A billionaire industrialist, a Norse god, an irradiated scientist, a war hero, an archer, and a super-spy walk into a room. In the hallway outside that room, a covert intelligence agency tracks and employs renegade Nazis. At a construction site down the street, a blind lawyer battles zombie ninjas, while blocks away a private investigator confronts her rapist. Uptown, in Harlem, a hooded bulletproof prison escapee steps into the moonlight to confront gun smugglers. On the moon itself, an offshoot of humanity plots a mass migration to Earth; Hawaii is their first choice. Galaxies away, a talking cyborg raccoon berates a living tree while David Bowie sings in the background. This is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a world where every somewhere is always connected to an elsewhere.
The selling point of the MCU is that these somewheres and elsewheres occasionally come together in spectacular and enriching ways, from the Iron Man–vs.–Captain America showdown of Captain America: Civil War, to movie characters like Nick Fury and Lady Sif making cameos on the ABC show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., to a gym teacher mocking Captain America in Spider-Man: Homecoming, to Loki coveting the cosmic cube in Thor: Ragnarok.
Moments like these give the literally cosmic sprawl of the MCU a coherent compactness, like seeing the continents snuggle together in a Pangea GIF. These connections began as allusions, post-credit previews, and DVD extras, but have since grown into a dense tapestry of plot threads and character histories across film and television. Events in the MCU are made to embody the full weight of the world, impacting everything and everyone that comes after them. The stories of the MCU aren’t just sequential, they’re continuous: What happens in that room alters how you think about what happens in that hallway.
And, crucially, what might happen next. The cameos and references allow the MCU to tell stories across media and make the gaps among them hypervisible. If you hear the phrase “infinity stone” in one movie, for instance, and don’t know what that means, that hole can be filled by watching other movies. Every film advertises every other film, storytelling and marketing all at once.
There are only five movies left in Marvel’s current “phase,” which is the term Marvel Studios uses to delineate among the sections in its metanarrative, akin to acts in a play. Even Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige is unsure what lies on the other side of the yet unnamed fourth Avengers movie, which will supposedly conclude the MCU continuity. (“There will be two distinct periods. Everything before Avengers 4 and everything after,” Feige told Vanity Fair just this week.) Meanwhile, for other studios, an onslaught of universes approaches, varying in size, scope, and vision, but all equally obsessed with—if not as successful at—selling films in chunky bulk. Trilogies, sequels, prequels, and worlds have played this game for decades; serial storytelling is inherently continuous, after all. Continuity is just the latest gold rush. But king continuity, like “king cotton,” promises something grander and more immersive. Does Hollywood even comprehend what it’s getting into?
As the MCU grows, so does the fragility of its coherence. Flaws in one film or show echo across the entire universe, threatening the very premises of other installments and undermining the strengths of their respective mediums. ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., for instance, explores the world of S.H.I.E.L.D. as it protects against superpowered threats. A superhero procedural without superheros, the show focuses on the human employees who handle the missions too small for the movie Avengers. The characters reference their superpowered counterparts in quirky, allusive banter, but it’s essentially a show about bureaucracy in a world with supernatural forces. As actual superheros and supervillains have been increasingly worked into its stories, the show’s distance from the movie characters feels artificial. It’s hard to watch bureaucats struggle against evil across 22 episodes when you can envision Tony Stark spending a single scene saving the world.
The expansion into television seems to have stretched the MCU particularly thin. Marvel’s Netflix shows—Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, The Defenders, and now The Punisher—all take place in the same New York City that was invaded by aliens in The Avengers and once leveled by a green brute (The Incredible Hulk), but somehow characters are repeatedly skeptical of the idea that superpowered people exist. This disbelief is supposed to add realism to this world and often leads to shows of strength or moments of intimacy between characters, but its frequency rings false: How many skeptics would survive an alien invasion?
Beyond the strange skepticism toward superpowers, so many of these shows’ narratives pivot around superheroism being a revolutionary idea. This is quite at odds with the rest of the continuity, in which other regular folks—Spider-Man, Falcon, Ant-Man, for instance—become superheroes because circumstance demonstrates that helping others is a perfectly normal urge. The limitation of the TV approach is crystallized in The Defenders, a team-up of Netflix heroes, who move from fistfight to fistfight like an arcade beat ’em up. It’s a spinoff that happily spins in place: Daredevil’s loss of his lover, Jessica Jones’s revenge against her rapist, Luke Cage’s prison time, and Iron Fist’s redemption of his parents’ company are the core stories that set the stage for The Defenders, but these hard endings are forgotten just to emptily push forward. The show connects its heroes just because they’re there to be connected; their actual thematic compatibility is an afterthought.
The films have connections that are just as tenuous and ill-fitting. In Spider-Man: Homecoming, Peter Parker’s pal hacks into a suit designed by Tony Stark. In The Avengers, Bruce Banner first becomes Hulk involuntarily when he gets angry, then becomes Hulk voluntarily because he’s “always angry.” In Thor, without his hammer the blond brute can be felled by a Taser; in Thor: Ragnarok, without his hammer, he can go blow for blow with the Hulk. Iron Man 2 features a scene in which matching lasers down a mob of robots; this laser makes no appearance in Avengers: Age of Ultron, a movie about sentient robots infesting Eastern Europe. As for Iron Man 3, well, just know that it was rewritten to accommodate future toy sales.
Continuity can work, as it does in Captain America: Civil War, when Tony Stark fears Wanda Maximoff because she warped his mind in Age of Ultron, or in Thor: Ragnarok, when Loki and Bruce Banner, enemies since The Avengers, treat each other with suspicion. Captain America: Civil War is built on the destruction of Sokovia in Age of Ultron and the infiltration of S.H.I.E.L.D. in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and uses that backdrop to deepen Captain America’s distrust of authority and explore the depths of Iron Man’s struggle to control his creations and their mistakes. Fluid connections like these make the continuity feel rewarding and purposeful despite its attention-straining sprawl.
Despite its flaws as a whole, the MCU’s main thoroughfares (the movies) and a few of the side streets (Jessica Jones, Daredevil) tell a mostly compelling meta-story. Iron Man, Nick Fury, Loki, and Captain America, among others, have fundamentally changed since their debuts, and that’s a feat of storytelling and vision. The narrative momentum of the MCU isn’t well-distributed, but it does exist, and when it’s on it feels like something more than an arc reactor for content. Plus, it’s happened without an overreliance on death, which comics tend to cheapen by constantly bringing characters back to life, franchise-style.
Still, even the successes of the MCU’s snaking continuity gesture toward a hard fact: Building a universe is an exhausting logistical feat; quality assurance isn’t always guaranteed. Continuity becomes faith, essentially, and while the faithful can tease out explanations, the rest of us have learned to just let the lampshades hang.
We have lived in many other heavily marketed worlds by now. After the original Star Wars trilogy concluded, an iterative world of books, action figures, and trading cards followed. The Harry Potter books have spawned movies, video games, candy, plays, short stories, and guidebooks. One of those guidebooks, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, has been adapted to the screen as the first entry in new series of Harry Potter films. And through Dark Horse Comics, Alien has seeded its own sprawling canon that spans toys, novels, prequels, and a strangely lengthy list of crossovers (Alien vs. Predator, Judge Dredd vs. Aliens, Green Lantern vs. Aliens, etc.).
These series, like many others, follow the franchise model where content is infinitely licensed out and largely uncanonical or unconnected. This model is what allows McDonald’s to stuff Avengers toys into Happy Meals, SpongeBob to appear on Target pajamas, and Funko to produce its polyglot Dorbz series. And it’s what allowed shows like Batman: The Animated Series and Justice League Unlimited to exist alongside the decade-spanning continuity of the comics. Marvel’s early productions in TV and film (as Marvel Enterprises), from Blade, to Spider-Man, to its unreleased Power Pack show, to X-Men Evolution, were in the same mold. Marvel gave other studios access to its properties, but largely served as a consultant, ceding greater creative control to the licensee in exchange for a negotiated fee. The MCU is a deviation in that it’s self-produced—which gives Marvel more creative control over the movies and allows it to recoup more from movies than it could through licensing—and is itself a narrative device. Franchises have tended to bill themselves as extensions of an original property, but the MCU bills itself as the property.
Hollywood has noticed this approach and has adopted the universe model with varying degrees of success. DC Entertainment’s steroidal cinematic universe, quick-started with 2013’s Man of Steel, is the go-to cautionary tale for how poorly Marvel’s model fits other worlds, and its problems are legion. Man of Steel was intended to be a one-shot character study of a man reckoning with godhood. In it, Superman commits murder and saves the planet from ecological collapse. The catastrophic devastation caused by his struggles didn’t leave much of a world to explore, but Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad were still set in it. In Batman v Superman, Superman, proven god among men, has a goofy slugfest with Batman, brooding billionaire CrossFitter; in Suicide Squad, a man with a boomerang, a woman with a mallet, and a bunch of other sentient punch lines, fight Amazonian mud monsters. The movie is defined by its predecessors’ apocalyptic dread, but lacks the characters and basic script to handle it. Wonder Woman, also set in that world, deftly avoids the conflict altogether by taking place within a flashback (and by hiring Patty Jenkins to direct). Justice League lightens the mood, but essentially has the same core plot of Man of Steel—an apocalyptic alien invasion—just with more jokes and CGI. DC is also exploring a Joker spinoff starring a different actor as the Joker, set in a different universe as Jared Leto’s take on the character, but under a new untitled banner of DC offshoots. “I’m a little confused,” Leto told Variety.
The continuity boom extends beyond decade-old comic book rivalries, though, and is now embedded in the very language being used to plan the future of film. Paramount has contemplated a Transformers universe. James Cameron has considered accompanying radio dramas for his pending Avatar sequels. Ghostbusters might one day be a universe. Trekkies, jealous of all this world-building, have pined for a new universe to replace the neglected Star Trek universe of the ’90s. Hasbro, bummed by Paramount’s hefty take of that fat Transformers cut, wants to append its G.I. Joe franchise to the other toys in the toy box. “Hasbro and Allspark Pictures put storytelling at the center of everything that we do. These brands are filled with memorable stories and vivid characters, and this universe creates a framework for how they will become interconnected,” said Hasbro CEO Brian Goldner (as if a story itself is not a framework). The MCU often gets compared to a factory, but it at least knows its product; these universes seem to know only the market. It is simply recognized that universes are large and that largeness is sellable: moviemaking supersized.
In an interview about a potential TV series attached to Terminator Genisys—which has since gone unmentioned, presumably to accommodate the “re-adjustment” of the series back into a direct successor of the original James Cameron movies—Skydance Media CEO David Ellison laid it bare. “I think everyone talks in Hollywood about franchises, ‘it’s a franchise business, it’s a franchise business.’ I think that’s a slightly old-fashioned word, and I think it’s a world creation business,” he said. “If you are the kind of fans that we are over this material, and you watch all of it collectively, it all interweaves to feel like a larger universe that you can experience if you’re a huge fan of Terminator.” It’s hard to imagine a series about time travel and timelines somehow being more interwoven, but that’s beside the point. Universes have become a metonym for engagement (in the Silicon Valley sense), and every studio wants to join the party, regardless of whether there’s a story to tell across multiple media or films—and regardless of whether that story can go on.
It’s hard to credit Marvel comics themselves for the rise of the cinematic universe model. In the summer of 2008, a mere two movies into the MCU, Kevin Feige described the universe as essentially a proprietary Christmas miracle. “[The universe] is a little bit of planning, a little bit of luck, and you end up with a studio that has the film rights to Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, and Ant-Man,” he said. “The business arrangement is completely different, what with Marvel bringing in the funding and therefore participating to a much greater extent in whatever financial reward there is if the films are successful. We have a completely different arrangement with our studio partners.” In essence, after years of licensing out Spider-Man, X-Men, Ghost Rider, and Fantastic Four to Sony, Fox, and Columbia, in the mid-2000s, Marvel realized that it had more to gain by producing the films itself.
Key to that realization was an astute reading of the market. Jon Favreau, director of Iron Man, spoke frankly in 2008: “I think [The Avengers] would be a very smart third film in the Iron Man series. It’s very difficult to keep these franchises from running out of gas after two [movies]. The high point seems to be the second one, judging by history: If you just look at the consensus in the reviews, you see that X-Men 2 and Spider-Man 2 are sort of seen by the fans as the sort of high point of both franchises.” And there’s the naked truth of the MCU: In the year that spawned Saw III, X-Men: The Last Stand, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, Mission: Impossible III, and Final Destination III, Marvel Studios, legendary stockpiler of proprietary content, predicted mass franchise fatigue and changed course to catch the windfall it missed when all of its properties were licensed out. A universe as a model allows Marvel to keep the factory running while also insulating itself from the whims of the market via a rotating stock of characters. A franchise hopes you come back; a universe hopes you never leave.
DC Entertainment, unprofitably late to the party, recently opted to abandon the universe model, but not quite. “Our intention, certainly, moving forward is using the continuity to help make sure nothing is diverging in a way that doesn’t make sense, but there’s no insistence upon an overall story line or interconnectivity in that universe,” said DC Entertainment president Diane Nelson. “Moving forward, you’ll see the DC movie universe being a universe, but one that comes from the heart of the filmmaker who’s creating them.” Similarly, Universal has begun to walk back from its so-called Dark Universe, which was kick-started with The Mummy with plans to eventually link in Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Phantom of the Opera.
“We've learned many lessons throughout the creative process on Dark Universe so far, and we are viewing these titles as filmmaker-driven vehicles, each with their own distinct vision," said Universal president of production Peter Cramer, hinting at, but not committing to, a pivot away from an interconnected model.
These are almost certainly fiscal decisions: The Mummy had a tepid domestic box-office performance ($80 million) for a movie of its ambitions, while Batman v Superman ($330 million) and Suicide Squad ($325 million), though successful, fell quite short of the success of the Avengers movies and even Warner Bros.’ own Batman trilogy, helmed by Nolan. Batman v Superman fell so short, in fact, that in 2016 DC created a new internal division, DC Films, to help change course. Judging by the indifferent response to Justice League, which opened with the lowest weekend ticket sales in the DC Extended Universe’s history, further changes are imminent. In 2016, Batman v Superman had one of the top 10 domestic openings of all time. A year and a half later, in the age of universes and adaptations and superheroes, Justice League, the cornerstone of Warner Bros.’ strategy and DC’s singular most iconic superhero team, couldn’t even best Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
Continuity may be becoming the new franchise (in the David Ellison sense), but for Marvel, the real turn has been toward branding. Look at the way the Marvel Studios logo has shifted from spliced snapshots of its comics to flashes of its film stock, or the way the MCU movies have slowly achieved a distinct tone. The first few MCU movies have light flourishes of humor, but now even movies as thematically disparate as Doctor Strange and Spider-Man: Homecoming speak the same comedic language; the Netflix shows all feature the same shadowy, hard-boiled edge despite tackling topics as divergent as mass murder, rape, and barbershop etiquette. Patty Jenkins famously parted with Marvel over her direction for Thor: The Dark World, which she wanted to model after Romeo and Juliet. Similarly, when Edgar Wright split with Marvel over his vision for Ant-Man, it was because his idea for the movie was seen as too deviant from the Marvel voice.
Now, even as directors like Taika Waititi and James Gunn are praised for their specific interpretations, Marvel works within a much more structured framework. “Filmmakers . . . coming in understand the notion of the shared sandbox more than the initial filmmakers did because the sandbox didn’t exist then,” Kevin Feige told Vanity Fair. The MCU may be the meta-story, but a robust, branded studio has been the meta-goal. And the mission has been accomplished. At 17 movies, 10 shows, and counting, Marvel Studios has cemented its brand.
The question now is: Does Marvel dare to move beyond its current branding? The company’s new trailways in comics have tended to be quickly abandoned, and the studio has never mentioned using its films to create outright new flagship characters that don’t exist in the comics. “We’ve got another 20 movies on the docket that are completely different than anything that’s come before,” Feige said. But it’s hard to imagine a radical shift on the horizon when the core business strategy—adapting in-house proprietary content—remains unchanged. In that context, a retirement from continuity is not likely to be a redefinition of Marvel’s brand.
The same is true for DC and Universal: Franchises are dead and continuity is dying, but universes are eternal. After all, what’s a universe but a brand by another name? Disney recently announced the gestation of another Star Wars universe in the form of another trilogy (must Star Wars stories be told only in threes?), with another accompanying TV series, and it’s hard to envision Marvel adopting a radically different approach. Continuous or segmented, the brand plays on.
For studios, the key promise of universes is that they have the capacity to expand, producing infinite elsewheres no matter the state of a franchise or series or story. It’s fitting that a metaphor of sprawl and space grips these media empires, who themselves cribbed the metaphor from compact, disposable serials, but it feels like a misunderstanding. The appeal of universes as they’ve existed in comics has never been their mere sizes, but how they make new somewheres matter even as larger stories loomed.
It is often said that comic books struggle with closure, and this is true. Comics are constantly starting anew; their fits and starts are so common that a lexicon has sprung from their inconsistencies. Retcons, multiverses, numbered earths, and what-ifs are all ways of preserving or continuing some past story—yet what comics have never struggled with is enclosure. Individual comics may be chapters in unending operas, but those chapters are tightly written and bound. The story might continue into perpetuity, but the section that you spent time with concluded on that last page. It might not be the best ending or the most definitive one, but it didn’t take a journey for granted or assume an inevitable return. Presented within those flimsy, fragile pages was a somewhere that, for the next week or month or decade, mattered. When’s that property of comics coming to the big screen?
Stephen Kearse is a freelance writer and critic. His work can be found in Complex, The Baffler, Hazlitt, and other publications.