Over the past decade or so, Marvel has honed their ability to make a blockbuster like no other company. As it stands, it is the highest grossing film franchise of all time, raking in 13.5 billion dollars worldwide in just 9 years. Some have attributed this to Marvel’s successful distillation of “The Marvel Formula,” a series of goalposts and necessities that a Marvel character or group should meet in order to succeed. But what exactly is this formula? What are the story goals each film has to achieve in order to fit the magical formula? And what does this achieve?
STEP 1: Make it Real
Part of the reason for their success is a kind of brand unity. Even if you don’t see the Marvel logo at the start of a movie, you can tell you’re watching something in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) just from the feel of the film. Marvel spends a lot of time crafting a unique tone in their stories.
Even in the swashbuckling space pirate romp Guardians of the Galaxy, all of the lead character felt real. Each character had their own, very human (or in Rocket’s case, very raccoon) issues. Peter never knew his father. Gamora does know hers, but he’s a monster. Drax has a hard time connecting with others due to his inability to read subtext. Rocket feels like an outsider because he’s a strange experiment.
This is true for Marvel’s Avengers as well. There’s always some kind of grounding aspect of every character. Tony Stark is an alcoholic. Steve Rogers is thrust into a foreign world with none of his old friends. Even Black Widow, the deadly super-assassin, feels like a monster because she can’t be like other people. This is perhaps Marvel’s strongest point: their characters are people first and superheroes second.
This is best displayed in this summer’s Spider-Man: Homecoming. The movie doesn’t feel like a superhero movie set in high school, but rather a high school movie in which the main character happens to be a superhero. Spider-Man spends equal time fighting bad guys as he does sweating asking a girl to homecoming. It blends together extremely well and invests the audience in both conflicts.
Contrast this with DC’s Batman v. Superman. While they have established some of Clark Kent’s human roots (sorta) in Man of Steel, we almost never see Bruce Wayne being anything other than Batman. It almost feels like Bruce Wayne is his disguise rather than Batman. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as it does make for an interesting dynamic. That said, in a movie with an alien with laser eyes and a Greek god with indestructible arm bracers, Batman should not be the least grounded character.
STEP 2: Make it Funny
This is probably the part of the Marvel formula that gets the most flak. Just about every Marvel movie has some element of humor present in most of the story. This caught the most widespread criticism after Avengers: Age of Ultron, where audiences were hoping for a more serious, menacing villain in Ultron and were instead met with the Quipbot 5000.
In other movies, however, this has paid off. Guardians is an obvious choice for this argument, but instead I’ll talk about a less popular movie: Ant-Man. Ant-Man was a riot from start to finish. Paul Rudd and Michael Pena especially were excellent at turning what was essentially a heist movie into a terrific comedy with some of the MCU’s best moments, including Scott’s first encounter with the suit and Luis telling his overlong stories. In Ant-Man, this performed a very important, underlying function, however: the humor in the movie makes audience like the protagonist.
Before Ant-Man came out, internet commenters were quick to judge the film solely by its cover. Many saw this movie as an unnecessary addition to the franchise. After all, who cared about Ant-Man before Ant-Man hit theaters? Some articles called the decision to make Ant-Man sexist, arguing that there were more important, more interesting female characters that were being passed over to give us someone as irrelevant as Ant-Man. At the end of the day, though, Ant-Man won critics and audiences over. He did this with humor.
The same thing happened with Iron Man. How do you convince audience to like yet another philandering playboy with callous disregard for other people right off the bat? How do you make them root for him when he’s captured early in the movie? The best way to an audience’s heart, in this case, is through their funny bone. Tony Stark was a charismatic genius. Even if he was a jerk, his banter with the soldiers in the convoy and with the reporter in the early scenes quickly sold audiences on him.
This doesn’t just apply to Marvel’s films, either. Even in the most serious of Marvel’s offerings, specifically its Netflix shows, there is humor involved. In Daredevil, we have scenes where Matt and Foggy banter back and forth about trying to keep their office active. In Defenders, Jessica Jones takes time to mock Danny Rand’s mystical (and silly) demeanor. This doesn’t detract the overall “darkness” of the series, but rather makes the heroes endearing.
STEP 3: Make the Villain a Dark Reflection
This step is much more specific than the first two, and mostly applies to origin story movies. In Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Captain America: The First Avenger, Ant-Man, Doctor Strange, the recently released Black Panther (at least it would appear to be so from the trailers), and even Agents of SHIELD, the film’s protagonist squares off against an evil version of their own selves. Later films in their respective series are allowed to deviate from this course (Killian in Iron Man 3 and Zemo in Captain America: Civil War for example), but in general, a hero’s first fight will be with someone with a very similar skillset to them.
Thematically, this is done for several reasons. For one, the villains often reflect the heroes’ own struggles. In Iron Man, Stane is a dark reflection of Stark’s own greed. Stark has a revelation in the desert that puts him on a path to righteousness; Stane cuts him out of the company in his own search for power. The mirrored motivations of the heroes and villains that Marvel often presents gives the audience a moral dichotomy. It presents the hero as someone in a similar situation to the villain that chose the “moral” path, which reinforces approval of the hero and disdain for the villain in a clean and easily understood manner.
This approach also provides the heroes with a manageable yet difficult obstacle to overcome. It makes their foe seem imposing, as their own abilities match those of the heroes. Ant-Man and Yellowjacket are extremely similar, but Yellowjacket’s suit is more advanced. Kaecilius has access to the same arsenal as Doctor Strange (save for the Eye of Agamotto), but with years more experience and the backing of a dark all-powerful being. This allows for a fledgling hero to overcome their adversary in a believable yet challenging way. It keeps you invested in the conflict if there is some hope, especially if there is hope for both the hero and the villain.
The “dark reflection” also allows for the villain to be given some kind of physical imperfection to underscore their lack of “purity.” The Red Skull has super soldier serum coursing through his veins, but made him into a hideous monster. Abomination is covered in strange spines and protruding bones due to his imperfect super soldier formula. Loki shows the he is part frost giant when exposed to the Tesseract. In Agents of Shield, Garrett is outfitted with Deathlok technology. While subconsciously reinforcing both previous themes, it also gives the audience an adverse reaction to the villains right off the bat.
STEP 4: Extremely Powerful Thingy (MacGuffin)
Just about every Marvel movie has a central object of extreme power as a primary plot point. Most often this is an Infinity Stone, as is the case in Captain America: The First Avenger, Guardians of the Galaxy, both Avengers films, Thor: The Dark World, Doctor Strange, and the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War. However, other movies in the MCU feature this plot device, like Ant-Man and Thor. This trope isn’t specific to Marvel. Its conception and documentation existed long before the MCU was even a thought in the mind of Kevin Feige. Nonetheless this trope has become heavily associated with Marvel films, making it an integral part of their formula.
These, much like each other entry on this list, serves several purposes. The first is to establish a continuity amongst the whole MCU. This is mostly done with Infinity Stones. The stones themselves set the stage for the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War, and have been an integral part of unifying Marvel’s films since Captain America: The First Avenger back in the bygone era of 2011. The Infinity Stones serve as the connective tissue of the MCU at the moment, bringing the Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Doctor Strange into one umbrella.
In other cases, like in Ant-Man or Thor, they’re ordinary plot devices. The existence of these objects of immense power serve to raise the stakes for the characters. In Thor, the central conflict revolves around Thor’s ability (or rather, inability) to wield his hammer. By removing the hammer, perhaps one of the best known things about him, the audience gets to really know Thor while also giving us a good idea of just how powerful he really is. In Ant-Man, we already have a good idea of how powerful the Ant Suit is. The introduction of the Yellowjacket suit raises the stakes by giving the villain more power, essentially out-MacGuffining the original suit. This shifts the dynamic from the hero having all the power to the villains powers superseding them.
A major point for all of these aspects is that they connect a sort of “brand unity” among all Marvel productions. They associate quality production and enjoyment with the word “Marvel.” Even if you don’t see the comic book pages intro at the start of the movie or miss the Stan Lee cameo, you can just feel when a movie is a Marvel movie. It’s a skill that other studios have been frantically moving to copy, from DC’s comic films to Universal’s “Dark Universe” to Warner Bros’ MonsterVerse. One thing’s clear; both critically and financially, the Marvel Formula is working.