Road to Avengers Endgame: Only 5 Marvel Cinematic Universe films will go down in history, the rest are indistinguishable
Before Avengers: Endgame, it’s worth pointing out that only a handful of movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe actually stand out; the rest merely congeal into a mass of spandex.Updated: Apr 20, 2019, 12:02 IST
Once you start looking at the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a season of television show, you can begin to appreciate its unique structure; its achievements and its flaws. This isn’t a novel thought - several people have compared president Kevin Feige’s role in the MCU to that of a TV showrunner, and it’s no coincidence that the Infinity Saga will conclude with 22 instalments, traditionally the number of episodes one could find in a season of network TV.
Like most television shows, the MCU also appears to be bound by certain restrictions - there’s only so much risk a filmmaker is willing (or allowed) to take, given that even the tiniest elements can have a butterfly effect in the intricately woven universe.
Famously, Marvel films often resort to creating villains that are mirror images of the heroes - Obadiah Stane/Justin Hammer/Ivan Vanko/Alrich Killian to Tony Stark, Killmonger to T’Challa, Darren Cross to Scott Lang. They’re sort of similar visually and sonically (look closer and you’ll find cinematographer Ben Davis and composer Bryan Tyler are involved in several films). There is a stable of in-house writers, as well, who are deployed in moments of difficulty. They have one job, mainly; to ensure that the films maintain this uniformity, and straying ambition remains in check.
This has caused friction between directors and the studio in the past, most notably in the case of Edgar Wright. Wright quit as director of Ant-Man mere weeks before filming was scheduled to begin, after Marvel handed him a heavily rewritten script and expected him to shoot it. Filmmaker Ava DuVernay avoided a similar situation by removing herself from contention to direct Black Panther, realising that her vision for the film wasn’t lining up with Marvel’s, which is exactly what happened with Patty Jenkins, who had been hired to direct Thor: The Dark World, only to quit over creative differences later. Jenkins went on to direct rival DC’s Wonder Woman, to tremendous acclaim.
All this is to say that more often than not, the Marvel Cinematic Universe prefers serviceable mediocrity over true ambition - and for good reason. Their movies keep making money, and somehow escaping the wrath of film critics; a truth that was made abundantly irrefutable after the release of Captain Marvel. Certainly, the franchise’s stunning 84% average score on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes - as even fans would agree - is a fairly inaccurate representation of the series’ ups and downs.
We’ve come a long way since 2006, when Feige addressed a moderate-sized crowd at San Diego Comic Con and hinted at what the future might hold. “This is a big new experiment for Marvel. But it’s no coincidence that we have the rights to Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, Cap. You listen to the characters I named that we’re working on currently, and put them all together,” he said. “There’s no coincidence that they may someday equal the Avengers.”
Feige’s ‘big new experiment’ worked. It’s unprecedented, and historic. But I would argue that as with every terrific television show, the overarching success of the season has obscured individual ‘episodes’ - we’re more likely to shrug at outstanding chapters, and just as likely to excuse the missteps.
Ahead of Avengers: Endgame, which is going to be the biggest film ever, here’s a controversial thought: when all is said and done, and Thanos has recovered from his colonoscopy, only a handful of Marvel movies will be remembered. The rest will simply congeal into a mass of spandex.
2008 was the year superhero movies changed forever. It was the year that gave us The Dark Knight and Iron Man, two films that perfectly represent the sheer potential of superhero storytelling, and insist that rival fandoms can coexist.
It was perhaps filmmaker Kevin Smith who most accurately described the secret behind Iron Man’s success (and this might upset some people). He applauded director Jon Favreau for having cast Iron Man like a 90s Miramax movie - Miramax was the production shingle set up by brothers Bob and Harvey Weinstein. During its heyday, Miramax produced films such as Robert Downey Jr’s Restoration, Gwyneth Paltrow’s Shakespeare in Love, and Favreau’s own Swingers.
Iron Man (and most importantly Favreau, who fought tooth and nail with Marvel over Downey Jr’s casting) is almost single-handedly responsible for the tone with which the MCU is now so synonymous with.
I remember when Marvel announced Joss Whedon as the director of the Avengers, the world released a collective, “Who?!” And then came the series of think pieces, defending Marvel’s decision, which in retrospect was nothing short of courageous. Whedon had absolutely no experience in big budget filmmaking, but corroborating my theory that the MCU is a TV show, he had decades of experience working on the small screen.
Endgame director Joe Russo admitted as much when I asked him recently about how the two are linked. “Joss Whedon, JJ Abrams (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) and Judd Apatow (Knocked Up),” have all been trained to deal with volume and the scale of these movies’ thanks to harsh TV schedules, he said.
If Iron Man set the tone for the MCU, it was the Avengers that established a template for future team-up movies, in which characters would be segregated into teams.
Iron Man 3
The best MCU films are the ones in which directors are seemingly left to their own devices. Although this is almost certainly not how Marvel operates, you can’t really imagine any future film pulling off a plot twist quite as shocking as the Trevor Slattery reveal in director Shane Black’s Iron Man 3 - and I count Avengers: Infinity War’s Decimation in this list.
In an interview to Empire ahead of the film’s release, a sly Feige said, “The Mandarin is (Iron Man’s) most famous foe in the comics mainly because he’s been around the longest. If you look, there’s not necessarily a definitive Mandarin storyline in the comics. So it was really about having an idea.”
A big reason for why Iron Man 3 works for me precisely for the same reason that so many others detest it is that I am not married to the material as much as some of the diehards. This helps. At the same time, it’s easy to sympathise with fans who felt betrayed. And it is because such bold (and crucially, irreversible) risk-taking is unlikely to ever be seen in the MCU again that Iron Man 3 remains a favourite.
If you believe Chris Hemsworth, Thor: Ragnarok is a direct result of boredom. He was bored of playing the God of Thunder, especially after two films that didn’t quite set the world on fire. Once again, it was geek god Kevin Smith who came to the rescue. After hearing Smith talk about Thor’s unremarkable (and some would say, bland) portrayal in the MCU, Hemsworth decided that a change was in order.
After previously saying that he would never direct ‘big features, where the art of the project was sacrificed for profit’, director Taika Waititi jumped on board because he felt, ‘like a guest in Marvel’s universe but with the creative freedom to do what I want.’
There’s a reason why Black Panther is the first Marvel movie, and the first superhero movie ever, to receive a Best Picture nomination at the Academy Awards. It’s an almost poetic conclusion to Feige’s decade-in-the-making experiment, and few would have expected the MCU to achieve this level of success.
The key to Black Panther’s success is that it was the singular vision of director Ryan Coogler (and his co-writer Joe Robert Cole), and Marvel was smart enough to recognise the brilliance of what Coogler was turning in, and not interject. It’s the rare Marvel movie in which every department head was brought in by the director, and not simply offered by the studio as part of a rotation policy. This included his Fruitvale Station cinematographer Rachel Morrison, as well as production designer Hannah Beachler and composer Ludwig Göransson, the latter two ending up winning Oscars.