The Marvel Cinematic Universe is Deteriorating and No One is Going to Stop It

When you pull something off as magnificent in scope and unprecedented in scale as Marvel Studios has with their endless string of Cinematic Universe-entangled superhero flicks, you get too caught up in seeing how far it can go rather than how far it should. Herein lies the problem with Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, a Hollywood juggernaut set rampaging across box office records and gleeful moviegoers alike. It’s grown to a point where people just want to keep propelling it forward for the sole purpose of maintaining its “legendary success story in-the-making” narrative, rather than forcing it to earn that title on its own through actual merit in its films. Let’s analyze the core elements that made phase one of the MCU so great and how those same elements have turned phase three into little more than a dry-heaving mess limping towards the star-studded finish line.

The Avengers

Kicking off with Iron Man, Marvel brought quite a few unique items to the table. First, they were pushing mad money behind a relatively unknown (in the public eye) B-list character. Secondly, from day one they had plans to bring him into a much bigger fold across a series of movies, culminating in The Avengers. Thirdly, they were making something topical, given the Invasion of Iraq’s prominence in 2008. Relevant, unknown and secretly ambitious? An interesting mixture, no doubt. One that paved the way for Marvel’s road to greatness.

For the first phase that ingredient list was pure and fresh, culminating in the cinematic entree of superhero fine dining known as The Avengers, the most spectacular team-up to ever hit the silver screen. But anything after that, by the aforementioned film’s very nature, was bound to start springing leaks in the hull of the S.S. MCU. Phase two was rife with plot holes across all its movies, the grossly outnumbered critic-minded moviegoers pointing out odd omissions like “why couldn’t the Hulk help Iron Man when ____ was happening?” or any number of related crossover questions that sprung up whenever a hero needed to conquer an obstacle alone even though his friends weren’t busy and existed in the same world as the movie at hand. Then problem number two started to rear its ugly head: the lack of stakes. In order to give the big heroes sequels and trilogies, Marvel had to start scrubbing any stakes from its films to ensure heavy-hitters like Thor and Captain America would always survive for another solo round or Avengers sequel. This meant that when you walked into the theater you’d already know the ending, no spoilers required. The Avengers initiative was starting to poison itself.

Topical subject matters became a crutch for Marvel, being the only element to set Captain America: The Winter Soldier apart from its relatively cookie-cutter MCU brethren. The B-list (and later C-list) characters were being developed into full-on feature films because it was quirky and therefore meme-worthy, AKA big-bucks-baiting in a world revolving solely around Twitter hashtags. Before anyone knew it, the Guardians of the Galaxy and freakin’ Ant-Man were getting solo films devoid of consequence all in the service of building up a big ‘ol MCU for the grand Avengers: Infinity War finale, a construction project still underway at this very moment. And yet, now deep into phase three, the luster is gone. The magic has faded. While audiences still gobble it up because it’s light-years better than what the competition’s putting out (looking at you, Batman V Superman), there’s a somewhat sinister corporate greed starting to overshadow the artistic merit present during the early days of the first Avengers film.

Take Dr. Strange, for example. Stephen Strange goes through the exact same internal transformation as Tony Stark did in Iron Man. And look at Ant-Man—that story’s a near carbon copy of Iron Man at every major plot beat. Marvel’s got a nice cookie-cutter formula going for turning likable B-list and C-list characters into instant A-listers, but it doesn’t hide the blatant lack of creativity. Another glaring instance of unimaginative plotting is in the usage of superheroes making cameos in each other’s movies. While Marvel never, ever explains where other characters are in times of need, they’ll call on a poorly set-up Spider-Man to join in a massive Civil War fight for absolutely no other reason than to show off the prize they got from their deal with Sony. They’re now in the business of parading heroes around for market value rather than plot, and that, combined with the assembly line nature of the MCU’s recent entries, is starting to bode ill for any true artistic innovation left in this pocket of the genre.

Similarly to Thanos, the big villain of the upcoming Infinity War movies, the only entity that can stop Marvel is Marvel themselves. If Kevin Feige can descend from his ivory tower for just a wink to look at where this rollercoaster started and where it’s headed, maybe he and the suits in charge of the operation could redirect its course towards a more savory finish line, one not even considering a still-interconnected phase five AFTER the Infinity Wars have concluded. Because where there’s a new phase, there are extended contracts. Where there are extended contracts, there are recurring characters and no stakes. And where there are no stakes, there is no point at all.

Review of “Ant-Man”

Absolutely stellar.

Ant-Man_poster

After the disgraceful show of incompetence that was the contrived and bloated yet paradoxically hollow Age of Ultron, my faith in Marvel had been violently shaken, to the point where I literally waited two weeks just for ticket prices to go down for this flick. This was the make or break point, as if Marvel screwed me over with two consecutive blunders I was hopping ship. Luckily, it seemed Age of Ultron was just the ugly stepchild in an otherwise beautiful family of movies, Ant-Man being the latest addition to the long list of reasons for why we (generally) love Marvel.

Ant-Man, in my opinion, is just as much of a technical masterpiece as the original Iron Man. On all cylinders, it nails every beat in its story and captures that same magic. The only difference and reason I find myself still preferring the original Iron Man is simply because I like Downey Jr. and the concept of the Iron Man suit more. BUT, Paul Rudd and Michael Douglas are awesome, no denying that, and the Ant-Man suit is pretty cool as well.

Some people have been complaining that Ant-Man isn’t big enough (pun fully intended), in terms of its action. I beg to differ. While the small-scale of this adventure is appreciated, I would’ve liked if it had gone even smaller. Minor Spoiler: throughout the movie, one massive building is warped out of existence and a certain toy train gets blown up to the size of a real train, as well as a key chain tank. Those are the three major *boom* events of the movie, and even so, they still seemed a bit much for what the movie needed. I guess a certain minimum of *boom* is required in Hollywood these days, but Ant-Man came so close to breaking that trend. I understand Feige and the Marvel overlords would never allow the movie to have a scope even smaller than the current one, but still, in a dream world Ant-Man would’ve embraced its true size even more.

Besides that single complaint about the scope not being quite small enough (still, I love that it is substantially smaller than most other Hollywood flicks), all I have is praise for the movie. Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas and Evangeline Lilly are all great, and so are Judy Greer and Bobby Cannavale. I loved the entire cast, basically. One stand-out was Michael Pena, who has two monologue-ish sequences, both of which are my favorite bits in the entire movie. In fact, Michael Pena just brought the heat. I was the only person in the theatre who couldn’t help but laugh out loud when he said “that’s some David Copperfield shit” in response to seeing Rudd’s Ant-Man for the first time. And then he says some funny stuff about what kind of art he likes at an art gallery, and it’s all just great dialogue. I could smell Edgar Wright’s work in this from a mile away. A+ stuff. Not to mention the other members of Rudd’s heist team were great; T.I. Harris and David Dastmalchian (the actor who played that one psycho guy during the attempted Gordon assassination in The Dark Knight!) were awesome in their smaller roles. In fact, I’m pretty sure I just named everyone in the primary cast, mainly because they were all fantastic. Easily my favorite full cast of any Marvel movie yet. Everyone, literally everyone, was great. Even the little girl who plays Rudd’s daughter was phenomenal, though she could’ve acted a bit more scared when Yellowjacket was seemingly threatening to kill her. Otherwise, she was perfect. And speaking of Yellowjacket, how could I forget to mention my House of Cards boy, Corey Stoll! Dude was fucking great! Loved him! Some say he was a cliche villain, but for this movie’s purposes I think he was just believable enough to work. And lastly, but definitely not least, a certain Avenger makes a sizable appearance in this movie. Anthony Mackie is present in Ant-Man and manages to deliver the perfect level of MCU integration without over-encroaching on the movie’s Rudd-centric focus.

That’s another aspect of Ant-Man I loved: there was a large amount of MCU world-building present, but none of it felt intrusive. In fact, what they built off of from Age of Ultron almost made all of that movie’s utter shit worth it. Almost. There’s also a really cool intro involving old-SHIELD featuring Howard Stark and Peggy Carter, reminding us that the old world referenced in Iron Man 2 and Captain America: The First Avenger is still a thing.

Script-wise, the amount of humor present was absolutely perfect. This was naturally going to be a slightly funnier movie based solely off the premise and Edgar Wright’s inclusion, but unlike Iron Man 3, this movie knows what it is. It doesn’t try to balance heroic epic with comedic adventure, it just accepts that it is the latter and soars with flying colors.

Lastly, Ant-Man himself is awesome. The size-shifting nature of the hero is put to use in some of the coolest and most creative scenes I’ve witnessed in comic book hero cinematic history, and the utter enjoyment I got out of watching Rudd flung from a DJ’s soundboard onto a scattered dance floor where he had to dodge go-go boots was borderline unreasonable. It was just so much fun, I can’t even express it.

Overall, the more I talk about the movie, the more I realize how much I loved it. While Iron Man will always hold that special number one spot in my heart, Ant-Man has quickly nudged itself to a cozy number two, easily being the best thing to come out of Marvel Studios since 2008.