EDITOR'S NOTE: This article is part of a series, "Countdown to Endgame," which looks back at the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe leading up to Avengers: Endgame.
Following the $1.5 billion success of The Avengers, the Marvel Cinematic Universe became a household name four years into its run. Now irrevocably in the public eye and expectations for a follow-up to the ensemble film riding high, Marvel Studios had to develop its strategy moving into its second phase. As the MCU moved into the middle act of its Infinity Saga, it decided to revisit its three most successful characters -- Iron Man, Thor and Captain America -- in new standalone sequels that quietly laid the groundwork for a second Avengers film.
Using the newfound name recognition granted by The Avengers, Marvel Studios decided take additional risks with each solo film, stripping them down to the bare essentials to remind audiences why they fell in love with the characters in the first place. In doing so, they created some of the most bombastic solo entries to mark the launch of Phase Two.
Appropriately leading the charge was Iron Man, in his third and ostensibly final solo film. This installment was written and directed by Shane Black, who had previously worked with Robert Downey Jr. in the 2005 film Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and provided uncredited help behind the scenes on the original Iron Man.
Approaching the sequel, Black wanted to bring the character back to his roots, proving that Tony Stark's greatest asset wasn't the many suits of armor he had built, but rather his inventive mind, with Stark relying on his own wits for much of the film. To keep with this back-to-the-basics approach, Black presented the characters with a relatively more grounded threat than the alien invasion they had faced in The Avengers.
However, Stark hadn't walked away from the Battle of New York completely unscathed, suffering from a form of post-traumatic stress disorder due to his near-death experience and having a front row seat to a full-on interstellar conflict. The condition leads to Stark compulsively creating new sets of armor for every thinkable scenario while occasionally enduring public anxiety attacks. The depiction was a departure for most superhero films, the toll of superheroism on the psyche previously unseen.
However, reported creative issues behind the scenes led to significant plot changes mid-production, including a reduced role for Rebecca Hall's intended villain, Maya Hansen. Despite this, the film became the highest-earning solo superhero film at the time, with critics praising it as a noticeable improvement over Iron Man 2.
Just as Iron Man 3 had brought the Armored Avenger back to his techno-thriller roots, the second Thor film embraced the dark fantasy genre only previously hinted at in the Asgardian's first film. To underscore the wider expansion in the fantasy possibilities of the character, Marvel Studios looked to directors from Game of Thrones to potentially helm the sequel before signing Patty Jenkins at the suggestion of returning actress Natalie Portman. Ultimately, Jenkins left the project citing creative differences, to Portman's reported chagrin, with Jenkins replaced by Game of Thrones director Alan Taylor.