12:44pm PT by Chris Hartwell
It's Time for Non-Believers to Give Marvel Its Due
For the piles of money that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has earned since 2008 — more than $11 billion worldwide — and for all the positive reviews that its films have garnered — all of them hold fresh ratings on Rotten Tomatoes — there still seems to have grown a feeling among some viewers that these films aren't quite as great as those indicators would suggest.
Sure, fans turn up in droves to watch them, but in more and more pockets of the internet, it's also become commonplace for people to complain (often lovingly and intelligently) about what they've just watched. Even positive reviews of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 are tempered with phrases like "definitely doesn’t recapture the sweet and singular silliness of the original" or "so many people are likely to forget Vol. 2 before they’ve even left the theater."
Sometimes, being No. 1 makes you a target, and even I've taken part in this. And sure, many of these complaints aren’t without merit. Marvel films do tend to include recycled character and action beats. They contain a similar visual look, and are often afraid to deviate too far from a formula that has, time and again, proven its box-office worth.
Even so, what Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and indeed the whole of the MCU, continues to do absolutely deserves to be seen as more than a fanboy’s guilt pleasure. There are so many things the MCU continues to do better than anyone else in the movie business. These are just a few of them — though they may sound counterintuitive at first.
Marvel continues tell smaller stories.
Wait, Marvel … small? Yes, it's true, if you think about it. With every massively successful Avengers team-up, Marvel could be tempted to turn its films into variations of the same, simply presenting more epic, world-ending conflicts, just to keep those big box-office numbers rolling in. Yet, it has shown remarkable restraint and focus in building its stand-alone properties.
Though their stakes were still high and action sequences numerous, films like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Ant-Man also managed to lace in smaller, more personal conflicts that didn’t solely revolved around stopping the apocalypse yet again (though there's that, too). Films like Guardians Vol. 2 and Doctor Strange were preeminently focused on telling their own stories, rather than acting as some feature-length setup for Avengers: Infinity War.
The Marvel brand is the star, yet directors still add their signature stamps.
Even while some of the entries in the MCU do contain those aforementioned repetitive elements, I would contend that that is primarily due to a rushed filmmaker versus an interfering studio. Alan Taylor had to take over Thor: The Dark World (largely considered a rather forgettable point in the MCU) — at the last minute and consequently had to somewhat inherit someone else’s vision. With that said, the inverse is true as well. When you look at Joss Whedon’s Avengers, James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy and Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, you see those filmmakers' unique narrative and visual styles shining through.
Robert Downey Jr.’s scenes with Jeff Bridges or Gwyneth Paltrow from Iron Man — filled with loose, natural and often improvised dialogue — were engaging and entertaining because of Favreau’s approach to directing. And the balanced ensemble found in The Avengers should absolutely be accredited to Whedon’s skill and the studio’s faith in his vision. (And sure, Ultron's farmhouse scene involved some arm-twisting on Whedon's part, but the studio eventually got on board.)
No franchise has had this many compelling characters.
It's undeniable that the filmmakers have done an unprecedented job bringing together such a fun and dynamic roster of characters, which is made all the more impressive considering that the studio has been unable to draw upon many of the comics' most iconic personalities —The X-Men, The Fantastic Four and until recently, Spider-Man.
Their film version of Captain America, for example, could’ve fallen flat on his face, had he been presented solely as this unrelatable boy scout who was impervious to error and unwavering in his beliefs.
But what we've gotten instead — especially in his stand-alone films — is a character that is impressively nuanced and naturally evolving. As risky as it was, the filmmakers set the whole of The First Avenger in the 1940s, helping us identify with Steve Roger’s old-fashioned worldview, only to bravely bring the perspective into conflict with many of our 21st century ideologies in The Winter Soldier. And then in Civil War, even as he remained the titular character, Cap’s point of view was presented without drawbacks or blindspots. A good popcorn movie gets you to cheer for the lead character, but an even better film gets you to struggle with them.
Marvel maintains a sprawling universe that no studio has been able to imitate well.
With many of these films successfully telling their own self-contained stories, it is the MCU's larger narrative — one that’s been sculpted and maintained for nearly 10 years — that is all the more astounding to behold. The characters and the larger story is allowed to naturally and dynamically grow in exciting ways. Look at Tony Stark alone. He goes from selfish playboy to dealing with post-traumatic stress (Iron Man 3) to obsessive about world security (Age of Ultron) to friend of the government (Civil War). I have little doubt that the universe we were introduced to back in 2008, with the release of the first Iron Man, will look dramatically different to the universe we find at the end of 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War.
Does this all mean that the Marvel films are perfect and that there is no room for them to improve? Of course not. There is within them, however, a lot to admire and more than enough to make any fanboy proud to say, “Make mine Marvel!"