By: Kristian Wayne
March 29th, 2022
This article is from our Spring 2022 Magazine Issue. Read the full magazine here.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is arguably the most successful franchise of the past decade. The MCU began with “Iron Man” in 2008, which soared higher than most comic book adaptations. In fact, the MCU is revolutionary in many aspects and has provided a formula that other filmmakers have tried to follow but failed to replicate.
Marvel’s first big budget project started strong with the 1998 movie “Blade.” It had a $45 million budget and made a revenue of $131 million. Though “Blade” has just a 57% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it scored 78% with audiences and built the character a fanbase and a place in pop culture.
Then came more popular characters that audiences were already more familiar with. Sam Raimi’s 2002 film “Spider-Man” had a budget of $139 million and grossed $821 million worldwide. It has a 90% on Rotten Tomatoes and was well received by fans. It went on to have two more sequels.
In 2000, Bryan Singer’s “X-Men” had a budget of about $75 million and grossed $296 million. It was rated 82% by Rotten Tomatoes. It’s worth mentioning that the “X-Men” movie franchise had the most installments prior to the MCU, with a handful of bad ones that critics and fans agree they wouldn’t see again.
The very idea of the MCU began with a lesser known Marvel character that only comic book fans knew: Iron Man. The 2008 film “Iron Man” had a budget of $186 million and surprisingly grossed over $585 million worldwide. The first film in the MCU was a success, and it promised something that fans were dreaming to see: a live-action universe of superheroes that was faithful to the comics.
Four years later, “The Avengers” premiered in theaters in 2012. It had unprecedented success with a budget of $225 million turned into a whopping $1.5 billion in ticket sales worldwide. In doing so, it beat out all other movies made in 2012 and remains the third highest grossing film in the MCU franchise.
One of the undeniable effects of “The Avengers” is the ensuing popularity of the MCU. Demographics that previously did not know about the comic books became familiar with characters from these films. It was no longer just “comic book nerds” talking about Iron Man and Thor. Now, anyone could talk about their favorite superheroes with cool kids, average joes, athletes and parents alike. There was no longer a stigma about knowing Marvel material. These heroes became as familiar to everyone as Darth Vader or Superman.
It’s fair to say that the success of the Avengers film determined the future of all the MCU properties. It made continuity an attraction to fans and one of the most crucial aspects of the franchise. Continuity meant consistency, and the creation of a brand across the films. With that brand, Marvel created a formula that all their films now follow.
Michigan State University professor Julian Chambliss, a media historian who has published research on superheroes in American culture, spoke about this formula. First, there must be a villain who causes chaos. “What is driving the heroes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is often a sense of trying to restore stability; trying to restore security, which resonates with Americans who are fearful of terrorism,” said Chambliss.
“So the fact that almost all of the villains in the MCU are terrorists,” he said, “sort of fits very neatly with the contemporary sense of the challenge raised by asymmetrical warfare or chaos agents that are driven by destructive ideology.”
That trait was made a precedent in “Iron Man.” Chambliss cited that the MCU version of Iron Man draws inspiration from Warren Ellis’ 2006 reboot of the Iron Man comics. Iron Man’s original origin story involved the Vietnam War, but it was updated by Warren Ellis for a more modern take: the hero’s story begins with terrorism instead.
Second, MCU movies must feature action sequences. These highly intense scenes are professionally choreographed and always lead up to the movie’s final climactic CGI battle. The final battle is always set up to be the spectacle of the film, such as the CGI war in “Avengers: Endgame” or more recently, the ending of “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.” Not only are these fights intended to be well-choreographed, but they are also meant to be visually captivating, hence the CGI.
Finally, and most notably, there must be humor. In the first Avengers film, the scene of Hulk battering Loki was to provide comic relief from all the tension of the invasion. “Ant-Man” had the entertaining scene of Scott’s friend Ernesto explaining his source of information for the heist they were planning to pull. Since the debut of Spider-Man in the MCU, funny quips have been a defining trait of the character. Humor has been used throughout the MCU to connect audiences to its heroes.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe also successfully sticks close to the comic book material. Chambliss provided an explanation of how the storylines are put together in the films.
“So when you look at the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you often are getting a kinda simplified origin story in the first film,” he said, referring to the MCU’s typical strategy for introducing characters. “And then an amalgamation of sort of like historic storylines woven through the rest of the films.”
The MCU is also more successful in grounding characters in reality. Iron Man has aged better than Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man. It could be because the MCU has done a better job at maintaining the essence of the comics while modernizing it.
The same can’t be said for Sam Raimy’s 2002 “Spider-Man.” The scene where Spider-Man is introduced to Green Goblin has tropes that feel silly—like the shot of Tobey Maguire running in slow motion as he rips out of his civilian clothes to change into his Spider-Man suit. Or how the scene of him shooting webs to save people from incoming debris [while dressed as a civilian] goes unnoticed.
MCU costumes are mostly comic book accurate with some adjustments to make them look more contemporary and realistic. Captain America’s suit in “The Avengers” is still blue with the same patriotic shield and wings on his head as in the comics. The costume designers just opted to have the wings designed into his helmet rather than sticking out awkwardly. Thor’s costumes also closely resemble his comic book version, except he only sports his winged helmet for one scene in “Thor: Ragnarok.”
The MCU’s producers exhibit more bravery and clever design choices than its predecessors. In the “X-Men” franchise, Bryan Singer’s preference for leather suits over the iconic costumes have only left fans dying to see comic-book accurate depictions of the mutants. Now, considering the MCU’s willingness to give Spider-Man his signature animated eyes, Wolverine may one day sport his blue and yellow costume.
The successes of the films have also affected Marvel properties in other mediums. Comic book characters began to take after their film counterparts. Comics were made in continuation of the stories told in the films. New Marvel cartoons began airing on television, and there was also an increase in toy sales.
Despite the MCU’s innovations and successes in superhero films, critics have become frustrated with the directors’ repeated use of their formula, most prominently the humor.
In his review of 2021’s “Black Widow”, critic Deacon Steven D. Greydanus suggests that humor compromised the film’s serious themes about human rights violations. “It would be one thing if ‘Black Widow,’ directed by Australian filmmaker Cate Shortland, faced up to the horror of Natasha’s past with real moral seriousness,” said Greydanus. “But this is a Marvel movie—written by ‘Thor: Ragnarok’ screenwriter Eric Pearson … so instead of moral seriousness we get quips and jokes.”
The YouTuber and movie critic Jeremy Jahns also referenced the same issue with the film. “The movie also does a thing that frustrates me about MCU movies in general: the fact that they always deflect with jokes. Jokes are great. Humor is fine. It can actually add to the experience of enjoyment, but when there is clearly a scene that could’ve benefitted from letting the drama marinate and go to the next step but they don’t and just crack a joke, it’s just frustrating.”
“The Eternals” is one of the franchise’s most recent movies and more experimental entries. It is an epic that contains more dialogue scenes, character study moments, less action and longer runtime. It received a 47% score from Rotten Tomatoes; however, the audience score is 80%.
Multiple critics point to conflicting artistic visions between director Chloe Zhao and the MCU directors in the production of “The Eternals.” Movie critic John Wenzel suggests that Zhao’s talents were limited by the MCU’s brand. “An Oscar-winning director (Chloé Zhao of 2020’s ‘Nomadland’) and exciting ensemble cast are no match for corporate demands in the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe,” he said.
Jahns also gave a review of “The Eternals.” Though overall it’s clear that he gave what most would consider a good review, he had a similar take as many of the film’s other critics. “It’s a very MCU-ified movie about immortals who inspired mythology,” he said. “But still has that ‘MCU DNA.’ Is that code for there’s a super CGI beatdown in the end? Kinda—yeah.”
He also referenced the franchise’s overuse of humor in earlier entries again, noting that it was better executed in “The Eternals” than others. “Brian Tyri Henry was more subtle with his comedy, which I liked … Usually, MCU comedy is COMEDY!”
Chambliss understands the critic’s complaints but suggests that they misunderstand the goal of the franchise. “I think part of the Marvel ethos is humor, so the people who are critical about the kind of humor in Marvel fail to grasp that they are deliberately making what marketing people—what an advertising person—would call a four-quadrant film.”
He explained that four-quadrant films are supposed to appeal to everyone in the family, which explains the franchise’s consistent PG-13 ratings. The MCU is more than family-friendly; its target audience is the entire family. Kevin Feige, the production manager of the MCU, isn’t focused on creating a masterpiece that showcases the full scale of the director’s talents. His goal is to make sure that the entry in the franchise doesn’t disappoint the target consumers. This limits the potential of all entries but maintains consistency and delivers what fans expect in ways that still manage to be interesting.
The fact that the MCU is a franchise is a very important detail to keep in mind. Franchises, no matter the industry, abide by the same rules: they deliver the same product or service that regular customers expect. A fan of the Alien franchise would expect the latest entry in the franchise to have xenomorphs and horror because they are defining traits of the franchise. Fans of the MCU expect humor, chaos and a visual extravaganza. No one visits McDonalds expecting five-star hand-battered nuggets; they visit expecting McNuggets, and if they’re fresh, the customers are pleased enough to go back. The same can be said for the MCU: if a film’s story is fresh enough, fans will be pleased enough to go see the next product. Customers of franchises expect certain things to be consistent, so it makes innovation riskier.
Despite the perceived downfalls of the MCU, it still remains the most successful film franchise in history.
The DC Extended Universe films “Man of Steel” to “Wonder Woman 1984” are Warner Bros.’ attempt to replicate Disney’s success with Marvel. However, Zack Snyder’s early departure from the production of 2017’s “Justice League” caused the dreams of a DC universe with continuity to burn in a bat-shaped dumpster fire. The combination of the lighthearted MCU tone with Snyder’s dark cinematography was a failure in the eyes of critics and fans alike. It received a 40% on Rotten Tomatoes and an audience score of 69%.
After the release of Zack Snyder’s version of “Justice League,” fans called for a continuation of what they dubbed the “SnyderVerse.” Snyder’s cut scored 71% on Rotten Tomatoes and an 89% with fans.
Though it has been over a decade since the MCU’s debut with “Iron Man,” the films are still rewatchable and fresh. They made superheroes something everyone in the family could love. The billion-dollar franchise provides a formula that fans and casual movie-goers can’t seem to get enough of. Its success has spanned an impressive 26 films over the course of 13 years, deserving the right to be called revolutionary. Though all good things must come to an end, the MCU doesn’t seem to be losing any steam.
Kristian Wayne is a senior studying creative advertising and journalism. He spends his time writing, taking photographs, and working as the head of advertising at MSU Telecaster’s Giraffehouse. He currently interns at WKAR for the social media department. He is a song-writer, copywriter, actor and creator who hopes to practice freelance photography and creative media. Instagram: @chillonk