In 2012, Marvel changed the game with The Avengers. Their massive superhero crossover had never been attempted before, and it paid off with critical acclaim and commercial success. Other studios rushed to try and build their own cinematic universes while Marvel continued to build upon its intersecting movies.
In 2014, the studio pushed further outside the box than they ever had before Guardians of the Galaxy, an obscure title that sent the Marvel Cinematic Universe into the cosmos, melding James Gunn’s unique sensibilities with a set of unusual heroes. While the film was still tethered to the MCU via the Infinity Stone, Thanos, and a few other elements, it’s largely free from the constraints of the other movies, which gives it the freedom to be its own thing.
With the release of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 this weekend and filming on Avengers: Infinity War well underway, it seems like what will protect Marvel in the long run is Guardians, and Vol. 2 exemplifies how to be successful without relying on crossovers.
To be clear, I like that the MCU has been largely interconnected. While I get the criticism that this makes it “TV on the big screen”, it’s a unique form of storytelling that no one else has been able to nail down, and while the movies aren’t without their faults, I like the level of ambition and the reward of seeing characters interact with other characters from different universes. And I’m sure it’s going to be a blast to see Tony Stark sparring with Peter Quill when Infinity War comes along.
But the problem with crossovers is that they can become exhausted. Avengers: Infinity War is a two-part story and it’s jam-packed with characters. That means the writers are trying not only to service the overarching narrative—specifically, Thanos trying to acquire the Infinity Stones—but also every single character. I don’t know how you do a movie where the heroes from Captain America: Civil War and the lead characters from Thor: Ragnarok and the surviving characters from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 all get individual arcs, and maybe that’s not possible. Maybe in order to give Captain America more to do that means Hulk needs to take a backseat.
However it all clicks together, at the end of the day, it will have been a massive undertaking, and then the question becomes, “How do you top it?” Marvel head Kevin Feige has already indicated that what comes next, Phase 4, will be different than what comes before to the point where it may not even be right to call it “Phase 4.” And that makes sense. How do you top something that took 21 films and over ten years to come to fruition?
The best move is to break it all apart and follow the lead of Guardians of the Galaxy, a series that’s largely concerned with following its filmmaker’s attitude and focusing on the characters. While this may disappoint people who think that Marvel movies need to be building to subsequent chapters in every installment, I don’t see that as sustainable, especially after the Universe-shaking events of Infinity War and Avengers 4. The better move, it seems, would be to take the foot off the gas and try to be more like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.