WARNING: Spoilers ahead for the MCU (including Avengers: Endgame) as well as Star Wars (including The Last Jedi). Be warned.
Avengers: Endgame released in the United States on April 26, 2019 … and has systematically shattered sales records ever since. Dominating metroplexes worldwide, many theaters ran shows every 30 minutes for 24 hours straight during the film’s opening weekend. Despite fears that the movie’s 3-hour runtime would hurt sales, just the opposite has happened: not only have fans flocked to see the film in hordes, but many have returned to watch it again just to absorb the whole film.
Both the critical and fan responses have been overwhelmingly positive. While I’ve seen a handful of people who didn’t like the film, that is vastly outweighed by the many, many people who not only loved the film, but praised its role in bringing the first three phases of the Marvel Cinematic Universe — 22 films in all — to a close. Virtually every minute of Endgame belonged there, and the acting was astonishing. In an alternate universe where superhero films were taken seriously by the Academy, I think there are more than a few Oscar-worthy performances in this sprawling epic, most notably by Robert Downey, Jr.. Despite operating under crushing expectations, Avengers: Endgame delivered in almost every way.
That last sentence is significant. There is a tendency to think that crushing expectations mean that fans can’t be happy: think the fan vitriol toward Star Wars: Episode VIII — The Last Jedi or the TV series Star Trek: Discovery. Those fan bases, we’ve been told, simply can’t be satisfied. Some people have even taken to calling segments of the fanbase “toxic fanbases,” arguing that online hordes have destroyed the franchise. And those arguments have a point, especially when you take into account, for example, the small but vocal group of toxic fans who have harassed the women and minorities of Star Wars. (The Star Trek anger is a bit more complex, owing itself in part to the fact that CBS put Discovery behind a paid subscription service.)
So what is different? Why has the fan vibe toward the Marvel Cinematic Universe been seemingly different than what we’ve seen with Star Wars?
I think a look at the MCU offers some insights.
The Challenges of Established Franchises
When a franchise first launches, its primary goal is to capture the imagination of its viewers. That’s not easy, but it does mean that storytellers are by and large unencumbered by any past history, because there is one.
As a franchise grows, a new set of problems emerge. Fans who fell in love with the franchise early on now want more, and that more has to not only meet (or exceed) the early work, but it also has to meet the idealistic notions that fans have about where the work should go. There is no fury like a fanbase that cries out, “why did you do that?” after a franchise takes a story in a seemingly unexpected — and unpopular — direction. Even small decisions can become more closely scrutinized.
It’s a steep task. And sometimes franchises seemingly buckle under the weight of that scrutiny. We see it with some long-running TV shows, but we also see it in film, too: remember all the negative outcry toward the Hobbit films? Even simple trilogies can suffer, like the second and third Matrix films did.
The Lessons of the MCU
The Marvel Cinematic Universe launched in the 2000s with the challenge of multiple distinct fanbases. You had veterans of the comic book scene who had their own hopes and dreams to how the source material would play out on the screen. You had more general superhero film fans who hadn’t necessarily read the comics but knew enough to hope that the first Iron Man in 2008 would be as good as, say, Batman Begins (2005) or the more venerable Batman (1989). And you had the casual filmgoing crowd who occasionally likes an action flick.
Those varied fanbases made the MCU a tricky experiment. How, after all, do you create something that will satisfy the comic book crowd while also making the casual crowd happy? If you try to please one group, might you alienate another? For the franchise’s executives, these questions weren’t simply academic: if you botch these movies like the DC Extended Universe often has, you risk losing a lot of money.
The MCU has not only not lost money, but it has managed to produce a lineup of movies that, even on a bad day, are still not all that bad. And that quality is even more astounding when you consider the quantity: at 22 films and growing, the MCU comprises the most expansive filmmaking experiment in the history of cinema.
There are a number of lessons I think we can draw from this grand vision. Two of those lessons really stand out.
Lesson #1: Respect What Came Before
Some writers and filmmakers are reluctant to talk too much about past developments in a franchise’s narrative history. Sometimes it’s because doing so could alienate first-time viewers who haven’t actually seen what came before. Sometimes it’s because writing teams change, and the new writers either don’t like (or don’t care about) what came before. I think that history has shown this to be a grievous mistake.
Exhibit A … Star Wars: Episode VIII — The Last Jedi. Aside from having some pretty mediocre plot moments (i.e. that boring slow speed chase), the film was most notable for its almost single-minded dismissal of what led up to it. It rejected, for example, most of the set-pieces introduced in its film predecessor: declining to elaborate on the Knights of Ren, unceremoniously killing off Supreme Leader Snoke, turning the seemingly crippled First Order into a vaunted Empire, and doing virtually nothing of importance with one of Episode VII‘s central characters. (Instead, we got, out of nowhere, a purple-haired leader who didn’t know how to lead.)
The Last Jedi‘s dismissal wasn’t restricted just to immediate history. Rian Johnson’s script twisted Luke Skywalker into someone so foreign even Mark Hamill didn’t approve, while making relatively little use of the lore of Episodes I through VI outside of maybe Han’s dice or the return of puppet Yoda. Yoda’s destruction of the Jedi readings on Ahch-To, to me, symbolizes what Rian Johnson thinks of the history of Star Wars. The Last Jedi felt like a movie that held the past not just in disregard, but in outright disdain.
(It didn’t help that, even before The Last Jedi, there were some grumblings about the direction of Star Wars canon. When Lucas sold the franchise to Disney, Disney’s executives decided to relegate the Expanded Universe of novels and other properties to apocryphal status. While bits of that storyline have found their way back in, an entire timeline was essentially tossed out.)
It doesn’t have to be that way. Years ago, during a panel discussion I attended, I remember someone summarizing one of the great achievement of the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The show, the panelist pointed out, talked about things in Season 7 that happened back in Season 1.
You could almost envision that quote pegged on a board over at Marvel HQ … which wouldn’t be completely ridiculous, since Buffy showrunner Joss Whedon has also had a significant footprint in the MCU. From the beginning, the Marvel films have not only made use of the deep resources of the comic history, but have never hesitated to reference one another. From the subtle nods and cameos to the intricate post-credit scenes (including this clever one in the often-overlooked The Incredible Hulk), the MCU feels cohesive.
Avengers: Endgame (and Avengers: Infinity War before it) is a capstone, making reference to events that happened in many (if not all) of the previous MCU films. It’s a payoff to fans who have been following along the whole time.
Of note: the trailers for Episode IX show a much closer connection to Star Wars history, so perhaps there is hope for redemption. Unfortunately, some damage has already been done, and it’s not sure if people turned off by The Last Jedi will return for The Rise of Skywalker.
Lesson 2: Innovate, Don’t Recycle
As important is it is to use the past a launchpad for the future, it’s equally important not to fall into the trap of recycling the past in the future. There’s no surer path to fan fatigue than being derivative.
Star Wars presents a most cautionary tale. Consider this Star Wars tale: a restless young Force-user on a desert planet flees into space with a rogue on the Millennium Falcon, enlisting with a band of freedom fighters against a Force-using Dark Lord and his planet-sized, planet-destroying battlestation … succeeding by hitting one of the battlestation’s weak spots, but at the cost of the Force user’s elder friend.
That story could be about Episode IV. Or about Episode VII. Because the central criticism of The Force Awakens is that it was awfully derivative of A New Hope.
Once more, it didn’t have to be that way. It’s a tribute to the many films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that each of them manages to carve out new territory from one another, in terms of plot, execution, character development, and endings. Iron Man 3 goes places far beyond Iron Man, Thor: Ragnarok is completely different than Thor, and Captain America: Civil War ends up in a spot that is nothing like its two preceding films.
Avengers: Endgame, similarly, innovates without recycling … which is funny to say because the film is about time travel. Yes, time travel is a well-worn premise, but this is the first time we see it in the MCU. Moreover, the way Endgame lays out the rules of time travel is novel compared to other franchises (even going so far as to explicitly lampoon those franchises) and takes things in directions that, if not entirely unpredictable, are still well-executed.
The MCU isn’t done innovating yet, either. If certain trailers are taken at face value, Marvel may be moving into the multiverse for its future films.
If there is one thing I’ve come to believe from following the MCU, it’s that it’s important to be looking both backward and forward. You have to respect the collective body of work that came before, and find ways to reward fans who walked that path to get where you are now. But you also have to be willing to go to new places, too, avoiding the trap of reusing old plot devices.
Those are by no means the only things you have to do to achieve a successful franchise. But it’s hard to see a franchise succeed without them. Star Wars has learned that the hard way.