13 theatrical films, 5 short films, and 4 TV shows, with countless upcoming projects in the works. That’s how big the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has become since it started in 2008. With so much content, it’s no wonder that Marvel Studios’ impossible dream has achieved so much critical and financial success. It seems like a film simply needs that “Marvel Studios” banner to ensure it will rake in millions of dollars.
At the same time, the saturation of Marvel content is downright overwhelming. The fact that there are so many movies and TV series can be a deterrent for incoming fans. Furthermore, the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s inherent structure also forces filmmakers and creators to adhere to a certain set of standards. Here’s a look at some of the self-imposed limitations of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe Is a Series
How many Avengers movies are there now? Answer: two (well, two and a half if you count Captain America: Civil War), with two more in the works. It’s easy to fall off the Avengers train, especially since it keeps charging along. It can be difficult to get the full story without seeing everything in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And that’s a lot to ask of casual fans who are looking for a simple entry point to the series.
So, how does Marvel stay accessible to new fans? There’s no easy answer. On a basic level, the first Avengers movie couldn’t have succeeded without the series’ first five installments. These Phase One films familiarized viewers with the origin stories of Iron Man, the Hulk, Thor and Captain America. Someone doesn’t need to see all of Phase One to understand The Avengers, but the story threads are still embedded within it.
Yet, being part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe can, itself, weigh down a film. This summer’s Captain America: Civil War was more of a bridge than a standalone story. Besides relying heavily on previous films, the movie had to move an inordinate amount of pieces into place for future sequels, particularly 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War. As a result, Civil War felt like it got bogged down with too many story lines. It’s evident that being part of the MCU’s continuity carries a number of obligations.
Perhaps it’s unrealistic to expect Marvel films to fulfill all fan expectations. Each story must have its own creative freedom, and it’s impossible for everything to be fully connected. Still, the fact remains that all of these creative properties exist in the same continuity. There must be some payoff to having Daredevil patrolling Hell’s Kitchen, practically in the vicinity of Avengers Tower. At the very least, it’s difficult for stories to maintain that delicate balance between interconnection and independence.
Disney Owns Marvel
It’s both a pro and a con that the Walt Disney Company has taken Marvel under its wing since 2009. Disney has the resources to produce an array of Marvel programming, with ABC helping Marvel Studios jump-start its television branch. Nonetheless, that doesn’t guarantee each show will make the cut. ABC cancelled Agent Carter after two seasons, and then passed on Marvel’s Most Wanted. Only Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has survived, perhaps because the show’s identity has evolved tremendously since it started.
As a family-focused company, Disney could be responsible for the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s generally straightforward tone. None of the films have felt very edgy or innovative, in the sense that most of them adhere to the standard plot structure of telling each hero’s origin story. The exception was Guardians of the Galaxy, which felt subversive because it identified, and then satirized, the tropes of the superhero genre.
Superhero stories don’t need to be subversive, but that doesn’t mean they can’t innovate and evolve. Only recently has Netflix’s contingent of shows begun to push the boundaries of the superhero genre. Netflix’s flexible maturity ratings allowed Daredevil and Jessica Jones to explore gritter subject matter such as violence, trauma, and domestic abuse. Marvel’s partnership with Netflix is the only avenue for this kind of content, since I doubt that ABC would be open to hosting it.
Still, at the end of the day, Marvel Studios has to exist under one umbrella. It just so happens that Disney owns that umbrella. Without its central base at Disney, Marvel would have a harder time producing its array of TV shows and movies. My only hope is that as Phase Three begins, the Marvel Cinematic Universe will find fresh new ways to continue its evolution.