I like the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I was a fan of it from Day 1 when the first Iron Man movie was released in 2008 and was excited for what it promised after it delivered a solid Incredible Hulk movie just over a month later. Since then through 16 total films released to this point, I have enjoyed all but one of them, and that was Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2, which to me is the lowest point that the franchise has reached in its storytelling. I have been critical of that movie and a number of other things within the MCU for some time now, there's no doubt about that.
The one thing that I cannot be critical about the MCU for is its rousing success at the box office. The numbers speak for themselves:
When you average $781.4 million per movie you release for almost a decade, you are cooking with gas. That's really not an argument we can have at all about the MCU. The franchise is VERY successful and has enough of a box office track record that there is no logical reason to not have faith in the movies they release down the road.
To be clear here, just as I have stated many times in other pieces and on social media, financial success is NOT a measure of good or bad when it comes to movies. Numbers are objective, good and bad is not, so when we say that the MCU is very successful, we are only talking about dollars and cents, which has NOTHING to do with the perceived subjective quality of the movies. That is a different subject that people have to reconcile on their own and form their own opinions about.
All of that being said, the MCU is a huge moneymaker and an extremely popular franchise with a massive audience and it has become that way for several reasons, none of which are exclusively tied to conspiracy, bias or unfair advantage. No, all of those elements are perpetrated by critics, bloggers, fanboys and the public at large. What Marvel Studios is doing is simply solid business, and we're going to take a look at what it is exactly here.
To begin with, there is the obvious fact that Marvel Studios is a Disney-owned property. I remember that when that was announced, the thing that we were most concerned with was the idea of the cast of High School Musical suddenly flooding and "Disney-fying" Marvel stories, making them completely kid and teen aimed in a sickeningly sweet way. There are some people that would tell you that is EXACTLY what has happened with the MCU, but it is of course more complicated than that.
The thing is, when you are part of the Disney machine it's not to be just a short term investment. Disney has been printing money for decades and they've gotten very good at it by appealing to the widest audience they can appeal to. If that means no R-rated movies in your franchise because it doesn't appeal to kids and families, then that's what it means. The idea is that any adults you lose that won't buy a ticket for a PG-13 rated Avengers movie will be made up by the family that takes their kids to see it three times in the span of a month. It's not a bad business model for success, but there's another BIG reason that it works and funny enough, it has to do with something that I have been critical of the MCU for at times.
As the franchise continued to evolve through each movie, it was becoming clear that each movie was teasing what was going to happen either in the next one or down the road, and each movie released was building on some measure or principle established in the previous movie. So when we got to Avengers: Age of Ultron, the 11th movie in the MCU, the franchise was reaching a point where now if you wanted to get into it, you had some homework to do first or you wouldn't understand everything. Without any background from the previous MCU movies, would you completely understand the Scarlet Witch-induced dreams of each Avenger in Age of Ultron? Would you understand why they were chasing after Loki's scepter or where it came from? Would you even understand fully where or why a number of the side characters like Maria Hill or Erik Selvig were even in the movie? No, there's a bunch of details you would be lost on and this became even more evident with Ant-Man, Captain America: Civil War and all of the Phase Three MCU movies currently released.
It sounds like the structure of a long running television series, doesn't it? Think about it. Most good television shows today have huge story and character arcs that transcend even a full season of the show and build into the next one, and with each season arc and episode arc below it, there is always a tease to the next one, to let you know what is coming up next and that next episode builds on the reference of what happened before it in previous episodes to continue the story. This isn't the only example of episodic structure either in the MCU, it also extends to the production aspects as well. One of the things that the MCU is roundly praised for is its production schedule of movies being rigidly ordered and fully transparent. Marvel Studios release dates for the most part are pretty solid and they always seem to have something in production all the time. Right now for the three movies scheduled to release in 2018, Black Panther is in post-production after wrapping up shooting some time ago, Avengers: Infinity War is currently shooting, Ant-Man and the Wasp began shooting last month and pre-production has well begun on Captain Marvel and Avengers 4 for 2019 release dates. Marvel Studios boss Kevin Feige has even stated about how pre-programmed and already set the MCU slate is in advance, so it is no surprise that there is an assembly-line process with the movies in the franchise. They are treating it the same way television shows are treated, with the same schedule and intentions.
At the end of the day, it's just another smart business move on the part of Marvel Studios because the television model has become so much more popular now among the masses. Thanks to Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, On Demand cable services and DVR's, binge watching full seasons of your favorite shows has become a habit for people and the audience appreciates the structure of television episodes in many ways more than they do movies now. Just as actors have recognized how much more they can do with characters and story arcs in several episodes of television, audiences also recognize how much bigger a universe can be in the same structure, and that is what the MCU has capitalized on in sum total. It is literally the highest-budgeted television series of all time.
Now, is that a good thing or a bad thing? Well, that's for you the viewer to decide. A lot of people would argue that television structure belongs on television and that movies should still retain a wholly cinematic look, feel and structure to them, even in a shared universe. Despite the fact that the MCU is a cinematic franchise, there is this perception of watching an MCU movie and then moving right on to the next one in the series as though it were an episode of television, which affects the cinematic level of emotional impact that popular movies generally have. Why would you reflect on how a movie made you feel if you were just eager to watch what happens next all the time? Still, quite a few people have bought in heavily to the MCU assembly-line formula, even going so far as to proclaim it the gold standard of how to do movies at all, let alone shared universes. That's entirely a matter of opinion, but given the popularity of television today as a whole you might see why people hold the MCU in such high regard.