Introducing the Marvel Curriculum: A look at film history via the MCU

Introducing the Marvel Curriculum: A look at film history via the MCU
Black Panther Photo: Disney/Marvel

One of the biggest criticisms leveled against the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that the films are too similar—that they, for example, too frequently end with the hero battling some (usually) forgettable supervillain or army in an orgy of CGI destruction. There’s some validity to this, but it overlooks how varied these movies have become in other ways. Over its 20 entries—the latest of which, Ant-Man And The Wasp, opens July 6—the MCU has grown to encompass a huge variety of tones, genres, and visual styles, with the studio growing ever more confident about hiring directors with unique points of view, who in turn have drawn from a remarkably diverse set of influences. In fact, were one to explore film through the lens of the works that went on to inspire earth’s mightiest blockbusters, you’d have a worthwhile little syllabus.

Enter the “Marvel Curriculum,” a way to further examine today’s most dominant pop culture. This is hardly a comprehensive look at cinematic history, and it isn’t a comprehensive list of Marvel influences—it omits the work of comic artists like Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko, and I’m generally skipping film touchstones like Star Wars, Batman, and James Bond. But if you’ve grown up on Marvel movies, here’s a road map for what else you may grow into liking.

Phase One: Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, The Avengers

Phase-one directors drew as much from their own work as anything else. Kenneth Branagh, known for his adaptations of the Bard, tackled Shakespearean themes in Thor, also about family dynamics in royal bloodlines. Captain America’s Joe Johnston was hired because of The Rocketeer, another period film inspired by old serials. Joss Whedon drew from his TV background in The Avengers, an ensemble film that essentially served as a kind of season finale.

Still, there’s at least one assignment in this introductory class: Robert Altman. According to Jon Favreau, the great director of MASH and McCabe & Mrs. Miller was an inspiration for series kickstarter Iron Man, which he viewed as a “kind of independent film-espionage thriller crossbreed.” There aren’t direct parallels, but Iron Man’s sheer talkiness recalls Altman’s improv-heavy work, which roamed huge canvases and featured innovative overlapping dialogue. MCU fans would do well to check out The Player, a masterful satire about the film industry that stars Tim Robbins as a cocky, egotistical, and shameless—one might say Tony Starksian—movie producer who commits a murder. Fans of Robert Downey Jr. can move onto the brilliant Short Cuts, which features the actor in a supporting role.

Phase Two: Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guardians Of The Galaxy, Avengers: Age Of Ultron, Ant-Man

While the Mandarin, the ostensible villain of Iron Man 3, is eventually revealed as a comic red herring, for much of the film he’s positioned as a bin Laden-style terrorist. Beyond the real-world parallels, writer-director Shane Black also based him on Marlon Brando’s iconic performance as Col. Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, who lives in the shadows and makes grave pronouncements about violence and war. Just as the Mandarin represents an existential threat for Stark, an omnipotent evil who he fears can’t be bested, so does Kurtz represent the heart of darkness for the Vietnam War soldiers out to find and kill him. Kurtz whispers about “the horror” of man’s capacity for violence, an insight that’s not lost on Stark in his nervous-breakdown aftermath of the Avengers. Black also cited William Friedkin’s classic gritty cop drama The French Connection, which has echoes in Downey’s more subdued performance, and in the film’s quieter moments, which play like a crime story as often as a superhero one.

In a break from Captain America’s retro vibe, The Winter Soldier’s Joe and Anthony Russo drew from paranoid 1970s thrillers to convey its hero’s dissolving idealism as he realizes the cause he’s fought for may be no less corrupt than the forces he’s been fighting against. This was also a key theme of the grounded and urgent thrillers made against the backdrop of Watergate and Vietnam, a tumultuous period when Americans turned similarly cynical about their government. The comparatively stripped-down aesthetic of Winter Soldier mirrors the no-nonsense style of The Parallax View, Klute, and To Live And Die In L.A., while Cap’s arc mirrors Three Days Of The Condor (about a CIA agent who realizes he can’t trust anyone in the “company”) and All The President’s Men (about uncovering corruption that goes all the way to the top). In a brilliant casting coup, Robert Redford, the star of those films, was brought on to yank the scales from Cap’s eyes.

Guardians Of The Galaxy clearly owes a lot to Star Wars, from its battered spacecraft to the Han Solo vibe of two of its leads. However, James Gunn also named 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Right Stuff as inspiration. From the former he borrowed Stanley Kubrick’s psychedelic visuals (if not the film’s philosophical bent), while the latter, about the start of the American space program, emerges in the cocky and defiant attitude of this film’s pilots. (More practically, he studied them for how to film spacecrafts for maximum impact.) Gunn also credited Alien for guiding Guardians’ creature design, and the stylized action sequences and use of scoring to Sergio Leone, whose The Good, The Bad And The Ugly and Once Upon A Time In The West (to start) are unmissable: exhilarating, brutal, and iconic. On a narrative level, this dirty crew was inspired by The Dirty Dozen, another film about a disparate group banding together to stop a threat, while Gunn has also mentioned Back To The Future and Raiders Of The Lost Ark as titles whose momentum and comic tones he wanted to emulate. (The ending of Vol. 2 nods to the ending of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.)

If The Avengers was about the formation of a makeshift family, Age Of Ultron has elements of family betrayal as Stark’s decision to build a protective force backfires disastrously. It may not be a perfect parallel, but Whedon cited The Godfather Part II as his “guiding star” in making the film. Both are distinct from their predecessor, differently structured and darker in tone. Whedon also named Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down as a point of reference for its action sequences, which you can see in Ultron’s “realistic” urban destruction of two major sequences. “It never looks like he’s trying to prettify things,” Whedon said of Scott’s film. “You just really feel the weight of what these guys are going through.”

Ant-Man represented another tonal shift for Marvel: a film that was more comedic and nimble, literally on a smaller scale. Director Peyton Reed, whose Down With Love was a pastiche of frothy Doris Day comedies from the ’60s, returned to that decade for inspiration here. Specifically, the heist elements of the story found an ascendant both in the Rat Pack-starring Ocean’s 11 and the original The Thomas Crown Affair. He wanted “to get a feel for the rhythm of those movies,” which were looser and shaggier than the more clockwork and serious heists being filmed elsewhere. (Extra credit: Heist-film fans can’t miss the French noir masterpiece Rififi.) Reed also named Soderberg’s Oceans remake, with its elaborate camera moves, jokey tone, and too-cool editing style, as a touchstone.

Phase Three: Captain America: Civil War, Doctor Strange, Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War

Civil War is a psychological thriller, a film about Cap’s loyalties to the Avengers, to his ideals, and to a friend who has done incredible harm but who may not be beyond saving. The film’s ending, where a videotape changes what one character realizes he’s capable of, was inspired by one of the darkest entries of the genre, Seven; it was constructed as a “what’s in the box?” moment. Beyond that, the Russos cited Fargo and The Godfather as blueprints for managing the sprawling cast and giving each character arcs and distinct moments. Visually, they named Brian De Palma for his use of “tension and empty space,” which you can see in the famous airport melee, perhaps the best action sequence in the whole MCU. Start with Blow Out, Carlito’s Way, and Femme Fatale, his most quintessential works. More broadly, there’s a Western element to the Civil War, which takes a “black hat, white hat myth-making surface” and asks which side is actually in the right. While not specifically cited by the directors, John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance may be the best Western ever made, and it similarly pits two men—who aren’t exactly enemies, though they are philosophical opposites—against each other, as well as against a more clear-cut villain.

The biggest inspirations for Doctor Strange relate to its visuals. There’s the city-twisting effects of Inception, of course, but also Disney’s daringly arty Fantasia and the way The Matrix manipulated reality and exposed a hidden world under the real one. The look of Strange himself was based on camp-horror maestro Vincent Price, who is worth being familiar with even if he’s not entirely relevant (start with House On Haunted Hill and House Of Usher). For the most fantastical entry of the MCU, the filmmakers also studied two massively successful series—Harry Potter and The Lord Of The Rings—for how they eased audiences into a world of heavy exposition.

One of the most enjoyable elements of Spider-Man: Homecoming was how endearingly youthful Peter Parker was, how inexperienced and unsure of himself. Director Jon Watts went straight to the source for this, looking to John Hughes for inspiration. Even 30 years after their release, titles like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Pretty In Pink, and The Breakfast Club stand as the teen movies. (While Tom Holland’s Parker is dorkier, the actor based his performance on Michael J. Fox’s Marty McFly.)

Thor: Ragnarok is perhaps the most unusual entry of the MCU, stranding the God Of Thunder on an acid-trip planet and pairing him with the Hulk in an unexpected buddy comedy. Director Taika Waititi, a veteran of quirky comedies with unconventional heroes, drew from sources that no other filmmaker has likely ever thought to combine. The comedy of the film—and despite the apocalyptic subtitle, this is probably the funniest Marvel movie—was drawn from Flash Gordon, an irreverent science-fiction spoof, and Withnail and I, a classic comedy about two drunks whose lives are pathetic but whose dynamic is immensely entertaining. For visual inspiration, Waititi named Alejandro Jodorowsky, whose The Holy Mountain, Santa Sangre and El Topo stand as some of the most singular and surreally symbolic films ever released. (Jodorowsky’s Dune, a documentary about one of the greatest what-if movies ever not made, is an excellent introduction to his work.)

Black Panther was lauded for its unexpectedly complex and insightful look at racism and the legacy of colonialism, as well as for its celebration of African culture (Has any other blockbuster drawn from African cinema or tribal traditions? Especially compared with how many directors use Asian influences?). For the former, Ryan Coogler was inspired by Boyz N The Hood, a film about the injustice of life in poor black neighborhoods—an idea that illuminates Panther’s Oakland scenes and drives Erik Killmonger’s quest for global reparations. The blaxploitation film Black Caesar is about a man who gains control of a criminal empire, only to see his past catch up with him, a storyline that plays like the dark version of T’Challa’s arc. Providing thematic relevance were A Prophet, which looks at “the effect of an institution on a person,” Moolaadé’s grappling with the tension between African and Western traditions, and Mother Of George’s celebration of African culture. Most importantly, Coogler cited three Spike Lee joints: Do The Right Thing, School Daze, and Malcolm X. All explore racial fault lines in a way that’s fair to the players on both sides, just as T’Challa’s and Killmonger’s opposing views about how to utilize Wakanda’s resources are both sympathetic. Visually, the film Timbuktu was an inspiration, while Blade Runner’s futurism was a touchstone for Panther’s Afrofuturism. Finally, the stunning imagery of the documentaries Baraka and Samsara seeped into Panther’s depiction of the natural world.

Infinity War is beholden to the various tones of the individual characters and their prior films, so it makes sense that the inspirations the Russos cited—the ’90s crime films Out Of Sight and 2 Days In The Valley—weren’t named for their visuals or themes, but for their narrative thrusts, as the biggest film in the MCU had the most ground to cover.

That brings us up to date, though early reports indicate some interesting additions to the curriculum. Next year’s Captain Marvel, set in the 1990s, is apparently inspired by the decade’s action movies, notably Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Ant-Man 2’s Reed named Martin Scorsese’s After Hours and Martin Brest’s Midnight Run as inspirations, citing their “forward momentum” and “road movie quality.” He also drew from the acclaimed writer Elmore Leonard, who wrote the novel Out Of Sight was based on. (If you like that, Jackie Brown and Get Shorty are also first-rate.) Intriguingly, he named Adventures In Babysitting and Go, one of the better Tarantino knockoffs of the late ’90s, as films he studied for how they took a small incident and had it spiral outward. The list suggests a mismatched hodgepodge, but if there’s one thing Marvel has shown, it’s that all kinds of inspirations can merge into a cohesive whole with a tone and vision all its own.

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