Marvel and Star Wars: Making Geek Chic

Marvel and Star Wars have a lot of things in common, particularly that both have helped geek culture triumph. As previously mentioned, Stan Lee knew the importance of having comic book characters reflect society. Other comic book companies like DC comics focused on characters that only were relatable to a small population. Many of DC’s most popular characters are gods, oligarchs, and confident white men of privilege. While one can relate to Wonder Woman, Batman, and Superman to a certain extent. Marvel understood the importance of its characters reflecting its audience early on. Under the direction of Stan Lee, Marvel heroes were outcasts, the victims of prejudice, trapped in moral webs stronger than anything Spider-Man ever shot. As a result, Marvel comics appealed to people who felt the same, even before Lee and the other Marvel creators published the first African American heroes, the first Asian-American heroes, and strong, leading-character women. Stan Lee once said at the red-carpet premiere of Doctor Strange that “even if they have superpowers, they have to be believable. What they do has to be what any normal person would do in the same situation.” In other words, Stan Lee revolutionized what it meant to be a superhero. Taking the fact that Stan Lee put the human back in superhero, it’s no wonder why Spider-Man is the most universally beloved superhero. In a 2012 BBC interview, Stan Lee spoke about the importance of making a teenage superhero saying, “I wanted to make Spider-Man a teenager, but I’d make him a different kind. He wouldn’t be a sidekick. He’d be the hero. And again make him empathetic and relatable with the readers I’d let him be like any other teenager. I made him not that good looking, not that successful with girls, and he doesn’t have a lot of money. In fact, he doesn’t have enough money. He’s an orphan living with his aunt and uncle. I thought that would make him relatable to a lot of kids.”


By creating stories and characters that appealed to everyone regardless of their race, gender, or color of their skin, Marvel helped geek culture become accepted into mainstream society. The popularity of the MCU has grown over its ten years of existence. However, from Iron Man to Black Panther Marvel movies have always been popular because the movies’ themes go deeper, beyond that of an entertaining, action-packed comic book movie. Stan Lee said it best: “Marvel has always been and always will be a reflection of the world right outside our window. That world may change and evolve, but the one thing that will never change is the way we tell our stories of heroism. Those stories have room for everyone, regardless of their race, gender or color of their skin,” he continued. “The only things we don’t have room for is hatred, intolerance, and bigotry.” Keeping with Stan Lee’s ultimate dream for Marvel, Iron Man is infused with social commentary about the post 9/11 war on terror. Tony Stark, a weapons developer, questions the ethics of his business after being captured by a terrorist group. Iron Man becomes a discussion of the morality of military might and the long-standing after-effects of global conflict. Recent Marvel movies still infuse social commentary, with Spider-Man Homecoming critiquing the American economy post the great recession of 2009, Thor: Ragnarok taking a pro-immigrant stance during a time of xenophobia, and Black Panther discussing the implications of identity politics.


Similarly, Star Wars in the late 1970s and early 1980s brought geek culture to the forefront of everyone’s minds. The merchandising appeal, immersive universe ripe with worldbuilding potential, and visual storytelling style were not only key factors that made Star Wars an instant hit. Audiences had also never seen such masterful special effects before Star Wars’s release in 1977.  These four factors are included in the Marvel formula. The Marvel formula is a set of distinguishing characteristics Marvel has followed ever since its first movie in 2008. Iron Man’s  director Jon Favreau defined this secret sauce in an interview with Vanity Fair saying, “we [Marvel] ended up landing a tone with Iron Man that became the formula moving forward. You want to mix great casting, stay true to the characters, a combined universe that would allow cross-pollination, a sense of humor, and an adherence to canon.”


Star Wars, like Marvel, is a combination of the classic hero's journey storyline, the appealing matching of actors to their roles, the immersive world shown on the screen, the merging of the science fiction technology and fantasy of the Force, and the blend of action and humor that appeals to the sense of wonder and fun of everyone's inner child. Marvel characters and Star Wars characters embark on what Joseph Campbell calls the Hero’s Journey. Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey states that across every single culture on Earth, even ones that had never interacted with each other, all of their most famous stories share common plot elements. In short, the hero’s journey is summed up by Campbell like this: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder…fabulous forces are there encountered, and a decisive victory is won…the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” One can quickly summarize any Marvel movie and find the hero’s journey in the plot. As a result, anyone from anywhere can relate to the stories Marvel tells.


While special effects had certainly improved since the release of the Star Wars: A New Hope and Iron Man, the MCU’s use of CGI and visual effects captured audiences the same way Star Wars had back in the 1970s and 80s. There is a striking difference in superhero movie quality before and after the release of Iron Man. Iron Man came out at a time when improving technology in visual effects such as the advancements in CGI made a believable superhero possible in a way it it hadn’t been before. Director Jon Favreau acknowledged the link between Iron Man’s success and the improvements in visual effects in an interview with Chuck The Movie Guy stating that, “...five years ago you couldn’t make an Iron Man movie that showed Tony Stark’s suit doing everything it could in the comic books. It would have looked fake and it would take audiences out of the movie.” CGI, however, was not even as advanced as it is today. Consequently, Favreau used CGI in a sparingly but tasteful way reserving the special effects for Stark’s innovative technology. Iron Man still used a lot of practical effects. The balance made it so the CGI that was in the movie is all the more convincing and intriguing to the audience.            

Similarly to the fact that Harrison Ford will always be Han Solo, it is hard to imagine anyone other than Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man. The idea of matching actors to their roles allows audiences to relate to both the actor and character even better than before. When the actor is the character, one forgets they are watching a fictional movie. The immersive world shown on screen allowed Star Wars fans to watch TV show spin-offs like the animated TV show Star Wars Rebels or The Clone Wars. The fact that the MCU is still set on earth makes the MCU all the more believable. Marvel characters are not just limited to movies and comic books; TV shows such as Daredevil and Jessica Jones expand the world of Marvel. Just as Star Wars blended the science fiction and fantasy genre, Marvel movies aren’t just comic book movies. Captain America: The Winter Soldier was a political thriller as much as it was a comic book movie. Similarly, Spiderman Homecoming was both a comic book movie and a teenage coming of age story. By blending genres, Marvel stories appeal to a broader audience.