Debated Films: The Marvel Cinematic Universe (2008 – Current)

This is not a review. The intention of “Debated Films” is to shed light on different perspectives over contentious movies to determine if it deserves praise or criticism. These will be previously released films, so be aware there will be spoilers. If you haven’t seen this film, you may want to before reading this piece.

Since the release of Richard Donner’s Superman (1978), superhero films have been a large part of Hollywood. Even so, the genre wouldn’t completely dominate until the early 2000s. Many studios pump out superheroes every year, but Marvel Studios remains the undisputed king. Marvel‘s 23 films make up an an unprecedented cinematic universe of interconnected stories. With love from fans, critics (and incalculable box office numbers) there’s apparently no end to the studio’s success. Despite this, Marvel’s output is frequently criticised for oversaturating the market and is considered to be low art by some. This makes you wonder, is the world’s most popular franchise deserving of its success, or is it all just inconsequential fluff? It’s been more than a year since their last film, so it’s a good time to have a moment of pause.

Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man (2008). The modern classic which started it all.

There’s always new think pieces about how this or that Marvel film has “bad” cinematography, “bad” editing, or “bad” colour grading. Many point to the use of green screen is the key issue, but CGI backgrounds are just the modern version of Matte Paintings. Additionally, the action is clear and the scale is spectacular without overwhelming the senses. Marvel achieves this through use of classical cinematic language, displaying engaging visual storytelling in the same way Jaws (1975), Star Wars (1977), Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981) and Back to the Future (1985) did. Blockbuster cinema isn’t going away, so it’s a good thing Marvel is filling that void with well crafted work, even if the technology is seen as “the death of cinema” by many.

It’s easy to think Marvel’s light tone equates to low art. Especially since darker films like The Dark Knight (2008) and Logan (2017) exist. A serious approach makes viewers more likely to give the genre’s outlandish aspects a chance. However, filmmakers need to pick the correct tone for the correct content. The Dark Knight and Logan yielded spectacular results for Batman and Wolverine, but the same bleak tone doesn’t necessarily work for Superman or Thor. Marvel grasps this better than any studio, recognising that a film about the space viking with a magic hammer works best as a colourful romp. A lighter approach seems less ambitious, but filmmaking is about imagination. Marvel’s embrace of their sillier aspects provides boundless creativity. They can give us completely different films like Iron Man (2008) and Guardian’s Of The Galaxy (2014) which match the quality of Logan and The Dark Knight in their own unique way.

Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson as Steve Rogers and Natasha Romanov. From Captain America: Winter Soldier (2014).

I know what you’re thinking: aren’t all Marvel films the same thing? Upon closer inspection, it’s clear they are uniquely varied despite taking place in the same continuity. We can have a serious spy thriller with Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), a mystical fantasy with Doctor Strange (2016), a political drama with Black Panther (2018), or a goofy heist comedy with Ant-Man (2015). Whereas most sequels take the “same but different” approach, Marvel even has variation across each standalone series. After the mixed reception to Iron Man 2 (2010), Marvel learnt very early they shouldn’t make the exact same film twice. Granted, not every release is a home run, but their best films easily top the entire genre and sometimes go places that “grown up” films don’t.

The key ingredient to Marvel’s success are their characters. Sure, these films are action heavy spectacles, but a franchise doesn’t resonate with audiences for this long if the characters and stories aren’t compelling. There’s monsters, magic and lasers, yet that doesn’t invalidate the dramatic content. If anything, it’s arguably more impressive that these films are still mostly engaging despite the comic book nonsense. Even with all the action and excitement, they are primarily character studies. Moral lessons of accountability, humility, truth, political duty, colonialism, emotional pain, freedom versus security and conflict breading catastrophe are all unpacked across these films. There’s definitely a lot of sugar, but there’s clearly plenty of protein.

Danai Gurira, Chadwick Boseman, Lupita Nyong’o and Florence Kasumba as Okoye, T’Challa, Nakia and Ayo. The stars of the Best Picture nominated Black Panther (2018).

With that in mind, it’s still correct to say that these are four-quadrant Disney products intent on making money. This is one of the principle reasons holding Marvel back from being truly respected. To be fair, the movie business is like any business and needs to profit in order to survive. In this day and age, every standalone film that’s mildly successful at the box office is franchised out, yet Marvel has used franchising to gain a narrative advantage. Each of these films stand on their own, but the fact they build off each other makes the experience greater. 23 different films all existing in the same universe and leading to the same dramatic conclusion is a creative way to turn franchising into a unique storytelling structure.

However, these films are adaptations of comic books, which is a medium aimed at children. These aren’t literally classics like The Lord Of The Rings or Jane Eyre. While this is certainly true, this perspective ignores the importance of kids films. We want children to have quality stories, but we wouldn’t show them The Godfather (1972) or One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest (1975). Marvel‘s best films elevate the original material to greater dramatic heights, which is exactly what Coppola did with The Godfather. He took a lurid, pulpy and trashy novel and turned it into art. Marvel hasn’t created anything as perfect as The Godfather, but they have given kids art suitable for them. If these stories are powerful enough to inspire children, the fact they’re also well crafted and well told can bring out the child in you, which is something the world needs sometimes.

Avengers Assemble’.

This isn’t to suggest Marvel is more important than films meant for adults with realistic dramatic content. Films need to address real life, but Marvel fills the opposite yet equally worthy side of the cinematic landscape. Marvel has given us a world which makes us smile, makes us hopeful and makes us dream. Next time you’re watching one of these movies, try to imagine what it would be like to live there. Not for some “I wish I was a superhero” nonsense. Instead, try to imagine living in a world where we can rise above our worst mistakes, become better people and do the right thing. Imagine living in a world where every life matters, has value and is worth saving.

Top five films in the series: Iron Man (2008), The Avengers (2012), Captain America: Winter Soldier (2014), Thor: Ragnarok (2017), Black Panther (2018).

Top five non-MCU films: Superman (1978), Spider-Man 2 (2004), The Dark Knight (2008), Logan (2017), Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse (2018)

Top five non-superhero comic book films: Ghost World (2001), Road to Perdition (2002), Oldboy (2003), American Splendor (2003), Persepolis (2007)

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Robert Fantozzi

Passionate filmmaker. Proud Italian-South African. Total Nerd.

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