Why are the Marvel movies so popular and how do I watch them?
Several of my students asked me how to watch the Marvel movies and why they are so popular, so this is a spoiler-free response. Note: This is purposely written in easy English to be accessible to more of my students.
Context is incredibly important. The painting above, “Nude in the Studio” by Henri Matisse, doesn’t seem very unusual to us today, but at the time, it was shocking. Matisse’s bold use of color was wildly different from the images people were used to seeing and it’s this difference that made it so powerful. This sense of shock is also what makes other works of art so thrilling, whether it is in painting, music, or in this case, movies.
Until the late 70’s the dominant image of the superhero was the 60’s Batman, a loveably silly, comedy show. In comics, Batman was very different; he was dark, and gritty, but most people didn’t know it yet as most people didn’t read comics.
The image of the superhero started to change with 1978’s Superman which gave us an on-screen portrayal of the big blue schoolboy that was a little silly at times, but more believable than anything before it. The tagline of the movie was “you will believe a man can fly”.
And we did!
Then came Batman 89. Tim Burton’s strange, beautiful creation showed that Batman could be gritty. It was still cartoonish and unrealistic in many ways, but it was such a stylish step away from Batman 66, that it changed how the character was viewed forever.
Superman and Batman come from DC, but in 2002, Toby Maguire gave us our first truly great look at Spider-man. Like Batman 89, it was campy and a little silly, but it was just gritty enough to pull the character into the modern cinematic world. Two sequels followed and then ….
Batman and Spider-man were successful enough that studios knew people were interested. Unfortunately, movie sequels like Superman III, and IV or Batman Forever, tended to go down hill quickly leading to lowered interest and audience burnout. There were attempts at other movies based on comic books like the Fantastic 4, Blade, Ang Lee’s Incredible Hulk, and Ghost Rider, and although they did fairly well, none of them fired the public interest the way Superman, Batman, and Spider-man did.
So studios tried rebooting their characters. A reboot is when the story starts all over again from the beginning. Sometimes this works well like Christopher Nolan’s Batman reboot with Christian Bale. Other times it can bore audiences who have to sit through some variation of an origin story they already know. Unfortunately, with movies being so difficult to produce and creative writers and directors moving on to other projects, audiences seemed doomed to watch endless reboots.
It’s important to note that all of these franchises were separate entities. In the comics, Batman and Superman had decades of adventures together, but not onscreen. There were fun easter eggs where Batman might mention Metropolis where Superman lives, but we never saw them on the big screen together.
A wildly popular easter egg in 2007’s I Am Legend showed a poster for a Batman / Superman crossover movie. At the time, it was just an interesting easter egg, but fans noticed and change was coming.
Just one year later, came 2008’s Iron Man.
No one knew it, but cinema history was about to change. Iron Man didn’t do anything knew, it just did something right, it fired public interest just like Superman, Batman, and Spider-man had done before and at exactly the right time.
At this point, many adult movie goers who had grown up with comic book characters onscreen and off, had huge nostalgia for the cartoons they loved as kids. Many were wary of further reboots and were ready for … something different.
In 2008, Iron Man and the Incredible Hulk were released and fortunately, they both did fairly well. Iron Man in particular. An Iron Man sequel was released two years later followed by Thor and there were rumors that Captain America was coming.
Regardless of what was happening behind the scenes, fans had hope, for the first time, that these stories might actually go somewhere. Post-credit scenes hinted at the other movies, and the idea that these movies were connected, at least in the post-credit scenes was tantalizing. At the time, post-credit scenes were like a secret and most viewers didn’t even know about them. This fueled the rumor mill and drove interest.
In 2012, the titular characters did what no one thought was possible, they assembled for a wildly successful team up movie like nothing we had seen before.
The first Avengers movie firmly established a shared cinematic universe for these characters. They did so leaving other studios completely blindsided. As I write this in 2023 DC is still scrambling to repeat the success of the Marvel movies.
All Marvel really did was make consistently good (not great) movies that slowly connected in a satisfying way. Sounds simple, but that had never been done before and it marks a massive turning point in how studios think about their properties long term, and what fans can dare to hope for.
Just like the Matisse painting at the top of this post, the Marvel movies gave us something with bold, bright colors, something beautiful to look at and just different enough that it caught our interest and held it for years to come.
What order should I watch the movies in?
Some people say start with Captain America. Other people say start with Iron Man. There are now so many movies, it doesn’t really matter. Talk to a friend about which movies you might want to skip, but definitely watch all of Phase One. If you can’t watch them all, or don’t want to, skip Iron Man 2 (but it’s fun).
1. Iron Man
2. The Incredible Hulk
3. Iron Man 2
5. Captain America: The First Avenger
6. The Avengers
Two small things to keep in mind.
1. Captain America is set in the 1940’s. Some people say you should watch it first.
2. Edward Norton stars as the Hulk in the Incredible Hulk movie. However, he did not return for other movies. Later, Hulk is played by Mark Ruffallo. The actor who played Rhodey in the first Iron Man is also replaced by Don Cheadle.
I hope you enjoy the popcorn as much as I did the fist time around!
Do you love talking about movies? So do I! So book a class today and let’s talk about your favorite films!