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The Road to ‘Endgame’ Part 2: Planting the Seeds of a Greater Universe in ‘The Incredible Hulk’ and ‘Iron Man 2’

They may not be fan favorites, but they certainly laid the foundation for them.

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In the lead-up to the highly anticipated conclusion to the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s epic “Infinity Saga”: Avengers: Endgame, we’re taking a look back at the decade-long road it took to get to this point. Today we’re tackling two films: The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man 2. While these are by no stretch of the imagination the most beloved movies in the MCU, they did lay some important groundwork for what was to come afterward. While Iron Man was the first movie to show audiences Marvel Studios was pulling no punches, the next two films in the MCU proved that was far from an empty promise.

The Incredible Hulk – starring Edward Norton as Bruce Banner and his titular alter ego – was released in June 2008, about a month after Iron Man, and the two films still hold the record for shortest time between Marvel Studios releases (yes, even shorter than the seven weeks between Captain Marvel and Avengers: Endgame). It’s generally seen as the film with the least amount of connection to the rest of the MCU, often being labelled as “skippable” on franchise re-watches and sometimes even left off of fan rankings and the like. And honestly, it’s not hard at all to see why. The film is fairly dull compared to most other MCU offerings, has a lead actor that was replaced in the character’s next movie, and it could be argued the story has more connection with 2003’s Hulk – which it plays as sort of an unofficial sequel to – than any of its MCU siblings.

Having said all that, there is one small part of the movie that proved to be very important to the history of the Marvel Cinematic Universe: the franchise’s very first “crossover”. It’s only in a tag scene at the end of the movie, but seeing Tony Stark pop up in someone else’s movie – even just for a few seconds – was a big deal at the time. In the post-credits scene of Iron Man the idea of a team of superheroes was teased, but that was telling – this was showing. While it wasn’t a full team yet, it was clear this wouldn’t be the only case of “movie hopping” within this franchise.

Two years later in 2010, we got Iron Man 2. This was the first movie to explore the idea of the team of heroes beyond quick, end-of-movie teases. A big part of the film’s plot focuses on working to build said team, and while we don’t see everyone on it yet, we do get introduced to yet another member: Natasha Romanoff, AKA Black Widow, played by Scarlet Johanssen. While she probably deserved her own movie for an introduction (and the one she got in this one was on the sexist side in some respects) she did get to show her full range of combat capabilities in a pretty epic fight scene.

Black Widow’s role in Iron Man 2 was also the first instance of the now-more-common MCU practice of providing the introduction of soon-to-be-headlining characters in movies other than their own. While they hadn’t perfected this art quite yet, this first go proved to be solid enough groundwork to repeat and improve upon in future films. And it’s a good strategy – spend a little bit of one film familiarizing audiences with a character in order to make it easier to “jump right in” with their stories in the future without having to provide as much backstory as a regular origin film would. It definitely wouldn’t work for every character, but for the ones it does, it’s a good strategy to use.

While The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man 2 have both gotten a lot of criticism over the years (most of it pretty fair, to be honest) those who aren’t big fans can at least appreciate their respective roles in furthering the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and how they allowed the studio to build and improve upon them in the future.

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