There's a moment at the beginning of Iron Man 3, Marvel Studio's latest attempt at world domination, where Robert Downey Jr's Tony Stark is suffering from some major PTSD akin to an Iraqi war veteran or a child who survived corporal punishment in Catholic school. What is causing him sleepless nights and panic attacks? We're given some vague answers about "what happened in New York" and a "wormhole," but never, once, does anyone utter what really happened to the character since the last time we've seen him: The Avengers.
In that movie – which combined the comic-book-company-come-movie-studio's Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, and The Incredible Hulk, into one superteam – Tony Stark et al were faced with a bunch of aliens that flew in through a wormhole and attacked New York City. So even if viewers had seen the first two Iron Man movies, but not The Avengers, they would have no idea what the heck Tony Stark was whining about. Houston, we may have a problem here.
When it launched its "Avengers Initiative," Marvel took a revolutionary approach to movie making. The company wasn't creating a franchise that was a litany of unrelated blockbusters (think the never-ending James Bond films). It consciously made the choice to make interrelated movies that would build up to a bigger whole. The result was last summer's geek holiday The Avengers, the third highest-grossing movie of all time and the fastest to make it past the $1 billion mark at the box office.
This strategy makes sense for a comic book studio because the business model totally apes the way that Comic-Con denizens have interacted with these characters for decades. Nearly every one of the Avengers has his own comic book (sadly, there aren't many "hers") and they all get together in several different titles about the team as a whole. The roster is constantly changing and evolving as the mythology and the characters get more and more complex. So far, taking this approach to Hollywood seems to be working in Marvel's favor. At least for now.
"I think one of the most interesting things about Marvel's foray into making their own films is there is this shared universe that fans are excited about and there is nothing like that in movies before," says Sean Howe the author of Marvel Comics: The Untold Story. "I think it's really exciting to watch non-comic readers see what this huge fictional tapestry is." But what happens when viewers come late to that tapestry? They don't see a work of art, they see a bunch of jumbled pictures that don't seem to quite fit together or make sense on their own.
Non-comic readers aren't used to consuming their content in the same way as fans. The more complicated the interconnections between these movies get, the more difficult it is for new viewers to hop in and check out any old movie. "I'd be less likely to see a sequel if I knew that seeing the previous movies would drastically affect my enjoyment of the future movies," says Corey O'Connell, a 25-year-old, who lives in New York and hasn't seen any of Marvel's previous movies. "To me, a great adaptation appeals to both 'knowing' and 'unknowing' audiences who are both familiar and unfamiliar with the source material, and I'm turned off by the idea that I need to see previous films to enjoy a current one."
Most of the dozen Avengers virgins I talked to said that they would be unlikely to see any of the future movies (Iron Man 3 is just the kick off to Marvel's phase 2 which includes Thor and Captain America sequels as well as new movies for Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man, which culminates in Avengers 2 in 2015). Those who didn't care whether or not they had seen the previous movies were the ones who didn't seem to care about or connect to comic book fare in general.
"I don't think there's anything that could make me actually want to see a Marvel movie, honestly," says Amanda Dye, a 27-year-old grad student in New York. "If I for some reason did decide to go to see one, I probably wouldn't care too much about not having seen the previous movies."
But as the universe gets more and more complicated, the road to alienation could be pretty quick. "If I felt I had to see the previous movies – I don't know that I would see the current one simply due to time investment. If they could stand alone then I would be more interested," says Laura James, a 44-year-old corporate trainer from L.A.
Many uninitiated Marvelites had faith that the producers and directors of the studio's fare wouldn't create a movie that would be too complicated for anyone to just jump on in like watching one episode of Law & Order: SVU during a day-long marathon. "I imagine the directors/producers would make a movie anyone can just jump into," says Parker McGuire, a 25-year-old musician in Nashville (the city, not the ABC show). "[If they didn't], it'd be a major letdown. I would basically be my mom watching any TV show/movie having to ask a million questions to whoever I saw it with. Also, I feel like it'd be 'giving them what they want' if I paid money to rent or order the first movie after seeing the sequel, therefore I wouldn't."
Even Marvel expert Howe admits that, in the '90s, Marvel's comics got so convoluted that they became inaccessible to outsiders. "That's the trade off with such a rich narrative that just keeps going on and on, the trade off is that there is no simple way of summarizing that for new audiences," Howe says. If that were to happen to the movies, which have budgets as big as the Hulk's underwear, there's potential for the audience erosion, putting Marvel on a slow path to bankruptcy with no way to goose its numbers.
Is that the destiny of the movies, to get overly complicated? Some think it has already happened. Alex Erikson, a 25-year-old writer in New York admits to having fallen asleep during The Avengers. "I actually had seen all of the Iron Man movies at that point, and ended up seeing Captain America (which I enjoyed much more than The Avengers) after the fact. I hadn't seen the others, but was with some pretty devout nerds who had brought me up to speed as to the basic details I needed, or so I thought," he says, adding that the confusing nature of the plot was like taking an Ambien. "There was so much going on that wasn't explained, or you had to be super-familiar with the back stories to understand the nuance of, that I succumbed [and fell asleep]."
By doubling down on continuing this interconnected universe, Marvel doesn't seem to care that much about attracting new fans (but with such a huge hit on their hands, they hardly need more people to be interested in their offerings). Howe, for one, is excited to see where all this leads because he thinks that getting audiences familiar with characters will breed better storylines and more audience involvement in the outcome. These days studios will reboot a franchise faster than Lindsay Lohan will change rehab facilities, so seeing a property continue on for the better part of a decade is new and fertile ground. But even that has its pitfalls; RDJ is almost too long in the tooth to play Iron Man and even Chris Hemsworth might need to be recast for Thor 6 in 2027.
Howe also makes a very good point that audiences these days are more accustomed to catching up on pop culture to stay with the times. "There are a lot of people who watch Game of Thrones every week. For 10 years people have gotten really accostumed to going all in for TV shows and to ask people to watch five other movies to find out what's going on wouldn't be too demanding," he says.
Those who said that having to know all the movies would deter them from seeing Avengers 2 also said that there are other factors that might still lure them to the cineplex. In most instances they credited the writers and directors – like Joss Whedon and Kenneth Branagh, which Marvel already employs – as the big draw. "I make superhero exceptions for Batman because I grew up with the Tim Burton ones and I like Chris Nolan. So if Matthew Weiner [who created Mad Men] wanted to do a Superman with Jon Hamm I might check it out," says Abby Davis, a 28-year-old Manhattanite who works in high education.
Taking all these things into consideration, no matter how big the Marvel Universe gets on screen, there will still be plenty of fans who are dying to spend even more time with there favorite characters in a dark theater. And if having to know the backstory of 27 different super powered aliens keeps hordes away from the theater, there is one sure-fire way to get the uninitiated to buy a ticket. Everyone I polled said they'd go see a movie if their significant other asked. Guess there is one thing more powerful than Thor — or knowing what is going on in a damn action movie.