The best, most memorable television shows of television’s the golden era have all relied on long term serialization. While shows like Breaking Bad and Lost leave you desperately needing to see what happens next without delay, dramas like Mad Men and Game of Thrones, tell long arcing stories about complex characters, offer immersive experiences that make your participation in the story just as important as the characters. Ultimately, the process rewards viewers with emotional moments often earned through years of storytelling. With a keen eye turned toward TV, Marvel adapted this idea for the MCU, and the studio’s commitment to serialization is a big reason for their success.
Of course, serialization isn’t the only effective method of franchise storytelling. We wouldn’t be on the verge of a 25th James Bond movie or an 800th season of Law & Order if procedurals didn’t have their own benefits and appeal. But a serialized show demands you take every step of a journey with the story and its characters. In the final season of Mad Men a simple fast food dinner between Don, Peggy, and Pete carried the emotional weight of a semi-truck running your heart over. Viewers had lived with them through their best and worst for so long, that just seeing them be happy together, eating some burgers and fries, was powerful enough to feel like a series-ending moment.
Not all–in fact few–serialized shows will ever achieve that type of scene, but it’s something that is only possible when you’ve brought your audience on a long-lasting journey. That’s what Marvel has asked their fans to do for the last ten years, from the first time we met arms-dealer Tony Stark in 2008. Now he is one of Earth’s greatest heroes even as he is still unsure about how best to serve the world and the people he loves.
Though Marvel characters get their own movies, and we might not see others for years, all their stories are intertwined, always working back towards–and with–one another. Eighteen movies over ten years might sound like a lot of films, especially compared to a TV show with ten hours of story every season, but that’s an eternity in a movie franchise, something Marvel could have easily been tempted to rush.
But they have invested and stayed committed to their grand plan. That’s why fans are devastated merely about the possibility Captain America or Iron Man could die in Infinity War, while Superman’s death in BvS felt empty. Warner Bros. didn’t put in the work to make us invested in their world and its people, while Marvel has made it impossible not to be in theirs. If you want to fully appreciate any one movie in the MCU you need to watch them all, but you are greatly rewarded for doing so. It took ten years of commitment to get to Infinity War, which will be the end for many of these characters we love. It will be devastating, and that is a feat.
That emotional attachment to these characters, which in turn binds us with these movies and the Marvel Cinematic Universe itself, wouldn’t have worked if the movies weren’t all an ongoing, serialized narrative. Even when the movies diverge from the main storyline, almost like a procedural, they always find ways to connect themselves to the larger world. Hank Pym in Ant-Man hated Howard Stark, which connects him to the bigger story, and that helps us connect to him. Sometimes those connections are as simple as a comment, or an end credits scene, or a minor figure in one movie play an unexpected role in another (think Martin Freeman in Black Panther), but even the smallest connections reward active viewers for engaging with the story over time.
Sometimes, the smallest tie-ins become our favorite moments later because their true payoff could only be appreciated in retrospect. The Incredible Hulk will probably never be anyone’s favorite movie in the MCU, but it is full of incredible moments, including the end credits scene when Tony Stark meets William Hurt’s General Ross glumly drinking alone at a bar. Tony says, “I hate to say I told you so general, but that super soldier program was put on ice for a reason. I’ve always felt hardware was much more reliable.” It’s brilliant in every way, and works better on a re-watch after we’ve seen Captain America: The First Avenger than it did originally. (Remember, not everyone watching these movies knows the comics intimately, but those fans likely experienced that same feeling the first time they heard that line anyway so it all balances out).
That’s how this big screen serialization technique has also managed to build nostalgia for itself. We knew Tony before he was Iron Man, Steve Rogers before he was super, Thor before he was savvy, and the Guardians of the Galaxy before they were heroes. Our history with them is so long we can look back fondly at where they came from, even though we were there for it. A decade is a long time. Think back to who you were in 2008, and you’ll realize you’ve changed just like Tony Stark, Thor, and Loki have. The MCU has been a journey for them, but it has also been for us, and the movies are fully aware of the their own nostalgia that they’ve created in a short span of time.
Television has reached unprecedented heights over the last ten to 20 years, with shows often being praised for capturing the best qualities of novels, for their depth, dynamic characters, and commitment to telling long form stories. Marvel has taken the best aspects of those shows and proven a big movie franchise, one that encompasses countless characters and plots, can do the same. Even as competitors have struggled with important aspects like continuity (Fox’s X-Men), or making us care about their characters (the DCEU), Marvel has paved the way. It’s taken ten years to get to Infinity War, and it has been a process that required patience and planning from Marvel, but that’s why the battle with Thanos will mean so much.
What do you think? How has Marvel used serialization? What lessons should other studios take from it? Bare your soul (stone) in the comments below.