The Marvel Formula

Photo courtesy of: Marvel Studios

by Jim Taylor

Is it churlish to complain about something being consistently entertaining, or can that same consistency also breed boredom? That question was going through my head as I watched the trailer for Thor: Ragnarok a few weeks ago. It also comes to mind as I think about what we can expect from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, which hits UK cinemas this week. Both films are installments in Marvel’s ongoing Cinematic Universe (MCU), and are therefore likely to be blockbusters finely-calibrated to the tastes of both their hardcore fanbase and the general public. But they are also likely to be prime examples of the “Marvel formula”.

Each and every MCU production is now a guaranteed commercial juggernaut, due largely to the undeniable fact that they are very entertaining films. They are (with a couple of exceptions) tightly scripted, well-shot and able to balance humour, action and pathos in admirable fashion. What’s more, Marvel is able to maintain these standards at the astonishing rate of two movies per year, a feat of high-quality industrial film-making the like of which has not been seen since Disney’s cinematic heyday of the early 1990s. But as much fun as they are, all one need do is watch any two MCU blockbusters back-to-back for their formulaic similarities to become immediately apparent.

While Marvel’s wildly varied roster of superheroes helps to differentiate them somewhat, there’s no hiding how oppressively conventional and repetitious the stories of MCU films have become. Even Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) and Doctor Strange (2016), featuring characters so odd on paper that producing them was widely considered a commercial gamble, proved to be weird only in the most superficial sense: narratively speaking, they’re both pretty mundane films. This is because, beneath their spectacular veneer, MCU films are essentially just retreads of the classic ‘hero’s journey’ storyline, featuring character beats and dramatic tropes that are all too familiar to any consumer of mainstream cinema. But Marvel have a particular formula for concealing their films’ unadventurous storytelling, one that goes beyond the distractions of eye-popping effects and design work, and took shape over several years before arguably solidifying in Joss Whedon’s Avengers (2012).

Photo: CC0 Public Domain

This “Marvel formula” has two main elements. First, hire a director with indie or cult credentials, and allow them to inject just enough of their vision into the film to freshen it up without straying too far from the brand template. Examples include the afore-mentioned Whedon, subversive cult favourite James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy), horror veteran Scott Derrickson (Doctor Strange) and New Zealand comedian Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok). Secondly, and more importantly, coat everything in a thick layer of irony.

Irony is everywhere in MCU. Almost every act of every film features a scene undercutting its superheroics or dramatic tension with a wink and a smirk. It is this irony, much more so than the limited idiosyncratic input of their directors, that allows Marvel to continually get away with recycling the same well-worn narratives in their films. Because they can claim they’re not doing any of it seriously, their reliance on lazy storytelling and decades-old character ideas become superficially acceptable. But this sense of irony is so prevalent in the MCU that it doesn’t just undercut po-faced cliché; it undercuts everything. This means that most films are robbed of the poignancy and emotional resonance they might once have had, and ultimately make for a spectacle that, whilst highly entertaining, feels strangely hollow.

This formulaic, ironic template isn’t just tiresome for watchers of MCU films, it’s also limiting people’s ideas about what a comic adaptation can be. The Marvel formula has become the gold standard in comic book cinema, as evidenced by the awkward moments of forced levity in self-consciously non-Marvel movies like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) and Suicide Squad (also 2016), both made by Warner Bros. When even DC properties are starting to take notes, you can be assured that the MCU’s film-making philosophy is seen as the only real game in town, with an influence as widespread as it is limiting. Ironically it is Fox, who have a mixed record with adapting Marvel’s own X-Men for the big screen, who are starting to experiment and forge a way ahead for comic book adaptations outwith the confines of the Marvel formula. Whether through the grit, bleakness and crudity of R-rated movies like Deadpool and Logan, or the gleeful surreality of superb TV show Legion, Fox are actually pointing the way towards a more mature, varied approach to bringing superheroes to the screen. For the moment, though, Marvel’s formula is still seen, both in the industry and by many movie-goers, as the only way to adapt superheroes well.

That Fox’s fresh (and much lauded) approach is built entirely on Marvel’s intellectual property should not escape the studio heads behind the MCU. It suggests that there are ways to make striking, emotional and inventive comic book adaptations using characters and storylines that were established decades ago, without resorting to a formulaic and all-encompassing irony which puts a stylistic stranglehold on the entire genre. As leaders in the field, Marvel are ideally placed to take risks, and to begin pushing at the boundaries of what a superhero adaptation can be. I feel confident that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Thor: Ragnarok are going to entertain us, but I really hope they manage to surprise us as well. After all, consistency is comforting, but it can also be boring.

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