For superhero fans across the world, April 23 is far from just another spring day; it is the Los Angeles World premiere of Avengers: Infinity War, the long-awaited latest installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU. Already encompassing 18 released movies, 10 television shows, numerous short films, and dozens of comic books, the MCU is nowhere near done growing, with at least 6 more films and 2 new television series set to be released by 2020. If you are not a Marvel fan, you may be asking yourself – what exactly is the MCU?
It all began in 2008 when Tony Stark, after being held captive by terrorists in Afghanistan, became the Iron Man on screen for the first time. The iconic character, an egotistical and self-described “genius, billionaire, playboy philanthropist,” started a multimedia endeavor spanning film, television, print, and web-based content that would only gain steam over the next ten years. The MCU is a collection of interconnected stories told primarily in movies, but also encompassing television shows and other platforms, based off the characters of Marvel comic books and are taking place within the same alternate superhero-filled universe.
Marvel is not the first franchise to attempt the feat of multimedia, interconnected storylines, nor is it the only superhero-based franchise to do so. D.C. Comics also threw its hat into the alternate-universe superhero-crossover ring with the movies Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad in 2016, then again with Justice League in 2017. But compared to The Avengers, Marvel’s first version of the epic superhero crossover, which grossed $1.5 billion worldwide, Justice League earned significantly less with $700 million. So what makes Marvel the undeniable master of the superhero crossover?
Prior to launching the MCU, Marvel comics had an active and loyal fan base. But its recent movie success stems from its ability to draw in viewers who have never read a comic book and perhaps aren’t really that interested in a generic action movie. Much credit must be given to the writers and actors, who have crafted a large cast of multidimensional, complex characters, with developed backstories and humanizing traits. Clint Barton (better known as Hawkeye) is shown interacting on his farm with his wife and children in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Tony Stark, the arrogant playboy, demonstrates the darker side of duty when he suffers with PTSD and severe anxiety after the events of the Avengers film. Peter Parker is an absolute delight as we watch him navigate high school and interact with his crush while learning the ropes of being Spiderman. While its past main storylines have certainly featured a cast of heroes that are noticeably white and male, a large part of Marvel’s fan base is women and people of color, and it is making an effort to produce more films centering those stories. Black Panther, an incredible tribute to African culture featuring an almost entirely black cast, was met with record-breaking box-office success and will have a sequel. Black Widow, a heroine and spy already featured in 5 movies, is going to have her own film, and Captain Marvel, which will tell the story of the female superhero Carol Danvers, is in the works.
Fans also love the way Marvel movies interconnect, with characters coming together overtly but just as often with different storylines intersecting in more discreet ways. The overarching plot of the MCU is meticulously thought out, with the movies being released in four phases so that the stories build off of each other to create a larger plot arc. The extended, intricate storyline, as well as the beloved post-credit scenes, draw viewers in. Iron Man makes an appearance at the end of The Incredible Hulk, the end of Iron Man 2 sets up the movie Thor, the character Nick Fury appears multiple times throughout the movies leading up to The Avengers, and the end of Captain America: The Winter Soldier introduces two main characters from Avengers: Age of Ultron. The post-credit scenes of several movies have been gradually introducing the next big bad of the MCU: the titan Thanos, who is the villain of the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War. Fans love to look for the subtle references to other elements of the MCU’s plot in the various movies and television shows, and the complex connections that tie together Marvel’s various characters throughout the films make even casual fans want to watch every single one: missing one movie can mean missing a critical link or plot point. Marvel has mastered the art of weaving a fascinating web of interconnected stories that take place in a variety of environments — from specific neighborhoods of Manhattan in the show Daredevil all the way out to the far reaches of the universe in the Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor movies.
Expectations are high for Avengers: Infinity War, which features an incredibly ambitious 37 major characters from other movies like Thor, Guardians of the Galaxy, Dr. Strange, and Black Panther — but Marvel has yet to disappoint. If you haven’t already, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a universe worth exploring.
PC: Ryan Meinerding