There’s a trick to making a great comic book movie that only Marvel Studios have figured out. It will shock you. It will rock you. It will take you out to dinner and give you a lovely foot massage. And here it is… make a great movie. Instead of focusing on where the source material came from, just make a great movie from the source material. Marvel do this consistently. Not because they have better source material, because if that were the case, then the ‘Fantastic Four’ and ‘Amazing Spiderman’ movies wouldn’t have been just as wretched as ‘The Green Lantern’ was.
Marvel Studios have a formula to ensure they are making great movies, and not just great “comic-book movies”. Below I’ll break down this formula and how it was implemented in the MCU, as well as how its absence illustrates at least one reason why other film studios’ movies have failed, even in spite of box office results on occasion.
SPOILER – To save time, I won’t go into Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, which is ironic since he is responsible for nearly every comic book movie running over 2 hours these days. I’m also leaving out some of the MCU films and the Unamazing Spiderman movies to save time.
There are three components all separate from the departmental aspects of cinematography, score & sound, production design, acting etc. Those give individuality to a movie and can impact its success, but the foundation of a great movie is made up of Story, Character, and Additional Genre.
- Is the story relevant? Does it add to or spark a discussion about an issue affecting the audience at that time? (having a universal theme cannot replace this, it adds to it immeasurably, but if you add icing to an empty plate, you don’t have cake).
- Are there characters with relatable motivation and clear (NOT simplified or generic) story arcs of growth and change?
- The Comic-Book movie is becoming monolithic, yet it is still a sub-genre which needs the framework of a larger, older, or just simpler genre. The Additional Genre, or AG, must be clear so that the expectations of the film can be met and/or challenged. Otherwise the characters don’t know what world they inhabit, and the story can’t progress or resolve.
THE MARVEL MOVIES
- Story: A billionaire CEO and engineering genius survives an assassination attempt only to learn his company has been usurped and used for illegal weapons manufacturing/distribution.
Relevance: The military industrial complex is operating on both sides of wars and the law for financial gain. Sad but true.
2. Character Arc: Tony Stark is a brilliant, yet selfish man who still feels overshadowed by his father. He is brought face to face with the human cost of his selfish apathy. He pushes forward to uncover a plan to muddy his and his father’s legacy, ultimately declaring to the world with confidence the kind of honourable man he is, no is longer in his father’s shadow, but burning bright and hot like an iron.
3. AG: Spy thriller, a seemingly ordinary man is thrown into a dangerous world and must use his wits to uncover the truth and bring down a war lord.
Thor 1 & 2
- Story: A family drama within a classic tale of adventure centred around a Kingdom in peril.
Relevance: A long held peace can be destroyed by a new generation’s selfish quests for power. Old grudges and beliefs of national superiority to different ways of life.
2. Character Arc: Thor realises he is not invincible and that his greatest strength will come when he values the lives of others as much as he does his own. Loki does not feel valued, yet he deeply believes that he is capable of great things. The discovery of what those things are takes two different paths in both films.
3. AG: Fantasy Adventure, an ancient kingdom is threatened by an outside force and a hero must arise to defeat them by first learning to love and be selfless.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
- Story: A government body acting above the law yet with the guise of benign power is revealed to be corrupt. A small band of rebels who are true to the original cause, fight to bring the corrupt ones down.
Relevance: The first true examination of US Exceptionalism in the MCU, this film was more than just a feat of action choreography and cinematography. It highlighted the pervasive threat of US power in both its surveillance under ambiguous justifications and its lack of restraint. There is also the allusion to manufactured consent and war-mongering as a tool to induce chaos and obedience through fear.
2. Character Arc: Cap’ is a man dealing with PTSD, trying to build a new life after years of defining himself through service to a nobel and selfless cause. Before he can examine those other parts of himself, he is forced to go on the run to find out the true nature of the apparently nobel cause he thought he had been fighting for.
3. AG: Spy/Action, an exceptional spy is framed and forced to find out who is truly in control of his agency, wherein he can trust no one.
The Avengers 1 & 2
- Story: A threat to liberty descends on Earth and a group of unlikely allies must use their unusual gifts to defeat this threat.
Relevance: American Exceptionalism examined and put to the test. Both films address the weapons trade, as well as how new technologies often arise as an attempt to save the lives of soldiers, yet often inflict greater numbers of civilian deaths. In the first, it is a general statement, and in the second film, it is artificial intelligence, which heightens the overarching existential issues of any given person or group’s purpose in the larger world.
2. Character Arc: The trickiest part of these movies is in isolating single character arcs. There are roughly a dozen main characters as well as that many storylines flowing through connecting films.
Tony Stark struggles to overcome his resistance to oversight and trust (seeding his issues with Pepper) because he has always been possessed of a selfish, superior belief in himself. He must accept being part of a team, as well as not even leading the team. Cap has to put his personal demons aside (out of place, lost love, not having had time to acclimatise to his new identity after the experiment and the war) to inspire soldiers to work together and go to war yet again. The Hulk is dragged into accepting his incredible power and vicious nature in the first film, only to be so traumatised by it in the second that he reverts back to a state of fear and self-imposed isolation.
However, the central issue for the characters is how to reconcile family rivalries. Beyond the obvious sibling conflict of Thor and Loki, the Avengers themselves become a family unit which fights within itself. They grow to accept their inescapable, shared fate. Another layer in and all of the Avengers have family issues themselves – Tony and Thor have their father’s shadows. Romanov (Black Widow) never knew her family and can never have children herself. Cap’s family is long dead and his resistance to starting his own show a fear of loss. Hulk cannot have one and also fears the loss he would inflict or suffer. The characters of Barton (Hawkeye) and the twins (Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver) are not just fighting to hold onto the family they have, which is the absolute priority for them, but we are shown the effects of war on both soldiers and civilians.
Additionally, both threats in the films were created as a result of the actions of the Avengers attempting to neutralise greater threats. Thor created the first threat by exiling Loki (albeit accidentally when he had to break the Bifrost), and Iron Man created Ultron when trying to stop unknown threats in the future.
3. AG: Ensemble Western, an unlikely, rag-tag group of misfits with extraordinary skills come together to bring down an evil force, terrorising an innocent town/city/country/planet.
Guardians of the Galaxy
- Story: An outlaw with a good heart stumbles on a plot to destroy half the galaxy and enslave the rest, so must assemble a motley crew of fellow outlaws to stop it.
Relevance: A superpower (Thanos) attempts to covertly use a terrorist organisation to gain control of their known universe. The terrorists, lead by a vengeful and petulant psychopath (Ronan) are egotistical and selfish, wanting to destroy anyone unlike them out of hate and vengeance.
2. Character Arc: Star Lord is a good hearted man in a bad situation. He’s been that way since childhood and has turned off the goodness in him, as well as his emotional core to avoid dealing with his pain. He finally gets the strength to be his own man and face his traumatic past. This arc is echoed by all key supporting roles among the Guardians, and is the antithesis of the villain, Ronan, who embraces evil instead of good when confronting his past trauma. He choses vengeance, whereas the Guardians choose forgiveness.
3. AG: An Adventure/Sci-Fi/Western hybrid, another rag-tag group of outsiders are thrown into an upside-down world where they have to become the good guys and find their inner strength in a chaotic world. The Sci-Fi elements are in the allegory of racism and vengeance irrespective of the amazing technological capabilities of a galactic civilisation.
- Story: A megalomaniacal CEO has usurped control over a company and seeks to use a new technology to achieve market monopoly and operate above the law, forcing the true leader to recruit an unlikely hero to help him stop this destructive plan.
Relevance: Corporate greed/military industrial complex yet again.
2. Character Arc: Scott Lang is a father in need of redemption, held back only by a lack of faith in himself, and that whole criminal conviction hurdle. Hank Pym steps in like a good father figure struggling with the ramifications of his own ego. Hank’s protege as well as his daughter are desperate to prove themselves to him. Unfortunately for Hank, he’ll only be able to save his relationship with one. It’s a great moment, which Scott kinda ruins.
3. AG: Heist, I need you to break into a place and steal some shit.
Captain America: Civil War
- Story: A team of superheroes are torn apart personally and ideologically when confronted with the consequences of their actions, while an old ally returns with secrets that could either unite or destroy them all.
Relevance: American exceptionalism is once again the core theme of pertinence to 21st Century audiences. The US possesses an unprecedented ‘power’ in the history of the world, and there is a rift between their ideals or hopes for a noble wielding of this power and the caution the other nations of the world are viewing this power with. America clearly seems to mistrust any notion of a check on their actions. Additionally, it is personally relevant in the context of war and escalating threats, being muddied with how people react to collateral damage and the attempts to justify it.
- Character Arcs: Once again, Cap is pushed into a new fight that threatens to tear his team apart. He must chose between friends and a greater good. His past continues to haunt him and his present will not allow him to reconcile his own identity crisis until he can inspire others to work together for a greater good. Tony Stank is reeling from the repercussions of so many personal responsibilities. The man everyone deems an egotist is crumbling from insecurity and the fear of loss that has been with him since his parent’s tragic death at a key point in his young life. He grabs at ‘The Accords’ as a way of stepping away from responsibility which goes to the very heart of who he is when his newest invention is a way to control one’s memories and alleviate the pain of them. Even when he is magnanimous, he is selfishly motivated. Bucky is another hero who choses to run from his power out of fear that he cannot be accepted, and fear that he cannot control his power. After Cap refuses to leave his side once more, he accepts that it may be possible to accept his past as well as his dangerous power, he runs to Wakanda, but with a glimmer of hope that he can return. Scarlet Witch has the beginnings of a coming of age when she finally learns to accept the chaos and pain and misunderstanding that is inescapable in the world. She has been immeasurably hurt by violence herself, and she now has power strong enough to hurt others in the same way. Black Panther is faced with great responsibility as leader, diplomat and warrior when he and his whole nation mourn the cruel murder of his father, but comes to realise that revenge does not satisfy, nor is it the path of a great man, who he must be for the good of his country. His arc is tied back to the family themes of The Avengers wherein fathers try to do right by their children and children try to do right by their parents.
- AG: Spy/Fugitive Thriller, multiple super spies/soldiers are on the run as a Machiavellian shadow figure manipulates various agencies for a vendetta.
Non MARVEL Movies:
“No, it was A-MAZING, and not a MARVEL studios film, so there!”
Yes, it had incredible marketing, great casting, very cool music, a lot of action, a balance of tone and a unique story telling style. It was very funny and self referential in a way no other film had dared to do on such a scale, plus it adhered extremely well to the source material without being cartoonish. By all accounts it’s a huge success and truly a great comic-book movie, but is it a great movie, period? What made Deadpool relevant to today’s society? Why did those characters do what they did? How different were they at the end? Did it have a clear AG that grounded it in the cinematic world beyond costumes and violence and a vague moral sentiment?
- Story: A mercenary seeks revenge on the person and organisation that mutilated him in an attempt to turn him into a slave.
Relevance: Numerous war veterans returning from Middle Eastern tours sometimes find themselves being recruited as mercenaries by dubious companies. Other times they suffer PTSD and addiction and poverty and many also commit suicide. Don’t think about that though, this is a comedy.
2. Character Arcs: Wade Wilson took a deal with the devil because he had no choice and couldn’t bare to lose the one he loved, nor have her lose him. We know they love each other because they… made jokes… and fucked a lot… they’re hot so… that equals eternal love. We know he had no choice because in his past life we know that what drove him was… fuck. Okay, he was a mercenary, a soldier, a drifter with a good heart because… why was he any of that? Fuck. But, at the beginning he was selfish and after he acted selfishly throughout the whole movie he was… still kinda selfish. That’s what makes him funny though… Okay, he was hot at the beginning and not at the end. Except it wasn’t a linear story, so technically he wasn’t hot at the beginning… Fuck.
Wade aka Captain Deadpool, only has one motivation at any one time. He loves his girlfriend because they have a similar sense of humour and both love fucking because they’re both super, super hot. They fuck therefore they love. Descartes said that on a bender I’ll bet. Next, he wants to stay alive to keep fucking his love. When they torture him he can take it and even gives strength to a fellow tortured inmate, because he really wants to keep fucking his love. Then they make him ugly and he swears revenge. Not just because of the way he looks, but because they said they were turning people into slaves, not superheroes, and he cares about all the other slaves. He feels real bad about burning down that building where most of them probably died… super, super bummed about it. Okay, he’s a shallow, vain, selfish person who thinks only in the short term. That explains why our understanding of him is shallow, short term and based on vanity.
3. Additional Genre: Action/Black Comedy film?
Explosions, blood and laughs don’t actually ground a movie any more than the Superhero tag does. The non-linear story is largely a way to keep the action consistent, rather than emotionally charged – it panders to the ADHD audience it thinks we are, but it cleverly hides the lack of foundation in the film.
‘Deadpool’ is actually a Meta movie, wherein the analogy is self reflective. It says that society is driven by a flippant apathy always kept in check with minor acts of selflessness. That it is rampant with self entitlement and that love is defined by good looks and frequent, adventurous, fucking, whereas morality is as simple as “they’re Bad Guys”. Why? Because they hurt Wade and he’s obviously a Good Guy. Sure, he asked them to hurt him in the first place, but he didn’t know what he was signing up for. He was using them… Everything the movie is saying about the characters and how the story is told, is a reflection of a pretty fucked up society. If that’s intentional, this is a great movie. If it’s not, then within 10 years it will be forgotten. Those jokes will get old, those action sequences will become repetitive and the romance will seem as shallow as high school flings after enough time has passed, and a new hottie is in your life.
X Men: First Class & Days of Future Past
It’s no surprise that the person who broke the comic book movie duopoly of DC/Marvel in 2010 (Matthew Vaughn with ‘Kick-Ass’) made a great Marvel movie outside of Marvel studios. Yet, despite ‘Days of Future’ past beating ‘First Class’ at the box office and in the critic’s minds, it seems that Bryan Singer returned only to use Hugh Jackman’s cache again, then put the franchise safely back into the garbage heap with ‘Apocalypse’. That’s all somewhat subjective and vague, so let’s look at the formula.
- Story and Relevance: The first two of the reboots easily ticked box #1 because every X Men story has social relevance guaranteed in the DNA of the creation. People around the world are still afraid of difference and newness, while seeing threats around every corner. The telling of the story hinged on a more personal, visceral level in the former. The latter continued those elements while serving to resolve those created with the original series in 2000.
- Character Arcs: Box #2 looks like it’s ticked with help from outstanding actors/great casting, yet this is superficial. When each X Men film of the whole franchise is placed side by side, we see how diluted any notion of an arc is. Who’s arc is really different, and are these stories cohesive or just re-done? Out of the dozens of minor characters, why does each villain seem barely even two dimensional, and why is each hero given the bare minimum of likability or motivation to act only as foils for the plot to move forward? Everything revolves around Magneto, Professor X, Wolverine, Mystique and little ole Beast in the corner, yet not a single one of them undergoes any significant change in themselves. All they do is get pushed to a decision at the climax of the film where they act “heroically” by stopping themselves from causing mass death.
- Additional Genre: Box #3 is not ticked because both merely doubled down on the Superhero genre itself. This makes them Pure Superhero films, which is almost fair since they restarted interest in Superhero and Comic-book movies 16 years ago, although every one of those films has more or less told the exact same story. By doing the same story, they lack an individual flavour. Every single X Men film incorporates the elements of Coming of Age, Revenge, Spy Thriller, Fish Out of Water and War genres. It may be solid to build your foundation out of many various elements, but sometimes it ends up being very unsteady and not exactly fun, like a house built on glass, sandstone, limestone, wood, mud, gravel and cork. It’s too much and it looks weird.
X Men: Apocalypse
It deserves special mention and elaboration, simple as that. This franchise, to say it again, is responsible for the rebirth of the Comic-Book Movie – likely a long-lasting and game changing sub-genre. It’s too bad they tried to keep up with Marvel more than they tried to make a great movie, or at least an original movie.
- Story and Relevance: A supremely powerful being appears on the earth, disapproves of society and all humans, seeks to use angry youth to destroy the world and rebuild a vague “superior society” in its place. Relevant because people are dicks still.
- Character Arcs: Apocalypse is a caricature of a villain with equally flat lackeys (barring Magneto, who has the same arc as before). There is nothing human or personal about him. At least in ‘First Class’, Kevin Bacon wanted money and power, while in ‘Days of Future Past’ Peter Dinklage thought he was doing something good, Oscar Isaac is just another Facebook warrior claiming that humans are meanies. The X-men themselves have a built-in empathy and social relevance, but little more in this film.
- Additional Genre: Same ‘Ol, Same ‘Ol. The mega-mix attempt again failed to ground this one in anything other than spectacle. The espionage aspect is never central to what is happening, nor is there a satisfying coming of age thread because the cast is too big. There is no Fugitive element, nor Sci-Fi, Fantasy, or even War elements.
Batman V Superman: Dawn of Juicey Pecs League
DC comics are doubling down to compete with Marvel on multiple fronts, but Zack Snyder has not helped them. He did give them, and the world, a very different Superman & Batman, it’s just not clear what good that did. His biggest success is 2004’s ‘Dawn of the Dead’ where he retained the criticism of consumerist culture from the original, as well as amplifying it. The ferocity of our consumerism has increased as has the ferocity of the zombies. Perhaps that was a happy accident that arose simply because Snyder wanted a more violent and intense film?
- Story: Two Superheroes are viewed with scepticism due to the seeming viciousness of their tactics and illegal vigilante status. The fear and personal drive for revenge in the face of massive collateral damage allows a young tech genius/billionaire to manipulate both government officials and mercenaries in a plot to destroy both superheroes, along with any threat to his power. Right? That’s what was going on? A lot of it didn’t make sense, in particular, the fact that Superman posed little threat to Lex Luthor, and it would have made more sense to stop Batman, the great detective. Superman simply helped the weak and those in danger of things like floods and fires.
Relevance: One hero is a billionaire at a time when billionaires are less than popular and their philanthropy is constantly seen as dubious. The other is a being from a destroyed planet which held our planet in no esteem. He wields unimaginable power yet expects trust in his benevolence – sounds like a criticism of capitalism/US imperialism could be interesting and poignant… Nope.
- Character Arcs: The only relatable character, and the one with a sensible motivation is actually Lex Luthor. He is a genius and a billionaire with megalomaniacal aspirations for power, which is personalised by his father issues. He’s clearly insane, but it’s plain to see what drove him there and what still drives him. The threat of Superman’s physical power is conflated with financial and political power in Lex’s mind, which for the audience, confuses Superman’s inner struggle to understand how to live with his physical power and the collateral damage he wants to avoid causing. Bruce Wayne was understandably upset about Superman’s reckless behaviour in ‘Man of Steel’s climax, but he’s not Batman if he can’t see that Zod was going to destroy much more than a few city blocks. Bruce’s entire arc is inconsistent, and motived by a childish revenge he very slowly swallows. Clark Kent has reason to distrust both Lex and Bruce, but is also an uninspiring God figure if he can’t adequately speak to the masses nor figure out he’s being manipulated. For a journalist, instead of investigating grave injustices like the one’s Luthorcorp has committed, he spends his time worrying about a man taking the law into his own hands because he is selfish and wants to be the only one to do that.
- Additional Genre: Fuck no.
If the Comic Book movie grows as a sub-genre, and it surely will, the films will need to aspire to be great beyond the genre.The story has to be worth telling as well as relevant and understandable. The characters have to grow, learn and have clear motivations. There has to be a strong genre foundation for all of the above so that it is not a dull genre of spectacle and CGI. That may be difficult when every comic book movie seems to be just another part of a longer series, but it doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing.