Published on September 3rd, 2015 | by Swamp Thing0
The MCU – Is Marvel Peddling Snake Oil?
The MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe, for those who haven’t been paying attention) burst onto the world’s cinema screens in 2008 with the release of The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man in quick succession. Two years later we got Iron Man 2, then another year to Thor and Captain America. Since then, the franchise has gained momentum, grown and flourished, becoming a behemoth that will eventually (I’d guess by around 2030) include every film made everywhere by everyone, thus ensuring that Stan Lee’s grinning visage will be staring down at us from the big screen permanently.
Be afraid. Be very afraid.
Now don’t get me wrong here. I’m not saying there’s anything inherently bad about the films themselves, per se. They’re good. Some of them are damn good. They’re action-packed, for the most part well acted and well scripted, the characters are stories are familiar to a significant number of their core audience, and they have the added bonus that each is part of a larger whole, creating an added anticipation for each new chapter.
What concerns me is the impact that the MCU is having on cinema in the larger sense. Whilst each of these MCU blockbusters is a well crafted piece of work, they are all crafted from the same material using the same basic blueprint. Characters and dialogue are almost interchangeable – Peter Quill, Tony Stark, Thor, Steve Rogers, Scott Lang, all share a speech writer and deal with adversary with the same smartass quips and ‘laugh in the face of danger’ attitude – and the bar-raising CGI gives the look of each film a consistency that, dare I say it, becomes boring, the familiarity breeding a contempt for each new jaw-dropping megapixel-driven event.
There’s also a danger that we, the audience, are starting to lose perspective, our desire for each new MCU entry to be something special creating a collective delusion about what we have just witnessed. There has been much talk recently about the ‘humanity’ and ‘realism’ that pervades the MCU, and particularly Steve Rogers in Winter Soldier. I have no argument that Winter Soldier gave us a Captain America with more humanity than is usual for a comic book movie, but just take a step back for a moment here and remember that this same Captain America is just a few shield widths away from sharing screen time with Howard the Duck. ‘Realism’ is harder to swallow in the presence of a foul-mouthed talking duck. Or raccoon, for that matter.
MCU x IM + CA=$$$
What Marvel have done with the MCU is create formulaic movie-making that attracts us with its impressive looks and is satisfying whilst it’s being consumed, and after consumption leaves us wondering when we get another portion. Basically, the MCU is the Black Forrest Gateaux of film making. It looks great, and the taste isn’t bad. But there’s no real substance there; the sponge and cream are mass produced and pumped so full of air that they can nearly be classified as a gas rather than a solid.
It’s a neat trick, and one that DC and its Extended Universe has yet to master. The success of the Dark Knight trilogy can’t be overlooked, but neither can the demise of the previous Batman franchise and the poor fan and critical responses to Green Lantern, Watchmen, Superman Returns, Constantine and Man of Steel (which did do decent box-office and will be managing a sequel with Batman v Superman). Nor does this trick work for every Marvel property. Well, not those languishing outside the official MCU party tent. Ghost Rider died, neither attempt at Fantastic Four was in any way fantastic, Daredevil dared only to be a bit shit, and Ang Lee’s Hulk was a false-start that nearly erased the MCU whilst it was still on the drawing board. The X-Men franchise has been variable but overall a success, though for now at least, Wolverine and company remain outside the official MCU. But since 2008, Marvel’s MCU formula has worked for them, and worked rather well. So well that it’s been decanted and repackaged for the small screen. When we’re not watching Iron Man’s polished metal butt on the big screen we’ve got the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Agent Carter and Daredevil (though on the small screen there’s some DC competition from Arrow and The Flash).
Now that it’s matured, the MCU black hole is sucking back in other Marvel properties that have become available again. To get him into the MCU fold, Spider-Man is to have his third reboot in just 13 years. Personally I think that’s bordering on being insulting. But we’ll accept it. Marvel also has Ghost Rider, Blade and The Punisher back in the fold, and there are already rumours that at least two of those three properties are heading into the MCU. For now at least it seems that if Marvel want to sell us their snake oil and tell us it’s a cure for all of cinema’s ailments, we’ll buy it by the gallon and tell ourselves it’s working even as we watch cinema dying a death right in front of us.
The Young and The Restless.
As I’ve already used a liberal sprinkling of food analogies, here’s another. The MCU is giving us fast food, and it’s addictive. Addictive, stimulating, and has very little nutritional value. You can’t live on it. Well, not for very long anyway. Nor can cinema. Each new blockbuster is a steroid injection for box-office takings, and those spending the money these days are the YAs. YA (young adult) cinema is scarily big business right now, and not just for the MCU. Twilight and its sequels are mostly to blame for starting the fire. The Hunger Games fanned those flames. Now we have the Divergent series, the Maze-Runner series and a couple of others at least in the pipeline from Sony and other studios. At the slightly younger end of the YA scale there was Harry Potter and Percy Jackson. At the older end we find the MCU.
To pad that out we get franchises that are looking tired and anemic, Jurassic World and Terminator: Genisys for starters, crippling disappointments like Prometheus, Elysium and Tomorrowland, (and frankly Mad Max: Fury Road was two hours of my life I’m never getting back), any number of variations on the overtly conspicuous sentimentality of The Notebook, a seemingly never-ending stream of ‘found footage’ crap (thanks for nothing there, Blair Witch), and as many rehashes of ‘Poltergeist meets The Exorcist during The Haunting’ as we can stand, which is already way too many. Plus, of course, Tom Cruise throwing himself over/off/at things that he didn’t throw himself over/off/at the last time.
With that dross as competition, it’s no wonder the MCU is such a success (though at the time of writing the jury is still out on Ant-Man). What serious competition is there out there? If I’m saying that the MCU films look really good because everything else looks really bad, what could be out there to mount a challenge to that precarious dominance?
Batman v Superman? Ben Affleck. ‘Nuff said.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens? I wish. I really do wish. But have you seen the most recent trailer? Disney. ‘Nuff said.
Spectre will undoubtedly do well. Bond will always be an event. You get the feeling though that it would be a bigger event these days if they released it as a comic first. Or at least a graphic novel (sorry, trade paperback) .
Have a Google sometime and check out how many comic based movies are either being made, are planned to be made, or at least have some people saying should be made. Yes, that list includes Howard the Duck. Dear God, no! I read Howard the Duck. I actually think Howard works as a comic book character (I collected Man-Thing from the early days so I was introduced to Howard long before George Lucas got to him). But he should never, never, NEVER, be made into a live action movie. The first attempt proved that beyond any reasonable doubt. The thing is though, if they do make another Howard movie and it’s part of the MCU, we’ll be comparing the result to the masterpieces of Bergman or Fellini. Okay, so that’s probably a bit OTT of me, but I can guarantee we’ll be trying our damnedest to convince ourselves it’s worthy of our appreciation.
Sooner or later the comic book bubble will burst. People are going to notice that whilst some of the MCU movies are good, they’re not that good. They’re fun. They’re diverting for a couple of hours. They won’t leave you wishing you’d spent the last two hours at the dentist instead (Fury Road again). But they’re not art. They have famous people interacting with computer generated art, but then so does The LEGO Movie. That’s the reality here. The MCU is just one step up from CGI plastic bricks. I feel a comment about LEGO Batman and Ben Affleck on the horizon, so I’ll hastily move on.
So is Marvel pulling the wool over our eyes, or are we the ones to blame for convincing ourselves that the MCU is more than it appears to be? I think it’s a bit of both, though I suspect I may be in the minority in hoping that Marvel decide to pull the plug on the MCU after Captain America: Civil War. In the minority, and completely delusional, because whilst this gravy train keeps running they can hardly be blamed for riding it.