Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of film critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?”, can be found at the end of this post.)
This week’s question: “Avengers: Endgame” is about to hit theaters, and its release will mark the culmination — or at least a culmination — of Marvel’s peerlessly ambitious Hollywood franchise. How will history remember the Marvel Cinematic Universe?
Luke Hicks (@lou_kicks), Film School Rejects/One Perfect Shot, Birth.Movies.Death.
Marvel’s impact on the movie world is catastrophic in a few ways and beautiful in others. Marvel’s decision to listen to cries for equality and representation on the silver screen is irrevocably good. It’s socially constructive, healing, ethical, powerful, etc. Regardless of what one thinks about “Black Panther” or “Captain Marvel,” the studio invested hundreds of millions into badass superheroes that were not white men, and while that merely scratches the surface of what Hollywood ought to do in regards to representation, it’s a huge step forward on a global scale. There is a profound beauty in witnessing diverse communities gather in joyful anticipation of a common passion, the first generation of superhero lovers who aren’t born into a world with only white men to look up to, and the tectonically shifting socio-cultural norms that have long needed death. What other entity unites millions of human beings across the globe? Marvel inspires an unrivaled communal hope in 2019.
However, Marvel has had an incredibly negative impact on other aspects of the industry. It should stand trial for its bastardization of blockbuster originality, which, believe it or not, existed once upon a time. For the most part, the movies are carbon copies of one another, each new installation unapologetically delivering trope after thoughtless trope like we should simply be satisfied with the fact that they’re gracing the screens with our favorite stars. They’ve set an industry standard for getting away with abhorrent screenwriting, sterile direction, and sheer, mindless spectacle. Like every rich, dominant power in every possible metaphor I could make, they’ve wielded their insurmountable wealth by seizing demonstrable control over the industry and fashioning homogeneity, an order of cinema void of an ethical philosophy of the medium.
The homogeneity is not in reference to the representational aspects I’ve just praised above, but to artistic integrity and the value of creativity/originality. They prioritize the reduction of risk over artistry. They are business people, not artists, and their stale films reflect it. This kind of industry development comes with significant consequences. Small- and mid-budget films are disappearing from the public sphere because they can’t compete. They can buy out whoever or whatever they want. Megaplexes all over the country are flooded with a constant influx of blockbusters that occupy an overwhelming majority of each day’s total showtimes. The industry is curbing to cater production to the powerhouse that steers it, and, ultimately, that means a slow obliteration of creative expression, the beating heart of the arts.
If you think I’m overreacting, conspiratorial, or just plain wrong, read Dr. James McMahon’s “What Makes Hollywood Run? Capitalist Power, Risk and the Control of Social Creativity.” It’s 300+ pages of research on the economics of the industry and the negative, homogenous impact of powerhouses like Disney/Marvel on original creative expression. If you don’t want to read it, at least scroll through and look at the illustrations. They’re some combination of alarming and deeply disturbing that I imagine will get most people’s attention. And there’s even a nifty table of contents that lays all 30 of them out for you.
Deborah Krieger (@debonthearts), BUST Magazine, Moviejawn
The main legacies, I think are three-fold: the legacy of the rush to create “cinematic universes”; the legacy of the basic formula/template of MCU films; and, I think, the legacy of the inevitable struggle between franchise consistency and directorial prerogative.
For the first: since the success of the first Avengers movie, it’s been proven that you can pull it off: you can gather your favorite heroes across storylines and unite them in a big, fun, action-packed movie where they come together, while using their individual films to tell smaller, side stories for connective tissue. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen with the Dark Universe, Star Wars, and, for a moment there, the DCEU, there isn’t always equal demand for every movie to be linked to other movies in some nebulous web of greater plotting. Cinematic Universe Fatigue is real, and seems to have replaced Sequel Fatigue (especially since sequels aren’t being called sequels anymore). If you can pull it off, it’s obviously a financial bonanza, as you increasingly need to see every previous film to understand the upcoming one.
Secondly, the success of Marvel’s model has codified a certain Marvel-esque way of making superhero films, for better and for worse, to the extent that the plot beats and rhythms for each film are largely the same and that one can characterize certain DCEU or X-Men films as resembling “Phase 1” or “Phase 2” MCU movies. The villain is usually lackluster, the humor is reduced to quips that can be easily cut out of a scene, and all tension and pathos is nodded to at best (“Black Panther,” fortunately, does not fall into these traps, and “Thor: Ragnarok” actually builds jokes into the meat of the script.) Despite my love for “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” it was the ultimate cop-out to have Hydra secretly operating inside SHIELD, rather than actually grappling with the complexities of the “good guys” of SHIELD doing bad things (fascist surveillance with Project Insight) for ostensibly good reasons.
With few exceptions, the Marvel model does not allow for discomfort or gravitas, meaning that actions (like destroying New York) rarely have consequences and “Captain America: Civil War”‘s conflict of whether the Avengers have too much power comes across as scrambling to make up for lost time. Bucky’s trauma and past as the Winter Soldier has been central to multiple MCU films, but his healing takes place off-screen, with only a post-credits scene to establish that he’s better now, apparently. The films begin and end with the status quo largely intact, or if details have been changed (Tony quitting in “Iron Man 3”) they’ve been retconned by the next big team-up (“Age of Ultron,” where Tony is back on the team, no questions asked).
I find this legacy to the be most troubling, as it has led to conformity or perceived conformity from non-MCU releases. Part of why I enjoyed films like “Man of Steel” and “Batman v. Superman” (Ultimate Edition only) is because they were completely different from the MCU–overly-concerned with seriousness and grimness, perhaps, but a necessary balance in the overall superhero landscape. X-Men films have switched from being allegories for LGBT issues to existing for no other reason than contract obligations. Part of why “Venom” was so intriguing is because it was different from the MCU–a throwback to pre-MCU filmmaking, delightfully zany and weird and deliberately off-putting at times. If every superhero movie tries to copy the Marvel formula, it means every superhero movie will be the same: fun, entertaining, and completely made of cotton candy.
Lastly, the MCU seems to be working out this wrinkle in its more recent films: the tension between making movies that fit together versus making movies that stand on their own. It’s linked back to my previous point, because we’ve heard plenty about Edgar Wright leaving “Ant-Man,” Joss Whedon feeling constrained by franchise demands for Age of Ultron, or Patty Jenkins butting heads with Marvel over her desired direction. For better or for worse, each DCEU film director has left a stamp on their film, and each are easy to distinguish from each other. Until recently, most Marvel movies have pretty much felt the same. Shane Black gave “Iron Man 3” his signature voice-over and buddy-cop humor imprimaturs, but was hemmed in by franchise demands. Hopefully, now that the successful brand has been established, they can allow directors more freedom, as they have with Ryan Coogler and Taika Waitit, and allow the individual characters’ films to matter, rather than setting everything up for the next big crossover.
Sarah Marrs (@Cinesnark), LaineyGossip.com, Freelance
The impact of the MCU goes so far beyond the movie world. If every generation gets the heroes they deserve, what does it say about us that this generation has chosen a team of snarky assholes who barely function as a team as their champions? The Avengers spend most of their first movie together arguing, and though friendships form within the larger group (let’s hear it for Captain America’s most faithful lieutenant, Natasha Romanoff), as a team the Avengers kind of…suck. There is one scene in four movies where they’re just hanging out, getting along, and then the next time we see the team assembled, they’re getting divorced. The Avengers are straight up A Mess. Yet these are the heroes we’ve clung to, the ones we’ve responded to more than any other, including Superman.
Some people will dismiss superhero movies as the unwashed masses clinging to juvenile nostalgia, but these movies are so popular, they have far outstripped the number of people who grew up reading comics, so nostalgia doesn’t account for all of it. There is something else appealing about the Avengers, and I think it is that they are a bunch of argumentative dickheads with and array of interpersonal issues who still manage to save the world. We live in contentious, unsettled times. We want to believe in heroes, but right now, more than anything, we want to believe that a bunch of messy, combative people with disastrous personal lives who consistently make questionable decisions can still, when it counts, come through and save the world. Because it’s not a perfect, immortal being from another world that is going to swoop in and save us. It’s going to be us —imperfect, messy AF, and arguing the whole way. The legacy of the MCU isn’t just about a bunch of frighteningly successful movies. It’s about the story we chose to tell ourselves as the world seems to fall apart around us. We tell ourselves about heroes who f-ck up as much as they succeed, who don’t get along, and yeah, sometimes they lose. But they also keep fighting. Pop culture is a mirror, and the Avengers are just us, in all our terrible, hopeful imperfection.
Mike McGranaghan (@AisleSeat), The Aisle Seat, Screen Rant
I honestly believe that superhero movies in general — and MCU movies, specifically — are the defining films of our time. We live in a scary world. We’ve seen horrific terrorist acts like 9/11. We’ve seen dozens of senseless mass shootings. We have seen stomach-churning crimes, like the child sexual abuse scandals that rocked the Catholic Church and Penn State University’s football program. My suspicion for why superhero movies are so popular is that people love the fantasy that some specially-abled hero(es) will come and protect us, keep us safe, and right all the world’s wrongs. There are not mere blockbusters, they are films that impact us on a deep psychological level.
As the leading purveyor of cinematic superhero fare, I believe the MCU’s legacy will be substantial. Not everyone may realize it now, but history will record these pictures as having served a purpose far beyond entertainment.
Emmanuel “E-Man” Noisette (@EmansReviews), The Movie Blog, Facebook Fan Page, YouTube Channel
I’ve been on record to say that superhero movies have become today’s new “Western” in terms of movie genres. While other comic related movies have pushed the genre in various directions, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has provided a business model that other movie studios can certainly appreciate. The MCU was created almost by accident, but the key was how quickly Kevin Feige (Marvel Studios President/Executive Producer) was able to learn and adapt in the process. In terms of the impact on the movie world, I can think of three major ones that the MCU has created. Post credit scenes are nothing new in film, but Marvel has now made them an expected standard in their films. That subtle tease to hint at future movies or the bigger cinematic picture proved to be an entertaining and beneficial way to keep audiences invested.
The second impact is most definitely the shared, connected cinematic universe. It’s one thing for movies to have direct sequels, but the MCU’s shared universe is something that maybe only “Star Wars” could rival. However, Marvel Studios has demonstrated an interesting formula that other movie studios still can’t seem to duplicate. The MCU’s creation and growth was/is so organic and not as formulaic as people may believe. As a matter of fact, Marvel still goes back to retcon or fill in gaps in their cinematic story telling as we’ve seen be the case with “Captain Marvel” (2019).
Lastly, I think the most significant impact the MCU has made on the movie world is redefining the superhero genre entirely. Earlier I said that superhero movies are like the new Western genre. Well, the MCU has pushed that boundary by having most of their movies have a distinct tone and voice. They’ve allowed a variety of diverse directors to have unique perspectives and visions within their respective movies. This way, it essentially makes it rather difficult to suffer from “Comic Book Movie fatigue”. Moreover, they also have broken out of the typical comic book/ superhero movie formula, which in turn expands into different genres. For example, “Captain America: Winter Soldier” didn’t come across as any average superhero film. Instead, it was a thrilling espionage movie that just so happened to have a superhero in it. That level of genre-crossing helps to attract causal viewers and comic fans alike (which in return means much more profits for the studios).
Lindsey Romain (@lindseyromain), Nerdist
At the risk of sounding like a nasty old grump, I’ll admit up front that the recent phase of the MCU has inspired a real vote of confidence for me. That the studio is finally diversifying their main lineup is exciting, even if it feels long overdue, and I’m excited to see where characters like Black Panther and Captain Marvel go next. But I’m weary of the MCU in general, because creating these monolithic shared universes really narrows the frame for the types of stories that get made. As much as I love seeing indie directors and actors make bank, watching talented individuals get sucked into a franchise machine they might not escape is worrying to me. It’s fine when it’s one studio, but as more and more attempt their own giant shared universe, I can’t help but feel concerned about the talent that could be chewed up and spit out if their movie isn’t a breakout success out of the gate.
Don Shanahan (@casablancadon), Every Movie Has a Lesson and Medium.com
Not to mix brands, but a line from Heath Ledger’s Joker answers this survey question best: “You’ve changed things… forever.” What has made the MCU successful and sustainable the most are their forthright planning and savvy patience. Unlike the parade of cocktail napkin ideas turned into thin screenplays and cash grabs elsewhere in the comic book genre, Kevin Feige and company laid out actual firm intentions for massive connectivity. In my MCU reviews since 2012’s “The Avengers,” I’ve called it a “blueprint,” which is grander and more detailed than a one-trick formula (though plenty of that happens in the MCU too). What they have done to combine properties fluidly has been unprecedented and they deserve all the credit in the world for that. The ungodly money earned from their achievements is what everyone else in town is chasing. Those studios that have tried their own “universes” have failed because they’re not utilizing the same two core traits of Marvel’s blueprint: planning and patience. Build it right for the long haul and the money will multiply with time and then never stop.
Dewey Singleton (@mrsingleton), eatbreathewatch.com, cc2konline.com, insessionfilm.com
The world that Thanos hath wrought is one where studios will continue to strive for MCU-level of engagement in their films but very few will ever reach that point. DC has started to turn it around slightly but I can see other studios attempting to dig into that comic-centric source material and try to emulate that same success. So get ready for more superhero-based releases in the coming years!
Danielle Solzman (@DanielleSATM), Solzy at the Movies/Freelance
Very few franchises can build towards a culmination point over the course of 20-plus films in just over a decade. Marvel has done just this and we’ll likely never see the likes of it again. Marvel films have not only become event movies but they’re a part of a larger shared universe. With the way that these films have been written, they’re not stand-alone movies. Take a movie like Guardians of the Galaxy, for instance. One can no longer watch this film without watching Captain Marvel prior to doing so. It places the film within a new context.
When “Spider-Man: Far From Home” opens later this summer, it’s going to be a much different universe for the web-slinger. We’re going into “Endgame” not knowing who lives or dies. All we know is that it’s a 3-hour, 2-minute film with no good time to run to the restroom until the film is available on home media later this year. I’m not even thinking past “Endgame.” I’m going into the film watching every Marvel film again save for the recently released (and still fresh in my head) “Captain Marvel.”
If there’s one franchise that can likely put up better numbers at the box office, it’s a Star Wars film save for the under-performing Solo in 2018 but this can be blamed on Star Wars fatigue. It goes without saying that if any studio knows how to put together an event movie, it’s Disney. In the Mouse I trust.
Joel C Ryan/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock
Pedro Strazza (@pedrosazevedo), assistant editor in B9
I think the biggest legacy that these first twenty or something Marvel movies leave to the movie world is undoubtedly the reinforcement of branding strategies on Hollywood structures, a kind of business planning that surely will dictate at least the next five years in big budget filmmaking. If until the first decade of the 2000s the only way of serialization that the studios knew was the “play it until it misses” method, creating franchises that would go six or seven chapters at best, Marvel Studios and Kevin Feige manage to succeed at launching almost two dozens of blockbuster films that gave massive and increasing return to the company, a financial run which main foundation lies not on actors or production teams, but on a brand.
This is an obvious call, sure, but it has a vast series of implications. The changes Marvel and Disney made throughout the industry this decade were very clear but at the same time discreet: all around the world, audiences go see Marvel Studios movies not because of actors, directors or even characters, but because it is the next installment on the so called Marvel Cinematic Universe, a narrative connected in a way so intricate (but not hard to follow) they must attend continuously if they do not want to lose its biggest moments.
To the big studios, this comes as a blessing, mostly because it gives them the ability to make safer bets at the box offices. We are already seeing this scenario being drawn especially around Warner Bros’ New Line – which these last years has basically become the house of “Conjuring” and Stephen King movies, the latter still on hold of the results of “Doctor Sleep” later this year – while other studios are already thinking ways of establishing or reestablishing its production line around similar strategies, but it’s Disney+ that translates better the ways these relations between studios and brands are becoming increasingly thin by building its entire plataform around companies and franchises in equal measurement. There is no Lucasfilm or “Marvel Studios” anymore, but houses of “Star Wars” and Marvel movies instead – a notion that can be disturbing considering that the first also triumphed in the past with “Indiana Jones”.
If this suggests the future of Hollywood in these next couple of years is scary, well… sure, it can be. But at the same time studio films can again become over controlled by its producers, the success of the MCU also sets an important precedent of how a non-linear, non-based on only one franchise can work financially as a narrative tool, which could expand the narrative tools at disposal for prestige filmmakers in the Hollywood system. Want an example? Sure, just go ask M. Night Shyamalan about his “Unbreakable”/”Split”/”Glass” trilogy.
Clint Worthington (@clintworthing), Consequence of Sound, The Spool
It’s honestly tough to say how the MCU’s legacy will impact the world of studio moviemaking – after “The Avengers” hit it big, studios tried to hop on the cinematic universe train with little success. I mean, the DCEU managed to course-correct by abandoning the connected universe premise altogether in favor of weirder standalone movies in “Aquaman” and “Shazam!”, and the less said about the Dark Universe the better. Somehow, only Marvel has been able to achieve this level of consistency (some would argue at the expense of personality) in its output, promising a serialized sense of storytelling more akin to TV; no one’s been able to successfully replicate it.
Creatively, though, I’m still of two minds on Kevin Feige’s approach to gobbling up smaller indie directors to direct these huge, effects-driven blockbusters – a move he popularized, even if he didn’t quite pioneer it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for creative new voices getting the chance to play with hundreds of millions of dollars, along with exposure they might not get otherwise while languishing in the festival circuit. But it occasionally feels tragic to see someone like Chloe Zhao (whose last film, “The Rider,” was my absolute favorite of last year) get gobbled up in the producer-driven machine by directing something like “The Eternals”. Often, these films feel like watered-down versions of the spark and verve those filmmakers give to their own works – Ryan Coogler and James Gunn excepted, of course. Perhaps that’s unfair, though – for the money Zhao will get from “The Eternals”, she’ll have the resources to make a dozen “Rider”s. And that’s good for everybody.