The Marvel Cinematic Universe, of which Ant-Man and The Wasp is the latest edition, is a multifaceted one. All of the characters and worlds, ranging from the psychedelic multiple realities of Doctor Strange to the space opera of Guardians of the Galaxy, exist within the same universe. Interlinked by closing-credit scenes, references to other characters, and events from previous films, they are also more deeply linked by their latent existence in real-life (western) society. Even the rainbow bridge of Thor’s realm Asgard acts as a mode of travel to the inexhaustible and stylistically unique planets connected to Earth.
With the many different worlds that the audience has come to see as existing within the same universe, it does not feel like a stretch to say that our world, out here watching the film, is just another plane of the MCU, the behind-the-scenes soul of it. However, this has not become truly obvious to Marvel or Hollywood until social media networks like Twitter, which launched in 2006 (two years before the premiere of Iron Man), developed from abstract social spaces to “informative” networks. This may be may be why Evangeline Lilly is only now gracing the screen as the Wasp, in an equal position to Paul Rudd, who plays Ant-Man. The information that people want a woman superhero is harder to be ignored.
Peter Lunenfield’s essay stating that “unfinish[ed] defines the aesthetics of digital media” has however always been prevalent in Marvel through the end-credit scenes that so frequently shock audience members. Rather than a gag reel breaking the illusion of the film completely, the films’ narratives persist even when the list of people whose labour is essential to its creation float down the screen, making the world within the franchise seep into the culture outside the theatre. The MCU was never not part of the digital media age, but the extent to which technology and social media threads, reviews and criticism have influenced how the franchise can become a signifier of our culture has been completely transformed in the 10 years since this series started.
In Black Panther (2018), the extent to which our ordinary world is affected by the MCU – or other franchise films – is best realised through the presentation of Wakanda, a world where the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) protects his citizens in a place where this superhero-type social structure is simply traditional custom. The country of Wakanda is what you would expect a comic-book world to consist of in other ways too, as science and magic are combined in the fictional Vibranium material which powers the country’s advanced sci-fi technology. It is hidden from the human eye by high invisible walls (much like the inner workings of Hollywood itself), but it exists in the same universe as normal kids playing basketball in Oakland, as well as the rest of the world with its governments, political catastrophe, class divides, poverty, and hope. Significantly (spoiler alert!), the Wakandans, who were initially secluded from the world, decide that the future of Wakanda must and should be open to the needs of the rest of the world.
This is also the most socially progressive, diverse, and inclusive film of the MCU and the biggest hit Marvel has ever had – it’s become the highest-grossing superhero film in the US. Ryan Coogler gave moviegoers what they obviously wanted, a cast where non-whiteness is not marginalised but celebrated, and women are equally strong and relevant to the narrative as men. Marvel’s superpower has been most realised in this film, reflecting communities who love and invest their time and energy in incorporating the films into what Kirsten Daly calls “online discursive space[s],” which validate and solidify the existence and relevance of the films in our culture. This allows the narrative of the films to become more complex and intertextual. Most importantly, and hopefully for fans, it is the spark that fuels the engine of the franchise – maybe, and most importantly, it even places both fans and the company on an equal narrative playing-field.
The free advertising and influence of fans or cultural commentators, ranging from blue-ticked “important influencers” to any normal moviegoer, did not come about straight away to Marvel, whereas other emerging or rebooted franchises capitalised on the fact that incorporation and inclusivity sells. This is why the “Worlds of DC”, more commonly known by its unofficial term, the DC Extended Universe (DCEU), which started in 2013 with Man of Steel, premiered Wonder Woman in 2017 – not in 1996 when the film was first in development, or even in 2005 when director Patty Jenkins initially wanted to make it. Similarly, the force woke from its slumber with Star Wars: The Force Awakens in 2015, where previous fanboys reminiscing on that gold bikini were confronted with Leia (Carrie Fisher) as a General, where the influence of Luke Skywalker has been reimagined in Rey (Daisy Ridley), a woman protagonist and Han Solo in Finn (John Boyega), a black protagonist. Companies like Disney, which owns Marvel and Star Wars’ Lucasfilm, making socially-progressive franchise films affirms the franchises’ places in society’s progression.
Social media spreading the #MeToo movement, and therefore Hollywood’s institutional accountability for mistreatment of women behind the camera and on screen, has caused the MCU to begin a process of holding itself, and the Hollywood that it represents, accountable through reversal of past choices; the message is that its past choices were purely to sell tickets, but now they are not. Black Widow’s presentation as the exotic Russian spy with red hair, “never a Celsius- degree less than sizzling hot,” has been subtly altered through her dyed blonde hair in Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and an outfit which is no longer purely fetishistic black leather, but more functional with padded, protective vests. These changes reflect that while ticket-buyers can also be held accountable for the presentation of women as sexual objects to ogle at in franchises, as a film cannot spur a franchise without the audience making it a part of culture, ticket-buyers are no longer assumed to be predominantly white, heterosexual fanboys, who anticipate narratives that render the woman, such as Natasha Romanoff, as “available for… penetration and domination“. Franchises are recognising that there is more to the paying audience than just the fanboy.
Additionally, the Hawkeye Initiative, which reverses the roles of men and women in superhero posters, has been employed in Ant-Man and The Wasp (2018), with Evangeline Lilly in one poster looking directly at the camera in a suit which looks protective, while Rudd stands behind her, emphasising his body in an off-the-shoulder gaze. The director of the film, Peyton Reed, replied to users who disagreed with the reversal of gender roles with the subtle message that this film was not for them. The Wasp’s shared billing has to portray Marvel as a changed franchise in order for Captain Marvel, premiering in 2019, to feel like an organic progression rather than a money-making venture. As mentioned previously, social progression gives the franchise a place to grow into future society, as an antidote for the political, which can now bombard the public digitally more than ever. Future films in the MCU’s Phase Four could feature Kamala Khan, who is Captain Marvel’s protégé (essentially what Spider-Man is to Iron Man), a possible Valkyrie film and a Black Widow film, whose director, Cate Shortland, has been picked carefully so as to redeem Black Widow’s past portrayal as an awesomely skilled but underappreciated character.
Ordinary people posting on Twitter and Tumblr now have power of profit over billion-dollar corporations like Disney, simply through conversation. Finally, big-budget Hollywood films have to take accountability and listen to different types of people to represent in order to maintain its place as culturally relevant.
As a Marvel fan, I cannot wait to be a part of Phase Four. Bring it on.