Marvel Studios MCU: How Bad Writing Defeated Superhero Movies
Disney’s movie studios have seen better days as rumors of eminent asset sales circle overhead. But its most spectacular stumble is in its stewardship of Marvel’s MCU and as an old Marvel comics and former MCU fan, that’s where it hits home for me. We're way past the era of “peak superhero-movie”. After about 20 golden years, the superhero genre has grown a little grey around temples, put on weight and is now reduced to performing backroom gigs in Vegas. It will continue stumbling through addictions to bad script-writing, one-dimensional characters and rushed CGI while ignoring the pleas of fans' that it seeks professional help. But I believe we can date the start of the decline precisely to Scorsese’s “theme parks” comments in late 2019. It's interesting that Scorsese would give voice to the genre’s decline. Scorsese is one of the great filmmakers that came to us from the New Hollywood era, when movies were creatively transgressive and studios took risks producing some of the greatest movies ever made. In other words, the exact opposite of today’s era in filmmaking.
Scorsese is Innocent!
Scorsese spoke his fateful words months after Endgame’s release and around the same time both Todd Philips’ Joker and Amazon Prime Video’s The Boys came out. Both turned out to be brilliantly creative deconstructions of the superhero genre with Joker even borrowing Scorsese’s gritty, cinema verite style. The comments also arrived just one month before Disney+ launched with new Phase 4 TV shows that would go on to drive the final nails into the MCU’s pine box. MCU Phase 4 gave us a different, far less creative deconstruction of the superhero genre because rather than the genre, Phase 4 was an attempting to deconstruct heroism itself.
After a potentially innovative start for Disney+ TV with Wanda Vision, it would go on to overload audiences with scattered storylines in an apocalypse of pointlessness. Phase 4's closing remark was the absolute malpractice that was She-Hulk: Attorney at Law. Phase 5 shows no sign of a course correction. Based on Samba TV numbers for the recent Secret Invasion mainstream audiences no longer even care. Only Ms Marvel had lower viewership for an MCU show at launch. I actually had some affection for the Ms Marvel series because it was one of the few Phase 4 shows to employ a true heroic story arc. Main character Kamala Khan had high-school kid problems to overcome and strong family ties that gave her something greater than herself to believe in. By 2023, we've seen the MCU franchise go from the biggest most successful in Hollywood history to monumental collapse in a few short years. It now seems alien to me that I once attended the latest MCU movie with all the zeal of a Mighty Marvel True Believer.
The Girl-Boss Trope
Disney/Marvel’s most reliably tired trope is one we're now seeing across many big budget Hollywood franchise productions, the SFL or strong female lead. Even strong female veteran character-actress Emily Blunt has stated her indifference to typecasting women as one-dimensional, stoic badass girl-bosses. For Disney/Marvel the SFL is also likely to be a genius in STEM fields. We get it! The producers want to inspire young girls and that should be a noble goal. But for a movie to inspire girls to go into STEM fields, it first needs to attract the interest of the target audience with characters that are relatable to girls. Being the father of a pre-teen girl with whom I often watch movies, I've learned that what pulls young girls attention into a movie is not elongated action sequences or stoic, overconfident women, but emotion. It may be obvious to any parent, but girls are highly tuned-in to a movie character's emotional state. They're especially tuned-into the subtle character-building scenes where a female protagonist may be developing an interpersonal relationship with a male character. Unfortunately potential romantic tension isn't part of the SFL trope, instead we get female characters written as stand-ins for emotionally stunted men.
But the MCU’s emphasis on targeting and inspiring girls begs the question: What happened to Disney CEO Bob Iger’s original intention for buying Marvel? At the time, Disney’s market research had concluded that the brand didn’t trend well among young boys. The result was the $4-billion purchase of Marvel in 2009, when Bob Iger declared:
“We’d like to attract more boys, and we think Marvel’s skew is more in boys’ direction. Although there’s a universal appeal, we think, to a lot of their characters and a lot of their story. Just look at Spider-Man and Iron Man films. This is a great fit. But we obviously know Disney has a lot of products that are more girl-skewed than boy. And we’d like the opportunity to go after boys more aggressively.”
Marvel Studios was successful in attracting boys and girls alike but has since elected to fully transition Marvel to a girl-brand, complete with upcoming all-female answer to the Avengers, The Marvels. But new problems have emerged with the MCU’s approach to storytelling and character development since Phase 4 that has nothing to do with the gender of its characters. So, I’d like to back-up to the early 2000s.
Rise and Fall of Superhero Movies
Marvel mythology brought to life on film, there were many great DC comic movies too!
The 2000s comic-book movie trend (that began with Blade in ‘98) saw something unprecedented happen. For the first time we saw a rapid-fire succession of faithful movie adaptations of comic characters with minimal changes for the screen. The early Spider-Man, X-Men, Iron Man and Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies all brought respect, even reverence for the source material as written and drawn by some of history’s greatest comic creators. A superhero movie golden age was upon us! By 2014, the latest MCU movie was a reliable escapist audio-visual feast with cutting-edge VFX and surround audio mixes to match. Lightly seeded with A-list actors, each story gave us an entertaining blend of unique action and character-building with just the right amount of heart and humor gift-wrapped in a simple but serviceable 3-act formula. The concept of the movie sequel was taken to a new frontier with each MCU movie leading up to a narrative crescendo in Avengers 2012, then again in Endgame 2019. These films dominated the box office and there was still decades of popular comic-book source material to harvest for future scripts. In 2014 I looked forward to growing into old age enjoying glorious Scorsesian theme park rides, there was just no way the studios could screw it up!
They found a way to screw it up!
So, what happened to the MCU? Essentially, Disney/Marvel abandoned the ethic of respect for the source material. Those of us old enough to remember the live-action comic book adaptations of the 70s and 80s are well-aware that ignoring the source material is the norm. In the old days, TV and movie productions usually only exploited the brand recognition of characters to tell their own stories with wildly varying results. By the November 2019 launch of Disney+, exploitation of brand recognition was back! But this time Disney/Marvel was exploiting brands it had brought to mainstream audiences over the previous years. I was always certain that superhero-genre box office domination would eventually slow down, I couldn't have guessed that it would be driven into a lamppost and set on fire. But sometimes in business, when the creatives construct a golden goose, executives will want to swoop in to strangle it in its nest.
External Pressures on the Film Industry
Quentin Tarantino has stated that today is the worst era for movies, a sentiment he expressed on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast while promoting his book Cinema Speculation where he reflects on some of the best times for movies. Tarantino laments the tight conformity and uninspired risk aversion in too much of today’s movie-making. These problems are partly symptoms of modern media’s extreme decentralization. The new age of direct-to-consumer video platforms, shortened theatrical windows and competition from DIY video services like YouTube have all created significant economic uncertainty for incumbent media empires like Disney. And this was all before the current showdown between studios and its writers and actors! Creating big budget blockbusters is expensive work and big studios have responded with risk-aversion and the belief that franchises are reliable box office draws. That may have once been true. But the modern practice of preemptively test-screening productions for anticipated online mob reactions rather than mainstream audiences or fans, inevitably fails to recapture what made these franchises entertaining.
MCU Early Phase Storytelling
Old Marvel comics fans were surprised that a character of middling notoriety like Iron Man became the central character to the MCU. It’s a credit to the effortless skill of Robert Downey Jr. in bringing Tony Stark’s character arc to life across a series of films. The pairing of Downey with Stark was widely seen as the rebirth of a once fallen movie star that underwent his own real-world transformation, not unlike the character he portrayed. Iron Man (2008) took time to develop Stark on his own hero’s journey. The first Iron Man presented a brilliant but flawed character. Tony had inherited an arms development company in Stark Industries and from the first movie he experienced important moments of self-confrontation and growth.
It seems unthinkable for today’s MCU to dedicate multiple movies developing one character. But Phases 1 through 3 took the time to develop several. Each character’s backstory respected the source stories by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Like the comics, each movie employed Joseph Cambell’s monomyth structure to introduce new audiences to the epic lore behind Hulk, Thor, Captain America, Dr. Strange and Black Panther. Without the dramatic arc and patient character development, Tony’s signature line wouldn’t have the same impact, not once but twice! The line made us cheer in Iron Man (2008), then perhaps even shed a tear in Endgame (2019):
“I am Iron Man.”
Bait & Switch Brand Exploitation
A theme emerged as Disney+ brought us a new line of new MCU TV shows. They baited audiences in with familiar character names in the title, then switched the main character to emphaisize new, more powerful, smarter and all-around better young female replacement characters. But one way these new female replacement characters weren’t better was their stories. They were denied the thoughtful development their male counterparts had received just years earlier. The MCU's female representation arrived out-of-the-box without weaknesses or problems to overcome. Meanwhile their sidelined male counterparts were often insulted or shown to be weak and subservient. It's as if someone at Marvel Studios decided to press the fast-forward button on the MCU's production cycle for a new crop of characters. It became clear that the new characters weren't intended to provide female representation as much as instill a new cultural zeitgeist into the MCU, one that repels its core audience.
Personal growth for nearly every new female replacement MCU characters boils down to a believe in yourself missive. Their character arcs are no more than an inspirational quote you might see framed on the wall of a dentist’s waiting room. Phase 4 was a missed opportunity to create more epic myths using believable women and girl characters to bring a new perspectives. The incongruence between MCU phases is so stark that to love the phases 4 & 5 can only mean you must have hated the older Marvel movies, and vice-versa.
Iron Man rescued after a super beat-down, Avengers (2012).
Will any new female replacement character experience such a brutal defeated and an aftermath scene?
Could any of the new female replacement characters for the original Avengers garner a similar emotional response to Tony Stark’s final snap? The reason it’s unlikely is because we only feel inspired by a fictional character’s heroic deeds when we care about them. We may be inspired by a character's heroism, but flaws and failures are what make us love them. A character’s struggle with failure and the odd super beat-down raises the stakes and makes it personal for us to see them overcome.
Since prehistory, heroic tales have been humankind’s morality distribution system. The hero or heroine is an ancient archetype we all innately recognize and can see ourselves in, regardless of our superficial differences to the actor or actress portraying the hero. But mere power does not a hero make. The basic structure of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth is a storyteller’s mind-hack. It’s understood by what Carl Jung called our collective unconscious because it reaches deep into our human need for things like purpose and hope. These stories transcend cultures, continents and time as they impart wisdom for a life well-lived, even to us non-superheroes. Love or hate the superhero genre, heroic tales are embedded in our psyche and their basic structure is used across many movie genres. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby knew this as they created their contemporary myths for Marvel comics, and they’ve inspired new generations to stand up to life’s challenges.
“... a good life is one hero journey after another. Over and over again, you are called to the realm of adventure, you are called to new horizons.” - Joseph Cambell, Pathways to Bliss.
“I say never be complete, I say stop being perfect, I say let's evolve, let the chips fall where they may.” - Tyler Durden, Fight Club
It starts with “The Call” when an unremarkable, would-be hero is met with remarkable circumstance. Subsequent phases of the journey show the hero to be fallible and relatable. We learn that facing adversity and even defeat forces personal growth. These initial phases in the story present stakes that hook us in. Storytellers will always find ways to subvert expectations, but go too far in skipping important character development and the hero may be unrelatable... or worse.
At best, the story of an unrelatable hero simply fails the mind-hack and audiences just don’t care. At worst, a story that indulges a character with unearned power and glory with no sacrifice or sense of duty to some greater end and the “hero” risks not being seen as a hero at all. Instead of a hero, audiences may see another ancient archetype that's just as well-known as the hero. But this archetype can trigger a sense of disgust when audiences see the protagonist as - The Freeloader. We innately recognize this archetype because we all carry unconscious defenses against them. Since prehistoric times all peoples had ways to deal with those who take while contributing nothing of value to the tribe.
In She-Hulk, Jennifer Walters weak character and uncharitable nature toward Bruce is mistaken for strength in the SFL trope.
So, how did the MCU get to a point where many fans may feel a sense of disgust in some of the new so-called “heroes”? Storytelling shortcuts, streamlined character development in rushed or forced character arcs are ultimately signs of poor writing. But could poor writing be a downstream effect of what FX-Network’s John Landgraf called Peak TV?
The Era of Peak TV
Almost a decade ago, when we were all enjoying a golden age in scripted television, we may have heard murmurs from friends and family or across social media that there’s just TOO MUCH TV! One of the most influential voices to agree with those murmurs was FX Network President John Landgraf, who predicted what he called “Peak TV” was imminent. Landgraf said that the escalating volume of new television series was unsustainable and would inevitably hit a peak. That prediction was made back in 2015 when the New York Times estimated there were 409 separate TV series produced. Each series employed production teams including writers, directors, designers and everyone else that makes the show go on. Langraf warned of an inevitable decline in new titles once that peak was hit. Perhaps back in 2015 Langraf couldn’t have anticipated that TV show production itself could undergo fundamental changes that would allow it to push past a peak TV ceiling by sacrificing quality for quantity. Since Langraf’s prediction, the annual TV show tally continued to trend upwards to a towering 599 television shows in 2022. Just like the movies, there’s still great TV being made, but it’s not nearly as consistent as it was in the 2010s.
Marvel Studios Writer’s Assembly Line
If the plight of non-unionized VFX artists and the rushed-looking results we’ve seen from Disney/Marvel lately are any indication, Disney had already been cutting production costs before recent rounds of layoffs. From what we’ve seen of the Disney+ TV shows, Marvel Studios wasn’t paying top-dollar for the best script writers in the business. And based on how its TV writing process is said to operate, it would have difficulty attracting them if it were so inclined. Meanwhile, young TV writers aren’t likely to improve their craft at the same rate as past generations.
An LA Times editorial by Zach Stintz suggests that the instability of the on-again/off-again streaming TV production model and loss of the broadcast TV’s year-round employment and on-the-job training has had negative outcomes for young writers.
“Many of the most acclaimed writers and showrunners of the “golden age of television” cut their teeth in broadcast TV.”
Stintz explains that in the old days, writer’s rooms were larger and operated year-round creating an 18-23 episode season. Writers had time to learn the necessary narrative structure skills from each other. This is a steep contrast to the short-term script-writing contracts in the new streaming model. Shows typically only run 6, 8 or 12 episodes while employing fewer writers with almost no guarantee of subsequent seasons. A writer's TV show credits are no longer as meaningful a metric of TV-writing experience.
“This means that writers growing up in the new system are getting senior positions often having written only a handful of episodes — without ever having set foot on a set, talked to actors and directors or dealt with a budget breakdown.”
The result is a new generation of young, inexperienced writers lacking a holistic understanding of the TV show-making process.
The Mighty Disney-Marvel Method
Marvel Studios TV show writing method for Disney+ is unique even to modern streaming services. It may have truly mastered assembly-line production, possibly as an adaptation to an influx of young and inexperienced writers. It should be no surprise that the method behind Disney/Marvel does not involve surrendering creative control to a visionary genius showrunner or director, as was the case in both the New Hollywood film-age and television's golden age.
A 2021 Variety article outlines how Marvel Studios doesn’t use the title “Showrunner” or even “Creator”. Instead Disney uses a “head writer” model that effectively dilutes the power and creative vision of a would-be showrunner in favor of committees that includes production executives. Disney/Marvel writers work under the watchful eye of execs who are liable to demand on-the-spot rewrites of premature ideas at any time. The MCU method seems like a work environment that would repel experienced top-tier writers. One anonymous Emmy-winning writer said to Variety:
“I will never work on a Marvel TV show. They do have a showrunner. It’s (Kevin) Feige.”
David Goodman, president of Writers Guild of America West, says Marvel’s embrace of a “head writer” model is “concerning,” but he still sees the company as a “unique case.” Goodman says:
“If Marvel still wants to have its product be at the standard that people are coming to expect from it, they’re going to need good writers, and they’re going to have to invest those writers with responsibility,”
The Disney/Marvel method is a steep contrast to Netflix’s Marvel shows. Netflix surrendered all the creative control required to director/showrunner & executive producer of Netflix’s Daredevil series to Drew Goddard. Goddard is a lifelong Daredevil fan whose reverence for the lore leaped from every episode. For TV, Goddard adapted Frank Miller’s vision of a film noir-style Daredevil with all the grit, darkness and inspired fight-scenes for Daredevil fans and mainstream audiences alike to fawn over. Goddard’s run touched all the classic Miller-Daredevil notes from romantic tension with Elektra to a fair retelling of Murdoch’s struggle with his own Catholic faith. His stories left us with subtext and nuance without hamfisted cultural messaging. I for one, have zero interest in seeing how Disney’s Marvel Studios vandalize Charlie Cox’s Daredevil.
Goddard’s work should have been the template for Disney+, the bar that MCU President Kevin Feige set for a much smaller number of Disney+ TV shows. But it's clear that Disney/Marvel isn't interested in using top writers that are also fans of the source material.
MCU Writer Culture on Strike
The WGA writer’s and SAG actor's strikes speak to the uncertainty in today’s entertainment industry. Despite my many criticisms, I have tremendous respect for the work of good Hollywood writers and absolutely support their right to hammer out a workable agreement with the studios. Obviously, there are bad writers that shouldn't work in entertainment. But, it’s wasn't the writers fault that the strategy for the MCU’s Phase 4 was to unleash a fire-hose of content that lacked a unified direction. It’s also not the WGA that created Marvel Studio’s top-down bureaucratic method that almost certainly employs a preponderance of the youngest, least experienced writers at or near the bottom of the WGA’s pay-scale for short-term contracted employment. It’s the production executives that created a work environment consisting of young writers who don’t care about the Marvel mythos and instead believe the job of scriptwriters is to fight perceived societal power imbalances rather than to entertain.
It’s up to the execs and producers to build an ethic of entertainment first. That’s not to say there should be no message behind TV and movie productions. Hollywood has long given us great entertainment with thoughtful, even progressive messages. But the best movie or TV message speaks to our universal humanity and is intended to influence rather than just scold. Roger Ebert called the art of film an "empathy machine", because the superpower of movies is to convey feelings. It’s a tool that can craft an influential message behind a story with subtlety and nuance. The writers should show us, and dig deeper than just telling us where they stand on contemporary social issues through corny character exposition.
Falcon & Winter Soldier: Sam Wilson seen losing his military bearing, speaking more like a depressed 20-something student activist than an experienced professional career Airman.
Young writers need a fair chance to develop their craft. If the Hollywood studios can’t facilitate that they deserve to collapse beneath the weight of external pressures. When it comes to motion picture entertainment—Hollywood is supposed to be the Big Leagues! The next Hank Aaron of scriptwriting deserves the chance to be well-compensated for their work. I don’t want to see the next generation of great up-and-coming entertainment writers just go into advertising instead. But as an avid moviegoer, I’m optimistic. As the Hollywood machine faces its extinction event, it will learn to move, adapt or die. But I’m confident that even the worst possible outcomes will present opportunities for the truly passionate and talented creators.
A Personal Anecdote of Disney’s Decline
As a father of two children with a rather large age gap in-between, I’ve been an oft reluctant party to kid pop-culture for almost two decades. My older son grew up during the MCU glory days. His schoolyard was awash in the visual cues of the cultural phenomena that was the MCU. From Iron Man backpacks to toys and t-shirts, it was an inescapable truth of his childhood. Back when I took my young son to MCU and Pixar premieres, it was often after him giving me the Friday afternoon heads-up that a new movie had landed in theaters. Such was the power of schoolyard word-of-mouth marketing.
Nowadays, my proxy immersion into kid pop-culture is through my young daughter. But since school attendance has fully returned from COVID, I’ve seen almost no sign of the MCU at her school during drop-offs or pick-ups. My daughter will gladly watch an old MCU movie with me, but she’s never once asked to go see a new one. As far as I know, she’s not even aware that the MCU or even Star Wars are anything more than her dad’s old movies that we watch on the home theater system from time to time.
We had Disney+ briefly, but the main thing to catch the attention of my daughter and her friends was a movie series called Descendants that features the scurrilous, singing offspring of evil fairy tale characters. There's a lot of old-fashioned socializing and potentially romantic subplots between the characters because the movies are intended for young girls. Anyone who knows children knows their re-watch tolerance is off-the-charts. When we had Disney+ we watched some of the recent Pixar movies together, including Turning Red that got a word-of-mouth boost locally because it’s set in the nearby city of Toronto. But these new Pixar movies almost never got repeat viewings. Around the same period it was the complete opposite phenomena for my BD copy of Warner’s “Ready Player One”. My daughter requested repeat viewings of that one for months, re-watching it with every friend. Ready Player One is a straightforward hero's journey in a video game setting featuring a safe, conventional boy-meets-girl romantic subplot. It was everything a modern young girl could want in a movie. But it appears that today’s Disney and Pixar have abandoned this once successful, simple formula.
For all the views expressed online about Disney these days, I’m certain of one anecdotal fact: Disney no longer has the cultural footprint on youngsters that it used to. Its decline has been a complete crash since the era of Frozen with its legions of obsessive fans among kids. Earlier this year when my wife and I would observe our daughter’s screen-time choices, we noticed she’d skip Disney+ to watch something on Netflix. These days it’s Wednesday getting her repeat viewings. So, we cancelled Disney+ and have little incentive to pick it up again.