For some time now, the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe have generally been visually unpleasant, over-reliant on rubbery computer-generated figures, predictable in their overall goals, and afraid to enforce genuine change and conflict in their characters. What’s more, they’re released on a basis so frequent it’s worth wondering whether or not they’ve become tiring.
So, it begs the question: Why do I like them so much?
In answering this, I hope to suggest a new way that we should engage with these films, because right now, it’s very confusing.
Once Upon a Time…
There were five films. Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger. They were mutually contained within themselves, confident in their small-scale practicality, had striking cinematography with deep contrasts, challenged their characters in subversive ways, etc., etc. – there are likely 100 other articles online you can read that expand on these ideas, so I won’t waste your time.
Most important to me is that, at the time of release, these still felt like movies. Movies developed and constructed no differently than, I don’t know, Home Alone (for whatever reason that’s the first generic representation of “movie” that popped into my head). Those first five were interconnected between each other, but even having only seen one, you could still be drawn into Tony Stark’s journey from egocentric war-enabling billionaire to advocate for world peace, or Steve Rogers’ cathartic payoff for his commendably good-willed characteristics.
Back then, the occasional visual references and name-drops were no different from when The Goonies explicitly mentioned the events of Gremlins, or when a Xenomorph skull from Alien was visible on the Predator ship in Predator 2, or when Ray Stantz from Ghostbusters appeared in Casper.
The Avengers changed this, though. Suddenly, the Captain America shield prototype appeared in Iron Man 2, the Hawkeye cameo in Thor, the Tony Stark cameo in The Incredible Hulk, and the allusions to the Asgardians in Captain America: The First Avenger essentially became their own title – analogous to if there had once been a Goonies/Gremlins movie or a Ghostbusters/Casper movie before it. It was, simply put, insane. Somehow, Joss Whedon constructed an arc for each individual hero that built off of those established in the movies that came before it. On top of that, it was exciting, joyful, seriously packed with spectacle – truly a blockbuster event like nothing before it.
But The Avengers also marked a turning point from which there was no return.
The Multi-Billion-Dollar TV Series
The way I see it, the success of The Avengers sent Marvel the message that fans of this series enjoyed being rewarded for encyclopedic-ally understanding the greater connections that string these films together. Accordingly, nothing occurring in any of the films that followed could happen without being in reference to others. Small cues that once simply cracked smiles became cause for essential viewing in order to fully understand continuity and weight. That sounds a whole lot like how a television series works.
This is not to say I don’t enjoy anything about these movies after The Avengers. In fact, many of them are among my favorites in the series. I love that Iron Man 3 follows Tony Stark’s struggle to overcome PTSD following the battle of New York. And how Avengers: Age of Ultron paints the titular team as an intentionally unsettling bubble about to burst, and the titular villain as a hilarious manifestation of Stark’s evolved ego. And how Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok are both about heroes realizing their idolized parental role models were once involved in some not great things that place a burden on them presently (while also acting as criticisms of colonialism?). And how Infinity War fascinatingly somehow works on momentum alone.
There’s a glaring flaw in everything I just mentioned though: the weight and background of those motifs cannot fully resonate without an understanding of what happened in other movies. Tony’s PTSD might not completely make sense unless you’ve seen The Avengers. The inciting incident for T’Challa’s growth – his father’s death – wouldn’t be understood unless you’ve seen Captain America: Civil War. Watching Thor: Ragnarok, you’d be scratching your head over why the Hulk is in space unless you’ve seen Age of Ultron. And I challenge anyone to make the argument that you can understand that defining momentum of Infinity War without having seen the 18 other movies.
Interestingly, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is an outlier. In short, it consistently spreads its theme of parenthood across its vast ensemble through purely human emotional conflicts and interesting character dynamics. Plus, it is the most visually creative by far. These aspects that make it work don’t stem from anything other than the fact that we met those characters in the first Guardians of the Galaxy. Being first and foremost a sequel, it massively stands out.
It’s clear that, over time, my enjoyment of these films has become a tug-of-war between my investment in the long-form storytelling and still greatly appreciating when they separate themselves from the bigger picture. That’s what’s so confusing.
I think the transition to becoming a “TV show” is the source of many of the issues I mentioned in this article’s opening paragraph. Knowing that their devoted followers (including myself) will continue to show up at the box office as long as they are consistently rewarded for their understanding of every piece of continuity, Marvel has that liberty to use cheaper cinematography, coat their well-designed practical suits with dodgy CGI during action sequences, avoid inflicting significant personal challenges upon their characters, and yes, crank out three movies per year.
If these are no longer singular “movies”, should we then engage with them differently from other movies? I say maybe.
I’m Loving It
Right alongside the aura of a TV show is that of something made heavily with commercial value in mind. If Marvel knows what they have to continue doing to keep getting that money from audience pockets, and always follows through, is it only a product?
The “only a product” argument could definitely be made, however, it’s undeniable that there is significant talent behind all of these. Marvel puts great care into choosing the actors, directors, and writers who get to portray their characters, and not only is that admirable, but it shows the high quality of those departments.
When I saw Captain Marvel last month, I thoroughly enjoyed it overall, liking certain aspects of it and disliking others – in line with what I’d expected based on everything I’ve mentioned above. Probably no different from how I felt watching Ant-Man, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Doctor Strange. With this, I came to a realization. Viewing these as pieces of art doesn’t work anymore. Rather, a more apt comparison seems to be…food?
Allow me to explain. If your typical movies are analogous to careful home-cooked meals or sit-down restaurants, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is akin to something like McDonald’s (or any fast-food restaurant, if you will). McDonald’s is objectively not better than those home-cooked meals, but every once in a while, (perhaps, three times a year!) it feels oddly good to indulge in something that is algorithmic-ally designed to taste good and seems to understand exactly what its target audience wants, regardless of it lacking quality in a lot of areas.
With that, I finally understand why I still like these things. The problems they have now will always unconsciously bother me, but that’s okay. The things they are good at, they are always good at. And having followed it like the enormous conglomerate TV show it is since the beginning, the consistent respect to continuity still tastes good. The Marvel Cinematic Universe hasn’t tried to be about singular outings of “art” since 2012, and maybe we should move on from trying to engage with it in a way that dictates it should be.
The Internet is Terrible
Something that certainly adds nothing good to how these movies stand is the online discourse that surrounds them. If you generally dislike them, you’re apparently elitist and above them intellectually. If you generally like them, you’re apparently bias and can’t be taken seriously. And if you try to rank these movies…oh man, you are in for a treat. “Mass hysteria!”
There are 21 of these things. You think out of the 5.1×1019 ways there are to order them, and how much they differ in their characters and messages, your order is going to be exactly the same as someone else’s? Sit down. If there’s one special thing left about the existence of this franchise, it’s that different people connect with different films on different levels, and everyone will differ in which ones they hold personally. In a way, there’s something almost beautiful about that.
What was this all for?
When you go to the cinema on April 26th to watch Avengers: Endgame with the rest of the world’s population, keep this in mind: if you don’t like it, that’s okay, but it’s also okay that someone else will consider it their favorite.
Someday, Marvel might finally make changes to address the issues they’ve been trapped by. Or they might not. For now, just let everyone experience them as they please. These movies are nothing more than harmless commercial items as delicious as they are glutinous, and with that, provide audiences something to consistently unconditionally look forward to. They aren’t worth any negative energy.