I really can’t count how often I have seen articles or videos with the title “The Problem with the MCU” or read a critique which bemoaned at length how uniform the MCU movies supposedly are. It’s a notion I disagree on, but I also don’t really see the point in arguing against it. There are so many MCU movies, anyone can take a bunch of them and point to aspects which are similar in them, just like I can take The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy in order to point out the differences. It’s a circular argument which will lead to nowhere.
I also won’t deny that building an overreaching universe comes with some drawbacks, some of which I will address later. But I also think that it comes with a number of advantages which make the project worthwhile – and unique. But let’s first clear up the terminology.
What is the definition of a Cinematic Universe?
Some people would claim that Universals Monster Universe was the first of its kind. I disagree. Despite the name, what Universal actually invented wasn’t the concept of an universe, but the movie crossover. When Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man, there has been no built-up whatsoever to the moment. It is just another in a long string of monster movies which just happens to put together two monsters from different franchises.
Which brings me to the first thing which I feel might be the most important feature in an universe: Continuity. And with continuity I don’t just mean that what happens in one movie doesn’t contradict what happens in another movie, I mean thematic threw line as well as constant character development.
I also think that the story has to follow more than one character. There are a number of franchises out there and some of them even manage to have a proper progression from movie to movie instead of rehashing the same story again and again. But if we stick to basically the same set of characters, it is not a universe, it is one ongoing story.
But sometimes franchises do branch out. What is pretty common, especially on TV, is the Spin-off. To mention a particular long running example: Jag spawned NCIS, which in turn has two additional Spin-Offs. But that doesn’t make it one big universe because other than the occasional cross-over episode, what happens in one show doesn’t influence what happens in the other show at all. They have continuity, but only in their own realm. A Spin-off can be the first step to a universe, but it doesn’t automatically create one.
To summon this up, what a movie universe needs is:
- The possibility of different characters and places being the focus of a story
- Events in one part of the universe influencing what happens elsewhere
And if you put it this way, the list of what can be considered a universe as opposed to a franchise is pretty short. You could argue that Star Trek is one since Deep Space 9 because that was the first time a Star Trek series intertwined with its predecessors on a fairly regular basis. DC’s animated shows and movies work like one, as does the Arrow-verse on CW (mostly). And then there are the Conjuring movies which some claim to be one, but, well, I am not into horror movies at all, so I can’t really judge it. It looks to me like a construct of sequels, prequels and spin-offs, but I might be wrong and there are more connections between the various movies then it seems to be.
Anyway, usually overreaching universes tend to exist in books and not in TV or movies. This is mostly for practical reasons. An author doesn’t have to worry about the availability of actors or budgets or ratings or any of the other factors which force TV and movie writers to keep their stories within specific parameters.
Though even book authors have a preference to stick with specific characters. There are exceptions – for example CJ Cherryh’s Alliance/Union universe is way more focussed on building a world seen from different perspectives than on telling the story of a specific group of characters – but a lot of written universe grow pretty much by accident. And yes, that includes the comic book universes.
I feel that the MCU is unique in structure and scale. It didn’t just come to be, it was planed. It didn’t start on TV but as a movie franchise. And it presents a world which feels bigger more lived in than anything I have seen before. And it is doubly impressive when you consider how it started.
A little bit of history
A lot of people have gotten into the habit of seeing Marvel as the big boy in town, especially since it merged with the oh so powerful Disney company. But we only have to go ten years back to see a very different picture. Then we see a new founded studio struggling to get its first movie off the ground. On the line is nothing less than the TV and movie rights for all Marvel characters the company still owns and the production itself has to fight every step on the way. First it struggles with finding a director ready to bet his reputation on this silly Superhero property with a very limited fanbase, then the shot starts with no finished script, something which could have gone very wrong if Marvel hadn’t bet on a very talented but during that time kind of washed up actor to not fall back into his drug addiction. This is the Hollywood equivalent of doing a tightrope walk over a fire pit during a storm and yet it somehow worked out. Though I am not sure if Marvel studio could have pulled off The Avengers as well as it did without Disney’s backing.
Since we are on topic, we are also in this habit to see Disney as the giant company which towers over everything. This is again a kind of screwed perception (or at least it will be until the Disney/Fox deal is fully implemented). Disney is really good in branding itself, but of the big six, Disney is the only studio which didn’t already belong to the Hollywood giants back in the golden era. If you compare Warner Bros. with Disney, Disney is pretty much the former underdog, the small independent studio which survived in a market place controlled by monopolies and managed to grow to a point that it is able to play with the big boys. Powerful enough that they could afford the purchase of Marvel, betting on the future success of the studio and offering considerable resources to allow the talent behind the MCU to realize its vision.
But what is truly important to remember here is that by the time Marvel studios released Ironman, Warner Bros. had done a number of comic book based movies already, had thrown around the idea for a Justice League movie for years and had already built an overreaching universe with its animated output. But it was Marvel Studios which decided to try its hand in making a group of B-List heroes the big event. They came from behind and are now so far ahead that I nearly feel sorry for Warner Bros. except that I am very aware that the studio had all the resources and the time to be out of the gate first.
But why didn’t they? Well, there are a couple of factors one has to consider.
A little Hollywood history
Honestly, one can’t completely blame studio executives for not believing that an overreaching universe could work in the movies. Because I am pretty sure that only 20 years ago, it wouldn’t have worked. One has to consider the accessibility of media in the past, and the viewing habits of the audience.
When movie theatres became a thing, serials were pretty common. As were shorts. A typical Saturday evening matinee in the 1920s and 1930s looked like this: At least one Serial, a cartoon, the weekly news, and two main movies (which had a length between 30 and 50 minutes back then). And the serials had a very specific purpose: To ensure that the audience would visit the theatre at least once a week. Granted, those serials couldn’t be too intricate, because if a viewer missed out a week or two he had still to be able to follow it. Most of the times the episodes were really formulaic, but ended on some sort of cliffhanger (often literally – that’s where the word originated) so that the audience was curious to see the solution the following week. And a particular popular and successful subject for those serials were Comic book characters. That Flash Gordon is still that well known today is due to his famous serial putting giving him enough exposure that once a while a new movie or TV show tries to revive the property, and characters like Batman and Captain America made their on-screen debut in serials.
The last serial aired in 1956, but at this point the viewing habits had already changed due to the rise of TV. To clarify something: The film industry survived this change just fine. Most movie theatres didn’t. And we are still in a process of consolidation due to more and more media veering away the attention of the audience, so don’t be surprised if there are less and less theatres around. But in the movie industry a new split happened. Serials and news were now reserved for TV, while the Hollywood movies went for the big epics. The importance was (and still is) that the movie offers something the audience wants to see it on a big screen and not on TV.
For some time, due to the audience not going to the theatre regularly anymore, sequels were usually expected to make less than the predecessor. After all, you couldn’t bet on everyone who watched the first part turning up for the second part and, let’s be honest here, few people would watch a sequel to something they haven’t seen. Consequently sequels were usually a quick cash grab: Throw them out there as fast as possible and hope that they retain enough of the original audience to make some safe money from them. But they weren’t seen as viable long-term investment until, well, until the rise of home video in the 1980s.
Due to people being able to buy the movie they liked, being able to watch it whenever they wanted and not whenever it happened to turn up on TV and, above all, share it with their friends, the likelihood of people who didn’t see a successful movie in theatre discovering it through other channels and then turning up for the sequel grew. Suddenly a sequel became a viable investment which could be used to groom an audience – provided the studio caught on. Let’s be honest, most of them didn’t and to this day still throw out hastily penned sequels with no care whatsoever until the audience gets tired of them and stops turning up. But there were more and more attempts to actually put some effort into the sequel in the hope to retain the audience.
And then the internet happened.
I know it is difficult to grasp for those who grew up having access to the world by mouse click, but the speed with which information currently flows is amazing. And it has thoroughly impacted the way we experience media. Until the 1990s TV shows were still pretty much a “it doesn’t matter if you miss an episode or two” affair, but nowadays a lot of TV shows, especially those written for streaming, feature a tightly written narrative. At the same time, movies have become more of a group experience. It is no longer just about being able to say “yes, I have seen this popular movie” at the water cooler or in the school yard, now there are long online discussions about movies. And while by far not everyone participates in those discussions, they can thoroughly influence the success of a movie. Forget Rotten Tomatoes, nothing kills a movie as fast as bad buzz – or, maybe worse, no buzz at all. And only in this world, in which media is easier accessible than ever, something like the MCU could even exist.
I often read comments of people (and yes, I know I am straw-manning a little bit here, but I need to make the point) who claim that TV shows belong on TV and not in the cinema, or that the tendency of the MCU to set up the next movie in each outing is an inherently bad thing because it destroys the movie experience. Well, newsflash, there is no fixed rule for how the movie experience should look like. It used to be black and white movies with a length around 20 minutes and, if you were lucky, an orchestra to fill the silence instead of a street organ. I tend to define a movie as something which has at least the length of an hour and consider everything less a feature or a short-film, but a viewer from the early 1920s would think me crazy for expecting a movie to be longer than an hour in the first place. And yes, serial storytelling not only belongs into the theatres, it was part of them from day one. It was just absent for a very long time.
This is not saying that there isn’t a bad way to set-up the next movie and a good way of doing it. But the process of setting something up for the future is itself a neutral feature of a movie. And if someone moans that he “wants to watch a movie which isn’t about the next one for a change”, my answer is: Then watch something else. Each year there are a number of stand-alone movies which are released. Complaining about the existence of movies which are part of something bigger is like, well, like me complaining about the existence of horror movies. Just because I don’t like most of them doesn’t mean that they don’t have merit or that I have any right to make a fuss about other people enjoying them.
Granted, the current obsession Hollywood has with the notion of overreaching universes is slightly annoying. But not because so many studios consider the option, but because most of them don’t do a particular good job with it. It is just another fad. Just like it was annoying when the Disney Renaissance lead to a string of movies copying the Disney Musical Formula, when Die Hard lead to a string of movies about cops or soldiers being trapped somewhere with a bunch of terrorists, when Independence Day lead to a string of movies about catastrophes and the destruction of landmarks, when Harry Potter lead to a bunch of progressively worse Young Adult book adaptations, and every single other time a successful movie lead to Hollywood chasing the latest trend. They will eventually learn. Maybe they have already, the enthusiasm for Universes seems to have dimmed considerably. Speaking of which….
What does the MCU right?
It is really not for a lack of trying by other studios that the MCU is still the only truly successful cinematic universe out there. A big factor is time. The MCU needed four years to make the move from a string of stand-alone movies which were hinting at something bigger to a proper universe. Those studios which followed the lead either tried to do the same in one or two movies, or they are still in the growing phase of their universe. Granted, they had six years, someone could have caught up at this point. But, as I pointed out already, this isn’t as easy as it looks. After all, you not only have to make a number of movies to reach this stage in the first place, they also have to be at the very least decent movies in order to keep the audience interested. And when was the last time any studio not named Disney managed to release even three movies in a row for the same franchise without at least one of them not being up to par?
On the other hand, most universes fail with their first or second release already. Usually due to a lack of patience. As I mentioned above, laying some ground-work for the next movie in the franchise is in itself not a bad thing. It becomes a problem, though, when the focus is so much on the next instalment that the current one feels incoherent and unfinished. Marvel had a misstep or two in that regard, but in general they learned early on to take it slowly. First the movie at hand, then the tie in, often as an end-credit tease. And, just in case you didn’t notice, a lot of those teasers from Phase 1 got reconned later on because plans changed and Marvel needed some time to find its footing. But it didn’t matter because they were never part of the main movie anyway.
Also, while the movies and the TV shows are connected and set in the same universe, they all work like a mosaic picture. Meaning that you can just watch the various franchises in the MCU isolated from each other if you chose to – but once you do you immediately get the feeling that you have the rest too, just for the additional information. Still there are people out there who stick to one franchise or one TV show and happily ignore everything else. This has the advantage that everything can become a point of entry to the MCU.
But outside of the marketing advantage, why even bother? Why not simply do standalone movies?
What is the actual merit of a cinematic universe?
Well, for one, is a way more accurate depiction of comic books on the big screen than stand alone movies are. At least regarding Marvel and DC, which both feature multipel universes in their respective comics. But it also offers some rare narrative options.
Let’s start with the obvious one: The writers have to spend way less time to set things up. Every stand alone movie has to use a considerable amount of its runtime to explain the world and introduce the characters. Consequently there are always a number of characters the audience doesn’t really get to know at all because they are simply not that important for the story. But in the MCU, this isn’t really that much of an issue. The various movies tend to spend some time in reintroducing the characters, but can keep it to the basics.
Let’s examine The Avengers as example. One of the major conflicts in the movie happens between Steve and Tony, Steve standing for old fashioned heroism, Tony being a product of a more hedonistic society. The audience really doesn’t need to watch any of the other movies to understand this concept. But if it has watched them, it also knows about the friendship between Howard and Steve and the complicated relationship between Howard and Tony. If it has also watched Agent Carter on top of this, it also has a deeper understanding why Howard was the way he was, how much losing Steve hit him and why he ended up praising him so much that Tony started to resent him.
Then there are the interactions between Thor and Loki. Again, just from watching The Avengers, one can easily gather the basics: That Loki is adopted, that he thinks that his family hates him and that he is on a giant power trip due to his insecurities. But if the audience has watched Thor it also knows how deep Loki’s self-hatred runs and how much of what he does is motivated by internalized racism.
This also works in the other direction. No, a scene in a later movie can’t retroactively make a scene in an earlier movie better, but it can add another layer to it. Knowing Odin’s history with Hela makes him punishing Thor that harshly when he turned out to be too ready for war more than just an angry reaction, but a response born out of deep seated fears. A lot details regarding Thanos and Loki haven’t been revealed yet, but they are bound to play a role in the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War.
Granted, some might feel that the scene of Loki stabbing Coulson has lost its weight due to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but I would argue that while the shock effect might be lost knowing that he gets resurrected later on, he also becomes a more fleshed out character in the show. I for my part care more about Coulson getting stabbed now that I know him better than I did back when he was just the corky fanboy agent.
But the MCU allows more than just additional lawyers to the character. It also allows the writers to explore consequences in a way that even a TV show would struggle to do.
Again, let’s stick with the Battle of New York – which in itself is a direct consequence of Odin hiding the Tessaract on earth which was later used by Red Skull and eventually found by S.H.I.E.L.D. – and its aftermath. In Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D we learn that a couple of first responders firefighter died because they contracted an alien virus. In Spider-man: Homecoming we learn that Adrian Toomes collected a bunch of alien tech and sold it on the black market after the government regulations screwed him over. And then there are the Netflix shows which spend a lot of time on the socio economic impact. Neighbourhoods which need to get rebuild. People who are angry because their loved ones died. White collar criminals who enrich themselves during rebuilding. A general feeling of insecurity spreading through the city.
Usually when we see the action piece in a block-buster, we only see the heroic aspect of it. We never get to see the fall-out. But in the MCU, we do. And due to all those perspectives being related to the same event, it allows for a way more layered storytelling on a much bigger scale than a stand alone movie or even a TV show is able to provide.
And then there is Captain America: Civil War. A movie like this can only exist in a wider universe. Unlike most Marvel movies this one does expect from the audience to have done its homework – meaning, having at least watched all Captain America and Avengers movie up to this point, but ideally also the Ironman movies and perhaps Ant-man. Some people would see this as a weakness, but it is also a strength. Otherwise it would be utterly impossible to have a fight involving twelve characters with the audience not only knowing what the two groups are fighting for, but also why every single fighter has picked the side their are on.
But maybe even more important, by knowing the backstory of Steve and Tony and knowing how they have developed in the previous movies, there is a sweet irony in their positions. Steve once started out as someone who believed in America, its ideals and its government. He now still believes in the ideals he used to fight far, but he no longer trusts in politics. Tony used to flip the finger at anyone who would try to tell him what to do, but after having made some particularly fateful decision – one of which lead to the destruction of a whole country – he now craves any kind of structure which might prevent him from repeating his mistakes.
Exactly this backstory is what makes their arguments in Civil War so poignant. They not only understand where the other is coming from, they have been in each others position at one point and therefore recognize the underlying dangers in them. And, it bears repeating, the only reason why Civil War works so well is because it is underpinned with years of storytelling and careful character development.
But what are the downsides?
Well, some people (yes, I am strawmanning again, bear with me) would claim it shackles creativity. I don’t quite agree. I think that it pushes creativity in certain directions due to the need to follow a cohesive body of work. Again, this is neither a downside nor an advantage, it is a neutral feature. No writer works in a vacuum, and sometimes having a starting point can actually encourage creativity and yield interesting ideas. Most writers like to bounce ideas off another. But some of them also really like to keep a certain degree of control over what they create.
So, I wouldn’t say that there are downsides to it, but a number of challenges. And sometimes the seams are quite visible. Take the Thor franchise. The first movie ended with Thor being cut-off from earth. But he was needed in The Avengers, so an excuse was made up why this was possible. And then the second movie has an overly clumsy explanation why Thor didn’t bother to even visit Jane between movies. And then this movie sets up yet another cliff-hanger with Loki having replaced Odin, only for this plot point being solved as fast as possible in the third film because obviously Taiko Waititi was more interested in doing Planet Hulk than delving into the set-up at hand. But at least he didn’t turn another movie into a giant plot-hole the way Shane Black did with Ironman 3.
So yes, the MCU isn’t perfect. And, as a general rule, I think the Marvel should really try to keep one franchise within in the hands of the same people as much as possible. One reason why the Captain America franchise works so well is because it has the same writing team from start to finish. Guardians of the Galaxy takes full advantage of the freedom a property set in space has, but it is also safe in the hands of James Gunn. I also have a good feeling about the future of Ant-man, which seems to become palette cleanser for the MCU, following the big block buster with a smaller scale – no pun intended – adventure.
So, to summon this up: While the MCU comes with certain challenges, it also provides a foundation on which new stories can be build. It allows the creation of a long-lasting narrative like a TV show does, but unlike a TV show it is not bound to work within specific parameters. The writers and directors can change genre at will, can go from a big story to a small story and they can explore the same event from as many perspectives at they want. And that makes the MCU an unique breeding ground for stories which simply can’t be told this way in a stand alone movie. At least until someone else managed to built a similar construct.