F vs the Franchises: Superhero Fatigue (Part 2 - The Un-Marveling of the MCU)

 In itself, my confusion as to what’s going on – and not going on – with the MCU isn’t much of an indictment for the pop-culture juggernaut. But it is telling that I’m seeing more commentary expressing fatigue with the MCU, such as this sign of resignation from a self-described life-long Marvel fan. Following Avengers: Endgame, the MCU seems to be creatively adrift. Attempts to launch new characters have met with mixed results – does anyone other than hardcore comics fans care about the Eternals? Sequels to characters who peaked with Endgame don’t seem to have stuck their landings. Efforts to put non-white-male characters in the spotlight come across as afterthoughts rather than a purposeful expression of value. And if there’s a unifying thread, whether as the build-up to a Thanos-level threat or something else, it doesn’t seem very clear in the hodge-podge of films. That it’s taken several films to give the next Thanos a name, Kang the Conqueror, isn’t especially encouraging, especially since the controversy surrounding Jonathan Majors is derailing that plan. If the fans are lukewarm, what can the MCU offer the rest of us?

My involvement with the MCU ended with Avengers: Infinity War, which means that, yes, I’ve never watched Endgame. The magical fluff of the infinity stones – a complete disregard for actual cosmology and physics – completely eroded any possible interest I could have in the resolution to Thanos’ snap. After all, when magic stones can fundamentally alter the fabric of reality, the plot could just as plausibly be resolved by introducing yet another magic stone to reverse the effects of the others than it is with whatever Endgame ultimately presented. When the problem is arbitrary and the solutions are equally arbitrary, there’s no reason to be invested in any outcome.

But my inclination to part ways with the MCU began long before Infinity War, bubbling to the surface with Captain America: Winter Soldier. By now, it’s hard to hold on to any tangible memory of the film, other than recollecting that it was briskly entertaining while, in my view, offering only the illusion of insight into the theme of freedom vs security. Whatever critique of imperialism and militarism the story might express is rendered harmless by its conventional hero-vs-megalomaniacs framing. Still, while I don’t think the film offers anything that hasn’t been done better in other films, I respect it as one of the MCU’s more successful attempts to add some thematic depth to its narrative. I can’t say the same of Captain America: Civil War, which is pretentious in its pseudo-moral posturing and embodies the most objectionable quality of superhero comics. Fundamentally, the film asks a good question – what oversight should the Avengers be subject to? – with a good scenario, namely, the deaths of innocent bystanders during the Avengers’ self-assigned operation to prevent the theft of a bioweapon. Unfortunately, the core drama that emerges from the tragedy is a shock tactic more than good characterization. We’re supposed to be surprised that the roguish, arrogant Tony Stark agrees that the Avengers should be overseen by the UN while the more selfless Steve Rogers argues for complete independence. And from there, we’re manipulated into viewing this as contest between ideological perspectives of equal weight. Yet Rogers is clearly wrong, and Stark – who at least has the good graces, and conscience, to feel guilt over the consequences of his past arrogance – clearly right. We don’t expect police officers, or the military, to act unilaterally without the oversight of civilian authorities so why would we make an exception for superheroes, especially when their capacity for destruction is so much greater? If the point was to dim Captain America as a moral beacon, the film certainly succeeds, but the rot is deeper than that. For one thing, the film frames the debate as between two men, along with military and political leaders, and excludes from the conversation the very people they and their fellow Avengers apparently care about protecting. Where superheroes risk a slide down the slippery slope to fascism, it’s here, in the powerful making decisions without the input, or even consent, of global communities. Worse is how the conflict plays out through violence, with Stark and Rogers each assembling their teams of super-powered sympathizers to fight it out (and cause extensive property damage in the process). That’s bad enough, but the worst comes at the film’s climax, when Stark learns the truth of his parents’ assassination by Bucky Barnes, aka the Winter Soldier, and that Rogers knew but didn’t share this truth. The result, of course, is Stark suggesting the three men seek out a psychologist for some group therapy to heal the emotional wounds. Oh, nah – that’s not what happens. They fight it out, just like noble comic book heroes are supposed to! The reflexive and consistent use of violence to solve conflicts, even interpersonal disagreements, confirms the extent to which the entire point of the film was to get characters to fight. It also proves the point that superheroes, especially these ones, certainly should not be blindly trusted – further confirmation that the comics industry hasn’t really learned the lesson Alan Moore tried to impart with Watchmen.

Beyond that, the MCU has generally been to me a variably entertaining offering, with only a few films  - Iron Man, Black Panther, Captain America, Ant-Man – standing out from the spandex-wearing crowd. The Guardians of the Galaxy films are my favorites of the lot. While he got a lot of flack from fans, I think Martin Scorsese was right in comparing the MCU to theme park experiences, given the emphasis on sensationalism and spectacle. I’d rate most of the MCU films as generally well-made B-movies. But I’d qualify the comparison by re-emphasizing my view that quality and entertainment value don’t necessarily correlate. A movie doesn’t have to be High Art to be enjoyable or personally meaningful, and it’s entirely plausible to view the MCU as a theme park experience but differ on how worthwhile it is to go for the ride. It may come as a surprise, but I’m actually disappointed that the MCU turned out the way it did. The finite nature of films offered a tidy solution to those aspects of the comics – sprawl and continuity – that make them inaccessible to the casual reader. Like a film version of DC’s Earth One series, the MCU’s curated content distilled, or at least tried to distill, the years of storytelling to give us the most essential version of their characters in a separate continuity, while intriguing fans with a reasonable reinvention and update that doesn’t rotely copy what they can get from the comics. For someone not into Marvel, I welcomed the opportunity to meet characters I hadn’t previously given much thought to. And with Jon Favreau at the helm, Iron Man offered a reason to be optimistic. Not only did it thrill as a superhero action/adventure, it offered a compelling moral transformation for Tony Stark, who is forced to confront his global impact as a weapons manufacturer. While Marvel ultimately did not extend the arc of that moral transformation, with Tony essentially continuing to create weapons or security systems with global impact, it was a terrific start that signaled the potential for more self-aware heroism, and richer storytelling, than the reflexively violent fare we were actually given.

Add to that the need to watch TV series to make sense of the most recent films, as well as the constant set-up of future movies, and the MCU has come to embody the exhausting sprawl that keeps me disinterested in Marvel’s comics. The exhaustion is even more damning when it comes from a comics fan like Jenna Busch, who calls for a slowdown to the churn in her article for Slash Film:

“Nowadays, it's almost impossible to understand what's going on in these superhero stories if you don't already have a pretty good knowledge of the MCU or the DCU.

I've been a fan of this stuff for most of my life, and even as someone who can tell you a lot about obscure characters, I still have to give myself a refresher course for every entry. People like my parents, who don't have a deep knowledge of this stuff, have already given up. I used to be able to explain some things to them before a film, but it's too much now. I'd have to give a college-level class on it, and they have, you know, lives to live.“

Then there’s the issue of diversity, which has improved in the MCU with films like Black Widow, Black Panther, Captain Marvel, Shang-Chi, The Eternals, and phase 4 offerings, but nevertheless feels like a late action – especially considering that the first movie, Iron Man, came out in 2008. The coy, minimal representation of LGBTQ+ is hardly impressive. Nor is the whitewashing of black culture, for example, in the way Black Panther replaces the reality of the Black Panthers – a militant Marxist group whose advocacy for Black power included calls for freedom from police oppression and violence, housing, education, and all the fundamentals for building thriving communities – with a capitalist comic book fantasy that pits Black people against each other. As Nick Irving, whose commentary I also recommend reading, puts it:

“Admittedly, the MCU put far more effort than I expected into Black Panther, which, as almost everyone pointed out, was a pretty spectacular Afro-futurist vision. But it was just as cynical a move. The title and eponymous hero appropriate the phrase ‘Black Panther’ from its radical and Marxist history, and simultaneously hints at a cartoonish version of the radical and violent aesthetics of the real Black Panthers in the character of the antagonist Killmonger. In the end, it’s another triumph of a very white western liberalism. Wakanda is as much Liberia as it is a Pan-African technological Utopia.”

From homework and narrative drift to ongoing diversity challenges, among challenges reported on by the trades, it remains to be seen if Disney/Marvel can course-correct the MCU to refresh interest. I’m done, however. The MCU is a theme park attraction I’m just no longer interested in riding.


F vs the Franchises: Superhero Fatigue (Part 1 - Comics)

While I love comics/graphic novels as a beautiful and meaningful art form, superhero stories don’t typically capture my imagination; certainly not with the consistency and intensity that marks a fan of the genre. Growing up, I read mostly French adventure comics like Tintin, Lucky Luke, Asterix, Gaston, The Scrameustache along with American comic strips like Peanuts, B.C., and Archie. It wasn’t until later in life that I delved into superhero comics, with the Death of Superman arc being one of the earliest stories I remember reading. On TV, I tuned in to Spider-Man (1967) reruns and the 90’s X-Men cartoon. Movies like The Rocketeer and Tim Burton’s Batman/Batman Returns selectively brought me closer to the genre, as did the seminal Batman: The Animated Series and associated movies like Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. Also, the fantastic Jim Carrey-starring film, The Mask.
Throughout the years, I’ve periodically added some superhero books – particularly Elseworlds stories, along with seminal works like Kingdom Come – to my bookshelf along with other graphic works such as V for Vendetta, Dean Motter’s Mister X, and others, while staying comfortably away from publishers’ mainstream continuity. A notable exception: I threw myself into Mike Mignola’s Hellboy universe and diligently collected its many books for years until I eventually gave up out of sheer exhaustion. I also attempted to devote myself to DC’s Earth One series, appreciating the initiative to develop independent and updated stories for classic characters. But I gave up on that too as I found the writing to be uninspired at best and the art unexciting– at least insofar as the Batman and Superman books were concerned. (I haven’t read Grant Morrison’s Earth One Wonder Woman books, so have no comment to offer on their merits.) 
For all my mixed appreciation of superhero comics, it’s not for rejecting their fundamental concept – namely, to tell stories of people with extraordinary abilities – that I’m a genre skeptic. At their best, superhero comics certainly earn their comparisons to the old mythologies of gods, goddesses, strange and magnificent creatures, and the gifted (or cursed) heroes and villains of epic sagas. And they unquestionably can offer a perspective on the societal issues that preoccupy us today as well as stories in any other genre. But in my observation, these great stories are instances of superhero comics that transcend their genre more than they inhabit it. If we consider genre as a pattern of storytelling, superhero comics rely on a generally consistent application of narrative methodologies, formulas, and tropes that often bely disturbing assumptions and philosophies beneath flashy spectacle. 
In this respect, while Alan Moore may arguably lack a bit of nuance in his criticism of superhero comics, I can’t disagree with the general cut of his perspective. From The Guardian:
“Hundreds of thousands of adults [are] lining up to see characters and situations that had been created to entertain the 12-year-old boys – and it was always boys – of 50 years ago. I didn’t really think that superheroes were adult fare. I think that this was a misunderstanding born of what happened in the 1980s – to which I must put my hand up to a considerable share of the blame, though it was not intentional – when things like Watchmen were first appearing. There were an awful lot of headlines saying ‘Comics Have Grown Up’. I tend to think that, no, comics hadn’t grown up. There were a few titles that were more adult than people were used to. But the majority of comics titles were pretty much the same as they’d ever been. It wasn’t comics growing up. I think it was more comics meeting the emotional age of the audience coming the other way.”
He thinks that’s not just infantile but dangerous. “I said round about 2011 that I thought that it had serious and worrying implications for the future if millions of adults were queueing up to see Batman movies. Because that kind of infantilisation – that urge towards simpler times, simpler realities – that can very often be a precursor to fascism.” He points out that when Trump was elected in 2016, and “when we ourselves took a bit of a strange detour in our politics”, many of the biggest films were superhero movies.
Perhaps the correlation between the popularity of superhero movies and Trumpism is unfair, but looking at the patterns of superhero storytelling I have to agree with Moore, if not in the specifics than at least for the need to take a critical look at how superheroes signify in pop culture. 
An emphasis on the status quo, with narratives almost invariably rooted in violent conflict. While comics clearly allow for changes in some respects – for example, Harley Quinn’s turn from villain to anti-hero, hero Hank McCoy’s development into a villain, Batman’s changing Robins and expanding roster of allies – there is nevertheless a status quo expressed in the way in which the victories, defeats, deaths, and transformations of both heroes and villains are always provisional and reversible. That status quo? Conflict, specifically violent conflict – the perpetual antagonism of heroes and villains. Batman will never save Gotham or defeat the Joker, the Green Lanterns will never oversee a peaceful galaxy, the Kingpin will always be a criminal kingpin, and so on, because the absence of conflict removes a key rationale for superheroes. The genre’s fixation on conflict isn’t hidden, either; scan the headlines of comic book news sources like ScreenRant, or comment boards, and we easily find questions about who would win in a battle, who is most powerful, who has the heavier boots with which to kick ass, etc.. Batman vs Superman? Hulk vs Ghost Rider? Black Adam vs Superman? Ironman vs Captain America? This Marvel character vs that DC character? 
A related problem is the extent to which character growth, despite the odd exception, also seems to favor stagnation rather than growth, particularly for villains. Maybe there are nuances I’m missing from my outside perspective, but every time I read about the latest arc in this or that comic, it always seems as if villains are consistently the same in terms of motivations. They don’t learn from their mistakes, change for the better, or suffer tragic (and permanent) consequences for their actions. They just keep coming back time after time, reinforcing the impression that the underlying impulse for superhero comics is to sustain conflict.
A fixation on power and vigilante action. The desire to pit heroes and villains against each, in any number of combinations, comes with a necessary fixation on the power needed to win a fight, whether in terms of force, intellect, or both. This is typically expressed by continually expanding a character’s power set and/or increasing the potency of these powers (even to a god-like scale). Considering that most superheroes (or antiheroic protagonists) are vigilantes – they act outside the law regardless of their respect for it (e.g. Batman and Spider-Man, who turn over criminals to the police, vs the Punisher who tortures and kills criminals at his own discretion) – much of their heroism rests on the moral quality of their individual characters. It shouldn’t be a surprise that this raises serious ethical questions on heroism defined in this sense, because beyond the escapist power fantasies of defeating bullies/villains and avenging wrongs, there comes the question of how to hold superpowered people accountable when they specifically act outside of institutional, or at least social/communal, frameworks. While some works, like Kingdom Come, are quite thoughtful on the topic, I tend to see more pseudo-profundity in the genre. For example, the X-Men are often seen as a commentary on civil rights, given the discrimination mutants face from humanity, but the analogy never made sense to me. Black skin, non-heterosexual orientations – these don’t vaporize people, cause objects to explode, violate people’s mental privacy (or override their will) or actually hold the potential to harm/kill anyone the way mutant superpowers do. If anything, the gun control debate is the better framework, but that would require challenging the idea of superheroes operating unchecked in the world.
Moore is right to point out, in my view, how the comics industry missed the point of Watchmen not only by ignoring justifiable skepticism of “heroes,” but by glamorizing antiheroes. They don’t seem to have adjusted their storytelling to account for Watchmen’s critique of power. Works like The Boys notwithstanding, the default attitude is to continue valorizing the powerful as messianic saviors of the powerless, a gesture made especially easy when the stories are really little more than fights between superpowered beings without any really connection to their societies. Our role is to trust in these beings and have faith they won’t turn against us – a faith that is often used to harshly judged skeptics – as heretics and/or villains – who develop fail-safe plans in case a superhero goes rogue, as Batman does in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. To put it simply: comics tend to focus on superheroes as empowered beings, not empowering beings.
An algorithmic approach to novelty and the seemingly unavoidable shift away from realism. From variations on the original character, including evil doppelgangers and alternate dimension variants, to saddling heroes with kid or animal sidekicks, the comics industry has a somewhat predictable approach to introducing novelty in their stories when the original character runs out of steam. A related tendency, when creators become bored with realism, is the decision to include magical, supernatural, or miraculous science-fiction elements to the story – an effect that, to me, is similar to how Hanna Barbera ruined Scooby Doo by having the gang confront actual ghosts rather than exposing charlatans posing as ghosts and monster. At times, it reaches the point where what is appealing about a character, the premise underlying their story, is diluted by all the additional characters and conceptual shenanigans. An example that comes to mind is the Hulk, initially interesting as a modern reinvention of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic Jekyll/Hyde binary, who these days is reconceived as a starship piloted by Bruce Banner. Really?
Incoherent worldbuilding. The universe superheroes inhabit, particularly Marvel’s and DC’s, mash together so many different mythologies, cosmologies, and theologies that they achieve an impressive incoherence in which their worlds cannot possibly function. Magic, supernatural entities, advanced technologies, science-based powers, aliens, mutants, angels, demons, ancient gods, the Judeo-Christian God, vampires, zombies, and what-have-you – all seem to collide together on account of insisting that characters exist within a shared universe. The impact isn’t only on the physics of these universes, which is confused at best, but also their histories in that if the world has a particular set of natural laws than societies would have to develop differently than in a world with a different set of laws.
It’s not only that superhero universes tend to be conceptual kludges, however. Even familiar activities such as scientific discovery and invention tend to be detached from reality, with lone geniuses single-handedly inventing devices so far beyond our current capabilities that they might as well be magic. It’s tempting to look at all this and appreciate the boundless imagination of these mash-ups, however implausible, illogical, and even nonsensical they are. If superhero comics were typically written as hard science fiction, that would be something. But even when dressed in sci-fi clothes, what we get is essentially fantasy – and not the disciplined fantasy of a Modessit Jr. or a Tolkien, but rather the kind of fantasy in which anything can happen because the storyteller’s whim is not bound to a narrative universe with clear rules, fictional or otherwise, just as our real universe is. Plausibility isn’t necessarily about being realistic – that is, true to our world – but about creating a methodically conceived and purposefully implemented internal logic for narratives to follow. In the end, I’m of the view that smart fun is more fun than dumb fun.
Reminder ...
Before moving on to discuss Marvel and DC’s cinematic universes, it’s worth re-emphasizing that any critique of patterns in superhero storytelling doesn’t preclude any specific story from being excellent across any number of facets – art, characterizations, plot – either separately or all together. In this sense, then, my enjoyment of superhero stories really depends on the extent to which they diverge from the patterns, cliches, tropes, and philosophical assumptions I’ve described.