The Marvel Cinematic Universe needs no explanation. There’s little doubt that even just the letters M, C, and U arranged in that order are enough to get the message across. That’s a hefty monopoly on the alphabet.
It’s a worthy one too. Marvel isn’t just your run-of-the-mill film studio; from the wild success of Iron Man in 2008, they’ve taken the blockbuster, ripped up the rulebook, and asked how you like them apples. From Iron Man to Thor, Captain America to Guardians of the Galaxy and to the Avengers themselves, no one has achieved the same epic tapestry of storytelling or redefined a genre in the same way. Marvel gave us that thing we never knew we needed: the megafranchise.
And mega it is. The scope of the Marvel universe – so large that it rolls out in phases which are currently planned up to 2028 – took the efforts of early superheroes and turned them up to eleven. Where other titles like X-Men, Spider-Man or the Fantastic Four were with studios who had plans for a sequel, a threequel maybe, Marvel President Kevin Feige was busy with a vision so sweeping it was a superpower of its own.
Putting a fanboy in charge of their studio is a stroke of genius from Marvel – with his encyclopedic knowledge of the comics, Feige has presided over the most wide-ranging, most complicated movie series in history, generating not just billions of dollars but a new kind of cinematic storytelling.
The MCU’s sheer scale is breathtaking. At least one (if not two) character titles released each year since 2008, bringing together such disparate beings as a demigod, a super-soldier, a spy, and a genius billionaire playboy philanthropist – not only into one coherent franchise but all mixed up together in a crossover movie to cap off each phase.
It’s the kind of audaciousness that would have cinemagoers of the 1980s or even the blockbuster-heavy ’90s open-mouthed. In an era with Twilight, The Hunger Games, and the eight-film behemoth of Harry Potter, being able to match and surpass all other franchises in detail and coherence marks Marvel out as the godfather of cinematic scope.
But it would be foolish to hang the success of a franchise on its stunt and effects budget (we’re looking at you, DC). Marvel’s Cinematic Universe is of epic proportions, yes – but its popularity is down to the smallest details of its rounded, warm-blooded characters.
Look at Captain America (who wouldn’t?). America’s loveliest superhero, Steve Rogers is possibly even more moralistic than Superman, but he doesn’t suffer from what the latter can sometimes risk: being written on one level. The creative team behind The First Avenger plundered comic book history to gather all the elements of Steve Rogers; giving him his morals, yes, but also his quick temper and his shyness and his self doubt.
It’s a microcosm of what Marvel do so well on a macro level. It was arguably Tony Stark and Iron Man that made Marvel’s (at the time very risky) gamble such a huge success; audiences came for the arc reactor and stayed for Tony. Following with Thor, with Steve, with Bruce Banner and Clint Barton and Natasha Romanov, even with Phil Coulson, the Marvel Cinematic Universe gives as much effort to crafting its characters as it does the world they live in. Even though Marvel hit a few duds before casting Mark Ruffalo as The Hulk, landing him as beleaguered scientist Banner has pulled the conflict, fear, and, yes, the rage from the character, ensuring fully realised characterisation even in a mocap suit. Johansson’s Black Widow is intriguing and layered, still only hinting at the history that lies beneath her mask, and even Hawkeye, with his twelve minutes of screen time, has caught audiences’ imagination.
Even their villains are impossibly loveable – Tom Hiddleston’s Loki is so popular that fans want him to have a film of his own. Hiddleston appearing at Comic-Con, in full costume, was better publicity for Thor: The Dark World than whatever they’d spent their millions of marketing dollars on. Marvel owe more than a little to their casting department, on all fronts.
And, indeed, it’s that collaborative creativity which has shaped the franchise from end to end. Their directors are as disparate as their characters, from Shakespeare heavyweight Kenneth Branagh to Alan Taylor and the Russo Brothers, hired for previous successes on television rather than film. Marvel put the fate of their entire franchise in the hands of Jon Favreau, whose last film as a director before Iron Man was Elf. Feige sums it up nicely: “It’s worked out well for us when we’ve taken people that have done very, very good things. Very rarely are one of those good things a big giant blockbuster superhero movie.” It’s the kind of policy that put Joss Whedon in charge of The Avengers and, subsequent to its billion-dollar box office, has him writing and directing the sequel and occupying a position as consultant across Marvel’s entire output. That’s the kind of creative policy cinema can get behind.
Marvel combine their emotional scope, physical scale, and creative risks to build what has sometimes seemed impossible: the blockbuster with a heart and soul. They weave their fascinating, complex, loveable characters into the tapestry, combining two here, hinting at another there. The Winter Soldier lives not just in its tight plot and twisting turns, but in the friendship between Steve and Natasha; the veterans’ understanding between Steve and Sam “the Falcon” Wilson; and, more than anything, Steve’s past and the people he loved there. The Avengers is hinged on the pain of a neglected birthright, the conflict of ideologies, the human spirit. Iron Man 3 explores a man, sans iron, who is falling apart.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is what is says on the tin – a universe. It’s as living-breathing real as the world around us, save only for the fact that it exists in two dimensions rather than three. From grounding Iron Man’s technology in the real world to explaining Asgard’s existence with Einstein, the MCU is sprawling, complex, and infinitely expandable. You can even see the stars in its sky.
And what it is, amongst the CGI set-pieces, the witty quips, and the emotional gut-punches, is a game-changer. As the Marvel juggernaut continues to roll along, other studios are waking up to the all-consuming popularity of a shared universe. DC Entertainment and Warner Brothers are finally getting themselves together and planning a Justice League franchise, leading with Batman vs. Superman and going directly against Captain America 3 on May 6th 2016. At 20th Century Fox, Simon Kinberg has been assigned the Kevin Feige role in the X-Men universe. Sony Pictures are bandying around solo films for Spider-Man villains Venom and the Sinister Six. Even Lionsgate are looking to do a gritty long-term reboot of the Power Rangers. The megafranchise is here to stay.
Just remember – Marvel did it first.
From anyone else in 2008, the concept of a super-universe with a cast of hundreds playing out on cinema screens over multiple decades would seem a non-starter – but Marvel have always lived with that kind of breathless commitment to their work, even when threat of bankruptcy in the early 2000s had them selling off their office furniture to survive. Unlike the money-edged cynicism of the Spider-Man reboot or desperate attempts to get the Justice League going, Marvel and Kevin Feige are driven by genuine love for the things they’ve created, and passion for what’s still to come.
Marvel might not be perfect – there’s still no Black Widow movie, and you can’t ignore its two non-starters in the Hulk franchise – but with its passion, its scale and its heart? It’s pretty damned close.