If I were to tell you that the majority of movies are formulaic, I doubt you’d run right down to the comments to tell me that I was wrong (at least not any faster than usual). That’s why when a film or franchise tries something new, it’s more likely to fail than succeed. So why is Marvel taking such a huge risk with its profitable franchise, and why are they the right people to get the ball rolling on what could be a huge game changer?
So often, movie studios struggle to keep the attention of an audience, which results in an over-simplified universe containing characters with the most easy to identify tropes: the hero, the villain, the love interest (sassy or otherwise), the side-kick, etc. The less the audience has to process, the better, but that usually makes for worse films.
But Marvel refuses to pull punches for its audience – if you want to enjoy the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) then you better pay attention. Marvel painstakingly creates a universe of the Nine Realms, of a world battling HYDRA, where the technology is advanced enough for super powered suits, filled with alien threats and secret organizations and none of the characters are cookie-cutter. All of this is set-up over four full-length feature films. What do they do immediately after? Wreck all that background for the sake of a better story.
If Marvel were any other studio, neither Thor: The Dark World nor Captain America: The Winder Solider would have been made. Thor 2 left off with Loki as King of Asgard, and opened the world even further with the introduction of The Collector, who is set to be a big part of Avengers: Age of Ultron or maybe Avengers 3, and Guardians of the Galaxy. The second Captain America movie took the central good guy group, S.H.I.E.L.D, and revealed that for decades they’ve been controlled at their core by the evil group from the first movie, and then destroyed it, not sure who in the organization was corrupted or not, without any plan to reassemble. That’s ripping away huge parts of the foundation that they spent four films building (five if you want to count the first Iron Man, which I don’t).
Now, yes, you have to add new things to keep a franchise young and fresh but changing everything from one film to another is like franchise suicide. If someone skipped one movie, suddenly things have completely changed and that could mean people won’t spend money on the next ten. However, there is something that Marvel is banking on and that’s the quality of the movies it makes. First, it’s making movies that are good enough that they could be stand alone movies and still be enjoyed without the context of the previous movies. Second, that the movies are so good, people will become invested, they’ll keep coming back to the product time and time again. Thus far, it seems to be working as their films continue to be wildly successful. Money talks in the movie business, more so than quality nowadays, so it’s nice to see a studio prove that risks executed with hardwork and even a little faith in the audience pays off.
Marvel is also doing something more subtle with its films which I think is worth mentioning. The MCU doesn’t have one tone, it has several. Think about it – The Avengers was most like the Iron Man movies: a witty adventure with multiple ups and downs resulting in a satisfying conclusion. But what about the other two? Thor is very campy and Shakespearean in tone, grand in its fantasy scope. Captain America is actually going through historical movie genres, with the first being very akin to the 1940s war epics and the second being like the 1970s conspiracy thrillers, filled with anxiety, spying, and paranoia. Very few film franchises would ever let so many of its properties have vastly different tones, usually trying to keep to one, set identity under one name. But Marvel still banks on quality so they want to be more like their comic predecessors, different in genre and style so they are unique and attract different crowds while being cohesive enough to work together when needed.
The big question remains: what is Guardians of the Galaxy going to be like? It already looks more like a hardcore, witty sci-fi epic a la John Carter of Mars than any of the other films. In fact, that odd tonal shift is what caught a lot of people off guard – it doesn’t look like much of the other MCU movies, or even very many of the very well known Marvel franchises. Hell, it wasn’t even all that popular a comic series either.
It’s grittier, using guns and swords, with no people with any discernible super powers, and certainly more bizarre in its amalgamation of characters of vastly different origin. It’ll also be the first team movie where the team is already established prior to the film so the dynamics will already be built in than developed on screen, and the stakes are likely to be bigger if I’m right about what this is all leading to. At the time, it has a unique look, dark with bright contrasting colors to highlight the action and motion, with a more blunt and deadpan humor.
Is any of this a bad thing? Not if they pull it off well. Sure, this story might alienate a few fans in it for the traditional superheroes but it’ll be a big draw to people who love more sci-fi action, and it’s likely going to rip open a huge universe to explore. If there’s anything more exciting than good movies, it’s mass potential for even better ones.
If you were to tell me back five years ago that a studio was going to be successful creating a franchise of films using the comic book format and do so with the Marvel label, I would have told you that you were crazy. Thankfully, someone over at Marvel had a little more clout than that to see how a new way of making a movie franchise. Without audiences even seeing it, they are changing the way people think about films, so other studios are going have to play catch up starting now if they want to stay relevant.
As for Marvel Studios, all I have to say is this: you’ve got our attention. Now, show us what you can really do.