How Superheroes Got Funny: The Evolution of Comedy in the Marvel Cinematic Universe
It’s easy to forget that superhero movies are a composite genre. As comic book adaptations break box office records and take up more (and more) cultural real estate, “superhero movie” has come to gloss over these films’ rich DNA, as well as the ways the meta-genre is taking new turns. The psychedelia of Doctor Strange and the gore of Logan, for instance, technically belong to the same genre, but they are as different as basketball and 3D chess.But still, there are common threads, and for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, comedy has been the series’ unofficial calling card, since The Avengers. It’s a fair reputation—those movies be quippin’. But the comedy of the MCU has evolved just as much as its ambitions. Ant-Man and the Wasp,the most recent installment in Marvel’s multiphase film experiment, is a product of that leap and possibly an indicator of where the universe is headed. Beyond the consistent wisecracks and callbacks and banter, comedy has steadily morphed the storytelling and structure of Marvel movies, moving from accent to element. In the MCU, comedy has become continuity.
It’s been a journey. Iron Man, the universe’s first entry from 2008, is often pegged as the source of its comedic voice, but in many ways it’s still a boilerplate action adventure. Robert Downey Jr.’s chattering, overcaffeinated Tony Stark, and Gwyneth Paltrow’s vexed, very-over-it Pepper Potts provide recurring levity (as does Tony Stark’s robot pal Dum-E), but Iron Man is generally a serious movie. Set during the war on terror, the film introduces Tony Stark as a brilliant rake trading advanced weapons for government coin. When his weaponry ends up endangering his own life, Stark has a change of perspective and slowly embraces heroism. (Iron Man is essentially A Christmas Carol with a government contractor as Scrooge.) The film’s structure is built around that transformation and uses its action set pieces to depict Stark’s changing relationship to war. It has humor, but it emphasizes action.
The other early entries of the MCU use humor similarly. The Incredible Hulk, a chase thriller, delegates most of its humor to Bruce Banner’s poor anger management. Other than Tommy Lee Jones’s role as a surly drill sergeant, period piece Captain America: The First Avenger is virtually humorless. Thor has a slight comedic thrust, but it’s ultimately in service of making a hammer-wielding Norse god feel slightly less stupid. It stands out that most of the humor of Thor is limited to Earth, where Thor is a charismatic fish out of water; when he’s on Asgard, he’s just a loud brat.
The exception among these early movies is Iron Man 2. Notably, it is the first sequel of the MCU, so it’s not an origin story. Freed from the formalities of introductions, Iron Man 2 dwells on Tony Stark’s life as Iron Man, which has become even more baroque and excessive after he announced his identity in the previous movie. In one scene, Tony Stark throws a party and tells his guests that the Iron Man suit allows for urination—which he then demonstrates. The hammy villains, Ivan Vanko (played by Mickey Rourke), an embittered inventor with a pet bird, and Justin Hammer (played by Sam Rockwell), a government contractor who will do anything to secure contracts, are ripped straight from a comic book. Jokes come naturally under these conditions, and the movie lets them fly. Tony Stark makes a scene at a congressional hearing; Vanko and Hammer argue about birds. All this quipping extends to Nick Fury, Black Widow, and Phil Coulson, who are instrumental to Stark’s growing relationship to S.H.I.E.L.D. Through their exchanges with Stark, they too come off as witty know-it-alls. Doused in the comedic sensibilities established in Iron Man 2, these characters would maintain that tone as the universe expanded.
The Avengers uses that groundwork to highlight the frictions between its assembled characters, and to generate the emotional arc that sustains the film. The humor in the film stresses the shared arrogance among the heroes, as well as their differing priorities and perspectives. Captain America is a pollyannaish goodboy; Iron Man is entitled and insouciant; Nick Fury is irritable and evasive; Black Widow is distant and intense; Bruce Banner is scared stiff, of himself. No member of this team would be a good coworker, and their constant collisions highlight their motley arrangement. These tetchy exchanges are complemented by a healthy amount of visual and physical gags that also communicate this tension, like the Hulk punching Thor, Stark prodding Bruce Banner, Stark covering his eye to mimic Nick Fury, and the Hulk waking an unconscious Stark with a roar. All in all, comedy is essential to The Avengers’ narrative and vision, structuring the characters’ interactions even during action sequences. The Avengers, in addition to being a record-breaking film that plotted the course for Marvel’s current reign, is Marvel’s first true action comedy.
As Marvel has produced more sequels and standalone spinoffs, comedy has become more essential to introducing characters and giving the universe a sense of history. In Guardians of the Galaxy, humor is woven into the fabric of the film, from the psychedelic color palettes, to the kitsch soundtrack, to the inconceivable notion that a Sony Walkman could survive in deep space. Avengers: Age of Ultron uses Thor’s hammer for an extended gag that lays the groundwork for Vision to later join the team. Spider-Man’s nervous rambling in Captain America: Civil War sets up his plucky tenacity in Spider-Man: Homecoming;his suit, designed by Stark, nods to Iron Man’s established obsession with detail and branding. In Ant-Man, a goofy skirmish at an Avengers base leads to a friendship with Falcon. The Hulk’s gladiatorial run in Thor: Ragnarok colors his coyness in (the otherwise dour) Avengers: Infinity War. After he gets walloped by Thanos and then refuses to help out for the rest of the movie, it feels as if he has been humbled. The humor in these instances makes the universe feel lived in even as characters shuffle in and out of focus. In the MCU comedy is connective, cementing relationships across movies and story lines.
Ant-Man and the Wasp almost obsessively puts comedy first. Nominally a heist movie, Ant-Man and the Wasp depicts an unplanned caper that takes place during Scott Lang’s last few days as a ward of the state. Paul Rudd plays Lang as impatient and annoyed; it feels like he’s at the DMV on his birthday. Placed on house arrest for siding with Captain America in Civil War, Ant-Man’s problems are normal as hell: He wants to spend more time with his daughter, and get his business off the ground. He’s a dad, an ex-convict, and then a superhero. Hope van Dyne, his eventual partner, has similar priorities. She and her dad focus on rescuing her mother from the “quantum realm” while also dodging the feds. She’s a daughter, a scientist, and a fugitive. Superheroics are so low on her résumé that her superhero costume is a reveal. “You gave her blasters and wings?” Ant-Man complains to Hank Pym when he first sees her in action.
Director Peyton Reed, whose previous work includes Bring It On and Yes Man, uses comedy to bring all this normalcy to life. The characters constantly pivot away from superheroics to be regular—a character-wide focus that’s played up by a host of gags, from disruptive trivial dialog, to phone calls, to a portable building that doubles as a briefcase. In a pivotal scene involving an interrogation and truth serum, Michael Peña’s Luis argues with his captors over the science of truth serum, an absurd situation that Reed heightens by giving Luis’s babbling a surreal montage. There potentially are lives at risk, but the real stakes of the moment are secondary, maybe even tertiary to Luis’s hilarious jabbering. Where the comedy of Thor: Ragnarok mocks Thor’s über-silly mythology (see: “Are you the god of hammers?”) and that of Black Panther offers a sense of warm familiarity (see: “Hi auntie”), Ant-Man and the Wasp embraces outright buffoonery. Antagonists are distractions, not threats, and the protagonists are goofs, not wiseguys.
Even when the heroics become unavoidable, the humor in Ant-Man and the Wasp is a mainstay. Mid-movie, Ant-Man’s suit becomes a liability, causing him to become stuck at various sizes. Sometimes he’s a giant, other times he’s a dwarf; at all times he’s having a laugh. During a chase scene, he uses a truck bed as a scooter. During a mini-caper that takes place at an elementary school, he uses a child’s hoodie to freely wander the halls. It fits. Elsewhere, when Hope chides Lang for his constant use of “Cap” to refer to Captain America, it’s a nod to how nominal his heroics are. Ant-Man is a hero by association, not pedigree.
Ant-Man and the Wasp is ultimately a far cry from the slick espionage of the Captain America films, or the apocalyptic spectacles of the Avengers series, and Reed uses that distance to render Lang’s small world in pointed detail. Comedy isn’t used just to lighten up heavy moments or to lubricate spaces between action sequences. It’s essential to Ant-Man’s persona and relationships.
Marvel’s relationship to comedy is often mischaracterized. Relative to Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, Bryan Singer’s X-Men run, and the entries in the DC Extended Universe, the MCU is certainly peppier and brighter. But the real distinction is a willed effort to make comedy a storytelling device and not just a point of contrast. Funnier jokes wouldn’t have made Suicide Squad or Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice less incomprehensible. And cutting the deeply unfunny dance scene from Spider-Man 3 couldn’t save it from its jumbled script. More to the point, the original Ant-Man is hilarious, but it isn’t good. Scott Lang is pegged as an inveterate criminal despite committing one crime, and the constant jokes do little to make his shame not feel contrived. Ant-Man and the Wasp corrects that by tethering his perspective and his shame to the structure of the film. It can be a heist flick, a superhero adventure, a sci-fi thriller, a sequel, and an action comedy all at once because its ultimate commitment is to the story. After 10 years of folks in capes and costumes, the rhythm of all this MCU jokiness is familiar, for sure—but the groove remains fresh.