What 18 interconnected movies can teach us
I still remember being in the theatre with my friends when Samuel L. Jackson came on screen as the character, Nick Fury.
There were only a handful of us there after the credits of Iron Man.
There was a guy a few rows down, with both hands on his head, trying to keep it from exploding. I was stuck half between sitting and getting out of my seat, as someone in the crowd muttered a “wha’?” In disbelief.
We were all shocked.
There was more to come! And it was all connected!!!!
The Marvel franchise, or Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has pulled off an amazing feat of connecting (up to now)18 films, worth close to 4 billion dollars!
I’m not sure if that’s ever been done in such a fashion, but it is to be admired, whether you like the genre of superheroes or not.
I want to examine what works and doesn’t and why we, as storytellers, should admire what’s been accomplished.
First, we need to appreciate the vast amount of original content that the films have to choose from. Chris Hemsworth has appeared in 3 Thor movies, a couple of Avengers films and few other small cameos here and there as the titular character, Thor.
That’s like, 10 to 11 hours of film time. Thor’s comics though, have been going strong since 1962 with too many comics to list:
That’s not counting all the other characters in the MCU either, just Thor!
Marvel Comics has an endless amount of books and history, dating back to the early 60’s and beyond, to use for their films.
There’s a lot of good and bad to choose from when making their movies, so let’s go over that first.
Starting with the first official MCU film, Iron Man, they went simple, using an updated origin story and did the same with Thor and Captain America. From there, as each of these characters had sequels, they would introduce secondary and tertiary characters.
As for stories, they tended to gravitate to more recent, fan favorites rather than older, classics. For instance, they used sequels based on comic storylines Planet Hulk, Civil War, Winter Soldier and Extremis, which all date back around 2004-2006. The less revered Iron Man 2 and Thor The Dark World (at least to me anyway!), didn’t do as well as movies that were based on the more famous / recent storylines.
There is a lot of goofy stuff they kept out of the movies, trust me…
So it looks like staying with popular comics storylines is the way to go for the MCU. Take note if you have to do a similar compilation in your own stories. Remember who your audience is and give them what they want.
Marvel does a really good job of what to adapt and what to drop for their movies. They understand what characters work and make the central figures of their films stronger.
Sometimes, the MCU changes and adapts to make things fit their films. One of my favorite changes, was the character of Phil Coulson in the movies taking the place of Rick Jones from the comics. In the comics, Rick is a friend of the Hulk and the reason the original Avengers came together.
The same can be said of Agent Phil Coulson, who is a sort of cinematic glue through most of the first few films. He acts as a caretaker, liaison and confidant for most of the main cast and a great source of exposition for us, the viewers.
Another point that the MCU utilizes from the comics, are the after credit scenes, which tend to bridge the movies into one coherent story and sometimes serve as a cliffhanger.
The end of credit scenes are where I think a lot of the MCU success comes from.
It’s been imitated by the DC movies, but not to the success that Marvel has had. That’s because the movies have to be good in order to really care and Marvel is doing that.
I think my biggest criticism of the DC franchise is that they went too big too fast, taking action above character development.
Okay, I’ll stop you before you say it, I’m not here to bash on the DC movies, but it’s just plain and simple that the MCU is way more successful.
Another reason the MCU is so popular is the production of the films.
They’ve kept things fairly straightforward and simple with a lot of their production choices. From pre production to camera work, to music, it all has a bland similarity to it.
Some would argue that this is one of the bigger faults of the MCU, that the production tends to bring in amazing directors, only to marganilaze their visions (like Edgar Wright). But I feel it only adds to the cohesiveness of the franchise, when Captain America,Thor and any of the dozen other characters share screen time.
I wouldn’t underestimate something like cohesiveness. It’s another way of saying something is familiar and by that nature, not confusing. With each film, audiences don’t need to relearn the ins and outs of a specific director.
Think about how much praise Joss Whedon got for the original Avengers film, the most vanilla, unproven choice in director they could have made!
But, it works. Because you know what to expect.
Using a heavy dose of familiarity (their more current and popular comics stories), safety ( seemingly bland production choices) and anticipation (cliffhangers with promise of future stories) seems to have paid off for the Marvel movies as they come close to their grand opus, Avengers Infinity War.
So, how can these Marvel films do better? Here is how we can all learn to be better visual storytellers by digging deep with analysis.
Let’s start with something I won’t disagree with that others have mentioned- Lacking Antagonists with a purpose.
If you didn’t catch my Black Panther review, I mention that Killmonger is one of the better Marvel Villains. That’s because, unlike most other bad guys, he’s not chasing power for powers sake, like Red skull, Malekith, Obadiah Stane, Ronan the accuser, or even Klaue from Black Panther. They’re almost as bad as the one dimensional “evil land developers” from early Spielberg movies!
When the bad guys shine bright, like the instances of Loki and Killmonger, the movie stands out a bit more. (Avengers and Black Panther are both two of the better performing Marvel movies) Some stories have you cheering for the villain and Marvel’s rich history is no different when you look at some of their top tier characters like Doctor Doom, Magneto, Venom and of course, Thanos…
A great movie can really tear us apart inside, even if we know the outcome.
Marvel can be doing so much more with their tortured villain souls but they are playing it safe and winning with a bland formula for character development.
With all the safe choices I listed as a positive, now see them for their down side, the side that takes away any creativity and makes all 18 of these movies the same, over and over again.
While prepping for this post, I came across this interesting YouTube video that talks about some of the bland choices made in regards to music throughout the MCU. It resonates with a lot of the choices the MCU makes, overall, with their filmmaking. Although I don’t entirely agree and there also exists a great response video, you should take a look for yourself and check out the rest of the channel for some great video analysis of film:
With a lot of moving pieces, the future of the MCU is anyone’s guess. Several actors’ contracts are set to expire and Marvel could simply recast and keep riding the wave of success.
My guess is that the popularity will eventually wain after the last highly anticipated Avengers Infinity sequel.
There is only so much sameness we can take from these films and I’m not sure there is a lot of recent (like I mentioned about 2004-2006) comic storylines the MCU can still mine for success. Anything later than that period is probably still too fresh, while anything previous to that, is too old.
This may be the the case unless of course something crazy happens, like Marvel getting the film rights back to the X-Men and Fantastic Four…
Story never ends!
PS: love them or hate them, share with us what you think Marvel is doing right (or wrong!).