Earlier this month, Marvel Studios announced that the prèmiere of “Avengers: Endgame” would be preceded by marathon screenings of all the movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or M.C.U. Since the M.C.U. consists, to date, of twenty-two movies, the screenings were fifty-nine hours and seven minutes long. They topped the thirty-one-hour screenings held last year, before the prèmiere of “Avengers: Infinity War,” and the twenty-nine-hour screenings held in 2015, before the release of “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” An M.C.U. marathon is “equal parts dare, endurance test, and assertion of fan dominance,” the reporter Alex Abad-Santos wrote, at Vox, after a pre-“Ultron” screening. Alex McLevy, a writer and editor at the A.V. Club, described the event he attended as “beyond anything I have ever experienced in a movie theater . . . . It’s beautiful, and terrifying.”
When “Iron Man” came out, in 2008, it was a standalone film. Moviegoers didn’t know that it would kick off a titanic interconnected narrative that, during the next decade, would include aliens thrashing New York City (“The Avengers”); a space jailbreak (“Guardians of the Galaxy”); a “Terminator”-style robot insurrection (“Avengers: Age of Ultron”); a civil war (“Captain America: Civil War”), and an apocalypse (“Thor: Ragnarok”). Although the subtitle of the newest film, “Endgame,” suggests a conclusion, there are more movies on the horizon, including “Spider-Man: Far from Home,” sequels to “Black Panther” and “Doctor Strange,” and a third installment of “Guardians of the Galaxy.” Last month, Disney paid seventy-one billion dollars for 21st Century Fox’s entertainment business, insuring that Marvel characters previously owned by Fox—including Deadpool, the X-Men, and the Fantastic Four—could appear in future additions to the M.C.U.
Though some fans complain about substandard movies and ever-lengthening runtimes, audiences remain invested in the M.C.U.: “Avengers: Infinity War” was the fourth-highest-grossing movie of all time, closely followed, in the top ten, by “The Avengers,” “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” and “Black Panther.” It seems likely, in other words, that the M.C.U. will continue to expand for the foreseeable future. This raises questions both superheroic and narratological. Will half of all the people on Earth, who were snuffed out at the end of “Infinity War,” ever be resurrected? And can the M.C.U. really keep expanding? How flexible is a story, ultimately? Can it be extended indefinitely without becoming meaningless, or will it reach some natural limit? How infinite can a fictional world be?
By most accounts, Aristotle laid out the ground rules of storytelling, in the fourth century B.C., in his Poetics. He argued that plot was at the core of narrative; a plot, he thought, needed to have a beginning, a middle, and an end, reflect an ordered structure of connected actions, and be self-contained. The most effective plots, he wrote, “should have a certain length, and this should be such as can readily be held in memory.” Poetics has proved persuasive: many narrative theorists see an orderly, coherent, and contained plot as crucial to the act of storytelling.
The scholar Brian Richardson, in his essay “Beyond the Poetics of Plot: Alternative Forms of Narrative Progression and the Multiple Trajectories of Ulysses,” offers his own definition of plot-based narrative—“a teleological sequence of events linked by some principle of causation; that is, the events are bound together in a trajectory that typically leads to some form of resolution or convergence”—before pointing out that “many narratives resist, elude, or reject” plot. Especially in the twentieth century, narratives began to “remain insistently fragmentary, open-ended, contradictory, or defiantly ‘plotless.’ ” There are, it turns out, many kinds of plotlessness. Episodic storytelling, as in “Law & Order” or “The Simpsons,” utilizes smaller, loosely connected narratives to allow for the maintenance of a comforting, predictable stasis over all. Extended novels, such as Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time,” allow a single narrative to emerge out of nonlinearity, in an effort to produce a more accurate representation of thought, memory, and experience.
In the book “A Theory of Narrative,” from 2008, Rick Altman, a professor emeritus of the cinematic arts at the University of Iowa, explores the peculiar narrative qualities of soap operas, which contain narrative twists and turns but get nowhere. “Unlike most novels and films, soaps are all middle,” he writes. Despite their length, soaps tend to feel hemmed in. Science-fiction and fantasy narratives, by contrast, often seek to create a feeling of expansiveness: J. R. R. Tolkien created a world so detailed and all-encompassing that his narratives felt like pieces of something larger. Both soaps and fantasies may contain traditional plot-based narratives with moments of “resolution or convergence,” but, in a sense, such moments aren’t the point. It’s the fictional world that’s most alluring.
One might conclude that it’s possible to break the Aristotelian mold—but narratives that deëmphasize or deconstruct plot must do so with good reason. The plotlessness of “The Simpsons” allows for the endless production of bite-size morsels of humor; the wandering narrative of “Ulysses” connects one character’s internal landscape to a larger, interconnected view of life. Plotlessness works when it has a point.
Comic books, which are the direct ancestors of the M.C.U., may seem as if they belong to the tradition of expansive world-building that gave rise to “The Lord of the Rings,” “Dune,” “Game of Thrones,” and other epic fantasy worlds. In truth, comics have their own peculiar convention of nontraditional narrative, which has endowed them with a unique aesthetic.
Its roots are in a dynamic of give and take that began, early on, between creators and audiences. Many superhero stories take place in similar environments—fictionalized versions of New York City, for example, which in different stories are portrayed in conflicting ways. As time went on, contradictions mounted. “At first, comic-book editors said, ‘Who’s paying attention to this?,’ ” Corey Creekmur, a colleague of Altman’s, at the University of Iowa, who teaches classes on film and comic books and is the head of the film-studies program, told me. Then attentive readers began writing in. “Responding to fans, the editors started to say, ‘Well, maybe we can think of all of these stories as linked, or connected.’ ” This led to the creation of teams such as the Justice League (which includes both Superman and Batman—residents of Metropolis and Gotham City, respectively) and the Avengers. Superheroes began living in shared worlds.
Marvel began adding more crossovers and teams to its roster; the Avengers first appeared in September, 1963. “It was canny cross-promotion,” the writer Sean Howe notes in “Marvel Comics: The Untold Story”; by teaming fan-favorite characters with less popular heroes, Marvel hoped to increase interest across the board. But this also had “narrative effects that would become a Marvel Comics touchstone: the idea that these characters shared a world, that the actions of each had repercussions on the others, and that each comic was merely a thread of one Marvel-wide mega-story,” he continues.
The proliferation of team-up narratives, of course, created its own set of inconsistencies. Stan Lee, the creator of Spider-Man, the X-Men, and many other Marvel characters, “found it difficult to keep his stories straight when his lead characters were having adventures in their own books, but also teaming up with each other in The Avengers,” the author Brian Robb writes in “A Brief History of Superheroes.” Even so, there was something brilliant about the method of addressing narrative inconsistencies by means of new narratives. It created a generative loop in which writers would produce stories, sometimes containing inconsistencies, and then write more stories to explain these discrepancies. Mistakes became opportunities. Fans grew even more engaged.
Eventually, team-ups and merged worlds changed the way comics were published. Mike O’Sullivan, the head writer and researcher of the “Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe,” explains that, in the nineteen-sixties and seventies, readers would often encounter comic-book stories by means of single paper issues: “There was a finite start and finish to a self-contained story,” he said. By the eighties, however, individual comic books were being republished, five or six at a time, in a trade-paperback format. Formerly independent stories were now merged; each multi-volume collection, in turn, pointed toward a larger, forever-expanding narrative. Today, that narrative includes not just M.C.U. movies but television shows: “Agent Carter,” “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” and Marvel’s “Defenders” miniseries, on Netflix, contain references to big happenings in the M.C.U. O’Sullivan now heads a team responsible for combing through both the comics and films and recording every detail of every character arc and story line to preserve continuity. When his team spots an error, they confer with Marvel editors and Marvel Studios to decide how to then proceed in the Marvel canon going forward.
When filmmakers began working with the M.C.U., they may not have known what they were getting into. “At the time it was hard to understand the full scope of it,” Jon Favreau, the director of “Iron Man” and “Iron Man 2,” said in a 2017 Vanity Fair piece on the beginnings of the M.C.U. “By the time I saw ‘Avengers’ I understood how sophisticated the scope was. How difficult it is to juggle.” (Favreau went on executive-produce six more Marvel movies.) In theory, Favreau said, every M.C.U. movie should stand on its own. And yet anyone who’s traced the journey of the Tesseract, the travels of Nick Fury, or the recurring character of Ronan the Accuser from one M.C.U. movie to the next knows that the films are as deeply invested in Easter eggs, teased plotlines, in-jokes, and interconnections as they are in traditional plot. “I know some people who’ve been frustrated when they’d go see a film and realize that it’s not the whole story, or that it’s just the first half,” Creekmur said. “For some audiences, that’s been fun. Other people just want to go see a movie, and now they’re in for the long haul of a dozen more.”
As the M.C.U. has expanded, the team-up movies, in particular—“Avengers: Age of Ultron,” “Captain America: Civil War,” and “Avengers: Infinity War”—have grown unwieldy. Some films are so jam-packed that they feel airless, with meaningful character interaction confined to emotionally charged glances and insubstantial dialogue. Character development is put on hold until the heroes can retreat back to their individual properties, where they have more room to grow. In many accounts of M.C.U. marathoning, fans survive the onslaught of older movies only to find that they’re indifferent to the newest installment. “Did the experience enhance my appreciation of the M.C.U.? Hard to say,” the Indiewire critic David Ehrlich wrote, after attending a marathon last year.
One imagines that, with time, the intricate web linking the movies will get more frayed and insubstantial, and the new films will seem increasingly inessential. And yet, after a certain point, following a story for a long time becomes a story in itself. After watching nearly thirty hours worth of Marvel adventures, Alex McLevy, the A.V. Club writer, concluded that “the experience overtakes the nature of the content.” This is true of the M.C.U. more generally. When watching any individual movie, a kind of pattern recognition—an intellectual interest in how each new story evokes or departs from the others—replaces narrative pleasure. The narrative worth caring about becomes the story of one’s own interaction with the M.C.U. Just as people ask, about historical events, “Where were you when it happened?,” so fans ask where they were when “Iron Man” came out, when the Avengers first assembled, when heroes and villains battled in Wakanda. This is the story that’s truly limitless.