The critics have been hating on super hero movies since they started to show up in their newly expansive form, about ten years ago. They are an extension of the tradition of the “Summer Blockbuster,” which has always defined a kind of movie most critics find unserious. Even where a Roger Ebert or A.O. Scott is willing to tip their hat to a successful multi-million dollar production, this is not really “cinema.” And that kind of distinction has certainly been true for all of the movies released by Marvel, Inc. in what has become known as the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” (the MCU). Some get very good critical reviews, but they are regarded as popular, sub-cultural, popcorn movies. This was brought home to me recently when a distant acquaintance descended into snark to describe the final of the MCU movies that was just released. To paraphrase, this person remarked on social media something to the effect of: “now that the pointless, narrative-free frat boy movies have completed their run, can we start watching real movies again?”
I have to say, that remark hurt. It hurt a lot. Like most kinds of social media self-sharing, someone felt like they were justified in diminishing something that lots of other people cared about. And I know people care about it because I care about it. And if that wasn’t enough reason, I know that other people care about it. I just sat in a room full of young people who remarked lovingly and affectionately about how much these films have meant, as they have become part of the lives they have lived since they could start attending movies with their parents. The success of these movies represents a truly rare thing in our current culture: a shared, emotional experience that is common to ALL kinds of people. And no one I know who cares about these movies cares only a little. Almost all watchers are moved to tears at points in the story. People I know who are only nominal fans own t-shirts, memorabilia, and other things related to these films. They take them very much to heart.
So, for just a moment, I want to speak out for these films and raise at least a few points in favor of understanding that what is happening here is above the kind of snark that my acquaintance left it at. And the first thing that I want to say is that if you think of these as just movies, you’ve missed the point. What is happening in the MCU is a piece of artistic ingenuity that, before it happened, scarcely seemed possible. The MCU is not a collection of films. It is an interconnected narrative universe that has been told across various films, television shows, comics, and other forms of story telling. Let me be emphatic here: this has absolutely never happened before. And it was a huge risk to try it. Film audiences aren’t known for their retention and their attention spans. But that’s the risk that Marvel took — that they could tell inter-related, contiguous stories about different characters across movies and that people would be willing to track with that story for a decade.
Next: the MCU is not simply a set of new stories designed for film, like Star Wars or some other franchise. It is, instead, a reiteration of an entire universe of stories that already exists in a whole series of different versions in comic books. In other words, these are adaptations that have spanned different genres and different kinds of story telling. And what that means is that, if you are only watching these films, you are only getting half of the story. Because half of the artistry in the MCU comes in how they have re-interpreted and re-cast aspects of the characters and stories that appear in the films. (To see Marvel writers and producers wrestle with how this works and why it matters so much, just watch the non-MCU animated film, “Into the Spiderverse.” In short: representations matter, and reiterating stories and characters is a profound way to explore identity around common experiences.) To explain what I mean would entail spoilers, but in every case what is happening in these movies is re-telling something that already has different versions of itself, and as a result it responds to the circumstances of the audience, present day social and political realities, as well as the creative vision of individual writers and directors. (Just consider the cultural phenomenon that was Black Panther in 2018.)
Finally, the MCU has done something artistic that no one has been able to attempt, and in its accidental success has shown just how powerful story telling is. Comicbooks are the lowest form of visual and narrative art — even those who love comics, along with those who love them, agree on this. The natural place for a comic book is rolled up in the back pocket of a young kid in a place like Brooklyn or South Philly or Baltimore. A comic is impermanent. The colors of comics are blotted colors on newsprint — the cheapest, most mechanized version of conveying imagery. And the stories are inane, with absurd science fiction spun around a core concept that has to be as unimpeachable as it is impregnable: the duty of a hero to be good and to protect those who cannot protect themselves. It is a garbage medium, and self-consciously so, as drawing comics is full of garbage idioms like “the gutter” (used to describe the narrative space between comic panels) and an “ashcan edition” (used to describe the first draft of a comic, meant to be thrown away.)
What the MCU has done is to take this least form of art and most basic version of narrative and have given it an apotheosis by casting it in the most expensive, personnel-intensive form of art the world has seen: the CGI-driven motion picture. Where Captain America comics used to line garbage bins, now an army of artists perfect his portrayal on a massive screen so that MILLIONS of people can come and view a story that — because the heroic core is so fundamental and so durable — can be enjoyed in Baltimore, Berlin, Bangalore and Beijing. And in view of the enmeshed efforts of artists and the complicated heritage of stories that go before the films, you can go to theaters — right now, seriously, its happening as you read this — and see fathers weeping next to their daughters as they watch a narrative arc that began 10 years ago whose characters and conflicts have informed the lives lived in the decade since.
Sometimes the world sucks. But this part of it doesn’t. And if you don’t get it or you don’t care, that’s fine. But for many of us, this is a moment when the true power of story telling and the capacity of art to illuminate our lives is real in a way it isn’t very often.