Next weekend, The Avengers: Age of Ultron will hit cinema screens across the US – putting a cap on “Phase 2” of Marvel’s “Cinematic Universe”. For those who have somehow managed to avoid all ten of the studio’s blockbuster movies or any one of their three hit television shows, the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” refers to how each of the studio’s comic book films – from Iron Man to Guardians of the Galaxy – all exist in the same reality and have influence upon one another. The result is a level of storytelling that never would have seemed possible in mainstream entertainment just a few years prior. With over 70 total hours of content under its belt, the MCU has developed character arcs that develop over multiple programs, stories and platforms.
In addition to being revolutionary, it’s also extremely popular. Age of Ultron looks likely to smash the current record holder for biggest total opening weekend in cinema history – over the $207 million record held by (you guessed it) Marvel’s The Avengers. On TV, they’re running multiple series on ABC and Netflix to glowing ratings and reviews with spin-offs and crossovers planned for the near future. Marvel’s success in the world of entertainment is absolutely unprecedented. Which begs the question – how the hell did they do it?
When looking at trends in recent popular culture, there’s one type of storytelling that has blossomed in the past decade. Shows like Game of Thrones, House of Cards and The Walking Dead are more than just popular – they’re complex. Storylines and character arcs unfold over dozens of hours of development, demanding the viewer to stay engaged to reach the payoff. Serialized dramas are nothing new – both soap operas and comic book series held onto single plotlines for decades at a time. But with the growth of TV (thanks in part to On Demand viewing options), there’s been a boom in interest for highly polished serial narratives. In an era where television needed to close its stories within an hour (half an hour for sitcoms), depth was skin-deep. But now, we can watch every episode as Arya Stark discovers her calling, Francis Underwood embraces his demons and Rick Grimes comes to terms with humanity. It’s through this wave that Marvel can ride high. Now, it’s not just about the 2 hour adventure that Tony Stark takes on the cinema screen – it’s the journey of the character across multiple films.
Of course, complexity also has a certain monetary benefit as well. Erin Hanna is a professor of media studies at the University of Oregon who has done detailed research on how corporate interests shape fan cultures for popular media. “In some ways, I think the dominance of this type of storytelling is economically motivated. [Media companies] can keep popular stories alive longer by going through different avenues.” The theory holds weight, since Marvel always keeps its most popular franchises within the Disney family (Marvel was purchased by Disney in 2010). Marvel Studios films are distributed by Disney, and they air most of their TV programming on ABC (owned by Disney). Marvel superheroes appear in Disney Infinity videogames, Disney theme parks and cartoons airing on the Disney Channel.
Compare this to a typical blockbuster franchise in the generation prior. Star Wars was as massive as a film could get, yet it never branched out to television (aside from short-lived children’s cartoons or a disastrous Holiday Special). They made three films, then put the brand on hiatus for nearly a decade. As is no surprise, when Disney starts taking in the reigns on Star Wars later this year, they have no plans of stopping so soon. Spinoffs under the banner of “Star Wars Anthology” will keep the universe alive for a new release every year, and deals have already been made for multiple video game spin-offs.
Whether Marvel’s move towards a more complicated lore are driven by feeding a hungry audience or pure economic motivation, they’ll be sure to keep going until the well has run dry.