How to Save the Marvel Cinematic Universe

I know what you’re thinking: the MCU is raking in tons and tons of money! It doesn’t need saving! Hell, I know that you, Chris, go and see most of the movies they pump out. And you’d be right about all those things – the MCU is one of the most profitable franchises ever, and I have seen almost all of the movies they’ve put out (with apologies to Ant-man, Thor: The Dark World and The Incredible Hulk). But I wouldn’t call them good movies, which is a shame, because they could be, and it honestly breaks my heart to see such vast sums of money and such talent (in every field: acting, directing, writing, CGI, effects, costume, etc.) go to waste on movies that are enjoyable but largely forgettable. I know they don’t necessarily have higher aspirations than that (though James Gunn has written some lovely notes about the Guardians movies) but they could and they should. Mad Max: Fury Road proved action movies can look and feel any damn way they want and still be superb, so why not take some aesthetic risks? Logan earlier this year proved a superhero movie can be visually inventive, heart-felt, and still knock down brutal. So why doesn’t the MCU reach these heights? In short, once again: how do we save the MCU?

The first suggestion is so obvious I barely feel like I need to go into it (and I am moderately hopeful Marvel feels the same way). No more god damn origin stories. Seriously. I don’t care. I just don’t care how these people became super. There’s a friggin’ witch and supersoldier from the 40s and a god born out of a computer and a robot and a stone in this universe. My belief is already pretty suspended, and I wouldn’t miss a beat if a wizard showed up and just told everyone: “yup, I’m a wizard!”. Thankfully Marvel seems to have taken the hint. Black Panther beautifully shows up out of nowhere in Captain America: Civil War. “A guy shows up dressed like a cat and you don’t want to know why?” asks Falcon, but no one does, and no one pursues it. Thank god. If Black Panther or Spiderman: Homecoming backtrack and tell me how Uncle Ben died I will punch a wall. But it doesn’t look that way.

The second is also relatively obvious, but something I’m much more cautiously optimistic about if optimistic at all. It makes all the sense in the world to turn these movies over to individual voices, individual directors, but Disney still seems pretty damn nervous about that. As Edgar Wright said recently in an interview with Variety: “I think the most diplomatic answer is I wanted to make a Marvel movie but I don’t think they really wanted to make an Edgar Wright movie. It was a really heartbreaking decision to have to walk away after having worked on it for so long.” But Edgar Wright is right on two counts: he was willing to make a Marvel movie, and Marvel should have been willing to have a Edgar Wright movie. People defend Marvel’s house style as trying to create a “a shared universe” but I’m calling bull on that. When directors make movies set in the real world, real life stories, they have much more voice than Marvel directors do, and we never walk out of the movie saying “that didn’t feel like our universe” we walk out saying “that was a really cool perspective on this universe I know”. Consistently written characters and recognizing consequences from previous movies is the best way to create a shared universe, not by stifling a director. This should be apparent to Marvel by now: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1 is one of their greatest movies, and they gave Gunn a lot of authorship. Guardians Vol. 2 feels much more like a studio movie, and while I didn’t love it in theaters my feelings on it have only soured since then. It fell prey to setting too many things up and to a formulaic Marvel storyline, and both of those things have the stamp of the studio on them. The trailers for Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther look moderately unique, but I’m not holding my breath.

Whats doubly infuriating is that the MCU has a forebear who did turn things over to individual directors and had great success with it. The X-Men franchise ducked and weaved through its movies, with no regard to style and only moderate regard to continuity, and if I were to guess which series will hold up better I’d say pretty quickly say X-Men – not only for the stand-out Logan but for the (all unique and enjoyable) X-Men, X-2, First Class, and Days of Future Past (and I hear The Wolverine is good, so that’s on my list). Each movie offers us a self-contained story, and each has its own voice. You don’t need to do any homework, but the homework does add to your understanding. It’s a cue clearly taken from comics themselves, which continuously recast archetypal characters into new situations and see how they play out – each story is a reflection of a specific author and illustrator and their take on the core conflicts that character usually evokes (think The Killing Joke, The Long Halloween, and even The Dark Knight – all Batman stories about how maybe good and evil feed off of each other, each with a specific authorial voice). This is a trick comics took from ancient myths, so we know its effective. If X-Men can get away with lack of continuity (Professor X has been killed three times) its even more offensive the MCU can’t turn over a movie to a specific vision.

But the MCU is a serialized universe, and as the first thumbs up of this article they’re just now figuring out how to make that work. Captain America: Civil War was the movie with the biggest cast, and was the first move to lean heavily into serialized television as an example. Age of Ultron (probably the worst MCU movie I’ve seen but again I didn’t see the second Thor or Hulk) buckled under the weight of trying to educate us as to who the main players were, and then giving each of those main players a storyline. When approaching Civil War, Marvel took a different approach. It trusted we would know who the characters are by now, and instead of giving each character a storyline it struck a balance. Some got full transformations (Captain America, Bucky, Iron Man, Black Panther), some had beats or “jumping off points” that felt like character progression without a whole plot (Scarlet Witch, Vision, Black Widow) while some characters simply supported the cast while maintaining who they were at their core (War Machine, Spider-Man, Ant-Man, Hawkeye, Falcon). In this regard, Civil War treated itself like an episode of television, which was the absolute correct move.

There are some requirements for an episode of television, and this is a good test for Marvel movies. 1) Does this episode (movie) fit into the grander scheme of things in some way and 2) does this episode (movie) stand on it’s own? It can fit into the grander scheme of things in simple ways. All we ask of an episode of television, really, is that it advance the plot of one character. At most. Or even reveal something about a character. Inch a character forward, give us something to hang onto.

So what did it get right about serialization? Let’s look at Iron Man: his plot actually undercuts the ending of Iron Man 3 in which he tries to give up his life as Iron Man to appease Pepper. We see in Civil War that he has failed. It’s not essential to the plot, but it adds some resonance, and instead of going back and making sure we get it the Russo Brothers treat it as a television episode: it colors what Iron Man does, but you can do without it in the individual movie. The same can be said about Scarlet Witch and Hawkeye’s relationship: it is not essential we know the debt he feels towards her, but if we watched Age of Ultron we do know it, and here again their relationship moves forward slightly without consuming too much time. Even the movie’s villain, Zemo, is a direct result of Ultron – his history is touched upon briefly in this movie, but it’s not absurd to expect people to know something about the previous events in the MCU before going in, and most importantly while Zemo’s motivation takes place in a different film his plot plays out entirely in this one.

But movies even more than episodes of television must be able to stand on their own, and while it’s silly to ask them to re-explain everything every movie – to assume we don’t know the past – their real pitfall comes in setting up things for the future. Thor’s trip to hang out in a pool and have a vision in Age of Ultron is rightly maligned, but almost all origin movies fall into this category now – think of Dr. Strange, a movie that consisted entirely of moving people into place. There was no good reason for Wong to be included in that movie other than the fact we “need him” for future installments. The same goes for Rachel McAdams. If their scenes had been cut and their time redistributed to other characters, Dr. Strange may have carried more weight. With fewer characters and relationships all could have been further developed.

Returning to Civil War once more: I believe the writers approached the movie with a simple question of “what story do we want to tell, and which building blocks do we have to do it with?” There were a number of interviews before the movie came out discussing the inclusion of Iron Man, with everyone insisting they tried to do it without him but the more they wrote the more they realized he had to be included. Maybe it was a cash grab, but I don’t think so – the story would be tough to tell without him, and what’s more Black Panther’s prominent placement makes me believe even moreso they valued story over franchise. Black Panther was an untested onscreen hero at the time, but after Iron Man, Captain America and Bucky Barnes he is the most heavily featured character, and only because thematically his story ties in the most with Zemo’s. That’s a bold move, and it paid great dividends – his arch towards renouncing revenge is the thematic backbone of the movie, and I think Civil War could be called his movie above anyone else’s.

So how to save the MCU? Commit to this approach of story over franchise. Its unfortunate the Russo brothers don’t have the visual flare of Wright/Gunn/Waititi but they took a risk with elevating Black Panther in Civil War, and they could go a step further. Just as Civil War would have worked even better told from Black Panther’s POV, Infinity War could be, without a doubt, a movie about Gamora and Nebula hunting down their father. How awesome would it be to watch Thanos, Gamora and Nebula work out years of abuse, watch these two kick-ass women deal with their different approaches to taking out their father, see what it means to take revenge alone (Nebula) and with a group (Gamora and whoever she recruits: Dr. Strange, Vision, or Thor, seems like a good guess). We’ve seen enough of Tony Stark and Captain America. Why forefront them for Infinity War? Let them be supporting players, players who inch their story forward like Vision or Hawkeye in Civil War, but who take an overall backseat. It will take daring directors to value story over the big names, but honestly the MCU can survive it (who isn’t going to go see this movie?) so now is the time to step up to the plate and instead of making a “good MCU movie” just make a good ol’ fashion “great movie”.

OTHER THOUGHTS:

  • Just to not bash on the MCU too hard, it does have some nice visual flourishes. Guardians of the Galaxy 2, if nothing else, had some nice colors and worlds, and Thor: Ragnarok looks promising.
  • I’ve said it before and I’ve said it again, I like when the MCU gets weird with its characters, and I think Vision and Scarlet Witch are two that could get pushed even further – I love Vision as this sort of child god, and I think featuring him heavily in Infinity War before having Thanos murder him would be a good idea.
  • There have been behind the scenes snippets where the Russo Brothers talk about treating Thanos as the main character of Infinity War. I would be really really down for that too.
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