Marvel as Its Own Genre
By Ben Spaeth
Photo: Polugon – Source
The Marvel Cinematic Universe now has twenty-seven movies and seven television shows, making perhaps the most successful franchise ever. As the universe continues to expand, Marvel has to figure out new ways to tell the same old superhero story. The good guy with powers has to beat the bad guy with powers. The argument that I present is that, while there are vast differences in the plot and context of each one of these films and shows, all of them share particular similarities, aside from their shared universe. Marvel has created its own subgenre inside the superhero genre.
To determine if Marvel really functions as its own genre, I have laid out three approaches commonly used within genre analysis: the aesthetic approach, the ritual approach, and the ideological approach. The aesthetic approach will analyze common motifs, styles, and themes in the movies. The ritual approach will look at the cultural expression of the films, analyzing the ideals and values espoused by them and what it says about society. The ideological approach will examine the industry motives behind producing these styles of films. In a sense, it seeks to explain the genre’s place within the culture industry.
Let's start with the aesthetic approach. Marvel has been a key player in laying down the tropes for the modern superhero film. However, the framework of the films we see today was actually developed by the films which preceded the MCU. The Christopher Nolan Batman films had an impact on the future of DC films, but Marvel purposefully went a different direction from the dark and brutish superhero. The superhero franchise that most closely resembles Phase One of Marvel is without a doubt Sony's Sam Rami directed Spider-Man trilogy. They are goofy, lighthearted, and tell a story that adults and kids alike have found engaging.
Marvel differs from other superhero franchises in a few key areas. First is the Marvel look. Even with films that are set on different planets, they still share similar visual styles with their earthly counterparts. While each franchise with Marvel usually focuses on a certain genre (Captain America: War/Spy, Guardians of the Galaxy: Sci-Fi), the similarities in how characters are framed, shot, and lit provides smooth transitions when characters crossover. The top of the line CGI is also worth mentioning alongside the Marvel look. The CGI used in Marvel films has improved greatly over the years, but I’ve noticed each phase of the MCU has distinct looks to their CGI. Phase One obviously had the most outdated CGI, Phase Two had darker CGI, Phase Three featured some of the best CGI ever put on screen, and Phase Four continues to do the same with CGI as in Phase Three. However, it should be noted that the CGI in the TV shows is nowhere near as extravagant as in the movies. The CGI in Marvel shows is far better than most shows you’ll see, but in comparison to the movies, it’s not even close. The CGI in the TV shows still features similarity to the films. After all, the CGI has to mimic the powers shown in the films.
Other aesthetic similarities the Marvel films all share is their story structure. Marvel has never been ashamed of strictly following a three act hero’s journey in all of their films. Ironman laid the foundation for how they would approach writing most of their films going forward. Which is probably why a lot of the films share similar beats. The films also have to guarantee the audience a set amount of CGI fights that must be strategically placed throughout the film so audience members don’t get bored by the plot throughout the whole film.
Moving on to the ritual approach, the Marvel films certainly have a place with the cultural zeitgeist that is unique to Marvel. Superheroes are absurdly popular at the moment, but Marvel specifically holds a special spot in American culture. There’s no doubt the Marvel films are currently more culturally significant than any of the latest DC films except for maybe Wonder Woman. The next question we must ask then is do the Marvel films express some part of our culture that other superhero films don’t? To this point, I’d argue that Marvel films do not have a unique cultural expression. The superhero film reflects values that society deems important like having good character and always trying your best to better society. It reflects these values, values that the audience likely already holds, back onto the audience. Marvel undoubtedly still reflects these values back onto the audience.
Finally, let's approach Marvel from an ideological perspective. Once again, we have to ask if Marvel’s part of the culture industry is different from that of the superhero film? Certainly Marvel films function as tentpole films just like any other superhero film. The continued success of the films has also allowed them to expand to characters that weren’t as widely known by audiences beforehand and turn them into name brands. This is different from most superhero films which seek to elevate already popular comic book characters to the silver screen. Marvel, while not creating new characters, is creating a fanbase around these characters that wasn’t previously present. This is something specifically unique to Marvel films. There are certainly exceptions to this rule, for instance, Captain America, Spider-Man, and the Hulk were already fairly broadly known entities prior to the MCU. However, characters like the Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man, and even Ironman weren’t popular at all before their feature debuts. In fact, Sony originally turned down the feature rights to Marvel films twice and cited the lack of popularity of their heroes as the main reasoning. The only character Sony was interested in was Spider-Man, and we all know how that ended. At the time, the only popular and mainstream characters Marvel had were Spider-Man and the X-Men. The point here is that Marvel has managed to generate interest around characters that people otherwise weren’t interested in. This makes them a unique producer of culture because most superhero franchises float off of pre-established heroes within the zeitgeist, whereas Marvel inserts their characters into the zeitgeist.
So, is Marvel its own genre? I’d say it certainly is at least its own subgenre of the superhero genre. It has enough aesthetic and ideological factors that differentiate itself from that of typical superhero films. Some may argue that brand and genre are two separate things and that they should be conflated. To that point I’d say that particular producers can create their own genre. There’s a reason we differentiate the Spaghetti Western from the regular western. While Marvel films do fall under the same brand and benefit greatly because of it, that doesn’t erase the uniqueness in style that the Marvel films present.