The Marvel Cinematic Universe

For good or ill the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the most ambitious and, by commercial standards, most successful film project in the history of the medium. Now that I’ve seen virtually all of the films in the first three “phases” of the MCU, aka The Infinity Saga, I figured I should assemble all my reviews and include a discussion of why I think this series, in its place as the premier cultural artifact of the English speaking world in the early 21st century, is a pretty good indication of what is wrong with the commercial film industry (i.e. “Hollywood”).

Minor spoilers follow. As minor as I can make them.

By any commercial estimation, The Infinity Saga is the most successful storytelling project in the history of film. 23 films, many of them far longer than 90 minutes, telling interrelated stories – I just don’t think there’s anything to compare with it in terms of ambition or scope, in addition to commercial success.

Problems with the Films

I have a lot of issues with these films in general but I will summarize my few biggest issues below:

Endless Upping of Stakes

First, there’s the endless upping of the stakes, though this criticism is more specific to the Avengers movies, and only truly applies to the other films which became substitutes for Avengers films (specifically Civil War).

It doesn’t take long for the series to deal with world-threatening stakes. (If memory serves, that begins with the first Thor.) The problem is that each subsequent movie has to have higher stakes. So we soon get films where the world is threatened even more than the last time and, eventually, each film is about a threat to the entire universe (which is miraculously overcome). Maybe this is the nature of the comics themselves, but it’s pretty hard to take in a form intended, at least in part, for adults.

How many times can they save the world? It feels like they do it a few times a year.

Extras Die, Heroes Survive

Along with the endless upping of stakes is the endless upping of death tolls of the films. The films occasionally address this – such as with the subplot of the Avengers being disbanded for the death tolls – but the films never really care about the little guy. Meanwhile, our heroes are barely scratched.

Yes, some characters do die, but they are never major characters introduced early on. (There’s an exception at the end, of course.) The characters which are killed off are always safe to kill off, as they don’t have loyal fan followings. Meanwhile thousands of people and creatures are dying all around them, just about all the time.

And when a more major character “dies” well, we know what will happen. This unwillingness to harm major characters is taken to a ridiculous extreme in Endgame where the deaths of a couple of the biggest characters are supposed to substitute for one of the worst deus ex machinas in film history, where the crazy death toll of Infinity War is reversed.

No Moral Ambiguity

In these films there are good guys and bad guys. There are also a few bad guys who become good guys. (I can’t remember anyone who goes from good to bad over the entire arc of the series but maybe there’s one arc somewhere.)

There is no real moral ambiguity here. The moral choices are nearly always obvious: us well-meaning people, who don’t always get along, have to join together to fight the existential threat. To the extent there is debate over choices it is about the “how” of what to do, not what or why. That debate is rarely ever about tough moral choices. They are often presented as tough moral choices, but they are very rarely tough choices. (To put it one way, though these heroes are risking their lives we know they don’t really have skin in the game, because they will inevitably survive among all the collateral damage.)

Rather, they are the choices we wish we could face in the world, choices about whether or not to do the right thing, instead of what the right thing actually might be. It’s childish to see the world this way though it’s no surprise that a series based upon comics does so. These movies remind me of the slew of young adult series we had in recent years. Is the moral world of the MCU really that different from the moral world of The Hunger Games?

Costs of Success

You can find out more of my specific issues by reading my reviews, linked to below. But I also want to discuss some of the problems created by the unprecedented financial success of the MCU. The success is unlike anything seen in the history of film as a medium and so, unsurprisingly, there have been some unintended consequences.

Existing Properties

One major consequence of the success of the series is that, more than ever, Hollywood seems to only want to make movies and shows out of existing properties, whether comics, earlier TV shows or movies, video games, toys, or even radio programs.

Remakes have always been a part of Hollywood bu, now, more than ever, we have a reliance on existing properties over more original content. We have all sorts of mediocre adaptations and remakes that are greenlit over scripts which do not rely on the same. It’s because Hollywood wants that “built in audience” which a new idea doesn’t have.

But the result is that stories that haven’t already been told have so much of a harder time getting told, which means we get more and more cliches, overused conventions and stories intended for teens and children, and less of the kinds of stories that make movies truly great.

Death of the “Middle” Movie

Part of this focus on preexisting properties is the death of the so-called “middle” movie. Tiny budget and small budget films are still getting made. And big budget films are still getting made. One analysis once showed that Hollywood only needs one major hit out of every 10 blockbusters to make back its investment, meaning that the quality of many blockbusters is lacklustre. (They only have to get it right 10% of the time.)

But movies with more regular budgets are now deemed too risky, especially if the “script” is an original one. There is no similar calculus for middle movies, where one really big hit pays for 9 more films. It might actually happen that way if studios were willing to take risks, but they’re not. They’re worried that if they spend 40 million on a film, it has very little chance of making it back, whereas if they spend 400 million on a preexisting property, they have better odds. (Whether or not that’s actually true.)

So even extremely well established filmmakers have trouble getting “middle” movies made, because the perception is that the risk is greater, whether or not that’s true. Scorsese is only the most prominent of several major filmmakers who have come out recently saying they have trouble getting funding because more resources are going to preexisting properties they are trying to turn into blockbuster series.

This can only be bad. We don’t want to live in a world in which only blockbusters and no-budget films are made. That is a world which is infinitely (sorry) poorer culturally.

MCU Reviews

Below are my reviews:

Iron Man (7/10)

I think I would have enjoyed this movie more had I not seen The Avengers first and so been previously exposed to Downey’s charms in this role.

That being said, I think I like this more than the early X-Men films and certainly more than most of the other Marvel films I’ve seen. It’s entertaining and enjoyable and it does a good job for this side (the light side) of the comic book movie spectrum.

The Incredible Hulk (N/A)

One of two MCU films I’ve never seen. But given that Norton was replaced soon after this was released I’m not sure it matters.

Iron Man 2 (5/10)

I was extremely sick when I attempted to write this review. Sorry. But it’s still very much Iron Man Take 2. Read the review of Iron Man 2.

Thor (5/10)

The effects don’t translate well to the small screen so any of the scenes set on that really dark planet were difficult to watch. Aside from that, I had trouble caring too much about a god. It’s well made, of course.

Captain America: The First Avenger (5/10)

The origin story for this particular Avenger is an unbalanced mix of propaganda and satire of such propaganda, it’s hard to tell which it is. (It’s also hysterical that Marvel decided there were worse things than the Nazis…)

This film is entirely too rah rah rah – though sometimes it’s at least aware of that fact – and its version of WWII is so hard to recognize as the real one that it makes it pretty ridiculous. Also, Captain America isn’t really my type of super hero.

But it was reasonably entertaining, I guess, for what it is.

The Avengers (6/10)

I think I just have to say it: I don’t generally like superhero movies.

Yes, a lazy “review”. But it’s true, I don’t like most superhero movies. This was mildly entertaining. I felt like I should have watched Captain America and Iron Man first but I can’t say I wanted to.

I get how people get caught up in the mythology. But it just doesn’t work for me. I don’t really care. I can’t bring myself to spend much time thinking about something like this. Batman gives me moral quandaries to think about. The Avengers give me cliches about uniting to save the planet. A guy on Grantland had a good line about this: “Joss Whedon was involved in only one great movie of the year, and it involved a merman.” (I am paraphrasing.)

Iron Man 3 (7/10)

Definitely one of the best films in the series. Read the review of Iron Man 3.

Thor: The Dark World (4/10)

I think this would be better as an animated feature, but it’s so over-the -op for live action, it’s just too fantastic. It’s silly and barely grounded in any kind of relatable “world.”

I don’t understand why people like this stuff. The human characters play so small a role it’s hard for the audience to identify with anyone playing a significant part.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (4/10)

I think I like this more than the first movie, though I can’t necessarily identify why. [Editor’s note: Though my rating is lower, so figure that one out.] One thing that differentiates it from so many other current super hero movies is that the enemy at the end of the film isn’t some ridiculous, world-destroying force or space monsters, or whatever. So that’s something.

But there are difficulties:

I agree about the criticism regarding Black Widow – she sure feels dependent on the Cap’n and some of the other male characters a lot of the time. Also, the dating talk… for fuck’s sake.

This movie is already so long but it needs a montage to help wrap things up.

Some other nitpicking:

  • That is one ridiculous congressional hearing…that’s not what it looks like.
  • Mumbai is near Pakistan? Google tells me it’s 800 km away.

SPOILERS

That revival is bullshit, also. I was so proud of them for doing that and then they couldn’t follow it through.

Still better than some of the other movies in the “series,” though.

Guardians of the Galaxy (6/10)

This is an entertaining and deliberately silly comic book film that still managed to not entertain me as much as it should.

Though I laughed out loud a few times (4? 5?) I also watched a few scenes thinking “I know this is supposed to be funny, but I am not laughing.” I am not sure whether it was the timing or the direction but some jokes fell flat. Particularly most of the music-cue jokes.

Now, usually I would be just happy to see a non-serious comic book film, but I had been led to believe by the hype that this thing was uproarious and it is definitely not. That being said, it’s still more entertaining than most other recent comic book films that I am supposed to like but don’t. I think my expectations were just a little too high.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (5/10)

I pretty much only watch Marvel movies when I am looking for something I don’t have to think about. Civil War was just added so I figured I’d watch that, distract myself from my surgery tomorrow. But then I remembered I hadn’t seen this one, so I figured I’d watch it first.

Read the full review of Age of Ultron.

Ant-Man (6/10)

This is a reasonably enjoyable “goofy” Marvel movie, of the kind that doesn’t take itself too seriously. And it has to be, since the whole idea of Ant-Man seems kind of ridiculous.

There are some rather massive plot issues that would drive me insane if it wasn’t amusing. It’s not so amusing that I really enjoyed it, but it’s amusing enough (especially some of the site gags in the climax) that I really could forgive some of the really silly plot holes.

But this is just another moderately amusing Marvel film. There are so many films in this universe now that it’s overwhelming, and I basically just watch them when I am not looking for something I have to think about it. I can’t really think of much that distinguishes this one from so many others, save that it’s more entertaining than many of them.

Captain America: Civil War (4/10)

What is this? Is it a 2 and a half hour prelude to another movie? Because it sure feels like that to me. It’s the nadir of this recent trend in blockbusters to split a movie into two halves. Because, though this is ostensibly a Captain America film, what it really feels like is just the opening act of the next Avengers movie.

Read the full review of Civil War.

Doctor Strange (5/10)

Dr. Strange is yet another one of these moderately entertaining Marvel films with a great cast and not so great a plot, with the same machinations and the same balance of humour and violence. Deja vu all over again.

Read the full review of Doctor Strange.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (6/10)

I don’t know what kind of ill-humour causes me to not love these movies as much as the next guy, but I was pretty damn underwhelmed by the (possibly over-hyped) first Guardians of the Galaxy and really had no plans to watch this one, unless I was bored one day looking through Netflix (which is how I watch all Marvel movies, at this point). But I found myself on a plane, without personal TVs, bound to watch it. So I did.

Read the full review of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.

Spider-Man: Homecoming (7/10)

Is this the best standalone film in the entire series?

Read the review of Homecoming.

Thor: Ragnarok (7/10)

The third Thor movie is so refreshing compared to what came before it. It’s still yet another flawed Marvel movie, but at least it doesn’t take itself seriously. Thank science for that.

Read the full review of Ragnarok.

Black Panther (7/10)

So, before I get to the actual film, I think there is the film’s importance to discuss, and it’s hard to ignore. This is the only blockbuster film to have a majority black cast. It is an absolute landmark and it’s hard to believe it took so long. (It’s a testament to both systemic racism and the general human fear of the unknown that nobody was willing to take a risk on this type of film before 2018. The latter can be said about the big budget female-dominated movies that have come out recently as well.) Regardless of the film itself, it’s an important movie.

Read the full review of Black Panther.

Avengers: Infinity War (6/10)

Go big or go home, I guess.

Read the full review of Infinity War.

Ant-Man and the Wasp (6/10)

I found the first Ant-Man mildly amusing but I can’t say I remember it very well now. But at least it wasn’t as complicated as its sequel.

Read the full review of Ant-Man and the Wasp.

Captain Marvel (6/10)

As I have noted with Marvel movies, I only ever read X Men and related comics, so I have no skin in the game of whether or not Captain Marvel should be a man. But a quick Wikipedia search reveals that it’s not so controversial as some made it seem. But make no mistake, this is about as feminist a comic book movie as has ever been made. (I’d argue more so than Wonder Woman.)

Read the review of Captain Marvel.

Avengers: Endgame (5/10)

Note: Due to the nature of this film – concluding this “phase” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – and also its plot, it’s impossible to talk about it without heavy spoilers for the entire set of 20 odd movies, particularly Infinity War, as this is a direct sequel to that movie. You’ve been warned. (Of course if you are aware of the most recent Spiderman movie this has already been spoiled for you. Oops, sorry…)

Read the full review of Endgame.

PS I now feel as though 5/10 might be too generous.

Spider-Man: Far From Home (N/A)

The only other film I haven’t seen.