In 2008, Marvel began an experiment in shared universes. The first injection into this petri dish was Iron Man, and looking back, the film almost seems quaint. Coulson appears as a side character for a shadow-y government agency of men in black, Nick Fury (an eye patch wearing Samuel L Jackson) is the first series stinger. This moment, full of butt rock, the military industrial complex, and sass is the start of an era, the establishment of the 20+ Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), a cosmic petri dish with a dash of the labor from hundreds of writers, directors, actors and crew. This is the grand experiment to implement comic book serialization to the world of the Summer tentpole blockbuster.
In this respect, the MCU is a failure.
Undoubtedly, financially, the series is a success. In over 20 movies, few have been financial duds. Even The Incredible Hulk (the Edward Norton one, not the Ang Lee one) which is probably the series greatest dud made nearly twice its budget at the box office. Avengers: Endgame will undoubtedly break some sort of esoteric record when it opens this weekend (Fandango announced the film became its top-selling pre-sale title for the first 24 hours, topping Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ previous record in just six hours). Culturally, even, the MCU is the kind of wildly successful transmedia narrative that a movie executive would openly masturbate to on the streets — it’s on lunchboxes and fanfiction and talk shows. Just this month, Marvel has been running print ads where the dour faced visage of Captain Marvel, Thor, and Captain America stare opposite real cancer survivors, the text “we all have the power to stand up to cancer” running down the page. There is little you can not stick the face of a super hero on, even if you’re trying to make them very, very seriously.
No, the failure of the MCU is one of storytelling. As a fictional world, as a shared universe, as a plotted arc, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a failure.
This can seem like a high brow denunciation of “the popular thing.” It’s not. I have followed the MCU since it came out, sat through the 12 hour Phase 1 marathon culminating in a midnight premiere of the initial Avengers film. I lied and told my shitty boss that I had a gynecologist appointment that day and went and watched a movie marathon instead. I don’t even regret it — neither the lie nor the 12+ hours. And just this month, in the weekend following an eye surgery, I sat down and watched all 20 Marvel films available for rent and streaming (Captain Marvel is in theaters, and I have seen it, Endgame is coming out this weekend.)
Let’s start with the simplest reason that the MCU fails: it’s has no cogent, overriding plot.
If you’ve ever taken a creative writing class, or remained conscious during a high school English literature class, this chart will probably be something you recall. It’s a plot development chart. On the left hand side you have exposition, which is where you establish your characters and potentially the initial conflict, and to the far right is the denouement, which is a fancy french word for the finale. It’s also terribly fun to say because it has a mouth feel like the sound a pillow makes when pushed through a sieve.
A plot development chart is fairly basic, but most films, books, etc are going to basically follow this formula. There are changes of course — the initial Iron Man starts in the inciting incident before flashing back to exposition — but the general concept is there. Why do we use this structure? As your seventh grade English teacher Mrs. Maxwell probably said to you way back when, we use this kind of chart because it’s satisfying. It’s how folks expect a story to go. It makes sense. It also helps with tone and pace, etc.
There is no real plotting across the arc of the MCU. There is no arc of the MCU. No rising action, no falling action, no inciting incident. What is the inciting incident of the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Why is Thanos coming to eradicate Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, to send an army to stop them? There is an in universe explanation of course — he’s bummed about reality and wants to do an old school decimation times 5 because he has no concept of economic strategy. But there exists no moment in the actual plot of these movies where that decision is made. The largest decision inside of the canon of the 21 movie buildup? Happens off screen, from a character whose first introduction is in the stinger of The Avengers.
That’s not clever. There’s an impulse to say that something that is opaque is clever — that the reason that it seems on the surface to be cheap and shallow is because you are simply not reading enough into it. After all, Thanos is the revealed backstory for plenty of Marvel heroes and antiheroes (Gamora and Loki to name a few). But deus ex machina has been a cheap trick since the Greeks used it to drop Zeus in on a crane, and it doesn’t make it better simply because Thanos is bright purple and has questionable views on socio economic strategy.
There’s an old adage in creative writing, “show don’t tell.” The idea is that you must show your audience, through characterization and action, rather than to directly state what is going on. Telling is a cardinal sin — if you have to directly explain to your audience the peril then you haven’t done your job establishing that peril. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is rife with telling rather than showing. In part this is because the franchise is designed to be easily processed by actual children — the MCU is a family franchise even if it dips its toes into torture, deporting your scientific rivals (seriously, this happens twice), PTSD and child abuse. Narration explaining that this is coronation day, and that many years ago there was a conflict between the Asgardians and the Frost Giants can be forgiven.
Where is the peril for the series largest villain? Thanos is a world ending God, a giant purple stone with galaxies that fear him. Where is this shown in literally any movie in the series aside from Avengers: Infinity War? Gamora is afraid of him — Nebula and Ronan the Accuser act as his children and enforcers, respectively. Loki is supposedly in fear, but we never see action. We never see his might until the opening up Avengers: Infinity War when he wipes out the last of the Asgardians (I guess some casual genocide is a good way to open up a kids movie). Meta contextually this is sensical — no other movie was going to spend time establishing his world ending nonsense when they had their own villains to be concerned with. Even Ronan the Accusers decision to destroy Nova Prime in Guardians of the Galaxy 1 was treated as him going off script — his decision to literally destroy a planet was not in the plans for a world destroying, 20 movie threat.
So there’s no inciting action! That’s hardly a relevant feature of literally hundreds of years of playwriting and fictional writing. But indeed, the issue is far greater than simply deciding to craft a galaxy ending villain and just deciding to have the entire climactic arc of his character exist in two films. Because the reason that the Marvel Cinematic Universe fails is on the smaller end of the scale too.
The Avengers are so totally inconsistent between movies that they don’t actually resemble the same characters. This is more obvious if you watch the movies rapidly, say in a 48 hour period, but the characters motivations, PTSD and in one notable case, hair styles, are so dramatically inconsistent that they are not the same characters and the decision to combine them into a shared universe is actively harmful for their plots.
Part of this issue comes down to too many cooks. Take Thor. There is near no resemblance between Thor in his eponymous film versus the Taika Waititi third film, Thor: Ragnarok. For Thor, you have the talents of Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, Don Payne, J. Michael Straczynski, and Mark Protosevich. For Thor: the Dark World you have Christopher Yost, Stephen McFeely,Christopher Markus, Don Payne, and Robert Rodat. And finally for Thor: Ragnarok you have Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost. Without counting his appearances in the shared universe films (Thor appears in Avengers and Avengers: Infinity War) his arc has been overseen by 12 screenwriters and 3 directors. There has only been one screenwriter that was consistent across movies (Christopher Yost, who worked on both Dark World and Ragnarok). In the initial film, while there is humor (it mostly relies on fish out of water comedy with Thor making basic mistakes towards humanity — like asking for a dog he can ride at the pet store), comparatively Thor: Ragnarok is a movie that manages the balance between film about a colonialist societies evils come home to roost and a broad comedy — Thor himself telling regular jokes. This isn’t to say that one is better than the other, though truthfully Waititi’s (and Yost, and Pearson and Kyle’s) direction is a more interesting and nuanced take on the character. It’s simply that it isn’t the same guy. “[Thor: Ragnarok] has to be a standalone film because this could be the only time I do this. I just want to make it [my] version of a Marvel film in the best way possible,” Taika Waititi told Collider. There’s nothing begrudging Waititi his moment to actually try something different in someone else’s sandbox. But perhaps therein lies part of the problem.
Thor is actually probably the least egregious of these inconsistencies, mostly because his appearances are relatively limited. The clearest example of this is either Tony Stark or the Black Widow. Let’s start with the MCU’s forgotten female character — Natasha Romanov.
The Black Widow has appeared in 6 films across the franchise, from Iron Man 2, to Captain America: Civil War and through to the Avengers films. Shockingly she has only been written by 5 screenwriters (assuming that they all had work on her scenes as these are movies with large, ensemble casts). You see the issues popping up with her character fairly early on — as one of the few female cast members, she’s frequently written to have romantic chemistry with whatever actor she’s opposite of. It’s why you end up with her having a romantic connection with Hawkeye in The Avengers, with Steve Rogers when she appears in the Captain America franchise, and with the Hulk in the later Avengers films after it’s established that Hawkeye has children and a wife. I guess homewrecker is not part of the Romanov character arc. The Hulk sequence is particularly egregious because it was where she basically explains that she’s a monster like him because she was forcibly sterilized as a young woman and can no longer have children, but the franchises’ dearth of female writers is an issue for another time.
In fanfiction terms, Natasha Romanov is a “fandom bicycle” except that the character is written that way in canon. The only consistency her character gets is when she’s taken over by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who wrote what are commonly seen as the Russo films. Her character arc, by the way, is best described as “was a badass female spy and is now a badass female spy but she’s pining over the Hulk’s manpain.” That’s not an arc that’s a manic pixie battlebot.
Additionally, she’s also the character that is the least consistent between films in terms of physical appearance. A Reddit user put together this image of six different Natasha Romanov looks across her franchise appearances. Sure she’s intended to be a chameleonic spy, but so is Hawkeye and aside from his Endgame mourning fauxhawk he’s remained remarkably consistent. Romanov, by equal measure, is either a woman who owns a curling iron or a flat iron and certainly only one or the other. Tony Stark is a character whose wardrobe is so consistent that when Bruce Banner wears it in Thor: Ragnarok it’s an obvious callback.
Character development is not a bottle of 40 volume Manic Panic hair lightener.
Tony Stark is also interesting because for the Marvel Cinematic Universe he is the golden goose, which is why they’re highly likely to finally kill him during Endgame. It’ll be poetic. The franchise started with gallons of military industrial complex daddy issues as played by Robert Downey Jr, it’s only fitting that it ends with that.
But his arc is perhaps the most interesting because it also doesn’t happen. There’s a general arc — it’s the one in the first film. Tony Stark, genius playboy, finds out that his actions have consequences when he comes face to face with what war has wroth. His solution is in keeping with where the franchise will go — he builds a better weapon that now he is in charge of instead of the US government and uses that to blow stuff up instead of his pre-existing shiny weapons all while claiming to no longer make weapons. Add in additional movie about how he has daddy issues greater than the previous movie makes out, and you have the foundation for a character. That goes nowhere. Tony Stark has PTSD in the first movie. He has PTSD in every movie that follows. He is a drunken idiot that secretly cares and pushes away the people he loves…like he is in every movie that follows including Spider-Man: Homecoming. That precise first movie arc is also repeated in Iron Man 3 and in Avengers: Age of Ultron and to an extent, Captain America: Civil War.
The thru-line between The Avengers -> Iron Man 3 -> The Avengers: Age of Ultron is perhaps the worst in the entire franchise. Arguably Iron Man 3 is the best take on Tony Stark, particularly if you are partial to Shane Black as it is, undoubtedly a Shane Black movie. It is also the weakest because if you buy into the overaching idea, if you buy into the concept of the shared cinematic universe, then there are precisely no stakes to Iron Man 3. There’s no growth. Because while Tony Stark, PTSD sufferer with daddy issues, confronts his demons and comes to a point of personal growth, that entire moment is undercut by the opening of Avengers: Age of Ultron where he is so upset by the idea of being caught unawares that he builds a sentient robot army that will defend Earth from the cosmos. The Tony Stark that ended Iron Man 3 is not the Tony Stark that begins Ultron. Arguably, they both start and end at the same place, except that there’s an entire movie that’s supposed to have happened between them. It’s nonsensical. There’s no growth because these movies were made on top of each other by entirely different teams.
The greatest failure of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that none of it matters. There isn’t really a point in bringing up Avengers: Infinity War because the movie does not matter. There are no stakes to it — several of the characters who have been killed off in the films as they stand have franchises they must get back to, multi-picture deals that are sitting there unfulfilled. Marvel can claim a big emotional moment when they kill Spider-Man in Infinity War, but does it matter when they can play Spider-Man: Far From Home trailers in theaters opening night? The stakes are always getting bigger in the Marvel movies, but they’re inauthentic, like a series of action figures smashing together. From a plot point, it doesn’t matter. And that’s the problem.