It’s not just a problem with the movies, but with the way we talk about them.
The idea that Marvel Studios’ particular brand of caped crusade is slowly but surely strangling itself to death is not a new one. All the way back in 2015, Steven Spielberg predicted that the genre would come to a swift end. The week Avengers: Infinity War was released, James Cameron started a minor Internet firestorm by musing aloud that he hoped Avengers fatigue would come sooner rather than later. The superhero genre defines this cultural moment, which means it’s constantly under attack and viewed as “overrated.” As filmmakers like James Cameron and Steven Spielberg know all too well when you’re the king of the world everyone wants to pick a fight.
And Marvel is the king of the world. We’re only five months into 2018 and they’ve already released not one, but two billion-dollar phenomena, films that have latched onto the cultural conversation and refused to let go. The week Infinity War broke the all-time opening weekend record, Black Panther was still hanging around the top five. In two months, Ant-Man and the Wasp will be here. Nine months after that, we’ll meet Captain Marvel. It’s Kevin Feige‘s world, and we’re just living in it. These movies dominate our culture. And it’s killing the way we talk about movies.
Don’t get me wrong: I like most Marvel movies. We’re a far cry removed from the days of The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man 2, both forgettable, bad films that lack any discernable personality beyond “Here’s what’s coming next.” Movies like Spider-Man: Homecoming and Thor: Ragnarok have more going on under the hood than they get credit for. But in a way, that’s part of the problem: Marvel has made such a fine art out of training audiences to keep an eye out for hints and after-credits teasers that by the time they started to make movies that engaged on their own, it was far too late. Audiences are primed for speculation. The major complaint that circulated regarding Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 was that it didn’t move the story forward: It was a relatively small scale, character-centered family comedy with nary a Thanos cameo to be seen. That’s what made it so special, but in a world used to grand Infinity Stone theories that kind of filmmaking gets dismissed out of hand.
Even the release of Avengers: Infinity War, supposedly the culmination of ten years’ worth of halfhearted clues shoehorned into otherwise engaging standalone adventures, hasn’t stymied the endless march towards the future. Infinity War ends on one of the most tension-free cliffhangers in cinematic history. Thanos collects the Infinity Stones, snaps his fingers, and slaughters half of the universe. Watching this scene in theaters is a fascinating experience: At first, a chorus of ominous groans and quiet intermittent screams greets the deaths of supporting characters like Bucky and Falcon; when the candy-colored genocide moves to Black Panther and Spider-Man, those sounds build to a climax, eventually petering out when logic sets in, and the audience realizes that there’s not a chance in hell these characters are actually dead. It’s an eye-opening window into the way Marvel has conditioned its audience to be prepared for its endless cavalcade of sequels. Even putting aside the nerdy minutiae of film contracts or the metatextual element of the immortal nature of iconography, general audiences know Spider-Man isn’t dead, because how will we follow up on the loose plot threads of his own solo movie without him?
For years, the leading fanboy complaint about Marvel’s films has been their lack of death. It’s a childish notion, one that assumes there is only one way to establish meaningful stakes. That’s a fallacy: Captain America: The First Avenger is a film with not a single death that nonetheless bears infinitely more emotional weight than the monotonous drudgery of Infinity War‘s mass murder. Nonetheless, in a perverse sort of way Marvel has encouraged the complaint, simply by refusing to indulge in any kind of meaningful sacrifice. There’s something admirable in that, but when the studio’s backpedaling climaxes in Infinity War, it’s hard to call the strategy a victory. How many complainers will be satisfied by the have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too nature of the film’s deaths? And how many otherwise enthralled fans will be put off by the senseless and weightless dispatching of so many beloved characters, only to be resurrected without consequence a year later?
All of this comes back to one thing: The way Marvel pushes everything off until next time. It’s been three weeks since the release of Infinity War, and every ounce of conversation about it is devoted to the next film on the slate. The film’s only great cultural footprint, the heroes-dissolving meme, comes from the film’s climax, a moment that has only prompted speculation. Gamora’s sacrifice, a tragic scene performed beautifully by Zoë Saldana, is just fodder for Avengers 4 speculation about which hero might next fall to procure the Soul Stone. Even a film that hasn’t yet been released, Ant-Man and the Wasp, is engulfed in anticipation regarding what it might mean for Avengers 4. Any criticism of the film is pushed off until next time. Annoyed that Cap didn’t get enough to do? Wait for 2019! Wondering why the film’s climax is another dull Lord of the Rings knock-off complete with a horde of faceless CGI monsters? Well, I’m sure next time will be better!
There are, of course, exceptions to this rule, as with anything. Black Panther, which exists in its own solitary sphere of the MCU, has made a cultural splash just by being politically engaging and incredibly mature. But even there, the titular character found himself snapped up to go to Infinity War, getting a grand total of seven minutes of screen time playing second fiddle to Bucky Barnes, the franchise’s single dullest character. Maybe it’s not fair to say that Marvel is ruining storytelling. Maybe Avengers movies are. The sooner we can get back to a world where we care about the movie at hand instead of the next bloated team-up on the studio slate, the better. Bring on Ant-Man and the Wasp. I hope it has absolutely nothing to do with Avengers 4.