The Marvel series of films now appears to be a bit of a stick to beat mainstream cinema with – and that doesn’t feel right.
I have problems with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I think it’s worth starting by being up-front about that. Not the films as such, which I’ll come to, but the fact that the MCU absolutely dominates modern film discourse. At a point where lots and lots of films are struggling to find space, or get some attention, it’s Marvel that’s getting a gigantic share of pages, website coverage and social media chatter.
So yeah: I understand the frustration people feel when they sit there and wonder if there are other films out there. Especially when a parade of really interesting movies – in recent times Our Ladies, Giddy Stratospheres, A Brixton Tale and The Toll for instance – come and go in cinemas, but are drowned out because there’s a Marvel film out. I respect hugely the outlets that make sure there’s space to discuss a range of films whilst also saluting the Marvel universe. My heart sinks when I see the front page of a website with 15 Marvel stories, and barely a space for anyone else. I do wonder just how upcoming filmmakers break through against a media ecosystem like that.
But the films themselves? Those movies that make up the MCU? There’s not a single one I haven’t enjoyed.
That Marvel has got to the position it has is because it’s got its eye firmly on the ball when it comes to the quality of its output, and also that it took some sizeable risks.
I went back and had a look at Iron Man last weekend, a film I’ve not visited for a very, very long time. It’s often forgotten just what an enormous gamble that was. That Marvel – as I covered here – dug in to ensure it had the rights back to the character in the first place. Then there’s all the bits you know: the casting, the scrambling together to finance the thing. The gambling on a summer release. And it paid off handsomely.
It’s also made its mistakes in plain sight. The episode over who’s going to direct Thor: The Dark World. The fallout over The Incredible Hulk. The more public than it would have liked executive battles. And yet, here we are.
Bottom line: the success has been earned, and it’s not always been an easy path.
Yet with anything hugely popular, along comes the inevitable backlash. The idea that Marvel is ruining cinema, that anyone who loves Marvel films doesn’t really love movies, the theory that you have to pick a side and woe betide you if you don’t toe the party line. These are things I’ve seen across websites and social media, and not irregularly. I saw one post from an acquaintance of mine mid-lockdown last year where they said that they and their family were going through all the Marvel films from scratch again. One response took them to task: why watch all of those when there’s so much other stuff?
The deadpan, brilliant response: ‘because we like them’. Perfect.
I can relate to this too. When I was in my teens, I got absolutely obsessed with Back To The Future Part II. That was my film. I bought the video – ex-rental first of all – and wore it out. Then I bought another copy. I bought the book of the making of it, the soundtrack album, I recorded reviews off the television so I could watch the clips over and over again. I loved it. I watched it lots and lots of times. I confess: I wasn’t watching Taxi Driver, Citizen Kane, Casablanca, The Odd Couple, or any of the films that to be a film fan you’re supposed to watch and worship (subsequently I’ve watched them all and love them all). I wanted to watch Back To The Future Part II, and I did.
To this day, you can come at me with all criticisms you like about the film. There’s a sporting chance I’ll agree with them. But I remember how much I cherished that movie, and it’s always special to me. And I see that in the Marvel universe. I see how much these films mean to people. Even putting aside the basis that they’re all at worst ‘good’ – and how big an achievement is that? – they’re also getting people through shitty days, and bringing people together.
Isn’t that something worth celebrating? They’ve put a hell of a lot of entertainment into the world, and it really matters to many people.
The snobbery, nonetheless, persists, in much the same way that liking commercial things in any art form has a habit of being looked down on. I had a posh film meeting a few months ago and confessed in it that my ideal relaxation film at the weekend is Con Air. It was as if I’d let off a particularly potent fart in a particularly small car. But why isn’t that a proper answer to the ‘what films do you like’ question?
I’m reminded too of the nonsense over a small comment Martin Scorsese made in a long article promoting his 2018 movie The Irishman. It was in an interview in Empire magazine, and a particularly excellent piece it was too. The minute part of the interview that touched on Marvel though became a firework across the internet, and solidified to my eyes a lot of positions. Scorsese was right and Marvel is wrong seemed to be the mantra, not only misrepresenting what he actually said, but also setting a bizarre clickbait agenda that led to pretty much every major movie director being asked their views on superhero films.
All the while, though, people were and are enjoying the films. And for those who view the films through particularly snobbish eyes, I’d suggest you may be selling the movies and their place in cinema heritage short. I remember watching Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a film I underrated the first time I saw it, and being taken with how its roots were in 70s conspiracy thrillers. What if that, then, was the film to encourage, quietly, someone to dig out All The President’s Men? Or The Parallax View? Maybe a dose of Three Days Of The Condor?
What if someone comes to Ant-Man unfamiliar with Michael Douglas’s work, and decided to give more of it a try? Heck, what’s wrong with someone just watching Ant-Man and thinking they want to watch Ant-Man again?
The world has enough problems, particularly now, without a punch-down attitude to what people like and enjoy. Criticism, debate, argument, and fandom (in its less toxic form of course) are all good, aren’t they? But reducing something that’s important to people, that’s brought them entertainment and joy? Well, it seems to be growing, and it continues to feel wrong to me.
Coming back to where I started: I fully get the frustration that Marvel drowns out a lot of other films. A trailer for a Marvel TV show came out the week this was written, and that was Twitter done and dusted for a day. But that’s hardly Marvel’s fault. I see it trying to change and adapt, to rebuild again following the completion of one of the most extraordinary achievements ever in mainstream cinema. I also see its creatives trying things, and putting a shift.
But Marvel is big enough, and doesn’t need defending. Instead, I just suggest we cherish what it’s been able to do, and over a decade on, continues to do. Criticise it, sure. Fight for the films you want to get attention if you want to. Yet look down at Marvel with snobbish eyes? That can just get in the sea…
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