SPOILER ALERT: I’m going to talk about plot points in Guardians of the Galaxy, Avengers, and Thor: The Dark World.
Ben Kuchera wrote on Polygon about the complex planning going on at Marvel to tie all of the franchises Disney now owns together in to one larger universe. He starts with the premise that the Marvel stories have centered on MacGuffins that are shared between movies. This isn’t the correct use of the word though because a MacGuffin is something unimportant to the plot, it’s just a goal that could be anything. In Marvel movies, the central plots revolve around the use of these objects, which hardly makes them interchangeable baubles. He’s speaking, of course, about the Infinity Stones — The Tesseract (Captain America: The First Avenger,The Avengers), The Aether (Thor: The Dark World), and The Sphere/Purple Rock (Guardians of the Galaxy).
Ben argues that the success that Marvel has seen has been due, in no small way, to these stones. The movies with the ‘stones’ have centered on them being used to imperil Earth/The Universe, and then brought back in to containment. All the while they hint at the larger significance of these elements for future movies, and future franchises.
I argue that Marvel’s success has had more to do with creating likable characters in movies that blend action and comedy. Every Marvel movie winks at the audience, because the actors, and the characters, know they’re in a fun playground. It’s the people, not the stones, that have driven Marvel’s success. (Also Disney’s marketing department, let’s not forget Disney’s marketing department.)
These powerful elements, now explicitly referred to as the Infinity Stones, are narrative glue that adhere the movies together and allow for characters to crisscross between vastly different creative spaces. Giving all of The Avengers a reason to show up and avenge can’t be completely discounted, but no one would show up to watch the movies if they didn’t like the characters.
Indeed, Thor continues to be the weakest (in terms of earnings) of the franchises Marvel releases, and it has received two installments. It is improving, but placing essential story elements in to a Thor movie, like The Aether, is risky. When The Aether, or it’s stone equivalent, pops up in another movie, will all of the audience have seen Thor: The Dark World? Will they rehash the events of TTDW with exposition? Either way, that’s risky. You risk newcomers tuning out of your movie if they don’t understand the intricacies of these stones, and where they came from, but if you spell things out, over and over, you’re sort of punishing the ardent fans that have graphed all this out with flowcharts at 3 AM.
This division between the most loyal fans, and the casual observers is precisely why comic books are still so niche. People find the amount of narrative, and ‘crossover events’ they are obligated to know to enjoy comics to be such a huge burden that Marvel and DC periodically have to create new ways in to these dense universes — much to the consternation of the ardent fans. As Marvel’s movies become more structurally similar to comic books — one giant crossover event — do they not also risk imperiling the superhero movie genre with the same handicaps that keep people away from being long term, regular comic book readers?
I am not arguing for every movie to be some standalone production with one-off characters. Just that it is perhaps unwise to highlight the mechanical underpinnings that connect these film franchises, at the cost of the storytelling, and characters, within each film of these franchises.
Guardians of the Galaxy is a good, decently enjoyable film in a long franchise of films. There’s fun, offbeat, wonderful things that happen. I ate all that up. There’s great visual effects work, and intricate set pieces crafted by teams of artists. That’s all good stuff. The reason I say ‘fine’ is because of some clunky plot elements — some of which are there purely to tell stories in future movies, and future movies in other franchises.
Thanos is an issue because he’s not the bad guy — yet. He will be, some day, the biggest, baddest antagonist The Avengers will face, and the fate of everything will hang in it’s balance. That is why he gets teased. At the end of The Avengers his servant, The Other, says things went not-well, and Thanos grins. This is utterly meaningless to moviegoers unless they know who Thanos is. The next time we see Thanos is in Guardians of the Galaxy. He gets to talk to Ronan the Accuser (the actual antagonist of the picture) but he doesn’t do anything. When Ronan rebels against Thanos, Thanos does nothing. Of course he won’t, because it’s not his movie. He’s there because he’ll be a larger part of future movies, years from now. This is a very long set up, so hopefully people pay attention, and see all the movies that Thanos will be teased in, so that it will pay off when he finally does something much later.
Now, it can be argued that it is a good thing that they are teasing Thanos early, rather than just having him step out from behind a curtain in Avengers 3 and say, “Ah-ha! I was behind it all!” But it is risky to give the character screen time to do nothing when there’s so much to do with the characters of the film you are watching.
Indeed, Gamora and Nebula are supposed to have a complicated relationship with Thanos. They are his adopted daughters — their parents slaughtered by Thanos. We see none of their backstory, and none of their interaction with their adopted father. Nebula has a scene with Thanos, but she’s fiddling with her mechanical arm. Gamora and Nebula both talk about how they would like to betray Thanos, but there isn’t much weight to these statements because we see nothing to motivate it, we just get exposition. I felt nothing when Gamora is telling Peter about why she betrayed Thanos, but in the same scene, I felt something for Peter and the death of his mother. That’s because of the storytelling in the movie, not because of Infinity Stones being set up for future movies.
At the beginning of Guardians of the Galaxy we see the death of a mother, and the profound effect that has on Peter Quill. Nothing like that for Gamora, or Nebula. The absence of Peter’s father also has a profound effect on him. Indeed, his father is mentioned as setting in motion the events that led to the abduction of Peter and Peter’s complicated stepfather-like relationship with Yondu that developed in the absence of anything else. We see none of those parallels with Gamora or Nebula.
If you’re going to introduce these characters, give them something to do that helps us understand the main characters. As it stands, Thanos is not really a part of the movie, he’s a boogeyman.
The first inkling I had that the multi-movie-franchise arcs were going to be a problem was during the sequel to Thor. The director of the first movie, Kenneth Brannaugh, did not return because he found it difficult to work with Marvel. Marvel, for their part, exercises a degree of central control that many other directors find it hard to work with. Marvel is very focused on the big arcs, and all the other franchises in motion, while the director of a particular film is focused on their own film, and potentially their own sequel to their own film. Just replacing the director is not really a big deal, just by itself (I wasn’t a huge fan of the Thor), but it does indicate where the priority is on the storytelling — the macro level.
The Dark World starts with what I’d call an “exposition bomb”. There is instant fighting, and it goes on for quite a bit. It features characters we’ve never seen before, and the significance of what we’re seeing is only relayed to us through the words of a dispassionate Odin. It terminates and our heads are spinning with this compressed information that will surely have an impact later.
Much of the movie is spent recapping the events of two other movies. Why Loki is in a cell, why the people of Earth don’t like him, why he can’t be trusted. There is no time spent on why Malekith is the way Malekith is. He’s just there and he’s bad. We spend a great deal recapping Natalie Portman’s super-boring character, and pulling the professor back from his insanity. We spend a lot of time setting up the “rules” of the Aether. Finally, Thor’s a dope and puts everyone at risk and makes a huge mess, and all of reality is screwed (starting with the U.K.). Malekith dies without us feeling anything about the Dark Elves at all — they’re just ponderous dicks.
We get an after credit scene with Asgardians dropping another exposition bomb about how they need to leave The Aether with The Collector, because Odin (Loki as Odin) doesn’t want two Infinity Stones together in Asgard (If he’s Loki, why wouldn’t he want that?)
This was supposed to set up events for Guardians, but The Collector turned out to just be an exposition device in Guardians and The Aether played no part, whatsoever, in the film. That’s a lot of plot in Thor: The Dark World that is about future editions of other Marvel movies which could have been spent on making the movie we watched in to a better one.
In the beginning, Marvel licensed it’s characters to try and generate income. Throughout its history, the company has been plagued by financial problems, and mismanagement. This first round of licensing was a mixed bag. It gave people the X-Men franchise they liked, and the first few Spider-Man movies, but it also had huge failures, like Daredevil, and two, different Hulk movies. Their properties were strewn to the four corners of Hollywood. Disney saw value in tying them all together.
The movies Marvel is telling are very much like large comic book crossovers. That has benefits of tying together the plots of disparate creative spaces, but it can also be its undoing. Even comic book fans get sick of “events”. As long as Marvel makes enjoyable movies, with fun, zany characters, they might not have to worry about the burden they are manufacturing for themselves. If they loose sight of this comedy and action pairing, they could have one bad movie that drags down the rest of these franchises. That is, of course, the reason for their heavy, central control. It has also influenced all of the other studios.
Sony Pictures holds all of Spider-Man, and Spider-Man’s villains. They want to have the financial success that Disney has enjoyed. That is why they announced movies entirely made out of Spider-Man villains — The Sinister Six, and Venom movies. They even set up as many villains as they could in Amazing Spider-Man 2. They have since announced Amazing Spider-Man 3 will be delayed until 2018. Number two made a lot of money, enough that Sony Picture’s parent, Sony, turned a profit for the quarter. However, it was the smallest amount of money generated by any of the Spider-Man movies to date. It is very likely that the franchise will see another reboot. Sony had, after all, delayed Spider-Man 4 with Raimi still attached to the project until they could announce Amazing Spider-Man. The technicalities of their licensing arrangement with Marvel insure that the property is being developed, or it reverts back to Disney’s control — something that many people, including Ben Kuchera, call to happen.
Fox is seeing success with its X-Men license. This is why you will not see a single mutant in any of the Disney films, Fox owns them all, not just the X-Men, and they’re looking to make more movies with mutants to capitalize on the kind of multi franchise success Disney has seen. They have also been keeping a Fantastic Four movie under development for quite a while, it’s slated to be a reboot. The odds are high they will tie their X-Men franchises in with their Fantastic Four franchises.
DC, Warner Bros., has never had any central control structure like Marvel’s, but they own all of the DC properties, not just some. The upcoming Superman vs. Batman movie will be the first time they put these characters together. It will have very large ramifications for them. They have been unable to organize any kind of a movie around any of their other characters — save for the bomb, Green Lantern. They have repeatedly courted creators about a Justice League movie — including Joss Whedon before he gave up and made Marvel’s The Avengers.
The reception for these comic book movies has been off the charts. They are crowd pleasers — when they work. When they don’t work, they are $200 Million holes in the ground. When I say that I have nits to pick about Guardians it is not because I hate it, or that I dislike it. It’s because I want the individual films to have strength, and confidence in being themselves, comfortable in their own right, as a priority over satisfying the larger demands of setting up future movies. I am not some joyless monster.