Marvel Comics was built on titles with a 60-year history, like Fantastic Four, Spider-Man and the Hulk. But some of the characters recently getting attention and lighting up social media have names like Sharon Carter, Jimmy Woo and the Dora Milaje. When “Captain America: The First Avenger” and “Thor” hit theaters a decade ago, the contours of Marvel’s plans for a cinematic universe — building toward the “Avengers” — took shape. Yet even for those weaned on the comics, the latest phase of Marvel’s expansion has been notably defined by the depth of its bench, and the remarkable mileage extracted from less-familiar characters.
The marquee heroes used to launch Marvel onto streaming service Disney+ have been Wanda and the Vision, and the Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Those two projects, however, have been enriched by deftly incorporating peripheral players, eliciting enthusiastic responses from fans. Wakandan bodyguards the Dora Milaje? Quicksilver? SHIELD agent Sharon Carter, astrophysicist Darcy Lewis, and FBI agent Jimmy Woo? Those personalities and others have cropped up in the Disney+ shows, reflecting the breadth of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and underscoring the seamless way Marvel has mixed and matched talent in building its interlocking titles.
If Marvel has made this look organic, even easy, it wasn’t always thus. Indeed, while one could envision the big-screen possibilities for properties like Spider-Man and X-Men (produced, incidentally, through other studios after Marvel Comics sold off the rights), the further producers reached into the grab bag, the more tenuous the commercial prospects always appeared to become. From that perspective, the most important movie in building the current Marvel mystique in hindsight might have been “Guardians of the Galaxy,” conjuring a major hit out of the spacefaring team of misfits in 2014. If Marvel fans were ready to buy a talking raccoon and tree, the sky — or rather, universe — really was the limit. Marvel followed that the next year with “Ant-Man,” which turned the one-time “Saturday Night Live” punchline into an unlikely success; and then demonstrated just how many heroes could be crammed into one movie with “Captain America: Civil War,” which featured a battle involving a dozen characters and, among other things, introduced Black Panther before his solo movie in 2018.