This past Friday, as I was watching the latest episode of WandaVision on Disney+, it occurred to me that this wildly entertaining and unique show is yet another home run for Marvel Entertainment in an ocean of successes. Back in 2008 with the release of Iron Man, it would have been impossible to fathom the unparalleled success of the expanded universe they would create. The stakes are different with each iteration, sometimes it’s the fate of the universe, sometimes its the fate of Earth, sometimes it’s a neighborhood and so on. We care about these characters, accept all the variables, and have bought into their universe at large. Truly amazing.
The thing I marvel (ugh) at the most is that even though there are duds within the MCU (Thor: The Dark World, Iron Fist), nothing slows down the machine. It’s the kind of credibility that studios and production companies would never dare dream about. Locking actors up to play iconic roles for over a decade is no easy task. It can be exhausting (I know they are well compensated) to basically have that be THE THING that you are. Conventions, press junkets, promotional appearances, being in incredible shape, are but some of the demands being a super hero in the MCU demands of you over the years. Marvel has pulled this off in a way that is quite unique. Look at the actors from other cinematic universes for points of comparison. The new Star Wars trilogy has lots of the actors complaining about their roles or lack of development (John Boyega), the DC Universe is constantly threatened by actors either wanting out (Ben Affleck) or with actors having to have their mustaches digitally removed because another non-DC project was a priority (Henry Cavill). That’s far more normal. This isn’t to say that there haven’t been hiccups or speed bumps. I am sure there have been. But we’re basically going on 15 years of this universe chugging along with an incredible amount of buy in from the actors and even more from the audience. Remarkable.
Trying to find the magic sauce is no easy task. It certainly helps to have dynamic actors like Robert Downey Jr. that can carry franchises by himself because of his immense talent, draw, humor, and gravity on screen. What I find truly amazing is that they are able to make 1 note, fairly static characters interesting as well. Think about 2 characters from the 2 different comic book cinematic universes: Superman & Captain America.
Cap can be summarized thusly: He doesn’t quit. That translates to his loyalties, friends, and fights. That’s who he is. He just keeps coming. There’s not a ton of arc there. Think about how much Tony Stark has changed since his first brash arrogant self first appeared. Captain America basically has obstacles put in front of him and he overcomes them.
Superman is overpowered and pretty much cannot be defeated without his powers being taken away. He has obstacles placed in front of him and he overcomes them. He loves Lois too! Again, not much complicated about the formula.
Several different reboots, directors, producers have all tried to make good Superman movies and have largely failed (even though I’m in the minority and I like Man of Steel). The Captain America movies have all been good and in my opinion, Winter Soldier, is among the best Marvel movies. That is pretty amazing when you think about it. Marvel has accomplished this feat with great ensemble casting, settings, and deft ties to the larger universe. They’ve taken a static character and made really good movies with him. DC has banked on the ‘It’s Superman!’ appeal factor and it has not worked for the most part.
Marvel has also struck the exact right balance of patience in world building and adding in new characters, while mixing in humor, breathtaking action, and surprisingly good acting for blockbusters. Contrast that again with DC’s universe. They sprinted through and tossed so many new characters into their tentpole film, Justice League. We didn’t know much about Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Cyborg, or The Flash. Marvel sprinkled in Black Panther, one of their building block characters, in Captain America: Civil War, gave him his own excellent movie, and that led to his passing in Infinity War and subsequent return in End Game to have so much emotional energy. In Justice League, Cyborg was given almost 6 minutes of character development and self-actualization, The Flash is hungry and afraid and that’s cool I guess. Add in a CGI villain with unclear motivations, undefined powers (he can teleport whenever he wants yet stays around to get his ass kicked in the finale), and a muddled force with a hasty backstory, and you get Justice League.
Another element that needs to be hit here is how well Marvel has entered the streaming/small screen world with WandaVision. This was only possible, to me, because of the high quality of Jessica Jones, Daredevil, Luke Cage, and The Punisher. Those ‘lower stakes’ shows set the stage for storytelling arcs over several episodes instead of 1 150 minute film.
As the debut season of WandaVision began to slowly build its world and layer in hints and nuance, fans stuck with the show, knowing there would be a significant payoff. Marvel has earned that. In a way, this show is a microcosm of the 13+ years of the MCU. They took their time, they took risks, they asked us to accept all sorts of insanity: 6 space rocks that can end all life and half of them were in New York, a talking technical genius raccoon, a walking tree, time travel, dimensions, sorcery, and so much more, all totally fine because Marvel earned it. Now, somehow, this small town setting has led to massive implications for the MCU. It’s not on the scale of 1/2 of all life in the universe but the potential here is pretty significant. We already know there will be a tie-in to the upcoming Dr. Strange film, The Multiverse of Madness, and one can easily se how Scarlet Witch could fit in or even generate alternate realities. The reveal and implication of her powers and how they are manifesting in the past 2 episodes opens up all sorts of avenues for the next phases of the MCU. Before now, there was a distinction between the small worlds of their tv shows and the much larger scale of the films. The small screen heroes would cleverly weave in references to the MCU at large as they dealt with their minor league problems. But now? The bridge has been built.
As a dork and consumer of epic works, I could not be more excited about the depth and developments under the umbrella of Disney. The Mandalorian is a juggernaut and its success has ushered in a new era of Star Wars material coming our way. Gone are the days of this unbelievably rich and ripe universe limited to a trilogy over 6 years. It’s about to be Marvelized. For the MCU, the seamless movement from big screen successes to the expanded storytelling of television is actually more in line with actual comic books themselves. The movies all overlapped with each other and felt connected in a way we haven’t seen. Now with Disney+ and streaming shows feeling nearly as grand as the films, we are truly in a nerd nirvana.