For me, the Marvel Cinematic Universe didn’t really begin with Iron Man. It didn’t begin with Captain America, Thor, or even the Avengers, or when the Guardians of the Galaxy first hit the silver screen.
In my mind the whole thing kicked off properly with a short scene after the credits of the largely forgotten 2008 movie The Incredible Hulk, when William Hurt’s General Ross was seen drinking his troubles away in a bar after another defeat before being approached by a familiar face.
“What if I told you we were putting a team together?” Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark asked him, emerging from an angelic bright light. My tiny mind was truly blown.
Impossible though it may now seem, I hadn’t even thought to stay after the credits for Iron Man earlier that year, meaning this was the first time I’d seen Marvel’s interconnected universe in action. While it’s commonplace now, at the time seeing one superhero turn up in a different superhero’s film gave me chills.
This is what makes the Marvel films different to the superhero movies that came before: their ability to create a coherent world where different heroes could interact, as they always had done in the comics. It all started after the credits on that second MCU film, the first time a character from an existing franchise rubbed shoulders with another.
“Are they even allowed to do this?” I wondered as I watched the two actors trade (admittedly pretty clunky) gags about Stark’s choice of suits. But Marvel’s gamechanging post-credits scenes were only just beginning.
“I would probably never consider not having a post-credits scene,” Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn told me last year. Given their proliferation over the last decade it’s an understandable reaction.
Since 2008’s Iron Man (which saw Samuel L Jackson’s Nick Fury tease the “Avengers Initiative”), viewers have been treated to 32 post-and-mid credits scenes over 18 Marvel Cinematic Universe films. They have capped off unresolved plotlines, teased future projects (usually the Avengers films) or just added a funny gag or two.
Some people call them “stings”, some people call them the “after-credits scenes”, and others like to differentiate between the “mid-credits scenes” (which pop up after the main cast roll call but before the longer scroll of cast and production staff) and the ones that hide at the very end of the whole shebang.
Whatever they’re called, these scenes have become part and parcel of what we expect from Marvel blockbusters, with almost more intrigue surrounding them than the plots of the films themselves. Case in point: Avengers Infinity War isn’t even out yet, but there are already dozens of online stories devoted to the fact that there’s only one post-credits scene this time.
Of course, Marvel in no way invented post-credits scenes, which have have a history going back to 1903 and were particularly popular inclusions for 1970s and 80s comedies like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (a fact parodied by Deadpool in 2016), Airplane! and The Muppet Movie.
They aren’t even new for superhero films, with 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand featuring a crucial plot point about Patrick Stewart’s Professor X that you’d only pick up if you waded through the names of every visual effects artist.
However, Marvel made the scenes essential viewing. For the most part, post-credits scenes had always been a bit of a gag – I vividly remember a friend forcing me to wait through the credits of Pirates of the Caribbean 2, only to be greeted by a scene featuring a dog in a crown – but Marvel made them worth waiting for, a mini-reward for dedicated fans that enhanced your enjoyment of the world they were building and allowed for fevered speculation online.
“I think it shows the audience that you love them, giving them something extra that you don’t need to give them,” Guardians director Gunn said. “And I think especially in a Marvel movie, people have come to expect it.”
“Marvel ‘weaves’,” Jeff Goldblum, who appeared in 2017’s Thor Ragnarok (and one of its post-credits scenes) added. “Yhat’s what they’re up to: they’re weaving some sort of teasing web of enchantment. What do YOU think happens next?”
Arguably, the notoriety of post-credits reached its height in 2012’s Avengers Assemble, when the Big Bad of the entire MCU – purple alien Thanos, now played by Josh Brolin – was revealed to an intrigued and (let’s be honest) confused audience. Since then there’s always been a rabid public interest in exactly what they can expect after the credits have rolled.
Increasingly filmmakers have found themselves rising to meet and exceed those expectations, experimenting with the form and style of post-credits scenes in a way that reflects their creative sensibilities.
For example, Gunn’s enthusiasm for the mini scenes meant that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 featured an astonishing five post-credit scenes – and yes, that’s a record.
“I wanted to do as many as I could, and yeah those were all my idea,” Gunn says, squashing the idea that there was any pressure from Marvel Studios themselves over what he could include.
“All those were things I wrote in the script, with the exception of one of them that I came up with after I shot the movie. I thought, ‘Oh God I’d like to put that in’, and then I went and shot it.”
Other filmmakers found the expectation for extra material after the credits gave them freedom to slightly restructure their films, adding in plot information that might have otherwise cramped the flow of the story.
For example, fans of Thor would have had to wait through The Dark World’s entire list of credits to see whether he reunited with true love Jane Foster (spoiler alert: he did, but then Natalie Portman left the franchise forever), while Doctor Strange viewers would have missed out on Mordo’s evil plan entirely had they left their seats early.
Then there’s the mid-credits scene for this year’s Black Panther, which sees T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) finally reveal his home country Wakanda’s true strength to the United Nations. That scene also holds the rare distinction of being a post-credits scene that was used in some of the trailers.
“We were kind of deciding how we’d play it,” director Ryan Coogler told me earlier this year. “We knew we had the ability to do a post-credits sequence if we wanted to.”
This ability allowed Coogler to finish the main body of the film where its opening scenes had been set – a housing estate in Oakland, California – before adding the UN scene in after the credits. It’s a structural freedom that wouldn’t exist without the groundwork the previous decade of stings had given him.
“What ended up happening was just the argument of symmetry,” Coogler said. “The argument of finishing where we started. If you think about it, the UN scene and the scene that happens in Oakland are basically the same scene. It’s a reveal of who Wakandans are.
“The only difference is who they’re revealing that to. And we thought that it was stronger emotionally.”
Inevitably with a universe as extensive as Marvel’s, post-credits scenes have evolved to become increasingly meta. Spider-Man: Homecoming’s final sting featured a sort-of apology to fans who’d waited for it, acknowledging the frustration brought on by so many of Marvel’s films hiding extra material.
“Hi, I’m Captain America, here to talk to you about one of the most valuable traits a soldier or student can have: patience,” Chris Evans’ Sentinel of Liberty says anti-climactically.
“Sometimes patience is the key to victory. Sometimes it leads to very little, and it seems like it’s not worth it. And you wonder, why you waited so long for something so disappointing.”
Predictably, the success of Marvel’s movies in general has led to other franchises trying to match them – and that includes post-credits scenes. Many of Warner Bros’ rival DC films featured scenes during and after the credits that teased future spin-offs. Sony’s Power Rangers reboot meanwhile hinted at the return of a popular character in their own sting.
And then there’s Deadpool, which poked fun at Iron Man’s first post-credits scene.
“You’re still here? It’s over. Go home,” Ryan Reynolds’ mercenary told audiences. “Oh, you’re expecting a teaser for Deadpool 2? Well, we don’t have that kind of money.
“What are you expecting – Sam Jackson to show up with an eye patch and a saucy little leather number? Go, go.”
Still, for the most part the scenes are basically Marvel’s “thing” now, the concept firmly aligned with their franchises just by dint of them doing it so well for so long. A certain amount of that success seems to come from the studio working with a light touch when it came to world-building, allowing directors to put their own spin on post-credits scenes as much as they do with the individual films themselves.
“We weren’t asked to do it,” Coogler said of Black Panther’s more teaser-y post-credits scene, which featured Sebastian Stan’s Bucky recuperating in Wakanda ahead of Avengers: Infinity War.
“Obviously it ties in, but the studio didn’t force our hand, or tell us what the post-credits scene should be. It was something that we were interested in, that we were interested in doing.”
Avengers: Infinity War may only have one sting, but as the Marvel Cinematic Universe enters new and uncharted territory post-Avengers 4 in 2019 the company will have to work all the harder to tease storylines and characters that audiences are less familiar with and invested in.
That’s no bad thing, and I’m looking forward to see what else talented filmmakers can do with a new tool in their box. The more post-credits scenes the better, as James Gunn might say.
And who knows? Maybe a few more kids will be inspired to get involved in the less glamorous sides of film production when they realise that the whole world will be forced to sit and watch their name rise up the silver screen for years to come. Definitely takes the sting out of all the hard work.
Avengers: Infinity War will be released in UK cinemas on 26th April
In the spirit of this article, just adding my own little vignette that I couldn’t fit in – after sitting through the Pirates 2 credits for that dog scene, we all furiously threw empty plastic bottles at the friend who made us wait.
How different our tolerance for post-credits scenes (and wasteful attitude to plastic) has become.
Sign up to the Radio Times newsletter for the latest TV and entertainment news