May 23, 2019

The Complex Experiment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe

“Earlier this month, Marvel Studios announced that the prèmiere of “Avengers: Endgame” would be preceded by marathon screenings of all the movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or M.C.U. Since the M.C.U. consists, to date, of twenty-two movies, the screenings were fifty-nine hours and seven minutes long. They topped the thirty-one-hour screenings held last year, before the prèmiere of “Avengers: Infinity War,” and the twenty-nine-hour screenings held in 2015, before the release of “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” An M.C.U. marathon is “equal parts dare, endurance test, and assertion of fan dominance,” the reporter Alex Abad-Santos wrote, at Vox, after a pre-“Ultron” screening. Alex McLevy, a writer and editor at the A.V. Club, described the event he attended as “beyond anything I have ever experienced in a movie theater. . . . It’s beautiful, and terrifying.”

When “Iron Man” came out, in 2008, it was a standalone film. Moviegoers didn’t know that it would kick off a titanic interconnected narrative that, during the next decade, would include aliens thrashing New York City (“The Avengers”); a space jailbreak (“Guardians of the Galaxy”); a “Terminator”-style robot insurrection (“Avengers: Age of Ultron”); a civil war (“Captain America: Civil War”); and an apocalypse (“Thor: Ragnarok”). Although the subtitle of the newest film, “Endgame,” suggests a conclusion, there are more movies on the horizon, including “Spider-Man: Far from Home,” sequels to “Black Panther” and “Doctor Strange,” and a third installment of “Guardians of the Galaxy.” Last month, Disney paid seventy-one billion dollars for 21st Century Fox’s entertainment business, insuring that Marvel characters previously owned by Fox—including Deadpool, the X-Men, and the Fantastic Four—could appear in future additions to the M.C.U.

Though some fans complain about substandard movies and ever-lengthening runtimes, audiences remain invested in the M.C.U.: “Avengers: Infinity War” was the fourth-highest-grossing movie of all time, closely followed, in the top ten, by “The Avengers,” “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” and “Black Panther.” It seems likely, in other words, that the M.C.U. will continue to expand for the foreseeable future. This raises questions both superheroic and narratological. Will half of all the people on Earth, who were snuffed out at the end of “Infinity War,” ever be resurrected? And can the M.C.U. really keep expanding? How flexible is a story, ultimately? Can it be extended indefinitely without becoming meaningless, or will it reach some natural limit? How infinite can a fictional world be?”

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