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Featured: Love Marvel, Tired of the MCU

Featured: Love Marvel, Tired of the MCU

If you read my review of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 from a few weeks ago, then listened to Episode 220 of the InSession Film Podcast, you may notice a slight discrepancy. I really enjoyed Guardians Vol 2, JD and Brendan didn’t.

What was interesting was that we both agreed on the same things: the last third degenerated into a CGI slugfest that was dull and uninteresting, it didn’t feel quite as fresh as the original, and there were some things that just didn’t work.

For me the first hour was frenetic, breathless frothy fun. It was a little lacking in imagination (JD is exactly right that everything is guns and explosions whereas there was a lot more creative action in the first film) and it definitely lacked a stuffy yet grudging governmental power for our heroes to bounce off – the Glenn Close/John C Reilly role in the first film.

However, for this forty-something simpleton, I was entertained. I really enjoyed myself in the movie. I laughed, I smiled and I was thrilled (a bit). When writing up a day later I came to the conclusion that the fun elements of the film outweighed the more problematic issues. One thing I didn’t mention, and which occurs to me now, is that James Gunn cannot pull the same trick again- weak villain, CGI climax, dull opponents papered over with fun sketch scenes and comedy bickering. Do this again Mr. Gunn, and people will see through you.

JD really liked Captain America: Civil War.

I didn’t. In fact I really disliked it. I disliked it so much, I voted it one of my three worst films of the year. And this was a year that included BvS and Suicide Squad.

I found Civil War dull and uninteresting. The action was neatly done, but ultimately it was indestructible character thumping indestructible character. There was no jeopardy, no peril. Do you honestly think Iron Man is going to kill off Captain America? Not a chance. Was I emotional when Cap threw down his shield? Nope. The three teenage girls in the front row were all sobbing. What had I missed?

Now I wondered if this was simply that I am not a Marvel comic book fan. I never was. Growing up in 70’s Britain I read Eagle (Dan Dare – space adventures), Tiger (anthology sports stories), Commando (stiff upper lip war stories), and 2000AD (Judge Dredd – Gritty urban sci-fi). Spandex? Flying men? Magic powers? – pah, not for this British pre-teen.

I liked Richard Donner’s Superman, but I didn’t love it. I liked Tim Burton’s Batman, but I didn’t love it. The first superhero film I really liked was Bryan Singer’s X-Men and also its first sequel, X2. The Sam Raimi Spidermans had a similar vibe – grounded in some form of recognisible reality and relatively simple to follow. One or two heroes, a villain, a threat and a satisfying resolution. Chris Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy raised this simple construction to a high art and, in the case of The Dark Knight, delivered not just a high water mark for superhero films, but a genuinely brilliant film.

Marvel started well – Iron Man 1 and 3, Captain America 1 and 2, and Thor for example – all brilliant, fun, well-crafted films with well-written stories, great dialogue, and decent characters. At the time Phase 1 of MCU was emerging the other summer blockbusters were largely forgettable, think Transformers, The Lone Ranger, the Pirates franchise and the like; dull CGI -fests with little plot and no care for the audience. All spectacle, no story. Marvel have, thankfully, never slumped to those levels.

I’ll happily admit pretty much loving every film Marvel produced in Phase 1 up to and including Avengers Assemble (as it was called in the UK for reasons too weird to explain).

The creation of Phase 1, and its interconnected films was something exciting, something new. This movie fan loves a long-form story – I was addicted to Twin Peaks, Murder One, Babylon 5, Deep Space Nine, Game of Thrones, Bosch, The West Wing – I was boxset bingeing before boxsets were even a thing.

Shoot, I even committed to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

The first Avengers movie came along and it was good, and enjoyable. It was the logical and satisfying conclusion to Phase 1 of the MCU.

But then the MCU just got bigger, and bigger, and made more and more demands of its audience. Thor: The Dark World (missed it, caught it on a flight three months later) demanded you’d seen Avengers (and Thor). The Winter Soldier (missed it, rented on Netflix over six months later) had links back into Avengers and forward into Civil War, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D expected you to know some major plot points from Winter Soldier in order to understand the TV series’ on-going story. Iron Man 2 and Iron Man 3 directly link into Age of Ultron and Civil War. Then we got Ant-man, and Doctor Strange (nope, didn’t bother with either – sorry).

Trouble is, if you dip in and out of a franchise, you miss stuff. Fair enough, that’s kind of to be expected, but I shouldn’t be punished for not seeing some of the other films, should I?

I recently watched Fast and the Furious 8 having not seen any of the other sequels since the second one. Likewise Underworld: Blood Wars, I hadn’t seen any other Underworld film except the first. I wasn’t really lost in either film, there was enough exposition, enough explanation, and enough acting, for me to piece the general outline of the story together – and to realize that Underworld is pretty terrible.

However the MCU doesn’t seem to want to do that. The MCU isn’t interested in helping me out if I haven’t bothered to see all the other films Marvel have released. The MCU is that it has the attitude of “you didn’t bother watching Doctor Strange? Well don’t come crying to us if you don’t understand who the heck this strange bald woman is when she appears in that Thor movie you thought looked like a fun night out.”

There’s another problem with the MCU for the casual film fan: the number of characters. Seriously, I can’t keep up. Civil War, which was not an Avengers movie, had (deep breath) Captain America, Iron Man, War Machine, Black Widow, Hawkeye, Ant-man, Scarlet Witch, Spiderman, Bucky, Black Panther, Falcon, Vision and Crossbones. And yes I did have to look that up.

The film simply cannot serve that many characters, so some, inevitably, are poorly dealt with. Some have their own films (Iron Man, Thor, Ant-Man, Captain America) to help with that characterization but others are only bit parts in multiple films, for example Black Widow, Hawkeye, Vision and Scarlet Witch. So unless you know and understand those characters before going into the cinema, or you’ve seen every film, there are going to be blank areas for you.

Fast and the Furious 8 had a similar problem (who are all these people?), but through their actions, their interactions, the plot and the dialogue scenes it was reasonably easy to work out the group dynamic, their individual traits and hints as to their personalities and relationships.

Take a look at the Back to the Future trilogy- each film is largely self-contained (only 2 directly sets up 3, but that’s because when the original was made there were no sequels planned), the adventure has a beginning, middle and end and there’s always a scene when Marty has to explain to someone, usually Doc Brown, what has gone before. Does it intrude? No. does it grate? No. Is it subtle and well written? As a rule, yes.

Another example: every X-Men film will have a group discussion scene where Wolverine is all gruff, grumpy and up for a fight, Storm/Beast/Cyclops will be more reasoned, Mystique will be shifty, and Professor X will eventually make a decision the plot rests on: it’s easy to identify where the dramatic tensions are in the group, who’s the leader, who respects who and so on. You don’t necessarily need to know what has gone before.

But the MCU doesn’t do this. It can’t. It has to cram so much story and serve so many characters in its films now that it simply cannot spare the time to serve those more casual viewers who may not have seen (or remember) the previous films. Instead the series just assumes you’ve seen them and remember everything. A policy that shuts out casual viewers.

So this old fuddy-duddy struggled with Civil War, but Guardians? That’s a stand-alone sub-franchise and it gives us everything Marvel excels at: colorful adventure, great characters, lively dialogue which all adds up to fun, frothy entertainment. Don’t get me wrong there were flaws, major flaws, but it was a darn sight more entertaining than the po-faced Civil War. Shoot *SPOILER WARNING* Guardians killed off a character, and an important one too. Something that absolutely didn’t happen in Civil War.

In fact I didn’t buy any of the emotional motivation applied to the characters in Civil War – the whole movie felt like a playground spat to me. A lot of fuss about nothing. Only just above “he said/she said” in the heavyweight argument stakes. Nothing that a decent sit down couldn’t have sorted out. It certainly didn’t warrant flattening Frankfurt Airport.

Still, credit where credit is due, there was nothing as stupid as “Martha”.

I also feel the MCU has abandoned some of the things that made it so interesting in the first place: the choice of directors. Initially we had genuinely great, distinctive directors as Jon Favreau, Kenneth Branagh, Joss Whedon and Shane Black. Now we have the Russo Brothers, Peyton Reed and Scott Derickson – directors who are all technically competent, but lacking in visual pizazz, or acting chops, or dialogue mastery. The craftsmanship that made Marvel stand out during Phase 1 has largely disappeared, with the honorable exception of Guardians that, for better or worse, is very much a product from the bizarro brain of James Gunn.

Instead we’re left with the storylines and the characters, and these are weakening. Kevin Smith (Clerks) pointed out that with comic books, you never, ever, get to act 3. You get act 1 (the creation of the hero), then you are permanently stuck in act 2 (the travails of the hero), but never act 3 (the end of the hero). Drama is all in act 3. Look at Logan, it is the end for Hugh Jackman as this character, the film knows it, the audience knows it. It is act 3. And it is wrenching.

If Marvel is insisting on never moving any of its characters to act 3, then its films are stuck, so let’s at least make them fun while we’re stuck. For me as a fan of cinema, I’m getting more and more turned off by the MCU’s tent pole movies because they are hollow vessels, but still really enjoying their more individual works. Right now, based on the trailers and news feeds, I’m feeling Thor:Ragnarok looks like it will be fun, as does Spiderman: Homecoming, but I am not looking forward to either Infinity War.

This is wholly different to my feelings towards the end of Phase 1 of the MCU – I was really excited to see how Joss Whedon (Joss-frickin’-Wheedon FFS!) was going to close off this stage of the story, bring all our heroes together, fight off the big bad.

Now, I really couldn’t care less – I just want to have some disposable fun. That’s all the MCU now offers me.

Which is a shame.

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