Sunday, September 30, 2012

Why the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the best superhero setting

You already know that Joss Whedon's Avengers movie has been one of the most successful superhero films, both among fans and critics. Of course, the Avengers is the latest in a series of  films introducing each of the main Avengers, which were all at least fairly popular, and some blockbusters in their own right. My fellow superhero nerds can't help comparing the characters in the films with their comic forebears, wondering why certain things were left out and speculating about whether certain characters and plots from decades of comics will appear in the films' sequels. The feeling seems to be that the films are dumbed-down versions of the "true" stories as told in the comics, but I'm having trouble agreeing with that. Lately I have begun to make my peace with the fact that the films are exactly the sort of superhero entertainment I want to see. Here's why.

When I was young, my brothers and I loved superheroes. Batman and the X-Men were at the top of our list. But the thing is, we hardly ever read any comics. When a friend did buy or lend us one, it was usually a single issue in the middle of an arc. I remember being partly tantalized and partly frustrated by the editors' parenthetical notes, pointing out references to previous issues I had never read. That's why we preferred the Batman and X-Men cartoons: their stories were more self-contained, so we didn't feel like we were missing out on the full story. Of course, it didn't hurt that we could watch the TV shows for free.

Two decades later, we're in the golden age of superhero movies. Christopher Nolan's Batman franchise and all the Marvel movies are among the biggest films that have come out in recent years. For the record, I think that Marvel does films better (Spider-Man, Iron Man, the Avengers), DC has better TV shows (Batman: the Animated Series, Justice League/Justice League Unlimited, Teen Titans, Young Justice), and Marvel has the best video games (the old X-Men arcade beat-em-up and fighting games, X-Men Legends, Marvel Ultimate Alliance). And Marvel's films, especially the Avengers, are exactly the kind of superhero entertainment I want to continue to see.

Perhaps most the most important thing about the Marvel films is that they are more contained. Since each film is about two hours long, they focus on fewer characters and more straightforward plot. The image at the top of the page shows you all of the characters you need to know for the Avengers movie (minus Agent Coulson and Pepper Pots, who also have important roles in the film). Compare that to the number of Avengers in the comics:
And you can bet that's just a partial cast. Because the comics have been going on for so long, the creators have to keep adding more and more characters to keep the audience interested and to move the stories forward.While the image above clearly shows an expanded roster, even individual stories can try to juggle eight or more main heroes. In the Avengers movie, we know that the main four are Iron Man, Cap, Thor, and the Hulk. The other characters get a share of the spotlight, but there's never any doubt about who we're there to see.

The other thing that is more manageable in films is the plot. In comics, superhero stories are infamous for involving ridiculous amounts of convoluted backstory. These can involve time travel, alternate realities, mind control, and the secret replacement of characters with imposters. Perhaps the most infamous plot twists that are found in comics are the frequent "deaths" of characters, who are inevitably brought back in a few years at the most.

I blame the fact that comics have to sell hundreds of issues. This makes writers slow things down and cram in unnecessary details, characters, and sub-plots. Compared to that, you can sit through a marathon of all the recent Avengers-related movies in a day and be fully caught up on what's going on. In the films, supervillains don't have to operate from the shadows for several issues before revealing themselves and defeating the heroes, finally to be defeated themselves issues later... but only temporarily. In the Marvel movies, most villains appear, threaten the hero, then get defeated before the two hours are up. Of course, Loki is the exception, but the Loki fan girls would never forgive Marvel if they stopped bringing Loki back for each movie with Thor in it.

Part of me worries that, as we enter the second wave of Marvel movies following the Avengers, the stories are going to start getting more complicated, and more characters will be introduced. I remember when I really got into the Ultimates line of comics, which was a reimagining/reboot of the Marvel comics world that started over from the beginning. At first, it was refreshing how each character and plot was carefully crafted and fit the more realistic tone of the series. Before too long, however, more and more characters and sub-plots were introduced, and soon enough the Ultimates stories were just as convoluted and ridiculous as the mainstream comics.

I worry that the same thing will happen to the Marvel films. Right now, we can fit all of the characters around a table at a shawarma restaurant. They will inevitably have to add characters to the Avengers roster for the Avengers 2. If it's only Spider-Man, all will be right in the world, and we will have put off the need to add second-string weirdos to the cast just for the sake of novelty. If they add (Gi)Ant Man and the Wasp, we'll be in trouble. Superheroes may ignore the laws of physics in all else, but they obey the second law of thermodynamics: inevitably, things can only progress toward entropy. Once the setting starts getting more complicated, it can never go back to being simple.

I'll try to enjoy it while it lasts!

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