Avengers Endgame is nearly upon us, and as a huge fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe I thought I was entirely on top of all the plot strands, then I watched Captain Marvel and spent half the time trying to work out how all the plots tied together, particularly where the tesseract came and went. So I set myself the happy challenge of re-watching all 21 films in order. I then ended up with so many things to say that I’m spreading them across multiple posts, including my own ranking of the films. But this post is the gushing about why I love the MCU.
I heard someone on the radio comment the other day that they didn’t think any of the Marvel films had character development and I very loudly called them quite a rude name. I don’t think that statement could be further from the truth. These films are all about real people, with real feelings. They are complex individuals with strengths and weaknesses beyond any superpowers – ‘heroes’ who screw up, ‘villains’ with moral complexity and ‘sidekicks’ who steal the show. All those characters are then thrown together to bounce off of each other in even more complicated and evolving relationships.
Those characters are brought to love by an incredible collection of actors. According to this helpful list on imdb there are nearly 100 Oscar nominated actors in the MCU cast as a whole, and 18 winners. That speaks to the quality of the film making that can attract this caliber of actor (or maybe the size of the pay offers…) and that feeds round to the quality of the films and the attractiveness of the roles again. There are very few people in the MCU that haven’t headlined films of their own, even those that are playing secondary characters here. And that means that those secondary characters have as much depth as the stars. Robert Downey Jr is absolutely incredible as Iron Man, but put him with Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Samuel Jackson, Jeff Bridges, Sam Rockwell, Scarlett Johansson… and everyone builds to another level.
Just like their characters, the films are a blend of different styles, genres and tones. Each strand of the MCU, and even each film has a different theme, even almost a different genre to it. The Captain America films are about being a soldier – First Avenger is a classic war movie, while Winter Soldier is a more nuanced cold war thriller. Antman is a heist movie, Thor is swords and sorcery, Guardians is an 80’s sci fi romp, Captain Marvel a 90’s action film etc etc. That brings variety to the MCU as a whole, and leads to some really bizarre mashups when the characters collide.
All of that is down to an incredibly talented group of people. Of course you start off with great material from the Marvel universe, mostly led by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. The Marvel characters and stories have always appealed to me more than the DC ones, they always seemed brighter, more optimistic and richer. The driving force behind the cinematic universe is Kevin Feige, president of Marvel Studios since 2007 and a producer on all the MCU films (and a few other Marvel films too including the original X-Men and Spider-Man trilogies). I can only guess at the mental juggling that’s required to plan and keep hold of all the MCU threads (let alone the tv series and other media streams) while also allowing the talents involved to have enough creative freedom.
Sometimes that engineering becomes a little too obvious. Aspects of plot and characters become too forced and can lose sight of the characters and the fun. Films can get bogged down in their own mythology and the ‘gubbins’ of moving the plot along with too much exposition, or too much hoop jumping. As cinematic spectacles they all hold the attention, but I found it very noticeable that watching at home my attention would often drift towards my phone screen during villainous monologues or drawn out fight sequences. Not all the writers and directors are able to blend the elements throughout and things can get a little formulaic.
The other problem I will confess to is over-fandom. There are very few characters in the MCU that I don’t like, even some of the villains are hard not to enjoy spending time of. But my affection means I don’t like it when my heroes do things I don’t agree with, and being realistic human beings, they often do things I’d rather they didn’t. I then start to lose my ability to rationally assess whether the writers are being lazy and miss-using my characters just to move the plot along, or if the characters would actually behave that way because they can be just as stupid, mistaken or unreasonable as the rest of us can. You’ll see in my ordering of the films that there are a few things that I just can’t get over.
The achievements of the series are impressive, the films have smashed financial records all over the place, they are a critical success and increasingly are breaking down idiotic cultural glass ceilings too. For me though, mostly it can be looked at a lot more simply, I love spending time in this universe. They make me laugh, they make me care, and they make me completely forget about the real world. How much more could you want?