This is Phase I of a series I’m writing about the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which will continue into Phase II, featuring five installments. It will ultimately end in Phase III with the climactic, two-part Infinity Article.
Avengers: Age of Ultron was a great time. If you’re a comic book fan. I suppose it might have been an all right time for anyone else.
It boasted good performances of iconic characters, well-orchestrated action sequences, and helped set up subsequent movies in the series (which are, basically, the essential goals of each entry into the franchise). But to an outsider (and it is the true mark of a franchise’s success that they have outsiders) this film must have felt overloaded with obscure references and plotlines.
In short, Age of Ultron must have felt bloated to non-fans. However, this “bloated” film still took in almost 1.4 billion (!) dollars, despite receiving slightly less favorable reviews than its predecessor. Incorporating so many characters and stories that people who love comics know exceptionally well, but might seem confusing to outside viewers. And this doesn’t seem to be slowing down, with the upcoming Captain America: Civil War introducing and/or bringing back just about every non-Thor-related character in the MCU (Falcon, Vision, War Machine, General Ross, Ant-man, and Agent 13 among the more obscure). If this wasn’t enough of a sign of superhero movies getting too big for their britches, we’ve got DC rushing out their Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice casting every other character in the Justice League – Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Aquaman, even Cyborg – and a film with so many characters can be its own worst enemy; is Superman supposed to be the main character of the Man of Steel sequel? Is there supposed to be a (single) main character?
In addition to this, DC has the problematic situation of two different universes, including two versions of the Flash and the Suicide Squad. This is just another headache for viewers who don’t pay as much attention to the genre.
With all this market saturation, every superhero movie is starting to feel like a Superbowl-sized event, it’s hard to remember a time where you could be pleasantly surprised by a film like Spider-man 2, but now viewers need to wonder how a movie like Ant-man will tie into the rest of the Marvel Universe, or expect Age of Ultron to be a Homer-sized epic. These movies have all become so connected that eventually they will get in the way of themselves. A fictional universe should be a collection of stories with some connection, yet not all glued together into one overloaded story. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is on its way to becoming one, 40(-or-so)-hour movie split into 22 parts. (Yes, by 2019 the MCU will consist of 22 films and 7 television/Netflix shows.)
Age of Ultron shows the more flamboyant end of a possible superhero saturation point – each new superhero movie is a bloated production, one that will try to incorporate more characters and easter eggs and fan-favorite plotlines in a cumbersome multiverse. Each movie will be trying to top the last, aiming to please (core) fans, and flood their movies with every single character they can think of. This will continue to succeed, until it doesn’t. Eventually, it will all become too much. There will be too many superhero films, leading casual fans to jump ship and take no interest in superheroes. At some point down the line, viewers will get tired of seeing caped heroes take on super-powered baddies and abandon it for something else. (Except Batman, Batman will never fade from popularity.)
How much of Age of Ultron‘s $1.4 billion came from core fans? How much came from people who were not entirely familiar with the characters? These mainstream fans are like the swing states in an election; winning them over will determine the outcome. Appealing to them requires a moderate amount of superheroes, and inevitably flooding the market will possibly (rather, it will probably) take away a mainstream fan’s interest. Superhero films are on a bubble, and at some point the bubble will burst. Here, we are beginning to have too much of a good thing.
Let’s just hope we get to watch the Avengers fight Thanos before the trend ends.