One of the most consistent complaints I’ve seen about the MCU is that they’re “cookie cutter.” It seems an odd complaint to me, honestly. At best, it’s an example of how very different the results can be from using the same cookie cutter, not unlike the moment in Death to Smoochy where Sheldon Mopes announces that the cookie of the day is . . . a rocket ship! Which, um, was not the intent. From my own personal experience, I know you can even get very different results using the exact same dough and the exact same cutter depending on how you handle it.
But all right, let’s take the criticism at face value. Let’s pretend that the World War II period piece of Captain America: The First Avenger is exactly like the Afrofuturism of Black Panther is exactly like the space acid trip of Thor: Ragnarok. That’s fine. The question to me is, “Is this complaint more valid when it comes to genre pictures than ‘respectable’ ones?” Because it’s a criticism that’s more likely to be filed against movies in a genre the person does not care for.
The last time I stayed at my mother’s over Christmas, she had gotten into the habit of going to see a movie that day. Much of our family had moved away, and her mother was in an assisted living facility, and there just wasn’t, to her, much point in planning a big dinner. It will let you know exactly when this was that she asked me and my younger sister whether we wanted to see Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Billy Elliot. My sister objected to Billy Elliot on the grounds that she’d heard it was predictable. “Of course it’s predictable!” I replied. “It’s a dance movie! There’s only one plot. Kid wants to dance, kid is prevented from dancing, kid triumphs and dances.”
And I mean, that’s all dance movies, right? Not necessarily about a kid, but there’s the plot. (Oh, sure, Black Swan adds madness, but still.) But from those same ingredients, you get such disparate movies as Billy Elliot and Dirty Dancing and, yes, Saturday Night Fever. Some of the movies—many of the movies—made to that recipe are terrible, but others are classics. Singin’ in the Rain and The Red Shoes are made of the same ingredients as Step Up and its interminable sequels, but no one says they’re lesser films because of that. At least, I hope not.
In a genre people like, things are more likely to be called “genre conventions” than “formula” or “cookie cutter.” (Interesting that the only two kitchen terms I can think of applied in film criticism are both insults.) And goodness knows there’s a benefit to doing interesting things with bending or subverting genre conventions, even in a genre I like. For example, you know, having the feared Big Bad of the piece turn out to be a drunken washed-up actor who’s been hired by someone the hero knows and doesn’t consider a threat. Or having the hero be an ex-con who gets into costumed crime fighting because he’s trying to find a way to pay his child support and be able to be in his daughter’s life.
I’m not saying you have to like all genres. I’m not even saying there’s nothing to criticize there—get me going, and I can find plenty to criticize about the MCU, starting with its handling of women. I’m not even necessarily saying that any MCU movie is going to be considered equivalent in thirty or forty years to The Red Shoes. You may not even think they’re going to be as iconic as Footloose. (Though there’s not a one I don’t like better than the toxic masculine ugliness that is Saturday Night Fever.) All I’m saying is that the criticism isn’t necessarily as damning as all that. Also, you’d be amazed by the results you can find under “cookie cutter” under Google Image Search if you don’t have Safe Search on.