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Emergence of Genre Subversion in the MCU

The vast majority of movies that appeal to large audiences tend to fit certain genre criteria. The benefits of such an approach are manifold, but two key advantages come to mind immediately: the audience knows what to expect, and the creators know what the audience expects. When superhero movies rose to the peak of entertainment, it was clear that they followed a specific formula and that they blindly adhered to genre structure. However, in recent years it seems that, for reasons that this article will seek to uncover, there has been a shift among the viewing audience that is beginning to appreciate when a genre becomes subverted.

It is not without reason that “the MCU has particularly succeeded in capturing the spotlight.” A. G. Holdier (2018), a doctoral student at the University of Arkansas and an Affiliated Graduate Fellow at the University of South California, claims that such success can be attributed to “the crafted authenticity and depth of the cohesive universe portrayed in these stories” (74). Exploring this idea further, one realizes that said cohesion comes not only as a result of fictional world-building, but also as a result of specific narrative structuring.

Note: The formulaic superhero genre produced iconic characters - a decade later, maybe it is time to alter the formula (The Scarlett Witch,, 2022)

In order to speak of genre subversion, one must first establish what a specific genre entails. In simple terms, a cinematic genre is a way of "classifying according to generic categories ... in order to situate and rank recurring narrative, ideological, and aesthetic forms and elements within cinematic production as a whole" (Moine, 2008, xii). A clear delineation of a specific genre is, however, difficult to produce because genres are often merging and fluid, allowing directors and screen writers to freely move between them without feeling constrained by certain markings of genre as such. With the current state of cinematography, one can easily claim that superhero movies produced within the Marvel Cinematic Universe have become typified and they themselves create a cinematic genre. Some of their key features include a powerful protagonist, quippy humor, huge budgets, and a great deal of computer-generated imagery (CGI).

This superhero genre was established in the 2008 Iron Man movie from which the entirety of the new-age MCU stems. In the movie, the audience was presented with a powerful protagonist (whose main gift is genius-level intellect) who, due to a traumatic event, is forced to utilize his gift. The hero then decides to use his powers for good and defeats a villainous character. Throughout the plot, the tension of heavy themes and elements is broken with witty remarks and one-liners that seek to remind the audience that the movie is not meant to be taken entirely seriously. This lack of seriousness is of vital importance: often the superhero genre relies on exaggerated suspension of disbelief. For example, a hero might not utilize an ability he/she was shown to possess earlier because the plot needs to move forward - in these movies, the abilities of superheroes are subjected to scene-to-scene (or movie-to-movie) alterations in the service of the plot.

Note: The MCU formula turned a fringe comic book character into one of the most recognizable superheroes worldwide (Iron Man,, 2008)

Nowhere are these alterations more evident than in sequels where, if the plot demands it, the entirety of the established power hierarchy from the previous movie is discarded in order to make the new plot possible. A clear example of this can be found in the 2021Spider-man: No Way Home, where Doctor Strange is temporarily defeated by Spider-Man in the mirror dimension which, as evidenced by earlier movies, Doctor Strange controls entirely - but the plot needed Spider-Man to emerge victorious. It is a pivotal moment in the movie, yet the high ratings on the two most popular movie review sites, IMDb (8.4) and Rotten Tomatoes (93%), prove that audiences do not mind these leaps of logic when dealing with the superhero genre. This leads us to its final and most prominent aspect: the audience allows for illogical plot construction and for convenient plot developments simply because they are aware of the fact that they are watching a superhero movie. It is based on comic books after all - how logical must any of it be?

Yet, despite their commercial success, seasoned film critics often find many faults with such cinema. Martin Scorsese (2019), an American film director, producer, and screen writer, commented that the superhero movies are removed from the true nature of cinema and that such movies lack a key component of film:

For me, for the filmmakers I came to love and respect, for my friends who started making movies around the same time that I did, cinema was about revelation … It was about confronting the unexpected on the screen and in the life it dramatized and interpreted, and enlarging the sense of what was possible in the art form (para. 4-5 ).

Without a doubt, many accomplished directors of classic, artistic cinema would agree with Scorsese, but the very predictable and formulaic nature of the superhero genre is a large part of what made it so commercially successful. Easy-to-follow plot, flashy effects, simple character arcs, and clear distinction between good and evil – this is what the audience at large seems to want.

The first true diversion from the formula (for the MCU) came in Avengers: Infinity War (2018) where the villain emerged victorious. A scene was created in which a hero dealt a seemingly final blow to the enemy – in every other MCU movie, Thor would have gone for Thanos' head and the story would have had a happy ending. Moving away from that tried and true plot resolution, however, allowed the usually light-hearted narrative to explore deeper topics of loss, defeat, and helplessness – and none of it hindered the movie’s box office results as the audience seemed to enjoy that breath of fresh air.

Note: Spider-man vanishes as the heroes have been defeated (Spider-man and Tony Stark,, 2018)

That having been said, Infinity War was still stylistically similar to every other movie within its genre with CGI action and timely humor as the backbone of the entire movie experience. The only real change was the tone set by the unhappy ending. Once that phase came to a close with Avengers: Endgame (2019) that effectively canceled out everything unique about Infinity War, MCU again showed willingness to slightly depart from the formula. The 2021 Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings included atypical fighting scenes choregoraphed without CGI that placed martial arts (and not colorful, crazy effects) at the forefront of action. But again, this lasted only for a scene or two before everything returned to the flashy, green screen based formula. A much more signifcant change, one that adjusts the entire tone of the movie, exists in the newest entry to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022) was directed by Sam Raimi, an American filmmaker, and it is his artistic touch that sets this movie apart from the rest within its genre. Yes, the story has a cliché ending, and yes, the plot largely depends on the audiences’ willingness to ‘go with the flow’ of the various abilities that the superheroes exhibit throughout the movie. What makes the movie special, however, is its general stylistic idea – Raimi subverts the superhero genre by merging it with horror. This is by no means a masterpiece of suspense, but it does showcase how much room there is to play with these types of movies. The scenes of the villain chasing the ‘good guys’ while bloodied and limping through narrow passages, a villain that they have no chance of defeating in combat, creates a memorable experience. Raimi is creative, his villain is vicious, the deaths are gruesome and horror-worthy.

Note: Scarlet Witch embodied key tropes and elements of horror cinema (The Scarlet Witch on the Hunt,, 2022)

But what specifically did Raimi do to subvert the superhero genre? He did not shy away from utilizing the large budget, nor did he lessen the amount of CGI; likewise, humor is still used to break tension at certain key points of the narrative as if to remind the audience that the new Multiverse of Madness is still a superhero movie. Raimi's intervention into the formula comes in short spurts and blips of artistic expression: the chase sequence with a limping monstrosity, the ruthlessness with which a certain organized quartet was defeated, the sea captured in a teacup... These details are small, but provide promise of change. There is no doubt that much more could have been done in terms of subverting the actual formula, but if Raimi's movie is a sign of things to come, there is excitement regarding the future of the superhero genre and what it might grow to become.

The genre established by Iron Man remained largely the same until Infinity War showed that altering the formula will not negatively affect the box office. Shang-Chi tested the waters with several non-CGI action sequences, but it was not until Raimi's movie that the stale superhero genre was ever so slightly pushed toward a unique cinematic experience - that is something that must be applauded. One can only hope that the box office success of the Multiverse of Madness will encourage new, braver subversions of the MCU superhero genre. It must be said that this is by no means a revolutionary change, but merely a step in a new direction that will hopefully allow for even greater excursions into the unknown. Maybe one day it will lead to a superhero movie that even Scorsese will truly enjoy.


Holdier, A. G. (2018). On Superhero Stories: The Marvel Cinematic Universe as Tolkienesque Fantasy. Mythlore, 36(2 (132)), 73–88.

Moine, R. (2008). Cinema Genre. Translated by Alistair Fox and Hilary Radner. Blackwell Publishing.

Scorsese, M. (2019). I Said Marvel Movies Aren’t Cinema. Let Me Explain. The New York Times.

Visual sources:

Cover image:

Team Iron Man. (2016). [Movie Still]. Lindenlink. Retrieved from:

Iron Man. (2008). [Movie Still]. Retrieved from:

Spider-man and Tony Stark. (2018). [Movie Still]. . Retrieved from:

Team Iron Man. (2016). [Movie Still]. Lindenlink. Retrieved from:

The Scarlet Witch. (2022). [Movie Still]. Retrieved from:

The Scarlet Witch on the Hunt. (2022). [Movie Still]. Retrieved from:


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Dino Mušić

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