In the past 15 years, Marvel has from the biggest name in comics into the biggest name in cinema.
Their releases are some of the most notable events in film, and they’re virtually guaranteed to earn enormous sums of money at the box office.
The employ top-notch movie stars and groundbreaking visual effects while appealing to a wide range of different audiences.
But if there’s one criticism that can be applied to the ever-expanding Marvel film empire, it’s this: the films are often just a little too light and cheesy.
Films like Sam Raimi’s 2002 Spider-Man and 2010’s Iron Man 2 have been criticized in this regard. Others such as Thor and The Avengers have embraced their cheesy sides to the point that they’re almost equal parts comedy and action/adventure films.
And still others, like the infamous Spider-Man 3 and, in this writer’s opinion, Captain America: The First Avenger, have been downright laughably silly.
But for those who appreciate the darker side to a superhero film or adventure story, there are actually plenty of examples and opportunities within the Marvel cinematic universe. Here’s a look at a few instances when Marvel has gone, or should go, dark.
Most recently, Captain America: The Winter Soldier embraced darker and creepier elements, to the tune of a wonderful critical reception and a great deal of approval among fans. The comical portrayal of the “Red Skull” villain and excessive one-liners in the first film were replaced by deep and personal betrayals through the establishment of the sequel’s villains.
This helped the film cultivate a feeling of mistrust in the audience, and everything simply felt more genuinely dangerous than the first time around. In looking at what made the film successful, Huffington Post called it an “outstanding conspiracy thriller.” That may be the perfect phrase for what made it dark and thoughtful among its contemporaries.
The other most noteworthy example in recent film is Iron Man, which took a distinctly Dark Knight-ish turn after its predecessor was slammed by many top critics. One of the most compelling things about a good superhero story is seeing that hero brought to his or her knees, weakened to the point of questioning his or her ability, only to triumph over the challenge at hand. This very story pattern lends a certain darkness and desperation to a superhero story, and in Iron Man 3 it was done to perfection.
Yeah, there were a few inconsistencies, and sure, Ben Kingsley’s signature villain (The Mandarin) is just a humorous puppet for a more conventional bad guy. Regardless, this was a darker, all-or-nothing look at Iron Man, and it represents some of the best Marvel storytelling we’ve seen in cinema.
While these films are both more on the serious side, however, neither approaches the darkness of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, which serves as the pinnacle of modern hero filmmaking. The truth is, Marvel’s best opportunities to “go dark,” so to speak, have largely been squandered. Consider the following.
First of all, there was 2007’s Ghost Rider, a film so decidedly un-super it’s ridiculous that starred Nicolas Cage in the role of Johnny Blaze. Fittingly, Hollywood.com’s Scott Huver called it “the worst adaptation of a Marvel Comics hero yet.”
What makes this frustrating is that this was Marvel’s chance to take a truly dark, almost haunting route and give itself a different look for different fans. If you’re unfamiliar with the Ghost Rider comics, there are other modern adaptations in the world of gaming that can give you an idea of what should have been accomplished. For one, the Betfair Casino is hosting a Ghost Rider game that in and of itself looks more cinematic than the Nic Cage film. It kicks off by panning through an animated graveyard with the tagline “In the dark of night, where hell and earth meet, an unlikely hero will hunt evil down.” Wouldn’t you kill to see a Marvel film with that kind of beginning? I would.
And then there was Daredevil in 2003, which put Ben Affleck in the role of the famous blind hero with heightened senses and reflexes. Given that the hero cannot see and relies on his other senses to make his way around, this film is simply begging for a dark setting.
Interestingly enough, the studio delivered with that part. But setting alone can’t create a dark mood when the characters involved are as absurd as those in Daredevil. When the film was released, a review in Newsweek observed that it was “torn between moody grandiosity and cartoonish mayhem.”
This, perhaps, offered the best existing description for what keeps Marvel films from being as intriguing as they could be. Incidentally, this film too is the subject of an online casino arcade game. Just as with Ghost Rider, it sets a darker setting than the film could manage!
Looking back at Marvel’s darker moments is somewhat frustrating. Fortunately, two of the best examples are two of the most recent, so here’s hoping these films can get more serious in the coming years.
By Tommy Goldwin
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