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A culture of sameness prevails to such an extent, that anything resembling unique style is praised as revolutionary.
Back in 2008, few would have predicted that Iron Man , a seemingly second-tier superhero flick led by a has-been star, would earn hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office and forever alter blockbuster filmmaking. But what was initially set to be, at best, a stand-alone series ballooned into a mega-franchise featuring a dozen superhero stars and 20 movies.
Over that time, Iron Man ’s fresh take on superhero storytelling has been reduced to a template for action filmmakers to run into the ground. Choosing spectacle over characterization, Marvel has long since prioritized big-picture plotting over self-contained narratives in their big screen comic book adaptations. Since Iron Man , the ever-growing Marvel Cinematic Universe has served to set up and supplement other franchise films at the expense of the story, character and aesthetics of its individual movies.
Their decision to do so is understandable. Mass-marketing a comic book movie is a tricky business. How do you appeal to both the hardcore fans and the newbie who might not know what a Thanos is? As with most Disney products, the solution amounts to appealing to the lowest common denominator; focusing on spectacle instead of narrative development. Lore, mythology and backstory is thrown in by way of clunky monologues; lip service to ensure the serious readers of the source material aren’t alienated. Each movie is peppered with winking Easter egg references in place of anything approaching depth, and in the all-encompassing goal to tie everything together, pacing is ignored in favour of distracting set-pieces and noisy banter.
As the franchise has gained momentum, the fear of missing out has become so intense that even the most casual film fans feel pressure to keep up with the least consequential of Marvel releases. The movies, however, are still bloated with expository information just on the off-chance you’ve missed out on any of the previous films. More and more on-screen time is being devoted to tying together every little storytelling strand to the omnibus films, while also making sure audiences are set up and excited for next summer’s release. Good storytelling has not been a priority for years and it seems audiences, mesmerized by the spectacle and familiar with the formula, don’t realize or don’t care enough to demand it.
We see this perhaps most obviously in the lack of memorable bad guys throughout the series. How many villains can you name from the 20 films? The forgettable Big Bads are not coincidental. It’s a strategy. The franchise requires balance. If the villain in Doctor Strange is more charismatic than Thanos, it puts the whole series in jeopardy. The goal is no longer to make the best possible film, but rather, to feed into a wider narrative. As a result, the central conflict within most Marvel movies ends up feeling tangental, a placeholder for something larger. If we return again and again to the cinemas, it is not because we are eager to see where the single story is headed, as much as it is to work on an increasingly unwieldy puzzle.
This big picture prioritization has also meant that the vast majority of Marvel movies are visually inept. In the pursuit of cohesion, Disney has adopted a house style that assures every new Marvel hero feels interconnected under the same visual conditions. Even normally good directors are hampered as more idiosyncratic visionaries like Shaun of the Dead ’s Edgar Wright — who departed Ant-Man over “creative differences” — are left in the cold.
A culture of sameness prevails to such an extent, that anything resembling unique style is praised as revolutionary. Movies like Black Panther and Guardians of the Galaxy are innovative only within the ranks of Marvel. If their directors are able to put a signature on the product, it is never in contradiction to the visual, tonal and narrative cohesiveness of the franchise. Guardians may have a bouncy tone and Black Panther a rich production design, but neither is fully able to transcend the strict conditions imposed. They’re still very much Marvel movies.
While Avengers: Endgame might represent the end of a chapter for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it is not the end of the franchise. Especially with the recent Disney and Fox merger and the planned launch of Disney’s new streaming service, Disney+. Marvel’s success will continue to serve as the backbone for a wide variety of television series and movies under the corporate umbrella.
Disney is not alone in employing these strategies, they’re just better at it than anyone else. While the Harry Potter franchise or Lord of the Rings might be comparable in terms of size and popularity, those stories are far more linear and take place in a smaller world. They lack Disney’s puzzle-like scope and, thus far, limited in the amount of films. Although, the recent release of the Harry Potter prequels, the Hobbit Trilogy before than and Amazon’s attempt at a Lord of the Rings series suggest that even these mammoth franchises are attempting to duplicate what Marvel and Disney have done. Warner Brothers, of course, has tried to replicate Marvel’s success with DC and have mostly failed, but they’ve clearly been learning from their mistakes. T he X-Men franchise might have a comparable trajectory, but even the most hardened mutant fan has to admit that it has had more misses than hits (not to mention, with the Fox merger, it is now also owned by Disney). As the Marvel Cinematic Universe continues to influence the industry, we seem all but destined for an even more homogeneous film landscape. It’s no coincidence that HBO is eager to develop Game of Thrones spinoffs.
But is this fundamentally a bad thing? It depends on the kinds of movies you want to see.
There are huge swaths of audiences eager to go to the movies to shut off their brains for nearly three hours. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Disney is merely giving the people what they want: competent and shiny superhero products. But, there’s something that borders on devious and manipulative about by-design entertainment. Sometimes, it feels like the the Marvel Cinematic Universe is using the same practices ad agencies use to make us buy pimple creams.
Disney’s industry dominance also means less space for anything that might not be a Marvel or a Star Wars movie. At last month’s Cinemacon, the most resonant complaint from independent theatre operators was the sudden power that Disney was wielding with respect to its releases. The fear from many inside the industry is that the company will demand its releases receive more time in theatres and a larger split of the profits.
Even worse, it means that the art of cinematic storytelling, a human endeavour of collaboration and risk, is increasingly giving way to templates and commercialism. We’re not just losing out on a diversity of products with the roaring success of Marvel movies, but on the art of storytelling itself.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019