We all know how the Marvel Cinematic Universe is supposed to work. You have the movies, you have the TV shows, and you have the Netflix series. All live in the same world, with repercussions on one another. At least, that's the theory.
But has this ever really been true?
The reality is very, very different. The reality is that the movies are the biggest part of the MCU. The films drive the overarching narrative more than anything else - from the Battle of New York to the fall of S.H.I.E.L.D., from the devastation of Sokovia to the Sokovia Accords, the main story is always told in the movies.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., the series that's always been most aware of the wider MCU, is like a moon locked in orbit around the films. The pattern was set when Captain America: Civil War changed the course of Season 1, and since then the norm has been for the series to tie in to the latest film to at least some degree (even if it's just a nod to Pym Particles). Occasionally the series has shown footage from a film - such as the Helicarriers going down over Washington D.C. - and even more rarely has had a second-tier guest-star, such as Jaimie Alexander's Sif.
The crisis point came in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Season 2 of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. included a subplot that Coulson was working on something, a mysterious project that even Agent May was unaware of. That was revealed to be a secret Helicarrier, one that he gifted to Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury for a critical scene in Age of Ultron. But, in a surprising twist, the film avoided any reference to Coulson. Joss Whedon explained:
"As far as I’m concerned in the films, yes he’s dead. In terms of the narrative of these guys [The Avengers] his loss was very important. When I created the television show, it was sort of on the understanding that this can work and we can do it with integrity, but these Avengers movies are for people to see the Avengers movies and nothing else. And it would neither make sense nor be useful to say ‘Oh and by the way remember me? I died!’”
Whedon's explanation makes perfect sense. More people watch the films than watch the TV series. That means that, to the majority of cinema-goers, a resurrected Coulson would be an anomaly - a moment in the movie that would jar them out of the experience and leave them saying, "Hey, isn't he dead?"
But as convenient as the explanation may be, it puts real strain upon the concept of an interconnected universe. In a recent interview, Chloe Bennett (a.k.a. Quake, or Daisy, or Skye, or whatever we're going to call her next in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) aired her growing frustration.
"I don’t know. People who make movies for Marvel, why don’t you acknowledge what happens on our show? Why don’t you guys go ask them that? Cause they don’t seem to care!...
The Marvel Cinematic Universe loves to pretend that everything is connected, but then they don’t acknowledge our show at all. So, I would love to do that, but they don’t seem too keen on that idea."
It's an unusually candid comment, and shows more than a hint of real anger that the MCU hasn't turned out to be what she expected. If one of the actors is willing to vent that anger, then others are likely to feel the same way.
Marvel's successful Netflix shows add another layer of difficulty to this whole thing. These series have limited room for tie-ins; they're designed for binge-watching, and are pretty difficult to slot into the broader chronologies. What's more, their tone and style is so different to the broader MCU that they wouldn't be a good fit for such a tie-in. The most we can really expect is what we saw in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.; a gentle nod to riots in Hell's Kitchen.
The reality is that the three aspects of the MCU - the films, the ABC shows, and the Netflix series - occupy separate corners of the same universe. Not so much 'connected' as 'coexisting'.
Can this continue?
I actually don't have a problem with this. Joss Whedon's logic makes sense to me; the films are the biggest part of the MCU, and the majority of viewers only watch the movies. There's a very real danger that giving a glimpse of, say, Coulson would be disconcerting, damaging a movie's effectiveness. Whedon was right.
Crossovers are typically one of the most irritating things in the comics; they're an opportunity to increase sales for multiple books, and - because they're worked on by multiple creative teams - often become ill-plotted and unwieldy. As Captain America: Civil War proved, the MCU is already a complex beast, and I'm cautious of anything that would risk the MCU taking on those negative aspects of the comics.
At the same time, though, the recent tie-ins between Supergirl and Flash have proven that skilful writers can pull this kind of crossover off well in superhero shows. There's definitely a growing appetite among fans to see the MCU start to cross over a bit more, and Marvel face the worrying possibility that some fans are beginning to get as frustrated with the status quo as Chloe Bennett. The pressure is on for Avengers: Infinity War to somehow deliver for this, with fans expecting it to act as the pinnacle of the MCU to date. As such, appearances by the Defenders and the cast of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. are pretty much obligatory.
Given how many balls the Russo brothers will be juggling, I'm expecting the appearances to be minor. I'm expecting a full-scale invasion of Earth, and - in a few throwaway clips - a glimpse of battles raging across the planet, with key figures like Quake, Daredevil, and any other superheroes who Marvel TV have gotten starring in their own shows by then. The question is whether or not such a gentle nod will satisfy the fans; certainly it will leave them asking, "What next?" Phase 4 won't be able to step back from that, and the pressure will be on for that next phase to be more interconnected than the MCU has ever been before.
Behind the scenes...
Behind the scenes, though, there are other problems. The problems between the films and the TV series should really be seen in the light of office politics.
Previously, both Kevin Feige (of Marvel Studios) and Jeph Loeb (of Marvel Entertainment, who do the TV shows) had reported in to Marvel's reclusive CEO, Ike Perlmutter. Although we're not getting any reports about Loeb, for years we'd been hearing that Feige was frustrated; Perlmutter's penny-pinching was locking the films down, and finally Feige got to the point of threatening to quit outright. In response, Disney forced a corporate restructure, separating Marvel Studios from Perlmutter's direct influence.
Marvel Studios and Marvel Entertainment now exist in two separate sections of Disney's corporate structure, running pretty much independently. Disney allow these sub-companies a tremendous amount of leeway, and undoubtedly each have their own priorities and areas of focus. A major one for Marvel Entertainment, for example, would most likely be acquiring an increased presence for their shows. A direct cameo in one of Marvel Studios' films would achieve that nicely. For Marvel Studios, then, Marvel Entertainment are an important stakeholder with an agenda they need to be aware of.
The ultimate test will be The Inhumans. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has focused on the concept of the Inhumans a lot, right down to making them the basis for the 'Secret Warriors'. But the eventual movie (only delayed, not cancelled) will likely do something quite different. As Clark Gregg observed:
"That writer and director will have free reign to do what they want to do with the Inhumans. But hopefully there’ll be some way that our Inhumans connect to that. It’d be too bad if that was wasted."
There's a very real sense in which The Inhumans - a movie dealing with the same concept that one TV series has oriented itself around - will be the crisis point of the MCU. This will be the moment when we learn once and for all just how 'connected' the MCU really is.
For now, the cracks are beginning to show, and the fans should watch in concern. The idea of 'connectedness', which once seemed such a great part of the MCU, may yet be the MCU's greatest weakness.