Is the Marvel Cinematic Universe Becoming Even More Annoyingly Interconnected?

By  · Published on October 29th, 2014

Walt Disney Studios

When I was a kid, Marvel titles made up the majority of the comics I read. But I didn’t read everything. Not only was that too expensive, but I also didn’t care about every single hero on their roster. When crossovers came around, though, I had to buy the books I didn’t normally pick up in order to follow the whole story. And it was difficult to ignore the crossovers because they always involved the characters I did read. But then afterward I could go back to just the heroes I loved. It’s not as easy to do this with the Marvel movies. At first, it was possible to ignore certain features. Captain America: The First Avenger wasn’t anymore necessary to see before The Avengers than was reading Cap’s series in comic form in addition to reading the Cap-included “Avengers” books. And we could definitely skip Thor: The Dark World without concern for missing anything.

As the Marvel Cinematic Universe continues, that luxury may be lost. Yesterday’s announcement of titles through the first half of 2019 confirmed a lot of storylines and character introductions that had been rumored about lately. Firstly there’s “Civil War,” a crossover plot from the comics that will be tweaked some in its adaptation to the movies. Particularly of note is that it’s “movies,” plural. Captain America: Civil War seems to be the start of that story, but it’s also going to be heavily spawned from what happens by the end of Avengers: Age of Ultron. I’m assuming a few Avengers “die” (quotes necessary with comic book characters), and I’m going to go with a guess based on having read no theories that are out there that Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) is one. That’s why she’s not getting her own movie and why Kevin Feige noted the character is a “lynchpin” for the franchise going forth.

Of course, some of the concept for “Civil War,” mainly the debate on government oversight on superheroes, is also an effect of the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and its collapse of S.H.I.E.L.D. But a character death (or multiple, but we don’t care as much about Hawkeye and Quicksilver, both of whom I could see also being killed) is a much more significant link between these movies. Never mind if you just like the movies specifically named Avengers, you’ll have to see Civil War as pretty much a direct sequel to Age of Ultron. And it definitely doesn’t look like a solo-series installment, what with Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) featuring so heavily alongside the title hero (Chris Evans). They should just title it “The Avengers 3: Captain America 3 and Iron Man 4.” Also, in the same movie we get our introduction to the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman). Not a cameo set-up in a post-credits sequence. He’ll be a major player, and that will lead into…

Black Panther. A new solo series potentially begins with this movie about the African superhero, and maybe it will be relatively on the sideline for the enjoyment of anyone not interested in the whole MCU picture. But it will likely help to have seen Civil War and also Age of Ultron, which is apparently introducing the Black Panther’s nemesis Ulysses Klaw, played by Andy Serkis. You see, the robot villain Ultron (James Spader) is going to be made of Vibranium, an extremely strong metal that Klaw steals from its country of origin, Wakanda, which is also the Black Panther’s home. Wondering why Serkis, the performance capture king, is playing a rare human role? Probably because he’ll be turning himself into a being made of sound in Black Panther as he fights the title character. Somehow or another the plot there will likely lead into something to do with the two-part Avengers: Infinity War plot.

Another MCU movie that is clearly going to be a spinquel (I’m hereby claiming that as the term for a direct spin-off sequel) is Thor: Ragnarok. The newly revealed title has to refer to the Ragnarok of the “Civil War” storyline, which would mean this Thor movie will not be at all as independent as the former two in the Asgardian hero’s solo series. In the comics, Ragnarok is a cyborg clone of Thor, created by Tony Stark/Iron Man and Henry Pym/Ant-Man (and Fantastic Four’s Reed Richards, who for rights reasons can’t be a part of this version) to help them in their superhero registration process. Oh yeah, this is because the real Thor is missing and thought dead. I expect he’s another “casualty” of Age of Ultron. But then shouldn’t Chris Hemsworth be in Captain America: Civil War, too? I don’t know, but here’s hoping that the Ragnarok movie winds up introducing Hercules to battle the clone. Otherwise they can go for Hemsworth vs. Hemsworth, like what they did with another character recently on the Marvel TV series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Okay, so that takes care of Civil War. Maybe. Moving on, with the two-part Infinity War confirmed and Feige noting that all things lead to that, we get to just be conscious of that for the next four-and-a-half years. And presumably a lot of the movies leading to Infinity War will help us be aware that everything is just in anticipation of that big event. For one thing, I don’t think we get to really appreciate that Captain Marvel will be a standalone female superhero movie. It’s going to be a way of connecting the cosmic setting of Guardians of the Galaxy movies to the Earth-based center of the MCU. The interesting thing there is that Captain Marvel releases after the first part of Infinity War (so we’ll probably be introduced to the character in that), as does the certainly related Inhumans. Not just because these aren’t leading into the Avengers sequels but because by being between the installments they are most surely not going to be independent of the Infinity War movies’ events.

So far, we’ve already been seeing glimpses of Thanos (Josh Brolin), who is going to be the main villain in Infinity War, but those teases (so far in The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy) have been fairly insignificant to the movies they appear in. That’s been the way the MCU has operated in terms of its interconnectivity for the most part for years. Despite the complaints already out there that these movies are too reliant on each other and for fans’ familiarity with each Iron Man, Captain America and Thor movie installment, that’s hardly been the truth. Brief introductions to new characters and props that would/will figure in more later weren’t dictating the plots of those movies half as much as they’re promising to be from next year on.

I know, I haven’t addressed the probable relative independence of Ant-Man nor the possibility that Doctor Strange will work on its own. Maybe they will be slight exceptions. But I wonder if there is any room in the MCU for genuinely separate stories. Is something like Big Hero 6, which Marvel Studios has nothing to do with, the solution? What about the TV shows? Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has actually gotten better since it became more about the aftereffects of Winter Soldier, mainly because otherwise it’s able to function on its own, at least for now. The same will be true of the Netflix-distributed Daredevil, Iron Fist, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and The Defenders, but eventually they could very well be pulled up to the majors. I won’t be surprised if those characters all turn up in the MCU in some capacity by Infinity War.

Maybe we should be hopeful that Spider-Man is not folded in to or even borrowed by the MCU. There is something nice now about having a bunch of Marvel characters out there, outside, who do get to stick to their own storylines. Then again, a Spidey or Wolverine appearance in Infinity War wouldn’t have any effect on their respective movies at Sony and Fox anyway. The only damage being done to those properties – and this seems to be especially the case with Fox’s Fantastic Four, which we keep hearing is being unofficially punished by Marvel – is that the more supporting characters introduced to the MCU means the fewer able to appear in those other studios’ series. Eventually the Fantastic Four are going to only have Doctor Doom and Galactus to battle. Even the Skrulls are about to be introduced on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., if my predictions come true.

For fans of the whole MCU, none of the increased interconnectivity will be a big deal. They (we) will keep seeing all the movies, as normal. But critically, reviewing these movies are going to parallel the issues with reviewing TV series one episode at a time. And perhaps there will be some loss of viewers in the overwhelming nature of having to follow along – maybe that will be balanced with an increase in viewers of Captain America and Thor movies due to their necessity alongside the Avengers installments. Marvel has been lucky enough to do little wrong in its movements so far, but if anything has a shot of bursting the superhero movie bubble, it’s the chance of the former. It won’t kill the genre, but it might injure it. How severely is to be seen.

Here, again, are the Phase 3 titles and release dates:

5/1/15 – Avengers: Age of Ultron

7/17/15 – Ant-Man

5/6/16 – Captain America: Civil War

11/4/16 – Doctor Strange

5/5/17 – Guardians of the Galaxy 2

7/28/17 – Thor: Ragnarok

11/3/17 – Black Panther

5/4/18 – Avengers: Infinity War Part I

7/6/18 – Captain Marvel

11/2/18 – Inhumans

5/3/19 – Avengers: Infinity War Part II

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.