The Marvel Cinematic Universe has undergone significant changes over the last decade, since the release of Iron Man in 2008, which gave a start to the series of films about the Avengers. The movie introduced Tony Stark as the first official member of the group as well as established a system for a potential crossover of characters from various comic books. The Avengers, which was released in 2012, brought Iron Man together with other superhero characters to facilitate the collaboration of individuals who, at first glance, appear to be incapable of working together as a team (Chang 2012). The purpose of the current paper is to provide a comparative analysis of Iron Man and The Avengers, particularly with regards to plot, characterization, technical and symbolic codes, and genre conventions.
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Distinguishing Features of the Superhero Film Genre
Superhero films are highly popular at the moment, and there are some features that distinguish this genre from others. First of all, most superhero films focus on character development. By the conventions of the genre, this usually includes an ordinary person overcoming their fallacies, such as fear or insecurities, to fulfill their heroic purpose. Secondly, another feature of superhero films is that they have high budgets and feature a lot of special effects (Chambliss, Svitavsky & Fandido, 2018). Thirdly, superhero films are aimed at entertaining the audience, and thus they feature a certain degree of humor and jokes to keep the audience’s attention. These features are evident both in Iron Man and in The Avengers, making these films excellent examples of the superhero film genre.
Characteristics of Main Characters
As this section will show, the conventions of the genre in terms of characterization are followed in both films, although there are some significant differences. In Iron Man, the focus is on a single main character, who defies the conventional superhero image at the beginning of the film but grows into it towards the end. At first, Stark appears to be shallow and cynical, although smart and innovative (Larson n.d.). He does not experience any ethical concerns while selling weapons and uses his charms to win over women even though he fears long-term commitment.
Being captured by terrorists was a turning point for Stark’s character. At this point, a shift from Tony, who is a wealthy skeptic caring only about his interests, to Iron Man occurs. Through the development of the plot, it becomes evident that Tony would find more value in protecting others from harm instead of serving himself. This would later become the key theme for the transformation of Stark into Iron Man: putting the lives and interests of other people as a priority, often harming himself, and allowing health to deteriorate for the greater good. Hence, the film defied genre conventions by presenting the character as an antihero first, but by the end of the film, his image fitted in with other superheroes.
The same detailedness of characterization is not evident in the Avengers, which is justified by the sheer number of main characters in the film. Hence, instead of focusing on the development of individual characters, the screenwriters sought to explore the development of the team as a whole (Bradshaw 2012). Initially, the Avengers lack connection, which prevents them from working together effectively (Yockey 2017). Stark appears to be concerned with proving his stance as a hero and competes with Captain America for leadership, while Banner and Thor are more concerned with their own problems. There is some closeness between Hawkeye and Black Widow, but both characters are not explored in-depth, leaving them at the margins of the group (Ginn 2017). As the plot develops, these differences in motivations cause tensions and conflict, which culminate in Loki’s escape and Coulson’s death. The latter event impacts the group more profoundly, forcing them to come together and work as a group. Hence, the narrative of heroic development is evident in both films, but its execution is different due to the plot differences between Iron Man and The Avengers.
Technical and Symbolic Codes
Settings, music, and graphics are the principal technical codes that create a heroic atmosphere, highlight the conflict between good and evil, and maintain the audience’s attention throughout the movie (Flanagan, Livingstone & McKenny 2016). Both films comply with the technical codes applied in the superhero genre, although the application of these codes varies slightly.
The settings in both films are relatively diverse to represent complex and fast plot dynamics. The scenes are fast-paced and limited in their length, which allows many transitions between settings. However, there is still a sufficient degree of structure in the two films’ settings. The clear distinction between different groups of settings contributes to the clarity of the conflict because of visual differences. The settings where villains hide are dark, unwelcoming, and disorganized, usually with bare stone walls, such as Loki’s basement in The Avengers and the terrorists’ camp in Iron Man. The heroes’ home grounds, including Stark’s home and the helicarrier, are well-lit, organized, and more elaborate in design. The critical conflict sites use a mixture of these two settings in terms of graphics. In this way, the use of graphics aids in storytelling, bringing forward the conflict and distinguishing heroes from villains in an understandable way that is characteristic of the superhero film genre (Flanagan, Livingstone & McKenny 2016). In addition, the heavy use of CGI graphics in both films complies with the technical codes of the superhero film genre by creating a fast-paced, visually rich narrative.
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The music in the two films is very different, which can also be attributed to variations in plot and characters. Iron Man is recognized for the use of rock music, such as AC/DC’s “Back in Black” (Larson n.d.) the use of this type of music fulfills two goals. On the one hand, it adds to the characterization of Tony Stark, and it is made clear that he loves rock music. On the other hand, it contributes to action sequences by adding to pace and creating a rhythm (Flanagan, Livingstone & McKenny 2016).
The Avengers features an original soundtrack composed specially for the film. During most scenes, the music is barely noticeable and adds to the atmosphere: tense music is used for fights and conflict scenes, and calm or upbeat sounds appear during initial introductions and conversations. Epic music is among the conventions of the superhero film genre, but it is used carefully so as not to overload or distract the audience. One example of its use can be seen during the final battle: a group shot of the Avengers is accompanied by the main theme of the movie. Hence, the music fits in with the other aspects of production in both films and contributes to action, atmosphere, and characterization.
The symbolic codes are the elements of production that convey meaning beyond the obvious. According to Flanagan, Livingstone, and McKenny (2016), in superhero films, these codes usually involve specific visual aspects of the film, such as costumes and acting, since these components are particularly important to the genre. In terms of these aspects, both films comply with the codes set by the comic books in order to represent the characters as close to the source as possible. The portrayal of Tony Stark is particularly close to his comic book representation, and the costumes include the different models of the Iron Man costume that appeared in the comics. Similarly, the Avengers wear their most recognized costumes, with only minor details altered. The casting in both films, too, was clearly aiming to ensure compliance with the traditional images of the Avengers. Not only are the characters similar to their comic book counterparts visually, but they also create images associated with their respective heroic identities through acting. In both films, the symbolic elements are used to add meaning to the characters’ portrayal and the relationships between them. Additionally, they create a connection between the film and the comic books, thus supporting genre representation.
Genre conventions represent the established ways of creating films of a certain genre. In terms of characterization, both films conform with superhero genre conventions by creating a clear distinction between heroes and villains. Additionally, the happy ending in both films, where the villain is defeated and humanity is saved from threat by a heroic act, is another genre convention that has been fulfilled. When it comes to production, Iron Man and The Avengers used high budgets to create fast-paced action sequences using a lot of special effects. The use of CGI in superhero films is also conventional, and it is hard to think of a modern superhero film that does not capitalize on this feature.
Stages of Production
Each stage of production of the two films contributed to the way they portrayed the distinguishing features of the superhero film genre, its codes, and conventions. These stages include development, pre-production, filming, and post-production. The development stage focused on creating the plot and translating characters from comic books to live-action. In Iron Man and The Avengers, the plot draws on comic book stories, and the characters’ backgrounds also comply with conventions and the audience’s expectations. During pre-production, the most critical aspect for both films was casting and costume design, which enabled to bring of famous comic book characters to life (Flanagan, Livingstone & McKenny 2016). The Avengers, it also included designing settings and creatures to be created using CGI. During the production stage, the goal was to complete the filming while staying within the specified budget, so both films used a combination of street and green room locations to make the production cheaper (Chambliss, Svitavsky & Fandido, 2018). The use of stunt doubles is common in superhero films, and both projects recruited used stunt doubles to shoot high-quality action sequences. Post-production was an instrumental stage for Iron Man and The Avengers since it included editing, applying CGI effects, and adding music. The post-production stage was what helped to ensure that the films comply with the technical codes of the genre, including fast-paced action sequences, the use of light and color, and music.
All in all, it can be said that both films comply with the distinguishing features of the superhero film genre in terms of plot, characterization, and codes, thus fulfilling the viewers’ expectations completely. The key conventions followed in both films are plot structure, character development, action, and audio-visual presentation. Nevertheless, the execution of the two films still contains some original elements. In Iron Man, this includes the use of rock music to add to characterization and the increased contrast between the character’s initial and developed portrayal, whereas in The Avengers, individual character development is substituted with team development. By adding these elements to the films, Marvel managed to offer the audience a fresh and interesting interpretation of famous superhero stories, which led to the success of the franchise.
Flanagan, M, Livingsrone, A & McKennt, M 2016, The Marvel Studios phenomenon: inside a transmedia universe, London, Bloomsbury.
The source offers an all-encompassing look on the phenomenon of Marvel movies and their value to the entertainment industry. The authors argue that the transfer of a fully realised universe concept to the big screen was the most important moment of modern film history. There are sections in the book that explain the importance of Iron Man to the conception of the universe as well as the pre-determining sequence of events that would unfold in later movies to create a cohesive storyline. The source’s credibility lies in extensive research supporting the authors’ findings, as well as in their academic qualifications.
Larson, E n.d., Iron Man: an analysis, Web.
This web resource provides a comprehensive analysis of the first Iron Man movie, with a focus placed on the visual and dramatic aspects of the film, which are achieved through various special effects and artistic choices of the director. The sequence-by-sequence analysis is valuable because it brings attention to details that one may not notice. For instance, the discussion about the soundtrack of the film is greatly nuanced, which is important to the goal of the comparative analysis. The author has a degree in English, which allows them to offer credible insight on various types of media, including film.
Bradshaw, P 2012, ‘The Avengers – review’, The Guardian, Web.
Chambliss, J, Svitavsky, W & Fandido, D 2018, Assembling the Marvel Cinematic Universe: essays on the social, cultural and geopolitical domains, Jefferson, McFarland & Company, Inc.
Chang, J 2012, ‘Marvel’s The Avengers’, Variety, Web.
Ginn, S 2017, Marvel’s Black Widow from spy to superhero: essay on an avenger with a very specific skill set, Jefferson, McFarland & Company, Inc.
Yockey, M 2017, Make ours Marvel: media convergence and a comics universe, Austin, TX, University of Texas Press.
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