Rachael Garden discusses
Way back in 2008, Marvel Studios released Iron Man, the first installment in the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe. While Iron Man was generally well received, its popularity was eclipsed by the big star of that summer, The Dark Knight. From its humble beginnings, the MCU grew to be one of the most popular film franchises of all time. Seven years later, it boasts twelve movies, three television shows and numerous direct-to-video short films, with many more on the way in the next few years.
The MCU functions in a similar way to the comic books it plucks its characters from, operating in ‘phases’ which consist of five or six standalone films focusing on one or two main characters, and culminating in a ‘cinematic event’ — one big movie that brings all these characters together. The cinematic event of Phase I was Avengers Assemble (2012). The event of Phase II was Age of Ultron (2015). Both have a spot in the top ten highest grossing films of all time, but success comes with a price. For Marvel, the price is sacrificing original storytelling in favour of building its colossal universe.
For those who have watched (and re-watched) every film, Marvel’s formulaic approach becomes obvious. Can you name the Marvel movie with the self-deprecating yet devastatingly handsome male lead who has to save the world from an impossibly evil villain (played by an under-utilised big-name actor), while also trying to win the affections of a sidelined love interest, and oh look – Stan Lee! Is it Iron Man? Captain America? Thor? And their formula works! The fact that all twelve of their existing movies are ‘certified fresh’ on Rotten Tomatoes confirms it. What I find disappointing about the standalone installments is a lack of peril. Why should I worry whether Iron Man or Captain America survive when I already know that Robert Downey Jr and Chris Evans have signed on for the next Avengers get together?
Another challenge to Marvel lies in ensuring that all the main characters get their turn when they come together for an event movie. Joss Whedon managed this perfectly well with Avengers Assemble, but he did not quite succeed with Age of Ultron. The sheer number of characters and plot threads it had to juggle made Ultron a confusing, disjointed successor. With plans to introduce even more team members in the next few years, it is probably for the best that the next time the Avengers assemble, they do so over two summers.
Marvel may have their plans mapped out for the foreseeable future, but they are not the only studio doing so. Following the success of the MCU, rival company DC Comics put their production sector hard at work. The DC Extended Universe, which began with the lacklustre Man of Steel (2013), is set to be continued with Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad in 2016. Meanwhile, 20th Century Fox are releasing X-Men: Apocalypse (2016), the ninth film in their successful X-Men franchise. The next few years promise a glut of superhero themed fare, and herein lies my biggest problem with the genre as a whole.
Superhero movies —and all the prequels, sequels and reboots they entail— have become a comparatively safe bet in Hollywood. Marvel Studios may be consistently producing good quality films, but other studios are not. Fox not only owns the rights to Marvel’s X-Men, but also to the Fantastic Four. They released two Fantastic Four films in 2005 and 2007 which were critically panned. Undeterred by this failure, they rebooted the franchise this year, with a film so poorly received it was disowned by its own director, Josh Trank, in a (hastily deleted) tweet. Despite this, Fox refuses to relinquish the rights back to Marvel, and instead is pressing ahead with a sequel to be released in 2017. It is one thing for Marvel to produce formulaic but nonetheless enjoyable popcorn films, but the proliferation of boring cash grabs like Man of Steel and the Fantastic Four films at the expense of innovative filmmaking is another entirely. The success of recent films like Mad Max: Fury Road and Interstellar has shown that audiences are still drawn to blockbusters that do not follow the conventional super-powered narrative, and whilst I am always going to have a soft spot for superhero films, it would be nice to see a little more variety.