It all started with Iron Man 2.
Moreso than Iron Man #1, which had the responsibility of convincing us that a B-grade superhero could topline an A-grade superhero film (and kickstart a larger cinematic universe), more than The Incredible Hulk, which worked overtime to prove that the big green guy wasn’t just a big screen joke (while also worming its way into said cinematic universe), IM2 went whole hog and crammed Marvel’s grand experiment straight down our throats. It set the tone not just for the entire MCU – all Easter Eggs and cameos from Clearly Important Characters – but also something cheaper and more cynical, using charm and great character writing as a substitute for character development.
This isn’t always the case. Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor did stellar work prepping the characters for their eventual Avengers team-up. And every now and then we get a gem like Iron Man 3 or Thor: Ragnarok, in which characters make irrevocable decisions that will inevitably be retconned the next time they pop up on screen. (It’s the first rule of franchise filmmaking: always reset your characters so they can return fresh for the next go-round.) Mostly, though, the Marvel movies have adopted this weird “hero acts bullheaded / hero’s bullheadedness alienates everyone he loves, causes near-tragedy / hero solves the problem by continuing to act bullheaded but because it works THIS TIME suddenly everyone’s okay with it” story structure that requires no change from their protagonists at all.
Think Age Of Ultron, in which Tony Stark accidentally creates an artificial intelligence bent on Earth’s destruction, then “accidentally” creates The Vision when he re-attempts the exact same experiment later on. (All is forgiven, though, once Vision picks up Mjølnir.) Think Spider-Man: Homecoming, where Peter Parker gets his suit stripped away after coming thisclose to sinking a ferry for all the wrong reasons, then gets it back after crashing a cargo jet for the right reasons. (But, really, who can blame him when he’s got Tony Stark as his mentor?) Or think Doctor Strange, in which our title hero starts off as a pompous risk-taker, then ends up as a less-pompous risk-taker, breaking the rules of time and space to beat the bad guys. (Then again, when you’re Benedict Cumberbatch, you can pretty much get away with anything.)
Captain America: Civil War, however, might be Marvel’s worst offender. Sure, it’s got the airport fight. It’s got Black Panther. It’s got fun, quippy Spider-Man. But it’s also centered around two implacable heroes who take a stance at the beginning of the movie and then never waiver from that stance, even at the cost of close personal relationships. (In fact, the movie’s motto – “No, you move” – makes it that rare film to argue against the idea of character development. That, somehow, standing your ground is more important than actual growth.) Worse, it turns once-beloved characters into wishy-washy flip-floppers who can’t be trusted at their word. Clint Barton and Scott Lang, for example, who Risked It All For Family last time only to toss it away this time because of reasons. Or Tony Stark (again!), who’s guilted into believing he caused the death of some random college kid yet has no problem blackmailing a certain 15-year-old from Queens into fighting for his cause.
Look, I’m not saying these films can’t be enjoyed. What I am saying is that you can have your cake and eat it, too, a feat Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 pulls off without breaking a sweat. Just look at the way James Gunn repeats the vices and virtues of Vol. 1 while also three-dimensionalizing the characters and their relationships. Look at the way his ramshackle plot structure gives way to unifying themes about friendship and family. Look at the way even the jokes about David Hasselhoff get an emotional payoff at the end. And look at how the Guardians have adopted Peter’s affinity for 70s pop singles as their own (if only so Gunn can double-down on musical montages.)
The real game-changer, though, comes at the end, when a character’s sacrifice opens the door for hands-down the most emotional stretch in all of the MCU. It’s shocking because it’s so unexpected – focusing on the characters’ feelings when it should be setting up the next five obligatory sequels – and also because we get to see them experience actual change and grow stronger because of it. This is the ideal that all Marvel movies should strive for (and no doubt played a part in my favorite bit from last month’s Avengers: Infinity War trailer, when we see the Guardians’ grinning faces). In an age where “franchise” too often equals “compromise,” that’s damn near revolutionary.
Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017), Captain America: Civil War (2016), and Doctor Strange (2016) are streaming #NowOnNetflix.