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.

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