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.
With this month's Avengers: Endgame reportedly serving as the culmination of Marvel Studios' long-running Infinity Saga storyline carried by its first 22 films, it's easy to forget the extensive history of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The popular franchise sent rival studios scrambling to launch their own shared cinematic universes with mixed results, but the MCU has maintained its multibillion-dollar success and critical acclaim for 11 years now. It all comes from the one-two strategy of Marvel Studios releasing Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk in the summer of 2008.
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Something that may have been forgotten in the years following Marvel's acquisition by Disney is that Marvel Studios' Phase One largely consisted of independent productions. After years of licensing out its properties to other studios for television and film, Marvel Entertainment took out a $525 million loan from Merrill Lynch in 2005 to create its own in-house studio with the goal of producing a maximum of 10 films over eight years, with Paramount and Universal attached as distributors. With X-Men and the Fantastic Four licensed to Fox and Spider-Man licensed to Sony, Marvel Studios decided to make its first two features about Iron Man and the Hulk.
Directed by Jon Favreau, 2008's Iron Man cast Robert Downey Jr. while the actor was in a relative career downturn, with Favreau adopting a loose, improvisational style for the film's dialogue to give conversations a more natural, organic feel. Additionally, Downey, Jr. was intent on creating a superhero that didn't become overly sanctimonious and self-serious upon taking up the responsibility, but rather someone who still enjoyed its escapist possibilities.
For comparison's sake, this was at the genre's height of much more somber films. Every single installment of Sam Raimi's Spider-Man trilogy has Tobey Maguire's webslinger in tears at some point, the original X-Men trilogy approached its source material with an attempt at grounded realism straight down to its black leather costumes and Zack Snyder's adaptation of Watchmen was paced and toned like a cinematic funeral.
The reliance on natural chemistry, the relatively faithful interpretation of Iron Man's origin, the battle against former colleague Obadiah Stane and Downey Jr.'s fun approach to the eponymous superhero made Iron Man an instant hit with audiences, and the former second-string superhero was catapulted to the forefront of the pop culture mainstream. Downey Jr. quickly became one of the most sought-after actors in Hollywood, while Disney began exploring the possibilities of buying Marvel Entertainment based on its success.
A little over a month later, Marvel Studios followed up with The Incredible Hulk starring Edward Norton as Bruce Banner. Originally envisioned as a loose continuation of the 2003 Hulk starring Eric Bana, Norton performed rewrites to distance it from the previous film so that it would stand as a complete reboot, with the new origin quickly retold during the opening title sequence so the main story could hit the ground running, befitting its fugitive protagonist. While still considerably more serious than Iron Man, the second MCU film was much less heavy-handed and cerebral than the previous Hulk movie, though its own offbeat sense of humor didn't connect with audiences in the same way Iron Man had.