On May 2, 2008, Jon Favreau released a giant gamble of a film. Everything said it shouldn't work.
- It was Marvel's first movie. An unproven commodity on its own on the big screen.
- It starred an actor with a troubled past that no one was sure could carry a film with a budget of $140 million.
- And it was based on a comic character that the general public, at best, had a passing knowledge of.
Yet, here we are nine years later with 15 films having been released with over $11 billion at the box office and six television series to date. There are no signs that the MCU train is going to stop any time soon, but it's beginning to feel like we're entering the next stage of the MCU and it may be a good time to reflect on what we have already seen on both the big and small screen, as well as what is to come.
- 2008 – Iron Man
- 2008 – Incredible Hulk
- 2010 – Iron Man 2
- 2011 – Thor
- 2011 – Captain America: The First Avenger
- 2012 – The Avengers
- 2013 – Iron Man 3
- 2013 – Thor: The Dark World
- 2014 – Captain America: The Winter Soldier
- 2014 – Guardians of the Galaxy
- 2015 – Avengers: Age of Ultron
- 2015 – Ant-Man
- 2016 – Captain America: Civil War
- 2016 – Doctor Strange
- 2017 – Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
The red Marvel logo had been popping up in front of films long before Iron Man, but when 2008 rolled around it wasn't the immediate attention grabber it is today. There had already been three films each in the respective X-Men and Spider-Man film franchises, but I wouldn't say the company wasn't a household name quite yet.
Then Iron Man hit, and all those gambles I mentioned paid off in a huge way. Off of that $140 million dollar budget, the film went on to earn $585.17 million globally. Marvel had a hit and it was off to the races.
It introduced us to the post-credits scenes that are now a staple of the MCU. That isn't to say it was the first movie to ever do that, but it was the one that now makes you think every movie quite possibly may have one and you see people in the movie theater torn about whether they should get out of the seats when the film ends.
If you look back over the list of films Marvel has released since 2008, there are several I can remember thinking, "how are they ever going to introduce this character to a broad audience?" As a lifelong reader of comics, even I thought Ant-Man was going to have a hard time carrying a film on its own, but then they announced the human charm factory that is Paul Rudd in the main role and then I simply went to, "is he a big enough name to carry a movie of this size?"
Then they got to Doctor Strange, and even I have a hard time reading his books. The mystical aspects of the Marvel comic universe have never appealed to me, but it definitely has its fans. Then Marvel essentially adopted the formula of the original Iron Man and it worked. Even as someone who doesn't care for the character I enjoyed the movie.
Marvel has been criticized for forgettable villains, and I don't disagree with that. If you think back on any of the films can you really think of a stand-out bad guy? Sure, you may remember their most basic motivations, but did any of them really feel threatening to you? They have been painted with the broadest of strokes with all of the focus put on the heroes… and, in general, I don't think people have minded. If they did, the overall film franchise wouldn't have grossed over $11 billion to date.
For better or worse, Marvel has struck on a winning formula that people can't seem to get enough of, but how long can they keep it going is the question.
- 2013 – Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 1
- 2014 – Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 2
- 2015 – Agent Carter season 1
- 2015 – Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 3
- 2016 – Agent Carter season 2
- 2016 – Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 4
- 2015 – Daredevil season 1
- 2015 – Jessica Jones season 1
- 2016 – Daredevil season 2
- 2016 – Luke Cage season 1
- 2017 – Iron Fist season 1
Something odd happened on the way to television for Marvel. Namely, it feels like the brand discovered it was difficult to keep up momentum. While there have been some gems on the small screen for Marvel Studios, there have also been some real head scratchers.
For instance, the first season of Agent Carter was downright fun, and was a must watch for me. Season 2, not so much. I can't even point to one thing that made it different, but it wasn't nearly as enjoyable to watch.
I loved the first season of Daredevil so much I watched it to completion twice, something I very rarely do with television fare. Season 2 was okay, but it wasn't nearly as engaging on the second outing for the character. And Iron Fist… oof. While I have binged every Marvel season on Netflix, never taking more than a week to complete it, I still haven't finished the tale of Danny Rand as it is a bloated slog of a story.
As for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Marvel's first foray in the realm of television in this MCU era (no, I'm not forgetting the 1970s shows), it depends on the storyline that is happening at the time how I feel about it. The current Framework storyline – isolated of the Darkholde/LMD story from earlier in the season – is a fun story seeing the characters out of their elements. But stories such as the head of Hydra being an ancient evil force left me going "why is this happening and why am I watching?"
You would think the serialized nature of television would be right in Marvel's wheelhouse with over 50 years of experience under their belt, but for some reason, it just doesn't seem to work for them. This isn't to say they should stop trying, and I personally hope they don't, but it does feel like they need to examine their hits and misses.
Marvel has a lot planned for its future on television, but let us just hope it heeds some of the lessons from its past and present.
- 2017 – Thor: Ragnarok
- 2018 – Black Panther
- 2018 – Avengers: Infinity War
- 2018 – Ant-Man and the Wasp
- 2019 – Captain Marvel
- 2019 – Untitled Avengers
- 2020 – Untitled
- 2020 – Untitled
- 2020 – Untitled
- ? – Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3
- 2017 – Inhumans season 1
- 2018 – Cloak & Dagger season 1
- 2018 – New Warriors season 1
- 2018 – Runaways season 1
- 2017 – Punisher season 1
- 2018 – Jessica Jones season 2
- 2018 – Daredevil season 3
All Hollywood content – be it film or television – is cyclical. If you go back through the history of film you will find various themes peppered throughout it. There was a time you couldn't go a week without a new Western at the local theater. The 1950s saw the rise of the radiation enhanced monsters. The 1980s were rife with sci-fi and teenager dramedies.
Every theme in film has its rise and fall. And this seemingly never ending stream of superhero fare will be the same.
There will be a time in the next five to 10 years where moviegoers will simply say, "You know what? I'm good" and move on to some other form of entertainment. And Marvel does seem to have an inkling this day is coming.
Up until now the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been working as a highly interconnected organism with the films belonging to 'phases,' but now the studio is saying that after the fourth Avengers film that the phases may go away. This is probably due to expiring contracts with the current actors in the big gun roles as well as the fact this will have been going for 11 years at that point. If Marvel was to continue building these epic storylines and the market for superhero films was to crash, it could be embarrassing and disappointing to leave large storylines unresolved.
By moving away from the phases, and possibly dialing back on the interconnected nature of the films and TV shows, it might give Marvel a bit more freedom to explore different genres of film. Ant-Man was a superhero film as well as a heist story – albeit the latter was a very low rung of the script – if they no longer had to worry about everyting building to an epic event, Marvel could try out say a true thriller, something it only touched on in Captain America: Winter Soldier. Who's to say there couldn't be a romantic comedy even between two Marvel characters?
On the television side of all this, it's time for Marvel to rethink its strategy here. Looking at Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. does it really need to be a 22 episode season each year? More and more shows are finding success with shorter seasons as it allows them to fully plot their storylines and keep things a lot tighter. Even 13 episodes sometimes can be a stretch (we're looking at you Iron Fist…), so experiment with different structures. The Defenders is only going to be eight episodes, as is the Inhumans, lets see how that works out.
Marvel has literally thousands of characters and decades of stories that it can work with, and after the fourth Avengers outing seems like a good time to try new things. This superhero cycle is going to end at some point, but if Marvel plays it smart – and it certainly looks that is what they are working on – it could be setting itself up for us to come back and discuss the current state of Marvel movies on the 20th anniversary of the release of Iron Man.
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