Although the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the highest-grossing movie franchise of all time and it doesn’t seem to be slowing down any time soon, it’s not above criticism. For every entry that boldly attempts to bring something new to comic book movies, there tends to be an MCU film that follows formulas that previous films established.
Of course, sticking to a formula is not an inherently bad thing. For one thing, it helps create consistency in the franchise but it is appreciated when filmmakers such as Taika Waititi and Ryan Coogler came along. These directors managed to create films within the MCU that tried to take things in different directions.
Updated on September 1st, 2021 by Melody MacReady: The Infinity Saga of Marvel Cinematic Universe movies may be over but with the release of Black Widow, a new phase, as well as a new saga, has begun. As such it is time to look back and showcase the movies that either took the MCU in a new direction as well as the ones that committed to the normal formula, for better or for worse.
14 Sticks To The Formula – Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
While the Russo brothers would eventually make superior Captain America movies that established Cap as one of the best characters in the MCU, Joe Johnston’s Captain America: The First Avenger told his origin story with all the familiar beats: a dead mentor, a love interest, a big sacrifice, etc.
The pulpy visuals serve the wartime action scenes well and Steve’s early career as a propaganda tool offers some interesting commentary, but The First Avenger is ultimately a familiar superhero origin story audiences have seen over and over again for better or for worse.
13 Deviates From It – Black Panther (2018)
The Wakandan setting of Black Panther makes the movie totally unique. T’Challa goes on a similar hero’s journey to Marvel’s other crimefighters, but the immersive worldbuilding in his fictional African nation makes the movie its own kind of epic entirely, separate from the rest of the MCU’s output.
Ryan Coogler’s film broke all kinds of records, like becoming one of the highest-grossing superhero movies of all time and the first MCU movie to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture.
12 Sticks To The Formula – Iron Man 2 (2010)
Although it was just the third movie in the MCU, Iron Man 2 was a solid sequel but many agreed that it disappointed in comparison to the first film. Iron Man 2 is too focused on establishing the wider world and setting up future sequels to tell its own story in a satisfying way.
Rather than showing Tony Stark how he was at the end of the first Iron Man movie, he’s back to being the narcissistic playboy who has to grow up and learn to be a responsible hero again. This makes Iron Man 2 feel like a retread at times but the inclusion of War Machine, Black Widow, and Whiplash help by giving it some flair.
11 Deviates From It – Iron Man 3 (2013)
Shane Black did everything in his power to subvert the expectations of a Marvel movie when he directed and co-wrote Iron Man 3. In this case, the subverting of expectations resulted in backlash from the fanbase, like the revelation that the Mandarin is a beer-swilling actor as opposed to a fearsome terrorist leader.
Black’s subversions were mixed with some seeming like a breath of fresh air while others left fans confused or upset, like forcing Tony to face bad guys without his armor and Black’s trademark of setting the story around Christmastime.
10 Sticks To The Formula – Doctor Strange (2016)
The Sorcerer Supreme’s powers are brought to life with trippy, mind-bending visual effects in Scott Derrickson’s Doctor Strange. However, fans have pointed out that Stephen Strange’s origin story is very similar to Iron Man’s origin, with both being eccentric men of wealth who become better people through becoming superheroes.
It does subvert the formula in one crucial way, as its final battle sees Strange creating a time loop to prevent the skyscraper-totaling destruction that usually takes place in Marvel’s final battles. However, the movie generally sticks to the formula established in the MCU’s Phase One.
9 Deviates From It – Captain Marvel (2019)
Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s Captain Marvel avoided the usual rigidness of origin stories with a nonlinear narrative. The movie dives right into the action and Carol Danvers’ backstory is shown in glimpses as Skrulls poke around in her memories.
The third-act battle is subverted by the fact that Carol is powerful enough to punch her way through the space fleet sent to destroy her, so it’s less of a battle with two sides and more of a massacre. The way the villains are presented, with numerous twists and turns, provides some of the most engaging parts of Captain Marvel also.
8 Sticks To The Formula: Guardians Of The Galaxy (2014)
In Guardians of the Galaxy, a band of heroes that don’t get along come together to stop a villain who plans to use a plot device to destroy the universe. In many ways, this is the same setup as The Avengers but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing. It leads to a very strong introduction to the cosmic heroes in a fast-paced action-comedy.
The titular Guardians have become icons due to their rash and dysfunctional personalities. What their first movie lacks in originality, it makes up with pure sci-fi spectacle, character chemistry, emotional moments, and an unforgettable soundtrack.
7 Deviates From It – Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
From the first ten minutes alone, The Russo brothers let the audience know that Avengers: Infinity War is not the standard Marvel affair. It may feature Thanos trying to get a plot device but from beginning to end, it subverts expectations. Many memorable encounters between Thanos and Marvel’s heroes happen in Infinity War.
The Avengers have split apart, allowing for multiple stories at once across different parts of the galaxy. There are character deaths and changes that nobody will see coming and it features one of the coldest and heart-wrenching endings of any comic book movie.
6 Sticks To The Formula: Ant-Man (2015)
Marvel wasn’t interested in deviating from its formula with Ant-Man, as indicated by original director Edgar Wright resigning from the project at a relatively late stage, citing creative differences. The studio brought in Peyton Reed to replace Wright as director and the result is a simple but effective superhero plot.
Ant-Man excels mainly with its visuals, the big heist, and the many memorable performances; the photo-realistic CGI of the world when Ant-Man is in his shrunken form is nothing short of impressive. However, it suffers from the typical Marvel formula of heroes trying to stop a villain from getting a plot device and the villain being an evil version of the hero.
5 Deviates From It: Avengers: Endgame (2019)
After the catastrophic ending of Avengers: Infinity War, Avengers: Endgame was expected to be an all-out war from start to finish. However, the movie seriously subverted expectations by making it clear within its opening act that the damage is done and the Snap can’t be reversed. Thor decapitates Thanos and Earth’s Mightiest Heroes are left to wallow in the depression of the devastating loss their failure caused.
The movie then takes a five-year time jump into a post-apocalyptic world that can’t move on. As it catches up with the post-snap Avengers, it becomes more of a dark, cerebral drama than an action movie. Even when it returns to a superhero spectacle in the last half, it manages to keep throwing twists and turns along with one of the most iconic final battles in the MCU.
4 Sticks To The Formula – Thor: The Dark World (2013)
It’s common to see Thor: The Dark World as a popular pick for one of the least-loved entries in the MCU, precisely because it represents the pinnacle of the franchise’s formulaic approach. Malekith is a generic evil villain with a generic evil plan who speaks in soundbites and never develops a personality.
Fans praise the banter between Thor and Loki as they work together but overall, Thor: The Dark World seems to lack any substance to keep audiences enthralled between the forgettable villain, cliche Infinity Stone hunting plot, and the overuse of characters such as Darcy Lewis and Erik Selvig for comedy that wasn’t all that funny.
3 Deviates From It – Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
After Thor’s first two standalone movies, Taika Waititi came along to revitalize the series with Thor: Ragnarok, a tonal 180-degree turn that veered into zany comedic territory. The Hulk and Valkyrie were added to the ensemble along with Loki, now one of the MCU’s best anti-heroes, to create a cosmic adventure unlike anything else in the MCU.
Rather than a typical story about Thor trying to stop a villain from getting a plot device, the villain, Hela, essentially wins the moment she arrives. Thor is trying to get back to Asgard to win a rematch and save his home from her evil rule. Utilizing the simple but effective buddy formula that Thor and Hulk cultivate, Thor: Ragnarok is one of the most unique Marvel films.
2 Sticks To The Formula – Avengers: Age Of Ultron (2015)
Unfortunately, the second Avengers movie does more rehashing than it does bring new concepts. The inclusion of Hawkeye’s family, the Maximoff twins, and the different approach to artificial intelligence do all deserve credit but the rest of Age of Ultron remains very similar to the first film.
The heroes come together, the heroes end up fighting with each other, something happens that brings them all back together for a giant CGI-filled climax, the villain is defeated, credits roll. Age of Ultron has many things to enjoy but it can disappoint those looking for something different.
1 Deviates From It – Black Widow (2021)
The first film of Phase 4 tries to be something different from the moment it begins, presenting a much darker Marvel film. This film puts a large focus on Natasha Romanoff’s past, showing the dark things she and her sister have to do for the enigmatic Red Room.
Even the action scenes are different, feeling more akin to Mission: Impossible mixed with James Bond action sequences, giving the film a spy-thriller feel. Black Widow also puts a heavy emphasis on the family dynamic between Natasha, Yelena Belova, Red Guardian, and Melina, showcasing the trauma the Black Widows all go through to become what they are.
NEXT: The 10 Best Quotes From Black Widow (2021)
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