Avengers, Assemble! Captain America? A-okay. Iron Man? Check. Hawkeye? Here. Thor? Another! Yes, your favourite heroes (Batman is so noughties) are back for another round of comic-book battling, and I’m not talking about Avengers: Age of Ultron. The manic-oppressive robot hasn’t yet begun his domination of cinemas around the globe but Avengers Mark 2 is already old news – Marvel have moved on.
With the dark-tinted titles of Civil War, Ragnarok, and not one but two Infinity Wars already firmly marked out on the public’s calendars, audiences are entering each new movie with more knowledge than we’d previously possessed and this is changing the nature of the experience. By announcing films, plots and characters before previous films are even released (sometimes years in advance) studios are taking spoilers into a strange new dimension and sapping any fear for the characters’ lives in the inevitable big-battle climax.
It goes without saying that spoilers of past, present and future varieties are mentioned herein.
This isn’t how it needs to be and it isn’t how it used to be. Even established franchises didn’t do this: “James Bond will return” is written at the end of the feature, often as the last line at the close of the credits, instead of on a poster as you purchase popcorn. We knew James Bond would return with near certainty – this is 007 we’re talking about – but this wasn’t confirmed knowledge until he’d saved the day, vanquished the villain, got the girl and the credits rolled. In place of this knowledge, the preceding 100 minutes were filled with hope.
A New Hope kicked off the mega-franchise of galactic fame, Star Wars. Imagine The Empire Strikes Back as if you are seeing it in cinemas in 1980. If you are fortunate enough to remember, I envy you; if you are not so lucky, try anyway. Imagine the palpable excitement of seeing your heroes from the first* episode back in action, living the “will they, won’t they” with more than just a kiss at stake – you may know that there’s another film on the way, but not who would be in it. Any of the main characters could have been killed, maimed, or transformed in Empire, and this upped the stakes for the audience.
Yet as we eagerly await Age of Ultron, the stakes are lower. Of course bad things can still happen – Captain America’s iconic shield is seen broken in the trailer – but mortal peril seems off the cards and we know Steve Rogers makes it through. Just over a year after Ultron, Captain America: Civil War is due for release, and a slew of plot and character announcements have flown in. The Cap moniker is becoming increasingly redundant as this cast is currently confirmed to additionally include Iron Man, Hawkeye, Black Widow, Black Panther, Falcon, the Winter Soldier, and even Spider-Man. It’s like calling X-Men: Days of Future Past “Wolverine 3″…
Multiple leads, easter eggs, and cameos are great, but the more they reinforce the Marvel Cinematic Universe the harder it is to separate a character from the group enough to fully remove them. This will happen, casting conventions dictate as much, but when the time comes viewers will know who to look out for beforehand. The currently trendy major announcements (plot, characters, cast) leave black holes, sucking our attention towards the undisclosed characters as the tension is drained from known survivors – this time, where are Hulk and War Machine in the roll-call for Avengers 2.5? All eyes on the big green guy.
This isn’t to say that a good film has to kill off a major character; in fact this would be equally formulaic if it was rigidly stuck to. However, studios such as Marvel and Warner Bros. could do with focusing on their latest release rather than looking past it like a parent continually anticipating another child. Marvel take the saying “there’s no ‘I’ in ‘team'” seriously – not only are their characters and stories always moving towards the next superteam meeting, their films never appear to be treated as individuals deserving of merit in and of themselves and are instead part of the greater collected pantheon of movies, viewed as a whole and with vision beyond the widescreen of the cinema. One only needs to look at Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans on the Age of Ultron press tour to see this forward-looking approach in action: it is sometimes unclear which film they are promoting, this one or the next.
Maybe it’s impossible – the very concept of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes can infer immunity to death and the necessity of a grand scheme. If Captain America or Nick Fury were in real danger from the Winter Soldier, wouldn’t Hulk or Hawkeye have been called in? In fact, non-title characters have been killed in previous outings, but in each case this turned out not to have been fatal. Beyond this, the studios have an overwhelming need to keep their investors happy, and many of the announcements about casting and far-flung future films are as much business decisions as fuel for their fanbase’s feeding frenzy. If knowledge of a franchise’s future is to become the norm, maybe we should all stop worrying and just sit back and enjoy the ride. Two tickets for Age of Ultron please. I hope the robot at least gets it.
*OK, fourth, but let’s leave those semantics to one side for a moment.