Marvel Studios’ Netflix venture kicked off two weeks ago with the release of an episodic Daredevil series on the streaming service. Having watched every episode, I can happily report the show is excellent, continuing the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” trend of staying faithful to the source material while making its aging characters relevant for the 21st century.
But as I was watching Daredevil, listening to characters casually reference events from previous Marvel Studios’ projects like The Avengers, a thought popped into my head: is this too much? I began to wonder if all the inter-movie references and canonical spin-off series like Daredevil were creating a convoluted mess, an impenetrable wall of lore and backstory that make it impossible for the casual movie-goer or TV-watcher to fully understand what’s going on in any of these movies or shows. But before I talk about that, I should probably explain what I mean by “Marvel Cinematic Universe.”
Back in 2008, Ironman was released in theaters. It was a good film, but the quality of the movie was somewhat over shadowed by a post-credit scene where a shadowy figure named Nick Fury confronted the titular hero and informed him that Fury’s organization, SHEILD, was putting together a superhero team called the Avengers.
Following the release of Ironman, Marvel Studios made good on this teaser, releasing films for its characters Thor, Captain America, and the Incredible Hulk. Each of these superheroes got their own film with its own self-contained narrative, but each film made clear it was taking place in the same interconnected universe. In Captain America: The First Avenger, for example, the eponymous hero went up against a super villain who wielded a mystical artifact called the Tesseract, which was first introduced at the end of the film Thor. And the film Thor’s titular hero wielded the magical hammer Mjolnir, which was first shown embedded in rock at the end of Ironman 2.
This consistency of detail between movies culminated in the 2012 film The Avengers when Thor, Captain America and Ironman—all played by the same actors and all possessing the character development accrued in their stand-alone films—teamed up to thwart an alien invasion. This carefully cultivated continuity laid the foundation for what is now called the “Marvel Cinematic Universe.”
I say “foundation” because since 2012, the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” has grown exponentially. Following the release of The Avengers, both Thor and Captain America received sequels to their standalone films, and Ironman received a third stand-alone film. The post-Avengers sequels all revolved around these characters sorting through the aftermath of their alien-repelling team up. While all the Marvel films leading up to The Avengers featured subtle inter-connecting details, these sequels were entirely predicated on the inter-connectedness of their mythos.
I really enjoyed Captain America: Winter Soldier and the other post-Avengers sequels, but I also watched, re-watched and internalized all the preceding films. I had no trouble understanding what was going on. But I wonder about the people watching these movies who may not have watched the previous films–or watched them but not committed all the points of shared continuity to memory. It has to feel confusing, like they’ve walked into the theatre late and missed the first half of the movie: “Wait, what’s an infinity stone? Who are the Chitauri? And what the hell is the ‘battle of New York’?”
Compounding this confusion, Marvel has also released two spin-off TV series—Agents of Shield and Agent Carter. And the recently released Daredevil series is to be followed by three more Netflix series based on the superheroes Luke Cage, Iron Fist and Jessica Jones. All of these spin-offs are built on and build upon this “cinematic universe.” And Marvel has already announced plans for feature films based on the heroes Doctor Strange, Black Panther, and Captain Marvel, as well as more sequels to its heavy hitters like Thor and Captain America. When does the madness end!? How long can this last until these movies are as impenetrable as the comic books they take inspiration from?
I know all this nay-saying must sound absurd when these movies are immensely popular and bring in untold profits, but I’m not talking about these films’ present; I’m talking about their future. There has to be a breaking point, a point where the inter-dependent mythology of these movies becomes too much for the normal media consumer to take. I love the character of Captain America, but I don’t read Captain America comics. Why? Because the character is more than 70 years old. There is nearly seventy years of history I’d have to brush up on to understand what’s going on in those comics, or the comics of his compatriots Thor and Ironman.
The appeal of the Marvel movies is that they have taken their characters’ massive histories and revised and condensed them into something palatable. But at the pace the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” is expanding, I’m afraid all that revising and condensing will be rendered irrelevant—out with the convoluted comic continuity, in with the convoluted cinematic continuity.
Now, I’m actually being a bit hyperbolic. I don’t think the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” will ever be as convoluted or over-saturated as the serialized comics that gave birth to it. But I am afraid it is expanding at an unsustainable rate. Friday, millions of people will flock to movie theatres to see Avengers 2: Age of Ultron. It will probably make an ungodly amount of money and break blockbuster records. But what about three years from now when Avengers: Infinity War Part 1 comes out? Will people still be flocking to those theaters in such massive numbers when, in the intervening time, Doctor Strange, Black Panther, Captain America: Civil War, Thor: Ragnorok, Captain Marvel and Guardians of the Galaxy 2 will all have released and made their contributions to an increasingly complex cinematic continuity.
The question for Marvel is, how many people will look at the increasing number of jigsaw pieces that is the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” and decide not to bother?
Sources: Imdb.com, Marvel.com