Tonight I will be see Black Panther and I have two thoughts about it. One, I know it will be good (It was). Ryan Coogler is a competent and talented director who quickly built his pedigree since Fruitvale Station in 2013. Chadwick Boseman is not only a great actor, but he has presence on screen. He is just a fucking star and the fact that he’s already portrayed Thurgood Marshall, James Brown, Jackie Robinson and now Black Panther in his short 6 year movie career, is just more evidence for that claim.
Add Rachel Morrison’s cinematography (which already garnered her an Oscar nod for Mudbound), casting by Sarah Finn (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri), and music by Ludwig Göransson (Get Out) (I looked this up I don’t know who it is but he is good) you have a strong crew, not to mention the massive cast of actors, actresses, production designers, VFX artists and others helping to make this world a reality. (Don’t forget the already best-selling soundtrack by Kendrick Lamar.)
Which leads me to my second thought. The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is ruining film and television as we know it.
When Robert Downey Jr. appeared as Iron Man for the first time in 2008, it was very well received both critically and financially. I loved it as well and was glad to see him emerge from the post-drug addled haze of his youth as a new man and actor (He actually had a string of good roles since becoming sober). Iron Man, it turned out, was just the opening salvo for what Marvel and Kevin Feige (president of Marvel Studios) were calling “Phase One”. This would also include The Incredible Hulk (with a pre-Ruffalo Edward Norton), Captain America: The First Avenger, and Thor all of which culminated in The Avengers (2012).
Amongst other things, the “Phase” system was a retcon of everything that had happened before. Any other films referencing these characters were now non-canon much like what occurred when Disney purchased that other hallowed franchise Star Wars (This was 40 years’ worth of comics and novels whose history disappeared quicker than Lucas could sign his name for the check). Sam Raimi’s Spider Man, Ang Lee’s Hulk, three Punishers, a Ghost Rider and two Fantastic Fours not to mention many early, lower budget outings were now cinema non-grata. (A third Fantastic Four film would come out though disconnected from this Universe as it was owned by 21st Century Fox and not Disney/Marvel. Another problem with the comics-movies transition.)
By the time The Avengers was released, things were looking good. Reviews were positive and money was definitely rolling in. A contained world created, evil defeated and everybody sat down for falafels afterward (I still don’t get this joke. It’s a joke right?).
But this isn’t Marvel City or Town. It’s a Marvel Universe. We can’t stop there (I mean, we could). We need sequels and new characters and longer story arcs and more characters and TV shows and shorts and action figures and Halloween costumes. There’s so many stories to tell, why stop? So they started Phase Two which primarily consisted of sequels to the first phase and the addition of Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man.
The latter was notably removed from the loving hands of Edgar Wright who worked on it for some time. Wright’s distinct flare for dialogue and visuals was not in line with what Marvel wanted to do. This was a clear sign that if you wanted to direct a Marvel movie, you must adhere to the world that’s been prescribed to you. Joss Whedon, Jon Favreau, Shane Black, Taika Waititi, Kenneth Branagh and many others have all had to tow this line. (They are also grown men who can choose to do what they want. It’s a muscle to flex when you direct action so people like Branagh may be actually interested in it. Also, everyone does what the people with the money say anyway. This isn’t new.)
During Phase 2, cracks in the armor (good one, Larkin) began to appear. Iron Man 2 and Thor: The Dark World did not live up to the hype although Captain America’s second entry (The Winter Soldier) was more promising than the first (author’s opinion, no research was done). This phase once again culminated with an Avengers film, but some luster wore off and it was not as positively received. (I’m aware that Rotten Tomatoes is not the end-all for how a movie is perceived but for the purpose of this topic it will work. (Metacritic is better.)
But lo, Marvel saw the box office numbers and saw they were good. Any cracks that may have shown were minor compared to the ticket sales. The lowest grossing Avenger-related movie at that time (and to date) was Captain America: The First Avenger with $177 Million. Netflix rolled out the Defenders series (Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, and Iron Fist) to solid acclaim (Iron Fist to much less acclaim). The Punisher was added to that roster along with Inhumans and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
I may be blending Phase Two and Three together somewhat in the timeline but to the public at large, Marvel and Feige’s delineation of the phases doesn’t appear as clear. It is a constant, unrelenting product in all forms of media. It is omnipresent and by the time we get to the end of Phase 3 (our current Marvel epoch) the movies and series are planned well into the 2020s.
And that’s just with our current roster of characters. Phase Three has introduced Doctor Strange, Black Panther, and the newest Spider-Man (all of which are headed into sequels), but Phase 4 will undoubtedly option solo outings for whatever new characters emerge, including the characters who have not had their own films yet: Black Widow (Why no solo movie Marvel?), Hawkeye (I know why, Marvel), Ruffalo’s Hulk, Vision, Scarlet Witch, et al.
So what’s wrong with all this? As I said at the beginning, Marvel hires great talent. They give jobs to hundreds if not thousands of people on the movies alone not to mention every conceivable way the product is delivered to us. The product itself is consistently profitable (not a single “Phase” movie hasn’t made its money back). It is almost always rated fairly well among critics and fans. The average critic Rotten Tomato score is 83.8% percent, the lowest of those scores being a 66%. Audience reviews are predominantly higher and occasionally even with (or just below) the critic’s scores. (The only outlier there is Black Panther which has the highest disparity of critic/audience reviews (97%/77%) for reasons I can only guess at. They say it’s too political but I think they mean “too many black people”. Also, audience reviews are basically garbage and I say that as an audience member.)
The critics like it, audiences love it, it employs many people and makes a lot of money. It’s very possible that Marvel is good for our country but in a major way it is bad for the world of cinema and may also subtly reflect what is wrong with our country (That’s a bit much…). I could counter all the positives I’ve previously mentioned (and may do so inadvertently) but primarily I’d like to focus on the why the MCU is bad for the creative forces behind the movies, the industry and the viewers.
- Marvel is bad for directors
Over the past 10 years and 18 movies, the MCU has utilized 15 different directors. Using a mix of the established and young upcoming talents in Hollywood. Even on Marvel’s tight shooting schedule, the constraints of filming a single project can consume a director’s time for many years. Young, innovative talent just starting out are being thrown into a cookie cutter mold where their edges and originality are dulled by the opportunity to work on large projects. (An opportunity which could prove invaluable down the road. The challenges of a movie this size are what can make or break a longer practicing director).
Also, directors are the captains of the ship when it comes to the movies they are making but as the aforementioned Edgar Wright (and the recently fired Chris Lord and Phil Miller) can attest, if you want to make your own movie you can do it elsewhere. Whereas a director used to come up through a long system of increasingly larger films, honing their style and skills, now they are thrown into a big budget grinder with little indication that the experience provides anything afterwards other than experience itself. Where will the next Fincher (Fincher’s first movie was a 50 million dollar flop, dummy), McQueen, Arronofsky or Chazel come from? (What happens to young directors after their Marvel experience remains to be seen and it is guesswork to assume they don’t benefit.)
- Marvel is bad for actors
The number of A+ actors that have appeared in Marvel movies since the Phases began is staggering. It is by far the largest cinematic world (total opinion) that’s ever existed (other than just normal everyday Earth) and it only continues to grow. Avengers: Infinity War is rumored to have 67 superheroes. This dog pile of spandex and superpowers is largely due to the fact that almost no one ever dies. Each character represents its own franchise and revenue so to remove them is literally to remove a stream of income. Even when Clark Gregg’s charming albeit powerless character Agent Coulson was killed in Avengers he was revived for the television show (now approaching its 100th episode).
Because the characters are valuable, the actor’s portraying them are given lucrative and lengthy contracts (typically three movies at a clip) which often lead to extensions. These are all voluntary of course but the need to see something through to its conclusion which you brought to life is natural hence an actor’s reluctance to leave the role. But what happens while they are stuck in super-purgatory?
If you look at the major actors and actresses with some time invested in the MCU, most of their outside work suffers once they don the cape. The average Rotten Tomato score for every non-Marvel film by a main MCU actor sits at 54.8%. A lot of this is due in part to Mark Ruffalo who seems to have more time for projects as his character is largely CGI. His movie score is much higher than any other cast member. Whether this is due to acting ability or a good agent is unknown but without his upper tier movies in the mix, the percentage drops to a cool 50%
The second best-reviewed Avenger is Scarlett Johannsen, who as Black Widow, holds the largest amount of screen time, up from Hulk (less if you include Edward Norton as The Hulk, which is technically part of Phase One). It’s almost as if there’s a correlation between MCU screen time and good acting roles outside of the MCU. In short, if you are an actor in an MCU movie, it will be rated well, but the more time you spend there the more poorly reviewed your other projects will be. (This is debatable. Evans, Hemsworth, Pratt and Downey are all (very) fine actors but their movie track record is spotty even when they were not Avengers. Being an Avenger actually almost guarantees they will be in movies people like.)
Where will our next generation of great actors and actresses come from? It is no disservice to an actor to do an action movie, especially in this day and age but would Streep or Hanks be where they are now if they had spent a decade plus of their lives committing to a single role that had them running around in green screen gymnasiums? (I have no problem with the use of green screens per se if only the artists who create the monsters and backgrounds in these movies was given any credit for doing so.)
- Marvel is bad for audiences
For years, companies failed to properly translate comic books to the big screen. Aside from Batman (Burton and Nolan’s) and Raimi’s Spiderman, most comic-to-movie outings failed to make an impact. With the release of Iron Man, improved CGI made it possible to bring those stories to life effectively and accurately. Fans and non-fans of comic books both had a place in the theater but it was really a trap. With the Phase system Marvel found a way not only to introduce a host of new characters but to keep you invested (like the actor’s themselves) in finishing the story. Similar to soap operas, the WWE, and comics themselves, they want to keep you coming back indefinitely. (This is actually always the goal but audiences are not loyal to studios as they once were and this was a way to revive that.)
This means constant introduction of new characters. Are you tired of Iron Man? Try Thor or Ant-Man. Don’t like Vision? Try Doctor Strange or Mantis. There’s a hero or character for every feasible taste/gender/sex (Except LGTBQIA of course. It’s Disney, so you really have to assume someone is gay but NEVER say it). As I said before, this also means that these characters cannot die. In the entire decade of films not a single main hero has died. Of the second tier of actors (the relatives and acquaintances of heroes) more of them die but most of these characters are immediately replaced by similar characters or given a television series and continue to live. What this creates is low-stakes, no risk movie-going that dilutes the medium. Even DC Films killed Superman. (DC is a whole other conversation btw. They are mainly just trying to copy the formula and failing. Wonder Woman was just good enough that you could call it an okay Marvel movie. Black Panther’s depiction of women, though smaller roles, was much more impactful.)
What the soap opera/comic book format also generates is a constant ebb and flow of story lines and events that create, rather than a singular movie-going experience, one long story that audiences are indebted to watch. For years, mid and end-credit stingers (another vile Marvel feature)(Black Panther’s were both awful. One of my few complaints about the movie) have hinted at the approach of a powerful inter-galactic character in the form of Thanos. Indeed, with the release of The Avengers: Infinity War (2018) trailer, it shows every disparate Marvel film character come together to ostensibly fight the Mad Titan. This all makes some sort of sense if he is indeed the Big Boss, the finale to it all. But then why are there already five movies (Untitled Avengers 4, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, Spiderman: Homecoming 2, Ant-Man and the Wasp, Captain Marvel) scheduled afterwards? Because it was never meant to end.
- It will never stop
By the time Guardians Vol. 3 concludes, Iron Man will be 12 years old. Three different actors have portrayed Spider Man in the same amount of years (from 2007-2017). By 2021, a whole new generation of kids capable of viewing PG-13 movies will have come of age and the Iron Man franchise will be ripe for its own reboot. Thus, another actor will enter the cycle at a loss to the rest of film (This is conjecture). At 52 years old, Robert Downey Jr. is the oldest Avenger and the actor who also has the least to lose in leaving the role. The ugly irony of it is the studios will most likely recast Scarlet Johansson for being too “old” before asking any of the male cast to leave. (This is true.)
We are all of us on a giant spinning wheel of Marvel’s (and our own) design. Not content with the original cinematic versions of DC’s Batman and Superman, audiences caught a glimpse of Iron Man and neither we nor the studios have looked back. The actors sign lengthier and more lucrative contracts that lock them into a single role, removing their ability to grow and improve their craft.
Existing directors with a style of their own are either fired or forced to submit to the common theme of “The Universe”. Newcomers are raised in the style of blockbusters and action, no longer able to hone quiet dialogue and emotion-driven work, the hallmark of the industry for decades.
Audiences will expect a Marvel movie (or two or three) every year and become deadened to the spectacle of CGI worlds and expository storytelling with no beginning or end. There is no burst to this bubble, this cash grab game that Marvel runs and operates every year with movie-goer’s money. As long as we keep paying, you can guarantee that the studios will keep playing.
And sitting watching Black Panther I was happy to have paid for it. It shows what you can do with a movie when it is not tied to the Marvel world at large and you tell a personal, complex story about death, loss, grief and revenge. Killmonger is being hailed as the greatest Marvel villain to date and I’m inclined to agree. Every actor nails it. Every shot is great to excellent and Coogler does indeed bring a style. He is allowed to move around in his own film and he has stated that he loved being there. I then re-watched Captain America: Civil War and was reminded that it too had depth and amazing action pieces. No, they didn’t follow the comics because that’s not always the best way to make a movie. I’ve been rereading comics from my childhood recently and I’ve realized that they were not the deepest medium at times. It’s hard with those limited frames and number of pages.
In the interim of my childhood to now, I’ve grown out of comics and into movies. I’m watching a translation of my childhood and trying to find how I feel about it and relax about those feelings. We live in a wonderful age where all these things are made real by new visual technologies and if I can’t enjoy it, then what did those feelings ever mean?
Black Panther is the best example of what a Marvel movie can be and the trick now is can they keep that integrity for the movies to follow? Can they make it a world we want to see that allows change and forgiveness and sacrifice? Panther will be a tough act to follow.