2015 may finally come to be known as the year when Marvel Studios got its act together, even if the films and streaming series they produced progressed far beyond stylish, thoughtful entertainment. As soon as Marvel’s Daredevil premiered on Netflix early on into the year, it became clear that Marvel, Drew Goddard, and Steven S. DeKnight’s conception of the blind hero of Hell’s Kitchen was not just a mere visual delivery device for an overworked narrative with calculated plot turns, but a genuinely expressive, singular series, despite its connection to the upcoming crossover series The Defenders. In comparison, 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier, for all its admirable thrills and intelligent design, was primarily written as a thoroughly entertaining puzzle piece, meant to fit perfectly into an overblown, sequenced story that we won’t see the supposed fruits of until 2019. Even then, there almost certainly won’t be a satisfying ending to this ginormous thing known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The Winter Soldier was most memorable for its size, a tremendous canvas to explore the feeling of an alienated superhero, backed by a very select community of soldiers, heroes, and Gods, up against an insidious organization that had infiltrated the very highest tiers of government. Even in the scenes he shares with Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Falcon (Anthony Mackie), the focus of the film was on the power, loyalty, and gumption of Captain America (Chris Evans). The victory was ultimately more about clearing his good name than saving the world, especially considering that the world is always on the brink of destruction in the MCU and every salvation is, in essence, a small extension.
Daredevil, who goes by Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) when he’s not an ass-kicking, street-level hero of the people, also has a problem with public perception, thanks largely to his double-dealing, furious nemesis, Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio), a millionaire criminal kingpin with plans for mass gentrification. He’s considered a dangerous vigilante, but as the executive producers handled the character, his good-natured goals are kept in sight by a community of locals that Murdock serves generously in his daylight hours. The writing doesn’t stress a squeaky-clean heroism as much as it does in Captain America, and beyond that, the shadowy world, filled with glorious long-takes and intimate close-ups, reflects the world of a blind man led by extraordinary instincts, keeping attentive in the moment rather than getting stuck in the past or hung up on future events.
In other words, there was something undeniably personal about the way Daredevil was written, shot, edited, and acted, even if there were mild hints of compromising, overt plotting toward the end. At the very least, they were fleeting moments, and there was a similar feeling in Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man. The snappy script, courtesy of Paul Rudd, Adam McKay, Edgar Wright, and Joe Cornish, nodded toward the Avengers in two particular scenes but didn’t take this as a cue to let the exposition bells ring out so loud that everything else in the film is muted. As has been widely mentioned, the film ended up evincing a tone closer to 1970s crime-comedies such as The Hot Rock and Freebie and The Bean than the Thor, Captain America, or Iron Man movies, and that was felt as much in the characters as in the overall visual schema and writing.
Ant-Man was also a redemption story, that of a thief (Paul Rudd) given a real chance to redeem himself by embracing new technology and growing less self-centered; embedded in the rambunctious story were major ideas about prison re-entry and parenting. And like Daredevil, the hero’s role in the events was damn-near at even keel with those who surrounded him, from Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) to Michael Peña’s delightful Luis, and the turns of the plot, though calculated, felt evened out. Reed employed creative visuals (the spoonful of jam that Darren Cross reduces people to), complex emotional situations (Scott’s relationship with his daughter’s new father figure, a cop), and comical tone that felt more at home with the silly, joyous subject matter. The film is filled to brimming with gags, to say nothing of that great Gregg Turkington cameo, whereas many of its Marvel predecessors sustained good-humor through a handful of middling cock jokes.
Reed was telling a small story that emanated more sizable, substantial ideas, and though there’s no denying that we’ve missed out on something major with the departure of Wright from the director’s chair, Reed’s direction smartly stresses the personal in the plot. There was a quiet assurance to even the biggest scenes that Reed whipped up, and the connections between the good and the bad in people were far more muddied in Rudd, Douglas, Corey Stall, and Evangeline Lilly.
There was a continuing and eye-opening broadening of this sort of character and plot construction in Marvel’s Jessica Jones, which erupted on Netflix in November, pitting Krysten Ritter’s titular, soused superhuman against the mind-controlling Kilgrave, her longtime rapist and abuser played with riveting menace and sadistic egotism by David Tennant.
Indeed, Jessica Jones is the first truly progressive Marvel product to be released in a visual medium, precisely because of how moderated its sense of backstory and character mythology is as compared to the character’s complex, day-to-day emotional state. It’s not until the eighth episode that we get a full sense of what gives Jones her loner attitude, and we never really come to understand where her powers come from. Rather, the focus of Melissa Rosenberg’s series is on the psychology and learned instincts of survivors, which ultimately becomes as true of Kilgrave as it is of Jessica and Trish (Rachael Taylor), her best friend. There are similar thematic concerns in Wil Traval’s Will Simpson, Eka Darville’s Malcolm, and, of course, Luke Cage (Mike Colter), which again stresses the importance of a supportive community in overcoming deep emotional, physical, and psychological trauma. Part of the show’s appeal becomes the contrasting between the intimate community of strangers that help tend to personal issues, and the broader, more erratic community of New York that allow for a certain kind of comforting yet dangerous anonymity.
Not for nothing does Jessica Jones also feature some interesting visuals, though not quite as potent as those in Daredevil. In the earlier episodes especially, there’s a tendency to have Ritter’s character seem unrecognizable in gatherings and busy communal areas, including the hospital where she pretends to be a nurse and the PATH train she takes to visit one of Kilgrave’s victims. Jessica’s initial impulse is to be lost, to be just another anyone in the world despite her extraordinary abilities and intelligence, and as the show goes on, the directors shed this sort of imagistic cloaking for more close-ups and two-handers, especially in the superb final triptych of episodes. Gifted with a sensational cast, which also includes The Wire alum Clarke Peters and The Matrix’s Carrie-Anne Moss, Rosenberg and her team make reestablishing one’s own self-knowledge and confidence an act of brave heroism, while also blessing us with one of the greatest villains in the history of television in Tennant’s self-obsessed “Purple Man.”
Back in the movie theater, Avengers: Age of Ultron had a similar chance to mold one of its greatest foes in the titular omnipresent intelligence, voiced with splendid malevolence by James Spader. As our heroes bandied together to stop the growth and almighty power of the villain, director Joss Whedon showed a formal tightness and thankful playfulness that felt far more thoughtful and smartly paced than his messy original, and Age of Ultron’s politics proved at once more interesting and obvious than those of the first film. The advances that Whedon clearly made here, however, were corrupted once again by a similar obsession with interconnectedness and long-form storytelling, which bogged down even the film’s most remarkable passages in exposition and over-explanation.
The problem isn’t Whedon or his writers, but rather this increasingly unbearable need to make Marvel films episodic in their narratives and indistinct in their aesthetics. Ant-Man, Guardians of the Galaxy, and the first and third Iron Man movies are the closest the MCU has come to singular films, works that can stand on their own merits instead of just acting as story spackle for a laborious, grandiose narrative that will run something like 50-odd hours. In essence, the MCU has taken an approach to filmmaking that was once employed in seasons of television, where Netflix is now offering eight-or-so-hour mini-series that feel more cohesive and satisfying than their two-to-three-hour counterparts.
2015 showed more promise that future Marvel films would break out of this aggravating pattern, and news of Ryan Coogler possibly directing Black Panther and Reed’s return to direct Ant-Man and the Wasp, along with James Gunn’s return for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Scott Derrickson helming Doctor Strange, give hope for the next two years of the MCU. Much like Jessica Jones didn’t come into her own until she accepted her special, significant talent, the Marvel films only become truly heroic and worthy of praise when the material is matched with directors and writers of bold vision, men and women who find and express their connection to these gifted humans and creatures in arenas more awe-inspiring than extensive talk that ultimately says nothing about those who are exceptional, even superhuman.