This article is going to cause some controversy – and that’s good. I hope it gets people talking because this is an issue we need to seriously think about and contextualize, as it relates to the Marvel Cinematic Universe and its depth, or lack thereof, in exchange for comedy that sometimes lands but sometimes doesn’t.
I’ve been a supporter of Marvel’s Phase Three, as most of its films have taken risks in significant ways or tried to do something different with the characters in question. Captain America: Civil War was dark in a way no Marvel movie had ever been before, and it had a tremendous emotional impact while still balancing the comedic and jokey aspects really well. Spider-Man Homecoming was similarly funny but didn’t lose any of its emotional heft. So I know this is not something Marvel is incapable of doing.
But then, Thor Ragnarok rolls around – and all my problems with the MCU are on display, in glorious IMAX, for me to see.
Now, let me start this off by saying that I enjoyed Thor Ragnarok quite a bit. I thought it was a great movie and one of the best Marvel films. I thought Taika Waititi’s sense of humor really fit with the MCU, and that most of the jokes landed. All of the cast did a phenomenal job, and the movie left me really excited about the subsequent Marvel films, Black Panther, Infinity War, Ant-Man and the Wasp and Captain Marvel.
But the movie made me think about what my big problem with the MCU is, and has been since its inception. And that’s its lack of emotional depth.
I know some of you are furiously remarking, So, you didn’t think Quicksilver’s death in Age of Ultron (spoiler, by the way) was sad? You didn’t think Tony Stark’s PTSD was well portrayed? So let me clarify my thoughts, and put into perspective what I mean. I’m not saying that the MCU hasn’t had emotional moments. And I’m not saying they haven’t worked. I’m just saying that for me, the emotion pales in comparison to the comedy. It’s Marvel’s strong suit – it’s where they shine.
But as good as the comedy is – I’ll never forget how hard I laughed watching the first Guardians of the Galaxy film, which is chock full of jokes and humor – it really leaves something to be desired with the character development. Take Logan, for example. Fox’s final effort at the Wolverine character – at least for now, as there are talks of a continuation that would star Dafne Keen’s X23 – managed to make me cry and really feel for Logan in ways I never had before. In addition to seventeen years of canon, the film’s powerful portrayal of a mutant duo on its last legs really worked.
Now, I’m not saying every comic book movie has to be as serious and dark as Logan. I like having fun in my comic book films quite a bit, and the experience of going to see Thor Ragnarok is unmatched for that reason alone. But you can’t have serious moments, like the death of a major character in the film, and then send them off with a joke – a joke that is, frankly, unnecessary. Also, the characters never feel in any real danger if they’re constantly cracking jokes – I never once felt during the latest Thor film that he was in any serious trouble, which is a problem.
Take Wonder Woman, for example. In my opinion, Wonder Woman is on the level of The Dark Knight and Christopher Reeves’ first Superman outing. It takes a character with hope and optimism, Diana Prince, and puts her in a dark, gritty situation – but the character loses none of her fish-out-of-water qualities or humor. The characters have fun when they need to, but all of the emotional gut-punches of the film’s third act hit you just as hard as they’re intended to. The emotion works, because you’ve connected to these characters – fleshing them out with humor and fun, but getting to look at them on a deeper level as well.
And when it comes to the DCEU as a whole, I’ve long been a firm believer that tone is not the problem at all. I’m someone who enjoyed Man of Steel a lot, but thought Batman v Superman – while it had amazing moments – needed a lot of work, and that Suicide Squad was just downright bad. But none of my problems with BvS are tone problems – they’re story problems, character flaws, etc. That’s because a movie does not have to be light and fun to be good.
The MCU has ridden on this belief for nearly ten years. Nearly every Marvel movie is jokey, light and fun – and the ones that try too hard to be serious don’t work, because funny has been established as Marvel’s formula now. And the humor works – a lot of the jokes work because they come from character perspectives. But I just wish in the future, the MCU would learn to know when to joke and when to be serious, instead of just making me laugh so much that I forget to cry when I’m supposed to.