How Intricate Can Marvel's Storyworld Become on Film?

by Shaun Huston

5 July 2011


Open-Endedness Is OK, Providing There's a Promise of Resolution

Over time, the same depth that allows for richness in storytelling can also become infertile ground. To paraphrase Karl Marx, “comics creators make their own history, but not in conditions of their own making”. Individual titles and characters can and do get trapped by or sublimated to the universe, to the Marvel brand, writ large. Given that few people can afford the time or money, or have an interest in following every book that the publisher puts out, there comes a time when even devoted readers will find themselves making a choice of whether to keep pulling a title or not because of where and how it is made to fit into the bigger picture.

Taken to extremes, attention to history, to continuity, can become more important than character development and strong storytelling. After X-Men: First Class, for example, more than one would-be reader has reacted in frustration at how difficult it is to find an entry point into the comics (see the discussion at, Johanna Draper Carlson, “The Movie to Comic Problem Again – What X-Men Do I Read?”, Comics Worth Reading, 5 June 2011). When experienced comics readers find it difficult to read your books, there are legitimate questions to be asked about how you tell stories.

One question relevant to the cinematic incarnation of the Marvel Universe is if, where, and when will the line between possibility and encumbrance be crossed?

As of the moment, all films, aside from those in the X-Men franchise, are pointing towards The Avengers. Maybe that movie will provide audiences with a sense of fulfillment, or maybe Scott will be proved right, and even that film will just be another payment in Marvel’s narrative Ponzi Scheme. Marvel is currently building the first generation of its cinematic storyworld. The Joss Whedon written and directed Avengers will clearly mark a break between generations, but what kind of break won’t be known until the producers at Marvel want it to be known.

If the producers cut a similar path to that for the comics, then any sense of finality or closure from The Avengers is likely to be limited or short-lived. Scott is not wrong when he implies that there is a never-ending quality to the storytelling in Marvel’s comics. At its worst, this is turned into the cynical play for consumer dollars that the film critic assumes it is for the movies. At its best, it makes for a kind of narrative realism in the sense that the world is always bigger than any one character or event, that life goes on, and actions have consequences.

American moviegoers are accustomed to a certain open-endedness in planned series, such as Star Wars and The Matrix, or adapted works like Harry Potter and Lord of The Rings, but always with the promise of eventual resolution and a tying off of loose ends. When a series is not planned with an end in mind, characters recur but, more often than not, each film stands alone in terms of story. Even in heavily serialized television, the structure provided by “the season” leads creators to build in moments of closure that are often lacking in the mainstream of Marvel’s publishing universe.

When I read a monthly comic, especially from a publisher like Marvel, I expect to have to wait until the following month to see what happens next. On the other hand, film audiences are accustomed to narrative finality or satisfaction, at some point. Movies that blatantly bid for sequels without guarantee risk alienating audiences who have learned to expect fulfillment from film narratives.

Watching a film is an intensive experience, in that one’s primary investment is for the two or so hours of the film, whereas reading Marvel comics is more of an extensive experience, in that it is ongoing. Whether and how far movies can be made into an extensive experience is what Marvel Studios is putting to the test.

One factor that may limit how deep the Marvel Universe can go on film is the aging of actors. In print, there are any number of devices, drugs, mutations, time travel, that can be used to keep characters from aging in a “normal” way, but in live action films, those devices, not being real, cannot keep Robert Downey, Junior, Chris Hemsworth, and Chris Evans from getting too old to effectively play their characters.

One well-used comics tradition that Marvel has already employed in their films is the reboot, a move that entails resetting or, more commonly, reintroducing characters. Marvel’s Ultimate line of comics is a full reset, an alternate history with unique origins and webs of connection for characters. More common, is taking a character and resituating them within the storyworld so as to offer a new starting point, but not with an entirely new history, although a reboot may often entail adding new details to existing histories.

This strategy has been employed with the movie versions of the X-Men, The Hulk, and Spider-Man, and offers a way to address the problem of aging or unavailable actors. However, as a way of structuring or restructuring he Marvel storyworld it suggests a very different approach from the comics, less linear, and more character than plot driven. It’s a strategy that cannot be sustained by the kinds of forward moving, cross-title stinging and teasing that Marvel producers have been using to direct audiences to their films. It’s suggestive of a traditional movie franchise or limited series wherein films are primarily independent, and self-referential, rather than located within an ever-expanding field of titles.

Whether, and to what extent, the complexity of the Marvel Universe is responsible for declining comics readership is subject to debate. And yet there clearly are points where the commercial value of telling ongoing, interrelated stories is undermined when it comes to inviting new readers, something that the publishers at DC Comics appear to have concluded in announcing the restructuring and relaunch of their entire catalog. Right now, in the build-up to The Avengers, Marvel’s film universe is still manageable in scope, and appears to be drawing in and holding onto audiences. How intricate and ongoing that universe can, will, and should become are the most interesting questions raised by the films being made by Marvel Studios.

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