World-building requires more than just obtaining complete film rights. As Marvel Studios approaches the release of Captain America: Civil War, one has to wonder where the movies can go after this 13th installment in the Cinematic Universe series. Master producer Kevin Feige has accomplished the Herculean task of grounding lofty comic book concepts in a real world setting — one that also allows for great fantasy. The question remains, however: How long can you build a world before the audience gives up?
Case in point: Captain America. Captain America: The First Avenger introduced audiences to the origins of Captain America, Bucky, Peggy Carter and the Howling Commandos. Audiences became familiar with the military nature of the titular hero and where his story will go as it moves into the future. Captain America: The Winter Soldier continued the series now set in the present day, bringing back Bucky Barnes as a super soldier assassin. Additionally, Cap uncovered the truth about Hydra — how it managed to infiltrate the government and undermine organizations founded by his wartime allies. The upcoming Captain America: Civil War is set to introduce a conflict between Captain America and his Avenger allies… all over Bucky. Can you see a pattern starting to develop?
So let’s get back to our original question: How long will the consumer base keep returning for Captain America’s cinematic adventures? If you follow current rumors, word seems to be we’re looking at Sharon Carter, The Falcon or Bucky taking over the shield as a new Star-Spangled Avenger. Audiences will get another fresh start until the films start to retread what is expected of the hero’s journey. What will make the Falcon different than Bucky or Captain America? How many times can a character be introduced, betrayed, challenged and forced to define the heroic nature? What makes Captain America different than Thor or Iron Man or Black Widow?
It’s also evident that Marvel Studios has to plan for the eventual replacement of actors tied to its key roles. Captain America being removed, just puts a different face on the conflicted patriot. Thor dies and Marvel finds a new powerhouse to fill the slot. Iron Man retires for Rhodey or Pepper to take over. Who knows? The J.A.R.V.I.S. powered Vision could effectively become the new Iron Man of the future. What were once fresh bows for characters in the late 2000s through 2012 has now become an assembly line of intellectual property.
Much respect should be given to Marvel’s willingness to play with style in regards to the studio’s future cinematic offerings. Doctor Strange, Black Panther and Captain Marvel showcase an effort to break out of the standard large scale action film. But while complaints remain about character roles, does it matter if Marvel Studios just changes the genre? How does a horror film, a geopolitical thriller and a military action film differ from anything in Phase 1 or Phase 2? Marvel has already attempted this with Guardians of the Galaxy and they created yet another fresh initial bow. The pattern returns.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a monumental endeavor in structuring a serial narrative across multiple films. However, constant repetition of themes isn’t enough to maintain interest. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is doomed to collapse, as the content is counting down to nil. When the contracts are burned up, when the heroes move on and Marvel is trying to sell the world on a New Warriors movie, the truth will be revealed. Periodic entertainment can’t translate to a finite medium. Audiences will bore, plots will run out and Marvel will have nothing. The good news is they’ll probably be worth the GDP of France by that point.