It's hard to pinpoint — perhaps it was the Guardians of the Galaxy dance-fighting to save the cosmos, or Black Panther and the Wakandans rocking our collective world — when Marvel surpassed Star Wars as Hollywood's best film franchise.
This confession is probably tantamount to blasphemy in some circles of fandom, and it's not easy for someone like me, who had the tales of Jedi and Sith, "Rebel scum" and Imperial villainy hardwired into his DNA at an early age. Star Trek, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Fast & Furious bro-fests and James Bond flicks all left an impression on me, though none of them ever touched my heart and soul like Star Wars did.
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That is, until Robert Downey Jr. suited up in Iron Man armor, Chris Hemsworth hoisted Thor's mighty hammer and Chris Evans (the best of the Chrises, for the record) grabbed Captain America's star-spangled shield.
Over the course of 10 years and 18 movies — with the 19th, Avengers: Infinity War, arriving April 27 — Marvel has built a grand narrative of powerful superheroes and formidable foes that will likely never be repeated in our lifetimes. Especially astounding is the consistently high quality of the films, particularly in the last two years with Captain America: Civil War (91% positive reviews on RottenTomatoes.com), Spider-Man: Homecoming (92%), Thor: Ragnarok (92%) and Black Panther (96%). Comparatively, Star Wars has four truly great films, and just as many iffy prequels.
Even though they pull from comic books dating back to the 1940s, the Marvel films always feel new and forward-thinking in a culture obsessed with looking backward. Star Wars seems to struggle with its own storied mythology, leaning into familiar territory rather than breaking new ground in spinoffs like Rogue One and Solo: A Star Wars Story (out May 25). Last Jedi faced its own lineage head-on when bad guy Kylo Ren says, “Let the past die. Kill it if you have to.”
I won't be cutting out Star Wars anytime soon — it's just a part of my being at this point. But that quote stayed with me after the movie, enough to spark an internal debate about why I love this thing so much. A lot of it simply comes down to nostalgia: Watching The Force Awakens was a rush not only because it was a well-crafted movie with intriguing new heroes and fun dialogue, but because it spoke to the 6-year-old within who wowed at X-wings strafing TIE Fighters and a smirky Han Solo spouting one-liners.
To its credit, the original Star Wars trilogy still has some of the most iconic movie moments ever — nearly 40 years later, Darth Vader's "I am your father" reveal to Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back is still a breathtaking gut punch. Just as shocking, though, is Captain America and Black Widow discovering Hydra’s decades-old infiltration of the U.S. government in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, an enemies-among-us scenario that resonates in today’s political climate.
When I was a kid, the real-world elements of Star Wars that were sprinkled in (rise of fascism, resistance to absolute power) didn't register as much as AT-ATs stomping all over the ice planet Hoth or Ewoks pelting Stormtroopers with large rocks. Also, Darth Vader and the Empire seem a lot less cool once you grow up. (Which is why I have a backpack that sports a Rebellion symbol rather than an Imperial cog.)
While today's generation of youngsters lose themselves in the escapist parts of Marvel movies (wondrous superpowers, extraordinary abilities), I find those to be the least interesting aspects as a fortysomething. Black Panther is fantastic because it's the story of an African ruler struggling to keep his country together as the sins of his father unexpectedly arise. Homecoming is about a teen weighing having great responsibility against just being a kid. Ant-Man centers on an ex-con fighting to be the heroic dad his daughter deserves.
Luke Skywalker spoke to us Reagan-era youth as an orphan who grew up on the fly, getting into adventures with his friends and coming to grips with his father’s choices. Watching his sacrifice in Last Jedi gave a satisfying closure, yet Captain America’s arc is honestly a little richer: Steve Rogers spent his life standing up to bullies, whether as a 95-pound weakling or buff paragon of freedom, and maintaining a staunch moral center, even if it means battling a fellow Avenger to protect his best friend (who, granted, is a sleeper-agent assassin).
Star Wars is stronger than ever in pop culture and won’t be going away anytime soon. And it will always have the best toys. As for the movies, well, second place isn’t too shabby. The heart wants what it wants, and for now it's feeling pretty #TeamMarvel.