Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Op-Ed: The Marvel Empire Will Fall

I swore off the Marvel Cinematic Universe after Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. It’s not because I had a strong negative reaction to the film. It’s because I didn’t have any strong feelings at all. I remember seeing the trailer and getting misty eyed, as well as excited, to see Namor, one of my favorite Marvel characters, finally make his way to the screen. I had thought this one could erase the bad taste in my mouth from Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and Thor: Love and Thunder. Then Julia Louis-Dreyfus, typically a welcome sight, showed up to be a distraction, then Namor said the word “mutant” in a meaningful way, then they introduced Riri Williams/Ironheart, and I realized that this story, no matter how personal it was meant to be, has to serve the Mighty Marvel Machine.

They all have, really. When Nick Fury shows up in the stinger for Iron Man, the whirring in the brains of comic book fans started. Then, when Tony Stark was in the stinger for The Incredible Hulk, the only question was if they really were doing what we thought they were doing. Could they do what their source material has been doing for decades? They’d have to fight straining actor egos, ballooning budgets, and finding a grounded, human story amongst the grand ideas that the comics art form presents. They’d have to entice “jocks” and other people unversed in comics lore to make these films profitable. The MCU was a tremendous gamble.

That gamble paid off, with a tremendous amount of interest. They, at what is now Marvel Studios, built a cinematic universe unlike anything that has come before it. All the films serve the grand design in some way and build toward an eventual climax that seemingly will never come.

It would have been a staggering achievement on its own just to make it to the first Avengers film. Yet, they did it, then they did it three more times with much larger casts and grander story ambitions. In its first eleven years, Marvel Studios churned out 23 films, three adjacent network television shows, three not quite, but sort of linked, cable television shows, and six adult focused streaming shows. You could kind of ignore the shows, but they had interesting filler elements and character introductions. It was already a behemoth, then it exploded.

The year 2020 was a breather, a blip, but 2021 was everything, everywhere, and all at once. Four theatrical releases coupled with five television shows, all of which are important to the larger story, all of which had their own clues toward the newest and biggest saga. Last year, 2022, was slightly less daunting with three theatrical releases and three television series, though they all hinted at the avalanche headed straight for us, the cascading pile of continuity as this colossal undertaking enters its fifteenth year.

A friend of mine remarked when I asked what she thought of the MCU that she prefers films that don’t require a ton of homework in order to understand the basic plot. I laughed then, but I see her point. As this franchise continues and they shoehorn in large ideas in order to bring in, or in the case of Blade, Daredevil, Deadpool, the Fantastic Four, and X-Men, reform the legacies of the major characters that exist in a large way in the comics universe, Marvel Studios will undoubtedly bury themselves in a continuity cacophony.

Admittedly, Marvel Studios’ third iteration of Spider-Man did much better than anyone could have anticipated. So it could be that third time’s the charm for the X-Men and Fantastic Four (technically fourth for the FF if you count Roger Corman’s unreleased copyright cash grab of the ’90s). Their brand synergy and bottomless piggy banks have already tied the two previous actors who embodied the role of Spider-Man into a grand multiversal mythos in Spider-Man: No Way Home. Several legacy villainous turns also got in on the action as well as a teaser for the ubiquitous goo, Venom. Then, several other legacy actors made appearances in WandaVision and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.

It’s all fine and good to play with comics concepts in order to unite the franchises under one roof and yank mercilessly at the yoke of nostalgia. In the age of legacy sequels it’s almost expected. They play off the media dominance of their parent company with a distraction, a, “hey, look at all the characters you love that we get to play with now!” Yet, it’s so bloated and hollow. They’re realizing this grand concept of comics that not only is Earth not the lone inhabited world in the cosmos, but that this particular Earth is one Earth of endless Earths. It’s a great comics concept and works so well in that medium, but all Marvel Studios seems to want to use it for is brand synergy. It’s not the first time they’ve tinkered with something from the comics to make their films more appealing.

It starts with the little things. Infinity Gems get the more masculine moniker Infinity Stones. Peter Parker is handed the technology to be Spider-Man rather than painstakingly developing it himself. Tony Stark and Stephen Strange have nearly identical egos and personalities because a contract is about to expire and the universe needs an intelligent smartass. Usurping the final Captain America solo film into Avengers 2.5 to shoehorn in a popular comics plot as well as to introduce new characters before the next big Avengers film.

Then it’s the radical shifts. The Thor solo films start out as pseudo-Shakespearean dramas with Thor being more brawn than brain, but overwrought with deep feelings. Then the character shifts, hard, into the himbo clown, piggybacking off the success of fellow cosmic characters, the Guardians of the Galaxy. His ancient wisdom usurped by silliness and his deep mythos mined for, “Isn’t this so dumb, but I guess we have to put it in here,” punchlines. Scarlet Witch’s depth of character development in the WandaVision series, tossed aside for her ridiculous heel turn in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Adam Warlock, prime character of the comics Infinity Saga and all around Infinity (Stone) Gem expert, is sidelined from that adventure to become a complete idiot in Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3. It makes me dread what’s to come when they actually dig into characters I care about.

The X-Men films of 20 years ago are nowhere near perfect. They have bits of perfection within them like Wolverine’s mentorship of a young woman, Nightcrawler’s look, and Brian Cox’s William Stryker. Yet, these things are not outweighing the fact that Storm, Cyclops, and Jean Grey are barely a blip of their comics persona, or that two of the most incredibly complex female characters, Emma Frost and Mystique (in the first trilogy), are utterly reduced to sexual objects, and that twice 20th Century Fox failed to make an intriguing screen adaptation of the quintessential X-Men story, the Dark Phoenix saga.

This really isn’t a fear of mine that they won’t get everything “right,” this is a fear that they will ignore the spirit the source material presents. It’s difficult, though, when an idea or a group of characters has been around for 60 years, as there is a lot of ground to cover. The minutiae is hard to coherently describe within the context of a film. 

Take the prime example of Cable. He shows up in Deadpool 2 as a mutant from the future out to get revenge for the death of his family and to fix his dark future. Fixing a dark future is a very common X-Men trope. This was fine in the context of the film. The moviegoers for the wacky world of Deadpool don’t need to know that Cable is actually the son of Cyclops and a clone of Jean Grey, the Goblin Queen, Madelyne Pryor. They don’t need to know baby Cable was sent into the future because they could cure the techno-organic virus he was infected with by the villain Apocalypse. They don’t need to know he returned to the present as a grizzled, battle hardened older man in order to battle Apocalypse and prevent his rise to power. They don’t need to know that that is the cleanest, least confusing reason Cable traveled to the past. This kind of backstory is built over decades and required the brains of multiple writers over multiple titles picking up or sewing in loose threads where they could. This is not how the MCU films operate.

The MCU may, in the case of the X-Men, and X-Men adjacent Deadpool, eschew a full origin story. There willlikely be some silly reason Deadpool shows up in the MCU. For either the X-Men or the Fantastic Four they will at least have an introductory phase where the slate is cleaned and the new normal is established. They will take only bits and pieces to craft these characters so they fit in this world, but only just so they fit, not so they thrive on their own.

Marvel Studios doesn’t make movies that stand on their own anymore. If the reception of Thor: Love and Thunder or Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness are any indication, Marvel Studios needs to realize that people are enjoying the small connectivity, but don’t need every film to be a “key” film. It’s much more fun if things are peppered into a story like they used to do rather than just trying to get people excited for the next movie, show, or special. Let us, the audience, find those key details later like comics collectors do when they realize how important a briefly introduced character will be later, maybe even years later. Just look at the cast list for Captain America: New World Order coming in 2024 and you’ll see a handful of cast members and characters from The Incredible Hulk reappearing there. Though this proves that Marvel Studios has no real interest in Captain America solo stories, even with a new character taking on the moniker of Captain America.

Essentially, Marvel Studios has always been on a bit of uneven ground. The MCU came on subtly and warily with its introduction being a cool nerd who has sex and a monster that smashes stuff. They built an empire, but empires eventually fall and fifteen years is a very long run. We’ll see how people feel after the long break between the just released Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3 and the corporate synergy of The Marvels in November. Can two TV show characters and a divisive version of a beloved character truly mix well? We’ll just have to wait and see, but my money’s on the empire waning before it reaches a grand conclusion or even its next climax. The Mighty Marvel Machine won’t just grind to a halt, but will collapse in a heap of its own hubris.

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