Marvel Studios has been on a tear both critically and commercially since bursting onto the scene with 2008’s Iron Man. They regularly raise the bar in terms of what any single movie can offer an audience and have made a habit of breaking and setting records. They are the current measuring stick for success in the film industry and no other studio can match them for sheer consistency when examining both their creative output and their financial success. Many other studios have tried to mimic Marvel’s model but have done so without the forethought and patience enacted by Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige and his crew, and have therefore been unable to find the same level of regular success or even anything approaching it.
Yet, there still exist pockets of moviegoers who think themselves above Marvel’s brand of entertainment. You know them. They make such broad statements such as, “I have no interest. I don’t care about superheroes.” Or perhaps they’ll utter something even more pretentious, along the lines of, “Oh, people running around in costumes? No thanks.” Everyone is entitled to their opinion and certainly tastes will vary. But most – and maybe even nearly all – of these folk are guilty of making assumptions without even seeing the films. And, often , if they have seen them, they’ve done so without putting any thought into what they watched, only taking in what’s on the surface while the meat of the films sails smoothly over their heads.
I’m not saying that all of the Marvel Studios films are flawless masterpieces. I love a lot – even most – of them, but I’m not a huge fan of every one of them. My personal least favorite of the Marvel Studios films is Iron Man 2, as, in the film, director Jon Favreau simply delivered a cosmetic and structural rehash of his original Iron Man. So, I’m not here to say that all of Marvel’s films are perfect or for everyone. But I am saying that they generally have something to offer beyond the obvious – something underneath the surface that elevates them above the standard fare. And I am saying that each one deserves a chance from people of all kinds. This weekend, Black Panther obliterated box office records, taking in more domestically in four days than Justice League did in its entire run. There’s a reason for that, and it’s not the action scenes.
Black Panther is the eighteenth film from Marvel Studios. Every single one of those eighteen films has a Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and garnered positive reviews overall. Those reviews were from supposed “joyless” critics who “don’t like anything” that casual audiences like. That’s an ignorant take on what critics do and who they are. In truth, they have to see basically every film, so their expectations are higher. They need more than the bare minimum. And Marvel Studios has given them more almost every time out. Let’s look at each of the films from Marvel Studios. I will list each below along with its underlying theme that most people overlook. These themes are what sets Marvel apart from everyone else. The themes aren’t directly responsible for the films’ financial success, but they are largely to thank for the critical responses.
- Iron Man – redemption
- The Incredible Hulk – accepting one’s own flaws
- Iron Man 2 – addiction
- Thor – humility
- Captain America: The First Avenger – defining one’s own destiny
- The Avengers – unity
- Iron Man 3 – hero worship versus humanity
- Thor: The Dark World – ummm . . . okay, maybe not in this one. 17/18 is still pretty good!
- Captain America: The Winter Soldier – trust and faith
- Guardians of the Galaxy – acceptance and need of others
- Avengers: Age of Ultron – unchecked power
- Ant-Man – taking the right way and not the easy way
- Captain America: Civil War – compromise
- Doctor Strange – ego
- Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 – family
- Spider-Man: Homecoming – responsibility (what else, right?)
- Thor: Ragnarok – sacrifice
- Black Panther – honor and inclusiveness
“Okay, so that’s all well and good. But if these films are really that progressive and well-intentioned, why has it taken so long for them to feature minorities and women in title roles?” Thanks for asking! That’s actually really easy to answer. Marvel has always had great faith in its characters and, in their comics, has never felt the need to shy away from featuring anyone in a lead role due to their physical characteristics. But comic audiences and movie audiences are two very different beasts.
By their nature, moviegoers are a distrustful lot. They automatically assume most movies aren’t going to be good. Or they assume that they’ll be filled with stereotypes, tropes, and cliches. And they’ve been conditioned to believe that, over many decades of seeing blockbuster releases commit one mistake after another. Yet, the audiences still gravitate to these films if they appear to be entertaining enough and feature material that filmmakers are generally capable of handling well.
Marvel is smart enough to know their audience. They know that if they had begun with Black Panther, audiences wouldn’t have had any reason to trust that their film would have been any different from others that had come before it. Many times it has been said that audiences won’t turn out en masse for a film that features a female and/or minority in the lead. Unfortunately, in the past, that has often been true. That’s not because of any inherent flaws in the idea of featuring those kinds of characters, but rather due to a combination of past media representation and people’s tendencies to stick to what’s familiar.
So, Marvel started by giving audiences something that looked familiar in Iron Man. From there, the studio regularly featured strong supporting characters who were non-white males, allowing their audience to see that there’s no reason these characters couldn’t take the lead themselves. Along the way, the studio focused on putting out one quality film after another, appealing to all four quadrants (young, old, male, female). What inevitably happened is that they established a trust with the viewer. Even if any given Marvel Studios film didn’t blow someone away, they could be confident going in to watch a film from the studio that it would at least be good, and often be great (or better).
Now that that trust has been established, Marvel can put out films like Black Panther, Ant-Man and the Wasp, and Captain Marvel and people will watch. Plus, everyone benefits. Audiences feel comfortable supporting the films because they trust Marvel, Marvel doesn’t waste their time and effort on a high-quality flop, and together everyone can enjoy the ideas and progress that the stories represent.
So, lumping all Marvel Studios films together with an all-or-nothing mentality actually betrays a close-mindedness that Marvel’s films openly resist. These movies provide a mixture of depth and entertainment that imbues them with a certain prestige. Are they as deep as films like Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri or The Shawshank Redemption? Well, no, not typically. Movies such as those dedicate almost all of their running time to their subtext and messages. And that’s great. It makes them different from Marvel movies and other blockbusters. And, for some, it will make them more enjoyable. But that doesn’t make them more artistically viable.
Marvel Studios has gone out of its way to provide movie audiences with something new and different, both as the widespread Marvel Cinematic Universe and within each individual film. In addition to spectacular visual effects, clever and engaging dialogue, suspenseful narratives, and bombastic action scenes, the films offer heart and life lessons that are actually more likely to make a difference by being featured in these films than in others because of the increased exposure.
Black Panther offers up the most crucial message, yet, and to be dismissive of said message due to the film’s source material or cosmetic presentation is insulting to the filmmakers and also costing yourself what might be a memorable and possibly even formative experience. If you’re one of the few who haven’t hopped aboard the Marvel Cinematic Universe bandwagon, it’s not too late. The rest of us will be glad to have you. Don’t worry; it wouldn’t mean you can’t enjoy what you normally do. And you would be just the latest on a list of millions that have experienced growth due to Marvel.
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