Being a dedicated fan of the Marvel Universe, these days, is a lot of work. This was my thought as I left the theater last week, after having watched the earliest “Avengers: Age of Ultron” screening I could as a civilian movie-goer — that I’d just put a whole lot of time and effort into keeping up with one of the world’s most popular franchises.
That time and effort doesn’t just refer to the fact that right before “Age of Ultron,” I’d watched the first “Avengers” film, as well, thanks to an AMC double-feature deal. It refers to the other nine films that have come before, plus 41 episodes of “Agents of SHIELD,” eight episodes of “Agent Carter,” 13 episodes of “Daredevil” and a few short films.
And while technically created by a large group of creators, the central Marvel braintrust currently led by Kevin Feige makes sure that every single one of these properties work together to tell a much larger story. A “Marvel Phase One” fan edit — created in 2012 to combine the Marvel Cinematic Universe films prior to “The Avengers” in chronological order — clocks in at nine hours. It highlights how even when written and directed by completely different people, films including “Thor,” “The Incredible Hulk” and “Iron Man 2” occupy the same narrative space. When you stand back and look at it, the achievement is pretty extraordinary.
The problem with this level of interconnectivity is the way it’s seduced fans into devoting their full attention to every possible facet — a challenge which has exploded with difficulty since the MCU expanded to include television. I genuinely, wholeheartedly love the fact that Marvel is creating a universe that will reward me for my attention. That isn’t necessarily good for me, though, or for the MCU as the years go on.
During one of our recent Very Good Television Podcasts, Indiewire’s own Ben Travers referred to what the MCU is doing lately as a “cash grab” — an opportunity for Marvel to milk its audience for all that it’s worth, at the expense of quality. And certainly he’s not alone in that perspective, but if you’re someone who’s been engaged with comics for years and years and was on board with Marvel’s slowly evolving plans since the first “Iron Man,” this level of attention ends up feeling like a sign of respect.
Over the last seven years, I’ve watched over 70 hours of media featuring Marvel heroes. But unlike DC’s approach, where film ignores TV and vice versa, Marvel gives the impression that it appreciates the time and mental energy I’ve invested in these series. It even rewards that time and mental energy with crossovers and interconnections and the most subtle of easter eggs.
Here’s the problem: It’s started to feel like an addiction. And addictions are rarely healthy.
Robert Kirkman, during a panel at SXSW 2015, talked about how his strategy for making sure that the many different iterations of “The Walking Dead” work together was to make sure that they could all operate independently. While the upcoming AMC spinoff “Fear the Walking Dead” is officially a companion series to the original series, “One thing we’re doing with the show is making sure it can stand on its own.”
(He then followed that up with a joke: “Then we’ll cross it all over in an ‘Avengers’ movie.”)
Right now, the “Walking Dead” comic operates fairly independently from the TV series, despite the fact that technically they’re a part of the same universe. Meanwhile, the “Walking Dead” video game doesn’t even use any of the same characters. Fans truly have the ability to pick and choose what level of engagement they have with the franchise, without any fear they’re missing out on something important by not paying enough attention.
As a result, “Walking Dead” has cultivated a surprisingly mainstream following for what began as a cult series of independently-published comic books. Marvel has also been successful in translating its epic superhero stories for the general population. But what Marvel perhaps overestimates is how much the general audience cares about all these connections. We few, we happy nerds, obsess about how the films and TV shows fit together, but for the casual viewer, an “Avengers” movie just means, hopefully, a fun night at the movies — attractive superheroes and clever quips and solid action.
The audience is not wrong to demand more of its entertainment. It remains exciting, to see how everything works together. It even, arguably, makes it all feel that much more real. Right now, though, the edges might be fraying.
The smartest thing that the MCU is doing, ultimately, is scaling the level of investment necessary to enjoy each entry in relation to its relative level of popularity; a rule of thumb that is essential to the universe’s future survival. As of this week, “Age of Ultron” has already made $227 million at the domestic box office. Divide that by $11 a ticket, that’s at least 20 million people. Meanwhile, the April 28 “Agents of SHIELD” was watched by 4.57 million people. I was one of them, and I thoroughly enjoyed the very deliberate lead-up to the movie that was about to premiere: Not only did part of the episode take place in a facility first introduced in the post-credits sequence of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” but references abounded to “Age of Ultron” — specifically new MCU characters and attacks by “an army of robots” (hardly shocking, if you’ve seen even one “Age of Ultron” trailer).
The episode even surrendered its final act (typically a very short scene meant to tease future series developments) to a lengthy clip from an “Age of Ultron” scene that occurs relatively late in the film. Was it advertising or just very good synergy? It depends on how excited you were for the film. If you were watching a late Season 2 episode of “Agents of SHIELD,” the odds were pretty good you were at least a little interested — something “SHIELD” is counting on.
“SHIELD” is getting at least a little bit of independence, if only thanks to what Marvel creative lynchpin Joss Whedon referred to as a move that made the Marvel film team “cross”: Resurrecting Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), the sacrificial lamb of the first “Avengers” film who now heads up “SHIELD’s” band of agents. Coulson, as far as the movies are concerned, will remain dead, because as Whedon told IGN in the lead-up to “Age of Ultron’s” release: “When I created the television show, it was sort of on the understanding that this can work and we can do it with integrity, but these ‘Avengers’ movies are for people to see the ‘Avengers’ movies and nothing else. And it would neither make sense nor be useful to say, ‘Oh and by the way remember me? I died!'”
Of course, just because the ‘Avengers’ films operate independently doesn’t mean the show does. One of the fascinating elements of the crossover between the film and TV sides of the MCU is who, actor-wise, appears on which side of the line. Hayley Atwell, who has been a relatively steady presence in Captain America-related film stories and also starred in “Agent Carter,” is probably the best example of that blend. But “SHIELD” has also gotten visits from Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill and Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury. The former isn’t maybe a huge huge deal — Smulders only starred in, like, nine seasons of “How I Met Your Mother,” after all — but Jackson making a rare TV appearance is kind of a big deal.
And also, never forget the intriguing case of Agent Sitwell (Maximiliano Hernández), who was first seen on screen in the 2011 “Thor,” then got a featured appearance in the Marvel short film “Item 47,” and made a few appearances on “Agents of SHIELD” before “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” revealed that he was a Hydra agent (before killing him off). Tracking Sitwell’s storyline through the MCU required a crazy person’s conspiracy board at its heights.
Ultimately, as an openly vocal fan of all this, the most fangirl-y of my concerns at this point is that the MCU’s capacity for crossover between various mediums peaked last year. “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” basically rewrote the entire premise of “Agents of SHIELD” when it revealed (with six episodes to go before “Agents of SHIELD’s” first season finale) that SHIELD, the CIA-esque organization established to work alongside super-powered heroes, was infested with evil Hydra agents.
What could have been a death blow to another series ended up being a adrenaline shot to the creative heart of a show that needed it, and not only was the integration of events between the show and film done so well that a four-hour fan edit by Bad Penny Films holds up as a complete narrative, but the following episodes of “SHIELD” hummed with a new energy that continued into Season 2. And that new sense of anarchy created sub-divisions within sub-divisions.
So far in 2015, the best film-to-TV transition within the Marvel Cinematic Universe is arguably one of the least-prominent: “Daredevil” is set in the aftermath of the 2012 “Avengers” film, which (in case you didn’t contribute to the film’s $623 million domestic box office, and thus didn’t know) pretty much destroyed a good chunk of midtown Manhattan. Thus, key events of “Daredevil,” acknowledging the impact of blockbuster movie-level destruction upon a major city, are kickstarted by the reconstruction efforts. But they’re then able to take their own route (down a darker alley than the Marvel universe normally walks) — cutting from an older plant that sprouts into not just a whole new bush, but a whole new ecosystem.
By “ecosystem,” I mean that in case you weren’t aware, Netflix has three more brand new Marvel series in the works that will co-exist, largely, with “Daredevil.” The next, “AKA Jessica Jones,” stars Krysten Ritter and will premiere later in 2015. These series, which are drawn from somewhat darker source material, are aimed at a more adult audience than the ABC shows — “Daredevil” Season 1 showrunner Steven S. DeKnight defined it as “PG-15.” But it’s still a part of the same epic universe.
It’s possible to engage with this universe without frantically consuming every fragment of media connected to it — theoretically. When I think about the fact ABC just renewed both “Agents of SHIELD” and “Agent Carter” for new seasons, meaning up to another 30 or so episodes of television to watch over the next year, on top of “Daredevil” Season 2, the other developing Netflix Marvel series and “Ant-Man” and “Captain America: Civil War”… Well. I get a little tired, to say the least.
Does that mean I’m capable of stopping? Maybe not. Because despite that exhaustion, I’m still excited to see what comes next. And how it all connects.