The rise of Disney+ has brought a new era to the record-breaking Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), with four films due for release in 2021, starting with Black Widow in July.
This year also welcomes the first TV shows directly connected to the MCU films, helmed by the creative voice behind the franchise, Marvel Studios president and primary producer Kevin Feige.
Finally delving into the streaming world, Marvel Studios has adapted their storytelling to fit the new format given to them by Disney+, offering audiences something they’ve never seen from these super-powered tales.
Since 2008, the MCU has amassed an unprecedented audience, with cinema grosses now more than $26 billion.
The keys are larger than life characters that can interact across MCU films and inter-connected storytelling that encourages audiences to invest in characters. The result is a loyal fanbase, regardless of what form the MCU stories take – a significant benefit to Marvel Studios as they venture into the world of streaming with Disney+.
Character comes first
Marvel has released at least two or three films a year from 2013 to 2019, with another four set for 2021. The year-round speculation building up to each release often means the MCU and its characters are at the forefront of pop culture and online discussion. Consistently giving fans new stories to engage with means the audience can watch the characters evolve.
Wise-cracking billionaire Tony Stark is a prime example. Following his birth as Iron Man, audiences have watched Stark face the consequences of his actions, fall in love, deal with PTSD, find a pseudo-son in Tom Holland’s Peter Parker, and risk everything to repair the damage of a universally destructive event. He met his fate in Avengers Endgame, which successfully concluded the character’s emotional development, leaving the audience to openly weep into their popcorn.
Iron Man’s story arc wouldn’t have had such an emotional impact on viewers if the character hadn’t been developed over several films over many years, giving audiences time to invest in Stark’s story and care about him.
The advantages of streaming
Disney entered the highly profitable streaming war, where content is key, with Disney+. Feige was asked to produce several MCU shows for Disney+, providing Marvel Studios with an opportunity to switch up their storytelling format and take advantage of the different medium the streaming platform provides.
The episodic nature of Marvel films is already comparable to the format of a TV show, however, the additional screen time available to an episodic series will give more meaningful screen time to characters who have otherwise been secondary figures in the films so far.
This was evident in WandaVision, where audiences could spend almost six hours with Wanda Maximoff, a supporting character introduced in 2015, and Vision, an android who met his demise in 2018’s Avengers Infinity War.
The WandaVision series allowed creators to explore how the events of recent films have emotionally and mentally scarred Wanda, embrace several different genres across each episode, all while entering a new section of the MCU where witchcraft exists.
The streaming format provides Marvel with the ability to tackle some real-world themes previously untouched in Marvel’s family-friendly features, while fleshing out fan-favourite characters who have previously had limited time to grow.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier introduced audiences to a more sobering part of the franchise. The titular heroes, Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes, explore monetary debt, systematic racism, and a terrorist group who deem themselves freedom fighters.
Being able to tell smaller-scale stories in-between films means Marvel Studios can build a foundation for new characters that can later be integrated into the MCU films. Embracing this idea, Disney+ will slowly start introducing the Young Avengers team, with Kate Bishop, Ms Marvel and Ironheart, with Wiccan and Speed already introduced in WandaVision.
These new shows will keep audiences constantly thinking about the Marvel brand year-round and wondering how each of these shows will feed into the larger MCU narrative – like how WandaVision will now lead directly into Spider-Man: No Way Home and Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness.
Disney+ has chosen a weekly episode release and this has already led to online chatter and fan hype remaining strong for months at a time. WandaVision became globally popular in the latter half of the season thanks to strong online discussion that piqued the interest of general audiences.
There can be too much of a good thing and the overabundance of MCU stories, as is the case for 2021, has the potential to turn audiences away.
The films fans often count down to will no longer feel as special or exciting once the content is constantly available. Why should audiences be so excited for Black Widow when they will have already watched at least three other Marvel shows in the same year?
Fan speculation is also a concern. WandaVision constantly sprinkled references to comic storylines and potential villains each week leading to extensive discussion and theorising online. Audiences closely analysed every aspect of the story as the show progressed.
Typically, fans would speculate before the release of an MCU film, then viewing the full story all at once without time to theorise mid-plot. A rampant fan theory culture throughout the first season of WandaVision led to a disappointing and lacklustre finale for a portion of MCU fans, when compared to the ideas they had been speculating about.
However, it seems fans and industry analysts will have to learn to reign in their speculation after the announcement from Feige that the Disney+ shows wouldn’t include any major MCU story developments.
The MCU’s future on Disney+
Despite some possible creative hurdles, the MCU has jumped into the world of streaming with great initial success. Their first two shows consistently received positive ratings, with The Falcon and the Winter Soldier pilot debuting as the most-watched series premiere for Disney+.
If Marvel’s movies are anything to go by, there is belief the studio will continue to treat their characters right and take advantage of the platform Disney has provided them.
Given that this ship will continue to be led by president Kevin Feige, Vision actor Paul Bettany recently said: “We have to trust in Kevin; Kevin’s always right.”
MCU 2021 release schedule (as of mid-April)
Loki—June 11th (Disney+)
Black Widow—July 9 (theatres and Disney+)
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings—September 3 (theatres)
What If…?—TBD/Mid-Year (Disney+)
Eternals—November 5 (theatres)
Spider-Man: No Way Home—December 17 (theatres)
Hawkeye—TBD/Late 2021 (Disney+)
Ms. Marvel—TBD/Late 2021 (Disney+)