Once Avengers: Infinity War hits theaters, the so-called Marvel Cinematic Universe will encompass 19 feature films (with five more already in production or pre-production), two network television series, six Netflix Original series, and multiple adjacent cable projects in development. That’s a staggering amount of single-continuity storytelling for a single decade’s worth of production – and it still doesn’t account for what could be forthcoming if and when the re-integration of the formerly Fox-owned X-Men, Fantastic Four and Silver Surfer properties takes actual shape or if (as many suspect) Sony’s Venom and Silver & Black spin-offs turn out to be more “official” than anyone will admit at this point.
With any storytelling venture of this scale, there will inevitably be claims that the volume of available stories to be told is perilously finite, and indeed the Marvel movies face such criticisms regularly: Stories that are “formulaic,” heroes who overly resemble one another, villains whose motives are said to be “interchangeable” and accusations of individual films/franchises becoming difficult to distinguish. Is Thor: Ragnarok too much like a Guardians of The Galaxy movie? Is Doctor Strange simply “Magic Iron Man?” If anyone had bothered to watch The Inhumans, would similarities have been noted in Black Panther?
With such questions in mind (and answers, hopefully, in the unfurling text), here are six intriguingly specific things that almost all of the MCU superheroes – be they power-armored playboys, blind attorneys, spider-powered teenagers, unfrozen propaganda-performers or Afrofuturist royalty – all seem to have in common (and no, “keeps bumping into Stan Lee” isn’t one of them)…
This Page: An Innate Strength That is Also Their Ultimate Weakness
Page 3: Paternal Rejection Anxiety
Page 5: Squad Goals
Page 6: Permanent Childhood
1. AN INNATE STRENGTH THAT IS ALSO THEIR ULTIMATE WEAKNESS
Marvel heroes get their powers from a variety of sources: Science, magic, hard work, random chance, destiny, government assignment, inheritance – you name it, someone got their powers and/or abilities from it. Some ask for it, some don’t, some regret it, and some never knew their purpose until they found it. But those powers are almost always secondary to some innate, immutable quality that they possess even when stripped of their special abilities or otherwise impeded from the “super” part of being a “superhero.” Steve Rogers has his unshakeable moral rectitude, Tony Stark has his intelligence, Doctor Strange has his tenacity, T’Challa has his commitment to his land and people, Peter Parker never gives up, Thor is all courage.
However, just as those qualities serve as the foundation of their broader abilities as superhuman do-gooders, in almost all cases they are also inextricably bound to each individual hero’s core character flaw. Captain America will always do what he believes is right, which ends up meaning that he’s at once stubborn and self-sacrificing to the point of outright masochism. Iron Man’s mind operates on a level far above most other people, which means he’s often making decisions without concern for those “beneath” him. Black Panther always has his guard up – not always a good idea. Spider-Man can’t stop even when he really (really!) should. Thor is also all hubris. See also: Star-Lord, Rocket Raccoon, Ant-Man and even Netflix’s Jessica Jones survive in part via a glib detachment that alienates those around them. And, of course, there’s The Incredible Hulk, whose actual power is turning into a destructive rage-monster he can barely control.
To be sure, this is a pretty common literary device for characterization: We all contain good and bad, so whatever makes you “you” logically accounts for both your best and worst qualities. But not every story about a hero centers this specific dichotomy as consistently as the Marvel Cinematic Universe does (i.e. James Bond’s imperious misogyny being the source of both his swagger and his spartan loneliness doesn’t always factor into the main plot/theme of a given 007 feature) for almost all of its films: All three Captain America movies are fundamentally about an impossibly decent man suffering by being unable to bend to an indecent world. All three Iron Man movies are about Tony Stark’s genius-vision having to thwart something unleashed by Tony Stark’s genius-arrogance.
Why does Marvel Studios love this trope so much? Largely, because it keeps working. For all the talk of Marvel as a production-machine that thrives on formula and repeating motifs, the fact is certain storylines and character arcs become “formula” in the first place because they work more often than they don’t. These are big, larger than life, often very strange personalities to try and tell relatable stories with, so ideas that an audience can be counted on to connect with in the broad strokes regardless of context are the ever-present priority: No one really knows what it’s like to be the King of Wakanda, but almost everyone can relate to the frustration of something vital to one aspect of their life being a detriment to another.
There is, of course, another reason; one related to the bigger meta-narrative that unifies almost the entire MCU to this point on a thematic level and is in fact “the other reason” for all the other entries in this list. But we’ll get to that in #6. For now…
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