Although the MCU has faced some persistent cirtiscms like having underdeveloped villains, or always giving heroes the same (or very similar) origin story one thing it’s really put some effort into as it’s developed is delivering different types of movie. And it’s done this by taking the traditional superhero movie format, and its own format established in the first phase of the MCU, and mixing that with other genres.
Movies like Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, Doctor Strange, and Spider-Man Homecoming all combine more familiar superhero tropes and elements with clear influences and ideas from other movies and styles, totalling to some very unique films, that each helped push the MCU into a new and more diverse direction.
The original set of movies, Iron Man, Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, and The Avengers, each established the MCU’s principal heroes, their characters and how they interacted with each other. But it’s no secret that they are all relatively similar movies, if not in story and format, then definitely in style.
Iron Man, Hulk, and Captain America all focus on establishing who the hero is, putting them through a transformative experience (or in Hulks case explain how it already happened), they hit a setback, and then rally to fight an evil, more brutal version of themselves.
Iron Man takes on Killmonger, Hulk fights Abomination, and Captain America fights Red Skull.
Even Thor, which follows a different final act, but much of his story, you know being a spoiled prince, realising your way of looking at the world is wrong, understanding that you can do more for the greater good etc. etc. it’s basically the same as Iron Man’s story.
But moving into Phase 2, the MCU started to take risks, a lot more risks. After movies like Thor: The Dark World, Avengers: Age of Ultron and Iron Man 3, which with a few exceptions here and there, I’d argue is more of the same, and similar to what we’ve seen before from those characters.
But the other half of the MCU’s Phase 2 is where the Cinematic Universe really started to take some risks, and show us something totally new.
Winter Soldier was arguably the first example of injecting something more into the established MCU formula. The movie hits a lot of the Marvel movie tropes we’ve come to know but twists them into a Mission Impossible-style spy thriller. It even has the Mission Impossible face-swapping.
Winter Soldier’s action scenes are more intense, the movie takes a deep dive into Captain America’s character and motivations, and the biggest move is the game-changing SHIELD/HYDRA twist that changes the entire MCU.
The other 2014 MCU movie, changes the cinematic universe even further.
Guardians of the Galaxy not only made us all care about a bunch of characters we had little to no knowledge of, which the MCU has shown time and again it can do. I mean who really cared about Captain America, Iron Man and Thor, before the MCU other than the hardcore Marvel comics fans.
But Guardians’ biggest achievements are introducing a full-on comedy movie, one that embraces the wacky space travelling side of the Marvel universe but also uses music in an ingenious and original way.
Not only is Guardians a unique movie in its own right, but made it clear that MCU movies don’t just have to hit certain beats, they can be wacky, zany comedies….
Putting both Winter Soldier and Guardians out in the same year proved that MCU movies don’t always have to follow the same formula, or hit certain beats – thanks to the foundation of Phase 1, MCU movies can be bright, music-filled, comedies (that introduces and bonds an entire team in one movie), or a darker character study spy thriller, that upends the entire Universe…
All of this was taken into Ant-Man, which undoubtedly follows the very familiar MCU origin template, and yet it has way more comedic elements, what feels like improvised scenes and lots of Paul Rudd being Paul Rudd.
If it wasn’t for Guardians and Winter Soldier showing that the MCU can embrace a different side of things, I think there is easily a version of Ant-Man that is much more of a traditional MCU movie, something like Iron Man (which it already shares lots of similarities with).
The creativity that permeated some of Phase 2’s biggest movies, then goes into full force for Phase 3.
Civil War is kind of Captain America 3 but also does some great character work for Iron Man, Wanda, Black Widow, Vision, Rhodey, Falcon, I guess Hawkeye too – and is very much an Avengers 2.5 – it takes all of the high intensity and realism that the Russo brothers brought to Winter Solider and throws in Iron Man, and yet another MCU altering event with the Sokovia accords – showing that almost any movie can alter the entire course of the universe.
Arguably Civil War is kind of more of the same, and not something new, as it’s somewhere between a Cap movie, an Iron Man movie, and an Avengers movie, but I think the way all of those things were combined – and used to introduce both Black Panther and Spider-Man into the MCU showed that the MCU was at a point where it could take some big risks, tackle some big stories, and almost do no wrong.
Showcasing that once again was 2016’s other MCU movie, Doctor Strange, which admittedly had several big stars to attract audiences, and filled its trailers with its incredible CGI scenes, and definitely follows many of the same origin story beats we’ve seen before.
And yet the movie introduces MCU audiences to a whole new kind of magic, this is ‘real’ magic, no longer the science we don’t understand yet stuff that they kind of pretended Asgard was for a while, but then kind of dropped it – because you know… it’s clearly magic – Thor can just control the weather with his mind… that is not science.
But what Doctor Strange does is introduce this world in a relatively believable way, and introduces a new cast of MCU characters, and most impressively ends not on a fight with the good guy fighting a bad guy version of himself, but instead with Doctor Strange beating Dormamu with logic.
It’s a good twist and encapsulates the uniqueness of the movie, which shows off some horror elements, and some crazy action sequences that really set it apart at least in style and execution, if not in basic formula, from the rest of the MCU.
Guardians 2, I’ll admit is kind of more of the same – except it’s more of the same of Guardians – which is a crazy wacky, music-filled action comedy – so although it’s more Guardians, it’s still crazy that this kind of movie exists, and works within the MCU – and it has absolutely no right to do such a good job at developing emotional and meaningful connections with such a large cast in only two movies.
Spider-Man: Homecoming was I think a bit of a turning point for the MCU. Not only was it a Sony and Marvel Studios movie, and not only was it a pitch-perfect John Hughes-style modern-day high school movie in the MCU, but it showed how well the MCU can reinvent and adapt characters fans already have favourite on-screen version of.
And with Homecoming, Jon Watts made all of this look easy.
The focus on Peter’s high school troubles, keeping his identity a secret, and all the other classic Spider-Man issues that it perfectly nailed fit so well into a Jon Hughes style high school movie – it takes it time to develop the entire supporting cast as very human characters, not just it’s star – which also results in one of the MCU’s best villains…
Homecoming is perhaps the best example of showing how mixing other movie genres and styles into the tried and tested MCU formula can result in something special.
Jon Watts then took all of this and did it again, with Far From Home, which manages to do all of the same but add in Spider-Man’s struggle to fill the void of Iron Man, showing yet another side to his emotional arc, and also advancing the story of the wider MCU.
Where Homecoming showed that the MCU can reinvent character viewers were already familiar with from previous adaptations, Thor Ragnarok shows how it can reinvent its own characters – and the answer is – get Taika Waititi to do it.
Ragnarok not only alters the stakes for Thor, taking away Asgard, Odin, mumu, and pretty much his entire reality but it turned Thor into, well Chris Hemsworth. He’s much funnier and sillier, and yet it all still works within the MCU and with who Thor is.
And it shows like Guardians and Ant-Man before it how well the pure comedy and improvisational elements can be mixed in to not just new characters as we saw there, but very familiar ones like Thor.
Black Panther and Captain Marvel then show a different kind of growth for the MCU, which could and should have come a little sooner.
The two movies gave their audience a familiar MCU origin story but for the first time in the MCU centred around a black superhero and a female superhero respectively. Each embraces a familiar but new style and continues to develop and now add. Some much-needed diversity into the on-screen universe.
And with Infinity War and Endgame, they completely defy any genre or established formula within the MCU or not, as almost just through the circumstance of being essentially a two-part, nearly six-hour story, that has twenty-one prequels.
The furthest the MCU has pushed its exploration of new genres and ideas is WandaVision which combines almost too many to count (at least at first).
WandaVision takes the introduction of other genres to a whole new level, by literally having each of the first few episodes take place in a different era of television history.
The way WandaViison uses the various styles, tropes and eras is way more literal than the other MCU properties, but that’s what makes it so unique, and proves how far the MCU has come since Phase 1.
Overall the MCU started out with some great, but formulaic movies, and took that foundation and used it to introduce all kinds of other genres and ideas into its superhero stories, resulting in an unprecedented on-screen universe, that without sounding too dramatic, has completely changed the way the world looks at movies, and doesn’t look like it will stop any time soon.
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