The lockdown has done funny things to us. Everyone reacts in their own way, given their circumstances and predispositions. Some leaned hard into betterment – diets, exercise, creativity, DIY. Others ran screaming in the other direction – drinking more, showering less, eating a loaf of sourdough a day. No judgements. Each to their own. Me? I ducked for cover in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Disclaimer: in this area, I am a massive snob. I never read comics as a kid, I think superheroes are stupid, I openly sneer at anyone over the age of six who reads comics (as I live in Japan where adults reading manga is common and normal, I wear a fixed sneer behind my mask). I nodded along vigorously when Scorsese denounced the MCU as “not cinema”, being more akin to “theme parks”.
Disclaimer disclaimer: as always, nothing is so cut and dried. I like the original Superman films, the Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan Batman movies, the first two Sam Raimi Spiderman flicks. And X-Men. I enjoyed the Bryan Singer X-Men movies though reading about him/them now I’m not sure I’m supposed to.
Anyway, I could get into a good superhero adventure on the big screen, but never in print and I’d certainly never buy into the universe. I approach these movies the way I do baseball – I go mainly for the hot dogs and the arguments.
I saw the first Iron Man when it came out because I like Robert Downey Jr. Chaplin, Natural Born Killers; he was fantastic in these. He even elevated Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films into something almost watchable. I didn’t bother with Iron Man 2.
You may already have been turned against me. I’d imagine if you clicked on this, you are already interested in the MCU and have strong feelings about it (there are no other kind of feelings to have about comic books). All I can say is bear with me. This is preamble. I’m clearly going somewhere with this.
In March 2020 my latest book came out and I embarked on a book tour. After readings in Australia, I moved on to the UK to be followed by Japan and potentially the US. It was exciting. There was “buzz”. I had sunk a lot of money into it (I am in no way successful enough to have any of this travel paid for me. All my own dime). Then. Plot twist. Covid. My events were cancelled. On March 16th I fled the UK for my home in Japan days before the Japanese borders were effectively closed. They wouldn’t re-open to foreign residents until August 5th. I dodged a bullet but my plans were in tatters and most of that money was non-refundable.
I quarantined for 14 days. Nothing. I got ready to go back to work. That was cancelled. I was still on holiday from work (university, long vacations). My wife is a nurse. She had to work and was at risk. I didn’t leave the house for any reason for more than a month. I started cracking up. I woke at 3am after sleeping for two hours – all I could manage most nights. My wife was night shift the following night, so I tiptoed downstairs, closing doors like a cat-burglar. I swapped the bed for the sofa and opened my iPad. Swiping down Twitter and Facebook I came across the Scorsese interview, and nodded along. Absolutely Marty, I’m with you there. Like. Retweet.
But wait, part of my brain said, you’re doing exactly what you complain everyone else on the internet does: confirmation bias. Scorsese is an expert whose considered opinion happens to coincide with my prejudice. I am retweeting it because his expertise gives my prejudice credence.
3:37am. It’s either too early or too late to start drinking. What am I going to do with my time?
Click. Click. Click. I reach an article on Pocket Lint about how to watch the MCU.
This is my other problem with the MCU – finding an entry point. It’s all cross-pollination, in jokes, easter eggs and timelines. I listened to colleagues at work discussing Endgame when it came out and concluded I wanted nothing to do with this. Scenes in one film that don’t make sense if you haven’t seen another film? Get stuffed. Okay, I wouldn’t watch Godfather 2 before Godfather 1, but saying I can’t watch Spiderman because I haven’t seen The Avengers? That’s not how this is supposed to work. You’re putting a barrier up to new viewers. I don’t want to have to a PhD in comic book mythology before I can watch a man in red and blue pyjamas swing through New York punching bad guys. There’s no end to things I can watch, I’ll just go elsewhere.Maggie Tillman’s article on Pocket Lint was light when all hope was lost.
“If you’re new to the MCU… you can’t watch the Marvel films in the order they [were] released. That’s why we’re showing you a different order – arranged by when the events in each film happen. While the MCU officially started in 2008, with the release of Iron Man, it’s not the first film you should watch. You should start with Captain America: The First Avenger. It released in 2011 and is the fifth film from Marvel Studios. But it’s set, initially, in 1942 – decades before Iron Man.
Okay, I thought. It’s 4am on a Saturday morning. Let’s give Captain America a spin. It’ll kill a couple of hours and if it’s as bad as I expect, I can live tweet my scorn. Win win.
At lunchtime my wife got up to prepare for her night shift. I hadn’t moved. Captain America: The First Avenger, Captain Marvel, Iron Man 1 and 2. I was now into The Incredible Hulk.
“I thought you hated comic book movies.”
“Why are you watching this then?”
“I don’t know.”
But I couldn’t stop. Captain America wasn’t as bad as I expected. I actively liked Captain Marvel though most of that was the soundtrack and 90’s nostalgia. Iron Man is a solid piece of work and Iron Man 2… well, I’d started so I might as well finish. Hulk. Meh. But I wanted to see Thor, the next in Maggie Tillman’s order, and who knew what might be relevant. Plus Ed Norton is always watchable.
“Are you going to have a shower?”
“I might have a bath at some point.”
“Do you want some lunch?”
“Are there any crisps?”
“Get them yourself.”
Thor is objectively good. Tom Hiddleston does not look right with long black hair. The Avengers ticks along. Iron Man 3 came and went, as did my wife. Thor: Dark World, Captain America: Winter Soldier. I was down the rabbit hole. At some point I crossed a line and I was now inside the universe. These were the films that cannot possibly stand alone. Sequels to sequels, bricks in a wall, dots in a pointillist picture.
I had to stop.
I went and looked at myself in the mirror. Sticky. Greasy hair. Dark circles under my eyes. A memory came back, living in Glasgow with two friends while doing my masters. They were working full time, I was the only student in the flat. They left for work some time between seven AM and eight AM, as I started playing Football Manager. When they came home I was still in the armchair, still in my dressing gown.
I was depressed then. I didn’t know it at the time, though the clues were there. A long term relationship had ended badly, I was doing a masters in creative writing which gave me no prospects of a well-paid career after. I would graduate in a few months and had no idea what, if anything, I was going to do with my life. I was heavily in debt, with credit cards, consolidation loans and a student loan. So sitting all day not moving, not washing, not eating, that seemed like a reasonable decision.
It seemed reasonable now.
I’ve recently been reassessing my past based on conversations with old friends. It turns out that my sense of myself is very much at odds with other people’s image of me. I have, it seems, achieved Nina Simone’s worst fear – living a life misunderstood.
Without digging over all of this, I’ve come to realise that in my youth and young manhood I suffered from crippling anxiety and panic attacks. I didn’t know that’s what they were – no one spoke as much about anxiety then as they do today – and thought it was just basic awkwardness and the consequences of growing up socially isolated and not learning the cues and responses of social interaction. I’ve often wondered if I’m on the spectrum but self-analysing and studying now I realise it was anxiety through and through. The problem is that my anxiety and panic attacks, it turns out, came across as masculine aggression. People were threatened by me. Saw me as an aggressive person, even though I never committed a single act of violence. The last time I was in any kind of physical altercation was the first week of secondary school, August 1992. Some of this is size and people making assumptions – I’m a big guy – but a lot is, in retrospect, my own fault. I put up a frontier, a barrier of bluster, false confidence, bravado, I faked it til I maked it. Perhaps I went to far. A combination of size, extreme anxiety and living behind a mask was interpreted one way when it signified something else. The problem, of course, being that no one told me at the time that this is what they were saying behind my back. I assumed my closest friends knew me.
The result of all this is that today, I’m much more aware both of how I’m coming across, but also of what my underlying mental health is doing to my outward behaviour. As I stood staring in the mirror I understood, clearly, that I was unspooling. I was back in that depression I’d suffered in Glasgow. I needed to arrest my decline. I needed focus.
In 2007 and 2008 I had brief periods of unemployment. Nothing major, a few months here and there. Jobs came along but they were all short term contracts and I never quite stitched them together. The summer of 2008 was the longest, and the worst. My wife and I had just moved back to Japan from Scotland. I had no savings, no income. We had rented an unfurnished flat and stocked it. My wife and her family paid for everything. I had work lined up in September, but July and August, not a sausage. I spent every day at home, trying not to do anything that cost money. I felt useless, I felt like a burden, a parasite. I started drinking a lot more than normal. I spent the days watching old comedy on Youtube. It was a horrible time but I learned from it. I learned that I am useless without structure. I literally fall apart if I don’t have a to do list and a deadline.
I looked in the mirror. I needed a goal. Something, anything, to focus on. A lifebelt. A rope. An unusual sensation came over me. I wanted to exercise. Specifically I wanted to lift weights. Old, dusty dumbbells lay like Harry Potter, unloved in the cupboard under the stairs.
I started to bicep curls. It hurt. I was weak. But it felt good. The blood started flowing. I googled some routines, copied them. Quickly stopped and had a rest. Recovered. Started again. It was late at night but I felt energy for the first time in weeks. Push ups. Sit ups. I soon exhausted myself. I showered and returned to the sofa. Guardians of the Galaxy was next in the list. I’d heard good things about that one.
I fell asleep on the sofa halfway through.
My dislike of superheroes is actually somewhat out of character. I love science fiction and fantasy, growing up in a household full of pulp paperbacks from the golden era of SF and a proper hardcore Trekkie for a father. I still read and watch SF/F, I’ve written science fiction, I am on the editorial board of Shoreline of Infinity, ascience fiction magazine and I am the resident SF/F editor for an editorial agency. So it’s safe to say that I’m absolutely happy with ridiculous concepts, speculative premises, strange powers and other worlds.
My problem is one of storytelling. Firstly, super powers are a cheat. The worst crime you can commit as a writer – in any genre, in any form – is the deus ex machina. You set up a seemingly insurmountable obstacle, twist the plot into an apparently gordian knot, back everyone into a corner or basement, and then suddenly resolve it with something from outside the plot itself. The military turning up at the end of Shaun of the Dead being the most obvious example. You build up to them coming out of the basement to face the final battle and, oh, here’s the military that have been entirely absent for the last 90 minutes and everything’s wrapped up nicely. Super powers are a deus ex machina present from the start. Superman turning back time by flying around the world. Batman’s combination of wealth and technological inventiveness will overcome any adversary. In the MCU things are balanced by having bad guys with super powers, but you know every plot will come down to the good guys powers being stronger, more fitting for the situation, more righteous.
The existence of powers has a knock on effect that I’ve never liked. It relegates humanity to mere bystanders. With the exception of special individuals – love interest or family: MJ, Pepper Pots, Alfred – humanity is scenery, setting, extras to stand by open mouthed, victims, casualties. They matter only in their numbers.
If you elevate some to the status of hero, you automatically lower others. My favourite science fiction writer is John Wyndham. His characters, his protagonists – not heroes, never heroes – are every day people. Middle class, white, straight, English people, sure, but regular humans nonetheless. BBC script editors. Pub landlords. Schoolboys. Ordinary people in extra-ordinary situations. When he does write a character with powers in The Chrysalids, it’s a secret power that will mark its holder out as different, as someone to be persecuted. It doesn’t elevate David or lead him to save the world. It forces him on the run and the end is escape, nothing more than mere survival and the potential for some kind of life ahead.
The MCU is all about saving humanity but has no interest in humanity. It is only interested in the exceptional, the super, not the ordinary. As both a writer and a consumer of fiction in all forms, I reject this. I am fundamentally opposed to what is essentially narrative elitism. It’s no different from the Great Man theory of history, where the narrative arc is kings, queens, emperors, generals and the odd everyman who bucks the trend but reinforces the point. Thomas Cromwell, I’m looking at you. I want the story of the couple standing outside Starbucks as Spiderman goes swinging through New York, not another battle with the green goblin.
So what changed in April 2020? That’s easy: escapism.
I’ve never understood people who watch reality TV. Real life documentaries. True crime podcasts. Gogglebox. It’s not a snobbish thing about content, it’s a fundamental difference in approach to the medium. I use fiction and non-fiction – TV, film, podcasts, books – to escape from reality, not to get more of it. If I want to see normal people being normal I can go outside. I can call my friends or family. I can talk to my neighbours. “I love this book because I can relate to it. It’s just like my life, reflected back at me.” That sounds hideous! I don’t want to read or watch my life. I’m living my life; I want to experience something completely different, be that a gangster in the 1940s, an astronaut in the future or a wizard in Middle Earth. I don’t want people like me bumbling across my screen with their ill-thought-out ideas and lack of direction. I want actors, I want a script, I want structure and arcs.
I know this looks like it contradicts my earlier point about ordinary people but it doesn’t. I want ordinary people in extra-ordinary situations, not ordinary people in ordinary situation. I want to be taken away from myself.
I was locked in my house. Locked in my head. Extraordinary times call for extraordinary escapes. I tried The Expanse, that didn’t do it. I tried The Man in the High Castle. Nope. Parallel universes and space travel didn’t pack the same punch. I’d become immune to their power, like an addict searching for the impact of that first hit, I was ready for the stronger stuff.
Being part of humanity wasn’t fun in April 2020. I was an ordinary person in an extra-ordinary situation. I didn’t need more of that. I needed extra-ordinary people in batshit crazy situations. I needed the MCU.
The next morning I woke at four. Back to the weights, twice through the circuit. I moved the weights to the living room and put on Guardians of the Galaxy from the last point I remembered, then straight onto GOTG 2. Pumping weights. Drinking water. More weights. More water.
What had happened to me? Never sporty, always uncompetitive, I go to the gym when I have to, when I’ve got a medical for work coming up, when the medical results scare the crap out of me. When my wife cajoles me into the mountains. I have no desire for a beach body, don’t feel inadequate alongside Ronaldo. I laugh out loud every time Ed Norton looks at the Calvin Klein ad in Fight Club and says “Is that what a man looks like?” (and it’s not hypocrisy when he delivers that line, it’s a great touch of dramatic irony – he’s standing next to Brad Pitt, sure, and Ed Norton is no slouch when it comes to body sculpting, but Brad Pitt is Ed Norton’s character’s idea of the perfect man, who he dreams he could be. As Tyler says, “I look like you wanna look.” So when Cornelius, or whoever he is, says “Is that what a man looks like?” the answer is “Well, your subconscious seems to think so.”) Now I was lifting weights and checking my progress in the mirror.
It was my first conscious experience of the perfect body fallacy women have been subjected to by the media for… well, who knows how long? I’d spent an entire day looking at Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, even Chris Pratt, the out of shape funny guy from Parks and Rec, with their biceps and abs and six-packs and cum gutters and something subliminal seemed to have happened. I felt better. I had more energy already. I quite liked the idea of being thinner, of being fitter, of being more defined.
“Still watching that shit?” My wife came home.
“At least you’re exercising.”
I was motivated. I was hooked. I put on Avengers: The Age of Ultron.
This is where the wheels start to come off. Ultron is a bad film. My gods it’s bad. Whoever was in charge of quality control at Marvel must have had a hangover that day.
There’s a story – maybe apocryphal, maybe true – about the publication of Irvine Welsh’s book Ecstasy. After the success of Trainspotting, The Acid House and the acclaim of Maribou Stork Nightmares, and the huge popularity of the Trainspotting film, 1996’s Ecstasy was… not great. The two stories I’ve heard – again, maybe not true but told to me by people who would know – is that Welsh was due to deliver a book but didn’t have one. What he did have was a collection of fragments in notebooks, on the back of flyers, ripped open cigarette packets and bus tickets, all thrown into a plastic bag. Welsh, the story goes, handed it to his editor saying, “you’re the editor, edit that.” The resulting book was Ecstasy which Welsh at the time is reported to have said that it proves people will buy anything with his name of it, regardless of quality. None of this may be true, but my point stands.
So with Ultron. It’s part of the MCU, therefore it was a hit (as I write it is the eleventh highest grossing film of all time, fifth highest upon its release in 2015) but my gods is it bad.
As I sat through the nonsense trying to understand simply dear gods why, it occurred to me that the success of these movies is down to one thing and one thing alone – the cast. The MCU, presumably by dint of the money behind it – has attracted some of the best actors working today. Scarlett Johansson, Natalie Portman, Robert Downey Jr, Tilda Swinton, Don Cheadle, Benedict Cumberbatch, Samuel L. Jackson, Paul Bettany to name a few. These are actors who can carry a film by themselves, so combined they do much more than just heavy lifting. It’s an interesting thought experiment to imagine the MCU if Marvel hadn’t been able to attract – and pay – not just massive stars but ones with serious acting chops. The scripts aren’t anything special – the lines quoted in online articles and forums are more often than not ad libs by actors, not bon mots put on the page in advance. The effects are outstanding, but there are plenty of films out there with amazing graphics that are all but unwatchable – Avatar anyone? But it didn’t matter, because the holes were plugged by the cast. Great actors at the top of their game pulled the plastic bag of fragments together. It wasn’t enough. Not in Ultron. There was so little story, so little narrative development, so few scraps of character arc, that there was no papering over the cracks.
It broke the spell. I’d watched a dozen Marvel movies in a row over two days like I was in some kind of trance – I’d even been conned into thinking I could have a body like Thor. I was disgusted with myself, at my suggestibility, at my shallowness and vanity.
But I was in the universe. I’d crossed the line. I now saw the connections, the cross pollination. I could see some of the ones and zeroes of the matrix. I had fear of missing out and an urge to see how it all turned wrapped up. Ultron had ruined my escape and crashed me back to reality, but next up was Antman, with Paul Rudd, and at least I could count on him to be funny and for that film to not take itself so damn seriously.
Because that’s the crime of Ultron above all else – forgetting that at heart it’s a silly story about silly characters that grew out of media aimed at children. You cannot carry po-faced profundity at the same time as painting Paul Bettany red and giving him a cape. You can’t be in the deep end and the shallow end at the same time.
Luckily Antman knew that. What larks.
On the Monday, work started again. Our classes moved online so my usual writing space became a classroom. Teaching online sucks, takes twice as much preparation and is half as effective. I finished the day exhausted and frustrated. After dinner I put on Captain America: Civil War. It suited my mood perfectly. My wife watched some of it with me before wandering off.
Tuesday: Spiderman Homecoming. 20 reps x 5.
Wednesday: Doctor Strange. 20 reps x 5.
Thursday: Black Panther. 20 reps x 6.
Friday: Thor Ragnarök. 20 reps x 6.
The weekend came again, and my wife was nightshift again. I was getting definition in my arms. I was sleeping better. My back pain had gone. My posture at the desk was better. I was within reach of the end of the series. I cooked a curry, got some wine in.
Antman and the Wasp. Avengers: Infinity War. Avengers: Endgame. Spiderman: Far From Home.
I went to bed, my mind full of infinity stones, questions and theories, and slept all night.
I no longer hate comic book films. Or comic books. I have no love for them either. As always with prejudice, it is neutralised by encounters, by experience, by knowledge. I can see the appeal of that rabbit hole. Can understand how easy it would be to crawl inside and keep finding connections. I have a poster on my office wall, a family tree of Seattle bands in the 80s and 90s. That’s my rabbit hole, my easter eggs.
I’ll go and see Black Widow when it comes out. Scarlett Johansson is excellent, and it’ll be nice to see the MCU on the big screen, because that’s how it’s meant to be seen. Isn’t it?
Was Scorsese right?
Following his interview in Empire, where he first said that the MCU wasn’t cinema, that it was more like a theme park, he clarified his comments in an article for the New York Times. Superhero movies aren’t cinema, he says, because
cinema was about revelation — aesthetic, emotional and spiritual revelation. It was about characters — the complexity of people and their contradictory and sometimes paradoxical natures, the way they can hurt one another and love one another and suddenly come face to face with themselves.
It was about confronting the unexpected on the screen and in the life it dramatized and interpreted, and enlarging the sense of what was possible in the art form. And that was the key for us: it was an art form. (New York Times, November 4th, 2019).
Synonyms. The meaning of words. When Scorsese says these movies aren’t cinema, he isn’t saying they aren’t movies. What he’s saying is that they exist in a different category from the work he does. Not a better or worse category – he’s very clear that quality is a matter of taste not objectivity – but simply a different category. Cinema is a specific art form – an infinitely flexible one, for sure, but one with specific aims and conventions, only one of which is entertainment. What many of those who argued against him misunderstood is that he isn’t criticising the MCU as not being any good. He’s saying it’s a different form. It’s a different kind of thing. It’s a different category, and people who conflate the two – cinema and “theme park” movies – are making a category error.
An example, by way of illustration. A sonnet is a 14 line poem with a strict rhyme scheme (there are different rhyme schemes across the world of sonnetry, but each sonnet follows a set pattern). A haiku is, roughly, a three line poem of 17 syllables arranged 5-7-5. Both the sonnet and the haiku are poems. People have their own preferences when reading and writing – I personally favour the haiku – but the fact that one was popular in 16th century Japan and the other in 16th century England does not mean that one is poetry and the other isn’t. Both are poetry and neither is objectively better than the other, but if I write a poem with 17 syllables and no rhymes, I can’t call it a sonnet. I’d be making a category error.
It’s a common problem, this conflation of things that share similarities but are fundamentally different. The focus is on the Venn overlap, not the rest of the circles. I first encountered this arguing with people about whether Bob Dylan should have got the Nobel for Literature. I was – still am – opposed to the award but every time I tried to explain why I was shouted down and called a snob. “You are being elitist – saying that because his words are on albums and not in a book that they aren’t poetry. Well, they are poetry.”
Yes, they are, that’s not what I was – am – saying. The misunderstanding goes the other way. I’m not arguing that Dylan isn’t a poet. I’m not arguing that he isn’t, perhaps, the pre-eminent lyricist of his time. What I’m saying is that the people who awarded him the prize for literature and the people who support it, are the ones guilty of elitism. They are, in effect, saying: “What Dylan’s doing isn’t just songwriting – it’s so much better than that – it’s literature!”
They are making a quality judgement: literature is a higher art than songwriting. This is the snobbery. This is an insult to the art of songwriting. By claiming Dylan’s lyrics – and only the lyrics, only one part of the song – as literature you are, in effect, saying the rest of the song – the music, the melody, the rhythm, the arrangement, the instrumentation – are in effect mere adornments, an irrelevance.
Make a Nobel for Songwriting and Dylan would be my first choice. But giving him the Nobel for literature makes as much sense as giving him the ones for Chemistry and Economics.
This, I think, is what Scorsese is getting at. What he does, what, to borrow his list,
Hitchcock, Sam Fuller, Ingmar Bergman, Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen, Kenneth Anger, Jean-Luc Godard, Don Siegel, Paul Thomas Anderson, Claire Denis, Spike Lee, Ari Aster, Kathryn Bigelow and Wes Anderson do is to the MCU as Don Delillo is to Bob Dylan. Not better. Not worse, since that’s a matter of taste. Just totally different things. Separate categories.
The main point of crossover, the centre of that Venn diagram, is that the MCU is shown in movie theatres, and this is where Scorsese felt justified in being critical:
So, you might ask, what’s my problem? Why not just let superhero films and other franchise films be? The reason is simple. In many places around this country and around the world, franchise films are now your primary choice if you want to see something on the big screen. It’s a perilous time in film exhibition, and there are fewer independent theaters than ever. The equation has flipped and streaming has become the primary delivery system. Still, I don’t know a single filmmaker who doesn’t want to design films for the big screen, to be projected before audiences in theaters.
With the MCU, you go to the movie theatre to get your thrills. Scorsese calls them theme parks. You go for the shocks and wild rides. You go for your 120-180 minutes and come out, sated. You get off the rollercoaster and move on to something else.
Only, you can’t do that with the MCU. Not now, not so far in.
I said at the start that one of the problems with the MCU is finding an entry point. After a certain point in the series, there’s just too much backstory and “previously on” to allow them to be in any way “stand alone.” At the start of Spiderman: Homecoming, they go on about what happened in New York, and Peter Parker knows Iron Man. None of this is explained: either you know it or you don’t. But if you don’t, nothing makes sense.
The MCU isn’t cinema. It isn’t even movies, in the real sense. It’s TV. Apart from being up on the big screen, not the small screen, everything about the MCU screams TV. It’s episodic – you wouldn’t start watching Breaking Bad at season 2, episode 4, or Game of Thrones at season 5 episode 6. No, you’d start at episode 1 and watch it through. The writers and directors assume you’ve watched the previous episodes so don’t bother reintroducing Jon Snow every time he comes on screen.
Endgame is a misnomer. It isn’t the end, it’s the end of phase 3 (well, even then, Far From Home is technically the end). Phase 3. Phase 4 starts with Black Widow. Phase 4. Sounds a lot like they mean Season 4. Because that’s what it is. This isn’t cinema. It’s TV, just the episodes are 2-3 hours long and released in the theatres first. The two worlds – movie and TV – met when proper movie stars started doing TV – Martin Sheen in The West Wing, for example – ending the image of TV as the lesser sibling in the relationship. Now, I’d argue, the two forms have all but merged, the only real difference being the method of release.
The MCU then, isn’t cinema. It isn’t even really movies, Jim, not as we know it. So what is it?
It may well be the future. Just as Scorsese released The Irishman on Netflix, maybe one day cinemas will start streaming TV series on the big screen. Imagine the ticket sales if the last season of Game of Thrones had been showing, a new episode every week, at your local multiplex? I’d have gone. And you would have too.
You would have too.
In preparation for this essay I spoke to a friend who is a filmmaker. He was categoric in his dislike of the MCU to the point of refusing to watch more than the few he already had. We batted criticism back and forth, but kept coming back to character as our sticking point. The MCU is about saving humanity but it isn’t interested in humanity. It isn’t interested in people.
There is limited character progression on the MCU. Tony Stark goes on a bit of an arc of personal development. Captain America’s development is all to do with Peggy. Presumably Peter Parker will have a love story with MJ. But that’s about it. The characters are, as my friend put it, “no deeper than the CGI that defines them.” Jeremy Renner famously asked for his character, Hawkeye, to be killed off in the first Avengers film because there was no depth, nothing in the character to explore, he was just a zombie, there to carry out Loki’s orders and nothing more. As an actor, it was dull, a waste of talent.
Because character is what drives story. Stories are about people and the story progresses when the character progresses. Even Dan Harmon’s notorious sitcom story circle is predicated on the character changing over the episode, even while returning to the starting blocks for the next episode.
In the MCU we don’t get character development. We get backstory, how the superhero got their powers. The stand alone films are origin stories – Doctor Strange, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, Captain Marvel, Captain America, presumably the new Black Widow – and in them there is good, strong character development. Puny boy with war fetish becomes wise old man who realises there’s more to life than bravery. Selfish surgeon is forced by accident to reassess his entire life and use his talents for good rather than selfish gain. But that’s where it stops. Once the superhero has their powers, the need for development ends. You can now throw them into a series of battles with a changing cast of villains and when the returns drop off a cliff you replace the actor – superficial change – or kill them off safe in the knowledge that by introducing a multiverse with time travel you can always bring them back. There are odd moments, sure, like the Scarlet Witch/Vision story in Ultron, but that takes up a couple of minutes of screen time: Friends. Something more? Enemies. That’s not a story, that’s a series of signposts.
Without character development you don’t have structure. Whether one, three or five acts, it’s the character arc that shapes the story. One thing I noticed as the series went on, is how the Avengers movies began to seem so utterly different from the single-hero movies. This is why Ultron is so bad – it isn’t a narrative arc itself, it’s an act in the overall arc. The single-hero movies, the origin stories, they obey storytelling conventions and are satisfying, stand alone (in the main) but feed into the whole. Ultron, Infinity War and Endgame are parts of a puzzle but not stories themselves, and as such have no discernible structure. They are, in effect, two act movies. Set up and resolution. Problem; solution. Set up: Thanos has wiped out half the world. We have to fix that. How do we do that? We go back in time to get the stones. Resolution: the carrying out of the plan with attendant twists and turns. It’s route one stuff, no depth, not at all satisfying, not cinema.
Scorsese called them theme parks, by which he meant they are all about the thrills, the moment. They are entertainment first, second and last. And you know what? I’m absolutely fine with that. My friend wrote to me:
You should read Into The Woods by John Yorke. Alongside Story by Robert McKee, it’s one of only two books I’d consider legitimately essential from all my reading. It’s quite academic but also totally compelling — one of the things he posits is about unchanging characters (and how character change is actually the foundation of dramatic structure). Using example of recurring detective drama or James Bond (and also therefore superheroes) the idea is they don’t change — but they discover some fundamental truth that changes around them. So Morse changes only gradually across a series, but in each 2 hour episode he changes the world around him by revealing a truth. Ditto Bond — we watch Bond because he’s unchanging. And even then — there’s a reason that Daniel Craig’s Bond are consistently amongst the best — because they’re the only ones that have tried to mine the shallows of his soul for substance.
I’d add to this – and include the MCU in this – we return to unchanging characters when everything else is changing too much. This was the epiphany I had at the end of this twenty-three movie chain, the reason for its attraction and for my addiction to it at the start of lockdown, why the MCU was somewhere I wanted to hide myself despite all the problems I have with it: I wanted to experience something unchanging. The world around us is changing far too fast. Some of it is good – #metoo, Black Lives Matter, trans rights – and some of it is awful – climate emergency, the rise of fascism and the mainstreaming of racism, now Covid – but all of it is a tornado spinning us round, round, round and dropping houses on us. At the same time revelations from friends put my internal world into turmoil. It wasn’t just a rug pulled from under my feet, it was a magic carpet while I was high in the sky. In the midst of that maelstrom, the unchanging nature of the characters felt, momentarily, however superficially, like an anchor. For a week or so I was in a parallel universe where horror had no lasting consequences and Tony Stark was always reliably Tony Stark, not suddenly someone else. I’d changed and my friends have changed, and those relationships seemed weaker. But an actual civil war didn’t end the friendships in the MCU. Perhaps things would be okay after all. I needed that crutch and it was there, for which I am thankful. Sometimes we don’t need depth. Sometimes mere entertainment is enough.