After a decade or more of prestige TV revolutionizing the medium by making television more cinematic, the Marvel movie universe is doing something just as extraordinary: they're making movies more like TV. Yes, each of their connected films have their own identity and largely manage to stand alone as rollicking action flicks. But what's unsettling, and undeniably daring, about what Marvel is doing, flies in the face of movie conventions. The films generally attract decent reviews, but grumbling has grown with the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, coupled with producer Kevin Feige telling Bloomberg Businessweek that he's planned out the Marvel Universe through 2028.
Manohla Dargis, reviewing The Winter Soldier for the New York Times, decried it as "less a stand-alone work than a part of an ever-expanding multimedia enterprise." Indeed, The Winter Soldier features all the Marvel Cinematic Universe tricks that are now becoming routine. Along with Cap, it pulls in members of the Marvel ensemble we've seen in other movies (Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury, Cobie Smulders' Maria Hill, and most importantly Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow). It includes a mid-credits tag, written and directed by Joss Whedon, that has little to nothing to do with the film you just watched and everything to do with setting up Avengers: Age of Ultron, which comes out more than a year from now. Another tag, likely relating to a direct Captain America threequel (due in 2016), is relegated to the very end of the credits.
This is the exact same approach we saw in 2013's Thor: The Dark World, and the success of Marvel's approach means that other studios are trying the same tricks—Fox had The Wolverine end with a jarring set-up for X-Men: Days of Future Past, and Sony is also desperately trying to turn its Spider-Man franchise into a linked universe, today hiring Drew Goddard to make a Sinister Six movie composed only of villains.
But Marvel is doing it best, and most deliberately, even if it's flouting moviemaking rules as it does so. There's a cookie-cutter approach to every film that turns some critics off—every film's score sounds basically the same (Brian Tyler has become the biggest culprit, scoring Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World and now Age of Ultron), they tend to shy away from anything too visually interesting (the gang on the great Fighting in the War Room podcast recently pointed out how over-lit everything is in the Marvel franchise), and it's hard to evaluate how to feel about one film when it's just as important to consider how it relates to everything that came before and after.
What Marvel is doing, though, is just what it's been doing in comics for many years. Yes, one can simply go to the store every month and buy issues of Iron Man, but the superhero comics approach for many years has been to suck the reader in by crossing over with other titles and building every year to a massive crossover event that brings together as many heroes as possible. Events like "Civil War" or "Avengers vs. X-Men" always have major repercussions throughout the shared comics' world, and keeping up to date with these crossovers is almost required just to know what's happening with your favorite heroes.
Marvel wants the same thing to happen with its movies, although it's asking a lot less of its audience, releasing just a couple films a year. And while its approach is obviously inspired by comic book arcs, its success probably wouldn't be feasible without the boom in serialized storytelling on television over the last ten years. Sure, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (another Joss Whedon joint) helped pioneer season-long story arcs in the '90s but was labeled as niche at the time—now, Netflix orders up multiple seasons at a time of prestige dramas like House of Cards, knowing its audience will devour the grand stories in large chunks and happily keep track of interweaving plots and characters. Marvel brought in Whedon to make The Avengers for a reason—he's been spinning plates like this for a long time.
Essentially, what Marvel is doing would have been considered too nerdy just a decade ago. Until Nick Fury showed up after the Iron Man credits talking about the Avenger Initiative, the approach was always to make one superhero movie, make direct sequels, but try to keep things as simple as possible. Superman and Batman have been teaming up in comics as part of the Justice League since 1960, but DC is just now getting a crossover movie off the ground. Before The Avengers came out, it was fair to be skeptical that Marvel's grand plans would really pay off, but the tremendous response sealed them in place.
What's changing with every Marvel "phase" is the directors being hired. For the initial movies, Marvel hired well-known pros (Jon Favreau, Kenneth Branagh, Joe Johnston), although most of them had never dealt with super big-budget movies before. The Thor and Cap sequels used TV directors—Alan Taylor and the Russo Brothers—who clearly could turn in a coherent piece that would fit into a larger puzzle without rocking the boat too much (weirdly, Marvel's first attempt at actual TV has largely flopped with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.)
But some of the directors on the horizon for Marvel are a little trickier. James Gunn, who's making August's Guardians of the Galaxy, is the singular director of cult hits Slither and Super (neither of which made much of a dent box-office wise). Edgar Wright, stepping behind the camera for 2015's Ant-Man, is of similarly iconoclastic ilk. As the Marvel Universe expands, will it allow room to divert from the formula? The studio has so far kept everything on rails partly out of necessity, just to keep audiences from getting lost as it sets its pieces in place. That doesn't mean there isn't room for growth as the gravy train keeps rolling on.