The Marvel Cinematic Universe, of which Ant Man and The Wasp (2018) 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 end of credit scenes, references to other characters, and events from previous films, they are most importantly linked by their latent existence in real-life (western) society. Even the rainbow bridge of Thor’s planet of 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 the world 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 an abstract social space to an ‘informative’ network. 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 of credit scenes that shocked audience members. Rather than a gag reel breaking the illusion of the film completely, the films narrative persisted even when the list of people whose labour was essential to its creation floated down the screen, making the world within the franchise seep into the culture outside the theatre. Marvel was never not part of the digital media age but the extent to which technology and social media threads, reviews and criticism has influenced how the franchise can become a signifier of our culture has been completely transformed in the ten years since the MCU started.
In Black Panther (2018), the extent to which our ordinary world is affected by the MCU or other franchise films, is most realised through the presentation of Wakanda, a world where the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) protects his citizens in a place where this is 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 “Vibranium” material which powers the country’s advanced sci-fi technology. It is hidden from the human eye by high invisible walls (much like inner workings of Hollywood itself), but it exists in the same universe as normal kids playing basketball in Oakland and 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 films 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 movie-goers 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 as 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. It 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. (or maybe most importantly it places both fans and the company that makes it on an equal playing field).
The free advertising and influence of fans or cultural commentators, ranging from blue ticked ‘important influencers/ people’ online to any movie-goer, 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”, or 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 where the film was first in development, or even 2005 when Patty Jenkins wanted to make it. Similarly, the force woke from its slumber with Star Wars: The Force Awakens in 2015, where previous fan boys reminiscing on that gold bikini were confronted with Leia (Carrie Fisher) as a General, where the influence of Luke Skywalker has been re-imagined 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 place in societies progression.
Social media spreading the #MeToo movement and therefore Hollywood’s institutional accountability for mistreatment of women behind the camera and on screen has made the MCU begin its fine line of holding itself, and Hollywood which it represents, accountable through reversal of past choices because its past choices were selling tickets, but now they are not. Black Widow’s presentation as the exotic Russian spy with hair as red as her ‘never a Celsius- degree less than sizzling hot,’ portrayal has been changed 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 whilst ticket-buyers can also be held accountable for the presentation of women as sexual objects for 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 which renders the woman, such as Natasha Romanoff, as ‘available for… penetration and domination,’ is no longer the case. Franchises are recognising that there is more than 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, whilst 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 Spiderman 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 Widows past portrayal as the 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.