After Avengers: Phase 2 of the Marvel Movie Universe
As you can see from our final verdicts on the 5 solo films that brought us to this point, Marvel Studios still has room to improve their approach to building a shared movie universe. Sure, some fans will continue to point to The Avengers as "evidence" that Marvel is doing things 100% right - but again, the success of Avengers (which we gave 4.5 out of 5 stars, please remember) isn't the point. The point is: how well do the solo films stand on their own two feet? When you go to drop your hard-earned cash to watch the entire Avengers saga on home video - is every chapter worth your while?
Going forward, Marvel Studios would do well to learn from past mistakes and find a better balance between telling complete stories for their individual characters, and maintaining the awareness, fun and (hardest of all) logic of their shared universe. From questions like "Why doesn't Iron Man just call The Hulk for help?" to the dangers of an over-crowded playing field (where certain characters get marginalized), Marvel is going to need a much bigger Movie universe timeline if they hope to maintain this world in an orderly fashion.
If Marvel truly plans to go in two directions with their films - into the Cosmic Universe with movies like Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor 2; focusing on Earth-bound threats in Ant-Man, Iron Man 3, a S.H.I.E.L.D. movie and/or Captain America 2 - then we're ALL going to need a focused and clearly-marked path in order to follow the story. Below you'll find some tips for building "Phase 2" of the Marvel Movie Universe - tips that Marvel Studios might do well to consider:
Stick with the "Showrunner" Model
It's working for TV series like Mad Men and Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad - and it has worked for both DC and Marvel's most successful movies to date: Gather a small circle of talented people and let them run the show. Marvel's movies culminated with such delicious synergy in The Avengers largely because of a few individuals leading the way: Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige has always been the biggest shepherd of the Mavel Movie Universe, and Joss Whedon's involvement with both Captain America and The Avengers is a large reason why those films stand out from the pack. That's not to mention Robert Downey Jr.'s consistent and much-needed collaboration on the Iron Man and Avengers franchises.
Now that Marvel has Whedon, they should lock him down the way DC/Warner Bros. tried (failed?) to lock down Chris Nolan as the "godfather" of their universe. Even if Whedon isn't directing the film in question, or even writing the screenplay, let him consult on all projects (as he did on First Avenger) while Feige oversees the business end. Sure, reach out to creative talent like Edgar Wright (Ant-Man) and Alan Taylor (Thor 2, Game of Thrones) - but have Whedon be the final word on how to combine the narrative pieces and shape the characters. We're not trying to brown-nose, but the man clearly has the talent to manage this Marvel Movie Universe the right way.
Be Efficient: Make the Logical Connections
Black Widow was a somewhat wasted character in Iron Man 2, as Hawkeye was a wasted character in Thor - they simply weren't needed in the respective films that introduced them. But where the execution might've been wrong, the idea was sound: Do more with these solo films - just do it smartly and logically.
For instance: Ant-Man is a tricky prospect to sell on its own; however, Ant-Man: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. would make sense (and is the rumored approach to the film) and could introduce any number of additional characters (Wasp, The Vision, or even Black Panther, if they went in a direction similar to the Earth's Mightiest Heroes cartoon show). Dr. Strange, a mystical character, seems like an odd choice for a movie franchise - until you link the Sorcerer Supreme to Thor 2 via the cosmic artifacts hidden in Odin's vault. That's called "getting more bang for your buck," and it's a game plan Marvel would be wise to adopt. If you know the characters and their worlds well enough, you should be able to utilize the obvious points of intersection.
Know The Limits
How many characters are there? How many different versions of those characters? (Are we talking TV Hulk? Or movie Hulk? Which movie Hulk again?) Are the movies separate from the TV shows? Is the outer space stuff related to the Earth stuff? Wait... how many characters are there, again?
When Marvel Studios was first announced, many fanboys and fangirls rejoiced. Many of them were under the impression that this new studio represented a change - that the people who should be in charge of the characters were finally in charge of the characters, and no wrong would, or could, be done. But there have been missteps, and the flagship of comic book creativity has become something more rigid and corporate in its pursuit of big-screen glory. ("Marvel" is now "Disney/Marvel." Just chew on that for a minute.)
The fantasy of "doing it for the fans first" has likely dissolved with the billion dollar-plus earnings of The Avengers; the money is officially on the table, and it's going to be seized. But therein lies a bit of irony:
A shared movie universe is a veritable Jenga™ stack. It's totally impressive when you keep finding ways to add another layer - but the higher it builds, the easier it is for one wrong move to bring down the house. There are always limits to a good thing - and people are always told there are limits to a good thing - but they still push those limits anyway. So I'm not expecting a miracle in this case. However, Marvel should be careful and do the one thing that so many other studios do not: When it comes to expanding their product base, don't just ask "Can we?" also ask, "Should we?" Because as it stands, trying to keep TV Hulk separated from movie Hulk is already giving me a headache.
Despite some criticisms, it's been a fun ride watching Marvel fill movie screens with the stories and characters that so many millions of fans have adored for so long. Indeed, the ride has already been great - but like the truest of fans, we only want it to get better down the road.
As usual, we'll keep you updated on the status of all Marvel Movies, as soon as information comes to light along the journey to Avengers 2.