The MCU is something that both amazes me and irritates me. I love that it was not only ambitious enough to change the movie making game entirely, but it was also very successful in doing so. On the other hand, I also dislike what it’s doing to modern cinema, with its formula now being copied by lesser corporations for the sole purpose of making money.
But the more Marvel movies that come out, the more a growing vocal minority have been stating that there are problems with many of the MCU’s entries.
Many state the problem is with how formulaic the stories are becoming.
Others say that most of Marvel’s villains are all milquetoast and boring.
Still others say that Marvel really needs to kill off non-expendable characters.
I agree with all of these suggestions to a certain extent, but the more I have thought about it over the years, the more I realized that some of my favorite Marvel movies are my favorite Marvel movies despite not having these elements:
Iron Man 1 is not only somewhat formulaic, but it basically laid the blueprints of the formula itself.
Guardians of the Galaxy’s villain, Ronan, while not terrible, is not very memorable.
Nobody dies in Captain America: Winter Soldier.
So what is the actual problem? What exactly is missing from many Marvel movies that are causing people to complain?
Here’s what I think many Marvel movies are missing:
Consequential Weight is something that makes the audience feel like the stakes are actually real. It allows us as an audience to connect to the story and to really believe what we are seeing is genuine, because movies having real consequences emulates real life. Consequential Weight gives way to emotional connection.
Many, many Marvel movies do not have consequential weight. And yes, some of that is because of the formula, and the weak villains (and Marvel does have too many weak villains, make no mistake), and the lack of killing anybody vital. However, I don’t think that the new standard should be to ALWAYS remove every formula and start rampaging through the MCU super hero population with Joker-like nemeses.
You could make something massively debilitating happen in the hero’s life and take it seriously (without immediately fixing it).
You could dramatically alter their state of being, their frame of reference, or their philosophy on life.
You could destroy things that are valuable to them that change them as people.
My suggestion would be to start taking the idea of consequential weight seriously. Make the stories more mature, more serious, make things grueling for our heroes. I’m not saying take away all of the humor; I’m saying stop making jokes if it would compromise the weight of the story.
I’m going to list a bunch of Marvel movies. I’ll be giving many instances of great, decent, and bad (and one misguided) examples of having consequential weight:
(Spoilers for every single movie mentioned)
IRON MAN 1 (Great): The consequential weight instilled into Iron Man comes from his fantastic character arc. He’s a near polar opposite person when the movie is finally over. He starts off as a rich, uncaring, misogynistic braggart who profits from war, and as the journey goes forward, he is forced to change almost everything. His kidnapping and his near death experience forces him to see the humanity in his fellow captor, Yinsen. Yinsen’s death further allows him to realize what his escape means. When he finally gets back home, he forces his company into a 180, and he begins to try to actually do something good.
This is why people remember the first Iron Man.
While the second half isn’t nearly as memorable, it’s the first half, where Tony Stark is forced at literal gunpoint to grow as a person. It’s lovely. It makes us interested in him and his journey to become Iron Man.
Plus Jeff Bridges, while not necessarily the best villain, is a pretty decent antagonist.
Honestly, you can give credit to Thor for at least trying. However, Thor’s arc is mainly turning from being a cocky king to a cocky king with virtue and empathy.
He’s looking to be crowned the new king of Asgard, then he gets banished to Earth so that he stops being an asshole, and then he realizes, through failing in being able to lift up Thor’s hammer, that he should be a nice ruler.
There’s a character arc there, but aside from Thor realizing he needs to be nice, there isn’t much that changes for anyone that isn’t a bad guy.
CAPT. AMERICA 1 (Bad):
Aside from physical appearance, the only emotional loss or consequence that is truly left with “Captain America: The First Avenger” is that Captain America is taken out of his own time and forced into the current year.
The only problem is that this dramatic change in his life happens in the last two minutes of the film, so the audience is never able to digest this.
Aside from that, nothing of sheer consequence is felt in Captain America. Steve Rogers does lose his friend Bucky, but Bucky was never developed enough to merit feeling extreme sadness about. In fact, Bucky’s death felt kind of token.
This is a big reason why this first installment of Captain America is largely forgettable to people.
AVENGERS 1 (Bad):
Now, don’t get me wrong. The first Avengers is a miracle and a cultural icon (which is why many people still think it’s one of the best MCU movies). But that is only because it is the first movie of its kind: the product of years and years of planning and movie making combining all the build up of multiple movies.
However, the more time has passed, the more people stop mentioning The Avengers.
And that’s because nothing of emotional consequence truly happens. The only massive change that is made is that before, everybody hated each other and didn’t want to work together; now they do.
It does have a small amount of weight because the events force The Avengers to… ahem… assemble. But nobody really changes because of it, and the villain itself is pretty easily taken care of after smashing up a city that nobody in the audience cared about.
Everything else in the movie was fixable and went back to the status quo.
CAPT. AMERICA WINTER SOLDIER (Great):
Captain America: Winter Soldier is largely known as one of the best Marvel movies to date, and for good reason: it changes the Marvel Cinematic Universe the most. It’s shocking to think that it did so without even having a memorable villain; the villain was essentially the poisoning of SHIELD.
And in this movie, SHIELD is obliterated. It has to start from scratch. It’s gone.
What makes this even more compelling is that this forces Captain America to truly dive into his outlook on life. Is blind patriotism truly the answer? Do the powers at be always have the capacity to be in the right?
On top of that, Rogers also has to deal with the fact that his supposed dead friend is actually alive and a brainwashed enemy agent.
Thus, with SHIELD gone, and Steve Rogers now rethinking his entire outlook, it makes for one compelling story.
The action in the movie is also some of the best action in a Marvel movie.
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (Great):
One of the things that makes Guardians of the Galaxy so great is how character-driven it is. It focuses on how screwed up and miserable all of our wannabe heroes are and gives them a purpose by simply being at the right place at the right time.
It takes a bunch of delinquent assholes, and creates a family out of them.
Groot also has a pretty good emotional death… I mean the film kind of undermines it by resurrecting him… but many people have argued with me that baby Groot is an offspring of the original, and not just a respawn. Fine, I can accept that.
AGE OF ULTRON (Bad):
The biggest pieces of consequential weight are
A) the expendable Quicksilver dies (who cares?)
B) Lots of nameless human casualties (and we can’t feel it at all, because we haven’t connected to any of them).
Aside from that, everything is once again completely fixable. There is nothing real to chew on except another near flawless victory. It is no surprise that Age of Ultron has aged so poorly.
ANT-MAN (VERY Bad):
In Ant Man, some blank-slate randy gets out of jail, gets an Ant Man suit, and goes on an adventure with people we don’t care about.
He also isn’t able to see his daughter, and now he is after the movie, I guess.
Aside from Michael Pena’s character, NOBODY remembers Ant Man. Paul Rudd is a generic protagonist, the plot isn’t very compelling, the villain is pretty bland, and most of all, there is no consequential weight.
The tiny character development that Ant Man gets in Civil War was more than the entire Ant Man movie. How could that possibly happen?
CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (Bad):
As someone who loves Civil War, I’ve started to realize how much it lacks actual consequential weight. I love Civil War because it’s a character movie, and it gives great introductions to Black Panther and Spider-Man.
However, what has really changed after Civil War?
War Machine almost dies, but he’s fine and will be back for more movies.
Tony Stark finds out that Bucky killed his parents, but it never seems to really change him as a person.
A few people get jailed for siding with Captain America, but come on, we all know that isn’t going to last.
Everybody hates each other, but then everyone makes up and becomes friends again.
If anything, this shows that Marvel movies don’t have to have consequential weight to be entertaining… but I fear that over time, Civil War is going to be considered just a decent movie.
DOCTOR STRANGE (Decent):
Dr. Strange does have some consequences, but the problem is that it’s never fully developed or realized.
The story of Stephen Strange is near identical to that of Tony Stark, except they really only give us the bare bones of the story arc. They never spend enough time giving us any reason to relate to or empathize with Strange. Therefore, the story never resonated with most audiences.
Instead, they focus on lame pop culture jokes, magic learning without any true rules behind it, and a very under-developed romance with Rachel McAdams.
The best part of Doctor Strange (aside for that “I’ve come to bargain” bit) is at the end when he’s staring out a window, looks at his gnarled hands, and silently contemplates how much his life has changed. I wish the film was able to focus up and give us more of that.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (Bad):
Peter Quill finds out he’s the son of a god.
In the end, he’s no longer the son of a god, and things go back to normal.
He also still likes Gamora, but Gamora won’t yield to his charms… again.
The expendable Yondu also dies. If you disagree that Yondu was expendable, that is your prerogative, but you are wrong.
GOTG 2 is a funny movie with good music, but so was the first Guardians of the Galaxy, and that one was able to have a large amount of consequential weight.
I honestly don’t understand how some people think the second film is better than the first.
THOR RAGNAROK (Misguided):
One of Ragnarok’s biggest sins is that it HAS consequence (Asgard is destroyed and will never come back… probably; Thor loses an eye, and his hammer), but removes its emotional core by removing Thor’s emotional attachment to practically anything, and making everything into a big joke.
It was just a big huge joke-athon. Much like The Last Jedi, Thor: Ragnarok was never capable of figuring out when to be serious and when to be funny. Both movies constantly undermine their serious moments with dumb jokes.
Thor: Ragnarok had all the ingredients to be great: an out-there concept, a decent sense of style (that admittedly kind of copies off of GOTG, but I digress), a sense of humor, and best of all, CONSEQUENCES.
If they decided to not undermine these serious moments of consequences (…and if they actually made Cate Blanchett not a cartoon), I think Thor: Ragnarok could have had the makings to be one of the best Marvel movies ever.
Instead, they just settled for being good.
SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (Decent):
Peter Parker realizes that he’s basing his entire life and identity on being Spiderman, gets crushed by life, and then realizes his need for balance. Most of the weight comes from Parker realizing he needs to grow up.
He also ruins the life of the girl he likes, and he’ll never see her again.
It’s not necessarily an amazing amount of consequential weight, but it at least had some.
BLACK PANTHER (Decent):
I mentioned in my review that Black Panther’s worst trait is that it never truly grabs ahold of any sort of resonating consequences.
The biggest amount of consequence is that T’Challa needs to wrestle with the small failures of his father, as well as Wakanda’s nationalism and isolationism. But none of these struggles ever amount to anything significant. There seemed to be no need for any sort of grand epiphany or change.
The only thing that really changed is that T’Challa went from being a somewhat unconfident king to being a slightly more confident king who now wants to reach out to world in a few ways.
In fact, that’s why many people see Killmonger as such a great villain: he’s significantly more compelling than T’Challa is. Killmonger has conviction. He has deep hatred. He has a lack of care for human life. This made him not only interesting, but it created a need for him to be stopped. If only they cared to make T’Challa as interesting.
Once a couple more Marvel movies come out of the woodwork, I predict that Black Panther will be remembered as a good movie, but not one of the best.
Of course, it’s not like I think Marvel is doing a terrible job with making movies. I just think they often settle for mediocrity, and I wish the stories were more mature. Part of the problem is that Disney needs to sell their movies to children, and most of the adults who obsess over Marvel really don’t care about the films not showing any actual consequences.
(Note: the new movies using curse words and making sex jokes does not equal mature themes.)
I think people should care about this, though. I think all great movies try to deal with the human experience in some sort of way, and most people know that one of the biggest facets of being human is dealing with the consequences of not only your actions, but how shitty life can be sometimes.
Unfortunately, most Marvel movies only try to deal with this on a surface level.
I recently took a poll on Twitter and asked people what they thought the Best and Worst MCU movies are. Out of 224 people who answered, this was the consensus:
It is no shock to me whatsoever that Winter Soldier is widely considered the best of the MCU movies, because it is the best example of a MCU film having consequential weight. It’s also no surprise to me that Guardians of the Galaxy got third place, and that Iron Man not only scored high, but had no votes for being “the worst”.
So, that’s my opinion on what Marvel should fix about their movies. As stated before, I do agree that Marvel movies might be better if they killed off important people, made their villains better, or stopped being so formulaic, but all these are missing the big picture:
The only reason killing off a big superhero or very important character would be good is because it adds such a deep sense of consequence to a movie.
The only reason amazing villains are necessary is because amazing villains create deep, terrible obstacles for our heroes. They force change by being effective, and thus consequential.
The only reason getting rid of a formula is a good idea is because the Marvel movie formula, as part of its function, tries to avoid having consequential weight to their movies in order to not offend the more sensitive parts of their audience.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on my thoughts.
Obviously, this theory isn’t bulletproof, and there could be things that I’m missing.
Also, please know that I don’t hate Marvel. I really enjoy many of their movies. And that’s why I hope they get better. I want people to challenge the things they love, because otherwise, mediocrity is almost completely assured.