Marvel Cinematic Universe: The Lost Years
In 2008, Marvel Studios introduced the world to a shared cinematic universe in which many of Marvel’s comic book character would finally share the screen. Kicking off this experiment in storytelling was Iron Man. While ostensibly a tale focused on Tony Stark’s evolution from selfish industrialist to superhero, a larger world of super science and espionage weaved its way into the periphery of the story. The introduction of S.H.I.E.L.D., as well as Nick Fury, gave fans a taste of what was in store for the future. This was unlike anything most film goers had ever experienced, hinting at machinations beyond the purview of the film’s main character. Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk effectively formed the backbone of the MCU proper. Releasing in the same year and sharing characters, these two films laid the groundwork for what would eventually become The Avengers.
With the release of the ultimate superhero team film in 2012 by gathering of four major Marvel protagonists, Marvel cemented this shared universe in the hearts of fans everywhere. Over the course of ten films and two televisions series, the Marvel Cinematic universe has proven a well crafted and trendsetting business model, as well as an interesting storytelling format.
The knowledge that the events of one film would have consequences for the rest of the characters in their own films gives audiences a carrot to see every entry in this tapestry of plot lines. However, while I find these films to be fun and exciting, what really thrills me is the secret unseen history of Marvel Universe that that the filmmakers have only eluded to over the course of each entry. As mentioned previously, part of the fun of these films is how each of them connects to one another, but it should also be mentioned that these films showcase a real historical timeline stretching back to 2011’s Captain America (1942), but really began to pop up in 2010’s Iron Man 2 with the reveal of a single character, Howard Stark.
Part of the subplot of Iron Man 2 revolves around the revelation that Tony’s father, Howard Stark, had collaborated on a version of Stark’s Arc reactor with Soviet scientist Anton Vanko. This plot point remains the backbone of Iron Man 2, feeding into Tony’s fear of his own mortality as well as Vanko’s revenge plot. However, the Marvel universe is cracked wide open, when Nick Fury delivers Howard’s research to Tony, in hopes that a cure for the arc reactor’s poison can be found. Among the elder Stark’s personal effects is a film strip of Howard in all his ring-a-ding-ding, 1960s glory.
Anyone who was around for the Disney Channel before they started airing non-stop shows about tweens likely has seen Walt Disney’s introductions for The Wonderful World of Disney. This was standard programming in the 1960s, 70s, and into the 1980s when Disney formed its own network. Many of these intros showcase Walt in his office either talking about what we were going to see following his intro (cartoons, films, television) or were specials on their own, showing the folks at home what the Disney company was currently working on. These introductions have a kitschy, awe-shucks quality to them that are perfectly out of place in today’s cynical world. The 1960s aesthetic is unmistakable and hilarious when applied to the hard drinking and womanizing Howard Stark. However, this vision of Tony’s father not only paints a vivid picture of the kind of inspiration behind Tony himself, but more importantly of a bygone era when everyone was obsessed with the future and the “space race” was in full swing. It was actually during this time period that Walt Disney himself was involved in the 1964 World’s Fair.
The 1964 World’s Fair was meant to showcase man’s achievements through science, technology and an ever-growing understanding of the world around him. Disney contributed to several exhibits on display, not the least of which was the classic Disneyland “It’s a Small World” attraction, as well as “The Carousel of Progress” with General Electric and “The People Mover” with Ford Motors. Many of these contributions would go on to influence Disney Park to this very day. This is the retro-futuristic context we’re meant to glean from the ’60s portrayal of Howard Stark, a man who was actively contributing super science to the world as far back as the 1960s. This introduction of Howard Stark may be the single greatest moment in the Marvel cinematic canon for me. It indicated that super heroics and science fiction weren’t just happening the same time as Tony’s story, but that they had been happening since the 1960s, maybe even longer and with the realize of Captain America:The First Avenger, Marvel history would open even further when released a year later.
Following Steve Rogers into the clandestine world of the S.S.R. in 1942, we are again introduced to a younger Howard Stark, hot off the heals of his flying car presentation at the Stark Expo. This young scientist is presented as a key part of the Super Soldier program that would turn Steve Rogers from 90 pound weakling into the “Star-Spangled Avenger.” He’s not yet become the scotch-swilling industrialist we meet in Iron Man 2, and is instead painted as a hipper version of Howard Hughes. The character’s inclusion into the origin of Captain America gives us a sense of destiny and also ties us to one of the most pivotal characters in the MCU, Agent Peggy Carter.
Peggy Carter has recently come to the fore as the protagonist of her own television show, but her inclusion in the two Captain America films have raised delicious questions on the part of not just her character, but the history of the MCU as a whole. Agent Peggy Carter’s appearances in both The First Avenger and The Winter Soldier serve as interesting, if tragic, historical bookends. It is also through her character we get to see the humble beginnings of S.H.I.E.L.D. as G-Man led agency to its current incarnation as a clandestine international military force. The young capable idealist of the 1940s is supplanted by the somewhat cynical ex-agency spook in her 90s. In The Winter Soldier, Peggy Carter tells her former beau, Steve Rogers, that the world has changed since Project Rebirth, and that may not be such a good thing. However, Carter’s longevity as a character in historical continuity leaves us to wonder what happened in the time between the events of the Agent Carter television show and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. As we see in her television show, Peggy isn’t the head of S.H.I.E.L.D., there isn’t even a S.H.I.E.L.D., just government agents trying to track down the illusive Howard Stark for supposed charges of espionage and terrorism. The series begins with Stark tasking Carter to help clear his name from behind the scenes, setting up our heroes as altruistic outlaws. Since the Agent Carter series is still in its infancy, we don’t yet know how Peggy goes from subverting the government agency she works for, to running one of her own. What happens in between the two Captain America films? Howard Stark is still involved in the 1960s, because Nick Fury delivers Tony his father’s files, but what is Peggy Carter up to?
We may get more of these historical events illuminated in Ant-Man, Marvel’s upcoming addition to their cannon. This film will once again give us a glimpse of the past, with the inclusion of an aging Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) as well as John Slattery’s boozy Howard Stark returning in flashbacks. This will likely give us a glimpse into Marvel’s ’70s era, touching briefly on the science developed by Pym for the shrinking technology used by future Ant-Man, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd). Was Pym a hero in the 1970s? Was he a proto-Iron Man, industrialist playboy turned fighter for justice? And what would a ’70s era MCU even look like? This is the very thought that makes me wish Joe Carnahan would have gotten his gritty ’70s Daredevil project off the ground.
Marvel has done a fantastic thing by stringing their characters together into a cohesive universe. What’s more, these films are fun and well made. But while it’s exciting to see the modern adventures of our favorite Marvel heroes, my mind often drifts backward to ruminate on who else was operating in the eras before Stark invented his suit and Banner went green. This brand of historical storytelling is intriguing to say the least, and the gaps in our superhero timeline may be the most interesting part of Marvel’s cinematic metaplot. I adore Agent Carter in part for its period setting and would love to see more of Marvel’s decades explored, which makes me wonder, would making Doctor Strange a psychedelic ’70s period piece be such a bad idea?