By Pablo Castillo Lacalle
In this day and age, an introduction to the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) feels redundant. After all, the behemoth saga of twenty-eight films, that has raked in an outstanding total of 25 billion dollars at the box office, has been powering along for more than a decade with no end in sight. It’s quite literally impossible to escape its influence, or even go unaware of it: it dominates social media, merchandising, and most importantly, a large part of the conversation regarding film.
After all, at the end of the day, what makes Hollywood sit up and pay attention is (unsurprisingly) money. Any film series that can turn (relatively) unknown comic-book antics and characters into household names and an entertainment franchise worth more than some corporations just by itself, will be sure to bask in the limelight of attention and success for a long while. This victory, naturally, is not without its detractors: complaints of the formulaic, derivative and bland nature of these films are quick to crop up amongst those who simply don’t get what all the fuss is about. Those with a penchant for more scathing criticism would be quick to add the labels “uninspired” “lazy” and “babyish” to the list, ultimately branding the collective MCU as little more than disposable entertainment largely directed towards children. It’s a debate that has raged with longevity (not to mention ferocity) online: vapid fluff, or genuinely inspiring, grandiose cinematic epics? As tempting as it may be to assign definitive categorisations to that which we dislike, or enjoy, a little more nuance is needed to get to the bottom of this.
In 2019, legendary American director Martin Scorsese voiced his displeasure towards the MCU as not being cinema, more specifically referring to it not as a series of films, but as “theme parks.” It would be very easy to agree with Scorsese with much vitriol, double-down (as many online did) on a snobbish attitude that looks down its nose and makes sweeping pronunciations on what “is” and “is not” a certain kind of art. As tired out a phrase as it may be trot out, art is, at the end of the day “subjective.” In the interest of full disclosure, I personally no longer care much for the MCU, but on a surface level there’s nothing inherently wrong with media that sets out to entertain and provide bombastic, colourful spectacle. Not all movies have to be interminable meditations on the metaphysics of the human soul and the nature of love and lust shot in black-and-white.
Scorsese was more on the money in his observation of the MCU films as “theme parks” which, from a certain angle, is not only true, but not so much an insult as it could first appear. People like theme parks. Millions of people attend theme parks. They’re fun, enjoyable, they provide escapism, thrills, adrenaline and excitement. The MCU has this covered in spades: attending the next Marvel movie is, in many ways, a social event. Go to any screening, or look up live-audience reactions on YouTube to the highlights of Endgame or Doctor Strange 2 and you’ll see people screaming, cheering, standing on their feet to clap, roaring in appreciation etc. It’s more reminiscent of a circus or a concert than the usual dark, quiet atmosphere we expect from the theatre.
Any franchise able to build up that kind of fanaticism from its consumers over many long years is deserving of credit where credit is due: many criticisms of the MCU seem to ignore that billion-dollar game-changers that push the limits of special-effects and the scale of cinema don’t just fall out of the sky. And, truth be told, the MCU is keeping the blockbuster, and the cinema-going experience alive, whether its detractors would care to admit it or not. The unprecedented success of 2021’s Spiderman: No Way Home (roughly 1.8 billion dollars grossed) was a triumphant vindication of cinema remaining a viable and in-demand alternative to streaming, in a post-pandemic age that threatened to render movie theatres obsolete.
Yet the thing about theme parks, is that they’re also artificially constructed, meticulously scrutinised recreation meant to cater to the enjoyment of as many people as possible in order to turn a profit. The MCU isn’t cinema, it’s become something larger, more powerful and, unfortunately, more threatening than anyone could have predicted to. Its success today, as it rests on its laurels, is based off brand-loyalty and adherence to whichever schedule it decides on: want to watch Doctor Strange 2 but forgot to also watch the three T.V. series necessary to fully comprehend all of its details? Worry not, a Disney Plus subscription is only 7.99 dollars a month…..
The gargantuan corporate influence of the MCU renders auteurship and unrestrained creativity a moot point in Marvel’s movies. Why bother hiring talented directors like Chloe Zhao and Sam Raimi when executive decisions and marketing schemes will reduce the personality of said filmmakers down to a shadow of what they could have been? Want to explore deep, introspective themes like race and sexuality? Make sure it can be easily edited out: Marvel still has that Chinese, Russian and Saudi Arabian release to think about. Ten years later, to be blunt, what felt like a fresh and exciting experiment has become a dull norm. It’s hard to remain uncynical when the mark of corporate meddling is all over characters and stories recycled and renewed in a perpetual-motion machine of consumption, entirely unable to tell self-contained stories without having them be glorified backdoor pilots for thirteen new Disney Plus exclusive series and five upcoming spinoffs.
The MCU isn’t worthless - there’s really no example of any art that can be derided as wholly useless - but it is bloated, tired and the perfect example of what happens when a business finds itself with a winning formula which it can replicate without any concern for pushing boundaries. The MCU does a lot of things right: fantastic performances, jaw-dropping visuals and set-pieces, excellent music as well as action choreography, and an honestly impressive commitment to threading together disparate stories into one unifying narrative. But it’s become abundantly clear it’s a narrative prolonged and stretched out for the purpose of selling streaming subscriptions and keeping the cash-cow alive, regardless of the damage. I’m no Grinch: though it’s irksome when a movie you genuinely love is inevitably eclipsed by the latest MCU release, there’s nothing wrong with people really having a fun time at the movies. The problem is when the MCU standard of entertainment bleeds into the rest of the industry, spawning slews of copycats and fledgling cinematic universes, to the point where cinema becomes defined by whoever made the most money, not the best product.