I was sitting in a theater a few years ago as the end credits of Marvel’s “Doctor Strange” were playing. Popcorn grease and spilled soda were stuck like gum to the bottom of moviegoers’ shoes as they were shepherded out of the rapidly emptying auditorium. Scanning the end credits looking for someone else bearing my name, I heard a rather gruff voice from the row in front of me say, “Haven’t I seen that movie before?”
It’s no secret to cinema fans all around the world that the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has revolutionized the movie industry, with several films — “Avengers: Infinity War,” “Black Panther” and “Captain America: Civil War,” to name the most recent — grossing over a billion dollars each. This level of success is unprecedented, and it shows no sign of stopping.
The MCU’s fingerprints can be seen all over the genetic makeup of pop culture, and “Black Panther” just became the first superhero film to receive a nomination for best picture at the Academy Awards. As it currently stands, the MCU machine appears to be running more efficiently than ever.
By now, it has become apparent that the MCU has mastered a so-called superhero formula, a recipe that allowed for Marvel fans to see their favorite spandex-clad characters come to life while reaping a fortune at the box office.
But what is the formula, exactly? Well, you might have noticed for yourself. All MCU movies rely on the basis of an understanding that the events of the movie occur in the real world. When the flashy red title screen plays out in theaters, fans acknowledge that the New York City presented in the films is their New York and not a fictional city. We can recognize places that the characters visit or fight at. It is, once we suspend disbelief, real.
While the wide ensemble of Marvel superheroes may appear starkly different from each other, most of them have much more in common than you’d think. The MCU emphasizes the relatability of characters, for example, by having them show a hesitancy to overcome what behemoths stand in the way of them donning their brightly colored capes.
Prior the heroes’ suiting up, the audience feels akin to the unsure men and women that have to scale a mountain range of obstacles. Before the movie has run its course, fans will have witnessed a hero cycle through several predetermined stages that build them into the character that audiences know and love.
Humor is another trick that the MCU incorporates into its films. Every film is meant to produce a few chuckles, even if not every joke lands. It is even responsible — in no small part — for resuscitating Thor’s standing in the films (as demonstrated in “Thor: Ragnarok”).
Insert a magical object or powerful weapon and more than a few cookie-cutter villains, and suddenly the base outline for a Marvel movie comes to life. This is not to say that all villains are the same — as Loki, Killmonger and Thanos stand out in their own ways — but that more than a few are pale imitations of a broken model. Even the most hard-pressed of MCU fans would gratingly admit that the antagonists of the “Iron Man” and “Thor” sequels are as bland as white bread.
This is the base that the MCU built its kingdom upon. It’s a tried-and-true method that brings more enjoyment than disappointment, a ratio that Disney and Marvel shareholders are more than comfortable to sleep with at night.
But when I heard that voice in front of me after “Doctor Strange,” it was as if I was an explorer who had just discovered the lost city of Atlantis — had I caught onto something that few others had?
After scrutiny and more than a few rewatches on a weathered DVR, the similarities between “Iron Man,” “Doctor Strange,” “Ant Man” and other introductory movies into the MCU grew progressively clearer.
To the literary pundit, this character progression may seem obvious. As Joseph Campbell observed in his groundbreaking masterwork, “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” most stories follow similar trajectories.
Campbell popularized the preexisting theory of the monomyth — that is, the idea that stories must, to some extent, follow “The Hero’s Journey,” in which characters experience a call to action, departure, trials and rebirth, amongst other stages.
The MCU is no exception to Campbell’s theory. That is not to say, however, that the Marvel machine is unbreakable and is immune to producing shockingly substandard films.
In fact, I believe that the opposite is true: Not only can the MCU reinvent itself, but I believe that it is high time that it does. While it may be at as high a financial acme as it has ever seen, Marvel films stand on a precipice between free fall and — dare I say it — eternal glory.
With the additions of “Captain Marvel” and “Avengers: End Game” in March and April, respectively, the MCU is presented with a chance to differentiate itself from anything superhero films have done before and cement its legacy in the history of cinema. While I may never write a script for an MCU film, I think there are several avenues that the entertainment company should pursue to liven its characters and usher in a new dawn of plot arcs.
What Marvel Needs to Do
First and foremost, the MCU needs to be more creative with its genres. While the movie might have been pushed back for speculative reasons, 20th Century Fox’s “New Mutants” looks to diversify the industry with a horror-related installment. The MCU should pay serious attention to how it is received; even if “New Mutants” turns out to be a box-office flop, the idea it represents could be revolutionary.
Tying in or committing to elements of horror or suspense provides the entertainment company with a bevy of options for the future. While they would still constitute as superhero films — and Campbell’s theory of “The Hero’s Journey” would still hold true — the audience would be presented with something that feels distinctly different than what they’ve see from the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the past. Plus, it would be a welcome break from the comedy.
Moreover, the MCU should strongly consider pushing the boundaries of visual entertainment with animated installments into the MCU. After the success of “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” it has become evident that animated superhero films can be financial and critical smash hits.
The MCU should also be far more intentional with its Marvel TV-show offshoots. While some characters from the movies have made appearances in shows, fostering a relationship where TV characters can be seen alongside the likes of the Avengers could create a multitude of options moving forward.
For the smaller characters that may never see a full-length feature film, creating a TV or Netflix show that can bounce characters back and forth with the big screen could be instrumental in garnering fresh character development with the comparatively abundant screen time.
In turn, this could be financially fortuitous, as viewers would be incentivized to tune in. If done right, this could also create leverage for Marvel to truly differentiate itself from what its competitors — namely, the DCEU — are doing. A merging of the TV and big screen has never been done to this magnitude before; if there was one entertainment company that could manage the task, it would be the MCU.
At the end of the day, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a staple of modern entertainment, and whatever ventures it decides to embark on will likely draw in viewers in the masses. If the MCU wants to have a shot at becoming a perennial contender for the biggest awards, they should be willing to be bold and take risks — especially if many of our beloved characters are not likely to survive “Avengers: End Game.”