Earlier this month, Disney’s Marvel Studios came out with the 25th movie of the series that has somewhat transformed into a cult.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe, unlike the any other movie series in the history of cinema, across the world, not only boasts of 25 released movies, more than the James Bond series, but also boasts of continuity of the storyline across 14 years, a feat no series can claim, and perhaps, no TV show also.
To put in perspective the success of the cult, take the 25th Marvel Movie-Shang Chi, the first Asian superhero of the Marvel Cinematic Multiverse (we’ll get to this later).
The movie, an origin story about a valet driver from the Bay Area with an unconventional parenting history, explored an unaddressed sub-plot from the first movie in the series, Iron Man, from 2008, centered it around a character we were promised in the seventh movie of the series, Iron Man 3, in 2013, and had one of the characters from a short film Marvel released more than eight years ago.
Interestingly, the villain from the second movie in the series, The Incredible Hulk, made a cameo in the movie.
There were enough viewers who could recall the sub-plot from 2008 and the characters from 2013 and 2014. Doesn’t matter if the characters have not showed up for almost a decade, or for fifteen-odd movies, but the audiences, like the North, remember.
Can Christopher Nolan, with all his cinematic brilliance, and with the best superhero trilogy to his name, claim this feat? Can Martin Scorsese, one of the most gifted filmmakers in the business for decades and with several Hollywood classics to his name, claim success of this scale?
Can the biggest contemporary of Marvel, DC Comics, claim this cult-level cinematic success with an array of characters under their belt, starting with Batman and Superman? Can James Bond? Can The Matrix, Jurassic World/Park, or any loud thunderous offerings from the Michael Bay universe? Can anything on Netflix?
Even Game of Thrones could not sustain the momentum till the final act, and here, Marvel has barely begun. Tom Cruise’s Mission Impossible series comes close when it comes to storytelling across generations, but that is merely six movies, nevertheless six great movies, across 25 years.
The writing is on the wall.
We are in the Marvel-ous age of superhero renaissance, and courtesy Disney’s deep pockets, this is unlike any conventional trilogy we have been accustomed to for decades, or any solo superhero outings that would be the norm. Like the real universe, this cinematic universe, recently upgraded to a multiverse, is only expanding.
Shang Chi: The Legend of the Ten Rings was not only Marvel’s maiden attempt at creating a story that surpassed the cultural realm of the West, but also a vindication in a post-Covid world that people will continue to throng the cinemas for the movie experience, even with the emergence of several OTT platforms, globally, in the last 18-months.
Marvel themselves have chartered the OTT course with unprecedented success.
Their first series, WandaVision, an unconventional sitcom, took off from 2019’s Avengers: Endgame and will be instrumental for the future movies, beginning with Doctor Strange: Multiverse of Madness, due for March 2022. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, the second series for Disney+, brought together the two sidekicks from Marvel’s most acclaimed trilogy, Captain America, and its success enabled the studio to announce the fourth installment for Captain America, due post-2022.
Marvel’s biggest OTT success was with Loki, starring Tom Hiddleston. A character that is otherwise dead within the series got a show of its own. As is the routine in the comics, the dead are not really dead, but here Marvel exceeded its own expectations when they upgraded the Marvel Cinematic Universe to a Multiverse.
For the Muggles of the comic book world, a multiverse is a collection of many universes, each with their own stories and heroes. Marvel’s Loki happened in a different universe, and in the final act of the show, opened the gates to the multiverse, the revelation of which broke Twitter, if one is to use internet slang.
A lot could have gone wrong for Marvel here, for even the best studios of the world have their threshold, for even the best creators are bound to make mistakes even with billions of dollars in their pockets and millions of viewers.
Turns out, Marvel did not, and released What If, an animated series that explored the concept of multiverse, and became an instant success. The series picked up plots from the movies before Shang Chi, gave the plot a twist, and created an animated version of what could have been an alternative story, in an alternative universe, or in one of the universes of the multiverse.
Clearly, one would have thought that is it. Reincarnated characters, simultaneous story arcs, and an array of superheroes for each movie would be the glass ceiling for this cinematic pursuit, but Marvel, thanks to its partnership with Sony, was not done breaking the internet.
Merely a few days ago, the trailer for the 26th movie in the series, Spider-Man: No Way Home, was released. Starring Tom Holland who has been a part of five Marvel movies already, one expected the story to carry forward, but the trailer had something many could not have apprehended.
Turns out, the antagonist was the same character, played by the same actor, from Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man 2 that was released in 2004, more than four years before the Marvel Cinematic Universe began. One of the other antagonists include the same character, played by the same actor, from Andrew Garfield’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 from 2014. The trailer also dropped hints for the Green Goblin, another character, played by the same actor, from Maguire’s first Spider-Man movie.
This is not it, for Marvel is rumoured to have cast both Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield in title roles, playing their versions of the superhero from their franchise from 2002 and 2012. Yes, three Spider-Man(s) in a single movie.
The buck does not stop here, for Marvel is also rumoured to have cast the same actor for one of the famous characters, Daredevil, from the Netflix series produced outside the purview of Disney, back in 2015, and more such characters are expected to come back, starting with the Punisher. It is not uncommon for Marvel to have done this, for back in 2014-15, a massive Facebook campaign to cast Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange was acknowledged by Marvel, with the actor starring in the title role in 2016.
Turns out, in the multiverse, anyone and everything is possible.
Today, Marvel’s monopoly, magnitude, movies, and magic is unchallenged. Of its worldwide box office revenue of more than $23 billion dollars through 25 movies, $14.2 billion has come from territories outside of the United States and Canada.
For a combined budget of $4.9 billion dollars, the revenues have been five-fold, and these do not include the rights for OTT in the past, merchandising, or streaming revenues from Disney’s online service.
The magnitude is unchallenged. Already, a dozen web series for Disney+ are in production, all taking off from several movies. By July 2022, five more movies would have been released, assuming they are not pushed further by the pandemic, and by November 2024, fifteen more movies would have been released, taking the total count to 40.
What is the magic here? What is working for Marvel?
The vision. Turns out, Marvel had planned movies until 2028 in the early 2010s itself. What set them apart from their contemporaries, mainly Warner Bros. and DC Comics was their investment in characters. Nothing else explains the rooting and cheering, the crying, the cinematic worship, globally, in cinema halls when Avengers: Endgame, the biggest movie in the franchise was released. YouTube, the theatre reactions and goosebumps are ensured.
The reward. Back in 2013, I was amongst the three fans who stayed back for the famous post-credit scene, a regular feature of all Marvel movies. In a show that went houseful, only three people chose to stay behind. Cut to eight years later, an entire hall was waiting for the post-credit scene during the screening of Shang Chi.
Unlike with any other series, there is a certain visual reward for viewers with each episode of a Marvel series, with each story arc of a Marvel movie, and these rewards are beginning to transcend generations, for who were schoolchildren during the early 2000s are beginning to become parents.
Lastly, the continuity. Not all movies are connected to each other, and thus, this is not one linear story arc that one must follow to make sense of each movie, but like Spider-Man’s web, each story can find a link to another, and within these links, small and big, audiences have uncovered endless joy and the creators endless possibilities.
Solo superhero trilogies with limited villains and defined story arcs, even if they are as brilliant as Nolan’s The Dark Knight, are a thing of the past, for Marvel has redesigned the superhero for the big cinema. The magic has already reached the Indian shore, with Marvel’s Eternals getting a Diwali release this year, challenging the conventional Bollywood stars that marked the festival for their big ticket releases.
What is the next big thing for Marvel?
Well, Disney, before the pandemic, acquired 21st Century Fox, and if rumours from the multiverse stand true, the next big culmination would be the Avengers taking on the X-Men, and the directors of Avengers: Endgame could come back to direct it.
Watch out for Marvel’s cinematic pursuits across the next decade. They are not only rescuing the comic book culture, but also the cinema industry, and in doing so, ushering the superhero renaissance.
What a time to be a superhero fan!
Tushar is a senior-sub-editor at Swarajya. He tweets at @Tushar15_
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