If you were to ask me during most given times in a year how I feel about superhero films I would probably roll my eyes, groan and make some comment about how sick of them I am. And yet, I see every Marvel film the week of release and, on reflection, there are very few I outright dislike. Black Panther, The Incredible Hulk, and Doctor Strange are probably the only instalments in the franchise you would have a hard time convincing me to re-watch. There are a few I feel next to nothing about (Ant-Man, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Thor 1&2) but generally speaking I have a good time at these movies.
Yet I remain cynical.
I guess I have a complicated relationship with superhero movies. And that’s not to say it’s a deep, dark tortured thing, more just that I have trouble articulating exactly how I feel about a trend I disparage and actively contribute to at the same time.
I wasn’t a comic book kid. My first exposure to any of these characters was through the movies. I couldn’t have named any X-Men outside of Wolverine before the 2000 film, to say nothing of characters like Iron-Man or Doctor Strange. But the start of the superhero boom coincided with my adolescence, and so, growing up, movies like Sam Raimi’s Spiderman trilogy, X-Men and The Dark Knight were a big deal. Even in early adulthood, I was susceptible. I was as excited as anyone for The Avengers and even Man of Steel.
But familiarity breeds contempt and soon I started to see Marvel as a byword for corporate cynicism. Is feeling that way fair? Well, only insofar as calling out any major blockbuster for being a predominantly moneymaking enterprise is fair. But it goes beyond that. We’ve all heard the horror stories of what went on behind the scenes of Thor: The Dark World and Ant-Man. There is a general acceptance that Marvel like to hire journeyman directors who can line up with their overall house style, and if a director tries to stray too far from the pack, well, God help them. It feels like lately someone in PR has been trying to combat that, with the hiring of indie auteurs like Ryan Coogler or Taika Waititi, but a few stylistic flourishes or moments of thematic lip service aside, neither created a film that bravely broke the established mould. There was nothing in Thor: Ragnarok or Black Panther that would on any level create trouble for the team behind Avengers: Infinity War. In fact, both films did a lot of heavy lifting in setting up the MCU ‘season finale’ and ensuring a smooth transition.
Here's a thought experiment for you. Would a Christopher Nolan box set feel complete without Batman Begins or The Dark Knight? Of course not. Those are films that could only have been made by him. In the visuals, the style and the themes, they are his work through and through. Now imagine a Taika Waititi collection WITH Thor: Ragnarok. Imagine a big, splashy, fun but forgettable Marvel film sitting alongside Boy, What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople. The fit isn’t nearly as comfortable, not least because Ragnarok can’t stand on its own. If this is the only Marvel film you ever see, you’re going to be very confused. And, considering the post credits scene, probably unsatisfied.
I’ve been thinking a bit about the Raimi Spiderman Trilogy recently. The reason for this is last year’s release of Spiderman: Homecoming, arguably my favourite film in the MCU so far. I thought Homecoming was fantastic; it was funny, heartfelt, tense and had actual themes. But does it stand shoulder to shoulder with Raimi’s effort?
I suspect the answer depends on how you feel about those films, but to me, the Spiderman Trilogy of the 2000s was a far more complete experience. It flirted with territory that was positively Shakespearean, in its overarching plot of a young man’s conflict with the insane father of his best friend and the consequences when that friend learns the truth. Beyond that, there was just a richness to those films, from the textured characters to the odd little foibles and even the stuff that just didn’t work. For better or worse, they felt like part of somebody’s vision, the work of a filmmaker with a story to tell. Likewise, Nolan’s Batman trilogy.
The difference, for my money, is that Nolan and Raimi brought the material to them, while Waititi, Coogler and Homecoming director Jon Watts were brought to the material. Black Panther, for instance, would have happened regardless of Coogler’s involvement, and I daresay had a different director taken it on the end product wouldn’t be that different. After all, no matter Coogler’s sensibilities or ideas, it still had to fit into the overall Marvel tapestry.
Nolan and Raimi had no such stipulations. Their films didn’t exist in service to a larger vision, they told their own stories over a relatively conservative three distinct, individually crafted chapters and they ended. I’m not for a second claiming that those films wouldn’t have been made had Nolan or Raimi not signed on, but I think what we would have ended up with in that hypothetical would be almost nothing like what we got.
So what’s the solution? The question, I guess, is whether there even needs to be one. If someone like me still sees every Marvel movie, then they’re clearly doing their job and the execs probably don’t see much reason to change. And look, at least the films we’re getting are, even at their weakest, never less than competent. But they’re never really more than very good either.
Even that might not be a problem. I suspect that in fifty years people won’t remember the individual films, but they will remember the MCU as a storytelling experiment unlike any in history. And beyond that, I could be totally wrong about the weight and impact of the individual movies. Like I said; the superhero films of the 2000s were seen during very formative years for me. It’s not unlikely that Thor: Ragnarok could be many kids’ absolute favourite movie from now into adulthood. But then, the other key difference was that when I was growing up superhero films were an occasional treat, not a monthly occurrence. Maybe a lot of the Marvel films do have depth, weight and cultural significance; those things just become easy to miss when the next instalment is right around the corner and the current one hasn’t really had a chance to sink in yet.
Whether Marvel has any lasting impact on the cinematic landscape remains to be seen. So far no other studio has managed to emulate them with any real success, although not for lack of trying. It may be that the MCU will go down in history as the only experiment of its type, remembered as a unique anomaly of a cultural phenomenon. It’s honestly too early to tell or even extensively speculate.
But I have a feeling that we won’t see very many blockbusters in the vein of Nolan’s Dark Knight or Raimi’s Spiderman trilogies for a while yet. At least not in the superhero genre. And that’s more the pity.
Writing words about writing words.