At first, the notion of the Marvel Cinematic Universe was quaint, gestational idea—a fan-pleasing moment at the end of the first Iron Man, a batch of superhero movies (Hulk, Captain America, Thor) that linked into a fun "the gang's all here!" moment with the heroes vs. aliens spectacular that was The Avengers. If it hadn't worked, that would have been it. But it worked better, and made more money, than anyone predicted, and now the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a complicated, multi-platform organism that Captain America: The Winter Soldier is about to wreak a lot of havoc on when it's released Friday. Let's examine just what Marvel has set up, where Winter Soldier belongs in the grand scheme of things, and what happens next.
Phase One: Tentative Planning
I remember watching Iron Man with a couple friends in the theater on opening night, and silently freaking out at the end-credits scene where Samuel L. Jackson, as Nick Fury, told Tony Stark, "You've become part of a bigger universe, you just don't know it yet." My friends, not comic book readers, were baffled, and I tried to explain, but it seemed like a cute Easter egg for the hardcore fans more than anything else, as did Tony Stark dropping into The Incredible Hulk. It's only when Nick Fury and company traipsed around Iron Man 2, ruining its plot with larger world-building, that "Phase One" and the plan for an Avengers movie felt more real.
It all could have ended if Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger had bombed. In fact, neither was a mega-hit (Thor made $181 million domestic on a $150 million budget, and the first Cap made $176 million) but it was enough to keep things moving. During "Phase One," the links between movies amounted to little winks: Phil Coulson finding Thor's hammer at the end of Iron Man 2, Nick Fury poking at the Cosmic Cube at the end of Thor. Most were surprised when it all culminated in Joss Whedon's surprisingly sensible Avengers movie, which managed to tap into what makes the dynamics of a super-team interesting and found original ways to show off the same old action heroics.
Phase Two: Marvel's Hit Factory
When The Avengers blew the box office wide open, Marvel's little experiment became a set of forward-looking multi-year plans, plotted much in the way grand comic book arcs are (which unite various titles for major crossovers at least once a year). Last year's Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World marked the beginning of "Phase Two," but were basically standalone films. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. launched on ABC in September but underwhelmed fans when it turned out to be a B-list action drama of little import to the larger world. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the first "Phase Two" movie to really have an impact on the Marvel Universe at large (some spoilers follow).