It’s easy to forget sometimes how crazy of an idea the Marvel Cinematic Universe was back when Nick Fury showed up at the end of Iron Man. A comic company had formed its own movie studio and announced it was not only going to start making movies about some of its lesser known heroes, but it was also going to unite them, re-creating their comic-book setting, where all of these very different heroes existed together. It’s a setting where anything goes. Robots, aliens, magic, monsters – all are valid. This is a concept very familiar to comic readers; not only has Marvel been doing it for decades, but so have Detective Comics, Image comics, and a number of other smaller publications. Before the MCU, though, it had never been attempted on the big screen.
From a creative standpoint it was an ambitious, but very sensible, decision. The classic superhero setting is a remarkably freeing concept for a writer. Once the audience buys into its premise you can throw almost anything at them and they will accept it. Hercules is real and is crashing in an apartment with Gilgamesh? Sure, sounds fine. Dinosaurs emerged from a time-rip over I-87? I didn’t realize it was already Tuesday. This helps cut down on the need for lengthy explanations, tortured exposition, and repetitive origins, in addition to opening the floodgates to any kind of story the writer desires.
Yet, the fact of the matter is, the MCU hasn’t truly realized this, though it’s closer than some of the other attempts to create these big, shared-universe comic book settings in the movies. All of them seem to hold the concept at arm’s length, not fully committing to the idea. The MCU has been less tentative than some of the others, but how far they’re willing to go is something of an open question. This is a bit of a shame. It means that the limitless possibilities of the Marvel setting on the page are still somewhat closed off to their productions on the big (and small) screen.
To explain why I perceive the MCU this way requires differentiating between a superhero story and a superhero setting. You can tell a story about a superhero, but there may not be any larger world beyond this one particular adventure. Pretty much all pre-MCU superhero movies stuck to this format. In Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies, Peter Parker was the main focus. As far as we could tell he was the only superhero in the world, and the only supervillains who ever appeared did so in his neck of the woods and ended up having personal grudges against him.
A superhero setting is something else, and it’s what the MCU has (apparently) been building. It’s a world where all these fantastical elements exist, but effectively serve as a backdrop to the events of the story, whether it’s actually about a superhero or not. In such a robust setting, where the audience will just nod along to anything weird that gets introduced, the sky is the limit. You can have space operas, spy thrillers, gritty crime drama, fantasy, all occupying the same space, all combining in new and interesting ways.
You can even have stories where the supers are peripheral, or don’t show up at all. The comic series Astro City specializes in this sort of thing, with bizarre stories whose varied topics include: a cartoon character being brought to life and then having to deal with the harsh truths of reality, a talking gorilla from another dimension who moves to the big city to fulfill his dream of being a drummer, an actor who plays a superhero on a soap opera to provide “realism,” and a lawyer who gets dragged into a ghost story involving the mafia. This diversity of subject matter shows how strong of a medium the superhero setting can be, where you can tell a huge range of very different stories, in a number of genres.
The best examples of the superhero setting in film are actually from stand-alone superhero films like Mystery Men or The Incredibles. These movies hit the ground running, introducing the viewer to a world where superheroes and supervillains are common place, an accepted part of everyday life. They don’t spend much (if any) time telling you where all these super-people came from, or how they got their powers, or how all these fantastical death-rays and robots work. They just jump directly into the story they want to tell. The Incredibles is an especially potent example. It creates a fully realized world where there was once an extensive superhero community. They went to each other’s weddings, told stories about other superheroes from over the years, and even the civilians got in on the act, fondly remembering superheroes of yore.
The MCU hasn’t reached this point, in a number of ways. For starters, there simply aren’t that many superheroes yet. By the time Captain America: Civil War comes out next year, there will be around 20-30 superheroes total in the MCU, depending on how you define the term. That movie appears to be the first to really deal with superheroes as a community, but only about twelve of them will appear in the movie itself. Even then, most of them are normal people running around with sci-fi technology, as opposed to outright superhumans. Marketing for MCU movies and shows also often operates under the pretense that different genres are being explored/presented (space opera, spy thriller, high fantasy, gritty crime drama) yet they all largely are based around a default superhero story formula, which makes them feel rather similar.
An even larger factor is that most of these heroes are focused on big-picture, world-spanning threats. The idea that superheroes and the weirdness that accompanies them are everywhere in the comics comes largely from heroes who are somewhat localized. If you live in Metropolis, Superman zooming by overhead every other week really reminds you that you live in a world where gods are real. In the MCU the localized, urban vigilante brand of superhero has only started to crop up recently. There are even fewer active supervillains running around. As a result it’s hard to picture moments like this:
…occurring in the MCU. This is a fantastical world, but the fantastical has not yet become ubiquitous. Battles with a supervillain are something that happen once in a blue moon, like real-world disasters. In the comics, if a super-powered brawl breaks out on 1st Avenue, many Marvel New Yorkers are going to just be irritated that they’re late for work.
And it’s reasonable to wonder if the MCU actually does plan to try for that same level of pervasiveness, as they’ve certainly had the chance to hit on it or build up to it, but largely have not. I’ve seen a lot of moviegoers wondering why, in the solo movies of characters like Iron Man or Captain America, the heroes don’t just call in their buddies to help out. In the comics, the general assumption is that they’re all off having their own adventures, and the lead hero has to sort out this particular problem on his/her own. It’d be pretty easy in the movies to put in the occasional throwaway line about how Thor is off-world, or the Avengers are currently in Patagonia fighting Hydra, but that hasn’t happened.
Still, it’s possible Marvel has a different long-term game-plan. There’s always been a tricky balance in the comics between having fantastical elements present and maintaining the illusion that this is the modern day. After all, both the movies and the comics are theoretically set in the “real” world, yet Tony Stark, for several movies now, has been talking up his Arc reactors, designed to provide the world with clean, nearly endless energy. An invention like that would radically alter human society at almost every level, and make the world of the movies a lot less like ours. The more fantastical elements you introduce to a setting the less easy this illusion is to maintain. Comic readers have just sort of gotten used to it; we blur over the incongruities because we know they’re not that important to the story. Marvel Studios may be worried the larger movie-going audience won’t follow suit.
Or perhaps we’re still building to a more fully realized adaptation of Marvel’s comic universe. As I pointed out earlier, there really aren’t that many outright superhuman characters in this setting yet, just a lot of people with fancy gadgets. The Inhumans could potentially up those numbers dramatically, but they probably won’t really begin to impact the setting until they get their own movie in 2018. In the meantime, this may be a slow, gradual build up. After all, outright magic has only just begun to appear on the fringes of the MCU. The Thor movies were couched in terms of science fantasy, with plenty of spaceships and lasers, but Daredevil has begun to introduce outright mysticism, and Doctor Strange and Iron Fist are looming on the horizon.
Still, looking at their announced slate of future projects, it’s pretty obvious that all of the MCU’s entries are going to center around superheroes, building up to the two Infinity Wars movies. Even after those, we’re not going to see a movie set in this universe dealing with normal people living in a fantastical world. They may, however, blur the definition of what a superhero is. Black Panther is going to be set in a fictional country where sci-fi- concepts are very much a part of everyday life, and where the “superhero” is also the head of state. They may be willing to introduce some more variety in their Netflix shows, but so far Daredevil and Jessica Jones have put most of their focus on the hero’s journey, and while the “normal” supporting cast gets a lot of screen time, they largely ignore the MCU outside of a very narrow focus. A lot will depend on how much Marvel is willing to shake up its formulaic approach to movie making, though; so far the answer is “not much.”
One promising sign is that Marvel is apparently working on a Damage Control TV show. Damage Control is one of Marvel’s best stories about everyday schmucks trying to survive in a superhero’s world (which is why I used a page from it at the beginning of this article), and has the added bonus of implying other superhero adventures by showing you the aftermath. You may never see Daredevil or Thor on the show, but you’ll see the damage their latest escapades have left behind, and know they have adventures beyond the movies. Not to mention, we’ll hopefully get to see stories about this bizarre setting, where people have to deal with outlandish phenomena even beyond superheroes.
There’s no guarantee that the show will be good, of course, but one can hope. If it is, it may mean we’ll get to see Marvel really make the most of what they’ve got.