Last one I promise, and this will be very light on spoilers. I’ve talked about this film and everything that served to create it for two weeks solid now, and while that may seem more than enough, that’s ten years of films to discuss! And how it has changed, and changed everything around it.
A quick look at the other events of 2008: The CERN supercollidor was inaugurated, Spotify was launched, Obama elected, and Satoshi Nakamoto revealed his plans for Bitcoin. Since then, the cryptocurrency market has turned into a bizarre economic hurricane, the Obama administration has come and gone, Spotify has become an intrinsic part of the way we enjoy music, and no black holes in the Netherlands.
At the time, Iron Man was a family-friendly look at the underhanded acts of arms dealers in the west, and a revelation to those of us who’d grown up with the early 90’s TV series alongside X-Men and Spider-Man, already firmly established on the big screen. For nerds of the 80’s/90’s it was an exciting time, and Robert Downey Jr. was the perfect man to step into the role of Tony Stark, Jon Favreau delivered a fantastic origin story that could easily have stood alone, only for Samuel L. Jackson to sneak in at the last second and practically announce the beginning of, what would become a culturally dominant film franchise.
A Need For Franchise
The oft-ridiculed Star Wars prequel trilogy had concluded only a few years ago, Harry Potter was about halfway through and dominating the box office every year or two (as well as making a killing in merchandising), The Fast and The Furious, Transformers, and even Saw were bringing in consistently profitable figures, almost all of the biggest film franchises of the last twenty years were in full force at the time, propping up film studios through the ebb and flow of an unpredictable industry.
In short, franchises were not new, not even a little bit, and they were an essential part of any major studio’s business plan. Nor was the MCU appealing to an untapped demographic, the difference lay in the sheer number of characters Marvel had at its disposal to bring together, and the mere announcement of the word “Avengers” evokes a long list of potential names. It was an exciting thing to consider, and the success that followed caused some poor decisions to be made.
The DC efforts have not had the same reception, only two of their films have Rotten Tomato scores over 50% (Man of Steel, barely that), same with Metacritic. Mixed reviews from fans and critics, only Wonder Woman garnering any substantial amount of praise. The series has been rushed together, one origin film, one versus effort, and straight into an ensemble piece with characters with an unproven cast, several production issues, and all of it slapped together to compete with the MCU. And they’re not alone.
Universal ridiculously decided to announce a shared universe before seeing how the first film would land, and 2017’s The Mummy? Well it was certainly a massive opening weekend for Tom Cruise, but eight Razzie nominations and a critical panning might put a crimp in future earnings in the Monster Universe, potentially crippling Universal if they choose to forge ahead regardless, but time will tell.
Other shared and expanded universes are on the cards in the future, but few of them have the same level of ambition. Alien and Predator still have some upcoming projects, as do Godzilla and King Kong. None of them are pushing the same break-neck release schedule or bringing together the same size ensemble cast. Marvel’s success has pushed the other studios around them to make some incredibly risky moves that are – well lets face it – every bit as formulaic and generic as the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Perhaps not every attempt at a franchised universe will be quite so ill-received, but efforts so far have lacked the patience, or the planning of the MCU, and it’s creating a lot of disappointing cinema.
A project of this monumental size has brought together a vast number of leading actors who are required to make long-term commitments, and directors who must work unwaveringly to a long term plan, and of course abide by Disney’s codes of conduct. The result is a cast of actors who are rapidly becoming inextricable from their roles, immortalising their comic counterparts in flesh and blood, but the history with directors has had some casualties.
Patty Jenkins – The director of Thor 2 supposedly walked away over creative differences, and certainly there were some questionable decisions made regarding the villain Malekith. There were rumours that Jenkins had been fired, or perhaps more accurately “encouraged” to leave, but Kenneth Branagh had also left the same project, leading to the most inconsistent trilogies in the franchise. Both directors have stated that they’d be willing to come back to the MCU, and Jenkins was rumoured for another Marvel film in future, but her involvement with Wonder Woman might put pay to that.
Edgar Wright – Ant Man lost the unique perspective of Edgar Wright to “creative differences”, and given the way Wright has been known to bring comics to life in the past (Scott Pilgrim) Ant Man couldn’t have been in better hands if Ant Man was all Wright had to consider. The resulting film feels a little disjointed after Peyton Reed took over, still enjoyable, but there’s not doubt that the business decisions of Marvel/Disney were having an impact on the films.
Joss Whedon – The director of the first two Avengers films was given a pet project in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, but his own reasons for leaving are more a matter of the weight of the commitment, and the sheer slog of keeping up the workload. Acting as a consultant for the project, working with all of the other directors and writers to build towards the final collaboration pieces proved more of a burden, and he decided to move on to other projects.
In ten years a lot of people have abandoned the project, and arguments in the Marvel/Disney camp have been quite public. The pay disputes around Robert Downey Jr., rumours that he would be quitting, Edward Norton quitting the role of the Hulk after another disappointing film, in short the size of the project has not been without its stresses.
It’s not quite such an issue with the film industry as a whole, but while we’re shining a spotlight on the errors of the MCU, might as well put this one to bed:
The Monomyth has been redone and retold in thousands of stories, but it’s basic framework becomes more abundantly plain when we see it over and over again in a collection of heroes that fit a very narrow specification. Villains are lacking in diversity and motivation, with Yellow Jacket and Malekith perhaps being the worst offenders.
Let’s not neglect the horrible impermanence of death, Bucky, Fury, Loki, Coulson, all dead, none permanently, and only Quicksliver who appeared for long enough for us to give half a damn when he died. In Infinity War, half of what remains of Asgard is exterminated, Loki included, and Thor broadly maintains his joviality and enthusiasm, though cracks can be seen in the facade, and his vengeful attack on Thanos is filled with zeal, one can’t help but feel that the effect of death is diminished.
All of this leaves the films feeling a little predictable, although I think the notion that they’re not worth watching because they’re a foregone conclusion is a little weak. Good guys win, bad guys lose, and comic-book death is no real death at all, but we know this all to be true, and the fun is not diminished for it.
I have said before, and will say again that the time for the popularity of super-heroes has got to come to an end soon. Fatigue has settled in, and nothing new is rising to take the place, but in the mean time the MCU must be praised – and highly – for making so wild a success out of so ambitious a project, my concern lies in the idea of the success being spoiled by letting the series limp into a paupers grave, rather than going out with a bang.
The Bright Side
What did we have before all of this?
Batman, Spider-Man, a few failed attempts to bring Superman back to the big screen, and Blade did rather well for a while there. Rare were the cohesive worlds that a comic book could offer, and there was never even a chance for something as dramatic as Marvel’s Civil War to get the interpretation it got. One day, maybe, we’ll see DC bring something like Blackest Night to screen, but now is not the time for it, nor does there appear to be any hint that they’re working towards a cohesive narrative.
Star Wars might be able to deliver on the same scale as the MCU, certainly being fuelled with Disney money might afford it that opportunity, but are Disney alone in being able to deliver such cinematic projects? And does the growing scale of spectacle have to demand more in the future? Perhaps the time has come for a grand reset, a tremendous upheaval of the industry, dipping into some new and untested intellectual properties, or perhaps something “original”?
Whatever the fallout of the MCU, be it status quo for a few decades, something new and incredible, or the collapse of an industry under the yoke of Disney (but probably the status quo if we’re honest) we’ve had some films that have defined a generation in the same way Star Wars did in the 70’s and 80’s. Here’s looking forward to a very interesting future.