As I always do, I am taking a quick break from my current curriculum to have some fun. With the release of Avengers: Age of Ultron a couple weeks ago, as well as the season finale of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: Season Two just days ago, I have decided to indulge myself and whomever else would like to join me as we talk Marvel.
Of course, this is the Film Sage, not Cinema Blend or ScreenCrush. Which means that we first have to address some observations and analyses that I have made of this popular genre. Then, I’ll try to rank the Marvel Cinematic Universe (or, MCU) for your reading pleasure.
All films try to accomplish one of two things: 1) they work to give us a piece of art, or 2) they try to give us a piece of entertainment. I prefer the ones that do both. But, when it comes to choosing a preference between the two, I—and most critics—choose to award more credit to those who attempt the former. The problem with entertainment is that it’s so temporary. After one or two viewings, the entertaining elements become dull; and the viewer, at the end of the day, remains mostly unchanged. But art…art gets better with time. And I, personally, prefer to feel like a better (or at least, a more complete) person when a movie is over, instead of a simpler one. Instead of trying to find a balance between these two forces—the artistic force and the entertaining force—most movies of today find themselves picking one or the other as its guiding creative pulse.
Maybe that is what most differentiates the great movies of yesterday to the relatively weak ones of the last thirty years. Movies that balance art and entertainment, perfect films like Citizen Kane, Vertigo, City Lights, and many others, have few counterparts in modern film. Occasionally, directors succeed in giving us movies with these balances, in films like No Country for Old Men, The Departed, and last year’s Whiplash. But, for the most part, movie producers either strive for awards season and the festival circuit by invoking art while ignoring entertainment, or they choose to make the big bucks in an explosive-filled blockbuster devoid of any artistic merit. I think of last year’s French film, Jealousy, a movie that was boring and pointless, attempting only to trigger the long-lost yearning of art-house movie lovers for the French New-Wave and impressionist cinema. Then, I think of last year’s Transformers: Extinction: yet another in Michael Bay’s long line of exhibitionist grotesqueries whose only art lies in the numerical stuffing of digital set-pieces into his IMAX frame.
This dichotomy between art and entertainment has forged an unfortunate rift in the movie industry. This rift has only fanned the flames of critical conflict. In one corner, you have the yuppie/liberal/godless elitists who are oh-so-perturbed by how the market has perverted cinema. In the other, you have those unenligthened/preppy/conservative bumpkins who can’t help but notice that every time they leave a movie that they like, they have a wave of urban “intellectuals” who can’t help but insultingly degrade their tastes. It’s those who say “cinema” versus those who say “movies”. That used to not be the case.
Nowhere is this war more violent then in the most dominating genre of our era. Blockbusters have always had a signature genre. In the seventies, there was the gangster film. This gave rise to science-fiction in the early eighties, pumped-up action films in the late eighties, on through war films nineties. Since the year 2000, though, with the release of X-Men, the most powerful of all blockbuster genres has been, without doubt, the superhero movie. X-Men was, for the most part, a critical success as well as a commercial one. Movies have continued to come out, practically annually, every year since then, though their reception hasn’t been as solid. There have been great films like Spider-man and The Dark Knight. There have also been absolute flops like The Punisher, Daredevil, and Daredevil’s spin-off, Eleketra. But, all along the way, the discourse continued: is there any art in these movies which so obviously try to squeeze in as much CGI and violence as possible? Could these movies be considered masterpieces? Or were they, by very nature of their genre, automatically disqualified from the pantheon of the great artistic cinematic experiences?
One need look no further than one of my very first pages ever published on this blog to know that the possibility was, and still is, there for these movies to give us art. In the second of my “My Take On…” series, I argued that action films, often seen as artless films, can indeed have art. But, it’s not very easy. In the post, I wrote:
“There is one certainty, though, in determining the quality of an action film: it has nothing to do with the action scenes. Is Star Wars II better than Star Wars IV? Absolutely, utterly and entirely not, despite the quality of action in both. The only exception to that rule that I can possibly find is in martial art films, but that’s because they use their fight scenes just as Tarkovsky used wind and Buñuél used meows: they are accessory images and stimuli to compliment the art of the greater whole. In other cases, an action scene is good to provide amazement, excitement or fear. Those are important feelings, but they are feelings that the most base of artists can portray. What I want in an action movie is exactly what I want in every other film I chose to watch. I want to have my imagination sparked as I am brought into a new world of thought and expression.”
That last line is probably the most important.
See, before 2008, there was a problem with the superhero genre. Even in the case of sequels, we were never given a world. Sure, we were given an alternate reality, but all we were really given was the answer to a question that we’ve been having for sixty years: “What would it feel like if all these comics actually were real?” We were given a world exactly like our own, with the only added element being, how would people act if they actually saw the Green Goblin at Times Square. It was no longer a question of imagination, that important artistic element that gave light to the old comics. It was, instead, that problematic aspect of contemporary culture that basically gives us everything without asking for any participation on our part. Throw in 3-D and D-Box, and it only gets worse.
But, after 2008, everything changed. Two blockbusters were released in 2008 that will eternally stand as two of the best movies ever in their genre, as well as two of the most important films of this generation: The Dark Knight and Iron Man.
With The Dark Knight, we were shown the aesthetic and narrative potential of the superhero genre. We were given impressive cinematography, pulsing score, and a hooking script. What Christopher Nolan realized—something that I believe Stan Lee and Jack Kirby understood—was that all the costumes and personalities didn’t enable better fight scenes; the costumes and the personalities enabled grandstanding. The masks, make-up, and capes were catapulting features that took the morals and opinions of those who wore them to the center of society. It was in the expression of conflicting ideas, not superpowers, that these heroes and villains made their story. Only after the expression of these did the punches at story’s end mean something.
With Iron Man, a different realization was made. Unlike The Dark Knight, you don’t get visionary soapboxes from Jeff Bridges in Iron Man, nor do you get more than a few little ideological snippets from Robert Downey, Jr., the film’s main character. Instead, the realization (and, may I add, “fully actualized realization”) of Iron Man lay in the script. I wrote a lot about script a few months ago when I discussed the “Great American Screenplays”, or, the screwball comedies, the Westerns, and film noir from the 1930s and ’40s. Like the old banter pictures of Howard Hawks, Frank Capra, George Cukor, and Preston Sturges, Iron Man channeled a comedic element that gave life to the action genre that had been unseen since Die Hard. It played out more like a comedy than an action film; as a matter of fact, its weakest part was its ending, when the comedy died under the weight of the robotic fight scene.
Along with the comedy, though, Iron Man realized another key element. This is the important element, because this is the element that will tie in to my quote above. That element lied in the true creation of a world. This world operated outside of our own, though it was just similar enough for us to enjoy it. We didn’t know that we were watching the creation of this world at the time, but a small little post-credits teaser starring Samuel L. Jackson turned everything on its head.
Queue another film from 2008: The Incredible Hulk. Stop and think for a minute about where you were when you first watched it. Likely, you were expecting disappointment after the failed adaptation from Ang Lee a few years earlier. But, when the lights came down and the previews had ended, you saw yourself reading things like “Stark Industries” on blueprints and schematics during the opening credits. You heard little mentions of super-soldier serums in World War II. And, then, it all came to life when Robert Downey, Jr. showed up at the end of the credits to tell General “Thunderbolt” Ross that he was “putting a team together.”
All of a sudden, we were no longer victim to a corporate attempt to numb our minds with explosions and colorful effects. We were now part of a world that we had only imagined in the 1960s. We were ripe with excitement for what was to come. With the creation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2008, we were finally given action films that sparked our imaginations and “brought [us] into a new world of thought and expression.” The MCU has used cinema to perform a feat that no film or group of films has ever done before: it has created a cultural imprint that keeps us looking forward at what is to come.
In some ways, that is a bad thing. We get so caught up in what’s coming next that we tend to put on blinding glasses of bias as we look at what we’ve already seen. A post-credits scene can get us so excited that we tend to forget that one scene in the middle of the movie that really wasn’t any good. We also get so worked up about what is going to happen next that we put ourselves in a position ripe for disappointment: when the moment finally comes, it might not live up to the hype. We can also find ourselves being constantly manipulated by the studio bosses over at Marvel. They know that it is far more important to tell you what movies are upcoming then it is to actually give you a good movie. Movies (like the second Thor movie, for example) work as stand-ins to keep the story alive while they work to further integrate their universe. They know you don’t care all that much whether or not Thor is any good, so long as you know that a sequel is coming down the road that will feature/introduce some character from the comics that you love so much. James Spader described the whole ComicCon scene as a bunch of foreplay. Never have people become so caught up and exhilarated by anticipation. It’s like Ron Howard and Cindy Williams in American Graffiti, driving to that secluded spot in the woods. Whether or not they ever go “all the way”, they’re so caught up in what might happen that they might just be hoping that it never does, that, somehow, that climax will always be just beyond their reach, like a pirate trying to find the horizon. (I could also invoke the example of Catherine Deneuve in Luis Buñuél’s Belle de Jour, but I’m trying to keep this simple).
However, I am a geek. I am proud to say that I have fallen just as victim to the hype over Easter Eggs, spoilers, leaks, and Disney production announcements. I might as well be little Ronny Howard behind the wheel of my ’58 Impala. Just ask my dad, who fields about a call a week from me with my latest take on the trajectory of the Marvel universe. So, with the bad comes the good, and I will now take you a fun little adventure through the MCU. This will be a crazy undertaking, but I hope to finish it shortly. Feel free to click the link below and let’s begin the countdown!