The James Clayton Column: Questions for the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s future

As Captain America: The Winter Soldier arrives, James considers the future phases of the Marvel Cinematic Universe...

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is imminent, and it’s only a matter of days until the movie lands at your local multiplex. It will be a massive hit. After the second Steve Rogers solo outing, the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Phase Two will continue later in the summer with Guardians Of The Galaxy. That will also be a massive hit.

Phase Two finishes with Avengers: Age Of Ultron and that’s going to arrive on May Day 2015. That will be a massive hit, as will Ant-Man – directed by Edgar Wright – which will follow a couple of months later to get Phase Three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (the MCU if you’re into the whole brevity thing) underway.

Meanwhile, a string of upcoming live-action Netflix series will join Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. as small-screen Marvel adventures. If all goes to plan the Daredevil, Iron Fist, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage shows will eventually lead up to a Defenders mini-series and there’s also the possibility of a mini-series for Hayley Atwell’s Agent Peggy Carter as well. All of these things, when and if they come around, will be massive hits.

I hope you can see a pattern here. This shared universe is spawning a whole lot of hits and if you note the popularity of other post-millennial movie franchises built on Marvel properties – the X-Men multi-series, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy and its recent fresh respin – you realise that shouts of “Excelsior!” are definitely warranted.

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Sticking with films not produced by Marvel Studios for a second, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 arrives next month and will also probably be a massive hit. Shortly after that we’ll experience the mutant ensemble crossover event that is X-Men: Days Of Future Past and that will, likewise, be a massive hit. Though there’s some scepticism surrounding the upcoming Fantastic Four reboot, chances are that’ll be a massive hit as well. In total, it looks like they’re having a pretty Hulksmashing time at the comics publishing house with all this blockbuster activity and the subsequent buzz and box office success. At present, Marvel is standing tall as the major brand entity dominating contemporary pop culture.

Marvel Entertainment’s assets and aspects are varied across disparate media but right now I wish to concentrate on the screen works and focus specifically on the MCU overseen by Marvel Studios. I wish to do this because, out of all franchises, it’s the hottest series on the scene and is the shawarma hang-out where all the coolest kids want to be seen. It’s also arguably the most fascinating and impressive of ongoing franchises when you appreciate it as an ambitious and multifaceted unrolling masterplan of many staggered phases.

That masterplan – carefully controlled and cultivated by studio president Kevin Feige and an assembled cast of crack creative cohorts – has worked out spectacularly so far. In working out, the MCU has generated its own momentum and energy to grow with more and more people enthusiastically coming on board with the grand cinematic superhero serial vision. Each movie stands alone and does the business as a major blockbuster event but the beauty of this franchise is in the way that the composite elements have all segued neatly into the ever-expanding bigger picture.

From the first Iron Man movie through the various sequels via the vital convergence event that was The Avengers (a.k.a. Avengers Assemble), the MCU has been continually developing in organic and logical fashion, all the while generating massive hit after massive hit after massive hit. As a franchise (or multi-franchise) it has been, is and will continue to be a tremendous success both creatively, critically and commercially.

Then again, maybe triumph isn’t a certainty. The rise of modern comic-book blockbusters has been partly powered by the Marvel Studios releases and they’ve rode the crest of that auspicious wave. What happens when the wave breaks though? With a surfeit of superhero flicks saturating the marketplace and other mega-franchises competing for consumers’ attention there’s a belief that, at some point, the bubble is going to will burst.

This idea has gained a lot of traction, especially as observers eye up the heavily frontloaded 2015 schedule and see studios anxiously shifting release dates to avoid under-performance at an overcrowded box office. Vulture-like, film fans and industry insiders alike are wondering which of the might tentpoles will crash, burn and be the major victims of the anticipated bust. It could be an MCU movie, and the news that Captain America 3 will be going up against the Superman vs Batman – the DC versus Marvel rivalry brought right into cinemas – only serves to add to the tension.

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In spite of these concerns, I’m not convinced that the inevitable decline is actually that inevitable and, judging on the strength of the extant evidence, I don’t believe that Marvel Studio’s hot streak is going to come to an end. The future for the MCU is a tantalising thing to ruminate on, though asking “When is it all going to go wrong?” is a pessimistic pastime. There are more interesting questions to ask and most of them run more along the lines of “When is what’s going right going to go even righter or become even more right-on or more righteous?”

As an invested  supporter of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, eagerly awaiting the new Captain America sequel, Guardians Of The Galaxy, Avengers: Age Of Ultron and all the phases beyond, I’m asking these questions and thinking on these issues as the franchise’s future unfolds…

When will a major character die?

Coulson lives! Because of the whole Tahiti “It’s a magical place” trick, everyone’s favourite Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. isn’t dead. Therefore, none of the major good guys in this franchise have been killed off yet. Though retcons and rebirths are classic tropes in the world of comic books, at some point one of the heroes of the MCU is going to have to expire, for real, forever.

This will be a traumatic, game-changing event and few people really want to face the idea of going to see an Avengers movie without, say, Captain America (I’m filling up just thinking about it). Still, we need sacrifices in order to maintain a sense of threat. If our heroes are invincible and impervious, where’s the dramatic tension, the suspenseful threat and why should the audience care?

Just as the deaths of certain icons have yielded some of the most compelling arcs in comics history, the eventual demise of one of our beloved main protagonists will bring fresh narrative possibilities, tremendous emotional poignancy and additional human authenticity to the cinematic series. Plus it would give the Avengers someone to avenge, so really, the mortal loss of a hero is essential.

When will under-represented groups get represented?

Marvel comics and the movie adaptations have a positive social function and are sources of empowerment for outsiders and minorities. Crudely speaking, the recent rise of the comic-book movie genre represents a sweeping shift of geek culture to the mainstream. Having effectively infiltrated the mainstream, as it were, the potentially progressive and transformative power of the Marvelverse is now able to reach even further and have a stronger influence on global society.

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There’s always room for more diversity in a blockbuster scene dominated by white heterosexual male heroes – though, to be fair, some of them are playing aliens and Asgardians.  I think we can have confidence that Marvel Studios will keep up efforts to provide more screen representation for sociological groups that are under-represented on screen.

With an eclectic almost-infinite source pool of comics characters to draw from, the wider variety will most likely happen quite naturally though the loud fan calls for a female-led MCU movie have definitely had an impact. Even if Scarlet Johansson’s Black Widow doesn’t get a solo feature, Kevin Feige’s comments that a Captain Marvel “could be very cool” are promising and so is the prospect of Jessica Jones and Peggy Carter series.

The same goes for ethnic ‘minorities’ and different sexualities. I expect more monumental moments like the casting of a black Nick Fury to come in the future and the works of the MCU to organically become even more diverse than they already are.

When is the next big surprise and ‘screw with the audience’ moment coming?

If anything, the unravelling of the MCU has shown that swerveballs and leftfield choices are very much a part of the masterplan. Marvel Studios makes intriguing casting choices and selects unique directors to handle each individual movie while allowing them to bring different genre stylings to the party. Looking ahead to future phases, I’m most excited about the surprise jaunts and the next pull-the-rug-right-out-from-under-us moment.

Shane Black’s very-Shane-Black Iron Man 3 was very much a mission to screw with the audience and I’m expecting James Gunn to provide some similar shocking quirk to out-there new addition Guardians Of The Galaxy. Beyond that, I wonder if one day we’ll get something exceptionally unconventional – like a sequel with a non-linear structure, black-and-white or silent sequences or an entire film narrated by a detached villain or an observing non-Avenger. Actually, how about a superhero film that doesn’t end in a giant fight? (Andrew Blair wrote an excellent article on that topic for this site last year.)

When will the comics creators get in on the party?

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is based on comics written by Ed Brubaker, Iron Man 3 drew heavily on Warren Ellis’s Extremis arc and Avengers: Age Of Ultron shares its title with a Brian Michael Bendis series. The source print materials are informing the films but, so far, comics scribes and artists haven’t had much input on the film production front.

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Personally, I’d like to see things come a little more full circle and I reckon it’d be good for comics creators to get in on the action more – more than a thank you mention at the end of the credits and an invite to the premiere. It’d be interesting to see what would happen if A-grade comickers got the opportunity to pitch in on the screenplays and directly contribute to the films’ overall design. It’d also be reassuring to that a chunk of the astronomical profits are filtering down into the pockets of the original creators and their estates. Acknowledging your roots, paying your dues and rewarding the geniuses who created the mythos that’s bringing in the box office is the superhero thing to do.

Those are just a few questions on my mind as I hang on excitedly while this universe expands and evolves. I will keep on watching with heightened interest, starting with Captain America: The Winter Soldier. (I’m pretty sure that Cap won’t die in this one, but I’m still bringing a star-spangled handkerchief to the cinema and preparing an “I will avenge you!” speech just in case.)

James Clayton is also asking “Is there a place for me in Phase Four? Maybe replacing Captain America when he dies?” You can visit his website or follow him on Twitter

You can read James’ last column here.

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