“You think you’re the only superhero in the world? You’ve become part of a bigger universe; you just don’t know it yet.” — Samuel L. Jackson
As much as someone like Mark Cousins would love to argue otherwise, the multi-billion dollar industry that is the international movie business is run and dominated by blockbusters. Blockbuster films, high-concept, big budget “event” movies that attract and pander to the masses with their glorious (or mind-numbing) spectacle and entertain (or insult the intelligence of) millions upon millions of moviegoers with high stakes melodrama, juicy character conflict, and either colorful action set pieces or elaborate dance ensembles (or both) — these are what drive the mainstream cinema trends that the vast majority of the population is familiar with. While big-budget movie events that relied on epic narrative scope and cinematic spectacle attractions have been part of the movie business since the early days of cinema (e.g. Birth of a Nation , Gone with the Wind ), things really started to change in the mid-to-late 1970’s when the American blockbuster finally came into its own and Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) and George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977) established the sheer box office power of action-packed adventure films and the movie business hasn’t been the same sense.
As monotonous as the endless blockbuster slog can seem from the industrial movie assembly lines of America (or India), the fact that blockbusters themselves as high-concept, big budget, mostly action-based events have remained fairly stable in their dominance over the past 40 years does not in any way mean that the style or tone of those movies has not changed substantially from decade to decade. Blockbusters still dominate the global box office and are still crafted with the intention of appealing to as many audiences as possible, but as times change and world economies change and cultures change, so must the dominate forms of art and entertainment (i.e. movies) change to reflect the evolving tastes and demographics of their prospective audiences.
While industries as big as Hollywood or Bollywood are so large that even exceptions to the rule or more sidestream, parallel hits tend to be numerous even by themselves, the general trend and style of the biggest, most frequent hit films broadly defines the blockbuster styles of a particular time. The blockbuster archetype for our time (year 2000 till now) is the superhero film, and the dominate franchise of that subgenre is far and away the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
ENTER THE WORLD OF MARVEL: THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE BOX OFFICE-TAKEOVER
I. Marvel’s Cinematic Universe
You’d have to have been living under a rock for the past decade to not have noticed this series. Marvel’s self-guided, self-run, and independently produced series has become the “in” since 2008, taking over for Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy (2005, 2008, 2012) as the big superhero franchise on campus with the buildup to and release of their megahit, Avengers, in 2012. The MCU is such an ubiquitous, widely followed, and consistently hyped franchise year in and year out that everybody recognizes it, and it’s exciting to follow regardless of your opinions of the franchise as a whole.
The level of MCU’s dominance in terms of both box office success and mainstream acceptance is staggering. Since 2008 with the release of the original Iron Man, Marvel has on average released two films per year as part of their interconnected film universe and consistently been extremely successful with every one. The least profitable movie in the entire 10-film series (so far) was The Incredible Hulk (2008) back when Edward Norton was still cast as Bruce Banner, which grossed “only” $263 million on a $150 million budget (Hulk is the only primary Avengers character that hasn’t gotten his own standalone sequel). Seven out of all ten films so far have grossed over $500 million (all three Iron Man movies [2008, 2010, 2013], The Avengers , Thor: The Dark World , Captain America: The Winter Soldier , and Guardians of the Galaxy , the latter of which is still in theatres at the time of this writing), and the average gross per individual film has only increased the longer the series has gone on. The series is now the highest grossing film franchise in history. Clearly, if the MCU train is to have a peak before it declines (which it inevitably will), it hasn’t hit it yet, as the Marvel machine is still on the up-swing and shows no sign of slowing down anytime soon. According to Marvel president and producer of all MCU films Kevin Fiege, Marvel has plans for films up till 2028, which potentially represents over more than 20 additional films for the franchise.
While no trends in any entertainment business last forever, Marvel is the top blockbuster dog worldwide and will continue to be for some time. As their latest and supposedly “riskiest” gamble in Guardians swept all expectations aside and has past over $600 million and climbing, what with its cast including an anthropomorphic tree and a talking raccoon, right now Marvel could sell water to a well.
Like all blockbuster movie trends, but especially for a franchise over which I feel as conflicted as the MCU, there are many things I like and quite a few things I don’t like about it. Let’s run down the list, shall we?
What I DON’T like about the Marvel Cinematic Universe:
- Overuse of CGI/Digital Special FX — This complaint could be stretched to include most American blockbusters in general, but this is particularly valid with the MCU. Nearly every single film in the series (save for The Winter Soldier and perhaps the original Iron Man) has computer-generated special FX out the wazoo in nearly every scene. This isn’t just limited to the action scenes —- many scenes of expository dialogue and those non-punching/rocket-shooting/hammer-smashing sequences are either heavily “enhanced” by CGI or are entirely blue-screened. Movies like both Thor standalone titles and Guardians of the Galaxy feature so many digital effects that the overuse of these techniques gives these movies a very cartoony feeling that channels the campy, unrealistic, cheesy aspects of the graphic novel source material rather than the fun ones. I can always tell when they’re using digital versus practical effects, and the repetitive, digitized feel of each film grows numbing after time.
- Generic, repetitive tone and action —- This kind of goes along with the series’ overuse of digital effects, but furthermore includes the way the action is shot in conjunction with the ubiquitous CGI and the overall tone of the violence. Much like how videogames made from the same engine tend to look, feel, and operate the same, MCU films all feel distinctly similar to a fault. I understand that this is supposed to be a continuous series within a shared fictional universe, I get that. However, when you have characters with vastly different superpowers and backstories and personal nemeses whose movies feel like borderline carbon copies of each other, the repetitiveness of the whole affair starts to get old fast. If you’ve seen one MCU movie, chances are you’ve seen most of the series.
- More alarmingly, the majority of the series represents the epitome of the watered-down PG-13 violence that has become the staple of most every mainstream Hollywood blockbuster since the mid-2000’s. Marvel’s continued cartoony comic book dominance of global ticket sales continues to push action movies to the family-friendly, “sanitized violence” crowd, which typically means really crappy action scenes and, along with Michael Bay’s Transformers series (2007, 2009, 2011, 2014) has turned the American action movie genre into a joke. We are a long way from Diehard and Robocop, folks.
- Poor supporting characters —- In contrast with the other major progenitors of the modern superhero craze of the 2000’s, namely Sam Rami’s Spider-Man trilogy (2002, 2004, 2007) and Nolan’s TDK franchise, the MCU has been lazy as hell when comes to writing and churning out forgettable sidekicks, love interests, and supporting characters (we’ll get to their lackluster villains in a moment). Most action films tend to be light on character development beyond their primary hero protagonist, and this is a universal action movie cliche that most of the MCU epitomizes to a “T.”
- Forgettable villains — One of the big storytelling devices that separates Marvel from DC and always has since the early days of American comics are their contrasting emphases and focus on their antagonists. In DC narratives like Superman or especially Batman, the bad guys actually played big, integral roles in their stories and served as fundamental philosophical and ideological antithesis to their superhero nemeses. One of the reasons why Batman’s villains are so widely known and respected, beyond the fact that they’re also just well-written characters in general, is that their conflicts with the Caped Crusader have direct effects on the latter’s character. Characters like the Joker, Scarecrow, the Riddler, and Two-Face and their interactions with Batman are part of Batman’s arc and development, and the way these opposing forces play off of and react with each other is what makes their stories so interesting.
- Conversely, most Marvel villains serve little purpose beyond acting as obligatory obstacles that their rival superheroes must eventually overcome. There is nothing fundamentally important to Spider-Man’s character that has to do with his relationship with Doc Oc or the Green Goblin or whomever. There is no major ideological clash between Iron Man and the Iron Monger that defines the former as a character like the Joker (Anarchy) vs. The Dark Knight (Order, Justice) does. Marvel superheroes are by and large defined with their interactions with their supporting characters and rival superheroes (one of the reasons why The Avengers was so satisfying and most of the standalone features aren’t) and how they come to terms with their extraordinary powers.
What I DO Like about the Marvel Cinematic Universe:
- Good main characters and smart casting — As bad as most of their supporting characters are and as forgettable and unimportant as their villains have become, Marvel paid attention to what would guarantee their series mainstream acceptance and make them the most money, and that was an effective core Avengers team of charismatic leads. The way most American action films are structured, particularly and especially superhero blockbusters in the vein of traditional Marvel formula, the protagonist or hero of any story is by far the most important piece of the casting puzzle. A good action hero can elevate a mediocre script and sometimes even mediocre direction if the actor melds with the part, and nowhere is this truer nowadays than in the MCU. Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Edward Norton — er, I mean Mark Ruffalo, and especially Robert Downey Jr. are all perfect for their roles. They make their movies work more than anything else (except for the direction in the case of the best MCU films), and it goes without saying that Marvel’s franchise wouldn’t have gotten off the ground if RDJ hadn’t absolutely nailed it as the egotistical, volatile, self-obsessed (and what was it? Don’t play well with others?) playboy Tony Stark.
- Impressive production values and great visuals — Despite being one of the biggest pushers of the overuse of CGI in Hollywood today, the fact remains that the MCU has high production values and uses them well. I’m not a fan of the series’ overall style and I probably never will be, but for what it is the MCU has maintained a high standard of visuals, sound design, and overall quality aesthetics. The series is just a very pretty thing to look at. Sure, things get too cartoony for Marvel’s own good at numerous points throughout its early standalone features (e.g. Thor, The First Avenger), yet for the most part the movies look great, sound great, and live up to those insanely expensive Hollywood budgets. That’s much more than I can say for most of the X-Men series or The Not-So-Amazing Spider-Man reboots.
- The overwhelming, consistent mediocrity of the series as a whole has been evened out by several really good, really entertaining films — As much as I bitch about bores like Thor, Thor 2, or The First Avenger, or the overrated generic snoozefests that were the Iron Man sequels, experiencing satisfying acts of contrition like The Avengers or The Winter Soldier arguably make all the franchise’s filler and endless stalling worth it. The Avengers did the impossible and lived up to all the immense hype, even managing to outcompete Nolan’s final (and incredibly disappointing) Dark Knight Rises (2012) at the box office, and The Russo brothers finally made Captain America into the badass I knew he could be with The Winter Soldier. And let’s not forget just how surprising and intelligent the original Iron Man and debut of RDJ were way back in 2008. Although the big superhero story of that year was Nolan’s magnum opus, Iron Man has had just as big an impact on the global film industry and, along with TWS, remains fair and away the finest of the MCU standalone entries.
[Continued in Part II]