The Marvel Problem

Here are a few excerpts from reviews of the critically panned Zach Snyder flick Batman v Superman.

“A movie that beats you into submission and makes you wonder if the sun will ever come out again.”

“Batman v Superman is a tiresome, ill-tempered film, and one too lazy even to earn its dismal outlook.”

“Did you ever think you’d long for the horrible puns and scenery chewing of the campy ’90s Batman movies?”

The narrative behind Batman v Superman among critics and fans alike was heard loud and clear. It was too dark and too serious. DC Reacted to the criticism with this wonder woman trailer.

Is it a comedy real? No. But it’s got two. One about halfway through the trailer and one at the end. More importantly, both were pretty funny even without the context of the film. Problem solved, insert more jokes in the future. Time to go print us some money.

But what if I were to tell you the problem with Batman v Superman had nothing to do with the jokes to serious moments ratio, or even the jokes per film reel count.

 

Joss Whedon is the most influential individual on the current Marvel Movie continuity (all the Marvel owned properties produced after Iron Man 1). He directed their two largest flagships, Avengers 1 and 2, and had a hand in editing many of the pre-Avengers Marvel scripts.

Joss Whedon describes his script writing philosophy as “Make it dark, make it grim, make it tough, but then for the love of god tell a joke.” This philosophy permeates not just Whedon’s work both in and out of the Marvel orbit, but one Marvel Films as a whole has adopted.

Whedon himself is a master of balancing genuine darkness and seriousness with humor. In Avengers, the jokes are for the most part pretty funny and perfectly timed. The only joke I would say is out of place within the emotional context of the film is Tony Stark’s “Shakespeare in the park” joke during the Iron Man/Thor throwdown, but at the very least that scene is not meant to be emotionally dark. In fact, most of the jokes in the movie are intelligently spaced between the exposition dialogue in order to keep the audience engaged while the plot is being set up. In fact, in the final battle, it’s mostly kept serious. There’s a brief humorous moment (i wouldn’t qualify as a joke since there’s no punch line) where Captain America is trying to rally the NYPD to help out and they’re hesitant to listen to a man in tights until he lays the smack down on some generic CGI monsters. There’s the “puny god” line from Hulk that works as a hilarious subversion of the generic “final boss fight” most super hero movies have with the main villain. That’s it.

There’s no “gosh you’re ugly” by any of the heroes as they throw down against the CGI army. Tony doesn’t say “Man, after all the gaping holes I’ve entered, I never thought I’d die in one.” He’s genuinely scared. He thinks he’s going to die. He even calls the woman he loves. The rest of the Avengers are genuinely concerned for his well being.

Remember that. There’s another moment I want to talk about in this movie, because for all the things it does well, it’s also ground zero in my view where the entire thing began to unravel. I’m talking about the death of Agent Phil Coulson. 

Don’t get me wrong. I have absolutely no beef with this scene. In fact, I think it’s brilliant for several reasons. Throughout the Avengers, Agent Coulson is built up as this genuinely likable and funny everyman. Up to this point, the entire Marvel franchise, for all it had done right, had been just a little lacking in the dramatic weight department. Agent Coulson goes down swinging, the way all of us would prefer to die. This death makes him even more likable, and makes the audience want revenge on behalf of their fallen comrade. The immediate aftermath of Agent Coulson’s death is perfect. In the immediate aftermath, Commander Fury uses it as a motivational tool for the entire team to rally behind and defeat Loki (a task that the audience is now much more emotionally invested in because Loki killed a beloved character). Not only that, but in a few lines of script after the Avengers leave to do Avenger things, it’s a great character moment for Commander Fury that establishes him as a pragmatic puppet master willing to manipulate his team for the greater good.

But then Marvel immediately retconned Agent Coulson’s death for their new TV Show, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. This was a horrific mistake. It essentially nullifies all the character development the Avengers built in one swift stroke. By breaking the code of honesty with the audience in the laziest way possible, Marvel has programmed the assumption now that even the direst condition of death can and will be hand-waved away. There’s no more dramatic tension in the marvel movies.

Whedon himself tried to remedy this in Avengers 2 by killing someone off for realz. He inadvertently made the problem worse. Whedon even promised before the movie release that a “major character” was going to die. The problem was, that all the actual major characters were under contract until approximately the end of time, leaving him with only the most minute, introduced an hour ago and never explored character to kill off. All Avengers 2 did is draw attention to the problem by screaming “SEE, ACTIONS HAVE CONSEQUENCES” at an inconsequential death that is never again mentioned in the subsequent films.

The problem, as with everything in hollywood, comes down to money. Robert Downey Jr  has been playing hardball with contract negotiations since Avengers 1, and this approach has gotten him paid handsomely. Why does this matter? RDJ’s contract was the first one to expire during the run of Marvel movies. Marvel, not wanting to have to pay any other iconic Avengers actor exorbitant sums of money in order to maintain the believably of their characters, signed all the other actors to huge multi-movie deals so they wouldn’t have to continually negotiate with their franchise names at the barrel of a gun. With all their actors signed for multi movie deals, it makes most characters in any given movie unkillable. No studio is going to pay a 5 movie contract for 3 movies.

Which gets me back to the original point of the proper timing of jokes. Marvel is now hamstrung to the point it is incapable of creating any emotional tension through a combination of unwillingness to kill and fear of taking creative risks. What you have is this abomination of an action sequence. What I’m referring to is the ultimate hero versus hero throw-down at the airport in Captain America: Civil War.

It’s supposed to be this very serious, violent moment in the movie. Team Iron Man and Team Captain America’s differences have been irreconcilable, and now they must fight. That’s not to say that someone has to die every time a scene needs emotional weight, but this scene makes absolutely no attempt to advance character progression at all. Iron Man opens up this scene with an awful joke about meeting people at airports. The ensuing throw down punctuates every single explosion with some “SORRY I HAVE TO DO THIS” type joke. The worst offender is baby spiderman with his “HI GUYS, I’M JUST GLAD TO BE HERE.” It’s worth noting Tony Stark is exploiting a teenage kid in what’s supposed to be a life and death battle for his own gains and this is never addressed.

The scene mercifully ends when War Machine aka Iron Man but Black instead of Red, gets shot out of the sky. OH NOEZ. Everyone is sad. It’s a bizarre and sudden tonal shift, but even this is meaningless. When the movie ends, Colonel Rhoades is well on his way to a full recovery, and Tony Stark sends his frienemy Captain America a snarky letter about overcoming differences, emphasizing further that nothing in this movie had any emotional consequence or meaningful character development.

This was the last Marvel movie I saw in theaters. I’ve seen a few on totally legal streaming sites since their DVD release, and they all continue to have the same problems. There’s no emotional consequence and every moment that is supposed to be serious and emotional is plagued with a bombardment of one liners. The Marvel movies no longer have the courage of conviction in the strength of their own stories, so resort to becoming a parody of themselves. Actual parodies by design like Deadpool and Lego Batman are now barely distinguishable from the super hero movies they make fun of.

Hollywood is the ultimate copycat industry. Marvel will continue to be the premiere trendsetter in all of movies until it eventually collapses under its own weight as all franchises eventually do. Star Wars: The Force Awakens came out the same year Civil War did with many of its same problems to a lesser degree. Tons of movies have copied Marvel’s “replace character development with jokes” approach in the last 2 to 3 years with enormous profitability. Studios have become so afraid of being “cheesy” that they’re avoiding being genuine.

(WONDER WOMAN SPOILERS BELOW BEWARE)

Wonder Woman wasn’t a great movie because it fulfilled a joke quota, it was a great movie because it made you feel genuine emotions for its characters. Steve Taylor wasn’t just a likable character because he was a quipster, but because he felt like a genuine human being. He was serious in serious moments and funny in moments that may have otherwise been boring. When he dies, even though his death is fairly predictable, you still feel bad because he’s been developed as a character.

(SPOILERS OVER)

What I see though is a studio in DC that is already pivoting toward copying the marvel approach with DC characters. They’ve already sloppily built up to their multiverse leaving a trail of awful ratings by fans and critics alike. Wonder Woman was their first success on this front, but their awful movies made money hand over first too with much less difficulty. The obvious pivot now is to use the jokes replacing character development model of marvel instead of the more difficult and nuanced strategy of actual character development and emotional consequence.

 

4 thoughts on “The Marvel Problem

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