An observation about the Marvel Cinematic Universe

I’ve consumed most of the recent Marvel content, mostly because it is available and easily watched. Calling it a drug would be too dramatic, but as far as televisual media goes, there are parallels. Some of it is good, some is pretty bad, but there is something that bothers me about the entire extended universe project: there is too much emphasis on the cataclysmic event.

Other people have written on this topic and accurately noted both that the movies are pivoting from this trope and that the material has often been strongest when dealing with the fallout from the events rather than dealing with the events themselves. However, my specific complaint has more to do with the TV show Agents of Shield. The show essentially deals with the relationship between normal people and mutated people. This season’s arc had to do with the unleashing of “Hive,” a being that can control people with mutations–and is the powerful being associated with the Devil that Hydra had been trying to bring to earth. His scheme involves a massive bio-weapon that would destroy humanity. The scrappy heroes have to fight against this thing that is much more powerful than they are. As one would expect, this leads to all sorts of tension and human stories, which, in a vacuum, work. But this narrative isn’t taking place in a vacuum. It is taking place within a larger cinematic universe.

Agents of Shield as a show about the events taking place in the shadow of the ECU movies works. It is a universe that has to grapple with increasing numbers of super-powered individuals and there are many more stories to be told there than simply reducing it to an “imminent doom” arc, but, after a season of doing just that, Agents doubled back down on the action, while nominally being a step down from the movie stories in terms of both resources (for production) and power level (resources and powers to apply within the story). The movies and the shows are doing different things, but still professing to overlap, which, in turn, leads to a dissonance and strains credulity.

Reflections on Guardians of the Galaxy

I read two reviews of Guardians of the Galaxy before seeing the film and heard two discussions of it since. The judgements, broadly speaking, fall into two camps: terrible soundtrack, shallow, cheesy, interchangeable with other action-comedies OR amazingly funny, clever, and beautifully composed. To these, I say “yes.”

Some bullet-points:

  • GoG was a ton of fun to watch. Chris Pratt was perfect for the goofy-yet-roguish hero (who really just wants people to take him seriously when he tells them his name is Star Lord). There were jokes, both verbal and visual and anytime it seemed that the film was going to fall back into serious mode, something would happen to remind everyone that this was a comedy first. Admittedly, some of the jokes were aimed at a younger audience and so erred toward the juvenile, but there were others, included dated material and topical inclusions, that had the adults laughing out loud and the kids silent.
  • Along similar lines (and as pointed out by the Grantland pop culture podcast), GoG maintained and even reveled in a sense of wonder in a way that is rare for action films.
  • I really enjoyed the jokes they got from tossing the whole story into space and then playing with what could happen when alien cultures bump into an American (well, human, but really American) culture.
  • The backgrounds were usually impressive, but, after the initial euphoria of the film wore off, it seemed to me that the world-building was minimalistic (in part because other off-world settings are usually backed up by extensive canons, such as Star Trek, in a way that this film was not). The approach worked here, but I would want more going forward.
  • GoG is incredibly referential, visually, cinematically, and in terms of plot. One of the reviews, though I forget which one, pointed this out in that GoG had little that was uniquely memorable. I agree with this critique, though I thought that this was by design. Nearly every shot, line, scene, etc referred the audience to something else. Likewise, the music drew the audience back to the 1970s, which I filed under “fun.” In this movie, it worked. I am skeptical that this model can work as a franchise. GoG made Scrooge Mc-Duck money (94 million opening weekend–largest ever in August), so it is guaranteed to be a franchise, of course, and I am sure that the subsequent movies will do well commercially, but I could see this being a reason to for the second film to be a letdown.
  • GoG was decidedly in the vein of good people do good things, bad people blow up things, and, in a refreshing change, they even made a point of having the good guys hold off the assault in almost its entirety until the line came over the channel announcing that the city was evacuated. I liked this. I just wish it had actually been true. First, the announcement came after an impossibly short time; second, in the scene that immediately followed the climactic crash, a crowd of (what looked like) civilians surrounded the heroes for the decisive event. Oops.
  • Saladin Ahmed speculated on twitter a correlation between shooter and adventure video games and the gratuitous on-screen body counts in action movies and, yes, GoG had one. For the most part, I think there is a reciprocal relationship between video games and movies and rising body counts, but I was glad that there was no one scene where I thought the sequencing was specifically designed for the video game tie-in.

In sum: GoG was fun enough that most of the cracks only showed through upon further reflection.

[Additional point: I agree with the critique that the film could have used more female characters, but I file this under a problem of Hollywood as a whole more so than this film in particular.]

Superheroes for the Modern Day: Some thoughts on Ironman 3 (Spoilers)

Last week I took the written portion of my comprehensive exams, so I took Saturday off and went to a morning show of Iron Man Three. What follows will likely include spoilers for that and the other two Iron Man movies, as well as the latest Batman franchise and perhaps other superhero movies. It should be noted that while I am aware of some of the comic book arcs, I never got to know any of the comic books well. Moreover, I am here primarily discussing the comic book movies put out by Marvel and DC.

Other reviews have focused on, for instance, Tony Stark’s interior struggle and the weakness of the plot and what the movie does to the Mandarin/, but I am going to talk about something slightly different.

Iron Man is a typically American hero. Tony Stark epitomizes much of what it means to be an American: a wealthy, brilliant engineer, arch-consumer who is equal parts attention-deficit and focused. He made his money through the family business and declares in the second movie that he has privatized world peace. The Atlantic review aptly puts it, the third movie explores the root of his super-ness, namely is it that he has really powerful and expensive toys or is it that he is a brilliant engineer? The movie leaves the audience with one impression, but, ultimately, the answer is a bit of both.

But what is the threat that Ironman exists to combat? In The Avengers, the answer is alien invaders. But the villains of the Ironman movies are more mundane…and rooted in the same set of circumstances that produced Ironman. The third movie particularly includes unsubtle criticism of the problems with the war on terror, including one scene where the Iron Patriot (the suit worn by Don Cheadle’s character) breaks into a sweat shot in Pakistan filled with burkha-clad women. But the third movie also continues a trend with the Ironman movies where the real villain is someone taking advantage of the US military-industrial complex–sometimes doing nothing more than trying to make sure that it continues functioning.

In the first movie, the villain is Obadiah Stone (Jeff Bridges), the number two man at Stark Enterprises who wants to use the company to sell weapons to any buyer. In the second movie Justin Hammar (Sam Rockwell), the CEO of another defense contractor employs Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), a Russian with a family grudge against Stark, to build weapons in order to compete with Stark. Iron Man Three, starring the Mandarin, does the same thing. Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) is a brilliant scientist who intends to use bio-tech to manipulate maimed veterans and politicians in order to keep the war on terror going. Thus, this iteration of the Ironman story provides continuity in the villains by making all of them as industrialists seeking to maximize their profits.

Power, to these villains is nice, but it is not usually their primary objective. Money, in this case, is more important than power or knowledge or any other motivation. What could be more American than that?

The Mandarin as a villain in the comic books is a genius martial artist from China who is set on dominating the world and returning it to a feudal system. The character might be loaded with prejudices and stereotypes, but he is nevertheless a foreign villain. But there is none of that here. In fact, most of the villains in the latest crop of super hero movies are all domestic or extraterrestrial, with the notable of exceptions of the Red Skull in Captain America (set during World War 2) and Ra’s Al Ghul and his scion in the Batman franchise (played by Liam Neeson). Thus, the villains in these comic book movies are criminals and psychopaths of various sorts, but they are almost almost exclusively domestic.

It could be that the screenwriters are presenting on an insightful commentary about America and the world in an age of globalism. In this line of reasoning, the only enemies, whether foreign or domestic, who will threaten the America are those created by America. There is only a minimal possibility that a foreign group can threaten the United States and, so long as the United States does not cause any sort of foreign resentment there isn’t any particular conflict. At the same time, though, the focus on domestic villains is the product of an American solipsism that confronts globalism by turning in on itself. Rather than compile and confront stereotypes for what they are, the movies address these concerns by making America star both as the cause of and the solution to all its problems. The resolution of globalism, therefore, is to largely ignore it.