This is not a review. This is not a critical essay. This is a rant. And since this is a rant, please do not expect it to be organized. Please do not expect it to be logical. And least of all, please do not expect it to spoiler free. I’m ranting against something that is being thrust in our face from almost every direction, multiple times a year, assaulting our senses, draining our wallets, befuddling our minds, and cheapening our aesthetics. That thing is the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
I’m not talking about the comic books, because I don’t care what happens in the world of comics. I haven’t read a comic book since I was eleven or twelve, and even when I was a kid, I never had a comic-book phase. I read a comic here and there, but I never got into the habit of following any series. I never had a favorite superhero. The closest was the Green Lantern, but he belongs to DC Comics, and the one effort to bring him to motion pictures (2011) ended in a disaster so horrible it makes the recent Fantastic Four movie looks great. They CGIed the face mask. I mean, what were they tripping on? Surely the production design team was passing a joint around the table when they came up with that epiphany.
Hey, guys, I know! Let’s CGI the face mask!
No, I’m not talking comic books or even Saturday morning cartoons. I’m not talking computer games or action figures. I’m talking about movies and television series. I’m not even ranting against individual projects. Be it The Avengers, Netflix’s Jennifer Jones, or ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. –they all have something to offer, even if it’s just mindless entertainment. My rant is against the Cinematic Universe. It is against a marketing concept so invasive it puts words in character’s month to seed interest for the next big release. It is that invasiveness that I’m ranting against. It breaks away from the action, from the story, for no reason than to hint at what’s coming next. It breaks away from the moment, and it takes characters out-of-character. I don’t deny that it’s an effective marketing success, but as a writer, my focus is always on the story. And the Cinematic Universe is ruining the story.
It started with the success of Iron Man (2008), followed immediately with The Incredible Hulk (2008). A second Iron Man movie in 2010, and Thor and and Captain America: The First Avenger in 2011–I began to wonder why every big movie was a superhero movie. It’s not that I disliked the movies, but I was feeling inundated with superheroes. I imagine those who follow more closely than me the wheelings and dealings of Hollywood already knew the plan, already knew about the Cinematic Universe. Or the people who read the comic books knew what was coming. But it wasn’t until I saw the trailer for The Avengers (2012) that I began to understand the game. At first I felt intrigued, but now, though I still find individual projects entertaining, I resent the crowbarring of dialogue and even whole scenes into movies and television shows that have no natural place in the current story.
Take for instance The Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). After a victory against Hydra, the Avengers gather for a massive New-York-styled cocktail party. In one little exchange in that gathering, we have this exchange:
So, no Pepper? She’s not coming?
What about Jane? Where are the ladies, gentlemen?
Ms. Potts has a company to run.
Yes, I’m not even sure what country Jane’s in. Her work on the Convergence has made her the world’s foremost astronomer.
And the company that Pepper runs is the largest tech conglomerate on Earth. It’s pretty exciting.
There’s even talk of Jane getting a Nobel Prize.
Yeah, they must be busy because they would hate missing you guys get together. Testosterone!
Translation: No room in the $140 million budget for Natalie Portman or Gwyneth Paltrow.
Which is fine with me. I never needed nor wanted Tony Stark’s and Thor’s love interests in the movie. When it comes to these big budget action films, I don’t care who’s kissing whom. But why even mention them? Since Pepper Potts and Jane Foster had been major characters in previous movies, the moviemakers felt the need to explain their absence in this movie. In a movie that was destined to be almost 2 1/2 hours long, we had to waste a few minutes with this dialogue. That doesn’t happen in a movie that’s not part of a Cinematic Universe.
Minor point, I admit, but add to it the needless Stan Lee cameo and other such digressions and the minor point become more important. And there are worst offenders. In a later scene, Wanda Maximoff aka Scarlet Witch cast a spell on Thor, Romanoff, and Captain America. They suffer disturbing hallucinations. Are they flashbacks? A glimpse of the future? These hallucinations seems to be a mix of both. In Thor’s case, it sent him on a subplot quest to search for the truth concerning the Infinity Stones. I’m being generous in calling this a subplot, since this plot is never developed nor resolved during this movie. It is a seed for what I guess will be the next Thor movie. Since it has no connection to the current conflict between the Avengers and Ultron, I would argue it has no place in this movie. And I would be right. As for the hallucinations suffered by Romanoff and Captain America, as well as an earlier one suffered by Tony Stark, I wonder if these too are seeds for future movies. Since they had no impact in this movie, I suspect so.
If true, then The Age of Ultron spent as much film time seeding future movies as it did developing and resolving its own plot. If Ultron isn’t the super villain we craved–he wasn’t–if the plot felt thin–it did–then the problem lies in spending too much time in seeding future movies rather than in telling this story or developing its characters.
And one last point about The Age of Ultron before I rant about other issues. I never saw Captain America: Winter Solder. (Still haven’t.) Before watching Ultron, I never watched the NBC Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Since Winter Soldier and most of season one of television series predates Ultron, events happened in the Cinematic Universe that I didn’t know about. I suffered a major disconnect between the ending of The Avengers and the beginning of The Age of Ultron. What happened to S.H.I.E.L.D.? When did Hydra rise again? Since Ultron began with a battle between the Avengers and Hydra, a conflict that began in shows I didn’t watch, I had no context for what I was seeing. Of course, the evil minds behind Marvel Cinematic Universe expect me to see everything–they probably even expect me to read the comic books, buy the action figures, and play the video games–but I’m not playing their game. I didn’t watch Winter Solder because Captain America doesn’t interest me. And I didn’t watch Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. prior to seeing Ultron because Agent Phil Coulson is dead.
Phil Coulson is dead!
I saw him die in The Avengers. His death was a pivotal moment in the movie. It was a beautiful death, as deaths go. It was the death that united The Avengers in a single cause of defeating Loki and his alien army. So he’s dead. And since he’s dead, I have to assume that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is nothing more than some prolong post-death hallucination. Don’t get me wrong: I’m in favor of a prolong post-death hallucinations. I’m planning on having one myself, only my will not deal with spy vs. spy. My prolong post-death hallucination will involve a blond, a brunette, and a redhead, and it’ll resemble that scene in Wild Things–you know that scene I mean–only, you know, with one more woman.
Marvel Cinematic Universe is best described as science-fiction fantasy or superhero fantasy, and the death-rebirth theme is a staple of the fantasy genre. Joss Weldon, especially, is a big fan, as anyone who had seen his Buffy the Vampire Slayer series knows. (I don’t think there was a major character in that series that didn’t suffer a metaphoric death and rebirth.) And death and rebirth is the essence of all superhero movies, where the origin stories for both superhero and super villain tend to involve a metaphorical or actual death. But none of this is why Agent Phil Coulson suffered his own death and rebirth. He’s alive not for storytelling purposes but for marketing purposes. Broadcast television was a new market that Marvel Cinematic Universe wanted to developed, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was the project they decided to pursue. They needed a friendly, familiar face to front the project, so Phil Coulson.
Marvel Cinematic Universe now has it fingers in several movie franchises, including Iron Man, Captain America, and The Avengers. Last year they added Ant-Man to the list. With the release of Captain America: Civil War, they entered Phase Three of their diabolical plan for world domination. Later this year, we can look forward to Doctor Strange, and next year, we can expect to see a Spider-Man reboot and another Thor movie. According to the Wikipedia page, they have movie projects planned to the middle of 2019, but I’m betting they’re penciling projects in beyond that date.
In television, they have the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Carter on ABC. On Netflix, they have two seasons of Daredevil and one season of Jessica Jones, and later this year they’ll release Luke Cage. (Who?) I prefer the gritty, intimate tone of the Netflix shows over the explosions and CGI of the superhero movies. This dark tone should separate these series from the Cinematic Universe, but they are very much a part of them. And they suffer the same disruptive infusions I have complained about in the movies. In one episode of Jessica Jones, a woman sought to kill Jones as revenge for The Avengers battle against Loki and the alien army in The Avengers. When that revelation played, I suffered a big HUH moment. Season Two of Daredevil–which is worth seeing despite my complaints–felt more like an origin story for The Punisher and Black Sky than a continuation of Daredevil’s story. At least one scene in this season existed only to seed interest in the next season of Jessica Jones. And other scenes seed what is bound to be Daredevil’s continued conflict with Wilson Fisk–by far my favorite super villain.
Am I losing you yet? Am I mentioning names and contexts that confuse you? Have I tied a Gordian Knot? In Greek mythology, the Gordian Knot was tied by Gordius, king of Phrygia. It was a complicated knot impossible to untie, because the ends were hidden from sight. A prophecy stated that whoever unravels the knot will rule over Asia. Alexander the Great came to Phrygia and stared at the knot. Seeing no other way to untie it, he drew his sword and cut it. Marvel Shared Universes is a Gordian knot, but where is our Alexander to cut it? As bad as this situation is, it is getting worst. With each new project, the knot becomes more tangled. With each new direction, the knot becomes harder to unravel.
I rant without hope. Alea iacta est! Marvel will continue adding projects, characters, and directions in its Cinematic Universe, not because it tells a good story, but because it sells movie tickets and action figures. The success of Marvel Cinematic Universe is inspiring DC Entertainment to developed DC Extended Universe, beginning in 2013 with Man of Steel, but continuing this year with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. 20th Century Fox is getting into the act with the X-Men franchise and with their reboot of Fantastic Four. (HaHaHa! That’s funny!) Sony Pictures first foray into shared universe collapsed with their Amazing Spider-Man franchise, but I fear they’ll see this as losing a battle rather than the war. The point is: These shared fictional worlds are here, at least for the foreseeable future. And since they are an element of America’s popular culture, and since I don’t live in a vacuum, I’ll continue seeing some of the movies and television series.
Some, Marvel. Just some. Not all. Some.
In truth, since we are buying movie tickets and watching the television series–hence creating a market, spending our money–I think we deserve better. I think we deserve screenplays written to tell the current stories rather than to seed interest in future movies. I think the primary goal of moviemakers should be to entertain us rather than to manipulate us. Though this is a sound argument, it is destined to fail. Millions–if not billions–of dollars argue against it.
And so ends my rant.