The Marvel Cinematic Universe began officially with Iron Man in 2008, eleven years ago. It’s easy to forget what an odd combination of talents that film gathered together. Robert Downey Jr was a leading man who had trashed his career with drugs only to re-emerge as a solid character actor. But here he was leading an action movie – that was set to spark off a whole franchise and then explode into a universe. And the director was Jon Favreau who’d made his name with the indy comedy Swingers before stumbling with Cowboys and Aliens. What the hell were Marvel up to?
The fact that it worked was largely due to Downey Jr’s shtick as Tony Stark, a wise-cracking man-boy who through the course of the film has to learn to be ethical without ever losing his ironic sense of humour. And the same could be said for the whole arc of the MCU. With a reputation for postmodern irony and great character comedy, Joss Whedon came in for Avengers: Assemble and soon the highlights of the film were apparent. Screwball comedy was the secret with the brilliantly talented ensemble cast, cracking wise with fast talk exposition and character beats easily as important as the special effects extravaganza that tended to bloat the final acts.
Check out the first conference the Avengers or the meme friendly punishment Hulk gives to Loki. And look at the appeal of Loki himself, Thor’s brother (adopted), which Tom Hiddleston established as a fan favourite with his sly and occasionally filthy one liners. By the time The Guardians of the Galaxy show up in 2014 there’s no hiding it. These movies aren’t action movies or superhero movies primarily: they’re comedies. Chris Pratt comes from the TV sitcom Parks and Recreation and establishes himself with a brilliant turn of sardonic good humour, ably accompanied by Bradley Cooper’s Raccoon and Dave Bautista’s star-making Drax the Destroyer and of course Vin Diesel has never been better than Groot. James Gunn established the maxim, come for the action: stay for the comedy.
Ant Man seemed like something of a hiccup when Edgar Wright left the production, but with Paul Rudd in the lead the film is a modest comic piece that plays well with his charm and the ludicrousness of the incredible shrinking man premise. One of the problems I had personally with Black Panther is that it was overly serious. It had many other things going for it, but as with the first two Thor movies the less funny Marvel movies are; the less they work. If you don’t believe me check out Taika Waititi’s sublimely hilarious Thor: Ragnarok which lifted the God of Thunder into the pantheon of the MCU via comedy. Captain Marvel likewise benefited from some hilarious banter between Samuel L. Jackson and Goose the cat.
Proof of Marvel’s success can be seen in the way rival studios have tried to imitate it. Deadpool is packed with irreverent madcap humour, but it is only taking what the MCU started and running with it. Likewise the success of Shazam! proves that even DC is beginning to realize that Christopher Nolan’s dark DC Batman can only really be done by Christopher Nolan. There are other alternatives of course. Logan was the exception that proves the rule. There’s no way James Mangold’s film could be described as a comedy: but it isn’t a superhero movie either. It’s a Western.
The shock of Avengers: Infinity War was the shift in tone in the very final act. Suddenly this comedy got dark, and how! But that darkness and trauma that followed, wouldn’t have been possible if we hadn’t lived with these characters and loved them and most importantly laughed with them in the chapters that had come before. It’s unlikely that the final film Avengers: Endgame will match Samuel Beckett in tone (they nabbed the title from a late and suitably depressing Beckett play). Of course, I anticipate tears, but if it is to work there must also be laughter and a positive comic resolution.