Last week, I appeared on the BBC’s “Talking Movies” for a review of “Captain America: The First Avenger” with Tom Brook. As our conversation wound down, Brook looked forward to next summer’s “The Avengers,” the superhero movie to end all superhero movies (and if it’s is a flop, it very well could). He voiced an opinion I’m hearing with increasing frequency: that all of Marvel Studios’ recent movies — from “Iron Man 2” to “Thor” and now “Captain America” — feel like “one gigantic promotional trailer, a big tease for that film.”
There are moments in all those movies that make it hard not to think he’s right. “Iron Man 2″‘s story essentially pauses at the end of Act 2 so that Samuel L. Jackson can pop in and deliver the cameo equivalent of a commercial for “The Avengers.” Over what could literally and figuratively be described as a narrative coffee break, Jackson’s Nick Fury and Robert Downey Jr.‘s Tony Stark have a conversation about S.H.I.E.L.D., Stark’s father, The Black Widow (another future Avenger, played by Scarlett Johansson) and assorted other topics that have little to do with matters at hand, and everything to do with a film coming years down the road. As a comic book reader for decades I know that Fury will ultimately unite the Avengers in their own movie. But what does someone who doesn’t know the Howling Commandos from Howlin’ Wolf think of Jackson’s endless series of payoff-less teases? After four movies and counting, I can see why some audiences might be getting frustrated. As a comic book fan, though, I see something else. I see a comic book company making movies the way they make comic books.
From “Iron Man” onward, Marvel has begun to build a shared universe akin to the one its characters populate in the pages of their monthly comics. Though the idea of a shared comics universe was pioneered by Marvel’s rival DC in the 1940s, the Marvel Comics of the 1960s was the place where the concept really took off. That’s when Stan Lee was writing and/or editing basically every book in the company’s line and began weaving this massive tapestry of interconnected four-color adventures. One month the Hulk would rampage through New York City, and the Fantastic Four would be called in to calm him down. In the next, Spider-Man might swing through Hell’s Kitchen and solve a case with Daredevil.
Shared comic book universes have never really taken off in movies, mostly because in the past comic book companies have licensed their individual characters to different movie studios: Spider-Man swings around the Sony lot, while the X-Men hang out at Fox. Even in cases where one studio controlled multiple properties, you don’t see many crossovers. Warner Brothers’ Superman and Batman’s movie universes are totally separate and distinct, and even though she’s known as a Batman villain, there was no mention of the Caped Crusader in the Halle Berry “Catwoman” spinoff movie from 2004 (I’m sure Batman was quite pleased with that arrangement).
Marvel’s gone the opposite route with these “Avengers” movies. Jackson’s recurring presence as Nick Fury (along with Clark Gregg’s equally frequent appearances as S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Phil Coulson) is just one of the obvious symbols that Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America all exist on the same planet Earth and are destined to meet sooner or later. Amongst the easter eggs littered throughout the films: the prototype of Captain America’s shield was lying on one of Tony Stark’s work benches in “Iron Man,” while Cap fought in WWII alongside Stark’s father Howard, battling for control of an incredibly powerful tesseract that is said to have been stolen from the armory of Thor’s father Odin.
This is how you make movies the Marvel way: with an intricate web of characters battling against an endless series of cliffhangers. Every Marvel Studio movie ends with a clever tease for the next film: “Iron Man 2” gave you a glimpse of Thor’s hammer, “Thor” showed you the tesseract (or the Cosmic Cube) from “Captain America.” I often hear these bits described as fan service, since they offer narratively inessential cookies for hardcore nerds. But they also represent of the cinematic equivalent of “NEXT ISSUE: SOMEONE DIES!” dialogue boxes that pop up on the last pages of comic books. Comics work like addiction: each issue ends with the promise of even more excitement next month. To be fully satisfied, you have to come back for the next hit, but the next hit demands you return for another fix too. These credits teasers work exactly the same way.
I think there’s further to go with this idea. I would argue that the fact that many of these Marvel Studios films have, at least in my eyes, similar flaws, from their so-so action to their and rushed plotting, is indicative of a certain “house style” of moviemaking similar to the way that there was a “house style” at Marvel Comics in the 1960s when books were designed to look and sound similar. As for frustrating teases like Jackson’s, four appearances with no payoff is nothing: comic book readers routinely wait years or decades to find out closely guarded continuity secrets. If you want to see what I mean while getting an intense headache in the process, just read this Wikipedia page about the mystery of the X-Men’s Cyclops’ brother. It’s nuts.
There are probably even more parallels to be drawn between the way Marvel makes comics and movies. But I’ll leave things here for now, just like Marvel would. On a cliffhanger.