Why the Marvel Cinematic Universe Works

Part of what made Marvel Comics rise to the top in the Silver Age was that it embraced the shared universe principle that theoretically existed in DC Comics, but had not really been utilized effectively. Spider-Man tried out for the Fantastic Four, the Hulk fought The Thing, and so on. It created what has often been referred to as a kind of "soap opera for young boys" -- decades long, character-rich stories with tons of baggage that people can hop on and off at will, but which are driven largely by a core audience of obsessives who are along for the whole ride. That, in a lot of ways, is the Marvel Cinematic Universe after a decade of movies. That "ride" is why Endgame promises to be so emotionally effective, so visceral and exciting, even though we know virtually nothing about the movie at this point.

Prior to Iron Man in 2008, the shared universe concept had never really been a factor in comic book movies. Yes, there might be a little wink-and-a-nod reference to a popular character in somebody else's movie, but everything operated very independently. It is interesting that the kind of semi-independence that DC is currently embracing, where the characters exist in the same space but rarely interact, is a pretty new idea; before Iron Man, there was basically no shared space or interaction between IPs even in theory, and after Iron Man, everyone started hanging out at parties.

The moment Samuel L. Jackson appeared to talk about the Avengers Initiative for the first time, there was a sea change in comic book movies. More than a second Iron Man movie, fans came out of the theater stoked for what other characters might pop up. Iron Man led to the next franchise which led to the next, which ultimately teamed up in Marvel's The Avengers gave the shared universe of Marvel Comics a live-action corollary. The movies stand on their own (mostly), but reward repeat viewing, close analysis, and audience awareness of the other films. This is a big part of why fan theories have become such a big part of the enjoyment that certain corners of fandom get out of the Marvel movies: they are engaging the audience in a way that movies have never done before.

Let’s go back to the Endgame trailers. In that trailer, the audience sees the world through the eyes of the shell-shocked Avengers, who have lost almost everyone and everything in the wake of Infinity War. It says very little about what the film will actually be about, and provides no "money shot" from a big action scene. It works because of the decade-long relationships the audience have cultivated with these characters. It has emotional impact because of the journey that the audience has been on with Steve Rogers. The pain he is in resonates with the audience, because the audience cares about him. The first trailer, in which Iron Man shared his theoretical last words with Pepper Potts, had a similar impact: basic human empathy would have made his speech compelling if it were any half-decent movie, but the connection the audience has with Tony over the last decade-plus is what makes it truly heartbreaking.

The MCU has, over the last 11 years, built up a level of emotional investment on the part of its audience that is almost impossible to achieve in the course of a single film. That investment is symbiotic with the shared universe: that connection feeds the shared universe, making everything feel more connected, while at the same time only being truly possible because of the shared universe.

Working with the assumption that the audience has seen, or at least knows the broad strokes of, 20 other movies allowed Infinity War to spend its screen time developing Thanos into an engaging villain and telling a complex and emotionally involved story without having to constantly stop and explain who people are, how their powers work, and so on. This allowed the filmmakers to make a movie that both critics and even Marvel insiders continually said functioned primarily as a “Thanos movie,” telling the story maybe not from the perspective of the villain per se, but certainly biasing toward him in a lot of ways from a filmmaking standpoint because he probably has more screen time than almost any other single character.


The “Thanos movie” thing is particularly handy since one of the very few persistent critiques of the MCU is that, for about the first fifteen movies, they did not really have much in the way of compelling villains. Outside of Loki, most of the villains had the feel of a “set-’em-up-and-knock-’em-down,” villain of the week baddie from one of the CW shows or Agents of SHIELD. They may have served the particular movie they were featured in but in a lot of ways they were not compelling enough to feel as compelling and operatic as the heroes. Aware of this criticism, Marvel not only managed to up their villain game in the final stages of the Infinity Saga, but actually created a villain interesting and complex enough that a vocal minority of fans sympathize with his goals, if not his methods.

You also have a lot of things that are rare among feature films and more often found in comics and TV, including fans who either obsess on, or ship, minor and supporting characters. Non-canon, intra-franchise ships (like someone who wants Steve and Bucky together, or somebody who wants to see Quill hook up with Nebula instead of Gamora) are common to more or less every fandom -- but the cross-pollination of characters in the MCU means that there are dozens of inter-franchise relationship dynamics that fans love to watch.

Some of these accomplishments could have been possible in another franchise with more traditional sequels, like the Fast & Furious films or James Bond. It would be difficult, though, and it would be especially challenging for a franchise like that to develop such a broad base of characters to work with, all of whom feel important and empowered within the narrative.

Recently, essayist and filmmaker Patrick H. Willems spoke to this phenomenon in a video which is nominally about the limitations of the MCU. The video talked about the soap operatic elements of serialized storytelling less in terms of pure filmmaking and more in terms of the emotional impact it has on the viewer. This is particularly visible in the closing moments of Avengers: Infinity War.

For a quick case in point, let’s look at the “death” of Peter Parker/Spider-Man. Spider-Man has the very first MCU movie coming out following Endgame, and every fan with their finger on the pulse of the MCU knows that. Even some casual fans could have seen set photos popping up on Twitter, since it has been in production for ages. More recently, Spider-Man: Far From Home has started a promotional campaign of its own, independent of Endgame, which will drive home the point with even more casual viewers. Armed with the absolute certainty that he will be coming back, how is it that Spider-Man's "death" is the most heart-wrenching moment of all? Well, a lot of it boils down to the performance by Tom Holland, but beyond that, fans have had two films in the previous year or so -- Spider-Man: Homecoming and Avengers: Infinity War -- that leaned heavily into the father/son relationship between Peter and Tony Stark. Pairing the two in Peter's "final" moments, and playing it like they did, was a note-perfect manipulation of an audience who were already on board for that relationship.

The Infinity War deaths work, to varying degrees, on everybody. There is certainly a significant chunk of the moviegoing audience who aren't "keyed in" to geek culture and do not necessarily know what Marvel movies are and are not getting a sequel in the next few years. For those people, seeing is likely believing. If you went to see the movie in theaters, you probably heard some of those people gasping behind you during the Decimation or talking amongst themselves afterwards about how it was a "rip-off" that they killed Black Panther after just one movie.

For that hardcore audience who has followed the MCU from the beginning (and who in most cases likely read at least some comics growing up), the impact was a little different. That segment of the audience knows who has a sequel coming up. They know that these deaths are, for the most part, almost certainly temporary.

Joe and Anthony Russo managed to work around that liability by playing to the emotional connection fans had to the characters. Steve and Bucky share few meaningful scenes in Infinity War, but placing the two in close proximity to one another when Bucky vanished gave fans a heartbreaking moment between the pair that resonated not because of what had happened in that film, but because of the long history between them developed across prior movies.

Stepping away from the stuff that is likely to be undone in Endgame, fans saw Thor dealing with the ramifications of Thor: Ragnarok in Infinity War. While he had little time to process the parade of losses he suffered in Ragnarok during that film itself, what passed for a happy ending for him was shattered in the opening moments of Infinity War. When Thor talks about everything he has lost in very general terms, the audience does not glaze over and say “that’s a lot to take in.” The audience already has the necessary information to listen and understand how this all impacts Thor, because the audience has seen Ragnarok and the other handful of movies in which Chris Hemsworth played Thor.

Is that idea -- the assumption that you have seen all the others, and the filmmakers can go forth unfettered -- a liability? To a small extent, yes. But there is ample evidence that the audience for the Marvel movies does not need to be walked through everything. Don’t believe it? Let’s ask Iron Man. The movie that kicked off the Marvel Cinematic Universe earned $585 million globally, with $318 million of that being domestic. Shortly thereafter we got Iron Man 2, which made about $35 million more globally (and slightly less than $315 domestic). It was a wildly popular and successful film franchise, but it was no Dark Knight -- and there is no “adjusted for inflation” argument to look to, because the Iron Man films were happening at the same time as Christopher Nolan’s Batman. Then, Avengers happened. After Iron Man 2, the MCU had Thor ($181 million domestic/$449 million global), Captain America: The First Avenger ($170 million/$370 million). Then came Avengers, which broke the record for opening weekend ticket sales and ultimately topped $1 billion at the global box office, earning almost as much at the domestic box office than Thor, The First Avenger, and Iron Man 2 combined. After that, there was a lot of talk about how Iron Man 3 might feel like a letdown. After all, without a half-dozen superheroes and an unprecedented marketing campaign, how could it be anything else? But Iron Man 3 went on to earn more than $1 billion at the global box office and over $400 million domestically, in spite of being the third installment of a franchise where #2 got some pretty harsh reviews.


Basically every movie that came after Avengers had the same experience: they earned shockingly high box office totals, and Marvel’s five-year run as box office hitmakers has become an eleven-year run as one of the most successful production studios in Hollywood. These things happened as the MCU became increasingly more connected and convoluted; as characters like Black Panther only got half an origin story in their own movie because they were introduced in other characters’ films. It happened in an environment where Groot and Rocket Raccoon could outdraw a movie that featured Batman and Superman in the North American box office. The results of 11 years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe are clear: creatively and commercially, every dollar lost to a casual fan who doesn’t understand what’s happening is replaced by $3 from fans eager to continue a long and exhilarating ride.


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