Does anything actually change in the Marvel cinematic universe?

14 movies in, does the Marvel cinematic universe ever really fundamentally change?

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

This article contains spoilers for The Avengers and Thor: The Dark World.

As the Marvel universe unfolds with the reliability of Berlin’s transport infrastructure, it finds itself in a successful place, albeit with DC movies taking direct aim. Some people – although not many – hate Marvel films, but you usually know what you’re going to get. This does mean that a Marvel Cinematic Universe event is often a  predictable one, though.

Of course, all movies are predictable to an extent. We’re familiar with the three act structure, we know what to expect from most films. The trick that many of them pull off is getting us to invest in this particular set of characters, and that’s exactly what Marvel does so well. It’s blockbuster cinema in microcosm in that respect: no matter how familiar the plot beats are it succeeds with them time and time again. So, to stir things up a bit, the MCU occasionally throws in something big, something that changes the status quo, ensures the film gets talked about, and websites like us write ‘what does this mean for the MCU?’ articles.

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The MCU has been going on for long enough now that we can be cynical about what any apparently seismic event means for it: very little. This is annoying, not merely because ‘very little’ is hard to spin out over a thousand words. Agent Phil Coulson was brutally killed in The Avengers and it was very sad. Then Agents Of SHIELD happened and this was even sadder, but in a different way (with apologies to fans of Clark Gregg underplaying everything and the guy from The Fades saying ‘Science, be-atch’).

Agents Of SHIELD picked up after SHIELD was compromised in the second Captain America film, but on the big screen the impact of this was limited to fewer Nick Fury cameos and Cobie Smulders not really doing anything in a slightly different security force. In the context of The Winter Soldier SHIELD’s demise feels huge, but its main impact was funnelled into a tie-in TV series, and its impact has felt something less than game-changing since then.

It’s fair to say that the number of people watching these films vastly outnumbers the people who are also watching Agents Of SHIELD, and so venting the volatility of the movies into a lesser-watched TV offshoot can be seen both as an attempt to change how stories are told, and as deflecting the ramifications of the story away from the main feature. This means that Marvel can carry on making movies without having to go into detail about what the fall of SHIELD actually means for the world and the characters in it.

There’s an element of sitcom to the cinematic universe, in that it feels like everything resets itself at the end of each film. The only things that will carry over are the parts with Infinity Stones or Thanos or something similar. SHIELD can be down at the end of one film, but it becomes clear that the Avengers don’t actually need them around to operate. Even with the original line up disbanded, or the group sent underground, you get the feeling that this doesn’t actually alter anything. Now, after Civil War, will everyone just carry on Avenging as they did after The Winter Soldier and Age Of Ultron

We’ll probably have to wait until Spider-Man: Homecoming in 2017 to find out, as Guardians Of the Galaxy 2looks like it has its own corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to play in (Doctor Strange wasn’t big on radical alterations to the universe…at least not yet). So far, though, with the possible exception of Tony Stark, no one is given time to mention or react to everything they’re going through. The death of Thor’s mother in Thor: The Dark World stuck out like a vaguely dramatic gesture to give our lead characters something to be angry about. As if the potential destruction of lots of stuff wasn’t enough, you also had to snuff out an underdeveloped character with a connection to the main one to make it personal…to which Thor apparently responds by staying on Earth and not talking about it.

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The cumulative effect of all this is that when the next apparent disaster doesn’t feel like it’s going to be a big deal. It can work in the immediacy of the first viewing, and Marvel have noticed this, with the collateral damage from previous films being a major plot point in Civil War, but Tony Stark has Steve Rogers’ phone number. After everything that has happened, do we expect the next gathering of Earth’s mightiest heroes and Hawkeye to feature illicit heroism, or just business as usual?

And now for a jarring segue.

The Apprentice loses any sense of tension – no matter how many close ups or ominous chords they throw in – once you realise the editing always makes one team look like inevitably defeated idiots, and this is the team that always wins. Whatever the events of the previous movie, the shit in Marvel movies always starts at normal height before it goes down, and by the end of the movie it’s suggested that it might not be back at normal height by the start of the next film, but there it is. Again. At normal height. Ready to go down once more.

To be fair, this is generally how comics operate, so it’s being true to the source material in that way. Repeating the same beats, though, results in a predictability that eventually makes things cozy rather than thrilling. Danger and moderate peril feels increasingly insubstantial when you know it’s going to have little in the way of long term consequences. With constant expansion necessary to keep the franchise going, this is unlikely to go away anytime soon. The more a cinematic universe has to encompass, the less focus it can have, so the resulting series of films gets by with just enough weight to succeed, but not enough to excel.