Marvel Phase 2: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

The commercial success of the MCU has proven that comic book films are here to stay. Audiences have enthusiastically embraced Disney’s films that bring their favorite comic book characters to the big screen. Phase 1 was proof of concept. It was possible to have several comic book character-based movies take place in the same universe. The original Avengers film was proof that audiences would enjoy seeing them working together to fight bad guys. Phase 2 is all about maintaining that trend while introducing new faces. Was Disney successful in accomplishing its goals? What can they do to improve Phase 3? This is a summary of my thoughts on the subject.

The Good:

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Great Casting

One thing that Disney has gotten resoundingly correct is the casting in their films. The property has been able to attract both big name actors and filmmakers. Robert Downey Jr. remains the highest paid actor currently working in Hollywood because his character Iron Man has been so successful. Phase 2 has continued his entertaining and enjoyable onscreen persona. The same can be said with Chris Pratt, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Samuel L. Jackson, and Mark Ruffalo. The original Avengers have been the anchor of the franchise and fans continue to cheer them on.

For big-name filmmakers, you have Joss Whedon turning in another credible Avengers film, which played to his strengths of organizing an exciting film with a large cast. In addition to these more well-known filmmakers and actors, Marvel has brought in some relatively unknown faces which have made a big impact themselves. Chris Pratt continues to be the most talked about lead actor in recent times because of his enjoyable performance in Guardians of the Galaxy. He has successfully made the jump from TV star to A-list lead actor because he was well cast for his role. James Gunn, the director for Guardians of the Galaxy, is in a similar situation. His previous film was the criminally underrated Slither, which due to an unfortunate advertising campaign, didn’t get a chance to wow as many theater goers as it should have. Now, thanks to Disney, Gunn got a second chance to show the world that he is a capable filmmaker, and he did not disappoint.

Guardians of the Galaxy remains as the most entertaining Marvel films to date, and this is because of Gunn’s excellent direction, and the excellent casting. Marvel has also had good success casting big-name actors as its villains, giving them a familiar face. Chris Eccleston, Robert Redford, Corey Stoll, Guy Pierce, Lee Pace, James Spader, and Sir Ben Kingsley are the immediately recognizable names that have given the heroes significant trouble. For new heroes and sidekicks, Marvel has also done a great job. In addition to Chris Pratt and the ensemble cast in Guardians of the Galaxy you have Paul Rudd’s casting as Scott Lang, Michael Douglas as Hank Pym, Elizabeth Olson as the Scarlet Witch, Paul Bettany as Vision, and Anthony Mackey as Falcon.

Popularity of Fringe Characters

Phase 2 has proven that you don’t need a comic hero that is widely recognized in order to have a great film. Audiences are turning out for Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man. This is great news for Marvel as they will continue to mine their catalog for new heroes to bring out as film stars. It seems that audiences are hungry for comic book heroes of any type not just Batman, Superman, and Spider-Man. This was the fear with the release of the original Fantastic Four films. Studios thought that the mainstream audience didn’t care to see those films because they didn’t know who the heroes were. That, it turns out, is not the truth. The truth is that audiences want quality. If Marvel can continue to churn out high-quality escapist cinema, audiences appear to be willing to play along. The reason for this is that the new characters add new worlds to explore, new characters to meet, and new perspectives to the familiar comic-book movie formula. These heroes aren’t trying to save the world or their city from destruction. They have different motives that test their merit. It is those type of unpredictable adventures which, if handled well, audiences will want to see. Phase 2 has given variety to the comic book film genre. 

Entertaining Films

Overall, the Phase 2 films have retained the quality and entertainment factor from Phase 1. There’s nothing to indicate that the franchise is losing steam or running out of ideas (see above). Instead, audiences are seeing things that they have never seen before, and they want more. Marvel has found a sweet spot with mostly light-hearted superhero-based premises. Yes, a terrorist may be threatening our safety, an evil elf is searching for a powerful relic that would give him uncounterable control of the universe, and the organization we previously tasked to keep us safe from these odd threats has been infiltrated by their mortal enemy; but these films are nowhere near as dark and brooding as they could be.

Marvel understands that their films are meant for entertainment. They are not shocking the audience with horrible imagery or ideas, or giving us a bad taste as a catalyst for deeper thoughts on a subject. Disney understands the space needed for its Marvel films to occupy. These films are meant to be fun. They are meant to be escapist. They are meant to keep us entertained for two hours. The Phase 2 films have accomplished all of this. Iron Man 3 featured a familiar villain in an unexpected way. Captain America: Winter Soldier upped the ante big time. Thor: The Dark World allowed us to explore the other realms even more than we had before. Guardians of the Galaxy teleported us off of Earth. Ant-Man showed us how Marvel could do a heist film. Avengers: Age of Ultron brought everyone together to fix the mistake of one of their own. Phase 2 has given audiences plenty to cheer about, and with new heroes on the way and exciting developments to the existing properties, it seems like the MCU will remain an exciting place to visit in theaters.

The Bad:

Iron Man 3 Interviews The Mandarin Movie Comic Book Differences

Lack of Solid Villains

What is one of the most memorable attributes of Nolan’s Batman trilogy? The villains. The same with Raimi’s Spider Man trilogy. The villains make the hero. The villains make the movie. So far, Marvel hasn’t really been able to do that. Part of the problem is that besides Loki, no villain has yet to have significant screen time in more than one film. The character Loki has been given enough time for Hiddleston to work his magic and make the character feel real. As a result, Loki is one of the most memorable and interesting characters that the MCU has. Even though he’s a bad guy, audiences want to see him. That’s what a villain should be. A villain needs to invoke a feeling of more than just hate. They have to have motive, something that drives them, and something that makes them interesting to watch. With a villain that is driven, a film has more merit and more heart.

So far, the MCU hasn’t been able to figure this out. The closest they’ve gotten is Ultron. Although Ultron has plenty of screentime, his motivation is we’ve-seen-it-before weak and illdefined. Humans are weak, we’re not allowing evolution to continue, Ultron thinks he’s better than us. As a robot/AI he is immediately un-relatable and, therefore, put at a distance from the audience. His evil plan seems needlessly complicated, and the fact that he was born from Tony Stark’s ego makes him a losing villain from the start. The fact that Ultron is the best example of a MCU villain shows how much work still has to be done, which is a shame because they are all portrayed by great actors. They just need better material to work with.

Take Ant-Man for example. Corey Stoll puts on a great performance as the antagonist, but it’s all wasted. He’s evil because he’s drunk on power and hell-bent on revenge because the daddy character didn’t support his megalomania, which is the oldest trick in the book. He’s an out-of-control genius with the technological means to bring his skewed visions to life. Sound familiar? What about any of the villains in the Iron Man films, or Blonsky in The Incredible Hulk, or Nebula and Ronan in Guardians of the Galaxy? Phase 2 has done nothing to convince us that Disney can create formidable and impressive villains on the big screen.

Lack of Attention to Detail/Plot Holes

A problem with creating a cinematic universe is keeping everything consistent and accounted for. In Phase 2, Disney had trouble doing this. Phase 1 was designed to build up towards the first Avengers movie. Phase 2 had to somehow maintain that momentum while creating films with each of the major characters individually. To do this, you either have to ignore that there are other characters or make up plot devices that conveniently make those other heroes unreachable. The latter was the case with Guardians of the Galaxy, which took place too far away to have anything to do with Earth.

Thor too takes place in another realm, but it had sequences that took place on Earth. Although SHIELD was heavily involved in the first Thor film, they were missing in the second film. It’s never addressed why this is the case. Does Earth suddenly trust Thor? Wouldn’t you think they would want to try and keep a close eye on Loki after he tried to invade Earth? Speaking of Loki, the films never explain what happened to him after he fell off of the Byfrost in the first film. I know, that was Phase 1, but those type of missing explanations plague the series as a whole. Iron Man 3 is a great example. They tried to make it seem like Tony Stark had to escape his previously high-profile life in order to go lone wolf and figure out how to destroy the Mandarin and then Aldrich Killian. What it fails to explain is that if The Mandarin is such a big terrorist threat, to the point of blowing up Tony Stark’s house, why didn’t anyone else help out? Where was SHIELD for this threat? And what happened to Tony Stark’s kid sidekick?

Captain America: Winter Solider is even worse. SHIELD is on the brink of destruction, yet only two Avengers are there doing something about it. What happened to Hawkeye? Wouldn’t they contact Tony Stark? And how did Hydra, the arch nemesis of SHIELD infiltrate SHIELD in the first place, an organization that seemingly prides itself in being secure and providing protection in the first place. The film goes so far as to even brag about its plot holes. At one point in time Falcon loses his wings, so Captain America and Black Widow comment that they have to break into a super-secret secure location to retrieve them. How exactly they plan on doing this is never explained and the film is so brash that it never actually shows what happens. The important point is that they retrieved the wings and everything is OK again. It’s as if the writers wrote themselves into a corner with no plan or time to get out, so they just gave up.

I understand that most Marvel fans are not going to be nitpicking their favorite franchise, but in the long run this lack of attention to detail and lazy writing could catch up with them. More communication and attention needs to be paid to making sure the films make sense as far as all of them being part of a cinematic universe. If Disney wants to make the films inhabit the same world, they need to make sure they do their homework in creating a cohesive presentation of that world in the first place.    

Filmmakers Losing Creative Control

As the MCU has proven to be as profitable as Disney hoped, it seems like the producers and the production companies have been taking away some aspect of the creative control away from the filmmakers. This has resulted in many of the films  showcasing the producers’ vision over the directors’. Ant-Man is a great example. Originally set to be directed and written by Edgar Wright, creative differences between Wright’s vision and the studio’s expectations for what the film would be ultimately caused Wright to remove himself from some of the responsibilities of this project. He remained on as producer, and they used some parts of his script as a basis, but ultimately what we saw onscreen was not what he had in mind.

It’s true that the film turned out good enough and at least for now this is not as much a concern as it could be, but that could change. Ultimately for a franchise to be successful, it needs new ideas. Disney, with its slew of live-action remakes of its older cartoons, and endless Pirates of the Caribbean films, has done nothing to prove that it can be creative. The MCU needs original ideas, and to get those ideas filmmakers need to be brought in from outside the organization. This is going to become especially important for Phase 3 and beyond. As more plots intertwine with the existing ones, and more crossover films are released, the urge from Disney will be to be more controlling in order to make sure that their product is consistent across the board. This is potentially dangerous and if the MCU changes from colorful creative towards mandated similarity, it will become even more difficult to convince audiences that there are still interesting places for comic book films to go. With different perspectives and approaches to the various stories in the MCU that can only be provided by innovative filmmakers with their visions unobstructed, you are affording your audience a better film watching experience.

The Ugly:

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Lack of Strong Female Characters

The MCU has a potentially huge problem on its hands due to the near-complete absence of strong female characters. Captain Marvel will help a little bit in that regard by finally providing one (!) female character centered film, but that’s not going to be enough and it should not have taken so long. It’s a very male-dominated franchise (12 films based on male leading characters so far), which will surely alienate many female comic book fans. And there are no excuses to not have strong female characters, even if they aren’t super heroes.

For example, consider The Hunger Games, an entire commercially and critically successful franchise that centers around a strong female character. Really, female characters in the MCU tend to only be there as damsels in distress. They always have to be rescued by one of the male heroes. It doesn’t matter how much ass they kick if in the end they are always end up at the mercy of the guys. Phase 2 was especially hard on what few female characters already existed and only added a few new ones. Iron Man 3 saw Pepper Potts downgraded from Tony Stark’s voice of reason/powerful business woman to hostage/helpless love interest. Jane from the Thor movies was never anything more than the love interest, it was her friends who always moved the plot along. Scarlet Witch is at a disadvantage right from the start, and needs a pep talk from Hawkeye to prevent her from flaming out.

Guardians of the Galaxy is probably the best film in the franchise so far for women, and James Gunn has even acknowledged that the sequel will have more, but ultimately those characters have the same problem. Gamora may be a welcome high-level supporting character, but she plays second fiddle to the guys and ultimately has to be rescued. Nebula is a memorable villain, but her motives and motivation are never thoroughly explained, and as a result she pretty much just fills a henchman role. Finally, we come to Black Widow. In Iron Man 2 she was presented as an intelligent and independent character capable of holding her own. However, through the first Avengers film and Captain America: Winter Soldier, she fades away from what she was initially. She becomes another side-kick of the main heroes, not really at all independent and has to follow their orders.

Avengers: Age of Ultron makes even more mistakes in this regard. First it shows us Hawkeye’s secret wife, stuck at home with the kids doing housework while Hawkeye is out saving the world. She supports him, but I suppose that’s what a walking talking stereotype is supposed to do. Then they have Black Widow bemoan the fact that she can’t have children, which is as if to say that’s what she is supposed to be doing. It’s as if the franchise is admitting its reluctance to have her as a capable female heroine in the first place. Later, the transformation is complete as the film’s villain imprisons her and the guys have to rescue her. On the bright side though, Ant-Man does have the potential for a strong female character in Hope van Dyne aka Wasp/Red Queen. Ant-Man has shown her as independent, just as capable as the guys in her film, and, most importantly, she adds something meaningful to the film.

Loss of Substance from Comic to Screen

The number one complaint against the MCU continues to be the fact that the transition from comic book to big screen has eliminated many big concept ideas and thought-provoking premises. Disney has chosen to create its MCU as an entertainment-first property. Although it does have some fairly deep concepts and ideas to toss towards audiences, it doesn’t necessarily dwell on them too long. Phase 2 has only propagated this trend further. Fans of the original comic books may lament the dumbing-down of their favorite series for mass consumption. The characters are simplified to be less complicated, and the world they inhabit isn’t as troubled or demanding as it could be. The tone of all the films feature a lot of comedy, something that is rarely present in the comics, or if it was, it was more dark comedy, which the films never even attempt (maybe a bit in Iron Man 3). More importantly, we always know that the heroes are going to win.

In Phase 2, Disney has yet to create a moment of tension on screen that causes the audience to take a step back and think “wow, this is a very serious situation.” Everything is light, fun, and geared towards being engaging. The films ask very little of their audience to piece ideas together or consider the impact of a character’s decisions or motivations. Everything seems to be black or white. This may change with Civil War, but in Phase 2, that added complexity or detail that fans yearned for after Phase 1 was never really fulfilled. Previous films based on comic books or graphic novels such as Nolan’s Batman trilogy, Burton’s Batman films, Snyder’s Watchmen, or even Rodriguez’s Sin City have all been able to create films that have left a larger impact on their audiences. These films are thought-provoking, as well as, entertaining, which doesn’t always match the level of meaningful concepts introduced in comic books, but at least echos that type of an approach. The MCU films lack any sort of commitment by the audience. As soon as the film ends, the audience is back to their normal lives. They were entertained for a couple hours, but the film didn’t make a lasting impact on their lives. For many comic book fans, their favorite comic books have made a lasting impact on their lives.