Or: Is the MCU a Meta Narrative Within the On Cinema Universe?
Note: this article has been updated since it was first published to incorporate updates to the Marvel and On Cinema universes.
The film-within-a-film trope has existed for a long time. Since before film, truthfully. Examples of this narrative style—in which one fictional narrative exists nestled within another fictional narrative—can be found in Canterbury Tales and the play-within-a-play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
I believe that I have identified a widespread contemporary example of this: a film franchise that exists within a different franchise. In particular, I refer to one of the largest contemporary film franchises, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), and I suggest that the entirety of this cinematic universe exists within the On Cinema at the Cinema Universe (OCatCU).
Before I continue, I will clarify that this blog post is focused on both the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the On Cinema at the Cinema Universe. You do not necessarily have to be an expert in these to understand this blog post. If you are not familiar with each of these franchises, here is a brief introduction.
A Radically Condensed History of The Marvel Cinematic Universe
The Marvel Cinematic Universe began with Iron Man in 2008 and currently consists of somewhere around two dozen films, a bunch of television shows, and a ton of forthcoming installments. Its latest movie was Ant-Man and the Wasp—an important film for the fan theory currently being discussed—and its next one will be Captain Marvel. (2022 update: a lot of things have been released since this blog post was first written, but the theory holds true.)
It’s not important that one has seen all the Marvel films in order to understand the theory I’m putting forth in this fan theory. I personally have seen approximately 75% of them and have watched none of the television shows, aside from most of the first season of Luke Cage.
It is important to understand that I only refer to the films and shows within Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe. This does not include Deadpool or X-Men or Venom or Into the Spider-Verse or any of the other non-Disney Marvel installments.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Cinematic Universes
When one says “cinematic universe”, in this context, it refers to a series of films and shows in which everything is connected, i.e. Netflix’s The Punisher is a person inhabiting the same shared world as Iron Man, Spider-Man, Thor, and others.
As I’ve discussed in another blog post, shared and extended universes are nothing new, with historical examples including the works of Mark Twain, William Shakespeare, William Faulkner, and Jane Austen.
But before we get into the meat of this fan theory, let’s first discuss another extended universe: the On Cinema at the Cinema Universe, or the OCatCU.
A Radically Condensed History of On Cinema at the Cinema
While not as popular or well-known as Disney’s Marvel films, On Cinema at the Cinema is another pop culture shared universe with a passionate audience. The OCatCU began as a podcast in 2011, which evolved into a YouTube series that ran for two seasons in 2012 before being picked up by Adult Swim in 2013.
The series is a parody of a movie review show, in which Tim Heidecker and Gregg Turkington play parodies of themselves who review movies, most of which Tim has not seen, but pretends to.
The running gags and storylines in the show include politics, vape pens, alleged murder, vaccinations, and Gregg Turkington’s obsession with VHS tapes.
The On Cinema universe now consists of:
- Twelve seasons—each consisting of ten episodes—of On Cinema at the Cinema, the YouTube and Adult Swim show.
- The show Decker, a web and television series in which Tim Heidecker plays Secret Agent Jack Decker, Gregg Turkington plays master code-breaker Jonathan Kington and Joe Estevez plays President Jason Davidson
- Nine annual Oscar Specials, broadcast live during the Oscars every year.
- An original five-hour series entitled The Trial, in which Heidecker’s Heidecker is put on trial for nineteen deaths he may be responsible for.
- A feature-length film called Mister America
- Enormous amounts of spinoff content on the HEI Network, including more specials and a new sorta feature film called Deck of Cards
Every one of these shares the same meta-narrative, in which Heidecker, Turkington, Mark Proksch and Joe Estevez play fictionalized versions of themselves. The series Decker exists two layers deep, with the actors playing fictionalized versions of themselves playing characters. When Heidecker is Decker, he isn’t just portraying Decker: he is Tim Heidecker as Tim Heidecker as Jack Decker.
It’s important to note, also, that Turkington, Heidecker, Proksch and Estevez are each portraying less successful versions of themselves. The Tim Heidecker of OCatCU wasn’t in Bridesmaids, Eastbound and Down, or even Tim and Eric. This is a Gregg Turkington who exists sans Neil Hamburger, just as the On Cinema Mark Proksch isn’t in Better Call Saul or This is Us.
It’s also important to note that of my favorite layers of the OCatC fandom—and something that I’m breaking in this blog post—is that most fans will join the conversation in character as GreggHeads or TimHeads, via YouTube, reddit, Twitter, Facebook, and more. This is happening even as I write this, as the online On Cinema community divides itself over the latest rift between Gregg and Tim and the upcoming On Cinema Oscar Special.
The Link Between Ant-Man, Gregg Turkington, Tim Heidecker & Their On Cinema Personas
Now that we’ve established both the MCU and the OCatCU, let’s explore the connection between the two: both what is known and then, once that is established, the fan theory I’m presenting.
Let’s also be clear that there are lots of film franchise that exist in both our world and within the OCatCU, but that does not mean they are all franchises within the OCatCU. For example, James Bond is one of Gregg Turkington’s favorite franchises but that doesn’t make it a meta narrative in the style of Decker and the Marvel films.
Between the MCU and the OCatCu, there are four central works that tie into this theory:
The 3rd Annual On Cinema Oscar Special (2015)
This is where the entire connection between the two universes begins. At approximately the one-hour mark, the director Peyton Reed appears on the show as himself.
Reed and Turkington reveal—to the chagrin of Heidecker—that Turkington has a small role in the upcoming film Ant-Man. This immediately establishes that, unlike his role in the 2015 film Entertainment or 2006’s Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny, Turkington would be appearing in Ant-Man as Gregg Turkington (of On Cinema) as Dale.
Gregg Turkington as Gregg Turkington as the Baskin-Robbins Manager in Ant-Man (2015)
Turkington’s actual role in the film is very brief, playing pre-Ant-Man Scott Lang’s manager at Baskin-Robbins. He appears around the 5 minute mark and is gone by minute 7.
His only purpose in the film is to provide some comic relief and fire Rudd’s character, a catalyst into Scott Lang’s journey toward becoming Ant-Man.
The antics escalated to the extreme Gregg Turkington going to Ant-Man premier in character as the On Cinema Gregg Turkington:
On Cinema Season 7 Episode 1
In this episode, we see Turkington and Heidecker reviewing two films: Ant-Man and The Fantastic Four. You can watch it on YouTube right here:
Turkington recuses himself from reviewing Ant-Man, while also wearing an Ant-Man shirt and pointing out that it was a hit at the box office.
The other joke mixed into this episode is Tim Heidecker having appeared in the failed Fantastic Four film, which is not part of the MCU.
Tim Heidecker as Tim Heidecker as “Whale Man” in Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)
The meta-narrative around the MCU paused for a few years, resurfacing when it was revealed that Tim Heidecker would be appearing in Ant-Man and the Wasp. The role is about as small as Turkington’s role in Ant-Man: he plays Daniel Goobler, the tour guide on a whale-watching tour.
This subsequently sparked an ongoing debate, via Twitter and Instagram and the On Cinema Live series. A new running jokes is one in which Tim and Gregg argue over whether Ant-Man and the Wasp is indeed a canonical sequel to Ant-Man and whether Tim will be appearing in a film called Whale Man that focuses on the adventures of his minor character from Ant-Man.
Here is an example of Gregg getting himself worked up about it and rebutting Tim via Twitter:
Gregg and Tim are so dedicated to the joke and to the OCatCU that they use their online personas largely to further the narratives established within On Cinema.
The Fan Theory Itself
I’ll be honest: I’ve wondered if this is truly a fan theory or if I have uncovered an intentional reading of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. Director Peyton Reed himself is obviously in on the joke, appearing as himself in the third Oscar Special and igniting the entire conversation.
But here is my fan theory: it’s not just a connection between Ant-Man and On Cinema. And it’s not as simple as Reed making a one-off joke.
If the entire MCU is one connected canon, it isn’t too far of a stretch to decide that this means the entire film franchise—from the original Iron Man to the forthcoming Avengers: Endgame—also exists as an in-universe franchise.
Consider, here, Reed’s statement about the dynamic of working concurrently with other directors who are also creating films in the shared universe, from this interview with The Hollywood Reporter:
To have Ryan Coogler and Taika and the Russos, it’s such a great mixed bag of filmic sensibilities. Every one of us are really serious filmmakers, but with different tones. It’s very rare that you as a director get to spend time with other directors. It’s probably the closest thing that this generation will have to a ’30s- or ’40s-era studio system where you are all on the lot and you are all working on different things.
Obviously, if this is Reed’s take on the MCU, then he understands the consequences of incorporating Heidecker and Turkington into the universe while also appearing on On Cinema.
Yes, every installment of the carefully crafted Marvel Cinematic Universe is actually nothing more than an elaborate series inside the slightly-less-popular-than-Marvel series On Cinema.
This wouldn’t be the first example of a real-life film that actually serves as a tale-within-a-tale. There are examples like the meta narratives The Princess Bride or the Mechanicals’ performance of Pyramus and Thisbe in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Perhaps the best example of this in another franchise is the relatively widespread interpretation that half of Tarantino’s films actually exist within the universe of the other half.
One can also compare this to the works of Bret Easton Ellis or Stephen King or Kurt Vonnegut, in which novels are nestled as fictional entities existing inside other novels. Ellis’s Imperial Bedrooms, for example, is not just a sequel to Less Than Zero but a novel in which the novel Less Than Zero and Bret Easton Ellis exist as separate entities.
Likewise, Stephen King’s Dark Tower series includes other Stephen King novels—and King himself—as fictional entities within it.
On On Cinema and Marvel
Yes, it can be safely said that The Avengers is to On Cinema as Kill Bill is to Pulp Fiction.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a fun superhero film franchise, yes, but it becomes even more compelling when one views it not just as a superhero film franchise but as a series of films that live entirely within the compelling On Cinema franchise.
And if none of this made any sense to you, then I recommend you start watching On Cinema now.
Another update: there are rumors, unconfirmed as of now, that Gregg Turkington will return, as fictional Gregg Turkington, as Dale in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, commonly known as Ant Man 3. I will update this article as I get more information.