Marvel Cinematic Universe
The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is an American media franchise and shared universe that is centered on a series of superhero films, independently produced by Marvel Studios and based on characters that appear in publications by Marvel Comics. The franchise has expanded to include comic books, short films, television series and digital series. The shared universe, much like the original Marvel Universe in comic books, was established by crossing over common plot elements, settings, cast, and characters. Clark Gregg has appeared the most in the franchise, portraying Phil Coulson, a character original to the MCU.
The first film released in the MCU was Iron Man (2008), which began the first phase of films culminating in the crossover film Marvel’s The Avengers (2012). Phase Two began with Iron Man 3 (2013), and concluded with Ant-Man (2015). The films are currently in Phase Three, which began with the release of Captain America: Civil War (2016). Marvel Television expanded the universe further, first to network television with Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on ABC in the 2013–14 television season, followed by online streaming with Marvel’s Daredevil on Netflix in 2015, and then to cable television with Marvel’s Cloak and Dagger, which is scheduled to air in 2018 on Freeform. Soundtrack albums have been released for all of the films, along with many of television series, as well as the release of compilation albums containing existing music heard in the films. The MCU also includes tie-in comics published by Marvel Comics, while Marvel Studios has also produced a series of direct-to-video short films, a viral marketing campaign for its films and the universe with the faux news program WHIH Newsfront, and a digital series Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: Slingshot, a supplement to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
The franchise has been commercially successful as a multimedia shared universe, though some critics have found that some of its films and television series have suffered in service of the wider universe. It has inspired other film and television studios with comic book character adaptation rights to attempt to create similar shared universes. The MCU has also been the focus of other media, outside of the shared universe, including attractions at Disneyland and Discovery Times Square, two television specials, guidebooks for each film, a Lego video game, and a commercial with Coca-Cola.
“It’s never been done before and that’s kind of the spirit everybody’s taking it in. The other filmmakers aren’t used to getting actors from other movies that other filmmakers have cast, certain plot lines that are connected or certain locations that are connected, but I think … everyone was on board for it and thinks that it’s fun. Primarily because we’ve always remained consistent saying that the movie that we are making comes first. All of the connective tissue, all of that stuff is fun and is going to be very important if you want it to be. If the fans want to look further and find connections, then they’re there. There are a few big ones obviously, that hopefully the mainstream audience will able to follow as well. But … the reason that all the filmmakers are on board is that their movies need to stand on their own. They need to have a fresh vision, a unique tone, and the fact that they can interconnect if you want to follow those breadcrumbs is a bonus.”
By 2005, Marvel Entertainment began planning to independently produce its own films and distribute them through Paramount Pictures. Previously, Marvel had co-produced several superhero films with Columbia Pictures, New Line Cinema and others, including a seven-year development deal with 20th Century Fox. Marvel made relatively little profit from its licensing deals with other studios and wanted to get more money out of its films while maintaining artistic control of the projects and distribution. Avi Arad, head of Marvel’s film division, was pleased with Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films at Sony, but was less pleased about others. As a result, they decided to form Marvel Studios, Hollywood’s first major independent movie studio since DreamWorks.
Arad’s second-in-command, Kevin Feige, realized that unlike Spider-Man and the X-Men, whose film rights were licensed to Sony and Fox respectively, Marvel still owned the rights to the core members of The Avengers. Feige, a self-professed “fanboy”, envisioned creating a shared universe just as creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had done with their comic books in the early 1960s. To raise capital, the studio secured funding from a seven-year, $525 million revolving credit facility with Merrill Lynch. Marvel’s plan was to release individual films for their main characters and then merge them together in a crossover film. Arad, who doubted the strategy yet insisted that it was his reputation that helped secure the initial financing, resigned the following year.
In 2007, at 33 years old, Feige was named studio chief. In order to preserve its artistic integrity, Marvel Studios formed a six-person creative committee with people familiar with its comic book lore that included Feige, Marvel Studios co-president Louis D’Esposito, Marvel Comics’ president of publishing Dan Buckley, Marvel’s chief creative officer Joe Quesada, writer Brian Michael Bendis, and Marvel Entertainment president Alan Fine, who oversaw the committee. Feige initially referred to the shared narrative continuity of these films as the “Marvel Cinema Universe”, but later used the term “Marvel Cinematic Universe”. Marvel has designated the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Earth-199999 within the continuity of the company’s multiverse, a collection of fictional alternate universes.
In November 2013, Feige said that “in an ideal world” releases each year would include one film based on an existing character and one featuring a new character, saying it’s “a nice rhythm” in that format. While not always the case, as evident by the 2013 releases of Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World, he said it is “certainly something to aim for.” Feige expanded on this in July 2014, saying, “I don’t know that we’ll keep to [that model] every year,” but we’re doing that in 2014 and 2015, “so I think it would be fun to continue that sort of thing.” In February 2014, Feige stated that Marvel Studios wants to mimic the “rhythm” that the comic books have developed, by having the characters appear in their own films, and then come together, much like “a big event or crossover series,” with Avengers films acting as “big, giant linchpins.” After the reveal of multiple release dates for films through 2019 in July 2014, Feige stated, “I think if you look at some of those dates that we’ve announced, we’re going to three in a few of those years. Again, not because there’s a number cruncher telling us to go to three, do more than two pictures a year, but because of the very reason just laid out: It is about managing [existing] franchises, film to film, and when we have a team ready to go, why tell them to go away for four years just because we don’t have a slot? We’d rather find a way to keep that going.” After the titles were revealed in October 2014, Feige said, “the studio’s firing on all cylinders right now … which made us comfortable for the first time … to increase to three films a year [in 2017 and 2018] instead of just two, without changing our methods.”
On expanding the characters in the universe and letting individual films breathe and work on their own, as opposed to having Avenger team-ups outside of Avengers films, Feige stated, it’s about “teaching the general movie going audience about the notion of the characters existing separately, coming together for specific events and going away and existing separately in their own worlds again. Just like comic readers have been doing for decades and decades … People sort of are accepting that there’s just a time when they should be together and there’s a time when they’re not.” In April 2014, Feige revealed that Edgar Wright‘s pitch for Ant-Man in 2006 helped shape the early films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, saying, “We changed, frankly, some of the MCU to accommodate this version of Ant-Man. Knowing what we wanted to do with Edgar and with Ant-Man, going years and years back, helped to dictate what we did with the roster for Avengers the first time. It was a bit of both in terms of his idea for the Ant-Man story influencing the birth of the MCU in the early films leading up to Avengers.”
In October 2014, Marvel held a press event to announce the titles of their Phase Three films. The event, which drew comparisons to Apple‘s Worldwide Developers Conference, was done because all the information was ready. As Feige explained, “We wanted to do this at [San Diego] Comic-Con this year. Things were not set … So the plan has been, since a few weeks before Comic-Con when we realized we weren’t going to be able to do everything we wanted to do, is to decide ‘let’s do either something we haven’t done in a long time, or something we’ve never done.’ Which is a singular event, just to announce what we have when it’s ready. I thought that might be early August, or mid-September, it ended up being [at the end of October].”
In September 2015, after Marvel Studios was integrated into The Walt Disney Studios with Feige reporting to Walt Disney Studios chairman Alan Horn instead of Marvel Entertainment CEO Isaac Perlmutter, it was reported that the studios’ creative committee would have “nominal” input on the films moving forward, though would continue to consult on Marvel Television productions, which remained under Perlmutter’s control. All key film decisions going forward will be made by Feige, D’Esposito and Victoria Alonso. At the end of the month, on how much story is developed for future films of the universe, Feige said there are “broad strokes” though sometime “super-specific things. But for the most part, in broad strokes that are broad enough and loose enough that, if through the development of four of five movies before we get to the culmination … we still have room to sway and to move and to go and to surprise ourselves in places that we end up. So that all the movies, hopefully when they’re finished, will feel like they’re all interconnected and meant to be and planned far ahead, but really can live and breathe enough as individual movies to be satisfying each and of themselves.” The studio also has various contingency plans for the direction of all of their films, in the event they are unable to secure a certain actor to reprise a role, or require the film rights to a character, such as was done in February 2015 with Spider-Man.
In April 2016, on moving the universe to Phase Four and reflecting on the first three, Feige said, “I think there will be a finality to moments of Phase Three, as well as new beginnings that will mark a different, a very different, a distinctively different chapter in what will someday be a complete first saga made up of three phases.” Joe Russo added, “You build things up and people enjoy the experiences you’ve built up. But then you kind of reach an apex or you reach a climax, a moment where you go, ‘This structure is really going to start to be repetitious if we do this again, so what do we do now?’ So now, you deconstruct it. We’re in the deconstruction phase with [Captain America:] Civil War and leading into [Avengers:] Infinity War, which are the culmination films.” On the potential for “superhero fatigue”, Feige stated, “This year, we’ve got Civil War and we’ve got Doctor Strange in November, two completely different movies. To me, and to all of Marvel Studios, that’s what keeps it going. As long as we’re surprising people, as long as we’re not falling into things becoming too similar … next year, [Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2], [Spider-Man: Homecoming], Thor: Ragnarok. Those are three totally different movies … as long as the only shared thing is they come from the same source material and they’ve got our Marvel logo in front of the movies. Other than that they can be very distinct. What other studios do, what other properties, nothing we can do about it.”