In the wake of Captain America: The Winter Soldier film, it’s official. The first new episode of the ABC network’s procedural series, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – which aired a mere four days after the super soldier charged through silver screens – didn’t just pick up on the threads laid down by Cap, the whole show happened CONTEMPORANEOUSLY.
In “Turn, Turn, Turn,” Agent Phil Coulson’s intrepid team felt the pangs of mistrust just as Steve Rogers learns from Director Nick Fury not to take anyone’s allegiance for granted. Fury’s subsequent “death,” brought on by the infiltrating terrorists of Hydra, hits too close to home for Coulson, who had been mysteriously resurrected by the surreptitious superspy. While Captain America brings down Hydra’s instruments of destruction at S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters, Coulson’s crew help secure the staging facility known as the Hub.
There’s more to the story than crashing helicarriers into the Triskelion.
But the crossover didn’t begin there. Eagle-eyed viewers – or just people with DVR – were able to catch Agent Jasper Sitwell walking out of the Agents episode directly prior to Winter Soldier‘s release, entitled “End of the Beginning,” and onto the vessel Lemurian in the movie’s opening. And continuing in this week’s installment, we were promised the return of Agent Maria Hill, who made her debut in 2012’s mega-blockbuster Avengers. We even met Agent Coulson’s cellist ex-girlfriend, a plot point extrapolated from a barely noticeable nugget in that film.
You didn’t even notice him leave, did you?
Go to the Source
This kind of rigorous interconnectivity was once the hallmark of the Marvel Comics published universe. Today, though, when major events spill over into ancillary monthly titles, characters can sometimes be depicted inconsistently, or put in completely different places by different creative teams. And when’s the last time you saw an obscure, supporting character followed up on in a book other than where they debuted? Not a lot of love for Greg Rucka’s Rachel Alves or Jason Aaron’s Melita Garner outside of the minds from which they sprang.
The Punisher’s latest disciple is still on the loose somewhere in California. No one seems to have noticed.
So what happened? How did Marvel Cinematic come to outdo its source material? Truthfully, the comics have never been as good at this sort of thing as the on-screen version has become. That sounds incendiary, but think about it. Even in the early days, readers were really just reminded that these guys existed together by random guest spots of one prominent character in another’s book. They’d be gone the next issue and the interloper’s regular author rarely acknowledged the meeting, until such encounters happened more frequently and those bonds became impossible to ignore.
“Hey kids, remember these guys? If you liked them, you’ll love Spider-Man!”
The modern era has further eroded that integration. There no longer exists a set “Marvel style” to which all creators need to adhere, and that’s probably for the best. While it certainly fostered the illusion of association early on, that kind of mandate also stifles creativity and kind of discourages innovation. Plus, in a flagging marketplace, it’s probably not a bad idea to diversify your products. Marvel can now satisfy the lovers of epic plot pieces with Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers, those searching for character growth in Al Ewing’s Loki: Agent of Asgard and even the more bohemian consumers with indie-style books like Matt Fraction’s Hawkeye and Felipe Smith’s All-New Ghost Rider.
The art of David Aja wouldn’t have exactly fit next to that of John Buscema or Don Heck.
Surpassing the Master
There are a couple other reasons our first love can’t compete with the new sexiness on this front. Joss Whedon, in his role as multi-media “showrunner” – which is superficially akin to an editor-in-chief – holds a lot more sway over those in his purview. Editors are more likely to let authors just “tell their story,” knowing that the core audience will always return for their next fix, whereas Whedon has to ensure the integrity of a billion dollar franchise that could pop out of existence after a string of unsupervised flops. He even strong-armed his own brother, Jed, when teeing up Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. for him, basically saying, “Do your thing, but near the end of your season, s--t’s gonna go down and you’ll have to account for it.”
The non-pulp versions also don’t have to contend with lag time and the natural incongruities born from different writers. Not that Iron Man doesn’t have separate people putting words into his mouth from film to film, but it’s still Robert Downey Jr. speaking them. An enduring actor can breathe an identity into a character that can’t be duplicated in solely the written word. It also doesn’t help that comic stories– or, more importantly, the associated art – are produced months before publication, passing through many hands including that of an editor who may not be aware of what another office has recently done with a character.
A little improvisation goes a long way.
Don’t Mess with Success
It’s likely that the Avengers film can attribute much of its grand prosperity (it’s currently the third highest-grossing movie worldwide, ever) to the introduction of the individual components through separate franchises that merged to crush a box office that no single hero could dominate on his own. This pattern has not gone unnoticed by the other progenitors of Marvel movies, as Twentieth Century Fox has hired comic scribe Mark Millar to oversee their growing X-Men and Fantastic Four universe, and multiple Spider-Man movies – some even focusing on the eponymous character’s rouges gallery – will unfold under the watchful eye of Sony producer Avi Arad.
A Sinister Six movie will spin out of the Spidey movieverse, likely featuring the villains that debut in May’s Amazing Spider-Man 2.
So what the f--k is Warner Brothers waiting for? David S. Goyer, writer of 2013’s Man of Steel, no ticket-selling slouch in its own right, has said conversations about making a more interconnected DC Comics universe have so far been “vague,” and that he’s not sure everyone should try to emulate the Marvel model. Come on guys, don’t let pride goeth before unmaximized receipts here. With the nearing inundation of DC television programs and a backdoor Justice League movie penciled in for 2016, it seems beyond foolish to be stubborn on this one. Will characters just be recreated for each separate appearance? Although when you get lumps like 2011’s Green Lantern, maybe it’s not the worst idea to continually smooth things over.
Did you really want this guy rubbing elbows with DC’s best and brightest?
To be fair, many film critics disparage the foreknowledge needed to fully appreciate a modern Marvel Studios movie. Some even say that they really only succeed not in telling compelling stories, but getting people to go see the next one. Of course the last page cliffhanger is a classic staple of comic book storytelling, but while the movies become more like their past source material, the comics themselves strive to be more “cinematic.” Publishing now trends away from unbounded ongoings and toward maxi-series with definite beginnings and ends that fulfill a particular creator’s vision. I guess for everything there truly is a season, or at least a newfound season-style of marketing.
Turn, turn, turn, indeed.