Well, you know, ignoring the box office.
Show me a popular franchise, and I'll show you the inevitable moment they chose to go with money over risk.
Nothing ever changes.
For Star Wars, it was the moment Gary Kurtz quit working on Return Of The Jedi.
For Peter Jackson's Lord Of The Rings franchise (which had the benefit of being shot in a bubble), it was the moment he decided that The Hobbit had enough story for three movies.
For Marvel, and their collective 17 films released so far, it gets harder to put a finger on. Could it be the moment these characters shared the screen for the first time in The Avengers? Was it when Joss Whedon quit the studio after wrapping Age Of Ultron? Or was it when Marvel decided to start releasing three films a year?
Anyway, here's the trailer for their third Avengers film. It all has been leading up to this moment. You know, except for that moment before. And the moment before that one.
So, all said, looks pretty fine. You got your bearded Chris Evans, a war in Wakanda, the fun loving Spider-Man, and your Guardians. Whats not to like? We've been building to this moment for about an actual decade! What is the problem?
So, Marvel does do something really well, and that's creating a problem I like to call thematic mirages. The mirages present elements of a thematic topic, and then distracts you with very cool fights. Captain America: Civil War has an incredible premise: What if heroes had to be held accountable by real world leaders for the collateral damage they cause? The film presents two opposing sides to the issue with Tony and Steve...and then does not side with Tony or Steve. This leaves the film to have a simpler, almost non-theme: friends fighting is bad.
What if Civil War had the guts to actually put all its moral chips with the signing of the Sokovia Accords from the beginning, effectively making Steve the villain of his own film? Or what if the film sided with Steve and tied the rest of the characters hands down even further?
Well, to the money men, their biggest fear is someone standing in front of a marquee and saying, "Hey Iron Man is kinda bad now, I'm gonna skip this one."
It really, really shows.
That's just one half of my two pronged attack. The MCU films also no longer have any theme, message, or perspective.
I call my second problem The Toy Problem. The films that occur between these big event flicks suffer in a major way. Moments that should happen in the story (or could happen in the story to make it interesting) do not happen. All stakes are rendered inert, because we know that not only are the characters going to be in the next Avengers film, they will remain static. Like a toy still wrapped in plastic.
They start and end in the same position. Worse, if they've been in an Avengers film, they start and end where the last Avengers film left them.
These movies mean absolutely nothing.
BUT WHAT ABOUT THOR: RAGNAROK, THE VERY FUNNIEST MARVEL MOVIE EVER MADE?
Hey, don't worry. I got you covered.
At the risk of sounding like I'm making a 9/11 truther Youtube doc, I'm going to use the three releases from this year to expand upon my point, going in reverse.
With the best outing of the year for Marvel, Taika Waititi has made an admittedly fun and, at times, engaging movie.
There is, however, major Thematic Mirage happening. Thor: Ragnarok is seemingly about the rampant dangers of colonialism. How colonizing a world often comes with the purging of existing cultures. It's even a little evident on Sakaar, the makeshift, scrapheap gladiatorial world.
Except that, in the end, Thor and Loki decide to go ahead and colonize Earth. It's clear, since Thor is a hero, that there will be no savagery in doing this. But, most importantly, that's just not in the text of the film. Thor never faces his father and says what he did to build Asgard was wrong.
The movie doesn't want to risk you thinking about what many of our real life ancestors did to America.
And I'm not saying the onus is on Thor: Ragnarok to do this, but you have to follow through if you're flirting with these thematics. Otherwise you end up with another non-message, like "violence is bad".
Of course it's fucking bad. We all agree violence is bad.
Anyway, The Toy Problem of Thor: Ragnarok
The two leads have been in Avengers films before, so for this exercise, we have to look at the last time we saw Thor and Loki in Avengers films.
The last time we saw Thor, he was going offworld on a mysterious hunt to find out more about the fabled Infinity Stones - the key maguffin of all maguffins.
And the last time we saw Loki in The Avengers, he was being taken to Asgard with the Tessaract. Loki has since been in Thor: The Dark World, but he only positioned himself for the third Thor film, which is immediately dismissed at the start of Ragnarok.
So, you'd think the end of Thor: Ragnarok provides a new risk for the Marvel audience -- having the brothers united (and with purpose!) without waiting for the next crossover. Thor's missing an EYE and lost his hammer!
They actually did it! This movie is necessary!
Wait, never mind. Thanos is here, and he is gonna just blow up the ship, scattering Thor, Loki, and The Hulk to the four winds. Oh and Loki eyeballed the Tessaract in the third act, so you know he snuck that away.
So, Thor's off in space. Loki has the Tessaract. And Hulk will still be missing; just like the end of Age of Ultron.
And as for the missing eye and hammer, here's a Vanity Fair photoshoot from this week.
That's what you get for hoping.
Anyway, onto Spider-Man.
I'll give Spider-Man: Homecoming this: there's no Thematic Mirage at play here. It's a simple movie, with simple themes, and really fun characters.
But oh boy, does it double down on The Toy Problem.
Last time we saw Peter Parker, he was fighting some good guys and making quips in Civil War. At the end of his little moment, he lays down on the ground and says "I'm done." It's a nice little moment.
Homecoming starts with Peter not being done at all. and conversely pining to be an Avenger. It's a legitimately good arc for the character, beginning the film with the delusion that he won't even have to finish school before joining the superhero squad, and ending with a newfound purpose to protect the little guy.
It's great until you remember that protecting the little guy was his entire motivation in Civil War. Spider-Man, and Peter Parker, starts and ends in the same exact spot he was when we saw him in Civil War.
More frustratingly, as a Spider-Man fan, he barely leaves Queens. Which is fine, if you're setting something up to pay off later. Especially if you're marketing that pay off in the above photo I used for this movie.
There's a really good moment at the halfway mark of the film, where Spider-Man does his first "big boy" superhero moment - he climbs the Washington Monument. It's the highest building he's ever climbed. And he's scared.
That's great, and surely they're setting up this fear of tall buildings for a thrilling final climax where Spidey has to hit Manhattan to stop the Vulture from finishing his last big job. Unfortunately instead, Spidey tangles with the Vulture briefly on top of a plane before crash landing on the beach on Coney Island.
This wouldn't be an issue if it wasn't so transparent that they're saving the big "Spider-Man in Downtown New York" for Avengers: Infinity War. And upon watching the trailer, it seems they did just that.
The film ends with Peter rejecting Tony's offer to be an Avenger, just so he can be in the exact same place for the next crossover extravaganza.
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: VOL. 2
I chose to go in a reverse order here for one reason, and that this film is kind of the exception to my two pronged complaint. I even wrote some nice stuff about it when it came out.
However, Guardians Vol. 2 is the exception that proves my rule about these things. It's so far flung from the realm of The Avengers (until May 2018), that it doesn't actually matter what happens in this movie. Whatever configuration this film landed on will be what we see in Avengers: Infinity War. And that's kind of cool, at least.
So, we have a thematically dense tale about child abuse and neglect that, while opaque, actually follows through on what it sets out to do. It gets very granular about the repercussions of various types familial abuse.
It also takes four hours to get there, as the film's insane bloat almost sinks the entire enterprise. Guardians Vol. 2 is packed to the gills with some awful jokes, as though everything was shot at the wall out of a cannon in an effort to find the few that stick. And this feels like a studio note: more of the first on an exponential level. It's a little film trying to be a big film.
I applaud the movie's risk taking, and I bet it's the very, very last risk Marvel takes.
In February, we get Ryan Coogler's Black Panther. Coogler is one of the best directors Marvel's ever hired, if not the best. And the movie is going to mean a lot in our cultural landscape.
It's clear, however, that the film will start and end with T'Challa in the same place as we saw him in Civil War: As a new king. Unfortunately, from the trailers, it looks to be another rehash of the Iron Man origin approach: a newly empowered protagonist must fight a villain with the same outfit and abilities to prove that only he can be (insert superhero name here).
In May, we get Infinity War, where we get to see a bunch of actors live out the end of their contracts and some actual chess pieces move on a board.
And later in 2018, we get Ant Man and the Wasp, which I'm sure will be a fun ride that leaves Scott exactly in the spot he was left in at the end of Infinity War.
And so it goes. But at least Captain America's beard will stay, right?
Terry Erickson is a screenwriter, lifelong film fan, and all around good guy based in Baltimore, MD. He's driven across America twice, is obsessed with Back To The Future, and loves almost everybody.