“Pity the land without heroes!”
“No, pity the land that needs them.” —Bertolt Brecht, Galileo
As inconceivable as it seems, 2008’s Iron Man was, at the time, a mortgage-the-farm gamble for Marvel Comics, who was tired of watching film studios like Fox (The X-Men, The Fantastic Four) and Sony (Spider-Man) profit from films made out of their four-color pulp universe. By founding Marvel Studios, the long-existing comic-book company rolled the dice—and won, resulting in a long string of hit films including, most recently, Avengers: Age of Ultron. Between Iron Man and Avengers 2 came financial rewards almost beyond measure, including Disney buying Marvel lock, stock and armor for $4 billion in August 2009.
Some of the Marvel films have been good, and some of them have not. Much as any reasonable human can discern and evaluate the difference between a Joel Schumacher Batman film and a Christopher Nolan one, people of goodwill and good nature can equally state that, let’s say, Captain America’s solo films are better than those of Thor, and then name their precise reasons as to how they arrived at that conclusion.
This, then, is not a critique of the Marvel films, although it will discuss some of the intrinsic structural problems that plague all superhero films, and the Marvel movies specifically. Nor is it a discussion of whether or not “superhero fatigue” exists or not, although it will look at how, and where, money is spent on these films as they are bought and sold both domestically and internationally. The simple question which we have to ask—which we I think we’re obligated to ask—is: If these movies are the biggest thing in American pop culture, what does that say—openly, obliquely, or accidentally—about American culture itself?
Long before the idea of caped-and-cowled superheroes, human beings created, responded to, and re-mixed stories of beings more powerful than mere mortals: gods and shape-shifters, giants and witches, aliens and elves and ogres. Some of these stories are the foundation of fairy tales, some the foundation of religions. If anyone doubts the common ground between the storytelling shapes and tropes of religion and those of superhero movies, take, for instance, the confusion and uproar over the civilians hurt and left un-rescued in the final battle of Man of Steel, all of which boiled down to a modernized riff on an old question: Why does Superman let bad things happen to good people? And there’s another one-word example of how permeable the boundaries between religion and comic books are, and how narrow the margin between superhero and god: Thor.
I often look at the action-film landscape and sort entries into two categories, which I think of as “Pre-Enlightenment” and “Post-Enlightenment.” In the pre-Enlightenment model, the template is religion: We human beings look up to the sky for the special people and wait for them to save us. In the post-Enlightenment, the hero comes from ordinary humanity and steps up to do the job that must be done. Think The Avengers vs. Die Hard, or Man of Steel vs. Battleship.
The idea that the Marvel films are an appeal to people’s hard-wired desire for stories about people better, stronger and faster than they are isn’t necessarily a bad thing. At the same time, they don’t serve as a model for inspiring people to do more in the face of crisis than watch, worship and wait to be saved. It isn’t just boring dramatically; it’s perilously close to social conditioning.
Ideologically, the Marvel movies are a model of stasis and messaging. The big conflict in Marvel’s team-based films invariably boils down to a simple struggle: survival vs. annihilation, with annihilation always coming in the form of the alien, the extra-dimensional, the inhuman. Part of this is sheer strategy: There are no Chitauri warriors out in the pool of ticket-buyers who might be offended by the film’s representation of their people and refuse to buy tickets. But it’s also phony and hollow, like pro wrestling writ very, very large. And the representatives of authority—whether plutocrats like Tony Stark or the massive paramilitary organization of S.H.I.E.L.D.—are always proven right.
While many people would demur by arguing that Captain America 2 possesses what passes for deeper political meaning in the Marvel movies, allow Grantland‘s Alex Pappademas to puncture that puffery with a slim needle of fact: “Captain America: The Winter Soldier books Robert Redford as the heavy and makes a few halfhearted allusions to our own imperiled civil liberties, and everyone calls it a ‘’70s political thriller’ with a straight face, forgetting that actual ’70s political thrillers seldom excused government malfeasance by blaming it on defrosted Nazi agents.”
While Pappademas’s brusque swat speaks truth, it doesn’t go far enough. The point of Marvel’s cloak-and-dagger skullduggery with S.H.I.E.L.D. is a familiar line of argument and entertainment we’ve become perilously used to: the plot where an unscrupulous, power-hungry arm of the intelligence apparatus is thwarted in their plans…by a scrupulous, public-service-minded arm of the intelligence apparatus. Again, the status quo remains intact. Even Ultron’s put-down in Avengers 2—“You Avengers want to save the world, but you don’t want to change it”—gets neutered by the follow-through: Ultron’s idea of change is killing humanity, and so the status quo of mere survival is ringingly endorsed above annihilation—which is really not that much of a choice. I do not expect $100 million movies to constantly, deliberately, and explicitly speak to the real world; at the same time, I do not want $100 million movies that constantly, deliberately, and explicitly decide to have nothing to do with the real world whatsoever. You can make the argument, as many have, that the Marvel films, with their emphasis on urban destruction, are just the result of us coughing up some psychic equivalent of a hairball after 9/11—but if that were the case, shouldn’t the aftermath of destruction be more important than the destruction itself? Where is the catharsis in seeing the endless repetition of destroyed urban areas with no aim in sight beyond spectacle?
There was a minor bit of blockbuster-director in-fighting prior to the release of Avengers 2, as Joss Whedon made a sideswipe at a clip from the upcoming Jurassic World that showed some fairly stiff interactions between Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard; Whedon noted aspects that he perceived as “’70s-era sexist” in the clip. Though Whedon has since recanted and apologized for it, his slam is illuminating—not for what it says about Jurassic World but, rather, for what it says about his own film. Of the 10 costumed combatants on the side of good in Avengers 2, only two are women; only one is not white (unless you count The Vision, who is beet-red). And the newest character in the bunch, War Machine, dates to 1979, and is least involved in the action; the next-newest, Wanda Maximoff, dates to 1964.
If you’re creating 2015 on-screen versions of characters created during the Kennedy, Johnson, and Carter administrations, inevitably, you are going to carry along a disconcerting amount of baggage about race and gender. It’s worth noting that compared to the film version of the X-Men—mostly inspired by the ’80s and ’90s versions of that franchise—the Avengers look like the cast of Mad Men next to the X-Men’s Benetton-ad-with-superheroics tent of outsiders from all backgrounds.
Of course, it’s one thing to blame the long-lost writers—often drunk, on deadline and in many cases before the first Beatles LP—who created these characters for their retrograde notions of gender and race. What’s equally intriguing are the slights, slurs, and stupidities committed out of whole cloth in supposedly more-enlightened 2015. Jen Yamato of The Daily Beast summed up the new film’s approach to Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow: “The result is an overdue character exploration for Black Widow that still manages to reduce the baddest bitch in the MCU to a shell of a superheroine who’s sad she can never be a complete woman.” The “sterilization” Yamato alludes to is a totally head-scratching addition to her story on Whedon’s part, one that’s desperately out of place in a PG-13 film aimed at kids. This raises an unfortunate question we have yet to answer: With their murders, mutilations, and wholesale urban destruction, are the Marvel films aimed at kids who are desensitized to violence, or at adults who are desensitized to being treated like children?
Once, in another professional life, I was waiting to interview the cast of The Avengers, and since waiting is all you do on those days, I was walking around, chatting, and looking at the various ancillary spin-offs being promoted in their own side-rooms as I and other interviewers waited for our appointed time to go through the sausage factory’s process.
In one of the adjoining hotel rooms where various pre-interview holding areas were being maintained, there was a room full of all the Avengers toys you could want: action figures, Quinjets, Hulk Hands, etc. I took a look at the Captain America figures because I wanted to confirm a suspicion of mine, which I did by looking at the fine print: “Made in China.”
Most action blockbusters are, of course, made with an eye toward kids—not just films, but ancillary spin-offs and such. And in our current age, you don’t just have to sell merchandising to kids; you can also look to selling stuff for “kidults,” that curious consumer class we have that now not only loves popular culture but also wants to literally buy into it (Iron Man headphones, anyone?).
It is, at the same time, incredibly depressing to contemplate how toys celebrating Captain America—the defender of liberty, Jimmy Stewart with a shield—aren’t being made in a democracy, never mind actually in America. Instead, foreign labor without freedom works to build the bricks of our self-image as freedom’s protector. Imagine someone who worked in that Chinese toy factory—not able to vote, without environmental protections, without the ability to collectively organize—snapping Captain America together so he could be put on a container ship and sold off the racks at Target, and you begin to wonder what kind of political and pop-cultural land mines we’re burying for ourselves with the contradictions between fictional American heroics and real international capitalism.
Also fascinating is the outcry over the fact that Marvel is slow/reluctant/disinterested in making toys and merchandise for girls based on the Avengers and other Marvel properties. Actor Mark Ruffalo himself took to Twitter and implored the powers-that-be: “Marvel, we need more #BlackWidow merchandise for my daughters and nieces. Pretty please.” When equality and representation mean an equal amount of slave-labor toys imported in the name of maximum profit for boys and girls, it’s difficult to see that as a victory; when you have consumers complaining that a multi-billion-dollar corporation isn’t targeting them with the same laser-precise aim they devote to other customers, it’s safe to say that the desire to be sold things has been safely and finally democratized: an equality of avid consumerism, with being left out the only worry.
One of the most interesting things about the Marvel movies is how avidly loved they are—to the degree where disliking one of them is made to feel less like dissent and more like treason. Or, as Manohla Dargis said in her Avengers 2 pan in The New York Times, “The most relevant thing about a movie like this is that its quality is almost entirely irrelevant. It was created to crush the box office, entertainment media and audience resistance, and mission, you know, already accomplished. In an age of lock-step entertainment, pushback isn’t just immaterial; it is also suspect.”
Some film fans, tired of seeing “news” coverage of popular film reduced to either speculative theories about as-yet-unmade movies or the sanctioned release of images from as-yet-unmade movies (which, to the gratitude of SEO-savvy movie-site managers everywhere, also create speculation), have suggested that maybe we already have enough of these films and don’t need more. This desire is called “superhero fatigue,” and it’s being derided by those supporting the current comic-movie boom.
That support seems built on two faulty premises. The first is the suggestion that Hollywood has always had phases of mania and increased public interest. Second, there really aren’t that many comic-book films; advocates, like the example sarcastically provided by Devin Faraci at Birth.Movies.Death, look at cyclical storytelling enthusiasms and prior movie “gluts” to mock those who feel tired of having so many comic-book movies: “It’s enough to make you long for the days of 1957, when only about 61 notable Westerns were released in theaters…”
The flaws underpinning both those arguments are interconnected. Though comparing the budget of a 1957 Western in the last gasps of the studio system to that of a 2014 franchise comic-book film is theoretically impossible, it’s still easy to spot the differential: 1957 Westerns like 3:10 to Yuma and The Tall T were made far more cheaply than Avengers 2‘s 2014 $250 million budget. (Adjusted for inflation, in fact, a 2014 $250 million production budget equals $29 million in 1957; Avengers 2‘s 1957 budget is actually closer to that of 1963’s notorious Cleopatra, which cost $31 million at the time.)
That kind of expenditure can’t help but have a distorting effect on the other films a studio chooses to make. Paraphrasing Dwight D. Eisenhower on the military-industrial complex, every superhero film shot is a rom-com unmade, an indie un-financed, a female-led or original action film hurled in the trash to make way for putting together the $100-million-plus needed to make and the additional $50-million-plus to market a movie whose biggest purpose is reconstituting four-color characters who date back, in many cases, as far as…well, Dwight D. Eisenhower. George Clinton, in an interview with Greg Tate (included in Tate’s collection of essays Flyboy in the Buttermilk), explained what it was like being on Sony when Sony had Michael Jackson: When you have one artist selling 30 million records for the record company, it’s a lot easier for the record company than it is to have 30 artists selling 1 million records. The question remaining is what happens to everyone who isn’t Michael Jackson, or doesn’t like Michael Jackson, or who has to get fired to maintain Michael Jackson’s contract. In case anyone doubts this last one—superhero films, after all, make money that profits the studio everywhere—please note that Warner Brothers last year announced a slate of 10 comic-book films in October 2014 …and then, in November 2014, announced over a thousand layoffs to save $200 million annually. Considering each of their superhero films will cost close to that figure, that should scare every studio as a canary-in-a-coal-mine proposition. I cannot say with any certainty how this trend will end, but at this point, I can’t help but think that the Marvel-DC movie competition might end the same way the Cold War did: Whoever goes less broke last “wins.”
Umberto Eco’s 1962 essay “The Myth of Superman” isn’t just illuminating as a demonstration of what one of the world’s finest minds was thinking about superheroics as a message and medium in that time; it’s also worth reading for how much he noted at the time is still true today. To Eco, comics were a model of serial storytelling as commodified for a mass audience: Create the illusion of change in individual stories, but maintain a state of storytelling stasis, ultimately, so new readers can join the next installment even as regular readers marvel at the story leaps and jumps in each issue while noticing that the big red reset button is always being hit.
This is also the model for the Marvel movies, although with the reality of real-world contracts and aging actors in the mix. As Whedon himself noted in an interview, the serial-stasis model of comic-book storytelling affects these films, often to their detriment: “It’s very unlikely your heroes are not going to make it through [to the end]. So what are the stakes? How do you raise them?”
The answer, at this point, is that you don’t raise the stakes, you just repeat them: Each film sees a crisis that ends in the status quo that will start the next movie, again and again. (As for people stating that the Marvel-comics universe is not static—Thor is now a woman! Falcon is now Cap! Iron Man is even more of a jerk!—well, let’s check in in a year or so and see if that’s still the case; smart money says that, given comics traditions, it will not be.) And The Walt Disney Company’s success with copyright and copyrighted characters—even successfully lobbying to expand and extend copyright claims in 1998—suggests that we can get ready for future “phases” of Marvel movies after this one ends. Or, more cynically, they’ll announce a new phase of movies as soon as this phase starts not doing well; the neatest trick Marvel ever pulled was getting people to care more about the next movie in its minute details than they care about the actual quality of the film in front of them, with too many movie “news” websites willing to haul their promotional water for them.
So when future eras look at our pop-cultural time through the Marvel movies, what will they see? They’ll see that our most modern tales of heroism were not that different from our millennia-old tales of worship. They’ll think our biggest concerns as a culture were not inequity, global warming, or corporatist fascism but Chitauri warriors, self-aware artificial intelligences, and other made-up CGI boogeymen. They’ll think we really liked white guys, or that we liked them a lot more than we did women or people of color. And they’ll think—actually, if they go out to a few landfills, they’ll know—that we loved to celebrate our heroes more by buying their cheap, plastic merchandise than we did, apparently, in actually considering if those heroes were supposed to mean anything besides slave labor and shareholder profit. And they’ll know we liked repetition and stasis about characters we liked more than we were willing, apparently, to try anything new. Back in 2008, Iron Man was a huge risk that went on to make money; after seven years of Marvel movies and who knows how many more yet to come distorting and distracting the way we make and see movies, there’s now a lot more than just money on the line.