Starting in 2008, right before the Great Recession, currently with 27 movies in, Marvel has turned the film industry upside down and the recent success of Spider-Man: No Way Home, despite the surge of the new Omicron-variant, has reaffirmed Marvel’s dominance in the industry. At a time when many movies like The Last Duel struggled at the box office despite being critically lauded, the success of the MCU shows that it knows how to draw an audience.
The movie to kick off the saga of the never-ending MCU was Iron Man. Since then, the studio has produced 27 movies and at least twelve more are already in development. The Universe has extended to TV with its Disney+ series. Five shows have already been released and this is excluding the Netflix and ABC Television series. Other studios have tried to replicate it, like DC’s Extended Universe, but rather unsuccessfully. Although many auteurs like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola have decried the dominance of these movies in theatres, there is no doubt that they still remain popular among the masses.
Another thing that has been able to push Marvel from a debt-ridden comic studio to the Hollywood behemoth that it is today is escapism. The good guy will always win. If there is an army of robots trying to wipe the human race, don’t worry, the Avengers will save it for free. The loss is temporary. Even if half the population gets erased it can be brought back, quite literally, with a snap of a finger. Or you might have a variant in a different timeline and get your own show. Although there are some movies that do manage to deal with more complex subjects and are deservedly critically lauded for that, superhero movies and particularly MCU movies are at the core a joy ride of swinging and smashing peppered in with some witty banter.
Although after watching 4 shows and 4 movies set in the MCU in one year I am going through Marvel fatigue, I understand why people would rather go to the theatre to see a world untouched by the actual problems bothering everyone. When the world around us seems to be crumbling, we find ways to forget our problems even if it is just for a few hours to let the serotonin flow.
However, there is a strong case to be made against the escapism that Marvel provides – especially when so many of the stories in the MCU revolve around defending the status quo. Although I’ve enjoyed watching Robert Downey Jr infuse Tony Stark with his own charisma on screen and laughed at some of his wise-cracking remarks, the idea of a billionaire saving the world, especially now, just makes me roll my eyes.
Although Black Panther-one of the best Marvel movies in my opinion-deals quite directly with the racism in America, the guy we are supposed to root for is a prince, who is considered the rightful heir to the throne because he belongs to the right lineage. Noah Berlatsky, writing for The Verge in 2019 about superheroes movies’ bias towards status quo, points out, “Superheroes are almost always dedicated to stopping someone bad from changing things, not changing things that are already bad. Tony Stark’s amazing technological advances are used to beat the tar out of alien invaders and protect the world but not to end world hunger or forge peace in the Middle East. Great power is used to protect the world, not revolutionize it.”
Marvel has managed to revolutionize the film industry. However, its world has to a large extent remained isolated from the actual revolution taking place in the real world – a world whose Tony Starks are not really heroes.