As Phase Two reaches the latter half and Guardians Of The Galaxy preps everybody for The Avengers: Age Of Ultron next summer, it's time to take a deep look into Marvel's Cinematic Universe and what has been built up over the last decade of cinema. And it's not looking as good as you'd hope.
The thing about comic books is that you can pick them up, go through them, choose which ones you want to read, and should you want to follow the story further you can then pick up more. With the Marvel Cinematic Universe, however, we as an audience are seeing every film because they aren't coming out every month, there isn't too many to cope with, we don't have to deal with only having so many hours in the day, if you have 2 hours spare every 6 months you can keep up with Marvel Studios' story-line. Why is this a bad thing? Well, in comics the sheer number of issues and characters mean that doing similar storylines is inevitable, a story circle can only revolve in so many directions, but in film with tops of 2 films every year there's a lot more scope to branch out and tell different stories about the vast array of characters on display. Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Thor: The Dark World, though tonally and visually different enough, basically tell the same story. Obviously the case can be made that every big budget action film tells the same story, but when you line certain similar incidents up (Character is dead, or are they? We'll get back to this later. Oh no, the world's totally going to be destroyed. Can't trust anybody, except that small crew you run with, EXPLOSIONS!) it starts to seem like there's a harsh sense of déjà vu. When you're making films to near $200m budgets at a time, it is both understandable to stick to what succeeds but also pretty damaging, in the vast sense of cinema and storytelling, to squander the opportunities before you for the same old same old.
As much as Iron Man Three was full of wit and playing wryly with the expected structure of the superhero action movie, it still had to deal with the same old issues that are beginning to really plague the franchise. The sole franchise. Because the MCU has forced the concept of franchises plural to be thrown out of the window, it is not now about many different characters and stories happening, it is simply one story being told in fragments. And next week our fragment is the most removed, and yet the next giant step into the galaxy of Marvel's universe.
In interviews and conferences producer Kevin Feige has made it abundantly clear that despite the size and scope of the many productions Marvel Studios has going on, there's a core component of three or four people in the meeting rooms at the very top, including him and Joss Whedon. What does this mean? It means that everything you see in moving image form has been conceived by these people and past down, right? Well, in some ways. They are the folk deciding which direction the story goes, and which characters are involved, they're deciding on which movies to make and how they play into one another. They are making the bigger narrative decisions, essentially, and anyone who comes in to work on one of the Marvel films has to stay within the margins they dictate for the entire franchise, there's no shocking twists and surprise announcements. It all feeds into the next behemoth assembling of The Avengers. You know what creativity feeds off of? Boundaries. Why? Because it sets guidelines, but then makes the creators want to play with what they have in their toybox, and discover how to break through the existing toybox and surprise the audience with an entirely new toybox they never knew existed. This structure declines the creation of additional and as-yet non-existant toyboxes because no matter the direction the director and screenwriters (And there's always so many) want to go, every road must lead to the end of the Phase.
Want to try something different? You can, if you play the game (James Gunn), but if you want to be completely adhering to your own creative instincts and avoiding the millions of standard beats now formed in action cinema, you are outta here Edgar Wright. Come back with a better attitude and less concepts in your film. Give us a third act battle and a threat to the world or universe and don't spend half an act setting up the array of interesting characters we have, we need plot. Only plot.
Let's discuss with the upcoming film Guardians Of The Galaxy. I'll use the film's structure but let's not talk about plot and spoilers, we'll hit the spoilers late however, next paragraph, so skip ahead if you need to, and thus it'll be redundant to read the article.
James Gunn isn't just the writer of Scooby Doo (2002) and Tromeo & Juliet (1996), the man has directed films too. Namely the entirely inspired, disgusting and hysterical SLiTHER, a creature feature from 2006, and then he went on to write and direct Super, his take on superheroes and placing the actions and brainwaves of a grand hero of the city into a super-depressed man hitting a mental breakdown and using violence as his outlet. It is a very darkly toned comedy that often hits pangs of dark sad drama even in its funniest moments. A weird and daring creature of a film that evolves on every watch. The man makes weird and silly films, one silly in fun ways, the other embracing silliness to hit harder when the punch comes, so giving him a film about space aliens, a talking angry racoon and a treeman who can only say three words at all times. He can handle that. Marvel can agree to let someone like him, someone who has worked in the studio system but truly shown that his left-field works can carry story, character, a consistent tone and a belief in the concept no matter how bizarre, take control of an obscure, left-field comic book nobody who's into Tom Hiddleston has heard of and craft a summer flick out of that somehow.
To Marvel's credit, they have made a film in a sea of superheroes battling on Earth that is just a bunch of rejects on a spaceship doing things in a less-than-heroic way, but as far as good will can go with Guardians, that's about it. WIthin 15 minutes of Guardians Of The Galaxy Star-Lord has had his whimsical introduction to the audience in a fun credit sequence, and done some naughty stealing, and all of a sudden the plot has begun. You have 2 hours, but 15 minutes in, and before 4/5 of the main ensemble have shown up the plot is already in motion with not one but two conversations by non-playable characters about that big ol' thing that everyone wants but why does Malekith want the red stuff in Natalie Portman's body? What is the Rabbit's Foot anyway?
So before Groot is even in the mix we're indoctrinated into conversations about things we really have little vested interest in but people we've never seen before care deeply. Then the big coming together of the mass of the ensemble happens. A mix of comedy, action and inevitability that it all leads to them being on thin but friendly ice with one another. Rather than spend time with these eccentric characters and their time together, working through vastly differing personalities, however, Marvel has decided that the plot is so important and interesting that it must move on dramatically, and all of a sudden everyone's together in lock-up and meeting number 5, and deciding on how to proceed with the plot. That act one is given so little time to examine the new worlds we are seeing, filling them out with characters and tone and a feeling (to get hooked on. Sorry, sorry), Marvel want to push the same story again. Somebody wants something so as to do evil. The heroes might know the whereabouts, or might even have it, so not only are they the targets for evil to stop them being heroes, but they are key to helping them out, so everyone does things. Blah blah blah. It's not interesting, when this exact stuff happened last year in Thor 2. Malekith and Thor and Loki and the nine realms and there was the bit where they all stood together, not as a unit, but they stood in frame together and the possibility for something to happen didn't take place because the poorly drawn out villain and the bland hero are just doing predetermined things to manufacture The Avengers 2. The moneymaker.
Anyway, I'm saying less-than-kind things about Guardians Of The Galaxy, will get back to that. Ok, to be fair the film has a lot of good qualities, it has fun characters and a sense of having fun with the expected attitudes of heroes. Having said that, it only ever comes into effect when the plot demands it. Almost like Marvel have a script and sometimes it is set in stone, other times it reads [HERO OF FILM] looks to space alien villain and [PERSONALITY TRAIT THAT EMBRACES COMIC BOOK LORE AND HUMOR] (American spelling because obvious) rather than anything evolving naturally out of situations or creative processes. In essence it all feels cookie-cutter now.
When we finally hit the third act, beyond the call to action, beyond the realisation that the heroes must rise to their biggest challenge yet, when we get to that final fight, are we all still really engrossed? Time and time again we have all the odds against our heroes, man what if they didn't win this time? Could you imagine how exciting a Marvel movie would be if there was any moment whilst watching a Marvel movie that the thought of mortality and losing the battle would cross your mind? Obviously in big budget action thrillers the good guy will never lose. The best ones tease the opportunity, no matter how unlikely, for as long as possible. Marvel movies never have this moment. Why? Beyond singing everyone to fifty films on contract and stuff, well, death isn't a factor in Marvel movies. Not for a good guy.
Now we come to use recent Marvel movies as examples for some spoilery manners.
You have been warned.
Nobody good dies in Marvel movies. Rene Russo's character in the Thor movies was probably a kidnapping, child-touching creep since she got the ol' heave-ho, but you look at it. Iron Man Three, Jon Favreau's superfluous bodyguard character, a failed attempt at comedic side-characters through the first two films, is blown up in an explosion that would kill many, the kind that we learn DID kill many in other towns. He's in hospital watching Downton Abbey.
Nick Fury is the focus of an extended car-chase/shoot-out in Cap 2, rather than just have one small moment of murder, he is given an entire action sequence to spell out that it's the heroic end, and it goes on for half an hour too long. And then twenty minutes later in an underground bunker the bugger's still alive and giving orders. Similarly, The titular Winter Soldier, a bad guy who was Captain America's totes best bud in the war, is on the path to death. He is saved. This was foreshadowed by corporate news announcements of the signing of the actor to a further 5 films, and talk of a Winter Soldier spin-off. Disney and Marvel ruined any tension by planning business ahead of art.
Loki is killed off at the end of Thor 2, and then it appears he's taken the guise of daddy Odin and ascended to Asgard's throne. Fangirls ain't dealing with the death of one of the two reasons to watch a Thor movie (Thor's Thorax being number two) so he got the big death moment and then they rectified it quickly.
Joss Whedon, the man known as a serial character murderer, lived up to reputation when he killed off the only character in The Avengers that wasn't from the comics, someone made up entirely for the films and thus an easy target. Agent Coulson was a supporting character in the movies, killed by the best killer in cinema. He gets given an entire network show about him.
In Guardians the invincible treeman Groot sacrifices himself for his buddies, dies, but then his little twig-self grows again almost immediately, with adorable face and dance moves, as a potted plant.
Iron Man Three's final battle fight has a thing where Pepper falls out of a badly-placed office atop a collapsing series of cranes (Who designed that?) but you know she'll survive because earlier on they showed and told (Two key parts of cinema) the audience about the thing she has in her, and what it does. It's not a tense beat but they inform you it won't be an hour prior, almost like the writers knew the audience would have brain thoughts during the film so played to acknowledge them, but entertain rather than create suspense that only works if you don't think for five seconds.
To take another franchise and obviously not dead but still feeling stakes and threat as an example, Mission: Impossible III, arguably the best of the franchise, opens with Hoffman prepping to shoot Ethan Hunt's wife. It's angry and loud and intense, and you know he's not going to do it. one-hundred minutes later, we get back to that scene and he shoots her. He shoots her dead. Sure, there's a face-mask thing going on there like always, but holy hell, this guy shot someone and made it look like Hunt's wifey was dead. In front of his face. And then in the fight after that, Hunt has a bomb in his head. A bomb. To stop it exploding he has to electrocute himself, stopping brain and blood functions. And then electrocuted back with defibrillators, or wire in this case. And Michelle Monaghan, his alive wife, tries, she tries when he is dead. And he doesn't come back. They spend minutes, you know it doesn't end with him dead, but they play it out for a long while. And it hits you. The hero is lying there, a character is reacting to this death. We are reacting to this death. And when he finally returns, he feels the impact of it all.
Marvel characters get up, dust themselves off and go again. How is that an interesting concept for a character. The un-hurt hero. The perfect character? Nobody likes Superman, is what I'm saying.
So whilst Marvel are knocking them out two-by-two, it's strange that every single one is feeling more and more similar, despite trying to focus on different characters. Watching Guardians Of The Galaxy brings in more thoughts about Thor: The Dark World than how Star Wars films should be. Watching Captain America: The Winter Soldier makes you think about how Iron Man Three did the whole down-low investigation thriller better. Watching all of these films is a necessity to follow that grand plot, so having them all feel so similar, follow similar trajectories, to the point where you can essentially boil the important things down to what happens outside the generic plot (In this film a character says this funny thing which is why they are this type of character quirk when they all band together, whereas this one is all serious so when The Avengers 2 happens they will do more fighting than talking) rather than actively participate in watching. And passive viewing of each film becomes stale and boring quickly. It is easy to turn off after a while. People who watch procedural TV shows, crime dramas like NCIS and Law & Order, they don't watch for the plots, they like to see characters they are familiar with, and they might not watch every week, but drop in from time to time. They may watch in the background, comfort viewing whilst working or ironing or talking to people. Marvel movies are cinematic presentations, we sit in dark rooms, our only focus for 2 hours are what they show, so why are they the cinematic equivalent to a CSI episode from the middle of season 13? Why aren't they breaking new ground? They have the budget, the rights to so many characters, the draw of artistic and bold filmmakers, writers, actors, world and prop and costume designers. Why are they so content to just rehash so much, to go round in circles, until the true big-screen outings of The Avengers films? And why do audiences eat it up, each time proclaiming the new Marvel movie is the best yet? It's the same film you watched six months ago, almost, with increasingly apathetic villains and writing that feels like its been watered down by seven bartenders in Marvel's corporate offices.
Still, roll on Ant-Man, right? Phase three, then Phase four, Phase five, Phase six, Phase seven, by the time WALL-E is chilling and watching Hello, Dolly!, Phase thirty-nine will be in effect, and will still be about a hero who is kinda off-beat but not stopping a villain without a single trait beyond "Evil" from doing a bad thing to the world/universe, cue act three and ships exploding, people not dying.