This essay is a follow up to my piece “The Dark Knight Rises, An American Genre Falls”.
Like the "Star Wars" and James Bond sagas, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is one of the great achievements of movies. It is also one of the inevitable destructors of cinema in the ongoing destruction of cinema (which includes the Radio industry, the Television industry, Joseph Campbell, Star Wars, and incorrectly-set LCD screens), to be followed by other destruction of cinema.
When some of cinema’s most admired auteurs—Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Pedro Almodovar—criticize those movies, they are correct. The MCU ethos—the big tentpole movie series—decreases the likelihood of seeing good cinematic, emotionally-driven windows into the human experience at my local multiplex. This limitation is so strong, that we cannot imagine “A Separation” or “Parasite” or “Ida” as American: such films of such depth and control have to be foreign.
Still, we should understand a few things about MCU movies.
1. They are children’s movies
The only reliable source for children’s movies of any serious emotional depth is Studio Ghibli. Nobody else comes close. There are occasional worthy one-off films, including “WALL-E,” “The Tale of Despereaux,” and “Coraline,” that explore emotional pathways with serious consideration.
MCU is second in this barren field of plastic toys. Though there are some scenes that are not age-appropriate for some children, the MCU movies, do raise questions that children can understand and ponder. Still, the ethical and emotional dilemmas in each of the films are questions that the MCU can push further.
The common American kid’s film, however, has one lesson, reflected everywhere in the MCU: never give up.
2. The MCU is about the individual
The sharpest critics (so far) of the MCU, make films in a world of families. The best works of Scorsese and Coppola involve family near the center of the protagonist’s stories. “Goodfellas” centers on Henry Hill’s family with the pervasiveness of the wise guys as a surrogate family; “Raging Bull” has Jake LaMotta nearly destroying his family and his brother in his quest for societal validation through boxing; The “Godfather” movies emphasize the importance of the family in one, the breakdown of the family in the next, and the attempt at reunification of the family in the third; “Taxi Driver” is all the more abrasive for its time because everyone is so alienated that the only “family” is run by a pimp in a whorehouse.
For the primary MCU characters: Iron Man, Captain America, and Spider-Man, the family is limited to the clichéd dead-father with almost nothing beyond. The primary conflict in the original “Iron Man” is over control of the father’s business; in the sequel Tony Stark fights the disgruntled son of a disgruntled employee of his father. In “Captain America: Civil War,” the already tense rivalry between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers escalates when they watch the video of Bucky Barnes killing the former’s parents. In the rest of the movies, except for “Avengers: Endgame,” family is at best represented through a minor character (Aunt May in the Tom Holland Spider-verse), a source for epiphanies (Tony Stark discovering a secret in a diorama), or a forgettable dimension (Steve Rogers family).
Among the secondary Avengers, however, family is far more prominent. “Black Panther” has an extended family: a father mentoring him even from the afterlife, a mother supporting him, a sister who challenges him, a cousin who rivals him on behalf of his own father. Thor gets mentored by his father, nurtured by his mother, taunted by his mischievous brother, and threatened by his vengeful sister. “Ant-Man” follows two families whose patriarchs manage to break the families: the Langs and the Pyms.
When we merge the eleven MCU movies together, however, concluding them with “Avengers: Endgame,” family becomes very prominent. Tony Stark’s arc completes as he makes peace with his father and becomes a father; like his father he gives up his family for the “greater good.”
3. The MCU wrestles with philosophical and political questions, but rarely actual human emotion
Films that center around families will explore emotions because each familiar relationship reveals a different dimension of each character. When protagonists are individuals, however, relationships become transactional. That happens in the MCU. The Avengers are colleagues and romantic partners, seeming more like fire station comrades than siblings.
Because the superheroes are modern demi-gods their equivalent of normal human emotions is in their discovery of, use of, and loss of their special powers. Thus, their emotions are feelings of invincibility vs. vulnerability and responsibility vs. apathy.
Further, as is the case with the gods of Greece, Germanic traditions, and India, their mythic behaviors provide the fruits for philosophical discussion. In Euthyphro, Socrates challenges a young prophet to define piety, especially if the gods—the source of piety—spend so much time fighting each other. Change that question to one of loyalty. In “Captain America: Civil War” as the Avengers are accused of breaking international codes, we have to first decide if loyalty to principle (Steve Rogers) overrides loyalty to law and order (Tony Stark). Then, as dastardly villain (Helmut Zemo) drops Bucky Barnes’ murder video as an act of revenge for the killing of his family, Steve Rogers has to decide which friendship to preserve.
All of the MCU movies engage in philosophical questions. The original “Avengers” is the shallowest of the lot, yet it explored the difficulty in getting disparate egos to align toward a common cause. The plot of “Avengers: Infinity War” has the heroes and villain choose between saving their beloveds or saving the world: the heroes were on the verge of defeating Thanos until Peter Quill lost his temper over the death of his beloved Gamora. In “Avengers: Endgame” the question shifts: your identity is your destiny, so which identity is your true identity? For Tony Stark, who flaunted his personality as Tony Stark through so many movies, his destiny became Iron Man. Captain America and Thor, son of Odin, relinquish their public identities and become Steve Rogers and, well, Thor. Natasha Romanov becomes ready to give her life when she discovers her true identity. Bruce Banner manages to synthesize both.
Further, these films are highly political. “Black Panther” is the rare film that not only speaks openly about European colonization of the world, but makes the obvious connection to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. With the Mandarin, “Iron Man 3” calls out the War on Terror as a fraud. “Thor: Ragnarok” shows us a world driven by entertainment, reducing people to commodities and consumables, yet through the characters of Odin and the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum) it asks what we do when we discover the desolation hidden by benevolent monarchs.
4. The Marvel Cinematic Universe movies are modern, Frank Capra products
The MCU films exist in the same plane as those black and white movies that captured the hope and heartbreak of the American Dream. In the War years, the Dream was for a life of dignity and wealth, where you could be your own boss unbound by the strictures of a tyrannical oppressor. While that sentiment still permeates the American Dream, now the globalized goal is to find personal individual authenticity unbound by the strictures of culture and society, and physics.
Considering that we are speaking of superheroes, it should be no surprise that even with their flaws, we are watching in each such character, unrelenting wholesome goodness and selflessness. Even when the heroes lose, there is an optimism that permeates all the films. As actors, the closest celebrity we have to a modern Jimmy Stewart or Henry Fonda is Tom Hanks, yet regarding the characters Stewart and Fonda played, these superheroes are their modern versions.
Of course, these films are “modern” Capra. Meaning, they are wholesome because wholesomeness is profitable. Happy endings make more money than unhappy endings. There is nothing unsafe in the MCU movies; even at their most political, they are never edgy. As theme park rides, they take you on an a predictable journey, even zooming through predictable loops, returning you safely home, with an end-credit joke to send you on your way.
In sum, sometimes I need to ride a roller coaster. Sometimes, after a long week, I need a giant crowd-pleasing spectacle that entertains me. For those needs, the MCU will stay. For those needs, Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and the others can never be repaid fully.
Still, it is one thing to find comfort in the folly of the demi-gods. It is something different to find the cracks in our own being. Sometimes, I need Marty, Francis, or Pedro to challenge my soul. Just as each form—painting, book, radio, podcast, television—has its own portals into the heart, cinema has its own vocabulary and methods. I need the auteurs to dive deep into the places we hide from, while never claiming we will be safe. If cinema loses that, we lose something precious.