Wednesday, April 25, 2018

“There Was an Idea”: How Marvel’s Shared-Universe Gamble Paid Off

It’s not Thanos who’ll claim world domination with Avengers: Infinity War. It's Marvel itself.  ♦ 
The most alluring thing about comic books is that they have no end. Sure, storylines come to a close, finer aspects of a character change from year to year, writer to writer, but the comic book industry has been around for over seventy five years, and likely will for just as long, if not longer. Pick up a comic today, and the key components of the heroes are still the same. Captain America, some recent controversies aside, will always be Steve Rogers, America’s super soldier, frozen in the ice during World War II and brought back to fight the villains in our time. Tony Stark is always the genius behind the iron suit. Peter Parker, Spider-Man, will always be a kid in Manhattan trying to do his best to take care of his neighborhood. It’s hard to translate this immortality onto the big screen, not the idea that superheroes exist; that’s easy. It’s just another action movie. What’s hard to translate is the idea that superheroes will always exist, that when we go to see a superhero flick, we’re not just seeing another superhero movie, but interacting with something that’s part of a larger narrative, something that’s bigger than us, that’s going to last longer than we are.

This immortality is in part established by Marvel’s crafting a sort of mythology within their comics, a tradition of a shared universe where characters interact with and impact one another. This tradition of a shared universe began in the comics in the '60s when Spider-Man teamed up with the Fantastic Four. Although similar team-ups had occurred in DC’s stories previously (the Justice Society of America formed in the 1940s, and Superman and Batman first met in the early ‘50s) there were limitations on who could share titles, and if characters with their own titles could partake in teams. By contrast, Marvel envisioned a world from the beginning where the heroes could interact without limitations. At the time, this was a revolutionary idea, but now, it’s a trademark of any great comic book universe. But when Marvel first began constructing its shared cinematic universe in 2008, nothing like it had ever been attempted.

For anyone not familiar with the ongoing Marvel movies (their cinematic universe is somewhat of a misnomer, as there’s also several TV shows and a handful of Netflix mini-series playing into the overall narrative), Marvel movies are not intended to be just standalone series focusing on just their big name heroes, like Iron Man, or Thor, or Captain America. Marvel movies, just like Marvel Comics, are part of a larger universe, and that's part of what sets them apart. The films are connected in mini arcs called “phases.” Phase One served to introduce the core cast of characters (Iron Man, Captain America, Thor) in individual films before building up to the release of Marvel’s The Avengers, which brought the heroes together. Avengers, in turn, set the stage for Phase Two, a character-building arc which showed how the events of Phase One impacted that core cast of characters while also introducing even more characters to the cast (like the Guardians of the Galaxy) and expanding the universe beyond a select few big names. This culminated in another Avengers team-up film, Avengers: Age of Ultron, which, again, sowed the seeds for Phase Three, tearing apart the initial cast of characters while also continuing to develop the “Infinity Stones” plotline introduced in the first Avengers film. Phase Three will end, presumably, with these characters, as well as others that Marvel has slowly introduced throughout the years (including, most recently, Doctor Strange and Black Panther), coming together to fight Thanos, the biggest threat they’ve ever faced, in this summer’s Avengers: Infinity War, the nineteenth Marvel film in ten years.

Phase Four will kick off with the next Spider-Man movie, which is set to begin minutes after the end of Infinity War (more on that here). With this launch, Marvel’s immortality continues: another film, another story arc, always getting bigger and better than what was laid out before.

Marvel has created a multi-billion-dollar industry by convincing fans that in order to see one film, you need to see them all, when in reality you could most likely get away with just following a few series or watching the stand-alone films on their own. But the expectation that fans need to see them all, to watch how the universe comes together, is different than what any other studio has done before.

In the late '90s and early 2000s, DC Comics produced a number of movies featuring their characters, including Batman, Green Lantern, and Constantine, but the universes contained in these films never interacted. A Justice League was never formed. Even Marvel, prior to Iron Man in 2008, never saw a shared universe between superhero films released during the same time frame. Passing fans of one hero, like Batman or Spider-Man, could go see the films for that character without feeling obligated to also go to see Green Lantern, or even something like the Marvel-created (but Fox-owned, long story) Fantastic Four.

The “phases” method for the Marvel movies, the shared cinematic universe, has changed the game and changed the way people think about how a movies series can and should function. But the interconnected nature of the films alone isn’t the only factor that’s made them successful.

Marvel’s patience in releasing the films, allowing the audience to become familiar with two or three characters on their own before introducing more, helps fans to stay invested in new films. The pacing of the release dates is also significant. Release dates a few months apart allows fans to process what happened in the most recent film and get prepared for the next film, centered around a new character, while also releasing films quickly enough that fans are willing to stay invested in the overall story arc that ties the characters together.

Although DC has recently tried to copy Marvel’s idea of a shared cinematic universe tying films together, the DC films have fallen flat, among other reasons, because they didn’t take the time to slowly introduce characters, and because the pacing of their release dates has only recently started to catch up to Marvel’s. There were three years between the rebooted Superman film Man of Steel (2013) and Batman v Superman in 2016. The audience wasn’t even given the opportunity to get familiar with this iteration of Superman before Batman and Wonder Woman were also thrown into the mix. In short, the films aren’t readily accessible to audiences who don’t already know the story.

But Marvel has taken the best of the comic book world, characters that last forever and who can be accessed by anyone at any time, and transferred it onto the screen. They give us, as an audience, time to get to know each character as both a person and a hero before weaving that narrative into the larger, enduring narrative. And because of that, Marvel has at last convinced movie audiences that, much like what they read on the page, their films are part of something bigger, and they’re going to last forever.

  • About the Author
    Madeleine Nowak is a sophomore Creative Writing and Biology major at Miami University, where this summer she'll be a Student Undergraduate Orientation Leader, but she was previously employed at a failing pizza parlor where she spent more time trying to write a novel in a Moleskine than serving pizza to non-existent customers. In her free time she enjoys reading comics, watching films with her friends, and attending Shambles Anonymous study group meetings.

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