Anghus Houvouras on the low stakes in Marvel movies…
There are so many things the Marvel movies have done right. They’ve launched a new era of studio blockbusters, faithfully adapted some of their most exciting characters with care, and delivered consistently entertaining feature films that, for the most part, are well worth the price of admission.
Sure, Avengers: Age of Ultron kind of sucked and Iron Man 2 was an unsalvagable mess. But more often than not Marvel Studios delivers entertaining and exciting popcorn fare.
The main criticism Marvel has received over the years is how weak their rogues gallery has been. Most of the films feature fairly unspectacular ‘one and done’ villains who really don’t offer much more than a warm body (or bodies) for our heroes to punch repeatedly. Every once in a while we’re blessed with Tom Hiddleston’s Loki or Daniel Bruhl’s amazing Zemo. But more often than not Marvel films have delivered some tepid villains that could only be described as ‘weak ass’.
But over the course of the last few Marvel movies, the milquetoast villains have become secondary to a more obvious conundrum. The fact is that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is seriously lacking in the drama department due to remarkably low stakes. Allow me to explain.
We’re almost a decade into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and for the most part very little has actually happened to our characters. They’ve all endured origin stories of varying degrees. They’ve all suffered slight losses (more on that later). Earth’s Mightiest Heroes have taken on a number of would be world conquerors. But their epic exploits have left them in a place not that far removed from where they started. The fact is that Marvel’s Cinematic Universe hasn’t changed a whole hell of a lot. The status quo at the end of every movie is remarkably similar to where it started.
What have been the grave consequences of the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Loki leads an alien armada into New York City. With the exception of some collateral damage and some epic insurance claims everything was fine. Ultron almost destroyed the Earth with some cockamamie plan to elevate a city into the stratosphere and drop it like it’s hot. With all that destruction and chaos, only one character of note died. And we barely knew him.
Death in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is almost completely unheard of. Not for the main characters anyway. If you’re a supporting character or someone of little consequence there’s a chance you might be killed in a half-assed way to sell the menace of the villain plaguing our heroes. Characters like Bucky in Captain America: The First Avenger (which didn’t stick), Agent Coulson in Avengers (didn’t stick), or Denarian Saal in Guardians of the Galaxy. In this age of multi-franchise Marvel movies, it’s a pretty safe bet no one important is going to die which bleeds the films dry of any real tension.
Even the deaths that should matter feel tacked on. You could argue the most tragic death in the Marvel Cinematic Universe was Quicksilver in Age of Ultron, but since we only met the character two hours earlier there isn’t exactly a whole lot of goodwill built up. I doubt there was anyone in the audience screaming ‘NOOOOOOOO!’ other than Aaron Johnson’s agent after being reminded his client wouldn’t be around for the next Avengers movie.
The lack of stakes in Marvel movies is painfully apparent in Captain America: Civil War. A film that had the potential to contain wide-reaching ramifications for our favorite heroes. After all the ideological conflicts, fighting, and bridge burning, the only real consequence was War Machine being paralyzed. Then again, you really can’t even call it ‘paralyzed’ since he was already walking with the help of Stark technology a few minutes later. The most tragic thing that happened to any of our heroes in Civil War was a character who almost lost the ability to walk.
I’m guessing there are those who would say the most tragic thing that happens in Civil War is the Black Panther’s father dying. But to me, those can’t be considered stakes. If Black Panther’s dad doesn’t die, he doesn’t get involved in hunting down the Winter Soldier. And since comic book characters can only be motivated into action by the death of their parents, that seemed like a foregone conclusion. Seriously. The most ‘likely to die’ character in comic book movies are blood relatives to the main characters. The only thing less likely to survive in these films is the relationship between the main character and whatever actress they don’t feel like paying for another sequel.
The Wasp in Ant-Man is a fantastic example of woefully low stakes. We learn that the reason Hank Pym is reluctant to let his daughter suit up and become the hero is because he lost his wife while playing superhero. We get an emotionless special FX laden of two CGI models on a rocket to try to deliver an emotional wallop that lands with the effectiveness of a hammer made out of ham.
You would think after so many Marvel movies that the creative teams would get better at not only raising the stakes, but making the world they exist in feel perilous. When everything is so easy for the main characters, when the impossible seems so attainable, when none of the characters are every really in harm’s way, how invested am I supposed to be?
The end of Civil War provides us with another fine example of the stakes being lowered to maddening depths. There’s the potential for peril after most of Cap’s teammates have been captured and left at The Raft to rot. There’s the potential for a nice dark ending where Cap has to go underground and the fate of his allies remain in question. But then in the final moments we see the aftermath of Captain America’s Raft raid and know by the film’s final frames that their incarceration was shorter than a day trip to Busch Gardens.
I understand that not everyone feels the same way. Some people are fine with the pulpy, puddle deep drama of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But, for me, I would love to see the stakes raised exponentially. I’d like to see characters suffer at the hands of a nefarious villain and pay the price for their hubris. I’d prefer stories with some depth and endings that deal with actual consequences.
Is it just me?
Anghus Houvouras is a North Carolina based writer and filmmaker and the co-host of Across the Pondcast. Follow him on Twitter.