So Long and Thanks for the Fish, Man #081: Tired of your Marvel Malaise

The murmurs and mumbles of mediocrity started as early as Thor 2: The Dark World. They got louder with Black Widow. Louder still with Eternals. Then came the ire and fanboy rage over She-Hulk. And now it’s perhaps getting a bit too loud over Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania

I’m sick of it.

In my day (shh, Mike Gold. Shh.) comic book movies were — at best — loud, kitschy affairs. For every Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or ’89 Batman… we also got Howard the Duck, Superman III and IV, and Captain America. In the 90’s, Batman plummeted in quality, and was met by early CGI nightmares like Spawn, or obnoxious barely-based-on-their-source popcorn flicks like Judge Dredd or Tank Girl. And while these films were watchable… they were hardly of a caliber that one could present opposite more lucrative blockbuster sci-fi and action romps.

And then came Marvel.

It started unassumingly with Blade. Unlike so many neon-lit counterparts released prior… Blade felt like a horror action-movie. It was clearly inspired by the comic book origins and broad strokes of the character, but made smart choices in costuming, sets, and the watered-down plot. It wasn’t hokey. It was a blueprint.

1998’s Blade begat Bryan Singer’s X-Men. Similar to the vampire hunter… these were well-dressed (“what, you’d prefer yellow spandex?”) superheroes with well-thought-out effect work that made their mutant abilities feel believable. Combine this with the gravitas and star power of Sir Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellan, and slowly but surely, the zeitgeist was changing. 

Take a side-step from the mainstream, and you could see Hollywood begin to lean into the pulp and paper world. Ghost World, From Hell, Road to Perdition, and my personal favorite American Splendor showcased that comics beyond the punchy kind would also be applicable to mainstream (if a bit arty) America. But I digress. 

In 2008, Marvel truly launched their cinematic universe with John Favereau’s Iron Man. Where we might have had a previous Easter egg or two prior… this was the first time Marvel made clear: this was the start of something big. Where the actions and events of one movie were in fact canon to other feature films (both forthcoming, and in the case of The Incredible Hulk, the recent past). This begat the building of a behemoth; the most lucrative box office juggernaut in the history of the movie industry. But we all kinda know the backstory, right? So, why am I shaking my fists at the clouds?

Because now mainstream America (and the world at large) will finally understand what it means to be a Marvel or DC comic book fan! Cue my thunder machine, Renfield!

Interconnected large scale universes are the norm of the comic book industry. The notion that what happens in one book ripples through the rest is what grabs most of the fandom in their early days. Think of of it. That one superhero you like? The second you fall in love with him or her, you find out that all their friends are around to learn about too! And those nasty villains defeated today might slither elsewhere to wreck havoc! When we’re young and impressionable, what infects us with it’s sweet siren song is that to be continued ideology. Beyond the pages of this one thing you love is in fact an entire universe of things to love!

Marvel Films (and let’s face it, DC, if James Gunn can make it happen…) is taking the comic book mission statement and taking it to its inevitable capitalist End Game. 

No one is holding a Nerf gun to your head and declaring you need to absorb every single Marvel property anymore. Sure, if you want to understand it all, you should. But then again, in spite of comic books being obsessed with event-driven publication schedules, it is always at the behest of the C-suite wanting to sell more books. Simply put, it’s a lot easier to sell a few more books when you tell the audience every book is contributing to a greater good. The “phases” Marvel is making with its Disney+ shows combined with the mainstay films will forever be linked, because it forces fans who care to remain a completist even if they don’t particularly love a particular hero. Which brings us to Ant Man and the Wasp.

Without the context of Infinity War and End Game, Scott Lang’s latest misadventures as a tiny hero in a great big world could be seen as a bit of an oddity (to a point). Since the first Ant-Man, Marvel’s lesser insect-adjacent wunderkind has been dealing with “Quantum” forces. That our third installment be set in the very place the elder Van Dyne was banished to so many years ago before her miraculous reemergence… makes plenty of sense (to me at least). The fact that Kang is at the root of the villainy within Quantumania may be the actual stretch. Kang the Conqueror has long been a more Avengers-specific threat. But we’re splitting subatomic hairs here, are we not?

Was Quantumania the best Marvel movie? Nope. The worst? Hardly. Was it good? It was damn good! And that, more than anything else, is kind of my point.

Go back. Watch Batman Forever. Watch Ghost Rider. See how long you can survive any of the Fantastic Four movies. Every in-a-phase Marvel movie is — at worst — cold pizza. It’s all good. The production values, CGI (and yes, I’m including She-Hulk, damnit), acting, and stories are all a cut above the schlock of yesteryear. The shared universe continuity adds to the overall quality. Much the same their pulp-and-paper counterparts enjoy deeper stories because they are inherently part of a larger narrative.

Lately my feed has started to run a bit cold on the now over-saturation of Marvel (and all comic-based) movies. Seems it took only thirty or so of them for folks to finally realize that comic books hit on the same points by and large, over and over. And while Marvel has produced several gems that reach far over their weight class (Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Black Panther, and while not “in” continuity to the MCU… Logan springs to mind), the overall quality of their standard flicks are so high, they can be mass produced. 

Comic book movies have become a genre unto themselves. For folks who are tired of them, or feel the need to rank them at every turn? I yearn for them to slow their roll. As Macho Man Randy Savage foretold: the cream always rises to the top. And unless Marvel really craps out a piece that doesn’t make bank? They will continue to exhaust us all phase-by-phase, until it’s time to recast and reboot. The cycle will continue until the cash stops coming in. Full stop.

Quantumania isn’t the beginning of the end. It’s (per the great K.E.V.I.N.) the kickoff to the escalation and reassemblage of Earth’s Mightiest Merchandise. That it was felt the Lang/Van Dyne dynasty be the launchpad for this was certainly a bit out of left field. But for what it’s worth? It was one of the most “comic-booky” flicks I’ve seen that delivered a glut of creative visuals, some genuine laughs, and still managed to squeak out a new Big Bad™ who is wholly different, but just as effective as Thanos.

And while everyone is entitled to their opinion? Stating that Ant Man and the Wasp: Quantumania will shoulder the blame for Marvel’s by-the-book production machine… has been missing the point since Thor 2 : The Dark World. Natch.