Do You Need To Watch All The Marvel Movies?

Warning: SPOILERS ahead for Spider-Man: Homecoming


Spider-Man: Homecoming has been received with overwhelming positivity, with even many of the non-glowing reviews agreeing with the praise for its lighthearted humor, Tom Holland's starmaking lead performance and the realistic diversity of Peter Parker's 21st century supporting cast. One other subject that has dominated the film's reception, however, is the degree to which it relies upon characters, iconography and story threads from other films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe in order to speed its storyline along.

Indeed, if one opts to count Captain America: Civil War as a "team-up" feature à la the Avengers films, Homecoming is seemingly the least "self-contained" of the solo MCU movies since at least the infamously setup-focused Iron Man 2. Homecoming's storyline picks up directly following Civil War (where the MCU's Spider-Man debuted), Peter spends a tremendous amount of time interacting and/or trying to interact with Tony Stark and Happy Hogan, and at his school video-taped messages from Captain America loom larger than his teachers. This extends into the main villain story: The Vulture (Michael Keaton) is a blue-collar construction worker turned illegal weapons manufacturer when he lost out on the lucrative post-Avengers NYC cleanup job to Tony Stark's own company, outfitting himself and his minions with gear pillaged from various superhero-battle disaster zones and scheming to rip off The Avengers' own equipment cache when Stark moves locations post-Civil War.

With all that external influence at play, it's easy to see how some could find following (or investing in) the main narrative to be less than worth the effort. After all, how compelling can Peter Parker's teenage angst be when even the bad guys' junk drawer keeps reminding us that there are alien invaders, Ultrons and fugitive ex-Avengers kicking around somewhere out there? But for many audiences and film-writers, the scenario has re-centered the most longstanding question of Marvel's ambitious Cinematic Universe project: Do we really need to have watched all of the other films, television shows and Neflix series preceding each new installment in order to get the full experience - and if so, does that mean an individual film is "less good" on its own merits?


The answer, in the immediate, is no - Spider-Man: Homecoming doesn't really require you to have seen most or all of the preceding films. What information is necessary to know (there was an alien invasion of New York City, it was beaten back by a team called The Avengers who are now broken-up because of something called "The Sokovia Accords," Peter Parker was conscripted to help one group of them fight the other a few months ago in Germany) gets parceled out handily in the plot, as does the source of Peter's superpowers (radioactive spider-bite) and other sundry minor details. While it's kind of hard to imagine that anyone actually is walking into any Marvel film at this point without having seen one or two of the other films/shows or at least absorbing the general idea through cultural osmosis (we'll talk more about that in a bit...), if they have and happen to buy a ticket for Homecoming they'll almost certainly be able to follow it.

However, the question of whether or not it will "matter" as much is somewhat more nuanced. Spider-Man: Homecoming is an intentionally lightweight superhero film, fixated on its teenage hero's personal troubles in High School over the bigger machinations of the Cinematic Universe he lives in. It's a well told story, however small, but its nonetheless very possible that audience's coming away with the sense of it as a "major blockbuster" are bringing a lot of that extra thematic weight with them. To use the most prominent example: When Peter Parker declines full membership in The Avengers at the end of the film, Tony Stark and Happy Hogan scramble over how to handle a now-stymied press conference with a third party who turns out to be Gwyneth Paltrow's Pepper Potts. As a standalone moment, it's a funny joke ("They weren't testing him at all - Peter totally blindsided the grown-ups!"); but for full-court Marvel devotees that scene is a huge moment. Tony and Pepper are back together after being broken up during the events of Civil War, and Tony (maybe?) proposes marriage - a plot point that, if followed through, is almost a decade in the making.

On a smaller scale, this also applies to the film's main villain threat. In terms of the story as presented, you kind of have to take the various characters at their word that The Vulture's weapons being out in the open are a big deal (the two biggest debacles they cause are "assisted" by Spider-Man's own overzealousness)... unless, that is, you've watched Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Luke Cage and the short "one shot" film Item 47, where super-scale weapons making their way into the hands of common criminals have regularly had dire consequences. Even then, none of those instances have (yet) been labeled as having originated from Vulture's gang - though they could be (in much the same way that we've now "learned" that Peter Parker was in Iron Man 2). And thus we have Marvel's game, in a nutshell: You don't "need" to see everything, but sometimes it helps... and that makes you feel like you need to.


Spider-Man attacks the X-Men in the Secret Wars

There's no real starting-point to determine where superhero comic-book continuity "officially" started to be a defining feature of the genre. It was ported in from the pulp and writers-circle magazines that preceded the medium in popular culture, and versions of it can be observed in the earliest books "unifying" multiple stories by setting or subject. What's clear (and needs to be understood) is that it didn't necessarily originate because the writers were all eager to experiment with universe-juggling. It was a marketing device, popularized as a way to use cameos and "to be continueds" to get readers of one series to try and buy others - plain and simple.

Time was, continuity only ever mattered as much as writers wanted it to matter (in terms of storytelling and avoiding angry letters from eagle-eyed fanboys). But from the Silver Age (early-60s to late-1970s) onward, the combination of a growing teen-to-adult readership and fans-turned-professionals creators led to the Marvel and DC Universes being more strictly codified and maintained; still with a focus on driving sales but now with the added angle of keeping longtime readers by (for lack of a better descriptive) "flattering" their sense of pride at keeping track of all that information.By about the end of the Silver Age. and continuing up through the present, superhero universes grew denser and more mythos-reliant because being able spot the references and/or be "moved" by a callback to events from a decade ago gave longtime readers (more important than ever as younger generations abandoned comics for other media) a satisfying sense that their loyalties were being "rewarded."

It's a version of that very rewarding feeling that Marvel Studios has successfully ported over into the film industry. In reality, the revelation that Nick Fury ordered up that surprisingly still-working Helicarrier at the end of Avengers: Age of Ultron by placing a call to Phil Coulson's underground operation on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn't actually add anything vital to the narratives of either the film or the TV series, but if you're a fan who watches everything Marvel puts out you get a small sense that your attentiveness has "earned" some extra information that not everyone has. Meanwhile, Marvel hasn't really denied the more casual audience anything truly vital. And on both ends, it's the ultimate example of Marvel's ability to "mainstream" what used to be bastions of niche nerd-culture - the secret is out: "continuity porn" (noticing background details, recognizing callbacks, delighting at favorite-character cameos, casually imagining how the Infinity Stone nonsense might come together) can be a lot of fun.

As corporate-media sleight-of-hand goes, it's a doozy of a trick - one that seems simple, but which every other "Cinematic Universe" project has thus far struggled to pull off effectively. Yet despite how much the word "genius" will probably be forever thrown in the direction of MCU architect Kevin Feige (who, at this point, deserves it if anyone in Hollywood does), perhaps the most notable aspect of Marvel's industry-reshaping success story is the role played by timing: The Mighty Marvel Miracle happened at exactly the moment it did because it couldn't possibly have happened before.

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Key Release Dates
  • Thor: Ragnarok (2017) release date: Nov 03, 2017
  • Black Panther (2018) release date: Feb 16, 2018
  • Avengers: Infinity War / The Avengers 3 (2018) release date: Apr 27, 2018
  • Captain Marvel (2019) release date: Mar 08, 2019
  • Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019) release date: Jul 02, 2019
  • The Avengers 4 / Avengers: Endgame (2019) release date: Apr 26, 2019
  • Ant-Man & The Wasp (2018) release date: Jul 06, 2018
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