Captain Marvel points out how much Marvel comedy is getting in the way of the MCU's character growth, but then does it anyway. The latest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is an undeniable hit, in just a matter of weeks racing past many other superhero movies at the box office, but the discussion around its quality has been a little more complicated.
In many ways, Captain Marvel provides a twist on the now-accepted MCU formula: it's an origin story but told almost in reverse with an amnesiac hero; a period tale whose foreshadowing is for movies we've already seen; an Earth/cosmic mashup where the assumed villains are the heroes; and it, of course, features the first female lead hero (and female director behind the camera) in the shared universe.
And yet at the same time, Captain Marvel still betrays many of the filmmaking traits that have come to define Marvel Studios' output. In theory, that's no bad thing: you don't make $18 billion without getting something right. But there's one area where Captain Marvel both tries to innovate yet slavishly adhere to Marvel's tried and tested formula, and it leaves the film mired in confusion. That is, of course, Marvel comedy.
- This Page: Marvel Movies Undercut Themselves With Comedy
- Page 2: How Captain Marvel Tries (& Fails) To Fix The Comedy Issue
How Marvel's Funny Problem Evolved
Right from Iron Man (which made Robert Downey, Jr.'s refined snark a selling point two months before The Dark Knight), Marvel Studios was always on the more humorous side of the superhero genre, although it really became a full-on trope with The Avengers. There, Joss Whedon answered critics of the team-up with a full-on showcase of wit. Its $1.5 billion success made it the roadmap, and every movie made after has leaned heavily into the comedy.
At first, that was no bad thing. What better way to make fun blockbusters than to have them be funny? In contrast to what Christopher Nolan and DC were doing with Batman, having Iron Man and Captain America wittily bicker was a fresh, surprising way to tell a tale of costumed heroes. This was doubly true when it allowed distinct filmmakers such as Shane Black to apply their distinct sense of humor to massive blockbusters.
Over time, though, the freshness and freedom dissipated, yet the jokes didn't. Fun became the benchmark, not the lower limit. Now, Marvel movies are littered with moments where jokes dependably undercut moments of threat and emotion because it's a little more joyous in the moment: Ultron, an A.I. connected to all of human knowledge, forgets what children are during his first menacing monologe; Doctor Strange's arc-completing caping-up sequence builds to a levitating collar joke; and Thor: Ragnarok removes all stakes from the destruction of Asgard by never being more than a minute away from a gag.
The situation is a little more nuanced than just singular moments. Some films, notably the Iron Man trilogy and Doctor Strange, make being a self-proclaimed comedian part of the character's start point and the grappling with humor key to their arc: Stephen Strange and Wong's friendship builds up gags about Adele and Beyoncé to a fitting conclusion, a stark contrast to the Cloak of Levitation beat mentioned above. in But the cases where it's obtuse, the reasoning is all the more disquieting. In Thor: Ragnarok, Odin's death was reportedly reshot because it made test audiences "feel too sorry for him"; an emotional moment was replaced because it got in the way of fun.
The use of Marvel comedy is really part of a bigger issue with the company's approach to movies; the short-term crowd reaction is prized over long-term impact, meaning the focus is on providing a thrilling opening night experience that lasts about as far as the carpark. The result is that a series already lacking in a proper sense of stakes and permanent ramifications - becomes even more flippant. It's one thing to have Hydra established as a major threat in Captain America: The Winter Soldier before being undone in the prologue to Avengers: Age of Ultron a year later if the decision powers both movies, it's another for any moment of character growth to be joined by a yuk. Even grim movies like Captain America: Civil War or Avengers: Infinity War have an above-average joke quotient.
What's been so curious is that, while Marvel has worked hard to fix persistent criticisms of the MCU homogenized style like its poorly characterized villains - the last couple of years have brought Vulture, Killmonger and Thanos - and consistent lack of stakes - something solved in a snap - there's been little resistance to evolve beyond the Downey-Whedon-Gunn humor.
- The Avengers 4 / Avengers: Endgame (2019) release date: Apr 26, 2019
- Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019) release date: Jul 02, 2019