Now that Marvel drives home a few blockbusters a year (with plenty of TV releases riding happily in the sidecar) there’s never a Marvel-less moment in the news cycle. For the past six years, that concept has infuriated me.
Iron Man (2008) blew me away once upon a time. I was one of the millions who fell head over heels for the reinvigorated superhero genre—witty and self-emasculating to the perfect degree; chockablock with modern, state of the art character design; darker than it was fantastical; developing a universe of films that promised tonal and stylistic ingenuity. Fast forward five years and I’m relatively neutral, open to the next Marvel movie, but not thrilled about it. Iron Man 3 (2013) was just plain disappointing and Thor: The Dark World (2013) shocked me with its screenwriting illiteracy as much as it angered me with its utter waste of the almighty Natalie Portman, solidifying itself as one of the largest scars on the belly of the blockbuster beast.
I sat stunned through the credits of that Thor atrocity with the unfortunate understanding that The Avengers (2012) had been the peak for me. The promise of ingenuity had fallen flat and everything MCU-related was becoming exponentially obligatory, tiresome, and repetitive. By the passing of 2013, serious enough concerns about the future of the film industry under Marvel’s stranglehold, the sterility of the comic universe’s recycled tropes, and the power dynamic of showtimes at the local theatre had me ranting about the evils of the MCU as a thoughtless, risk-reducing, talent-stealing, creatively bankrupt homogenous order of cinema. I cared enough to spend the better part of two years researching philosophies of film, ethics, and economics to build an argument against Marvel in my graduate thesis. But leaving the academic sphere and entering professional film journalism opened me up to a more holistic perspective.
Barring the occasional connection, most people were not interested in my critiques, no matter how well-researched or ethically-concerned. And trust me, the research is there in thick. Read Dr. James McMahon’s What Makes Hollywood Run? Capitalist Power, Risk and the Control of Social Creativity for overwhelming evidence. Or, if you don’t feel like reading over 300 pages of economic and philosophical research on major studios’ ever-tightening grasp on the industry, at least scroll through the 30 illustrations that drive the keystone points of the research home. So, yes, I had evidence to support my claims, but so did my opposers.
It’s not like I was being ignored because the studios were paying these people off (anyone who argues this laughable point simply does not understand the relationship between major studios and film critics), or because they were all too big of fans to see through some of Marvel’s weaker features. It’s because they saw a significant beauty that I didn’t. In the same sense that I felt like they were ignoring major implications of the MCU’s totalitarian impact on the industry, they felt like I was ignoring something. And I was.
I was an extremist. While I was arguing on behalf of the ethics of spectatorship and the economics of the industry, most of my frustrated opposers—regardless of what they thought of the films—were arguing against my total demonization of the studio on behalf of the social representation and community that it promotes. I was waving those McMahon numbers in their face, and they were waving their own numbers right back at me.
The first 21 movies in the MCU have grossed $7.3 billion in the U.S. and $18.6 billion worldwide, Avengers: Infinity War raked in over $2 billion worldwide on its own, and Avengers: Endgame is primed to top it any day now after a nearly unimaginable $357 million opening weekend. Of those 21, four now sit amongst the 10 highest grossing movies of all-time. In other words, there’s no denying the cultural phenomenon, which clearly identifies the mass adoration of the concept of a cinematic universe, which Marvel has all but invented from scratch. Even critics have erred positively, all but three films with a Metascore of 61 or higher, and all but two with a Rotten Tomatoes score of 73% or higher.
Last October, over 250,000 tickets were sold for New York Comic Con, the largest Comic Con in the U.S., albeit not the most famous. The San Diego Comic-Con sells over 130,000 tickets and occupies the spotlight as the Comic-Con event of the year, among the 35+ others across the country. The only reason it hasn’t grown in size is because they simply can’t fit any more people through the doors of the convention center. NYCC, on the other hand, has recruited event spaces like Madison Square Garden to keep the attendance numbers on the rise.
If box office and Comic-Con attendance isn’t enough proof of the abounding national and global community that’s formed around the MCU, consider the most recent Endgame ticket pre-sale event which broke Fandango, AMC, and other third-party ticket-selling sites as it cruised to the #1 spot for pre-sold tickets to a film, beating out Star Wars: The Force Awakens a mere six hours after the sale went live.
Before I go any further, I want to point out that celebrating the positives and acknowledging the negatives of Marvel are not mutually exclusive acts. When I was purely a cynic of Marvel, the fans lambasted me. Now that I’ve neutralized on the subject, the extreme cynics act like I’ve “sold out to the corporate machine,” as one literally told me last week. There’s so little socio-cultural room for a balanced outlooks, but that’s a product of tribal backwards thinking. We can openly critique Marvel films and not hate on the people who love them. We can agree to disagree like dissenters have been doing over art for millennia. We can have concern for certain aspects of Marvel’s existence and shed tears of joy thinking about the communal growth and flourishing it inspires in a social context.
I still feel that Marvel should have less power in the industry, give more creative agency to their directors and screenwriters, foster more originality film-to-film, develop higher standards of action blocking, jettison the flat “Walmart Parking Lot aesthetic” cinematography, and hold themselves to higher artistic standards in several other ways. But I’ve also come to terms with the fact that Marvel isn’t going anywhere and I’m going to die alone, a curmudgeon of curmudgeons, if I keep shitting on every MCU movie from a theoretical perspective without acknowledging the good they bring. I truly want great Marvel films. And while I don’t think many of those exist, in the current state of things, Marvel offers the world something priceless in the global community it fosters (excluding the normative-valued white men that rail on Black Panther and Captain Marvel for not fitting into their supremacist worldviews, because in a basket as big as Marvel fans, there are a lot of bad eggs).
On the eve of every Marvel release, tens—if not hundreds—of millions of people show out in droves, elated at the prospect of their favorite characters coming to life through the interpretation of some of the world’s best living actors. They dress up together, experience the ride of the film together, laugh together, drink together, live together, love life together. New friends are made, new thoughts are explored, new worldviews are expressed, and appreciations merge into open, joyful communities at every theatre in every city in every state of almost every country. I don’t know if anything gives me more existential contentment than a huge group of diverse people finding joy in a common ground, and Marvel just might be the greatest example of that rarity in the modern day, along with Star Wars.
Recent Star Wars addition Kelly Marie Tran was bullied and verbally assaulted off of social media by the abominable Black Panther- and Captain Marvel-hating equivalents of the Star Wars fan base a year ago. However, it was the much larger, more devoted portion of that enthusiastic fan base that melted her into tears of joy at this year’s Star Wars Celebration when they gave her a rousing standing ovation for simply braving the stage. That is humanity at its finest—selfless, kind, loving, encouraging, open-minded, socially concerned, supportive of positive change, and nurturing of those in pain. Fuck, that’s a rare and beautiful thing (in a small group, much less among millions).
It’s something I’ve come to deeply appreciate about Marvel over the past year and a half, in many ways through my own professional development. I mean, here I am writing this essay for a publication that chose Black Panther as its film of the year in 2018—a publication where you’d think my attitude towards Marvel would be cause for crucifixion from their perspective and an ethical imperative to avoid journalistic collaboration from mine. But Film School Rejects cultivates a space for dissent and diversity of thought.
That doesn’t mean they made me love Black Panther. I was terribly disappointed in that movie. It was just another formulaic Marvel product to me. But I can’t (don’t want to) deny the incredible social and communal impact it had, which doesn’t have to conflict with the theoretical and filmmaking critiques I hold. So while it wasn’t one of my personal favorites of the year, and I don’t think it holds up on grounds of critical analysis, it’s a fine choice as FSR’s pick. Diversity, representation, equality, and human rights are infinitely more important than the intellectualism of film analysis. And as Marvel’s first movie with a primarily black cast, Black Panther made a colossal stride in that arena, allowing kids and adults alike to witness representation on a stage that had previously been reserved for whites only.
Ultimately, witnessing the tectonic plates of culture shift slowly toward a new reality of inclusivity has disarmed me of my supreme cynicism. Who are we cinephiles kidding if we assign meaning to the art of film and remove it from the community of film? Who would we be without our filmgoing communities? This same logic can be applied to community as a whole, outside the specificity of film. Who are we to insist upon the meaning of what humans create while ignoring the meaning of humans themselves? My own transformation is not tied to how I feel about any Marvel film in particular. It’s tied to the inexorable value of human connection. It’s based on what I’ve seen and experienced.
I saw black children dressing up as their favorite Black Panther superheroes for Halloween without having to imagine a racial recasting of their costumed character (though there’s no problem with our imaginations recasting fictitious characters like Superman as black). I saw parents beaming at the excitement their kids felt in knowing they actually looked like the badass superheroes on the silver screen. Similar delights can be found in cute little girls running around and adult women having a drink in Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel garb.
I saw black comic-book lovers and moviegoers in their 20s, 30s, 40s, etc. dressing up in these costumes and exuberantly ushering in a new era of representation that they had been mourning and fighting the absence of for their entire lives. I saw Marvel for the good they brought: the tinge of hope for equality they infused in so many beaten souls, the powerful message it sent to the sick lot who seek to deepen the historical oppression wrought by whiteness in America, the step forward they took by listening to the people’s cries for diversity (even if it came some centuries late). Sure, the Cerberus of the MCU is still three white dudes, but there’s been a seismic rearrangement in the cultural conscience.
I marvel at people loving people for who they are and, whether I like the films or not, the MCU fosters that kind of community, an incomparable community that 2019 cannot spare in the face of the primal political division that already plagues us. So, we Marvel haters can be better. We can be more charitable in our readings of the films that disappoint us, not for the sake of the studio giant (who is still very problematic through the lens of art and economy), but for the sake of the beautiful sense of humanity it sparks in communities around the globe. And that doesn’t require us to love the movies or ignore their flaws. It’s important we write reviews and have discussions that openly critique the aspects of the films we find problematic or lackluster, and concomitantly important to celebrate the aspects of the film that should be celebrated, which are both communal and artistic at times.
Art is complex. It’s a multi-faceted, philosophical, social, cultural, and political expression that serves as a headspring for open discussion which has potential to burgeon a loving, diverse community. And films with as heavy an impact as Marvel’s deserve multiple lenses of interpretation. If I can rethink my position without sacrificing my critiques, so can you. Consider it for the blooming of humanity in all of its forms. It’s really quite pleasant to be open, and for what it’s worth, Marvel has started to mix it up a little more. Who knows, maybe we’ll just end up liking the next Marvel movie anyway.