It seems weird to write this article. I’m fully aware that the Marvel Cinematic Universe doesn’t need defending, at least not from a guy like me. Let’s face it: these movies are Popular and Profitable (yes, both with capital “Ps”). Culturally, they are relevant. Financially, they bring in bank. So, I realize that me writing something in support of the MCU is akin to writing an op-ed heralding the benefits of Coca-Cola. I do sure hope that someone finally stands up for the little guy—mmm….this sugar water is delicious!
But, joking aside, I want to address the Marvel films in the context of hardcore cinema fans (a label I certainly ascribe to). We’re the people who love Movies (again, with a capital M). We don’t simply watch films, we absorb them, discuss them, argue about them with strangers on the internet. We don’t just like movies, we LOVE them. And, well, that means we also tend to hate anything that seems to be hurting the artform.
Enter the monolithic age of superhero movies. Enter a landscape where the budgets keep getting bigger, the set-pieces louder and more explosion-filled. Enter a market where studios need to appeal to foreign filmgoers, especially Chinese audiences. As the book Sleepless in Hollywood argues, welcome to the death of the mid-budget movie. Certainly, as a cinema fan, there’s a lot to blame Marvel for. I mean, if we keep making this superhero trash for your average Joe Popcorn, how can there be room for the movies that really mean something—movies that are about more than just ticket sales, but advance the art form?
As a kid who grew up loving cartoons, comics, and capes, yet also someone who thinks David Gordon Green’s George Washington is a masterpiece, I often feel like I exist in two worlds: one of arthouse snobbery and another of fanboy geekdom. As Comedian Vince Mancini would say, I’m the Jane Goodall of bros. So, as a comic nerd, the Marvel movies bring me a lot of joy. When I saw Spider-man in the trailer for Civil War, I squeed just like all the rest. But, I also don’t want superhero films to be the ONLY movies that major studios produce. I want a diverse roster of films to satiate my palette. I want to be challenged and I want to be confronted by things that are new.
As is often the case, Hollywood is taking the wrong lessons from the success of the Marvel movies. In effect, it’s essential to discuss the things that don’t make the MCU films good: the impossibly huge set-pieces, the CGI showreels, the geeky “inside-comics” winks at the audience— all this stuff is dumb and actually makes me hate superhero movies as much as the next disenchanted film critic. Moreover, it’s the kind of thing that studios think we want. This is why every franchise is now attempting to be a “cinematic universe.” This is why the ending of Man of Steel happens. This is why Iron Man 2 sucks. Making a movie just to exist as a set-up for the promise of future movies is, well, stupid and bad for cogent storytelling.
But, here’s what Marvel is getting right—here’s the reason why my fellow film fans shouldn’t turn up our noses at the spandex cinematic icons dominating the box office: the Marvel films are, above all, about characters. Yes, I can see you…in the back…rolling your eyes. But, bear with me.
Let’s turn to Age of Ultron, a film that I’m willing to admit is flawed (Thor’s dumb cave Jacuzzi subplot, a villain that, while interesting, isn’t particularly threatening, etc.). But, what’s the best scene in Ultron? It’s certainly not the CGI orgy that constitutes the bombastic climax. Rather, it’s the “after party” scene early in the film where the various Avengers try (and fail) to lift Thor’s hammer. Basically, we’re just hanging with these characters—they talk, they laugh, they interact with one another as friends. It’s fun, it’s engaging, and entirely predicated on character moments, not special effects. It also paints my central point: despite their flaws, the Marvel movies genuinely care about their characters and they have spent an incredible amount of energy and theatrical screen time developing them as people. Their personalities feel fully realized. Their interactions are entertaining. In short, as audience members we care about them and genuinely enjoy watching them hang out with one another. We too wish we could have friends like that. And, the eventual payoff to this scene? When Vision casually lifts up Thor’s hammer in the third act of the film? In a word: perfect.
As an indie filmmaker, I take great comfort in this. The Marvel movies work not because of the action set-pieces, but because of the character-driven ones (despite what the the barrage of trailers and advertisements are trying to force down our neck). Guardians of the Galaxy is a great film not because of its action beats, but rather because the camaraderie that develops between the film’s characters feels genuine. The best scene in that film? When Groot protects his fellow teammates in his cocoon of self-sacrifice. Again, it’s a character-driven moment—one that is genuinely touching.
As someone who loves cinema for its emotional impact—not hollow CGI wizardry—this is all really good news. The most enjoyable scenes in these multi-million dollar blockbusters would, basically, be at home in a Woody Allen movie (minus, the robot rocket hands and talking raccoons, of course). It reinforces my unwavering faith in good storytelling and strong character development as the essential tools of movie making.
With the upcoming release of Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War, the thing I’m most excited to see isn’t the inevitable “fight sequence” between a cornucopia of super soldiers and god men. At this point, when it comes to CGI set pieces, I’ve pretty much seen it all. As such, the thing that I’m anticipating is the motivation behind that fight—the fundamental disagreement between “real” characters who have “real” point of views. I’m invested in the emotional stakes, not the eye-candy. When it comes to the Marvel Cinematic Universe the thing that thrills me isn’t that there’s a super-powerful red and gold rocket-powered suit, but rather that there’s a person inside of it.