The Marvel Cinematic Universe is now accustomed to total success. With Avengers Assemble as the third-highest grossing film of all time and the franchise’s overall gross second only to Harry Potter, Marvel Studios has the world in the palm of its hand, but is this fair?
One major reason the movies have made so much money is that there are so many of them: 10 to date, with at least 11 more to come. It also helps that most of them are pretty good, with generally positive critical and popular reaction to back up those box office takings.
This outstanding success is odd in a way, since Marvel Studios were fighting an uphill battle insofar as such a massive company can ever be at a disadvantage. Sony had the rights for Spiderman and FOX had Fantastic Four and the X-Men, Marvel were without their most recognisable and popular characters and story arcs.
Marvel were left with characters which were relatively little-known at the time, and its success came largely as a result of their innovative structure of a shared fictional universe between franchises, mimicking the original comics. It’s easy to overlook what an impact Avengers Assemble made just by existing.
Now, approaching the new Avengers movie, acclaim has built to the point of feeling bloated and perhaps a tad unwarranted. Nick Fury’s response team are now roughly comparable to John Green and Frozen; in that, they’re actually pretty good but everyone’s sick of hearing about them. The MCU, fairly or unfairly, is starting to become synonymous with the cynical Hollywood franchise machine whereby point-and-shoot movies are churned out by committees. Why the success of this franchise over all other superheroes? The Spiderman reboot hasn’t had nearly as much luck. Even DC Comics seems to have been left in the dust.
The MCU certainly has its share of flaws which people are quick to overlook. Consistent fake-out deaths occur across many of the movies. Since the respective superheroes don’t appear in one another’s movies even as supporting cast, there’s little sense of a genuinely shared setting until an Avengers movie rolls around.
Most pertinently, out of all 21 movies which either exist or are planned, only one of them will star a woman and only one will star a person of colour. You don’t have to be a feminist to want a Black Widow movie starring Scarlett Johannson. She’s been such a hit, especially in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, that it seems the logical next step, both creatively and financially.
While it’s great that Captain Marvel is getting a movie, it’s a shame that we’re apparently allowed only one movie starring a woman. And that’s without mentioning how the only person of colour to play a superhero so far is Zoe Saldana, who appears as a green space lady rather than any sort of ethnic representation.
Does the franchise’s popularity hinge on its structure of a shared universe? Perhaps not. DC Comics and Sony’s Spiderman are moving in that direction, and popular response to those moves have been limited. While there are nuances to either case, it could reasonably be summarised as audiences not liking The Amazing Spider-Man or Man of Steel enough to accept it as the base of a grander scheme. It might seem idealistic to say so, but for a movie to be successful, it helps if it’s actually good.
Not to dismiss DC Comics, mind (although certainly to dismiss Sony’s Spiderman). It’s true that Man of Steel had its flaws, but the same could be said of Iron Man and most other MCU movies. DC’s slate is controversial, but it has a lot of potential. Even if Marvel ultimately comes out on top, the playing field will hopefully stop being such an obnoxious monopoly with only the odd decent X-Men movie to imperceptibly ruffle Robert Downey Jr’s iron feathers.
For now, only one thing is clear: the MCU, overrated or not, is still pretty good, especially by the standards of superhero movies. Sure, it might not be deserving of such success, but could anything be? Could anything be that good while remaining broadly marketable enough to actually realise market dominance? By all means, it’d be wonderful to see a superhero team of black lesbians smash the box office as well as the patriarchy, but that day just isn’t today. At present, this is what the money-grabbing corporate Hollywood machine looks like. It could definitely be worse.
By Mark Laherty
All pictures courtesy of Google Images.