How MCU Phase 3 subverts the superhero genre with films like Captain Marvel, Black Panther, Thor: Ragnarok
With the release of Iron Man, and the beginning of the MCU, the superhero movie as a genre began to receive an overhaul.
(Editor’s note: Ahead of the release of Avengers: Endgame, here is PART THREE of a five-part series that attempts to understand the relationship between the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the state of the world today. This series will seek to engage with the MCU critically, and argue how their films have real world anxieties built within it. Read PART ONE and PART TWO)
For the longest time, superhero movies had its own grammar.
In the older days - we're talking about the 1980s - when DC comics ruled the roost in the hands of filmmakers like Tim Burton, a template for the superhero film was born. In fact, Burton's 1989 Batman was influential in crafting not only the look and feel of a superhero flick, but also the economics of it. The film will turn 30 this year, and looking back, one could see how it defined the notion of the modern blockbuster, one which the MCU relies on heavily.
To begin with, Burton's Batman ensured that for a film to be a blockbuster, it had to be the king of the opening weekend. That window of three days, starting Friday and ending on Sunday, was all a studio-driven movie had to earn as much money as possible. Once it had secured this window, the rest of the week would be more smooth flowing. Moreover, the makers of Batman did something unthinkable for a blockbuster in the late '80s. Warner Bros brought out the movie as home video in less than five months of its premiere. This shorter movie-theatre-to-home-video window also ensured more sales long after the movie's theatrical run had been exhausted, as it was fresh enough in the audience's mind.
Most importantly, the film was truly revolutionary in its casting choice. Burton cast Michael Keaton in the role of Batman, a choice DC fans decried prior to the film's release. Keaton was anything but Batman-like. He did not showcase a great physique and did not have the dense voice we normally associate with Batman. But when the movie was released, fans saw how the film stayed true to the roots of the Batman mythos, stripping it down to its psychological basics.
Burton, in an interview long after the film was a success, had said that the decision to cast Keaton was his and was deliberate. He wanted an Everyman to be a Batman. This is a choice we see being repeated even now. Spiderman's Toby Macguire and Tom Holloway are your everyday teenagers. Similarly, Robert Downey Jr as Iron Man's Tony Stark is not tall, does not showcase a perfectly chiseled physique, and sometimes even when he is in his suit, he gets beaten to pulp, like in Iron Man 3, for example.
MCU’s Early Experimentation
But with the release of Iron Man and the beginning of the MCU, we arrived at a critical juncture where the superhero movie as a genre began to receive an overhaul.
With the dominance of DC, films from Tim Burton's Batman to Christopher Nolan's interpretation of Gotham's guardian of the night, followed a similar tone and timber, although each filmmaker imprinted their own unique stamp on the movies they made. Burton's Batman and Nolan's The Dark Knight, for example, relied heavily on creating a psychological portrait of the Joker. As a stark contrast, MCU, phase one onwards, began to employ snappy dialogues in their films, and for the first time used a combination of darkness with humour.
The first Avengers is a case in point. While the theme of the movie is dark, the tone Joss Whedon used was totally opposite. Loki, in his megalomania, did not come across as a 'supervillain', but rather a funny version of the same. And this drove the point even strongly that villains are, at their core, absurd. And only humour can express this absurdity better.
But the experimentation that tepidly started in the first and second phase, truly became revolutionary from the third phase onwards. Phase Two saw the release of the Guardians of the Galaxy, which in itself is a unique film in the superhero genre. The Guardians are a team of misfits, and a lot of humour is expressed just by focusing on their interpersonal relationships and banter. Even tonally, James Gunn incorporated a lot of 80s popular music and cultural references, which themselves became a fodder for jokes within the movie. It was unimaginable to see this shift in a superhero film before.
Coming of Age with Phase 3
With the arrival of Phase Three, what were mere filmmaking experiments before began to acquire the idea of subversion. Captain America: Civil War was the first film in this 3rd phase, and we saw how overtly political that movie became. One of the core superhero stereotypes has been the good versus evil dichotomy, with the good winning the day. But the Russo Brothers not only distilled that preeminent question - if superheroes are watchmen, who watches them - into the movie, but the movie in itself had no resolution. In the end, the Avengers splits into two camps. There was no triumph.
Coming to Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, the movie had no concrete plot to speak of. Yet Gunn navigated his characters through a series of adventures - or should I say misadventures - and not once did we as viewers feel bored. Thor: Ragnarok was even more subversive. The movie is about the end of Asgard, yet there is rarely a scene where Taika Waititi does not elicit a laugh or two just by throwing Hulk and Thor against each other. The casting of Jeff Goldblum as the Grandmaster is pure genius. The Grandmaster is neither wily, nor does he have an evil plan. He is just plain stupid, out to have his own few kicks at the expense of others.
The movie was also subversive in casting Cate Blanchett as Hela, the real supervillain. With supervillains in a superhero movie, the stereotype has been to either to cast someone who is hyper-masculine or a femme fatale, like Poison Ivy in the Batman series. Hela's character is irrespective of her gender. Her femininity is not constructed as either a hindrance, or source of strength, as it does in a femme fatale. Hela is powerful enough to break Thor's Hammer and her femininity is just beside the point. As if the movie was making a statement: yes she is powerful and she is a woman. So?
We see this idea being carried forward in a different way in Captain Marvel. The female superhero was always seen through a distinct male gaze, but Captain Marvel becomes truly liberating because the focus is not on objectifying her, but in trying to see her as she is. In the beginning, Jude Law's character might seem like he is saving Brie Larson's character, in turn making her realise her worth. But towards the latter half, the movie totally subverts this notion, where the saviour becomes the villain, and Captain Marvel becomes the arbiter of her own destiny. Not aided by a man, she comes of age by her own.
If gender is subverted in Ragnarok and Captain Marvel, Black Panther subverts race and racial stereotypes. Wakanda, though concealed as a third world nation, is shown to be even more advanced than the West. It embraced the idea of blackness wholly, and also proved that a film made largely by a black technical crew, starring a predominantly black cast, can make a huge mark at the mainstream box office.
These collective subversions in Phase 3 has ensured that superhero movies may never be the same (stereotypically) again.
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