Anghus Houvouras asks why Marvel won’t take their heroes seriously…
Humor as a defense mechanism. It’s something that used to be reserved for certain characters in comic books and comic book movies. Robert Downey Jr. took inspiration for Mark Millar’s legendary Ultimates series and made Tony Stark a guy who didn’t take life too seriously. This helped turn Iron Man into a huge hit and redefine the character for a new generation of superhero fans. Tony Stark was never the world’s most serious guy, but Millar’s take on the character combined with Robert Downey Jr.’s brilliant portrayal gave Marvel an anchor for their shared universe that would eventually take over blockbuster cinema.
Spider-Man has always been known for spouting out clever one liners in the line of duty. I had always assumed this is because he’s a kid and humor was how he helped defuse potentially life threatening situations. Since the character’s inception a well-timed quip was part of his arsenal.
There are characters who use humor and it feels completely natural. James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy is another series where humor feels perfectly suited. Peter Quill’s humorous bravado. Rocket’s overcompensation and angry demeanor. Drax’s obtuse high-end of the spectrum observations and inability to spot social cues. These things help improve the film.
However, aren’t there characters that would benefit from avoiding the jokes in their film? After seeing Doctor Strange and cringing my way through some bad jokes and physical gags, I kept thinking to myself how badly Marvel destroys any concept of stakes in their films by making everything one big joke. I keep wanting to scream “The Stakes, Feige! The Stakes!” but I don’t think he can hear me on top of the mountain of money he currently rests atop.
I think my opinion on the Marvel movie formula has been pretty well articulated. They make entertaining confections that lack and sense of gravitas. The stakes are always low, the enemies are usually uninteresting, and they lean way too heavily on snarky protagonists. Most people blame Joss Whedon, who over the course of two Avengers movies turned Earth’s Mightiest Heroes into one-liner spewing clones of his Buffy the Vampire Slayer cast.
And there are moments where it works. It’s funny when Tony Stark makes a joke during a potentially world ending scenario. Or every so often give Thor a line where he boasts to the point of incredulity. But when everyone starts delivering one liners at the end of a scene, the entire concept begins to unravel.
Avengers: Age of Ultron is the most salient example of the disservice done to a movie by Marvel not taking their characters seriously. Ultron, one of the most fear inducing villainous presences in comics was turned into a gag machine. A robotic killing machine actually uttered lines like “I can’t physically throw up in my mouth, but if I could I’d do it”. Vision jokes about being ‘born yesterday’. Straight laced, all business Captain America cracks wise to robot drone he throws off the side of a cliff ‘What’s that? I can’t hear you?’. Quicksilver utters “Bet you didn’t see that coming.” and then hits the concrete like Wiley Coyote. Hawkeye and Black Widow discuss house renovations while driving through an army of drones on an ascending city that has the potential to end all life on earth.
I know why this is done: levity helps make the movie a four quadrant experience. Jokes are family friendly. It helps lessen what could be very tense situations. And there are times where it works and feels totally appropriate. For instance, in Captain America: Civil War.
Having Spider-Man nervously commenting is appropriate for the character. Having Scott Lang a.k.a. Ant-Man cracking wise is appropriate for the character.
But Marvel, seriously, does every character have to be funny?
Doctor Strange was a somewhat confounding experience for me. I love the character, and I’ve been gleefully waiting the movie adaptation since it was first announced. I mean, I was the one who first proposed the idea of Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange. Great creative talent was brought on board to foster the project. I was really hoping that Marvel’s Phase Three would bring us some different movies. Films that evolved past the traditional Marvel mold and allowed for exploration in new areas and storytelling.
Instead we got the same cadence and tone of every other Marvel movie. It seems like no matter the character, they are going to be shoehorned into the protagonist model that they know will work. Every character will look exactly like their comic counterpart, but they will all be forced to be half hero, half humor dispenser while any drama or tension is abandoned.
There was once scene in particular that killed me. Strange is transported to the Sanctum Santorum in New York City. The villainous Zealots arrive to brutally beat down and murder its sworn protector. Within two minutes of this horrible act you have Doctor Strange doing some comedic bits with a computer generated cloak of levitation that feel like something out of Aladdin or one of Chris Columbus’ Harry Potter movies.
Every time they had Doctor Strange make a joke I cringed. It was like watching Cumberbatch aping the rhythms of Robert Downey Jr. It felt… awkward. As did the physical comedy bits. They seemed almost counterintuitive some of the more serious stuff going on within the movie. There were times where it felt like I was watching Doctor Strange: Master of the Snarky Arts.
And it sucks because there are a lot of clever and well thought out scenes in Doctor Strange including some quality character building and allowing him to be unlikable narcissist that he’s known for. There’s also some amazingly well thought out sequences, awesome visuals, and great acting from Tilda Swinton, Benedict Wong, and Chiwitel Ejiofor who knocked it out of the park as the conflicted Baron Mordo.
Phase Three kicks off with a strong declaration that Marvel has a successful game plan and they have no interest in creative deviations. These films are going to follow a specific model and the characters are going to posses similar traits. None of them are going to be taken seriously enough to alienate any of the four quadrants. And that kind of sucks.
You would think with their success that Marvel would feel comfortable with the occasional risk. Didn’t Guardians of the Galaxy teach them anything? You can take marginally known characters and make amazing, successful movies out of them. But they can’t all be the same. They just can’t. Marvel movies have become glib to a fault.
The formula is becoming so watered down with toxic levels of sameness that eventually it will lose solvency. I’m not predicting the end of the Marvel movie empire anytime soon, but I am predicting my complete abandonment of anticipation. As creative endeavors, at some point Marvel movies have to become diverse enough to warrant two or three a year.
My wish would be for at least some of the Marvel movies to be more serious affairs. Not everything has to be as dour and humor free as Man of Steel or Batman v Superman. However, I do think there is a disservice being done by not taking their characters so seriously.