10 years and 18 movies in, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has taken a superhuman grip of both the box office and modern popular culture – and, for now at least, it shows no signs of letting go. But as Avengers: Infinity War, the latest chapter in this unprecedented, interwoven multi-film saga, brings a decade’s worth of Marvel storytelling together, it’s time to ask the question: has the MCU’s impact on the film world been a heroic force for good, or a villainous scourge of the multiplex?
The series so far (running from Iron Man in 2008 up to this year’s Black Panther) has made a mighty $14.8 billion around the world. Five MCU entries are in the top 20 highest-grossing films of all time. Love them or loathe them, it’s undeniable: they get bums on seats, and they make a lot of money.
With more big-budget, superstar-led TV shows and the rise in streaming making tough competition for cinemas, ticket sales have been struggling in recent times. 2017 saw “the lowest-grossing summer in 20 years” but the Marvel movies have been huge successes, helping prop up the numbers during an otherwise pretty stagnant period for Hollywood.
Creativity & Quality
Perhaps what really sets the MCU apart from other blockbusters is the effort that goes into making films that don’t just break the box office, but impress critics as well. No one ever sets out to make a bad film, but let’s just say there are some blockbusters more concerned with appealing to every possible viewer than making something with artistic quality. A Marvel Studios production has become a byword for reliable excellence, with viewers guaranteed that even the occasional misstep will end up as a half-decent flick. This is borne out by the MCU’s Rotten Tomatoes scores starting at a (still fresh) 66% for Thor: The Dark World – with seven films scoring at least 90%.
What’s more, while it’s easy to categorise each entry as a “superhero” or “comic book” movie, the truth is that there are a vast array of different genres at play. There has been a deliberate strategy by the Marvel head honchos to keep things fresh by riffing on heist movies (Ant-Man), conspiracy thrillers (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) and John Hughes high school comedies (Spider-Man: Homecoming), to name but a few.
Marvel Studios’ president and uber-producer Kevin Feige has also taken risks with stars and directors. Robert Downey Jr. was a gamble and a surprise for the role of Tony Stark; Chris Pratt was best known as the dimwitted, schlubby Andy in sitcom Parks and Recreation before he become the ripped and roguish Star-Lord; and who the hell else would let Taika Waititi make Thor: Ragnarok?!
However, one of the biggest criticisms continues to be the formulaic nature of the MCU entries. There’s very often a flawed protagonist with a point to prove; some sci-fi tech to help turn them into a superhero; a fairly generic villain, probably dropping something big out of the sky; and the customary post-credits teaser for the next instalment. It’s a valid argument, though it’s also fair to say Marvel’s now taking the feedback on board with more personal climactic battles and more complex bad guys as seen in the likes of Captain America: Civil War and Black Panther.
Then there’s that Cinematic Universe itself, the MCU’s USP. An Easter egg-filled, comics-homaging wonderland for uber-fans, it can be off-putting and unaccommodating for the wider audience. While many of the films work well as standalone adventures, several – and the Avengers movies in particular – rely on you to have done your homework in watching previous films (and, for full satisfaction, TV series too).
This year’s Black Panther has been a game changer, not just for Marvel, but for Hollywood. Here, finally, was a black, African superhero, backed by a mostly black cast (many of African descent) and directed by African-American filmmaker Ryan Coogler. At last, people of colour felt represented on the big screen – and not just by one supporting character, or leading an under-seen indie. Black Panther presented a king, a complex villain, warriors, scientists – and an entire advanced, futuristic nation in Wakanda. What’s more, it’s been a smash hit. Not only were black audiences turning out, but Marvel fans of all backgrounds and casual viewers attracted by the buzz.
Elsewhere, the MCU is making other (smaller) strides to expand the unarguably white male-centric nature of the series to date. Strong, well-developed female characters also got the chance to shine in Black Panther – while Tessa Thompson’s casting as Valkyrie in Ragnarok moved that character away from her white, blonde incarnation in the comics. A first female-led film is on the way in 2019 when Brie Larson stars as Captain Marvel, and Evangeline Lilly’s Hope van Dyne gets to share top billing in the upcoming Ant-Man and The Wasp.
Unfortunately, this is all taking rather a long time to happen. Captain Marvel will be the 21st MCU entry, and as well as being the first with a female lead, it’s also the first to have a female director. Even then, Anna Boden is co-helming with regular collaborator Ryan Fleck. This is one area where the DCEU has the edge on its otherwise dominant rival – Patty Jenkins’ critically and commercially successful Wonder Woman was only its fourth film out of the gate. (Jenkins, incidentally, had been fired as the director of the ultimately underwhelming Thor: The Dark World due to creative differences.)
Writers too have been almost exclusively white guys. A quick scan through the MCU’s writing credits and Nicole Perlman for Guardians of the Galaxy, and Coogler and Joe Robert Cole on Black Panther are the only anomalies. That’s not good, and certainly needs addressing. To genuinely be for everyone, there must be a wider pool of talent creating the films.
The Marvel movies have made household names out of obscure characters that have been around for decades. Yes, Spider-Man and the Hulk were already world famous (thanks in no small part to six other movies between them since 2002) and Captain America had appeared on screen before. But there’d never been an Iron Man film, and the likes of Ant-Man, Black Panther, Doctor Strange and the Guardians of the Galaxy were solely the domain of comic book aficionados. Now a sentient tree with a three-word vocabulary is known and quoted across the globe.
However, more importantly, these heroes are providing role models and opening up opportunities. In a case of life imitating art, Disney have announced plans to open a science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) centre in Oakland, California – just like T’Challa does at the end of Black Panther. The film has also become the first to be given a public screening in Saudi Arabia since a cinema ban came in 35 years ago, with men and women seen sitting together to watch.
The biggest argument against the ubiquity of the Marvel movies is that now they’re owned by Disney, they represent part of a cultural monopoly by the House of Mouse. It also runs a franchise you may have heard of called Star Wars (with an ever-growing number of spinoff films in the pipeline), as well as Pixar, with The Incredibles 2 joining the superhero roster this summer. Is that giving enough choice to audiences, and opportunities to other filmmakers?
And will the Marvel snake eventually just run out of steam? Critics have opined about an inevitable superhero fatigue kicking in among moviegoers for years, but there seems no sign of it yet. The MCU has been somewhat hampered by its own title announcements though, as plotting out sequels years in advance has dampened some of the tension and peril. When there’s another Thor movie due, for example, we can be pretty certain the God of Thunder isn’t going to bite the dust before that. However, by all accounts Avengers: Infinity War (and some expiring contracts) might finally herald the moment when some of the old guard are at risk…
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a money-making machine for its Disney overlords, no doubt about it, and there’s been a winning formula which was in danger of becoming too predictable. On top of that, the macro nature of the interconnecting stories might not be for the more casual cinema fan.
Nevertheless, it’s hard to argue against the consistent quality of the 18 films to date and the cultural breakthroughs they’ve produced, particularly in recent years. A bold, ambitious undertaking, the MCU has given rise to imitators but none have matched the original’s scope or consistency. It may be a cultural behemoth but the likes of Inception, The Artist, Boyhood, Moonlight, La La Land and The Shape of Water, to name just a few, prove that brilliant films of all shapes and sizes have thrived alongside it. The MCU has been good for cinema, and for the true film lover, there’s room for all comers anyway – and that really is a marvel.