Front of house: How Marvel gets away with missing the mark

An Avengers movie scene shot featuring the Black Widow, Thor, Captain America, Hawkeye, Iron Man and the Hulk.
Caelan Reeves CM ’24 argues that much of Marvel’s content relies more on character love and less on good storytelling or cinematography. (Courtesy: Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo)

Whether superhero movies are your thing or not, it’s impossible to ignore the hype surrounding every new Marvel release. Following the consolidation of new Marvel content to the Disney+ platform, series like “WandaVision” reaffirmed their relevance and placed themselves at the center of mainstream television. However, like much of the Marvel content to come before it, “WandaVision” is unimaginative and falls short of living up to the hype.

“WandaVision” is a relatively well-made show. It’s creative, technically well-shot and the acting holds up well — but it’s a step too far to praise it for much beyond that. People were quick to shower the show with praise for its unique storytelling format, but the show isn’t really doing anything that hasn’t been done before. The series is also paced very strangely, drawing out what could have been a much shorter plotline. “WandaVision” relies on presupposing your love for the characters instead of creating a show that’s good in and of itself.

The same is true of the two final Avengers films, “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Avengers: Endgame.” With muted and muddy cinematography and crowded ensemble shots, the films relied less on good filmmaking than the excitement of seeing two characters from different series on screen together.

This same mediocrity is seen across much of the content Marvel has put out in the past, from their flagship Marvel Cinematic Universe to spin-off shows and films. Sweeping shots of intense battle scenes like this are cool visually, but the cinematography is mostly computer-generated imagery (CGI). While it’s impressive, it speaks more to the time and resources available to the studio than the artistic quality of the film. 

Many films with much smaller budgets, such as Joe Talbot’s “The Last Black Man In San Francisco,” are more impressive in that their stunning shots require much more effort to pull off. Marvel’s dialogue is also characterized by one-liners that initially read as witty and charming in the era of the 2012 “The Avengers” film, but now feel formulaic and a little dated. 

That’s not to say that there aren’t a few hits among the misses. Taika Waititi’s “Thor: Ragnarok” brought an unexpected splash of color and fun to Marvel’s body of work, and the inventive animation and storytelling of “Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse” accomplished something similar. But, for the most part, the art of the movies is not what draws people to Marvel’s releases over and over: It’s enjoying the film as a piece of a much larger franchise and cultural phenomenon.

As critical as I am of the franchise, I waited in line to see the “Avengers: Endgame” premiere in theaters with my friends, and we had a blast. Everyone was on the same page, and people let their reactions flow freely, cheering and sobbing openly throughout the movie. People had a fun moviegoing experience without expecting “Endgame” to provide inspired cinematography or Oscar-worthy dialogue. People went in expecting to have fun, excited to see their favorite good guys come out on top.

“WandaVision” and “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” were able to maintain this energy to a degree. With weekly releases and the cultural buzz surrounding both shows, watching either of them feels like a collective experience. 

It’s hard to critique many of Marvel’s works as films, because they aren’t films so much as they are events. Marvel is more impressive as a franchise than it is as an artistic endeavor, and that isn’t inherently a bad thing. The franchise already dominates box offices and industry funding, which can make the already-competitive market of Hollywood even more difficult for smaller filmmakers and studios. Marvel is a content machine that is effectively guaranteed to churn out blockbuster after blockbuster because the communal experience and continuity is what makes their films and television shows enjoyable.

Director Martin Scorsese compared the artistic value of Marvel movies to “theme parks.” Marvel’s status as a giant of Hollywood gives it the ability to curate a very specific viewer experience: a fun viewer experience. But a theme park is not a well-made film and shouldn’t be lauded as such.

Caelan Reeves CM ’24 is one of TSL’s pop culture columnists. They’re a government and literature dual major from Chicago and love everything to do with music, movies and books.

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