So, I went to see The Marvels when it premiered. Takeaway: I enjoyed it despite its flaws. It was funny. It was goofy. It had big, complex battle scenes. It established that flerkins have Hammer Space inside them.
More importantly, the characters were engaging and the storyline was genuinely fun. It’s not the greatest of all MCU films, but it’s not terrible.
Unfortunately, the box office was surprisingly soft and the second week drop was huge at nearly eighty percent. I’ve been looking at various reviews and online commentary to figure out why so few people bought a ticket for this one.
There are a lot of hot takes out there, some sensible and some risible, but I want to focus on one in particular:
Some folks have been complaining that the MCU has gotten so big that casual viewers can’t keep up with it all. They call it “homework.”
This is the one that interests me most, because the people saying this are complaining about the way comic books have been telling stories since I first started reading them back in the 1970s.
Okay. Here’s what I mean: You’d be reading a Captain Hero Guy comic, and see a thought bubble above Our Hero’s head that read something like:
Every since I resigned from Fighting Hero Team*, Dad has refused to return my calls.
And at the bottom of the panel would be a little box with the caption:
* As seen in Fighting Hero Team #86!
Although sometimes it might say something as simple as
* see last issue
Now, obviously, comic book publishers hoped that that little caption would prompt Captain Hero Guy’s fans to buy FHT 86. They’re a company. This is a capitalist country. They wanted to boost sales. We live in a society.
But boosting sales wasn’t the only effect. This asterisks also gave the reader the feeling that they were entering a big, interconnected network of stories. Captain Hero Guy existed in a wider world than could be contained in a single floppy, and new comics readers had to decide if they were willing and able to accept that they did not know every detail of every aspect of the story. Because if they hated that, they weren’t going to keep reading.
And the MCU has gotten big enough that it’s becoming more like the comics. The setting is full of characters. It sprawls. Maybe you, the generic viewer, won’t know every detail fo an established character’s back story, and maybe all you’ll get in the movie you’re watching is “I got my powers by pushing through the boundary of a witch hex” (or whatever it is Monica says).
It’s ambiguity. It’s the deliberate denial of casual expertise. It’s the feeling that comes from knowing the whole party is bigger than party going on right here in the theater.
Can you, the critic or the generic viewer, handle that? Can you invest in these characters when you don’t know absolutely every bit of lore? Because if you can’t, they’re freely available behind the Disney+ subscription fee, assuming you have the time and interest to spend on them. Many don’t.
Obviously, it was much easier for those poor, long-suffering critics to keep up when Marvel was only releasing a few movies a year. All they had to do was pop in to a theater every few months and, as long as they could stay off their phones during the movie’s runtime, they knew everything they needed to know.
Now they’re expected to play an active role in understanding a movie that supposed to be (and is) pleasant-distraction-grade corporate entertainment, and they either don’t have the tools for for the job or they can’t be bothered.
Here’s a simple fact: You can’t argue with other peoples’ boredom. We’ve had a lot of superhero entertainment over the last 20+ years, and while it’s an incredibly adaptable genre (you can combine it freely with so many other things, like heist movies, space opera, horror, raunchy comedy, conspiracy thriller, rom com, noir, coming of age stories… at some point, someone is going to make a mid-budget “Romancing the Stone” -style romance with superpowers and they’ll clean up) we’re not really getting the diversity.
Instead, we get a lot of sci-fi action stuff. For example, Blue Beetle (the movie, not the character) was fun, but a lot of it felt like it had been made from pieces of other movies from the last fifteen years. Sidenote: I declare a moratorium on protagonists who blast through the roof of their homes because they don’t know how their flight works.
I guess there was some wisdom in the early Marvel plan of making the TV shows follow the movies, but not expecting the movies to reciprocate.
Sometimes a movie is a sequel. The Marvels was a sequel to Captain Marvel, in that you couldn’t really get it without seeing that first film, but all sorts of people seemed to think it was a sequel to a laundry list of other stuff: Ms. Marvel, Wandavision, Secret Invasion, and who knows what else. I disagree. The important parts of Monica Rambeau’s backstory (her relationship with Carol) all took place in the Captain Marvel film. The parts that can be easily glossed over (where she got her powers) were easily glossed over.
And there was nothing confusing about it to viewers who stayed off their phones.
Personally, I thought The Marvels handled its exposition perfectly, but many viewers seemed spooked by it. As the MCU continues to sprawl across characters and storylines, we’ll see if they can get comfortable with those asterisks.