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Lately, I’ve been minding my own business reading totally unrelated articles about the entertainment industry and media criticism when bam! Slapped in the face with a backhanded insult aimed at Marvel Studios. “They’re all the same,” reviewers opine with a wink and a smile. “Nothing happens in them; they can’t damage their franchise!” critics gleefully deduce, seemingly not paying attention to the films at all.
Let’s just dispense with the idea that all Marvel Studios films are the same and that nothing happens in them. It’s precisely the opposite of the truth and is such a willful misreading it smacks of elitist snobbery.
I’ll provide you with some examples of this type of comment. Here, a quite insightful analysis of the failure of films based on young adult series pulls out this gem:
Whereas Marvel created a coherent cinematic universe that cleverly transformed homogeneity from a bug into a feature, however, that same sameness utterly exhausted these tweens-and teens-in-trouble films.
What is this homogeneity of which you speak? Please show me the sameness. They all take place in the same universe. They all connect. But they are far from the same.
By the same token, here’s a weird compliment(?) tucked in the middle of an otherwise hilarious Batman v. Superman review:
Whereas, in the end, his attempts at operatic solemnity are foiled by the same plague infecting the now far-superior Marvel movies, in that the unquenchable thirst for endless sequels insures that nothing of true consequence is ever allowed to happen here, which I guess explains why eight billion daffy and inconsequential things happen instead.
Casually putting down Marvel as the epitome of “sameness” is the new thing to do to make yourself sound hip. It’s the sly nod to your readers that you are so sophisticated that you see straight through Marvel wrapping the same plot in different paper and minting money off the suckered masses. “I am not a sucker,” it says. “I know what’s going on.” The problem is that claim does not make you look smart.
If you honestly believe that all Marvel films are the same you’re not paying attention. Stylistically, tonally, narratively they’re all intentionally drastically different. Yes, they all follow the same basic formula. There’s lots of action and good ultimately triumphs. That’s also the formula of essentially the entire action genre. Each film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe deliberately apes a different filmic genre. Iron Man films are political thrillers. The first Captain America is a historical war movie, the second a 1970s spy thriller. Thor films are epic fantasy. Guardians of the Galaxy is ’80s space opera. Ant-Man is a heist caper. The closest thing to straight action sci-fi is Avengers films which bottleneck all the other stories into one. Each movie takes place in the same world, but it also exists as a separate film in an appropriate genre for the story just with some sci-fi elements peppered throughout. Those sci-fi elements are what lump them all in the “superhero” genre. But they aren’t explicitly and exclusively superhero films. Each movie is always something else. And thus they are always also different from each other.
At this point Marvel films can stand on their own but are better contextualized with each other. They’re not so much sequels as chapters, each one a new piece of the same story. If you’re telling a serialized narrative rather than a succession of uncertain sequels you can change the universe status quo at any time. Additionally, each entry doesn’t need to change the world because each one exists on a different level of consequence. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a global catastrophe while Ant-Man is a more personal story. The only thing that’s necessary is that the characters have grown by the time the credits roll. Particularly in the context of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe which has a total run-time that is now nearly 80% television series, Marvel movies effect change all the time. Agents of SHIELD is inextricably tied up in the larger goings-on of the films. The Avengers upends the social institutions of New York City so thoroughly we get Daredevil and Jessica Jones exploring the gritty underbelly of the upheaval. Things change.
But you don’t have to watch all the TV shows to understand that. Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger all lead into The Avengers which directly influences Iron Man 3 and Captain America: The Winter Soldier which effect Age of Ultron which is touched on in Ant-Man which (in conjunction with Thor: The Dark World, I guess) leads into Civil War. They build upon each other not as sequels but as chapters. Each one necessarily changes something in the universe or they couldn’t do this. The whole story would stagnate. And yet it’s supported 100+ hours of generally high quality cinematic storytelling to date.
It’s important to recognize that Marvel has to work for their string of successes. Not every movie or episode or show is a slam dunk. The masses aren’t mindlessly slobbering like Pavlov’s Dog just because the Marvel logo plays. I’m the first person to call them out when something sucks. Avengers: Age of Ultron was a nonsensical disaster. The Incredible Hulk is a pointless two hour smashfest. I basically hated the first season of Daredevil. Some episodes of Agents of SHIELD are wildly more successful than others. Personally, I find the back half of Guardians of the Galaxy to be a total drag. To be so good, the creative teams must understand not only the source material but how to adapt that material to the modern cultural climate and do so in a way that respects and remixes genre conventions. That’s not easy. That takes care. That’s part of why DC keeps bombing: they’re so used to success that they don’t really try.
If all Marvel movies are the same, it’s that they’re almost all uniformly fantastic at what they do: each telling their own story and telling it well.