As the Marvel Cinematic Universe approaches its 10-year mark with the apocalyptic Avengers: Infinity War, its films have begun to move in a similarly dark direction. After kicking things off with stirring origin movies like Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger, the series has gradually started to examine the shaky underpinnings of its heroic Avengers, and is now laying the groundwork for their calamitous upending. The villain they face is as godlike as they come: the alien Thanos, a massive brute in search of celestial power that he can use to wipe out half the universe. Infinity War promises to be a loud, clanging finale of a movie—and, because Marvel titles keep printing money at the box office, also a fresh start, a radical rebooting of much of the films’ staid world order.
Maybe the best indicator of Marvel’s rapid changes over the past 10 years has come with the Thor films. The first, directed by Kenneth Branagh in 2011, is right out of Marvel Comics’ “Silver Age” (a period broadly defined as the 1960s). Thor is a straightforward origin tale in which the titular Norse god (Chris Hemsworth) learns the power of responsibility from his noble father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), while also fighting off his crafty brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston). But by the third film, 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok, Odin’s authority seems built on quicksand. He admits to his son that he was once a brutal invader, and that he betrayed and banished his warmongering daughter, Hela (Cate Blanchett), after having a change of heart that she disagreed with.
One of the crucial scenes in Ragnarok sees the goodly painted ceilings of Odin’s Asgardian palace torn down to reveal murals of bloodthirsty conquest behind them. It’s a vague, fuzzy bit of commentary on colonialism, but beyond that it’s a message that Thor’s background doesn’t guarantee his heroism. Ragnarok sees the destruction of Asgard, and ends with Thor finding a new angle on his powers that comes from within, rather than through his bloodline. In Infinity War, he’s a battle-scarred, one-eyed warrior with no magic hammer to wield.
The saga of Captain America has been even more pointed, reflecting in some way the changes that comic-book character went through in the 1970s as the Watergate scandal undercut public trust in America’s institutions. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is, after all, a kind of living symbol of U.S. moral superiority, a wartime icon dressed in stars and stripes who battles the evil Red Skull in 2011’s The First Avenger. But in The Winter Soldier, the 2014 follow-up, Rogers is disenchanted with the surveillance-reliant government he returns to, which he finds has been infiltrated at all levels by the evil HYDRA. In his third film, Civil War (2016), Rogers outright rejects the idea of institutional oversight and becomes a renegade.