Marvel’s Unshared Universe: ‘Age of Ultron’ and Continuity in Broad Strokes

by Andrew Bloom on May 5, 2015

in Marvel, Movies

[CAUTION: Spoilers abound.]

I had the faintest glimmer of hope at the climax of Avengers: Age of Ultron. In the midst of our intrepid heroes’ battle with the titular AI run amok, when the chances for a civilian evacuation seemed bleak, Nick Fury came blazing to the rescue with a helicarrier, and reassured Earth’s Mightiest Heroes that he had “pulled her out of mothballs with a couple of old friends”.

Here it was, the moment when Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. would have the slightest impact on the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe. Sure, the TV show’s characters would be relegated to a quick cameo or even the background, but the devoted fans who had slogged through the show’s rougher patches would be rewarded with a brief glimpse of Fitz or Simmons or Mack or somebody from the ragtag remnants of S.H.I.E.L.D., there to help save the day. It only made sense. After all, if recent episodes of the show were any indication, Fury and Maria Hill had been working with Coulson’s team off-screen for some time, and there were more than a few capable agents suited to the task.

But no. Instead, the brief-if-pleasant bit of continuity came in the form of an appearance by the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent from Captain America: The Winter Soldier who had refused to launch Hydra’s helicarriers despite being held at gunpoint. It was a nice callback, but one that still left me feeling cold to a film that seemed to only make the broadest of gestures toward the rest of the MCU.

For years, I have salivated at the thought of a true shared universe in fiction. It’s hard to explain the allure, but I think it comes down to two main ideas. The first is the opportunity to flesh out characters and conflicts before they converge, which gives depth and meaning to the eventual confrontations. The second is the aura of realism, even in fantastical settings, that exudes when the impact of one story is felt in another. There is something thrilling about the sense that so many disparate events can legitimately take place in the same world, such that what one single character does can have repercussions that span a multitude of stories.

The MCU aims high and tries to reach that lofty goal, striving to offer a collection of Marvel’s greatest characters all under one roof. But sometimes it merely offers a series of individual houses that happen to be connected by the same plumbing system, where the neighbors occasionally invite their closest friends to visit.

To the point, if you had jumped right from The Avengers to Avengers: Age of Ultron, and missed all the films in between, would you really have missed anything in terms of continuity?

You could argue that Tony Stark’s creating Ultron for the purpose of ensuring that evil “can’t get past the bouncer” is in line with his manic autonomous suit-making issues in Iron Man 3. But then again, Stark seemed to come close to retiring at the end of that movie, and before then, he had deliberately destroyed all his drone-suit buddies. Yet, at the beginning of Age of Ultron, he’s not only back in the latest Iron Man suit, but he has a new team of automated robotic sentries, “The Iron Legion”, at his disposal. If anything, his story makes more sense if you missed his latest non-Avengers adventures.

Captain America makes a few knowing remarks in reference to his interstitial film, and seeing the rise of Hydra could be what makes him resistant to Stark’s efforts to “protect the world.” But the impact of his last outing feels slight in Age of Ultron. Similarly, Black Widow arguably reflects her character’s development from her last appearance in the film series, and the same is potentially true for Thor, but the effect is subtle at best and, without knowing better, could easily be chalked up to sheer coincidence or the traditional outlines of the characters.

Meanwhile, Bruce Banner was absent between Avengers films beyond a jokey tag in Iron Man 3, and Hawkeye was missing entirely during the interregnum between The Avengers and Age of Ultron. Aside from a cameo from Falcon and an off-hand mention of the appearance of other infinity gems, the films that came between the first Avengers movie and the latest release feel ultimately inessential to anything that takes place in Age of Ultron.

And that’s frustrating for someone who really enjoyed those intervening films, not just because of what they portended for the Avengers’ eventual reunion and the universe they share, but because of how those characters changed and developed. It was exciting to anticipate the ripples of those developments, both large and small, being reflected in the next big adventure. Instead, Age of Ultron essentially opened with the status quo as it was when The Avengers went riding off into the sunset at the end of their first film.

Whither the much ballyhooed shared universe?

I’m sure much of this separation is by design. From a business standpoint, it’s not hard to see why Marvel would want to have its cake and eat it too when it comes to its most successful franchise: lure in the fanboys with the trappings of a shared universe, but keep your hooks in the kinds of casual fans who create record-breaking box office grosses by keeping the continuity light. That way the folks who marathon the Marvel movies ahead of Age of Ultron can cheer at the sight of a side character from The Winter Soldier, and the less-invested fan can step into the theater without worrying that they’ve missed too much of the story to be able to understand what’s going on.

And it makes sense from a creative, or at least creator, perspective as well. Superb director Edgar Wright famously backed out of Marvel’s Ant-Man because of “creative differences”, largely attributed to his wanting more latitude to create a film that fully embodied his vision while chafing at the studio’s requirements for making something that fit into the rest of the MCU.

But if you can assure directors that continuity will be only invoked in broad strokes, and that each filmmaker will be able to essentially play in their own sandbox, it’s easier to avoid losing directors like Edgar Wright and Joss Whedon, and to hang onto ones like James Gunn and the Russo Brothers. That’s how you end up with a film like Age of Ultron, where despite Whedon’s public tensions with the studio, the connections are loose.

But it stinks for the fans who want to see a shared universe that presents more than easter eggs, post-credits teasers, and reference-laden asides.

What’s especially frustrating is that Joss Whedon himself promised a shared universe once before and delivered remarkably similar results. When Angel spun off from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, there was the hope that the creative world and deep bench of characters that Whedon had developed on Buffy would have more room to grow and reconvene with two shows’ worth of material. That hope initially seemed vindicated after Angel’s launch, when there were frequent crossovers and a sense that the events of one show would bear on the other. But then the connection between the two series quickly withered. The intersecting character appearances grew few and far between, and the links between the two shows became more and more tenuous.

In Buffy, the threatened destruction of the universe at the hands of an unruly god, not to mention the protagonist’s death, took place while the champions of Angel were conveniently stuck in another dimension and wholly unaffected. In Angel, when an indomitable beast terrorized the population, blotted out the sun, and brought about what was ostensibly the apocalypse, all the misery just so happened to be confined entirely within Los Angeles, such that Buffy and her friends were blissfully unaware, or at least unconcerned about it.

There was still the occasional crossover or shared character history that would be relevant from episode to episode, but by and large the two shows appeared to take place in entirely different worlds, each only remembering that the other existed when it was narratively convenient, and even then, often in the most weightless of terms. It was tremendously disappointing for a pair of shows that could be independently great and offered so much potential for the two series’ mythologies working in concert. It should have been a warning not to get too comfortable in Whedon’s shepherding of a shared universe.

I don’t mean to be unreasonable about this. I’m aware that Buffy and Angel eventually ended up on different networks, making those crossovers more difficult. I know that it’s easier to simply write disparate characters coming together than it is to manage dozens of actors’ contracts.

And I’m not churlish enough to complain that The Avengers only help each other out in the big team up movies. I know that, as much sense as it would seem to make, The Hulk’s not going to show up to help Thor fight Malekith in The Dark World; Iron Man’s not going to make the jaunt to Washington to help Captain America fight Hydra in The Winter Soldier, and Black Widow is unlikely to make an appearance on Agents of Shield. My willing suspension of belief can easily countenance these necessary concessions to commerce and salary demands.

But is a stronger sense of continuity in a marquee Avengers movie so much to ask when the shared universe is a major selling point of the Marvel Studios films? I am not so foolish as to expect the tail to wag the dog when it comes to the events of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. affecting The Avengers, but is it so crazy to expect some members of Coulson’s team to show up, even for a brief moment, when it’s logical in the narrative? Is it so much to want to feel like Tony Stark’s character development in Iron Man 3 matters in his next outing? Is it crazy to hope to see what the dissolution of S.H.I.E.L.D. meant to The Avengers who didn’t appear in The Winter Soldier?

Maybe the proper response is “go back to television.” Shows like Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, and even Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. have made hay from splitting their characters up, developing independent plotlines, and then throwing it all back together. Game of Thrones in particular is arguably several different shows, or at least several individual stories, told concurrently, with breathtaking moments when the distinct story and character arcs intersect.

For that matter, the comic books upon which most superhero films are based have arguably taken the common continuity concept to the opposite extreme, with characters carrying so much baggage and experiencing so many world-changing events than it’s taken multiverse reboots, secret invasions, and even characters “banging on the walls of reality” to try to make sense of it all. The medium that provides the source material for these films could serve as a cautionary tale for taking the idea of a shared universe too far.

There’s also something to be said for the idea that a movie should work as a complete story, and not a mere link in the chain of some larger narrative. Much of the criticism of Iron Man 2 centered on the fact that it felt more like a set up for The Avengers than its own movie. But I do not believe the goals of telling individual stories and sharing a single continuity have to conflict with one another, if for no other reason than that Marvel (and Whedon) have already shown us it can be done with The Avengers.

In “Phase One” of Marvel’s cinematic offerings, Iron Man, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, and The Incredible Hulk, each told standalone stories that bore clear connections to each other, but which all worked independently and meaningfully developed their protagonists and their pockets of the MCU. Then, in The Avengers, Whedon took those established personalities and bounced them off of each other in natural, interesting ways. He managed to produce a film that not only served as the high water mark for the Marvel movies, but which felt like the culmination of those prior films instead of a mere patchwork quilt. The first Avengers movie told its own story, gave form to a larger narrative, and created the most commercially successful and arguably greatest film in the Marvel pantheon.

That level of integration, the sense that the characters had distinct personalities which naturally sparked when put together, the feeling that independent events had reverberated and promised more repercussions to come, was a breath of fresh air.

That blueprint largely continued in the movies that followed. Iron Man 3 had its issues, but the film centered around Tony Stark confronting the effect the “Battle of New York” had on his psyche. In The Dark World, Thor’s relationship with Loki was clearly shaped by their confrontations in the prior film, and Jane Foster took Thor to task for ignoring her when he returned to Earth. The Winter Soldier continued the arc of Steve Rogers integrating into the present, which began in The Avengers. Even Agents of Shield started living up to its potential after navigating the fallout from the last Captain America movie. The tools, the building blocks, and the possibilities are there.

But that can’t happen when the major films between Avengers outings are treated like window dressing. It can’t happen when Agents of Shield is completely banished to the kids’ table when it comes time to light up the silver screen. It can’t happen when the promise of a shared universe fades away in the erstwhile finale of this “phase” of Marvel’s cinematic output. There’s an opportunity to add incredible depth at all levels of the MCU by embracing the stories that have already been told, and the ones yet to come, from all corners of the vaunted shared universe, and letting them shape what we see in the present. I hope that Phase Three can live up to that potential.

Andrew Bloom (@TheAndrewBlog) runs The Andrew Blogwhere he overanalyzes The Simpsons and takes pop culture too seriously. He has elaborate theories about what happened to Nick Fury’s sunglasses between Winter Solider and Age of Ultron.

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