Keith: The underlying concept of the Marvel Cinematic Universe—the interconnected film series kicked off by 2008’s Iron Man, and now comprising eight feature entries, several shorts, and one TV show, with more on the way—isn’t unprecedented in film history, but it’s never been attempted on the scale on which Marvel is operating. The idea that characters in one film might share a universe with the characters of another, seemingly unrelated, film has been done before, most often by horror franchises. It’s a practice that first allowed Frankenstein to meet The Wolf Man (in 1943’s Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man, and in subsequent films that brought in even more monsters owned by Universal), Godzilla to meet Mothra, Aliens to meet Predators, Freddy to meet Jason, Dollman to meet Demonic Toys, and so on. Usually these meetings don’t happen until the starring characters start to run out of momentum and need a little extra incentive to bring in viewers.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is different. It’s a planned project assembled one brick at a time. Iron Man led to The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, then finally to The Avengers, which brought all the characters together in a big team-up. We’re now deep into the second phase, which will culminate in The Avengers: Age Of Ultron, then move on to an already-announced Phase Three.
It’s been, in almost every respect, successful. The films have been generally well-received by critics, and almost universally well-received by audiences. (The one exception, The Incredible Hulk, now seems like a false start, but also has its defenders.) What’s more, having built a recognizable brand, Marvel can now take some chances. The movies made Iron Man—a veteran character who never became as famous as Spider-Man or The X-Men—a household name, but even he had greater name recognition than the Guardians Of The Galaxy or Ant-Man, the stars of some upcoming Marvel films. The gamble, and it seems like a pretty safe one, is that viewers will show up to see those projects just because they’re Marvel movies.
With success comes imitation. Which is why we’ll soon be seeing Batman taking on Superman. And it’s also why we’ll be seeing not just another Star Wars trilogy, but reportedly another Star Wars trilogy and spin-off films. And it’s why Universal, where all this started way back when, now wants to design a shared universe for new versions of its monster characters. Will it work for others? Over at Badass Digest, Devin Faraci sounds a note of caution, singling out the Batman/Superman movie as an ill-considered project:
Of course every other studio sees what Marvel is doing and misunderstands it. Yes, the crossover and interwoven narrative of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is incredibly exciting and interesting and unique, but it’s the characters that make it work. There’s a cameo in Thor: The Dark World that works not because of continuity or the long arc leading to The Avengers 3 but because we like these characters; it’s fun to see them pop up again. Warner Bros. is creating Batman vs Superman, a movie that has a new Batman going up against a very undefined new Superman that uses crossovermania as its launching point. They don’t seem to understand that the best scene in The Avengers isn’t an action bit or a mythology moment—it’s the end gag of the characters eating shawarma together.
In other words, it takes time and effort to build a shared universe, not just a lot of movies. So let me throw this over to others with a few questions: Do you think the Marvel Cinematic Universe helps make the individual films more interesting? Do you think the MCU is a unique project, one particularly hospitable to those characters, or a model others can imitate? Finally, do we really want to see more shared cinematic universes?
Noel: I actually do think it’s unique, in the way it’s being carried out and in the inevitable complications. Simply put: It’s not that hard to arrange for Godzilla and Mothra to appear in the same film, or Wolfman and The Mummy. Getting Robert Downey, Jr. to make a cameo appearance in a Thor or Captain America movie takes some doing, and some money. That’s one of the reasons the process of building this Marvel Cinematic Universe has been so lumbering. In theory, it wouldn’t seem that tough to throw two licensed characters together in a movie made by the licensee (in cooperation with the licenser, no less). But there are actors’ egos to consider, as well as the needs of a wider audience that may never have heard of Hawkeye. Part of the MCU strategy has been to make sure people know the characters before putting them together.
Has it all been worth it? I have mixed feelings about it. I’ll confess that I’m more interested in watching MCU films featuring characters I don’t care much about because they might eventually feed into films featuring characters I love. Then again, one of the reasons I’ve lost interest in reading superhero comics over the years is because I can’t abide all the diffusion. I want one story I can follow from start to finish—or at least from start to the beginning of the next interrelated story—rather than a story scattered across a dozen different monthly titles. The MCU hasn’t gotten that bad, but if I’m required to watch a Hulk movie in order to know what’s happening in an Ant-Man movie, I’ll be kinda pissed.
Matt: If you’d told me at age 15, at the height of my comic-book nerdery, that when I was 30, there would not only be good Marvel movies, but good Marvel movies that interconnected to form an entire Marvel Cinematic Universe similar to the one that exists on the page, I would have prayed for Doctor Doom to show up with his time platform to whisk me into the future. Given the shabby state of comic-book movies when I was a kid, outside of the Burton Batman films, the fact that these films exist at all, and that they’re as consistently satisfying as they are, is a minor miracle.
The arc of Phase One of the MCU shows all the best and worst parts of the cinematic universe model. When each film flows into the next and builds to a climax like The Avengers, it is hugely satisfying. But the longer the MCU continues, the more I’m struck by the sameness of all the movies; they have different characters and settings, but mostly look and sound identical. That’s very much by design to make the MCU feel coherent. But Marvel’s comics do a better job of striking a balance between maintaining a coherent universe and giving characters’ individual series their own particular flavors and aesthetics. Marvel’s movies to date have captured a lot of its characters’ charm, but not necessarily its comics’ charm; the idiosyncratic dialogue of Brian Michael Bendis, the big ideas of Jonathan Hickman, the intense action of John Romita Jr., the unique page designs of Paolo Rivera.
When any of those creators has worked on a comic, you can tell instantly by the style of the illustrations or the flow of the narration. The Avengers movie felt distinctly like a Joss Whedon joint, but otherwise, if you took the credits off a Marvel movie, would you know who wrote or directed it? Would you have guessed Kenneth Branagh made Thor, or Joe Johnston helmed Captain America? Probably not. Shane Black’s work on Iron Man 3 might be the exception that proves the rule; he brought an idiosyncratic perspective to the film’s early scenes, but even he seemed to get lost in the film’s CGI-pileup climax.
At times, the MCU movies look less like an interconnected universe of stories than a single story told (and sold) under a bunch of different names. And that, ultimately, is the thing I worry about most about the wider proliferation of these kinds of shared universes; in a world where Hollywood movies continue to get bigger and take fewer risks, shared universes run the risk of ironing out even more of films’ individuality and personality, producing stuff that looks less like art and more like products.
Keith: That’s part of why the Thor movies stand out a bit to my eyes, particularly the scenes set in Asgard, which have a high-fantasy look that sets them apart. (Sidebar for comics fans: Marvel’s films tend to drift toward a uniform, house-style look, while their comics have recently been host to a variety of different comics artists. DC’s films tend to bring in distinctive visualists, while their comics have started to look more and more alike. Discuss.) But tonally, yes, it’s very much of a piece with other Marvel movies. I know Whedon did some last-minute work on the script, and Bendis is a creative consultant for the whole enterprise, and on the whole, I think the MCU offers a nice balance of the larger-than-life heroics of blockbuster filmmaking, and the snappy, bantery style of those two writers. It works here, sometimes brilliantly.
The question I’d like to get back to is, could it work anywhere else? Like Faraci, I’m a little skeptical of attempts to force this sort of thing on film series that won’t host it as well. Imagine if The Phantom Menace had come out and been immediately followed by a Jar-Jar Binks movie, because part of the master plan was to spin him off into his own series. We could be looking at the equivalent of that project sandwiched between the upcoming Star Wars movies. Or imagine if the last Nolan Batman film, or Man Of Steel had shoved-in cameos from Ryan Reynolds’ Green Lantern, for the sake of franchise synergy. I guess those are worst-case scenarios. So am I being overly pessimistic?
Noel: I don’t think you are, but only because the problem you’re identifying here is one of quality control more than some flaw in the grand design. Ryan Reynolds is a shitty Green Lantern. Jar-Jar Binks is a shitty… Jar-Jar Binks. On the other hand, one of the problems with the DCU movies, dating back to the 1990s, is that they try to cram too much in: too many villains, too many extra heroes, too many not-always-well-connected storylines. Forget synergy; if Warner Bros. decided to spin off Commissioner Gordon or Lois Lane into movies of their own, with smaller-scale stories and a completely different tone and style, I’d be very interested in seeing them. I’m cautiously optimistic about the plan to make smaller Star Wars films between the bigger ones (presuming that’s still on the docket… the news seems to change every day with that franchise). I’d love to see little, character-and-plot-driven science-fiction movies in the Star Wars universe, rather than having every movie be an exhausting epic.
But like you Keith, I’m skeptical, because nobody has yet shown that kind of fleetness in these “universe” movies. The Wolverine movies aren’t that different from the X-Men movies. None of the Avengers satellite films has been modest. So I have no faith that I’ll ever see a Flash or Elongated Man movie as cool and low-key as the Silver Age comics.
Matt: A Flash film with speed portrayed in the style of The Matrix’s bullet time would be the coolest thing ever. And I’m on board for an Elongated Man movie too, although a Plastic Man in the style of Jack Cole would be even better. (Apparently my 15-year-old self did travel through time, and he just hijacked this piece. Sorry, guys.)
To get back to Keith’s (and Devin’s) question, though, I’m not sure why the cinematic-universe model couldn’t hypothetically work elsewhere. I was recently listening to an episode of The /Filmcast where the hosts were discussing the rumors about Joe Cornish directing Star Trek 3, and then speculating about the possibility that this film could introduce minor characters who could then be spun off into a new Star Trek television series. I’m not necessarily looking forward to a future where movies are thought of more as backdoor TV pilots than experiences unto themselves, but given Trek’s television origins, that seems like a viable idea to me. Certainly it seems no less viable than Marvel’s troubled Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. show, which is quite literally a byproduct of the MCU (or MCTVU?), and which lost me, comic-book nerd supreme, after two episodes. Hopefully the just-announced Marvel series for Netflix, featuring street-level heroes like Daredevil and Luke Cage, will give its stars a bit more to do—and a bit more personality.
I think the key is remembering never to put the continuity cart before the hero horse. The prime example I always think of is Iron Man 2, where the film’s main storyline about Iron Man and Whiplash took a 15-minute time-out for a Samuel L. Jackson infodump about the Avengers Initiative. When a movie just starts to feel like a coming attraction for another movie, you’re in big trouble.
That might be an under-considered reason why The Avengers is so damn entertaining: it doesn’t set anything up. People who left the theater as soon as the credits began to roll missed a brief cameo from future MCU bad guy Thanos, but didn’t necessarily feel like they’d missed anything, because the movie was a completely satisfying experience unto itself. Marvel, and whoever else adopts its model, needs to keep that in mind. To put it another way: Setting the table is always less fun than eating the meal, even if you’ve come up with a really cool new way to fold the napkins.