With the disappearance of notorious bigot and perpetual pain in the ass Ike Perlmutter, the future of Marvel looks bright. In the last decade Marvel Studios has released a long series of consecutive box office (and occasionally critical) hits which has all but earned them the licence to print money whenever a new film that opens with that comic-flip graphic is released. But on an aesthetic level, there is a growing problem that lies at the heart of the releases that join into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU – that we’re getting the same damn thing, over and over.
The most unique thing to have come out of the MCU so far is probably the MCU itself. The interconnected universe has not just bred copycats, but a world filled with interesting, larger-than-life characters that wouldn’t be sharing the same space on screen a little more than 10 years ago – because then, it would appear too silly (because copious amounts of black leather and Evanescence/nu-metal is far less silly). Snatching what seems like every single A-list actor in Hollywood (seriously, everyone from Anthony Hopkins and Forest Whitaker to Cate Blanchett and Tilda Swinton is in on this in some way), Marvel Studios has built success after success on committing to superhero films that stay ‘true’ to the nature of their comic-book counterparts – and for the most part, they succeed.
The MCU has even made a big move into television in the last few years, with a grand total of five shows (one cancelled) that share this same fictional space. The Netflix shows were a proving ground for Marvel experimenting with a tone far different to the light, fun and breezy films we have seen on screen; while Age of Ultron suggested a slight tonal shift towards something slightly darker, the likes of Daredevil, Jessica Jones and, more recently, Luke Cage have dived into this more serious material with vigor, and for the most part it has paid off.
The first season of Daredevil stunned with its direction, brutality and much darker take on the hero complex than we’re used to with Marvel. Jessica Jones is Marvel Studios’ first female protagonist, and used its higher age rating to tell a haunting, thrilling and blood-curdling tale of sexual violence and its lasting effect. Luke Cage beat Black Panther to being Marvel Studios’ first black protagonist, and lifted inspiration from the Blaxploitation genre to make a narrative tailored to the black experience (although Luke Cage the character has been accused of being a little too conservative in his views) and recent outcry over violence against African Americans, with Cage’s hoodie appearing to many as a visual reminder of the murder of Trayvon Martin.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t take any/much over-simplifying for the accusations of aesthetic homogeneity in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to be true. There has been a consistent style of storytelling at Marvel that comes with every origin story, a plot that involves some kind of powerful MacGuffin being the most popular (see: Avengers Assemble, Captain America: The First Avenger, Guardians of the Galaxy, Thor: The Dark World) as the masterminds behind the films attempt to move the pieces for Avengers: Infinity War into place. Worse still is the increasingly unified style – a generic, “aestheticizing” soundtrack permeating some of the more recent films (Ant-Man and maybe the first Avengers film probably have the most memorable themes), and a loose commitment to the blue/orange colour palette of most digitally shot films.
This style is meant to appease the audience, who might appear frightened by anything ‘weird’ the studio might do – on paper, Guardians of the Galaxy shouldn’t work as well as it did. And it worked because it followed the Marvel Studios ethos – make it funny, throw in a MacGuffin, reference the other films, blow some stuff up. However, it emerged as one of the best MCU offerings due to its ’80s adventure movie/space opera tone, an amazing soundtrack, and characters with a surprising amount of depth – a hard-drinking, violent criminal space raccoon has never made an audience so sad. Similarly, the recent Captain America: Civil War was a spectacular and striking attempt by Marvel to break out of this mould by following the example set by Captain America: The Winter Soldier‘s political undertones and hard-hitting action sequences; eliminating the generic bad guy by pitting the heroes against each other, but not without underlining the film with a sense of emotion and tragedy as the Avengers split down the middle.
The problem with this uniform style, however, is that it isn’t true to the Marvel comics of today. While there are still the classic team-ups and guest appearances in Marvel’s modern lineups, the comic books are the works of the creator, not the company – and the most acclaimed runs are distinctive both in the art and in the writing. Matt Fraction and David Aja’s critically acclaimed Hawkeye, G Willow Wilson’s Ms Marvel and the more recent Mockingbird have all been noted for their distinct, idiosyncratic styles and poignant clash between the otherworldly and the mundane. There is a wealth of different viewpoints and styles that enrich these stories – some writers taking the chance to give voice to opinions that too often get drowned out in the creative industry.
This is what made things like Jessica Jones, Guardians of the Galaxy and, hell, even Ant-Man so special, and what promises to make Marvel’s upcoming slate of films pretty great as well. Black Panther is exciting for obvious reasons (first black-led Marvel Studios film, as well as possibly the greatest cast of black actors and creatives in years). Thor: Ragnarok, directed by Taika Waititi, promises to be a ‘buddy road trip movie’ across the cosmos. Captain Marvel will be the first female Avenger on film, so will hopefully come with some strong perspective. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 will hopefully build on the success of the first, and then there’s the soon-to-be released Doctor Strange – which, while it promises another hyper-intelligent, sarcastic jerk to match the likes of Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, also promises a mind-blowing trip into other universes with some heavy visual influence from the trippy comic art of Steve Ditko, who worked on the comic’s original run. Not just that, but a score by Michael Giacchino – a preview of which suggests something far different than the generic, forgettable orchestrations of Marvel films past.
So things are looking up – one can only hope that Marvel can capitalise on and actually take a risk with their brand and the wealth of talent that they’ve brought on board, and utilise the unique style of each to create the best films, not just the best money machines, that they can.