So, I hate to do this, but I’m going to have to kick this piece off with a…sports analogy. Yeah, I know, just bear with me here. See, when a football team wins the Super Bowl, they immediately have a huge target on their back. Every team plays extra hard and is super motivated to knock them off because they want to thump their chests and prove they can take down the best.
Well, in the current geek culture zeitgeist, Marvel Studios’ interconnected universe of superhero movies is the proverbial Super Bowl champ, with July 2015’s Ant-Man becoming their 12th consecutive box office and critical success. Naturally, this success has been met with derision, vitriol, and endless nitpicking from geek bloggers, naysayers, fanboys of competing superhero publishers, and people generally adverse to having fun. Here then, is a dissection and an analysis of five of the most unfair and unfounded critiques of the Marvel Cinematic Universe:
[Before we get started, I should point out that this piece in no way implies that Marvel Studios is a perfect, infallible entity. There are plenty of valid critiques to be levied against them. It’s downright embarrassing that they haven’t produced a solo Black Widow movie, or a movie starring one of their other superheroines like Captain Marvel or Spider-Woman, for example.]
5.) There’s Never Anything At Stake/No One Ever Dies
This one amazes me because it’s really unfair to single out the Marvel Cinematic Universe when there are myriad franchises that could easily be condemned for these same perceived transgressions, but never are. When was the last time you heard anyone say James Bond movies aren’t interesting or exciting, or that nothing is at stake? There’s a good chance the answer is “never,” despite the reality that James Bond is essentially an invincible character who will always escape penis-burning laser traps to live to fight another day. Same goes for Superman, Batman, Captain Jack Sparrow, Ethan Hunt, and scores of other protagonists in multi-billion dollar film sagas. (The invincibility part, not the escaping penis-burning laser part.)
I think it’s important we all take a step back and stop being intellectually dishonest when it comes to these iconic characters – we all know they will live to rake in more box office bucks in the next installment. I think it’s more than safe to say the two most popular superheroes on the planet, Batman and Superman, will emerge relatively unscathed when their big brouhaha goes down in March, 2016. There’s a reason heroes like Captain America and The Hulk have endured for decades; they resonate with audiences and they always triumph over adversity, whether it’s internal or external. Two types of conflicts, incidentally, that I happen to think the MCU handles quite well.
I don’t know about you, but the last time I checked, an entire city transformed into a deadly, Earth-annihilating meteor by a deranged A.I. is a pretty big threat. Same goes for an alien invasion, a shadowy organization subverting our nation’s security and targeting civilians for mass execution, a gem containing planet-obliterating energy falling into the hands of a megalomaniacal zealot, or a creepy elf-lord seeking to plunge all of creation back into an endless, silent darkness. Now, granted, not of all of these nefarious plots were executed perfectly, but these are imminent, life-altering dangers that match up with any cataclysmic events threatening death and destruction in other genre blockbusters.
However, it’s the stuff happening within the characters that often fuel the most exciting turmoil in the MCU films. Whether it’s Ant-Man‘s dueling Daddy-Daughter narratives, Hulk’s ongoing internal Jekyll & Hyde strife, or Cap’s struggles to adjust to a modern world rife with grey morality and complex social issues – the psychological conflicts are often far more intense than any physical encounter with a villain, something I’ll explore further in the next entry.
As for characters never dying – I suppose none of you heartless bastards shed a tear over one of the most profound losses in superhero movie history – R.I.P. Antony…never forget!
4.) All The Villains Are Lame
They say, “a hero is only as good as his villain.” Well, I don’t believe that’s necessarily true. Sometimes the wars waged in these heroes’ psyches—or their relationships to other characters (and to the world around them)—are infinitely more compelling than trying to stop some psychopath from blowing up the Earth with a death ray. That’s especially true of Marvel characters, whom creators like Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko imbued with relatable “everyman” qualities (as well as deep-seeded anxieties and complex psychoses), in an effort to separate them from the stuffy, monolithic paragons of virtue in grey suits and flat top haircuts over at DC.
I’m sure when Kevin Feige and the Marvel Studios brain trust embarked on their journey to introduce audiences to their superheroes (the ones to which they owned the film rights, anyway), in the Phase 1 and 2 films, they had to ask themselves a crucial storytelling question for each movie – is this the kind of narrative that is driven by a confrontation between two characters (or groups) with clashing ideologies, or is it a story propelled by introspection? In short, who’s more interesting – the good guy or the bad guy?
More often than not, it’s the good guy. Marvel’s flagship character, Tony Stark, is a shining example of this. He’s been saddled with some not-so-great baddies (though I think Jeff Bridges unsettling performance as Obidiah Stane is vastly underrated), but it’s essentially irrelevant thanks to Robert Downey Jr.’s effortless and wildly entertaining charisma. Watching Tony Stark try to live up to his father’s impossibly successful legacy, deal with the crippling aftereffects of PTSD, come to terms with the fact that his livelihood results in the deaths of thousands every year, wrestle with the existential knowledge that cosmic forces beyond comprehension exist and will eventually arrive to annihilate his world, and overcompensate for past mistakes by playing God and believing he can single-handedly protect humanity are the things that made the Iron Man and Avengers films so intriguing – not the sequences of CGI armors clanking into each other (though those are cool). Hell, his conversation with Loki over pricy bourbon in Stark Tower before the Chitauri invasion is one of the best, most tension-filled one-on-one showdowns in the MCU, and it doesn’t involve a single repulsor blast or mini-missile barrage.
Tom Hiddleston’s Loki is probably Marvel Studios’ greatest asset when it comes to bad guys, but as deceitful and wickedly charming as he is, he never completely dominates the proceedings. There’s always the danger of having the villain overshadow the hero, ala Jack Nicholson’s Joker in the iconic 1989 Tim Burton Batman movie (which many people have joked over the years should have been titled The Joker), and I think Marvel is very conscious of that, so they’ve posited their evildoers as dark reflections or “children” of the heroes, or keepers/wielders of the MacGuffins and the catalysts for change. While it’s true a few of the MCU antagonists aren’t great, layered characters, I’d much rather have a slightly underdeveloped villain who is an impediment to the hero’s journey of self-discovery than one who runs roughshod over the narrative and chews scenery in a bad way. (I’m looking at YOU, Jamie Foxx’s Electro.)
For example, the real antagonistic forces in Guardians Of The Galaxy are fear, selfishness, isolation, emotional trauma, greed, revenge, and obsession. Rocket, Gamora, Star Lord, Drax – these are all broken beings searching for validation, redemption, respect, catharsis, and simple companionship. Their quest to find friendship and purpose in a harsh, vast universe is far scarier and more existential than Ronan The Accuser’s quest to crush Xandar with an Infinity Stone. Therefore, all the movie needs Ronan to be is an intimidating force, and Lee Pace is certainly that; he does just enough to make Ronan feel like a threat to the team and serve as a galvanizing presence for their eventual bonding.
Another question that needs to be posed regarding the whole lame, undercooked villain situation is – to what standard are Marvel critics holding these antagonists? General Zod in Man of Steel? You could argue he has the same motivations as Ronan in Guardians Of The Galaxy and probably the same level of development – they both just scream a whole lot and want to annihilate a world out of revenge. Bane in The Dark Knight Rises? The Lizard in Amazing Spider-Man? R’as Al Ghul in Batman Begins? Do most fans remember or heap praise on the bad guy in Hellboy II: The Golden Army? Or Blade 2? Are these great, developed, or particularly memorable masters of malevolence? Not in my book.
Looking back at the history of comic book movies, how many truly standout, multi-textured, legendary villain performances have we really seen? You could probably count them on one hand – Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor, Terrance Stamp’s Zod, Nicholson and Ledger’s Jokers, Ian McKellan’s Magneto, Alfred Molina’s Doc Ock, and…that’s about it. The number of terrible villain performances seem to outweigh the great ones, while the majority seem to fit into the “obstacle who’s just threatening enough” category. Are weak or flat-out bad villains a pandemic across the entire superhero movie spectrum? That’s something that probably requires exploring in an entirely separate piece, but if so, then it’s completely unfair and biased to single the Marvel Studios films out for having sub-par baddies. It also doesn’t help that Marvel Studios is hamstrung by their lack of access to some of their top tier bad guys, like Doctor Doom, Galactus, Magneto, Kang, and others. That’s not a hand-waving excuse, it’s just a fact.
We’ve also haven’t seen what Thanos—the “Big Bad” of the MCU—is capable of, both from a personality perspective and a power set. Josh Brolin has a planet-sized weight on his shoulders, because the impact his Thanos performance has on the MCU is going to be crucial moving forward. While I believe the Marvel villains are far from lame or weak, the movies need that one terrifying mastermind.
3.) There Are Too Many Connections To Other Movies
I will never, ever understand this pointless grumble. Every time I hear someone complain about, let’s say, seeds for The Infinity War being planted in Avengers: Age Of Ultron and Guardians Of The Galaxy, or Captain America: Civil War connections in Ant-Man, I want to grab that person’s head, shake vigorously, and say, “Hi, welcome to Marvel’s 21st century film storytelling/universe building! We’re glad you could make it…after all, it’s only been TWELVE interconnected stories!”
Do these people expect every chapter they see to exist in a bubble? Sorry, but the ’90s are over; that’s just not how things are done anymore. Back in 2010 when Iron Man 2 stuck in some admittedly sloppy scenes featuring Nick Fury, Black Widow and Agent Coulson in order to help set up The Avengers, this critique was sort of cute and may have actually held some water, but if you’re still grousing five years later about seeing Easter Eggs, characters, or MacGuffins pop up in these flicks for an eventual payoff down the line, it might be time for you to seek out another movie franchise, because the interplay and interconnection between movies isn’t going to stop – nor should it.
It’s pretty head scratching, because the thing that sets Marvel Studios apart from not only superhero movie storytelling, but blockbusters in general, is this ambitious “it’s all connected” philosophy. It adds texture and dimension and scope to the proceedings, but probably more important than that, it’s fun! Fans love it! Hell, I love it! It’s especially gratifying for longtime comic book readers to see something like the
Cosmic Cube Tesseract go from an ancient artifact sought by the Red Skull to fuel Hydra engines of destruction during WWII in Captain America: The First Avenger, to a powerful object utilized by cosmic gods to create a rift in space and expose our world to intergalactic invaders bent on conquest and destruction in The Avengers. And we still haven’t seen the last of it, because thanks to Guardians Of The Galaxy, we now know it’s one of the legendary Infinity Stones—an assortment of powerful items from other MCU movies like The Aether from Thor: The Dark World, The Orb from Guardians Of The Galaxy, The Mind-Control stone from Loki’s Scepter in The Avengers, and two more stones which will likely surface in Doctor Strange and Avengers: Infinity War Part I—which will be assembled into Thanos’ Infinity Gauntlet, a weapon that can make the wearer a nigh-omnipotent, universe-destroying deity.
I suppose people’s primary issue with the set-ups and connections is that they feel their presence interferes with the flow of the narrative and makes them feel like the superhero film they’re watching is irrelevant, because it only exists to spawn more superheroes in more films. Well, first off….DUH. Secondly, beyond the aforementioned S.H.I.E.L.D. stuff in Iron Man 2, I can’t think of a single piece of connective tissue that sticks out like a sore thumb or ruins any of the films’ three-act structures. Hell, most of the set-ups happen in mid or post-credits sequences that no one is obligated to stick around for!
A good example of something I’ve heard endless groans about are the the “nightmares” experienced by Tony Stark and Thor triggered by the Scarlet Witch in Age Of Ultron. Of course, they do foreshadow horrific events that will play out in Thor’s final solo movie Thor: Ragnarok and in the Infinity War duology, but if you never saw a Marvel Studios film prior to this, or had zero plans to see Ragnarok, they still function perfectly fine as terrifying visions caused by a magic-wielding supervillain, and don’t have to be anything more than that. To me, this gripe falls into the “it’s only a problem if you make it a problem” category.
2.) There Are Too Many Jokes/The Movies Aren’t Dark Enough
When my friends and I go out to see a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie like The Avengers, Ant-Man, or Guardians Of The Galaxy, we laugh our asses off, pump our fists, and have an absolute blast – but apparently for some individuals, having a good time at the movie theater is detrimental to the superhero cinema experience. To them, all those jokes, one-liners, and quips undercut the deep, nuanced seriousness inherent to a dude in a red cape swinging a magic hammer around, a guy dressed in an American flag tossing a metal frisbee at high-tech Nazis, or a talking raccoon shooting giant laser guns, damnit!
These so-called “disciples of darkness” firmly believe that because superhero movies from DC Comics and other source material are slathered in grime and doused in shadows, (not to mention set to ominous, “Zimmerhorn-laden” soundscapes) they are instantly more “mature,” and explore weighty philosophical territory these bright, cheery Marvel movies are too afraid to touch. Message boards and article comment threads are filling up with misguided, uninformed fanboys blathering on about how “Marvel movies are just Disney kiddie crap, DC movies are dark and serious and stuff!”
What these people fail to understand is that just because the sun is out and heroes smile and crack one-liners, doesn’t mean the narratives in which they find themselves are devoid of emotional intensity, psychological introspection, or profound thematic elements. These things are all present in the Marvel Studios movies if you’re, you know, paying attention, and aren’t easily distracted by things like color, adventure, inspiration, lightheartedness, and yes, massive CGI action sequences. (We’ve been waiting decades to see superheroes do the things superheroes do…why is that a bad thing? )
Humor is also a hugely important storytelling element; it’s cathartic. It needs to be there to alleviate tension – otherwise, you risk the narrative turning completely bleak, ponderous, joyless, and morbid (Man Of Steel, essentially.) Much of the comedy in Marvel Cinematic Universe films is also vital to the psychological makeup of several characters like, for instance, Star-Lord and Tony Stark. Humor is their coping mechanism; something they use to evade actually dealing with their own emotions and the life-or-death situations around them.The grim and gritty crowd crucified the climax of Guardians Of The Galaxy for Star-Lord’s impromptu “cheesy dance-off” with Ronan, but to anyone actually emotionally invested in the story and who paid close attention to Star-Lord’s backstory, it made all the narrative sense in the world for him to do something like that. It was a moment of utter desperation and despair, so he fell back on the one weapon in his arsenal he had left – humor and deflection employed as distraction.
Critics also like to throw out words like “cheesy,” or “campy” without having a firm grasp of what those words actually mean. The MCU films never descend into outlandish camp; they aren’t ironic or meta-textual in any way. They don’t poke fun at themselves or the absurdity of superpowered heroes and villains in bright, crazy costumes. It’s all played perfectly straight. Sure, there are zingers and humorous observations about the situations in which they find themselves, but never at the world around them. The funny aspects of MCU movies always derive naturally – Iron Man and Star Lord’s aforementioned defense mechanisms, Thor and Captain America’s “fish out of water” reactions, nervous energy in the face of the end of the world, Ultron’s “inherited” sense of humor from his “father” Tony Stark, and so forth.
Look, I get it, I was in my early 20s once, too. Back then I was terrified and angered that people’s perception of comic book characters was informed by the 1960s Batman TV show – you know, the whole, “Biff Bam Pow, comics are for kids!” thing. I thought The Dark Knight Returns, The Crow, Watchmen, The Killing Joke were the epitome of superhero storytelling because they were chock full of violence, moral ambiguity, deconstruction, and gallons of black ink. The fact is, good storytelling is good storytelling, regardless if the characters on the page are backlit by lightning, have stubble, lurk in the shadows of grimy alleys, or soar through the sun-dappled sky dressed in primary blues, reds, and yellows. Not every story benefits from grim realism and it’s not tonally appropriate for every character. More often than not, darkness is a crutch; a lazy aesthetic used to mask mediocre or crappy storytelling.
Marvel has demonstrated a willingness to go dark and gritty when it’s tonally appropriate for the character or the story they are telling (see the Daredevil Netflix series or Captain America: The Winter Soldier), but the studio seems to have the basic understanding that before you get into the deconstruction of superheroes, you actually have to construct some first. If and when Marvel Studios decides to explore some social commentary and darker themes in their movies or TV series down the line, the payoff will be that much sweeter due to years and years of character development and build up, unlike other comic book movie universes, which are recklessly charging out of the gate under a corporate “no jokes” mandate, a moribund color palette, and unearned, rushed hero vs, hero conflicts.
The bottom line here is that humor isn’t inherently evil in comic book movies. Joss Whedon still said it best: “Make it dark, make it grim, make it tough, but then, for the love of God, tell a joke.”
1.) They Are All The Same!
Stop me if you’ve heard these gems before: “All Marvel movies look the same!”, “All Marvel Movies have the same plot!”, or how about “The Marvel Cinematic Universe films are glossy, soulless, formulaic clones churned out by the Disney corporation!” I have to wonder if the people who spew this nonsense actually know how to watch films. Do they confuse westerns with romantic comedies or sci-fi moves with courtroom dramas? I cannot fathom how someone watches a film like Captain America: The First Avenger, which is like a Raiders Of The Lost Ark-style fantasy adventure movie mixed with Band Of Brothers, and finds it similar to something like Iron Man 3, which is about a super-genius egomaniac suffering through PTSD while trying to stop a guy who has figured out to turn people in human bombs through technology. It’s just insane to me, and once again, intellectually dishonest.
One of the smartest things Marvel Studios did after telling their origin stories and bringing the heroes together in one epic superhero throw down for the ages in The Avengers during Phase One was to start dropping these iconic characters into different genres in Phase Two – Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a taut political thriller in the vein of classic ’70s films like 3 Days Of The Condor; Iron Man 3 is a noirsh, Shane Black black comedy; Thor: The Dark World is a fantasy adventure that conjures up Lord Of The Rings or Game Of Thrones; Guardians Of The Galaxy is classic, action-oriented space opera; Ant-Man is a Daddy-daughter redemption tale combined with a tension-filled Ocean’s 11-style heist flick. These are all wildly disparate, easily distinguishable subsets of movies with their own visual language, storytelling beats, and emotional payoffs.
“But–but, every Marvel movie is just about the hero or heroes chasing after some MacGuffin the bad guy has stolen, and eventually defeating them in a big CGI-riddled battle sequence! There is no danger and there are no storytelling risks!” Well, first off, congratulations, you just described every plot of every blockbuster movie ever made. Recycling basic plot elements is practically unavoidable when it comes to genre cinema, but it’s acceptable because what trumps plot structure—and what you should be focusing on—are theme and narrative. Guardians of the Galaxy isn’t about a group of misfit space renegades trying to steal an orb, it’s about those misfits finding friendship and a purpose in each other. Captain America: The Winter Soldier isn’t about an insidious secret organization subverting our nation’s defenses to target civilians for termination, it’s about a guy trying to find out who he is and where he belongs in a morally ambiguous, socially confusing, and politically complex world that’s feels completely alien from the one he left behind in the 1940s.
As for storytelling risks, are you kidding me? Assembling a group of six diverse characters from four different solo films into a gargantuan, unprecedented team film was a HUGE risk; The Mandarin twist in Iron Man 3 was a HUGE risk; taking on space opera—a genre that no one has been successful with since Star Wars—was a HUGE risk; making a movie about a superhero who shrinks and communicates with insects was a HUGE risk. And look at the risks to come – A war of ideologies between two heroes coming to a boil in Civil War; a hallucinatory journey into dark sorcery in Doctor Strange, an adaptation of mainstream comics first ever black superhero, The Black Panther, and an utterly bonkers, all-out cosmic magnum opus pitting every single Marvel character that has appeared thus far against a purple alien who can blink the universe out of existence in Avengers: Infinity War.
So the next time someone brings up any of these damning critiques, feel free to flash them this look: