The Superhero Craze Isn't Superficial

By Tim McEown

Mailed on May 07, 2015

Dear Fellow Comic Book Fans,

One of the most prevalent (and lazy) criticisms of the current spate of superhero themed movies is that they aren’t really about anything. At least anything other than filling sacks of cash for Disney or Warner or Sony or whoever else wants to throw a couple of hundred million dollars at Joss Whedon and his ilk.

The problem with this particular criticism is that it is demonstrably wrong. It is so clearly incorrect that I am often baffled at how people who seem perceptive and well intentioned become so vexed that they lose the use of their critical faculties (like this guy).

Avengers: Age of Ultron, Captain America: The Winter Soldier or any of the other colon-ridden movies are not (a.) great art or (b.) without strong profit motive. But then again you could say that about almost all of culture since we first decided to tell stories around a campfire. You can, however, make distinctions about good and bad, and those distinctions have nothing to do with the box office returns a particular movie, or set of movies, generates (if they did then Michael Bay would be considered an auteur, and no one wants to live in that universe).

When you’re talking about the MCU (Marvel Comics Universe) one of the reasons that some miss the forest for the trees has to do with the cross-pollination of sequential comics with traditional filmmaking. Most movies, even when you’re dealing with trilogies and sequels, are hermetically sealed. It is one of the defining features of mainstream cinema—a complete story is told in ninety or one hundred and twenty minutes. Comics work in a slightly different way. And that difference is crucial.

What the comic book movies do differently, on a structural level, is that the main plot carries through several different films. Think of them as chapters rather than whole novels. Each chapter carries the narrative forward toward an eventual endpoint.

There is an obvious caveat to be made here: some people do not want to spend the time, money, and energy necessary to engage with this kind of storytelling. For instance, I have never watched the entirety of Berlin Alexanderplatz, despite its universal acclaim. But my lack of interest says absolutely nothing about its intrinsic value.

People who read, or have read, comics understand this kind of story telling intuitively because it is in the DNA of the form; broad, sprawling mythologies that often span several different titles and can take years to play out. Sometimes it is well done (see: Neil Gaiman’s Sandman or Marvel’s Civil War series). Other times, not so well (Marvel’s The Ultimates). But when executed properly, they manage to tell a big, rambunctious story with some pretty interesting themes and a depth of character that can surprise you.

Those responsible for the Marvel films, like Joss Whedon and Kevin Feige, understand this kind of structure intuitively. Whedon in particular wields enormous creative influence and has managed to do something I would have considered impossible even five years ago—he invested these movies with a pretty interesting through-line.

What these movies are really exploring—from the beginning with the first Iron Man through to the current Avengers: Age of Ultron and beyond—is the inherent tension between the desire for security and personal liberty. Oddly enough, the strongest advocate for this chaotic and often-dangerous kind of freedom is the character that could have been the most banal and jingoistic: Chris Evan’s Captain America. This split becomes explicit in Avengers: Age of Ultron and will play out in the coming Civil War storyline. And if the Russo Bros. do it justice, as I suspect they will, it will be a fascinating ride.

The Shield versus The Sword. The difference between preemptive paranoia and the idea that life is inherently dangerous and a certain amount of risk has to be accepted. In short, everyone eventually dies and the thing that matters is the quality of your life, not its length (even if death is an elastic concept in the MCU). This is the central conflict of these films and you don’t have to look very hard at any of them to see these two viewpoints banging up against one another. The idea that saving the world over and over again is the singular theme of these films is missing the obvious.

Now if this all sounds a little hyperbolic, that’s because it is. There isn’t much nuance here. However, the best of these movies carry an earnest power that subverts a certain tendency, in some quarters, to see the uncomplicated as something that lacks value. But like most entertainments worth that label, these films have an undercurrent that touches on things we all care about.

There are also drawbacks to this kind of narrative strategy. It risks sprawl. It risks commerce subverting the creative aspect so that some movies become nothing but placeholders (Iron Man 2, I’m pointing in your direction). There is also an unevenness that is inevitable because no matter strong the central planning is, some directors and screenwriters are just more adept than others.

As well—and this is perhaps where the rubber hits the road—some of this critical contempt is less about the films themselves and more about how their fans engage with them. The idea of sweaty nerdlings losing their minds about men and women in costume puts some people off. An attitude which, while perhaps understandable, really has nothing to do with the films as creative enterprises.

On balance, the people at the helm of this particular Juggernaut have managed to smooth out most of the rough edges and create a body of work that holds up over time. These are thoroughly enjoyable films. They don’t speak to everyone, but what does (other than the truly banal).

The best of them—Avengers, Iron Man, Iron Man 3, and Captain America: Winter Soldier—are quality works of genre fiction. They are well-written, well-executed, beautiful to look at, and emotionally compelling. More importantly, they move the whole story towards something that might be truly special. Fingers crossed.

What I am sure of is that the pointless hand-wringing over these films and their supposed lack of depth is misplaced. They are primarily entertainments, in the same way that most Broadway musicals are—or any kind of music, or most books, or any piece of cultural ephemera we consume. They are worth exactly as much time, energy, and attention as you want to give them. And if you prefer other things one of the very great features of middlebrow culture (at this point in history) is that you can never see a Marvel film as long as you live and still not lose a minute of sleep or lack any number of quality alternatives.



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