Tony Black on Marvel’s continuity problem, and whether fans will accept a reboot…
What seems like a ton of new quotes and interviews with various major Marvel players have been floating around this week as Captain America: Civil War opens in the US, and head honcho Kevin Feige has been particularly vocal. After admitting they may finally be taking a Black Widow movie seriously, which throws some interesting new light on my recent ponderings about her future, and talking the motivations concerning casting The Ancient One in Doctor Strange which has come under considerable flack (surely if you *can* cast Tilda Swinton, you cast Tilda Swinton?), his most intriguing comments came when discussing the longevity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe which throw up an interesting question – how exactly will they deal with the thorny issue of continuity down the road? Here’s what Feige said:
“The short, easy answer is I’m not thinking about that right now because I’m thinking about how to complete and surprise these upcoming incarnations. Past that? I don’t know. I greatly admire what the Broccolis have done with James Bond, how could you not? Fifty years and going strong, with a character that will outlive any particular actor, director, producer, studio executive. That will continue. If you look at how all of our characters have been revamped from decade to decade in the comics, with new artists and new writers and new incarnations, and I think it’s destined to happen in our cinematic universe as well. But, I don’t have to worry about that right now.”
Now this raises a few interesting points about the future of the MCU, which may seem a million miles away but once Avengers: Infinity War (or whatever it’s going to be called), Marvel are going to have to start asking themselves the hard questions. Feige appreciates the James Bond model, which of course has seen the part recast half a dozen times over the past half century and remained a key figure in cinematic pop culture, but there’s a difference; the Bond franchise has never been slavish to continuity. The closest indeed it’s probably ever gotten is the most recent Daniel Craig iteration, but even that has retrofitted events in Spectre to tie together all of his preceding three films. Barbara Broccoli or Michael G. Wilson wouldn’t claim for one minute they had the plot of Spectre in mind when making Casino Royale. In contrast, was Joss Whedon thinking about Thanos when he was making The Avengers? Absolutely, even if the details may now have changed through successive different writers and directors.
The point is this: you can make the Bond model film-by-film. Once Craig leaves either this year or after his next movie, none of his continuity will likely carry on to the next 007. EON will reboot and start again, perhaps from a different angle to Bond, a different age to Craig, whatever – but his story will be consigned to the past. There will be no references directly, only perhaps nods and winks for the fans down the line, as we’ve seen to the Sean Connery or Roger Moore films etc… in Skyfall or Spectre. Can you imagine the same thing happening in the MCU? The investment from the audience is instinctually different with the Bond series, indeed it would be unusual if it started carrying through storylines with successive 007’s.
With the MCU, we have a much greater investment in the continuity of this universe. We have watched it blossom since Iron Man, watched it expand and deliver some fantastic characters on the big screen. Would we be happy if Marvel, some years after Chris Evans or Robert Downey Jr. fulfil their contracts or grow too old for their roles, started an entirely new MCU continuity with new actors playing Steve Rogers or Tony Stark? Would we feel betrayed in the same way many Star Trek fans felt when the 2009 film recast Kirk & Spock and set up an entirely new continuity after four decades of investment?
A lot of this comes down to the different type of fans who go to see these movies, and for Marvel they are a very different beast to Bond. While Feige’s films have gained an entirely new, huge audience of people who love the MCU but don’t read comic books (*raises hand*), ultimately a large proportion of people watching Civil War this weekend will be Marvel devotees from the comic book world, and their perspective on continuity is wholly different from the more casual, simple movie fan. For decades, Marvel–like DC and other major comic book universes–have consistently and frequently rebooted their own continuity, leading to a myriad of alternate-Earth’s, resurrections of characters, and different approaches to the most famous source material going back to Stan Lee & Steve Ditko’s early iconic work. It’s part of the comic book fabric, as much an expectation as the Bond series *not* holding to continuity.
For that level of fandom, it won’t be a case of *if* the MCU does this, but *when* – what will be the break point? Will it come after Avengers 3, when several of the heroes we’ve been following since 2008 will presumably see their stories come to a close? That almost seems too early – we’re likely to get further sequels to Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man, Spider-Man, perhaps Doctor Strange & Black Panther. We’re likely to see a Captain Marvel movie, plus possibly the Black Widow film. We may even at last get that solo Hulk movie everyone would love to see.
The break point may be a long way off then. It may be beyond Phase Four. Marvel may even be able to get another ‘trilogy’ of cycles going and cut the chord by the end of a theoretical Phase Six, which going by the roughly three-year cycles of each phase so far would mark that as around 2028. Blimey. If we haven’t seen Iron Man or Captain America much over the previous ten years, would everyone be more open to a rebooted MCU? Or would we still feel slighted after investing two decades in seeing a universe develop and grow?
These are questions, as Feige says, we are a long way from having to answer, but they are likely to be a hugely divisive conversation fans will be having in expectation throughout at least the next five years and beyond. The MCU does feel as though it’s approaching a point of no return, a point of dramatic change and evolution – one they will have to weather carefully if they hope to still be around by 2026.
Tony Black is a freelance film/TV writer & podcaster & would love you to follow him on Twitter.