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Marvel’s Influence, For Better or Worse

Marvel’s Influence, For Better or Worse

Avengers Age of Ultron

Marvel is winning the blockbuster war. The Disney owned company’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, despite getting less positive reviews than its predecessor, still managed to gross a whopping $191.3 million its opening weekend. This number is slightly down from the first Avengers flick, but not as much as might be expected, considering the idea of “superhero fatigue” that is flying around in the wake of an increasingly heavy schedule of films, not just from Marvel, but from its competitors as well.

The influence of Marvel on its competitors is obvious. It has forced Fox to tidy up the X-Men franchise’s continuity, and is certainly the reason why Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice exists at all. Marvel seems to have cracked the formula, and proved this even more with Guardians of the Galaxy, a film which, despite being based on comic books very few had ever heard of, was still 2014’s third-highest grossing film.

Marvel’s formula is beginning to show, though. Their movies increasingly begin to resemble one another, and in an attempt to copy their success, other studios’ films are starting to resemble their content as well, for better or worse.

Marvel’s tone is consistently light and features dialogue full of zingers and one-liners. As fun as this dialogue can be, it is ultimately fulfilling only in the short term. Eventually, it loses its charm and simply feels like something that we have seen before. Though the tone of the films should be consistent in general, the lightness of the dialogue ultimately undercuts any stakes that the films initially possess.

Marvel’s competitors now find themselves in an interesting position as a result. DC, at least based on Man of Steel and the trailer for Batman v. Superman, seems to have opted to go the opposite route, working instead with a darker tone that is lighter on humor and more focused on saying something, or even just feeling gloomy. The results of this endeavor were mixed in Man of Steel, and it’s difficult to say whether working this tone into a similar shared universe will yield the same results as the light tone has for Marvel.

As for the X-Men films, which are produced by Fox, their tone has always fallen somewhere in between that of DC and Marvel. They’ve attempted to strike a balance, opting for the occasional punchline, coupled with some truly inspired and meaningful dialogue. This tone, which was established way back in 2000 with the original X-Men film, has changed in interesting and subtle ways since Marvel’s arrival on the superhero scene. The best example of this might come with a character like Evan Peters’ Quicksilver, who was introduced for a brief portion of X-Men: Days of Future Past. This character, whether consciously or not, seems much more like a character straight out of Marvel’s cinematic universe. He’s quick, funny, and always ready with a comical retort.

Marvel’s tone has had an enormous influence over these other franchises, whether they have chosen to rebel against it or have shifted their own just slightly towards it. Ultimately, though, this tone is only one of the ways in which Marvel’s formula has provided a paradigm against that other superhero and action movies are set.

Captain America Winter Soldier

Even visually Marvel’s movies have started to imitate one another. They have a kind of flat visual style that is not abundantly interesting to begin with, and gets more boring each time it is repeated. Specific sequences have come to resemble one another as well, as they do in both Avengers films. In each case, though the settings change, the core team seems to fight a series of numberless and easily destructible drones that simply fill time until the main problem can be solved, whatever that may be. Similarly, the third acts of Captain America: Winter Solider and Guardians of the Galaxy involve large scale destruction relating to a ship that is falling to a large city.

Whether coincidental or not, the large scale destruction imposed on New York in The Avengers was copied only a year later in Man of Steel, leading to a huge amount of uproar about the disregard the film seemed to have for any sort of human life being destroyed in the process. What’s interesting though, are the way similar outcries were not as widely heard with regards to The Avengers. Despite this seeming lack of outcry, Age of Ultron seems to, in large part, address the issues people had with Man of Steel, taking special care to ensure that civilian lives are secure before worrying about attacking and destroying the world around them. This kind of tactic shows the ways in which Marvel has not only influenced the wanton destruction that occurs in Man of Steel, but has also responded to the attacks that movie was plagued with.

There’s a line right before the climax of Ultron that accurately reflects the problem these Marvel films have with stakes. “If you die, walk it off.” It’s meant to function as a zippy bit of dialogue, one that lightens the admittedly dour mood the film had been taking. But it’s also one that illuminates the chief issue Marvel faces in regards to stakes. Up until recently, mortality was essentially a non-factor in their movies. Examples of this are everywhere, from Groot’s promised death at the end of Guardians of the Galaxy to Nick Fury’s untimely demise halfway through Winter Soldier. These exits are interesting because their deaths ultimately mean something for the future of the other characters involved. For the Guardians, Groot’s somber sacrifice provides a stark reminder that the world they live in has real consequences, and it binds them together, because of what Groot has done to save them all. Groot’s reemergence as a potted plant is admittedly hilarious, but it undercuts his sacrifice. The same is true of Fury’s almost demise, one that initially seems to be a game-changer, destroying what had initially brought the Avengers team together. Unfortunately, Fury is “dead” for all of twenty minutes before he is almost magically brought back to life. Marvel can’t kill characters, and ultimately, this creates a world where there are no consequences of note. Stakes can never be raised if no one of note is ever killed.

guardians of the galaxy

This is why Ultron, despite the negative reactions, may actually be a glimmer of hope for Marvel. Not only does it take into account the civilian casualties that all of the destruction these battles would cause, it is also the first Marvel movie to kill off a major character with a real sense of finality. In doing so, the film was able to create stakes in a franchise that has consistently removed these issues from its mind. Ultron seems to suggest that amidst all the fighting, all the terror and destruction, we must remember that these people are fighting to save lives, and that there is a real possibility that they might fail.

Personally, I hope Marvel makes more movies like Age of Ultron. This is not to say that the movie is perfect, or even close. But it’s the first Marvel movie with any sense of humanity. It’s a weird, confusing, and occasionally insane movie that actually makes me hopeful that Marvel will become a franchise that doesn’t just influence those around it because of its success. Hopefully, it continues to respond to the issues that are raised, not just in regard to its own movies, but also to the movies that get created because of it. Ultron suggests that the Marvel films exist within a universe that somewhat resembles our own, and shows us that stakes still exist amidst the punches and punchlines. If Marvel is aware of its own influence, and of the impact it can have, then it can truly shift the conversation surrounding superhero and action movies. It might even be possible to make movies that are funny, engaging, and resonant.