The 16 Handles Theory of the Marvel Cinematic Universe

So, this is something I’ve been thinking since we recorded our Captain America: Civil War podcast. In the podcast, we asked whether or not Marvel house style trumps director style, and if that makes a difference when watching a movie set in the MCU.

Since then, what I realized is that, for me, watching MCU movies now feels like going to a 16 Handles where 15 of the handles are broken. Sure, the toppings are different, but it’s always the same flavor underneath.

Nothing about it is bad. It’s dessert! Who doesn’t love dessert? I go to 16 Handles all the time. But, if you asked me what my best dining experience was last year, I’m never going to say, “Oh, it was that time I went to 16 Handles,” because I go there so often.

In the case of the MCU, the directorial flourishes are the toppings. Sure, you can say that the movies are all different because Guardians of the Galaxy is a little jokier, while The Avengers is a little more epic. But, still, they’re all MCU movies, which means they follow a Marvel template, with the same Marvel story beats in each one—it’s basically the same dish each time.

I didn’t always feel this way. Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger were different enough from each other that I didn’t feel like I was being served the same thing repeatedly. Captain America was period, so it had a totally different vibe. Thor, for better or for worse, was steeped in Kenneth Branagh’ ornateness—it didn’t feel like a touch of decoration slapped on top of a typical superhero movie. And, since I don’t think Jon Favreau has much of a voice of his own, the voice that comes through the most in Iron Man is Downey’s.

I believe Rob said in the podcast that the first installment of each character’s franchise is the one that’s allowed to be a different flavor, but that’s not really true for me anymore. There wasn’t much distinct about Ant Man, except that one bit with the Thomas the Tank Engine that I bet dollars to donuts is a remnant from the Edgar Wright script.

With Doctor Strange, Black Panther, and this new incarnation of Spider-Man on the horizon, I hope Marvel gets its part-one mojo back, or lets the movies get a little bit weirder and different and a little disconnected from each other. If not, it’ll be fine. I’m not against empty calories. But I’d be so much more excited if I was sampling something entirely new each time.