A couple of years ago, I wrote an editorial titled “The Problem with Superhero Sagas: Why Treating Movies Like Television Is a Bad Idea.” In it, I voiced my displeasure at the growing trend of approaching an interconnected feature film franchise like a TV series. This was mostly aimed at Marvel’s model—president Kevin Feige is the showrunner, setting the creative tone and overseeing all aspects of the overarching story while the directors served like TV directors, infusing each “episode” with a bit of their own sensibility, but never deviating too far “off-brand.” Each film (i.e. episode) was its own contained story, but also had to fit within the overall MCU narrative visually, tonally, and story-wise.
This, I argued, was a deflating way of approaching film that robbed these movies of their individuality, as evidenced by the creative woes voiced by directors like Alan Taylor (Thor: The Dark World) and Joss Whedon (Avengers: Age of Ultron) relating to their collaboration with Marvel Studios. I also wrote this editorial in the wake of Edgar Wright’s departure from Ant-Man, noting that Wright’s unique filmmaking voice was apparently a bad fit for the Marvel model, and surmising that we’ll never see a movie that singular within the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Ultimately, the promise that MCU movies would never be incredibly filmmaker-driven, and that we’d never see anything as singular as say The Dark Knight, had me frustrated with the MCU as a whole despite the fact that I quite enjoy a number of their films. Now, four movies later, I’m singing a bit of a different tune.
As we approached Doctor Strange, I’ll admit I wasn’t particularly excited for it. It seemed like the same-old, same-old and I felt like I already knew what I was getting. And in a sense, I did. The film doesn’t break the mold from a story standpoint, and while the set pieces are conceived in unique ways, the visual palette of the film is once again very similar to the rest of the MCU. But you know what? I enjoyed it. I had fun with Doctor Strange. It was smartly plotted, compelling, and even a little funny. It made me smile. And I think, at this point, that’s what I’ll get out of these MCU movies—enjoyment. I may not love another MCU movie like I do Iron Man 3, and I may not get Dark Knight-level thematic heft, but I’d be a fool to ignore the fact that Marvel knows exactly what it’s doing, and it does it really, really well.
The truth of the matter is Marvel is approaching its movies like TV, but A) No one else is doing this and B) Their track record is undeniable. They have had 14 consecutive #1 debuts, and in terms of quality, 10 consecutive movies to earn an A CinemaScore from audiences. They consistently make large-scale, blockbuster films that a vast majority of audiences (and a fair amount of critics) find pleasing, and they’re running like clockwork. That’s pretty spectacular.
You can say approaching film like TV derives the films of their singularity (and I did), and maybe prevents the prospect of an auteur like Edgar Wright or David Fincher ever signing on to direct one. And that’s probably true. But regardless, it works, and I’ve decided I’m OK with that.