After nearly ten years, Marvel Studios and Marvel TV have built an undeniably impressive multimedia franchise. The sheer amount of content in the Marvel Cinematic Universe may rival that of other canons, such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth canon, or the Star Wars expanded universe. But as the franchise grows, with Marvel green-lighting more projects than people can keep up with, the MCU continuity becomes more unwieldy. With so many moving parts and corporate barriers, Marvel is bound to make mistakes. To alleviate this, Marvel must put someone in charge of the MCU canon.
It’s a well-known fact that Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige is the grand architect of the films. Feige has demonstrated an intricacy to his planning, with claims that the studio’s roadmap goes all the way to the year 2028. But even so, this intricacy may not extend to the canon and timeline, with Feige telling CinemaBlend:
“I think people like to talk about our long term plans, which we certainly have. But very rarely do those long term plans dictate the specificity of any individual film. It’s usually the opposite. It’s focusing on a story, and focusing on the individual movie that we’re making to do what’s best. And then, if something changes that we weren’t quite expecting down the line because it was made for a better movie, then we deal with it down the line.”
It can be assumed that most MCU releases take place during the time they are released. But here, Feige explains that the story details (particularly their place in the timeline) is dependent on an individual story. As a result, we have a summer-released and Christmas-set Iron Man 3, a signature of director Shane Black, and a Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 set in 2014 despite its 2017 release. Most significantly, there is the knot of The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, and Thor, all taking place roughly at the same time.
The Role of Other MCU Media
Detail-oriented Marvel fans will remember a prelude comic to The Avengers, titled Fury’s Big Week. This set of comics consolidated the events of three films together and came from the point-of-view of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents like Nick Fury and Phil Coulson. These comics depicted plot points like S.H.I.E.L.D. taking the remains of the Destroyer from Thor, later turned into Coulson’s famous gun in The Avengers. It even wrapped up a loose end from The Incredible Hulk, informing readers of the fate of Tim Blake Nelson’s Samuel Sterns. Marvel short film The Consultant, featuring Phil Coulson and Jasper Sitwell, had a similar function. The credits scene of The Incredible Hulk between Tony Stark and General Ross made no sense to the lead-up of The Avengers, but this short film was able to re-contextualize that plot point.
However, some comments from Guardians of the Galaxy writer/director James Gunn worried some MCU canon watchdogs. Marvel fans are lucky to have Gunn, being perhaps the most active and engaging MCU creator on social media. Gunn is quick to clarify details about his story, and call out falsehood from clickbait articles. But when asked to explain a discrepancy between the Guardians of the Galaxy prelude comic and Vol. 2, Gunn stated:
The prequel comic is not canon to the MCU. https://t.co/XpIQ7jvleh
— James Gunn (@JamesGunn) May 17, 2017
For an authority like Gunn to deny the canonicity of a tie-in comic is a huge deal. The idea of the MCU being a consistent transmedia franchise becomes a bit dimmer.
The Growing Movie/TV Gap
What complicates this further is the corporate divide between Marvel Studios and Marvel Television. Since 2015, Marvel Studios operates under Walt Disney Studios, while Marvel Television is still under Marvel Entertainment. More so recently, it is obvious to fans that the creative relationship between film and television is one-way. When Marvel TV head Jeph Loeb and television showrunners make story pitches to Marvel Studios, they are mostly slavish to movie plot developments.
This restriction has led to some blessings in disguise, such as The Winter Soldier’s twist factoring into Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. in a major way. But that same show was unable to use Loki’s staff in a proposed plot due to Joss Whedon’s plans for Age of Ultron. Additionally, the use of character Christine Palmer was restricted for the Netflix shows, as she would be featured in Doctor Strange. As a result, Daredevil instead utilized Rosario Dawson’s Claire Temple as their Night Nurse.
Even worse, this one-way relationship and television’s faster production time leads to blatant ignorance from the movie folks. Captain America: Civil War screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely had no knowledge of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., thus not incorporating and reference to the show’s worldwide Inhuman outbreak. And just last March, Anthony Mackie spoke about the television shows as though they were a separate universe.
The danger of the films contradicting the television shows, therefore destroying the illusion of Jeph Loeb’s “#ItsAllConnected,” remains present. Spider-Man: Homecoming has already been confirmed to make no references to The Defenders, which would have been an easy task. Already we have two different characters named Cameron Klein, and the double casting of prolific actress Alfre Woodard in Civil War and Luke Cage.
MCU Timeline Questions
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has been dependable as a timekeeper of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, keeping it in real time. Still, some questions remain about the passage of time during and in-between films and shows. For example, how much time does Stephen Strange take to improve his magic abilities? How much time passes throughout the film? The apparently 2010-set Iron Man 2 takes place not long after the 2008 Iron Man, yet Vision refers to the events in Iron Man being “eight years” prior in the 2016-set Civil War.
Even more nebulous are the Netflix shows – despite the interconnectivity between shows, it is unclear exactly when any of them take place, even in relation to each other. And relative to the movies, nothing after the first Avengers movie is referenced, leading to endless name drops of “The Incident.” Eagle-eyed viewers instead have to depend on written dates on prop newspapers and computer screens.
And then there is the case of President Matthew Ellis, played by William Sadler. Appearing in Iron Man 3, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and even the web series WHIH Newsfront, this fictional President has acted as connective tissue between film and television. Picky MCU fans will question when exactly Ellis became the POTUS, as we first see him in the supposedly Christmas 2012-set Iron Man 3. Complicating this matter are references to real-life POTUS Barack Obama in Luke Cage. Is it possible for both Ellis and Obama to exist in the same universe?
And as entertaining as Stan Lee’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 cameo was, some continuity-wary fan caught an error in the scene. Lee’s Watcher informant mentions that he was a “Federal Express agent,” a clear reference to his Captain America: Civil War cameo. However, Guardians 2 takes place in 2014, about two years before the events of Civil War. In a Facebook Q&A, Gunn admitted to this mistake. A Marvel authority on continuity could prevent mistakes such as this one.
The Lucasfilm Model
Such an authority on canon could untangle timeline knots and prevent or explain away continuity blunders. Marvel can look to another Disney-owned company for inspiration: Lucasfilm.
Before Disney’s purchase of Lucasfilm, the Star Wars expanded universe had such a database. The “Holocron” served as an internal continuity database for the Star Wars universe, containing details on characters, elements, and events. While this database is not for the public, it allows for Star Wars creators to keep track of important details from past, present, and future pieces of Star Wars fiction. Leland Chee, Keeper of the Holocron (the geekiest job title ever), acted as a “continuity cop” for Star Wars. By utilizing online forums and social media, Chee engaged with fans with continuity questions.
But with the production of a new Star Wars trilogy beginning in 2012, Lucasfilm essentially restarted their canon. In one fell swoop, the expansive universe composed of novels, comic books, video games, and more for over thirty years was wiped mostly clean. Instead, Lucasfilm would film a new canon, and formed an appropriately-titled “Lucasfilm Story Group” to manage it. This team consists of Chee, Star Wars reference book writer Pablo Hidalgo, and other producers and executives.
So far, this creative committee of sorts has proven their usefulness. The Star Wars canon remains air tight amongst the new releases. And fans of the different mediums were even rewarded by having television show Star Wars Rebels and feature film Rogue One contain references to each other. Members of the Story Group are also active on social media, with Hidalgo at one point clarifying an alleged error in Star Wars: The Force Awakens:
@Thimburd What they're seeing is some weird hand-wavy hyperspace rip. Side-effect of the Starkiller.
— Pablo Hidalgo (@pablohidalgo) December 18, 2015
But without a similar story group from Marvel, how have fans tried to keep track of continuity?
Fan Attempts to Follow the Canon
Luckily, MCU fans on Twitter and Reddit have a hero in someone called mcucanon. As the username implies, this appears to have somewhat of an obsession over the canonicity of various Marvel releases. A quick look through their Reddit history reveals posts about MCU art books, guide books, and tie-in comics, and comments clarifying to other users the canonicity (or non-canonicity) of shows like the animated Guardians of the Galaxy show. Their Twitter timeline consists of inquiries to Marvel Support and MCU creators regarding the canonicity of MCU comic tie-ins. Upon seeing Gunn’s aforementioned tweet about the Guardians prelude comic, mcucanon asked for some clarification, actually receiving a response.
I can only speak for Guardians
— James Gunn (@JamesGunn) May 17, 2017
Additionally, MCU fans can count on the Marvel Cinematic Universe wiki. This fan-made online encyclopedia has generally well-organized pages on movie and television characters and concepts. The wiki’s “Timeline” page certainly appears to be someone’s passion project, attempting to put every MCU event to a date. Unfortunately, no one can confirm the accuracy of this timeline without some key information from Marvel.
These fan attempts to make sense of MCU continuity are certainly admirable, and they demonstrate affection for this universe. But these grassroots projects are still not as comforting as anything official would be.
It would be wise for Marvel to follow a Lucasfilm approach to enforcing canon. As this already-large universe continues to expand, it will understandably be difficult to manage. But by having specific people in charge of continuity, Marvel can still put out quality stories while fans can be free of canonicity concerns. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is already a massive accomplishment, impressing moviegoers and inspiring envy in other movie studios. But if this experiment is to remain sustainable, the continuity cracks cannot show. If Marvel wants their cinematic canon to reach the legendary status of something like Star Wars, they’ll have to get serious about continuity.
Is continuity something important to you as an MCU fan? Are there alternatives to having a story group? Leave your comments below!