Once upon a time, when Marvel Studios was tentatively releasing the first Iron Man movie and the Edward Norton-led The Incredible Hulk, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was little more than a twinkle in Kevin Feige’s eye and not even the most optimistic comic book fan could’ve ever imagined the critically acclaimed box-office juggernaut the MCU has now become. Those early movies were largely standalone features, with only a smattering of Easter Eggs and post-credit scenes to connect them to the wider Marvel world and hint at the multi-hero universe that was soon to come into full effect.
That all changed with Joss Whedon’s The Avengers in 2012. Combining the efforts of Marvel Studios’ previous standalone movies and bringing together an A-List ensemble cast, The Avengers changed the landscape of the superhero genre and showed exactly the level of critical and commercial success that could be achieved in a multi-hero venture. From this point on, characters began to cross over with far more frequency – notably Black Window landing a significant role in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Cap’s own cameo in Thor: The Dark World – and this phenomenon was pushed to the next level with Captain America: Civil War. Despite technically being the third Captain America solo movie, Civil War felt, looked and acted far more like an Avengers film, featuring the majority of the MCU in a huge cinematic dust up.
By achieving more success than either of the previous two Cap movies could manage, Civil War proved that expanding the franchise’s universe with multiple superheroes and interconnected plots in turn brought greater rewards. Since then, it has seemed as if Marvel’s standalone movie days might just be numbered, as Robert Downey Jr. prepares to appear in Spider-Man: Homecoming, Bruce Banner gets a big part in Thor: Ragnarok and half of Hollywood joins the cast list of The Avengers: Infinity War. But with Marvel Studios preparing to introduce a new batch of characters for Phase Three, is it really going to abandon its standalone movies?
Having constructed their cinematic empire from the ground up over a number of years, Marvel Studios clearly appreciates the importance of taking the time to build characters and familiarize audiences with them via individual standalone movies. Captain America: The First Avenger and Thor might not be the most fondly remembered entries in the MCU but both were critical in the establishment of their respective characters and as a result, when The Avengers rolled around, fans were already very comfortable with each figure’s personalities, motivations and backstories, allowing Joss Whedon to focus on more interesting topics without having to worry about the grunt work.
For the sake of comparison, Warner Bros.’ D.C. Extended Universe has taken a different approach, quickly launching into the Batman V. Superman team-up movie that connected significantly to the franchise’s larger narrative. The DCEU hasn’t had as easy a time as its Marvel counterpart when it comes to critical reception and part of the reason for this can be attributed to the decision to pull the trigger on the wider reaching movies before building the franchise up with some standalone features beforehand.
With the MCU set to introduce new protagonists such as Captain Marvel and ramp up the roles of newer figures like Black Panther, the importance of standalone movies will once again become apparent, especially since these characters’ comic origins aren’t as well known within a mainstream audience. This has already been seen in Marvel’s most recent venture – Doctor Strange. Other than a hilarious post-credits cameo and some brief visual or dialogue references to the wider MCU, Doctor Strange represented a move back towards the franchise’s past of self-contained stories by focusing squarely on the characters at hand.
This move was entirely necessary as not only is Doctor Strange a lesser known character in the Marvel canon but he heralds a whole new world of magic and mysticism that required a standalone movie to properly introduce, explain and do justice to. Happily, the movie was a resounding success both in terms of box office takings and reviews, which aimed particular praise at the visual style and the execution of this new mystic side to the MCU.
Another property that has been more or less standalone in nature is Guardians of the Galaxy. Although the first movie featured Thanos – arch-villain of the MCU’s overall narrative – the intergalactic location set the movie apart from the rest of the Marvel world and was another example of a mega-successful standalone piece. Somewhat surprisingly, it appears from the trailers and plot details released so far that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 will be even more self-contained than the original movie and although you can expect some form of set-up to lead the characters towards Infinity War, the sequel has its own ensemble, stories and lore to play with without throwing other MCU characters or plot lines into the mix and yet despite this, GOTG remains an integral part of the franchise.
A Future United
Certainly then, standalone movies will be a key part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – at least in the immediate future – but it could be argued that the studio are reserving these for lesser known characters that casual fans may need familiarizing with. The idea of a solo movie starring Steve Rogers or Thor that doesn’t have implications in the wider MCU seems unlikely at this point, as the various Avengers have become ever more entangled in each others’ character arcs. Furthermore, given the impact of Civil War, if Marvel Studios hypothetically did decide to announce Captain America 4 as a standalone solo movie with no additional characters, there would no doubt be some sections of the fandom who would be disappointed at what could be seen as a ‘smaller’ scale film. Marvel set its own bar and now it has the responsibility of meeting those expectations.
The same can be said for the Thor series. Neither of the Norse God’s solo adventures were rapturously received but the hype surrounding the forthcoming Ragnarok is palpable and that’s largely thanks to the addition of Bruce Banner. In what is being described as a ‘buddy picture‘ in space’, there is considerably more anticipation for this third trip to Asgard and when all is said and done, money talks. If Ragnarok vastly out-performs the previous two Thor movies – and it most likely will – then the formula will surely be clear for Marvel to follow: more characters and interconnected stories = higher box office.
And from a critical standpoint, it would be difficult to blame them. After all, the core Avengers characters have all had their groundwork laid – Hawkeye and Black Widow aside – and audiences are very familiar with each of them at this point. It not only makes good business sense to have these characters team up with others and become involved in story lines that develop over a number of films, it also keeps them fresh and relevant in an ever-expanding movie universe and the standalone features can be reserved for newer characters. As far as Spider-Man: Homecoming is concerned, Peter Parker might be new to the MCU but Marvel Studios will only be too aware of how familiar movie-goers are with the character and bringing in Tony Stark will greatly aid in anchoring Spidey to the wider Marvel universe after five movies under the Sony umbrella.
However, the real acid test for Marvel’s intentions with their standalone output will be next year’s Ant-Man and the Wasp. Aside from a brief scrap with Anthony Mackie’s Falcon, the first Ant-Man movie was a standalone heist movie, largely unconnected to the rest of the franchise. Now that the character has properly established himself, it’ll be interesting to see whether the same approach will be utilized for the sequel or whether Ant-Man’s new Avengers connections will mean a more involved role in the wider goings-on of the MCU and feature appearances from more names than just Falcon. If Marvel goes with the latter, it’ll be a strong sign that the studio is looking to make their movies as inter-connected as possible, reserving standalone features for newer characters in need of exposition and establishment.
If it feels as if the Marvel Cinematic Universe is putting less emphasis on standalone movies, this can perhaps be explained by the relative proximity of The Avengers: Infinity War. The forthcoming battle against Thanos represents the culmination of a decade of movies and is the very moment the MCU has been building towards since its inception. With plenty to do before reaching that point, it’s only natural that the focus right now would be on the bigger picture. But what happens when the threat of Thanos has been vanquished?
There’s only so ‘big’ Marvel can realistically go in terms of scale and – judging from the cast list and rumored budget – the conclusion of the Thanos arc will be bigger than anything seen before. From there, attempting to go even bigger doesn’t feel like the most appropriate option. The Michael Bay philosophy of ‘more, more, more’ is unlikely to cut it in the MCU and although there are plenty of juicy, universe-spanning stories from the comics to pick from, it may not be wise to jump straight from the Thanos material into a new major arc right away.
Perhaps then, the post-Infinity War MCU may see a return to prominence of the standalone superhero movie. After all, if you can’t go bigger, the only way is inwards and this might see whichever Marvel characters are left standing get involved in some more personal, small-scale stories. For instance, it has long been rumored that Sebastian Stan’s Winter Soldier would eventually take over the Captain America mantle from Steve Rogers. There have also been rumblings of a solo outing for Black Widow and for Mark Ruffalo to get the opportunity to finally do a standalone Hulk movie justice. In the wake of Thanos, perhaps these stories and other standalone fare can once again come to the fore… and start building towards a whole new major arc.