There’s an argument to be made that 2012 is the year when Marvel Studios defined itself by successfully completing Phase One and bringing its main heroes together into The Avengers. And I mean ‘successfully’ in all possible ways - not only did they make a seemingly impossible plan work, they made it work profitably and in a way that captured the attention and imagination of millions. There are some curmudgeons who will disagree, but it’s widely held that The Avengers is a good time at the movies (at least) and you’d have to be truly agenda-driven not to accept it as one of the great blockbuster smashes of our time.
But 2012 was just the culmination of Marvel’s first self-definition. It was the end of the road that started when they announced that their movies would be leading up to an Avengers film, a path they were going to walk no matter how things went along the way. They defined themselves as not just the first shared universe on this scale in movies but also tonally, as a place where the movies were fun, less gritty than the prevailing superhero aesthetic on film.
That was the foundation. 2014 was the year Marvel truly showed us what they intended to build upon that foundation. And it was the year that Marvel proved they could turn all of these plans into profitable reality.
When I made my Top Fifteen list this year I decided to include only one Marvel movie. It was a specific decision made to help create diversity in my list and to highlight films I loved just as much as these Marvel movies. But that decision was tough because while Marvel’s films had always been different (don’t listen to the haters who say they’re all samey in the face of wildly divergent films like Thor: The Dark World and Iron Man Three) this was the year when the studio staked out two truly varied areas in their cinematic universe, and both films were absolutely excellent.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the studio’s refutation of the claim that all the films look the same. Its visual and editing aesthetic isn’t just different from the other movies in the universe, it’s very different from the previous film in the franchise. The Winter Soldier also serves as a proof of concept for the Marvel tone, showing that the sense of fun and adventure that had made the previous films popular could still work in a darker, more morally complex story. The Winter Soldier was Marvel throwing down a gauntlet, saying that their films could be more than simply light escapism (but still maintaining plenty of light escapism).
More than that, The Winter Soldier showed the larger mutability of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. By the end of the film the entire status quo of that world was changed; SHIELD was gone, Nick Fury was officially “dead” and superheroes were now on their own. In case it wasn’t clear earlier, this was Marvel making a strong statement about how their universe works - they’re telling a story, one that weaves in some way through all their films. This isn’t just a shared universe in that Iron Man and Bruce Banner can get drinks, this is a shared universe in that what Captain America does in his own movie can have a real impact on Iron Man later down the road.
It’s hard to overstate what a big deal this is. Robert Downey Jr has been around long enough to have been making movies in an old Hollywood system where sequels were simply the same movie repeated with (some) new elements. Like episodic TV shows, many movie franchises basically reset at the beginning of each sequel (see Ghostbusters II for a particularly strong example of a script bending over backwards to get the characters right back to where they started). By having this world-shaking event happen outside of the crossover film, Marvel defined itself as a studio where all the movies mattered. They also defined themselves as a studio where the story would continue throughout the films - things will change.
That’s a very big deal when you look at Marvel Studios as a movie studio. The big difference between Marvel as a movie studio and Marvel as a comic book company is that the comic book company owns the characters completely - they can make Captain America do, or say, whatever they like. They can make him look however they like, and he can look that way for ten, twenty, fifty years. The movie studio owns the characters, but not the actors who play the characters, and the actors have become as well-known as the characters themselves. Tom Hiddleston is Loki, to the extent that his portrayal of the character (and the fanbase he has acquired) has impacted Loki in the comic books. By establishing that their universe can change (or rather have the illusion of change - much like in the comics I fully expect SHIELD to one day rise again, just as all dead characters eventually rise again) Marvel has also established that their characters can change… or go away. More on that later.
If Captain America: The Winter Soldier defined the way Marvel would build on their Phase One foundation, Guardians of the Galaxy defined the way they would build away from it. With Guardians we’ve entered the same territory we entered after Iron Man was a big hit - it seems pretty obvious in retrospect. But Iron Man was a C level character played by a washed up actor with plenty of public baggage, in a movie directed by a comedy guy whose previous attempt at a special effects film had been a bomb. Guardians was an even bigger gamble - nobody knew these characters. Even hardcore comic fans barely knew these characters, who weren’t even the longest-running iteration of the team. It’s easy to roll Guardians up into the world of ‘existing IP,’ but what’s the actual value of an IP nobody ever heard of before?
By launching Guardians - and launching it profitably - Marvel defined two things about itself. One, it isn’t just the Avengers universe. This is something James Gunn has been saying in a lot of interviews, and people have been taking it to mean that the Guardians and the Avengers will never cross over. They will, but the larger thing he’s trying to convey is that Marvel has started building a new wing on their house. It’s attached to the Phase One foundation, but only through one small door (that door being Thanos, a character who the average moviegoer probably missed in The Avengers, as they were already in the parking lot when his cameo happened). The cosmic side of Marvel can be its own thing, only occasionally butting up against the earthbound side. This is familiar to comic readers but is a new concept to general audiences only now getting into the swing of a shared universe. Marvel Studios is already redefining how that shared universe works.
More importantly, Guardians defined Marvel as a franchise launcher. Again, the relatively unknown quality of the Guardians is key here - every other franchise Marvel launched had, on some base level, name recognition. This time it was simply the Marvel name that people knew. The Avengers was a big moment for Marvel, a billion dollar movie that cemented them in the big players club. Guardians was the movie that defined them as the biggest player in the big players club.
Will it also be the moment that defines their eventual fall? Nothing lasts forever, and at some point Marvel will stumble. Guardians has certainly emboldened them, and they’re moving forward into a Phase Three that is very much reflective of the success of Guardians, a Phase Three that sees the studio taking more chances.
That’s the next thing that defined them in 2014: the announcement of Phase Three. In some ways this announcement was a game of one-upmanship with Warner Bros, who infodumped their entire upcoming superhero slate (don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. I have had conversations with people at Marvel that makes it very clear there is a sense of real competition there, and a real desire to tweak not only Warner Bros but also Fox. As someone who grew up with the Marvel/DC rivalry I love this), but what it really represented was Marvel fully defining itself moving forward as a studio that MOVES FORWARD. The Phase Three slate includes four new franchises, none of which are based on name brand characters. Hell, the new characters in Phase Three have been unable to even maintain their own comic titles over time. This is doubling down on the Guardians gamble.
Beyond that, it’s Marvel signalling that they’re not beholden to Captain America and Thor and Iron Man. That’s a defining gesture as well, stating that their universe is bigger than these core guys. They’re not throwing them away - Marvel has been continuously renegotiating Robert Downey Jr’s deal to keep Tony Stark around, and I imagine they’ll do the same with Chris Evans - but at the same time they’re letting everybody know how deep their bench is. In many ways this might have been the most defining moment for Marvel this decade - not only because it presented a roadmap to 2020 but also because it put everything else they had done in context. You can start to see the forest beyond the trees. You start to see the scope.
That scope is enormous, and I haven’t even touched on television, which isn’t really the same guys as Marvel Studios. But if we will mention television the announcement of the Netflix project - four series that will come together in The Defenders - while a riff on Phase One is as important a tonal distinction as Winter Soldier. Marvel has found success with blockbuster heroes, Marvel has found success with cosmic heroes and now Marvel is going to try and find success with street level heroes. There’s a broad diversity of story types here.
And that’s the scope. I’ve been saying this for years, but 2014 was the year when Marvel really stepped up and told us: they’re not making superhero movies. They’re making populist blockbusters that happen to have superheroes in them. In 2014 they stepped away from even that superhero thing, with The Winter Soldier being a superhero movie only because Cap wears a costume, and with Guardians of the Galaxy simply not being a superhero movie at all.
Everybody keeps saying superhero movies can’t last, and in 2014 Marvel took major steps to redefine themselves away from superhero movies. They’re still there, but the old school trappings of superheroes - capes and secret identities and even, in the case of Guardians, code names - are largely gone. We’re going to still call these movies superhero movies, but I think Phase Three will show how paltry that term really is (do you think Doctor Strange has much in common with Batman, for instance?). In 2014 Marvel didn’t just redefine themselves, they redefined what the superhero movie can be. Will superhero movies last? Let Warner Bros worry about that - after 2014 Marvel has given itself plenty of options.