“Comic books to me are fairy tales for grown-ups.” – Stan Lee
With its frenetic action and high-wired insanity, the release of The Matrix in 1999 demanded a new standard for blockbusters at the dawn of the new millennium, as movie executives scrambled to replicate the same science fiction success. Donning sharp leather suits, black sunglasses and fantastical powers that exceeded everyday reality, the iconic action film was prophetic of the spandex-clad heroes we see dominating our screens in contemporary cinema, sparking an obsession that would forever change cinema.
Whilst The Matrix was far from the very first superhero film of all time, it did suggest that there was an international appetite for bombastic science fiction in the new century, with audiences lapping up the insanity of the action film despite its somewhat complicated premise. Though the likes of X-Men and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man would be released in 2000 and 2002 respectively, the modern-day Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) arguably has more in common with the Wachowski classic.
Fast-forward 23 years since the release of The Matrix and the superheroes of the MCU now dominate the modern landscape of cinema, making up 30% of the total box-office revenue of 2021 whilst their owners, Disney, hold the largest market share of any other studio. Having made $18 billion from the total release of all their films to date (as of 2019), Disney has a chokehold as tight as Thanos’ clenched Infinity Gauntlet over the modern movie industry.
Such has led several filmmakers to state their displeasure at the success of the franchise, including the likes of Martin Scorsese, Ridley Scott, Jane Campion, Bong Joon-ho and David Cronenberg, who have each launched their various attacks at the industry. Whilst such filmmakers, no doubt, represent the sheer crème de la crème of contemporary cinema creatives, they each struggle to reach the staggering box-office numbers that the Marvel series comparatively reaches. Whether we like it or not, in a tumultuous time for the stability of cinema, it is superhero films that are keeping many movie theatres across the world open for business.
In just 14 years the MCU has fundamentally changed the way that modern blockbusters are perceived, releasing 27 films that each form a singular serialised network of content, supported by TV shows and cartoons that feed into one cinematic behemoth. Each segment of the continued comic-book-inspired story relies on the previous instalment in the series, maintaining a momentum of consistent quality that never dips below a standard average; a well-oil machine preserved by a reliable formulaic lubricant.
Mixing in one part comedy to two parts action before finishing off the potion with a tantalising post-credit sequence and Disney have created a formula that has been used time and time again for consistent box-office results. Despite so much having changed in the universe since the release of Iron Man in 2008, it’s remarkable just how similar each film feels to the one that proceeds it, making the whole franchise feel like one elongated TV series rather than an adaptive movie series.
Sticking to this robust system ever since the inception of the MCU, Disney has often banished bothersome ‘spanners’ that threaten to disrupt its system from their sight, with the likes of creatives such as Edgar Wright, Ava DuVernay and Patty Jenkins each departing their respective projects due to “creative differences”. Whilst this has protected the brand from harm, it has also hindered the franchise from ever achieving true greatness, held back by its own careful systematic approach to filmmaking.
As the world of cinema could merely watch as Marvel rose to dominance, many tried to steal the secret formula of the MCU whilst failing to realise the magic ingredient that ensured its sustained success. Comic-book rivals DC were the most obvious competitor to the MCU juggernaut, with Warner Bros fast-tracking the production of their films to try and catch the coattails of their competitor. Imbued with a similar formula of comedy, action and post-credit drama, the likes of Suicide Squad, Aquaman and Wonder Woman 1984 were mere emulators of Marvel movies, with DC even hiring The Avengers director Joss Whedon to fix their team-up movie The Justice League in 2017.
Whilst Marvel has raised the standards of the modern blockbuster, with audiences now expecting more than low-effort cinematic shlock, they have simultaneously saturated the market with their own style of repetitive, predictable cinema. So successful is their formula that rival movie studios have been forced into adopting the same style characterised by artificial storytelling that feels so corporate it is almost flippant in its attitude.
This isn’t limited to superheroes either, it’s a systemic issue that has pervaded modern moviemaking, appearing in Jurassic World, Ghostbusters: Afterlife, Mortal Kombat, No Time to Die and Army of Thieves, with each film wary that it must maintain a certain level of formulaic expectation.
Promoting the existence of movie ‘universes’ over standalone films, the MCU has turned filmmaking into a profitable serial drama, all whilst television becomes all the more cinematic. The ‘Marvelisation’ of modern cinema has imposed the necessity for a wider macrocosm of content connected to a particular property, whilst demanding that such a film adheres to several fabricated expectations.
No matter the subject, it seems as though the trend of modern cinema is to treat any and all subjects with a degree of levity that makes the on-screen action seem peculiarly insignificant. Such was mocked in The Matrix: Resurrections, the revival of the science fiction classic, shining a light on the nonsense of sequels, universes and post-credit sequences that seemed to be a rallying cry for cinematic change more than a genuine attempt at a reboot. Whether the Wachowski sisters can once again shape the future of cinema remains to be seen, though until audiences refuse to buy into the newfound formula of the MCU, it seems as though dreary action, eye-rolling comedy and transparent corporate moviemaking are here to stay.