Destroy All Monsters: Marvel's Dark World

Columnist; Toronto, Canada (@tederick)
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Destroy All Monsters: Marvel's Dark World

There's been no shortage of Marvel news lately.

Phase Two is trucking along with the release of Thor: The Dark World (including a dispiriting first glimpse at next summer's Guardians of the Galaxy); Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. barrelling headlong towards the completion of its back-nine order for Season One; a rousing trailer for next spring's Captain America: The Winter Soldier; and last week, the announcement that Marvel and Netflix will collaborate on four (!) television series, and one mini-series, around the "smaller scale" heroes of New York City - Daredevil, Iron Fist, Luke Cage, and Jessica Jones.

In terms of Disney's wholesale purchases of mega-franchises, Marvel is as hot as it gets right now. (Five years from now, Star Wars will be just as proliferate.) From a marketing and promotions standpoint, the machine is working perfectly. Marvel Studios continues to pop two big-screen soufflés out of the oven on an annual basis, and having perfected that assembly line, they're free to expand their reach into other strategic partnerships, gobbling up mindshare on network and streaming television as well.

This is the way the system is designed to work, a consumer enterprise at the height of its game, which has both defined the demand and perfected the supply. In the mechanics of its output, though, we can sense the boundaries of Marvel's game, causing me to wonder what will happen when one of their competitors - Fox or DC - catches up. If there's a risk to what Marvel Studios is doing right now, it's simply in its manifest lack of risk. For all the boundary-jumping innovations with the genre that put Marvel in this position (Thor; The Avengers), the road ahead looks like plenty more of the same.

In this, the studio's gormless Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. television series is probably the best example. It is the first time the studio has clearly marked its ambitions as being directed towards a painfully mainstream audience. There's nothing "interesting" about S.H.I.E.L.D., by which I mean less that the show is boring than that the show is utterly without anything weird or unique to set it apart from, say, N.C.I.S. or C.S.I. Maybe if you have to stop to insert periods in frequently-used words when writing your show, the creative mind goes out the window.

In its distinct lack of distinctiveness, the difference between Joss Whedon, Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen's previous series, Dollhouse, and their current one, S.H.I.E.L.D., become obvious.

Dollhouse was so replete with genuinely (and often unfathomably) unique elements that it was literally a show that had no idea what it was talking about, a two-season run of near-misses around an idea that, if frustrating, was ultimately as fascinating a television property for analysis as any of the coherent and successful series running against it.

S.H.I.E.L.D., on the other hand, with its core cadre of pretty white twentysomethings running bargain-basement international missions borrowed from Alias but featuring sub-X Files monsters of the week, is - in its six episodes so far - one of the least memorable television series, for its particulars, since the '80s reboot of Mission: Impossible. I've got a small flow-chart on my iPad that lets me keep track of the characters' names, but aside from "Ming-na Wen is awesome" and "Clark Gregg should stop smiling," I rarely come away from an episode with a note provoking any deeper investment.

Nor, I think, am I supposed to. I am beginning to suspect that S.H.I.E.L.D. is the Dempster's White Bread of current popular entertainment, the one you're not supposed to tell your mom you bought because she'll give you sixteen different reasons why it's completely worthless. Dempster's sells great, precisely because it's so blandly anonymous; and so does S.H.I.E.L.D., for the same reason. It's not intended to upset the apple-cart via any genre deconstruction or genuine creativity; firmly in his Executive Consultant position at Marvel, one imagines that Joss Whedon has learned the lessons of his previous series' popular failings, which is that screwing around with audience expectations buys you hardcore fans and no money. S.H.I.E.L.D. is here to keep the home fires burning without ever roaring into a blaze, and it does that by never pushing its audience in any direction they might find indigestible. Say what you want about Dempster's White Bread: it's digestible.

All of this became transparent to me while watching the grand, hollow Thor: The Dark World this weekend, which is about as great a sequel to 2011's Thor as one could hope to imagine, were one to imagine a sequel that does nothing besides bring more of the same of what worked the first time. The Dark World is far and away the high water mark of Marvel's output from a physical production standpoint: it is a beautifully designed, and executed, fantasy world; a comic book universe writ large (and in 3-D). Thanks to Kenneth Branagh's keen casting sense on the first film, a crackerjack ensemble of unique and varied actors (from stalwartly charming Chris Hemsworth down to goofball wiseass Kat Dennings, with fierce Rene Russo in between) act out a mad genre story about gods, realms, and inter-dimensional fistfights.

It's boring as hell to watch, of course, because Marvel is no longer spending the big bucks on their directors. To make Phase One work, they needed the Branaghs, the Favreaus, the Joss Whedons - talented filmmakers slightly below the A-grade, who had something to prove for one reason or another, and thereby had the wherewithal to work hard at the conceptual and logistical gymnastics required in setting up the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

For Phase Two, Marvel has two properties from TV directors (three if you count The Avengers: Age of Ultron), and two from mid-tier journeymen with respectable, if hardly astonishing, filmographies. Taylor, Black, the Russos, and Gunn aren't here to innovate with the form; they're here to work very carefully within it. It's a return to Old Hollywood production dynamics, where the studio is making the movie, and the director is overseeing the day-to-day work of filming. The results are glossy as hell and might occasionally even exceed expectations (I'm not counting the Russo brothers out yet), but they work in-market precisely because of their Old Hollywoodness. The audience gets exactly what they want, no more, no less.

This era of "good enough" filmmaking in the genre/franchise frame is the natural extension of everything that Disney-style mega-franchising inherently requires: enormous budgets; clearly definable value propositions; easy export to foreign markets; and above all, Dempster's White Bread-style digestibility for as many audience members as possible. It will become boring, and it will do so approximately a year and a half before Disney shareholders expect it to. Until then, though, it's going to make those shareholders a fortune.

Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and pop culture.

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TheGhostOfGriffinMillNovember 13, 2013 11:44 AM

Your columns continue to rock. Keep it up, please!

Only thing I would add is a shout-out to Joe Johnston for his CAPTAIN AMERICA. In all reviews of the Marvel/Disney machine, his name is the one left out the most often and -- while it may be par for Joe's career course -- it always makes me sad.

While his style may in fact be the paradigm of the throw-back, down-the-middle studio form you've mentioned here, I think he executes it with a sincerity that makes his stuff actually FEEL like classic studio fare. I'm a big, big fan of Joe's.

KurtNovember 13, 2013 11:59 AM

Happy to see this column call Marvel out on its boring assembly line approach to extruded plastic product.

I should add that This Something I have been shaking my fist at since Iron Man came out in 2008. Outside of the Avengers, I've been blissfully skipping Marvel Studio movies since early 2010, and using the spare change to buy MULTIGRAIN bread made outside of the dreamfactory.

Matthew PriceNovember 13, 2013 12:03 PM

Unlike Kurt, I recognize and appreciate that while multigrain might be less bad for me sometimes I require the pillowy-white-goodness that only good ol' Wonder can provide.

Matt BrownNovember 13, 2013 12:28 PM

Thanks! Appreciate it. Totally agree on Johnston.

KurtNovember 13, 2013 12:45 PM

The ROCKETEER for my money.

Marina AntunesNovember 13, 2013 1:51 PM

Really? I found Avengers far less interesting than the other Marvel offerings so far (with the exception of Iron Man which has never really worked for me with the exception of a few zingers and scenes). I have little interest in revisiting it (again, with the exception of a few moments) but I've seen both Thor and CA a handful of times since their release.

MicrozanderNovember 13, 2013 2:13 PM

As much as i relly WANTED to like Thor: Dark World, i have to admit this article brings out some of the feelings i truely had about this film. This
style of thinking when it came to marvel movies started with the release
of IRON MAN 2. Such a let down. I really hope marvel pulls thier socks up on this issue
becuase as awesome as it is for us fans of these properties to see these
COMIC BOOK movies on the silver screens, more and more people are starting to realise that marvel is has fed us crums on a couple times when they SHOULD be feeding us scrumptious meals.

cjohnstonNovember 13, 2013 2:49 PM

SOO glad to hear that there is at least ONE other person out there who found Avengers to be.....Disappointing. *hugs and
I've been 'stumping' (just one tiny perhaps misguided pipsqueak of a voice I'm sure..) since day one - when it was first announced that there'd be a sequel to said film, that Zac Snyder would breath some MUCH needed (desperately needed IMO..) life into this rather MarvelLESS round 2.......IMHO

cjohnstonNovember 13, 2013 2:51 PM

good call.........

KurtNovember 13, 2013 4:36 PM

What I meant was I actually bothered to see THE AVENGERS because I was curious how they'd work the dynamic of so many 'main characters' in to a cohesive story. (I didn't mean to imply that The Avengers was any less 'white bread' than there rest of Marvel's tchotchkes)...The Avengers had some very smooth camera flow in the final battle, and I liked what the writers and Mark Ruffalo & Scarlett Johansson did with Hulk and Black Widow, but boy those first 30 minutes of that film...yie...what a mess...

Omega KeyNovember 13, 2013 4:45 PM

Outside of the scenes the HULK was in, the Avengers was as boring as a movie gets. The Disney-fication of all things Marvel and very soon to be all things Star Wars is in full swing. It'll be family and kid friendly fair from here on out. RIP Blade, any reboot of the Punisher, and a Black Panther film. GotG plush dolls for all!

Mr. CavinNovember 13, 2013 6:38 PM

Good points all, though I still think Iron Man 3 is the more interesting of these movies, and that Shane Black turned in something akin to a thoughtful character arc in and around that steadily redoubling of bombast we usually see in a number movie. All that given, I actually am sheepishly okay with returning, at least a little, to a plainspoken era of cinematic day-laborers--or at least happy to turn away from all these attention-seeking stylists. The actual days of the studio system were positively studded with examples of inventive storytelling passed off as safe formulaic bets. I'll take boring directors with energetic scripts any day.

Mike SpiersNovember 14, 2013 4:36 AM

Great article - keep them coming. Marvel simply has fallen into a running construction line, producing white bread, a good analogy. This has been the case THROUGOUT the Avengers films, and throughout the Iron Man films, though for different ways. HAve been unable to fathom why anyone likes either of these series, and glad to see I am not the only one. Thor, was a rare exception, offerring character (and humour) where the others were sorely defficient. Yeet to see the second. I fear it may spoil my enjoqment of the first. (As for Captain America = partiotism at it's most irksome, and unimaginative. Such a cringey film. I see little hope for Marvel. No sweat, I will stick to the wholemeal as well.)

TheGhostOfGriffinMillNovember 14, 2013 10:31 AM

I for one don't think you should be sheepish! I consume a LOT of film/cinema/movies and I think there's room for everything except laziness.

Some may ascribe laziness to the Marvel Studios line (though I don't think that is what Matt does here) but I'd take issue with that -- Marvel itself IS aiming at a broad middle, but I think they do it with an honesty towards the source material that Sony and Fox lack (and don't get me started on Warners' non-Batman canon).

As for the directorial aesthetics, I am an old SOB and I happen to like the Dick Donner/Joe Johnston school and think directors like Shane Black and Jon Favreau are well suited to carrying that torch. They add some flair at spots, but it never overwhelms the story and it is never the end in-and-of itself (*cough cough* Michael Bay *cough cough* Zack Snyder).

As for the "story", I view it like this: I have story/script issues with almost all of the Marvel stuff when I watch it... but my eight-year old doesn't. He gets jazzed and it has made him more interested in reading and writing and watching other movies with me at home.

While the Marvel films are not (imo) up to the broad-film standards of things from my youth -- THE GOONIES, BACK TO THE FUTURE, etc etc -- I really DO think they get kids interested in story, film and the intersection of the two and THAT is something that TRANSFORMERS and GREEN LANTERN will never accomplish.

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Mike SpiersNovember 15, 2013 3:50 AM

Screw it - I'm off to see Thor 2. Hearing mixed reviews. This article isn't particularly encouraging, but can't complain (and critic, of course!) until I've taken the plunge.

cjohnstonNovember 15, 2013 4:17 PM

For me - as far as "explicit" Marvel/DC universe goes; The First Cap. film comes the closest to being "THAT" superhero film - something (IMHO) coming closest to that of a Man of Steel, Sucker Punch, Dredd, The Rocketeer (as keenly and acutely mentioned below), Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunters, or perhaps a Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters.
Now - ...I DO realize that some of my (???!) 'mentionalbes MIGHT be VERY inclined to raise - ALOT(!) of eyebrows..
Suffice to say, for now at least, that as far as a quote/unquote "SUPERHERO" film goes (whatever the heck THAT is supposed to - while I am broadening quite prodigiously the "scope" of such a ..heroic definition as this; ALL of the above (said.) films IMHO exhibit VERY palpable "incarnations" and ideas of superheroes as I (strongly and quite sincerely) think should be in place to begin with.........
..Far as Thor goes - you might just have (slightly-lol) rekindled my interest in seeing the initial Thor - the very least!LOL

OkMNovember 16, 2013 7:48 AM

Fuck this article and you all

Tuan JimNovember 16, 2013 8:53 PM

Certainly some valid points raised - although I've been enjoying these films regardless - for the same reason I get a kick out of revisiting something like Johnston's "The Rocketeer" - and wouldn't mind seeing a universe expanded along those lines (think also of the "Crimson Skies" board game and video game universe).

I do like the concept of building various pictures towards a unified theme - but I'm not sure how many times it really needs to be done...seems to be heading towards the Infinity Wars this time around.

Question - where exactly (if at all) is Giant-Man by Edgar Wright supposed to fit in? Rolled into the next Avengers?

OTOH - I am a big fan of the most recent Punisher reboot (Warzone) and the similarly R-rated Blade flicks (particularly #2 - GDT!). I don't see the need to approach all characters that way, but an R-rated Hulk film - he was marketed under Marvel Knights along with Ghost Rider, DareDevil, Blade and Punisher - would also be an interesting step - say to focus on the mental struggles and personality disorders - and other character stages would certainly be interesting (if unmarketable).

Sam Elisha NicholesNovember 17, 2013 11:22 PM

I would agree entirely except for one thing, James Gunn and Super.

Super was something I didn't expect and wish I could see more of; I think that more than proves he isn't mid-level.

Super not only blew Kick-ass out of the water, it hit the mark that Defendor missed, that Special almost had. I really hope that this machine Marvel has designed will be able to give some leeway for some really interesting avenues that Marvel has done in the past that could be believed to be "too strange" for the regular mainstream audience.

I think Guardians of the Galaxy with Gunn could be that movie.
Also, Netflix's new deal gives the possibility for more interesting less white-bread stories being told. If anything at least DD who is probably the roughest character to translate since 90% of the time he's getting destroyed emmtionally or phycically.

Mike SpiersNovember 19, 2013 3:05 AM

Sooo ... that was a let down. Too much Earth, not enough Loki, The 'Aethe was pretty weak, and Hemsworth and Portman were both there but not there. A big fan of Thor, which makes it all the more upsetting. A much more enjoyable few hours could have been spent browsing and purchasing one of these art posters of Loki from here...

... a few hours I have in fact just enjoyed.

tman418November 22, 2013 9:17 PM

Listen Marvel Studios...

Congratulations on your success. You do deserve it. And I'll always be a big fan of (most) of your movies.

But can you please, at the very least, put in some kind of official word of a 2nd Incredible Hulk movie?!?!?! I mean, you already put in the order for 4 TV shows, a miniseries, and a 2nd Avengers. We ALL know that Thor & Captain America will have at least a 3rd film each, plus a 3rd Avengers. And it seems that Marvel Studios hasn't ruled out Iron Man 4.

But what about Incredible Hulk 2? After Avengers 2, Iron Man will have 5 films, Thor & Captain America will have 4 each. And yet the Hulk will only have 3 films, only 1 of which was a solo movie.***

***No, the Ang Lee/Erica Bana "Hulk" movie is NOT part of this MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) and therefore DOES NOT COUNT!

Look, I know that things didn't work out with Edward Norton, and yes I know that the 1st Hulk movie didn't make as much as the other "Phase One" movies, but that shouldn't be an excuse to not let the Hulk have his 2nd movie before Avengers 3. I would have said "before Avengers 2" but it's too late for that!

Todd BrownNovember 24, 2013 5:00 PM

If what I've been hearing about Phase Three ends up being correct then you have nothing to worry about. There's LOTS more Hulk coming.