IN THE LIMELIGHT Movies

The MCU is far from perfect, but it’s still a miracle


The Marvel Cinematic Universe should not be possible, but it is. And by all indications, it always will be

The Marvel Cinematic Universe should not be possible, but it is. And by all indications, it always will be | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

“Tony Stark was able to build this in a cave, with a box of scraps!”

Little did anyone know at the time, but when Jeff Bridges’ Obadiah Stane uttered this throwaway line back in the summer of 2008, he may well have been using a colourful metaphor to describe the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The numbers — unfathomable as they are — speak for themselves. Since May 2, 2008 when a typically self-assured Robert Downey Jr. announced to the world that he was, in fact, Iron Man, the MCU has put out 28 feature films and six television series, with several more in the wings.

Collectively, the films have grossed a staggering $27 billion, making them, by some distance, the most successful franchise in history. Perhaps more impressively, 27 of these 28 films have been rated “fresh” by critics on Rotten Tomatoes. In simple terms, these are immensely successful films, both critically as well as commercially.

Journey to the multiverse

Since the moment Tony Stark rolled up in a Humvee in Afghanistan to the tune of “Back in Black”, the MCU has only expanded and grown from strength to strength. As fans, we’ve been introduced to super soldiers, wizards and Norse gods. To genocidal aliens, angry green monsters, and talking raccoons. We’ve been transported from earth to space. From Wakanda to Asgard. We’ve travelled across the galaxy, gone back in time, and now, even ventured into the multiverse to reunite with some old, familiar faces. And somehow, through it all, the MCU has remained (mostly) grounded, humanising these larger-than-life heroes with personal stakes and relatable problems.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe should not be possible. Or at the very least, it should have collapsed a long time ago under its own weight and ambition. And yet, against all odds, it continues to thrive. At any given point in the last 14 years, the MCU could have well fallen out of the public consciousness. And yet, it remains a global phenomenon, as seen by the hype and anticipation for its latest entry, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.

A still from ‘Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness’

A still from ‘Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness’

What is it that makes the MCU as successful as it is, that other studios and franchises have not been able to replicate?

For starters, the MCU has Kevin Feige, Marvel’s man with the plan right here. In Feige, Marvel landed a producer who not only knew how to run a tight ship, but was a fellow fan like the rest of us, with immense respect and adoration for the source material.

It bears reminding that the MCU was still only a universe by name till 2012. While the likes of Captain America: The First Avenger and Thor, both teased the potential of an exciting crossover, both films — solid, but unspectacular — could still stand on their own. Feige and Marvel both gambled on the long haul, knowing that the individual pieces had to be slowly put in place first before the MCU could really take off.

And when the MCU took off, it did so in style, as six iconic heroes came together for the very first time in 2012’s Avengers, making good on a promise it had only subtly hinted at four years earlier.

Still, the MCU could have become a victim of its own success. How do you top something as big as the Avengers? How do you top Bruce Banner being “always angry” and smashing a giant Leviathan?

THE GIST
The Marvel Cinematic Universe should have collapsed a long time ago under its own weight and ambition. And yet, against all odds, it continues to thrive as seen by the hype and anticipation for its latest entry, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.
The MCU now had to fend off criticism of “superhero fatigue”. Suddenly, for no fault of their own, they were responsible for the death of “real cinema”, for dumbing down the audiences with countless explosions and CGI-heavy faceless armies.
Arguably the most glorious chapter of the MCU arrived in Phase 3, as ten years of unprecedented storytelling culminated in the epic Infinity War-Endgame saga, with all of Marvel’s previously-established pieces ready to come into play.

In fact, many studios, enticed by Marvel’s success, took away all the wrong lessons from the Avengers, trying in vain to fast-track their own “cinematic universes”, but without putting in the hard yards first.

Andrew Garfield’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2, for example, was bogged down by its numerous meandering subplots dedicated to setting up future movies that ultimately never came to fruition. Tom Cruise tried to launch his own “Dark Universe” with The Mummy, but that, too, was over before it began.

Perhaps the most egregious example of mishandling a franchise belongs to DC, who kicked off their DC Extended Universe with three divisive films in Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad. That would be the Marvel equivalent of starting with Iron Man, Captain America: Civil Warand Guardians of the Galaxyas their first three entries.

Unsurprisingly, with the entire foundation of the DCEU built on shaky legs, their Avengers-level crossover event, Justice League, ultimately disappointed at the box office, prompting a major re-hauling of the entire franchise.

The ‘superhero fatigue’

The MCU itself, meanwhile, now had to fend off criticism of “superhero fatigue”. Suddenly, for no fault of their own, they were responsible for the death of “real cinema”. For dumbing down the audiences with countless explosions and CGI-heavy faceless armies. For rehashing the “same” plot over and over again in what were “theme park movies,” as per Martin Scorsese. For the endless quips that were, seemingly, just getting out of hand.

Marvel could have doubled down — after all, why fix something that isn’t broken — but they knew they had to reinvent themselves if they were to remain relevant.

Feige always had the endgame in sight, figuratively and literally.

So even as the stakes grew larger and larger, the consequences remained ever personal and relatable. Marvel understood that bigger did not necessarily mean better.

Whether it was Doctor Strange bargaining with Dormmamu, Thor wielding Stormbreaker, or the Avengers squaring off against each other in an airport, we were all now emotionally vested in these characters, and were thirsty — impatient, even — to know what fate would bring them.

Unprecedented storytelling

Arguably the most glorious chapter of the MCU arrived in Phase 3, as ten years of unprecedented storytelling culminated in the epic Infinity War-Endgame saga, with all of Marvel’s previously-established pieces ready to come into play.

A still from ‘Avengers: Infinity War’

A still from ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ | Photo Credit: null

With Infinity War, the MCU pulled off one of the most famous, and effective, cliff-hangers in modern movie history, as the entire world watched in horror, their beloved characters withering away into nothingness. For a franchise that prides itself on cheers and whistles inside cinema halls, the silence was deafening as the likes of Groot and Spider-Man turned into dust.

In one single move, Marvel addressed most of the common criticism levelled at them. That their movies were too childish. That their villains were never formidable. And that the stories were getting a little too predictable.

Sure, on some level, we all knew that those deaths would be reversed in Avengers: Endgame, but the MCU still had to stick the landing.

And if there’s one thing we have learned from other series such as Game of Thrones or Star Wars, a botched landing can undermine the entire show.

Marvel, though, pulled off the near-impossible with Endgame, providing a satisfying closure to the Infinity Saga, something unprecedented in this age of social media and fickle fandoms.

A couple of years later, they would go on to pull off the near-impossible, yet again, with Spider-Man: No Way Home, somehow bringing together three generations of Spider-Men on screen in a way that wasn’t convoluted or cheap fan service.

The MCU is far from perfect, but its very existence, in many ways, is a miracle. The MCU should not be possible, but it is. And by all indications, it always will be. Whatever it takes.

Anuj Vignesh is a journalist


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Printable version | Jun 3, 2022 1:51:45 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/movies/the-mcu-is-far-from-perfect-but-its-still-a-miracle/article65463524.ece