The Heart of the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Why it's the humanisms, rather than the superheroes, that lie at the heart of Marvel's successes....

Ladies! Gentlemen! Mutants-who-we-are-not-allowed-to-call-mutants-because-Fox-own-the-rights-to-that-word! The Age of Ultron is here! Excelsior, indeed!

I’m so excited about this that I just purpled my pants and Hulksmashed a filing cabinet. You, dear readers and true believers, may be feeling similarly excited and having comparable experiences. This is a momentous, erm, moment on the pop cultural calendar for several reasons, and I will now detail those reasons for those who are a little lost or not quite understanding the cause of the adrenaline rush that’s turned me into an 8ft green giant.

Avengers: Age of Ultron is the sequel to 2012’s The Avengers. That film stands as one of the biggest box office successes of all time, having taken a haul of over $1.5 billion worldwide. Final figures may need to be adjusted when we finally receive box office data from the movie’s extended run on Xandar and in other disparate territories throughout the worlds of the Nine Realms.

That figure might be chump change in the mind of Tony Stark (net worth according to Forbes, $12.4 billion), admittedly, but the string of box office records that the movie holds – highest grossing superhero film, highest grossing film based on comics, highest grossing Disney film – can’t be ignored. Avengers: Age of Ultron is now probably going to swiftly supersede its predecessor and, possibly, even go on to challenge Jim Cameron’s two big earners, Titanic and Avatar, to become the biggest box office hit of all time and space.

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That’s enough talk about money though, because financial success is only one aspect of importance among many here, and it’s more of a resultant factor.

Speaking in more artistic and socio-cultural terms, Avengers: Age of Ultron is a major event because it’s another ensemble piece that brings the whole band back together. People (quite rightly) love the standalone movies and separate Iron Man, Thor and Captain America story threads but when you’ve got them all in the same movie plus Black Widow, Hulk and Hawkeye it’s something extra, extra special.

Those aforementioned standalones and Guardians of the Galaxy have kept up the entertainment and the ongoing story arcs since The Avengers. Marvel fans have also been well catered for by Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D and Agent Carter on the small screen and there’s a lot of buzz about Daredeviland the other Netflix series set to come.

And there’s more, as Ant-Man will be dropping into theatres in July and that’s an intriguing proposition for a variety of reasons (some of them slightly unfortunate). Still, in the midst of this ever-spawning, evolving multiverse it’s Age of Ultron looming large as the irresistible main attraction. It really is the All-Star Game of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and all the heroes are in action; a whole series of events and plotpoints are occurring that will have huge consequences for the unfolding of Phase Three across the entire MCU.

Director/writer/geek-overlord Joss Whedon has frequently cited The Godfather: Part II as a touchstone for his second Avengers picture and that’s a pretty powerful point of comparison, it being the lauded ‘Greatest Sequel of All Time’ and all. It’s also a reasonable reference because everything is escalating and expanding alongside the fact that, as a pop cultural entity, this is – I repeat – a really big deal (and the only thing that can possibly compete for the ‘biggest deal’ position is a certain space fantasy franchise that’s making its cinematic comeback this Christmas).

Age of Ultron gets the gang back together to tear them apart – ‘Science Bros’ Tony and Bruce are building an artificial intelligence that inadvertently becomes the supergroup’s ultimate nemesis and a bigger threat to Earth than Loki, Thanos, the Chitauri hordes and all the goons of HYDRA combined. With deepening rifts in the group, the proper introduction of newcomers Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch and more Infinity Stones in the mix, this instalment is laying vital foundations for the future – in particular, we presume, Captain America: Civil Warand the Avengers: Infinity War two-parter.

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This is all very important and exhilarating. However, in spite of my eagerness to know what happens next and how all the connections are clicking together in this cinematic universe, I’ve realised that they’re not the things I care about the most. In the build up to Age of Ultron I’ve come to understand that my manic, overexcited mind isn’t thinking about Infinity Stones, crossing plot threads, eye-popping special effects sequences or brute force showdown battles between iconic heroes and villains. The main reason I can’t wait to watch Age of Ultron isn’t actually a cerebral or a physically sensual one at all.

I’ve discovered that I want to watch Avengers: Age of Ultron more than pretty much anything for the following simple reason – I want to see my friends again (insert “awwww, bless” here). And thus, hitting on this conclusion, I had an epiphany and realised the secret of the MCU’s stellar success – feelings and emotions. The cathartic entertainment, blockbuster thrills and compelling narratives of the various pictures have us hooked, but by hitting us in ‘the feels’ and having a massive heart Marvel has made this into something far more than another finely crafted blockbuster film franchise.

It’s the humanism, and not the superhuman facets, that’s responsible for Marvel’s soaring artistic and commercial success. The established and already much loved figures from comics lore have been rendered into superbly vivid live action beings on screen and thus have become even more beloved and iconic. They all have depth and they all feel like genuine real-life people (even if they are, in fact, gods or aliens).

For this we can thank a troop of excellent, dedicated actors (so often overlooked in the grand scheme of things) and a stable of writers and directors who all understand that the “Shakespeare in the Park” gag isn’t far off the mark. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is the modern day equivalent of the Bard and ancient mythology – the definitive popular stories of our era exploring the human condition and universal themes through the medium of crowd-pleasing drama. So it has been for decades with the source comics, but the movies have fashioned the literature into a three dimensional audiovisual tour-de-force on an epic scale.

Snobs and cynics be damned and bopped on the bonce by Thor’s hammer – the MCU is where it’s at if we’re talking about the contemporary art with the most heart, soul and ability to delve into essential questions about the human condition.

These pictures are also among the modern filmic works that have effectively fabricated the most convincing, realistic and well fleshed-out fictional characters – and that’s all the more surprising considering the intrinsic ridiculousness of the whole superhero concept.

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In truth, the best moments of the MCU movies are always the emotional ones rather than the more conventional blockbuster action sequences or comedy scenes. Consider, for example, any of the reels dealing with the tragic romance between Steve Rogers’ man-out-of-time and Peggy Carter. Likewise, the strongest parts of each Iron Man outing are the points where the ever-assured, über-cocky Tony Stark finds himself helpless and crippled by anxiety attacks or identity crises.

These fantastic stories really come to life when the Marvel pictures get beneath the armour, as it were, and push on the reality of the person underneath with all their neuroses, pains, fear, insecurity and trauma. See also the conflict and anguish Thor faces with his sensitive Asgardian family dramas and his love for Jane Foster. Furthermore, recall the critical sequences in the first Avengers flick where Black Widow and Nick Fury show their vulnerability and true feelings to Loki (“You have made me very desperate”).

Beneath the capes, suits and cool aliases these figures are living, breathing people and that’s the pull that keeps us interested in them and sentimentally aligned with them. We care about these characters because they have charismatic personalities and because they bleed (metaphorically and literally). We see their scars and their demon-and-doubt-troubled souls and, thus, we empathise with them because they are just like us – multifaceted creatures with foibles who feel, and feel deeply.

The movies’ emotional beats resound and echo out beyond the screen thanks to great screenwriting and the aforementioned exceptional performances of the entire acting cast. The same goes for Guardians of the Galaxy, which is essentially a beautiful tale about a disparate misfit band of bruised rejects coming to terms with themselves and their own past tragedies. They find peace, new happiness and new heroic purpose by opening up to each other, and we can probably credit James Gunn’s gonzo space romp as being the most gleeful group therapy session ever conceived.

Each character in the crack (cracked?) troop secures our sympathy and absolute support within about a minute of screentime. The villains, supporting cast and incidental characters are exactly the same. Ronan the Accuser; Nebula; The Collector ; Yondu Udonta; Corpsman Rhomann Dey; and, yeah, even the One-Legged Prisoner – all of them are rich, well drawn-out and credible characters of emotional depth, motivation and weighty personality. There are no cardboard cut-outs and lazy stock roles in this Cinematic Universe.

Oddly perhaps for a sci-fi adventure flick, Guardians of the Galaxy is most interested in feelings and emotions, and if you look at it a little harder you see just how earnestly heartfelt it is. For proof, note the fact that the soundtrack is the ‘Awesome Mix Vol. 1’ mixtape made by Peter Quill’s mother – Star-Lord’s most treasured possession, linking him back to his lost parent and his lost home planet.

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Furthermore, observe how the film’s beginning – and our first introduction to the Guardians’ world – is Meredith Quill’s devastating death scene. The first episode of the Daredevil Netflix series smartly started in similar fashion, and brought us into the text via the hero’s heartbreaking backstory and a downbeat personal moment. After bearing witness to the blinding of his childhood self, our introduction to Charlie Cox’s Matt Murdock came in a church confession booth – the melancholy Murdock reflecting on his dead father and delving deep into his rage and the repressed feelings roiling deep inside his soul.

Then, as a relevant comparison, there’s the Agents of SHIELD series – flawed and frustrating sometimes as it awkwardly lurches through baffling missions and uninteresting story arcs. Still, in spite of it all, I’d argue that it’s still worth watching simply for the human element, and when it anchors itself around intense feelings and plays more like a human drama – or an ‘inhuman drama’ – it’s gripping television.

As in the films, the strongest and most affecting sequences are those where our SHIELD agents struggle with metaphysical doubt, grief, moral uncertainty and personal trauma among many other difficult things. It’s hard to deal with the knowledge that you were possessed by an alien, died and were bought back to life for unknown reasons by your elusive bosses or may possess latent apocalyptic powers, y’know.

To quote Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon, “We need emotional content.” It’s true, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe is held together by such emotional content; it works so well because all the complexities and diverse elements are underscored by human feeling and the personal touch. In comparing other present day franchises I conclude that Marvel have the characters who I care about the most, and the films that affect me the most.

I love these fictional super-folk. I care about them like you care about a relative or a really good friend and I’m pretty sure that I’m not the only sentimental geek with such a strong relationship. That affinity with empathetic, multi-dimensional personalities of realistic character, depth and human psychology is what guarantees audience goodwill. This goodwill prevails above all the ‘superhero fatigue’, in the face of all Marvel’s competition, and through any wobbles this unravelling cinematic universe might encounter along the way to the Infinity War.

Much is made of the ambitious vision of the whole project and the careful cultivation of the intertwining arcs across all these movies and TV spin-offs but, most importantly, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is guided by gut feeling. It’s the heart and humanity that’s the quintessence and the outstanding difference in this whole expansive superhuman show – currently the Greatest Show on Earth (and other galaxies).

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