That's What's Up: 3 best and 3 worst things about the MCU

Each week, comic book writer Chris Sims answers the burning questions you have about the world of comics and pop culture: what's up with that? If you'd like to ask Chris a question, please send it to @theisb on Twitter with the hashtag #WhatsUpChris, or email it to staff@looper.com with the subject line "That's What's Up."

Q: As much as you've talked about adjacently about the MCU, I've always wondered; what is your favorite thing about the MCU?Jordan, via email

As usual, let's get the disclaimer out of the way first: while I've worked for Marvel as a writer on comics, I don't have any particular insight into the movies beyond just being a fan. That said, and please take this with the requisite grain of salt, I am in fact a pretty huge fan of the MCU, to the point where I can answer your question in its entirety without even having to think about it. It's the part where Spider-Man lifted up the heavy stuff. You would not believe the tears that shot out of my face in the movie theater when that went down at the end of Homecoming.

But there's a lot to like about those movies that goes well beyond a simple feat of spidery strength. They just do so much right that it makes it easy to overlook the rare moments when they get something wrong. Since we've got some time, why not talk about those things too?

Worst: The repetitive formula

Nobody expected Iron Man to be a success.

Well, that's an exaggeration — I'm sure someone, somewhere thought it was going to make some money, because otherwise they wouldn't have made it in the first place. At the same time, I can't imagine that even the most optimistic producer could've predicted that ten years later, that movie would technically lead to 19 sequels and a film franchise that, as I understand it, has made so much money that they have to keep it in a Scrooge McDuck money bin with a giant dollar sign on it. I mean, that movie came out while I was working in a comic book store, and I distinctly remember everyone being really surprised that people were coming in super excited about Iron Man, let alone a movie version of Iron Man that seemed pretty darn faithful to the comics.

I know none of this sounds like a "worst yet," but bear with me, I'm getting there. The problem came later, when they understandably tried to duplicate that success, and wound up telling the same story again. Just look at Doctor Strange, which essentially puts its title character through the same arc we saw in 2008, just with a trippier visual style. It doesn't really start to do its own thing until the very end. Beyond the basic structure, though, those movies have a tendency to default to a plot where a character fights a villain that's basically just an evil (or at least less good) version of themselves. All three Iron Man movies, Doctor Strange, Ant-Man, Black Panther, arguably Winter Soldier, and Incredible Hulk — the one you forgot about — all have that same evil opposite structure, and while most of those movies aren't even close to being bad, it does get pretty old.

There are some positives to that. A movie like Spider-Man: Homecoming works as well as it does precisely because it subverts established formula. Plus, if we're being honest, you could say the same thing about a lot of the comics that the movies are based on. At the same time, getting so many superhero stories only really works if they always offer up something new, no matter the medium.

Best: The shift from Action Movie to Superhero Movie

Here's a point I've been obsessing over since I saw Batman throwing people off buildings and blowing up henchmen in 1989: superhero stories aren't action movies. They get filed under that heading because they're full of, you know, action. It makes sense, and for a long time, Hollywood approached them in the same way, but they're built on a different set of rules that are geared towards a different purpose — which is in turn largely determined by the medium in which they appear.

That's a fancy way of saying that there's a reason superheroes don't often kill their bad guys. It's because their stories are meant to go on forever, and if you kill, say, the Joker or the Penguin, you don't get to use them again in six months. Action movies, however, are meant to be distinct and complete units of stories that come to a definite end. Even when there's the potential for a sequel, they need to wrap things up. That's why nobody expects John McClane to arrest Hans Gruber at the end of Die Hard — the story is a fight to the death, and the only satisfying ending involves Alan Rickman being dropped off a skyscraper.

Aside from the obvious, thorny questions about morality, that's the reason it usually feels so weird when a superhero movie ends with the good guy killing the bad guy. But at the same time, before the MCU, they didn't really have a reason not to. There were four Batman movies in the Burton/Schumacher era, and Batman has so many villains that by the last one, they had four villains kicking around and weren't in any danger of running out anytime soon.

Speaking of Batman, it's fair to say that 2008's The Dark Knight actually made a big step in moving away from this, since that movie's climax is all about Batman not killing the Joker. In the same year, we got Iron Man, in which Tony Stark kills a whole lot of people, including Obadiah Stane. The difference is that Iron Man kicked off a whole saga in which we could see these characters evolve and change in real time, with the concept of a shared superhero universe finally being translated to another medium.

There are plenty of dead villains in those movies, but you can still see the shift in Black Panther. Killmonger dies at the end — uh, spoiler warning for a movie you all saw — but it's because of a choice he makes. There's a big difference there that makes them feel like superhero movies instead of just action movies with a huge special effects budget.

Worst: Inconsistent characters

A shared universe takes a lot of different people to keep it going. On one level, that's a good thing, because it means you wind up with the room to tell a lot of different stories with characters that are made to be adaptable to different genres, but it also inevitably leads to inconsistency, especially where characters are concerned.

It's probably most glaring in the first Avengers movie. I've said before that its most impressive accomplishment is that it manages to take everything that had happened in five different previous movies, all of which had very different tones, and pull them all together in a way that works. It doesn't exactly do it flawlessly, though. Captain America, who's probably the most likable character in the entire franchise every other time he appears, comes off as a caricature in that movie, and Loki's dialogue pretty frequently verges into some truly atrocious territory. It's tempting to say that's just the nature of the beast and that complicated characters need to be flattened out for an ensemble cast, but later movies like Civil War and even Infinity War prove that's not entirely true. There's always going to be some wiggle room and character growth, but that lack of consistency can occasionally get really frustrating.

This isn't something that's limited to the worse end of the MCU spectrum either. Iron Man 3 is great, but despite Tony Stark's many appearances in the rest of the MCU, the character development that we see in it doesn't seem to be acknowledged anywhere else. I love Thor: Ragnarok, and I'd put it in my top three out of those films, but Thor as a character is wildly divergent from both the previous films and the next one. Throw in stuff like Infinity War opening with everyone that Thor saved in Ragnarok being unceremoniously slaughtered offscreen, and you've got two great movies, both of which I love, that don't feel like they're compatible with each other.

Best: C-Listers, Assemble!

It's easy to look at the list of MCU films and see that they're largely focused on the big-name heroes like Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, and Black Panther. That's true, but they also straight up made two movies about Star-Lord, Rocket Raccoon, Mantis, Yondu, and the Collector. That's amazing.

For a long time, superhero movies had a tendency to focus on the Big Villain fighting the Big Hero, to the exclusion of other characters. I mentioned above that Batman & Robin has four supervillains, and it does, but Bane isn't exactly the luchador mastermind that he is in the comics, and while John Glover's performance as Jason Woodrue should be lauded as one of the great scenery-chewing delights of our time, it's little more than a cameo in service to Poison Ivy's origin. The MCU, on the other hand, has done a great job of going into the deep bench of second- and third-tier character that stock the Marvel Universe.

Once again, the first Iron Man movie is a great example. Obadiah Stane was a pretty big deal in the comics — and lord knows that there is nothing the MCU loves more than having a hero fight their Evil Opposite — but he's also not the first villain you'd think of when you were trying to come up with Iron Man's arch-nemesis. They didn't use the guy who actually is until the third movie, although to be fair, that might be because it took them a while to figure out how to use the Mandarin without it being just extremely problematic.

Point being, while we've seen major heroes and big-name arch-nemeses like Killmonger, Hela, and Thanos, we've also gotten some pretty deep cuts. The Red Skull is up there with Dr. Doom as one of the biggest marquee villains of the Marvel Universe, but until he made his weird-ass appearance in Infinity War, he'd been in fewer movies than Crossbones, Arnim Zola, Yondu, and Klaw, and exactly as many films as Ego the Living Planet and the Tinkerer. As someone who absolutely loves the more obscure corners of superhero universes, that is something I am one thousand percent into.

Worst: High-stakes action that actually isn't

I've talked a lot about the benefits of a shared universe, but one of the really challenging things that comes along with creating a world where all the biggest heroes can fight alongside each other is that you need to come up with a threat that's big enough to justify the team-up. There has to be a sense of scale, the sense that these characters are facing a day unlike any other. In the MCU, that tends to default to the good guys fighting a bunch of nameless, faceless bad guys, and while it might look cool, it's not exactly satisfying.

In Avengers, it was the Chitauri, who tore up Manhattan in an effort to give everyone something to do, even the guy who brought a bow and arrow to a magic lightning hammer fight. In Age of Ultron, it was a bunch of Ultron robots whose endless numbers were matched only by their tendency to be exploded dramatically after a single hit. In Infinity War, it was the Chitauri again, with a side helping of the Black Order. To be fair, they were almost fully fleshed out characters, but most of them were never even named, robbing us the chance of hearing the words "Corvus Glaive" spoken out loud in a movie that was going to make a billion dollars.

It's a problem of scale, and one that's tough to figure out if you're going to have these big team-ups. They come pretty close by giving us a definitive and singularly powerful villain in Thanos, but even then, you don't actually want to see 40 people all trying to punch him at once, if only because you just would not be able to tell what was going on. At the same time, you don't really want to do the old Justice League of America trick and split the action among multiple major threats so you can divide the heroes into smaller groups. It muddies the focus, and defeats the purpose of a story where everyone comes together in the first place. Still, there has to be a better solution than five minutes of smashing up Ultrons in slow motion, right?

Best: The feel and progression of a shared universe

When Infinity War came out, A.O. Scott of the New York Times shared his frustration with how it was a film that was impossible to judge on its own. He makes some interesting points in his review, but I also have a problem with the part where he said that a movie where a hunky god used a dying star to make a battleaxe out of a sentient tree and then teleported to Earth so he could fight an alien army alongside a raccoon with a machine gun was "tedious and predictable." We gotta take these things one at a time.

Scott's point was that Infinity War isn't a movie in the traditional sense, and can't be engaged with as one. Instead, it's the 19th part in an overarching saga with no definitive end, and introduced characters and concepts without bothering to explain who and what they were because the audience was assumed to already know. That, however, is kind of the entire point.

The superhero genre is largely defined by the sequential nature of its native medium, in that they're meant to be part of an ongoing saga. They're not supposed to end — in most cases, if a superhero actually comes to a definitive end, it's because something went wrong, usually because there just aren't enough people who care if it keeps going. It's pretty obvious that people care quite a bit about these movies, which has given them the freedom to expand into exactly the kind of shared universe that comics have been doing for years, but films have never seen.

Star Wars is the most famous and beloved film saga ever, but there are only, what, ten movies and a couple of TV shows that don't really count, over the span of 41 years? The MCU did twice that in a quarter of the time. The James Bond franchise has 23 movies, but when you get right down to it, there are two, maybe three of them that actually connect to each other in an attempt at a larger story. That's not a knock on 007 or Star Wars, just an illustration of how unique the MCU really is in the world of blockbuster films.

Characters and concepts don't need to be introduced because they're explained in detail elsewhere, and big stories can feel like pieces of a larger whole because that's how sequential storytelling works. It's never worked at this scale before, built on continuity and an interconnected universe, but the MCU has put the work in to make it happen. It progresses in a way that makes sense and follows an internal logic, showing character relationships that change over time because of things that happen around them. It's all there, you just have to go look at it.

I mean, it's not like they had the heroes fighting each other and then dying the first time they met. What kind of nonsense superhero story would do that?

Each week, comic book writer Chris Sims answers the burning questions you have about the world of comics and pop culture: what's up with that? If you'd like to ask Chris a question, please send it to @theisb on Twitter with the hashtag #WhatsUpChris, or email it to staff@looper.com with the subject line "That's What's Up."