Superhero films over the past two decades have become immensely popular and influential in pop culture and a lot of this is driven through the shared universe they create. Arguably, the most famous of these is the Marvel Cinematic Universe that began with Iron Man in 2008 and continues to this day, spanning 14 films already with plans in well past 2019. It didn’t start here however as the X-Men films created their universe back in 2000 which still exists today (give or take some questionable time travel and reboots) and the Batman Trilogy created a mini DC Universe with Christian Bale as the Caped Crusader starting in 2005. Now I know Superhero films and universes existed well before then (namely the iconic Superman and Batman films of the Reeves and Keaton era respectively) but I wanted to focus on what is now becoming a much wider model of film series, where sequels and new films alike can be about a completely different hero but also serve to construct and push forward a much larger universe than the individual film. And I will do so by looking at Marvel and DC and comparing their approach in the past 10 years and the foreseeable future, in the next few blogs!
In this part, I would like to quickly look at the MCU from Iron Man to the Avengers and discuss why I believe it was fundamentally a success:
The MCU has existed since Iron Man and the film already hinted to a much wider universe. Intentional or not at the time, it started to mimic the comics where heroes could function independently and cross over when the threat was just too great. But from a viewer’s point of view, Iron Man was a sensible and accessible place to start. Essentially, Tony Stark is a man in a tin suit which makes him relatable to most people. Sure he’s a genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist (his words) which makes him somewhat different to the average man, myself especially, he is still squishy and flawed like most of us and requires technology to make him a hero. Before we get into that discussion, I am aware that this is a theme explored within Iron Man 3, does the man make the suit or the suit the man etc but for the sake of this I wanted to focus on his accessibility. He represents a ‘normal human’ born with no genetic super powers (apart from his genius and wealth). He uses essentially a suit of armour (which humans have been using for centuries) to become a superhero and the suit he uses is scientifically speaking, plausible. FYI I use plausible very loosely. But this makes him a great place to start for an young universe when trying to attract viewers, comic book fans or not.
Another key point to take from this film for the MCU is S.H.I.E.L.D. The introduction of Phil Coulson and Nick Fury and the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division (not yet named as S.H.I.E.L.D) gave the MCU a thread that could hold together the early MCU and tie together seemingly unrelated characters but more on that later.
Following Iron Man came the Incredible Hulk (2008) and, although he is a lot harder to relate to than Mr Stark, he was still a grounded character in science and the ‘realms’ of possibility. The first major sign of the expanded universe was Tony Stark visiting General Ross in the bar in the post credits scene. This was incredibly exciting as this was showing that Marvel were consciously creating their films within a shared universe alluding to a much greater plan at work. Iron Man 2 (2010) followed and crucially the easter eggs included in the film are direct nods to the Incredible Hulk, with footage of that film within the film itself plus the acknowledgement of films to come ie, Captain America and Thor. Also, the focus on S.H.I.E.L.D here too served to develop the importance of this organisation in the much wider universe and gave fans plenty of hope.
Thor (2011) was already hinted at at the end of Iron Man 2 and despite again, a largely unrelatable character as not many of us sport the physique and strength of this Asgardian, his back story is also grounded in science and sociology. The idea that advanced races, could have visited and shaped our ancient society is still a theory in today’s research and some believe this to be true; for example look at the Scientologists. But cleverly, Marvel was also attuning us to the possibility that they could exist, and they could exist together. Thor also gave a scientific excuse to explain some magic but also more importantly the idea that the MCU no longer existed just on the Earth but also reaching to the stars. S.H.I.E.L.D, again, was also prevalent within this film, arriving to reinforce that this was a shared universe and theoretically Iron Man or the Hulk could pop up any time.
Closing off 2011, we saw the ‘Prequel’ which is Captain America: the First Avenger. By now, every Marvel fan knew that the Avengers were on the way however it had been developed over the space of 3 years. Captain America offered a more grounded hero v the Hulk and the God that came before, the humble but determined weakling who, through science, became a supersoldier. From a Universe building point of view there is a lot to take from this film- the introduction of an infinity stone, the development of a major villainous organisation H.Y.D.R.A and the begins of S.H.I.E.L.D. These were all promises from Marvel as to where they were going, what they were planning and it kept up the momentum of hype from the viewers.
We have finally arrived at the Avengers, and by now the Universe has been developed and established. By 2012, we had a team of heroes who had been drip fed to us over the previous 4 years and developed individually to build this universe we saw in The Avengers. Although plenty of the heroes seem far-fetched; when you boil it down you have a man in an expensive suit of armour, two who have been specially trained, two created by science and one that is an alien God. The viewers can relate to this a lot more as Marvel have taken the time to get both the viewers and the film industry used to what to expect. They use Loki, an already established villain to act as the main antagonist while introducing a much larger universal threat. They use the Tesseract, an already seen object of immense power as the objective of the film. Finally, they use the idea of a space invasion and portals, arguably the hardest to relate to, which has already been established through-out Thor. There are lots of threads, easter eggs and plot points that come together to create this universe. The use of S.H.I.E.L.D then underpins and supports the universe at this point as they act as the gravity point that pulls all these films together. In my opinion, the time and the planning, along with the attention to detail is what meant that the MCU, at the close of 2012, the most successful model of Universe Building in film.
Thank you for taking your time to read this, this is my first blog and I am planning to do more, with the next going up on 13th January which will explore the parallels of the DCU with the MCU. I appreciate that this was a whistle stop tour, so if you would like to see me discuss these in more detail please let me know!
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