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I spent my “executive time” last night watching The Avengers (2012) on the cable. I haven’t seen it since a midnight screening opening night, but I remembered a few things from it; most of it I’d forgotten, though, and I did nod off in act 2…but I do that almost every night.

I was entertained by Joss Whedon’s script; his character bits may be tics but they’re better than most people’s tics. Also, I didn’t realize the Natasha/Hulk thing had a few antecedents. I said “a few.” Also, I noticed again, that he’s just not much of a director, visually. But maybe that’s not entirely his fault.

I’m not an MCU devotee; the only movies I’ve seen more than once are Winter Soldier and Guardians 1, just like everyone. (But when Thor Ragnarok comes out on streaming I’m going to just put it on in the background for a week.) But with Black Panther fever sweeping the nation and the internets, it was interesting to compare the nearly mundane, CostCo-level look of The Avengers to the all-star opulence of Ryan Coogler’s joint.

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It’s no secret that when Marvel’s notoriously cheap president Ike Perlmutter ran the studio, the MCU movies had frugality down to a science. Actors were hired at the lowest prices the market would allow, and, shockingly, they’re not even given merchandizing royalties, although there are exceptions.

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It’s also no secret that the action scenes in most Marvel movies are directed by the same second unit; the title director mostly works with the actors. Having regular previz and VFX units means that there is consistent look and tone which had definitely contributed to the “shared universe” feeling of the franchise. But 18 (18!!!!!) movies in, that also gets a bit stale.

Marvel’s thriftiness has led to the (mostly) interchangeable scores, flat production designs, and most of the most visually memorable bits all being lifted from Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko. For all their faults, the WB cinematic universe looks a lot more imaginative. Even something like Green Lantern. Up until Guardians of the Galaxy (and a little Thor) the MCU adhered to a grey/black exo-skeleton look that goes in one eye and out the other.

As referenced in the link above, back in 2015 Kevin Feige, the mastermind of the MCU, rebelled against Perlmutter and got Disney head Bob Iger to put Marvel Studios directly under him. The main reason was to get away from Ike’s counterproductive meddling and dire budget restrictions. Despite warnings that all this would destroy the MCU – and that not listening to the now-disbanded Marvel Creative Committee would mean disaster – if you look at the Phase III movies, filmmaking seems to have blossomed a bit at the MCU.

Here’s the Phase III movies:

Captain America: Civil War (2016)
Doctor Strange (2016)
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
Black Panther (2018)

It’s said that the making of Captain America: Civil War was what led to the Feige/Perlmutter split. Certainly all of these movies were in some stage of production prior to Feige’s ascendence, but it’s fair to say the execution of Ragnarok and Black Panther are 100% Feige and, well, I think the results speak for themselves. (Of GotG 2 we shall not speak; it was a self-indulgent mess – although that kind of fits into the narrative I’m crafting here.)

Civil War and infinity War directors Joe and Anthony Russo actually alluded to the dawning of a new age in a podcast with Kim Masters:

Joe: And you’re seeing some really compelling choices made on the directing front both on the new Thor film and [Ryan] Coogler on [Black] Panther, and I think the environment there is a much healthier, happier environment.
Kim: In other words, when you have a guy like Ryan Coogler they will spring for him.
Joe: I think, without question, and they’re interested in some of the more compelling voices out there.

Thor Ragnarok was – while thoroughly a Marvel movie – a wall-busting romp in so many ways. It was the kind of distinctive filmmaking that we all hoped for when Edgar Wright was going to make Ant-Man. Wright never got to make the movie, and his brand of highly personal filmmaking is probably still too far out for the MCU, but Taika Waititi got to make a film that reflected his sensibilities as much as possible in a movie that ties in with 17 other films’ chronology.

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With Black Panther, however, it would seem that Ryan Coogler has been given the reins. I’ve only seen the trailers but even in brief spurts the action scenes look like no other Marvel movie. The film’s production design and costumes are already being hailed as Oscar worthy. Indeed, costume designer Ruth E. Carter is already an Oscar nominee, as is history making cinematographer Rachel Morrison. Production designer Hannah Beachler is another highly regarded figure – and another woman of color behind the film. Coogler has assembled his own Dora Milaje.

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Also noteworthy: Thor Ragnarok gave us the first MCU female villain, something Ike is said to have banned.  Black Panther has a full roster of female characters, something that earlier MCU movies struggled with.  Whedon hinted he wanted to have more women in Avengers 2; The X-Men were often X-Women in the Fox led franchise, but in the Avenges Black Widow is very much the lone Cool Girl in the club, despite Maria Hill’s valiant staring at monitors.  Progress?

I will giveThe Avengers huge props about one thing: it laid down a storyline that’s been running in all the films for six years. The Cosmic Cube is in the very first scene! When Avengers: Infinity War opens on May 4 it’ll be the (first half, at least) payoff of all the plotlines from the first film. That’s impressive.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is the most successful franchise in film history. The Avengers is the #5 grossing movie of all times. The Russo Brothers are the most “MCU-esque” directors in the whole MCU stable. I doubt we’ll be humming the theme to Ant Man and The Wasp in years to come. Transformative filmmaking like Black Panther is a generational thing. Not everything in the MCU is going to be quirky or aspirational.

In fact, we have only the vaguest hints of what Phase IV is even going to be. But the direction so far seems to be one that’s way more interesting – and maybe costs a little bit more.

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14 COMMENTS

  1. It kinda seems there are two things potentially going on here. One is the idea of Marvel Studios spending more money to make their movies. The other is the idea of Marvel Studios empowering their filmmakers more leeway in expressing their own individual storytelling voices. There’s certainly some evidence to the former (from the figures available from sources like the-numbers.com, Marvel’s average production budgets available for phase 3 films are higher than the average production budgets for their phase 2 films–dramatically moreso if you choose to exclude phase 2’s Avengers 2 as an outlier.) And there’s certainly reason to believe that Waititi and Coogler got to make very Waititi- and Coogler-esque movies within the general framework of the shared cinematic universe. The two things may be related–as in Russo’s speculation about Marvel’s willingness to spend for the voices they want–but regardless, it seems worth noting that there’s the money part and the creative part, and that things may be loosening up on both fronts.

  2. I completely agree that many Marvel movies are interchangeable and lack a real identity, i always thought that this was an issue with the talents of the directors but it may be more complicated than that.

    What i always found pretty depressing was that, within the comic-book fans, nobody seem to care how good the movies were, as long as they got a dose of their favorite comic hero on the screen they willingly accepted a dull and predictable storyline.

    I never particularly liked Guardians of the Galaxy but i have a hard time having an objective perspective on those characters since i’m a big fan of DnA’s run on the title that inspired the movies.

    Not really sure where this is going in terms of quality or director’s independance. Spider-Man Homecoming was amazingly refreshing but Winter Soldier or Dr Strange were completely uninteresting. From a trailer perspective, Black Panther looks very promising but infinity war quite average.

    I don’t know if there’s a trend or a raise in quality, maybe just a few exceptions are good and the rest follow the Marvel recipe, we’ll see…

  3. I think a lot of fans approach comics-based movies with low expectations. As long as it’s not embarrassingly bad — like a HOWARD THE DUCK or BATMAN AND ROBIN — they’re so relieved, they overpraise it. At best. the MCU movies are well-crafted, entertaining popcorn movies. None of them are cinematic masterpieces. They’re a predictable blend of fight scenes and jokes, with (inevitably) a universe-threatening GCI action climax.

    Hope BLACK PANTHER breaks the mold.

  4. “The Marvel Cinematic Universe is the most successful franchise in film history.”

    Really? More successful than Star Wars? And James Bond?

    As I’ve mentioned before, it might be better to compare the MCU to television rather than movies. These “movies” have more in common with serialized TV than movies as they existed for 100 years.

    https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2017/12/is-the-marvel-cinematic-universe-actually-the-most-popular-tv-show-of-the-decade

  5. >Really? More successful than Star Wars? And James Bond?

    yes way way way more.

    Now, when adjusted for inflation James Bond is quite close, and Star Wars’ per film average is higher. But it’s the New Gold Standard.

  6. “Ryan Coogler’s joint”

    See, Mom, this kind of thing is why I make you drop me off two blocks away from school.

    Please stop.

  7. I haven’t really followed behind the scenes stuff of MCU, but might one of the reasons be that team(s) making these movies improved with time and thats why, overall, quality is improving? Or is every movie made by entirely different team of people?

    And MCU is successful so it makes sense that they can get bigger budgets and more creative freedom after each hit they deliver.

    I don’t know, maybe there was some behind the scenes change in approach, but maybe it is just hard work paying off?

  8. Heidi and I will certainly never be on the same page re: the quality of the MCU movies, since for me RAGNAROK is the “self-indulgent mess” and GOTG2 at least has a coherent story and better than average set design. In fact, the design of Ego’s world, with all its faux-Hindu imagery, proves Heidi’s point about the benefits of loosening the purse strings far more than any of the visuals in TR.

    I don’t think that even with continued success MCU movies are ever going to permit a wide number of “individual directorial visions” or whatever one calls it. There’s just too much damn money at stake. You want individual visions of Ant-Man; keep watching his latest comic-book outings. Maybe Edgar Wright will guest-author an Ant Man comic and we’ll all finally see just what he might’ve done with a movie.

    Moving to BLACK PANTHER, i’m going to play prophet and predict that, no matter how good or bad the film is, it will be one of the ten films nominated for “Best Picture” next year.” I’m hypothesizing that the Academy will look upon the film as an opportunity to disprove the brain-dead accusations of the #OscarSoWhite crowd, and that the voters will see PANTHER as a superhero flick they can nominate, in the sure and certain knowledge that it, like DJANGO UNCHAINED, will have no chance to win.

  9. I meant “Best Picture” at the Oscars of course. BP may also score at the Golden Globes, but that won’t be as big as cracking the “anti-superhero glass ceiling” at the AMPAS corral.

  10. “I’m not an MCU devotee; the only movies I’ve seen more than once are Winter Soldier and Guardians 1, just like everyone.”

    Who makes up this “everyone”? Lots of people have seen lots of MCU movies twice, and we have Postrak data to prove it.

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