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Nobody Has a Secret Identity
Iron Man was the first proper Marvel Studios production: The first Marvel superhero film that was self-financed by the company, and the first film in the unlikely Avengers mega-franchise. The 2008 film retroactively reads like a statement of purpose for the studio — and that's especially true in the closing moments. Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark attempts to read an official statement, claiming that the metal-headed superhero is actually his bodyguard. (The ''bodyguard'' explanation worked for decades in the comic books.) But besieged by the media and maybe already growing bored of the deception, Stark simply states, ''I am Iron Man.''
The Secret Identity is a concept rooted in superhero lore, but it doesn't really exist in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The Thor comics long employed variations on the idea that Thor was tied to a human alter ego; on screen, Thor is just Thor. Captain America's mask is a propaganda tool, quickly discarded. This sets the Marvel Studios films apart from the DC films and Sony's Spider-Man series, where tensions often run high in the heroes' double life.
You could argue that removing the secret identities makes the heroes less emotionally complex: Because they're always superheroes, there's a weird strain of workaholism running through the films, a sense that the characters have no real inner life. (What does Black Widow do when she's not Black Widow?) But the lack of secret identity anxiety gives the films a tone very distinctive from Sony's recurrent Spider-Man saga or the DC films.
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Superpowers Are De-emphasized (or Just Generic)
It might sound strange to say about a series that has produced some of the most popular superhero films ever, but a Marvel Studios film doesn't spend much time having fun with superpowers. Thor can control the weather, but he mostly hits people with his hammer — and because the Thor films toss out the idea of a human alter ego, they also prune out some of Mjolnir's more outlandish transformative enchantments. (It's basically Boomerang Excalibur.) The third Iron Man film had a lot of fun with Tony's new remote suit, but it also sent the hero on an armor-free mission, the equivalent of one of those 007 movies where Bond goes on the run. Pretty much every Marvel movie comes down to a slugfest between two human beings with roughly equal superstrength, although sometimes it comes down to a bad guy firing some really powerful ray at the good guy.
Supervillains who in comic book form had highly specific superpowers usually get depowered (bye-bye, Mandarin's Rings!) or granted a myriad assortment of super-skills (see: Loki's skill-set grab bag: Telekinesis, telepathic projection, semi-invulnerability?or just see all the Asgardians). More generally, the Marvel Studios films take place in a world where superpowers are often quite tenuous. In The Avengers, Loki uses the Tesseract to mind-control several S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, and Hawkeye gets cured of mind control via excessive punching.
This marks a notable contrast to the other major Marvel superhero franchises, like Spider-Man, where barely two seconds pass without the character climbing up a building or throwing webbing at someone, or X-Men, the later films of which feel a bit like The Wacky Superpower Variety Hour. Cynically, you might suspect that the lack of emphasis on specific superpowers is partially because of those other franchises. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a universe assembled out of financial necessity: The studio doesn't own the X-Men, which means it also doesn't really own the concept of mutants, which means that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has to carefully tiptoe around the notion of superpowered people emerging everywhere. (Also problematic: With an estimated twenty kamillion characters, the X-Men may have stolen all the good powers — and most of the bad ones, too.)
Less cynically, you might point out that Marvel Studios started making superhero movies almost a decade into the superhero-movie era: The point at which everyone had seen a man fly (or web-swing) for a long time. The company's films spend more time on character-building than on power-demonstrating. Most of the best bits in Avengers are just long dialogue scenes between the characters, which is not something you can say about Man of Steel.
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Every Hero Has a Death and Rebirth Cycle
Again, it all starts with Iron Man. Tony Stark is a high-flying, cocktail-swilling egomaniac. He gets blown up, goes into a captive pit of hell, replaces his heart, and becomes a more heroic high-flying, cocktail-swilling egomaniac. Thor sacrifices himself in Thor and is reborn into godhood (just like Hercules in Hercules!) Captain America ''dies'' twice in his film. First, during the super soldier experiment, when he's locked away in a capsule that resembles a sarcophagus and emerges as a new man with a million extra muscles, then at the end of the film as he kamikaze-dives the HYDRA plane into the ice and emerges 70 years later to the horrors of Times Square.
Avengers figuratively followed this cycle, with Agent Coulson's act 2 sacrifice finally giving the Avengers something to avenge. (Marvel then literalized that figurative rebirth by bringing Coulson back to life in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) And there's another metaphorical death-rebirth in Thor: The Dark World, although this time it's not Thor.
This cycle becomes a bit problematic when it actually becomes a cycle. The Iron Man sequels demanded that Tony always wipe his slate clean in ever more slate-wipingly over-the-top ways. In Iron Man 2, he's slowly dying until he makes peace with the memory of his father and saves himself, or something. In Iron Man 3 he goes on walkabout to Tennessee after losing everything/his house.
But that might just be symptomatic of a larger genre trope, since the death-and-rebirth arc is the go-to narrative structure for the superhero film. See also: The Dark Knight Rises, The Wolverine.
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The Big Guys
Then again, maybe the death-rebirth cycle is just a reflection of a basic problem with all the Marvel Studios heroes: How do you root for the most popular kids in school? Tony Stark is a multimillionaire who bangs models and reporters that look like models before ultimately settling down with his beautiful and devoted ginger gal pal. Thor is a god who, when shirtless, looks like hairless android barbarian boxer-brief model. Captain America is the exception, but he's also the rule: A sickly Brooklyn kid with big dreams, he gets transformed into a strongman wearing an American flag.
Again, this is interesting only because this is not what we used to think of when we thought about Marvel. In a bygone era, Spider-Man was the defining Marvel icon: A superhero with everyday problems, occasionally forced to wash his own costume at the local Laundromat. And the X-Men were the defining teenage emo-dream: Misfits misunderstood by everyone around them, finding common cause with the other freaks.
You could charitably say that Marvel Studios finds the hidden freak inside the cool guys, which is another way of saying that many of the films feel a bit like world's tiniest violin playing for the Prom King captain of the national-champion basketball team.
Marvel's TV series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. tries to solve this problem by presenting its characters as power-free normal types in a brave new world of gods and demi-gods — though it has to bend over backwards to explain why we should care about an omniscient omnipowerful spy agency. The future looks more promising. Guardians of the Galaxy is about a team of space misfits. The recent Marvel-Netflix announcement specifically focuses on relatively down-to-earth heroes Dardevil, Iron Fist, and Luke Cage, plus the totally fascinating not-quite-hero Jessica Jones. And though it hasn't been cast yet, it's hard to imagine that the titular character of Ant-Man will be played by an Evans/Hemsworth body type. (Though Marvel did successfully transform Andy Dwyer into a Hemsworth.)
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Everyone Is an Agent of a Higher Authority (or at Least a Consultant Working Freelance for Said Authority)
Thor is next in line for the throne of Asgard. Tony Stark is in charge of one of the most powerful companies in the world. (In the Marvel movies, Stark Industries is sort of a combination Lockheed Martin, Ford circa the Model-T, and Google, except run by Howard Hughes with George Michael facial hair.) Captain America works for a fellow by the name of Uncle Freaking Sam. And they all become agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. in The Avengers.
Contrast this with the heroes of the Dark Knight/Man of Steel Nolanverse, who have an uneasy relationship with law enforcement — or X-Men and Spider-Man, who are treated as outright criminals. There's a strain of anti-authoritarianism running through all those films, which is absent from the Marvel movies.
The exception is Iron Man 2. Marvel Studios' first sequel is generally (and accurately) considered a muddle, less an actual film than a way station between spin-offs. But it has several vaguely developed fascinating ideas, not least the central argument that Stark does not want his Iron Man technology falling into the government's hands. Ultimately, it does — and Stark agrees to work part-time for S.H.I.E.L.D., a global conglomerate that basically controls the world. (It's worth pointing out that, while Iron Man 2 was in production, Marvel was purchased by Disney, a global conglomerate that basically controls the world.)
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S.H.I.E.L.D. is the Glue
S.H.I.E.L.D. — which stands for Strategic Homeland Intelligence Etc Like Duh — rarely took the spotlight in the comic books, outside of an incredible run by Jim Steranko in the late '60s. But the organization has long served as crossover glue in comic books, bringing the heroes of the world together when they needed to be together. So it is in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Throughout Phase One, Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury popped up occasionally to serve as a mascot for the whole idea of a linked series of films. (If he wasn't available, Clark Gregg's affable everyguy Agent Phil Coulson would do in a pinch.)
Much like in the comics, this occasionally puts S.H.I.E.L.D. in the awkward position of tension-relieving deus ex machina. Midway through Iron Man 2, when things look very dark indeed for our hero, Nick Fury pays Tony a visit and gives him special top-secret documents which reveal that the secret to fixing his heart is to realize that the fifth element is love or something. Thor drags to a halt in the middle when Thor Jason Bournes his way through a S.H.I.E.L.D. compound. (This scene also features an extraneous brief cameo by Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye, who appears to have been filmed on a greenscreen in Iceland.)
Avengers brought S.H.I.E.L.D. to the fore, introducing Fury subordinate Maria Hill and the frequently-falling S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier. In Phase 2, Marvel Studios has de-emphasized the superspy organization: No Fury cameo in Iron Man 3, just a few scattered references in The Dark World. That's partially because S.H.I.E.L.D. has taken the limelight in its own ABC TV show, about which we have some opinions. And Captain America: The Winter Soldier looks like a full-on S.H.I.E.L.D. spinoff, promising to complicate the organization's reputation for the post-Snowden age.
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Women Get Bigger Roles, More Impressive Résumés
No, Marvel Studios hasn't made a movie about a female superhero yet. But give them credit for pumping up the prominence of their female characters in the adaptation from page to screen. This is most obvious with Natalie Portman's Jane Foster, who shares exactly two things with her print incarnation: Her name and her chemistry with a certain goldilock'd thunder god. In print, Jane Foster was Nurse Foster, who worked for Thor's doctor alter ego and ultimately fell in love with him. (Think Megan Draper.) She later became a doctor. Movie Jane takes that professional evolution several steps further: She's an astrophysicist, one of those movie jobs that connotes ''genius.''
Because none of the Marvel Studios' superheroes' love interests were truly iconic — they weren't at the Lois Lane/Mary Jane level — the movies wisely transform them into whole new characters, often letting the talented actresses put their own spin on the character. In the comics, Pepper Potts was taken from the secretary pool and fell in love with her boss Tony Stark. (Again, think Megan Draper. It was the '60s!) Paltrow's Pepper takes her cue from later, more business-savvy incarnations of Pepper while also adding in a layer of Hepburn/Tracy banter that lessens the boss/employee ick factor. Captain America's Peggy Carter takes the loose idea of the original Peggy — an agent attached to the French Resistance who becomes a brief love interest for Cap — and runs with it, turning Hayley Atwell's Carter into a full-fledged superspy. (A TV spin-off is possible/mandatory.)
Now, you could point out that the films still have problematic gender politics. All of these characters are established as smart, self-confident, proudly eccentric women?who nevertheless fall completely in love with the superhero by the end of act 3. (Also: I don't know how to play a convincing astrophysicist, and neither does Natalie Portman.)
Which is why we should all pay close attention to Black Widow in Phase 2. Onscreen, Natasha Romanoff doesn't bare much resemblance to her comic book incarnation. Indeed, it's hard to say what precisely Movie Black Widow is, besides an opportunity for Scarlett Johansson to play variations on witty-deadpan badassery. But Black Widow had more screen time than Hulk or Thor in Avengers and looks like a veritable co-lead in Winter Soldier. If Marvel Studios is ever going to make a movie where the lead protagonist is a human woman, it'll probably be her.
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The Villains Want Everything, and the Only Way to Conquer Everything Is to Destroy Everything?or Something
The baddies in the first two Iron Man movies had relatively clear-cut goals: Money, with a side of vengeance. Since then, story gravity has sent villains' motivations skyrocketing into the existential stratosphere: They want to conquer?everything. The Frost Giants in the first Thor wanted to take over the Nine Realms. In The Avengers, the attacking hordes of Chitauri want to take over the world, and it turns out they're working for Thanos, who seems to want to conquer quite a bit more. By comparison, the relatively modest Red Skull merely wanted to conquer Earth.
There's a nonstop sense of ultimate zero-sum stakes. Iron Man 3's Killian doesn't initially seem too different from the Downey franchise's past techno-corporate baddies, but his scheme eventually involves assassinating the president, setting up a puppet government, and basically running America. And don't even mention The Dark World's Malekith the Accursed, who wants to conquer and/or destroy the whole universe.
The zero sum nature of these villains makes them disappointingly vague, even colorless. The Frost Giants and the Dark Elves have no real culture to speak of — or indeed, anything to do besides sit around on soundstages in front of greenscreens and plot apocalypses. The Thanos reveal at the end of Avengers was fun, but it also explicitly punts the villain's motivation — by which I mean, the entire reason the movie happened — forward by several years/spin-off sequels.
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Honestly, the Villains Just Aren't That Important
There's a line of thinking about the thriller genre — and superhero movies are essentially thrillers with hazier laws of physics — that the most important character is the villain. That truism derives at least partially from franchises like the James Bond series, which stars an essentially unchanging protagonist but matches him up against colorful grotesques. (See also: Dick Tracy, most cop shows.)
But part of what makes the Marvel Studios films so fun is the character work. The Iron Man films are never better than when Stark/Downey is endlessly riffing, flirting with Pepper (or flirting with everybody, really.) Captain America and Thor both give their protagonists moments of reflection and inner turmoil, some of it genuinely heartfelt. From a certain angle, the Marvel films all look like comedies with occasional sad-music montages. (Avengers in particular suggests a workplace sitcom.)
It's tough to fit a genuinely villainous figure into that arrangement. So the movies don't, really. In the lead-up to Iron Man 3, much Internet ink was spilled over the tantalizing hints about Ben Kingsley's Mandarin. The stage seemed set for a real big Big Bad. Kingsley is an Oscar-winning actor; the Mandarin looked vaguely Bin Laden-esque. But the hall-of-mirrors twist revealed that was all just a tease. The Mandarin really was a British actor, playing a composite figure specifically designed to appeal to America's fears of a terrorist/radical uprising. Some people were upset about the Mandarin reveal, but it's the most brazen thing Marvel's ever done: A lacerating parody of the Evil Topical Villain. And who needs a villain? Tony has wit that needs bantering!
Notably, Villains in the post-Iron Man 2 Marvel films all use some variation of Total Ultimate Power. In Captain America and Avengers, it's the Tesseract. In Iron Man 3, it's Extremis. In The Dark World, it's the Aether. These are all hilariously abstract variations on Things That Make Stuff Happen, defined by a vague assortment of powers and a specific mood-ring energy color. Dark World implies that much of what we've seen part of a larger plan — a plan that will ultimately be revealed probably in 2018.
Until that reveal comes, it's probably accurate to say that Marvel Studios is less interested in villainy and more interested in the doubts that plague its heroes. This is why the films' protagonists are so endearing, and also why Marvel Studios hasn't produced a villain nearly as good as the Joker.
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Loki Is an Exception to Everything I Just Said
At Comic-Con 2013, Tom Hiddleston took the stage in full Asgardian regalia. In front of the capacity religious-rival crowd in Hall H, he demanded everyone's fealty, and fealty was happily given. Across three films, Hiddleston has turned Loki into the defining antagonist of the whole Marvel Studios experiment — not least because his motivations are simultaneously crystal-clear and freakishly protean. (He wants power — a throne of his own — but he also implicitly wants respect. Or he might just be crazy.)
Loki added a tragic dimension to Thor, with the revelations about his past mixing together with his boundless ambition leading him on a path to ruin. In Avengers, he was more of a straight-up pulp villain — and the Thanos reveal retroactively turned Loki into a henchman for a larger villain, essentially a level boss. But he stole the film right out from under a flock of superheroes mostly because of how cool he sounded saying the phrase ''mewling quim.'' Without spoiling anything about Dark World, the Thorquel adds a couple new dimensions to Loki, simultaneously suggesting his possible redemption while also suggesting said redemption is far beyond him. It also lets him go Full Lecter in a glass-wall prison, a necessity for every memorable modern villain.
There's something very scary and a little funny about Loki: He can terrify you with a bargain-Shakespeare soliloquy one second, then earn huge laughs for his post-Smash face. Intriguingly, Hiddleston's Loki is quite different from the character's typical comic book incarnation. Comic Loki trends towards being a complete psychopath. Movie Loki is a bit sadder — and, lest we forget, looks like Tom Hiddleston. In fantasy terms, he's the rare character who simultaneously suggests Joffrey Baratheon and Tyrion Lannister, which is why he's become the unexpected breakout star of the franchise — at least in Internetland.
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The Post-Credits Tease
Post-credits scenes used to be kind of fun and utterly extraneous, little humorous buttons thrown on the end of movies for the occasional person who actually sat through the credits. Marvel Studios turned the post-credits scene into an event. In Avengers and Dark World, they even added in mid-credits scenes. (Someday, we'll refer to movies as ''pre-credits scenes.'') Nick Fury in Iron Man, Thor's Hammer in Iron Man 2, deep-sequel Thanos tease in Avengers: The Marvel post-credits scenes come straight out of the Scheherazade tradition, offering you a tantalizing hint of the next story before you've fully digested the last one.
Other franchises are taking note. Amazing Spider-Man and The Wolverine both ended with mid-credits sequel teases. So did the last two entries in the Fast & Furious franchise — a bizarrely long-lived saga that accidentally trailblazed the Marvel Studios formula, with sequel-spin-offs ultimately combining into a superteam movie.
Iron Man 3 was a radical departure, in the sense that it didn't really point ahead to anything. But it's possible to look at IM3's Mark Ruffalo cameo as a joke on the whole concept of the post-credits scene. Ruffalo's Banner wakes up as Tony finishes narrating the movie and admits he fell asleep almost immediately. Can Tony start over? Or maybe just stop talking? (This is another reason why we all might retroactively decide that Iron Man 3 is Marvel Studios' Gremlins 2.)
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The Final 30 Minutes Are about an Army of Things Attacking the World
Frost Giants! HYDRA! Chitauri! The Extremites! If there are only 20 minutes left in a Marvel Studios movie, then a giant army of roughly similar-looking, easily digitizable people-things is probably attacking a city/the world/an oil tanker. This ensures that — even as the superhero faces off in a flying punchfight with the supervillain — lots of pyrotechnics are happening in the background, too. I won't say if it happens in Dark World. But there are a lot of Dark Elves. And they aren't not army-esque.
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Keep It Light, Keep It Bright
Iron Man came out in 2008 — the same summer as The Dark Knight, probably the best film in the postmillennial run of bleak-gritty blockbusters. It was the year of Quantum of Solace, the most resolutely unfun James Bond movie ever made, and WALL-E, the Pixar movie about the horrific post-apocalyptic Earth that barely deserves to get saved. It was just one year after the national-nightmare Jason Bourne trilogy ended, and there were still three ever darker Harry Potters on the horizon. For that reason — and because of the generally accepted Empire Rule that the Sequel Must Get Darker — there was every reason to assume the Iron Man sequels would dig into the character's dark side. Downey himself seemed game, openly discussing the possibility of bringing Stark's alcoholism to the fore.
That never happened. An alternate opening for Iron Man 2 began with Tony vomiting through a hangover. It was scrapped, and Iron Man 3 director Shane Black admitted that the studio nixed any reference to alcoholism in the threequel. That's representative of the Marvel Studios aesthetic, which trends bright and peppy, with no danger more dangerous than what you find on a typical USA Network show. (The Avengers deleted scenes include a a melancholy Cap interlude and a bleaker opening, which both clash madly with the final cut's fun-times tone.) Iron Man 2 flirted with daddy issues, but revealed Howard Stark really loved his son all along. Iron Man 3 sold itself as a flat-out Dark Sequel, but Stark's fall from grace was quickly ameliorated by wacky adventures with the kid from Insidious.
There's a vague romcom undercurrent to all the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: An all-too-careful calculation that can't quite commit to serious tension. They can't even really commit to character death. Maybe the saddest part of any of the Marvel movies was Coulson's death; he's back on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Likewise, Thor's ''death'' in Thor lasted a couple seconds — a plot beat that is roughly mirrored in The Dark World. Indeed, despite the name, the Thorquel features many of the same goofball beats as the original. (Put it this way: A Christopher Nolan film will probably never feature Skarsgard-butt humor.)
The exception, once again, is Captain America, possibly because anything set during World War II seems immediately more serious. But even Cap benefited from Joe Johnston's Rocketeer retro-nostalgia: It's the lightest World War II movie in decades.
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Or Maybe It's All about 9/11
It's possible that the candy-bright surface of the Marvel Studios aesthetic masks a deeper inquiry into our global security nightmare. Iron Man positions the hero as a Middle East war profiteer. Before his kidnapping, he has a memorable line after demonstrating his new weapon's destructive power: ''That's how Dad did it, that's how America does it, and it's worked out pretty well so far.'' (Said weapon is the newest in Stark Industries' ''Freedom'' line — ''Operation Iraqi Freedom'' being the military pseudonym for the first seven years of the Iraq War.) The film updates Tony Stark's Vietnam origins for the modern age: When Tony is captured and imprisoned in an underground cave, he's explicitly atoning for his (and America's) overconfidence.
Thor avoids Iron Man's geopolitical specificity, but the film has a similar kickoff point. The Thunder god invades a land he knows nothing about, a classic war hawk maneuver; chastened by his elders, he has to learn how his actions have consequences. In a sense, Thor's first movie is about learning the value of diplomacy, how to speak softly and not just carry a big hammer.
Captain America exists firmly in the distant past — Nazi bad guys, an arms race, Brooklyn pre-gentrification. But Avengers concludes with an attack on New York City. The post-Avengers projects keep on referencing that attack. It pops up frequently on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.; it leaves a mental mark on Tony throughout Iron Man 3; at one point in Dark World, Jane punches Loki and exclaims ''That was for New York!''
You could argue that the attack on New York was, essentially, the 9/11 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe: An event that changed everything. Or maybe that happened earlier: In New Mexico, when a heretofore overlooked subculture (the Asgardians) revealed it had the power to level a small town. In Avengers, Fury claims that the events of Thor led S.H.I.E.L.D. to secretly develop an extraterrestrial deterrent using the power of the Tesseract.
That thread continued in Iron Man 3, when a new Bush-esque POTUS created an all-American hero called the Iron Patriot, basically the ''Mission Accomplished'' banner in tin-superhero form. (The Iron Patriot was explicitly designed to look like the Captain America costume, recalling an earlier era of pure patriotism but also pumping it up to ludicrous heights.) Meanwhile, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is being sold hard as a '70s paranoid thriller — and, if nothing else, the trailer makes it look like Cap's stranger-in-a-strange-land retro-heroism will be out of place in the post-Avengers political climate.
No single Marvel Studios film quite taps into post-9/11 allegory to the extent of the Dark Knight trilogy or the ''Civil War'' plotline that ran through Marvel comics in the mid-2000s. (They don't want to ruin the fun.) But Marvel Studios has woven a colorful postmillennial tapestry across several films. It's like a decade-later re-examination of the American security state, this time with fancier costumes. And looming over all is the possibility of a greater threat lurking in the shadows: A villain our heroes don't even know about yet, with desires they can only guess.
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When The Winter Soldier comes out next April, Steve Rogers will be modeling a snazzy new minimalist Cap costume. In what has to be some kind of record, that will be Cap's fourth costume in three years, after his triangle-shield propaganda uniform, his bomber-badass soldier outfit, and his community-theater Avengers outfit. Marvel's got toys to sell and decades of costume history to service, so why waste time with one outfit? Tony Stark rocked a mobile suit of armor in Iron Man 2, which became the multifaceted armor of Iron Man 3; for good measure, the threequel also featured a kamillion other Iron Man suits. Thor has a relatively smaller closet. Although sometimes he removes the chainmail from his arms and goes bare-bicep. You know, for the ladies.
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Constant Jokes About the Names of Things
Comic book names are funny. Many of them were conceived on a caffeinated-or-worse work binge by writers struggling to make a cent. Decades later, we live in an era of self-awareness, but also an era when we can't just change names with decades of brand recognition. Thus, the Marvel Studios films constantly poke fun of the names of people or organizations.
Sometimes, it's handled with sly self-aggrandizement. When Tony Stark hears what newspapers are calling his alter ego, he riffs: ''Iron Man. That's kind of catchy. It's got a nice ring to it. I mean it's not technically accurate. The suit's a gold titanium alloy, but it's kind of provocative, the imagery anyway.'' Other times, it's a surprisingly powerful plot point: Because Steve Rogers' fake name is conceived as an utterly cheesy propaganda selling point, it's all the more powerful when he earns the nickname with his heroism.
As the series continues, it delves into deeper corners of Marvel lore — which means the names get goofier. So the jokes are getting more pointed. Iron Man 3 made merciless mirth of the moniker ''Iron Patriot.'' Agent Ward kicked off Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. by rattling off what the acronym stands for and deadpanning, ''Someone really wanted out initials to spell out SHIELD.'' And the biggest laugh at Comic-Con 2013 came during the video preview for Marvel's next spin-off. After listing off the cast of characters in a Usual Suspects-esque summary, John C. Reilly explained, ''They call themselves the Guardians of the Galaxy.'' His partner Peter Serafinowicz responded, ''What a bunch of a--holes.''
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Rotating Creative Teams, With One Notable Exception
Most major franchises in Hollywood have signature directors. Steven Spielberg and Indiana Jones. Sam Raimi and the original Spider-Men. Michael Bay and Cars That Are Robots. But, besides Jon Favreau, no director has worked on more than one Marvel film. Kenneth Branagh and Joe Johnston gave way to Alan Taylor and the Russo brothers for the Thor and Cap sequels. The films tend to accrue writers like flies, with several names credited on the different screenplays — to say nothing of the general suspicion that Shane Black is rewriting everything.
The exception is Joss Whedon, who wrote and directed The Avengers off an original story by Zak Penn, and who is currently working on Avengers 2. Whedon has a wide-ranging deal with Marvel, which also includes Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.and more. Alan Taylor told SFX magazine that Whedon was airlifted in to redo some parts of The Dark World, and it's easy to imagine the Whedon Airlift gets frequent use in the Marvel Studios offices.
Marvel is getting more adventurous with the directors they choose: Legit weirdo James Gunn is making Guardians of the Galaxy, while legit genius Edgar Wright is helming Ant-Man. But it might be more accurate to say that Marvel Studios is the auteur of Marvel Studios. This is what makes the films a bit frustrating for some film fans — and at their worst, the films have an assembly-line quality. But it's also what makes the whole Marvel Cinematic Universe so exciting. Studios don't really have a house style anymore, and it's remarkable to see how quickly Marvel has developed from a brand into a genuine aesthetic. It will be even more exciting to see how it evolves from here. If it can evolve.
And if not, they'll probably merely make a few billion more dollars. So they have that going for them. Which is nice.