This is a multi-part series that is a slightly modified version of my MSc Dissertation.
Here is Part One.
The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006, Justin Lin)
At the end of Iron Man (2008, Jon Favreau), Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) stands in front of a press conference and declares to the world that he is Iron Man, the armour-suited superhero that is rumoured to have existed within the world of the film. Favreau then cuts to credits to the sound of Black Sabbath’s ‘Iron Man’. After the credits have finished, a post-credit sequence plays, a novelty for blockbusters in 2008. Here, Tony Stark walks into his Malibu home, speaks to Jarvis (Paul Bettany) who replies then fades out as if hacked. Out steps Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) who repeats the last line of the movie almost mockingly, then says “You think you’re the only superhero in the world? Mr. Stark, you’ve become part of a bigger universe.” Then we cut to black.
The post-credits scene at the end of Iron Man setup a bigger universe. This is one where superheroes interact within each-others stories, where crossovers are commonplace, intertextual references are rewarded, and every story is serialised. The purpose of this chapter is to provide the context of how Marvel created their interconnected Marvel Cinematic Universe (hereon referred to as MCU), and how this has been made a success. This is important for the grander discussion on the purpose of multiverses, as this is what I argue to be the starting point of modern superhero movies. This is the foundation that the ‘multiverse’ is being built upon.
Franchise & Genre
At its core, the MCU is an action franchise. Stripping away the costumes, fantasy and science-fiction, the MCU incorporates decades of action movie conventions, style and iconography from Hollywood and beyond. This is supported by Yvonne Tasker, “Superhero films effectively couple the comic-book universe – with its backstories, evolving characterization and bold design – with conventions and styles that have evolved through the Hollywood action cinema over decades.” (p. 179 – 180). To define the MCU further, Kirstin Thompson effectively summarises what a franchise is, “People use the term “franchise” rather loosely in relation to films. Essentially it means a movie that spawns additional revenue streams beyond what it earns from its various forms of distribution, primarily theatrical, video, and television.” (pp. 4) Thompson was using her own definition when describing the franchise machine built around The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003, Peter Jackson), a series of films that as of writing has spawned countless video games, and adaptations of prequels in the Hobbit (2012-2014, Peter Jackson) trilogy and an Amazon TV series The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power (2022). This is in effect what has become of the MCU since Iron Man. It is the combination of the familiar genre conventions with the business implications that a franchise brings.
The relationship between the two upon closer inspection, is much more symbiotic. Thomas Schatz makes the argument that because the genre film exists with known conventions and iconography the world of the film is its own entity, “The genre film […] is identified not only by its use of these general filmic devices to create an imaginary world; it is also significant that this world is predetermined and essentially intact.” (pp. 10) This is important for Iron Man, in that the existence of it as an action film, predisposes the audience into understanding the conventions. Those being a third act set piece, a hero at the centre of the action and a villain to root against. Schatz goes on to describe what happens when a genre film is a success, “…a film story is reworked in later movies and repeated until it reaches its equilibrium profile – until it becomes a spatial, sequential, and thematic pattern of familiar actions and relationships.”3 (pp. 10 – 11) The reworking and repeated nature of these genre films, can easily be transferred to a franchise, as a franchise relies on the familiar iconography of the first text. The example from Kirstin Thompson is Middle Earth and The Lord of the Rings, and for this discussion it would be Superhero movies and the MCU.
What is interesting is when Schatz goes on to describe the lifespan of a genre,
“…at the earliest stages of its life span, a genre tends to exploit the cinematic medium as a medium. (…) Once a genre has passed through its experimental stage where its conventions have been established, it enters into its classical stage. (…)
…the end of a genre’s classic stage can be viewed as that point which the genre’s straightforward message has “saturated” the audience. (…) As a genre’s classic conventions are refined and eventually parodied and subverted, its transparency gradually gives way to opacity…
(…) A genre’s progression from transparency to opacity – from straightforward storytelling to self-conscious formalism – involves its concerted effort to explain itself, to address and evaluate its very status as a popular form.”3 (pp. 38)
In the quote above, Schatz explains how the lifespan of a genre goes from a “classical stage” to a saturation, to finally it evaluates itself in its purest form. I would argue that the MCU sits at the final stage of Schatz’s genre lifespan. Schatz’s above example is also similar to how Liam Burke presents genre cyclicism, which will be spoken of in more detail in the next chapter.
I think that the Superhero genre has gone through the first two stages twice over, before allowing itself to reach the third final stage. The initial example of the first stage occurred with Superman (1978, Richard Donner) and Batman (1989, Tim Burton), with the film Batman & Robin (1997, Joel Schumacher) an example of the genre parodying itself and the audience not wanting the genre anymore as the conventions had become saturated.
The second example of the first stage is with Blade (1998, Stephen Norrington), X-Men (2000, Bryan Singer), X2 (2002, Bryan Singer) and Spider-Man (2002, Sam Raimi). The genre conventions in the superhero genre combined with modern blockbuster filmmaking, to create a “classical” style. I would argue that Spider-Man 2 (2004, Sam Raimi) and The Dark Knight (2008, Christopher Nolan) represent the purest form of this with their critic and commercial success. However, the saturation and parodying arrived with the commercial failure of Elektra (2005, Rob Bowman), the critical failure of Blade: Trinity (2004, David S. Goyer) and the disappointments of much anticipated sequels such as Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007, Tim Story), X-Men: The Last Stand (2007, Brett Ratner) and Spider-Man 3 (2007, Sam Raimi). There was even a straight parody in the style of Airplane! (1980, David Zucker & Jerry Zucker) with the release of Superhero Movie (2008, Craig Mazin) which according to Schatz is the second stage of the genre lifespan. Where the third stage comes in, one that is almost self-reflexive and knowing of its genre is where Iron Man and the MCU come in. It can be argued that because the MCU does not shy away from both genre and comic-book conventions they are the Superhero genres purest form. Leo Baudry explains that, “The genre film lures its audience into a seemingly familiar world, filled with reassuring stereotypes of character, action, and plot.” (pp. 667) The MCU features all of those.
The success of the third stage is relative to how successful the MCU franchise is, which financially and critically it has proven to be. The superhero genre has its own lifespan that it has gone through, with the third stage being where the MCU belongs. I would also state that genre lifespan can also be dependent on the success of franchises, which the MCU absolutely is. I would argue that the MCU complies and succeeds with what Baudry states here, “In genre films the most obvious focus of interest is neither complex characterization nor intricate visual style, but pure story.”5 (pp. 668) The MCU is a franchise that compels itself to explore its own story, as the visuals and characters have been used in a ‘stock’ sense on the cinema screen since Superman.
Creating the MCU
“It’s never been done before and that’s kind of the spirit everybody’s taking it in. The other filmmakers aren’t used to getting actors from other movies that other filmmakers have cast, certain plot lines that are connected or certain locations that are connected, but I think … everyone was on board for it and thinks that it’s fun. Primarily because we’ve always remained consistent saying that the movie that we are making comes first. All of the connective tissue, all of that stuff is fun and is going to be very important if you want it to be. If the fans want to look further and find connections, then they’re there. There are a few big ones obviously, that hopefully the mainstream audience will able to follow as well. But … the reason that all the filmmakers are on board is that their movies need to stand on their own. They need to have a fresh vision, a unique tone, and the fact that they can interconnect if you want to follow those breadcrumbs is a bonus.”  – Kevin Fiege
The above quote from – at the time – President of Production for Marvel Studios Kevin Fiege was taken from an interview in 2010, when discussing the MCU and how it has produced films since its first release Iron Man. He highlights the idea that the shared universe has never been done before, at least not to this scale in cinema, and how each film is interconnected but not at the expense of the story. Which in 2010 prior to the release of Iron Man 2 (2010, Jon Favreau), was still early in the MCU and still a risk. Of two preceding films, Iron Man 2 was a sequel to the second highest grossing domestic film of 2008; The Incredible Hulk (2008, Louis Letterier) was a reboot of a character that had its own successful TV series which ran from 1977 to 1982, and there was already a solo film featuring the character with Hulk (2003, Ang Lee). The MCU at this point was still using known cinematic IP, something which was yet to be tested with characters like Thor and Captain America with their solo films following (Thor (2011, Kenneth Branagh) and Captain America: The First Avenger (2011, Joe Johnston). A potential reason why studios and filmmakers are approaching these properties more now than in the past could be due to the evolution of filmmaking technology. As Terence McSweeney puts it, ““So while in 1978 Richard Donner’s Superman was advertised with the tagline ‘You’ll believe a man can fly’ and the film was at the vanguard of special effects for its time, advances in CGI now allow filmmakers, for the first time ever, to put superheroes onscreen the way they were originally envisioned in their comic books.” Allowing the characters to come to life in a way more akin to their comic-book counterparts and the live-action screen heroes such as John McClane (Bruce Willis) in Die Hard (1988, John McTeirnan) or Jack Traven (Keanu Reeves) in Speed (1994, Jan de Bont).
Although the risk can be argued as minimal, Johnson argues “…while framed as groundbreaking, Marvel’s cinematic intertextuality did not threaten textual traditions in the cinema so much as leverage existing compatibility with comic book storytelling.” (pp. 7) This point from Johnson goes back to what I was referring to above with the MCU building upon known the genre and franchises that had come before it.
This ‘risk’ started in 2005 for Marvel Studios, “…it put up as collateral the film rights to characters it still controlled, such as Captain America and Nick Fury, and got $525 million in financing from Merrill Lynch.” Characters like Spider-Man are owned by Sony, with the X-Men and Fantastic Four were at the time held by 20th Century Fox. A distribution deal with Paramount came from this initial announcement, with the studio distributing 10 movies as part of the deal with Marvel Studios. In 2005 Ben Fritz at Variety reported, “Paramount isn’t putting up any production money; it will receive a fee for marketing and distributing an initial 10 movies, the first of which is expected to hit theatres in two years.” This yet again highlights the level of risk that Marvel Studios were operating at in 2005. None of the characters they held solo rights to had had major studio cinema releases before, with the popular characters and IP of Spider-Man and the X-Men were not available to them to exploit. These films needed to be a success, something which Sheldon Hall attributes as a main characteristic of blockbusters in general, ”…the term can also be extended to refer to those films which need to be this successful in order to have a chance of returning a profit on their equally extraordinary production costs.” (pp. 11). For Marvel Studios, these first films not only needed to be successful to recoup these production costs but also to survive as a Production company.
This is a need that transposes itself upon the decision making of the studios. David Bordwell commented on this in his piece, ‘Superheroes for Sale’. He makes the point that this creation of Marvel Studios is merely to capitalise on summer blockbusters, to create film vehicles, “Today, Marvel Enterprises is less concerned with publishing comics than with creating film vehicles for its 5000 characters. Indeed, to get bank financing it put up ten of its characters as collateral!” But it isn’t enough to just provide singular films starring singular characters. Bordwell references Henry Jenkins, who had “…written about how popular culture is gravitating to multi-character “worlds” that allow different media texts to be carved out of them.”12 In 2008 Bordwell says that the “… 5000 characters in the Marvel Universe furnish endless franchise opportunities. If you stayed for the credit cookie at the end of Iron Man, you saw the setup for a sequel that will pair the hero with at least one more Marvel protagonist.”12 The Marvel comic-book universe has grown over the years, as Sean Howe explains ““Everything was absorbed into the snowballing Marvel Universe, which expanded to become the most intricate fictional narrative in the history of the world: thousands upon thousands of interlocking characters and episodes.” Referring back to Spider-Man: No Way Home and the vast number of figures that appeared in the multiversal tear in the films climactic third act, that is not an exaggeration of potential franchise opportunities. Bordwell’s point about the 5000 Marvel Universe characters creating “franchise opportunities” is a big element of the success of the MCU. The interlocking characters and episodes provide the necessary fuel for adaptation. But this isn’t the main reason for the success of the MCU.
Success of the MCU
It is correct to question why the MCU is a success, especially asking why now? A question asked by comic-book writers themselves such as Grant Morrison, ““Batman, Spider-Man, X-Men, Green Lantern, Iron Man. Why have superheroes become so popular? Why now?”. I would argue that there is no singular reason for the success of the MCU. It is a combination of factors coming together, almost as a perfect storm. In the journal ‘Superman In Green’ published in 2012, Liam Burke discusses how the term ‘comic-book movie’ had gained relevance from 2006 onwards. He identifies seasons at the BFI, “the British Film Institute (BFI) held a season of films entitled ‘Comic-Book Movies’”; with the November 2006 issue Empire magazine covering what the front-page called the ‘Ultimate Superhero Preview’, with the issue being a ‘Huge Comic Book Movie Special’. Total Film is also identified as running a “similar feature in their March 2009 edition, with the cover carrying the slogan, ‘The Comic-Book Movie Preview’”13 Both of these magazine covers can be seen below in Fig. 4. As shown by Appendix 1, there were 35 comic-book movies from 1978 to the end of 1999, across 21 years. From 2000 to 2007 this was equalled, comic-book movies had become popular for audiences and production companies alike. This is something the BFI, Empire and Total Film recognised at the time. This is supported by Tino Balio, when commenting on the success of the modern blockbuster, ““Familiar formulae in familiar production trends aided by increasingly sophisticated computer-generated imagery and attuned to changing pop-culture trends kept audiences entertained.” (pp. 181) The MCU exploited all of these factors whilst being in the ‘right place at the right time’.
Fig. 4. Empire (November 2006) & Total Film (March 2009)
Another exploitation, or rather key-element that the MCU used was to create a franchise whose intention was to be episodic. This is a by-product of adapting these characters from comics, a medium which is traditionally episodic. Kirstin Thompson says, “not just any movie can generate a franchise. Musicals, biopics, and adaptations of most literary classics don’t offer much potential for follow-ups”, comic-book movies can generate a franchise, especially those within Marvel, because of the history and form of the stories the characters inhabit. Burke follows this up, “These characters rarely change or develop in their native medium; to do so could prove detrimental to the characters and their world, not to mention the publisher’s finances. Consequently, Superman and Batman find themselves in much the same position more than seventy-five years after they were first introduced…”14 (pp. 60) These narratives don’t change dramatically over their lifespan, the characters are in a constant state of development. Burke makes the comparison to Syd Field, “As described by Syd Field, in the second act the main character encounters obstacle after obstacle that prevents him from achieving his dramatic need, but the episodic comic book protagonist can never move into the third act and achieve his “dramatic need,” a just and crime-free world.”14 (pp. 60) Film traditionally follows a three-act structure according to Field, the third-act being the resolution and ending. If these characters are always living within the second act narrative, then there is always a desire from audiences to want to know the conclusion, wanting to know what happens next. The episodic structure therefore is built around the perpetual second act, each film in this franchise is just another building block in this. The audiences are craving an ending they will never get. There is an “illusion of change”14 that Spider-Man editor Danny Fingeroth refers to when speaking about how comic book writers view their characters. This is an illusion that the MCU has made sure has been present from the first film onwards. An example is the ending of Spider-Man: No Way Home, we see Spider-Man in his new suit swinging through a snowy New York, the multiverse having been closed and the story is at an end. However, the post-credits sequence is a trailer for the next film Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness which promises that the events of the film audiences have just seen have ramifications. These ramifications are not only relevant to Doctor Strange, but also to the larger MCU which is reinforced by the Comic Con 2022 announcement by Kevin Fiege that the ‘Phases’ of movies that have been released from Spider-Man: Far From Home onwards through Phase 5 and 6, is known as ‘The Multiverse Saga’.
At the end of The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, Sean Boswell (Lucas Black) is approached by Twinkie (Bow Wow) who tells him that someone is here to race him. After dismissing the challenge, Twinkie informs him that the challenger knew Han (Sung Kang) a character who died in the film, “Said he knew Han. Said Han was family.” As Sean pulls up next to a 1970 Plymouth Road Runner, we see Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) sat in the driver’s seat. A brief interaction ends with Dominic Toretto saying, “I’ve got nothin’ but time.”
The reason I bring up this exchange here is to show that films seen as coincidental sequels, can develop into billion-dollar franchises, like with the Fast & Furious series. Vin Diesel was not in the second film, 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003, John Singleton), but due to his own career not taking off as he hoped, he returned as Dominic Toretto in an uncredited cameo at the end of the third film. Twinkie states that “…Han was family”, this becoming a central theme to the franchise. A franchise which, as of writing, has released 9 movies, one spin-off movie, a kids TV series, and has a tenth and eleventh film in production. A franchise which has collectively grossed $6.61billion worldwide.
This is just one singular example to show that what the MCU achieved is not unique. Universal, who produces the Fast & Furious series, has successfully created a transmedia franchise. The line, “I’ve got nothin’ but time.”, can be inferred as the motto for any successful franchise. Once it has become financially successful, the studios have nothing else but time, time to exploit it, time to make more money.
 Tasker, Y. (2004). The Action and Adventure Cinema. Taylor and Francis.
 Thompson, K. (2007). The Frodo Franchise: The Lord of the Rings and Modern Hollywood. University of California Press
 Schatz, T. (1981). Hollywood Film Genres : formulas, filmmaking, and the studio system. New York: Random House.
 Braudy, L., & Cohen, M. (2004). Film theory and criticism: Introductory readings. New York, N.Y: Oxford University Press.
 Philbrick, J. (2010). EXCLUSIVE: Kevin Fiege Talks Iron Man 2, The Avengers and More. Retrieved 23 August 2022, from https://web.archive.org/web/20120512082325/https://movieweb.com/news/exclusive-kevin-fiege-talks-iron-man-2-the-avengers-and-more/
 Top 2008 Movies at the Domestic Box Office. Retrieved 23 August 2022, from https://www.the-numbers.com/box-office-records/domestic/all-movies/cumulative/released-in-2008
 McSweeney, T. (2018). Avengers Assemble! : Critical Perspectives on the Marvel Cinematic Universe / ed. by Terence McSweeney. (McSweeney, Ed.). Columbia University Press,. https://doi.org/10.7312/mcsw18624
 Johnson, D. (2012). Cinematic Destiny: Marvel Studios and the Trade Stories of Industrial Convergence. Cinema Journal, 52(1), 1–24. https://doi.org/10.1353/cj.2012.0108
 Leonard, D. (2014). The Pow! Bang! Bam! Plan to Save Marvel, Starring B-List Heroes. Retrieved 23 August 2022, from https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2014-04-03/kevin-feige-marvels-superhero-at-running-movie-franchises#xj4y7vzkg
 Fritz, B. (2005). Paramount pacts for Marvel pix. Retrieved 23 August 2022, from https://variety.com/2005/film/markets-festivals/paramount-pacts-for-marvel-pix-1117921812/
 Hall, S. (2002). Tall Revenue Features: The Genealogy of the Modern Blockbuster. In S. Neale, Genre and contemporary Hollywood (pp. 11-26). London: British Film Institute.
Bordwell, D. (2008). Superheroes for sale. Retrieved 23 August 2022, from http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/2008/08/16/superheroes-for-sale/
 Howe, S. (2012). Marvel Comics: The Untold Story [Ebook]. Harper Collins.
 Morrison, G. (2011). Supergods [Ebook]. Spiegel & Grau.
 Burke, L. (2012). ‘Superman in Green’: An audience study of comic book film adaptations Thor and Green Lantern. Participations: Journal Of Audience And Reception Studies, 9(12), 97-119. Retrieved from https://www.academia.edu/35339983/Superman_in_Green_An_audience_study_of_comic_book_film_adaptations_Thor_and_Green_Lantern
 Balio, T. (2002). Hollywood Production Trends in the era of Globalisation. In S. Neale, Genre and contemporary Hollywood (pp. 165-184). London: British Film Institute.
 Burke, L. (2015). The comic book film adaptation : exploring modern Hollywood’s leading genre / Liam Burke. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.
 Fast and the Furious – Summary. Retrieved 23 August 2022, from https://www.the-numbers.com/movies/franchise/Fast-and-the-Furious#tab=summary
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