THE END OF A MARVEL-OUS ERA?
Article by Abbey Archer
Nine years ago, I was about to graduate high school. For our Senior Skip activity, our class had the opportunity to watch a little movie called Iron Man. I say little because, at the time, I don’t think many of us really knew what to expect. Iron Man had long been a sort of obscure superhero, especially when held next to the likes of Superman, Spider-Man, and Batman. So when I sat down in the dark theatre to watch this adequately advertised, but ultimately NOT Batman movie, I didn’t expect much. I just wanted to be entertained.
Long story short: Iron Man blew me, and basically everyone else, out of the water. And nearly $600 million later, Iron Man marks the official beginning of something that is now the Marvel Cinematic Universe — or, as I like to think of it, the McLaren of Hollywood.
Every single film released since the 2008 conglomerate has raked in hundreds of millions to literal billions of dollars. Each and every one of these films easily top most of the critic’s and general public’s Hotly Anticipated Movie of Blank Year. The best directors are hired; the most creative screenwriters are enlisted to craft up memorable characters; all the hottest actors and actresses want to be in these films; and the top-market visual effects companies churn out some of the most amazing images ever put to digital film. Audiences eat these films up like kids after a successful night of trick-or-treating, charmed by the whip-smart dialogue delivered by whip-smart actors through the whip-smart direction of the company.
And I am one of these audience members eating this stuff up. But, like the kids who chow down on Halloween candy in a rush, I’m starting to get a stomachache from all the gorging. The older I get, and the more that I study film and compare these money monsters to other work being released today, the more I’ve realized the very subtle decline of quality in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Basically, the thought of trick-or-treating just doesn’t appeal much to me anymore.
I have seen every film released thus far from the MCU since 2008. That’s 15 films, almost 32 hours, and approximately $120 I’ve put into this company. So I can confidently say I have a bone to pick with these guys. In my humble opinion, the last MCU film that was released that is nearly aces all across the board is the first Guardians of the Galaxy. The entire thing fits together perfectly, balancing outrageous humor with exciting action in a glorified prison-break genre. Everything else since then leave much to be desired.
There are two components that have led me to this conclusion. The first is the story and overall writing involved. When Joss Whedon gave us The Avengers, he wasn’t just writing an outstanding film; he was elevating the characters that we were growing accustomed to. His version of Captain America is, to this day, my favorite iteration of the character: a solid, all-American, flawed yet optimistic hero. Then came Captain America: The Winter Soldier and the character was handed over to Anthony and Joe Russo. While almost everyone considers this film to be the best of the MCU, I am at the opposite end.
The Russo Brothers are great directors, that is clear. However, with two Captain America films under their belt, they have managed to turn one of my favorite superheroes into someone that I can hardly stand to watch onscreen. Where once was the charm and optimism of a World War II vet-turned nearly indestructible muscle man, now there is a dreary leader who puts a shallowly portrayed friendship above common sense. (I will put a plug in right here and say that the Russo Brothers’ iteration of Iron Man is incredibly realized and wonderfully human from all the other portrayals we’d seen before.) The argument could be made that Captain America is supposed to change into who we see him today, since the world has changed and is even more screwed up, but I don’t pay to watch the shining Golden Boy of the Avengers brood around like an angsty teenager. If I wanted to watch that, I’d turn on Josh Trank’s pile of garbage, Fant4stic.
The MCU also has a tendency to have way too many characters in their films, especially when it comes to throwaway villains. Loki is obviously the best villain they have on retainer: the guy has 3 films under his belt, he’s had the most time invested in fully developing the character, and he’s a delightful welcome to every film he appears in. Every other villain? Not so much. Ronan the Accuser, Malakith, Yellowjacket, Dormammu, Helmut Zemo, and even Ultron all suffer from being underwritten, underdeveloped, and ultimately underwhelming super villains.
You know who isn’t any of those things? The Joker from Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. (Yeah, I went there.) The Joker is a fully fleshed out villain who is truly menacing, and you feel his presence and see his mark even in the scenes he isn’t featured in. And while one could argue that The Dark Knight is more of a Joker film than a Batman film, his imprint on the whole is felt and leaves unavoidable consequences on Batman that transcends the entire story, and beyond.
When was the last time a Marvel villain left that kind of impression? Underutilized super villains may be the greatest sin a superhero film could commit; when they don’t equal the hero in volume and development, they flop around like a guppy on dry land. You want these guys to hold weight and leave an impression to their schemes and evildoing, not just go through the motions on a weak idea that leaves them as milk-toast overlords.
The other thing that is bringing down the quality of the MCU is the lack of tonal consistency. It seems as though the films that have come out in the last couple years are getting lost in what they truly are. I just came back from watching Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, and while I enjoyed the film overall, I walked out confused by what exactly James Gunn wanted me to experience.
Between Expositional Kurt Russell, Shakespeare-level tragic backstories for the said Guardians, and the smart-aleck humor that we’ve all come to love and expect from these characters, what was I supposed to feel afterward? The tone and flow in the film always seem to be at constant odds with each other. Sure, I laughed out loud at the one-liners and felt real sympathy for these people and their circumstances, but when both are coming at me at full force, with no real breathing room in between, I’m left to try and fit the puzzle pieces together in an impossible pattern. It doesn’t make sense.
This has been a problem with many of the MCU films since 2013. Iron Man 3 is the Tony Stark Feels Like Having Hilarious PTSD Show. Doctor Strange is like an unofficial Inception sequel, only with more Tibetan magic and motion-capture Benedict Cumberbatches. Captain America: Civil War is another Avengers film masquerading as a Captain America standalone. Even Ant-Man, which is my favorite of all the MCU films, is a partial Edgar Wright film that doesn’t know if it’s supposed to be taken seriously or not. When you have conflicting tones being fitted together, you end up with poor execution that affects the story you’re trying to create.
Had Guardians Vol. 2 decided to stick with the tried-and-true formula of its first outing, or gone the different, darker route, it would have worked much better. But together? It makes the film, as a whole, look messy and feel unfulfilled. Be one or the other; sometimes you can’t have it both ways.
Who am I kidding, though? Of course I’ll be going to see the rest of this decade’s MCU films. But unlike my 18 year old self, I’ll be more critical and taking my Marvel-colored glasses off to see what they have to offer. I’m not too excited for Spider-Man: Homecoming, but I have extremely high hopes for Thor: Ragnarok, mostly because I love Taika Waititi’s films and trust him to bring something new that we haven’t seen with the other Thor films. I truly hope Marvel’s upcoming films make me eat my own words … but cynicism has me thinking otherwise. We’ll just have to see.
In the meantime, let’s hope Squirrel Girl doesn’t get spun into a dark and gritty origin film. Or maybe it should get that treatment. I’m actually digging the idea of rabid rodents flying out of her cape, or whatever. Can we get Zack Snyder working on a script?