I accidentally caught up on the Marvel Cinematic Universe this weekend. That doesn’t include the entirety of the continuity of this extended universe, since I’ve seen very little of the television shows and don’t really care to change that.
Because I’m caught up, I think I will see Infinity War. But it’s less that I’m excited about the movie. I feel a sad, pathetic impulse to see it because, hey, why not? I’ve seen the other ones, and it’ll play at the Indiana State Museum IMAX. That’s enough of a reason, I suppose.
This Phase Three of the MCU is a bit of a wash for me. I’ve said before that I have superhero fatigue, and Marvel is the leading culprit. But these movies get talked about enough that it’s hard to ignore them–and whenever I do ignore them, that seems to be just when an actually worthwhile new film comes out. There were some really great films in this cycle, but I don’t feel rejuvenated or excited about the future of this franchise or of superhero films in general.
These movies, no matter what they do to their characters, feel safe and locked in stone. In Thor: Ragnarok, Thor tells Loki that “life is about growth and change. But you just seem to want to stay the same. I guess what I’m trying to say is that you’ll always be the God of Mischief. But you could be more.” It’s as though Thor is commenting on the state of the superhero genre. With each new Marvel movie, we get more and more tricks but very little lasting change or impact to the characters or the world.
There are two interesting exceptions to this general static nature. The first is to Thor himself. He appears to permanently lose his hammer, and an eye, and ends up with a new look and a new focus and a new manifestation of his power. Ragnarok shifted the positions of all the characters, killing off some franchise figures rather quickly and even shuffling Odin off the board. For the moment, Loki even seems to have grown and rethought his motivations–though the Infinity War trailers do seem to suggest that his turn to Good is not very long-lasting. Even Asgard itself is “changed” quite dramatically by film’s end.
The other example is the actual state of the world, as evidenced by Spider-Man: Homecoming. We see the rise of a new breed of criminal, reacting to the fallout of the age of superheroes, taking advantage of the collateral damage left behind after the great battles of previous films. Homecoming, in many ways, is about how the third-act, depersonalized chaos of the previous films has had a profound impact on the people on the ground (to be honest, it’s covering a lot of the same thematic ground of Batman v. Superman, not to mention the street-level superhero approach of the live-action Marvel TV shows).
But most of the heroes are still just reacting to a string of events, not truly evolving or being marked, physically or emotionally, in lasting ways. In Phase Two, we saw a lot of growth for Iron Man and Captain America, as they questioned alliances and as Tony Stark in particular was affected by his experiences in The Avengers. While this led to some explosive interpersonal conflict in Civil War, we see the characters as the archetypes they’ve always been. Tony in particular seems to always bounce back into the roguish scoundrel whenever convenient–for all his paternal efforts in Homecoming, he still feels a little removed, distant, selfish. As much as we are supposed to believe that Peter Parker learns an important lesson about responsibility and maturity, I would say that Homecoming really highlights Tony’s failures at honest communication and mentorship.
And while Tom Holland is an excellent Peter Parker / Spider-Man, the existence of yet another Spider-Man film where Peter must balance personal life versus super-heroics is mostly yawn-inspiring. At least it wasn’t an origin story, and Holland is better in the role than Garfield and might exceed Maguire’s early performances in the role. But a Spider-Man film seems bound by particular narrative expectations, and there was little fresh here (the most memorable moments, as is so often the case in a Marvel film, were the many gags and one-liners).
Doctor Strange was even more by-the-numbers: yet another origin story, incredibly boring in comparison to the similarly done-before beats of Ant-Man but lacking the humor and charm. Where we could have had a weird film that examines spiritualism and the occult and truly challenges perception, we have pretty light shows and special effects tricks that haven’t been cool since Inception.
Thor: Ragnarok was hilarious and self-aware and had some awesome nods to metal and fantasy; Black Panther I’ve written glowingly about before. But Ragnarok‘s flaw is that it is so dependent upon the net of the existing continuity–while willing to burn down expectations and kill off previously important characters, it didn’t really do anything so narratively risky as to disrupt Thor and Loki’s ability to bounce from project to project, and it required at least passing knowledge of events in Dark World and Age of Ultron to fully process what was happening. In other words, Ragnarok was not so much a standalone film as a really funny link in one chain of this sprawling franchise.
Shockingly, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 seemed to have the most original storytelling vision, focusing on developing Star-Lord’s crew. But I also found that more original story more flawed, a little looser and maybe too slow. More experimentation invites more risk, after all. But this film was neither too experimental nor too risky. (This mini-review could be used almost verbatim for The Last Jedi‘s place in the Star Wars franchise, as well).
In sum, it’s all fine. It’s fine and forgettable, and the franchise is sure to continue making millions of dollars. There is pathos and humor and action in each film, all measured out in more-or-less the right portions per the old recipe, a formula only modestly revised since that first Iron Man a decade ago. But I think anything these films might actually have to say is crushed under the weight of franchise perpetuity and creation by committee.
The most unpleasant thing about the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the constant reminder that most of our pop culture loves are slickly designed to continue to sell, not stories in and of themselves with intrinsic value but instead utilizing extrinsically valuable intellectual property to continue to push out product that apparently plenty of people still find desire for. It’s not just Marvel, but Star Wars and classic monster movies and classic sci-fi television (ironically including the plucky, post-scarcity utopia of Star Trek) and anything else that can be rebooted or resurrected or impersonated.
Maybe what really kills me about this is that I’m detached from Marvel. I don’t have the childhood nostalgia. I didn’t really get into comic books until college, and I didn’t stay invested for very long. And my college years paralleled the start of the MCU. So I can see the trappings of this franchise juggernaut more clear-eyed than if I were personally invested. And so I can see how much that franchise development resembles the development of the Star Wars franchise, especially post-Lucas. And as much as I’ve loved (most) of this new era of Star Wars, it’s too easy to see as more of the same, with the same bloat and continuity creep and constant churn of product. And where I could otherwise blithely ignore the rotted element of my own fandom, I’m forced to stare it in the face in the mirror image of Disney’s other adopted child.
Part of me wants to insist on drawing a line. Value the works of original creators, and keep looking for new original content by new creators telling new and meaningful stories for our time. Stop investing in a product merely because of nostalgic familiarity and safe name-recognition. Stop with Marvel and DC and Star Wars and Star Trek and Harry Potter and James Bond and all the rest of the bullshit.
But the ugly side of me, the side that sighs and shrugs and continues to “invest” in the next film and the next one and the one after (as though I’m gaining any equity in doing so), will win out. It’s too tiring to keep watching and it’s too tiring to quit. After all, I might as well keep up on the current pop culture conversations. After all, there’s Infinity War to watch. And these franchises sure feel infinite.