To Save the Future, Marvel Studios Must Forget Its Past

Kevin Feige's shared universe changed franchise films, but as 'Avengers: Infinity War' hits theaters, Disney should heed what happened to the comic-book industry in the '90s and ditch the interlocking storylines.
Illustration by Peter Diamond

At this point, 18 movies in — with the 19th, Avengers: Infinity War, unspooling April 27 — it's almost reductive to say that Marvel Studios is on a run. What it has done, if you ask any other production entity in Hollywood, is rewrite the rules of the game.

There have always been sequels and prequels and spinoffs. (Forget the time-tripping narrative of the original Planet of the Apes movies — which saw 1972's Conquest of the Planet of the Apes take place centuries before 1968's premiere installment — at your peril.) But the Marvel Cinematic Universe, like the comic book narratives created by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and others, tells one sprawling story: From 2008's Iron Man, which revived Robert Downey Jr.'s career and set the Marvel cart in its path, straight through to February's Black Panther, which, at $1.3 billion, is now the 10th-highest-grossing film of all time.

Some of those movies have been better than others — 2013's Thor: The Dark World and 2008's The Incredible Hulk are both in the mid-60s on Rotten Tomatoes compared with the 90s scored by Black PantherThor: Ragnarok and Spider-Man: Homecoming — but all in, those 18 films have brought in $14.8 billion worldwide for Disney. That much money naturally makes the other studios envious. And that envy has led to a bevy of would-be universe builders.

Over the past five years or so, we've seen announcement after announcement: Sony tried to launch a Spider-Man Universe before coming to terms with Marvel and letting it produce Homecoming. Paramount kicked off a writers room for a Transformers Universe, with the first real fruit from that labor, a stand-alone Bumblebee film, dropping this December. I'm sure Universal isn't eager to talk about what happened to its Dark Universe, which was supposed to knit together the Universal monsters like Dracula, the Wolfman and Frankenstein's monster and — thanks to the expensive and underperforming Tom Cruise entry The Mummy — never truly got out of the gate. (Fox has Marvel's X-Men and Fantastic Four, but with the impending Disney deal, who knows where those IPs will end up?)

And then there's Warner Bros., the home of DC Entertainment, which in a very real way kicked off the superheroic arms race with 1978's Superman, turned Tim Burton's 1989 Batman movie into a genuine pop culture moment and gave Christopher Nolan the keys to the Cave starting with 2005's Batman Begins. No doubt looking across Burbank at what Disney (which acquired Marvel in 2009 for $4 billion) was raking in, Warners launched a similarly vast slate of superhero flicks. Man of Steel, then Batman v. Superman: Dawn of JusticeSuicide SquadWonder Woman; and Justice League, DC's version of the Avengers. Most of those films made money, but when compared with Marvel, the critical and box-office response was wanting.

Warners was coming late to a shooting war, but the studio thought it had all the big guns it needed. It turns out one weapon was missing. To compete on the cinematic universe battlefield, you need a Kevin Feige.

You need someone like Feige — whose first credit was as an associate producer on 2000's X-Men — who can run a studio the way a showrunner shepherds a TV show. Someone who can keep the larger story in mind while farming out specific installments to a handpicked team of collaborators. Who can maintain quality control and impose a unifying vision. Someone who encyclopedically knows the subject matter but isn't so close to it that she or he can't make massive alterations. Feige seems to understand implicitly what makes Marvel's characters resonate in a way that few of the other studios' universe architects do.

Feige, 44, and Marvel have taught a moviegoing world how to absorb narrative in an entirely different way. With films plotted through 2022, the studio shows no sign of slowing down. Which, ironically, might be its biggest problem. The story Marvel is telling is, unequivocally, the dominant story of the 21st century thus far. But the great stories all have one thing in common: They end.

Even in monthly comics — which always exist in a state of perpetual midstory — the desire for finality is obvious. Many of the superhero stories that have permeated the mainstream have been about sunsets rather than sunrises. The Dark Knight Returns finds us at the end of Batman's days. Old Man Logan's story, adapted into the Oscar-nominated Logan, is Wolverine's last ride. Captain America was never as popular as when he died. Watchmen is, in a way, about closing the book on costumed heroism itself.

Yes, Black Panther brought a huge new audience to the table, and Avengers: Infinity War is primed to crush many of the records Panther just set. But everything has an expiration date. The billion-dollar question is, will Marvel and Disney let this story come to an end? Will Feige get to point at the bleachers and call one last home run before moving on?

Probably not. Even though Disney has more than made back its $4 billion investment, there's no way the studio will allow its golden goose to retire from laying hits. Still, there will come a time when the crowds that are turning out today grow weary of a story that seems like a lot of climaxes with no ending.

So what's the way forward? Paradoxically, to abandon the road that got Disney here. The ongoing story that builds, periodically, to a giant crossover event was the same approach that almost destroyed comics in the 1990s — remember Atlantis Attacks and X-Tinction Agenda? In those titles, there was no entry point for newcomers to jump on, and it became a task for fans to keep track of everything they needed to know.

What Black Panther did so well, among many things, was act as a beginner's Marvel movie. Anyone could come to it and know what was going on. You didn't need to keep track of Infinity Stones, Loki's shifting allegiances, Bucky's arm count or Black Widow's hair color. After a while, what was a feature — the interconnected narrative — will become a bug. Worse, it will become homework.

So, after Avengers 4: Christmas Vacation, you should pull the plug, Marvel. Walk away from the form you so successfully pioneered and do something new. Let others keep trying to duplicate you while you tell stand-alone stories that matter. Plumb the depths of thousands of characters and decades of comics and find tales that don't have to be woven together like a friendship quilt.

And then, when the time is right, put 'em all in the same movie again. After all, in comic book storytelling, nothing is ever really dead.

This story first appeared in the April 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.