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The Marvel Cinematic Universe: Is It All Connected?

By Patrick McNair Feb 6, 2017 - 1:00 PM print

In 1978, Superman: The Movie burst onto the screen as the first superhero blockbuster film of the modern era. Audiences were stunned by the special effects that made them believe that a man could fly just as the film promised. Eleven years later, Tim Burton brought Batman to new celluloid heights in Batman . The movie mixed a grounded reality with Burton's trademark gothic style to create a truly unique and memorable incarnation of the Dark Knight. As time went on, more comic book properties saw big-screen adaptions, including the X-Men, Spider-Man, Blade and the Fantastic Four. These films and associated sequels existed in their own continuity by themselves, mostly due to different studios owning the screen rights to different properties. For example, 20th Century Fox held the movie rights to the X-Men and the Fantastic Four, while Sony had acquired the Spider-Man license. Like any production company, Fox and Sony put their licences to good use, producing numerous superhero films of varying quality, establishing a new age of superhero movies. Marvel Entertainment, who had co-produced virtually all of these projects, saw little money from these licensing deals with other studios and wanted in on the action. By 2005, the company began plans to independently produce its own films, while maintaining artistic control of those projects and distribution.

Brave New Universe

Avi Arad, head of Marvel's film division was pleased with the success of Sam Raimi's Spider-Man trilogy at Sony, but less then infused with other attempts such as Daredevil over at Fox. Arad believed that such creatively lacklustre efforts and mismanagement damaged the properties and their future stock. As a result of wanting to gain more creative control of their properties, Marvel Studios was formed (formerly Marvel Films). Kevin Feige, who had served as an associate producer on the first X-Men movie, was hired as Arad’s second-in-command. Despite not having access to core properties like Spider-Man and the X-Men, Feige realised that Marvel still owned the rights to the core members of the Avengers, Marvel’s premier superhero team. Just as Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had done with their comics in the 1960s, Feige envisioned a shared universe, whereby the characters would exist in a single continuity, with each individual film part of a much larger whole. Marvel's plan was to release films for each main member of The Avengers and then merge them together in a crossover film. In 2007, Arad left the company, citing creative differences and Feige was named president of Marvel Studios. A six person committee was formed to ensure artistic integrity, with Feige later referring to the project as the "Marvel Cinematic Universe." By 2008, Marvel Studios released the first film in its "Phase One" initiative, with Iron-Man . An instant critical and financial hit, the film set a new standard for superhero movies, not to mention its tight handling on Tony Stark, portrayed to perfection by Robert Downey Jr. Marvel Studios continued to release films for the main Avengers including, Captain America: The First Avenger , The Incredible Hulk and Thor . By 2012, Marvel Studios released The Avengers , thereby successfully bringing together all four main characters (as well as a supporting cast) into one crossover film. The Marvel Cinematic Universe was beginning to take shape now that the groundwork had been established, paving the way for an ambitious interconnected web of films.

Fractured Narratives

Film of course, wasn't the only medium the MCU expanded into. Television was used as a supplement to the movies to tide the appetite of the audience in between features. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. debuted as a TV series companion piece in 2013 and set within the MCU. The show followed the exploits of agent Phil Coulson, reprising his role from the films, leading a team of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents to investigate strange and unusual cases. The idea for the show was to create its own story, while providing movie tie-ins when necessary. Some tie-ins worked to great effect, such as the Hydra takeover of S.H.I.E.L.D. during Captain America: The Winter Soldier , having huge ramifications on the show. Unfortunately, some crossovers weren't nearly as successful like Avengers: Age of Ultron , which felt tacked on, rushed and unneeded. Despite initially promoting a campaign of "#itsallconnected", Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. could feel at times very reactionary. It followed the lead of the films, but none of the developments on the show affected the movies. For instance, the first episode revealed that Coulson had been brought back to life, following his fatal encounter with Loki in The Avengers . However, to this date, this revelation has never been mentioned in the films and The Avengers themselves have no idea that their teammate (the catalyst for them coming together to begin with) is alive and well. Furthermore, the Innumans (a race of superpowered people) became a big force on the show as people around the world developed abilities, but their presence is not even addressed in the movies (although an Inhumans show is on the way). This lack of interconnectivity is a logistical one in nature, since films take years of development, while TV shows require less production time. Screenplays are written years in advance, but TV is much more fluid, with multiple season arcs planned out in comparatively quick succession.

Another factor was the growing division between Marvel Studios and Marvel Entertainment. Even though Marvel as a whole had been bought by Disney in 2009, the movies and TV shows were developed by different companies. The films were produced by Marvel Studios, under the supervision of Kevin Feige, while the TV series’ were produced by Marvel Television, overseen by Marvel Entertainment CEO Isaac Perlmutter. Feige and Perlmutter clashed over the direction of the MCU, with Perlmutter wanting to get rid of expensive actors such as Downey Jr and Chris Evans, forcing Feige to fight for them to stay. A company restructuring in 2015 saw Marvel Studios become fully integrated into Walt Disney Studios, allowing Feige to report to Disney Studios chairman Alan Horn instead of Perlmutter. This breakaway gave Marvel Studios the creative freedom to take the MCU to new heights, at the cost of cutting itself off from the TV division.

A Cohesive Whole

The problems between the films and TV factions notwithstanding, Marvel Television would use streaming services like Netflix to make more adult oriented shows such as Daredevil (giving the Devil of Hell's Kitchen a second chance at redemption), Jessica Jones , Luke Cage and Iron Fist . These series would not only provide an alternative from the restrictions of network television, making for a darker, mature tone, but would make for compelling character studies for these individuals. Moreover, a similar Avengers crossover would be planned, bringing these characters together to form The Defenders, a similar superhero team for the small screen. This type of TV crossover could potentially be the way forward for Marvel to address the lack of cohesion present in its cinematic universe. Characters from the Netflix shows interacting with those on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and vice versa would remedy the connection issues. Perhaps even going one step further as to get Tony Stark (the character the MCU was built around) to appear on TV. It wouldn't be the easiest thing to get Robert Downey Jr pop-up on the small screen, but a single appearance on either Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. or one of the Netflix products would go a long way to sew up the connective threads the sprawling Marvel Cinematic Universe has left fraying. With the introduction of the multiverse in Doctor Strange , Marvel could take the DC route and place different shows into different continuities, existing in separate universes (although some fans may see this as awkward retconning). Now that the movies are going full steam ahead into Avengers: Infinity War , it will probably be the case that the divisions and discontinuity will increase, pushing the movies and TV shows apart. However, there are many creative approaches Marvel can take in order to reconcile the MCU and make its entire component parts work together as a whole as originally intended.

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