The MCU Was Never A Bold, New Experiment in Cinema
Censorship, gatekeeping, and corporate propaganda.
When the MCU first came onto the scene, it was praised as a bold new direction in storytelling. "The Narrative Experiment That Is the Marvel Cinematic Universe" went the title of an article by Maya Phillips in the New Yorker. "…the MCU can't forget the secret formula that made Phase 4 so groundbreaking," writes Nicolas Ayala in Screen Rant. Everywhere you look, people are praising this franchise that now spans multiple mediums and platforms for its originality.
It’s not bad to like these films. Personally, Thor: Ragnarok is a favorite of mine. However, when we look closely at this idea that the MCU is some bold new direction in story-telling and art, it seems mostly marketing. The MCU, narratively speaking, was always less impressive than fans let on.
It also has been at the center of a financial project that has made the retelling and remixing of an existing story that much more difficult.
It's hard to pinpoint where exactly this alleged innovation comes from. Other film franchises have used the concept of shared characters and a shared world before. Universal Studios implemented a defacto extended universe with its Monsters series. Characters like Wolf Man bumped heads with Frankenstein and Dracula. Toho Co., Ltd. created an extended world with Kaiju monsters like Godzilla, Rodan, and Mothra. Even Jason Voorhees and Freedy Krueger started to appear in an extended cinematic universe in Freddy vs. Jason.
And even these examples are more of a legal exercise as characters from one property are introduced into another. Having expansive worlds with many points of view is not something any of these extended universes created. Is Tolkien an extended-universe trailblazer because he has separate works existing within one deep, expansive world? It seems very silly when you think about it outside of a legal context. Creators have been juggling in-depth works with many different perspectives for thousands of years — that's sort of how the canon of every major religion got started, as religious doctrines from many different voices were slapped together.
It’s also hard to view the MCU as innovative from a narrative direction. It has always been fairly repetitive. Even as we swapped characters and planets, it followed a simple overarching narrative (a new character gets introduced, we go on a hero’s journey, have a big battle, rinse and repeat). This formulaic nature was the point. One could argue that the MCU was taking the repetitive structure of TV that was popular before the Second Golden Age of Television and bringing it over to the Silver Screen. As the creator of the Skip Intro Youtube channel jokingly noted in their copaganda series:
“…you can’t convince me that this isn’t a TV show. Every episode [“movie”] ends with a cliffhanger to bring you back next week. It’s run by an executive producer/showrunner Kevin Feige. That’s TV people…”
There may be many threads to keep track of, but that logic remains true for any TV show, movie, or other long-standing property. Look at Godzilla, Pokemon, Doctor Who, or most soap operas. The lore can get unwieldy very quickly. Does that complexity in itself make it a “bold new experiment in cinema?” It’s not like the MCU has held tightly to all of them, as there have been plenty of threads unceremoniously cut (see magic just being advanced technology, the Sokovia Accords’ political implications, the arc reactor being used for clean energy, and a dozen other things).
When we think of pioneering works of film, the breakthroughs we glorify are usually not this corporate. The Second Golden Age of cinema, with texts like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, was lauded for rejecting the rinse-and-repeat formulas that the MCU seems to cling to, with characters going through self-destructive arcs that did not always finish neatly. The Sopranos ended without giving its viewers a resolution — a tension an MCU movie would rarely do.
In fact, the comfort in the MCU is that rarely are you challenged. The narratives they promote are regressive (see The MCU is for Rich People). It seems strange to praise a company's attempt to factory-produce Hollywood blockbusters that inoffensively appeal to as broad an audience as possible and call that a "bold new experiment."
It's about the money
In retrospect, when we look at the MCU, the impressive feat was not the story — again, heroes coming together to stop a big bad is as basic as it gets — but that it could happen at all. In an attempt to stave off financial collapse, Marvel's filming rights were sold off to many owners in the 90s. 20th Century Fox soon owned X-Men and the Fantastic Four. Sony owned Spiderman. Columbia Pictures (and then Artisan) held Black Panther. Dozens of characters were controlled by many different hands. This arrangement made things difficult if you wanted to tell a story that intersected with all these characters.
It should be noted that a factor in this hectic landscape is that, over the years, Disney (as well as other content “producers”) have made Intellectual Property increasingly more hostile to upstarts. As their mascot, Mickey Mouse’s initial short, Steamboat Willy, approached the public domain in 1983, Congress amended the law in ’76, so it remained in Disney’s hands. They did so again in 1998 with the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act to the point that copyrights now extend to the author’s life plus 70 years. For works of corporate authorship, it’s even longer at 120 years after creation or 95 years after publication, whichever one comes first. That’s a status quo that benefits capitalists, not artists (they don’t need money after they are dead), and Disney is a significant reason why this status quo exists.
And so, not just anyone can work with existing IP fractured among multiple entities (and not get sued into oblivion). Disney's large size and deep pockets meant it had the means to navigate these complex legal and financial barriers. It was, in fact, one of the few entities that, due to regressive IP laws, could. Fans of Marvel have no alternative firm but Disney, which means there has been a, if not captive audience, then at the very least, a highly motivated one. As Paul Young writes in Screen Rant about Disney's initial acquisition of Marvel:
“Iron Man, however, is a prime example of what Marvel can do when left alone — but the problem is Iron Man was the first film completely funded by Marvel Studios and it took a lot of money to make that happen. That’s money Marvel didn’t recoup until well after the movie was made and released, so any other project they may have wanted to work on was on hold until the funds came back in. Now what if Marvel had access to Disney’s money during the time Iron Man was being made? If Marvel has access to that kind of coin, then we could have more than one or two high quality superhero films released every year.”
We now have the answer to that question, and we must emphasize this point because the positive being lauded is not the company's ability to make a good story or art but their wallet.
Indeed, that is something about modern cinema that Disney, though the MCU, has helped champion. These movies require so much money to create and market (not to mention paying out residuals) that they must become a massive success to even break a profit. The Eternals and Black Widow earned about $400 million at the box office and were failures for this reason (though Disney putting them on their streaming service so quickly probably didn't help).
Even successful films like Spiderman: No Way Home and Doctor Stange in the Multiverse of Madness do not have as high returns as one might expect — especially since Spiderman was a coventure with Sony. This structure demands excellence in ticket sales from a film, or it's a failure, and that appears to be the model for most major Disney films right now. When we look at other Disney titles such as Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker or Avatar: The Way of Water, they earned over a billion dollars (or 2 in Avatar's case) and needed to make those massive profits to break even.
That is a financial "innovation," if you will, but I don't know if I consider it an artistic one. Instead, it mirrors the consolidation and wealth inequality plaguing end-stage capitalism. We have moved into an era of larger and larger "safe" bets, leaving you wondering what will happen if there are even one or two significant misfires for Disney in the future.
Looking back, it's hard to see what is artistically innovative about team-ups across multiple films. This is not a dunk on comic books. I am an avid reader of them (my favorite Marvel is The Immoral Hulk. Favorite DC is Far Sector). I think there are many ways this medium has transformed how we create art— I just don't see the narrative framework of these films to be a part of that tradition. The style and humor of blockbusters, but with the structure of a convoluted TV show, is not the innovation I think people believe it to be.
When we praise multiple brands existing within one franchise, what we are actually worshipping is one company’s collection of IP — and that seems to be more of a capitalist innovation.
We are being told to find it impressive that Disney, a company that has twisted our laws so that its intellectual property will never enter the public domain, is unique because it can vertically integrate a property in a way no one else can. Yet they were the ones who ensured that no one else could (seriously, look more deeply into their lobbying with the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act).
In truth, there should be more cinematic universes: more wild intersections between popular characters we all love, but we cannot have that because companies like Disney have ensured that it is both legally and financially tough for artwork like that to be made. They then dare to sell us on the lie that they have done something bold with the art they have gatekept.
Well, if you define artistic innovation as exploitation, as blocking out the sun so nothing else may flourish, then the MCU is very innovative indeed.
About the Creator
I write long-form pieces on timely themes inside entertainment, pop culture, video games, gender, sexuality, race and politics. My writing currently reaches a growing audience of over 10,000 people every month across various publications.
Great piece. I'd also say the lack of risks in their films and the need for 'wrapped up' endings as also resulted in the world feeling choppy, and unfliud, and extremely repetitive. If there is not risk, what's the point? Is it just being consumed for action scenes? Which often times have rushed effects and an overworked studio of animators behind them.