How to Build a Franchise 101: The Marvel Cinematic Universe

My recent travels through Germany and Turkey meant that I was unable to see Avengers: Age of Ultron for almost a fortnight after it was released in Australia. I could not devise a more insidious form of self-torture. Each time I passed a cinema in Turkey the temptation was there, but I wanted to see Avengers in English, not the Turkish version, Yenilmezler. And so I basically exiled myself from Facebook and the internet so no one could spoil it for me. (Thankfully, it wasn’t too difficult – I spent the last week of my “exile” in Antalya, Turkey, which can only be described as a Mediterranean paradise.) I wasn’t even back in Australia a full twenty-four hours before I saw the film, and I’ve since seen it a second time (I needed to restore my nerd credentials). Now that I’ve sated my Avengerslust, I’ve had a bit of time to think critically about the film, and where the franchise is heading. A lot of the criticism surrounding Age of Ultron is that it is dragged down by the weight of the franchise, but I’d like to argue that this is one of its redeeming features, especially as its storylines are adapted from comic books.

Warning: minor spoilers below!

age of ultron poster

I really admire the way Marvel Studios has constructed their megafranchise. It closely mirrors the way that The Avengers were originally formed in the comics in 1963, with several popular characters combining to form a team. It’s a winning formula in both the comics and film, with each of the characters allowed to go off and have their own adventures before uniting again to face a bigger threat. But Marvel Studios has also elaborated on the mythology of the universe with each subsequent film, introducing minor characters and plot devices that come into focus later on. And Age of Ultron was the first of these big crossover films where many of these elements came into focus. It felt like we were finally able to see the bigger picture involving all of the characters and plot elements introduced in the Phase 2 films.

There was no hand-holding in this film: we were thrust into the action and expected to keep up for over two rollicking hours. Characters who had minor roles in previous films were present with no need for reintroduction – the audience were expected to remember them. In this aspect, Age of Ultron is not just a sequel to Avengers, nor a sequel to Captain America: The Winter Soldier (even though it may feel like it is at times), but it’s effectively a sequel to all ten preceding films. It is inextricably linked to the franchise. For the first time, we have a Marvel film that can’t be comfortably separated from the rest of the series.

Although many critics may decry this “burden” of the franchise, I believe that it was part of the plan from the beginning. In their aim to bring these comic book characters to the big screen, Marvel Studios didn’t want to just replicate the characters and plots of their comics, but also the style and aesthetics. It’s about the experience of reading a comic. You can’t just pick up a comic in the middle of a series and expect to have a full appreciation of the story – you have to start at the beginning. And it’s finally got to the same point with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The films can no longer be separated from each other – they form a single continuity, a vast storyline that has already stretched over eleven films (and television series), and looks like it will continue for another ten at least. These films feel like comic books: they maintain the humour and heroism of the Marvel comics. The good guys always win. The stakes are always raised. Characters return from the dead. In translating their comics into a different medium, Marvel could not be more successful. Age of Ultron gave me the same visceral thrills as reading a comic book.

This collage has been stuck on the wall above my desk for the last year. To say that I was excited for this movie is a bit of an understatement.
This collage has been stuck on the wall above my desk for the last year. To say that I was excited for this movie is a bit of an understatement.

One of my initial criticisms after seeing the film for the first time is that Captain America wasn’t given much of a character arc. But upon second viewing, I realized that his storyline was the continuation of a theme that begun in The Avengers and continued very strongly in The Winter Soldier. He is the “man out of time,” someone who is looking for a place in this fragmented future world. By the end of Age of Ultron, he has found his role as the leader of the Avengers; he has a sense of purpose, a sense of being at home. His character arc isn’t just confined to one film – it plays out across the franchise, offering little chapters in each film that add up to a satisfying whole.

The real danger in these films, with their large ensemble casts, is that each character gets limited screen time, because there are so many characters to involve. It certainly feels this way in Age of Ultron, with some of the more popular characters (Thor, Captain America) given less character development than some of the new characters (Scarlet Witch, Vision). It could easily be argued that these new characters need the extra character development to help cement their role in the team, but I think there’s another parallel to be drawn to the comic books. The ensemble nature of the Avengers comics means that the main characters rarely undergo significant character development when they are all fighting together – this is left to happen in their individual comic series. And it’s the same with the films. Captain America and Thor both underwent more significant development in their respective Phase 2 films than they did in Age of Ultron, because these big crossover films are designed to be about the growth of the team as a whole. They are not meant to focus on the individual characters. The real development is that of the entire team. And here I must acknowledge Joss Whedon’s skill as a director of ensemble casts – he still allows each character to grow, even just a little, while focusing primarily on the growth of the team.

I no longer think it’s possible to judge these films solely on their own merits, but how they sustain and complement the whole of the franchise. Every series has its weak moments. Indeed, Iron Man 2 and The Incredible Hulk are regularly (and deservedly) cited as the low points of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. If we were to judge them, in hindsight, based on their contribution to the series, I think that Iron Man 2 would fare a little better, having been responsible for introducing us to Black Widow and fleshing out the world of SHIELD. However, The Incredible Hulk would still score pretty low, having contributed exceptionally little to the MCU’s mythology. (I think The Avengers was actually a better introduction to the Hulk, especially as depicted by Mark Ruffalo.) But a film such as Age of Ultron, which forcibly moves the series forward by introducing us to new characters and establishing the basis for upcoming conflicts, contributes an enormous amount to the franchise, even if it does feel slightly hurried in its obvious setting-up for MCU’s Phase 3.

Of course, I recognize that these films must aim to successful as individual entities as well. A bad film could potentially de-rail Marvel’s juggernaut. And each entry in the franchise must be accessible enough to attract new fans. I don’t think Age of Ultron was necessarily the best film in the franchise (that honour, in my opinion, goes to either Guardians of the Galaxy or The Winter Soldier), but I think it succeeds in presenting an overall picture of what this series is about (rollicking, high-stakes superhero action), and where it is heading (the Infinity War). Rather than critiquing the film for its hurried pacing and lack of detailed character development, we should consider how it was intended to be received – the middle chapter of a vast comic book adaptation. Like the Avengers comics, the focus shouldn’t necessarily be on the individual characters, but on the team as a whole. These crossover episodes aren’t meant to have complex, character-driven plots, like the nuanced political machinations in The Winter Soldier. They are about spectacle, about Earth’s Mightiest Heroes teaming up to smack down their enemies. And I think Age of Ultron has perfectly captured that comic-book feel.

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