How the all-conquering Marvel Cinematic Universe has changed our way of watching film
The Marvel Cinematic Universe (or MCU), 10 years old this year, has really earned its name.
It’s exploded from seemingly nothing into an ever-expanding blockbuster machine that has begun to envelop almost all of Hollywood. With its very first film, the surprise hit Iron Man, fans who waited until after the credits were astonished by the appearance of Samuel L Jackson as Nick Fury (in the payoff for a deal to use his likeness in the comics, some eight years prior). Fury’s appearance implied something unprecedented – the chance for all of these superhero characters to exist in the same space. Ten years later, the novelty is now rote, having not only seen two Avengers films, but also two adaptations of Guardians of the Galaxy, of all things. For all this time, Marvel have employed a strategy of drip-feeding teases at new characters, future storylines and even just extended endings and jokes through after-credit scenes, something to reward the most knowledgeable of fans and give them something to obnoxiously explain to their friend or date afterwards.
Kristen Daly, a researcher in digital culture at Columbia University, in her work Cinema 3.0 – The Interactive Image suggested that the nature of viewership has changed, from a passive viewer, to one who is more interactive. Much like internet users, cinema goers now take information from a number of different mediums, to enhance their experience of any one film. Daly calls this a ‘viewser’. Her ideas were mainly applied to viral marketing for things like The Blair Witch Project, and while this isn’t a catch-all rule for 21st century blockbusters, Daly’s ideas about viewership can quite easily be applied to the films of the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe. Similar to how their team-up and events comics operate, Marvel films encourage interaction with the sources of their adapted stories, as well as with other works – whether that’s interaction between the separate series of these films, or to a lesser extent, the television shows that they produce. In other words, “to understand what this person is talking about, read X” – like the editor’s note has made its way into cinema.
"Much like internet users, cinema goers now take information from a number of different mediums, to enhance their experience of any one film"
This isn’t an entirely new style of storytelling – sequels and crossovers have existed before The Avengers after all – but this new level of interconnectedness has stemmed from Marvel Studios’ attempts to completely adapt their comic books into film, reaching a midpoint between blockbuster cinema and the continuous style of storytelling of the comic books that they are based on. Like in a team-up or event comic, one of the main pleasures that comes from watching something like Avengers Assemble (the clue is in the title) is the spectacle of seeing characters from distinctly separate worlds of technology, magic and espionage, clashing and, well, assembling over the course of the film as well as the suggestion of a wider, varied universe in which all the characters exist, as in the comics.
The amount of enjoyment audiences might get out of seeing something like this depends somewhat on their knowledge of these characters beforehand, and in some instances their knowledge of characters not even introduced in prior films that laid the groundwork for Avengers Assemble. The most prominent example coming in the Avengers Assemble’s post-credits stings featuring ‘Thanos’, the villain of Avengers: Infinity War. Mainstream audiences less familiar with the source material of the films were left puzzled by the lack of the information necessary to understand the significance of the character’s practically unexplained appearance, and so everyone – bar the hardcore fans – took to Google to ask who exactly the big purple guy was. Thanos is at the same time irrelevant to the narratives and essential to the construction of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, reminding viewers that all this is leading somewhere in the end – this ‘end’ supposedly being Infinity War, which lands this Friday.
These cameos and crossovers, which appeal directly to these ‘viewsers’, can also detract from the experience of the film as a whole – parts of Age of Ultron and Guardians of the Galaxy drew criticism due to dropping set-up for Infinity War in the midst of the narrative in order to continue the cross-promotion and highlight the connection between the disparate parts of the Marvel universe. And while it is rewarding for the ‘viewsers’, it can appear baffling and superfluous to others.
The Marvel films also build on iconography and audience knowledge outside of the films as a kind of narrative shortcut. The most prominent example being in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War. The last in a trilogy, it appears as a sort of extension to the Avengers series, as it includes most of the characters introduced across the Marvel films. However it also takes advantage of audience knowledge in the case of introducing the character of Spider-Man to this franchise. His integration into the MCU takes one scene, in contrast to the ongoing arc of Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther, who notably made his debut in Civil War; because after five films featuring the character within a decade – and that’s in addition to his high standing within pop-culture anyway – we as an audience are well aware of who Spider-Man is. This is where the MCU’s interconnectedness and relationship with texts outside of film works to its advantage, saving time that would be spent on exposition and instead trusting the audience to understand the significance and iconography of these characters.
The popularity of the MCU has of course led to imitation – even beyond superhero franchises. Recently, Hollywood has attempted to cash in on Marvel’s crossover strategy, promising cinematic universes that feature all your beloved characters, King Kong and Godzilla for example, or a solo film for every single Spider-Man character, Aunt May included. These attempts to imitate the MCU shows that films, at least in the case of Hollywood blockbusters, are becoming increasingly intertextual. This new culture of reference and intertext has also bled into standalone films like Ready Player One, a film that’s built on audience nostalgia and references to other existing texts, to the point where it more or less just lifts icons (and even entire scenes) from these other films. In the age of the internet, where almost all the information in the world is at our fingertips, cinema has begun to place emphasis on cultural capital, rewarding who knows the most before heading into the multiplex.