Why ‘The Avengers’ Movies Will Never Be the MCU’s Best
Marvel Studios is a movie-making genius. The studio has jumpstarted an entire genre of films not simply through its shared universal model, but also by purposefully and deftly playing with genre. In giving each of their standalone hero flicks its own genre flavor, Marvel has taken the superhero movie and launched it to new heights.
This is a great strategy, but it is also why the MCU runs into problems when it comes to its team-up ensemble films. While many cite the sheer number of characters in movies like The Avengers, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Captain America: Civil War for the over-crowded feeling of the flicks, I think the issue lies elsewhere: too many genres.
The Language of Genre
For as long as there has been film, there has been genre. Genre is the tool through which studios impart expectations to potential audiences. When you go to see a western, then you can expect gunfights, stoic male heroes, and the Wild West. (Marvel even has a superhero option for you in Guardians of the Galaxy.)
The MCU speaks the language of genre fluently, imparting expectations and formula to an audience for which the concept of A Superhero Movie is a relatively new thing. They do this by crossing the common tropes of a superhero movie — i.e. the hero, the costume, the double identity — and mixing it with the tropes of other, more established film genres.
Let’s break down the genre-specific dynamics of each of these MCU characters and their standalone film series.
Iron Man: The Modern War Film
As the first superhero origin story film in the MCU, Iron Man had the least work to do in terms of bringing in other generic elements to its story. The MCU had no worries of being redundant. This was Marvel’s first film in the planned shared fictional universe, and the modern superhero genre as we know it was just getting started. That being said, Iron Man is a pretty good example of the modern war drama, crossed with the superhero formula, of course.
While we would go on to see a very traditional period war film in The First Avenger, Iron Man took great strides to show modern warfare as we understood it in 2008. Rather than the fields of WWII-era Europe, the film brings us to the deserts of the Middle East. The antagonist of the film is not a campy villain out of the pages of a comic book, but rather modern arms dealer Obadiah Stane and his role in corporate superpower Stark Industries. In this post-9/11 world, the villains weren’t Nazis, but rather our own culpability in creating and fueling the global “war on terror.”
As the Iron Man franchise moves on, the generic DNA of the franchise has changed, leaving much of the war film trappings of the first film behind for Iron Man 2 (one of the weakest films in the MCU), while picking them back up for Iron Man 3 (arguably one of the MCU’s most underrated movies).
While Iron Man 2 suffers from a severe lack of generic specificity, Iron Man 3 dives back into modern war film question of “Who really is the enemy?” It is also, as Kevin Feige described it, an “80s action throwback.” Like Die Hard, it can even be categorized as a Christmas movie.
Captain America: From Period War Film to 70s Spy Thriller
The Captain America films are a great example of how Marvel can evolve the genre identity of its standalone films in effective ways. While The First Avenger is more or less a straight period war drama, complete with a boot camp scene and feisty sweetheart character, The Winter Soldier goes in a completely new direction, calling on many of the tropes and themes of a 70s spy thriller to tell its story of paranoia and politics.
This genre jump works particularly well in the Captain America series because of the era jump from the 1940s to modern times.
While some people have pushed back on the categorization of The Winter Soldier as a “spy thriller” (and I can see their point), I think it’s important to remember that every MCU film is a hybrid between the demands of a superhero film and the demands of whichever other genre(s) the film is playing with. In The Winter Soldier, Steve’s personal drama plays out and is directly intertwined with a political coup within S.H.I.E.L.D.
Who is a spy? Who can you trust when the ground is shifting beneath you? How do you confirm the values of the larger institution you serve? These are all questions Steve has to deal with within Winter Soldier, while also dealing with the reveal that his childhood best friend was brainwashed into becoming a Soviet assassin. With hints of Cold War-era politics and Robert Redford as the ultimate baddie, The Winter Soldier nails its 70s spy thriller elements.
I am going to talk about Civil War under the team-up section, as I think it is more of a team-up film than a Captain America standalone.
Thor: The Romantic-Comedy Fantasy Film
It’s interesting to compare the generic aspirations of the Thor films to the generic aspirations of the Captain America films. While the MCU made a very conscious, decisive change in formula between The First Avenger and The Winter Soldier, Marvel has been a bit slower moving Thor from a confusion of fantasy and science fiction tropes with ineffective romantic comedy elements in Thor to an embrace of the science fantasy drama (still with ineffective romance elements) in Dark World.
From the look of the promotional material, Thor: Ragnarok doesn’t seem to have any problems with genre confusion. Under the director-ship of Taika Waititi, Ragnarok seems to be leaning hard into its fantasy elements, bringing this story and these characters into literal space. While Ragnarok seems to have ditched the science fiction aspects of the franchise (as represented by Jane, who is also gone), it has kept the comedic elements that worked so well in the first two films (and in the Thor shorts released post-Dark World).
Mark Ruffalo, who co-stars in Ragnarok, has called the film a buddy road movie, which gives Ragnarok an even more specific genre roadmap to follow. Ragnarok may have the strongest genre vision of any MCU film yet.
Guardians of the Galaxy: The Space Western
While many fans were worried about the reception of a “weird” comic book adaptation like Guardians of the Galaxy before the first film, it is one of the MCU installments with the strongest, most specific genre identity.
Both Guardians of the Galaxy films are pretty much straight science fiction westerns, to the extent that they hardly have any of the tropes of a superhero film at all. The Guardians of the Galaxy films have more in common with a traditional space western like Farscape or Firefly than they do with a traditional superhero origin story like Spider-Man.
Genre Identity: Ant-Man, Doctor Strange, and Spider-Man: Homecoming
In the case of the most recent standalone characters in the MCU — the ones that have yet to develop their worlds beyond one movie — Marvel has gone hard on new, distinct genre identities. Ant-Man is a heist film. Doctor Strange is a supernatural martial arts flick. Spider-Man: Homecoming is a high school comedy.
Oh yeah, and if you want to go back to that other standalone at the beginning of the MCU’s history: The Incredible Hulk is a monster movie with horror elements like The Evil Scientist, the experiment gone wrong, and a central character torn between two identities (a la Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde).
As Marvel moves further into the MCU’s Phase Three, it seems poised to explore more diverse genres in its standalone installments. While this is good news for the MCU’s ability to renew itself, it may spell trouble for the narrative cohesiveness of its all-important team-up films.
The Avengers: Genre Confusion
It’s hard to remove a character from his or her genre without problems. After all, characters are elements of genre, too. The space western has its stoic hero (subverted a bit in Guardians of the Galaxy) exploring a new frontier. The spy thriller has its well-intentioned protagonist trying to figure out who is who in a world of ambiguous motives. The heist movie has its career criminal using his very specific skillset to nab something.
Removing these characters from their respective genres and plopping them someplace new guts them of some of their identity — or, at the very least, of the chance to fulfill their generic destinies. Who is Thor without an epic fantasy quest to go on? Who is Hulk without an evil scientist (and his own demons) to conquer? Who is Ant-Man without a heist to plan and pull off?
While some of these characters are able to maintain some of their genre identity in The Avengers, they are left without the broader genre formula to support their narratives. This sort of thing tends to work with two genre protagonists — say bringing a supernatural martial arts protagonist and his supporting tropes together with a space western movie hero with his supporting tropes — but the MCU’s team-up films try to mesh too many genre-diverse characters. Without a cohesive genre identity or vision, the films feel muddled and confused. It’s unclear how to watch. The MCU’s team-up films are like a many-headed, serpent-like monster. Cut off one genre head and another grows in its place.
Within this subcategory of MCU films, Civil War arguably worked best. Rather than trying to meld all of its characters’ disparate genre identities into one neutral generic tone, Civil War brought these characters into Captain America’s world and genre. That being said, it left them all dressed up with only so much to do. Rather than Civil War fully leaning into the ideological complexities of a political thriller or even the moral ambiguities of a modern war film, it gutted its generic power by making the ultimate fight not about ideological differences or moral complexities, but about personal drama.
Because we care about Steve Rogers and Tony Stark, we care about the outcome of their fight, but the stakes could have been much, much higher.
The Future of Team-Up Films in the MCU
If genre is about addressing audience expectations — either through the reinforcement or subversion of generic tropes — than the MCU team-ups will often leave the viewer feeling dissatisfied. Sure, it’s always cool to see your favorite characters meet up and face off on the big screen. But, narratively, there are too many discordant generic expectations to address.
Until Marvel pares down its team-up line-up or chooses a more specific genre identity for its ensemble films, the team-up installments of its franchise will never reach the narrative heights of its best standalone films — even if they are thoroughly entertaining and make spaceship loads of money.