A Transformers film has to face incessant criticism about the amount of action, the blurry continuity of its symphonies of shrapnel, the overuse of MacGuffins, and the lack of good villains. Marvel films can have as little plot as you could possibly have while remaining celluloid and still garner nothing but praise. Man of Steel was maligned to pieces for having a final hour that was nothing but a big destructive battle. The Avengers, suffering from the same egotistically overindulgent design, is praised for its hour of shrapnel porn instead.
* * *
No cinematic creation has been as collective as The Avengers. For half a dozen films worth of promises, Disney/Marvel set up a series of teases leading to this one climactic moment, this “poster pose shot: the movie.” The post-credits scenes, that everyone now knows from habit to await at the end of the Marvel film, are not extra – they are the Marvel film. They allow average summer films to hitchhike on the expectations of the larger series, transforming every review into a statement of “better than expected,” and every viewer that leaves the film into an expectant return customer anticipating a film whose existence they have just discovered and whose contents will undoubtedly make all the other movies so much better. Someone more versed than I in addiction therapy could make a striking piece on these movies from the perspective of a psychological con.
It is not unprecedented for separate texts to build on each other. This is the foundation of comic books, to see a character in a new situation and know, without needing to know, the other adventures that they’ve been on. In film, this happened to Star Wars accidentally, where originally it established its own universe with its own twists and turns and evolved into a platform for the stories that we believe exist within it. But Marvel set out to do this. Their plan to make movies meaningful only through the use of other texts has prevented them from making a movie that stands alone since The Avengers. Unlike comic books, which become meaningful intertextually because of the diverse content creators enriching the shared universe with tons of new ideas, the Marvel films are carefully controlled in a laboratory to market intertextuality. The films last long enough to be satisfying, reward the viewings of other films with novel tidbits, and then hook the next installment with a little tease. Many of them are inscrutable without all the information, punishing those who miss even one film (a pool of cosmic knowledge appears from nowhere in Avengers: Age of Ultron, which you would only know about from Thor: The Dark World). They aren’t films so much as feature-length advertisements for a brand, filled not with characters but with amusing images of what those characters are to us.
True, these beloved characters have been brought to the screen. In ultra-high definition, the image of them has penetrated the media’s conscience to the point of cultural inevitability. Iron Man was just a song and Thor was just a Nordic legend. Now they are known and believed in; they have holy texts and acolytes. But they have become known through symbols, not as characters but as products. Disney, as Loki put it, is “burdened with glorious purpose,” not to create stories, but to create a franchise.
The first thing you do to sell a product is introduce a need. Iron Man, which was a good superhero film, perfectly established the need with the line in the post-credits scene, “Mr. Stark, you’ve become part of a bigger universe. You just don’t know it yet.” He was really talking to the audience. Of course, this ruins the pitch-perfect ending of the actual film (“I am Iron Man”). Those of us who breathe out after a good movie get a terrible hiccup from these extra puffs of hot air that come in after the end. But the pace and resolution of a good movie is not at all the glorious purpose.
Next, to sell a product that people need, you have to make it easily available. Film after film has proven adequate with no sign of fatigue. The reason no one gets tired of these movies is the adeptness of the whole production in accomplishing the final necessity of selling a good product: consistency. People have to know that the same product will yield the same pleasure. It is in the success of this part of the Marvel initiative that it has become both a financial phenomenon and a cinematic disaster.
The consistency of which I speak is not within the films, as jokes enter and exit a reaction to death or a deep feeling, a battle portending danger and hilarity without pausing to breathe. I mean that the series as a whole maintains the balance of its tone by melting everything down into the same generic alloy. No matter what brilliant or banal director takes the chair, the films are the same. At the first sign of difference, Disney aborts the project with the same severity that another production company would seek it out.
Two major instances of this artistic anaesthetization stand out in these movies, in terms of this consciously directed creative bankruptcy.
The first is in Taika Waititi’s cutthroat comedic style being neutered by the Marvel formula in Thor: Ragnarok, a film that has nothing unique in its series beyond an increase in that general air of not caring very much. Loki, normally a pretentious Saturday morning baddie progressively reduced to gag humor (as in The Avengers, which resorts even at its climax to pantomimes of Looney Toons slapstick) in the latest films begins as a gag by default, as does Hulk. But Waititi’s strength is not in caring so little about epic things but in caring so much for mundane ones: watch the “Team Thor” trailers for Thor: Ragnarok to taste the film that Waititi could have made under another label, as particularly incisive to the genre as his mind-altering mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows was to its own.
The other instance is even more egregious: that of the homogenization of Edgar Wright’s Ant-Man into the forgettable slog released in 2015. Wright, the manic genius behind the quick-cutting Cornetto trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, World’s End) had been working on Ant-Man since 2006. He left the project due to “differences,” saying, “I wanted to make a Marvel movie, but I don’t think they really wanted to make an Edgar Wright movie.” We don’t often get the chance to have the finest directors on call for the goofy summer films that we all love. You would think that Wright directing one of them would be a dream. But he was kicked off Ant-Man because it stood out in the malaise, with a tone all its own, a style that did not blend into the corporate sheen of its dozen predecessors. Marvel isn’t seeking directors to make films, but engineers to follow the blueprint and finish the part of the structure they’ve been assigned. Jon Favreau’s work on the first Iron Man, still the best Marvel film by far, is a gift made possible by setting the tone to begin with. The other exception is certainly James Gunn’s light touch on the Guardians of the Galaxy films, which have maintained their uniqueness by remaining distant. One of my most pressing questions after viewing Infinity War would have to be how much of Gunn remains that is not a one-note joke-off, now that the Guardians are acclimated to the Marvel party.
How has Disney accomplished such a feat of maintenance, with more than twice as many films as Star Wars in a quarter of the time?
Despite their emotions, the Marvel characters experience no emotional development. Anyone in the series could be an example of how emotional progression is anathema to the Marvel formula, which is almost exclusively how any other film would be judged as great. Thor, for instance, continues to relive the same thematic journey – learning to be a good man without his hammer – even as his character has had the gravitas beaten from him by all the return trips to the studio until he’s just another cutaway of a funny line, another chummy lifeguard god-jock, another way to show a bad guy getting punched to the tune of a cocksure quip. Hulk, a character that seethed with psychological horror in the maligned film Hulk from 2003, has progressed since The Avengers into a shadow of himself, a marketable in-joke, a horny dude-bro working out and giving everyone a noogie. Iron Man has flip-flopped too many times to count from cocky self-assurance to penitence that his character changes from one line to the next.
In fact, the emotional character of all the Avengers is dependent on the use of them from film to film. The reason is that if their characters remained consistent, then the universe would progress and develop, which would make the macro franchise less consistent in its holding pattern. They need to change back and forth to maintain the broader tonal equilibrium. They do so by being symbols in images of their character, stand-ins for other films, rather than human beings. They do this through intertextuality.
These films are constructed as extensions of a business strategy more than films. What little plot they have leans so heavily on past installments that almost none of them can be watched as films in solidarity (even seemingly isolated ones like Dr. Strange require foreknowledge, such as of the infinity stones, to acquire the proper gravity). None of them have been guiltier of this than The Avengers.
From an audience perspective, the prospect is tantalizing: a film in which nearly all of the characters have been so established that they can enact great battles with the advantage of skipping dull emotional setup in favor of instant gratification. It’s a slot machine that always comes up gold. The Avengers begins by setting up the central MacGuffin, which these movies have instead of a plot (Loki steals the tesseract) and proceeds through a series of linear set-pieces without barely ever catching a breath. The remainder of the film is, with almost no deviation: the fight in the forest, the fight on the helicarrier, the fight in New York. There are no overlong scenes of banter such as Joss Whedon would excel in making, though his touch does shine through every so often. The film’s best moments are small: Tony poking Bruce, the team’s silent victory hamburgers at the very very end. But the meat of the thing is all corporate schlock, aggressively un-Whedon-like, prettily made and refined to deflect criticism.
Imagine the hilarious and revealing mundanities of living with the other Avengers in close quarters, eating with them, cleaning up after them, living and loving with them to have real intimate conversations about their view of things and then seeing an amazing battle. Imagine a superhero film really made by the creator of Firefly. “I aim to misbehave,” Captain Mal said once. By comparison, the Avengers are all corporate stooges trapped in a business model.
Consider for instance the prevalence of distant, meaningless love interests and forgettable villains in these movies, such staples for the series that they must be part of the strategy. Jane, who was a central figure in the moderately successful Thor films, was abandoned on a one-line whim in Thor: Ragnarok, which not only escaped criticism for abandoning its entire series in favor of the Guardians of the Galaxy aesthetic because Marvel thought funny pseudo-’70s was “in,” but was openly praised for it. And why not? None of these movies mean anything because none of them say anything. “What was the point of all this? A statement?” someone asks Nick Fury of his reveal of the Avengers. He replies, “A promise.” So it is with the films.
The abuse of promising other plots in the place of experiencing the current one is so pervasive that the films revoke criticism by their nature. None of them attest to be great movies, but only to inch along a meta-narrative so vast that none of them reveal anything individually, and so cannot be blamed for it. Infinity War is a rare fulfillment of a promise made in the post-credits tease of The Avengers, which featured Thanos six years ago. No one has really been complaining about that because the nature of the post-credits scene doesn’t even really matter: all that matters is the promise that this film will continue, that all will be revealed, that what we’re watching doesn’t have to be good to be worth it.
Looping in characters from other films and establishing a framework within the series does not instantly make the films better: it just requires less work to achieve acceptability because people can fill in the blanks themselves and won’t question too terribly a film that is so novel. The Avengers doesn’t need a story because it has all this locomotive recognition going for it. In fact, the only real development in the whole film is for the protagonists to consciously accept the meta-narrative of the franchise within the movie: once they become “The Avengers,” everything works out fine. Within the context of the film, the hundreds of people that die as they blow up space whales are not acknowledged, as the thousands aren’t whose privacy is invaded by S.H.I.E.L.D. when Fury requests a hack of all phone and computer cameras in the world, as though the order comes naturally. Across the pond, a DC film would have to justify such an order, else the fanbase would argue its philosophical legitimacy. Marvel is immune to justification. A Transformers film has to face incessant criticism about the amount of action, the blurry continuity of its symphonies of shrapnel, the overuse of MacGuffins, and the lack of good villains. Marvel films can have as little plot as you could possibly have while remaining celluloid and still garner nothing but praise. Man of Steel was maligned to pieces for having a final hour that was nothing but a big destructive battle. The Avengers, suffering from the same egotistically overindulgent design, is praised for its hour of shrapnel porn instead.
This is the sinister brilliance of intertextual design. Any one film can bank on the success of its siblings with as little as a cameo and instantly float above the scope of critical eyes. There are no runts of the Marvel litter. Iron Man 3, a film that receives no great measure of praise, made over a billion dollars just by hashing out Tony Stark again, the enigmatic pseudo-protagonist of the bunch. The plot of that film has acquired a critical brand for being so unfaithful to comic books, so hacky in its plot progression, and so unruly in its use of plot devices to satisfy a creative whim (such as that bit about Pepper Potts being genetically spliced into a human bomb). But it sustains the brand. Few people reminisce enthusiastically on Avengers: Age of Ultron, though it earned its billion-plus dollars and faded into DVD collections. It even had a uniquely memorable villain in the robot gangster Ultron, but it doesn’t matter. The film receives as much attention as a film with a villainous wet towel like Tom Hiddleston’s dark drudgery as the uncharismatic blowhard Loki. Iron Man 2 and Iron Man 3 had villains positively demolished by the fanbase for their irrelevance and inaccuracy, and yet the same box office returns and critical nonchalance apply.
Of course, this should portend disaster for filmmaking as a creative act, when the films are generated as byproducts of business practices and not the reverse (Spider-Man gets his own film despite the payouts to Sony because the returns are worth it, while a payout to Universal for the use of Hulk in a solo film hasn’t been deemed a stable investment – whether either of these films would be good for the series likely never comes up in meetings). But if Infinity War marks a breaking point in the formula for fulfilling too many long-standing promises, it has a clever way of hiding it. It hides the collective lack of imagination behind a protagonist, the first in any of the team-up films, and by making that character the villain we can maintain the momentum of all the false praise that fails to acknowledge the fact that a dozen films later, it’s barely less boring, thematically uneventful, or egotistical as The Avengers.
The Avengers is a dreary film, for one in which the frequent comic quips are the only redeeming feature (a Whedon touch, no doubt). By the end, the heroes go from being stand-ins for their established narratives to stand-ins for themselves. They become stylistic animation templates for how the bad guys in any particular shot will die. Their powers become epitaphic in the absence of character; Thor is the thunder, Iron Man is the suit. The robot alien skeletons on goth-chic space skis require no introduction because they function, as everything functions. They were probably introduced in Thor, but I don’t remember.
To aid in this transformation from character to icon, everyone loses their distinguishable flaws in favor of blatant heroism. Captain America may be old-fashioned, but he is rarely at odds with new technology (The Avengers passes up an opportunity to show this when Cap has to use a mercenary’s modern automatic weapon, for the first time that we see him do so, but he doesn’t blink twice). He’s only ever behind the times in quippy conversation. Bruce Banner’s hidden monster complex hasn’t been a vulnerability since the iconic line from The Avengers, “I’m always angry.” No line could be written that more effectually defuses the complexity of that character, which threatens to contradict even the same film, in which the Hulk emerges as an uncontrollable monster not an hour earlier. Iron Man’s depth came from the conflict between the appearance of his unflappable egotism and the literally fatal flaw in his character: that he is always an inch from death, owing to his ion heart and the metal shrapnel it absorbs. This meant that his cocky attitude was always a front for his flaw by default, his love of life always the hidden confession to his mortality. Like all great heroes, he was defined more by overcoming his weaknesses than his strengths: it was no accident that this fatal flaw, the fundamental storytelling device for most hero figures throughout literature, also powered his robotic suit.
I could have written a lavish essay about how effectively that symbolism works for the character of Tony Stark, the proof in narrative that he has a heart, which in a mechanizing tomorrowland of heroes and monsters is also his mortal weakness. Now, anything I have to say on the subject must end in shambles, since in Iron Man 3, for no reason beside emotional homogeneity, they fixed Tony’s heart, thus removing the proof. I could go on a similar rant for every character in the MCU.
And I could continue doing so in Infinity War, which renews those same cycles, opening with Tony bragging about his pseudo-internal heart, built seemingly for no reason except as a canonical thematic do-over. It even includes Thor retrieving a new eye on a whim, as though losing it carried no emotional significance or represented any change in his myth, and ends with him questing for yet another hammer.
Addressing a crowd of German people (in English), Loki remarks in The Avengers that “It’s the unspoken truth of humanity that you crave subjugation.” Ironically, Loki has been proven right in terms of entertainment. Marvel proved that audiences do not want to be engaged in emotions, but carried from plot to plot with recognizable baubles flashed on screen for mental support. They want to be shackled to the momentum of a blurry action scene rather than involved in an emotional conversation (almost without exception, the only thing the Avengers talk about is plot). The possibility of any Avenger falling in love, or acquiring a new emotion of any kind, seems as outside the realm of possibility as a stone sculpture learning to smile. Comic books and all their colorful romantic fiction have been reduced to a corporatized, alien view of humans, who peck at each other, make weird glances, fall out of love for no reason, and forget they have urges a movie later. The one scene where the heroes bicker in the lab really works in The Avengers, not just because it opens up the humans a little bit but because as an audience member in a 142-minute movie I come expecting one scene at least.
And now all the major studios seem to be toiling to ape the formula for themselves: the DC cinematic universe, the Universal Dark Universe, the Legendary Pictures Godzilla Monsterverse. All this started with The Avengers, the proof of concept for a new medium of film. I’ve heard DC criticized from a business perspective for how they have rushed and refused to build as effectively as the Marvel series, despite the fact that the cynical franchise tie-ins are the worst parts of their films. But what all of these other universes truly have in common is an inability to elevate themselves to how low Marvel is. The other studios don’t realize they’re working in a new corporate medium: unlike Marvel, they are still making films, mediocre though they are, that have beginnings and endings and themes, and then they are trying desperately to sew them together front-to-back. But Marvel never did this. They never connected films into a series. The “films” they made were made as pieces of a mosaic with no plot, no meaning, no purpose except to establish a bit of the picture’s color or a new character, even if that character has the exact same story beats as one of his predecessors (Iron Man, Dr. Strange, Ant-Man) or repeats them without wondering why (Thor) or withdraws on everything (Hulk). It is pointillism without the bigger picture. Together these icons can be coordinated into an image of a story, but they cannot substitute for one. That is their great strength in the realm of money. We accept the whole because it goes down easy when you don’t think about it too much. But no matter how often I get told to “just have fun” during these movies, I haven’t yet been willing to take the cinematic subjugation. Guess I’d just rather misbehave.
* * *
Images are screenshots from the film.