The Marvel movies aren’t ‘real’ films
A while ago, the internet lit up like a pinball machine over remarks supposedly made by director Christopher Nolan in which he stated that a “real movie” doesn’t include comedy coda endings or post credit stingers. He later said that he was misquoted by The Guardian, but not before the internet began to eat itself over the supposed remark. The hullaballoo died down, as these things always do, but after several spirited discussions with my fellow NR cohorts, I couldn’t stop thinking about the “real movies” statement. Whether misquoted or not, I began questioning the validity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as “films.”
Marvel has done an extraordinary thing in creating intricately woven, interconnected plot lines tailored to the big screen. With the addition of the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. television show, fans of the Marvel meta plot can tune in weekly to see a living universe sharing space with their more sparsely released big screen counterparts. No studio or media conglomerate has ever done anything like this before, and whether or not the films work (we’ll get to that in minute), there’s no denying the financial and cultural impact of this strategy. However, by the standards of cinema, do the MCU films stand up? Are they “real” movies, or are they something else?
The recently released Star Wars: The Force Awakens teaser has churned the internet into a childhood frenzy, reminding us of the love we’ve had for the original series, and allowing us to forget the missteps of the prequels. This is fitting, because Star Wars is not just the first Hollywood blockbuster, but the first mainstream cinematic series in which each story directly flowed into the next. Now, this brand of storytelling is old hat, The Matrix, Pirates of the Caribbean and the MCU all follow this model. What most people seem to miss, however, is that these stories contain the same cultural DNA as the Saturday matinee cliffhanger, or the serial.
Saturday matinee serials were a staple of theater releases from the 1930s to the 1950s. Catering primarily to younger audiences, the multi-episode tales thrilled audiences with the cunning and derring-do of Flash Gordon, Captain Marvel, and Dick Tracy, among others. These episodes would be screened on a weekly basis over the course of 12 installments. So if audiences wanted to see if Flash Gordon was ever going to escape the clutches of King Vultan and his Hawkmen, they would have to pay for tickets once a week for three months straight. Quite a revenue maker for studios and theaters looking to pad their income apart from the feature films released that year. However, the subject matter showcased in those serials was considered “B-Movie” fodder. Pirates, gangsters, science fiction and other genre entertainments were about as far away from mainstream as you could get. Serial storytelling in all of its forms (pulp novels and comics) were considered low brow entertainment until the 1970s.
It was during the 1970s that changes in art began to be seen in everything from mainstream cinema to the pages of comic stories. We got Midnight Cowboy and The Godfather in theaters, and we were also getting more mature stories in comics, tales of racial inequality and drug abuse were no longer absent from the lives of superheroes. Then, Star Wars was released, bringing serialized entertainment to the big screen in a way that suggested legitimacy for genre storytelling. Episode 4, suggesting that is was a part of a series, an opening title crawl setting up what had come before, calling back to its matinee roots, but also setting the scene for this “galaxy far, far away.” This was serial entertainment for modern audiences.
Marvel began its shared universe with Iron Man (2008) and continued to build the world of its superheroes, reference by reference, film by film culminating with The Avengers in 2012. For the most part, the Iron Man films stand up on their own. The first film presents a unique origin story, while the next two, regardless of how you feel about them, give logical progressions of Tony Stark’s character. However, the follow up films, Thor and Captain America both released in 2011, do seem hampered somewhat by Marvel’s attempts to lead up to The Avengers. If not for the tesseract stinger at the end of Thor and modern ending of Captain America, these two films stand relatively well* on their own, adding to the meta plot of the shared universe, while not being (terribly) hampered by it. The Avengers, however, is an entirely different animal. The plot of The Avengers is the extension of the plots from both Thor (Loki as the villain) and Captain America (the tesseract cube), which means that if audiences have seen neither of those previous films, they may be lost as to what’s happening. The Avengers, as a standalone story beginning to end, does not hold up, but as a part of a larger whole, it works rather well.
Perhaps that’s the question that should be asked regarding these films: should we take them separately or as a “piece?” Certainly some work better than others, but there’s no denying, especially now that we’re at the tail end of their “Phase Two” lineup, that these films inform each other. The anxiety felt by Tony Stark in Iron Man 3 isn’t possible without the events of The Avengers, and neither is the displacement Steve Rogers feels in The Winter Soldier. So are the Marvel movies “real” films?
Not in the traditional sense. To enjoy the whole of the MCU as a single meta-film, one must consume every film in the series. For the causal viewer, this makes enjoying a film the The Avengers difficult. I don’t mean this negatively, necessarily. We can enjoy certain pieces of the whole as being more complete or standalone than others, with the overall narrative still in place. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has more in common with the serials of years gone by, than it does with the modern movie. The MCU is a throwback to an entertainment style, that until recently mostly lived on television. In the age where fan culture contains a deep knowledge of story and character, audiences, casual and hardcore alike are treated to meta plot and Easter eggs. Marvel has managed to create something new, out of something old. Superhero stories are never-ending and interconnected, so perhaps it’s fitting that in the age of superhero cinema that they receive the same treatment on the big screen. It might be best to say that Marvel movies are literally “comic book films,” translating the serial nature of the subject matter to the screen in ways never before considered.
*The Asgard sequences of Thor showcase the classical performances and style that director Kenneth Branagh excels at. The Earth sequences unfortunately were paper thin.