In May 2008, Iron Man was released to a cautiously optimistic audience. It was a promising start to a franchise with big plans, as a new Cinematic Universe was getting ready to launch Marvel comics into the throng of the film industry.
11 years, 22 films, 17 directors and $18 billion dollars in revenue later, the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s latest entry, Avengers: Endgame, has put superhero films in the record books for becoming the second-highest grossing film in history.
And yet beneath all the critical acclaim and box office success, Marvel Studios’ most humbling achievement is in how it has held true to the originality and personality that had us cherishing it from the very beginning. As we recover from the literal endgame, now seems as good a time as any to ask ourselves a formidable and yet essential question: why do we love the MCU?
So let’s gather our collections of Avenger pop vinyls and cling tightly to our Captain America shield pillows, because we’re about to address the ultimate reasons this expertly crafted universe is so deserving of the most critical praise of all — our own.
Not ‘super-humans’, just humans
Let’s face the facts; superhero films aren’t everyone’s cup of tea.
While there’s no denying the enjoyment found in watching a spandex-wearing unit of muscle punch extraterrestrial goons set on decimating cities, I’ll admit I’ve felt more emotional attachment to watching my tamagotchi grow into adulthood.
Of course, this has no reflection on the heroes as they are portrayed in comic books. The banal tendency is merely a characteristic of the action blockbuster film, which typically lacks the patience and nuance needed to depict these out-of-this-world heroes, ‘brilliant but tormented’ billionaires or genetically enhanced super soldiers as real people.
So what does the MCU do differently? Its stories don’t depict superheroes, they depict human beings.
We begin with Tony Stark, a genius and egotistical playboy with little regard for the damage his weaponry inflicts upon scores of people. Although Iron Man’s own film develops Stark’s character arc when he sees first-hand the carnage his business promotes, every decision he makes in later installments draw from the core beliefs and personality that makes ‘I-am-Tony-Stark’ human. Marvel doesn’t waste time flaunting an unbeatable hero who always ‘wins’ (obviously there are many exceptions — let’s not forget we’re talking about superhero movies here), but instead focuses on the profound internal struggles of a man riddled with guilt from the impact his powers have on the real world. It’s the way he develops as a believable and layered character that is testament to the thought and love that went into how he was written and portrayed.
The same argument goes for the rest of the crew. We see Steve Rogers, a soldier whose beliefs force him to question and eventually oppose the authorial powers he once dutifully served. Natasha Romanoff, trained to become ‘Black Widow’, evolves from lycra-wearing femme fatale to genuine human being who is willing to sacrifice her own life in order for her only true friend to be reunited with his family. Peter Parker, a young whippersnapper intent on proving his worth, learns that he doesn’t need a suit to make a difference to the world.
These are the stories that mean something to us, that connect us with their flaws, that portray these heroes as more than just their powers. It’s seeing the people behind the heroic identities that continually remind us that, beneath the suits, these guys are more than just ‘fictional characters’. And this is why we can’t help but love ‘em.
A vast, interconnected universe
The Marvel Universe is big. So big, that if Marvel Studios made their films completely true to the estimated 32,000 comics published from 1939, well, let’s try not to imagine the number of bathroom breaks needed for that kind of viewing.
Translating such a dynamic flow of storylines into 22 individual films is a pretty impressive feat, but building upon a continuous and intertwined underlying plot that connects them all together is another thing entirely. Yeah, things can go from A to Epsilon pretty fast, until you’re rewinding for the third time because you still haven’t the faintest idea what the last five minutes of exposition was about. However, for the majority of the ride, Marvel Studios provides enough cushiony backstory and comfortably pointless action segments to keep things cosy for even the most clueless audiences.
Perhaps the best thing about the nature of cinematic adaptation is in how Marvel’s comic book lore is represented on the visual front, condensing a vast universe into a coherent and intertwined thread of narratively-driven films. Regardless of whether you’re a die-hard fan or a casual viewer, there’s no denying the anticipation around what new rules, characters and plots from the established universe will be brought to the film’s later entries. Every additional piece of lore just fits perfectly into the MCU puzzle, making speculation over what we’ll see come to life on the big screen next just as fun as the films themselves.
And then there’s the real reason we’re all here: forcing the universe’s most powerful people/beings/aliens into close proximity like dozens of school bullies in one playground. The Avengers (2012) owes its success to this very reason, as we were all hanging to see how Iron Man, Captain America and Thor could possibly get along (which they didn’t, for the most part). The delightful trend of mis-matching heroes continued after The Avengers and into solo films, until the satisfying round-up of our favourite characters held the franchise all the way to the Avengers’ last. That iconic circular panning shot of our favourite Avengers team is what we all wanted, and boy, did Marvel continue to deliver.
An on-point tone
When a film’s primary purpose is to entertain, scouring for its ‘artistic merit’, in my belief, can be a dangerously narrow and subjective way to appreciate the hard work that hundreds of people have poured into its creation — especially when it regards highly popular blockbusters.
Despite this, it was still a breath of fresh air to know that the majority of entries to the MCU received favourable reviews, with Guardians of the Galaxy, Black Panther and Avengers: Endgame praised as ‘cinematic achievements’. The question is, what makes them quality films?
It’s simple: everything
That’s because tone is everything. It’s the overall ‘feeling’ of watching these movies. The tone doesn’t just exist within each individual entry, it spreads continuously across the entire series of films. Of course, we love the MCU for its story and the characters that drive it, but we can’t possibly go on talking about the aspects we can’t get enough of without mentioning its own ‘artistic merit’ of pulling off its own substantial and versatile personality.
A tone doesn’t have to be constant to feel right. With so many directors comes so many different visions of how Marvel’s stories should be depicted visually. From the muted, almost sepia-like hues overlaying the World War II scene in Captain America: The First Avenger, to the starkly vibrant and deeply rich colours of outer space that we see in Guardians of the Galaxy, it’s pretty staggering to notice how contrasted some of these films are, despite belonging to the same franchise.
However, the MCU is consistent in one aspect: its emotional self-awareness. You know when to laugh and when not to laugh, when to cry, followed by another alleviating moment of chuckles, before bursting into a fit of sobs (basically Endgame in a nutshell). It’s so refreshing to see a franchise with complex themes unafraid to poke some fun at itself, and the MCU somehow nails it every time without interrupting the more heart-wrenching moments. There’s no doubt that we love the MCU for this reason, the ‘artistic merit’ part is only a bonus.
Re-defining a genre
We all love a good superhero film. Horrendously corny outfits, origin stories, villains who are actually enticing characters until they just go ape-shit in their new mecha-suit/grotesquely-altered-body by the end of the film for a cheap explosive finale — you know, stuff like that.
When Iron Man was released to the world over ten years ago, we didn’t really expect any less, so it came as no surprise that these exact tropes were even still delivered (with the exception of the corny suit, because Iron Man is sick). Now, take a look at how Marvel has evolved in the time since. We’ve gone from frustration over ‘the heroes always winning’ to frustration over ‘the heroes now losing’, and we absolutely love it.
If you’re as obsessed as I am over reviews and analysis of current films in the pop culture eye, chances are you’ve probably come across the phrase; ‘subverting expectations.’ Without meaning to repeat too much what others have been preaching, that’s exactly what the MCU has done — and to an incredibly effective extent. Who could have imagined the unbeatable superheroes finally beaten? A believable villain with a plot so unthinkable it becomes realistically valid? It’s no wonder Infinity War received overwhelmingly positive reviews; it wasn’t afraid to turn frequently established tropes on their heads.
Marvel Studios has also shown that superhero films don’t need to be dark and gritty to be taken seriously. In a market that somehow tends to translate the often vibrant graphic artwork of comic books into bleak, borderline noir-style films, it’s a relief to see the lighthearted side of superheroes take flight in the popular MCU as it faithfully represents the niche medium of its source material. We’re even seeing other popular superhero films attempt to adapt the proven success of humour into their own writing (not mentioning any names, Justice League) but there’s one underlying problem: they’re not Marvel, are they.
A story about superheroes
In one word, summarise the MCU. Strip away the acclaim, the financial success, the fan theories and speculation, and what is left in its very centre?
To me, that word is simply ‘fun’.
My answer could be different to yours, and that’s okay. To be fair, there are an infinite number of words that would just as dutifully encapsulate the core of this franchise. But if you’re reading this piece (and made it this far), you likely love the MCU for the same reason. It’s just one hell of a crazy-fun ride.
Obviously, we get more out of these films than just entertainment, but surely its fun factor is the reason we love them in the first place. 22 films have seen undeniable strength in narrative, incredible development of the characters, brilliantly-executed action scenes and revolutionary special effects and mise-en-scene, but without the charm and humour that gives the MCU its iconic flair, I highly doubt that the franchise would have the profound impact it does today.
We can’t help but sit glued to the screen as we watch the Avengers battle a sentient droid atop a giant floating city. We sing along with Star-Lord as he dances across the terrain on Morag. We grin as root Groot unsubtly moves to ‘Take Me Back’ in between Drax’s occasional glances. We cackle to ourselves as Thor screams in dismay when cyber-barber Stan Lee arrives to shave his luscious blonde locks. These beats of personality all add to the larger identity that defines the MCU as a wacky, colourful and heartfelt story about superheroes, and we’ll never stop loving these movies for that.
Stan Lee Cameos
Let’s be real, did you ever have any doubts?
Rest in peace, Stan Lee, we’re indebted to your endless imagination and remarkable gift of storytelling.
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