(This story first appeared in August 2014. But in the world of Avengers: Age of Ultron it still applies.)
Quick: What’s the plot of Guardians of the Galaxy? Okay, maybe that’s not fair, as it just came out and it’s not too hard to remember that Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill, child abductee and adult scoundrel, stumbles upon an orb of Magicky Magic that is also an objet de desire for both Thanos and Ronan the Accuser (who doesn’t seem to accuse much of anything, but the name is rad). And then there’s a prison break and a few fights and a some space combat and lots of dancing to a K-Billy’s Super Sounds of the 70s soundtrack assembled with love by writer-director James Gunn.
And it’s fun. No doubt about that. But is it anything besides fun? More on that later.
Now, can you remember the plot of Thor: The Dark World? Or Iron Man 2? Or Captain America: The First Avenger? Probably not with any certainty. Other than: “Our hero fights a funhouse mirror version of himself in order to protect some Magicky Magic thing from an ill-defined bad guy.”
And yet, if I’d asked you for a blow-by-blow of the plot of Jaws or Star Wars or The Fugitive or Jurassic Park or Ghostbusters or The Terminator, you’d have no problem. Because they are movies, and they do things that great movies do: get you emotionally invested in the amazing adventures of characters you love and want to spend more time with.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has given us the biggest films of the 21st century. We’ve all seen them. Hell, everyone has to see a movie to get it to cross a billion dollars at the box office. So why don’t they register with us the way beloved movies of the past do?
Because, in truth, they’re not movies at all.
Odds are, there are a couple of specific episodes of a television show that you can name — or even point to as an example of quality programming. “The Constant” episode of Lost. Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “Yesterday’s Enterprise.” That one episode of E.R. where there was a gunman loose in the E.R. When Angel turned into a puppet. Game of Thrones’ Red Wedding. But more often than not, the highs and lows of specific episodes don’t matter — unless you’re a professional TV recapper, in which case I feel your pain — it’s the general quality of the season that we care about.
That’s how we measure them. “The first four seasons of The West Wing are great, then it falls off a cliff.” “The ‘Dawn’ season of Buffy was the beginning of the end.” “The third season of The Wire is the best thing that’s ever been on TV.” The arc is what matters.
Marvel movies aren’t movies, they’re episodes of the biggest “television” show ever made. Every film is tied in to every other film, all building towards some big event. And after that event? More movies…which will just lead to more movies still.
Should you ever find yourself in the writers room of any TV series you’ll see a white board (or a cork board) on a wall with every episode of the current season on it. Because that’s how a showrunner in TV has to think of the giant story he’s telling – it’s all starting with the Big Picture, then narrowing in scope: From Series to Season to Episode to Act to Scene.
Marvel has movies planned out until 2028.
A medium is defined by who has the vision. Film is a director’s medium. His or hers is the vision the entire production is looking to execute. In TV, it’s the showrunner. In literature, it’s the author and in magazines it’s the editor.
Whose vision is being executed in Marvel’s films? Not the directors’. Joss Whedon has spoken often of the fact that when he signed on to do The Avengers, they had certain elements set in stone: Loki was the Big Bad; Cap, Thor and Iron Man would have a big battle in the woods; there would be a big Helicarrier fight; and the Battle of New York. These were immutable. When Anthony and Joe Russo boarded Captain America: The Winter Soldier, it was made clear to them that SHIELD would be disbanded by film’s end. Traditionally, directors don’t get dictated to in such a manner. Because once a director is hired to make a movie, everyone involved realizes it becomes the director’s movie.
No, the vision that’s being executed belongs to Kevin Feige, the executive producer of these films and the face of Marvel Studios. And if we look at our handy taxonomy of vision, when a producer is calling the shots, you’re dealing with, for all intents and purposes, a television show.
Marvel isn’t making movies — it’s making a massive TV series, with episodes that cost around $200 million, and there’s no end in sight.
Jon Favreau is the man most responsible for ushering in this Age of Marvel Movies. He directed the first Iron Man flick — which, if it hadn’t worked, we wouldn’t be talking about Guardians of the Galaxy at all. He was the one who fought for Robert Downey Jr. — the ballsiest casting decision in decades. Favreau set the tone. And, when he pushed back against Marvel’s rush to production on Iron Man 2 (and wanted a boatload of money to direct The Avengers), he parted ways with Marvel.
When Edgar Wright dug in his heels on the Ant-Man movie he wanted to make — and had been developing for eight years — and didn’t see eye-to-eye with Marvel, he was shown the door and replaced by Payton Reed (who started filming Ant-Man, starring Paul Rudd, on Aug. 18).
Marvel has stopped working with veteran filmmakers like Kenneth Branagh (Thor), Joe Johnston (Captain America: The First Avenger), Favreau and Wright in favor of directors who are comfortable working in the TV model: Game of Thrones’ Alan Taylor (Thor 2), Community’s Russo brothers (Cap 2), Upright Citizens Brigade’s Reed (Ant-Man) and, of course, Whedon. These are all directors who understand how to execute a vision…and understand their place in the chain of command.
One might think that detailing all of this means I don’t like Marvel’s output. But I do. I had a blast with Guardians of the Galaxy. I giddily ponied up to sit in a theater for the 12-hour marathon of Marvel movies that culminated in The Avengers in 2012. The fact that a Marvel Cinematic Universe exists as all is proof that, sometimes, a 12-year-old nerd’s dreams can come true.
But I also recognize that something is missing. A sense of depth, of import. Nothing truly tectonic happens because nothing ever can.
We are in full-on television mode — worse, science fiction television mode, where death is never final and anything can be erased with a wave of a tesseract. The Avengers killed Clark Gregg’s Agent Coulson, only to have him reappear on TV’s Agents of SHIELD. Iron Man 3 got rid of all of Tony Stark’s armored suits, only so he could build the mother of them in The Avengers: Age of Ultron. SHIELD has been dismantled…who wants to take bets on how long it stays that way? In Marvel’s two films this year — The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy — there were main characters who “died,” only to be resurrected before the film’s end. How can heroic sacrifice mean anything when the audience knows it’s an empty gesture?
Without even the possibility of an ending, we’re just treading water — without a destination, there’s nowhere to go. Like the season of Lost that everyone will admit is the shittiest one.
As episodes of a larger story, these Marvel installments are fantastic. And as a business model, they’re unprecedented — Marvel has changed Hollywood. Now, every studio needs more than just a viable superhero, they need a viable superhero universe.
But as much as I enjoy them, I want them to matter more. When I walk out of a Marvel movie, I want to feel more than pleasantly distracted. When I go to the movies, I want movies.