I’ve never seen a Marvel movie. It’s the highest profiting franchise in history and I let its heyday pass me by. It wasn’t some complex about hating what’s popular – my interest in superheroes never made it beyond Joker and Spiderverse – and in terms of what I enjoy, blockbusters rate pretty low. As the nadir of this cultural moment inarguably came with Endgame, now seems the time to see what all the fuss was about.
Iron Man (2008)
Why is this two hours long? It’s a question I never found a satisfying answer to during my ordeal, but it’s one that kept cropping up. Nothing ever justified why I should spend increasingly insane lengths of time on these movies.
Iron Man’s a weird one. It’s the first Marvel Cinematic Universe movie, but it’s steadfastly not. The satirical edge to the script, with Stark’s direct involvement in the Iraq War, is unlike every other movie I’d watch later; hell-bent on being as clean and removed from reality as possible. There’s distinct and powerful imagery (the first suit, like some medieval knight, springs to mind), and Stark’s placement between life and death with the shrapnel in his chest is nicely dramatic. Downey Jr’s a charismatic lead, something that didn’t change – the casts are great, actors in their primes making bank.
American exceptionalism, the idea that America is unique in history and thus deserves superior status, is inherent to the foundations of the MCU. Stark, billionaire playboy war-lord, is seen as the only person to bring peace to a world he broke. It’s a current that never rings true, no matter how much lip service any of the scripts pay to the idea that superheroes are ‘dangerous’ or ‘broken’.
The Avengers (2012)
Why is this movie two-and-a-half-hours long?
It’s hard to take The Avengers seriously. Its mix of action thriller and superhero chaos is another contradiction never ironed out. The idea that the Hulk is somehow the most important Avenger never rings true. Thor and Loki (with dialogue like bad Sherlock Holmes characters) standing next to Iron Man and Black Widow never rings true.
These films are ‘cool’ in such a dated way already that by 2021 this movie’s irrelevant. I can’t begin to imagine how inexplicable the franchise will seem in another decade’s time. So much effort is put into giving the ensemble plotlines that nothing is fully developed. The action scenes – tedious in length and vapidity – are so chaotic and huge you can’t tell what’s happening. Everyone is so immature and self-serving they’d rather yell at each other in rooms for the first half. Clearly, that works for people. For me, though?
It’s a two-and-a-half-hour-long exercise in getting your time and money wasted.
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
My first thought (other than, y’know) was that this feels like an actual movie. Essentially a self-aware Star Wars movie, Guardians is the most engaging so far, but it’s not as cool as it thinks it is. The emotional team building moment (apparently a franchise necessity) feels earned by virtue of bothering to properly develop everyone. The jokes mostly land, the characters make sense – I can understand why this one made a buzz at a time when the rigidity of the formula had started to become clear.
As had become standard, my eyes glazed over during fight scenes. Guardians devolves into action schlock and light shows, assuming that’s good enough as a finale. It’s not particularly engaging, or interesting to look at. There are secondary characters whose names you don’t need to know, plot threads you don’t need to keep track of. It became increasingly clear what the aim of the franchise was. It’s hard to become invested in any of these movies as singular stories because they’re always set-up for something else later on. It’s content for the sake of more content.
Captain America: Civil War (2016)
I watched Civil War in lieu of Age of Ultron. I’d been told its essentially Avengers 2.5; the best assessment I can imagine giving this train wreck. I’m aware that means I’m missing backstory, which doesn’t matter. It’s self-important nonsense regardless. There’s nothing important happening; it’s not even a Captain America movie, because the big emotional weight is carried by Stark, still the only solid ground this franchise has.
The more fight scenes I sat through, the more it became clear to me that the MCU is founded on meaningless action and hollow stories. They’re consistently trying to hit dramatic notes we’ve all seen before. Because of that, there’s so little effort put in. ‘Something, something, dead mother’. We can connect the dots as to the story they’re implying because you can pick up any Screenwriting for Dummies book and find the structure laid out on page one.
There’s no real threat. The villains show up in the opening scene, we see the technology that’ll cause those cool explosions later. Then the movie chugs along with dull writing, uninspired direction, and self-aggrandisement until you’re expected to be in such a state of lazy consumption that you feel satisfied once the credits roll. Marvel buy into their own hype – it’s the only way they’ll sell tickets and merchandise.
And then Spider-Man just… arrives. And he’s boring now?
Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
This movie had six writers! That’s not the sign of a healthy production process.
Peter Parker’s one of the most engaging characters in the Rolodex. A nerdy, working-class teenager living in NYC suddenly and irreversibly given great power. The contradiction between his great responsibility and the hormonal arrogance of being a teenager has always felt like the most interesting path a superhero could take.
Naturally, that’s all expunged from Homecoming. Immediately thrown into the expanded universe of nonsense, he’s just a nice Stark fanboy. Some dork the billionaire took a shine to; it’s horribly removed from what’s interesting about him. The MCU tradition of heroes as people enhanced by technology is a reimagining of the genre, but it’s thoroughly less fascinating.
There’s no rebuttal given to the villain – angry that Stark and the Avengers don’t give a damn about people like him and Parker – because he’s right. And the franchise can’t handle that level of genuine criticism. They fight without another word, and his motivation isn’t mentioned again. Why would it be?
It’s the most engaging since Iron Man, though. It feels like a comic book movie. There’s a sense of bright fun, sorely lacking from the self-seriousness of The Avengers. Still amounting, though, to how cool those people are. Stark jumps into the plot whenever the script realises he’s still the only character worth caring about.
Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
Ragnarok is as funny and clever as a normal movie. The narcissism that informs something like Civil War is kept to a minimum, and the story is informed and developed through what’s interesting about the characters. Y’know, like a film.
…Until Immigrant Song starts up, and we’re taking a few steps back towards the arrogance of previous instalments. Goldblum, Hiddleston, Hemsworth and Thompson are all great. Ruffalo’s the most charismatic in the franchise as far as I’m concerned – perhaps it’s just the simplicity of a big green guy juxtaposed with constant melodrama. The mix of Norse mythology and Guardians sci-fi isn’t brought up, either a wasted opportunity for some great humour or an intentional omission at the hands of our Disney Overlords for the sake of brand synergy.
Black Panther (2018)
Black Panther’s a breath of fresh air. Concerned with its own characters and story, it’s refreshingly smaller (compared with what’s come before), even if that story’s already been told a hundred times. It’s very Shakespearean; the tale of a prince taking his father’s crown, with skeletons in the kingdom’s closet and a usurper to the throne. Still a thoroughly formulaic movie – but the unique spin and context is what matters.
It’s important for all people to see themselves on screen in all manner of films. It’s important for black people to have stories of kings and nations, tales of crowns and wars; to have their own heroes. White people are all over every other movie in the biggest franchise in history. Far be it from me to start being loud about the intricacies of its script or the MCU’s place in pop culture.
Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
I’m aware that Iron Man 3 isn’t good, but there’s an inkling of drama as Stark struggles with PTSD. I’d kill for something like that here. Thanos, the big purple Homer Simpson, fights the Hulk in the opening moments. Immediately I understood this movie’s intentions; two-and-a-half-hours of cameos, fights, quips, and pretending that the stakes mean something. There’s enough momentum (and money) for it not to drag as much as the comparatively-simplistic Avengers, but as the Infinity Stones plot finally bothers to happen, there’s no screenwriter/director combo out there able to pull it off. You can’t threaten to end the universe like this. It’s just a no-go if you want to retain a shred of credibility as an exploration of human experience.
I can’t deny the powerful imagery – reality-bending body horror, dissolving into ash. There’s just nothing to back it up. Gone is even the pretence of meaning to these stories. There’s such a thing as a threat too big, an ensemble too large. It gets to a point, one the MCU reached with Infinity War, where it all just becomes noise.
Captain Marvel (2019)
I hadn’t heard of Captain Marvel before watching, despite being the most traditionally-superhero-esque. Somehow, this is the first movie I’ve seen with a female protagonist – understandably, it’s trying to establish its own voice. There’re attempts at subtext, and it’s another shot at a standalone story (as far as the MCU can handle, by now). Concerned more with drama than action, it feels like I should’ve been sympathetic to this one, but the script and production design just screams 1990s TV movie. It’s all alien orcs and dial-up – that’s the intention. Still, it feels like I’m watching a TV movie.
Cynically switching out 80s nostalgia for 90s, Captain Marvel has Blockbusters’ outlets, Nirvana tracks, and a scrapped X-Files plot to boot. The second half feels like a Disney rewrite – all references, quips and explosions. It might’ve wanted to be a palette-cleanser, but there’s nothing fresh here.
Avengers: Endgame (2019)
I don’t want to talk about Endgame. Endgame doesn’t want to talk about Endgame. It’s embarrassing. In what world would that stand? They killed Spider-Man! There’s no satisfying way to tell this story. Which begs the question – what was the point of the whole endeavour? Was it a matter of making as many movies (read: money) as possible in the meantime?
There’s nothing to say that I haven’t already said, and watching it offered me nothing that I couldn’t’ve written otherwise. When you’re this obsessed with franchising, everything just merges into a homogenous bubble of content. And bubbles always burst.
You either bought into it or you weren’t worthy of being spoken to.