Marvel has definitely, more than any other studio, nailed the superhero genre. With 2008’s Iron Man, Marvel showed they knew what people wanted from their comic book movies, and eventually, for better or worse, the Marvel Cinematic Universe became the dominant force in modern movie-making. It’s just a shame that their best movies aren’t the ones they make within the superhero genre.
The genre of superhero movies has been around for a long while and has been refined into an art form by the MCU. Basically, a superhero movie is either an origin story or a McGuffin hunt. Especially during the Infinity Stones era of the MCU, McGuffin hunting was a dominant plot structure that ultimately culminated in Avengers: Endgame’s frantic battle for control over an all-powerful glove. Obviously, McGuffins are not a new invention and they are a tried and tested plot mover that, like any trope, can work well or feel like a crutch, and, for the most part, the MCU does McGuffins well, albeit a little too often.
The other plot structure, the origin story, makes up a lot of the MCU’s output. After all, every time you want to start a new franchise you have to explain where a character came from and how they got their powers. Even twenty-eight movies along, we can still expect that there’s going to be future movies that involve an inciting incident, a training montage, a moment of doubt, and then the big hero moment at the end.
While the origin story plotline is still going strong, characters like Spider-Man and Black Panther were simply introduced in other characters’ movies and given an origin in some quick dialogue before getting their own feature film that could hit the ground running. And for those of us who have suffered from origin story fatigue, it’s cool that the MCU isn’t afraid to break the pattern now and then when we just want a character we’ve seen established multiple times to be already established in a new story (see also The Batman’s incredible lack of Thomas and Martha Wayne shooting.)
Comedy Paranoia Horror
What is interesting though is that the best movies of the MCU are the ones that don’t heavily rely on the classic superhero genre. It’s when the filmmakers take the canvas of the superhero movie and paint a different genre upon it, that’s when we get something really special. It doesn’t always happen. The first Ant-Man movie was hyped as a heist movie and though it featured a heist it never felt as though the filmmakers committed to the genre and that commitment is the key.
Thor: Ragnarok is a comedy first, a superhero movie second. It has all the CGI, heroics, wisecracks, and trappings of a superhero movie you would expect but director Taika Waititi piles on jokes, wordplay, slapstick, crude humor, broad humor, clever humor, and quintessential Kiwi dryness to give us a genuinely laugh-out-loud funny movie. The MCU has always contained comedy – the Marvel Humor that people tweet about but can’t define – but Thor: Ragnarok was the first movie to go all-in on it. And the result is a hilarious movie that also just happens to be a superhero movie.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier, often held up as the best the MCU has produced, is a superhero movie hiding behind a 70s paranoia thriller. A lot of filmmakers like to talk about their inspirations only for the movies they make to bear no resemblance to those cited influences. With The Winter Soldier, The Russo Brothers gave us Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View, and All the President’s Men, but asked, what if the main characters of those movies could throw a shield super hard at people?
The movie is soaked in that slow-burn (or as slow-burn as a modern blockbuster movie can be) paranoia as Steve Rogers is betrayed and hunted across America. There are fake deaths, traitors, friends revealed to be enemies, and a vast government conspiracy that upends the state of Rogers’ life and beliefs as he knows it. It’s as close to a 70s post-Watergate thriller as we could have hoped for, and casting Robert Redford in the role of shady intelligence type definitely didn’t hurt either.
Finally, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is a horror movie about a magic battle between two Avengers. When Sam Raimi took the reins from horror director Scott Derrickson, I had mixed feelings. Raimi hadn’t made a movie since Oz The Great and Powerful nine years ago, and there was always the chance that the studio would box him up so we would be denied The Evil Dead in the MCU.
Alas, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is a Raimi movie from top to bottom. Camera moves taken literally from The Evil Dead permeate scenes of terrifying tension and extreme violence. I mean, at one point a Captain America variant, Captain Carter, gets chopped in half by her own shield. That’s not to mention the fates of Reed Richards and Black Bolt. And then Professor X, in the mind of a possessed Wanda, gets his neck broken by a ghoulish apparition emerging from a fog of blood-red smoke.
It is intense, unflinching, and from beginning to end, a horror movie made by a master of horror that just happens to be the twenty-eighth movie in a superhero franchise. Of course, having watched the Dr. Octopus surgical theater scene in Spider-Man 2, I shouldn’t be too shocked that Raimi could bring his own brand of camp horror to the superhero world.
These three examples show some of the best that the MCU has offered us. Multiverse of Madness hasn’t received nearly as much critical acclaim as most other MCU films, but my horror-head friends are raving about it, and crucially, trying to get non-MCU fans to watch it. When they announced that it would be the first MCU horror movie I was dismissive. After I watched the movie, I was glad I wasn’t the parent on the same aisle as me who brought her young children and had to take them, crying, out of the cinema before the end.
The MCU is using its TV shows more and more to try out new things and for the most part, it’s working. Some of the shows like Hawkeye and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier tow the superhero genre line but with stories that have tons of room to breathe while Moon Knight, Loki, and Wandavision are trying something different with really only Loki managing to make something completely away from the superhero mold.
Wandavision, after all, had eight episodes of some of the most essential television of 2021 only to devolve in its final episode to CGI flying and fighting that felt like a completely different show to the meta-horror we had watched for the previous two months. With the MCU coming up to its fifteenth year, we need more of early Wandavision-style creativity and bravery in storytelling than just more of the same. The fact that the MCU has stayed this dominant for so long is an incredible achievement, and if the MCU is to continue thriving it is going to need to make sure it’s not repeating the same story over and over, and also it’s going to need to not be afraid to be divisive.
These days, I find myself pulled towards movies with mixed reviews because I know I’m going to get something interesting one way or another as, in a world of sequels, remakes, and, yes, superhero movies, it’s important that filmmakers keep making movies that stop people in their tracks and make them think about what they’ve just seen.
Like it or not, the MCU is going to be around for a very long time, and if that’s a thought that turns your stomach, at least you can hope for them to produce interesting and weird movies because when they do, they show that there is a lot of life left in a genre that should now by all rights be as meaty as a stick of celery.
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