Earlier this year, Captain Marvel came out. I saw several reviews for it and, discounting the trolls who universally claim to hate the movie, the response I’ve seen has been mixed to positive.
Most, in all fairness, are positive reviews (I also enjoyed it, though my review is not the content of this post), but I’ve seen a number of people who didn’t like it, or thought it was “just okay”. This is fine, and I’m not going to argue with anyone on their meh reaction to this film.
But the biggest reasoning I’ve seen from those who disliked or were indifferent to this film (again, discounting the more sexist Marvel “fans”), is the fact that once again this film plays it safe, it sticks to the formula, it does nothing innovative (apart from being the MCU’s first female superhero film, of course).
(I actually disagree that Captain Marvel is so formulaic, though that’s a completely different discussion. Moving on.)
What is the Marvel Formula?
So let’s talk about the Marvel Formula. This is a generic term usually thrown around to remark about how all Marvel films are the same, at least referring to the MCU era of films.
The formula usually goes something like this:
- A protagonist who starts out their story somewhat naive but full of potential and usually highly skilled in some area (in Captain America’s case, this is his morality, but in most cases it’s a physical or mental skill)
- We get introduced to this character and their flaws, often involving flashbacks.
- There is usually a powerful item of some kind, such as an Infinity Stone.
- There is usually a major battle near the beginning involving or caused by said item. This is where the protagonist is first thrust into the story.
- There’s also a second and final battle throughout each film, usually quite flashy.
- The villain is generally forgettable and devoid of depth (with a few minor exceptions like Loki and Erik Killmonger)
- Each film focuses a lot on emotional themes like relationships with family or friends, self-sacrifice, the nature of morality and/or tyranny, and becoming one’s best self.
- Despite these emotional themes, most Marvel films relieve the tension with A LOT of one-liners, physical comedy, and other comedic interjections.
- There’s the overabundance of flashy sci-fi violence, explosions, and lots and LOTS of color. You’ll also notice an ever increasing need to suspend disbelief with equally increasing levels of “science” fiction, like the swiss army knife-i-ness of vibranium.
- And of course don’t forget the post-credit scene teasing upcoming films.
Now if you’ve noticed a little tongue-in-cheek in this list, you might be tempted to conclude that I’m not in favor of the Marvel Formula.
On the contrary, I think it’s absolutely vital. The stupidest thing Marvel could ever do, at least over the next decade or so, would be to abandon this formula.
But What About Superhero Fatigue?
In case you’ve been living on a log, you’ll know that Avengers: Endgame just came out. It was, to put it simply, the highest grossing superhero film of all time. And quite possibly soon the highest-grossing film of of all time.
There are a lot of people who talk about superhero fatigue, thanks to the overabundance of films being produced (usually around 5-6 when you total Marvel and DC together. Marvel typically releases 3 per year.
That being said, money is the ultimate indicator of whether people are growing tired with a genre. Once superhero movies (particularly the good superhero movies) start losing money, then you will see the decline of the genre. Not before.
Sure, you get duds like DC’s Justice League, but don’t forget that was also not a good film. Marvel, and sometimes DC, consistently make good films, and there’s no indication that the money people will pay to see these films is coming close to running out.
Will superhero fatigue eventually catch up? Yes. As much as I’ve loved being a nerd for this past decade, we will certainly see the end of the genre, at least to the scale that we see it today. We will still see some, we haven’t seen the end of the western or musical after all, but we can probably expect it to fizzle out over the next 10-20 years.
And if you’re worried that having a Marvel formula is going to hasten that superhero fatigue, think again, because…
Sad Truth: People Crave the Familiar, Not the Original
As an author, I’ve discovered one very solid thing about writing. People crave the familiar, not the original. Oh, people will say they want something original. But what they mean is they want a fresh spin on a familiar concept. Star Wars was your typical fairy tale packaged as science fiction. Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings follow similar formats. In fact, the Joseph Campbell monomyth is literally everywhere in fiction.
Hollywood knows this, and that’s why you constantly see a lot of sequels, remakes, reboots, etc. And by the way, remakes are not new. There were people in the 30s literally remaking films from the 20s, updating it to fit in the era of the “talkie.” We do this all the time, taking a familiar story and dressing it differently.
In contrast, you see some films that go a little too far in trying to be unique. The Last Jedi is a good example of this. Though largely considered a good film by critics, most fans did not like the latest installment in the Skywalker saga, and that is because it completely circumvents certain expectations and tropes that we’ve come to appreciate in Star Wars films. It did not “write to market” as it were.
Writing to Market vs. Writing What You Love
There is a need as authors to write to the conventions of specific genres. I’m not saying authors have to do this, but if they want to make money (i.e. resonate with a lot of readers) this is a very important step.
Now, a lot of people are going to have a really hard time with this, and I’m not saying you can’t be original. Writing to the market conventions of whatever genre’s you write is not selling out. As I mentioned above, what people want is a fresh twist on something familiar.
I’m not a stickler for original ideas, but I am a firm believer that in order to pull off something unique that will still resonate with audiences, you have to become intimately familiar with what those audiences like, and that means studying and writing to market. Once you are familiar with an audience’s expectation, you can afford to experiment a little.
And that doesn’t mean you can’t write what you love. But, if you’re anything like me, you have a lot of ideas in your head. When choosing what to write, pick one of these ideas that best fits a genre. Then write that.
How to Satisfy Both Parties
Marvel films are more than a formula. They are a vast library of a type of film that a great many people love. Sure, people will eventually grow tired of them, but that happens far slowly than many would think.
I like to think of genre conventions and the Marvel Formula as something of a skeleton. Sure, most of us have arms, legs, heads, etc, but that doesn’t make us all the same. The same is true of Marvel’s formula, and genre tropes in general. They follow a similar structure, but there is a lot of room on that structure for innovation. Even though the formula I listed above stands true in most Marvel films, Ant-Man is a very different film from, say Captain America. And yet they both follow a similar structure.
I think there’s still plenty of room for innovation, perhaps even more than Marvel is currently utilizing. But there’s one thing that they must not give up, and that’s the Marvel Formula, because without that, they will lose their dedicated fans that have come to expect certain things from their superhero films.