By Daryl McSweeney
I love the Marvel movies. I love every character and every film (to varying degrees) and I hope they churn out movies for the rest of time. (Dot-com bubbles don’t exist and they don’t apply here so shut up!)
I want “Marvel movie” to become a genre in film classes. And when those future film minors and various STEM-girls looking for a fluff class discuss this franchise behemoth, their professor will point out one story for them to follow.
It’s a Bible story (so you know it’s good!) about a father and his two sons. The younger son comes home from partying so hard that he has to swallow his pride and ask dad for an advance on his inheritance. The older son advises kicking his brother to the curb for such a dick request because while junior’s been up to his opium shenanigans, older brother has been acting as a “proper heir” and earned his inheritance, old man.
The father embraces his younger son anyway and gives him money because he loves him. The lesson is forgiveness and love are better than being mean and demanding credit for showing up. The story is simple but so are knock-knock jokes, and those have stuck around since the dawn of time. So now imagine that story with a pinch of CGI graphics, a layer of pithy humor, and a nine-film contract with Samuel L. Jackson.
To clarify, this theme mostly applies to the Phase One movies, meaning the movies that led up to the First Avengers. Only once Avengers went over swimmingly was Marvel able to break away from formula a bit and take some risks, but otherwise it’s textbook how much this specific Biblical scripture reverberates through these movies.
The evidence is a bit shaky since this was the first film but you can find it if you look. Tony Stark is a screw-up and all-around dickhead who makes weapons, until he realizes the human cost of his weapons and decides to take responsibility for them by building the best weapon.
Tony is obviously the prodigal son. It’s established early on that Obadiah Stane, the movie baddie and mentor to Tony (*cough*older brother*cough*) held Stark Industries together after Howard Stark died and before Tony graduated college but everyone was like, “So what?” Once Tony took the reins (after the 21st century version of opium shenanigans), he was considered the savior of the company and everyone was like “Obadiah who?”
Also to complete the message, Tony can build the compact arc reactor that makes the Iron Man suit work, the one that he built thanks to the power of friendship (see: love and forgiveness) with Yinsen. Stane has to steal to make his suit work. The younger son gets everything!
Even though he runs the company and is the generally-agreed upon less risky choice of a CEO for their investors, Stane is still salty that he lacks when compared to his “good-guy younger brother.”
It’s all there. And it only gets more prominent.
I mean… do I need to say anything?
Loki did all his shenanigans to make daddy proud and Thor screwed up and had to prove himself by swallowing his pride and learning humility. I won’t insult your intelligence by assuming this needs to be explained more. This is the movie where I started to realize this running theme.
But two is coincidence while three is a pattern.
Captain America: The First Avenger
Abraham Eskine develops a serum to make super-soldiers to win World War II. Johann Schmidt becomes… off-putting… while Steve becomes a generation’s teenaged sexual awakening. (“What is a Kinsey Scale?” I asked after seeing the scene where Chris Evans is shirtless.)
Erskine found Schmidt lacking and dude steals the formula to become Red Skull and is insulted and angry when he meets Captain America who was simply given the formula (for being a nice guy!) and it made him not unfortunate-looking. Red Skull even says, in the climax of the movie, “Dude, what makes you so special, what did daddy- I mean, Professor Erskine see in you?”
The younger brother beats the older brother, proving that kindness makes him the worthier heir, allowing Chris Evans to star in Winter Soldier and Huge Weaving to take off that uncomfortable make-up.
And so the circle was complete. Except for some finishing touches…
Iron Man 2: Tony Gets His Groove Back
What’s that guy’s name? I don’t remember. Whiplash. He does what Stane couldn’t and builds a compact arc-reactor like Tony has powering his suits and his heart magnet. Uh-oh, is Tony still considered the heir then!? Yes, because Tony builds a new/better reactor by inventing an element that his dad came up with but could never invent himself. He beats Whiplash at the giant fair that is pretty much an effigy to Tony’s burning desire to earn his dad’s approval.
It feels obvious now, right? This movie finished all the Prodigal Son stuff that was more up in the air and unclear in the first Iron Man (which is why I had to spell it out more with the first movie) and now that we had our three prodigal sons, we could move on to Avengers…
Marvel’s The Avengers, starring the Avengers, an Avengers production
… and it was great, but there are no prodigal son themes in it (well, Loki brings a little baggage) but that’s okay. This movie is about bringing the franchises together in collective franchise orgasm. There are no themes in this movie, just fun and an amazing 20 minute fight scene.
Ever After and Ant-Man
It’s still there a little in Thor 2 and Iron Man 3, but honestly at that point, we know and like the characters enough that they get a bit of a pass. Iron Man 3 is basically a Shane Black movie that happens to star Iron Man and Thor 2 is a little nonsensical (but Thor hangs Mjolnir on a coat hanger so I’m okay with it).
Again, Avengers don’t count so forget Age of Ultron.
Admittedly Guardians of the Galaxy broke away from this theme, even making fun of it a bit with Peter Quill not giving a shit about his dad possibly being an alien. Marvel essentially gave James Gunn free reign with a weird product and he made it sing. That’s one strategy.
The other strategy is Ant-Man. This movie had so many writers, directors, changes and delays, it’s a wonder the movie turned out as good as it did. Wait, no it isn’t. Wanna know why it turned out so well despite the ingredients being so questionable?
Because they went back to the formula.
Henry Pym made a shrinking suit and his protégé (first son) is about to make his own and PROVE HIMSELF!!!! except Pym gives Paul Rudd (second son) the suit and Rudd becomes his heir-apparent. “Why him and not me papa?!” the yellow bad-guy shouts at one point, unknowingly proving my theory so hard. They even try to nuance it a bit by adding a sister to the narrative, where Kate from Lost asserts that she should be the heir over Paul Rudd (which is logical) except she doesn’t go all patricidal over it.
My point is that Kevin Feige or someone else over at Marvel has some sort of issue with their dad and I for one am glad for it. This formula is resonant and powerful enough to be thematically satisfying yet vague and relatable enough that it can be laid over any narrative. If you feel the Marvel movies running together, this is why. If you feel angry at your little brother because of this movie, this is why. And if you feel this relates to your older brother-
Run. Run now.
Guys, I love these movies so much, Civil War was so good.