As the Marvel Cinematic Universe strides confidently into Phase 3, a recent article in the UK’s Guardian newspaper has attempted to sour proceedings with a somewhat curious assertion – that the Marvel Cinematic Universe singularly suffers from a kind of tenuously specified sense of what it calls ‘drab’.
Marvel fans are, by now, surely no stranger to criticism of the studio’s own brand-approved tone – too glossy, too candy-colored, too ‘Disney-fied’ – but too Drab? Ouch. For a franchise that prides itself in offering movie-goers a fun time at the theater, that’s gotta hurt.
Not usually one to feed troll articles in respected publications that should know better, on this occasion I thought it would be fun to dissect where this editorial was coming from and explore whether there was any semblance of credibility in what, at face value, reads as wide of the mark as it feels antagonistic. We are after all dealing with a conceptual world of weaponized robotic combat suits, of talking trees, of rainbow-surfing inter-dimensional Norse aliens and Samuel L. Jackson, all cross-pollinating within a self-perpetuated cinematic continuity – and, with Doctor Strange still waiting in the wings, we haven’t even got to the really crazy stuff yet.
We might simply be best to file these comment pieces under ‘highbrow clickbait’ – those that self-opine a controversial position testifying to that oh-so-clickable header (you know what I’m talking about). ‘Why is the Marvel Cinema Universe [sic] so drab?’ it huffs, in what may simply be an attempt to draw the ire of fans and so appease a particular appetite within certain readerships for the public shaming of populist entertainment mediums. But what if it has a point? For the purposes of exciting a lively discussion, let us reframe the question: Is the fabulous tent-pole attraction we call the Marvel Cinematic Universe actually really boring?
In order to assess, let us
destroy consider, in turn, the key points on which The Guardian bases its well-phrased, ill-founded heresy.
Guardians of the Galaxy is a surprising choice of movie to pick a fight with in this instance. James Gunn’s 2014 break-out hit enjoys a choice, subtle palette recalling the pulpy tones of vintage sci-fi, it’s thoughtfully lit and not at all ‘drab’ to look at in any conventional sense of the word.
Nevertheless, we’re urged to compare it unfavorably to “the original Star Wars’ dirty robots and desert planets, to say nothing of Blade Runner’s cluttered/empty future megalopolis”, which is a strange complaint to make about a movie that reliably served up the phosphorous lit space mining colony Knowhere that riffed so heavily on both these aesthetics combined. Surely the charge of simply being derivative does not a bland movie make. The Matrix can certainly bear witness to that statement. What about Spectre? Confused yes, but how bored were you? Actually, don’t answer that.
But perhaps it is fair to say that Guardians of the Galaxy doesn’t own its own style agenda or cinematography in the same way some of Hollywood’s more auteur space-fare – Interstellar, Gravity, The Martian etc. – have in recent years. I would suggest that this has next to nothing to do with any lack of creative flair on Gunn’s part, and I would hazard a guess to say this has more to do with an unspoken directorial obligation applicable to all the film-makers working under the wider MCU banner that is to temper any styling that might appear too overly idiosyncratic. When the character’s Volstagg and Sif make their stage exit from Thor: The Dark World (which, with all due respect, really isn’t trying to emulate The Lord of the Rings), the post-credit tag prompts them to walk on to the set of completely different movie. The Collector’s menagerie looks strange and exotic for sure, but the Asgardians don’t look out of place any more than the direction intends. Likewise, they can walk into an earthbound New Mexico diner in Thor with similar effect. Had they walked into something like the starkness of The Empire Strikes Back, or even Bladerunner, the visual impression would have been jarring. Why? Therein lies the beauty of Marvel’s homogenized art direction across its slate. It supports a kind of functional portability facilitating our imagination; wherever we are, within whatever genre – a techno-heist set in San Francisco, or a fantastical outlaw flick set in far flung deep space – we’re always inside the MCU.
When discussing visuals in this context, and at the risk of igniting that particular flame war, it’s almost impossible at this point not to talk comparatively about Warner Bros’ rival DC universe as portrayed in Man of Steel and Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice – although that’s not to suggest that either film necessarily look ‘drab’ per se. In terms of how they look, both movies perhaps affect a more ‘unique, engaging’ style, as The Guardian would have it, with director Zack Snyder throwing all manner of dramatic framing and lush filters at the screen. To his credit, that’s invited a lot of praise and yet, the overall results continue to incur a well-publicized critical mauling to the frenzied chorus of heated fanboy debate. Both have cited an apparent tonal disconnect between the films’ grim-noir visage and its more pop-orientated subject matter.
Talk of the new Flash movie now being positioned to operate at the more colorful end of the cinematic spectrum runs the risk of creating an aesthetic dissonance inside DC’s own continuity – something Marvel’s more consistent visual mode, whether you can call it ‘drab’ or not, manages to avoid.
I practice martial arts, and have some knowledge of fight choreography – so despite The Guardian’s apparently authoritative position on the matter, my own council will I keep on who’s handy when it comes to filming fisticuffs. The MCU, honestly, is a mixed bag and it’s surely conspicuous that the really great fight choreography belongs to the brilliantly bloody Daredevil on Netflix (we’ll see what Iron Fist has to say about that in due course). But the fight sequences in Captain America: The Winter Soldier are visceral, kinetic, well framed and well cut. Drab? Not so much. To cite a few more tangles, neither was Tony Stark’s hap-hazard, partially armored, not-quite-combat-ready face-off with Killian’s goons in Iron Man 3, and (whether you thought is was ridiculous or not) neither was the sight of Thor and Malekeith portal-hopping across London in The Dark World’s final act. That’s not what drab is.
Anyone expecting overtly stylistic, self-reflexive set pieces a la Tarantino’s Kill Bill is missing the point. The MCU doesn’t require any specific filter through which to watch its fights and, moreover, half the time it doesn’t really matter why characters are fighting, or indeed what they are fighting for (Hulk vs. Hulkbuster renders this argument suitably invalid).
Rather, it’s more about who is fighting who. Because in Marvel’s lexicon, a characters’ fighting style or power-set is dialectic, informing, as it were, the topic and mood of their ‘conversational’ exchange. And a good fight sequence should be a dialogue, punctuated blow for blow, structured bout for bout, a parry and joust of one-line roundhouse kicks and retorting head-butts. Marvel gets that.
Often it’s playful, jovial even, trading jabs for jibes, punchlines for punches. Or else it’s a polarised clash of ideologies where there can only be one winner. Either way, it’s Marvel’s capacity to cycle its ever-expanding roster of heroes and villains, pitting them against each other in veritable fan-favourite combinations – Thor vs Hulk, Ant-Man vs Falcon, Cap vs Elevator, Ronan the Accuser vs ‘Dance Off Bro!’ – which keeps things fresh and so essentially entertaining. Dropping in new components and heavy hitters such as Black Panther or a newly re-factored, brand inclusive Spider-Man, serves a constant change-up and rotation, meaning fights are never rote. And the title fights more so – for beyond Spidey, Civil War’s trailer is teasing a battle royale which represents the culmination of a dispute that’s been rumbling since the end of Phase 1, now a full-blown slanging match with new come power-players Vision and Scarlet Witch both chiming in. Again, that’s not what ‘drab’ is, and applying the term to Black Widow’s chair-bound emulation of Jackie Chan is oxymoronic.
Themes and narrative
In a masterstroke of cross-platform franchising, Marvel has rather opted to discretely expose the MCU’s own darker underbelly to its viewers on the Netflix streaming service. Here the content is less compromised by its medium, free from the constraints of what its blockbuster counterparts simply have to be, but so remains within Marvel’s integrated universe. Daredevil’s meditations on justice, vigilantism and moral ethics, Jessica Jones’ empowerment through trauma (and whiskey), are both mining the same rich thematic seams of their respective source materials, which is exactly what the marvel movies have been doing as well. Whether you can read them or not is another matter.
The Guardian piece obtusely fails to do so. For example, beyond what it superficially calls ‘vague brow-furrowing about government overreach’ (which one assumes is being levelled at The Winter Soldier’s unnervingly prescient pre-Snowden fall-out), is a pretty nuanced portrayal of an ageing, idealized American national identity. It runs with a topical, albeit hyper-real, discussion concerning abusive state surveillance and then proceeds to weave that discussion into a cohesive narrative form that then deconstructs the entire framework (S.H.I.E.L.D) on which the Marvel cinematic canon is based.
More than just a spangly Vibranium frisbee, Steve Rogers can be seen as a microcosm of the free state personified, what it was and what it’s since been forced to become, with all the moral and dramatic implications that entails. The First Avenger introduced Captain America as a cynical propaganda device but, faithful to the material and, more so, faithful to the history of Marvel Publications, Steve’s goodness – not his power mind you, his essential goodness – survives into the modern age. While critics detract, Marvel Studios is busily crafting a modern mythos and meta-fiction that is as effective as anything penned by Moore or Miller – only this time, it’s aspirational.
“Too much power may corrupt, but then some hero with even more power will nobly save the day”. That, as is correctly pointed out, is “not much of an ethos to live by, or to build a film around.” And Marvel doesn’t. To say so, represents a lazily reductive stance that wilfully ignores the fact that every single Marvel headliner, bar one, loses or sacrifices something as part of their self-realization; Thor and Stark transcend their respective egos; Quill reunites with his mother, and in doing so is able to let her go; Cap loses the life he was destined to have with Peggy; Banner and Romanov similarly lose their chance at a stable existence with or without each other, while Barton completely loses his own agency for the best part of The Avengers. It’s only the happy-go-lucky, disentitled Scott Lang who seems to enjoy a story-line that empowers him without really taking anything away.
In fact, many of our heroes are actively working to surrender or curtail their power in some way, or else hold it to account. As Akira Kurosawa once said, “it’s the heroes that keep changing” and Marvel evidently understands that. In doing so, it’s now able to play adapting motives and allegiances against each other as it drives us inexorably towards the Uber-crossover event that is Infinity War (I still think this needs to be affixed with at least three exclamation marks), spinning off dramatic fall-outs and side adventures along the way. If that isn’t purpose enough for you… indeed, if that’s too ‘drab’… then maybe you just haven’t been paying attention.
The Guardian doesn’t see it that way, being rather more concerned with elevating the likes of RoboCop 2 (that’s RoboCop Two…) as the witty treatise on modern US law enforcement it was always intended to be. Now you could say that disqualifies the paper’s position entirely, or imbues it at least with about as much logic as, say, automating a brain-dead cadaver, feeding it baby food and sending it out to fight crime – but I’m not saying that.
Neither am I saying that their position is further weakened by opting to celebrate the subtle relational thematics of John Woo’s Face/Off – which I list in my all time top three movies to have strenuously tackled the pros and cons of literally having your Face…Off! But if I were making such assertions, I might also suggest that The Guardian is actually trying to pursue a somewhat spurious, mud-slinging editorial agenda just to see what sticks.
Granted, Fury Road, one of my favorite movies from last year, has all the solid narrative coherence one might expect of a film that is essentially one really long car chase, a literal U-turn, followed by a return journey (Are we nearly there yet!?). Yes, it shot at a subtext perhaps missed by most – But that’s as enlightened or meat-headed as you want it to be. We’ll need a few more Mad Max outings to determine if it’s able to compete with the meticulously structured world-building, layered thematics or narrative cohesion across multiple franchises Marvel has so patiently labored to put in place.
In conclusion then, we can say that to call the MCU ‘drab’ also calls for a very special interpretation of the word. The Guardian is keen to reassure us that it’s disdain isn’t based on any kind of ‘art-house snobbery’. One can only assume then that it’s rather founded on a kind of aspirational snobbery born of rank-and-file mediocrity. As for this rebuttal, well, that comes courtesy of my unbridled fan-boy enthusiasm seasoned with just a modicum of common sense.
If you, or anyone you know, has been affected by something being inaccurately labelled as ‘drab’, please feel free to leave a message in the comments section below.