Unsustainable Connectivity: The Looming Problem of the Marvel Cinematic Universe

If you haven’t heard of Marvel or what they’ve been doing for the last eight or so years, you might think you’ve been living under a rock.  A large rock…blocking the entrance to a cave…on the surface of Mars.

Nearly a decade ago, Marvel kicked off a new age of superhero movies, making them cool and relevant again.  But more so than that, Marvel did something unprecedented.  While most of their movies have a self-contained storyline featuring a particular hero, they are all part of a larger narrative arc that takes shape over many movies, not just one.  And this isn’t just something that takes place over a small trilogy of movies.  No, dozens of movies take place within the same universe and almost all of them tie in together in some way.  You would think that asking audiences to follow this massive narrative would be an impossible task, but despite the overwhelming nature of it Marvel has found tremendous success.  And their success has influenced other studios as well.  The new Mummy movie with Tom Cruise is meant to be a reboot movie and an introduction to a larger universe of monsters from Universal movies.  Along with that, there is an upcoming King Kong movie (Kong: Skull Island) that will tie into a larger universe featuring the new Godzilla from the 2014 movie.

So Marvel’s success has definitely been influential and has changed the landscape of movie making.  And I must commend them for their success.  They have proven that it is indeed possible to build a larger narrative that extends beyond just one movie or one franchise, that is possible to bind several franchises together into one mega-franchise.  It’s an impressive feat.  However, it is not one without problems.

Let’s not beat around the bush here.  You’ve seen the title, so you have an idea of where I’m going with this.  While the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU for short) is an incredible accomplishment, it is starting to become unwieldy.  Nowadays to watch the latest Marvel movie it feels like you have to sit down and watch the five movie previous just to understand what is happening within the larger framework.  You might be able to follow the self-contained story, but there are often references to things that you might not understand because you’re not up to date.  I felt that way when I saw Avengers: Age of Ultron.  There were elements of the movie that I simply didn’t grasp because the movie didn’t bother explaining them.  It was assumed that I had watched the movies before it.  That’s why I initially thought the strange romantic relationship between Black Widow and Hulk was just something they established in another movie, although I later found out that it first appeared in Age of Ultron.

And there will always be that one person.  You know the one, the person that says “well if you read the comic books…”.  Yeah, that person.  Maybe you even are that person.  Whatever the case may be, assuming that a viewer has this backlog of lore from other movies can be dangerous and alienating if not handled properly.  Of course, with the internet this isn’t as big of a deal as it could have been, since interested fans can just go look up information that they’re missing online.

But the real problem seems to be the disconnect between the television shows and the movies, particularly the Netflix originals.  Before we get to that however, we need to take a look at a show that came out before the Netflix ones.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a show centered around a group of special agents that investigate strange occurrences around the world.  It ties into the MCU in the sense that some of the episodes (as far as I know…I haven’t exactly watched the show) deal with the aftermath of events in the movies, such as Thor: Dark World.  The problem with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D is that it features one of the more notable “cracks” in the continuity of the MCU.  Agent Phil Coulson was introduced in the original Iron Man and was killed off in the first Avengers movie.  But he was then brought back to life for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., a move that creates a strange sense of dissonance between the films and the shows, especially considering that Coulson’s death was instrumental in making sure the Avengers finally got their act together and worked as a team.  Coulson is never referenced again in the films, making it seem as though he’s dead in the films but alive in the television shows.  Which makes no sense, considering the shows and the movies are supposed to all be connected and part of the same universe.

But my biggest caveat about the MCU comes from the Netflix original shows such as Daredevil.

If you’ve seen any of the Marvel movies, you’ll know that they are goofy, light-hearted, heavy on explosions and over the top action.  But if you then go and watch one of the Netflix shows like Daredevil or Jessica Jones, the tone difference is so sharp that it might as well be part of a different universe entirely.  For example, Daredevil is gritty, dark, and full of deep character drama.  It features a storyline heavy on personal demons, character flaws, and a villain who isn’t just a shell full of evil intentions.  It’s about Matthew Murdock, a lawyer who moonlights as a vigilante fighting what often feels like a losing battle against a massive criminal underworld.  It’s one of the best things to come out of Marvel in a long time and I highly recommend it to anyone who likes a dark tone to their stories.

The problem is, like I said, that the show’s tone feels so counter-intuitive to the rest of Marvel’s lineup.  This wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing if you could just ignore its connection to the larger universe, but the show prods you every now and then, forcibly reminding you that it is indeed part of the MCU.

In the very first episode of Daredevil, an event only referred to as “the incident” is referenced multiple times.  If you’re a Marvel fan, you’ll likely connect the dots and understand that they’re referring to the first Avengers movies, where an alien portal was opened and an extra-terrestrial army wreaked havoc on New York.  But the event is described in such vague terms that, as one article I read a while ago put it, it’s not unfair to assume that some people might think they’re talking about 9/11.  Not only that, but early on in the show Daredevil is rescued by a nurse after a failed attempt to save a kidnapped boy.  She becomes the first person in the show to know his true identity as Matthew Murdock.  Later on, Matt takes her to his apartment in an effort to keep her safe.  While there, she cracks a joke about how she was hoping he was a billionaire playboy, which is an obvious reference to Tony Stark/Iron Man.

And that’s where my problem is.  If I take Daredevil to be a larger part of the Marvel universe, which they so clearly want me to, how can I take Murdock’s struggles seriously?  He lives in a world with green rage monsters and super-powered super soldiers.  All of his fights could be resolved simply by Iron Man flying over and dropping a few bombs.  And what makes this even more ridiculous is that Daredevil takes place in the same city that Iron Man lives in!  So where is he during all this time?  For that matter, where is the rest of the Avengers team?  Does no one give a crap about Daredevil’s part of the city?  I find that hard to believe, especially after the massive series of explosions that rock the city around episodes five and six.  You’d think at least one of them would show up and be like “hey guys, what’s going on here?”

If you could just ignore this and watch the show as a self-contained piece of work, that would be one thing and it would be fine.  But Marvel seems intent on insisting that everything connects and it wants you to be aware of it.  I mean, how are the Netflix Marvel heroes supposed to stand up to the ones from the films?  Daredevil has super-human senses and an awesome fighting ability for sure, but Thor is a freaking god.

A GOD for crying out loud.

The comparison just doesn’t add up, and I have no idea how Marvel is going to handle that.  Who knows?  Maybe they’ll prove me wrong.  Maybe they’ll find some ingenious way of tying it all together.  But at the moment, I can’t help but feel their obsession with this inter-connectivity may end up proving to be their downfall.  Only time will tell I suppose.

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.

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One thought on “Unsustainable Connectivity: The Looming Problem of the Marvel Cinematic Universe

  1. Pingback: Spotlight: “Jessica Jones” Season One – Rumination on the Lake

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