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With 26 films and 14 TV shows so far, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has become the biggest franchise in film history, and competitor-wise, it’s not even close. In just 13 years, Marvel properties have grossed more than $23 billion at the box office. That’s more than Star Wars and Harry Potter combined. How has the MCU managed to be so successful? The reasons are certainly up for debate. 

Having Disney's deep pockets and powerhouse marketing at its disposal certainly doesn’t hurt. Marvel claims it has always had a plan for where it's going with all of this, but between rights disputes, contracts renegotiated all the time, Chadwick Boseman dying, etc., it’s sometimes looks like Marvel has just been furiously laying down tracks in front of a speeding train and hoping for the best. It's like when Iron Man is asked about his plan of attack.

The Anti-Dark Knight

Which brings us to what might be the MCU’s secret weapon: It knows now not to take itself too seriously. It took a while to figure out the right balance, & filmmakers haven’t always gotten it right, but they’ve learned to not be afraid to let their heroes crack a joke, or more importantly, be the butt of the joke. 

Marvel

"JARVIS, make a note. Remind me not to wake up in the morning ever again.”

The MCU actually nailed it right out of the gate with the first Iron Man. When it was released in 2008, dark and gritty superheroes were everywhere. Peter Parker went emo in Spider-Man 3, the only laughs in X-Men: The Last Stand were completely unintentional, and Christopher Nolan was just getting started with his Really Dark Knight trilogy. Having a pathological smartass like Tony Stark show up in a gold and red suit was really a refreshing change of pace. 

But then the MCU had its first misfire with The Incredible Hulk, a dark and gritty superhero movie that got lost in a sea of other dark and gritty superhero movies. The movie really didn’t have any funny (or even memorable) moments because Bruce Banner spent the majority of it avoiding human contact almost as much as trying not to hulk out, which pretty much sounds like the plotline to our lives, now that we think about it.

It wasn’t until Bruce started hanging around other people in The Avengers and Thor: Ragnarok that we started to see the comic potential of the character: Bruce Banner being socially awkward to an almost painful degree, and Hulk tossing demigods around Looney Tunes-style.

Marvel

Hulk smash puny demigod.

Captain America was the noblest Avenger with the most serious story arc, so Marvel had to take a more subtle approach. He had plenty of people around him to crack jokes at his expense, but there were really only three jokes available about him: Cap was old-fashioned, he was having a hard time getting laid, and he's protected by an amazing rear flank.  

Super posterior serum is more like it.

The Secret Sauce Is … Sassy Sidekicks?

It took five movies for Marvel to truly figure out the secret to Thor’s comedy chops: If you’re gonna bring The God Of Thunder to life, you gotta give him a goofy sidekick for balance. The higher the stakes, the goofier his sidekicks needed to be. Thor: The Dark World was so bleak they had to warn us about it in the title. But bringing back the same gang of side characters from his first movie (even having one of them run around Stonehenge naked) wasn’t silly enough to offset the Norse gloom. 

Ragnarok showed Thor losing nearly everything he had left: Odin, Mjolnir, his hair, his eye, and his homeworld. This movie was a dead dog away from being the saddest movie ev-- oh, wait! The film had that too! But it ended up being the MCU’s funniest installment because Thor had the God of Mischief, the smarmy Grandmaster, drunk Valkyrie, insecure Hulk, and overly polite rock monster Korg to play off.

Marvel

What film couldn't benefit from an injection of Goldblum?

Infinity War saw Thor losing what little he still had. Heimdall got stabbed to death, Loki got killed for real this time and Thanos wasted half of the Asgardian refugees in the first ten minutes. So, they had him spend the rest of the movie hanging out with a talking racoon and a sentient tree. In Endgame, Thor came full circle and turned into the goofy sidekick himself before reclaiming his self-worth. 

No comedy weapon has been more hilariously lethal for Marvel than the wacky sidekick trope. Every hero now has at least one comic-relief pal along for the ride.

It wasn’t just Tony Stark’s wit that made the Iron Man solo films funny. Marvel also surrounded him with side characters who provided a counterbalance to his egotistical impulses and weren’t afraid to put him in his place. Pepper Potts, Rhodey, Nick Fury, Agent Coulson, Black Widow, Harley Keener, hubris, karma, the laws of gravity.  Even J.A.R.V.I.S., an A.I. assistant programmed to do everything Tony demanded, would frequently call him out on his BS.

For being king of an entire nation, Black Panther sure had a lot of smarties mouthing off at him. Captain Marvel had Nick Fury before he became such a hard case. Spider-Man has Ned Leeds and MJ. Doctor Strange has Wong. Ant-Man has Luis.  (We should all have a Luis.) WandaVision brought us Agatha Harkness. One could even argue that the Guardians of the Galaxy movies are nothing but wacky sidekicks.

Marvel

That feeling when your entire team is made up of punchline-spouting malcontents.

Great, But Does Marvel Have A Problem Now?

The sidekick-charged, laugh-at-yourself comedy formula has worked very well, but is the funny-bubble about to burst? For example, unless Taika Waititi pulls off a comedic miracle with next year’s Thor: Love and Thunder, the character of Thor may be played out. There’s not a whole hell of a lot more they can take away from the poor guy, and how many ways can you make a Thunder God funny? As Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence will tell you, it’s all downhill after you put on the fat suit.

Marvel

The Fat Thor abides.

Another issue: Other studios have been taking notes and incorporating more comedy into their expanded universes. The Fast & Furious saga had its buddy action comedy spin-off Hobbs & Shaw. The X-Men franchise brought in Deadpool. DC enlisted Joss Whedon to make Justice League feel more like The Avengers and James Gunn to bring some of his Guardians of the Galaxy magic to The Suicide Squad

DC also had Aquaman speak almost entirely in one-liners, made Shazam! goofy as hell, and finally allowed Batman to poke fun at himself. BUT ONLY IN LEGO FORM! Once audiences get tired of the comedy super-cycle, we’ll be back to dark and brooding superheroes in no time.

But the biggest MCU thing going forward is they may have shot themselves in the comedy foot with Infinity War and Endgame. Their entire cinematic universe went through two monumental traumas: Snapping half of all life out of existence, and the chaos that ensued by bringing them all back five years later just as everyone was just starting to move on with their lives. That is not an easy comedy backdrop.

Remember how weird everything got after 9/11, where we were sure that irony was dead and we were kinda lost on what was even funny anymore? That kinda cloud is gonna hang over the Marvel movies for a little while, and levity will only cut it so far. 

Spider-Man: Far From Home, Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and WandaVision have already dealt with the aftermath. Even the trailer for Eternals had to address why they didn’t fight Thanos, and in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, a character brings up Thanos’ snap at a party and guess what? Party’s over. The point is, the Snap and the Blip are gonna be referenced in every MCU movie for the foreseeable future, and it’s gonna suck some of the joy out of whatever humor is presented to offset it.

But hey, now that the MCU has introduced time travel and the multiverse into the mix, maybe they’ll find a way to seamlessly retcon their way back into a hard reboot of the whole damn thing. 

Hilarious.

Top image: Marvel

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