It has become very popular to crap on Marvel movies, and it isn’t hard to see why.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has completely overtaken the entire media landscape, subsuming all media within itself and gravitating popular entertainment towards it. Even moderate failures like The Eternals or Black Widow still become multi-million dollar worldwide success stories while the big MCU films like Avengers: Endgame of Spiderman: No Way Home sit at the top of the list of the highest-grossing films of all time.
This mega-success has created a culture of anti-“cape-sh*t” critics that absolutely refuse to go anywhere near superhero films, as they’re either exhausted by the genre or find the absolute adoration of millions of filmgoers to be cringeworthy.
I don’t totally disagree with this point. For one, the Disney corporation has really assumed a complete role as the most dominant monopoly in modern filmmaking, overseeing the dominance of culture by the woke empire as every franchise from the Disney Princesses to Star Wars is subsumed into the wood chipper of leftist politics, created bizarrely politically charged films like Turning Red or Frozen 2 (a notable exception being its utter lack of desire to challenge the Chinese Government, removing references to homosexuality and black characters, thanking the providence of Xinjiang, despite the fact that they’re actively committing genocide against the Muslim Uighur population there).
The MCU has been threatening to more readily embrace leftist politics for years, with Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Captain Marvel, Ms. Marvel, The Marvels, Iron Heart, and Black Panther embracing varying levels of “wokeness”. Director Taika Waititi has already promised that his upcoming Thor: Love and Thunder will feature a gender-flipped Thor, a lesbian relationship, a female King Valkerie, and a supposed teased bisexual Star-Lord (at least if the recent comics and the homoerotic undertone of the teaser are any indications).
Secondly, the fatigue aspect seems to be turning off widespread audiences at this point. I had dinner with my Deacon’s family over Easter and his son-in-law made a reference to a quote from one of the Marvel movies, but couldn’t actually remember which movie he quoted. He said, “all the movies just kind of blend together.” Which isn’t inaccurate. There have been 27 MCU films since 2008, more films than the entire James Bond franchise has produced since 1962, and that doesn’t cover the Netflix TV shows, Disney+ shows, or the less popular stuff like Agents of SHIELD, Agent Carter, The Inhumans, or Cloak and Dagger. There is simply no way for casual fans to remember the stories or quotes from these movies in detail.
I have many online friends and fellow film critics online who have totally given up on the MCU for a multitude of the reasons stated above – from general fatigue to moral outrage – and I don’t blame them for doing that. My co-writer Anastasia Cosmo all but totally abandoned movie theaters in 2019 following the release of Avengers: Endgame, partially as a fatwa against leftist Hollywood but all just out of disinterest in modern Hollywood, preferring to retvrn to tradition and focus on the classics. My film critic colleague Sarah Hargett is similarly exhausted by the genre, and my author friend Ian Kirkpatrick has spoken of her complete disinterest in “cape-sh*t.”
I find myself personally torn on superhero movies.
I don’t deny at all that the “Marvelification” of Hollywood has created a lot of negatives. I hate how audiences now are completely disinterested in new or original movies and yet they will completely turn out in droves for Venom: Let There Be Carnage or Ghostbusters: Afterlife. There are genuinely artful, original, and enjoyable movies in theaters RIGHT NOW like Everything Everywhere All The Time, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, Father Stu, RRR, and The Northman that are all liable to bomb because of their relative proximity to nostalgia-fest films like The Batman, Sonic the Hedgehog 2, and Doctor Strange 2.
Even an original and highly acclaimed Michael Bay film like Ambulance is struggling to make its money back at the moment, a low-budget $40 million action film that has only earned $41.6 million at the box office.
I believe that film is an art and that the entire film industry is currently realigning itself to a place where the only things that get released are enormous blockbusters for the masses and tiny art films on streaming for the cinephiles. As Andrew Klavan once said, an artistic medium is dead when the mind and body of its form are separated. If the body of filmmakers want nostalgia and the intellectual filmmakers can’t make their money back, we’ll rapidly reach a point where the ONLY thing Hollywood is capable of making is nostalgia-bait.
At the same time as I find myself frustrated with the repetitive nature of Marvel films, the disinterest of audiences, and the slow death of my favorite artistic medium, I can’t bring myself to dislike Marvel movies. They remain as charming and engaging as ever, reliable popcorn entertainment that requires little but rewards long-term engagement. I can’t bring myself to the frothing comic book fan excitement I might’ve once felt at the idea of seeing Star Fox and Pip the Troll showing up in the end credits of Eternals as I once might’ve been.
I’ve also somewhat grown out of them. As the director Robert Eggers recently remarked in an interview with The New Yorker, getting into classical literature and art was “when I almost literally, but certainly metaphorically, put away my comic books and became a snob and a dilettante. The seas creatures and the satyrs and the wild men and the demons did kind of put Marvel to shame, in my eyes.”
And that has very much been my experience. I’m currently working on a study of The Song of Roland for my classical literature column at Geeks Under Grace, and I spent much of 2021 deeply digging into the works of Homer, Virgil, Mallory, and Beowulf. All of the thrilling genre joys I used to get out of Marvel movies were far better fulfilled by these epic, masculine, and emotionally complex works of poetry.
We shouldn’t forget though what purpose the Marvel movies once served in Hollywood, as a correction. I’ve said before that the Marvel Cinematic Universe dovetailed off of the backs of several major Hollywood trends that set up producer Kevin Fiege in the position of being able to stand apart as a smarter, leaner alternative to the major trends of Hollywood. Lest we forget, the initial phase of MCU films came during the decline of late 2000s Hollywood, when movies like Pirates of the Caribbean 3, Terminator Salvation, and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen were fresh on people’s minds.
This was an era of dumb stories, stupid special effects, mind-numbing shaky-cam, and a complete disinterest in proper storytelling. The Marvel movies came as a nice antidote to that. Joss Whedon’s work on The Avengers focused on characters, drama, and comedy, shifting the focus away from special effects and making this particular franchise novel and funny in an age when darkness, violence, and gruesome post-9/11 anxiety were the norm (as we would see in Man of Steel just a year later). The MCU succeeded for the same reason Sam Raimi’s Spiderman Trilogy succeeded; it married spectacle to drama, mixing the high special effects of the late 2000s with the emotional heights of a soap opera. And this combination struck gold, making even dull middling Marvel films like Thor: The Dark World and Ant-Man into blockbuster success stories.
The Marvel movies meant someone once and even now as someone who regards them with a relative shrug compared to how I felt about them in high school, I don’t want to close the door on the warm feelings those films created in me, even if that is a bit cringeworthy to say. Intellectually, I know these films are going to be dumb, shallow, and likely designed to pipe LGBTQ+ propaganda into children’s movies, but I still like the filmmakers enough that I know I will probably have fun watching them.
Marvel movies, in a proper hierarchical understanding, should be regarded as counter-programming, escapist comedies to help people unplug and disengage from stress. I can’t bring myself to be wildly invested in the continuity of comic books anymore, but being what they are, I don’t have the desire to put them down, to dismiss them as “cape-sh*t.” I’ve had too much fun with movies like Iron Man and Guardians of the Galaxy to completely dismiss them, but I also won’t pretend they mean more than what they are.