Robot 6

Welcome to the age of the Marvel Cinematic Crossover

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier

What did you do last weekend? Nothing much, probably; no real reason to get excited. After all, it was just another awesome Marvel movie opening. Granted, “awesome” isn’t an objective description, and surely some people had a pretty miserable time. But judging from reviews, user ratings and my own anecdotal observations, odds are a significant majority of the approximately 11 million people who watched Captain America: The Winter Soldier enjoyed it.

The film has been thoroughly reviewed — you can read CBR’s take here — so I won’t get into a big assessment. (Suffice it to say, I liked it.) Instead ,what I want to talk about is the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, and how it hasn’t just successfully adapted stories and characters, but the very experience of the Marvel Comics Universe.

It is now well-documented that Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige is a big comics fan. The difference, however, is that he didn’t grow up with them, but schooled himself on Marvel’s stories while working under producer Lauren Shuler Donner on the first X-Men movie. That distinction might have given him the ability to view the characters and concepts without being hindered by nostalgia, and helped him to dissect how Marvel’s framework could be used for future movies. Hollywood is an even more collaborative business than comics, so it’s unlikely that credit rests solely with Feige. But he certainly was an advocate for leaning more faithfully into the source material.

The Marvel brain trust might have seen an opportunity, a long-term gambit, that we now know paid off — but it was a huge risk at the time. The popular mindset before Marvel Studios was that audiences would never be able to understand, or maybe care to understand, how characters related to each other across multiple movies over multiple years. It would get too complicated, people would lose interest. Why did it take Marvel to realize this could work? Because the company had already done it in the 1960s.

Naturally, the characters are what really matter. The House that Jack, Steve and Stan (and Others) Built thrived because the characters were unlike any that readers had seen before — flawed, troubled, relatable, but still heroes against all odds. The characters were the hook, but what made Marvel so addictive was the universe aspect. You love Spider-Man, but who are those Fantastic Four guys that showed up in the newest issue? Well, OK, maybe check them out. Hooked again. Then, who’s this Hulk guy? OK, maybe try one more. Blink twice and your closet has 20 boxes of Marvel comics. Compelling characters passed through each other’s neighborhoods, inviting readers to come over to their house. Needless to say, it worked.

When Marvel became its own movie studio, it couldn’t truly recreate the birth of the Marvel Universe, because Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four are licensed to Sony and Fox. But there was one family of comics that served as the perfect template: The Avengers, comprised of characters who had debuted in their own comics. That’s exactly what Feige and others fought to recreate. However, recreating a truly Marvel experience wasn’t just having self-contained blockbusters building a narrative tapestry that coalesces into a mega-blockbuster every five or six movies. It was the crossover.

Marvel is far from the only publisher to do crossovers, but they’re the natural extension of the conventions the company established in the ’60s. What do you do when you already have everyone running through each other’s comics? You have stories go from one title to another. With last weekend’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and last night’s episode of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., we have arrived in the age of the Marvel Cinematic Crossover.

To my knowledge, never has a newly released movie been so tightly woven into a currently airing TV show. Last month, I talked about how the original Transformers movie, between the second and third seasons of the animated series, eventually led me to regularly reading comics. But those were months apart, with the movie jumping 20 years into the future from the second season, and the third season picking up some time later after the movie. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. also played with remaining plot points from November’s Thor: The Dark World, in an episode that aired nearly 10 days after the movie’s release. It was less crucial that you’d seen the movie.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier came out less than a week ago, and the plot of last night’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. weaved in and around that movie’s story, which significantly altered the course of the show’s storylines and will continue to do so for the remainder of the season. Structurally, it was almost like reading the Infinity War crossover issues of Silver Sable and the Wild Pack. All that was missing was editor’s notes directing viewers to “*See Captain America: The Winter Soldier, in theaters now! -Ed.,” Pop-Up Video style. For those immersed and aware enough (and able to afford movie tickets), this is a really fun experience. It really feels like #ItsAllConnected, as the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Facebook and Twitter accounts have been telling us. It’s exciting, unprecedented, and feels very much like reading a classic Marvel event.

It has been a really well-executed crossover between Marvel’s film and TV divisions, but it hasn’t been flawless. Those who wrote off Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. after a lackluster first half of its season might have missed that the crossover is going on. Captain America: The Winter Soldier only told viewers to watch for The Avengers: Age of Ultron next. With no other real acknowledgement of the show in the movie, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. ends up coming off like the inessential World War Hulk: Frontline. Considering the historic pecking order of movies and television, I suppose this doesn’t come as too much of a surprise.

Watching this crossover happen has been really fun, but I hope it stays rare and special. If it isn’t done strategically and carefully, it could easily get just as convoluted, watered down and unfulfilling as … well, the seasonal comic book events and crossovers.

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Comments

9 Comments

“Those who wrote off Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. after a lackluster first half of its season might have missed that the crossover is going on. ”

I ditched the show early on and I knew there was a crossover of sorts. I just didn’t care enough about anything in the TV show to bother returning to it.

MAoS was admittedly a slow starter, but has grown into some bloody good tv. Last night’s twist was very unexpected

Simon DelMonte

April 9, 2014 at 3:59 pm

I know it’s probably inconsistent to live with comics crossing over but not like a TV show being altered by a movie, but I really find AoS’s link to the movies a disincentive to watch. It’s not its own thing, and never will be. No matter how much it improved – and I admit that I quit it early on – it will forever be the tail on the cinematic dog. If you like it, that’s fine. But TV shows have always worked best as separate little universes, even if they are spinoffs. You could even watch Angel without having seen one minute of Buffy (and judging by the ratings, some did).

Never mind that ABC and Marvel expected the entire TV audience to have seen Winter Soldier immediately. That strikes me as arrogant for some reason.

I just hope that once Flash gets running on the CW, there are very few crossovers between it and Arrow till Flash has its footing.

@Simon DelMonte

While AoS certainly hinges on at least SOME understanding of the MCU, you really don’t HAVE to watch the films to get it. There’s nothing you won’t understand if you skip the films unless you don’t know who Fury and the Avengers are, in which case you’re probably not watching the show anyway.

The AoS/Cap 2 “crossover” is more linked than the Thor 2 followup, but you can still just as easily assume that the events from Cap 2 merely happened in the background of the show’s universe without missing a beat.

Besides, the show is designed to be a link to the biggest blockbusters of the year. I’d imagine that the number of people watching the show that don’t go see each Marvel film is very small (as the article says, 11 million people have already seen it).

The only thing that has held the show back is the poor pacing, writing and characters in the front half of the season, not the connection to the films. In fact, because of those flaws, the shared Universe is probably the main reason a lot of viewers (including myself) are staying tuned. This week’s episode was hands down the best of the season, and the crossover with Cap 2 was not the only thing that made it work, nor did it drag it down.

It is incredibly ballsy of Marvel to even attempt a cross media crossover like this. However one has to wonder if the Shield show suffered in pacing DUE to it’s attempts to relate to the blockbuster movies. Like, the Shield show is kinda at the mercy of when a movie gets released.

Nice article, but the first X-Files movie tied directly into the running series.

Thanks, durka. That’s good to mention the X-Files movie, although structurally it’s not much different than the Transformers animated movie I mentioned or the 1966 Batman movie – all three occurred between seasons, and the plot of those movies weren’t directly tied into a specific episode of the TV series airing around the same time. All three of those movies were released during the summer, so audiences had a few months to watch them before the next season started up in the Fall. I get what you’re saying and it may sound like splitting hairs, but I think it’s a significant distinction, partly for the reason Simon DelMonte mentioned above – the crossover occurred across two different media within less than a week of each other, and the experience of the TV show was seriously affected based on whether you saw the movie or not over the weekend.

Eric, I think you’re right that the show is hampered somewhat to respond to the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe plot that’s been mapped out. The show seemed pretty disappointing for a lot of people until this episode, and the show couldn’t do anything about it because they were locked into waiting until the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Hopefully this new status quo works, or they have the freedom to find something that does in the future instead of waiting for Age of Ultron or the next Captain America movie.

The crossover/universe aspect is what I point to whenever someone pops up with the suddenly-revolutionary idea to fund a new solo movie (e.g., Captain Marvel is hot right now… on the internet, that is…). The way the Marvel Movie Universe is currently constructed, it’s not entirely logical to develop a one-off solo film anymore.

I don’t know if that’s good or bad for character franchises that rise so abruptly, but Marvel has mentioned it’s, I want to say, 18-month pattern of proven comics stability to film announcement, and beyond that, film cameo to co/starring role. There are holes to fill in Marvels movie release schedule for the next six or seven years, which they’ve dutifully mapped out… and yet, those openings are very, very narrow.

After watching both the movie and the series, the beauty of this cross over is that you really don’t have to watch the movie to keep up with the show, though I imagine anybody who watches the show will probably have watched the movie. Anything you needed to know from the movie they mentioned in the show, Hydra had taken over, Fury was dead, and Captain America blew up the ships.

I like the show and if it is true that everything has been connected from the beginning I understand the slower start. They couldn’t just jump right into this point of the plot.

I am thinking that next season might be a Shield vs Hydra battle that might just lead up to the Avengers 2.

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