Earlier today, Marvel Studios gathered together a group of journalists and fans at the El Capitan Theatre in California to announce the films and release dates that will comprise Phase Three of their Cinematic Universe. Between now and 2019, 11 Marvel movies will be hitting the big screen, including a showdown between Captain America and Iron Man (Captain America: Civil War), Marvel’s first female superhero film (Captain Marvel), and a two part conclusion to the Avengers trilogy. I’m sure this announcement will galvanize the Internet and give fans plenty of fodder for discussion, dissection, and debate in the coming days, but I found myself reacting to the news in a wholly unexpected way: indifference. The weird thing is, I love Marvel movies, so it took me by surprise that today’s news would leave me feeling so underwhelmed.
Back in 2008, Marvel launched its cinematic juggernaut with the release of Iron Man, and while it seems hard to believe now, the film was a huge gamble at the time. Iron Man was a second tier Marvel character and the alter ego of Tony Stark, a narcissistic, egotistical, borderline alcoholic played by a pre-career Renaissance Robert Downey Jr. Marvel’s entire game plan could have easily gone down in flames right then and there, but instead, Downey infused Tony Stark with an irresistible combination of charm and charisma, audiences fell in love with the character, and the rest is history. Six years, 10 films, and over $7 billion at the worldwide box office later, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is stronger than ever, and the recent critical and financial success of the previously almost unknown property Guardians of the Galaxy proved that the Marvel brand is not slowing down anytime soon. What’s even more telling is that every other studio wants in on the action.
The rule in Hollywood seems to be that once they find something that works, everyone jumps on the bandwagon instead of finding something else new or original. What Marvel has accomplished with their cinematic universe is incredible, but the novelty of the concept is starting to wear thin now that everyone else is in on the game. Earlier this month, Warner Brothers announced a slate of 10 films to be released between now and 2020 that will feature the DC characters and take place in a shared universe, while earlier this year Sony announced their intentions to create a shared universe of films starring characters from the Spider-Man comics. Beyond comic book properties, Disney has announced a schedule of one Star Wars film per year, all of which exist in the same galaxy far, far, away, Universal Pictures kicked off their shared universe featuring classic monsters with Dracula Untold earlier this month, and somehow, someone at Sony thinks that a multi-picture universe of films based on Robin Hood is a good idea. This isn’t even taking into account the X-Men universe that has been in motion since 2000, and its almost inevitable crossover with the upcoming Fantastic Four reboot. Just taking into account the films based on comic books, these shared universes will produce 28 films that will be released over the next six years. That is a special type of Hollywood lunacy.
So why am I feeling underwhelmed? If anything, 28 films in six years is an overwhelming number, but that’s exactly the point. It’s simply too many to care about. More importantly, it’s too much of the same thing. Marvel has become the expert in producing crowd pleasing, action packed, blockbuster films, and despite the fact that their last two films were both excellent, they also reinforced just how predictable this formula has become. Superhero faces some sort of threat, exposition dialogue to tie in the other films, a couple of great action sequences, a main character apparently dies but inevitably doesn’t, and finally, drop a bunch of hints about what’s still to come.
It’s that last point that is most responsible for my indifference towards today’s announcement. While the concept of building a cinematic universe should in theory provide storytellers with an unlimited amount of creative freedom, in practice it is quite limiting. Every piece must fit in perfectly with the larger picture as a whole, and it deprives movies of that most basic of plot points: an ending. Marvel’s problem in this area began with Captain America: The First Avenger, an otherwise solid film whose ending was nothing more than a glorified trailer for The Avengers, and this problem has only grown more troublesome as the movies have progressed. Not one of them, however good the rest of the film may be, has a good ending, because the very nature of a shared universe dictates that they can’t have an ending. Instead, these films simply set up the next entry and allude to events that are years down the line, and at a certain point it becomes exhausting waiting for a resolution, any resolution, for these characters we’ve grown to love. You may enjoy the films while you’re watching them, but as time goes on, you start to leave the theatre with an increasing level of cynicism that this is all just one big experiment in delayed gratification.
So bottom line, am I excited about Marvel’s announcement today? Yes. The future line up injects some much needed diversity into Marvel’s pantheon of white men, and if the rumours regarding Benedict Cumberbatch joining Marvel as Doctor Strange prove to be true, it will be fun watching the Internet collectively lose its mind over the prospect of Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange and Tom Hiddleston’s Loki sharing screen time. And yes, the trailer for Age of Ultron has me wishing it was May already, and I am curious to see how Paul Rudd fares as a superhero, but the prospect of 11 more films that only serve to tease more future films mostly has me weary. Marvel claims to have their films mapped out until 2028, and while I may be on board for the time being, it’s only a matter of time before I check out. 14 years is just too long to wait for a proper ending.