The Marvel Universe Needs to Get Dark
Marvel's small screen heroes are leading its big screen do-gooders into the future. If they'll listen.
Towards the end of Avengers: Age of Ultron, there’s a moment where Hawkeye gives Scarlet Witch a pep talk.
“Are you up for this? Are you? Look I just need to know because the city, i-i-it’s flying. Ok, look, the city is flying, we’re fighting an army of robots, and I have a bow and arrow. None of this makes sense.” The Marvel Cinematic Universe prides itself on this type of levity: poking fun at its own silliness before the audience has a chance to. Taken in context of the series as a whole, that exchange is nothing new. Humor is a large component of Marvel movies. But at what cost? When one-liners and high-fives take precedence over a genuine response, all that lighthearted frivolity masks a gaping flaw. It undermines the films’ true power. In comparison, the small screen Marvel outings pack power through darker, TV-MA-rated themes. The marriage of these two opposing approaches to superheroism has the potential to derail or enrich the future MCU.
Based on the titles released so far, this is a cinematic world that makes light of major earth-shattering events. The big screen somehow makes it easier for broad stroke rationalization, as is the case during The Avengers’ Battle of New York and its climactic pièce de résistance: Tony Stark enters a potentially fatal wormhole! He naturally turns out fine, and that’s all the film concerns itself with. The New Yorkers inhabiting Daredevil and Jessica Jones describe that cataclysmic ending in reference to the horror and violence it brings. While Stark, Cap, Thor, Hawkeye, and Black Widow zoom around the Manhattan sky, setting off explosives and crashing alien ships into buildings, real people are down below, dying. That’s the USP of Marvel’s movies: focus on its superheroes, not the consequences of their actions. Jessica Jones is nearly murdered by Audrey Eastman, a grieving woman whose mother was killed in the wreckage. She wasn’t even involved in that incident. She and the Avengers exist in that same world in terms of continuity. But thematically? They couldn’t be farther apart.
That’s the way it’s always been. Marvel favors light touches over dark details, a brash contrast to Warner Bros’ DC Universe. Bruce Wayne and Superman brood. Their experiences aren’t remedied by a jump cut or a sequel or a cute post-credits scene. They stew over their circumstances. More importantly, they acknowledge them. Tony Stark on the other hand, references his struggles after the Battle of New York, but there’s little attention paid to his trauma. Black Widow, a character we’ve known since 2010, suffers that same shallowness. She simply hasn’t had enough screentime to fully explore her strife — her harrowing origin is glossed over via a hallucinatory nightmare. And that’s the kicker: the source of Natasha Romanoff’s motivation isn’t even allowed to exist within the ‘real’ events of the movie. It’s hastily mentioned in a single line.
Is there too much disparity between Marvel’s small screen efforts and its big screen world? Forbes writer Paul Tassi in his article “Jessica Jones Makes Me Question The Point Of The Marvel Cinematic Universe” attempts to answer this. He argues the redundancy of placing Jessica Jones in the MCU as it’s “so scared of association” with the films. Trivial complaints like Jeri Hogarth’s failure to reference Murdock & Nelson are listed as reasons to question the efficacy of Marvel’s masterplan.
I don’t agree that a lack of sufficient easter eggs is cause to dismiss the MCU. The bigger issue here is not about a dearth of interconnectivity and in-jokes, but what the movies can learn from the shows about style, theme, and character. There’s greater emotional resonance and richer, nuanced plotting to be mined from constructing a “realistic” response to superheroism. For Jessica Jones, it’s inner torment which drives her, and in turn, drives the plot. The focus is scaled down to reflect the threats waiting round every corner. Whether it’s outside on the streets or inside her fractured psychosis. Jones and Matt Murdock work to overcome their stresses and anxieties: whether it’s beating the living shit out of thugs or going out on a limb to save an innocent life. Neither The Avengers nor the Guardians possess that same humble credibility. It’s easier to make an audience laugh at Thor’s fish-out-of-water antics instead of making an audience think about what that implies.
That’s not to say that the troublesome ennui of superheroes should be overwhelmingly bleak. Jessica Jones and Daredevil both have their moments of black comedy. They’re just more inclined to make you “heh” rather than “LOL”. Jessica’s acerbic wit is seamlessly integrated into her dialogue; that’s just who she is. It works because she’s funny, and her zingers don’t pull you out of the story for the sake of it. This summer’s Ant-Man which piggybacked onto the quirky success of Guardians of the Galaxy, shoehorns in gags to lesser effect. Its tone vacillates from scene to scene: one moment an earnest Scott Lang is learning a lesson from his mentor Hank Pym, the next his buddy Luis is delivering an overtly-detailed and humorous diatribe. It’s as if the myriad of writers rushing to assemble a shooting script from the dregs of Edgar Wright’s original were pushing in jokes for the hell of it. I get it, Ant-Man by his nature isn’t to be taken too seriously. He’s a guy who leads an army of ants to overthrow a villain. But really, its themes and plot points should dictate the jesting, not the other way around.
Captain America: Civil War is taking steps toward a darker response to superhero responsibility. The first trailer showcases trouble amongst the Avengers, divided into two distinct camps of opinion. Stark and Rogers fighting each other is pure, fan bait joy. These two figures have been at loggerheads for years, sniping at each other in a catty manner whenever they’re in the same room. Now they’re taking opposite sides and it’s a big deal for the MCU. And Marvel knows it.
What’s most telling about the trailer is the date of its release — four days after Jessica Jones’ first season scored unanimous acclaim across the board for its dark depiction of a comic book superhero. I don’t think this is a coincidence. This is Marvel we’re talking about, a studio who carefully plots its moves to better increase its likelihood for success. If the whole world is raving about the dark psyche of a fucked-up private investigator superhero, then imagine the response to that same core idea twofold. Marvel Studios isn’t likely to change its $9-and-a-half billion dollar formula. But, if we’re lucky, it might tweak it some.