So, at this point in history, we’re nine years in and sixteen films deep (seventeen as of Thor Ragnarok) with this Marvel Cinematic Universe thing. Next year will mark the ten-year anniversary of the MCU and the culmination of an arc that started in the first Avengers film. With the MCU officially being the biggest grossing film franchise of all time, the question might arise: how did they do it? It might seem obvious in retrospect that the MCU is the biggest franchise in the world but this has only been the state of the world for about five years. There are a few things I want to look at with this piece, all tying back to the central idea: The Marvel Experiment. What were the risks? How did they pay off? How did they not? Finally, what makes the whole universe tick? How does this monolith shake off the legitimate critiques of its world, i.e. lacklustre villains, same-y plots, and the like?
First, let’s look at the beginnings of the Marvel universe. While the post-credits scene is now an established part of the MCU, back in 2008 it was a mostly alien concept. My first experience with the post-credits scene was The Incredible Hulk wherein Tony Stark meets up with a disgraced General Ross. This scene compelled me to watch Iron Man on DVD as the MCU began to take shape piece-by-piece. I can’t speak to anyone else’s experience with the MCU beyond a vague report, but it seems like what we now know as Phase One was easing people into the idea of a connected universe by sprinkling in character cameos. Now, why does that work in the MCU whereas Batman v Superman which has a smorgasbord of character cameos doesn’t hit the spot as well?
The reason we love it when Tony Stark appears in The Incredible Hulk is simple. We know this character. Not in a meta sense like with Batman in BvS, but we know this character because earlier that year we watched this guy build a suit of armour in a cave. We saw him struggle and emerge on the other side. This is the trick with the biggest movie in the Marvel movie universe: The Avengers. The Avengers when you look at it is pretty simple. The Avengers is about the Avengers clashing until they resolve their differences and defeat the bad guys. The answer to why we should care about this conflict is rather straightforward. We care about these characters. We had a whole movie to get to know Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, and Hulk so a simple moment when Cap meets Bruce Banner becomes more important with the stories they have behind them.
This is what I think people miss when they talk about the MCU. They often focus on the form of the movie. They think the thing that makes the universe fresh is how it is across so many genres. In one year, you can get a space opera, a high school movie, and whatever Thor Ragnarok ends up being. As you might have guessed, I don’t agree with that sentiment. For me, the core tenet of the MCU and the reason it succeeds year after year is character. Character is the beating heart of the MCU. The first Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor movies are about establishing these characters. The first Iron Man movie is all about Tony Stark’s self-improving path to heroism. Cap’s first film is all about people working together to be extraordinary. Thor is all about finding redemption. We saw these characters face off against their flaws and overcome them. That’s why it’s so damn exciting to see heroes meet, because we know them.
Now, the critique might come that with characters like Nick Fury in the first Iron Man movie as well as Black Panther and Spider-Man in Civil War that we haven’t met these characters yet, we haven’t seen their struggles yet. Which in fairness is true. There are a dozen easy answers to this that skirt around the problem. “Some people know who Nick Fury is”. “It’s setting up a future movie”. True to a degree, however, think about how each character is introduced. Nick Fury appears as a mysterious figure telling Stark that he’s not alone. Black Panther is introduced as T’Challa, a man who loses his father and seeks revenge. Spidey is introduced as a nervous teen but instead of his secret being chronic masturbation, it is instead a case of errant heroism. While other more well-known heroes are used as the bread and butter of the film, these heroes are introduced as seasoning. Mixed together well, they create a delicious superhero garlic bread.
Each Marvel movie is tied to its protagonist in such a perfect way that the villain reflects that. Often one of the criticisms of Marvel is its lacklustre villains, which is fair. However, each film uses their villain to work through the central conflict of the protagonist’s character. Perhaps the Guardians’ movies are the best example of this. In the first film, Peter must confront the fact that he abandoned his dying mother. Peter believes that selfish hedonism will protect him from getting hurt. He must learn to stand with others even if it means getting hurt. In the second film, Peter must wrestle with his origins and father issues. Peter eventually his self-made family rather than his megalomaniac father.
When I talk about the Marvel Experiment, I am talking about how it seems like some of their ideas might not work for audiences.
- Thor? It’s too weird.
- The Avengers? How the hell will Hulk and Iron Man combine on screen?
- Guardians of the Galaxy? A talking racoon and a tree man. It’ll never work.
The way that Marvel makes these experiments work is by looking at the human story at the heart of it. The Arthurian core of the Thor story. The clashing ideologies of the Avengers despite the fact that they’re all fighting for the common good. The story of a messed-up adult following the death of his mother and his abduction. This is how they make the experiment pay off. I imagine that there is much discussion at Marvel about getting the core character right. That’s what makes Marvel movies work. Not gimmicky genre-jumping, but solid characters.
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