Like a lot of you, I’ve had a decent amount of free time recently, and for the most part, I’ve come up short when trying to think of constructive and productive ways to spend all of that time.
So what did I do? Well, I decided to get into the Marvel craze, several years too late.
I haven’t exactly been avoiding the modern-day Marvel movies, but I also haven’t sought them out, and when Infinity War was proclaimed to be the most important cinematic event of all time, I shrugged off the headlines and went back to eating Tastycakes and languishing in my own self-righteousness.
Here are the Marvel movies I watched prior to this recent binge:
That’s all. (I’m planning on doing a full review of Ragnarok soon enough, but it’s mostly going to praise the movie’s sense of humor and distaste for Marvel movie trends, which everyone else has already done.)
I liked both of those movies just fine, but neither made me feel obligated to look into the rest of the cinematic universe.
So. I watched the Marvel movies, including Infinity War and Endgame, both of which are still pretty fresh in the collective consciousness of the modern world. Still, I was curious about what these movies would feel like to an outsider such as myself, and even more interested in how these movies will age in the years to come.
What did I think? From the headline, you might have guessed that I didn’t end up becoming a big Marvel fan. But I also didn’t hate the movies, really. This is important to stress here on the internet, where everyone’s reaction to every movie eventually gets distilled into LOVE or HATE. Each product is either the absolute best or the epitome of bad and shameless/worthy of extremely harsh criticism.
To date, the only real criticism I’ve heard of the MCU has come from deeply entrenched fanboys who just so happen to side with DC. In other words, any hatred for Marvel tends not to be based on actual complaints or arguments, just simple brand loyalty and a desire to be seen as an edgy outsider.
I’m not a fan of the DC movies, and I’m definitely not an edgy outsider. I watched Infinity War and got nothing out of it, on any level. And I’d like to explain why.
I’ll be discussing both Infinity War and Endgame, but since Infinity War garnered the most praise, I’ll try to speak to that installment the most.
Alright, enough preamble. Let’s stir up some controversy.
Just about every aspect of the Avengers movies has been praised to no end, but if I were to ask Joe Blow moviegoer to explain why he enjoyed the Marvel movies more than other comic book flicks or other big-budget action movies in general, I’ll bet you a hot dog that he’d say it’s because of the characters.
For so many, the characters are what sets every Marvel Hollywood product apart from other big movies.
And now we’ve come to the very first concession I have to make: the character work in the Marvel movies is pretty good. Kind of good.
This is also the first moment where I have to admit that these descriptors are all relative. When I say something positive about the Marvel movies, that compliment is in relation to other major Hollywood motion pictures. And, call me crazy, but I bet that’s a big reason why so many critics fawned over these movies, especially the last few.
Rather than addressing each movie as its own entity, it gets compared to the others in the series, or other movies in the same genre.
A great example of this one is the reviews for the Transformers movies vs. the reviews of Bumblebee.
The Rotten Tomatoes scores for the first five Transformers movies are as follows:
Then, in 2018, here comes the Bumblebee standalone movie, which earned a 91% critic rating and a “guaranteed fresh’ .jpeg.
Here’s a snippet of a review of the movie by James Berardinelli of ReelViews:
“The movie works in large part because of the depth of Steinfeld’s performance. We haven’t seen such a well-realized character in any of the other Transformers movies.”
Here’s a blurb from Brigid Presecky of FF2 Media:
“With Hailee Steinfeld impressively leading the action blockbuster, this new telling of an old tale is a refreshing change.”
These reviews judge Bumblebee in relation to other Transformers movies or other action films.
So here’s the thing: that’s not inherently bad. There’s no right or wrong way to do the job of media criticism (for the most part).
But especially on a site like Rotten Tomatoes, which collects reviews for literally hundreds of thousands of movies, you’re not going to see a little asterisk on certain scores saying, “This one got great reviews, but, ya know, it’s still a Transformers movie.”
And yes, it’s silly to try to score art in the first place, but I think that when it comes to the reviews of the Marvel movies, many critics and members of general audiences were happy to get any kind of realistic character work in a superhero movie, especially when that character work involves humor that makes characters more likable.
But it doesn’t mean that the character writing here is especially good, it’s really not. At most, it’s passable. It’s better than the dogs*** writing in Batman v. Superman. It’s better than the writing in Batman and Robin. It’s better than the pretentious nonsense in the Nolan Batman flicks. (Can you tell I don’t like the Batman movies very much?)
More than anything, the praise for the character work done in the Avengers movies speaks to the sad state of the writing in big-budget Hollywood movies. The moviegoing public’s expectations for these movies are tempered by what they’ve been fed in the past.
Now, let’s get a bit more specific.
Character interactions/dialogue (The Tale of Jomps Wobbin)
Specifically, I’ve had many, many friends defend the character interactions in the Marvel movies. They tell me that it’s funny and it makes the characters feel more like real people. They especially love when two characters who weren’t expected to meet exchange a few lines with each other.
I was looking forward to all this. It sounded great. One friend showed me that one clip from the Ultron movie. Age of Ultron. Ultron Man Gets Mad. That one.
It’s where they’re all hanging around in the big tall building and trying to pick up Thor’s hammer. (Btw, I know the hammer’s name but I don’t feel like googling it to check the spelling. Muilnur? Mullneer?)
I liked that scene a lot. It felt like my favorite parts of the old Cartoon Network version of Teen Titans (not Teen Titans GO, come on now), where all the characters just felt like friends hangin’ out, trying to work through their little drama tangents.
Those kinds of scenes do indeed make characters feel real, and it serves a wish-fulfillment function, too. Of course I wanted to hang out with the Teen Titans. It’s fun to feel like you’re one of the gang.
And that Avengers scene does indeed serve the same purpose, but it is the only time I felt that way about these characters in any of the Marvel/Avengers movies. That was it, and it’s over in just a couple of minutes. It’s the only time they felt like real people with human problems and emotions.
So when the Avengers all got together, I was expecting some killer dialogue. After all, it’s a Joss Whedon project, right? He’s pretty funny, I assume. Firefly was pretty good, even if it also felt painfully corny more than half the time.
However, I’ve never thought of his dialogue as realistic. Let’s be clear on that. We can call his dialogue quippy. We can even call it vaguely progressive. But it’s not realistic. And I think this is part of why the conversation surrounding Avengers dialogue has gotten muddled.
The way the Avengers talk is heightened. They don’t talk like people, they talk like movie characters. Which is fine. Most movies do this, and it’s hard to think of a single comic book movie that hasn’t.
Tony Stark, in particular, is just chock-full of clever dialogue, to the point where I would even call it overwritten. It’s so glossy that the sense of immersion is just gone.
Then you’ve got the side characters who just sound like boring movie people. Sam Jackson says some stuff. Authority figures establish themselves as bad guys without personality.
But it’s the interactions that bothered me the most. The big shtick of the first Avengers movie was seeing all these characters interacting with each other. The big shtick of Infinity War was seeing all these characters interacting with each other, but this time with even more characters from other bland Marvel movies.
And that’s why it bothers me so much that the actual interactions are not good or interesting or well written.
Here’s the formula for how Marvel characters talk to other Marvel characters in these movies. Specifically, this refers to the big crossover interactions, like Thor with the Guardians people.
Character 1: Something that establishes their one defining character trait (occasionally includes their physical appearance).
Character 2: Something that establishes their own defining character trait.
Character 1: Acknowledges the other character’s defining trait.
Character 2: Wink to the audience regarding their own or the other character’s defining trait.
Oh, I almost forgot, there’s an alternate formula that gets used when the tone of the scene is too serious for goofy lines:
Character 1: Nods at other character.
Character 2: Nods at other character.
This is not impressive writing, and it’s definitely not groundbreaking in any sense. But, when we judge the dialogue and interactions against those we find in other superhero movies, it suddenly sounds great.
Likewise, the humor we find in this dialogue isn’t that funny, but it’s at least kind of funny, which automatically makes it 100x funnier than anything in The Dark Knight or Watchmen or X-Men: Days of Future Past, etc.
The other reason so many people love these little moments is simple: crossover episodes are neat.
I know, it sounds like an oversimplification, but it’s the truth.
Crossovers are just fun. They create a very strong sense of dramatic irony, ya know, the kind of irony where you know something the characters don’t. You get to feel powerful and in-the-know. It feels like when you bring a grownup friend back to your hometown to meet your high school buddies. It’s exciting, and they’re all cool people so they’ll probably like each other just fine.
This is why crossover episodes became a staple of American television decades ago. It’s neat-o to see Mork hang out with the Happy Days crowd. Peter Griffin on The Simpsons? Yes please!
Or, for someone closer to my age, I should go ahead and mention the most significant television event of all time, The Jimmy Timmy Power Hour of 2004.
I can’t tell you how excited I was for that special. Both characters felt like my friends thanks to parasocial weirdness, and when I finally got to seen them on the screen together, I was disappointed they didn’t spend the whole thing side by side.
While Jimmy and Timmy had to work out some weird science-y problem, I could sit back and enjoy. Only the audience receives the full benefits of the crossover, and we always want more.
But with Marvel, it just didn’t work for me.
I had no special feelings for these characters. I had watched all their standalone movies and still nothing. They didn’t feel like people. They never felt like anything other than paper-thin movie guys who zoom around and fix problems because that’s what the movie needs them to do. Somehow, after many hours of screentime, they hadn’t actually been developed. Had any of them even cried? Even once? Thanos does, I know that. But as for the Avengers, I never once felt their pain. I never felt like I’d want to be friends with them. I never wanted them to make the transition to the real world. They had nothing to offer me, so when they all got together, it felt the same as before: movie characters spitting out formulaic nonsense at one another, all in the service of getting us to the next big action scene where they’d zoom around and fix things by working together.
If the characters were the Marvel movies’ ace in the hole, it’s no wonder that I felt nothing when some of them “died.” And it didn’t help that I knew the “dead” ones would be coming back soon enough, ready to zoom around and fix things. Not like people, not even a little.
Coming next time: the visuals.