Marvel’s 17 superhero movies over the past 10 years have earned over $12 billion worldwide, according to Forbes, so they must be doing something right (understatement of the decade). However, Marvel continually takes heat for their somewhat repetitive approach to storytelling. True, each of the films in their cinematic universe (or MCU) adheres to a general formula, which often includes a powerful MacGuffin (see: Tesseract), a flawed hero and his mirror-image nemesis, and a climactic battle of spectacle and fury. This model defined the early MCU films, but the MCU of today is a much different beast.
Yes, it’s true that Marvel followed a tried-and-true formula, but it’s also true that the style, tone, and pacing of MCU films has evolved significantly since Tony Stark first donned his high-tech armor way back in 2008. They’ve advanced and refined this formula to a bright, polished sheen, yet it’s also clear — judging from the smashing debut of Thor: Ragnarok — that they’re not done tinkering either.
The early MCU films focused upon a single superhero, and were rather somber affairs that took themselves a wee bit too seriously — Iron Man was captured and tortured by terrorists in Afghanistan, Hulk was violently pursued by the military, Captain America fought Axis forces in 1940s Europe, and Thor got booted out of Asgard for being an entitled jerk. Each of these early projects were also quite militarized too — the Army, Air Force, Navy, and everyone’s favorite faux-spy agency S.H.I.E.L.D. were prominent factors right up and through The Avengers, which finished off the MCU’s Phase 1 slate.
And yet, ask anyone what they remember most from The Avengers, you’ll likely get the ‘shawarma scene,’ which played after the final credits — wherein Iron Man, Cap, Hulk, Black Widow, Hawkeye, and Banner sit around a table and chew, and chew, and chew. Hmmm.
Phase 2 began in 2013 with Iron Man 3, which subtly (but dramatically) shifted the MCU formula. Marvel chose to fully embrace humor and comedy, which were certainly present in Phase 1, but became much more prevalent in Phase 2. Team-ups and cameos also became the norm, as Iron Man partnered up with War Machine, Cap connected with the Falcon, while Nick Fury and Black Widow started popping up everywhere. Perhaps the biggest change, however, was James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy — a team of no-name heroes with a joke-first mentality; few expected this film would succeed, and no one saw it for the juggernaut that it was destined… and Marvel has never looked back.
Now that we’re approaching the end of Phase 3 (and staring down the dark, mysterious barrel of Phase 4), another shift has occurred that is more subtle and possibly more crucial to the MCU’s future: relationships and character dynamics. Phase 3 opened with Captain America: Civil War, a film with more heroes and villains than either of the two preceding Avengers films. Also, everyone in the MCU, it seems, knows everyone else (or soon shall). How these characters interact and where their relationships are headed has become the focus of the MCU, to the extent that the super-villains are now relegated to a subplot. The concept of ‘family’ is the key to the MCU’s future.
Take Thor: Ragnarok as an example of this shift away from hero vs. villain to hero vs. allies. Thor is once again cast out of Asgard, this time by his long-lost sister, Hela (Goddess of Death). Thor suddenly finds himself on an alien planet where he reconnects with his estranged brother Loki, a disenfranchised Valkyrie warrior, and the always-angry Hulk — fireworks ensue. Thor discovers a kinship with his allies, builds a consensus, and returns to Asgard for a final brawl with Hela. Thor’s conflict with Hela is actually downplayed in favor of his conflicts with Loki, Valkyrie, and Hulk. The film also pumps out a laugh (or two) per minute.
A casual observer might overlook the emphasis on relationships, family, and character interaction, since the CG and visual effects in these films are stunning (and sometimes blinding). So, while audiences continue flooding into theaters for the action, battles, and spectacle, they’re sticking around for the hugs, fist-bumps, and shawarma. Don’t be suprised if Marvel drops a rom-com, buddy cop, or even a holiday superhero movie someday soon — frankly, I’d be the first in line to watch a Tony Stark Christmas, wouldn’t you?