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Fragments #6 – "We Fit": The Intertextual Tightrope of the Marvel Cinematic Universe

While the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU from here on out) is arguably the most financially successful, audience-pleasing shared universe in film history, its shortcomings present significant challenges to the quality of its individual media components and to the longevity of the collective franchise.


Unlike our previous, wide-ranging looks at the continuities of the Universal Monster films (Part One and Part Two) and the James Bond films, I want to examine three key issues arising from the interconnectedness of the MCU that will impact its long term-potential: One, the “intertextuality” of the different films and how the insertion of intertextual elements adds a new challenge to cinematic storytelling; two, what happens, or, rather, what could happen, when actors leave roles, particularly one as iconic as Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark; and three, the role that transmedia plays, especially between two “mainstream” media–television and film–on the tightrope of spoiling: how do you reward fans and avoid alienating newbies?

Before we dive in: while this may come as a surprise given my previous columns on the integration of comics and film, for the purposes of this article, I will not be discussing the extensive number of comics set in the MCU, and will instead focus on the intertextuality of Phase One films and the transmedia extension of Agents of SHIELD. A complete list of MCU comics tie-ins, both official and inspired by, can be found at the Marvel Cinematic Universe wiki.

Issue One: “We-Fit”

The post-credit scene to 2008’s Iron Man, the film that launched the MCU and made Robert Downey Jr. a superstar, made it clear that Iron Man was just the start of something much bigger: “The Avengers Initiative,” as Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury said. Immediately upon the release and success of Iron Man, Marvel Studios announced four titles: Iron Man 2, Thor and The First Avenger: Captain America would serve as lead-ins to the end goal of Phase One: The Avengers. With Louis Letterier’s June 2008’s release of the second MCU film, The Incredible Hulk, the Edward Norton-starring reboot of the 2003 Ang Lee film, Phase One of the MCU was off and running.

This pre-Agents of SHIELD, Phase One iteration of the MCU is what USC professor and Convergence Culture author Henry Jenkins terms “radical intertextuality,” a movement across texts (the films functioning as “texts”) within the same medium (a la Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and any comic book crossover event since the Golden Age). For example: a month after Iron Man’s release, Downey’s Tony Stark made an uncredited appearance in The Incredible Hulk’s post-credits scene, in which Stark spoke to William Hurt’s General Thunderbolt Ross about starting “a team.” Other examples include repeated mentions of the Super Soldier Serum that created Captain America in The Incredible Hulk; the appearances of Howard Stark, played by John Slattery, in Iron Man 2 and Dominic Cooper in Captain America: The First Avenger; the discovery of Thor’s hammer, Mjölnir, at the end of Iron Man 2; the "Tesseract" in Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger and The Avengers; and, in transmedia fashion, the combination of the Super Soldier Serum from Captain America, Gamma Rays (from Incredible Hulk) and Extremis (from Iron Man 3) in Agents of SHIELD.

Taken together, the MCU constitutes a connect-the-dots puzzle. In some cases, these intertextual and transmedia elements are fun Easter Eggs; in others, they are the creature that births the newest cinematic challenge to world-building filmmakers, something I call “We-Fit Dialogue,” the intertextual, connective first cousin to the former nefarious nemesis of screenwriters, exposition.

“We-Fit,” like its older cousin, serves no dramatic purpose, rather, it is an arm-waving reminder that the film you are watching is part of a larger universe, a limp promise to the viewer that the best is either yet to come or came before, just not in the movie you’re watching. “We Fit Dialogue” is the “Editor’s Note” of comics brought to film with neither the charm of the original Marvel Universe nor medium-appropriate placement. Examples range from repeated references to “New York” in the aftermath of The Avengers and the abundance of name-drops from films in Agents of SHIELD (usually in regards to Thor). And, while the MCU is getting better about it, even the “Stephen Strange” call-out from Winter Soldier was a bit too accented.

Issue Two: The Inevitability of Changing Actors

No character in the MCU is as iconic as Robert Downey Jr.’s interpretation of Tony Stark and, despite the best intentions of the designs of a fictional, live-action continuity, life has a way of getting in the way of cinematic development. Inevitably, Downey Jr. will vacate the role of Tony Stark.

What will Marvel do when that time comes? While this won’t be the first time that Marvel has had to switch actors – Terence Howard / Don Cheadle as James Rhodes/War Machine and Edward Norton/Mark Ruffalo as the Hulk, respectively, it will be the first time that they will have such a major, tide-shifting change on their hands.

What are their options?

Option One: Kill off Tony Stark. Any actor who assumes the role in Downey’s wake will be seen as little more, unfairly, than a substitution. I won’t lie: I thought they might kill him off in The Avengers; it would have been a perfect hero’s death. But, alas, the show must go on.

Option Two: Retire the character from active heroics and place him in charge of a new SHIELD (as he was following the events of Marvel’s 2006 line-wide event, Civil War, which could, theoretically, form the basis of Avengers 3), making his participation in the films similar to that of Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury. Move Don Cheadle’s James Rhodes into the position of Iron Man (as he has done in the comics), or have Tony in charge of a pilotless Iron Man costume, though if Avengers: Age of Ultron rumors are true, that won’t be something the character is willing to do.

Option Three: Go for it. Recast the character. I could see Dominic Cooper, who played Howard Stark in Captain America: The First Avenger, sliding into the role.

One final thing to consider on this topic: even though Marvel has been around since 1939, they have never reset their comics continuity; this is in stark contrast to their competition, DC Comics, which has reset their continuity numerous times, most recently in 2011. In Marvel continuity, every story has happened, only with a sliding time scale of about ten years. Should the films follow this notion, we could be looking at the sliding timescale brought to film. We’ve already seen the combination of sliding time scale and “Go for it” actor changing with the loose James Bond continuity, but the possibility of this in a universe as coherent and tightly designed as the MCU makes for a fascinating thought experiment.

Issue Three: SPOILING: The Tightrope

While Agents of SHIELD had numerous call backs and Easter-Eggs throughout its first season, and even dealt in small part with events in the second Thor film, The Dark World, it wasn’t until the April 4, 2014 release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier that events in a film completely altered the landscape of a television series. Winter Soldier was released on a Friday, and showed the destruction of the SHIELD organization after Hydra (introduced in Captain America: The First Avenger) had spent decades infiltrating its ranks. The following Tuesday evening, Agents of SHIELD reflected this change, with alliances being destroyed, main characters revealed as traitors and the tone of the series altered drastically.

From a theoretical standpoint, this is awesome: a major motion picture affecting a major television series? Cool! However, here’s the issue: depending on the order the viewer watched the film and the series, the viewer would have two different experiences: if the viewer saw the film first, as I did, they were able to watch the destruction of SHIELD play out in front of them, with no idea what would happen next and then see the further fallout on television. If however, the viewer saw the show first, Winter Soldier functioned less as an unpredictable thrill ride and more of an expositional device, revealing how the agency was destroyed.

This poses the question of, for whom is the television series made? Is it made for the uninitiated to the MCU or is it made for the hardcore fans who will see every Marvel film on its opening weekend? Depending on the episode, Agents of SHIELD wants to be both, and in some ways, it has to be: television, along with film, is a mainstream medium, unlike comics and video games, which function as niche media. It’s a delicate tightrope, one that Marvel has been barely clinging to since the inception of the MCU, and one that, if they wish this grand experiment to cease being an experiment and become something of a norm, has to be addressed and balanced.

A very quick personal note to wrap: as other projects are beckoning, this will be my final article at ScriptMag for the foreseeable future. Many thanks to Jeanne and everyone at Script Mag for their support and, most importantly, to you, the readers, for giving me your eyes each month. If you’d like to stay up to date on what I’m working on, please connect with me on Twitter, @tylerweaver or subscribe to my semi-regular newsletter, The Spinner Rack It’s been a blast. Now, go make stuff!

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