What’s shaking, Moviepiloteers?
I realize I’ve allowed a month to go by without posting anything and I kinda sorta apologize for that.
The kinda sorta part comes from the fact that I am still in the midst of finals and I am currently in pain as a result.
That being said, since you guys are long overdue for a new post, I will put my distress aside and entertain you briefly. So, without further ado, I present to you my exploration of Marvel's Shared Universe and its ongoing viability.
Since its inception, Hollywood has been trying to find a sure-fire way to maintain a sustainable cash flow. As such, it has been known to move through phases and genres that oversaturate the market, until the general populace is practically begging them to stop. Some phases include Bible movies, Spy movies, the Blaxploitation era, and the Western. The latter phase is the most fitting of them all for this topic as many consider it to be the precursor to the Superhero genre.
This talk of superheroes brings me to the topic at hand: Marvel and its shared universe. While I'd like to recall the history of Marvel and analyze whether it is possible for Marvel to sustain this style of filmmaking, I can't do that without analyzing its different methods, including its penchant for sub-genre diversification, the way in which they utilize different media platforms (film and television specifically), and the way in which they employ age-old marketing tactics (this includes teaser trailers and post-credit scenes).
But before I get to that, it would be wise to discuss a brief history of Marvel and how they got to where they are now. Let me start off by saying that Marvel needs to thank (like, from the bottom of their heart) franchises like Harry Potter for paving the way and providing a jumping point off for its shared universe to exist. Before shared universes were even thought of as being possible, Harry Potter’s existence convinced Hollywood power players (though it seems they are easily swayed to begin with) that an audience would be okay with sticking to and growing up with certain characters for over eight movies—which ended up being a whopping ten years in terms of its timeline and duration.
Since that time, many have sought to emulate them; some of the most obvious examples include the Twilight and The Hunger Games franchises (both of which ended up re-employing important high-concept hallmarks like playing up the importance of the soundtrack). However, Marvel took this emulation a step further in 2008 when they released the now iconic Iron Man.
Yet, while Harry Potter made it possible for Marvel to move forward with its plans of a shared universe, said plans were roughly in the making for a good five years or so. But its plans did not come without certain hardships. During the 90s, Marvel had sold the rights to some of its most popular characters due to bankruptcy (Spider-Man, The X-Men, and Blade specifically come to mind). They experienced some success on this front, but it was not financially sustainable. For example, while Blade made at least 70 million dollars at the box office, Marvel only received $25,000 for its troubles. What's more is that they received just about nothing for X-Men and Spider-Man (due to flat-fee negotiation), even though the launching of all of these movies brought back the popularity of superhero films. By the early 2000s, Marvel was ready to cut its losses.
Conversely, in 2003 Marvel was approached by David Maisel, an Endeavor talent, who encouraged them to establish its own studio, produce its own films, crossover said films and properties like in actual comic books, and reap all of the benefits of doing so by retaining all the profits. After much deliberation, Marvel went with Maisel’s plan in 2005 and approached the banking company Merrill Lynch with the riskiest of pitches: Marvel was to receive 525 million to create its own studio and re-assemble the film rights to certain comic properties that it had sold in the last few years (Black Widow, Iron Man, Thor and such).
But in order to receive this hefty sum of money, Marvel put at least ten of its remaining comic properties on the line, including The Avengers, Black Panther, Captain America, Nick Fury, Doctor Strange, Ant-Man, Cloak & Dagger, Hawkeye, Shang Chi and Power Pack. If this risky venture failed, Marvel would have forfeited all of those movie rights, The Avengers would have never come to fruition, and Merrill Lynch would suddenly find themselves with a plethora of comic book properties and movie rights to auction off to the highest bidder. In short, the Marvel Cinematic Universe would be dead upon arrival.
After brokering the deal with Merrill Lynch, securing a distribution deal with Paramount Pictures, and re-acquiring the rights for Iron Man from New line, Marvel moved forward with its plans to develop an Iron Man film. While risky, Iron Man would later go on to be a critical and commercial smash hit, going on to score a box office gross of over $585.2 million. But its significance does not stop there. While it carried the burden of being Marvel’s freshman effort, it also doubly carried the burden of being a vehicle for one of the aspects of the shared universe that Marvel would come to be known for: the post credit scene.
While I will get into the importance of the post-credit scene to Marvel’s brand later, I would like to elaborate on the importance of this particular post-credit scene in accordance to the film and the overall universe. In 2008’s Iron Man, at around 125:00, the movie cuts from the credits to a medium-long shot of Tony Stark’s Malibu mansion. The shot is dark, but you can see the shadow of someone rounding the corner. Soon, Stark himself emerges in a doorway and calls out “J.A.R.V.I.S.”.
As he and Jarvis banter back and forth as he's coming down the stairs, he stops in his tracks. The camera immediately cuts to a long POV shot of a dark figure standing in front of an array of glass windows. The dark figure mocks Stark’s earlier press event, repeating his line of “I am Iron Man” (125:20). He goes on to chide Stark for his carelessness in revealing himself to the public and wonders out loud whether Stark is knowledgeable about the fact that he is not the only superhero around, saying that Stark “has become a part of a bigger universe” (125:32). When Stark demands to know who this man is, the dark figure finally emerges from the shadows and announces himself: “Nick Fury. Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. I’m here to talk to you about The Avengers Initiative” (125:44).
This post-credit scene proved to be extraordinarily instrumental to Marvel’s burgeoning movie universe for a number of reasons. For starters, Nick Fury—while he does not appear in the rest of the 2008 film—is immediately established as a key figure who will be meeting up with several other potential Avengers candidates. Essentially, Marvel lays out its initial game plan—that is the introduction of more Avengers and other individual Avengers movies and franchises—by his few lines of dialogue alone.
And if that was not already clear, Fury’s on-the-nose line referring to Stark being part of a “bigger universe” clues potentially oblivious audience members in on the fact that there are others out there—in Marvel’s shared universe—that are just like Stark. And just like that, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was born. After producing individual franchises with Captain America, Thor, and a failed one with the Hulk, Marvel would go on to produce 2012’s The Avengers, which would bring all of these films—and especially Nick Fury’s post-credit scene—full-circle and cement Marvel Studios as a cinematic giant that is not to be f*cked with.
And, of course, its shared universe model has gone on inspire what some call the highest form of flattery: imitation. While its rival, Warner Bros, clamors to assemble its own cinematic universe with DC comics, and while other studios like Universal and Sony rush to create shared universes around classic monsters and franchise crossovers (i.e. Men in Black meeting up with 22 Jump Street), Marvel continues to prove that they know the inner workings of the shared universe better than anyone else.
Which leads me to my next point: genre diversification. As I just mentioned, the shared universe is in no way easy to maintain, and since 2008 Marvel has been hell bent on taking careful and meticulous steps to make sure it does not collapse in on itself. One way that Marvel is doing this is through genre diversification. A more specific way to put it would be calling it sub-genre diversification. To elaborate, Marvel seems to understand that it will not be able to remain in the public consciousness for long without latching its films onto sub-genres. While Marvel is a company that specializes in superhero comics and films, Marvel Studios must maintain itself as a film company that produces movies in a wide-range of genres - not just the superhero ones - if it wants to continue to thrive.
Yes - Marvel has to please people who aren't fanboys. Who would've thunk?
Moving on, their mission to please the general populace is what makes their commitment to sub-genreing and cross-genreing particularly interesting, especially if we consider genre theory. According to Rick Altman’s 'Film/Genre,' there are at least four common assumptions that are made about genre:
1. Each film was produced according to a recognizably generic blueprint (genre as blueprint, a formula that dictates production)
2. Each film displays the basic structures commonly identified with the genre (genre as structure, the framework of individual films)
3. During its exhibition each film is regularly identified by a generic label (genre as label, a neat category to place the stated film in
4. Audiences systematically recognize each film as belonging to the genre in question and interpret it accordingly (genre as contract, the way the audience is required to view a film).
Now, these things stated are just that: assumptions. And you are bound to be deadass wrong if you assume that genres are supposed to have clear and strict borders and restrictions. That being said, there is some validity to them and how they may apply to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, especially when you look at the formulaic nature of a good number of its films, why these films are placed in certain sub-genres, and how it is possible to exist in certain genres without forsaking the core superhero tenets. To attempt to explain these things in the interest of time, I will use Iron Man 3 as an example (although there other examples like Captain America: The Winter Soldier [Political Thriller], Thor: The Dark World [Epic Fantasy], Captain America: The First Avenger [Period Piece] and such).
While I would argue that Iron Man 3 is not as successful as Captain America: The Winter Soldier in blurring its multiple genres (I hated Iron Man 3, so yes this is me being nice, and yes this is me shading it at the same damned time), its attempt alone is worth talking about. While Iron Man 3 is officially billed as a 'superhero movie,' it has been secondarily classified as a dark comedy. I also would add that it shows signs of being a buddy cop film. And I for one don't think those two genre markers were a mistake. Like, I always found it notable that Marvel handpicked Shane Black to direct this film. Black was the screenwriter for the Lethal Weapon movies (a series of buddy cop action films) and would later go on to direct Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a neo-noir dark comedy crime film.
Unsurprisingly, all of these different aspects and genres are apparent in Iron Man 3. Starting with the buddy cop genre, there are certain things that one expects when walking into a buddy cop film. For example, there is usually a partnership of sorts between two men (although this is wonderfully subverted in films like 2013’s The Heat). The two men usually make up some kind of weird, odd couple, and in the case of the Lethal Weapon movies the men may each be of a different race. If we are to look at temperament, one man is usually expected to play the straight man and the other gets to play the 'loose cannon.'
This relationship does, in fact, exist in Iron Man 3 and we should look no further than Tony Stark’s relationship with his best friend and handler, James "Rhodey" Rhodes. Rhodey as the straight man in this partnership could not be more obvious. Not only does Rhodey come from a strict and decorated military background (so much that he dons the Iron Man suit known as the Iron Patriot in the film), but he so often became fed up by Stark’s shenanigans and daredevil tendencies that I am surprised that he does not utter Danny Glover’s iconic “I am too old for this shit” line from the Lethal Weapon series.
Conversely, Stark has already cemented his 'loose cannon' status in his earlier films (Iron Man and Iron Man 2), but said status becomes exceedingly more obvious when he is standing next to Rhodey. He is reckless. He jumps off scaffoldings without a care in the world. He ends up making pipe bombs that he irresponsibly throws around during a rescue mission. In fact, his forty plus armored suits alone are a testament to his brilliant, yet die-hard 'loose cannon' mentality.
In short: Stark just doesn't give a fuck.
But, you know, despite the opposing nature of his and Rhodey's personality, these two somehow manage to work somewhat well-together and have remained good friends (although, I'm trying to figure out in what world a Don Cheadle character would put up with someone like Tony, but I digress), which ends up cementing these buddy cop dynamics into Iron Man 3.
Moving on, this film also displays a variety of hallmarks that point to the dark comedy genre (and occasional garners a comparison or two to The Incredibles). Two examples include its subject matter and its use of violence mired with humor. As it concerns the former, while Iron Man 3 is comedic at its core, the film does attempt to tackle issues including war, terrorism, propaganda, and even post-traumatic stress disorder (although, I would argue that the former received haphazard treatment due to Stark’s tendency to experience a panic attack and magically cure it by cracking a joke. That's just not how that works).
Aldrich Killian’s—the antagonist—ultimate plan is to use symbols of terrorism, war, and propaganda to influence a nation while simultaneously destroying Stark, his nemesis, and everything and everyone he holds dear. What's striking about the decision to do so is that the film employs very striking Osama Bin Laden-like imagery using the film’s false antagonist (The Mandarin). It also hearkens back to the first Iron Man film and its initial backdrop of Afghanistan.
The second example lies with the film's tendency to mix humor with violence. In what could have been a particularly gloomy moment, the Killian shoots and kills Maya Hensen, a former colleague of Stark’s and Killian’s right-hand woman. Had this moment been allowed to breathe, it might have been quite tragic. Instead, Killian kills her and instantly says: “The good news is, a high-level position just opened up.”
Just like that, all the dramatic tension in the scene is for naught. This ends up sealing the overall, dark and comedic tone of the film and very much overpowers the 'superhero' nature of the film. And while Iron Man 3 does not fall into quintessential superhero territory, the fact that it is firmly rooted in genres like the buddy cop film and the dark comedy gives it a different type of appeal to audiences, even if they are not keen on superhero movies, and guarantees at least some level of commercial success. This appeal is why Marvel’s sub-genre diversification continues to thrive.
In the same vein, that success is what has led to my next topic: cross platforming. The success of its shared universe thus far has come with more Hollywood clout and an increased amount of capital to work with. Naturally, this has lead Marvel to branch out into another specific platform. While Marvel still makes use of mediums like TV, graphic novels, and comic books, Marvel’s venture into TV is still a relatively new one. After brokering an exclusive deal with Netflix in 2013, both companies went on to produce the recently debuted Daredevil show, which functions as one-fourth of a four-part series.
It might not appear so initially, but this partnership ends up being an effective one, as it ends up assisting Marvel in tapping into a more adult audience. In the past, Marvel’s films—and its shared cinematic universe by extension—have been targeting the general PG-13 movie audience to the point that, with the slight exception of films like Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Iron Man 3, its films have not focused on more mature themes or have neglected to hone in on a mature audience (a good example is the botched portrayal of Stark’s alcoholism in Iron Man 2. Instead of focusing on that, the film coded Stark’s very real problem as “palladium poisoning”).
Daredevil has managed to evade these trappings by cementing and proudly displaying its TV-MA rating. The show is exceedingly dark, unapologetic, and very gritty and because of its rating-related liberties and because of its great storytelling. It has locked down the adult demographic, (which Marvel was previously unable to do. It also helps that upon its release, it became the highest-rated and most watched show on Netflix. Marvel has also branched out with shows like Agent Carter and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D—both of which have are featured on ABC rather than Netflix—but they have not attained the level of success that Daredevil has. Despite some of the shortcomings, however, Marvel has showed that it can successfully cross platforms.
This leads me to my final point: branding. It would be irresponsible of me to explain this topic without giving Marvel’s brand its proper due. Besides the fact that it was originally a comic book company and made use of various comic book conventions, Marvel has now moved onto re-branding old film advertising tactics in order to garner excitement for its films. Two examples of this are the post-credit scene and the teaser trailer. I mentioned the post-credit scene earlier when discussing the hallmarks of Marvel’s shared universe. Yet, the post-credit scene in terms of branding is slightly different. For one thing, it's not new. Many a film has featured a post-credit scene.
In fact, we can date the post-credit scene back as early as 1963 with the James Bond film From Russia With Love—though it only showed text. Earlier superhero movies like Daredevil (2003) and X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) made use of this too—this time with fully-shot scenes and not just text. However, since Iron Man’s debut in 2008, Marvel has managed to make the post-credit scene theirs. Its brand is so strong in this manner that they have conditioned the general movie-going audience to remain in their seats until the entire the very last credit has rolled. And even if you tell them that there will be no credit scene like director Joss Whedon did ahead of The Avengers: Age of Ultron premiere, I am still fairly certain that the audience will remain in their seats as they always have.
The strength of the brand does not stop there either. In addition to nearly monopolizing the popularity of the post-credit scene, Marvel has also re-popularized the idea of a teaser trailer (that is the idea of a “trailer to the actual trailer”/“preview of the trailer”). Once again, the teaser trailer is not a novel idea. Earlier movie franchises like Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Spider-Man (Sam Raimi) made use of it. Still, with the way that Marvel treats it, you'd think that it had just been discovered. Marvel’s teaser trailers are released in a way to generate almost feverishly high fanfare.
With the help of social media, Marvel will often feature a week-long countdown to the release of the trailer or will encourage its fans to engage with them in return for the release of the teaser trailer. And that is what its teaser campaign boils down to: the mastering of social media. If Marvel’s films do not advertise themselves enough, its large scale teaser campaigns via its various social media accounts (be it Twitter, Facebook, and etc) do the work for them.
And so, that brings me to my initial question: is the shared universe sustainable?
My answer to that is a resounding "no".
While I have laid out various reasons to why and how Marvel has gotten as far as they have, each of these reasons has a downside. Post-credit scenes are great, but they can turn into an issue of you do not have sufficient footage for them or you simply decide not to have one, causing audiences to experience some level of annoyance. Teaser trailers are also good in theory, but what becomes of a massive teaser trailer campaign if the trailer in question is leaked too early? Massive adjusting usually has to happen and most of it can be cumbersome budget-wise.
Cross-platforming is also a positive, but what happens when your multi-platform content—TV in this case—does not properly line up with your overall movie universe? Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. actively tries to tie into the shared movie universe’s current timeline and falls short more times than not. For example, the respective episodes that were supposed to correspond with movies like Thor: The Dark World and Captain America: The Winter Soldier either premiered weeks earlier or weeks later than it was supposed to, depending on what country you were located in. Furthermore, it remains burdened with the task of nodding to each and every Marvel Easter egg that pops up, even if it is not at all related to the current storyline at hand (This is another reason I couldn't get into the show. I was tired of the "LOOK WE ARE SO CLEVER" mentality).
Let us also not forget the biggest potential con in sub-genre diversification. Despite Marvel’s best efforts, audiences experiencing genre burnout is not an impossibility.
Marvel is not immune to this. Not at all.
These films are still superhero films at their core and the audience know that. You can only produce so many movies in so many genres before each and every kind of genre-specific superhero movie starts to become formulaic and tired. Look no further than 2015’s The Avengers: Age of Ultron. While it was in no way a commercial flop, critics (including myself) were less enthused about this team-up outing than they were the first time around in 2012, and I believe that that has something to do with the burden of being part of a shared universe. In fact, Age of Ultron took what were some of the best parts of its 2012 predecessor and beat them to death.
The lovable humor in The Avengers was turned up to 50 in Age of Ultron and morphed into unbearable one-liners. The big action sequences that were genre-changing in The Avengers were in such abundant excess that I felt like I was watching a Transformers movie at one point. Even the ending battle sequence in The Avengers (in which Loki brings his wrath upon Manhattan with a giant, Alien army), is seemingly copied and pasted into Age of Ultron (in which Ultron brings his wrath upon the fictional Sovokia with his robot army). It also appeared that many characters were given obligatory scenes just to pay homage to Marvel’s shared universe and that is very problematic (I'm mainly referring to Deus Ex Machina Thor and his magical spring).
Basically, having nods here or there to the overall universe is good, but when these nods start to weigh down on every single project you produce, it may be time to re-evaluate the overall cohesiveness and quality of your universe.
In essence, Marvel’s continued efforts to build and improve upon its shared universe are quite interesting and very noble. However, if I were to list one reason—and one reason only—as to why the idea of a shared universe is not feasible or sustainable, I would say that it is due to its sheer and massive size. Let's be real here. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is big as fuck. And that's really cool in theory, but it might not be as cool in five or so years when the average moviegoer has to commit to watching over 15 movies just to understand the latest one.
Will the average moviegoer make that commitment?
Only time will tell...
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