Critics, skeptics, snobs and the contrary will say that they dislike or even hate the Marvel Cinematic Universe. They wear this badge as a mark of pride. In having this belief they believe they have earned a certain level of critical complexity which elevates them above the average movie goer. The truth is quite the opposite. After a full-investigation the conclusion seems clear: Marvel is a plethora of masterful world-builders unparalleled in their cinematic creativity. But before you tap away angrily in the comments section please take a step back to pause and hear me out.
Screenwriting is an incredibly important facet of the MCU. Despite it’s critical response and claims that it is too simplistic or not emotive enough the truth is very different. Writers at Marvel studios pride themselves in creating realistic dialogue which is to say they recognise the truth. Real dialogue is impulsive, short, simple and highly reactive. When tensions rise and the stakes become higher poetic and often cliched spontaneous dialogue seeps into real life. In this way the characters invented by the minds at Marvel comics feel relatable and closer to speech that the average person recognises. Moreover, the wording used is incredibly effective and economic in it’s use. In a short space of time the dialogue gets across character, intention and conflict with levity and stylistic integrity. Each script plans the scene out beat for beat in a way that recognises and explores the actor’s adaptation of the actor. Few franchises are able to adapt their source material to create such convincing, forceful and potent dialogue. When compared against the “Oscar-worthy” critically acclaimed works of other creative these films fail in this regard. The dialogue feels stilted and overly complex. In other words, you can see the intelligently crafted dialogue dripping off the writer’s pen instead of flowing naturally. Lastly, I ask critics to rethink their approach to script writing in one other manner. The multi-faceted nature of the dialogue is truly remarkable. The comical sharpness works incredibly well on two levels, they reinforce the characteristics displayed on each character’s arc and they vary in tone, pace and structure to deliver sharper comedy and drama than some of the more single purpose films in those genres. These processes work simultaneously to great effect.
From a cinematographic perspective Marvel has surpassed it’s competitors by leaps and bounds. Since it’s inception in 2008 the visual effects of this franchise have remained consistently and completely convincing in their realism despite exploring unseen phenomenons such as aliens and matter bending fight sequences. Let us take, for example the recent Doctor Strange. The visuals in this film explored new visual territory unseen in any other film. In the ending fight sequence Strange battles Kaecilius while returning the destruction left in his wake back to it’s previous state. Buildings that were once collapsed rebuild themselves, people crushed by debris are resurrected and cars fly backward as the two magic manipulators use fragments of space time and visually spectacular spells to combat one another. The combat is spacious and the colour grading complements the scene extremely well in a way that is visually creative and ingenious. Earlier in the film Strange is sent into the astral plain by the Ancient One. The visuals take inspiration from the art of Steve Ditko, the cinematography of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Escher in a magnificent moving display. Strange’s hands grow out of his fingers in a cyclical movement as he is drowned in his own hands and then sucked through his pupil into a colourful vortex made out of the hands he was drowning in. The level of psychedelic creativity embraces the 1960’s origins of the character and physically manifests innovative visual principles. Elsewhere in the cinematic universe the visual direction is equally inventive. An intensive case study of micro-details and physics on a millimeter scale gave way to the incredibly convincing and immersive visuals of Ant Man. The film fully captures the fantasy of experiencing the mundane every day from a wholeheartedly different perspective. Contrast this against the colourful, lived in and neonic visuals of Guardians of the Galaxy and the muted colours of the political thriller The Winter Soldier one can truly comprehend the shift in tone and production design used in each of the feature films. The creators at Industrial Light and Magic work in conjunction with the creatives at Marvel Studios to create fresh cinematography which visualises the imagination of it’s comic creators. Furthermore, the more convention visuals are expertly crafted. Close one on one scenes are shot with reverse shots and wider shots as well as tall perspective shots which perfectly illustrates dialogue and intention. Hand to hand combat follows the trailblazers such as the Raid and Oldboy. More explosive combat dips and dives in extended shots and quick mobile shots to fully immerse the viewer in the destruction. It also has a complete balance of focus on the aftermath of the destruction as well as the spectacle itself. The camera always matches and complements the tone.
Perhaps the greatest legacy of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the world building. Marvel had created an interwoven tapestry of narratives and characters to create one cohesive narrative structure. Each character and sub character is fully formed in their own right. The benefit of this interactivity is that it feels like a real, breathing universe. Fans ooh and aah at subtle references and anticipate the interaction of characters in new films. The characters are at their best a when they cameo or play a role in a one-another’s story whether it is the part scene in Avengers age of Ultron, or the fierce quippy back and forth between Tony Stark and Sam Wilson the MCU has deviated time and again that it can grapple with moral dilemmas and create rich character dialogue through the splicing of character arcs. The authenticity of it’s comic to movie adaptation alongside the crisscrossing of events impact one another to the envy of its competition.The events of one film influence another to create a melting pot of conflicting ideologies, wants and needs artistically depicted using action and intense drama. We can take Captain America Civil War as an example. The film explores the conflicting ideologies over the concept of oversight into the avengers initiative. This debate focuses on the events of Avengers, Iron Man 3 and Ant Man to name a few. Character motivation has been slowly etched into the viewer’s mind to create a fully formed picture of the deeply emotional and rational reasoning behind this conflict in ideologies. Again in Thor: The Dark World, the film explores the relationship drama between Thor and Jane Foster as Thor must suffer the internal conflict of personal responsibility set against personal ambition as a result of the previous films’ deep-rooted tensions. The universe has revolutionised the movie industry, resulting in the spawning of many attempted movie universes including DC, the monsterverse, the upcoming creatureverse, Star Wars and many more. Very few have succeeded and many more seem to be struggling greatly.
While many see the musical scores used in this rostra of films as unremarkable I believe something else entirely. A central criticism suffered by the MCU is that the music is not memorable or original in nature. This I would agree with. However our opinions diverge in whether this a strength or a weakness. From my perspective, the aim of a score should reflect the drive of the film. Marvel derives its drama and character building from organic means, it focuses on dialogue and intense conflict to create tone where other franchises rely on music. As a visual medium it is often more testing to create atmosphere as an intrinsic part of the film itself rather than turning to the score. In this way Marvels approach is testing and mature. I would cite Guardians of the Galaxy as an example of the flexibility and adaptability of marvel’s approach to music. James Gunn, the director, structurally minded the importance of music to its protagonist using the character’s playlist from his walkman as the soundtrack to give the film the authentic musical aesthetics of the wacky 70s and 80s music. In these musical sequences the tune is melded with the visuals to create a visual-auditory synthesis and enhance the film’s core themes. The score for other films is more subtle and seeks to complement the tone of the movie as each piece adds to the narrative arc, linking to one another in air use of instruments, pacing and repetition of motifs in a gratifying and splendid way. I find that the music works to anticipate the next branch in the film’s narrative structure, often shifting octave and style from orchestral to racy jazz and solo bass resulting in a dynamic and highly enriching score.
Representing minorities and people of different genders is an important value held by marvel. From a traditional feminist perspective, the studio is seeking to include more and more female characters to fill out the selection of heroes and villains to date. Each of these characters are inspired by the comics yet envision women in empowered and central roles. Instead of giving male facets to a female character or creating a male character with male traits and simply changing the gender these films imagine these characters with uniquely feminine qualities. Each of these characters overcome personal issues such as responsibility and repercussions for one’s actions as well as attempting to display a range of conflicting dialogues. In combat, the female characters often supersede their male counterparts and are often given equal status as individuals in each of the film’s narratives. No other movie studio is creating a franchise with quite as keen an interest in the preservation of these values and a hunger for equal representation. Characters such as Natasha Romanov, Gamora, Scarlet Witch and Agent Carter enrich the film greatly by questioning their protagonists and investigating their own narrative arc. Future plans for the universe include a diversification of male roles to female counterparts as seen in their line-up of characters. In the upcoming film Thor Ragnarok and Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 the central antagonist of the film are women who have been described as fully formed and with a full set of motivations. More impressively however, the MCU is getting a new addition to their franchise in the form of Captain Marvel, a female led super hero film which explores the complexities of early adulthood from a female perspective. From a race perspective, the franchise is doing more and more to develop an equal balance of white and black character demonstrated better nowhere else other than their upcoming feature film Black Panther which is to feature a 95% black cast in the first large budget predominantly black feature films of the past decade. Furthermore, each of the black characters currently in the cinematic universe feel fully integrated and fleshed out.
All good Sci-Fi requires that the highly extravagant fictional backdrop acts as an allegory on which to project moral dilemmas. The extension of reality helps to simplify extremely complex and mundane moral ideas synthesised to the fantastical and extraordinary. The Marvel Cinematic Universe does this. Iron Man began this trend by exploring the concept of competitive rivalry, arms dealership and arrogance, its sequel explored the moral dilemma centred around envy and bitterness and the third in the series explores the repercussions of war as well as reckless neglect and revenge. Each and every film seeks to broaden this moral debate linking the brilliant visual displays to the characters incredible stories. While critics may argue that these circumstances are too unlikely or convenient I must protest; It is often the best stories that deserve embellishment and the most interesting ones that describe the unlikely and unimaginable. One trope of big budget action feature films is to have massive plot-holes and conveniences. While it’s skeptics attempt to pin this label to marvel films, countless interviews from producer Keen Feige and his team of writers reveal the scrupulous attention to detail and circumstance to create a cohesive narrative without such necessities.
While many seek to claim that superhero fatigue is draining interest from the franchise, consistent critical success drives this creative bubble forwards outgrossing most of it’s competitors and improving its profit margins year on year. From a critical standpoint almost all of the films reach high to moderate critical success from critics reaching an average score of 86% on Rotten Tomatoes and reach the late-70s on meta critic from audiences. In recent years both of these factors have improved film by film much to critics dismay. Using the phase structure the MCU has evolved with the times, beginning with a series of individual character movies with simple narratives and then moving into group pieces and more mature, thoughtful content and then evolving again to more experimental films such as Doctor Strange and GOFTG. Viewers are experiencing new and interesting characters and loving every moment. As the world and universe expands into new worlds as seen recently with Ragnarok and GOTG Vol 2 the studio will continue to prove critic wrong. Their next plan is to create smaller crossover films that focus on more mature individual and intimate scenes for a narrower audiences. Here again critics say you can’t and the MCU says back ‘watch me’.
Many claim that Marvel attempts to cater for as large an audience as possible but as statistics show this approach to filmmaking doesn’t work. Both Logan and Deadpool were R Rated movies that appealed to a small demographic of people yet out grossed the big budget X Men Apocalypse greatly. Marvel employs risky and alternative directors with a plethora of different styles so that the tone of the film matches the director’s artistic style. For example, Doctor Strange’s Scott Derickson has a background in horror movies and smaller budget films which translated perfectly into creating the dark mythos of Dormmamu as well as the intimate character work common in many of his films. Furthermore, this director added a darker and more ominous tone to this character’s fall from grace origin story. Moreover, guardians of the Galaxy director, James Gunn as an intense passion for the wacky characters and has read up on the comics regularly meaning that he had the passion necessary to give fans fully formed comic characters. He was given the creative space to create a wacky space opera action comedy with an animate tree, a racoon and giant spaceships. Therefore marvel is prepared to make ballsy gambles on the creativity of wacky directors. One can really tell that the thought process behind finding directors is a priority to the studio as they often go for extremely unknown and small time directors whose creative vision for the project takes priority over their experience as seen with the Russo brothers as seen in Captain America: TWS. These directors had only directed small comedies yet were fascinated with creating an intense, gripping political drama drawing inspiration from The Raid, A Few Good Men and House of Cards. Therefore Marvel does not stoop for its audience but instead asks the audience to come to their level.
Robert Downey Jr and Tony Stark have become almost synonymous as the actor lives, breathes and speaks in the skin of the infamous character. His instant charisma and charm helped build the foundation for the universe and make way for the talented actors to come. The Studio focuses on Academy Nominated actors as the essential ingredient to their creative process. Actors such as Samuel L Jackson, Paul Bethany, Edward Norton, Scarlett Johanson, Jeremy Renner, Idris Elba and Brie Larson have proven themselves to be world-class actors whose talents are fully realised with intense nuanced dialogue as seen with Robert Redford’s intense debate on surveillance during Captain America: TWS. Time and again the studio has proven its dedication to securing high cost premium actors over larger more spectacular effects.
Marvel has recognised it’s wide appeal as well as its core demographic to form a more mature TV cinematic universe which has been linked to the wider universe. Through it’s defenders Netflix TV series, it has developed a series of immeasurably fantastic TV series exploring everything from vigilantism and utilitarianism in Daredevil, mental health and psychological manipulation in Jessica Jones, crime and the additivity of power and dominance in gang-orientated communities through Luke Cage. All of these have been massive critical hits and are interwoven on a geographic level focusing around NYC as they mesh together and complement each others tones. All these series have a tight adherence to their source material, include high production quality and a no nonsense dramatic flare with a gritty and procedural narrative structure and intense dramatic dialogue. Furthermore these series build themselves around multifaceted dramas with complex anti-heroes and an immersive socially conscious narrative with confident, charismatic lead performances to create a stellar narrative.
The studio never forgets it’s links to its source material, constantly referring back to both recent and throwback character narratives and facets and managing to satisfy almost all the hopes and aspirations of comic book nerds around the world with a deep appreciation of the source material. The deep connection to it’s roots in the mind of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby mean that it attempts to entice it’s biggest fans by bringing their favourite narrative structures, B List characters and oblique references to the screen with complete dedication. This has resulted in a very strong relationship with the comic book fans physically manifested in comic conventions around the world where they can screen and interact with their fans from around the world. To their critics I ask them to name one cultural event that fosters people of similar interests coming together to meet their creators and discuss their passion as they demonstrate to one another their love for the wacky craziness of the MCU. Such a loyal fanbase as seen nowhere else disproves their critics once again.
So to the haters, the doubters, the contrary critics, to everyone who’s ever tried to take the MCU down a peg this essay has been for you. Keep your head down, follow the rules, do as you’re told, play it safe, ask permission, learn to compromise: this is all bad advice the MCU has chosen to reject. If I were to alter the title of the MCU i would change it to Do what you can’t because that idea encapsulates everything the film franchise has ever done. Like when the MCU wanted to create an extended universe following the release of Iron Man, and other studios said, ‘you can’t, you don’t have enough money’. Or when the MCU wanted to create the avengers with multiple protagonists critics said, ‘you can’t’. Or when the skeptics said, ‘you can’t have a film about a blue alien, a racoon and a living tree’ and they did do great success. If I were to characterise what this new generation of filmmakers all are doing I would say they are doing what they ‘can’t’. ‘You can’t reinvent a classically revered character such as Thor’ but hire an inventive director such as Taika Watititi and you can breathe new life into this protagonist. ‘You can’t have an entirely black political drama’ but hire a black director and a 95% black cast and make a movie about the turmoil of African isolationism, next hing you know you are making diversity history. When you’re a creator as in the MCU you don’t need someone in your ear telling you what you can and can’t do. So to the MCU, I say keep creating, keep doing the work and never forget that you don’t have to listen to anyone because in this new world no one knows anything. The haters and the doubters are drinking champagne on the deck of the Titanic and we, the fans of the MCU are the iceberg. So, to the MCU I say keep on doing what you can’t and to the critics I say watch them.
MASTERFUL WORLD-BUILDERS: WHY THE MCU IS UNDERRATED