Avengers: Endgame: Similar to a Play Cycle
by John Aquino on 05/10/19
Like over 100,000 million people ($2 billion in worldwide box office), my wife and I saw Avengers: Endgame over the weekend, the culmination of 22 films that comprise the "Infinity Saga" of the Marvel film comic book universe. I found myself thinking about my days when I was an English literature scholar writing about play cycles.
Play cycles are basically three or more plays on the same story with the second being a continuation of the firs, the third of the second, etc. They can be meant for performance all on the same day or on different performance days, but each is also self-contained. The English medieval play cycles--the York (48 plays), Wakefield (32), Chester (24), and No-Town (42) mystery plays--span from God's creation of the world through Old Testament stories and then through the New Testament and the story of Christ to the Last Judgment and the end of the World. William Shakespeare wrote two groups of plays that can be considered play cycles--1,2, and 3 Henry VI, which is labeled the first tetralogy and tells the story of the War of the Roses (1455-1485), and 1 and 2 Henry IV and Henry V, the second tetralogy, which is basically about the education and growth of Henry V as the ideal English king. But even centuries before that, in ancient Greece, Aeschylus wrote the Oresteia, three plays that recount the murder of King Agamemnon, his children's revenge, and the trial of the murderer, while Sophocles completed three plays about the tragic family of Oedipus--Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone.
In modern times, George Bernard Shaw's Back to Methuselah premiered in 1922, composed of five plays that span from the Garden of Eden where humans first discovered death to the future where humanity has learned the secret of eternal life. I wrote my Master's thesis on this play cycle and a related article on Shaw's influence on C.S. Lewis' Perelandra science fiction novels that appeared in the Shaw Review--there is a character named Pshaw who quotes from Back to Methuselah that "It is enough that there is a beyond." (Thus, ended my career as a literary scholar.) ; Methuselah is rarely performed--the Washington (D.C.) Stage Guild performed it in separate productions in 2014 (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gmYel51USWA ). A brief college excerpt of the serpent tempting Eve is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4nFJPprzTCY .In 1931, Eugene O'Neill developed a modern version of the Oresteia that was set just after the Civil War and titled it Morning Becomes Electra. It is also seldom performed, but the long and stagy though well acted film version is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-OJ_VyXymTg
Marvel's Infinity Saga is composed of 22 films: Iron Man (2008), The Incredible Hulk (2008); Iron Man 2 (2010);' Thor (2011); Captain America: The First Avenger (2011); The Avengers (2012); Iron Man 3; (2013); Thor: The Dark World (2013); Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014); Guardians of the Galaxy (2014); Avengers: The Age of Ultron (2015); Ant-Man (2015); Captain America: Civil War (2016); Doctor Strange (2016); Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 (2017); Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017); Thor: Ragnorak (2018); Black Panther (2018); Avengers: Infinity War (2018); Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018); Captain Marvel (2019); and Avengers: Endgame (2019). As you can see, they were spread out when they started and bunched up at the end to the extent that I haven't seen the last two before Endgame. There have been remarkably few changes in roles for so many films: Edward Norton starred as the Incredible Hulk in 2008 but was replaced for subsequent films by Mark Ruffalo, and Terrence Howard was James Rhodes in Iron Man but was replaced by Don Cheadle in Iron Man 2 and subsequent films when Rhodes also became "War Machine."
I assume that if the first two films had bombed at the box office the film saga would have ended. (I remember Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins (1985), which was intended to launch a series of films about the character, and yet there was only the one.) But their success enabled Marvel to create a film universe, aided by decades of comic books about the Hulk and the others as their bases. The filmmakers were able to plot out the entire saga, dropping throughout the films story points about the infinity stones that Thanos in Avengers: Infinity Wars would gather together to destroy half the universe. It reminds me of two television series that I am very fond of--How I Met Your Mother and This Is Us--for which the creators plotted the stories far into the future and felt so comfortable with the material that they were able to go back and forth in time with ease.
There have been other film cycles--the Thin Man, Tarzan, James Bond, Star Trek, but the nature of Hollywood studios was such that the filmmakers seldom thought that far ahead. The Thin Man, for example, was based on a Dashiell Hammett novel. There was no guarantee the movie would be a success. When they discovered it was, Hammett had effectively stopped writing due to a writer's block. He managed to sketch out scenarios for the first two sequels but had nothing to do with the next three, and his complete absence showed in the later films. The Tarzan M-G-M series began in 1932 and lasted for six films with,the same stars and, mostly, the same creative team, but then was sold to RKO Studios with cast changes (Tarzan and Jane three times each) and cheaper budgets for 14 films and then to Paramount and M-G-M for two films each before the character was given a TV series. There have been 24 James Bond films--and six actors playing Bond, with accompanying ups and downs in quality and style. There has not been, consequently, the creation of mostly coherent universes such as those formed in play cycles and, I would argue, Avengers: Endgame.
With the Marvel Infinity Cycle, some films have been better than others. I am not fond of Iron Man 2 or Iron Man 3 and the Thor films are awfully busy for me. I do like Iron Man and all of the Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Captain America films. As for the Infinity Saga as a whole, I admire its vision and scope, its big moments as well as small--I was bowled over by the meeting of Stark father and son in the last film. The saga reminds me of mystery play cycles and those by Shaw and O'Neill.
Copyright 2019 by John T. Aquino