Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Marvel Cinematic Universe (2008 - 2018) REVISIT

I know mine is an unpopular opinion. The whole reason I'm writing this is that it is an unpopular opinion and someone needs to give voice to those who don't agree with the monolith which is love for the Marvel Cinematic Universe or "MCU." It's not that I hate the MCU. There are a few of the films in the series which I enjoy quite a bit. But like most movie series, the MCU truly does not live up to the hype and the blind devotion to it audience grant. More importantly than tat I worry the MCU is creating trends I don't like for movies in general. As the series rounds out its first decade I worry it, like certain movie series before it, is having a detrimental effect on the landscape of popular cinema. Let me explain.

The MCU is revolutionary in how it is the first real success in building this sort of a movie franchise, perhaps the only one so far. Normally, a movie "franchise" is a series of movies following one major story in a "chapter one, chapter two, chapter three..." style order, with each film a few years apart. The MCU blew this up by telling one major story through a number of mostly unrelated stories, produced by different creative teams, often in rapid succession (a few months instead of the 2-3 year wait most movie series take between films), therefore building a huge following that had to take in each piece of the story, even if they were widely varying in tone and quality, all weaving together into one overarching story. Movie franchises have attempted in the past to tell divergent stories all within the same "world" but nothing has ever been on this scale or this level of success... if success is making money which, let's face it, it is.

And for that I give it a great deal of respect. As a film lover the idea of this sort of story telling on this scale is something I can get excited about. But where I struggle with this is how the MCU, like certain franchises before it, such as Transformers, Hunger Games, Saw, and countless others, has, in its quest for world domination, sacrificed quality for quantity (in terms both of proliferation and well as bombast). They have struck a formula and now it's become an assembly line. I get it. It works. They sell tonnes of tickets, tonnes of cross promotional items, etc. Good for them. But what they rarely do is tell stories on a level that I find compelling. And when they do, they tend to back away from those films for a more bankable alternative. And the spill over effect is how it doesn't leave room for other approaches to story telling in popular cinema, both in the race to the bottom trend in Hollywood but also in how the MCU takes up so much space in multiplexes and releases so many films with such little space between them, to allow for alternatives. To make this clear I want to walk through the films of the first decade of this series to highlight my problems with the films.

The series started out strong, on a bit of a gamble, with Iron Man. Robert Downey Jr. amazed, in a way quite similar to the way Johnny Depp shocked us all in the first Pirates movie, and won us all over. Iron Man wasn't a sure thing. It as a lessor known property, RDJ wasn't the box office juggernaut he is now, and director John Favreau was a bit of a roll of the dice. He put together a simple, well structured story which highlighted the likable star/character at the centre of the film. It is quite the masterfully made movie. And it works. It works so well no one questions the "great man" premise behind the story, the idea that one well intention billionaire can save us all if we just give him the freedom to dominate us. Why get into the nitty gritty when we can just cheer at the heroics and laugh as the charming RDJ? Years later, Captain American Civil War would promise to address this moral problem but then it completely dropped the ball (more on that later). Regardless, in the beginning we weren't going to talk about it. At the time The Dark Knight series was already wrestling with the subtext of fascism in stories about powerful men fighting crime, but the MCU would keep it all pretty surface level and focus on the big bucks. And that would influence whether movies would be more likely to take the high road or the low road on issues such as this. 

But if we are being truly honest we know that the MCU wasted all the good will of the first Iron Man with two terrible sequels. This is where the Transformers effect comes in. Instead of developing the character (and I use singular because, come on, there is no other characters of any depth in the Iron Man films besides Tony Stark himself), instead of advancing his character arc beyond the surface, they just make bigger and badder set pieces with more explosions. The films go out of their way to be about more special effects, the kind which just get more and more elaborate to the point they make little sense. Boring stories paired with cheesy villains, Iron Man 2 and 3 are hardly watchable and easily forgettable. But it doesn't matter cause we get a cool end credit scene to tease the next film in the franchise. I honestly do not believe the sequels take Stark on a significant character arc but continue to leave him where he is, like an episode of a standard TV show which always resets so you can just start watching from whenever.

Then there is what I consider to be the highlight of the MCU, the Captain America movies. I still joke that if anyone had told me which would be my favorite MCU films before this started Cap would have been the lowest on my list. But strong film making in both the classic origin story First Avenger and even more so in Winter Soldier, make the Captain America series the only one worth rewatching of this group. Chris Evans' Cap is a progressive and his movies remain the only ones which wrestle with serious issues in an adult way. You have to go to the Netflix series to find other MCU characters who actually have adult lives and serious plots but we're focusing on the movies here.

Sue me for wanting my comic book characters to be taken seriously and not be played as jokes. Captain America gets to be what I am looking for in "superhero movies." I struggle with Civil War for a few reasons. It feels like it is trying to be both a third movie in the Captain America Trilogy and also a third Avengers movie and not being ideal at being either. Unfortunately it takes the tone of the latter, meaning it waters down the more interesting questions raised in the earlier Captain America films, fills in the gaps will jokes, and falls into that Avengers' fetish of "how many superheroes can we pile on here?" (More on that later.) I can still say the Captain America movies remain my favorite of the MCU.

Moving from the best to the worst, the Thor movies are the asshole of the MCU. The first two were down right terrible. Boring, uninspired, cartoony. I say this as a superfan of director Kenneth Branagh who still couldn't stomach his Thor movie. I hope I don't have to get into all the ways the Thor movies don't work but they are the opposite of the Captain America films and I don't mean that in a good way in terms of offering a diversity of film making styles. I mean as low in quality, execution, and delivery.

I will also take the unpopular position that Thor Ragnarok is a disappointment because it is basically an admission that the series is shit and the film makers don't even care any more, so instead of treating its characters seriously they just make it a parody of itself, telling fart jokes in a plot that is patched together without any cohesiveness. I was confused at the hiring of comedy director Taika Waititi (whose work I normally love) until I saw the film. He brings his comedic styling to the film and imbues it with a sense of social justice, but his approach is still to just rag on the whole idea of Thor and instead just make what is essentially the silliest movie in the increasingly silly MCU. (Again, more on that later.) I just don't want to be told that comic book characters are not worthy of being treated with respect and the only way to handle them is to be so cool we laugh at them instead.

Don't get me wrong. Superhero movies can be funny. I just want smart funny a la Deadpool not dumb funny like Thor Ragnarok

I guess I should talk about the bland, vanilla Incredible Hulk movie. This one off film couldn't even inspire its own mini franchise within the bigger universe. It takes what might be interesting about the Hulk character and instead dulls it down to the simplest of stories. I actually truly like Ang Lee's flawed but fascinating non-MCU Hulk movie but most people disregard it outright and it isn't technically part of this series so we can ignore it too. The Hulk is a character who has been given short shrift in this universe (like Hawkeye) and his best moments aren't in his own film.

But let's get to the film with ties the whole series together; The Avengers. Joss Whedon pulled off a minor miracle by putting together the first real team up movie of this scale. The Avengers mostly works and ends up being fairly fun as it, like the first Iron Man, sticks to the formula. The film brings the disparate characters together, they inexplicably fight cause that's what Marvel heroes do, then they come together to fight a conveniently dues ex machina threat to humanity's existence. It feels very Marvel, which it should. A tight story, fun banter (shwarma), and well paced set pieces deliver a successful (if rather average) blockbuster type film which doesn't hold for me an emotional punch that would make me love rewatching it. I am impressed with the achievement it is but the entertainment value dries up over time.

Unfortunately the magic doesn't strike twice. Age of Ultron is overloaded and, like the Iron Man sequels, goes for bigger explosions and throw-in-as-many-characters-as-you-can dynamics which basically keep any of them from having interesting arcs. The X-men films were able to make Quicksilver interesting, how come The Avengers couldn't? Scarlet Witch? Snore. The MCU just can't seem to get female characters right with the sole exception of the Netflix series and Black Panther.

Then comes Captain America Civil War, an Avengers movie in all but name. As I said the film attempts to wrap up the threads form the Captain America series and the Avengers series. This is where things start to get dicey. The balance between telling one over arching story and telling individually sustainable stories begins bleeding together. One begins to have to see every chapter to understand what is going on. This isn't a problem in itself, but in how the sheer size and rapidity of the series becomes more challenging to be manageable.

The film succeeds at somethings and doesn't with others. While Spidey's appearance is a lot of fun, and Blank Panther's arrival is intriguing, the story and the questions it raises are minimalized. There was a chance here to do something interesting and dark, truly wrestling with the struggle between the unchecked reign of powerful beings over the marginalized and the role/power of the state to control their involvement, to explore the conflict when world views collide. But instead Civil War's priority is to be spectacle. It focuses on the match ups, hero on hero smackdowns, sidelining the characters' moral questions which the Captain America series had been building to.

The best moments of the film appear to be there just to have the heroes fight each other (cause that's what Marvel heroes do) and these are great moments. The film cheats with setting up Iron Man's motivations pathetically with one Alfie Woodard scene, skipping over the kind of character development which would have made the story to come feel more honest and which should have been done in Iron Man 2 and 3 but was not. The chase of the Winter Soldier where we first see Black Panther is awesome and the big Avengers pile on fight is super hero super fun. But by the end when Iron Man takes on Cap and Bucky the fight goes on too long and the reasons for fighting are almost forgotten. It's just about another set piece. And we won't even get into the pathetic villain McGuffin... While other film franchises focused on struggling with darker themes, the MCU, already stuck in its light, crowd-pleasing formula, decided to go another way. The road more taken. The easy path. The one that lead to bigger box office. Congratulations. And it's all kind of the fault of the next film I will talk about...

No one had heard of the Guardians of the Galaxy before 2014. Film maker James Gunn had the chance to do something really fun as there wasn't so much riding on this film. He could just tell an amusing story that didn't need to propel the main series forward. The marketing knew it needed an angle to sell the less known property and they decided to go super tongue-in-cheek. Chris Pratt was up and coming and his shtick fit perfectly for the tone. The folks at Disney were hoping for a minor hit here but what they got was something else.

Guardians of the Galaxy is easily one of the best MCU films. Entertaining, super fun, compelling story and characters. The freedom Gunn had paid off and led to a great summer popcorn flick. It remains one of the only MCU films I enjoy watching again. But here is where I think the MCU took a turn for the worse. I honestly believe that the surprise mass success of Guardians, paired with the way more serious super-hero films were struggling in other franchises, lead Marvel to course correct towards the irreverent. They were already on the light side so it was a minor correction. Civil War was already going to be a fairly light movie but this, followed by Ant-Man, showed Marvel an easy way to the bank was by making people laugh. It was less risky than making serious films which tackle serious issues which might alienate audiences. Instead just make slick, cool, funny movies and the audiences will line up. And hence we get silly as all fuck Thor Ragnorak, a light and breezy Spider-man, a take nothing too seriously Civil War. The MCU has taken a turn away from the Winter Soldier style movies towards the Guardians style movies. And while I loved Guardians, I want to see comic books movies which are for grown ups too (a la Logan). I doubt we're going to see many in this series any longer.

And Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is pretty much a complete misfire. It loses all the charm and originality of the first film by being (like other MCU sequels) just amping up the big explosions and throwing in more characters because more is better, right? I'd love to see one of their sequels (well, I guess Winter Soldier actually did this), move the story and characters forward and not just be bigger and more bombast.

The series is spawning a few side projects now and to ensure their success they are trying them very closely to the main threads. As per the Ant-Man poster which makes sure you get that it's part of the MCU. The Captain America shield takes up so much of the poster there is hardly any room left for the star of the film, a character and film which is quite fun in its own right. This is similar to what happened with Spider-man Homecoming whose marketing reminded you that Iron Man was pretty much a co-headliner.

And on that note, Robert Downie Jr. Keeps playing Iron Man in everyone else's films and the shtick is getting oooooold.  Remember when I compared Iron Man to Jack Sparrow. Well both have long overstayed their welcome. In Homecoming I truly began to bristle each time he came on the screen. I really enjoyed Ant-Man and Homecoming, but each time they spent time taking us out of their stories so tie us into the larger story I got pulled out of the films. But the series has gotten to the point where it needs to so closely connect all the films and they also begin to all feel like copies of each other. It's that homogenization trend that I spoke of. Does Spider-man need to be a Jr. Iron Man? Iron Man's Robin? Infinity War promises to have Spider-man wear an Iron Man suit. Cause why should the heroes not all be the same? I am looking forward to the day Robert Downie Jr. retires this character. It is important to know when to bow out gracefully and Iron Man has long ago reached that point.

Another example of how I feel the MCU is keeping it all too simple for my tastes in Doctor Strange. Often incorrectly described as "mind-bending" I find the well plotted but typical narrative of the film to be anything but mind-bending. It is a very straight forward, logical story with a predictable end goal. This isn't a critique. I enjoyed the film, but it is not a mind-bending movie. I would suggest Primer or Lost Highway if you really want to something to wrap your mind around... hell, Doctor Strange isn't even Inception. Doctor Strange is a decent superhero movie with some lovely special effects. If it makes your mind hurt, I really have to wonder what you would do with a truly abstract film.

But that's the point right? The MCU is about playing it safe and giving audiences exactly what they expect and want. That's how you make the big blockbusters. There is a lot good about this franchise. But to be fair a lot of it isn't great. It is just the "thing" right now, the series that everybody goes to see regardless of what they throw at us. Sure movies don't have to be brilliant and there is room for mediocre. More and more they are throwing sub-par films at us knowing we'll just eat it up. They are moving away from making the films feel original or making films which explore interesting ideas, and moving towards silly, light fun, the more irreverent the better. Damn you Star Lord for being so appealing. And as blockbuster films which take risks (a la Ghostbusters, Dawn of Justice, Alien, or The Last Jedi) get savagely pulled apart by audiences unwilling to waiver from formula, the minds behind the mega successful MCU aren't going to be motivated to take those risks. And neither are other studios who will try to reign in film makers with different perspectives.

Fortunately Black Panther seems to be a move in the other direction. As a film which actually struggles with issues of colonialism, gender, and race relations, Panther seems to buck the trend. Will it's success spur another course correction? I certainly hope so. But with Panther's incredible financial success, I worry the studio will want to play it as safe as possible with the sequel and not take the kinds of risks that made the first film so good in the first place. Like Guardians before it, is Panther likely to crash and burn in the sequel (artistically not commercially)?

Perhaps we're going to get the same thing over and over just packaged with a different face. We have Captain Marvel coming soon. I worry it will be the exact same MCU film we've seen 100 times before but this time it's got a woman lead! I truly hope Captain Marvel is something more than that but I'm not expecting it to be.

So here is my problem. If the films were just not to my tastes, I could just ignore them. But they are so dominant right not in pop culture and film culture that their effect bleeds into everything else. They set the bar and they set it low. So when other franchises attempt to go higher, audiences are primed to reject those because they are not what we expect from a "blockbuster." Everything has to fit into this mold or else it gets rejected. This homogenizes popular films and stunts the development of more risky films, more adult films, more divisive films, films that are big budget but don't adhere to the lowest common denominator style. They release them so rapidly there isn't time for other films to find an audience because they are taking up all the screens. I am older and lived through a period when big summer movies were of the Michael Bay, Jerry Bruckheimer variety. I know what sort of effect that has on Hollywood. We've moved past that but now Marvel is dragging us back.

And for more evidence speak to the MCU fans. MCU fans can't seem to enjoy their series without bashing other franchises. Whether it's beating up on the DCEU for not being the same as the MCU or insisting the X-men would be better off as part of the MCU (I strongly disagree, see below) MCU fans seem incapable of enjoying their films without bashing others. This is the exact effect I am concerned about, the idea that all films have to fit into this certain mold to be "good." For those of us who appreciate diversity of films, this is troubling indeed.

But as the juggernaut moves towards its second decade there is something to be hopeful for. Black Panther is truly revolutionary just by existing at all. I am cautiously optimistic about how Disney will incorporate the X-men and Fantastic Four characters into their growing universe. Cautious because while the X-men films haven't all been perfect, they have produced some of my favorite comic-book movies, and mostly for reasons which are anathema to the approach of the MCU. But all of that remains to be seen. Will the MCU grow into something more than it currently is, or remain the average, lightweight crowdpleaser it has been to this point in time? I have no doubt that audiences will continue flocking to what is safe and accessible and doesn't push any buttons. What I am not sure of is whether this series will begin to offer me anything that I can sink my teeth into.

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