Marvel Studios is closing in on its ninth anniversary, and it’s not slowing down any time soon, with 2016 raising the bar even higher for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In the last year alone, Captain America: Civil War became the fourth Marvel entry to join the billion dollar club, while October’s Doctor Strange boasts an impressive 90% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Critically and commercially, the MCU has come a long way since its 2008 debut.
But the more movies Marvel Studios puts out, the more issues are coming to the forefront. The MCU has a tendency to repeat stories, even in movies set all across the galaxy. It’s a formula that works in setting up a comic book movie universe, but 14 films in, and fans are finally beginning to call out for Marvel to up its game.
Here are 15 Huge Problems No One Wants to Admit About the MCU.
Of all the single-character origin stories released by Marvel Studios, only Iron Man really holds up. Captain America: The First Avenger, Thor, and Ant-Man are quite clearly attempts to set the characters up for sequels and team-ups. Doctor Strange at least stands on its own, but at no point does it challenge the formula introduced in Iron Man.
The bottom line is that every Marvel origin story follows the same pattern. It all starts with the main character: an unlikely hero, who is immediately unlikable but so easily redeemable that there was no point him being unlikable in the first place. While he falls for a woman far too good for him, one of his associates turns into a villain, and you know the rest. The only variable is at which point in the movie Stan Lee shows up.
Believe it or not, there was a time when Robert Downey Jr. wasn’t quipping his way through every single scene. His comedic timing is evident in the first Iron Man, but what makes the movie so special is its ability to know when to take things seriously. Iron Man doesn’t feel like a comedy; it feels like a mix of genres that work together to create a tone that Disney has never quite recreated. Following their acquisition of Marvel, the comedy in these movies has become so repetitive to the point of campiness.
We all love a bit of comic relief, and Joss Whedon was undoubtedly a good fit for the MCU, but The Avengers set in motion a line of superhero comedies. Tony Stark was a joke machine by Iron Man 2, Age of Ultron's gags were often derailing, and Doctor Strange tried to be something it wasn’t. These should be superhero movies first, and everything else second. When a joke doesn’t land, it only serves as a distraction from the plot, and even if the humor does work, it often becomes out of place in a universe that isn’t quite sure if it’s mature enough to tell more serious stories.
For a franchise 14 movies strong to only have one recognizable theme is quite an achievement. Alan Silvestri’s “The Avengers” is perhaps the only memorable piece of music the MCU has ever produced. While the piece works for the superhero team-up, not one single character has their own theme. Iron Man’s signature blend of already existing rock music and the Guardians of the Galaxy’s ‘80s soundtrack are memorable enough, but neither are original scores. By contrast, the DC Extended Universe has clear, original themes for each of its characters after just two movies.
Marvel’s bland musical themes are all the more surprising considering the names attached to the scores. Michael Giacchino (Star Trek, Rogue One), Henry Jackman (X-Men: First Class, Captain Phillips) and Ramin Djawadi (Game of Thrones, Westworld) have all composed Marvel movies. How can the man who composed that Game of Thrones title sequence not have come up with a single hummable theme for Iron Man?
As far as the movies are concerned, the MCU gets by on churning out easily digestible blockbusters. It’s a process that continues to turn over massive profits, so it makes sense that Disney is so unwilling to make a change, but it shouldn’t have to come at the expense of three-dimensional characters.
Tony Stark is perhaps Marvel’s most developed character, with seven MCU appearances and still more to come. We saw a new side of Tony as recently as Civil War, but even that doesn’t compare to his tortured comic book origins, where Tony is famously an alcoholic. The MCU has touched very briefly on the subject, but Disney has never pushed the issue further.
A similar thing happened with Scott Lang. Rumor has it that Edgar Wright wanted his Ant-Man to be a straight-up, hardened criminal, but Disney once more ran with likability over character. As mentioned earlier, even characters who are traditionally unlikable (see: Peter Quill, Stephen Strange) are instantly redeemable after a quip or two. It’s understandable that Disney wants to market its characters, but that doesn’t mean they should lose their sense of character in the first place.
The characters who actually do have an edge are currently confined to Netflix, too busy dealing with smaller-scale issues to show up in the movie universe. Granted, the small screen heroes get far more time to develop, with 13 hours per season, but we can’t hold that against the TV universe. The bottom line is that Matt Murdock, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage are rounded characters. They each bring their own distinct wit to the table, but never does that humor feel forced. Instead, it is spread out enough that the jokes feel earned and natural.
Otherwise, the Netflix trio are true to life, clearly defined and ultimately vulnerable, despite their extraordinary powers. It also helps that the villains match them every step of the way, and somewhere in between is the Punisher – a Marvel character unlike any we’ve seen in the movie universe. As we approach The Defenders and a fully-realized superhero team-up, we’re left wondering why Marvel doesn’t attempt something similar for its big screen universe.
Die hard Marvel fans will tell you that you can never have too much of a good thing, but supporting Marvel across all platforms is beginning to feel like homework. As it is, the movie universe is the movie universe, the Netflix universe is the Netflix universe, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is doing its own thing. Unfortunately, as we build up to Infinity War, which promises to unite all corners of the MCU, the pressure is on for fans and even casual viewers to catch up with every Marvel property for fear of being left behind.
Even before Infinity War debuts next year, four movies are scheduled for release; Iron Fist, The Punisher and The Defenders are coming to Netflix, and a further three shows are being developed for television. The sheer volume of material is sure to put off a few Marvel newbies, and even the long-time fans with dreams of seeing the Marvel universe unite against Thanos have a daunting task ahead of them.
It’s become widely accepted that the MCU directors are bowing to an overarching tone, put in place by Disney and Kevin Feige. It’s the reason that only Joss Whedon, James Gunn and the Russo brothers have come back for seconds (Jon Favreau directed two Iron Man movies, but only one since the Disney takeover).
Meanwhile, Edgar Wright dropped out of Ant-Man, Kenneth Branagh declined to return for the Thor sequel, Whedon was left exhausted by studio restraints, and Favreau settled for a producing role for Iron Man 3. If you told someone most of the MCU movies were directed by the same person, they likely wouldn't argue with you.
The thing is – Marvel can’t be held completely accountable for this one. Hulk, released in 2003, is Ang Lee's vision top to bottom, while Shane Black’s Iron Man 3 is the one MCU entry to take after its director. Both movies divided comic book fans the world over, and while we would certainly like to see Marvel take more risks, you can hardly blame the studio for sticking to its guns on this one.
In a world where we’re supposed to revere the Avengers as forces of good, it’s remarkable how little good they actually do. Not a single one of them goes out of their way to help civilians in their down time (though Spider-Man’s introduction to the MCU should go some way to fixing that), but the problem is far greater than that.
The Avengers have twice saved the world from apocalyptic events, but it wouldn’t have needed saving if not for the Avengers. In the first movie, SHIELD actually summons Loki to New York, while Tony Stark goes right ahead and creates a supervillain in Ultron. The team aren’t avenging anything, but atoning for their own mistakes (although admittedly the Atoners doesn’t sound quite as catchy).
Over in the solo movies, Bruce Banner literally gives his own blood to create his arch nemesis, while Iron Man’s technology falls repeatedly into the wrong hands. Thor has even started a war that spans two realms. Good work, Atoners.
For all of its critical acclaim, the MCU has yet to produce a truly classic comic book movie. Where DC has Christopher Reeve’s Superman franchise, Tim Burton’s Batman, and The Dark Knight Trilogy, Marvel is still some way off cementing its place in the superhero history books.
Iron Man is arguably the closest it’s come. While The Avengers, Guardians, and The Winter Soldier all have a claim to the title of best Marvel picture, Iron Man is still the foundation from which the MCU has developed. Pre-Disney, Iron Man is Jon Favreau’s movie. The director set up the character with all the humor you could ever need in the opening act, which allows the action to flow uninterrupted as the movie reaches its climax. It’s ballsy, completely original, and it even went so far as to improve Iron Man’s credibility as a Marvel character.
2008 was a huge year for superheroes, with Iron Man and The Dark Knight premiering within three months of each other. Box office aside, no other Marvel movie has impacted modern superhero movies like Iron Man, and the same goes for DC and The Dark Knight.
This is less about the characters’ personalities, and more about their superpowers, which are basically as powerful as the script needs them to be. We’ll start with Iron Man’s armor, which has survived hits from the Hulk, Thor’s lightning, and a full-blown tank, but fails to take a blow from your average truck come Iron Man 3. The Incredible Hulk ends with Bruce Banner in complete control of the “other guy”, but he goes on a rampage pretty early on in The Avengers, only to master the transformation once more when the Chitauri invade.
Captain America has trouble with World War II soldiers and Crossbones, but is suddenly a super soldier again when he faces the Chitauri, Thor, Winter Soldier, and Iron Man. Along the same lines, Black Panther has a vibranium suit; why does that mean he can run anywhere near as fast as Cap and Bucky? Semantics, maybe, but good old-fashioned inconsistencies? Absolutely.
Every Marvel hero has put their life on the line at some point, but in the MCU, it becomes a question of how they’re going to get out of this one, rather than if they'll actually die. Peter Quill had not one, but two self-sacrificial scenes in Guardians of the Galaxy, while Tony Stark was supposedly dying through Iron Man 2, and both were ultimately a waste of time. Civil War, the monumental coming together of the most powerful beings on the planet, and the first real turning point for the Avengers, failed to deliver on the promise of losing a main character.
Even when it does supposedly off its characters, the MCU is still unwilling to follow through on the risks it's taken. Phil Coulson, Nick Fury, and Loki have all had resurrection scenes, and all three deaths are pivotal moments in their respective movies. The emotional impact of their deaths is rendered moot by their rebirths, which ultimately hurt the movies overall. Quicksilver is the only major character to have stayed dead through all this, and the MCU has to follow through with a bigger name if we’re going to start taking things seriously.
We know that Marvel won’t kill its lead characters, but the reason the MCU has no stakes actually goes beyond that. In this age of publicized movie contracts and films being split into phases, we know that there is an end game to these shared universes. In Marvel’s case, everything has been building up to Infinity War since phase one, which sort of makes all existing MCU material filler.
For example, the likes of Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, Star-Lord, Gamora and Nebula have only recently been confirmed to appear in Infinity War. Each one of these characters will make a movie appearance in 2017, so at least where they are concerned, you’re essentially going to the theater to watch the build-up to Infinity War.
In the world of comic book movies, you expect good to triumph over evil, but you watch for the twists and turns along the way. The trouble is that it’s hard to care about the twists and turns when everything is announced so far in advance, and you already know which characters are going to make it to the end game.
By the time Captain Marvel drops in 2019, the MCU will have been around for over a decade without making a single female-led superhero movie. In the near future, Carol Danvers will follow Jessica Jones and Peggy Carter in leading her own Marvel franchise, while it should be noted that the Wasp has a title role in 2018’s Ant-Man sequel.
Up until now, though, Black Widow has been representing Marvel’s female superheroes almost single-handedly in the movies, with Scarlet Witch only recently joining the team and Ant-Man jumping through hoops to come up with a reason Hope van Dyne wasn’t given Scott Lang’s super suit. Netflix has a better track record with its female characters, but Jessica Jones is the only one with her own series. So why has it taken so long for Marvel to do something about it?
Simply put, female superheroes are a threat to Disney’s tried and tested money-making formula. We haven’t really seen a female-led superhero movie take off at the box office, but with the likes of Wonder Woman, Supergirl, and Jessica Jones doing so well on TV, there’s no reason that a female superhero couldn’t lead a successful big screen franchise.
What this entire list has been building up to is this – Marvel simply won’t take any risks. Even before you take into account that it doesn’t kill its main characters, you have the repetitive storylines, the fact that almost every lead character has the same personality, the lack of female solo movies. Marvel is bending over backwards to make sure everything remains just the same.
Even Guardians of the Galaxy, which is the one risky film the MCU has taken on, has the same basic premise as the other origin stories, while the likes of Ant-Man and Doctor Strange could have gone in different directions altogether.
Civil War was supposed to be a game-changer for the MCU, and while it is true that Steve Rogers’ place as an Avenger is up in the air, the movie ends with just about everything else back to how it was before the movie started. Tony Stark gives up the suit in Iron Man 3, SHIELD is brought down in The Winter Solder, Thor destroys Bifrost Bridge; everything returns to normal in the following film. Essentially, if Marvel is going to make its bed, it should learn how to lie in it.
If anything is certain in life, it’s that with every Marvel movie comes an underdeveloped villain. Of all the MCU bad guys, Loki is the only one to have developed beyond the “plain evil” or the “drunk with power” villains that Marvel so famously recycles. Otherwise, the MCU has fumbled its biggest villains. Red Skull has barely any screen time in The First Avenger, while the likes of Whiplash, Malekith, and Ronan the Accuser are given next to nothing to work with.
Ant-Man at least tries to make Yellowjacket relatable, but to no avail, and Guardians goes some way to redeeming itself with Nebula. The only other interesting villain is Bucky Barnes, but he offers very few actual character moments during his time as the Winter Soldier.
The MCU simply cannot afford to make the same mistakes with Thanos. The Mad Titan has been built up for so long that his presence could make or break the upcoming Infinity War, and Marvel has only four movies left to find a working formula before Josh Brolin takes the stage.
What did we miss? Does the MCU have any more problems we should know about? Sound off in the comments!