Project Hero: Marvel Studios’ Blockbuster Formula

Marvel has created the highest domestically grossing film series in history. Here’s why:

I’ve always had a love of superheroes. Throughout my childhood, instead of watching Spongebob Squarepants, I found myself immersed in vintage episodes of The Justice League, the current animated movies of every hero who ever saved the world, and 70’s comic books my father had collected and then passed down to my brother and me.

As I grew older, the love didn’t fade, becoming an affair of Super Girl lunch boxes, Batgirl backpacks, and pretty much every piece of Wonder Woman merchandise known to man, and an Adventures in Babysitting-like crush on Clark Kent.

Until 2008, I never truly realized an entire “better” world that had been growing right under my nose, in the shining “pure” light of DC comics, whose only movies were Batman, which was highly mature, with a substitution of characterization for darkness.

After the somewhat success of X-Men and The Fantastic Four, and the recent decline of the Spiderman franchise, Marvel Studios turned around and made a complete 180 with their next choice of superhero to bring to life.

Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark was unapologetically sinful, realistically snarky, and overall a hero that Americans could actually relate to, rather than an “underdog.” Shedding a secret identity, he owned his hubris—ego.

Marvel’s formula for the next decade would be changed by this character, the playboy with every resemblance to Bruce Wayne, a cardboard cutout of any of Forbes’ Fortunate 500 list.

To my 11-year-old self, the dynamic of the first Iron Man movie was fresh, entertaining and delightful.

After the reports from the Middle East became a standard of the nightly news since 2001, it wasn’t as unrealistic as mutants or a boy getting bit by an extremely dangerous spider on a field trip.

Thor and Captain America lacked the sass of Downey’s “genius-billionaire-playboy-philanthropist” in their title characters, though you couldn’t deny the stories’ tone of both of the more fantastical pillars of what would become the Avengers had a grounding point that Iron Man lacked, due to his ego.

Thor wasn’t a god, rather a wayward alien put in time out, AKA Earth, only to be found by a friendly girl. If you didn’t read the first part, this could be a summary Disney’s Lilo and Stitch.

The true dynamic change in the story from Marvel’s usual path, was the brotherly relationship between Thor and Loki. The sibling conflict is something most of us can relate to, though still retain the admirable qualities that any good Shakespearean play has, the family drama becomes the fate of the world.

Captain America was mostly set in the past, giving the viewer the greatest feeling a historical film can give–nostalgia for a time when your grandparents were born. But under the uniforms, the 40’s clear lines of Good and Evil, and the muscle, the story was the closest Marvel came to the true American hero.

On one hand, Chris Evans’s Steve Rogers is a whimpy kid from Brooklyn who wants to join the army, something a very select few of us can relate to. Though in order to make himself worthy, he volunteers to become a lab rat where they pump him full of steroids i.e. Superjuice to ascend into iconic hero level, i.e Captain America.

But, Captain America hits the hardest for all of us, all of us, at one point, have been the last one to the finish line. Every day when ESPN pops up on the TV screen, I see another whimpy looking kid who grew up to be the hunky batter for whatever team’s in the lead of the American League. Captain America is the Barry Bonds equivalent of superheroes. He was a weakling who chose to become “super,” because he sees the world as black and white and that creates his conflict.

Female characters made a huge step in the Marvel Universe, with Thor’s scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and warrior Sif (Jaime Alexander), Iron Man’s CEO Pepper Potts (Gywneth Paltrow) and superspy Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), and Captain America’s drill sergeant and soldier Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell.)

No longer were they either strapping heroines for heroes, or the damsel in distress. They became people. Though the overall stories were still centered around men, as the Avengers’ universe expanded, as did the women’s roles in that world.

In the third of the Iron Man movies, the title character, Tony Stark, becomes the damsel in distress as his former damsel, Pepper Potts, saves him and becomes the hero.

While Marvel may not be the best in some areas, plot continuity has always been something that Marvel excels at.

In 2012, Marvel finally showed the product of their clever character manipulation, bringing a glowing cube into multiple movies for no apparent reason.

The Avengers was by far the funniest, most action packed, and generally pointed movie produced by Marvel to date. But the reason why it wasn’t a complete flop wasn’t because they had awesome special effects or good writing.

It’s a genius blend of Norse mythology, to appeal to the hardcore fans, and World War II jingoism, which appeals to the bright line test, and Downey’s 2010 American playboy-hero, and then the Hulk.

The Hulk is the most difficult and most interesting character portrayal–he’s the quintessential superhero because he’s got all the powers. But, The Avengers made the story of Dr. Bruce Banner the salt. By focusing on the angst of being the Hulk rather than it’s power, which becomes the ultimate savior, Joss Whedon crafts a compelling story of being a hero rather than a team of superheroes.

The Avengers weren’t made to be just a fighting force, and accidentally or not, they became a team of people.

The reason why there hasn’t been a successful Justice League movie ever to get past the production room, is because DC doesn’t create people.  They create gods in capes.

From the moment any Marvel movie starts, we find there’s a human in every hero or that humans can be heroes too.

Many argue that Clint Barton and Natasha Romanoff aren’t “worthy” of being in the Avengers. The topic arises in The Avengers as a question Steve Rogers (Captain America) directs at Tony Stark (Iron Man).

“Take away the suit and what are you?”

It’s not answered until Iron Man 3, where it’s proven you don’t need anything to be a hero.

That became Marvel’s thesis for its follow up movies to the Avengers, post- Iron Man 3, in Thor, where the true battle is loyalty.

And most recently, in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, where our heroes are supposed to survive on the barest bones of heroism, but where heroism is a murky sort of definition.

As much as we like to think we know who the hero is in the movie, usually implied by the title character, but after the Avengers, that rule became obsolete with Pepper Potts saving the day in Iron Man 3, Jane Foster and her science team saving the world in Thor 2: The Dark World. In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the hero in the end is not Steve Rogers.

A hero is someone who selfless sacrifices everything for the greater good of the world. I don’t not count Captain America as a hero, but in CA:TWS he is not the hero.

There are two fronts in the movie’s conclusion, taking place over the Potomac and inside SHIELD HQ, the Trisakelion.

Over the Potomac, we watch the character of the Winter Soldier break under his own brainwashing, almost costing him his savior’s life as he tries to beat away the living memory of Bucky Barnes. In the end, the Soldier “dies” in favor of Barnes, who saves Rogers, costing him his entire purpose and persona.

Similarly, in the information war, Natasha Romanoff released the entire database of SHIELD secrets, though she sacrifices her cover and the world comes to see her as she “truly is” in exchange for them seeing what HYDRA is.

These characters are morally grey, with questionable actions throughout their entire total screen time, where at the end of the movie you realize that Marvel has created a new rule for themselves.

The world of villains and heroes is over, a “two sides of a coin which is no longer currency.” But, unlike how this man said that it isn’t a world of spies anymore, he’s dead wrong. It’s the only world of the morally grey.

Marvel’s universe stands on fundamental pillars, ones that they cannot fully explicate in a movie or two per year.

With Joss Wesson’s return to television in Agents of SHIELD, the morals of the organization behind every single major movement in the movies, and the creation of the heroes is tested and used between each of the films as place holders.

Sometimes slow, the entire universe has transformed with the multitudes of people doing heroic things, with powers that are honestly nothing more than modern technology.

The message comics and other “comic book” movies once told us has faded away, where you only can be “super” with powers.

Truly shown by the technological war in Captain America where the release of secrets is the true battle, and in Agents of SHIELD, where power lies with a laptop, power is information now, the new currency of the 21st century.

Marvel tells us stories for our century, in battles we sometimes can no longer see, villains we surprise ourselves in loving, and stories that make us walk away questioning ourselves.

– Kate Clement