Tonight ABC aired a one-hour special entitled Marvel Studios: Assembling a Universe. The special was intended to showcase the well-planned route by which Marvel has arrived at its current state of box office dominance through the landmark creation of a cinematic universe spanning multiple films.
From a media synergy perspective, the cynical among us will likely be quick to note that ABC (which also airs Marvel’s Agents of Shield) is a wholly owned subsidiary of The Walt Disney Company. That same company also happens to own Marvel Comics and, by extension, Marvel Studios lock, stock, and barrel. With that in mind, it is good to remember that this special was essentially an hour-long commercial by the company for one of its own properties, on its own network.
That does not mean that the documentary was not interesting in its own right. It does an excellent job of highlighting the aspects of Marvel Studios’ approach which has led to its monumental success.
Clarity of Vision
As most critics have noted over the last several years, the most readily recognizable thing which has set Marvel Studios apart from its “distinguished competition” has been the presence of a singular guiding vision. Kevin Feige is quick to say in any interview, and reiterates during the course of the special, that their primary focus is always in making quality individual films. That admirable dedication aside, it is undeniably clear that threading in moments which would serve as the proverbial connective tissue between these films was a major concern. From sheer screen time in the special alone, it is apparent that Feige is the driving force and primary proprietor of that vision. His experience with the scattershot continuity of Fox’s X-Men franchise gave him an obvious understanding that the universe needed to be clearly mapped out in a way that allowed films to thrive on their own without contradicting each other
Having a chief executive with such a strong sense of the overall thrust of the universe has been absolutely critical in the studio’s success. Feige has infused a sense of certainty and seen to it that the diverse collection of directors whom Marvel has tapped to helm their broad slate of projects have pursued their individual ideas within a larger creative framework.
Complexity of Character
With the ability to look at the past six years of Marvel films as a whole, the plan for exploring the characters becomes easier to frame. Phase I was about who the characters are. Over the course of the first slate of films (Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, Captain America, Iron Man 2, The Avengers) a great deal of time is spent exploring the human characteristics of these larger-than-life individuals. The journeys they go on as people are the primary focus of their individual stories, with the action spectacle serving primarily as a backdrop and means by which the plots are kept moving. On their own, each character grows in a very specific way. Iron Man and Thor both struggle with issues of ego and selfishness (which makes it delightfully fitting that they are the first two core heroes to come into direct conflict in The Avengers), Captain America with the often-difficult balance between personal desire and duty, and the Hulk with accepting and conquering his personal demons.
Most of these, with the exception of Iron Man, have been dealt with in a relatively superficial way. The arcs are clear within the sometimes-melodramatic stories, making the characters’ paths easy to track. Phase II, from what we have been able to glean thus far, appears intended to explore them in a much deeper way. Iron Man 3 was very much about a Tony Stark traumatized by the events of The Avengers, Thor 2: The Dark World about the evolution of a main character for whom glory and recognition now mean so little that he is willing to completely toss them away in service of a greater good, and Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier appears poised to examine what happens when Steve’s personal sense of justice and honor are brought into direct conflict with a S.H.I.E.L.D. organization (and government) which doesn’t necessarily share them.
Moving Beyond Genre
Much has been made in recent years about the coming “over-saturation” of the movie market with comic book properties. Hollywood is known for cycling through particular genres every decade or so, giving rise to explosions in the popular genre of the day, be it the western, space opera, thriller, or what have you. The spring of this year alone will see three studios release tent-pole super-hero films, with Marvel/Disney’s Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier (April 4), Sony’s Amazing Spider-Man 2 (May 2), and Fox’s X-Men: Days of Future Past all hitting screens before a lot of kids will even be out of school for the summer. I have even had this debate numerous times with my counterpart on the Infinite Crossover podcast, who argues that moviegoers will eventually suffer burnout from too many of the long-underwear brigade showing up on screen every few months.
The approach which Marvel has taken should help to delay, if not completely avoid this possibility. The studio does not believe that super-hero films are, in and of themselves, a genre. They are featuring super-hero protagonists in films which fit into other genres. The Iron Man movies are techno-thrillers. The Thor movies are high fantasy. The Incredible Hulk was a fugitive film. The first Captain America film was a war movie and the second will be a political thriller. Guardians of the Galaxy is a space opera and, if his past work is any indication, Edgar Wright’s Ant-Man will be a highly irreverent action comedy.
This reflects a larger discussion with the comics marketplace as to how comics cannot be limited to the milieu of super heroes.
On the whole, the special was very engaging. I really had only one major issue with it, and that was Marvel’s revelation of the identity of the Winter Soldier himself. The studio would do well to remind itself that the market for their films is not comprised entirely of people who have read the comics. As an experiment, over the last six months I have regularly asked anyone I come across who enjoyed The Avengers two questions: “Will you be seeing Captain America 2?” and “Do you know who the bad guy is?” Universally, not a single “civilian” (meaning a non-comic book reader) has had any inkling as to the true identity of the Winter Soldier. Not a single one. Marvel and ABC aired this special in prime time, meaning a great many of those same civilians have now had a genuinely wonderful plot twist ruined for them well in advance of the movie’s release. This is an uncharacteristic misstep for the studio, and the only optimistic slant I can put on it is the hope that it indicates an even bigger twist which they haven’t spoiled. Time shall tell.