Success is a relative concept. In 1996, if someone told a comic book fan that a sequel to a cinematic version of The Avengers would likely make 500 million at the domestic box office, and a few months later a movie version of Ant-Man would make 150 mil plus, he would surely have considered you some Frank the Rabbit-esque demonic hallucination bent on leading him astray. Yet that is the world we live in, and that is what has happened. Perhaps it is even more spellbinding then, that this is probably Marvel’s most disappointing year since its great emergence as a force of nature way back in 2008. Both of its releases in 2015 were met with proportional and critical indifference; no-one is calling them Jupiter Asending by any means, but rather there’s been a sense of same old, same old.
I don’t like to analyse the box office, particularly. It is a smoke bomb as far as a film’s long-term legacy is concerned, after its initial impact it becomes immediately irrelevant and only serves to cloud fair opinion on a film’s actual qualities. Yet I feel both Marvel and their hardcore fans have used the box office as a key factor in their narrative of triumph, so it seems only fair to use it to point out potential fatigue with the Marvel product and in particular its formula. Avengers is likely to fall 150 million short of of its predecessor – a rare thing in modern movies – and Ant-Man may make more money than Thor: The Dark World if it’s lucky. I think the reaction to last year’s Guardians of the Galaxy was so positive because while it was a Marvel film in several recognisable ways: the overlords allowed a joyousness, a voice of creativity to blend with the grand plan; it had room to breathe and be organic, and thus it felt fresh and was a crossroads in Marvel film-making – a moment of cutting the talent loose on a product, rather than hiring talent for its brand appeal but seeking to control it, Thanos-style.
The Avengers: Age of Ultron and Ant-Man (and the behind-the-scenes drama that accompanied it) indicated that perhaps Marvel weren’t quite ready to let go of their vice-like grip on their ‘shared universe’ just yet. The former, though not a bad film by any means, did feel like it operated whilst under a permanent grapple, a vice-like grip around its airways as it tried to find meaning and soul in moments, but there just wasn’t the time. They had to introduce another character, indulge another action set-piece of no consequence, lay another road-sign for the future of the universe. Ultron showed flashes of being an exception to the rule of underwhelming Marvel villains: Whedon’s concept of a robot malfunctioning because of an abundance of emotion rather than the lack of it is an intriguing concept, but that great scene that defined the character and thus the movie, never came. Again, I suppose, there wasn’t the time. By the same token, Ant-Man will live in infamy over the mysterious case of Edgar Wright and the desire for creative freedom. The final film is a fun ride, featuring some of the better action in Marvel’s catalogue with the final battle sequence being quite a glorious thing, thanks to making full use of its ‘Honey I Shrunk the Kids’ concept. Yet there’s a sense of awkwardness to it as Wright’s presence floats around the film, but his absence is telling, and perhaps you have to question his dis-allowance of free reign in hindsight. It’s okay.
2015 might just be a very minor blip in the great steam train that is Marvel. Money-wise, I’m sure they did fine, but it was more their veneer of invincibility that began to erode this year; critics began to see their mistakes and identify repetitiveness in ways they had been reluctant to see before. Everything that comes out next year will have had time to absorb Guardians of the Galaxy‘s success and the reasons for it. Let’s hope Marvel learns the right lessons from (extremely moderate and very much conceptual) failure, and begin to make some bets on creativity. Over to you, Civil War, I guess.