Word of the Day
Worthy of praise (or a gold star).
Worthy of praise (or a gold star).
MarvelCaptain AmericaShieldTruth, justice, and the American wayMan out of timeKnights of Columbus Circle?
Iron Man was the last movie I saw in college before graduating. I caught a 7pm opening night showing at the local theater, which was maybe three-quarters full. The crowd enjoyed it, I think. There wasn’t much reaction. I enjoyed it too, although I hadn’t grown up with comics and didn’t have the same love that I assumed others did. I didn’t anticipate seeing many other Marvel movies, let alone a decade-spanning arc of them. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has become a backdrop for my entire adult life.
So, as we wrap up this Infinity Saga, I wanted to look back on a few things that I’ve enjoyed or noticed with the Marvel movies. I’m a little hesitant about this. The world needs another Marvel thinkpiece like a hole in its head. I don’t want to focus on the usual suspects: the character arcs, the business model, the mainstreaming of nerd culture and its effects, the Definitive Movie Ranking. I want to focus on other things. In some ways, they’re things I’ve been thinking about in my own life or observing in culture for the last ten years. Read into it what you will.
We start with heroes. Marvel has them in spades. A cast poster before Avengers: Infinity War had over eighty actors, most of which fight on the “good side.”
This was not necessarily common when the franchise started. The early and mid-2000s were the age of the antihero. Superhero movies were still a very mixed bag; for every Spider-Man, there was a Daredevil: dark and brooding, with lots of leather and vengeance. Vin Diesel did well in this era, starting two franchises with antiheroes, xXx and the Riddick series. Johnny Depp delighted audiences as the rascally Jack Sparrow. Hugh Jackman’s gruff loner Wolverine both elevated and rose above the X-Men franchise. Perhaps the best example of this is Hancock, the drunken superhero played by Will Smith. Is it any surprise that the gruff, brooding Batman became the beloved superhero in the 90s and 2000s? If you went to see a tentpole action movie in the early to mid-2000s, you were likely going to see a protagonist you couldn’t wholeheartedly root for.
Into this stepped Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark. Everyone remembers how bold of a step it was to end the movie with Stark outing his secret identity—and there’s something to be examined about antiheroes and secret identities—but anchoring Stark firmly as a good guy was also bold. Tony Stark is flawed, but his heart is squarely in the right place. After his major life incident, he turns and throws his considerable talents at righting the wrongs he did or enabled. The Iron Man movies revolve around Tony Stark fighting something from his past, trying to fix it. Tony is a bit of a hedonist. He screws up. And his fixes are sometimes screwups (ahem, Ultron). But the arc of Tony Stark is that of someone learning not just to stop running from his past but also to accept responsibility for past actions and present talents, putting them to use for a greater good. That is a hero’s arc.
While Tony Stark is the central character of the MCU, the moral center is Steve Rogers/Captain America. The interesting thing about this is that it’s worked. Captain America is a boring character. He’s a powerful human, but he’s no match for Thor, the Hulk, or any other villains. Also, he’s…normal. Quiet. Doesn’t sleep around. Doesn’t have some weird personality quirk. Doesn’t turn into a giant green rage monster. Steve Rogers may be a good human, but that doesn’t make him a compelling on-screen hero. Marvel made it work by placing him at the center, letting everything else change and go awry around him, and showing how a grounded man deals with these challenges. Captain America lives up to his ideal, reflecting the Greatest Generation without diving into nostalgia. In The Winter Soldier, it’s his principled moral compass that sniffs out what’s wrong, fights it, but also pursues others until they become allies. Steve Rogers disagrees with many people, but his moral gravitas earns their respect.
The reason the Marvel movies have stuck around as long as they have is because Marvel is really, really good at building relatable heroes (and wants to). Their heroes aren’t the gods wrestling with whether humanity should be saved like their DC counterparts. They’re clearly humans, with human flaws. Tony is cocky. Steve Rogers is stubborn. Thor is proud and not a great king. Black Widow wrestles with her past and pragmatism. Scott Lang openly admits “I do dumb things sometimes,” even as he tries to be a better dad. Steven Strange is arrogant and doesn’t place value in things that he can’t understand completely (to therefore control). But Marvel wisely has embraced these characters’ responsibilities rather than running from it. The character flaws are what drive their stories. They choose to pick up the rock because it’s the right thing to do. Marvel wants us to root for them and to see them grow.
This is a good place to note that Marvel’s villains are generally terrible. Most Marvel villains are inverted or twisted versions of the heroes, which helps the heroes learn a lesson but isn’t compelling. The three who are—Loki, Killmonger, and Thanos—all share some of the heroes’ DNA. They all seek to fix a problem caused by a the fallout of a relational conflict. With Loki, it’s the father/brother relationship. With Killmonger, it’s the father/uncle/cousin relationship. With Thanos, it’s the daughter/wife relationship. Killmonger and Thanos even have arguments that go beyond “for the eeevils”, the former arguably winning the moral argument. The rest of the villains are forgettable. (Especially you, Malekith.)
Look: these are popcorn movies. They’re built to be consumable entertainment, not Shakespeare or Infinite Jest. if you want to build these kind of movies, you need characters that people will come back to see. Marvel did that by building heroes we cared about. It’s strange to say that this has been a big shift in filmmaking, but it was. We got heroes that were heroic but also interesting. This set up everything else in the MCU. I’ve read zero Marvel comics and have no plans to, but I’ve enjoyed following the arcs of the Marvel heroes, all distinct and messy as they are. I’m curious to see how Marvel pays this off in Avengers: Endgame, especially since it’s arriving to a distinctly different and more unclear place than any previous movie has been. I’m less interested in seeing how Marvel writes around the effects of the Infinity War snap than I am to see how the characters react to it. I didn’t know half these characters existed before April 2008. And here I am, rooting for them. That’s some good storytelling.
Up next: Joy
EssaysMarvelHeroesTony StarkSteve RogersYes, David Bowie is on a soundtrack?