Is the Marvel Cinematic Universe too Much of a Connected Universe?
The Marvel Cinematic Universe. One of pop culture’s biggest juggernauts. It is a spectacle of the cinematic world. It truly is the first of its kind. A shared universe of movies spanning nearly 15 years, over 20 movies and now TV shows. There’s an obvious reason that it has become as popular as it is today. It’s fun to see a character from another movie pop up, or a reference to a past event. It makes the whole ‘universe’ aspect of the MCU seem much more legitimate. However, Marvel’s biggest benefit may also be its biggest weakness. With more and more movies coming out each year, several new TV shows and questionable continuity of outside media, the MCU may be one of the most difficult pop culture behemoths for newcomers to get invested in.
If you were to throw a dart at a board lined with movies in the MCU, there’s a pretty good chance that what you picked has at least one connection to another film. Let’s imagine a scenario where you’re a big Spider-Man fan. You’ve seen both the Tobey Maguire and the Andrew Garfield films and you’re excited to see the new Tom Holland movie, Spider-Man: Homecoming. Let’s also say that in this scenario that you have never seen a movie in the MCU. You’ve obviously heard of it, but never seen a movie. After watching the movie you, someone who has never seen an MCU movie, has several lingering questions. Why was Iron Man there? How have they met? What’s this battle at an airport? Where did the Vulture and his gang get their weapons? These are some plot points that a MCU-less person would not understand. What’s funny is that Spider-Man Homecoming may be one of the easier movies to watch. Other ‘less-referential’ movies have references as well. In Ant-Man, Falcon makes a cameo, and in the most recent film Shang-Chi, there are Iron Man 3, Doctor Strange and The Incredible Hulk references.
Taking those hypothetical questions and drawing threads from movie to movie will inevitably create a web of interconnectedness. For example, let’s take the question of “What is that battle at the airport?” Drawing a line, we go to Captain America: Civil War. Immediately, we can make multiple new threads. We can draw a line to Avengers: Age of Ultron, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Ant-Man, Iron Man 2. Since those movies also have references, the web gets even larger. Do you see the issue that someone could face?
In the year 2021, the problem may be getting even worse for those not versed in their MCU knowledge. On Disney’s streaming platform Disney+, they have been releasing TV shows set in the MCU that, you guessed it, have their own callbacks, while also laying the groundwork for future titles. These TV shows also aren’t things that someone can just skip and expect to be fine. Three of the currently released shows, WandaVision, Falcon and the Winter Soldier and Loki, all have pretty major events that any person planning on keeping up with the MCU needs to at least understand.
Moving from definitely canon to questionably canon, things get even more complicated. It’s been announced that Deadpool 3 will be a part of the MCU. Does that mean the previous two Deadpool films are as well? There are also rumors that Vincent D’Onofrio will reprise his role as Kingpin in the upcoming TV show Hawkeye. This then opens a whole can of worms. D’Onofrio previously played Kingpin on Netflix’s Daredevil, a show previously believed to be non-canon to the MCU. If Daredevil is now canon, what about the other Netflix shows such as Jessica Jones or Iron Fist? Disney recently acquired FOX Entertainment, which now leads to the X-Men movies entering the realm of questionable canoninity. Will these be retroactively canonized? Who even knows if What If… should be considered canon. Finally, there’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., a show that started off as being canon to the MCU, but now … isn’t? I’m not entirely sure how that’s possible, but that’s where we are.
Obviously this is a lot to swallow. With many movies and TV shows, it can seem overwhelming when compared to DC’s “Extended Universe.” Looking at DC’s movies, it may actually be a more accessible franchise. What DC seems to be doing is having their movies take place in different universes. What that means is that Joker is not, at least not yet, in the same universe as Titans. This allows the two properties to not alienate anyone who has not seen either. Even movies that are in the same universe can be accessible to anyone. You don’t need to see Justice Leauge to understand The Suicide Squad. While it may seem like DC has the edge only now, this isn’t new.
In the comic books in which the movies and shows are based on, DC has had the edge over Marvel in terms of having a cohesive story, while not needing to see everything that happens. In a 2015 article by The Hollywood Reporter titled “The Flaws of Marvel’s ‘It’s All Connected’ Universe,” they write, “With the many moving parts of the Marvel comic book universe, in which multiple series are published simultaneously, many of them sharing concepts if not characters, there needs to be a default status quo to which characters return to allow the toys to be used by as many creators as necessary at any given point.” The article goes on to say, “Comic books have been dealing with this problem for decades without really managing to solve it. Marvel eventually ignores previous stories where necessary, whereas DC chooses to reboot its universe every decade or so to allow for a relatively clean slate.”
The truth of the matter is that there is no easy solution to this problem. Marvel is already too deep into their cinematic universe to just end the references. But even if they did find some perfect solution to stop the references in their movies but still have them connected, I don’t think that’s what fans would want. The truth of the matter is that these references, while they may be confusing to outsiders looking in, allow the worlds that these heroes exist in to feel much more real. Obviously a battle to save the universe would have repercussions across many movies, and ignoring that would feel disingenuous to the fans who have been through everything. I don’t know how to find the balance. How to find a perfect medium between winking at the fans who understand, while also making them accessible to newcomers. The problem is only going to get worse as more movies and shows come out. As of writing this, it’s being reported that a spinoff of Wandavision is in production, so it’s clearly not slowing down. If Marvel and Disney don’t fix their self-inflicted, impossible problem, they may face alienating millions of potential future fans.