When the Marvel Cinematic Universe was launched in 2008, who could possibly have foreseen that it would lead to the Golden Age of superhero movies? Once, superhero films were dismissed as genre movies that were aimed purely at comic book geeks. Nowadays, they're the biggest blockbuster hits in Hollywood.
The problem is, as studios scramble to compete in an increasingly busy market, mistakes are starting to creep in. Most noticeable is a fundamental error in terms of world-building, and it's one that risks undermining several key franchises.
Note: this article contains heavy spoilers for Thor: Ragnarok and Justice League.
What Is World-Building?
World-building is the lifeblood of storytelling. It's the process of creating a fictional universe that surrounds a character, a 'world' that they inhabit. Crucially, this world needs to be populated by secondary characters who exist in their own right. Probably the two most well-developed comic book worlds are those inhabited by Batman and Spider-Man. Let's face it, Batman's Commissioner Gordon is so well-realized a character that a version of him essentially stars in Fox's Gotham series. Various Robins have moved on to become well-respected heroes. The Dark Knight's rogues' gallery is so rich and well-developed that Suicide Squad was able to plunder it for team members.
The point is that Batman exists in a context, a well-developed world that is every bit as real as the character himself. The same is true of all the most important superheroes. There's a reason Spider-Man keeps circling back to the Daily Bugle, for example. What's more, the web-slinger's villains are so fully formed that Sony believe they have a chance to make movies out of characters like Venom, Silver Sable, the Black Cat, and Morbius. These characters don't just exist in reference to Spider-Man. As the decades have passed, they've become three-dimensional characters in their own right.
Cast your eyes to the comics, and realistically it's the quality of world-building that will determine a book's fate. A skilled writer doesn't just create a superhero, and doesn't just tell the stories of that hero. They create a superhero and a world in which they operate, and explore the way in which the hero interacts with their environment. When the world isn't well-developed, the comic eventually fails.
Marvel's Troubled History
Historically, the best and most loved Marvel movies have displayed strong world-building. The ultimate example is in Sam Raimi's beloved Spider-Man trilogy. There's a reason Spider-Man 2 is generally seen as one of the best superhero films to date; almost every supporting character is fleshed out, and the film's villain — Alfred Molina's Doctor Octopus — is as three-dimensional a character as the hero. Ideas and concepts from the first film are built upon, most notably Peter's relationship with Mary-Jane and Aunt May, and the world continues to grow.
The MCU hasn't been as effective when it comes to world-building. Secondary characters have tended to exist purely for the impact they have on the heroes. That's why Marvel villains have traditionally been distorted mirror-images of the heroes. So Iron Man takes on a businessman in armor, Thor's enemies are Asgardian gods, and Doctor Strange fights a rogue student of the Ancient One. The bulk of Marvel's villains have been sadly forgettable, existing only to exert an impact on the hero's arc.
The same, unfortunately, is true of the rest of the supporting cast. Gwyneth Paltrow's Pepper Potts seemingly disappeared from the MCU after Iron Man 3, with throwaway dialogue suggesting she'd broken up with Tony Stark in Captain America: Civil War. Perhaps in light of fan complaints, Marvel relented, and brought Paltrow back for Spider-Man: Homecoming. The problem's been even worse for Liv Tyler's Betty Ross, the Hulk's forgotten love interest, while Natalie Portman's Jane Foster has essentially been written out of the MCU. The fact Marvel felt they could remove Thor's primary love interest for two whole movies without a second thought indicates just how little Marvel feel these secondary characters have mattered.
The DC Extended Universe
Sadly, the DCEU is making the same mistakes. So far only three characters in the DCEU have seen their worlds developed at all; Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman.
But even these three superheroes stand relatively isolated. For Superman, two successive movies have essentially only fleshed out Martha Kent and Lois Lane as secondary characters. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice subverted our expectations with a very different version of Jimmy Olsen, a character who was swiftly killed off, but this effectively meant we couldn't depend on our familiarity with the classic stories for the other Daily Planet characters. Superman's 'world,' the Daily Planet at which he worked, was flat and he barely spent any time there. As a result, when Justice League attempts to give a sense of the emotion surrounding Superman's resurrection, it shows him reunited with Lois and his mother. We have no sense that anybody else cares a jot that Clark Kent is back from the dead.
Or take Batman. Until Justice League, the DCEU itself had done little to flesh out the Dark Knight's world. We knew he'd been the Batman for decades, and had lost a Robin, but the only supporting character we really got to know in Batman v Superman was Jeremy Irons's Alfred. Ironically, it's Suicide Squad that gives us more of a sense of Batman's world, lifting characters liberally from the Caped Crusader's rogues' gallery. Say what you will about Justice League, it at least extends #Batman's world, giving a stronger sense of his relationship with the GCPD.
Curiously enough, even Patty Jenkins's Wonder Woman isn't immune to this criticism. The world of Themyscira is wonderfully detailed, and the quality of the film's world-building there is fantastic. But the plot takes Diana out of Themyscira, meaning that world should only ever be tangential to the future narrative arcs of the DCEU. The sequel will jump forward in time to the Cold War, ditching the World War I era and the world Jenkins had built around the Amazonian princess. Wonder Woman II will have to build a new world from scratch and introduce us to an entirely new set of secondary characters.
This lack of world-building is one of the most significant issues for #JusticeLeague. The film's first half leaps all over the world, from Themyscira to Atlantis, and has to introduce so many new concepts and ideas. At times this results in a staggering amount of exposition, most notably in Mera's conversation with Aquaman. Had the DCEU to date done a better job of developing its characters' worlds, this first segment could have played out very differently.
The Concerning Case Of 'Thor: Ragnarok'
As successful as Taika Waititi's Thor: Ragnarok may be, it presents probably the most disturbing case of all. The film is a tremendous superhero comedy, but it perfectly illustrates just how little Marvel care about the worlds they've built around their heroes. Waititi felt under no obligation to use the elements of Thor's cinematic world that had already been established in previous Thor films. Jane Foster is dismissed in a casual manner, meaning the rest of the human cast are forgotten too. Key parts of Thor's world, his childhood friends the Warriors Three, are slaughtered without a second thought, and never even mourned. Lady Sif doesn't even appear, and nobody seems to notice. The film effectively dismisses everything we've known about the franchise to date.
Instead, Waititi substitutes the world that already existed for one of his own making, largely derived from the classic "Planet Hulk" arc. Sakaar, Korg, Miek, and Valkyrie — they are Thor's new world. Now, you can argue that the world Waititi has created is better than the one that preceded it. Whatever your opinion may be though, the point remains that Marvel considered the world in which Thor operated to be one that could be cast aside with ease. That suggests, either that they felt they'd spent two films building the world around Thor badly, or they don't view the worlds in which characters operate as important at all.
The Stories Aren't Just About The Heroes
Both Marvel and DC are in danger of forgetting that their best superheroes shouldn't live in a vacuum. As any comic book fan will know, it is the world in which the hero operates that really makes them stand out. Curiously enough, this is a lesson the TV series have taken to heart. Daredevil Season 2 established the supporting character of the Punisher so effectively that Marvel and Netflix agreed to make a spin-off series starring the character. Meanwhile, no secondary characters in the #MCU movies have been considered strong enough to launch a spin-off film.
This article has been highly critical, challenging the current range of superhero films to recognize the importance of world-building. But this isn't criticism just for the sake of being critical. Rather, it's because any comic book fan knows that the worlds these heroes inhabit are rich in wonder and intrigue. #Superman's world has been built up and developed since the '40s, shaped and transformed through countless mediums. Perry White, for example, was created by the radio series! Likewise, over the course of decades, #SpiderMan's world has become fully fleshed-out enough for his secondary characters to become heroes in their own right. Flash Thompson became Agent Venom for quite a while, for example, and Cindy Moon is the superhero known as Silk.
The point is that both #Marvel and #DC can do better, and indeed we should expect better from them. The greatest heroes of Marvel and DC comics exist in well-developed worlds, with rich rogues' galleries and supporting characters who can take on a life of their own. It's time for the films themselves to follow suit, and build cinematic worlds that are every bit as well-developed.
How do you think the heroes' worlds can develop going forward? Let me know in the comments!