The Three Flaws of the Marvel Cinematic Universe

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I want to preface this article with the following: I am not a film critic, an avid comic book fan, nor an expert in any way, shape, or form in the process of scripting and shooting films. I’m just some nerd that happens to enjoy the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) films and I have an opinion I wish to share. If you agree, that’s great. If you disagree, also great. I don’t claim to be right, this is only the lens that I view the MCU with.

Now to start with, I love the MCU films. I’ve seen everything from Iron Man up to Doctor Strange, and I’ve enjoyed every single one of them to varying degrees. However, I’ve noticed that, while I find each movie is good in its own right, a good many of them seem to share a few common problems. Now at first, I was able to look past them; no movie is perfect, and I would never expect perfection from a film, especially since I’m little more than a casual moviegoer myself. But then, when the same issues continuously pop up, despite what other people—film critics, massive comic fans, and casual viewers like me—say on forums or in their own reviews, I can’t help but give pause and express some mild concern.

True, these flaws don’t prevent anyone—that I know of—from truly enjoying the films, but if I were a filmmaker or a writer for movies, I would want to take note of recurring criticisms and try to mitigate that. I’m not laying the blame solely on the feet of the director or the scriptwriters; sometimes, the executives meddle in these affairs, and sometimes, things just happen. Still, I wanted to take some time to look at what I believe are the three biggest problems that the MCU films have, in no particular order of significance with the exception of what I will be ranking number one on the list.

As said above, this is merely one man’s opinion. Nothing more, nothing less. That said, let’s begin:

Flaw Three: The Romance

Love is in the air, or rather, forced, poorly executed love with little to no chemistry is, in the case of many of the on-screen pairings throughout the MCU. And there are… many examples of this, from Thor and Jane Foster to Captain America and Agent 13 to Bruce Banner and Black Widow, and so on. In fact, I think the only ‘romance’ within the MCU—or, well, that used to be—that was decently written and given enough time and development was the romance of Tony Stark and Pepper Potts. Granted, that’s more or less over with given her absence from Civil War, but I hope someday the two will reunite and work things out.

Now, I know that romance is never the intended focus of an MCU film. Love interests tend to be background elements at best, and then we get into the, er, more extreme side of the MCU with fans who ship specific characters together becoming irate when that couple doesn’t happen and, suffice to say, it can become a very dark, very dangerous area to invest into. On that note, I can’t blame the lack of meaningful relationships in the MCU. What writer wants to receive death threats when they dare put Character A with Character D instead of Character B?

But even taking that into consideration, the lack of development between romantic pairings is frequent within the MCU, to the point where I’m a little surprised it hasn’t improved. Even Tony and Pepper’s relationship started off rocky, but the development the two of them had over the course of three films—and a cameo in Avengers—goes a long way to mending that. They argued, they split up, and then they came back together again, and they didn’t just stay static, nor was it out of left field. You got the sense from the beginning that they kind of liked each other, and there was an element of a shiptease before things progressed, and I appreciated that. True, they tried that with couples like Thor and Jane Foster, but the chemistry just wasn’t there, and they didn’t get the time to develop before they started sucking each other’s faces.

I think the crux of the problem comes from the fact that romantic pairings are very rushed, with little to no time to really develop a relationship. Thor and Jane had a few conversations before they were practically head over heels for one another, Bruce and Natasha had zero chemistry whatsoever before they randomly decided they liked each other, and the list continues. I’m grateful that the potential relationship between Starlord and Gamora remained more neutral at the end of Guardians 1—I’ve not seen Vol. 2 yet, so I have no clue if that remains the same—and I also kind of liked the teasing between Doctor Strange and Christine. They weren’t perfect, but they felt more real than most of the other ‘couples’ within the films.

Yes, relationships are different for different people. Some take more time to build and grow, some are a lot faster, but even then, there’s an established foundation through which the relationships can build off of. Tony Stark starts off as a womanizing billionaire philanthropist playboy while Pepper is his beleaguered assistant, and while Tony retains most of those characteristics, he becomes more attuned to Pepper—in his own way—as the films go on, and as this happens, the two of them grow closer. True, it ended with an off-screen breakup—the worst kind in my opinion, and I’m not even a huge romance person in general—but it felt realistic enough. But so many of the other examples, and even ones not noted, just seem to come out of nowhere. Had they been flings with a bit more development, then it would’ve made sense in a lot of cases. Thing is, they never felt like flings; they felt like genuine couples despite barely any time to get to know one another.

I understand that romance isn’t always the focus of the films, nor is it something every single person who enjoys the MCU thinks or necessarily even cares about. It’s not the end-all-be-all in any sense, true, but for me, and I feel like for a number of other people, a well-done, well-developed romance can heighten the movie and bring something to the characters. If Thor and Jane had been given legitimate screentime and development in the first film without ending up making out, and instead, they ended as friends before their relationship grew in The Dark World, it would’ve felt more real, and perhaps there would’ve been a better foundation for chemistry between them. There would still be people shipping Thor with Sif, and that’s fine. Use that to have a bit of fun without turning it into a love triangle, great.

Any romantic pairing has some potential to it, I feel. If the characters work well together and the actors can bounce off each other, use that to your advantage. But sticking two characters together for convenience’s sake or just because they were together in the comics seems like a waste of time and it limits the potential for development. And that leads me to my next point…

Flaw Two: Character Development

When I look at the MCU films and the characters that inhabit them, as a whole, I wonder which ones have the best characters. Who develops the most over the course of the films they appear in, and who develops the least? Obviously, any movie with a character’s name in it is going to focus on that character more than anything; it makes sense, and I don’t think anyone would expect otherwise. But even then, does that mean the screen time is being utilized to the best of its ability? Sometimes, yes. Sometimes, no. I feel this flip-flopping is the main issue here: the MCU doesn’t always actively develop its major characters enough for it to actually make a difference.

Let’s take Tony Stark, for example. In Iron Man, Tony Stark starts off the way he kind of always is: arrogant, self-entitled, slightly vain, and all about himself first and foremost, with a good dose of flash to ensure he’s always noticeable. Now over the course of the film, Tony is hit by problem after problem, first being the quite literal accident that will eventually lead him to becoming Iron Man, then the death of Ho Yinsen, his building and trying to perfect the armor, and then the betrayal by Obadiah Stane. And as the film progresses, not only does the armor improve, Tony begins to, slowly, evolve as a character, in his own way. But his development isn’t overt, nor is it for some time. Iron Man 2 fleshes him out a bit further with his paternal problems, as well as the rocky bumps he faces with Pepper, and the strain takes a toll on him given what happens midway through the movie. Then we get to Avengers where, once more, his ego is on full display, but he gets hit again and again, ensuring that his haughtiness gets taken down a notch. His development as a character from Iron Man 3 to Age of Ultron into Civil War is visible: by the time of Civil War, despite his usual cockiness, Tony isn’t as vibrant a man as he used to be. The guilt of Ultron and the destruction Ultron caused has done a number on Tony, and his fractured relationship with Pepper has had a great deal of effect on him as well.

But, is it enough? Has there been enough development for Iron Man from the first film to the most recent with him in it? I feel, personally, that it isn’t. True, he’s changed a bit since the first film of the MCU, but to say that he’s truly developed as a character just feels… wrong. Not that he hasn’t evolved for the better in some ways, but there’s still plenty of room to grow. True, Tony Stark is meant to be the egocentric billionaire; he’s the alternate reality version of Bruce Wayne, focusing on the gadgets with the combat as a side rather than the other way around, but that doesn’t mean Tony can’t be developed in such a way where he maintains his tics without gaining something new. I feel Civil War is probably the best showing of his character transformation, one that is visible as the film starts and as it ends. Tony, underneath the ego, is a bitter, broken man, full of self-loathing over his hand in the chaos that occurred not long ago within the MCU timeline. And by the end of it, not only has he burned bridges with some of his friends, his best friend is crippled, and the Avengers are no more, and in his mind, he may very well blame himself.

Now, Tony’s development as a character is still good, I feel. Compared to other characters within the MCU, he’s probably been developed the most, which is probably aided by the fact that he’s been in the most films. But what about other major players in the MCU? Have they been developed as characters as much as Tony? I’m… not so sure, truth be told.

The big guns of the MCU, or at least the ones with the most screen time and action, would have to be the original Avengers: Iron Man, Captain America, Hulk, Thor, Black Widow, and Hawkeye, with Nick Fury coming in closely behind. Of that group, Hawkeye has probably had the least screen time and development, and yet, he’s got the best character out of all of them, despite the jokes thrown his way about being the least useful member of the team or the most unnecessary—he even jokes about this in Age of Ultron, lampshading the fact that he’s fighting a killer robot with nothing but arrows—but in my opinion, Hawkeye is plenty useful and plenty badass, especially in Age of Ultron where he gets to shine as a character, since we get to see his family and hideout away from the fight, and we see his bonds with Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, serving as the catalyst for their eventual change into heroes, and in particular Wanda’s ultimately deciding to join the Avengers. So, that’s him down, along with Tony.

That leaves us with Cap, Hulk, Thor, and Black Widow. Both Hulk and Bruce, sadly, have been left in the dust by everyone else since The Incredible Hulk seems to have been nearly retconned out of existence with the exception of Ross showing up out of nowhere; otherwise, Betty, Abomination, and anything to do with his film hasn’t been mentioned at all—I wonder if it has to do with the fact that the Hulk looks entirely different and the fact Bruce is now played by a different actor again?—so until Thor: Ragnarok, there isn’t much to say about him. And Black Widow, while badass and the most iconic female superhero from the MCU at the moment, has appeared in a handful of films, she too has had little to no development besides the randomly thrust in romance between her and Bruce. Only Cap and Thor remain, and they, like Iron Man before them, have not really been given a whole lot of development as characters.

Thor, to his credit, has matured a great deal since his first film. He’s still got a temper and a flair for fighting, but he’s a lot calmer than he used to be, which is noticeable when you compare Thor from, well, Thor, to his later appear in Age of Ultron, or even The Dark World before it. However, there hasn’t been much else in development for Thor outside of him maturing slightly; his character arc within The Dark World was non-existent outside of the brief spat he had with Jane, and he had zero character development in Age of Ultron since he’s in it very little. I have hope that Ragnarok will finally give Thor some much needed character development, since they’re not going back to Earth and Jane, and he’s not only losing his signature long locks, but also his all-powerful hammer. If that isn’t the chance for some character development, I don’t know what would be.

And finally, we’ve got Steve Rogers, who started off his film as a good-natured all-American boy with a dream to serve his country and protect people, and he’s grown to… be more muscular and not trust as freely, but, otherwise, he’s still kind of the same. From my perspective, anyways, Steve hasn’t grown much as a character. He hasn’t had a true character arc of his own, since the first film was an introduction before The Avengers came along, and while he’s adjusted to the real world a bit better, what more has there been for him? Things have happened to him, sure, but how has he changed as a person in the MCU? He really hasn’t, at least not in a way that’s noticeable when you look at him throughout the films he’s been in.

What I’m getting at with all this long-windedness is this: I feel that the characters in the MCU do receive some genuine development, but I also feel like there could be more. The potential is there to go different routes with these characters and give them arcs that allow for them to adapt and evolve as the series goes on. It would allow for them to go beyond the simple tropes that label them, and I feel like the MCU is doing alright, but could definitely serve to do better, especially considering how many films they’ve done where things just happen to the characters without the characters growing in some way. Still, the heroes are iconic in their own ways, and I feel each of them is good and likable in their own ways.

At the very least, I don’t feel like any movie in the MCU has had a bad hero protagonist. Some may not have been as strong, but as a whole, they’ve been given just enough screen time to ensure we as the audience can like and enjoy them. But, the same cannot be said for…

Flaw One: The Villains

One of the most disappointing problems I’ve noticed throughout the MCU is the fact that most of the villains in their films are, for lack of a good term, not very interesting. Half the time the villains are relatively one dimensional and lack any basic characterization besides wanting to kill the protagonist or conquer the world or just destroy whatever is in their way—most of Iron Man’s villains, Malekith, Yellowjacket, Ultron, even Ronan to a degree. The only villain who has any real traction is Loki, and that’s primarily due to the fact that he’s been in several movies and he’s been given the necessary time and development to show that despite the fact that he’s a selfish, whiny, power-hungry jerk, there are shades of gray tucked deep within him that allow him to be more than most of the other villains in the MCU. But the rest? I honestly don’t know many who really stood out enough to care about.

Red Skull, Winter Soldier, and Ronan—again, to a degree—are probably the closest to Loki in terms of standing out, and even then, Red Skull ends up disintegrating—or does he?—at the end of First Avenger and did little besides set HYDRA up as a faction to be wary of, Winter Soldier was brainwashed into his evilness so I wouldn’t say he even qualifies, and Ronan? An intimidating presence, a decent enough design, and the ability to kick ass may make him strong, but there is little to his character, hence why, for me, he falls into bother categories. So really, the best villain in the MCU has been Loki, a character who has actually shown some development while maintaining his belief that his way is the right way, and if you disagree, he’ll take control of your mind and have you kill yourself. Loki has shown to be deceptive and dangerous regardless of his whinier moments, but at the same time, he’s shown to have emotions and feelings and a reason for some of the things he’s done. These are the things that make Loki such a good villain, no doubt helped by his actor doing such a good job.

I guess the big question to ask is simply: why is Loki a good villain compared to the others? And I feel the answer to this is also a simple one, albeit divided into two things Loki has that the others don’t: motivation and emotion.

Loki is motivated by selfishness first and foremost, but we can see as viewers that he also wants to do what’s best for Asgard, as he believes deep down he would make a better ruler than Thor. After all, he’s smart, devious, and able to calculate plans at the flip of a coin, whereas Thor—who even admits it—is a warrior, the kind of person that doesn’t always plan things out and it shows. True, Thor has matured, as noted above, over the course of the films, but Loki remains a constant thinker, someone who adapts to situations. The problem with most of the other villains listed here is that they lack true motivations beyond ‘I want to ruin X’s life,’ or ‘I want to conquer the world/galaxy/universe.’ True, Loki’s main motivation is ‘I want to be king!’ but there are layers to him that we grow to understand. With the others, they lack the layers, even when they have the ambition to do whatever it is they want to do—even though they fail.

And the second is emotion: Loki has it, and we see it in each movie he’s in, even if it’s just in brief little bursts. In Thor, we see his inner struggle with learning his true parentage, while we also see his cunning and desire to rule, mixed in with the slightest bit of genuine concern for Odin, even though Odin isn’t his true father. In Avengers, even though Loki is operating at Full Ham Capacity with a dash of evil gloating, there’s a brief moment when he and Thor are tousling about where Loki, for the tiniest second, looks around and seems mortified by the chaos unfolding, before he stops caring since he wants to achieve his goal. And in Dark World, we see Loki at his rawest when Frigga dies and the aftereffects are plainly visible. That film does great things with Loki’s emotions, and yet, even then we’re left ambiguous about how much of it was real and how much was played up. But the thing is that, regardless, there’s weight behind Loki and what he does, and with these two factors together, we can see that.

There are elements to the other villains that may fall into these two categories, but there isn’t a whole lot of substance behind it. Sure, we get an emotional opening with Ivan in Iron Man 2, but most versions don’t even show it, and it isn’t enough to make us care about him as a character or a villain. So this, I believe, is one of the main problems that the MCU has. The villains are too weak as characters; they need to be stronger to balance out the heroes and to make us as viewers more invested. A good villain can go a long way in making a film—or any medium—more enjoyable, I believe. It’s just a shame that the MCU only has one solid villain going for it right now. Whether or not Thanos will prove to be in league of Loki as a character has yet to be seen. A fan can hope.

That all said, those are the three things I feel serve as the MCU’s main three flaws. But the MCU films have been going strong for a long time now and I don’t think that’s going to stop. They’ve got a good grasp of humor, great action scenes, decent characters, and a lot of diversity, and they’re constantly expanding. Hopefully in the future the directors and screenwriters will be able to overcome their flaws and make the MCU films even better than they are today. I have faith they will.

Featured image, Mavel Studios Logo.

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