Hollywood is no stranger to jumping on industry trends to make a quick buck with minimal effort. This used to mean churning out western movies like they were hotcakes, or later, cheesy early-2000s rom-coms. These days, however, studios have turned to movies that take place in an interconnected universe. Marvel Studios has been the industry leader in this department for the last decade.
While there have been attempts to follow in those footsteps, none have succeeded in the same way. The DC Comics cinematic universe is limping along, its most recent entry being “Zach Snyder’s Justice League.” Universal’s Dark Universe, based on classic monster movies from the 1930s, seemed to emerge stillborn after 2017’s Mummy reboot (the “Dark Universe” Twitter account put out two tweets in 2017 and then never spoke again). Marvel Studios is seemingly the first, and only, longstanding success story of an interconnected superhero-centric movie universe.
With movies planned out until 2023, at least, it doesn’t look like they’ll stop releasing movies or TV shows any time soon. That would take some sort of divine intervention, I think, or significant drops in revenue, which the consistency of box office earnings for “Black Widow” and “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” seem to rule out.
It’s no surprise that these movies do well, as they’re fun, consistent, action movies with distinctive characters and, up until “Avengers Endgame” at least, a clear sense of direction. There is no disputing that these movies are money makers, either. “Shang-Chi” alone has made $387,958,567, more money than I, unfortunately, will probably ever make in my life.
But can that success be sustained? Is ‘tried-and-true’ enough to keep people coming back? I’m not so sure myself.
With all that pre-built success, one might think that I, your fairly average white man between 20-30, most certainly the target demographic, would be more than fine with going to see the newest Marvel movies. You would be partially right. I watched “Black Widow'' and saw all those new Disney+ shows, and I’ve heard good things about “Shang-Chi,” but for whatever reason, going to see this new one has suddenly felt like a chore. Hearing news about upcoming Marvel movies strikes similar chords in me as a presidential debate or ad-reads on Youtube videos: I don’t particularly enjoy what I’m hearing, but I feel obligated to listen.
To be frank, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) seems to resemble a chicken without its head right now, and like so many chicken parents before me, I’m not angry. I’m just disappointed. Like I said, I saw “Black Widow '' when it came out and dutifully binged the various Disney+ shows and they were fine, but they were also exactly as I expected them to be.
There’s something to be said for consistent entertainment. These movies make money for a reason, after all. When the world is a scary place with its climate change, pandemics and inexhaustible injustices, wanting a little escapism is natural. But that profit-oriented vision of creativity often leads to formulaic, one-note movies that begin to resemble McDonald’s hamburgers more than movies. There’s no risk to the McDonald’s menu though, which feels the same as saying there’s no possibilities.
As Martin Scorsese put it, Marvel Studios films “are sequels in name but they are remakes in spirit, and everything in them is officially sanctioned because it can’t really be any other way. That’s the nature of modern film franchises: market-researched, audience-tested, vetted, modified, revetted and remodified until they’re ready for consumption.”
It is in that way, that they are so much like a McDonald’s hamburger. When you buy your ticket for a Marvel movie, you know pretty much the experience you’ll be getting before you are even handed the little ticket stub. And that is the sum of the issue. The Marvel Studios franchise has been so genetically modified that they can’t help but be anything but successful, which means they never have to worry about risk, financial or emotional, and that robs the movies under its umbrella of everything that could make the franchise revealing about the human experience.
There is so little emotional tension in these movies that the characters might as well be made of rubber when they punch each other. Take for example, 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War.” The marketing might have you believe that the film is the peak of emotional conflict for Captain America and Iron Man, but if you look at the characters’ emotional states at the beginning and end of the movie, it's hard to say that either of them actually changed at all, seeing as Captain America apologizes right before the credits roll.
The storytelling feat of one continuous story told over 25 movies and 13 years cannot be understated, but again that incessant need for continuity has created a universe that is basically the same throughout. The visuals have become so samey that taking one frame from one movie could very well fit in any of them. This is due in part to the fact that the footage is color graded in a way that makes what could be vibrant, colorful images, full of vibrant colorful characters look like concrete. Again there’s no risk involved, as the key to consistency is homogeneity, not variety. Like an aphid cloning itself in a last-ditch effort to reproduce, the lineage survives, but every mutation from the previous generation is carried on.
In “Avengers Infinity War” Thanos kills Gamora so he can get one of the fabled infinity stones. The scene is a fairly emotional moment (the rare one that isn’t immediately undercut by a joke) that has ramifications for the wider story, and that’s great. That’s exactly what the franchise needs. Until that moment is undermined and reversed when Gamoria is brought back in the next movie, of course. She’s gotta be there for “Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 3” after all.
The movies that most benefit from Marvel’s trademark interconnectivity are “Black Panther” and “Thor: Ragnarok.” “Black Panther” because the heavy lifting of establishing the characters was accomplished in “Captain America Civil War,” and “Thor Ragnarok” because including the Hulk precludes his departure on the Avengers’ plane in “Age of Ultron.” And those are some of the best MCU movies.
To say that the formula itself is the problem is missing the point. Clearly you can make a successful Marvel movie that is stylistically inventive and has emotional stakes. Those movies aren’t weighed down by continuity or formula, proving that you can tell emotionally compelling (if still pretty predictable) superhero stories. It helps that Taika Watiti and Ryan Coogler are talented directors with clear personal styles to filmmaking and they bring that to these already established characters in refreshing ways.
Maybe a good template for the MCU going forward is to emulate the United States Space Program Cinematic Universe(USSPCU), made up of ‘Hidden Figures,’ ‘The Right Stuff,’ ‘First Man’ and ‘Apollo 13.’ While it’s not an established franchise cinematic universe in the same way Marvel’s is, it has recurring characters, like Gus Grissom, John Glenn, Neil Armstrong, and Jim Lovell. All those movies were obviously made at different points in time and not with the intention of creating a cinematic universe, but the consequence of their focus on a single period in history lends them a continuous narrative feel.
The movies within the USSPCU all have differing directorial and cinematic styles, similar in a way to the differing styles of “Black Panther” and “Thor: Ragnarok,” yet they tell an overarching story at the same time. “First Man'' is an intense thriller, whereas “The Right Stuff” is a historical epic, and “Hidden Figures” and “Apollo 13” are straightforward dramas. They’re stylistically and tonally distinct from each other, they don’t blur together in memory.
In 13 years, and nearly twice as many movies, the Marvel Studios franchise has burned me out. If they want to keep me going back to the theaters to see these things, there’s going to have to be some evolution, some stylistic innovation instead of simply doing what works and is easily repeatable. Denis Villeneuve recently described Marvel movies as “cut and paste,” and I’m inclined to agree.
These things cost hundreds of millions of dollars to make, can you blame a guy for expecting a little more than that?
Will Mulligan is a reporter for the Beacon. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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