Media Beat: please stop making Marvel Movies

I would do anything to end Marvel movies. In the wake of Martin Scorcese’s likening Marvel movies to theme parks, criticism of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU)’s existence has been read — and often written — with an implicit film elitism. 

My distaste for Marvel movies comes from a different place than Scorcese and his film-bro disciples. The MCU, I think, stifles the American political imagination, and is one of the strongest pro-status-quo cultural bulwarks in cinema history. 

One of the most enduring critiques of superhero comics, Alan Moore’s famous graphic novel “Watchmen,” makes a similar argument. “Watchmen” imagines superheroes in the time of the 1960s and makes a stark claim: real-life superheroes would have been fascists. The reality-bending Dr. Manhattan dutifully kills thousands in Vietnam at the order of the U.S. government. Rorschach becomes a nihilistic vigilante, full of hatred, rage, and senseless violence, who delights in the torture of petty criminals. 

The MCU is not quite as grim, but its relationship with its heroes is one which supports the imperialistic status quo of American — and, indeed, capitalist — hegemony. 

Most movies in the MCU are simple. The heroes, enabled with great power, rise up against some external force that threatens the status quo, and end the film by maintaining the status quo. Loki attacks Manhattan — the Avengers save it. Thanos kills trillions — the Avengers try to stop him. There is little conception of the superheroes having any moral duty to improve the status quo aside from preventing its complete annihilation.

This is why one of the largest criticisms of the MCU is that its villains are boring. Turns out, writing convincing motivations for villains who hope to entirely wipe out society is impossible. But most villains in the MCU need to exist like this, or the MCU would have to commit to some moral stance beyond just “the arbitrary murder of millions/billions/trillions is bad.” 

A particularly gross example of the MCUs commitment to maintaining the world’s status quo comes in “Black Panther,” which, ironically, is one of the movies that is the most thoughtful about its superheroes’ obligations to improving the world. 

The film sets up two potential rulers for its isolated African technological superstate Wakanda — T’Challa and Killmonger. T’Challa is first characterized by his inability to engage in decisive action, and his total paralysis in deciding what path Wakanda should take. Killmonger, on the other hand, is willing to make choices. He is planning to use Wakanda’s technological prowess to arm revolutionaries and liberate oppressed people around the world, in order to create a new world order. 

T’Challa is, in the language of the film, supposed to be one of those villains whom the audience feels “has a good point, but goes too far.” As such, when Killmonger is ultimately defeated, the film rightfully has a tragic tone. “Black Panther” claims that T’Challa has learned from Killmonger, and plans to synthesize Killmonger’s radicality and internationalism with his own moral principles and isolationism to move Wakanda forward. 

The movie drops the ball in the final moments. What does the MCU find to be the synthesis of a radical overthrow of the status quo and the isolationism of Wakanda? T’Challa simply opens an embassy and essentially turns Wakanda into a normal global state. The movie loses any claim to have actually learned from the radical ideals of Killmonger. It is in these moments where the MCUs commitment to the status quo faces dissonance with the politics of many of its celebrated once-indie directors. 

Again, “Black Panther” is still one of the best Marvel movies on this front. Once you start noticing the MCUs commitment to simply preserving the status quo, and consider the absolute myopia of this conception of heroism, it isn’t hard to see why the MCU needs to either end or change course. 

 

graham10@stolaf.edu

 

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