Anghus Houvouras on the Marvel Cinematic Universe putting moments ahead of character motivation…
I recently watched Captain America: Civil War again on Netflix. As pure pulpy popcorn picturesque entertainment goes, it’s a harmless romp. Over the last 18 months I’ve kind of cooled on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and a lot of fellow fans and writers ask ‘why?’ So I’ve attempted to dig deep and articulate what about the Marvel movies is leaving me ambivalent.
The most salient example I could think of involved Ant-Man.
Ask yourself this question: What was Scott Lang’s character arc in Ant-Man?
Scott Lang was a noble guy who paid the price for trying to expose corruption. Because of his overzealous nature and lack of consideration for the consequences of his actions, he ends up in prison and loses the thing most important to him; his family. He works hard to redeem himself focused on the goal of winning back the trust of his ex-wife and a life with his daughter. He easily falls back into old patterns but gets a chance at redemption by becoming Ant-Man.
At the end of Ant-Man Scott has found something of a balance between being a hero to the world as well as to his daughter.
Captain America: Civil War erased any personal gains Scott Lang made in Ant-Man. We all know the chain of events: Captain America and a handful of Avengers have an ideological split and are forced to fight their fellow teammates. In need of some back up, Falcon reaches out to Scott Lang who drops everything to help his fellow heroes.
The movie tells us that Lang is an admirer of Captain America and was willing to do anything to help. But if Scott really wanted to stay out of trouble, wouldn’t embarking on an international trip (which I have to guess violates his parole) to get involved in superhero shenanigans threaten the very foundation of the life he’s trying to build for himself and his daughter?
I suppose you could argue that Lang is impulsive and that old habits die-hard. Or if you’re a real downer, you might think that Scott is a selfish prick who never considers the consequences and that his life as Ant-Man is far more important than his daughter or making amends for bad choices. Either way Civil War kind of ruins Scott Lang’s character arc in Ant-Man. It also provides us with a character whose motivations are not only questionable, but illogical.
This is because Marvel movies aren’t about character motivations. They’re about creating moments. Scott Lang’s character is less important than the moment he turns into Giant-Man and gives Civil War an epic upgrade to an already awesome set piece.
When people ask me ‘Why don’t you like Marvel movies?’, I kind of chuckle. I liked Captain America: Civil War. But I hate when Marvel resets characters and rapidly changes motivations to fit with whatever story they’re staging.
Let’s look at an example of motivations done right in Civil War. Hawkeye was given a heaping helping of character building in Avengers: Age of Ultron when we’re introduced to his wife and kids. The guy who is constantly made fun of for being Robin Hood in a world of Gods and Monsters is given a tether to this world and an explanation of his value to the team. After everything we’ve seen from Clint Barton in The Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron, his appearance in Civil War feels earned. Here’s a guy willing to risk his ties to this world for a hero he fought alongside and someone he believes in.
Can we say the same for Scott Lang?
Let’s look at another example:
Follow up with this question: What was Tony Stark’s character arc in Iron Man 3?
After suffering from a bout of anxiety after dealing with the events of The Avengers, Tony realizes that the only way to come to terms with his place in the world is to evolve beyond just behind Iron Man. He blows up all his suits of armor. He closes out the movie with a handful of tools hitched to the back of his car: there are new things to create and new roads to explore.
Then we see him Age of Ultron and he’s Iron Man again. I probably wasn’t the only one thinking ‘Huh what now?’ Tony Stark might be the character with the most maligned motivations in the Marvel movie universe. A character who attempts to find redemption in Iron Man, is then forced to deal with his own mortality (again) in Iron Man 2, and frets about his place in the world in Iron Man 3. The Avengers films have his motivations bounce back and forth between ‘mad scientist’ and ‘stalwart defender of the establishment’ with a kind of breakneck pace reserved for Olympic table tennis matches.
This is simply because Marvel molds the character to the story, not the other way around. Marvel is about creating moments. Iron Man blowing up his suits in a grand gesture to love and a belief that he can evolve. Ant-Man becoming skyscraper sized to save his teammates from defeat. These moments are cool, but they come at the expense of the characters.
To many, it doesn’t matter. They’re happy to see these cool moments copied from classic comics into their cinematic adaptations. They care less about Scott Lang as a character and more about seeing Ant-Man riding one of Hawkeye’s arrows into battle. For the record; there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.
However, when someone like myself is asked ‘Why don’t you like Marvel movies?’ and I reply with ‘rapidly changing character motivations from one film to the next’ as an example, having it brushed off with ‘You must be a DC fanboy’ becomes perplexing.
Marvel movies are great at creating moments. When it comes to motivations, they could use a little fine tuning.