State Of The Marvel Cinematic Universe

Where the MCU has been, and where it’s going next.

Thor: Ragnarok hits theatres today, and as Kevin Feige & co. have been promising for about three years now, it’s the next big shakeup in the Marvel machine. Be it the storyteller and the nature of the story told, or simply how the narrative effects the rest of the series, it’s a significant flag planted with another on the way in the form of Black Panther, and that’s before things get really crazy with Avengers: Infinity War in May. So, how did we get here? Where are we going next? And where are those damn Infinity Stones?? The possibilities are… well, they’re not endless per se, but they’re definitely expanding. I for one am excited. 

Few franchises warrant constant catching-up and re-analysis as the Marvel Cinematic Universe – it’s also the only thing more prominent in the movie news cycle than Star Wars – but it makes sense since they’re the ones who cemented the modern blockbuster paradigm about five years ago. It’s Marvel’s world, for better and for worse. And while I won’t really be getting in to the three ABC shows, five Netflix series and the upcoming Runaways, New Warriors and Cloak & Dagger (they aren’t made by Marvel Studios and have no effect on the films; just assume every reference to the “MCU” here is about the movies), that they exist at all and that people want them to feel even remotely connected to the films and to each other is testament to mainstream entertainment’s cross-platform future, one that was inevitable in the age of the internet, but one that was pushed into the realm of possibility by the House of Ideas. Everything from DC to Star Wars to Fast & Furious to The Mummy is headed in a direction that would’ve been impossible just a decade ago. Now it’s pretty much the norm. Whatever your feelings on these films, the “Marvel effect” is an undeniable industry phenomenon – also for better and worse.

But as much as the Marvel movies are billion dollar behemoths filling the coffers of the Mouse-House (Disney purchased Marvel in 2009, distributing all their films from The Avengers on), they’ve also captured the public interest on an unprecedented scale. Box office receipts aren’t an automatic indicator of quality, but even the Transformers series finally hit its saturation point by movie number five, calling its own Marvel-esque shared-universe plans into question. By comparison, this weekend sees Marvel’s seventeenth cinematic release in the last nine years, with another six (that we know of) planned between now and 2020. Before long, it’ll have eclipsed the Bond franchise in about a fifth as many years, and as much as the Marvel logo is the safest possible bet in modern cinema, it all began with a pretty sizable risk back in 2008.

Iron Man is often considered the beginning of the modern wave of superhero movies, but what’s often lost in the milieu is that it went into production without a completed script. Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark may be the most lucrative movie character on Earth, but his origins lie in a mostly improvised film that was self-financed by Marvel well before it had Disney money. However, it did what most superhero movies would not (and still won’t), cutting through any semblance of metaphor and making a movie that was simply about the ill effects of America’s military industrial complex. A timely geographical update to his Vietnam origin allowed Iron Man to see, first hand, what American wars and weapons were doing to civilians elsewhere, and as much as this series is pop filmmaking first and foremost, it’s managed to maintain a sense of post-9/11 political relevance.

The following years gave us The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger, each aimed at establishing the “shared” in “shared continuity” in addition to expanding on fictional concepts like S.H.I.E.L.D. and cultural concepts like “staying after the credits,” vaguely introduced in the first Iron Man (Folks staying back to see if there would be a bonus scene after the Dunkirk and Blade Runner 2049 have Marvel to thank). They also introduced the varying sci-fi and fantasy elements that would eventually coalesce into the first major crossover film, and while most of the “Phase 1” movies between Iron Man and The Avengers are largely lost at the bottom of everyone’s Marvel rankings – Loki is the rare Marvel antithesis, a great villain in an otherwise boring movie – the first Captain America was a pivotal, period-set departure from what the series had only just begun to establish.

While a crass billionaire, an arrogant God-prince and a genius with rage issues are perfectly emblematic of Marvel Comics’ “feet of clay” approach, characters that rightly connected in an era where mainstream American TV & cinema were enamoured by brooding white male anti-heroes (your Daniel Craig Bonds, your Dark Knights, your Don Drapers and your Walter Whites), Marvel introduced the global culture to a character whose name and outfit brought to mind America’s unique brand of rah-rah nationalism (something derided the world over), but captured what separated him from the jingoistic packaging her came wrapped in. He was the paragon of decency, a purely good superhero through & through, and in a world where the cinematic Superman no longer holds that position, Steve Rogers has now replaced him on that pedestal by simply trying to do what is right. He’s not what America is, but what it ought to be.

But of course, before the Captain could be established as one of the world’s most popular superheroes (a thought that still boggles this writer’s mind – in a good way!), he had to travel from World War II to modern day and become a part of something greater. Regardless of how few or many people came out to see Thor, Iron Man, Cap and Hulk’s solo films, the idea of superheroes teaming up to save the day because it was the right thing to do was a necessary dose of optimism in an increasingly dour action landscape (The Dark Knight’s imitators seemed to forget how fun that movie was). If we’re being honest, there probably won’t be another cinematic experience like The Avengers for a long time, one where people the world over had an absolute blast despite barriers of language or culture, in a way that felt collectively cathartic. It’s a film that begins with the question of “Can bringing together these disparate entities actually work?” and earns its rapturous affirmative answer in the form of that shot (you know the one; it’s burned into your brain like a formative memory) before turning into an all-out fireworks display. 

But where could Marvel possibly go from here? That question on everyone’s minds was answered bit-by-bit over the course of the next few films in the form of thematic meta-text, but what became vital in the following years was maintaining the goodwill built up by The Avengers. If Phase 1 was the experiment working, Phase 2 was pushing its limits to see what people would be willing to accept. Iron Man 3 brought Shane Black in to the fold (the first solo Marvel movie that feels like a distinct product of one of its authors), kicking off Marvel’s post-Avengers victory lap with the question of “Can Iron Man function on his own after the big team-up?” and the answer was a rather gutsy “No,” as Marvel began to use the massive, consciousness-changing events of its previous film as a direct analog for September 11th. “Nothing’s been the same since New York,” says a paranoid Tony Stark, dealing post-traumatic stress and surrounding himself with more weapons than he knows what to do with.

This thread continues in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which dealt with drone strike and data-mining issues that ran as fairly blatant parallels to the real-world fallout of America’s post-9/11 consciousness, as the film also answered the fans’ question of “Can a binary character like Captain America work in a modern world of increasing greys?” The answer there was also more complicated than a simple yes or no, and it became the entire thematic through-line for the story. It’s also the film that established that a non-Avengers movie could also essentially be an Avengers movie if it wanted to, with Cap teaming up with the likes of Black Widow, The Falcon, Maria Hill and Agent 13 to fight off [checks notes] a Nazi supercomputer and Cap’s resurrected best friend who’d been brainwashed and turned into the embodiment of his fears of becoming a mindless extension of Government policy. Boy, that’s a lot for a superhero movie.

The Winter Soldier ends with the destruction of S.H.I.E.L.D., the one entity keeping everything in check and holding The Avengers accountable, and Thor: The Dark World even features a similar status quo shakeup in the form of a minor retcon. Not only is “the Aether” featured prominently a film actually an Infinity Gem from the comics (an Infinity Stone in the film), the Tesseract from Captain America and The Avengers is one too, and that big purple guy who grins at the camera at the end of the latter’s credits is probably a lot closer than expected. For the first time, Marvel’s larger cosmic narrative felt connected, like it was all headed in a definite direction.

The second time it felt that way was a year later, with the film that established the fact that Marvel could do aaaaaanything it wanted to. Guardians of the Galaxy was an out-there, gonzo work of blockbuster filmmaking, one that felt like a complete product of the man who wrote and directed it, Super’s James Gunn. It wasn’t just unprecedented big weird fun, it was unprecedented big weird fun starring a talking, gun-toting raccoon and a sentient tree voiced by Vin Diesel, and it managed to feel consistently meaningful despite having to adhere to Marvel’s larger plan of introducing more Infinity Stones and more cosmic entities. If Marvel arrived with The Avengers, it moved-in permanently with Guardians of the Galaxy, and followed it up with its internet-breaking press event announcing the next five years worth of films.

2015 was a pivotal year as well. Not only did the Avengers sequel Age of Ultron begin to make these heroes investigate the nature and consequences of their heroism (and thus the unspoken destructive fallout of superhero movie third acts in general), it also simply stopped explaining how superhero powers worked. Where Thor once talked of magic being advanced science, Ultron introduced The Vision as a product of both tech and mysticism, giving him inexplicable albeit visually enthralling abilities that would’ve been over-explained to death just a few years prior. (It also made Hawkeye feel like a major player, so that’s a definite plus) Suddenly, the feeling was audiences would accept pretty much any premise from the comics, including a man growing really small and taking up the mantle of an older superhero. Ant-Man was certainly an intimate palette cleanser for folks who had grown weary of the shared-continuity stuff, but neither of these were the major reason 2015 marked an important year in the Marvel calendar. It was then that head honcho Kevin Feige got Marvel Studios out from under Marvel proper and its suffocating creative committee (not to mention Marvel’s girl-toy-vetoing CEO Ike Perlmutter) and began answering directly to Disney’s far more filmmaker friendly Bob Iger, finally giving Marvel’s filmmakers more room to breathe and gaining the ability to hire directors and tell stories that may not have been possible in the years prior. Shortly thereafter, Marvel hired its first non-white director. And then its second.

The beginning of Phase 3 brought with it a film that felt firmly rooted in the shared experiment, Captain America: Civil War. It featured most of the Avengers without being a full-on Avengers movie, keeping the focus very much on Cap and Iron Man and how their respective journeys thus far had mirrored one another. Tony Stark, once firmly against the idea of government oversight, had seen his technology fall into the wrong hands and had also most recently screwed up so badly in the pursuit of global safety that he nearly caused the apocalypse. Steve Rogers on the other hand, having seen how government agendas can be used to control and manipulate, slid over to the other side of the scale, and their conflict felt like an articulation of the modern freedom vs security debate while still being rooted in Cap and Bucky’s continued story. It was the realistic, down to Earth Avengers flick (despite the presence of Vision and Scarlet Witch), and it also introduced the world to Black Panther and the Marvel version of Spider-Man, but it was by no means an indicator that this new balance was to be Marvel’s permanent M.O., as the next film in line was Doctor Strange.

Gods. Monsters. Aliens. Super-soldiers. And now, mystic sorcerers. Strange felt like it altered the very fabric of what this universe was, introducing all sorts of loopy dimensional concepts and even time-travel (via Infinity Stone!), but it was very much a standalone film, entirely isolated from the rest of the MCU. It also allowed Scott Derrickson & co. the opportunity to tell a story about death anxiety before subverting the usual superhero third act in an interesting manner, but it was not without controversy. Marvel has, thus far, had mostly white (and male) superheroes, and the whitewashing of East Asian character The Ancient One was rightly maligned, though for once it seemed like the people in charge were willing to listen and engage in meaningful dialogue.

Having become arguably the foremost film franchise on the planet means being under a microscope in this regard. It brings with it the responsibility of actually living up to the ideals of creating a better world espoused by its flagship characters, and while the burden often falls on Feige and the writers & directors when we’re (rightly) disappointed with issues of representation, it seems like they’re doing their best under suits who resist positive change because they don’t want to take the financial risk (see also: the axing of a scene in Thor: Ragnarok that would’ve affirmed Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie as queer). That said, we are where we are in that regard, for better or worse, and positive steps are being taken bit by bit. Fast enough? Probably not, but not shutting up about it helps. 

This year, we’ve had a family space saga that turned two of its predecessor’s villains into main characters to tell stories of parental abuse. How wild is that? James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 was yet another topsy turvy sci-fi opera, but a more focused, dramatic version of what most of us might’ve expected. It’s about as “comicbook-y” as these things can get, going to so far as to introduce Marvel’s all-important Watchers as little more than a throwaway easter egg amidst the ten thousandth Stan Lee cameo (that the MCU can afford to flaunt the depth of their catalog at this stage is incredible), yet it continues to ground its weirdness in meaningful pathos. The most emotionally affecting ending to a Marvel movie now features a space raccoon crying because he realizes he can still be loved despite having done terrible things.

Then of course we got Spider-Man: Homecoming, a fun film with a diverse set of supporting highschoolers (I’ll take what I can get) aimed entirely at proving that the ground-level, non-Avengers heroism is still possible and worthwhile despite the encroaching galactic stakes. And, by being the first generally well-received Spider-Man movie in about thirteen years, it’s proof positive that Marvel knows what it’s doing better than most of its ilk. Finally, this weekend’s Thor: Ragnarok rounded off the first year with three Marvel movies, a work that feels almost farcical in nature since it turns Thor into an extension of Taika Waititi’s sense of humour (in addition to having a rock monster played by Waititi himself!) while still coming from a distinct cultural perspective: a Māori director infusing the Marvel mythology with a tale of colonialism and an empire burying the history of its conquests beneath a benevolent façade until it comes back to bite them in the Assgard. That it happens to be the funniest Marvel movie ever is the cherry on top, but it’s also another status-quo shake up, since the Asgardians have decided to move to… well, the place they move to in the comics. You’ll figure it out.

That’s where we are so far, and as luck would have it, the first Marvel film to come from a non-white perspective takes us right to the second, what feels like it could be a game-changer on par with The Avengers for totally different reasons. Every bit of Black Panther news for the last few years has received a tremendously positive response, and while tempering expectations for these things is usually advisable, it’s hard not to get giddy over the thought of Creed’s Ryan Coogler directing an all-star cast of black actors in a tale of superhero Afrofuturism. Y’know what, screw it, here’s that trailer again:

Black Panther arrives in February, and even generous box office pundits are probably underestimating just how much money it’s going to make. Not only does it take Marvel’s Earth-bound focus far away from America for once, it centers a pan-African aesthetic with the entire African diaspora as its target audience, especially black people in America who (among other people of colour) have been under-served by Hollywood blockbusters in terms of both casting and perspective for far too long. Its eventual success is also going to open up all kinds of possibilities for American cinema, potentially putting to rest the long-standing “conventional wisdom” of who can and cannot open movies at home and abroad. As much as we give Marvel flak for lagging behind in certain areas of representation, this is one place where it really does feel like it can make a difference.

It almost makes me not want to return to any of Marvel’s previous creatives, but then I remember the folks who wrote and directed my two favourite Marvel films (The Winter Soldier and Civil War) are behind May’s massive superhero culmination, Avengers: Infinity War. I don’t think we’re quite ready for how big this movie is going to feel, as it brings together the existing Avengers, Spider-Man, Black Panther, Doctor Strange and the Guardians of the Galaxy, and pits them against one of their most formidable foes in the comics, the Mad Titan Thanos. He’s been teased a whole lot over the last five years (his three physical appearances haven’t been particularly interesting) but it wasn’t until Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, a film in which he doesn’t even appear, that he began to feel truly evil. Not only do we know the full scale of how he uses and abuses his “children,” turning them into mechanized warriors to make them stronger, we also know that four of them who’ve fallen in line are going to make their way to Earth as he attempts to collect the Infinity Stones.

What exactly are these Stones again? The movies haven’t made them fell distinct just yet (apart from the Time Stone in Doctor Strange), but there’s six of ‘em and Thanos wants to fit them into a magic glove called the Infinity Gauntlet so he can have limitless power. Here’s where they are at the moment:

- The Time Stone: housed in the Eye of Agamotto, currently worn by Doctor Strange on Earth.

- The Mind Stone: originally housed in scepter given to Loki in The Avengers, currently the source of The Vision’s power and intelligence. Also on Earth. Uh oh! 

- The Space Stone: housed in the Tesseract given to humanity by Odin a few thousand years ago, recovered by The Red Skull during World War II used by Loki in The Avengers before resting in Odin’s vault. Where is it now? With Loki, probably, but it’s hard to be sure. 

- The Power Stone: housed in the Orb stolen by Star Lord in Guardians of the Galaxy, currently on Xandar under the protection of the Nova Corps.

- The Reality Stone: housed in the Aether used by Malekith in Thor: The Dark World, currently in the possession of Benicio Del Toro’s The Collector on Knowhere.

- The Soul Stone: unknown. This is the only one that hasn’t shown up yet, and it probably won’t until Infinity War.

You would think all this Infinity business would be resolved in the next Avengers film, but there’s a good chance it’ll bleed over into whatever they’re calling Avengers 4. What’s that about? What’s it called? Will Hela feature as the embodiment of Death and the object of Thanos’ affection? Nobody except the people making the film seem to know right now, so it’s hard to say anything about Marvel’s May 2019 entry other than it’s probably going to be even bigger than Infinity War (in which Thanos apparently throws a small moon at the Avengers), so speculate accordingly. What we do know however, is the two films on either side of this massive 2019 finale, which we’ll get back to in a second.

Infinity War will be followed by Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man and The Wasp, the first Marvel movie to be kind of, sort of led by a female character (and the one that finally introduces original 1962 Avenger Janet Van Dyne, played by none other than Michelle Pfeiffer), but the first movie with a solo female lead comes out the following March, Captain Marvel directed by indie darlings Ryan Fleck & Anna Boden. Most of us once thought Brie Larson playing the role of Carol Danvers was the most exciting thing about it (Carol’s rise in popularity over the last 5 years makes this especially cool), but at this year’s Comic Con we found out that it would not only be set in the ‘90s and feature a returning Nick Fury, but will also feature long-time Marvel shape-shifters the Skrulls as its cosmic villains. Assuming its placement on the Marvel calendar means Captain Marvel will show up in Avengers 4, does that mean the Skrulls will have something to do with it too? Is that why the title is being kept under wraps, to hide some kind of… secret invasion? It’s hard to say, but we’ll probably know for sure in six months’ time.

That fourth Avengers film will be the end of “Phase 3,” and it’ll be followed by a Jon Watts-directed Spider-Man sequel in July of 2019 and James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 in 2020, set to be the last time we’ll see this iteration of the Guardians. Surprisingly, that’s all we know about the future of the MCU thus far, even though they’ve probably got three films planned for every year between now and 2025. And maybe that’s okay, because the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers 4 are set to be a pretty big deal. Not just for the overall story of the Marvel universe thus far, but because those original six Avengers – Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man, Chris Evan’s Captain America, Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk, Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow and Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye – the characters who changed the face of global mainstream culture just five years ago? May 2019 might be the last time we see any of them on screen.

For all we know, this weekend’s Thor: Ragnarok could very well be the last solo film led by any of the original Avengers. That’s crazy to think about, given that they’ve been such a major part of pop culture for the last decade, but Marvel also appears to have contingencies in place as it moves forward. The success of Spider-Man: Homecoming and Doctor Strange means Spidey and the Sorcerer Supreme are going to be big-hitters moving forward (they’re a train ride away from each other, so that helps), potentially filling the OG Avengers void along with the likes of T’Challa and Carol Danvers once Black Panther and Captain Marvel eventually break the bank as the first Marvel movies not led primarily by white male characters. You can probably expect sequels for all of them within the next five years, but what else lies on the horizon for this landscape-redefining series?

DC’s Wonder Woman undoubtedly proved to those resisting change that superhero movies don’t just have to be a man’s game, and Black Panther is set to do the same for people of colour. Between that and Captain Marvel, it probably won’t be long before we get a Ms. Marvel movie led by Pakistani-American Kamala Khan (or a Spider-Man movie featuring black/latinx Miles Morales, who was teased in Homecoming), or for that matter characters like the mostly queer Young Avengers. Plus, someone or the other is going to have to take up the mantle of Captain America, and it’s probably going to be either Bucky Barnes or Sam Wilson.

Popular culture is the well we all drink from, a shared language that we all speak now that the internet has begun to break down barriers, and cinema is one of the ways we see each other and see ourselves. I know about half these films are easily dismissible in terms of content and consequence in that regard, but few of those are the ones Marvel has put out recently. It’s been a while since they put out a movie that people didn’t love, and they’ve never made one that most people didn’t like.

They tell stories of people trying to be better and trying to do the right thing, and while it may not always work, the times that it does have helped shape modern pop culture in ways that few films outside of Harry Potter and the original Star Wars films have. As a seemingly permanent fixture of our culture moving forward, people are going to begin placing more and more weight on these things to better reflect the world we live in. Whether it’s the fallout of war and the complications of doing what’s right, or coming together as a found family despite trauma and abuse, or simply the opportunity to see your identity and culture as heroic for once, superheroes have become a modern mythology, immediately reflective in the information age, and the replacement for outdated archetypes like the cowboy. Where they’re headed is just as important as where they’ve been.

Love ‘em or hate ‘em the Marvel movies are here to stay, but the one thing we can definitely agree on is that telling these stories from fresh perspectives is the best thing they can do right now. Well, that and continue to be a good time, but as this weekend’s release just proved, fun and meaning don’t have to be mutually exclusive. That’s been Marvel’s M.O. for fifty-five years, and it looks to be the legacy their movies will leave behind as well.