Just over ten years ago, Iron Man, (directed by John Favreau) arrived in cinemas. Despite the film being a hit with both audiences and critics, and possessing more deftness, wit and charm than most Superhero films that had come before it, one could have been forgiven for not registering it. And, indeed, for not ascribing much cultural significance to a film which ended with Robert Downey Junior dressing up in a metal suit to fight Jeff Bridges, dressed in an even bigger metal suit.
You’d have been forgiven, but you’d also have been wrong. The success of Iron Man made possible sequel after sequel, spinoff after spinoff, until, twenty films later, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the highest-grossing film franchise of all time, with twenty interconnected films based on the source material of Marvel’s comics. Few of those twenty films failed to earn more than £500 Million at the Box office worldwide, and several of them have broken the billion mark.
The purpose of this article, however, is not to discuss the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a cultural and financial phenomenon, but…well, to kvell for a few hundred words about how much I love it.
Now, of course, the MCU isn’t perfect. It’s got problems with diversity: despite the recent success of Black Panther, and reports of more representation in future films, the MCU has had more films with the lead played by white men called Chris than women and ethnic minorities combined. I really hope this problem can be solved going forward. The superhero genre also lays some strictures on just how inventive Marvel’s filmmaking can be- it’s hard to tell stories creatively when your audience know that one way or another, the film is going to end with two or more superpowerd individuals knocking seven hells out of one another.
However, with all that said, the MCU is just cool. Since 2008, Downey’s Iron Man has been joined by supersoldiers from the 1940s, Viking gods, green-skinned alien assassins, and African Kings. A gun-toting mutant raccoon is involved. As is a giant purple dude with a taste in fancy gloves, but let’s not get into too much detail about that because I’m not sure what counts as a spoiler this long after Infinity War.
It’s also surprisingly smart, for something with so many explosions. Every film grapples with heavy thematic content, that you just don’t get in similar genre films. Dealing with the past in order to confront the future in Black Panther and Thor Ragnorok. Dealing with the relationship between liberty and security in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and Avengers: Age of Ultron. Exploring what happens when a family breaks up in Captain America: Civil War. Dealing with loss and failure in…well, that goes into spoiler territory, too doesn’t it?
Finally, there’s the characterization. While the themes Marvel deals with are grandiose, and the subject matter outlandish, all of their stories are grounded in very human characters. Iron Man has anxiety attacks. Thor has daddy issues. The Incredible Hulk has fairly epic sulks alongside his terrifying rages. Thanos…let’s not talk about Thanos.
What I’m trying to say is, name me an element of good storytelling, and the MCU has it in spades. Superhero films aren’t for everyone but really good superhero films should be.