There is a five-minute scene in the new Ant-Man (and the Wasp) picture, Quantumania, where the characters repeat the words ‘the quantum realm’ so often it distracts you from the entire story, the film, the fact that you are in a cinema and makes you start questioning the purpose of your existence if you have to spend another five minutes listening to those words.
This is only one of several indications of how Marvel’s screenwriting has become lazy of late. Between multiple television series, films that nobody knew were coming until after they hit the big screens, and tens of millions in merchandise sales, Disney knows exactly what Marvel’s once highly-regarded cinematic universe is today: a cash cow.
There was a certain novelty in the tricks that the MCU brought to the screen from the first Iron Man film almost consistently until Avengers: End Game. Superhero films always brought a sense of fun, achievement, goodwill, excitement and—above all—hope.
Even back in the days when Christopher Reeves ripped apart his shirt revealing the bright blue-and-red Superman logo1 it put a smile on viewers’ faces. Nobody believed in an alien who could fly, bend steel or possess both X-ray and laser-shooting eyes. But the sheer idea that someone would step in and make everything right was what carried these films forward. Everyone felt like Superman when he walked out of the cinema. The same was the case with Michael Keaton’s and Val Kilmer’s Batman films. Or, more recently, even Sam Raimi’s Spiderman films. Realism was not at the heart of these works; they were about losing oneself in another reality, and they were about feeling good after it all ended.
Marvel has gotten its comedic timing down to a tee. This is true of Quantumania as well. But where they have given up is in building a coherent story that is truly out of this world. They have at their disposal some of the greatest CGI staff and technology yet Quantumania feels half-baked at times. It goes on relentlessly about things you can never connect with but which it relies on to make you feel like the MCU is real indeed. This, ironically, not only makes the entire film less believable, but it also makes it much harder to connect to on any level. Quantumania feels like a chore.
The predictable formula of the MCU goes thusly: the hero gets pushed into a weird/unexpected situation, the hero meets the villain who has seemingly insurmountable power, the villain almost takes the hero out completely, the hero recoups and attacks back, the hero almost gives up their life but in the end saves the world/universe/multiverse in the nick of time. Scatter this series of events with a few clever gags and comebacks and you have a Marvel film in a nutshell. Change the superhero, rinse, re-colour and repeat.
What we are suffering from is a sort of superhero fatigue. But Disney has made this its signature: the MCU is not the only franchise that has fallen victim to Disney’s bosses; Star Wars was something you looked forward to as a kid. It was special because of what was left to the imagination and because there were limited works, all coming once in a while. Now, Star Wars television comes out weekly and most people—whether they like to admit it or not—have had enough.
It is not easy to answer the why of this turn of events, though. Fans of Marvel more ardent than me will claim that everything is hunky-dory and that the films at the early days of Phase 1 MCU were just as disconnected. Anyone going back to watch those films (e.g. Iron Man 1, The Incredible Hulk) will realise that there was a formula back then too but there was also better character development. Viewers do not connect with the MCU, they connect with individual superheroes.
In recent Marvel films—consider Black Adam or Quantumania—the protagonist just exists because he must. There is nothing he learns about himself, nothing we learn about him, no experience he undergoes that we can connect with, no obstacle he encounters that changes him fundamentally or at least makes him question his beliefs or capability. It is universe-centric because writing such a story is easier than writing one that deals with the human element. The problem is not with superhero films. It is with how they are being written for the screen.
To me, a good superhero film should be a good film with elements of super-heroism and science-fiction weaved into it. Marvel’s recent films have started to rely entirely on the presence of a familiar superhero to coast through box office collections. Take that away and the story is bland. The story is what makes a film, be it a biopic or a superhero flick or a whodunit. Without that we have a hollow chestnut.
Marvel would do well to take a leaf out of a couple of recent DC films like Todd Phillips’s The Joker and Matt Reeves’s The Batman. They are both masterfully told superhero (or supervillain in the former case) stories which explore their respective comic universes and take reasonable creative freedom; but what they both have to their credit is that the films stay rooted in their stories. DC has also been more experimental in some of their works, treading new ground whenever possible and getting things mostly right. Marvel is meanwhile resting on its laurels.
The quality control at Marvel is falling and the result is films like Quantumania that look like it was put together by a bunch of Disney interns. Such releases will do little to help the MCU in the long run, devoid of exploration and rehashing a formula. Thankfully, Marvel has gained enough of a momentum already that it can afford the luxury of churning out films that fall flat more often than most studios. But for how long can they get away without putting any effort?
- I am aware this is not the MCU but the point here is about superhero films in general. ↩