The recent onslaught of Marvel movies is not just a “pandering” cash grab
Regardless of how literary and movie elitists view them, comic books and graphic novels are immensely popular, widely followed, and not likely to go away anytime soon. As a child, I was often told I need to read “serious” books and that I was never going to learn anything from comics. Even setting aside the question of why one always has to learn something from every single thing they do, that claim is still not true. Many comic book characters have been around for decades, with long story arcs that include tales of falls from grace, redemption, and the notion that we owe something to the society around us. The fact that these lessons are told in the guise of a fun story should not detract from those lessons.
Setting aside the debate of whether comic books can be serious writing, it would certainly be much harder to deny their popularity. Whether in the form of posters, t-shirts, or fan art, names like Superman, Batman, and Spiderman have practically become household names. Movies based on comic books have been around for decades now, even if some of the early offerings no longer hold up very well in terms of special effects, acting, or storytelling. In the earlier days, most comic books turned into movies were also focused on one of a handful of big names. This explains why, for instance, there are half a dozen or so movies on Superman or Batman, with a reboot every decade or so, while to date there has not been a live action movie on the Flash.
That has been changing, though. As any ardent comic book fan will know, something happened in 2008 that changed this genre of movies forever. That was the year Marvel Studios, overwhelmed with financial losses and headed by Kevin Feige, took a gamble. They casted Robert Downey Jr. to play a superhero that hardly anyone outside the Marvel fanbase had ever heard of. RDJ played a billionaire genius weapons manufacturer, Tony Stark, who designs the ultimate “super soldier” suit, enabling whoever puts it on to essentially take on an army (funny anecdote: the shocking ending to the movie was not apparently planned; it was something RDJ improvised last minute, and was kept in). Today, the world looks back at that scene, where when confronted with a barrage of questions, Tony Stark throws away his cue cards and says, “I am Ironman.” Remember those words, viewers. They will come back to you some twelve years later.
Soon after the surprise blockbuster success of the first Ironman movie, it became clear to fans what Marvel was going for. In the process, Marvel popularized the notion of a shared movie universe, and that of a post-credits scene. Nearly every Marvel movie since Ironman has had a short scene after credits, teasing one of the next movies in the story arc. Particularly big ones have had two or more. In addition, within the movie there have been references to characters from the comic books, ones that came up in future movies. For example, during a scene in the 2014 movie Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a character lists names of individuals who are likely threats to their goals. One name, Bruce Banner, is by then established as the scientist who turns into the Hulk, but what is easy to miss is the mention of some guy called Stephen Strange. Of course, since then Marvel fans have met Stephen Strange in his 2016 movie where he becomes the greatest wizard in the universe (or maybe multiverse?). But in 2014, the Doctor Strange movie had not yet been announced, and it is hard to put in words the excitement and anticipation fans felt at the mere mention of that name, foreshadowing future movies in this shared universe.
From 2008 to December 2021, there have been around 27 films in the shared fictional world that is now referred to as the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). As of January 2022, at least six other movies have already been given a release date. Of course, not every single one of the past movies have done well. Some made substantially less money than the others, and some are just so bad plot wise that all but the most loyal fans skip them when re-watching in chronological order. Since 2020, there have also been around five shows set in the same universe, available on Disney Plus.
The most recent installment in the MCU was released shortly before the holidays: the third movie for the MCU Spiderman character. I’m going to be extra cautious and give away nothing about the movie, except that I, and everyone I have spoken to about the movie so far, loved it. The movie was full of nostalgic moments, foreshadowing of future movies, and inside jokes – the latter of which got me thinking about what Marvel has pulled off here.
Some of the funniest, or most poignant moments, in Marvel movies are often based on popular memes or fan theories. This is often belittled with terms like “fan service,” “pandering,” and the like. With the number of such moments in the recent Spiderman movie, it got me thinking…why do we say those phrases like they are a bad thing? Sure, Marvel is making these movies for the profits. But the profits come from fans loving the movies, and talking about them, and buying merchandise. So why is it a bad thing in the first place if the fans are, well, pandered to?
Secondly, I’m not sure the word pandering is correct. Some of the moviegoers are just watching a movie for fun, but there are many in that theatre who have read every major graphic novel about the characters on-screen. They know every little life detail, every quirk of every one of these characters. Set cynicism aside, and what we really have is not pandering or an attempt to make money off fans; what we have is the world’s largest in-crowd, who have all read the same books, seen the same movies, and are all in on the joke. You know, I am something of a fan myself. And as I mentioned earlier, I believe these movies have wonderful character story arcs of growth and redemption. Don’t believe me? Ask a Marvel fan at which other point, across 12 years and 27 movies, we heard the words “I am Ironman.”