The Marvel Cinematic Universe has kept me coming back for years. But its flaws have piled up, and that track record has reached its end.
It’s no secret that the most dominant category of film of the past decade has been the comic book movie. And, with twenty-four films and three miniseries released so far with many more slated to come out, positive reception for almost all of them, and several having ended up being some of the highest-grossing movies of all time, the most dominant franchise of the past decade has inarguably been the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This series has captured the attention, hearts, and imaginations of so many filmgoers from so many different demographics… as well as the ire, scorn and dismissal of others.
Many people argue that the MCU has broken new ground regarding what’s possible to achieve on film, given us tons of memorable, developed characters, and miraculously juggled multiple interlocking storylines without buckling under the weight such tasks. Others claim that it’s merely a generic, repetitive, shallow cluster of movies that has created an oversaturation of superhero movies in the market and negatively impacted the medium of film as a whole.
I personally have found myself with my feet in both of these camps over the years. Many times, I’ve declared the MCU to be smart, fun, and consistently reliable, only to later find it frustrating in how often certain installments failed to leave a worthwhile impact on me. In 2017 alone, the Marvel Cinematic Universe came out with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, one of my favorite movies of all time; Spider-Man: Homecoming, a film I found enjoyable yet frustrating; and Thor: Ragnarok, a film that represents a lot of what I hate about blockbuster storytelling. I once believed 2018 to be the MCU’s best year, and yet, by the end of 2019, I found myself ready to dial back on the whole franchise. It’s been a roller coaster of fluctuating opinions, to say the least.
Which is why I want to lay out my full thoughts on the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole. I’ll be discussing my thoughts on its most notable trends and reoccurrences, the reasons I believe it to be so successful, but also why I’ve now grown tired of it and believe its success to be just as much a product of its strengths as it is a product of its weaknesses. Also, spoilers for pretty much the entire series will be present throughout, so consider that your warning.
MY HISTORY WITH THE MARVEL CINEMATIC UNIVERSE
But first, a look at my history with the series. The appeal of superhero movies in general never came from any prior connection I had with comic books or superhero media, because… well, I had basically none. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I’ve never read or even touched a single superhero comic in my entire life. I’ve experienced very few of the stories of icons like Batman, Superman, and Spider-Man through other mediums. I can’t really pinpoint the reason why, but even as a kid, they never jumped out as anything I wanted to follow. Even when I tried out a few episodes of something like a Batman show or played with a few superhero toys, nothing within the realm of superheroes and comic books ever really stuck with me for years.
It wasn’t until I saw Sam Raimi’s 2002 Spider-Man as an early pre-teen that I had my first experience of fully loving anything superhero-related. I was engrossed by the film and urgently wanted to see its sequels, the second of which I caught in theaters when it came out. This led me to develop an interest in catching a few other superhero movies here and there, such as some of the X-Men films, The Dark Knight, the two 2000s Fantastic Four movies (I know, varying degrees of quality), and of course, some of the early entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
When Iron Man came out, I was almost thirteen years old, so I was the perfect age to not only be drawn to these kinds of movies, but to go out and see each one as it was released. I didn’t see them all at first, having initially skipped ones like The Incredible Hulk and Thor since they didn’t look as cool to me. But each time I saw something from Marvel in particular, I came to associate the name with reliability more and more. I trusted that the brand would maybe not always give me the best movie ever, but it would almost always give me something entertaining and worth watching. I saw The Avengers not because it had my childhood icons coming together on the big screen, but because it just looked like a fun movie and the latest in a string of other fun movies. From that point on, I ended up seeing every MCU movie upon release, out of trust that each one would be to my liking and keep me invested in where these many stories were going to go next. And for years, for all their ups and downs, they did just that.
CONSISTENCY ACROSS THE MARVEL CINEMATIC UNIVERSE
This speaks to something for which I can instantly commend the MCU: for a series that has this many movies covering this many stories in a relatively short amount of time, it is immensely impressive how consistent the quality is across all of the films. This is a huge part of why I decided to keep going to them almost unconditionally for so many years: watching an MCU movie is a very safe bet that you’ll have a solid time. I would not call any entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe so far outright bad, even ones I find underwhelming like The Incredible Hulk or Captain Marvel (and I haven’t seen Black Widow, so I can’t know if that record still holds true). Even when looking at what are perhaps the two least celebrated of the lot, Iron Man 2 and Thor: The Dark World, the general consensus on both of them is that they’re merely mediocre, whereas most long-running franchises have at least a few entries that are notorious among fans and non-fans alike.
You can argue all you want that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is bland, disposable, or not very deep, but I think even the staunchest Marvel critics will admit that the MCU at its worst is still miles better than the worst blockbusters you could find elsewhere. Think about how many franchises have tried to copy the MCU formula in its wake, and how few of them have come anywhere close to pulling it off or even getting past a single movie, like 2017’s The Mummy. Think about how many start out with promise but then buckle under the weight of such a massive undertaking, like The Amazing Spider-Man 2, or how many slip up in quality from poor decision-making or executive meddling, like the early DC Extended Universe.
THE STABLE, COMPLETE STORYTELLING OF MARVEL
The Marvel Cinematic Universe, on the other hand, has somehow been able to stay on track without ever falling off completely. To this day, it still manages to keep all of its many directors, writers, and producers on the same page as they do their work, with the same coherency in the overall narrative that one would expect had only a small number of such people been involved. At no point does the MCU overreach, lose focus of what it’s trying to do, or let any disaster slip through the cracks. This would be impressive enough if all these movies were self-contained, but this is a complex series of intertwining storylines that all have to be balanced out and not clash with one another. While some don’t get as much focus as others, you can look at the first three phases of the MCU and see many solid, complete, and satisfying narratives with proper beginnings, middles, and ends.
And so, you can see Tony Stark realizing the errors of his past ways, trying to evolve into a better person, struggling with the consequences of how he goes about those efforts, and ultimately sacrificing himself so that he can, as Pepper Potts poignantly puts it, rest. You can see Steve Rogers having lost his chance at a happy life, trying to accept the new one thrust upon him, finding he can’t ever truly move on, but then going on to give everything he has to the world so that he can finally go off and have something for himself. Peter Parker serves as an added motivator for Tony and the first of a new wave of heroes after he’s gone, the Guardians of the Galaxy provide the most personal connection to Thanos via Gamora and Nebula, Wakanda is the setting of some of the most pivotal moments of the series, and even a character as seemingly trivial as Ant-Man provides the tools that open the door to saving the universe in the end.
Many world-building settings and devices start out as just little flourishes but then come back in much more important ways. The Infinity Stones initially appear to be independent plot devices sprinkled in throughout the franchise, but then come together to have a monumental impact on the main story’s… well, endgame. There isn’t one major component to these movies that doesn’t have some purpose in the grander scheme. To pull that off with as much stability as this must be commended, even if you don’t like the movies themselves. Even when unexpected changes to the plan came up, like a deal between Sony and Disney that allowed for Spider-Man’s inclusion, they were integrated into the plan smoothly enough that those uninformed could easily assume they were intended from the very beginning. Kevin Feige clearly had a distinct vision for this series, and deserves a lot of credit for being able to get as much of it through as he did.
Not only is the Marvel Cinematic Universe reliable in all those aspects, but a majority of its movies are very wide-reaching in how many audience members find something in them that appeals to their tastes. Sure, you’re always going to have people who can just never watch superhero content no matter how it’s done. It’s simply not for them, and I understand that. But most of the Marvel movies have at least something to offer that’s very likely to click with almost any given audience member with any given preference. If you like action, they all have that in spades. If you want good, likeable characters, I’d say most of them do the job there. If you want comedy, even the most serious movies have a noticeable amount of it.
If you need deep themes and storytelling, they may not all be golden there, but I’d argue there’s more often than not just enough substance for this criterion to be considered passable. Even if the MCU doesn’t always challenge moviegoers’ intellect, I believe it has yet to insult it. All of this can apply to pretty much any given MCU movie or show you choose, and again seems to apply with consistently satisfying results for most people. In that sense, they do exactly what a good blockbuster is supposed to do: tick off multiple boxes and be genuinely acceptable for all of them.
TAKING ADVANTAGE OF THE UNIVERSE AND GENRE
The Marvel Cinematic Universe consists of genre films without a doubt, all of which have their many limitations that I’ll delve into later. But I don’t think that alone is necessarily a valid reason to dismiss them as true “cinema”. Almost any movie ever made that falls within a genre or subgenre has its own limitations that it has to work with and elements it’s expected to maintain. Even the best or most subversive movies of their respective genres can’t avoid this. Yet all of these genres have produced countless films that are artistically rich, widely acclaimed, and even sometimes declared some of the best movies of all time.
This is because the people working on them knew how to look at these expectations and limitations and, rather than let them hold the product back, took them on as challenges for how to inject the most creativity and cleverness possible. It allowed them to arguably produce something even better than what would have happened if those limitations weren’t there and they didn’t have to think as hard about what they were making. Disney has put out decades of films that so many people love, despite them being restricted to needing to please both kids and adults. Star Wars is a franchise that was originally meant for children and arguably attracted an even larger base of adult fans. There are certain things that these movies would never be allowed to do, but that only allows their great storytelling to stand out even more and makes what they accomplished that much more impressive.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has done just that. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a heightened action thriller about a man ripped from his older generation, trying to find a place for himself in a world whose ideals have drastically changed, and fighting a system that’s allowed evil to fester under the guise of protection. Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 is about overcoming destructive ego, breaking through toxic masculinity that blooms from insecurity and fear, and coming to grips with one’s history with their parentage, all explored through abstract imagery and concepts that could only be done in a comic book movie. Black Panther uses its fantastical environments and lore to tell a story about a man forced to endure the suffering of American injustice, now angry and wanting to incite a worldwide race war in the name of Black ancestors, while the hero is forced to confront the wrongdoings of his people and overhaul his political system, which all touches upon topical struggles of our real world.
Infinity War is almost nihilistic in how its story progresses and concludes. The heroes spend the entire movie fighting tooth-and-nail just to hold back the steamrolling villain. Yet not only do they fail at every turn, but they could have saved so many more people had just one of them been able to make the tough, selfless choice at the right time. The film takes the classic notion of the noble superhero who tries to save everyone without getting their hands dirty, and displays it as a worthless ideal that amounts to nothing. Spider-Man: Far From Home has semi-meta commentary on our obsessions with superheroes. Quentin Beck’s frustration with how no one will notice you unless you have some flashy powers is not only a proper motivation on its own, but it doubles as a metaphor for how many great smaller films are overlooked in favor of the big spectacle-driven ones. His subsequent use of illusions could also represent how a lot of overblown visuals and explosions in film are just disguising a fraudulent experience.
These are not basic, hollow, meaningless stories that only exist to host the action and superhero thrills. They offer a lot of themes and character arcs to think about, analyze, and even get emotional over. And through it all, the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe still manage to be the kind of fun, bombastic comic book movies that mass audiences clearly love to see. They use the superhero playing field to their advantage to present ideas that would have been impossible without these superhero elements and blockbuster antics. I’m still blown away that I can look at a giant purple man with a superpowered glove and take him completely seriously as both an intimidating threat and a fascinating character. A talking raccoon and tree that can only state his name should be the most laughable kiddie fare out there, but they’re portrayed in such a charming way that’s right in line with the setting they’re in that they steal the show for many people.
Even something fluffier like the Ant-Man movies take a seemingly worn-out idea of shrinking and growing superpowers and do nearly everything that can be done with them to make for fast-paced, exciting, and even unpredictable action sequences. The creativity of the trippy visuals in Doctor Strange speak for themselves. And then there are clever little touches like having Captain America’s suit start out as a marketing gimmick for the war, but then becoming a visual of hope for his fellow soldiers when he finally goes out into actual combat. The comic book elements in these cases are not only unintrusive to the narrative, but often allow even a film with a mediocre or tired story to have something that lets it stand out from other movies. If you get the right filmmakers, writers, cast, and crew, and let them work their magic, you can open up numerous possibilities for greatness, which has happened enough times to make me a general fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
HOW THE MARVEL CINEMATIC UNIVERSE’S CONSISTENCY BACKFIRES
So then, with everything that I’ve said so far, you’d think that this would all mean I remain such a fan to this day, and that I’m still looking forward to seeing the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Unfortunately, not only do I believe it to have almost an equal number of problems, but as time goes on, these problems have built up to a point where I now feel the MCU has gone about as far as it can go with its limitations in place.
A lot of the MCU’s biggest strengths also give rise to their biggest weaknesses. The movies and shows have successfully reached as wide an audience as possible with this many entries… but, in doing so, they’ve built established boundary lines for the series that none of them can go too far outside of. They have to adhere to the same rules of the singular franchise, no matter what the setup or tone is. Each installment has a different story, setting, and cast of characters that, on paper, you’d think would cater to different audiences. But Marvel needs the same audiences to go to most of them. Otherwise, those audiences will be lost on the overarching story even in the same “subset” of movies.
I’ve heard people call the three Captain America movies a trilogy, but if you were to watch them all right in a row, completely on their own without having seen any other MCU movie, they wouldn’t make any sense in the slightest. This is acceptable to most because the other required movies are still good and therefore worth seeing, even just to fill in the gaps. But it also means that Marvel needs to be able to keep a generally consistent tone and style across all of these entries to make viewers feel comfortable no matter what the movie is. They can vary, but not by too much.
The situation isn’t like most other film or television series, where each entry contains a similar kind of story, set of characters, genre, or theme. The Marvel Cinematic Universe contains a heist movie, a space comedy, a Norse god tale, a 1940s war film, a spy thriller, a teen comedy, a post-apocalypse movie, and multiple “team-up” movies, all required to fit in a single universe and a single series. They all need to have prominent humor, they almost all need to have the main character and his/her friends survive for future installments, and they all need to be family-friendly enough and please a wide audience. Some installments of the MCU can still thrive despite these criteria, but others are just inherently not built for them, which can sometimes hold back how fully realized a film’s potential can be and how many risks it can take. True, some of the bizarre events and concepts can certainly be considered risky to ask us to accept, especially considering the comic book movie failures of the past. But in terms of the theming, the subject matter, and the extent and intensity with which it’s portrayed, a lot has to be watered down and homogenized.
The Winter Soldier is a hard-edged, white-knuckled, gritty movie… by Marvel standards. Black Panther has a rich world with tons of culture and commentary… by Marvel standards. WandaVision delves into the history of a character’s pain and grief through unorthodox methods… by Marvel standards. When looking at a lot of these entries as parts of the collective whole, they all work and are impressive in how they can do different things but still fit together. But on their own, they leave me wondering how much further they each could have gone, both narratively and technically, had they not been bound to a widespread franchise like this. The way Marvel does everything makes for a good series of movies and shows, but often lesser individual ones.
OVERUSED HUMOR AND UNDERUSED DRAMA
A big part of why I think the Guardians films work so well is because director James Gunn’s vision doesn’t have to be altered that much to fit into the Marvel mold. Perhaps he would have preferred to make them rated a hard R, but he was already trying to make them the eccentric comedies they are, with tons of colorful worlds, quirky storytelling, and heightened characters so larger-than-life that it’s plausible they could survive everything they go through. It inherently plays right into the MCU’s strengths, so Gunn can take advantage of almost every possibility presented to him while toning down very little.
But then you have something like Avengers: Endgame, where the lead characters deal with half of all life disappearing out of thin air, leaving billions grieving and the world in complete shambles. Thor is an alcoholic, Clint is a grieving, cold-blooded assassin, and Rocket has lost his whole family after years of never thinking he would have one… This is about as far from befitting an MCU movie as you can get. The kinds of one-liners, silly moments, minimal permanent consequences, and PG-13 touches, which can be a little forced in other MCU stories, are ten times more forced here. It takes one of the most fascinating, brutally dark setups I’ve seen in any movie, and substantially neuters it. Because, if it had gone full-throttle, it would have been less appealing to the wide audience the Marvel Cinematic Universe demands, and far too out of place with the rest of the movies.
To a lesser extent, the airport fight in Captain America: Civil War also falls victim to this. Up until that scene, the movie has a fairly grounded tone, with only a handful of well-placed jokes tossed in that don’t interrupt that tone. But once the heroes start turning on each other, notice how the frequency of quips skyrockets and how much more lighthearted the movie suddenly is. The Civil War itself, the moment where many good people we know and love turn against each other, is the funniest portion of the movie… that’s a problem for me. But the biggest offender of forced humor that takes away from the heart and drama is, in my opinion, Thor: Ragnarok. This movie has Thor and Jane split up, destroys Thor’s hammer, kills his warrior friends and father, and destroys Asgard. These are monumental changes to the life of a character we’ve supposedly gotten to know well, and yet they’re almost always played strictly for laughs. Taika Waititi’s humor is very distinct even amidst the rest of the MCU, but because it was used for such a pivotal story to the series, it backfires and feels like a cheap way of reinventing Thor without burdening the audience with the weight of such endeavors.
Such haphazard use of comedy, as well as the sugarcoating of stakes and consequences, plagues the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole. Even some of its best outings are prone to it, which can make it difficult to truly feel invested in the plights of a lot of the characters. I don’t think the humor should be outright removed entirely; even a superhero movie as serious as The Dark Knight has many funny lines and moments. But, unlike that movie, the comedy in the MCU can be very excessive and unnatural. It often comes across as forced and obligatory, included just to be there and check off another box on the list of requirements for each movie.
This likely would have been fine if these movies had been going for full-blown eccentricity. But whereas something like Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies have a goofiness seeped into every moment that allows the story and world to flourish in their own way, the MCU tries to mimic a greater degree of realism. It has realistic acting, realistic dramatic lines, and sometimes even a slow, meditative pace. And yet, there’s still very little edge to it, so few instances where it’s not trying to shield us from anything too harsh or extreme, which makes for an overall tone that’s equal parts inconsistent and bland.
THE STRAIN ON THE MARVEL PRODUCTION
But it’s not just the writing that can hold the Marvel Cinematic Universe back. Over the years, I’ve noticed that the craft and production have also taken a hit due to how swiftly mass-produced the movies have been. They often don’t have enough time to be made as good as they could possibly be. We went from getting at most one movie per year to now three per year, on top of the movies getting increasingly huge in scale over time. That’s not even including the multiple TV shows that are now coming out, on top of that! This must put everyone involved in making them on a huge time crunch compared to other big-budget productions, especially considering how much material they need to work with and keep track of. It must be reiterated how amazing it is that they can still accomplish what they do under this crunch, but the cracks still show, especially as the time frames between releases get smaller and smaller.
The director and crew can’t get that many impressive in-camera stunts due to the risk of injury that would disrupt the rigid schedule. They can’t create many remarkable non-digital sets because they would take too long to build. The director and cinematographer can’t plan out the shots as meticulously as they perhaps want to, because they’re too preoccupied with making sure they can shoot it at all with these constraints. The CGI may end up shoddier because the effects team needed a bit more time or money to polish it, which is again much more noticeable the later into the series you go. When looking at the subpar effects for movies like Black Panther or Far From Home, this issue is very apparent. I’m sure these movies would have looked much better had Disney not needed to forsake as much of their budgets for the much bigger, more “important” films of the franchise.
But even the bigger films have started to fall victim to this. The Russo brothers did amazing work with Infinity War, keeping their signature filmmaking style intact and prominent despite the massive scale, and the movie ended up getting some of the best CGI effects I’ve ever seen. But immediately after finishing that movie, they had to get to work on Avengers: Endgame. And I personally get the impression that it drained them and their crew. There’s not as much flair to the directing: it’s visually much blander, the action isn’t as memorable, and it feels less like a singular vision. They were able to work on Infinity War relatively fresh, but when forced to make another movie of the same already-intimidating size right after, of course they weren’t going to be on their A-game. No director could have pulled that off; there was just too much they had to handle.
TOO MANY ENTRIES AND CONNECTIONS
Which brings me to what I think makes these faults of the MCU installments the most difficult to deal with: the fact that there are so many of them. When a trilogy or a smaller series of movies has a single, consistent style with its own limitations and boundaries, that’s usually not too bad. But when we have twenty-four films and three shows that have been released in the span of over thirteen years – whereas James Bond took over fifty years to reach that many films – all of which are so dominant and constantly in the public eye, those boundaries become increasingly harder to tolerate. It gets to the point where I’ll gladly stick around for more if a movie is great, but I’ll get increasingly frustrated and tired if it’s even just decent, because I’ll start to wonder if the hours I’ll put into watching the future entries will be worth it.
It’s especially noticeable now that the MCU has made the jump to television. Three seasons’ worth of shows have come out in the first seven months of 2021 alone, and there are still three more scheduled for release by the end of the year. And, with their one-episode-per-week approach, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has guaranteed itself to remain a fresh talking point for an even greater amount of time.
I’ve also grown tired over how many story threads have to be connected and lead into one another, even if they’re focusing on completely different characters. It was impressive for years, but now it has outstayed its welcome. Not only is this a problem just if you want to keep track of everything, but it also makes a lot of these stories lose what could have made them so special. WandaVision should have focused solely on the emotional plight of a character who has let her grief twist her into something terrible, the immediate fallout of her actions and the attempts by others to stop her. But by the end, the focus is on this battle between witches and the exploration of where Wanda’s powers come from, which will likely be more relevant to future installments than to the show itself. In fact, whenever I hear people talk about these shows, it’s more often been about what everything could mean for the future of the MCU than the substance of what they’re currently watching. And I know Marvel at least partially intended this because of stunts like casting Evan Peters as a fake Pietro Maximoff, something that gets fans speculating and nothing more.
Most egregious to me, however, is how Marvel plans to follow up Far From Home. For the first time in cinematic history, Peter Parker’s identity is exposed, and he’s been framed as a criminal. How will everyone around him react? What threats will come after him? How high will the stakes get? What will his life be like now, even after his name is cleared? This is more than enough to make for a great sequel, packed with exciting drama and emotional action, that naturally continues this character’s growth. But – and this is so far only based on what we’ve been told – the film is now apparently going to include talks of a multiverse, with Doctor Strange somehow being involved, villains from other Spider-Man film continuities showing up… and I just don’t care about any of it.
Even though the film isn’t out yet, hearing about all of this was essentially the nail in the coffin of my ongoing investment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I no longer have faith that I’ll be able to go into a movie or show of theirs and get a full story that relies on its own strengths. These kinds of moves that Marvel plans on pulling, along with all the other issues I’ve had building up, make me more interested nowadays in what studios like DC are doing with their superhero movies. In the past few years, they went from vainly trying to copy Marvel’s formula, to coming out with a string of films that are all very different and memorable tonally and stylistically, because they’re only concerned with being good films and not good installments. Even Fox had begun doing well with this approach with the likes of Logan and the Deadpool movies, before they were consumed – I mean purchased – by Disney. I’ve reached a point now where that’s what I look forward to more, while the MCU sticks to its tried, true, but tired tricks.
PART OF THE JOURNEY IS THE END
In spite of all the criticisms I’ve lobbied against it, if I were to say that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has not been a good series of movies at this point, I would be lying. If someone had never experienced it before and asked if they should bother watching all of them, I would probably say yes. I still look at the first three phases of the MCU overall fondly, and I think that some of the most enjoyable films of the past decade have come from it. They’ve left such a huge impact on pop culture and provided tons of viewers like myself with memories we’ll never forget.
At the same time, while I disagree with the overall stance that they’re “not cinema”, there are many points within such arguments that I genuinely agree with. The flaws have been bearable until now, but they’ve piled up so much, and when combining them with the direction I see the MCU going, I can comfortably say that I’ve had my fill and I’m ready to move on. I got eleven years of solid entertainment that told many great stories, and one larger story that had a proper conclusion … that’s enough for me. That’s not to say I’ll never see anything from the MCU ever again. I still want to see the next Guardians of the Galaxy and Black Panther, for instance, as I have enough faith in them specifically. But as for the rest of what’s to come, I’ll decide to check out each new release based on how the trailers look, what the word of mouth is, and so on, as opposed to blindly trusting and seeing them like I had before.
I don’t know what the future will bring to this franchise, or what further long-term impact they’ll still have on film as a whole, years into the future. All I can say at this point is that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has had a good, impressive, yet frustratingly imperfect run. I’ll always admire the journey, even if I feel I’ve reached my destination. After all, part of the journey is the end.