How the Marvel Cinematic Universe has permanently changed Hollywood

The Marvel Cinematic Universe marked its tenth anniversary in 2018 with an unprecedented 20 films under its belt. In that decade, the face of blockbusters – and Hollywood itself – has changed enormously, and there’s no doubt that Kevin Feige and the folks and Marvel have had a huge hand in shaping those changes.

It’s not just the way films are made that has been altered – we even watch things differently than we did before, and have very different expectations when we go and see a movie. Come with us as we investigate how the MCU has altered the playing field.

A new way of storytelling

Film series aren’t a new thing – just look at James Bond, who first appeared on our screens 58 years ago – and nor was the MCU even the first superhero movie series – Superman, Blade, Batman and the X-Men all beat it to the punch.

But the MCU went further than creating a string of sequels. Instead it created a web, the ‘cinematic universe’ of its name. Any two films might feature a completely different cast of characters, but the stories were explicitly set in the same world. A starring character from one film might show up as a supporting character in another’s (like Iron Man in Spider-Man: Homecoming) or just in a cheeky cameo (Bruce Banner in Iron Man 3).

A plot point in one movie could be picked up in a latter one, and some stories were deliberately seeded in earlier films – to the point where Avengers: Age of Ultron tried many fans’ patience with tangential plots about visions of the future and Vibranium that had little to do with its main narrative.

Much of this storytelling style is drawn directly from Marvel’s source material – almost 80 years’ worth of comics. Marvel Comics has created an incredibly dense and complicated network of stories, where a plot in Daredevil might impact Avengers, for instance, and each major crossover event contains the kernel of the next.

The result of this approach for Marvel Studios is a multi-billion dollar franchise – including several of the highest-grossing movies ever – with an intensely loyal fanbase always eager for more.

There’s no doubt that Hollywood has taken notice of Marvel’s model, and is desperate to replicate it. X-Men and the DCEU/Worlds of DC have had a stab at it to varying degrees of success, while others (The Dark Universe, Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur) were dead on arrival. The series to come closest to emulating the MCU’s greatness is probably The Conjuring, which has quietly delivered five tightly interconnected movies and made a killing on some comparatively tiny budgets.

The profusion of these projects – whether they succeed or fail – is a clear sign that every studio wants to be in on the shared cinematic universe game, and there’s no sign of this trend going away anytime soon.

Franchises, not stars

For decades, Hollywood was built on the backs of its most talented and celebrated actors. Whether we’re talking Elizabeth Taylor, Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Will Smith or George Clooney, it was understood that there were certain stars who could guarantee that the punters would show up to watch them, and the actors were compensated accordingly.

Now we’re not saying that Marvel doesn’t have stars of its own – Robert Downey Jr, Scarlett Johansson and Samuel L Jackson are some of the biggest names in Hollywood today – but thanks to the strength of its brand (if you’ll pardon the marketing speak), the MCU has shown that it can launch incredibly successful films starring lesser-known actors (sometimes with lesser-known characters too – just look at Guardians of the Galaxy).

While MCU movies are pretty much guaranteed hits, big actors aren’t as bankable as they once were. Cinemagoers will line up to see Johansson as Black Widow, but they won’t necessarily show up just because she’s top-billed in a non-Marvel movie. The underperformance of the Mummy reboot in 2017 (the would-be cornerstone of the aforementioned Dark Universe) showed that even Tom Cruise – one of Hollywood’s most reliable stars – isn’t enough to guarantee an action hit anymore.

Nowadays, many big-name actors tend to focus on smaller, creative projects destined for glory at awards season – occasionally using high-paying superhero work to allow them to take on indie films that they’re passionate about.

It’s not like Hollywood isn’t still home to prestigious and beloved actors, but its highest-grossing movies are consistently the ones attached to a franchise – the MCU, Star Wars, Jurassic Park and so on. And Marvel has been leading the way on this trend thanks to being the biggest franchise around.

Superheroes are finally cool

Those of us who grew up watching the X-Men cartoon and covertly reading Amazing Spider-Man on the bus may view the fact that everyone now knows and loves Thor, Iron Man and Black Widow – let alone Shuri, Valkyrie and Korg – with a mixture of joy and sulky annoyance. We liked them before they were cool!

But superheroes are cool now, and any snobbery against them is a thing of the distant past. It may not have translated to a boom of people reading comics, but people who once would have turned up their noses at the capes ‘n’ tights crew now don Spider-Man or Captain America T-shirts in the morning without a second thought, and wait eagerly for each new MCU film.

We’re not just talking about the best-known superheroes, either – in Marvel’s case, formerly Spider-Man and the X-Men. Marvel Studios’ innovation was taking the lesser-known characters it was left with after selling off the film rights to its biggest heroes and turning them into household names. Its biggest achievement, as we’ve said, is certainly the Guardians – a team that even the average comic fan probably wasn’t too familiar with – who Marvel and James Gunn transformed into some of the most beloved blockbuster heroes around today. Who saw that one coming?

Much like with the shared universes, superheroes are considered serious business by studios now. While Fox’s X-Men, Sony’s Spider-Man and Warner Bros’ Christopher Nolan/Batman films have all had their part to play, Marvel has really pushed superheroes to another level.

The post-credits explosion

Perhaps one of the strangest effects that the MCU has had on blockbuster filmmaking and the way audiences watch movies is the boom in mid- and post-credits scenes (or stingers, if you prefer).

While not Marvel’s innovation by any means – 1979’s The Muppet Movie is often credited with kicking off a trend for comedy stingers – the MCU has made them into something that is almost seen as an essential part of any film.

While some of Marvel’s stingers are simply jokes, many have been used to allow surprise cameos for other stars, as well as ways of linking the events of one film to another coming in the future – and thus reinforcing the ever-important shared universe storytelling. Non-Marvel superhero films (and blockbuster franchises of all sorts) have got in on the act – Sony’s Venom had two such scenes.

They are so common that Warner Bros’ decision to leave them out of most of its Worlds of DC films feels almost like a political act at this point. Thanks to the MCU, cinemagoing has become an all-out war between straining bladders and the need to sit through to the end ‘just in case something happens’. Movies will never be the same again.

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