Is Marvel's Way Forward in the Past?

As 'Avengers: Endgame' looms, the MCU has multiple prequels in the works that it hopes will excite fans as much as the present.
Courtesy of Marvel Studios
Tom Hiddleston as Loki; Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow; Brie Larson as Captain Marvel

Marvel Studios is furthering its exploration into prequel territory. The term prequel, and all the baggage attached to that, is sure to raise some measure of anxiety about the Marvel Cinematic Universe's plans going forward … or backward. Last week we learned that Rick and Morty writer Michael Waldron will serve as showrunner for Loki, one of the first series set to debut on Disney's upcoming streaming service, Disney+. Loki, which will see Tom Hiddleston return as the titular God of Mischief, is said to follow the character as he travels through human history and influences historical events. Think Quantum Leap, but with a less-than-reliable moral compass. While Loki may go further into the past than any of Marvel's previous projects, it joins the likes of Captain Marvel, Black Widow, the previously released Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) and the canceled-too-soon series Agent Carter as another MCU prequel. While Captain America's foray into the past was to establish the character's well-known World War II history and occurred early on in the MCU, Loki, Captain Marvel and Black Widow, all of which have or will have a contemporary presence, may find themselves on a more difficult road as they navigate a course where their future is already written.

Captain Marvel, with its release only a few short weeks away, has the most going for it in terms of any of Marvel's upcoming prequels. While Captain Marvel is said to be a major presence in the MCU going forward and is set to make her contemporary debut in April's Avengers: Endgame, Captain Marvel will mark the first time audiences meet Carol Danvers. Although there are certain things audiences already know in terms of the future of the MCU, like what lies in store for Nick Fury, Phil Coulson, Ronan and Korath, who all made their debut in earlier films, the fate of Carol Danvers, the Kree-Skrull conflict and her supporting cast remains to be seen. For the most part, the '90s-set Captain Marvel has the freedom to go in whatever direction it pleases, as long as it explains where the character has been for the past three decades and why she's never been mentioned in contemporary films in the way Captain America had been in The Incredible Hulk (2008) and Iron Man 2 (2010). Captain Marvel doesn't carry the baggage of a prequel, because it's opening the door to a new character and a new world, rather than trying to fit in an already crowded room.

Loki and Black Widow are in a much odder scenario. Loki met his end in the powerful opening minutes of Avengers: Infinity War (2018), in a moment that was a fitting end for a character who had helped bring Thanos' wrath to Earth and had redeemed himself, if only slightly so. As Thanos strangled the Asgardian to death, he said "no resurrections this time," seemingly putting a footnote of finally on the idea that Loki would return to help the Avengers save the day. Assuming that "no resurrections" remains true for Loki's case, the Disney+ series would take place some time before the events of Infinity War, and likely Thor: Ragnarok (2017). While there's a lot of potential in Disney+ using shows to further expand the storylines of characters who are often secondary in the films and to bridge the gap between movies, Loki may be a step too far in catering to an audience that wants to see Loki live on as a comedic and mischievous charmer instead of a villain directly and indirectly responsible for the deaths of many. While comic books have a reputation for resurrections and prequel series featuring deceased characters, it's often a sales tactic — and if it's a creative one, it's usually one that readers are made to anticipate for longer than a year. This tactic of resurrection by prequel that works in comics doesn't quite carry the same appeal in film and television, especially with characters whose arcs already feel complete.

The most enticing thing about Loki may not be the return of the character, but the historical context in which we'll see him. There's hope that this series could be a kind of Marvel history lesson, not simply a show that takes Loki back to the American Revolution or the Dark Ages that we already know, but one that examines how Marvel's timeline differs from our own, with appearances by Agent Carter, earlier iterations of the Black Panther and Sorcerer Supreme. Perhaps the series will take a page from Jonathan Hickman and Dustin Weaver's S.H.I.E.L.D. (2010) comic book series that saw the spy organization founded by Leonardo Da Vinci, Galileo Galilei, Imhotep, Sir Isaac Newton and Nostradamus, among other famous historical influencers. Of course, the MCU's S.H.I.E.L.D. has different origins, but that concept of showing an alternate history from our own and inflating it with superpowers, mutations and cosmic beings sounds far more promising than seeing Loki cover familiar ground and pull tricks that amount to him being the inspiration for the Mona Lisa. If Loki manages to take an expansive look at Marvel's history, then the show could earn his continued presence in the MCU.

Cate Shortland's Black Widow film finds itself in the predicament of being a prequel and coming far later than many fans expected. When Scarlett Johansson's character made her debut in Iron Man 2 (2010), audiences were ready to see more of her in a solo adventure. After a number of scene-stealing moments in The Avengers (2012), audiences were even surer that she would get her own film. Instead, she became a supporting player in the Captain America sequels, while Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) explored some of the preliminary basics of her origin through nightmarish flashbacks, rumored to have been scaled back during the film's editing process. If Black Widow makes what fans hope will be a 2020 release date, it'll be 10 years since the character debuted onscreen. It's late, but still welcome. But Black Widow has gone through a lot in those 10 years, evolved from untrustworthy spy to superhero. If she survives Avengers: Endgame — and that's a big if —  audiences would certainly be interested to see how those events have further changed her. A prequel centered around her training in the Red Room and emergence as a spy, even if it includes the Winter Soldier or other familiar faces in the Marvel Universe, could only build up to what we already know. We're not certain that there's anything in the past that hasn't been suggested by other films that would truly offer a fresh perspective on the character, regardless of the quality of the film itself. A contemporary story that makes use of flashbacks could cover both old and new ground.

The prospect of the Marvel Cinematic Universe expanding backwards and forward in time is an exciting prospect, but it's also a challenging one. Captain Marvel, new to this world, makes sense for a prequel, especially when considering that supporting characters Ronan and Korath didn't get their dues before their deaths in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014). Others like Loki and Black Widow raise question marks, even in the face of optimism, about whether or not their time couldn't be better served in the present or with their deaths giving rise to new iterations like comics' female or kid Loki or Black Widow's Yelena Belova or Monica Chang. There's something to be said about what characters are chosen to expand Marvel's past.

Long before Marvel gained control of Daredevil from Fox, Joe Carnahan pitched the idea of a Daredevil film trilogy that went from 1973, to 1979, to 1985. He released a sizzle reel for the project, highlighting his vision and how it would allude to the time period and the films and music of that era. When Marvel teamed up with Netflix, there was early speculation that their Defenders series would be set in the 1970s, which would account for the world that many of these characters, except Jessica Jones, debuted or reached their heights in, as well as take away a need to reference any of the MCU's current films. While Marvel's Netflix shows (RIP) were all contemporary, that idea of taking Marvel characters and creating period series and films around them has lingered. Marvel Studios, with the 20th Century Fox acquisition, will have more characters at its disposal than ever before. Undoubtedly, things could get a bit crowded should all of these characters make a home for themselves in the present day. Rather than using characters already established in the present to explore the past, perhaps Marvel's prequel expansion would be best served by previously unused characters who could make these time periods their home in a way not unlike what Fox has done with their more recent X-Men films.

The future and past of the Marvel Cinematic Universe will become increasingly clear following the release of Avengers: Endgame. There's still plenty we don't know and certainly plenty of surprises are in store. While I have some reservations about exactly how Marvel Studios plans to expand the past, there's no doubt that there is a plan, hopefully one that will allow the MCU's prequels to keep us on the edge of our seats in the same way their contemporary offerings have. It's worth remembering that whether we're talking past or present, Marvel's universe is infinite and we've only seen the beginnings of it. Any project that allows us to see more and truly expands what we know about these characters and their universes is surely one worth investing in.