A term first used in 2008 by Kevin Feige, President of Production for Marvel Studios, to describe the array of Superheroes still remaining under Marvel Comics's full control, after various production and distribution deals over the previous years had conspicuously fragmented the overall Marvel brand, and had left the company insufficiently in control of products generated in its name. The free-for-all of those years had resulted in separate concept "philosophies" and production values and distribution patterns for high-profile franchises like Spider-Man, which remained under the control of Columbia Pictures (see Spider-Man and sequels), and X-Men, which remained under the control of 20th Century Fox (see X-Men Films). There was a certain chutzpah in dubbing the rump that remained the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as though they had meant to do that; but in the event this display of nerve paid off in a series of highly successful films; and the consequences of the short-term corporate greed that had dangerously watered down the Marvel name could now be dealt with sagaciously. It was announced in early 2015 that Spider-Man would appear in at least one Marvel Studios production by 2107, under the direct control of Feige; the eventual outcome may represent corporate good sense, or not.
Marvel had retained full ownership of the crew of Superheroes aggregatedly retrofitted into a supergroup known as The Avengers, the individual members of which had all been central figures in the Marvel stable from the 1960s (or even earlier). These figures included Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor and Captain America. Marvel's overall strategy (which continues into films projected to 2017 and beyond) has been to create from this repertory a multi-film Shared World super-series in several "Phases", a project naively accompanied by the apparent claim that the announcement of the Marvel Cinematic Universe marks the first use of the concept of the Shared World. In the event, "Phase One" of this super series had been produced according to plan and with great success, with some "Phase Two" films already in release. According to the overall strategy for each Phase, films devoted to individual Superheroes come first, complete with storylines befitting their Superpowers and the kind of Villains or Antiheroes they became superheroes to combat, complete with cross-over story elements and shout-outs, the sort of hook long typical of similar enterprises in print, the most significant early model almost certainly being Jack Kirby's Fourth World series for DC Comics 1970-1972. After several of these films, the Phase climaxes with a supergroup epic.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe (Phase One) sequence of films starring individual Superheroes includes: Iron Man (2008) directed by Jon Favreau; The Incredible Hulk (2008) directed by Louis Leterrier; Iron Man 2 (2010) directed by Jon Favreau; Thor (2011) directed by Kenneth Branagh; and Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) directed by Joe Johnston.
There has been no visible change of strategy since, though the constantly increasing scale of each movie fails to disguise an increasing inwardness. The Marvel Cinematic Universe (Phase Two) sequence of films, similarly featuring some titles starring individual Superheroes, includes: Iron Man 3 (2013) directed by Shane Black; Thor: The Dark World (2013) directed by Alan Taylor and Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014). and Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) directed by James Gunn. At the same time, two umbrella epics were released, The Avengers (2012) and Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) – which see for further comments on the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole – both directed by Joss Whedon. Phase Three is now continuing along the same lines, with films centred on the title characters of Ant-Man (2015) and Doctor Strange (2016).
Unlike the Spider-Man sequence, and the X-Men Films, the overseers of the Marvel Cinematic Universe seem consciously to have avoided the Young Adult market as such. Given the nature of the product, any Marvel-based film will of course appeal most strongly to young viewers, but the Universe movies are free of teenage protagonists, or campus settings; and their central protagonists to date – in particular Iron Man (who first appeared in 1963) and Captain America (who first appeared in a 1941 Timely Comics publication, though he spent most of the intervening years as a Corpsicle) – arrive on the screen complete with complex backstories derived from decades of Comics-generated turbulence.
Perhaps more significantly, the writers and directors involved in making the Phase One sequence come from outside any loosely definable cadre of directors of special-effects-oriented action movies about superheroes who source their audience-friendly storylines on models from the visual media rather than books. Though the Marvel Cinematic Universe directors are by no means exempt from Shared-World constraints, they have clearly been granted a certain degree of creative freedom, an enablement due in part to the by-now extraordinarily developed industrial sophistication involved in the execution of the various action sequences currently required: there is an abiding sense that contemporary action sequences respond and conquer technical challenges that are inherently detached from any one film in particular; and that – in a very real sense – contemporary action sequences inhabit their own Shared World. They are at times very cunningly inserted into actual storylines, though that insertion is never entirely invisible; and as the twenty-first century sees an increasingly vast accumulation of action films of this sort, action sequences today are increasingly likely to be presented self-knowingly.
It remains the case, however, that Marvel Cinematic Universe films are written and directed with a sometimes convincing semblance of adult intent. It is very noticeable in these movies that politically transgressive arguments are given what might seem to be free play, though always from the mouths of Villains. This "freedom" may in fact resemble what Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979) in 1965 famously called "repressive tolerance", with Marvel and its senior partner Disney standing in for post-World War Two governments in general; but it still remains the case that arguments that have been made are arguments that have been made remain harder to hide than arguments never uttered. The premise of Captain America: The Winter Soldier – that the Secret Master villains who run HYDRA have tricked the Western world into creating the unstable security-obsessed Dystopias that oppress humans today – may seen ironic in the corporate environment now necessary to fund and control the creation of epic cinema; but the villain's dying words, "Hail HYDRA!", carry a sting. The Marvel Cinematic Universe may, quite extraordinarily, be open to the future. [JC]
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