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Thoughts on the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Anything that persists for an entire decade as a recurring entertainment event begins to mean more than simple entertainment. It’s inevitable that once a franchise like the MCU has continued for long enough that its overall significance has to be factored in. I don’t think fans quite appreciate what genre movies like these used to be like before MCU.

Battle on Titan Avengers: Infinity War 2018
It’s really not the special effects or effective mix of humor, action, and character development. It’s the fact that all three of things happen within the persistent universe. Because no Marvel movie is the last Marvel movie, and there’s always another one to develop the characters, fans have a different relationship to this franchise.

It’s more like what comic books are, obviously, where no matter what crazy stuff goes on in a crossover event, you have a reasonable expectation that your favorite character will be back the next month or the month after that.

There have been good MCU movies, mediocre movies, and one that I’m pretty sure qualifies as a bad movie. There are also an assortment of television properties that range from epic to fairly boring.

But what does it mean?

As a writer, what really impressed me about the 2018 MCU offerings (Black Panther, Infinity War, and Antman and Wasp) was the nifty trick it seemed to get away with. Check online and the innumerable youtube video essays and you get this picture of a master-plot that connects each and every movie, with details, character points, and the odd artifact all connected in a hyperaware fashion. People watch movies for all sorts of reasons but I think what really hooks people - HOOKS me for one example - is the sense that these movies are building on each other, telling long form stories that carry through from one two hour spectacle to another.

In other words, MCU has found a new way to be epic and all it costed them was a few very diligent continuity experts and enough money to craft a few epic money-shots per film.

After that, fandom takes over. We know that these stories are going to continue and that even very superficial details or relationships in one movie might come back in a later one.

Let me give one example - The Vision. The Vision appears in a total of three films: the Age of Ultron, Civil War, and Infinity War. In each of those films, the Vision maybe gets nine minutes in each. And yet in that time, we get a sketch of The Vision’s origins as a mechanical being, a few spectacular examples of his powers and the bare-bones development of his relationship with the Scarlet Witch AKA Wanda Maximoff. I want to be clear, when The Vision gets offed (twice!) in the closing moments of Infinity War, I really connected with his story. It worked for me. How does Marvel accomplish stuff like this?

First off, it’s important to state how little support went into making these moments develop. The relationship of Wanda and The Vision, for example, consists of maybe three conversations in Civil War and then the brief scene of them as fugitive lovers. Elizabeth Olson and Paul Bettany sold their scenes and created something that came off as genuine out of the most minimal of stories. The other angle is that there is even though there isn’t a lot to work with between these three stories, there is something. Each of the movies suggests just enough to make the relationship plausible without distracting from the real plots of those movies. This is a nifty trick and one only possible because the assurance of another and another movie down the line gives directors the confidence to insert sub-plots that aren’t going to pay off for another couple of movies. These subterranean storylines only exist because MCU is popular enough to support the storylines of secondary characters. MCU is popular because even if Iron Man,The Hulk, Captain America and Thor aren’t your favorite characters (back in the day, I was an X-Men fan first and a Marvel fan a distant fourth or fifth), there is this constant virtuous cycle that promises that your character is going to be brought in and be made as an integral part of the overall story - not just a cameo.

The other thing that’s happened more recently is that MCU, as it’s expanded its ranks of heroes and villains, has found its own way to express a mythic impulse. One of the things that bugs me about the DCEU, is that each character is always portrayed as a god first and a human being second. Justice League made the mistake of assuming that epic settings and lots of CGI baddies makes for epic story-telling. MCU has both of those things too but it also has characters that start off as relatable and sympathetic and THEN get involved in epic scenarios through their relatable ambitions and fears. My favorite MCU movie so far - Captain America: The Winter Soldier - was one of the best Phase 2 examples I can think of. Even though the final showdown over the Triskelion suffered from a little of the Big Bad Explosions Spectacle that many comic book movies do, it also that incredibly personal and savage battle between hero and his best friend. That’s the stuff of mythology - The llliad,The Epic of Gilgamesh and Star Wars. The most recent Sony Spiderman movie is one of the first non-MCU movies in a while that’s figured out the code. Personal conflicts leading to Cosmic Conflicts = Epic movie-making.

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