Why Must a Marvel Movie Be “Good”?
Marvel's Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania was mauled by critics. Does it even matter?
This article contains one Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania spoiler
No one’s giving out cool points for liking a Marvel movie. The MCU remains incredibly popular and the highest-grossing film franchise of all time, making over $28.5 billion at the global box office and counting. We’re currently 31 films deep in Marvel Studios’ sprawling cinematic universe, where no less than three Ant-Man projects now exist after the release of this month’s Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania. Go back in time and tell that to someone who just watched Howard the Duck; they’d laugh in your face.
The MCU has become such a cultural phenomenon that the discourse surrounding its mere continued existence flares up around every film and TV show Marvel releases. If it’s not the old “critics vs. fans” argument, it’s the idea that the MCU should have had the decency to bow out with Avengers: Endgame. Screenshots and clips are shared widely mocking the quality of the MCU’s CGI, with The Volume, a high tech LED immersive soundstage utilized to replace on-location shoots, also blamed for making recent MCU movies look cheap.
Non-MCU directors are randomly asked what they think of the franchise, with any negative feedback used to reignite the battle between the often incredibly correct denizens of Film Twitter and those who would happily immerse themselves in an ongoing story full of iconic characters having silly adventures while they eat their popcorn. Is Marvel Studios capable of releasing a post-Avengers: Endgame movie that will satisfy all their critics and fans? I suspect not, but also…I don’t think it matters. The majority of criticism levelled at Marvel movies, Marvel Studios, and the Disney corporate juggernaut is completely valid, and reasonable fans of their output will accept it.
Much like Disney’s Star Wars, the assembly line of Marvel films and shows makes so much money that the MCU will continue until morale improves or they hit on a perceived “winner” like the smash hit The Mandalorian or the critically acclaimed Andor. Until then, there will be underwhelming MCU entries, mid MCU entries, and MCU entries that get a solid pass, and they will all be under the kind of critical microscope that massive, far-reaching franchises should absolutely attract. Same as it ever was. But little of the discourse surrounding them will hugely affect the status quo because box office numbers and viewing figures will probably remain decent.
Take this month’s Quantumania. The critical knives were out for this one, and it’s sitting at an eye-watering 47% on Rotten Tomatoes at the time of writing. Its audience score? A conflicting 84%. Moreover, the movie posted the best start of all three Ant-Man films at the domestic box office, and had one of the best showings ever for Presidents Day as it neared $240 million globally. If you’d not been listening to people call this movie a piece of shit online all last week, you might assume it had been yet another triumph for Marvel. Done, done, on to the next one.
Even as Quantumania made its debut and bad word of mouth spread, its 33-year-old writer Jeff Loveness posted a quick thread about it on social media before (wisely) logging off. “I love this movie so much! Go have fun! Pretend you’re 12. Laugh in a theatre full of strangers at big jokes and weird little guys,” he said, adding “Remember when you and your cousins would just kinda… go to a movie on a Sunday and laugh and have a good time? This is that movie. I love how it turned out.”
The vibe here seemed to be that, like many big budget four-quadrant studio movies, Quantumania was ultimately created simply to entertain. To not be taken too seriously. To be a fun old time for the family, like the other two Ant-Man movies. And it might have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for those meddling phases – Quantumania was hyped not just as another Ant-Man caper, but as a big first chapter for Phase 5 of the MCU, which is at least partly why it took the brunt of Marvel movie fatigue discourse this month I’d wager, provoking increasing cries of “when will it end?!” rather than “yay, more of this!” Which is not to say that Quantumania doesn’t have its problems – and it certainly doesn’t have slight problems that could conceivably protect it from harsh criticism – but no one is ranking Deus Ant Machina up there with My Mom’s Name Is Also Martha. Yet.
Arguably, it’s perfectly fine for an MCU movie (or any other movie!) to be entertaining but not something people rave about critically. The consistently-successful MCU took its usual lumps as the perceived death of cinema even while Top Gun: Maverick, a movie where the lead character literally picks up a rule book and throws it in the bin (“I know writers who use subtext and they’re all cowards!”), was more positively hailed as its savior when pandemic restrictions were lifting. Avatar 2, a sequel many joked about as being entirely unnecessary before its release, ruled the box office despite plenty of criticism about its story and characters. People will always want to be entertained, to see a show, and to have a reliable theatrical experience. That’s good news! It’s also bad news, depending on who you ask. The endless studio production line of sequels, prequels, reboots and remakes doesn’t look like it’s shutting down any time soon. Truly great original films will still struggle to make an impact.
Back in February of 2018, Mike Ginn posted a thought on Twitter: “Why must a movie be “good”? Is it not enough to sit somewhere dark and see a beautiful face, huge?” It’s still pinned to his profile five years later, having racked up thousands of retweets and likes. There’s a ludicrous simplicity to it that has stayed with me because I love a lot of movies that are objectively bad, but that I personally find entertaining. And if you’re reading this, there’s a pretty decent chance that you do, too. There are no guilty pleasures, you either enjoyed a movie or you didn’t!
So why must a Marvel movie be “good”? Is it not enough to sit somewhere dark and see a horrible MODOK face, huge? What lessons can Marvel learn at this point if the box office numbers are still strong? If their movies maintain a fairly consistent level of entertainment for fans and audiences at large? Perhaps we should ask a different question, as the endless discourse roils along outside an artistic marketplace where there is no right or wrong, only opinion: what is “good” to you?
Regardless, the MCU discourse will continue if you choose to be a part of it or not. Whether people will tire of Marvel movies before they tire of arguing about Marvel movies remains to be seen.