by John Voyles
The moment that Nick Fury appeared briefly after the credits of Marvel Studios "Iron Man" has become one of the most consequential and iconic moments in recent cinematic history. In a decade when many popular franchises were in decline, "Iron Man" offered an exceedingly bold promise of not only one franchise, but a new universe with dozens of unique characters capable of leading their own films, transcending genres, and crossing over with one another. Almost nine years after "Iron Man", Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark is just one of an expanding stable of characters.
The Marvel Universe has expanded, meeting it's main heroes in "The Avengers" films and splitting them apart in "Captain America: Civil War" while introducing new faces. New genres join as well, as "Ant Man" last year explored heist films, "Doctor Strange" leads into the realm of mysticism, while James Gunn's "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2" continues the spacefaring side. "The Avengers: Infinity War" offers the promise of crossing these many related films together.
Yet, Marvel has diversified both it's character roles and it's industry hold on television with "Marvel's Agent Carter", "Marvel's Agents of SHIELD", as well as the darker 'street-level' stories streaming on Netflix, following heroes such as blind attorney Matt Murdock in "Daredevil", private investigator "Jessica Jones", and bullet-proof "Luke Cage".
The profit motives are lucrative - those who liked one Marvel film or another may feel an obligation to see more. Many fans who saw "Captain America: Civil War" and met the Black Panther are already excited for his upcoming solo film. On the opposite hand, a fan of Tony Stark who did not see the first two Captain America films may see "Captain America: Civil War" and then desire to go back to the previous Captain America films.
The thrill of seeing favorite characters meet is an obvious one, but the cinematic universe concept has been rich with critical storytelling promise. The dark stories of the Netflix programs can appeal to an audience who may not be as interested in the generalized stories of the big films, while those series may be too depressing for those who prefer the films' often optimistic tone.
Marvel's rival, DC Entertainment, has been moving towards Marvel's concept for decades, first envisioning their own cinematic universe as far back as the mid-nineties, with a variety of problems and flops derailing these dreams until the afterglow of "Man of Steel", which rebooted the Superman franchise. The three released films in DC's mega-franchise have very different tones, with "Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice" being remarkably dark, while "Suicide Squad" aims to aim for an almost bittersweet mix of humor and angst. "Wonder Woman" looks to be a return to the optimism of "Man of Steel", but it remains to be seen if it will make up for the mixed critical reception of the previous films.
It's important to recognize why these successful franchises have succeeded as they have. Marvel spent four years setting up the seeds for four separate hero franchises before uniting them in "The Avengers" - just as they had in comics, where Thor, Hulk, Ant Man, and Iron Man had their own comic books shortly before and during their run on the Avengers. For all of DC's pitfalls, their characters have similarly crossed in and out of each other's lives.
However, it's important to recognize the weaknesses of the model's applications here as well. Many of these rivals are trying a different approach: skipping the solo films and trying to do "The Avengers" before portraying these characters' stories. DC hinged on "Batman v. Superman", re-introducing Batman, Wonder Woman and many other characters in a single film. Outward expansion seems to be the rule, with Marvel being the surprising exception.
As the Marvel Universe prepares to enter it's ninth year, cinema is still in the earliest age of the cinematic universe concept that is only now beginning to see wide adoption. The results so far suggest that if the existing mythology or world is rich enough and can support a large cast of leading characters, a cinematic universe can do well. The studios trying to expand existing franchises outward to fit the cinematic universe have yet to prove a successful formula. Only time will tell how viable the model truly is, but if the early box office returns for "Dr. Strange" are anything to go by, the cinematic universe concept isn't going anywhere yet.