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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.