Let’s face it, for all of the mind boggling special effects and star studded glory, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a pretty light-hearted affair, and it’s a bit worse for it. There’s no true grime or grit, and whatever hints to mature themes that existed in the first films (as seen in The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man) have since been put out to pasture.
By now, I know a lot of you are probably shouting at me through your computer screens for being such a petty asshole, but just hear me out.
I don’t think it was a sudden executive decision, but rather an obvious and deliberate slide towards campiness, which began with Kenneth Branagh’s Thor, and was then escalated by the release of Captain America: The First Avenger, all culminating with Joss Whedon’s nerdgasmic blockbuster The Avengers.
Don’t get me wrong fanboys, these three are fantastic movies. Even though they represent the “cheesy” side of the MCU, they’ve successfully adapted otherwise irrelevant, nonsensical heroes for the big screen. Completely f***ing awesome, right?
STILL… as a long time comic fan, I couldn’t help but feel that these movies relied on humor and camp as a way to excuse the bizarre nature of the characters, allowing the more substantial material (including the ‘grit & grime’) to be overlooked. In my book, that’s cheating.
Sure, adapting Thor to the big screen is a difficult venture. He’s always been a rough sell for non-readers. A Norse god who conveniently reappears on Earth after a 1000 year absence? You’d have better luck making a movie about a chiroptophobic billionaire who moonlights as a masked detective (my obligatory Batman reference).
But even with all of ol Goldilocks’s bizarre comic book baggage, Marvel shouldn’t have relied on light hearted humor to seduce viewers. I would have been just as happy had the film been a little less quirky (meaning a little less Kat Dennings) and a bit more hopeless. After all, if there’s any resounding attribute of Norse mythology, it’s despair in the face of certain doom.
You know, with Ragnarok and everything.
And moving onto Captain America… this is one movie that really deserves a smattering of blood and mud. The First Avenger detailed the origins of Steve Rogers: his rough upbringing in Brooklyn as a scrawny neighborhood whipping boy and his eventual rise as the world’s first superhero. Here is a character who is a personification of the American Dream, and when thrown into the worst event in modern history, he perseveres as only a Red, White, & Blue do-gooder can.
BUT… the war was never actually “terrible” onscreen. In fact, it was really fun: a dash of Indiana Jones chase scenes, a bit of cinematography borrowed from The Rocketeer, and a light splattering of naive nobility (inspired, no doubt, by Christopher Reeves’s Superman) all rolled up into one convenient Marvel package.
Remember, though, Captain America is a soldier. A veteran of the worst war in recent history. He’s a glimmering symbol to all despair filled men that there is hope, that the Axis can be defeated. But conveying that aspect of the character isn’t enough; Cap is also burdened with loss. He jumps into battle after battle, running through a haze of bullets, protected by his superhuman reflexes and his unbreakable shield, knowing that too many of the fighting men alongside him won’t survive. Imagine all of that guilt, all of that loss, bundled inside of a man who’s meant to be the glowing embodiment of hope and liberty for an entire nation. By removing the terror of WW II from the spectacle of The First Avenger, all we’re left with is a jolly, blue laser gun filled romp back in time. Fun, but not meaningful.
Fast forward to THE AVENGERS! This movie was a cinematic triumph. Four separate franchises successfully combined into one wild ride, BUT… there wasn’t even so much as a pinch of grit or grime to be found.
Now, before I’m skewered by the fanboy masses, allow me to sing sincere praise forJoss Whedon. He’s a terrific writer and a phenomenal producer, but his directing left much to be desired. The whole universe was a bit… plasticy. The environments were over-polished with no wear or tear, and where CGI was absent (like Black Widow’s Russian escape scene), it didn’t feel like a cinematic endeavor.
Let’s take a look at S.H.I.E.L.D.
Marvel had, up to this point, handled its super secret spy organization as if it were a legitimate military entity. It was never quite as impressive as Thunderbolt Ross’s special Gamma hunting task force from The Incredible Hulk, but SHIELD was bad ass enough to warrant some “Oooohs” and “Ahhhhs”. Of course, its badassery deteriorated a smidgen between Iron Man and The First Avenger, but it remained an entity to fear.
In The Avengers, S.H.I.E.L.D. suddenly became goofy. Its workers aren’t a ton of badass secret agents in CIA-esque garb. Instead, they wear blue jumpsuits and play Galaga. When a handful of mercenaries board the Hellicarrier, the thousands of special agents, who are supposed to be the most skilled killers on the planet, allow the attackers to push all the way to their VIP numero uno, Nick Fury.
There are a few more sequences that I could bitch about (any involving Thor’s sleeveless armor), but I’ll hold myself to this one. Fundamentally, Whedon’s aesthetics took away from the authenticity of the shared universe, and his plot devices betrayed a good deal of the characters’ histories from previous movies, all of which was motivated by a strive to deliver a far more light hearted experience.
Again, these flicks are f***ing terrific. It still boggles my mind that Marvel has been able to intertwine such a unique and diverse cast of characters into one cinematic universe, and they deserve unending praise for that achievement, BUT… they fall short of their full potential. Kevin Feige and staff rather appeal to the widest markets than create films with satisfying substance and mature themes. Being a fan of the latter two, I can’t help but be a bit disappointed.