If you have any kind of nerdy interests at all, you have probably already seen the announcement about the next five years of Marvel’s cinematic universe. They announced a whopping nine movies in that time frame, culminating in 2018 and 2019 with an enormous two-part Avengers movie adapting the Infinity War arc. The release schedule is as relentless as it’s ever been, dropping two movies in most years. The announcement didn’t even include Ant-Man and The Avengers: Age Of Ultron, which are both bowing in 2015.
The combination of this week’s announcement and the recent announcement from Warner Bros. for their own line of movies based in the DC universe has produced some overwrought think pieces. Todd VanDerWerff, one of my favorite writers on film and TV, has expressed exhaustion at Marvel’s release slate. I certainly understand his exhaustion. It’s not just the movies themselves, although at my age it sometimes takes me months to get around to seeing big blockbusters. (I still haven’t seen Captain America: Winter Soldier.) It’s the relentless hype surrounding these movies. You would think it would simmer down a little now that both of the major comics publishers have worked through their A-list heroes, but in actuality the whole movie universe thing has made A-listers out of less popular heroes like Thor and Iron Man. Besides that, these days the hype feels like it’s driven more by fans than by the studios themselves, and it can sometimes be far more unavoidable and relentless.
But my problem with VanderWerff’s article is that it takes issue with the Marvel Cinematic Universe for what it’s caused and it’s broader effect, and not for its actual content. I have a problem with that, because while the marketing and hype of a movie is ephemeral, the movie will eventually have to stand on its own, and the Marvel movies have been pretty uniformly good. There are a couple of runts in the litter (The Incredible Hulk is probably the weakest one), but the overall quality has been surprisingly high. VanDerWerff even acknowledges this, noting that many people have compared the superhero movie to the Western, another genre that struggled for critical approval for years. But then he goes on to complain that Marvel hasn’t created anything as impressive as the works of John Ford, something that really transcends the genre and shows the marks of its director.
First of all, I would argue that’s simply not true. The Avengers in particular absolutely reflects the sensibilities of Joss Whedon, and I would also submit that the first Captain America feels like the prototypical Joe Johnston movie, a Twenty-First Century Rocketeer. I’d also submit that the series has produced at least two genuine classics of the superhero genre in The Avengers and the first Iron Man, and a whole lot of good solid entries besides that. There’s even one that is more space opera than superhero in this summer’s Guardians of the Galaxy, a movie that might be the best space opera produced since the original Star Wars trilogy.
I understand the complaint that Marvel movies all have a similar sheen, a “Marvel look.” The way Marvel makes these movies is not at all director friendly. They decide what movie they want to make, and then find the people who will be able to make them. This flies in the face of how movies have been viewed since roughly the 1960s and 1970s, that is as a director’s medium. In that sense I think the closest comparison to what Marvel is doing is not the Western, but the Universal Studios monster movies from the 1930s. Those movies weren’t really conceived of as a “universe,” but they were all produced in short succession and driven largely by the studio as a franchise, and they vary wildly in quality. But no one can deny it produced some genuine classics as well, like The Invisible Man, Dracula and Bride of Frankenstein.
One struggle is that we are still only newly familiar with the superhero movie as a genre. I would argue we weren’t even really viewing it as a genre until Marvel began its series. But whatever defines the genre, it won’t do to hold it to the same standards as other genres like Westerns. We are still feeling out what makes a great superhero movie, and Marvel is helping us define what that actually is. It’s possible that it has less to do with a director than we think, and more to do with casting. I would argue that the single best thing Marvel has done with their movies is to cast them well. Some entries, like the Thor movies, work better than they should because the leads do such a good job. This creates a genre that operates as a lot more than just what the director sees. The auteur theory always struggled a little to view film as the collaborative effort it actually is, but Marvel treats it a little like television. That’s why someone like Joss Whedon is such a good fit. It might produce something a little less unique and singular, but it has its own advantages in dogged quality and entertainment. Anyway the best Marvel has done stands toe-to-toe with some of the finest produced outside the Marvel system, like the original Superman and Spider-Man 2, doing it in a uniquely Marvel kind of way.
But more than that, complaining about a lack of truly great movies is a classic case of making the perfect the enemy of the good. Are we at a point when we are actually complaining about a studio that consistently produces quality genre fare? Granted it is rarely transcendant, but does it have to be? Quality blockbusters are rare enough without requiring them to be game-changers. It smacks of the viewpoint that movies are a zero-sum game, where huge blockbusters draw people away from smaller independent fare. The truth is that this only holds on a tiered basis. Movies like The Avengers pull business away from other blockbusters, but they are operating on a totally different level from, say, a Terrance Mallick movie.
So instead of wringing our hands about what the next round of Marvel movies “means” for the industry, I think the more reasonable response is to perhaps view what Marvel is attempting on its own terms. They are translating the comic book experience to film, and they are doing it in a way that is actually commercially viable. Consider that they are doing this without two of their biggest franchises, Spider-Man and X-Men, and they are doing it very well. The hype surrounding any geek property can indeed be exhausting, and it’s very possible that writers like VanDerWerff can’t avoid that buzz, since they live and work in the world of press kits and comment sections. That’s fair, but it makes it a problem that affects them more than it does 99% of the people who read their work. Most of us are able to tune out that hype if we really want to, and we can do it without much effort. For my own part, I’m excited to see stories like Civil War make it the big screen, and I’m even more excited to see lesser-known properties like Black Panther and Doctor Strange. What Marvel is doing is pretty special, and if we insist on viewing it through the filter of what’s come before, it’s an incomplete view of what’s actually happening.