“I don’t see them. I tried, you know?” said Martin Scorsese in a 2019 interview with Empire, “But that’s not cinema.” The Goodfellas director went on to compare the movies to “theme parks” and questioned their depth. Needless to say, his comments inspired controversy. Some felt Scorsese’s comments were spot-on, while others thought him out of line and being unfair to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe.
Scorsese isn’t the only high-profile public figure to denounce superhero movies. Dune director Denis Villeneuve described Marvel movies as “cut and paste,” opining, “Maybe these movies have turned us into zombies a bit.” Legendary Godfather filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola felt that Scorsese was being too nice. “He didn’t say it’s despicable, which I just say it is.” Whew.
But now, 28 movies in, is it time to agree with these folks? A common thread that ties these criticisms together is that Marvel movies are the same boring movie over and over again. Hero gains powers, hero becomes hero, hero meets villain, gets it on with the designated love interest and saves the day. In many cases, it’s hard to disagree with critiques pertaining to the repetitive narrative structure of these movies.
Marvel Movies and Narrative Structure
One of the most relatable criticisms of Marvel’s movies is undoubtedly their structure. The repetition of narrative structures (like the one mentioned above) makes Marvel movies predictable. For a start, we know the superhero whose name graces the movie’s title isn’t going to die. Especially when we know that the actor playing said superhero still has a contract to fulfill with Marvel. So, whatever happens, we know that [insert superhero’s name here] is going to make it to the end.
Now, you might think this is a trivial point. However, it’s more important than you think. The guarantee of the superhero’s survival (and several sequels) immediately deletes one possible source of tension within the movie’s narrative. I’m not judging this to be good or bad – I am just deeming it a fact. The superhero – and, by extension, the commodity and franchise they represent – need to continue saving the day. And so it goes on.
But there’s more! No matter how flawed a Marvel movie hero might be, they are always – always – noble beings and boring as a result. Let’s take Ant-Man as an example. When Paul Rudd’s Scott Lang is initially introduced in his 2015 debut feature, he’s just coming out of prison. He’s a former Systems Engineer sent away for embezzling money – wow, what an interesting past for this future hero! Indeed, you might think so. However, the film not long establishes that Scott was just pulling a ‘Robin Hood’ – embezzling from the rich and giving to the poor.
The film immediately takes away the complexity of Scott’s character. You see, one of the prevailing themes of Ant-Man is ‘redemption’, which is what Scott Lang seeks via his superheroic activities during the film. However, the theme is immediately ruined because the audience knows Scott is a selfless good guy deep down, anyway. In short, the movie is about ‘Breaking Good’ – but Scott is a good guy with well-meaning intentions right from the start. This lessens the impact of his growth during the film – and so, when Lang confronts his ex-wife and her boyfriend (and they emphasize, in various ways, that he’s a douche), we are immediately on his side because we know otherwise.
Too Much Comedy
Speaking of ‘getting the audience on your side’, Marvel does this via other methods, too. One of the most significant examples is the comedy. Often, Marvel movies balance their action and drama with comedy to show us that, yes, even they know their heroes are somewhat ridiculous, too. It almost borders on fourth-wall (when not being so outright).
Now, it’s easy to see why Marvel does this. The comedy cuts the tension in certain scenes, gives the audience their endorphins, and in doing so, subverts the dramatic expectations of the scene. And while this is often funny, the rate at which Marvel employs this technique can also border on obtrusive (and predictable in their execution). Doctor Strange’s prep for his debut film’s final battle has him testily wrestle with his anthropomorphic cloak, killing the build-up (and stakes) of the battle. Avengers: Endgame tosses in kill-baby-Thanos jokes while the team actively seeks to defeat the being who erased half of the universe. Bruce Banner and Hulk even merge into ‘Smart Hulk’ in an effort to draw some easy laughs from us.
And, again, I stress. The jokes are good most of the time. One cannot be thankful enough that Marvel hasn’t gone the other route – making their movies self-serious to the point of cringe (i.e. Warner Bros’ Batman v. Superman). However, oftentimes, Marvel’s comedy gets in the way, when it should be standing on the side. For example, with the MCU’s rendition of Hulk, the intriguing Jekyll-Hyde dynamic is pushed aside in favor of cheap laughs and comedy. Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, initially a straight-faced Norse god, has become a sarcastic Tony Stark 2.0.
Cameos and Cameos
But the invasive humor of Marvel isn’t the worst thing that the films rely on. Rather, it’s their over-reliance on cameos. And when movies rely on cameos and big moments, instead of their overall arcs and themes, it becomes a problem.
We see the clearest downside of Marvel’s insistent fanservice in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. The characters of the film’ s ‘Illuminati’ include Mr. Fantastic, Professor Xavier, Captain Carter, Karl Mordo, Black Bolt, and Maria Rambeau as alternate-universe Captain Marvel. And, yes, while it’s endorphin-pleasing to see these familiar faces (Patrick Stewart as Xavier is especially lovely), what do they add to the overall story? Be honest.
The only reason these characters exist in the film seems to be as targets for Wanda to show off how powerful she is. Indeed, she makes quick work of all the aforementioned heroes. But further than that, they add nothing to the plot. You might argue some of them (i.e. John Krasinski’s Reed Richards) are present to set themselves up for future MCU flicks. And it’s likely true – but it feels cheap since it serves Marvel’s episodic nature rather than the film on its own terms.
Marvel’s After-Credits Problem
And the episodic nature for which Marvel movies are widely known is, ironically, its biggest problem. It’s no secret that the MCU is merely high-budget high-spectacle TV. Indeed, it’s their TV-like to-be-continued nature that makes them perfect for Disney Plus shows. It just fits really well.
However, as said earlier, the problem comes when the movies are just sequels designed to produce more sequels than they are in being complete films themselves. Iron Man 2, for example, is a good film – but not as good as it could’ve been. Its attempt to be an Iron Man movie while simultaneously trying to introduce Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow brings it down. It feels as though the movie is more concerned with setting up The Avengers than fleshing out its villains, Whiplash and Justin Hammer.
Now, the MCU is known for capitalizing on the after-credits scenes to tease sequels and future characters. They did this to great effect in building up to the first Avengers. And, more recently, the ending of Eternals has revealed that the seemingly-normal boyfriend of Sersei (Gemma Chan), played by Kit Harrington, actually has a superpowered backstory of his own despite first appearances. We get the idea that his character plays an important role in future movies. However, when the results we get are the cheap-laugh-filled, narratively-boring Marvel movies we have now, these scenes feel more like cheap marketing than good cinema. And, as such, it makes future releases a tad less exciting than Kevin Feige thinks they are.
But that’s just our take. Do you think that Marvel movies are getting old and boring? What changes would you like to see made?