The Marvel
Cinematic Universe
A CultureMap®
by Nat Bennett
Published on 7/10/13

Updating time-tested plots and filling the screen with box-office stars and charismatic newcomers, Marvel Studios’ series of superhero films—the Iron Man trilogy, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, Captain America and The Avengers—transfers the interconnected stories of the comic-book Marvel Universe into a new arena: the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As it charts the timeless “hero’s journey,” it also confronts a challenge central to any Hollywood production: controlling powerful personalities, on-screen and off.

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The Avengers  (Joss Whedon (dir.) | film | 2012)
to  The Iron Man Trilogy  (film series | 2008, 2010, 2013)

The Avengers, the blockbuster film from seminal comic-book publisher turned media empire Marvel Entertainment, depicts the origin of the eponymous supergroup, a rotating roster of superheroes that includes Captain America (played by Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.). Directed by Joss Whedon (TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer), The Avengers is anchored by the character that made Iron Man a winner: Downey’s irreverent, arrogant, charismatic Tony Stark. The playboy and genius inventor has made billions as a weapons manufacturer, and to repent for causing worldwide suffering he dons a powerful armored suit to become the crime-fighting Iron Man.

Without the wild success of the first two Iron Man movies, directed by Jon Favreau (Swingers, Elf), The Avengers may never have been made. Each Iron Man film raked in more than $300 million in the U.S. and even more overseas; the series had grossed more than a billion dollars by the time audiences filled theaters for the third installment, in 2013. The Incredible Hulk (2008) was a flop, but the Iron Man films made newly independent Marvel Studios an industry powerhouse that united many beloved story lines in The Avengers.

The Iron Man Trilogy  (film series | 2008, 2010, 2013)
to  Samuel L. Jackson  (b. 1948 | American actor)

Many Marvel Comics movie franchises, notably X-Men (2000, 2003, 2006, 2011) and Spider-Man (2002, 2004, 2007, 2012), have earned millions of fans and tremendous box-office success. But until 2008’s Iron Man, Marvel’s film division had turned over production responsibilities to other studios. Each film and series was independent—unlike the original comics, whose story arcs overlap across many titles in the so-called Marvel Universe, the semifictional world where most of the tales take place. The first hint that Marvel’s self-produced films would interconnect comes after the credits of Iron Man, when Robert Downey Jr., playing the title character, encounters Samuel L. Jackson, who thrills hard-core comics fans simply by introducing himself as Nick Fury.

In print, Fury heads S.H.I.E.L.D. (originally, Supreme Headquarters International Espionage Law-Enforcement Division; since 1991, Strategic Hazard Intervention Espionage Logistics Directorate), “an extra-government intelligence and security organization dedicated to protecting the nations and peoples of Earth from all threats, terrestrial or extraterrestrial,” according to Marvel’s website. Star of the comic Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., this eye-patch-wearing soldier turned superspy also appears in other heroes’ adventures. Originally Caucasian, the updated Fury is African American, drawn in the newer books as nearly identical to Jackson.

The Iron Man Trilogy  (film series | 2008, 2010, 2013)
to  Thor  (Kenneth Branagh (dir.) | film | 2011)

A post-credits scene (now a Marvel Studios convention) in Iron Man 2 shows Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), an agent of superspy group S.H.I.E.L.D., telephoning his boss, Nick Fury. Something has been found in the desert: the war hammer Mjolnir, belonging to Thor, Marvel’s incarnation of the Norse thunder god, who falls to earth from the divine realm of Asgard. According to Marvel’s website, Mjolnir “can summon the elements wind, rain, thunder and lightning…. It is able to open interdimensional portals, such as the one to Asgard.” Thor depicts the hubristic hero’s quest to regain his weapon and earn his rightful place on Asgard’s throne.

As the impetus for this scene, Mjolnir handily opens a portal in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, explicitly linking Iron Man 2 to Thor, in which Coulson is a second link, interrogating the thunder god and arranging his membership in the Avengers. Fans are pleased that Gregg will reprise his Coulson role in the TV series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., developed and cowritten by Avengers director Joss Whedon and set to premiere on ABC in fall 2013. No official word yet on whether Samuel L. Jackson will make any cameos as Nick Fury.

Chris Evans  (b. 1981 | American actor)
to  Thor  (Kenneth Branagh (dir.) | film | 2011)

Which slice of blond beefcake named Chris would you trust to save the world—Australian actor Chris Hemsworth (Star Trek, Red Dawn), who plays the thunder god Thor, or American Chris Evans, who brings Captain America to life? Before The Avengers hit theaters, audiences had to choose between the otherworldly warrior who learns patience and honor and the mid-century weakling who is transformed and transported through time to save his nation. Now both blonds (plus assorted friends and rivals) are needed to save the earth.

Each hunky superhero offers a version of what comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell, in his book The Hero With a Thousand Faces, called the monomyth, the hero’s journey, a mythic narrative shared across cultures. The hero begins in the ordinary world, travels to a special one and returns with something helpful for humankind. The action in Thor shifts between Thor’s native land of Asgard and the American Southwest. A military experiment gives Captain America superpowers, and he tests his new abilities on World War II battlefields before returning ready to lead the Avengers. Thor helps us understand the burden of responsibility, while Captain America implies we should sacrifice ourselves for our country.

The Iron Man Trilogy  (film series | 2008, 2010, 2013)
to  Chris Evans  (b. 1981 | American actor)

“I’ll clown all of them. I’ll just clown those fools,” Robert Downey Jr. responded when asked in 2010 about his Iron Man character being bossed around by his rival Captain America in The Avengers. In the comics, Captain America is called the “inspirational cornerstone of the Avengers.” Downey’s wisecracking Tony Stark, cool under even tectonic pressure, provides comic relief in The Avengers, but which rival wins is unclear. As Evans suggested in a 2011 interview, it’s fun to see the characters at cross-purposes: “One guy is flash and spotlight and smooth, and the other guy is selfless and in the shadows and kind of quiet…and they have to get along.” In the face of destruction, the two join forces, exploiting each other’s strengths. Evans calls Captain America “a fish out of water, a man not in his time, and he’s just coming to terms with the way the world is now and how it’s changed since the 1940s.” The fish out of water description also applies to every Avenger, since the team comprises heroes who are accustomed to fighting evil solo. In the comics, not all of them can handle the pressure of working cooperatively—hence the series’s hallmark rotating roster.

The Avengers  (Joss Whedon (dir.) | film | 2012)
to  Thor  (Kenneth Branagh (dir.) | film | 2011)

Explaining the appeal of directing a comic-book movie, Oscar-nominated Kenneth Branagh (Henry V, Hamlet) recalled his childhood surprise at seeing a Thor issue: “this vibrant image…of this kind of tree trunk of a guy who looked like he was carved out of granite…, a primitive, epic man.” Branagh’s Thor introduces moviegoers to the mythological end of the Marvel Universe with the title character and the trickster villain Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who returns to battle Thor and his supercomrades in The Avengers. In the same interview, Branagh discussed the need to balance the mythical Norse realm of Asgard, where much of Thor takes place, with contemporary Earth: “Everything had to be lightly done, like a recipe for something; [the worlds] had to be in perfect harmony.”

Avengers director Joss Whedon had to strike the same sort of balance with even more moving parts. Asked in a 2010 interview about competing narrative interests and star personalities, Whedon noted, “In a way it’s tough and in a way it’s the easiest thing in the world, because that’s what the movie is about. These people don’t belong together. There’s friction. There’s tension. There’s drama. Oh wait, I need that for my storytelling so it’s perfect.”

The Avengers  (Joss Whedon (dir.) | film | 2012)
to  Samuel L. Jackson  (b. 1948 | American actor)

Samuel L. Jackson’s larger role in The Avengers marked a turning point for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As the leader of S.H.I.E.L.D. (within the Cinematic Universe, the acronym stands for Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division), his character, Nick Fury, assembles the superpowered Avengers, managing their competing personalities and agendas to save the world from chaos. Now even more Marvel spin-offs can be launched: Avengers sets the stage for adventures starring Jackson, including Nick Fury, announced for 2014, and for expanding the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is based on characters created by writer Stan Lee (b. 1922) and artist and writer Jack Kirby (1917–1994).

Lee and Kirby collaborated in the 1960s to create the Fantastic Four, the X-Men and the Avengers, along with a host of other popular superheroes, such as Spider-Man, Thor and Daredevil, produced with input from other artists.

The Lee-Kirby team split when Kirby decided he wasn’t receiving proper credit for his work. He jumped to the rival DC Comics in 1970 but, like many of the lapsed Avengers, rejoined Marvel a few years later. Perhaps the enduring popularity of the Avengers is rooted in their realistic portrayal of the triumphs and tribulations of collaboration.