With every passing year it becomes more difficult to escape the reach of Marvel Studios’ impact on pop culture. This is more evident now as Marvel is set to debut new content throughout the year both on Disney+ and in theaters.
As detailed on Marvel’s website, the studio has confirmed a six-week season for “Falcon and the Winter Soldier” beginning March 19, the “Loki” series premiere on June 11, along with more shows set to debut in 2021 such as “What If…?” and “Ms. Marvel.” Additionally, Marvel announced release dates for multiple movies in 2021, including “Black Widow,” set to premiere in theaters on May 7, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” on July 9 and “Eternals” on Nov. 5.
This is an unheard of quantity of releases from Marvel in one year. However, as the Marvel Cinematic Universe debuts a new phase of narratives, it is important to recognize it is not only the amount of productions Marvel is changing but also the themes and ideals represented.
From the undeniably mature handling of Wanda Maximoff’s grief represented in “WandaVision,” to the 16+ rating placed on “Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” which will reportedly feature themes revolving around its main characters’ suffering mental health, it is clear Marvel is moving toward more mature themes.
As a lifelong fan of both Marvel comics and films, I believe the maturing of Marvel films is largely due to the studio recognizing that a large portion of their audience, once largely composed of children and teens, is entering young adulthood. Marvel must either mature with us or risk losing a critical audience: Generation Z — those born between the mid-1990s and early 2010s.
Many Generation Z members cite Marvel as being an important part of their childhood, including Pheonix Wolf, a freshman undeclared major at Missouri State University.
"When a new Marvel movie came, out (my family) and I'd go see it in theaters," Wolf said. "If not, we'd buy it soon after. (My family) owns almost every Marvel movie at this point.”
Similarly, Cameron Jordan, a communication graduate student, said he still remembers when he first saw Tobey Maguire in the 2002 “Spider-Man” in the years after it was released.
Personally, I remember watching new Marvel releases every summer throughout middle and high school in the theater with my sister. This experience is undoubtedly shared by many of Millennials and Generation Z.
According to a 2018 report by Statista, a global data sharing platform, 54% of movie reviews polled age 18-34 had seen one or more movies from the Avengers series, while only 48% of those 35-54 had seen one or more, and only 26% of those 55 and older. These statistics are comparable across Marvel’s movie franchises, with only “The Incredible Hulk” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” having a higher viewership from the 35-54 age bracket.
This data alludes to a deep relationship between Generation Z, Millenials and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But what it doesn’t show is the shifting nature of that relationship. Long ago, the starry-eyed children who once found themselves enraptured by the glittering gold of Iron Man and the noble honor of Captain America have been seeking out greater meaning in the stories they are receiving.
“I think Marvel movies have definitely matured, and I’ve stayed interested.” Jordan said when asked how he felt about the realistic themes represented in Marvel films. “Yeah, there’s things that are enjoyable as a kid, but I think there’s some deeper messages and some really complex plots that are clearly meant for adults. It’s superheroes and nerdy and silly at times, but they also have a whole subplot about utilitarian ethics.”
Jordan is certainly correct in his identification of social issues found in Marvel films. Early in the Marvel Cinematic Universe for instance, “Iron Man 3” delivers a plot line depicting Tony Stark’s struggle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Similarly, in “Captain America: Civil War,” the story is driven by the emotional reactions of the Avengers and the strain placed on their relationships as they deal with the consequences of their actions.
The depiction of social and civil issues has always been prominent in Marvel comics. Many prominent marvel storylines were initially written to mirror issues facing the real world. However, there has always been a distinction between the gritty realist components of Marvel narratives and the film’s more fantastical forms of storytelling. The trauma the characters experience and react to often feels overshadowed by iconic Marvel fight scenes and caricaturesque villains which the films focused on.
It is the dynamic range of themes found in Marvel films that have attracted such a broad fan base. The different forms of storytelling, both the mature facing of realistic trauma and the classic fight scenes and action focused components have hit home with Marvel fans.
“I enjoy both forms equally because it’s all about what I perceive in the characters and the stories.” Wolf said. “In ‘WandaVision,’ I find it interesting to see that she has always been feeling this grief and it was just a matter of us not perceiving it yet.”
“WandaVision” is afterall not only drawing on themes of grief and pain in its own story, but also Wanda’s grief in stories like “Age of Ultron” and “Infinity War,” which until now had never been directly recognized.
The underlying pain of Marvel stories has been increasingly represented in the most recent films. In “Endgame,” an entire scene is dedicated to Steve Rogers leading a support group for those who lost loved ones after the events of “Infinity War.” Although that idea was present, it was still largely overshadowed by the action-packed fight sequences and heroics of the Avengers which have become characteristic of the superhero genre. With this new wave of content Marvel has brought these ideas to center stage instead.
In “WandaVision,” the first of Marvel’s series to premiere, Wanda’s grief over Vision and her personal life outside of her superhero identity has been the primary foundation of the plot. Finally, Marvel is in no uncertain terms facing the traumatic nature of their characters' lives. It is clear Marvel is reaching further into characters' comic backstories than ever before and possibly attempting to broach the gritty reality of pain, as well as facing the prominent social issues which have long been a prominent part of Marvel Comics’ history.
A recent example of this is references to the comic series “House of M,” found in “WandaVision.” Often regarded as one of the darkest timelines in Marvel comic history, “House of M” highlights the results of trauma and manipulation which its characters experienced. The series storyline is largely driven by Wanda Maximoff’s reaction to grief and plays with themes surrounding death and the idea of putting the needs of the few over the needs of the many.
It is similar moments in Marvel movies which draw on the pain and experiences I have had as an ordinary individual that have kept me a fan of Marvel. Even as I have grown out of other interests, Marvel has always kept me engaged by mirroring the world I live in. The allegories to issues I have experienced and emotions I have dealt with are what keeps me coming back, which is largely why I find myself so excited for this new phase of Marvel which puts mature and realistic ideals at its epicenter.
Whether the maturing of Marvel content is successful, however, can only be judged by the audience they cater to. With the slew of fresh content arriving on Disney+, many longtime fans are finally seeing content they have waited a decade for.
Wolf said while there are some new Marvel projects he isn’t excited for, he is excited for many projects like “Hawkeye,” which will be the first solo content for character Clint Barton, one of the original Avengers.
“We know so much about (Hawkeye) and his development from the Avengers movies, yet he has no solo content,” Wolf said.
Jordan expressed similar excitement.
“‘WandaVision’ has been maybe the greatest TV viewing experience I’ve had. It’s really well done. Marvel has grown a lot, and (in) the right way,” Jordan said.
I personally am anxiously awaiting the release of “Falcon and the Winter Soldier.” Bucky Barnes has been a favorite character of mine for years. The reality of his pain and regret, as well as his friendships and motives have always been very interesting to me. I found solace in his storylines many times throughout my life. I’m thrilled to see a series which focuses not only on his character but the deeper characteristics of his person which allowed me to relate and connect with the character. It feels like Marvel is listening to its audience and pulling forward narratives which its audience relates to and can learn from.
Although not everyone will agree Marvel has retained their interest as they have grown up, it is clear Marvel has done an excellent job of not alienating a young audience which largely contributed to their success. Generation Z and Millennials grew up with Marvel, and the studio has made it evident that they are ready to grow up with us too.
Follow Lillian Durr on Twitter, @weird_wondurr
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