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Why the Marvel Cinematic Universe Is So Mediocre, and Why We Love It Anyway

Are there actually any good movies set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe?

Right away, I think of Guardians of the Galaxy, which is a really fun movie to watch. So is Doctor Strange, for the right audience. Heck, so is Avengers: Age of Ultron. And if they’re fun to watch, then they’re good, right? Isn’t that the point? Well, yes…and no. Movies like these have a relatively high entertainment value (though some movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe fall short of even that – I’m looking at you, Thor). They are, in a word, cool. But historically speaking, cool is anathema to cinema.

A movie, at its best, can be an expression of true art; thematically complex, rich, challenging, moving. Great (even good) art, regardless of medium, is layered with meaning, often leaving us to wonder how its creator stumbled on such a clear vision. Do we get these things from Marvel movies? With a handful of memorable exceptions (like a few lines at the end of Avengers: AoU), no, we don’t. This raises a few questions.

Is it even possible for a superhero movie to be great art?

Let’s just say it ain’t easy. In most cases, a superhero flick is little more than a remastered version of someone else’s attempt at making art. Most superhero movies are basically live-action copies of comic books, and let’s face it – the average comic book is far from synonymous with great art. (Note: I did say average comic book.) Both superhero comic books and movies often have artistic elements to them, but the finished products are usually meant to entertain rather than to provoke deep self – or social awareness.

Spider-Man 2, Doc Ock - Marvel Cinematic Universe

Image courtesy of Marvel Studios / Sony

With that said, superhero flicks do have the potential to venture into the realm of art. Of this, 2009’s Watchmen is maybe the best example (sorry, Spider-Man 2), so it seems worthwhile to ask how it accomplished that feat. First, it was inspired by [what many would call] true art – Alan Moore’s Watchmen series is not your average comic book story. Along with Dave Gibbon’s illustration, it rose far above the rank of pure entertainment and remains, according to some, the most important comic book series ever published, period. Second, the film version of Watchmen stuck closely to its source material. In other words, it didn’t use superfluous action scenes, brand-name cast members, or forced jokes in an attempt to make the movie appealing to a wider audience than it would have had organically.

Now, we could debate the term “massive” all day long, but I’m talking about movies that cost more to make than most of us earn in our whole lives – a lot more. Movies like Jurassic ParkThe Matrix, and Blade Runner, with respective budgets of $105 million, $95 million, and $70 million (adjusted for inflation) were downright inexpensive when compared with blockbusters like the behemoth Avatar, which cost [Click to read more…]

So why can’t Marvel movies follow this format and achieve movie greatness?

The answer lies with the same two things that made Watchmen so good, except in their reverse form. First of all, many of the movies that take place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe aren’t based on particularly good stories (although Marvel: Civil War was a decent read), they’re just based on the most popular (and most marketable) characters. The same thing goes for the Marvel shows that Netflix has been putting out (Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage).

Second, the producers of these movies and TV serials are looking to maximize their profit (what? You mean they’re not completely dedicated to pleasing die-hard comic book fans?!?) by engaging the widest possible audience. With very little exception, all of the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe are pretty blatantly aimed at the whole family. Sometimes this works with the mood of the movie (see Guardians) and sometimes it’s just annoying (see almost every other Marvel movie). Yes, comic books have pretty colors and frequently stick up for conservative values, but they also tend to be much darker and heavier in terms of theme and story than their movie counterparts convey.

The Marvel shows on Netflix have, so far, been much more successful in conveying those elements than movies like Iron Man or The Avengers, but have their own fatal flaws. Daredevil comes the closest to being a great television drama, with its clever deconstruction of a blind man who somehow sees the world better than he sees his own mind, but is completely undermined by cheesy writing, half-baked acting (not even Vincent D’Onofrio can make up for Deborah Ann Woll and Elden Henson), and laughable oversights from the director’s chair (the same police officer somehow being present at every crime scene, or a D.A. calling the shots during a police raid). The other Netflix/Marvel collaborations suffer from much of the same.

If I had to pinpoint just one reason why Marvel has failed to turn out anything on the big or small screen worthy of being called “art,” it would be easy: money. Oh, they’ve spent enough to create art – over $2.5 billion from Iron Man to Doctor Strange. Yes, billion. But that’s precisely it – money is what’s behind the movies (and shows) and money is what’s in front, too. At Marvel Studios, the collective eye is on the prize, but the prize isn’t the adoration of comic shop patrons everywhere, it’s fat stacks of cash, and that’s not exactly the type of pure motivation you’d look for in someone (or a group of people, in this case) who you’re hoping will produce a work of art.

And yet, I already have my $13.50 set aside for Guardians of the Galaxy 2…

I think this article was supposed to have a second part to it. Let’s see, Marvel movies kinda suck…oh yeah – now I’m supposed to talk about why we don’t care! This bit should be easy; it’s the costumes, am I right? Am I the only one who used to read comic books and think the main reason superheroes couldn’t exist is that nobody could make such elaborate outfits that were still practical in a fight? Boy, did the movies prove me wrong.

Daredevil, Punisher on rooftop - Marvel Cinematic Universe

Image courtesy of Marvel / Netflix

When we see a live-action Spider-Man duking it out with Cap, or Daredevil in beatdown mode against Punisher on a shadowy rooftop, it seems that much more real, and even when it’s bad movie-making, it’s still awesome. No one (I assume) that reads superhero comics can help but feel just a tiny bit disappointed that they’ll never be a superhero themselves (isn’t that why we loved Kick-Ass?), and seeing those characters on the big screen just puts us a little deeper into that fantasy.

Also, while all art (for both the artist and the critic) is arguably a form of escapism, not all escapism is art, and for better or worse, that’s the way we like it. Great art has a tendency to make us feel uncomfortable – it defies conventions and expectations. And sometimes, that’s exactly what we need. Other times, we’re looking for something completely predictable. Occasionally, we want to go into a dark room, bury our troubles in a tray of cheesy nachos with extra jalapenos, and briefly forget about our own lives while we watch some folks in Kevlar-lined spandex bodysuits slam each other’s heads into the pavement. For giving us that, Marvel Studios, we thank you.

Featured Image: Marvel Studios / Disney

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