How Does It End? Narrative Closure in the Marvel Universes


At some point, while watching Iron Man 3 in the theater, the question, “How does this end?” popped into my head, but not about the movie I was watching. Rather, the question was about all of the narrative strands that the producers at Marvel Studios have wound together into their Avengers franchise.

In Marvel’s comics, narrative closure is always deferred, every ending a new beginning. Iron Man 3, with its now world weary characters and aging actors, draws attention to how live action is different from comics. While new writers and artists are often brought onto a title to signal or start a change in direction, in comics, the need or desire for a new approach to a character is never forced by circumstances outside the control of the creators.

Of course, when a character is performed by an actor, that is no longer true. Age, salary demands, or disaffection with a role, any or all of these may compel a need for change. At some point, the producers at Marvel Studios will face the decision of whether to recast or retire Tony Stark/ Iron Man, Steve Rogers/ Captain America, Thor and the rest of the current Avengers.

Despite the number of critics who will bemoan the lack of originality in Hollywood, pointing to the endless stream of sequels, remakes, and adapted works, only the Bond films come to close to mirroring Marvel or DC comics in their historical depth and density as an ongoing series, but even this comparison only works in relative terms. In 50 years, there have been 25 Bond movies. For any one of Marvel’s ongoing series, it would only take two years, plus one month, to generate the equivalent number of issues, and depending on publishing schedules, that level of output might be achieved in closer to a year.

At the crux of this comparison are the differences between comics and film as narrative media. Modern film series are built from infrequent, intensive bursts of story, whereas serialized comics, even where the accent is on the individual issue, are built on frequent story installments stretched out over a longer period of time. For this reason, it is fair to argue that television is better suited to faithful adaptations, in a formal sense, of many comics than is film. And, in this case, would allow for an actor to effectively inhabit a role for a longer period, at least as measured in terms of hours played or total running time of a series.

One of the qualities that makes it relatively easy to recast Bond, and key supporting characters, is that those films constitute a self-contained storyworld. This is also true of the comics characters who have been periodically recast, reset, and rebooted, including Bruce Wayne/Batman, Clark Kent/Superman, and Peter Parker/Spider-Man. The X-Men provide the closest analogy to The Avengers, but, unlike, the Avengers brand, the X-Men were introduced as a group franchise, and not made from the tying together of otherwise individual characters and films.

While Bruce Banner/The Hulk was recast three times leading to The Avengers (2012), I think that it is fair to say that no one was particularly attached to either Eric Bana’s nor Edward Norton’s incarnations of the character. And while the second try at launching The Hulk was better received by audiences than the first, neither the Norton-led, Loius Leterrier directed The Incredible Hulk (2008) nor Ang Lee’s Hulk (2003) are very many people’s favorite films based on a Marvel property. Lee’s version, while arguably the most cinematically ambitious and interesting of any of these films, was made outside the context of what is now called “Marvel Phase One”.

The lack of a definitive Bruce Banner/Hulk in the movies means that the real test for finding closure in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the one I started thinking about during Iron Man 3, which is how to address the inevitable need to move beyond Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Evans, and Chris Hemsworth.

Hemsworth’s Thor is the character who likely has the shortest potential life on screen, but, at 29, the actor is also the youngest of the core cast. Chris Evans, at 32, plays the one character in the group, Steve Rogers/ Captain America, who has the greatest latitude in terms of age, both because of the nature of his character’s origins — pharmaceutical alteration, decades of preservation in ice — and also his temperament, which lends itself to assuming a mentoring and leadership role, and not just working in the field.

Robert Downey, Jr. at 48 and in a role that doesn’t lend itself to an extended life, a fact highlighted in Iron Man 3 through Tony Stark’s PTSD and his desires for a more settled and secure life, seems to be the most likely candidate for more immediate recasting or retirement. Clearly, though, Marvel producers have options in terms of whether to turn the cast over, actors or characters, all at once or in stages.

Like X-Men, The Avengers source material presents Marvel’s filmmakers with a panoply of potential new cast members, and if the interest in who the new characters will be in The Avengers 2 is any indication, movie audiences may actually be drawn to new films in order to see fresh faces and not just established heroes. Narratively, It is not hard to envision an Avengers film without Iron Man, but still with, say, Captain America and a collection of new kids.

The question then becomes one of how far Marvel’s producers can dig into their catalog of characters and still maintain interest in their films. The announcements made so far for “Phase Two” and “Phase Three” give some indications of how this question might be answered.

With Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel is not only expanding its cinematic universe past The Avengers, but also choosing to do so with some of the company’s more obscure and cultish characters. This is also the case with Ant-Man, which is currently scheduled to initiate the “Phase Three” films.

Ant-Man is notable not only for the obscurity of its title character, but also for being a passion project of writer-director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World). The fact that Marvel appears willing to work with Wright to bring Ant-Man to the big screen underscores one reason why the company’s films have been successful with both moviegoers and also many critics: hire and work with talented creators, creators who are likely to have ideas of their own, but who can and will also work within the constraints, and opportunities, presented by the overarching corporate structure and vision for the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

In this sense, comics and film may not be all that different: once readers and audiences become invested in characters and storyworlds, persuading those same readers and audiences to maintain and deepen those investments depends on how well those characters, and their worlds, are handled by those entrusted with their care. The persistent lack of narrative closure in the comics is only possible because of the willingness of readers to accept that continuation, that seeing more of a character, or of a story, is preferable to the satisfaction of finality, or of knowing how it all ends.

In both comics and film, the most important thing is to do good work. Better an awesome Ant-Man, or Ant-Man, than an Iron Man, or Iron Man, pushed too far past their prime.