The Problem with Superhero Film Universes

In 2012, a giant space-worm came through a portal over New York, and sought to ravage the city. The megalomaniacal mastermind behind the invasion had lost control of his charges, and all hope for humanity seemed to be lost. Until six overly talented and overly egotistical people banded together to repel the invaders.

Such was the plot of 2012’s The Avengers, maybe not the first superhero film to unite characters of multiple film franchises, but certainly the first to do it on such a global scale. Joss Whedon did the seemingly impossible – he took six characters, multiple story lines, multiple studio requirements (for continuing said story, plus overall tone, etc) – and somehow made a coherent film with a solid and satisfying beginning, middle and end.

After that…not so much.

See the trouble is, once you’ve saved the world once, it gets kind of hard to go back to single hero stories. I thought what Iron Man 3 tried to do was admirable – tell a PTSD story with Tony Stark that harkened back to post 9/11 America. Though Shane Black did his best to keep the superhero film personal, you couldn’t help but wonder while Tony was in his greatest peril – if only Thor could zap down and help him…

And why not? Why can’t Thor help him? Or The Hulk, or Cap or even Hawkeye? Therein lies the problem.

Captain America 2 was a pretty darn good spy story, for a superhero film anyway, almost a throwback to classic spy noir films of the 70s in a lot of ways. But, superhero movies being what they are, it demanded a big-ass blowout to end the film. You can’t tell me that Tony Stark, who can fly to Afghanistan and back (and space!) in relative short-order doesn’t show up to help his boy Steve Rogers when shit goes sideways at SHIELD’s HQ.

(Don’t even get me started on how Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is ignored – not a single event represented in that show has made its way into a film, not even Phil Coulson’s coming back from the dead).

See, when you make a superhero film about people saving the world, it gets hard to follow that up with them just beating up a school bully, and in the single franchises, you’re always wondering where the other guys are once they’ve come together once. Then, over the course of a dozen Marvel films, and the dozen more they have planned, how many more times can the world legitimately be saved before even the most dyed in the wool fan starts to yawn?

In a lot of ways, these superhero film universes have become like episodic television – each week, a new, stand-alone adventure with relatively little impact from the episodes before. (Which is kind of ironic at a time when the best television programs are structured to be fully continuous story lines week in and week out). But as a writer myself, I can tell you it’s very difficult to write a compelling story without having an ending somewhere out on the horizon. Ultimately, the storylines have to get more and more complicated with more and more characters which will ultimately result in less and less cohesion and films being able to stand on their own. Not to mention the constant need to “set up” the next film.

Case in point: The Avengers: Age of Ultron. A compelling storyline for a superhero film – Tony Stark and Bruce Banner’s AI project runs amok and decides to eliminate humans to save the world. It’s a familiar story, but it’s worked well in other franchises (Terminator, for one). But the film was a mess: it showed a constant battle between filmmaker and studio, with the former’s need to show the human side of these heroes while the studio needed to spend ample time setting up its next films (WTF were those scenes at the cave about? Yeah, I know, Infinity stones, which provided exactly zero conflict towards the film’s storyline and completely bogged down the film). All of this at the expense of the $280 million piece of celluloid it was currently producing. The climax was just weird and disjointed, and The Avengers added a few new characters along the way.

In the end, other than the lack of cohesion, it’s all too safe. Convention demands that the heroes prevail at the end of superhero films, and that the franchise characters remain in tact enough to appear in another film (and thus continue the marketing campaigns).

But – how many heroes can fit into one superhero film? At one point, I read somewhere (and of course I can’t find it again) that the film would have something like 70 named characters. Think about that – in 140 minutes, 70 named characters will at some point have their say, and this isn’t even an “Avengers” film. It’s a Captain American one, where ostensibly, it’s supposed to be about Captain America. But it’s also supposedly introducing six significant characters to the universe (Spider-Man, The Black Panther,Crossbones, Everett Ross, Aunt May and Baron Zemo), and bringing back a few other tangental characters into more prominent roles. I get tired just thinking about it – how is a compelling story line supposed to come out of this?

Now that I’ve (hopefully) outlined the problems here, allow me a quick suggestion. There’s a hell of a lot more to mass media than theaters and television. Why not create a series of short films, with intended release for the web? For instance, Spider-Man is appearing in Captain America: Civil War. Obviously, the world has had enough of Spider-Man backstory, with not one but two significant projects in the last 15 years (Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield doing origin story films less than 10 years apart). But a few web shorts about Peter being bitten by the spider and learning his trade?

Or how about a few Black Widow shorts? Scarlett Johansson’s character is probably the most underused yet compelling of the series, and could more than hold her own in a few side missions (or her own theatrical film, come to that, but I’m past hoping Marvel will make good with the bad-ass Natasha Romanoff). What’s Thaddeus Ross been up to? Don’t know who he is? Give him a 5 minute hit on YouTube so we all remember, then you don’t have to waste time with it in a film that literally costs $2 million for each minute of final product.

Hell, a weekly podcast about Bucky Barnes’ return from insanity could garner some attention. All of which would serve to do the character setups AND as great continual advertising for the bigger projects, which can now be clutter free and with better flowing storylines.

In all honesty, with these superhero films continuing to make gobs of money, it’s hard to criticize them. But the first time that a film with a $300 million budget opens under $100 million because the last one just wasn’t that good – the studio will understand. If only it’s not too late.

(Final note: I really resisted using DC and Batman v. Superman in this post, even though it’s a perfect example of what I’m talking about. But couldn’t get what I needed without posting MAJOR spoilers, so I passed).