Continuity, Endgame, and the future of the MCU


Since it’s been well over a week since Avengers: Endgame came out, I think it’s time for us to have a serious discussion and just what exactly the MCU’s future is going to look like. Because of this, there will be major spoilers for the events of Endgame and I feel like enough time has passed for us to talk about it, spoilers be damned. I can understand not wanting to talk about the movie in great detail after opening weekend, especially since most movie theaters sold out for opening weekend, meaning that plenty of people couldn’t see it immediately. Now after the second weekend, where it was probably much easier to snag a ticket, if you haven’t seen the movie yet and you still clicked on an article titled “Where Do We Go From Endgame,” I don’t know what to tell you. This is your final warning. 

In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past week, the Marvel Cinematic Universe just had a titanic victory lap around the planet for successfully creating a 22 film franchise that told one single, coherent story over 11 years. Nothing like this has ever been attempted in the history of cinema, much less succeeded, and fans are going ballistic over it. Regardless of whether or not Endgame was the best movie in the series or not, audiences have spoken with their wallets. Endgame grossed $1.2 billion in its first weekend and, realistically, is going the become the highest grossing movie of all time. At this point that isn’t even speculation, it’s an inevitability. 

So what happens next? Where does the MCU go from here?

This article can realistically go in one or two directions. I can take the easy way out and speculate on what storylines Marvel can adapt to film next and call it a day. 15 paragraphs later and we would come to the conclusion that Marvel would either adapt the original “Secret Wars” comic where essentially heroes and villains fought with and against each other for a divine being called the Beyonder, or they would adapt the 2015 version of the story where Doctor Doom became God Emperor Doom and rewrote reality because… well it’s Doctor Doom. That’s kind of what he does. But then what would we learn from that? We’d learn that Marvel has a pretty small catalogue of massive, reality changing events, but that’d probably be it. Instead, let’s get to the practicality of the MCU’s sustainability in the future. 

Does anyone remember Bleach? Back in the days when Shonen Jump printed monthly tomes for subscribers, Bleach was one of Jump’s biggest franchises. There was a time when Bleach, Naruto, and One Piece were considered “The Big Three” of manga. Bleach had a solid premise, a large and distinct cast of characters, and villains that you both loved to hate and hated to like. The manga spent 8 years and 48 volumes continuing its story until it reached its biggest climax; The Battle of Karakura Town arc. 

In this arc, main bad guy Sosuke Aizen and his forces, the Arrancars, were finally ready to wage war on the world for him to fulfill his ultimate goal; sacrifice everyone in Karakura Town so he can make a weapon to kill God. The Soul Society, the good guy grim reapers, all united, aided by various side characters and factions, to stop Aizen. Heroes and villains died, characters were able to complete their storylines, and the arc ended with an air of finality to it. Readers at the time, myself included, thought there was no way the series could continue from there. The final battle was brilliant and if the series was to end there, I don’t think there would have been any complaints from readers. Bleach would have gone down as one of the most consistently great manga series of all time, or at least one of the best in Jump’s history. 

Unfortunately, that did not happen. The series continued for 35 more volumes and five and a half years to dwindling readership. Ridiculous characters, plot points, and elements were introduced to try and inject life into the series and keep the wheels turning, but it didn’t work. It goes to show that the anime series based on Bleach ended shortly after the Karakura Town arc despite plenty of extra material left to adapt. No one cared anymore. It reached its climax but kept going, despite not realizing that it had no reason to continue, attempting to recapture that magic without understanding why it was magical in the first place.

I’m not saying that the same is going to happen to the MCU, but it’s hard not to draw comparisons after watching Endgame. For most of the characters, they’ve reached their endings. Black Widow is dead. Iron Man is dead. Captain America is now an old, retired man. Bruce Banner has finally accepted the Hulk. Hawkeye is training an apprentice according to the Disney+ pitch for his show. The only Avenger who is still active and can continue to have an arc is Thor, who’s going to be backpacking around with the Guardians of the Galaxy. But the majority of these characters are done. The torches have been passed and it’s time to move on, but is that really possible?

We just witnessed an event that we probably won’t be able to experience again for another decade. Endgame’s final battle was everything that a Marvel fan could have wanted, but when you set the bar so high everything is going to be a bit smaller in comparison. After Age of Ultron and Infinity War released, not even two months later we got two Ant-Man movies that were much smaller and simpler than those two massive crossover events. It was probably by design so that audiences could have a palate cleanser from the spectacle of it all, but now every movie is going to feel like a palette cleanser. Until the next massive crossover event, everything is going to feel smaller by comparison. That thrill from Endgame was lightning in a bottle that can’t be recreated unless you make another 22 movie saga. 

The MCU is going to have a much smaller scope from now on, either by design or from fatigue, but that isn’t going to be the biggest problem the series will be facing moving forward. The bane of all comic book companies will have to be addressed. Marvel will have to tackle its inevitable continuity problems. 

The reason why the MCU stood out as much as it did was that somehow, some way, it was able to connect 22 movies together to tell a single, grand story. Characters could appear in any movie and there would be a realistic explanation for why they were there. You could track characters and see how tiny details in one movie may become massive plot points in later ones. But the Infinity Saga, as it’s being called, told the story of the Avengers, Thanos, and the Infinity Stones. Now the next story will have to bear the weight of the past 22 movies. 

Whatever comes next will have to deal with the baggage from the past 11 years and keep all of that in check for future films. Now a new story needs to spring to life from the old stories while still remembering all of the character’s plots and motivations that may or may not have an impact on future stories. Whether you like it or not, the Five Year Gap will need to be explained and dealt with. It was a shocking moment when it first popped up, but now we live in a world where some characters lived through those five years. Some didn’t. But that’s now a part of the world’s history that will need to be kept in reverence going forward. Same with the time travel shenanigans. 

Just to see how complicated this can get, let’s examine Doctor Strange. He’s a character that still has an arc that can be explored and will most likely have a sequel in the next phase of Marvel movies. So if he gets that sequel, whoever directs the movie will have to keep these movies and plot points in mind to make a story that can continue his arc. They’ll have to understand the events of his original film, which goes without saying. They’ll also need to understand his role in both Infinity War as the bearer of the Time Stone and the person who saw millions of realities where his allies died. Then there’s the war at the end of Endgame that will need to be addressed, as well as Strange being snapped out of reality and reentering the world five years later. His acquaintanceship with Thor, Tony, Bruce, Peter, and the Guardians will need to be examined, especially the knowledge that he knew Tony was meant to die, and this is all provided he doesn’t appear in any other MCU movies before his sequel. All of that will be necessary to understanding and following Doctor Strange. One character. 

The MCU is repeating the same mistakes that Marvel made before when it tried to inject new readers in its comics. Marvel acknowledged that the continuity of its main universe was too complex and sprawling for newcomers to easily jump into, so Marvel decided to start from square one with a new universe; the Ultimate Universe. Marvel launched the Ultimate Universe in 2000 as a fresh jumping on point where you can start reading comics without having to deal with all of that pesky backstory. These are the same characters you know and love, but different versions of them! Versions that anyone can pick up and read because this universe just started! And it worked for a time. The Ultimate Universe had several great series in it, but as time went on it began to have the same problems as the main (Earth-616) universe. It became too complicated. New readers couldn’t enter it. It had a backstory now.

Old readers were leaving the Ultimate books since by now they were transitioning to the main universe stories. They had gotten into comics and could now follow along with the crazy continuity of the 616 universe. Old readers preferred reading the main universe books because those events actually mattered, while newer readers dropped the line because the quality of the books was suffering. The line was eventually shuttered in 2015 due to “Secret Wars” with the best aspects of the Ultimate Universe (Miles Morales) folded into the main universe so their adventures could continue there. The ease and accessibility of the Ultimate Universe, at the end of the day, failed. 

Look at this graphic above. This is a comprehensive flowchart to understanding the connections between every MCU movie, TV show, and spin-off, no matter how big or how small it is. This is, quite literally, a map of the MCU. Can a newcomer possibly understand what the hell this means? Can casual Marvel fans comprehend it? I’m sure that hardcore MCU fans that have seen every piece of media from the franchise can probably follow along with this, but appealing solely to hardcore fans is not the best way to keep a franchise going. If you want someone to understand the MCU going forward, this is what people are going to need to learn to fully enjoy it. Whatever new sequels come out, all of this is going to be a weight that new viewers, like it or not, will HAVE to deal with.

And that’s not even dealing with the recent bombshell announcement that Spider-Man: Far From Home will apparently introduce the Marvel Multiverse into the mix. Mysterio claims to come from another universe and The Snap caused the space time continuum to tear itself apart, allowing beings from parallel universes to seep through and enter our universe. Plus with the rumors that the Loki TV show will deal with the alternate version of the character who escaped in Endgame, we may have to deal with multiple stories being told across several different timelines and universes that will almost certainly require an even more complex chart to keep track of everything. 

It’s almost impossible to say with a straight face that this is good for long term sustainability. When there’s this much history, newcomers may be put off by all of the backstory that will become mandatory for full enjoyment. Until now, the MCU kept all of its main plots and important moments to the movies. Yes, there have been plenty of Marvel TV shows, specifically the criminally underrated Agent Carter and the litany of Marvel/Netflix shows, but they were never required viewing. They existed in a tiny, non-essential corner of the MCU that could do its own thing and not have to worry about impacting the movies. We never had to deal with Danny Rand polluting Infinity War with his whining because there was a clear divide between Marvel TV and Marvel Movies. 

Cue Disney+.

When Disney showed off its streaming service, some of the first original programming that was announced for it were shows based off of the MCU. Unlike the previous TV shows, which were all based on tertiary characters, these shows are going to be based on characters that either were or are important characters in the franchise. Some of these shows will probably be just for shits and giggles, since I don’t know how a TV show about a past/parallel version of Loki can impact a post Endgame world, but a good amount of these shows are clearly going to become required viewings. There’s going to be a show dedicated to Falcon/Captain America and the Winter Solider. Hawkeye is going to take on an apprentice that may be his daughter. These shows WILL impact the MCU going forward, so you better be subscribed to Disney+ when these shows drop or you’ll be left out of the loop!

Disney is going to diversify the MCU into multiple different locations, but that means you’ll need to be aware of every little detail in the MCU going forward and where to find them. For longtime fans, that may not be a big problem, but for non-fans, casuals, newcomers, or people that can’t afford Disney+, that’s going to be a problem. Before, you could realistically follow the events of the MCU for $12 every couple of months. Now that price will balloon and the franchise will become more of a money sink. Endgame proved that fans will loose their shit over little fan-service moments, myself included, so why wouldn’t Disney and Marvel try to replicate that success again with different callbacks?

The MCU will continue. That’s not even a question. The MCU is quickly becoming one of the highest grossing media franchises of all time. It’s at no risk of bombing, but unless Disney and Marvel can address the long term concerns of franchise fatigue and continuity management, the franchise will end sooner rather than later. And can we at least accept the fact that the MCU no matter what will end, right? Eventually the money will dry up and people will stop going to see these movies. My question is will people stop seeing them because they become cash grabs that have lost the magic that made the Infinity Saga so special, or because the continuity of the series causes it to implode on itself? I honestly don’t know.

You know, while I was writing this, I kept thinking back to the Lord of the Rings trilogy. It was a trilogy that was unprecedented for its time and is still regarded as being one of the greatest trilogies of all time. Peter Jackson was able to make the movies that he wanted to make, and cinema was never the same. Instead of ending it right there, Warner Bros. saw a hit and wanted more. They made The Hobbit movies, which cheapened the original trilogy. Sure, they made money, but not without a lot of backlash from fans. It continued because it needed to continue. 

You can say that thing about most modern Hollywood franchises. They’re too big to stop. You can’t just stop Star Wars. It’s Star Wars. Massive franchises like Harry Potter needed to continue not because they should have, but because they could. Hence, Fantastic Beasts. The MCU will continue because it has to continue. It’s story has ended, but it’s going to keep going whether we like it or not. I don’t know what lies in store, but I hope that my fears can be sated and Marvel knows what it’s doing. 

Jesse Lab
The strange one. The one born and raised in New Jersey. The one who raves about anime. The one who will go to bat for DC Comics, animation, and every kind of dog. The one who is more than a tad bit odd. The Features Editor.