Warning: Captain Marvel spoilers ahead
Every time I walk out of a Subway restaurant, I smile halfheartedly. Subway is a good restaurant, but I’ve just had it so much, and there’s only so many minor variations I can make to my Spicy Italian to give it a distinct taste. I’m glad I found a Subway as opposed to a McDonald’s or a Taco Bell, but I’m also a little disappointed I couldn’t find a Chick-fil-A or a Chipotle. The sandwich was good enough I feel bad complaining about it, but it is not really satisfying.
I feel the same way about Marvel movies. The recently released Captain Marvel is the 21st installment in the MCU, and it is an enjoyable movie. Follow the link to our full review. And while I enjoy seeing our heroes, I don’t feel consider any of the Marvel movies truly great films. None of them are in my top 25 all time movie list, and none of them are even in my top 5 all time superhero movies. Even the good ones, like Captain America: Civil War, are great spectacles, but they’re short on real substance.
As I mulled over my rankings after Captain Marvel, I began wondering what about the Marvel movies prevented them from reaching the same heights as the Christopher Nolan Batman movies or some of the X-Men films. What makes these movies enjoyable enough that I see each one on opening weekend, but prevents me from considering them the very best of the genre? What makes the competition just seem more realistic, even though they are just as fantastical and often worse movies?
The Marvel films struggle to overcome one key problem – we never feel like the heroes have to make hard choices and we never see them wrestling with the consequences of their actions.
In Captain Marvel, the movie begins with Carol Danvers, a loyal soldier in the Kree Starforce, trying to stop the shapeshifting Skrulls from infiltrating planets across the galaxy. About halfway through the movie, she realizes the Skrulls are actually the victims in the story. Instead of being subversive terrorists, they are a people who refused to bend the knee to the Kree empire and the Kree have been essentially genociding them for it. For the film’s finale, Captain Marvel has to switch sides and fight on behalf of the Skrull refugees against the Kree she once called her friends.
It’s a clever twist, but the problem is that we never see Captain Marvel having to come to terms with this revelation, nor does the movie make us understand how much of a change this must be. She has been fighting for the Kree for 6 years, but it only takes a couple of questions and one memory to be unlocked for her to stoically accept that her sworn enemy is secretly the victims and her former allies are the villains.
On top of that, we are never told why the Kree and the Skrulls are fighting. Surely there must be legitimate reasons why someone would choose to spend six years in the Kree Starforce fighting Skrulls. Even if Captain Marvel had been “brainwashed” by the Kree, her peers made the choice to fight the Skrulls. What motivated them? Why do the Kree see the Skrulls as the villains? The movie never poses these questions. Instead of making the audience wrestle with the acceptable means of subduing a delinquent people, we are left with a sudden turnaround that we the viewer don’t grasp the meaning of. A potentially interesting question is posed, but the movie doesn’t touch on it.
Captain Marvel is not the first Marvel movie to have this flaw. In Ant-Man and the Wasp, it looks like our heroes are going to have to choose between saving Janet Pym from the quantum realm or saving Ghost, a villain who is partially the product of Hank Pym’s failures. The heroes choose Janet, which should come at the cost of Ghost. But when Janet comes back, one touch of her hand immediately heals Ghost, courtesy of her possession of magical “quantum energy.” An interesting question is posed, but the movie jumps out of the way in favor of an easy answer.
In Avengers: Age of Ultron, as the Avengers begin their final battle with Ultron above the floating city of Sokovia, it seems like they are going to need to make a choice. Destroy the city and ensure the safety of the world below them while killing whoever remains in the city, or risk mass extinction by waiting to destroy the city until everyone is off of it. To this point, Captain America declares that no one is going to die, regardless of the danger that poses to the rest of the world. But the heroes are saved from making that choice when Nick Fury shows up with a SHIELD helicarrier, Nick Fury who in the world’s eyes is dead and SHIELD which is supposed to be destroyed. Again, the question is posed, and the movie averts it.
The worst manifestation of this problem however, is that in very little of the MCU movies the actions of our heroes have meaningful consequences. In Spiderman: Homecoming, one of my favorite Marvel films, none of Peter Parker’s actions seem to have consequences, whether that’s with his girlfriend Liz, his academic decathlon team, or being Spiderman. In Thor: Ragnarok, another good Marvel movie, the heroes have to make the hard choice of destroying their home to defeat Hela, but when Asgard is destroyed, it’s immediately followed with a joke by the rock man Korg, undercutting the weight of the moment. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is two hours of this problem, undercutting the gravity of key moments to such an extent it’s hard to appreciate Yondu’s sacrifice at the end of the movie.
But the very worst example of this is in one of my favorite Marvel movies. Captain America: Civil War hints at really taking on questions surrounding the hero’s actions and the consequences thereof. But the movie consistently changes the game so it doesn’t have to answer these questions, and this is why the movie ends up less than the sum of its parts.
The story seems to be about the Sokovia Accords and whether the Avengers ought to be answerable to somebody. This lasts about an hour before the story decides instead to have Bucky Barnes be the source of conflict, not the Accords. Zemo, the movie’s antagonist, has the making of an excellent villain and represents a consequence of the Avengers’s choices, but his story feels like an overthought compared to the clash surrounding Bucky and the Accords. As for the “civil war” between the heroes aligned with Captain America against those loyal to Iron Man, no one walks away seriously injured other than War Machine, but even he recovers the ability to walk again by the end of the film, and by the start of the next movie, he’s completely back up to snuff. No pieces were taken off the gameboard. And despite the ferocious clash between Captain America and Iron Man at the end of the movie, just a few minutes later Iron Man receives a letter from Captain America wishing him the best. While this remains a sticking point throughout the time between Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, we are never shown how large this gap is, and we subsequently never understand the gravity of the civil war, no matter how cool that airport fight was.
The play on this constant trope is actually one the things that make Infinity War really good. When the heroes are given the option of sacrificing Vision to ensure Thanos doesn’t acquire all the infinity stones, Captain America point blank refuses it. Why would he? The Avengers have never had to make a sacrifice like that before. Only this time, reality catches up with them and Thanos ultimately takes the stone for himself. But even here, we all know that in Avengers: Endgame, the events of the last movies are going to be undone, so is this choice actually going to have consequences?
Compare this with DC, which while lacking in the polished fun of Marvel, actually poses meaningful questions and then forces the heroes to accept the consequences of their actions. The movie Watchmen asks whether nuking New York City and then framing the god-like Dr. Manhattan is a worthy cost for preventing nuclear war (and the movie’s answer is yes.) In Man of Steel, Superman is forced to choose between killing General Zod or letting him kill an innocent family. Its presentation is crude, but it’s a legitimate question we the viewer feel the weight of. In the gold standard of all superhero movies, The Dark Knight, the Joker forces Batman to choose between Bruce Wayne’s love interest and the district attorney Batman needs to fight crime. Only the Joker tricks Batman, and it is the aftermath of this choice that defines the rest of the film and its sequel. I don’t think all of these are superior films, but they do something Marvel is for the most part too timid to do, present a complex story that forces the heroes to make hard choices.
We live in a world where our actions have consequences that we must face. The Marvel heroes don’t. It is this incongruity, more than the aliens and magic, that lets me the viewer know that despite all the hilarious adventures and amazing characters, the Marvel heroes couldn’t exist in our world. This sets a definite ceiling on how high the movies can soar, making them always good, but never truly marvelous.