When you’ve spent a lifetime cultivating your perspective as a pretentious art fundamentalist, the Marvel Cinematic Universe doesn’t seem like it should find a comfortable place in your media consumption regimen.
I would know. My conversation is peppered with casual
allusions to Homer, Joyce, and Achebe. When walking through a natural landscape,
I find myself reflecting on whether the light on the leaves is more Monet or
Courbet. As for film, I relish in the subtlety of Sofia Coppola, the thematic
mastery of Andrei Tarkovsky, or the uncompromising dramatic power of John
Cassavetes. I am an unrepentant art snob.
Even so, I am forced to admit that Avengers: Endgame was perhaps the most thrilling theater experience I’ve enjoyed to date. Further still, I must confess that I’ve become a passionate fan of the MCU as a whole—an inclination that any student of “serious” art would be hesitant to reveal, but that’s the truth of the matter.
Here’s how we got to this point.
I must confess that I’ve become a passionate fan of the MCU as a whole—an inclination that any student of “serious” art would be hesitant to reveal…
For me it started with Black Panther. I had willfully avoided the whopping seventeen films that preceded it, but with Panther poised to be an important cultural milestone, I figured I might as well give it a look. Simply put, it blew me away.
Now, it’s worth mentioning that Black Panther represents the artistic high-point of the sprawling saga, so as an introduction to the MCU it might prop up unrealistic expectations. But it whets the appetite for more, if for no other reason than the fact that it picks up in the middle of so many different story threads. It works as a standalone film, to be sure, but it is clear that the viewing experience would be richer with more of the backstory.
In any case, about a month later I found myself working on a project in Belgrade where the region’s bad spring weather kept me indoors and somewhat bored. That’s when I thought I’d give the Avengers a watch and hopefully answer some of the questions that Black Panther had opened up.
About a week’s worth of rainy days later I’d seen them all–had devoured the whole MCU enchilada–and since then I’ve caught each subsequent release. Here’s what I’ve learned.
Many of the MCU Films Are Quite Good
I expected the vast majority of the MCU installments to be shlocky pop, but it turns out that many of them are quality films, and in some cases even artistic triumphs. While there is no shortage of mediocrity and even a few flat-out bombs, we have to give recognition where it’s due.
For example, I held low expectations for the campy Guardians of the Galaxy, but much to my
surprise it turned out to be a work of cinematic artistry offering stunning
visuals, an engaging story populated by occasionally-complex characters, and some
of the best uses of music ever put to screen.
…I held low expectations for the campy Guardians of the Galaxy, but much to my surprise it turned out to be a work of cinematic artistry…
Similarly, Thor: Ragnarok is a deceivingly well-composed movie that looks, sounds, and feels like more than a mere comic book adaptation. The same can be said for Ant-Man (of all things), the admittedly-somewhat-redundant Doctor Strange (though a solid entry in the series, many have pointed out how its story suffers a bit from maintaining too many parallels to the beats from other MCU films), Spiderman: Homecoming, Avengers: Infinity War, and now Avengers: Endgame.
While each of these can be nitpicked, for the most part they are finely crafted films.
Sometimes the MCU Deals with Substantial Themes
Generally speaking, comic book or superhero movies offer little in the way of big ideas. Usually they can be boiled down to straightforward questions of good vs. evil. And in the case of just about every Avengers installment, the central message can become almost tiresome: teamwork is good.
But look further and you’ll find an array of deeper thematic
explorations. Characters like Iron Man, Thor, Spiderman, Star-Lord, Gamora, and
Nebula are consistently confronted with absent or abusive father issues. Winter Soldier and Civil War both deal with questions relating to freedom vs.
security, personal vs. collective, and the boundaries of patriotism. Tony Stark
basically starts out as a walking examination of the military industrial
complex. And so forth.
These are important themes cloaked in swashbuckling popcorn thrillers. They deceive the audience by offering bubblegum entertainment, then Trojan Horse-in deeper concepts.
The MCU Is the Most Ambitious Creative Undertaking Ever
As of this writing, the MCU spans twenty-two films encompassing dozens of characters portrayed by some of the most internationally-recognized actors in history. Their combined budget has surpassed $4.5 billion to pay countless creative and technical professionals who have advanced the art of filmmaking by leaps and bounds. Individually their directors have offered their own unique visions that have somehow (mostly) come together to form a cohesive whole.
Finally, with Endgame this massive monstrosity comprised of manifold story lines traversing some 80 years was (again, mostly) tied up in a satisfying conclusion. And many of these threads will be woven into the next Marvel saga. That is an almost unprecedented echelon of high-level storytelling on par with the likes of Balzac or Stephen King.
…with Endgame…That is an almost unprecedented echelon of high-level storytelling on par with the likes of Balzac or Stephen King.
Nothing of this scale has ever been attempted, and for the most part they pulled it off. This is a feat that even the most snobbish of art aficionados should applaud.
And if you can’t bring yourself to appreciate the artistic elements of the MCU, then you should at least allow yourself to sit back with a bucket of popcorn and enjoy the fun.
CULTURE (counter, pop, and otherwise) and the people who shape it.