If there’s one thing that the best of the Marvel movie adaptations have in spades, it’s personality. Compare the dour cinematic worlds of Batman and Superman to that of The Avengers or Guardians of the Galaxy, and the latter are simply much more fan to hang out with. It’s also what Guardians gets most right: almost from the start, we have a cocky, enjoyable Han Solo-alike to take us into a world of wonders and CGI, and differently than in Lucas’ bloated prequel trilogy we look past the pixels and shader effects and see characters. Rocket Raccoon, that rarest of things – a fully realised CGI character not motion-captured by Andy Serkis! -, pretty much repeats that trick; another hero from the mold of Han Solo, though arguably shorter and more furry, and one that is cynical where Peter “Star-Lord” Quill is excited for pretty much everything. Add Groot, Gamora and Drax, and you’ve got yourself the quintessential Marvel team. Batman may have his cool toys and Michael Caine, but I know who I’d rather hang out with.

Shiny...

There’s an element of laziness in the film, though. It is entertaining, it’s charming, but there’s a generic quality to Guardians‘ setup, which is the main reason why in spite of dancing baby Groot and “Hooked on a Feeling” The Avengers still works better for me. In Whedon’s movie, the characters don’t get along at the beginning but realise they need to form a messy, dysfunctional surrogate family to have a chance against the Big Bad; Guardians pretty much repeats this blow-by-blow. What it lacks, though, is strong motivations why Star-Lord’s motley crew are antagonistic to each other at the beginning. There are reasons, but they’re all underwritten and don’t really come from the characters: sure, Drax blames Gamora because she was working with the main villain when he killed Drax’ family, and Quill is seen simply as a paycheck by bounty hunters Rocket and Groot, but essentially the characters don’t get along at first because that’s what the plot structure needs. In comparison, the conflicts between the Avengers come from who the characters have been established to be: Tony Stark, arrogant millionaire playboy with a house full of toys won’t take orders from stick-in-the-mud WW2 relic Captain America, Thor is a god-of-sorts who isn’t all that into those teensy humans anyway, unless they look like Natalie Portman, and he’s mostly in it to get back at his brother Loki, and Bruce Banner thinks his life could be a hell of a lot better if people didn’t keep wanting the big green guy to come out and play. Oh, and that’s before we get to Nick Fury, who puts all of these in a room, barely united by their knowledge that Fury is not a man to trust.

The Avengers had charm too, but it did more heavy lifting to make sure that personality wasn’t the only thing it had going. Guardians has more, too, but it’s mostly of the “Ooh, look at that… shiny!” sort – arguably it takes us to visually more interesting places than Whedon’s first Marvel outing. But it’s a bit like the Cantina scene from Star Wars, two hours of weird creatures, exotic planets. It’s colourful and fun, and it works in a way that Batman’s Gotham hasn’t worked since the days of Tim Burton, when it really just worked intermittently.

A Kree, an elf and a companion walk into a bar...

However, there’s definitely one thing that Gotham City has that Marvel’s stable of superheroes is still missing, and that’s strong villains. The Avengers works well enough because Tom Hiddleston brings tons of personality to the table, and it helps that he’s connected (semi-literally) to the quasi-family at the story’s centre. Otherwise, though? Thor 2‘s evil space elf, any of the Iron Man villains, or Red Skull from Captain America? Good actors wasted on boring, perfunctory character conflicts. The interesting conflicts in the Marvel films are those between the good guys, but as soon as they unite to beat up the Big Bad, the films turn into CGI setpieces to fill the remaining fifteen minutes, with little to differentiate between them other than the make-up on the villain. Lee Pace’s Ronan is no different; there may be potential in the character, but in the film we mainly see a replaceable bad guy. Similarly, his henchwoman Nebula looks otherworldly and cool and is played competently by Karen Gillan, but she’s not what people will remember. Guardians is all about “I am Groot!” and awesome mixtapes, about cocky outlaws and cynical raccoons, but practically all of the Marvel films could have done with a Penguin, a Lex Luthor or a Joker. Captain America 2 came the closest to introducing an interesting conflict into the proceedings – and one of the reasons why its villains worked better than Red Skull or Malekith, and why Loki is probably the best bad guy of the whole bunch, is that these are closely connected to our heroes.

With Joss Whedon’s influence hanging over the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the writers may want to look at Whedon’s TV series and his Big Bads – both the ones that worked and the ones that didn’t. Usually it’s the ones that are, or were, or could be part of the family that worked best, as characters and as villains. Marvel has yet to do justice to their antagonists; they’ve got the actors, from Jeff Bridges to Christopher Eccleston, but they haven’t yet cracked the nut of conflict outside their bands of heroes. When they do, when their films have both personality and interesting conflicts that drive the stories? Then they might truly ring in an Age of Marvels. Hopefully one that still has a place for dancing baby tree creatures.

Building worlds

Although I enjoyed Captain America: The Winter Soldier quite a bit, quite possibly more so than any Marvel film other than (predictably) The Avengers and (surprisingly) Iron Man 3, I won’t be writing a straight review of it. Enough has already been written about how it shakes up the fictional universe begun with the first Iron Man film and about its overtones of ’70s political thrillers, which don’t actually hold up all that well except on the most superficial level.

Suffice it to say, I liked the film – but mostly I like what it does, and what the MarvelĀ  movies have been doing, which as far as I know is pretty unique to cinema. Worldbuilding is something that so far has been done best in long-form formats: Tolkien, for one, did a magnificent job of it in The Lord of the Rings, but he has hundreds and hundreds of pages to do so as well as several other books to contribute to the creation of Middle-earth. Series in various media also have a lot of potential when it comes to worldbuilding, whether we’re talking about comic books or TV series. Some films have done the same, but it’s probably not the format’s main strength: you have examples such as the Star Wars series, but on the whole creating interesting worlds that live and breathe takes time, and the genres that lend themselves to worldbuilding (e.g. fantasy or sci-fi) also tend to produce plot-heavy – and setpiece-heavy – films that simply don’t have the breathing space that makes for the successful evocation of fictional universes.

In the Marvel films, the makers have succeeded at this by creating a network of characters and events that relate to each other yet still result in individual stories. You can watch Captain America 2 without knowing what happened in the Iron Man films, The Avengers or even the first Captain America movie, but having an idea of what happens outside the confines of this one film adds a sense of scope that the usual SFX of Mass Destruction don’t have. As I was watching the movie, I wasn’t thinking of sequels, prequels and franchises: I was thinking that here was a world that’s alive beyond any individual entry. What is going on in Captain America 2 resonates beyond Cap’s story. Even if the stories being told are still pretty basic, predictable tales of superheroics – and no, Robert Redford does not make this film Three Days of the Condor – there’s something exciting to the way the Marvel films have come to suggest that there’s plenty of space to be coloured in beyond the lines of Captain America 2 or Iron Man 3 or The Avengers. To me, it feels there’s a world out there, and it exists whether we’re presently looking at it or not – and that may be one of the best things that can happen to a fictional world.

Marvel Cinematic Universe

It also presents a storytelling challenge, because I’d argue that in the long run it gets boring if every single story told within this universe is about averting some world-shattering calamity. That’s one of the strengths of serial formats: they give the storyteller space to tell the smaller stories too. Not every Marvel comic is about some super villain’s latest plot to destroy New York, the Earth or the universe. Look at something like Joss Whedon’s Buffy and Angel: yes, there are Big Bads and plot arcs, but there are similarly more intimate stories. Does Hollywood have something similar to offer? Can there be Marvel movies that aren’t about defeating this bad guy or stopping some major evil plot? Or will we get to the point where each and every one of these films is essentially the same story given a slightly different coat of paint based on which superhero has the lead part? If this happens, all the world-building will fall flat, because at this point the universe no longer feels like one and begins to feel like a Setpiece Generator. There have already been hints of this, for instance in Thor: The Dark World‘s “Let’s destroy London!” climax. Here’s hoping that Marvel can continue to build on what’s most intriguing about this project and that they avoid having created a world that lives and breathes only to bore the hell out of us.