Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last eight years, you’ve probably noticed a certain trend in superhero movies: the shared universe. While superhero films used to be treated as independent series that would reset after two or three movies, they now build on top of each other to create an almost overwhelming amount of shared continuity. Case in point: the upcoming Captain America: Civil War, which functions as a follow up to Captain America: Winter Soldier, an action-packed reunion of the Avengers: Age of Ultron cast and an introduction to both Black Panther as well as a new iteration of Spider Man!
But how long can this go on? Hollywood’s obsession with fan approval shows that one day a series that seems to be riding strong (Amazing Spider Man, for instance), can bottom out within 9 months of the latest films release. Steven Spielberg has even gone on record saying the superhero film will soon go “the way of the western” and fall out of popularity in mainstream Hollywood.
Is the father of American Blockbuster Cinema on to something? Around 30 characters have already enjoyed multiple appearances across the Marvel films so far, and a library of characters in Marvel Comics continuity that number in the thousands, most of whom can appear and cross over between a number of films and TV series. With a potentially infinite number of combinations, will this cinematic universe collapse under its own weight? Or will the Marvel Cinematic Universe go on FOREVER?
The History: How Marvel Became a Movie Studio
It may be inconceivable now, but there was a time when Marvel wasn’t a huge player in blockbuster filmmaking. It used to be just a comics publisher that would license its intellectual property to various movie studios. The first movie based on a marvel comic property was the Captain America serial, released in 1944, back when Marvel Comics was known as Timely Comics. Instead of Steve Rogers, Captain America’s alter ego was District Attorney Grant Gardner, played by Dick Purcell, who actually died a few weeks after filming was completed. Changes like these, as well as the omission of Captain America’s iconic shield, made the finished film extremely unpopular with creators and fans of the character.
The Kevin Feige Years
As the success of the X-Men and Spider Man movies began to gain traction for the superhero movie genre, the newly incorporated Marvel Studios began re-acquiring movie rights to characters it had sold off to other studios around 2004, with the intent to develop in-house feature films. By 2007, the studio had the film rights to Iron Man, Ant-Man, and The Incredible Hulk. They hired producer Kevin Feige to oversee the project as Iron Man began production in 2007.
Possible Obstacle # 1: Critical Disaster?
But will the movies be able to sustain their own quality standard? Franchises like Transformers, which routinely make massive amounts of money despite critical derision are common, but part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s appeal is that the films themselves are generally held to a higher standard than your average blockbuster. Can the studio sustain the same level of critical favour as their movies get more complex and potentially convoluted?
The Marvel Strategy: Filmmakers
How does one guarantee consistent quality? Marvel Studios’ ongoing plan follows the pattern that made both X-Men and Spider Man a success in the early 2000s: Find up and coming directors with interesting voices, and tap their talent for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Who would have thought the director of Elf, Jon Favreau, would make a great Iron Man movie? From Kenneth Branagh to James Gunn, Feige and the heads of Marvel are exceedingly clever at tapping talent for their projects - so that their movies stay relevant to current cinema.
Obstacle #2: Introducing Audiences to New Characters
Probably the biggest doubt everyone ever had about the Marvel experiment was how they would get a mainstream movie-going public invested in shared universe storytelling in the same way fans of their comics are. They proved they could make stand alone stories about their heroes engaging, but bringing that full universes together seemed like a different challenge entirely. Keeping diverse mythologies and scores of characters straight is something that people can barely manage for one franchise, how could they think this would work for multiple intersecting series?
Obstacle #3: Audience Fatigue
The biggest and most dangerous obstacle Marvel may face is their own success. With 2-3 films a year, Marvel Studios is the largest producer of superhero films, and it is matched by their competitors in DC and Fox, producing Justice League and X-Men sequels to fight for their piece of the superhero pie, making for an average 5 – 7 superhero films a year for the foreseeable future.