The Marvel cinematic universe – the sprawling interconnecting storytelling domain that originated with Iron Man – has gone from strength to strength since 2008 via the introductions of Thor, Captain America, Hulk, Black Widow, Hawkeye, Star-Lord and, of course, the Avengers movies.
Despite some inevitable hiccups in quality (predominantly Thor: The Dark World and the first half of Agents of SHIELD season one), Marvel’s interlinking mega franchise has been cinema’s biggest and bravest (see: Guardians Of The Galaxy) cash cow for the last few years.
In fact, the Marvel cinematic universe has been so all-consuming that The Amazing Spider-Man series simply didn’t stand a chance, and Sony have now struck a deal to share the character with Marvel Studios. That’s the kind of game-changing compromise that only seemed to exist in our wildest dreams until very recently.
The make-or-break moment for Marvel Studios was surely Avengers, wherein gifting the keys to the superhero team-up toy box to Firefly and Buffymastermind Joss Whedon turned out to be one of the most profitable decisions in moviemaking history.
Its success was overwhelming, garnering near-unanimous positive reviews and a staggering worldwide gross to the tune of $1.5 billion. It remains the third most financially successful movie of all time. Its sequel, Age Of Ultron, is dropping later this month, and could well take that mantle if all goes to plan.
So what’s been the secret to the Marvel cinematic universe’s success? Well, Hollywood’s resultant decision to churn out shared universes (a tactic now shared by DC comics, Ghostbusters, Transformers and many more) would have you believe that continuity between the films and bankable crossover potential was the Marvel cinematic universe’s secret ingredient for success.
However, we’d say there’s a bit more to it than that. Here’s our argument for why continuity isn’t actually that important to the Marvel cinematic universe…
When it works
Okay, before we get too far into our argument against the importance of continuity in the Marvel cinematic universe, it’s only fair of us to admit that, yes, when the crossovers of the MCU work, they make for truly excellent entertainment.
From Phil Coulson’s attempts to find the perfect spy agency acronym in Iron Man (more on that later) to the same movie’s post-credits sting (which saw Samuel L Jackson’s Nick Fury make his first attempt to recruit Tony Stark to the Avengers Initiative), the pure unadulterated fan-pleasing nature of Marvel’s interconnectivity has been a mainstay in the ‘pro MCU’ column since the dawn of the films. This carried over directly into the next film, The Incredible Hulk, which saw Tony Stark take on the Nick Fury role in the big green guy’s movie.
Iron Man 2 pushed the boat out even more, sticking Black Widow into Tony Stark’s sequel right from the first act, in the role of a sleeper agent hiding within Stark Industries. And although the film has its critics (I quite like it, for the record), the first full-on Black-Widow-kicks-arse sequence – when she and a hapless Happy infiltrated Justin Hammer’s factory – was another air-punching moment for comic book fans. And it was entertaining for the casual viewer, too.
Other big name established characters popped up in each other’s movies and kicked some serious butt – what more could we possibly want? After years of the closed-off X-Men and Spider-Man franchises, this was truly exciting stuff. Iron Man 2’s post-credits belter, the tease of Thor’s hammer landing on earth, achieved another stonking reaction. Even in a not-very-loved film, fans were being treated to nuggets of interconnecting fun like nobody’s business.
Thor continued the continuity party, throwing in Jeremy Renner for a surprise Hawkeye cameo that showcased his bow-holding skills and teased the team-up to come (“you’d better call it Coulson, ‘cause I’m starting to root for this guy” quips Barton) The post-credits scene gave us a glimpse of Loki on Earth, too. Again, an enjoyable superhero film earned a few more geek points and excited cinemagoers by chucking in these moments of crossover and future-teasing goodness.
Captain America: The First Avenger gave us a good look at a younger Howard Stark, as well as giving us a direct tee-up for Avengers in its final moments. And when Avengers came out, it was like we had been presented with a whole film compromised of these grin-inducing crossover moments. The ‘Shakespeare in the park’ battle, the constant quipping, the Science Bros bromance – and plenty more high points besides – won many hearts over, and Marvel cashed in on years of goodwill-building with a hugely enjoyable tent-pole picture.
Let it be know that we’ve no complaints about any of that stuff, but we still wouldn’t say that the continuity of the Marvel cinematic universe is perfect…
Crossovers for the sake of it
Of course, establishing Coulson, Fury, Hawkeye, and Black Widow in the build-up to The Avengers is a logical course of action, and also an immense supply of cool scenes. But one of the less successful traits of the MCU is the tendency to chuck in a crossover for the sake of it, rather than to serve any real purpose.
In Marvel’s ‘Phase 2’ (the period from the aftermath of Avengers all the way through Avengers: Age Of Ultron), the introduction of ‘the twins’ – Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch – in the mid-credits scene of Captain America: The Winter Soldier – is the only crossover moment that really achieved anything. Bringing in new characters, teeing up future events – it’s hard to argue with that.
However, there are little moments scattered throughout the history of the MCU that continue to niggle, at least for some. The unexplained Cap-esque shield found by Coulson during Stark’s Iron Man 2 experiments, for example. This brief bit came across like Marvel Studios execs pleading for approval – “Look! It’s a shield! Shields are cool, right?”
Scenes like this add little to proceedings, and anyone hoping a second Stark-made Cap shield might be an eventual Avengers or Agent Carter plot-point will now know that it wasn’t. It wasn’t a set up for anything in particular, and it wasn’t relevant to the action (unlike the Infinity Gauntlet cameo in Thor, which is clearly going to be relevant at some point in the next five years).
It jars in what should be an important scene (they are trying to save Tony’s life, after all). It’s a very small thing to get annoyed by (and maybe annoyed isn’t the correct word, in truth), but it isn’t the only example of a less-than-vital continuity-flaunting moment in the Marvel cinematic universe, either. Cap’s inconsequential frozen cameo in an Incredible Hulk deleted scene is another example of Marvel chucking something in because they can, not because it’s particularly important.
There’s another moment like this at the end of Iron Man 3. A five second cameo from Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner in a scene that only really serves the purpose of establishing why the film featured a first person voiceover (because it was actually Tony regaling a story to the sleepy Bruce). And, of course, it was there to squeeze in another joke. A similarly brief cameo from Chris Evans – in full Cap gear – was included in Thor: The Dark World for an admittedly hilarious gag. Hardly vital stuff, but fun nonetheless.
Has shared continuity become less important to hero’s standalone films, then? We’d argue so, with James Gunn expertly sending up the idea of post-credits cameos by chucking in Howard The Duck after the credits of Guardians Of The Galaxy. The Marvel cinematic universe has begun leaning away from vital plot-advancing crossover moments in the wake of Avengers, then, with the exception being the twins in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Instead, moments of interconnectivity have become a source of comedy within the films, something that the Marvel cinematic universe is hardly in short supply of.
It’s worth noting that Lady Sif’s Agents Of SHIELD appearances have offered more substantial crossovers, as have a slew of Bruce Banner namedrops in recent weeks. Agent Carter had very close links to Captain America: The First Avenger, too. However, we’d say these occurrences have little to do with the main cinematic storyline, which seems to have leaned away from the solo film crossovers for now (Civil War will change this, of course).
Now it’s time for some major nit-picking, for which I apologise in advance. However, in an article discussing the importance of continuity to the Marvel cinematic universe, it’s worth pointing out that the films are hardly safe from the type of continuity errors that earned the X-Men franchise a bit of a bad rep over the years.
Like any lengthy creative process, bringing the MCU to life has featured some glaring errors along the way, going all the way back to Iron Man. How could the first film in a franchise feature continuity errors, you ask? Well, it’s thanks to the Agent Carter One-Shot that was included on the Iron Man 3 DVDs.
In this One-Shot, set shortly after WWII, Howard Stark invites Peggy Carter to run S.H.I.E.L.D. The problem? That Coulson only came up with the S.H.I.E.L.D. acronym in 2008. As I mentioned earlier, it’s a running joke in Iron Man that Coulson keeps sounding off the full ‘Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division’ title before coming up with the snazzy acronym in the last few minutes of the film.
It’s a small detail, we know, but when you go back and watch Iron Man (as many will in the build-up to Age Of Ultron), the fact that this gag doesn’t match up with Howard Stark’s dialogue in the set-decades-prior short film is always – for me – an annoyance. It’s a chink in the armor of the usually excellent Marvel Studios. It becomes an issue again in the Agents Of SHIELD pilot episode when Grant Ward quips “someone really wanted our initials to spell out S.H.I.E.L.D.” and Coulson fails to retort with “shut up! It took me ages to come up with that acronym!”
The Agent Carter One-Shot caused even more continuity questions when the Agent Carter TV series eventually got made. Are we meant to count both as canon? Is Coulson just really bad at remembering acronyms from the 1940s? The answer to both these questions is unclear (although the prevailing theory is that the One-Shot depicts events set after the Agent Carter series), and these aren’t the biggest continuity issues in the Marvel cinematic universe either.
Not to mention the re-castings of Bruce Banner and Rhodey, there’s also the small matter of The Incredible Hulk post-credits sting, which sees Tony Stark trying to clue in a dejected General Ross about the Avengers Initiative. The prevailing theory at the time was that Stark and S.H.I.E.L.D. wanted Ross and the Abomination’s help to hunt down the Hulk, but, of course, that movie never happened.
Instead, another of the biggest ret-cons in superhero movie history occurred (joining the universe-deleting events of Days Of Future Past and Superman: The Movie’s time rewinding, of course) in the form of another One-Shot – The Consultant. Here, Marvel rejigged things by suggesting that Coulson and Sitwell deliberately sent Stark in to piss off Ross and keep Abomination out of the Avengers. It sort of makes sense, but still jars when you watch back The Incredible Hulk and notice Tony’s very serious ‘you should listen’ moment.
Are any of these major problems? No, but they do show that the Marvel cinematic universe isn’t exactly the home of detail-perfect continuity, which makes us think that continuity isn’t the only facet to Marvel Studios’ success. The fact that Guardians Of The Galaxy, so far completely removed from the Earthly MCU, did so well regardless, makes us think this even more so.
Why we, ultimately, don’t care
So why isn’t the internet full of people slagging off the Marvel cinematic universe as many do with the difficult years of the X-Menfranchise? We’d argue that it’s all down to the quality of the films. The MCU hasn’t had a turkey as big as X-Men Origins: Wolverine or X-Men: The Last Stand, so a few errors here and there are hardly important.
For the most part, the continuity and cameoing of the MCU was at its most vital in Phase One, back when it was keeping us intrigued in the concept of the Avengers Initiative at a time where the future of Marvel Studios’ properties was hardly a certainty. They were basically guaranteeing a lot more bums on seats for the next movie by essentially sneaking a teaser trailer into the film prior.
Back then, in the first outings for Iron Man, Thor, Cap and the Hulk, teasing the next instalment was a big deal, seeing as the bankability of this superheroic new wave was yet to be proven. Now, continuity isn’t the be all and end all of the Marvel cinematic universe, it’s just a nice added extra. Like when you’re reading an actual comic, it’s nice to see other characters pop by for a quick chat now and again, but it’s not the reason you pick up and pay for the book on a weekly basis.
We have Avengers movies for the big crossovers, but the solo films can be their own entities, proven by the wildly different styles we’ve seen in Phase 2 (compare the Russo brothers’ work to that of James Gunn, for example).
This is why Hollywood’s new obsession with shared universes is a bit worrying, as execs everywhere now seem to think that continuity and crossovers are the key to success, when really the Marvel cinematic universe is built on brilliant casting and (mostly) lovingly crafted films. Fingers crossed that studio execs have picked up on that, too.