Grantland logo

Masters of the Universe: Marvel’s Unprecedented Storytelling Gamble

With the release of ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron,’ Marvel Studios is winding down Phase 2 of its ambitious filmic universe. These movies have found unprecedented commercial success, but what are they about, and how do these stories get told?

Prologue

It’s all there in the name. The Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s pompous and overwrought. It’s more than just a fictional place, a setting, or a world — Marvel needed an idea that covered the whole existential buffet. As human beings with limited imaginations, we can’t comprehend that which takes us outside of our own universe. With the name of the project, then, Marvel seems to be saying, Hey, moviegoers: Look no further; this is all you need.

Since May 2, 2008, when Iron Man introduced Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark, Marvel Studios1 has released 10 films that fit within its Grand Unified Theory of comic-books-brought-to-screen. The 11th, Joss Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, came out Friday, and the 12th, July’s Ant-Man, will complete Phase 2 of the studio’s plan for its films.


1. Marvel Studios is owned by Disney, which also owns ESPN/Grantland.

Of those first 10, two are slight aberrations. The first, The Incredible Hulk, lost its star, Edward Norton, to the mercurial demands of being Edward Norton, and, despite a few connections to the greater MCU, the movie exists, as of now, mostly apart and unreferenced. The second, Guardians of the Galaxy, goes down in a different part of space from the others.

The idea here is that all the Marvel Studios films share some intrinsic DNA, which can be traced back to (1) the comics whence they came, and (2) Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige, the producer of every Universe film to date. Feige explained his vision for the MCU to BuzzFeed last October:

The Avengers films, ideally, in the grand plan are always big, giant linchpins. It’s like as it was in publishing, when each of the characters would go on their own adventures and then occasionally team up for a big, 12-issue mega-event. Then they would go back into their own comics, and be changed from whatever that event was. I envision the same thing occurring after this movie, because the [Avengers] roster is altered by the finale of [Age of Ultron].

Because of the Marvel films’ obscene commercial success,2 it’s been easy to think of the whole endeavor as a cinematic golden goose, laying as many eggs as possible before the public gets sick of the meal. While most of these films share a few flaws — chaotic direction, too-similar story structure, and being really, really, really long — they also represent one of the most ambitious narrative undertakings in the history of mass-market entertainment. It’s hard enough to maintain consistency from an original to a sequel when you’re turning over screenwriters and directors; the MCU is trying to do so across a handful of separate franchises that, every few years, get blended into the most commercially ambitious and carefully calibrated cultural smoothies ever made.


2. Six of the MCU movies so far — The Avengers, all three Iron Mans, the second Captain America, and Guardians of the Galaxy — rank among the 100 highest-grossing movies of all time domestically.

What, then, is the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Is it a visionary piece of marketing, with Feige a sort of film-industry Steve Jobs, the innovator of a brand above all else? Or is there substance here that goes deeper than saying the name “Stark” a few times every hour? In the eight primary movies that make up the MCU to date, split among four distinct strains and over 16 hours of filmmaking, what is it that we actually have?

Act I

Were he as fair once, as he now is foul,
And lifted up his brow against his Maker,
Well may proceed from him all tribulation.

—Dante Alighieri, Inferno, Canto XXXIV

In terms of heroes and villains, these are not complicated movies. The MCU is about dualism: good and evil, right and wrong, light and darkness. Tony Soprano isn’t strolling through that wormhole any time soon. But in a way, this obsession with the immutable Pong match of heroes and villains seeds a complication that’s at the heart of every new story Marvel tells: How the hell do you keep doing this differently, movie after movie, franchise after franchise?

The MCU, at this point, consists of four primary heroes: Iron Man, a.k.a. Tony Stark; Norse demigod Thor; Captain America, a.k.a. Steve Rogers; and the Hulk, a.k.a. Dr. Bruce Banner. These are the characters who either have or had their own franchises (sorry, Mark Ruffalo), and they’re the ones who have distinct origin stories, all of which have been played out onscreen. It isn’t until after those origin stories get told that they can start colliding with each other. However, that isn’t necessarily true of the stories themselves.

Early on, there are two main points of narrative intersection for these movies. The first is S.H.I.E.L.D., and more specifically, Agent Phil Coulson and Director Nick Fury, played by Clark Gregg and Samuel L. Jackson, who work as a sort of human yarn binding the MCU together. This is important, because if it weren’t for Coulson and Fury, Iron Man would not fundamentally be an MCU movie. Without S.H.I.E.L.D., it would have as much to do with the Marvel universe as Edge of Tomorrow does. Iron Man is about Iron Man’s dad-rock cool, far more than it is the Marvel Universe.

Aside from Coulson and Fury, then — and, starting in Iron Man 2, Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a. Black Widow, played by Scarlett Johansson — the MCU is also united by the bad guys.

As a stand-alone movie, Thor serves mostly to set the stage for the treachery of Loki, Thor’s trickster brother. And in Captain America: The First Avenger, the evil organization HYDRA introduces a central Infinity Stone (there are six of them; in the comics, they’re called Infinity Gems) called the Tesseract (we’ll get to this later) while crystallizing another of the MCU’s obsessions, which is the nature and function of freedom.

In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, HYDRA rears its many heads as a dormant organization nestled within S.H.I.E.L.D. that has been secretly responsible for many of the evildoings around the globe since World War II. While there are no mysterious glowing energy sources to consider in The Winter Soldier, by the end, HYDRA has destroyed S.H.I.E.L.D. completely, making it one of the more consequential MCU subplots.

The MCU’s forces of darkness — HYDRA, Loki, some combination of the two — stem from the same handful of sources. Aside from the Iron Man villains, who exist in a kind of side pot, this consistency creates a certain sense of true evil in the Universe, originating from the same corrupting sources of power.

lokiZade Rosenthal

It’s worth noting that this origin is never Satan, the Devil, Lucifer, however you want to put it: The only explicit mention of Christian theology I can remember in the MCU is when Captain America says in The Avengers that there’s only one God, right before he jumps out of a plane. None of the Marvel villains are truly frightening. This means the heroes are always the coolest guys onscreen. There hasn’t been much gray area in these movies as far as who’s right and who’s wrong. At least not yet.

Instead of creating a system of ethics with truly complicated moral implications — in the form of Heath Ledger’s Joker, this is the coup of The Dark Knight — Feige and his screenwriters manage to give the MCU variety in a different way: by using the enormous stable of characters at their disposal.

Act II

“I have a different vision of leadership. A leadership is someone who brings people together.”

—George W. Bush, Bartlett, Tennessee, August 18, 2000

In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a bunch of floating HYDRA death ships are prepping to X out 20 million members of Earth’s population. When Jasper Sitwell, a S.H.I.E.L.D. scientist/HYDRA double agent, breaks down the Great Plot for our heroes, he rattles off a few names of those who have been marked for death. Among them are two that might as well be Drudge sirens: Bruce Banner and Stephen Strange.

sitwell

Herein lies the great gamble, and, so far, the great success of the MCU. Through several films that follow different leads, the characters who populate the world — and the damage done to that world — remain remarkably consistent. And I’m not just talking about the above-the-line talent, a collection of stars who are fairly easy to keep track of. I’m taking about the faces in the crowd. Minor figures reappear, barely recognizable; references to events and phenomena show up across properties, in the subtlest of places. These are commonly referred to as Easter eggs, but that doesn’t make their use superficial. Without this echoing and reemphasis, the MCU would be an organizational outline. With it, the universe becomes a Universe, a thing to be inhabited.

That quick line from Sitwell in The Winter Soldier is a particularly effective example because it looks both backward and forward. Other than Tony Stark, Banner gets the most secondhand name-dropping. I think this is because, without his own franchise, it’s the main way to keep the character a vibrant and consequential part of the MCU. And it makes a huge difference for a viewer hearing the name mentioned by Sitwell as among the doomed. We like Banner! He’s so self-deprecating, and then sometimes he turns into a steroidal green barbarian! The prospect of 20 million people dead is terrifying, but when we know one of them is Bruce Banner, we understand it on an intimate level in a way we otherwise wouldn’t.

Meanwhile: Stephen Strange. For comic-book readers, that name has major significance. For the ignorant — like me — it still seems important, foreboding. Because I follow the machinations of the movie industry, I know there’s a Doctor Strange coming down the pike, with Benedict Cumberbatch in the role of the doctor. I hear that name and I think, This dude’s here somewhere, offscreen but here — that’s how big the Universe is. Marvel’s greatest luxury is its abundance of characters, and after 11 movies now, there are still many more to introduce. Even if you don’t follow the comics, these films have become such an object of obsession that you can play the same kind of inside baseball by taking note of the casting, the loglines, the directors, and the press conferences.

howard

Across the rest of the films, people disappear and reappear in a shifting tableau. The character most elaborately used this way is Howard Stark — Tony’s father, a founding member of S.H.I.E.L.D., and one of the creators of the atom bomb. In Iron Man, he’s a specter hanging over Tony’s head, the catalyst for Tony’s arc-reactor technology. In Iron Man 2, he appears as a ghost from the past, played by John Slattery, leaving hints for his son that both further Tony’s research into arc-reactor tech and offer a potential path toward the renewable-energy destiny that Tony has embraced: a clever flip of the idea from the first movie that it was Howard who doomed Stark Industries to making weapons in the first place.

In Captain America, Howard appears in the flesh, and although the decision to cast Dominic Cooper, a guy who looks about as much like Slattery as he does Elisabeth Moss, undercuts the verisimilitude a bit, it still allows Howard to become an even more consequential and significant part of the narrative development.3


3. When we see a newspaper clipping about Howard’s death in The Winter Soldier that uses Cooper’s face instead of Slattery’s, that verisimilitude is out the window with the bathwater.

Howard Stark’s importance to the effort of building the Universe goes beyond his own accomplishments — which, the movies will never let you forget, are really-super-sensational; your man’s basically Rat Pack Einstein. They also help emphasize the messianic stature of Tony, the Son.

Tony Stark isn’t the only main character who gets that kind of crossover shine. In Thor: The Dark World, Loki briefly morphs into Captain America while he’s messing with Thor, and the Captain America shield shows up in Iron Man 2. Erik Selvig references Bruce Banner in Thor, and Banner shows up at the end of Iron Man 3 as Tony’s reluctant therapist. Selvig’s introduction in Thor leads to his major role in The Avengers as Loki’s puppet, and then his return in The Dark World as a crazy guy. Dr. Arnim Zola from Captain America reappears in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, as does Bucky Barnes. S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Maria Hill bridges The Avengers and The Winter Soldier, and at the close of the latter movie, she’s shown interviewing with Stark Industries HR.

The character latticework is done so well that when there are missteps, they stand out. Thor: The Dark World doesn’t mention Tony by name, but it’s also the most alienated and narratively irrelevant — and, not coincidentally, the worst — of the movies so far. But when The Winter Soldier never invokes the name of Tony or Stark Industries while S.H.I.E.L.D. — an organization that Tony never trusted — is laying waste to D.C., it feels very wrong: You’re aware of Downey’s price tag getting in the way of good storytelling.4 Same with the absence of Colonel James Rhodes, a.k.a. Iron Patriot,5 in The Avengers; it just feels like he should be there, or at least be excused out of the picture. That’s the danger these movies will face going forward, as they add more and more human ingredients to the soup: Forget one necessary part, and everything will taste a little off.


4. Tony Stark will, sensibly, be an explicit part of next year’s Captain America: Civil War.

5. War Machine to you comic-book heads.

Interestingly, the aim of this so far has almost entirely been addition. Apart from the fake-out killings of Pepper Potts in Iron Man 3, Loki in The Dark World, and Nick Fury in The Winter Soldier, there’s been only one real death of significance through the first 10 films: Agent Coulson’s in The Avengers. (He came back to life in the TV universe through some bizarre … something, but Whedon said they’re keeping him dead in the movies.) Compared with the tarry despair of Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, or the sadomasochism of Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, this avoidance of true cost is part of what gives Marvel its sunny disposition. Yeah, these heroes might be pulverizing entire urban areas, but hey, they’re eating shawarma!

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EYiZeszLosE&w=694&h=421]

That whole city-destroying factor works as both a plus and a minus in the world of the MCU. We’ve seen acts of significant terrorism or war in Los Angeles, Monaco, Queens, small-town New Mexico, Manhattan, Malibu, Hollywood, Tennessee, Asgard, London, and Washington, D.C. (not to mention flashes of World War II). While the characters and narratives pay lip service to this annihilation often, and with a sort of weary “When will it all stop?” attitude — particularly the Manhattan conflict, which is cited multiple times in later movies as a reason why S.H.I.E.L.D. should or shouldn’t take certain actions — it sets a dangerous precedent, from both a filmmaking and storytelling perspective.

When there’s a constant need to raise the stakes and top your previous work, either you’ll reach that ceiling fast or it’s going to get dizzyingly high. And yet, the widespread violence and fighting does lend a certain atmosphere of total war to the MCU, and that shared sense of danger helps bind the conflicts together. The next logical step, then, is to expand that war even further, and through Guardians of the Galaxy’s intergalactic strife, and Captain America: Civil War’s superhero-on-superhero conflict, that’s exactly what Marvel is doing.

Act III

I filled my pockets now I might as well … die!
’Cause I found the backdoor out of teenage hell … all right!
Filed my account because I might in fact … die!
But I rely on science yeah to bring me back … all right!

The Hives, “Die, All Right!”

Let’s talk that real shit, though; let’s talk about what matters. Let’s talk meaning. Again, this is a place where the Marvel movies take some knocks, considering that the theme of each film mostly seems to be “break everything loudly.” Destruction is a major theme; you could even call it a fetish. But that particular trope is found all over blockbusterdom, including in the beloved Nolan Batman movies — which, for all their critical exceptionalism, knock down buildings with just as much enthusiasm as Snyder and Michael Bay do.

marvelMarvel/Disney

Digging deeply enough into the underpinnings of what anchors each Marvel movie reveals a surprising and consistent fixation that has formed the backbone of the bulk of the MCU story lines. These films are obsessed with energy. In a society greenhouse-gassing itself toward an apocalypse, this fixation on energy — and the ways in which it can help and hurt the world — hits with some genuine resonance.

From Iron Man through Iron Man 3, in Captain America and The Avengers, the conflict driving both plot and action has to do with an object of enormous power and productive capabilities that could be used for good instead being used for ill. In Iron Man and Iron Man 2, that object would be Stark Industries, a multinational weapons manufacturer that Tony Stark decides to move into clean energy, and then the arc reactor that his father invented, an energy source capable of self-sustenance. In Captain America and The Avengers, the source of energy in question is the Tesseract, an object unprecedented in reality, but with infinite plot potential. In Captain America, the Tesseract — called “the jewel of Odin’s treasure room” — fuels HYDRA’s supertech; and with it Loki later generates a wormhole that leads to the assault on New York City by the Chitauri in The Avengers. (How insane does this all sound?! The answer: so insane.)

In Thor: The Dark World, we tangle with the Aether, which is another Infinity Stone that hasn’t made a reappearance yet, but which fits into the larger mechanism of the MCU. That movie’s villains, the Dark Elves,6 want to use the Aether as a light-destroying weapon of mass destruction.


6. Let us now take a second to appreciate that the Thor movies’ villains include Frost Giants and Dark Elves, two splendidly dope names for metal bands.

Instead of being MacGuffins, then, the Tesseract and — to a lesser extent — the Aether become convincing, albeit simplified, metaphors for nuclear energy, solar power, oil, natural gas, and all the other sources of power that run our world, which offer at once the nonstop miracle of mechanical energy and the varied threats of obliteration. But instead of having to contest with the whole web of complications that the energy debate involves in real life, the Tesseract concentrates that destructive capacity in the juxtaposition of good and evil. In the hands of good men and women, the Tesseract represents possible salvation; in the hands of the bad, it is a march toward death and slavery.

That idea of weaponization becomes the true core of the MCU. These are movies obsessed with what it means to make, and to be, a weapon, from the existential crisis of Tony Stark to the literal bodies of these superheroes — particularly Bruce Banner, a man who contains the dichotomy of invention and destruction within himself. At its best, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a constant referendum on the sacrament of creation. At its worst, it’s the Thor movies — an excuse to use vague scientific terminology (gravitational warps! Einstein-Rosen bridges!) as a means of getting characters from place to place. Oddly enough, it’s in the unrealism of magic and gods that the MCU loses its capacity to amaze. When it comes to the adoption of straight myth, that’s when things get the least mythical. Because the filmmakers stray so far from anything resembling nuance, Thor and Thor: The Dark World become aberrations in the canon: They’re merely about power and what it means to be a hero, just like every other story ever told.

But throughout the rest of these films, the same questions are pursued. Can tremendous energy ever be used without the temptation of abuse? Is reinventing the human form inherently violent? Does great knowledge require ethical compromise? The second concern is shared by The Incredible Hulk, Captain America, and Iron Man 3, but the third points toward a possible new direction for the MCU going forward, and one that serves as a direct allegory for the surveillance state into which these movies are being released. The Winter Soldier features an Edward Snowden–esque info dump by Black Widow, forcing the disintegration of S.H.I.E.L.D. Ironically, this event in the superhero movie seems to go down more optimistically than what’s happened in our own world, where consequences for government wrongdoing have been next to nil.

Aside from setting the table going forward, The Winter Soldier serves the essential purpose of rattling the nice, neat model the other movies had established. Without an Infinity Stone, without cosmic waterfalls of deus ex machina, human networks are left to interrupt and interdict each other according to a sense of logic that goes beyond “Whoa, that thing is glowing.”

While the MCU movies are never quite so dumb as that, they can come close. There are a few moments when characters spout off reams of pseudoscience and then another character says, “Speak English,” and then that first character is like, “IT’S THE GODBALL, SON.” From what I’ve heard about the Marvel comics, there are plenty more godballs out there. Let’s hope that, after the relative ambition of The Winter Soldier’s narrative, these movies don’t revert back into clouds of whirling red smoke being wielded by dudes who look nerdy orcs. (I really did not like the second Thor.)

Epilogue

avengersMarvel/Disney

After Avengers: Age of Ultron has made a small nation’s GDP at the worldwide box office, there are 11 — eleven — more MCU movies to go. With each successive iteration, the challenge of maintaining any narrative throughline between all of these different compartments of the Universe will become more complicated. While it may be a drag that the MCU films are so indistinct tonally and aesthetically, it at least takes one issue off Feige’s plate; the Russo brothers might say that The Winter Soldier is going to be a ’70s political thriller, but Feige can rest assured knowing it won’t be, and that he won’t be, all of a sudden, forced to market a splintered-off version of his ultra-reliable product.

Which means there are two ways Marvel can go from here. As the MCU sprawls out, it could become a gangly mess of plots, characters, and themes that intersect only when it’s convenient for Marvel and its creatives — you could consider this the comic-book approach, in which there’s a huge amount of room to fill. Or Marvel could make a heroic effort to keep it tight, requiring tremendous amounts of coordination and overlap that could constrain the movies to a degree that eventually suffocates the life out of them; this appears to be more or less the reason why Edgar Wright left Ant-Man. That’s the point at which these films would really start to feel like products instead of porous, shapeshifting things; it’s a line they’ve been walking from day one.

Regardless of the direction it takes from here, though, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is more than just a device to print money. At their most fundamental, these films are about the never-ending struggle over resources and power, an issue older than civilization itself. When they get away from the typical superhero juxtaposition of good guys on one side and bad guys on the other, fighting for the FATE OF THE EARTH, there’s a surprisingly resonant awareness of the current state of our world, in which a small few control a frightening majority of capital and the means of production. Whether the MCU has much to say on the topic, I’m not so sure; and sometimes, such as when the Iron Mans descend into weird jingoistic weapons-fetishism, they’re saying the wrong thing. But the mere fact that they’re asking the questions is an encouraging sign, because, let’s face it: These movies are going to be popular no matter what.

Kevin Lincoln (@KTLincoln) is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles.