If you've ever been curious about what movies inspired Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, look no further. Yes, they often adapt popular story arcs from the comic books, but that isn't all. Part of what has made them successful and contributed to their consistent quality level is that they often model themselves on classic films. In some cases, that influence is quite substantial; other times, it's just key details and aesthetics here and there.
This has proven to be a winning approach. By looking to the classics, the MCU installments are drawing from success. They're borrowing elements that have already been proven to work and adapting those same elements into the established Marvel formula. This makes each movie different in tone and feel, despite the fact that all of them are interconnected.
The filmmakers have been very open in acknowledging their inspirations, which makes for some excellent viewing recommendations. If you've got a few favorite MCU adventures, you might also want to make sure you've seen the often surprising movies that directly influenced them.
One of the things critics frequently celebrated about Captain America: The Winter Soldier was its plot. Yes, there was action, but there was an equal amount of suspense generated from the story, which found Cap unraveling a shocking conspiracy. To capture a vibe audiences would be familiar with but would not expect in an MCU picture, writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely looked to three conspiracy thrillers from the 1970s - Marathon Man, The Parallax View, and Three Days of the Condor - for ideas on how to structure the plot.
Marathon Man stars Dustin Hoffman as a history student who uncovers a conspiracy regarding stolen gems and a Nazi war criminal hiding in the United States. It is most famous for a scene in which the bad guy performs some painful (and unwanted) dental work on Hoffman's character. The Parallax View features Warren Beatty as a reporter who discovers that a multinational corporation is responsible for the assassination of a political candidate. Three Days of the Condor, meanwhile, casts Robert Redford as a codebreaker with the CIA. He believes the agency's bigwigs are behind the demise of his coworkers.
All three movies generate a sense of paranoia for both the characters and the audience. Knowing who can be trusted and who can't is part of the atmosphere. To underline The Winter Soldier's intention to replicate the paranoid feel of these '70s classics, Redford himself was hired to play Alexander Pierce, the Hydra leader who works as a double agent within S.H.I.E.L.D.
Avengers: Infinity War had the complex task of bringing together every significant character from the entire MCU up to that point. It could have been a great big mess, and directors Joe and Anthony Russo recognized that. To figure out how to navigate the story and give everyone quality time without watering anything down, they turned to a pair of '90s crime thrillers - Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight and John Herzfeld's 2 Days in the Valley - for guidance. Both pictures utilize large ensemble casts and juggle multiple connecting storylines.
According to Joe Russo, "We always look to movies for an inspiration for the energy that we’re looking for, or a narrative construct that we want to be inspired by." Anthony added, "It helps when you are dealing with all these different types of characters and all these different tones that have been established in the various films and story lines, it becomes our organizing principle for tone. In terms of what the world is that we’re creating, what rules are we playing by, how does that filter and every character, no matter where they’re coming from has to intersect with the sort of reality of that tone."
The approach clearly worked, as Infinity War manages to give each hero their due, while still managing to mesh their individual arcs into the cliffhanger at the end.
There was no doubt that The Avengers was going to be a big deal. It was the payoff to an extensive build-up, one that would bring all the MCU heroes up to that point together for a big adventure. Writer/director Joss Whedon must have felt a lot of pressure. To figure out how to structure the story, he drew upon one of the greatest war movies of all time, The Dirty Dozen.
Robert Aldrich's 1967 film stars Lee Marvin as Major Reisman. He's tasked with training a ragtag group of lowlifes how to sneak across enemy lines and eliminate prominent Germans right before D-Day. The men have to learn to put aside their differences so they can work together on a common goal. In the end, they unite to complete the mission.
The Avengers replicates that general template, with the heroes - Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Black Widow, and Hawkeye - assembling, feuding over the best way to foil the villainous Loki, and ultimately putting their differences aside to defend New York City. Nick Fury, of course, is the Reisman of the picture.
As the first official MCU movie, Iron Man had to set the template for everything that would come after. So what was director Jon Favreau's plan to deliver an exciting adventure that still remained true to the character development of the comics? He envisioned "a Robert Altman-directed Superman."
Altman was the auteur responsible for decades of provocative, ambitious films, including the masterpieces Nashville, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and The Player. His works were notable for several recurring elements. One was a sly sense of behavior-based humor, which Iron Man certainly has in its interactions between Tony Stark and Pepper Potts, and between Tony and Rhodey Rhoades. He also worked against genre conventions, with many of his films featuring "heroes" who were deeply flawed. That certainly applies to the egotistical Tony Stark, who isn't the all-purpose do-gooder many superheroes are so often expected to be.
Ensemble casts with characters weaving in and out of each other's orbits were another hallmark of Altman's work. Robert Downey Jr. may be Iron Man's nominal star, yet the people, good and bad, in Stark's life are an essential part of the tapestry Favreau and his screenwriters create. It was RDJ and Favreau's risky, aggressively improvisational approach to building those very first MCU characters - once again, taking their cues from Altman - that made Iron Man stand out as much as it did.