Tag Archives: MCU

MCU: The Millennialist Cinematic Universe

 

“Apocalyptic” or some variant is one of the words most commonly used to describe Avengers: Infinity War. (Go ahead and Google it.) But what do we mean when we talk about the movie as apocalyptic? Christian eschatologists who consider Christ’s Second Coming to be an actual future event have fallen into two broad camps. Postmillennialism is a brand of Christian eschatology which holds, in MLK’s formulation, that the arc of the universe, though long, bends toward justice, and the material realization of God’s kingdom is within the grasp of humankind; we can and will, in short, create heaven on earth. Premillennialists hold, by contrast, that the world is headed for an apocalyptic reckoning—a trial by fire—and that all we can do is prepare for that time of trial. There are other eschatological views, of course, and most are quite old, but this dichotomy has been active in American popular culture since about the late nineteenth century.

These two traditions represent different types of Christian temperament, if you’ll forgive both my reductionism and my broad generalizations. Postmillennialism makes heroes of builders, whereas premillennialists make heroes of martyrs. In postwar America, for instance, postmillennialists often were those who embraced the American Century and the exceptionalism of the United States, seeing the period of prosperity and world leadership as an opportunity to make the world a better, more just place. At the same time, premillennialists built themselves a cottage industry of prophesying social decline, reading the tea leaves of current events as signs of social collapse ending only in nuclear disaster. Taken to extremes, each temperament has a sort of dark side. Postmillennialists tend toward confidence but sometimes arrogance. Premillennialists tend toward wariness but sometimes hysteria. Both represent different ways to embody hope.

These eschatologies inflect pop cinema, too. I think it fair to say that certain kinds of entertainment embody certain forms of eschatology, especially those which traffic in romantic modes or motifs. Our genre films, in other words. One might regard horror films as premillennialist, since in such films that which you fear almost always turns out to be both real and worse than imagined. You could (and should) perhaps place Dr. Loomis in Halloween (1978), for instance, the same continuum as Howard Beale and Jack van Impe.

By the same token—on that token’s flip side—a great many of our superhero films are essentially postmillennialist. Leaning heavily on mythic typologies, heroes make their world a better place, restoring justice and expanding its reach and scope. The protagonists who survive horror films aren’t usually those who are full of hope; it’s usually those who are prepared or willing to do what it necessary to survive. But the protagonists of superhero films exist to impart and embody hope itself. Crises in superhero films are usually resolved by a contest of might, but that’s because in superhero movies, as in popular mythology, right makes might. The recent Justice League film very explicitly invokes the trope that we now need again—and are indeed living in—a new golden age of heroes. These heroes heal the broken world as they heal themselves.

But the Marvel Cinematic Universe guys into this trope far more convincingly than does the DC Universe. How many times has Tony Stark learned to be a better man and as part of a process of self-reformation also saved the rest of us? What is Captain America other than a representation of the struggle to be righteous in a deeply unrighteous world? The bildungsroman—even one featuring middle-aged characters—has been wed to the hero of a thousand faces in nearly every MCU film to date to varying degrees of success. The structure of these movies forbids that they end in defeat for the heroes, because the defeat of the heroes would also cut short their moral development. It would deprive the audience of hope, and the world would be made manifestly uglier and more depraved. While a premillennialist might see this as a necessary and inevitable precondition for eventual redemption, postmillennialists see backsliding as unnecessary and avoidable. Premillennialists don’t create superheroes; they build fallout shelters. Postmillennialists fight for denuclearization and write stories about radioactive spiders turning neighborhood kids into good-natured crimefighters.

Again, I’m using these terms analogically, and very loosely at that. My more theologically-literate readers undoubtedly have pulled out so much hair at this point that they’ve practically scalped themselves. The point I wish to make is simply that apocalypse narratives are almost always about hope, but there are different ways to think about apocalypse, and they operate in very different ways. Not always mutually exclusively, natch, but as I said: this is more a matter of temperament and tone. And I don’t think we can understand the failure of Avengers: Infinity War without bearing this in mind.

Aaron Bady wrote one of more flaming hot takes on Infinity War. His most incisive observation is as follows:

 

There’s an extractive, exploitative relationship between the Avengers “team up” movies and the standalone single-hero stories, the same relationship we see between the Infinity Stone MacGuffins and the stories that the various Marvel movies have built around them. The Infinity Stones are the real story, the big picture, the driving force behind their master-narratives in the same way that capital always thinks it’s the “job creator.” But this is exactly backwards, in exactly the way extractive relations of exploitation tend to condition their beneficiaries to misunderstand what is happening: The Infinity Stones and the “team up” movies are spending the currency whose value was built out of the sweat and blood and human labor of the standalone movies. Infinity War is the moment when profits are extracted from the richness and depth of their stories, skimmed off and collected and sold: “Look, we killed Spider-Man, Black Panther, Bucky, Gamora, Loki!” they say; “Look how it makes you feel!”

But it’s a bad movie. It’s a bad movie in the way extractive economies are bad stewards of their chains of production; it takes interesting, complex, and very delicate stories and it reduces them to extremely simple versions of themselves, massively degrading the underlying system. They are complex ecosystems, these stories, their development a function of careful nurturing and adept pruning. Infinity War looked at those stories and saw fields, turned the fields into grain, turned the grain into money, and then spent the money. Infinity War learned the lesson of Game of Thrones: people are so desperate to feel something that they will mistake narrative sadism for powerful storytelling.

And it works, the way a strip-mine “works.” Spider-Man: Homecoming did interesting stuff with youth and with a youth’s relationship to a figure like Tony Stark—and with Tony Stark’s burgeoning feelings about playing a “parent” role—and so Infinity War brings that to a climax by making Tony Stark watch a terrified young man die in his arms. Black Panther came out of nowhere to be the biggest movie in the franchise, by far, a character whose narrative was rather uniquely tied to actual world history—and uniquely detached from Marvel’s historical timelines—and so Infinity War put him in his place by making his death meaningless, random, and utterly disconnected from everything that his story had been. Gamora’s relationship with her father was a mix of complicity, love, and hate, all forced on her against her will as a child; her death was her (inadvertent) assistance to his plan where he kills his darling. And Loki is a character who has died many times and always come back; when Thanos kills him, it means something that he declares, “No resurrections!”

So on and so on: if we feel things with these deaths, it’s because they are climaxes to stories that other movies have carefully developed. But only as end-points, only as final withdrawals. Infinity War has nothing to add to what those previous movies say about youth or about complex feelings about parents or about the African diaspora; moreover, because all of its deaths are transparently going to be taken back, it has nothing to say about the finite nature of life. Indeed, even though Thanos’s pseudo-Malthusian motivations would seem to be related, on some level, to Tony Stark’s discovery of a perpetual energy source in the first MCU movie—and his decision to make it into a weapon, instead—it doesn’t develop the problem of societal limit points that it might otherwise seem to be thinking through; other than linking the two characters in their final battle, the fact that Thanos can only understand power in terms of the power to destroy is a fitting climax to Iron Man’s story without doing anything interesting to develop it.

Bady leads himself into several tangents in the course of his essay, and I don’t endorse all of them wholeheartedly, but the quoted observations above do speak to my own experience of watching Avengers: Infinity War.

Extractive economies as a metaphor for everything that’s wrong with Infinity War wouldn’t be my first choice, though I think Bady’s use of extractive economies would apply just about as well to what I’m about to say. The reason mainstream superhero comics don’t work for me is that they are deliberately, calculatedly inconsequential. The big companies maintain the illusion—or, for fans who lack any semblance of self-awareness, perhaps a mass delusion—of continuity of each character’s own history as well as the continuity of the history of each one’s shared universe. Couple the impossibility of doing this over the course of decades (with anything less than a Jaques Tati-level control over the sheer number of moving parts and revolving door of creative teams for each title) with the marketing imperative of grand events every few years: narrative stunts that utterly upset everything we thought we knew about the status quo. These stunts are always resets or reboots. They themselves are also inevitably reset or rebooted.

 

I’m old enough to remember the death of Superman. It made front-page headlines. DC even experimented, for a while, with the novel idea that Superman would be replaced—not with Clark Kent, but with one of four potential heirs to his title. This, of course, could not stand. Clark Kent was eventually reborn. He took his title back. And after some fiddling with his costume and hairstyle, he was plain ol’ Superman again, back to doing Superman-y things. And out of the event, DC gained a new villain for its writers to play around with: Doomsday, who peaked a bit early, it must be said. They also gained the characters of the two surviving heirs, one of whom was unfortunate enough to be played by Shaquille O’Neal in a film adaptation. But none of it really mattered in a macro sense. The nature of the DC universe wasn’t really altered. The most interesting storyline in modern comics—“A World Without Superman”—did not become the new reality. After a requisite mourning period, the hundreds of characters who comprise the DC universe woke up on day and, market imperatives be praised, no longer had to grapple with the reality of Superman being gone. They could just go back to the way things were.

When I raised this point with a friend of mine recently, he pointed out that continuity and consequence aren’t really the point of such events. He pointed out that Peter Parker dying in Tony Stark’s arms at the end of Infinity War is a genuinely tragic moment for both characters, and that it’s a moment which builds on the established relationship from Civil War and Homecoming. Which is to say, it doesn’t matter if Peter’s death is undone in the end: what matters is how emotionally traumatic the moment is for Tony and Peter, who must have felt that moment so keenly. A corollary point could be raised for the death of Superman: even though Superman came back from the dead, it doesn’t erase the emotional response of the DC universe to his death, especially for characters like Lois Lane or, indeed, Lex Luthor. The point is that Superman was always going to come back; the point is that when he died, everyone else felt it, and that made it meaningful.

All stories—whether in comic books or not—build relationships, and when a character dies, it is always in some ways about the surviving characters. The audience is meant to process the death of a character not only via the audience’s relationship to that character, but also through the responses of the other characters in a text. From that perspective, my friend is right. Peter Parker’s death is incredibly meaningful for Tony, and we are meant to feel that loss through Tony. The fact that Tony is there for Peter is incredibly meaningful for Peter, and we’re meant to feel the poignance through Peter.

But my spirits weren’t crushed like Tony’s are, and I’m not sure that Peter will even remember that moment once the great retconning of the finale-to-come takes place. That’s because I know that this is only the midpoint of the story. I know that the MCU is a world of heroes who save the world. Everything done can be undone. Instead of feeling Tony’s loss in the moment, I can only objectively perceive that he’s feeling loss. What I actually feel is the supreme confidence that this, too, shall pass, and thus that it is but another obstacle, no different narratively from any other.

The arc of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is long, but it bends toward justice, in other words. This particular arc is substantially longer, and happens to be separated into two films, but it’s no different from the arcs in any of the standalone films. So while other fans and critics were totally gobsmacked or heart-wrenched or infuriated by the ending of Infinity War, I found myself simply floating along in a cocoon of postmillennialist complacency. But the death of half the sentient beings in the universe should be narratively different from every other obstacle. The fact that it won’t be highlights the shallow postmillennialism of the Avengers series.

Imagine, if you will, a MCU that had the guts to kill off all the characters that are erased at the end of Infinity War. No resurrections (as Thanos declares, improbably, of Loki), no takebacks, no loopholes. Can you imagine a MCU like that? In a universe where literally half the major characters are simply wiped out in the span of five minutes, such a travesty would be genuinely unjust. It would feel like a violation. That is, it would feel utterly wrong—but only if all the films leading up to it failed to build a universe in which things like this happen. Of the Marvel movies so far, really only Thor: Ragnarok actually countenanced the failure of its heroes to save the day. But because the film takes a humorous and callous attitude toward the destruction of Asgard, the ending still feels like a victory. 

Some narrative choices might lead you to think that it’s a victory that comes with a cost, but the film doesn’t really delve that deeply into what otherwise would be a series of personal cataclysms for the film’s hero. Thor’s allies from the first two films are killed without any emotional register, and he loses no one else besides Odin, who dies on his own terms anyway. All the Asgardians who die are part of the faceless crowd. (Except Skurge, I guess? Anyway, the film plays his death as a meaningful sacrifice.) And Thor: Ragnarok takes no time to mourn the passing of so many people. Infinity War picks up right from that moment, and utterly obliterates any chance that the MCU will reckon with the death of Asgard or most of its diaspora. It’s gutless and cheap, and nobody seems to care except Thor, who is utterly traumatized. 

Now: can you imagine a MCU where every major character who survives the finger-snap of doom will have to live the rest of their lives sharing a trauma like Thor’s?

The answer is no. It’s obviously no. Because a MCU that would force the original Avengers to live out their lives with that level of psychological damage would be a MCU that would force its audience, too, to live out its life (or at least however long it took until the next reboot) with the permanent and fundamentally unjust deaths of Peter, Bucky, Wanda, T’Challa, Strange, all the Guardians save Rocky, and more. Such a move would surreptitiously end a third of its money-making franchises. Such a move would enrage not just the un-satisfiable nerd demographic (which will hate everything you do no matter what anyway, unless it unrestrainedly loves you for utterly fathomless reasons) but also the general audience whose only investment in Marvel is through the MCU. Ignore, if you can, the corporate suicide of trying to move merchandise over the next decade which is based on characters who died so ignominiously. Think, if nothing else, of the parents who have taken their kids to these movies over the years. Think of the kids who have grown up with these characters. Think of the people for whom the MCU is, as many claim, the equivalent of a modern mythology. Everything about the narrative and market logic of the MCU militates against Infinity War, by itself, being consequential.

If the ending of Infinity War were to matter, it would require the decision-makers at Marvel Studios to commit to the consequences of such a catastrophe. They can’t. They won’t. Nobody who understands anything about storytelling or marketing would expect them to. The MCU is a fundamentally postmillennialist franchise. The tragedies are always little tragedies—or, at least, the big tragedies are held in narrative abeyance. The real tragedy might be seen, it might even be felt, but it holds no power. Everything comes right in the end. Infinity War is not the end, it’s a midpoint. A relative hiccup. Even if you don’t believe that, never fear: your faith (or lack thereof) still will be rewarded.

Avengers: Infinity War feels wrong—or refreshing, I guess, depending on how you felt about it—because its structure violates the narrative logic of the MCU. In one very important way, this is what makes Thanos a great villain: perhaps the greatest of the MCU so far. He’s a villain whose very presence perverts the narrative logic of the entire franchise. But only for a moment. There is simply no way that the MCU can retain its branding and grapple adequately with the horror of what Thanos has done. Of course, Thanos did what he did to give the MCU’s creative team a reason to break its first Avengers trilogy into two films. The choice before Marvel Studios is thus, abstractly, fairly simple. It can embrace the radical upending of its entire brand posited by Infinity War, or it can turn Infinity War’s sequel into just another story where the heroes save the day. 

There’s no way that it won’t be the latter. But that makes Infinity War itself a failure as a standalone film. And as an event that purportedly ties together a dozen-plus other storylines, it will inevitably turn out to be even more inconsequential. This is what makes it a failure as a nexus point or even as the first of a two-parter. Unless Marvel Studios wants to commit to having every MCU film from here on grapple meaningfully with the finger-snap of doom (which, again, it can’t and won’t), this cliffhanger is utterly meaningless. The narrative logic of the MCU will erase it with its own snap of the fingers. Temperamentally and tonally, Infinity War is out of phase with the MCU, even though it pretends to be the MCU’s lodestone.

There’s nothing wrong with a film being postmillennialist, but there’s everything wrong with a film not comprehending that it’s fundamentally postmillennialist. Avengers: Infinity War does not embrace that it is part of a postmillennialist franchise, hence its arrogance in thinking that the finger-snap of doom is consequential. A good postmillennialist story could still grapple meaningfully with loss and violence and seemingly senseless destruction. Black Panther practically nails the perplexities of utopian process. Think of Yondu’s sacrifice at the end of Guardians Vol. 2, for instance. Or Pietro Maximoff in Age of Ultron. The tragic fate of Tony’s parents and Cap’s desire to undo the tragic fate of Bucky—whom he’d thought lost over 60 years ago—give emotional and psychological structure to Civil War. And when beloved dead characters come back—such as Phil Coulson or Groot—even that can be handled well. Groot didn’t magically get to come back as his old self; he grows up a new creature into an expanded family. And that moment when Nick Fury explains to Coulson that he warranted the unprecedented experimental procedure because he, too, was an Avenger—it was a moving recognition. These resurrections are fitting and just, and they are earned by the embedded postmillennial narrative logic.

Is there any way, really, to earn in a narratively satisfying way the return of a dozen dead characters in one film? Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. spent a whole season unpacking Coulson’s resurrection. Groot has (re)grown up before our eyes. Bucky has been redeemed over the course of three films. Each of these characters got a narrative arc of his own over the course of multiple films. Can you imagine that most of the characters wiped out in Infinity War will get similar treatment in their standalone films? Are the sequels to Black Panther or Spider-Man really going to take the time to process this catastrophe? Or will the finger-snap of doom be relegated in those sequels to the same kind of trivial function that “The Incident” (read: the climax of the first Avengers) serves in Netflix’s Marvel series? Forget their standalone films. I certainly can’t imagine that the finger-snapees will return before the midway point of the next Avengers film’s running time. Maybe not even until the climax itself, 3/4 of the way through. Maybe Marvel Studios will surprise me. But I’ve been around comics for a lot longer than the MCU has been around, and there’s not much it could do that would.

Moments like the apocalyptic finale of Infinity War are only meaningful when supported by the logic of the entire narrative. They need set-up and follow-through. Even if you think there was meaningful set-up for the semi-genocide at the end of the film, there will be no follow-through. There can’t be. Bady notes—correctly, I think—that Infinity War’s logic is extractive, not postmillennial. At best, it’s premillennialist, but not consciously; not artfully. Which means that the entire Infinity War saga is just some random thing that happened: a cosmic burp that momentarily interrupted these characters’ lives and left a lingering acidic aftertaste. And if faith in justice and the triumph of hope is rendered inconsequential in what is supposed to be the most consequential event in the MCU, what does that tell you about the MCU’s commitment to the temperament that has made it the premier pop canon of the dawning millennium? ☕︎

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How does Marvel’s culture industry manage to keep hope alive?

Like most folks who saw it, I enjoyed Captain America: Civil War. It was inferior to the previous two Captain America films, in my estimation, but it was better than Age of Ultron. Much can and has been written about the drawbacks of the Marvel/Disney entertainment monolith, and I’ve been ruminating on the film since I saw it. Chuck Bowen recently used Civil War as the occasion to reflect on the State of Summer Cinema. Allow me to use Bowen as the occasion to reflect on everything that Marvel has done right so far. This will get a little dialectical. Bear with me.

Contrary to a cliche that dogs film critics, I don’t enjoy disliking nearly every movie that earns a significant amount of money. My words are carefully chosen. “Disliking” rather than “hating”, because to inspire such a passionate response as hate would require more than a preordained blockbuster usually offers. Works of art are like people: to hate either, one must be accorded a glimpse of their personality first, and a failure to exhibit personality provokes a muffled, low-risk indifference. But try telling people this sort of thing about a Marvel production and you’re a snob.

Of all people, I can empathize with Bowen’s gripe about his own audience’s bad-faith reception. The fact that one may simply not like a film (as opposed to hating, disliking, or any other strongly-agential gerund you please) does not compute for most people. When you’ve seen enough movies, the most common reaction, sadly, is non-reaction. Movies that most folks “love” or “hate” or think of as “just okay” or (God help me) “interesting” are, to the jaded cinephile, just sort of there. It’s almost a mercy when I actively hate a film, because I’m relieved to have my emotions excited by the experience. So what I’m saying is that I totally get what Bowen’s saying here. He’s got some other pity observations, such as when he compares blockbusters to the cautious personality of job interviewees, or that, given the choice simply to skip the requisite blockbusters, “Unending exclusion is dull and estranging,” so it’s probably better to be in the loop than out.

People have short cultural memories, but blockbusters used to occasionally be enjoyable. Even weird. Their plots might have been recycled and disposable, but they had plots, and some of them had ineffably powerful images. Raiders of the Lost Ark, one of the most influential of all blockbusters, is almost quaint now in its fealty to the idea of one hero, one villain, a heroine, a few colorful supporting characters, a MacGuffin, and a story that tied all these elements together with pleasurable simplicity. And while its protagonist, Indiana Jones, was an indestructible superman, he also has discernible human characteristics. For one, he clearly liked sex.

Whuh? Not quite sure how Indiana Jones is an “indestructible superman” (fridge-nuking notwithstanding), because the first and third films end with literal di ex machina that emphasize the hero’s relative powerlessness. Also, what the hell does it mean that “he clearly liked sex”? is that the most readily identifiable human characteristic—liking sex? Unlike Tony Stark, for instance?

I’m also unsure how the Thor movies or the first Captain America weren’t pleasurable in their simplicity: one hero, one villain, a heroine, a few colorful supporting characters, a MacGuffin, and a story that tied these elements together. Guardians of the Galaxy had multiple heroes, but it stands as this decade’s superlative example of exactly the kind of film Bowen is complaining that the blockbuster machine doesn’t produce. I haven’t seen some of the other films he name-drops, but if some ivory-tower-bound neckbeard like myself, who sees maybe ten new movies a year anymore, can think of several counterexamples out of hand—taken from the very franchise he’s arguing about—one might get the sense that Bowen’s punching a bit above his weight class. Or simply being obtuse. To wit:

“On a scene-by-scene basis, this new Marvel uber-movie makes almost no sense, hopscotching across dozens of cities and a couple of different timelines, plugging new superheroes such as Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and yet another Spider-Man (Tom Holland), while dropping cute little in-jokes designed to pressure audiences into catching up with past Marvel installments that they may have missed. This is the most irritating component of the new corporate blockbuster: it’s always heckling you to buy more, without ever giving you what you already paid for. It may be called Captain America, and more or less be a sequel to the vastly superior The Winter Soldier, but it offers a buffet of superheroes designed to abound in so much as to offer each audience member enough of what they individually like, so that they can each retrospectively assemble a different, more focused movie in their minds.”

This paragraph foreshadows how Bowen misunderstands Marvel’s project in some very fundamental ways. First, I’m not sure how the film makes no sense on a scene-by-scene basis. It doesn’t really hopscotch different timelines so much as parallel storylines. Most of these scenes are united by the MacGuffin (that’s right, folks—there is one!) of the Sokovia Accords, a multinational agreement among the world’s nations that superheroes require some sort of civilian oversight. Coming on the heels of Ultron’s robot uprising and Hydra’s hijacking of the U. S. military-industrial complex (not to mention the emergence of the Inhumans, if one still considers Marvel’s TV franchises to be part of the same universe), one can understand that non-superheroes might want a say in how the Avengers conduct their affairs.

Civil War is a sequel to Winter Soldier, but it’s more properly a sequel to every Marvel movie to date. Unlike virtually every major franchise produced by Hollywood, Marvel has made a point of making sequels that actually push their characters forward. It’s TV-style serialization—which, in turn, was influenced by early film serialization, so I guess the blockbuster has essentially come full circle. Unlike Raiders of the Lost Ark, which borrowed liberally from the early serials’ tropes, the MCU has borrowed from their episodic structure. More accurately, it uses the serial structure that has been the backbone of superhero comics for going on a century. While it’s fair to say that there are not really any long-term consequences in serialized comics (the medium that gave us the term “retcon”), there are often short- to medium-term consequences. Superman today is (sorta-kinda-pretty-much) the Superman of the 1940s, plus or minus a few powers. But there’s a gravitational power exerted by the shared universes of the two major comics publishers that basically requires their worlds to maintain a certain status quo. Mostly for business reasons: after all, it makes it easier for new readers to jump into a series when the basic premise and stakes are never-changing. There’s also a storytelling exigency, though: long-running series change creative teams from time to time, and it’s easier to do new(ish) things within an established paradigm if you’re not hamstrung by a never-ending series of paradigm shifts introduced by each previous team. It’s more about finding interesting new facets of a superhero (and that hero’s mythos) to explore, rather than totally reinventing the superhero from scratch. The Marvel movies do this better, in my opinion, than the Marvel comics.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe simply has exigencies that the comics do not, and that makes them more appealing to a certain kind of audience. The primary reason why I never got into superhero comics when I was collecting them is that I didn’t have the money or patience to go read everything I needed to know in order to fully appreciate the context of a current story arc. Storytelling in mainstream superhero comics is intransigently incestuous. After all, the whole point of having a shared universe is to do crossovers. That’s great when there’s only, like, a dozen titles in a given universe. It’s enough to induce a panic attack when dozens of titles and hundreds of characters are in play over the course of decades.

What’s worse is that so much of the pathos from these titles comes from the assumption that readers are at least somewhat familiar with the histories of these characters. Imagine watching Star Trek: Generations without ever having seen any TOS episodes or movies and maybe only a handful of TNG. It’s not a great film anyway, but watching Captain Kirk die for real and for good is kind of a kick in the gut if you’re a Trekker in any sense of the word. If you only have the vaguest idea who he is, due mainly to pop culture osmosis, maybe the moment works, but mostly not, I’d wager. The entire film hinges upon two legendary Enterprise captains meeting for the first time for the last time and the torch being officially passed from one generation of the franchise to The Next. If you haven’t been watching Star Trek, there’s no legend. No impact.

For me, reading virtually any major superhero book was like jumping straight into the final season of Lost. There were a few exceptions, as there always are. (I loved Ed Brubaker’s Daredevil, for instance, but then, I’d already read most of Miller’s run and most of Bendis’s thanks to my local library’s shockingly capacious graphic novel collection.) On the whole, though, it simply never mattered to me. Any of it. Or most of it, rather.

However much the Chuck Bowens of the world complain about each installment in MCU being a product placement for other installments, the product line is comparatively sparse if you put it alongside the comics. You want to get caught up before Civil War? ‘Kay. Rent Iron Man (just the first one), the two Avengers movies, and the first two Captain Americas. You don’t need any Hulk, Thor, or Guardians. You don’t need the TV shows. You don’t need the films produced by 20th Century Fox. Will you miss a few inside jokes? Sure. Are you on the hook for 10+ hours of entertainment. Yep.

Know what you’re not on the hook for? Approximately 82,946 comic books, including back issues and current releases, because you happened to pick up the latest X-Men and you don’t know who the hell any of the characters are or why the one guy you do recognize is now a gay psychopath who’s also apparently the clone half-brother of some other character who’s Professor X’s great-granddaughter from an alternate future who is responsible for the sixth (or seventh?) time Wolverine got amnesia and had to go work as a short-order cook in Laos, where he eventually teamed up with the Punisher to take out the assassin/warlord who will (tune in next month! Excelsior!) be responsible for murdering Matt Murdoch’s latest doomed girlfriend, which will somehow precipitate the third superhero Civil War.

Part of me appreciates the operatic plot lunacy and behind-the-scenes organization it takes to pull of stuff like that even halfway successfully. It’s the same part of me that, in the abstract, thinks that soap operas and pro wrestling are kind of cool, in theory. The other part of me looks at my wallet and my time commitments and goes, “Yeah, I can check out the latest Marvel flick every eight months. That’s way more doable.”

It’s doable for movie audiences because the kind of money and organization required for large-scale blockbuster film production can only make movies like this happen every eight months or so. The most marketable part of these movies, apart from the franchise branding, is the truly impressive roster of performers Marvel has assembled. You only get RDJ or Chris Evans for so many movies, so you better spread ‘em out and make ‘em really count. Similarly, Marvel’s scored big with some of its behind-the-scenes hires. Joss Whedon, obviously. James Gunn, though, was a stroke of genius. Guardians of the Galaxy is the single best film in the Marvel MCU, and apart from the first Iron Man, it is the least dependent on the films’ shared mythos.

What will be even more interesting to see is whether Marvel has the ambition and vision to continue the current MCU well past the tenure of its founding players. Chris Evans will be done with Steve Rogers after the Avengers two-parter. Downey, Jr. is likely to bow out sooner than later. Marvel can always recast or reboot, but the cool thing about movies like Ant-Man or Guardians is that they do well without necessarily being based on known quantities. I get that making a movie about Marvel’s first black superhero is a big deal (and more than a little overdue), but seriously: did anybody outside of the comics nerd-o-sphere know who Black Panther was until Marvel stuck him in Civil War?[1] Would Ta-Nahisi Coates have gotten a shot at writing the comic right now without Marvel deciding to branch Panther off into his own film? Would they have chosen to do so if they couldn’t have spliced him into a strong, stable franchise like Captain America first? Things like this are part of the upside of the entertainment-industrial complex. Money + hype = willing viable franchises into existence. (Not always, but you have to admit that momentum is on Marvel’s side at present.) Unlike the comics publishing arm, it’s quite possible that MCU can survive the retirement of its initial flagship characters if there are folks like Chadwick Boseman and Tom Holland waiting in the wings. (Or, for heaven’s sake, Scarlett freaking Johansson, who has already appeared in more Marvel movies than everyone but Downey and Evans.) Put another way, it’s possible for MCU to evolve in ways that the Marvel comics universe simply can’t, because we’re talking about two different markets and two different media, one of which depends on real, flesh-and-blood people to play the characters.

Not likely, I admit. Just possible.

I like the idea of the MCU growing and evolving, as it were, in real time. One of the distinct pleasures of watching the Marvel movies since Iron Man has been watching talented stars and writers collaborating to find interesting things to do within the constraints of the franchise. They age. They mature. Downey is a better Tony Stark now than he was in 2008. Chris Evans is a better Steve Rogers. Most movie actors get one film in which to get to know their characters. Downey and Evans have gotten six and five, respectively. To me, their performances reflect that process. And that’s tied to the thing that Bowens gets so, so wrong in his reflection Civil War. It is, in fact, the thing that he misses the most completely.

Would it kill the film-makers to offer just one memorable bit of dialogue? Every spoken line in Civil War serves an expository purpose. Or how about just one image that strives for poetry? Would it kill one of these movies to feature characters who are capable of actually dying? Or crying? Or changing allegiances? Or having money problems? Or loving, in a visceral, personal way, rather than in the usual platitudinous fashion that testifies to the needs of teaming up yet again to mount yet another adventure?

Watching Captain America: Civil War, in which positively nothing is at stake, I checked my watch 25 minutes into the film, sighing at the realization that there were nearly two hours remaining. How can audiences stand this? By submitting to the anesthesia of the loudness, I suspect, by comforting themselves with the knowledge that they are, at this moment, doing what culture expects of them. Seeing the “big” thing, the Super Bowl of yearly adventure epics.

The whole point of Bowen’s piece is (I think) to chastise audiences for letting Hollywood get away with selling them all of these films that are structurally the same, but he displays no grasp whatsoever of what has changed from film to film. So doing, he cannot understand why audiences keep showing up.

We’ll set aside haggling over what counts as a memorable line or a poetic image, or even what counts as “loving, in a visceral, personal way,” because I would argue that Civil War utterly hinges on what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick calls homosociality, and even tweaks it a bit with the role that Black Widow plays in the character dynamics.[2] Let’s focus on three questions. “Would it kill one of these movies to feature characters who are capable of actually dying? Or crying? Or changing allegiances?” Let’s take these one at a time. The correct answers (phrased in the form of questions) are, in order:

Would it kill one of these movies to feature characters who are capable of actually dying? What, you mean like Peggy Carter? Title character of the Marvel Television Universe’s best series? The love of Steve’s life who kicked ass with him in the first film and died and was buried in Civil War?

Or crying? What, you mean like Wanda, after she blames herself for killing those civilians in the first scene? Or Tony, expressing a mix of sorrow and rage after Rhoadie gets shot down in the climactic fight at the airport? I’m sorry, does a character have to bawl uncontrollably—cry on cue, as it were—in order to count as “crying”?

Or changing allegiances? What, you mean like THE ENTIRE PLOT OF THIS MOVIE? Like how the first Avenger, Captain America (remember the first film’s title?), breaks his allegiance with the Avengers as a matter of conscience, and spends the whole film fighting with his former teammates as a result? Or how Black Widow totally confounds the entire idea of allegiance by trying to remain loyal to both of her friends and teammates, and also has to leave the Avengers as a result? Or how Black Panther goes from trying to murder Bucky to apprehending the real killer when he realizes he’s been duped? I’m actually thoroughly confused by this question. Just so I don’t cause any confusion, this question is not rhetorical: Chuck, did you actually watch Captain America: Civil War?

The purpose of Bowen’s series of facetious queries, of course, is to buttress the claim that “positively nothing is at stake” in Civil War. Again, this would be a totally baffling claim, even if we took Civil War as a case by itself. In the context of the MCU, it is about as objectively wrong as you can get. That is, if context and character development matter to any criticism based on a method of close textual analysis. (Hint: they really do!)

As others have already noted, both Steve Rogers and Tony Stark have actually had quite distinctive character arcs across the films in which they’ve appeared. Stark starts out as the reprobate Ayn Randian hero who worships at his own altar and must continually learn and re-learn the principle of self-sacrifice for the greater good. As the films progress, his sense of responsibility becomes less personal (due in large part to the lessons learned from the consequences of his own arrogance) and more based on principle, more directed toward the global community. In the Iron Man films, Tony repeatedly is forced to pay for his mistakes or the mistakes of his family or his corporate empire. Avengers is the first instance we get of Stark sacrificing himself genuinely selflessly. He invents Ultron partly as a psychological defense against his own perceive weakness, but also because he wants to protect Earth proactively from global threats. It is his greatest failure, the culmination of the arrogance displayed in each of his standalone films, and it is what leads this individualist bad boy to push for the institutional restraint of the Sokovia Accords. He knows that he cannot be trusted to hold himself accountable, so he welcomes the prospect of oversight. As the final confrontation with Cap at the end of the film shows, he knows himself quite well—he is unable to stop himself from trying to exact revenge for his parents’ murder. But the Tony Stark of Civil War is one making a conscious effort to restrain his arrogance; only someone with such a fatal flaw could recognize it manifesting in someone else: Steve Rogers.

A paragon of the Greatest Generation, he becomes a superhero principally out of a willingness to put himself at the service of the government to fight evil. Not just for his own sake; because he believes the world to be at stake. When Nick Fury taps him for the Avengers, it’s not much of an issue for him. It is, in fact, Tony’s innate resistance to institutional trust that persuades Cap to question Fury and discover the weapons program that provoked the alien invasion in the first place. He tries to carry on in Winter Soldier, but finds that the institution to which he has devoted his life is utterly infested with the evil he sacrificed himself (in the first film) to wipe out for good. Skepticism toward technocratic solutions to world piece underwrites his hostility to Ultron in Avengers 2, after which it is Tony who is forced to agree. By the end of that film, Steve takes over the Avengers because there is no institution left on earth that he can trust. That need for moral independence is what informs his rebellion against the Sokovia Accords in Civil War. His blind loyalty to Bucky is not merely personal affection and perhaps guilt over what happened to his oldest friend; Steve’s experience in each film has led him to value loyalty among comrades in arms above all else. External constraints, such as SHIELD or Ultron, have only compiled evil upon evil. In his arrogance, Steve believes that he can trust only his own moral compass, so he defies international law, deceives Tony about his parents’ death, and ends the film by founding his own rogue group of vigilantes. The consummate team player has become the ultimate loose cannon.

In short, Tony Stark and Steve Rogers’s character arcs have had an inverse trajectory that has been developed carefully and (shockingly) subtly over the course of the last decade, and what is at stake in Civil War is both thematic and personal. Thematically, the film presents two paradigms of the ethical use of force. Iron Man is a good guy, but he requires institutional constraints to use his power ethically, because he fears being a loose cannon. Captain America is a good guy, but he’s a loose cannon, because he fears that institutions will use his power unethically. Personally, Iron Man once again finds that his family’s tragic history traps him in an apparently unending cycle of retribution. Captain America is offered a final chance to save his oldest friend. Iron Man is spends most of the film seeking justice, only to have it turn into vengeance. Captain America is trying to redeem one friend by—to put it bluntly—screwing over another.

There be stakes all over the place. And that’s just for the two lead characters.[3]

More significantly, the stakes really only come into focus if you have, as Bowen says, done what culture expects of you: always checking out the Next Big Thing. Marvel counted on viewers having already invested their time and emotional energy into Tony Stark and Steve Rogers. Without that investment, there’s no payoff in Civil War. Just a bunch of latter-day demigods punching each other into buildings and making wisecracks. With that investment, the payoff is witnessing the tragedy of a broken friendship, of an already-broken man being denied justice for his parents, of a once-upright man turning lawless because the lawful institutions have, one by one, betrayed him for half a century. Amid all this tragedy remains hope, of course. That hope is stipulated by the money machine at the heart of MCU. Steve and Tony will reunite in Avengers: Infinity War because they have to. That doesn’t erase the manifold tragedy in Civil War, but it does structurally affirm that, despite the heartbreak and tragedy, heroes will ultimately do what they must simply because they’re heroes.

__________

[1] If Civil War succeeded in nothing else, it made me terrifically excited for the Black Panther and Spider-Man movies. Boseman will be a great leading man, and there are a ton of exciting possibilities for T’Challa in the MCU. Tom Holland’s Spider-Man was both the best and most extraneous part of Civil War. In an already overstuffed film, his was the only new character who didn’t really serve a plot function. The scene where Tony recruits him, however superfluous, at least felt fleshed-out on a character level. In a story that leans so heavily on Tony’s troubled relationship to his dead dad, we get to see Tony get paternal with a kid who has so much in common with him. Peter and Tony both lost their father-figures (Uncle Ben and Howard Stark, respectively), both are nerds, both have taken it on themselves to be heroes outside the law. It’s a rather sweet scene. Also chilling. Just like Howard, Tony places unreasonably high expectations on Peter to manipulate him. The line between Tony turning Peter into his weapon and Tony relating to Peter paternally is blurry here, but that makes it all the more real and resonant, given how the film ends. Still sort of unnecessary, all things considered, but if the writers were going to shoehorn Peter Parker into the film, at least they did their best to make it make sense that Tony would recruit him. Holland and Tomei are sort of perfect as Peter and May, and the airport scene, in retrospect, feels mostly like a proof of concept for the kind of awesomeness (stunning high-flying acrobatics and nerd-witty banter: check!) we can expect from the next Spidey solo film. Sign me up.

[2] And by the way, I get that Bowens is trying to be cheeky when he asks rhetorically, “Wouldn’t Captain America: Civil War be a more interesting movie if Captain America (Chris Evans) and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) fought over, say, the affections of Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), whose approval they are both clearly jockeying for anyway?” Yes, what a Paulette you are, Chuck, ever-so-subtly and perhaps-(perhaps-not!)-unironically insinuating that Natasha character would be far more effectively deployed as the object of affection in a male rivalry love triangle. Or, wait. No. Actually, I think that makes you a sexist jerk. My mistake.

[3] Civil War’s villain is also tragic. He is a direct product of the last Avengers film. Zemo has no superpowers, no great resources. Just a keen intellect and the drive to exact revenge. Like Steve, he’s a former soldier whose institutions failed him and those he cared about. Like Tony, he is a genius operating without restraint. Zemo is who Tony Stark might be if left to his own devices, but he justifies his villainy according to Steve Rogers’s ethos. If he’s the dark mirror to each of this film’s heroes, it reflects rather badly on their inability to resolve their differences.


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