The MCU’s Avengers movies are unique – because they genuinely work like superhero comics

The late Stan Lee felt that this interrelation was creatively key, as well as a great way to sell more comics. You need to believe in the whole to believe in any of it. 

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The Marvel Cinematic Universe doesn't work like most film franchises do. Of its first five pictures, only one, Iron Man 2, was strictly a sequel. The Incredible Hulk, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger and Iron Man all work as standalone films, origins for their titular heroes. They’re linked, but as productions, through marketing and by implication. Then Avengers Assemble is a sequel to all of them, simultaneously.

It’s this initial ability to stand alone that torpedoes the oft-heard claim the MCU is more like television than a film franchise, with The Avengers (and its own later sequels) analogous to a season finale. If the early MCU films were television, they’d be an anthology show, of precisely the sort that doesn’t do finales that bind every story of the week into a cohesive whole.

The reason the MCU tells stories in a way that’s unique in cinema is simple: it really does work like superhero comics do. The form has, over decades, evolved its own peculiar dramaturgy, stemming in part from the commercial needs of the medium. Publishers want to sell as many copies of as many of its monthly comic books as possible. In an era where most comics are sold in specialist comic shops, rather than in the once-traditional drugstore and supermarkets, that often means selling more comics to the same number of customers, not the same number of comics to more customers.

One way you do this is with crossovers. Not just the simple version, of Character A appearing as a guest star in Character B’s comic, which has existed since the 1940s and has long helped bind comics universes together, but multi-part stories where the episodes are spread across different titles.

Let’s say you only buy Thor, but one month you discover that the story that begins in Thor continues into that week’s issue of Spider-Man and the next issue of Hulk, with a special one-off comic the week after that to finish the story off. You’re suddenly more likely to buy comics you wouldn’t normally.

The first Avengers film picked up the multiple overlapping audiences for all five characters it starred and took more than $1bn at the box office in the process. More, it sent – for example – Iron Man viewers who hadn’t fancied a Thor film out for DVDs. While the pictures stood alone, there was an appeal in seeing them all – and having been introduced to Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, well, of course they wanted to see more of him.

This achieved, the second and third phases of the MCU were more interconnected than the first: there were more shared plot points and characters, in major roles and cameos, and more of a feeling of an ongoing story. It began to seem like you should see them all. That’s what leads to the “TV feel” some critics have detected.

Yet along the way, the distinctions between the MCU’s sub-brands became blurred, and some of them stopped working as series within a series. The three Iron Man films function reasonably well as a “trilogy”, and tell a unified story about Tony Stark. But Captain America: Civil War is at least as much “The Avengers 2.5” as it is “Captain America 3”, and while it’s nominally the end of a Captain America trilogy – and was sold as such on Blu-ray – It starts more ongoing stories than it finishes. It’s just that they’re resolved in films of which Captain America is not the title character.

The same is true of Thor’s “trilogy”. The third is wildly different in tone and content to the first two, and leads directly into Avengers: Infinity War. It’s telling that Captain America and Thor’s trilogies are split evenly between the first three phases of the MCU, whereas Iron Man’s was complete by the first film of phase two. Watching the MCU evolve over a decade has been like watching the development of superhero comics, but on supersoldier serum.

So is the price of box office indispensability always storytelling impenetrability, then? Well, no. Even now, twenty-plus films in, Marvel still make occasional films that can serve as entry points for new audiences. Infinity War carefully positions itself as much as sequel to Black Panther – released weeks before, to great acclaim – as to any Avengers film, pulling the underserved audience for Black Panther into the new film. The same is true of this February’s Captain Marvel, using its post credits scene to make clear that she’ll be appearing in Endgame less than two months later – the dramatic and sales logic of superhero comics translated to mainstream cinema. What’s remarkable is the confidence required to do this. Infinity War, a film which cost $400m to make, counted on Black Panther being as big as Black Panther was, something which no one could guarantee.

The thing is, it’s not necessarily wholly cynical to do this: this is how these characters are meant to work. The late Stan Lee, co-creator of much, if not most, of the Marvel Universe and owner of its most recognisable authorial voice, felt that this interrelation, the feeling of a shared universe, was creatively key, as well as a great way to sell more comics. You need to believe in the whole to believe in any of it. And audiences now feel able to take a punt on a film with no recognisable stars or famous lead character: no one would have bet on Guardians of the Galaxy based on those factors, yet audiences flocked to it.

It seems likely that some of the “original” Avengers, ie anyone who headlined an MCU film released between 2007 and 2012, will bow out in Endgame. Strangely, this could work to the MCU’s advantage, as the series is reaching the point at which one of the weaknesses of any ongoing film series, the aging and pay inflation of leading actors, is starting to hit.

Stan Lee believed that the essence of superhero comics was, “The illusion of change”: the story is really about how you get back to the status quo. One of the more extreme versions of this dictum is that the title character of a comic changes: Iron Man is still about Iron Man, but Iron Man is no longer Tony Stark, for example. This could make it easier for Marvel to continue the process of diversifying their film series, with a greater proportion of lead characters played by female and/or non-white actors.

So you could make a Captain America movie starring, say, Sophie Okonedo, because while Steve Rogers is a white man, Captain America is an idea – or, more prosaically, a job. Someone else can wield the shield, take up the mantle, be given the codename.

We’ve already seen a kind of variation on this. While it seems that, in the MCU, Carol Danvers is the original Captain Marvel, in the comics, she’s only the most recent in a line of heroes to bear that name. (Danvers herself is a Sixties creation, and spent decades as Ms Marvel.) The film series simply decided to start with a the later version and to cast a woman.

By the same token, the ensemble cast of Endgame features more than one character, all of them male but some not white, who have at some point been Captain America in comic books. There’s no reason at all why one or more of them couldn’t be so on film, too. There’s a recent (excellent) period of Thor comics where Jane Foster, Natalie Portman's character from the first two Thor films, wields Thor’s mystical hammer and becomes, to all intents and purposes, Thor herself. Should Portman be interested there’s no reason at all why she shouldn’t be the lead in a whole trilogy of Thor films.

Marvel is unlikely ever to run out of options. There are opportunities to adapt, for example, the periods of Thor comics where Thor is an alien space horse. Or a frog. No, really, look it up. This is what superhero comics are like. Increased interrelation. Theme and variation. The illusion of change.

Something to ponder, as you wait for the Endgame.

James Cooray Smith is freelance writer specialising in TV and film history.