The release of Avengers 2: Age of Ultron marked the conclusion of the Marvel Cinematic Universe Phase 2. With the contracts for most of the Avengers actors approaching their ends, Marvel, recognizing its need to remain ever vigilant in never abandoning the zeitgeist, has expanded its brand across multiple formats- broadcast TV, Internet programming, and, of course, more and more movies. Several recent examples show the benefits (and pitfalls) of the different paths Marvel is taking, and why diversifying is the wisest way to keep us feeding this megafranchise our time and money.
Released last week, Ant-Man was an auspicious start to the new flock of Marvel movies coming our way. Admittedly, the movie had a number of flaws – did you get that Dr. Hank Pym was a bad father and father figure to Hope and Darren? Maybe they needed to explain it one more time; it was a strange decision to set most of the movie in a moderately sized one-family home, etc. – but it had enough elements to differentiate it from the conventional Marvel movie and show how this mega-franchise can remain alive.
The main character of Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) serves as an interesting counterpart to his contemporaries. Tony Stark, Thor, Steve Rogers, and Star-Lord are larger than life characters whose personas are defined by them being the center of attention. Constantly introducing big and bigger characters would be unsustainable as we approach Infinity War since we’d be left with nothing but bombastic blowhards. Allowing Scott Lang (and Dr. Hank Pym) to be much more down-to-Earth indicates that Marvel might be willing to dial it back rather than cranking it up. Hopefully, this means that future movies will feature a wider variety of heroes and character types, instead of perpetually propping up preposterous personas.
Similarly unsustainable was Marvel’s penchant for constantly upping the ante when it came to each movie’s climax. Iron Man 3 featured almost 50 Iron Man suits in a battle against fire breathing men. Thor: The Dark World threatened the end of all life as we know it across the nine realms. Captain America: The Winter Soldier needed helicarriers to fall out of the sky in what ended up being the weakest sequence of the movie. And Guardians of the Galaxy also threatened the obliteration of a planet. Ant-Man, alternatively, concluded with a one-on-one fight where the primary goal was to save Lang’s way (WAY) overly precocious daughter. While the end might not have connected as emotionally as I think the filmmakers wanted it to, at least they tried to make the stakes genuinely personal rather than overly cataclysmic.
Furthermore, Ant-Man utilized the interconnectedness of the universe better than any other film in the series, beyond those titled Avengers. What none of the other films have really captured is that the characters live in a universe with The Avengers. The other leads never mention it because they don’t have to, they already sit at the cool table (or they don’t know about The Avengers but they get to hang out with aliens, which is just as cool, if not more so). Lang and his pals acknowledge that The Avengers exist; it’s a fact of life they live with, but it’s not part of their actual circle of experience. While I genuinely enjoyed the Peggy Carter/Howard Stark cameos at the beginning, I admittedly thought the Falcon appearance was a bit hokey. However, I fully recognize that it was also essential to the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (as well as being a well done fight sequence). For these movies to fully feel interconnected, characters need to cross over with one another, much like The Flash and The Arrow do on the CW shows that bear their names. The creation of a second tier Avengers team is an excellent way of pulling that off without stretching the budget and wasting a movie of one of the founding team members. And Ant-Man showed it can be done without seeming too out-of-place.
Also this year, Marvel made its first foray into online programming with Daredevil on Netflix. It’s not just the darkest/most serious thing that Marvel has yet to put out, it’s also quite possibly the best, and it accomplished this by remaining almost completely outside of the orbits of The Avengers, S.H.I.E.L.D., or Hydra. Although the events of The Avengers are mentioned, characters never seem to pay them, or The Avengers, much thought. While there are superhero/supernatural/super science elements to the series, it’s primarily about the characters and their lives, which naturally don’t involve regular bouts with world-ending horror or universe-shattering adventures. By keeping the show low-key and gritty, Matt Murdoch, Wilson Fisk, Ben Ulrich, and their ilk felt like the most “real” characters developed by this studio. Hopefully, it’s something that Marvel follows with future Netflix series AKA Jessica Jones and Luke Cage. However, the show could very easily lose what makes it special if we get an appearance by Scarlet Witch or S.H.I.E.L.D.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D./Agent Carter
Prior to entering Netflix, Marvel branched out into more conventional television with two shows on ABC, which is incidentally owned by Marvel’s parent company Disney.
Surprisingly, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has ended up being the weakest link in the entire Marvel lineup. The first Marvel spin-off show, S.H.I.E.L.D. feels the most out of place of any of these branches. Starring Clark Gregg as Agent Phil Coulson (best known for being killed in The Avengers), S.H.I.E.L.D. tries to be a globe-trotting adventure series that introduces important elements to the larger Marvel universe (e.g. The Inhumans, answering what happened to SHIELD following Winter Soldier), but it always feels a bit too small to successfully pull it off. One also can’t shake the sense that the series is being limited by the Marvel hierarchy as to what it can and cannot use since the overlords understandably want to save most of the important and interesting elements for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. None of this would be as much of a problem if the show had strong characters, but after two seasons it still feels drastically underwritten; a placeholder to keep the Cinematic Universe fresh in our mind but never being allowed to establish its own identity. Being disavowed by Joss Whedon during the press rounds for Age of Ultron also doesn’t help. However, it allows for second and third tier characters (e.g. Lady Sif) to fill our Marvel needs during cinematic droughts, which only reflects its uncertain purpose.
Despite being set decades prior to the events of the original Iron Man, Agent Carter seems to have far greater opportunities and potential than its present-day-set timeslot sharer, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Unlike S.H.I.E.L.D., which is essentially forbidden from affecting too much of the actual world in which it lives– after all, Marvel doesn’t want the movie audience to feel lost by not watching the series- Carter is the rare prequel that has enough leeway and distance to play and heighten its own future, as well as bolster the megafranchise’s past. While the information we get about the birth of S.H.I.E.L.D. is not necessarily “relevant” to understanding the movies, it nevertheless enriches the Marvel universe by providing a real sense of history, which gives it ample opportunities to expand the universe backwards as well as forward. (The use of Peggy Carter and Howard Stark in Ant-Man is one such example.) Special credit also should be given to lead actress Hayley Atwell who has given depth and personality to the character and struggles of Peggy Carter, as well as supporting actors such as James D’Arcy as real Jarvis and Dominic Cooper as pre-John Slattery Howard Stark.
Make Mine Marvel
All of these examples show that Marvel is diversifying its possibilities for the future. Be it interspersing its larger movies with smaller scale ones (e.g. Ant-Man to Captain America: Civil War to Doctor Strange), developing more character-centric TV shows such as the Netflix series, filling in the gaps with Agent Carter, or keeping the brand constantly in the public eye with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., one thing is for sure: We are never going to be done with these damn things.