Curator Head to Head: Marvel Cinematic Universe

photo of doctor strange
29 Jun 2020
5 min read

Cinema curators Alex Davidson and Sonia Zadurian go head to head and compare notes on three landmark films from the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).

Alex, who hadn’t seen any Marvel films before the onset of lockdown, has now made his way through the first 14 of the franchise, while Sonia is a seasoned and long-time fan of the MCU.

Marvel Comics began as ‘Timely Comics’ in 1939. To date, they have created hundreds of iconic characters, including Spider-Man, Iron Man, Thor, Hulk and Black Panther. Fast forward to the late 90s and early 2000s, when there were several successful superhero outings in film, including Blade, Spider-Man and X-Men. However, it wasn’t until Iron Man in 2008 that the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) was born. The MCU is an interconnected, 23 film series which currently has at least 14 more projects in various stages of development.

When 'Avengers Endgame' became the most successful film of all time last year, I realised I was out of touch

Alex reflects on why it was finally time for him to enter the MCU:

Historically, the ‘most successful film of all time’ title has been held by movies that, as well as attracting audiences in their millions, have become key landmarks in cinema history, such as The Godfather (1972), Jaws (1975) and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982).

When Avengers Endgame (2019) became the most successful film of all time last year, I realised I was out of touch – not only had I not seen it, but I had also not seen any of the other Marvel superhero movies, six of which are among top 20 most successful films of all time. My love of world and independent cinema had put the Marvel films in my blind spot, and I needed to see what I had been missing.

Lockdown is the perfect time for binge-watching, so I bought all the films on Blu-ray, whacked Iron Man (2008) into the player and started to work through them chronologically.

Sonia explores her long-standing love of the MCU:

My love of the MCU is intense. How intense? Let’s just say if I was faced with either never seeing another Marvel film again or replacing every meal with a stick of celery and a flavourless dip, you can definitely start handing me those sticks. What exactly do I find so utterly compelling? Well, each film is different, but beyond the surface of the lovable characters, (usually) well-crafted scripts and expertly choreographed action there is something universally comforting and wonderfully escapist about seeing someone develop abilities which help them to overcome their problems. From Steve Rogers finally being championed for his good heart instead of his stature, to Tony Stark confronting his own arrogance to become a better person. In the MCU, Super-human powers are frequently the catalyst for positive change that we all secretly long for. I for one have been hoping a spider would bite me for years.

Film #6: Avengers Assemble (2012):

the avengers ready to fight

SZ: This was the MCU’s first attempt at an ensemble piece, but how do you combine such a disparate crew of characters? Well, you grab writer/director Joss Whedon and hold on tight. From Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Firefly and Serenity, Whedon has a track record of creating teams of beloved, unique characters with group dynamics that feel natural and true. His notoriously witty dialogue and zingy one-liners are as fresh as ever, but he’s at his best when deriving comedy from bringing our heroes right back down to earth; from Tony Stark’s response to Thor’s outfit ('Doth mother know you wear-eth her drapes?'), to Hulk’s reaction to Loki’s grand closing monologue.

Sometimes I find myself rooting for the villains – Loki is a lot more fun

AD: I’m not nearly as enthusiastic about this one as Sonia. When I started this mission, Avengers Assemble was the movie I was really looking forward to. I’ve been a huge fan of Joss Whedon since Buffy, and his gift for deft humour and darkness could have made for a masterpiece.

But Avengers Assemble fell a bit flat for me. It’s too long, and the endless Battle of New York, which may have been remarkable on the big screen, lost its spectacle on television. Every now and then a clever line slips through but the Marvel ensemble pieces are simply too bloated, and the superheroes, some of whom are great company on their own, are a bit bland when they are all together. Iron Man, Black Widow and the Hulk are great, but when humourless duds like Captain America or Hawkeye take centre stage, sometimes I find myself rooting for the villains – Loki is a lot more fun.

Film #10: Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

image of groot standing in the middle of a public space

AD: Guardians of the Galaxy is comfortably the best of the Marvel films I have seen so far. It’s a film you can enjoy whether you’ve seen 20 Marvel films or 0. The screenplay is so sharp, the comic timing is so wicked, and I’m always a sucker for a superhero film with a motley crew. These underdogs are much easier to root for than Thor and his ilk. This is the only Marvel movie that genuinely transported me back to the fun and glee of watching films like Indiana Jones and the like when I was young. Chris Pratt does a great job of channeling the swagger of a young Harrison Ford, while Drax the Destroyer, tree monster Groot and permanently pugnacious raccoon Rocket are great, flawed characters.

SZ: This film was tasked not only with introducing us to at least seven key characters, but also the concept of the infinity stones, forming the backbone of the Infinity Saga (the term used to group the first 23 films of the MCU). I was thrilled to hear that Alex enjoyed this one! Guardians is hugely entertaining, with hilarious moments and characters that bounce off one another with pinball precision.

Getting us to believe in and care for that family, well that’s really what the whole game is about

However, where Guardians truly excels is in emotional engagement and sheer heart. Our lonely band of misfits has finally found a family. Getting us to believe in and care for that family, well that’s really what the whole game is about.

Film #14: Doctor Strange (2016)

photo of tilda swinton and chiwetel Ejiofor in doctor strange

AD: The most recent film I watched from the series – Doctor Strange – is one of the very best. Marvel movies are at their best when they take a risk, and some of the trippy scenes in Doctor Strange verge on experimental. The controversial casting of Tilda Swinton as the non-binary Ancient One – a Tibetan man in the comics – is particularly arresting. Although it features the most shockingly violent death in the series so far, Doctor Strange is also often very funny. I loved it, and I can’t wait to get to Black Panther, which I know many believe to be the best Marvel movie.

SZ: On first viewing Doctor Strange, I wasn’t overly enamoured. I considered the doctor to be an imitation of Tony Stark and branded the film an enjoyable but average origin story. However, this one has since shot up in my estimation and I see things very differently. Benedict Cumberbatch gives our lead just the right amount of hubris and Tilda Swinton is wonderfully otherworldly, though as Alex says; controversially cast, as the Ancient One. Rather than concerning itself with simple good vs evil, there are moral greys at every turn. This complexity and willingness to veer from the usual model extends to the visuals, which are often beautifully bright and experimental. Finally, in an incredibly risky move, the filmmakers had the courage to stage a final battle the likes of which haven’t been seen before or since. 

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Though they may not agree on everything, it’s safe to say that as Alex continues his journey through the next phase of the MCU, Sonia will be there waiting to eagerly discuss at every turn. 

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