The Avengers

Practicing Patience

Because Marvel tries (and usually succeeds) at delivering complete individual movies, it can take them a while to build up to major overarching storylines. Iron Man may have set up the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it still took us another four years and another five films to get to The Avengers. Captain America lost Bucky in The First Avenger and learned of his fate in The Winter Soldier, but didn’t truly get to reunite with him until Civil War. And Captain America and Iron Man’s personalities first clash in The Avengers, but their friendship continues developing through Avengers: Age of Ultron until their differences come to a head in Civil War. While Marvel famously maps out their storylines years in advance, they treat patience as a virtue and their films are better for it. Not only does their slow-burn approach give individual films room to breathe, they ensure that the payoffs, then they finally come, actually feel earned.

In their rush to set up the DC Cinematic Universe, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice looped in a convoluted backstory to explain why Batman hates Superman, dragged in Wonder Woman for no good reason, and then brought the climax to a screeching halt so we could watch a bunch of Justice League teasers featuring the Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg. It introduced a “Knightmare” sequence that makes zero sense in the context of this movie, and had a character we haven’t met yet appear through a wormhole to issue a warning that won’t be relevant for another couple of films. I liked Batman v Superman quite a bit, and I’ll gladly defend even some of its weirder choices. But there’s no denying that great chunks of this movie seem to stem less from any organic development and more from a desire to propel this story forward so we can get to the next one.

It’s not that DC necessarily needs to wait six films to get to Justice League, like Marvel did for The Avengers. Or that it’s impossible to build a franchise around an ensemble — the original X-Men did just fine. But Batman v Superman probably would have been a better movie if DC hadn’t been so desperate to set up Justice League that it was willing to push its characters around instead of letting them get there naturally.

Iron Man 2

What Marvel Gets Wrong

Marvel may be better than just about anyone else at building Marvel-style universes, but they’re still not perfect. Occasionally we’ll get a film that sags under the weight of all that franchise-building (hello, Avengers: Age of Ultron), or one that feels oddly distant from the others (looking at you, Thor: The Dark World). And as this universe gets deeper and richer, it runs the risk of becoming too complicated for newcomers or casual fans to follow. One solution that Marvel has employed is to keep introducing new characters like the Guardians, Ant-Man, or Doctor Strange. But it’s going to be awfully difficult to keep 67 different characters straight by the time we get to Avengers: Infinity War, even for the most devoted Marvel Cinematic Universe fan.

More worrying is the dispiriting sameness that creeps into many of these different films. To be sure, Marvel’s not the only one that likes to stick to the familiar blockbuster formula — every $100+ million blockbuster (and they’re all $100+ million blockbusters these days) seems to end with a CG-heavy action sequence of bloodless mass destruction. But it’s hard to care about another generic villain who wants to destroy the world when we see several such villains each year, and especially when you know damn well the studio needs this world to survive long enough to yield another dozen sequels. Marvel could do better about keeping the stakes personal, perhaps by branching out into smaller-scale stories, or experimenting further with genres.

Captain America Civil War Spider-Man

What Other Franchises Should and Shouldn’t Learn From Marvel

Marvel didn’t invent the idea of film franchises, but they’ve done a lot to popularize cinematic universes. When the first Iron Man teased The Avengers, it felt like a pie-in-the-sky ambition. Following Marvel’s rousing success, every studio has been scrambling to launch its own shared universe, including ones for the GhostbustersScooby-Doo and his friendsthe Transformers and the other Hasbro toysthe Universal monsters, and the books of Robert Ludlum. And no one bats an eye anymore when a studio snaps up release dates five years in advance for their flagship franchises.

But so far, no one has quite managed to replicate Marvel’s level of success (although the Disney era of Star Wars seems to be off to a promising start). If other studios are mimicking Marvel’s shared universe plan, they should also learn from Marvel’s deep investment in its characters, its painstaking attention to continuity and world-building, and above all its patience. After all, elaborate franchise plans don’t amount to much unless audiences actually want to show up, and that‘s where Marvel is really kicking ass.

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