Doin’ it and doin’ it and doin’ it well. Spider-Man represents Queens, Captain America was raised out in Brooklyn. You know who’s really doin’ it well? Marvel Studios. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is now comprised of twelve movies that have made a combined total of over $9 billion dollars. With that kind of money you could send almost a quarter of a million kids to college! Or you could run about 9 presidential campaigns. Whichever. The point is that Marvel has been outpacing and outperforming every other superhero franchise for almost a decade now. This article will look at why Disney-owned Marvel releases such exemplary material and, in the spirit of holding them accountable, what things Marvel could improve upon. SPOILER WARNING on… most superhero movies. If a superhero movie is brought up, there’s a good chance some sort of spoiler will follow.
To go ahead and spoil the whole article, there is really one defining attribute that raises Marvel above its spandex-clad competition. Especially in the wake of DC/Warner Bros. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, lots of articles and blog posts are floating around right now that identify that thing as heart. You may have seen a couple here or here. No, this isn’t talking about 20% of Captain Planet’s crew. Heart is the thing that keeps an audience emotionally tethered to and invested in a movie. In short, Marvel has plenty of it and too many other films do not. Sure, you can bang out a Transformers or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and it will make money because people will pay to go see the explosive spectacle on the big screen, but if you want anyone with an ounce of cinema knowledge to refer to the film as good and and increase sales the old fashioned way (hint: quality), you have to give it heart.
Whatever else it may do wrong, Marvel delivers the heart every time. They’re basically Mola Ram in Temple of Doom. You care that Iron Man patches things up with Pepper Potts again. You want Ant-Man to make good for his daughter. You even want Drax the Destroyer to get his sweet, sweet revenge. You don’t even have to necessarily like a character. Deadpool is a terrible person. It would probably be the bane of your existence to know him in real life, yet somehow Ryan Reynolds and Tim Miller made Deadpool somewhat relatable and you actually cared that he be reunited with his dear, damaged Vanessa and murder that insufferable Ajax. Very few superhero franchises outside of the MCU have been able to sustain that kind of heart. Fox has struggled with it pretty much any time Bryan Singer‘s not around. Despite a strong start with Sam Raimi‘s first two Spider-Man movies, Sony has had a hard time building a great superhero movie since then (Although Andrew Garfield was great as Spider-Man and Marc Webb handled the female protagonist/love interest in an interesting way, rather than have Emma Stone get kidnapped by the villain every single time. Seriously, Raimi? All. Three. Movies?). Things don’t seem to be going any better over at Warner Bros. with Man of Steel having already earned a collective “meh” from fans and Dawn of Justice not faring any better.
Heart is what you get when you make sure your characters come first and everything they do is properly motivated. When you ignore it and just try to find thin justifications to string together a bunch of huge, random set pieces, you get movies like X-Men: The Last Stand or X-Men Origins: Wolverine, where a bunch of stuff is happening and exploding, but you don’t really care how or why. To make the most obvious and timely comparison, look at the DC Extended Universe masterminded by Zack Snyder. Snyder is a more than capable director. His shots are gorgeous; his movies look great, but he may not be the best storyteller. When he’s dealing with the kind of bloody spectacle that doesn’t require much character development like 300 or Dawn of the Dead, it’s fine. But an ongoing critique of Snyder’s work is that his characters and subject matter lack depth and, for better or worse, the key to superhero movies is that the characters have to have depth. People want to identify with them. They represent the best in the audience. Their larger-than-life powers and stature means that their humanity has to be magnified to balance them out. His handling of Superman is especially egregious as the character’s defining traits are his humility and his innate devotion to helping people and Snyder just kind of does away with all that. Superman’s motivations are unclear; the character’s driving personality traits have been stripped away. Seriously, Batman and Superman not only kill people, but they’re largely indifferent to the deaths of innocent people.
Now look at Marvel. Every character has clear, defining personality traits propelling them across multiple movies. With the exception of the Hulk, who would be devastated by killing someone, the Avengers are hardened soldiers (despite what Tony might say) and have come to terms with taking the life of an opponent in a violent standoff. That’s true to their characters. Captain America will always stand up against what he thinks is wrong, regardless of the cost to himself and sometimes to those around him. Bruce Banner/the Hulk has always felt uncomfortable being around other people. He doesn’t trust himself and everything he does is tinged with that fear that he’s going to lose control and hurt somebody. Thor has mostly overcome his arrogance to become a true leader and will do anything it takes to protect Asgard and Earth, which he has come to think of as a second home. Black Widow is always compensating for her past, at times trying to pay penance for it and at other times running from it. Tony Stark’s driving motivation is his legacy. His concern for his legacy, which is fueled in part by his regard for his father and the legacy he left behind, is what drives him to get out of weapons manufacturing and become a superhero in the first place. You can follow that motivation through the Stark Expo in Iron Man 2 through to the decisions he makes, both good and bad, in Avengers: Age of Ultron.
A lack of heart can manifest itself in many ways. One way is a need for excessive exposition, as evidenced by Snyder’s movies. When character motivations are clear, a lot can be understood through simple actions; you don’t have to have dialogue explicitly explaining what’s going on. This can create fun little moments and the witty dialogue that defines Marvel movies, especially in the work done by Joss Whedon, John Favreau, and James Gunn. Coulson talking about his trading cards and Ultron singing “I’ve Got No Strings” and Rocket Raccoon trying to get people steal other people’s prosthetic body parts all come from a deep respect of characterization. Simple lines like “I can do this all day,” “We are Groot,” and “You didn’t see that coming?” have so much weight and power because of the structure that has been built around them.
One thing that has allowed Marvel to imbue all of its characters with that heart is that it has taken its time. DC may be suffering from the fact that it’s only on its second movie and it’s already cramming all of its characters in; Marvel had five movies under their belt before they delivered any kind of major crossover. That patience and time devoted to each character is why Marvel can do things like have Thor’s first scene in The Avengers be a heartfelt, touching moment with his brother. When Thor implores Loki to give up his poisonous dream and come home, the audience can feel it. That strained yet unconditional love is palpable and makes that scene compelling.
While Marvel does a great job of developing its heroes, a common complaint is that their villains are two-dimensional and expendable. For every fully fleshed out Loki, you have a questionably motivated Malekith or Abomination. It may be unfortunate, but sometimes your villain needs to be something of a plot device. It’s great when the development of your hero is intertwined with the development of your villain. That’s how you get things like the relationship between Thor and Loki or the brilliant interplay between Batman and the Joker in The Dark Knight. But sometimes your villain is just a catalyst for events that lead to character development for the protagonist. Ronan was just a way to push the Guardians of the Galaxy together so that they could learn the power of friendship. Obadiah Stane was just a way to make Tony Stark examine his life and turn over a new leaf. Yellow Jacket was just a way for Ant-Man to redeem himself in the eyes of society and his family. Obviously, the more developed your villain is, the better your movie will be, but you have to make sure not to overwhelm the development of your protagonists. It’s their story. Focusing on the villains is what derailed the original Batman film franchise. Do you want Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze? Because this is how you get Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze!
Another major complaint against the MCU is its lack of diversity. Sure, most titular heroes get their very own black sidekick, but that’s really not how you do equal representation. That’s not to say that Marvel doesn’t do a mostly good job with the POC and female characters that they do have. The characters are typically well developed and the roles are rich, but they’re just not as plentiful or quite as meaty as the roles for white men. This is not to downplay the amount of ass being kicked on television by Jessica Jones or Agent Carter. Sweet Christmas! Those shows are good! But with the exception of Scarlett Johansson, who is second only to Robert Downey Jr. as far as featured MCU appearances (and that’s without having her own movie), women are not nearly as represented on the big screen (no disrespect to Shane Black, who had a super powered Gwyneth Paltrow destroy Guy Pearce and save Tony Stark in the final act of Iron Man 3). It’s still going to be movies #18 and #21 before fans get a movie led by a black character and a female character, respectively (#20 if you count Ant-Man and the Wasp).
Despite some missteps here and there, Marvel continues to deliver characters that fans know and love in a way that somehow manages to meet and then exceed expectations. Their ability to create such an all-encompassing reality is second to none. Their devotion to, not only the source material, but the audience experience for fans both new and old is something that every other studio should aspire to. It’s great to see other studios learning from what Marvel is doing well (Sony’s deal with Spider-Man, Fox’s treatment of Deadpool and bringing Singer back in on X-Men) and hopefully they can figure it out for the properties that aren’t doing so well. Lookin’ at you, Warner Bros./DC and Fox, just give up the rights to the Fantastic Four and let Marvel do it. Or make a deal like Sony did with Spider-Man. Either way, Marvel shows no sign of slowing. Captain America: Civil War is right around the corner, followed soon after by Doctor Strange and Luke Cage.