Avengers: Endgame is approaching the end of its cinematic run in the UK. To be replaced by the no less majestic Godzilla: King of the Monsters, the action packed John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (2019), the no less super X-Men: Dark Phoenix, the frankly insane Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw and Marvel’s own Spiderman: Far From Home. Come to think of it, right at the moment, you’d be hard pushed to find a movie at the cinema which doesn’t have a colon in the title. No doubt the wittier among you could find some joke in that, which implies the quantity of shit movies in the cinema right now, but that kind of toilet humour is far beneath the level of a respectable blog like this. Now that the overarching story line which was first hinted at in Iron Man (2008) and became a virtual certainty after The Avengers (2012), it is interesting to consider just how much the last decade of cinema has been dominated by Marvel’s Cinematic Universe (MCU).
Okay, so there are teeth grinding out there. Particularly among the committed movie enthusiasts who have had to suffer more than ten years of cinema being dominated by men in colourful suits punching each other while flying in the sky. Over that same time movies have been produced which were high art, which were visually inventive, which were emotionally stirring and which made the medium of cinema sing like the high points of a Mozart opera. Many of these movies have been discussed on this very blog. It is easy for movie enthusiasts to turn their nose up at what Marvel has done because the vast majority of the MCU is designed to be mass market popular entertainment. However, there are two problems. One is that ignoring the MCU will not make it go away or lessen its lasting effect on the whole industry of cinema. And two, dismissing the MCU as a series of pop culture, brainless effects movies is to belittle the scale of what Marvel/Disney have achieved.
By the way, spoilers will be kept to a minimum here but when you are talking about movies and TV which have taken place over 11 years a few minor spoilers will be inevitable. Avengers: Endgame is aptly named as it is the culmination of several overarching stories and the finale for several familiar characters. Even within its own story structure this is cleverly handled by using a time travel gimmick to revisit familiar scenes from previous movies. By doing so Endgame is able to link together earlier plot points, offer tentative explanations for previous plot holes, and also to demonstrate in a few cases just how they’ve allowed their main characters to develop. It is well handled because in a lesser movie these nostalgic touchstones could have felt like leaning on previous successes. However, Endgame has much more to offer. It has to dig its characters out of the mess they found themselves in at the end of Avengers: Infinity War (2018), provide a chance for redemption, and finally to provide some kind of sense of completion to the numerous arcs begun way back in 2008.
Actually, Endgame has even more than that to do. Because the success of the MCU simply won’t let up, Endgame also has to act as a trailer for the characters who will lead Marvel into the post-Thanos world. The all-female group shot was particularly unsubtle. For this reason Captain Marvel turns up for a couple of key scenes after the success of her solo outing earlier this year. Although she does threaten to become Marvel’s answer to Superman – turning up, out of the sky, at the last second to win the war with one punch. Endgame also features a few familiar characters exiting but not before passing torches on to others so that their name/franchise might live on. All of this against a background of the universe in jeopardy and with battle scenes to make Gandalf cry. Like several of the Marvel movies which have come before it, particularly Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) and Captain America: Civil War (2016), Endgame threatens to collapse under its own weight. That it does not is impressive. That it also manages to deliver an emotional and satisfying end to a story, a few characters and several franchises is incredible.
So the problem with the MCU is also its strength. Its weakness is also its greatest achievement. There is much more to be gained from watching Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame if you have spent the last 11 years gobbling up as much Marvel cinematic wonderment as your little cheeks will hold. Not to mention washing it down with some Marvel related TV. Those few poor people who have not been stuffing themselves at the Marvel buffet could find themselves intimidated by the sheer volume of material required to fully catch up with the story. Or they could be confused by a plot which begins in the first 5 minutes with a big purple man from space trying to steal a green glowing rock from two wizards, a green monster and a rich guy in a metal suit. The counter argument to that of course is to just relax and enjoy the ride, you’ll pick it up as you go along. However off-putting the scale of the MCU is, the sheer number of options is also something to be admired, particularly given that almost all of it has been a critical and financial success.
Nothing like the MCU has been achieved before. Yes there have been successful and long running film franchises, Bond for example. And, yes there have been film franchises which have spilled into other media, Star Wars to name but one. But Bond is, at its best, a series of individual movies, all with the same plot and all with the same changeless, immortal lead character. The fact that the recent Bonds tried to tie their stories together into a big arc (a little like Connery’s first five outings) is largely the influence of Marvel’s success. Star Wars of the 1980s was a merchandising juggernaut but built around just three movies. Nobody mention the Holiday Special or Caravan of Courage, okay? Neither of these franchises could be said to have a shared universe. Fast forward to the recent decade and Marvel’s success has been met with a slew of unsuccessful imitators. It may be painful to admit but the franchise which seems to have most successfully created a shared universe on the Marvel model is The Fast and the Furious and that is just terrifying.
What does Marvel have which actually sets it apart? The most obvious thing is that it is not one movie franchise but several. Each of the primary characters have their own franchise with their own journey of discovery: Captain America, Iron Man, Ant-Man, Thor, etc. What is more, fans are calling out for movies which focus on supporting characters like Black Widow. Because all franchises exist in a shared universe, characters and plot points can be shared and the success of one bolsters the success of others. Never has this been seen more clearly than the central mega-franchise, The Avengers, which brings all the main characters together. Most importantly the success of The Avengers in 2012 meant that all of the other MCU movies financially benefited from its success. People actually went to see MCU movies they were less interested in because they wanted to be up to speed with the story before the next Avengers instalment. This effect, for better or worse, has proven to be the Holy Grail for almost every big budget studio movie which has followed and has been, so far, something which no one else has achieved.
Other blogs, here and elsewhere, have debated why Universal’s Dark Universe failed before it started or why the DC Expanded Universe keeps sabotaging its own potential or even why Star Wars seems to be lost in a mess of its own making. This is not the point here. The point is what did Marvel have over the last 11 years? Well, one thing it had was a clear idea of where it wanted to go. The road to Infinity War was clearly announced back in 2012 and strongly suggested even before then. Knowing that you have an overarching plot means that you can plan in advance with confidence, that you can grow and manipulate characters with a coherent idea in mind. Just look at the mixed response fans gave Game of Thrones after the TV show overtook the plot of the books. Marvel was never afraid to develop and change characters because it knew there was a journey. There was never a need to reset to the status quo. All of the main characters had their central identity challenged at some point. Iron Man destroyed his suits, the Hulk got smart (while Banner got stupid), Thor got fat and Captain America became a traitor and an outlaw.
Okay true, probably not everything in the MCU went according to plan. There was definitely an intention to have more interaction between the TV characters and the movies. As it was there was some overlap and a few cameos but in the end the Inhumans did not appear alongside the Avengers to fight Thanos. The success of Marvel’s TV outings was certainly mixed in comparison to the movies. Agents of Shield proved to be a bit bland. Iron Fist was pretty bad, particularity as it was intended to be Marvel’s martial arts TV show. Jessica Jones and Luke Cage were a bit better but still nowhere near the revolutionary success of the movies. Daredevil and The Punisher were standouts in terms of quality and critical acclaim but the crossover success of The Avengers movie could not be replicated in The Defenders TV show. As Marvel now seems to be bringing their relationship with Netflix to a close it is clear that the TV side of the MCU will take a different form in the post-Thanos world. This could be a good thing or a bad thing. Marvel’s TV never seemed to take its expected place in the overall universe. Simply, Daredevil never turned up to help Spiderman. The future could go either way.
Hope for a more integrated TV and movie universe could be fulfilled by the proposed Hawkeye TV show or The Falcon and the Winter Soldier TV show. A solo movie for Black Widow continues to be rumoured. There is the question of who, if anyone, will take centre stage away from Iron Man and Captain America. The options seem to be Doctor Strange, Captain Marvel or Black Panther. But what other characters will Marvel throw in the mix? There is rumour of a Thor comeback. Will Marvel/Disney be able to win back the rights to other properties like the Fantastic Four or the X-Men? Marvel needs to watch out. The great strength of the last 11 years was the ability of the movies and TV shows to feel like they were all part of one huge, coherent story while maintaining their own identities. There is a danger, with Thanos behind us, that the MCU will drift along lacking direction and constantly trying for a greater spectacle until it finally does collapse under its own weight. And for all those out there who hate and despise superhero movies and who have no interest in the MCU: first, well done on reading to the end of a blog you clearly have no interest in, and second, suck it up buttercup because there is more to come.