After raking in billions and topping the box office for close to a decade, Marvel has proven they know how to make profitable movies. Before the MCU, we had our Bonds, Batmans and Star Wars, but no other franchise has existed on this scale. Rather than playing by the rules established by Hollywood history, Marvel reinvented the concept of a shared universe for their product. While others were thinking of “tentpoles”, Marvel was building a colosseum of intellectual property.
The undeniable financial success of the MCU has had extensive effects on the industry. But changing the game doesn’t eliminate the need for continuous improvement. If they want to stay on top, the architects behind the MCU will have to continue innovating and pushing others. Because they have yet to stand the test of time, it’s worth asking if the films within the MCU are disposable cinematic experiences, or will they be fondly remembered by future generations? Like the homicidal villain Ultron, a creation built without the wisdom of time is likely to have unintended consequences. With nothing quite like the MCU, the creators forging the path ahead will have to continue learning on the job. Here are seven of the MCU’s best decisions so far and eight of their worst.
15. WORST: LACKLUSTER VILLAINS
With few exceptions, many of the villains in the MCU have lacked originality, failing to create real tension for audiences. As George R.R. Martin recently pointed out, part of this is because the MCU villains often mirror the heroes. Fights where the fantastical abilities are the same on both sides tend to be slightly predictable.
In addition to being reminiscent of the heroes, MCU villains are starting to resemble each other as well. Take for instance the “faceless alien/robot horde” trope that has established itself. The set pieces start to feel stale after MCU characters face off against yet another CGI army. Villains that present personal dilemmas for the characters are the ones that stick with audiences, and far too many MCU movies feature villains of the “what’s his name again” variety.
14. BEST: STARTING THE MCU WITH ROBERT DOWNEY JR. AS IRON MAN
Though Robert Downey, Jr. has always been a charismatic leading man, the MCU’s young audience did not witness firsthand the actor’s hedonistic heyday of the ’80s and ’90s. Plenty of RDJ’s contemporaries indulged in similar antics during the time, but his extracurricular activities nearly cost him his career.
After carefully rebuilding his reputation in the early ‘00s with standout performances in films like Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang and Zodiac, he still wasn’t what you’d call a box office draw. Don’t let revisionist Hollywood historians tell you otherwise: starting the MCU with RDJ was not a safe bet. It was a calculated risk that paid off spectacularly, and it deserves recognition as a brilliant move. Combined with Jon Favreau’s direction, the success of Iron Man was the foundation that made the expanded universe possible. Casting RDJ was the key to that success.
13. WORST: LETTING FOX KEEP THE X-MEN/FANTASTIC FOUR RIGHTS
“Letting” may be a cruel description of Marvel’s inaction, but there is no denying that with Disney’s deep pockets they could have long ago renegotiated the terms of the Marvel character film rights currently owned by Fox. When Marvel Studios successfully came to an agreement with Sony in order to bring Peter Parker into the Avengers fold, many fans were baffled. Why would they still leave the wildly popular Fantastic Four and X-Men characters in the hands of a studio proven to be incompetent custodians?
Meanwhile, ABC is still trying to make The Inhumans into their own “mutant” franchise, but lacking the beloved characters of the X-verse means it is not likely to succeed. The longer Fox holds the rights to these franchises, the harder it will be for Marvel to bring them into the MCU.
12. BEST: LINKING THE MCU FILMS WITH NICK FURY
While casting RDJ may have been an inspired decision, no one would dispute Samuel L. Jackson’s appeal when he made his first MCU cameo in Iron Man. What makes this particular casting move ingenious is the way the MCU decided to utilize Nick Fury as a character. He’s not quite Charlie to the Avenger’s Angels, nor is he seen as often as Bond’s M. Up until The Avengers, Jackson is portrayed as a true spymaster, quietly stepping in to pull some very big strings.
The fact that his early appearances are in end credits scenes also reinforces this fact — he is literally hidden from the audience for most of the films. It is rare to see Hollywood exercise restraint with such a big name, but Jackson’s turn as Nick Fury shows how a star with presence can pull together an entire universe with minimal screen time.
11. WORST: 16 FILMS, NO WOMEN OR PERSON OF COLOR AS LEADS
There is no sugar coating it: that is a terrible record. The fact that the MCU will have nearly 20 films with white male leads before they have a person of color or a woman at the top of the marquee is disappointing. While there have always been women in the MCU, too often they have been portrayed as romantic motivation for the male heroes, or they played untrustworthy allies (see Black Widow and Wanda).
There have been many men of color in the MCU, but always as supporting characters. Women of color have it even worse, with only a few named characters in a handful of MCU films. While fans are looking forward to Black Panther and Captain Marvel, the fact that it took them a decade to get there is unjustified.
10. BEST: RECASTING MARK RUFFALO AS HULK
After the lackluster performance of Universal Studio’s 2003 Hulk, Marvel reacquired the rights to the character for inclusion in their future franchise. Though not the runaway hit that Iron Man proved to be just two months prior, The Incredible Hulk made back money and was received well enough by audiences to justify including him in the MCU.
Despite the fact that they already had Oscar-nominated actor Edward Norton on hand, Mark Ruffalo was tapped to play Bruce Banner moving forward. While there is plenty of speculation as to why this decision was made, the films have benefited from the obvious chemistry Ruffalo has with the rest of The Avengers cast. We will never know for certain, but Norton’s moody Banner probably would not have been a good fit for the “Science Bros” duo.
9. WORST: LOSING EDGAR WRIGHT AS ANT-MAN DIRECTOR
The disappointing turn of events that led to Edgar Wright leaving Ant-Man may never be fully known outside of the catchall “creative differences”, but fans of the Cornetto Trilogy are still heartbroken. With the exception of James Gunn, very few of the MCU directors have created work recognizable to their style. By design, these movies are meant to function as pieces of a puzzle. Too often they are MCU films first and the director’s vision second.
That rigidity may have cost the MCU a truly unique offering. When many of the biggest successes of the MCU have come from taking risks, this is one instance where trust was sorely needed. The eventual Ant-Man director Peyton Reed did a wonderful job with the material, but this still remains a lost opportunity.
8. BEST: REGULARLY PRODUCING FILMS SINCE 2008
Since Iron Man was first released, the MCU has been churning out films regularly enough to remain a constant in the pop culture landscape for a decade. Since 2013, there have been at least two MCU films every year. This consistency in their product has instilled a certain amount of faith within the audience, making every new MCU film a must see.
Though it may seem obvious to recognize that releasing well received films on a timely basis will lead to profits, Marvel has succeeded at this on an incomparable scale. With four films thus far cracking a billion at the box office, the MCU is likely to continue producing films at a higher rate. Confidence in their own assured success has made this possible, and there is no tentativeness in their release schedule.
7. WORST: RECYCLING THE SAME HERO’S JOURNEY
A privileged and overly confident white man who takes for granted the woman who loves him must face a threat that forces him to utilize the great power he had all along. The fact that this describes at least three (arguably four) of the leads in the MCU is a problem. Iron Man, Thor and Doctor Strange may inhabit wildly different worlds, but their hero’s journeys are nearly the same.
Typically within a team environment, you don’t need multiple players with the same strengths. With too many characters filling the “cocky, but brilliant” check box, it highlights the lack of diversity in the types of characters that get to lead in the MCU. Since the rich smart aleck brigade will all be appearing in Avengers: Infinity War, we’re guessing they will be kept far from one another to avoid inviting comparison.
6. BEST: MAKING LOKI THE FIRST BIG BAD
The problem with the Avengers (like any super squad) is that much of their rogues gallery is comprised of the nemeses of the individual team members. Their identities become linked to the singular heroes that fight them on a regular basis, making villains specific to the Avengers much less memorable.
While Loki is known primarily as Thor’s brother and villain, the decision to make him the main architect of the Chitauri attack on Earth gave The Avengers much needed emotional tension. His personal vendetta against humanity made sense without having the film be reduced to another fight between Thor and his evil brother. Tom Hiddleston’s richly layered performance as Loki is what made him the perfect first villain to face the abundantly charismatic team of Avengers.
5. WORST: INCONSISTENT HEROES
Having the MCU characters established within their own films and then coming together for super melees is the most logical way to build a shared universe film franchise. But when the group films give those characters such little time for development, their actions are driven more by plot convenience than informed by their experiences. Take for instance Black Widow; a character that gives up her darkest secrets to get away from government control, who then decides working for the government is in her best interests, then flips AGAIN — okay, you get the idea.
This has been a frequent complaint of the Avengers films, and with so many more characters to squeeze in, it will likely be even worse in Avengers: Infinity War. Giving everyone a moment in the spotlight sacrifices the time needed to demonstrate the motivations behind those spectacular fights.
4. BEST: HAVING FAITH IN JAMES GUNN AND GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY
Prior to his entry into the MCU, James Gunn was not a creator synonymous with large scale action and adventure. Known primarily as a well-respected writer and director of cult horror films, bringing him into the already well oiled-machine of the MCU was a risky move. A misfit himself, James Gunn proved to be the perfect choice to lead the equally unlikely stars of Guardians.
Very few fans were clamoring to see these heroes make their debut, but Guardians of the Galaxy worked because James Gunn was allowed to create a film with a unique tone apart from the rest of the MCU. While most of the well-known superheroes were going through their Empire Strikes Back downtrodden phase, Gunn’s quirky take on the seedier corners of space provided much needed levity.
3. WORST: TOO MANY COSMIC MCGUFFINS
The rarely explained and often dubious powers of the cosmic artifacts that are a part of the MCU have been around as long as Nick Fury, and audiences are still no closer to understanding the powers of the Tesseract or Infinity Stones. Granted, they are clearly building toward Infinity War, but this has resulted in nearly a decade of, “Wait for it, we’ll explain this later!”
No one walked away from Back to The Future upset that the flux capacitor wasn’t explained in detail, but that’s because it was used as a means to an end. The difference is MCU’s cosmic McGuffins are an end, culminating in their assumed intended use in the Avengers: Infinity War. A plot device with its own Wikepedia page should be something future MCU writers try to avoid.
2. BEST: HAVING CAP LEAD THE MCU AVENGERS
While Captain America as a character is a natural choice to lead the Avengers, having him do so within the MCU was not a foregone conclusion. After establishing Phase 1 of the MCU with Hulk, Thor, and two Iron Man films, Captain America was literally the last character to make his debut prior to the release of The Avengers. As beloved as Chris Evans is now (hashtag we told you so), Captain America: The First Avenger is the second least successful MCU film, just ahead of The Incredible Hulk.
The Avengers very well could have been the RDJ show with friends and still made money, but the MCU creators had faith that Evans appeal would grow with the franchise. The Captain America films have indeed become far more financially successful since the character’s debut film, and The Avengers rightfully had Cap as its beating heart.
1. WORST: DESTRUCTION FATIGUE
This particular misstep is not one unique to the MCU, but it is worth noting because they keep going back to it: destruction fatigue. It’s not enough to see Earth’s Mightiest Heroes duke it out with villains, large portions of populated cities must meet terrible fates as well. This propensity for large scale destruction often achieves the opposite of its intended goal, encouraging the audience to detach from the loss of life rather than creating tragic consequences.
While these scenes of New York and Washington D.C. being pummeled may be disturbing in principle, the characters never quite react in a way that is fitting for the scale either. Eating shawarma in the hollowed out shell of New York City may get a laugh but it doesn’t succeed in showing the guilt felt by our heroes.
The MCU is doing a lot right, but can still miss the mark. Tell us what you think in the comments!
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