Somewhere in the Pacific, at Marvel’s super-secret HQ — a place sequestered, we imagine, beneath a volcanic island — the plan was hatched: The studio would produce a series of six films that all take place in the same universe, starting with 2008’s Iron Man and culminating with 2012’s all-star The Avengers. It was called Phase One, and it’s being celebrated in Marvel Cinematic Universe: Phase One — Avengers Assembled (2008–12, 12 hrs., 6 mins., PG-13), a massive, 10-disc limited-edition box set that costs $219 and comprises all six films (the two mentioned above, plus The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger). With the release of that gargantuan collection, you can almost hear a Nehru-jacketed Marvel henchman announcing, ”Phase One is now complete. Initiating Phase Two.”
Marvel’s superhero-series gamble was a box office success in ways that warrant most of their favorite adjectives: fantastic! amazing! mighty! incredible! The closest precedent would probably be Universal’s run of monster movies in the ’30s and ’40s, which similarly took icons and gave each of them a movie before mixing and matching them all in crossover projects. But never has there been a studio plan so organized and cohesive — one that, like Tony Stark’s self-assembling suit, required so many parts moving in unison.
The general style across the films may be a bit same-y, like the perpetually sunny universe where all shows on USA Network take place. Still, each director was able to gloss on some of his own personal touches. Kenneth Branagh treats Thor’s scenes in the realm of Asgard like he’s staging a Wagnerian cycle, Captain America’s Joe Johnston reaches back to his Rocketeer days for the film’s leather-clad derring-do, and Joss Whedon uses his TV-showrunner skills to keep all the different-colored Avengers balls in the air at once. It’s interesting that the collection features none of Marvel’s underdogs — scrappy Peter Parker or the ostracized X-Men — but rather members of powerful institutions: Stark is an über-CEO, Captain America and S.H.I.E.L.D. work for the U.S. government, and Thor is quite literally a god. And what’s more corporate than The Avengers, a movie essentially about a synergistic merger?
The new box set comes in a plastic briefcase that also contains a light-up Tesseract (the series’ glowing MacGuffin) and case folders filled with meticulously reproduced elements from the films, such as Captain America’s selective-service record and Thor’s driver’s license. These memorabilia are among the set’s main draws for fans. The superhero-size EXTRAS include featurettes, director commentaries, new deleted scenes, and a handful of short films called Marvel One-Shots. It’s all expertly curated, but still the same kinds of studio-approved add-ons that aim to give insight into minor design elements like the weight of Thor’s hammer and Hugo Weaving’s hours of makeup as the Red Skull, many of which were available with the films’ individual Blu-ray releases. There’s also a hidden tease for the already under-way Phase Two, including new footage from Iron Man 3 and Ant-Man. Inevitably, Phase Two will have its own box set, as Marvel moves on to the next step in its master plan for world moviegoing domination. B+