn't have his suit in Iron Man 2, right? Whether you like that movie or not, you've established a pattern with Stark's character and nothing that has happened to this point would legitimately make him forget about the bigger threats off-world, ESPECIALLY since Thor is still gone and investigating the Infinity Stones. It just doesn't make much sense.
Doctor Strange was an origin story for a new character so no major changes there, but Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 decided to abandon the idea of a plot that stayed out of the way of further character development in favor of a plot and dialogue that would get them as many laughs as possible. Instead of making a comedic science fiction movie like they did the first time, they made a science fiction comedy that had more in common with Galaxy Quest and Star Trek V: The Final Frontier than it did with the MCU. The most solid character development you get in the movie isn't even with the main cast characters, it's with Yondu and Nebula. Sure Rocket and Gamora assist them with that, but those are still deeper and more complex character narratives that what Peter Quill is going through with his dad, and it didn't have to be that way. For whatever reason, Marvel Studios was headed in a more serious, higher stakes, deeper form of storytelling in Phase Two and then they decided to abandon it almost entirely for humor, which still certainly sells to an audience of loyal fans clamoring for escapism, but it misses the mark on being something truly special on the big screen.
To be actually fair, we are only three movies into Phase Three at this point and the tide could shift with Spider-Man: Homecoming and Thor: Ragnarok this year. However, based on what we have seen from both movies, it looks as if humor will still win the day over strong storytelling, admittedly more of it looking to be in Ragnarok than in Spider-Man. My best guess outside of the new Peter Parker movie for an MCU film with storytelling on par of Winter Soldier would be Black Panther in February 2018. That will almost certainly be a more grounded and complex story than the other movies, and then we will have the grand spectacle of Avengers: Infinity War the following May.
To be clear, this isn't calling Civil War or Doctor Strange bad movies. It's just an observation that it appears Marvel Studios has changed course with their storytelling direction and is opting for escapism and nostalgia over complexity and major character evolution. As with anything else I write, it's just my opinion and it won't keep me from continuing to see MCU movies and hopefully enjoy them, despite the flaws that I see in them......so long as they don't repeat what they did in GOTGV2. That one still disappoints me.