The Marvel Cinematic Universe: a realistic fictional world
With 28 movies currently out and one release coming up in July, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is the highest-grossing franchise worldwide at the moment (The Numbers, n.d.). The MCU (also known as Earth-199999) is a universe created by Marvel Studios, in which several movies are set, comparable to the shared universe in the Marvel comics the movies are mainly based on. A few short films (Marvel One-Shots) and television series (starting with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) also take place within this same universe (Marvel Cinematic Universe Wiki, n.d.).
Many of the Marvel movies (partially) take place on Earth (also known as Midgard, Terra, or Planet C-53 in the stories), so audiences are often treated to a fictionalized version of, for example, New York City that features superheroes.
In this article, I will focus on the way in which Marvel Studios has constructed a fictional universe that remains realistic in its own terms, and evokes genuine emotional responses by the viewers. In doing so, I will apply different strands of literature to the case study, while focusing mainly on the use of reality effects and real-life references, the paradox of genuine emotional responses to fictional characters and narrative structure, and the aspects of continuity within these characters.
Since focusing on all 28 movies within the MCU would be too broad for this paper, I will focus on the four cross-over Avengers movies: The Avengers (2012), Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), Avengers: Infinity War (2018), and Avengers: Endgame (2019). These movies contain various superheroes from different movies that all take place within the MCU.
Reality effects: earthly details in the MCU
“Realistic literature is narrative, of course, but that is because its realism is only fragmentary, erratic, confined to "details," and because the most realistic narrative imaginable develops along unrealistic lines” (Barthes, 1986). As Barthes explains in his book The Rustle of Language (1986), small details that seem insignificant at first can signify verisimilitude ("the real"). They do nothing more than – as he puts it – saying “nothing but this: we are the real” (Barthes, 1986). He thus concludes that by using all these small details that seem insignificant at first, we produce the "reality effect" in a narrative; the idea that something is real.
The battle in New York in the first Avengers movie is not entirely outside the sphere of the expected and "the real" for humans in the MCU: they know superheores exist and they engage in battles.
When taking a look at our case, an unrealistic narrative on superheroes, we see that this narrative is still somehow realistic within its own universe. Within the MCU, humans believe in superheroes since to them their existence is known and normal. For example, the battle in New York in the first Avengers movie is not entirely outside the sphere of the expected and "the real" for humans in the MCU: they know superheores exist and they engage in battles.
When watching the movie, the viewer approaches events like superheroes' battles from the perspective of a human in the MCU as they are immersed in the experience. By including details that are so specific to real life – such as a Lion King poster appearing during the battle in New York in the first Avengers, eating shawarma in the end credits scene of that same movie, or using iconic city sites such as the Chrysler Building and Central Park in New York City – the construction of the MCU makes it easy for the viewer to perceive the events in the movie as "the real" leading to the creation of the reality effect. The verisimilitude is created by the fact that the reality within the MCU is a lot like like reality but altered.
There is one point in the aforementioned New York battle from the first Avengers movie that focuses on the discrepancy between what is realistic within the confines of the MCU and what is in fact real. Stan Lee, one of the creators of Marvel comics, has been known to make a small appearance in every movie, which sometimes goes unnoticed by non-diehard Marvel fans.
In the first Avengers movie, Stan Lee appears saying: “Superheroes in New York? Give me a break”. This line breaks the consistency found in the MCU whereby humans in the movies are used to superheroes; Stan Lee appears to react not as a fictional human of this universe, but as a regular person. In fact, it can be said that Stan Lee makes cameos as himself, completely un-fictionalized as far as his beliefs as a character are concerned. This discrepancy could be organized by the directors purposely, in order to emphasize the internal realistic consistency of the MCU that Stan Lee breaks, or it could be just for comedic purposes.
Since all four of the Avengers movies are set on Earth, this gives the creators enough opportunities to create a stage that viewers will connect with. In the movies, different cities around the world are visited. Examples include the scenes of Wanda Maximoff and Vision in Edinburgh, Scotland in Avengers: Infinity War, the fight between the Hulk and Iron Man that takes place in Johannesburg, South Africa in Avengers: Age of Ultron, or the scenes in Tokyo featuring Hawkeye in Avengers: Endgame.
Another way that they create this stage is by using carefully-placed appearances of famous brands. Examples are Dr Banner wearing Beats Electronics headphones in Avengers: Age of Ultron as well as the usage of Samsung technology in the same movie, or the use of only Audi cars with the logo clearly visible in Avengers: Endgame. All of this creates a sense of palpable realism for the viewers to connect with: these characters truly appear as being on Earth.
The centrality of character: the paradox of fiction and credible narratives
In order to follow a fictional narrative, the viewer needs a character that guides them through the story and that they can care about. As Craig Batty (2014) puts it: “Characters are used to populate a narrative and make it feel credible, as well as to guide us through the narrative so as to elicit meaning.” However, the viewer needs to be able to feel genuine emotions in connection with the narrative for it to "feel credible". This is where the paradox of fiction comes in.
The paradox of fiction is a philosophical debate on whether it is possible to feel genuine emotions towards a character or event that we know is clearly fictional (Young, 2010). The paradox stems from the observation that, in such circumstances, there are three premises that all seem to be true separately, but that cannot be logically all true at the same time. These premises are as follows:
1. Most people have an emotional response to characters, objects, events, etc., which they know to be fictitious.
2. In order for us to be emotionally moved, we must believe that the characters, objects, or events we are moved about, truly exist.
3. We know that the characters or events are fictional and therefore we do not believe them to be real. (The Audiopedia, 2017)
In order to have a genuine emotional response to the characters, and thereby be able to follow a story and its narrative since it is told through the eyes of the characters, we need to know that these characters are real. Since in our case we know that the MCU is a fiction, we logically would not be able to have a genuine emotional response to the characters or events therein. This would make it impossible for us to sympathize with characters, and so with their perspectives on the situations within the movie.
Since we can follow the movies set in the MCU, there must be some characters that are somewhat believable. This is made possible because what happens in Marvel movies is realistic within the MCU, since there is a mindset there that superheroes can truly exist. By adopting the mindset of an inhabitant of the MCU as the viewer of the movie, one resolves the paradox. The viewer needs to accept the film's rules, so to speak; namely, one needs to accept that within the world that the producers of the movie have created, anything goes if the producers say it goes. By adopting this different mindset, the viewer will be able to sympathize with the characters within the movie and will therefore also be able to follow what is going on, within a credible narrative.
Character: continuity and consistency
Since the stories we tell, hear and are able to follow are the stories that are told through the experiences of characters within them, we need to get a sense of continuity and consistency from these characters in order for them – and therefore the narrative – to be believable. When a character can fly in one story and the same character is suddenly unable to fly without a clear explanation in another story, the audience might start to question the credibility and believability of that character. This can lead the viewer to question the way the character thinks and sees the story, leaving the entire narrative impossible to believe.
Continuity and consistency within the MCU is one of the main foci of the producers and directors that have created this universe. Especially since lots of the characters that live within the MCU, are very iconic characters that many people know – think of Thor, Iron Man or Spider-Man – if their powers were to change all of a sudden, the rules we have accepted when getting immersed into the story would have suddenly changed and the realistic feel of the story would be lost, leading fans to feel betrayed by the producers.
Whenever a writer, director or producer makes a sequel (or more of them) to a movie, they promise to the viewers that they will value the narratives and stories used for the characters in the previous installment(s) to make sure there is a consistency that guarantees the credibility of the characters.
When watching an autobiographical documentary, the viewer and the creator of the documentary whose story is being told indirectly make a contract that is referred to by Philippe Lejeune as the "autobiographical pact". As Lejeune explains: “By signing his or her “proper name” on the title page, the writer first guarantees the identity of author with narrator and then the truth of the story as written and read” (Lejeune, 1975). In contrast when it comes to a fictional narrative, where the writers and producers are not necessarily part of the narrative, they do not make an autobiographical pact with the viewers.
However, I argue that whenever a writer, director or producer makes a sequel (or more) to a movie, they promise to the viewers that they will value the narratives used for the characters in the previous installment(s) to make sure there is a consistency that guarantees the credibility of the characters.
When looking into the Avengers movies, we see that especially in Avengers: Endgame the producers play with the notion of consistency. In order to save humanity within the MCU that has been wiped out partially in the previous movie Avengers: Infinity War, the superheroes have to go back in time to retrieve the "infinity stones" – a set of six stone-like powerful crystals, each connected to a certain aspect of the universe (Marvel Cinematic Universe Wiki, n.d.). When going back in time, they go back into different MCU movies: they go back to The Avengers, the first movie out of the four discussed here, Thor: The Dark World (which is not a part of our case study) and Avengers: Infinity War.
For the narrative to be believable, the scenes from the previous movies that they visit have to be exactly the same, with the only exception of the presence Endgame characters from the future. The consistency is remarkable since a lot of the scenes are just extended with regards to the original scenes. If there weren't any consistency or continuity in these scenes, the pact between the producers and the viewers would have been broken and Avengers: Endgame would have been rather unbelievable.
Conclusions: a realistic fictional universe
By looking into different aspects of the four Avengers movies, this research has tried to solve the question of how Marvel have constructed a fictional universe that is realistic within its own bounds and thus evokes genuine emotional responses by the viewers. The Avengers movies seemed most applicable for this case since they contain a lot of different superheroes that have their own movies that take place within the MCU.
Barthes (1986) introduced the idea of the reality effect, which is produced due to small details in narratives that seem insignificant at first. By using little details that are specific to life on Earth – such as cities, brands or foods – the producers of the MCU movies have made the movies in such a way that a reality effect is produced for the viewer. This makes the MCU movies a truly immersive experience.
The credibility of the narratives in the MCU movies that we follow through their characters is dependent on the paradox of fiction. By being immersed into the story, the viewer accepts the mindset that holds true within the movie and within the universe created for these movies, and thus the events that occur and the characters that exist therein are "real" to him/her. Therefore, genuine emotional responses can occur despite the initial paradox, and the story can be followed through the narrative of the characters in the movies.
Lastly, the consistency of the characters and the scenes within the MCU assure that the stories are believable. As argued in relation to the autobiographical pact introduced by Lejeune in 1975, whenever a company makes a sequel (or more of them) to a movie, they make a pact with the viewers to value the narratives and stories used for the characters in the previous movie(s) to make sure there is consistency that guarantees credibility of the characters.
Through achieving the above, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has succeeded in creating a universe which is unlike ours, but still credible on its own.
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