Marvel Mediocrity: A Look At The Machine

Be it a former criminal who dons a suit that makes him an ant, a pure-hearted patriot given super strength and super handsomeness, or now a neurosurgeon who becomes a sorcerer with the help of a bald Tilda Swinton and a cute montage, Disney Marvel is able to churn out quality, watchable films about any superhero, anytime it wants. It’s a machine that works perfectly, and it doesn’t stop. Disney Marvel has been able to tap into something special to make such consistently satisfying and entertaining films, and now Doctor Strange has joined that list with its own massive success.

I would posit, though, that these films aren’t all as satisfying as we might think. They are fun and charming and entertaining, but it’s all in the moment. These are empty calories — imaginative films within a narrow framework of imagination. Well polished, but all surface.

There is much to laud for what Marvel has done (and we’re talking the Marvel/Disney joint enterprise here), and Captain America: Civil War is the paragon of superhero movie making. And yet it, and all the others, are still lacking. They aren’t fantastical; they’re safe. They aren’t thrilling; they’re predictable. And yes, they sure are addictive.

Here is how the Marvel Machine works.

Impeccable Casting

Only the most handsome, charming, and talented people get to play in this game of superheroes. You don’t need all those requirements ahead of time; you just need the potential to achieve those with the right tweaking and massaging. Before becoming Captain America, Chris Evans was part of an awful Fantastic Four movie and did a lot of other stuff no one really cared about. Chris Pratt was schlubby and funny, but Guardians of the Galaxy made him infinitely funnier and way hotter. And just to prove it’s a machine at Marvel, they’ve another Avenger whose real name is Chris in Thor. So many Chrises.

To their credit, the casts they’ve assembled work great; someone, somewhere, is the Joe Maddon/Bill Belichick/Gregg Popovich of their jobs, and knows how to pick the right people and maximize their potential.

Charm

It can’t be a Disney Marvel film without some wit. Well, a lot of wit. Whether it’s Joss Whedon imbuing all his characters with comedic timing and excessive sarcasm, or the Russo brothers throwing in gags and quick barbs left and right, the Marvel movies use humor better than any superhero films.

Marvel/20th Century Fox’s Deadpool was nice and all, but the entirety of the film was pretty much based on the same gag. Disney Marvel’s films, on the other hand—even when full of action, arcana, or exposition—manage to misdirect, lighten, and charm. It doesn’t hurt that they cast the films perfectly, as we mentioned.

Plot

These aren’t the most imaginative scripts. Iron Man’s Tony Stark and Doctor Strange have pretty much the exact same arc, going from smug, rich, attractive, ultra-smart playboy to enlightened, crusading, attractive do-gooder. Ant-Man and Captain America, meanwhile, are two men who are made superhuman by powers that be in order to help them do right by what they believe, compelled by either a sense of duty or need for redemption.

Even with the more fantastical films, like Thor or Guardians, Marvel does its best to ground these films and keep you focused on the characters and their conflicts, as opposed to the massive, science fiction worlds in which they live. And those conflicts are always the same.

Generic Villain

Whenever we are introducing a new character in the Marvel Universe, a rather nondescript, equally skilled villain comes along, too. Sometimes it’s in the form of a mentor who turns evil, or other times it’s just the hero’s evil counterpart. What’s most important is that they are disposable and, in fact, just the beginning of some bigger, even more evil plot.

Iron Man faced off against another Iron Man, initially. Hulk battled another Hulk. Captain America battled another super soldier, while Thor battled other demigods. Ant-Man battled another dude with a shrinking insect suit. With Doctor Strange, it’s two former sorcery students going at it. Other times, these are just forgettable minions and comic book throwaways.

Thankfully, Marvel has learned that leveling cities doesn’t quite work, and the real drama lies within interpersonal conflicts and intimate consequences. It’s just hard to get worked up about faceless, mass obliteration. But other than Loki, who is more fun than actually menacing, every villain in Marvel has been entirely forgettable.

Female Sidekick/ Love Interest

We mustn’t, can’t, pretend that Marvel offers anything in the way of equal opportunity. I don’t care that Brie Larson gets to star in Captain Marvel — that’s just one film. The lone female Avengers are secondary characters at best, and one (Scarlet Witch) has only been around for two films. And one (Black Widow) doesn’t even get any superpowers — she gets a gun.

Thank goodness Tilda Swinton came around in Doctor Strange to show up a man and impart her wisdom. Of course, after that, she is found to have been lying to her followers and then she dies for some reason.

Yes, Gwyneth Paltrow, Natalie Portman, Rachel McAdams, and many others portray smart and capable love interests. While it’s all well and good that they are more than one-dimensional characters, the closest thing any of the women in Marvel come to being fantastic superheroes is when Pepper Potts puts on the Iron Man costume that one time.

It’s pretty embarrassing. The issue is cleverly obscured because every female is made independent and strong (and that’s great) and also played by a talented actress. But it’s not enough.

Global Reach

In the fight to entertain, there is of course the desire to make money. A lot of money. So why not add a couple of scenes here or there to appeal to the Asian market when the film plays in China? North American audiences don’t always get these added bonuses, but producers have long been keeping tabs on a massive Chinese filmgoer demographic, and making sure they get some love and attention.

Then again, sometimes it becomes a little bit silly. One of the reasons, according to director Scott Derrickson, that the Ancient One in Doctor Strange becomes Celtic is that the Chinese government wouldn’t have taken too kindly to a prominent Tibetan protagonist.

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Indeed, Marvel keeps churning out these great spectacles of moviemaking, and I sure am excited about Black Panther, the next Thor, and yet another Spider Man. But in all this entertaining mayhem, let us not pretend there is novelty or imagination. There is CGI and caution; here’s a thoughtful look at the lack of visual pop across the Marvel films, emphasizing just how safe they are. There is no consequence, either; they couldn’t even kill a character in a movie called Civil War, and there were 12 of them going at it! We just lose the occasional mentor, or someone introduced so quickly that we are not so sad when they go. There is money to be made, and more stories to tell. Big, entertaining, empty stories.