Marvel-lously Popular: An Analysis of the Marvel Cinematic Universe



Image by Ong Sin Yee


Share this post:

The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has become one of the most popular franchises in recent history, grossing a collective $25.5 billion at the box office and embedding itself into the public consciousness.

But for those of you who have only watched one or two of the movies—or perhaps none at all—you may be wondering what all this is about. What is the MCU? What is it about? Why is it so popular and successful when so many other movie franchises have failed? That’s what we’re here to talk about today, as we analyse the MCU. 

The Story of the MCU is far, far too long to cover in any detail here, so a basic overview will suffice. Several superheroes are introduced to us individually, revealing their origins, their personalities, and how they came to be gifted with extraordinary abilities. These heroes are eventually united, despite internal strife, to overcome threats to mankind and become Earth’s Mightiest Heroes: the Avengers. Similar heroes (and several anti-heroes) also arise in space, in the realms of magic and myth, in the world of espionage and hidden kingdoms, and even on the streets of Queens and San Francisco. Each new story adds a new layer of protectors for Earth, some of whom have been working behind the scenes for millennia, and for the universe at large.

At the centre of the story, however, are the Avengers and those they influence, culminating in them leading the climactic charge against villainous forces who seek to end all life in the universe.

Even after, the Earth continues to need protection, and the whole universe awaits the exploration of those who wish to sojourn through the stars. 

Whether this plot sounds epic or cliché to you, it is the summary of a plot that has captivated millions, and today, we’ll investigate just how it pulled that off.

1. Continuity

The MCU does its best to remain consistent with its key actors, its themes and how the stories fit together to ensure long-term popularity, investment, and strengthen character and story arcs. Before the announcement of the MCU by Marvel Studios, previous movies based on the characters in Marvel Comics had been made by other studios with varying degrees of success; these included shoutouts to other Marvel characters, but never something like this. 

The first few movies of the MCU introduced us to four different characters, each with vastly different personalities and backstories, but clearly demonstrated how they were all connected to each other. Thor, Iron Man, Captain America, and the Hulk never crossed paths in those early days, with their stories focusing primarily on their own origins and growth, but they had important supporting characters interact with each of them. These supporting characters would be the ones to unite them, along with two elite special agents, into the Avengers Initiative: a name that first sent waves of excitement through longtime Marvel fans when it was first dropped through the post-credits scenes that the MCU is now famous for. 

These stories were clearly made with the intention to be connected in a shared universe—and every movie thereafter has made an effort to establish its role and place in that universe. The appeal of that was enormous; it was not rushed or a cheap money grab, as sequels often are, but it felt deliberate in a good way, part of the original plan. You don’t have to be invested in every single movie, as long as you invest in the universe as a whole, its big-ticket names, and their collective story. It’s a win for Marvel whenever someone gets invested in the MCU, its characters, and its story as a whole.

2. Character 

Not all of the MCU’s characters have been good, but the ones that mattered were. As important as continuity was, the core characters of the MCU stood out because their individual stories were compelling, and not just an excuse to launch a cinematic universe. Tony Stark’s first steps to redemption became a question of his identity as he strove to be a better man. The Hulk has always had to deal with balancing the brilliant scientist and the powerful, unpredictable monster. Thor has faced wave after wave of humbling loss, and yet emerges both stronger and more mature as he finds his place in the universe. And Steve Rogers’ moral compass is tested time and time again, revealing his greatest strength—even before his enhanced physique—to be his valour and honour. 

These character themes have held firm across their individual and joint movies, and generate a trajectory for their character development no single movie could provide. Since then, Doctor Strange, Spider-Man, Black Panther, and many others have entered the scene, each bringing their own themes and journeys to invest in. But it was those original four Avengers who had their stories established strongly individually, and had them satisfyingly fulfilled in the culminating movie of the first three phases of the MCU—Avengers: Endgame.

3. Classic Themes 

The core characters’ stories, both individually and collectively, were rooted firmly in classic storytelling themes: the hero’s journey, redemption, worthiness, and test of character.

These storytelling themes are compelling with their dramatic impact, but also with their relatability. Tony Stark’s struggles to reconcile his dual identities as hero and as former weapons magnate, even as he seeks redemption for his mistakes both past and present. He is human and fallible — much like his audience. Thor Odinson must discover what it means for him to be worthy of his own power as the God of Thunder and his destiny as the King of Asgard. Those children who first saw him wield his mighty hammer Mjolnir would have entered adulthood, would have taken on far greater responsibilities than they could have foreseen as kids, by the time he took up the god-killing axe Stormbreaker as a king. And even as a scrawny young man, Steve Rogers possessed a valour and a strength of character that remained unchanged no matter how the world changed around him, and no matter how difficult the decisions he would have to face. In a fast-changing world, it is a relatable struggle indeed to hold on to one’s values, even in the face of great pressure, and retain the purity of heart that saw Steve Rogers worthy not only of his vibranium shield but of weapons far greater.

Each of these characters were called to adventure and overcame great opposition to achieve their destiny. They created rapport with the audience as they dealt with human fallibility and fears, yet also inspired us with their heroism even in the face of defeat and failure.

The classic themes, out of the legends and myths and folktales, prove just as inspirational to current audiences as they did to their ancestors — contributing to the MCU’s popularity. 

Conclusion

I could very well add in more Cs — the MCU’s trademark Comedy comes to mind — but I rest my case. The MCU is more than just an expensive collection of children’s entertainment with cool marketing and special effects. At the centre of the MCU’s success is a continuous story with rich core characters and classic themes. So to those who have never understood the success of the MCU, and whether it’s worth the watch, I would encourage you to check it out; for all you know, you too may find it to be a Marvel for yourself.