The Soullessness of the Marvel Universe

13 Nov

hulk smash

SMASH-o ergo sum

I was never a comic book guy. When I was younger I somehow slalomed past that nerdish roadblock, all the while stumbling over many others: Star Wars, Star Trek, Dungeons & Dragons, virginity, Nintendo. I was the kind of guy who should have spent many lonely idle hours in the comic book store, but through fortune or (lack of) finances, those glossy pages filled with the Hulk and Batman never found my Cheetos-stained mitts. As I got older, college and post, I tried to right that wrong, but comics at that point in my life were an insurmountable mountain to climb. I am not a particularly orderly person – as anyone who has worked with or dated me can attest to – but regarding the idea of “narrative” I am studiously anal about chronology. It would mess with my head to try to read X-Men 564 without having read the previous 563 issues to know exactly what had gone on beforehand. (The one exception to this is Doctor Who, to which I have forgone the plethora of classic episodes to watch the new ones.)

And that is the caveat to this writing: my knowledge of comics mostly comes from talking with friends, reading stuff online, and my few adult-flirtations with the world of superheroes. While most of what follows is about the Marvel film universe, I will discuss the comics somewhat as well. So, to all you Jeff Albertsons out there, I beg you, don’t phase me bro.

Ask me for my birth certificate. I dare you. I double dog dare you. That's still a thing, right?

Ask me for my birth certificate. I dare you. I double dog dare you. That’s still a thing, right?

So, I saw Thor: The Dark World on Friday, opening night, which is not unusual as I like to see movies as early as possible. This is the second stand-alone Thor film and the third to feature him, The Avengers being the second. Thor is just one piece in the larger Marvel Universe, the Avengers being the cornerstone. Other pieces include the Hulk, Captain America, and Iron Man. Over the last decade all of these characters have existed within their own stand-alone movies, but all of them collided in The Avengers. Also in the works are Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant Man (yes, Ant Man!), not to mention more sequels to the current lot. All of these films will be linked together and are being produced by the film division of Marvel Entertainment.

Other Marvel properties – Spider-Man, the X-Men, Daredevil, the Fantastic Four – are owned by other studios and cannot be featured within what is being called the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There are rumors and talks that Marvel will somehow reacquire these characters and populate the MCU with them, thereby creating one of the most complex film series of all times.

And all of this I should like. I love serialized television, what some call the mythology of serialization – where characters and situations live in a fully functional universe that has built-in rules and laws which must be obeyed. In fact, Marvel even has a TV show, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (official title) that feels like an updated version of Alias, only with better looking people than Jennifer Garner and Bradley Cooper.

I’ve seen just about all of these movies (and am almost caught up on Agents of Shield), so you might be wondering why I’ve titled this piece with the draconian modifier “soullessness.” In fact, there is not a hateful or mean-spirited bone in my body directed at Marvel. They create a solid product, both in comic form and in their films. Marvel simply bursts with talent. The Avengers was directed by Joss Whedon, who also has his fingers in the other Marvel properties. None of the movies are bad. All are well-made. Even the guy who plays Thor is good in the role.

But there seems to be a ceiling to the quality of the Marvel products that cannot be raised. None of the movies are bad, but none of them could be considered great either. In fact, the filmmakers seem to accept that greatness is not something to which they wish attain or need to achieve. Each film follows a similar formula, a recipe as mundane as one you’d use to make a mac ‘n cheese and mashed potatoes comfort food supper. Each film has the right mix of adventure and whimsy to qualify as entertainment, but not much more. They are the true definition of Hollywood escapism.

Well, but…you might say. Isn’t that what they are supposed to be? Isn’t that what most action-adventure, sci-fi, fantasy, and superhero films tend to be? What’s so wrong with escapism? Don’t we deserve that?

Yes, we do deserve it. I saw both White House got blown up movies this past year, not because I thought they would make me think, but because I didn’t want to think. I just wanted to watch stuff get blown up. No one is going to say The Expendables is great cinematic discourse, but one cannot live on Bergman and Fellini alone. Sometimes we need Corman.

But not every movie should be all of one thing or another. The Marvel films could be better, richer, more dramatic. They simply choose not to be.  The Dark Knight series is a great example of superhero films that were thoughtful and complex, dealing with politics, morality, and that rarity amongst such films – character. Even a film as derided as Man of Steel tried to be more than just a goofy superhero movie. (Though it probably went a bit too far in the other direction.)  

As to the question of “aren’t these movies supposed to be escapist?” the answer cannot come from me but from the producers of the films. They seem to have consciously decided to make them good enough so as to not piss off any of the hardcore comic book fans, easy enough to understand so that new fans can be got, and almost wholly devoid of emotional attachment between the audience and the characters.

Indeed, the Marvel films exhibit a similar distant sarcastic faux-bravado as Tony Stark, dressed up in a lot of bells and whistles to hide the half-living empty shell of a creature beneath.

I blame it all on Gwyneth's craft services.

I blame it all on Gwyneth’s craft services.

The first movie I saw in my first class in film school was Citizen Kane. Then we got Rear Window. Battleship Potemkin. My Darling Clementine. 2001. Blade Runner. All great movies. This was a class geared more towards film studies than film production, so it was unlikely we would see Ghostbusters 2: The One That Sucked. Still, through three and a half years of film studies we were never shown a bad movie. Not once did a teacher say, “Okay, so tell me, why did this not work, and how would you have done it differently?”

I learn more about filmmaking from watching bad movies than good ones. All aspiring novelists should read Dan Brown because his writing is atrocious. (To all Dan Brown fans, I am not judging you but him, so please don’t send me any cursed masonic artifacts.) I try to see every M. Night Shyamalan film because they are like master classes on how not to make a movie. (To all Shyamalan fans, it’s you.) Good movies entertain and sustain me. That’s their purpose. Once we deconstruct them into mere teaching tools we devalue them as works of art.

The Marvel films are perplexing because they are neither “so bad they are teachable,” nor are they “so good that I simply must see them again.” They exist in their own bubble universe, each almost uniform in quality, neither too high nor too low. Partially this stems from a profound lack of ambition: if you don’t take the risks of being great, you are less likely to fall flat on your face. But there is a deeper, more systemic issue with the Marvel universe and modern comics in general.

Both Marvel and D.C. Comics have a staggering number of characters and storylines. No wonder then that once in a while (all the time) those stories get muddled and continuity errors begin to pop up. Sometimes, however, comic writers decide that they don’t like a certain story line so they, you know, just get rid of it. It’s known in the trade as “retconning” or “retroactive continuity.” Which is like saying to myself, “Boy, I’ve done a lot of stupid things in my life, let’s just go back and pretend they didn’t happen. Young Jacob’s liver, here we come!”

An example (explained to me by a friend): Jean Grey is a member of the X-Men where she is known as Marvel Girl. She somehow gets transformed into a superpowerful character now named Phoenix. She is then corrupted and is called Dark Phoenix. Dark Phoenix kills a lot of people, but then, realizing that she cannot be stopped, commits suicide to ensure she won’t accidentally-on-purpose murder everyone else in the known universe.

So, Jean Grey is dead. Dead. Dead. Dead.

Until they bring her back. Apparently, so sayeth the writers, she was never actually the Phoenix or Dark Phoenix or whatever, just some alien who took her form and killed billions of people, and the real Jean Grey was sleeping peacefully in some cocoon in the bottom of the ocean for the past six goddamned years. Retconned, motherfucker!

It seems like almost every character in comics has been killed off and brought back. At this point, a character dying and not being brought back would be a shocker. (The next Captain America film will retcon/resurrect the hero’s best friend from the first movie and make him the villain, natch.)

It is within Plotline IV: Bullshit Reincarnation where much of the soullessness of comics resides. On one level, retconning says to the audience: “Oh, you like this story, well fuck you, it didn’t happen. But please keep giving us money until we pull out the rug from you again.”  On a deeper level, we’re dealing with something that is much more sacred: life and death.

There are two unstoppable forces in the world: time and death. We all move forward in time, and we all die. The inevitability of death makes life more interesting, it gives us a finite amount of time to exist and accomplish, to love and be loved. But in a world where death is not just reversible, but so reversible that it’s become a joke, do we ever really worry about whether a character is in any mortal danger? Do we ever actually feel the loss when someone we rooted for for years is killed off? Or do we know in our heart of hearts that somehow Spidey will be back, somehow.

My hammer is no match for Natalie Portman's krav maga.

My hammer is no match for Natalie Portman’s krav maga.

Metaphysical reasons for Marvel’s soullessness aside, there are plenty of nuts-and-bolts practical reasons.

Most of the superheroes within the current Marvel film cadre are horribly boring. Sure, they can beat people up, throw around a big hammer, fly in a metal suit, spin a shield, or SMASH! But they are also one-dimensional heroes. There is nothing about these characters that makes us worry that they might lose, that they may die. (And if they did die, they’d just retcon them back to life in the next episode, or next reel.) There is nothing about them that makes us go: “I want to be Thor.” No, really, who the fuck wants to be Thor?

Harry Potter and Luke Skywalker were relatable heroes because both were orphans snatched out of their humdrum lives and thrust into a hero’s quest. Both had to learn to master their talents as well as their egos. Both lost grandfatherly mentor figures, events which forced them to grow up faster than boys are supposed to. That’s known as the Joseph Campbell School of Heroes, Duh. The one Marvel character that truly fits this orphan-to-hero pattern is Spider-Man, who, unfortunately, is not part of the current line-up. Spider-Man is one of the few Marvel heroes who is vulnerable, thoughtful, and most importantly, relatable. He’s just a kid, a nerdy, lonely, lovelorn kid who lives with his widowed aunt. It is impossible not to relate to him.

Then you’ve got Iron Man/Tony Stark, who is a rich genius, basically Mitt Romney merged with Steve Jobs, with a dash of sass and sarcasm. Captain America reeks of an outdated form of patriotism that today is almost cringe-worthy. Thor is a god, repeat: A FUCKING GOD! The Hulk is interesting in his stand alone film, but the Banner-Hulk duality and the anger issues have never been fully explored; and the fact that he’s been played by two separate actors does not help. Then we have S.H.I.E.L.D., run by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson in Badass Motherfucker Iteration No. 45, now with eyepatch), who I guess are supposed to be the good guys, but who remind me more and more of a nefarious NSA-like shadow government agency. This is more obvious in the television show Agents of Shield.

Which brings me to what the Marvel Cinematic Universe really is: a television series. Just a very very expensive and drawn out one. Rarely does an episode of even a great TV show stand alone as a great work of art. The episodes need to fit together to form a whole. The producers’ decision to create a unified set of films is not a bad idea, in fact it is a commendable one. But, to turn a cliché on its head, they can’t see the trees for the forest. 

Each film is steady in its three-star quality. Each clocks in around the two hour mark. All romances are dumbed down to the cutest of RomCom clichés. All are technically well-made with (except for Whedon and Shane Black) no-name, but workmanlike directors attached. All fight scenes are nicely choreographed. All music is sufficiently rousing without ever being hummable once the movie is over. Everything looks good. Everything sounds good. And everything is as cold and as inhuman as possible.  With one possible exception.

Hi, I love the blog. Good writing is so sexy....

Hi, I love the blog. Good writing is so sexy….

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