Well, welcome to my first blog post. Before we get into the topic at hand, you may be asking what the content of this blog is to be. As someone who is very interested in entertainment and literature, my aim is to provide blogs related to these in the form of analysis, reviews, and such. Starting a blog has always piqued my interest, yet I feel as if now I am ready to proceed with it. I will most likely not make posts on a regular, scheduled basis, but I want each one to definitely have its importance. Without further delay, let’s get into the topic at hand.
Lately, I have been watching a series of movies. These movies currently define entertainment and are vastly enjoyable to a casual movie-going audience, story fanatics, and the old guard of geeks as well. Of course, I am talking about the Marvel Cinematic Universe or MCU.
Currently, the MCU is composed of 13 released movies, two television series, and two Netflix series as well. With plenty more to come, this series is showing no sign of slowing down, but instead the contrary. Did you know that next year we can expect three new movies? The fact that we waited years for sequels such as Tron: Legacy or Star Wars: The Force Awakens seems inconceivable when put up to this.
I will assume that most of you are familiar with the concept that the MCU brings our favourite heroes together from all corners of the universe (literally), and has the old-time wish of seeing them fight together under a common banner. I mean, who wouldn’t want to see Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor dish it out against an alien invasion in New York City?
But wait, what if I’m not familiar with Thor? What if I watched all three Iron Man films, but not any of the others? Why is this film called Iron Man 2 if its focus is also dedicated to setting up the Avengers Initiative as well as Black Widow and Nick Fury? Why am I completely lost on all happenings during Iron Man 3?
To most, these are non-problems. However, they do present some interesting questions in terms of setting up a vast universe with self-contained, intricate stories that all feed into one narrative that brings very different flavours into the same dish. In terms of the above questions, they are all reasonable, yet they do present the fact that these movies are meant to feed into each other, and that although the movie may be Iron Man 3, it’s the seventh movie in the MCU and meant to be watched as such.
This type of shared universe is a bold concept, as many of us are used to linear stories such as Star Wars, where each movie tells a chapter of a larger plot. While the MCU tries to accomplish this as well, there are some instances where some movies focus too much on setting up its expansive narrative when they should not. For instance, let’s talk about Avengers: Age of Ultron…
Directed by the amazing Joss Whedon (please bring Firefly back), this movie is important in that all that has happened in the second phase of the MCU had to build up to this climax of sorts and pay off.
There’s just one problem.
Or maybe a few…
In this phase 2 of the MCU, we’ve had Iron Man 3 deal with the “genetic perfection” of the human race (which goes nowhere), Thor: The Dark World which sets up the Reality Stone, which then gets shelved until we will inevitably see it again later on, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, dealing with taking down SHIELD and the resurfacing of Hydra, and perhaps the only film to have at least some bearing on AoU excluding the original Avengers. Guardians of the Galaxy is a great film on its own, yet at this point, it doesn’t contribute anything imminent to the overall story.
Now there’s no problem with having self-contained stories, but there has to be a sense of overall momentum in the overall MCU. Phase 1 was about assembling the Avengers and providing context and origins for them, which it does remarkably well. Phase 2 is just… A muddle of stories that end in a passage to more stories. Huh.
Back to Age of Ultron, it spends too much time on setting up for what will happen rather than what is happening at the moment. Iron Man and Captain America’s difference in ideologies, the eventual threat of Thanos and the Infinity Stones, and of course there’s the lack of focus due to all these intersecting plot points and characters both old and new. And the threat of the movie’s antagonist Ultron is self-contained and exists very well within the confines of this movie. Nothing led up to this character, and after he’s gone… Hooray?
The second phase of the MCU is riddled with great stories, but not a great story to sum it up. The villain-of-the-week trope in fiction is ultimately one that does nothing to help a universe, yet the MCU does just this. Hey look, another attempt to end the world! Let’s go stop it! This is exactly what these movies do, and after Thor easily stops an attempt to destroy the entire universe, what horror and shock can viewers be left with?
In an inter-connected universe such as the MCU, each story has to contribute to a larger narrative at hand, but also progress the plot in its own way and feed off of each other. There has to be a payoff and cohesive plot-points that are consistent with the story you are trying to tell. If this is not met, the theory-crafting of a universe is ultimately pointless until you really reach the end of the line, and what are you left with following that?
For example, the upcoming Rogue One: A Star Wars Story has an excellent concept that lets it stand on its own within a larger story, but is very relevant to the overall mythos of the Star Wars universe. We get a look at how bloody and grey the Galactic Civil War truly is, which offers an entirely new way to look at an old conflict. The plans for the Death Star very much connects this to the first movie and paves the way for great storytelling and world-building.
Back to the subject, there is another topic of interconnected universes that is present: Needing to go out of your way to understanding a key plot-point. This may not be a flaw for the MCU necessarily, which handles this very well due to how self-contained much of its stories are. If I needed to watch the entire first season Agents of SHIELD to understand a major plot point of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, this would present a major flaw in storytelling that would leave casual fans confused and the more faithful may either be content or disappointed, depending on the payoff and portrayal of these external plots.
Instead of the MCU, let’s look at one of my favourite franchises that have committed this mistake: Halo.
The image above is the cover art for Halo 4, a game that has an excellent an emotional story for a first-person shooter, which is not an easy feat to accomplish. Back in 2012, each piece of the expanded universe contributed to the overall mythos of Halo, yet the problem I listed above is right at home in this game. The alien empire of the Covenant is back in Halo 4, which takes place four and a half years following Halo 3. In that game, we are left with the implication that the Covenant is all but crumbled, and that the Elites/Sangheili were now our allies. While this is, of course, unrealistic, this is what the ending of that game implied. If you jumped straight into Halo 4, you will notice that the Covenant is both back, but now headed by the Sangheili. Why may you ask? Well, the game does not provide the answer straight to you; instead, you will need to read between the lines or pick up the Kilo-Five Trilogy of novels, and completely understand why they are back.
The same goes with the games main antagonist, the Didact. An amazing character with absolutely chilling and memorable lines, his hatred of humanity and backstory is left blank in the game’s plot. A scene part-way through the game attempts to explain his character, but mostly serves as a reminder for those of us who read the Forerunner Saga of novels. How about the ancillary terminal videos? Well, those only explain his characters in brief streaks, so if you want the full explanation the books are a necessity. This is perhaps my biggest complaint with the game’s story besides my personal wish that the campaign could have been longer, but it remains an extremely valid one.
As a video game, Halo 4 should not have had this problem. Despite many popular beliefs, video games are an excellent medium to tell vibrant stories on and set up universes in ways that films would never be able to, and perhaps even novels. There could have been a codex of sorts, or parts of the game could have highlighted and explored the past of the Didact and the resurgence of the Covenant in mere lines of dialogue in the emptier parts of the campaign. This would still preserve the plot, yet also enhance it as the pacing could still be kept consistent. I’m not talking about character dialogue that is essential to the plot, but audio logs and idle chatter that is put in front of you for dissection and world-building.
Overall, universes where everything weaves together in a cohesive way are excellent in both theory and execution. It is when the pieces are laid out as pieces that the problem begins to root up. Side material that is essential to understanding a larger story is not a good thing, and neither is side material that goes nowhere when we expect it to be important and know it is important. World-building is essential, but not at the expense of story-telling. I love both the MCU and Halo, yet I will recognize both as ambitious storytelling mediums that lack a central vision due to the idea of having these pieces become one picture.
I will end this post with an interesting thought: What if Star Wars‘ universe was inter-connected? Wouldn’t the plot feel smaller, and smaller stories feel insignificant when put under the shadow of larger ones such as the movies? This is why tradition is sometimes key in telling grand tales.